ASPEN – It’s late on Day One of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and it was a lovely day, thank you.
This is the 31st annual F&W Classic here in Glitter Gulch and this town puts on a terrific hoedown.
The $1,300 general admission tickets sold out early this year, a sign the economy has recovered a bit, although some cynics might point out that most of the better-heeled fans of the Classic weren’t much bothered by the R(recession)-word.
While many events are very-exclusive, with some of the top chefs doing private meals and wine- and food-related companies tossing invite-only parties, there are plenty of opps for everyone to enjoy great food and sample some of the world’s best wines, which can make for the “Gee, now where do I go?” dilemma so dear to all of our hearts.
As usual, my weekend began with listening to Chief Terroirist Paul Grieco of Hearth Restaurant in NYC disseminate on riesling, one of his (and mine) favorite topics.
It’s Grieco, you remember, who three years ago founded the Summer of Riesling, a movement to sway bars and restaurants to pour more riesling.
This year the focus is on German riesling and Grieco spoke at length (he pleaded, to no avail, to be allowed to go beyond the 45 minutes allotted him) about the transparency of riesling, of the grape’s ability to reflect it’s place of origin.
“The beauty of riesling is it’s transparency,” Grieco said, “while the greatest drawback to riesling is it’s transparency.”
Then it was off to the first of three Grand Tastings held Friday under the immense white tents now symbolic of the Classic.
A quick stroll up and down the line of wineries got me a sip of Henriot Champagne, a splash of Torre Muga 2006 Rioja and then a stop to chat with Ben Parsons, the talented winemaker and owner of The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery in Denver.
And soon also to be in Texas, he said.
“I’m going to open another (urban) winery in Austin,” said Parsons. “It will be the same sort of urban winery and I’ll be getting some grapes from the Texas Hill Country.”
His immensely popular line of wines includes some lightly carbonated reds (syrah) and whites (rosé, moscato) in 6-ounce cans (serious wines in a not-so-serious presentation) as well as a series in glass.
Parsons’ 100th Monkey, a blend of cabernet franc, syrah, petite syrah and malbec, was especially smooth, luscious and well-balanced.
And then it was time for author and out-sized (in a good way) wine personality Mark Oldman, who each year adopts an alternate personality (at least he claims it’s an alternate personality) for the weekend of the Classic and this year he’s wearing bolero hat, white shirt and black scarf with a new (really new, like fresh from the gag store), caterpillar-sized handlebar mustache.
Yes, he’s channeling “Gaucho Marks” and talking about Argentina malbec.
His take-home message, he said, is “Malbec isn’t for curmudgeons. But if you are the type who into sensual pleasures, a good malbec is almost everything you need.”
And that’s only part of the day. Whew.
Saturday it all starts over. What a weekend, what a Classic.
Those shaggy-maned grape vines you see around the valley haven’t been ignored, they’re actual serving a purpose.
It’s bud break in the Grand Valley, a time when most of the valley’s grape growers finish pruning their winter-long vines on the bet those still-tender roseate buds will survive anything Mother Nature might throw their way.
However, with this spring a series of warm/cold, then warm-and-cold again fluctuations, nobody’s quite sure how to prune, which means growers are leaving some vines undocked until it’s known with certainty which plants survived the winter cold.
(Right: The uneven arrival of bud break in spring 2013 has grape growers waiting, hoping the green returns to signal life in the vines after the deep cold of January.)
Bud break normally occurs irregularly around the region, spread out among the many micro-environments and grape varietals dotting the area, but this year, what’s normal?
“It’s just all over the place this year,” said state viticulturist Horst Caspari. “It’s abnormal even by Colorado standards.”
He said an extended bud break isn’t unexpected “but now we’re seeing plants 100 percent out and unfolding their leaves and next to them are plants that are barely into bud break.”
When bud break starts, though, it seems to happen overnight. The first rush of growth comes quickly; vines that were winter-dormant Monday will have swollen buds Tuesday and tiny green leaves Thursday.
“It really happens fast, once it gets started,” said Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards, walking last week through the vineyards near her winery on 32 Road.
Some of the canes (branches) in her vineyard are whiplike and long, flocked with bits of green from emerging leaves and mini-clusters, all a bit of insurance to protect the buds closer to the main stem, she said.
“Normally we cut this off, leaving these two buds on a short cane,” she said, showing where a pruner would remove much of the longer canes. “The less vine, the more the energy goes in the grapes and not into growing the canes.”
The vines are apically dominant, which means the end bud releases a chemical (auxin) that retards the development of lateral buds closer to the stem.
