Monday, November 23, 2009

Ringraziamento Italiano

As T-Day draws nigh, emails run about 50/50 between requests for recommendations with various holiday food and inquiries into what's going to be on the table on Thursday at Vine HQ when the extended family gathers. Yep. The SPinC and I are hosting again this year.

As in years past, we tried to find something a little unique to regale the 'rents with, and after some brainstorming, we came up with the idea of Italian-themed Thanksgiving. And after consulting with some of my nearest and dearest in the wine biz, we've got some pairings to nuzzle up next to the vittles.'s how it's (hopefully) going to play out. I hope folks are hungry:

  • Antipasta: Various meats, cheeses, roasted peppers. Vigna Dogarina Prosecco di Valdobiadene.
  • Primo: Creamy broccoli soup with lemon. (Trust me. It's tasty.) Tavignano 2007 Verdicchio dei Castelli de Jesi Classico.
  • Insalata: Roasted tomato Caprese salad. Argiolas 2008 Serra Lori rose. (Yes, slightly out of order, but run with it.)
  • Secondi: Choice of roast turkey tenderloin in lemon & caper sauce or beef brasciole. Cantine de Falco 2008 Salice Salentino/Cantine de Falco 2008 Primitivo Salento.
  • Contorni: Green bean & baby carrot medley; butternut squash risotto; potato & artichoke casserole.
  • Dolce: Tiramisu infused with Strega; Batasiolo 2008 Moscato d'Asti.

And if anyone's still standing at this point, coffee and grappa.

I'll post an update some time this weekend after I pry myself off the couch to let y'all know how it went. Hope you've all got good Thanksgiving plans yourselves. Enjoy your families, count your blessings, and raise your glass to absent friends. Buon appetito!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Seven Hills Winery

The state of Washington's been pretty good to me lately. Not long after putting together my reviews for Maryhill Winery, I got a request from Emily Gordon at J.A.M. Public Relations, who was good enough to offer me the opportunity to sample the new vintages from Seven Hills Winery, one of the older wineries in the Walla Walla vinicultural area in Washington State. Now, by "older," I mean 1988 -- but still...

Seven Hills native operation focuses largely on the major Bordeaux varietals -- Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot especially -- but they've also included some other interesting blends and varietals. Winemakers Casey and Vicky McClellan also source grapes from select areas all over the region, including the Columbia Valley in Washington and some areas of Oregon. They've also experimented with some other single varietals such as Malbec and Tempranillo. (The former of which I had the opportunity to sample, the latter, sadly, I did not...)

Emily and her co-conspirator Michelle Armour sent me seven bottles to sample. So, without further adieu:

Seven Hills 2007 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Wine -- The Sweet Partner in Crime and I had had a long, tiring week. We wanted to kick back and relax on a Friday evening, so that morning we put a beef stew in the slow cooker and cracked this bad boy when it was time for dinner. This is Seven Hills' true "Bordeaux blend" -- a little over 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with the rest Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Big French-style red and beef stew is a reliable pairing, so we figured this was right in the wheelhouse and we were right. The wine itself is a wonderfully balanced concoction. Once it opens and the alcohol burns off a bit, you're met with a forward nose of plums and vanilla. It's certainly a big wine, but wonderfully balanced. The tannins are firm, but even holding it in our mouths, it wasn't a "puckerer." Plenty of good, balanced fruit that slides straight into a finish that easily lasts over a minute of vanilla and dark chocolate. With the stew, it was an excellent pairing, although the finish started a bit sharp. ($32)

Seven Hills 2006 Malbec -- One of the wine terms that I've had the hardest time deciphering is "masculine" vs. "feminine" styled wines. I've seen this term pop up more and more in the literature, and I've not really understood the context. I've assumed that masculine wines are more fruit-forward, more powerful; while feminine wines would be delicate. I get that, but within a varietal? Malbec that I've tried has certainly been masculine -- big, tannic, strong. This Malbec, at least to me, shows a wonderful contrast, and I'll officially call this a "feminine Malbec." The nose, after a couple of hours to open, is very delicate and almost candylike. Plenty of full fruit on the tongue, but balanced well so that it never becomes overwhelming. The finish is a wash of fruit and a bit of sour cherry. I opened this one night when I had the grill to myself. With a steak...what can I say? This lady likes her steak medium-rare. And I concur. ($32)

