Monday, December 27, 2010

Year in Review: My top 4 wines of 2010

With 2010 now at a close, it’s time for me to look back on some of the best bottles I’ve enjoyed over the past 12 months. I’m really happy to say that my top value and top shelf wines of the year are still readily available at retail. What’s even better is that my top shelf bottle falls under $50. A truly defining revelation I had was when I realized that, out of 355 tasting notes written this year, each of my top wines were Italian. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the wines of other regions. However, it does show that my heart is still in Italy. In my opinion, no other region shows the mix of diversity, opulence, style, finesse and sheer drinkability of Italian wines.

On to the wines:

Value Wine of The Year
(Sub $25 bottle that’s still available at retail)

Tuscany gave us many great wines from the ’06 vintage and it doesn’t surprise me that my value wine of the year hails from this region. However, what was a bit of a surprise was that it was not from Chianti Classico or Montalcino, instead it came from Carmignano. This Sangiovese blend, made in a classy and seductive style, was an easy choice, and the best part, is that it’s still available at retail for around $22.

2006 Piaggia Carmignano Il Sasso - Amazing nose like a basket of ripe red fruits. First it was raspberry, then wild berries and then cherry cough drops followed up by cedar and saddle leather with a hint of toasty oak. The palate revealed sour cherries, crème fraiche and clove with a medium body and wonderfully brisk acidity, leading to a nice long red berry finish. (93 Points)

Find it on Wine-Searcher

Top shelf Wine of The Year
(Fancy dinner or need to make an impression, a great bottle in the $35 - $100 range)

In 2009, I tried the ‘03 L’Arco Pario and was immediately impressed by its concentration and Amarone like character with layers of aromatic detail. However, when I tasted the 2004, I was floored. It had all of the rich and detailed aromatics and flavors but was fortified by a level of finesse that brought it from good to great. This is a spellbinding wine from the Veneto region and it’s made by a producer who’s yet to be truly discovered by mainstream media.

2004 L'Arco Pario Veronese IGT - L'arco took it up a step with the Pario in 2004. What came across as residual sweetness in the '03 has been turned into a sweet and sour effect on the palate of the '04. The nose was intense with dark port-like fruits, Christmas spice and ginger bread. On the palate I found a fresh sweet and sour play with a burst of spiced sour cherry and a dark run raisin that led into the long finish. This wine was, all at once, rich yet finessed and truly stunning on the nose. (94 Points)

Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Vintage Wine of The Year
(For some of us, aged wine has no equal. My top bottle with at least 15 years of age.)

I knew the day I tasted this wine that it would end up as one of my top wines of the year. The ’89 vintage of Barolo has truly shown to be a legend in the making and the Conterno, Cascina Francia, has been the top bottle that I have yet to tasted to date. Amazing to think that this is the producer’s normale bottling and that there’s a Riserva that I’ve yet to taste. Also, something to look forward to in 2011, is a V.I.P. Table ’89 Barolo retrospective.

1989 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia - The nose showed dried red fruits, tar, mushroom broth, a bit of black strap molasses and a hint of barnyard. It also showed a gorgeous structure on the palate that gives the impression that this wine will last for the ages. Still a little tight with a tannic grip, but nonetheless giving with dark red fruit and a mineral core. The finish was long and fine, showing sour cranberry. (98 Points)

Trophy Wine of The Year
(Pulling no punches and the sky’s the limit on cost and rarity)

There was no competition for my top wine of the year. Quintarelli is a master and this bottle was truly magical. The best part about it was that I served this wine blind to a group that had no idea of the price or prestige that the producers name carried. It was thrilling and a bottle that any lover of Italian wine should taste before they die.

1995 Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva - The 1995 Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva was a dark mahogany color with rich and wild aromas rising from the glass. I found it difficult to take that first sip because the aromatics were so seductive that I simply didn’t want to take my nose from the glass. Black cherry sauce with saw dust, and then butterscotch and hazelnuts which then turned to spiced ginger cookies and plum reduction. So many layers could be pulled away to continue finding descriptors in this wine and I was only sad that we didn’t have the time to spend hours with it. On the palate I found a menagerie of red fruits as cherry, then raspberry and cranberry filled the palate. Vanilla and milk chocolate, butter cream and roasted nuts with spicy cedar. However, with all this concentration, the wine remains finessed and fresh on the palate. Its 16.5% alcohol is nearly invisible due to the impeccable balance of this wine. The finish lingered for 30 plus seconds with cherry dark chocolate. (99 Points)

