Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Naked Vine Tour de...Wait, What? (Savoie)

I promised you sporadic coverage. You can't say I don't deliver on my promises.

When we left our pelotonic friends last, they were biking through the Rhone Valley before making the climb into the French and Swiss Alps. Before I started writing this little series, I was under the impression that the Tour de France was actually...well...a tour of France. Instead, if you check the map... can see that, after the riders finish tooling around over in the Alps, they catch a flight to Chantilly, from where they make the last ride into Paris.

I've had a busy few days, so I thought, "Hey, I should check in on where the riders are..." Of course, I discovered that today is the final stage of Le Tour, and as I'm writing this, the riders are in Stage 21, closing in on the Champs-Elysses.

That will not, however, stop me from giving you my last bottle of the Tour -- a white from the Savoie region, which is -- as you can see -- over on the eastern side of France, bordering both Switzerland and Italy. It's best known as a cheese-producing region, cows grazing in the valleys among the steep hillsides to which the vineyards often cling.

Savoie's mountainous, cool terrain supports largely indigenous grapes used primarily to make white wines. In the cool climate, most red grapes don't do well. The most widely grown grape is Jacquere, which produces a fairly crisp, citrusy, minerally white. The best known red grape is Mondeuse, but it can be difficult to find outside france.

As a representative from here, I chose the Domaine Labbé 2014 Abymes Vin de Savoie. (Abymes is the town nearest where the grapes are sourced.) I found green apple and lemon aromas on the nose. Those flavors are mirrored on the palate with a richer body than I expected. I expected a lighter, crisper drink, but the mouthfeel is somewhat honeyish for such an acidic, light wine. It finishes slightly tart, with a bit of lemon crème. Clocking in at 11% ABV with that sort of food-friendly flavor, this would be lovely for a picnic or other brunch-ish occasion.

Finally, we bid adieu to the newest Naked Vine sports hero Tejay Van Garderen, the highest-ranking U.S. finisher this year. Our hero has had a rough couple of years at the Tour. Last year, he was in third place going into Stage 17, when he had to abandon the ride because of illness. This year, he was in a solid position going into the Alps, but ran into some unfortunately difficulties and slipped down the roster. He finished the Tour 29th out of 174 finishers.

And with that, au revoir de Paris...

Thanks, Tejay. Good luck next year!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Naked Vine Sporadic Tour de France Coverage -- Rhone Valley

Hello there, cycling fans. For a quick recap of the actual race, Chris Froome of the soon-to-be-dis-United Kingdom still holds the yellow jersey after 15 stages, leading the pack by 1'47", even after crashing, wrecking his bike, and running up Mount Ventoux. (How a person can run in cycling shoes is beyond me.)
Uh oh.

Our new friend Tejay Van Garderen, native of Tacoma, Washington, has acquitted himself well thus far, currently standing in 8th place, 4'47" behind Froome as the riders prepare to enter the Swiss Alps.

Over the last couple of days, the riders have been in and around the Rhone Valley, one of the more productive -- yet strangely overlooked by many American wine consumers -- wine regions in France.

The Rhone Valley is roughly divided into north and south sections by the River Drôme. The climate in the northern Rhone tends to be cooler than the south. The only red grape grown in the northern Rhone is Syrah. Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane are grown for whites.

In the South, Grenache is the major grape of choice, although Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault are often included in red blends. Whites include Ugni blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Clairette and, in recent years, Viognier.

The Rhone's most famous wine is Chateauneuf-de-Pape, grown in the south. The north produces such yummies as Côte Rotie, Croze-Hermitage, Hermitage, and Condrieu -- the last being an expensive white made from Viognier.

However, for our purposes, most of the wines you'll see from the region will be labeled Cotes-du-Rhone. "Côtes-du-Rhone" (pronounced "Coat dew roan" as if you have a stuffy nose) can be made from grapes grown anywhere within the region. Reds labeled as such must contain at least 40% Grenache. The remaining 60% will be largely a blend of the red grapes we've already mentioned. The south produces 80% of the wine, so most of the wines you see labeled "Côtes-du-Rhone" are going to be from the south and will be dominated by Grenache, sometimes as a single varietal.

Côtes-du-Rhone cranks out a lot of very good, very approachable red wine. These wines tend to be drunk young -- within five years of bottling. These reds tend to be medium bodied with lots of cherry and dark berry flavors. The "old world funk"/earthiness classic to many French reds is usually there to some extent -- but not as powerfully as in many Bordeaux. Even so, these are usually great wines to go with anything earthy or sausagey -- or even just to uncork and pass around. The main issue with CdR is that the quality can be all over the place. Because there's such a broad variety in the various blends, finding a consistent CdR can be a challenge. The flipside is that, with a little research, one can find a CdR that fits almost any palate. Ask your friendly wine store person for assistance.

I had the chance to try the Les Dauphins 2013 Cotes du Rhone Reserve Rouge recently. It's a straightforward, bold red with a nose of cherries and other dark fruit. I got a burst of fruit at the first sip, but that yields fairly quickly to a mild flavor of tannin and graphite. Finish is softly tannic, although the tannin builds after a few sips. I thought it was a pretty solid red wine for almost all occasions. You could put this up against barbecue chicken or pork or grilled steak and veggies and do quite well. It retails for about $13, which is around the price you'll find many CdR.

I mentioned that there are also whites in this region, although they are fewer and farther between. 80% of the blends of those wines have to be made up of the above varietals. These wines tend to be medium bodied and food friendly, especially as an aperitif with appetizers. One example is the M.Chapoutier 2014 “Belleruche” Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc, which started me out with a nose of pineapple and a little wood. The body was medium weight with a nice creaminess. I thought it was interestingly complex for the price point ($12-13) with tropical fruit flavors backed with a gentle acidity. Its finish is fairly long and somewhat tart. An interesting change of pace for your table.

As I mentioned, the Tour turns northward into the French and Swiss alps next. We'll keep you posted as best we can...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Le Tour Scoots South

Yes, there's a point to this. Read on.
As we continue our occasional Tour de France coverage here at The Naked Vine, the peloton now swings across southern France. I was hoping that the route would go farther south, down into Provence, so that I could write oodles of joyous words about the beauty that is Provence rosé.

A quick aside -- long-timers around here know my rosé fetish. I've been pimping pink wine from the second-ever column I posted here. When we made our foray to St. Martin recently, rosé was the typical accompaniment with most of my meals. I think a good dry rosé is about as close to a perfect summertime wine as exists on the planet, and I've continued to sing its praises.

Fast forward ten years from that column. I walk into Big Wine Store (and most other smaller ones) now to find end caps full of quality dry rosé. Dry rosé has even found its way into the glasses of the hipster community, and I'm in full support. The mo' pink, the mo' better. But do kindly remind them that we've been waiting for them here in rosé land for a long time.

In any case, back to the Tour -- as I said, I was hoping that the course would run down into Provence, but alas -- the route stays north of the coast, again skirting the prime growing region for those rosé. However, closer inspection showed that the Tour *is* passing through the Ventoux region, home of Famille Perrin winery, producers of one of the house standards around these parts: La Vielle Ferme.

If you're a fan of inexpensive French wine, chances are that you've come across a bottle of LVF at some point. Instantly recognizable from the image of the big rooster on the label, LVF wines usually run between $8-10. They make a refreshing white from Bourboulenc (an indigenous grape), Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Vermentino; as well as a juicy red from Carignane, Cinsault, Grenache, and Syrah.

