Winter is icumen in
Winter is icumen in, as the poet Ezra Pound once parodized. I won't repeat the rest of Pound's crabby commentary here, although those who share the poet's sentiment, and mine, are welcome to look it up on Google. Suffice it to say that the Winter Solstice occurs tomorrow at 12:40 p.m. GMT (7:40 a.m. in the Eastern U.S.), marking the Sun's southernmost point in its annual journey, the first day of winter, and the shortest day of the year. The weather here is playing along, with single-digit morning temperatures, a spotty crust of icy snow too shallow, crisp and uneven to satisfy Good King Wenceslas; and the wind, as the poet said, doth indeed ramm.
Circling around to the wine-related point, a group of us - tired of the season already even though it has barely started - gathered last night at a fine local eatery for an evening of food and wine consciously calculated to drive the cold winter away.
What's needed for such an occasion is fare that's comes sizzling from the oven rich, hearty and hot, with none of your namby-pamby worrying about calories from fat: Old-fashioned dishes that link us with our ancestors in times lit only by fire, when getting through a winter night meant furs and well-banked fireplaces and a good, hearty meal that stuck to your ribs and the rest of you, too.
Chef Kristopher Bates of Louisville's Club Grotto lured us with a seasonal delight from France: Cassoulet. This lusty country-French dish features tender white beans long-simmered with chunks of tender lamb, succulent duck confit and a small, dense garlic sausage under a blanket of toasted bread crumbs, served in broad bowls fired too sizzling-hot to touch. It's serious winter fare, a dish that, according to Jim LaMar of the Professional Friends of Wine, originated in the Languedoc region of southern France and is named for Cassol d'Issel, the village where the traditional clay pots it was cooked in were originally made.
What to drink with it? Red wine, of course, and a hearty, full-bodied blend of Syrah, Grenache or, better still, a red blend of those and other traditional grapes from Languedoc, the Rhone or Provence would fill the bill. As it turned out, Club Grotto's otherwise estimable wine list fell a bit short in this department, at least in our budget range; but the California winery Joseph Phelps filled in with two excellent "Rhone Rangers," the first a personal favorite in the affordable category, the second a somewhat more pricey but still good-value choice. Since these were tasted in a social, non-analytical restaurant setting, I'll offer only short-form tasting reports; but both are recommended.
Joseph Phelps 2001 California "Pastiche" ($24 restaurant price)
The producer describes this as "our version of a Cotes du Rhone blend," and it does a good job of emulating the French style, perhaps a bit more fruit-forward and slightly mellower in the acid department, but I wouldn't stake my reputation on being able to spot it in a "blind" tasting of similarly priced Rhones. It offers good black-plum and berry aromas and flavors with a pleasant, not overbearing touch of earthy "barnyard," and soft but sufficient acidity for structure and food-friendliness. The blend includes Rhone grapes and more: 33% Grenache, 30% Mourvedre, 19% Syrah, 6% Merlot, 5% Carignane, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Alicante Bouschet. The wine retails locally for around $12, although I've seen it in other regions for a few dollars less. For a more analytical report from a summer 2004 tasting, see
Joseph Phelps 2000 California "Le Mistral" ($39 restaurant price)
Heavier on the Syrah and much lighter on the Mourvedre than Pastiche, Le Mistral also sees a more extended oak treatment (19 months in a combination of old and new all-French oak barrels, compared with 9 months in French and American oak for the Pastiche), and I find the wood shows as more apparent spicy oak, coupled with a bit more structure and elegance. I enjoy them both, although at a local retail price around $20 for Le Mistral, I remain impressed by its lower-end sibling as one of the best-value reds in the increasingly popular category of California "Rhone Rangers." The Le Mistral blend for the 2001 vintage, which I assume is similar to this 2000, consists of 56% Syrah, 34% Grenache, 3% Carignane, 3% Petite Sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet and 2% Mourvedre.
To find vendors and compare prices for Phelps Pastiche on Wine-Searcher.com, click
Finally, if you'd like to try Jim LaMar's cassoulet recipe, you'll find it here:
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Wine Grape Varietal Table:
The season's top wine gift
Here's one of the most innovative wine-education products I've seen in a long time: Steve and Deborah De Long's Wine Grape Varietal Table displays a world of wine grape varieties in a bright, useful display that would make a perfect addition to your library or wine room ... or, for those in the business, an eye-catching attention-getter on the wall of your wine shop.
This quality fine-art poster - accompanied with a densely-packed, informative pocket-size book - displays nearly 200 wine-grape varieties in a format that should draw a nostalgic "Yeah!" from anyone who's ever sat in a high-school or college chemistry classroom: It is modeled after the classic periodic table of the elements.
Boxed in a large, sturdy cardboard container, ready for gift-wrapping, this set would make a good gift for any wine enthusiast on your list; and if your recipient (even yourself) qualifies as a true wine "geek," then he's just got to have it. Wine accessories just don't get any more geeky than this ... and that's a compliment.
To purchase today, click
California Wine Club: Final Days to Order
The California Wine Club's Special Holiday Discounts mean you can still send a gift of great taste and save money! Whether you send one month, or twelve, your gift recipients will delight in wonderful tasting wine that won't be found in local stores. Each month is an adventure with two bottles of award-winning California wine from a real working, "micro-winery." Just $32.95/month plus shipping and includes our informative and entertaining 12-page magazine, Uncorked.
To place an order or for more information on Special Holiday Discounts, please call 1-800-777-4443 or visit
This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles that I think you'll enjoy:
QPRwines: Where wine quality and price relate
WebWineMan: Time for Mistletoe and Holly!
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Aussie Chenin Blanc (Dec. 17, 2004)
Light reading about wine (Dec. 15, 2004)
Wine-shipping news wrapup (Dec. 13, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Marcella says ... (Dec. 16, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Dec. 20, 2004