This is really about basics. The basic things you want to look for in a corkscrew, sometimes called a “wine key.” We’ll leave discussion of the different types of openers (double lever, gas, battery-powered, Rabbit) for another day. That’s because the corkscrew is the most compact and easy-to-stow-in-a-handy-place wine opener available. When you’re entertaining or cooking and need a bottle open now, it should be right there, ready to go. The term “wine key” most likely comes from the time of its patent application in the U.S. in 1883, when it was referred to as the “C.F.A. WIENKE LEVER CORKSCREW.”

 

Does it really matter? I mean, doesn’t most any corkscrew work? Well, yes, they do. But when you get a tight cork or maybe don’t have ample strength, it can be a struggle. And who wants to look like they don’t know how to open a bottle of wine in front of guests? Especially when a proper corkscrew will make the job much faster and easier.

 

It’s not about how much you spend. We’ll look at several examples of corkscrews and I’ll explain why.

 

What To Look For

  1. A large coated worm (the screw that goes into the cork)
  2. A double-reach bootlever (the metal lever that notches onto the edge of the bottle)
double-reach boot lever corkscrew

A double-reach boot lever, with two notches to ease cork extraction

Large Coated Worm

Most worms will be larger, but be sure yours is. Also, look for a coating on the worm, not bare metal. The non-stick coating will help you twist the worm into the cork more easily, especially if it’s a denser, man-made cork and not a natural one. The large screw ensures that you get a good bite on natural cork, which can dry a bit depending on storage and the age of the bottle. You do not want to deal with cork fragments in your bottle.

Double-Reach Boot Lever

This is the most important part. The double-reach boot lever has two notches to help you lever the cork out of the bottle much more easily. Here’s why.

 

You want to screw the worm into the bottle almost the whole way. When you do that with a single-reach boot lever, it can be hard to fit the end of the boot lever onto the edge of the bottle. Many times, you’ll end up unscrewing it a bit to fit the notch on the bottle. Then when you pull, the angle makes it tough to get leverage, so you have to pull harder. And since the worm is not the whole way into the cork, most likely the cork will not be fully extracted. Sometimes you can just muscle it off, but with a tough cork, you’ll have to screw the worm the rest of the way into the cork, then lever again to complete the extraction – not so elegant.

 

The double-reach boot lever solves that problem. You simply insert the worm fully into the cork, then fit the first notch onto the edge of the bottle and pull. The leverage is better, making it easier, and the cork will be partially extracted. Then simply extend the second notch to the edge of the bottle and pull to complete the extraction. Much easier. Double-reach boot lever corkscrews can be purchased for under $5, so you don’t have to pay a lot of money to get one. Of course you can pay more if you want to up the aesthetics.

single-reach boot lever corkscrew

Example of what you don’t want: a single-reach boot lever corkscrew with an uncoated worm

Corkscrews can be works of art and enhance your wine experience. But if you do plan to spend more for a corkscrew, be sure to look for the double-reach boot lever – not all have it.

Example of an expensive French corkscrew with a single-reach boot lever

Coastal Tuscany: Innovators, Broken Rules, and World-Class Wines

 

“Rome,” she said. “And a wine trip.” Elizabeth had me with Rome. The wine trip put my enthusiasm into overdrive.

 

We had friends in Rome, recent American expats, and we would go to visit them. While there, the four of us would venture out to explore the wonderful wines of Italy. This would not be day trips, as the surrounding wine region, Lazio, did not offer the depth of excellent wines we were looking for. But go a bit further out, 3 hours in any direction, and you can find wine paradise. My task was to put together a multi-night wine tour plan that would explore the best that Italy had to offer.

 

South of Rome lies Campania, with a winemaking history going back over 3,000 years. It was the home of Falernum, the most lauded wine in ancient Rome, made from the Aglianico grape. The region continues to make wine from Aglianico – brooding reds worth knowing. Basing out of Salerno would add a lovely Mediterranean vibe.

 

North of Rome lies Montalcino, famous for their Brunello di Montalcino wines and always a worthy trip. Recent vintages (they must age for 4-5 years before release) have been excellent. And the Tuscan countryside is always alluring. But Elizabeth and I had been there a couple of years prior and were thinking we’d like to go someplace new.

