Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Naked Vine Goes Public

I’m honored and humbled to be asked to lead one of the Sunday Salons in Cincinnati. The Salons are fundraisers for the Rape Crisis and Abuse Center of Hamilton County. Tickets for the event are $65, and you’ll get to hear me ramble on in person about affordable wine. (As a friend pointed out, the ticket will be about the same price as the six wines I’ll be showing…)

If you’re in the area, come on out and say hello. It’s going to be a really nice event. The Salon will be hosted by David and Jan Lazarus. David, whose oenological knowledge knows few bounds, gave great assistance in selecting the wines for the event, while his wife Jan is a top-notch professional cook. She will be doing specific food pairings for each course. Delicious.

Also, you may have noticed that we’ve picked up another print home for the Vine. The Valley Planet in Huntsville, Alabama, is the latest to join the Benefactor Vineyard. Welcome to Jill and her crew in “Rocket City.”

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ol' Red Ned & Ol' Rog Fed

About six months ago, the Sweet Partner in Crime wanted to start taking tennis lessons. Both of us had batted a ball around before, but neither of us really knew how to hit groundstrokes properly, serve consistently, or use any strategy other than "try not to shank the ball onto the adjoining court."

Along came The Coach, a colleague of the Sweet Partner's, who responded to her request to "give us a few pointers" by setting up weekly lessons, breaking down our bad habits, and giving us the ability to actually keep a rally going. Coach is always good for the pithy gem. On the first day he worked with us, he came out with this:

"You know what the best shot in tennis is? The one that goes over the net. After that, there's a world of possibility. The wind could blow the ball in. You could hit a bird. Your idiot opponent could hit a volley from the baseline. But if it goes in the net, the point's over. Everything goes from there."

As the weeks passed, I realized that I have the natural ability to play "caveman tennis" (not a good thing), learned that moving on a tennis court is like playing basketball defense instead of trying to fill a hole like a linebacker, discovered that I can hit a decent one-handed topspin backhand, and discovered a competitive intensity in the SPinC I'd never seen before. (Note: Hit to her backhand if you play her. One she lines up her forehand, you're toast.)

Obviously, six months isn't enough to turn me into Roger Federer (although I actually have been mistaken in public for Andre Agassi…), but improving has been fun. So, in honor of the Australian Open championships, the Vine features Australian Shiraz. Shiraz, as I've mentioned before, is Australia's most notable wine export. There are any number of inexpensive wines from Australia -- known down under as "plonk" or "red ned." These "pop tart" wines are often interchangeable, and I wanted to move a bit beyond Little Boomey & Yellowtail. We're approaching the Finals, after all.

These very distinctive Australian creations are, like a weak backhand volley, squarely in the Vine's wheelhouse:

d'Arenberg 2004 "The Love Grass" Shiraz -- Love Grass itself is a weed is native to Africa; introduced in Australia as livestock fodder and to stabilize soil. The name comes from its uncanny ability to spread by attaching its seeds to anything that brushes by the stalk, be it animal, vehicle, human, etc. [Insert your other easy spun double entendres here.] The nose is...honestly, I don't know. The SPinC and I puzzled over this one. Leather? Coffee? Mint? Vanilla? We couldn't quite get a handle on it, but it's distinctive and we liked it. It was also, to steal from Sauvignon Blanc, a little "herbaceous." [Again, insert appropriate "grass" comment of your own.] The flavor is big and full of berries, but the finish is a drop volley of tannin across the back of the tongue. This big, herby Shiraz is great on its own, but it blew our doors off accompanied by a little dark chocolate. $12-14.

Pillar Box Red 2006 -- Pillar Boxes are the British Empire's contribution to the mail system. These metal boxes were the forerunner of the modern public drop mailbox. These were used throughout the British Empire in the 1800's. They initially were any number of colours, but eventually (as typical of the English) standardized to red, hence the wine's name. As for the wine itself, in the US, this would be a "meritage" -- a blend of half shiraz, a good portion of cabernet sauvignon, and a dollop of merlot. The results? Impressive. The nose has layers of interesting aromas: cherries, vanilla, and something like a baking cookie. It's a well-balanced wine with plenty of fruit and a nice amount of tannin. The finish is long, a little fruity, and dry. $10-12.

Shoo Fly 2006 "Aussie Salute" -- Another blend. This one is largely Shiraz, about a quarter Grenache, and a splash of Viognier. The "Australian Salute" is the term for waving one's hand in front of the face to flick away the ubiquitous bushfly. The name of the winery and the decals on the bottle pay homage to this Australian native arthropod. It's said that the Australian accent is a product of nose-breathing to avoid inhaling these buggers. Inhale deeply of this wine, however! The natural perfumes of the Viognier amplify the fruit of the Shiraz, bringing you a powerful combination of plums and coffee. The flavor is fascinating. All three of these grapes are featured in Cotes du Rhone -- and the flavor is, as the SPinC put it, "Like a fruity Cotes-du-Rhone without the funk." The finish is somewhat fruitier than a C-d-R, but with similar tannins, allowing it to flex between earthy foods and chocolates. A very nice find. $11-13.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Torron-tial Downpour

Over the next year, I'd like to look at some slightly less-known varietals that are becoming more widely available. I'm also going to try to demystify a few regions I think we all should know more about. Our first stop in 2008 is south of the Equator -- the Naked Vine's return to Argentina.

