Monday, November 11, 2019

New Discoveries -- Lugana DOC and Turbiana

One of my favorite aspects of Italian wine is that there’s always a new region or varietal to explore. I was recently turned on to wines from the Lugana DOC – and its autochthonal grape, Turbiana.

(In case you’re wondering, “autochthonal” is WineSpeak for “grape native to the region” – and I’ve written about these wonderful discoveries previously.)  

Lugana is a small growing region that lies just south of Italy’s largest lake, Lago di Garda, and is one of Italy’s more popular areas for in-country vacation travel. My colleague Michelle at Colangelo, who sent these samples along to me, vouched for the beauty of the region and the lake itself. She called the wines “unique” – and based on my first experience with them, I’m certainly inclined to agree.

About 95% of all wines made in Lugana are dry whites. As I mentioned, the primary grape grown in the region is Turbiana – and all whites from that region are required to be at least 90% Turbiana in the blend, although most are 100%. Turbiana was known as “Trebbiano di Lugana” for awhile, but genetic studies indicated that it’s not related to that other white grape.

Turbiana is a late-ripening, high acid grape which responds well to oak aging, meaning it can be produced either in a clean “drink young” style or one that could be more age-worthy. On trying this pair of whites, I found it quite interesting how two wines from the same region, same grape could provide such a stark contrast in flavor profile.

The first one we cracked was the younger one – the Armea Vitium 2018 Lugana DOC. ($16) This wine was fairly fruit forward in style. The nose was nicely fragrant, with nicely fragrant warm apple and vanilla aromas. Pears and apples overlaid a backbone of mineral, with a touch of a fruity sweetness. The finish is a bit creamy, with more of that apple flavor lingering for a good long while. Overall, it’s fairly dry and pretty nice to drink on its own.

The other – the Podere Selva Capuzza Menasasso 2015 Lugana Riserva ($20) -- was quite a contrast once you get past the nose. Up front, this wine displayed a similar warm apple and spice flavor, although more on the baking spice end of the scale. The body, though, held a world of difference. There’s far less fruit here initially. Although there was still the apple and pear, it quickly gave way to a wall of flint and a bit of an astringency that reminded me initially of a Muscadet. The finish is sharp and flinty, with a lemony linger. I thought that this wine improved a *lot* once it got some air. I thought the flavors smoothed out quite a bit the next day, so give this one plenty of time to open up. On their own, I still preferred the younger wine.

On the information sheet, one of the recommended pairing was herbed malfatti – which was a dish I’d never heard of. Turns out that they’re small ricotta and spinach balls, mixed with herbs and boiled briefly, served over a plate of sauce. “Malfatti” translates as “badly formed,” which accurately described my first attempt at making these little guys. Pushing through, though – they were quite tasty. The Riserva, I thought, was the better wine with these – although if I had it to do over, I’d have used a white wine and butter sauce instead of my typically fabulous red sauce.

All in all, I thought these were really fascinating whites. They hit a bit of a sweet spot between Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay – which makes them a really nice choice as the weather gets cooler but you still have a hankering for a white. Might be a nice possibility for Thanksgiving, truth be told.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Marques de Murrieta Rioja

Finally, a little chill in the air.

Here at our new pad in The Pennsylvania, we’ve been dealing with some of the joys of home ownership that inevitably come with buying a home that’s considered vintage. We’ve gone from our old place in Newport to our State College mid-century modern, built in 1951. The place has been (thankfully) refurbished a couple of times over the years – most recently in the late 90’s.

Alas, the late 90’s seems to have been the last time that our air conditioner was seriously serviced, so, of course, the compressor decided to go to the Scrapyard in the Sky during a particularly warm stretch here. We got a new unit installed – just as the heat broke, of course. But with that break came the first taste of fall, cool evenings, and bracing for our first Football Weekend in State College.

Wait, this is supposed to be about Rioja, isn’t it?

Anyway…autumn is just around the corner, which means that we’re sliding into the time of year when, for most of us (except for you, Uncle Alan), bigger, more powerful reds start coming back in vogue.

Along those lines, We had a chance to sample a new Spanish offering last week as we enjoyed some of the cooler weather. The Marques de Murrieta 2015 Rioja Reserva was on our table the other evening as we took some much needed solace from the sweat of the previous weeks.

Before I talk about this particular bottle, though – a little background. First off, Rioja is not a grape. Following the naming conventions of most European wines, Rioja is named for the region in northern Spain where it’s produced. Rioja reds are primarily blends, made up of Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan), and Graciano.

Rioja reds are typically built to age for a long time, and they’re often held in barrel for years. This same winery – Marques de Murrieta – finally released their 1942 Gran Reserva in 1983. If a wine is labeled “Reserva” – as the one I tried is, it must be aged for a minimum of three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels.

As with many potentially long-lived wines, Rioja improves a great deal with decanting. Because of the tannic structure, they really need some air to smooth out and let the flavors broaden. This wine was no different. The tech notes say to give it 20-30 minutes, but I found that the wine continued to develop over the course of hours, even into the next day. Seriously, decant this mother.

