Cheap Chinese and Chardonnay

First off, a surprisingly successful wine pairing: the 2006 Hess Collection Su’skol Vineyard Chardonnay, which I wrote about last week, with low-end Chinese food.

L had been out with the girls, doing errands; I’d been on deadline to finish an article, so she’d taken them for cheap neighborhood Chinese, and she’d brought some home. Every time I eat that stuff I feel like I’ve missed a small opportunity to enjoy life—the way I’d feel, for example, if I ate a PowerBar or a protein shake for dinner—but tonight I was just hungry, and it was late. And there was something about the wine’s combination of smooth, buttery mango flavors and a hint of food-friendly acidity that managed to elevate the sweet and salty flavors of mu shu pork and stir-fried chicken and vegetables to the level of, well, not exactly a good meal, but a pleasing experience nonetheless. I guess it’s one I’ll file away: Chardonnay and Chinese.

On the following night, while cleaning chanterelles, I had a very different sort of wine-food experience. Time was, I wouldn’t have bothered to clean chanterelles; it just didn’t faze me to see pine needles and soil tucked away in the nooks and crannies of a mushroom. Hey, I like the taste of forest! But I had an Aglianico recently, a “Cretarossa,” that was so intensely earthy it tasted like dirt. I’m a fan of Aglianico, and of its dirtlike quality in particular, but this one was simply too much, and it seems to have shocked my palate into the realization that there can indeed be too much. As a result, I looked more carefully at my chanterelles, thinking, “OK, in theory I’m in favor of the forest floor … but really? Wouldn’t it be better to scrape out at least a little of that dirt? Doesn’t dirt, after all, have a pretty strong flavor signature?”

The chanterelles, incidentally, went into my second-time-in-a-week pan sauce of veal demi, red wine, butter, shallots, rosemary, and parsley. The first time around, I sautéed the chanterelles separately, and then added them to the sauce at the last minute, pouring the whole deal over grass-fed hanger steaks. The result was astounding: I’d never used a veal demi before, and experimented because of a paean to the stuff in The Elements of Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman. This is a great little book, and written with surprising passion; that’s the whole reason to buy it. Ruhlman is on fire here. Anyway, the veal demi had precisely the effect he promised: a near magical elevation of the dish to some higher plane of deliciousness. The only problem was that I didn’t have quite the right wine. This was the night described a post or two back in which I had opened a Côtes-du-Rhône, a Chianti Classico, an Aglianico (the superearthy one), and a Barbera. They were all good wines, but none had quite the deep unctuousness to mate with my sauce. This time around, though, I got there, with a 2005 Guenoc Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine of full, soft tannins and a core of warm red fruit that tasted blessedly free of arboreal duff. To my mind, this is a very good Cabernet, and one to think of not in terms of huge, mouth-scouring earth and tannins, or exotic complexity, but as a more flavor-dense and caressing blend of plum and cherry and raspberry, a soothing and calming kind of red to relax with all night.

2006 Hess Su’skol Vineyard Chardonnay
The Lowdown:
Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay
Wood: 30 percent new French oak
Alcohol: 14.7 percent
Price: $25 per bottle direct from the winery

Tasting Notes:
To my palate this wine is luxurious and restrained: I get honeysuckle, apple, and butterscotch aromas, a smooth and full mouthfeel, flavors of Meyer lemon and mango, and a hint of vanilla. I also feel that this wine has a pleasing acidity that makes it more food friendly than many wines of its kind.

2005 Guenoc Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon
The Lowdown:
Grapes: 88 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 8 percent Petit Verdot, 4 percent Petite Sirah
Wood: 20 months in French and American oak
Alcohol: 14.5 percent
Price: $18 per bottle direct from the winery

Tasting Notes:
This wine is all about smoothness: no rough edges and no harsh tannins. I detect the wood and raspberry in the nose, I find the wine to have a rich, mouth-filling quality, and I find the fruit to be a concentration of very ripe plum and cherry. I consider this a very good wine, and a very accessible one, a wine to pair with a great range of richly flavored foods.

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