Friday, December 22, 2006

A Quick Note of Thanks

A special expression of gratitude to the good folks at the Dayton City Paper. The Vine is becoming a weekly feature there.

Color us excited.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ringing in the New Year -- Champagne & Sparkling Wine

As we close 2006, I figured we'd end the annum with the traditional New Year's drink. After all, what's New Year's Eve without a little bubbly…

Champagne is the region in France where this celebration-and-headache-inducing wine originated. "Champagne," in common parlance, has come to mean any sparkling wine. The only wines that are truly "champagnes" are from the French region, so when you hear "This champagne's not Korbel!" -- that statement is 100% accurate. Korbel is from Sonoma, California -- so the correct phraseology would be "This Korbel's not Champagne!" Most non-French producers now simply label their productions as "sparkling wine."

However, a useful related term to know is "Méthode champenoise." If a sparkling wine bears this designation, the bottle has been carbonated in the traditional style of the Champagne region. This process was discovered by a French monk by the name of (wait for it…) Dom Pérignon. This procedure is near and dear to my heart as a homebrewer -- as I bottle-condition homemade beer with practically the same process. Here's how it works:

After a wine has barrel-aged for what a winemaker deems a proper length of time, the wine is bottled with a little extra sugar and yeast and capped. The additional yeast and sugar causes fermentation -- but since the CO2 cannot escape, the bubbles are forced back into the wine, carbonating it. This step is where homebrewers stop, since we don't mind the lees (WineSpeak for "leftover dead yeast") in the bottle bottom. However, as most wine drinkers prefer a clear product, we proceed to step called "riddling" after the carbonation is complete and the wine has "rested on the lees" for an appropriate length of time (usually at least a year).

During riddling, the bottles are racked with the neck pointing downward about 45º. The yeast settles into the neck of the bottle. The bottles are turned a quarter turn every day or more often and the downward angle is increased. After a month or two, we are ready for the removal of the yeast or "dégorgement." At this stage, the neck of the bottle is plunged into a sub-freezing liquid, and the settled yeast freezes into a plug. When the plug is fully formed, the cap is removed and the carbonation forces the plug from the bottle. The bottle is then quickly corked and "caged." You're ready to go.

There are, of course, less expensive methods of bottling, but méthode champenoise tends to create the best quality of carbonation (meaning the tiniest, longest lasting bubbles) and flavor. The carbonation also tends to force the alcohol into your bloodstream more quickly, causing the "quick drunk" of champagne, as well as the intensified potential hangover, so keep that in mind.

Sparkling wines can be made from just about any varietal of grape. Traditionally, they're either made from chardonnay ("blanc de blanc"), pinot noir ("blanc de noir"), or a blend of a number of other grapes.

One final important note when choosing a sparkling wine. There are three basic flavor profiles. They are, from driest to sweetest: Brut, Extra Dry, and Demi-Sec. Yes, you're reading that correctly -- Extra Dry is not as dry as Brut. There is also a fourth category, Doux, which is very sweet -- but I haven't seen much of that. My personal preferences tend to fall on the drier end of the spectrum, but your mileage may vary.

I would also be remiss in a sparkling wine column if I didn't include a quick note on opening these bloomin' bottles. While it's a great deal of fun to take the cage off, put both thumbs under the cork's ridge, and launch the cork off three walls or partygoer's noggins and drench yourself and everyone around you like you were Jim Edmonds in the Cardinals locker room a couple of months ago -- you're doing three problematic things. First, you're gonna put an eye out. Second, you're wasting the carbonation. Third, if you get a nice fountain of foam, you're WASTING WINE. Do. Not. Do. This.

Instead: get a towel, remove the cage from the cork, put the towel over the cork and grasp it firmly. Twist the cork gently and slowly back and forth. The cork will start to come loose. Ideally, you'll release the carbonation with a small pop or hiss instead of that loud POP. If you open the bottle like this -- not only are you protecting your guests, but the bottle often retains its carbonation for hours. If you don't finish the bottle that night, put a bottle stopper in and you'll have perfect mimosa makings.

Here are a couple of offerings as you do your party planning:

Gruet “Methode Champenoise” Brut Sparkling Wine – Gruet is a winery in New Mexico which produces very solid, inexpensive sparkling wine. As you can see, Gruet does traditional style carbonation. Since they produce such solid wine, I appreciate them taking the extra time to carbonate it properly. This wine is also the traditional blend of grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As with most Brut, this wine is very dry and crisp. A little grapefruit nose and green apple flavor. A very nice, sharp, bubbly wine for any occasion. (Many sparkling wines also come in half-bottles, which is a nice option if you're doing a tasting.) While most people think of these wines as either for a party or after a meal, dry sparkling wine goes very well with any number of foods. My wine mentor, Renee Koerner, clued me into a great secret about sparkling wines. Most countries produce wine to match their regional cuisine. French cuisine tends to be very fatty (the "French Paradox") -- so many of their wines go smashingly with fatty food. A great deal of American food, especially fast food, is fatty as well -- so drier, Champagne-style wines go extraordinarily well with french fries, fried chicken, potato chips, and other such bad-for-you-but-oh-so-good foods. A regular "we don't feel like cooking" meal around the Vine House is a pizza with a bottle of brut. Give it a try. You'll be amazed. $10-12 for a standard size (750 ml) bottle.

Freixenet Extra Dry Cava Sparkling Wine – This wine, instantly recognizable in the jet black bottle, is a product of Spain. Cava is this wine's native Spanish grape. As promised by the designation, you'll find this wine a little bit fruitier and “wetter” than the Brut. While they have similar flavors, I often like the little bit of sweetness to cut through the carbonation. Asian or Mexican food go great with extra dry, as does almost any pasta that isn't in a heavy tomato sauce. So do hard cheeses and nuts. As for the morning after, extra dry probably makes the best mimosas. Experiment! $8-10 for a standard bottle.

Mondoro Asti Spumante -- Asti Spumante is an Italian version of sparkling wine. Unlike the semi-dry prosecco from my Thanksgiving column, Astis tend to be sweeter -- much more of a "dessert" sparkler. ("Spumante" means that it's "fully sparkling") Asti is made from Muscat and the product tends to have a fresh, grapey taste. I wanted to try something other than Martini & Rossi, the ubiquitous makers of Asti, so I went with the Mondoro. An Asti -- or other demi-sec sparkling wine -- is an entirely different taste experience. This is a very fruity wine with a gentle pleasant sweetness and a little bit of raisin on the finish. Sweeter sparkling wines are best after a meal or with desserts. The Mondoro would go well with fruit or with dark chocolate. Dark chocolate dipped strawberries would be divine with this. $10-12 for a standard sized bottle.

So, have a happy New Year, everyone. I sincerely thank you all for making The Naked Vine a success. I appreciate you taking the time to stop by to read my musings and I hope you've picked up a little something here and there. Also, an anniversary wish to my sweet partner in crime. How you've put up with me for five years still astounds me. Peace and love to you and yours and I'll catch you after the ball drops.

Monday, December 04, 2006

'Tis the Season -- Party Wines

Party Season: the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year's. Most folks' dance cards fill up early with social engagements -- dinners with groups of friends, notorious office parties, and general gatherings for people to mingle, drink, and be merry. Custom demands you "bring something to the party," and wine's always a good choice. All you need is a corkscrew and a sound system -- you've got yourself an official shindig.

We find ourselves in the situation with which we started this venture -- ambling the aisles of your local liquor store trying to sort out appropriate choices. This dilemma is somewhat akin to Thanksgiving: You need something flexible enough to satisfy a group without looking cheap or clueless.

With some help from the Sweet Partner in Crime (who happens to be a criminologist in real life) -- we subdivided the party circuit into two major categories: informal gatherings for grazing and drinking and more "formal," and I use that term very loosely, dinner parties. While there are lots of choices (and feel free to add your own in the comments section) -- I offer up a red and a white for each type to get you started. First off -- the "gather and graze:"

These events are your basic "everyone shows up at someone's house, munch on appetizers, and carry on various degrees of conversation/deviltry" deals. There's usually at least one table where people pile liquor and wine for general consumption. If this is where you're going, look here:

Rosemount Estates 2005 Shiraz -- About as safe a decent wine as you can get. Rosemount is one of the more popular Australian bargain-line wines. I was a big fan of the Rosemount blends until they jacked up the price across the board. The Shiraz, however, remains a favorite of mine for sluggable red. Straightforward, uncomplicated -- this is a perfect red for walking around, chatting people up, and drinking a few glasses to get a warm glow. While the Rosemount's nose is plummy with a little leather scent, the best feature is the taste. Rosemount is a very fruity Shiraz with straightforward dark berry flavors. There's not a lot of tannin here, so it doesn't finish very dry -- just fruit and a little bit of pepper. Rosemount Shiraz is the very definition of "easy quaffer." If you're looking for a "real" syrah/shiraz, you're probably better off looking elsewhere. But for our purposes -- unveil, uncork, and go to town…you're not going to do much better for $6 a bottle. Heck, just drop the pretense and get the under $10 1.5 liter bottle. We're all friends here.

