Friday, August 24, 2007

The Rainbow Nation

South Africa's had a rough go of it.

They've dealt with apartheid, an illicit diamond trade, and the jailing of Nelson Mandela. They were the ostensible home country of the bad guys from "Lethal Weapon 2" and their national rugby team can never quite match New Zealand's on the pitch. Life's not easy on Antarctica's doorstep.

Since the end of apartheid in 1990, South Africa gradually became more welcomed on the world stage. South African music and culture have made their way towards global recognition, as has its wine industry. South Africa currently stands as the 8th largest wine producer in the world.

Wine from South Africa is at the stage Chile and Argentina's were five years ago. When these wines first started appearing, they were more curiosities than anything, and prices were high. As the import pace picked up, and prices are now squarely in Vine range for many bottles.

South Africa grows all the major wine varietals but is best known for their Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc among white wines, and a cute little critter called Pinotage on the red. Pinotage is an interesting hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault. The latter is a blending grape used widely in France and makes a darned good rosé. Combined, their offspring produces a wine that's spicy, a little earthy, and medium bodied. Pinotage is best paired with basically any kind of game meat -- so if you've got venison, rabbit, boar, ostrich and the like -- you'll find a friend in South Africa.

Here are a couple of possibilities for you:

Mulderbosch 2006 Chenin Blanc -- Mulderbosch Winery is located in Stellenbosch, one of the prime wine growing areas in South Africa. Mulderbosch is especially known for Sauvignon Blanc -- they're some of the best around. They're also a little pricey for us, but I'd probably splurge on a bottle based on my experience with their Chenin Blanc. This is a very fresh, crisp wine. There are some nice floral and citrus scents that lead you into a surprisingly full body for a Chenin. There's a little spice to go along with a tart flavor, and a finish that was a little oaky, actually. If you'd given this to me blind, I'd have thought it was a Sauvignon Blanc, and I'd have it with any food that Sauvignon would pair with. $12-14.

Brampton 2005 Unoaked Chardonnay -- Brampton is the second label offering from Rustenberg, one of the older wineries in South Africa. The founder of the winery was German, but I would have guessed French. This Chardonnay is very much along the lines of white Burgundy. This is a very crisp chardonnay, full of peach scents that also head for the palate. There's also a nice little mineral and spice taste on the back end. This would be a wonderful chardonnay for a hot day or with some sweet corn, summer squash, or basically any summer vegetable. $9-11.

Ken Forrester 2004 Stellenbosch Petit Pinotage --A really nice example of what you'll find with a Pinotage. The nose is an interesting combination of berries and smoke -- not scents that you'll often find together. One review I read said they smelled "bacon." (I didn't get that, personally.) The flavor is soft and medium bodied, with an earthiness to it that will remind you of a French Syrah. The finish goes back to fruit and smoke. As I mentioned above, anything gamey is going to go really well here. I had this with roast lamb, and it worked extremely well. Another nice value at $9-11.

If you're looking for some slightly different flavors than you've found in the mainstream -- give these South African bottles a try. Much like the country, there are some very unique quaffs here. Certainly worth exploration.

As a side note, the column's title is a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the multicultural nature of South Africa's emerging diversity. South Africa has become one of the more socially and politically progressive countries in Africa. For instance, the country recently became the fifth in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. The things you learn when you're researching wine…

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Full Monte

A couple of years ago, I was going to assemble my world-famous (or at least within the world of the household) Eggplant Parmesan. I knew next to nothing about Italian wine at that point. I headed directly to the Chianti section of the wine store and puzzled over racks full of wines ending in I's and O's. On a whim, I picked a bottled labeled "Montepulciano." Took it home, made the parmesan, cracked the wine, poured glasses…


The flavor was not at all what I expected. This wine had a much deeper fruit flavor, was much less "chalky" than Chianti, and was smoother overall. I fell in love with the stuff then and there, and Montepulciano has become my staple Italian food wine ever since.

Let me amend that statement -- Montepulciano d'Abruzzo has become my staple Italian food wine.

Why the clarification? "Montepulciano" is a wine double-entendre. There's a Montepulciano region in Tuscany and a Montepulciano grape varietal. To further muddy the waters, wines made in Montepulciano contain no Montepulciano.

