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. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Game of Thrones Wine -- Just in Time for Your Watch Party

Gather ‘round, Khals and Khalessi, Ladies and Sers. Game of Thrones returns after its hiatus to whisk us back to Westeros this evening and our respective water coolers on Monday.

The blood, the magic, the palace intrigue – they give welcome respite from the Drogon-ing of our country’s democracy. (And what I wouldn’t give to watch a face to face between Our Dear Leader and Lyanna Mormont…)

With Season 7’s premier in the offing, I got a text from my good friend The Wizard of Covington a couple of weeks ago that read “Winter is Coming” next to a picture of a bottle of Game of Thrones red wine. I did a little research and was able to make contact with my friends at Folsom, who are heading up the PR for this new label, and they were goodly enough to get me a couple of bottles to sample in time for the premiere.

Game of Thrones Wines are produced by Vintage Wine Estates – the California company behind Cosentino, Firesteed, Middle Sister, and many other brands. They make three versions of GoT wine – a Chardonnay from California’s Central Coast and a red blend from Paso Robles, both of which retail for around $20, and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $50.

My samples were of the first two. How were they? Well, as they say around (what’s left of) King’s Landing…

Valar dohaeris:”

Game of Thrones 2016 Chardonnay – This Chardonnay started out very floral, likely from the 10% Riesling blended in. I thought it smelled like peach ice cream next to a bouquet of wildflowers. The Chardonnay/Riesling interaction creates a pleasant, integrated set of flavors. Mouthfeel wise, there’s a bit of “stickiness” that comes from a Riesling, with a little accompanying apple-y sweetness. The Chardonnay creaminess and lemon flavors come through secondarily as the acidity kicks in. The finish is a bit on the fruity side, with the peaches returning, followed by a bit of lemon peel. Really not much oak to be found anywhere, other than at the tail, tail end of the finish. My guess is that this would be a crowd-pleasing white – the perfect sort of thing for a watch party – but it’s not one that I’d probably snag just for general consumption. The Sweet Partner in Crime thought that the wine was one of the better Chardonnays that she’d had in a while. She really liked the floral/fruity combination, saying that it reminded her a lot of a Viognier. I wasn’t quite as keen on it, but I certainly thought it was decent.

Game of Thrones 2015 Red Wine – When we first really got into wine tasting, we loved big reds. Back then, this field blend of Malbec, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and Syrah from Paso Robles would be been right in our wheelhouse. “This wine would have been my jam,” said the SPinC, “and now it’s just jam.” She’s not kidding. This full-blooded, fruit-forward inky monster wouldn’t be out of place on a table with roasted joints of meat and mince pies. You want extracted blackberries and dark cherries? Check. You want tannins chewy as an old waterskin? Bingo. You want some vanilla and pepper in your finish? Aye. That’s your quaff. If you want to understand the XY side of the “masculine vs. feminine” wine divide, try this one. The testosterone level matches the alcohol. While it was too much for the SPinC’s pinot-loving palate, I thought it was a pretty strong offering for what it was – a wine that will pull your attention back from the screen to let you know you’re drinking *wine*. For science, I had this next to a strip that I bought from the local butcher. It was as good as you might expect.

While these wines may retail for around $20, your wine stores will probably be running specials on them not long after the premiere. Bottom line – they’re pretty solid wines, but they’re hardly subtle. But who watches GoT for the subtleties, I ask you?

So, saddle up with Dany as she gets across the Narrow Sea, pour yourself a flagon or tankard of your choice, and return to one of the last instances of “appointment television” that we still have left.  Enjoy, and try your best to be nice to that guy yelling “NO SPOILERS! NO SPOILERS!” from a few cubes down and the bummed out lover of the novels who can’t hit you with a “You know nothing” anymore.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Greek Wine: From Across the Ionian Sea

There are wines in the Vine’s archives from all over the world – but one place we haven’t stopped often in our oenological travels is Greece. The Greeks have been making wine longer than anyone else in the Western world. They’ve got nearly 6,000 years of experience cranking the stuff out. Why don’t we Statesiders know more about them?

The Vine's proprietor gets all animatronic
at the Santorini Wine Museum
First off, production – Greece produces in the neighborhood of 300 million liters (about 80 million gallons) of wine each year. Compare that to their neighbors across the Ionian Sea, Italy, which churns out between four and five billion liters annually. Second, winemaking processes in Greece only really began to modernize in the 1980’s. Before then, Greece produced a lot of interchangeable table wines and Retsina – a native wine-based beverage flavored with pine resin. Yes, you read that correctly – and it’s as much of an acquired taste as you might imagine.

Third, not to disparage Greek language, but the nearly 300 autochthonal (Winespeak for “indigenous”) varieties of grapes carry names that translated, to the uninitiated, can look like a Scrabble draw pile. While many American consumers would undoubtedly enjoy a glass of Athiri or Malagousia – they tend to shy away from unfamiliar grapes.

Well, stop overlooking them. Greek wines are excellent food complements, especially seafoods, cheeses, and other Mediterranean-styled dishes. If you’d like to give them a go, there are four primary Greek grapes with which you should start your explorations. Here are examples of each of the Greek Big 4:

Moschofilero grapes -- red grapes for white wine!
Tselepos 2015 Mantinia Moschofilero White Wine – OK, first -- to unpack this wine’s name: “Tselepos” is the winery. “Mantinia” is the region, which is just north of the city of Tripoli in Pelleponese. “Moschofilero” is the grape. This particular grape, pronounced MOS-ko-feel-er-o, although used to make white wines, is reddish in color. I found the wine’s flavor to be quite similar to a Muscadet – fairly high in acid, floral notes on the nose, and lemony flavors over a flinty, minerally backbone. The finish is crisp and cool. Noting that it was Muscadet-ish, shellfish immediately sprang to mind as a pairing, and we tried it with a bay scallop ceviche. Our thoughts were correct, as the acids complemented each other to make a lovely meal on a warm summer evening. $16.

