Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Two Up from Umbria -- Trebbiano Spoletino & Sagrantino Passito


As many of you know, I have a real passion for autochthonal wines.

(“Psst…Mike…what the hell’s an autochthonal wine?”)

OK, fine. I don’t get to break that term out in everyday conversation. “Autochthonal wine” is just a fancy way to say “wine made from grapes indigenous to the region.” In a place like Italy, where there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of indigenous grape varietals dotting the hills and valleys, new taste experiences exist around every corner.

Such is the case for a couple of wines I had the chance to try from the Italian region of Umbria. Umbria is in central Italy. If you’re looking at the “boot” of Italy, Umbria is squarely mid-calf, dead center. Umbria is best known for white wines, specifically wines from the subregion of Orvieto, made largely from blends of the Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes.

The wines I tried recently, however, are single varietal offerings. The first, which sounds to a certain extent similar to the wines Umbria’s best known for, is the Perticaia 2015 Trebbiano Spoletino DOC. Trebbiano Spoletino is not the same as Orvieto’s traditional Trebbiano, which tends to yield middle-of-the-road whites if not treated with real care. Instead, Trebbiano Spoletino, with its later harvest and high acidity, tends to create wines of more weight and complexity.

That was certainly the case here. Not knowing what to expect, having never experienced a wine from this particular grape, I looked to the description. The notes said that it was, at once, full-bodied and a good accompaniment for fish, seafood, and white meat, or on its own as an aperitif. “Aperitif” and “full-bodied” don’t usually go together in my mind.

I can say with all honesty that I’ve never had a wine quite like this one before. The description above certainly resonates. The nose is quite floral – apple blossoms and green apples make up a lot of the fragrance. The body is quite full – apples again, along with some tropical notes like mangoes. But then the wine’s flavor takes a turn. There’s a fairly strong underlying lemon flavor, and the finish turns quite tart, backed with a crisp flinty snap.

In short, imagine a Viognier taking a Muscadet for a long, romantic Italian holiday. The resulting vinous child would taste like this Trebbiano Spoletino. If you can find a bottle of it (retail is around $23), I recommend giving it a try for the unique experience.

The other bottle, or half-bottle to be more precise, was the Antonelli 2010 Montefalco Sagrantino Passito. You might recall that I’ve written about the Sagrantino grape previously – I deemed it “The Italian Heavy Hitter,” since it was one of the most powerful, tooth-stainingly tannic reds that ever galloped past my gums. This is the red wine that was too much for the Sweet Partner in Crime, even when I tried to sneak it past her as something else.

No – the difference here lies in the last word in the wine’s name, “Passito.” Passito is Italian for “raisin,” which describes part of the winemaking process. There’s a style of wine known around the world as “straw wine,” where grapes are placed on large straw mats to dry in the sun. The resulting semi-dried grapes – you know, raisins – are then pressed. The juice, which is highly concentrated, typically yields a sweet, thick product. This process is not unique to Umbria. Vin Santo and Recioto are other well-known sweet Italian “straw wines.” I’ve never been a fan of either of those varieties. The raisin flavor is a bit too much for me.

I approached the Sagrantino version with a little bit of an initial side-eye, knowing it was going to be sweet, bracing for dark raisins. I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe because the tannin level in the initial grapes is high enough to overwhelm that part of the flavor profile – there’s really not much of a raisin-ish flavor. Instead, what swirled in my glass reminded me of a cordial.

The nose is surprisingly rich, with cherries and blackberries coming to the front. This wine is thick and rich on the palate. Plenty of Bing cherry weight gets backed with a big tannic undertone. The finish hits with cherry, espresso, and a real smoky dryness at the back of my tongue, balancing out the residual sweetness on the front. A fascinating experience, especially after the wine got some air. The flavor that emerged, especially on the finish, was of chocolate-covered cherries. Not surprisingly, alongside dark chocolate, it was quite good.

Sagrantino Montefalco is not inexpensive to start with. The raisinating winemaking process boosts the price even more. This bottle retails for $40. I don’t think this wine is for everyone – but if you’re in the mood to sip a red dessert wine alongside some dark, strong chocolates, you might consider snagging a bottle for a special occasion.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Naked Vine One-Hitter: UK, Bourbon, Zinfandel, and 1000 Stories

Ashley is unhappy today.

With Kentucky bounced unceremoniously by Kansas State from the NCAA Tournament last night, many UK fans are likely looking for some liquid salve to soothe some disappointment. A bottle happened across my tasting table that might fit the bill.

I recently had the chance to try 1000 Stories 2016 California Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel ($16-20) -- a blend of Zinfandel from Lodi and Paso Robles, with a touch of Petit Sirah juice sourced from Lake County. The winemaker, Bob Blue, states that it was rare to see wine aged in French Oak when he started learning his craft, and most American oak barrels were used for whiskey. Over the years, using these barrels has become more commonplace – and now Blue uses used bourbon barrels as a flavoring method.

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

In any case, this particular wine starts out in standard American and French Oak barrels before being racked into used white oak Bourbon barrels. After a period of months, the wine is finished in older (some apparently 13 years old) Bourbon barrels. Finding old bourbon barrels sounds like a difficult step, but, according to the legal rules governing distillation in the U.S., Bourbon barrels can only be used once to make whiskey. After that, the barrels have long been sold to distillers making whiskeys and other spirits, winemakers, and others. That doesn’t mean this isn’t an important step. Even after being used once, the barrel can still impart some distinct flavors to whatever’s stored inside it.

In this case, the toasted vanilla and crème brulee flavors that are common in bourbon do find their way into this glass of Zinfandel. Those toasty flavors are needed to balance the alcohol. At 15.7% ABV, this is a wine that needs a little taming. I’d suggest, at the very least, you either decant thoroughly or let it have at least half-an-hour’s worth of air after you crack it.

The nose of this wine has a bit of that smokiness in the background, on top of dark fruit and some fairly interesting notes of spice like nutmeg. On the palate, this is a big, honking glass of vanilla, spice, smoke, and considerable alcohol. Once it opens up, plum and sage flavors pop their heads out of the mix and the alcohol recedes a bit. The finish is long, dry, and smoky – the various oak instillings lending pepper and a tooth-staining level of tannin. Honestly, though – I don’t see how much of a difference, other than a sharper oak flavor, that the bourbon barrels actually make with this wine over standard barrel aging. It’s an interesting marketing idea, especially if you’re interested in conversation with whiskey aficionados or unhappy Kentucky fans.

