Monday, October 27, 2014

A Side-by-Side of Super Tuscan and a Return of the Heavy Hitter

Fall! Air cooling a bit, leaves turning, and the menus around Vine HQ shifting from the scrumptious salads, soups, and lighter fare which the Sweet Partner in Crime regularly cobbles together during the warmer months. Autumn and winter cooking is my culinary wheelhouse. Casseroles, stews, rich pastas and other stick-to-your-ribs offerings give me flashbacks to my bachelor days when I’d whip up a big batch of something to nosh on for the entire week. (Of course, it was mid-July when I was making those dishes back then, but I digress...)

Fall also means bigger wines, so as I amble down the Italian aisle, my eyes start to drift over to the section often simply labeled “Other Italian Reds.” Wine stores use this section to stash Italian bottles that don’t fit the traditional Italian designations. They can be blends of grapes from across a region, or even across the country. Many will be labeled “vino da tavola.” This translates as “table wine,” as you might guess – and they’re usually light, inoffensive, and forgettable. In contrast, the bottles I go for are have “IGT” on the label. An IGT designation indicates that a wine is of high quality, but does not adhere to the winemaking guidelines of the region.

The most well-known IGT wines began appearing in the 1970’s in Tuscany. These wines became known as “Super Tuscans.” To illustrate, wines made in the Tuscan region of Chianti must be made from 75% or more Sangiovese juice to be labeled “Chianti.” IGT winemakers used grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to create bigger, fuller -- some traditionalists would argue “Americanized” – wines. Many of these Super Tuscan wines are made of a majority of grapes other than Sangiovese and command high prices. Prior to the creation of the IGT classification in 1992, any wine with less than 75% Sangiovese could only be labeled vino da tavola, regardless of quality or price range.

Super Tuscan reds were all the rage in the 90’s and 00’s, but I haven’t heard that term nearly as much in recent days. My guess is that the name “Super Tuscan” was seen as a bit faddish (much like “Meritage” was in California around that time), so wine companies eventually backed away from using that as a primary marketing term. I personally still use the name, since I like imagining Wile E. Coyote saying “Soooper Tuscan…” 

In any case, I received a pair of Super Tuscan wines recently from Colangelo (Thanks, Maggie!) with compositions that don’t resemble Chianti in the slightest. I thought the two demonstrated a very interesting contrast.

Luce Della Vite 2001 “Lucente” IGT – Lucente is the “second label” wine from Luce Della Vite. The “first label” wine, called “Luce,” is the first blend of Sangiovese and Merlot ever constructed in the commune of Montalcino. This wine, emerging from the partnership of well-known winemakers Robert Mondavi (now deceased) and Vittorio Frescobaldi, retails for close to $100. “Lucente” is the “little brother” wine, which goes for $20-25. For a little brother, Lucente shows some muscle. This blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Sangiovese comes on strong with big fruit, strong tannin, and high acid levels. That said, as powerful as it is, no sensation is really overwhelming. If you’ve got big foods, it’s got something for every occasion. You need some tannin for your eggplant parmesan? Done. Need some acid to go with that big tomato sauce? Check. Something dark and fruity for evening consumption? Gotcha. I had quite a bit of leftover tenderloin from the Barolo experiment, so we made steak sandwiches piled high with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, which made for an absolutely delicious pairing. I think the Lucente is an exceptional value for the price range.

Tenuta Frescobaldi Castiglioni 2011 Toscana IGT – The Tenuta stands in contrast to the Lucente. The Lucente, as big and round as it was, still tasted like an Italian wine to me. On the other hand, if I’d been blindfolded, I easily could have thought the Tenuta might have been a California red blend with its big, dark, Cabernet-ish fruit. This makeup is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 15% Cabernet Franc. Sangiovese comprises a mere 5% of this wine. Even after decanting, the fruit on this wine overwhelmed the acid and minerality found in many Tuscan wines. We had it both with minestrone and as a side-by-side with the Lucente and the aforementioned steak sandwiches and it was just OK. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a decent wine, but at $25 – if I wanted a fruity Italian wine, I could find a similar-in-quality Barbera for ten bucks less.

Along with the pair of Tuscan tasties, tucked away in the package was a bottle of Perticaia 2009 Sagrantino di Montefalco, which retails for around $50. I wrote about the Sagrantino varietal about a year ago. This powerful red wine, which I dubbed “The Italian Heavy Hitter,” has the highest concentration of polyphenols – the compounds that make red wine so good for you – of any grape in the world. It also stains teeth more than any other red wine I’ve come across. Of the bottles I tried back then, the Perticaia was my clear favorite of the three. The 2009 vintage is very much along the lines of the 2007 I reviewed previously. While big and tannic, it had enough balance to make it drinkable, and the finish of spices and berries was very pleasant. I’m happy to report that the 2009 is very similar to the 2007 – which means that it’s worth the price for a special occasion. We also discovered a fabulous food pairing for the Perticaia: the humble pot roast.

If you want a funky twist for your next fall or winter dinner party, dust off your best pot roast recipe. Get your mom to divulge her secret recipe, or get your grandfather to divulge that twist that he brought over from the Old Country. Maybe you love a recipe that you found in a $1.99 slow cooker cookbook when you were in college. Find a recipe you can embrace. Serve it over rice, over noodles, over artisanal gluten-free amaranth shavings – whatever floats your boat. Before you start the roast, decant this wine. It needs a lot of air. When your roast is ready, plate it up, pass the platter and this bottle around your table of thankful friends, and enjoy your comfort food-laden bliss. It’s eyes-roll-back-in-your-head good.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Damilano Lecinquevigne -- A Modern Take on Barolo

A bottle of Barolo – the Italian “Wine of Kings” – recently made its way to Vine HQ for a visit.

