Monday, March 30, 2015

The Vine Gets Naked with G'Vine Floraison

A new sample of liquid goodness recently made its way across the threshold at Vine HQ -- a sample which was definitely a bit of a changeup for your Wine Guy’s palate. This representative from a family of potent potable not seen before in this space is an interesting twist on a common white liquor: G'Vine Floraison Gin.

Wine is my usual tipple, but I've been known to drift into the world of distilled spirits from time to time. I enjoy a good gin Martini (or even better, a Vesper...mmm....), but I've not gone on the deep dive into that world of spirits the same way I have with bourbon and rum. I was looking forward to trying this green-capped clear liquor.

The description of G'Vine (which I may also use as name of my upcoming mixtape with 50 Cent) proudly states that it's "generously infused with the vine flower as well as over 9 different botanicals." The tech sheet list of botanicals, minus the vine flower, is ten items long, so that's an accurate statement. But why do botanicals matter when it comes to gin? And what really *is* gin, anyway.

Gin in its present form was created in the 17th century in the Netherlands. Dutch distillers had been creating a form of neutral spirit flavored with various berries and herbs since the 1500’s for medicinal purposes to treat ailments such as lumbago, kidney stones, and gout. A version for its current use came about in the late 1500’s, when it was known as jenever (yeh-NAY-ver).

English soldiers fighting in the Eighty Years War were given jenever before battle to calm their nerves, giving rise both to the term “Dutch Courage” and to the gin-drinking culture in England. Gin was used to mask the flavor of quinine in tonic water – as quinine was given to Dutch and English colonists in some parts of the world to prevent malaria. (Yes, your refreshing gin and tonic started as a form of disease prevention.)

Gin is generally distilled from either grains or grapes. The neutral spirit created from this process is then re-distilled with some sort of botanical, which imparts the bulk of the herbal flavors. Juniper berries are always the primary botanical (which is why some folks say that gin tastes “like a Christmas tree”), but any number of other flavors, including citrus peel, anise, and many others.

G'Vine Floraison, which is neither Dutch or English – instead hailing from the Cognac region of France -- belongs to the “distilled from grapes” category. In addition to juniper, G'Vine uses ugni blanc grapes, coriander, cassia bark (better known as cinnamon), licorice, cubeb berries (similar to black pepper), nutmeg, ginger, green cardamom, and lime.

What does this combination of flavors do, in this case? Honestly, I've never tasted anything like this version of gin before. I tried it both in a Martini and in a gin and tonic. This is easily the most aromatic gin that’s ever galloped across my taste buds. My typical gin selections are Hendrick’s and Bombay Sapphire, and neither comes close to matching the strength of the nose here.

Honestly I found the G’Vine almost overp
oweringly perfumey. At first sniff, I was interested, but the aroma quickly became too much when featured on its own in a martini. It was better in a gin and tonic. The bitter flavor of the tonic balanced out the perfume somewhat, but it was still a powerfully scented concoction. On the flipside, it's one of the smoothest gins I've ever tried. Many gins I’ve tried bite hard, but this one has little grip and next to no burn. If you find that the perfume scent is to your liking, it's very drinkable.

The best use I found for it was as a mixer. I had some gin in the back of the liquor cabinet that was given to me as a gift once upon a time. I always found the gift gin (which isn’t a brand that you’d likely run into around here) to be a little harsh and I'd gone through it very slowly. I mixed it 2-to-1 with the G'Vine Floraison and made another Martini. (Different day, kids. I’m not that much of a lush!) That worked. The G'Vine gave a nice little boost to the other flavors in the other gin and rounded off the bite. I found the result quite pleasant.

If I were going for a gin of my own at this point, I'd probably stick to my tried and true pair mentioned above -- but if you're a gin fan and you're looking for a new experience, or if you have some less expensive gin that could use a little dressing up, certainly consider at least giving this a run. G'Vine runs around $40 for a 750 ml.

[Vine note: yeah, I know that I wrote about this one before. But I liked my expansion, and I wanted to share it with you. Ain't I a peach?]

Monday, March 16, 2015

Naked Vine One-Hitter O' The Green (Part 3) -- G'Vine Floraison Gin

A bit of a changeup to conclude this little pre-St. Patrick's triple -- a representative from a family of potent potable not seen before in  these parts: G'Vine Floraison Gin.

While wine is my usual tipple, I've been known to drift over to the world of distilled spirits from time to time. I enjoy a good gin Martini (or even better, a Vesper...mmm....), but I've not gone on the deep dive into that world of spirits the same I have with bourbon and rum. I'm always up for trying something new, so I was looking forward to trying this green-capped clear liquor...

...that is, until I thought about what the reaction would be if I walked into a St. Patrick's Day party carrying a traditionally English beverage. My proudly Irish brother from another mother, The Wizard of Covington, would probably crack me upside the head with a bottle for denigrating the occasion so. However, as G'Vine is a French distillate (from the Cognac region) -- and since both the Irish and the French traditionally dislike the English, I might get a pass.

In any case, on to the liquor itself. The description of G'Vine says that it's "generously infused with the vine flower as well as over 9 different botanicals." The tech sheet list of botanicals, minus the vine flower, is ten items long, so that's an accurate statement. But why do the botanicals matter?

Gin, in case you didn't know, starts as a neutral spirit like vodka. It's generally distilled from either grains or grapes. G'Vine Floraison belongs to the latter category. The neutral spirit is then re-distilled with some sort of botanical, which imparts the majority of the flavor. Juniper berries are almost always the primary botanical. In the case we have here, in addition to juniper, G'Vine uses ugni blanc grapes, coriander, cassia bark (better known as cinnamon), licorice, cubeb berries (similar to black pepper), nutmeg, ginger, green cardamom, and lime.

