Tradition, Terroir, and Rieslings: Why Dirt Matters

Latest Wine Fortnightly

A memory from waiting tables

Food and dirt: These are almost the same thing. At least when it comes to wine.

This struck me as I was serving yet another glass of Crianza Rioja to go with a delicate, and very Mexican dish of pompano, steamed in a banana leaf with hoja santa, plantains, and tomatoes. A big, barrel aged red with a light, subtly flavored fish? Oh, right, red wine with fish is a bold, unconventional choice, and people speak Spanish in Mexico too, so of course, this means a Spanish wine matches Mexican food. This makes as much sense as serving a Lafite-Rothschild Pauillac with a shrimp spring roll because French was spoken in Saigon, tannins stomping the flavor shrimp into the ground put aside for adventures in wine pairings.

But how do I explain this to a guest?

More importantly, should I?

After all, isn’t personal preference the single most important consideration in matching food and wine?

Course it is. But, see, I’m the person they’re paying for advice, to assure they have the best time possible. And I know they’d probably enjoy the fish more with a little better understanding of dirt—the dirt in which the grapes grew, the dirt in which the preparation of the fish blossomed, the dirt near the shores off which the fish was got.

In other words, I’m talking terroir. I’m talking tradition. These two make love to each other through food and wine.

Take the classic Boeuf Bourguignon (Beef stew Burgundy style). Matching the wine is simplicity itself: A red Burgundy. The dirt where the                Pinot Noir grapes grew is the same that gave rise to the dish. The food and wine literally grew up together. And, after two-thousand plus years of growing and vinifying grapes to best compliment local dishes—typical in Europe—one would imagine they got the pairings right.

But what of Mexican food? Mexican cuisine didn’t grow up with Paella or Estofados. Rather, it grew up with unique sauces, with chilies, cacti, and corn along-side pulque, mescal, tequila, and brandy, but not wine.               

So, what is a wine lover to do? Skip Mexican food? Order a beer? Stick with margaritas? Or wines from places that happen to speak Spanish?

Hardly. Look for a wine vinified more for its own sake and less to match a certain style of food. A wine that can as easily be drunk with or without food, with a balance all on its own. A wine that practices the same balance of sweet and acids as the sweet and spicy heat that Mexican foods have. Look for a wine with a German accent. Look, to start, for a Riesling.

Rieslings are grown all over the world, yet uniquely, in almost every case, it is not blended with other grapes and hardly touched by the winemaker— no oak, no malolactic fermentation, and as little manipulation as possible. Just pure varietal expression that still reflects, within this expression, the dirt, and traditions where it grew up.

A lovely choice in wine to start a trip through the wine-estranged cuisines flooding our tables, exciting our tongues, cuisines far from Europe and its wine loving traditions. An escort, as it were, for a new world of tastes.

Of course, if you prefer Rioja, please … enjoy. It is your experience.

14 wines from 2019 (and earlier)

Label from bottle of Abuela Dolores Rias Baixas Albariño 2015
Abuela Dolores Rias Baixas Albariño 2015

Abeula Dolores, or “Grandma Dolores,” this Albariño is a good find in an otherwise hit and miss 2015 vintage. This part of Rias Baixas is right across the river Mino (Ribera de Miño) from Portugal’s Vinho Verde region. Both support a variety of grapes, with Albariño showing up as the most commonly seen single varietal from Spain. It’s also the most planted of the 12 permitted varietals in all five subregions. Generally, lovely lighter bodied wines with solid acidity that match seafood excellently. This one is no exception. Here is an excellent discussion of the whole region: Rias Baixas Wines

It shows as a pale parchment in the glass with a few legs here and there. The nose is light, fresh with some minerals up front, and faint light berries (mulberry or gooseberry) in the background. While closer to medium body, it coats the mouth, feeling almost unctuous, but the firm acidity keeps it fresh. The berry fruit carries through into the long dry finish. A touch of pepper shows up late: 4 of 5 🍷 🇪🇸
While this single varietal is a bit bigger than the usual Rias Baixas wine, it still shares the bright acidity. This wine grew up along ocean estuaries, picking up the salt air, and loves the seafood common to these areas of Spain. That includes river fish, not just saltwater types.
This one, in particular, would stand up well to grilled octopus with its smoky meatiness.
From Lot18 Wine Club

