Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Southern Africa: A Wine Safari

Words by Jeff Salisbury. Images by Rev. Christine Plepys.

This past November myself and (to blatantly steal a turn of phrase from Mike) my Sweet Partner in Travel (SPIT), Christine, took a trip to Southern Africa that included a safari in Botswana, a day at Victoria Falls in Zambia, and about a week in South Africa near Cape Town and in the wine country of the Robertson Valley. [MJR note: some amazing photos can be found here.] While we were able to have wine with our meals throughout the trip, this report will focus on the wines we had in the Robertson Valley, with two notable exceptions.

First, when we initially got to Botswana we stayed one night in Audi Camp, a base camp before starting our safari. The camp had an outdoor restaurant and the SPIT had a glass of the house wine, which was listed on the menu as–I am not making this up–Chateau de Cardboard. Upon further inquiry we were informed that it was whatever box wine they had on hand. We didn’t find out what it really was, but the SPIT said she liked it. I took a sip and thought I tasted the hint of vinegar making me think maybe it was time to change the box. But at R15 (South African Rand) per glass (a little over $2) the price was right.

Second, in Cape Town we had dinner one night at a restaurant called Arnold’s. Arnold’s is a nice, somewhat upscale restaurant with a menu typical of such places, except for a number of wild game items like Okapi sirloin and crocodile ribs. I thought about getting the Okapi, but the SPIT said I should get something that we had actually seen on safari (SPIT is a little warped in that way) so I had the Smoked Wild Warthog Ribs.
See Warthog...Eat Warthog!
The ribs were basted in a tomato sauce, and they tasted very much like regular pork ribs but leaner and not quite as tender, with a flavor that was less gamey than I expected. Having never had warthog before, I asked the server for a wine recommendation. He suggested the 2003 Altydgedacht Dry Red, a blend from Durbanville, South Africa. It retails at around R140 or about $18 per bottle at current exchange rates. As the name indicates the wine was dry with good fruit and very well balanced. The SPIT and I both liked it enough to order a second glass. It was very good by itself, but I thought it was much better paired with food and was a really good complement to the warthog.

On to the Wine Country

I would not call the SPIT and I overly sophisticated wine drinkers (more like students of TNV), but we know what we like and we actually liked all of the wines we tried in South Africa, some more than others. Our first winery stop was at the Viljoensdrift Winery where we sampled five different wines.

Life for The Naked Vine foreign correspondent is arduous and fraught with peril – or not.

2009 Colombar Chenin Blanc (R24 or $4 per bottle). You are not reading that wrong. It was $4 a bottle. This is a 60% Colombar 40% Chenin Blanc blend. It had nice fruit up front with a little citrus flavor and some sweetness to it. We both liked it enough to buy a bottle to have with a picnic on the winery grounds by the Breede River with some cheese, bread and ostrich carpaccio.

2008 Cape Blend (R39.50 or $5.50 per bottle). This wine is a blend of 34% Pinotage 66% Shiraz. According to the winery it has a good tannin structure allowing for excellent ageing potential and is good with venison. We thought it was very tasty, particularly the SPIT, who prefers her wines on the dry side.

2008 Chardonnay (R50 or $6.60 per bottle). This wine had good fruit with a hint of vanilla and oak. It was a very refreshing dry wine.

2007 Pinotage (R58 or $7.70 per bottle). Pinotage is what South Africa is known for, so we had to try this wine. It had a vibrant red color with a lot of berry flavors and a nice soft finish.

Finally, we tried the Villion MCC Brut (R65 or $8.60 per bottle). This wine had tiny, delicate bubbles with a bready aroma. It had very good body and nice balance.

Our next stop was at Springfield Estate Winery which had been recommended by the manager of the nature reserve where we had stayed the previous night. Once again all the wines were excellent, but a few stood out.

2009 Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc (R67 or $9 per bottle). The vines for this wine are planted in very rocky soil. It is a somewhat austere wine with an almost flinty, grassy flavor. SPIT and I both loved this wine. It had a very clean flavor which we found out later pairs well with spicy and creamy foods.

2009 Special Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc (R66 or $9 per bottle). Unlike with the previous wine, these vines are grown in sandy, alluvial soil and the difference in the two wines clearly evident. It has a lighter and softer flavor than the Life from Stone. It was very different and very good.

2003 The Work of Time (R100 or $13 per bottle). This is a blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. The grapes were fermented whole with native yeast and left for 5 weeks on the skins. A slow 18 months of barrel maturation followed and 2 years of bottles ageing it had a spicy, peppery flavor that would go well with spicy foods and cheeses.

