Monday, December 24, 2007

Avoiding the White Death -- Snowed-In Wines

One of our great winter amusements is watching the inevitable freak-out at the first sign of anything resembling snowy weather. Every local news scrambles "full team coverage," which amounts to second-string reporters bundled up at interstate rest areas and weathermen standing by snowbanks with rulers, all speaking in earnest, serious tones.

Lines at grocery stores run out the door as everyone stocks up on necessary supplies -- bread, milk, eggs -- in case the weather gets so nasty that we're stranded for nine or ten hours. As one friend of mine put it, "What is it about snow forecasts that gives people a craving for French toast?"

Nine times out of ten, the "storm" ends up being a whimper rather than a bang -- slush and a couple of inches of powder you can hardly make an honest snowball with. Even so, be prepared. Here are a couple of suggestions for getting yourself through those interminable minutes of imprisoning by Mother Nature.

Hardy's "Whiskers Blake" Classic Tawny Port -- In many winter tales, a narrator sits down with a glass of port to warm up on a long, cold night. Port is fortified wine. Fortified wines are fermented normally. A neutral brandy is then added to boost the alcohol content. Ports tend to be sweet, heavy wines -- often over 18% alcohol. There are two major port types. Ruby port is the most common. This is the least expensive, sweetest, and youngest type. Tawny port is aged at least seven years in barrels, is much more mellow and complex, and is usually golden brown in color instead of…well…ruby. Port originated in Portugal (big surprise!), but this one is Australian. While sweet, it's not as tooth-achingly sugary as many ports of similar price. Whiskers has a nice fruitiness along with a tasty caramel flavor. The finish has just a hint of sweetness and cozy warmth. With dark chocolate truffles, this is an absolutely divine winter drink. Curl up with a thick blanket, a huggable dog, and a fire and watch the snow fall. Around $12.

Santa Ema 2004 Maipo Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve-- If you're looking for a "standard" wine to warm you up, I find cabernet sauvignon to be the most satisfying. This Chilean cabernet is wonderful for keeping the winter chill at bay. The nose has thick plum and cherry scents, bordering on zinfandel-strong. The flavor is much more balanced than most zinfandels. The Santa Ema medium bodied with more plums and a little bit of licorice on the finish to go with the pleasant dryness. Also, since it's summertime in Chile while we're suffering through winter, simply imagine you're chasing the sun. $8-10.

Some traditional beverages at this time of year are wine-based. In the name of research and emergency preparedness, I managed to come up with a couple of these recipes that turned out pretty well:

Mike's Wassail

  • One fifth dry sherry
  • One cup brandy
  • 4-5 cups apple cider
  • Couple of cinnamon sticks
  • Nutmeg, ginger, coriander, allspice -- 1-2 tsp. each
  • One orange, cut in half and studded with a dozen cloves
  • 1 c. brown sugar

If you were reading the Vine last New Year's, you'll know that we didn't have a great sherry experience. Here's one tasty use. Put all the ingredients into slow cooker, reserving half the orange. Put slow cooker on high for 2-3 hours. Leave on low or warm. (If you don't have a slow cooker, put in a big pot on the stove, put on low, and stir occasionally for a couple of hours.) Serve hot with orange slices and firmly baked apples. If you don't drink it all (ha!), it keeps well.

Mike's Mulled Wine

  • One bottle really cheap dry red wine
  • 1 c. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. Ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. Crystallized ginger
  • ½ tsp. Nutmeg, allspice, & cinnamon (or to taste)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Orange, cut, half studded with cloves, other half peeled and sectioned
  • 1 lemon, juiced and rind cut into thin strips
  • ½ c. brandy

To "mull" something is to grind or mix thoroughly. Mulled wine is wine well-mixed with spices and such to create a scrumptious delivery system for winter warmth. To make mulled wine (called Glögg in Swedish or Glühwein in German), combine all ingredients except brandy in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 3 hours. Stir in brandy. Strain and serve hot.

So, let it snow! As long as you've got a few bottles stashed away, that is…

Happy Festivus! See you in 2008!

Monday, December 17, 2007

End of Year Clearance!

