Ugly Duckling Wines At The 2008 Santé Restaurant Symposium

One of winemaker Randall Grahm's longtime favorite descriptions for the under-appreciated wines of the world is ugly ducklings. Another is heterodoxical.

In the restaurant business, we've simply called them "hard-to-sell" wines. The opposite might be Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon; although I daresay in many restaurants today Pinot Noir has replaced Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon as the most popular red, and red wines in general are outselling whites, even in the hottest days of summer.

So what's the big deal? Well, if you're a restaurateur (or retailer) competing in a highly competitive market and have half a great notion to swing just slightly ahead of the curve — responding to market trends like Pinot Noir and reds outselling Merlot and whites as it all happens, rather than after the fact — then I think it behooves you to re-adjust your thinking on under-appreciated wines or grapes, even if Grahm's verbal shticks have never rung your bell.

In the culinary world the ugly ducklings are indeed rearing their now-beautiful heads, and the signs are everywhere. You don't have to look far. Take salads: or the one with edamame, mandarin oranges, toasted almonds and orange glazed chicken in a sesame ginger dressing — now offered at every McDonald's across the U.S.A. What the eff? I'll tell you what's happening: if Americans like the taste of what they're eating or drinking, they're now buying it — no matter what it's called, what it's made of, and whether or not they know what they're consuming.

It is not a stretch to say that American wine drinkers in general are more sophisticated than other consumers in culinary matters; and as such, predisposed to vinous heterodoxy, despite their ignoble, light beer and White Zinfandel guzzling past.

Let's put it another way: our wine and food production industries have always known Americans are predictable, and easily swayed by advertising and fashion; but no one really said they were stupid. Sooner or later they catch on to the fact that edamame is a vegetable, Pinot Noir a fine wine, that Champagne comes from France, and Priorat and Prosecco also make mighty fine drinking.

All just a matter of time; but today, it seems, a lot sooner than before.

One of the best places for wine and culinary professionals to go every year to bolster their IQs is Manchester, Vermont, where the Santé Restaurant Symposium takes place. As wine and restaurant industry shows go, Santé magazine's yearly thing is a low-key affair (it's Vermont, after all); but as industry shows go, it is also always a high impact affair: a powerful gathering of some of the most cerebral wine and restaurant professionals in the business, sharing information and sensory experiences among themselves. Not exactly the stuff of Devil Wears Prada. More like Sommeliers Sip Mencía, or Chefs Dig Micro-Greens — at least from what I saw in a couple of seminars.

Needless to say, this year's Santé symposium (June 1-4) uncovered numerous wines of deliciously new import (and isn't "deliciousness" the way we all identify all new wines and foods worth attention?) that would never have occurred to many of us in the business of selling wine and serving food twenty, ten, or even just five years ago. But then, all ugly ducklings, as you might recall, turn into things of beauty.

And as it were, I took good notes; re:

Ugly Duckling Whites

MandraRossa, Fiano 2007 (Sicily, Italy)
When I first sipped this white wine my mouth was watering for a salad of Asian pear, chèvre and mesclun in a honeyed vinaigrette. I retrospect, I think I might go further, dreaming of slivers of pungent Époisses de Bourgogne slathered in wild honey, or else foie gras with a rhubarb or strawberry chutney — all foods that ideally match the combination of scintillating acidity and honeyed, tropical fruitiness natural to the Fiano, a long overlooked grape known more to the ancient Romans than to Italians today. Winemaking has come a ways since Pax Romana, and modern day vineyard and winery technology applied by the highly respected Planeta family probably manufactures a purer expression of varietal fruit character: in their MandraRossa Fiano, lavender, lemon, and honeyed perfumes tinged with resiny, thyme-like notes; the slightly sharp, lemony dryness buoyed by a honeyed, white grape fruitiness on the palate. The best part? An average retail price of only $9 to $11. Sip up!