Seven Hills 2008 Pinot Gris -- So, perhaps they can produce good pinot gris in the Pacific Northwest after all. The trick is to look in Oregon, where these particular grapes are sourced. Many domestic pinot gris end up light and watery or simply acidic, which works well if you've got food or if you're slugging on a hot day. I guess it just takes some care in the production phase to bring more out of this grape. The winemaking process is interesting -- 90% of the wine is fermented in stainless steel, with 10% in oak, giving this wine a little more body. It's a lovely smelling wine with a pronounced flowery nose. There's good balance in the flavor here -- it's citrusy, of course, but there's a nice creaminess to it. The finish is crisp and acidic, but not overly so. It's an elegant aperitif and would be nice with light dishes as well. ($16)

Seven Hills 2008 Riesling -- Washington's long been known for Riesling production, and Seven Hills is no exception. Made from grapes grown across the Columbia Valley, this is a Riesling of solid structure and taste. When first opened, the finish on this wine had a bit of a peppery bite, almost like a gewürztraminer. However, after a little air, the wine smoothed out nicely. The nose is very light and green apple-y. The taste starts like a classic Pacific Northwest Riesling, with honey covered apples, but there's a minerality to this wine that's lacking in many other slightly less expensive, Washington wines. The finish is the big difference. The finish is almost delicate, with a nice balance between sweetness and acidity. An extremely pleasant wine. We had this with scallops & salmon in a light cream sauce over roasted sweet potatoes. The wine performed well, and the fruit stood out, counterpointing the other flavors well. A little more expensive than many of the Rieslings I've seen from there -- but worth the extra couple of bucks. ($14)

Seven Hills 2007 Walla Walla Valley Merlot -- I was really looking forward to trying this wine, since some of my favorite Merlots are from the Pacific Northwest. If you try this wine, you'll understand why. The nose is, as the SPinC described it, "white and milk chocolate swirl-covered bacon...with a hint of blueberries." (Come on...just work with me, here.) The taste is extremely smooth, medium bodied, with some complex tarry fruit. The finish is smoky (more bacon!) with nicely smoothed out tannins, especially for a three year old wine. The pairing we had this with was absolutely exceptional. Braised pork loin chops and wild rice topped with an onion, mushroom & rosemary sauce. Interestingly, this was the "grown up" version of the SPinC's favorite meal when she was a kid. The combination of the earth, herb, wine & spice was heaven. And what doesn't go better with bacon? ($28)

Seven Hills 2006 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- One of the last adjectives I'd expect to use on an American cabernet sauvignon is "delicate," and yet -- here we are. I tried this wine and imagined a winemaker in Bordeaux visiting his cousin in Burgundy and thinking, "Hmm...let me try to make something like that..." It's about 80% cabernet with the rest a blend of merlot and petit verdot. What we found here was a lovely vanilla and violet scented wine that's about as light-bodied a Cab as you'll find Stateside. Again, a very "feminine" wine. The body's light but firm, with fruit that leans more towards cherry than the darker fruits. I clocked the finish on this wine as well over two lingering minutes of fruit and very mild tannin. Really, really nice to put it simply. Dinner with this was a braised beef chuck with porcini mashed potatoes. (We ended up calling an audible on the sauce after I accidentally scorched the onions I was trying to caramelize...) While feminine, there was enough backbone to stand up to such an earthy pairing. Just an excellent all-around wine. ($25)

Seven Hills 2006 Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon -- After the Columbia Valley, I was interested to try their single-vineyard Cabernet, which is a 100% cabernet. The nose is vanilla and an interesting fruit about halfway between raspberry & blackberry. It had full fruit without being fruit forward, if that makes any sense -- firm plummy flavors and leather with an undertone of smoke and tannin. I thought the finish was fascinating. Like a wave of balanced tannin that starts with a little burst of tartness, then gradually builds a bit of dry. I could taste the tannin all the way across my tongue and down my throat, seemed like. The finish was long and luxurious. It's a wonderful wine for sitting, enjoying, and contemplating the complexities. If you like to explore the depths of cabernet on its own, especially if you want to compare it to a California cab to see the marked contrast, it's an interesting experiment. (With food, however, it didn't hold up quite as well. Both a grilled filet with mushrooms and a side of green beans and carrots made it taste a little thin, and our usual dark chocolate test ended up just OK.) According to the tasting notes, this wine could cellar for 10-15 years "beautifully." I'd like to have the patience to wait that long. ($32)