Snoqualmie Vineyards 2004 Chenin Blanc -- Now, as for a white... Again, we need something everyone can drink -- not too sweet, not too dry, enough complexity for corkheads and enough ease for less serious drinkers. What to do? My first instinct would be Riesling, predictably -- but I've done a lot of those recently. Chardonnay...well, many inexpensive chards are either going to be overly oaky or way too dry for mass consumption. Sauvignon Blanc? Too tart. Viognier? A lot of people think they're too perfumey and some of my friends have had really negative reactions to viognier for some reason. I settled on Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc gets a bad rap. Much like "Burgundy" and "Chablis" --"chenin blanc" evokes thoughts of cheap wine shoplifted by high school kids tired of Boone's Farm. While the Chenin Blanc grape has been used in great quantity in jug wine, in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing -- it becomes a refreshing, accessible white. The Snoqualmie is an example. This Washington-produced white has a pronounced fruit nose, but it's not as citrusy as a sauvignon. The taste starts a little sweet, but becomes a nice light balance of lemon and pear. There's a little acidic zing on the finish which turns fruity and crisp. It's an ideal "stand around and graze on munchies" wine -- as this would go really well with most hard cheeses and other such finger food. You're looking at $6-7 for a bottle.

Our other category, the loosely defined "dinner party," will have at least one evening's component where you're actually going to use a set of silverware, a napkin, and sit around a table. Since you'll generally have multiple courses, you can be a little more specific in your wine choices. Just ask your host or hostess what you're having, and plan accordingly:

Burgans 2004 Albariño -- This wine looks out of place in the Spanish section with its Celtic script and label graphic. As most of you know, wine isn't exactly Ireland's national spirit. (I may ask The Wizard of Covington to guest-write a column on the joys of Clontarf down the road, however.) What's Ireland have to do with Spain? Centuries ago, some of the first settlements in the Iberian Peninsula were Celtic -- especially in this wine's region of Spain. As a nod to their northern neighbors, Burgans styled the bottle with Celtic script. Both bottle and cork are adorned with a rune. As you may remember from the entry a couple of months ago, Albariño is one of Spain's most precious white grapes. Albariños tend to be a little more expensive, but a couple fall into Vine range. An Albariño is very different from most whites. It's not quite as perfumey as a viognier, and usually has a little sweetness, but not as much as a Riesling. These wines are usually exceptionally well-balanced. Here, the Burgans has a wonderful nose of fresh flowers and mangoes. This is a medium bodied wine, and the sweetness only shows up at the very beginning with a full taste of ripe green apple. The finish is a little tart, a little sweet, and quite nice. This would be a very flexible food wine, so you'll be in business. I had this with penne pasta with potatoes, zucchini, and tomatoes and the pairing worked nicely. I've also heard that smoked salmon would go wonderfully well if you're pairing up with an appetizer. This is a very "hot" varietal right now -- so impress your friends with this bottle --$10-12.

Windmill Vineyards 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel -- Michael-David Winery in Lodi, California has cranked out some really incredible wine over the last few years. Their signature wine, 7 Deadly Zins, is a regular gold medal winner -- and another favorite of mine. Unfortunately, it's slightly out of our price range. However, as I mentioned in an earlier entry -- one can find really good value by looking for "second label" wines by such growers. The Windmill is a perfect example. Just so you know, "Old Vine" is WineSpeak for…well…there's not really an agreed upon definition, other than that the vines are generally at least 30-40 years old. If a vine can produce consistently and with quality for that long, it's planted in the right place -- and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Windmill is a blend of old vine fruit from several of Michael-David's neighboring wineries. These choices produce a powerful zin with a big nose of blackberries and wood smoke. The taste is downright luscious -- all sorts of big cherry and vanilla flavors balance out the rich tannins. The finish is lingering, with dark chocolate and cooling mint. I went to undergrad down Durham, North Carolina way -- and it's hard to be there for any length of time without picking up a fondness for barbecue (and for you Northeastern readers, that's a noun, not a verb). This straightforward zinfandel would be a great pairing with some properly prepared North Carolina style barbecue -- or just about anything else with smoky, grilled flavors. Since you'll probably be having some heavier food this time of year, comfort food will work well. For dessert, of course, chocolate would work swimmingly. You're looking at $9-11 for this one.

Enjoy your season of socialization! And until next time…throw your hands in the air, and wave them like there are no conceivable consequences.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!" (Now go away.)

If you've walked into a wine store anytime since November 16, you've undoubtedly seen a brightly colored display, proclaiming "Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!" filled with a bunch of fancy bottles, likely from Georges DuBeouf. I'd be shocked if you haven't seen it.

A Vine reader asked me if I was going to write about this year's crop of Nouveau, so let me give a little backstory behind this wine and why its "arrival" is such a big deal before I get to them.

Beaujolais Nouveau are made from the same grape as regular Beaujolais -- gamay. These wines are fermented extremely quickly through a process called "carbonic maceration." In layman's terms, they throw the grapes into the fermenter whole, and the weight of the grapes themselves does the crushing. Most of the fermentation happens to the juice while still inside the skin. As carbon dioxide is released by the fermentation process, the bubbles speed the alcohol production and helps gravity stomp the grapes. An entire batch of Beaujolais Nouveau can be fermented in as little as three days.

The tradition of drinking this young wine started in the villages of the Beaujolais region, where people would draw jugs of wine out of the fermenting casks. This wine was to hold folks over until the actual Beaujolais was ready, several months later. This "first batch" of wine was a great excuse for a party, and villages would have festivals surrounding the sharing of this new wine. Eventually, word of this little tradition got out -- since everyone wants to be festive. A rush started to see who could get wines out first. Eventually, the French government stepped and in 1951, this wine was made an "official" varietal -- with a release date of November 15th. Georges Dubeouf came along in the 1960's and started to publicize the release of the wine widely -- and it's now become a worldwide, rather than a regional, day of excitement.

Beaujolais are light wines to begin with, but Beaujolais Nouveau takes this to a whole other level. These are extremely young, uncomplicated wines. They are not really made to go with food. As I said, they're made to be festival wines, drunk from jugs as people dance around in the streets. You certainly don't have to think much about how these taste.

The official release date is now the third Thursday in November -- which was November 16th this year. This date obviously coincides with Thanksgiving, so people buy this wine to take to familial repasts. This year, I could only find two Beaujolais Nouveau in my local stores. Here they are:

Georges DuBeouf 2006 Beaujolais Nouveau -- the most ubiquitous Beaujolais Nouveau on the market. DuBeouf shells out plenty of cash to assure that the world wine market is properly flooded with the Nouveau. You can find this wine…well…everywhere. The nose is very light and fruity -- the usual cherry notes of Beaujolais are in there somewhere. The first taste doesn't give you very much, but it expands to a little fruitiness…which unfortunately is still too young to get much more than an inkling. I guess you could say that there's some cherry flavor there with a little bit of licorice. Finish is dry with a little fruit. The body is very light. You could basically drink this like water if you were so inclined. You can find this for $9-11 anywhere.

Joseph Drouhin 2006 Beaujolais Nouveau -- this is a darker and fuller wine than the DuBoeuf and seems much more like a wine that could be more than simply slugged back. Some light berry flavors on the nose. The Drouhin tastes a little more "done" than many Nouveau I've tried. There's a slight smoky flavor to start, but that turns to a tart cherry flavor, which leads into a fruity finish that I wouldn't expect in a nouveau. This wine finishes dry but not tannic (as most Nouveau have very little tannin). If this wine is any indication, make sure that you look for the actual 2006 vintage of this winemaker. I have a feeling you won't be sorry. This will run about $12-14.

That said…

I'll be honest…it's not my favorite wine. I think there's really not much to it -- but as I’ve said, uncomplicated wines don't scare me. However, uncomplicated wines shouldn't cost an arm and a leg. Beaujolais Nouveau was very inexpensive for a long time. Over the last few years, since the release has become an event and there's money to be made, the price has skyrocketed.

There are some wine aficionados who say that the Nouveau holds the secrets of the upcoming year's Beaujolais vintage. That may be -- but I'd rather wait and see for myself. In my opinion, there's no reason to spend $12 on a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau if you can spend $6-8 on a Beaujolais-Villages (or heck, drop the $12 on a cru!) and get a far superior wine for your money. But don't just take my word for it. Do a side-by-side tasting and see for yourself.

The Vine will be taking a week's hiatus for Thanksgiving and to give my liver a rest. See you in December, everyone!

Until next time…enjoy the Thanksgiving sales, and please don't riot over the Playstation 3.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Thanksgiving wine -- bottles to carve by

Ah, Thanksgiving. A time when families gather to give voice to their collective baggage, travelers delayed in airports scream at underpaid gate employees, highway traffic floods to a crawl, and somewhere in this madhouse of activity…dinner gets cooked.

