Every bottle has a story

I am not a wine expert, but with each bottle I try and share with friends, I learn more. Wine is an exceptional social drink; it is the marijuana of alcoholic beverages because it must be shared. I seek to share with you my thoughts and experiences as I drink the wine in my closet, as well as my enthusiasm for the finds that come my way and the excellent values that I find. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too, so please share!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Behold the lamb of Halloween

I got the itch to cook an opulent meal again, as I had a few wines that were likely ready to drink. I also wanted to prepare a pumpkin soup fit for the season. The main course was to be a boneless leg of lamb prepared with goat cheese, spinach and pine nuts. I also had fresh beets to make a delicious beet greens dish, but alas, I forgot about the beets themselves and they stayed in the refrigerator. And there were also some simple skillet potatoes cooked with rosemary.

The wine selected was the 2004 Damilano Barolo Lecinquevigne, something that Wine Spectator described as a full-bodied wine with round, chewy tannins, “but turns slightly hollow on the finish.” I’ve only drank a Barolo once before, several years ago at an Italian restaurant in Chicago’s Loop with my sister, Roberta, and her husband Jack. Barolo has been called the “king of wines,” however by 2007 the king’s thrown was being usurped.

Lettie Teague writes in Food and Wine that, “the Barolos of only two decades ago bear little resemblance to the wines of today.” A new breed of winemakers had decided that Barolo needed a new look and feel with some Cabernet added to the traditional Nebbiolo grape, then aged in French oak rather than the Solvenian casks used by traditionalists. Interestingly, it was the Frenchman Louis Oudart who, back in the mid-19th century, left his mark on this Piedmont wine after being solicited by the Marchesa of Barolo. The modernists also wanted a wine that could be drank young, whereas the traditionalists required barrel aging for a minimum of two years, followed by further aging in the bottle.

Interestingly, Barolo has earned the moniker of being the Burgundy of Italy. As Teague writes: “First, Nebbiolo is a lot like Pinot Noir, the great red grape of Burgundy, in that it is also thin-skinned, difficult to grow and possessed of beguiling aromas. Second, Barolo, like Burgundy, requires its followers to memorize many names—not only dozens of producers (traditional and otherwise) but also names of communes and vineyards. And finally, like Burgundy, Barolo can be quite inconsistent. The highs are high and the lows, very low. And it doesn’t come cheap.”

The Damilano follows the traditionalists’ style using Nebbiolo only, selected from five different estates. Like a Pinot Noir, the wine’s color in the glass is a deep cranberry that is easily seen through. It was very subtle and friendly, working well with the strong flavors in the lamb. As the meal went on, there was a period when the tannins burst forward, giving this wine some real muscle, but by the time the meal was ending, those tannins had softened again and the wine finished delicate and smooth. Wine Spectator, I thought, gave it an undeserved 88 points; I thought it was a 90-pointer. And it was definitely a good find at $34, as its normal retail price is pegged at $50.

I rate this with a 9 on my 10-point scale on the left.

Here’s the recipe for the stuffed leg of lamb.

Take a 5-pound boneless leg of lamb, untie it and spread it out on a cutting board. Cut slits into the meat at about 2-inch intervals to help the meat lay flat. Cut away any excess fat. Cover the meat with plastic and pound the hell out of it until it’s about three-quarters of an inch thick. Salt and pepper it, then place a layer of freshly washed spinach greens on the meat. On top of that, crumble goat cheese, about 6 ounces-worth. Sprinkle pine nuts on top of that. Then roll the meat back up tightly and tie it with kitchen twine.

In a dish, mix a cup of flour with 1 tablespoon each of salt and pepper, and 1 teaspoon each of thyme and fennel seeds. Roll the lamb in this mixture until it is evenly coated. Then in a cast iron skillet, heat sesame oil until hot. Sear the lamb on all sides, including the ends, in the hot oil. When finished, leave the lamb in the skillet and place it into a 400-degree preheated oven. Cook about 40 minutes until the internal temperature is 140 degrees for medium rare. Let it rest outside of the over before slicing and serving.

A soup fit for a great pumpkin

The aperitif planned for my Halloween-eve lamb dinner was a curried pumpkin soup I had made in the past. Given the spiciness, I thought a semi-sweet wine like a Riesling or Gewurztraminer would work, but I wasn’t sure which one or what particular wine to buy. I’m not very familiar with either varietal. So off to the wine store I went and I asked one of the fellows there what would be a good choice. I was standing in the German aisle as he suggested that a Gewurztraminer would work better with the spicy pumpkin soup, but was I set on a German wine? Would I consider an Alsace wine? Yes, why not? While my experience with German Rieslings is limited, I have no experience with wines from the French region of Alsace. I was intrigued.

What he showed me was the 2008 Weinbach Reserve Personnelle. The store clerk told me that the wine was drier than what I might normally associate with a Gewurztraminer, but would still have the peach and tangerine flavors that would go well with the soup. Plus, he said the wine had its own spiciness that would complement the curry in the soup, a sort of spice-on-spice play that should work excellently.

His recommendation was spot on. Pairing the Gewurztraminer, with its smooth fruit and spicy texture, with the curried pumpkin soup, which had its own spice kick as well as some apples blended into the mixture, allowed each item to fully express itself without dominating the other.

Wine Spectator rates this with an 89, saying that it can be cellared for another four years. It's pegged to retail at about $29, but I picked this one up for a bit less.

I rate this with a 9 on my 10-point scale at the left.

Here’s the recipe for the curried pumpkin soup, which I found in the 1996 edition of Better Homes and Gardens Annual Recipes.

This soup can be served in a pumpkin. However, the small pumpkins I had selected for serving the soup were cooked too long and became soft, so it was served in bowls.

Take one large can of plain pumpkin and mix together with 32 ounces of chicken broth in a large saucepan or crock pot. The recipe calls for a lot more broth, but you can start with 32 ounces and add more if you want to. Stir together and begin to heat over medium. As this begins to heat up, peel and core two baking-type apples. Chop into bits and add to soup. Follow this with one medium to large carrot, chopped up as well, 2 teaspoons of freshly grated ginger root, a half-teaspoon of cumin, and 1-2 teaspoons of curry powder. Heat all this, stirring occasionally, until it begins to bubble, then simmer until the carrot and apple is cooked.

Let the soup cool for a while. Next, transfer about 3 to 4 cups of soup to a blender and blend until smooth. Repeat until all the soup has been blended and returned to the pan. Reheat the soup. While reheating, fry two strips of bacon (I prefer thick cut) until crispy. Remove and in the remaining drippings (you can pour some off if there is too much), sautee about a quarter-cup of chopped onion in the drippings with two tablespoons of sugar. Crumble the bacon and stir it into the onion.

Serve the soup and sprinkle with the bacon and onion on top. You can also add croutons to the bacon and onion while they’re in the pan.