Sunday, July 18, 2010

Planet Bordeaux (Syndicate, Fool!)

Mike Wangbickler of Balzac Communications recently gave me the opportunity to get a first look at “Planet Bordeaux” – the new marketing project by winemakers in the Bordeaux region. The project’s mission is to help people realize they can afford Bordeaux wines of quality without either leasing their first-born or slugging the scrapings from the bottom of fermenting tanks. “Folks can afford Bordeaux as an everyday wine. It doesn’t just have to be for collectors,” said Mike.

First off, a quick review of Bordeaux wine. Bordeaux is arguably the most famous French wine region (the argument would come from their Burgundian neighbors). Some of the most expensive and sought after wines in the world call this slice of France home. Red Bordeaux is always a blend of cabernets sauvignon and franc, merlot, petit verdot, and malbec. White Bordeaux is a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon.

Red Bordeaux, even though they’re a mix of some varietals that we may think of as heavy, tend to be lighter-styled, tannic reds. Even inexpensive Bordeaux can have complexity to the flavor. There’s usually an earthy or “cigar box” aroma and flavor along with the dark fruit, and finishes that are long and tannic. White Bordeaux usually are quite acidic, minerally, and have floral or herbal scents and flavors. They’re also usually very light in color. The deeper colored whites have more Semillon and tend to be heavier.

The mystery, allure, and frustrations of Bordeaux can often be traced back to the caste system for wines. In 1855, a “ranking system” for French wines was developed based on terroir, winemaking quality, overt and covert bribery, etc. The “best” single vineyard chateaux were classified into five “growths” – the Premier Crus are Chateau LaTour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateaux Lafite and Mouton Rothschild.

Below these are the AOC wines – wines from a certain region. These are your regional wines – Chateaux that can call themselves “Bordeaux” but aren’t in the “growth” rankings. The grapes must be grown in Bordeaux, but they come from one chateau or commune’s holdings, although they’re not necessarily single vineyard products. These tend to be a step below the “classed growths,” but are still considered from reasonably to really good wine. You know you’re looking at one of these wines if you see the following words on the bottle:
  • Bordeaux Rouge (Red) AOC
  • Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge AOC
  • Bordeaux Rosé AOC
  • Bordeaux Clairet (Dark Rosé) AOC
  • Bordeaux Blanc (White) AOC
  • Bordeaux Supérieur Blanc AOC
  • Cremant de Bordeaux (Sparkling) AOC
Below AOC is “Vin de Pays” – a region’s “table wine.” Vin de Pays simply means that the grapes are grown anywhere in that region, but they can be from anywhere therein.

So, the top grade goes for hundreds of dollars a bottle. Collectors hoard these. Thus, there’s always a demand. The vin de pays can be found anywhere. It’s inexpensive. Thus, there’s always a demand. The AOC wines, trapped in the middle, were faced with quite a quandary. These wines are quite a cut in quality above the vin de pays, but many aren’t much more expensive. Imagine you’re a winemaker and you’re putting together quality product, could make a profit with a relatively low price point, and are still a really good deal in any case. If you could only get the word out – people would snap it up, right?

Enter the Byzantine (or would that be Gallic?) world of French wine law. There are restrictions on marketing. Chateaux and communes cannot partner to market their wines. They have to work individually, for the most part. So, not surprisingly, the Chateaux with the most cash get the most run in the press, since they can afford the publicity. The best selling AOC red Bordeaux is Mouton-Cadet – a little side project of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. You can find that Bordeaux almost anywhere. It’s almost as ubiquitous as Duboeuf’s Beaujolais.

So, along comes Syndicat Viticole des appellations controlees Bordeaux et Bordeaux Supérieur, also known as the Bordeaux Syndicate (not to be confused with Rhyme Syndicate). The entire region figured that since they can’t market against each other – they’d market alongside each other! “Planet Bordeaux” (online at followed.

