Like most wine-and-food enthusiasts, I simply can't visit New York City without spending more time, money and calories than I really should at good places to eat.
Frankly, I can't say I go along fully with Times dining critic Frank Bruni's praise for the "reinvigorated" Picholine. Although dinner was enjoyable and many of the dishes innovative, I found the concepts more creative than the execution. Small plates bore large price tags, service was brusque and not always well-informed, and frighteningly pricey three-figure bottles dominated the lengthy wine list.
Still, there's a lot of excitement here, and at its best, Picholine shines. And Bruni may well have been on target with his observation that Picholine (whose chef also runs the cheese-savvy Artisanal on Park Avenue) "has the best cheese presentation in the city."
Armed with an after-dinner selection of three moderately strong and lovably "stinky" European items from the cheese cart - a French goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, a Montenegro sheep cheese from Spain and a potent Basque blue - I entertained myself by taking bites of cheese and alternate sips from glasses of red and white wine, hoping to add a few more data points to the debate over whether red wine or white goes best with strong cheese.
The wines, both imports by Vignaioli Selections, NYC, were pricey but delightful regional wines from Northeastern Italy's Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Ronco del Gnemiz 2004 Colli Orientali del Friuli Schioppetino ($105), a juicy and tartly acidic red wine redolent of white pepper and red fruit; and Ronco del Gnemiz 2004 Friuli Bianco di Jacopo ($45), a medium-bodied, structured Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio blend.
Although my lifelong instinct is to call for a red wine with cheese, and I still believe that reds serve well with milder, creamy cheeses like Cheddar, I've gradually, somewhat grudgingly come around to believe that dry whites are the pick with strong, stinky cheese.
This random combination of wines and cheeses, however, surprised even me. The good body, delicate apple and pear fruit and well-defined acidity in the white seemed to balance out the cheeses in mouth-watering style. The red, in contrast, which had been delightful with both rare lamb medallions and a mushroom-and-duck risotto, went all out of whack with the cheeses, coming across as thin, tart and watery. It was especially unpleasant with the blue, a match that finished with a twangy metallic note.
The rule here is clear: If you're choosing strong goat or sheep cheeses or tangy blues, play it safe and go with a dry white wine. Save your red for the meat course.
Just to reassure myself, though, when I got home I pulled out a chunk of simple, sharp Wisconsin Cheddar and tried it with a couple of red wines, a modest Cotes-du-Rhone and Sean H. Thackrey Pleiades XIII, the robust California red blend featured in today's tasting. Much to my relief, this combination still works delightfully for me: The creamy, sharp but clean dairy aromas and flavors of the cheese seem to round out the wine, diminish tannins and produce a mellow and appetizing flavor combination. Red still works with Cheddar.
Sean H. Thackrey Pleiades XIII Old Vines California Red Table Wine ($23.49)
This wild California blend, a mix of vineyards and vintages issued not by year but in a Roman-numbered series, features an oak-accented assemblage of Syrah, Barbera, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Sangiovese plus a dash of white Viognier. Seven grapes, named after the Pleiades, the ancient "Seven Sisters" of astronomical lore. (For details see my March 2004 report on Pleiades XII, "Wine rating: Seven stars.") Pleiades XIII is dark ruby in the glass, showing reddish-violet glints against the light. Mouth-filling and ripe, bold cherry-berry flavors offer a bowl of juicy and tart Bing cherries with a splash of raspberry liqueur and a squirt of lemon, with oaky vanilla playing counterpoint. More focused on fruit and less on earth than some of its predecessors, but good structure and depth make it much more than a mere "fruit bomb." (Dec. 10, 2006)
FOOD MATCH: This bold and complex red would work very well with grilled meats and other hearty fare, and it proved an exceptional red-wine match with sharp Cheddar cheese. Its flavors went very well with a Cajun-style dinner of red beans and rice with pork sausage, with the caveat that fiery spices may heighten the "burn" of relatively high-alcohol wines.
VALUE: The middle $20s are certainly an appropriate neighborhood for a wine of this quality, but it's worth shopping, as Wine-Searcher.com shows most retail prices varying across a rather broad range from $22 to $30.
WHEN TO DRINK: Fine now, although fans of Pleiades note that it takes cellaring well and tends to develop more complexity and elegance over several years.
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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). I was traveling last week, so we published only a Monday edition:
Brunello's brother (Dec. 4, 2006)
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Monday, Dec. 11, 2006