Indian Summer is beginning in Montreal. Temperatures went up to 18 degrees yesterday and promise to hit 23 degrees today. The weekend and Monday should reach 20 degrees - 10 degrees above normal. When the temps climb so abnormally this late in the year, it's called Indian Summer.
Indian Summers makes me want to drink white wine and I've actually got a more notes on them than the reds lately. I clearly need to clear out from the passing season. First though, another look at San Quirico Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2005 which was my favourite drink of summer.
It's no wonder I wanted to take a long summer Vernaccia when there's wine as refreshing and regenerative as this. In fact, this bottle I got while on vacation in New York over July and August, which explains the label being different from the previous one. It's the same vintage and still is the same wine inside -- that magic combination of fennel and flat ginger ale with a citrus twist.
This wine is usually low in alcohol with a bitterness that only acts to further mask any kind of heat. Very minerally, very wet stone, which I love, but really not vinous at all, which a lot of winos might not like much. It's practically a lemon lime seltzer, but it'd be the most exquisite soda you've had -- something that only New York City seltzer can seem to offer. (How appropriate the NYC connection is because Quebec only sells one single bottle of Vernaccia -- the more inhibited Rocca Delle Macie... I think I've come to associate this wine with New York for its supply as well as the seltzer standpoint.)
In revisiting this wine I deciphered another one of its interesting elements, a characteristic I can only link to quinine, that essential bitter ingredient in tonic water. (I called this wine regenerative -- it's no wonder it's like a tonic!) It kind of makes the sides of your mouth get all dry and pucker in the same way a bitter tannin would. Yet there's no tannins in this wine, and it's not even barreled in wood. So does this wine contain quinine? I can only think of quinine having a similar effect when there's no tannin or wood involved.
But wait! Quinine, it turns out, is actually a little bit of both. But first a bit of history...
Quinine was part of a refreshing beverage that was born of another kind of Indian summer -- summers in India at a time when fighting malaria had a enjoyable treatment and prevention method. Of course I'm talking about gin and tonics. It was the quinine in tonic water that was the effective medicine against malaria then and the story goes that the British and the Indians added gin to their quinine-filled water to reduce quinine's bitterness, hence the birth of the gin and tonic.
Even after other anti-malaria medicine were developed in the 1920s, India kept drinking, becoming the first place where people enjoyed the unique properties of quinine in a non-medicinal way.
So what's the tannic/wood connection to quinine, and perhaps to this wine? Well, although the Indian summer might have been where perfect quinine refreshment was discovered, it was during an Incan summer way back in Peru of 1817 when French scientists harvested bark of the Cinchoa tree in Peru to discover the alkaline organic substance which was known as Quina-Quina by locals. It came to be called quinine, taking the name from what the Incans named the bark -- "holy bark" -- and rightly so because the stuff was a medicinal wonder, though very bitter-tasting. Quinine is tannin. Quinine is wood! Or least a part thereof.
And I find it every bit the perfect coincidence that before quinine was successfully harvested from trees in South America it was originally used as a tonic. This was way back in 1600s where it was found in the swamps around Rome -- not far from San Gimignano, the indigenous home and virtually sole growing area for the vernaccia grape. Hmmm... is this how vernaccia gets its quinine-like profile? In Italy today quinine is known as "Chinino" (and if I want to stretch the connection, this wine is known as "Quirico," a placename that quite similar-sounding, though I have almost zero knowledge of Italian).
But back to the real Quirico here: There's something about the quinine-like edge and lack of vinousness in this wine that makes it special, whatever the chemistry might be.
For instance, this wine is the perfect -- scratch that -- the only wine that can be paired with a salad dressed in vinaigrette. Try Vernaccia with a salad like this and you'll be amazed as I was. It's a match! (Most wine isn't supposed to be paired with any vinegar-based accompaniments, ever.)
recipe for vinaigrette
four teaspoons olive oil
three teaspoons rice vinegar
one teaspoon amontillado sherry or other dry sherry
salt and pepper to taste
Combine ingredients in a small bowl and stir rapidly until emulsified. Pour on washed, spun-dry lettuce or mustard greens in a large salad bowl. Mix to coat thoroughtly using your hands (also washed, but not spun-dry).