Friday, November 20, 2015

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Avignonesi, a Bordeaux lost in Tuscany

Ah, Tuscany -- how we love you. Home of all those wonderful Sangiovese grapes which get turned into Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and rich goodies like Super Tuscan wines.

The Super Tuscans, are not made according to the traditional standards of Tuscany. Instead, these wines generally have Sangiovese blended with other grape varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot -- usually yielding wines that are bigger and richer than many of their Italian counterparts.

So what happens when a winemaker in Montepulciano decides, "Oh, heck with it -- I've got all these high-quality Bordeaux-blend grapes...let's make a high-end wine from that juice and commit the heresy of including zero Sangiovese in the mix."

The answer, or at least one of them, is the Avignonesi Desiderio Cortona DOC Merlot 2011. This Bordeaux blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet is a big, burly bottle of red, clocking in at 14.5% alcohol. It's aged for 18 months in barriques, which are the small barrels traditionally used to age Bordeaux.

Thanks to Sean at Colangelo, I had the opportunity to try a sample of this high end (around $60) Italian red.

Not a wine for the faint of heart -- this merlot is toothstainingly rich and thick. I'd say it's probably as big an "Old World" wine as I've come across any time recently. That said, the Desiderio starts with a nose that's surprisingly light. I caught the cherry notes that I usually find accompanying a Sangiovese-based wine, which is probably at least some function of the teroir. I also found some darker blackcurrant scents followed by a whiff of chocolate.

Any illusions that the light nose might yield subtle flavors disappear quickly. On the palate. stuff gets going right away with the gobs of big, rich dark fruit that you'd expect in a merlot, but alongside a big blast of smoky tannin. The mouthfeel is big, tannic, and drying. The finish lingers long and dry, with plenty of plum and smoke. I found the Desiderio to be little rough around the edges, so you might want to consider laying it down for a bit. If you crack it now, decant it for a good long while, and serve it next to some hearty, preferably grilled, fare or big sauces to take the edge off. Many lamb preparations would be a good match here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

In Time for the Holidays -- The Naked Vine Guide to Champagne and Sparkling Wine

Champagne. Sparkling wine. Spumante. Bubbly. It’s that time of year.

Dom Perignon, the monk who popularized the concept of carbonated wine apocryphally stated, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” upon opening a bottle in the wine caves of his monastery, and generations thereafter have shared that particular sensation, especially around this time of the year, when the loud pop of a cork accompanies celebrations large and small.

As party season cranks up, you might get called on by your friends to “pick up some Champagne” for your next soiree. The word “Champagne” is, for all intents and purposes for most people, a stand in term for all sparkling wine – much like “Coke” in the South translates as “any kind of soda/pop.”

“Champagne,” remember, is not a grape varietal or type of wine. It’s the region of Northern France where this style of wine originated, and where the most famous and most expensive versions of this sparkling wine -- like Veuve Cliquot, Moet & Chandon, and the aforementioned Dom Perignon -- are produced. If you go to the wine store and ask for “Champagne,” you might get steered over to this rack, where you’ll be staring at a bunch of French names and pricetags starting at forty or fifty bucks.

“Waitaminit!” you say. “I’ve seen Korbel Champagne in the store! Isn’t that Champagne?” Nope. It’s sparkling wine made in California that was labeled for years as “Champagne” as a marketing ploy. In 2006, a trade agreement outlawed labeling US wines as “Champagne” unless they’d been using that as a traditional trademark – but they were required to relabel their wines as “California Champagne.” Sparkling wine that’s not from Champagne, whether from California or elsewhere, is now generally labeled “sparkling wine.”

Getting back to the French stuff, and getting down to brass tacks – in all honesty, Champagne can be a real ripoff. Yes, Champagne is wonderful. I’ve had the opportunity to try a few high-end champagnes, and they’re delightful. They’re flavorful and sensuous…and completely overpriced for my semi-educated palate. I say this since, if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re likely not going to be doing vertical tastings of high enders like Krug or Pol Roger anytime soon. Still, why are these wines so damned expensive?

Simply put? Brand loyalty.

We pay a premium for these wines because of the name on the label – no different from buying clothes, cars, or headphones. In some cases, the quality of actual Champagnes might be slightly higher than other sparkling wines, but at 11:59 on December 31st, are you really thinking about doing a Parker-esque pull-apart of the various flavors? I thought not. If you’re opening vintage Champagne at midnight on New Year’s, you’re either showin’ off, or you’re at a ritzier party than I’m ever getting invited to.

That said, there’s nothing quite like the ritual of cracking open a bottle of celebratory bubbly. Good news! Consumption of sparkling wine has increased sharply in the first half of this decade. (We must be in a collective mood to get down!) Because of this increased demand, there are many options to allow you to have a good experience while still maintaining a grip on your fiscal sanity.

A couple of quick things to consider about buying sparkling wine. Unlike most reds and whites, many sparkling wines do not have vintage dates, as they’re often made from blends of wines from different years to produce a consistent product. Vintage wines often command higher prices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better.

Also, remember that the wine’s sweetness level is on the label. The traditional French nomenclature for sparkling wine is more or less the standard. The ones you’re likely to see are, from sweetest to driest: Doux (sweet) → Demi-Sec (semi-dry) → Sec (Dry) → Extra Dry → Brut. Yep. Brut is “drier than dry.” There are actually another two, even drier, levels -- Extra Brut and Brut Nature, but you’re unlikely to come across those.

What you will come across, however, are plenty of alternatives to higher-end stuff. Here are a few that you’ll be able to find without too much trouble:

Crémant – We’ll start in France. Crémant (pronounced cray-mahn) has come to refer to French sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region. Most Crémant is produced with the same methode Champenoise process that Champagne is, often with the same grapes. The big difference? These are more “everyday” French sparkling wines, and usually can be had for between ten and twenty bucks. The best known will be labeled Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Loire, and Crémant de Jura. All of these make excellent alternatives if you’re trying to look classy by putting a bottle of French sparkling wine on the table at your next party. Are they as high quality as high-end Champagne? No. Is that quality difference worth $50 or more? You be the judge.

Cava – Over to Spain. Cava is my go-to inexpensive sparkling wine. This sparkler, produced in the area around Barcelona. The name “Cava” stems from the caves in which these wines were originally stored and aged. These wines are also produced in the same method as Champagne. I find most Cava to be crisper and somewhat more acidic than the creamy gentle bubbles in the French versions. The extra acidity, in my opinion, is what makes Cava perfect for tapas – allowing it to go alongside almost any kind of food. Cava is also quite inexpensive. For a typical bottle of Cava, if you’re spending more than $15, you’re overpaying.

Prosecco & Moscato – The Italian sparkling entries. Prosecco is the more “traditional” version of sparkling wine – and you’ll typically find it nestled next to the Cava in your local wine store. I find it to be fruitier and slightly sweeter than other sparkling wines, which I think makes it a better option for an early evening palate cleanser or morning-after mimosas than for cracking at the end of the year, but your mileage may vary. Moscato, whose popularity boomed in the early 2000’s, is a sweet, peachy, low-alcohol sparkling wine that – as a wine-savvy friend once put it – “you could drink for breakfast.” Produced in both sparkling and still versions, Moscato is a favorite of brunch aficionados and high school shoplifters everywhere.

United States Sparkling Wine – While some more expensive versions of “California Champagne” are decent (for instance, President Obama celebrated his inauguration with a special version of Korbel Natural), in general, they’re best used for christening boats or hosing down your friends after winning the sports contest of your choice. That said, there’s no shortage of high quality bubbly within our own borders. In my experience, the highest quality stuff comes from Northern California, and can be every bit as expensive as its French counterparts. However, there are many of these California products you’ll find in the $15-20 range that are very serviceable for any occasion. Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico are producing very good sparklers at bargain prices.