But it's the LVF Rose that really tickles my fancy. The La Vielle Ferme 2015 Rosé is built on the same "grape platform" as the LVF red, minus the Carignane. It's not as delicate and clean as the more expensive versions that you'll find in Provence, but for my needs -- when I want to pull something cold from the fridge, pour a hefty glass, and unwind after being out in the summer warmth all day long Nice light fruits, a goodly shot of acidity, and a nice crisp finish -- it's just about perfect for a "I don't wanna think, and this is perfectly tasty" wine.

The other aspect of the LVF Rosé that I really like is that it's one of the few French rosé out there in my area that comes in a 1.5 liter bottle. If I don't get the big bottles, I tend to power through it a little too quickly.

In any case, if you stop by the HQ, you'll probably find a bottle of this in the fridge. I'd invite you to help yourself, but that might entail breaking and entering.

The Tour's next area will be the Rhone Valley, where we'll definitely find some wine...

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Following the Tour de France, sorta.

Hey everyone! It's Tour de France time! You know, the one time a year where Americans pay cursory attention to the sport of cycling. (The leading American as of the writing of this article was household name Tejay Van Garderen, currently in 15th.)

I thought it might be fun to write a series of articles tracking the wines of the various regions through which the riders were speeding. (The idea came from Sean at Colangelo.)

In years past, I remember the Tour basically zooming through all of the various regions of France, but this year is different. This year, they started with several runs around Utah Beach, the site of the Allied D-Day invasion. From there, the peloton will make its way south through Saumur and Limoges before heading towards the south of France.

Unfortunately, the route skirts most of the major wine producing regions, like Bordeaux and Burgundy -- and the subregions therein. Northwest France isn't really known for producing much wine, and I don't really have the cash to casually write about Armagnac, which is where the riders are headed today.

However, after that -- the Tour heads into Gascony, which is a region where wine is inexpensive and plentiful. Gascony, located in southwest France, near the Spanish border, along the foothills of the Pyrenees. The best known wines from that region are white wines. These wines tend to be crisp, acidic, and are made from local grapes like Ugni Blanc and Colombard. The average price of a white from Gascony (which you'll find as "Cotes de Gascogne") are usually around a ten spot.

This description fits the Domaine du Tariquet 2015 “Classic” Cotes de Gascogne to a tee. Tariquet distills Armagnac, a brandy somewhat similar to Cognac, from the aforementioned Ugni Blanc and Colombard. They produce this white wine from the same grapes. I found a load of herbs and green apple on the nose. It was mouthpuckeringly tart initially, but that acidity smooths out a bit as the wine got a little air. The result were plenty of lemony citrus and green apple flavors, which led into a crisp, quick finish. A decent summertime quaffer for $10. Would be nice as an aperitif or with some light fish dishes.

As the Tour moves along, I'll post a few additional regional bottles. Stay tuned...

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Zonin Dress Code and a Farewell to Friends

Bubbles and bittersweet don’t go together often around these parts.

The mood’s a little downbeat around Vine HQ, even after receiving samples of a new slate of Prosecco offerings from Zonin – dubbed their “Dress Code” collection. There were three bottles – the “Black,” “White,” and “Grey” – as you can see here:

Three bottles of Prosecco are usually a bit much for the Sweet Partner in Crime and I to pop all at once, so we went with our usual strategy. We called our trustworthy alleymates, Christine the Pie Queen and Dinner Club Jeff, to help us polish off sample this bit of Italian effervescence.

Only problem – this is likely the last Naked Vine tasting with our nearest and dearest for quite some time. Jeff has a fabulous opportunity with a new job in Seattle. Being the nature nuts that the two of them are, the foot of Mount Rainier isn’t a bad place to call home. Alas, for us, that means that the decade-old Tennessee Alley Drinking Club is going on hiatus.

Since we all became acquainted through The Hanging Chad and Jeff and Christine ended up buying a house almost directly behind us – we’ve had lots of wonderful times and some on the other end of the spectrum (like the one that involved a two-hour hot tub session and a passed-around bottle of bourbon…).

In any case, the wines we had them over to try were a new twist on Prosecco. I knew of the winery Zonin largely through their production of inexpensive Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I didn’t know that they were also producing bubbly, but they are, under the label “Zonin1821.”

The twist with these particular Prosecco is that they aren’t made entirely with Glera grapes. Most Prosecco are 100% Glera. The regulations for Prosecco DOC (and if you’ve forgotten about those classifications, you can look here) allow up to 15% of other grape varietals in a blend. I think you can see where this is going. All three versions retail for about $15-17.

With bottles in the fridge and antipasti on the table at Vine HQ, C&J crossed the alley to pop some corks with us one more time before departing for the Pacific time zone.

We started with The White – which is 91% Glera and 9% Pinot Bianco. Pinot Bianco is Pinot Grigio’s slightly paler cousin, known best for producing full-bodied whites in France’s Alsace region. In Italy, Pinot Bianco returns a fruitier, somewhat sweeter product, and the result came through in this blend. This was the sweetest of the three bottles, featuring flavors of apricot and tropical fruit. On its own, not the best – but it was the best of the three for brunchtime mimosas the next day.

Next came The Grey – a blend of 87% Glera and 13% of that Italian classic, Pinot Grigio. The result was a drier, more minerally wine, with some green apple and floral notes. There was an odd finish to this one – a slight astringency that cut the finish off very abruptly. Just to sip on, I thought it was a little better than the White, since I tend to prefer drier bubblies. One interesting note – this was an excellent pairing with some very difficult foods. We had olives and marinated artichoke hearts on our little appetizer board, and in both cases, the astringency of the finish faded when combined with the flavors of those foods, resulting in a quite pleasant pairing. Perhaps something to file away for future reference.

Finally, we made our way to The Black – a blend of 90% Glera and 10% Pinot Noir. No, this isn’t a rosé by any stretch of the imagination. Juice from all grapes, whether red grapes or white, is largely clear. The color comes from contact of the juice and the grape skins. Thus, this wine ends up looking like a regular white wine, despite the name. (By now, you likely noticed that “bianco,” “grigio” and “noir” translate from Italian as “white,” “grey,” and “black” respectively…)

The Black was, by unanimous acclimation, the best of the three. The pinot noir gave the wine some more structure and complexity – bringing out notes of roses, green apple, and lavender. This was the first of the three bottles to disappear completely. This would be a solid food wine for almost any kind of light entrée – especially a simple presentation of fish or sushi.

The tasting done, we merrily headed off into the night for dinner at the York Street Café, site of one of the first meals we’d shared. More laughter, food, and wine followed – typical for most times the four of us ended up in the same room. Through the years, Jeff and Christine been some of the best, most supportive “couple friends” that the SPinC and I could have dreamed of.

We wish them all the luck and love in the world in their new adventures.

We miss them already.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Gustatory Glories of Grand Case, St. Martin -- A Naked Vine Vacation

“Grand Case? Why’ja wanna go to Grand Case?”
–cab driver in Philipsburg, St. Maarten.
“For lunch.”
--The Sweet Partner in Crime.

Just leave me here. Grand Case Beach.
Most visitors to St. Martin, especially those with cruise-ship itinerary chunks of time, beeline to Maho Beach to watch planes come in low over crystal blue waters, foray to Orient Beach for clothes-optional sunning, charter tours to the countless dive and snorkel sites, or simply hit the extensive shopping in Philipsburg and Marigot. Not us.

This particular glass of rosé, to be accurate.
Two days into 2014, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I stepped off a ship in Philipsburg. Powered by the notes in our Fodor’s guide and a desire to be away from tour groups, we hailed a cab to Grand Case to spend a few hours in “the culinary capital of the Caribbean.” Two and a half years later, we returned, making good on our promise to “come back and park it for a week” made at a beachfront table at Ocean82 over a cool glass of rosé.

