About two or three months ago I attended a trade tasting of ‘Old World’ (Eurpoean) wines in Bellingham. I was specifically interested in tasting some Italian sparkling wines, maybe a few Veronese wines (Amarone) and hopefully some Brunello. As it turned out the Italian sparklers I tasted were terrific. Clean, crisp, beautifully balanced wines at affordable prices……..precisely what I hoped to find. After an hour or more of tasting and eating, eating and tasting and eating a bit more I was ready to leave. But before leaving I thought I would amuse myself by tasting one Washington state wine presented by the only domestic producer represented at this particular tasting: Brian Carter Cellars. The wine I chose to taste was labeled “Tuttarosso” and was a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and a smattering of Syrah.
Now let me tell you first of all of my boundless love for Sangiovese. Italian Sangiovese to be precise. Why? Three reasons. First, Sangiovese (properly vinified) conveys a sense of place better than any wine grape I know of (Pinot Noir comes close). Second, Sangiovese has the unique ability to be both dense and concentrated without being heavy or overly extracted. Again, Pinot Noir enjoys similar characteristics. And finally, Sangiovese has firm, crisp, natural acidity that makes it a wonderfully nimble food wine. That naturally high acid structure is also what makes it a marvelous blending grape, particularly with grapes that tend to be fuller but less defined on the palate such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
The first words out of my mouth (a full minute) after tasting Brian’s Tuttarosso were “this is the finest domestically produced Sangiovese blend I have ever tasted.” What made the wine so good? Balance, seamlessness, harmony and proportion. Perfectly ripe on the nose but not overly so as we too often see (my opinion) with Washington reds. It also had a decidedly Sangiovese palate bolstered by just enough brambly cassis and berry flavors from the Cab and Syrah to take the wine someplace new and exciting. A muscular but beautifully toned ensemble of finesse and elegance…….like Astaire and Rogers, Roberto Clemente or the incomparable Lester Young. The finish was complex and persistent with just a touch of the earthiness which is a hallmark of great Sangiovese. This was a wine made by a gifted winemaker who clearly had access to outstanding fruit and who also understood the fundamental difference between interpretation and mimcry. It slapped me silly.
Instead of leaving I stayed for the better part of an hour talking to Brian and tasting his exquisite line-up of European inspired wines. “Byzance” is his ode to the Southern Rhone and the gloriously complex wines of Chateauneuf du Pape. “Corrida” is a Tempranillo based wine that reminded me immediately of a more modern style of Rioja or Ribera del Duero. “Solesce” is a Bordeaux inspired wine that utilizes all five (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot) Bordeaux varieties aged in 40% new oak with the result being (oh my!) distant thunder cloaked in velvet.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the wines I have tasted from this remarkably talented winemaker is called “Opulento”. The wine is “an elegantly styled wine rich in ripe aromas and opulent in flavor”. I know this is true because it said so on the back of the bottle. And, yes, it is all that and more according to my own palate. The thing that really stands out with this wine is that it doesn’t suck. Let me explain.
I have been involved in the wine business either directly or peripherally for nearly 30 years. In that time I have had the pleasure to meet some truly gifted winemakers who have garnered a certain degree of fame and/or notoriety usually from one or two highly sought after table wines. Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay………whatever. And nearly all of these winemakers, after achieving unbridled success with their primary offerings, have decided that they want to make dessert wine or worse…….Port. I have never been able to figure this out. “I’m glad you love my wines but what I am most proud of is my Zinfandel Port” are the words a well-known winemaker told me once before handing me a taste of the most appalling desert wine I ever tasted. It was heinous. I was in California visiting a very high profile producer of Sonoma County Chardonnay many years ago and was handed a glass of Sauternes styled Semillon that was “only available at the winery”. Thank God. I could go on but I will spare you. These atrocities are often the result of a bumper crop of fruit that spent too much time on the vine and instead of being left in the vineyard (where it belongs) to resupply the earth with much needed nutrients and perhaps native yeast, these geniuses decided they would make Port. How is it Brian avoided this pitfall? Well, first of all he had a plan. He used traditional Port grapes to craft his lovely wine. Next, he made it in an immediately likeable style. Not too dark and rich, not too sweet or requiring years of bottle aging to show its delightful character. Is it Porto? Not exactly but it is a sensational wine from a much misunderstood genre.
Lord have mercy!! The most exciting lineup of domestically produced wines that I have had the privilege of tasting in a long, long time. My comeuppance? After years of concentrating solely on Italian wines I immediately wanted to build a dinner around the entire lineup. And I cancelled (tenative) plans for a similar gig with an Italian importer to do just that. I cannot tell you how flattered I was (and still am) that Brian Carter wants to come to Orcas to work with me on this dinner. So this is what I have planned:
Grilled pancetta wrapped asparagus bundles served over a bit of risotto moistened with a rich Madeira infused broth. I love the idea of smashing the ridiculous notion that asparagus does not match well with wine. (Actually it doesn’t but the risotto, pancetta and broth should fix that). I’m going to pair it with the “Byzance” because Southern Rhone blends are perhaps my favorite grilled food wines.
Next up I think we will have some Umbrian lentils and fresh fava beans served with Parmigiano, truffle oil and extremely fresh (laid that day) local egg yolks all served on a platter with flat bread. The eggs are from Marta Nielson’s Rainbow Chicken Ranch and are beyond compare. This is a dish that Anne Marie and I served at a farm-to-table dinner several years ago that was wildly successful. I’m going to serve Brian’s lovely Tempranillo based “Corrida” with this course.
“Tuttarosso” will be paired with fresh pasta and mushrooms in Marsala. A familiar special from SAZIO di Notte that should meld nicely with Brian’s Sangiovese based Opus Magnificum.
What would any self-respecting Frenchman serve with Bordeaux? Lamb of course. This will be Northwest boneless leg given the rosemary/olive oil/garlic marinade treatment for a few days prior to being grilled over a wood fire. If the meat is on par with the “Solesce” it will be memorable. After pasta and risotto I will probably skip the starch routine for this course and maybe serve some simple steamed parsnips to offset that fabulous char that makes grilled lamb so beguiling.
Dolce. I am so enamoured with “Opulento” that I am compelled to serve it two ways: sweet and savory. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate the virtues of a brilliantly made wine than to frame it at once in profoundly different ways. I want to serve Marjoul dates stuffed with Mascarpone and sprinkled with bitter-sweet chocolate and simultaneously present some very aggressive, stinky, salty bleu cheese from Roquefort and some roasted hazelnuts. Both should go nicely with the “Opulento” and provide a nice “contrastico delishico”.
Okay, I made that last part up.
As always it is our great pleasure to serve you and look forward to seeing you on Sunday the 3rd at 6:00.
Dig ya later