Liquids: Springtime Red Wines

The fact that my 89-year-old Italian, devout Roman Catholic grandmother keeps a bottle of Manischewitz in her fridge has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she recently declared, “If—and only if—there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I’d like to come back as a Jew … or a bird.” (Please, don’t ask.) The truth is that she, like many Americans, simply likes sweet wines, and when she thinks sweet, she thinks kosher.

At this time of year, with the seasons changing, there’s lots of kvetching about which wines to drink—what to pour for Passover (kosher wines aren’t sweet anymore; read on); what tastes best with Easter lamb (a light fruity red); and, of utmost importance, what wine on earth can handle fresh spring asparagus (sauvignon blanc). For me, this is a great time of year to experiment with wine.

Lumière chef Michael Leviton agrees. “After a long winter of root vegetables, beans, and the like, this is an incredibly exciting time to cook because there’s all this new stuff in the markets,” he says. “And I think that because Passover and Easter are both spring holidays, and they’re from the same tradition, there’s a lot more relation between them than you think.” Indeed, both holidays make good use of spring vegetables, both call for fresh herbs, and both celebrate the arrival of spring lamb.

“I’m fanatical about spring lamb,” says Frank McClelland, chef at L’Espalier, who has been buying lamb from Lydia Ratcliff’s Lovejoy Brook Farm in Andover, Vermont, for 20 years. “I love couscous with grilled flatbread, spit-roasted spring lamb, a really fresh farmer’s goat cheese—like a Capri from Hubbardstown—and a nice Calera pinot noir.”

The mention of that tasty pinot noir raises an obvious question: What wine goes with all this exciting spring fare? While you might think that the answer is something crisp, white, and refreshing, I’m inclined to say I don’t think we’re there yet, seasonally. Sure, a delicious riesling might be terrific with McClelland’s spring lamb, but acidity tastes better when the weather is more humid, and we’re lucky to not have that—yet.

Instead, let’s turn to lighter reds as transition wines toward summer whites and chilled reds. After months of full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, bordeaux, and barolo, think about turning down the volume a bit. In terms of grape names, consider supple merlot and fruity pinot noir, and for regionally named European wines think earthy Côtes du Rhône (such as M. Chapoutier’s “Belleruche”) and Beaujolais (not the soda pop “Nouveau”; see sidebar) from France; and fruity dolcettos (such as Villadoria Dolcetto d’Alba) and barberas (such as Pio Cesare Barbera “Fides”) from Italy. All of them are certainly flavorful red wines, but they also have a lighter feel to them than their aforementioned kin, which leaves more room on the palate for spring food flavors.

Lest we forget Greek Orthodox Easter, I recently tasted an array of wines from Greece, some of which were interesting, a few of which were downright delicious. My favorite was a spicy, fruity wine from Boutari called Xinomavro, named for the grape, which is blended with merlot in a 50-50 share.

As for Passover, with due respect to both Nana and Manischewitz, kosher wine has come a long way since the days when the only way to “purify” it, or make it mevushal, was to boil it. Today, producers such as California’s Baron Herzog, France’s Fortant de France, and Israel’s Carmel and Yarden use a relatively new breakthrough technology called “flash pasteurization,” which can take a thin film of wine and raise the temperature to the point at which bacteria are killed and cool it back down again in a matter of seconds. How does the wine taste after this process? The difference in taste is imperceptible. A bottle of Yarden Merlot tastes as good as any merlot I’ve had recently.

And for you die-hard Manischewitz fans, Lora Brody, author of Basic Baking (William Morrow), says her Passover seder wouldn’t be complete without a compote of dried and fresh fruit macerated, or soaked, in Manischewitz. “It’s got to be on the table because the kids drink it,” she says, “though my sons like the good stuff.”

Mazel tov!