 

To the northwest, up the Tuscan coast, lies the tiny wine region of Bolgheri. Bolgheri is one of Italy’s three “killer B’s”, along with Barolo and Brunello (di Montalcino), so known because of the world-class wines produced in these three regions. But Bolgheri is different, an outlier. It’s not like the historic wine areas like Barolo, Brunello, or Chianti Classico, where the winemaking tradition dates back at least to the 1300s, when the League of Chianti adopted a black rooster as its symbol, now affixed to the neck of each bottle. Until more recently, it was not an area known for its wine at all. Bolgheri’s world-class wines, and its compelling story, decided our destination.

 

Cypress Avenue

The famous “Cypress Avenue” leading into Bolgheri

Bolgheri, like any place in Italy, has its history. There’s evidence in the surrounding hills that ancient Etruscans were growing grape vines here well before the birth of Rome. Winemaking developed into modern times only to be wiped out in the late 1900s by phylloxera (a pest that, for a time, wiped out almost all winemaking outside the U.S.— its source). As production resumed in the 20th century, there was an influx of farmers seeking available cropland but, along with the surviving estates, most wine production was rudimentary and meant for immediate consumption: “table wine.”

 

And then a marriage changed everything. (Don’t they always?) The Marchese Mario Incisa Della Rocchetta married into one of the existing wine estates. He had experienced French wine while at university and decided he would try to make a similar wine at the family estate in Bolgheri, planting Cabernet Sauvignon beginning in 1942. The wine was not good, and the Marchese’s attempts were disparaged. While not clear at the time, the wine was indeed like French wines in that they were not ready to drink immediately. They would require age. Barrels languished in the cellar, only to be shared at home and with friends. According to legend, as the wine aged into the 1960s, the comments changed from “What were you thinking?” to “This is extraordinary!” The rest, as they say, is history. The first official Sassicaia was introduced in 1972, and by 1978 in a blind tasting hosted by “Decanter,” Sassicaia won out over other Cabernets from around the world. And it was in the 1985 vintage that Robert Parker, for the first time, awarded 100 points to an Italian wine.

 

This sparked a revolution of innovation in Bolgheri and the lands surrounding it. Other estates pursued similar strategies, planting leading Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and others and often blending them with one of Italy’s most iconic grapes, Sangiovese. Farmers raising animals and growing food crops and grapes for table wine looked at those vineyards and asked, “What if?” Newcomers flocked to the area to buy cheap land and create their own stake. There was no official classification for these wines, so they were simply called “Super Tuscans.”

 

Our trip north would take us through the outer folds of this dynamic wine region and into the heart of Bolgheri itself.

 

The winery at Fattoria Le Pupille

the winery at Fattoria Le Pupille

Our first stop along the way, a little more than midway between Rome and Bolgheri, was Fattoria Le Pupille. Elisabetta Geppetti inherited management of the family farm outside Grosseto in the 1980s. Aside from the crops and animals, the farm had vines and made a simple Sangiovese that was low alcohol, and she said it was considered more “food” than wine. But she saw what was going on further north in Bolgheri and had a vision that this land too could make great wine. There is no simple way to convey how remarkable her achievements, a woman among farmers, with a vision for great wine that would not be denied.

 

Fattoria Le Pupille is one of “Walter on Wine’s” “benchmark” wineries. I call them benchmark because whenever you see the name, you are sure to get a good bottle of wine. They are consistent, quality producers in a range of price points. Fattoria Le Pupille has been called “one of the best-run estates of Tuscany.” We couldn’t agree more.

 

the wine tasting room at Fattoria Le Pupille

The tasting room at Fattoria Le Pupille

Saffredi wine

Saffredi

Highlights of our tasting at the winery included the flagship Saffredi, a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, with vintages from 2015 to current rated 96 points or above by Robert Parker. This is a “full throttle” wine that is also balanced and complex, giving away nothing to its Super Tuscan neighbors to the north in Bolgheri. Collectors worldwide seek it out.

Poggio Valente Sangiovese wine

Poggio Valente Sangiovese

Sangiovese is found everywhere (almost) in Italy. Top winemakers often want to show what they can do with the grape on its own, expressing the land on which it’s grown. This is Pupille’s effort, mostly rated in the mid-90s by experts and just a wonderful and easy wine to drink, especially with food. Superb at $40-ish a bottle.

