Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Naked Vine Goes Glossy

The good folks at Cincinnati Magazine gave me a shot at a guest column in this month's issue. Many thanks to Amanda and the rest of the crew there...

If you've found your way here after reading the article, thanks for stopping by! Have a look around. Kick your shoes off, pour a glass, and stay awhile. Hope you enjoy what I've got here for you.


Fly Piedmont -- The Up-and-Coming Region

Pop Quiz, hotshots.

Question: "Piedmont" refers to…

a) A regional airline, formerly hubbed at Washington's National Airport.

b) An geographical region of North Carolina which includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, and Burlington.

c) An Italian region where some of the most expensive wine in the world is made.

d) All of the above.

The answer is, of course, "d" -- although "a" brings back memories. My family used to fly Piedmont all the time while I was growing up. Piedmont was absorbed by USAirways in the early 90's, so it's but a memory now. Answer "c" is very much a reality, and is our next stop.

The Piedmont is considered most of northwestern Italy. Nestled against the Alps, the Piedmont is just a hop (a pretty high hop!) away from southeastern France. Piedmont translates very accurately as "the foot of the mountain." While Tuscany is the "scenic beauty" section of Italy, Piedmont is one of the world's geographic centers for gustatory decadence. Piedmont is the crossroads of French provincial cooking and southern Italian pastas and sauces. The result? Hearty meat and poultry dishes, pastas, fresh herbs, eggs, butter, cream, and food coma.

From a viticultural (WineSpeak for "wine producing") perspective, the Piedmont's wines are quite a change from what you'll experience in Italian regions like Tuscany in the south or Veneto in the northeast. As I've said before, the best way to understand the style of European wines is to look at the food from that area. Decadent food requires decadent wine, and you'll find them in spades in this region.

The Piedmont's best known wines are made from the nebbiolo grape. Nebbiolo is the backbone of both Barolo and Barbaresco. These are the Piedmont towns which lend their names to the growing regions of each wine. Barolo and Barbaresco are some of the most expensive wines in the world -- matched in price only by some of the higher-end red Bordeaux. If you'd like to try one of these, be ready to shell out 60-80 bucks, minimum. The first time I tried a Barolo, I didn't appreciate it. They're very big, complex wines which are built to age for decades. They're also nearly impossible for a relatively novice wine drinker to get a sense of. Luckily, there are alternatives.

There are two other major grape varietals grown in the Piedmont: Barbera and Dolcetto. For centuries, these were used to make relatively inexpensive table wine. They were fermented quickly and bottled to drink young. Why? Because Nebbiolo is a finicky grape. It only grows in a few choice locations, largely on the ridges of hills and it ripens late. The rest of the hilly vineyards are planted with Barbera and Dolcetto, usually. The growers get the Barbera and Dolcetto off the vines early, get it into the barrels to ferment, and as soon as the Nebbiolo is ready, they empty the vats, bottle the cheap stuff, and barrel up the moneymaker.

As with most places around the world -- as winemaking techniques improved, Italian vintners have started producing higher end Barbera and Dolcetto instead of just using them for table wine. Piedmont Airlines' old slogan was "The Up-and-Coming Airline." The Piedmont region could also use that slogan with the increased quality. These wines are wonderful food wines and cost a fraction of Barolo & Barbaresco. Here are a couple of examples:

Michele Chiarlo 2004 Barbera d'Asti -- People see "Asti" and usually follow it in their minds with "Spumante." Asti, however, refers to the Italian town where both the sweet sparkling dessert wine and Barbera are made. The Barbera grape, as a rule, produces a medium-bodied, fruity wine. Barbera is an all around flexible, tasty wine. This one has currants and cherries on the nose. It actually is a little thin tasting at first as it's initially quite dry, but fattens up a bit rather quickly with some nice cherry flavors. The finish is acidic and not at all sweet. Instead, you'll get balanced tannins and some oak. Barbera is a wonderful wine for anything tomato-based, especially if you're going to have meat in there as well. Italian sausage on pasta with red sauce and a Barbera is excellent. The best pairing I've ever had with Barbera, though? Pepperoni pizza. Mindblowing. $12-14.

Mauro Molino 2005 Dolcetto d'Alba -- People see "Alba" and usually precede it in their minds (or at least many of my male and some of my female readers do) with "Jessica." Ms. Alba, however, is a Danish/Mexican blend, not Italian like the Dolcetto here. Dolcetto is a the lightest major red of the Piedmont. Translated from Italian, "Dolcetto" means "little sweet one," although the wine is basically dry. Light, fruity, and slightly oaky, this Dolcetto smells and drinks like an Italian version of Beaujolais cru. You'll find it a little oakier than a Beaujolais and a little more firm on the palate. It's got a nice acidity that makes it also very food friendly, especially with foods a bit lighter than the Barbera. We had this wine with an Italian tuna and butterbean salad. Scrumptious. $10-13.