Pairing a wine with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner can be a challenge. A big red won't work. The tannins will overwhelm most foods on your table. A usual white, like a chardonnay, usually doesn't have the strength to stand up with the oils in a turkey or pair with the variety of foods on the table -- from cranberries to stuffing to sweet potatoes. What do you want?

You want something that won't break the bank. You generally don't want anything too complex, as such a wine will usually be wasted as everyone gorges and then prepares for a long afternoon nap. So, where to go?

I've picked a few examples of varietals that tend to go well with a Thanksgiving (or other big cooking holiday of your choice) meal. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list, Vine readers should share their holiday wine faves in the comments for everyone to read.

Also, if you're hosting the meal, I recommend storing a small flask of Maker's Mark inconspicuously in the kitchen. For use in the sweet potatoes, of course…

Ca' del Solo 2005 Big House Pink -- Rosés are an excellent choice when you're entertaining for a number of folks. That is, once you get past the fear of pink. Rosés, as I've mentioned before, are extremely flexible, food friendly wines. A rosé generally has a little more body than a white, so it can go with heartier stuffings -- but the acidity that it brings to the table will cut through sauces and sweeter foods nicely. Turkey is a classic rose pairing. This entry from Ca' del Solo -- an alternate label of Bonny Doon Vineyard that produces some excellent, inexpensive blends -- will fill the bill at any such gathering. Remember, though, roses are best when not served ice-cold. You want to at least let it warm to 50 degrees or so. Once you unscrew this rose (and I'm going to do a feature on screwcaps a little down the line -- don't be afraid of them, either…) and pour a glass, you'll be greeted with a light, tropical fruit nose (I get pineapple from it). This wine has a nice "weight" in your mouth and has a well-balanced fruit flavor -- a little strawberry and a little grapefruit. The finish is tart and crisp. The Big House Pink is about $8-9 a bottle. If you have guests that can't decide between red and white, pour them this one. They'll appreciate you.

Covey Run 2005 Columbia Valley Riesling -- Thanksgiving dinner is about options. White meat or dark? Beans or greens? Stuffing or bread? Red or White? You're going to want flexibility, and there's no more flexible white than a decent Riesling. I focused on Riesling once before as a crowd pleaser -- and I'd hold to that if you're looking for a safe bet for your holiday table. For this particular selection -- Covey Run is a winery in Washington. Over the last ten years, Washington and Oregon have become major players in the American wine market, and their wines are some of the best values you'll see in domestic wines. The climate in Washington's Columbia Valley mirrors that of the Saar region in Germany. Some of the best Rieslings in the world are produced there. This wine certainly echoes its heritage. Covey Run's Riesling starts you with a fruity nose of apricots and peaches. This wine would not be considered a "dry" Riesling by any stretch. It's somewhat sweet, but there's a nice tartness that runs through the body of the wine. The finish is gentle and citrusy. This wine has enough interesting fruit flavor to satisfy any corkheads that may be at the table, while it's easy-drinking enough for your everyday guest. At $7-10, it's a great value.

Camelot 2005 Pinot Noir -- Pinot noir is a traditional Thanksgiving wine -- generally because it's a lighter, food friendly red that people can quaff without too much consideration. For a big meal, most folks will, again, generally be fine with a "mainline" pinot. (Personal note -- after the Santa Barbara jaunt, tasting inexpensive pinots was a bit of a shock to the system…) Camelot, although often shelved next to domestic pinot noirs, is actually French wine. It's certainly nowhere near the quality of red Burgundy (most of which are pinots) -- but for our purposes, it'll work. The Camelot has a light nose of cherries and herbs. It's a medium to light bodied pinot with a very nice, dark strawberry taste that slides into a long, semi-dry finish. There's nothing complicated about this wine -- it's just an easy drinking, well-balanced red that will pair with most anything you might have on the table. At $8-9, you can certainly leave a few bottles of this open on the table for copious consumption.

Il Faggeto 2005 Prosecco Veneto -- As I was putting this entry together, my sweet partner in crime asked me, "So, what would you drink with dessert?" Since I don't put The Vine together to discuss Alka-Seltzer, I needed to find something that would go with a pumpkin pie. A little looking around netted me a Prosecco. Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine. Don't confuse it with champagne -- it's not nearly as carbonated or dry. Prosecco tends to be semi-dry and slightly fruity. As you may have noticed, I don't taste a lot of sparkling wine -- because, honestly, I don’t know the best way to really "taste" them. I see most sparklers as for…well…straight-up drinking. (Sparklers have their uses, which I'll get to at a later date.) Il Faggetto Prosecco is a fun wine. The carbonation gives it an interesting flavor -- there's more fruit pushed to your tongue than you would find in your average champagne. While it's a bit sweet initially, the finish slides towards dry. Why would this be a good wine with pumpkin pie? At the end of the meal, you need something that will a) cleanse your palate and b) not be too heavy. Il Faggetto fills the bill. The bubbles will cut through the numerous spices of said pie, while the fruit adds a nice complementary taste. In addition, you could also serve this as a aperitif (WineSpeak for "wine before you eat anything") since it's relatively low in alcohol and pairs nicely with cheeses and fruit. Best of all, you can find this for $8-10, so you can either get your guests warmed up or cooled down without worry.

By the way -- for the other traditional Thanksgiving dessert, pecan pie, there's only one proper pairing. Single-barrel Kentucky whiskey. I recommend Blanton's or Baker's bourbon, or Bernheim's single-barrel wheat whiskey. Accept no substitutes.

Until next time…save me the drumstick.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Sideways Source

A bit of a departure from recent entries…

I’ve not read a wine writer yet who’s completely avoided referencing "Sideways.” Since this film became part of the popular culture, pinot noirs got expensive, people stopped drinking merlot, and tour buses by the hundreds descended on Santa Barbara County to follow the path blazed by Miles and Jack. There are readily available maps with which which you can hit every stop in the movie -- from the Hitching Post to "Frass Canyon Winery" (which is actually Fess Parker) where Miles dumped the spit bucket on his head to the Best Western where they stayed

I had the good fortune last week to travel LA to meet up with my sweet partner in crime as she was finishing a conference -- and we decided that we'd head north on the 101. (For those of you who have never been to Southern California, folks out there refer to freeways as something you find around the house -- the kitchen table, the family dog, the dishwasher, "the 5," "the 10," "the 405," "the 101," and so on…)

We did not wish to follow the Sideways trail. We did a little research beforehand and asked a few friends for recommendations. We ended up floating from winery to winery, sampling and learning as we went. My lessons from the trip?

* The best tasting rooms are at the wineries themselves.
* Tasting rooms specializing in local wineries without their own tasting rooms often yield gems.
* The pinot noirs out there are incredible wines. Corollary: The pinot noirs out there are also expensive wines in relation to what I usually write about.
* When I went to Sonoma last year, I barely drank zinfandel -- then I fell in love with the stuff. The same thing happened to me in Santa Barbara with syrah.
* There were actually some wines out there that fall into Vine price ranges -- and it would be unfair of me to simply keep them to myself. So, a few highlights in no particular order…

Cellar 205 -- One of our first stops, Cellar 205 is a wine co-op tucked away on a back street in Santa Barbara. Three different winemakers produce their wines here. Carr Winery specializes in pinot noir -- their pinot is very complex and range from delicate to chewy. They also make a very tasty sauvignon blanc. (We bought a bottle of the pinot for a special occasion.) Bargiel focuses more on syrah -- big, hearty wines. Our favorite was Oreana. Oreana makes a range of wines -- the most memorable, for me, was simply called "?" -- as it's made from a different blend of grapes every year. This wine was one of the more inexpensive we ran into out there -- $10 a bottle. For the price, it was unbeatable. This wine would be perfect to bring to a party, open in the evening with some chocolate, or just kick back and drink. Lots of berries and fruit, soft tannins, and hearty without being overpowering. We ended up with a case of the stuff.

Giessinger -- A funky little place on State Street in Santa Barbara, Giessinger made wines that, in the words of one of our tastresses (both of whom had the same birthday) are "not your average wines." I would echo that sentiment. We got a bottle of their syrah -- which actually had a fairly strong flavor of mint to it. I'm waiting to get some lamb chops for this wine, since we wouldn't need the mint jelly to go with it. At $10 a pop, it seemed like a pretty good investment to me. They made a few other very nice whites, as well Giessinger's specialty is dessert wines, which aren't usually my speed. But with wines named "Forgiveness" and "Surrender" -- trying them became a must.