If you like your Zinfandel smoky with big fruits, this would probably be a good choice for you. I’d recommend it next to a plate of meat, preferably grilled. Ribs or rich stews would be solid pairings here, as would really dark chocolate.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Big Smooth Wines

Sam "Big Smooth" Perkins -- who has nothing to do with this wine.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been noticing more and more wines showing up both at Big Wine Store and in restaurants from the Lodi appellation in California. Lodi, which most non-Cali residents recognize from the Creedence Clearwater Revival tune, is just south of Sacramento and almost due east of the Bay Area.

Long-known as an agricultural center, Lodi’s place in the California wine world was mass production of fairly cheap juice. Over the last ten or so years, the lure of wine tourism has caused many local winemakers to up their respective games. Some major winemakers, in this case Sebastiani and Sons, have started creating wines from Lodi fruit.

This year saw the entrance into the market of Big Smooth wines. Big Smooth, with its tagline of “Think Big, Sip Smooth,” features the grape varietals that this section of the San Joaquin Valley is best known for – Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

The bottle designs are pretty simple, as you can see, and the labels have a velour finish, which is supposed to accentuate the smoothness, I guess. They do feel different, so beware – you may end up absently fondling a bottle at some point.

Big Smooth 2015 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon – If you imagine the lean, earthy lines of a Bordeaux and then consider what the polar opposite would be in the Cabernet would – this would probably be a pretty good approximation. There’s little here to the imagination on this Cabernet, which starts out strong and just stays with you.

Big Smooth’s nose is rich with blackberry and baking spices. The first sip yields a full mouthfeel. I found lots of blackberries, currants, alongside rich coffee and chocolate notes on the body. The best part of the experience for me was its lasting finish that holds onto that chocolate essence for a good long while.

I cracked this 14.5% ABV Cab with a surf and turf that I put together after the Sweet Partner in Crime had a hair appointment. I thought it went delightfully well with the steak. As one might expect, it ran over the scallops just a bit – but it worked well enough as a side, even if the SPinC thought it was a bit too much for her.


Big Smooth 2015 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel – Now, if you’ve paid attention around the store here long enough, you’ve probably heard me mention the notion of an “Old Vine” wine before. There is truth to the notion that older vines tend to produce better quality fruit, albeit at much lower quantity. However, there is no standard definition for what constitutes “Old Vine” – other than what an individual winemaker says it is.

In this case, Big Smooth doesn’t reveal the ages of its vines, but I can tell you  that it’s a big ol’ quaff. Clocking in at 15.5% alcohol, you’re not exactly searching for subtlety when pulling the cork on this big boy. Big jammy flavors of plum, black cherries and vanilla come at you full force. There’s plenty of tannin from its year in largely American oak barrels, but that tannic flavor is stretched out and smoky, which keeps the overall flavor a little more restrained than it could be. It boasts a long finish that’s surprisingly soft for a Zin this big. With a big plate of BBQ, I think it would be a good enough pairing, and it went reasonably well with chocolate. For someone who likes this big, bold style, it would be a fair enough drink.

In general, however, for my palate, these wines weren’t the best match. I thought their fruit forward natures were a bit too fruity, verging on grapey. A decade ago, this probably would have been dead in my wheelhouse, but I’ve trended away from these over the years. That said, I know plenty of folks who would pull the cork and glug these down, delighting in the big sensations of it.

Big Smooth wines retail for around $16-18.




Saturday, February 24, 2018

Levels and Levels – Chianti Three Ways


Ah, Chianti.

Lovely Sangiovese-based blend from Tuscany, how do I love thee? As you all know, here around Vine HQ, we love our food, and there are few better food wines anywhere than those that come out of the Chianti region.

Now, as you might have guessed from the first paragraph, Chianti is the name of a place, not a grape. Italian wines are generally named after the locale where the grapes for the wine are grown, with a few exceptions.

There are rough quality delineations among Chianti, roughly mirroring the price points. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in the region. At least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese. 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 flipside of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is typically higher quality wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region.

If you see “Chianti Riserva,” that means that the wine is aged for a longer period of time in barrel – a minimum of two years. A standard Chianti is only aged for 4-7 months. Chianti Superiore must be aged for at least nine months and Chianti Classico for at least ten. The terms can be stacked, so you might run into a “Chianti Classico Riserva” in your travels.

There is also the recent addition of “Chianti Gran Selezione” into the lexicon, which is supposed to reflect the highest quality. The minimum alcohol level is slightly higher – 13% compared to 12.5% for riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months minimum. These wines tend to run towards the very expensive end of the spectrum. When I’ve had the opportunity to try them, I’ve not thought that they were quite worth the extra shekels.

In any case, I went on a Chianti kick last week after I received a bottle for sampling. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I did a side-by-side-by-side tasting with three different levels of Chianti. The contestants:


DaVinci 2015 Chanti ($11)
Fattoria Rodano 2015 Chianti Classico ($17)
Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva ($28)

The DaVinci was light-bodied, with that cherry covered chalkiness that I mentioned before. It’s fairly high in acid and makes a very straightforward table wine.

The Rodano Chianti Classico was actually the fullest, most concentrated wine of the three. Full and round, I found plums and cherries on the palate, which was softer and not quite as sharp. I thought it tasted like a “concentrated” version of the DaVinci flavorwise. The finish was more tannic, with coffee and chocolate flavors alongside the chalk.

The di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva was  the most “serious” of the wines – much more complex than the other two, with a smokier, silkier flavor. While the chalkiness was present, it was largely in the background, not detracting from the cherry and blackberry flavors that were dominant. While the body was lighter styled than the other Chianti Classico, the finish was longer and fruitier to go with its wisp of smoke.

I don’t generally care for Chianti on its own. It’s not usually my choice for a wine just to pop and pour. Of these three, the Rodano was probably the best for a “drink
alone” wine. But Chianti is made for food, and we tried the three over the space of a couple of nights.

First, with a pan-roasted salmon with tomatoes and fennel, the best of the three wines turned out to be the least expensive. The higher acid level in the straight Chianti cut through the fattiness of the fish easily, while still retaining its character. The Chianti Classico was too concentrated. It didn’t play well with the flavors, running over them instead. The Chianti Classico Riserva was fine, but you could tell that it needed more substantial fare.

We got that fare the next night, when I got out my meat tenderizer and pummeled some round steaks into submission to make my semi-famous Brasciole. The Chianti Classico got heavy and dark alongside this pairing – turning into something akin to an inexpensive syrah. The regular Chianti was good, but the real champ was the di Albola. Its flavors snaked around the beef and garlic, yet had enough of an acid backbone to stand up to the long-simmered red sauce. A real winner.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Wine Headache Hazard

No one can work with wine without tipping back too much from time to time. The morning after. The headache, the nausea, and the sun, as Nicholas Klar once wrote, "is like God's flashlight." Nobody to blame but yourself.