Morellino Scansano Riserva wine

Morellino Scansano Riserva

The name of this wine indicates that it is an official DOCG appellation wine. All officiality aside, this beautiful and affordable (approx. $25) wine is made from 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in oak casks for 15 months. It delivers beautiful wild cherry and dark berry notes along with some spice, and if you’re spending anywhere around this price for a house wine or just want an affordable wine that pairs beautifully with food, I suggest you give this a try. (Note: This is also made in a non-riserva, red label; we prefer the green label Riserva.)

Poggio Argentato wine

Poggio Argentato

For about $20 a bottle, this popular white wine is one we find versatile and easy to pair with most any white meat, fish, or vegetable dish. It is Sauvignon Blanc-based, but includes a blend of Petit Manseng, Traminer, and Semillon that gives it a midweight texture, with aromas of orchard fruit and mango and good citrus and mineral background on the palate. A great all-around casual white wine.

Tua Rita

 

Our next stop up the coast was another “farm to world-class” winery, Tua Rita. Beginning in 1984, Rita and Virgillio Tua took their not-quite-5 acres of vines outside of Suvereto and decided to make the best wines they could. Again, this was not known to be a quality wine production zone, sitting well south of Bolgheri in a broad and undistinguished wine area called the Maremma. Unbound by tradition, they observed the land and experimented. The land and the vines rewarded their efforts spectacularly, and today they make a wide range of wines, with many at the top of collectors’ lists. It is a pleasure to taste wines with them, and you may even meet Rita.

 

Tua Rita Garden

The gardens outside the main house at Tua Rita

Redigaffi Merlot wine

Redigaffi Merlot

Merlot? Absolutely. You’ll pay around $300 for this widely lauded, highly expert-rated wine, often scored in the high 90s. Go up the coast and you’ll find wine like this from large estates owned by people with titles and maybe a bit of a well-earned attitude. Not here. It’s like visiting with family in their home. But oh! The wine. Critics rave.

Giusto Di Notri wine

Giusto di Notri

Did you prefer a Bordeaux blend? Tua Rita matches what’s made up the coast, a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Again, critical reviews are consistently in the upper 90s for this wine that sells for less than $100. Sit back and enjoy the wine tasting – there’s more to come.

Per Sempre wine

Per Sempre

A Syrah? On the Tuscan coast? There’s no Syrah in the official Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regulations. But Virgillio wanted to make the wine because he fell in love with the grape and finally found a plot of rocky, schistous clay soil where he thought Syrah would thrive. The critics say he was right – scores are in the high 90s – prepare to pay $250+ per bottle.

the aging cellar at Tua Rita

The aging cellar at Tua Rita

 

We waved a fond farewell to Tua Rita and continued on up the coast of Tuscany.

 

Rocca di Frassinello

 

winery of Rocca di Frassinello

The winery of Rocca di Frassinello sits atop a hill

Rocca (“Fortress”) di Frassinello is in its development the opposite of Fattoria Le Pupille and Tua Rita: a joint venture of two large wine houses with deep provenance to develop a major production capability in this promising up-and-coming wine region. Castellare di Castellina brings the deep history of Chianti Classico to the making of Italian varietal wines here, primarily Sangiovese. And Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), probably the leading French wine brand in the world, brings expertise with the grapes of Bordeaux. The winery, a modern and architecturally stunning interpretation of a medieval fortress, sits commandingly atop the hillside vineyards. The first vintage produced was in 2004.

 

Stainless steel fermentation tanks below the top deck of the winery

stainless steel fermentation tanks
Rocca di Frassinello wine
What drew me here, aside from the promise of such an illustrious joint venture, was their 2013 Rocca di Frassinello Maremma Toscana Rocca di Frassinello. This was a blend of 60% Sangiovese and 20% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It had heft and density, yet was seamlessly pulled together, scoring Robert Parker 95. All for about $30.
Baffonero wine
Rocca di Frassinello makes several other wines, like Baffonero, made from 100% Merlot (and meant to compete with its 100% Merlot neighbors to the north, most notably Tenuta dell Ornellaia’s Masseto, which sells for close to $1,000 per bottle).