St. Martin takes up less than 34 square miles in total area, but contains two countries. The northern half is the Collectivity of St. Martin, a French territory. The southern half is Sint Maarten, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The two nations peacefully coexist, and one can cruise the N7 highway through the from one country into the other without noticing. The French side, wherein lies Grand Case, is hillier and more lush than the flatter, more developed, Dutch side.

Grand Case, originally a small fishing village ringed by cotton plantations, evolved into one of the Caribbean’s  premier destinations for gourmet food. There are more than 30 restaurants along Boulevard de Grand Case, the main beachfront drag, many of them of four-and-five star quality. The cuisine leans heavily on the French and Creole history and heritage, made fresh since many of the featured entrees were swimming mere minutes before.

Our home base for the trip was the lovely Hotel L’Esplanade, perched on the hill overlooking the east end of Grand Case Beach. Excellent service, beautiful rooms, massage and yoga studios, and walking distance to everything in the town. You really need a car to explore the island, and the hotel has an arrangement with a local rental car company (Justice Car Rental) to provide a free shuttle from the airport with your vehicle waiting at the hotel. A very nice, anxiety-reducing perk after flying all day.

Before sharing our restaurant experiences, a couple of quick notes about dining in Grand Case. Remember that you’re in a French territory. While language is no barrier to your experience, having a few words of French in your back pocket should improve the service you receive. (The Sweet Partner still had come of her old chops with le français, and they proved invaluable.)

The service at most restaurants is quite “European,” in that if you expect your check the second after you finish eating, you’re going to be frustrated. Just allow yourself to be on island time – no worries, no hurries – and you’ll be fine. Your check at a restaurant usually doesn’t include a tip, so leave 10-15% in cash for your server

Along those lines, “cash is king” on St. Martin. Everyone gladly accepts US dollars – and they’ll usually give you a $1=1€ exchange rate if you pay cash. Credit cards are also fine, but you’ll pay the day’s exchange rate in Euro plus a transaction fee.

Without further ado, let’s go to the beach…

Day 1:
Not kidding about "oceanside dining" at Calmos Cafe.
We started our adventure with dinner at Calmos Café, a beach club and restaurant very close to our hotel. We dined on a picnic table at waterside – literally…the Caribbean Sea kissed our toes as we ate. A smoked marlin dip gave way to ultra-fresh filets of triggerfish with zucchini-potato gratin and snapper with rice and mixed veggies – alongside the first of many bottles of Provence rosé. Utterly fresh and wonderful all around. We ended up with leftovers, which the SPinC turned into a lovely fish hash the next morning in our room’s kitchen. We watched the sunset from the beach and headed back up to the hotel to recover from our travels.

Day 2:
After a long walk down the length of the beach to refamiliarize ourselves with the place, we ended up at the Sunset Café at the Grand Case Beach Club, feeling a bit overheated. We went with beer and a plate of fish carpaccio as a nosh as we cooled off. I believe it was likely snapper. Again, super-fresh and tasty.

We headed back to the hotel for a couple of massages we’d booked before heading back out to dinner at Le Tastevin, where we scored another waterside table. We started with tuna tartare as an appetizer. Pam had beef cheek ravioli in a morel mushroom sauce, while I had one of the most heavenly roast duck preparations I’ve ever tasted alongside a sweet potato mash. Dessert was a delicious cheese plate. Arguably the best of a bunch of great meals.

Duck (and the ravioli) at Le Tastevin. Divine.

Day 3:
We started the day hoping to get to a grocery store to pick up some provisions for the room. We followed the directions to the “Super-U” in nearby Marigot, only to find it closed for a power outage. We circumnavigated the island and found a Fresh Market on the Dutch side just outside Philipsburg to stock up. After dropping off our food, we headed back out to Bacchus, a contemporary French lunch spot/gourmet grocery.

The first challenge with Bacchus is finding the place. It’s located at the back of a large outdoor “lifestyle center,” so it took a couple of false starts to get there. This was the most “French” restaurant we went to (for instance, the specials board was only written in French). We started with some delicious escargot, followed by a shrimp, scallop, and chorizo pasta for me and a Black Angus beef tartare for Pam. We relaxed and noshed over some more wine while listening to a group of American businessmen (an American flag shirt? Really?) ask the server if their entrees “were going to take awhile…” Spoiler alert – they did.

Bacchus filled us up pretty well, so by the time dinner rolled around, we weren’t super hungry. We decided to pop into a restaurant we couldn’t resist, “Le Cave De Charly.” (“Charlie” being our sweet canine boy, of course.) This small, low-slung restaurant has made a name for itself with a great wine list, fresh simple fish preparations, and excellent cheese and charcuterie. In other words, perfect for our appetites. We split a very fresh piece of marlin (the owner, Ludovic, showed me a picture of that particular marlin that his friends had caught that morning) and sipped a couple of glasses of wine.

Day 4:
After brunch in the room, fortified by a couple of bloody marys from Alain, the L’Esplanade’s excellent long-time bartender, we headed to Orient Beach for some sunning. (If you happen down to the au natural end of the beach, you’ll find that, in general, the sunbathers worry more about grooming than fitness.) With the arrival of a cruise ship’s “beach breakers,” we eventually made our way back to the hotel for a snack and a nap.

I’d asked Alain for his dining recommendation. He pointed me to a French Creole restaurant called Villa Royale and suggested I “ask Rosie for the Alain Special.” Villa Royale’s clientele this night was largely locals. The atmosphere was much more casual than any of the French restaurants. Rosie turned out to be the lovely, loaded-with-personality manager of the place, whose smile brightened the room.

Getting ready to dive into the "Alain Special" at Villa Royale
We started with a plate of conch and blood sausages, which were very flavorful and quite rich. Pam had the shrimp & scallop special – a kabob with simple spices and a creole sauce. My “Alain Special” turned out to be a cassoulet of tuna, salmon, mahi, and vegetables in a Creole cream sauce, which was divine. Both were served with creole black rice and beans. We ate until we were ready to pop, then relaxed as we watched a celebration for a couple of newlyweds before heading home.

Day 5:
The Sweet Partner in Crime with her duck salad
At Hidden Forest Cafe.
Our hiking day at Loterie Farm – a nature preserve between Grand Case and Marigot. From there, you can hike to Pic du Paradis, the highest point on St. Martin. Nice hike, but nothing easy about it. After cooling off a bit at the Tree Lounge, we moved over to the Hidden Forest Café, known to have some of the best lunch fare on the island. They didn’t disappoint. Pam had a duck salad with bacon, beets, and berries. I had a spinach-chicken curry with sweet potato, rice, and mango chutney. Absolutely delicious – a definite top 3 meal.

Day 6:
It took us almost a week to get to the lunch spots that Grand Case is famous for – the lolos. These open-air restaurants in the middle of town crank out stupendous grilled island food. Ribs and chicken are standards, as is fresh fish (which can run out at lunch during high season) and delicious johnnycakes. We went to Sky’s the Limit and had all of the above, plus a number of other sides and a fresh-caught piece of mahi, spiced just right.

That night, after a bit of a comedy of errors trying to find a different restaurant that had closed the year before, we ended up at L’Effet Mer – one of the more famous restaurants on the strip. We wondered if we could get in without reservations—and not only could we, but we were the only ones in the dining room. Our meal was not spectacular (they brought us butter in plastic tubs, for instance). Turned out the place was sold recently. Can’t win ‘em all…

Day 7:
After a stop at the lovely Butterfly Farm, we spent some sun time on Le Galion Beach, the “community pool” of St. Martin. I mean that in the best possible way. Calm waters, well-behaved kids speaking six different languages splashing around, and parents willing to let their kids play together. Good stuff.
Le Galion Beach.

