Friday, August 25, 2006

White Chile

Quick Quiz: Name the country in the Western Hemisphere with the longest tradition of wine production…

Considering I’ve already given away the answer, if you answered “The United States,” “Peru,” or “Trinidad & Tobago” – you may stand in the corner for the duration of this installment. The observant readers have already fixed their collective gaze south past the Equator to Chile – the nation stretching thinly down two-thirds of the western coast of South America.

Chile's wine production began in Spanish missions 450 years ago. "Modern" winemaking in Chile began in the 1820's when traders brought the first vinifera (WineSpeak for the major grape varietals: cabernet, chardonnay, syrah, et al) vines to the valleys and downslopes of the Andes. Chile’s climate is very "Mediterranean" -- and the grapes loved the soil. Unfortunately, Chilean winemaking tools lagged far behind the country’s potential. For over 150 years, wines were made with 19th century technology.

In the late 1980’s, the Chilean wine industry took advantage of new trade partnerships and domestic freedoms after the oppressive Pinochet regime left power to overhaul the entire industry. With modern techniques in place, wine production exploded. By the late 90’s, Chile had become one of the world's vital centers for wines of excellent value.

Interestingly, some of the world’s oldest surviving grapevines are in Chile. How’d that happen?

Let me introduce you to a little pest called the phylloxera aphid. Our little friend loves to visit vineyards. Not for the wine or the grapes – for the vines. Phylloxera loves him some grapevine roots. He’s native to North America, and the grapevines in this country are used to the presence of this tiny louse, so he does basically nothing to them. In the mid-1800’s, however, Phylloxera was overcome by a travel jones, and he decided to take a European Vacation.

Once arriving in Europe, our lovable little pest loved those French vine roots so much that widespread fungal infections followed, and over 40% of the original grapevines in France were destroyed – and every vine in Europe was at risk. The European wine industry was saved by quick-thinking horticulturalists who grafted those phylloxera-resistant vine roots from North American vines onto European plants, thus ending the epidemic. Chile's relative isolation and climate never gave phylloxera a haven to flourish. Without phylloxera as a natural enemy, those 1820’s European vines flourished in South America. Even today, Chile is the only place in the world where some of the original ungrafted European vines still grow.

Chile is best known for three varietals – cabernet sauvignon, carmenere (thought by many, me included, to be a regional merlot -- but it's an entirely different varietal), and sauvignon blanc. I want to focus on the last, as I think these wines really stand out in that price range.

Sauvignon blanc is the second most popular white wine consumed in the U.S. The top of the list, of course, is chardonnay – selling seven times as many bottles annually. Sauvignon blancs are crisp, generally citrusy (often grapefruity), and best drunk young. They’re much lighter than chardonnays and considerably more refreshing to drink in the heat of summer and early fall. SB’s tend to be straightforward, relatively uncomplicated wines – but there’s enough variation among the different producers that one can find a bottle for just about any occasion.

Here are a few Chilean sauvignon blancs catching my recent attention:

Peñalolen 2005 Sauvignon Blanc -- the bouquet on this wine is extremely light. Faint scents of flowers join delicately with mandarin oranges on the nose. The Peñalolen isn't quite as dry as many sauvignon blancs. While there's some of grapefruity flavor, there's some honey and pineapple to balance it. The finish of this wine is a little spicy and very long -- you can actually taste a little tannin, which is extremely rare for a white wine. This well-rounded flavor makes this a fantastic summer food wine. For dinner, I'd probably pair this one with a shrimp pasta, bruschetta, or grilled fish and veggies. It’s also light enough to simply have as an aperitif (FoodSpeak for “a drink before dinner.”) This wine runs between $9-11, and is probably the best SB I’ve had recently.

