Saturday, April 28, 2007

Wine School! (Class #6 -- Chardonnay)

Chardonnay, the ubiquitous white.

Chardonnay is the United States' most popular wine -- and perhaps the most popular in the world, but I haven't been able to run down the exact ranking. (If anyone has a reference, send it along!) Walk into almost any neighborhood bar or five-star restaurant anywhere in the country. Nine times out of 10, the "house white" will be a Chardonnay.

The history of Chardonnay is somewhat unclear, but there is a town of the same name in Mâcon in the Burgundy region of France. A group of monks in Chardonnay were the first to cultivate the grape for "mass production and distribution." Today, almost any white from Burgundy will be almost entirely produced from the Chardonnay grape.

Chardonnay is an incredibly versatile grape that grows almost in any soil and in any climate. While it's a hardy, flexible grape -- the flavor changes radically depending on its terroir. Chardonnays from cooler climates tend to be crisper and tarter, while warmer climes produce fruitier, creamier styles.

To keep things simple, you can expect to run into three basic flavor profiles of Chardonnay: minerally, oaky, and buttery. Here's an illustration of each:

Louis Jadot 2005 Mâcon-Villages (France) -- $9-11
Alamos 2005 Chardonnay (Argentina) -- $9-11
Kendall-Jackson 2005 Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay (California) -- $12-14

First up is the crisp taste of the Louis Jadot. In French wine nomenclature, the best wines are named after their particular chateau or town where the vineyard is planted. Pouilly-Fuissé is known as the home of the best white Burgundies. The name actually refers to two towns, between which lie the vineyards. These wines tend to run $25 and up. However, "Mâcon-Villages" means that the grapes can be from anywhere in Mâcon -- the region in which Pouilly and Fuissé are located. For my money, a Mâcon-Villages is every bit as good at less than half the cost.

This wine has a very light nose -- citrusy and light, with a little scent of something like licorice. The taste is very clean and a little tart, like green apples. The finish is very crisp and pleasant. This is a classic French Chardonnay, which tastes almost more like Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnays from other places in the world. It's extremely refreshing and light.

Next, we'll let the Argentinean Chardonnay give us the "oak" profile. Over the last several years, Argentina has become known for Malbec on the red side, and Chardonnay on the white. As with much of South America, you can find great wine values from there without trying too hard.

The Alamos starts with a nose of ripe peaches, but the taste shifts radically. As crisp and light as the French version is, this one is much bigger. The flavor is of peaches, toasted almonds, and smoke. You can't miss the oak here. You'll know exactly from here on out what someone's talking about when they mention oaky. The finish is smoky and lasts a long time.

Finally, bring in the butter. California chardonnays almost became parodies of themselves through much of the 90's, as the winemakers went completely overboard with "oaking" their wines. They've settled down a bit, and the "buttery" Chardonnay is becoming more common among California wines. As I mentioned in Lesson #2, the "buttery" flavor is from a process called malolactic fermentation. Some California winemakers are swinging to the other end of the spectrum and producing "unoaked" Chardonnays -- their attempts to get back to the Burgundy tradition.

The Kendall-Jackson smells sweeter and heavier than the Alamos, much more like peach cobbler than peaches. The flavor has a little bit of sweetness and some more of that peach flavor, but it's got a very creamy vanilla taste as well. Again, in comparison to the Alamos -- the oakier wine had a stronger flavor, but the buttery one was richer and fuller. There was a little bit of oak on the finish, held in check by the creaminess.

What to eat with these? If I were drinking one on its own, I'd go with the Louis Jadot. I'd also have this with just about any kind of lighter fish or shellfish dish. An oaky chardonnay will pair more effectively with something smokier, like grilled chicken or veggies, or even a filet if you want white with a steak. The buttery chardonnay -- predictably, goes more effectively with creamier sauces, richer fishes, and almost anything you can picture with butter.

We made a rich fish dish when we did our tasting. The Sweet Partner in Crime liked the Kendall-Jackson, although I thought the Alamos made an interesting pairing. So, in short, experiment and find what you like. There's a Chardonnay out there for almost everyone.

Next up, we dare return to big red territory -- Syrah.

Class dismissed.

Welcome, Fort Wayne!

Whatzup, the entertainment weekly of the Summit City, started running The Naked Vine in print this week. While not quite as notable as the playing of the first major league baseball game, we at the Vine aim to be the official wine advice column for The Landing, the new NBDL franchise, and all the wine drinkers of Allen County. Welcome! Kick back. Grab a glass and enjoy...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Wine School! (Class #5 -- cabernet sauvignon)

Cabernet Sauvignon -- the "classic" red.

Under this wine's influence, great writing, art, romance, and history have all sprung. Grown just about everywhere, cabernet sauvignon is the world's most popular red. Known also as "claret," learning cabernet is an absolute must for a would-be wine enthusiast. So read on -- you'll find something workable.