The slide from Thanksgiving to New Year's is not just party season. It's also "DOORBUSTER DEALS SEASON!!!" How much footage have we seen of people lined up outside Best Buy at 4 am to snag a $50 Wii, outside a Hummer dealership for a free year of gasoline with the purchase of an H3, or outside K-Mart for a three-for-one pack of apple corers.

Aside from simply getting people into stores to flail about in a sea of crass Christmas commercialism, why do merchants go to all this trouble?

Inventory, of course. At year's end, old merchandise gets cleared out to make room for next year's styles, versions, colors, editions, etcetera. What's the best way to clear some space? Why, a sale, of course! Offer sharp discounts to get overwilling consumers to cart away your excess.

Wine stores are like the aforementioned car dealerships. This year's models are still on the lot when automakers prepare to ship next year's, so dealerships offer "end-of-model-year" closeouts. As wineries crank out vintages, the previous year's wines need to get moved off the shelves. The end of the year is a great time to pick up great values. Some things to keep in mind:
  • Large wine producers deal in volume, so stores will have more product to sell before the next year's shipment comes in. You're more likely to find good deals on more common labels. These producers want to keep fresh product on the shelves
  • Look for wines that need to be drunk soon. Not long ago, I found a Bordeaux that was normally about a $25 bottle on sale for $10. It was a 2000 -- so it might last a little while longer, but this particular type was at the height of drinkability and would be heading south soon, more than likely. I bought five bottles and went through them pretty quickly.
  • In general, look for merlots, zinfandels, pinot noirs, and almost any white wines. You'll also find some cabernets and Italian wines that are nearing the end of their drinking peak that you can snap up cheaply.
This is also a great time to try some wines that would typically be a little more expensive than what you would normally get -- you'll be able to see if they're worth a splurge later on. Here are a few end-of-year sale wines that dropped themselves neatly into Vine range:

Ravenswood 2004 Old Vine Zinfandel -- Picked this up for $11, down from $17. I normally don't think of Zinfandels as "elegant," but this was as close as I've found. Rather than the usual 2x4 of fruit across the tongue, the Ravenswood is surprisingly restrained. There's a nice, not overwhelming, fragrance of plums and berries on the nose. The palate has some nice fruit also, but it's not as jammy as many Zins. Instead, there's a nice balance of fruit and tannin -- almost like a cabernet. The finish is also less fruity and more complex than I've run into with Ravenswood and many similar wines. Very pleasant.

Wente 2005 "Morning Fog" Chardonnay -- Wente Cellars made the first wine in California labeled as Chardonnay, and they're a very solid mid-line producer. This wine is normally around $18 a bottle. I got this one for $13. This full-bodied chardonnay starts you with a well-balanced nose of toasted oak and vanilla. The flavor is rich, a little citrusy, and oaky. The finish is long and a bit crisp for a chardonnay. Unlike many California chardonnays (which generally aren't my favorites) -- this one balances fruit, oak, and richness nicely. I enjoyed it.

Francis Coppola 2005 "Diamond Series Silver Label" Pinot Noir -- Honestly, I've stayed away from
Coppola wines. I haven't done it because I've not liked them, but there's something about someone famous doing a "second career" as a winemaker that gave me pause. (I haven't tried any of the Greg Norman wines for a similar reason.) I figured that these might be overpriced, leaning on the Coppola name, but this one was $14, down from $20 -- so I figured, "Why not?" and I was pleasantly surprised. This is a very fragrant wine -- scents of strawberries, cherries, and something like leather. The body is very full for a pinot. A friend of mine once talked about how much he liked "chewy" pinots, and this one certainly fits the bill. Lots of berries and currant flavors, finishing with a thick, slightly dry flavor. A really nice pinot.

So, there you have it -- now is the time to try some of those wines you've thought about but thought they were just a tad too expensive. Get out there and Save! Save! Save!

(Hat tip to co-worker Kristan, her friend Emily, and the Sweet Partner in Crime for the column inspiration.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The glass has rizz...The glass has set...' here we iz, in Texas yet!

I would like to extend a hearty welcome to the three newest members of The Vineyard!

