Sunday, August 02, 2015

Novas by Emiliana: A Little More Spice from Chile

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

(Thanks to Rebecca at Banfi for the hit!)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Vine Nu Uma Rebatedor: Vinho Branco

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

Faith and Flower is in L.A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, June 19, 2015

Wente -- Some Chards for our Chard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Monday, June 01, 2015

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- New Terroir, New Tastes



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Natura Wines -- Chile's inexpensive organic alternative

Chilean wines benefit from the country’s unique geography. The Andes border the various winegrowing regions on the east and the Pacific Ocean does so on the west. The relatively high altitude, notable daily temperature shifts, and relatively dry climate create a solid environment for grape growing – protected from many of the pests and diseases like the phylloxera louse which can plague Northern Hemisphere vineyards. Because of the relative pest-free nature of the country, Chile boasts some of the oldest, ungrafted vines in the world.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Breathing Life into the Heavy Hitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Pull of Montepulciano

Most everyone’s got a “house wine.”

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

Here at the ranch, one of our house wines is an Italian red called Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Montepulciano is our normal red table wine. Simple, fruity, medium-bodied and straightforward, a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is like watching an old episode of Seinfeld. I know exactly what to expect, I can enjoy it without paying too much attention, and I don’t have to search hard to find an open episode. The fact that it’s around $10-12 for a 1.5 liter bottle doesn’t hurt, either.

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

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

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

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

A few nights later, we got into the Marina Cvetic 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC San Martino. Marina Cvetic married Gianni Masciarelli in 1987, and Gianni dedicated his top-line wine to her. She has run the Masciarelli production operation since 2008. While the table version of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the very definition of “sluggable red,” the difference in this more “grown up” version was evident from the moment we poured it. The color was much inkier than what I was used to, and the nose of this 100% Montepulciano is full of plums and strawberries. The body is considerable, with dark fruits wrapped up in vanilla and a solid tannic backbone that becomes very pleasant after the wine gets some air. (I’m not used to decanting my Montepulciano!) The finish is evenly tannic with some nice coffee flavors. With a strip steak topped with mushrooms, just outstanding. Also lovely next to evening chocolate. For $20-25, I thought this certainly worth that price.



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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Run for the Rosés, Part 2 – South African Pink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, April 13, 2015

Run for the Rosés, Part 1 – Italian Pink



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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