Zaca Mesa -- Zaca Mesa, north of Los Olivos on Foxen Canyon Road, focuses on what are considered "Rhone varietals." The climate in that area is very much like the south of France -- blazing hot in the day, cool and breezy by night.They grow the same grapes there -- syrah, mourvedre, Grenache, rousanne, viognier, etc. Our new friend Brian led us through the tasting soon after an extended conversation with us about the Bengals being underdogs against the Ravens. They made a viognier that started with a wonderful floral and fruit nose, which then became wonderfully crisp and refreshing. Their blends, Z Cuvée and Z Three, were extraordinarily tasty and full wines. But their syrah stood alone on top. Syrah is normally a powerful, fruity, earthy wine. When you taste a syrah, you're going to get a very strong flavor of…well…something, generally – these are not meek wines. Zaca Mesa…these folks made a syrah that's very different. Their syrahs weren't overpowering in the slightest -- in fact, these wines had some of the best combinations and balances of flavors I've ever had. Almost all of their syrahs could be termed "elegant." Most of their wines are out of the Vine range -- but when we were there, they were selling off the last of the 2001 vintage -- which was an incredibly good wine, but needs to be drunk soon. We got it on sale -- so it came out to about $10 a bottle. If I need to take a bottle of wine somewhere in the next few months -- this is coming with me. It's astoundingly good.

Curtis -- Half a mile up the road from Zaca Mesa, Curtis Winery also focuses on Rhone varietals -- and our taster, Jason, showed us a very pleasant time while we were there. They also produce an exceptional syrah and small batches of various other Rhone wines. We were most struck by their cuvées. Cuvée is WineSpeak for "blend" and, as mentioned above -- these are usually very tasty, very up-front, easy drinking wines. Curtis makes three of them: the "Heritage Cuvée," a red with a smoky cherry and vanilla taste; the "Heritage Blanc," a white, somewhat like a viognier on the nose, but with a crisper taste and a longer finish; and their "Heritage rose," made from the same grapes as the red and striking you with tasty berries and grapefruit. All these wines were relatively inexpensive ($12-16) and make for a wonderful introduction to some of their other wines, which are a little pricier but, again, quite worth it.

And while the following wineries aren't in this column's price range, they certainly bear a mention: Sunstone -- the most attractive winery that we visited. Sunstone is just north of Solvang – best known as California's Dutch version of Gatlinburg. We tasted the best rose we'd ever had at Sunstone and a wine called "Eros" that was…well...exactly that.
Shoestring is a new winery located smack dab on the road between Buellton and Solvang. They were tasting their first releases when we visited. If the early returns are any indication, this winery is certainly one to keep an eye on. Their syrah paired with dark chocolate was particularly divine. The winery also starred Scooter the Aussie, who kept an eye on the place from his perch atop one of the barrels in the warehouse. Finally, Foley, in the somewhat less radical climate west of Buellton on the way to Lompoc, produces absolutely marvelous pinot noir. We bought ourselves our favorite pinot on the trip at Foley.

If you'd like a taste of some of these wines, you can purchase most of them online. Be forewarned, we had a lot of trouble finding a winery that would ship directly to us in Kentucky. In Northern California wine country, they have visitors from all over and they've got "authorized third-party shippers" to deal with the weird blue laws in the Bluegrass and other states. In Southern California, most of their wine tasting traffic is local, so getting the permits isn't worth it. We had to find some hypothetically creative ways to get our booty home. (Best bet -- find a trustworthy friend in Ohio and ship there…you can ship unlimited quantities to places across the river.)

Pay the homepages of these wineries a visit and read their stories -- you'll like them. Each winery had a tale to tell -- and the thrill of firsthand discovery made for a very memorable mini-vacation.

Back to the reviews next time. Until then, don't drink and dial…

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Mailbag Redux

A little time has passed since I've had a chance to dig into the mailbag and give some well-deserved recognition to some of the readers who have graciously added their suggestions. So, without further adieu…

Cycles Gladiator 2004 Merlot -- When a bartender gives an honest recommendation, listen. JenJen, the Tavern Wench herself, mentioned this merlot several weeks ago in a comment on my merlot column and I decided to give it a swing. Cycles Gladiator was a French bicycle company in the 1890's, and the wine label (to which JenJen also referred) bears the artwork from those old posters.

This merlot is one of the more interesting I've tried in awhile. The nose is very full -- and, to me, smells like what in WineSpeak they call "cassis" -- which to the rest of the world would be currant. There's also a little chocolate smell mixed in. The taste is wonderfully complex for a wine this inexpensive. There's a solid plummy flavor that gets balanced by a little acidity. You might read descriptions of the tannins in wine as "chewy." If you want a good example, try this wine -- it's got very rich body along those lines. There's a little more acidity on the finish that you'll find in many merlots, but that rapidly gives way to a nice dark chocolate flavor. While all merlots are relatively food friendly -- this one's got enough body and structure to hold up to even a good cut of steak. But it'll work with almost anything -- from mac and cheese to duck. If you're still wary of merlot, hop on the Cycles for $8-10. Like they say, you never really forget how.

Also, make sure you pay the Tavern Wench a visit. If you've ever wondered what those folks pouring your drinks on the other side of the bar are thinking -- it's a must-read. JenJen gives you an Anthony Bourdain look at the world of bartending -- except she's considerably easier on the eyes.

Santa Ema 2004 Barrel Select Carmenere -- In my Chilean column, I made a erroneous statement about Carmenere, one of the red wine grapes common in Chile. I said that it was the same thing as merlot. Sharp-eyed and knowledgeable vine reader Scott S. forwarded an article informing me that Carmenere was a completely different species of grape -- not simply a regional version of an established varietal. Many thanks to him -- and I decided to give one of these a try.

The Santa Ema is the first Carmenere I've had the fortune to try. A quick swirl brings a fairly light nose that reminds me of chocolate covered berries. This wine has moderately tannic taste and medium body. It's not quite as big as the Cycles, for instance, but it won't be easily overwhelmed. The taste is a little less fruity than most merlots. Instead, if you were looking for a comparison, it's got an earthy taste similar to some French merlots -- although not nearly as complex. The finish is longer than most merlots, and certainly drier. You could probably enjoy the Santa Ema with many of the same foods you'd get with the Cycles. While my good fortune was to try this wine, there wasn't a fortune spent. Look for this in the $8-9 range.

RDLR 2003 Syrah -- The Wizard of Covington raves about this wine. When he told me about the RDLR (which stands either for Rich Dark Luscious Red or winemaker Richard de los Reyes, depending on who you ask…) he said, "Make sure you open this wine half an hour before you drink it. You won't believe it when you do."

He wasn't kidding -- because he knew I can't let a bottle sit unopened for a half hour without trying it. When we cracked the bottle and poured a bit, I tried to drink it straightaway and was disappointed. I could tell there was an interesting bouquet in there somewhere, but it was masked by an alcohol smell that could be termed "fumey." I endeavored to let this inky wine breathe for at least a little while. When I tried it again after half an hour, the difference was marked. The "fumes" disappear -- leaving you with dark blueberry and blackberry scents, combined with coffee. The RDLR is a big, big wine. Lots of complexity -- more of that dark fruit, good tannin, and some oak. The finish is extremely well-balanced, a little peppery, and goes on and on. While not for wine drinkers that prefer lighter-styled wines…if you want a powerful, juicy wine to kick back with or serve with something that's got some fat in it (beef, lamb, cassoulet, sausage pizza, etc.) to cut the tannins, you'll not be disappointed. The RDLR is right at the edge of the Vine's price range. It normally sells for around $15 or a little over, but I found it on sale for $11 -- so I decided to include it.

The Wizard shares his lair, Width of a Circle, with a few friends. He muses on…well…just about his own indomitable style, and I've visited few websites whose recommended links run from Derrida to Bill Hicks to CREEM! Online.

Until next time, keep the suggestions coming and the wine flowing…

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


I never imagined this would be a difficult entry.

A Hallow'een-themed wine column...easy, right? I figured there would be any number of selections lending themselves to the cause. A quick trip down the beer aisle would keep me in business for weeks if I were writing about hops instead of grapes -- from the Rogue Dead Guy Ale; to Duvel from Belgium (that's "Devil," in case you were wondering); to Hobgoblin IPA; to the countless pumpkin flavored beers lining the aisles this time of year.

Wines, for the most part, held themselves back from this lean towards the lurid, although I did see a display of zinfandels in a coffin at one store. Personally, I find wine much more closely linked to this time of year -- as the weather turns cold, the winds begin to blow, and the air itself seems to crackle with a certain energy. Wine's depth and evolutions in flavor fit autumn well for me. Wine warms us against the cold, and mirrors the season's changes outside.

Plus, since it's Hallow'een, it kinda looks like blood.

That said, here are a couple of wines for the week. Just don't hand these out on Beggar's Night. (Unless I'm visiting, of course.)

Schmitt Sohne 2005 Zeller Schwarze Katz -- No Hallow'een would be complete without a black cat, and this German entry is generally welcome to cross one's path. "Schwarze Katz" is the German translation for the traditional Hallow'een feline -- and is also the name of this wine's vineyard, which is near the village of Zell. This wine is produced from Riesling grapes --and falls in the "basic" category of German wines. That said, if you want the experience of bobbing for apples without getting your face wet, this is a good bet. The nose is lightly perfumed with scents of those apples. The taste is light and crisp, with more of that slightly sweet, slightly tart apple taste -- like a Honeycrisp. The finish is quite long. The fruit flavor holds on for a good portion of the dark evening. This would be excellent as either an inexpensive aperitif or dessert wine. You could also pair it with lighter style foods. With the apple taste in mind, I paired it with some brined pork chops and sweet potatoes, and it worked wonderfully. At $6-9, it's a solid buy -- and I don't think you'll have bad luck.