Fontanafredde Langhe Eremo 2004 Barbera e Nebbiolo -- An interesting blend. Most wines from the Piedmont that I've seen are largely single-grape wines. I got the sense that nebbiolo, being the pricy grape, isn't blended very often. When I saw this one, I wanted to give it a go. You get a quick smack of fruit-forward from the Barbera, and then the wine settles into the tannins and length that Nebbiolo is known for. However, Nebbiolo is one of those grapes that really does need time in the bottle to come to full flavor. Blended with Barbera, you get a little bit of the complexity, but at a mere four years old, the "Nebbiolo-ness" doesn't really jump at you. It's a much better wine for simply drinking or having with a red sauced pasta. If you wanted to cellar this one for a few more years, it might get really interesting. For now -- you're better off with the Dolcetto or Barbera. Or you could save up and splurge on a real Nebbiolo-based wine bottles from the turn of the century. $13-15.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Naked your living room?

Looking for an idea to spice up a party? Want your friends to love you forever? I've got a deal for you...

Thanks to the good folks at A Taste Of Monterey, I'm now available for in-home wine tastings. The setup goes something like this:

The host/hostess purchases a six pack of wines at a discount. You provide some appetizers and the like, and I come to your place and lead a tasting. The wines span the spectrum, and they're all affordable -- most are between $15-20. If people like the wines, I'll take orders and these wines will be delivered to your front door. Yes, I get a commission -- but it's a whole lot more fun doing wine than Tupperware, Amway, or those "fun parties" that I hear women in my office whispering about.

In any case, if you're interested in hosting one of these things, or if you'd just like some information, drop me a line. The calendar fills up, so let me know!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Springtime in (the general vicinity of) Paris

Spring's my favorite season.

Watching the world come back to life after the long, cold winter is a personal favorite pastime. In addition to this wine thing, I also have learned to garden a little bit along the way, and watching the tulips come popping out of the ground always give me a sense of accomplishment.

Springtime means we get to be outside again. We get to bask on porches, in parks, on roofs, wherever. I feel a rush of energy and thankfulness when the sun is finally warm on my face again. Here in Vine-land, this winter seemed harder than many. Just seemed to be cold forever, despite our relative lack of snow (until the ten inches we got the first week of March).

Springtime also means we start turning away a bit from the big, bold tannic reds that help fight off the winter chill. It starts to make sense to crack lighter-styled wines again. (Unless you're my uncle Alan who drinks Amarone in the furnace of midsummer.)

The French figured this out a long time ago. Since they've got a wine for any occasion as is, it makes sense to me to look Gaul-ward to celebrate the springing of spring. Admittedly, most of these wines aren't produced within a couple hundred miles of the City of Lights, but work with me, people. Just close your eyes and imagine that you're sitting on a bench in the Jardin de Luxembourg with a baguette, some meat and cheese, and one of these bottles (which, in Paris, you could probably get for less than you paid for the baguette…).

Verget 2004 Bourgogne -- I'm a big fan of Verget wines. For the price and the ease of carrying (since they're all, to my knowledge, Stelvined), you can't beat them. Jean-Marie Guffens, by all accounts, doesn't adhere to many of the "traditional" French winemaking rules, instead finding grapes from all over France to concoct very solid offerings. This white Burgundy (chardonnay) is a very refreshing wine. The nose is apples and flowers, with an undertone of yeast, indicating that the wine has "laid on the lees" (WineSpeak for "sitting on the yeast after fermentation is done") for some time. The flavor is crisply fruity and slightly creamy from the yeast. There's no oak here whatsoever, and the finish is a little acidic. Delicious just to drink on its own, but soars when paired with roast chicken or any kind of lighter soup. $10-12.

Domaine Guindon Coteaux D'Ancenis 2006 Gamay Rosé -- This wine is made from the same grape as Beaujolais. I'd never had a Gamay as a rosé before, so I was curious. This Gamay comes from the Loire valley rather than its traditional home in Burgundy. It turns out to be a very fruity, medium-bodied rose. Nose of raspberries and a little bit of a floral scent. Flavor is berry and cherry with a nice, balanced acidity and some mineral flavors. The finish is clean but not extraordinarily sharp. There's nothing complicated about this wine and it's not as acidic as I've found many of rosés to be. It's simply an extremely pleasant patio or picnic wine -- a great pairing with cheeses and cold meats. $10-12

La Noble 2005 Chardonnay -- Not a true white Burgundy, since it's from the south of France, but it's definitely put together in that tradition. There's no oak to this wine whatsoever, going instead as a crisp, clean sipper. The wine has a somewhat appley nose. The taste is classic French chardonnay -- a little sour apple, a little citrus, and a little mineral coupling with a medium body. The finish is minerally and very dry. Another great choice for a picnic, since it'll pair with just about anything that you can pack in a basket. An excellent choice with shellfish or chicken, also. I've found this regularly for $8-9 -- simply a great value for a wine like this.