Barolo doesn’t make many appearances around these parts. This wine from the same-named area of the Piedmont region commands respect on any wine list and an emptying of most wine drinkers’ wallets. Almost all Barolo are high-priced wines. Decent Barolo usually start at around $50 and go up from there. It’s not uncommon to see good vintages hung with pricetags upwards of $150.

When this particular bottle showed up, thanks to the good folks at Colangelo, I did a double-reason double-take. What was so different about the Damilano 2010 Barolo “Lecinquevigne”? First off, the vintage. 2010? Most Barolo, or so I understood, require around 7 years in bottle for its powerful tannins to chill out enough for the wine to become drinkable. Second – the retail on this wine was $35. Thirty-five clams for an actual Barolo? Inconthievable!

OK, so what gives here? Why is Barolo so expensive, and how’d this wine end up being so much less so? And why can I supposedly pop and pour this bottle, when I’d expect to wait until 2017 under normal circumstances?

Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape, a small, thin-skinned grape that’s notoriously hard to grow. The juice from Nebbiolo is super-high in both tannin and acidity. In the traditional method of making Barolo, the fermenting juice soaks with the skins of the grapes – a process called maceration -- for almost a month in some cases, extracting the maximum amount of tannin from the skins. The resulting juice is then aged in large containers called botti for at least two years and sometimes much longer. Once bottled, the wine had to sit for a long time, as I’ve already mentioned. The resulting Barolo’s tannic, powerful flavors can be challenging for many wine drinkers.

[Side note: Interestingly, “traditional” Barolo-making technique has only been around since the 1920’s, when the French, of all folks, brought these techniques to the region. Prior to that time, the Nebbiolo-based wines in that area were sweet, light in color, and slightly fizzy.]

In the 1980’s, the region went through what some writers termed the “Barolo Wars.” A group of winemakers, again influenced by their Burgundian counterparts, decided to employ more modern harvesting and winemaking techniques. These techniques included green harvesting (removing unripe grapes from ripening clusters to improve the remaining grapes), temperature-controlled fermentation, and the use of commercial yeast for more control over the product.

Additionally, these modernist winemakers used smaller barrels called barriques. Barriques typically hold around 60 gallons of wine, compared to botti, which can hold up to 4,000 gallons. Smaller barrels and shorter maceration times combine to create wine that is more approachable flavor-wise and can be drunk after a shorter period of time. These “modern” Barolo tend not to have the extended aging capacity as their more “traditional” brethren.

Which brings us to the Damilano. Damilano Winery was founded in the 1890’s, yet clearly falls on the “modern” end of the spectrum winemaking-wise. They make four “cru” Barolo (interesting that they’d use the French term) which are in the $70-80 range. The wine I received, the “Lecinquevigne,” is a blend of grapes from vineyards across these “cru.” Hence, it has a lower price – as seen with most second label wines. The name “Lecinquevigne” translates as “Five Vineyards” and has given my spellcheck a somewhat permanent case of the yips.

I wasn’t hip to the history of the “wine wars” before starting this column, and the Barolo I’d tried previously had been, as far as I know, from the “traditional” end of the spectrum. I didn’t know the history when I took my notes, and I was somewhat reassured when I tasted this – because I thought there was something a little different about the Lecinquevigne.

The nose flew at me rich and fragrant. I initially got strawberries, cotton candy, and some woodiness. The traditional “tar and roses” aroma that Barolo is known for emerged a bit as the wine got more air. But the flavors were soft and subtly dark. There’s plenty of mouth-coating tannin in the medium body, with notes of licorice, cherry, and leather. The finish is super-long, lots of strong tea flavor that lasts a couple of minutes if you let it. That said, I wouldn’t call it overly complex, compared to many other Barolo.

This isn’t meant to be a slam; it is a really good wine. The intent of the modernist winemaker clearly shows through. Traditional Barolo’s power and harsh tannin is Exhibit A of the male end of the “masculine vs. feminine” wine divide. It is the “Wine of Kings,” after all. Modern Barolo has a much softer, “feminine” flair. I enjoyed the Lecinquevigne quite a bit, but it might not sit as well with traditional Barolo enthusiasts. I don’t know if it would pass the Uncle Alan test. We had this bottle over the course of two nights – once with a beef tenderloin braised in three wines, and again with a late-summer-veggie minestrone. Both worked very nicely with this more mellow version of Barolo.

At $35, I’d certainly recommend it. I think it’s a pretty darned good wine – especially if you’re still learning about Barolo and deciding whether it’s for you.



Sunday, September 28, 2014

Freshly Independent -- The Wine of Moldova

Let’s play “Name that country:”

A)    Approximately 25% of the population works in the wine industry.
B)    Its citizens consume the most alcohol per capita in the world.
C)    Is preparing to send much more of its wine to the United States.

Your answer? Moldova – the Eastern European nation of three million people wedged between Romania and the Ukraine, currently preparing to make a much bigger splash in the American wine scene.



Moldovan wine, needless to say, is hardly a household bottle. Moldova does sit on some of the best agricultural land in Europe, and they’ve made wine there since the 1400’s. Vineyards cover more land in Moldova than in any country in the world. About 7% of Moldova’s surface area is under vine. (To put that in perspective, imagine removing all freeways, cities, and In-and-Out Burgers from California and Oregon and planting grapes as far as the eye can see.)

While some indigenous Moldovan grapes are still raised, the bulk of their wine production is of grapes brought in from France, Italy, and Romania after WWII – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, et al.

