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Today's Wine Tasting Note

© Copyright 1999 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

A good Gewurz and a sparkling marinade
Today's quartet of wines comes with a story and a culinary challenge. Curiosity piqued by a recipe calling for sparkling wine as a marinade for chicken, which asserted that a bath in bubbly would make the bird plump and tender, my wine-loving pal Jenise Stone posed a challenge to our online Food Lovers' Discussion Group, inviting everyone to try a "shootout," marinating one small bird in sparkling wine, another in still wine, preparing them otherwise identically, and comparing the results. (If you'd like to participate in this discussion, start here.)

I took the challenge and applied the test to a couple of fat poussins, marinating one in a sweet Asti Spumante and the other in a cheap California Gewurztraminer, and also created a sweet-hot grapefruit compote to serve with them, hoping this would play well against the flavors of the marinades and the wines I planned to serve with dinner. The recipe is below. First, though, here are my notes on both the wines I served with dinner and the wines I used as marinades. Three of the four are forgettable, frankly; but the Alderbrook rates as one of the best U.S. Gewurztraminers I've tried.

Alderbrook Alderbrook 1996 Russian River Valley Saralee's Vineyard Gewürztraminer ($9.99)
Clear straw color, with a delicious aroma of litchees and red grapefruit, very ripe and "sweet." The sweetness is more on the nose, than the palate, however, as the flavor is just off-dry, crisp and tart, with good citric flavors lingering in a long, clean finish. It's not at all Alsatian in style, but it shows unusual structure and character for the usually lackluster genre of West Coast U.S. Gewurz. (July 3, 1999)

FOOD MATCH: Perfect with Asti-marinated poussin with a hot-sweet grapefruit compote (see below).

Evolution No. 9 Sokol Blosser Evolution No. 9 White Wine ($13.99)
I had heard good things about this light, fruity wine, made in Oregon from a melange of nine varieties (Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Müller-Thürgau, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Semillon and Sylvaner) and named after the Beatles' "Revolution 9," The White Album, 1968; but I have to say that even as a simple summer sipper, it left me cold. Pale gold in color, it showed a light, minty aroma, herbal and delicate but rather shy. Quite sweet on the palate, its flavors followed the nose, but it lacked the necessary acidity to give it structure. Pleasant enough for quaffing, it took a distant second place in competition with the Alderbrook. (July 3, 1999)

Fontanafredda Fontanafredda non-vintage Asti Sparkling White Wine($11.99)
Clear straw color, with a frothy mousse that foams up fast and dissipates just as fast, leaving a few fat bubbles that line the glass. Soft peach and grapefruit aromas and flavors, sweet-tart and refreshing. Low in alcohol (7.5 percent), this makes a pleasant summer quaff if not a wine to contemplate. U.S. importer: Brown-Forman Beverages Co., Louisville. (July 3, 1999)

Fetzer Fetzer Vineyards 1998 California Gewürztraminer ($7.99)
One of the truisms about wine cookery is that you should never cook with a wine so bad you wouldn't drink it. This one passes that test insofar as the wine is not repellent, but quite frankly, it's not interesting enough to command my attention as a table wine. Clear pale gold in color, it shows typical Gewurz "litchees" in the aroma with an odd, sulfury edge. Quite sweet in flavor, it shows some balancing acidity but remains essentially unfocused, and becomes increasingly flabby as it warms in the glass. Ho, hum. (July 3, 1999)

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Here's the recipe!
The "chicken-cava shootout" is done, and somewhat to my surprise, the results tend to support the hypothesis that using sparkling wine as a marinade for chicken actually makes at least a slight difference in comparison with a still-wine marinade.

I tried the compare-and-contrast cookery game that Jenise Stone suggested yesterday, making a few alterations in the original recipe but sticking with the basic premise of using an easy marinade on two small chickens, with all variables held constant except for the wine.

Because they were available at a local specialty grocer, I used two fat poussins (French hens, actually frozen free-range birds from South Carolina) in place of Cornish hens; and rather than oven-roasting them in this midsummer heat wave, I decided to split and butterfly them and grill them over charcoal instead.

In the interest of adding flavor, I chose an Italian Asti Spumante (Fontanafredda) as the sparkling wine and, seeking a similar balance of light sweetness and citric flavors, an inexpensive California Gewurztraminer (Fetzer) for the still wine.

The marinade is quick and simple: Cut out the backs of two small birds, Cornish hens or poussins, flatten them, and place each one in a bowl with two sprigs each of fresh thyme and fresh rosemary, two fat crushed garlic cloves, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour one cup of wine into each (which proved to be just about enough to cover them fully. Marinate refrigerated for at least six hours. (Being the obsessive type in the kitchen, I turned them three or four times during this period, although I'm not sure this makes much difference.)

After marinating, pat dry and grill over hot coals, placing them briefly skin-side down and turning them 90 degrees after a minute or two to get a criss-cross pattern; then move to indirect heat, just away from the coals, and grill for 20-30 minutes or until just done, turning frequently to avoid charring. I split them down the middle partway through cooking, partly to facilitate quick cooking and partly so we could each share one half of each bird to compare the two marinades. (I marked one bird by wrapping a bit of picture-hanging wire around the tip of its drumsticks, so the test wasn't "blind" for me, but it was for my wife.

As a last-minute invention, I created a sweet-hot grapefruit compote, thinking it would compliment both the marinade wines as well as the wines I planned to serve with the meal: Put 1/2 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, the juice of one lime, a shot of hot sauce and a "coin" of fresh ginger in a small skillet and boil until it's reduced to 50 percent of its original volume and slightly thickened. Put in 1 cup grapefruit segments and let cool to room temperature.

As an accompaniment, I also grilled Japanese eggplant halves slathered with good olive oil for the last 15 minutes of grill time.

THE RESULTS: Somewhat to my surprise, the two finished birds appeared visibly different, the one marinated in Asti being darker, with the darkest areas blackish-brown in contrast with the reddish-brown dark spots on the still-wine-marinated bird. It also tasted sweeter, both variables suggesting that the Asti contained more residual sugar, even though the Asti didn't taste sweeter in the glass. The Asti-marinated bird also seemed plumper and a bit more tender, especially in the breast meat. My wife, tasting them without knowing which was which, said she found the distinctions quite obvious, even though both birds were very good. My non-blind conclusions were the same.

As noted above, we served the dinner with two wines: It was perfect with the Alderbrook Gewurztraminer (rich and dry); a little less pleasing with the Evolution No. 9, which I frankly found bland and rather boring. The Asti and the Fetzer were both better for cooking than drinking.

If you try this recipe, or even the still-vs-sparkling shootout, I hope you'll let us know how you fare!

All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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