Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- Pick a Pair of Pinot

I make no bones about my love of Pinot Noir. I do find, though, that I end up regularly purchasing a bottle less often than I probably should.

Why? Because for folks who like good, inexpensive wine, Pinot Noir falls in sort of a weird category. Pinot Noir is a finicky grape. It’s tough to grow, doesn’t yield as much as like Merlot or Cabernet, and, as a result, tends to be a little pricier than some other reds.

Now, if you trundle down to your local wine store, you might be able to find something labeled “Pinot Noir” for eight or nine bucks. Great. Good on you. Those pinots – many of which are from California – are usually blended with juice from other grapes to get the price down. They may be perfectly serviceable wines, but they can lack that certain delicacy in flavor that makes Pinot, well, Pinot.

To me, a good Pinot Noir is going to have a fragrant, complex aroma; a body that’s not too heavy that combines some fruitness with a smoky quality, and a finish that I can sit back and meditate on for a bit – something full of dark fruit, smoke, and mystery.

Hard to find those qualities in something under ten bucks. Honestly, if you want a really good one – spending $20-25 isn’t going to be out of the ordinary, especially if you want something that you’ll be able to savor for a bit.

When I usually think of Pinot Noir – I consider it in terms of broad groups…Old World, usually meaning Burgundy, France; and New World, which has come to mean just about anywhere else. But New World Pinot Noir is now almost an overly broad determination, since many countries are finding local microclimates that will support these stubborn little red pods of joy.

I had the chance recently to try a couple of interesting New World pinots which aren’t in the break-the-bank range. You might consider them the “Old New World” and “New New World” versions. The two Pinots I got to size up were the Cultivate 2014 California Pinot Noir ($25) and the Trinity Hill 2015 Hawkes Bay Pinot Noir ($17) from New Zealand.

The Cultivate wine is an interesting study in terroir on its face. I am a huge fan of cool-climate Pinot Noir, which seems to be the model for this particular wine. It’s a multi-regional blend of California Pinot Noir harvested in three different locales. The idea here seemed to be to pull together lighter bodied wines from the more southern regions and drop in a little heavier juice to even everything out.

Grapes from Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands comprise 49% and 47% of the blend, respectively – with the remaining 4% coming from the Sonoma Coast AVAThe resulting wine is still quite light-styled, with a perfumey nose of raspberry and strawberry. The flavor is bright cherry with a little bit of smoke as a backbone – but that smokiness doesn’t linger. The finish is clean and slightly tannic and smoky. 

The Trinity Hill was a different animal altogether. In comparison, this Hawkes Bay wine was richer and smokier. I thought it seemed like a much more serious wine. Lots of plums and smoke up front on a heavier body, which surprised me. Many of the New Zealand pinots I’ve tried lean towards lighter styles – but this one embraced its darkness. Raspberry and spice flavors hung around for a long time on the finish, and the smokiness lasted quite a long time. There’s also an earthy component to this one that simply wasn’t there on the California wine.

The Sweet Partner in Crime leaned heavily towards the Trinity Hill. She leans towards earthiness in her reds, so I wasn’t surprised. I thought that the Cultivate was a leaner, more delicate wine – but it was almost *too* delicate. California Pinot, while often lighter styled in cool regions, still has more firmness than I found here.

All in all, especially for the value, I leaned towards the EnZedd offering here. The Cultivate was better, I thought, for drinking on its own – but at $25, that’s a bit high for a pass-around wine, although it would be a pretty good aperitif red. With food, the Trinity Hill holds up more effectively. Both these wines were quite decent – and your personal preference for body style will likely be the deciding factor if you’re going to give these a go. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Catching up with Natura Wines

A couple of years ago, I was asked to review a set of Chilean wines called Natura from Emiliana Vineyards. The wine fairy brought a few more of these South American selections to the door recently.

In general, Chilean wines benefit from the country’s unique geography. The Andes border the various winegrowing regions on the east and the Pacific Ocean does so on the west. The relatively high altitude, notable daily temperature shifts, and relatively dry climate create a solid environment for grape growing – protected from many of the pests and diseases like the phylloxera louse which can plague Northern Hemisphere vineyards. Because of the relative pest-free nature of the country, Chile boasts some of the oldest, ungrafted vines in the world.

Natura wines are produced from 100% organically grown grapes. They’re also clarified without traditional “finings” – which are often made from gelatin. Thus, these wines are also vegan friendly.

How are they? I had the chance to try three of them:

Natura 2016 Casablanca Valley Unoaked Chardonnay – My favorite of the three wines, I thought this Chardonnay offered the best overall experience. The floral nose started off with green apple, which led into a nicely balanced palate of grapefruit and pineapple. There’s some creaminess which nicely evens out the acidity. The finish is gentle and lasting, with a little bit of a curious toastiness, even though it’s unoaked. Clean and pretty, it made a good complement to some pan-cooked salmon with cherry tomatoes.

Natura 2016 Rapel Valley Dry Rosé – A nicely flexible food wine, the rosé starts out with a snootful of peaches, leading into a palate strong in strawberry and cherry flavors. A salmon-tinted rosé, the medium weighted body leads into a dry, lengthy finish with just a touch of stone fruit and orange rind at the end. Not overly heavy, the zingy acidity makes it a good pairing with some somewhat challenging foods. We had this with both a chicken pho and a cabbage and white bean soup with ham hocks. Worked fine with either. A solid offering.

Natura 2015 Colchagua Valley Carmenere – Carmenere, a first-cousin to Merlot, is a very popular South American grape. This version, which is 85% Carmenere blended with some Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, was a solid, straightforward quaffer. The nose and palate are cherry dominant. The body is medium weight, and I think I was ready for a little more of a tannic bite. The finish is not overly dry, with more of an easy fruit finish. We opened this up on a nice night alongside a couple of steaks, grilled asparagus, and tomatoes. It was OK. It went with the food just fine, but it really didn’t stand out or complement the flavors. It worked fine as a table wine, but I’d probably gone with the Cabernet or Syrah in the first place, if I had it to do over again. Still, for folks who aren’t into big, tannic monsters that want a red to go with some strong cheeses, it’s a decent choice.

Natura wines retail for around $10-12. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chianti Classico’s Contemporary Climb

I sometimes wonder which fictional character had more of an effect on the world of wine – Miles’s rant about the inadequacies of Merlot in Sideways, or The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter introducing the world to the pairing of Chianti with fava beans and a side of census taker.

It’s the latter wine that we’re here to discuss – Chianti. Specifically, Chianti Classico.

Chianti, in a theme you’ll likely notice if you’re a regular visitor to these parts, is not a grape. Chianti is a region of central Tuscany near Florence. In that region, the primary grape is Sangiovese, the backbone of a number of Italian wines. Wines from Chianti are legally required to be at least 70% Sangiovese. As well, “Classico” does not refer to any “classic” style of wine production. Classico is a designated subregion within Chianti considered by many aficionados to produce the highest quality juice. 

The offense that brought the poor census taker to his end in Silence of the Lambs was trying to categorize Dr. Lecter. The winemakers of Classico have no such problem with categorization. In fact, where there used to be two categories of Chianti Classico – within the last couple of years, the region’s added a third.