Duo 2005 Sauvignon Blanc-- another gentle bouquet on this wine from Alto de Casablanca winery-- one might even say that it's "pretty." A nice pear scent goes right along with fresh flowers to start. The first taste of this one is much more tart than the previous selection -- much more along the lines of a classic, grapefruity sauvignon blanc. The tip of your tongue will get a peppery note along with some lime. The finish is "not quite acidic" -- what some wine reviewers refer to as "flinty," although there's still some decent fruit hanging around. This one is a very crisp sauvignon -- much more of a "refreshing" wine than a true food wine. You could certainly pair it flexibly with a chicken or fish dish. However, I was pleasantly surprised when, by chance (and by need – it’s all we had open!), we paired it with a spicy Thai chicken & green bean stir fry. I usually drink dry reislings with spicy food, but the Duo balanced it almost perfectly. For people who like crisp sauvignon blancs, you could do much worse than this one at under $10.

Errazuriz 2005 Sauvignon Blanc -- Lots of "z's" in the name should bring us good luck, right? (Mental note to all of you -- don't look for help from me at Keeneland if you want to keep your shirt…) This sauvignon blanc starts you off with a gentle combination of lemons and apples. At first taste, the wine falls neatly between the above two in terms of the overall citrusy flavor. The main flavor I got was of fresh lemons (although not sour, per se). There's also a mild berry flavor that goes along nicely with the citrus. The finish is long -- with a fruity roundness and a little citrus "bite." This one goes for between $8-10. This wine would go excellently with any light meal with chicken, fish, or vegetables -- and would go well with wine-killers like a Caesar salad or asparagus.

For me, one of the best attributes of Chilean sauvignon blanc is the consistency. I've seen bottles of Chilean SB for as little as $4-5. Even at that price, you're still going to end up with a decent bottle for use at the pool or on a picnic. Good stuff for our last few weeks of heat.

Until next time -- Salud y amor!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

From the Mailbag

I start this installment with a hearty thank-you to my readers -- both those who have known me and my interest in wine since well before the Naked Vine first took seed (and I think the DJ at Radio Free Newport can probably remember the precise conversation) to the new friends that I've made along the way. To all of you, I say, heartfelt, that I'm glad you're along to raise a glass or two with me.

My wine knowledge is hardly encyclopedic. The most educational side effect of writing this column is learning about new, useful wines. I've had a number of suggestions from fellow lovers of The Grape, and I want to share their selections.

Alice White 2005 Lexia -- Vine reader Ginny M. from Raleigh, NC says, "One that you might want to try is Alice White, Lexia. It has a pleasant sweetness and an incredible fruity aroma. [My husband] hates it, but I think it is divine to drink in the hot weather." Much like Viogners, this wine seems to divide couples. Many men I've spoken to find these varietals too sweet for their tastes. I, of course, am comfortable enough in my masculinity to embrace such a wine…

The Lexia is a strongly fragrant white wine -- stronger even than most Viogners or Rieslings I've tried. Lexia is made from Muscat grapes -- one of the oldest grape varieties. Muscat is well-known for producing wines with a perfumey nature. This grape varietal is best known for use in Italian dessert wines and as a blend in some French wines. The Alice White starts you with a pungent bouquet of mangoes, flowers, and honey. The first taste is very sweet -- more honey than sugar. This sweet broadens into a slight tartness accompanies by apricot. The finish is surprisingly more acidic than one would expect. This wine is sweet enough to be considered a dessert wine -- but could also stand up to spicy Thai or Indian curries quite nicely. If you like a sweeter taste, you should try this decent entry into the pool wine category. However, if you're more into tart, dry whites, you're better off looking elsewhere with your $5-8. (Or, at the very least, farther down the column.)

La Vieille Ferme 2003 Cotes du Ventoux -- Vine reader Dan R. from Eugene, OR offered up this suggestion: "Our favorite cheapies this year have been two Rhone reds: Abel Clement Cotes du Rhone and La Vielle Ferme. Both can be found under $8, and both are genuinely good and not overly simple. Notably, for inexpensive wines, both open up a lot with breathing. Abel Clement, in particular, deserves at least an hour out of the bottle."