In the early 1900’s, Moldova had the largest grape-growing area in the Russian Empire – but the vineyards suffered during the two World Wars. The Soviet Union restored the wine-growing regions during the 40’s and 50’s. By the 1960’s, wine production had returned to pre-WWII levels.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, wine production became one of Moldova’s major economic drivers, accounting for 7.5% of the value of all exports. In 2013, however, Moldova declared that it was planning to join the European Union. Almost immediately, Vladmir Putin declared a ban on imports of Moldovan wine, of which it was the largest importer in the world.

Moldova clearly needs somewhere to sell its existing and future stocks of wine, and it has turned its sights to the West. With a handy assist from Secretary of State John Kerry, the Moldovan state publicity arm is launching its first campaign to promote their wines in the United States.

I was able to dip my toe into the Moldovan wine pool when Tiffany at Colangelo sent me a couple of bottles of Moldova’s big export. I received one bottle of red and one bottle of white. How were they?


We started with the white – the Albastrele 2013 Pinot Grigio. This 100% pinot grigio started off with peach blossoms and a little apple on the nose. I thought it had solid weight for a pinot grigio, and it was well-balanced enough that it doesn’t feel artificially heavy. The palate had some nicely rounded flavors of pear, apple, and a little bit of baking spice. The finish was quite nice – lasting and gentle, starting a tad tart but never developing into anything overly acidic. I thought this was a very nicely designed white with much more complexity than I’d expect from most wines that say “pinot grigio” on the label. A quick spin around the Internet yields some listed prices from $11-13, which is an absolute steal for a wine of this quality. High marks for this bottle.

The bottle of red – the Lion-Gri 2011 Saperavi Dry Red Wine – surprised me a couple of times. Saperavi is the grape varietal, native to Moldova’s sister country across the Black Sea, Georgia. When I saw the wine was only 12% alcohol, I expected to decant something that resembled Beaujolais. Turns out, “Saperavi” translates from Georgian as “paint” or “dye,” and I was a bit shocked when from the bottle poured squid ink! This is one of the “heaviest light wines” I’ve tried. The nose is heavy with dark fruit. The mouthfeel of this wine is fascinating. Everything hits at once: big cherry and plum fruits, strong upfront tannins, and plenty of acidity. It comes in strong like a young tannic cabernet, but then eases down into a gentle finish that isn’t overly strong. The second surprise was the price point. It retails for around $10, which is a ridiculously good price. Plus, I dig "Style & Quality" as a tagline. 

One of Moldova’s best known food items is called mămăligă, (meh-MEHL-eg-uh) a cornmeal porridge also well-known in Romania. Mămăligă is similar to a large polenta cake. On our recent trip to Sonoma, I enjoyed a roasted vegetable ragout on polenta at the Willow Wood Market Café. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I hoped to emulate this meal, which was as close as we were going to get to making mămăligă. We did our best copy job, using roasted eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and a green pepper for our ragout and cracked the Lion-Gri alongside. The big initial tannin meshed really well with the roasted eggplant and the acidity coupled well with the tomatoes. I’d also suggest giving the bottle a little bit of a chill before serving.


In the interest of improving international relations with a country very interested in aligning itself with our allies in the E.U., I think we all have a responsibility to support their economy. Based on the quality of these two inexpensive bottles, I think your diplomatic efforts will be well worth it.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter – Up on the Rúfina



Good ol’ Chianti. You’ve got $15 in your pocket and you’re looking for a good table wine to go with a nice dinner you’re planning – and you know you can amble through la sezione italiana and come up with a decent bottle. If you’ve got a little more scratch to spend, though -- Chianti doesn’t stop with plain old table wine.

Thanks to Juliana at Colangelo PR, the wine fairy dropped off a bottle of Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti 2011 Chianti Rúfina, which was just released in the U.S. and is one of my first experiences in the deeper end of the Tuscan wine pool.

As I’ve covered before, Chianti is not a grape. Italian wines are usually named for the region from which the grapes are grown. Chianti is a large region in central Tuscany which encompasses parts of several Tuscan sub-provinces. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in this region. Speaking of those grapes, at least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese to fall into the Chianti category. The balance of the wine is usually a blend of other Italian indigenous varietals, along with the occasional addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Chianti tend to be relatively lighter-bodied, full of cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, and with a mineral character that feels a little “chalky” to me.

You might see “Chianti Classico” on a bottle if you’re looking. “Classico” has nothing to do with being a “classic” wine. The term refers to the area in the heart of the Chianti region bordered by Florence on the north and Siena on the south. This was the “original” area of Chianti which produces arguably some of the best wine. Chianti Classico must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The complement of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region. 

Chianti. Know it. Love it. Live it.


However, there are a few areas outside the Classico region known for making excellent Chianti. In some cases, some of the best. One of those areas is Rúfina – a small area that juts north from Classico into the province surrounding Florence. Rúfina, home to some of the highest-altitude vineyards in Tuscany, is one of the eight sub-zones of the Chianti region which is, like Classico, allowed to affix its name to a wine label as a quality designation.

Because of its altitude, Rúfina has a cooler climate than much of the surrounding area. In my experience, cool climate wines have more complexity and are less fruit-forward than wines made in higher temperature growing regions. If you’ve been keeping up with my recent travels, you know I’m a big fan of cooler weather wines – but most of my knowledge in that area comes from domestically produced grapes. I was curious how this translated to Italian wines.

I can report with confidence that I’m a fan of Rúfina’s cool-climate Chianti. The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti I sampled is made from the oldest vineyards surrounding the Nipozzano Castle in the heart of the Chianti Rufina wine-growing areas. These vineyards are around 1000 feet above sea level, where most vineyards in Chianti average around 600 feet.

