Who are you calling a geek?
In an era when so many wine enthusiasts follow the leaders, you grape geeks march off in a different direction ... and probably out of step. No mere wine spectators, more than just wine advocates, you are not just passive observers but make your own decisions as you participate actively in the world of wine.
What I'm saying is this: By allowing your passion for wine experiences to lead you down the roads less taken ... by your willingness to try a Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso when everyone around you is sipping White Zinfandel ... you have declared yourself a minor maverick in a lockstep world.
As wine hobbyists, you collect varietal grape experiences like a philatelist collects stamps, a numismatist collects coins, or an ornitho ... er, bird-watcher collects his "life list" of birds observed.
Pity poor Roger Tory Peterson, the Robert M. Parker Jr. of bird watchers, who would arise at dawn to don a parka, pull on a ski mask and pull up waders so he could sit, cold and wet and somewhat irritated, waiting on a winter morning to spot a prized bird. We, however, get to enjoy nice places like this, eat outstanding food and drink excellent wine. Isn't this a great hobby?
Tonight is a night to eat, drink and be sociable, not to hear dry speeches, or even demi-sec speeches. So let me wrap this up by leaving you with a little challenge for the evening's grapeful happenings.
Among the many thousands of wine-grape varieties, we know that they're not all really equal. Some of the best-known grapes enjoy their popularity because they are demonstrably fine ... "noble" in winespeak ... grapes like Pinot Noir, Riesling, Cabernet. Some are not so noble, and thousands of these lesser varities continue to exist only because they'll grow in marginal climates or simply because they're traditional ... "Grampa made wine this way, and by gum, we will, too."
But here and there, like jewels in the mire, we have potentially outstanding grapes that simply haven't hit the mass market yet.
So this is the Holy Grail for grape geeks: The really good stuff that hardly anybody knows about ... except us. There are dozens of them, maybe hundreds. Let me tell you quickly about 10 of my favorites, by no means a definitive list but a personal selection of offbeat varieties that I particularly like.
I like Lagrein, from Trento-Alto Adige, and Sagrantino from Umbria, and Fiano di Avellino from Campania, around Naples. From the Loire Valley in France, there's Romorantin (and when I say "Pardon my French," folks, I really mean "pardon my French"), and Pineau d'Aunis. Languedoc has its crisp, bright Picpoul de Pinet, a wonderful summer sipper, and Campania has its hearty white Greco di Tufo, the wine that's supposedly a favorite of Luciano Pavarotti. Further afield, we have a few closely held secrets like the tart red Schioppetino that's found only in a tiny corner of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, where the villagers of Prepotto celebrate it, and drink most of the world's supply, in an annual festival. There's the German Scheurebe, arguably one of the few modern-era crosses that can compete with the ancient varieties. And we shouldn't round out any list of 10 without looking to the East for Saperavi, a gift from the ancient vineyards around the Black Sea that might just be heading our way.
Now that I've prompted you with my list, here's your challenge: Let's take time this evening to share our favorites with the people around us. Talking about wine, sharing our joy of wine, is just about as important to the joy of this fermented grape juice as is drinking wine. So, with thanks for your attention, let's talk grapes, geeks!
The dinner meeting was at Lo Scalco, an excellent new upscale Italian restaurant at 313 Church St. in New York's SoHo neighborhood. For restaurant information, see its Website,
Finally, among the many online friends I met at the dinner, it was a treat to shake hands with writers Mark Oldman ("Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine") and Jennifer Rosen ("Waiter, There's a Horse in my Wine"), whose books I had reviewed in the Dec. 15 Wine Advisor,
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Six oddball wines from offbeat places
Naturally, such a dinner must be accompanied with wines to match, and Jamie Wolff of New York's Chambers Street Wines - possibly one of the world's top wine shops for the unusual, offbeat and good in affordably priced wines - did a great job of coming up with selections to tantalize both the minds and the taste buds of certified "grape geeks."
With passed Italian-style hors d'oeuvres including shrimp, various crostini and arancini (cheese-filled fried rice balls), flutes of crisp, very dry Chidaine NV Montlouis sur Loire Brut Methode Traditionelle, an excellent sparkling wine from the Loire, made in the traditional Champagne-style method but with Chenin Blanc grapes.