Bairaktaris 2015 “Monolithos” Nemea Agiorgitiko Red Wine – This red wine’s moniker comes from, what else, a giant rock that sat in the midst of the vineyards of Nemea. This rock was demolished and the dust spread across the vineyards, which apparently improved the quality of the soil. For mythology geeks like myself, Nemea is the site of one of the 12 Labors of Hercules, where he slew the Nemean Lion and then probably settled in for a flagon of red wine made from Agiorgitiko (AY-ee-or-YEE-tee-ko), the most widely cultivated red in Greece.

I found the wine that the Big Man might have been drinking to be quite an interesting quaff. It’s a lighter-styled red in body, but there’s still a considerable amount of tannin and flavor punch here. Plenty of cherry and blackberry flavors and scents alongside nice, even tannins and an interesting mineral character. I think it’s along the lines of a Languedoc red or a less “chalky” Chianti. We had it alongside a couple of grilled lamb steaks, and I thought it a very solid summertime red. $18.

Chatzivariti 2016 “Eurynome” Goumenissa Assyritiko White Wine – Eurynome is one of the Titans who ruled Mt. Olympus before the Greek Gods took the place over. When cast from Olympus into the earth-encompassing Ocean, according to myth, she had nowhere to rest, so she
“split sea from sky” and danced on the waves, creating the land. (Hey, don’t ask me for the physics of it…) Assyritiko (Ah-seer-tee-ko) is Greece’s signature white – the most exported and well known grape on the international market.

This wine, made from 100% Assyritiko, is a difficult wine to pin down. Initially acidic, the wine develops an interesting creaminess as it gets some air. Reminiscent of a Sancerre or a light unoaked Chardonnay, there’s plenty of peach and citrus over a steely backbone. The creaminess that emerged made for an interesting balance. We actually tried this with a thin crust pizza with serrano ham, artichokes, olives, roasted garlic, and Parmesan. Darned good combo, if you ask me, although the price of this particular bottle -- $24 – seemed a tad high.

Boutari 2012 Naoussa Red Wine -- This wine is made entirely from our fourth autochthonal Greek varietal, Xinomavro (Ex-SEEN-o-Mahv-ro). Nouassa is a region in northern Greece in Macedonia. (This is not to be confused with the Republic of Macedonia, which was once part of Yugoslavia – a locale which also makes darned good wine.)

After I cracked the bottle and poured, I could have been looking at a glass of light-styled Beaujolais. The nose is a little more alcohol-scented than a Beaujolais, but the basic profile is similar, and reminded me somewhat of cranapple juice, minus the sugary scent. There are some nice understated red fruit flavors -- it's almost delicate…until you swallow. The wine then hits you with a load of tannin on the long, dry finish. The bottle suggests pairing with "roast meats and cheeses of…an intense character." I can certainly see that -- the tannins will slice through just about any kind of rich flavor. Lamb, again, would be great with it, not surprisingly. $14.

Since these wines are lesser-known at the moment, they’re fun to spring on your wine-loving friends as a change of pace. They’re certainly worth getting to know, especially in restaurants, where their relative anonymity will keep the markup to a minimum. Give them a go.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Voga Italia, at Home Amidst the Product

I took a look at wines that try to win your heart with interesting bottle designs before. A new entry to this category is the Voga Italia 2015 Pinot Grigio Della Venezie.

Rather than the slenderly-tapered container into which most Pinot Grigio goes, the Voga comes to you in a clear cylindrical bottle topped with a black screw cap that would look at home amidst the Sweet Partner in Crime’s collection of Aveda products. (As a male, I am genetically incapable of understanding what many of those products do, but that’s another story.) The screw top actually hides a cork underneath, so if you bring this wine on a picnic, make sure you pack an opener.

Italian PG has a reputation for being ultra-light, acidic, and largely forgettable. The Voga has a little more meat on its bones. Pale straw yellow in color, the nose is more fragrant than many of its Italian brethren. The weight to the body was, to me, more along the lines of many Sauvignon Blanc. The pear and apple-driven sensation of both the nose and body is pleasant enough, and there’s a little zippy acidity towards the finish -- longer lasting than many PG’s.

All in all, it’s a pretty solid summertime wine at $11. I’d have this either on its own, or with some sort of light fish preparation. We had some of it with some uncomplicated grocery store sushi, and it worked well enough.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Naked Vine Showdown: Inexpensive Rosé -- Bota Box vs. Black Box vs. La Vielle Ferme

As the heat of summer continues to build, more and more of you are reaching for tasty bottles of cold rosé. Lots more of you, in fact. Whether from Provence or Petaluma, American consumption of rosé has exploded in the last decade.

When I wrote the first words in this space in 2006, the U.S. imported somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 liters of rosé from Provence. In 2016, upwards of 8 million liters found their way to American palates. Big Wine Store near me recently rearranged its shelves – devoting practically an entire aisle to the pink stuff from around the world, where I used to hunt for my goodies from Tavel and Provence tucked away in a dusty corner near the White Zin.

As I started my quest to get my readers to embrace my oenological mentor’s mantra that “Pink is not a flavor” and that dudes could drink pink wine and still feel manly, dry rosé was one of the best kept secrets of the wine world. But as the world’s caught on to just how daggone good the stuff is, winemakers and distributors picked up on the public’s new thirst and began raising prices to match demand. Where a $15 bottle of rosé was almost unheard of just a few years ago, many quality entries are now in the same range as premium reds and whites – in the $25-30 range. Heck, I sampled a rosé a few months ago tagged at $70.