Bodegas Aura, Verdejo 2006 (Rueda, Spain)
Doug Frost MS/MW says he usually finds "stony dust" and pear-like perfumes in white wines made from Spain's native Verdejo grape. I usually find more citrus — lemon and orange peel — mingling with the minerality; and in the Bodegas Aura ($17-$20 retail), the citrus is augmented by both dried peach and slightly green-leafy, herbal nuances. Very fresh, pure (unfettered by oak), and pleasing. The body is light-medium in weight, and the citrusy flavors are crisp without being sharp, dry and silky textured. An effortless match with a salad of bacalao (Portuguese style dried salt cod) in a mild vinaigrette, as it would anything with mildly tart sensations (seviche, adobo, ponzu salmon, Southeast Asian stir fry, etc.). Verdejo, in other words, is a wine for the type of multicultural foods we all love to eat today.

Martin Códax, Albariño 2007 (Rias Baixas, Spain)
Whites made from the Albariño grape have been a relatively recent, and most welcome, sight on many wine lists today. Some liken it to a "light-weight Viognier," which is not just insulting, but also absurdly inaccurate. The Albariño makes flowery scented wines (like Viognier as well as Riesling), but with stone fruit (i.e. peach or nectarine) as well as flinty, minerally notes that you almost never find in Viognier. Classic Albariño tends to be lighter in weight than a Viognier, but is also decidedly crisper in acidity — two qualities giving it a distinct advantage over Viognier in terms of seafood versatility (which is not to say Viognier is not as food-worthy — it's just different, asking for meatier matches). In any case, the Martin Códax ($14-$16 retail) has consistently been one of the more multifaceted Albariños in the American market these past few years, showing not just peach and lemon/citrus perfumes, but also lavender and violet-like fragrances, the varietal minerality manifesting itself more within a refined, tart edged length of medium body. A wine that practically screams for grilled oysters, flash seared certified American Wild Shrimp, or white fish in herb infused oils or vinaigrettes; and why resist?

Sella & Mosca, Terre Bianche 2003 (Sardinia, Italy)
Made 100% from Torbato, a white wine grape of ancient lineage, introduced to Italy and South-West France from Spain (where it is no longer cultivated) several centuries ago. If you prefer a crisply dry white that tastes more of terroir than fruitiness, this may be for you. Laura De Pasquale MS describes Torbato's fruit character as being like apple skin and peach; but in the Terre Bianche, the nose is more of sweet lavender and orange peel, with slightly saline/briny, chalky notes, driven further on the palate in a zesty, light-medium body, smoothed over by a silky viscosity and traces of vanillin oak. At $19-$22, a relatively good value; exceptional if you prize palate-slaking, European qualities.

Ugly Duckling Reds

Domini 2004 (by Jose Maria de Fonseca; Douro, Portugal)
Now that Port has fallen slightly out of favor in the U.S. market, look out for more new, robust, vigorously flavorful, outrageously well priced table reds coming out of Portugal, made from the same grapes that go into classic Port. In the case of the Domini — a blend of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, retailing between $12 and $18. Black color and opulent nose — sweet black fruits in a box of vanillin oak — and if you dig a little deeper, a taste of leather and stony, granitic terroir on the palate, merging in a fleshy, medium-full body, thickened by round, polished tannins.

Quinta do Crasto, Touriga Nacional 2005 (Douro, Portugal)
Touriga Nacional is perhaps Portugal's most revered grape, and this bottling drives it home: vivid purplish ruby leading to even more vivid, exhilarating blueberry, blackberry, and dried plum aromas, with violet-like floral notes. On the palate, the fruit intensity is couched in layers of velvet, big and voluptuously round on the palate. Undoubtedly, it is as much the grape as the ancient winemaking techniques (beginning with foot treading in traditional, shallow lagares, allowing for a whole cluster/berry fermentation that accentuates primary fruitiness) that frames this wine. Sensational with a Puerto Rican influenced risotto of pork confit with crispy pork rind. However which way you enjoy it, even at $60-$70 it is well worth the experience.

L'Ostal Cazes, Estibals Minervois 2005 (Languedoc, France)
Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages is one of many "outsiders" who have been recently lured into the Languedoc by its ideal terroirs and Mediterranean climate; and his team of Bordeaux winemakers is now making one of Languedoc's finest wines. The Estibals is a blend of mostly Syrah and Grenache, with a little Carignane, and it's fruitful: a sweet berry nose tinged with violet and pungent garrigue (terroir related notes of lavender, thyme, rosemary and wild scrub). Unlike so many Minervois style blends that disappoint you with either weak, plodding flavors or coarse, drying tannins, the L'Ostal grabs you from the start with snappy, lush, juicy blackberryish flavors, floating on the palate with freshness and elegance. Retailing for just $15-$18, this is one wine that has resuscitated my once dying faith in South-Western French reds.