Experience-wise, I thought this wine had a gorgeous nose once it had opened up. A lovely bouquet of vanilla, violets, and cherries jump up quickly. The body had rich spice notes, dark fruit, and leather flavors quite evident. The tannins, predictably, were big – but they were really nicely balanced. (The SPinC, who basically doesn’t drink anything heavier than Pinot Noir these days, thought it was smooth enough for her to handle.) The finish is lasting and grippy, ending with a graphite and dark cherry double feature that really builds after a couple of sips.

Rioja is one of the more food-friendly “big” wines that you can find, in my experience. The notes say that it pairs with “baked red snapper…and lamb chops with buttermilk.” That’s a pretty broad range! Personally, I love to pair Rioja with the mean pan of paella I’ve been known to make Given I hadn’t made one since we moved to The Pennsylvania, I had to throw down. So glad I did. Made for an absolutely worthy pairing.

This was a pretty sexy wine, I have to say. It’s a bit of a splurge at $30, but if you’re looking for a really nice bottle to take to a dinner – this will be a crowd pleaser.

Have a good Labor Day weekend, everyone.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Dog Lover Tries “9 Lives”

Anyone who’s spent time around this little shabeen of mine knows that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I love our pups. One of the real stress points for us in our recent move to State College was worrying how our critters would adjust to living in The Pennsylvania.

We had some tense moments when we got here. Even though we have a fenced-in backyard at our new place, our dear girl Rosie is every bit the beagle – and she exploited every opening she could find. She escaped four times in the first two weeks, but managed to find her way home each time – although once, apparently, she made a visit to an open sewer first. She’s gotten much better. The Charles Dog has had no such inclinations. He just wants to snuggle.

So, when across the wires came the opportunity to try a couple of Chilean wines tagged with the moniker “9 Lives,” I hoped that my natural bias towards canines wouldn’t mess with my ability to be objective about what we were going to be tasting. I did my best.

The 9 Lives wine line comes from Viña San Pedro, a Chilean producer. As you know, I’ve long espoused losing the notion that most South American wine is cheap plonk. While there are some hastily made, one-note wines from below the Equator, there are also many affordable, well-made wines that regularly make their way north. I think these two offerings – a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Sauvignon certainly fall into that category.

The wine’s name stems from a black cat that would appear in the winery vineyard. The first winemaker at the place put a charm with the number nine around the cat’s neck – and the cat has never left.

Both these wines hail from Chile’s “Central Valley” – but, truth be told, that’s like saying that a domestic wine is “from California.” The Central Valley wine region is one of the largest in South America – with so many subregions and microclimates that just seeing “Central Valley” won’t tell you much about the wine style. These wines are also labeled “Reserve,” but that doesn’t have a particular meaning.

I can tell you, however, that they’re both quite decent. Each retails for right around ten bucks, so you’d be getting a pretty solid value, in my estimation.

Viña San Pedro 2018 “9 Lives” Sauvignon Blanc – Very light and refreshing. The tropical fruit flavors of Sauvignon Blanc certainly are in evidence, although the body feels much more like a well-made pinot grigio or a stainless-tanked Chardonnay. I thought it was nicely aromatic, with plenty of lemon and orange blossom on the nose. The body is crisp and dry, with lemon and pineapple flavors edging over a nice minerality which simply doesn’t exist in many contemporary SauvBlancs. The finish is crisp – reminiscent of the grapefruity finish on a vinho verde. Also really improves with a little bit of air. For warm weather, a real winner at the price.

Viña San Pedro 2017 “9 Lives” Cabernet Sauvignon – When I did my informal study on wine perception many moons ago, I made the observation that the more expensive someone thinks a wine is, the better they’ll usually think it tastes. Here, I’m trying a Cabernet that’s under $10 – so I had very moderate expectations. The wine blew right past those. Whatever magic that cat brought to the vineyard, it’s reflected in a very solid Cab. There are actual vanilla and tobacco aromas on the nose to go with the common red berries, and the flavors are really nicely balanced between dark red fruit, leather, and a very nice smoky tannin. The finish is the only place where things trail off a bit – it’s a bit soft on the end and the tannins don’t linger, but for ten bucks, I mean – whaddya want? If you’ve got grilled meat or big cheeses, set it and forget it.

I can appreciate cats, you know. In my days hanging with the Wizard of Covington, I had to overcome my allergies and was able to get along with critters of the feline persuasion. But nothing will replace the unconditional love of my pups – who are finally making the adjustment to this place, as you can see…

Charlie and Rosie, chillin'.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Miss Me?

Hello, friends!

Yes, the Naked Vine is still alive and well -- just transplanted! There's been a lot going on in VineLand over the last several months. The Sweet Partner in Crime traded in her UC Bearcat red and black for the navy and white of the Penn State Nittany Lions. We've been spending a great deal of recent time getting ourselves set up in our new place here in State College.

