Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Chardonnay Chauvinism

"Why are you biased against chardonnay?"


I got this question in an email from a reader not too long ago. I won't lie...it got me thinking. I don't write a lot about chardonnay because, honestly, I just don't drink a lot of it anymore.

That's not to say I didn't drink a lot of chardonnay once upon a time. Like most wine drinkers, I started my exploration of the world of whites with chardonnay. House whites are almost always chardonnays. They're ubiquitous wines and there's a reason. Much like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay will grow almost anywhere, but it takes a certain amount of care to make a truly tasty chardonnay. Chardonnay is probably the wine most affected by terroir. The growing conditions make a huge difference with these wines.

When chardonnay is discussed, there's often talk about "oaky" and "buttery" flavors. Neither of these flavors is inherent to the chardonnay grape. The "toasted" flavor many chardonnays have come from the oak barrels in which the wine is aged. This process also often darkens the wine. The "buttery" flavor comes from a process called "malolactic fermentation." (Wine geeks love to throw this term around because it sounds important.) In a nutshell, it's a bacterial process by which malic acid in wine (which tastes like tart apples) gets converted to lactic acid, which is one of the major flavorings in milk. When you hear someone talk about a wine "undergoing malolactic fermentation" -- expect a softer, creamier taste rather than a crisp, acidic taste.

California winemakers, sometime in the late 1980's and early 1990's, decided that oak and butter were What Chardonnay Is Supposed To Be. Many of these chardonnays were either powerfully oaked or so creamy that they tasted like buttermilk. Neither, in my estimation, was a particularly good thing. Sure, they're drinkable, but I just kept finding more and more interesting white wines.

Also, since I enjoy focusing on food with wine, I could usually find a wine that will complement whatever I'm cooking better than one of these California chardonnays. It's a "good enough" pairing, but again, I can usually find something that works better for me. Over-oaked or overly creamy wines tend to overpower rather than complement food.

Then someone slipped me a white Burgundy. White Burgundies, especially Chablis, are Chardonnay, but they're completely different from their American cousins. There's usually some oak, but the cooler climates keep the barrels from imparting lots of oaky flavor. The creaminess in these wines comes much more from the wine "resting on the lees" (meaning that the fermenting wine is kept in contact with spent yeast) that malolactic fermentation. The result is a crisp, clean wine that goes with almost any food. California chardonnays simply got pushed off my tasting radar.

But then I got this email and I figured -- "OK, let's give some other chardonnays a try...I'm always willing to be convinced..."

Round Hill 2007 "Oak Free" Chardonnay -- Thankfully, thankfully, some of the California winemakers are realizing that the world doesn't necessarily feel like gnawing on charcoal with a glass of white wines. There have been more and more of these "unoaked" chardonnays showing up on the shelves. The Round Hill still has a nose of banana and cloves, which can often be one of the side effects of malolactic fermentation. The body is crisper than many California chards, but there's still a full mouthfeel and there's still a slight smokiness to the flavor from somewhere. It's slightly creamy and does have more of an acidic character, with a little fruit and smoke on the finish. The Round Hill is a much better food wine than one to have on its own. It nestled nicely with roast chicken topped with pancetta and mashed potatoes. $7-10.

Waterbrook 2006 Chardonnay -- There should be no secret to the Vine faithful that I'm a big fan of wines from the upper left-hand corner of the U.S. California chardonnays get blasted with much more heat, so the acidity and fruit can get washed out. Wines produced in cooler climates tend to have softer, crisper flavors, so I hoped this would also be the case with Chardonnays from the Pacific Northwest. The Waterbrook, from Columbia Valley in Washington, didn't disappoint. The nose is light and crisp with scents of lemon and vanilla. Not surprisingly, a much more subtly flavored wine. The flavor is crisp and acidic -- peaches and vanilla with a little bit of oak. The finish starts out softly acidic, but that fades quickly into a gently toasty finish that becomes more pronounced after a couple of sips. A very nice glass of wine that would complement grilled salmon wonderfully. $11-13.