What does that mean for this particular tipple? Honestly, I've never tasted anything like this before. I tried it a couple of different ways -- in a Martini and in a gin and tonic. I can say, honestly -- this is the most aromatic gin I've ever tried. It's almost overpoweringly perfumey. At first sniff, I was interested, but the aroma quickly became too much when it was featured on its own in a martini. I will say this for G'Vine -- it's one of the smoothest gins I've ever tried. Many gins bite hard, but this one has little grip and next to no burn. If that perfume scent is to your liking, it's very drinkable.

On its own, it was better in a gin and tonic. The bitter flavor of the tonic balanced out the perfume somewhat, but it was still a powerfully scented concoction.

The best use I found for it was as a mixer. I had some gin around that was given to me as a gift in the back of the liquor cabinet. I always found the gift gin to be a little harsh and I'd been going through it very slowly. I mixed it 2-1 with the G'Vine Floraison and made a Martini. That worked. The G'Vine gave a nice little boost to the other flavors in the other gin and rounded off the bite. I found it quite pleasant.

If I were going for a gin of my own at this point, I'd probably stick to my tried and true Bombay Sapphire or Hendrick's -- but if you're a gin fan and you're looking for a new experience, or if you have some less expensive gin that could use a little dressing up, certainly consider at least giving this a run. G'Vine runs around $40 for a 750 ml.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Naked Vine One Hitter O' The Green (Part 2) -- Mulderbosch

The next item in the St. Pat's Pack is not a stranger around these parts:

There are few more distinct brandings than the offerings of South Africa's Mulderbosch Winery. I've snagged samples of this bright green bottled concoction for the last couple of years. Here's what I wrote about the Mulderbosch 2012 Sauvignon Blanc last April:
 I found it quite delicate, flavorwise. It does have a pretty pronounced citrus fruit flavor, but one more in the sweet grapefruit range than many that end up with tart lemon or lime flavors. There’s also a fair amount of creaminess that belies the light body. The finish is more fruity than crisp and isn’t particularly lasting. I can see why this would be recommended as a brunch wine, although at 13.6% percent alcohol, it might be a strong way to start your day. I could see this going nicely with some fruit crepes or other dish that’s got some light cream in the recipe. Pleasant enough to sip on its own, as well.
There are a few minor modifications I'd make after the eleven additional months this wine's spent in bottle. It's still perfectly good. The wine's rounded out a bit. The really tart finish at the end has mellowed a little, although there's still plenty of acidity. There's a little astringency starting to form at the end, so if you get a bottle of it, you might want to decant a tad. Do drink it right away. It's not a wine for laying down.

The latest retail on this is around $18, so if you're looking for a cheap quaffer for a party, this probably isn't for you. If you're taking Wednesday off to ease your hangover and you find yourself looking for a brunch wine, however, it's a hair-of-the-dog consideration.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Naked Vine One-Hitter O' The Green (Part 1) -- Domaine di Tariquet

This winter's thrown my internal clock for a loop. I can always sense the start of Spring in my bones. I get that tickle in my hindbrain that's been around since we, as a species, decided that the whole "walking around on two legs" thing was pretty beneficial. That wonderful tickle that gets all the juices flowing as we head into the season where the world starts waking up again.

I've missed that tickle this year. February was so miserable that it flew by as we huddled in our winter wine cave. I suddenly realized, "Deer's MARCH already." It just doesn't feel like March yet.  Daylight savings time usually doesn't roll around while there's still six inches of snow. 

Thankfully, relief seems to be on the horizon -- and we can start thinking about some of our upcoming springtime revelry. One of those revelries is, of course, St. Patrick's Day -- a time when the rivers and the beer often run green. 

My good man Ferdinand at Colangelo sent along a suggestion. Why not slide a few other "green" beverages into the rotation? Sounds like a sensible enough suggestion. I mean, just how much Bud Light spiked with Green No.3 does one country need? He was good enough to send along a few emerald-hued offerings for review. I'll get to the first one in a moment, but I've an explanation to give first

Some long-time readers may have noticed the recent slowdown in posting here on The Vine. Yes, I've not been writing as much as in months past. Some of you can probably guess why, but for those of you who don't -- in my other life, for the last three-plus years, I've been working on my doctorate in Educational Policy, and I'm at a critical point in the writing of my dissertation. Predictably, I haven't had a lot of spare mental energy to crank out wine columns. Fear not. Lord willing and the creek don't rise, I should be through the process in a month or two, and I should be back with a properly thirsty (and hopefully celebratory) vengeance.

For now, I'll be handling these potential Oenos Go Bragh one at a time. First up is the Domaine du Tariquet 2013 "Classic" Cotes du Gascogne

I've powered down a lot of white wines from Gascony over the last several summers. Those whites are traditionally light, crisp, and high in acidity. They're wines built to be drunk young -- usually as an aperitif or with a light meal. The Tariquet is no exception.

Made largely from a combination of Ugni Blanc and Colombard, with a little Sauvignon Blanc and Gros Manseng thrown in for good measure, the Tariquet starts with a pleasant enough nose of grapefruit and green apples. I was expecting an acidic wine, I should have guessed when I read "serve thoroughly chilled" on the tech notes, but this one knocked me back a pace.

Some white wine fans refer to themselves as "acid freaks" when they enjoy wines like this. Maybe my palate's still in winter wine mode, but this is a tart wine. The smell doesn't lie. The flavor is "green," to be sure -- lots of grapefruit and apples at high-pucker volume. I thought it was a little too much for my tastes. The finish, predictably, is clean, crisp, and quick. 