As any of you who have ever uprooted and headed for a new town know -- moving can be insanely stressful, and moving in the summer means dealing with many days in the warmth. Not to be overly predictable -- but summer means rosé, and a bottle of pink Italian goodness showed up at the homestead recently.

Except, to my surprise, what I had in my hand wasn't technically rosé. Instead, I found myself with a wine style called Ramato -- the Attems 2018 Pinot Grigio Fruili DOC Ramato, to be precise.

What is it? Ramato is a specific term for a rosé-style wine made from Pinot Grigio grapes. The name "Ramato" is from the Italian word for "copper." Pinot Grigio grapes, when ripe, are a greyish-purple, hence their name (and a major differentiation from their cousin Pinot Noir). When pinot grigio pressings are macerated on the grape skins -- which is the process that turns rosé pink -- the resulting juice can turn anywhere from a pale pink to a deep orange, depending on how long the skin contact goes on.

The resulting wine has a different profile than most rosé. There are typically more spice and floral notes on the nose -- and the flavor tends to have more of a stone fruit character.

We popped the Attems while flopping on our deck chairs after a long day of home setup logistics. The bouquet of this wine hit me right out of the box. Many rosé have noses that are so light and delicate as to be almost unnoticeable, but that's certainly not the case here in this glass smelling of peach, grapefruit, and baking spice. The flavor is where the delicacy lies with this wine -- the strawberry and cherry flavors are bounded by minerals. I thought it was incredibly well-balanced and pleasant to drink. The finish had a bit of a peppery note that I found really interesting.

The tech notes on this said it was a "perfect partner" to sweeter cured meats and prosciutto, both of which we happened to have in the fridge, along with some Manchego cheese and marcona almonds. We assembled a little charcuterie tray and went to town. They weren't lying -- this was a great aperitif/appetizer wine.

While most Ramato is Italian in origin, many domestic winemakers who grow Pinot Grigio have been trying the style -- which is certainly worth looking out for as you're wandering down the pink aisle of your local wine shop. (Side note: Central PA can't hold a candle to the wine stores we had in the 859...)

The Attems retails for around $16. A very decent bottle if you're looking for something refreshing.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Naked Vine Double Barrel: A Pair of Prosecco

Not long ago, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon with my Wizardly brother-from-another-mother and his lovely wife, the Breaker of Chains. They'd been in the market for some new furniture -- and when it arrived, I popped by their place to help them do a little interior redecorating.

Since it was mid-afternoon and any sort of design work goes better with alcohol, I brought along a couple of bottles of Prosecco to sample side-by-side. After all, a new comfy sofa is a perfect excuse to crack some bubbly, no?

Prosecco, and sparkling wine in general, has been on a bit of a domestic tear over the last several years. Once largely a celebratory bottle, sparkling wine's showing up as an "ordinary day" beverage more often, driven in a great part by Millennials embracing bubbly. (Since sparkling wine goes wonderfully with anything fatty, avocado toast is a great Prosecco pairing.)

Prosecco has led the way in driving this sales increase, eating into the market share of both Cava from Spain and many domestic sparklers. Sales of the stuff were up almost 25% in 2018, and that trend seems to be holding.

What is Prosecco? To nod at the last couple of columns here, Prosecco is an Italian wine region not far from Venice. For many years, however, the grape from which the wine is made was also referred to, somewhat incorrectly, as Prosecco. The proper varietal name, Glera, is now the primary referent.

Like most sparkling wines, Prosecco can be produced in any number of styles -- from dry to sweet -- based on the amount of residual sugar left after fermentation. There's no need to guess about the level of sweetness. You'll see one of these terms, from driest to sweetest, on the label:

Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-Sec.
Yes, you're reading that correctly -- Extra Dry is slightly sweeter than Brut.

Extra Dry and Brut are the most common styles, and those were the bottles that I brought over for our little design session. We had these to sample:

Tenuta Sant'Anna Prosecco DOC Extra Dry
Bacio Della Luna Prosecco DOC Brut

We tried them side-by-side, first on their own and then as the backbone of mimosas.

The Tenuta was a very easy-drinking bubbly, full of peaches and pears. The Bacio leaned more in a apple and peach direction. On their own, we all preferred the Bacio for its crispness and its more pronounced flavors. "The sparkle makes the flavor really pop," noted the BoC.

As for making mimosas, and I find this to be true with almost all sparkling wine, the extra dry version tends to make for a better balanced cocktail. That little bit of residual sweetness allows the various flavors in a cocktail a little more of a platform to strut their stuff. I thought the Tenuta also would have been a particularly strong choice if you're a summertime chugger of Aperol Spritzes.

You should be able to find either of these wines for just north of $15. Either of them should take care of your bubbly needs nicely.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Kin & Cascadia -- Thinking about "Regional" wines

As I mentioned in the recent Chianti column, the naming convention surrounding most European wines revolves around the region, subregion, or -- in some cases -- the very patch of ground on which the grapes are grown. While this convention is helpful for delineating how a wine is a reflection of terroir -- the combination of soil, climate, weather, and history that go into a particular wine, it's often less helpful if you're...say...looking for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon.