But what if the pain isn't your fault? What if you only had a glass or two and your head feels like Zeus on Athena’s birthday? At a wine tasting I led, two different people shared versions of, "I like wine -- but I can't drink it. If I even sip the stuff, I get a massive headache." Is there a code we can crack to avoid this malady?

One explanation I hear often: "It's the sulfites in the wine! Red wine has all these sulfites in the U.S. I've gone to [insert European country of your choice here] and the wine doesn't have sulfites in it, so I can drink it just fine. And I can drink white wine until the cows come home, but red wines just lay me out." I do enjoy Italian whites, so I sampled Palazzone 2015 “Terre Vineate” Orvieto Classico Superiore. ($13-15) This wine has a nose of flowers and licorice. It's medium bodied with some soft citrusy flavors and a little bit of oak. It has a very easy finish. Tasty to drink on its own, but with shellfish or a light fish dish, it's very nice.

After a little digging into the sulfite question, I discovered there is such a thing as a sulfite allergy. So, find unsulfited wines and you're fine, right? Well, not exactly. Sulfite allergies are  pretty rare. People with sulfite allergies generally can't eat dried fruit and the like, and if their allergies kick in, they tend to end up with breathing problems, not headaches.

Still, if you want to avoid sulfites, stick to whites, right? Wrong. White wines almost always have more sulfites than red wines. Sulfites are preservatives. Whites, in general, need more protection from spoilage as the wine gets older. Red wine has a natural preservative built in to the mix: tannin, which comes from the skins of grapes as well as from barrel aging. Wines built to age well are usually tannic, so…maybe tannin is our headache culprit.

For a low tannin wine example, think something along the lines of DuBoeuf 2015 Brouilly Beaujolais ($15-17). Gamay grapes, from which Beaujolais is made, are naturally low in tannin. This wine sports a fairly strong nose of cherries and blackberries. There's plenty of cherry and cola flavors balanced nicely with a solid acidity. Nice crisp finish, too. It cuts nicely through spices, like in the Thai beef noodle soup I made to go with it.

Drinking tannic beverages – drinks like red wine, black tea, and coffee -- can cause a release of serotonin in the brain, and studies have shown that high levels of serotonin can trigger a migraine. However, wine's not the only source of tannin in one’s diet, and no one I know has ever complained of a coffee or chocolate headache.

A third possibility is histamines. Histamines occur in many fermented foods and high exposure levels can trigger an allergic reaction brought on by a lack of a certain enzyme in the bloodstream. This reaction can cause headaches, skin flushing, or runny nose. The levels of histamines in red wines are between 20-200% higher than in whites. Spanish reds are often lower in histamines, so I tried the Martin Codax 2014 "Ergo" Rioja Tempranillo. ($13-15) The nose contains dark fruit and spices, almost like cherry cobbler. The wine's lighter than it smells. Some nice berry flavors and well-balanced light tannins lead to a finish which is easy and somewhat dry.

Histamines seem a somewhat more likely culprit for the headaches, although there hasn't been conclusive research on the effects of low vs. high histamine wines. Even so, if a person is susceptible to the reaction, there are natural defenses against histamines. Compounds exist in tea, especially black or oolong tea, which suppress the histamine response. Drinking a cup of strong tea before consuming red wine might help, as could taking an aspirin before drinking. An antihistamine might also stop the headache if the headache has already kicked in, but you might be in for a very short night if you pop a Benadryl after a couple of glasses of wine.

If you are one of those unfortunate souls who thinks they suffer from "red wine headaches," there's a simple (potentially painful) test. Drink half a glass of red wine on an empty stomach. If the wine is truly the cause of your headache, you'll get one within 15 minutes. Otherwise, it's not the wine itself that buried a hatchet in your forehead.

More likely, your fear of headaches likely stems from a good old fashioned hangover. The sheer amount of wine, and the memory of the pain the next morning, probably has more to do with it. B-12, Gatorade, ginger ale, and a sub from Penn Station the next morning are better bets, in that case.



Saturday, December 23, 2017

Getting the Crew Back Together for the Holidays

Pictured: Us.
A couple of nights ago, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I hosted a lovely little shindig for a reunion of the Tennessee Alley Drinking Club. Two of the charter members, Christine the Pie Queen and her husband Jeff, of Jeff’s Dinner Club fame, have unfortunately departed the ‘hood – heading to Washington State where they now boast a big ol’ mountain in what amounts to their backyard.

The holidays are a time for reunions, and we were blessed with the opportunity to spend some quality time with our little gaggle of friends, reminisce and share about what’s happening in our various worlds, and to do what we do best – polish off large quantities of vino while we work our way through a good meal.

The SPinC and I fired up the sous vide machine and did a couple of London Broils at various levels of doneness – cooked to perfection and seared off on the grill, a potato and mushroom soup, an arugula salad with candied walnuts and poached pears, a bunch of roasted root vegetables, and a rich spice cake with cinnamon ice cream from Graeter’s.

Fortuitously, our friends at Colangelo had also sent along a couple of quality, meat-friendly reds to sample. In the spirit of many of our other tasting adventures through the years, we took the opportunity to do a side-by-side of these two wines. The quickly quaffed competitors with our delicious repast:



Caroso 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva ($22)
Charles Krug 2014 Napa Valley Merlot ($25)

I took a look at the Caroso a few months ago in this space. As I noted then, I usually think of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as a tasty and flavorful but light table wine. Inexpensive versions of it are standards here in Vine land. The Riserva, aged for two years in barrique and six months in bottle before release, is a different animal altogether.

This wine’s a bigger, more fruit-forward entry. Black currant and blackberry flavors come strongly at first sip. The nose has a fair amount of spice and vanilla and the finish is fruity with a considerable roughness of tannin.

Neither Napa wines nor domestic Merlot get a lot of run around here in general, for one reason or another. I’ve tried so many one-note Merlot over the years that I tend to skip it in favor of Merlot-dominant Bordeaux if I’m in that kind of mood. This Merlot from Krug might cause me to do a little reconsideration of that corner of the wine store.

The Krug Merlot is actually a blend – but any domestic wine with more than 75% of one varietal can be labeled as that varietal. The Krug is 82% Merlot, with the rest made up of Bordeaux elements Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Plums and raspberries were the order of the day flavorwise, and the tannins – holding in the background – are nicely balanced. The finish is lasting, with a nice back-and-forth between cherry and graphite.

We opened these up for the assembled at the table to try with the various courses. Alas, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to take copious notes. The general consensus, however, held that the Krug was the superior wine in balance and general flavor. While I liked both of them well enough, I found myself drifting back to the Krug, which paired better with most everything we had on the table, although I thought the Montepulciano was a good match with the soup, which did have a bit of an Italian flair. The SPinC thought the Caroso was too jammy for her tastes. At the end of the day, the Krug won by unanimous consent.