Label from bottle of Lustra Central Coast Chardonnay 2016
Lustra Central Coast Chardonnay 2016

A classic California Chardonnay from one of California’s biggest, thus most diverse wine regions. Lustra is a high-quality maker, and its Pinot Noir offering from Monterey County is exceptionally good.
Very pale parchment with long, slow legs and a bit viscous, the later two speaking to the 13.9% ABV. Some lemon curd and toasty notes on the nose. Full, lush mouthfeel, full body with lemon-cream starting midpalate, which is balanced by the firm acidity that picks up and lasts through the long, slightly bitter finish. A lush, sexy attack that turns lean quickly. Best with food. I had chicken liver patê this time: 3.5 of 5🍷 .
Cali chards lean toward the bigger size with plenty of oak and full malolactic fermentation. Many show tropical fruit notes, while this stayed with lemon.
A big wine like this would love meaty fish, creamy chicken dishes, or pork. It’s got the stones to stand up to aggressively flavored dishes, and the acids to cut through creamy. It would whelm delicately flavored dishes.
Snagged this from Lot18 Wine Club.

Label from bottle of Fantini Farnese Montepulciano D'Abruzzo 2015
Fantini Farnese Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2015

This is an example of the more muscular style coming from Abruzzo, and it does benefit from a bit of rest. Deep garnet with a brownish meniscus, fairly viscous, and a good number of quick forming legs around the glass. Rich berry notes, with a roasted meat edge and a dollop of wood. A reserved attack, with some acidity after which dark fruit—cassis—starts to open up mid-palate along with some mild bitterness and late, fine, gripping tannins, some mouth coating richness, and bitter finish. It was a touch out of balance toward the back end until it sat open a couple of hours: 3 of 5 🍷.
The Montepulciano grape is grown in many places in Italy but reaches it’s height in the Abruzzo region, though a lot of makers don’t put in the time to make it an outstanding wine, in either the more muscular Chianti-like style or, the softer Valpolicella-like style.
I had a fennel sausage lasagna that it paired excellently with.
This style of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo matches red meats, veal, and pork, as well as assertively sauced pasta, such as that lasagna.
Found this at a local wine shop in Brooklyn.

Label from bottle of Maravilloso Mendoza Malbec-Bonarda Blend 2017
Maravilloso Mendoza Malbec-Bonarda Blend 2017

A fair Malbec blend that runs a touch hot. Medium garnet to brick toward the meniscus. Many splitting legs around the glass. Moderate viscosity. Hot nose with dark fruit notes a touch of iodine and toasty, roasted notes, and some spice with cedar. The attack has some plum and dark fruit notes then opens up into a rich, mouth-coating wine, touched with bitterness leading into a long finish, showing some fine tannins. Nice with shawarma, though ultimately wasn’t quite sure I *really* cared for the wine itself: 2.5 of 5🍷🇦🇷.
This wine includes two of Argentina biggest red wine plantings: Malbec, which is well known, and Bonarda, which seems to sneak past most people’s radar, including mine. It’s less bossy than Malbec, with more acidity and fewer tannins, so tames the latter. (This isn’t the Italian Bonarda, as I had thought; it’s a French varietal called Douce Noir, though it shares Italian roots. Such is the history of wine and Europe.
The Swarma plate I had with this liked the softer tannins and amped acidity to cut through the garlic-yogurt sauce. The spiced lamb didn’t mind at all.
This is a blend unique to Argentina, and while there are not hundreds of years of growing up with the local cuisine, the meat leaning, Italian based cuisine works well with it.
Snagged this from Lot18 Wine Club.

