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Breaking the Game Time Stereotypes
By Robert Whitley
Aug 12, 2008
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The average football fan, if you buy the Madison Avenue hype, dips his mass-produced corn chips into salsa from a jar, guzzles light beer and wears a baseball cap backwards as he roots for the home team in front of a humongous plasma TV on the typical autumn weekend.

Doesn't sound like anyone I know, though I'm sure that snapshot does play out somewhere. Perhaps at a college frat house. In my neighborhood, folks are serious about the game and what they serve friends and neighbors who come over to watch.

The back-yard tailgate party can and should be nourishing, for game days are long, sometimes with back-to-back games that are sure to work up an appetite.

Over the years I've seen whole legs of lamb turning on the spit, tri-tip steaks charring on the grill, huge pots of chicken chili gurgling on the side burner. This is the second season for grill fanatics like me, and with cool, damp weather just around the corner I tend to treat it as the grand finale to the barbecue season.

Of course, great food requires great wine. I seldom raid the cellar for rare and precious gems, because they are seldom a good fit for this type of fare. I prefer wines that are festive, easy and tasty.

For starters, a congenial host might set out a metal party tub filled with ice and a bottle or two of Prosecco, the sparkling wine from northern Italy's Veneto region. Prosecco is more affordable than Champagne (generally $20 or less per bottle) and its softness and fruitiness make it the perfect quaffer with salty snacks.

Prosecco has the added benefit of being lower in alcohol (always below 13 percent, sometimes below 12) than most other wines. Some are sweeter than others, so it's important to know what you're buying. Brut Prosecco will work best with savory bites, while the sweeter 'extra dry' Prosecco goes well with fruit-based dishes and spicy fare.

Adami, Bisol and Maschio dei Cavalieri are quality minded producers who make Prosecco across the range, but virtually every good wine merchant and many grocery stores now stock a broad selection of first-rate Prosecco at attractive prices.

In domestic bubbly, there is no match for Korbel's Brut Rose ($14) in this arena. It's a sparkler that is not only perfect for the occasion, but it comes with a knockout price tag for a bubbly this good.

Football weekends also mark the beginning of the end of the season for rose wines, which are generally best when consumed within a year of harvest. Between now and Thanksgiving I plan to consume all of my stocks of rose from the 2007 vintage. Fresh is best, though there are a handful of special roses that might hold up in the cellar another year or two.

Spain and France are both well regarded for rose, where the wines are generally fermented to dryness and served with food, particularly poultry and seafood. It is simply sensational with barbecued chicken wings or brats hot off the grill.

One of the domestic roses that I am fond of is the Big House Pink, which is a fruity, spicy blend of Rhone grape varieties such as Syrah and Mourvedre. At $10 this wine, a gold-medal winner at the 2008 San Diego International Wine Competition, is a remarkable value. Another superb domestic is the 'Roseum' from Vina Robles at $14.

More and more California producers are stepping up production of dry and slightly off-dry rose as they see demand increase. Locally the South Coast Winery in Temecula makes four different roses, and all four medaled at the California State Fair competition earlier this summer.

For these game-day feasts I try to avoid heavy oak and tannin, so I tend to select crisp whites and lighter reds. That usually means an offering of whites such as Albarino and Sauvignon Blanc and reds that have the guts to stand up to earthy grilled flavors, but without possessing dominant wood aromas.

Albarino is the crisp white from Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain. The wine region there is called the Rias Baixas and it is an area that is renowned for its seafood, particularly clams and oysters. If you ever have a tailgate clambake in mind, Albarino is your best bet. Or the lovely Picpoul de Pinet from the south of France, though this wine can be extremely difficult to locate unless the wine merchant specializes in French wine.

Both of these whites deliver zingy acidity and broad flavors across the palate, so they pair well with an array of preparations, from sushi to fish stews. Matin Codax, Vionta and Nora are popular albarinos that appear to be in wide distribution throughout the area, and all carry a price tag of about $18. Picpoul is much cheaper - good Picpoul retails for about $10 - and the Winesellar & Brasserie would be your best bet to unearth one locally.

Sauvignon Blanc is much easier to obtain and there are a plethora of exceptional Sauvignons at reasonable prices. The best Sauvignon produced locally comes from the Fallbrook Winery, although the grapes are sourced from the Temecula Valley. Expect to pay about $15 for the Fallbrook if you find it.

From elsewhere in California I am fond of two Sonoma County Sauvignons that retail for about $13. Both the Kenwood and Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignons are crisp, tangy sauvignons that provide gentle herbal notes and a nice bit of minerality. They are wonderful food wines, but great quaffers, too! For something a bit more complex, but slightly more expensive, the Source Napa Sauvignon Blanc ($18) is a gem.

Should you throw a chunk of mahi mahi or local white seabass on the grill, the richness of a Chardonnay might be in order. Beringer Third Century ($14) will give you the body and texture you want without the heavy overlay of oak, For the money it's a very good buy.

I recently enjoyed a red wine from southern Italy, the Rapitala Nero d'Avola at $14, that I thought would be perfect for my first tailgate party of the season. It shows bright red-fruit flavors and wonderful body and aroma, a perfectly yummy red for everything from burgers to steaks.

In general Italy is a tremendous resource for the style of red wine that works in this setting. Dolcetto from the Piedmont region, for example, would be another Italian red I might serve. The Vietti at $16 is an exceptional expression of this lighter-bodied, low tannin grape.

Another way to go is to take an Italian grape grown in California, such as the Eberle Barbera ($20) from Paso Robles. This wine offers good depth of flavor, richness and length, and is only modestly tannic. You'll get the same warm, inviting fruit and fleshy mouthfeel with Zaca Mesa's sensuous 'Z Cuvee' ($22).

For that leg of lamb, though, I'm locked on a couple of California's Merlots that can be found for less than $15 per bottle - the Beringer Founders' Estate and the Bonterra organically grown Merlots are superb reds that deliver amazing complexity and satisfaction for a modest price. An even better buy is the sumptuous Five Rivers Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, a veritable steal at $10.

Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.