Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wine for rocking out -- Gewürztraminer

Tried and true recipe for 80's metal band success:

Aqua Net? Check. Leather pants? Check. At least one power ballad? Check.

And, of course, an umlaut somewhere in the band's name.

For those of you unfamiliar with German diacritics, "umlaut" is the name for the two dots above a vowel. Now, 80's bands dispensed with that convention -- randomly peppering umlauts anywhere they could, but hey…that's rock 'n' roll.

Just the same, I can never look at a bottle of Gewürztraminer without wistful remembrance of my Queensrÿche fanboy days. But I don't need to go into great detail about my mulleted, body-waved boyhood, so let's focus on the present and the grape at hand.

The Gewürztraminer grape originated in the Italian Alps, but the Alsace region of France and the mountains of Germany are best known for this aromatic grape. The German word "gewürz" translates as "spicy" or "perfumed" -- either of which easily apply to the wine. Gewürztraminer is a mutation of the traminer grape, hence the full name.

Only a few regions successfully grow this grape. In addition to the aforementioned, there are successful plantings in New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, and a few counties in California. Austria grows some of the best, most expensive Gewürztraminers in the world.

Gewürztraminer produces a medium-to-full bodied, extremely fragrant wine. These wines are generally very fruity and at least somewhat peppery. Gewürztraminers may be some of the most food-friendly wines around -- perhaps even more so than Riesling. Gewürztraminer is one of the few whites you could pair with a steak somewhat decently. However, Gewürztraminer really comes to life when paired with fresh fruit, strong cheeses, or almost any spicy food. It's perfect with almost any Asian or Cajun cuisine.

Gewürztraminers, especially imported, tend to be a little difficult to find at Vine prices. Even so, there are a few bottles that Warrant a mention…

We start in Germany with Georg Albrecht Schneider 2004 Halbtrocken Gewürztraminer Spatlese -- Schneider Winery in Mainz, nestled among the mountains along the Rhine River, is best known for very decent Rieslings. Over the last several years, Schneider branched into Gewürztraminers. If you look back to the Riesling entry, you'll remember that "Spatlese" indicates the grapes are picked at the peak of ripeness. "Halbtrocken" is literally "half dry," an apt description of what we've got here. Schneider starts with a big scent of melon and apples. The wine is full bodied with flavors of honey and cloves. The finish is very peppery and slightly sweet. For a good food pairing, think of traditional German fare -- cheeses, spicy sausages, spaetzle. You could also pair it, as I mentioned earlier, with a spicy Asian dish and not go wrong. $12-14.

I wanted to try different plantings of American Gewürztraminer market, so I got two: one from California, and one from Washington. The Adler Fels 2005 Gewürztraminer is from Sonoma County. I was wonderfully surprised by this wine. The Adler Fels was one of the best whites I've had in a long time. It has a nice floral and apple nose, is medium bodied with a nice crisp acidity and some pear flavors -- but it's not as sweet as many other wines of this type. The finish is very long and peppery, with more of that tasty pear flavor hanging around. The Columbia Winery 2005 Gewürztraminer from Washington had a much more prounounced nose of honey and grapefruit and was quite full bodied. The taste was considerably sweeter and not as peppery on the finish. We decided to taste them side by side with different dishes. We had them with a spicy Thai vegetable curry and a version of ginger and garlic chicken. We also tried them both with sushi. With food, the Columbia actually works better as the sweetness cut through the spice more effectively. The Columbia is a simpler wine, so you don't lose as much of the complexity and flavor as you do with the Adler Fels paired with spicy foods. Overall, I think the Adler Fels was the superior wine, but consider having it with cheeses or on its own. The Adler Fels is $13-15. The Columbia is $7-11.

