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Ancient Wine Techniques, Simple Dishes

They're sometimes cloudy, oddly hued and more savory than fruity—and sommeliers can't get enough of them. F&W's Kristin Donnelly explores the world of edgy wines made with ancient wine techniques and shares the simple dishes that set them off best.

"Edgy" is not an official category of wine. Yet I haven't found a better way to describe all the wines I've tried lately that are a little challenging. Often cloudy, oddly hued and more savory than fruity, they are made by a growing number of producers who favor ancient wine techniques—some thousands of years old—over modern methods. You've heard of heirloom vegetables; these are heirloom wines.

Wine geeks have fervently embraced edgy wines. "Sometimes I ask myself if I like a wine because it's odd, or if it's odd because I like it," jokes Lou Amdur, the owner of Lou, a Hollywood wine bar known for its provocative list.

Philosophically, I'm a fan of edgy wines. I like that they're "natural" (and then some): Producers generally use wild yeasts and grapes farmed with little or no chemicals. I'm pleased by how different they are from all the fruity, polished wines that dominate store shelves. And I enjoy their link to history: I imagine some taste like the wines Thomas Jefferson poured with his Monticello dinners, or even the ones Julius Caesar drank at his victory feasts in Rome.

Edgy wines aren't always instantly delicious, but I love the way they evolve as you taste them—like a book or a movie that starts slowly but gradually gets you hooked. These cerebral wines aren't necessarily what you want on a Tuesday after work, but they can be great on a leisurely Sunday.

Some edgy winemakers have been using the same techniques for over a century. A good example is R. López de Heredia in the Rioja region of Spain, which ages all its wines in oak barrels for years—even, unusually, its rosé. Its 2000 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva rosé (the current release) has savory notes from oak aging, plus compelling flavors of dried rose petals and fresh earth, and a vibrant acidity that helps it pair well with food. A great gateway into edgy wines, it's relatively easy to find, accessible and a reasonable $29 a bottle.

From there, the choices get wackier. Working on the border between Slovenia and Italy's Friuli region is a group of winemakers newly obsessed with ancient ways. Josko Gravner may be the most famous: Since 2001, he has been aging his wines in beeswax-coated earthenware pots, or amphorae, like the kind used 5,000 years ago. Most wineries have hulking racks of barrels; the Josko Gravner estate has a bunch of holes in the ground that look like a giant game of Whac-A-Mole (Gravner buries amphorae up to their necks to keep them cool).

I've heard some people suggest that the use of amphorae might just be romantic folly, or worse, a marketing tool. But Frank Cornelissen, who produces wines at his eponymous estate near Sicily's Mount Etna, believes the pots fit in with his hyper-natural approach. His goal is to add nothing to the wine—absolutely no fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides in the vineyard, and no sulphur, ever. He ages his reds in apoxy-glazed amphorae because they don't impart any of the tannins or flavors that oak barrels do. "His dream material is porcelain, but he hasn't found anybody who can make the right kind of vessel," says Cornelissen's US importer, Zev Rovine.

Another edgy category is affectionately called "orange wine." These are white wines that are made like reds: The juice stands on the skins, seeds and stems for weeks, or even months, so the wine picks up a golden or orangey-pink hue and some serious tannins. I remember how shocked I was the first time I got a mouthful of those tannins; I couldn't believe I'd found a white wine that could pair as well with meat as a red.

"Orange wines fill in the gaps when pairing, because you get the acidity of a white and the tannins of a red," says Jared Brandt of Donkey & Goat winery in Berkeley, California. Last fall, he and his wife, Tracey, released a cloudy orange wine: a floral, spicy Roussanne. "We recently had a tofu dish that a red wine would have obliterated, and a rich lamb dish that would have overwhelmed a white," Brandt says. He opted to pair both with an orange wine from Friuli's Stanko Radikon, one of Gravner's acolytes, and it worked brilliantly.

Some people might argue that rosé can be just as versatile with food as an orange wine. Pax Mahle, who makes an orange Pinot Gris under his Wind Gap Wines label, replies that orange wines are funkier tasting (and thus more interesting) than rosés. "Rather than something that goes with your picnic, orange wines go with your truffle pasta," he says. Essentially, the wines have umami.