Chianti’s never struck me as a particularly fragrant wine, but the Vecchie Viti displayed a difference almost immediately. Although light, the nose smells like strawberry ice cream if it could sprout blossoms. It’s quite pretty. The flavor is medium-bodied with some of the typical Chianti flavors – cherry, cola, coffee, and chalk – and they’re exceptionally well integrated. This harmony continues through the finish, rather than the mouth-puckering acidity and chalky aftertaste of many Chianti. I’ve never considered Chianti a wine that I’d just open and drink on its own – it usually needs food to shine – but this one was very pleasant.

Just the same, Chianti is best known as a food wine. While any night can be a special occasion, the quality and subtlety of this wine would be best with a meal into which you’re trying to introduce some atmosphere. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I decided to try this wine alongside one of her famous homemade pizzas (roasted tomatoes, roast chicken, capers, garlic). Just as an experiment, we also opened a bottle of perfectly decent table wine –the Zonin 2012 Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo – which retails for $12 for a 1.5 liter. The difference in flavors, as the SPinC put it so eloquently, was “like the difference between a Vera Wang gown and a Nordstrom’s knockoff.”

That said, it was the end of a long week – and we were enjoying this pizza while spawled on the couch. While the Rúfina was excellent, the setting really didn’t do the best job of highlighting how good the wine actually was.

I’d recommend opening it for a sit down meal you’ve constructed to engage your senses. I see low light, some music in the background, a little romance in the air, and an Italian meal that’s got red sauce in it somewhere. This is a wine for a “special occasion” alongside someone you’re trying to impress – whether you’ve been with the person for weeks or decades. It’s going to improve whatever you might have on the table. Whether you end up on the table with your intended is an exercise left to the reader.

The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti retails for right around $30, along the lines of what you’d pay for a really good pinot noir. If you’re thinking in those terms, it’s a good value. Spend the few extra shekels to give this one a try.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Bodega Bay Bookend and another Sonoma Snowball

You might remember the Naked Vine’s May trip to California, where the Sweet Partner in Crime and I plopped ourselves down in the town of Sonoma, tooled around a bunch, and tried some delicious wine thanks to the Naked Vine Snowball Technique, which I described thusly:

How does this work? Start at the place where you’re staying. These people live there. They know things. Say something like, “We’re looking for a good place to start. We want somewhere fun, laid back, and not overly pricey.” Replace those descriptors with whatever you want…expensive wines, pinot noir specialists, great gift shop -- whatever floats your cork. You’ll end up with at least a couple of recommendations. Pop in to one of them and do a tasting. Chat. Enjoy. If you feel like you make a connection, then repeat your question to the good folks behind the bar. These people live there. They know things. They’ll mention a couple of other places. Those places will mention other places. Patterns form in the recommendations. You now have your guide. Go forth and enjoy.

We decided to head back out west again just before school started – this time using the Sonoma Coast as our base of operations, since we’d not done much exploration of that area of this wonderful wine region. The evening drive through the fog from SFO to the town of Bodega Bay was a bit harrowing, but all's well that ends well! We got checked in to the Bodega Bay Lodge (which I recommend once you get used to the foghorn in the bay going off every 30 seconds) and got ready for our new tour of the county.
 
(c) the San Francisco Chronicle

The Sonoma Coast AVA (AVA = “American Viticultural Area” – the designation for a subregion within a growing areas), as you can see, is a fairly large portion of Sonoma County. Most of the vineyards in this AVA are at much higher altitude than the rest of the county You might remember, during my writeup of the last Sonoma trip, that I discovered a preference for “mountain fruit” vs. “valley fruit” wines. Mountain fruit grapes from the generally cooler, breezier climates like the Sonoma coastal region create wines that are less fruit-forward and more subtle in flavor. 

These areas favor cool weather grapes such as pinot noir, rather than the Cabernet and Zin that you’d find just a few miles inland as the crow flies. The climate also gives an interesting twist to the Chardonnay and Syrah some growers are producing. The region also produces some absolutely fabulous rosé.   Many of these wines also tend to be somewhat more expensive, as the grapes are more difficult to grow and harvest. It’s easy to burn through a lot of coin ordering stuff if you’re not careful.

 

We started the snowball in Bodega Bay at a wine and gift shop called Gourmet Au Bay. Their trademark is their “wine surfing” samples, in which you get three pours on a surfboart. After a couple of tastes and a discussion about what we liked, we talked to the manager, Sissy, to see what she might recommend. Out came the highlighter and the map of Sonoma County, and we were off. 
Just getting under way. Two down, one to go.
(Snowball forming on map...)

With the narrow, twisty roads of this part of Sonoma County, we didn’t hit as many wineries as we could have – but I was pleased with our finds. Here were some of our favorites:

Iron Horse Vineyards – The gorgeousness that is the Iron Horse property is right on the border of the Sonoma Coast and Russian River AVA’s, so I’m including it. If you remember, Iron Horse was the tasting experience which started The Naked Vine down its path of oenological debauchery. Nine years had passed since we were last there, and they seem to have done pretty well for themselves in the interim. Unlike nine years ago, when they were crafting incredible cabernets (one of which, “Benchmark,” was the celebratory bottle when the Sweet Partner in Crime made full professor), they only make wine from estate fruit now. This means that they grow only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – much of which goes into the sparkling wines for which they’re well known. We were fans of the Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs ($45), a sparkling wine that has an attachment to the National Geographic Ocean Initiative. Their pinot noirs were exceptional, but quite pricey. The $70 pricetag on the Russian River Pinot Noir was steep, but it’s a great wine. (http://www.ironhorsevineyards.com/)