Label from bottle of Curieuse Vin Blanc Pays D'Oc 2016
Curieuse Vin Blanc Pays D’Oc 2016

A complex white blend from Pays d’Oc. Medium parchment in color, reasonably viscous, with lots of low legs all around the glass. Floral notes with a suggestion of mandarin orange and a touch of pith. A bright attack, bracing acidity w/a touch bitter and caramel. Exceedingly long yummy caramel/banana finish—mouth-coating richness with saliva squirting acidity, blending with a bit of tropical fruit: 4 of 5 🍷🇫🇷.
Wines from Pays D’Oc, a vast region in the southwest of France with a wide variety of terroir, yield a wide range of styles, many of which get specific AOCs designations. It produces vast quantities of wine, much of it unremarkable, though some particular makers do command higher prices. This isn’t one, but the Viognier-Pinot Gris blend is a sharp one.
This label is U.S. specific, as since 2009 the Vin de Pays D’Oc designation has been replaced with Pays D’Oc IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) to more closely line up with European Union laws.
The Pinot Gris gives this wine some body and acidity, which allows it to match broad selection of food from red to white meat and dishes with creamy sauces; the Viognier lends it aromatics, which opens it up to exotically spices dishes, including those with saffron or curry. It’s one to play around with, or simply sip as an aperitif.
Snagged this from Lot18 Wine Club.

Label from Bottle of Chasseur De Cailloux Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2016
Chasseur De Cailloux Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2016

This southern Rhône is a big, full-bodied white wine from a region famous for its red wines. It shows off as light goldenrod with a clear meniscus, fat, slow forming legs all around the glass and is fairly viscous. Those speak to the 12.5% ABV. The nose is full, with hints of stones (the Cailloux shown on the label), custard-like creaminess, with a touch of grilled poultry, and faint fruitiness around the edges. The attack is mostly texture, rich with firm acidity—cheek squeezing. The full body is rich, with a long finish of custard, acidity and a touch of bitter peeking through here and there. Very late, there is some caramelized brown sugar: 4 of 5 🍷.
Like many of it’s red brothers in the Rhône, this white is a blend of grapes: 6 that must make up at least 80% of the blend (Bourboulenc, Clairette blanche, Grenache blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne & Viognier) plus 2 (Piquepoul blanc & Ugni blanc) that may or may not be found in a particular bottle.
This one has 40% Grenache Blanc, 30% Viognier, 15% Roussanne and 15% Clairette.
This is a big white wine and so likes white meats, Pork, Chicken even veal, and goat cheeses.
Snagged this from Lot18 Wine Club.

Label from bottle of Kenwood Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 2016
Kenwood Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Sononma County 2016

A different style Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma County
Very pale goldenrod, with fat legs all around the glass. Some citrus brightness shows in the nose, with a touch of flan creaminess. The attack is crisp without being bright, then some citrus enters with a hint of cream caramel mid-palette, with a more pure caramel opening up late in the finish countered with a bit of bright acidity: it’s different without being truly special: 3 of 5 🍷🇺🇸
This one seems to have broken the usual mold of going through malolactic fermentation to kick up the creamy notes, and seems to have spent time on charred oak, which again is unusual of this varietal. These are treatments usually left for chardonnay, but it works well in this bottling.
Since this angles a bit towards the Chardonnay side, it can pair up with meaty fish, white meats and cream sauces.
From McGovern’s on 3rd avenue in Bay Ridge

label from bottle of Purato Catarratto Pinot Grigio Terre Siciliane IGP 2016
Purato Catarratto Pinot Grigio Terre Siciliane IGP 2016

A pure organic wine from Sicily—it shows pale goldenrod in the glass, that that starts with sheeting, but a few legs form late in spots. The nose is reserve, with some flor-like notes and a pinch of citrus. The bright attack that rounds into a medium body with some caramel and citrus and these acids that linger on the tongue— as the finish moved into honey undertones, with warm spice notes: Enjoyable. There is a richness from sitting on lees for up to a year: 4 of 5 🍷
3.5/5
(with # from Vivino made pretty) 4/5
Grapes: 60% Catarratto 40% Pinot Grigio fermented separately as they varietals take different times. Then blended. It sits on Lees for up to a year.
It’s a flexible Sicilian white that matches both seafood and all but the most aggressively sauced plates of pasta, as well as the goat and sheep milk cheeses from the island.
From McGovern’s on 3rd avenue in Bay Ridge