Unfortunately, I was unable to track down the Abel Clement, but the La Vielle Ferme was readily available and quite decent. As Dan mentioned (as well as with many French wines) the La Ville Femme is better if you crack the bottle a half hour or so before drinking. The earthy characteristics of many European, especially French, wines can take some getting used to. These aromas can overpower many a palate, but a little decanting (WineSpeak for "letting a little air get to the stuff") can ease the initial shock. One other note: "Cotes du Ventoux" is the region the wine was made, not the grape. The naming standard for French wines can be a little confusing, and I'll touch on that in a later column. This wine is a blend of largely grenache and syrah grapes.

The La Vielle Ferme greets you with a fat smell of freshly turned earth and blackberries. The first taste is a bit tart, with some deep fruit flavors with the earthiness. The finish is somewhat smoky and dry. Like most French wines, lamb, root vegetables, grilled meats, veggie chili, and most stews with beans (cassoulet being the quintessential example) would be excellent. You can take this little trip to the Rhone valley for about $6-8.

Veramonte 2005 Sauvignon Blanc -- Vine reader Mike B. of Mariemont, OH, gives me this suggestion: "Here's a couple of suggestions for wines that you might want to review/consume sometime. I think they are both great values and great tastes.

"Akanena 2005 Chardonnay (Chile) The label says "carefully handpicked" but I don't know if it refers to the grapes or the bottle…I thought it was great -- light for a Chardonnay with that citrus tone that I like.

"Veramonte 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Chile). Currently my favorite SB, lots of grapefruit flavor."

South America, Chile in particular, is one of the rising stars among the wine making ranks. Among whites, Chile specializes in sauvignon blanc, and their chardonnays are improving quickly. [I'll likely do a more complete column on Chilean wines in the upcoming weeks -- as they're some of the best values going at the moment.] I was unsuccessful in a quick search for the chardonnay, but the Veramonte is available everywhere. The wine has a pleasantly light nose -- gentle citrus fruit and wildflowers at first sniff. Like many sauvignon blancs, the taste is lively and tart -- strong grapefruit and pineapple flavors immediately spring to mind. The finish is gently acidic and dry. The Veramonte is an extremely pleasant summer sipper, pairing scrumptiously with any light chicken dish, Caesar salad, grilled fish, or even a slightly spicy Chinese dish -- think Hunan. The Veramonte runs $7-9, and is well worth the price for the end of summer.

Hawk Crest 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon -- Vine reader McGrupp from Charlotte, NC gives us: "In the past three days I've had a $50 bottle, a $20 bottle, and a $12 bottle [of cabernet] and I found them all to be roughly the same level of quality. This leads me to believe I need to be focusing on that $12 option." The $12 option he mentioned was Hawk Crest.

Many of the high-end wineries, especially California wineries, produce "second label" wines. These wines are generally very good, since an elite winemaker isn't going to produce "ordinary" wine. To the value-conscious consumer, these are some of the better quality/value combos you'll find. Hawk Crest is the second label of Stag's Leap in Napa, California. A bottle of Stag's Leap cabernet sauvignon will set you back close to $50, while the Hawk Crest settles in between $12-15. Learning about second labels almost always yields bargains. Again, more on those later.

As for the Hawk Crest itself -- the wine has a soft, smooth nose of plums, vanilla, and wood. Like any good cabernet, it's a mouthful when you taste it. You get waves of big black cherry flavors and a fair amount of tannic bitterness -- not overwhelming, since it's balanced by the continuing vanilla taste. The finish is long and dry, with a little fruit hanging on. I imagine a ribeye, a baked potato, some steamed broccoli, and a big ol' glass of this one.

Again, thanks so much to everyone -- keep the suggestions coming!

Until next time -- skaal.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"A Census Taker once tried to test me..."

Early in the running of 1991’s Academy Award-winning Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lecter gives us one of history’s most famous food and wine pairing. Come on now, everyone sing along. You all know the words:

“…I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

If you remember – Lecter was a brilliant man (for a fictional character). Patron of the arts. Gourmand. Wine aficionado. So, why a Chianti? You know -- straw-wrapped bottles you see hanging near the ceiling in Italian restaurants that usually end up as a candle holder of some sort? Chiantis are known to be cheap, uncomplicated table wine. Why would a man with Lecter’s palate select one for his meal?

