Dinner in Portugal?

The decision had been made over a month ago...our next wine pairing dinner would be in Portugal. Well, actually traveling to Portugal wasn't in the budget, so why not bring the tastes of Portugal to our local dinner table, then pair some Portuguese wines with those courses?

Followers of this blog know that we have a small gourmet group. About every three months, we gather together a group of eight people to learn about traditional cuisine, cooking techniques, then create those dishes for an evening of food, fun, and wine.

This evening, we created a four course (maybe five, if you include both appetizers). The table was set with a Mediterranean theme, and our hosts had found a channel on Spotify.com that played Portuguese music. They had strung lights across their back deck, and put tea candles on the table. The mood was set, and the evening temperatures had cooled to a comfortable degree versus the daytime heat and humidity.

Our first appetizer was Peixinhos da Horta (batter fried green beans). The batter was made with white wine, and had the consistency of a tempura batter. The fresh green beans were battered and fried in olive oil, then lightly salted. For the wine pairing I went with a Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde. When I see fried food on the menu, I immediately think of something with effervescence to help cleanse the palate. Salt requires effervescence, sweetness or acid. Vinho Verde fits the bill on most counts. It isn't sweet, but there is an amount of fruitiness, that lends itself to the flavor of the green beans.

Our hosts added one more appetizer a couple days before I went out to purchase the wine. The addition was Camarao com Piri Piri (Grilled Shrimp with hot sauce). While the Vinho Verde worked with the shrimp, the hot sauce really required something with some more residual sugar. The Piri Piri (hot sauce) was made with olive oil, garlic and hot peppers, that had soaked together for a week. While many turn their nose up at Lancer's Rose, it really worked well with this dish.   Lancer's is made with a blend of grapes (Aragones, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Castelao, and Trincadeira). Lancer's is a slightly sparking wine and slightly sweet. I would say it is the "original" white Zinfandel.

The next course was Canja (a traditional Chicken soup with Basmati rice, lemon juice and mint). The one thing I can say about Portuguese food, is that it is pretty simple. Not too many ingredients, and not terribly complicated. This dish was a perfect example of what can be done with only seven ingredients, to create a wonderful dish. While the dish was easy, the wine pairing was a challenge. I always try to stay within the region. But, finding light red wines, or hardier white wines at our local wine shops presented a challenge. So, I focused on a Portuguese beer, only to find the store I drove to was out of it. I had to break the region "rule" and went with a white wine from the Galicia region of Spain. I paired this with Vina Godeyal Valdcorras (the grape is Godello). This actually worked nicely.

Our main course was Costeletas de Carneiro Escondidinho (Lamb Chops with a Port, Cream and Mustard Sauce), served with fingerling potatoes and carrots. This was a hearty dish, and called for a full bodied red wine. I found two wines that met our needs. The Abriza Alentejo 2009 was made in more of a new world style (a bit more ripe red fruit than the second wine). The second wine was a Quinta do Cruto Duoro Riserva 2009 (made with traditional Port grapes, but not in a fortified, or sweet style). Both wines were opened more than an hour before dinner, and allowed to aerate a bit. Lamb is one of those wonderful meats that just pairs so well with red full bodied red wines, and this was no exception. The Port, mustard cream sauce was a beautiful addition.

The final course was a dessert course of Delicia de Laranja (Orange Cake). When pairing wine with desserts, always make sure your wine is sweeter than the dessert. The simple choice would have been a Port, but red port is pretty heavy, and this cake was fairly light. White Port is hard to find in our area, so I went off the coast of Portugal, to Madiera. The island is a Portuguese archipelago located about 250 miles off the coast of Portugal. I chose Blandy's 10 Year Old Malmsey. This "cooked" wine has a wonderful sweetness, with raisin and caramel notes, that worked with the baked orange cake.

My hope is that by reading this easy Portuguese wine dinner, you too will create a regional wine pairing dinner. If you do, please share your menu in the comments section. If you need help with a pairing, contact your local Sommelier, wine shop, or send me an e-mail.

"Forgotten" grapes of Italy

Last week, I wrote about the Wine Century Club. Since then, I have had a number of people contact me about how to get started. It is actually pretty easy. Download their list of grapes, and start trying wines that contain those grapes. Okay….maybe it isn’t that easy. You really need some background, preferably through wine classes, or local wine tasting clubs. While we are seeing more and more unusual, or forgotten, grapes in the United States, the Old World still has the lock on the availability.
This week, I am conducting a wine tasting of Italian wines. As the president and Sommelier for the Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts, I get to choose the wines to serve.  Italy offers a never ending supply of forgotten grapes.

Before it was known as Italy, the country was known as Oenotria (due to its’ abundant vineyards). Many of those grapes were brought to the region by the ancient Greeks, and the mysterious Etruscan people (thought to be the refuges of the fallen city of Troy).  There are literally thousands of grape varieties in Italy, but Italy's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, has only documented a bit over 350 grapes and granted them "authorized" status.  With DOC and DOCG regulations, only a handful of grapes are really known by most wine drinkers. Chianti (Sangiovese), Barolo (Nebbiolo) and Soave (Garganega) are probably the best known.

So, when it comes to Italian wine tastings, the door is open…as long as I can find the wines (not easy). This week, I was lucky. While I still have the “standard” Barolo, I was able to find some less common wines.

Italy isn’t really known for its white wines, other than Pinto Grigio or Soave, but that might be changing. The first wine in my tasting is Cherchi Pigalva Vermentino di Sardegna 2013. This white wine from the island of Sardegna is 100% Vermentino. The color is straw yellow and has aromas of apple and white flower. It is dry and has moderate plus acidity. 