Looking forward to more wine and friends in 2011.
Thank you all for making The V.I.P. Table a success!
Eric Guido

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Goulash, The ultimate comfort food

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to food. Having grown up only blocks away from some of the best German restaurants in New York City, many of my nostalgic memories from childhood are of German cuisine and one in particular, Goulash. To this day, a rainy autumn afternoon or snowy winter night will always stir in me the desire for a warm bowl of goulash. Its moderate heat is perfectly tempered by the rich sauce and natural sweetness of the onions. When perfectly cooked the meat nearly melts in your mouth and becomes part of the sauce. This is the ultimate comfort food.

The recipe included below may be very different from what a chef would learn in school or what the typical cookbook may provide, but I assure you that it will create a Goulash of incredible depth and richness. The ingredients are simple, but it requires a certain amount of patience from the cook and passion for the food. This preparation wasn’t taught to me by one person; instead it was constructed from an old traditional recipe and then fortified by the knowledge of a number of people that credit themselves as Goulash aficionados. One may have wanted nutmeg, another to brown the meat, but in the end I took the knowledge of all of them and, through experimentation, constructed what you see below.

However, there has always been one piece missing in this equation: what wine should I pair with it? Firstly, my experience with German reds is limited and most restaurants I’ve dined at consider beer to be the beverage of choice. Even the wine list at one of my local favorites, and possibly the best German Restaurant in New York City, has only a small number of Rieslings and one or two German reds. Secondly, a good Goulash will usually have a certain amount of heat to it, which poses another problem, where it might overpower the average red. Then it dawned on me: Zinfandel.

I choose to pair two wines with this dinner because, like most varietals, Zinfandel is made in many different styles. The one style I wouldn’t recommend with this dish is the heavily fruited and almost sappy sweet Zinfandels that sometimes cross your path. Instead I went with one of my most trusted producers, Ridge, and a bit of a wild card that I discovered this year while in Napa Valley, Trespass.

2006 Trespass Zinfandel, from Napa Valley was, surprisingly, a light ruby red color with aromas of bright red fruit, cranberry sauce and a bit of chalk dust. With time the fruit became darker with clove spice and plum, providing beautiful contrast to the heady, rich, beefy aromas of the goulash. On the palate it showed dark blue fruit, cedar and clove, adding complexities to the dish’s earthy flavors of rosemary and paprika. It's full-bodied and zesty acidity worked wonders, carrying the fruit through the spicy heat of the goulash to end in a long finish reminiscent of sour cherry cough drops. This was a beautifully nuanced and complex zinfandel that ended up as the majority favorite of the night.

2007 Ridge Zinfandel Ponzo Vineyard was in many ways the yin to the Trespass Zinfandels yang. The wine was a dark purple color in the glass and wafted aromas of black cherry fruit followed by confectioners sugar, sage, and a bit of nail polish remover (I mean that in a good way) which added a floral perfume and kept me with my nose to the glass for minutes on end. On the palate it delivered big, lush brambly fruit with spicy vanilla and dark chocolate flavors. The wine complimented the Goulash by standing up to its big bold flavors and providing a contrast of lush fruit and firm tannin between each bite of savory beef. The Ridge Ponzo Vineyard was a big, structured, rich, full-bodied Zinfandel with a long red fruit finish. It’s a wine that will age for years in your cellar but probably only moments in your glass.

In the end, I have to say that both wines performed equally well but for totally different reasons. Each wine is, in my opinion, a superior expression of Zinfandel and while the Trespass will capture your soul in its web of elegant fruit and spice, the Ridge will quicken your pulse with its racy perfume and palate of rich bold flavors. The most difficult part of this pairing was deciding what to do next, eat or drink. The Hungarian Goulash captured us all in our own way. For me it was nostalgia while, for one guest, it was a wild and new experience, and another saw it as a taste of home. And for a fellow chef, it was trying to figure out how it was possible to achieve such complexity with so few ingredients. I think it’s time you try it for yourself.

