Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Back to the Boot

I'm still getting the hang of Italian wines.

When "in the know" wine folks talk about the "finest wines in the world," the debate generally centers on Italy and France. Wine connoisseurs talk about Italian wines' unmatched complexity, the wonders of aging for decades, the depth of flavor, the sheer artistry that is the ancient craft of winemaking in Italy.

The first time I tasted Barolo, the Italian "wine of kings," I nearly choked. THIS is supposed to be the best wine in the world?" Granted, I've come a long way. As time's gone by, I've worked on my learning curve of appreciation for the -- shall we say -- interesting flavors of Italian and French wine.

Also, like many people, I usually considered Chianti (as I did at the Vine's early roots) when ordering or making Italian. Of course, there's a lot more to Italian food than the familiar Tuscan recipes we often see, so don't paint yourself into a corner -- all due respect to Chianti, of course.

When the SPinC and I did our first Italian wine and food pairing cookfest, we discovered many Italian wines are either very affordable or very expensive -- there's not a lot in between. Finding wines that are decent, drinkable, and affordable is a challenge. In the $10-15 range, there's surprisingly little. You've got your very inexpensive wines, and then you've got your garden variety Barolo, which will run you $50 or more. (Although I found a very decent Barolo at Trader Joe's for $25 that was divine with a roasted lamb steak.) Research is necessary.

When I think about buying Italian wine, I keep a few simple things in mind:

1) Italians are foodies. They have been for millennia. They're also fiercely territorial. If you ever get into a food conversation with just about anyone of Italian heritage, they'll tell you the food on "Nonna's table" was REAL Italian. As I've mentioned before, people make wines that go with whatever they happen to be cooking -- so if you know the menu, choose accordingly. Italian wines, like French wines, are generally named for the place they're made, so let that be your guide.

2) Just as Italians made wine to complement the food they were making at the time, they also made their wine to go best with food. I have yet to run into many Italian wines that I would have as a "drink at the end of the day" wine. Put them with the right food, and squisto!

3) Decant, decant, decant. Italian wine is built to age, so when you open it, you need to let it wake from its slumber. A good rule of thumb for the wines we'll be looking at is to crack the bottle 20-30 minutes before you pour.

Here are a few alternatives:

Ruffino 2005 Orvieto Classico ($7-10) -- Orvieto is in Umbria, one of Tuscany's neighboring provinces. Umbria is entirely landlocked, about in the "calf" of the boot. Foodwise, Umbria is known for pork products like salami and prosciutto, lots of vegetables, and earthy additions like mushrooms and truffles. The city of Orvieto is known largely for its white wine. One of the first wine books I really looked at was by Kevin Zraly. He said, "The Italians traditionally do not put the same effort into making their white wines that they do with their reds…and they are the first to admit it." But there's money in the global white wine market continues to globalize, and the Italians are taking advantage.

The Ruffino has a nice nose -- light and floral with a scent of honey. It's fruity, slightly citrusy, but not incredibly dry -- in the ballpark of a rich Sauvignon Blanc. It had a refreshing finish with a little citrus tang and smooth flavors of melon. Like Sauvignon Blanc, this would be a very food friendly wine. Foodwise, think about light pork or rich chicken dishes, meaty fishes, or even salads. The acidity in this wine would be able to stand up to things like asparagus.

Pala Triente 2004 Cannonau Di Sardegna ($11-13) -- That's "Sardinia" to we barbarians. I've heard a lot of people confuse Sardinia and Sicily. Sicily is the island perpetually getting booted. Sardinia is the island halfway up the boot off the Eastern coast. While the cuisine of Sardegna is steeped in fish, much of it is hearty and savory, both with meat (roast boar on a spit is a national tradition) and vegetables (stews and soups with earthy vegetables and beans).

This wine is largely (95%) made from the Cannonau grape, known to the rest of the world as Grenache -- the other 5% is other native varietals. Interesting to note -- this is a macerated wine. Maceration is the same process the French use to make Beaujolais. The result is a very interesting red. When poured, it's extremely light and the nose is very fragrant. It reminds me of a Beaujolais cru. The flavor is very Italian -- earthy, with berries calling for food. The finish then turns a little bit dry. We had this with a spicy chicken chili. You could certainly have it with a red sauced pasta, aged cheese, or fish in a nice sauce.