Wines labeled “Chianti Classico” are produced from grapes grown in that subregion. They must be at least 12% alcohol, be at least 80% Sangiovese, and be aged for a minimum of seven months before release. They have an icon of a black rooster on the label, and can be had for around $10-15. “Chianti Classico Riserva” was previously the highest level of Chianti. The Riserva wines must be aged for a minimum of 24 months and have a slightly higher alcohol content, in addition to the regular Classico rules.

In 2014, the region created a new designation – “Chianti Classico Gran Selezione,” which sounds impressive. These wines must be aged a minimum of 30 months, and must be produced from grapes grown specifically by the winery. This designation was supposed to indicate a new, higher level of quality – basically the creation of a readily identifiable category of top “estate wines” for the region.

This reclassification is not without controversy. While there are some technical differences – slightly higher alcohol content, aging, pH levels – a winery could conceivably age a “Riserva” wine for six additional months and label it “Gran Selezione.” Additionally, wines in this category are checked for quality by a panel of judges – an addition which veers dangerously close to the hyperclassification of vineyards found in France…and few Italian winemakers want any part of a parallel to their major wine producing rival.

There is, however, one considerable difference between Riserva and Gran Selezione – price. Riserva wines commonly cost $20-40. Most Gran Selezione wines start at around $40 and go up from there. But I don’t want to cast aspersions on this new classification. Most winemakers seem to be keeping with the spirit of the new classification, which also allows smaller winemakers to offer their top wines with a special designation, rather than getting lost among the Riserva created by larger producers.

But does the new designation really represent an increase in quality? I had the opportunity to try a couple of wines from Castello di Albola. Specifically, the Castello di Albola 2014 Chianti Classico (~$17) and the Castello di Albola 2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (~$70). I tried to find a bottle of the Albola Chianti Riserva to do a true side-by-side-by-side of the three levels, but I couldn’t run one down in time for publication.

Regardless of quality, Chianti is not a wine that I prefer to drink on its own. There’s something about the chalky backbone that just does little for me without some kind of food to work alongside. But for pairing with traditionally Italian flavors like red sauce or roasted meats and vegetables, it’s difficult to go wrong with Chianti Classico of any stripe. That in mind, I whipped up a nice batch of pasta in a red sauce with mushrooms and Italian sausage for the tasting.

Let’s just get this out in the open – the Gran Selezione is a stupendous food wine for a pairing like this. The flavors are rich and fruity, with a good tannic backbone and plenty of spice notes to go along with a plummy, cherry-slathered body. The finish lasts as long as any Italian wine I’ve had not from the Piedmont (Barolo, Barbaresco). With food, it marries itself strongly to the traditional Italian flavors. The “standard” Chianti Classico is also very good. The wine is much more straightforward – tending towards the cherry end of the spectrum. The tannins aren’t quite as bold, nor is the finish as long. That said, as good as the Gran Selezione was, it wasn’t a $50 better bottle.

Fast forward one night. The Sweet Partner in Crime decided to put together one of her "repurposed leftover quesadillas." This one included beef, mushrooms, wilted beet greens, caramelized onions, and pepper cheese. We had saved some of each wine to try the next night – and the Gran Selezione really showed its colors. I never expected that a meal made from leftovers would have truly decadent flavors, but the more expensive wine turned an “eat in front of Netflix before chilling” meal into a delectable treat. If a special occasion meal that includes varied, earthy flavors is on the menu, then splurging on the Gran Selezione might be a real consideration.

I would suggest, if you’re interested in trying a higher end Chianti Classico – that you “climb the ladder” with your selections. Talk to your local wine guy or gal about a solid Chianti Classico Riserva. If that rings your bell, consider moving up to the big bucks bottle.

And finally, to come full circle for a moment -- one of the few foods that Chianti would not pair with particularly well is liver. Organ meat tends to have a metallic taste from the high levels of iron, and the rich flavors would run over all but the fullest of Chianti. A better choice for our hypothetical census taker meal would have been a wine with more tannin and fuller fruit flavors. What wine would fill that bill? Ironically, Merlot would have been a superior choice. It’s a shame that we never got the “Hannibal and Miles” buddy comedy we all deserve. 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Red, Rioja, Ribera

Oh, Spanish reds, how do I love thee?

The Naked Vine Rule #1 of Food Pairings is “People make wine to go with the foods they love to eat.” Well, Spaniards eat just about everything – from fish to fowl to flesh to flowers. Tapas is just behind fútbol as their national sport. It follows that Spanish wines, particularly Spanish reds, would need to be as flexible as their broad-ranging countrywide palate.

Spanish reds really can go with just about anything. I personally love Rioja and paella, with strong flavors like chorizo, saffron, and shellfish mixed in with all that rice. Manchego cheese, almonds, various cured meats – you really can’t go wrong.

Those Tempranillo grapes in Rioja
If you remember a few weeks ago in my “Ten Years” retrospective – I bungled my first experience with Spanish wines. When I saw “Rioja” on the label, I thought that was the name of the grape, and that’s just not right. No, to my chagrin, it turned out there aren’t picturesque vineyards of Rioja grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Spain. Rather, there are picturesque vineyards of Tempranillo grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Rioja.

Rioja, along with closely neighboring region Ribera del Duero, are two of Spain’s main producers of their delicious red goodness. The two regions compete with and complement each other much in the manner that Bordeaux and Burgundy do.

Both regions are on the plateaus of northern Spain. Rioja is somewhat cooler, being on the other side of the Cantabrian Mountains, which moderates the climate and shields the vineyards from some of the strong Cierzo winds blowing off the coast that can reach hurricane force. Ribera del Duero (which translates as “Banks of the Duero” – the river that runs across the region) is located on a high plateau, where it gets sun scorched in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. This terroir difference means that the wines, made from identical grapes – largely Tempranillo and Garnacha – have very varied flavors.

In general, both wines run along the lines of Cabernet Sauvignon from a weight perspective, but the flavors run closer to Pinot Noir’s cherry than to super dark fruits. The length of aging is one of the primary characteristics of how these wines is classified. There are four general classifications in ascending order of quality:

If the bottle says simply “Rioja” or “Ribera del Duero” – that’s the “table wine,” designed to be drunk young, and will be the fruitiest versions. Next is Crianza – to receive a “Crianza” designation, the wine must spend a minimum of a year in oak and at least a few months aging in the bottle before release. If you snag an under $15 bottle of Rioja at your local wine store, odds are you have a Crianza in your grubby paws.

Then comes Reserva and Gran Reserva – made from specifically selected grapes, thus they are not produced every growing season. Reserva must age a minimum of three years before release, at least one year of which must be in oak. They usually run up to about $30. Gran Reserva are aged a minimum of three years, two years of which must be in oak. Both Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are designed for long aging, and are considered some of the best value fine wines in the world.

I enjoy comparing these wines side-by-side (or at least within a close amount of time) to get at the contrasts. Here are a few I tried recently:

Siglo 2012 Rioja Crianza – This one’s almost worth picking up for the bottle itself, which comes wrapped in burlap. Fun to bring this one to a party, for sure. It’s got a bright, fresh nose of cherries and cedar. The cherry flavor passes over to the body, which is relatively light for the fairly solid backbone this wine possesses. The tannins gradually emerge on the finish, leaving a lightly fruited aftertaste. Easy to drink on its own, but really shines with food. About $14-15.

