Is it blasphemy in a city so identified with the California wine trade to admit that wines from else where can seem so right, so exciting, with the local fare? To drink non-California wines in San Francisco seems counterintuitive at the very least.
But, that Italian bottle of 2003 Cantina Bolzano Muller Thurgau (available from its US importer, Summa Vitis, at summavitis.com) tasted so darn logical with a classic San Francisco meal of oysters on the half-shell, a salad of arugula, fennel and shaved Parmesan cheese, and browned Petrale sole in a lemon and caper sauce.
This dinner at Pesce, a small Italian restaurant in the city’s Russian Hill neighbourhood, stood on its ear the old notion that food and wine from the same region always work best together (i.e. Alsatian riesling with an Alsatian onion tart).
What matters more, really, is how well the style of the wine goes with whatever you are eating.
For more and more diners in big cities, the thirst is building for food-friendly wines, notably once-unfamiliar Italian varietals like this MullerThurgau.
I learned this lesson during my 15-month sojourn in San Francisco. When I first moved to the city by the bay in 2003, I fantasised about lazy alfresco lunches washed down with gallons of California chardonnay and an occasional barrel of zinfandel.
What I discovered instead was that wines like gruner veltliner from Austria, rieslings from Alsace, gerwurztraminer from Germany and Muller-Thurgau from Italy often worked better with San Francisco cuisine than wines made just an hour or two away.
Sommelier Brenda Chang of Osteria Via Stato in Chicago, who, like me, moved out to the Bay Area only to move back East, explained that the taste for non-California varietals developed in San Francisco because of the international accent to the cuisine there.
Asian flavours and citrus notes demanded a different palate for wine than the usual chardonnays and cabernets, she said.
Cool-climate whites match cuisine better than chardonnays “People realise how good they are with food,” she said.
“I see it everywhere, even on the by-the-glass list. Since I got back (to Chicago) everyone has a tocai friuliano from Alto Adige or a racy, lean sauvignon blanc from the north of Italy or a pinot bianco with no oak aging.” Shebnem Ince, general manager of Que Syrah Fine Wines in Chicago, has noted a strong upsurge of interest in Italian wines as sales of imported wines in the store has eclipsed those of domestic wines. When the Chicago store opened three years ago, American wines made up 56 per cent of sales; now the figure is about 31 per cent.
Ince said customers are turning to Italy for those wines. Chang clearly agrees: “I think Italy is like the new Austria. Everyone was so big on gruner veltliner for so long. I think it’s all about Italy now.”
Chang added: “Every now and then you need to have the palate freshened.” People realise now that pairing regional foods with the region’s wine makes sense, but people also like change for change’s sake.