Today I received a newsletter from Union Square Cafe boasting the “incredible value” of their wine list and boldly announcing “100 new wonderful selections under $75”. USC is definitely a nice restaurant with great food and reasonable prices (it's NYC, after all). Their wine list is also admittedly fairly extensive (they've been awarded the Best of Award Excellence by Wine Spectator magazine). Anyway I beg to differ to their definition of value. Unfortunately, I've got used to the customary and completely crazy wine pricing at restaurants in the States (basically, you pay 3 to 4 times what you'd pay at a liquor store). Nonetheless I honestly can't call a $75 bottle a bargain, especially when I can buy it for $19.99.
I'm not a Taliban of food authenticity. Like culture and language, always in motion is cuisine. So I always recommend to experiment with recipes: changing the ingredients, using different cooking methods or time and so on. After a while, you start to develop an instinct for it and every now and then you may end up with something really sensational. Of course, you must be prepared to fail miserably. Don't experiment too much when you have hosts for dinner, unless they are really good friends and you don't mind being a fool in front of them.
Sometimes though, our great ancestors and masters already tried all the possibilities and refined a recipe beyond perfection. Risotto seems to be an example of something you can't improve anymore. In Italy, we use Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rices to prepare a risotto.
Tonight, I was going to prepare an asparagus risotto, but just in the middle of it I realized I was out of the right rice: I made do with some Basmati rice instead but the result was unsatisfactory. As a matter of fact, the flavor and the taste were very good but the texture was too soft and soggy, definitely not al dente. So, if you want to make a great risotto, stick with the tradition and use the right rice.
I don't like Chardonnay in the same sense I don't like salmon.
Now, if I haven't lost you yet, maybe I can really tell you something about me. Ok, let me start with salmon: salmon is an overrated and overpriced fish. C'mon, there are plenty of tastier fishes and, yet, 90% of the times salmon is almost the only fish choice at a restaurant. And why is that? Because salmon is familiar, easy, trendy and "safe". Now, I like variety, I like bold flavors and I have a natural, ancestral aversion to trendiness (to mainstream, actually). Salmon is the paradigm of what I don't like in food.
Chardonnay is in the wine world what salmon is in the fish world: an overrated and mostly overpriced wine. Chardonnay is grown everywhere, everybody drinks it, and everybody likes it. Unfortunately, the trend for the past 15 years was to create the perfect template, a standardized chardonnay regardless of the growing region. The result is that 99% of the Chards out there taste the same. Well, to be precise there are 2 templates: the tasteless, to-be-drunk-chilled, easygoing, mindless whites and the over-powerful, over-oaked, over-alcoholic deep yellows. Beware of both, avoid them at all cost: they will corrupt your taste and your mind. UN should proclaim a moratorium on mainstream Chards.
So, after all this nonsensical rambling, I must confess that finding a great Chardonnay is like finding a rare gem. And to find such a rarity I almost always have to go back to my beloved Bourgogne, homeland of the easiest and the hardest grapes of all (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), plus the overlooked Gamay which is almost invariably better than one would think (if you are smart enough to decline the Nouveaux). To tell the truth, Champagne is another great place to find good Chardonnays. Anyway, this Puligny-Montrachet is an example of what emotions a great Chardonnay can evoke.
BTW, when I'm in the mood to have a great salmon, I always go to one of my favorite restaurants, La Corte di Pogliano Milanese, where Leonardo Buoso is capable of ennobling even a stupid fish. Alas, it's now 6,000 miles away!
Tasting notes: Deep yellow gold color with green reflections. The nose is a wonderful and complex bouquet of flowery (elder, lilac), fruity (tangerine, passionfruit, peach, hazelnut) and mineral (steel, graphite) flavors. The palate is smooth and ample, with a great correspondence with the nose. The long and complex finish is superb, leaving the mouth fresh and watering for more. A great wine, showing the full potential of Chardonnay, very drinkable now and probably improving for at least a decade.
There are, in the wine world, a few obnoxious practices that suddenly gain an undeserved and unfortunate popularity: drinking chilled white wines, oak-aging abuse, over-extraction leading to hyper-alcoholic wines are just a few examples. Among them, there is one that is now almost universally accepted and that I find particularly disturbing: decanting red wines. Decanting wines is not bad per se but, as usual, a good practice turned into a bad one for the wrong reasons: and now, everybody indiscriminately decants red wines, regardless whether it is necessary or not. What's more, decanting a wine can destroy its delicate equilibrium, reached after years of quiet and undisturbed rest in the bottle.
The practice of decanting was necessary, several years ago, as most old wines (and even younger ones) presented such a severe deposit that drinking them was totally unpleasant. A savvy drinker had to leave the bottle upright for a few days then carefully and slowly pour the wine from the bottle to a decanter avoiding the deposit to fall into it (a candle illuminating the bottle could help seeing the deposit more clearly). It was a painful operation that required patience and skills; moreover, quite a few sips of the wine had to be thrown away (if you are a fan of Lieutenant Columbo, you might remember an episode where decanting a wine was part of our hero's uncovering of the villain's criminal plan). Today, deposits in wines are much less frequent as filtration and stabilization are common practices in modern winemaking.