The sample of Torres 2013 “Celeste” Ribera del Duero Crianza provided an interesting contrast. The nose was fragrantly full of cherries and violet. I thought that the flavors of the RdD were deeper than the bright cherry flavors found in the Rioja Crianza that I tried. The mouthfeel was considerably chewier with some more pronounced oak flavors. There were dark fruits – blackberry and plum – on the palate, which finished up with some chewy, plummy tannins. I thought this was a pretty serious red, but not so big as to be overwhelming. Around $20 for this.

Both went well with the aforementioned paella, although I’d probably give a nod to the Rioja if you twisted my arm. 

I also had the Coto de Imaz 2010 Rioja Reserva – which was, as you might expect, an entirely different experience. The nose is fuller and richer, but more restrained. Darker fruits are in evidence – blackberries and raspberries dominate the nose. The body is softer and tongue-coatingly rich with full chocolatey tannins. The finish is long with plummy smoke. I thought this was a fascinatingly complex wine for $20. It calls for grilled or roasted meats, especially beef. A NY strip was a lovely accompaniment. A real find and certainly worth it.

Spanish wines, in general, are much less expensive than their French and Italian cousins. If you like your Old World wines more on the fruity side, my guess is that you’re going to enjoy a Rioja more than a wine from Bordeaux or Tuscany at a similar price point.

Of course, there’s only one way to find out…

Friday, February 03, 2017

Slap On Another "Côtes"

I love doing side-by-sides with similar wines. In this case, I had the chance to give the once-over to a pair of Côtes du Rhône from slightly different classification.

As a quick refresher, Côtes du Rhône is (obviously) from the Rhone region of France and is the most widely available red wine from there. A wine labeled "Côtes du Rhône" can be made up from grapes grown anywhere within that region. This would be considered the "table" Côtes du Rhône.

There are other classifications for Côtes du Rhône. A wine labeled "Côtes du Rhône Villages" indicates a higher standard of quality -- and the blend of grapes must come from the eighteen "named villages" in the region.

Above that classification are those Côtes du Rhône which have the actual name of the single village from where the grapes are sourced. Puymeras, Vinsobres, and Chusclan are some examples.

Finally, there are "Côtes du Rhône Cru" -- which are from the best grapes around one of the particular villages. These wines are usually considered the best of the region, and some are known as the best wines in the world. Chateauneuf-de-Pape is the most famous of these Côtes du Rhône Cru, along with Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu (although mainly for whites) and Crozes-Hermitage.

Côtes du Rhône are always blends. There are 21 different grapes that can go into Côtes du Rhône, but the backbone of the wine is generally Grenache and Syrah. Wines from the northern Rhone tend to be Syrah-driven, while the hotter southern Rhone grows more Grenache.

Côtes du Rhône tend to be fruity, food-friendly wines. There's a pretty broad range of quality among Côtes du Rhône, and I was interested to see what this pair of bottles would yield. I tried the Les Dauphins 2014 Côtes du Rhône Reserve ($13) and the Les Dauphins 2015 Côtes du Rhône Villages Organic ($15). Both came primarily from the Southern Rhone, so they're Grenache-heavy.

You may note the "Reserve" at the end of the name of the first bottle -- and that I didn't mention it in the classification notes above. That's the case for the simple reason that...well...the "Reserve" doesn't refer to anything really in particular. It's simply a marketing term in France, just like it is here in the U.S. The only major wine producing countries that have legal requirements for "Reserve" are Spain and Italy.

The Reserve is one of the most reviewed wines on The Naked Vine -- this is the third time that it's popped up for me. It's a blend of 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Mourvedre. I sampled this vintage back in November around Thanksgiving time. It's a simple, straightforward, fruity red. Honestly, this bottle was so straightforward that I didn't find it particularly interesting. Red fruits came up front, followed by a middleweight palate and a softly tannic finish.

The Villages was considerably better, to my taste. This was a 60/30 Grenache/Syrah split, with  the remainder being divided between Mourvedre and Carignan. This was a much more interesting wine. The fruit was deeper and richer, with more plum notes and an earthier backbone. The tannins on the finish were chewier, and I thought it tasted much more "Old World" in style.

We tried both alongside some steaks that I'd grilled up -- grilled or roasted meats and strong cheeses are typical accompaniments to Côtes du Rhône. Again, the Villages was the better pairing with its more muscular tannin. If you have the choice, I'd suggest dropping the extra couple of bucks and going with the Villages.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Follow this Guero Down the Duero

Let’s pop back over to Spain for a moment, Rioja is not the only game in town when it comes to the fruitful production of grapey goodness. Just a bit south of Rioja flows the Duero River, along which you can find a couple of Spain’s most well-known wine regions.

Moving west to east, we start in Rueda, which is the region centered on the town of the same name, which is about 170 miles northwest of Madrid. Wine was produced here since at least the 11th century. Rueda is best known for white wines, particularly those produced from the Verdejo grape, which is native to the region. Some reds are produced in Rueda, but less than 5% of the total harvest yield is red grapes.

Rueda whites are produced to be drunk relatively young, and are known to be quite food-friendly. Many wine lovers liken Rueda wines to sauvignon blanc, and that comparison certainly held up for the Torres 2015 “Verdeo” Verdejo which I had the opportunity to try.

The Verdeo (and I’m unsure why the spelling is different) was a crisp, acidic quaff with aromas of pear and lemon that were mirrored on the palate. I found it to be a little richer than many sauvignon blanc, effecting a little bit of a glycerine sweetness on the palate and on the finish. It was pretty good as an aperitif, and I had the wild hair to try it with a pork and fennel Thai curry. It handled the pairing OK because of the slight sweetness at the end, but beer worked better, honestly. I think it would be a better match for fish or shellfish.

Eighty or so miles down the Duero lies Ribera del Duero – the Spanish wine region which competes with and complements its neighbor to the northeast, Rioja, in the manner that Bordeaux and Burgundy eye each other. In this case, however, both of the Spanish regions focus on the same red grape, Tempranillo. The converse of Rueda, Ribera del Duero’s grape production is almost exclusively red. The nomenclature of the red wines – “Crianza,” “Reserva,” and “Gran Reserva” mirrors that found in Rioja.

Ribera del Duero, which translates as “the banks of the Duero” is a very dry, hot region in the summer – receiving less than a foot and a half of rain annually. Also located on a high plateau, temperatures soar in the summer and can be brutally cold in the winter, so the vines must be quite hardy. Since they must struggle, the wines take on some very interesting characteristics, especially when compared to Rioja. Of late, production has increased in Ribera del Duero as the world discovers the differences.

The sample of Torres 2013 “Celeste” Ribera del Duero Crianza provided an interesting contrast. The nose was fragrantly full of cherries and violet. I thought that the flavors of the RdD were deeper than the bright cherry flavors found in the Rioja Crianza that I tried. The mouthfeel was considerably chewier with some more pronounced oak flavors. There were dark fruits – blackberry and plum – on the palate, which finished up with some chewy, plummy tannins. I thought this was a pretty serious red, but not so big as to be overwhelming. It calls for grilled or roasted meats, especially beef. A NY strip was a lovely accompaniment.

If you find the Duero-based wines interesting, there are a number of other wine regions along this plateau. Wines from Arribes, Arlanza, Cigales (especially for rosé), and Toro would provide you with some interesting contrasts.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Angels of Rosé and The Naked Vine’s Victory Lap

Yeah, I’m going to relish this one a little.