Finally we tried the Methode Ancienne Cabernet Sauvignon (R205 or $27 per bottle). This wine is a little out of the Vine price range, but well worth it. It is aged two years in new French barrels and a further three years in bottles in the winery cellar. It was dry with a lush, full flavor and a long finish. It was great when we tasted it at the winery, and with 5-6 more years in the cellar it will only get mellower and round out nicely.

The next and final stop on our wine safari was at the Fraai Uitzicht Historic Wine & Guest Farm where we stayed for one night. Fraai Uitzicht is Dutch for beautiful view and it lived up to its name. For dinner at their restaurant we both indulged in the Degustation Menu – seven courses paired with wines from the Robertson Valley. We really enjoy paired dinners because someone who knows wine has done the work for us and made sure the selections complement the food. They are a great way to increase your wine knowledge.

The first course appetizer was a selection of finger foods that presented a variety of flavors. It was paired with Methode Cap Classique Sparkling Wine from Graham Beck Wines (R125 or $17 per bottle). The wine was a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir with fine bubbles and went well with all of the foods in the course.

The second course was a salmon trout fillet on a bed of wasabi leek. The pairing was Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc from Springfield Estate Winery (see above). The wine was very crisp which helped offset some of the heat from the wasabi. The leeks were prepared in a creamy style and the wine actually helped cut through that, so that each bite was as tasty as the first. We thought this was the best pairing of the night.

Next we were served a spicy butternut soup paired with gewürztraminer from Weltevrede Winery (R75 or $10 per bottle). The soup was delicious with only a slight spiciness (The SPIT, with Texas upbringing, said she couldn’t even taste any heat). The wine was a little sweet with a slight honey flavor which paired nicely with the soup.

Then came the springbok carpaccio, thinly sliced and lightly smoked. This course was paired with the 2005 Fraai Uitzicht Merlot (R148 or $20 per bottle). Fraai Uitzicht only makes a small amount of wine (about 5,000-6,000 bottles per year)--all merlot. It’s very well crafted, easy drinking with a nice long finish with some plum flavors coming through. It held up well to the smokiness of the carpaccio. We liked it so much we bought a bottle to bring home.

The next course was medallions of beef fillet in a port wine jus with tipsy onions (onions marinated in red wine) with spaetzle. The pairing was Red Gold Cabernet Sauvignon from Bushmanspad (R78 or $10.30 per bottle). The cab was lighter and fruitier than the merlot with some vanilla flavors peeking through, though food wise this was probably our least favorite course.

Finally, we had dessert–Dream of Africa. This was a freshly baked fondant of Belgian chocolate served with vanilla yogurt cream and berry coullis. The word decadent does not do justice to this dish. It was paired with a Cape Muscat from Weltevrede (R105 or $14 per bottle). The wine was very sweet with a slight strawberry taste, which went well with the dessert.

All in all we really enjoyed the wines we had in South Africa and highly recommend giving them a try. For the time being, though, the limiting factor with regards to the wines described in this article may be availability. The Graham Beck wines are widely available in the U.S. and the Springfield wines are available in a number of states along the Eastern seaboard. However, the only other wine we found for sale in the United States was the Weltevrede Cape Muscat while the rest are available only in South Africa or in European markets. So while they are certainly within The Naked Vine price range if you buy them in South Africa, factoring in the $1,000+ flight to get there might make them a little pricey.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wine Accessories -- Just in time for the holidays!

We've spent a lot of time here looking at different bottles of wine, learning about them, enjoying them -- but we haven't talked much about opening them or what to do once that's done. Vine reader and neighbor Steve G. recently asked me for recommendations for wine accessories -- all of those little things that make drinking wine easier and better.

Since I'm never one to turn down a potential column topic, I jumped on the idea like a hyperactive frog. Especially around this time of year, for last minute Christmas or Chanukah shopping -- wine related gifts can really help in a pinch.

Now, I've looked at wine catalogs that have a lot of outlandish gizmos and gadgets for oenological use. Most of that stuff may be cool looking or fun to play with, but it tends to clutter the counter and make the Sweet Partner in Crime clear her throat insistently. You've also got cutesy things like wine charms (people forget which charms are theirs as easily as their glasses), silly wall signs, funny looking wine holders, and other kitschy things. However, I've got a few things that I've got that I use regularly and that greatly aid in my enjoyment of this little hobby of mine. I've also included some Amazon links to some of these products if you want to see what I'm referring to.

First off -- think about the first thing you have to do when you're drinking wine: opening the bottle. Unless your entire cellar is full of Stelvin closures, you're going to need to find a way to get the cork out. Now, while there are techniques to do with no tools...it's usually best to use an opener of some kind.

