December 2011

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Plavac Mali – a name worth remembering
Some grapes just have it easy. Their parents named them with memorable, easy-to-pronounce names with just enough exotic edge to give them a chance as a mixed race supermodel. Adriana Gisele Pinot, please take the runway.

Liz Lemon, please stay off the runway
Most grapes have no such memorable moniker and have to rely on comedic controversy, word of mouth and/or cute labels to sear their imprint into a wine drinker’s mind. Yes, Liz Lemon – that cute alliterative label is working. We remember you from the cheese curl in the hair episode. Oh, and that disturbing photo on the cover of your new book.

Mainstream Eeyore

Plavac Mali seems to have wisely taken the Liz Lemon approach to fame and it’s only a matter of time before it goes mainstream. First, there’s the cute donkey on the label (see below) – interesting enough to stand out from the cursive letting on all the other bottles, happy enough to disassociate any sad childhood memories of Eeeyore and his dour nail-in-the-tail moping.

Incestuous Grapes
Then, we have a bit of word of mouth controversy about Plavac Mali’s family relations. No, no weird sex tape or anything – just a mix-up of parent with son, which is basically as incestuous as the wholesome grape community gets. See, for years, people thought Plavac Mali was Zinfandel, the famed grape of California and the grape that Ian, Mark and I kept trying to order the night we stumbled across Plavac Mali in the East Village. “Zinfandel = Primitivo = Plavac Mali!” went the cry among the tiny subculture of ampelographers. Sadly, only the first part of that transitive property holds up: Zinfandel = Primitivo.

Cousin Plavac
Plavac Mali is another grapey beast. But a RELATED grapey beast to Zinfandel and Primitivo. After some fancy DNA sequencing at UC Davis, the conclusion came back that Zinfandel is a parent of Plavac Mali, closely related but decidedly different. Now discovering a parent has to be at the top of the emotional scale. Somewhere just above turning a double play to end the inning or playing “Nexus” across three vertical columns of Scrabble tiles. Plavac Mali has definitely that emotional umph going for it.

Plavac Sighting in East Village
But Plavac (we’re already on a first-name basis) also has a surprise up its sleeve. It’s at New York’s hottest restaurant chain, or at least at their noodle bar last weekend. No, it’s not on their website yet and maybe never will be, but it’s on their written menu. Or at least last weekend it was, when Mark (a 9th place finisher in a national Magic tournament), Ian (a designer of less-stressful bridges who refuses to discuss his work with bartenders) and this wino (a blogger who once played “Yucas” on a triple word score yet lost when “Qi” was played in retaliation) walked into the noodle bar at 2am looking for 2nd dinner.

And when that 2nd dinner happened (because really it was too early for pizza slices and too crowded at The Immigrant) this Zin-Son was waiting with pork buns and pork belly ramen. As stated above, it’s just a matter of time before it goes mainstream.

Plavac Mali varies widely based on its location and alcohol levels, according to Those Who Know. Their conclusion seems correct to me based on an irrefutable sample size of one: “there isn’t any one way to describe it.” Ours happened to be from the southern tip of Croatia and on the lower end of the alcohol spectrum at 12.0%.

Now, these tasting notes might be swayed by being paired with excessive amounts of pork and it being 2am at the time, but our collective notes read as follows:
“Dry, muted fruit, berries, lot of fig, short finish, red aftertaste (strawberry or raspberry) with plum.” So yes, there isn’t any one way to describe it. But if you’re a Zinhead like Nathanimal, you’ll be happy once you’ve tried it.

Detail Up!
Plavac Mali 2009 Dingač Vinarija Winery with 12.0% alc. – PeljeÅ¡ac Peninsula, near Dubrovnik on the southern tip of Croatia.

