Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Dog Lover Tries “9 Lives”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Charlie and Rosie, chillin'.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Miss Me?

Hello, friends!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Naked Vine Double Barrel: A Pair of Prosecco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, April 28, 2019

Kin & Cascadia -- Thinking about "Regional" wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Castiglioni Chianti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

Monday, January 07, 2019

Rabisco – Chewy, Portuguese, and (halfway) Autochthonal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 05, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Keeping it Natural -- Santa Julia Organica


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 01, 2018

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Curious Case of Carmenere


Carmenere, a red Chilean grape beginning to pop up on more and more good wine lists, has had a long road to broad public knowledge – and a lot of folks, including me, have been confused about it for a long time.
 
No, not Carmen's hair...Carmenere!
Point of fact, the very first time I wrote about Carmenere 12 years ago, I wrote that it was “basically a regional version of merlot” – which is completely and utterly incorrect. Carmenere is very much its own grape. Why the confusion?

Carmenere’s origin story begins in Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux reds are typically blends of five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Prior to the 1860’s, there was a “sixth varietal” used in the blend – Carmenere. The name comes from the French “carmin” – referring to the dark red color the vine leaves turn in the fall.

The Phylloxera epidemic in the 1860’s wiped out practically all the Carmenere vines in Europe. (It’s still basically extinct on the Continent.) When wine production picked back up again, Bordeaux went forth with five varietals. Just prior to the epidemic, however, cuttings from Carmenere were sent to Chile, where the cuttings flourished.

Only trouble – Carmenere vines look a lot like Merlot, so for much of the 1900’s, much of the Carmenere was unwittingly blended with Merlot, giving Chilean merlot a distinctive character. Once they got everything sorted out, Carmenere reared its head as a stand-alone varietal. Currently, Carmenere has become Chile’s “national grape” – thriving outside Bordeaux much as Malbec does in Argentina.

What to expect from a Carmenere if you happen to run across one? Rather than tasting like a Merlot, I find Carmenere be closer to its cousins Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. There are usually some dark cherry, berry, and spice flavors, often accompanied by a smoky, graphite type undertone. The tannins tend not to be as powerful as Cab Sauv, and there’s often an underlying earthy flavor, hearkening back to its French roots. They also usually clock in at 12-13% alcohol, so they’re a little subtler.

Another nice thing about Carmenere – and many Chilean wines – is that they’re relatively inexpensive. I’ve noticed that with sub-$10 Carmenere, the winemakers tend to go with a jammy, fruity style since so many people expect it to taste like a merlot. Spend just a couple of bucks more – like the $12-18 range, and you’ll have much better luck. Here are a few that I’ve had the chance to try recently:


Errazuriz “MAX” 2016 Carmenere Reserva ($16) – The “Max” refers to the winery’s founder, rather than some sort of nod to the potentially big, brutish nature of the wine. This nod would be misleading. While this is certainly a full-flavored wine, it’s not harsh or hot in any way. The notes that come through are smooth cherry and plum, backed with a very nice smokiness that would carom nicely off anything with black pepper.

Case in point, we tried this wine alongside a steak and pepper quesadilla that the SPinC whipped up for dinner, and it was honestly one of the better pairings I’ve had in awhile. Certainly can recommend this one.

Cono Sur “Bicicleta” 2016 Carmenere – The least expensive of the wines, retailing at $13 (and on sale for $10!), this one was a little rougher around the edges. Composed of 85% Carmenere and 15% “Other,” which I assume is largely Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine from the Valle Central packs a little more oomph. The fruits are bigger and plummier, with some brambly blackberry thrown in. There’s also a real smokiness to this wine when it’s first opened.

That smokiness could be a real benefit if you’re popping and pouring alongside anything grilled or smoked. I can easily imagine this alongside some smoked brisket or turkey. It would be an excellent value for a barbecue if you want something for your red wine loving friends. Once the weather cools, it would pair nicely with a big stew.

Finally, a bottle of Dos Almas 2015 Carmenere Reserva made its way to the door of Vine HQ. Dos Almas hails from Chile, but it’s owned by Zonin, an Italian family winery collective. Presented with other countries’ terroir, winemakers have an opportunity to test their techniques on new varietals and soil. This particular international collaboration (Dos Almas translates as “Two Spirits” in reflection) is a success.

The Italian sensibility comes through in this wine from the Colchuaga region. Among the flavors of blueberry and cherry, there’s a rustic tannic backbone throughout, echoing a Barbera or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Rich without being overly heavy, there’s a hint of flint and some coffee and vanilla lingering at the end.

While I would imagine beef or lamb would be obvious pairings, I turned some of our week’s farmshare yield and some leftover Mike’s Magic Marinara into an eggplant parmesan. The slight bitterness of the eggplant and the sweetness of the sauce played off the wine’s depth quite nicely. For $15, it’s a nice, flexible dinner wine that opens up nicely.

Two other quick notes about Carmenere. First, “Reserva” on the label doesn’t have any legal significance – it just typically means it’s been crafted with a little more care. Second, serving it slightly below room temperature improves Carmenere’s balance, I find. Enjoy!


