This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending one of Melissa Monosoff’s legendary Friday-night wine tastings at Savona. Held in the spacious, well-stocked—and, thankfully, cool—wine cellar, this weekly event is at-once sophisticated and relaxed. Hoity-toity, it is not.
Monosoff, one of an elite short list of female sommeliers at the master level, is just as at-home in a room full of novices as she is in front of a panel of experts grilling her in a blind tasting. For all her well-earned know-how, she is the furthest thing from a wine snob. The atmosphere of her tastings is very casual and equal parts instruction and guest participation. So it’s not only informative, but also a nice way to make some new business and social acquaintances.
Luckily for her—and for us—we were all pretty similar in our food/wine appreciation and knowledge, which made us a well-synced audience. Our wine selection was a generous pour of six California wines—which, I believe, are all available through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board:
• Chenin Blanc, Vinum Cellars, Clarksburg, Calif. (2006)
• Albariño, Ca’ del Sole Vineyard, Monterey, Calif. (2006)
• Vertú (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon), St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery, Napa Valley, Calif. (2007)
• Grenache, Sierra Vista Vineyards, El Dorado County, Calif. (2005)
• EOS Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Calif. (2007)
• Petite Sirah, Vinum Cellars, Clarksburg, Calif. (2006)*
* This wine is a fundraising blend, with a portion of the proceeds donated to the SPCA.
Each wine was handpicked by Monosoff and laid out in a progression of lightest to boldest, with a varying degree of acidity and tannins, plus a selection of petite hors d’oeuvres made by chef Andrew Masciangelo. His colorful spread included a sweet, creamy and chunky lobster salad on a crisp cracker; smoked salmon perched atop a thick cucumber round; salty Marcona almonds; and a few proscuitto-wrapped asparagus spears.
Along with our savory nibbles, each of us had an oversized spoon of butter and a mini-ramekin of sea salt. Of all the tasting accoutrements, these were the two that proved most educational when paired with the wines. We would take either a dab of butter or salt, and study how each nullified or balanced out the more acidic wines (primarily the whites). I really had never noticed that fats minimize the astringency of tannins and salt actually reduces the acidity. (Maybe that’s where the practice of using salt with margaritas—and a shot of tequila—started?) Basically, that means that acidic foods and wines seem less sour when enjoyed together. Likewise, rich chardonnays actually taste great with buttery dishes. It seems counterintuitive, but it also makes pairing at home a whole lot easier (for us dummies).
And, even though we did not have any dessert wines, this conversation reminded me of why sweet wines work so well with sweet desserts—instead of being overwhelmingly cloying. The mutual flavors balance each other out and actually make each other taste less sweet.
But we began the tasting by practicing our “swirling,” the first step to assessing the aroma and flavors in a wine. Once we nailed that down and offered up our guesses, we took a succession of sips to learn about mouthfeel and acidity. Each time, we chose a different bite from the hors d’oeuvres plate to see how that acidity (or, in the reds, tannins) changed the taste of the wine.
In an hour and 15 minutes, I came away with a broader understanding of some very basic concepts that I actually had thought I knew better. And I came away with a few new bottles to try, which means I can now show a little muscle the next time my wine geek friends come to dinner or ask me to bring a bottle.
Savona and Bar Savona: 100 Old Gulph Road, Gulph Mills; (610) 520-1200, savonarestaurant.com.