April is not the cruelest month, not by a long shot. February is. And January and March aren't far behind. When we're in the middle of gloomy winter, it's hard to discern much meaning out of the dimness. I guess this explains why the Renaissance didn't start in Britain.
Once these cruelly short days and cold nights are in life's rearview mirror, we're all looking for ways to celebrate our survival of getting through another winter. For months now, I've been hurrying in and out of my slightly too cold wine cellar, staying just long enough to drop wine off and rush wine upstairs for dinner. To welcome spring, I'm going to take a minute, look long at the wine that's there, and pull out a couple of delicious bottles of meaningful vintages.
Wine is what they did with thousands of pounds of freshly-harvested grapes in the millennia before refrigeration. Then cured olives and cheese came along, invented as ways to store up some abundance against the possibility of want. Each represents a way of carrying the past and present into the future.
When the ancient Romans conquered Britain, they found that just about everything would grow on the island except olives and grapes. So they imported them from France, Spain, and Italy rather than do without, which would have been the easiest thing.
A thousand miles north of their sunny homes, the Romans carried a bit of the Mediterranean with them in the form of their wine and food. Opening a radiant red Italian wine with a spicy meat stew is like letting a shaft of Mediterranean light into the room.
To celebrate the warm days ahead, we've prepared a ruggedly individual four-course wine dinner, each course a tribute to one of the four seasons of the year.
2004 Domaine Bourillon Dorleans “La Coulee d'Argent” Vouvray (about $20, distributed by Michael Skurnik Wines, 516-677-9300)
This deliciously dry white wine from northwest France's Loire Valley is made from the Chenin Blanc grape. It smells like green leaves and rain. Fruit flavors are lean, zippy, and almost tropical: green apple, pear, pineapple, and a reminder of guava. Deep down inside, there's a classy core of flinty steel and slate for which you pay twice as much in Burgundy.
2004 Sanford Pinot Noir-Vin Gris (about $17, widely distributed locally)
Buttery, creamy, rich, and unctuous in every way, this bargain vin gris (gray wine) is an expression of pinot noir fruit that's equal to Sanford's much more expensive reds. After a winter of heavy red wine, I'm ready for pretty pink juice, and this Sanford is one of my favorite wines of all. The crushed grapes spend just a little time in contact with the skins, imparting richness and a salmon-ruby color.
2003 Villa di Capezzana Carmignano (about $35, imported and distributed by Clicquot USA)
Capezzana is a famous Tuscan estate in the town of Carmignano, northwest of Florence. They were blending Cabernet Sauvignon into their Sangiovese wines decades before the first so-called "Super Tuscan" producers of our own era. This Capezzana is dense and black, almost opaque. The tannic grip is huge, and it requires a meaty red dish like the oxtail.
2002 Austin Hope Roussanne
($37.50 at www.austinhope.com)
The first time I tasted this spectacular wine, I remember hoping it was $20, even though it tasted much more expensive. Maybe, based on the fact that no one knows what Roussanne is, the wine could have come in severely under-priced, but no such luck. This is a rich, almost viscous white wine with a tremendous amount of body. It's not syrupy, but compared with a typical white wine, Roussanne is several times denser. Its scent is like a bunch of wild flowers and tastes like ripe pears and apples.
Season of cheese
1998 Chateau de Fesles Bonnezeaux (about $20 a half-bottle, available from Frederick Wildman, 212-355-0700)
Another Loire Valley Chenin Blanc bookends the dinner nicely, but this one is sweet, almost oily, deliciously viscous and tasting of honey and apple butter. With the Gorgonzola cheese, it creates a wild third taste sensation that can't be had any other way.
2003 Concannon Petite Sirah (about $11, available nationally at Trader Joe's and others)
How this wine can be at this price, I will never understand. The fruit concentration is intense and perfect, black and almost opaque. A perfume of dill, basil, mint and other aromatic herbs are present in each glass, with hints of black and white pepper, figs and dates. The fruit and tannin are like a great dark canvas for the wine's herbal aromatic expression. At only $2 a glass, this is an automatic buy.