Here in the States, by contrast, we tend to name our wines primarily by the main grape in the bottle. If at least 75% of the juice is made from, say, Merlot -- then the bottle can read "Merlot." The identity of the grapes on the rest of the blend can be disclosed or not, depending on the winery's desire.

Wine's about a sense of place, though. A Chardonnay from southern California will taste very different from one grown in..say...Missouri. Even more applicable, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California's. Napa Valley will taste very different from a Cabernet Sauvignon grown by the coast in neighboring Sonoma County.

To establish a sense of place, in 1978, the federal government developed a system by which a wine's location could be classified. Winegrowing regions were classified by climate and topography into American Viticultural Areas, or AVA's for short. For a wine to claim a particular AVA, such as "Anderson Valley" or "Yamhill-Carlton" -- 85% of the grapes must be sourced from that particular area. A particular AVA, such as "Napa Valley" can contain multiple sub-AVA's -- like "Los Carneros" or "St. Helena." But the broader-based "regional blends" are one way to get a sense of how terroir shapes a wine in a particular area -- so you can see if you like it.

This brings us to this edition's wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir from Kin & Cascadia -- an oenological partnership between the Sager and Master families in the Pacific Northwest. The two wines that I had the opportunity to try boast their roots from particular AVAs.

To start with -- the Kin & Cascadia 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (~$16). The wine is listed as being from "Columbia Valley, Washington." The Columbia Valley AVA is a very large area, shared between Oregon and Washington. Within the Columbia Valley AVA are seven subregions, one of which is the Wahluke Slope AVA -- from where a good portion, but not quite 85% of the grapes come.

I tend to like Washington State cabernets. I think they're generally a little less alcohol-driven and more subtle with their fruits than their brethren in California. The Kin & Cascadia is relatively decent. It's a drinkable Cabernet -- with coffee and black cherry flavors being the dominant flavors. Unfortunately, there's little else to note flavorwise. The finish has a somewhat sharp tannic quality, even after an hour of air, that I didn't find personally pleasant. I thought it was decent enough alongside a steak or a rich stew, but I didn't think it was overly interesting itself.

The Kin & Cascadia 2017 Pinot Noir (~$14) is a different story. This Pinot sources its grapes from the Willamette (rhymes with "Dammit!") Valley, the best known and largest of the Oregon AVA's. Now, I love me some Oregon Pinot -- and I've had enough of it to be able to somewhat ascertain the difference between the various sub-AVA's within the Willamette. The grapes here are likely from a variety of places around the Valley, and that's not a bad thing. Sometimes, especially with wines at this price point, finding the right grape sources makes for a tasty blend.

That's the case here. This particular blend of Pinot grapes yielded a lighter-styled but still quite interesting Pinot. Strawberry and cherry flavors go alongside a nicely floral nose, a solidly smoky, fruity midpalate, and a lingering, softly smoky finish. For a Pinot Noir at this price point, it's a pretty impressive offering. I think it's an incredibly good value at this price point, especially for fans of lower-alcohol Pinots. I also thought it was better with a steak than the Cab, to be perfectly honest.

Learning about different AVA's gives you an opportunity to fine-tune the sorts of wines you'll tend to enjoy, even if you might not recognize a certain producer. Think it an AVA as a high-level overview of what you should expect.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Castiglioni Chianti

As I've gotten older and more full of years, my palate's changed a bit. Lighter-styled wines have been finding their way to our table more and more often. As a result, I've been grooving on Chianti -- that famously food-friendly red from Tuscany.

Now, if you're new here, remember that the naming conventions for Italian wines (as well as many European wines in general) are different from here. Many folks I know think that "Chianti" is a grape and "Chianti Classico" means a higher grade of Chianti. Release yourself from those assumptions. Chianti is the region within Tuscany from where the wine hails. (Chianti Classico is a subzone of the Chianti region.)

Chianti is made primarily from the Sangiovese grape -- at least 75% of the blend must be Sangiovese to be considered a Chianti. There are a number of other grapes, that can provide the other 25% of the blend, including red grapes Syrah and Merlot -- and whites like Malvasia and Trebbiano.

Because of this blending diversity, Chianti can be all over the map as far as flavor profile. Leaner, more acidic Chianti tend to have a higher percentage of white grapes blended in. The Chianti I had the chance to try recently -- Castiglioni 2016 Chianti -- was on the other end of the spectrum.

Castiglioni is the original estate of the Frescobaldi wine family. Wine has been produced from its vineyards since the 1300's. Their current version of Chianti is a straight blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. The result is an Italian wine that's a bit more approachable than many Chianti.

I find Chianti to have a bit of a "chalky" background flavor, which might not sound great to drink on its own -- but it actually allows it to mesh in a complementary fashion with just about any type of food. The Castiglioni has less of that chalk flavor because of the merlot in the blend, which masks it with a bigger dose of fruit. Cherry and blackberry are the dominant flavors here. This is a round, full, uncomplicated version of Chianti that can be sipped on its own.

