Ever have unexpected guests show up for dinner? Such was the case when my husband failed to tell me he had invited some friends to dinner. “It was a casual invitation,” he said. “I didn’t think they had accepted.”
We had just gotten back from doing errands on Saturday when the call came and Andrew’s friend said he and his wife would be arriving at 7. “Great,” Andrew stammered. “Looking forward to seeing you.” That gave me, who wasn’t looking so forward, about two and a half hours to get dinner ready.
Recently, I’ve been reading two mid-century cookbooks: one by Jeanne Carola Francesconi, La Cucina Napoletana (1965), considered by many to be the bible on Neapolitan cooking; the other by Elizabeth David, Italian Food (1954), one of the first English-language books to emphasize authenticity and seasonality in its exploration of the subject.
In a house with a kitchen dominated by two women, one Sicilian (my mother), the other Neapolitan (my aunt), it was rare that my father took to the stove. Born around Naples and coming to the States when he was around 10 years old, he only cooked twice that I remember. And only once did he share a recipe with me. (I can’t remember why but no one else was at home.) It was a recipe so simple that he must have leaned it as a child back in his home town, Cappacio, in the province of Salerno.
My brother recently sent me a link to a recipe in the New York Times for “drunken spaghetti,” or spaghetti all’ubriaco and suggested that I do a blog post about it. I’ve seen the dish prepared several times on television by celebrity cooks like Rachael Ray and, over the years, have read about it in the press. Recipes for it also abound on the internet, some posted by travelers who first encountered it in Tuscany, others by food writers like Mark Bittman, who wrote a column about it in 1998, after having enjoyed the dish at Osteria del Circo in New York City.
I must admit that the dish, as well as its preparation, has a lot of wow factor, which makes for good television, especially when a celebrity chef dumps, with a flourish, an entire bottle of wine into a pot for cooking the spaghetti. As…
I really started cooking seriously in the late 70s, always inspired by my Neapolitan aunt’s and Sicilian mother’s cooking, but sparked even more so by the not yet celebrated Julia Child on my local PBS channel. I read and read books by chefs like Elizabeth David and later on Alice Waters who focused on seasonal cuisine; on fundamental cookbooks like the Grammar of Cooking by Carol Braider or The Saucier’s Apprentice by Raymond Sokolov; on the standard cookbooks like The James Beard Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, The New York Times Cookbook. I consulted huge tomes like the Larousse Gastronomique and the two-volume Gourmet Cookbook as well as tiny books like The Omelette Cookbook by Narcissa Chamberlain. And at the same time subscribed to almost every food magazine there was. I read and experimented; often failing but sometimes blissfully successful.
It was a Saturday morning and we we’re settling in to watch a favorite film on Turner Classic Movies. Before it started, however, we were caught by a commercial for the channel’s own wine club. We looked at each other with some skepticism, but as one of the channel’s hosts interviewed a certified Master of Wine about the club and its selections, we became more intrigued. They talked about wines selected for pairing with specific TCM films, for example, a Francis Ford Coppola’s Café Zoetrop Merlot 2014 was suggested for the director’s 1972 classic, “The Godfather.” Yes, a marketing gimmick for sure. But somehow we fell for it. And after having snubbed a good number of similar wine club offerings, we took the leap and joined.
What was intriguing as well was the introductory price $79.99 for 15 bottles of wine. Was this for real? We went online, joined the club, and waited. The wines arrived in short order. What impressed us from the start was how well they were packaged, a thick cardboard box with stiff corrugated dividers. Included as well was a package of tasting notes printed on 2-hole 6” x 5” glossy stock. (A binder for the notes is promised with the next shipment.) So far, so good, I thought.
Over the next couple of months we went through the case and I have to say that all of the wines were quite good and there were definitely some standouts. Below are my reviews of the three wines that impressed me the most.
Cafe Zoetrope Merlot 2014 Mendocino County, CaliforniaThis California Merlot is an intriguing blend of fruit and spice. Subtle aromas of black fruit on the nose are followed by rich flavors of plums and raisins, and a touch of spice. Well structured with balanced fruit and acidity, it has a smooth mouthfeel and a lingering finish. Perfect for a steak or a red-sauced pasta.
Le Champ des Etoiles Pinot Noir 2014 Pays d’Oc IGP, France
A typical Pinot Noir from the Coteaux du Languedoc in the southwest of France, this wine has an alluring berry aroma. On the palate, it’s crisp with good acidity and delivers restrained fruit flavors followed by a good finish. Perfect with grilled lamb chops or salmon.
Our favorite from the case, this classic Super Tuscan is a perfectly balanced blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet, and Merlot from Tuscany’s Maremma region. The wine’s fantasy name, Selvasucra, alludes to the “dark forest” in the opening line’s of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Beautiful violet aromas are followed by rich woodland fruit flavors supported by soft tannins and good acidity. The finish is long and lingering. This wine is crafted by one of Italy’s leading winemaker’s Franco Bernabei.
We were recently notified that our next shipment is due by the end of January. Based on the quality of the first, we are anxiously awaiting it.