First, the region. The Montepulciano growing region is just to the northwest of Chianti. Most wines made in Montepulciano (much like Chianti) are blends made from around 70% Sangiovese. Since they're neighboring provinces, Chianti and Montepulciano wines taste somewhat similar. These wines are somewhat light in body, a bit tannic, and with that trademark "chalkiness."

The best of these wines are labeled "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano." These wines start at about $20 and go up quickly from there. Luckily, there’s a “second line” wine that works almost as well. Just as bottles simply labeled “Nebbiolo” are the bargain versions of Barolo and Barbaresco, there’s an inexpensive alternative to the VNdM – it’s "Rosso di Montepulciano." ("The Red of Montepulciano") Same growing area, similar style, and considerably less expensive. These pair best with pork, chicken, and hard cheeses.

The Montepulciano grape itself is largely cultivated in the province of Abruzzi. Abruzzi is on the east coast of Italy -- across the country from Tuscany. The wines are usually made of at least 90% of the Montepulciano varietal. Predictably, these wines are labeled "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo." ("The Montepulciano of Abruzzi") You'll find a very different flavor here. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo tends to be drunk young, is much fruitier than Chianti, and has softer tannin. The fruit stands up to heartier food -- game, lamb, sausage, and root veggies.

For comparison, the first two here are from the Montepulciano grape. The third is from the region:

Masciarelli 2002 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo -- A very straightforward, tasty wine. Some might call this wine "rustic" for its pronounced flavor. The nose is dark cherries and smoke. There's a fruity, earthy character to this that's got some weight to it. I put this one up with eggplant parmesan where I grilled the eggplant instead of frying it. The smoky flavors of the wine and the eggplant made a wonderful combination as the fruit bounced happily off the red sauce. Give it a go with lamb stew also. $9-11.

Villa Cerrina 2003 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo -- This is a deep, dark wine. The nose is similar to a Chianti Classico -- lots of dark berries and cherries. The flavor is round and full, with plenty of that rich fruit. The finish is long and very fruity, with only a little bit of chalk on the end. Unlike many Italian wines, in my experience, you could easily drink this one by itself if you chilled it just a smidge. The big fruity flavors, however, make it a perfect pairing for a hearty meal. I made baked angel hair with chicken chorizo and mushrooms with this. Another exceptionally tasty pairing -- and it could basically go with anything in the pasta family. For the price (about $6 at Trader Joe's), a fantastic table wine.

Poliziano 2003 Rosso di Montepulciano -- You'll notice this wine is very dark hued, but its color belies its weight. The nose is fruity and a little bit floral. The flavor is not too heavy with some really nice cherry tartness and fruit. The finish, like many Tuscan wines, is a little bit chalky. I wouldn't drink this alone. However, pair this up with a Penne Amatriciana or with some herb-roasted chicken, and you'll find a whole other realm of flavor. The complexity of this wine really shows through with the right food. At $15, it's an exceptional bottle -- probably half of what you'd pay for a Chianti Classico Riserva of similar quality.

Francisco Redi, a 17th century Italian physician, naturalist, and poet, concluded his poem Bacco in Toscana (Bacchus in Tuscany) with the line "Montepulciano of every wine is king." He was referring to the region, of course, but the grape ain't half bad either. Next time you're putting together something with Italian flavors, branch out from Chianti and meet the Monte. Happy wines for happy times…

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Reese's Cup Wines

Allow me a moment of nostalgia.

I was speaking to a group of new freshmen at the institution of higher learning that funds my wine habit. As part of answering a question, I came out, for some reason, with, "You got your peanut butter in my chocolate…"

No one batted an eye. They had no clue. An entire generation of college students raised without "two great tastes that taste great together."

(Honestly, I don't remember the exact context -- and the Sweet Partner in Crime can attest that such a thing is fairly common.)

After the "jeez, you're getting' old" bell stopped ringing much later that evening, I decided to drown my sorrows a bit -- and what better way to honor that little piece of popular culture than with wines based on a similar principle.

Blending wines made from different grapes is almost as old as winemaking itself. Someone realized early on that proper proportions of different varietals greatly improve a wine's overall flavor. For instance, many cabernet sauvignons are bottled after being mixed with a touch of cabernet franc. This blend takes the edge off the tannin and brightens the fruit. Some wine growing areas even have laws requiring wines to be blended.