With food, as with many Chianti, it's a much better choice in my estimation. We had this over the weekend alongside a savory lamb stew and it was a very nice accompaniment. It would also be a solid choice with roast chicken, red sauced pasta, or almost any kind of cheese, in my estimation.

Castiglioni Chianti retails for around $15. It's a very decent quaffer. Also, if you're new to Italian wines, this might be a good gateway bottle to start a vinous exploration of the region.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Alìe -- A right, round rosé

Longtime Vineheads know I've long been a champion of rosé. For over a decade, I've been chanting my "pink is not a flavor" mantra to winedrinkers worried someone might think they ordered a glass of white zin.

While I can't take credit for the now-social appropriateness of the pink stuff, I certainly appreciate that the upswing in the rosé market has driven a number of countries and regions to up their respective rosé games. One particular example of this -- Italy.

I've never been a huge fan of Italian rosé, in general. I've found their rosés, often marketed as "rosato," to be overly fruity, usually a little too sweet, and honestly inferior in quality to any French rosé. I'd prefer a very light Italian red, slightly chilled, to almost any rosato.

But this old dog can certainly learn a new trick -- because I had the chance to try this new offering from Frescobaldi in Tuscany -- Alìe 2007 Toscana Rosé.

Alìe draws its name from a legendary sea nymph. Like most ancient Roman myths -- the story of Alìe is derived from a similar Greek story -- her name was "Halia" in the Greek version. Thankfully, the story of this wine is much more pleasant than Halia's own legend -- google if you want, but fair warning: like most women in Greek myths, Halia/Alìe doesn't get a happy ending...

In any case, this particular wine, made largely from Syrah with a touch of Vermentino for crispness, is a uniquely bold rosé. Alìe boasts one of the more striking bouquets of any rosé I've tried in quite some time. Many of these wines have very light, delicate airs -- this one, not so much. I found a full nose of ripe melon, fresh blossoms, and tropical fruits. The tropical fruit flavors are certainly present on the palate, as well -- alternating mango, pineapple, and a little cherry flavor. I expected the finish to be a little flabby with this much fruit on the palate, but I was pleasantly surprised to get a crisp, clean wind-down, with those fruit flavors lingering on a rounded mouthfeel.

It's a pretty substantial rosé, so if you're looking for something super light and flinty to drink on a hot day, this probably isn't going to be your speed. As a food wine, though, it really excelled. We had this next to some chicken roasted with lemon, capers, basil and torn bread -- and the roundness of the palate made it an excellent complement.

If you're interested in breaking out of a rosé rut, this would be a nice change of pace. Alìe retails for $17-20.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Bubbly Cocktails for Spring with Zonin Prosecco

Ladies and gentlemen, pardon the long winter hibernation. There’s a lot happening on the home front here at Vine HQ, which I’ll catch all y’all up on before too long.

In the meantime, however, the Wine Fairy dropped a bottle off at the door which, if you’ve been around here awhile, you’ll probably recognize: Zonin “Cuvee 1821” Prosecco Brut.

This particular sparkler’s shown up here from time to time over the years, and it’s a consistently solid performer, especially at an ~$13 price point. On its own, it’s is on the dry-but-fruity side. I found it had a gentle, blossomy nose of apples and pineapples. Green apple and lemon flavors on the palate are balanced with a touch of almond and a zippy acidity. The finish is fruity, with more of those pineapples lingering at the end.

Thankfully, spring is just around the corner – and Prosecco, while a year ‘round beverage, has a warm season flavor to me. This winter, I’ve been grooving on cocktail making – and with the bulk of this bottle to work with, I decided to try mixing up a couple of springtime drinks with the stuff I have around, using the Zonin as a base.

First off, there’s the good old Aperol Spritz, the warm weather champ which I’ve written about before:

3 oz. Prosecco 
2 oz. Aperol
1 oz. club soda

The classic sunshine beverage. Pour the Aperol into a wine glass filled with ice, top with Prosecco and top with the club soda. Garnish with an orange wheel. The sweet/bitter flavors play off each other in a particularly refreshing way.

Moving on a bit, there’s the breath of springtime that is the French 77.

2 oz. Prosecco
1 ½ oz. Gin
¾ oz. Elderflower liqueur (like St. Germain)
½ oz. lemon juice

Mix the gin, elderflower, and lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a coupe glass. Add the prosecco and a lemon twist. Drop the twist into the drink and enjoy the lovely fragrances.

Sticking with gin here, if you’re a fan of a Negroni, but you’re hoping for something with a little more sparkle, try this take – the Sbagliato (which means “bungled” in Italian)

1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
1 ½ oz. Campari
1 ½ oz. Prosecco

In a rocks glass filled with ice, add the vermouth and Campari and stir. Add the Prosecco and stir again. Sip and enjoy.

