We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
– Joan Didion

I’ve been thinking about what to say during the pandemic when someone walks into the shop and asks what wine they should drink with dinner.
Something different, I say, as “different” seems to describe most of our lives right now, and I think most of us want something different because we want at least that consistency.

The Central Paradox

It seems to me that we are sharing the experience of the pandemic, but we often feel alone. So open that bottle of Pommard, Gevrey-Chambertin, or Barolo you’ve been saving and sit on your porch–if the Air Quality Index allows–and open it. Say hello to the neighbors you didn’t know you had.

I’ve been thinking about what words to use to tell you…
…that the wine you drink today will chart more than your future. That each bottle you drink and think about will give you more language. That you’ll be able to talk about Rothko and the Faiyum mummy portraits.

Pavane

Silence is a shape that has passed.
-Wallace Stevens

Every glass is a shape, a still life, a piece of music, the curl of green in the tree outside your window. The last plum.

What Do We Really Want to Talk About When We Talk About Wine?

We want, it nearly always seems, to talk about love or the garden. Or the moon dervishing in her scarves.

Say…
…you’re at my house for a dinner party. We’re on the deck. It’s about 7:15, and the Champagne is, sadly, though not tragically, nearly gone. And while everyone is enjoying it, some of us are sort-of-secretly hoping a brave soul will socially distance the bottle and save the remaining third until we’ve had time to try the trousseau. Surely, the Champagne will taste different after a glass of snappy fall-fruit red from the Jura.

I never want to get in the way of anyone’s enjoyment, but too often we don’t try out new ideas, or revisit old convictions. Making alterations in our accepted patterns seems especially important during these times because we might find better solutions or even see problems for the first time.

So why not save the Champagne for a while and see how it goes with the entrée? Or–open a bottle of Ulysse Collin’s Blanc de Noirs ‘Les Maillons’ Extra Brut NV Champagne to go with that piece of grilled rib eye.

Explanations (i)

The drinker is part of the wine. Q. E. D.

Explanations (ii)

We tell ourselves stories because we need to follow a narrative to make sense of the weeks; we tell ourselves stories because we need to lie to ourselves to deal with the pandemic, the fires, the inevitable shifts in our country’s foreign and domestic policies.

since feeling is first
We want, it so often seems, to say what we’re thinking. It takes practice to articulate what our bodies want.

A Lakeside Cabin
All worthwhile subjects exist in part and in paradox.

The less we understand about a subject, the longer the conversation can be about that subject. That’s a good thing. We want to talk about things we want to understand more about, like wine, cosmology, or the price of furniture–though the letter involves rickety logic. Each bottle is its own story, its own beginning, seemingly isolated but sipped along the same shore, our toes trailing the cold clear water.

Explanations (iii)

We are at times only essence.

Two Concepts to Help You Learn About Wine

  1. There is a relationship between what you know and what you like.
  2. It is the strangeness of Goodnight Moon that appeals most.

What We’re After, After All

An accurate application of language to experience. Something new, perhaps? A glass of kadarka or jacquere? Lamb chops at 1:00 AM?

[Stay tuned for Part II of this essay, coming next month.]

Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum (“Wine of Kings, King of Wines”) was the famously enthusiastic pronouncement by King Louis XV as he proffered a glass of Hungarian Tokaji to Madame de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of his court. (Yes, that was a real position in Ancien Régime France.) Louis and his main squeeze were enjoying a sweet wine in the mid-18th century. Though traditional Tokaji remains among the noblest sweet wines in the world, the habits and attention of most of us–noble, bourgeois, and plebs alike–have turned to dry wines.

Luckily for us, modern Hungary is here to help, with a dazzling plethora of characterful indigenous grapes. The white wines tend to have some body and texture, along with prominent acidity and minerality. They’re also low-alcohol; all of the wines presented here are under 13 percent. The words on the labels may be unfamiliar and a little challenging to pronounce, but don’t let that scare you off. With a wide array of wine regions (many of them with volcanic soils) and small, family-run producers, Hungary offers so much to discover and enjoy for those of us who love French, Italian, Iberian, and domestic white wines.