 

the aging cellar at Rocca di Frassinello

The aging cellar at Rocca di Frassinello

The hospitality is warm, and overall the wines are quite good, but stopping here is a bet on the future, that these two major owners will figure out how to make not just very good wines, but great wines, year in and year out. It’s also a chance to see a world-class modern winery and visit the museum – housed inside the winery – of Etruscan artifacts unearthed during the building of the new winery.

 

Bolgheri, the Medieval Town

Bolgheri is best known in the wine world for its iconic wines made from the Noble Grapes of Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, sometimes blended with Sangiovese. The names reflect the estates that were first to cultivate these grapes: Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia), Marchese Antinori (Guado al Tasso), and Ornellaia (owned by the Frescobaldi family, winemakers for 700 years). To connoisseurs around the world, these wines need no introduction. The estates are not open for tastings. But there is a great option to sample these wines.

 

Cypress Avenue leading into Bolgheri

The famous “Cypress Avenue” leading into Bolgheri

The medieval town of Bolgheri, so named because of a camp of Bulgarians who allied with the Lombards, who invaded Italy in 568-569

the medieval town of Bolgheri

Bolgheri is both an official wine region of Italy – driven by the success of these Super Tuscan wines – and a medieval walled town worth a visit on its own. You can wander the narrow streets and find charming shops and pleasant eateries, but sooner or later – likely sooner, if you are on a wine trip – you will end up at Enoteca Tagnoni. Here, you can find an exceptional assortment of wine – including the precious Super Tuscans named above, sold by the glass – good food, and lively conversation about all things wine.

The entrance to Enoteca Tagnoni on Strada Lauretta in Bolgheri

the entrance to Enoteca Tagnoni
Enoteca Tognoni

Super Tuscans available by the glass at Enoteca Tognoni

Our party of four settled in for a fun evening of food and wine. Over time, we struck up a conversation with three gentlemen at the table beside us. A representative of several Bolgheri wine producers was reviewing recent releases with a couple of buyers for a multi-location retailer in Austria. They asked us to join them in sampling the wines and give our opinions. A knockout Bolgheri deal was the Aia Vecchia Bolgheri Superiore Sor Ugo, a classic Bordeaux blend that retails for about $35. It was big and extracted, not overly complex, but at that price a real value.

the Aia Vecchia Bolgheri Superiore Sor Ugo

The Aia Vecchia Bolgheri Superiore Sor Ugo

Another way to get a taste of the greatest estates is to sample their “junior” offerings, usually called “Rosso.” Only the best grapes at harvest from the established vineyards go into making the flagship wines. Newer vineyards take years to fully develop, and the grapes from them are used to produce Rosso versions of the great wines until they are fully developed and fit for the flagship wines. These can be had for a fraction of the cost. A great example is the Antinori Guado al Tasso Il Bruciato. The 2020 is rated RP93, and we purchased it by the case for $26.99. The Guidalberto Tenuta San Guido and the Le Serre Nuovedell’ Ornellaia both sell for a bit more, and all carry expert ratings of 92 or above in recent years.

 

But we had two more wineries to visit, both making stellar Bolgheri DOC wines.

Tenuta Argentiera

Argentiera is the closest winery to the coast and also the one with the highest altitude, lying 250 – 650 feet above sea level. The views are spectacular. Cool breezes off the Tyrrhenian sea work their magic on the vines. The name “Argentato,” “silvered” or “silver plated” in English, attests to the silver mines that once dotted this high lying area.

 

The vineyards of Argentiera looking out to the Tyrrhenian sea

vineyards of Argentiera
Argentiera winery

The Argentiera winery looks commandingly over the Tuscan coast

Argentiera welcomes tastings by appointment, and for those seeking out the best Bolgheri has to offer, its Tenuta Argentiera Bolgheri Superiore is not to be missed. The quality of this classic Bordeaux blend has been advancing steadily, with expert scores in recent years solidly in the mid to upper 90s. The price in the U.S. is about $100.

Tenuta Argentiera’s Bolgheri Superiore

Tenuta Argentiera’s Bolgheri Superiore

Argentiera also offers a Rosso version of its Superiore, the Villa Donoratico, as well as a couple of other wines you’re sure to enjoy if you take the tasting.