One of the developments I’ve seen in the US wine market has been the greater demand for rosé. More domestic producers are sending out the pink product, spending their resource to create better versions. Rosé has finally differentiated itself in the market from White Zinfandel and other similarly syrupy sweet concoctions.

They're #1!
One of the Vine’s continual quests is to get the wine drinkers of our great land to embrace the pink. Trying to buy a particular bottle of French rosé at Big Wine Store and being rebuffed by one of the employees on the floor is a significant part of our origin story. I think a good rosé is just about a perfect wine – refreshing and crisp, yet able to snuggle up alongside various dishes and cuisines.

My instant love of French rosé set me up as one of the first bloggy pitchmen for this yummy stuff. The second column I ever wrote in this space was about rosé. I’ve hearkened back several times to the wise words of my wine mentor Renee Koerner, “Remember, pink is not a flavor!” and I’ve written about rosé more times than I can count. (Actually, I can count it. 35 times!)

So when a news release came across the transom indicating that a rosé was now the #1 selling French wine in America, I couldn’t help but smile. The wine in question was Whispering Angel from Château d’Esclans, which sold 200,000 cases of the stuff in 2016. They first entered the market in 2006 (the Vine’s inaugural year), when they were pleased to just crack the 5,000 case mark.

Château d’Esclans is in the Côtes de Provence growing region, the classical center of French rosé production (although the good folks in the Tavel region of the Rhone valley might question that designation). The Côtes de Provence produces 75% of all wine in Provence, with 80% of that being rosé. The main grapes used in Provence rosé are Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvedre.

As a quick review, rosé is produced using two methods, often in combination. The first is the maceration method – in which red grapes (such as those mentioned above) are crushed and the juice remains in contact with the skins for a brief amount of time – from a couple of hours to a day. The longer the skin contact time, the darker the color and deeper the flavor. The resulting pink product is then fermented into rosé.

The second method is called saignee or “bleeding.” In this method, a producer making a red wine will “bleed off” some of the macerating juice after a certain period of time to further concentrate the flavors and tannins in the remaining red wine-to-be. The pink-hued bled-off juice, once discarded as an afterthought (especially among red wine producers in the US) is then fermented into perfectly good rosé. At least 20% of the blend in a wine from the Côtes de Provence must be produced via saignee.

I had the opportunity to try the Whispering Angel 2015 Côtes de Provence Rosé side-by-side with its higher end cousin from Château d’Esclans, the Rock Angel 2015 Côtes de Provence Rose.

One of my favorite vacations with the Sweet Partner in Crime was a Mediterranean cruise. After stopping in Villefrance-sur-Mer, we took a train to Nice and had lunch in a little café there (where I now-regretfully asked why the SPinC’s lunch was called a Nicoise salad – I still haven’t lived that one down). Of course, we ordered a bottle of Provence rosé. The Whispering Angel took me right back to that café. It tastes like sunshine and the ocean. Pale pink, lean, and crisp – with gently acidic flavors of grapefruit and a backbone of mineral. It calls for leisurely dining over light noshables or the aforementioned salad. Hard for me to come up with a better example to point at and say, “This is what Provence rosé tastes like.”

Most wines are crafted for a certain context. Winemakers, through grape selection, vinification, and aging, determine whether a bottle will be a simple, straightforward sipping wine, a flexible-but-uncomplicated table wine, or something richer and more complex. Rather than a lean, stony, somewhat citrusy sipper, the Rock Angel has a lot going on – a complexity that I expect out of pricier reds and whites from Burgundy. Strawberries, herbs, and oranges are some of the flavors I found, along with an interesting creaminess layered atop the mineral backbone. I’d not tasted a rosé built quite like this one. This was a rosé you could open with richer preparations of chicken, fish, or salads and not fear it being run over by flavor. I had to tell myself to slow down and appreciate this wine, as I tend to drink rosé a little too quickly.

So, what the catch with all this deliciousness? While the consumption of French rosé has increased, wineries followed the logical economy and raised prices. Five years ago, a bottle of Provence rosé was rarely more than $10-12. The Whispering Angel usually retails for $22, although I found my bottle for $18. The Rock Angel runs around $30-35. And Château d’Esclans makes two other, more expensive versions – the most expensive retailing at around $100. I can’t imagine what that wine would be like (although I’d certainly love to find out).

This price increase had little to no effect on demand, especially among high-end drinkers (Google “Hamptons 2016 rosé shortage” for grins and giggles) – but you and I may need to do a little bargain hunting to find our pink goodness. From time to time, however, I’ll happily pay a few extra bucks to reminisce about our old café table…

Thursday, December 29, 2016

New Year’s – Wines for the Horror

The long nightmare that was 2016 is drawing to a close. As we sit here on the edge of ’17, waiting to see what America’s Orange Era has in store for us, there’s a thought that’s never far from the front of my brain.

“Screw it. We should all just get shithammered.”

Queen Cersei Lannister -- the leader we need.
Hopeless times call for hopeless measures, and I’m here to help! Usually, I try to fill this space with some kind of highbrow (or at least middlebrow) advice on how to expand your drinking palate – but this isn’t an age for that sort of pinkies out crap. This is the time to drink until you twitch. Flopsweat can be cathartic, right?

These days call for wines served chilled. Deeply chilled. I suggest gathering with some of your friends around a fire that you’ve built from cardboard, your Obama “Hope” poster, and the remains of your self-esteem to really get in the spirit of the occasion. Here are a few possible suggestions for your New Year’s tipples:

Lancers November 2016 Rosé– Lancers, the rebirth of the long-popular Mateus rosé, evokes an urban vibe on the first sip. Lancers has a lovely nose of peaches soaked in isopropyl. The flavor, mellowed by the proper serving temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit, bursts on your tongue with the velvety touch of a bolt of fine Chinese silk wrapped around a newly purchased ballpeen hammer. The finish is a bit sharp. Lancers’ website recommends it be mixed with “lemonade concentrate” and be garnished with a mint leaf, probably for the antioxidants. $4-6.

Boone’s Farm May 2016 Strawberry Hill – The original “flavored citrus wine” takes me back to my days in high school, roaming the hills of Eastern Kentucky, hoping that there might be a beneficent 21 year old visiting one of my friends. The light nose of strawberries and hormones is followed by a fruity blend of flavors, all of which properly mask the fact that the drink actually contains alcohol. The finish is long and sweet, with faint notes of teenage rejection and regret. The sample may have been a bit past its prime. May wasn’t a good month. $5-7.

Manischewitz September 2016 Concord Grape – The concord grape, long overlooked by many, holds a special place in my heart. This was the first wine I tasted in my oenological career, sipping from a small sterling silver cup at age four. I learned there’s a dichotomy among Jewish households -- Mogen David and Manischewitz families. My family was the latter. While Manichewitz has diversified its product, adding a “smooth and light” line, as well as elderberry, blackberry, cherry, and loganberry versions, I consider myself a purist. Nothing says “L’Chaim” like good old fashioned Concord. If you only get one wine to get all passed out Kosher, this is the one. $5-6.