Since edgy wines can be complex, sommeliers generally recommend pairing them with straightforward food. "These complicated wines don't need complicated dishes. That would result in a complicated mess," says Paul Grieco, beverage director at New York City's Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bars.

The simple dishes that follow, from restaurants and wine bars all over the US, were designed to go with edgy wines. I should note that some of these wines are expensive and fairly hard to find; sites like wine-searcher.com and snooth.com are a good place to hunt. But if you'd rather not troll the Internet, I promise these dishes will be equally good with wines that are easier to categorize: red and white.

Ancient Wine Techniques: The Traditionalists

These producers have been making wine the same way for hundreds of years.

Ancient Wine Techniques: Crispy Chicken Thighs with Golden Raisin Compote

Jacques Puffeney

Crispy Chicken Thighs with Golden Raisin Compote

Producers in France's Jura region age whites in oak barrels for years. The resulting wines have both bracing acidity and a rich texture that Brad Ball, owner of Social Restaurant + Wine Bar in Charleston, South Carolina, loves with these crispy chicken thighs.

Ancient Wine Techniques: Grilled Baby Octopus with Roasted Peppers and Potatoes

R. López de Heredia

Grilled Baby Octopus with Roasted Peppers and Potatoes

Antonio Gianola, the former wine director at Catalan in Houston, will open his own wine bar, Wild Vine, this spring, focusing on super-traditional European wines. One of his favorites is the R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva rosé from the Rioja region of Spain, aged for years in oak barrels. Even the 2000 vintage—ancient for a rosé—is still lively enough for charred octopus with silky roasted peppers. Inspired by a recipe in Wine Bar Food by Tony and Cathy Mantuano, Gianola poaches the octopus slowly before grilling it until crisp.

Ancient Wine Techniques: The Revivalists

The winemakers here have recently rediscovered ancient methods.

Ancient Wine Techniques: Smoked-Trout Salad with Mustard Dressing

Vinoterra

Smoked-Trout Salad with Mustard Dressing

"I never met an extreme wine I didn't like," says Lou Amdur of Lou in L.A. One of the wackiest he's ever tasted is the amphorae-aged Vinoterra Kisi, made from the indigenous Georgian white grape Kisi. It's unexpectedly delicious with smoked fish.

Ancient Wine Techniques: The Experimentalists

For these producers, making wine means combining ancient and avant-garde techniques.

Ancient Wine Techniques: Pappardelle with Duck Ragù

Frank Cornelissen Estate

Pappardelle with Duck Ragù

Paul Grieco of Terroir in Manhattan is one of the few sommeliers to serve wines from Sicily's Frank Cornelissen, who favors a hyper-natural approach and the use of amphorae for red wines. Chef Marco Canora's pasta with braised duck is just the thing with Cornelissen's red; this version calls for duck confit.

Ancient Wine Techniques: Roasted Rack of Veal with Root Vegetables

Josko Gravner

Roasted Rack of Veal with Root Vegetables

Frasca Food and Wine restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, is inspired by the Friuli region of Italy; co-owner and wine director Bobby Stuckey serves a number of edgy Friulian wines. This veal dish is particularly good with slightly tannic "orange" wines like Gravner's Ribolla Gialla.

Ancient Wine Techniques: Seared Tuna Steaks with Citrusy Soy Sauce

The Scholium Project

Seared Tuna Steaks with Citrusy Soy Sauce, Crisp Sushi-Rice Cakes, Asian Cucumber Salad

A former Greek philosophy professor, Abe Schoener of The Scholium Project in Suisun Valley, California, has a cult following for his experimental methods. One of Schoener's famous wines is The Prince in His Caves, a Sauvignon Blanc he ferments on its skins, then ages in oak. Wine director John Locke of Soif in Santa Cruz, California, thinks the luscious, funky wine is best with funky flavors, like in the savory citrus-soy glaze here.

Published February 2011
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