This month, we’ll discuss white wines from Tokaj (TOKE-eye), in northeast Hungary, with a little chunk of Slovakia. (Tokaj is the name of the region; Tokaji is the wine from that region.) Next month, we’ll cover white wines from four other Hungarian wine regions.

2018 Bodrog Borműhely Dry Tokaj ($16)

Bodrog is the main river running through Tokaj, and Borműhely (bor-MEW-hay) means “wine workshop.” This wine, made with 70 percent furmint and 30 percent hárslevelű (Tokaj’s two most important grapes), is organically farmed, then fermented and aged in stainless steel. Salty, high acid, and fully dry, with some texture, it’s utterly delicious and an outrageous deal for an organic wine of this quality and character. If you enjoy fresh, young Loire Valley chenin blanc, give this a try. Drink it with clams, chicken, or something spicy, or even as an aperitif if you like something with a little body. (12.5 percent alcohol)

2018 Tokaj Nobilis Furmint Barakonyi ($24)

This wine is all furmint, the most noble variety in Hungary and the backbone of most Tokaji, whether dry or sweet. Tokaj native Sarolta Bárdos created this family winery in 1999, and her vineyards are also certified organic. She is among the new generation leading the quality renaissance in Tokaj and part of a long tradition of woman winemakers in Hungary (where the men historically worked in the vineyards, and the women ran the cellars).

This wine comes from the single vineyard Barakonyi, which has been officially recognized as first-class (premier cru, more or less) since 1737. Fermentation and aging are done in Hungarian oak barrels. It delivers pear-like, slightly honeyed fruit with an almost icy minerality and a hint of oak. There’s texture, elegance, purity, and length; those who enjoy white Burgundy or restrained California chardonnay will like this a lot. (Plus, where are you going to find one of those from a premier cru vineyard for $24?!) Drink it with richer fish and poultry dishes, pork, and spicy enchiladas. (12.9 percent alcohol)

2015 Barta Tokaji Furmint Öreg Király Dűlő ($32)

Here’s another 100 percent furmint dry Tokaji, this one from the equally storied, first-class Öreg Király Dűlő (Old King Vineyard). It’s the highest-altitude, steepest, and most distinctly terraced vineyard in Tokaj. The several extra years in the bottle give you the opportunity to see how dry Tokaji ages. Winemaker Vivien Újvári, yet another woman in charge of a Hungarian cellar, uses organic farming and minimalist winemaking techniques, aging her wines in larger Hungarian oak barrels. 

This wine is beautifully expressive and vibrant now, with a more smoky minerality and a saltier, quite savory palate. If Tokaj Nobilis Barakonyi echoes some of the qualities of white Burgundy, the analog for Barta Öreg Király Dűlő might be aged Loire chenin blanc. It’s a perfect accompaniment for white meats and game birds of all species, smoked salmon, and Asian dishes without too much sweetness. (12.7 percent alcohol)

2016 Patricius Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos (500ml, $45)

OK, this is an article about dry Hungarian white wines, but it would be a dereliction of vinous duty not to mention our one sweet wine from Hungary: Tokaji Aszú. (Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum!) It’s an aristocratically hedonistic and spectacularly delicious nectar made in part from individual berries (mostly furmint, plus in this case some hárslevelű and other local grapes zéta and kövérszőlő) affected by botrytis, a so-called “noble rot” that shrivels, concentrates, and transforms the flavor of the grapes. You’ll find notes of dried fruits, especially stone fruits, along with a thousand other flavors, fruit and otherwise. 

There’s no need to analogize here, because Tokaji Aszú is simply the greatest dessert wine in the world (sorry, Sauternes). It will sing with blue cheeses, chocolate, and even potato chips. (The last pairing is my invention, as far as I can tell. Try it with José Andrés potato chips, made by San Nicasio in Andalucía, Spain, and available at Market Hall Foods.) Or simply have this Tokaji Aszú on its own as a very special way to end a meal, perhaps with some dried apricots. (11.5 percent alcohol)

Many thanks to Eric Danch of Danch & Granger Selections, the importer and distributor of all of these wines, for his help with this article.

