I must say, I have never seen a restaurant that respected wine more than Charlie Trotter's. Many times I experienced the now-legendary adaptations of dishes to the wine on the table. Once I asked Charlie, "Did you really change that dish because I'd ordered (X) wine?" He said, "Of course I did; we do it all the time. What's in the bottle can't be changed, but I can tweak a dish to make the match work perfectly."
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We've been chatting a bunch lately about which wines age well, and which wines we should buy to drink ten or fifteen or twenty years down the road. Today, we're checking in with famed wine importer (and friend of the site) Terry Theise. He's known for bringing small-production wines from Germany, Austria, and the Champagne region of France to the US, so he knows a thing or two about how these bottles taste as time goes by.
We have a high-priest class in fine dining restaurants. They possess the mysteries, and while nearly all of them are remarkably affable and helpful, one's heart can quake when they approach the table. "I must be able to navigate this crucible if I want anyone to even like me, let alone get...lucky." So what does an otherwise capable person do in this delicate moment? How do you make it through with your aplomb intact, and furthermore, how do you get the most from your sommelier?
Riesling nerds tend to sigh when you mention Willi Schaefer; the tiny production, the beautiful flavors, the few bottles they've sequestered away in long-term storage. There's an elegance and polish to this wine that you don't see at lower price levels, but the excitement is still there. A fennel and elderflower note reminded us a bit of pastis, with blue-green, mentholated eucalyptus-like flavor as it opens up.
Sometimes a wine has a little peppery alcohol heat, or a hint of the slightly floral note of white pepper, but I have never tasted a wine with such a vivid freshly-cracked black pepper flavor as this. This wine is almost plush compared to the other Austrian rieslings we've tried lately, tart and slim but rounded with floral and vegetable flavors.
Dry (really dry) and front-loaded with powdery lemony notes and hints of bay leaf, jasmine, and tarragon that vanish in your mouth as you swallow. This is a compact wine, with minerality laced into an intensely tart acidity. The wine has enough body to support its taut, focused flavors; the question is, can your food handle it?
A needles-and-pins sort of wine, full of buzzy acidity and lots of spicy ginger-chew-candy flavor. This vibrant Mosel wine is intensely fruity and concentrated, like apples two ways (the first tart bite of a Granny Smith, and the clove-and-cinnamon spiked applesauce you eat with pork chops.) It's tasty stuff, packed full of personality. Veins of minerality rise through each glass, and at the finish you're left with wet stones dissolving slowly in your mouth.
I think what many people don't realize about sweet wines is how bright and vibrant they can be—even refreshing. This isn't viscous tropical-fruit nectar, it's wine at once crisp and gently sweet. This Rheingau Spatlese smells a bit like fresh gingerbread, almost peppery. The fruit is pure and luminous: skin-on pears, yellow cherries, baby clementine segments, and a nice balancing green-apple tartness.
I may not be man enough for this wine—this German riesling is for acid-lovers only. It's concentrated and tart enough to get your teeth tingling—think the sourest Granny Smith you've ever had, melted down.
This bright, fresh wine has a sweetness that isn't decadent or syrupy, just veils of spun honey layered over veils of minerals and veils of minty herbs. There's a buzzy acidity (we were reminded of Sour Patch Kids) and each sip lays soft petals of lemon-lime on your tongue, then a whirlpool of mineral water swirling over pears and rosemary, apricots and fennel.
This wine is confounding. It begins with tart fruit, spice, and stone: apple peels, apple cider, and a mountain on ground cinnamon rest on a skeleton of minerality. I was reminded of lemons with cloves stuck in the peel, fragrant, spicy, but this lightly sweet, vibrant wine has a lot of savory in it; the baking spices are balanced with something earthy—miso, a bit of sweat, and, as importer Terry Theise notes, a hint of caraway. What is sourdough rye doing in this wine?
From the Wachau. The scent reminded us of sage and stones, and the wine is full of the flavors of herbs and frilly lettuces, endives tossed in lemon. We tasted matcha and chives, tart green strawberries—this wine has a bite to it. As it opens up in the glass, muddled peaches and lime wedges, a splash of tonic and a mouthful of minerality.
If you filled a tea bag with apricots and gravel and let it steep, you might end up with this wine, shot through with lime, pear-scented and filled with green herbs, hints of flat leaf parsley and tarragon, tomatillos, fragrant meyer lemon and orange zest, spicy mustard seed, but mostly minerals, layers and layers of mica.
At the recent Theise portfolio tasting, the Nikolaihof wines stopped me in my tracks—not just the riesling, but the Grüner and Gelber Muskateller as well. Sipping these wines, the buzz of the room blurred into the background, and the flavors washed over me: fruit and stones, flowers pressing through slate, herbs releasing their oils. So I've been hoarding this bottle, waiting for a night when I had a good long time to spend with it.
Everything about this wine is delicate: feathery fruit, hints of radishes, apple skins, a delicate spritz of acidity, and as it fades in your mouth, gravel, river rocks, clover. It's not a show-off, not one for those looking for teeth-bleaching acids and wild mouthfuls of slate.
How do you spend your wine dollars wisely? If you possibly can, try to favor the wines of Old-World small family estates, not because they are necessarily "better" (though often they are) but because you're getting more absolute wine-quality per dollar spent. Why? Because these families own their land, their vines and their homes. Their only actual expenses not already cited are for equipment maintenance and upgrades, and most saliently for labor.
Sometimes someone will return from a trip to France where he has visited the producer of the wine he's been paying $27.99 for, and he's shocked to see he can buy it at the winery for 9 Euro. He assumes a retinue of greedy capitalists have squeezed every shekel they could eke out of the wine. But where do those numbers come from?
We've tasted Austrian wines that were cool as mountain pools—sleek and precise, sometimes sparse. This isn't one of those. It's elegant but welcoming, calling you quite literally to table. This is a wine for a roast chicken dinner, everyone gathered together—it's worthy of careful attention, but you might find yourself slurping it up out of sheer deliciousness.
There is a unique frustration sometimes in wine. You buy a random bottle somewhere; it seemed interesting at the time, but it's an incidental. Some day you'll open it and find out how it is, or was. If it's disappointing, that's OK. If it's good, then it's good. But if it's exceptional, it ambushes you, and all the time you're fascinated and blown away you know you'll never have that wine again. And you lost the pleasure of anticipation. So you're amazed at the suddenly amazing wine, and the moment wasn't prepared for.
Reading Between the Wines by noted wine importer Terry Theise is a wine book that's so stunning, your glass will never look the same. This book is part philosophy, part love letter to the importance of cultivating a craft, and part moving defense of the sacred aspects of wine, and why place and people are essential to our enjoyment of what's in the glass.