This year I decided we’ll have red wine with our Thanksgiving dinner. In the past, I’ve usually opted for whites and, indeed, have recommended them unabashedly to our friends. And if you absolutely need to have whites or if you or any of your guests positively eschew reds (you know those red-wine induced headaches), indulge yourself. Go for a good Riesling or a Pinot Blanc from Alsace, maybe even a more fruity white from the Loire. Or why not just open that bottle of Champagne you’ve been saving for a special occasion. After all, it is Thanksgiving. Just make sure that the whites you choose have enough flavor and acidity to stand up to the food. But for me this year, it’s RED.
I’m opting for red wine this year because I’ve realized that we’re eating more than just turkey. There’s the stuffing with sausage, and herbs, and nuts, and maybe even fruit. (Ms. Stewart has been pushing those dried cherries for years.) There’s the gravy. There’s the sweet yams and sometimes even candied sweet potatoes, and of course, we can’t forget the Brussels sprouts. And what if there’s wine’s most difficult culinary foe: the artichoke? It makes almost any wine bitter.
Now perhaps you see why choosing a red that goes with Thanksgiving dinner takes some thought. First off, we want a wine that will work well with both the dark and the white meat, one that will support the former yet not overwhelm the latter. We also want a wine that will fit in with all those flavorful trimmings. Consequently, it should have sufficient body (alcoholic strength) to stand up to the meal’s many flavors, but not be so full bodied that it declares victory over the palate. It should have adequate fruit so that it complements the meat as well as the side dishes, but not be too fruity or sweet so that any sides like green vegetables taste relatively bitter (or that you think Aunt Betty’s cranberry sauce found its way into the your wine glass). Moreover, it should have mild tannins to support the wine’s fruit and sufficient acidity to cut through the fats. Finally, it should be so well structured that as its flavors linger on the palate, perhaps with a hint of spice, you give thanks for the winemaker.
Although finding an appropriate red wine for this holiday meal may sound like a mission impossible, it really isn’t. It’s just a matter of some time and thought—a small effort compared to what you’re probably already doing to make your guests feel welcome and comfortable around your table.
For this tasting, we selected eight wines and tasted them all, in increasing order of alcoholic strength, first without any food and then again with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and green beans.
2012 Mille Wines Bardolino DOC $14.99/Liter
Garnet in color, this Veneto red offers cherry aromas on the nose. It’s relatively light bodied with straightforward, bright black-cherry flavors. There’s a hint of caramel on the lingering finish. Given the price, it’s an excellent value.
Although pleasant enough on its own, we all found this wine too light with the turkey.
2010 Villa Campobello Chianti Riserva DOC $10.99
Light garnet with orange hues, this Chianti Riserva, not to be confused with a Chianti Classico Riserva, has an earthy nose with hints of wild mushroom and some tart cherry. On the palate, it’s light to medium bodied with tart blue-plum notes. It’s well structured with soft tannins and a nice balance of fruit and acidity. The finish is long and dry with notes of cedar. This wine calls for food.
It was a nice complement to the turkey and seemed to accentuate the cranberries in the stuffing.
2012 Leyenda del Castillo Rioja DOC $10.99
Translucent ruby in color, this Rioja has notes of cedar and red berries on the nose. Light, verging on medium bodied, it’s nicely structured with supple tannins and has a smooth mouthfeel. On the palate, it displays toasted oak and black-fruit flavors. It has good length, with dry raisin notes on the finish.
It went well with the meal.
2012 Erath Pinot Noir Oregon $12.99
Light ruby in color, this Oregon Pinot Noir has an alluring fruit-forward nose with loads of raspberry notes. Medium bodied and well structured, it’s pleasantly dry with restrained raspberry flavors. “Lovely,” commented one taster after the first sip. The wine lingers on the palate and finishes with tart fruit notes.
The wine worked very well with both the turkey and the sides.
2013 Meiomi Pinot Noir Monterey, Sonoma, Santa Barbara Counties $19.99
Ruby in color, this coastal California Pinot Noir has sweet light-caramel notes on the nose. It’s packed with clean, bright berry flavors. It’s well structured with good acidity underpinning the fruit. Although pleasantly dry, it coats the palate with fruit flavors that follow through to the lingering finish.
This wine was superb with the meal.
2011 Sean Minor Pinot Noir Carneros $14.99
This Pinot Noir is light-garnet in color. It has a fruit-forward, strawberry nose. It’s medium bodied, beautifully structured, and offers plenty of baking-spice and berry flavors. The finish is long and dry, with lingering notes of tart berries.
Definitely one of the stars of this tasting, it was even better with the food.
2012 Sterling Vintner’s Collection Meritage Central Coast $10.99
This classic blend of Merlot (52%), Cabernet Sauvignon (27%), Malbec (9%), Cabernet Franc (6%), and Petit Verdot (6%) is garnet in color. The nose is wonderfully complex with distinctive notes of berries, pencil shavings, and dried plums. Full bodied and elegant on the palate, it delivers rich black-cherry flavors enveloped in smooth tannins and supported with good acidity. It has a long finish with notes of plum.