Finally, if you’re a fan of aged rums, this riff on the Old Cuban is a crowdpleaser, especially on nights where the springtime temps can still drop:

1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon water
1 ½ oz. dark rum
¾ oz. lime juice
1 ½ oz. Prosecco
Angostura bitters and a mint leaf for garnish

Combine the honey and water in a small glass bowl and microwave for 15 seconds. Stir to combine. Let cool.

Add the honey syrup, rum, and lime juice to a shaker with ice. Shake for 15-20 seconds. Strain into a martini or coupe glass. Top with Prosecco, then a dash of bitters and the mint leaf.


Monday, January 07, 2019

Rabisco – Chewy, Portuguese, and (halfway) Autochthonal

Since it's the middle of winter (although it hardly feels like it these days), this is the natural season to consume a glass of that delightfully fortified product, Port.

Port, in the world’s least surprising reveal, originated in Portugal. Port is initially fermented like a typical wine, but a neutral grain spirit is added to stop the fermentation and leave some residual sugar in the mix, which ultimately conveys the sweetness to the stuff.

Practically all ports are blends. There are about 100 different grapes approved for use in Port making, but there are five primary native (or autochthonal, if you want to use the official terminology) varietals. The king of these native Portuguese grapes is a varietal called Touriga Nacional.

Touriga Nacional vines bear small grapes with a high skin to pulp ratio – meaning that the juice flavors tend to run to the powerful side. Touriga Nacional provides depth and color to most blends. Touriga Nacional vines are very fast-growing, but those vines have some of the lowest yields of any vinifera grape.

Although Touriga Nacional is generally considered the finest Portuguese red varietal, until the last few years it comprised only around 2% of Portugal’s total vineyard plantings. In the last decade, however, improvements in vine maintenance and crossbreeding have upped TourNac yields, and Portuguese winemakers have begun making dry red wine blends featuring it.

Enter Rabisco 2015 Reserva Tejo -- a dry red wine made from 50% Touriga Nacional and 50% from good ol’ Cabernet Sauvignon.

To break the wine’s name down a bit – Rabisco means “Scratch” in Portuguese. The winery from which this wine hails is part of an animal sanctuary and dozens of bird species pass through during migration. Most famously, storks winter in this region – and the wine label centers on a freehand pencil “scratch” sketch of one of these beautiful birds.

Tejo is the region surrounding the Tejo River, near the vineyards of the grapes. “Reserva” simply means that it’s a high quality, single vintage wine, but official aging or fermenting definitions aren’t attached to that term.

What’s this wine like? Well, for starters, it’s relatively inexpensive (as are many Portuguese wines) – retailing at $13. Not surprisingly, considering the skin thickness of the Touriga Nacional grape, it’s a big, honking mouthful of tannin, especially before the wine’s had time to open up. Decant for half an hour if you can. The Cabernet adds some dark fruit – blackberries and currants – which are deepened by the TourNac – but it’s certainly no fruit bomb.

It’s a wine longer on tannins than richness, so if you’re looking for something with a lighter body but a bigger flavor punch – it would probably appeal. I would imagine that the combination is somewhat of an acquired taste. I thought it was worth a try – especially alongside a braised pork dish or a tapas-y spread of appetizers. The SPinC thought it was too punchy for her palate.

All in all, it’s probably worth a try if you like full-flavored red wines. For someone who wants the combo of big tannin without an associated jamminess, it’s a good choice, especially at the price point. Fans of either Bordeaux or California merlots/cabs might not be quite as enamored.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Benham's Barrel-Finished Gin -- A Fascinating, Perplexing Spirit

We've been on a bit of a barrelling kick here in Vineland. We've done a couple of stories on bourbon-barrel aged wine -- and I've seen more and more beers marketed as "aged in barrels," usually whiskey or wine. A natural outgrowth, I expect, of the worldwide bourbon boom. After all, bourbon barrels can only be used once for whiskey, and all these old barrels gotta go somewhere. 

I'm certainly all for waste not-want not.

Inevitable, then, that this desire for upcycling old spirit storage would start to land in other reaches of the world of potent potables. I got to try a rather unique concoction recently -- one that still puzzles me a bit.

Gentle readers -- meet D. George Benham's Barrel Finished Gin.

I know -- that last word done threw you for a loop, didn't it? Gin -- that most aromatic of hard liquors, greeted immediately with a partisan facial expression, depending on the drinker's perspective. In all my travels, gin is the most divisive spirit, in my estimation. Personally, I'm in the "pro" category, but I'm usually a traditionalist when it comes to these -- Martinis, Negronis, summertime gin & know the drill.

But the Benham's is a different animal altogether. From Graton Distillery in Sonoma, CA -- Benham's is made in the traditional gin fashion. If you're unfamiliar, gin starts out as most liquors do -- as a neutral, usually grain based spirit. Once there's a base spirit -- basically pure ethanol -- it is redistilled with a bunch of aromatics, usually based around juniper. Benham's includes other botanicals like buddha's hand, grains of paradise, galangal, meyer lemon, and others.

