Thursday, October 23, 2008

Let's go to the Mal(bec)!

One of the first wines I wrote about on The Naked Vine was Malbec, not long after having discovered it initially. Since then, I haven't had much of an opportunity to natter on about this until-recently-overlooked varietal.

Lovers of French wine know that Malbec is one of six grapes that goes into the blend that makes up Bordeaux wines. (The others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Carmenere, and Petit Verdot.) Malbec as a predominant varietal produces big, inky, tannic wines that historically haven't been very common.

Malbec took off as a singular varietal after it was exported from France to Argentina in the mid 1800's. The terroir of Argentina turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered for this grape. Argentinean Malbec has much less tannin than the French counterpart and, as a result, is a much more flexible, approachable wine.

I've long extolled the virtues of Malbec as a "grilling wine," but there are other benefits, as well. Polyphenols are the organic compounds that give red wine many of their alleged health-supportive properties. Malbec has some of the highest concentrations of polyphenols, making it an extra "heart smart" wine.

During my wine tasting recently, the staff and I got into a conversation about Malbec in its various forms. I ended up choosing three to try with a strip I had ready to throw on the grill. The contestants for this side-by-side-by-side were...

El Dueño 2007 Malbec ($9-11)
1919 2006 Malbec ($9-11)
Chateau Lagrezette "Zette" 2003 Malbec ($8-11)

The first two listed are from the Mendoza valley, which is where most of the best Malbec in Argentina is grown. The third is a French version. It's around 85% Malbec, with some Merlot and a little bit of a grape called Tannat (which produced an even inkier and more tannic wine than Malbec) blended in.

First impressions: The El Dueno smells a lot like a Zinfandel with a big burst of blueberries. You also get a snootful of fumey alcohol that takes some time to breathe itself out. Eventually, the body becomes somewhat tart, with a smoky pepper finish. The 1919 -- my first thought was "chocolate covered bacon." Yes, I'm serious. Work with me on this one. The body was rich, velvety, and much easier to drink on its own than the Dueno. The Zette was a disappointment. The nose reminded me initially of Robitussin, and the body was extremely tannic. Leather moving straight into big tannins without much fruit. Even after a couple of days, the Zette still was a big, tannic mess.

With the aforementioned steak, The Dueno became "brighter" with the beef. The tannins balanced out the fat in the meat and the berry flavors of the wine stepped to the forefront. It stood out well on its own. The 1919 was interesting. Rather than "playing off" the flavors in the beef, the flavors in the 1919 ran "alongside" them. Dark flavors of chocolate and coffee, as well as some dark fruit were a silky sidekick to the rich meat flavors. The finish had enough tannin to take the fat away and leave a pleasantly dry finish. The Zette again fell short. The beef and wine clashed, unfortunately, and we ended up leaving it for later. As I mentioned, I tried drinking it a couple of days later, and couldn't pair it well.

So, what's the verdict? If you like your wine to stand out from your beef -- then go with the Dueno. If you want a wine that you could drink by itself or that eases up next to the grilled meat and nuzzles gently, the 1919. As for the French? I hope it would be happy being part of a good, rich Bordeaux.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Thanks...and the rundown

One more time -- thanks so much to K2 and the gang at Liquor Direct in Covington and Ft. Thomas for being such fantastic hosts at the wine tasting last Friday and Saturday. I had a great time. Honestly, I had as much fun meeting the staff as I did talking about the wines. I hope we can do this again sometime.

So, what does a cheap wine guy select from a store to taste when given the run of the place? For those of you who couldn't make it down (or up, or over, depending on your geography), here's the rundown of what I had out for folks to try:

Martin Codax 2007 Albariño -- "As if a chenin blanc mated with a bottle of honey." Maintains all the crispness and fruitiness of this wonderful Spanish grape, but with a little residual sugar to take the edge off the acidity. The result, a very approachable, mostly dry, friendly wine that you could have on its own or with any kind of fish. $10-12.

Muga 2007 Rosado -- Lighter than when I first wrote about it, but still one of the best pink wines I've run into. Bone dry, but with plenty of melon and grapefruit flavors, I described this as my "fallback if I've been invited to dinner and don't know what's cooking." Anything short of a ribeye will pair nicely. $12-14.

Verget du Sud 2006 Syrah d'Endes -- A French syrah that will show you what the "Old World Funk" is, if you still don't know how that smells. The...ahem..."forest floor" smacks you right in the nose at first whiff, but beneath that (especially on the palate) is one of the more complex wines you'll find for around $10. There are all sorts of smoky, dark berry, and earth flavors playing around here. Some balanced tannin dries your palate at the end. As one taster put it, "This one makes my tongue feel fuzzy." Think mushrooms, ratatouille, or anything with legumes to go alongside.

Marques de Caceras 2004 Rioja Crianza -- Probably the overall winner by seeing the number of bottles I saw walking out of the store after tasting. I love this wine. The label says that you should "open an hour before drinking." If you follow those instructions, once this wine opens up, it's wonderfully fruity without being overwhelming. Nice body of blackberries and cherries. The finish is long and soft, eventually turning dry. An extremely well-balanced wine, especially for $10-12. As I told folks, "Anything you can drag across fire goes with this wine."