Not exactly.
Cisco October 2016 Orange – An all-time champ among bagged up wines, Cisco comes in a rainbow of flavors – each one roughly emulating Strawberry, Blue Raspberry, Black Cherry, and whatever flavor “Red” might be. I suggest choosing Orange for the extra Vitamin C, so to resist the antibiotic-resistant bacteria you’d likely find on the sidewalk grate you’ll likely find yourself on. A potent combination of Sunny Delight and Robitussin, Cisco will have you first laughing, then hallucinating, then curled into a small ball cursing Thor, who will be smashing Mjolnir against the inside of your cranium in short order. The FTC warning on the label states, “Not a wine cooler. 8 servings.” Boys count. Men drink. $6-7.

Night Train August 2016 “Express” – Needing no introduction other than the gentle tones of noted existential philosopher W. Axl Rose, hopping aboard the Train is a quick ride to Oblivion, although the Express still stops at Loss of Motor Control, Public Urination, Ultraviolence, and Delerium Tremens beforehand. A heady combination of Cheerwine and Robitussin with a whimsical finish of drain opener, you’ll be flying like an aeroplane and feeling like a space brain all the way to midnight. $5-6

Friends, when you wake up two days into the new year, breathe deeply of the scents of the upcoming future and your own effluvia and remember to recycle your empties. That may not save us all from burning to a crisp in the new year –slowly by climate change or quickly by nuclear fire, but you can feel that you’re helping the planet in your own little way. Have a happy 2017, everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2016


In my “Ten Years” retrospective, I copped to making a number of factual goofs when I was getting this good ol’ column off the ground.

I mentioned my initial confusion about the Spanish wine Rioja. I fell hard for Spanish juice when doing my first pass through the wines of the world. I enjoyed Rioja especially. I was still used to the American naming conventions for wines, so when I saw “Rioja” on the label, I thought that was the grape used in the production of the wine – as I would expect if I saw “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Zinfandel” on the label.

And I said as much. In public.

As you probably could surmise…that’s just not right. No, to my chagrin, it turned out there aren’t picturesque vineyards of Rioja grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Spain. Rather, there are picturesque vineyards of Tempranillo grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Rioja.
Vineyards in La Rioja, Spain. Not Rioja grapes. Trust me on this.
Like most European wines, the name on the label – like Bordeaux or Burgundy – refers to the region of the country from whence the grapes spring. In this case, Rioja is a region in the north-central section of Spain, along the River Ebro just southeast of the city of Bilbao. Rioja is just on the other side of the Cantabrian Mountains, which moderates the climates and shields the vineyards from some of the strong Cierzo winds blowing off the coast that can reach hurricane force.

The primary grape used to make Rioja is, as mentioned above, Tempranillo. There is often Garnacha blended in as well to add a little extra fruit flavor to the wine. In general, Rioja is along the lines of Cabernet Sauvignon from a weight perspective, but the flavors run closer to Pinot Noir’s cherry than they do to the dark fruits usually found in Cabernet.

Rioja tend to have fairly firm tannins, both from the grapes used in production and because most, if not all, Rioja are barrel-aged for at least some period of time. The length of aging is one of the primary characteristics of how Rioja is classified. There are four general classifications of Rioja, which are – in ascending order of quality:

  • Rioja – The “table wine." These are the ones designed to be drunk young. They only spend a few months in oak. These will be among the most fruit-forward, less complex versions.
  • Rioja Crianza – For a Rioja to receive a “Crianza” designation, it must spend a minimum of a year in oak, and then at least a few months aging in the bottle before it is released. If you snag an under $15 bottle of Rioja at your local wine store, odds are you have a Crianza in your grubby paws.
  • Rioja Reserva – This level is made from specifically selected grapes from a particular harvest, and must spend a minimum of three years, at least one year of which must be in oak before release. They usually run up to about $30. Winemakers only produce a Reserva if there are sufficiently high quality grapes in a season.
  • Rioja Gran Reserva – Again, this level is only produced during very good growing years. Gran Reserva are aged a minimum of three years, two years of which must be in oak. Both Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are designed for long aging, and are considered some of the best value fine wines in the world.

Rioja are super-flexible food wines. The Naked Vine Rule #1 of Food Pairings is “People make wine to go with the foods they love to eat.” Well, those damned Spaniards eat just about everything – from fish to fowl to flesh to flowers. Tapas is just behind fútbol as a national sport. And you know what? Rioja can go with just about anything. I personally love Rioja and paella, even though it’s often got a bunch of fish in that rice. Manchego cheese, almonds, various cured meats – you really can’t go wrong.

(Side note: there are white Rioja as well. I like them, but I’ve never found one that really blew me away. White and Red Rioja are like White and Red Bordeaux. There’s a reason you think of the latter before the former.)

I had the opportunity to try a couple of very decent Rioja recently – one Crianza and one Reserva:

Siglo 2012 Rioja Crianza – This one’s almost worth picking up for the bottle itself, which comes wrapped in burlap. For that reason alone, it would be fun to bring this one to a party. It’s got a bright, fresh nose of cherries and cedar. The cherry flavor passes over to the body, which is relatively light for the fairly solid backbone this wine possesses. The tannins gradually emerge on the finish, leaving a lightly fruited aftertaste. Easy to drink on its own, but really shines with food. It’s flexible enough for all sorts of tapas-y delights. The aforementioned paella was a lovely pairing. 

Coto de Imaz 2010 Rioja Reserva – As you might expect, I had an entirely different experience with this Reserva. The nose is fuller and richer, but more restrained. Darker fruits are in evidence – blackberries and raspberries dominate the nose. The body is softer and tongue-coatingly rich with full chocolatey tannins. The finish is long with plummy smoke. I thought this was a fascinatingly complex wine for $20. A real find and certainly worth it.

Spanish wines, in general, are much less expensive than their French and Italian cousins. If you like your Old World wines more on the fruity side, my guess is that you’re going to enjoy a Rioja more than a wine from Bordeaux or Tuscany at a similar price point. Of course, there’s only one way to find out…

Monday, December 05, 2016

Ten Years On

Psst…stick with me and I’ll tell you a big wine secret. But before I do, I’m going to take a little me-time.

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I bonded early in our relationship over the “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course” – a book by Kevin Zraly which included information about wines of all countries and, most importantly, appropriate foods to pair with those wines. We cooked and drank up a storm.
The Naked Vine Team then...

Then we took a trip together to Sonoma County and wine truly became part of our lifestyle. The die was cast on our oenological obsession for the next decade. Zins and Pinots, Cabs and Chardonnays, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc – we worked our way through regions and grapes willy-nilly, loving the learning of it all.

Then came the infamous happy hour at a local place called the Beer Sellar. An old friend dropped the line that became my mantra. I quote my buddy Scott: “It’s easy to find a good fifty-dollar bottle of wine. The trick is to find a good ten-dollar bottle of wine.”

The Naked Vine sprouted from the Stone IPA-drenched corners of my mind. I built the blog and posted my first column not long after, back in the days when the Internet wasn’t accessible from most phones, much less your refrigerator or thermostat. The idea of being a “blogger” still had a certain geek stigma. In tasting rooms, wineries didn’t really know what to make of someone who wrote “where only a few people could read it.”

Times changed. I pumped out my content, did a little self-promotion, and was lucky enough to have my then-online-only column picked up by several print outlets, which I felt finally gave me some legitimacy.