Our return to the scene of the crime...Iron Horse.
Lynmar Estate – I’ve talked before about my notion of “wood theory” – in that there’s generally an inverse relationship between the amount of burnished wood in a tasting room and the quality of the wine. Lynmar is an exception to the theory, as their tasting room and surrounding gardens (which include a rosemary shrub taller than I am!) are lovely places to linger. The wine, as well, is lovely to linger over. Their focus is pinot noir and chardonnay, although they’ve begun cranking out some cool-climate Syrah. We really enjoyed their spread. I thought their Russian River pinot noir at $40 was exceptional, especially for the price. Lynmar also was where we discovered that a lot of these wineries are producing some pinot noir for the express purpose of creating rosé, like the good folks in Provence. Lynmar’s rosé was top notch. Their Quail Hill chardonnay, while hardly a bargain at $55, is simply luscious. (http://www.lynmarestate.com/)

Red Car Wine – Red Car won the “most interesting tasting room” prize from us on this trip, with its funky collection of memorabilia and a vibe that stops on the playful side of hipster. Red Car focuses almost exclusively on production from high-altitude, cold-climate vineyards, which produces very bright, clean, flavorful wine at relatively low alcohol levels. For instance, I don’t see a lot of Syrah under 13.5% alcohol, and Red Car’s Estate ($50) clocked in at 13.3% with gorgeous layers of plum, earth, and chocolate. Their Chardonnay ($35) could have fooled me into thinking it was a white Burgundy along the lines of the clean but oaky Meursault. Their pinots, which start around $40, also have a bit of that lean Burgundian earth and smokiness – and fruits that are very clean and striking. Highly recommended. (http://www.redcarwine.com/)
Red Car's tasting room. Good fun.


Taft Street Wines – “Garagistes since 1979” is their proud announcement. Garagistes were winemakers inBordeaux who operated outside the strict French guidelines for wine production, often making their wines in garages rather than on chateaux. The American iteration, which moved from a garage in Berkeley to an old apple processing plant in Sebastapol, was the best overall value of any of our stops. Their estate pinot is under $35, and I took a shine to their Alexander Valley Merlot, which at $20 was the best QPR I found on the trip. Fruity and lush with a really nice cocoa backbone, it’s worth stocking up on. They also produced some of the few sauvignon blancs we tried on the trip -- a steal at $18. (http://www.taftstreetwinery.com/)

Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards – Joseph Phelps is a very accomplished Napa winemaker. He’s produced three cabernets -- his “Insignia” label -- that earned 100 points from Robert Parker, including his 2002, which was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. In 2007, Phelps opened a winery in the Sonoma Coast region for the grapes grown in his new Freestone Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA. The $55 Freestone Vineyards pinot noir was a delicate, wonderfully balanced offering – full of fruit and smoke. We also discovered Phelps’ “second label” wine – Fog Dog – which were perfectly decent pinot noir and chardonnay, although at the price point, there were better wines in the county. We also had the opportunity to try the 2006 vintage of the “Insignia” which would retail for $240 – making it the second-most expensive wine I’ve ever tried. Needless to say, it was a pretty damned good wine. (http://www.josephphelps.com/)  I’ll be writing more about Phelps in the future, so stay tuned.

Fort Ross Vineyard – Fort Ross was the one Sonoma Coast tasting room we visited that was actually on the coast – about a 35 minute drive from Bodega Bay up the windy Pacific Coast Highway up through Jenner (where you absolutely must stop and get a sandwich and a beverage at Café Aquatica) and then up into the mountain fog to the beautiful tasting room, where you can watch the sun burn away the clouds as you sip on some excellent pinot noir and chardonnay. My favorite selection of theirs, however, was a grape I’d not seen anywhere else in the region: Pinotage, the national grape of South Africa – the native country of owners Lester and Linda Schwartz. I like South African pinotage just fine, but it’s usually a rough wine that calls for a big slab of meat from the braai. Planted in these coastal altitudes, the Fort Ross pinotage ($48) yields a rounder, smoother – yet still muscular – glass that features blackberry flavors and a really nice earthiness. Their pinot noir ($42-70) and rosé ($24) were also top notch. (http://www.fortrossvineyard.com/)


Fort Ross Vineyard -- Nice view, eh?

Fog Crest Vineyard – Our last stop was a lovely one, here at one of Sonoma’s newest tasting rooms. It’s so new (it just opened this year) that it’s not on the touring maps – and we only learned about it from our friends at Gourmet Au Bay. We were very glad that we made the turn up the driveway and planted ourselves on their lovely terrace overlooking the vineyard for our final tasting of the trip as we headed out of town. The view was a little reminiscent of Iron Horse – so yet another bookend. We really enjoyed the Estate Chardonnay ($39), chock full of crème brulee and spice and their full-flavored Estate pinot noir ($55) with its smoky layers that would be good to stash for a couple of years. The wine that made the biggest impression on me, however, was their Rosé ($21), Rich and fruity for a dry rosé, it’s clearly lovingly crafted. I pulled the trigger on a case for home, since one can never have too much good dry rosé around. (http://www.fogcrestvineyard.com/)

Saying farewells to Sonoma at Fog Crest.
If you’re over in that neck of the woods, I'd also recommend driving around Bayshore Drive in Bodega to get some oysters at Fisherman’s Cove (http://www.bodegabayoysters.com/), get dinner at Terrapin Creek Café (http://www.terrapincreekcafe.com/); and snag brunch at Willow Wood Café in Graton (http://www.willowwoodgraton.com/).

Cheers!



Monday, September 01, 2014

Naked Vine Triple Italian -- Three for September's Start

Pinot grigio usually isn’t my speed.

While I’ve come to enjoy Italian whites more and more (I feel pretty safe with almost any varietal starting with “V”) – the light white workhorse grape of Italy doesn’t usually catch my fancy. Simply put, most of the Italian versions I try lean towards the flavor of lemon water. It’s not that these are bad wines, they’re usually just uninteresting, especially at the inexpensive end of the wine pool. That said, if you’re going to be sitting by a pool or relaxing outside on a warm day, they’re usually thirst-quenching critters.