Hungarian Goulash

The first thing to understand is that this recipe is all about patience and low, even temperature. The best cooking vessel to use depends mainly on how much you want to make. The recipe below is made to serve 7 – 8, and the reason I choose this high yield is that you can always use the extra as leftovers and, due to the time it takes to make it, you might as well have extra. For the 7 –8 servings I suggest using a heavy stainless steel roasting pan that can span across two burners on your stove. However, if you were to choose to cut this recipe in half for a small group then I would suggest a cast iron or earthenware vessel such a Le creuset.

Secondly, this recipe can be made the same day you plan to serve it; however I highly recommend making it the night before so that the sauce and meat can truly come together and develop a deeper, richer flavor. This also frees you up to better entertain your guests while also impressing them by how effortlessly you are able to produce such a wonderful meal.

5 pounds beef chuck (fat trimmed, cubed or cut about 1 ½ inch long, ¾ inch thick)
5 large yellow onions (sliced thick wedges)
8 Tbls tomato paste
2 Tbls hot paprika (Go for real Hungarian paprika)
1 Tbls sweet paprika (Go for real Hungarian paprika)
2 tsp dried oregano
¾ tsp fresh grated nutmeg
3 branches fresh rosemary
about 4 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
5 cups water
2 Tbls AP flour
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (as needed)
4 Tbls sweet butter (for the finish)
1 lb fettuccini (Can use egg noodles; serve with potato dumplings or even rice)

1. Place roasting pan over two burners on your stovetop and pour enough olive oil to coat entire bottom of the pan. Set burners to low-medium flame. Once the oil is heated, add onions with a healthy pinch of salt and toss to coat in the oil. Cook over low-medium flame until onions turn translucent but do not allow them to take on any color.

2. Reduce flame to low. Make sure the onions are evenly spread out on the pan bottom and add the beef slices by placing them on top of the onions in an even layer. The beef should cover the onions completely but make sure that none of the pieces touch the side of the pan. The onions should create a cushion between the pan bottom and the beef.

3. Sprinkle another pinch of salt over the beef. Next, sprinkle all the paprika over the beef evenly (I like to use a sifter for this to create a fine and even layer.) Now add the oregano and nutmeg again, evenly over the beef. Lastly, place two (of the three) rosemary branches on top of the beef. (Do not disturb the layers you have created.)

4. Cover the roasting pan tightly with aluminum foil. Check to make sure that the flame is on low. After about 3 – 5 minutes you should hear the mixture bubbling. Allow the mixture to cook like this for 35 minutes and then loosen the aluminum foil to allow a little steam out of the pan. After another 5 – 10 minutes remove the foil (do not discard) and turn all the pieces of meat over. Check to make sure the onions are not burning. You should notice that the meat and onions have released a lot of their juices. Place the foil back on top of the pan (loosely) and allow the mixture to cook over low heat for another 45 minutes.

5. Now place saucepot on the stove over medium-low flame, add the five cups of water and whisk in the flour slowly, making sure that no lumps form. Now add the tomato paste and again whisk until it is combined. Allow this mixture to come up to a gentle boil but make sure to whisk regularly.

6. Remove the foil from the roasting pan, remove the two branches of rosemary from the pan and add the boiling water-tomato paste mixture. Turn the beef and onions over in the sauce. The cooking liquid should just barely cover the beef and onions. Bring this mixture back to a simmer over medium-low flame and cover loosely with the foil so that steam can escape from the pan. Cook this mixture for an hour to an hour and a half, and stir gently once or twice to make sure that the mixture is cooking evenly.

7. It’s at this time that you should taste. Check to make sure that the beef is tender. Season with salt and pepper. Then turn off the heat.

8. If you want to serve the same day, let this mixture sit for about an hour before going to the next step. If you want to use this for the following day, move the mixture to a bowl and place in an ice bath to cool it quickly, then cover it tightly and place in the refrigerator.

9. When ready to finish, place Goulash in a pot and set over low heat. Bring another pot of well-salted water to boil for the pasta. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to the instructions on the package.

10. While waiting for the pasta, set the butter out on the counter and cut into cubes. Strip the last branch of rosemary for its leaves and chop them. By the time the pasta is finished, the Goulash should be perfectly heated through. Taste for seasoning one last time and then add the butter and stir gently until combined.

11. Strain your pasta and toss in olive oil. Set the pasta on a plate and hollow out a circle in the middle. Pour one or two (depending on the party) ladles of goulash into the center of the plate and sprinkle with the fresh chopped rosemary. Clean the rim of your plate with a warm, moist paper towel and serve.