Seven Hills wines are also available across the country, so they're at least obtainable wherever you might be. I thought these wines were excellent values if you're looking for "good bottles" for just about any occasion -- especially the reds.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ohio River Valley Barrel Tasting Tour

A little something for you to do after you recover from your tryptophan haze on Thanksgiving weekend. This release from our friends at Kinkead Ridge. The event is on Saturday, November 28th:
Five Southern Ohio wineries have teamed up for the "Annual Ohio River Valley Barrel Tasting Tour." The winemakers at Harmony Hill Vineyards & Estate Winery (Bethel), Kinkead Ridge Estate Winery (Ripley), Burnet Ridge Winery (Cincinnati), Henke Winery (Cincinnati) and Woodstone Creek Winery (Cincinnati) will open their cellars to feature barrel sampling of unreleased vintages. Currently released award winning wines will also be available at the tasting counters for those interested in purchasing that special holiday gift. This is a very traditional event common in California and Oregon, for families and friends to tour their local wineries, taste current and upcoming releases and meet the winemakers. More information is available at . Last year Cincinnati Magazine featured this event as a Top Pick for November.

Kinkead Ridge and Harmony Hill recently garnered medals in the prestigious American Wine Society International Competition for the 2007 Kinkead Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 Cabernet Franc, and Harmony Hills 2008 Aria. Kinkead Ridge was given a Double Gold Medal for their 2008 Riesling in the Best of Appellation event held in Napa, and a Gold for their 2008 White Revelation. Harmony Hill won a Double Gold for their Rubato, and a Gold for their Rhapsody. See and

In the second annual Ohio-Michigan Wine Clash, a blind tasting event held in Ann Arbor and Michigan, Kinkead Ridge 2007 Cabernet Franc was the only Ohio wine in the top five. For the second consecutive year, Harmony Hill was selected for the 2009 Best of Bethel Award in the Wineries category by the U.S. Local Business Association.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Alphabet Soup Project -- "A"

When you write a column like this one, it's easy to fall into a rut. Therefore, interspersed among my normal columns, I've decided to initiate the Alphabet Soup Project -- where I wander letter by letter...and see what we come up with.

So, to begin: A is for...alternatives.

I like to break out of the usual mold of around-the-house varietals from time to time just to see what else is out there, especially when it comes to Italian wines, since they grow so many varietals that aren't really seen commonly on this side of the Pond -- or really anywhere else, for that matter. Those crazy Italians grow something in the neighborhood of 500 varietals of grapes that can be pressed and fermented.

I broke out of my normal Sangiovese/Montepulciano/Barbera-heavy rotation of Italian reds with the Di Majo Norante 2005 Contado Molise Aglianico. In case you didn't notice, the actual grape in that lengthy title is "Aglianico." Aglianico is a varietal largely cultivated in southern Italy. It's a high-tannin, high-acid wine that usually needs a few years in bottle before it's really drinkable. I'd read that this was an exceptional pairing for pasta puttanesca, so I made a version that included some broccoli and caramelized onions. Thought I don't think of broccoli as particularly wine-friendly, this was really nice. The high acidity made it perfect for an meal like this full of spices and cheese. The acidity worked well as a palate cleanser and to bring out the bright cherry fruit that this wine has to offer. It was a little lighter than many of these wines, being similar weight to many straight Chiantis, but with considerably more structure and without the bite many of them carry. It was right around $15.