The Lineup -- Drink Pink and Don't Think!
People, that’s just crazypants. Rosé is a wine for happiness. It’s a great choice for meals, sure – but it’s darned near impossible to drink rosé and be depressed. There’s something about that fruit and acid balance that just calls for friends and a social setting. And while, yes, there are certainly levels of quality that can roughly correlate with price – come on, that’s simply excessive. Give me $70 and the Spanish section and I’ll get you three bottles that will knock your socks off. A $70 bottle of rosé is just showing off.

The other end of the spectrum, thankfully, hasn’t been pushed out of the market entirely. I like my rosé cold and plentiful and if you’re reading this, I know you do, too. After a recent trip to the store where I saw that a couple of producers are now boxing rosé, I decided to pit three large-format rosés against each other in a happy-go-lucky wineglass rodeo. The contenders:
  • Bota Box 2016 California Rosé (3 liter box -- $20-25)
  • La Vielle Ferme 2016 Rosé (1.5 liter bottle -- $14-18)
  • Black Box 2016 “Limited Edition” California Rosé (3 liter box -- $20-25)
[Side note – a few of you may remember that I swore off Black Box wines after a series of messes in my fridge from spout issues. I let one back in the house…you know…for science.]

The La Vielle Ferme is from the Southern Rhone valley, just northwest of the Provence region. It’s a blend of Cinsault, Grenache, and Syrah. The Bota Box and Black Box wines are considered “California blends” – meaning there’s not 75% of one varietal in either. The Black Box wine says that it’s “built around Syrah,” and I couldn’t find info on the makeup of the Bota. I suspect it’s also Syrah-driven.

Pouring the wines side-by-side-by-side, the LVF was by far the lightest in color – the pale pink traditionally associated with much French rosé from Provence and surrounding environs. The Bota Box was a slightly darker pink, although still clearly on the lighter side of the ledger. The Black Box was a darker salmon color, almost orange. This shouldn’t be considered a defect – rose gets its color through brief contact with grape skins. The longer the contact, the darker the wine, so one would expect a richer flavor with a darker colored rosé.

On to the flavors – rosé typically has a fairly delicate nose, as was the general case here. The Bota Box’s nose was light with peaches and strawberries as the dominant characteristic. I found it to be medium weight for a rosé, with more strawberries and a mildly acidic palate. The finish was crisp and fairly clean. I see this as an inexpensive American riff on a French rosé.

The LVF was along the same lines as the Bota, but classed up a bit. While peaches and strawberries were in the game here, the nose was much more “blossomy” on those particular flavors. The wine was lighter and more crisp, with lemons, peaches, and strawberries all taking their turn on the palate. While it’s certainly not a complex wine by any stretch, it tastes like what you would expect from a dry French rosé.

The Black Box was produced in a different style altogether. Oranges and grapefruit were the first flavors I got from the bouquet, which was followed by melon and cantaloupe on the palate in a somewhat heavier style. The finish was fruitier, lower in acid, and had a minerally/metallic taste that wasn’t nearly as pleasant to drink as the other two. Served cold, this would be good if you really weren’t thinking about it much. A cheap rosé for day drinking perhaps.

So, as one might expect, the wine that came in the big bottle topped the two boxes, but not by much. I’d not hesitate to pour either the Bota Box or the La Vielle Ferme on a hot summer’s day for some kickback time or with a meal where you really aren’t looking for a perfect wine pairing. Drink your rosé without thought and with happiness, the way it was intended.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Review: Mighty Mug – A Beverage Threat Reduction System

What’s your typical level of clumsy? 

If you have ballerina-level grace or Messi-quality balance, this product likely isn’t your bag. But if you talk with your hands, enjoy cocktails on a porch or a boat, or just bump into things more often than you might like (any of which could easily apply to yours truly), then you might find the Mighty Mug an intriguing addition to your barware collection.

“Mighty Mug” drinkware – which includes wine glasses, beer pint and pilsner glasses, Old Fashioned glasses, and travel mugs – are all equipped with a special base which the company calls Smartgrip. This rubber footing is designed to create a strong vacuum if the mug is nudged from the side, preventing the glass from toppling over. Lifted straight up, however, it behaves as a normal glass. To wit:

I had the opportunity to test the wine stems and beer pints from Mighty Mug’s collection.

My thoughts:

  • On a smooth or finished surface – countertop, dining room table, computer desk, etc. – the mug performs well. Almost too well sometimes. I learned from the Mighty Mug that I tend to tilt a glass slightly when I lift it. The Mug didn’t much care for my technique, keeping the vessel locked in place until I lifted straight up.
  • That said, on surfaces that are anything less than perfectly smooth – say, a table with a “lightly mosaic-ed” tile top, or the wooden arm of an Adirondack chair, the Mighty Mug behaves like a normal glass. In other words, if it ain’t smooth, don’t bump it.
  • I could see the Mighty Mug being of real use on a boat or other moving conveyance. On a smooth surface, changes in direction won’t make the glass slide around with potentially disastrous results.
  • The enemy of the Mighty Mug, I found, is dust and dirt. When I was testing, there was a stretch of bad pollen days. Most of the outdoor surfaces were covered in the light pollen dust. That dust worked its way into the mechanism, causing the Mug’s adherent properties to fade. The makers of the Mug provide care instructions for reactivating the stickiness, but it would be a good idea to clean the bases on a regular basis.
  • My biggest issue with the Mighty Mug, at the end of the day, is that its greatest strengths – durability and stability – are a major aesthetic weakness. The base is quite thick, and while that doesn’t detract too much from the pint glass, it looks a bit odd for the wine glass. Also, necessarily, the Mighty Mug is made out of fairly thick shatterproof plastic. And drinking wine or a pint out of plastic barware, at least for me, detracts from the overall experience. If I’m on a picnic or some such, that’s acceptable, but if I’m relaxing at home – I’d rather use my usual stemware.
All in all, I can see the utility – especially if you’re either out and about or working at a desk where a spill might fry your phone or other electronics. Take that into account before deciding if Mighty Mug is right for you. You can order them from the Mighty Mug website or at any number of other retailers.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Checking in with Charles Smith

Over the Vine’s period of years, I’ve seen wine trends come and go. Wineries merge, brands change, labels change. Early on in my tasting time, I remember hearing about a Washington winemaker named Charles Smith.