12. Be prepared for praise.

Friday, December 3, 2010

1996: Barolo Retrospective

A while back, I polled a number of experienced Barolo collectors for their choice of the best vintage of the ‘90s. These days, we seem to have a great vintage every year, if not every other year, with ‘01, '04, and '06 being reported as great and '05 tailing close behind. Notice that I didn't really mention the highly acclaimed 2000 vintage, as I've found these wines to be far less impressive than originally expected. However, back in the nineties, Barolo only saw two good vintages between 1990 and 1995. It wasn't until 1996 when they hit their vintage streak with '96, '97, '98 and '99. These were all good-to-very good years, but there is only one vintage of the nineties that each of these experienced collectors believed to be the best vintage, and that's 1996!

Why? Structure and balance. The Barolos from 1996 showed that perfect unity of tannin, acid and alcohol with a core of rich fruit, that spells "cellar worthy." Most Barolo lovers look for the next 1989 or 1978 that they can squirrel away in their wine cellars and enjoy in their magnificent maturity; it's a big part of what draws people to Nebbiolo, the heights it can reach with proper aging. All signs lead us to believe that 1996 will be one of those vintages and it was with this in mind, and the fact that these wines are now nearing their fifteenth anniversary, that I decided a 1996 Barolo Retrospective was in order.

However, before moving onto the wines, I wanted to extend my gratitude to Tolani Wine Restaurant, in Manhattan's upper Westside, for an absolutely amazing meal, great service and wonderful hospitality. Tolani is a relatively new face in this uptown location, which has seen some pretty amazing restaurants over the last few years, but you'd never know they were the new kid on the block from the level of service and commitment to great food. The passion that the owners show toward making this restaurant great is infectious and if I lived in the neighborhood, you'd see me there weekly. I highly recommend visiting Tolani for a romantic dinner, wine with friends, or a group event. The atmosphere is rustic warm yet chic, dark, and mysterious--and the food from Executive Chef David Rotter? Inspiring.

On to the notes:

1996 Domenico Clerico Barolo Pajana – The Pajana showed very expressive on the nose with sour red fruit, primarily cranberry, and floral notes with lipstick, oak and leather. The palate was at first jammy, with red fruits but turned sour, and mouth-watering as cedar, spice and dark, dark chocolate came forward. This wine showed intense density of fruit against a large dollop of mouth-watering acidity and, hidden beneath all of this, a wall of tannin. Give it another four or five years and I think it may tame itself into something wonderful. (93 points)

1996 Conterno Fantino Barolo Sorì Ginestra – The 1996 Conterno Fantino Barolo Sorì Ginestra, at first, showed very rustic with mushrooms and undergrowth on the nose, but as it spent time in the glass, red fruit emerged with tar, tobacco and a hint of oak. On the palate, I found minerals and earth with tealeaf and dried cherries, which led to a medium long, with light tannin finish. It was highly enjoyable but took time to come to life in the glass. (92 points)

1996 Roberto Voerzio Barolo Cerequio – The 1996 Roberto Voerzio Barolo Cerequio showed cigar box, leather, salty sea air, sour cherry fruit and hints of toasty oak on the nose. On the palate, I found jammy strawberry that started linear but turned expansive with softer fruits, tobacco and earth. The finish was long and palate-staining with drying tannin at the close. I believe this bottle is a year or two away from its drinking window but a little too extracted for my tastes. (90 points)

1996 Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio – The 1996 Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio showed red cherries, animal musk and holiday spices on the nose with a rich rustic feel. On the palate, I found sweet juicy raspberry fruit with cinnamon and herbal tea. The finish turned to sour red candies with a smooth close. This bottle is ready to drink and, although it shows a very modern performance on the palate, I feel the nose is its saving grace. (91 Points)

1996 Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cannubi – The 1996 Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cannubi showed mushrooms and tar with wild berries and a hint of oak on the nose. On the palate, I found sour cherry, soil and leather strap with a bit of menthol. The finish was a little short but pleasant all the same. (90 points)

1996 Vietti Barolo Rocche – The 1996 Vietti Barolo Rocche gave a classic Barolo performance on this evening. The nose was fresh yet powerful all at once with a cool refreshing quality, as floral notes of roses, then tar and leather, red fruits and dusty ash came forward. The palate showed well-defined red fruits against a stiff structure of silky tannin and acid, as flavors of licorice and hints of tobacco showed through. The finish was fresh yet still restrained. This bottle will benefit from another five-plus years in the cellar before really starting to strut its stuff. (94 points)