Bodegas Zabrin, Atteca 2006 (Calatayud, Spain)
This wine would not be so ridiculously good if not for its ridiculously good price ($13-$15 in most retail markets). Made from eighty to one-hundred year old vines of Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache, the workhorse grape of Southern France), the nose is hugely rich and sweet (like fresh chocolate covered berries) and enlarged by smoky French oak; soft, round, medium-full, spiced berry qualities on the palate, tied down by firm tannins, making for a good, savory yet dry finish.

Dominio de Tares, Bem bi Bre 2004 (Bierzo, Spain)
Dominio di Tares makes a battery of reds from the native Mencía grape; grown in the terraced, high elevation, slate encrusted hills of the Bierzo region (towards Spain's northwest tip, just north of Portugal) for eons, and once thought to be a mysterious remnant of the Cabernet Franc grape (in all likelihood, untrue). Lower priced variations — like Dominio de Tares' Baltos Mencía (about $18) — are soft and plummy, with zesty acidity, a drying minerality and cocoa powder tannins. From eighty year old plantings, the Bem bi Bre ($40-$50) kicks it up at least a couple notches: intense, juicy aromas of raisined berries and a granitic minerality, inundated with a burnt leaf oakiness that combines with tannin charged fruit on the palate to forge long, sturdy, velvet textured flavors of wild berries, steeped plums and sprigs of peppermint. If there ever was a grape awaiting "discovery," Mencía is it.

Casar de Burbia, Tebaida 2005 (Bierzo, Spain)
If you make great wine, even from an under-appreciated grape like Mencía, the collectors and hoity-toity restaurants eventually find you out, and place you in their precious trophy rooms. The Tebaidais even now such a rarity; "just" $65, and a blockbuster at that. Oodles of sweet blackberry emanate from the rim with penetrating, stony graphite qualities. Viscous, musclebound flavors are corded with supple tannin, the liqueur-like fruit qualities wrapped in smoky tobacco leaf, finishing strong, almost sweet. Are the stony notes derived from Casar de Burbia's terroir, or is it just Mencía being Mencía? That information may already be unavailable to the common man; but if you find out, please drop this one a line.

Planeta, Cerasuolo 2006 (Sicily, Italy)
Made up of 60% Nero d'Avola, a robust native Southern Italian grape, rounded out by 40% Frappato. De Pasquale describes this lusciously soft, exuberantly Beaujolais-like red as a "basket of baby cherries," which just about sums it up. I also found gingery spice nuances in its aroma and flavor; wrapped in a plump, pliant medium body, fresh and lively despite a soft acidity and negligible tannins. At $16-$20, this makes an exotic, easy drinking red, especially with charcuterie and lush, semi-soft cheeses with the usual fruit preserves. Throw in a side of lobster, a pound of cayenned crawfish or rock salted pulled pork, with or without the barbecue — you'll find few wines as resilient enough to handle it all.

Zisola, Nero d'Avola 2006 (Sicily, Italy)
It is significant when the Mazzei family, who've been making wines in Tuscany (re the famed Castello di Fonterutoli) for more than six centuries, ventures into Sicily to produce wines made 100% from the Nero d'Avola grape. This is the third vintage of their Zisola, and it has progressed into something wild and electrical — vivid black/purple color, and a deep blackberry nose, steeped in bitter chocolate and roasted coffee. The body is big, densely textured, strapped with tannin, and spiked by zesty acidity and cracked peppercorn spices. De Pasquale sensibly suggests meats like charred beef ribeye with twists of black pepper, and I'd go so far as to suggest roasted green or red chile peppers — there is plenty enough wild berry fruit and spice in the Zisola to smooth over even hot sensations, providing there is enough fatty meat to digest the sturdy tannins. Another thought: cardamom and juniper berried pot roasts; whatever the case, at $24-$28 you'll get more than enough bang for the buck in each bottle.