 

There is something very unassuming about the intricacies of Sicily, given its vast, arid landscape, rustic way of life, and history as a cultural crossroads. The people of this island, situated at Italy’s southern tip, take enormous pride in the simple and beautiful treasures that the land has to offer.

View overlooking Cefalù

It is hard to find another place that has been impacted by such a wide array of cultural influences: Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Romans, Spanish, British, and French among them. Over time, these influences have helped spawn some of Italy’s most cherished agricultural products. Their olive oils, from several different parts of the island, are regarded as some of the finest around. World-class chocolates hail from Modica, and Sicilian nuts are highly prized as well, especially the pistachio, hazelnut, and pine nut (actually a seed). Of course, the wines of Sicily are no exception.

Mount Etna, located in the northeast, is an active volcano that is home to a diverse range of vineyards, some of them planted as high as 1,000 meters up the slopes. These infertile basalt soils are rich in magnesium and iron, which provide little organic matter for the vines. This produces low yields and higher-quality grapes. 

The red nerello mascalese grape is king in this region, exhibiting characteristics of both nebbiolo and pinot noir, while typically boasting some serious structure and rusticity. Carricante is the focus of mineral-driven Etna Bianco, while catarratto, inzolia, minella bianca, grecanico, chardonnay, and other local varieties are sometimes called on to round out the blend. At Paul Marcus Wines, we’re fortunate to work with some of Etna’s most esteemed producers, including Girolamo Russo, Terre Nere, Benanti, and Graci.

The Val di Noto, in the island’s southeastern region, is home to some of my absolute favorite wines on the planet. Vittoria is famous for its blend of frappato and nero d’avola, called Cerasuolo di Vittoria. These wines can offer an amazing balance of freshness, aromatic complexity, and red-toned earthiness that just screams “Sicilia.”

A somewhat newer producer to me, from the town of Pachino just south of Siracusa, is Mortellito. I’ve quickly come to appreciate Mortellito’s wines for their transparency and honesty. There is a rosso made mostly from frappato, with a touch of nero d’avola. It is bright, yet rustic, and not overly floral like frappato can be for some palates. They also make a couple of white wines, including one–comprised mostly of grillo with a bit of catarratto–that reminds me of melons and citrus zest, with a pistachio earthiness and a solid backbone of acidity.

 

 

COS is a winery in Vittoria that was started in 1980 by three friends. Forty years on, their wines have endured; in fact, I feel like they’re making some of their best wines as of late. Their frappato is a jewel, with a bit more depth than most. COS is quite well known for the wines they make in pithos, or amphora–terracotta vessels buried in the ground to age wines before bottling. These wines, just like Mortellito’s, have an amazing freshness and lift for wines grown in such a warm climate. Thank you, white, limestone-rich soils! 

 

 

*****

In the late spring of 2017, my family and I traveled to this uniquely gorgeous locale. So much of the island feels as though you’ve stepped back in time–at least a generation, if not two or three.

I still remember our stay above the picturesque northern coastal town of Cefalù, where we floated in the serene waters of the Mediterranean with our young daughter. (I could really go for that right about now.) The Arab-Norman cathedral in the town square is a real jaw-dropper, too. I also recall spending a late afternoon, bleeding into early evening, on our rooftop terrace in Ortigia, sipping Graci’s Etna Bianco and Russo’s Etna Rosato all the while.

One of my fondest memories was our visit to winemaker Ciro Biondi in Trecastagni, a small town on the southeast side of Mount Etna–an absolute gem of an experience. It was a hot day, not too uncommon in these parts, and we slowly navigated our way up the narrow roads. When we finally arrived, Ciro greeted us with such warmth and took us on a walk to the vineyard just above his house. 

The house was once a palmento–these were traditional winemaking structures, usually just one big room or so, that housed the area for the grapes to be received from the vineyards, then pressed and gravity-fed into its next vessel (concrete, wood, or terracotta). We spent an hour or two tasting a few of his wines on his patio, complete with outdoor kitchen, in the middle of his vineyard. He took us back down to his house and made us pasta for lunch–noodles made from local grains, breadcrumbs, a bit of garlic, fennel fronds, and lots of Etna olive oil. 

Just a few humble ingredients of the utmost quality to make a dish shine: the true Sicilian way.