But the real star of the evening was the conversation and the reconnection with our friends, who spoiled us from across the alley for many years. The spirit of the season found itself in full effect around our table, and we have many happy memories (as well as a number of other empty bottles!) to sustain us in the new year! Many thanks to Jeff, Christine, Marlane, Phoenix, Ken, and – always – the Sweet Partner in Crime for the lovely evening.




Friday, December 01, 2017

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Le Focaie -- A Tuscan Coastal Surprise

When the Sweet Partner in Crime and I made our last jaunt to Sonoma, we made our home base Bodega Bay, right on the Pacific. From Bodega, we tooled around to a number of wineries close to the coast.

We loved the California coastal wines. The climate by the Pacific is considerably cooler than in the rest of Sonoma County, partly because of elevation and the various microclimates there. The resulting "mountain fruit" wines were more subtle and less fruit-forward -- and we ran into many more cool weather grapes like Pinot Noir than the Zinfandels and Cabernets grown elsewhere in Sonoma. We liked those wines a great deal.

When I was offered the chance to try to Le Focaie 2016 Maremma Toscana, and I read a little about the wine, my palate perked right up. "Focaie" translates from Italian as "Flint" -- a reference to the mineral rich soil found in the coastal area of Maremma. The producers, Rocca di Montemassi, grow grapes not far from the ocean, where the Sangiovese grapes catch the sea breezes. I was thinking, "Hey, flinty and coastal. Sign me up!"

When the time came for me to crack this wine -- I thought that a roasted chicken dish with lemon and bread would be a good match. I have to admit that I did not see this wine's flavors coming. Instead of a Chianti-ish Sangiovese, with its attendant light cherry flavors, what I found was something considerably more muscular. There's cherry flavor there, but it's quite deep -- backed with an aroma of smoked meats as well as some darker fruits. "Rustic" would be an apt description of this wine. The finish is fruity and smoky -- it reminded me a little of a pinotage, to be honest.

My chicken idea turned out to be a little on the light side for this wine. It really calls for some bigger flavors -- some big red sauced pasta, or something like osso bucco would be better alongside.

Now, this said -- if you're looking for a big Italian red that's a little rough around the edges, you could do a lot worse than this, and at $15 -- it's could be a great winter dinner wine. Keep it on your radar.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Revisiting Australia with Hope Estate

Australian wine played a major role in the early days of my wine education. I was in graduate school, invited to one of my first “grownup” parties. The party was hosted by the boyfriend of one of my classmates, a debonair business sort who hailed from Sydney. He’d bought the local wine store out of Jacob’s Creek and Penfolds, it seemed. I was a beer guy at the time, but was always willing to drink for free learn about new drinks.

After that, Shiraz from Australia became one of my “have a bottle lying around” reds – largely because it was decent, inexpensive, and easy to drink. The Sweet Partner in Crime (who also has an Australian wine history thanks to her stint as a server at Outback back in the day…) and I went through our courtship consuming copious quantities of Rosemount Estates’ Grenache-Shiraz.

But times change and palates change. Most of the Australian wine available in my price range for many years was relatively uninteresting – big jammy reds, semi-sweet Rieslings, and steel tank one-note Chardonnay were always available. A friend of mine in the wine business referred to the inexpensive Australian juice as “Pop-Tart Wine” – because every flavor basically tasted the same. There were some higher quality Australian reds to sample, but many of them were out of our price range at that point. As my wine education took my palate to different areas of the world, Australian wine largely dropped off my radar.

Until recently, that is. My recent dispatches about the wine shortages brought about by climate change in North America and Europe prompted me to start looking below the equator for better wine values. Fortuitously, the wine fairy dropped off a package of wines from Hope Estates in Australia’s Hunter Valley, in New South Wales near Sydney.

Hope Estate, founded by Michael Hope in 1992, started as a single vineyard, but has expanded to an entertainment complex which includes a brewery, a café, and a 20,000 seat amphitheater – if you’re ever in the neighborhood. A four pack of Hope Estates wines got me rethinking the lack of Australian wine in my portfolio, as they were all quite good and sit at a nice price point:

Hope Estates 2016 Wollombi Block Semillon – I don’t know when the last time was that I tried a straight Australian Semillon. Must be a decade, at least. Semillion’s a native grape of France, where it’s usually blended into white Bordeaux or noble rotted to make Sauternes, the most expensive (and for good reason) dessert wine in the world. In Australia, though, Semillon is grown as a primary white varietal. If this wine’s any indication, I’ll need to work this into the rotation somewhere. This version’s a crisp, minerally white full of lemons and limes. Lots of minerals on the palate, which has a nice weight and a little honeyed sweetness. Most wines this acidic feel much lighter. Pretty floral nose, too. $14.

Hope Estates 2015 Hunter Valley Chardonnay – As I mentioned, for me, Australian Chardonnay always seemed uncomplicated and forgettable. Some winemakers seem to have taken up the challenge of improving these wines. This estate grown Chardonnay is aged in French oak with extended time on the lees to add to the mouthfeel. It has a very fruity nose -- bananas and pears, which leads to a full flavored body with a nice creaminess. The flavor yields plenty of pears and peaches, transitioning to a well-balanced oakiness. The finish is lasting, fairly crisp, and with a nice little smokiness. A nicely put together wine. Good value at $14.

Hope Estates 2014 “The Ripper” Shiraz – The first of two Shiraz bottlings in this set. Don’t be frightened by the name of this wine – “Ripper” is an Australian slang term for “Great.” Honestly, I feel like that’s a pretty solid interpretation of this particular bottle. Full of Oz-Shiraz red fruit-forwardness on the nose and palate, the Ripper pulls back into a nicely balanced middle of spice, licorice, plums, and leather. Not the fruit bomb you might expect from an Australian Shiraz, the finish on this is long and fruity, but with a solid tannic backbone. A particularly strong value at $18.

Hope Estates 2014 Basalt Block Shiraz – The “Basalt Block” is a parcel of land in the Broken Back mountain range with deep, volcanic soil, which lends an earthy characteristic to this wine not found in the Ripper. This one has a lovely nose of coffee and plums that transitions into a deeper, smokier fruit on the palate. Blackberry, graphite, and smoke entwine on a firm tannic base. The finish tickles on for quite a good length of time, with smoke and dark fruit alternating. Fans of Rhone Valley-style blends will really enjoy this wine. Again, $14.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Naked Vine’s 4 B’s of Holiday Wine Buying

Congratulations, you social animal, you! You scored an invite to a holiday party. People like you…they really like you! I mean, that is, as long as you walk in the door with a bottle or two.