Michele Chiarlo 2004 Barbera D'Asti ($12-14) -- First off, the "Asti" does not refer to sweet champagne here. It's a town in the Piedmont province in northernmost Italy nestled against the Alps (Piedmont translates as "the foot of the mountains"). The Piedmont produces much of the very expensive wine I mentioned earlier. The nebbiolo grape is used to make Barolo and Barbaresco, the most prized wines of Italy. Fortunately, some of the "lesser" wines are more than adequate. Piedmont cooking is very earthy. Truffles are a major export of the area. Lots of cream, butter, garlic, and cheese find their way into the meals. Olives and rice are also produced in quantity.

I find the Barbera produces a wine like a fruity, amped Cotes-du-Rhone. There's a nice nose on this wine. It's a slightly alcoholic, very fruity, floral experience. The flavor is full of bright fruit -- like a cross between Beaujolais and a Cotes-du-Rhone. The finish is easy and fruity -- cherries and blackberries. We tried this with a pasta with an olive tapenade and seared tuna -- it was wonderful, just as it was with some chocolate covered dried fruit we had. Pair it with just about anything that includes some of the above ingredients and you'll be just fine. Also, like Beaujolais or Cotes-du-Rhone, you could drink it on its own.

Until next time…buon' appetito!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Greetings to Greensboro!

In the midst of putting Wine School together, I completely forgot to announce the Vine's latest branch. So, without further ado, I'd like to welcome in Yes Weekly of Greensboro, NC. They're the first willing to give me a run weekly. Many thanks to them and a hearty welcome to the good folk from the Gate City. Cheers!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Wine School! (Class #8 -- Riesling)

Riesling -- the crowd pleaser.

In my CinWeekly interview, I mentioned Riesling as my favorite wine of the moment. I mentioned it's "the most flexible," meaning one can find a Riesling to pair with almost anything. Since I love to cook and love to eat even more -- it's a natural.

I wasn't a big fan of whites for a long time. I'd drink them, sure -- and it was nice to have something cold around the house, but I chilled them almost to freezing and basically used like light beer. Once I started learning about wine, I grew to tolerate them. I thought most were too tart or too oaky. I discovered good Riesling and my eyes opened. Riesling was my gateway white.

Among U.S. wine drinkers, "Riesling" meant "syrupy-sweet German wine" for a very long time. As I discussed in my Riesling column, that's an unfortunate stereotype. While the grape is of German origin and the most expensive Rieslings are dessert wines -- the majority of decent Riesling out there isn't going to pucker your mouth. If you'd like a primer on deciphering Riesling, refer to the "Raise Your Riesling Steins" entry and you'll get a good idea.

For our tasting, I decided I'd try to put my advice to first hand application. On my birthday, I did a wine tasting for my family. The cast of characters:

  • My father and mother -- neither of whom are big drinkers. They have the occasional glass of wine, but rarely have any around the house.
  • My sister and brother-in-law -- also occasional wine drinkers, but the usual drink of choice at their place is Michelob Ultra.
  • The Sweet Partner in Crime.
  • My 95 year old grandmother who almost never drinks -- except for an occasional glass of Manischewitz.
They were faced with:
  • Pierre Sparr 2004 Riesling (France) -- $11-14
  • J & H.A. Strub 2005 Riesling Kabinett (Germany) -- $13-15
  • Salmon Run 2005 Riesling (New York) -- $11-14

I'd rather my party did most of the talking.

We started with the Sparr. My grandmother's initial comment was "This is sour. I like sweet wines." My mom and sister thought "bitter apple" was a good description of it. The most colorful description was from my brother in law: "It's kind of got an odor in your mouth. It tastes like…I'd say…rubbing alcohol smells. Not that I drink rubbing alcohol or anything."

Rieslings like the Sparr from in the Alsace region are traditionally very dry. Part of this is due to the terroir, but most Alsatian wines are in this style. French Rieslings also improve with a little age, so this wine would have been very different after two or three more years. These wines have some fruit to them, but they're generally much more acidic than other Rieslings. I remembered Alsatian wines generally go well with shellfish. We still had some shrimp cocktail from lunch, so away we went. The wine's acidity worked extremely well with the shrimp. Everyone liked it. I'd imagine this would be a great choice at a raw bar.