Below deck at Argentiera stainless fermentation tanks keep fermentation wine at exactly the right temperature

Argentiera stainless fermentation tanks
Podere Grattamacco

The Podere Grattamacco, in the hills of the Bolgheri DOC

Podere Grattamacco Grattamacco also sits up on a hill, with vineyard elevations between 100 to 200 meters above sea level. This provides a cooler climate, with greater changes in daytime to nighttime temperatures promoting longer and more even maturation of the grapes. Grattamacco accentuates the resulting elegance of the wines by using Sangiovese in its Bolgheri Superiore Grattamacco blend; it’s still mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot and Sangiovese. The results are stellar. The Bolgheri Superiore had consistently been rated 95 or higher for more than five years.

The Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore

The Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore

The tasting room and views from Grattamacco

Grattamacco tasting room

Our trip to Grattamacco was particularly exciting, as our GPS, which had been otherwise flawless throughout the trip, indicated we should turn left onto a gravel lane. The view, on a flat and through the vineyards, was enticing. And then we began to climb. It became clear, if not by the steep ascent, then by the alarmed tractor driver waving us off, that this was a service road among the vineyards not meant for passenger traffic. Our GPS egged us on, and our driver was concerned to keep up our momentum so as not to get stuck and have a LONG way to back down. So we bumped and ground the Mercedes wagon up the hill until we emerged at the top, near to the winery itself. So if you do make the trek to Grattamacco, follow the signs and not the GPS.

GPS recommendation to get to Grattamacco

The GPS recommended this left turn to get to Grattamacco; do not do it

And with that, Elizabeth said, “Excellent wine trip!” and we headed back down the sunny Tuscan coast to our hotel in Rome.

Where To Stay and Eat

The greater Maremma wine region, of which Bolgheri is a part, was for a long time purely a farming and fishing area. As a result, it’s still not highly developed as a tourist destination. It’s certainly not a luxury tourist destination. You come for the wine, but also knowing you’ll always find good food in Italy. Restaurants are plentiful, including the Osteria Enoteca San Guido, located on the grounds of the famous wine estate.

The Agriturismo Sant’ Uberto

The Agriturismo Sant’ Uberto

We stayed at the small Agriturismo Sant’Uberto (https://www.santuberto.com), similar to what we in the U.S. would call a bed and breakfast. This is a charming working farm nestled among some of the most famous vineyards in Italy. The hosts are warm and friendly and provided a breakfast that made it easy to get up each morning. We dined in with them one evening, having great fun with the language difference but coming together easily over the good food and wine.

She said we were going to New York City to celebrate our good friend Scott’s 60th birthday, and I was to pick a Michelin-starred restaurant and some great wine for his birthday celebration. This is the kind of challenge I enjoy, and Elizabeth knew I’d give it some serious thought and come back with great recommendations.

 

There would be six of us. Given where we planned to stay in Midtown and what I knew about the food preferences of our guests, I recommended Ai Fiori, which features modern interpretations of French and Italian Riviera cuisine. I shared my recommendation with our guest of honor, and he was pleased with our choice.

 

The menu at Ai Fiori includes signature dishes from the sea as well as pastas and meat, and the wine list is deep; a quick count suggests over 1,700 selections, many of which I either know and love or want to try. These are most often from producers who consistently make great wines and whom I talk about and profile on “Walter on Wine.” Ai Fiori featured several of these producers, and in some cases, many wines from each producer.

 

So do yourselves and your guests a favor, and research the wine list before you go to the restaurant. I’ll look over the wine list and, considering my guests and their preferences, make my pre-selections. Often, to help me narrow my choices, I’ll refer to expert ratings to see what they are saying. Whether the restaurant has 17 or 1,700 wines, the last thing you want to do as the host is sit there silently reviewing the wine list while everyone else is chatting and launching into a festive evening. This is especially true if the group decides to forego cocktails and go straight to wine, which is exactly what we did.

 

The next thing I usually do is ask our guests about any firm preferences. In this case, I already had some white and red wines in mind (and a Champagne too, in case we went in that direction to start), and I asked if everyone was happy if I select a white and a red. Hopefully this is where anyone with a strong personal preference will let me know. Sometimes folks will say they’ll stick with their cocktail through the meal, or they “really like” a certain type of wine, meaning that may be the only thing they drink. Better to know up front. This wasn’t that kind of night. They were all happy to have a red and white option, so it was up to me to get the order in. (This is really where you do not want to start looking over 1,700 options for the first time. If you are, and you want the sommelier to help, listen to my audio: “How to Order from a Somm.”

