Tour of sun-splashed foods has each land's wine as a guide

VINTAGE POINT

September 28, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Neither Western civilization nor wine were born by the shores of the Mediterranean, but they grew up there together and have been inseparable ever since.

It was over Homer's "wine-dark sea," in the ships of Greek and Phoenician traders, that the vine spread from the Middle East to every part of the Mediterranean basin. It sunk deep roots into the culture and religion of Mediterranean peoples.

By the shores of the Mediterranean, ancient Greeks paid homage to Dionysios, their god of wine. The conquering Romans renamed him Bacchus and carried his fame into the heart of Europe.

Further south, in what is now Israel, wine was given an essential role in two of the world's great religions, Judaism and Christianity. It would later be proscribed by the third, Islam. whose adherents control the African side of the sea.

In Mediterranean Europe, many cultures were born -- but virtually all learned to love wine and incorporate it into their daily lives. From Gibraltar to the Aegean isles, no feast was complete without wine on the table.

Now Mediterranean-style dining is fashionable. People in Rhode Island want to eat like folks on the Isle of Rhodes. In Vermont, restaurants are serving the cuisine of Montpelier, France. And Italian dishes are bringing health to the hearts of Naples, Texas.

None of these meals is truly complete without wine. It's not just a matter of tradition. These cuisines evolved with wine in mind. The flavors of the food enhance the taste of the wine, which enthusiastically returns the compliment. And if it is health rather than hedonism that leads you to Mediterranean-style cuisine, you can take comfort in recent research that suggests moderate wine consumption is good for the heart.

The best place to look for a perfect wine matchup is near the ancestral home of the dish it will accompany. And of all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, none is more favored in wine and cuisine than southern France.

Once known for wonderful food and irregular wines, this part of France has made great strides in viticulture in recent years. Now it is perhaps the world's finest source of inexpensive, well-made wines.

Some of the best inexpensive wines of southern France hail from up-and-coming regions such as Minervois, Corbieres, the Cotes du Luberon, Fitou and Collioure. Perhaps the ultimate Mediterranean red wine, for those who aren't economizing, is Bandol in Provence.

Still, in my recent tastings of Mediterranean wines, nothing outshone the brilliant 1991 Coteaux d'Aix en Provence "Les Baux" from the Domaine de Trevallon, a red wine that justified the rather steep price of $25 with its stunning depth and complexity. Stuffed with tantalizing flavors of black cherry, blueberry, herbes de Provence and sweet oak, it has to be one of the finest reds in France from that difficult vintage.

Other, less costly gems among the reds include the 1991 Chateau Val Joanis Cotes du Luberon ($8); the nonvintage La Vieille Ferme Reserve Cotes du Rhone ($8.69); the 1991 Chateau Saint-Esteve Corbieres ($7); and the brilliant 1991 Collioure from the Domaine de Mas Blanc ($15).

First-rate white wines from the south of France are more difficult to find, but occasionally you find one that's utterly charming. Such a wine is the white 1993 La Vieille Ferme Cotes du Rhone Reserve ($8.69), an exuberantly fruity, full-bodied wine with delicious flavors of peach and melon. Like other Mediterranean whites, it should be drunk within two years of bottling.

The south of France is also a source of some excellent dry rose wines, led by the expensive pink Bandol of Domaine Tempier. None of the rose wines I tasted recently could be recommended however. Unfortunately, these wines are often delivered to these shores long after their freshness is gone.

It could be argued all of Italy's wines are Mediterranean in style, but I would exclude the massive red wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, which match up better with a heavier cuisine.

Outside of Piedmont, Italy's greatest storehouse of fine red wine is Tuscany, whose denizens wrote the book on Mediterranean cuisine. The choices here, from humble Chiantis to expensive wines such as Brunello di Montalcino, are virtually endless. Expect to pay for high quality.

The best values in Italy come from the south, where land is cheaper and reputations not as exalted. In recent vintages, some of the finest bargains in the world have come from the region of Salice Salentino on the heel of the Italian "boot."

Italian wine lovers should not miss the incredible 1988 Salice Salentino from Taurino, a red wine of extraordinary concentration and delicious nuances of chocolate, pipe tobacco, rosemary and thyme. Don't necessarily expect it to be as cheap as the $7 I paid, but this wine would be a bargain at $15. If you can't find the Taurino, the 1988 Salice Salentino from Candido is almost as good, though lighter ($7).

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