Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Alphabet Soup Project -- "B" is for Blush

When in

Words to live by when you're considering food pairings. Few things go better with...well...everything than rosé. As I've pointed out in the past -- I'm not talking about white zinfandel here. White zin is perfect for making sangria or if your hummingbird feeder has run dry. (And we'll get back to this in a moment.) Otherwise, just stroll on by and get to the real stuff.

A quick refresher -- almost all rosé starts as red wine. Red wine gets its color through a process called maceration. Maceration occurs during the fermentation process. With most red wines, the grapes are crushed and the resulting empty skins are left in contact with the juice as fermentation begins. The resulting heat and production of alcohol causes the coloring agents in wine, called anthocyanins to leach from the skins. The tannins in wine also come from this process. The longer the contact, the darker and more tannic the wine. For many big, dark red wines, this process may take as long as a month.

For rosé, however, the skins are left in contact with the juice for only a matter of hours or a couple of days at the outside. At this point, a winemaker wishing to make rosé has a couple of options. The most common process is simply to move the wine into another container at this point, discarding the skins and allowing fermentation to continue normally.

Another process is called saignée, where a winemaker trying to create an intense red wine will bleed off some of the juice at an early stage of maceration. The remaining juice has more concentrated contact with the skin, creating a stronger red. The bled-off pink juice is then made into rosé. A winemaker can also blend red and white wine to make something pink -- but this is rarely done other than in the process of making true rosé Champagne.

For the record, White Zinfandel came about in the mid-70's. Sutter Home winery was making rosé from Zinfandel grapes by the saignée method. One batch had a "stuck fermentation" -- which means that the yeast died before fermentation was complete. They put this half-fermented, sweet juice aside. The wine was sampled not long afterwards, people liked the sweetness, and White Zinfandel was released large-scale on an unknowing populace. High schoolers everywhere rejoiced.

As I noted in the Vine's early tendrils, pink is not a flavor -- but the ubiquitousness of White Zin scared a lot of people away from ordering one of the best wine values out there. As you'd figure, the flavor of rosé tends to be on the light side, but even the small amount of tannin in rosé can contribute to an interesting structure. When I say that you can drink rosé with almost anything, I'm quite serious. Salads kill wine, generally -- but rosé can hold its own. Almost any kind of fish, chicken, pork, or veggie preparation (as long as it's not in a big cream sauce) will work. Some of the bigger rosés can even handle red meat.

While it's traditionally a summer wine (especially some of the light, delicate ones from Provence), I'll have at a bottle of the stuff any time of year. We generally keep a couple of bottles around for when we want a pairing but can't exactly come up with something perfect. You can file rosé under "good enough" for any occasion. Here are a few I've tangled with recently:

Argiolas 2008 Serra Lori Rosado -- This was the rosé that we had with Thanksgiving dinner, and it was the first Italian rose I think I've tried. It hails from Sicily and largely made from a varietal called Cannonau. The nose is friendly, full of candied apples and flowers. It's got solid acidity and good weight on the palate. The finish is acidic with a whip of orange zest and a little lingering stringency. This isn't delicate wine by any stretch, instead providing a very firm structure and nice acidic balance. It's a hearty glass that reminded me of many Spanish roses, if that's your cup of tea. With the leftover turkey and beans from our Thanksgiving meal, it was an absolute champ. ($14)

Louis Jadot 2008 Gamay Rosé -- While we're still running with "firsts," as I mentioned, I'm quite used to seeing rosés from France. I was picking up a Beaujolais, and this pink bottle caught my eye. A rosé...from gamay? Gamay is same grape that comprises Beaujolais. Since Beaujolais is such a light red anyway...I was very curious what the rosé would yield. was pretty much exactly what I expected -- an extremely light rosé. I thought it had about the weight of a pinot gris. Like a pinot gris, it had plenty of acidity. There's a little of that familiar gamay/Beaujolais flavor in the middle and especially on the finish. It's a very drinkable wine that would go with any kind of light food, but I'd probably think of it more of an aperitif, especially once the weather warms up. At $10, it's a decent enough value if you're looking for a change of pace with your pinkness.