Smith had a reputation as the “rock and roll winemaker.” With his big mop of curly hair and penchant for mosh pit-approved attire, Smith looked more Slayer than Sonoma. Using partnerships and interesting, approachable twists on a number of wines, Smith built up an intriguing portfolio and a great deal of brand loyalty when he discovered that simple, eye catching label designs crossed with quality, reasonably priced juice makes a successful market entry. His labels and their black and white iconography look back at you at most decent wine stores.

Smith has long been into sustainable agriculture. All of his winemaking operations follow up-to-date growing techniques and such. I also have some recollection of Smith being an early adopter of using Stelvin screw-top closures exclusively.

OK...Let's do this...
Recently, a slate of five of Smith’s wines showed up at the door. I was interested to get re-acquainted with many of these, since it’d been a couple of years since I’d actually done a full-on tasting of them.

Charles Smith 2015 “Eve” Washington State Chardonnay ($13) – Eve is appropriate moniker. Ripe sweet apple blossom is the first note that shows up in the bouquet, and that’s mirrored with those similar apple flavors on the palate, backed with some tropical fruit. Very lean style, but not overly acidic. No butter or cream. Tastes like there’s just a kiss of oak to round out an exceptionally well-balanced chard. Super pleasant to drink, and a great accompaniment to some slow-baked salmon alongside some sautéed mixed veggies, broiled with shredded parmesan.

Had the Charles Smith 2014 “Chateau Smith” Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) and the Charles Smith 2014 “Boom! Boom!” Syrah ($18) side by side. This pair of deep reds were cracked and poured next to a quality grill-job on some steaks. The Cabernet was rich and fruity, with dark cherry flavors and some blackberry notes against a medium weighted body. The finish was dry and not quite as long as I thought it might be, at least initially. It improved over the course of the evening.

The Syrah, on the other hand, was a juicy, savory experience. Lots of rich blueberry and blackberry flavors, a somewhat fruity and floral nose from the hint of Viognier blended in. The finish did something quite interesting – it starts off quite dry and earthy, then comes back with a little bit of candied sweetness that I found quite pleasant. Alongside the steaks, in a bit of a surprise to me, I found myself preferring the Syrah.

The Charles Smith 2014 “The Velvet Devil” Merlot ($13) has long been one of my go-to bottles of value-priced red, and not just because of my alma mater. (Although this Devil is much more Purple than Blue.) Smith has always produced a quality merlot – and this vintage is no exception. Dark, rich cool-climate fruits are in abundance here, although there’s enough of a tobacco-ish backbone to keep it from becoming a complete fruit bomb. Good restraint in the flavor and some good earthiness and fruity on the finish. Another quality entry. This ended up being an end-of-day wine that went really well with chocolate.

Then, there’s my old fave, Charles Smith 2015 “Kung Fu Girl” Riesling. ($13) I still remember years ago when I first saw an article about Smith, where he was asked about the name of this particular wine. His booming response was “"WHY? BECAUSE, RIESLING AND GIRLS KICK ASS!" The man knows. In any case, I’ve recommended this Riesling more times than I can count, because I find it hits the middle of the Venn diagram for people who aren’t into super-sweet Rieslings, and those who can’t deal with the flinty dry ones. Rich with citrus and honey, this is one of the better wine pairings with spicy Asian cuisine that you’ll run across. Peaches and some nice minerality round out the experience.
Mr. Smith, himself.

Finally, just to be a completist – and because I happened to run across this wine when I was ambling down the pink aisle – there was the Charles Smith 2015 “Vino!” Rosé ($12) – the newest addition to his catalog. This wine, made from 100% Sangiovese grown in Washington State, which is an interesting twist in and of itself, is a very solid, study quaffer. Full of melon and strawberry with a backing of herbs, I powered through this wine much too quickly on my front porch on a warm day in early May. What was left of the bottle was fabulous with salmon.   

Smith’s wines continue to hold their reputation for being solid, well-priced entries in the “quality everyday wine” category. I still give them a thumbs up.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Locations Wine -- Blends that Break the Rules

What’s in a name?

When it comes to wine, nomenclature can mean a great deal – depending on which country’s soil you’re standing upon…or, more accurately, which country’s terroir you’re about to start slugging on.

As we’ve discussed in this space, especially among European wines, the name on the bottle typically refers to the region from which the wine is created. There are no grapes named “Bordeaux” or “Rioja.” Whether a wine drinker knows the exact grape or blend of grapes in a bottle, he or she can be reasonably confident of a wine’s style based on its locale of origin. French Burgundy, made from Pinot Noir, will necessarily have a different flavor than the Grenache/Syrah blends of the Rhone Valley.

These general naming conventions, blends of regional grapes, flavors and styles have been reasonably consistent (and often enforced by local and state food-related law) for decades or even centuries.

Enter Dave Phinney. Phinney, the winemaker who burst onto the scene in the late 90’s with “The Prisoner” – a Zinfandel-heavy field blend from California which put his Orin Swift Cellars on the map – has, over the last few years, built up a following around a set of blends he’s named Locations Wine.

(Side note: In case you’re wondering about who “Orin Swift” is, Orin is his father’s middle name and Swift is his mother’s maiden name.)

With Locations, Phinney and his team attempt to distill the essence of a country’s wines across its terroir – blending grapes from various wine growing regions to build a reflection of a “national” wine. Locations produces wines from Spain, France, Italy, Argentina, Portugal, and Corsica. On the domestic side, they produce blends from Oregon, Washington, California, and most recently, Texas.

