Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Just Because It's Summer Doesn't Mean You Should Drink Bad Wine

Ever since the Constitutional Convention during that long Philadelphia summer of 1787, the languorous expanse between Memorial Day and Labor Day has been an indelible part of the rhythm of American life: the days of summer holidays and roadtrips, weekends at the Hamptons or the Shore, the party season at Gatsby's, the height of baseball season and Presidential campaigns, and lazy afternoons of Ultimate and barbecue. And accompanying that all-American tradition of outdoor grilling of late have been the obligatory articles from wine writers detailing the appropriate pairings for pulled pork, beef ribs, brisket and the like.

Wine writers for middle-brow newspapers tend toward the condescending, and never more so when recommending the "ideal summer wine." (Do they really drink Ravenswood themselves at home?) Exhibit A is Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg's "Four Hot Prospects for Summer Sipping" in today's Washington Post, which offers recommendations for "BBQ" wines: "big, bold and quaffable." (No doubt a dozen other writers this week have arrived at a similarly egregious acronym.)

While I admit that many barbecue dishes, especially those slathered with thick sauces, require wines of some brashness and verve, just because the mercury's risen and you're drinking outside doesn't mean you've taken leave of your senses or, more importantly, your taste. Therefore, I humbly propose to offer four counter recommendations to Page and Dornenburg, all with the proviso that these wines are a bit splurgy and not meant for mindless quaffing. But, hey, you only live once, and with all that barbecue you've been eating, the man may come around sooner than you think.

As an all-purpose barbecue wine, Page and Dornenburg suggest the Sauvion Rosé d'Anjou ($10), a simple Loire rosé made from gamay and groslot. A perfectly respectable wine and probably the most apt of their four choices. But if you are indulging in the frivolity that is rosé, why not go all the way and have a Rosé Champagne, one of the most delightful mood wines there is (remember Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember?). Rosé Champagne is an excellent match for barbecue, as it has the fruitiness, acidity, and bubbles to complement traditional sauces. Most of the famous Champagne houses put out a very good non-vintage rosé, and few are better than the Billecart-Salmon
Rosé ($65), with refreshing cherry and strawberry flavors, good acidity, and impeccable balance.

For that "red-meat person" in your party, the Post writers recommend Ravenswood Icon Syrah ($17). The less that is said about the monstrosity that is Ravenswood the better (it's owned by the corporate giant Constellation Brands, whose portfoilo also includes Corona Extra and Corona Light). Admittedly, my next choice is a splurge wine, but it is also by far the finest New World Syrah or Shiraz I have ever tasted: the 1992 Henschke Hill of Grace ($300). Bearing little resemblance to the over-extracted, over-oaked Shiraz currently in favor in Australia, the Hill of Grace offers stunningly pure red fruit, with hints of spice and eucalyptus. Accessible now but still youthful, with a long life ahead.

As a pairing with "pork, chicken or virtually anything other than red meat," Page and Dornenburg suggest the Hogue Columbia Valley Riesling ($9), which throws in a dollop of Gewurztraminer for good measure. Yet if you're in the market for an off-dry Riesling, why not go for the real thing and pick out a good German Kabinett or Spatlese. German Rieslings are one of the few remaining bargains from Old World noble grapes, and a top producer like Ernst Loosen (whom I've written about previously) puts out excellent wines from top to (almost) bottom. Even mature German Rieslings can be found on the market for reasonable prices. The 1990 Weingut A. Gessinger Riesling Spatlese Zeltinger Sonnenuhr ($30) displays classic Middle Mosel notes of kerosene, apples, minerals, and honey and features a juicy mid palate and a nice, fresh acidity despite its maturity. An especially good pairing for foods inclining toward the sweet or the spicy.

And, finally, Conundrum ($27, né Caymus Conundrum) is the authors' choice of a somewhat more "upscale" white to pair with grilled fish or chicken ("its price tag means we save it for dinner with guests, who invariably thank us"; perhaps they're just being polite). Conundrum, which is blended from some combination of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat or Semillon, has gone steeply downhill since the heady days of the early '90s when the wine garnered positive reviews from Robert Parker. For another proprietary white that is upscale enough to reserve for the table, I would suggest the 2003 Clos des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc ($60). It is a rich, full-bodied wine with floral notes and white fruit flavors that despite the scorching heat of the vintage has great acidity and fine poise. An incredibly versatile, food-friendly wine -- perfect for that West Egg dinner party.

Update: As Mark Slater, sommelier of Citronelle, helpfully points out in a post on Don Rockwell's board, Constellation Brands had a bigger hand in this article than I initially thought. In addition to distributing the Ravenswood Icon Syrah, Constellation ("THE LARGEST WINE AND SPIRITS COMPANY IN THE WORLD," as Slater notes) also distributes Hogue Cellars and owns Caymus Cellars, producer of Conundrum. (Sauvion is part of W.J. Deutsch & Son's portfolio.)

This certainly calls into serious question Page and Dornenburg's method of selecting wines for review, as well as the New York-based writers knowledge, or lack thereof, of the DC wine market.

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