Saturday, August 27, 2016

Back to British Columbia – Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula and Cowichan Valley

The Sweet Partner in Crime had a conference to attend in Seattle recently. After our wonderful time last year in Vancouver, we decided to pop over to Vancouver Island for a few days prior to the SPinC’s work responsibilities.

If you’re thinking, “Hey…if you were just in Vancouver – why go back?” – the city of Vancouver, BC, is not on Vancouver Island. It’s a ferry or floatplane ride away. What *is* on Vancouver Island (VI) is British Columbia’s beautiful capital city, Victoria, and some wine regions that you should learn about if you don’t think climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

At nearly 50° N latitude, Vancouver Island has some of the northernmost vineyards in the world. My affection for cool climate wines burst into full bloom as we tooled around the island. We did most of our exploring in two regions – the Saanich (pronounced SAN-itch) Peninsula and Cowichan (pronounced COW-itch’n) Valley. Here’s a map for reference:

Click to embiggen. (credit: Tourism Vancouver Island)
Additionally, the island is well known for slow food/farm-to-table cuisine. “Fresh from the Island” signs dot the storefronts and restaurants using local ingredients abound. Many of the wineries double as neighborhood lunch spots, where you can swap stories with the locals over sandwiches, fresh fruit, and glasses of rosé.

We set down home base in Brentwood Bay, about half an hour north of Victoria. Brentwood Bay is in Central Saanich. The Saanich wineries are tucked back here and there among some pretty rural roads up and down the peninsula. A short ferry ride from Brentwood Bay to Mill Bay (which, conveniently, loaded just steps from our hotel room), lands in the Cowichan Valley, which follows the Trans-Canadian Highway down to and along the southern coast of the island.

We quickly discovered something interesting – the wineries we explored on the island fall roughly into two camps: all-estate and kinda-estate. Most of the wineries grow at least some of their grapes on site. Many, however, supplement their harvest with grapes and juice from other regions of British Columbia – largely the Okanagan Valley, which produces 80% of all BC wine.

The winemakers who do “all-estate” wines – boy howdy, are they ever rightfully proud of that fact – are creating some pretty righteous juice from the workable varietals. Many varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, simply won’t grow there. But the ones that do – pinot noir and pinot blanc, especially – develop uniquely crisp, clean characteristics. The whites tend to end up fruity and floral and the reds, especially the pinots, have superb balance for lighter bodied wines.

I’ve long said that winemakers need to focus on terroir before tourism. Sure, people are more familiar with Chardonnay then Ortega or Gewurztraminer – but if the latter make better wines in your climate, plant ‘em!

The best, best thing about the estate wines – at least for right now? They’re inexpensive. Most of these wineries’ high end offerings topped out at about $25-30 Canadian, which with the current exchange rate puts a high quality pinot noir in your happy hands for about twenty bucks. And most of these wineries are in beautifully scenic locations, so getting there is half the fun – although a car is necessary.

Here were some of our favorites:

The patio at Cherry Point
Cherry Point – “I try to turn the land into art,” said Javier, who with his wife Maria, came to British Columbia from Columbia and Ecuador. After a number of successful business ventures, including landscaping and restaurants in the city of Vancouver, the two of them decided to buy a vineyard on VI.

They make a series of wines of quality. Our favorites were the floral, grapefruit-and-green appley Pinot Blanc; a tropical fruit flavored riot in their Ortega; a light-styled pinot noir; and a blend of Agria and Zweigelt (Hungarian and Austrian varietals) called “Bete Noire” that was full-flavored without being heavy.

The winery also does an annual paella-fest, where Javier shows off the recipe that has earned him multiple medals in competition.

Venturi-Schulze – After our taster, Gary, dealt with a gaggle of Snapchatting bachelorettes, we were treated to their interesting spread of estate grapes: a sparkling Zweigelt, an aromatic white called Siegerrebe, a light, peachy blend of Ortega and Schönburger called “Primavera,” and a beautifully delicate-yet-spicy pinot noir. The wines were good, but they weren’t the star of the show. The vinegar was.

Yes, vinegar. The folks at this winery make balsamic vinegar in the traditional fashion of Modena. What most people buy at the store isn’t really balsamic vinegar. Traditional balsamic vinegar takes 12-15 years, minimum, to produce Fermented grape must -- juice that includes the pressed grapes, stems, and skins -- is aged in a series of barrels in a “solera” system like sherry. (The ersatz three-buck-a-bottle stuff in your grocery store is just wine vinegar to which flavorings or colorings have been added.)