That night, we had our trip’s final dinner at La Villa, a contemporary French restaurant with utterly awesome décor and atmosphere. We had great service from Cedric, and we chowed righteously. Pam went with striped bass in a fennel-herb sauce with mushroom risotto, while I had the “Sea Combo” – lobster, shrimp, scallops, and more of that risotto with two sauces. Everything cooked to perfection.
The "Sea Combo" at La Villa
(I won’t recount our experience with American Airlines on the return trip to keep this a happy memoir…)

If we’d had another week – I might be able to give you a definitive ranking of the restaurants. Suffice it to say, it’s difficult to get a bad meal in Grand Case. Even the least impressive meal we had would have probably rated three stars, minimum, stateside.

This vacation checked all our boxes. Quiet happiness away from the resorts and the crowds. Food and wine. Stargazing and downtime. Music and love. 

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter –Busted by "Collepiano"

I tried to pull a fast one on the Sweet Partner in Crime. I failed miserably.

I was making one of my pastas a couple of nights ago. I take a lot of pride in my red sauces. While there’s not an actual drop of paisan in my bloodstream, I like to think my little creations hold their own. This night’s menu was an Italian sausage sauce with loads of fresh garlic, herbs, and mushrooms over penne.

Obviously, this ends up as a pretty muscular sauce, so I wanted a nice, big Italian red alongside. I had a bottle of Arnaldo Caprai 2010 “Collepiano” Montefalco Sagrantino to sample. Sagrantino, as you might remember from another recent discussion around these parts, is the tooth-staining “Italian Heavy Hitter,” a wine that could make an average Barolo ask, “Don’t you think you’re…overdoing it…a bit?” 

The previous times I’ve tasted these wines, the Sweet Partner in Crime gets about half a glass total down before pushing her glass away with, “I just can’t do it.” These are big, burly wines – but I personally don’t find them more powerful than, say, a California Zin or more tannic than a young cabernet. There’s just something about that wine’s combination of characteristics that doesn’t agree with the SPinC. Diff’rent strokes and all that.

So I had this bottle and I didn’t want to try it alone. A little subterfuge, perhaps? I told her that I had “an Italian red” to go with dinner and left it at that. I opened it a couple of hours early – since these wines desperately need air when their popped – in an undisclosed location. I poured a couple of glasses and brought it to the table.

“Big.” First word out of her mouth after her initial sip. “Tannic and strong. Kinda hot.” A couple of bites of pasta later, she takes another drink, looks me square in the eye, and said, “Is this one of those big Italian reds that I can never finish?” She’s always had the stronger palate of the household. I had to fess up. I kept drinking it, while she switched to another daily red that we had around the house. Both went just fine with the pasta – which was just this side of utterly awesome, if I were to rate it.

What’s the wine going to be like if you’re actually in the mood for a big honkin’ Italian red? First up, this is an “open at breakfast to drink at dinner” wine. Opening it up, letting it sit open for a couple of hours, then recorking and waiting until the next day might be ideal.

On the nose, there are strong plum and blueberry scents to go along with a bit of pepper. Big tannic explosion on the first sip with more of that plum flavor, some vanilla, and some pretty rich coffee flavors. The finish is heavy with tannin, charcoal, and cocoa. That finish will last you 30-40 seconds, easily. 

If you’re into massive, tannic wines – then the Collepiano is certainly an option for you. Like most Sagrantino, this isn’t an inexpensive bottle. It retails for $54. However, if your Father’s Day plan includes a Game of Thrones-style feast of roasted meats and aged cheeses, and you’d like to serve Dear Old Dad something burly, this would make a very nice option.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Champagne Charlie, the Lonely Widow, and Bubbles $60 Apart...

I had the opportunity to try a bottle of pretty high-end Champagne. Specifically, the Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, which typically retails for somewhere in the $60-70 per bottle range.

I was feeling a bit cheeky during a trip to Smaller Wine Store. On a whim, I decided to snag the least expensive bottle of French bubbly I could to do a side-by-side tasting. That bottle was the Veuve du Vernay Brut Sparkling Wine. “Crisp and Fresh” the label read in French and English, right beside its $9 pricetag. I set out to determine whether the premium Champagne was really sixty bucks better than its cheapo country cousin.

My somewhat cynical attempt at an easy column theme didn’t quite work out as planned, but let’s come back to that. First, the wines themselves.

If the name “Heidsieck” rings a bell with you, you’ve probably seen the name “Piper-Heidsieck” on the side of a pricey bottle of Champagne at some point. Piper-Heidsieck was founded by Florens-Louis Heidsieck, Charles Heidsieck’s great-uncle. Charles’ father, Charles-Henri, founded the Champagne house that now bears his name.

You might also know Charles Heidsieck from the fascinating historical case of international intrigue. In the early 1850’s, Heidsieck visited New York and New England with cases of his family’s Champagne. (His father, Charles-Henri, founded their Champagne house in the early 1800’s.) Predictably, his bubbly was a huge hit among the NYC glitterati, and he became known across the country as “Champagne Charlie.”

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Heidsieck ran into trouble. Many of his outstanding debts, especially those in the Confederacy were unpaid. Whether because of legal decisions from both governing bodies eliminating debt owed across the Mason-Dixon, or whether Heidsieck’s American partners were swindling him, the result was the same.

Heidsieck traveled to New Orleans in secret, evading the Union Army by going clear to Kansas, and accepted payment for his champagne in cotton, scarce in Europe because of the North’s naval blockade. His ships attempted to run the blockade, but were sunk. Heidsieck was captured and imprisoned as a Confederate spy as he tried to return to New York. This diplomatic tussle became known as “The Heidsieck Incident” as Napoleon III lobbied Abraham Lincoln for months over his release.

Heidsieck was eventually released and returned to France nearly penniless. (His misfortune was short-lived. One of his other southern debts was paid off with deeds to land – which turned out to be about a third of the property in the newly founded village of Denver, Colorado…)

The Veuve de Vernay has its own little story. The original owner of the winery, Robert Charmat, is the son of Jean Eugene Charmat, the French scientist who developed the Charmat Method – the “other” method of carbonating wine used most often in Prosecco. A widow in the town of Vernay in the Rhone region had bankrolled John Eugene’s work, so Robert named the wine in her honor.

Moving to the present, Champagne Charlie’s signature bottle is a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, and 20% Pinot Meunier. Of that blend, 40% is made of up wines from Heidsieck’s 10-year old “reserve” wines to add depth and complexity. Each methode Champenoise-carbonated bottle is aged for a minimum of five years. The Veuve de Vernay, carbonated with the Charmat Method of course, is a blend of Colombard, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

To start our comparison, I subjected the Sweet Partner in Crime to a blind tasting of the two wines. Not surprisingly, she was able to discern the two fairly easily. The Heidseck is an austere, elegant wine. The bouquet is a complex combination of yeast, apricot, and apple blossoms. There’s a twisting balance of green apple, nuttiness, and cream on the palate, with an extended, sparkly finish. This wine is clearly crafted with great care, which the pricetag reflects.

We found the VdV much more straightforward in bouquet and flavors. Pear and peach were more in the forefront here, and the palate was much more crisp than creamy. The carbonation didn’t feel as “smooth” as the Heidseck. The finish was fruity with just a hint of sweetness at the very end. That said, though, this is a pretty damned decent bottle of bubbles. For less than ten bucks, this wine is superior to almost any sparkler you’ll find.