Bottom line – unless you’re really wed to the idea of having “traditional” Champagne for whatever your occasion may be, you’ll have good luck finding alternatives that won’t break your bank. So snag some bottles and pop your corks. You deserve it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Reclassifying Italian Wine -- and a triple from Acinum

Just when I think I had this whole Italian wine naming convention down pat, I come to learn that those folks have gone and changed the rules on us.

Actually, this happened a few years ago, but the newly named wines are finding their way to our shores now, so we might as well get ourselves good and caught up. So, what’s the story?

As you might remember from this space previously, there are – or more accurately, were -- four basic classifications for Italian wine, based on how and from where the grapes are sourced. The old designations, which you can find on any bottle of Italian wine were:

·         DOC – short for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which means that the wine is made under a certain set of standards for a particular region, like Chianti. There is some flexibility for wine makers working under a “DOC” label. These are generally the standard wines from an area.
·         DOCG – short for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. These wines are made under stricter rules than DOC wines. They are from particular vineyards, have strict aging standards, and tend to be the highest quality wines from a region, like a Chianti Classico.
·         VDT – short for Vino da Tavola, which translates as “table wine” and is…well…exactly that. Generally inexpensive wine made to be drunk young.
·         IGT – short for Indicazione Geografica Tipica. This designation, technically a subcategory of vino da tavola, was created for wines that don’t fall under the general classification system, but are considered of high quality. “Super Tuscan” wines fall into this category.

When I received a set of Italian samples recently, a couple of the bottles were labeled “DOP” – which reminds me of some sort of hair product. A little research led to the discovery that in 2011, the Italian wine industry had changed these designations. The new ones are:

·         VDT – again, table wine, but the primary grape varietal must be listed on the label.
·         IGP – short for Indicazione Geografica Protetta, and is identical in standards to the old “IGT” designation. IGP is now a separate category from VDT. An IGP wine must pass certain standards for aging and quality -- which differentiate it from VDT.
·         DOC and DOCG wines are now both subcategories of DOP. DOP, or Denominazione d'Origine Protetta, is more often now applied to foodstuffs like tomatoes. DOP is basically a guarantee that, yes, an item is actually produced in a particular area of Italy. DOP and DOC are now used somewhat interchangeably, while DOCG is still the mark of highest quality. All DOP wines must now include a vintage, with the exception of sparkling wines.

Or, if you'd prefer a more visual version (click to embiggen):

Many thanks to Italia Wijn!

The DOP and IGP classifications are also used for other Italian foodstuffs like tomatoes, cheese, meats, etc. In those cases, the designation indicates that the items were actually produced in particular regions, using particular standards of quality. IGP is considered less stringent than DOP. Look at a can of real Italian tomatoes next time you’re at the grocery store and you can see what I mean.

The aforementioned samples,from Maggie at Colangelo, are from Acinum wines – a new producer from the Veneto region. “Acinum” is Latin for “Grape,” and these wines are intended to provide relatively low-cost, high quality Italian juice.
Acinum (NV) Prosecco Extra Dry DOP – Quite a nice Prosecco. Very pleasant flavors. Straightforwardly crisp flavor of lemon at first sip, with a lively carbonation. The flavors settle into a lemon crème and pear palate which smooths nicely into little acidic tingles at the back end. Just a very pleasant sparkler. My sister was visiting the Sweet Partner in Crime and I when we opened this over brunch. We had it with an arugula salad with roasted butternut squash & white sweet potatoes, toasted walnuts, and pomegranate seeds in a citrus and sesame oil dressing. Made easy what would have been a somewhat difficult pairing. Also makes great mimosas! $11.

Acinum 2014 Soave Classico DOP –The Acinum Soave isn’t the lean, acid-driven sipper that many of its Italian compatriots are. A much fuller-bodied white than your Pinot Grigio or Vernacchia, the Soave is a richer, creamier experience. The nose is quite floral, a bit of a “Viognier-lite” in character. The first tastes are quite fruity, but the body is quite silky and elegant, full of honey and pears. The finish does turn slightly acidic, but in a very pleasant manner that makes it quite food friendly. While suggested as an aperitif or with fish, we had this with a braised chicken with fennel and white sweet potatoes (can you guess what we got in the farmshare this week?) and it more than held its own. $11.

Acinum 2012 Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG – Amarone is one of the biggest, most expensive Italian wines. Made from raisinated grapes, these wines generally pack quite a punch. This one is dense and full without being heavy. I got leather, plum, and a little raisin on the fragrant nose. Big concentrated dark fruit flavors were followed by a shot of smoke on the palate. Lots of structure with a great balance between fruit and tannin. Certainly a muscular wine, but no one flavor takes over too much. The finish goes on and on with blackberry and smoky tannin. I could easily get remnants of flavor after well over a minute. Strong and elegant. Well done. The pricetag on this one stunned me. Retail on this one is $55, which seems high – but many Amarone will run you that for a half-bottle. Snag for a special occasion.

If you’re a little confused by the shifts in designations, don’t worry. A little extra research turned up the fact that while winemakers must register with the government under the new naming conventions, their labeling can remain basically the same. So, for the most part, don’t worry about IGT/DOC/DOCG going away or referring to new things anytime soon. Keep calm and drink on.

Monday, October 19, 2015

TNV Guide to Prosecco – Italian Sparkly Goodness

Since we’ve been on a bit of a sparkling wine kick around here, let’s take a look at another star of the world of inexpensive bubbles: Prosecco, the official sparkling wine of brunches from sea to shining sea. When you run across cocktails like mimosas, kir royales, or bellinis, odds are that the sparkler used to fizz the drink up will be Prosecco. So, what is the stuff?

Kir Royale...because Prosecco makes you happy.
First off, as you probably already know, Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine. As with most Italian wines, “Prosecco” does not refer to the grape that the wine is made from. Prosecco is actually a village in the growing region where the grape is said to have originated. The Prosecco DOC is the term for the actual growing region, which encompasses parts of the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia regions.

Prosecco is not the name of a grape, at least not anymore. The primary grape varietal used to make Prosecco is called Glera. The grape itself was known as both Prosecco and Glera until 2009, when Italy officially started using Glera as the sole name of the grape to avoid confusion.  Other grapes can be included in the mix, such as Pinot Grigio, but there must be at least 85% Glera.

Prosecco comes in three varieties: spumante, meaning sparkling -- the most common version; frizzante, meaning semi-sparkling; and tranquillo, meaning a still wine – which you’ll rarely see outside of the Veneto. There are also designations for levels of sweetness, which are a bit counterintuitive. Brut is the most dry and the most common; Extra dry, which is slightly sweeter; and Dry, which is the sweetest. 

Most Prosecco you will commonly encounter will be labeled “Prosecco DOC” – meaning that the grapes are all from the growing region. The higher quality stuff will be labeled “Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG” – which I will let you explore at your leisure.

The wine is produced slightly differently from other sparkling wines. Rather than the Methode Champenoise (known as Metodo Classico in Italy) style, where the wine is carbonated in bottle through secondary fermentation, Prosecco is carbonated in stainless steel tanks and bottled under pressure, which is known as the Charmat process or Metodo Italiano. This method allows for a less expensive production.