Thanks to editor Jeannie and crew, The Naked Vine will now be featured in the Plano Insider, the McKinney Courier-Gazette, and the Frisco Enterprise. These three news and entertainment publications cover the North Dallas market. While I share Texas' love of bourbon and branch, I hope to at least provide the Metroplex with a few alternative tipples.

Come on in! Pull up a seat and stay awhile!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Whatever Will Be, Will Be...Petite Sirah

Our neighbors Jeff and Christine joined us for dinner recently to celebrate Christine's brief return to the neighborhood. She'd been spending some time in (and would be returning to) Texas to help her sister her newborn young'un. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I put together a spread, and as the evening wore on, the wines we'd selected started to run a bit low.

I headed to the rack and pulled a bottle of Petite Sirah I'd picked out on a whim a few days before. I poured us a few glasses. Christine asked what it was. I told them and the two of them simultaneously broke into song:

"Petite Sirah, Sirah…whatever will be, will be…this wine tastes so good to me…Petite Sirah, Sirah…"

We all thought it was pretty daggone funny. Of course, this was our fifth bottle of the evening…

In any case, back to the wine. Petite Sirah (sometimes called Petite Syrah, Petit Sirah, or Durif) is a completely different grape varietal than Syrah. The grape was first cloned in France in the late 1800's by one...wait for it...Dr. Durif. He crossed a syrah grape with a French varietal called Peloursin and voila! This grape found its way to California, where it discovered its main home. It largely grows in the Napa/Sonoma area, France and, somewhat surprisingly, Israel.

When we made our first big wine trip to Sonoma, we experienced petit sirah for the first time at our first tasting at our B&B. This powerfully flavored wine opened our eyes to the notion that there was a heck of a lot we didn't know. The rest is history.

Petite Sirahs are generally big, inky reds that are often intensely fragrant. They're often quite tannic and can age for years. Petite Sirah was considered a "boutique" wine for many years. More and more of them are now finding their way into the general marketplace. Foodwise, they often pair with any kind of roasted meat, game, earthy vegetables and (sweet heaven) they're wonderful wines to have with chocolate. They should be decanted for awhile after opening, in general. They need a little time and some good swirling to open up. But once they do, they can be, in the words of a friend of mine, "total ass kickers."

If you're a fan of Syrah and Zinfandel, it's certainly worth trying a couple of bottles.

Bogle 2005 Petit Sirah -- I've long been a fan of Bogle, even though I haven't reviewed many of them for the column. They're generally solid, dependable reds. They didn't let us down with the Petit Sirah. This one has a big nose of plums and, believe it or not, apple pie. The body is quite big, and the fruit's pretty bold. The finish starts fruity, but then turns quickly dry and hangs on for a good long while. $9-11.

Oak Grove 2005 Petite Sirah Reserve -- This was the wine which caused the spontaneous post-gustatory singing. As I've mentioned, this varietal has a number of different spellings. This apparently caused their label writer to fall victim to synonym trouble. The label states that fruit flavors "explode on the pallet." If this were truly the case, Oak Grove's warehouses must be a mess. The wine itself is fruity, although not as strong as the Bogle. The SPinC thought it was more subtle than many petite sirahs, and I agree. The nose isn't as strong, nor is the fruit as intense, so it's probably more accessible for someone who's not tried a lot of them. The finish is dry and relatively quick. Still, as pointed out above, it is a pretty good tasting entry. For some, good enough to sing for. $7-8.

Guenoc 2005 Lake County Petite Sirah -- I pulled the cork from this bottle to find "Langtry" stamped on the side. Guenoc is Langtry Estates' second label. Their "estate" petite sirah will set you back $40, but you can find this one for about a third of that price. The nose of this wine rushes from the glass with a blast of mint and blueberry. From the other side of the couch, the SPinC said, "I can smell the mint from here." The nose also has a slight yeasty scent. The body is medium, much like a red Burgundy. The finish then turns dry as the tannin takes over, but it's a very pleasant wine. This wine recently took home "Best Petit Sirah" at the California State Fair. Give it a go at $10-12.