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Grigio Style: Pinot Gris Dances with Asian Flavors

Pinot Gris (Grigio)

Pinot Gris (Grigio)

Chardonnay is the king of white wine in America. Sauvignon Blanc used to be a distant second, but it was passed by Pinot Gris in 2002. Popularity is a double-edged sword though. Any grape variety needs to reach a threshold of consumer recognition and interest for wineries to continue putting money and effort into artistic examples. Consumer acclaim, however, breeds high-volume low-cost imitations (cf: Yellowtail Chardonnay, for God’s sake). The recognition trick was accomplished for Pinot Grigio by Tony Terlato from Paterno Imports in Chicago starting in the early 1980’s. His brand is Santa Margherita from northeastern Italy. By 2006 he was selling 165,000 cases per year in America, and commanding a premium retail price as well. Today Pinot Grigio has become the most frequently imported wine in America (white or red), and accounts for 12% of imported wine sales.

Domestically, King Estate, near Eugene at the southern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, deserves credit for popularizing Pinot Gris. They currently have 300 acres in production, which is 10% of Oregon’s total PG acreage. King Estate alone has more acres than Napa, and six times what the Sierra Foothills have planted. King Estate makes some really good wine. Santa Margherita is somewhat more controversial. Wine writers tend to be unenthusiastic, while an army of trendy restaurant patrons are big fans of the brand name. The downside of PG’s growing popularity is a lake of non-descript examples currently showing up in the marketplace. California has nearly 14,000 acres of PG grapes today (versus nearly 100,000 acres of Chardonnay), most planted in the last ten years. The problem is 60% of California’s PG grapes have been planted in the Central Valley in counties such as San Joaquin and Fresno. That is not a recipe for impressive quality wines.

THE VARIETY

The Pinot family has a white version (Blanc, i.e. Bianco) and a black version (Noir, i.e. Nero). Despite California labels you might have seen in the 1960’s, Chardonnay is not a member of the Pinot clan. Pinot Gris is the middle of the family tree (a genetic mutation), and it is actually kind of bronze colored; not really gray. In fact, the wine can often be identified (blind) in your glass by noting a very slight hint of red (pinking it’s called) in comparison to other whites. Gewürztraminer is similar, and in both instances it usually implies a brief bit of skin-soak to extract more smell components. The use of ‘gray’ in the PG name probably refers to how the color of the actual grapes is somewhat obscured on the vine by the waxy ‘bloom’ which covers most berries, and to which dust and yeast tend to stick.

Historically the grape is an old one. It has been noted in the literature since around 1300. It was taken from Burgundy to Hungary by Christian monks early on. Which helps explain why, when it came back to Alsace, it was called Tokay d’Alsace or Tokay Pinot Gris until very recently (Tokay being a widely planted Hungarian variety ~ usually called Furmint ~ to which PG is not related). In Germany PG is called Rulander, after the German merchant who discovered it growing wild in the Palatinate around 1700.

PG is an early ripening variety, which is why many cold-climate regions around the world have been experimenting with it over the last 30 years, and why several of them have had noteworthy success. One characteristic it shares with Pinot Blanc is a tendency toward oily texture when over-ripe. Pinot Blancs in that category need several years of bottle-age to resolve that roughness, and it can make Pinot Gris seem cosmetic. At its best, Pinot Gris displays peachy aromatic notes which are never found in Pinot Blanc.

WINE STYLES

The classical style distinction is between Italy (Grigio) and France (Gris), although none of these points are governed by label regulation, so it is often a mistake to make any assumptions based on what the wine is called. Traditionally Italy makes a crisp, dry, light-bodied wine much beloved by diners in seaside osterie. There is a significant difference though between Italian examples from elevation in the Alps along the Adige River (called Alto Adigo, around the town of Trentino), and those grown in the lower elevations between Veneto and the mouth of the Adige on the Adriatic Sea south of Venice (called Venezie on an Italian PG label). Crispness (i.e. acid bite) and clean flavors are the natural provenance of Alto Adige. Volume production, more earthy flavors, and low price point are hallmarks of Venezie. Neither place gets more than the most delicate and glancing forms of fruity aromatics, which could be explained as a clonal feature. Further east, and somewhat north (toward Trieste) the hillsides (labeled as the Collio districts) of the Friuli region do produce Pinot Grigio with slightly more distinct varietal aroma. The German influence (read scrupulously clean and cool fermentations using stainless steel tanks) in both Alto Adige and Friuli is pronounced. Elena Walch and Alois Lageder are top producers in Alto Adige. Mario Schiopetto is a superb example from Friuli.