Prosecco is relatively low in alcohol – usually around 11-12%, which is why it’s so popular for brunches. It’s usually drunk as an aperitif or, as I mentioned before (and will mention again in a bit), used as a cocktail mixer. Like most Italian wines of any stripe, it’s exceptionally food friendly – and can be broken open with almost anything. It really shines with bacon, believe it or not. Prosecco tends to be relatively inexpensive. Most bottles will run between $10-20. Serve it well chilled.
I recently came into a few bottles for sampling from Kelly at Colangelo. All of these are Prosecco DOC versions:

Mionetto Brut Prosecco DOC – This prosecco had a distinct yeasty aroma when first cracked. Along with the yeast, there were flavors of apples and pears on the palate. This was one of the least carbonated Prosecco that I’ve had the chance to try. While listed as “spumante” – it seemed much more in the “frizzante” range. The overall effect was that of drinking a very dry, slightly bubbly hard cider. On its own, it was not my favorite Prosecco. It did make a nice accompaniment to some roasted vegetable “paninis” (we didn’t have the right bread, but we did have some whole wheat naan – worked well enough!) that we put together with assorted items from our CSA share and basil pesto from our patio container garden. Side note: Mionetto is the largest exporter of Prosecco.

Jeio Brut Prosecco DOC – Vvery different character with this bottle. Considerably more carbonated than the Monetto, it also didn’t have those particular yeast characteristics. Instead, this one sported a much more delicate, floral nose to go along with a fresh flavor of green apples and a touch of lemony citrus. The finish is dry and crisp. We had this alongside some leftover Minestrone soup and some flavored pita chips and it paired nicely. I think it would be a fantastic brunch bottle. I declare this one officially tasty.

La Gioiosa Prosecco DOC Treviso – The “DOC Treviso” means that the grapes are sourced from
around the village of Treviso, Of the three, this is the one I liked the feel of the best. I thought it had the right amount of sparkle and a certain richness to the flavor that I enjoyed. There’s a refreshing lemon bite at first sip, which quickly calms down into some nice key lime pie flavors. The bubbles keep the train moving across the palate, and the finish is long and lemony. I had this one as an aperitif over a couple of days. (A sparkling wine stopper makes a great stocking stuffer!) Super pleasant for sipping and conversation. Another point in its favor – the bottle looks pretty darned cool.

As I mentioned, Prosecco works well on its own, but the brut versions work exceptionally well as a mixer. For your next brunch or party, here are some Prosecco cocktails you can try:

  • Mimosa – fill a sparkling wine flute halfway with Prosecco. Fill with orange juice.
  • Kir Royale – add ½ oz. of crème de cassis (I prefer Chambord) to a wine flute. Fill with Prosecco. For an extra fancy presentation, add a few fresh raspberries and watch ‘em float around.
  • Bellini – add a couple of ounces of peach puree or peach nectar to a flute. Top up with Prosecco.
  • Sorrento Sparkle – add a shot of chilled limoncello liqueur to a flute. Top up with Prosecco.


Sunday, October 04, 2015

Tapas Tuesday Part II – Sherry to Make Merry?

While enjoying our Tapas Tuesday kick, I received an offer to sample a few bottles of sherry. Sherry’s popularity peaked in the 1970’s in the U.S., when every household seemed required by law to keep a bottle of cream sherry around for nightcaps and highballs. I cook with sherry all the time – it’s a fundamental component of many of my sauces and no chowder is complete without at least a splash of the stuff.

Neither are the sherries regularly found in tapas bars and Spanish restaurants around the world. The “drinking sherries” are somewhat more carefully constructed, usually quite old, and have a small yet passionate following in the world of small plates.
Sherry casks aging in "solera."
Years ago, back when blogging was considered cutting edge and I was just beginning my wine education, I did a rundown of the major types of sherry. I can honestly say that, at the time, none of the various styles agreed with my palate. Fast forward a bit, now that I’ve become slightly more refined in experience if not in practice, and I hoped the passage of years might have made me more appreciative of the stuff.

Before I get to that, though – let’s talk for a moment about what sherry is. The name “Sherry” is an Anglicized version of “Jerez” (pronounced “zhe-RETH”) -- the region in Spain from where this tipple hails.

Sherry is a type of fortified wine, which makes it a cousin to port, Marsala, and Madeira. In WineSpeak -- a "fortified" wine means that the winemaker's gone and added a bunch more alcohol, usually a neutral spirit like brandy, after the grapes have been fermented. This additional alcohol prevents the wine from spoiling, and allows the wine to be aged in barrel for a long period of time.  Most sherries are between 15-22% alcohol. Sherry is made largely from the Palomino grape, but other grapes called Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are used in sweeter varieties.

Sherry has a fascinating method of production. Winemakers fill the large casks, known as butts about 80% full -- and then put the bung (translation: "big ass stopper which closes a cask") in loosely, so air can circulate during fermentation. While in the barrel, as much as 5% of the wine evaporates. As any veteran of a distillery tour can tell you, this is what's called "The Angel's Share."  

During the aging process, many types of sherry develop a solid layer of yeast, known as flor, on the surface of the wine in the barrel. This yeast layer slows the process of oxidation as the wine ages, preserving certain aspects of the flavor, as well as adding certain compounds called acetylaldehydes, which give sherry its “sharp” aroma.

As a part of the aging process, Sherry producers use what is called the "Solera System." Solera is Spanish for “on the ground.” In this process, as much of a third of a cask of sherry is drained and bottled, and the butt is refilled with younger wine made in the same style. This process is known as "refreshing the mother wine," and maintains consistency in the product from year to year. Sherries are aged a minimum of three years before bottling.

There are five basic types of sherry: Fino and Manzanilla are dry. Amontillado is aged for a minimum of  eight years and is dry to medium dry. Oloroso is also a medium dry sherry which is produced without the flor. Cream sherry is sweet. Fino and Manzanilla are made to be served well chilled. The others can be chilled slightly. (Also, Cream sherry is often poured over vanilla ice cream.)

For a summary of this information, Samantha at Colangelo provided this helpful infographic:

All you need to know about Sherry -- click to embiggen!

She also sent along two bottles -- Emilio Hidalgo Fino ($14) and Faraón Oloroso ($17) – to try alongside our Tuesday slate of various yummies.

Back to my hope for an evolution of my palate. The last time I did a sherry tasting was somewhere in 2007. Eight years later, I can honestly say that my sherry palate is largely unchanged. I just don’t think I’m programmed to appreciate it, as someone who has it as a “house spirit” on a regular basis would. The old “acquired taste” cliché applies firmly.

The fino, which was my favorite of the two, had a nice floral nose and an almost olive brine-type flavor. It was the most drinkable on its own, and it paired OK with the various olives and spreads that we’d assembled for dinner. But I wouldn’t exactly seek out that drinking experience. The oloroso – I simply wasn’t a fan. The darker, oxidized flavor had a nutty characteristic that was interesting – but it was largely overwhelmed by the jet fuel-y alcohol flavor.

I’m sure that there are many out there with more sophisticated sherry palates who might be able to guide me through the cultivation of an understanding of the stuff, but on my own, it just didn’t really resonate. There are so many good Spanish reds and whites – not to mention my beloved sparkler cava – which I would turn to in a tapas bar ahead of either of these.

That said, with the broad range of flavors and aromas in tapas – a higher-alcohol wine like this would be able to cut through most flavors. If you’d been out and found yourself at a tapas bar in the wee smalls, you might consider a glass of this to keep your evening rolling. As for me, bring me that split of cava and I’ll be a happy man.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Grape White North -- Wines of British Columbia

Lining 'em up in Vancouver...
The jumping off point for my summer vacation with the Sweet Partner in Crime was Vancouver. Neither of us had ever been up to that particular area of the Pacific Northwest, and we’d heard that it was a really cool city. We weren’t disappointed. We ate and drank like royalty when we weren’t putting considerable miles on our shoes and the tires of rented bikes.