We can't leave the Gewürztraminers without a jaunt to Alsace. The Lucien Albrecht 2005 Reserve Gewürztraminer was my choice here. The Albrecht has a wonderful nose of ginger and apples. The flavor is sweeter than the other wines here, with some strong honey flavor. The flavors are much "deeper" and the finish was less peppery. Instead, the fruit dominates, and you're left with a finishing flavor of apples dipped in honey -- a Rosh Hashanah wine, if you will. One of the more interesting aspects of Alsace Gewürztraminers is the suggested pairing with strong cheeses -- blue cheese, Stilton, Roquefort. Give it a try. The cheese brings out the honey flavors in the wine. Of course, it's a very strong choice for a spicy curry. We made a chicken, chickpea, and potato curry with it, and it was fabulous. $13-15.

A final word about wine and umlauts. "The Umlaut Society" is the wine club of Göpfrich Winery in Sonoma County -- a favorite of mine (and yes, I am a member). They're listed on my blogroll. While their wines are a little more expensive than those I review here, they're worth the extra money. Their cabernet is the best I've tasted. Check them out.

(Thanks to Vine reader allenmurray for the column suggestion.)

Until next time…Rock!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"For the Love of God, Montresor..." -- Adventures in Sherry

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I have our New Year's tradition. Going out on the Rockin' Eve does little for either of us. As a friend of mine once said of New Year's -- "It's Amateur Night."

We tend to be homebodies on December 31st. We watch some basketball and some football -- and then settle in to making a big ol’ feed to pair with wines we haven't tried before. This year, we decided we'd try some sherries.

Sherry -- the name evokes images of deep shag carpet, wide lapels, ruffled blouses, and key parties. The quintessential 70's drink, every household was required by law to have at least one bottle of cream sherry on hand for highballs and nightcaps. Alternatively, there's usually a bottle of cooking sherry in any well stocked pantry. After our pleasant sojourns with Spanish wine, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try the native Iberian drink.

What is sherry, anyway?
Preventing Fortunado from
driving drunk on New Years.
Sherry is fortified wine. In WineSpeak -- a "fortified" wine means that the winemaker's gone and added a bunch more alcohol. Many sherries are right around 18-20% alcohol. Sherry is made largely from the Palomino grape, but there's another grape called Pedro Ximénez often used in sweeter varieties. "Sherry" is also the region in Spain where all this wine is made ("Sherry" is a Anglization of "Jerez.")

Sherry is fascinating because of the method of production. Most winemakers do everything they can to keep their wine from air while fermenting. Sherry is an oxidized wine -- the winemakers fill the casks only halfway -- and then put the bung (translation: "big ass stopper which closes a cask") in loosely, so air can circulate during fermentation. While in the barrel, as much as 5% of the wine evaporates. As any veteran of a distillery tour can tell you, this is what's called "The Angel's Share." (which also happens to be a Ted Leo song title)

There's also what they call the "Solera System" of aging, by which an aged cask may be drained of as much of a third of its contents, and then young wine, made in the same style, is added to refill the cask, thus "refreshing the mother wine."

There are five basic types of sherry: Fino and Manzanilla are dry. Amontillado is aged for eight years and is dry to medium dry. Oloroso is also a medium dry sherry. Cream sherry is sweet. Fino and Manzanilla are made to be served well chilled. The others can be chilled slightly. (Also, Cream sherry is often poured over vanilla ice cream.)

Truth be told, it was the Amontillado that gave birth to this idea. As a recovering English major, Edgar Allan Poe, The Bard of Baltimore, was a favorite of mine. One of his signature short stories was "The Cask of Amontillado." (If you'd like to read it, go here for the full text. You can get through it in 10 minutes or less.)

Sherry is traditionally served in Spain with tapas. The SP in Crime and I are huge tapas fans, so we decided to have a meal in that style. If you're not familiar with tapas, it's basically scads of "small plate" appetizers. (A close Asian equivalent is dim sum, which we also love) We got ourselves some smoked salmon, a fish chowder (inspired by our Maine adventure), and a sort of semi-bruschetta with fresh mozzarella and chorizo. We got three bottles of Sherry. There's a saying in Spain regarding this wine: "We drink the dry and ship the sweet." So, we picked up a Fino, a Manzanilla, and (to satisfy my curiosity) an Amontillado.
We were…shall we say…surprised at what we found.

