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.