Olvena 2007 Somontano Chardonnay -- I also make no secret of adoring Spanish wine, and I'm a sucker for a glass of Albariño. I hadn't tried a Spanish chardonnay before, so wanted to slake both my thirst and my curiosity. I'm glad that I did, because this is a really interesting wine. The nose was different from many Chardonnays -- it's floral and somewhat "chalky." On the first taste, I thought this would be very similar to a French version, since it started me out with a slightly-citrusy, minerally character. Those flavors give way quickly to vanilla and oak, finishing with a combination of citrus and toast. Imagine a slightly oakier white Burgundy and you'll have it. And for about $12, you can have it! It's a great value at this price, and, like almost anything from Spain, extremely food friendly.

As I mentioned, Chardonnay can be grown almost anywhere that grapes can take root, so the "expressions" of Chardonnay are myriad and can be quite interesting. For me, however, the gold standard is still white Burgundy. If you feel like treating yourself, get yourself a bottle of white Burgundy and see what you think. You'll probably end up paying $18 or more for a bottle, but you'll never look at a bottle of "supermarket" chardonnay the same way again.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Local Eats -- Aussie wine dinner

Those of you in the Cincinnati area are probably aware of the annual Cincinnati International Wine Festival in mid-March. That week's events include a slew of wine dinners around the city. These usually run between $125-150 per person. For those of us more on the budget-minded side who still want a wonderful gastronomic experience, one of my comrades in grapes, Danny Gold, has arranged an independent wine dinner on Wednesday, March 11.

Danny teamed up with Bouquet restaurant in Covington and the importers of d'Arenberg wines from Australia to create an Australian-themed wine dinner. d'Arenberg wines have been featured on The Naked Vine before. Their "Love Grass" shiraz is an all-timer of mine.

The meal is five courses for $70 per person -- the price includes a 5-course meal, wine, tax, and tip. Seating is limited. If you're interested, contact Danny for more information.

Also, Danny and I are planning another wine-related venture. More on that as it develops...

And, on a local eats tangent -- I finally stumbled on Wine Me, Dine Me -- a great blog about food and restaurants in Cincinnati. Mike sez check it out...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tropic of Capricorn-ucopia

The Scene: A novice wine drinker scurries nervously down the aisle of a local wine store. He studiously avoids eye contact with the "overly helpful" store employees who hover like Eddie Bauer associates around a 2-for-$25 rack of mock turtlenecks. All he wants is a bottle of wine that will simply taste good to his uneducated palate. Ducking left out of the chardonnay aisle, he finds himself staring at an array of multicolored bottles of red wine from Australia. He exhales, looks left and right, snags a bottle of Rosemount Shiraz, tucks it under his arm like John Riggins, and heads straight for the checkout...

Yes, yes -- that was me back in the day. I didn't have much of a palate. My knowledge of pairings didn't extend much past "red with beef, white with chicken." Swirling wine was something snooty people did. I just wanted something where I'd like the taste and I could fill my glass again and again without thinking.

The Australian aisle was my saving grace. The Ozzies produced an ocean of cheap "plonk" (still one of my favorite words in WineSpeak...) in the mid-to-late 90's, but they established themselves as go-to cheap, decent "wine for the people." I drank plenty of that stuff. My palate became more adventurous as I started going to wine tastings and learning more about pairing food with wine, and I largely drifted away from Aussie offerings. I was introduced to California Syrah and I became acquainted with the offerings from the Syrah-heavy wines from Rhone valley in France, so the cheap, down-under versions tasted like fruity messes. New Zealand also burst onto the scene with their crazy sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs, so Australia got eclipsed in my wine rack for awhile.

I'm coming back around on Australian wine. The Barossa Valley shirazes have become more and more interesting over the last several years, as I wrote about last January. They've also become more and more expensive. The latest trend I've seen, however, is Australian winemakers following in the footsteps of the Italians.

About a decade ago, Italy started cranking out these wines they called "Super Tuscans." These were sangiovese-based wines blended with non-native grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The result was powerful, fruity and complex wines that the Parkerites snapped up by the case. (I like Super Tuscans, but I think many of them are terribly overpriced and far too fruity to pair with a lot of Italian cuisine, but that's just me...) The Australians started doing the same sort of blending on a large scale with Shiraz over the last few years. The result has been an increase in relatively inexpensive, food friendly, complex wines.

