Monday, April 28, 2008

The Quasi-Outdoorsy

Overlooking the simple pleasure of a getaway is far too easy.

The Sweet Partner in Crime treated me to a weekend vacation at Natural Bridge State Park to celebrate my birthday. We had a rough agenda. Sleep in on Friday, get up at our leisure, and head down to Lexington to catch the last day of Keeneland. (I ended up breaking even on the day, thanks to a strong ride by a 10-1 longshot from Devil Eleven Stables bred by an old classmate of mine.)

After good times at the track, we headed down the Mountain Parkway to Slade. We stopped at Miguel's, one of the best little pizza joints you'll ever stumble across and unofficial community center to the "climber's commune" behind the place. We picked up a pizza and a salad there and headed for our cabin in the park.

We had a little mix-up at check-in. We opened up our cabin -- only to find someone else's bags already in the bedroom, newspaper in the kitchen. We called the front desk. I explained to the high-schoolish sounding attendant the situation and (after she asked "Are you serious?" and "Are you sure? Did you just check in?") said that she could get us another cabin. We went back to the lodge and received an apology and new keys from the manager. We ended up, by chance, in the same cabin where we did the Riesling tasting last year.

We settled in, finally able to enjoy the yumminess from Miguel's. Our need for bubbly with pizza is well documented, so we'd brought along a bottle of Royal St. Vincent Brut for the occasion (Usually around $15, found on sale for $10). The bubbly was crisp, dry, and had a little yeasty character. It tasted wonderful after a day in the sun and was simply delicious with the pizza.

The SPinC and I are what you might deem "quasi-outdoorsy." We love being outside, enjoy taking hikes, and think of ourselves as relatively adventurous -- but at the end of the day, rather than pitch a flimsy tent and sleep on roots and rocks, we'd much rather return to our cabin, shower, and cook a good meal in a fully-equipped kitchen. Some of you might consider that cheating, but's our vacation!

So, what did we bring along on this little jaunt of ours? Well, for general consumption after hikes and the like -- our old standard Redcliffe 2006 Sauvignon Blanc found its way into the fridge. For our evening chocolate consumption, we had a bottle of Benjamin Tawny Port from Australia ($10-13). An inexpensive port, it's got a strong but not overpowering sweetness, lots of flavors of vanilla and fruit, and a delicious finish. At the price, you probably won't find anything that can touch it.

The port also played itself into the meal we cooked on Saturday. We fired up the grill to cook some cardamom-and-balsamic marinated ostrich steaks. The ostrich was free-range raised by a colleague of mine at work (who, sadly, is getting out of the business). I'm a huge fan of the stuff, and if you haven't tried it -- it tastes like steak with the fat content of chicken. We did foil packets of vegetables and some boiled new potatoes. As a side, we diced a big apple and cooked it down with beef broth, the port, some honey, and more balsamic. Unearthly good as a chutneyish topping. Dessert was a couple of grilled pineapple rings, topped with more of the apple and port sauce.

To drink, I rolled the dice and tried a California meritage called Beauzeaux from BV ($9-12). 2005 was the first year of this blend, which has a Zinfandel base and includes juice from seven other grapes. It was nothing fancy -- just a straightforward, somewhat juicy red wine. Honestly, I wouldn't have wanted anything overly complicated with this dinner. There were so many fantastic flavors in the food that I was happy for the wine to stand at attention in a friendly fashion. For that purpose, it worked well enough as a complement. (Although I wouldn't recommend it with the pineapple.)

The rest of the weekend when we weren't eating? Other than a couple of wonderful walks in the woods (and with the slow spring we've had, we were right in the "wildflower wheelhouse" -- just beautiful colors) -- we didn't do much. We sat on the porch and watched the wind blow. We napped. We channel-surfed mindlessly (although the SPinC was fascinated by "Flip this House.") We talked and laughed. We relaxed. We slept like babies.

No email. No Internet. No cell phone service. We noticed that this was the first time in a long time that we weren't doing something. Both of us are really busy in our regular lives, and even when we have time at home -- we're usually doing something social, or catching up on watching shows, or we're checking email, or doing things for work, or running errands, or writing, or something that requires one or the other of us to be focused on something.