The French refer to a blended wine as a "cuvée." Literally translated, "cuvée" means "vat" -- which makes sense if you think about it. Cuvées were initially cheap table wine. The term has broadened significantly. Wine growers in Bordeaux and the Rhone valley specialize in cuvées. Practically all the wines from these regions, from inexpensive bistro wine to expensive first growth Bordeaux, are cuvées. Heck, Chateauneuf-de-Pape (a famous Rhone wine) is a blend of up to 13 different grapes!

American wine growers wanted to get in on the act. However, the growers couldn't call their wines "Bordeaux," obviously, and ATF regulations required a wine to be at least 75% of a single grape to be officially "named." If it wasn't 75%, it had to be labeled "table wine," which was unfortunate, considering the quality. In 1988, some California wine growers made up the term "Meritage" for blends of California grapes made in the style of French wine.

Meritage was the standard term for a bit -- but the growers discovered that few among the "normal" wine drinkers knew what the heck it meant. Then came the "Proprietary Blend" -- which basically meant that they'd put whatever they wanted in it. This was followed by "Rhone style" to add an element of gravitas. Finally, as with most things, we've come full circle. Many better American wineries are releasing "cuvees." In France, Georges DuBeouf has started making surprisingly decent blends out of leftover grapes -- called "Cuvée Blanc" and "Cuvée Rouge." Go figure.

Blended wines can be hit or miss. If the proportions are off, then the wine can end up a weak, flabby mess -- especially inexpensive blends. There are, however, many meritages with merit:

Oakley 2005 fourWHITES -- "It's very pretty," announced the Sweet Partner in Crime. This blend from Cline Cellars combines Gewurztraminer, Palomino (the grape from which sherry is made), Viognier, and Malvasia. I've never heard of that last grape. Honey and flowers on the nose like a viognier, a little of that sherry bite with the peach and citrus flavor, and a finish with a pepper like gewürztraminer. This one would be absolutely scrumptious with a salad with some mandarin oranges or something like bruschetta with fresh garden tomatoes and some balsamic vinegar. A steal at $7-9.

Toad Hollow "Erik's the Red" Proprietary Blend -- You want to talk about a serious blend? This wine has eighteen different grapes in the mix. It doesn't exactly follow any specific style -- rather, it's simply a tasty, full red. This wine has plenty of nice, deep flavors. Big dark fruit on the nose, coupled with a little of that Russian River valley boldness. The taste is soft and full of blackberries. The finish is long and fruity. While not very tannic, it's got enough muscle to hold up against some pretty hefty food pairings. It would go pretty well with a prime rib, I'd imagine -- but it's a really scrumptious companion for some dark chocolate. A good, solid, kick-back-and drink wine. $11-13.

Rosenblum Chateau La Paws 2005 Cote du Bone Roan -- One of my favorite French wines is Cotes-du-Rhone. The occasional problem with a CDR is that the earthy character of the wine often overwhelms the fruit, leaving it tasting flat. Rosenblum Cellars, known best for their Zinfandels, decided to do the Sonoma Twist with a Rhone style wine. They blended some of their Zinfandel with some of the traditional grapes of CDR (Syrah, Carignane, Mourvedre). The addition of Zinfandel creates an interesting nice balance -- a fruity wine with an earthy "backbone." The nose is plummy and spicy. It's a very big wine, as you'd probably expect. Lots more plum and smoke flavors. The finish has enough tannin to make it interesting, instead of trailing off into alcohol as many Zins do. We cracked this one simply by chance when we grilled up some marinated ostrich steaks with this. Yum! Simply put, this was one of the best grill pairings I've had in a long time. A filet mignon would also be scrumptious here. Give it a try. You won't be disappointed. $10-13.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Vine turns One

Happy birthday to me!

One year ago today, the Naked Vine was born.

One hundred twenty-some odd tasting notes, a couple of vacations, and only moderate liver damage later -- and the Vine is still going strong.

A few well-deserved kudos:

And most of all, to all of you who read regularly or just stop by occasionally -- wherever you are, I hope you've found something here to your liking.

Cheers, L'Chaim, Slainte, Prost, and on and another year and another harvest. Thanks to all.

Time for a party!