E. Guigal 2008 Cotes-du-Rhone Rosé -- The Rhone region is the home to one of my favorite rosés, a big fruity pink wine called Tavel. Tavel is one of the few wine areas that strictly produces rosé from blends of traditional Rhone grapes -- largely Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault. With the increased interest in pink wine, some Rhone producers using similar grapes to make reds are using saignée to make less expensive rosés with Tavel-like characteristics (and to make their reds more intense). Guigal makes plenty of very decent Cotes-du-Rhone, so I thought their rosé from there might be interesting. The nose was of a general melon persuasion, which moves to a full, wall-of-flavor feel. It's not subtle -- you get a blast of tart/alcohol/fruity all at once. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It makes for a very solid food wine, especially with things like roasted fish & vegetables. We roasted red snapper filets, purple cauliflower, garlic, and carrots in lemon juice and olive oil (not all in the same pan, mind you). The straightforward pink wine handled all the flavors wonderfully. However, it did make me curious how the actual Tavel would stack up.

The Guigal 2006 Tavel was available, so a bit later, we tried that. This Tavel could almost pass for a light red. It's really a pretty looking wine. The fragrance is very delicate. I first smelled roses when I got a whiff of it, but as it opens (definitely let it breathe a bit), melon and cranberries emerge. The body is solid and aromatic -- and has a complex balance of fruit and acidity. The finish is dry and a bit tangy. Where the CdR rosé wasn't subtle, the Tavel most certainly was. The weather got unexpectedly warmer, and we had the Tavel with a trout, orange, and fennel salad. Subtle flavors melded with subtle flavors for a meal we could linger over. The CdR is around $10-12. The Tavel is around $20.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Savanna Wines

"I was lucky enough to be introduced to Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello -- a really well known producer who unfortunately isn't with us anymore. He poured a glass, I reached for it and he said, 'No, need to wait.' We sat there for a long time, trying other wines, before he finally said that it was ready to drink. [pause, deep breath] He was right..."

I'm used to tones other than those of wistful remembrance coming from the mouth of an adult film actress.

A few months ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a 2006 article in the New York Times entitled "Naked Came the Vintner." The article was about the winemaking venture undertaken by Savanna Samson, who saw winemaking as her "career parachute" for the day she decides to step away from Vivid Video and the rest of the adult film world.

[However, she's still going strong on that front with several upcoming movies -- including two with Holly Sampson, one of Tiger Woods' alleged paramours. In case you're interested, her very NSFW home on the web is here.]

Celebrity winemaking is nothing new. Most of the time, it's a fundraising opportunity or a quick way to make a few bucks on the side. A few (Greg Norman, Francis Coppola, etc.) made a legitimate name for themselves and others (Maynard James Keenan) seem to be on that track. Savanna's self-described "porn wine" would likely have been shunted into the first category...that is, if Robert Parker hadn't given Savanna's first wine -- an Italian red blend called "Sogno Uno" (Dream One) -- 90 points in Wine Advocate. 90 points from Parker lent her instant street cred in the wine world, and a flurry of publicity followed.

I was intrigued. I sent a note to Savanna Wines, asking if I could review a couple of the wines for The Vine. Her business manager, Brian Corbin, sent me a couple of samples. Savanna was generous enough to spare a few minutes from the Pornutopia convention in Houston in December for a phone interview.

Savanna said she views the winemaking as "her own personal journey." She says that she has a vision of the flavors she wants to share and she "searches for that reflection." In searching for this vision, she enlisted the aid of an Italian vintner named Roberto Cipresso. Cipresso, who worked with the Vatican at one point, helped her put together the blend of Cesanese and Sangiovese that won her Parker's approval. Cipresso also helped her create her second and third wines, called "Sogno Due" and "Sogno Tre."

She says that she's focused, for now, on Italian varietals because she's "completely in love with Tuscany, and she can't get enough Sangiovese." However, she says that she's under at least some pressure to expand her portfolio -- pressure that she says she accepts readily:

"My distributor [Southern Wine & Spirits] would love for me to build a consistent portfolio of wines, but I would rather do it my way and keep experimenting for awhile to find things that I think are truly unique. I really enjoy using grapes like Falanghina [the primary grape in Sogno Due] that aren't as well known in the States. I've started up a relationship with Eos Estate Winery in Paso Robles and Roberto is going to come over from Italy to try working with American grapes, so we're really excited about that. I also plan to invade France. I'm going there in the end of February to work with Moutard, one of the Champagne houses, on a personal blend for a sparkling wine."

