Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Breathing Life into the Heavy Hitter

Celebrations abound at Vine HQ! Your intrepid reviewer just had a bit of a milestone birthday, coupled with graduating with his doctorate from the University of Kentucky. (Now you get your wine advice from an actual doctor!)

The SPinC and I, post graduation...
The latter celebration, in particular, means that I can finally get back to more oenological-based writing, rather than spending my days looking at “Generational Differences in Transfer Student Capital among Community College Students,” which is the title of the aforementioned dissertation. (They almost didn’t pass me because there’s no colon in the title.)

Given all the reasons for celebration lately, I’ve had some lovely opportunities to wind down with the Sweet Partner in Crime, enjoy some good food, and get my brain back about me. One of those celebrations happened to coincide with a visit from the wine fairy, who left me a bottle of the Colpetrone 2011 Montefalco Rosso.
photo: Hungry Hong Kong blog
Does that name “Montefalco” ring a bell? You might recall a couple of articles in  this space about a wine called “Sagrantino di Montefalco.” Montefalco is a town in the Italian region of Umbria, which is in Central Italy just east of Tuscany. Sagrantino di Montefalco is one of the top-end wines of the region – and is a wine that I deemed “The Italian Heavy Hitter” because of its inky blank color, enormous loads of tannin, and tooth-staining richness. It’s also a bit on the expensive side.

Even decanted, Sagrantino can be a challenge to drink – and as it’s often quite expensive, it’s not something I consider snagging at the store for an everyday bottle. However, when the Colpetrone showed up at my door, I sensed an opportunity. As a celebratory meal when I turned in the full draft of my dissertation, the SPinC and I decided to grill some strips, sauté some mushrooms, and have ourselves a little feast. We needed a good, big red, and I figured this would fit the bill. (The suggested recipe for this wine was a pasta in a sauce made from a bunch of herbs, 2 pounds of ground duck and ¼ pound of pancetta. A 25-year old Naked Vine might have gone for the pasta, but my slowing metabolism preached caution…)

I had high hopes for the pairing. This Montefalco Rosso is the “junior version” of the full-blast Sagrantino. It’s actually a Sangiovese-based wine – 70% of the blend. Sagrantino makes up another 15%, with the remainder as Merlot. I knew it was going to be a big wine, so I poured the wine into a decanter a couple of hours before dinner. I hoped it would combine the heft of the Sagrantino with the food-friendliness of the Sangiovese while the merlot rounded off the edges.

I was close. Big, thick layers of plums and raspberries come first, followed by some pepper and vanilla, and then a big tarry wash of mouth-drying tannin. The finish is long and dry, with just a hint of fruit hanging around. While not as massive as a Sagrantino di Montefalco, this is still a big ol’ muscular wine. Even after decanting it for a couple of hours, the SPinC declared, “It’s still too much for me. Maybe in winter.”

I didn’t want our celebratory meal to be interrupted by a tannic overdose, so I broke out one of the few wine-related pieces of merchandise that I’ve been asked to review: the Fete Home Wine Aerator. I’ve mentioned the importance of decanting before, and a wine aerator can speed the process. Decanting allows more oxygen to get into the wine before drinking. Wine sitting in a decanter is more exposed to air, speeding the oxidative process. This process allows the wine to “open” – revealing more of its flavors and softening some of the harsher notes. Harsher notes like – say – a big mouthful of tannin.

Using an aerator forces more air through a wine than does decanting alone, so an aerator can be useful, especially with big, tannin-fueled wines, to bring out more of the fruit without waiting half a day for a wine to decant. I thought this dinner might be an excellent opportunity to test drive the Fete Home.

This is a very attractive aerator. It’s about eight inches long and feels very sturdy. It’s made from clear acrylic with stainless steel accents. It comes with a stand, and it looks quite impressive on a countertop. (They also include a pouch if you want to store it.)