If grapefruit is a flavor you enjoy and you can get past the initial acid blast, it's a pretty drinkable wine. I'd probably wait a couple of months, at least until my lawn starts growing again and I start doing outside work, before I chased this down. Just the same -- if you're throwing a party and some of your leprechaunic friends are big white wine fans, you could stand to have a couple of bottles around. The Tariquet retails for around ten bucks.

P.S. GTHC. Always.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Just in Time for Valentine's -- The Fresh Bubbles of Franciacorta

The common knowledge of Italian sparkling wine begins and ends with two particular types of sparklers: Prosecco and Moscato.

Prosecco is the best known. Prosecco is both the name of the white grape used to make the wine and
the region in the Veneto where these grapes are grown. These wines tend to be on the dry side and tend to be somewhat reminiscent of Spanish cava, the budget-friendly sparkler I’ve mentioned many times.

The other is Moscato, one of my favorite brunch wines. Moscato are fruity, usually low in alcohol, lightly effervescent, and often rather sweet. The best known Moscato hail from the Asti region and are labeled, logically, “Moscato d’Asti.”

[Side note: You’ve undoubtedly seen “Asti Spumante” on your wine store shelf. That term just means “sparkling wine from Asti.” “Spumante” simply means that that the wine is sparkling, not that it’s dry or sweet. Asti Spumante is not necessarily made from Moscato, either.]

There is another Italian growing region gaining in popularity among sparkling wine fans – Franciacorta. This area, located in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, is about an hour east of the region’s capital, Milan. Franciacorta’s winemakers produce sparkling wines made largely from chardonnay and pinot noir.

Franciacorta differs from the other sparkling wine producing regions in The Boot because of the style of production. Franciacorta winemakers use an identical method to make their bubbly as the winemakers do in the Champagne region of France. This technique, known as methode Champenoise and covered in more detail at other times in this space, involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle to produce carbonation. Franciacorta’s bubbles arise from the same fermentation technique, known in Italy as Metodo Classico. Franciacorta is the first Italian wine region to use this method exclusively.

Bottle with the Franciacorta DOCG seal.
Franciacorta’s growers are a close-knit bunch. 50 years ago, the producers in Franciacorta voluntarily self-imposed regulations on wine production, aging length, nomenclature, etc. As a reward for their efforts, Franciacorta became the first sparkling wine region in Italy to receive “DOCG” status. DOCG, short for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, is Italy’s highest level of wine appellation and guarantee of quality. DOCG is the same designation used for the top wines in regions such as Chianti, Barolo, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Franciacorta wines, while similar in grape varietal and production style to those in Champagne, are produced from grapes grown in vineyards in somewhat warmer climates than their French counterparts. As a result, these wines tend to be fuller and fruitier in flavor and have a somewhat “sharper” characteristic. Even so, Franciacorta’s sparkling wines are more complex and layered than the other bubble-filled offerings from Italia, and the wider wine-drinking world is starting to take notice.

Catherine at Balzac kindly sent along a few samples of some of these sparklers, which all retail for around $20-25.

La Montina (NV) Franciacorta Brut – This bottle of bubbles is light and approachable, with a considerable continuous burst of tight bubbles. The main flavor characteristic I ran into was orange blossoms, definitely on the nose, but it also echoed across the largely dry palate. The La Montina lost me a little bit at the end, where the orange blossom flavor turned a bit towards orange rind, especially as the wine warmed a bit. To minimize this astringent finish, make sure you have this wine good and chilled when you serve it. I’d suggest it more as an aperitif than anything, especially with nice antipasti. A “little fat in your mouth” helps this wine a great deal.

Ronco Calino (NV) Franciacorta Brut – Of the three bottles, this was the most powerfully carbonated. The bubbles were sharp and quite strong initially, but they faded quickly into a mellow fizz. I thought this had a very pleasant lemon chiffon flavor, with a crisp, prickly finish. On its own, decent enough, but it was excellent with dinner. We had this with a challenging pairing – a green salad with a tart vinaigrette alongside roasted chicken in a caper sauce. The finish cut through the vinegar flavors without a problem, letting that light lemon flavor shine through. For light meals like this, I’d rather open a bottle like this than an okay still wine, adding some festivity to an everyday meal.

Cavalleri (NV) Franciacorta Blanc de Blancs Brut – Of the three, this Blanc de Blancs was our clear favorite. Blanc de Blanc means that the wine is 100% Chardonnay. (The complement, Blanc de Noir, means that a wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir.) The Cavalleri was the driest and crispest, and sported the most firm mousse of the three. The flavor also had more of a “Champagne” character with its tight finish, tart lemony notes and distinct aroma of yeast. On its own, I think it would serve as a really wonderful aperitif. I also thought it handled a challenging Greek-ish salad pairing well, especially if you snagged a bite that had a big blob of goat cheese therein. I would have liked to give this a go with a slightly heavier meal like a roasted chicken or pork tenderloin dish. Money well spent for a bottle of this.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, if you’re looking for a little amore and would like to expose your intended to something a little different with your sparkler, Franciacorta’s a very solid choice. Certainly worth a try for expanding your bubbly horizons.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dayton Brew Ha-Ha Blends Education, Libation, and Fermentation

Picture a science classroom with a large pot of water, held at a stable temperature, steaming away on a burner. Given supplies of malted grains, hops, and other ingredients, students are offered the opportunity to select a mixture of their own to steep, boil, and eventually ferment. With a set of basic instructions and the guidance of a mentor, the students proceed through the steps of bottling tasty concoctions of their own creation. Sounds like a dream class, right?