Domaine Zind Humbrecht

Domaine Zind Humbrecht

Alsace (in France, but historically back and forth between France and Germany) is an entirely different animal. The clone may be different; the wines surely are. They are riper, higher alcohol, and fruitier. They show much more winemaker influence. They’re more expensive. Sometimes they are even botrytized, which implies concentration into a sweet wine with honeyed overtones. As with all wines in Alsace, Pinot Gris there invariably shows a pronounced gout de terroir: the minerality of schist soils. The most highly regarded vineyard sites show this characteristic most distinctly. For Americans it is a learned preference. Really great Alsatian examples, such as Zind Humbrecht Clos St. Urbain Vyd from the Rangan de Thann district, are transformative for wine aficionados. I was stunned the first time I tasted one. First of all it was eight years old. Second, it cost $85 in a retail store. Third, it was well worth every penny. The wine was deep, and long, and complex, and fruity, and very serious. It was also balanced, exuding both a sense of satisfaction and of refreshment. It grabbed your face and demanded full attention. It stayed in your perception for minutes. It was able to leap, cat-like, onto your lap, and make itself comfortable. Not all Alsatian Pinot Gris is exceptional in this manner, but the ones that are provide a benchmark against which to compare both top Italian examples and the most innovative efforts from America and Australasia.

Lake Okanagan

Lake Okanagan

New World players, such as the south island in New Zealand, are making great headway with PG. I’ve also had several extremely credible wines from mildly surprising areas in the U.S. such as eastern Pennsylvania and the Lake Erie shore of Ohio east and west of Cleveland. However two North American regions have really gotten out ahead of the pack: Oregon; and the Okanagan Valley in Canada’s British Columbia. Both come with credentials. Oregon has an enviable 40-year history with Pinot Noir, and seemed to realize from the beginning that there was considerably more butter on the Pinot Gris side of the bread than on the Chardonnay side. Oregon is not Burgundy. They make great Pinot Noir, but they don’t make Burgundy. Most Oregon winemakers will state that point to you forcefully. The Okanagan Valley is on the inland side of the Cascade Mountains. The Okanagan River flows south across the international border and into the Columbia River of Washington State. The Okanagan Valley was carved by a glacier. At the northern end it is about 52ᵒ of latitude, which makes it just about the northernmost fine wine producing region in the world. Canadian wine commentators in Vancouver have something of a macho streak (think hockey, and outdoorsman skills) which leads them to take offense when Pinot Gris is singled out as Okanagan’s best wine. They scream for recognition of the red varietals. They’re nuts. Okanagan Pinot Gris is consistently, undeniably world-class. Okanagan reds occasionally have their moments, but please… they’re not world beaters. Okanagan Pinot Gris is.

Both Oregon and Okanagan Valley produce Pinot Gris midway between Italy and Alsace in terms of style. They are much more fruity than any Italian example I’ve ever had, but they are not as full-bodied, nor laden with minerality as the Alsatian model. Stated another way, Oregon and Okanagan Valley reliably bring strong fruit and thirst quenching acidity to the table. I’m a big fan. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) notwithstanding, it isn’t easy to find Okanagan Valley PG in the U.S. Vancouver wine commentators may be very sensitive to any threat from veiled accusations about sissydom, but they also drink a lot of their local Pinot Gris. Look for access to brands such as Mission Hill and Grey Monk. If you are ever in Vancouver, get yourself some Blue Mountain while dining in a restaurant run by a Sikh.

