Grape Expectations

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There is no better beverage for a celebratory toast than wine, but the complexity of vintages and varietals can be dizzying.  Written by Amy Paige Condon. Photography by Kala Minko.

I’m hammered.

Maybe that’s an overstatement, but I’m definitely a shade past happily buzzed by the end of a tasting session with Michael Jaeger, Michael Ambrose and Stan Ray—the self-described “cork dorks” at the Savannah Wine Cellar.  This trio of oenophiles tries hundreds of wines a month and is smart enough to spit out the 10 different wines we sample on this day.  By contrast, I’m a novice when it comes to discerning balance, body and bouquet.  I’m all in and here to learn.

Stan, Mike and—er—Mike share a passion for grapes that borders on Comic-Con geekdom, which sets me immediately at ease.  This is my tribe.  The rustic, bricked surroundings, with Russell Crowe’s A Good Year playing on the flat screen television, feel like home.

Stan, who owned the Savannah Wine Shop on Broughton Street until it closed in 2007, can recall the names and nuances of the first fine wines he ever tasted in Nashville in 1992.

“When you first have a well-made wine, it blows your mind,” he says as he swirls a Les Jamelles Sauvignon Blanc in his glass.  After savoring a spicy Senda ’66 tempranillo from La Mancha,Spain, I understand his ardor.

Under the tutelage of this trio, I find I’m a quick study in vine slang.

“That chardonnay was … a little oaky, buttery?”  I offer tentatively.

“Exactly,” affirms Mike A., who has more than 20 years of experience in food and wine pairings for the restaurant and hospitality industry.

He’s just the guy I want to talk to about wines for the holidays—the nonstop, gluttonous feast that begins in November and doesn’t let up until January.  To me, the typical late-year smorgasbord of dense stews, heavily sauced meats and hearty vegetables makes finding the perfect pairing perplexing.

“Go with the sauces,” Mike A. advises.  “The herb for Thanksgiving is sage.  I think rosemary when it comes to Christmas, because it’s one of the few herbs still growing at that time.  I move from pinot noir to dark reds (as the season progresses).  Peppery ones from the Rhone River.”  He goes on to explain that the fats in traditional holiday dishes help to dissolve the tannins in these rich, inky varietals, masking any bitterness and drawing out the grape’s terroir (unique sense of place and taste).

Stan interjects, suggesting rosé as an unexpected but ideal choice.  “When summer is ending, people stop thinking about dry rosés,” he laments.

Wait—there are dry rosés?  My experience is sadly limited to white zinfandels—which, are made from late-harvest red zinfandel grapes that boast high residual sugar.  They mimic traditional rosés, I learn, only in their coppery salmon color.

“It’s a versatile wine,” he continues, “a robust spicy grape that has some structure and depth of flavor to it.”

Michael Jaeger, who opened Savannah Wine Cellar with three other partners, rhapsodizes about the virtues of German riesling—an amber-colored, crisp varietal with good acidity that has notes of pear, apple or citrus depending on the growing region.

“There are thousands of dry rieslings,” he assures me, shattering my preconceptions that everything made with the grape tastes like the sticky-sweet Blue Nun we all got drunk on in high school because it was cheap and fruity and accessible.

Rosés and rieslings for the holidays—who knew?

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A Rosé by Any Other Name

As it turns out, the cork dorks are onto something.  When I put the “wines for the holidays” question to Claude Auerbach, the chef and wine expert at Form, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I’m going to go in one big direction here: rosés,” he says.  “The context of rosé for most people is ‘I don’t want white zinfandel.’  White Merlot was the next trend; it was a little more serious, but it was still a fruity wine.  If you go to the Mediterranean, such as France or Spain or Italy, there are tons of true rosés served in the seaside cafés, and the reason is that they go with a great variety of food.  These wines are bone dry.”

Claude explains that any red grape can be used to make a rosé, praising a South African Mulderbosch made from cabernet that he carried during the summer and a Lioco from California, derived from carignan.

“If you close your eyes, whatever the grapes are that make that wine, you’ll taste them.  You’ll get the nuances,” he says.

Those nuances allow rosé to pair with almost any food.

“If you’re not sure what somebody is having for dinner,” Claude enthuses, “the best way to go is rosé.  I don’t care what time of year it is.”

Rethinking Riesling

“Drink more rosé; drink more riesling,” Christian Depken, the owner of Le Chai (pronounced “la shay”) Galerie du Vin, concurs.  He traffics exclusively in Old World(read: European) grower-producer wines because, he says, they are more reflective of the time and place in which they were made.  They are all about terroir.

He should know.  Christian spends his days reading, researching, tasting and writing about wines, keeping copious notes in a spiral notebook and cataloguing vine and soil photos from his travels on his computer.

“To say this is a full-on obsession probably would not be too strong a word,” he confesses sheepishly.

Christian claims that German riesling is the most versatile, food-friendly wine in the world, hands down.

“It’s well-suited to spicier dishes,” he enthuses.  It does very well with Indian food.”

Christian explains that German cuisine is heavy on pork, especially in the Mosel Valley where the majority of rieslings are made.  He tells me that a Kabinett—the driest of the rieslings because it comes from the first harvest of grapes—would complement a Christmas ham.  He also lavishes praise on the rieslings from the Alsace region of France and the Wachau Valley in Austria.

But this Eurocentric enthusiast is equally passionate about sparkling wines.

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“Proper Champagne is the best food wine next to riesling,” he asserts.  He pulls an empty bottle of Pierre Peters Blanc de Blanc off the top of a bookshelf where he displays bottles that hold memories—totems of the places he’s been and the people with whom he’s raised a glass.

“It’s more than a celebratory drink; it just hasn’t caught on with the general public.”

He encouraged a friend to serveChampagnewith deep-fried turkey one Thanksgiving.  It was a hit.

“It’s the business,” he enthuses.  “If you ever get a chance to do this—greasy fried chicken and a bottle ofChampagne—it will bring you to your knees.”

What better place to give thanks?

To find out what wines pair best with roasted or deep-fried turkey, spiral-sliced ham or Claxton fruit cake, pick up an issue of Savannah magazine, on stands now!