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I decided to make an evening of our Cabernet Sauvignon tasting. Our three samples for the evening:

Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) 2004 Coastal Estates Cabernet Sauvignon -- USA -- $8-10
Chateau Gauthier 2003 Médoc Bordeaux -- France -- $12-14
Cousiño-Macul 2004 Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon -- Chile -- $11-13

A quick note about the wines. As I've mentioned, French wine is named by the location in which it's made, not the grape from which it's made. Red Bordeaux tends to be made largely from cabernet sauvignon and merlot (which is why the grapes were initially grouped together). This particular wine is 55% cabernet and 45% merlot. In general, cabernets tend to be blends predominantly made from cabernet sauvignon, although some (like the Chilean above) are 100% cabernet.

We pulled corks, poured, and tasted. Initially, the Chilean and French wines seemed too alcoholic and without any good flavor. The BV tasted like spiked grape juice. Then we remembered an important fact about cabernets and other tannic wines.

Tannic wines like cabernets, especially when young (and anything less than five years old is considered young for a cab), almost always need to be decanted before drinking. Decanting is WineSpeak for getting some oxygen into the wine -- even before swirling. One of those pretty glass decanters is helpful but not necessary. For most cabs, just open the bottle 20-30 minutes before you drink it. That will allow the wine to "breathe," which markedly improves the flavor and aroma.

We poured a little more of each and then let the bottles rest for a bit while we made dinner. We did this tasting on the first nice night of spring, so we grilled filets and topped them with blue cheese (Try it. Trust me.), made some garlicky new potatoes, fixed a little salad and while the steaks were "resting," and tried the wines again.

What a difference! Now we could properly judge them. At first taste:

If you want the flavors of a classic French red, this Bordeaux has them. Even an inexpensive Bordeaux like the Chateau Gauthier has the complexity for which this region is known. The nose has "The Old World Funk." It's best described as an "earthy" scent (the SP in Crime called it "agricultural") -- like the scent of earth when you've been working in the garden. Without a little decanting, that scent also includes the gardening sweat smell which overpowers the scent of berries.

After decanting, you can almost taste the two grapes working together. The initial taste is "wet" like a merlot, but the tannins of the cabernet quickly catch up. There's some more of that "earthy" taste. The finish is very interesting. If you read enough wine reviews, you'll see mentions of "leather" and "cigar box." I finally understood what they meant after tasting this wine, which finishes a bit dry.

The BV was a huge contrast. The nose is very clean and extremely fruity. The flavor was much fruitier, with a lot more body. (Some would call this "jammy.") The finish was barely dry at all. The tannins were almost completely covered by the fruit.

The Cousiño-Macul was, again, very different. Before I let it breathe, the nose almost smelled like asphalt. But after a bit, that morphed into fruit and tobacco scents. There's also little of that "Old World" scent. The body of the wine was in-between the others and the finish was the driest. The flavors weren't overpowering -- some fruit, some tannin, and a little chocolate. (More on that later.)

(Warning -- the following is not vegetarian friendly…)

Big ol' reds like cabernet sauvignon go hand in hoof with steak. Steak and potatoes is a classic pairing with cabernet, which is precisely why we chose this menu. With the three wines before us, we tried them with the steak.

The Bordeaux immediately jumped to the forefront once we started eating. The earthiness of the wine was a perfect complement to the beef, potato, and garlic flavor. The fruit of the wine came out as we ate. I could see this with any kind of game or anything earthy like mushrooms.

The Chilean wine also paired nicely. The tannin in this wine, more so than the earthy flavor, cut through the fat in the beef and made a pleasant combination. However, I think this wine really would stand out in a meat dish that has a little bit of spice, like a chimichurri sauce.

The BV didn't fare quite as well. The best thing about this wine -- the fruitiness -- was lost against the flavors of beef and cheese. This wine wouldn't be a bad pairing with something a little sweet and spicy, like barbecue sauce or a dry rub of some kind. But with straight steak and potatoes, it was a surprisingly poor match.

We also tried some of the cheese alone on crackers. Again, the Chilean and French wines (especially the French) stood apart.

At the end of the evening, we sat on the front porch to enjoy the gorgeous weather. And, as we usually do, we brought out the dark chocolate. The BV didn't go well. The French wine was good. However, the Chilean and chocolate married into a wonderful creamy flavor.

When you're thinking about pairing food and wine -- consider the cuisine of the area. Historically, people make wine to go with whatever they're eating. Some wines are best as food wines. The Chilean and French cabernets are perfect examples. French diets are heavy in meat, cheese, game, and earthy vegetables. Chilean cuisine tends to be earthy and meat-heavy as well, but with more spice -- as found in a lot of Spanish-themed cuisine. Keep that in mind as you plan your next menu.