We also tried both of them with our dinner. I seared up some sea scallops and put them over some couscous alongside roasted red and orange bell peppers, garlic cloves, and fennel. The VdV was a good accompaniment, but the Heidsieck was culinary ecstacy. Something about those nutty, yeasty flavors next to scallops seared in butter entangled gloriously.

In thinking about doing the comparison, doing an actual apples-to-apples comparison of these wines isn’t fair to either, honestly. The VdV isn’t trying to be a premium wine. It’s an inexpensive bottle of bubbles perfect for cracking with a pizza or fried chicken. On the other hand, the Heidseick is intended to be a sophisticated wine for a sophisticated occasion, whatever your definition of “sophisticated.”

For me, personally, I have a hard time justifying a $70 pricetag for Champagne, since there’s usually a lower-cost alternative that’s nearly as good. However, if you’re really looking to treat yourself – or someone else – and money’s not really your primary consideration, you’re going to be in good hands with the Heidseick. Is it a better wine than the Veuve du Vernay? Absolutely. But I sure as heck won’t make be making a “Heidseick Bellini” anytime soon. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Naked Vine Double Barrel – Reminiscing with Nobilo

One of my first turns on the pouring side of a tasting table was back in 2007 at a fabulous fundraising event called Wine over Water. This annual event, held on the Purple People Bridge over the Ohio River, features gorgeous views of the Cincy Skyline and general merriment. Tasting  tables lined the bridge, while folks ambled up and down the bridge, noshing, drinking, and generally making merry.

Showing wines at an event like this is a curious experience. While the attendees usually like wine, they’re not there really to learn much, or to get in-depth tasting experiences like those you might have at a winery. I found I usually had about 10 seconds to take a drink ticket, pour wine, and give the tipsy person in front of me a quick nugget or two that they might remember.  

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I found ourselves pouring at a station that included Nobilo. I can still remember my patter: “This is Nobilo, a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. It’s fruity and crisp, with flavors of pineapple and grapefruit. Some people say it smells like fresh cut grass.”

That was about all I had time for, since the bombardment of folks greedily holding their glasses out for more kept coming…and coming…and coming…

[Sidebar – the stations where the SPinC and I worked at this event were always among the most popular. Winos respect winos, I s'pose.]

Why share this story? An offer came over the transom to sample Nobilo Icon, Nobilo’s flagship line of wines. Specifically, the Nobilo Icon Sauvignon Blanc. Just seeing “Nobilo” made me get all reminiscent of the days when I had many fewer lines across my old bald pate. Took me right back to that tasting table.

Once I got my Icon sample, I made a bop over to Big Wine Store to pick up a copy of the “standard” Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, termed their “regional collection” to do a side-by-side comparison. What better way to see if the “flagship” label is actually worth a few extra shekels, right?

For a little background, Nobilo is one of the older wineries in New Zealand, founded in 1943 by Nikola and Zuva Nobilo, natives of Croatia. In the 1970’s, Nikola helped spearhead the push to move New Zealand’s wine industry from largely local operations growing native grapes to a more global market producing Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, the grapes for which EnnZedd is now best known.

Sauvignon Blanc became New Zealand’s calling card. Instead of the flinty, acid balls of white Bordeaux or the super fruity California styles, New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc offerings were smooth bodied whites full of grapefruit and tropical fruit with a hint of that fresh cut grass. It’s a style I’ve very much enjoyed over the years, especially in the summers.

Side by side, I tried this pair – the Nobilo Icon 2015 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and the Nobilo 2015 “Regional Collection” Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

The difference was apparent from the very first swirl. The nose and palate of the Icon were full of tropical fruit: pineapple, papaya, and mango. The regular was much more acidic on the palate, with grapefruit and pineapple as  the dominant fruit flavors. There were some definite herbaceous overtones, which weren’t really present on the Icon.

The Icon’s body was slightly fuller, as well – more medium weight than the more Pinot Grigio feel of the Regional. The Icon was zesty and acidic at the end, which eased off into a long tropical fruit finish. The Regional’s finish was much more straightforward. Zingy grapefruit flavors and a clean, crisp end.

Of the two, I personally preferred the Icon’s richness and more tropical flavors. For those who think the “herbaceous” New Zealand Sauvignon has gone a bit over the top, this one would be a really nice change of pace. On the other hand, I know a lot of folks who really groove on the high-acid, grapefruity, grassy styles, and the Regional would be much more in their wheelhouse.

The retail on the Icon is $22 and the Regional is usually around $12. When I was at Big Wine Store, though, I saw the Icon on sale for $15. That would be about a three-second decision moving forward…

Monday, May 16, 2016

What’s in your Glass? A Case of the Blends.

“I like Cabernet.”
“I like Merlot.”
“I like Zinfandel.”

These are typical responses to “What’s your favorite type of wine?” Simple enough question with a simple enough seeming answer. You love Pinot Noir, for instance. You go to the wine store and head for the sign that says “Pinot Noir.” You snag a bottle. You pay and head home. Pop. Pour. Drink. Easy peasy.

But how do you know that the pinot noir in your hypothetical glass is actually, you know, pinot noir? “It says so right there on the bottle,” you might say. In reality, that Pinot juice in your glass may have some friends along. Very few wines, especially American wines, are made strictly from a single varietal. Instead, they’re generally blends, with certain varietals being a greater percentage.

In the U.S., the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the Department of Treasury (that mouthful “acronyms down” to “TTB”) monitors the blending of wines. For a U.S. wine to be labeled as a single varietal, at least 75% of the blend must be made up of that varietal. That said, up to a quarter of that glass of Shiraz you ordered might be made up of different grapes – white or red. If a wine has less than 75% of a single varietal, it’s simply going to be labeled as “red wine,” often with the percentages of the various grapes listed.

Now, there’s nothing new about blending wine. If you’ve ever sampled Bordeaux (and if you haven’t, what in tarnation’s wrong with you?) – then you’ve gone to town on a blended wine. A bottle of red Bordeaux will be a blend of various percentages of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, with some Petit Verdot and Malbec thrown in for good measure. Chateauneuf-de-Pape, that magical wine from France’s Rhone region, may have up to 18 different grapes in the blend.

"We make there's none of that
pesky antifreeze in your wine..."
Why blend wine? There are some practical reasons – like trying to stretch production in a lean year or complying with regional winemaking guidelines. The terroir also plays a role. Not every harvest is the same. Varying amounts of sun and rain, seasonal differences in temperature, and other factors all affect the final flavor from a grape. Winemakers usually like to deliver a consistent product. A wine’s particular profile is, after all, what draws in a consumer initially. A skilled winemaker will often make tweaks to a wine’s final blend to try to create consistency from year to year.

Primarily, though, winemakers blend wines for flavor. Each grape has its own flavor profile. Some grapes yield wines that are fruity but watery on their own, while others are so inky and tannic that they are nigh undrinkable. Blending grapes in various ratios allow a skilled winemaker to produce something, as the cliché goes, more than the sum of its parts. A winemaker is typically trying to make the best of what’s around, which is, in my mind, the true art of wine production.

Blending should not be seen as a mark of inferiority. The most expensive wines produced domestically and abroad around the world are blends, such as Sine Qua Non’s “Queen of Spades” – a Syrah-dominant blend from Santa Barbara that will set you back about $5,000 a bottle. While I’m not willing to shell out that kind of scratch for a blend, I did recently have the opportunity to check out three blends at slightly lower price points.