Thankfully for us, neither Thomas Harris nor Jonathan Demme decided to have Lecter explain his selection – instead focusing on…well…advancing the plot. Since we’re not trying to solve a murder, we have the luxury of re-examining this rather misunderstood wine. (Side note: a college friend of mine was almost denied entry to this film after responding to the ticket seller’s, “Which movie?” with “Silence of the Lambs – and it’s not a movie…it’s an instructional video.”)

First off, Chianti is not a grape. It’s a province in Tuscany in Central Italy. Chianti is primarily made from the sangiovese grape. (The roots of the word “sangiovese” mean “blood of Jupiter”) The Chianti region has been producing this wine for over 700 years. Chianti has been known for years as a classic "food" wine -- while just OK on its own, this varietal really comes to life if you pair it with some tasty vittles.

Over the last 30 years or so, the Italian wine industry has set more exacting standards for their wines – leading to higher qualities among relatively inexpensive selections. You might also hear some discussion of “Super Tuscan” wines These are high quality wines generally blended from sangiovese and grapes like cabernet sauvignon – producing big, powerful, tasty (and expensive) wines.

Chianti is an easy wine to understand from a quick glance at the label. There are only two things that you need to look for. First off – the bottle's origin. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” is the more generic wine – the grapes can be a blend of grapes from anywhere in the Chianti province. A “Chianti Classico” indicates a specific sub-region of the Chianti region. Classico is the most well-known and generally produces the highest quality in Chianti. (There are also six other lesser-known regions) Chianti Classico is also sometimes designated by a black rooster on the neck of the bottle. Second, there's aging. If “Riserva” appears on the label – that particular bottle has met a specific governmental aging requirement. For Chiantis, the wine must be barrel-aged for a minimum of three years to be considered a "Riserva."

In terms of price (generally), regular Chianti will be least expensive – then Chianti Classico or Chianti Riserva – then Chianti Classico Riserva.

Oh, and those wicker-wrapped bottles – the straw is a throwback to earlier days of glassblowing. Wine bottles were once globe-shaped. To prevent breakage during shipment from village to village, the winemakers would weave straw cushions, known as fiascoes, around the bottles. The tradition stuck around for awhile. In present times, Fiasco-wrapped bottles are generally a curiosity and are usually reserved for cheaper Chianti. Since we’re on the subject, we’ll start with one:

Banfi Bell'Agio 2004 Chianti -- The wickered bottles in your neighborhood Italian restaurant may well be this particular wine.. The nose of this wine is surprisingly fruity and gentle -- like ripe plums, but on your tongue -- whole new ballgame. The wine starts out sharply tart. It's a very light-bodied wine, almost watery. Like many sangiovese-based wines, this wine has a fair amount of acidity, but the acidity turns almost lemony as you drink it. The finish is very dry and chalky. The easily recognizable fiasco gives this wine a visual aesthetic and many people have this wine as their first Chianti. For this reason, it's easy to see why many people are turned off at first drink by this varietal. Interestingly, Banfi doesn't even put their name on the wine label, nor do they advertise it on their website. You can get a bottle of Banfi for between $8-11. Unless you want a centerpiece, I think you can find other inexpensive Chianti that will work for you.

Piazzano "Rio Camerata" 2003 Chianti -- Again, another regular Chianti -- this one's slightly more expensive…but pay the extra twelve bits or so. The Piazzano has a light cherry nose with what smells a little like spearmint or menthol. The flavor, again, is a bit tart, but is balanced with an easy earthiness and some more of that cherry flavor. The finish turns dry pretty quickly, but it's not nearly as sharp as the Banfi. There's also a slightly fruity finish to it, which makes the whole experience pleasant. Pasta primavera pairs nicely with this, as would a baked chicken, basic marinara, or minestrone soup. This one is more in the $10-14 range.