So, for example, the California wine is a blend from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and the Sierra Foothills – four regions with very distinct differences in terroir and grape type production. Juice from those regions rarely gets tossed in together. As for the European cuvées, many would consider such blending high heresy. Furthermore, the wines are non-vintage, which allows Phinney to blend wines from multiple years into the final mix. Each release is numbered. This year’s is “4.”

All but the Corsican wine are adorned with the formerly ubiquitous white oval stickers that used to adorn most cars in Europe before the advent of the European Union. (The Corsican wine is labeled with a silhouette of a wicked looking shepherd’s knife.) You’ve seen these labels before:

Locations Wine: France, Italy, Spain

I had the opportunity to try three of the blends at a “virtual tasting” with Phinney. He said that the general style of Locations is targeted towards the U.S. market. The idea, he said, was to give people an entry point to European wines; to try to turn people on to wines from countries they might not have tried before. He said that he knows that what he’s doing breaks a lot of traditional rules, so he spent a great deal of time putting together his blends. “I needed them to be beyond reproach.”

Locations sent three samples – their offerings from Italy, France, and Spain. One commonality across all three reflects Phinney’s comment about aiming these wines at American palates. All three have what I would consider New World sensibilities. I found them all to have, in general, bigger mouthfeels and more fruit-forward than most wines I’ve tried from the counterpart country. The French wine, for instance, lacked the “funk” that many Old World wines sport. I certainly don’t mean that as a defect – just know going in that you shouldn’t expect a Cotes-du-Rhone or Chianti.

Italy – The Italian entry is a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia in the South and Barbera from the Piedmont in the North. Thick dark fruits on the nose – plums and blueberries. The nose feels as if it’s going to be attached to a wine of considerable weight, but the palate is surprisingly limber. Some nice spicy notes there, too. There’s a hint of that Italian chalkiness hanging around on the finish, backed by dark fruits and smoky tannins. This was my favorite of the three. Dynamite with a red-sauced pasta.

France – The French version is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and “various Bordeaux varietals” (meaning some mix of, Cabernets, Merlot, et al.) from the Rhone, Roussillon, and Bordeaux. It had a fairly thick nose of strawberries and cotton candy with some floral notes. The palate is a nicely balanced mix of strawberries, raspberries, and earth. It’s fairly tannic, with a dry, lasting finish. It really calls for some kind of roasted meat, if you’re going to pair it up.

Spain – Labeled with an “E” for “España,” which I’ll sheepishly admit threw me for a hot second, this blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, Monastrell, and Cariñena is sourced from regions all across Spain: the Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero. The nose is full of dark fruit and licorice, backed up with menthol and mint. The tannins harden gradually after a few sips into a slate-smoke finish. There’s light tarry flavor of coffee over dark plums. I had it with paella, and it was a tad big, but still a very nice complement. The fruit on this wine faded quickly – even stoppered, I found there was little fruit the next day, leaving largely a tannic, graphite flavor which wasn’t my favorite.

The Locations series retails for around $20. I think it’s an interesting take – and I admit interest in checking in on some of the other blends. (I mean…Texas? I can be convinced, but…)

Monday, May 01, 2017

Rosés for Mother’s Day

The time’s come again, folks – Mother’s Day. The day to thank Mom for changing our diapers, wiping our tears, and laying the foundation for all of us to become the lovable lushes that we are. Many of us will be hosting some sort of brunch, lunch, dinner, or drinking jag on some front porch or other.

Anyone can get a bunch of roses for the celebration. I suggest sticking with the pale red color family and snag a bunch of rosés! What says love for your maternal unit like wine, I ask you?

Depending on where you find yourself on Mother’s Day, there’s a bottle of pink goodness that can accompany you.

For Brunch

If you’re doing brunch, you’re going to want bubbly. While I ordinarily recommend bloody marys for All Things Brunch, this is a celebration, dammit! Celebrations call for sparkly things. And if you’re feeling really, really classy (and don’t mind paying through the nose), you could snag a bottle of Charles Heidsieck Champagne Rosé Réserve.

This rosy bottle from “Champagne Charlie” is a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. This lovely, fruity sipper packs a load of flavor. Strawberries and a little bit of baking spice start the nose. The bubbles are soft and velvety, adding a luscious creaminess and lots of berry flavors on the palate. The finish is delicate, creamy, and slightly tart. Truly a lovely wine, one which carries a special occasion pricetag of $70-80.

Now, if you don’t want to go full-on walletbusting, but you’d still like to have the benefit of a bubbly brunch, you could go with a less expensive domestic alternative. One suggestion might be the Mumm Napa Brut Rosé from California. The distinctive delicacy and creaminess of Champagne may be missing, but many of the same flavors are there – although they lean more towards cherry than strawberry. Still a lovely bottle of bubbles – one you can find for $20-25.

For Dinner

If an evening meal is on your agenda, especially if you’re visiting one of your local dining establishments, everyone around the table might want something different. To limit any potential for familiar disagreement when the wine list comes around, I recommend that you consider a full-bodied rosé for the table. While rosé is often considered a delicate drink, many are now built with firmer fruit backbones to stand up to broader ranges of cuisine.

So long as Mom’s not insisting on steak au poivre, you certainly could get away with a bottle like the Villa Gemma 2015 Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Rosé. This rosé is made from one of my all-time “just drink it” grapes, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. (Cerasuolo is the town near where the grapes are sourced.) It’s considerably darker in hue than most rosé. In the bottle, the wine could easily be confused for a lighter red, like a Chianti. It pours bright ruby red with a medium weight body and flavors of cranberry and cherry. Despite the fruitiness, it’s quite dry and somewhat acidic on the finish, which would make it practically ideal for a varied table. $12.

