Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Getting started

My earliest wine memory is Italian. A Sydney Christmas, I would have been thirteen, left with the dishes to do with everyone else in bed. A bottle of Donelli Lambrusco left out on the bench, amid the piles of pudding bowls and pavlova crumbs. A little sip... this stuff tastes alright. A sink of dishes, a bit of wine, more dishes, pour some more wine.

Nothing broken, slept as well as ever on Christmas. Years later, back to Italian wine and still find something quietly satisfying about doing dishes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pork skin, meatballs, red wine

What to do with a small piece of home-made pancetta, some pasta and a bottle of red wine?

Take a piece of pancetta, rind-on, about the size of the back of your hand. Soak it in water for a while. During the soak, braise some finely-diced onion, carrot and celery in a little olive oil until soft, adding some bay leaves, thyme and garlic towards the end. Lift the heat, add some white wine, bubble it off for a bit then top up with stock and chopped tomato. Add the soaked pancetta and cook the sauce out very slowly for seven hours or so (try a simmer pad).

Make some meatballs. All pork mince is fine. Get some garlic into the pork mix plus seasoning and grated zest of a lemon. Work the mix until it sticks to the bowl. You are aiming for lightness of flavour here and a worked texture, not something loose and open.

When the sauce is ready, pull out the pancetta. Strip off the skin and cut into small strips. Break up the pancetta meat and return to the sauce. Fry off the meatballs and then give them a little time in the sauce while you cook off your pasta (spaghetti works well with this). When the pasta is just shy of done, add it to the pan of sauce and meatballs and finish it off.

What you should have is a depth of flavour in the ragu and a lightness (leavened by the lemon rind) in the meatballs. The thin pieces of slow-cooked rind and the pasta will have textures that play off each other too. You might find yourself wanting more rind next time...

And for wine? Try a bottle of Masi's Campofiorin ripasso wine, using rondinella and corvina grapes. It has depth enough to handle the sauce, without overbearing the other flavours. I opened a bottle of the 1995 Masi Campofiorin, which looked like a good, aged red underneath the oxidised characters. Thank you cork. A fall back bottle of Preston Peak 2008 Sagrantino from Queensland's Granite Belt did a fine job as a backup bottle.

Friday, June 3, 2011

In response, on alternatives, great wine & Canberra

[written in response to a post on Nick Stock's postferment blog and cross-posted here for convenience]

So many possible things to say. Thanks Nick for the post over on your postferment site.

I’ll start with a bit of clarification: the sentence you quote from me about preferring sharing learning rather than expertise refers to my wine writing and blogging. I have higher and different standards for wine I make or have made. If I’m not happy the wine would impress me as a drinker, in and of itself, and with a story wrapped around it, it’s not fit for release. I dumped my whole make of 2007 sagrantino, from Chalmers fruit, as it didn’t come up to spec. As for pricing, my own philosophy (with a nod to Stephen George at Ashton Hills and Drew Noon) is a price for that wine I’d be happy to pay as a punter, and no more. Speaking as myself, not for Quarry Hill here.

Preamble aside, here are my first responses:
1. Great wines are not the only wines people want (and are able to) make and drink. There are many times where what I want from sangiovese in the glass is Chianti and not Brunello, even when I can afford the latter. Sometimes ‘great wines’, in the sense of wines that challenge, fascinate, capture and command attention, simply demand too much, or are wrong for the food or mood of the table. Tuscany without Chianti would, I suggest, be unable to do Brunello. Great wines may actually lean on their ‘lesser’ bretheren for support and cash-flow.

2. Great wines take committed experimentation and time. Even in ‘new’ regions like Priorat, Hawkes Bay or Canberra, it takes a progression of vintages and wines to learn, improve and sometimes know what to give up on. The commitment (or at least interest) of producers, trade, writers and consumers along that time of learning is what is needed to produce great wines. Yes, some of that commitment and interest may be driven by novelty, but that does not preclude a simultaneous commitment to excellence. You can be trying to produce great wine and doing something new at the same time. Likely to be harder than other options, riskier as well, but possibly more fun and maybe even a better fit to site and district than doing something more mainstream.

3. Is the 40 year modern history of the Canberra District long enough an experience, across enough sites/terroir, grapes, techniques, vintages and people to support an injunction to stick to our shiraz and riesling knitting? Perhaps it is. But I’m unconvinced enough testing of those possible combinations, over enough time, has taken place. Successful shiraz in Canberra, with ‘great wine’ in its sights, is something I’d say there is 10-15 years of evidence for. Is this categorical proof that, for instance, tempranillo may not be the best red grape for the District?

4. If Canberra did stick to its knitting of riesling and shiraz, even forgetting about climate change, what happens when Australian shiraz moves further from fashion in domestic and international markets? You could have a tiny district, with a small crush, producing a heap of great wine, which can’t sell. And I would not be expecting this swing in fashion to coincide with a riesling revival. Wouldn’t it make sense, even for small producers hell-bent on making great wine, to have some diversity in their vineyards, cellars and price lists? Perhaps along the lines of a Clonakilla red rhone blend, for example? Or the Mt Majura blend of tempranillo, shiraz and graciano. Or Alex McKay’s rhone white and ‘serious’ sangiovese?

5. There are at least some producers who go into alternative varieties, techniques or blends with good heads on their shoulders, packed full of homework. Did Mt Majura rush into tempranillo without a long run-up of thinking and learning? No. As well as time spent knowing that site, Peter Read’s knowledge of tempranillo helped inform the decision to plant and where on that site. The result being a good wine, aiming to be great, since the 2003 vintage. People like the Grilli’s at Primo Estate, Mark Walpole and Louisa Rose don’t devote time, passion and energy to alternatives on shallow whims or as low stakes bets. These stories need telling to balance your critique, I suggest.

Yes, there will be lazy dabbling, producing wines of similar quality, in Australian ‘alternatives’, but is that really any more prevalent than the lazy, poor, heartless and dishonest wines being made in Australia from chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet? If you wanted to see more great and less average or poor Australian wine, perhaps the mainstream is closer to the heart of the problem?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Expertise (fish, ponds, size)

A comment from wine writer, reviewer and maker Nick Stock at the recent ANU Wine Symposium is still rattling around in my head. Among a diverse range of arguments, observations, provocations and fripperies was a comment about how some sommeliers and other people in Australian wine were focussing on alternative grapes and wines because it was easier to be an expert there - easier to be a big fish due to the small size of the pond.

Nick named no names, so the comment floated free of any yoke to specific examples, but it got me thinking. I probably would not disagree with Nick that there will be some people who have a focus on the alternative and the rare because it is an easier path to expertise than say mainstream French varieties and wine styles. But I could not honestly say I know who these people are, that I could name them and would do so publicly.

Most wine people I know, in and out of 'the industry', even where deeply involved in the alternative or the rare, would hesitate to call themselves 'expert'. For me, the more I know, for instance about the grapes and wines of Italy, the more clear to me become the gaps in my knowledge, its limits and constraints.

If I disavow a desire to be 'expert', where does that leave me? As an 'enthusiast', an 'amateur', 'dabbler', 'dilettante', a 'practitioner' because I work with Italian vines and wines... (certainly not a 'professional' as that's tantamount to expertise)?

For my writing and blogging, I think I am happiest with 'student'. My knowledge is less than 'expert' in wine or in Italian wine, and suspect it will always be the case that there is more left to learn than I will ever know. And I think I'd rather share my learning than my expertise, whatever size this pond is.