Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Column: Wine & Dinner of the Month Club -- April

We’re back with the April installment of the Wine/Dinner of the Month Club for my lovely Christine. This month we took a trip to a Kentucky state park for a little weekend R&R. I don’t think the state parks allow alcohol so I can’t divulge the actual location, but it rhymes with Pine Mountain. We rented a log cabin which comes with a small kitchen outfitted with limited equipment, so we had to bring some of our own cookware and all of necessary ingredients for the meal. The wine this month was a dry, sparkler, which regular readers of TNV know is a very versatile wine, pairing with many different kinds of food. We decided on a brunch menu. Due to the limitations of the cabin kitchen, I kept it fairly simple, but the results were delicious and the wine was a delight.

Easy Quiche
Ten Minute Cinnamon Rolls
Sautéed asparagus

Les Rocailles Brut Sparkling Wine

I started by making the cinnamon rolls. About half-way through I realized we did not bring enough butter for the entire meal, so I sent Christine to the grocery store in town while I continued to work. The prep on the rolls took only about 15 minutes and they bake up in about 10 minutes, so I set the unbaked rolls aside while I made the quiche. As you can see, the recipe for the quiche is very simple with everything being mixed in one big bowl and then poured into a pie pan for baking. Baking the quiche took about 50 minutes, which gave me time to do a little clean up, and about ten minutes before it was done, I sautéed the asparagus. As you can see from the picture, the quiche came out lightly browned and bubbly-licious (yes, that’s a real word).

We plated everything up and had brunch on the cabin’s outer deck. We both loved the wine, the bubbles cutting through the egg and cheese of the quiche, letting all the flavors come through. It also went very well with the asparagus. But what about the cinnamon rolls?

After the quiche, we took a little break while I baked up the rolls. These are not the cinnamon rolls you may remember grandma making. There is no yeast in the mix so they come out more like cinnamon biscuits, but they are still very tasty. They came out of the oven golden brown and we let them cool just slightly before trying them with a little of the sparkling wine. I don’t think the sparkling wine was a particularly good match for the rolls. The sweetness of the rolls really overwhelmed the dryness of the wine. They were much better with the coffee we brewed up in the cabin’s drip coffee maker.

After the quiche, asparagus, rolls, coffee and a bottle of wine between the two of us, we took a long afternoon nap, like the slugs we were that weekend.

If I had to do anything different, I would have started the quiche and then made the cinnamon rolls. The 50 minutes it took to bake the quiche would have given me plenty of time to prep the rolls so they could be popped into the oven as soon as the quiche came out. No matter, it was still a great meal that kicked off a great weekend away. Next month we’ll no doubt be back at home with another delicious meal and wine pairing. Check back in to see what’s cooking!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Alphabet Soup Project: "C" is for "Cooperage"

One of many wine-related befuddlements is trying to understand what the big deal is about oak. If you listen to some wine folks at (usually higher-end) tastings, as part of the oenological word salad that they're coming out with -- they make reference to oak, the amount of time spent in oak, oaky flavors, American oak, French oak, poison oak (well, maybe not), and occasionally "unoaked." I have a basic knowledge -- oak gives certain character to wines and the longer a wine spends in oak while in the aging stage after fermentation, the more pronounced those flavors flavor usually are. However, the subtle variations leave me rather lost in the forest for the trees.

[Please note: The Naked Vine takes no responsibility for any injury stemming from physical reactions to the bad metaphor in the last line. It just needed to be said.]

Let's start with the basics. Why age wine in barrels in the first place? They're potentially leaky, allow wine to evaporate, and grow and shrink with changes in temperature and humidity. We can make larger, cheaper containers out of steel or glass or polyurethane these days. Why do we insist on keeping this old tradition alive?

The main reason? It works. The barrel can be as much a part of a wine as the method of fermentation, the terroir, or the grape itself in some cases. When a wine is barrel aged, a number of things happen. First, wood is water-soluble. Even though the inside of a barrel is "toasted" to cure the wood, wine will invariably seep into the wood. The newly fermented wine absorbs various chemical compounds from the wood itself.

Also, barrel aging allows a slow oxidation of wine. Oxidation is why we swirl wine -- helping bring out certain flavors. Alcohol evaporates when exposed to oxygen, so some of the vapors find their way out through cracks in the wood. As the alcohol evaporates, the level of wine in the barrel drops. (In whiskey parlance, the evaporated alcohol is called "the angel's share.") Winemakers "top up" barrels with additional wine during the time in barrel.