FOOD PAIRING

Pinot Grigio made in the Italian style is traditionally seen as a match for fish. That’s pretty simplistic, although ‘crisp and clean’ is hard to argue against as a palate-cleanser. If you served the fish Caribbean-style with a mango salsa, it would become a boffo match for the best Oregon and/or Okanagan PGs. One of the reasons Pinot Gris became prominent in Oregon in the first place was because it works so well with grilled Salmon, which is line-caught all over the Oregon coast. Salmon is a fatty, strongly flavored fish which stands up really well to cooking over a wood fire. Oregon PG has the acid to cut through the fat, and white peach aromatics to frame the flavor in a complimentary way. It’s a locavore pleasure that travels well. Fried fish, garlic; not so much with PG unless we’re talking about the most unadorned Italian examples. The slight perception of sweetness in shrimp or Dungeness crab works nicely with New World PG, even if there is a little capsaicin heat involved (try it with Camarones Diablo in a good Mexican restaurant).

Laksa penang in a Singapore restaurant

Laksa penang in a Singapore restaurant

Alsatian-style PG is much more complicated. Think charcuterie and preserved vegetables. That minerality component in the wine does several good tricks, but they are not obvious until someone shows you. It helps to experiment. Something like sauerkraut and sausages would never work with Oregon or Okanagan PG, but can be a real eye-opener with the classic French version of Pinot Gris. Same with east Indian spices. Cut a chicken into about twelve smallish pieces. Put some cumin, a small amount of crushed cloves, some turmeric, and some galangal (a powerful relative of ginger), along with a little salt into a plastic bag. Shake the chicken pieces in the bag. Grill on the BBQ, returning pieces occasionally to the bag to renew your spicing. Be sure to finish on the grill; not in the bag. Serve with rice and a chutney. You can do a lot worse than several bottles of chilled Pinot Gris in any Singapore restaurant.

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Fondue is in the Air

For image alone fondue has Valentine’s Day written all over it. And choosing wine would seem to be easy. Can any wine be a failure with melted cheese? Tell the truth. When I say fondue, don’t you immediately think Alpine chalet, big sweaters, fireplace, and some wonderful, but completely unspecified wine?

Okay. I’m on the case!

As it happens there’s a restaurant with a long fondue tradition in Nevada City near where I live in the Sierra Foothills. It is downstairs from the County Probation Dept, and I admit to a little concern about why the sous chef would choose to wear a knit ski cap and shades in the kitchen, but then fondue really isn’t all that tricky. Fondue is simply a huge profit opportunity for any restaurant. It started snowing a few weeks ago, and I gave Friar Tuck’s a try in the company of a woman who was Homecoming Queen when we went to high school together. No way around it ~ the social mechanism of fondue in a restaurant is a lot more impressive than the food experience. Restaurants seem to feel Chardonnay is the obvious wine answer. I don’t agree.  If fondue’s secret is the intimacy of sharing food, I’d recommend ordering several different specialty dishes, and eating off of each other’s plate in the restaurant. Save fondue for dinners at home with friends.

The wines will be diverse, because the concept of fondue has become so diverse. There’s melted cheese and wine, of course. There’s also cooking meats and vegetables in hot oil, and cooking in broth (shabu shabu).  There’s the hot Italian cooking medium (garlic, oil, and anchovies) called bagna calde, and there are unlimited versions of dessert fondue, most involving molten chocolate. Clearly your whole cellar will have a chance to play if you host at home, and what you put on the forks will be as important as what is in the cooking pot. Think about roasted potatoes (microwave them first to make sure they’re cooked through), or a salame could add interest value to crusty bread. I love to use thin-sliced Serrano ham. Incidentally, if you don’t own a fondue pot, you can always feature an electric skillet in the center of your dinner table, or a double boiler and a hot plate.

Let’s break down the traditional cheese concept. It has broadened considerably since last we visited that little mountain cabin in Switzerland. Our starting point is Emmental (Swiss) and Gruyere cheese melted with white wine. Most recipes call for a touch of cornstarch, a clove of garlic, and a homeopathic dose of Kirsch (cherry liqueur). The Gruyere confers a slight nutty smell, and the Kirsch gives a faint impression of rose petals. I like Albarino as a grape variety with traditional fondue much more than Chardonnay. Albarino has a lot of minerality, and very restrained fruit. Try Longoria’s Clover Creek Vyd (www.LongoriaWines.com). Or, from the home of Albarino in Galicia, Spain, try Lagar de Cervera (Rias Baixas). I feel California Chardonnays especially are much too fruity for Swiss fondue. If you’re dipping apple slices, they may be okay, but Chardonnays don’t really work all that well with cubes of sourdough French bread. You want something considerably more earthy. Lighter-bodied reds with a little complexity, good acidity, and bit of cherry in the nose can be nice as well. Lesser Sangioveses are a fine recommendation. Try Antinori’s IGT called Santa Cristina. It’s mostly Sangiovese fermented in stainless. Just what the doctor ordered for around $10.