The result is headspinningly good – mellow and slightly tart, full of fruit, caramel, smoke, and wonder. It’s not cheap ($65 Canadian for a 250ml bottle) but it’s truly special. (As far as I can tell, the only other place that makes balsamic vinegar like this in North America is in New Mexico, of all places.)

Averill Creek – “This will be the home for pinot in British Columbia” said Andy Johnston, Averill
Averill Creek Winery
Creek’s vintner. If his product is any indication, I wouldn’t argue too much with him. Their 2012 Pinot was one of the highlights of the trip –beautiful, cool fruits are deep and smoky without being extracted, and ridiculously underpriced at $22. Seriously, it had no business being that good for that price. They also make a lovely, delicate rosé and a red from Marichal Foch that reminded me of Beaujolais.

Andy said that while he “goes where the terroir takes him,” he does have a couple of tricks up his sleeve. He experimented with wrapping the perimeter a block of grapes with cling wrap to give a little bit of extra insulation at the start of the season. He thought it worked so well that he’s considering doing it to his entire vineyard next spring.

Symphony – We shared a laid back tasting with Pat, half of the ownership duo, while she was cutting fresh rhubarb for one of the chutneys they produce onsite. She told us that they’d been on that land since the 50’s, but only started planting grapes about a decade ago. She treated us to a bright, lovely Ortega; an Alsace-styled dry Gewurztraminer; and a pair of pinot blancs – one oaked, the other not. (The SPinC and I split on which one we preferred.)

She poured us a rosé of pinot, which we both really enjoyed, as it was made in a very Provence-style, and a light-styled Pinot Noir. She also let us try a tank sample of their 2015 Pinot, which looks to be a real winner.

Enjoying a "slushie" at Sea Cider
I’d also recommend a tour and tasting at Victoria Distillers in Sidney, where they crank out small batches of spirits of various types. My favorite was their gin, which was done in a more botanical style than the typical London Dry.

Apples grow plentifully throughout British Columbia, so there are a number of cider houses scattered across the peninsula. We stopped for a tasting at Sea Cider, where we sampled a flight of six ciders, a couple of eaus-de-vie, and a “cider slushie” while enjoying a beautiful view of Mount Baker. Our favorites were the “Bittersweet,” “Rumrummer” and “Pippins.” Thumbs up. 
And finally, no column about this area would be complete without at least one mention of the spectacular eye-candy that is Butchart Gardens. Look it up and gaze in wonder. We had dinner in their restaurant, which lived up to its many recommendations. For anyone who likes playing in the dirt, this experience should be on your bucket list.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cool Climate Malbec? Cool Climate Malbec. Domaine Bousquet.

This space has a long history with Malbec, the varietal that has become the national wine and biggest export from Argentina. Malbec was one of the first wines I ever reviewed around here. Malbec’s popularity really took off in the mid-to-late 2000’s as Argentina started sending more and more of this fruity, sweetly tannined concoction to our shores, much of it from warm-climate areas of the Mendoza region. I was very excited recently to get a chance to try some cool-climate Malbec, produced by Domaine Bousquet.

One of my evolutions as a red wine drinker has been the change of my palate from a love of big, alcohol-laden fruit bombs to an admiration of lower-alcohol wines with more subtle flavors and textures. Some of this has to do with the varietals I prefer – I’m much more into Pinot Noir than Zinfandel these days, for instance. But a lot has to do with where the grapes are grown. You know, good ol’ terroir. I’ve discovered that I prefer wines from cooler growing climates.

The warmer the region, the more sugar is produced in the grapes themselves – which makes for a fruitier, more alcoholic wine. Cool weather makes grapes ripen more slowly. Sugar levels stay lower and flavors become deeper and darker. If you want a domestic example – compare a Pinot Noir from the cooler Sonoma Coast vs. those produced in Russian River Valley. I was very interested to see how this difference plays out in Argentina.

These Bousquet wines are produced in the Alto Gualtallary area of the region of Tupungato, one of the coolest regions in Argentina. This region, situated 4000 feet above sea level, is where Bousquet co-founders Labid Al Ameri and Anne Bousquet set up shop. The two met in school at St. Cloud State in Minnesota and founded the winery in 2005. I had the opportunity to ask them a few questions about the wine and what they’re terming a “cool climate revolution” in Argentina.