Batasiolo 2007 Moscato d'Asti -- I don't see a lot of dessert wines at tastings, and I thought it would be fun to throw this out there. When I saw the range of wines, I thought, "Start with honey...finish with honey." Unlike the Albariño, however, this wine was quite sweet -- pears and honey were the dominant flavors. This wine could be an aperitif, go by its own as a dessert, or pair with a fruit and cheese brunch board. And, at 5% alcohol, you don't have to worry. Just enjoy. $10-12.

Stumble It!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Have a drink with me! (updated...)

Hey there...

If you're in the Cincinnati metro area, please swing by one of the Liquor Direct locations on Friday or Saturday. Following in the footsteps of Michelle Lentz of My Wine Education (is there a tasting in town she doesn't know about?) and Tim Lemke of, I'll be pouring a variety of (no surprise here!) Mediterranean wines for your palate's pleasure.

Kevin Keith at Liquor Direct has been kind enough to let me be my usual silly self, so please -- taste some wine and say hello. I'll be at the Covington location on Friday from 4-8 and at the Ft. Thomas location on Saturday from 2-6. It'll be good to meet many of you in person for the first time.

Come on down!

Stumble It!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Turning the Tables

One of the founding missions of the Vine was to alleviate "wine anxiety" -- the sinking feeling that comes when presented with either an overwhelming array of wine choices or a "think fast" situation. Last weekend, I was at a conference in Chicago. On successive nights, I found myself out to dinner with groups. Each night, a colleague who knew about my secret life away from the academy handed the wine list in my direction and said something to the effect of:

"You're the wine expert -- so you pick the wines!"

Time for the hypothetical rubber to meet the proverbial road.

OK, then -- ground rules if you find yourself in a situation like this. First, it is of utmost importance that you do not panic. Fight down all of those feelings that rise up about making sure you pick the "perfect" bottle. Guess what? You can't. There's simply no way to find a single wine that will perfectly mesh with everything at the table, so don't try. You're looking for "horseshoes and hand grenades" here.

Secondly, since you don't know everyone's palate -- do the best you can. Think about what you would order with the different dishes -- even if they aren't dishes that you'd ordinarily order.

Third, don't let the waiter rush you. Stall. Order water and say that you're "still deciding on your entrée." They'll have to make an extra trip, but no matter -- just tip well.

Fourth, have some standbys in your head. Generally, we fall into patterns with wines and cuisines, so you should have an idea of some relatively flexible wines (or at least varietals) you can call upon. I mean, you can't really go wrong with Riesling or Pinot Noir with just about anything.

Fifth, don't be afraid to get the least expensive bottle on the menu. If a restaurant's worth its salt, they won't put crap wine on their wine-by-the-bottle list. (They will jack up the price of nasty wine by the glass, though.)

So, what did Mike do?

The first night, I was at an Italian place, Volare, with two coworkers from my college and a new friend that we'd met in the hotel bar while we were deciding where we were going to go. (She hailed from Utah and had given a presentation at the conference, so she certainly needed wine.) I ordered a seafood risotto dish, and the others ordered bowtie pasta in a vodka sauce, ravioli in a salmon sauce, and a Caprese salad (mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil).

What do we have here? Seafood, lots of tomato flavors, and a salad. So, a flexible Italian red. Nothing too heavy, light tannins, and nice fruit. My normal instinct would have been to look for a Montepulciano, but there weren't any available. So, I went with a Barbera d'Alba instead. Something like the Marchesi Di Barolo 2006 Barbera D'alba Ruvei would work well here. (Around $15 retail.) The table seemed to be agreeable with the pairing, even one person who normally didn't drink red wine. The food, just for the sake of full disclosure, was downright wonderful.

The next night, I was with a large group at Tavern at the Park, a "classic American cuisine" restaurant overlooking...well...Millennium Park. I was having wine, and a couple of other people expressed interest -- although for some reason I ended up splitting the bottle with only one other person. Anyway, the menu at this place is all over the map, but most folks were keeping to beef or seafood. (One of our party ordered a scrumptious looking brownie dessert as an appetizer! Rock on!) Most of the food was grilled, so I needed something that would pair well there.

Grilled meat and fish hearkened me straight back to Barcelona, so I found a Spanish red, the Viña Izadi 2004 Rioja (again, retails for about $15). A little bit of spice and smoke on the nose and in the body held up well against the grilled flavors, and enough oomph to handle sauces and the like. Like most Rioja, this one needed to open up a bit before drinking, but once it did, it was a very serviceable, tasty wine. Also, there's the added bonus of introducing people to Spanish wine. Lots of people think that's cool. (Well, except John McCain.)

The main thing to remember is that you really can't screw up too badly. Just remember, if someone sips their wine and they don't like it -- no worries! They're no worse off than where they started, and they'll probably order whatever they're used to anyway. So, either everyone at the table gets a glass that they like and enjoy, or there'll be an extra glass in the bottle that you're going to enjoy. Whatever happens, you win! So, spin the wheel, hand over the wine list, and let 'er rip...

Stumble It!