With each of the four dinner courses, we were served a wine, poured anonymously from a bottle concealed in a numbered black cloth bag, and handed a list of four possible grape varieties. It was to be our job - with door prizes hanging in the balance - to correctly identify all four. I'm not good at blind tasting. Faced with the challenge, I tend to think too much, and not always well. But it's fun just the same, and I thought you might enjoy my short diary of the meal and tasting, along with a summary of my thoughts on each wine and, when I missed, where I went astray.
First up was a chunk of grilled swordfish surrounded by a tangy green-tomato puree dotted with pantelleria capers, served with a white wine . The clear, straw-color wine offered appealing aromas of almonds and a whiff of banana oil. Good body, smooth, crisp acidity; good balance and a tart, singing finish. We're told that it's either a Greco di Tufo, Godello, Falanghina and Fiano d'Avellino. I know and like Greco and Fiano but am less familiar with the other two, and the aromatics seem to fit the Fiano profile, so I check it off with some confidence. Wrong. It's Ocone 2003 Falanghina del Taburno.
Next up was an intriguing item, "long ravioli," curly ribbons of pasta stuffed lengthwise with a Dover sole with caviar and chives. The bagged white wine was a clear straw color, with rather herbal "sappy" aromas and bright white fruit. Good body, good acidity, tart and long. It's nicely balanced. Given the options of Chenin Blanc, which I know quite well, Coda di Volpe (the appealingly named "Tail of the Wolf") and Grechetto, which I know only in passing, and Erbaluca, which I don't know at all, I overlook the obvious - this is an Italian restaurant, dummy! - and decide that it's Chenin Blanc. Wrong again! It's Ferando 2003 Erbaluce di Caluso Cariola.
Zero for two, I'm not feeling like much of a wine expert as we move on to the reds. Fortunately, things got a little easier at this point.
A single, golf-ball-size gnocchi dumpling was stuffed with chopped veal and served on a base of sauteed Savoy cabbage, with a whiff of cinnamon in the dish. The bagged red wine was garnet in color, dark but not opaque, showing black and red cherries on the nose and palate, with lemon-squirt acidity in a rather full-bodied flavor that's edged with distinctly earthy notes of clay and chalk. We're given the choices of Lagrein, Nebbiolo, Tannat and Petite Sirah. They're all quite familiar, and I nail Lagrein immediately (with the advantage of having tasted a couple of them in recent days). I'm right, which helps rebuild my confidence, although just about everyone else at our table gets it too. It's Nusserhof 2000 Südtiroler Lagrein Riserva.
A few neat, medium rare slices of beef filet and a fresh sausage patty were served atop a dab of pureed potato, a slice of sweet roasted tomato and a bed of bitter greens. The accompanying wine was very dark, reddish-purple with an almost black core. Raspberries and a slight herbal note show in the aroma; fruit and crisp acidity are nicely balanced on the palate. Our choices are the Croatian Plavac Mali, the offbeat Schioppetino of Colli Orientale, Spain's Alicante Bouschet and the Sagrantino of Montefalco, Umbria. I sniff and immediately guess Sagrantino, although the raspberry scent and dark color make me toy with the idea Alicante Bouschet until I remember the lesson learned with the second white (It's Italian, stupid!). I stick with first impressions and am rewarded again: Scacciadiavoli 2000 Sagrantino di Montefalco.
The dessert course was a vertical construction, a Frollino, a cylinder of pastry stuffed with mascarpone zabaglione and topped with a scoop of nectarine and blueberry sorbet. The wine - no need for guessing - was a fine Sicilian fortified wine, De Bartoli Marsala Superiore. A pretty pale rose color, it's more red than I expect of this oxidized wine style. Walnuts dominate the aroma, rich as nut butter, almost reminiscent of a Spanish Pedro Ximenez. It's smooth and sweet, with sufficient but not overwhelming acidity, and a pleasant hint of black raisins in the finish.
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Friday, March 18, 2005