For Cocktails

Several months back, I mentioned a rosé shortage because of the huge uptick in the wine’s popularity over the last few years. Wine supplies (other than high-end limited production wines) tend to trail a couple of years behind consumer demand. Some rosé producers may have overshot a bit when it comes to the most recent vintage.

In the wine stores I frequent, I keep running into very decent bottles of French rosé -- often Provence rosé, which can be quite pricey – for $6-8. If you’ve gone to the store and rightfully stocked up, you know know that dry rosé is actually a pretty good choice for a cocktail mixer. They’re usually somewhat acidic, have low sugar content and light body, and have those soft fruit notes that perk up mixed drinks. With that in mind, here are a couple of potential recipes you can use to surprise Dear Mum:


1 (5 oz.) glass rosé; 1 oz. citrus vodka; 2 basil leaves, ripped; lemon wedge; ½ oz. simple syrup; 1 ½ club soda.

Muddle basil, lemon, and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Fill the shaker with ice and add vodka and wine. Stir, then pour into glasses. Top with club soda. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

Rosé Bouquet

3 oz. rosé; 1 ½ oz. gin; ¾ oz. Lillet; 3 oz. red grapefruit juice; sprig of rosemary.

Fill a lowball glass ¾ full with ice. Add ingredients in order. Stir. Garnish with rosemary and a wedge of grapefruit.

Pink Glow

5 oz. rosé (use a full-flavored one); 2 oz. bourbon; 1 oz. orange juice.

Add to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Strain into martini glasses and garnish with an orange wedge.

The Mosé

2 strawberries, sliced; 1 tsp. sugar; 2 oz. white tequila; 1 oz. fresh lemon juice; 2 oz. dry rosé

Muddle strawberries and sugar in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and other ingredients. Shake well. Pour into a rocks glass.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- Pick a Pair of Pinot

I make no bones about my love of Pinot Noir. I do find, though, that I end up regularly purchasing a bottle less often than I probably should.

Why? Because for folks who like good, inexpensive wine, Pinot Noir falls in sort of a weird category. Pinot Noir is a finicky grape. It’s tough to grow, doesn’t yield as much as like Merlot or Cabernet, and, as a result, tends to be a little pricier than some other reds.

Now, if you trundle down to your local wine store, you might be able to find something labeled “Pinot Noir” for eight or nine bucks. Great. Good on you. Those pinots – many of which are from California – are usually blended with juice from other grapes to get the price down. They may be perfectly serviceable wines, but they can lack that certain delicacy in flavor that makes Pinot, well, Pinot.

To me, a good Pinot Noir is going to have a fragrant, complex aroma; a body that’s not too heavy that combines some fruitness with a smoky quality, and a finish that I can sit back and meditate on for a bit – something full of dark fruit, smoke, and mystery.

Hard to find those qualities in something under ten bucks. Honestly, if you want a really good one – spending $20-25 isn’t going to be out of the ordinary, especially if you want something that you’ll be able to savor for a bit.

When I usually think of Pinot Noir – I consider it in terms of broad groups…Old World, usually meaning Burgundy, France; and New World, which has come to mean just about anywhere else. But New World Pinot Noir is now almost an overly broad determination, since many countries are finding local microclimates that will support these stubborn little red pods of joy.

I had the chance recently to try a couple of interesting New World pinots which aren’t in the break-the-bank range. You might consider them the “Old New World” and “New New World” versions. The two Pinots I got to size up were the Cultivate 2014 California Pinot Noir ($25) and the Trinity Hill 2015 Hawkes Bay Pinot Noir ($17) from New Zealand.

The Cultivate wine is an interesting study in terroir on its face. I am a huge fan of cool-climate Pinot Noir, which seems to be the model for this particular wine. It’s a multi-regional blend of California Pinot Noir harvested in three different locales. The idea here seemed to be to pull together lighter bodied wines from the more southern regions and drop in a little heavier juice to even everything out.

Grapes from Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands comprise 49% and 47% of the blend, respectively – with the remaining 4% coming from the Sonoma Coast AVAThe resulting wine is still quite light-styled, with a perfumey nose of raspberry and strawberry. The flavor is bright cherry with a little bit of smoke as a backbone – but that smokiness doesn’t linger. The finish is clean and slightly tannic and smoky. 

The Trinity Hill was a different animal altogether. In comparison, this Hawkes Bay wine was richer and smokier. I thought it seemed like a much more serious wine. Lots of plums and smoke up front on a heavier body, which surprised me. Many of the New Zealand pinots I’ve tried lean towards lighter styles – but this one embraced its darkness. Raspberry and spice flavors hung around for a long time on the finish, and the smokiness lasted quite a long time. There’s also an earthy component to this one that simply wasn’t there on the California wine.

The Sweet Partner in Crime leaned heavily towards the Trinity Hill. She leans towards earthiness in her reds, so I wasn’t surprised. I thought that the Cultivate was a leaner, more delicate wine – but it was almost *too* delicate. California Pinot, while often lighter styled in cool regions, still has more firmness than I found here.

All in all, especially for the value, I leaned towards the EnZedd offering here. The Cultivate was better, I thought, for drinking on its own – but at $25, that’s a bit high for a pass-around wine, although it would be a pretty good aperitif red. With food, the Trinity Hill holds up more effectively. Both these wines were quite decent – and your personal preference for body style will likely be the deciding factor if you’re going to give these a go. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Catching up with Natura Wines

A couple of years ago, I was asked to review a set of Chilean wines called Natura from Emiliana Vineyards. The wine fairy brought a few more of these South American selections to the door recently.

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

Natura wines are produced from 100% organically grown grapes. They’re also clarified without traditional “finings” – which are often made from gelatin. Thus, these wines are also vegan friendly.