Next, the Salmon Run. My grandmother liked this one "better than the first one." My brother-in-law thought it was "pleasant" and he said it "didn't have any nasty taste." My mother said it was a wine you could easily "drink too much of on a sunny day." My dad said only, "Fuller, fruitier." My sister said it was "tangy, but sweet."

American Rieslings tend to be middle-of-the-road. While they're not quite sweet enough to handle heavy food, they are good everyday wines. Most of the U.S. Rieslings you'll see will be from California, but the Finger Lakes region of New York is now cranking out some very good versions. Finger Lakes Rieslings generally have enough acidity to handle a broad variety of foods, and they're very easy to drink. If you're going to a party and don't know what to bring, this is a safe bet. With this particular wine, you'll get a lot of pear and apple flavor and a long, smooth finish.

Finally, the Strub. A German Riesling Kabinett tends to be on the sweet side. My grandmother indicated the wine "smelled and tastes sweet." My brother in law said the body tastes "like when you eat a bunch of sweet candy…you get that thick taste in your mouth." My mother thought it would be too heavy for food. My sister said it tasted like pears. My father reclined, saying little, contemplative. Perhaps the accumulated effect of wine, cognac, and Kahlua got to him.

This wine is very German. It would go very well with traditional Rhine-style cooking. Spaetzle, beef & pork sausages, and sauerkraut would be a natural pairing. It could also accompany anything spicy. Thai, Indian, Chinese, Mexican -- any of them would work well. As the SPinC put it: "Anything that would go with beer would go with this."

So ends our tour of the big six. A friend of mine contacted me a couple of months ago -- he told me about the "century club," a group of people who pride themselves on tasting 100 different varietals. I think that's a noble goal, but let's be honest. Unless you've got a lot of time and money, probably 90% of the wines you drink on a regular basis will fall into one of these six.

I hope you've enjoyed this, picked up some good information, and you'll feel a little more comfortable when faced with a wine list. I invite you to share of your own observations in the comments.

Cheers, everyone!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Wine School! (Lesson #7 -- Syrah/Shiraz)

Syrah -- the juicy grape.

Our final red class focuses on Syrah. (Or Shiraz, if you prefer -- same grape.) Of the three reds, syrahs are biggest and fruitiest. Now, I use "biggest" to mean the fullest body -- not necessarily the strongest flavor. Think of Chardonnays. The Kendall-Jackson had the fullest body, but the Alamos had the strongest flavor.

I had a misconception about Syrah. I was under the impression that the French cultivated Syrah, and after transport to Australia, gained its more common name, Shiraz. Nope. The French actually changed the name. The grape's name comes from the city of Shiraz in Southern Iran, the possible origin of winemaking over 7,000 years ago.

A French crusader brought the vines back to Europe and withdrew to his home for the remainder of his life to cultivate it -- thus earning the wine made from French Syrah its first appellation -- "Hermitage." In the 1830's, the grape was brought to Australia, where it regained its original name and eventually became the most-planted grape Down Under. American growers tend to name their wine depending on which style it most resembles. "New World" styles are usually called "Shiraz."

Syrah creates wines that tend to be fruity (and I mean dark fruit -- like blackberries and plums) and peppery. Syrah is the backbone grape (along with Grenache) of many wines in the Rhone region of France. The wine usually tastes "heavier" and goes well with big foods. Oh, and chocolate! For my money -- I personally think that the flavors of syrah complement chocolate better than any other varietal.

Syrah is considerably less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, and so doesn't generally age as well. Some vintages age better than others, but, generally, Syrah really comes into its own after about 3-4 years.

During a springtime of craziness, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I ended up with a free weekend that turned out to be unseasonably cool. Not willing to waste a perfect opportunity, we decided to cook up a few different pairings for the syrah. Our lineup was:

Estancia 2003 Central Coast Syrah -- $9-11
E. Guigal 2004 Cotes du Rhone -- $11-13
Penfold's 2003 Koonunga Hill Shiraz -- $9-11

We cracked the Estancia first and gave it a swirl. Smelled like smoke and alcohol, tasted like spiked grape juice. Much like the cabernet, decanting was necessary. However, once you open a syrah, you're committed. Even if you vacuum-seal a bottle, the big fruit taste fades rapidly, so plan to finish within 2-3 days, tops.