Benham has produced a relatively small-batch gin for some time, but this year -- they're rolling out their barrel-aged version. This version of the gin is aged for a period of time in used Zinfandel barrels, a varietal they landed on after trying several other varietal barrels.   “We experimented a lot. We used Pinot, Syrah, and even Chardonnay barrels. The Zinfandel barrels have the right spiciness that plays well with our local Northern California botanicals such as lemon,” explained Jeff Duckhorn, the master distiller of the product.

Now, aging gins on wood isn't exactly a new thing. The precursor to gin is a Dutch spirit called genever. There are two versions -- neue genever, which is clear and oude genever, which is aged on wood and -- I was informed -- is only consumed by older folk. When I first tried -- and enjoyed! -- it in Amsterdam at age 41, I was informed that I was now the "youngest Oude Genever fan in the Netherlands."

I sat down one evening with the Sweet Partner in Crime and some nosing glasses to give this a run. Our first reaction was universally positive. If you're a gin fan, you'll love the aromatics on this spirit. There's the juniper, lemon, and spice aromas that you'd expect, but with an undertone of freshly cut wood and some neat vanilla scents and flavors. We had it on a couple of rocks first and liked it -- but neither of us tends to take our gin straight like that.

I started cocktailing. I tried to make a martini with it, but the flavors weren't right. The crispness was somewhat lost. A gin and tonic was better -- but not mindblowing. I did a little research on aged gins -- there are a few others out there -- and some bartenders have subbed this gin into other cocktails in place of bourbon.

I made a Manhattan with it -- and it was certainly an interesting cocktail which I dubbed the Fort Lee, since it's Manhattan-adjacent. Found it to be good, but next to my normal recipe that I make with Bulleit Rye, it didn't measure up. I also tried it in a Negroni, and I didn't think the botanicals played well with the Campari. It ended up *really* bitter, which might be a positive for some drinkers.

Here's the thing. I like the gin. I would recommend this gin. I just don't know what I would do with the gin on a regular basis. Perhaps this would appeal more to someone who's more of a gin-on-the-rocks person than I am. Because it really is lovely to sip. If you have a gin aficianado in your circle and you can find a bottle of this, they'll probably appreciate it.

Benham's Barrel-Finished Gin retails for $42.99 for a fifth.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Keeping it Natural -- Santa Julia Organica

Organic wine is nothing new. I first wrote about organic wine more than a decade ago – but over the last couple of years, it feels like the rise of wine characterized as “organic” has mirrored the reconfiguration of many grocery store produce sections. Where once organics were a small corner of a store, now organic products are mixed throughout. Wine stores are following suit.

The new label for Santa Julia wines.
What makes a wine “organic?” The USDA definition has changed slightly over the years. There used to be three categories of organic wines – and that’s been reduced to two. The first are wines labeled “made with organic grapes.” Organic grapes are produced without most pesticides, fertilizers, and other synthetic ingredients. The wine must be bottled in a facility that has passed certain inspections, and must be bottled with fewer than 100 parts per million of sulfites. If a wine is labeled simply “organic,” then there are no sulfites permitted.

Most organic wines you’ll see commonly are domestic in nature – which makes sense, since “organic” is a definition of the U.S. government. For an international wine to be labeled as such, the growing and production must follow the USDA rules prior to import. There are non-domestic wineries who have been doing the “organic thing” for many years, however. One of those, Santa Julia Organica from Argentina, has recently completed a rebranding to align with the demand for organics.

Santa Julia is a product of Familia Zuccardi winery in the Mendoza region of Argentina. Under the direction of José Zuccardi – who named the wine after her only daughter, Julia – Familia Zuccardi has produced Santa Julia’s award-winning wines since the late 1990’s. They’ve designed their winemaking process to be environmentally sustainable, yet have been able to keep costs at a reasonable level. The Santa Julia Organica wines retail in the U.S. for about $11 a bottle.

I had the opportunity to try three of Santa Julia Organica’s lineup recently. In short, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Santa Julia Organica 2017 Malbec – At first sniff, I was met with cherries and strawberries on the nose, which I thought was interesting for a Malbec. The nose has an airy character I’d expect to find on a much lighter wine. This one’s a dark, rich violet. Diving into the glass, though, I was quickly hit with dense dark cherry flavors, along with leather, smoke, and a fairly full boat of tannin. The wine really picks up steam once it gets some air and the chocolate notes come out. Finish was lighter than I expected – there was lasting tannin, but the weight from the palate does a vanishing act, leaving behind a gentle fruit finish.

Santa Julia 2017 Organica Chardonnay – I thought this was an interesting middle ground Chardonnay. The mouthfeel really stands out for me here. While there’s plenty of weight, it doesn’t get bogged down with a lot of malo-creaminess or high acidity. Nose is fragrant with peaches and green apple. The major flavors on the palate are pineapple and apricot, with a twist of lemon on the finish that lingers lemon crème-ish. As we start getting into winter, this style of white would certainly be welcome around many tables. It’s a crowdpleaser.

