Sparkling: Piper-Heidsieck ‘Cuvée Rare’ Chardonnay 1999, Champagne, France ($240)
Piper-Heidsieck’s basic, non-vintage cuvées are so good, and so well-priced, that I think wine drinkers tend to forget that they make vintage bubbly and high-end cuvées as well. They’ve got the right pedigree, with over 200 years of history behind them and an extensive group of grape growers to work with. The 1999 Rare stays true to the house style, avoiding malolactic fermentation and leaning toward a low dosage, which makes for a dry, fresh, and elegant mouthfeel. What makes it special is that it keeps that beautiful, spritely texture despite its rich, biscuity nose of exotic spice, tropical fruits, cocoa, and croissant—aromas more common in weightier, plumper Champagnes.
Serve with: smoked trout (Mark Dommen’s Smoked Sea Trout ‘Mi Cuit’)
More bubbly: Rosés
White: Masi ‘Masianco’ 2007, Veneto, Italy ($13)
The Amarone producer Masi is more associated with massive red wines rather than refreshing whites, but the Masianco (a combination of “Masi” and “bianco”) proves that they can adapt. The wine is 75% Pinot Grigio; the remaining quarter is Verduzzo, an indigienous Italian grape more common in Friuli. The Verduzzo, however, gets the Amarone treatment; that is to say, the grapes are dried on bamboo mats for a few months, concentrating their flavors, sugars, and acidity before they are pressed and fermented. Without that, the wine might have ended up like many other innocuous, crisp Pinot Grigios. Instead it’s full-bodied and round, but still fresh, with delicious notes of mango, Meyer lemon, and apricot, complemented by subtle touches of vanilla and Brazil nut.
Serve with: Caesar salad (Johan Svensson’s Caesar Salad with Yuzu and Asian Greens)
More Italian Whites: Friulano
Red: Charter Oak Zinfandel 2006, Napa Valley, California ($40)
Perhaps it’s owner Roberto Fanucci’s Italian heritage, but Charter Oak has a knack for making food-friendly Zinfandels, with the big-boned fruitiness you expect from the grape but restrained alcohol—this is no 16% bruiser. It’s made with estate-grown fruit plus some touches of old vine juice from the Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma and a dash of Petite Syrah. With all that going on, it’s a muscular, full-bodied wine for sure, but well concentrated and smooth and long on the finish. It’s got lots of blackberry and boysenberry notes, plus some brambly character and a bit of smokiness. The tannins are moderate and well-balanced.
Serve with: ribs (Paul Kirk’s Memphis-style Smoky Barbecue Ribs)
More Zinfandel: Ravenswood
Dessert: Niepoort Colheita 1991, Port, Portugal ($50)
Colheitas are not the most common of Ports, being both tawny and vintage; usually Port blenders prefer to make their tawnies from a blend of vintages. Niepoort has several Colheita Ports on the market right now; what I like about the 1991 is the balance it strikes between the nutty, caramelly notes you expect from a tawny and the dried fruit notes of a ruby or regular vintage Port. (The 1986, which is also available, is more classic tawny in that regard.) The 1991 is fairly sweet and full, with notes of prunes, dried apricot, and toffee on the nose; on the palate, touches of hazelnut, raisin, and dried figs also appear.
Serve with: caramel (Mindy Segal’s Hook Wisconsin’s Blue Cheese Cheesecake…)
More Port: 2003 Vintage and more
Beer: Rogue Chocolate Stout, Portland, Oregon ($6/22oz.)
Chocolate Stouts, while they do have Old World precedents, have a solidly American identity these days. Originally named for the use of dark-roasted chocolate malt, some, like Rogue, gild the lily with real chocolate in the brewing process (bittersweet Dutch chocolate, in this case). It’s a bit sweet, but with enough hops to keep it clean on the finish, and the chocolate certainly comes through alongside notes of oats, dark malt (of course), and a light touch of espresso. Its flavor profile might lead you to expect a full-bodied, overly-filling beer, but it’s actually relatively svelte and easy-drinking.
Serve with: dark chocolate (Elissa Narow’s Valrhona Manjari Chocolate Soufflé Tart)
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