On top of the aerator, there’s a dial with a 0-6 scale. The higher the setting, the more slowly the wine pours through the aerator, and the more air bubbles its way through the wine. The more tannic the wine, the higher the recommended setting. In this case, I did two small pours – once on “2” and once on “5.”

In a nutshell, it works, and it looks good doing it. I thought the wine was much improved post-decanting. The tannins weren’t quite as rough as with decanting for a couple of hours alone. The fruit rose more effectively on the palate and onto the finish, which developed more of a vanilla and butterscotch flavor. Different speeds might well help certain wines, but I didn’t think decanting on “5” was really any different than decanting on “2.” Your mileage may vary.

Bottom lines: I liked the Montefalco Rosso more than the SPinC did. Even after decanting, she thought it was still a bit too heavy for her tastes. I thought it went really nicely with the steak and mushrooms. (Despite being another year older and not quite up for the duck/pancetta combo, I nevertheless was feeling pretty meat-cravingly testosteronic after turning in my dissertation. That may have affected my perception.) If you’re a fan of big, rich, complex reds -- $19-25 isn’t a bad price.

This aerator usually runs about $35, but I’ve seen it on sale at Amazon for about $20. If you decide to go the aerator route, or if you’re looking for a nice gift for a wine lover on your list, you’re spending your money well here.

(Thanks much to Laura at Colangelo for the wine sample and to Jennifer at Fete Home for the aerator.)

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Pull of Montepulciano

Most everyone’s got a “house wine.”

In Vine Land, when there are new bottles showing up on a fairly regular basis, it’s comforting to just have a couple of selections that I know will work. I’m not always in the mood to crack open something new, believe it or not. Some wines are comfort food – solid, unspectacular offerings that don’t cost much and are flexible enough to go with just about anything.

Here at the ranch, one of our house wines is an Italian red called Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Montepulciano is our normal red table win
e. 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 open episode. The fact that it’s around $10-12 for a 1.5 liter bottle doesn’t hurt, either.

Not long ago, I got a note from Maggie at Colangelo, offering me a pair of bottles of wines from Masciarelli, an estate winery in Abruzzo credited for “placing the central-western region of Abruzzo on the Italian wine map” with its production of acclaimed wines. These include my old friend Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a version of which is considered Masciarelli’s top-line wine. Nothing against my good ol’ table wine, but I was very curious to see what a “high end” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was like.  

A bit of a geography lesson. Abruzzo is a rather mountainous region of Italy located about “mid calf” on the eastern edge of The Boot, directly opposite Rome on the west coast. The grapes most widely grown in the region are Montepulciano for reds and Trebbiano for whites.

Thus, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is wine from Abruzzo made from Montepulciano grapes. I state this explicitly because there’s a town in Tuscany also called Montepulciano, well known for crafting some of the better Tuscan wines, specifically Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which is actually made from Sangiovese grapes. There is no known connection between the town and the grape. Just one of those linguistical quirks of Italian language and history, much like why most English-speaking outsiders can’t correctly pronounce the name of the Kentucky city Versailles.

Two bottles showed up for sampling – one of each color. I started with the white, the Villa Gemma 2014 Bianco Colline Teatine. This wine is a largely Trebbiano-based blend, with small amounts of Chardonnay and the indigenous grape Cococciola added. Most Italian whites I have these days tend to be on the lighter side and minerally. Not so here. This wine has some depth and creaminess, along the lines of a French Rhone white. I found it much more fragrant than many Italian whites, with some apple blossom notes up front. Medium bodied, it’s got rich apple and pineapple flavors on the palate, with a delicate, creamy finish. We quite liked it. As with most Italian whites, fish is a safe bet, so we did a simple slow-roasted salmon with some roasted veggies and couscous on the side. A steal for a wine you can snag for under $10.

A few nights later, we got into the Marina Cvetic 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC San Martino. Marina Cvetic married Gianni Masciarelli in 1987, and Gianni dedicated his top-line wine to her. She has run the Masciarelli production operation since 2008. While the table version of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the very definition of “sluggable red,” the difference in 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.