On the heels of my column about domestic white blends, I thought I'd have a look at some of these reds from where the liquid in the blending tank spins the other way:

First Drop 2006 "First Love" Red Wine -- Since I'm writing this column on Valentine's Day, this wine seems like a fitting place to start. The First Drop is a blend of Shiraz, Grenache, and Barbera. (65/25/10) The nose is interesting. The Shiraz comes through on the nose with a big whiff of ripe blackberries, but there's an undertone of earth there. The flavor is, as you'd expect, big and fruity -- but tempered and given a bit of depth by the Barbera. The finish is a little smoky and still quite fruity, with some solid tannins. I really enjoyed this wine as a kick back bottle at the end of the evening, but you could certainly have this with any number of foods. It bills itself as a "Southern French inspired wine with Italian stylings." I have no idea what that means. It's good. Try it. $10

Turkey Flat 2005 "The Turk" -- Here's an interesting blend: Shiraz, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Mourvedre. (50/28/16/6). Turkey Flat does a lot of wines in the $25-60 range, so this one's their "experimental" second label wine. A successful experiment, at that. The Turk (the nickname of the winery itself) starts you with a deep nose of dark fruit and licorice. It's fruity on the initial taste, but broadens into a chocolatety middle. The finish is slightly dry and very chocolatey. Not surprisingly, a great wine to actually have with chocolate. It's no slouch with food, either. We had this with a pork tenderloin roasted with sliced fennel bulbs. The aromatics in the fennel nicely complement the fruitiness in the wine. $12-15.

Water Wheel 2006 "Memsie" Red Blend-- Water Wheel wines is in the Bendigo region, which is one I haven't explored very much. "Memsie" is the name of the estate where the grapes are grown, and that moniker is also on their red and white blends. Their red is a Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec/Petit Verdot blend. (70/16/6/6) Not surprisingly, this was the fruitiest of the three wines I tried here. This wine has a classic fruity Shiraz nose of plums and berries tempered by the smoky scent of the malbec. Probably the most complex smelling wine of the bunch. Jammy initially at first taste, the wine mellows quickly and ends up tasting like a fruity cab. Some licorice and spice float around in the body as well. The finish is quite long with soft tannins. Like the others, a very pleasant wine by itself because of the out of the ordinary nose, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommended it with burgers or any kind of red meat, really. $11-13.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Death and Taxes -- updated

They may be inevitable -- but there's no reason we have to like them.

I've tried to keep most of my politics out of this blog -- but Governor Beshear's current call to raise the state alcohol tax to 17% (which would make it one of the highest in the nation) is downright ridiculous.

If you're a Kentucky resident and you actually enjoy buying spirits at a reasonable price, give a buzz to your state reps and the governor's office.

Kevin Keith at Liquor Direct has a good take here. I like Kevin's suggestion -- get rid of all the damned dry counties. Why should preachers and bootleggers have all the fun?

UPDATE -- per K2...the alcohol tax increase passed the House 66-34. I never thought I'd root for the Kentucky GOP to do anything, but here's hoping it crashes in the Senate. What an upside-down world we're in...

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Conundrum Conundrum

I like to know what I'm drinking.

One nice thing about American wines is that they're generally pretty easy to figure out. A sauvignon blanc will say "sauvignon blanc" right there on the label. Merlot is "merlot." White Zinfandel is...well...pink. No great mysteries.

Like many novice wine drinkers, I was flummoxed by European wines because I had no idea what they were -- and there aren't usually "Hey! Pouilly-Fuisse is really Chardonnay!" signs posted in wine stores. I usually avoided Eurowines and others without grape names on the labels since I had no idea what I was getting into. There was, however, one notable exception:


Back in the day, it was "Caymus Conundrum" -- and I adored this wine. The SPinC and I used it as our "special occasion" white for years. (We used to save all the corks as remembrances -- so we were disappointed when it went to a Stelvin closure.) I was fascinated by it. Sauvignon blanc, muscat, chardonnay, and viognier all happily co-existing in a deliciously complex white wine. "Who ever thought that blending a bunch of different grapes together could create something this good?" I thought.