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Libations for your Labor Day Cookout/Picnic/Barbecue


We find ourselves at the end of another summer, marked by Labor Day – declared a national holiday in 1894, and declared by the retail industry as the second largest day of sales of the year – topped only by Black Friday.

In between alternately honoring the hardworking men and women of this country and attempting to unclench our collective fists at the ever-expanding grift (SPACE FORCE, bitches!) of our not-so-hardworking Glorious Leader, many of us will be indulging in another Labor Day tradition: outdoor dining.

The traditional accompaniment to most backyard barbecues large and small is, of course, beer of some sort – but why neglect your vinous desires? There’s no best wine for a cookout – that’s all contingent on the menu, the company, and just how much of the stuff you need. Regardless, keep three simple rules in mind when you’re shopping and you’ll be fine:

Rule #1 – Your wine is a side dish. Outside of lifestyle commercials on HGTV or Food Network, few of us are going to be driving through idyllic scenery to a secluded location lit by fairy lights where our top chef friends are preparing four-course meals. More of us will be slapping at mosquitoes while aggressively picnic shelter hunting. Don’t go high-end. Your mind’s going to be on socializing, so simple wine that tastes good enough is best.

Rule #2 – Follow the features. If you’re tasked with bringing wine, try to find out what’s going to be served as a main course. Don’t worry about pairing something with Auntie Alice’s special guacamole with peas. What’s the main course? Burgers? Brats? Grilled cauliflower? Paella? Is this a more buttoned-up affair, or are you going to a backyard boozefest? Ask around and base your purchase along those lines.

Rule #3 – Chill EVERYTHING. One of the saddest sights you’ll see at any outdoor party are an array of bottles of red, slowly cooking into vinegar atop an outdoor bar. People instinctively chill white wine and rosé, but our usual habit is to leave reds at room temperature. If you’re outside, “room temperature” quickly becomes “an 85º mouthful of tannin.” Just no.

Re-useable chilling sleeves ($10-15) work like a charm here. Alternatively, when you pack your cooler, bury the beer and white wine in ice and just lay the reds on top – or just chill everything together. If anyone complains about drinking cold red, just tell them to leave their glass in the sun for two minutes.

What kind of wine to serve, though? Let’s consider where you might find yourself this Labor Day:

Scenario #1: Picnic in the Park

I’m still a big fan of loading up a basket or cooler, heading to a park with my nearest and dearest, spreading out a blanket, and going low-stress. With no grill to hover over, you’ll probably have cold salads, charcuterie, and cheese mixing with the slight tang of SPF 30.

What to get: chilling sleeves to start – but slap those sleeves on bottles of light, fruity white wines that taste summery. I like Vinho Verde from Portugal for this purpose – they’re slightly effervescent, acidic, and crisp. Alternatively, Sauvignon Blanc (maybe a white Bordeaux) or Pinot Grigio make good choices here. For reds, Pinot Noir or a Dolcetto from Italy.

Scenario #2: That Foodie Couple You Know

OK, so maybe you did get an invite to that fairy-light picnic. Your hosts probably gave you specific instructions on some kind of side to bring, because they’ve got something special to wheel out that will undoubtedly be delicious and have an ingredient list the length of your arm. Chances are, this isn’t going to be a huge gathering (after all, free-range pheasant and squid ink pasta can be hard to locate) – so how to be classy without breaking the bank?

What to get: My secret weapon at a time like this is good ol’ Chardonnay -- preferably unoaked or lightly oaked. Almost all white wines from Burgundy in France are Chardonnay, and they pair nicely with almost any food. California Chardonnay – if you skip the oak and butter bombs that were once all the rage – also works well. If you’re a fan of red wine, go with something light, flexible, and low in tannin: Beaujolais, relatively inexpensive Pinot Noir, Spanish Garnacha, or Italian Valpolicella. You can’t go wrong with dry rosé, either. Remember to chill before you go.

Scenario #3: Brats and Burgers

The traditional cookout/barbecue/all your rowdy friends event. Chances are, nobody’s going to much care what’s in the ol’ Solo cup, so long as the drink keeps flowing.

What to Get: First off, keep it simple. For a red – if the main is straight grilled meat, go California cabernet or merlot. If there’s something sauced like pulled pork or ribs, red Zinfandel. If brats are on the menu, there’s few things that go better than a slightly sweet Riesling. Germans have gone that route for centuries.

Also, consider quantity over quality. Don’t be afraid to bring box wine. Don’t go for the super-cheap stuff like Vella, but for $15-20, you can get a perfectly decent 3 liters of red, white, or rosé. I’m a fan of Folonari Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, La Vielle Ferme White and Rosé, and Vina Borgia Garnacha. Pop the box in the fridge the night before and keep the wine drinkers happy.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Tom of Finland – a Wine for Pride


Touko Laaksonen was born in 1920. He studied advertising, served in the Finnish army during WWII, and began drawing strongly masculine figures during the 1950’s. In 1957, he submitted his work to an American magazine called Physique Pictorial under the pseudonym “Tom.” The editor of the magazine added the now famous place-based tagline.