Sometimes a host or hostess will make your job easy. They might say, “Here’s what we’re having for dinner, so can you bring X, Y, and Z?” Chances are, though, you’re going to be on your own in the wine store, and, lucky for you, the Vine’s your trusty wingman.

Over the years, I’ve been asked to lug in a lot of wine. Unless something in particular gets specified, I’ve learned through experience that you can make holiday partygoers oenologically happy about 90% of the time with wine from one of four categories, and you shouldn’t have to spend more than $15 on a bottle. Think of them as our “Four B’s” of holiday wine buying: 
  1. Bubbles
  2. Blush
  3. Beaujolais
  4. Big

First off, Bubbles. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Sparkling wine’s going to be a good choice for any number of reasons. A quick aside – you might notice that I didn’t say “Champagne.” While northerners may call all carbonated beverages “Pop,” not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Only wine from the specific region of France is Champagne. And, unless your friends are a lot swankier than mine, you’re not going to need to drop the kind of coin on actual grower Champagne for most occasions.

I have two go-to sparklers for parties. First is Prosecco, a sparkling wine made largely from the Glera grape made in the Prosecco region of Italy. Prosecco tends to taste of lemons and pears and has a fairly high level of carbonation. Prosecco has had a popularity boom over the last few years -- it globally outsold Champagne for the first time in 2013.

Next is Cava – Spain’s national sparkling wine. Made largely from the grapes Macabeau, Xarel-lo, and Parelleda, Cava’s flavors run towards the peach and pear with more and more of a toasty finish, similar to what you’ll find in Champagne.

Which to get? I prefer Prosecco with antipasti and light appetizers, while Cava is a traditional accompaniment for any sort of tapas or spread of various sorts of food. Also, most of the Prosecco and Cava you’ll find will be labeled either “Brut” or “Extra Dry.” Believe it or not, Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut. With food, I generally prefer Extra Dry. On its own, refresh with Brut.

Our second B, Blush, refers to the wine I’ve championed in this space for a decade – dry rosé. Now, I love the stuff no matter where it’s from. For my money, it’s the most flexible of the still wines, and the stigma of looking like you’re carrying white zinfandel into a party has largely gone by the wayside.

Rosé is made all over the world. French rosé, especially rosé from Provence, tends to be lighter-bodied, delicate, and acidic. Spanish and South American rosé tend to be somewhat bigger and fruitier. Italy generates what might be called “red wine drinker’s rosé.” Many of those rosato are full and rich, and could pass as light red wines. American rosé is steadily improving and is made in a variety of styles – depending on the wine region. Warmer climates, like central California, will produce fruitier wines, while cooler or higher altitude regions like Oregon offer wines which are more delicate. Choose according to your preferences.

Third, to make up for my Champagne slight, I’ll tip my hat to one of my favorite party reds, Beaujolais, the wine with something for everyone. Beaujolais, a French wine made from the Gamay grape, is a red that I find is best served slightly chilled. Beaujolais is another super-flexible food wine, pairing nicely with everything from salmon to steak. I think it’s the perfect wine for a Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s very enjoyable on its own.

The $15 price-range Beaujolais you’ll see most often is “Beaujolais-Villages” – meaning the grapes were grown anywhere within that particular region. You’ll likely get flavors of red berries, cherries, and cola therein. If you want to splurge, there are ten municipalities within Beaujolais which make more complex versions of the wine. These wines will cost $20-30 and will have the name of the town (like “Fleurie,” “Morgon,” or “Julienas”) on the label.

Also, don’t get suckered by Beaujolais Nouveau, the “early release” Beaujolais. In the States, the Beaujolais Nouveau release is little more than a marketing ploy. The wine’s of lower quality than other Beaujolais, and it’ll cost you more. Skip it.

Finally, when in doubt, go BIG. There will always be rosy-cheeked folks at a party who want super-fruity, high-alcohol red wine. Indulge them with a California Zinfandel. While there are many expensive California Zins that are rich, complex wines – we’re at a party (or maybe a barbecue) here, so we don’t want complicated and expensive. Zins are typically big and jammy. You won’t be hurting for flavor here. They’re the best wine pairing for ribs that you’ll come across.

I recently had Zinzilla, the “California Monster Zin” from McNab Ridge with a Groot-like creature on the label. While not for the faint of heart, it is well-balanced for a $12 wine that could easily have lurched into plonk territory. You can find this wine, and others with “Zimmilarly” fun names at wine stores everywhere.

Hope this helps you get your party on this holiday season. Cheers!



Monday, November 13, 2017

Montes & Kaiken...and a bit on climate

Let’s talk for a second about climate change. The planet is warming. One immediate impact is going to be on terroir. 

Tour any winemaking region, and a grower will tell you about the particular “microclimates” in certain valleys that make the grapes grow just so. A growing season’s weather largely determines the success of an individual season’s harvest.

While some regions are doing well, many of the major grape growing regions have been smacked simultaneously with some climate-driven calamities. Wildfires in California chewing through vineyards, huge hailstorms in France, abnormally hot weather in Italy and Spain – all these things are combining to produce, on average, one of the worst yielding harvests in memory across the Northern hemisphere.

The result? Well, aside from many boutique wineries shuttering permanently and vineyards that may take decades to recover from the damage – the immediate impact likely will be a steady increase in the price you’ll pay at the store for your vino, especially from regions in our half of the planet.

So, what to do? Well, grit our teeth and bear it, mostly, but it doesn't hurt to peek into some other regions to get the best bang for your wine buck. And our friends South of parallel zero will be happy to fill the need.

I recently had the chance to sample four bottles from Montes, a major Chilean wine producer. Montes began producing wine in 1987, and their Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon was, according to their website, the first “premium” wine to be exported from Chile. They followed that with Chardonnay, Syrah, and Merlot – then began producing an “Icon” series of higher-end wines as well as some more affordable options. Eventually, the Montes operation expanded across the Andes into neighboring Argentina, where they began producing wines under the “Kaiken” label (“Kaiken” is a wild goose, native to the area, often seen flying over the Andes…)

Here were my thoughts about these reds and whites:

Kaiken 2016 Terroir Series Torrontes – The nose on this wine is striking and powerfully floral. Peach blossoms practically explode from the glass here, reminiscent of many Viognier. My first taste impressions of this medium-bodied white reminded me a lot of a Dreamsicle, if you dial the sweetness way back. The finish, however, is quite dry and slightly alkaline, which for me detracted a bit from the wine’s overall balance on the palate. I liked it well enough, but it would be better with the right food pairing, like sushi – even grocery store sushi – with which it worked nicely. Around $15.