Everything didn’t go smoothly at first. I was still learning about wine (and I still am, honestly!) as I was cranking out columns, so I made some early mistakes. I wrote a column once where I mixed up Burgundy and Bordeaux, stating the latter was made from pinot noir. (It’s not.) I name checked Rioja multiple times as a Spanish grape. (It’s not.) And I can’t tell you how many times I misspelled Riesling. (Still do.)

The SPinC and I ate picked up steam and our palates improved enough to be dangerous. I got asked to sample some wines before they went into wide release from time to time, which is cool.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet some truly intriguing people. From pourers at tasting rooms to winemakers and grape growers, there aren’t many industries where you’ll meet as broad a spectrum of humanity. They’ve all got fascinating stories. Almost none of them intended to go into the wine industry. In previous lives, they were engineers, chefs, bankers, artists – all of whom got seduced along the way by The Grape.

We’ve watched wine trends come and go – watching chardonnay go from big and buttery to thin and unoaked and back again. High alcohol Zinfandel gave way to lighter-styled, earthy pinots. Merlot has finally started to come back out from under its Sideways-placed rock. And the breadth of “Old World” wine has expanded beyond Italy, France, and Germany to any number of other countries in the EU and Eurasia. If you like options, there’s never been a better time to be a wine drinker.

That brings us to today. So, you ready for the secret? You wanna know the One Big Thing I’ve learned over the last decade?

Finding a decent $10 bottle of wine isn’t tricky anymore.

When I’ve written in this space about countries expanding and modernizing their respective wine industries, the regular refrain is, “Improvements in technology have increased the quality and output of [insert country]’s wine.” This technological improvement allowed South America, Australia, and other countries to export very decent juice at low cost.

As decent, low cost wine from the global marketplace began filling store US shelves, large domestic winemakers realized that they couldn’t continue mass producing cheap-ass, low quality plonk when a discerning drinker could slap seven or eight bucks down on the counter for a decent bottle of Malbec from Argentina or Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Overall quality kept rising.

These days, stores are filled with decent, inexpensive wines. Mind you, these aren’t the greatest wines on the planet. Fifteen to twenty dollars is the general price point where there’s a real jump in a wine’s caliber, and these less expensive wines aren’t usually all that distinguishable from one another except in label design. For ten smackers, though, you’re not likely to crack a bottle and say, “That’s completely awful.”

The Naked Vine Team now.
Take heart, wine cheapskates. Until climate change pushes wine production north to England and Scandinavia, you’re going to find plenty of flat-out drinkable, non-wallet-busting juice. Buy with confidence.

With all that in mind, I’m proud to say that this little corner of the wine world is still going strong. There’s always something new – new production techniques, new grapes, new blends – coming down the pike. The Naked Vine will be here to help you navigate as long as my liver holds out.

I’d like to offer my hearty thanks to the hundreds (thousands, some days) of people who make their way to the Vine each day for some oenological nugget or other. It’s still my pleasure to be drinkin’ with you. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

For Goodness...Sake?

“You know that in the back of every sushi restaurant there’s a guy going, ‘Hey, look! They ate it! You want some hot wine to go with that, too?” – from “An Evening With Robin Williams”

I remember hearing that line at my friend Dave’s way back in the early days of cable. Dave figured out how to set the tuner on his VCR to get access to free HBO. Comedy specials, Excalibur, and Heavy Metal ensued.

Before I get lost in nostalgia, let’s get back to the late great Mr. Williams and his coke-fueled special, which is still one of the greatest pieces of standup ever committed to film, or tape, or whatever digitally remastered media you want to mention. (And the man’s pants. The pants. See for yourself...)

Anyway, the “hot wine” that he’s referring to is Sake. Sake is one of the native drinks of the nation of Japan. Sake is a fermented beverage made from rice. The process of creating sake is an interesting one – and bears more similarity to the making of beer than wine. Sake, however, is classified as a wine, as it’s typically bottled somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15% alcohol.

For many years, most Americans only knew inexpensive sake – either served hot with a meal like a tea or dropped as a shot into a pint of beer (the unfortunate “sake bomb”). Sake makers are exporting more and more premium sake into the States, providing another alcohol alternative for thirsty connoisseurs of Asian (and other) cuisines.

Sake, as we’ve mentioned, comes from rice. Sake rice, known as saka mai, is grown only for beverage production. It’s not really suitable for eating.

The first step of sake production exposes the rice grain through milling or polishing. This was once done by hand (or, more accurately, by foot by stepping on the grains) but is now done mechanically. The rice bran is polished away, leaving the grain behind. The amount of polishing done determines the quality category of the beverage. Cheap “table wine” sake-bomb sake (known as futsuu-shu) may be milled to 80% of original weight, where the ultra-premium junmai-daiginjo is milled to 50%.

Once the rice is milled, the grains are washed to remove residue and soaked to increase the moisture levels in the grain. The rice is then cooked by steaming, with a portion of the total amount held back to create the fermenting starter, which is where the process really gets interesting.

Sake rice (and rice in general) does not have the naturally fermentable starches that grains like wheat and barley do, so the existing starches in the rice grain must be converted. There is a particular type of beneficial mold, called koji-kin, that is sprinkled on a portion of the rice. This mold penetrates the rice kernel. The inoculated rice is called koji. At this point, the koji is added to the rest of the rice, along with more water and a particular brand of yeast. Several batches of koji are added over the course of the fermenting process. The mold converts the starches to sugars, which are consumed by the yeast – at which point alcohol is produced. The product at the end is then pressed, filtered, pasteurized, and allowed to age for 3-12 months before bottling.

If you’re exploring the world of premium sake, you’ll run into two classifications most commonly. Those are junmai (pronounced JOON-mai) and junmai-ginjo (JOON-mai GEEN-joe). “Junmai” means that what you’re drinking is straight sake. Lower grades of sake are often bottled after some neutral alcohol is added. The primary difference is the percentage of “milling.” The more the rice is milled, the higher the quality (and price) in general.

These versions of sake tend to have very light bouquets but fairly upfront flavors, they can be slightly sweet and fruity, and can be slightly acidic. Premium sake (basically anything above the quality of futsuu-shu) should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Heating sake, like heating any spirit, basically kills the aromatics.

I received a couple of sample bottles of sake from Ty Ku – one of the larger sake houses in Japan – Ty Ku Silver (junmai -- $16) and Ty Ku Black (junmai-ginjo -- $22). I’m not a sake connoisseur – and I honestly haven’t had a glass of sake in quite some time when I tried these. The Silver has a light pear nose, which is mirrored on the palate. Beneath the fruit is an alcohol flavor with a little bit of an alcoholic kick. There’s also a melon flavor that builds a bit. The first taste is a bit jarring. It eases into something a little more pleasant after drinking a bit. As for the Black, the flavor is much more gentle. The flavors are fairly similar, but they’re softer, more even and easier to work with for my palate.

Honestly, neither of them would be drinks that I would ordinarily have a craving for on their own. I tried a little of each with some tuna and salmon sushi rolls. I thought the sake was certainly better with sushi than on its own (especially if there were some wasabi on the rolls).

The other use I’ve seen for sake is as a mixer. It gets subbed in for dry vermouth in some recipes, like sake versions of martinis, gibsons, or cosmos – or for vodka, in something like a “sakedriver” with orange juice. All things being equal, it was certainly a flavor twist, but I personally preferred the classic versions.