One of our missions for our time in Vancouver was to become acquainted with the wines of British Columbia. As you know, we’re big fans of the wines of Oregon and Washington in this space, and it seemed logical that wine grapes shouldn’t be constrained by silly things like national borders. At our various stops around the city, we tried to sample wines from across the region.

“Wines from Canada? Never heard of them,” could be crossing your mind. I wouldn’t be surprised. British Columbia’s total wine grape production in 2014 was about 1/6 of the production of the state of Washington alone. BC wine is prized across Canada. About 80% of BC wine is consumed within the province, while about 15% is distributed across the rest of the country. Only about 5% of the total production is exported.

Why worry about it? Because these are pretty damned good wines! And production in BC has been gradually increasing – more than doubling in the last 10 years. Which means, I hope, that more of these wines will start showing up on US shelves.

A quick primer on wines from British Columbia, in case you run into them. The province has a designation, BC VQA, which stands for British Columbia Vintners Quality Alliance. This designation means that the wine has met certain standards of the region. In this case, a wine labeled BC VQA must be made from 100% BC grapes, 95% of which must come from the region designated on the label. (More on that in a sec.) The varietal listed on the label must comprise at least 85% of the wine’s composition. If it says “Merlot,” for instance, it’s at least 85% Merlot. Also, 85% of the grapes must be produced in the vintage on the label, which is somewhat different than most countries – in which most blends of grapes from different years would not carry a vintage date.

There are six major wine growing regions in British Columbia. The largest and best known is the Okanagan Valley (pronounced Oak-A-Noggin), which is about a five hour drive east of Vancouver towards the Interior, which is why we weren’t able to make it there on this trip. The bulk of BC wine comes from this region. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands at the southern tip of V.I. are also major producers.

Merlot is the most planted red varietal, followed by syrah, pinot noir, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon. Among whites, you’ll find pinot gris and chardonnay leading the way, followed by gewurztraminer, riesling, and sauvignon blanc. The wine styles are fairly consistent with the cool climate wines you would ordinarily find in Oregon, Washington, and along the Sonoma Coast.
The Painted Rock rundown...

After returning from our vacation, I reached out to some of the wineries whose wines we’d really enjoyed along the way. One of them, Painted Rock – an Okanagan winery in the town of Penticton – was good enough to send some samples along. My thoughts:

Painted Rock 2010 Merlot – Their merlot is a sizeable wine that definitely needs some time in air to limber up. Even after decanting, the fruit stayed hidden for a bit, bringing out lots of graphite flavors with some restrained tannins. Once the blueberry flavors started popping after the wine got some air, the combination is really robust. I found some nice dark fruit and floral scents on the nose. It’s pretty smelling for a big ol’ honkin’ red. If a good Bordeaux decided that it wanted to be a little fruitier and softer in order to play nicely with others, you’d have a pretty good idea of this wine. Quite muscular for a cool-weather wine. But that was tame compared to…

Painted Rock 2010 Syrah – Hooboy, this one’s a biggie. Like the merlot, it really needed some time and space in air to get at the flavors. Decant early! I think the SPinC was intimidated simply by the pour of this wine. It’s some seriously thick, inky juice. After enough time in air, the nose becomes quite pleasant, full of violet and plum. Don’t let the soft nose fool you. This Syrah makes me think of a steroidal Chateauneuf-de-Pape. Big, dark fruits and a sizable whallop of tannins greet you in a hurry. I didn’t find it out-of-balance at all, but it’s not for the faint of heart. We had it with a roasted chicken and potato dish, and it was a little too big. Divine with chocolate, though. The SPinC, who is currently palate-wise calibrated for summer wines, just slid it aside. More for me! I quite enjoyed it.

Painted Rock 2010 “Red Icon” – The Red Icon was, far and away, our favorite of the three wines. This is a beautifully balanced red, made from a traditional Bordeaux blend (merlot, cab franc, petit verdot, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon in order). The nose is full of blackberries with a really pretty floral undertone. The flavor is full of cherries and plums, and it’s potent without being overpowering. The tannins are certainly firm, but they keep to the back, allowing the fruit to really shine, along with some strong vanilla notes. The finish is a lasting balance of leather, dark fruit, and smoke. I think this wine’s right in its wheelhouse right now. We opened this over Labor Day weekend and had it with some burgers from the grill. Grilled meat and this wine get along famously.

The Merlot and Syrah are both about $28-30 US. The Red Icon, which I really highly recommend, goes for about $35-40.

Some others that we really enjoyed along the way were the Blue Mountain Gamay Noir, which tasted like a cru Beaujolais; and the Tyler Harlton Pinot Noir, which was brambly and earthy – just the way we like it. There were also several nice whites that we had a chance to sample, the best of which for me was the Kanazawa “Nomu” -- a luscious blend of viognier, semillon, and muscat blanc full of creamy citrus, orange blossom, and peach flavors that was absolutely delicious next to some fabulous sushi at downtown Vancouver’s Shuraku Sake House.

[Other suggestions for awesome food and drink in Vancouver: Rodney’s Oyster House in Yaletown for fresh raw oysters and “Caesars,” Salt Tasting Room on Blood Alley for a unique, flavor-filled experience in a “Hamsterdam” portion of the city; “tacones” and fish chowder at Go Fish! on Granville Island; delicious tapas at The Sardine Can in Gastown; the hip young crowd at Hapa Izakaya for “Japanese tapas;” and Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar for late night downtown cocktails, jazz, and a smooth end to an evening.]

The SPinC at Salt Tasting Room

If you get a chance to try some of these north of the border selections, do so. With the unpredictability of climate change will be doing to many of our domestic wine regions – these BC wines may soon emerge as an interesting alternative. Keep your eyes peeled.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Tapas Tuesday, Part 1 – Cava, Curious Math, and Biutiful Bubbles

Since joining our CSA, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I have challenged ourselves to power our way through every last vegetable in that wonderful box before the next one arrives. This has required some creative cooking on our parts from time to time – and we’ve ended up with lots of little leftovers, stray peppers, the occasional bag of ground cherries, and the like. How to clear out the tupperware, you ask?

Tapas Tuesday!

We decided, once a week, that we’d go through the fridge and see what we could easily combine into a small plate meal. Now, much of what we end up with wouldn’t be considered traditional Spanish tapas, but early returns on this little project seem pretty positive just the same.

Along came an offer I couldn’t refuse. One of my favorite memories of our European trip several years back was a meal in Barcelona at El Xampanyet, a tapas place near the Picasso Museum. After we sat down, the waiter brought us a bottle of the house bubbly – which, of course, was Cava. Few things in the world go better with tapas than Cava. The day after we decided on our Tapas Tuesday project, Tiffany at Colangelo offered to send us a couple of Cava samples. I almost sprained my finger hitting “reply.”

Cava, if by some odd chance you’re unfamiliar, is a Spanish sparkling wine. It’s usually a white wine, although it can be made as a rosé (which we’ll get to in a moment). The name “Cava” means “cave” and refers to the caves traditionally used to store and age the wine. 95% of all Cava is made in Catalonia, the region of Northeast Spain where Barcelona lies.

Cava is made in the methode champenoise style used in the production of Champagne and many other high-quality sparkling wines. Most Cava bottlings, however, are consistently lower in price than other sparklers of similar quality. Cava has long been my go-to bubbly when I’m snagging a bottle for immediate, unfocused consumption.