I thought it was great fun to take a second look at a wine varietal I’d taken more or less for granted over the years. Try it yourself. I think you’ll dig.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Run for the Rosés, Part 2 – South African Pink

Following the slate of Italian rosés came another non-traditional entry into the pink wine market – the Rainbow Nation of South Africa. 

South Africa has a bit of a rocky wine history. The wine industry started there in the late 1600’s and grew until the mid-19th century, when the grapevines received a one-two punch of a grape mildew infection called oidium and an infestation of the phylloxera louse, which proceeded to almost destroy the grapevines of South Africa, much as it was doing at the time to the vineyards in Europe.

When the South Africans replanted their vineyards, they planted them in high-yielding grapes like Cinsault and Grenache, resulting in a huge stockpile of wine that eventually resulted in a great deal of wine being simply dumped into rivers or similarly discarded. 

The state stepped in and set limits on grape production, varietals grown, etc. to allow the industry to recover, but – simultaneously – they were putting the finishing touches on that whole Apartheid thing, which made exporting South African wines a bit problematic for obvious reasons. Once Apartheid was lifted and exports began in earnest, grape producers were able to start focusing on the production of quality juice, and the industry finally found its legs.

South Africa is best known for rustic reds, especially big reds made from Pinotage, so I was interested to have a look at a couple of rosés from the other edge of the globe. The good folks at Colangelo (thanks, Kelly!) sent along a pair of bottles for my perusal. They actually included a few recipes to try, but between the completion of the dissertation and some other regular work stuff, I wasn’t able to do much exploratory cooking. Regardless, here’s how this set turned out.

De Morgenzon “DMZ” 2013 Cabernet Rosé – I understand that this wine’s moniker comes from an abbreviation of their name, but I think they might need a slightly different marketing strategy for this wine here in the States. In any case, this salmon colored bottle of pinkness is assertive for a rosé. The nose is fairly fragrant with a strong note of yellow. I got apple and cranberry on the palate with much more creaminess than I expected. This entry certainly isn’t a light, crisp rose from Provence. It came across to me as fuller and a little earthy, if you can believe that. The finish has a little bit of a citrus clip, but the main push is fruit – strawberries and cranberries – that last a good while. I thought this was a rosé on the richer side that could substitute for a light red. Good value at $12.

Badenhorst Family Wines 2014 “Secateurs” Rosé – This rosé, hailing from the Swartland region of South Africa, is made from some of the original varietals planted in South Africa. The wine is made from a blend of Cinsault, Shiraz, Grenache, and Carignan – the Cinsault and Grenache
sourced from some of the older vines on the Cape – vines that are trimmed with tools called – you guessed it – “Secateurs.” With that blend of grapes, I wasn’t surprised that it was much more reminiscent of a Rhone Valley rosé, with a good backbone of minerality and crispness to go alongside the tart strawberry flavors. The finish is minerally and somewhat soft, making it a really nice flexible food pairing wine. It’s got some nice complexity, and is just an all-around good sipper. Pretty good value at $15.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Run for the Rosés, Part 1 – Italian Pink

Many countries’ lesser-known indigenous red grapes produce highly tannic wines that are sometimes a little difficult to approach. Faced with such a situation, some producers are augmenting the production of these wines in a way that makes me quite happy: rather than just making straight reds, they’re turning some of these harvests into rosé. 

Dolemite says, "Try the rosé, sucka." (Bear with me...)

As anyone who’s been around these parts for a while knows, I’m a rosé junky. Love the stuff. That’s why I’m happy to see more places producing it. I would say that 90% of rosé I try comes from one of three places: the US, France, and Spain. Italy is not usually somewhere I consider for rosé. This year, two of Italy’s larger wine producers decided to make 2015 the year that they’d release their first pink offerings, and I was lucky enough to score a couple of samples. (Thanks to Amanda from Wagstaff for the hookup!)

