Written by John Kerr
Essential wines to keep around the house for any occasion.
Where does the time go?
We all lead such busy lives. And with the demands of the day, there’s hardly enough time to get it all done. The most common casualties seem to be life’s pleasurable but essential tasks. To squeeze in the responsibilities of the day, it’s often mealtime that gets shortchanged.
To whip together a satisfying meal in record time, the savvy home cook keeps a small stockpile of staples that can be used in a variety of dishes. And so should you. So even in the busiest of times and with the barest cupboards, you can quickly construct a simple but satisfying meal. In our home, that pantry includes pasta, onions, a can of tomatoes, and a bag of lettuce.
Similarly, you don’t want to be caught short when it comes to wine. Your pantry ought to include a collection of versatile wines that can be served with just about any meal or at any occasion. You don’t need a vast cellar to accomplish this task. A small arsenal of about four to six well-chosen wines should get the job done. Your collection might change a bit with the seasons (rosé, anyone?), but I think you’ll find that a core group of wines will get you through the year.
I’ll be recommending a few grapes and wines that you may not have considered. But when you’re in an adventurous mood, whether at the restaurant or wine shop, I encourage you to give them a try. I think you’ll find at least one new favorite that will get you through many a meal.
Having said that, I remind you to be true to your own taste buds. No one tells you how to cook your steak. And no one tells you what flavor ice cream you should eat. So don’t let someone tell you what wines you should serve. Drink what you like. End of story.
I am a big fan of Cabernet Sauvignon but it’s not high on my list of versatile wines. The king of grapes it may be, but it’s more tannic than most. Cabernet’s classic pairing is steak or aged cheese. The pairing is perfect because Cabernet’s tannins and acidity cut through the fat in steak and cheese. And elements in steak and cheese soften the wine’s tannins. But this perfect match is somewhat limited because few other foods have casein or the other elements. Without them, Cabernet Sauvignon can seem too big or rough.
The next time you’re in your favorite wine shop, ask the staff to point you towards a versatile red. I bet they’ll lead you to the Pinot Noir aisle. And they’d be right – Pinot Noir pairs with just about anything, even many fish dishes. But if you like a heavier red, I think you might prefer a red blend from southern Rhône in your pantry. The less expensive ones are best for our mission since they don’t have the oak that can limit versatility. And many Rhône reds are heavier than Pinot Noir, but not so heavy that they overpower the meal. If you want the heaviest of Rhônes, lean towards those with less Grenache and more Syrah or Mourvèdre. Consider Domaine Amido Cotes du Rhône Villages Signargues at about $15.
So what is the white counterpart to our red Rhônes? I know many of you will disagree when I say Chardonnay. It has become a divisive grape in the last few years, and some people won’t even try it when I offer them a glass.
What happened to Chardonnay is exactly what happened to American cars in the 1950s. One car maker added tail fins to a model and the people loved it. Next year, the competition made the fins even bigger. Fins grew to gargantuan proportions until the craze crashed in the early sixties. California Chardonnay went through the same one-upmanship with butter and oak. Soon, the wine industry was referring to California Chardonnay as Chateau Two-by-Four.
Before you swear off Chardonnay, try an unoaked or low oak version from France’s Burgundy region. Unoaked Chardonnay is exceptionally versatile, riding down the middle with enough acidity to pair with most foods, but round and soft enough to enjoy on its own. My go-to Chardonnay is Domaine Dupeuble Pere et Fils Beaujolais Blanc at about $18. Beaujolais is technically southern Burgundy. But because it doesn’t have the Burgundy name the price is lower, meeting another requirement of our pantry. And if you want to go even lower, there are several French and California unoaked Chardonnays such as Thomas Henry Chardonnay at about $12.
This grape is now being rediscovered by America’s wine lovers and the movement is on to replant Chenin Blanc back in its original vineyards.”
Okay, we have our two exceptionally versatile wines for our foundation. Now we’ll add a couple more to the pantry that are versatile but perhaps a bit more focused.
For your other white, I would add a Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc is a chameleon grape that can be made in many styles, from lean to fruity, dry to sweet. It was once one of the most prevalent grapes in California but was uprooted to make way for the newly popular Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is now being rediscovered by America’s wine lovers and the movement is on to replant Chenin Blanc back in its original vineyards.
I suggest trying a Chenin Blanc from South Africa. The style of their Chenin Blanc floats somewhere between that of California and France. So you experience a style with a bit more fruit but also minerality in the finish. For those who can’t imagine serving an off dry wine, the fruit in Chenin Blanc can give some perception of sweetness. This perception pairs better than most with fare that is hot or spicy, such as Asian and Indian cuisine. My favorite value is MAN Chenin Blanc. At 91 points, it’s a steal at about $13.
Your second red needs to pair with America’s favorite cuisine, Italian food. With rare exception, it is Italy’s wine that pairs with Italian food. That’s because so much of Italian food is centered on the tomato. Tomatoes are one of the most acidic foods around, and pretty much only the acidity in Italian wines can match it.
With your own well-stocked pantry, you’ll be ready for any occasion.
I think your versatile Italian red should be Montepulciano. This grape is the classic wine for pizza. But it also pairs beautifully with pasta or anything topped with a red sauce. This includes barbeque, one of the essential food groups of North Carolina. And it’s the softest and fruitiest of the Italian wines, so it’s also great for parties or porch sipping.
The good news is that Montepulciano is one of the most economical wines you can buy. Nearly all can be acquired in the $10 to $15 range. The most I’ve ever paid for a Montepulciano is $20. The higher cost was due to the oak used in making the wine. It’s a great wine, but remember, you want no or low oak for versatility and to let the fruit shine through. One of our most popular is Garofoli Colle Ambro, a Montepulciano blend at about $15.
I’ll finish by adding a sparkling wine to the mix. With this wine in your pantry you’re ready for any celebration. And sparkling wine is arguably the most versatile wine around. The acidity helps it pair with just about anything and the bubbles cleanse your palate before the next bite. The best pairing for sparkling wine are foods with texture. Serve sparkling with dishes made with pastry such as empanadas. Or pour with potato chips or French fries for a pairing that defies description.
Pay attention, Champagne lovers. I am about to cut your annual Champagne bill in half. Hard to believe? It won’t be after you’ve tried Jansz sparkling rose from Tasmania.
Since all the vineyards in Champagne are owned by someone, a major Champagne producer searched the world looking for additional land that could produce a sparkling with the style and quality of Champagne. They found it literally on the other side of the planet in Tasmania.
Eventually, the distance made the vineyards too much trouble for them and the Champagne house sold the land. But the new owner has kept up the quality. You can now acquire Jansz’s Champagne experience for about $23. Yes, you can get a decent sparkler for $15 or less. But Jansz is the best bargain in this category we’ve found in years.
These are the wines you’ll find in my pantry. I hope my suggestions help you build your own stockpile. With your own well-stocked pantry, you’ll be ready for any occasion and put an end to those last minute trips to the wine shop.
John Kerr is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.
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