Tiffany sent us two bottles, one white and one rose, for our perusal:

1+1=3 Cava Brut – Make sure you chill this one thoroughly before you crack it open. One Tuesday, I came home from work and popped the bottle in the fridge, thinking that a couple of hours would probably be sufficient to get the bottle to a serviceable temperature. After I took off the wire cage, I found the cork to be super-tight, which probably should have been a warning to me. Driven by testosterone and a craving for little bubbles, I applied somewhat more force than I likely needed. The cork finally came loose. For my futbol-loving readers -- let’s just say that if Barça is looking for a great-spraying victory bubbly, I’ve done Messi’s beta testing. I got a bit drenched, but hey – small price to pay for science, right? As for the wine itself, it turned out to be very crisp and acidic with sharp bubbles that would cut through just about any flavor you throw at it. Some yeasty flavors, green apples, and a friendly fruity finish were the major flavor features. A very solid sparkler, especially at ~$13. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my note as to the array of plates we had with it, so you’ll just have to trust me in its ability to be flexible.

Biutiful Cava Brut Rose – “Biutiful,” one of the few rosé Cava I’ve tried -- was much kinder to me than to my spellcheck! Most Cava are made from white grapes like Viura and Xarel-lo, but this rosé version is made from 100% Grenache, which I thought gave it a very interesting construction. It possessed the tight, powerful carbonation common to Cava. The initial flavor is very dry and, once again, crisply acidic. However, after a sip or two, notes of strawberry and pear start to emerge, but these flavors aren’t sugar-backed in the slightest. I guess you’d call it “fruity, but bone dry” – which certainly is not a problem around here. On this particular Tapas Tuesday, we had this bottle as a very nice accompaniment to slices of prosciutto wrapped around marcona almonds, paprika-ed potatoes, and pork tenderloin sliders topped with curried sauerkraut from a local place called Fab Ferments. Trust me on the slider pairing – it was delicious. The little extra fruit carried the flavors with the pork/sauerkraut mix nicely. If you’re looking for a sparkler with a little extra fruitiness, or you’ve got some food where you’ll have a little “fat in your mouth,” you could find a winner here. You can find this for $16-17, which is still a good value.

With Labor Day Weekend picnics abounding, consider snagging a couple of bottles of cava to pour. There’s no need to break out the good crystal. Cava tastes just as good out of a Solo cup, if you ask me. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Le Volte Dell’Ornellaia – Breezy Bolgheri makes a Svelte Supertuscan

The last jaunt the Sweet Partner in Crime and I made to California, we spent most of our time in the Sonoma Coast AVA. That close to the Pacific, the climate and soil yielded wines that were quite different from the Sonoma offerings to which we’d been accustomed. The coastal wines had, in general, more earthiness, less pronounced fruit, and a little rough-around-the-edges character that we really liked.

Fast forward to an offer I received to try an Italian coastal version of what would commonly be called a Supertuscan wine. To refresh your memory, the categorization of Supertuscan wines came about in Italy because some winemakers in Tuscany wanted to make wines above the quality of simple table wine, but didn’t want to follow the strict guidelines required to label the wines as Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino.

These blends usually included Sangiovese, but they often had other grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah – leading to a bigger, fruitier product which found much favor Stateside. These wines are usually labeled “IGT” (short for Indicazione Geografica Tipica), rather than the inexpensive vin di tavola.

The bottle I received, the Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2013 Toscana IGT, falls into that category – but looked to be a new experience for me because the Ornellaia estate is near the town of Bolgheri, which faces the Tyrrhenian Sea from the hills. The soil there sounds much like the soil in parts of Oregon – part volcanic, part marine sedimentary, and part alluvial – so I was quite interested to see how this wine would differ from the Supertuscan blends grown further inland in the Chianti or Orvieto regions.

This wine, a blend of 50% Merlot, 30% Sangiovese, and 20% Cabernet, pours somewhat lighter than many of the thicker IGT blends. Cool weather and coastal wines tend to be lighter in body than their warmer climate, inland counterparts. No surprise there. The nose is quite pretty – violets and some light stone fruit. The first sip, as the SPinC put it, is “straight-up Sangiovese” – light bodied cherries and chalk. Then things…changed.

The sensation was like someone fed the wine a Super Mario power-up mushroom halfway through the mouthful. Suddenly, I felt I had an eyedropper of dark fruits and tannin squeezed onto the back of my tongue. Imagine a wine with the eventual punch of a big California merlot, but without the initial fruitbombiness.

I thought, at first, this particular note may have been because I hadn’t decanted the wine long enough. Even a couple of hours later, I still got the same pleasantly peculiar perception.

For dinner that night, I’d grilled up some lamb loin chops with a side of grilled okra from our CSA share, some quinoa, and tzatziki sauce on the side. It’s definitely a meat-loving wine. It went fantastically with the lamb. I think it would certainly need to accompany richer fare – it would probably be too big for many chicken or pasta dishes, unless you had a good ragu over top.

I definitely enjoyed this wine. I thought it was an interesting twist on the often over-fruited Supertuscans – and I’ll certainly be looking for some other coastal Tuscan versions.

The Le Volte retails for around $30.

(Thanks to Claire at Colangelo for the offer.)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Underwood Wine in a Can: Pinkies Down, Thumbs...

Would you drink wine from a can? Should you?

Wine in a can? Sure. Let's do this!
Our neighbor, Christine the Pie Queen, relayed the results of a bit of work-related research performed by her loving hubby Jeff, both of whom you may remember from several write-ups over the years (including the ever-popular “Jeff’s Dinner Club” series). Jeff had uncovered a series of videos produced by Union Wine Company in Oregon for their Underwood Pinot Noir.

These videos, presented with the hashtag #pinkiesdown, are humorous takes on the overblown, overwritten world of wine reviews. The “sommelier,” “hipster wine bro,” and “sweater around neck guy” humorously hit your humble reviewer far too close to home with lines like “You know, I’m getting some strong notes of Axl Rose and a hint of heirloom purple carrots…” (Look for “Union Wine Company” on YouTube if you want to see. 15 solid minutes of chuckles.)

The videos are support for Underwood’s…yes, it’s true…wine in a can. Can-as-delivery-system is an interesting idea to be sure, just from hiking and poolside possibilities alone! The operatively begged question, of course, is “Is the damned stuff any good?”

As I usually do when there are oenological curiosities like this, I hit up the PR contact for Underwood to ask for review samples. Most companies are pretty good about sending along tasters for me to try. Underwood, however, informed me that press samples were not available “due to high demand.” In my mind, that either meant that they’re moving so much volume that they don’t need reviews to generate interest – or perhaps they don’t want reviewers looking too closely. Or maybe they just don’t have any to spare.

Undeterred, I popped down to Big Wine Store and made a couple of selections. I picked up two cans of Underwood Pinot Noir for ~$6 apiece. Each can is 375ml, slightly larger than a typical beer can. A standard wine bottle is 750ml, so each Underwood can is equivalent to a half-bottle or “split.” (Part of Jeff’s work, which includes occasional international espionage, consists of enforcing standards on alcohol labels.)

For science, I also snagged a bottle of Underwood 2013 Pinot Noir ($13), and a bottle of King’s Ridge 2013 Oregon Pinot Noir ($19), which is a higher end bottling from Union. (They also do an even more expensive one called “Alchemist” at $28, which wasn’t available.)

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I invited Jeff and Christine to Vine HQ for a “scientific comparison” of the various Union Wine offerings. To establish a “cross-inexpensive-vino” comparison, we also poured some Bota Box Pinot Noir because, well, it was cheap and we had it around. We took up our places around the living room and began to carefully pour, swirl, and…oh, who am I kidding? We commenced to pounding pinot whilst taking notes.

