Monday, February 25, 2008

Fiddling with the Sicilians -- Nero d'Avola

Nero fiddling as Rome burns.

This image has become the allegorical embodiment of decadence and detachment. This, of course, is an apocryphal story. Nero reigned over the Roman empire from 54 to 68 A.D. The violin wasn't invented until the 1500's. This doesn't rule out the possibility of him doing some mean lyre plucking while the conflagration raged about him -- but fiddling…not so much.

What's a Roman Emperor doing this wine column? While I'm all about decadence (and not so much about pyromania), the only direct link between our day's topic and ancient Rome is the name. Nero, translated from Italian, means "black." Nero d'Avola is a grape varietal. Thus, the name is "The black [grape] of Avola." Avola is a small town in southern Sicily where this varietal was largely first cultivated.

Sicilian wine has had a bad rap for quite some time. The best known grape from Sicily is Marsala. Yes, the Marsala that you've probably seen used as cooking wine, right there next to the sherry on a well-stocked kitchen's shelf. Sicily made a few other wines largely for local consumption, but nothing really stood out on the world market.

However, like many other places in the world, as cultivation and wine making techniques continued to improve, and Sicily discovered that they could crank out some decent product. One of the great benefactors of these improvements was Nero d'Avola.

Nero d'Avola (also known as "Calabrese") was used for a long time as a blending grape, largely used for its inky color to add some heft to some of the other local product. However, cultivated properly, this varietal produces a very solid wine in and of itself. It's now the most cultivated grape in Sicily. Neros are generally big, fruity wines. They're usually very straightforward, and they have enough tannin to age pretty well -- but most are drunk relatively young.

While I don't think it will replace Montepulciano or Barbera on my table on a regular basis any time soon, I've tried a few and was pleasantly surprised:

Dievole "Pinocchio" 2006 Nero d'Avola -- Dievole Winery itself is not in Sicily, but in Chianti. They imported grapes from there and found that they enjoyed the Tuscan soil. My nose won't grow when I tell you that this is very fruity for a wine from Chianti. I'm used to wines from this region having a "chalky" taste. The chalk doesn't bother me when I'm drinking Chianti with food, but I usually won't drink one on its own. This wine is easy enough to drink on its own. It's soft and fruity, with a little bit of a floral nose. The finish is medium length and light. Pork or roast chicken would go well, as would a spicy fish preparation. $9-13.

Arancio 2006 Nero d'Avola -- Feudo Arancio wines are Sicilian in origin. This wine is a decent representation of what the grape has become in its native soil. It's not as fruity as the first one -- considerably earthier, and with a little bit of that Italian chalk. It's still pretty fruity, but has a nice spicy undertone that I liked. It would be a great pairing with almost any hearty Italian food. We had it with chicken tortellini soup and it was fabulous. For the price, you can't beat it. $6-10.

Morgante 2005 Nero d'Avola -- When I was a teenage sci-fi/fantasy geek -- back in the days before I discovered that kissing girls was much more fun than Dungeons & Dragons, I read a series of books by Steven Brust. In this series of books, there was a type of weapon called a "Morganti" that destroyed a person's soul. This similarly-named wine didn't quite have that effect, but it did leave my spirit dampened. Available for $11-18, this was the most expensive of the wines that I bought, and was by far the most disappointing. The nose was nice enough -- lots of fruit. The taste of the wine was unimpressive, however. No pronounced character of much of anything, and a finish that could only be described as flabby. Perhaps I just got a bad bottle, but I'd snag two bottles of the Arancio in its place in a heartbeat.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Salon Selections

I'm happy to report that the Sunday Salon benefit for the Rape Crisis and Abuse Center of Hamilton County went extremely well, in my estimation. We had a good crowd, delicious appetizers whipped up by hosts Jan and David Lazarus, and some lively lighthearted conversation. It was my first such event as a speaker, and I'm happy with the way that it unfolded.

I've had a couple of requests to post a list of the wines we featured at the tasting. So, without further ado:

  • Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($13-16)
  • Kenwood 2006 Sauvignon Blanc ($11-14)
  • Excelsior 2006 Chardonnay ($7-10)
  • Chateau St. Michelle 2006 Columbia Valley Riesling ($7-11)
  • Belle Vallée 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($20-24)
  • Francis Coppola 2006 Rosso Shiraz ($9-12)
  • Kinkead Ridge 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($17-20)
  • Beni di Batasiolo 2005 Moscato d'Asti ($11-14)
Thanks again to everyone who made the event possible. I'm honored to have been able to help out. All the best!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bordeaux Unraveled

As we move through the year, I’m going to try to demystify a couple of commonly referenced regions and/or wines you may see in your local store but that don’t intuitively present themselves to knowing what they are at first glance. I’m going to start with the grandpappy of French wines, Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is arguably France's most famous wine region -- although the folks over in Burgundy would almost certainly beg to differ. The region, about the size of the state of Montana, produces some 700 million bottles of wine annually. By way of comparison, the entire United States produces about 725 million bottles.