Another historic dish in the fondue genre is Welsh Rarebit. That’s a sharp cheddar melted with ale, sometimes a little mustard and cayenne. Purists think of rarebit as tavern food served on toast, but it’s such a good match for ultra-ripe CA Cabernets, we shouldn’t overlook it here. Get yourself a hunk of 2-year-old Raw Milk Cheddar from Ig Vella’s Cheese Company on Second Street in the town of Sonoma (www.vellacheese.com, 800-848-0505). Use it to make a fondue with Anchor Christmas Ale (the one with the tree label ~ www.anchorbrewing.com, 415-863-8350). You’ll never again wonder what food writers mean by ‘piquancy.’ The wine you want should be cassis-driven, with smooth tannins, and a big mouth-feel. There are a lot of them around, and you can easily spend three figures. But you don’t have to. Think Merryvale (www.Merryvale.com) or Ferrari-Carano (www.Ferrari-Carano.com) Cabs from the 2007 or 2009 vintages for examples under $40. Even Silver Oak Alexander Valley, almost a cliché for this style, can be had for $60 (www.JJBuckley.com)

Then there was spicy! In downtown Saratoga lies an extremely eclectic restaurant called La Fondue ~ light fixtures made out of guns, and zebra seat cushions. For cooking in the hot oil they offer alligator, wild boar, elk, buffalo. You get the picture. They have a fondue made with parmesan, cream cheese, chicken broth, and whatever you think you can handle in terms of chile peppers. Very Californio! Expensive, but like the rest of the place, you want to be able to say you’ve done it at least once. Saratoga is the high-end shopping district for Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs! This spicy fondue could be one of the toughest dishes for a wine match I’ve ever encountered. Salty, spicy, lights you up and keeps you going. An Amontillado Sherry was my first idea, but you couldn’t drink enough of it to keep up with the capsaicin burn. And some of the most interesting dipping items were mango and pineapple ~ wonderful taste sensations with the fondue, but not particularly good pairs for Sherry.

It’s entertaining research ~ all about the journey; not about the destination. Communal dining, obviously, is nothing new. It evokes primitive pleasures, among which I count shared bottles of wine. We can call it a nod to Chaucer’s romantic notion of St. Valentine, or we can just revert to the Roman (read pagan) feast of Lupercalia (February 13-15) with its overtones of fertility ritual. You choose. Either way, enjoy yourself. Next year we’ll take a cut at wines for cooking in your fireplace at home.

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Great Wines for Wild Mushrooms

‘Tis the season to forage mushrooms.

Whether you find them in the gourmet grocery or walking in a drizzly wood with your shirt on backwards, they cook up the same: wonderful, exotic, slightly naughty, very savory dishes that extend the range of paired wines in the most compelling ways.

Certainly it’s true that a five-hour hike works like magic to stimulate the appetite. That and the price are the major advantages of foraging mushrooms for oneself. What most of us call ‘the mushroom’ is actually the fruiting body of the fungus. The rest stays in the ground, or in the log, after you remove the fruiting body. So mushrooms continue to re-appear in the same place you originally found them for years in the future whenever conditions are right. It’s not a sure thing; the required conditions are very precise. That’s why these things are not raised commercially by growers. Nevertheless, experienced mushroom foragers (mycophagists) never tell anybody where their secret troves are located. Share mushrooms? Of course. Share mushroom locations? Never!

There are two solid strategies for foraging mushrooms. One is to go out about ten days after the first rains in the Fall, pick all the mushrooms you find, bring them home, and identify them using a reference book, or ‘key.’ That technique is great if you own a microscope and have ready access to an academic with mycological expertise. Failing either of those assets, I strongly recommend Strategy #2: only gather those mushrooms with which you are acquainted and confident you can correctly recognize.

