Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu May 07, 2009 8:59 am

Rusticity in Wine and Food: Why the Disconnect?

rustic definition
rus·tic (rus_tik)
adjective
0. of or living in the country, as distinguished from cities or towns; rural
0. lacking refinement, elegance, polish, or sophistication; specif.,
0. simple, plain, or artless
0. rough, awkward, uncouth, or boorish
0. made of rough, bark-covered branches or roots; rustic furniture


America has a love/hate affair with rusticity in their wine and food. It is a disconnect that I have never understood as someone in the business and also as a consumer. To put it simply, we love rustic food. How many times have you heard “It’s a lovely rustic, Italian restaurant with a wonderful charming staff?” They order sautéed squid with whole green peppercorns followed by chicken cacciatore with chunks of bacon. And then they say we drank Ornellaia, Masseto, Messorio, Montiano with the meal. There is the disconnect. Why do people claim to love rough, rustic food/restaurants, yet have a love for non-rustic “polished” wine and actually have a disdain for any wine referred to as rustic?

It makes no sense. This is particularly true given that peasant food has had a hugely increased following over the past 20 years. Who can forget when Tom Valenti came out with his braised lamb shank in red wine at Allison on Dominick? I am dating myself a bit but that was the start of a culinary revolution in this country. Now all sorts of peasant cuts from pork belly to osso bucco to liver and kidneys are the mainstays of menus. This trend is not limited to the United States. The British are rediscovering their love of traditional peasant food and have made Fergus Henderson a national hero. The French are falling in love all over again with “mother’s cuisine.”

These foods are anything but nuanced and polished. They have big brawny flavors that stick out and shock the palette. They are often difficult to chew (and certainly to digest as anyone who has eaten cassoulet can attest to). Yet this is the food that we love to eat not despite, but because of, its big flavors.

But not our wines. We love our wines subtle, polished and ready to drink. We can countenance no rough edges or quirks. This is true even though there is really no better pairing with some of these foods. We also seem to have forgotten wine goes with food and really should not be treated as a cocktail.

What can go better with a lamb leg braised in Cotes du Rhone than a big rough-edged wine from the same region? Why not have a good Chianti with your osso bucco or a Barbera or Dolcetto with your rigatoni with ragu? Must we have the ubiquitous Super Tuscans with our Italian main courses? Why do we need to cut the native Sangiovese with Cabernet and Merlot to give it a false sheen of respectability? And anybody who is a decent taster knows that even a little percentage of Cab or Merlot thrown into Sangiovese makes the wine taste like Cab or Merlot and strips most of the Sangiovese character away.

These rustic wines are rough, fruity and a bit spicy. They are what the peasants who created these dishes have drunk with them for hundreds of years. Why are we unable to do so any longer?

I blame the effect on a multitude of factors including the idea of set and setting (context) and the general slant of wine critics in this country to award high scores to polished wines with no hard edges, the exact opposite of rustic.

If we just look at Napa Cabernet it becomes even clearer. Before the Wine Advocate was the way it was now, it was a different publication as Parker’s palate leaned towards more rustic wines like Diamond Creek, Philip Togni, Dunn, Groth Reserve, Chateau Montelena, Phelps Eisele, etc. These had the power, depth and the rich fruit one expects from California, but also they had gritty tannins and green earthy flavors which made them more rustic than polished. These wines always traditionally got high scores and consumers loved them. There was no Harlan, Screagle, Schrader, Levy & McClellan or Bond.

But Parker’s palate changed and gave 1992 Screagle 100 points and that wine became the symbol of a new type of California Cabernet. The style was creamy, low tannin, rich, polished and with no hard edges. Some people could say that the evolution was unavoidable, as technology, vineyard management and experience were the cause of the stylistic evolution in California Cabernet.

Not only were high end Cabernets made in that new polished style, middle of the road ones were, and also the lower end wines and even branded wines. People loved that style of wine which is the absolute opposite of rustic. Yet still people consistently clamor about the charming rustic French/Italian restaurant they were just at and the amazing Bergerac or Rosso di Montalcino they had. It seems like when people want to actually think for themselves they prefer the rustic wine and the experience or context that comes with it.

