Thursday, January 17, 2008

Grilled Lamb, Mencía, and Asirtiko

It's cold something horrible roundabouts here, so why not grill some meat. Yes, that's right, barbecue! In the dead zone of winter! Two nights running, no less. And since I weigh a mere 140 with a jacket on, I decided to pig out and grill four rack lamb chops, though two would have sufficed.

Ah, but what to serve with the lamb? I narrowed my choice to either the 1999 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva or the 2003 Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzo Corullón. Since I'd had the former previously (it is a fantastic, traditionally-made Rioja, deep and pure), I opted for the Palacios, which comes from the Galician region of Bierzo.

Now, I had the 1999 Palacios Bierzo roughly six months ago but I found that vintage lacking in fruit. Completely. As in all stone. I don't know if it was dead or simply shut down, but it didn't improve over the course of five days. So I figured the 2003 would be younger, fresher, less of a risk.

I was right — it is fresher, it does have more fruit. The problem is, it's overoaked. Wines made from Mencía should be deep but sharp, not unlike a Loire Cabernet Franc, but here the oak has muted the unique Mencía voice to a melodious but blunt pidgin Spanish. It tastes like it could be a Ribera del Duero, or even a Malbec from Argentina. This was even more apparent when paired with the simply grilled lamb, for neither were elevated. And given the amazing terroir from whence these grapes sprung — awesomely steep schist hillsides that can only be tilled by mule — it's a total shame.

For no want of oak I much prefer the younger and cheaper Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos Bierzo — it's modestly oaked and it's deep, smoky, spicy, and very sexy. Fact is, I wish I had a half case of the 2005 handy right now!

Now, what I haven't told you yet is that on both nights I started with an aperitif of the 2006 Sigalas Asirtiko Athiri Santorini. I only wish I had a slab of grilled fish with which to pair it; for this, my friends, is a stunning wine, and it equals if not exceeds the beautiful 2005 vintage.

Asirtiko (also spelled Assyrtiko) and Athiri are grapes that grow only in Greece and mainly on Santorini, the bushes clumped low on the ground to survive the fierce winds. You can tell this is no ordinary wine when the crisp, sweet aromas of spearmint, clover, chamomile, and apple leap from the glass. It smells almost like a cross between Viognier and Riesling. But rather than sweet or full, this ultra-dry and unoaked white, flecked with peach flavors, is marked by a profound and zesty saltiness that's not the least bit overbearing. It's like a perfect Muscadet, only more so. It's also flawless — it remains tasty, pure, and long even as it warms to room temperature.

So... Who wants to guess which wine I'll be buying again?

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