Montes Alpha 2014 Colchagua Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – The tech notes for this wine include the statement “Recommend decanting for 30 minutes.” In all honesty, I was surprised to see this on a Chilean cab, many of which – especially in our regular price range – tend to be more of the “pop and pour” variety. This bottle, however, definitely needs to breathe a bit. And I’d recommend full-on decanting, rather than just opening the bottle. Even after an hour, this wine was extremely tight – I got little but tannin and a little dark fruit to go with the steak I’d made. The fruit was still emerging after a day or two – plums and blackberries with a fair amount of lingering pepper on the finish, to go with some pretty robust coffee and leather. A “beef and chocolate” wine, certainly. Around $20-23.

Montes 2017 Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc – If you’re a fan of citrusy, grassy Sauvignon Blanc, this is going to be a good choice for you. Fragrant nose of grapefruit and lemon leads into a crisp, acidic body of lemons and melons. Finish is tart, with a streak of minerality to go along with a lemon custard aftertaste. A very refreshing, lighter bodied Sauvignon Blanc that would pair nicely with harvest salads and the like. Let the wine’s acidity cut through heavier cheeses and fruits. $15-17.


Kaiken 2014 “Ultra” Malbec – The ol’ Argentinean champ, Malbec, is going to be a great alternative if you’re trying to find some richer flavors. This “Ultra” line from Kaiken is the complement to the “Icon” line from Montes which I mentioned earlier – these being wines of some complexity and depth. With this Malbec, I found raspberry and cherry on the fragrant nose. The mouthfeel is big bodied at first sip and lives up to the “Ultra” name. It’s quite tarry and mouth coating. The flavor runs to berries and dark, chewy tannins that lead to a leather and charcoal run at the end. It’s a big honkin’ wine — maybe too big for sipping solo – but with something that has a little fat, like a good chop or ribeye, alongside, it’s a quality choice. $18-21.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Naked Vine Double Barrel – A Couple of Cava

While we’re in Bubbles Mode, let’s look at Spain’s answer to inexpensive sparkling wine – and a longtime go-to staple around these parts…Cava.

Cava, which translates from Catalan Spanish as “Cave,” refers to the underground spaces in which the sparkling wine was aged. Most of this wine is produced in the Penedes region of Spain due west of Barcelona. Made primarily from the grapes Parellada, Xarel’lo, and Macabeu, Sparkling wine was produced in the region 1851, but the Cava industry truly launched after a major Catalan wine producer, Josep Raventós, traveled through France and decided to produce a sparkling wine in the style of Champagne. The first Cava was bottled in 1872.

Cava is produced in the same method, known as Methode Champenoise, as Champagne. In this method, the wine is carbonated from secondary fermentation in the bottle. The fermentation is caused by the addition of a small amount of sugar and yeast, known as liqueur de tirage, before the bottles are capped. Carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation is forced back into the liquid. The dead yeast is removed from the bottle through a process called riddling, and the wines are then corked for sale.

The sweetness level of cava is indicated by a designation on the bottle. Brut Nature is the driest version, followed by Brut, Extra Seco (sometimes labeled “Extra Dry”), Seco, and Dulce (sweet). Cava is a traditional accompaniment for tapas, so it can pair with a broad spectrum of foods.

I’ve long sung the praises of cava as an inexpensive sparkler, especially in the holiday season. Here are a pair of these Spanish darlings that I’ve come across recently:


Anna de Codorníu (NV) Blanc de Blanc Brut Reserva Cava – Emblazoned with a profile of Anna de Cororníu, the heiress whose family’s history in Spanish wine can be traced back to 1551, her Blanc de Blanc is an interesting twist on traditional Cava., which takes a big step towards its French cousins. 75% of the wine is made from Chardonnay, which is a rarity, at least for my experience. The result is a Cava that tastes a great deal like Champagne, with a toasty, nutty nose from the Chardonnay, which is followed by lemon and pear flavors and a crisp, zingy finish. There’s a little bit of residual sugar at the end – and that mild sweetness makes it a very flexible food wine. Whether with a shellfish or soup course, or with something more fatty like cheese or fried chicken, this is a surprisingly well-balanced wine for $15. A solid offering.


Freixenet 2013 Vintage Cava Brut Nature – Longtime Vine favorite Freixenet (of black bottle fame) has rolled out a new series of sparklers – this time a vintage cava series. I haven’t seen a lot of vintage Cava, especially in this price range, so I was curious to give it a go. I thought, all in all, it’s quite good for a reasonably inexpensive sparkler. There’s It’s a few dollars more expensive than the “black bottle” Freixenet that I’m used to. Lemons and apples on the nose, with a delicate lemony flavor and zingy, lasting finish. The carbonation is quite sharp, and the finish is very clean. It’s very dry – as you might expect. “Brut Nature” means that it’s even drier than a standard Brut. It would be a great match for anything fatty – from cheeses to KFC. It’s a few dollars more expensive than the “black bottle” Freixenet that you see most commonly – the bottle I found ran around $16. If you like your sparkling wines on the delicate side, those might be dollars well spent. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Naked Vine Double Barrel – A Pair of Prosecco

Prosecco is enjoying some unprecedented boom times at the moment. In 2016, for the first time in history, the sparkling Italian wine surpassed Champagne for the first time in history.

Honestly, I’m not surprised. Champagne has grown more and more expensive over the last several years – partly because of demand, but also because the effects of climate change have taken a toll. This year’s harvest, because of weather, may be one of the lowest-yielding on record.

Prosecco, long a favorite at the world’s brunch tables, has ridden its flexible, fruity nature into the world of mixology in the new world of Millennial drinking. With its lower price point, bartenders have turned to Prosecco not only as an aperitif, but as the backbone of many cocktails. Good Prosecco can also be had for about half the price of grower Champagne, so that adds to the appeal.

As background, Prosecco refers to the region of northeast Italy just north of Venice. Prosecco is a subregion of the larger Veneto district. Prosecco also used to be the name of the primary grape that comprises the wine. In 2009, the grape’s name was changed – or more accurately, changed back – to its original Slovenian name, Glera. The name change was to prevent the region’s growers from making wine from other varietals and marketing it under the “Prosecco” umbrella.

Prosecco also differs from Champagne in that it is carbonated in a different manner. This method, called Metodo Italiano or the “Charmat Method,” is a less expensive, less time-consuming carbonation method than the tried-and-true Methode Champenoise. In the Charmat Method, rather than being carbonated in bottles, the wine undergoes this secondary fermentation in steel tanks, which are sometimes coated in enamel. The wine is bottled under pressure in a continuous process.