 

The first wine I chose, the red, was the 2018 “Grattamacco” Bolgheri Superiore from Podere Grattamacco. This wine had some sentimental value, as we had been to the Bolgheri  region (one of the “three B’s” in the crown of Italian wine consisting of Brunello, Barolo, and Bolgheri) with our friends Scott and his wife several years ago, and had visited Podere Grattamacco. You can choose a Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore from any year starting in 2008, and it’s going to be a very good wine. It is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with Merlot and Sangiovese, a “Bordeaux-style” blend for which the Bolgheri region is renowned. The sommelier gave me a wry smile when I ordered it and asked for it to be decanted, saying “Yes, the Grattamacco is a classic here.” While you can spend many times the price of the Grattamacco Superiore at Ai Fiori, and no doubt you will get a beautiful wine, there are few better and none so at its price point. I knew I was selecting wine his regulars favor.

 

And so I thought I saw some apprehension when I told him we would also like to order a bottle of white wine. Again, there were several directions I could go, but there was one producer in particular that stood out for me: Aubert. Mark and Teresa Aubert are renowned winemakers in California, and Mark describes his Chardonnays as “ripe, rich, opulent and hedonistic.” Production is small, and you have to be on the Aubert list to get them. They are on strict allocation. I told the Somm I’d like to order the Aubert 2019 Chardonnay Larry Hyde & Sons (the latter part of the name refers to the specific vineyard where the grapes are grown). The Somm looked at me and said, “It seems you know our wine list.” This is a wine that flirts with perfection. For all the opulence, it comes from a cooler vineyard, and Aubert is able to retain enough bracing acidity to keep the big ripe fruits in balance. And unlike a more restrained Chablis or white Burgundy, the price for the Aubert does not break the bank, not even in a Michelin Star restaurant.

Aubert 2019 Chardonnay Larry Hyde & Sons

My ordering took no time at all, and I was able to turn back to the conversation, having missed very little. And I was confident in the two beautiful wines, with the Aubert being something of a unicorn because it is so rarely seen.

 

Food was served and wine was poured, with most in our party choosing to have a glass of both the red and the white, as most were sharing bites with their spouses. Appetizers of lobster soup with black truffle, fluke crudo with caviar and crème fraiche, and Tartare di Carne would easily find a wine pairing. Toasts were made and the wines were sampled. Those drinking the Grattamacco Superiore red were quick to say how good it was. The nose offered black fruits and cedar with delicate notes of rosemary and pepper, and on the palate the wine is full bodied, complex, and balanced. It was clearly a hit.

 

Those tasting the Aubert seemed to be sitting more silently, some smiling, some just staring into their glasses. It took a few moments, but the comments started to come. The nose offered concentrated aromas of crystalized ginger and white stone fruits along with lemon peel. And on the palate, what a palate. Florals combine with the powerful caramelized stone fruit and chalky minerality and fresh acidity to provide a remarkable balance with a finish that lingers forever. Our guest who spent the longest time looking into his glass and licking his lips summed up the impressions of all who were there: “It’s the best wine I’ve ever had.”

 

We proceeded with our appetizers and entrees, wonderful creations like Astice (butter-poached lobster with silver dollar mushrooms, bacon, and carrot velouté), fusilli with wild boar and pancetta ragù (the Grattamacco paired beautifully—wild boar roam the forests around the winery and the wine seemed to have a special affinity for the dish), and many others. The food, the wine, the conversation, and the impeccable service—with special mention to our Sommelier John Canvin, who curated the wine list and served us that night—was all seamlessly interwoven and made for an unforgettable evening.

Valentine’s Day, Sushi, & Sake

 

I love everything wine. The vines, the land they grow on, and the care and craft good winemakers put into making excellent wine, year after year. But mostly what I love about wine is how it can be a beautiful accompaniment to good food, how the sum of food + wine is somehow more than the sum of the parts. Cultures have evolved around this notion for centuries. Take Italy, where the food and wine in the north are different than the food and wine in the south and, wherever you go, the local wine pairs with the food to create something more evolved over time.

