Let It Pour

Wine expert learns a thing or two about French grapes.

September 14, 2013 

My recent discovery of ugni blanc made it clear just how much I have left to learn about wine, which is almost everything.

Since the discovery coincided roughly with the occasion of my birthday, I have decided to view it as a harbinger of possibility. That may seem outsized, but 40-something birthdays are the sorts of inauspicious milestones that spur one to seek meaning from what’s close at hand, so I’m happy to take my hopeful signs where I can get them.

Actually, I’ve been drinking ugni blanc (oo-nee blank) for a while, I’m sure. I just didn’t know its name. Abundant in Gascony in southwest France, it’s most often distilled to make cognac and armagnac, but that’s not why I know it. Ugni blanc is a social type, kind of a popular-girl varietal that mixes well and never goes anywhere alone, so it winds up blended, often with colombard and gros monsenge as white table wine. The same varietal is similarly used in Italy, where it’s known as trebbiano. As I’m a huge fan of the $10-per-bottle French table white, I’ve had plenty of ugni blanc.

But on a recent evening when my husband and I found ourselves at dinner without our child, the entry of an ugni blanc-cassagnoles blend on the by-the-glass wine list at Mandolin seemed exotic. We were, of course, in a hurry, because we’d left ourselves too little time to eat before our movie started, so we opted for a table in the bar area. It was our first visit to the restaurant, and its reputation had primed my imagination. That combined with the casual magic of the setting – sleek armless chairs, low lights, and the view of the cooks at work through the long, wide kitchen window – made me feel like a tourist in my own town. I was eager for a discovery.

The ugni blanc was several shades more golden than the summer whites I’d been drinking, and the nose was dank and earthy. It surprised me with a mouthful of Granny Smith apple, almost as tart as good, hard cider. The acid helped it stand up to the charcutrie plate I was nibbling, proving especially good with the chicken liver paté and head cheese. This, I thought, is the perfect wine for fall.

Charles Kirkwood, the thoughtful curator of Mandolin’s wine list, puts a lot of emphasis on the by-the-glass offerings. The cassagnoles is a mainstay on that list because it’s a good value and readily available.

“One of the big, stand-out characteristics that I look for in by-the-glass is that it has high acid, because the acidity is very important in pairing with food,” he said. “That wine, I find it has exceptionally balanced acidity and has minerality as well.”

Mandolin’s by-the-glass list is ripe for exploration with an orange wine, eight to 10 whites and reds, four sparkling wines, a rosé, four sherries and 14 dessert wines. Kirkwood changes the list monthly or weekly, based on what he finds.

When I called to chat with him about the ugni blanc, I was at first a bit disappointed to learn that it was a varietal I’d had before. It’s kind of like seeing a name you don’t recognize on a guest list, and wondering who the exotic stranger might be, then finding out it’s an acquaintance you’ve always known by her nickname, which prompts you to greet her with “Oh, it’s you.”

But because it is my birthday as I am writing this, I pause to consider the possibilities of “meeting” an acquaintance under a new name or “discovering” a wine you’ve already known about. And those are vast.

So I’m taking my encounter with ugni blanc as a sign that the universe wants me to look more closely, to be more open to the wonders of everything I think I already know.

Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at amberwrites.com.

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