Thanks to Mike and Balzac, I was able to procure a few of the Syndicate’s samples. We had three bottles – one white and two red. Thoughts? First up, the white:

Château Thieuley 2009 Bordeaux Blanc ($14) – We opened this one weekend afternoon when we just needed something good to sip on. I was surprised at the nose on this wine. I expected more citrus, but I got a lot of melon scents and some yeast. The taste – it’s a nicely balanced flavor of thick citrus and mineral. The finish is soft and lingers for a bit with a touch of acidity. This wine probably deserved a dinner pairing, but hey – we were thirsty! “You can tell it’s not top line white Bordeaux, but it’s very drinkable,” commented the Sweet Partner in Crime. We moved on to the reds:

Château du Lort 2006 Bordeaux Rouge ($13)
Château Mirambeau Papin 2006 Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge ($20)
The difference between Rouge and Supérieur Rouge? The latter come from older vines as a rule, and they also must be in bottle for at least a year before release.
One tip: Bordeaux Reds MUST be decanted. The young ones need decanting to smooth their edges. The old ones need it to open up all of their potential yummy goodness. The contrast in both these wines was pretty remarkable once we let them sit for a bit. We tried them on their own first.

The “standard” had only a slight “Old World funk” on the nose -- more of a fresh-cut wood and some blackberry. The body starts almost tartly and hangs in there before transitioning into a tannic, graphite like finish that’s moderate. Not very earthy, if you like that kind of thing. The Supérieur had much better balance. The extra time in barrel smoothed off some of the tartness and gave it a “broader” nose – some earth, some fruit, some wood. The taste was quite pleasant, not too powerful or earthy, and with a nice transition of blackberry and cherry into tannins that hang in gently for awhile.

With some lamb loin chops, the standard red actually did quite well. The lamb calmed down the tannins and cut down on the edges of the tartness. The flavor became brighter and fruitier and turned into a nice contrast. After a few sips and bites, the Supérieur emerged as a dark, fruity sidecar.The Supérieur’s subtler flavor merged much more as an “alongside” flavor than the “standing out” flavor of the standard red.

After a couple of hours, they continued to evolve. The regular became “brighter” – with almost a floral bit on the nose. The Supérieur became deeper and darker, adding plums and tar to the nose, The regular red’s sharp edges smoothed and the wine balanced much more. Even so, I personally thought the Supérieur was a better wine all around.

Marketing or not, I think anyone who’s really interested in learning about wines owes it to themselves to form a decent idea of a region’s style and flavor. These AOC wines from Bordeaux give a nice window into those profiles, so these would all be good “starter” wines to help you develop a true sense of a) whether you even like these wines and b) whether you want to explore some more.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wine and Dinner of the Month Club – July 2010

If you live in the Cincinnati area, as we do, one of the great culinary treasures is Findlay Market, a municipal market first opened in 1855. I don’t really consider myself a foodie, but walking in the market and seeing the goods on display at the various vendors’ booths almost always inspires me to try something different. With apologies to our vegan and vegetarian friends, some of my favorite places are the meat vendors. Often I have looked at a sumptuous rack of baby back ribs and thought, “I’d like to throw that on the grill sometime!” So this month I get my chance. I picked up the ribs at Mackie Quality Meats and a mesquite dry rub from the spice vendor Herbs & Spice and Everything Nice and got to work on July’s wine dinner.

Sweet and Sour Slaw

Warm Green Bean Pesto Salad

Barbecued Ribs

Graeter's Ice Cream

2008 Seghesio Zinfandel

In this case the ribs were actually the easy part. My brother-in-law, Rob, told me his method which was super easy and made for incredibly juicy, tender and succulent ribs.

[SPOILER ALERT: In order to help Rob maintain his Lone Star street cred, those of you from Texas please stop reading now and join back in below.]

When I pictured myself cooking these ribs it was standing at the grill, patiently watching over my prize as it cooked over low heat and absorbed the smoke from some wood chips I threw into the grill. You know, like a real man. But Rob gave me a better way – cooked in the oven. Start by putting on your Tommy Bahama-like shirt and pre-heating the oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat the ribs in the dry rub and wrap in aluminum foil, sealing it tightly. Put the ribs on a baking sheet (juices will leak) and put in the oven for just a little less than 5 hours. I went with 4 hours and 45 minutes. You don’t even have to watch them, which gives you plenty of time to make side dishes. Once the ribs were done in the oven, I took them out and finished them on the grill a few minutes while brushing on some barbecue sauce. You could also do this in the oven under the broiler, which would probably have been easier since they were so tender that the rib rack started falling apart when I tried to turn it over on the grill.