Gabbiano Chianti 2003 Classico -- The difference between "standard" Chianti and Chianti Classico becomes evident in the first seconds after you get a whiff of this wine -- the scent is considerably more complex. The cherries on the nose are much more pronounced, along with some smoky wood. The tartness of this Chianti is balanced nicely with a big dose of fruit -- berries and cherries. Unlike the previous two, the typical chalky finish of Chianti is balanced with a little sweetness -- which makes this a much stronger wine for bigger sauces. Roast pork or beef, risotto in mushroom sauce, or an aged cheese and crusty bread would be perfect here. You're looking at $9-13 for this.

Tiziano 2001 Chianti Riserva -- Tiziano makes a decent standard Chianti. However, on further aging, the difference in the wine is remarkable. Just the appearance is strikingly different -- the wine is much darker and heavier-looking than standard Chianti. The big fruit nose on this wine has a pronounced earthy character. You'd probably want to uncork this one and let it breathe for at least a few minutes before drinking. The flavor is big and tart, but the aging largely removes the strong chalky flavor on the end -- leaving you with a lingering fruit and spice. If you ordered a steak, pasta Bolognese, or any kind of meat or pesto dish -- you've got a winner here at $8-10, a steal for a Riserva.

So, returning to our old friend Dr. Lecter – liver is very pungent, and standard Chianti probably wouldn’t stand up to it. If you’re going to be dining on census taker any time soon, I would probably recommend a merlot. However, if you’re feeling traditional and you must have Chianti – find a big Chianti Classico Riserva…and a good attorney.

Until next time…Salute!

Monday, August 07, 2006

"No Sniffers, Please."

So reads the liner note stipulation on Lou Reed’s…ahem…"experimental" 1975 Metal Machine Music. On this, Sweet Jane's father and I have a major difference of opinion. Sniffers are absolutely welcome at The Naked Vine. Sniffing is encouraged, to be perfectly honest.

In fairness, Good Mister Reed is talking about his then-preference for mainlining amphetamines and I'm talking about tasting wine -- so I guess you could truly say that context is everything. I also hope my missives are easier to handle with your lunch or morning coffee than sixty-four minutes of feedback and distortion. (Lou's week still beats our year, however.)

What's does sniffing have to do with wine, you ask? Well…just about everything.

Taste is delightful, isn't it? From the cool sweetness of ice cream to the smooth indulgence of dark chocolate to the myriad spices of Asian food to the unique flavor of a lover's kiss, we love to drown ourselves in taste. However, your taste buds can only discern four distinct sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. There's conversation about a fifth taste -- called "umami" -- found in MSG and things like aged cheese -- but the jury's out on that one. Everything that you've ever tasted is a combination of those four (or five) sensations.

Scents, however, are a different story. The average human being can discern between two and three thousand different scents. Skilled experts can discern upwards of 15,000 different scents. Flavor, then, is a combination of scent and taste. When you taste wine -- you're not just looking for which of the four (or five) tastes are in play. Think I'm kidding? Hold your nose and take a sip from a wine glass and see what you get. Or think about the last dinner you had during high summer allergy season. Every flavor in anything you’ve ever eaten or drunk is an amalgam of taste and smell. The greatest variation in wines lies in their scents. Thus, wine tasting is, more accurately, largely wine sniffing.

Many of you have probably seen a wine drinker swirling a wine, then burying their nose in the glass. This little ritual may look like the affectation of a wine snob, but honestly, this method is the best way to get a real sense of a wine’s flavor. When you swirl a glass of wine (and it does take a little practice to keep from slopping it everywhere), the alcohol in the wine gets exposed to air and evaporates. The evaporating alcohol carries esters -- organic compounds found in the wine -- into the air with it. Many esters have very distinctive scents. When you swirl a glass of wine, dip your honker in, and take a big sniff, your olfactory nerve senses more of these happy little carbon chains -- giving you a stronger dose of the wine's scent. When you taste a wine, I find it best to hold the wine in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing, allowing it to coat your tongue completely. The evaporating alcohol takes the esters into your sinuses while all your taste buds activate. You can then marry those four (or five) tastes on your tongue to the scents of the wine, giving you true flavor.