If you've followed along, you know that Bordeaux is not, in and of itself, a wine varietal. The wines are generally named for the village or town near which the wine was made, and the grower’s chateau. Although some growers in Bordeaux are breaking with tradition and printing the actual grape varietals on the labels, most choose to stay with the traditional nomenclature.

Since the label doesn’t necessarily make intuitive sense, Bordeaux can be somewhat complicated to decipher. How do you know what you're getting when you buy a bottle of the stuff? If you get a wine guide, you'll see a lot of commentary about "the 1855 classifications," "first growths," "Cru bourgeois," and so on. If you really decide to get into French wine, learning this stuff is a must. For our purposes, there are really only two main things to remember:

First -- where the wine is made in Bordeaux almost always dictates the makeup of the wine. There are three divisions, based roughly on the chateau’s positioning on the Gironde Estuary: left bank, right bank, and Graves. Graves is technically “left bank,” but the wine style is different enough to warrant its own classification. Red Bordeaux are almost all blends. Left bank wines are made from mostly cabernet sauvignon. Right bank wines are largely merlot. Graves are usually around a 50/50 split. While there are 57 wine regions in Bordeaux, knowing these will get you by, as the bulk you’ll find will be from one of these:

Left Bank: Médoc, Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, Ste. Estephe.
Right Bank: St. Émilion, Pomerol.
Graves: Graves, Pessac-Léognan.

Second, the quality of the wine. The lowest "rank" is labeled simply "Bordeaux" or "Bordeaux Supérieur" without a regional name. These wines tend to be a little more generic -- and will likely be about the quality of an American wine of a similar price. Most generics will be merlot-based. They'll tend to have either a brand name (like "Michel Lynch"). Some may be called "Chateau" wines, but that's simply nomenclature. It's a basic wine. The next level up will have the name of the region on the label. So, if you see a "Margaux," you know you're getting a very decent French cabernet. A "Pomerol" will be a merlot. This is probably as pricey as we can reasonably get.

Now, if you see a wine with the name of the region and the name of a Chateau -- you're looking at a high-end wine. These wines are further subdivided into five classes, which are called "growths." There are five "premier crus" -- first growths. These will be some of the most expensive wines in the world. (Like, for instance, Chateau Latour) You may look, but don't touch. If you do, one of your wine store's helpful staff will probably lead riffraff like you or I away quickly, then clean the bottle to remove our cheap-wine loving fingerprints.

What to expect from Bordeaux? There's a reason that the First Growth Bordeaux are some of the most expensive wines in the world. These wines, even the generic ones, tend to be somewhat complex instead of fruity. Take your time when you drink them. Also, almost all Bordeaux need to breathe. The "Old World funk" that I've mentioned previously is probably most noticeable in Bordeaux. Personally, I've come to like the earthy taste of these wines, but it's easy to be put off by it initially. Once you get a taste for it, though, you'll enjoy "drinking the dirt."

"Hey!" you say, "What about the whites, smart guy?" Easy. White Bordeaux are almost entirely sauvignon blanc, although you may see some semillion in there. These wines will be very different from SB's that you're used to from California or New Zealand. They tend to be less grapefruity and more creamy. They usually have more body than your average SB, as well. I think the flavor of these wines is fascinating, personally. Bordeaux is also the home of Sauternes -- where some of the best (and most expensive) sweet wines in the world are made. My experience hasn't ranged there yet.

Here's a sample of a few Bordeaux, just to give you an idea. These wines vary so much in flavor that it's impossible to hold up one wine and say, "This is Bordeaux." But you'll have fun discovering that, I promise.

Chateau Jalousie-Beaulieu 2005 Bordeaux Supérieur -- 2005 is apparently going to be one of the "great vintages" of Bordeaux. You won't be seeing them in the Chateau bottles for probably six or seven more years, but the basic ones have been released now, and you can get them inexpensively, for the most part. This particular wine is 75% merlot, 25% cabernet. You'll find a nose that would ferment "jalousie" in many other wines. There's a strong, deep aroma of vanilla, earth, and dark fruit. The body is smooth and medium in style (from the merlot), and has a solid, dry finish. We had this with a mushroom and barley soup, and it was wonderful. $11.

Le Rosé de Phélan Ségur 2005 Bordeaux --. It follows that a region that makes good red wines would be able to put out a pretty decent rosé. Chateau Phélan Ségur is on the Right Bank This merlot-based rosé is light in nose and in body -- it has some very nice flavors of strawberries coupled with a solid acidity. The finish is flavorful and crisp, making it a good food wine. We made a spicy fisherman's stew to pair it. The acidity of the wine mellowed the spice nicely and the flavors were a really good complement. It would go with any kind of spicy food or roast or grilled chicken or fish. $12.