Label from bottle of Skeleton Grüner Veltliner Burdenland 2015, 1l format
Skeleton Grüner Vetliner Burdenland 2015, 1l format

I found that I had tasted two vintages of the Skeleton Grüner Veltliner Burgenland six months apart, the 2014 and 2015, both in the one-liter format. Since I hadn’t remembered the earlier tasting this steps in as a kind of blind-ish tasting—one un affected by the earlier, and given the vast difference between the two, I thought it would be a good idea to present them both here, right in a row:
The 2015 (pictured above)—
A slightly austere Gruner: pale golden color, with a clear meniscus, with a few very slow legs, which develop late. A tight, ungiving nose. It teases that is has more to express, but eeks out only a hint of chalkiness. Not a lot of fruit in the attack, and then opens up into a medium body wine, with firm acidity but not much in the way of fruit. Hints of bitterness. Fairly long, acidic finish. Out of balance to the back end side. Decidedly a food wine, not one for sipping: 2 of 5 🍷
The 2014 (same label, with the only change: the year is 2014, otherwise, indistinguishable)— tasted this 6 months earlier
Pale yellow, moderately viscus, with occasional legs. An agreeable, bright almost fruity nose. <This generous nose shows off the first major difference.) Rich, mouth coating, full-bodied wine, though the attack offers little, it expands mid-palate, with almost oily unctuousness, and good acidic balance. Agreeable wine. A liter went down easily over Georgian chicken and heirloom tomatoes with reduced Balsamic vinegar and mozzarella.
Yummy wine: 4 of 5 🍷
Grüners tend to the acidic side and develop different fruit profiles depending on the ripeness of the fruit at picking. That said, the acids let this stand up white meats, richly sauced dishes and cheese very well. Some like it to pair with spicy Asian dishes that are foreign to wine as well as hard to pair vegetables like asparagus.
From McGovern’s on 3rd avenue in Bay Ridge

Lable from bottle of Saint-Lannes Côtes de Gascogne IGP 2015 (blanc) 2015
Saint-Lannes Côtes de Gascogne IGP 2015 (blanc) 2015

This is another wine that I unwittingly rated different vintages of, this time, two years apart—just like the vintages were.
The 2015 vintage (pictured above) is a food wine from a food region (think Fois Gras and Cassoulet with duck confit.) It shows very pale dry grass, almost clear and is moderately viscous with long slow legs. Somewhat closed nose: hints of some white fruit, but little more. Not much of an attack, but it quickly opens up with plump white fruits, a smidgeon of berries and firm acidity. A food wine that loved going down with chicken and cilantro over pasta: 4 of 5 🍷🇫🇷.
The 2013 vintage rated two years earlier got only this brief note: Yummy wine. Not very serious, which fits summer foods well. Probably why I forgot I’d had it: 3.5 of 5 🍷🇫🇷.
Cotes de Gascogne IGP wines are predominantly white and while big-name international varieties are planted here and labeled as such, the locally designated wines are made from local grape varieties like Courbu, Gros Manseng, Colombard, and Arrufiac in various blends.
This will match the foods from Gascogne: that Fois Gras, Cassoulet and Confit of duck. Local cheeses such as Roquefort.
From McGovern’s on 3rd avenue in Bay Ridge

Label from bottle of Estancia Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
Estancia Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

This is a full-on Cali Cab in style: Rich, extracted, and fruit forward, but with balance. Deep plum color, with long, slow, thick legs, quite viscous. Nor surprising for 13.5% ABV. While the nose is not especially open, distinct black currant and dark berries do appear. Then, it opens with loads of berry fruit and acidity. It coasts the mouth as it moves mid-palate and then the fine tannins kick in, which last into the reasonably long finish. Very good wine, but comes up a touch short in balance and intrigue: 4 of 5 🍷.
style notes
Paso Robles Cabernet is all about big, bold and ready to drink, taking advantage of this relatively warm region, the grapes get very ripe and are full of sugar, making for high octane bottles.
This is what steak, lamb and red-meat stews want. Could do QUE if the sauce isn’t too sweet or acidic. It was also a nice aperitif.
From McGovern’s on 3rd avenue in Bay Ridge