The wines I've chosen for this installment are varietals with very distinct scents, in case you want to practice…

Chateau St. Michele 2005 Gewürztraminer -- The first time I tried a gewürztraminer, I thought, "Cool. Wine with an umlaut." Thankfully, this particular varietal doesn't conjure Aqua Net nightmares and scary flashbacks of Bulletboys covers. Gewürztraminer was originally cultivated in the Alsace region of France and spread from there to Germany. 'Traminers tend to be extremely fragrant, but they often don't "taste like they smell." This entry from the Pacific Northwest is no exception. You can't miss the melons and fresh flowers on your first sniff. From the sniff, you'd then think this would be a syrupy sweet wine, but there's a pleasant level of dryness to the finish and some real spice -- particularly cloves and cinnamon. It's certainly not a "sweet" wine -- but it's got more sugar to it than, say, a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. If you've got some spicy Szechuan Chinese or Thai, snag a bottle of this for $9-10, and you'll be dining well. (And you pronounce it Gee-VERTZ-truh-meaner)

Smoking Loon 2005 Viognier -- Much like the malbec in my first entry, the French traditionally used Viognier (pronounced VEE-yawn-yay) primarily as a blending grape. Over the last five or six years, Viognier has become one of the hotter varietals in the white wine market. Viognier tends a friendly, fragrant wine -- which leads to its current popularity. Much like a partner on a Saturday night date, a wine that smells nice makes the evening pass much more pleasantly. The Smoking Loon Viognier (I first thought that a local friend of mine might have been the winemaker, but I digress…) has almost a perfumey scent when you give it a swirl. I smell fresh pears and lavender -- like someone's giving you aromatherapy. Again, like gewürztraminer, it's extremely flavorful but not particularly sweet. This viognier is a little acidic with a nice fruity apricot flavor. Very refreshing on a warm evening, or if you're a smoked salmon fan. About $8-9. Scrumptious!

Cline 2005 Zinfandel -- I promised I'd get back to zinfandel. I don't drink a lot of cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel this time of year. When the heat index is in triple figures, usually the last thing I want is a huge red -- but zinfandels are great examples of very fragrant red wines. This Cline Zin starts with a very strong scent of blackberries and black licorice. On your tongue, this wine gives you a quick burst of cherries and blackberries, but quickly turns tannic and dry with a little bit of pepper. The finish is long, peppery, and dry. This is the type of wine I'd usually pick up in the late fall, to be perfectly honest -- but if you're going to have a steak and you want an inexpensive zin, this one isn't a bad call. This is a wine that I'd be interested to pick up next year. If you're feeling ambitious, buy two bottles. Drink one now and write down what you think. Hide the other one in the back of a closet. Next year about this time, pull it out and try it. I guarantee it's going to taste like an entirely different (and probably much better) wine. If you break it out in public, your friends with will think you brought a $30 bottle to the party. But for now, you can spend around $11 and have something quite tasty.

Until next time -- L'Chaim!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

By the way, which one's Pink?

When my s.o. (girlfriend? partner? Is there a better term when you’re in your 30’s and shacking up?) read my last column, she came across my throwaway line where I disparaged white zinfandel. “Afraid of the pink, are we?” she said.

I’m not afraid of the pink – pink wine, that is – I’m just judgmental. I freely admit, for the longest time, I’d see people around me in a restaurant ordering pink wine and feel a little rush of pride that I had better sense. I don’t like white zin for the same reason that I don’t like fruit wines – I look for a giant smiling pitcher to crash through the wall hollering, “Oh yeahhhhhh!” after the first sip. To me, white zin is wine for folks who…well…don’t like wine.

One of the strangest white-zin-related things I ever saw was on the patio at Pompilio’s (for non-residents of Cinci-tucky – Pompilio’s is a divine neighborhood Italian restaurant up the street from the homestead) – a man ordered a pitcher of ice, a carafe of water, and a carafe of white zin. He poured the wine into the pitcher, then filled it the rest of the way with the water – I still haven’t figured that one out.

Over the years, I developed a real distaste for anything resembling white zin. Then Renee Koerner, the person who taught me the most about wine, uttered a simple sentence on a lovely spring day in 2005:

“Remember…Pink is not a flavor.”

And thus, my mind and palate were opened to the world of rosé.

