February Wine Advice

February 2007
This longer version of Gerald Asher's Wine Advice running in our February issue includes descriptions of all of the recommended wines.


Asparagus is fun to nibble in a warm kitchen when it's blustery outside, but it is notoriously punishing to wine. The most successful match is Riesling, in which an edge of acidity balances any flattering residue of sweetness. Rieslings from New Zealand offer a new perspective on a variety we think we know. For the asparagus with aioli, I like the youthfully fruity 2006 from Lake Chalice in Marlborough (better known for its Sauvignon Blanc). Villa Maria's Cellar Selection '06 is a shade sweeter, but its bright acidity takes care of that, while the Saint Clair 2005 Marlborough Riesling has had time to develop some depth. But perhaps the most interesting of New Zealand's Rieslings come from the Central Otago, on the South Island. They tend to be peachy rather than grapey, with a stony, mineral quality, and they have more weight on the palate. Among my favorites are the almost succulent Peregrine Rastasburn '05, the firmly complex Rippon Lake Wanaka '04, and the slightly sweeter Aurum '06.

These Rieslings are a good match for the arugula and goat cheese ravioli, too, but I would prefer to move on to the Ambra Barco Reale di Carmignano '05, the Tuscan red I chose to go with the Cornish hens that follow. Barco Reale is the "junior" version of Carmignano, one of Tuscany's oldest appellations, having been certified by the Medicis in 1710. When converted to a DOC in 1975, it was authorized to add a little Cabernet Sauvignon to its Sangiovese, long before that liberty was extended to neighboring Chianti, and it's that presence of Cabernet in both Carmignano and Barco Reale that gives them unexpected length and lends structure to their Sangiovese fruit. The 2003 Barco Reale of Villa di Capezzana is beguilingly seductive yet refreshingly brisk; and its Carmignano '03 is both rich and sturdy. Piaggia's Il Sasso Carmignano '04—which includes a little Merlot in addition to Cabernet—has velvet tannins to confirm its plush appeal; and Ambra's 2001 Le Vigne Alte Carmignano Riserva has the aroma, depth, and length that a modicum of Cabernet will always give.


You need to be few to enjoy truly fine wine. Our dinner for two is a perfect opportunity to serve Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs '98 as an aperitif. (It will work well with the crab salad, too.) The graceful style of Taittinger Champagnes is based on their generous proportion of white grapes, always higher than the Champagne norm. (The standard blend in Champagne is two thirds black grapes, often only Pinot Noir, and one third Chardonnay.) So it's not surprising that the firm's very top cuvée should be pure Chardonnay from distinguished sites on the Côte des Blancs. The Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires '95 is a more complex wine, the result of ten years aging in bottle on the lees of its second fermentation before being disgorged and released. Mumm, in producing its Mumm de Cramant, an even rarer Blanc de Blancs, takes exactly the opposite approach: It likes to ship its Mumm de Cramant while it's young and vibrant. In fact, the wine—though made from the grapes of a single year harvested in Cramant, an area recognized as the source of the finest Chardonnay on Champagne's Côte des Blancs—cannot be sold with a vintage, because French law requires that a "vintage" Champagne be held in bottle on its lees for a minimum of three years. The Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs '00 is different again: deeper, longer, and more substantial than the others. That's the Roederer house style, even for its Blanc de Blancs; but in this case the wine is also a reflection of 2000, a particularly generous year.

This intimate meal is also an occasion for a classic California red wine. For the filets mignons, I aimed high with Viader Napa Valley '03. More than 20 years ago, California growers, then in the habit of marketing their best wines only under grape names, looked for a way to present blends of Bordeaux varieties that would emphasize the distinction of a wine without giving prominence to any one particular grape. They came up with the term Meritage, a name still used by many producers. The contribution any one variety makes to the blend often depends on how favorable the year was to that particular grape as well as on its interaction with the other varieties in the wine. The delightful harmony of Viader wines has its foundation in the vineyard and the cellar, of course, but it is also the result of a well-judged balance of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The elegance of the Corley Napa Valley Red '03 comes from an even higher proportion of Cabernet Franc, even though, in any of these wines, varietal amounts are not formulaic. Beaulieu Vineyard Napa Valley Tapestry '03 and Joseph Phelps Insignia '03 both rely on small contributions from Bordeaux varieties other than Cabernet Sauvignon to modify the essentially Cabernet character of their wines. Phelps uses Petit Verdot to add to the structure and intensity of Insignia; Beaulieu uses Merlot to round out any edge in its Tapestry. Beringer relies largely on Merlot for the berrylike fruit and soft texture of its Knights Valley Alluvium '02, and Chimney Rock uses small amounts of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in its Elevage '03 almost as a condiment in its otherwise evenly balanced blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Von Strasser Diamond Mountain Reserve '04, dark and a little mysterious, is one of the rare California wines in which Petit Verdot plays the leading role. It is made only in exceptional years.

gerald asher,
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