The first was from New Zealand. The Trinity Hill 2014 “The Trinity” Red Wine has a slightly misleading name. This merlot-dominant (55%) blend is actually a mix of five grapes. Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Malbec make up the remainder. Merlot on its own can be a little one-note, so the other additions add some complexity, tannin, and depth. I found this wine to be full of plums and spice, with a surprisingly earthy backbone – not something I see in many New Zealand wines. This wine’s very straightforward, so it’s an easy drinker on its own or would pair with any number of meaty or cheesy dishes. At around $15, it’s a pretty solid buy.

To South Africa for the Mulderbosch 2013 “Faithful Hound” Red Wine. South Africa is best known for the Pinotage grape, but there’s none to be found in this bottle. Instead, this is a straightforward Bordeaux blend – Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Don’t expect the somewhat lean flavors of a Bordeaux here. This is a fairly burly offering with lots of cherries and leather flavors and a big smoky backbone. I found this wine
to need some considerable air before the tannins die down. Once they do, however, you’ve got a nice option for alongside any type of grilled meat. It’s around $25, which I thought was a tad pricey. (Also, the wine’s label tells the story of the “faithful hound” who kept a three-year vigil at a house on Mulderbosch farm after being abandoned by his master. The dog died. Side of sadness with your steak?)

Finally, back to the States for the Leviathan 2012 California Red Wine. The winemaker, Andy Erickson, has worked with some of the best known cult wineries in Napa, including Screaming Eagle, Harlan, and Staglin. Through his connections, he sources small quantities of grapes from across various California regions (though largely Napa-centric) to blend into his signature juice. I gotta say, Erickson knows his stuff. This is a gorgeous wine. With a name like Leviathan (which is a nasty mythological sea creature), I expected a knock-you-on-your-ass California monster red. What I found was a bold, rich wine – but it’s so balanced and silky that you don’t realize you’ve got 14.5% ABV in your glass. A blend of the Cabernets, Merlot, and Syrah, the flavor is a polished mix of candied plums, berries, smoke, and spice. The finish is velvety and lasting, full of cacao and happiness. It’s not cheap at $48, but I’d be hard pressed to find much out of Napa at this quality at that price. Try it with dark chocolate, close your eyes, and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Umbria’s Left Jab to its Right Cross – Montefalco Rosso

We’ve featured the Montefalco region a couple of times here in ol’ Vine HQ – focusing specifically on the Sagrantino grape and Sagrantino Montefalco, the wine from the Umbria region I dubbed “the Italian Heavy Hitter.”

To refresh your memory, the Sagrantino grape has been grown in Umbria at least as far back as the mid 1500’s, with some scant records indicating it may have been grown as early as the turn of the millennium. This grape, grown primarily for sacramental and religious festival wines, was almost wiped out until the early 1990’s, when growers were able to gain a classified status for the grape and expanded the production.

On its own, Sagrantino creates enormous, tannic reds which have the highest concentration of polyphenols like resveratrol which are the compounds that give red wine its health-related benefits. It’s also the most tooth-staining varietal that I’ve ever happened across, just as a warning. In many regions, heavily tannic grapes are often blended with lighter varietals -- and the juice can be from either red or white grapes – to balance tannin and acidity in big wines or to create wines that are more approachable to the general public.

In neighboring Tuscany, the winemakers there blended their native Sangiovese grapes with merlot, cabernet, and other red wines to create the now-ubiquitous Supertuscans. Borrowing from that model, the Umbrians created Montefalco Rosso, a lighter-styled red wine which features Sagrantino in the blend. Since Sagrantino itself makes for big, honkin’ wine – a little of it goes a long way in the blend.

Also, grapes like Sagrantino tend to be fairly expensive to produce. Most Sagrantino Montefalco start at around $40 and go up front there. Winemakers like to turn a profit, and blending can help them produce quantities of wine at a lower price point to help with the bottom line.

I sampled two bottles of this Umbrian blend – the Colpetrone 2011 Montefalco Rosso  and the Tenute Lunelli 2010 “Ziggurat” Montefalco Rosso. Both blends featured 70% Sangiovese and 15% Sagrantino. The Colpetrone rounds out the blend with 15% Merlot, while the Ziggurat goes with 10% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Both Montefalco Rosso are considerably lighter than the big, bombin’ Sagrantino Montefalco, but they’re still wines of considerable stature. They also both need air – lots of it. While these wines are marketed as flexible food wines for picnics, I’d recommend letting them breathe a bit before heading out on your jaunt. Even if all you do is pour the bottle into a carafe and pour it right back, that’s still going to put you in a better place, tastewise.

The two wines were quite a study in contrast initially. The Colpetrone hearkened back to its bigger, burlier 100% Sagrantino cousin, hitting the palate with big dark fruits and fairly heavy tannin. The Sweet Partner in Crime had a similar reaction to that wine, as well – in that she thought it was too big to be pleasant. The Ziggurat, by contrast, was much more along the lines of a bigger Chianti, full of cherries and chalk. We found it to be much easier to drink.

Over the next couple of days with some different meals, we found the character of both wines changed. The Colpetrone softened remarkably. The heaviness lifted, yielding some smoky, raspberry tinged flavors that became nicely balanced. The Ziggurat, by contrast, deepened as it had its time in air. Some spicy, clove-like flavors emerged and the cherries took on a fuller, tarter aspect.

While both wines were good, I’d probably give the edge here to the Colpetrone on overall style points. Once both wines fully opened, I thought that it had the more interesting balance of flavor, tannin, and general drinking interest. Either would be solid choices with either big red sauces and roasted meats (perhaps a beef brasciole like the one we made to test the wines), or charcuterie boards with aged cheeses.

Both wines retail for around $20, so if you want to get a sense of what the big deal is with Sagrantino, you could ease into it through one of these Montefalco Rosso. If you’re looking for a burlier Italian wine, this might be one quality option.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Domaine Bousquet mmm-mmm-Malbec

When I started The Naked Vine lo those many years ago, one of the wines I reviewed in my very first column was a varietal that I’d only recently turned on to – Malbec. I’ve not covered Malbec as much over the last few years as my palate swung back towards the Old World, but it’s too good a grape to pass up for long.

Malbec was known for centuries as one of the five major grapes that makes up the classic Bordeaux blend (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot are the others). Malbec’s inclusion in Bordeaux is typically minimal – usually a single-digit percentage of the blend. French Malbec – sometimes called cot noir or Auxierrois – yields a dark, inky, tannic wine on its own. (The Cahors region in France is about the only source of 100% French Malbec.)

In the mid 1800’s, cuttings of French Malbec vines were brought to Argentina and transplanted. After some ups and downs in production, Malbec rose to viticultural prominence in the 1990’s in Argentina and is now both their most widely planted red grape and most exported wine.

The terroir of Argentina turned out to be uniquely suited for growing this formerly humble blending grape. Rather than the dark, tannic monster from Cahors, Malbec from Argentina thrives in the high altitude of the Mendoza region – yielding a wine that, while still quite powerful, is considerably more approachable. Argentine Malbec typically has big fruit flavors and smoky tannins. These wines typically pair beautifully with anything that can be dragged across fire. Grilled steak, chicken, and pork are classic pairings, and it holds up well against strongly flavored sauces and cheeses. Malbec also tends to have a fairly reasonable price point.

The success of the grape in Argentina has attracted some Old World winemakers to South America, where they attempted to merge the more elegant French wine style with the Argentinean flavor. One such example is the Domaine Bousquet 2015 Malbec. Domaine Bousquet, founded in 1990 in the Uco Valley of the Mendoza region, produces exclusively organic wines.