Rosé should never be confused with white zin. Rosés are made with the same process and attention to detail as red wines – except that the grape skins are removed from the fermentation container after a couple of days. The skins of grapes give red wine its color, so the wine ends up a light pink. The skins also give red wine richness – so rosés tend to be lighter in body and slightly sweet.

A quick word on fermentation. Fermentation is a glorious chemical process in which yeast is added to a solution containing sugar. In simple terms, yeast eats sugar, farts carbon dioxide, and pisses alcohol. Tasty, no? The type of yeast, the speed of fermentation, the temperature, the sugar concentration, and sundry other fermentational factors affect the flavor of wine.

White zin starts in a similar fashion to rosé, but the winemaker not only pulls the skins out, but generally ferments the juice much more quickly, and leaves a good deal of sugar in the wine to mask any “imperfections” in the taste. The result, in my estimation, is a salmon colored, syrupy mess. OK, OK – some people legitimately enjoy drinking white zins – and I know that those are good people at heart. Really. Honestly. I just think there are better options if you want something sweet and wine-related…

Rosés are great summer wines. They’ve got a little more “oomph” than many whites, so you can use them with any number of foods, but they’re still very refreshing when you’re in the midst of a season when you feel a twinge in your head and wallet any time you hear your a/c compressor kick on.

Les Jamelles 2004 Cinsault -- Strawberry fields forever! Cinsault is best known as a French blending grape. France actually plants more cinsault than cabernet sauvignon. As for this wine, light and fruity to the nose, Les Jamelles is much more on the "white" end of the rosé spectrum. The taste is very much like a sauvignon blanc -- a little citrusy and a lot of strawberry. It finishes with a little crisp bite on the back of your tongue -- like you've finished a really good grapefruit. Perfect for sitting by the pool, or with a light fish or chicken dish. Hits right around the $8 price range.

Muga Rioja 2004 Rosé --. Riojas are classic Spanish reds made from mostly the tempranillo and garnacha grapes. Riojas tend to be big, fruity wines, and a rosé made from those grapes follows that lead. This winery's name splits neatly into two syllables that tell you all you need to know about this wine's flavor: Mu-Ga -- Melon/Grapefruit. Once the wine warms up a bit (you do not want to drink this ice cold) -- the initial scent of this one is a ripe melon. This stays with you through your first sip, but the wine widens to a grapefruity taste, and then stays just on the sweet side of strong citrus through the taste. If you've got any kind of pork or jerk chicken, go with this one. Muga will set you back $9-10.

Folie a Deux 2005 Ménage a Trois Rose -- The sweetest of our selections. I'd tried some of the other Folie a Deux blends (and they're from Napa, not France) -- and I'd enjoyed their red and white. This rosé had a marked berry nose, but tastes like strawberries and peaches (minus some sweetness) when quaffed. The finish is much less sharp than the other two, making this the quintessential pool wine. If you're laying out during the rest of the summer, chill this down and bring it out when you head outside -- let the sun warm both you and the wine a bit before you start drinking. You also could also pair this with some grilled shrimp if you wanted. This one’s right around $8-9.

Before we depart the pink -- I must report that I have found a use for white zinfandel. While I have no doubt that it would also work wonderfully in a hummingbird feeder, an ambitious picnic-goer can make a killer sangria with it. Mix a bottle of white zin with a ½ cup of peach schnapps, a shot of triple sec, a couple of tablespoons of sugar, a couple of cinnamon sticks, and some sliced fruit. Chill that well in the fridge, and just before you serve it -- throw in a 10 oz. bottle of club soda. Enjoy!

Until next time -- Santé.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Naked Vine sprouts

The August 2006 issue of Gourmet magazine has a sidebar – “Best Wines for Grilling.” Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy that magazine. I leaf through it every month. I’m an amateur foodie – and I love new ideas. That said, when the cheapest recommended selection on a rack of pinots to accompany your freshly flame-caressed breaded pork chop is close to $30, something’s amiss.

