Friday, March 20, 2009

Party with the "V" -- Viognier

Viognier. It just sounds cool.

Of course, you need to know how to say it first. I know I went an embarrassingly long time calling it something like "veeYAWGnyur." (All of the people who heard me do so have been properly paid off or disposed of...) For the record, it's vee-OHN-yay, and dropping the varietal name appropriately immediately raises your wine cred.

So what the heck is it?

Viognier is a white wine grape. Until recently, it was a particularly rare grape. The varietal almost became extinct in the mid 60's. It's enjoyed a resurgence as the general worldwide demand for wine increased and folks wanted something a little different from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

France, not surprisingly, is best known for Viognier. Viognier thrives in the northern Rhone. Many Rhone wines, including Rhone reds, contain at least some viognier. As a bonus, part of the chemical composition of Viognier stabilizes the color in red wine; so many winemakers use it in their red blends. Viognier is also grown in Languedoc, where it is usually produced as a vin de pays. (That's French WineSpeak for "the quality level right above table wine.") The U.S. and Australia are growing more and more Viognier, and South America has considerable plantings of the grape already.

On its own, Viognier produces an extremely fragrant, floral wine. These wines vary in style from bone-dry to somewhat sweet but are always extremely aromatic. As a blending grape, adding Viognier tends to act as adding a pinch of salt to some foods -- the aromas of a wine with even a small amount of viognier in the blend become amplified and much more "forward." Viognier is a tricky grape to grow, and it's also tricky to make, so some of them can be quite pricey. Cheap Viognier can often have a bit of an "oily" characteristic -- which is often masked by a winemaker making the wine overly sweet. There are some good ones that are relatively inexpensive, and ask for recommendations if in doubt.

Viognier's aromatic nature makes it a good choice as a food wine to pair with spicy Thai or Vietnamese cuisine. (Many of the same chemicals found in the bouquet of Viognier are also in Riesling.) It also pairs with stinky cheeses, but the Thai option piqued my interest. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I decided that we'd do a side-by-side-by-side with a spicy chicken green curry that we whipped up.

Here's what we were pouring.

Domaine de Mont-Auriol 2006 Languedoc Viognier ($9-11)
Renwood 2006 Lodi Viognier ($7-10)
Alamos 2007 Viognier ($8-12)

(These wines are from France, California, and Argentina respectively...)

The Mont-Auriol started off with a strong nose of flowers, pears, and minerals. It has a slightly alkaline (a bit of that "oily" above) mouthfeel. It was dry and minerally, with a finish that was dry and a little bit smoky. "A Viognier I could drink by the pool," commented the SPinC. As it warmed a bit, the oiliness disappeared from the flavor. It only needed a slight chill.

The Alamos had a softer scent than the French wine. Certainly not minerally, and considerably more fruity. The flavor was much more delicate -- peaches and a little bit of chalky minerality. The finish was light, dry, and minerally. Definitely a lighter wine to drink on its own, and not as interesting.

The Renwood had the strongest scent of the three. Peaches and flowers leap out of the glass. It had a fuller body with a slightly sweeter taste. The mineral taste was the weakest of the three, and the fruit was the strongest. The finish was soft and slightly sweet.

We dished up the curry over some basmati rice and gave the three of them another try. The French wine did not fare well. It became much more pungent, almost unpleasant, with this particular pairing. The Alamos, by contrast, really took off when paired up with the curry. The flavors of both the food and wine became much stronger and more interesting. The Renwood didn't do much at all. It was a decent accompaniment, nothing more.

We also discovered that the French wine had a bit of a "window" in which it was tasty. Too cold, and the flavors get lost and the aroma's not as nice. As the evening went along and it warmed up, it became much, much less palatable. We couldn't say the same with either the Argentinean or American wines, which were flavorful even with only a slight chill.

Viognier certainly isn't a wine for everyone. I know a number of people who simply can't stand the stuff -- the contrast between the scent and the flavor is just too much for them. I personally like it for a change of pace. It's definitely a wine worth trying, if just to contrast it...with just about everything else!