Due to personal liability concerns and pesky state & federal laws, such a lesson likely will not be part of the science curriculum at the Montessori School of Dayton anytime soon. 
 However, MSD will be opening its doors on January 31st to the community for the 4th-annual Dayton Brew Ha-Ha, the school’s now-annual craft beer fundraiser. Adult brewers from across the state of Ohio will be demonstrating their individual masteries of the brewing process.

“The Brew Ha-Ha contributes to the capital improvement fund and has contributed to much-needed upgrades such as a new gym floor, energy-efficient windows, and a new HVAC system,” said Kevin Gray, co-founder of the event, alpha beer writer at the Dayton City Paper, and parent of three students at MSD. “Also, you can drink beer in an elementary school!” 

Gray, along with two other MSD parents -- Brandy Gorham and Mike Taylor -- tri-chairs and coordinates the event. They see the Brew Ha-Ha as an opportunity for community members to mingle, sample, and learn about the worlds of craft brewing and Montessori education. “It’s fun to be able to describe beer to people and see their faces when they taste something new for the first time,” added Gorham. “I also enjoy the look on my friend’s faces when I tell them that my kid’s school is having a craft beer festival as a fundraiser, then being able to explain Montessori to them…that it’s not just a place where children go to ‘play’ all day. ” 

The Montessori education model revolves around “discovery-based” lessons where students are offered a personal choice of subject matter, an array of materials, and the freedom to explore and create within a broad set of boundaries. There are no objective letter grades and students learn at their own pace. Assessment is based on accomplishment and a student’s demonstration of skills and maturity. 

 “For example,” proudly explained Gorham, “my son is gifted in math. He is learning algebra in fourth grade, but when he started first grade, he was behind in reading, so they provided him a tutor. Now he reads at a fifth or sixth grade level. They also teach very concretely. Math is taught [to young children] by working with beads and understanding physically how it works, not just writing numbers on paper…toddlers use items from shelves [in their lessons] from left to right and top to bottom, which prepares them for reading.” 

MSD was seeking a fundraising opportunity for the aforementioned improvements to the facility, so parents at the school followed the spirit of their childrens’ classroom experience, where collaboration and common interest so often lead to inspiration.   

Why something beer-themed? Montessori education has more in common with craft brewing than it might initially seem. As anyone who’s ever stood over a brew kettle can tell you, craft brewers follow a similar learning-by-doing process as they’re honing personal techniques and building beermaking skills. (Traditional definitions of “maturity,” however, are typically considered gauche among brewers.) 

“There are a lot of craft beer geek parents at the school,” Gray related. “In late 2011, some likeminded parents and the school administrators decided to try our hands at a beer tasting. It came together in about 8 weeks and we held [the first Brew Ha-Ha] in January 2012. Although the first one was modest, [everyone had] a lot of fun and it was well received by the community. Attendance has steadily increased and last year, we saw our first sell-out crowd.”

While the somewhat mischievous notion of legally sampling beers in a school setting undoubtedly adds to the appeal of the event, the real draw is the beer. “We’ve always focused on regional beers…the first two years, we featured beers from the Great Lake states. [We invited brewers] from Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana,” said Gray. “Last year, we realized that the Ohio market was so strong that we could pit it against the legendary MI market and had our first Ohio vs. Michigan showdown.”

The continued explosion of the region’s craft brewing gave the Brew Ha-Ha crew the opportunity to score a special distinction. The 4th Annual Brew Ha-Ha is the first beer festival in the Buckeye State to feature an All-Ohio lineup of breweries. “The state now has about 103 breweries, and we’ll be featuring 40 of them,” Gray added. “The Miami Valley breweries will be there, and many are reserving or brewing up special beers for the event. We are also excited to feature a number of breweries from around the state that aren't readily available in Dayton.”

Over 40 craft brewers will be participating in this year’s tasting, including Dayton-area brewers Carillon Brewing Company, Dayton Brewing Company, Fifth Street Brewpub, Eudora, Hairless Hare, Lock 27, Lucky Star, Star City, Toxic Brew Company, Warped Wing, and Yellow Spring Brewery. 

One of the pleasantly unique elements of the event was initiated last year and expanded upon this year is the Brew Ha-Ha’s focus on education for craft beer newbies. “I try to remember how intimidated I felt when I first started learning about craft beer,” mused Taylor as he explained the event’s ambassador program, “The ambassador looks for people who seem confused or don't know what to try next. We engage them in conversation to find out what they like and direct them to another selection or introduce them to a new style they may have never tried. I still get a kick out of seeing people try new things and really enjoying the recommendation.” This year, the ambassadors will provide guides to the event broken down by beer flavor profile, so attendees who find a quaff they truly enjoy will be able to easily locate other selections which may tickle their fancy.

In addition, Gray uses his near-encyclopedic knowledge of beer to get the other parent volunteers up to speed on what they’ll be pouring. “I have [the volunteers] try a representative sample of the styles of beer we'll be serving and I give them some information about the beer styles, process, etc. I run through the full list…so that the servers can talk about the beers they are pouring and can recommend other beers.” The parental volunteers are then paired with representatives from the event’s sponsors, which are all well-known Dayton craft beer supporters.

Dayton’s largest local homebrew club, The Dayton Region Amateur Fermentation Technologists (DRAFT), also gets in on the act. DRAFT volunteers talk with attendees about the brewing process and act as an avenue for prospective homebrewers to get more information. BrewTensils, the area's largest homebrew shop, created “clonebrew” recipes for homebrewers to replicate some of the event’s featured beers.