When I got the offer from Dana at Wagstaff of three Italian “whites to beat the heat,” I accepted, of course, but I went into this tasting experience wine with, shall we say, no delusions of grandeur. I had three bottles in the shipment – two pinot grigio and one white blend. Here’s how they stacked up.



Stemmari (NV) Pinot Grigio – This Sicilian offering turned out not to be half-bad. It’s not a complex wine by any stretch, mind you. It’s not going to make you think much, but you’ll be pretty comfortable while you’re thinking of other things. It’s certainly light, but some depth develops there after a couple of sips. Happily, there wasn’t the typical watery finish here – I found it to be rather crisp and tart. The flavors run to the lime and peach. It’s also a pretty good food wine. I made seared scallops and didn’t feel like making a Chablis run that day, so I popped this instead. It worked better than I expected. For around $10 in the summertime, it’s a solid sipper.


Cliffhanger Vineyards 2013 Trentino Pinot Grigio – Traveling back to the Italian mainland, Trentino is the province in the Dolomite mountains where this wine hails from. The wine’s name is drawn because, well, the grapes are largely grown on the faces of the steep granite hills of the region. The bouquet reminded me of lemon cake. It tastes initially like it has some residual sugar, although there’s nothing about that in the wine notes. The body is fuller than I expected, almost chardonnay-ish in weight. The flavor is largely citrus fruit, more of that lemon-cakey flavor, and peaches. The finish, at least at the first few sips, tasted more astringent than crisp. It doesn’t really have that pinot grigio “snap” and almost tastes like there’s a little oak there. It wasn’t at the top of my list for this sort of sipper. Retails for about $13.




Stemmari 2012 “Dalila” White Wine – Back to Sicily for the execution of an interesting idea. The backbone of this wine is 80% Grillo, an autochthonal grape from Sicily. Grillo is a white grape that thrives in the Sicilian heat. It yields a high-alcohol white that is rarely used as a single varietal, since the wines tend to be even less flavorful than pinot grigio. Most Grillo actually ends up in the production of Marsala, the Italian fortified wine. So, someone at Stemmari got the idea to blend in about 20% Viognier for bulk and bouquet. At first try, the added Viognier contributes its characteristic peach blossom scent, but the body is much more reminiscent in style to a pinot grigio. The flavor is primarily citrus, with some honey and vanilla adding a little bit of interest. The finish is quite crisp and fairly abrupt, with just a little flavor of orange peel at the very end. It’s refreshing enough for a hot day, and I liked it more than a generic pinot grigio. Still, at $14, I could probably find an adequate summer sipper for a few dollars less, like the initial pinot grigio from this set.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Flank Steak, Salty Chemistry, and some South African Wine

I love flank steak. Love it.

It’s perhaps my favorite cut of meat. Think about it. You walk into a grocery store with a $20. You grab a beautiful two-pound wad of cow from which you can serve generous portions of tender, juicy, yummy steak to your nearest and dearest and…you still have money left over to buy the makings for sides. Glorious.

I recently discovered a fantastic technique for tenderizing flank steak which I just used to grill up one of the best I can remember. I’ll share it with you:

·         Get yourself a flank steak. Go on. I’ll wait.
·         Now, coat each side of the steak in kosher salt. Probably 1-2 T. per side. Trust me on this. If you like, you can also sprinkle on some garlic powder, herbs, what have you – but the salt is the key.
·         Let it sit like this at room temperature for at least an hour. (“Dear God, man! Are you trying to kill us all?” I hear you. I was skeptical, too. Hang in, compadre…)
·         Get the grill hot. Hot. HOT. (Or heat up a broiler, if that’s your thing.)
·         Rinse the salt and such off that lovely piece of beef. Pat it dry, then oil it lovingly.
·         Toss it on the HOT grill (or under the broiler, sigh). Leave it alone. Five minutes is all I ask. Then flip. Five more. Remove from the grill, tent it with foil, and just let it sit there – difficult as that will be to do – for ten minutes, maybe 15 if you can stand it.
·         Slice into juicy nirvana.

Oh, yes.
There is a biochemistry to this. Many grill folks will warn you against salting a cut of meat before you throw it on the grill, as it pulls out water. True…at first. Water emerges from the steak. The salt on the surface dissolves in the water, creating a saline solution. If you remember high school chemistry, all solutions naturally find a balance – an “isotonic solution.”

Given enough time, the salty solution is then drawn back into the steak as it mingles with the non-salty water in the meat. If you’ve mixed herbs or spices with your salt, those flavors go right along. Additionally, the salt causes the fibers in the meat to relax, tenderizing it beautifully.

“But what about bacteria?” you might ask? Saline solutions prevent bacterial growth, so you’ve got no worries there. Trust me, give it a try and you’ll never look at a steak the same way again.

A holiday we can all get behind.
Why do I bring this up? Well, the wine fairy (with help from Jennifer at Colangelo) recently gifted me a pair of South African wines from the well-known Mulderbosch Winery. In summertime (or anytime really) South Africans do their traditional version of grilling called braai. South Africa even has a “National Braai Day,” of which Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a patron, celebrated next month on September 24 – which is also Heritage Day in the Rainbow Nation.

Since I had these wines, I thought I’d do a little braii-ing of my own with this flank steak preparation and the red – the Mulderbosch 2012 “Faithful Hound” Red Blend.

The Hound, bottle adorned with a lovable looking redbone coonhound, is a traditional Bordeaux blend – about 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with the rest made up of Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. I expected a big, highly tannic red – but was pleasantly surprised to find a more restrained, balanced flavor. Many South African reds can be on the rough side, but this was balanced enough to drink on its own. Good berry and fruit flavors and a really interesting vanilla bouquet. Grippy tannins at the end, but nothing too bitter. I liked it. With the steak (which was monstrously good, by the way), it was as lovely an accompaniment as I could ask for on a weekday evening. It retails for around $19, and I’d say that’s priced just about right.