I love good wine. And I’m willing to splurge from time to time – but my basement doesn’t look like the wine cellar at DaVeed’s. I generally want something I can enjoy but also actually afford on an average salary. Truth be told, that’s not difficult – but guidance helps. A friend of mine whom I’ll shamelessly plagiarize, once said, “The trick isn’t finding a good $50 bottle. The trick is finding a good $10 bottle.”

I agree wholeheartedly. Thus, The Naked Vine is born.

If you’re someone who doesn’t want to worry about “notes of cigar box and elderberry” when it’s 90 degrees and you’re trying to keep your grilled corn from burning, or if you aren’t in search of a wine with the complexity of a Martin Scorsese film as you’re kicking back at the end of another crushing day at the office, my hope is that you'll find something useful here.

According to the California-based Wine Institute, of the 165.1 million cases of wine sold in the United States in 2005, only 11.5% of that total was in what was considered the "ultra premium" category -- upwards of $14 a bottle. However, those wines dominate most of the wine reviews you'll read. Perusing the major epicurean magazines (Gourmet, Food &Wine, Wine Spectator, etc.) a reader is hard pressed to find more than two or three bottles discussed under that price.

My goal is to offer you a couple of suggestions for everyday consumption each week or so. Everything I select for us will be under $15. I’ll be looking for wines that are easy to drink, easy to get to know, and generally easy to find. I won’t be writing exhaustive tasting notes. My aim isn't to pick up Paul Giamatti’s now-legendary “flutter of edam cheese.” I just want to give you a broad idea of what to expect – so take my analysis with a grain of salt (or a cracker).

This, logically, brings us back around to those first paragraph chops. To start, here are a few pretty flexible wines that hold their own with just about anything you want to put on the grill. Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are the most common varietals to drink with grilled meats. (note: "varietal" is WineSpeak for "type of grape used in wine") I’ll leave them behind for now. I’ll come back to them when the weather cools a bit.

Castle Rock 2005 Pinot Noir – Thanks to the already referenced “Sideways” – pinot noir prices have gone through the roof in the last couple of years (counterbalanced by the plunge in demand for merlot – which is a subject for another day...). Inexpensive, good pinots have virtually disappeared from the market. When one comes along, it’s smart to enjoy it while you can. Got seasoned chicken or a nice pork chop – or even marinated, grilled tofu? Try this one. Castle Rock reminds me of a slow walk in a cherry orchard, fragrant and silky. I get a little plum in a flavor that’s “thicker” than a lot of pinots – perfect for the backyard. Nice and mild. A $10-12 bottle.

J. Lohr 2003 Riverstone Chardonnay – another winner at right around $10-12, The Lohr chardonnay – crisp, sweet nose – some apple, perhaps. A little sweet when it first hits your tongue, but that sweetness settles out quickly into the buttery taste and citrus that this chard is known for. The long oaky finish would go exceptionally well with grilled fish, chicken, pork, or veggies. Like most chardonnays (and most whites, for that matter), it shouldn’t be ice cold. Unlike the beer in your cooler, it’s best to let this wine warm up a little bit. Cold compresses the flavor of wine – you get the full flavor if it’s around 50 degrees or so.

Altos 2005 Malbec – Got meat? Love steak, ribs, or other big juicy slabs that hearken back to Neanderthal man? Altos Malbec, a great addition to the wine market from Argentina, is the perfect wine for you. Argentineans love big meat dishes – a friend of mine who journeyed there recently had a chance to dine on a 20 oz. filet. Malbec was used as a blending wine by the French and Spanish – but rarely stood on its own until something magical happened when the vine was imported to the Andes. While not as big as a cabernet sauvignon or a zinfandel (not white zinfandel, mind you) – this wine comes at you big and fruity – pepper and ripe berries. This wine has a nice amount of tannin (which is that not-quite-bitter taste you get from red wines), which allows it to accompany anything that’s been drawn over the coals. Altos tastes a little chocolatey, a little peppery, and gives you a nice additional dose of that berry taste. I’ve seen Altos for around $8 a bottle, which I believe is an absolute steal. Truth be told, this has been my favorite “grillin’ wine” for the last two summers.

Until next time…prost.