(Personal note -- this column goes out to my old friend Orin, one of the purveyors of -- one of the best women's basketball fan sites on the net...)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mike's Manic Nirvana -- Cincinnati International Wine Festival

Love is in the stars - love's heaven sent
Brush your lips and mine - taste my good intent
Lay it on real close, inside my crazy arms
Come on feel your Daddy's love, I won't do you no harm
-Robert Plant, "Nirvana"

Let me set the scene for you:

One of the big ballrooms in the Duke Energy Center -- packed full of booths. In each booth, a winery, wine distributor, or some other gustatorily-related company. All here to show their wares to the "trade."

The "trade" is basically anyone with an interest in wine -- restaurateurs, wine shop owners, wine distributors, waiters & waitresses, and one bald wine blogger.

There were a few other wine writers in attendance. I ran into Michelle Lentz from My Wine Education (who, along with her husband, was Twittering the event from their dueling iPhones...) and Mark Fisher of "Uncorked" in the Dayton Daily News. (I joked that there were too many of us -- that it could rupture the space-time continuum...yes, I'm a geek...)

In any case, the way this little event works -- I paid my $15, got my glass, my wristband, and my nametag, and headed in. I then spent the next three hours wandering from booth to booth, sampling wines.

Now, there were 135 vendors -- pouring 600+ wines during the three hours. I had to commit what in my life is a cardinal sin...

I dumped a whole lot of wine.

Even with my superhuman constitution, there's no way that I could try THAT many wines without collapsing quickly in a heap...even pacing myself. So, I sipped, sniffed, swirled...and spit. And spit again. And dumped. And found myself apologizing to the winemakers for dumping their wine. At least, apologizing to the ones who were pouring good wine and were friendly to me.

(My heart goes out to the pourers and winemakers who were giving their tasting spiels. I don't know how they were able to give the same information over and over again and keep smiles on their faces. I know it would have driven me bonkers.)

All in all, I tried about 100 wines, give or take. Even despite my best efforts, I figured that I still swallowed about half a tablespoon of wine per taste. 50 tablespoons = a little over 3 cups = about a bottle of wine. Not bad for $15, and I got to keep my tasting glass. It was enough that I was pretty wiped out by the end -- and my teeth were a fantastic shade of black by the end. It was all worth it.

I recognized a lot of the wines being poured -- many of which I've written about here. I tried to focus on wines that I either didn't know or didn't remember. So, the Naked Vine's picks from this little event?

Within Vine Range ($15 and under):
Maryhill Winery -- My best all-around discovery in the under $15 range. This family-owned winery from Washington State cranks out solid, delicious wines that won't break the bank. Of special note were their 2007 "Winemakers Red" -- a luscious Bordeaux-ish blend with incredible flavor and balance, and their 2007 Sangiovese Rose, a fruity-but-dry treat of a wine that would go with just anything from a hot summer patio to a meal of fish or pasta.

Yarraman 2006 "Hay Burner" Chardonnay -- The "Robert Whale Selections" table had a number of interesting Aussie and New Zealand wines. Their Australian Chardonnay, the first that I tried at their table, was as interesting as any. Very crisp and clean styled. Plenty of peach and melon with a nice oak backbone to make it interesting. Would be fabulous with pork chops or creamy pastas...especially at $9.

McNab Ridge Winery -- Full disclosure. They were my last stop of the day, but their wines were interesting and flavorful enough to cut through the layers of tannin and fatigue building up on my tongue. I thoroughly enjoyed their 2008 Columbard and their 2006 "ZinZilla" Zinfandel. My favorite was their 2006 Petit Sirah, which I decided was the perfect wine to end my day at the tasting, or most other days. Great fruit and muscular without being overwhelming, especially at around $14.

Graffigna 2008 Pinot Grigio -- A pinot grigio from Argentina? Heck, why not? I'm used to pinot grigio being a good sluggable wine, but this onr carried a little extra weight. A fuller mouth than most pinot grigio, along with a notably stronger floral nose. Solid fruit on the palate with a crisp, fruity finish. A winner at $12-14.

Primarius 2006 Pinot Noir -- A fascinating Oregon pinot. Most pinot noirs at this price range tend to be extremely fruity and concentrated instead of subtle. This one's an exception. This wine was the most delicate of all that I tried at the tasting. Smoky and smooth on the palate, with raspberry and pepper on the tongue and a lasting, smoky finish, I was duly impressed that this was a $13 bottle. Food would likely overpower this wine, but for soft light and good conversation, top notch.