Sake’s an interesting twist on your normal aperitif or mixer. If you’re going to give them a try, don’t go for the bargain basement stuff. Drop a little coin on a bottle of junmai-ginjo and decide if these flavors are your thing. If you like it, off to the races. If you don’t, then use the rest of the bottle as you would rice wine vinegar in your favorite Asian recipes. No muss, no fuss.

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Few Thanksgiving Bottles

To accompany the Guide to Thanksgiving Wine Buying I put together for your reading pleasure, I recently got a few bottles from the Wine Fairy that could fall into the “let’s give this a go” category for your Turkey Day table. 

Villa Gemma 2015 Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Rosé – This rosé is made from one of my all-time “just drink it” grapes, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. (Cerasuolo is the town near where the grapes are sourced.) It’s considerably darker in hue than most rosé. In the bottle, the wine could easily be confused for a lighter red, like a Chianti. It pours bright ruby red with a medium weight body and flavors of cranberry and cherry. Despite the fruitiness, it’s quite dry and somewhat acidic on the finish, which would make it practically ideal for a varied table. $12.

Les Dauphins 2014 Côtes du Rhône Réserve Rouge – This is a solid, round, lightly tannined red. Rustic plummy flavor and aromas with a little smokiness towards the back. A lasting finish with very nice balanced fruits and tannin. I thought this was a great all-purpose red. There’s enough of that French earthy backbone to be interesting yet not scare off casual red wine drinkers. It would basically pair with anything roasted – turkey and pork would go very well, but you could pull it out for something like roasted fish in a darker sauce or even a beef tenderloin. Super flexible, which is what you’re looking for. $13.

Marina Cvetic 2010 Merlot – Instead of the Supertuscan blends one might expect, this wine’s made from 100% Merlot. Rather than a domestic fruit bomb, the blackberry and plum flavors are much more restrained within a framework of Old World earthiness, coupled with some background minerality from the terroir. The Sweet Partner in Crime thought this was a little too big for her, but I thought it was a pretty nice wine. I appreciated the fuller body without overwhelming fruitiness. Considerably better with food than on its own, this would be an ideal wine alongside something cheesy, like a casserole that uses gouda or sharp cheddar to hold things together. About $25 a bottle, which makes it a little pricier than I’d usually use for Thanksgiving, but if you have a small gathering of red wine drinkers and you want to provide something a little on the upscale side, it’s a solid option.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Naked Vine Guide to Buying Wine for Thanksgiving

We’re three weeks away from The Big Feed and you need to start thinking about buying wine. Since you’re the classy, thoughtful individual that you are, you actually give a rip about how the wine goes with food and you don’t want anyone to take a sip, and go “um…ew.”

Thanksgiving wine-buying can be challenging. At a standard dinner party, there’s usually a general theme or national cuisine you can pull ideas from. A traditional Thanksgiving meal presents you with bunch of flavors beyond turkey that usually don’t play well with grapes. Cheesy casseroles, sweet potatoes, various beans and legumes, yeasty rolls, and other homestyle favorites create a riot of flavors that simply aren’t conducive to a pause and savor pairing.

Your goal instead is to treat Thanksgiving like the gluttonous feast it is. We’re shooting for a selection of “good enough” wines to please a range of palates, yet give people enough options so they’re not making wine runs after the salad course. Here, for your grape-purchasing pleasure, are the Naked Vine’s steps to success:

FirstHow many wine drinkers at the table?
Get a rough count. Even if you have guests who have expressed that they don’t like wine, budget for them anyway. Assuming it’s too late to uninvite them, they’ll probably end up sneaking a glass or two anyway because they “just want to try it with food.” Worst case scenario: a couple of extra bottles get left over for slugging during cleanup.

I subscribe to the 80% rule. Let’s say you’ve got 10 guests. Eighty percent puts you at 8 bottles. Each bottle holds 5 glasses of wine, so you’ve got 40 glasses total to go around. In my experience, heavy and light imbibers tend to balance each other out. Adjust accordingly if you are cooking for a number of true teetotalers or if you know that you’ve got some professional lushes like your narrator at the table. Also, since most people bring at least one bottle with them, you should have a comfortable cushion.

Second – Start with bubbly.
My one hard-and-fast rule for Thanksgiving beyond the above calculation – start everyone off with bubbly. Toasting the start of the meal with a glass of bubbles wakes up everyone’s palates and appetites and gets everyone in a good mood. Also, since you generally don’t pour full glasses of sparkling wine, you’ll likely only need an extra bottle or two, max.

I’d recommend something like the Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico or my old Spanish standby Freixienet Extra Dry. Again, nothing complex -- think crisp, refreshing, and food friendly. Some of your guests might also prefer bubbles with your first course, whether it’s soup, salad, or something else.

Third – Taste the Rainbow
Now we get to the actual wines for dinner. We’re not going to mess with course-by-course pairings. That takes too much energy and besides, you might have to make a mad dash to the kitchen, frantically searching for your copy of your local newspaper to fan the smoke detector, which is still sounding incessantly after you left your oven mitt on the burner.

In most cases, I’d suggest getting three different types of wine. Why three? Like I said – we’re doing wine in broad brushstrokes here and people like to sample. Think about basic flavor profiles. We can immediately rule out super light whites like pinot grigio. They’ll get run over by the feast’s flavors. On the other end of the spectrum, avoid highly-tannic or oaky wines like most American cabernets or Chardonnays or big rustic French and Italian wines. We don’t need complexity to get in the way of the stuffing. The three profiles I use are:

Fruity and Flavorful Whites – For the white wine drinkers, I’d suggest whites with a lot of fruit flavor and usually a little sweetness. I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving Riesling. Chateau St. Michelle Dry Riesling  and Kung Fu Girl Riesling are a couple of easy to find choices. If you’d like to go German with your Riesling, look for bottles that are labeled “Trocken,” which means dry.

Light, Comfortable Reds and Rosé – Good middle of the road, “keep on pourin’” wines that pair up with almost any sorts of food, be it meat or fowl. I love my rosé, but for this occasion, avoid those beautiful, delicate flowers from Provence. Go with a fuller, more fruit-forward bottle – perhaps something from Italy like Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo or a South American version like Montes Cherub Rose of Syrah from Chile.

If you can’t bring yourself to buy pink wine, then another quality option here is Beaujolais, specifically, Beaujolais-Villages. Thanksgiving is also the one time of year that I find it OK to buy Beaujolais Nouveau, which is usually released around then. Don’t get suckered by a sale and buy last year’s vintage, though.

Big, Boomin’ Reds – Because every table will have at least one person who likes to drink big ol’ reds, don’t leave them out. My go-to wine when I need something big, fruity, and rich is good old California Zinfandel. Seven Deadly Zins, Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend, and their other $10 cousins should do nicely. If you want to look beyond California, a Garnacha (Grenache) like Los Rocas from Spain or a Cotes-du-Rhone like M. Chapoutier will certainly fill the bill without giving folks big mouthfuls of tannin.

In my previous eight-bottle example, I’d probably get two bottles of the whites and three bottles of
each of the other two categories to start with. I find that folks tend to lean red as the night goes on. Obviously, you know your dinner guests better than I, so jigger as necessary. And remember – while you can send leftovers home, all remaining wine stays with the house!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 24, 2016

COCO Cocktail -- An Idea Whose Time Has Come...for Some.