Thumbing through a good mushroom guide will reveal hundreds of mushrooms are listed as “edible,” which means they are safe to eat, but likely to taste much as you might imagine Styrofoam would. Only a handful of mushrooms will be listed as “choice,” which means they taste great. Learn to recognize those. There is no compelling reason to be a voracious guinea pig in some grand mushroom foraging experiment. Never eat more than a small slice of something you’re not sure you’ve had before. Two rules of thumb will help you avoid almost all really dangerous mushrooms: (1) Ignore the vast category which might be termed “little brown mushrooms.” They are hard to tell apart, and they are too small to make a worthwhile meal anyway. (2) Learn to recognize the genus Amanita. Might as well avoid all of those. Every year a handful of people die from eating a big pot of Amanita phalloides, otherwise known as the Death Cap. They’re big, and they’re pretty. Artists depict them all the time when illustrating fairy tales. All Amanitas have a small sock, like the bottom half of an egg shell, around the base of their stem. So don’t break the stem off when harvesting a mushroom; dig down in the leaf litter with a knife blade or a spoon so you can see what the base of the stem looks like.

Chanterelles

One highly desirable mushroom which is widely found in northern California is the Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius). It usually pops up in the Fall, especially if there has been September rain. The most likely habitat is under oak trees. On the plus side, if you find one, there is probably thirty pounds in the same location. On the negative side, there may also be a ton of poison oak intertwined with the Chanterelles. Wear gloves; pick carefully. Or look for Chanterelles in your gourmet grocery. They’re often good size, bright orange, and trumpet shaped. Slice into bite-sized pieces, then sauté them in butter, with a little olive oil to keep the butter from burning. Then serve a large portion with a little parsley and a little Gruyere cheese inside an omelet. Chardonnay is your wine choice, and not just for alliterative reasons. Choose a malo-lactic driven, lees-aged Chardonnay with lots of new French oak. Rombauer comes to mind as a mid-price-range brand which is almost a cliché for this style of wine. Alternatively, an eight-year-old, premier cru Meursault should be wonderful as well, if you just happen to have one lying around. The Meursault will be more in line with the cost of the mushrooms (which are likely to set you back $25/lb in a store). So this event can be either a rustic evening supper after a vigorous day in the woods (wearing flannel shirts and suspenders), or it can be a very special brunch (sharing a pair of silk pajamas) with no particular plans for the rest of the day.

Oyster

Another delicious fungi found commonly in the wild is the Oyster mushroom. Unlike my other mushroom suggestions, Oyster mushrooms have proven reasonably easy to cultivate. So, if you develop a strong craving, you might want to look into a kit which will allow you to inoculate logs in your own backyard. Two species in the genus Pleurota are most widely recognized among culinary fans of the Oyster mushroom: P. ostreatus in North America; and P. eryngii in Europe. Both grow on hardwood logs. P. eryngii, which is called King Oyster in Spain, has an obvious stem with a smallish cap. P. ostreatus looks more like a cluster of white, overlapping shelves, i.e. all cap and virtually no stem. They both have an earthy, steak Tartar kind of flavor. They work well sliced into strips, then fried with onions, sweet peppers, and strips of beef skirt steak to serve in soft tacos as fajitas. I’d serve those with a fairly robust Syrah, although in that technique the mushrooms tend to take on whatever flavor may have been added as a sauce. More unusual is to slice the Oyster mushrooms into fairly large, long pieces; dredge the pieces in flour; submerge them in an egg beaten with a tablespoon of cream; then dredge them in bread crumbs (with a little salt added). Fry the breaded mushroom slices in a skillet with a half-inch of hot oil. Use Thousand Island salad dressing as one dipping sauce. For a second dipping sauce thin some marmalade with a little rice vinegar. Don’t dip too vigorously. Serve these fried mushrooms as an appetizer paired with an old-vine Spanish Garnacha. Borsao is a reliable brand, widely available, and they almost give it away ($6 to $8 retail).