Yarraman "Hell Raiser" 2004 Cabernet-Merlot -- This Australian number is unrelated to the Clive Barker horror story or Pinhead, but, instead from a horse boarded on the winery's grounds who saw great sport in kicking down his gate and committing various other acts of mischief. This wine was initially known as "The Bolter" -- but I imagine they wanted nomenclature that would be a little more universal to Americans not on the plains or in the Bluegrass. While I'm not driven to attack fences after tasting this wine, I do think that it's very decent for a chilly evening of jack-o-lantern carving. Hell Raiser is 50% cabernet sauvignon and 50% merlot, but I believe the latter grape takes the lead in the taste of this wine. This wine smells more like a merlot to me, with plenty of blackberry -- although there's an interesting minty scent as well. The cabernet becomes evident after you taste. The strong dark berry and plum nature of the merlot gets balanced with the cabernet tannins especially evident on the finish, which is long and dry -- with a flavorful dark chocolate aftertaste. Try this wine with dark chocolate -- it's an absolute killer. You could also put this with some sharp cheddar cheese and crackers to get your trick or treating started right. And for $9-10, open this well before the costumed children arrive and you'll be in a mood to handle whatever comes to your door.

Ravenswood 2003 Vintner's Blend Cabernet Sauvignon -- with apologies to The Bard of Baltimore, Edgar Allen Poe, who set an appropriately macabre mood like no one else…

Once upon a website able, while I pondered at my table,
On a wine to serve my guests as they wandered 'bout my floor.
While I thought, my brain a rustle, all amidst my friends' loud bustle
Something not to break the bank, and something 'twouldn't be a chore
"'Tis a simple wine I need, something folks would not abhore."
Only this, and nothing more.

Fortune smiled upon my trouble, so as not to burst my bubble,
A little something I'd picked up upon my last trip to the store.
"A red!" I said, "A cabernet -- that will surely pave the way
"Into this party so as to stop November's grip upon our corps
"To now relax, to have with cheese, and appetizers more and more."
Only this and nothing more.

For I had wandered down the aisle marked California, with my smile
Emerged successful with a bottle few themselves would dare deplore.
From Ravenswood, this wine it came; and "Vintner's Blend" upon its name
Two thousand three the date upon removal from its barrel's store.
While gold it's not, no problems I would have now mining deep its ore.
So then I did perchance to pour.

Its nose was big, not unlike cherry -- and with preserves of the blackberry
Scents drifted from my glass with notes I could but scarce ignore
The body full, now strong and tannic, with fruit enough to ease the panic
That I'd erred and bought a wine my friends might cast upon the floor.
"They'll drink this up, I know them all, and they'll ask for more, señor."
I know my pals. Them I adore.

The finish came, all long and smoky, a little fruit and slightly oaky
Closing out my tasting -- blinked and came from rapport.
A mere nine bucks I'd spent on this, and I would find myself remiss
If I did not suggest this wine for someday soon you might explore
At dinner big, or even if you're watching for the baseball score.
The Ravenswood -- now pour some more…

Until next time…enjoy things going bump in the night…

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

For Jessie.

Jessie Red -- arguably the sweetest creature to ever put paws to soil. A chocolate lab whose smiles could light a room, and whose flatulence could clear it just as quickly. A chocolate lab with a lust for life that put Iggy Pop's to shame, and with a knack for mischief that…well…put Iggy Pop's to shame.

Jessie was the constant companion of my constant companion, Pam, for thirteen years. I've been told that Jessie was the screener five years ago for whether I got to join the household. (I'm glad I passed the test.)

Jessie was adopted a few weeks too young, so she never truly understood that there actually was a difference between human and canine. She saw herself as human and acted accordingly. Everyone entering the household deserved a proper greeting (she was always a proper lady) -- even if that meant bowling them over before drowning them in joyful slobber. People food was obviously prepared for her -- as was discovered upon walking into the kitchen to find Jessie hungrily devouring the second of two enormous porterhouse steaks that she'd jumped onto a counter and then onto a shelf to reach. Jessie would scarf down pretty much anything in reach, and she marginally preferred beef to recently-worn underwear.

So, aside from sentimental reasons, what's a chocolate Labrador retriever doing in a wine column?

Again, Jessie never understood what was and wasn't meant for dogs. Pam returned home from a long day in the salt mines of her graduate education to her usual enthusiastic Jessie Greeting, only to find shards of wine bottle glass all over the kitchen floor -- and nothing else. She'd left a wine bottle too close to the edge of the counter and Jessie -- in her ever-curious way, had knocked it off -- only to have it shatter. Jessie was a resourceful critter, however, and wasn't one to waste good wine. So she drank it.

All of it. Every drop. Carefully.

A panicked call to the vet followed. The vet asked if she was bleeding -- she wasn't. He gave the advice: "Keep an eye on her and make sure there are no signs of internal bleeding. Otherwise, just watch her." Jessie was skillful. She didn't cut herself at all. But, after the equivalent of five glasses of cabernet, Jessie had a BAC of approximately .23. She was very happy that night -- walking around with her usual big grin, and then staggering into walls, cabinets, before finally lying down to enjoy her buzz. And, yes, she was a bit hung over when all was said and done.

One year ago this week, we made the difficult choice to bid adieu to our sweet girl. After 13 years, her quality of life wasn't what it should have been, and she let us know in no uncertain terms that she was just tired and ready to go. We miss her every day...

In Jessie's honor this week: dog-themed wines…

Dog House "Checker's Cab" 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon -- "Welcome to the Dog House." I find it very fitting to open the wines here, as Jessie never met a stranger, neither canine nor homo sapiens. Jessie's constantly wagging tail of destruction would be flying after a few tastes of this very straightforward, compact cabernet. The big blackberry jam nose on this wine gives way to a slightly oaky red with some nice background tastes of licorice. The finish is very gentle for a cabernet sauvignon -- not terribly tannic with some lingering smoky flavor. Very easy to drink -- the Dog House would be a good "transition cab" for people who enjoy mellower reds like merlot and are interested in giving drier wines a try. Foodwise, the classic pairing with a cabernet is grilled steak, and this would be no exception. Pot roasts, ribs, or earthy mushroom-based dishes would be great here, as well. If you want a great tailgating wine -- the screw top (which you should not fear…more on that later) makes it a winner before a ballgame around the grill…that is, if you're not pouring Maker's. Dog House goes for $8-11, and the winery also makes a contribution with each sale to a nonprofit called "Guide Dogs for the Blind." As we need more of a reason to open a bottle…

Vinum Cellars "Pets" 2003 Petit Sirah -- Jessie would have been the wrong critter to ask about petit sirah. She didn't have much of a discriminating palate. However, she would have gotten along famously with "Tanker" -- the vintner's lab, featured on the bottle. Many people think Petit Sirah and Syrah are the same grape. While both grapes make big, bold wines -- petit sirahs tend to be extremely dark in color, almost black, and yield big, bold flavors and strong tannins -- much stronger than the mellower syrah (or Shiraz, which is the same grape). This wine needs to be opened and allowed to breathe for at least half an hour, but it's definitely worth the wait. The nose of this wine is powerful and fruity -- big scents of blueberry and blackberry. If you don't let it breathe, however, the fruit gets quickly overtaken by those signature tannins. However, with a little time exposed to air, the fruity complexity holds strongly against the tannin -- giving you a deliciously interesting flavor. The finish is long, spicy, and chocolaty. This big wine pairs up well with big foods -- roasted chicken or vegetables in sauce, prime rib, barbecue brisket. It also would go wonderfully with dark chocolate or big aged cheeses. Take the plunge with Pets to the tune of $12-15. And, in staying with the charitable theme, a portion of the sales go to the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Finnegan's Lake "Fin." 2005 Chardonnay -- Jessie was full of surprises, and this chardonnay, with a profile of the puppy that is the wine's namesake, certainly gave me a start when I tasted it. I'm not a huge fan of California chardonnays these days -- they're often too oaky for my tastes. However, this wine is light and subtle, much unlike Jessie -- although both would be great fun at a summer picnic. The "Fin." reminds me much more of a French Chablis than of most chardonnays you'll run into from California, as it has a much lighter, much more lemony nose than most chardonnays you'll run into from there. The very fresh body has notes of vanilla and only a little bit of oak. The finish is long and light with just a little bit of spice. If you're not into the heavy oak or very buttery style of most California chardonnays, you'll become a fan of Fin. Light pastas, almost any type of grilled or baked fish & shellfish would probably go extremely well. Chablis and oysters is a classic pairing, and this would probably fall right in line. Thai cuisine would also be a nice pairing, especially if fish sauce is in the preparation. You'll probably end up between $11-14 for this wine, so if Chablis-style chardonnay is your thing, you'll probably like it a great deal. Fin is a decent American substitute for a classic French wine -- and since the French were some of the first Europeans to trade with the indigenous population of the Labrador region of Canada, perhaps it follows that Jessie's wine would be more French in style.