Years ago, back in my single days, I remember hanging out with some of my besties at my bachelor pad, quaffing some of my homebrews and probably watching a basketball game. The conversation turned, at one point, to different beer flavors.

Now, this was in the days before the craft beer boom -- when now-standard stuff like Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams were considered cocks of the walk. I'd done one of my first attempts at a flavored beer -- a knockoff of Magic Hat #9 that had a nice undertone of apricot -- as well as a slightly boosted alcohol level -- but I digress.

Anyway, I mused about why no one ever made vitamin-enriched beer. It would seem pretty straightforward -- add some baby vitamins before bottling, and a sixer could get you 100% RDA of all your vitamins and minerals. In a merciful turn, I never attempted that little experiment.

Fast forward a sizable chunk of years, and at my door arrives a sample of an interesting new alcoholic beverage called Coco Cocktail #REFRESH -- a concoction declaring itself an "all-natural electrolyte-charged 70% coconut water" which is "a good source of vitamins." As you can see from the nutrition facts, there is actual nutritional value within -- and a 4 pack would get you close to 100% RDA of Vitamins A, C, D, E, B1, and B6. There are also 14g of carbs within and it's gluten free, if you're concerned about such things.

This hashtaggy can of lightly carbonated beverage is labeled as a "wine specialty" -- meaning a flavored fermented beverage made from something other than typical grapes. It stands at 5.6% ABV, so it's in the ballpark of a typical IPA. The "wine specialty" in this case is that the alcohol comes from orange wine, which I assume is not the same version that Poussey produced on Orange in the New Black.

"Enough, dude -- what does it actually taste like?"

I received two cans of the stuff. The first one I had on its own. It's lightly carbonated and not overly heavy bodywise. I expected it to be heavier than it was, but it's not overly cloying. The flavor is strongly citrus and fairly sweet. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I kept trying to nail down what it reminded us of. It seems to be at an intersection of original Gatorade, Fresca, and sour mix, minus any of that aspartame/Nutrasweet aftertaste. If a beverage in that particular flavor range appeals to you -- you'll probably dig this.

It drinks pretty easily. I can see putting one away pretty quickly if you had a mind to do so. It wouldn't be my first choice of alcoholic beverage, unless I were in a situation where I'd crave a sports drink -- like after working in the yard all day or needing a replenish after overindulging the night before. It'd be a good hair-of-the-dog, if you didn't have bloody mary makings handy.

I imagined it would make a decent mixer, so I tested out can #2 in that frame. Honestly, my days of drinking sour mix-based cocktails are largely in the rear view. (Pampero Anniversario on the rocks, please...)  For science, however, I decided to cobble together a couple of drinks using Coco Cocktail #REFRESH as a replacement for sour mix. I made miniature versions of a Tom Collins, a margarita, and an Amaretto sour. The Collins didn't work -- coconut and gin don't shake hands. Since the Coco Cocktail is less sweet than most sour mixes, I thought it improved the other two drinks -- cutting back the sugary edge a bit and smoothing out the mouthfeel.

[Remember -- it's 5.6%, so adjust the alcohol levels accordingly. Or don't.]

I can certainly see the appeal of an alcoholic sports-ish drink or a mixer that could act as a party cocktail amplifier. Back at the bachelor pad, I'd probably have kept a pack of these around my stash of tequila and Grand Marnier for spontaneous margaritas. And we'd have toasted our smarts for drinking healthy.

COCO Cocktail retails for $8.99 for a 4-pack.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Harken, the "Throwback Chardonnay"

When I went to the Sweet Partner in Crime's house for the first time, she offered me a glass from a big ol' bottle of Meridian chardonnay that she had in the fridge. This was in the early oughts, when most California chardonnay was chardonnay -- big, oaky, buttery wine with lots of emphasis on the oak.

That flavor profile was the common style, in my experience, up until the middle of the 2000's -- when many wine consumers, including myself, started turning their backs on chardonnay in favor of wines that were a little less rough around the edges. The rise of Sauvignon Blanc and Dry Riesling -- more fruit, less creamy charcoal -- started to eat into that market, as did relatively inexpensive imports from South America and Europe. In my personal shopping habits, California chardonnay went from "always in my shopping basket" to an aisle I rarely ventured down.

Sensing the change in consumer desire, California chardonnays started dialing back the level of oak and butter. Unoaked chardonnay became a thing, as winemakers turned to stainless steel for aging instead of oak barrels. Buttery flavors faded -- until many left coast chards became almost indistinguishable from the lighter-styled wines coming in from all over.

The pendulum is beginning to swing back in the budget wine world, as evidenced by a recent sample of Harken 2015 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay that I was lucky enough to try. Harken bills itself as "Old School Chardonnay," so I readied myself for a bit of a blast from palate's past.

Before we get to the wine, let's take a moment and talk about Chardonnay in general. Chardonnay may well be the most flexible varietal in the world. It can grow in almost any climate that supports vinifera grape growing. Chardonnay reflects the terroir of a region very distinctly. One of the fun things about unoaked chardonnay is that it gives a drinker a real sense of place (minerally soil vs. volcanic -- warm vs. cool, et al.). Unoaked chardonnay, however, can be fairly ordinary -- so adding touches of oak or butter can jazz up the overall profile.

Oakiness in wine comes from juice contact with wood. The wine soaks into the wood a bit, extracting some of that oaky flavor. Barrels can be charred, or charred staves can be added to a fermentation tank, to boost the level of smokiness.

The creamy, buttery flavors come from a process called malolactic fermentation (or just "malo" to wine heads). This is a process by which bacteria is added to wine, converting malic acid -- which is fairly tart -- to lactic acid. "Lactic" means "of milk," and this compound is found in most dairy products. Malolactic fermentation is often used to smooth out high-acid wines, such as cool climate wines, but it can also be used to really accentuate a buttery note in the wine.

Which brings us to the Harken itself. It's entirely fermented in oak barrels and goes through 100% malolactic fermentation, which cuts the acidity and sweetness. It's aged for 7 months in an 80/20 mixture of American and French oak and then bottled.

Thankfully, the Harken's constructed with a little more care than some of those inexpensive bottles from those oak bomb days of yore. I found distinct sweet apples and pears on the nose. As advertised, there are strong creamy, caramelly notes on the palate, backed by a firm smoky oak background and more pear and tropical fruit flavors. I hesitate to call it "creme brulee" -- because there's really no sweetness to speak of. The finish is solidly oaky with a bit of an apricot note.

I thought that it would make a nice accompaniment for a smoked duck breast that I'd done in my new Cameron stovetop gizmo, but I was a little disappointed by the pairing. The smoke and oak flavors really didn't agree with each other. However, I tried a little of it a couple of nights later with roasted tilapia with a garden tomato salsa, and that went really well. The oakiness is able to tame food that has a little bit of a zip to it -- so I would think it would go with any number of food selections.

The Harken Chardonnay is around $15 retail. I do have to give their marketing department a special shoutout. The promo sample I received came with its materials on the reel of an old Mattel ViewMaster. If you're of a certain age, you'll remember this 3D viewing gizmo with the two lenses. You know, something like this:

I won't lie. It gave me a pleasant childhood flashback and made me smile. The wine's pretty good, too.