Both of these actions add certain flavors and augment existing flavors in a wine. Tannins tend to get softened a bit in red wines, and both reds and whites gain complexity through the process.

The type of wood used in the making of the barrels plays a major role. ("Cooperage," in case you were wondering, is the making of barrels.) American oak, being a less dense wood than French oak, allows more seepage, thus imparting more characteristics from the barrel. New barrels impart more flavors than old barrels. Some varietals pick up more character from wood than others. The longer the wine stays in contact with the wood, the more flavor it picks up.

Some wines are aged entirely in one type of barrel. These are the ones you hear referred to as "100% American oak" and the like. Some batches of wine are aged piecemeal in several types of oak. Some are aged partly in oak and partly in stainless steel, cement or some other storage medium. (Some winemakers also cheat. Rather than truly barrel-aging, they age wines in steel tanks and add toasted oak chips to impart these character. This is a more cost-effective method, but it doesn't work as well...) All of these factors go into the winemaking process. A winemaker will determine what kind of wood, length of time, etc. will add the desired characteristics.

I asked some of my pals in the "biz" for their thoughts about the various types of oak. Their thoughts:

Danny Gold from The Party Source: "American oak can smother wines and make wines such as Chardonnay taste like 4x4's where a Chardonnay aged in French will be more floral with vanilla undertones. [I think] American oak will give a wine a woody backbone while French oak will give it romance."

Kevin Keith from D.E.P's Fine Wines: "I have often thought of it as a difference between deer meat from this area as opposed to Pacific Northwest or Cali. Around here, deer are corn fed so their meat is sweeter. I know that is weird. You could also think of it as American oak imparting a cocoa/vanilla spice as opposed to French lending more nutmeg and cinnamon."

What does this mean in real terms? Chardonnay (as Danny mentions above) may be the easiest way to examine the distinction. Chardonnay is the oenological version of vodka. It's the blank canvas that really takes on the character of where it's grown and how it's made. When it comes to oaky chardonnays, California's versions immediately pop to mind.

I did a little research and found four California chardonnays -- two aged in American oak and two in French -- all in the $10-15 range, so you could easily try this at home. I tried Kendall Jackson 2008 Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay, Bogle 2008 Chardonnay, Francis Coppola 2008 Gold Label Chardonnay, and Heron 2007 Chardonnay. The Bogle is 100% aged in American oak. The K-J is a mix of American and French. The Heron and Coppola were a 50/50 blend of French oak and stainless steel.

Now, this obviously isn't a truly scientific experiment. My pal Jim Voltz from Bond Street Imports suggested getting some varietally consistent wines from the same winemaker aged in various ways (and they carry a couple done just that way), but I didn't want to get too far afield...

What did we find? I expected the 50/50 mixes to be less oaky, but I was completely incorrect. Both the Coppola and the Heron were much more "toasty" than the ones aged in American oak. In fact, the Coppola was like drinking a charcoal briquette at first. Like really tannic reds, I think oaky chardonnays need some time in air to let the flavors come out -- otherwise, the oak tends to overwhelm. I thought Danny's observation was spot-on. The greater the percentage of French oak, the stronger the vanilla flavors. Even though American oak tends to impart more flavor, both the K-J and the Bogle were easier to drink overall. The "toasty" taste seemed fuller in the wines made with the French oak. It felt more broadly on my tongue.

The Heron was my favorite of the four, as I thought it had a little more complexity and the oak that was there wasn't as strong. The Heron also didn't do malolactic fermentation, which removed the "buttery" aspect -- so it had a more fruity taste.

The Sweet Partner in Crime had a hard time participating in this little exercise. She cut her white wine teeth on California chardonnays, but now she finds them "too much" for white wines. I also prefer wines that are more crisp than creamy, but I didn't mind these as much as she did.

What's the bottom line? Using oak can allow a winemaker to express his or her vision and wineries produce wines that they think people will enjoy. I just don't have enough experience looking at wines from a "wood" perspective. One observation I can make: French oak barrels are much more expensive than their American counterparts, so if a wine's notes include the use of French oak -- especially in a white wine -- you should be ready for that wine to "show off" the fact that it's been so oaked.

