October 23, 2013

Joe Appel on Wine: When restaurants are passionate about their wine lists, it’s cause for celebration

And when these Portland restaurateurs point to their favorites, it’s time to take note.

Recently I wrote critically about the failure of many Portland restaurants to devote as much attention, energy and creativity to their wine lists as they devote to their food. Imaginative chefs here, whose successful commitment to food experimentation can run the gamut from reinterpretations of classic cuisine to considered adventures in postmodernism, have the opportunity to see that the beverages that accompany their food match its character, diversity and quality.

The opportunity is often missed. When it’s not, though, that’s a cause for celebration. I recently asked the people who preside over some of the city’s more original wine programs to describe a few wines they personally feel passionate about. I asked for those wines that sort of “sleep” on the menu: there primarily because a wine buyer felt enough love for the wine to take a chance on it, despite the uphill battle it faced with diners due to unfamiliar grape name, region, or characteristics in the glass.

I asked, “What would you say to a diner to convince them to take a chance on this wine?” One might adore a Barbaresco, Burgundy or Brunello, but those sorts of names put the bottles in “auto-sell” mode, rather than “hand-sell.” I wanted to hear about hand-sells.

Below are excerpts of the responses, followed by my annotation. Think of them as a print version of a sommelier, and an invitation to take a bit of a gamble the next time you dine out or visit a wine shop. (Prices are suggested-retail.)

Bar Lola’s co-owner and general manager, Stella Hernandez, and I have rather closely aligned tastes. She loves the Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2011 ($22, Pine State), as does everyone in his or her right mind. I’ve written about it previously, and while it has something of a longstanding hidden fan base in these parts, it’s deserves more adoration.

Hernandez: “The cool climate in Alto Adige, Italy, makes whites shine. The Kerner (a cross between Schiava Grossa and Riesling) is aromatic...full of beautiful fruit notes – apples, peaches – and white flowers. It’s a rich wine, but there’s acidity to balance it all out. There’s also a pleasant note of almondy bitterness to balance out the fruit.”

Appel: It’s not just an aromatic wine, but exotically so, and spicy. I think of it above all as exciting, not at all a “background” sort of wine. But for all its scintillation, it is balanced, balanced, balanced – and therefore exceptionally suited to a wide array of foods, holding up to more exuberantly seasoned dishes while courteous to more subtle ones.

Hernandez also loves Austrian wines, and bless her for putting the Prieler Blaufrankisch Ried Johanneshohe 2009 ($22, SoPo) on the list. About it, she writes, “Blaufrankisch: the name alone could scare people away….People often think of Austria for whites, but I love the reds, too. St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch especially, and I have both on the menu. This particular one is from a small 20-hectare weingut (winegrower), run by two generations of the Prieler family. Blaufrankisch can start out like a Burgundy with lots of lovely berry notes but it has a spiciness and acidity that make it unique. It is a great, versatile food wine.”

Appel: “Uh, what she said. I think some people shy away from Austrian reds out of a mistaken assumption that they’ll be thin and light-toned. Blaufrankisch makes deep, rich, savory wine, and I honestly can’t think of a greater red wine value in the world today, considered in a sort of depth-to-price ratio. The Prieler is especially hearty though not heavy, juicy without being jammy, sumptuous but sleek, clear but serious.

Bryan Flewelling oversees the wine program at the recently revamped Hugo’s, and I’m glad he wrote in since I’m not sure he and I are drawn to the same sorts of wines. (I need to make some time to drink with him.) Not that I disagree with his suggestions, but they show a predilection for bold, unctuous styles, and a kind of refusal to fetishize fineness.

What I do admire about his list is that it’s risky. Hernandez’s Kerner and Blaufrankisch may on paper be unfamiliar to people, but in the glass they’re crowd-pleasers. The wines Flewelling is promoting run the risk of being too strange for some folks, if not in some cases downright divisive. I love that spirit, especially since the potential rewards for taking the plunge are enormous.

He started with the Renato Ratti ‘I Cedri di Villa Pattano’ Monferrato Bianco 2009 ($31, National), a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc from an esteemed Barolo producer. “Pietro Ratti originally planted (this vineyard) with the traditional white grape varietal, Cortese (as is traditional in the Barolo region), but decided that Cortese just didn’t make an interesting enough wine. So, he planted Sauvignon Blanc which he subsequently fermented in stainless steel vats. Still not interesting enough.

“He then began oaking his SB because he believed that the flavors oak imparted to his wines gave them a distinctive character not present in other Italian whites. The wine has definitely moved away from the classic green, citrus and tart acid notes of traditional Sauvignon Blancs to evince a broader mouthfeel with toastier citrus notes and generous amounts of minerality. Admittedly, this wine is not in most people’s wheelhouse of expectations when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, but it is an entrance (and, a less pricey one) into the world of oaked Sauvignon Blanc.”

Flewelling clearly has a thing for unconventional Sauvignon Blanc. He wrote of the Sebastien Riffault ‘Les Quarterons’ Sancerre 2010 ($26, Devenish), though without a lot of detail since he knew I’d written about it previously. You can look up my article on Riffault online, but suffice it to say that this naturally produced wine with a minimal 10mg of sulfur added is unlike every other Sancerre you’ve tried. Intense, salty, autumnal and shockingly lush due in part to (rare for Sancerre) malolactic fermentation, it’ll have you shaking your head in wonder and/or dismay.

That oughta give you a thing or two to chew on for a few days. Coming next week, more “sleeper suggestions” from Flewelling, Hernandez and others. Happy rut-escaping....

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at:

soulofwine.appel@gmail.com

Not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold at Rosemont, but distributor information listed in parentheses permits special orders through any Maine retailer.

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