This particular Malbec boasts a dark violet color and a big nose of plums and violets. The mouthfeel is quite sturdy, with lots of chewy, tooth-staining tannin – more so than some of its typical Argentine cousins. However, that tannin is balanced by more of that plum flavor, as well as some blackberry and leather. The Bousquet’s finish is long, tannic, and smoky. It calls out for -- nay, downright demands -- grilled food. We tried it with some burgers – both beef and pork – and it was spot-on. A medium-rare steak with a spice-blackened crust would also be a good choice.

The Domaine Bousquet retails for around $12. It’s well worth it. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Bisol's Best Bubbles for my Birthday

As we approach the point in Earth’s orbit where I started my life’s journey back in the days of polyester prints and bell bottoms, I kicked off my birthday week with a bubble. More accurately, many bubbles!

These bubbles came from a particularly lovely bottle of Prosecco. Specifically, the Bisol Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG (Yes, we’ve been on a bit of a Prosecco kick around here these days…) We covered another Prosecco by the same producer, Bisol, not long ago. You might remember the review for their “Crede” – which featured this guy:

The “Cartizze” is the Crede’s big brother. Retailing for around $50, the Cartizze represents the top end of Bisol’s production.

As a quick review and to break down the wine’s name (which can be helpful when dealing with many old world wines), “Valdobbiadene” is a specific area within the Prosecco region known for producing the higher-quality versions of the wine, so it gets tagged with “DOCG,” the highest level of regional classification “Prosecco Superiore” does not indicate a difference in aging, as certain other similar sounding tags like “Chianti Riserva” do. Instead, it just translates as, “Hey! This is the gooood stuff.”

Cartizze, then, is the specific location from which the grapes are sourced and where the Bisol winery is headquartered. Think of this wine as the “single estate vineyard” version from this producer – their crème de la crème. (Or “crème de la crede,” in this case.) This wine is made from 100% Glera, the base grape of most Prosecco.

On this particularly glorious Saturday afternoon, I got back from a lovely massage that the Sweet Partner in Crime had booked for me as a gift. (Also, big ups to 501 Salon – one of the best places for pampering anywhere in the Greater Cincinnati area…) Once my body reconstituted itself from the wonderfully melty state I was in when I made it back to Vine HQ, the SPinC put together a wonderful little antipasta plate, we popped the cork, and headed for our front porch to enjoy some beautiful weather while we sampled.

By nomenclature and by price point, this should be a pretty good wine. But I admit to some skepticism. I mean, $50 for a Prosecco? I know that Prosecco quality has increased a lot over the years, but is it worth twice as much as the next most expensive one I’ve tried?

It makes a damned good argument.

The perlage (“carbonation” in WineSpeak) was delightfully fresh and creamy. The flavor is exceptionally well-balanced and very fruity. The body is rich with peaches and pear flavors, but without the cloying sweetness that sometimes accompanies those flavors. The finish is long and fruity.

I know what you’re thinking – my review there sounds like a lot of the other flavor profiles I’ve pushed out for Prosecco. Here’s the added angle. After every sip, I found myself reflexively eyeing my glass the way that I do when I get a really good red wine or a nicely crafted rum. The bursts of flavor were very different from many Prosecco, which can be somewhat uninspired, flavorwise.

With the antipasti, I thought it was quite exceptional – whether with the charcuterie, cheese, olives, or even a real tongue-twister like marinated artichokes – the wine’s flavor worked both as complement and palate cleanser.

I was quite impressed by the Cartizze. If you want to open your wallet and see what Prosecco tastes like at the same price point as a Taittinger or Pol Roger, you’ll be in for a treat. I give it three Apollos:

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Cru Bourgeois du Medoc, Craft Beer Hipsters, and French Courts

Before the Naked Vine was but a twinkle in my virtual eye, I was a fairly prodigious homebrewer. This was before the early-aught’s explosion of homebrewing. Working out of a closet in my old bachelor pad tucked away off Harrodsburg Road in Lexington, I cranked out wildly varied batches of beer. I’d pore through brewing books and the scant online resources at the time to find new styles. Steam beer, Scotch ale, Belgian lambic, bitter (which isn’t bitter), porter, stout. I tried to taste the rainbow.

(I also tried making wine, but the juice I could produce was inferior to what I could buy in the store. That is, except for one particular batch, codenamed “Libido Blanc,” which had an effect on mere mortals so powerful that the recipe was classified as a state secret.)

I enjoyed learning how the various styles were classified, the various malts and hops that were signatures of a particular type. That knowledge made me a good consumer, especially once my preferences started to shift from beer to wine.

Fast forward about…well…a decade and a half from my brewing days, and the craft beer revolution is in full swing. I’ve lost count of how many different permutations of India Pale Ale I’ve stumbled away from in the last few years. Hop heads carrying Moleskins have become common sights in the world’s brewpubs, sampling and classifying beers by taste, color, region, grain & hop terroir – even water sources. Some of them have adopted a bit of a hipster mentality, loudly proclaiming the superiority of a region or a style over another.

“Dude, I’m here for French wine,” you’re probably saying, “What’s this got to do with Vin de Bordeaux?”

For centuries, the French have treated wine like the craft beer crews do their steins of suds. In Bordeaux, red wine is parsed so finely that our beery hipster’s ironic Grizzly Adams beard would grow half an inch from sheer envy. Traditionally, Bordeaux is classified according to the “Classification of 1865,” stemming from a decree from Napoleon.

As we’ve covered before, the top wines in Bordeaux were classified into five “Growths,” based on their chateau of origin. The designation supposedly represents where the winery ranks on a hierarchy of general wine quality. (And if you imagine there might have been some skullduggery as wineries tried to get themselves “classed up,” you’d be 100% correct.) In all, there are 61 classified growth chateaux, and the wines they produce are historically the most expensive. If you’re curious, the wineries that make up the “Premier Cru Classe” (First Growth) are Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, Margaux, and Lafite-Rothschild. Looking up the prices is left as an exercise for the reader, but fifth growth wines usually start around $50.

Below the classified growths come the “AOC” wines, which tend to be less expensive – and will be the ones you tend to find in the French section of your local wine store. They’re labeled with the sub-region of Bordeaux, such as Graves, Fronsac, or Medoc and with the name of the Chateau that produced the bottle. Below that on the classification scale are Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superieur AOC. These wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in Bordeaux. These tend to be the standard “table Bordeaux.”

Needless to say, the “official classification” led to some consternation among growers, mainly in the Medoc region, who felt that their own products were of higher quality than ordinary table wine. They wanted a classification above AOC even if they weren’t classified growths. For this reason, 444 estates were designated as “Cru Bourgeois” in 1932, indicating that they were a “cut above.”

Eventually, of course, some of those chateaux wanted a more prestigious designation within Cru Bourgeois. In 2000, the classification was revised again into three quality tiers, released in 2003. The reaction was swift and nasty, leading to French courts annulling the classification in 2007.

Ever enterprising, the winemakers of the region compromised. They brought back the Cru Bourgeois designation in 2010 – but rather than a blanket award to an entire chateau, the designation is applied on a wine-by-wine basis, based on a yearly blind tasting.

Crus Bourgeois tend to run between $20-50. The winemaking techniques and production costs are
very similar, if not identical, to those used in classified growth wines. The producers of Cru Bourgeois argue, since their wines are tasted for quality on a yearly basis, that they can promise a product of equivalent quality to many classified growth wines.