As for the BV? Cabernets aren't known for going with lighter food, but this one would be better if you want to go that route. BV needs light meats, rich pastas, or something along the lines of chicken teriyaki. Honestly, I think that I could find better pairings for all of those entrees than a cab. However, all is not lost. The BV is certainly the best "end of day glass" of wine -- easily the most drinkable on its own.

Next, over to chardonnay to see what we can discover. Class dismissed…

Sunday, April 15, 2007


If you'll indulge me for a moment…more Wine School soon.

The Sweet Partner in Crime arranged a wonderful pre-birthday getaway for me -- I just got back today. After a trip to
Keeneland (where I broke even, as opposed to the haul my friend Judy brought in), we headed to Natural Bridge State Park for a getaway weekend.

My family joined us for lunch and I put together a wine tasting for everyone afterwards. That particular adventure will be covered in more detail when we get to the Riesling column in a couple of weeks.

The star of the show, as always, was Gerta, my 95 year-old grandmother. My paternal grandparents immigrated from Germany to the United States during WWII, narrowly escaping the Holocaust. (Literally. Their ship left the harbor just before the Rotterdam Blitz.) That piece of my family history is fascinating in and of itself -- but that's not related to the story at hand.

Gerta, my last surviving grandparent, is nothing short of wondrous. I hope I have her genes. She's in incredible physical shape. She swims every day and can set a walking pace, even with a cane, that will challenge anyone. We worried that she might have some difficulty getting to our cottage at the state park, since the front door was up about four flights of steps, slick with rain.

When my folks and she arrived, she opened the car door, pulled on her rain hood, grabbed her cane with gusto, and started charging up the stairs -- with my father giving chase with an open umbrella, calling, "Mom! Mom!"

Aside from her physical attributes and unbelievable capacity for expressing love, what I admire most about her is her mind. She's sharp, quick-witted, and plugs away with a lust for life few can match, Iggy Pop included. She's amazingly inquisitive, still asking pointed questions in her thick German accent (Gerta and Dr. Ruth sound remarkably alike).

By now, you may be asking yourself what all this has to do with wine.

After a little Kahlua in her post-lunch coffee and a sip of my father's birthday gift of cognac (which she identified immediately), she started telling stories about her family.

Gerta grew up in the Rhineland. She said she remembered both her grandfather and father being winemakers.

"My grandfather in Ockenheim had big vats down in the basement. All the neighbors would bring him grapes and he would make wine." Apparently, he never sold it. It was a hobby. "They'd bring him the grapes and then they'd come back and he'd give them the wine. Everyone loved it." She also mentioned that he "carried a walking stick with a big grape carved on the end."

She grew up in another town in the Rhineland, Idar-Oberstein -- about two hours west of Frankfurt. Her father was a butcher, renowned for his spiesbraten. "He and my mother loved wine and beer. He cut the meat for the good hotel in Oberstein, and every Sunday, he and my mother would get dressed up and go to the hotel for a bottle of good wine that they would give him as part of his payment."

There was more along this line, fascinating family history I'd never heard before -- and I won't recount it all here. I'm happy to learn that I come by my interests honestly and genetically. She amazes and inspires all of us. Ich liebe dich, Oma.

On an unrelated note, longtime readers might note an addition to the "benefactors" section. "Whatzup" Magazine, the entertainment weekly in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has generously decided to give the Vine some new terroir. Start date TBA…

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Wine School! (Class #4 -- Sauvignon Blanc)

Sauvignon Blanc, the light white.

Of the six major varietals, Sauvignon Blanc is the most delicate. Sauvignon Blanc follows only Chardonnay in domestic U.S. production -- although the difference between first and second place in that comparison is a factor of six or seven. That said, as people have become somewhat "chardonnayed out" in the last decade or so, Sauvignon Blanc has stepped up to please curious palates.

Sauvignon Blanc's origins are usually traced to the Bordeaux region of France. The grape is actually the parent varietal of Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes tends to be light in body with a fragrant, usually fruity, nose. The taste is normally somewhat fruity and tart, and the finish is normally fairly crisp. "Old World" Sauvignon Blancs sometimes have a mineral character, as well. (Though not like the Grüner Veltliner from earlier.)

Among areas growing Sauvignon Blanc, the best known wines are from Bordeaux -- since, well, they came up with it. California, Australia, and New Zealand started creating quality Sauvignon Blanc in the 80's and 90's. South America, other areas of the U.S., and various other European countries now harvest this grape in ever-increasing amounts. You may see wines labeled "fume blanc." Same grape -- just a different style. (Chenin Blanc, however, is a completely different grape.)

Sauvignon Blanc is an extremely food friendly wine, largely because of its acidity. The acidity of the wine cuts through flavors that can be real wine killers. Some see "acidity" and think "sour." "Tartness" is a better synonym. Imagine lemon juice or lime juice -- very acidic and sour on its own. But if you put a splash of either in some club soda or tonic water, the tartness is pleasant.