How are they? I had the chance to try three of them:

Natura 2016 Casablanca Valley Unoaked Chardonnay – My favorite of the three wines, I thought this Chardonnay offered the best overall experience. The floral nose started off with green apple, which led into a nicely balanced palate of grapefruit and pineapple. There’s some creaminess which nicely evens out the acidity. The finish is gentle and lasting, with a little bit of a curious toastiness, even though it’s unoaked. Clean and pretty, it made a good complement to some pan-cooked salmon with cherry tomatoes.

Natura 2016 Rapel Valley Dry Rosé – A nicely flexible food wine, the rosé starts out with a snootful of peaches, leading into a palate strong in strawberry and cherry flavors. A salmon-tinted rosé, the medium weighted body leads into a dry, lengthy finish with just a touch of stone fruit and orange rind at the end. Not overly heavy, the zingy acidity makes it a good pairing with some somewhat challenging foods. We had this with both a chicken pho and a cabbage and white bean soup with ham hocks. Worked fine with either. A solid offering.

Natura 2015 Colchagua Valley Carmenere – Carmenere, a first-cousin to Merlot, is a very popular South American grape. This version, which is 85% Carmenere blended with some Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, was a solid, straightforward quaffer. The nose and palate are cherry dominant. The body is medium weight, and I think I was ready for a little more of a tannic bite. The finish is not overly dry, with more of an easy fruit finish. We opened this up on a nice night alongside a couple of steaks, grilled asparagus, and tomatoes. It was OK. It went with the food just fine, but it really didn’t stand out or complement the flavors. It worked fine as a table wine, but I’d probably gone with the Cabernet or Syrah in the first place, if I had it to do over again. Still, for folks who aren’t into big, tannic monsters that want a red to go with some strong cheeses, it’s a decent choice.

Natura wines retail for around $10-12. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chianti Classico’s Contemporary Climb

I sometimes wonder which fictional character had more of an effect on the world of wine – Miles’s rant about the inadequacies of Merlot in Sideways, or The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter introducing the world to the pairing of Chianti with fava beans and a side of census taker.

It’s the latter wine that we’re here to discuss – Chianti. Specifically, Chianti Classico.

Chianti, in a theme you’ll likely notice if you’re a regular visitor to these parts, is not a grape. Chianti is a region of central Tuscany near Florence. In that region, the primary grape is Sangiovese, the backbone of a number of Italian wines. Wines from Chianti are legally required to be at least 70% Sangiovese. As well, “Classico” does not refer to any “classic” style of wine production. Classico is a designated subregion within Chianti considered by many aficionados to produce the highest quality juice. 

The offense that brought the poor census taker to his end in Silence of the Lambs was trying to categorize Dr. Lecter. The winemakers of Classico have no such problem with categorization. In fact, where there used to be two categories of Chianti Classico – within the last couple of years, the region’s added a third.

Wines labeled “Chianti Classico” are produced from grapes grown in that subregion. They must be at least 12% alcohol, be at least 80% Sangiovese, and be aged for a minimum of seven months before release. They have an icon of a black rooster on the label, and can be had for around $10-15. “Chianti Classico Riserva” was previously the highest level of Chianti. The Riserva wines must be aged for a minimum of 24 months and have a slightly higher alcohol content, in addition to the regular Classico rules.

In 2014, the region created a new designation – “Chianti Classico Gran Selezione,” which sounds impressive. These wines must be aged a minimum of 30 months, and must be produced from grapes grown specifically by the winery. This designation was supposed to indicate a new, higher level of quality – basically the creation of a readily identifiable category of top “estate wines” for the region.

This reclassification is not without controversy. While there are some technical differences – slightly higher alcohol content, aging, pH levels – a winery could conceivably age a “Riserva” wine for six additional months and label it “Gran Selezione.” Additionally, wines in this category are checked for quality by a panel of judges – an addition which veers dangerously close to the hyperclassification of vineyards found in France…and few Italian winemakers want any part of a parallel to their major wine producing rival.

There is, however, one considerable difference between Riserva and Gran Selezione – price. Riserva wines commonly cost $20-40. Most Gran Selezione wines start at around $40 and go up from there. But I don’t want to cast aspersions on this new classification. Most winemakers seem to be keeping with the spirit of the new classification, which also allows smaller winemakers to offer their top wines with a special designation, rather than getting lost among the Riserva created by larger producers.

But does the new designation really represent an increase in quality? I had the opportunity to try a couple of wines from Castello di Albola. Specifically, the Castello di Albola 2014 Chianti Classico (~$17) and the Castello di Albola 2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (~$70). I tried to find a bottle of the Albola Chianti Riserva to do a true side-by-side-by-side of the three levels, but I couldn’t run one down in time for publication.

Regardless of quality, Chianti is not a wine that I prefer to drink on its own. There’s something about the chalky backbone that just does little for me without some kind of food to work alongside. But for pairing with traditionally Italian flavors like red sauce or roasted meats and vegetables, it’s difficult to go wrong with Chianti Classico of any stripe. That in mind, I whipped up a nice batch of pasta in a red sauce with mushrooms and Italian sausage for the tasting.

Let’s just get this out in the open – the Gran Selezione is a stupendous food wine for a pairing like this. The flavors are rich and fruity, with a good tannic backbone and plenty of spice notes to go along with a plummy, cherry-slathered body. The finish lasts as long as any Italian wine I’ve had not from the Piedmont (Barolo, Barbaresco). With food, it marries itself strongly to the traditional Italian flavors. The “standard” Chianti Classico is also very good. The wine is much more straightforward – tending towards the cherry end of the spectrum. The tannins aren’t quite as bold, nor is the finish as long. That said, as good as the Gran Selezione was, it wasn’t a $50 better bottle.