For absolute ease of use, I've yet to find anything that works better than the Screwpull Pocket Model Corkscrew. Until I became comfortable using the "waiter style" corkscrews, the Screwpull was an absolute godsend. It's still the best opener for delicate corks that I've found. It's almost impossible to break corks with it. It doesn't work quite as well on a few kinds of "squishier" synthetic corks, but for the most part, it'll serve you well.

I actually prefer the "pocket model" to the "table model." It's also worth dropping a few dollars extra on the Screwpull Foil Cutter. If you prefer a waiter style one (which is what I normally use), make sure you get one with good, solid metal construction and perhaps a built-in foil cutter.

If you're like me, you've bought a bottle of white wine, had it sitting on a rack (because leaving it for long periods of time in a regular fridge kills the flavor), and found an occasion to open it -- but it's still at room temperature. There are all sorts of more expensive ways to cool wine, but I always come back to the sleeve you keep in your freezer. Vacu Vin makes a very good, inexpensive wine chiller -- it's held me in good stead for years.

Of course, if you want to splurge, you could get yourself a small, attractive wine fridge to keep in the corner to rotate your whites through. I can personally attest to the quality of the Cuisinart CWC-600 Private Reserve 6-Bottle Stainless-Steel Countertop Wine Cellar. Just remember -- this is a wine fridge...not a refrigerator. Set it for 50-55 degrees.

Going all the way back to the start of the Vine, I've talked about the necessity of swirling wine to release the flavors and scents, as well as letting the process start by opening a wine a little while before you get to drinking to allow it to "breathe" and reach its fullest balance of flavor. Unfortunately, letting a wine breathe can take some time -- hours in the case of some reds, and I often want to drink right now! While nothing can really take the place of decanting and some time, you can shortcut the process a bit with an aerator. An aerator is a device that you pour wine through. It's basically a funnel with a small hole in the side that draws in air as the wine swirls down. This serves two purposes -- it's a "fast swirl" to get the alcohol evaporating and the air injected into the wine opens the wine more quickly. Traditionalists will say that this can "bruise" the wine -- and it might not be a good idea for really expensive vintages. To get your ordinary table wine up to speed, it works pretty well. I've had good luck with the Respirer Next Generation model.

I won't delve too deeply into the arcana of home décor, since wine glasses and decanters come in all shapes and sizes to serve your every need, but I can mention one particularly interesting addition to the wine world -- the breathable wine glass. These glasses, produced by Eisch, allow oxygen to penetrate the glass itself, thus bringing the entire surface of the wine in contact with air rather than just the top. As a result, the wine opens much more quickly. It really does work, and they're dishwasher safe. My only caution about these glasses -- you can't keep a glass of wine in one of these for too long. After a couple of hours, the wine can go flavorless. I don't think that will be a problem for any of our readers, though.

If you don't finish a bottle for some reason and you want to keep it for an extra day or so, I think a vacuum stopper, coupled with putting the bottle in the fridge overnight (and letting it warm back up) is better than the old "jam the cork back in and hope" method. Again, Vacu Vin's Wine Saver Pump is my go-to. Their basic vacuum and stopper set has served me well.

As a final recommendation, here's an indispensible invention for anyone who drinks a lot of red wine. Red wine picks its spots to spill -- usually on the lightest colored upholstery, carpet, or clothing that you've got in your place. The pigments in red wine, called anthocyanins, attach themselves to any kind of fabric and cling like a nymphomaniacal gymnast. There are plenty of home remedies, the best of which is to dump a bunch of salt on the stain and hope for the best. However, I heartily endorse a more commercial solution to the problem: Wine Away Red Wine Stain Remover. The inventor of this stuff has earned my eternal gratitude. I was doing a wine tasting about a year ago, and I spilled red wine on the hostesses' cream-colored carpet. A few squirts of this stuff -- the stain comes up like magic. Get some. You'll thank me later.

Happy holidays to everyone! See you in 2010...

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Naked Vine Twines

After eight years together, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I tied the knot last night. Under the watchful eye of the Reverend Christine the Pie Queen (who just returned from safari), we declared our intent, exchanged our vows, popped open a good bottle of bubbly (Domaine Belluard Mont Blanc “Brut Zero” Savoie, for the record) and headed off for a wonderful dinner at Nectar.

Thanks to all of you out there in Vine land who have been a party to our adventures in oenological pursuit. We hope that you'll join us for years to come...

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Water Tower Fine Wines

Last Friday, we made our first (long-overdue) visit to Water Tower Fine Wines, a new store in Mt. Washington owned and operated by David and Jan Lazarus. David and Jan have been friends of the Vine since our successful Sunday Salon in February 2008. David's one of the most knowledgeable folks I've ever met about all things oenological, and he told me on multiple occasions over the last couple of years that he's always wanted to run his own wine store.