We started with the cans, of course. The unmistakeable “pffft” of opening aluminum proceeded pours all around. (We did our best to emulate the various characters from the videos as we tried the stuff.) Our first impression – this wine ain’t bad! It’s not the rich, earthy Oregon pinot that I can get all William Burroughs about (as in “If God made anything better, he kept it for himself…”), but the basic flavors certainly are along the lines of a solid, inexpensive Oregon wine. 

The can label helpfully suggests: “Notes: Raspberry, Cherry, Chocolate.” The actual flavors are pretty much along those lines. For wine that you can schlep in a cooler or backpack and slap a koozy on, it’s quite decent. For a picnic or other outdoor activity where glass isn’t practical, I’d consider it certainly workable. It’s also miles better wine when compared to the Bota Box, which tasted heavier, thicker, and sweeter than the Underwood.

We also had a tableful of snacks to go alongside our wine: Christine’s Caprese Skewers with homemade squeaky cheese; Jeff’s Smoky Baba Ganoush; and some dry sausage, gouda, and crackers. The wine went well enough with the entire spectrum of flavors, so it should be workable with nearly everything.

As I mentioned, we poured the wine into glasses to sample it, but I was the first of the group to step up and take a big ol’ chug straight from the can. In all honesty, I can’t recommend that particular technique. Since so much of wine’s flavor is scent, you get nothing aroma-wise when you drink it like a Coors Light, so make sure you pour it into some kind of available container – glass, mug, Solo cup, what have you – for best results.

Jeff also pointed out that its alcohol content (13%) is basically the same as Four Loko, so if you wanted to either mimic These Kids Today or pretend you’re back at a college kegger, you could #ShotgunAnUnderwood – but I wouldn’t recommend it. (However, if you’re going to try, I want video.)

Interestingly, we discovered that the canned and bottled Underwood pinots are completely different wines. The bottle’s label reads, “Notes: Cherry, Blackberry, Cola.” As I mentioned already, the Underwood in a bottle has a vintage, which means that all of the grapes were harvested the same year. The canned wine is non-vintage, meaning that it’s a blend of grapes or wines from different years. My guess is that the can wine is the “leftovers” at the end of a bottling run from a couple of subsequent vintages, but I’m not for certain. 

In any case, the bottled version of Underwood pinot is, by unanimous consent of our little foursome, a superior wine to the canned version, even though the price is basically the same. The fruit is brighter, there’s a nice smoky flavor that I liked, and there’s better balance overall. It’s very good for a $12 pinot.

We then poured some of the King’s Ridge for price point comparison purposes. The King’s Ridge, while somewhat more expensive than the Underwood, proved to be a bit of a disappointment. The flavors were darker and heavier, but that didn’t make them more interesting. In fact, when we compared the Underwoods to the King’s Ridge, which also has “Notes: Cherry, Blackberry, Cola,” we ranked them: Underwood bottle, King’s Ridge, Underwood can. In short, I wouldn’t bother with the King’s Ridge. There are better pinots out there for around $20.

Bottom line – if you’re considering taking wine to your next softball game, tailgate, or backyard hootenanny, you can safely snag some of these Underwood cans if you want to reduce the risk of ending up with shards of glass in your feet from an accidentally misthrown football. Or, if you’re hiking, it’s an excellent alternative to the traditional dinner flask of bourbon. Or maybe that’s just the Pie Queen’s tradition...

As an addendum, a few days later, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I tried a can of the Underwood Pinot Gris. Again, a decent enough white (notes: peach, grapefruit, and pear). It’s much more interesting than most inexpensive pinot grigio. I thought it had an odd yeasty scent that faded as it got some air. It’s certainly dangerously drinkable on a hot day. Underwood also is releasing a rosé, which I have not tried yet.

Bottom line – Underwood is a quality wine for any occasion where a can is your best beverage delivery option. It’s worth a try.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Novas by Emiliana: A Little More Spice from Chile

After our recent spin through some of their new organic Chilean wines, I had the chance to try a few bottles from Emiliana Winery’s “Novas” line. “Novas” means “new” in Latin – and is the astronomical term often used for an appearance of a new star.

The Novas wines, according to Emiliana, are their line of smaller production wines, each highlighting grapes from a particular Chilean growing region. I received three bottles of the Novas, each labeled “Gran Reserva.” In some countries or growing regions, a “Reserve” wine can mean any number of things – such as the length of aging, types of fermentation, grape harvesting techniques, etc. I wanted to know what this meant for these South American selections.

According to the definitions I found, a Chilean wine can be labeled “Reserva” if it has “distinctive organoleptic characteristics.” The obvious question follows: What is an “organoleptic characteristic?”

Organoleptic,” according to good ol’ Merriam-Webster, means “acting on or involving the use of the sense organs.” Thus, a wine with “distinctive organoleptic characteristics” has…well…good flavor, as defined by the winery. Generally, “Reserva” will refer to the better wines made by a particular winery, but there’s not a consistent standard.

However, “Gran Reserva” (as well as the terms “Reserva Especial” and “Reserva Privada”) does have a particular definition. If a Chilean wine is labeled as “Gran Reserva” – then it means that it should be a good-flavored wine that’s at least 12.5% alcohol and has been treated in some way with oak.

Allow me to share with you my organoleptic observations of this set of Gran Reserva wines, all of which are available in the neighborhood of $16.

Emiliana 2014 “Novas” Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc – This 100% sauvignon blanc is from the San Antonio Valley, a coastal valley about halfway down the west coast of Chile. Cooling breezes from the sea allow for slow-ripening grapes like sauvignon blanc and pinot noir to thrive. In this particular bottle, I thought the nose was very reminiscent of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with similar grassy, grapefruity aromas. I found it quite tart at first taste, with more of that grapefruit flavor, which included a little bit of a rindy bitterness. The body is medium-weight with a mineral-flavored backbone which prevents it from dropping into acid-ball land. The finish is crisp and acidic, with a peach note hanging on at the end. If you’re into EnZedd Sauvignons, you’ll probably get a kick out of this. If you’re more on the fruitier, more tropical sauvignon blanc end of the spectrum, I’d suggest you give this one a pass.

Emiliana 2012 “Novas” Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon – I thought this was a very interesting little cabernet. It’s from the Maipo Valley, just inland from the San Antonio Valley. Maipo is one of the primary grape growing regions in Chile. In general, I’ve found many Chilean reds lean towards the juicy end of the spectrum. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised when I found a more brambly, Old-Worldish flavor waiting in my glass. Sure, there’s lots of fruit – blackberries and currant especially – but I thought it also had a good earthy backbone. “Grubby” was the word I used when I poured it for the Sweet Partner in Crime, and our resident “dirt drinker” concurred. The earthy edge smooths a bit as the wine gets some air, but it’s not a one-note fruit bomb. I would certainly recommend it, and I thought it was pretty darned nice next to a marinated London broil that I’d grilled up.

Emiliana 2012 “Novas” Gran Reserva Pinot Noir – A very straightforward pinot noir from the Casablanca Valley, which is located just to the north of San Antonio on the coast. Casablanca is also known for cool-climate grapes like pinot noir, as well as clean, crisp chardonnays. With the cool climate, I expected a little more smokiness and depth, but I was struck first by the fruit. Full cherry aromas get you right off the bat – aromas that are mirrored by the flavor on the palate. There’s definitely a smokiness, as well, but the fruit that goes with it isn’t overly complex. The cherry continues into some fairly strong, at least for pinot, tannins. If you’re looking for an easy drinking wine that’s got the good basic bones of pinot noir, it’s workable. If you’re looking for a subtle complex pinot, this isn’t really your wine. We opened this on a night not long after that we got home from vacation – and we powered through the bottle fairly quickly.