If the apical bud is removed, the other buds start to grow. Controlling the growth of those lateral buds through careful pruning is how grape growers control their vines and also how bonsai trees and espalier (growing a plant two-dimensionally against a wall) are created.
Topiary is the three-dimensional version. Think of those Mickey Mouse trees at Disneyland and you get the idea.
Tomatoes are not apically dominant, which is why they spread out instead of up. This widening eliminates competition by creating a cleared area around the plant.
Cutting the apical buds spurs growth in buds closer to the trunk or stem but once buds break dormancy they are more-susceptible to frost.
Historically the average last day for frosts in the Grand Valley is May 13, a comment that brings a laugh from my friend Neil Guard.
“Yes, but Mother Nature doesn’t read the calendar,” said Guard, who grows grapes and peaches on his farm and vineyard on East Orchard Mesa.
“It’s really a gamble at this point,” Guard said Sunday afternoon as he walked part of his vineyard. “We had the crew prune the riesling because we know that usually does fine but look at the tempranillo, there’s hardly anything there at all.”
The name “tempranillo” comes from the Spanish world for “early” but you’d never know it by looking at Guard’s vines. While nearby rows of cabernet franc ware flush with new buds and leaves, the rows of tempranillo are showing slight signs of life and he’s purposely left those vines long and wild until he sees what grows.
“Look here,” he said, grabbing at a nearby vine. “I’ve got vines with lots of buds and leaves right next to vines that look like their dead, which they might be after last winter.”
He sighed and stood up to survey the rows of vines.
“We’re going to wait,” he said cautiously. “We still have almost two weeks and why spend the money on pruning something when you might end up cutting it off at the ground?”
Summer fun inevitably means friends getting together enjoying light meals and similar wines. So when a vegetarian friend announced a pool party built around the theme of spicy Mediterranean-based cuisine, the challenge was set.
Baba ganoush, hummus, tomato-and-jalapeño salsa, pita bread and lots of fresh veggies to slip into a yoghurt and dill dip. And spicy?
It’s not the searing hot of Thai or Vietnamese food but there were plenty of tongue and lip-warming spices and peppers to liven up the meal.
Thanks to having recently listened to Mark Oldman, author of “Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine, talk about pairing wines with hot and spicy food during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, I was ready for the challenge. Spicy food calls for a low-alcohol wine with little or no tannin, said Oldman, recommending sparkling wines and still whites (Reisling, Gewurztraminer, Torrontes) and lighter reds such as pinot noir and carmenere.
“You want something a little bit sweet or sweet seeming,” Oldman told his appreciative audience. “Think in the terms of heat. Not too much alcohol or tannins and certainly nothing too expensive.”
By coincidence, I had just opened a box of wines from the good folks at Montinore Estate, the Forest-Grove, Ore., winery of Rudy Marchesi and found a selection of white wines perfect for the evening. There’s a fascinating story behind how Marchesi, the grandson of Italian immigrants, took over Montinore and built it up using biodynamic farming techniques to one of the stellar bio vineyards in the Willamette Valley and on the Left Coast. There’s a fine story about Marchesi in the Portland Oregonian here.
Among his white wines are the 2010 Almost Dry Riesling ($14, SRP); 2009 Pinot Gris ($16) and the 2009 Riesling Sweet Reserve ($16). The last one, because of its high residual sugar level (75 grams per liter), is found on the Montinore website under the heading “Dessert Wines” although it’s not as sweet as many dessert-type wines which may.
Oldman’s suggestion was to match sweet or “sweet-seeming” wines with spicy food, the sweetness in the wines off-setting the spiciness in the food. But he cautioned a sweet wine can become undrinkable without sufficient acidity to balance all the residual sugar and clear the palate.
Both the Almost Dry Riesling, with its slightest touch of sweetness and a citrusy, Granny Smith apple fruitiness, and the Pinot Gris, with highlights of melon, pear and apple, stood up well to the assortment of tantalizing dishes. They both had the body and the finish to marry well with the meal and both bottles disappeared well before their time.
The Sweet Reserve, though, was the crowd’s favorite, both during the meal and for sipping later around the pool as the moon rose. Dessert wines, as was noted, can be tricky to pull off, but Montinore white-wine maker Stephen Webber has managed to capture the essence of white flowers with flavors of tropical fruit and orange peel, well balanced by enough acidity to sparkle on the palate.
The fact it’s only 9.7-percent alcohol (the Almost Dry Riesling is 11 percent) makes it driver-friendly, too.