The store is a converted, rambling house initially built in the 1890's and built onto over the years. It still has a "homey" layout (several adjoining rooms and seating areas instead of aisles and queues, which gives the place a laid-back feel. Water Tower's selection is quite broad, although not as wide as many of the more "traditional" stores that you'll see around the area. This is by design. David is the person from whom I shamelessly cribbed "pop tart wines" as a descriptor of inexpensive, interchangeable, mass produced selection where one producer is very much like the other. (For instance, Funky Llama vs. Little Boomey vs. Yellow Tail.) Small differences, yes -- but pop tarts are pop tarts. You won't find those wines in this store.

Most of the varieties in the store, both red and white start around $12-15 and run up into the hundreds. His zinfandel, pinot noir, and rosé ranges are especially impressive. A few varietals (such as some of the South Americans) have somewhat limited selections, but what's there is quality stuff. Water Tower has just about the broadest variety of sparkling wine -- considering price point, origin, and style -- as any store I've seen in the area. David also takes a great deal of pride and pleasure out of both helping people find wines that they're looking for and to take the opportunity to educate a bit. I'll readily admit that I've learned quite a bit from David. He's led me into temptation several times, but he's never led me astray.

Every Friday, Water Tower hosts a wine tasting. They charge $15 for at least 6 tastes, with a couple of "premium pours" available for a few extra bucks. Plus, according to David, "We'll usually have a couple of other things open" for people to try. The charge also includes light hors d’oeuvres, put together by Jan -- who is an accomplished cook. She changes the menu each time to pair best with the week's selections. This week, to pair with their Marsanne, Roussane, and Zinfandel tasting, Jan offered up gourmet versions of chili mac and mac and cheese, as well as some toasted pate-spread flatbreads -- and some other usual wine noshables like cheese, Italian meats, and crackers.

Yes, the SPinC and I ended up taking home a couple of wines from their tasting menu on Friday. We picked up the Early Bird "Syn" Cuvee Blanc ($19) -- a sparkling blend from Australia that's light, floral, and just plain ol' pleasant. This is, to my knowledge, the first white sparkling wine from Australia that we'd ever tried. (We'd had sparkling shiraz, however.) Instead of chardonnay, the traditional grape for Australian sparklers, this was a blend of Marsanne, Roussane, and Semillon. This paired well with almost everything, but I thought it was best with the flatbreads.

We also got the Verget du Sud 2007 Vaucluse Marsanne, which is a wonderful value at $14. A creamy-yet-light white to enjoy just about any time of the day. Lots of soft citrus and minerally goodness there. This one, I thought, went incredibly well with the "mac & four-cheeses." The creaminess of each were nice complements.

We also very much enjoyed the Haywood 2005 Morning Sun and Haywood 2006 Rocky Terrace Zinfandels (both $37) which made an interesting contrast in terroir from the same winery. With the meats, both of these went incredibly well. (However, instead of picking one of those up, David pointed me to an on-sale 1er cru Nuits-St-Georges Burgundy at about the same price that I picked up and stashed down in the cellar.)

The chili mac went well with most of the reds -- the other wines were a couple of single-vineyard zinfandel selections from Ravenswood -- the Teldeschi ($35) & Belloni (on sale for $18) from 2006, and the premium, which was a Napa syrah from Kuleto ($46).

Water Tower Fine Wines is located at 6316 Campus Lane in Mount Washington. Campus Lane is just off Beechmont. It's on the opposite side of Beechmont Avenue from the Mt. Washington Kroger. Basically, just look for the water tower. It's right across the street. Mike says check them out.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Cincinnati International Wine Festival tix available

It's that time of year again. This release from the folks at the festival:

Just in time for the holidays, tickets are now available for the 2010 Cincinnati International Wine Festival that will take place March 11 – 13, 2010 at the Duke Energy Convention Center (Grand Ballroom) in downtown Cincinnati. Grand Tasting tickets purchased in advance will range in price from $60 to $70, with a $5 increase if purchased at the door. Winery Dinner tickets will range from $125-$175 per ticket and Charity Auction & Luncheon tickets will remain $125 per ticket. Purchases can be made by logging onto our website, www.winefestival.com, or calling (513) 723-WINE.

You may remember my tooth-stained coverage from last year.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Twisted V

First off, Happy Birthday to my sister Annie...

A few months ago, I took a look at Viognier, which I find to be one of the more interesting white wine varietals.