The second wine is La Ginestraia Pigato Riviera Ligure di Ponente 2013. The white wine is from the Liguria region and is 100% Pigato. This is where things get interesting! If you check Jancis Robinson’s reference book, “Wine Grapes”, you’ll find that DNA evidence now shows that Pigato and Vermentino are the same grape. And for those registering their tastings for membership in the Wine Century Club, they are listed as separate grapes. Tasting them side by side, they do taste different. Pigato has more pear, apricot and hazelnut aromas. Is it the terroir or they just different expressions of the same grape?

There is no argument about two of the red wine choices. For the first red, I am serving a Rubino Oltreme Susumaniello Salento IGT Rosso 2012. This wine is produced from 100% Susumaniello, and is grown exclusively in the southern region of Puglia. Susumaniello has most commonly been used as a blending grape for the better known grape of Puglia: Negroamaro. The wine is ruby red, and has aromas of red fruit: cherry,raspberry and red plum. The tannins can sometimes be a bit rough, but this version has soft tannins, and is fairly elegant.

The second red wine is Corte alla Flora Pugnitello Toscana 2011. This Tuscan wine is 100% Pugnitello. Since Tuscany is home to the famous Chianti wines, which are made from the Sangiovese grape, it is no surprise that Pugnitello was long thought to be a clone of Sangiovese or Montepulciano, but recent DNA analysis has shown that the grape is its’ own variety. This grape was almost lost, but in the 1980’s, “rescuers” saved the variety, and in 1993, the first barrels of 100% Pugnitello where produced.  Historical evidence suggests that the grapes name comes from the Italian word for “fist” (pugno), the shape of the grape clusters. The wine is deeply colored, with aromas of rich fruit: black cherry, prune, cranberry and hints of clove and tobacco. 

To finish the tasting, I do have to bring in one of my favorite Italian wines, Barolo. The last wine is an Oddero Barolo 2009. I have written about the Nebbiolo grape in the past, so won’t spend time recapping it here.

With a simple five wine, Italian tasting, we have covered five (if you count Nebbiolo) “forgotten” grapes. When you add these to your Wine Century Club list, you will be well on your way to reaching 100 grape varieties. And, hopefully you will find a new variety that will become a favorite.

Wine Century Club

Let’s start this one off with a “test”. What do Savagnin and Graciano have in common? If you said they are both grapes, then you are on the right track. If you further said they are grown in unique locales, and make interesting wines, then you might consider yourself somewhat of a “wine geek”. 

When “talking” about wine, most people focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, or Chardonnay, maybe even Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc….but there is so much more out there to try. Many people are now subscribing to the “ABC” philosophy of wine tasting, that is “Anything But Chardonnay (or Cabernet)”. There are over 7,000 different wine grape varieties, and about 24,000 names for these varieties, grown throughout the world. Only about 150 varieties are grown in large enough quantities for the wine to make it into your local wine shop. And, that is what makes finding an unusual variety so much fun. With one sip, you can experience something from another part of the world. So, if you enjoy the hunt, and the adventure of finding these “uncommon” wines, then I have got a challenge for you.

The Wine Century Club was formed by Steve and Deborah DeLong in 2005. The DeLong name might sound familiar to you. If you have been in a wine shop, or a tasting room, and seen a wine grape varietal chart on the wall, you may recognize the name. The DeLong Wine Grape Varietal Chart is designed like a periodic table, aligning the grapes by acid and sugar levels. There are 184 grapes on the chart.  The Wine Century club grew out of that chart. As people began to taste the wine made from these grapes, a club developed to recognize those that had tried 100 different grapes. Now, in addition to regular membership, they also recognize serious grape nuts who have tried at least 200 (Doppel), 300 (Treble), 400 (Quattro) or 500 (Pentavini) different varieties.

Membership is simple. All you need to do is download a checklist of common and uncommon wine varietals, try 100 of them, then mail in your completed list. Once your list has been verified, you receive a free certificate (suitable for framing) designating you as a member of the Wine Century Club. According to their website, they currently have 1,378 members worldwide. The club is not a bunch of wine snobs, and they aren’t “ABC” advocates. They are open to everyone that is adventurous; including amateur taster to professional Sommelier.

I have some friends that are now on a quest to join this growing club. You would think that tasting 100 varietals would be fairly easy, but you would be wrong, and that is part of the fun. The hunt to find new grape varieties will lead you to some great new finds, and some that you’ll probably never try again. Hint: look to Italy and Greece for some rare finds. Even the East Coast of the United States offers some non-vinifera grapes, as well as hybrids, that are uncommon. I joined in 2010. At the time of my membership, I had tasted 127 different grapes. I am still working on getting to 200.

If you have been paying $60 or more for the same California Cabernet Sauvignon over and over, why not spend $25 for an unusual Cabernet Pfeffer or Negrette from Kenneth Volk in California? Is it the unknown that scares you, or excites you? If it excites you, then you need to start tracking your wine tastings, and join the club.

When you are in the restaurant, check the wine list for the uncommon grapes. The markup will typically be lower, as most people won’t venture beyond what they are accustom to. I think you’ll also find that most Sommeliers seek the unusual, so talk with the Somm, and ask what they would recommend. Restaurants that are on the “cutting edge” will typically have a Sommelier that is allowed to add some obscure wines, that pair ideally with the chef’s cuisine. Look at Gruner Vetliner... Just a few years ago, no one had heard of this grape, and now it is popping up, not only in wine shops, but in restaurants. The latest addition seems to be Assyrtiko, from Greece. I am seeing more and more on shelves and wine lists.

So, if Savagnin,  Graciano, Negrette, or Assyrtiko are familiar to you, then you are already on your way to membership. Download an application and join on the Century Wine Club website. The next thing you know, you will be changing the wine store stocks on its’ shelves, and what the restaurant puts on their wine list. You will also be experiencing the local wines that are “normal” or “common” in other parts of the world.