[The Vine attempted to contact both Moutard Pere et Fils and Eos Estate for comment. Moutard did not return the inquiry. Nathan Carlson, winemaker at Eos, has worked on celebrity wines with Vince Neil of Motley Crue and for the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. However, he said that he has not been approached by Samson.]

I asked her to compare the Parker rating with winning her first AVN award (the adult film Oscar, more or less, which she won for a film called "Looking In"): "I was honestly thrilled that he wanted to try it, since he was in the midst of tasting Chateauneuf-de-Pape at the time...When I saw that I'd gotten the 90, I was floored -- and it was really a similar feeling, because I really felt like I was appreciated for something I really put my heart into." Although, as she playfully told both the NYT reporter and myself, "He should have given it a 93."

She said that this experience really hasn't changed her palate -- rather, it's helped her understand it more fully: "I remember when I started drinking Bordeaux, and I just didn't know what to call some of those flavors -- ice cream cones? Manure? Old boots? But the more I learn, the more I'm able to say that this is what I'm looking for."

So, what about the wines themselves? Needless to say, I was rather curious, so without further adieu:

Savanna Wines 2005 Sogno Due -- As I noted above, this wine is made of 100% Falanghina grown in Campania. Savanna said that although this was her second wine, it was the first "really made for her taste." I thought that the nose was very light and gently fruity. The Sweet Partner in Crime said that it smelled like "peach flavored mineral water." After it opens a bit, there's a little woody scent that emerges, which is interesting since there's no oak used in production. It's a very light-bodied wine, as are most made with this varietal, but this one's light even comparatively. It's very smooth and easy to drink -- almost too easy, to be honest. There's tartness there -- but it's closer to a "pineappley" tartness rather than a citrus. The finish is very gentle and peachy, drifting softly away. After a little bit of time, the finish becomes slightly astringent rather than acidic. With a medium bodied soup, it fared reasonably well, although I'd say that it's probably best as an aperitif or for drinking on a rocky beach in summertime. I've seen this listed on average at around $17. The new vintage of Sogno Due is scheduled for release in June 2010, so I'll revisit it if it's available.

Savanna Wines 2005 Sogno Tre -- A 100% Barbera that "improves with some aeration," according to the tasting notes. I would concur. After an hour open, it's still very tart and tight, and it definitely improves after being decanted or run through an aerator. There's an interesting floral note to the nose, as well as some cherry. It's got a bit of an alcoholic fume, so it requires a good swirl. The flavor, like many Barbera, is dominated by tart cherry with some fairly strong acidity. The finish is relatively long and tart, finishing with gradually increasing tannin and some more acidity. There's a quality local pizza place nearby, and one of my favorite pairings with Barbera is a good pepperoni pizza. The acidity in Barbera generally gets smoothed out by the fat in the meat. With the wine's tannic structure, I thought it would be a good match. It wasn't bad. The flavor turned slightly grapey initially, but after a slice, it was pleasant enough pairing. It didn't blow me away, but it was relatively solid. The price point on this wine is $45-50, which honestly gave me a bit of sticker shock.

I asked Savanna about the "freshness" of both wines, since most Falanghina are made to be drunk relatively young and many Barbera can near the end of their peak after five years. She assured me that both wines are still in their prime. These particular samples may have gone through something to accelerate their aging, however, as they seemed like they might be a bit past peak. I'd be curious to hear what others think about them.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

La soirée française paresseuse

[Rough translation: The slothful French evening]

Like just about every other foodie we know, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I went to see the now-ubiquitous "Julie & Julia." We enjoyed the movie quite a bit, especially the parts about Julia Child's background. Afterwards, we promptly rented some old The French Chef DVD's from Netflix and snagged a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

[Side note: I read the book on our honeymoon and discovered that most of the "Julia parts" were additions when the screenplay was adapted...and that Julie was hardly the cute little junebug Amy Adams portrayed. Still, both the book and movie portray the ultimate fantasy for bloggers...getting "discovered," garnering a huge following, and getting our words read widely.]