Viognier is a notoriously tough grape to grow. One theory about the name of the grape is that because of low yields and susceptibility to mildew, "Viognier" is actually a modification of the Latin "via Gehennae" -- which means "road to hell." Modern winemaking techniques have improved the production of the varietal, but it's still relatively low on the global production totem pole. Viognier is beginning to be grown more widely -- the U.S., Argentina, and Australia being the largest producers outside of France. Since the grape's yield is low, high quality Viognier (and thus blends containing it) tend to be a little more expensive.

Viognier is most well knows as a component in many of France's Rhone wines. In the northern Rhone, Viognier is largely grown as a single varietal or is used as a stabilizing agent for the color in Northern Rhone reds, which are almost always Syrah dominant. In the southern Rhone, Viognier is almost exclusively used as a blending grape in whites from there, usually as a complement to grapes such as Roussane, Marsanne, Clairette, and Grenache Blanc. For instance, the Domaine Mirelle & Vincent 2007 Cotes-du-Rhone ($13-15) is made all of the above except the Grenache -- and contains about 10% Viognier. It's a very well-balanced, minerally white with an interesting earthy flavor that makes it a nice pairing with any kind of roasted veggies or just to enjoy.

In the previous Viognier column, I focused on tasting single varietal Viognier. Honestly, I'm not as much of a fan of "pure" Viognier as I am other varietals (although if I started regularly drinking Condrieu, a high end northern Rhone Viognier, I might change my mind...). I think it's a great companion grape. When properly blended, Viognier can contribute to the creation of some really interesting wines.

At least for right now, the preponderance of these Viognier heavy blends seem to come out of Australia. The Ozzies love their blends, and they're also best known worldwide for Shiraz. It would logically follow that they'd try to experiment with the synergy that the French discovered. The blend is usually only with one other grape -- rather than the multi-grape mishmashes in the Rhone.

When blended, Viognier tends to both tone down the juiciness of the traditional fruit bomb that can be Australian Shiraz. The intensely aromatic nature of Viognier also adds a forward floral nose of its own and deepens many of the existing flavors and scents of the red. It also adds a little acidity to the finish to balance the tannins. A couple of examples I've had lately are the Woop Woop "The Black Chook" 2006 Shiraz/Viognier  ($15-18) and the d'Arenberg 2006 "The Laughing Magpie" Shiraz/Viognier ($20-25).

The Black Chook ("Chook" is Australian for "chicken") is a big, full flavored wine that's excellent for drinking on its own some evening when you want a hearty red. It's fruit-forward and powerful without being cloyingly pop-tartish. There's a really interesting smoky flavor to it that makes it line up almost perfectly with dark chocolate. The Laughing Magpie is a little more nuanced, although it's certainly bold like the shiraz-dominant blend that it is. It's got a perfumey nose from the Viognier with a strong scent of blooming lilacs (which I personally love).  There are flavors of plums and nectarines heading off in every drirection with a little bit of a chalky note. Finish is only a little fruity, but very long with soft tannin and a slight acidity that continues for well over a minute. I had this with marinated, grilled lamb chops and wilted spinach. With the lamb, the flavors brought out the herbs in the marinade I was using -- especially the rosemary and thyme. The minerally tone also let it work with the spinach, which can ordinarily be a real wine killer.

On the white side of the fence, staying with our friends at d'Arenberg, I had their 2008 "The Hermit Crab" Adelaide Viognier/Marsanne. (Don't you love the names of Australian wines?) The Hermit Crab, so named because this is similar to the dominant blend in white Hermitage, wasn't as fragrant as I initially expected. Viognier and Marsanne are aromatic varietals, but their combination here is light, floral, and a little citrusy. It's fruitier than I expected as well with lots of apricot and ginger. It's not as dry as a lot of straight Viogniers, finishing up with a refreshing hint of sweet and some solid acidity. In general, flavorful, tasty, and great to drink on its own. It would also be a winner with some good spicy foods. $15.

In the US, you'll typically see Viognier as a single varietal, although the "Rhone Rangers," a group of winemakers largely from the Central Coast region of California who focus on Rhone varietals, have also done some experiments with red blends that include Viognier. They tend to be fairly pricey, but when done well, they're absolutely dynamite. For instance, the Ridge 2005 Lytton Ridge Syrah fits the bill. It's around 80% syrah, but the 20% of makes this a fascinating blend. The nose is wonderful. The big, plummy scents are there as you'd expect, but so is an appley note along with the traditional Viognier floweriness. The body is medium on its face, but I think the viognier gives the wine length without it simply coating the inside of your mouth. The finish is full, tannic, and extremely tasty. It's around $28, but it's a really nice, showy wine if you need to impress.