Slightly out of Vine Range($20-50):

Giornata Wines -- One of the best conversations I had during the tasting was with Brian Terrizzi, the winemaker. He was recently featured in Gourmet in an article about the spread of Italian varietals in California. He said that he eats Italian food "3 or 4 times a week" and he wanted to make wines that would pair well. From what I tasted, he succeeded. They do a delicious Sangiovese, but their il Campo, was an especially wonderful wine. Great fruit, balanced tannin, and a perfect accompaniment for a hearty Tuscan homecooked meal. Heck, even with pepperoni pizza. These were between $20-28, and I'd snag a case in a heartbeat if I could.

Helix 2005 Columbia Valley Merlot -- I've become a sucker for Columbia Valley wines, can you tell? The cooler climate in that area produces wines with fuller, more complex fruit flavors. In my opinion, it allows for big, fruity wines like merlot to gain some weight and some additionally intricate flavors. This merlot shocked me with its depth, but more importantly with the level of tannin. This was one of the drier merlots that I've ever tasted, but that was a good thing. It could stand up to steak as well as any cabernet. Big, chewy tannins balanced with plum and blackberry favors. Scrumptious. $22.

Fortress Vineyards 2007 "Finale" -- Fortress was sharing a table with Epiphany Cellars. Epiphany makes some wonderful wines in the $30-40 range (their "Revelation Red" was an absolute rockstar, to borrow a line from my pal Alfonse...), but the Fortress wines jumped out at me for being a little bit different. They had a Sauvignon Blanc that tasted a great deal like a good white Bordeaux, but their Finale absolutely blew me away. It's a dessert wine made from 100% Semillon. Made in the same style as a Sauternes, with many of the same flavor characteristics. Thick and rich, with flavors of honey and licorice, exceptionally well balanced. One of the best dessert wines I've ever tasted. At $30, a tenth the price of Chateau d'Yquem.

Way out of Vine Range ($50+):

Rutherford Grove 2005 Estate Reserve Howell Mountain -- An absolutely fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, and it should be at $65 a bottle. From a small vineyard planted in a tough-to-harvest location on top of Rutherford Mountain in Napa, this wine has one of the most deliciously fragrant noses I've had. Wonderful balance of fruit and vanilla, and a finish that lingered lusciously.

Domenico Clerico 2005 "Arte" -- A nebbiolo that's similar in structure to a Barolo or Barbaresco, but a little more approachable. Dark, big, and bulky -- this was a wine to be treated with considerable respect. This was one of the few wines this powerful and tannic that I could actually imagine having on its own now...or 5-6 years from now. But I can only imagine what this would have been with a braised veal shoulder or some such. A symphony of flavor. $55.

Best in Show:
Huneeus Vintners 2005 "Faust" Cabernet Sauvignon -- Maybe it was the name that piqued by devilish curiosity. Maybe it was the powerful black cherry, fresh tobacco, and blackberry flavors that cut through everything else that I'd tasted up to that point. Maybe it was the tannins, strong but without taking away from the fruit and the finish that seemed to go on for days. Whatever deal was struck by these winemakers, they put together an absolutely delicious cabernet -- likely in my personal Top 10 of that varietal all time. Probably will set you back around $55, but considering that "high end" Napa cabernet sauvignons are selling for literally hundreds of dollars a bottle, run with this as a splurge and hold on to your soul.

By the end, I was exhausted, my palate and the rest of me was tired, but I was pleased. I was pretty intimidated when I walked into the place, but I felt like I held my own among the wine cognoscenti. Can't wait for next year. I could get used to this...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cincinnati International Wine Festival

Your intrepid wine blogger is completely housed after an afternoon tasting wine.

More to come, including some great finds -- at least in my opinion.

For now, enjoy the tired, wine-stained smile...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cincinnati Bigfoot Sighting

From my pal Danny Gold at Party Source:

This St. Patrick’s Day, we are gathering up our shillelaghs to squash the famed Sasquatch, known as Bigfoot. Sierra Nevada has come out with some amazing beers and this year’s release of Bigfoot has left a big impression on us and we want to share it with you. Come join us March 17th, as we pass out a bit of gold from our Kegerator Bigfoot style. We’re passing out samples of the 2009 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot for $ .50 and growlers for $8.99 (normally $16.99). Join us as we set up shop at eQ here at The Party Source from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm or until we run out of this impressive release.

