Last night I wanted to give that Merlot another chance after a lot more decanting and a night in the fridge, and maybe another food pairing. JACKPOT! We made lamb tikka masala but rather than stew the lamb with the sauce this time my husband broiled it first, making the flavor more full-bodied. Absolutely perfect pairing that made this wine positively dance. A good food & wine pairing happens when neither the food nor the wine are diminished by the other but are at least the same alone as they are together. A GREAT pairing is when the sum is greater than the parts and the flavor of both is actually enhanced by each other.
Or really, my trouble with Merlot. It’s a popular intro-to-reds “window” wine, it has a degree of versatility with food pairings, it grows in many areas, and many experts confuse some Merlot styles with Cabernet Sauvignon (it can happen!). So what’s not to like? When I heard Miles Raymond say in Sideways, “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” I laughed so loud. I thought, “YES! I like this guy!” Which is not terribly fair to Merlot, I admit. I just . . . it doesn’t say much to me, and when it does it’s usually pretty harsh. That may be as much about the winemakers as the grapes though, who knows. But what is the difference between “nuanced” and “vague”? The taster.
Last night we had a Merlot ravioli stuffed with garlic and mozzarella with a red sauce and I figured hell, why not pair it with a Merlot. A couple months ago I had picked up that 2005 Warnke Cellars Merlot (Napa Valley) from Wine Library since I have a friend with the same last name, and because it was in their Top 10 Staff Picks. This was a fine opportunity to open it. In the glass it is a bold ruby color with a garnet rim, clear and day bright. The nose confirmed for me that my smeller is officially back after that unfortunate sinus infection because the alcohol burned my nose — I wondered if it was SO2 but nope, this was alcohol. Beyond that I detected smoke, newsprint, charcoal, red raspberry, pomegranate, plum, black pepper and roasted green peppers. In the palate are tastes of gamey meat, brambley briar, raspberry, plum, charcoal, burned meat, and grilled green peppers. The acidity was high, alcohol quite high (14.7%), the wine was dry, had medium+ body, high intensity, sharp green tannins, medium+ oak that might have been overcharred or too recently charred, medium+ finish and medium complexity. I’m not sure how balanced it was — the alcohol and tannins, and likely the poorly ripened grapes, made this wine pretty bitter. The timing of harvest is a tricky thing in hot climates. The sun and heat speed up the clock for reaching your desired Brix (measurement in degrees of residual sugar and consequently potential alcohol) but if you must pick sooner vs. later to keep your wine from becoming too sweet and too boozy you risk taking it off the vine before the grapes reach natural maturity — the seeds can be green rather than brown with a “skin”. The result is green, stemmy-flavored wine. I have no idea if this was the case with this particular wine but after decanting it for about half an hour the darker fruits came forward a bit and it was kinder on the nose & palate but I still wasn’t the biggest fan. It did pair well with the pasta.
So I’m unsure of whether I’m just biased against Merlots because they get a bad rap or if I’m trying too hard to like them because they’re an underdog. Merlot to me is like that unfunny, obnoxious friend who you don’t really like but take with a grain of salt because every once in a while you have a really good time with them. Ridgeline’s Sonoma County Merlot is an example of a really good time — I tasted it while in CA (recommended by the really awesome tasting room pourer named Jen from NYC) and could NOT believe it was a Merlot. It was so flavorful, balanced and complex! Of course I bought it! And I imagine Shafer’s Merlot is outstanding having nearly died over their Cabernet Sauvignon. But other times . . . too many Merlots are just “meh” to me, west bank Bordeaux, Napa, doesn’t matter.
But if someone at a restaurant orders it I don’t leave.
Tonight we ate penne with shrimp and asparagus which I admit was a frozen pre-made meal since we had a dungeon raid scheduled, though no less tasty for its convenience. I figured a Pinot Grigio would suit it best and found 1 in the cellar: a 2006 Belhurst from the Finger Lakes that I had bought in June 2007 when visiting my college friend. I also notice that the Bertolli site suggests a Pinot Grigio with this dish, so I guess I’m not so far off with my choice there. How nice of them to suggest wine pairings! Way to go Bertolli. I can’t imagine Hamburger Helper suggesting much but seriously there is no reason the average American isn’t drinking more wine with dinner, and if food companies are encouraging it then great.