Until next time…oh, wait…excuse me…Jessie's younger sibling Mooch is nosing my elbow. He wants to get in on the act. He may be a topic of a later issue, but sure -- why not. Here's Mooch's pick for this week:

McNab Ridge "Fred's Red" 2006 -- This syrah/zinfandel blend from Mendocino County would be good to have around the house as we start donning (or growing) our winter coats. Fred is the McNab Shepherd namesake of this winery's whose picture adorns the bottle. Much like Mooch -- this wine is quite straightforward. This is a just-released wine, so I'd be interested to see what a few months or a year would do here -- but it stands up now nicely enough. There's a very full nose here for such a young wine. You get a blueberry and cherry scent at first -- and you can also tell you've got a wine that's got a bit of alcohol in it. There's fruit and very solid tannins in the body, with a long finish of smoke and licorice. Right now, the muscle of the syrah is the dominant flavor. I'd be interested to see if the fruit of the zinfandel balances the tannin as the next year or two passes. Big meats, of course, will go well with this -- but I'd be interested to see how it would stand up to a baba ghanouj or other strong eggplanty dish. Fred's Red nestles into your wine rack for right around $10.

Until next time…throw your paws in the air, and wave them like you just don't care…

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Sun Also Rises...and so does my glass.

Spanish wines, among many other sensual pleasures of that great nation, became well known to the world in the writings of Hemingway. ("This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don't want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste." -- The Sun Also Rises) And Papa certainly had good taste. In addition, since October is Hispanic Heritage Month -- Spanish wine becomes a natural fit for this week.

Spain is the world's third largest wine producer. Spain has a long, storied history of wine production -- but only in the last ten years or so have these wines really started to gain a solid foothold around the globe. The Iberian Peninsula has historical evidence of wine dating to around 1100, but if you're a Biblical scholar, Noah supposedly planted the first vineyard 5000 or so years ago.

"Modern" winemaking came to Spain in the 1850's and 1860's. As longtime readers will astutely recognize, that was the approximate time of the phylloxera outbreak in France. (For my new readers -- phylloxera is a species of louse that wiped out huge portions of the European vineyards over 150 years ago. Jump back to my article on
Chilean wine to read more.) French winemakers, fleeing the devastation of our little pest, crossed the Pyrenees in droves, bringing grapes and know-how with them. Spain's vineyards were largely spared until the turn of the century, when phylloxera eventually made the migration across the mountains. The vineyards made it through in much better shape, and the techniques were in place to craft wonderful wine. In the last 30 years, Spain has also benefited greatly from the technological Renaissance that has done so much for South American wines.

Spain started producing a great deal of quality, easy-to-find, easy-on-pocketbook wines in the last ten years or so. The winemaking tradition in Spain was to age wines for a long time in oak before bottling -- creating a number of mediocre wines where the subtleties were overrun by the wood. Spain has been quicker on the trigger to release wines in recent years -- although Spanish wines do tend to improve with a little aging. If you see "Crianza" on a bottle of Spanish wine, it's been aged at least two years. "Reserva" indicated three years aging, and "Reserva Especial" is at least five years old.

Spain has two major red varietals -- Tempranillo and Garnacha. Garnacha is the same grape as Grenache, which is the backbone of many of the best French Rhone wines. Also from France comes the nomenclature -- as many Spanish wines are named after their locale. The best known region for French red is Rioja, although Peñedes is another big producer. Navarra and Campo de Borja are also up and comers. Spanish reds are often earthy and fruity, and you'll rarely find a red that doesn't at least have some wood with the tannin.

Among whites, the two most common varieties are Albariño and Verdejo. Albariño creates very perfumey, wonderful whites -- much like viognier. Verdejo is a very interesting grape -- like a less-acidic sauvignon blanc with some pepper thrown in. It's often blended with sauvignon blanc. There is also a wonderful sparkling wine, cava, made in Spain -- but I'll come back to that later.

Historically, Spain is best known for Sherry. Sherry is a fortified wine (often upwards of 20% alcohol) that's made from a neutral grape brandy added to wine after initial fermentation. Another fortified wine from Spain is Madeira -- which was used by George Washington to toast the Declaration of Independence. These wines certainly deserve further study…

For this week, three wines -- ranging in region, variety, and color.

Artazuri 2005 Garnacha -- As I mentioned, Garnacha is the same grape as Grenache -- backbone of many of the big earthy French wines. In Spain, however, Garnacha delivers a very different character. Rather than the earthy smell of this varietal's French cousins, the Artazuri, grown in Navarra, comes straight at you with bright, fruity character. The nose of this wine is wonderful -- while there's a touch of earth, the overwhelming scent is of black cherries and plums. The medium body of this wine is peppery and fruity -- zinfandelesque. The finish is long and a little spicy, with the cherry flavors from the body hanging around a good while. While I probably wouldn't pair this with a steak, barbecue would go fantastically well with this, as would, I think, a curry that's got some potatoes or other earthy veggies in it. This wine would be extremely food friendly, so you can't go wrong -- as long as the food has a little bit of heft to it. And for $9-11, anyone at a party would be happy with this. I also think you could buy several and easily hold on to this for six months or a year, and you'd really have something.

Borsao 2005 Rosé -- I've been long overdue for a rosé review, and I figured I might as well look at one since there's such good red grape stock here in Spain (and since I enjoyed my last Spanish rosé
so much). Borsao's rosé is made from 100% Garnacha grown in the Campo de Borja region. This dark pink entry greets you with a floral nose that includes some easy peach scents. This wine's gentle first taste is very light and includes more of that nice ripe fruit. The taste lingers briefly before spreading into a long, citrusy, slightly spicy finish that includes some hints of cinnamon. While this would be a perfect summer wine -- as the weather starts to turn colder, pull out some Mediterranean style recipes and do some roasting: whether it's a slow-cooked chicken, an earthy chickpea and eggplant dish, or some marinated pork chops. There's a braised monkfish recipe I once put together that I think would go wonderfully here, and you can find a bottle of Borsao for between $6-8. A good, flexible entry.

Las Brisas 2005 Blanco -- Might Las Brisas is from the Rueda region, and -- while it's getting a little late in the year to discuss a wine this light -- keep this one in your memory banks until next year rolls around and the weather starts warming up and you can kick back outdoors again. The lively Las Brisas is one of those aforementioned blends of Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc, and has a lot of the recognizable character of the latter. The grapefruitiness of a sauvignon is certainly present on the nose, but it's somewhat mellower, balanced by a mangoish scent. It's a very light wine -- a little tart and lemony, but the acidity mellows quickly into a fruity peppery body and a strong, flavorful finish. This would be a wonderful aperitif or poolside wine, but if you have any kind of fish dish -- I had this with a baked cod -- you're going to be in business. You could also consider a cheese tortellini, or most any kind of Spanish dish that doesn't involve beef or pork. Probably plan to spend $8-10 on this very easygoing, happy wine.

So lift a glass of Spanish wine this week, and until next time…Arriba!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Merlot -- The Badly Bruised Grape

Frequent readers of The Vine will know that I'm a movie person. After recounting my trip to Sonoma for folks I know last year, if I'd had a nickel for everyone who said, "You mean like in Sideways?" I'd be able to quit my day job. (And, of course, Sonoma's not like Sideways -- Santa Barbara is…which, by the way, is where I'm heading soon…)

Whatever a person's opinion of the movie, one fateful line stands out -- Miles' immortal rant just before his double date: "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ng Merlot!"

And thus began the decline of the merlot grape in the United States.

Merlot's been grown in France since the 1st Century, but was cultivated as a major varietal starting in the 1800's. Some of the most famous Bordeaux's in the world use merlot as a major grape. (The 1990 Chateau Petrus is a merlot that currently goes for about $1700 a bottle). Merlot is also a very common blending grape. If you get a cabernet sauvignon from just about anywhere, chances are that there will be at least some merlot mixed in. Merlots are generally drunk fairly young, as they don't have as much tannin as many grapes.

Before Sideways, merlot was a major force in the U.S. wine boom that arguably stemmed from the research into the "French paradox" of diet in the early 1990's. This "paradox" refers to the beneficial health effects of red wine on heart health -- and refers to France's relatively low rate of heart disease, considering the high level of fat in the French national diet. Consumption of red wine was posited to be a major factor. Between 1992 and 2002, merlot production in the United States jumped 500%. Then came the movie in 2004 -- and sales of merlot in some places dropped by as much as 40%. (And pinot noir rose up to take its place.)

So what's the deal with merlot, anyway? Why the awful reaction of our buddy Miles?

Honestly, I have no idea. Merlot is a very "accessible" red wine. By this, I mean that it's a red wine that can go with most any food; has enough body and flavor to stand up on its own; is interesting enough for connoisseurs, but isn't so dense, dry, and complex that someone couldn't just pick up a glass and say, "Hey, that's yummy!" Merlots tend to be of medium body, not overly acidic or tannic, have a nice fruity taste, and go exceptionally well with chocolate. If a person is just getting started with red wine, merlot is another excellent place to start.