All in all, I do think these are slightly higher in quality than the first set of Emiliana wines, and the price point is just about right, especially for the cabernet.

Also, I would never have discovered “organoleptic,” which is my new favorite term. I think all Naked Vine readers should endeavor to use it in conversation at least once a day…

(Thanks to Rebecca at Banfi for the hit!)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Vine Nu Uma Rebatedor: Vinho Branco

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation for a wonderful sounding wine-tasting luncheon at a restaurant called Faith and Flower featuring wines from Portugal. Hosted by a master sommelier, this looked like a fabulous experience. Except for one thing.

Faith and Flower is in L.A.

With my enthusiasm slightly muted, I dropped a line to Katelyn at R-West, who'd forwarded along the invite. I told her that I probably couldn't get there on my lunch hour, but I'd sure like to try a sample of the potential wines. Ever helpful, Katelyn agreed, and the wine fairy delivered a bottle of Luis Pato 2013 Vinho Branco to my door.

To back up just a moment, Portugal has long been known for port (duh) and sherry -- but the "regular" wines from there are picking up steam. I've touched on a few of those wines previously -- notably my rhythmic ode to Vinho Verde and introduction to varietals from around the Alentejo region.

The Luis Pato is from the Bairrada region in central Portugal, known for fragrant white wines and full-bodied, tannic reds. Sparkling wine is also produced there in some quantity, and there's a growing production of rose.

In case you're wondering, "Vinho Branco" is Portuguese for "White Wine." (As opposed to Vinho Verde, which is "Green Wine.") This particular bottle is made from a grape varietal known in that region as Maria Gomes. Who was Maria Gomes? No one seems to know. There are stories about a hundred-plus year old woman who passed away in 2011, and a former female Portuguese army general who swindled many folks out of money by masquerading as a man -- but there don't seem to be many links between those two and grapes. In any case, outside of the Bairrada, the grape is known as Fernão Pires. This varietal, whatever its name, is the most widely planted white grape in Portugal.

If, like me, your experience with Portuguese whites is largely based on Vinho Verde, this bottle will come as a bit of a departure. The nose is much "fuller," with apple and pear blossom scents which are typical of this grape. The body has some considerable weight, along the lines of a California chardonnay, but without much creaminess. The main flavors I got were Viognier-ish peaches backed up with a lemony tartness. The finish is a bit on the soft side, which surprised me, considering the acidity. I thought it was a pleasant, though hardly complicated drink. Overall, I would say that it's a good change-of-pace summertime table wine that's not an acid ball.

The serving recommendation from Luis Pato (who, from his website, looks like a very nice guy) is to have this with lighter fishes or some kind of shellfish. I went with an Italian-style shrimp and beans and it went nicely alongside. It retails for around $13, which is just about right.

(That title translates from Portuguese as "Naked Vine One-Hitter: White Wine," if you're curious...)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wente -- Some Chards for our Chard

I really enjoy Fair Ridge Farms, our outlet for Community Supported Agriculture. If you’re not
familiar with a CSA, it’s usually a farmer or cooperative of local farmers supported through the sale of “shares” of freshly harvested produce.

For us, what it means is that every couple of weeks, a box of in-season goodies shows up at Vine HQ. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I have found that joining the CSA has really improved our eating habits, since we certainly don’t want these fresh-from-the-farm tasties going to waste! We look for recipes specifically to incorporate the items from the share, and those recipes trend healthy.

The Fair Ridge Farms logo. Groovy, no?
For the last little stretch, we’ve been swimming in lettuces. Our last couple of deliveries have contained three heads of delicious red leaf, romaine, and Boston lettuces, as well as some spinach, a few kinds of chard, kale – you get the idea. Plenty of roughage around these parts.

What to do with all these greens? Well, make salads, of course – usually with as many of the other newly-arrived raw materials as possible! The bitterness of the greens, the various flavors of dressing, a myriad of ingredients – flavors are bouncing in all directions.

The flavor of greens, with their associated bitterness, makes it nearly impossible to come up with a perfect wine pairing. Getting a “good enough” pairing is what you’re shooting for with salads. A salad wine pairing should be assertive enough to get its flavor across, but yet not kill the freshness. Acidity helps, but too much and you get lost in the flavor of the dressing most times. Best bet? I find new world Chardonnay to fill the bill.

In a fortunate bit of Wine Fairy karma – just as we were met with our latest onslaught of lettuces, Balzac sent along a trio of this year’s vintages from Wente, which you might remember is the “First Family of Chardonnay.” Stocked with these California whites for our Newport city nights, we rolled out the greenery for dinner:

First up was the Wente 2013 Riva Ranch Chardonnay. The Riva Ranch started me with a gentle nose of apple blossoms, which is probably enhanced a bit by the small amount (3%) of Gewurztraminer blended therein. The first taste is quite fruity --a combination of sweet and tart apples along with a little melon. This is a fairly weighty chardonnay, but it managed not to be cloying in that weight. Big apple and butterscotch flavors on the palate, which heads off into a finish with a lasting bit of creaminess and a growing oakiness. All in all, it’s a fairly noble tasting white, which the Sweet Partner in Crime and I liked quite a bit. We had it alongside a grilled salmon-topped Caesar salad from our romaine. I would be hard pressed to hit a better pairing combination. The oakiness and residual acid cut nicely through the salmon’s oil, and the oakiness went nicely with the grilled flavors. Made for a really nice dinner. Retails for $22.

A couple of nights later, we had the unoaked Wente 2014 “Eric’s Chardonnay” – which is named for Eric “Big Daddy” Wente. In my experience, much unoaked chardonnay runs toward the lighter side, packs lots of acidity, and offers a lot of crisp tartness. Big Daddy’s wine is a bit of a departure. The nose brings up peaches and pears instead. The first taste is very rich, almost glyceriney in texture, with quite a bit of heft. Tropical fruits – papaya and pineapple – are the main flavors. The finish, after a few sips, gains some richness and a little bit of that tropical fruit again at the back end. I think it’s definitely a chardonnay that calls for food. Dinner this time was a citrus-avocado red leaf lettuce salad with a yummy maple syrup vinaigrette, made with some syrup from a CSA winter share. I made a batch of my twist on Burneko’s Frickin’ Crab Cakes to go alongside or, more accurately, atop the greens. The combination of flavors in the salad was otherworldly splendid and the wine did what I wanted it to – be a good team player. The wine’s richness played nicely off the crab, and it had enough oomph not to get buttered over by some of that good fat of the avocado. I liked it, but I thought the price was a little on the high side at $25.

Finally, we tried the Wente 2013 “Morning Fog” Chardonnay – I expected a middle of the road California chardonnay here,as this was the least expensive at $15, and I pleasantly discovered something more interesting. The nose and first sips are Viognier-ish from the touch of Gewurztraminer (2%). The nose is almost perfumey with apple blossoms and the body has that spare-yet-rich palate that I find in many Viognier. Once the wine opens a bit, it turns into a straight-ahead, very decent California chardonnay. There’s a nice little oaky backbone, plenty of apple and butterscotch flavor, and an agreeable, lingering finish. We had this with a salad that had a lot going on. More fresh leaf lettuce, boiled egg, slow cooked salmon with thyme, capers, onion, and a maple syrup vinaigrette. Despite all those different directions, this wine made a solid accompaniment. I wouldn’t say it blew me away, but with that range of flavors, staying in the “pleasant” zone is an accomplishment. Good value here.