The first bottle we tried was Osborne Pale Dry Fino. The label doesn't lie -- this is a very light-colored wine. This sherry actually had a very nice nose -- a nice scent of almond oil. The taste was very neutral and dry. There wasn't a lot of flavor to it -- just a neutral alcohol taste that wasn't too strong. I realized why dry sherry and tapas go together so well. This type of sherry would be an excellent palate cleanser. It cut right through the oil of the salmon, and if it could do that, it would do the same with just about anything else. You could easily switch from food to food without a problem. In addition, the high alcohol content would make for a good start to any evening. This was, by far, the most drinkable of the sherries that we had. I could actually see pouring a glass of this with food. A bottle goes for about $10.

We bowled up the chowder and poured the Savory & James Deluxe Pale Dry Manzanilla.

Again, the sherry was very pale in color. The taste and bouquet were somewhat similar to the Fino, although it seemed slightly "wetter." It reminded me a bit of sake. If you like sake, I would imagine that you could pair this up with a plateful of sushi and you'd be OK. Otherwise, well…not so much. We did a side by side with the Fino, and the Fino was markedly more tasty. However, the chowder lacked something after a few bites, so I poured in a few splashes of the Manzanilla. What a difference! The soup took on a new, tastier character with a little Manzanilla added. However, for my $10, I could buy three bottles of cooking sherry.

We read that the Amontillado was better served with slightly heavier foods, so we had it with the semi-chetta. After being a little disappointed with the first two sherries, I was ready for an upswing. I wanted to know why poor Fortunado was tempted to his death by a cask of the stuff. We poured some Pedro Romero Amontillado. This wine was much darker than the other two. Since both Amontillado and Oloroso are aged longer, the tannins in the barrels impart a darker color. There was also a more pronounced bouquet -- reminding me very much of Madeira. Much more sugary and nutty. I was interested -- until I got the stuff in my mouth. Maybe I'm missing something, but this tasted like cooking sherry mixed subtly with paint thinner and lighter fluid. The taste almost made the SP in Crime gag.

From what I've read, Amontillado is supposed to be "darker and softer" than fino. I guess that's true -- in the same way that death by billy club is softer and darker than a strike through the heart with a rapier. This was about a $12 bottle. In the spirit of full disclosure, most wines that I don't care for end up as cooking wine. The number of bottles I’ve dumped can be counted on one hand. This Amontillado made the list. Perhaps I don't have the correct palate for it, but this was simply horrid.

I admit -- I'm a Sherry newbie. I don't know "good" sherry from "bad" -- and if any of you out there can give me better ideas, I'm open to suggestion. I don't know if I made poor choices or if I just don't know how to properly appreciate the stuff. However, with so much delicious Spanish tempranillo, albarino, and the like -- I don't see putting more money into the Sherry region anytime soon.

Oh, and don't worry about us going dry on New Year’s. Since the Sherry Experiment didn't work out -- we pulled some tasty selections from the cellar to more properly celebrate.

And no one got shackled to a wall.

Auld Lang Syne!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Back to the Earth -- organic wines

Happy New Year, everyone!

Vine reader rthomas asked for recommendations on organic wines. Honestly, I didn't know much about them, so to the research we go…

We humans are not the only creatures out there who enjoy the bounty of the vine. Plenty of critters like to eat the fruit, various pests and bugs damage grapes and vines in many ways, and weeds can choke out the vines as they grow. The manmade solution in recent years has been various chemicals: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides -- you get the idea. These chemicals can find their way into the wines and, thus, into us. Some wines are genetically altered to better handle climate conditions. There are various chemical fertilizers, and preservatives (usually sulfites) are added to the wine at bottling. To clear wines, "finings" are added to the wine to pull out the sediment. Some of these finings are chemical in nature (although they're usually egg whites or a type of clay called bentonite).