Bigfoot is tasty stuff...

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Surprise! Surprise!

So, I get mail...

Vine reader Steve K. asks:

"You go through a lot of wine, and you seem to like most everything. I get it -- there's a lot of good wine out there. But do you ever get surprised by a wine at this point?"

When you taste a lot of different wines, it's true -- wines tend to fall into categories. When I get a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, for instance, I'm expecting it to be acidic, have a bunch of tropical fruit flavors, and smell like freshly cut grass (or cat pee, depending on your nose). A good Chianti will have a chalky flavor that doesn't taste so good on its own, but with a plate of pasta -- yummilicious!

I know I've written about my dismay when someone says a wine is supposed to taste like something, but with enough "experience" (VineSpeak for "a lot of bottles under the bridge"), you get an idea of what to expect. At this "price point," there can be great degree of uniformity. Every now and again, however, I'll run across a wine that showed me a little something outside the normal cognitive schema.

So, with that in mind, here are a few recent selections I've tried, cocked an eyebrow at the glass, and said, much like the blonde chick in the KFC commercials: "Whoa...I didn't see that coming..."

Douglass Hill 2006 California Chardonnay -- Honestly, I can't remember what possessed me to buy this bottle. I was sauntering by the "2 for $10" section, and I saw this wine there. Nondescript label, no notes on the back. I knew that I was going to need some white cooking wine, so I figured that it wouldn't go to waste if it ended up being unacceptable as a drinking wine. I cracked it, poured a little, and it honestly didn't taste like much of anything. Almost watery, in fact. I put my glass on the kitchen counter, went off to do something, came back -- and I swear this wine changed when it warmed up. Instead of watery plonk, this chard developed a soft, green apple nose. The body was crisp for California chard, with just a hint of oak leading to a semi-dry, slightly oaky finish. For $5, an impressive bottle.

Monkey Bay 2006 Rosé Wine -- I'd had the Monkey Bay sauvignon blanc before. I like it. It's a solid if unspectacular New Zealand sauvignon. While ambling towards the checkout on a recent shopping trip, I picked up the rosé on impulse because I needed something pink in the house. I had a couple of recipes in mind, but didn't want to think too much about pairings. I figured that this would be a safe bet as a sluggable rosé -- specifically, something that could go with whichever meal got cooked, that I could have a couple of glasses of and be done with. This rosé led with a full nose of strawberries and flowers, so I expected this to be a little on the sweet, fruity side. Instead, while there was certainly plenty of fruit, there was a surprisingly nice level of acidity to balance it out. There was more strawberry along with some citrus on the palate with a zesty, dry finish. Oh, for dinner? Halibut and white bean stew. Went nicely. $8-10.

Bota Box 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel -- I usually keep a couple of boxes around these days. It's economical, there are decent ones out there, and when I'm on the third or ninth glass of the day, I don't necessarily want to crack the good stuff. I've also been on a bit of a Zinfandel kick lately, so when I saw this new three-liter, I was interested -- but I was also dubious. More and more people have been turning on to Zin (red Zin, that is), and the market response is obviously to put more and more of it out there. There are a lot of six and seven dollar Zins out there right now, but they're the American answer to cheap Australian shiraz...many of them are fruity, slightly sweet messes. I figured I'd give this a try. What's the worst that could happen? I'd have a box of cooking wine. So I poured a glass, took a sip, and quickly smiled broadly. There's plenty of fruit on the nose, sure, but there's also a little spice and smoke to back it up. The flavor is full of big, dark fruit, but there's a smoky, toasty taste as well. The finish is hearty, dry, and with nicely balanced tannin. It's a very nice end-of-day wine with chocolate and at $18-20 a box, it's a steal.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Top 100 Blogs for the Frugal Gourmet

Many thanks to Kelly and the good folks at Culinary School Guide. They included The Naked Vine on their list of the "Top 100 Blogs for the Frugal Gourmet."

There are some great resources on there, so hop on over and check them out.