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Demystifying Wine



Excerpted from Central PA magazine, January 2007

Despite a fixation that spans continents, cultures and millennia, wine continues to mystify many. Our lack of knowledge prevents us from trying something new and quite possibly divine.

The only way to learn about wine is to drink it, and we have plenty of opportunities to try different wines in Central PA. Many restaurants host regular wine-tasting events, where visitors can purchase tickets or pay a fee at the door in order to sample several “courses” of both wine and food. Wine is meant to complement and be complemented by food, so these dinners remove the guesswork of pairing by allowing chefs, sommeliers and winery owners to do it for us.

Typically, wine-tasting dinners feature small amounts of six or seven wines, one of which is a sweeter dessert wine. The idea is to taste the wine and the food, not to get drunk. Tastings often have a theme or exclusively offer wines and foods from a particular region. Other dinners will feature just seafood and white wines, for instance.

Trattoria Fratelli, an award-winning Italian restaurant in Lebanon, hosts wine dinners several times a year. During one tasting, owners (and brothers) Greg and Tony Allwein welcomed the wines of Castello Banfi, an American-owned winery in Tuscany. That evening, Greg greeted guests in groups of twos and fours and led them past the warmth of the glowing wood-fired oven in the front dining room to their reserved tables. After everyone was seated, Neill Trimble, Banfi’s vice-president of advertising and the brother-in-law of the winery’s chairman, introduced the first wine, a crisp, lightly effervescent white with the dreamy name Principessa Perlante. The wine, Trimble said, has a “little petulance,” referring to its sparkling quality. Chef Larry Nauman paired it with a petite antipasto of cured Italian meat, mozzarella, roasted red pepper and olives.

Corks began popping behind the bar, drawing the attention of diners after they’d finished the antipasto. The bartender poured a lively fuchsia-colored rosé, and some looked a bit skeptical. While rosé continues to grow in popularity, some still shy away because they associate it with the very sweet white zinfandel. But, Trimble said, this is a not-very-sweet chilled wine that people who enjoy the full-bodied quality of red wines will find delightfully refreshing. The Banfi rosé was a hit on its own, but pairing it with the fish stew elevated it even more.

More food and more wine came — five more courses, in fact. The Rosso di Montalcino, a sangiovese, went with beef carpaccio. A pumpkin-and-wild-mushroom lasagna was paired with Val delle Rose Morellino di Scansano, from Tuscany. The deep red wine’s warm, slightly raisiny flavor was mellowed by the lasagna. The final entree was a sausage made of wild boar, with mashed white beans and sautéed greens. Hearty meals need “bigger” wines, and the 2001 Summus, a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and syrah grapes, filled the bill.

Pacing oneself is important when seven courses are on the agenda, and at tastings, big portions are not a good idea. Trattoria Fratelli’s tasting menu featured not one but two desserts: an apple tart with vanilla gelato and apple sorbetto with a caramel sauce, and a chocolate zuccotto with a hazelnut truffle. The aroma of honeysuckle and apricot oozed from the glasses of the Florus, a chilled white moscadello. Trimble did not overstate by calling the fresh, fruity dessert wine the “nectar of the gods.”

The last wine of the evening was the Rosa Regale. Its majestic ruby-red hue is gorgeous, and the chilled wine is fizzy and full-bodied, bursting with the flavor of raspberries. Brachetto d’Acqui is referred to as “the wine of seduction,” and legend has it that it helped Cleopatra work her magic. The guests erupted into applause after finishing this one.

Wine dinners are perfect ways to taste a variety of wines without having to commit to a whole bottle at a time. Great food and great wine stimulate laughter and lively conversation, even if you hold no high hopes for becoming an expert. The Golden Sheaf, in the Harrisburg Hilton, hosts wine dinners twice a month during the fall and spring. The luxurious restaurant won an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator for its extensive collection of fine wines, particularly varieties from France, California and Italy.

The Red Door Wine Bar on North Second Street in Harrisburg is reminiscent of wine bars in larger metropolitan areas, serving more than 35 different wines by the glass and in flights, as well as premium cordials, vodkas, scotches, tequilas and other drinks. A tasting menu takes the guesswork out of pairing food and wine.

Wine Spectator has also honored Lancaster’s Strawberry Hill Restaurant, whose wine list boasts more than 1,400 selections, including lots of lesser-known and hard-to-find labels. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “This is the kind of list that serious wine lovers will travel and pay dearly for.”

Hosting your own wine dinner is a perfect way to learn about wine with your friends. Don’t worry — at-home tastings need not be as elaborate as the ones at restaurants. Consider focusing on food and wine from a particular country or region to get you started. Not only will it give you a bit of a leg up when choosing which wines you want to serve your guests, but the commonality of place also assures the food and wines will work well together — after all, they were made to.

Trattoria Fratelli’s Tony Allwein says, “Serve lighter, simple, younger white wines first. Whites aren’t as strongly flavored as reds. Once you have a red, it’s hard to go back to a white.” If you’re serving lighter foods, he adds, serve light-bodied wines. More substantial fare needs wines that are fuller in body and flavor. Pay attention to preparation and saucing. While the rule “white wine with chicken” often works, if you’re serving a heartier chicken dish, such as cacciatore, serve a red instead. If you’re serving fish or seafood, sauvignon blanc as well as pinot noir and barbera (both reds) work well.

Sweet foods will make a wine seem drier than it actually is, so choose a sweeter wine, such as a chenin blanc or a Riesling, to balance the flavor. Foods with a higher acidity, such as dishes that incorporate soy sauce or vinaigrettes, should be paired with wines that are also higher in acidity, such as a pinot noir or sauvignon blanc. Choose a “forward-fruity” wine, such as a merlot or cabernet sauvignon, for foods that are a bit bitter. And the “big reds,” including syrah (or shiraz) and zinfandel, go perfectly with grilled steaks and chops. “The fat in the meat tones down the tannins in the wine,” Allwein says.

Allwein’s best tip for wine-drinkers, however, is to let their palate be their guide. “Drink what you like,” he says. “Keep it simple. If you like it, it’s good.”


1/2 medium onion, small dice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of chili flakes
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 cups cold water
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 pounds assorted fresh fish and shellfish, such as swordfish, clams, shrimp, mussels, calamari
1 pound diced tomatoes (seeds and skins removed if using fresh)
Rustic Italian bread

Sweat the onions in the olive oil. Add the garlic, chili flakes and parsley. Cook until the garlic is aromatic, and then add the tomatoes, water and vinegar. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add the fish and/or shellfish. Simmer another 10–12 minutes. Serve over a chunk of grilled bread (the bread goes right in the middle of the soup, but should not get overly soggy). Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil. Serves 6 as an appetizer, or 4 as an entree.

Recipe courtesy Larry Nauman, Trattoria Fratelli

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© 2007 WITF Inc.
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Trattoria Fratelli’s recipe for cacciucco (Livornese FISH STEW) >>

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Golden Sheaf

Strawberry Hill

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