After about 20 minutes, we tried again. First up, the Estancia. After decanting, the smoky scent was still there, but much more gently. Instead, a strong dark berry aroma took center stage. The full body of this wine was loaded with big flavors of blueberry. The finish was fruity and was the least dry of the three. The finish is best described as "smoked blueberries."

Moving on to the Guigal. Cotes-du-Rhone is typically a blend of Syrah and Grenache. These are the "generic" wines of the Rhone region -- usually because their grapes are from all over the area, not because they're inferior wines. I find them to be good "starter" wines if you want to start tasting French wines. They don't have as much of the "Old World Funk" I mentioned before.

The Guigal's nose was light, with some berries and flowers. Since it's a blend, the Grenache made the wine lighter than a straight syrah. The taste was less fruity as well -- instead yielding more of an earthy flavor. The finish was somewhat dry, "leathery," and slightly chalky. While the description may not sound appealing, Cotes-du-Rhone really shows its colors when matched with food, like many European wines. And it certainly was drinkable on its own.

Finally, the Penfold's. This Australian number also had a fruity nose, but with a leather and vanilla scent backing it up. The body was second in line here, with a smoky flavor and a taste like figs or prunes -- not sweet fruits as with many Syrahs. The finish was full of vanilla and pepper.

We tried different recipes on three consecutive nights. With a warm, spicy lentil dish, the big winner (not surprisingly) was the Guigal. Earth goes with earth, and Cotes-du-Rhone is tailor-made to pair with root vegetables and legumes.

We made a slow-cooker dish called tzimmes the next night. Tzimmes is a Jewish casserole, made by slow-braising a roast with vegetables and fruit, seasoned with honey and cinnamon. So, while meaty and earthy, there's a lot of sweetness. The Estancia was the best pairing here. If it had been a simple pot roast, I'd guess the Guigal would have been the call.

Our final meal was mustard-coated lamb with rosemary-garlic potatoes. The Estancia is not recommended here. The other two wines ran neck and neck, but the Penfold's took the title by a nose. The peppery flavor of this wine meshed really well with the mustard and the richness of the meat.

We discovered with chocolate that the Guigal isn't built to handle dessert. The chalkiness comes out, but not much else. The Estancia really brings out the cacao flavor -- the deep bittersweetness of the bean, almost like coffee. The Penfold's was fascinating. The flavors went through transformations, with varying, shifting intensities of fruit, tartness, and bitterness. We felt as if we were tasting the component flavors individually.

One last note -- you may see a varietal called "Petit Sirah." While a distant cousin, it's a very different grape than Syrah -- one that yields wines that are even bigger and much more tannic.

One lesson remains. The final white -- Riesling.

Class dismissed.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"First Saturday in May" -- bonus entry!

If you can't identify the reference, you're clearly not a Kentuckian. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- but y'all need some educatin'...

The Kentucky Derby is held the first Saturday in May each year. This year is the 133rd running at Churchill Downs in Louisville. (However, if you want to really experience Thoroughbred racing, drive an hour and a half to the east and go to Keeneland in Lexington during Spring and Fall meets. You'll understand…)

The Kentucky Derby is:

  • The best horses in the world.
  • The most amazing hats you'll ever see.
  • 100,000 of your closest friends on the infield.
  • Burgoo.
  • Mint juleps.

The backbone of a mint julep, of course, is bourbon. One of my favorite columnists is Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle. He once made a somewhat disparaging comment about bourbon, specifically Maker's Mark, in one of his columns, and he was a big enough man to do some research about Kentucky's contribution to the world of spirits and understand he was mistaking bourbon for ordinary whiskey. (He also gave me some fabulous scotch recommendations -- but that's another story.)

So what's the difference? For a whiskey to call itself "bourbon," there are several criteria it has to meet -- relating to production, aging, composition, and so on. The process is exacting -- so don't let anyone tell you that Jack Daniels is bourbon. It's not. And should be treated as such.