Merlot is finally starting to recover from "Sideways Shock" -- as people remember what great value and flexibility they can get from this wine. While it has not yet regained mid-90's popularity, when everyone under the sun was ordering merlot, it's again become a player in the market. If you've shied away from the merlot aisle in your local wine store because you hear Miles whispering in your ear, allow Mike to bring you back.

Our tastings for this week are three American merlots:

Three Blind Moose 2003 Merlot -- This California wine is very much what people would consider a "standard" merlot. Three Blind Moose is a perfect example of the "catchy label" wine -- since most wine buys are at least somewhat on impulse -- and merlot is a good "fallback" wine for people who just can't decide what they want. This cute label ("No sunglasses required!") wraps around a wine with a fairly strong nose of dark berries and wood. The body of the wine, though, isn’t tremendously assertive. The Moose give you a soft, fruity, easy to drink merlot, with some smooth berry and plum flavors and very gentle tannins -- not very dry at all. The finish is very mild -- there's a touch of spice at first, but that quickly fades back into the berry flavor. If you were going to do basic pasta with red sauce, chicken with spicy rice, or a steak salad, you could get away with this easily at $6-9. It would also be a nice wine just to sit and sip at the end of the day with some dark chocolate.

Twin Fin 2003 Merlot -- If you'd like to see a nice contrast -- pour this side by side with the Three Blind Moose -- they're right at the same price point. This is another solid offering from California. Twin Fin is squarely in the "fun wine" category, but this straightforward wine has plenty of backbone. There's a light nose of blackberries and plums -- much less fruit forward than the Moose. Twin Fin has a strong medium body with just a hint of tannin at the first taste. This opens up into a big straightforward fruit -- black cherries -- as you drink it. There's much more tannin and earthiness in this wine than you'd expect from most merlots, and a little oak flavor comes through on the finish. Honestly, if I'd tried tasting this one blind, I'd have guessed that it was a light-styled zinfandel, not a merlot. The tannins and fruit would make this a winner with grilled foods (lamb chops would be fabulous), London broil, pastas with meat sauces or meat balls, eggplant parmesan, or stews -- think earthy flavors. I had this with a roasted eggplant and red pepper soup, and it was marvelous. At $6-9, you get an excellent value for a solid wine. Of the two, if you pressed me to choose, I'd say I enjoyed the Twin Fin more, simply because I like a heartier wine.

Hogue "Genesis" 2002 Merlot -- Hogue has produced a very decent, inexpensive product for a number of years. When I saw they'd released a "reserve" merlot, I wanted to give it a go. They've named this wine "Genesis" in honor of the planting of their first vineyard over 30 years ago -- it's not a "Wrath of Khan" reference. Oftentimes, a "mass-market" winemaker will produce a reserve that honestly isn't all that different from their normal product. Hogue doesn't disappoint in that way. Genesis has a nose that could easily be mistaken for a cabernet sauvignon. It's almost smoky, with some raspberry notes to it. One would expect to get hit with a very dry, complex wine on the taste -- but Genesis throws you a bit of a curveball. The wine is peppery, like a zinfandel -- but without as much fruit as a zin, or most merlots for that matter. The berry flavor is much more subtle than the previous two wines. Instead, you get a flavor of dark chocolate -- and it would pair beautifully with anything containing chocolate or coffee. The finish is lasting and a little dry, with a return of the smoke you get on the nose. This one's a little more expensive -- probably more like $11-14, but what you'll get is a merlot that will almost certainly shock folks who think merlots aren't worth drinking anymore. Pair this up, as I've mentioned, with chocolate -- or even a good piece of grilled beef or pork, and you're going to get raves.

Finally, returning to our poor friend Miles -- one of the inside jokes of "Sideways" surrounds Miles' most prized bottle of wine -- his 1961 Cheval Blanc. This is the wine he ends up drinking at his local burger joint during his "moment of clarity." In reality, the '61 Cheval Blanc is comprised largely of two grapes. One is merlot. The other is cabernet franc -- the other varietal he mercilessly slams in the film.

Until next time, drink your f***in' merlot, and be happy about it…

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Raise your Riesling steins...

Images of Oktoberfest -- overflowing beer steins, overweight men in lederhosen, Chad Johnson leading the chicken dance, and…wine?

Yep. No celebration of Oktoberfest would be complete without a discussion of German wine -- at least not in this space.

German wines are easy enough to understand. You start with one word and go from there:


There are other grapes grown in Germany -- a couple of white varietals, and I've seen a rare bottle of rosé or red from that corner of the world. None of them, however, have the tradition or quality of the Riesling grape grown in the valleys of the Rhine and Mosel rivers.

Until recently, German wines have been marketed sparingly to American consumers -- partly due to the steadfast German tradition of not including a translation guide to the labels for we U.S. monoglots. While some German wineries have started doing "easier to understand" labels, we need a quick German vocabulary lesson in the interim.

Most people think of Riesling as sweet wine. A good number of them are not. German vintners are very helpful -- they give you a fair idea of what you're getting before you open the bottle. If you see the lone word "Riesling" on a bottle, you can be certain that the wine will be somewhat sweet.If you see "trocken" on a bottle -- this means "dry." Many trocken Rieslings taste almost like sauvignon blancs. "Halbtrocken" means "half-dry" (or "demi-sweet" if you prefer). Almost all Rieslings have pronounced fruit characteristics -- apple, pear, and citrus are most common.

German wine law also requires a vintner to identify the quality and style of wine they're producing. There are two major classes of German wine -- Tafelwein (table wine), rarely seen in the United States, and Qualitätswein (quality wine), which includes almost everything you'll find in a typical store. Within the Qualitätswein designation, there are two sub-classes. I won't go into the German, but the labels include their respective abbreviations: QbA and QmP.

Any German wine from one of the thirteen major wine regions (the four top ones are Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and Pfalz) that's ranked as "basic quality wine" will be labeled QbA.

QmP wines, though -- are the really good ones. They are given one of the following designations in increasing level of quality: Kabinett (usually light and semi-dry), Spätlese (medium style, with more body and a more intense flavor from a little extra ripening of the grapes), and Auslese (full-style, made from hand-picked grapes that are well-ripened). There are other designations above these three -- but they're going to be out of the price range of the Vine. If you get one of those three designations, you'll have a solid product.

As a side note, Germany is the world's foremost producer of Eiswein (Ice Wine) -- which is a delicious dessert wine made from grapes left on the vine until they freeze. Definitely worth trying sometime.

Riesling may be one of the world's most food-friendly wines. While Riesling makes a good aperitif or dessert wine, you can pair one with just about anything. A Spatlese halbtrocken will go with just about anything -- from chicken to pork to roasted vegetables to smoked salmon, or real wine killers like asparagus. I've done a Riesling with cream of Portobello mushroom soup, and it was fabulous. Drier Rieslings are probably the best pairing on the planet for spicy Thai, Chinese, or Indian dishes -- especially if they're loaded with ginger or curry. About the only thing I absolutely wouldn't have a Riesling with would be a good cut of steak. But if you want goulash or stroganoff, you'll be in business.

I'm going to taste three Rieslings here. Doing a side-by-side-by-side tasting would prove fascinating, as you can easily taste the difference among different "preparations" of similar grapes from a relatively small area.

Schmitt Sohne 2005 Riesling Spätlese -- One of the more inexpensive Spätleses that you'll find on the market, Schmitt Sohne's offerings are easily recognizable by the smiley-faced sun on the front of the bottle (not to be confused with "Mr. Smiley" of the former Kentucky license plates). Schmitt Sohne is the largest German exporter (in terms of volume) to the U.S. As I mentioned, a "Spätlese" definition means that the grapes ripened a bit more, meaning more sugar in the grapes, a higher alcohol content, and generally a more complex flavor. The nose of this is a bit less pronounced than many regular Rieslings -- with a combination of apple and wood. The wine hits your tongue with a sweet punch of apples and honey, which then quickly turns citrusy in its very full body. The taste (nectarines?) melts easily into the finish of the wine, which is long and tart -- with just a hint of spice at the very end. A good strong cheese and some apples with this wine would make a fabulous dessert -- made even better by the fact that you paid $8-10 for the bottle. A great way to end a meal or start a picnic.

Bollig-Lehnert 2004 Riesling Kabinett -- A good, solid choice if you're going to be looking for a Kabinett. Inside this traditional green tapered bottle lies a very respectable wine. The nose of this wine carries extremely clean fragrances -- a little fruit and springtime. The first taste of the wine is very gentle and fruity, but not overwhelmingly sweet. (I'm surprised that this didn't get a "halbtrocken" designation.) The overall flavor is full of peaches and honey -- full bodied and long lasting. The finish ends with a quick uptick of tartness. The wine is extremely complex -- you may find yourself tasting slightly different things from sip to sip, which isn't uncommon with Riesling. Foodwise, this may be one of the most flexible wines you can run into. It's not so sweet that you couldn't have it with a basic chicken or pork dish -- but this would work extremely well with peppery food. Mexican food, especially a spicy enchilada sauce or any kind of salsa, would be a nice complement for the fruity backbone of this wine. It'll set you back $11-14, but if you need an extremely flexible wine -- for instance, if you just don't know what you're having for dinner, or you're out and you want a bottle for several people, this is a great choice.