Just for fun, if you're presented with "this wine was aged in French oak," you come back with, "Yes, you can really get the vanilla notes, but the barrel may have been overtoasted," just to see the reaction.

Friday, April 23, 2010

40th Birthday dinner

I've had a couple of people ask about the birthday dinner that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I had to celebrate my official passage into middle age. We had dinner at Hugo in Oakley. We'd never eaten there before, but we kept hearing great things about it. 

Predictably, Wednesday night was pretty slow at the restaurant, so we were able to sit back, relax, and soak in the decadence. We weren't disappointed. We chose to do the "tasting menu" -- a slate of small plates paired with appropriate wines. When we sat down, the maitre'd asked us if we'd like to "augment our meal with a foie gras course" for a small charge. We said yes. How often do you get foie gras, after all?

Here's how it ended up with the wines -- let the games begin. (Please forgive me, I can't remember some of the garnishes and sides or the wine producers, but they were divine...)
  • Diver scallop with arugula salad (Australian Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Green bean salad (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Twice-cooked pork belly (Alsatian Pinot Blanc)
  • Yellowtail in thin pastry with gnudi (Oregon Pinot Noir)
  • Foie gras on buttermilk biscuits w/almond butter & grape compote (PB&J! --  Moscato d'Asti)
  • Homemade spicy pork & beef sausage on white bean puree (Rioja Tempranillo)
  • Shrimp & grits (richest grits I've ever tasted -- Australian Shiraz)
  • Huguenot tort (apples & walnuts) with maple syrup ice cream milkshake blended with Frangelico & vodka.
We were fine up through the foie gras, which was unbelievably good. The last couple of courses were just so rich that we had a hard time working our way through them. We managed, don't get me wrong -- but we were painfully full after that little adventure. Not much more to the evening than to get home and collapse.  So worth it, though. Absolute overindulgent bliss. 

Hugo definitely gets a thumbs up as an "occasion" restaurant. The service was efficient, but our waiter had a shtick that was clear he stuck to almost robotically. Questions were met with a little annoyance for breaking his Shatner-cadenced delivery. That aside, we never felt rushed. The whole experience lasted better than 2 1/2 hours. Great pace and a great place.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

MEAC Annual Fundraiser -- "Wine & Wheels" -- This Friday!

Looking for a chance this weekend to get your wine tasting on? Want to support a really good cause? The Madisonville Education and Assistance Center (MEAC) is having its annual fundraiser on Friday evening. (For better or for worse, the event will be emceed by yours truly.) Admission to the event is $15. Last year, there were nearly a hundred wines to sample, so it's a fantastic deal. The relevant info:
MEAC’s annual wine tasting fundraiser, Wine and Wheels, will take place on April 23rd from 7:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m. at the at the Volvo/Porsche/Maserati dealership located at 4113 Plainville Road, Cincinnati, OH 45227. Join us for this fun blind wine tasting with lite bites provided by area restaurants. Each team (up to 3 people) is asked to bring one bottle of Pinot Grigio and one bottle of Shiraz. Prizes will be given to the teams who bring the favorite red wine and the favorite white wine.

For more information about MEAC, click here. To register for the event, click here. Walk-ins are also welcome!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tarrica Wine Cellars

Some of you who read my less-than-enthusiastic writeup of the last Cincinnati Wine Festival may remember that I still managed to run across a couple of wines I really enjoyed. One of the real finds at this little event was Tarrica. I did a double take when I tasted their merlot, and had a really nice conversation with their rep, Michael Gwin, about the wines, the winery, and sundry other things. Michael was good enough to set me up with a raft of their wines to sample.

Tarrica Wine Cellars is the 1999 creation of winemaker Sam Balakian, who named the winery after his two daughters, Taryn & Erica. Tarrica is located in Paso Robles -- a region gaining more and more national recognition outside of corkhead circles. Tarrica wines are made to be, in Balakian's words, "both affordable and immediately enjoyable." I could certainly speak for the first. All of the wines were listed between $9-15 (except for the petit sirah, which I've seen as high as $30).

So, how were they? As you might be able to ascertain, these are built to be solid wines you don't need to think about a great deal. Tarrica's selections aren't made to compete with the high-end stuuf from Paso, but they're certainly as good, if not better, than many California wines you'll find at similar price points.