1996 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne – The 1996 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne was very reserved on the nose as its fruit came across like watered down Kool-Aid with cinnamon and a little jammy dark fruit hiding in the depths of the glass. On the palate, I found a sweet and sour red fruit performance with holiday spices, but in the end, a fellow taster hit the nail on the head in noting that it reminds him of fruit punch. The finish was long but not cloying. (89 points)

1996 Francesco Rinaldi e Figli Barolo Cannubbio – The 1996 Francesco Rinaldi e Figli Barolo Cannubbio showed very rustic, yet highly enjoyable to a lover of traditional Barolo. The nose showed dusty cherry with animal musk and hints of mushroom and undergrowth. On the palate, I found dark sweet fruit with leather and tobacco leading to a medium finish with drying tannins. This bottle could use more time but is enjoyable now with proper decanting. (89 points)

1996 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo – The 1996 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo was, at first, very expressive on the nose but shut down quickly in the glass. Aromas of tar, roasted nuts, ripe strawberry and roses wafted up from the glass as if to tempt us and then sink our expectations as this wine suddenly turned off. The palate showed a tight structure as rose water and light cherry showed through. The finish was short with dried red fruit and hints of tobacco. This bottle needs more time, but I fear that it may never show the soft, rich, dried fruit of an aged Barolo. (90 points)

1996 Roagna Barbaresco Paje – The 1996 Roagna Barbaresco Paje showed tobacco with dates and sweet berry on the nose. The palate was, at first, soft and then turned to sour berry with, cedar, herbal tea and hints of cherry. The finish was medium long, still showing some tannic structure, yet perfectly fresh. I would leave these for another three years in the cellar but it can easily be enjoyed now. (91 points)

Other '96 Baroli Tasted in 2010

1996 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia- This wine showed a floral nose with roses up front, followed by cherry with beef broth and tar. The palate showed lots of cherry fruit, pipe tobacco and earth but all kept in check by a fine structure with streamlined acidity. I can see this wine being a classic as it leaves you lusting to taste it in a more mature state. The finish is refined and reminiscent of the roses on the nose. God what a gorgeous Barolo. (96 points)

1996 Mario Marengo Barolo Brunate - This showed deep ruby red color leading to brick with a slight orange rim. The bouquet could by smelled from four feet from the glass. Aromas of black cherry and rose petals rose from the first swirl. With a little more time I found forest floor, tar and red licorice in the glass. This is a Barolo that can be enjoyed entirely on the nose alone. The palate was full bodied with cherry fruit, minerals, undergrowth and old oak. A bit murky but still highly enjoyable. The finish showed soil with a lasting minerality. (91 points)

1996 Luigi Pira Barolo Marenca - Initially, the nose showed roses with new leather, tar, anise and sour red fruit hiding behind it all. The palate was very tight with savory beef broth, minerals, old cedar and cranberry. The finish showed sour red fruits with cheek puckering tannin lingering toward the end. As this bottle approached the fifth hour; the nose retained many of it's initial qualities but a rich (not sweet) cherry tobacco had moved to the front along with dusty dried flowers. The palate had taken on more body as a mix of red berries, cinnamon and sauté mushroom led to a slightly gravely tannin on the tremendously long finish. At the seventh, and last hour. This bottle had become almost impossible to ignore as the cherry took on darker, woody and mentholated tones in the nose. The roses had become sweet and the tar faded to the rear. On the palate, sweeter red berries with cherry liqueur, spice, and soil took over. The tannins on the finish had faded to a slight drying sensation and left me with cranberry and cedar, which lasted for a full minute. (94 pts.)

The run down:

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – 96 points
Vietti Barolo Rocche – 94 points
Luigi Pira Barolo Marenca – 94 points
Domenico Clerico Barolo Pajana – 93 points
Conterno Fantino Barolo Sorì Ginestra – 92 points
Roagna Barbaresco Paje – 91 points
Mario Marengo Barolo Brunate – 91 points
Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio – 91 points
Roberto Voerzio Barolo Cerequio – 90 points
Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cannubi – 90 points
Bartolo Mascarello Barolo – 90 points
Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne – 89 points
Francesco Rinaldi e Figli Barolo Cannubbio – 89 points