Other wines from these two producers, Mezzacorona and Stemmari, are fairly ubiquitous in wine shops across the country. Both make solid table wines, and I’ve written about some of these in the past.

These wineries are located at different ends of Italy. Mezzacorona produces wines from near Trento in the mountains of northern Italy, while Stemmari’s wines are sourced from grapes grown in southern Sicily. To give some perspective, the Mezzacorona vineyards are on a line, latitude-wise, with Mt. Rainier in Washington. Stemmari’s are approximately at the same latitude as Napa. This difference in geography, not to mention terroir and grape type, means that these wines should display significantly different characteristics.

Both these wines are produced in the traditional rosé method. Once the grapes are picked, they undergo a process called “cold maceration.” Cold maceration means that the grapes are lightly pressed and the juice is left in contact with the skins and stems for a brief period of time – 6-8 hours for the Mezzacorona and 12 hours for the Stemmari. This allows the juice to pick up some of the color and flavor from the skins.

The juice is then fermented at somewhere in the neighborhood of 62 degrees. Cooler fermentations typically produce a more delicate wine. The fermented wine is left “on the lees” for 4-5 months to add body. “Lees” is WineSpeak for “dead yeast left in the bottom of the fermenter.” Leaving wines on the lees tends to add a fuller, creamier texture. Unlike the reds made from these tannic grapes, rosés are made to be drunk young, so no need to think about laying down bottles for any reason other than to pull them out in the summertime. But since Spring is such a delightful time for rosé, these two needed a try…
Mezzacorona 2014 Rosé – I can’t help but chuckle when I see that wines are produced in “the Dolomites,” since that always makes me think of the Rudy Ray Moore and the Blaxploitation film of similar moniker. (I was also pleasantly amused when MS Word autocapitalized "Blaxploitation." It is a genre...) 

This pleasant enough quaffer is made from the Lagrein grape, which usually makes tannic, chewy reds reminiscent of Syrah. Made into rosé, however, this version of Lagrein makes a pink that’s light, fruity, and straightforward. I found plenty of strawberries on the palate along with a fairly mild citrus. The finish isn’t overly acidic for rosé. I hoped for a little more zip, but I thought it was good, middle of the road wine. The Sweet Partner in Crime deemed it “fine.” In other words, it’s a decent enough, uncomplicated wine that would pair up with a broad variety of foods that aren’t overly rich or fatty. Pork, light pastas, or grilled salmon would be decent matches. There are certainly rosés we liked a bit more, but for $10, it’s worth a go.

Stemmari 2014 Rosé – From the southern coast of Sicily comes this slightly darker, somewhat richer offering. The Stemmari is made from 100% Nero d’Avola grapes. Nero d’Avola, as you might remember, is the best-known and most widely-planted grape varietal in Sicily. Nero d’Avola also produces powerful wines that should be cellared for at least a couple of years to let the tannins calm down. There’s no need for this kind of patience with rosé, however, and the resulting product is quite reflective of the grape that gave it birth. Of the two wines, this one has a little more muscle. Beyond the color, this rosé has more pronounced fruit flavors, although the strawberry backbone is common between the two. There’s more mineral notes here, which is no surprise considering the volcanic soil of Sicily. The finish also has a little bit of a tannic characteristic that I found somewhat more interesting. I would think this would go just fine with some richer dishes. We had this with a roast pork tenderloin with a glaze I made out of some huckleberry jam that came from our local CSA. It stood up to the flavors well enough. For a change of pace from reds with a bigger-flavored springtime meal, it’s another workable $10 option.

Neither of these wines are anything that I’d consider complex, but the whole point of rosé is enjoyment, not deep thought. I would give the slight edge to the Stemmari in this side-by-side, but my palate’s still somewhat in winter mode. I might flip-flop if you asked me in a few months. Regardless, nice to see better quality-yet-still inexpensive rosé emerging from Italy as an alternative to the aforementioned rosé triumvirate.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Vine Gets Naked with G'Vine Floraison

A new sample of liquid goodness recently made its way across the threshold at Vine HQ -- a sample which was definitely a bit of a changeup for your Wine Guy’s palate. This representative from a family of potent potable not seen before in this space is an interesting twist on a common white liquor: G'Vine Floraison Gin.