Label from bottle of The Seeker Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016
The Seeker Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Yet another wine I had inadvertently tasted twice, this time the same vintage about ten months apart. While yes, I buy wines I like again, I don’t taste the same vintage twice, at least less than a year apart. This shows a slight decrease in impression over the ten months but hung on as a good wine both times.
In Oct. 2017, this wine showed bright, clear Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc—very pale, essentially clear wine, with slow following legs fair viscosity. Bright nose, full of citrus, with hints of grapefruit. The attack has a fruitiness that opens up into classic grapefruit notes, without any pithy bitterness, the firm acidity balancing this well. Later in the long finish, the grapefruit picks up a touch of pith bitterness, mixing with lingering fruit. Nice wine. Classic cleanMarlborough grapefruit with pith & bitterness late, balanced by the fruit: 3.5 of 5 🍷.
In January 2017, this showed off as a bright, clear Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc: very pale, essentially clear wine. Slow following legs, fairly viscous. Very bright nose, full of citrus, with hints of grapefruit. The attack has a fruitiness that opens up into well-balanced grapefruit notes, without bitterness and firm acidity. The grapefruit picks up a touch of pith bitterness in the long finish, along with lingering fruit. Nice wine: 4 of 5 🍷.
New Zealand is a cool climate and Marlborough is one of the best of them. This favors high acidity and almost ubiquitously notes of grapefruit, usually yellow, but red at times. The better ones avoid too much pith bitterness.
Loves richly sauced foods, white meats, and seafood. Lovely with salad Nicoise.
From McGovern’s on 3rd avenue in Bay Ridge

Five wines under $20 (From the Vault)†

Inexpensive wines make up the bulk of most people’s wine drinking. But inexpensive doesn’t have to mean boring. Added bonus—not only are these wines guilt free for the budget, but they match everyday fare better than more expensive wines.

†(Prices are what I paid retail in Manhattan, circa 2003. Current, local prices may vary.) 

These five Rieslings represent five important growing regions for the grape. Each also represents the tradition of the region. And, each will interact with cuisines differently. Of course, all are under $20, so you can enjoy experimenting around finding the one you like best with that Mone de Pompano.

Riesling Auslese QmP – Mosel 2001 
Schmitt Söhne – $8.00 Retail 
Citadel Trading Corp. Importer 

Possibly my favorite of the five wines. A solid wine from a classic Riesling region.Very pale straw. In fact, almost clear, with bright highlights.An evanescent bouquet of light fruit, and hints of camphor and spice. The flavor doesn’t match the nose: it’s much bigger, rich, and mouth coating with a touch of sweetness, a touch that vanishes under the balanced, commanding acids that fill this wine out. A lovely sweet-tart effect. Nice long finish, echoing the sweet-tart palate, and adding hints of cooked meat late in the finish. A wow wine. I can imagine this cooling the flame of chilies. Would go beautifully with spicy salmon ceviche, or a swordfish with a lime-cilantro emulsion. A sweet tart balancing act that is all you could ask for with the bright citrus, and vegetable and meat sweetness of Mexican cuisine.

Oh, the 2001s were the best German wines in 30 years. I can’t find them                on the shelves any more. Run to the store. Now! [Granted, this was 16 years ago, and I’m not sure I could afford one any more, even if I found one.] 

Riesling Alsace Grand Cru—Kirchberg De Barr 1998 
Alsace Willm—$16.99 retail

A paradox: Both loud, and subtle at the same time. A thinking wine for complex foods. Very pale straw, bright and lively in the glass. Immediate scents of pears and green apples sweetened with notes of honey. Floating over this—a touch of stone and lanolin. Powdered fruit scents. The attack is immediate: white fruit. Then is shifts to bright acidity. Then it shifts to minerals. Then, spreads back out into white fruit hard-candy, coating the mouth. Full bodied, rich, with acids poking through the now very subtle white fruits. Yet, all these impressions are evanescent, there when you notice them, gone when you take your mind away. Long, long finish of hard candy and smooth acids, exciting salivation. It needs some thought. Matched braised leeks and serrano chilies beautifully, mimicking the sweet-hot balance with its own sweet-tart playfulness.