Today decanting is used mainly to oxygenate the wine, helping the flavors to emerge clearly and eliminating reduction smells (often described as rotting vegetation, a just-struck match, hardboiled eggs, sewage, and burnt rubber). It's true that oxygenation is required to smell the wine bouquet and that reductive smells can frequently be get rid of with proper airing but we must not forget that oxygen is also a highly corrosive gas and that in medio stat virtus. (Virtue stands in the middle.) Too much oxygen can ruin a wonderful wine, forever! Just think about it: you have a great wine, calmly resting in your dark cellar for 20 or 30 years and, suddenly, you uncork it, pour it into a large decanter and start shaking it like in a roller coaster. Think of what happens to ancient books and paintings when they are dug from underground tombs, rooms and caves and exposed to fresh air once again after centuries. Even if the wine is strong enough to withstand the decanter, you are missing the wonderful evolution of flavors you could witness leaving the wine in the proper glass for a while, sipping it every few minutes. (A balloon glass is the right tool to properly oxygenate the wine.) Using a decanter to help the wine evolve quickly is like skipping to the last page of a crime story.
So, is decanting always bad? No, there are indeed situations in which decanting is highly recommended: decanting young wines (especially white wines) helps getting rid of sulfites (the main cause of hangovers) and other youth flaws (like unwanted fizziness or foul odors from unclean barrels). Of course, if there are deposits in the wine, decanting is imperative but must be conducted properly: I also recommend using a tall and thin decanter or a pitcher instead of the trendy short and fat decanters everybody uses.
Next time you taste an old gem, try not decanting it: slowly savor it from the glass. If you don't like it, you can still decant the wine eventually. The vice versa is not possible!
After having lived in Rochester for one year and a half, I've tasted quite a few Finger Lakes Rieslings. While there are a lot of different interpretations of this wonderful grapes, I've found a few common characteristics: Finger Lakes wineries favor sweeter Rieslings (semi-dry and sweet Rieslings are more common and even dry ones have distinctive sweet flavors), floral and mineral scents are preferred to hydrocarbons, Rieslings are made to be drunk young.
Dr. Konstantin Frank, the founder of the winery named after him, is recognized as having led the revolution in wine quality in New York State and the East Coast and for bringing the vitis vinifera in the cold New York State climate. His winery is today a very good representative of the Finger Lakes region potentiality in high quality wine making.
Tasting notes: Bright pale yellow color. The nose is floral (rose) and mineral (steel, chalk). The palate is dominated by a crisp acidity, slightly damped by a light sweetness (the residual sugar is not declared, though). Pleasant medium finish, leaving plenty of rose water flavors in the mouth. This is a very typical and unpretentious dry Finger Lakes Riesling (which are never really dry), favoring floral and mineral flavors and lacking the mesmerizing petroleum flavors found in Alsatian and Italian Rieslings.
Napa Valley was the first US wine region I became acquainted with and the first I had the chance to visit, in 1995. In Italy, "US wines" usually meant California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons. Gallo, Mondavi and Kendall Jackson were the only brands easily available. Eventually, we learned about other wineries, grapes and regions (mostly Oregon) and prices outrageously increased. So, it's nice to find a Californian wine that is both cheap and actually enjoyable: this Petite Sirah might not be very typical but is a great sip!
Tasting notes: The color is ruby with purple reflections. The nose is fruity (plum and blueberry), spicy (ginger) with a hint of vanilla and green pepper. The palate is smooth and velvety, alcoholic with a good structure; the oak, although in good evidence, is nicely blended with the fruit. A nice wine overall, even if lacking true varietal syrah flavors.
Finger Lakes is a relatively young wine region, comparable, in a sense, to one of my favorite ones: Alsace. No wonder that Riesling and Gewurztraminer are prominently cultivated. As in most US wine regions, wine makers are experimenting with lots of different grapes and styles, which makes hard to categorize the area in a well defined way. At the moment, wines show very good acidity, fruity flavors and sweet or semi-sweet flavors. This Chardonnay from Widmer Wine Cellars, located on Canandaigua Lake, is a dry, barrel fermented wine which lacks some balance but shows the potential of the region. I'm very happy to be around here for the next few years.
Tasting notes: The color is yellow-gold with green reflections. The first impression at the nose is the oak flavor (which accounts for the "Barrel fermented" reading in the label) which is not completely blended with the other flavors in the bouquet: citrus (lime and grapefruit) and flowers (orange flowers). The palate is buttery, maybe too much, with a good acidity, though. The finish is clean and pleasant. Not a bad wine, overall, with just too much oak and greasy flavors.