Àn/2 Anima Negra 2005 (Mallorca, Spain)
The island of Mallorca off the eastern coast of Spain is now known for more than its lush life and beaches; evidently, also for a red wine connoisseurs of exotica are praising for its lithe, lively, Pinot Noir-like delicacy, combined with Syrah-like color and spice. Àn/2's Anima Negra ("black soul") comes from a fifty year old vineyard planted to indigenous Mallorcan grapes (the Callet and Montenegro-Fongoneu), blended with a small proportion of Syrah. Think of all the variations of spiced foods possible in this: floral, sweet berry perfume smacking of raspberry, with intriguing gunflinty nuances resulting from the merging of the native grapes with toasted French oak; the smoky raspberry flavors lifted by zesty acidity and mild tannin, kissing the palate and finishing with a flourish of spiced, herb-leafy fruit. At $16-$19, Mallorca easily comes to you.

Condes de Leganza, Crianza 2004 (La Mancha, Spain)
This 100% Tempranillo from La Mancha summarizes all the reasons why the grape may very well become the "next big thing," especially if West Coast plantings come to fruition (there are promising new plantings of Tempranillo in California's Sierra Foothills, Southern Oregon and Eastern Washington). Sweet wild berries leap from the glass, with leafy, herby, minerally notes. On the palate, the Condes de Leganza is velvety smooth, medium-full with rounded tannins, thickly layered yet buoyantly fruity. All this for the earth-shattering sum of $12-$14. Why drink anything else?

Coto Real, Reserva 2001 (Rioja, Spain)
Produced primarily from the Tempranillo grape (about 80%, with Garnacha and Graciano), this is a Rioja lover's dream red: starting with a plummy, lush berry aroma, almost maple-like in intensity and sweetness, framed by breathy earthiness and rose petal notes; the lush, round flavors compelling the palate in the entry, and then thickened by supple tannins, finishing long, dry, yet almost impossibly sweet and mouth-watering. Retailing for $45-$55, but worth its singularity of experience.

Finca Sandoval, Syrah 2005 (Manchuela, Spain)
The Syrah grape is not exactly an unknown entity; but in Manchuela — an ancient sub-region of Spain's La Mancha plateau, just south of Madrid — the famous French grape has been acclimated to totally new environs. Like the great Syrah based reds of France as well as Australia, Finca Sandoval's first vintages (only since 2001) have been purplish, almost black as night, dense and burly in body, with strapping tannins failing to contain a mountain of meaty, perfumed, black fruit flavors. Where it differs from French and Australian Syrahs is its own, protruding terroir — a solid, minerally, almost iron-like core, subtly aromatic, and gripping on the palate — marking this as one of the world's more exciting expressions of the grape. $34-$39 average retail for this unique experience.

Jean-Luc Colombo, Cornas Les Ruchets 2005 (Northern Rhône Valley, France)
What is this classic, 100% Syrah based (by AOC law) French red doing in an "ugly duckling" story? Because Cornas is probably the most under-appreciated source of great Syrah in the world. So disrespected that even the mayor of Cornas recently suggested that most of its vineyards might be better off pulled and turned into condominiums (thank goodness, those plans were called off). Consumption doesn't seem to be a problem — as one of France's smallest appellations, there never really is enough Cornas to go around (barely 16,000 cases produced each year) — but rather the toll taken in the tilling of these spectacularly steep, crushed granite and limestone slopes, lashed by the brutal mistral, and demanding nothing less than a vigneron's heart, soul, and bloodied offerings (in Celtic, Cornas is indeed "burnt earth"). Jean-Luc Colombo's bottlings of Les Ruchets (a 95-year-old grand cru) retail for around $75; but by all rights, it should be $175. But even collectors of "cult" Cabernet Sauvignons are usually dismayed by the impenetrably black, punishing, ungiving character of Cornas; there is nothing "sweet" or winsome about it. In the case of his '05, modernist Colombo at least instills a hint of violet and morsel of raspberry into the nose — but buried beneath whiffs of granitic terroir, scrubbed with oily, shrubby garrigue and green olive-like herbiness. On the palate, the wine is burly and brickish; and although the tannins are neither hard nor astringent, they definitely drive the palate, all but obliterating the flavor of classic Syrah juice — chewy, violet scented, black fruitiness — seeping into the finish. As Cornas goes, this may be as Syrah-like as they come; and as Syrahs go, a monument unto itself.

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink. net.

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