July 20, 2008

Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes 2007

Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes 2007

In the not too distant past, a bottle of Torrontes was relatively hard to find in this part of the world. These days, however, this exotic varietal is popping up everywhere, from Philadelphia restaurants’ wine lists to PLCB stores’ shelves. But, despite its increased availability, Torrontes still remains unfamiliar to many wine drinkers.

Though it is believed to have originated in Galacia in northwestern Spain, Torrontes has earned the reputation as being the characteristic white wine grape of Argentina. There are actually three separate varieties known as Torrontes in Argentina—Torrontes Riojano, Torrontes Sanjuanino and Torrontes Mendocino. Torrontes Riojano is not only the more common of the three (and the most superior in terms of quality), it is also the most-planted white wine grape in Argentina—roughly 20,000 acres according to 2001 figures.

One reason Torrontes may have struggled to find a spot on our collective palates, in addition to its prior lack of availability, is its rich, distinctive aroma. On the nose, Torrontes typically delivers an intense perfume of roses or jasmine—much like an Avon party attended by a room full of grandmas who were on their way home from church. The wine’s all-up-in-your-grill fragrance can be bold, sometimes to the point of being downright obnoxious. And for many folks, there is no middle ground; you either love it or you hate it. However, those willing to embrace its aroma will be rewarded with lush flavors of peaches, lychee nut and exotic fruits.

The mouthfeel of this wine is also noteworthy. Torrontes has the body of a Muscat or a Gewürtztraminer. Indeed, recent DNA profiling at the University of California at Davis has confirmed that there is a high degree of probability that Torrontes Riojano and Torrontes Sanjuanino are each the progeny of a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica (also known as the Mission grape in the U.S.). Yet, Torrontes is also naturally high in acidity, higher than you'd expect given its medium body (normally, a wine’s acid and body are inversely proportional). The result is a dry, crisp white that can refresh in warm weather and still keep you cozy on cool nights.

The best Torrontes on the PLCB store shelves right now—or on any store shelf, for that matter—is the Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes 2007 (PLCB No. 29293, $12.99). Susana Balbo is best known for her premium wines, particularly her Malbec. But Balbo’s more affordable Crios line consistently delivers outstanding quality for the price. Her Torrontes is a shining star in this collection.

Here, the grape’s distinctive aroma is present, but its elegant and not overbearing. White peach, honey and tropical fruit flavors fill your mouth followed by a hint of spice. The palate is softer and rounder than in past years (presumably from going through slightly more malo), but a refreshing seam of acidity keeps this wine completely in balance. An ideal match with Thai or Mexican cuisine or perfect on its own.

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July 07, 2008

Yabba-Dabba-Zoo! — Zot’s Flintstone Dinner


Food means different things to different people. To some, it is a way to express political, ethical or religious beliefs. To others, it is fuel that is consumed in precision to build an athletic machine. And, indeed, there are those who see food merely as sustenance, nothing more.

But to certain people, including me and the pack with which I hunt, food is adventure in its purest form—a means of exploring the world and testing the limits that define it. Those who subscribe to this philosophy wolf through the restaurant scene in search of the exotic and devour their finds with devilish bravado.

Zot Restaurant recently hosted a dinner that seemed to be designed specifically for this crowd—the Flintstone Dinner. Though somewhat of a misnomer (after all, there were no brontosaurus burgers or gravelberry pies), Zot’s Fintstone Dinner featured an array of exotic meats that you’d be more likely to find in a zoo than at your local butcher: snapping turtle, python, black bear, yak, antelope and—the real draw—African lion. The experience, however, turned out to be more tame than game.

Python Molurus Bivitatus & Foie Gras

To be fair, Zot did a lot of things right with this dinner. First, Zot deserves credit for hosting such a dinner in the first place. We sometimes forget that restaurants are businesses with narrow profit margins, and this is not the type of dinner you host with the expectation of raking in the coin. Second, with the exception of the python & foie gras course (a miss from conception to execution), each dish, individually, was well prepared. In terms of the progression, each plate that was put in front of you became your new favorite.

If this were any other tasting menu, that probably would be sufficient. But this menu, by design, was different.

African Lion Stew

Ultimately, if you showed up for this dinner, the one thing you wanted to be able to walk away with was a clear understanding of what each particular exotic meat tasted like. But that did not happen. Instead of leveraging the unique flavor of each meat, Zot, in most instances, chose to subdue them, mostly though seasonings. The lion, for example, was prepared as a stew with carrots, pearl onions and gnocchi. This dish was tasty. But the coriander-heavy spices drowned out the meat. As a result, I still have no idea what lion really tastes like. This was true of the yak and antelope as well. The python was deep fried and, hence, virtually indistinguishable from any other fried morsel.

Wild Snapping Turtle Soup

With the snapping turtle soup, Zot intentionally masked the flavor. Turtle has a distinctive taste (sort of a fishy chicken). Once you’ve had it, you won’t forget it. We were told this batch of turtle was particularly fishy and were reassured that the dish was prepared so as to tone down the fishiness. Indeed, the soup’s cilantro, lemongrass and sweet carrots held the fishiness in check. But, as a result, you couldn’t tell that what you were eating was turtle. Again, it begs the question: Why mask the turtle’s unique flavor if that’s what we’re here to taste?

Zot appears to have been torn between and constructing dishes that would allow the flavors of these exotic meats to roam wild and constructing dishes that would stand on their own. At a minimum, the dinner's theme called for the former. Zot chose the latter. But the truth is that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Black Bear in Greens

The wine pairings, however, revealed that some things are mutually exclusive. To pair wine and food successfully, you have to know what the food tastes like. There’s just no way around it. Here, the wine-industry person who paired the wines told us that they were a vegetarian. I respect that as a lifestyle choice. But when it comes to pairing wine with exotic meat dishes, being a vegetarian, unsurprisingly, is not exactly the best skill set. For example, the Black Bear Bacon in Greens course was paired with a Rosé. On its face, Rosé would appear to be a safe bet—it’s incredibly versatile and goes great with salads. But the black bear bacon (the one exotic meat you could actually taste unadulterated) was far too intense for Rosé. In fact, the dish screamed for a Cote-Rotie or, as someone else at our table brilliantly suggested, an Hermitage. A person in the wine industry who tasted the food would have known that.

Zot is one of the few restaurants around that has the mettle to host dinners like these. And it should continue to do so. Next time, though, Zot should allow itself to be a little more…wild.

For more pics, check out my Zot's Flintstone Dinner set on Flickr.

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