I was fortunate enough to receive a couple of examples of these Cru Bourgeois. I wound up with the Chateau Tour des Termes 2012 St. Estephe ($30) and the Chateau Lestage Simon 2012 Haut-Medoc ($22). We tried these over the course of a couple of evenings.

The Tour de Termes was a real treat. The bouquet had a really interesting mint scent over a bit of old world funk. Smooth and silky, the palate yielded complex flavors of dark cherry and blackberry, with a little bit of tar and some firm tannins. The finish was easy and lasting, with really nicely balanced tannins. Definitely a wine for consenting adults. When we came back to it the next evening, it still held on to many of its smooth characteristics. Even at $30, I thought this bottle was a great value.

The Lestage was also a good wine, but it lacked the wow factor and the complexity of the Termes. I thought it was a little more straightforward with the fruit, and didn’t have quite as much depth on the palate. This one had a little bit of a licorice flavor that seemed not to quite line up with the fruit. A day later, it had pretty much fallen apart and wasn’t too different from a “standard” Bordeaux to my tastes. Again, it wasn’t that it was bad – it just didn’t do as well in comparison.

I think that a quality designation like this carries a lot more weight than simply relying on a historical classification from 200 years ago. As my sommelier buddies would tell me, the French “Grand Cru Classe” designations aren’t inaccurate, but there are always considerable differences from vintage to vintage – and the price point doesn’t always line up with the quality. A yearly “stamp of approval” at least lets you know that a wine has passed muster. I find that process eminently sensible. And if you can get a Bordeaux for $30 that’s comparable in quality to a classified growth, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. Try some and thank me later.

Monday, April 04, 2016

The Naked Vine Guide to Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

Dinner for One. Wine for Six. Lovely.
You’re out on the town at a nice dinner with your besties. You’ve been to the bar, had a cocktail or two, and the maître’ d has escorted your happy gaggle to the table. Menus are distributed, and your server utters that fateful question: “Who would like the wine list?

An uncomfortable silence settles over your tableful of playful banter like someone just asked for volunteers at a business meeting. Everyone nervously looks around, hoping someone…anyone will step up to the plate.

You’re a Naked Vine reader, by gum! You’ve accumulated enough wine knowledge to be dangerous! I know you’re good pairing for dinner in the privacy of your own home, but are you ready for the big stage? Are you brave enough to look that server in the eye and say, “Bring that list right here! Allow me!”

Hell yes, you are! And I’ll be right there at your side with these few basic tips to help you win the evening.

First and foremost, Take your Time. Once you’ve got the wine list in hand, this is the perfect opportunity to ask your server to get a round of waters for everyone – or just say that you need a few minutes while you make some decisions. (This little stall has the added benefit of letting people peek at their menus without feeling pressured.)

Once the server departs, Survey the Scene. “Does everyone want to go in on a bottle or two?” Some of your friends might want beer, cocktails, or a specific glass of wine. Get a quick sense of how many people you’re ordering for. A standard 750ml bottle equates to five 5-ounce glasses of wine. I usually assume 2-3 glasses per person during a leisurely meal for an ordering standard. Do appropriate multiplications and divisions to come up with a rough estimate of how many bottles you’ll need. Also, ask what folks are thinking of ordering, foodwise, to get a general idea on the pairing spectrum. For instance, if everyone’s getting fish, you’re probably leaning white. If you can’t determine whether a white or red will be best, order one of each and let people choose. And don’t let the server take the wine list away.

Don’t Get Fancy. Remember, you’re not leading a wine tasting. While you may absolutely love the deep, barnyard funk of a particular French wine region, this isn’t the venue to wow the table with your in-depth knowledge. The pecking order is friends -> food -> wine. Think about middle-of-the-road, crowd-pleasing wines when you’re making your choice, since palates and entrees can be all over the map. Also, good restaurants often offer many of their most food-friendly wines by the glass, so file these away for reference as you’re perusing the list.

Go Deep. There’s a reason that Cabernet Sauvignon from California, French Bordeaux and Burgundy, and Italian reds like Chianti show up so often on wine lists. People are familiar with them – at least by name – so they make for an easy order. Since they’re an easy order, many restaurants tend to increase the markups on these bottles. Every country has lesser-known wine regions and grape varietals, many of which you’ve explored with me here. Instead of Chianti, for instance, drop a Barbera on folks. If you’re thinking French Burgundy, maybe think about a red from Loire or Languedoc instead.

Also, great values can be hidden on wine lists from somewhat obscure countries. Lesser-known varietals and wine regions are often priced to move. We know that South America makes fabulous, relatively inexpensive wine, for instance – and if you’re choosing between a California Cabernet and a Malbec from Argentina at a steakhouse, I can guarantee you the Malbec will give you a better bang for your buck.

Go Cheap. (Or at least don’t be afraid to.) Do you think, outside of a Guy Fieri joint, a chef’s going to put something on a menu that they know tastes terrible? Of course not! In any decent restaurant, you should be able to order the least expensive item on a menu and still have a quality meal. A wine list is nothing more than a menu. A restaurant should vouch for every bottle on their list. Order what you think will be best.

[Also, in my opinion, it's easy for high-end wines to be wasted in a restaurant setting. Many of the more expensive wines – top-end Bordeaux, Italian Barolo, and high-end Napa cabernets, for example – need to be decanted, sometimes for hours, for their flavors to really shine. That doesn’t happen in many restaurant settings, as server will often just go through the wine service and pour. There are some establishments who do a good job presenting these wines -- but you need to do your research...]

Don’t be Afraid to Ask. It’s perfectly OK to ask the server or the sommelier for advice. (After all, that is what they’re there for.) Rather than just asking, “What would you recommend?” give them a little guidance. If you’ve narrowed it down to 2-3 choices, say “I’m thinking about these. Which would you say is drinking best?” If you’re really stumped, maybe go to: “Can you give me a couple of options for a medium-bodied, food-friendly red?” or “What are a couple of mellow, somewhat fruity, dry whites?” They’ll suggest something workable.

Be the Boss. Here come those bottles! Time for the wine service. The server or sommelier will first present you with the bottle to verify they’ve brought the correct selection. They’ll then open the bottle and usually hand you the cork. Look for any signs that the cork might have been damaged. If there are wine stains running down the sides of the cork, or if it’s crumbly or brittle, this can be a warning sign that the bottle is flawed. File this away mentally for the next step. Don’t sniff the cork – I mean, unless you've got a particular fetish for that sort of thing.

Making this face at first sniff? Send it back. Please.
The server will then pour a little wine into your glass. This is a quality test. You want to give the wine a vigorous swirl, sniff, and sip to see if the wine is defective. Does it taste slightly carbonated if it’s a still wine? Does it have an odd odor or flavor? Flawed wine can smell/taste like wet newspaper, damp dog, a moldy basement, strong vinegar, or rotten egg. Trust me, you’ll know it if you encounter it.
Get any of these smells, sensations, or flavors? Simply turn to the server and say, “I’m sorry. I think this bottle is off.” Be firm. Don’t be intimidated. Trust your instincts. Use the Force. Whatever you need. They’ll bring you a new one, trust me. It’s your damned bottle. Get a good one.

Chances are, though, the wine will be just fine. If you sniff and everything’s cool, then lean back in your chair with a self-satisfied smile and say, “This will do nicely,” and relax as the server makes the rounds.

Finally, always remember that You Can’t Screw Up. There’s no “universal donor” in the world of wine. You’ll never find a bottle that’s perfect for a group of people with varied palates all ordering different meals. Your goal was to find a “good enough” wine, and you’ve done that! Once everyone has a full glass, raise your glass, give a hearty “Cheers,” smile, and bask in the admiring gazes of your friends.