Chateau des Tourtes 2006 Bordeaux Sauvignon -- Yes, this one actually has the grape name right there on the label, rather than making you guess. As I mentioned, rather than being grapefruity or herbaceous, white Bordeaux tend to be fruity, luscious wines. You'll find that this wine is very rich for a sauvignon blanc, bordering on the body of a chardonnay. The nose is full of lemon and peaches and the body is full and fruity. It's not as acidic as some sauvignon blancs, so the finish tends to be less crisp -- but it's light, fruity, and long lasting. Fish, again, is a great complement -- crab cakes, poached salmon, even sushi would work with this. $10-11.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Resting on the Ottoman

Followers of the Vine know that the SPinC and I enjoy exploring. From ambling the twisty roads of Sonoma to the back roads of Indiana, we're on the lookout for new tastes in new places. Thus far, our oenological travels have been largely domestic. Our "international wine" exploration has largely stemmed from perusing the aisles of our local wine stores. (With the exception, of course, of the Thai wines…)

As winemaking technology spreads, so do the abilities of "nontraditional" wine areas to crank out a respectable vintage. Argentina, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand have all placed themselves firmly on the "check 'em out" list next to Germany, Italy, France, and Australia.

When wine that's not from a "typical" wine producer shows up, I'll give it a go -- for research's sake, of course. I recently stumbled across a few bottles from "elsewhere" to try:

Naoussa Boutari 2004 Dry Red Wine -- Greece, as much as any country, started the Western world down the oenological path. Were I a pantheist, Dionysius (the Greek God of wine and the liberation of the mind) would be one of my patron deities, of course. The Greeks boast the oldest recorded wine production in Europe -- starting about 6,000 years ago. Indigenous Greek grapes were the roots of many varietals around the world, especially in Italy. Greek winemaking flourished until its conquest by the Ottoman Empire, when wine production was repressed. The subsequent World Wars didn't help much either. In the 1950's and 60's, an inexpensive Greek wine called "Retsina" dominated the market, but it wasn't highly thought of outside the country's borders. Only in the last 40-50 years have Greek winemakers been interested more broadly in producing exportable product.

In this wine's nomenclature, "Naoussa" is the region. Boutari is the family name of the winemaker. This wine is largely made from the indigenous Greek Xinomavro varietal. This is one of the two main red varietals used in Greek wine (The other is Agiorgítiko). After I cracked the bottle and poured, I could have been looking at a glass of light-styled Beaujolais. The nose is a little more alcohol-scented than a Beaujolais, but the basic profile is similar. The nose reminds me a little of cranapple juice. There are some nice understated fruit flavors -- it's almost delicate…until you swallow. The wine then hits you with a load of tannin and a long, dry finish. The bottle suggests pairing with "roast meats and cheeses of…an intense character." I can certainly see that -- the tannins will slice through just about any kind of flavor like that. Lamb would be great with it, not surprisingly. $10.

Monarchia Cellars 2006 Pinot Grigio -- This is a Hungarian wine from near Budapest. The only other language with an indigious word for "wine" is Hungarian. (The word is "bor.") Hungary has produced wine since the 5th century AD. The best known wines in Hungary are either dessert wines from the Tokaj region, or a red wine concoction known as "Bull's Blood." I recently tried the latter, which was rather thin, watery, and did not make me grow horns.

The only other Hungarian offering I've had has been a novelty wine called Vampire, which pops in from Transylvania once a year -- and you're better off drinking blood, honestly. Hungary's wine industry was also slowed by the Ottomans for a long time, and the phylloxera epidemic did additional damage. In the mid-to-late 20th century, Hungarian winemakers started experimenting with varietals from other places, especially many of the German & Austrian varietals, along with pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Only in the last 20 years have their big indigenous varietals come back into play.

I was able to locate a pinot grigio from Monarchia, one of the larger Hungarian producers. Their pinot grigio has an appley-citrusy nose and a pleasant initial tartness. The body of the wine starts to go a bit south after first sip. After a few sips, it becomes a little watery instead of staying crisp. The finish is soft and not too tart. It's an easy drinking wine, but not really anything out of the ordinary. It's a good experiment with a grape, but there are probably better ones out there. $9.

Kavaklidere 2006 Yakut -- Turkey is one of the largest producers of grapes in the world, but only two percent of its yearly harvest is used for wine. Once again, the Ottoman influence had a major effect. Turks are not big wine drinkers. Americans consume 33 times more per capita, while the French consume almost 215 times as much. Even so, Turkey is starting to explore its winemaking abilities as well. They are making some higher quality products. Yakut is the varietal. It's made of two native varietals (Bogazkere and Öküzgözü) and islabeled "red table wine." Honestly, that's exactly what it is. The nose is interesting. It's got a lot of plum up front, but there's something behind it that almost smells like apples. There's some good dark fruit on the medium palate, and the finish is long, dry, and a little earthy. It's similar in style to a Cotes-du-Rhone, and I'd probably pair it with similar foods -- like cheeses, hearty soups, and saucy meats. About $10 if you want to give it a go.

A number of other countries are getting into the act. Russia and the former Soviet Republics are producing more and more wine, and China will likely be a big player in the international wine market in the years to come. They shouldn't have any trouble from the Ottoman Empire, either. The number of varietals available on the market continues to expand, and I'm all for the options. Have any of you tried wines from "elsewhere?" Do share in the comments, if you would.