Prosecco is an incredibly flexible food wine, and is an excellent choice for many holiday events – be they social gatherings or dinner parties. I sampled a couple of Prosecco from the town of Treviso recently. My thoughts:

Ruggeri (NV) Prosecco Treviso Brut – To be honest, I didn’t get much of a nose to speak of from this sparkler initially, but the flavors kick in once you get a mouthful. Golden apple and peach flavors are quite pronounced. A nice tight perlage (WineSpeak for “quality of bubbles”) that crisply sparkle through a finish of peach nectar and lemon rind. Very refreshing. Would cut through a lot of rich foods, whether cheeses or white sauces. Would be lovely also with shellfish. $16-20.


Santome (NV) Prosecco Treviso Extra Dry – Peaches again, this time backed with tart apples. The undertone of sweetness associated with an Extra Dry designation is certainly in effect here, but that sweetness fades quickly into an aftertaste that I honestly found a little unpleasant. I thought it was quite sharp, and that flavor masked the slight crisp sweetness that was there in the background. I didn’t much care for it on its own. With food, however, it was certainly acceptable. I had it with a roasted red pepper soup and chicken sandwich combo that I put together, and it was a decent accompaniment. $14-16.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Canned Rosé – A Naked Vine Examination

The contenders...
A couple of our neighbors recently invited The Sweet Partner in Crime and I out on their boat for some fun in the sun out on the Mighty Ohio. I brought along some beer for myself, but the SPinC prefers rosé for her day drinking.

Bottles of wine pose their own unique portability issues, so on my load-up trip to Big Wine Store, I ambled by the “bulk” section to see if there were suitable containers. That’s when I discovered that the powers-that-be have gifted us with rosé…in easy-to-boat-with aluminum cans.

I’ve covered the idea of wine-in-a-can in this space before. My initial experience with Underwood Pinot Noir led me to purchase a couple of cans of their rosé for our trip. But I noticed that there were several other companies joining the canned wine – and specifically canned rosé – movement. And judging from the state of the shelves, it seems like these are becoming more popular options.

As a note, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a can as a storage system for wine…at least for wine that’s designed to be drunk in a casual manner. Wine cans are lined, like beer cans are, to avoid direct contact with aluminum and juice. That said, I’d suggest pouring the wine into a cup or glass. Drinking wine (or beer, for that matter) straight from a can eliminates much of the flavor, because there’s no olfactory component other than “can lid.” While this “no smell” effect might be useful for your summertime case of PBR or Beast Light, it defeats the purpose for wine or craft beers. Pour, dammit!

A few thoughts on these metal-clad pinks, starting with good ol’ Underwood:

Underwood 2016 Rosé Wine – When I first wrote about Union Wine Company’s Underwood wine in a can, they were still rolling out their pinot grigio to go alongside their pinot noir. But we’re here to talk about the rosé. Their can clocks in at 12% ABV and is produced from a proprietary blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Muscat, Chardonnay, and Syrah. The tasting notes printed on the can read “Strawberry. Watermelon. Peach.” – which is pretty much exactly what you’ll get. There’s a fair amount of body to this wine, which is straightforwardly fruity all the way through. It’s easy enough to drink without thinking and made for a perfectly suitable quaff while we were out on the water.

Underwood now produces five different canned wines – the three I’ve previously mentioned, along with two carbonated wines: “Bubbles” and “Rosé Bubbles.” They’ve also rolled out a “Riesling Radler” – a carbonated wine cooler made from of Riesling and grapefruit juice that sits at around 6% ABV, the same range as an IPA.

Essentially Geared Wine Company (NV) Rosé Wine – “Seek the Everyday Uncommon” is Essentially Geared’s slogan. The website clearly caters to folks who are outdoorsy, on the go folks, and the can design was the most interesting, in my opinion, of the wines we tried here. It’s made from 100% Pinot Noir from Napa and suggests pairing with “Pizza by the slice, barbecue brisket, and falafel” – which sounds like an interesting evening’s menu.

Unfortunately, the wine itself wasn’t as interesting. In the words of the Sweet Partner in Crime, the experience of this wine was “Pink. Wet. Gone.” Honestly, it didn’t feel all that much like drinking wine. There was an initial burst of watermelon and strawberry to let you know “Hey! You’re drinking rosé,” then a little alcohol and “wine-ish” taste, and not much of a finish. The note on the can said, “Think: Pink Starburst and 80’s Punk Rock,” but I didn’t get a lot of Clash, Misfits, or Buzzcocks here.

Essentially Geared also produces a California Chardonnay and a California Red made from Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Alloy Wine Works 2016 Central Coast “Everyday Rosé” – Another California entry, but in a larger format. Most canned wine that I’ve seen comes in a 375ml can – so the equivalent of a half-bottle. Alloy’s rosé (a product of Field Recordings winery) comes in a 500ml can, so think of a tallboy next to a standard beer can.

There’s a French rosé called La Vielle Ferme which I’ve reviewed here many times. It’s basically my “house” rosé – a simple, relatively light, minerally-but-fruity pink bottle of goodness. I expected more of a California thump from a wine in a big can, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a lighter-styled, very French, pinkness therein. Their tasting note is “Tastes like: strawberry, grapefruit, mint and guava, Sour Patch Kids, and rose petals.” I don’t think it’s quite that complex, but it does have strawberry and citrus with a refreshing minerality on the finish that I liked quite a bit. It was quite reminiscent of good ol’ LVF, and I certainly recommend it among the three here – for value and for flavor.

Alloy also produces a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, a red blend they call “Fiction,” and a dry-hopped sparkling chardonnay made from ale yeast called “Weissland.”

All of the above wines run around $5-7 per can. Costing that out for bottle price comparisons, that equates about $10-15 a bottle, depending on the can size.

While these are marketed as “everyday” wines – I likely wouldn’t stock my fridge with them on a regular basis. However, a bottle of wine runs about 2-3 lbs, while two cans are about a pound and a half, and are much less likely to shatter if you happen to drop your backpack. As long as you’re not looking for high-end juice, these will be just fine for you in the wild.


Monday, August 07, 2017

Naked Vine Triple Play: MOAR ITALY!!!

On the heels of my little adventure across the hills and beaches of Italy comes another set of Italian samples for your consideration as you continue to bask in the afterglow of Losing your V-Card.

First off is another Italian white, since we’ve been on that kick. Not a “V” wine, but an Italian autochthonal grape nonetheless. This wine is made from the Insolia grape, grown on the island of Sicily. The Feudo Principi di Butera 2015 Insolia Sicilia is minerally but rich. I didn’t expect a wine with a backbone of flint like this to have such a full mouthfeel, but this one surprised me. Nose of peach and banana. Firm, elegant body with some stone fruit. Finish is almonds, lemons, and minerals.. A really nice all-around white wine. Was a lovely pairing with a sous-vide salmon filet alongside a fatoush-ish salad. Enough oomph to both stand up to the oil in the salmon and to stand out against the vinegar and acid in the salad. Reminded me a little of a Condrieu from France, which would retail at around twice the price. A steal at $15.