Wine is my usual tipple, but I've been known to drift into the world of distilled spirits from time to time. I enjoy a good gin Martini (or even better, a Vesper...mmm....), but I've not gone on the deep dive into that world of spirits the same way I have with bourbon and rum. I was looking forward to trying this green-capped clear liquor.

The description of G'Vine (which I may also use as name of my upcoming mixtape with 50 Cent) proudly states that it's "generously infused with the vine flower as well as over 9 different botanicals." The tech sheet list of botanicals, minus the vine flower, is ten items long, so that's an accurate statement. But why do botanicals matter when it comes to gin? And what really *is* gin, anyway.

Gin in its present form was created in the 17th century in the Netherlands. Dutch distillers had been creating a form of neutral spirit flavored with various berries and herbs since the 1500’s for medicinal purposes to treat ailments such as lumbago, kidney stones, and gout. A version for its current use came about in the late 1500’s, when it was known as jenever (yeh-NAY-ver).

English soldiers fighting in the Eighty Years War were given jenever before battle to calm their nerves, giving rise both to the term “Dutch Courage” and to the gin-drinking culture in England. Gin was used to mask the flavor of quinine in tonic water – as quinine was given to Dutch and English colonists in some parts of the world to prevent malaria. (Yes, your refreshing gin and tonic started as a form of disease prevention.)

Gin is generally distilled from either grains or grapes. The neutral spirit created from this process is then re-distilled with some sort of botanical, which imparts the bulk of the herbal flavors. Juniper berries are always the primary botanical (which is why some folks say that gin tastes “like a Christmas tree”), but any number of other flavors, including citrus peel, anise, and many others.

G'Vine Floraison, which is neither Dutch or English – instead hailing from the Cognac region of France -- belongs to the “distilled from grapes” category. In addition to juniper, G'Vine uses ugni blanc grapes, coriander, cassia bark (better known as cinnamon), licorice, cubeb berries (similar to black pepper), nutmeg, ginger, green cardamom, and lime.

What does this combination of flavors do, in this case? Honestly, I've never tasted anything like this version of gin before. I tried it both in a Martini and in a gin and tonic. This is easily the most aromatic gin that’s ever galloped across my taste buds. My typical gin selections are Hendrick’s and Bombay Sapphire, and neither comes close to matching the strength of the nose here.

Honestly I found the G’Vine almost overp
oweringly perfumey. At first sniff, I was interested, but the aroma quickly became too much when featured on its own in a martini. It was better in a gin and tonic. The bitter flavor of the tonic balanced out the perfume somewhat, but it was still a powerfully scented concoction. On the flipside, it's one of the smoothest gins I've ever tried. Many gins I’ve tried bite hard, but this one has little grip and next to no burn. If you find that the perfume scent is to your liking, it's very drinkable.

The best use I found for it was as a mixer. I had some gin in the back of the liquor cabinet that was given to me as a gift once upon a time. I always found the gift gin (which isn’t a brand that you’d likely run into around here) to be a little harsh and I'd gone through it very slowly. I mixed it 2-to-1 with the G'Vine Floraison and made another Martini. (Different day, kids. I’m not that much of a lush!) That worked. The G'Vine gave a nice little boost to the other flavors in the other gin and rounded off the bite. I found the result quite pleasant.

If I were going for a gin of my own at this point, I'd probably stick to my tried and true pair mentioned above -- but if you're a gin fan and you're looking for a new experience, or if you have some less expensive gin that could use a little dressing up, certainly consider at least giving this a run. G'Vine runs around $40 for a 750 ml.

[Vine note: yeah, I know that I wrote about this one before. But I liked my expansion, and I wanted to share it with you. Ain't I a peach?]