Cepes

In the opinion of many connoisseurs, the greatest Fall mushroom is the legendary Boletus edulis, known as porcini in Italy and as cepes in Eastern Europe. These aren’t common in California, but they can be found. Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are better prospects. Boletes look somewhat different than (say) a Portobello. Instead of having gills on the underside of their cap, they appear to be a form of pin-cushion. As the name implies, the Edulis species is particularly fine. The smell alone is how most Eastern Europeans recognize it. And the smell is abundantly retained even when the mushrooms are sliced and dehydrated. So buying dried porcini to reconstitute in red wine and to use throughout the year makes very good sense. They are wonderful added to stews or anything done in a crock pot. I believe B. edulis also makes the very best mushroom soup. It has a hearty, rich flavor, and a smell which is just intimately human enough to be at once exciting and mildly discomfiting. You know you want to do it again, but it’s not the sort of sensation about which you would tell your mother. The wine of choice is, of course, Pinot Noir. And not one of those clean, fruity California examples either. You want a wine with a past. Red Burgundy. Something from the commune of Vosne. Something with enough pedigree that people care whether or not it’s been foolin’ around.

Truffles may not qualify for this post, in the sense you’re not going to find one while strolling through your local park. Professional truffle hunters in Piemonte use trained dogs and/or pigs to locate the fungus underneath the ground. Dogs won’t eat the truffles, but pigs certainly will. And I’m guessing it’s no walk in the park to move a 250 lb. pig off a 3 oz. truffle once she’s uncovered it. Truffles are all about smell. A small bit goes a long way. So find a 250 ml bottle of truffled oil to use on pasta. Just the plain pasta. I’d say freshly made fettuccine, with a little butter, no more than half a teaspoon of truffle oil, and some good Parmesan or aged Asiago cheese. Italians would go with a Barbera for the wine (Barbera d’Alba or d’Asti), but my personal choice would be Tempranillo from Rioja in Spain with a little age on it. Something like the Marquis de Riscal Riserva from about 2005.

Morel

You may have noticed we have yet to stray very far into that bastion of American mushroom usage ~ the grilled, steakhouse, New York strip or filet mignon (a Porterhouse if served together still on the bone for you big eaters). That’s because steakhouses routinely employ the tasteless, easy to cultivate, meadow mushroom commonly found in Safeway or on your front lawn (technically Agaricus compestris). Browned in a skillet, along with soy sauce and garlic, those can be fairly tasty on top of a grilled piece of quality beef loin. So would a piece of Wonderbread. What you really want with a great steak is the magnificent, priapic, Spring mushroom, the Morel. All the species in the genus Morchella are delicious and are safe to eat. They tend to be found in cold climates as the snow melts. Michigan and Minnesota are prime areas. Instead of an umbrella shape, Morels have more of a Xmas tree shaped cap, with convoluted ridges. The stem is hollow, and the bottom edge of the cap attaches to the stem. This is important. The cap of False Morels doesn’t attach to the stem, and several False Morels can make you sick. You also want to slice Morels in half to make sure there are no bugs taking refuge in the hollow stem. Brown your Morels in a sauté pan, then put them on your steak. Cabernet if you must, cowboy, but the best wine choice will be a Meritage blend heavy on Merlot. Morels have a deep, singed flesh, slightly gamey flavor. The smell is not as obvious as that from truffles or from cepes. Six or seven years of age on the Meritage blend will be valuable because you want to emphasize bottle bouquet, not fruity aroma.

Wild mushrooms are a quintessential ‘savory’ experience. As such they are naturals with fermented foods like cheese, soy sauce, and wine. Take your umami tastebuds for a walk on the wild side this holiday season.

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New Approaches to an American Classic: Thanksgiving and Wine

Every newspaper in America runs a column on Thanksgiving wine. Understandable. It’s generally a meal with six to ten guests for which people plan at least a week in advance. Moreover it’s largely the same meal in 50 million American homes and restaurants. Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Beaujolais Nouveau, White Zinfandel ~ all the usual suspects get trotted out for one more turn in the spotlight. I mean really… How hard can it be? We are talking about turkey. Not the most challenging match on the planet.

 

I’ve probably written 30 of those columns. So you’ll forgive me if I choose here to go in a somewhat different direction.

 

1.    Serve a seasonal crab hors d’oeurve. One of the unique highlights of any culinary year in San Francisco is opening of local Dungeness crab season. It occurs in mid-November, usually after some period of financial wrangling between the fishermen and the distributors; thus very close to Thanksgiving. There is no local season during the summer, although frozen crabs still arrive at high prices from Alaska. So Thanksgiving is the first chance in six months to get live crab for about one-third the summer price. Live crab, incidentally, makes a huge difference. Frozen crab meat is mushy. If strands of Dungeness crab muscle get caught in your teeth, such that you need a toothpick after the meal, you know the crab was fresh. Nothing could be more logical in Northern California than to make fresh, live crab part of your family’s traditional Thanksgiving appetizer.