Georges DeBoeuf 2006 Morgon Cru du Beaujolais -- I would have preferred to do a pinot noir based wine here, but I couldn't find a Burgundy for $15 or less. George DeBoeuf has enough of my money as it is with my Beaujolais fetish, so what's one more bottle, right? If I had to find a Beaujolais to stand in for an inexpensive pinot, this one will work. I've shied away from GDB wines for ahile, since they seem to have such a corner on the market these days. I think they've started to realize that they can't just put out generic plonk anymore and have started taking a little more care, especially with their "cru" wines. DeBoeuf makes these in a bigger, fruitier style than my summertime staple Beaujolais-Villages. The nose is full of cherry and vanilla. The body is slightly fuller than "regular" Beaujolais, but considerably more complex. Nice balance of fruit and acidity with a little bit of oak at the end. The finish is fruity and pleasant. You could have this with a spicy Thai meal or chicken parmesan. Or just have it on its own as a porch wine. For $11-13, a solid offering.

Enjoy the sunshine…finally!

Monday, March 03, 2008

"Crap! What did I do to myself?"

Hangovers -- a hazard of the occupation.

No one can work with wine without tipping back too much from time to time. The morning after. The headache, the nausea, and the sun, as Nicholas Klar wrote, "is like God's flashlight." Nobody to blame but yourself.

But what if the pain isn't your fault? What if you only had a glass or two and your head feels like John Bonham has been using your forehead for a snare? I've had more than one person say to me, "I like red wine -- but I can't drink it. If I even sip the stuff, I get a massive headache." At the wine salon, two different people told me versions of that very thing. The "red wine headache" is a not uncommon malady. I wanted to see if, as a public service, I could track down the cause. After all, what good is wine if you can't enjoy it?

The first explanation I generally stumble across: "It's the sulfites in the wine! Red wine has all these sulfites in the U.S. I've gone to [insert European country of your choice here] and the wine doesn't have sulfites in it, so I can drink it just fine. And I can drink white wine until the cows come home, but red wines just lay me out." So, to cover my bases, I decided to go with an imported white wine. I used Il Palazzone 2006 Orvieto Classico Superiore Terre Vineate for this. ($10-13) It's a very flavorful white wine. (Side note: I'm warming more and more to Italian whites these days.) This wine has a nose of flowers and licorice. It's medium bodied with some soft citrusy flavors and a little bit of oak. It has a very easy finish. Tasty to drink on its own, but with shellfish or a light fish dish, it's very nice.

I thought I'd solved the mystery. Find unsulfited wines and you're fine, right? There are some of them out there. Unfortunately, a little more research turned up one very interesting fact: White wines almost always have more sulfites than red wines.

There is such a thing as a sulfite allergy -- it usually causes breathing problems. It's also a pretty rare condition. These are generally people who can't eat dried fruit and the like, since it causes them breathing problems. Why more sulfites in whites? Sulfites are used as preservatives. Red wine has a natural preservative built in, generally. Tannin. Wines that age well are usually tannic, so…maybe avoiding tannic wines might stop the headaches.

For a low tannin wine, I used DuBoeuf Domaine de Grand Croix 2006 Brouilly Beaujolais. ($10-13) This wine is darker in color and somewhat richer than many Beaujolais. It sports a fairly strong nose of cherries and blackberries. There's plenty of fruit balanced nicely with a solid acidity. Nice crisp finish, too. It cuts nicely through spices. I made a Thai beef noodle soup with it, and it was very tasty.

Tannins are known to cause a release of serotonin in the brain. High levels of serotonin can trigger a migraine. However, wine's not the only source of tannin in a diet, and no one's ever complained of a tea or chocolate headache. So, back to the drawing board.

A third possibility is histamines. Histamines can trigger an allergic reaction in some people, brought on by a lack of a certain enzyme in the bloodstream. This reaction can cause headaches, as well as flushing or runny nose. The levels of histamines in red wines are between 20-200% higher than in whites. Spanish reds are often lower in histamines, so I went with the Martin Codax 2005 "Ergo" Rioja Tempranillo. ($10-12) The Codax albarino went very well with New Year's dinner for us, and the Tempranillo was also quite positive. The nose was of dark fruit and spices, almost like cherry cobbler. The wine's lighter than it smells. Some nice berry flavors and well-balanced light tannins.The finish is easy and somewhat dry.

Histamines seem to be a somewhat more likely culprit for these headaches, although there hasn't been conclusive research on low vs. high histamine wines. Even so, defense against histamines may fight off some of the headaches. A person can drink a cup of strong black tea before drinking red wine. A compound in black tea suppresses a histamine response. Aspirin before drinking can also help, although aspirin after the headache kicks in won't help. An antihistamine might stop the headache. However, because of the alcohol, you might be in for a very short night if you pop a Benadryl and down a couple of glasses of wine.

If you are one of those unfortunate souls that suffer from "red wine headaches," there's a simple (potentially painful) test. Drink half a glass of red wine. If the wine is truly the cause of your headache, then you'll get one within 15 minutes. Otherwise, it's not the wine -- it's probably the amount of it that you drank that fateful night. B-12, Gatorade, ginger ale, and a sub from Penn Station the next morning are better bets to help you out. If you determine that it's actually the wine causing your suffering, try the black tea or the aspirin. After all, why should headsplitting pain be a barrier from enjoying the good stuff?

h/t to Dr. Tom for the post title...