This weekend stood in stark contrast. Doing nothing, not plugged in for a couple of days -- not feeling the urge to be connected to people outside the room and the moment -- that peace was a luxury and a gift. No, we weren't completely "off the grid," but it was enough. The weekend gave us both nice recharge and a powerful reminder of just how easy it is to get caught up in the flow of what we find important in the "real world."

When did solitude become hedonistic?

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Whites of Their Eye-talians

"Wine Guy," I was asked recently, "You've been writing a fair bit about Italian reds...what about the whites?"

Fair question. I know I've snagged a couple of them here and there as I've gone through the world of wine, but I haven't really focused much on them. Most of what I know about Italian whites can be summed up as follows: "Italian white. Pinot grigio. Light. Dry. Tart." End of line.

I've walked past the Italian white section in wine stores again and again. I see row after row of pinot grigio, as well as "Soave" and a number of grapes ending in vowels. There's also the the Italian naming convention, by which the wines are named after the region in which they're grown -- and you've got a pretty confusing slate for a beginner to digest. There are literally hundreds of indiginous grapes in Italy, and almost all of them have ended up as white wine at one point or another.

The wine gurus haven't been much help, either. Looking to two of my go-to sources for information, Andrea Immer Robinson writes in Great Wine Made Simple, "The Italians...just do not care about white wine. Not that plenty of it isn't made, but much is for export and for cheap, refreshing drinking...The rest is meant to employ gallons of mediocre-quality juice from vineyards whose output used to go into Italy's famous reds (to their detriment) before the recent quality evolution." (p.210)

Kevin Zraly's
Complete Wine Course puts it more succinctly: "The Italians traditionally do not put the same effort into making their white wines as they do their reds -- and they are the first to admit it." (p.143)

Thankfully, as Dear Andrea mentioned, the revolution in wine-producing techniques made it to Italy, just as it has given us distinct bottles of yumminess from all over the world. While Italian wines are still generally light, crisp sipping wines, a wine shopper now has a little more variety from which to choose. The main thing to remember is the basic law of Italian wine -- What's for dinner? That'll give you a pretty good idea of what to expect, taste-wise, since the wine's made to go with the food. Let's have a look at three of the major growing areas...

Anselmi 2006 "San Vincenzo" Veneto – Veneto, the northeastern Italian region home to Venice, Vivaldi, and Roberto Baggio, is best known in the wine world for Valpolicella (a light, fruity red) and Amarone (a tarry, tannic monster). The best known white grape from there is Garganega, the backbone of soave, an unoaked, uncomplicated wine. This wine is a close cousin. The Anselmi is 80% Garganega, 15% Chardonnay, and 5% Trebbiano. It has a clean nose of peaches and grapefruit. The body is medium-to-rich with an interesting mix of acidity and sweetness on the finish. On it’s own, a very enjoyable wine. However, with a pungent fish dish, this wine shines even more. Sardines and shellfish are common in Venetian cooking, and we had this wine with an anchovy-sauced & breadcrumbed pasta. The wine cut through the fish's oil, enhancing the flavors before cutting through it into a nice, fruity mellow finish. A great pairing. $7-10.

Batasiolo 2006 Gavi – I talked about Piedmont a couple of installments ago. Piedmont is home to some of the more powerful wines in Italy, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the whites. Gavi is largely made from the Cortese grape, indigenous to the region. Considering the foods of the region – cheeses, ham, root vegetables, and mushrooms, I figured the wines would either be acidic like a pinot grigio or in the Riesling neighborhood. The verdict? Somewhere in the middle. The Gavi had a light, citrusy, grapefruity nose. It was medium boded with flavors of lemon and vanilla. It sported a crisp, tart finish. I found it to be more along the lines of a sauvignon-blanc. Very refreshing and more complex than the Veneto. Unfortunately, I didn’t cook anything up to go along with it. I had it with the leftovers of the aforementioned anchovy pasta. It had enough acidity to cut through the fish, but the tartness of the wine stood out more. It would be a very solid pairing with anything that you’d have with a sauvignon blanc. $12-14.

Fontana Candida 2006 Orvieto Classico
– Orvieto is in Umbria, an inland province sitting just next to Tuscany. Umbrian cuisine tends to be boiled or roasted, with vegetables and game strongly represented. Lentils are a staple of the diet there. It has a light, flowery nose with just a little bit of citrus. The flavors and acidity are similar to a pinot grigio, but with a little more body, so it's a bit bolder at first taste. This makes sense, since a light pinot grigio would likely get buried by the heavier nature of the food. The finish is still tart and crisp. A nice alternative if you want a white wine with something a little heavier. I did a throw-together salad of creole boiled shrimp, pineapple, shallots and red pepper with cider vinegar, fish sauce, and some spices (Yes, I was cleaning out the kitchen…) It worked well – although I shouldn’t have initially put it over greens. $9-11.

