October 30, 2013

Wine: Trust server’s passion for word-of-mouth wines

You don’t have to be an aficionado to know when you’re hearing enthusiasm.

By Joe Appel

Here’s Part II of a sort of “sommelier-on-the-cheap” series I began last week. I called on the overseers of some of Portland’s more interesting wine lists to suggest wines that fall under most people’s radars but are worthy of greater appreciation.

These wines are on the list in the first place out of a semirational decision by the restaurant’s buyer to push its clients toward more adventurous choices. “Semirational” because the wines are the opposite of a sure thing. The buyer has taken a risk on a strange-sounding or strange-tasting or strange-originating wine, mostly out of personal passion. It’s based on heart more than mind.

The idea for writing about this came to me after a recent night at Piccolo, the Abruzzo-based spot on Middle Street. Damian Sansonetti’s menu is terrific, but it was the Favaro Erbaluce 2011 ($23, Mariner) my wife and I drank that stuck in my memory. Our server, Kelly, was so excited about the wine when we asked about it, mentioning not only that it was “almost Riesling-like in how much grab it has and its subtle petrol aromas,” but also that “the greatest part about it is how much it will open up for you during the meal, how many new flavors and associations will come up.”

She also told us a little bit about erbaluce, a little-known white-wine grape indigenous to Piemonte. But notice that she didn’t inundate us with precise tasting notes, or overwhelm with information on the wine that she surely has, since why the heck else would someone put an erbaluce on a small wine list if she didn’t know a lot about it?

What pulled us in enough to order it was Kelly’s enthusiasm for and personal connection to the wine. You don’t have to be a wine aficionado to know when you’re hearing that. I trust the empathy and the passion, not the name of the grape or any other isolated fact.

The wines listed below come from this place, which we could call a kind of oral tradition of wine. Never advertised in magazines, rarely garnering high scores, these are word-of-mouth wines. They will pull you into a more active, connected relationship with the wine you drink as well as with the people who bring it to you. Try one, then raise a glass to risk – and to trust. (Prices listed are suggested-retail, rather than price at restaurants.)

Zara Edwards, beverage manager at Caiola’s, loves the San Savino Offida Ciprea Pecorino 2010 ($22, Wicked), a wine from the Marche region of central eastern Italy that benefits from proximity to the Adriatic Sea.

She writes, “What is so remarkable about this bottle is the vast changes it goes through, both in aroma and flavor characteristics, and in a surprisingly rapid duration, from the time of opening to its last sip. When first opened, this Pecorino is floral and acidic with sharp green tints that sparkle through an intense straw color. It is a great wine to start a meal with, as it will pair with anything from peppery green arugula salads with citrus and even goat and sheep cheeses.” (Pecorino is likely not named after the sheep’s-milk cheese whose name it shares, but instead because historically sheep who roamed the vineyards seemed especially fond of nibbling that grape.)

Edwards continues, “However, with minute aeration, much of the acidity that allows it to pair with such appetizers dissipates, and allows it to develop powerful notes of sage and wildflower, a hint of wood, and a unique viscous texture that could almost be compared to almond milk. What starts out as an acid-driven floral number becomes a creamy, rich, structured wine that can stand up to creamy herbed pasta and grilled white meats and whole fish ...”

Too often a wine buyer will put a wine on a list after tasting it once with a salesman. But no one could say what Edwards does about this Pecorino without having formed a relationship with it, having followed its story. As is evident from my anecdote about Piccolo, like Edwards I too am drawn to wines that develop and tell stories.

The next wine tells a story so crazily dissimilar from the preceding two, it’s as if it was written in a different language, in a literary genre not yet invented. The wine is the Sean Thackrey “Pleiades XXII” Old Vines Red ($31, SoPo), and it comes to us via Bryan Flewelling of Hugo’s.

Thackrey is an iconoclast with an avid following in California, despite no advertising and an unwillingness to follow wine-world groupthink. He doesn’t credit “terroir” with much influence, and considers place-designations such as AVA in California or AOC/AOP in France as fraudulent gimmickry.

Thackrey made his name with Syrah, but the “Pleiades” is a mixed-vintage hodgepodge of many different grapes sourced from various regions in California, any exact classification of which he refuses to acknowledge. Wine for Thackrey seems to be about what humans do with the situation they find themselves in, rather than a wholly humble deference to the non-human world. The cool thing for me, from a story-lover’s perspective, is how his refusal to provide factual information (place, grape, soil, climate, technique) refocuses the drinker’s attention on the story that only the wine itself can tell.

Flewelling: “Thackrey himself has said concerning his wines, ‘It’s like a chef’s special. You trust the chef so you’re prepared to order the dish of the day.’

“Trying to find out the particular cepage of each vintage (sic; the wine is more like an installment than a vintage)...is like trying to see stars on an overcast night ... might be Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Carignane, Malbec and Barbera. It is just as much a matter of what he wants to blend as what kind of fruit he can actually source that year. His red blend is at once spicy and peppery. Red and black fruit commingle in the glass and it is all held up by the backbone of tannins that the Malbec and Barbera lend. His wines, (hopefully) like our food, will continue to keep people guessing.”

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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