The above wines represent the two prototypical Rieslings. The German wine has some residual sugar left after vinification, owing to the high level of ripeness (the Auslese designation). It balances with not only fruit, but sugar against the acidity. The Alsatian is bone dry. It balances impressions of fruit sweetness against the acidity. New world wines follow both of these classic traditions for their Rieslings.

Johannisberg Riesling Dry Fingerlakes, New York 2001 
H. Wiemer – $13.95 retail

I know. It’s available mostly on the East Coast, but it shows what the Fingerlakes region can do. And, it goes a long way to show how much the German traditions have influenced our thoughts on Riesling. First, they call it Johannisberg Riesling, and not just “Riesling” to put some distance between the sweeter tasting Mosel and Rheinhessen versions, as well as marking it “Dry.” They really want you to know it’s in the Alsatian mode, i.e. dry. 

Again, it’s a pale straw and lively in the glass. The nose was forward                and full of a nutty sweetness. Apparent and appealing. Then the palate opens full and lush with that nutty sweetness pouring over the tongue and filling the mouth. Bright acidity perks up the lushness, balances the impressions of sweetness. Medium, almost full, bodied with a long, bright acidic finish keeping the nuttiness from laying on the tongue. Again, the balancing act: bright acidity keeping the nut sweetness in check. Perfect with ripe tomato salsas flavored  dishes, or fish spiced with citrus or chilies. Imagine it with chicken in mole sauce.

Pacific Rim Dry Riesling – California/Washington/Mosel 2000
Bonny Doon – $9.99 retail

Again, that word “Dry” to keep skittish American from thinking this is a sugar-laced Mosel. Even though it does contain Mosel juice. Weird? Yes. But, that’s Bonny Doon. Yet, the eccentric Randall Graham consistently makes great, if punny and unusual wines. This Riesling is mostly (60%) Washington State, with 25% from Mosel (for the aromatics) and 15% from San Benito County, California.

Again, it shows the very pale, almost clear straw and liveliness of the variety. The nose comes on as rich, with pears and a touch of honey revealing a subtle citrus bite with just a hint of lanolin. The flavor starts crispness, then moves to white fruit with hints of honeysuckle. Certainly dry, medium bodied with a long finish of honey and citrus, riding the smooth acidity. Saliva squirts and tongue licks teeth.  Think shellfish for pairing. The sweet of the flesh with the bright acids of lemon or vinegar. This wine works the sweet-tart balance with honey and pear against acid. Bonny Doon has spun this brand off on it’s on and they cleave to Washington state as its source. Nothing to worry about: there are some solid Rieslings from up that way. 

Riesling Gold Label Clare Valley (65%) Eden valley (35%) 2002 
Wolf Blass – Beringer Blass (now Berigner Blass Wine Estates)
Wine Estates Importers 
$12.99 retail

In Australia, “Johannisberg” or “Dry” almost never appears on a label. But, its clearly in the Alsatian style and quite dry.
Classic pale, almost clear straw color, with noticeable viscosity. Very up-front aromatics. I could smell it from the glass when it was still sitting on the table. Full of honey-nut sweetness. Quite floral with minerals just underneath. Very pretty and lush when sipped, yet hiding, just below the surface, is a zippy acidity. The flavors start with lushness and a touch of fruit, which gives over quickly to full bore acids. Quite zippy, yet lush. Hints of lime almost like in a key-lime pie. Long finish of lingering lushness and acids. Very bright. Hints of sweet hay late in the finish that stay on the tongue for several minutes. Perfect with meat sweetness balanced with citrus or tomato brightness, or a sweet and spicy preparation. Think chilies rellenos a seared tuna on a cucumber/jicama/blood orange salad with cilantro-serrano chile salsa.


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