When I last wrote about Argentina, I mentioned chardonnay as their premier white grape. During a warm, albeit rainy and dreary stretch in January when neither of us really felt like leaving the house, we recently sampled a few bottles of Torrontés, long considered their signature white and now finally arriving in the States.

As a true wine-making varietal, Torrontés is grown almost exclusively in Argentina. Neighboring Chile grows a little, but is mainly used to make pisco, a type of brandy. The exact origins of the grape are unknown, although it's believed to have come from the Eastern Mediterranean.

What are these wines? They're halfway between Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc to my taste. They're usually quite fragrant -- lots of floral and citrus. They range in style from light-to-medium bodied. They're made to finish relatively dry and crisp. They're excellent wines to have on their own and their acidity makes them flexible with food. Like many Argentine wines, they're generally good values. If you want to break out of a white wine rut, here are some ideas for exploring this newly-available quaffer:

Nōmade 2006 Torrontés -- At first sniff, the Nōmade struck me with its very pretty nose. As I mentioned, these wines can lean towards Viognier in scent, and this is no exception. The bottle label suggests orange blossoms, and I wouldn't argue. It smells a little like lavender to me, also. The flavor, however, is nothing like a Viognier. While fruity, it's not nearly as "thick" as a Viognier. It's rather light bodied and crisp with some sauvignon-ish grapefruit flavors. The finish is medium-dry with a lingering hint of that perfumey nose. I could see this being really good with spicy Thai or Korean food. $12-14.

Lurton 2006 Flor de Torrontés -- The Lurton has a much more subtle scent. The nose is more tropical than perfume, more sliced peaches than peach blossoms. The body is considerably lighter and less fruity overall, although there is some acidity still there. The finish is gentle, but a tad watery and a little tart. While it wasn't my favorite of this varietal, it was refreshing enough to be a decent pool wine come summer, although finding something for that purpose that would fit the bill a little better probably wouldn't be difficult. $9-11.

Alamos 2006 Torrontés -- I've been very happy with the red wines, especially the malbec, from Alamos. Their Torrontés is an interesting addition to their exports. The nose of the wine is in-between the previous two in strength. There's more of a citrus character -- oranges and grapefruits -- to go with those typical peaches. The body of this wine is quite light and somewhat acidic. If not for the nose, this could have been a pinot grigio. The finish is similar to a pinot grigio, also. I'd pair this up with the typical pinot grigio foods -- seafood and creamy sauces, as well as almost any kind of spicy cuisine like curry. Interestingly, we'd made some pasta with red clam sauce, and the wines we had on hand that we thought would pair…well…didn't. We went with this Torrontés. It wasn't bad in a pinch. $8-10.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Prospero Año Nuevo!

The Sweet Partner in Crime hits a birthday milestone this year. She's long said she wanted to be "floating in the Mediterranean" then. Unfortunately, the collapse of the US dollar has made this an untenable scenario. If Barcelona weren't an option, we decided the least we could do was bring Spain to us.

In keeping with our New Year's Eve tradition of doing some experimental cooking, tasting scads of wine, discovering new pairings, and enjoying a mellow evening at home with Mooch, we forged ahead with a little Spanish feast for ourselves. The lineup for the evening:

Smoked Fish & Fruit Pintxos
Shrimp & Scallop Ceviche
Artichoke Hearts with Almonds & Figs
Mushroom Caps stuffed with Serrano Ham

Gazela 2007 Vinho Verde ($4-6)
Marqués de Cácares 2005 Rioja Blanco ($6-8)
Martin Códax 2006 Albariño ($10-12)
Care 2006 Cabernet/Tempranillo Rosé ($8-10)
Albiker 2005 Rioja ($6-8)
Freixenet Brut Cordon Negro Cava ($8-10)
Alvear "Carlos VII" Amontillado Sherry ($22-25)

Primer Curso -- The Sherry Retasting
As you've undoubtedly noticed, the Amontillado is outside our price range. My good friend The Wizard of Covington and I have had a number of conversations about how many people's distaste for certain kinds of liquors came from not drinking "The Good." (The Wizard is now a fan of certain types of rum, scotch, and sake as a result…) Last year's New Year's tasting centered on Sherries. After that fiasco, I decided I'd get a recommendation on a better quality sherry before I wrote the beverage off. The Sweet Partner in Crime was dubious.