This brings me to my next point which is that people seriously underrate the set and setting when one is thinking about a wine they tasted and that is why, subconsciously they tend to enjoy the more polished wines in their daily lives. If you are on your honeymoon in the rolling hills of Tuscany and had dinner at a charming Italian restaurant with the most attentive maitre d’ ever and you drank the house wine while being serenaded by a violin quartet it changes your experience with the wine. It’s impossible for it not to, as experience is the most important thing when it comes to learning and memory that we have. Context is very important to most wine drinkers whether they think so or not. If you are in your small apartment in NYC and drinking the same house wine you had on your honeymoon while your wife is away on business it just will not taste as good. Let’s say you are drinking a polished Napa Cabernet in your dingy small NYC apartment that was highly rated by Parker. Odds are it will taste better. Parker has validated your purchase and made your evening feel special because you sourced, bought and served a wine that he gave 93 points. Also the heavy bottle, the designer label and the big punt are all there to make you feel special.

Ultimately, I believe that rustic wines are no better or worse than more nuanced wines, just like pork belly is really no better or worse than foie gras. They are just different experiences. Just as you would not want to eat foie gras every night, there is no reason to solely drink Cabernet and Merlot. There are good and bad versions of each of these genres. If you look a little, you can find wonderful, powerful rustic wines from the likes of Eric Texier (Rhone), Clos de la Roilette (Beaujolais), Bernard Baudry (Loire), and Montesecondo (Chianti). These are just a few examples of reasonably priced, honest and rustic wines that are fantastic with food and a welcome change of pace from the daily dose of 93-point Cabernet Sauvignon.

Do you think that rustic wines have a place in today’s cellars? What is your favorite rustic wine and food pairing?
Lyle Fass
 
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby matcohen » Thu May 07, 2009 2:19 pm

True this. I am trying to stock a good 20% of my cellar with rustic wines. Rhone and Italian reds are terrific values and go very well with peasant food.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu May 07, 2009 2:57 pm

Don't forget the Loire, Beaujolais, Frontan, Madiran, Cahors, etc. Also inexpensive Austrian reds as they usually tart up the higher cuvees with oak and recognizable varietals like Cab and Merlot.
Lyle Fass
 
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby seanbrendan » Thu May 07, 2009 3:20 pm

Hi Lyle - great post.

What are the processes indicative of a winemaker attempting to make a more rustic wine?
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby Lyle Fass » Thu May 07, 2009 3:43 pm

It's more the grape and terroir I would say than winemaking decisions, although they can have an effect on de-rusticizing wines if that is a word. Poulsard cannot avoid its rustic character. It is inherent to what the grape is and how it expresses itself. Loire Cabernet Franc, specifically Chinon is rustic but there are some producers who will oak it up and extract the crap out of it to get rid of that character.

If your goal is to make a rustic wine odds are you'll have better luck with a rustic grape (Arboriou, Tannat, Poulsard, Cot, Mansois, etc.) But don't plant Mansois in Carneros!
Lyle Fass
 
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby seanbrendan » Fri May 08, 2009 7:35 am

how about in Washington?
any rustic grapes that would excel?

and in turn, and winemakers making rustic wines?
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby Lyle Fass » Fri May 08, 2009 7:37 am

Washington I am less familiar with but I've always thought Montepulciano would do well in WA, but I could be wrong.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby frances » Sun May 10, 2009 5:50 pm

I got into wine by drinking lower-status and generally lower-priced ('rustic') French red wines (Loire, Beaujolais, Frontan, Madiran, Cahors, Gaillac, Languedoc, Corbieres, Vacqueyras, Jura, Marcillac--which is awesome--etc.), so your post speaks to me implicitly. I basically can't drink medium-priced high-status wines from anywhere because they seem way too manipulated and stepped on to me (high-priced high-status could be another story, I guess). Eric Texier wines are great.
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Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 5-7-09; Rusticity

Postby Lyle Fass » Mon May 11, 2009 12:33 pm

Frances,

Preaching to the choir. Especially true in Italy where the most inexpensive wine is also the most interesting and authentic.

Sylvain Pataille in Marsannay comes to mind. My favorite wine from the estate is the Bourgogne Passetougrains and the Marsannay "Ancestrale" is just an oaked-to-death Marsannay that is ridiculously over-priced and in a Sine Qua Non-like bottle.
Lyle Fass
 
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