While the number of attendees has grown each year, ticket sales are capped at 400 to maintain the boutique feel of the event and to allow attendees to converse with the ambassadors and learn from the representatives of the various brewing operations. “I think this level of knowledge and interaction has set us apart from many of the other massive beer tasting events,” Taylor said with a smile. “I think our attention to detail, supporting local, and providing craft beers that are accessible here in Dayton [and beyond] makes me feel proud. We have worked hard to make our event a ‘must attend,’ and I think we've been successful.”

All three chairs acknowledged the challenges of trying to put together a large event like this are magnified because the small organizing team have their other full time work and familial responsibilities, especially right after the holidays. “Kevin and I used to do everything,” Taylor explained, “But now we’ve learned you need lots of help. The event has grown from 167 people to nearly 425 last year. We now coordinate 45-50 volunteers, sponsor table volunteers and all the various vendors and distributors. With so many Ohio breweries self-distributing, this has added a new level of coordination, but in the end I think it will all be worth it to bring 40 Ohio breweries together in one location.” Gorham added, “I’ve been a volunteer for the event ever since the first year, and every year my responsibilities have increased.  Last year I noticed that the guys were struggling to get everything done, so I volunteered to help take on some of the burden on as well,” said Gorham, “I’m an engineer, so my strength is in project management. I also ensure that we are meeting as a committee on a regular basis.  Nothing like a meeting to make sure we all have our action items done from the last one!”

Even though the kids at the school are not directly involved with the event, they find other ways to participate. “They love the idea [of the Brew Ha-Ha] but are bummed that they can't participate in some way,” said Taylor. “We give them small tasks like making pretzel necklaces and helping to wash all the tasting glasses, which we hope makes them feel somewhat involved.” Gray says that his three kids love the event and get excited every year. “We usually have the gym set up Thursday or Friday before the event and it's exciting to hear my kids come home and tell me about how it looks.” Gorham puts on the volunteers’ after-party, which her two kids take great pleasure in “hosting.” “Any volunteers that are interested show up for some social time.  We all talk about the event and share what went well.  My kids love having everyone over to ‘their’ house.”

Tickets for the event are $35 – which includes admission to the event, a half-pint tasting glass, and ten tasting tickets. Taylor, who heads up the publicity and promotions for the event, is quite pleased by the Brew Ha-Ha’s expansion. “We started with ten sponsors and a 50/50 raffle which has evolved into 15 sponsors, a [considerably larger] silent auction and, new this year, games of chance -- a spin to win cash game and a beer bottle ring toss.”  Fresh pizza by the slice will be made on-site by Spinoza’s. During the last hour of the event, MSD will be providing complimentary coffee and desserts. Bottle sales and growler fills will also be available at this time. 

The Montessori School of Dayton is located at 2900 Acosta Street, Kettering. For more information about the event or to purchase tickets, go to the Dayton Brew Ha-Ha website at

This story also appears in the Dayton City Paper.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey Wines

It’s the “literally” that got me.

I was shopping for Riesling the other day. In the wine store I frequent, the Rieslings are shelved next to the American white blends, and my attention was snagged by a “Fifty Shades of Grey” label.

I’m sure you’re at least aware of the “Fifty Shades” books by E.L. James. This trilogy of beach-ready…I guess you’d call it “BDSM-lite erotica” was all the rage a couple of years ago amongst some broad swaths of the population. I was not covered by one of those swaths, and those books had receded from my mind except for a brief conversation with a co-worker disappointed because Charlie Hunnam was no longer playing Christian Grey in the upcoming film adaptations of the books, with the first due in theaters around Valentine’s Day. 

According to the website, the wines are designed by James herself. The bottles and corks both bear the slogan “You. Are. Mine.” – a sentiment somewhat central to the trilogy’s ostensible plot. I discovered a passage in the novel centering on the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, receiving a punishment if she spilled wine. That particular passage begins like this:

”He reaches down, and from his pants pocket, he takes out his silver grey silk tie… that silver grey woven tie that leaves small impressions of its weave on my skin. He moves so quickly, sitting astride me as he fastens my wrists together, but this time, he ties the other end of the tie to one of the spokes of my white iron headboard. He pulls at my binding, checking it’s secure. I’m not going anywhere. I’m tied, literally, to my bed, and I’m so aroused.”

The recovering English major in me thought, "Gah! What’s that word doing there? How else would she be tied to her bed? Figuratively? Tangentially? Is Anastasia Steele somehow related to Chris Traeger, Rob Lowe’s character on Parks & Recreation?"

The scene goes on from there, eventually arriving at Anastasia’s proclamation of herself as “just one ball of sexual, tense, need.” Anais Nin or D.H. Lawrence this isn’t. Heck, from my perspective, it’s barely Cinemax.

But I digress. We’re not here to discuss the ins and outs of Anastasia and Christian’s adventures. We’re here to talk about what’s under the cork. There are two Fifty Shades wines created by ol’ E.L. herself – a red and a white, both blends. 

The first I tried was the White Silk White. White Silk is a mischievous little blend of Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc. I found it intensely floral and tropical on the nose – strong enough that the bouquet comes through right out of the fridge like a chilled, overripe lychee nut. (An overly-cold wine usually loses much of its bouquet.) The main flavors are the tropical fruits – pineapple especially – from the Sauvignon Blanc. The finish is slightly sweet and lasting. There’s also just a little sting of pepper at the end from the Gewurz. I found it relatively decent. On the website, it lists for $18, but the retail in my wine shop was $16.