I thought Tarrica stood out by...well...not having anything really stand out. For relatively inexpensive wines, I certainly noticed that they were crafted with balance in mind. Many of these bottlings succeeded on that front. Some were certainly better than others, in my opinion, but I'm certainly comfortable inviting you to see for yourself. Here's what we tasted, more or less in the order we tried them:

Tarrica 2007 Merlot -- Yep. I led off with this to make sure that I wasn't off base at the festival. I was instantly pleased, since it was almost exactly as I remembered. It tasted like a mainline Bordeaux, which I think is out of the ordinary. There's usually not a lot of earthy flavor in California wine, and this certainly has a bit of the "tasty funk." Now, I'm not talking Chateau Latour here or anything -- but for the price, I'd taste it blind against some $20-25 French bottles and probably fool a lot of folks. Good berry and floral nose with a solid tannic structure and excellent balance. Definitely recommended.

Tarrica 2009 Pinot Gris -- Fairly substantial body for a pinot gris. You can tell there's a little residual sugar, but it comes across as more of a honey flavor than simply sugary. It's got a lighter taste than the weight implies. Decent flavor with crisp acidity. When I first tried it, there was a little astringent nip at the finish, but that faded after the wine had been open for a few minutes. A decent enough pinot gris, just not out of the ordinary.

Tarrica 2008 White Zinfandel -- "I just can't do it." The Sweet Partner in crime looked askance at her glass. We don't usually allow this type wines into the nest unless I'm making sangria. In the name of science, though, I tried it. Like most white zins, it's quite sweet -- strawberries are the main fruit flavor initially. It does subdue itself a bit before finishing sugary. If you're into this sort of thing -- it's a good glass of white zin. I will admit, though -- I did end up making a spritzer out of the bulk of it.

Tarrica 2008 Chardonnay -- Very serviceable Chardonnay. Definitely made in a California style with the oak and butter, but neither get overwhelming. The nose is oaky, and the flavor is a good steady balance of fruit, butter, and oak. Nice smooth pear flavors on the palate. Good weight with a gently creamy, smoky finish. I'd certainly get it again.

Tarrica 2008 Riesling -- Not one of our favorites. A little heavy on the sweetness, but I'll readily admit to preferring drier style Riesling (unless I'm eating something really fiery, that is). I got apples on the nose and tongue. Sweet-ish finish. We had it with supermarket sushi, and it was decent, but I could have found a better one without too much difficulty.

Tarrica 2008 Pinot Noir -- Another very pleasant surprise! A very light-styled pinot that drinks best with just a hint of a chill. (A few minutes in the fridge after you open it will do the trick.) The nose is floral and delicate. Pinot noirs at this price tend to be either very fruity and almost thick or so light that there's barely any flavor. The Tarrica, however, is a very straightforward, well-constructed pinot. I got smoke and cherries all over the place, with a well-balanced flavor and a gentle finish. I really liked this wine, especially for the value.

Tarrica 2007 Petit Sirah -- If you think, "What would a petit sirah taste like if it were toned down a bit?" -- you'll understand where this wine is coming from. Bolder petits are more my speed, but it was a solid enough quaffer to have with evening chocolate. There was plenty of fruit, but that was more or less it -- not a lot of complexity and the tannins were light. I got blueberry flavors in a medium bodied wine, and the finish just sort of fades away. When I saw the price, however, I was surprised. There's a decent blueprint for a wine here, but I think it's probably better to wait a year or so until their yield gets better to try it again.

Tarrica 2008 Zinfandel -- The Tarrica "subtlety" motif certainly holds here. Definitely a smokier, more restrained wine than a lot of inexpensive California zins, which I don't see as a drawback. Not a fruit bomb by any measure. The nose has a strong vanilla tone. It remains a pretty muscular wine with plenty of fruit, but it's got smoky complexity and solid tannins, especially on the finish. Very drinkable and a very solid value. Grilled up a couple of steaks with this one and they went very well.

Tarrica 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon -- Nicely complex and another solid value. Plenty of blackberry on the nose with good black cherry and blackberry flavors. Not overly full-bodied, but very pleasant as a good "drinkin' cab" with its solid set of flavors. Good length on the finish with some lasting mild tannins. A perfect choice for a "third bottle" on an evening where you might be sharing some red wine and chocolate with good company.

Tarrica 2009 Sauvignon Blanc -- Peaches on the nose. Some mineral on the palate with a little more residual sugar than I usually like. Fruity rather than acidic on the finish. I'd certainly recommend it If you like softer, non-grapefruity sauvignon blancs. Otherwise, it's a  decent enough early evening/late afternoon quaffer.