Selbach 2004 Riesling Dry -- As Riesling continues its resurgence among American consumers, savvy German winemakers are making some changes in their labeling. Much as some of the French producers now put the grape varietal on the bottle to increase their market share in the States, so are German winemakers giving monolingual Americans a little more of a hint as to what they're drinking. A few years ago, this wine would simply have been labeled "trocken." You'll recognize the Selbach immediately by the multicolored, stylized fish on the bottle. The wine has an initial clean scent of pineapples. Once it hits your tongue, though, you know you've got a completely different animal than our previous two selections. This wine is very dry, with fresh lemon and tart apples on your tongue. While the wine is quite full-bodied, it's not nearly as fat as the other two wines I've mentioned. The finish is light and crisp with a lingering tartness. This wine is really best enjoyed with food. Dry Rieslings tend to be less complex than their cousins, and they're really a bit too dry by my tastes for either before or after dinner. But if you have this with a meal -- anything loaded with garlic and spice will be balanced exceptionally by this wine. As you've undoubtedly picked up, I love Thai cooking -- and this wine seems to be created specifically as a food pairing for lemongrass and fish sauce. Sushi also works exceptionally well with the Selbach. It's been a favorite of mine for quite some time. $8-11.

Until next time -- Zum Wohl!

Friday, September 22, 2006

"To cellar, perchance to dream..."

Wine cellar.

Wonderful words -- evoking an air of distinction, privilege, and, most importantly, a ready store of really good vintage for on-hand consumption. Realistically, these two words are a fantasy for most of the wine drinking world, and they should be -- especially for those of us who don’t want to break the bank.

As you probably already know, wine's natural enemies are heat, light, and exposure to oxygen. If Sherman set the Wayback Machine to the early days of winemaking, someone discovered that wine kept in a cave lasted longer and the flavor often improved over time. Underground, wine is obviously protected from light, stays at a constant temperature, and the stable humidity prevents the cork (or other stopper) from drying out, thus keeping the wine nice, cozy, and unoxidized until brought out and opened. Many of us try to emulate the "cave" with what we have handy -- usually a hall closet or basement. We may even install or build a rack or two to keep the bottles organized. Alas, we're generally doomed to failure.

Wine, like a Florida retiree, is extremely sensitive to temperature change. The optimal storage temperature for wine is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows the proper chemical reactions to take place, producing the flavors we love so much. Once a wine gets warmer, the chemical reactions speed up. This not only ages the wine more quickly, but it can throw the balance of flavors seriously out of whack. At a constant 70 degrees, a wine will age between two and eight times faster than at 55 degrees. At 90 degrees, a wine will age between four to fifty-six times faster. If your wine is in the kitchen by the stove for a month in that cutesy little wrought iron wine rack that looks like a French waiter, it can be as if you've had it for 24 years.

I can already imagine some of you thinking, "Great! I can buy some wine that needs to be aged, keep it in a warm place for a month, and I'm all set." Not so fast. Higher temperatures increase the speed of chemical reactions, but wide swings in temperature, especially in heating, have a nasty effect on wine flavors since the reactions and oxidations get out of whack. With such variations, you're going to end up with vinegar faster than you can say "gewürztraminer." The "hall closet" trick usually fails here as well -- since very few closets are temperature-regulated. (Put a thermometer in your closet and check a few times if you don't believe me.)

So -- what do we do to hang on to wine?

A few possible options: first, you could petition your local zoning board to let you drill 20 or so feet beneath the foundation of your home, and build yourself a wine cave. That should be sufficiently deep to avoid freezing, while maintaining consistent temperature and humidity. Just watch the sewer lines.

Second, you could purchase a wine refrigerator. Serious wine collectors do this -- cheap ones will run you several hundred dollars, but they do an excellent job keeping wine in a proper state indefinitely. You can also rig a spare fridge to maintain a relatively constant temperature (I do this for homebrewing lagers) -- but even then, you probably wouldn't want to keep your Lafite '61 in there. Typical refrigerators allow swings in temperature of 8-10 degrees, which will keep wine in the right ballpark – but for really long term storage, it’s problematic.

Third, and most practically, tone down your expectations and drink your bloomin' wine. If you've got a relatively cool, relatively stable temperature anywhere in your domicile -- even if it's not perfect, you can still “cellar” wine. But, if you're like me, temptation eventually overcomes you. However, if you can stay your hand for a year or so, you can work wonders with relatively inexpensive wine – since many of them are shipped to market prematurely (and new vintages can be bargains, since they have no track record), and nine months or a year of aging will improve some wines markedly.

Some rules of thumb -- less tannic wines don't cellar as well, so pinot noir, merlot, Beaujolais, etc -- these should be drunk relatively young. Cabernets, zinfandels, shiraz/syrah -- these you can have around for awhile. White wines generally don't cellar well -- but there are a few exceptions which I'll touch on below.

Here are a couple of inexpensive numbers you might want to consider picking up half a case of and forgetting about for a little while:

Pietra Santa "Sacred Stone" Master's Blend Old World Style Red -- The reference to "Old World" in this overly-nomenclatured wine is to the winemaking techniques of the Rhone valley in France. Sacred Stone is an American version of one of a Rhone red. Many of the wines made in the Rhone are blends -- syrah is usually the backbone, but there are usually other grape varietals floating around in the mix. There’s an appellation (WineSpeak for “type of wine”) called Chateauneuf-de-Pape (French for "Chateau of the Pope" -- this wine bears the papal seal on the bottle) that can contain up to 14 different grapes. Rhone reds are very earthy, and a wine drinker first trying one of these can be knocked back rather harshly by what could be termed a "mild nose of old armpit." Many Rhone wines taste best to me with a little decanting. The Sacred Stone is a Rhone wine with a dose of deodorant. This wine is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel, and a few other grapes. It has a nose of earth, plums, and pepper. When you taste it, the Zinfandel comes at you very strongly. There's a powerful fruit flavor with surprisingly mellow tannin considering the nose of the wine. The finish is peppery with a nice lingering fruit flavor and warmth. I think you should be able to find this one for $8-11, and you could certainly (as suggested by the label) cellar this one for a year or two and end up with what could be an extremely good value. Any kind of earthy vegetables, meats, shepherd's pie, etc. would be absolutely top notch with this one. I think this is a fantastic wine for the price.

Root:1 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon -- The official wine of The Wizard of Covington, Root: 1 is another South American entry into the world of inexpensive wines. I focused on Chilean sauvignon blancs, but their growths of cabernet continue to improve year by year. However, this particular wine has a bit of history. As I mentioned in the earlier installment, Chile is the only place in the world where original ungrafted (never attacked by phylloxera) European vines grow. Root:1 is a product of these original "old vines." If you're a fan of fruitier -- rather than more tannic -- cabernets, you'll really enjoy the Root:1. The nose of the wine is dominated by blackberries a little vanilla. The flavor of the wine is cherries combined with berries, berries, and more berries. There are some very soft tannins as you taste it -- they become much more pronounced on the finish, which is gentle, slightly coffee-flavored and dry. The wine is rich, and would stand up nicely to sirloins, grilled mushrooms, and rich sauces of just about any type. It reminds me more of a zinfandel or a blend than a straight cab. While this is a very good wine now for $10-14, with aging of six months or a year, the berries and tannins should balance nicely, and more complex flavors will undoubtedly come forward as it becomes more "cabby."

Mirassou 2005 Riesling -- Under most circumstances, there's no way in tarnation you'd want to cellar a white. Most whites are made to be drunk young – usually within a year of release. The basic idea for most whites: buy, chill, open, serve, repeat. However, there are a couple of varietals you can cellar if you wish, and, in some cases, you'll end up with a superior product. This offering from Mirassou is case in point. This is a wine that was probably released a little too early for its own good -- but vintners that mass produce wine generally don’t worry about finding the perfect release date for a wine. They are on a schedule, after all. The typical sweet fruit nose of a Riesling isn't as pronounced with this particular vintage. The taste is a little sharp on the tongue, almost spicy -- and a little dry for a "regular" Riesling (not to be confused with a "dry Riesling"-- which is another animal altogether, and we’ll touch on that next week). The finish is much more similar to a gewürztraminer -- again, a little spicy, although there are some nice pineapple undertones. The fruit, though, doesn't stand up as much as it should. If you put this one away for a year (after buying a few at $7-8), the spicy nature will surely mellow, and the fruit will become more pronounced, leaving you with an excellent wine to pair with either fruity desserts (apple pie would be outstanding) or spicy food like Thai.

Until next time, drink no wine before its time…unless of course you do.