Next came the Red Satin Red. “What would I do,” I mused, “If I were trying to appeal to fans of these books who often, in my experience, start oenological conversations with ‘I don’t like dry red wine.’ What sorts of sensual stimulations would I layer to tease, to tempt, to make them raise that scarlet-filled glass, hesitantly of course, to their lips? What would E.L. James do? I think I’d make a wine that smelled like dark, sumptuous red fruit – cherries and plums. I’d need some chocolate flavors, but there definitely can’t be a lot of tannin. The wine would need to go down as easily as one of Christian’s concubines and finish with just a little dryness to make it a little naughty to a palate not used to tannin. In short, a straightforward inexpensive California merlot.” 

When I cracked the bottle, I discovered that the wine reflected my little tasting note fantasy to a T. However, instead of merlot, the Red Satin is a “blend of primarily Petit Sirah and Syrah.” 

“Primarily,” of course, can mean a lot of things. In this case, they’ve taken two intensely flavored grapes and blended them with some unnamed varietals to tone them down. The Red Satin is a perfectly drinkable wine, but overpriced at $18. If you’re looking for a wine that begs for chocolate and a trashy novel, I’d still suggest that sluggable merlot for about $7-8 less.

As I was trying to get the Fifty Shades wines out of the store without drawing too much attention, I also noticed few other bottles with entendre-laden monikers, which I also snagged -- for comparison’s sake, of course:

PromisQous (NV) California White Table Wine – This white is a blend of primarily Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, with a few “other white varietals.” It’s crafted with the same flavor idea as the White Silk – Gewurztraminer provides strong floral notes and lychee flavors, but since it’s a chardonnay-based blend instead of sauvignon blanc, it’s got more creaminess and the flavors run closer to melon than citrus. There’s a little acidic zip from some added chenin blanc balancing the residual sweetness. I thought it was another easy drinking wine, but with a little more structure and backbone than the Fifty Shades. It’s also a few dollars cheaper at $10-12.

Now, its darker complement, the PromisQous (NV) California Red Table Wine, did not fare so well. Simply, this was a $9 red wine that tastes like…well…a $9 red wine. Honestly, there’s nothing really outstanding to distinguish this plonky plonk plonk. One of my friends in the wine biz describes wines like this as “pop tart wines,” meaning it’s more or less indistinguishable from other similar, inexpensive wines -- the way you can't really tell a flavor difference between the various types of Pop-Tarts. I wouldn’t suggest spending your shekels on something so generic.

Folie a Deux (NV) “Menage a Trois” White Wine – This naughty sounding number is another floral-scented blend, this one a mix of Chardonnay, Moscato, and Chenin Blanc. This simple quaffer is lighter-bodied than both of the other whites. I found some good flavors of melon and peach on the palate, with a very light, tangeriney finish. Of the three whites, I think this one was probably my favorite, because it didn’t have that residual sugar “thickness” and  was a little more harmonious and restrained (since we’re focused on restraints) than the other two. Good value at around $10.

As for the Folie a Deux (NV) Menage a Trois Red, the best I can say is that it wasn’t quite as plonky as the PromisQous. There was a hint of vanilla lurking somewhere in the mix and a wee bit of tannin at the end. Another $9-10 entry. Take it for what it’s worth…literally.

P.S. This remains my favorite interpretation of the novels. And yes, NSFW:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Naked Vine One Hitter – Faust, Five Years’ Future

In March 2009, I took my first spin through the Cincinnati International Wine Festival, doing my level best to spin and sip my way through most every booth in the place. The sheer number of tastings I did eventually overwhelmed me, my taste buds, and – as you can see – my tooth enamel. 

I find it fascinating to read my old reviews from a few years back to see how my palate has changed as time’s gone by. Before the decade’s turn, I was much more into big, extracted red wines like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel. (“Extracted” is WineSpeak for “Wine made in such a way as to concentrate the flavors, producing a bigger, generally fruitier, and more “in your face” wine.)

When I wrote up my experiences from that day, the wines I chose as my “Best in Show” was the 2006 “Faust” Cabernet Sauvignon from Huneeus Vintners in Napa Valley. The wine, to no surprise, is named for the protagonist in the famous work by the German poet Goethe. Here’s what I wrote back then:
“Maybe it was the name that piqued by devilish curiosity. Maybe it was the powerful black cherry, fresh tobacco, and blackberry flavors that cut through everything else that I'd tasted up to that point. Maybe it was the tannins, strong but without taking away from the fruit and the finish that seemed to go on for days. Whatever deal was struck by these winemakers, they put together an absolutely delicious cabernet -- likely in my personal Top 10 of that varietal all time. Probably will set you back around $55, but considering that "high end" Napa cabernet sauvignons are selling for literally hundreds of dollars a bottle, run with this as a splurge and hold on to your soul.”
A bit of youthful hyperbole? Sure thing – but it *was* a really good wine which had enough power to blast its way through the thick coating of tannin that was undoubtedly wrapped around my tongue by the time I tried it on that March day. While I hadn’t run into an occasion to pick up a bottle over the years, I always remembered it, and I was excited for the notion of having my way with an entire bottle of the stuff!

Fast forward to late 2014. Your favorite companion in the wine review world got an email from Toby at Fineman PR, asking me if I’d like to sample the 2011 vintage of Faust. With memories of my previous brief dance with this devil in my mind, I quickly agreed.

Much like it’s namesake’s winding journey to salvation in that German poem, this bottle took some time to get to me. A bit of a shipping mishap and some ridiculous state import laws kept the bottle from me for a time, but Toby eventually succeeded in getting me a bottle of the just-released 2012 vintage. I did some decanting, grilled up some veal loin chops, rousted the Sweet Partner in Crime from her end-of-semester grading and set to tasting.