On a personal note -- many thanks to John & Jean Rosenberg. On this date in 1970, the three of us responded to a request from my grandfather. He let my folks know after Passover the night before that he "did not plan to go back to North Carolina without seeing his grandson."

At 6:40 am, we obliged.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The House Wine Evolution

I was recently asked, "So…Wine Guy…what wines do you usually have just sitting around to drink at home?"

Aside from the sheepish little grin I still get when someone calls me "Wine Guy," the question got me thinking. Honestly, there hasn't been much of anything resembling a "house wine" around the Vineyard for quite awhile. One of the upsides to this wine thing is that there's usually something new around to try. One of the few downsides? It's possible to lose sight of a "favorite" everyday wine.

(If you remember, the general answer to "What's your favorite wine?" is "Whatever's open.")

Digging back through the foggy mists of memory, there was a time not too long ago when there were standard, inexpensive wines purchased pretty consistently 'round here...before the daze of regular wine tastings and regular worship of Most Things Sonoma.

One move and two jobs ago, I usually kept a bottle of Rosemount Estates Shiraz-Cabernet around. When I started courting the Sweet Partner in Crime, I started buying the 1.5 liter bottles instead of the standard size. I revisited Rosemount's 2005 vintage this week for old time's sake. Rosemount's wines usually fall into the "pop tart wine" category, as many of their offerings are pretty indistinguishable from other inexpensive Aussie wines. Unlike most cheap Aussie Shiraz, this wine has a little more depth and character. The nose is very fruity, as you'd expect. The body is full of blackberries and cherries with a nice smoky undertone. The finish is fruity. It's very nice to drink just sitting around, and the smokiness makes it a better than average choice for barbecues and the like. Burgers and chocolate each go hand in hand here. Look to pay $6-9 for a 750ml, but you might as well splurge at around $12 for a big bottle.

Drinking wine with the SPinC opened my eyes to, among other things, three important observations. First, she introduced me to a set of oversized wine glasses she'd break out at the slightest provocation. Learning about proper-sized drinking implements is key to proper tasting. Second, I learned never to leave a full wine glass on a low table if Jessie (the lovable chocolate lab armed with the Furious Tail of Utter Carnage) were nearby. Third, I learned that it's socially acceptable to drink white wine. I almost exclusively drank reds before we started dating. She almost always had a bottle of Meridian Chardonnay on hand when I would stop by. The vintage in the store right now is the 2006. It's still a pretty decent quaff. The nose is melony with some oaky scent. I remember Meridian being much oakier in the past, but they've dialed that flavor back a good deal, leaving a much better balance between the oak and fruit. It's certainly on the oaky side of the "oak vs. butter" competition. It's quite pleasant on the finish, too -- nice fruit and a lingering smoky flavor. At $5-7, it's a great deal.

The closest thing to a "house wine" we currently have is the nearly-everpresent 1.5 liter bottle of Redcliffe 2006 Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge. One of my favorite finds of the last year or so, this is a good solid everyday wine. I wrote about this wine in my recent article in Cincinnati Magazine. It's from New Zealand (where they make my many of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs). The nose is full of grapefruits and peaches. The body is crisp with lots of grapefruit flavor and the finish is nice and crisp, making it both a great sipping wine and a "what do we have that will go with this?" food pairing wine. A 1.5 liter bottle can be had for around $12.

"But wait, Wine Guy," you're saying, "You told us not to drink wine straight out of the fridge! You can't taste the flavors!" Very true...but I learned a neat little trick. Pour a glass of wine chilled to fridge temperature. Put the glass in a microwave for 10 seconds -- no more. Ten seconds in a microwave takes the chill off the wine, leaving it at practically the perfect temperature without harming the flavors.

(As the SPinC aptly pointed out, "Um...couldn't you just leave the wine out on the counter for a few minutes?" Of course you could -- but what's the fun in that?)

So, what wines do you keep around on a regular basis for everyday drinking? Inquiring vines want to know.