Belhurst gives us a pale straw, clear, star bright wine with notes of lime, lemon, chalk, dry straw and clean linens on the nose. It’s very dry, light-bodied and fairly complex with flavors of lime, lemon, unripe pineapple, gooseberry, cilantro and lemongrass in the mouth, ending with a medium+ finish. As I’d expect from this area the acidity is high, alcohol is medium (12.5%), and though the fruit-forward intensity says New World I appreciate the Old World minerality in it. No detectable tannins or oak. Just a light and lovely Pinot Grigio that went perfectly with the shrimp & penne.
“Vin de table”, “Tafelwein”, “Vino da Tavola”, “Vino de Mesa”, whatever you call it, table wine has been an integral part of world culture for millenia. Though toasts of bubbly or “the good stuff” trumpet the special occasions that mark the milestones of our lives, what you drink day-to-day, like the conversations you have or the errands you run or the home you return to are that which mostly comprise your life. Some days good, some days not so good, but it’s all the fibers in our live’s tapestries. Like table wine.
I’ve had a couple of wines purchased either at Whole Foods or the grocery store over the last couple days that were not super, but were good, and went very well with what we ate for dinner.
The ’06 Valckenberg Gewurtztraminer from Pfalz, Germany (QbA, $9.99) we sipped with my mom’s home-made vegetable Thai red curry & coconut sauce was medium+ bodied, fruity and slightly sweet, showing standard aromas of lychee, apricot, canned pineapple, ripe pear, Meyer lemon, and a hint of chalk mineral at the end. Flavors reflected the nose and presented medium acidity, lower alcohol (10.5%), medium complexity and a medium finish. This was playful and refreshing. I noticed on the site they are a maker of Liebfraumilch and have been around for a very, very long time.
For dessert we did have something special, a Gran Reserva 1979 Don Pedro Ximenez (Spain) from Bodegas Toro Albala, S.L. in Montilla Moriles DO. Full-bodied like syrup and so flavorful, this black coffee-colored sherry smelled of Fig Newtons, raisins, molasses, licorice and coffee, with the raisins and molasses winning the impressions on the palate. Flavors of roasted nuts rode the endless finish. Sweet and creamy, this could easily be a dessert in itself. My favorite PX is still the Alvear 1927 Solera we had had in class on sherry day, which is slightly lighter in color than the Toro Albala and reminiscent of pure liquid caramel. Both delicious in their own way.
Tonight’s dinner of home-made garlic/basil pesto and linguini (thanks again, Mo!) was an instant friend of Beaulieu Vineyard’s Beauzeux red, a 2005 Sonoma blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Charbano, Petite Syrah, Lagrein, Valdiguie, Grenache and Tempranillo. Whew! I never even heard of a few of those grapes. My mom had brought a few bottles upon recommendation from her local state store in PA and it proved to be a pleasant, casual, table red. It is a deep ruby color, darker than a Pinot Noir but not as saturated as more common CA reds, clear, moderately viscous with stained tears on the glass. On the nose the fruits are quiet at first: cherry, raspberry, red plum, strawberry, followed by secondary, oaky aromas of clove, coffee, cocoa, and toast. White pepper at the end. The alcohol (though only 13.5%) was not terribly integrated and felt a bit hot until we aerated it a moment. In the mouth this pleasantly acidic, moderately oaked, moderate-to-full bodied wine reflected the red fruits from the nose with more messages of coffee, wood, toast and white pepper. The fruits, acid, tannins and oak were all in great harmony, completed with a medium-length finish. A bit later when it warmed up I noticed a gamey meat scent on the nose as well. Not too complicated, just an easy blend to have with almost any meal.