OK, first off – “extracted” still qualifies as an apt descriptor here. This is a Napa cab, through and through. Most of what I wrote for the 2006 holds true today. There are still big, bold red and black fruits on the nose and on the palate, which is rich and packed with tannin that definitely needs some air to unwind. The finish is long and chewy. It smooths out a bit as the evening winds on.

Since this is the just-dropped vintage, I thought it’s still drinking pretty young. Six more months in bottle would do the integration of this wine a world of good. The SPinC was more succinct, “It’s just too much for me,” she quipped, “I remember loving wines like this, but my palate just isn’t set up for this one anymore.” I understood where she was coming from. I still liked it more than she did.

With the veal chops, I was pleased with the pairing, but I wasn’t blown away by it. It was a good red wine pairing, but I didn’t think it was quite $55 good. Now, next to a piece of dark chocolate towards the end of the evening, I would have at least entertained an offer for a small piece of my aforementioned soul. Really super there.

For fans of premium California cabernet, I think you’re going to be pleased with this wine. If you’re looking for a holiday gift for a special someone, it’s a pretty solid option. I could certainly see the potential – especially if one were to lay a few bottles of this down for awhile. It’s certainly got the “bones” that could potentially mature into something really special.

The price for Faust remains the same -- $55. I also see that Huneeus is producing a couple of single-vineyard reserve wines inspired by Faust’s story called “The Lure” and “The Pact” which retail for $75 apiece.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter -- No Need to Rue-da Day: Naiades Rueda

My jaunts down the Spanish aisle in the usually results in an impulse buy or two , largely because I know that I can’t go too far afield. Spain’s wines, especially their whites, are remarkably consistent, flavorwise. More importantly, I’ve found inexpensive Spanish wines handle age better than their similarly-priced counterparts from almost anywhere else in the world, so if there's a discounted bottle from last year's vintage, I can snag it without worry that I'm picking up a bottle that's over the hill.

[Protip: The “end of year clearance” sales are in full-force at your local wine stores as we speak, so if you’re choosing between 2010 whites from Spain and…say…California in the under $10 price range, pick the Spanish one every time.]

In Spain, the most popular white wine comes from a region called Rueda, which is northwest of Madrid. Rueda wines are primarily composed of the Verdejo grape, although some winemakers also include Sauvignon Blanc, Viura, and Palomino grapes in the blend. The wines tend to be crisp and acidic, generally featuring flavors of peaches and tropical fruits. Rueda’s also relatively inexpensive, so it certainly makes its way onto my radar.

Tatiana from Colangelo reached out to me, offering a sample of a Rueda called “Naia” to review. Before she could ship it to me, they ran out of samples. Fortunately, they had a bottle of Bodegas Naia’s first-label wine, the Naiades 2010 Rueda Blanco, for me to try instead. Most Rueda I see are under $15, and the Naia retailed for $13. Naiades' “first label” status has it retailing for $26. How was it?

The Naiades started me with honeysuckle and orange cream on the nose, followed with a little bit of a honey taste up front. There's considerable amounts of mineral and lemon on the palate. The finish is smooth and fruity, especially as the wine warms a bit, and there’s a slight oakiness at the back end. The mineral and lemon remind me a little bit of a Chablis, but the overall feel has a little more richness. I thought it made a nice accompaniment to a recipe I tried where I marinated chicken breasts in mango sorbet. The chicken is then grilled, sliced and served over a bed of shredded red and green cabbage, tossed with chopped scallions, cilantro, and a dressing of more melted sorbet, soy sauce, fish sauce, and some other yummies.

It’s definitely a good wine. Is it $26 good? I’d say that’s a few dollars high, all in all, but if you see it discounted, snag it for sure. Also, I would imagine that there’s little way that the Naia would be “half as good” at $13. If its big brother is any indication, it’ll be a very good value at that price. 

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Bye Bye, Black Box

By this point in our online relationship, none of you should be surprised that I keep box wine around the house. As I've said before, I don’t keep it because it’s necessarily great wine. I keep it because I don’t always want to open up great wine. There are plenty of decent ones out there for when you just feel like being an unthinking sipper.

So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye.
With a sense of regret, however, I must report that I'm swearing off the Naked Vine's unofficial-but-most-often-in-the-fridge "house wine," Black Box Sauvignon Blanc.

I'm not saying farewell because the wine's bad. Honestly, it's as good a box white as I've come across in my various samplings and sloshings. No...the problem, honestly, is a mechanical one.

Almost all box wines come with some sort of spigot at the bottom -- all the better to actually pour the wine. A few months back, I got a box of the Blanc just as I'd done on numerous occasions, chilled it, opened it up, poured a glass, and popped the box back in the fridge, thinking nothing of it.

I came back about an hour later to a big ol' mess.

The spigot didn't seal properly, and wine had leaked all over the top shelf of the fridge. Cursing a bit, I cleaned up the mess, laid the box on its back, and figured it was a one-off problem.

Until I got the next box. And the next box. That's three in a row. All leaky. All messy. All making the Sweet Partner in Crime and I very unhappy.

I went away from Black Box for awhile. Tried a couple of other boxes. Figured there might just have been a bad batch floating around. Since the Black Box Sauvignon is a fairly popular wine around these parts, I figured that the law of averages was in my favor. So, right before the Thanksgiving holiday, I decided to shoot the dice and pick up another box. The box got opened at some point during our Big Feed prep. Again, the box sat innocuously on the top shelf, and I didn't think anything of it...