I'll discuss more specific food pairings below, but hot peppery foods go exceptionally well with Sauvignon Blanc. Why? The chemical compound in pepper that creates heat is called Capsaicin. If you sift through some dusty memories to high school chemistry class, Capsaicin is a strong base. Sauvignon Blanc is acidic, and acids and bases neutralize each other. Sauvignon Blanc paired with spicy food tames both the tartness and the heat, allowing the food's flavor and the wine's fruit to shine through.

As I discussed with the pinot noir, the terroir of this wine has a major effect on the flavor. For comparison's sake, I chose three very different versions of this most refreshing grape:

Veramonte 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Chile) -- $10-12
Yvecourt 2005 Bordeaux (France) -- $9-11
Villa Maria 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) -- $13-15

When looking at the three glasses, even with a wine as light as Sauvignon Blanc, there's a difference. The Veramonte is the lightest -- a very pale yellow. The Yvecourt is a little darker. The Villa Maria has the deepest yellow color.

The contrast continues with the noses. The Veramonte was the fruitiest smelling with a very distinct scent of grapefruit and tropical fruits like mangoes. The Yvecourt's nose was somewhat fruity, but was much more floral and had a little bit of that herbaceous scent. The Villa Maria had the most complex nose. The herbaceous scent was very strong at first, but mellowed after another good swirl into pineapples and vanilla.

The tastes were strikingly different. The Veramonte was a bit tart and very crisp. The finish was tropical and a little peppery. The Yvecourt was the lightest tasting with a little citrus flavor, but quite gentle. The finish was extremely dry with some of that mineral flavor I mentioned earlier. The Villa Maria, again, was the most complex and full-bodied of the three. The mouthfeel approached chardonnay range. The fruit was certainly there coupled with vanilla flavors. The finish was the least dry and was the longest, gradually getting tarter as drank more.

When would you drink each of these? The Veramonte was probably the most drinkable on its own if you need something refreshing. It also pairs well with almost anything spicy, and it went especially well with Thai food. The Yvecourt goes with any kind of shellfish. Crab, scallops, shrimp, calamari -- anything along those lines and you've got a winner. The fullness of the Villa Maria made it very interesting. It's full enough to pair with chicken, pork, and some cream sauces -- basically anything you'd pair with a chardonnay or pinot noir.

Sauvignon Blanc is my favorite white varietal of the moment, especially as the weather warms. (Although you wouldn't know it from the snow on the tulips here currently.) As winter turns to spring and stews yield to pastas primavera, the crispness of a Sauvignon Blanc becomes an ideal choice. As summer approaches, Sauvignon Blanc is the quintessential "pool wine" -- a revitalizing sipper on a hot day. Enjoy.

Next up, the grandpappy of the reds -- Cabernet Sauvignon.

Class dismissed…

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Wines of April

On this lovely Sunday, we at the Naked Vine decided to take a time out from Wine School to do a tasting of some real kick back wines. These wines are readily available, and all of them are best served well-chilled. While chilling a wine to fridge temperature typically causes the fruit in a wine to become tightly wound, I find that cold really improves the flavor of these particular selections.

Lancers November 2006
RoséLancers, the rebirth of the long-popular Mateus rosé, evokes an urban vibe on the first sip. Lancers has a lovely nose of peaches soaked in isopropyl. The flavor, mellowed by the proper serving temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit, bursts on your tongue with the velvety touch of a bolt of fine Chinese silk wrapped around a newly purchased ballpeen hammer. The finish is a bit sharp. Lancers’ website recommends it be mixed with “lemonade concentrate” and be garnished with a mint leaf, probably for the antioxidants. $4-6.

Boone’s Farm January 2007 Strawberry Hill – The original “flavored citrus wine” takes me back to my days in high school, roaming the hills of Eastern Kentucky, hoping that there might be a beneficent 21 year old visiting one of my friends. The light nose of strawberries and hormones is followed by a fruity blend of flavors, all of which properly mask the fact that the drink actually contains alcohol. The finish is long and sweet, with faint notes of teenage rejection and regret. $5-7.

Manischewitz October 2006 Concord Grape – The concord grape, long overlooked by many, holds a special place in my heart. This was the first wine I tasted in my career. I learned that there are two kinds of families at Shabbos, Mogen David and Manischewitz families. My family was the latter. While Manichewitz has diversified its product line, adding a “smooth and light” line, as well as elderberry, blackberry, cherry, and loganberry versions, I consider myself a purist. Nothing says “L’Chaim” like good old fashioned Concord. If you only get one wine to cook with for Seder, this is the one. $5-6.

Until next time…April Fool’s, y’all.