 

And so it is that we come to a “not wine” pairing. Yes, you can pair wine with sushi, but it should be something bright and crisp – Champagne or sparkling white wines are a good choice. The traditional pairing, of course, is sake. Most of us are just not familiar with sake and its many varieties. The labels tell us nothing unless we read Japanese. So how do you choose?

 

Sake offers complex flavors, much like a good wine. In fact, you can think of the range of flavors it offers as being similar to wine: from light and fruity to savory with more weight on the palate, or somewhere in between. Most wait staff can help you sort out their sake menu to help you find what you like.

 

Or you can do what we did on Valentine’s Day, enjoying the Omikase tasting menu at Morimoto. Since we were giving ourselves over to the chef to decide what we would eat, we decided to do the same with the sake and ordered the sake tasting. This gave Elizabeth and me a chance to try different sakes next to the different food courses and to trade sake back and forth according to what each of us liked the most.

 

Cheers!

“G’day, mate,” he said, extending his left hand (more about that later) and a broad smile.  I was standing in front of Luke Marquis, the global sales lead for Mollydooker Wines of McLaren Vale, Australia.  Luke happens to be the son of Mollydooker founder, owner and chief winemaker Sarah Marquis. Not only that – he’s also the “Blue Eyed Boy” for whom one of their classically Aussie Shiraz wines is named.

Luke Marquis of Mollydooker Wines, McLaren Vale, Australia, at SOBEWFF

I had just finished talking with, and trying the wines of, Jonathan Hirsh, owner of Inception Wines in the Santa Barbara area of California’s Central Coast. The South Beach Food and Wine Festival (SOBEWFF) was on, and Elizabeth and I were attending the Wine Spectator Trade Day event held on the sands of South Beach in Miami, Florida. Stands are mostly under tent. It’s a fun, free-flowing celebration of all things food, wine and spirits-related, and as I was learning, purveyors from all over the world come to South Beach (and many other Wine & Food Festival events around the country) to promote their goods.

Jonathan Hirsh, owner of Inception Wines in the Santa Barbara area of California’s Central Coast

And it’s a wild cornucopia. Wine samplings ranged from Napa Valley’s Trefethen, to the Israeli Wine Producers Association, to Mollydooker of Australia, and Kim Crawford and Oyster Bay (I learned that Pinot Gris is their fastest-growing export wine) of New Zealand, and everything in between. The spirits trade was flush with stalwarts like Aviation, Tito’s, Bombay, High West Distillery and many others, including more tequila and mezcal producers than I could count. All were mixing up sample-sized cocktail potions that delighted and refreshed, fueling enthusiasm for what would come next. Champagne, beer, shochu, spiked seltzers and more were all on tap. As must be obvious, there was no way to sample everything and walk out on your own two feet. (We discovered this after about 45 minutes!)

Walter with a representative from the Israel Wine Producers Association and map of Israeli winemakers

Food vendors provided a welcome diversion. Goya was cooking up fresh street tacos, and local restaurants and some notable chefs offered bit-size samples; the feast was as tempting and diverse as the libations. Entertainers provided a lively backdrop and, for those who were so moved, an opportunity to dance. The SOBEWFF is a multi-day, multi-venue event, and depending on your interest, you could find events hosted by Emeril Lagasse, Giada De Laurentiis, Guy Fieri and more. Interested in shopping for a BMW?  They are there too. All net proceeds from the Festival benefit the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University (FIU).

An outdoor section of the SOBEWFF

“Mollydooker is Australian for left-handed,” Luke said, as we shook with our left ands.  Luke was as open, warm and friendly as his Blue Eyed Boy Shiraz is bold and brassy. Seek out both if you get the chance.

Walter is Always at the Center of Wine

Bring an Interesting Bottle Night

 

It started simply enough. A few years ago, we got together with two other couples after the December holidays. We all had plenty of commitments in December, and we figured this would allow us a more leisurely evening to socialize – with good friends, good food, and of course, good wine. The other couples each brought a bottle to share that evening, and I had a couple lined up also, with one maybe a little special. Flash-forward a few years, and it’s become a key part of the evening to bring and share “something a little special.” Everything is fair game, and everyone is entitled to define “special” any way they choose. This has made for a fun evening and a chance to experience some new and often very good wines.