...until the day after our family meal. Yes, another leaky box, and this one had some gumption. I'd estimate that probably a third of the box -- yes, that's a full liter of wine -- leaked into the fridge. Cleanup, as you might guess, was unpleasant with a fridge full of leftovers, stray vegetables, bottles of things, and various other sundries.

If Black Box decides to redesign their spigot or find a new spout manufacturer, I could be enticed to return to the fold. For now, though -- I'm on the hunt for another good box of sluggable white. Any of you out there in Vine-land have suggestions?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Evolution of Apple Cider -- Calvados

I got a Twitter follow the other day from @ilovecalvados – which immediately made me first think, “Cool, another follower” followed quickly by “What in tarnation is Calvados?” A quick blast of my ten-finger Google-Fu technique yielded an alcohol-related answer, so I returned the follow and asked @ilovecalvados if they could share some wisdom about it. (My handle is the ultra-creative @thenakedvine, so please feel free to follow…)

As it turns out, that particular account is actually managed by my friends Maggie and Lia at Colangelo, who were nice enough to step outside the world of wine with me for a minute and shoot me a sample of the stuff to try.

So, after all this, what is Calvados? Calvados (pronounced KAL-vuh-dose) is a distilled spirit. Instead of coming from the fields like scotch and bourbon (made from grains) or from the vine like Cognac and Armagnac (made from wine) Calvados comes from the trees. Specifically, apple trees.

The name “Calvados” comes from the area of Normandy in northern France where this spirit is produced. In the late 1800’s, when the phylloxera outbreak was wiping out most of the vineyards in Europe, the French turned to Calvados for an alcoholic alternative. Much of the distilling equipment was requisitioned for use in World War II. When the distilleries and cider houses were rebuilt, many of them were in the Pays d’Auge area of Calvados – which has become the best known area for the spirit.

Calvados is produced from certain varieties of apples which are first pressed and fermented into a dry hard cider. The resulting hard cider (about 5-6% alcohol) is distilled into a brandy. There are around 300 different varieties of apples which can be used in Calvados – some of which are so bitter as to be inedible, so making them into booze seems like a logical use! Much like a blend wine draws its flavor and characteristics from the array of grape varietals, the blend of apple varieties and amounts in each Calvados creates a different flavor profile. Some regions add pears to the blend, but apples always comprise at least 70% of the blend.

[Side note: the term “brandy” comes from the Dutch “brandewijn” which translates as burnt wine, for reasons which will become clear in a moment.]

If you’re not familiar with the distilling process, the short version is this: the cider is put into a still and heated. Water, as you know from science class, boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Ethyl alcohol – the stuff we drink – boils at a lower temperature, 172 degrees. The cider is heated to a particular point between those two temperatures.

The stills that produce Calvados Boulard
When the cider reaches the appropriate temperature, the alcohol will begin to vaporize and will rise from the liquid. Those vapors are collected and cooled in a condenser, and...voila!’ve got a distilled liquid of around 28-30% alcohol known as petit eau (“little water”). This petit eau also contains some water and other trace elements, so distillers will run that liquid back through the distiller a second (or third or sixth) time to both increase the alcohol content and purity, creating the high-alcohol beverage known as eau de vie, which literally translates as “water of life.” This spirit can be as high in alcohol as 70% at this stage in the process.

The resulting brandy is then placed in well-seasoned oak casks and cut with water to the desired alcohol content, usually around 40%. The time in barrel allows the spirit to pick up colors and flavors from the wood. Most Calvados is aged in lightly toasted casks, so as not to impart too many smoke flavors or colors to the finished product. After a period of aging, the Calvados is then bottled. 

The length of the aging is the main determinant of the quality classification. “Fine” Calvados are aged for at least two years; “Vieux” or “Reserve” at least three; “VO” or “VSOP” at least four; and “XO” at least six years – but are commonly much older. Calvados can be made of spirits of varying years, but the youngest component of the blend determines the classification.

I was sent a sample of the Calvados Boulard VSOP Pays d’Auge to sample. I’ve had applejack and domestic apple brandies before, so that’s what I had in mind – spirits that tasted strongly of apples, with a fair amount of residual sweetness. My first sip quickly disabused me of the notion that Calvados is anything like my previous libationary experiences.

Calvados needs to be approached more like the brandy that it is – in a sipwise fashion. The aroma, which also had a bit of alcohol heat, reminded me of cinnamon covered dried apples. For an 80-proof liquor, it’s very smooth. I barely noticed a burn at all as it warmed from my throat to my belly with a light, slightly fruity feeling. The next exhale brought a breath of apples and vanilla. I thought it was very tasty, and it seems ideal for a cool (or cold!) evening.

It also really shines as a mixer. In reading about Calvados, I read that it can basically be substituted for any sort of brown liquor in a cocktail. I would imagine it would be smashing in a hot toddy, with Calvados’ built-in apple flavors, but where I enjoyed it most was in a Calvados Old Fashioned. To make one:

  • In a mixing glass, mix together 1 tbsp. honey with 1 tbsp hot water, so the honey becomes a thin syrup. 
  • Add ice, 2 oz. Calvados, and 4 dashes of bitters. Stir until well-mixed. 
  • Strain into a martini glass and give it twists of lemon and orange peel. Garnish with a slice of sweet apple. 
  • Sip and thank me.

Calvados is a nice winter alternative to some standard winter beverages, especially if you enjoy whiskey cocktails. And if you’re a cider drinker – it’s worth trying just to see what happens when your favorite beverage gets distilled. 

The Calvados Boulard VSOP Pays d’Auge I tried retails for $40 for a fifth. Definitely worth a try.