Excellent with the food, it seemed to brighten the flavor of the turkey. Another star of this tasting.
2013 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Côtes-du-Rhône $11.99
This blend of Grenache (60%) and Syrah (40%) is ruby in color. It has a pretty nose with hints of woodsy fruit and crushed black pepper. On the palate, it’s medium bodied and displays a chalky minerality. Well structured, it offers black-fruit flavors with hints of black pepper. It has a nice, dry, somewhat tannic finish, ending with berry notes.
Another winner with the food, which benefited from the wine’s balanced acidity.
Eighteen years ago this month, TableWine posted its inaugural feature, Perfect Wines for Pizza. We chose the topic because pizza seemed to epitomize everyday fare and we wanted to make it clear, from the outset, that our focus would be on affordable wines for everyday drinking. We published quite successfully until 2003, at which point I began working in the wine industry and thought it best to give up the site to avoid any conflicts of interest. After retiring last July, however, I thought it was time to bring TableWine back as a blog.
Back then in ’96, it seemed that most wine websites and newsgroups were targeting the connoisseur or the oenophile. Readers exchanged views and tasting notes on old Bordeaux and Burgundy or regaled one another about their latest coups in securing 90-point California Cabernets. But, I thought, how many people (even those who can afford them) actually drink First Growths or Grand Crus on a daily basis? Far more, I was sure, sit down to a weekday meal with a bottle that was on special at their favorite wine store, or with a glass of their own house red or white that they pick up every week at the supermarket. That’s our audience, I thought, and so began TableWine.com and focused on wines that were $20 or under.
But before I wax overly nostalgic, let’s turn to the subject of this month’s feature: pizza wines. A good bottle can pick up even the most mundane pie. Choosing a wine for pizza can depend a lot on what you like about this Italian staple. If you’re a crust fancier, you’ll want a wine that tones down the sauce and toppings and brings out the baked flavor of the crust. If you’re a toppings nibbler (we’ll limit our discussion to cheese, pepperoni, and mushrooms—no gourmet fare), select a wine with enough acidity to stand up to the sauce and just enough flavor to complement your topping. But if, like many of us, you think the whole pizza is greater than the sum of its parts, you want a wine that will counterpoint the blend of bread, tomato, and topping.
For this tasting, we visited a couple of local wine stores and chose wines that have a wide distribution and that we thought would go well with pizza.
The pizzas were from a local pizzeria; no gourmet specialty fare, just three large pies, one with cheese, one with mushrooms, and one with pepperoni.
As is our custom, we first tasted the wines on their own without any food and then with the food. The wines are listed in the order in which they were tasted, which was determined by their alcohol level.
Please suggest your favorite wines for pizzas as comments to this post.
Deep purple in color, this frizzante dry Lambrusco has an earthy nose, with berry and black-fruit notes. Medium-bodied, it’s packed with blackberry flavors that culminate with a lingering fruit finish. Its effervescence makes it a refreshing accompaniment for pizza. “Gulpable,” commented one taster. It went best with the pepperoni pizza.
This classic Montepulciano is opaque purple in color. With aromas of earth and mushrooms, it’s medium bodied and offers chewy, black-plum flavors. Well structured, there’s a nice balance of fruit and acidity and a long finish. As one taster remarked, “It’s simpatico with the pizza.”
2009 Monte Antico, Toscana IGT $10.99
This Tuscan blend of Sangiovese (85%), Merlot (10%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (5%) reflects Sangiovese’s characteristic pale ruby color with garnet hues. The nose is characterized by earth and leather. It has good body, with balanced acidity. It finishes with mineral chalk notes. An austere Tuscan blend. Although adequate with the pizza, we all thought this wine would pair better with meat.
Francis Ford Coppola Presents Rosso, California $7.99
This California blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah is deep ruby in color. On the nose, there are hints of cinnamon, red berries, and earth. Medium bodied, the wine’s bright cherry flavors are complemented on its long finish by tart-berry notes. This wine was outstanding with the pizza and we considered it the “star” of this tasting.
2011 Bogle Vineyards Petite Syrah, California $11.99
Deep ruby-red in color, this wine has a an alluring nose of burnt sugar and black fruit. Light to medium bodied, it offers cherry-candy, though not cloying, flavors. It’s well structured with lingering cherry notes on the finish. This wine went better with the mushroom pizza than with the others.
2011 Famille Perrin Côtes du Rhône Reserve $8.99
Dark ruby in color, with aromas of leather, smoke, and black pepper, this French classic is medium bodied and structured with supple tannins and good acidity. It offers spice and mineral flavors reminiscent of white pepper and chalk along with hints of tart fruit. It has good length and some caramel notes on the finish. This is definitely a food wine and it went well with the pizzas, especially with the pepperoni.
2012 Cline Zinfandel, Lodi $9.99
Dark maroon in color, this California zin is more about spice than fruit. The nose is spicy and earthy. On the palate, it’s full bodied with a silky mouthfeel and delivers dark-fruit and licorice flavors. It has a lingering finish with notes of blackberry and pepper. Although quite good on its own, we thought it overpowered the Margherita and mushroom pizzas.