Along the same line, I wanted a drinkable Italian white for an afternoon and was looking for something pinot-grigio-ish. I landed on the Valdinera 2006 Roero Arneis. Arneis is a varietal grown in the Piedmont region, known most famously for Nebbiolo-based wines Barolo & Barbaresco and for Asti spumante. This fragrant medium-bodied white actually reminds me a great deal of Viognier. The nose is quite perfumey with plenty of melon and cider. It's medium bodied with a bit of an oily consistency that gives way to a nice amount of minerality. The finish is dry and slightly alkaline. By itself, nice enough to sip on -- but we opened on a Saturday afternoon where we'd put together a little "antipasti" for ourselves -- hard cheese, salami, and crackers -- it performed really nicely, with more fruit coming out as we worked through the food. Again, around $15.

I can have this sort of fun in France, as well. I was under the impression that all white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. I was wrong. Danny Gold threw me the Domaine Chêne 2007 Macôn-Villages -- which is made 100% from a varietal called Aligote. Aligote is planted largely in Eastern Europe, but also makes an appearance in a few white Burgundies. It's typically lighter and more acidic, and is the traditional base for the cocktail called kir. Unlike many Macon-Villages, which are some of the oakier whites in Burgundy, this one is a crisp quaffer. The nose is lemons and minerals. It's a bit slow to start, flavorwise, but a little time and warmth reveal pleasant melon and lemon waiting for you. The finish is slightly tart and quite flinty. The minerality made it a nice pairing with spinach salad. Spinach has that chalky texture which makes it a notorious wine-killer. This wine mellowed the chalkiness, but had enough character not to get swallowed by the mushrooms and bacon. Interesting, and solid value from $12-15.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From the Mailbag -- peanut butter

Hello, everyone...

In the interest of keeping the vine growing, I thought I'd post and answer some of the reader questions that I get from time to time, rather than waiting to do a separate mailbag column. So, to start us off, something from Vine reader Lynn A.:

So what is the best wine to accompany peanut butter?(Creamy, not crunchy!)

An interesting question, to be sure. Peanut butter...hmm...

When I'm considering a wine pairing, the first thing I think about are what the major flavor characteristic are of a particular food. In this case, peanut butter would give you creamy and salty. What are the complementary flavor types. Creamy would point you towards white wine, since the acidity helps cleans your palate. Salty -- well, I don't know about you, but I like sweet with my salty. What's the traditional peanut butter partner? Fruit jelly!

So, a white wine with some sweetness in it to counterbalance and complement those flavors -- the first thing that jumps to my mind is Riesling -- especially a somewhat sweeter Riesling. You'd probably be OK with most domestic ones that aren't labeled "Dry Riesling." German Rieslings tend to be a little more nuanced, and you'd probably lose that with your basic peanut butter sandwich.

That's my recommendation. Other ideas from out there?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wine grub?

Vine reader Lee D. posits this scenario:

I joined a group last week at a (sports - of course) bar where multiple screens were showing Blues Hockey, Cardinals Baseball, Mizzou Football, and even though people roll their eyes about the Rams, they're still the home team, by gum! As I perused the menu and thought about which elixir would go down best, I felt very uncomfortable even implying (with discernible hesitation and accompanying raised eyebrows) I might throw beer and wings to the wind and satiate my lust for the vine. The confused group looked at me as if I had six heads. Additionally, the added peer pressure made it difficult to order a nice pairing with confidence.

What's a wine gal to do? Could you suggest strategies for making quick and confident selections of food/wine based on the traditional watering hole menu? There are usually more wines than just the "house", but I don't want to merely partake alone in my corner; I want to inspire.

Hmm...inspiration and nachos often go hand in hand -- but nachos and wine? Hmm...this one's going to take some thought...

Disclaimer: I am not referring to "bars" like Friday's, Applebee's, Chili's, or other apostrophe'd chain restaurants that are ostensibly watering holes. These zits on the face of most American suburbs offer broader food options and "wine lists," but they're the gastronomic equivalent of a bachelor/bachelorette party -- sure, you can make a ruckus with your friends and you'll probably end up buzzed and full, but you'll wonder what happened to your evening, your wallet, and your sense of self-respect afterwards.

Most bars, pubs, taverns, etc. offer some kind of hot (as opposed to haute) cuisine. The menu usually consists of various forms of absorptive, high sodium items usually created for sharing, scarfing, and grazing unthinkingly while your focus is elsewhere. These selections, as Lee pointed out above, usually cry for beer -- often for cheap, light lager-ish beer. Why is that?