So, with this experience in our heads, we decided to do a French-themed New Year's Eve. (If you're not familiar with our little tradition, see here, here, and here.) Unfortunately, some family health issues called the SPinC out of town for the couple of days where we ordinarily did our prep. I figured she'd be exhausted when she got home and wouldn't be in any semblance of mental space to want to cook -- but I sure as shootin' wanted to keep our ritual rolling. So, the SPinC's worst nightmare came to pass -- Mike alone in the kitchen for an extended period of time. This usually leads to a good percentage of the household's pots and pans being used at least once, a few sauce and oil splatters in hard-to-reach places, and a somewhat stickier floor than when she left.

I did my best to keep things tidy. Really I did.

Here was the menu for the afternoon & evening:

  • Course #1 -- Potato & Leek Soup; Chateau Riviere-Lacoste 2006 Bordeaux Blanc
  • Course #2 -- Steamed King Crab Legs; Domaine Chanson 2007 Chablis
  • Course #3 -- Boeuf Bourguignon; Moray St. Denis 2004 Bourgogne
  • Course #4 -- Cherry Clafoutis; Piper-Heidsieck Brut Rose Sauvage

Courses #1 and 3 were from Julia Child's book. Steamed crab is pretty straightforward, and the clafoutis was a recipe I poked around the Internets to discover. Now, so you don't think that we're even more shamelessly gluttonous than we clearly are -- our little "meal" took place over the course of an afternoon and evening. We got the party rolling around 2, once the SPinC had a chance to get home, go for a run to clear her head, and get into appropriate loungewear for the day.

I never knew much about leeks for most of my life. I'm addicted to the bloomin' things now. I put them in as many recipes as I can find for them. This soup, classically French, has such a remarkable flavor -- which is amazing because it's really just leeks, potatoes, water, salt, pepper, some butter, and parsley. But it's SO good. I feared the white Bordeaux might be too light for a soup like this one, but the acidity and minerality made a lovely balance.

A couple of hours later, we moved on to the crab legs. I'd initially thought about doing a lobster for this course, but neither of us really felt like committing arthropodicide on New Year's. We let someone else do the dirty work for us and stuck to king crab, which was plenty rich and tasty enough for us. A little drawn butter alongside, we cracked the Chablis which we snagged at the dinner at the Phoenix a few months ago. Chablis & shellfish is a heaven-sent pairing, and we certainly were not disappointed.

A job well done...

We gave ourselves some digestion time as we listened to some jazz and then watched Duke's utter detonation of the Penn Quakers as an interlude. During the second half, I put the Bourguignon on to simmer itself to proper warmth. By game's end, we were ready to go. I'd opened the Moray a few hours before to let it breathe. We dished it up and headed to the table. Now, I'll admit -- I was a little bit skeptical of the recipe. I wondered why you just wouldn't throw everything in a slow cooker and turn it loose. After all, it's just beef stew, right?

Wrong. There's something about the way that the flavors from the various steps of cooking marry that you end up with waves of flavors coming at you from any number of directions. Throw in the smoky loveliness of a very very good pinot noir, and it's a pretty magical dining experience.

Admittedly, I did tweak the recipe a bit -- basically amping up the various levels of spice. For instance, the original recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of salt for the entire dish. Only a dash? Balderdash. I also had some new potatoes, which I quartered and added, rather than doing boiled potatoes on the side.]

In a nod to our advancing ages, we ended up admittedly taking a nap at this point to get ourselves up until midnight. We made it in time to crack open the Champagne and dig into the clafoutis.

Now, I'd not even attempted a dessert like that (pies and pastries are the SPinC's bailiwick) -- and if I were to do it again, I'd probably have used a slightly larger baking dish -- just so it would have cooked a little more quickly, but I was pretty pleased with the result. We used cherries from our year's harvest from the tree in the backyard, and they overwhelmed the subtlety in the Champagne (a rosé Champagne at that) -- so we finished the two up separately before clinking glasses at midnight and smiling at another New Year's well done.