Daughter Allegra presented us with a jar of her home-made pickled onions, which we proceeded to eat with almost every meal. Breakfast? How about a toasted bagel with goat cheese, lox and pickled onions? Lunch? Simple. A cheddar cheese and pickled onion sandwich. Dinner? Lots of picked onions on top of the green salad or pickled onions as a condiment for brown rice or farro.
The jar didn’t last long.
So the next morning, I thinly sliced a large onion and brought the slices to boil in a scant half-cup of organic white vinegar and a half-cup of water. I added a clove of garlic, a half-teaspoon of thyme, some rosemary from our out-of-control patio bush, a few peppercorns and two teaspoons of salt. As soon as it boiled, I poured the contents of the pan into a pint jar and, presto, we had pickled onions for our evening salad.
I worried that they’d overwhelm the light Italian white I served for the meal, but, being the delightfully versatile wine that it is, it did just fine. In search of just such an interesting Italian white, I had picked up the bottle of Riva Leone Gavi at Nugget, knowing nothing about it except that it was on sale for $10 and looked interesting. The next day I went back for more.
Though a delicate wine, it has fairly intense citrus flavor along with its nice aroma of fresh apple and melon. Bone-dry but lively, it’s crisp and refreshing, just perfect for these warming days. Not to mention pickled onions.
Gavi comes from the Piemonte region of northern Italy and is its own DOCG. Just 13 communes can make this wine, which consists of 100 percent cortese grapes — only grown in northern Italy. Since it’s meant to be drunk young, I was a bit concerned about the 2011 (the 2013 has already been released), but it was fine. I would, though, not recommend storing it for any length of time.
Finding a wine that worked so well with a new favorite food seemed a happy little coup, so I decided it would be fun to do the reverse — find a new food to go with a favorite wine. I knew that my partner had purchased a bottle of Pinot N (see the previous column for details about this German red) for our Valentine’s Day dinner. I also suspected it would be perfect with the first two courses — sauteed sea scallops over a bed of orange zest-infused spinach and large pasta shells (available at Zia) stuffed with ricotta, Parmesan and grated beets (V-Day and all).
But dessert? Since sweet wines, delicious as some of them are, give me a headache, I usually just serve tea on the rare occasions we have dessert. But then I read about a chocolate concoction that, apparently, Italians like to eat with a big glass of red. Pane al cioccolato is, as the name suggests, a real bread, made with yeast and flavored with cocoa. It has just a tablespoon of sugar in it (to 2 cups of flour), so the light sweetness comes only from the semi-sweet chocolate bits you knead into the dough.
You’re supposed to spread it with mascarpone or gorgonzola — I chose the former just because I was having trouble with the chocolate-gorgonzola combo, but, having tasted the bread, I’m now I eager to bake another loaf and try the stronger cheese. And it did, indeed, work beautifully with the Pinot N.
Completely hooked on pane al cioccolato, I reversed my process once again and tried to think of wine that would love it as much as I do. Chocolate and zinfandel is a common pairing, and I do think this bread would work well with a not-too-hot, not-too-fruity zin, like the local Marr Cellars. But I wanted something a little more Italian to go with my Italian creation, so I browsed around Vini for a while and decided to try a taste of Villa Raiano Aglianico.
I’ve seen the name “aglianico” before. Maybe I’ve drunk it in an Italian blend, but I don’t remember ever trying it on its own. Like many obscure (to us, not to Italians) grapes, this one seems to be making a comeback. Rising winemaker stars in Italy are committed to it, some of them claiming it’s one of the finest grapes in Italy, right up there with Nebbiolo and Sangeovese. I’ve also seen it called the “Barolo of the south.”
“Aglianico is the grape we believe in most,” says wine producer Antonio Capaldo. He goes on to say that he thinks aglianico is “one of the most beautiful grapes in Italy … “Its fruit is firm and decisive, but sweet and bright. The bouquet is so broad, and its natural aromas include unique mineral nuances. It adapts well to oak and shows enormous potential for cellar aging.”
Denis Dubourdieu, enology professor at the University of Bordeaux, observes that “Aglianico is probably the grape with the longest consumer history of all.” Said to have been cultivated by the Phoenicians, it was drunk by both Greeks and Romans and beloved of popes and kings. Its great longevity may be due, in part, to its resistance to the massively destructive pest phylloxera.
Among the areas in which it flourishes is the Campania — in southern Italy at the top of the boot. That’s where my bottle of Villa Raiano Aglianico came from. It’s a fairly intense wine, full-bodied and foresty with lovely aromas and tastes of berries and spice — and a hint of violet.
This winery is relatively new — it was started in 1996 by brothers Sabino and Simone Basso and their brother-in-law Paolo. They have about 45 acres of land, and they’re dedicated to sustainable vineyard and cellar management and the hands-on creation of wines that reflect the area.
You don’t have to drink this wine with chocolate bread, by the way. It’s quite versatile and would do well with all manner of meats and pastas. It even served as a happy companion to a piece of roasted Arctic char. You can buy a bottle at Vini for $22, but do taste it first.
And while you’re there, you may as well try a few other wines, too. A perfect after-work hour: sitting at a window table, having three tastes of wine, listening to Vini’s mellow jazz and deciding which of the films playing at the Varsity — the marquee visible from your table — you want to see.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com