The other bottle I received was the Mulderbosch 2011 Chenin Blanc Steen Op Hout – a consistent performer for several years on the Vine’s tasting table. I tried the 2011 about a year ago just after its release. I was curious to see what had changed. Here’s what I said back then:

“Steen op Hout” translates from Afrikaans as “Stone on Wood,” which is a decent descriptor for this particular white. Word to the wise, this is a wine that needs a little time for its natural funk to blow off before. My recommendation would be to crack it and allow at least 10 minutes before you dive in. Once you do, you’ll run into a firm floral nose with a strong lemony tone. The flavor, as promised, has a really nice mineral character alongside a solid backbone of grapefruit. The finish is very flinty with a little bit of a bitter, lemon rind-y aftertaste and just a hint of oak.

In the year that’s passed, this wine has developed some unexpected depth. There are more tropical fruit flavors like mango and pear bouncing around in this wine. Where I would have really recommended it with shellfish before, now, I’d probably lean more towards light meats with fruit salsas and sauces. To go back to my little salting technique, it works just as well on chicken or pork as well, so you can safely experiment along those lines.



The Steen op Hout – retailing for $14 -- is apparently in its 2013 release, since they sent me the tasting notes for that vintage instead of the 2011. That said, this particular wine, as constructed, safely lasted for those a couple of years. I would guess you might see some of the 2011 vintage on your local wine store’s clearance rack to make room for the new bottles. So, if you see some of the 2011 on closeout, snap it up.


And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with some scrumptious wraps made from leftover flank steak. Yum.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Who ya got? -- Pinot Noir Smackdown! Bota Box vs. Black Box.

You drink box wine. I know you do. We’re all friends here. I won’t tell. You close all the blinds and make sure the neighbors aren’t watching before you open the kitchen cupboard to sneak a little splash of merlot from that little plastic spout, or you move aside the Tupperware of leftover potato salad from the office potluck to get a glug of pinot grigio when no one’s looking.

I drink it too, you see. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. For the sake of full disclosure, I often have a box of red and a box of white floating around the house. I don’t keep it because it’s necessarily great wine. I keep it because I don’t always want to open up great wine.

Box wine serves a particular niche. Box wine is wine for drinking, not thinking. Sometimes, wine just needs to be good enough. When I flop on the couch after a long day at work or at the end of an evening, I don’t really want to dig in the cellar and pull out something special.

Box wine has come a long way since the huge cardboard containers of Vella and Franzia which often look like building material for the back walls of wine stores. I’ve written about box wines before, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while box wines aren’t generally going to blow you away, better mass-production techniques and greatly improved storage systems have improved the quality to a point where you can knock the stuff back without feeling like you should be drinking out of a brown paper bag.

For a long time, especially with the reds, I’d only seen Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot. A few years ago, Zinfandel came on the scene, followed by Malbec. Those two are now more common. Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen Pinot Noir releases from arguably the two most well-known manufacturers of box wine -- and when titans of the bulk wine industry go head to head, The Naked Vine is there with a scorecard. Imagine Michael Buffer, if you will:

·         In this corner, hailing from the Valle Central and Casablanca regions of Chile, weighing in at 13.5% alcohol, comprised of grape blends unknown, retailing for $22 – Bota Box Pinot Noir.
·         And in this corner, from across the many hills and valleys of California, weighing in at 13.2% alcohol, comprised of 78% Pinot Noir, 21% Syrah, and 1% “Dry Red,” retailing for $24 – Black Box Pinot Noir.

Ladies and gentlemen…let’s get ready to rummmmmble! (DING!)
Round One – Head to Head

How are these wines side-by-side? Despite the color scheme of the two wines’ packaging, the Bota Box actually pours a little bit darker. Since they’re both wines made in the “style” of pinot noir, both have cherry and strawberry flavors, and both have gentler tannins than, say, Cabernets or a Malbecs you might find in a box. The Bota is the richer of the two, with more cherry and cola flavors, and a lot more tannin on the finish. It certainly tastes closer to what I’d expect from a pinot noir than the Black Box, which showed as a little more acidic, had a lighter body, and really didn’t go anywhere on the finish. Head to head as a first glass: Winner: Bota Box.

Round 2 – Flying Solo (Cup)

Did you know that the second ring on a standard red Solo cup is a five ounce pour of wine? See? All sorts of useful information here. (Also, the first ring is 1.5 oz – a shot of liquor. The top ring is 12 oz – a standard beer.) The next test for our battling boxes was to see how they hold up after a couple of consecutive glasses. At a party or other social occasion, a box of wine on the table doesn’t exactly say, “Just have one glass.” Also, odds are, there’s no fine stemware service.

On separate days, I had three small glasses over a stretch of time to see how the wines progressed. The Black Box’s more-nondescript nature actually played to its favor here. By the third glass, it settled into a “hey, I’m having some wine” groove. The Bota’s extra tannin was drying out my mouth by the third splash. For session purposes: Winner: Black Box.

Round 3 – The Finisher

The SPinC generally goes to bed earlier than I do. The pups generally join her, so I have some quiet time to myself before I call it a night. I’ll occasionally allow myself a nightcap as I kick back, so these wines made appearances in that relaxing space over the course of a couple of evenings. By that point in the evening, neither wine really contributed much other than something to sip on as the hour made things get foggy around the edges. Being that it’s August, I’d probably give this round to Black Box on points, but not by any huge margin. In the wintertime, I’d probably swing the other way.