Explore supermarkets in the Asian district of large towns. They will have live Dungeness crabs in aquaria. You can steam the crabs, just as you might a lobster. Then you clean them, and serve chilled at your convenience. I find it easiest for guests to eat if I cut a zipper up each leg with poultry shears. The legs can then be set out by themselves (or with a little melted butter) for guests to sample as they arrive. I take the meat out of the bodies myself. I stir that meat with a small amount of mayonnaise and lemon juice. I spread that mixture on finger-food-sized wedges of sourdough, and heat them under the broiler in the oven.

The perfect wine match with these Thanksgiving crab appetizers is an aged, cold-climate Riesling. An eight- to fifteen-year-old Kabinett or Spätlese from the Mosel Valley in Germany would be my first choice. That might take a little shopping. Query Corti Bros in Sacramento or K&L in San Francisco if you get hung up. Certain California producers have good candidate Rieslings, but you’ll probably have to lay a few bottles away yourself to end up with the aged examples I recommend. Try Madroña in El Dorado County or Greenwood Ridge in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. What we’re looking for is taut acid balancing a couple percent residual sugar. The acid is refreshing, and the sugar reaches out to the perceived sweetness of the crab. The age factor confers a slight dried fruit character to the aroma of the Riesling. It’s somewhere between apricot and nectarine, but faintly nutty; a good match with the melted butter or the heated bread.

 

2.     Small adjustment to make a luscious Chardonnay work well. If you do jewel yams (the dark orange ones) with your turkey meal, I suggest serving them on a grilled slice of pineapple. That single maneuver will make them sing with a modestly priced Chardonnay from California’s Central Coast. This is such a good combination that even canned pineapple works, but fresh is better. If grilling on a BBQ seems a bother, just sauté the pineapple with a little butter in a skillet. When you plate the dish, put a generous serving-spoon-load of yams on top of each pineapple slice. Find a Chardonnay from Monterey or from Santa Barbara in the $20 to $25 range. Don’t serve it too cold. What you’re looking for is that rich regional fruitiness. Twenty minutes in the door of the refrigerator will be more than enough chill.

 

3.   Dessert can be very special. Pecan pie with an Australian Liqueur Muscat is a match made in heaven. That doesn’t mean pumpkin pie is disqualified. People will still eat a big piece of pumpkin pie. But 2 oz. of Liqueur Muscat with a square inch or two of pecan pie will be the jewel in your dessert crown. A single half-bottle of Liqueur Muscat is all you will need. Look for brands like Bullers, Chambers, Campbell’s, or even Yalumba. Half-bottle should cost around $15 to $18.

The wine is made in the hot Rutherglen region of northern Victoria, along the Murray River. Muscat de Frontignan grapes get fully ripe, then are slightly fortified in the manner of Port. The wine is aged for many years in wood casks kept in hot warehouses. Water evaporates, concentrating the wine to a caramel or toffee flavor with just a hint of Muscat’s floral fragrance. A tiny amount of treacle-like old wine will have a distinct effect on the nose even when blended with a large quantity of young wine. The result is sweet, but with complexity so intense that residual sugar shrinks into the background. A small serving lasts a long time in one’s glass. And pour it into big glasses, or even into snifters. It really is all about the smell.

 

4.   What are you serving for the rest of the Weekend? Turkey sandwiches can be dramatically invigorated with a little Hoisin sauce. This dark brown paste (Asian food section of any chain supermarket) is made from fermented beans. It has a very high umami taste component, which is a glutamate reaction. That makes your sandwich much more flavorful and savory ~ perfect to match up with a hearty, although not overly alcoholic, red wine. I’m going to suggest a moderately aged Barbaresco. Melt a couple pieces of Gruyere cheese on a slice of light rye bread. Put a little mayo and Hoisin on another slice of light rye. Maybe a little sweet onion, like Walla Walla or Vidalia. Turkey between the two dressed pieces of bread, lettuce as desired, and away you go.

 

It’s not that you sneer at tradition. You are merely open-minded.

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