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December 5, 2010

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An expert selection of surprising wines

THE end of 2010 is rapidly approaching so it's time for me to remember some of the wines that really surprised me and exceeded expectations. With decades of drinking experience, I usually know what to expect from a bottle of wine, but once in a while the color, aroma, taste or texture of a wine may cause your eyes to pop open as you exclaim: "Wow! This is so much better than I expected." This is the "wow factor" and it's one of the most fun and enlightening of wine experiences.

Great wines with hefty price tags come with high expectations so they seldom surprise. They are delicious enough when they realize their lofty reputations. It's the more moderately priced wines that lull us into expectations of mediocrity that on rare occasions greatly exceed expectations and shock our senses with their beauty. Here are some wow wines I tasted in 2010.

Whether I'm in Asia or Italy, when I open a bottle of Orvieto white wine I'm usually expecting only a simple dry white wine with little distinction. This inexpensive wine from Umbria in central Italy is made of predominantly trebbiano grapes and is generally considered a good daily drinking wine but nothing more.

In Taipei last spring, I was enjoying classic Taiwanese seafood dishes at a small family-owned restaurant. I brought along a few bottles of Italian white wine that match well with the simply prepared, fresh seafood dishes. When one of the island's most popular dishes deep-fried oysters with mountain basil arrived at our table I cracked open a bottle of Ruffino Orvieto Classico DOC, 2008.

As soon as the cork was released from the bottle unusual aromatic scents of citrus and white flowers enveloped our table. In the mouth, the wine had greater intensity than most Orvieto wines and more persistence.

This was by no means a great wine; but it was the perfect wine for the moment and the food we were eating. It also reminded me that Orvieto wines from top Italian producers are getting better and better.

On a hot summer evening in Shanghai at one of my favorite small French restaurants I prepared to drink a rose wine from the Southern Rhone.

The air conditioning wasn't working particularly well and the room was quite stuffy. My guests and I were enjoying a selection of appetizers including a delicious home-made country pate as we moved from a pleasant white wine to a bottle of Chateau Mourgues du Gres Les Galets Roses, 2009.

This is a rose wine made from a selection of typical Southern Rhone varieties including grenache that contributes a fruity zesty quality to the wine. Because they are very sensitive to travel and don't store very well, most rose wines in Asia lack the fruity liveliness and floral qualities that they offer in abundance when enjoyed close to where they are made.

This bottle was an exception as it had all the wonderful fresh qualities that we crave in a good rose. Suddenly the room wasn't so hot and as I savored the rose wine and closed my eyes I almost felt I was basking in the sunshine of Southern France.

Several years ago I attended an international wine conference held at the Italian coastal resort of Abruzzo. Over the course of the conference we had several opportunities to taste the region's most famous wine, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. This is a red wine made from the montepulciano grape that for many years was considered a decent wine at best. Savoring these wines along the Adriatic seashore made me realize that the quality of these once dull and fleshy wines had improved dramatically.

Recently at a Shanghai restaurant that serves a lovely braised pork belly dish (ía??oìé?èa) I opened two bottles of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Farnese, a top producer. The first bottle was the basic Montepulciano from the 2007 vintage that met and even exceeded expectations. The gentle tannins of the wine beautifully offset the sweet fattiness of the pork.

The second bottle was the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG 2004 made of grapes from the most premium region of Abruzzo. The wine so deliciously embellished the flavors of the pork that despite being almost full we ordered another dish and finished both the pork and the wonderfully deep, rich and velvety-textured wine.

The wine by itself was excellent, but when paired with the pork it once again affirmed the beautiful synergy between many Italian wines and Chinese dishes.


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