Well, let's think about that. We're not talking craft brews here -- those are usually better appreciated on their own. Your typical lagers that you'll find at a bar are usually served ice cold, so you can't taste much. They're watery, which washes the salt out of your mouth. (Which is, after all, the point of salty bar food -- keeps you drinking!) Thanks to the hops, they're also mildly acidic, which counteracts the heat caused by the bases you find in your average jalapeno popper. Beer's your most flexible choice -- but we want wine here.

OK, first off, as with most nights you're going out, start by lowering your expectations. You've got to be realistic. Most bar owners aren't interested in keeping a well-stocked wine cellar. They're often thinking, "Red, check. White, check. Pink, check. OK, on to the Jagerbomb makings..." Thankfully, as wine's popularity permeated the mainstream "going out" crowd, bars began stocking something other than Sutter Home White Zinfandel to feed a particular stereotype.

So, what should you expect? Uncomplicated wines (read: "California or Australian") are the order of the day, so you don't have to worry about screwing up a pairing. You can almost always bet on three wines for sure: a cabernet sauvignon of some kind; a chardonnay (which will probably be the "house white"); and a white zinfandel. Merlot's not uncommon, and there's usually a pinot grigio lying around somewhere. Riesling is becoming more common -- usually the sweet versions, and places trying to be classy might have a pinot noir.

The brand of wine probably won't matter much. I made reference way back when to a friend's descriptions of many cheap quaffs as "pop tart wines" because they're so interchangeable. Most of the wines you'll see are in that category. When the server comes, just ask what kinds of wine they have. If he or she doesn't know, send them back to the bar to find out -- at the very least, that will buy you some time to run down the few pub grub pairing rules:

Rule #1: Bubbly. I've said it over and over again -- the best wine pairing with the salty, fatty foods that you're likely to find in any of these establishments is going to be a sparkling wine. Many bars don't carry it, but if you're lucky enough to be in a place that does, go with it. It doesn't matter what kind -- dry works just as well as sweet for this purpose. Swallow your pride and some Asti Spumante. So what if people look at you crosswise for drinking bubbly in a bar? If there are enough sporting events on, you can always say that you're celebrating something. And before probably will be!

Rule #2: When in doubt, white.
This may sound somewhat emasculating to men who have a strange aversion to wine that's not big, powerful, and dark -- but get over it. If you want a good flavor, this is generally going to be the way to go. Wines that are tannic or high in alcohol don't generally play well with foods that are high in salt. Salt and tannic wine combine to taste "hot" and a bit unpleasant. White wine has a couple of other things going for it, too. The higher acidity makes for a more flexible food pairing. Acidic wines like pinot grigio will either quiet spices or go more easily with flavors. Also, as anyone who's ever eaten French fries with ketchup or chocolate covered pretzels can attest, sweet and salty make a delightful combination. Inexpensive white wine often has a little bit of sweetness, because a little bit of sugar covers up a whole lot of poor winemaking. Use this to your advantage. Actually, while white zin gets a particularly bad rap for being sweet, bubbleheaded plonk -- the very thing that makes it palatable to people who "don't like wine" make it particularly good with your typical bar menu. It's sweet and tart -- so it'll work with just about anything. However, if you go that route, tell everyone that it's actually a dry rosé so you can maintain a modicum of dignity.

Rule #3: Remember the four food groups. When you peruse the menu, keep in mind the four pub grub food groups: spicy, meaty, fried, and cheesy. These are used in various combinations and permutations, but almost anything you're going to order will slide into one of these categories. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to determine which flavor will be dominant. If you're getting a burger or barbecue -- your reds will be better. Spicy foods call for something acidic or sweet -- which is going to bring you back to pinot grigio or Riesling if they have one around. If you really want red and you're lucky enough to have a red Zinfandel as an option, you could go that way with it. With fried foods, pretty much anything white will beat anything red, especially if it's battered up. And with cheesy? This is where you can break out some of that house chardonnay that you may have noticed we haven't discussed at all...