Tom of Finland, now one of the best known homoerotic artists in history, was born.

Sixty years later, the foundation he helped establish in 1984 has released Tom of Finland 2016 OUTstanding Red in celebration of Pride Month.

Tom of Finland’s artwork created the visual template for several gay subcultures. The biker look, with its attendant leathers, featured as prominently as the models’ anatomy in many of his images. He had a particular fascination, especially early in his fame, with soldiers (particularly German ones) in and out of uniform. (Do a Google Image search for "Tom of Finland" for examples -- but remember the results will be NSFW.) A biopic about Tom of Finland’s life was released to positive reviews in 2017. 

The wine, which retails for $25/bottle in certain markets, yields a portion of the proceeds directly to the Tom of Finland Foundation, which “promotes human rights and sexual expression through art.”

The wine itself is a Petit Sirah-dominant blend. About half the remaining blend is Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, with a tad of Merlot to round out the cuvee. The fruit is sourced from the Lodi and Sierra Foothills regions of California.

For a wine with a robust combination of grapes like that, I found it to be remarkably well-balanced. The Petit Sirah gives it a strong blueberry and blackberry backbone alongside the pepperiness you’d expect from Zinfandel. The pepper doesn’t overwhelm, though, allowing the cassis of the Cabernet to carry through. The fruit-to-tannin balance of this wine can’t be understated. The finish is blueberry, cocoa, and a little bit of leather, the last of which would have undoubtedly pleased Mr. Laaksonen.

Overall, I thought this was a very easy-drinking wine which would work either on its own or with food. Tom himself would undoubtedly have expected a degree of hedonism with wine carrying his name, and one could certainly use this muscular tipple for pleasant purposes.

The wine can be purchased from http://tomoffinlandwines.com/



Saturday, June 09, 2018

Bubbles to Beat the Brunch Backlash


I casually peruse food articles, as you might guess. One emerging set of hot takes seems to revolve around brunch. Specifically, that brunch sucks.

It’s all the same – just dressed up eggs and bacon, they say. Starchy home fries lead to long afternoon naps, crushing the productivity we’re supposed to be chasing in this crazy, overly plugged-in world of ours. Anthony Bourdain, in his initial New Yorker article that eventually became Kitchen Confidential, said chefs hate brunch. (May all your steaks be rare on the other side, Tony…rest in calm and light…)

I don’t subscribe to that point of view, myself. I’m still personally a big brunch fan, although I’m not a huge fan of what many brunches have *become* -- waiting for hours in line for quickly prepared slot machine meals from some new, trendy locale. Bottomless mimosas amped with triple sec and double vodka bloody mary bars to accelerate the food coma.

No, what I enjoy about brunch is the pace. Late enough timeframe for sleeping in, slowly letting consciousness return from whatever you might have been up to the night before. And a little hair of the dog – but not too much. I prefer having a brunch that refreshes – so I tend to stay away from, the heavy, greasy food -- and along with that, I stay away from the mixed drinks. They tend to go down too quickly, so I stick to relatively low-alcohol sparkling wine.

Some of the more popular brunch sparklers tend to be Italian. For most people, there will be two basic schools of thought about noontime bubbles, Moscato and Prosecco.

Moscato, born in the Piedmont region, is a sweet, fruity wine made from the Muscat grape. Easy to drink, Moscato is the fastest-growing style of wine in the United States, driven in part by a great deal of love from the hip-hop community. Moscato like this one are slightly fizzy – a style called “frizzante” in Italian.

The Moscato I sampled was the Castello del Poggio Moscato. Starting with a floral nose of honey, pineapple, and blossoms, my note after taking my first sip reads, “This is like eating a peach.” After a mite more reflection for detail, I thought it’s an initially weighty wine. Peaches and honey are the primary flavors, cut through by a slight effervescence. The finish is surprisingly light, ending with a lingering flavor of honeycrisp apple. At 7% ABV, this would make it a natural brunch pairing, especially with something like a salad with some fruits. If you were interested in having it with something later in the day, spicy foods would be tamed by the residual sugar. $13.

As for Prosecco, this is a much more “traditional” sparkling wine, full in its carbonation. For a long time, Prosecco was both the name of the grape and the region from which the wine hailed. In 2009, to avoid confusion, the name of the grape was changed to “Glera.” Prosecco is carbonated in tanks – a technique called the Charmat method – rather than in the bottle like Champagne and many other sparkling wines. Prosecco tends to be fairly dry, and is a solid accompaniment for many types of foods. If you’re thinking a heavier menu for your brunch, Prosecco will be a good choice to cut through the fat and starch.

I gave a go to the Zonin “1821” Prosecco – A straightforward glass of refreshing bubbles. This Prosecco is on the dry-but-fruity side. I found it had a gentle, blossomy nose of apples and pineapples. Green apple and lemon flavors on the palate are balanced with the lasting, tight bubbles and a zippy acidity. The finish is fruity, with more of those pineapples lingering at the end. As I mentioned, the bubbles will let this wine line up against almost anything you’d order, from brunch salads and soups to greasy hangover relief food. It also works well at the end of a meal, if you’re into the dessert thing. $13.