I knew that there were plenty of red blends. I was used to seeing "Grenache/Syrah" on the side of a bottle of Rosemount, for instance. But whites -- aside from the occasional Australian "Semillion/Chardonnay" which I generally didn't care for -- I just didn't think they got blended.

[Factoid: For an American wine to be labeled with a grape, it must contain at least 75% of that grape. A U.S. made chardonnay is at least 75% chardonnay, for instance.]

I've learned differently, of course -- few European whites, especially French whites, are 100% of any kind of grape. There are predominant grape varieties, of course, but blends are more common than not, which is one of the reasons that I find whites from Europe more "textured."

American winemakers are learning, though. Much like the "Rhone Rangers" in California first came up with "meritage" to mimic some of the French red blends, a number of American winemakers are starting to experiment with white blends to make the most of what they have on hand. None of the white blends -- at least as of yet -- have drawn the star power of Conundrum, but most of them also don't carry the same pricetag.

I've run into a few of these blends recently that I think are worth your while. One quick note on almost all of these, though. At least in my experience, white blends tend to be considerably more temperature-sensitive than straight varietals. All of these wines will be much more complex and flavorful if you let them warm up a few degrees above where you'd normally pour whites. Trust me, it's worth it. Here's a few for you to check out:

Magito 2006 "Rivertrace Blend" White Wine -- The back label of this bottle leads with a quote from one of my favorite poets, the Persian poet Rumi:
"Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love."
What that exactly has to do with this particular wine, I'm not sure, but it was enough to get me to give it a whirl. This complex, interesting wine from Sebastopol is made primarily from sauvignon blanc with some viognier and verdelho blended in. With the presence of those "V" wines, I expected a perfumey wine. Instead, there's a gentle nose of pears and lemons. The body is rather full with some melon flavors. The finish is a little bit dry and pleasantly acidic. I really enjoyed this wine with a meal of grouper with jicama & tomatoes in a black bean sauce over some yellow rice. The wine was assertive enough to let those citrus notes through while not detracting from the other yummy flavors flying in every direction. $10-12.

Seven Daughters (NV) White Wine -- This wine struck me as blend where it seems the winemakers said, "Let's just throw all this extra grape juice together and see if it works." I know that there's more care than that -- but it's interesting to see that many grapes on the label. French Columbard (the backbone of cognac), Chardonnay, Riesling, Symphony (a relatively new clone from California), Orange Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc make up this little California creation. The wine itself? Well, at first we tried it after we'd eaten some red fish... Swedish fish to be exact. [Fail. Reboot wine drinking...] After a couple of crackers, we tried again, took a sip and weren't impressed. There was a nice fragrance of oranges and flowers on the nose, but the body quickly turned bitter. We put it aside for a bit. That made all the difference, since the wine needed to warm almost to room temperature. The body then broadens quite a bit, with more melon and mineral characters standing out. The finish becomes more crisp and less bitter. Once it got to that point, it reminded me a little of a Loire wine with its minerality -- and I'd pair it with many of the same foods: white fish and shellfish, Thai, and other cuisines with a bit of spice. $10-13

Hedges 2006 "C.M.S." White Wine -- Hedges winery makes a number of higher end red blends and single varietals. Their second-label blends are known as "CMS." They've done a cabernet-merlot-syrah blend for awhile, but they've started doing whites -- the "CMS" stands here for "Chardonnay, Marsanne, Sauvignon Blanc." Marsanne is a grape grown largely in the northern Rhone Valley but made its way via California to Washington -- where it gets blended into this very interesting wine. French Marsanne creates rich, spicy wines on its own and is blended in with other grapes to create depth. A little goes a long way. While there's only 3% in this mix, that's plenty to enrich the flavor. Coupled with the creaminess of cool-climate chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, this white winds up with a very complex, well-balanced flavor -- especially since you're drinking something with a $10 pricetag. There's some pear flavor, some oak, some mineral, and a firm, lasting finish. Again, fish and shellfish are the obvious pairings.

Since it's possible to create reasonably complex, yet inexpensive, wine through blending -- I think you'll see more and more blends like this showing up on the market. The trick will be figuring out where they'll be shelved in your local wine store.

As for Conundrum, it's still out there and it's still a good bet. If you want to give it a try, a bottle's around $25.

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