Very few wines are "straight from the vine" anymore. However, over the last few years, "organic wine" has become both an attempt to raise non-chemical laden wine as well as a marketing ploy

What is an organic food? The USDA definition for organic food is: "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers; bio-engineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled 'organic,' a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards."

A number of wineries started selling "organic wine" -- organic wines are, simply put, wines made from organic grapes. There are three categories of organic wine:

  • 100% Organic: These wines use only grapes certified as 100% organically grown with no preservatives.
  • Organic: Refers to wines that have at least 95% of grapes from certified sources and may have some small amount of sulfites added.
  • Made with Organic Grapes: These wines are at least 70% organically grown grapes and may have a "standard" amount of sulfites added.

Some wineries are using "biodynamic" techniques to grow grapes. These techniques are above and beyond "organic" -- as they use only the resources found in the vineyard to produce the grapes.

Most "certified USDA organic" wines you're going to find will be American. Only a very small number of Euro-wineries have been certified here. Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't organic wines in Europe. Between 2-3% of all vineyards in Europe would be considered organic, and many countries (including France, Spain, and Italy) pay subsidies to farmers who agree to follow organic standards.

So, what does this all mean to most wine drinkers? Some folks swear by organic wines -- say they taste better. If a wine doesn't have sulfites, it probably will also give you less of a headache if you overconsume a bit. Myself, I can't tell much of a difference. One place where you CAN generally tell the difference is on the pricetag. Not surprisingly, organic wines are going to set you back a bit of cash compared to "standard" wines. There are some in our range, though:

Bonterra 2004 Chardonnay -- A solid, decent Chardonnay from Mendocino County in California. Bonterra is one of the wines in the forefront of pushing the "organic" angle in its mainline advertising to raise its profile. This was a little more citrus-scented than I expected from a NoCal chardonnay, and Bonterra thankfully stayed away from the California tendency to oak a chardonnay into submission. This one has a nicer balance than many California wines -- a little tart, a little honey, and it finishes with a buttery flavor that’s pretty pleasant. I found this one on sale for $10 (they're about to release the '05), but you're probably going to shell out $13-14 normally.

Finca Luzon Verde 2004 Jumilla -- Another Spanish wine. Remember, like French wines, Spanish wines are classified by region. Jumilla is the region. The wine is made from 100% Monastrell grapes. Monastrell is typically a blending grape, but -- much like Malbec, is starting to stand on its own. (Monastrell is more commonly known as mourvedre.) I have no idea why the wine is called "verde" -- Spanish for "green." The Finca Luzon a very nice, easy drinking red wine. "Not too strong on the nose -- smelled like blackberry jam and mint. Rather soft and fruity to drink with some mild dark berry flavors. The finish was a little dry with a soft spice and lasted awhile. It's pretty food-friendly, as well -- pairing with anything from paella to peppery red meats. A solid budget wine if you're looking for something organic. You'll find this from $7-9.

Mas de Gourgonnier 2003 Les Baux de Provence-- From Provence in France -- this wine is a big French entry into the organic category. One sniff informs you immediately that this is an "Old World" wine. That deep earthy, Old World scent rolls out after a swirl, which covers up some black cherry. While this is a typically muscular French wine, it's not as heavy as several I've tried. There's a nice fresh fruitiness to go along with the earthy backbone of this wine. The finish is long and tannic. Like most French wines, it's wonderful with food, especially a big roasted meat dish or something earthy -- root vegetables and the like. Sharp cheeses would also be quite nice. $12-15.

Also, if you're looking for an excellent splurge wine that's organic, try Frog's Leap or Preston.

Until next time, keep it earthy.