Back to the CSA for a moment. If you’re looking for an easy way to improve your diet, see if you’ve got a CSA that delivers in your area. If you’re in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area, there are several options – but I like Fair Ridge’s option of doing full and half shares, each delivered either weekly or bi-weekly. Biweekly is a nice way to start if you're a bit unsure of how much you like fresh veggies. Easy not to get swamped from the start that way. Check them out. (And if you do decide to join, please tell ‘em Mike Rosenberg sent you…)

Monday, June 01, 2015

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- New Terroir, New Tastes

Terroir comes up quite a bit around here, obviously. To refresh your memory, terroir is the combination of soil geology and composition, geographic location, and weather patterns that affect the growth of grapevines and thus affect the flavor of a wine. A wine made from Chardonnay in the cool, limestone-soiled French region of Chablis will taste completely different from a Chardonnay from the warmer, loamier soils of California’s Central Valley, for instance.

The practical upshot of the effect of terroir is that, given enough consumption, you can make general assumptions of what a wine from a certain country or region will taste like. This is especially true in some of the regions lesser known by the general wine-drinking public. For instance, if I’m in a restaurant and I see a New Zealand sauvignon blanc on the wine list that I’ve not heard of, I usually feel fairly certain that the wine will be highly acidic and have grapefruity flavors with the occasional fragrance of fresh-cut grass.

Of course, you’re familiar with the old saw about the word “assume” – and that can come into play with wine. One reason we can make these assumptions about a country’s wine flavors is that there tend to be areas of that region that dominate wine production – whether because of weather, amount of grape production, access to easy shipping, and any number of other factors. The New Zealand sauvignon blanc I mentioned above? I can also make an assumption that the wine came from the Malborough region of New Zealand, which leads that country in wine exports. However, other regions of the same country do their own twists on wine production – yielding wines that can be very different and certainly worth exploring.

I received a pair of bottles from Juliana at Colangelo from a couple of Southern Hemispheric regions which are starting to make more of a dent in the U.S. wine market. Both turned out to be somewhat different than my usual expectations.

The first bottle was from – surprise, surprise – New Zealand. As I’ve mentioned, most of the best known wines from there hail from Marlborough, which is on New Zealand’s South Island. This wine, the Trinity Hill 2013 “The Trinity” Red Blend, comes from Hawke’s Bay on the North Island. (I’ve actually written about a wine from Hawke’s Bay a couple of New Years Eves ago…) The reds I’ve tried from New Zealand tend to be on the lighter side, like pinot noir. The North Island’s climate is somewhat warmer, which allows for the growth of grapes that thrive in a little more heat. This Merlot-dominant blend with additions of Tempranillo and Malbec, packs a little more oomph in its pleasant package.

The nose is fairly fragrant, full of plums and blackberries, and those big flavors are echoed on the palate. It’s not too thick – certainly falling into the medium-weight category, with plenty of grippy tannins that aren’t overwhelming. The finish is lasting and full, with blackberry, mint, and lasting tannins. We cracked this over Memorial Day weekend, and I’d grilled up a London broil. The Sweet Partner in Crime made a wonderfully hashy side out of some leftover Israeli couscous, crystallized ginger, leek, and asparagus and we laid the strips of steak atop. Just a lovely meal, I gotta say. For $17, this wine stepped right up.

The other bottle was a Chardonnay from South Africa. The most common wines from South Africa are from regions such as Constantia, Stellenbosch, and Paarl – all of which have terroir that includes a warm climate. This makes for big, rustic reds – many of which are made from Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault that grows well in hot weather. The white wines tend to be made from sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc – again, good warm weather grapes.

However, there’s much more attention now being paid to a region of South Africa called Elgin. Elgin is located on a high-altitude plateau, which allows for the creation of “cool climate” wines, which tend to be lighter in body and higher in acidity. From Elgin comes the Lothian Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay – billed as a more “Burgundian” version.

I’m not sure I’d quite go that far with that description, but the flavors are certainly different from any other South African white that I’ve tried. Most of those wines tend to make good summer sippers, but this one makes for a much richer, fuller quaff. The nose brought to mind “toasted pear,” if that makes any sense. For a cool climate wine, the body is richly styles and somewhat hefty on the palate for a white with full flavors of honey, apple, and butterscotch. There’s some oak hanging out, too, but much less than I thought there would be given the nose.

The Lothian finishes creamily, with just a quick citrus bite and a long butterscotch ending. I wouldn’t exactly call it “elegant” – that makes it sound dainty, which it’s not. I’d probably go for calling it “classy” chardonnay. Good alongside any sort of fish with a little oil in it. We had this with some rainbow trout filets over wild rice, and we found it quite nice. The pricetag on this one is around $20. If you’re a fan of California chardonnay and would like something with a slightly different twist, it’s worth a try.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Natura Wines -- Chile's inexpensive organic alternative

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.

To further preserve the natural bounty, many Chilean winemakers produce grapes and make wine using organic, biodynamic, and sustainable techniques. One of these environmentally-friendly producers, Emiliana Vineyards, recently released a line of affordable wines under the brand name Natura in the United States. These Chilean wines, all of which retail for around $12, include sauvignon blanc, unoaked chardonnay, rosé, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carmenere (which are quite similar), malbec, and syrah.

I had the opportunity to try four of these wines, and my thoughts on them follow. (Thanks much to Rebecca at Banfi for the samples.)

Natura 2014 Sauvignon Blanc – A few of my wine drinking friends refer to themselves as “acid freaks.” While I generally can’t speak to their admiration for either Ken Kesey or Mastodon, their affinity for tart, crisp wines largely define their palates. The Natura Sauvignon Blanc falls squarely into the category wines they’d likely glug by the bottle come summertime. The nose of this sauvignon blanc gives a hint of the strong grapefruity, pineapple flavor that I subsequently ran into on the palate. I thought it was crisp without being overly light. The mouthfeel has just a bit of heft, which gives it a little more of a backbone than many inexpensive acid balls. The finish is grapefruity and peachy, with a pleasant little bite.

Natura 2014 Dry Rosé – Keeping with the acidic theme, we’ll move on to the Natura dry rosé. Dark salmon in color, the Natura has a fairly fragrant nose for a rosé. I discovered some pleasant peach and apple blossom fragrances at first sniff. On the tongue, the predominant flavors are strawberry and Granny Smith-ish apple. The finish is quite fruity, with more tartness that lingers with some nice fruit and a wee bit of smokiness at the end. I think it would make another flexible, summerish food wine, and I thought it was quite good with grilled chicken and veggies.

Natura 2013 Syrah – First off, if you try this one, definitely let it get some air. I thought it definitely needed a little time to open up. The nose: plummy and fairly fragrant. The first sip hit my taste buds with a quick pop of big dark fruits. I was afraid it was going to be a big, jammy mess, but that calmed down pretty quickly. The palate – much more restrained than I expected -- has plenty of dark fruit and a good amount of tannin. The finish has plenty of fruit, pepper, and graphite. Had this alongside a roast braised in an onion, herb, & mushroom sauce – and the wine really caused the peppery flavors in the sauce to pop out. Pretty interesting drink, all in all.

Natura 2013 Pinot Noir – For an inexpensive pinot, this one holds its own. The flavor rests at a decent midpoint between earthy Burgundian/Oregon style pinots and bigger, fruitier offerings from certain parts of California (which makes sense, as these vineyards are at a southern latitude equivalent to being between France and California). I found it to be a fragrant pinot with berry and cola flavors on the palate. There’s a considerable fruitiness in the body, but that doesn’t overwhelm the smokiness expected in a decent pinot. The finish has a nice bit of acidity, which would make it work with many rustic, tomato-based dishes. We used the Natura Pinot Noir as a stand-in for an Italian wine for a Tuscan vegetable soup we’d thrown together, and it easily took the place of the Chianti I’d forgotten to snag at the store. 

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.)