Old Shandon Port Works Paso Robles Syrah Port -- One of two dessert wines that Tarrica offers up. I enjoyed this wine more a couple of days after I opened it. Right after opening, the sweetness was a little overpowering, but that backed off after a day and the wine grew more interesting. Some raspberry and chocolate flavors start showing up, the latter especially on the finish. The bottle reminded me, flavor-wise, of an Australian port. For a cold evening, it'll warm you up right enjoyably.

Tarrica "Koda" Dessert Wine -- Anyone who's followed this blog for any length of time knows that one of my tests of a red wine is trying it with something chocolate flavors. I was curious to see what would result when Tarrica took the above port and infused it with chocolate essence. The result? Well, I'll call it "interesting." The sweetness of the port runs a little roughshod over the chocolate flavors, which are pretty subtle. Long, chewy flavors and a warming glow at the end. I thought it was interesting and worth a try, and I think a lot of folks would probably like it if they're into dessert wines. I'd probably stick to getting the "component parts," however -- having the port and chocolate individually.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"White Smoke"

Fumé blanc.

Sounds interesting and a little exotic, doesn’t it? You may have seen a few bottles of it the last time you were perusing the “American whites” section of your local wine shop. Almost identical in body and color to sauvignon blanc, fumé blanc is the creation of Robert Mondavi in Napa. Mondavi decided to emulate the style of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre – two white wines from the eastern end of the Loire region in France.

If you want to get an idea of what he was shooting for, you might try something like Domaine du Salvard 2008 Cheverny. It's medium-weighted and rather complex. I got apples and melon on the nose, with a little whiff of yeast (which is as close as you'll get to "earthy" in a light white). I got honey and apples on the palate with a little bit of mineral. The finish is smooth, delicate, and very pleasant. ($15)

As the story goes, Mondavi was offered a particularly good parcel of grapes from a Napa grower. Mondavi thought that these particular grapes could work with his little experiment, so he followed the French techniques, fermented this new style of American wine, and sent it out under the name “Fumé Blanc” in 1968.

The public tried it, liked it, and they’ve been making it ever since, and any number of other winemakers followed suit. You can now find the stuff almost anywhere. But yes, dear readers, there’s a kicker…

This “new wine” sprung on the American public was, and is, nothing more than Sauvignon Blanc.

In the 60’s, there wasn’t a great deal of sauvignon blanc grown in the U.S. What little was grown usually ended up in cheap, sweet table wine, which is the association most people had if they'd even heard of it. Mondavi needed a good marketing angle to differentiate this new dry style he created from that good parcel of grapes, so he tagged it as “Fumé Blanc” – apocryphally named after the smoky morning mists in the hills of the Eastern Loire.

What does “fumé blanc” mean when you see it on a wine label in 2010? Honestly, very little – other than that you’re probably looking at a bottle of regular sauvignon blanc. There’s no legal definition of what is and what isn’t allowed to be so named. A general rule to follow is the syrah/shiraz distinction. Generally, if a California winemaker calls a wine “syrah” – they’re trying to make a wine in a French style. Same story with Fumé Blanc.

These wines often have a little bit of smokiness from barrel aging. They’re usually crisper and more minerally than a “typical” American sauvignon blanc. Also, like the French wines, some of them blend in a little bit of Semillon with the Sauvignon Blanc for balance. They’re also all relatively inexpensive. A couple of examples:

For starters, the Dry Creek Vineyard 2008 Fumé Blanc. This is a light, slightly citrusy quaffer. The nose is lemony and a little herbaceous. It's got a crisp, lemony finish with some lingering grapefruit flavors. Made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, it reminds me more of a light-styled New Zealand Sauvignon than something from France. Interestingly, the reason that some winemakers choose to blend in a little Semillon is to knock down that herbaceousness a little. ($11)

One wine that follows the "Semillon formula" is the Hogue 2008 Columbia Valley Fumé Blanc. As with many white wines from Columbia Valley, this wine's a little more body-heavy and honey-tasting than the California versions of the same grapes. This one has more of a minerally taste and the finish is a bit "creamier," perhaps from the Semillon that's blended in. Crisp, apricot-flavored finish that's not quite as dry as the Dry Creek. I personally thought that this one tasted more like the Loire style. ($9)