Bourbon is a sipping drink. Good bourbons are best either neat (LiquorSpeak for "poured into a glass, mixed only with air"), on the rocks, or cut with a splash of water. The first two are the way I usually take mine.

I did a taste test with four "midrange" bourbons. The really inexpensive stuff, for my taste, isn't good for much of anything except doing shots and baking. (That's your Ancient Age, Ten High, Beam, Evan Williams, et al.) The expensive stuff is…well…expensive. But here are four that you'll likely find on any liquor store shelf.

Maker's Mark -- You can't miss Maker's. The distinctive bottle shape. The red wax. The font on the label. And, of course, the flavor. Maker's uses a higher percentage of winter wheat as a main grain in the mash, which produces a very smooth, distinctive flavor. Makers has a nose that's slightly smoky and has a strong vanilla component. The flavor, even neat, is smooth and balanced with a nice warmth at the end. Unlike some bourbons, the "warmth" doesn't catch in your throat. There's a slight smokiness, too. I think it's a very pleasant drink. $20-26 for a fifth.

Wild Turkey 101 Proof -- Ah, the "Kickin' Chicken." In the interest of full disclosure, this was the first alcohol that I ever…shall we say…overimbibed, and it turned me off bourbon until I was an older and wiser man. Wild Turkey is the transition between the cheap stuff I mentioned above and the better grades of bourbon. Still, it's pretty common, so I'll include it. Tasting it after the Maker's was a shock. The scent of alcohol on the nose is much, much stronger. The nose is also "heavier" and smokier. The taste is hot and smoky. Now, if you cut it with a splash of water, you're going to have more of an easy time, and there's some nice vanilla and caramel flavors that I didn't expect. Still, it's not my favorite, even after all these years. $15-23 for a fifth.

Woodford Reserve -- Among Kentucky bourbon drinkers, there's a definite split. There are Maker's drinkers. There are Woodford drinkers, and rarely the twain shall meet. There's good reason for this -- apparent when you taste it. Woodford has a wonderful nose -- almost floral, with scents of cedar and vanilla. It's a smooth drink -- and is much more sweet than the others here. It's not as smoky, but to my palate -- not nearly as flavorful as many other bourbons. Don't get me wrong, it's good stuff -- but it's not going to be as interesting flavorwise. Woodford Reserve is also made by Brown-Forman, the company that brings you Jack Daniels, Herradura, Canadian Mist, Early Times, Fetzer, and others. $20-29 for a fifth.

Buffalo Trace -- Buffalo Trace is one of the more recent entries into this price point of bourbons. The nose is very clean, almost nearing the scent of scotch. It's almost "mossy" -- not quite peaty like a scotch. The taste, however, loses the little caramel in the heat of the alcohol. Cut with a little water, however, you get a smooth vanilla taste as the smoke and alcohol get balanced out a little bit. $16-25 for a fifth.

Again, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm a Maker's drinker by habit, as any of my friends will tell you. Of the bourbons of this type, it's my favorite -- especially in winter during basketball season. As for Derby time, I also think Maker's is the best backbone for mint juleps. Many people swear by Woodford for juleps, but since Woodford is already sweet, I think adding the requisite simple syrup overpowers the flavor with sugar. (I'll toot my own horn…my juleps are peerless.)

If you're ever lucky enough to find yourself in the Bluegrass, you owe it to yourself to take the road trip down the bourbon trail. You can tour the Maker's, Woodford Reserve (actually, Labrot & Graham), and Buffalo Trace distilleries -- and for bourbon aficionados and turistas alike, seeing the history and learning about the spirit of the spirit is well worth the drive. (Although be forewarned, Loretto, KY -- where Maker's is distilled -- is a dry county…)

Also, slipping out of Vine character for a bit -- there are some premium bourbons worth splurging on. Some of my favorites are the "B's": Blanton's, Baker's, and Basil Hayden's. If you can find a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle's 15 year, I'd put that up against the finest scotches. And then there's a whiskey not technically a bourbon, but well worth a try -- Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. Trust me…the stuff is sweet music. Bernheim was created by the grandfather of Miss Judy, one of my dear friends.

For those of you who haven't yet recognized the First Saturday in May as the holiday it truly is -- give some of these a try. You'll start to understand. And if you don't, you'll have fun trying.

Until next time -- place your bets…