Santa Julia Organica 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon – The Sweet Partner in Crime has been on a real light-styled wine kick. Jammy zins and merlots just aren’t hitting her palate right these days. I pulled this particular Cabernet for a meal of some pork loin chops, hoping that the interesting twists of the previous two wines would follow along in this cabernet. Thankfully, I was right. This Cabernet is a leaner, smokier quaff than many cabs, even Argentinean ones. Dark cherry and cassis flavors are layered over smoke and graphite on the palate. The finish isn’t overly tannic, which was a nice change, and had a smoky, berry-filled finish that reminded me just a smidge of a Pinot Noir. A very nice food wine, as it really meshed with the sear and flavors of the chops. I’d recommend it.

Santa Julia Organica also produces a Tempranillo and a Torrontes, both at the same price point. All are solid values.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Bourbon Barrel-Aged Wine -- Does the Wood Make it Good?

Fall, finally! Cooler nights, bigger foods, darker drinks.

Once the weather starts to turn away from heat, I tend to turn my sights back towards both bigger red wines and brown liquors. Outside of Derby, bourbon’s largely a winter drink for me. Red wine’s year round, of course, but my red rack’s generally filled with lighter stuff during the summertime.

What happens, though, when a winemaker decides to put wine and bourbon together?

Over the last four or five years, I’ve seen a few wines marketed as “bourbon barrel aged” popping up. Many red wines are barrel-aged. What’s the difference with aging wine in a bourbon barrel?

Barrel aging is an important stage in the life cycle of many wines, both red and white. When a wine spends time in a barrel, the juice seeps into the wood, extracting chemical compounds that mix with and change the flavor of the wine within. For white wines like Chardonnay, the “oaky” flavor often comes from contact with wood in barrels. For reds, barrel aging adds a depth of flavor and boosts the tannin level.

Reading the description of many wines – you’ll see wines aged in French, American, or Hungarian oak most commonly. The interior of these casks are usually “toasted” to some degree. The more toasting, the stronger the oaky flavor. Bourbon barrels, taller and thinner than most wine casks, as well as more heavily toasted, could potentially add a boatload of flavor. Even after being used, a barrel can still impart distinct flavors to whatever’s stored inside it.

Finding old bourbon barrels sounds like a difficult step, but, according to the legal rules governing distillation in the U.S., Bourbon can only be aged in a new cask. After that, the barrels have long been sold to distillers making whiskeys and other spirits – and sometimes beer makers. The recent “Bourbon Boom” has, naturally, added a great number of additional barrels to the market, and some winemakers have jumped at the opportunity to ride that particular wave of popularity.

I recently had the chance to try two bourbon barrel aged wines: 1000 Stories 2016 California Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel and 1000 Stories 2016 Gold Rush Red (both $16-20). The former is a blend of Zinfandel from Lodi and Paso Robles, with a touch of Petit Sirah juice sourced from Lake County. The latter is a field blend largely of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Zinfandel.

The winemaker, Bob Blue, states that it was rare to see wine aged in French Oak when he started learning his craft, and most American oak barrels were used for whiskey. Over the years, using these barrels has become more commonplace – and now Blue uses used bourbon barrels as a flavoring method.

In any case, both wines start out in standard American and French Oak barrels before being racked into used white oak Bourbon barrels. After a period of months, the wine is finished in older (some apparently 13 years old) Bourbon barrels.

Both these wines can use a little taming. The Zinfandel clocks in at 15.7% ABV, while the Gold Rush comes in at around 15%. If you pop and pour, you’re going to get a snootful of alcohol before you really get to any of the flavors. I’d suggest, at the very least, you either decant thoroughly or let it have at least half-an-hour’s worth of air after you crack it.

In both cases, the toasted vanilla and crème brulee flavors that are common in bourbon do find their way into the wine. The nose of the Zin has a bit of that smokiness in the background, on top of dark fruit and some fairly interesting notes of spice like nutmeg. On the palate, this is a big, honking glass of vanilla, spice, smoke, and considerable alcohol. Once it opens up, plum and sage flavors pop their heads out of the mix and the alcohol recedes a bit. The finish is long, dry, and smoky – the various oak instillings lending pepper and a tooth-staining level of tannin.

The Gold Rush red is more straightforward. It’s a big ol’ bomb of intense dark fruits, especially plums and dark cherries. There’s a spicy, leathery backbone to this wine – along with a long, tannic finish. I found it to be much more straightforward than the Zin. Either wine would be workable with some sort of barbecued meat, big cheeses, or dark chocolate.

To be honest, though – I don’t see how much of a difference, other than a slightly sharper oak flavor, that the bourbon barrels actually make with this wine over standard barrel aging. It’s an interesting marketing idea, especially if you’re interested in conversation with whiskey aficionados or Kentucky fans. But keep an eye on the price. These wines both seem a little more pricey than they should be, considering the competition. See what you think.