[You Texans can rejoin the conversation now. I think Rob’s reputation is intact.]

Jeff with Ribs

And there you have it. You often hear the phrase “fall off the bone tender”, and these ribs really were! We could not even pick them up by the bone to eat because the meat would just fall away, and they were so juicy you could almost drink them.

While the ribs were cooking, I made the side dishes. The slaw can be made early on, and the recipe even suggests making it the night before so the cabbage and other vegetables can marinate in the dressing overnight. It was just slightly sweet with a good vinegary tang. I chopped the cabbage pretty thick so it was crunchy and hearty.

The green bean salad was sort of an olio of things we had around the house. The beans were from my parents’ garden last year. We had helped them pick, wash and break the bean, and Christine helped my mom can them. As my Dad said, “She got the full bean experience.” I added some small, boiled potatoes that we also picked up at Findlay, some corn we had leftover in the fridge and some chopped onion. I mixed into this some pesto that Christine had made from the basil in our garden and warmed the whole thing up. Just prior to serving, I cut up some tomato wedges and placed them on top. I had opened up the wine to let it breathe a little and after plating the meal, I poured us a couple glasses and we sat down to eat.

RIbs and wine

As I said before, the ribs were tender and juicy, and the barbecue sauce gave them a nice smoky flavor with just enough sweetness. The acidic tang of the coleslaw provided a perfect counterpoint to these flavors, and the bean salad provided additional flavor variety. The wine went nicely with the entire meal as it complemented the ribs and was not overpowered by them. It was a nice counterbalance to the tartness and acidity of the coleslaw. Needless to say, between the two of us we finished off the entire rack of ribs and the bottle of wine.

Da bones

Christine relaxed for a bit while I cleaned up the kitchen and then we went for dessert. I had not planned a dessert because I figured what would be a better after a meal of barbecued ribs than ice cream, and in this part of the country, there is only one ice cream – Graeter’s. A couple years ago a Graeter’s store opened up about eight blocks from us. This is a good thing because now we walk over for a scoop instead of buying a pint and gorging ourselves with the whole thing. Self-control and Graeter’s are not two words that play well together. Christine had a scoop of her favorite, coconut chip, and I had a scoop of mint chocolate chip. We walked home completely satisfied. It was another great meal with another great wine.

Graeters Cup

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Alphabet Soup Project – “D” is for “Decant”

How many times have you heard or read something to this effect in a wine description:

“Make sure you open the bottle and let it breathe for an hour or so before you drink it.”

Astute Vine readers probably remember that very recommendation from me in this space.

Guess what? Anyone who tells you something like this (including myself, admittedly) is more or less full of it as it applies to most bottles. Honestly, if you crack a bottle and let it sit for awhile, any difference in flavor – at least initially – is going to be largely psychosomatic…like most tasting notes. When someone tells you that a wine has a “strawberry nose,” you’ll unconsciously sniff for strawberries.

Same deal with letting a wine breathe. When you’re told that a wine tastes better after you uncork it for the hour, you’ll usually believe it. We think there should be a difference after a wine “breathes.” There is…if you actually let the wine breathe correctly. Correctly letting a wine breathe usually involves decanting.

Decanting wine is all about physics. Think about why we swirl wine – since alcohol evaporates on contact with air, bringing those wonderful aromatics to our nose so we get flavor. The more surface area gets exposed to air, the more aromatic a wine will become. Some wines also develop a sulfury smell or a sweatsock stink after being in bottle for awhile. Exposing the wine to air allows some of those scents to dissipate a bit. Simply opening a bottle and letting it stand only allows a tiny bit of the wine’s surface to contact the air. Using a decanter provides much more oxygen exposure, which causes the wine to “open” more quickly and effectively.

So, what is a decanter? In a nutshell, it’s simply any container into which you can carefully pour (usually) an entire bottle to expose more of the wine’s surface area to oxygen. Decanters come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, ranging from very simple to curvy, twisty shapes that make for better art than function. I mean, if you’re feeling vampiric…

Heart decanter

But, honestly, I prefer something like this:


I can’t remember where we came up with this, honestly. I think it may have been a bottle of white zinfandel once upon a time that I bought for sangria, and we’ve used it as a flower vase ever since. It’s a perfect size – comfortably fits an entire bottle, easy to pour from, and I don’t have to worry about being clumsy with crystal. You can also use a water pitcher. Works fine. In a real pinch, just pour the glasses early and put them somewhere that they won’t be disturbed.