Kokkinos

When we think of Greece, we usually visualize sun-bleached islands surrounded by beautiful blue waters – and Greek white wine. But Greece offers much more. Our friend George, who was born in Greece, brought are a red wine, Kokkinos, from the uplands of Naoussa, in Macedonia, Greece. This wine is often compared to Pinot Noir or Barolo, because all these wines have a similar structure, with high acidity and high tannins. The Kokkinos is made from the xinomavro grape and can take some aging to come together. Ours was a 2015 and drinking nicely, a “big” wine with plenty of red and black fruit flavors and hints of leather. Perhaps most stunning, these wines can be had for around $20 per bottle, an outstanding price for a wine with so much backbone, fruit, and aging potential. George and his wife, Lisa, were proud to share a great red wine from his homeland.

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino

The next wine was one of two I planned to serve, and one I chose because I knew two of our guests like Sangiovese from Italy. And this is a very nice one, the 2013 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino. 2013 was a good year to make wine in Tuscany, and Il Poggione – a well-regarded estate – made the most of it. The wine is big, with dark fruits and velvet-smooth tannins, and continued to evolve in the glass, suggesting it still has many years of life ahead of it. While Brunello di Montalcino is not an uncommon wine, this one earned its “special” designation by being especially wonderful.

 

Our most senior guest, Herb, a 90-year-old professor emeritus of History at Indiana University, brought the next bottle, another detour for us, and a very welcome one. It was the Montevetrano 2004. Still beautiful after 19 years in bottle, it is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Aglianico (the grape used in ancient Rome’s most revered wine). And unusually, it is made near Salerno, Campania, Italy, where Silvia Imparato pioneered the production of quality wine from this region. This is like a Bordeaux blend, with the Aglianico adding an Italian twist. The Montevetrano has a reputation for consistently being a very good wine. Described as “bold and explosive” when young, this wine still offers a great concentration of blackberries, currants, and tannins mellowed by the time our guest gave this bottle from his cellar. We all thanked Herb for reaching into his cellar to share this wine with us, to which Herb replied, “Well, I figured, what am I waiting for?” After waiting all those years, we were glad he decided the wait was finally over.

Two Hands Ares Shiraz

Given the stakes, I also wanted to reach into the cellar and offer up something in a totally different direction. So I chose one of my bottles of Two Hands Ares Shiraz from 2006. This wine is 100% Shiraz from Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in Australia. Shiraz (Syrah in France) is a big wine, and Two Hands built this red to be massive. Unlike today, when many wine makers globally seek more balance in their wines, Two Hands crafted this wine at a time when bold, fruit-forward wines were winning all the critical praise. They went all out, selecting grapes from only the best vineyards, then selecting from only their best barrels, and underpinned all that fruit with a “200% new oak” spine .Mellowed now, but incredibly fresh, the Ares offers up a room-filling aroma of vanilla, pepper, sage, and blueberry. Extracted and still mouth-filling on the palate, there’s a ton of succulent dark fruit backed up by the typical savory flavors of Shiraz. And the flavors went on for a very, very long time after each sip. This is a wine that can astonish, and it did.

Vin de Constance

The next wine, also brought by Herb and his wife Dee, is legendary: Vin de Constance 2012, a sweet wine from South Africa. According to Hugh Johnson, a British wine expert, “Constantia was bought by European courts in the 18th and 19th centuries in preference to Yquem, Tokay, Madeira.” That’s high praise and a remarkable lineage, going back to the founding of the estate in 1685. The labor and care that goes onto the making of this wine is amazing. We, the lucky ones, are able to taste it in every sweet sip. Aged on its lees, it delivers an explosive bouquet of citrus, orange marmalade, nutmeg, and almond toast. The sweetness is braced by a thread of solid acidity that gives the wine beautiful balance and a very long finish. This is a wine that can age for decades, maybe even centuries. The Vin de Constance provided the perfect close to a wonderful evening.

 

It can be fun to organize wine tastings with wines all from one region or country, to get an idea of the variety or different styles from one place. Another approach is to taste the same grape varietal from many regions or countries, to see how varied styles can be around the world. But sometimes it’s just fun to rely on serendipity, with no structure to the tastings, and enjoy the wonderful diversity generated by a motivated group of enthusiasts.