Round 4 – The Big Shift

As I mentioned, we’ll swing over to box wines after we’ve already killed off a “good” bottle earlier in the evening. That transition can be, shall we say, “abrupt” – especially if the previous wine was particularly good. We got on a bit of a cooking roll this week and hit a series of really nice cellared wines. As one might expect, the wine with a little more structure buffered the inevitable “yep, this wine’s not nearly as good” transition a little more successfully. Winner: Bota Box.

Round 5 – The Unfair Comparison

The last of those wines from the cellar was a 2007 1er Nuits-Saint-Georges Burgundy. I cracked that to go with a couple of duck breasts with a sweet cherry sauce. The wine was musical and the meal was magical. We had a little bit of the Burgundy left at the end – and, for science, I gave each of these boxes a chance to take a run at the champ. I’ll save you the trouble of trying it at home. Don’t. Just don’t. In comparison, the Black Box tasted like a pop tart and the Bota had a finish of charcoal. There are no winners here. Draw.


Overall – Bota Box is the better overall wine, but the Black Box serves its purpose. Either way, you’re getting four bottles of wine you can consume without cringing for a sawbuck. Drink up.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Naked Vine Luxury Double Barrel -- Euclid Wines

Opus One. Heard of it?

Maybe you only know it as a Jay-Z lyric, but Opus One helped put Napa Valley’s Cabernet Sauvignon on the world wine map. First created in 1979 as a joint venture of California’s Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Mouton Rothschild – producers of the first-growth Bordeaux of the same name. Opus One was, at the time, the most expensive wine produced in California – retailing for $50. Opus One now retails for $235 per bottle.

Alas, the Opus One folks did not send along samples. But Opus One’s former cellarmaster, Mike Farmer, did. (Thanks, also, to Susan at WineGlass Marketing.) When Mike retired from his position, he and his son Lucas created Euclid Wines – drawing on his 30-plus years of experience in the wine business.

For those unfamiliar with what a “cellarmaster” does (and this included me until writing this review!) – this individual is the person who’s in charge of all aspects of production at a winery from when the containers of grapes come rolling in the door to when the cases of bottled wine go rolling out. A winemaker draws up the strategy to create a wine. The cellarmaster executes that strategy.

This father-son duo said they wanted to make a Cabernet Sauvignon as their signature wine. They currently produce a premium Cabernet (which is 97% Cabernet with 3% Syrah to round out the blend) and a 100% Syrah, both produced from grapes grown on Howell Mountain in Napa County. The geometrical-sounding name of the winery is Mike Farmer’s middle name, passed down from his grandfather, Euclid Doucette. Farmer describes his grandfather as “a man of intensity, integrity, and true to his word,” and he tried to model his wines after the emotions stemming from that familial respect.
Lucas and Mike Farmer

There are fewer more direct examples of the market’s invisible hand than wine price points. High-end wine demands high-end prices because people are willing to shell out the cash. As any marketing student will tell you, there are plenty of ways to make wine more desirable aside from actually making a superior product. Fancy packaging, slick marketing, using adult film stars to garner positive reviews, and other tricks of the trade.

The Euclid 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon retails for $85, and this is one of the few wines I’ve tried where I thought, “You know, this really tastes like an $85 bottle of wine.” This cabernet is exceptionally well crafted and offers some of the most interesting aromatics I’ve sniffed. My notes say “peaches, cotton candy, crème brulee perfumed sweetness.” Needless to say, these aren’t words that pop up in my reviews of reds very often. The flavor is exceptionally well-balanced, full of vanilla, dark fruit, and super-balanced tannin. The finish was lasting, gorgeous lushness. I grilled a couple of good steaks, which I put next to some grilled beets with goat cheese and dill and it was transcendently good.

The Euclid Cab is a fabulous wine and it’s a shame it goes so quickly. I had the last half-glass in the quiet of the Man Cave while mellowing out after the Sweet Partner in Crime had retired for the evening. The wine tasted like Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” sounds at the end of a hard day.

The Euclid 2010 Sierra Foothills Syrah is not quite as pricey as its sister Cab. The retail on this bottle is $40. Syrah is generally a couple of orders of magnitude fruitier and deeper than Cabernet Sauvignon, so I didn’t expect the same sort of subtlety we’d experienced. Even with that notion…wow, what a contrast in style between these wines.

Returning to the previous metaphor, if the Cabernet is a mellow 70’s tune, the Syrah is A Tribe Called Quest’s “Low End Theory.” Good lawrd, I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything quite like this wine. The nose is typical Syrah – plums, violets, and spice – although it’s really well balanced and quite pretty. The mouthfeel is rich, thick, and fruity…and then the bottom absolutely drops out of this inky, tannic monster. Imagine the warming feel of a good bourbon or scotch and convert that sensation to the fullness and depth of tannin and you’ve got this Syrah’s finish. I could feel blackness filling my chest as I drank this down. While it’s not the drying, mouth puckering tannin that it could be, it feels like a dark depth charge. Boom.

I decided to do some lamb chops as a pairing with this – and about halfway through the meal, the Sweet Partner in Crime says, “I just can’t do it. It’s too big.” Caught between the richness of the wine, the marbling of the chops and the savory nature of the fennel and caper relish I’d done as a side, the SPinC overloaded. (My Uncle Alan, in contrast, would have been in absolute heaven.) I got through my glass and, upon seeing myself in the bathroom mirror later, noticed that a single glass of the Euclid was sufficient to blacken my teeth.

We didn’t get through the whole bottle. I put a VacuVin on it and sampled it over the next couple of days. After a day, it hadn’t opened up much. After two days, some of the lighter, more vanilla aspects of the nose started to come through – even though the body was still enormous. I think it still needs more time. Make sure you decant it for at least a couple of hours before you drink it. My half-hour wasn’t enough. If you like wines this powerful, snag a couple of bottles to hold for a few years.