I poured a bit as an aperitif. The nose initially was pungent, but not unpleasant and somewhat nutty. I was hopeful. I sipped a bit. It was certainly better than some of the selections from last year, but "better" is a relative term. I could have drunk more of it, but it wouldn't have been my choice on its own. Perhaps with the food…

Segundo Curso -- Fishie, Fishie, Fish…
Our first course was the pintxos, which are skewers of tomatoes, berries, olives, and smoked fish splashed with lemon juice and sprinkled with fresh ground pepper. Our original thought was that the combination seemed peculiar, to say the least. On first taste, however, we discovered that the sweet, salty, smoky flavors meshed into something nigh unto spectacular.

We had this with the white Rioja and the Vinho Verde. (The latter is actually a Portuguese wine, since there's not a Spanish VV to be found in the Greater Cincinnati area.) The Vinho Verde (just like the last time I tasted it) was very light and crisp. The Rioja was fuller, fruitier, and slightly more "round." Both of them would make nice aperitifs both complimented the wonderful array of flavors on the skewers. The Rioja probably graded out slightly better for both of us, but neither disappointed.

Tercer Curso -- In the Raw
Next up was the ceviche. If you're not familiar, ceviche is seafood that's "cooked" by first blanching it in boiling water for a few seconds, then marinating it in lime and orange juice for several hours. The fish is then tossed with peppers, spices, and diced tomatoes. Both of us are big fans of this dish, and we were glad to see that we were able to properly replicate the scrumptious flavors.

We tried the ceviche with the first two wines, as well as the Albariño. On first taste, the Albariño was full of smooth pear and peach flavors, but still crisp and light. The finish wasn't as sharp as the other two wines. With the ceviche, though, there was no comparison. The Albariño blew the other two wines away. Arguably my favorite pairing of the evening. I can imagine that Albariño would be a good wine to have around for almost any occasion, as it's tasty on its own and superbly food friendly.

Cuarto Curso -- Dueling with the Wine Killer
We love artichokes but don't usually use them as the centerpiece of a course. As an ingredient in a dish, artichokes usually add a really nice flavor -- but on their own, the unique flavor is notoriously difficult to pair with wine. We were not going to be dissuaded, however, as artichokes are favorites both among residents of the Iberian Peninsula and our homestead.

The artichoke preparation was interesting -- pouring boiling water over the figs, letting them plump up for a few minutes, and then steeping saffron in the drained fig water. We then sautéed the artichokes briefly, added the saffron water, the figs, sliced almonds, some salt, and vinegar, and then cooked the whole mess until all the liquid was absorbed. The result was an extremely tasty concoction.

On the side, we had what turned out to be a very tasty rosé. This wine had more body than a lot of rosés. It was almost more of a "light red" than a pink wine. It was fruity and a little acidic, but had a "roundness" that I think came from the cabernet in the blend. Very flavorful. Alas, the two great tastes didn't taste great together. No matter what we tried it with, the artichokes made everything turn bitter. The rosé and the Vinho Verde were the best bets. The Albariño and the white Rioja would not be recommended. And the Sherry? Ew. Just ew.

Quinto Curso -- Getting stuffed
The last official course of the evening was mushroom caps stuffed with diced Serrano ham, parsley, and peppers and then baked. The base flavors were great, but, unfortunately, we added a bit too much dried pepper. The heat of the filling came close to overwhelming the really interesting combination of flavors, but we managed.

The Rioja was quite a contrast to the lighter styled wines we'd had earlier in the evening. After the whites and the rosé, a mouthful of tannin and berries came as a shock -- albeit a very pleasant shock. The nose had plenty of plummy fruit, the body was full, and the finish was medium in both length and dryness. Very pleasant.

If we'd cut back on the heat a bit, the Rioja probably would have been the better pairing, but the rosé turned out to be quite nice. The acidity cut through the heat and brought up the flavor more strongly, but it wasn't for the faint of heart. I once again braved the sherry. All it did was intensify the heat, sending me to the kitchen for a spoon of lime juice to cool everything down. The sherry will likely go down as the most expensive bottle of cooking wine I've ever purchased.

Sexto Curso -- Ringing in 2008
Our meal complete, we settled in to watch the ball drop. We switched back and forth between Dick Clark and some random X-Games dude jumping a football field on his motorcycle twice. At the stroke of midnight, we did need some bubbly -- and I went with my old standby, Freixenet cava. Fresh and crisp, this is one of my favorite sparkling wines. After a glass to start the year in a sparkling manner, we discovered that the flavor-cutting tendencies of sparkling wine made it the best pairing of the evening for both the blazin' mushrooms and the artichokes.

(Yes, I know it's not the right toast -- we don't have "Salud" glasses…)

Not long after, we called it quits. I put a stopper in the cava to save it for New Year's mimosas; we cleaned up the kitchen more or less, and crashed. I can only hope that the rest of 2008 is as much fun as New Year's Eve was (and we will get ourselves to Spain at some point), and I hope all of you started the year out on a good foot. Welcome to 2008, everyone!

Salud y amor!