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Random Googles:
* Plavac Donkey, the very wine tasted late that night at Momofuku, is listed as No. 1 Best Wine of 2011 by the energetic importer Blue Danube Wines. Not that we knew about the accolade at the time of 2nd dinner, but sometimes even Eeyores get luck.
* “Little Blue” is how “Plavac Mali” translates from Croatian when Nina is translating, which has a better ring than “Small Blue.” You can probably guess what color the berry is.
* Donkeys, in addition to being cute enough to attract wine purchasers, are useful in extremely steep regions when you want to harvest your grapes. The Pelješac peninsula, close to UNESCO World Heritage site Dubrovnik and the site of this Plavac Mali, is one such donkey-steep region.

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Old Time Memories
Old-time wine lovers always talk about “that bottle” – the one that they remember from the 1960s as the bottle that led them to their life’s passion in a blaze of enlightenment with archangels singing on high and fauns prancing around in circles. They discuss details of the night in intricate detail and have a far-away look in their eye like they’re remembering bygone eras or (more probably) have had one too many tipples.

October Blizzard of 2011
Still, there is something to the wine-memory nexus as no less an authority than Johns Hopkins reports. Forever etched into this wino’s memory is the October Blizzard of 2011. Hermano Timmy had just returned from his conquest of numerous Iberian beaches and brought with him one of the finest trophies available: Port. Taylor’s Tawny Port, to be specific.

Annual Ice Cream Rite
Soon after arriving, the snow began. And so began the ritual. For every year, on the day of the first snowfall, my family celebrates the snowfall by having ice cream and only ice cream for dinner. This is a respected tradition going back decades to our origins in the Great North of the Midwest. Wherever one of the sons of Adam or daughters of Eve are on the day that snow falls, they adhere to the tradition and eat ice cream and only ice cream for dinner.

With all siblings now disbursed around the planet, it’s the rare evening when snow falls on 2+ siblings at the same time. Rarer still is it that two siblings are located together for such an occasion. But thanks to the absurdly early snowfall on October 30, 2011, Hermano Timmy, Cristina and I devoured dinner without accouterments and with plenty of relish (metaphorically only).

From Seal to Shining Seal
After dinner, we broke into the bottle of Taylor’s Tawny Port and little by little worked our way from Portuguese Seal of Guarantee to the last sludgy dregs at the bottom of the bottle. Random conversations interspersed with looks into the horizontally blowing snowstorm without views of the Empire State Building or other favorite landmarks.

Conversations we didn’t have
Random conversations didn’t really turn to wine. They didn’t turn to Port or the history of British involvement in the port shipping business. They didn’t turn to the most famous Port grape of Touriga Nacional or to the second most known Port grape of Tinta Barroca. Nothing was discussed of Tinta Barroca being one of the regions most recent arrivals to the Port region since it’s been there less than 150 years. Nothing was mentioned of how it faces north on the hillsides in the Douro valley. No one commented how it could handle the cold and that it might be the perfect grape for a snowstorm in October. No – it was just random conversation between brothers.

Turns out this was Timmy’s favorite bottle from the trip through Portugal and there had been “several” tastings during his visit to the lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. I lost my tasting notes in the storm of October 2011 but Taylor Fladgate has description enough to satisfy those jonesing for the notes:

“Deep brick colour with amber rim. Rich and elegant nose combining aromas of ripe berry fruit with a delicate nuttiness and subtle mellow notes of chocolate, butterscotch and fine oak wood. Smooth and silky on the palate and full of ripe figgy, jammy flavours which persist on the long finish.”

Detail Up!
Taylor Fladgate 10 Year-old Tawny

Google Randoms:
* Robert Parker, biggie in the wine review world, calls Taylor’s tawny ports “the best of their type” and “a personal favorite.” Hermano Timmy, biggie in life, agrees.
* South Africa grows Tinta Barroca in and around the Western Cape, and makes the grape into both fortified and everyday drinking wines.
* Tinta Barroca is the name of a Portuguese/Brazilian/Norwegian band centered around a flutist, which takes its name from the famous Port wine grape.

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