Next up is an example of doing something typically thought of as a basic wine really, really well. I’m a fan of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as an inexpensive, everyday table wine. There’s also a Riserva version of this underrated quaff, which means that it’s been aged for at least two years.  

That’s the case with the Caroso 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva, whose body immediately jumps out of the glass as richer and fuller than most of its more inexpensive cousins. With blackcurrant and blackberry on the palate, it boasts a firm tannicky backbone. I thought I could have easily mistaken this for a Cabernet Sauvignon, especially on the finish, which has an interesting blend of tannin, cherries, and figs. I was so pleased to find a complexity I’m not used to with my friendly Montepulciano, and it was a stunningly good match with my “Eggplant Pamesan,” one of my special occasion meal for the SPinC. I don’t usually splurge on Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, but at $22, worth a shot to see if it’s up your alley.

Finally, there’s a current trend in Prosecco that doesn’t thrill me. A few years ago, Moscato had a big moment on the culinary stage. Moscato was a good brunch choice – low alcohol, a little bubbly – so it went well with breakfast food. But it was always a bit sweet for my liking on a regular basis. Most Prosecco I’d tried reminded me a lot of slightly fruitier Cava – both were straightforward, fairly dry sparkling wines. Moscato has fallen a bit out of favor, but Prosecco is taking up that market share by becoming more Moscato-like.

The Castello del Poggio (NV) Prosecco is an example of this very thing. At 11% ABV, it’s a fairly light white. The carbonation is creamy and soft next to a flavor based around golden delicious apples. Listed as a “demi-sec” (medium-dry) wine, I found the honey sweetness to be a bit overpowering, all in all, and the wine’s whole flavor tended to be a lack a crispness that I like in a sparkling wine. It’s not that it’s a bad wine, per se, but it’s not normally what I’d reach for. If you were making cocktails, it might not be a bad mixer. $13.



Sunday, August 06, 2017

Lose your V-Card in Italy

Breezes off the Mediterranean lightly caress your skin. You lean back, sated under a cerulean sky. Italian summer sun warms you as you feel a single drop of sweat glide down the gentle curve of your neck. Heavy-eyed with relaxed languor, you turn your head and reach your hand to softly caress…your wine glass.

OK. I’ll stop. I’m your wine guy, not your Scrittore di romanticismo. People with more adjectives than I have for scenery, food, and sex have set countless pages of romantic fiction under the warmth of the Italian sun. Still, if you’re into daydreaming about seduction and romance in Italy, we’ve got you covered here in Vine land for whatever your scenic backdrop.

Italy is home to more than 600 autochthonal (WineSpeak for “native”) grape varieties, both red and white. Until the last couple of decades, many of these grapes were completely unknown in American markets. With an increased interest in indigenous varieties driven by expanding palates and books like Bianca Bosker’s “Cork Dork,” more and more of these grapes are making their way onto wine lists of all stripes.

Interestingly, many of these Italian white varieties start with the letter “V” – and they share a winesexy aspect. Most summertime wines are either a bit watery and flabby (like cheap Pinot Grigio) or have such high acid that they can be hard to drink (like many Sauvignon Blanc). These V-wines nestle themselves into a sweet spot – less acid and more fruit richness – that make them particularly welcome partners, especially when you’ve got a bit of an appetite on a warm day.

With glasses outstretched, let’s meander to a few of these romantic Italian spots and see what they’re pouring…



Our first stop is under the Tuscan sun in the town of San Gimignano, known as the “Town of Fine Towers” and also for production of the Vernacchia grape, considered to be a simple, everyday white wine to enjoy on the palazzos of this hillside town. An example I could offer you would be the Fontaleoni 2016 Vernacchia di San Gimignano – full of apples and pears on the nose, with more citrus on the palate. However, that citrus doesn’t mean thin. The wine gently coats the midpalate. The acid comes in a bit on the finish, which is fairly gentle, with only a little lemony twinge at the end. It tastes like summertime, like a tart lemonade with intentions. 

We set sail from here to the lovely island of Sardinia, with its crystal blue waters and gorgeous natural scenery. Love lasts on Sardinia, which boasts some of the longest life expectancies on the globe. Perhaps this is driven in point by consumption of Vermentino, the best known grape on the island. I like to think of Vermentino as the Viognier of Italian white wines. The example I came across, the Castanzu 2015 Vermentino di Sardegna is lovely and lush, rich with lemon, peach, and cedar on the nose. Rich without much sweetness, I found lemon rind and peaches as the main fruity characteristic, backed up by distinct creaminess. Plenty of minerals and a little smoke on the finish, which is quite dry and lemony.

From here, let’s pay a visit to the rolling hills of central Italy, specifically the Marche region, where they are best known for your other romantic obsession – Italian shoes. In addition to cobbling, they’re known for growing Verdicchio, which was largely a blending grape until improvements in winemaking techniques over the last half of the 20th century smoothed out many of the acidic rough edges of this particular grape. Our version here, the Indigenous 2015 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is a good illustration of the balance. It’s tart without being overly acidic. The nose is full of orange blossom with a flavor of pineapples and apricot. I found a nicely balanced weight in the body with a little lemon zip at the end. There’s plenty of minerality throughout, yielding a very refreshing sip that you might enjoy while you try on that pair of Fabianis.

Moving southeast down the coast from Marche brings us to Puglia, the “heel” of the Italian boot – and to the Itria Valley, where you and yours can lose yourselves for hours amidst the olive groves and charming towns lined with pointed stone houses called trulli. In this valley (which is technically not a valley, as there are few distinct mountains), they produce whites from the Verdeca grape.

Once a primary grape in vermouth, Verdeca is largely used as a blending grape to give body to leaner whites. Some producers are now producing single varietal Verdeca wines, like the Masseria Li Veli 2014 Verdeca di Valle d’Itria. A bit darker in color than the other whites here, the Verdeca has a bit of a funky, somewhat herbal nose, followed by a very minerally, lemon and tangerine body. The finish is flinty with a flavor which reminds me a bit of orange bitters. Stronger as a food wine than on its own, it’s great with a seared tuna steak with a niçoise-ish side of roasted potatoes and green beans with sliced olives and a vinaigrette.


Pick your favorite Italian spot. Pour yourself a glass. Take a sip. Let your eyes unfocus and close. Have yourself a vision…and let yourself be awakened with a kiss.