Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Now Mouthing Off at The Broad Street Review

In Philadelphia, a lot of people get their news from a single, out-of-town newspaper. Those folks often turn to blogs or radio for their sports news and to The Broad Street Review for news of the arts. I've always been disappointed that the premier arts source in this town disdained news of Food and Drink as beneath its dignity and while I sympathized with the prejudices and insecurities that prevent the culture-vultures from talking about The First Art, I felt it time to protest. Here's what I wrote:

Dear Editor,

Congratulations on the success of Broad Street Review. It's a brave and wonderful thing you're doing. There is a certain pleasure in connoisseurship, in thoughtful appreciation of the good things, in studying and knowing something well enough to get as much pleasure from your knowledge of it as you do from the thing itself.

There's also a bit of cultural and political statement involved. In an age when mass pleasures like TV grow more feeble and homogeneous, the very act of discrimination becomes a form of protest. And so I am a bit shocked a publication so fervently dedicated to refined appreciation and support of the arts shows such cultivated disdain for the culinary arts. ...

To read more of my diplomatic, persuavive and gentle plea: go to The Broad Street Review itself. For real inspiration on the topic, check out The New Short Course in Wine.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cépage de Sake-try this at home

Why on earth would anyone talk about sake on a wine blog? Sake, as I'm sure you know, is a drink made from rice. The brewing process uses an starch-breaking enzyme in tandem with the fermenting yeast. It sounds like a beer-brewing process. In fact it is, but sake, by virtue of its alcohol content and the way it's integrated into drinking life, is a lot more like wine than beer. Cépage? A cépage is a blend- a mixture of two different wines to produce a more balanced or more complex drink. Wine drinkers tend to be a bit skittish about cépages: you will rarely find someone pouring a bit of sour white into a jammy, flabby red. We tend to have a great deal of respect for the original formulation of wines, even if the wines in question don't deserve it.

Personally, I think this is over-delicate. Anything that makes the stuff in your glass taste better is just fine. That said, we have to admit that most amendments to a wine don't work. A splash of 7-up is probably a bad idea, so's a shot of vodka or a spoonful of concentrated fruit juice. But a raisin or a leaf of sage in a decanter? Well, sometimes.

One of the ways we might all get over our wineolatry is to start with a beverage that's worth
thinking about and in which we don't have too much symbolic investment. Sake might be just the right place to start. It is already much easier to talk about the taste of sake than the taste of wine. There is a wonderfully direct seven-point profile that you can apply to an individual sake. The dimesions are: Fragrance, Impact, Sweetness, Acidity, Presence, Earthiness and Finish (Tail).

With this in mind, it's easy to see how a sake that was, let's say, a bit lacking in Acidity but a little overbearing in the Presence department could be made more to your taste with a dash of another, less assertive and more acidic drink. Of course, there are seven different dimensions here and blending would be a matter of careful selection.

There is one instance though, in which a simple blending of two different sakes can yield a useful and immediate result. If you're a sushi lover, you've probably floundered around trying to find a good wine to take to the sushi bar. Sauvignon Blanc should work, but sometimes the bouquet has components that don't work-citrus and gooseberry for instance. Woody Chardonnays are awful and most Gewürztraminer is too distracting. A Grüner Veltliner is fine, but the better ones can be overpowering.
Hmmm. Maybe the folks who invented sushi have a solution: perhaps the best wine for sushi isn't wine at all, but sake? Fair enough, but which of the many on the shelves should we buy? If you've already grabbed a big, cheap bottle and tried it out, you may have found it too dry and ethereal. Even in the gentle presence of toro, the flavor disappears.
It may be time to try the fuller body and fruity presence of unfiltered sake. It's called Nigori Sake and it looks like milk-creamy and white. There's a great one made in the U.S. by Takara. You take it home, chill it, shake it up and try it. Perhaps you find yourself saying things like 'yummy' and 'dee-lish'-both very unusual words for wine-tasting, but perfectly appropriate here. So you cart your bottle off to the sushi bar and by the second glass you are thoroughly disappointed. Everything about the sushi has accentuated both the sweetness and the texture of the Nigori Sake and it now seems like there's a lollipop competeing with the kampachi for your attention.

Now it's time for you first cépage. All you really need to do is reduce the impact of the Nigori with some relatively neutral sake. You might try SHO CHIKU BAI Classic from the same brewer as your Nigori. Start with about half as much of the classic as you have of Nigori. If that's still too sweet and heavy in the mouth, add a bit more classic. Be sure that your cépage is well-chilled and you will have, in my humble opinion, the perfect sushi bar accompaniment.

By the way, the really great news about all this is that the average price for both components will come out to be about $8 a liter! That's not a typo. Comparing that to wine, you come up with a drink that costs six bucks a bottle and is perfectly elegant. Because of sake's slightly higher alcohol content, one 750ml bottle should get two thirsty people through dinner.

As with wine, sake doesn't last long once it's been opened. Be sure to serve well-chilled and enjoy your sushi.

Lynn Hoffman, author of the delightfully unblended novel bang BANG and the entertaining The New Short Course in Wine.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Portuguese for the dinner table

In the english-speaking world, Portuguese wine has two very well established faces. The first, and most esteemed is Port (Oporto) in all its variations. For richness and intensity of impact, for sheer ability to put a punctuation mark at the end of a meal there is nothing to match it. On the other end of the spectrum we have a host of rosés and vinhos verdes: light and refreshing and, for a generation of Americans, often the introduction to the pleasures of wine.

There have always been a handful of wines in the middle, luscious table wines-mostly from the same Duoro valley that produces port- that recalled the complexity of vintage port or the earthy intensity of a ripe bordeaux. Sadly, these wines are only occasionally available in the American market: Barca Velha is 'declared' like a port, reliable Quinta do Crasto is hard to find and yummies from other regions, Alentejo for instance only show up rarely.

So it's exciting to be able to report reliable supplies of two outstanding table wines from Cortes de Cima. The richer entry is the eponymous Cortes de Cima, ($15US) a blend of Tempranillo, Syrah and Trincadeira. The 2002 vintage showed generous portions of berries with a hint of evergreen, vanilla and raisins against an earthy, licorice background. The color is deep and bright and there's a healthy acidity and a sturdy 14.5% alcohol to keep the whole thing afloat. Serve with intensely flavored, firm textured food. We got the best results decanting several hours ahead of dinner and serving at a cool, cellar temperature.

In the days of increasingly internationalized wine, this one is unmistakably from Portugal and we should be glad of it. From the same vintner comes the softer, more cherry-like Chaminé ($8US), an easy-drinking fruit basket with lots of depth. There's lots of ripe fruit and spice on the nose and the 14% alcohol gives a generous mouth-feel. Except for one mis-match with tomato sauce, this was a delicious choice with dinner.

Both wines are wonderful and at these price points represent unusual values.

Lynn Hoffman, author of The New Short Course in Wine and the spicy, generous novel bang BANG.