Historically, Italy’s brilliant ruby-colored sparkling wine, Brachetto, was thought to be an aphrodisiac. (At least that’s what Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony thought, but maybe Cleopatra should be the judge). Anyway, it’s true that Brachetto has undeniable charm. Beautifully floral and fruity with just the right grown-up bitter edge, Brachetto is made from brachetto grapes in the Acqui region of Piedmont, hence its full name: Brachetto d’Acqui. The wine is frizzante (lightly sparkling), low in alcohol, fresh, and loaded with raspberry and black cherry flavors. Chilled cold, it’s terrific with a plate of charcuterie some Saturday night before dinner. (I know people who swear it’s molto bene with dark chocolate, but I’ll let you decide on that one). Banfi is the main importer of Brachetto in the U.S. and theirs is a very good one.
If you’ve been to Greece recently (or are going to ditch winter this year) you probably didn’t escape without falling in love with (or learning to abhor) retsina, the pungent, pine-resin-flavored wine, the drinking of which is virtually a baptismal right in Greek tavernas. Traces of pine resin have been found in Greek wine jars dating back to the thirteenth century B.C. Modern retsina can be made anywhere in the country, although most of it is made near Athens. Many different white grape varieties can be used, but the most common variety is savatiano, a relatively neutral white grape. Resin from the Aleppo pine is added to savatiano grape juice as it ferments, imparting retsina’s unmistakable, piney, turpentine-like aroma. Yeah it sounds bad. But when in Rome, I mean Greece…..
In Spain, cava (Spanish sparkling wine made by the Champagne method) is most definitely a middle class drink. No fancy occasions needed. Barcelona alone has dozens of xampanyeria, wine bars specializing in cava. In fact, on Saturdays, it’s a Catalonian family tradition to drive to Sant Sadurní (the leading cava town) for a picnic of cava and grilled lamb. Wineries (bodegas in Spanish) sell locally raised lamb and rent outdoor stone fireplaces. Then there’s what happens on Sundays. At a baptism everyone drinks cava, even the baby, whose pacifier is dipped in the bubbly. Not to be left out (cava is a wine for everyone after all) and possibly more important, as a way of keeping them quiet in church, other babies may be given the same treat.
While it’s tempting to think of California as a new wine region, the state has dozens of historic vineyards with gnarled vines that are 50 to 100 years-old—or even more. Preserving these oldsters is the job of the Historic Vineyard Society. A non-profit group, the HVS considers old vines a critical part of California’s agricultural legacy. Mike Dildine, a board member, says it best: “Historic vineyards are irreparable survivors that have lived through the ravages of phylloxera, economic downturns, fluctuations in consumer tastes, prohibition and global conflicts. They provide a living repository of genetic material, and a living window on the past. Most importantly, historic vineyards are beautiful California landmarks and make uniquely delicious wines that continue to delight wine lovers throughout California and the world.” You can make a tax deductible donation to save California’s heritage vines here.
One of the key drivers behind the vast improvement in Oregon wine in the 2000s was the widespread implementation of so-called Dijon clones. The University of Oregon was the first entity in the United States to bring in these clones of pinot noir and chardonnay (clones are genetic subtypes of a variety). Named after Dijon the city in Burgundy where France’s ONIVINS plant materials laboratory is located, the numerous Dijon clones (with exciting names like 115, 667, and 777) are heralded for their complex flavors and ability to ripen fully in cool climates.
Paprika, along with several other Hungarian culinary essentials—tomatoes, sour cherries, coffee, and phyllo (which the Hungarians immortalized by reinventing as strudel)—were all introduced by the Turks during their numerous occupations. Be that as it may, in Hungary, paprika found its truest admirers. Even something as simple as paprika chicken (paprikás csirke) is a kind of lusty and luscious duel between the tangy richness of sour cream on the one hand and the tantalizing bite of paprika on the other. The Hungarian’s classify paprika into 8 types, starting with the mildest and sweetest, Különleges, which is bright red in color, to Erős, a very spicy version that is light brown in color. Interestingly, the peppers used to make paprika have the highest Vitamin C content of any vegetable. Indeed, paprika was used in experiments by Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1937 for his discovery of Vitamin C.
Why are sparkling wines and oysters such a fine match? One reason is that their flavors are both complementary and contrasting. Oysters of course have a distinctive briny, saline quality that comes from the seawater the bivalves filter through their plump, rich bodies. Sparkling wines have crisp acidity and sometimes a minerally quality that complements the brininess of the oysters. And while both oysters and sparkling wine have fresh flavors, a sparkler’s acidity cuts through the oyster’s powerful sea flavors while refreshing the palate for another slurp. And finally, for anyone who loves texture, it’s hard to find two more textural indulgences than oysters and bubbly.
Made primarily from the white grapes code di volpe and verdeca and the red grapes piedirosso and aglianico grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, Lacryma Christi—Tears of Christ—is one of Campania’s most recognized wines (red, white and sparkling versions are all made). There are several stories behind the name. One says that as Jesus Christ ascended to heaven, he looked down at the beautiful Bay of Naples and cried. His tears landed on Mt. Vesuvius, where vines miraculously sprang up. Another story suggests that when Lucifer fell from heaven, Christ was sad and cried tears that landed on Mt. Vesuvius, again producing the miraculous vines. A third, far less miraculous story recounts that local monks lacking modern filtering equipment passed the wine through canvas, causing it to fall in drops (like tears).
Italy’s legendary summertime cocktail, the Bellini, is a combination of icy-cold sparkling Prosecco and fresh white peach juice. The drink was invented in the 1930s at Harry’s Bar in Venice, which employed one man each summer—when peaches were ripe—to do nothing but cut and pit small, fragile Italian white peaches (never the yellow variety) and then squeeze them by hand to extract the juice. Today, many Bellinis are made with frozen white peach juice and any sort of sparkling wine, but the old fashioned way with real peaches and Prosecco is how we like to do it.
The Gumboot Clone (“gumboot” is the New Zealand term for a rain boot)—also known as the Abel Clone—is the secret weapon behind many of NZ’s best pinot noirs. Apparently, a New Zealand rugby player returning from France in the 1970s tried to sneak pinot noir cuttings into the country in his rain boots. Rumor has it they were cuttings from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy (of course). The plants were found by a clever customs agent named Malcolm Abel, who also happened to be a grape grower. Abel passed the cuttings through customs, and promptly planted them in his own vineyard and shared them with his friend Clive Paton of Ata Rangi Vineyard. After Abel passed away, Paton continued to grow the Gumboot Clone which eventually spread across the country, and now accounts for some of the most exciting pinot noirs in New Zealand.