Fast forward one night. The Sweet Partner in Crime decided to put together one of her "repurposed leftover quesadillas." This one included beef, mushrooms, wilted beet greens, caramelized onions, and pepper cheese. We had saved some of each wine to try the next night – and the Gran Selezione really showed its colors. I never expected that a meal made from leftovers would have truly decadent flavors, but the more expensive wine turned an “eat in front of Netflix before chilling” meal into a delectable treat. If a special occasion meal that includes varied, earthy flavors is on the menu, then splurging on the Gran Selezione might be a real consideration.

I would suggest, if you’re interested in trying a higher end Chianti Classico – that you “climb the ladder” with your selections. Talk to your local wine guy or gal about a solid Chianti Classico Riserva. If that rings your bell, consider moving up to the big bucks bottle.

And finally, to come full circle for a moment -- one of the few foods that Chianti would not pair with particularly well is liver. Organ meat tends to have a metallic taste from the high levels of iron, and the rich flavors would run over all but the fullest of Chianti. A better choice for our hypothetical census taker meal would have been a wine with more tannin and fuller fruit flavors. What wine would fill that bill? Ironically, Merlot would have been a superior choice. It’s a shame that we never got the “Hannibal and Miles” buddy comedy we all deserve. 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Red, Rioja, Ribera

Oh, Spanish reds, how do I love thee?

The Naked Vine Rule #1 of Food Pairings is “People make wine to go with the foods they love to eat.” Well, Spaniards eat just about everything – from fish to fowl to flesh to flowers. Tapas is just behind fútbol as their national sport. It follows that Spanish wines, particularly Spanish reds, would need to be as flexible as their broad-ranging countrywide palate.

Spanish reds really can go with just about anything. I personally love Rioja and paella, with strong flavors like chorizo, saffron, and shellfish mixed in with all that rice. Manchego cheese, almonds, various cured meats – you really can’t go wrong.

Those Tempranillo grapes in Rioja
If you remember a few weeks ago in my “Ten Years” retrospective – I bungled my first experience with Spanish wines. When I saw “Rioja” on the label, I thought that was the name of the grape, and that’s just not right. No, to my chagrin, it turned out there aren’t picturesque vineyards of Rioja grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Spain. Rather, there are picturesque vineyards of Tempranillo grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Rioja.

Rioja, along with closely neighboring region Ribera del Duero, are two of Spain’s main producers of their delicious red goodness. The two regions compete with and complement each other much in the manner that Bordeaux and Burgundy do.

Both regions are on the plateaus of northern Spain. Rioja is somewhat cooler, being on the other side of the Cantabrian Mountains, which moderates the climate and shields the vineyards from some of the strong Cierzo winds blowing off the coast that can reach hurricane force. Ribera del Duero (which translates as “Banks of the Duero” – the river that runs across the region) is located on a high plateau, where it gets sun scorched in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. This terroir difference means that the wines, made from identical grapes – largely Tempranillo and Garnacha – have very varied flavors.

In general, both wines run along the lines of Cabernet Sauvignon from a weight perspective, but the flavors run closer to Pinot Noir’s cherry than to super dark fruits. The length of aging is one of the primary characteristics of how these wines is classified. There are four general classifications in ascending order of quality:

If the bottle says simply “Rioja” or “Ribera del Duero” – that’s the “table wine,” designed to be drunk young, and will be the fruitiest versions. Next is Crianza – to receive a “Crianza” designation, the wine must spend a minimum of a year in oak and at least a few months aging in the bottle before release. If you snag an under $15 bottle of Rioja at your local wine store, odds are you have a Crianza in your grubby paws.

Then comes Reserva and Gran Reserva – made from specifically selected grapes, thus they are not produced every growing season. Reserva must age a minimum of three years before release, at least one year of which must be in oak. They usually run up to about $30. Gran Reserva are aged a minimum of three years, two years of which must be in oak. Both Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are designed for long aging, and are considered some of the best value fine wines in the world.

I enjoy comparing these wines side-by-side (or at least within a close amount of time) to get at the contrasts. Here are a few I tried recently:

Siglo 2012 Rioja Crianza – This one’s almost worth picking up for the bottle itself, which comes wrapped in burlap. Fun to bring this one to a party, for sure. It’s got a bright, fresh nose of cherries and cedar. The cherry flavor passes over to the body, which is relatively light for the fairly solid backbone this wine possesses. The tannins gradually emerge on the finish, leaving a lightly fruited aftertaste. Easy to drink on its own, but really shines with food. About $14-15.

The sample of Torres 2013 “Celeste” Ribera del Duero Crianza provided an interesting contrast. The nose was fragrantly full of cherries and violet. I thought that the flavors of the RdD were deeper than the bright cherry flavors found in the Rioja Crianza that I tried. The mouthfeel was considerably chewier with some more pronounced oak flavors. There were dark fruits – blackberry and plum – on the palate, which finished up with some chewy, plummy tannins. I thought this was a pretty serious red, but not so big as to be overwhelming. Around $20 for this.

Both went well with the aforementioned paella, although I’d probably give a nod to the Rioja if you twisted my arm. 

I also had the Coto de Imaz 2010 Rioja Reserva – which was, as you might expect, an entirely different experience. The nose is fuller and richer, but more restrained. Darker fruits are in evidence – blackberries and raspberries dominate the nose. The body is softer and tongue-coatingly rich with full chocolatey tannins. The finish is long with plummy smoke. I thought this was a fascinatingly complex wine for $20. It calls for grilled or roasted meats, especially beef. A NY strip was a lovely accompaniment. A real find and certainly worth it.

Spanish wines, in general, are much less expensive than their French and Italian cousins. If you like your Old World wines more on the fruity side, my guess is that you’re going to enjoy a Rioja more than a wine from Bordeaux or Tuscany at a similar price point.

Of course, there’s only one way to find out…