These grapes in Tupungato have a pretty good view.
“The cool climate in Tupungato offers plenty of sun during the day which helps increase the sugar level in the grape and good acidity during the night when temperatures can drop 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Labid. “This creates more balanced grapes and allows a longer maturity period that lead to more complex and fresher wines.” Anne added, “The disadvantage here is that that some high altitude areas could get frost once in a while due to low temperatures in Spring.” The soils, they shared, also have more in common with those in Burgundy than in most of the rest of Mendoza.

The two wines that I had the opportunity to try were the Domaine Bousquet 2013 Reserve Malbec and the Domaine Bousquet 2013 Grande Reserve Malbec. The two wines are produced from nearly identical blends – both are 85% Malbec with the rest comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The Reserve is aged for 10 months in French oak and 4 months in bottle, while the Grande Reserve goes for a year in both barrel and bottle.

The Reserve has really pretty nose of cherries, chocolate, and herbs like jasmine. It’s plenty fruity, but it doesn’t have the super-fruit forward nature of other Mendoza Malbec. The palate is full of rich, smooth blackberry and plum with a nice graphite and mineral backing. Tannins are well balanced. I thought it was a very drinkable, if slightly muscular, red, and a very solid value at $12.

As for the Grande Reserve, where its cousin was full of fruity brightness, the Grande Reserve shows some sexy restraint. The nose is deeper, richer. Blackberries and cocoa, as well as a little bit of herb. The first word on my notes is “silky.” I’ve sampled a fair amount of Malbec over the years, and this is one of the smoothest. Rich, opulent mouthfeel that eases on into a wonderfully balanced raspberry covered-chocolate and soft tannin finish.  It’s just a gorgeous wine, especially for $20.

I asked the pair what they would recommend, mealwise, to accompany their wines. Anne suggested, “Definitely red meats, red sauces, Indian and spicy Asian food such as Thai. The fact that Malbec tends to have sweet tannins cools down the spiciness of the food.”

We went the red meat route and tried them alongside a London broil that I’d marinated. It was my first attempt tenderizing meat with a kiwifruit. I was surprised at how well it worked, although I think I’ll still stick to my “salt and sit” technique in the future. (If you want to try, take half a peeled kiwi, mash it up, and smear it all over the steak. There’s an enzyme in kiwi that breaks down protein. Rinse it off in 30-45 minutes. Don’t marinate too long, lest you end up with pudding…)

Both of them, as expected, went well with the grilled meat. There wasn’t a great deal of difference between the two, pairingwise, so if you’re buying a bottle for dinner, I would suggest going with the less expensive of the two. With some chocolate, though, or to just drink on its own – oy, the Grande Reserve was quite choice.

I like asking winemakers what they drink when they’re not drinking their own stuff. “We love Pinot Noir from California, Oregon and Burgundy,” said Labid, “and we also enjoy Chablis, White Burgundy, Chateauneuf-Du-Pape red and white, and wines from the Sonoma and Napa regions.” (I liked this response, since if you asked me to list my own current favorites – they basically rattled off my choices.)

I’m very curious to see whether these cool climate wines will catch on. Some Malbec fans have strong opinions about what an Argentine Malbec is “supposed to” taste like. Exploring these and other Tupungato creations will certainly be on my list moving forward. 

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Purple Heart Wines

August 7th is national Purple Heart Day, a day to pay respect to those who were wounded or killed in the cause of protecting and defending our nation in the US Armed Forces. The Mondavi family (whose patriarch, Peter, is a veteran of WWII) and winemaker Ray Coursen, a Vietnam Veteran, collaborated on the Purple Heart 2013 Red Wine.

The wine retails for around $20. Purple Heart Wines will make a generous annual donation (up to $50k per year) to the Purple Heart Foundation, an organization set up to help provide for the unmet needs of military men, women, and families. They focus on PTSD recovery, cancer treatment, sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury treatment, and other such services.

The wine is a blend made up primarily of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from the Napa Valley. Its flavor profile lends itself to grilling season. Fruit-forward and firm, the nose is full of raspberry tart and plums. The body is medium-to-full, with big plummy flavors that slide towards licorice on the palate. The fruit’s pretty overwhelming at first pour, but as that calms down, the tannins start to emerge, yielding a long, somewhat smoky finish.

We tried this with a London broil alongside a grilled watermelon salad. (No, I’m not kidding – it was really good! Balsamic glaze is just the best.)  I thought it was a very solid pairing, and I think you’ll like it with most flame-kissed meals.

(Stop reading here if you don’t want to get semi-political.)