How to decant wine? Easy. Open the bottle, then pour the contents into the decanter slowly and reasonably gently. I use the pouring method long-perfected by any knowledgeable sophomore at a keg party – tilt the decanter and pour down the side. While you don’t have to worry about your wine foaming up everywhere, cabernet sauvignon stains don’t come out as easily as Natty Light. After you’ve poured your wine, just set the decanter down somewhere for 20 minutes or so (longer for certain wines) – and go to town. Now, if you want to show off the bottle itself, you can pour the wine into a decanter, let it sit, and then pour it back into the bottle. Use a funnel! (Another side benefit of decanting -- it’s an opportunity to get any sediment out of your wine – especially unfiltered wine. Wine sediment usually doesn’t have any effect on the taste, but “gritty” isn’t a sensation I want when I’m quaffing.)

During the afternoon & evening of the Sweet Partner in Crime’s recent birthday, we did a little experiment with a few bottles. We opened each bottle and tasted it immediately. Then we decanted, let the wine sit for a bit, then sampled it again. We used the following bottles:

  • Domaine Bachelet-Monnot 2007 Bourgogne Blanc
  • Saintsbury 2004 Carneros Pinot Noir
  • Tenimenti Fontanafredda “La Villa” 2000 Barolo

First up, the white Burgundy. I don’t usually decant white wines since they’re made to be drunk young. As a rule, the younger a wine’s made to drink, the less good you’re going to do by decanting. Most of these wines, however, are built to last and we thought it would be interesting to see the contrast. At first taste, the “typical” white Burgundy profile came out – fairly crisp and minerally in a lean style with plenty of citrus. After decanting, new flavors emerged. Peach and pear popped up, as did a mild oakiness that really pointed up the lemony flavors. Made a good wine that much better. I decided to do a “day of small plates” and started off with some smoked salmon and crackers. The oakiness worked well with the smoked flavors and the acidity cut through the oils nicely.

I picked up the Saintsbury on a “vintage clearout” sale – it’s typically around $35. This vintage was getting towards the end of its “recommended peak,” and it was pretty straightahead pinot at first taste. I certainly got the “smoked cherry” flavors you’ll get from most pinot, but it didn’t seem overly complex. When you have a wine that’s getting near the end of its peak, decanting will allow you to wring all of the flavor you can from the wine. With the Saintsbury, after a little decantation, revelation. The nose picked up a caramel twist and the body added some yummy ginger and raspberry flavors. The smokiness was enhanced at the end. This went from a solid, everyday pinot to something more supple and sexy. I made a little “seared sashimi” with it. I read it was a good pairing, and I can stand and tell you to three decimal points that it’s heavenly.

Finally, the Barolo. Now, Barolo is a special case. These powerful Italian wines from the Piedmont are so tannic on bottling that they usually need a minimum of 8-10 years in bottle before the bitter edge has softened enough to drink. Tannic wines almost always improve with decanting. (The same applies to young California cabernets and the like.) This Barolo was a great deal from Garagiste Wines – even so, it was still around $45. When first opened, the light color of this wine belied the power within. At first sip, though, it was tannic but not overly so and fairly easy drinking. I might have even confused it with a Chianti. The recommended decant time for Barolo is at least a couple of hours, so I set it aside and got to work on my special birthday eggplant parmesan. When I served it up and poured the wine – a transformation. The wine “woke up.” That’s about as well as I can explain it. Everything was more powerful. The tannins were stronger, the plummy, somewhat tarry flavors were pronounced, and the wonderful complexity showed up. It went delightfully with the parmesan. Actually, the post-decanting version was too strong in the opinion of the SPinC. She said that she liked it better before decanting, actually. As I’ve said, everyone’s palate is different.

So, when should you decant? Almost anytime you can, really. Unless a wine is a bargain-line wine, you’re probably going to see a marked improvement in flavor and complexity after you decant a wine for a bit. In a pinch, you can use an aerator. These work well for most wines – but for something that needs more time in air (older European wines or younger American wines in general), you’re still going to be better off finding something to pour the wine into for awhile.