On a personal note, if you have veterans – especially ones who may have earned this particular medal -- in your circles of friends and acquaintances, thanks, thoughts and prayers are nice – but ask them how they’re doing and how you can help. Maybe it’s just hanging out. Maybe you offer a ride to the VA. Perhaps you offer to let them tell you a story or two. In most cases, they’ve seen things that you haven’t, and they know things you don’t. Listen.

We have a long way to go in this country regarding the way that we treat our veterans. I’ll just ask you to do your part to keep this from ever happening again:

This image still galls me.
We are America. We must do better. We are better.

Friday, July 29, 2016


Montepulciano, one of my favorite wine double-entendres.

“Montepulciano” is a wine term that gets tied up in Italian wine naming conventions and can be somewhat confusing. To avoid getting addled, you need to distinguish between the Montepulciano grape and the Montepulciano region. I recently had the chance to try one of each for comparison's sake.

The Montepulciano grape is largely cultivated in the province of Abruzzi. Abruzzi is on the east coast of Italy – on the other side the country from Tuscany, which is where you’ll find the Montepulciano region. Wines from Abruzzi are usually made from at least 85% of the Montepulciano varietal and are aged for a minimum of five months. Predictably, these wines are labeled "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo" ("The Montepulciano of Abruzzi").

Here at the ranch, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is one of our house wines. Simple, fruity, medium-bodied and straightforward, a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is like watching an old episode of Seinfeld. I know exactly what to expect, I can enjoy it without paying too much attention, and I don’t have to search hard to find an episode. The fact that it’s around $10-12 for a 1.5 liter bottle doesn’t hurt, either (or a box for around $18). These wines tend to be relatively inexpensive. I’ve seen bottles of Montepulciano for as little as $5 in my local stores.

There are higher-end versions, such as the Marina Cvetic 2011 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC San Martino. Marina Cvetic married winemaker Gianni Masciarelli in 1987, and Gianni dedicated his top-line wine to her. She has run the Masciarelli production operation since 2008. This more “grown up” version was evident from the moment we poured it. The color was much inkier than what I was used to, and the nose of this 100% Montepulciano is full of plums and strawberries. The body is considerable, with dark fruits wrapped up in vanilla and a solid tannic backbone that becomes very pleasant after the wine gets some air. (I’m not used to decanting my Montepulciano!) The finish is evenly tannic with some nice coffee flavors. With a strip steak topped with mushrooms, just outstanding. Also lovely next to evening chocolate. For $20-25, I thought this certainly worth that price.

The Montepulciano region is just to the northwest of Chianti in Tuscany. Most wines made in the Montepulciano, just like those made in Chianti, are blends made from around 70% Sangiovese. The best wines from the Montepulciano region are designated "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” (“The Noble Wine of Montepulciano”). They are aged for a minimum of 24 months, 18 of which must be spent in oak, before being released. Like most Sangiovese-based wine, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is high in acidity, which allows it to go well alongside meats and big sauces. They’re known for having much more aging potential than many Tuscan wines. They’re also more expensive – you won’t run into many of these for less than $25, so they fall into the “nice dinner” wines category for me.

Our example from here, the Avignonesi 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is somewhat unusual for this type of wine. Going against tradition, the winemaker, Virginie Saverys, made her wine out of 100% Sangiovese rather than doing a blend. Few other wines in Tuscany are single varietal – the best known of which is Brunello di Montalcino.

With the Avignonesi. I prepared chicken thighs braised in an herbed porcini mushroom and tomato sauce, served with a side of gnocchi. Before I plated it up, we tried the wine on its own. I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t generally prefer Italian wine on its own. Something about the minerality just makes my palate crave it with food. This wine, however, had no issues with flying solo.

I found some strong and lush cherry and dark fruit flavors riding alongside some tannins that gave the flavor some great depth. I don’t run into many wines with that level of fruit intensity that don’t taste “thick.” The mouthfeel was ample, but not too full. Lovely aromas, and a silky, smoky lasting finish. It’s just a pretty wine.

It shined with the meal, as well. There was enough acidity to cut through what evolved into a very rich sauce, but enough strength of flavor not to be overwhelmed. I couldn’t have imagined a much better pairing than this one became. We sat out on the patio on a perfect temperature of a Sunday evening, laughing, eating slowly, and going through the bottle over the course of…well, I don’t know how long. When a wine lends itself to losing one’s sense of time, I have to recommend it.

If you’re into Brunello di Montalcino, you should check out the Avignonesi. I think you’ll find it compares favorably. Since, generally, you can’t find Brunello for less than $50 a pop, and the Avignonesi clocks in at around $30, I think you’ll be pleased.

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.