Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Naked Vine One Hitter -- Cannonball

I’m never one to look a gift wine in the mouth. One of my compatriots, the California Condor, was trying to scare up some cash for his employer:
I picked up the bottle at Vator Splash, a venture capital event in San Francisco for start-ups.  They were giving away the bottles to anyone who asked, so I grabbed one for you.
“The bottle” turned out to be Cannonball 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a California blend sourcing grapes from all over the Northern California wine growing area. They say their wine, like the cannonball dive itself, “doesn't discriminate against body type, race, religion, political affiliation, social status, or fashion sense.” So, it’s built to be an approachable, affordable quaff.
I cracked it, swirled, and was greeted with a spicy, plummy nose. The wine is made to be sold in the $15 price range, and it’s nicely balanced for that price point. Many $15 Cali cabs are either tannic thunderheads or fruity messes. This one’s quite light for a cabernet, very approachable, but a little light initially. It deepens once it gets some air, so I’d probably recommend decanting. Once you do, you’ll get some soft, lasting tannins on the finish. A very easy drinking wine that goes well with meat or chocolate. Nothing amazingly out of the ordinary, but a very solid value.

Monday, November 29, 2010

More kudos for Kinkead Ridge

Our friends at Kinkead Ridge in Ripley, Ohio continue to rake in the recognition. They competed in the Jefferson Cup Invitational -- a national wine competition headquartered in Missouri. In the "non-California" category, they took home an award for their 2008 Cabernet Franc -- one of only four vinifera wines (as opposed to hybrids like Norton, Traminette, and Vidal) so honored.

Hearty congratulations to Nancy and Ron! Check them out here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Quick Hits – 10 Wines around $10 for the Season

Ah, the time of the year when big dinners, social events, and travel plans thicken on the calendar like grandma’s gravy. If you’re anything like we are, you’re always grabbing a bottle of wine or two to carry along. A few folks have asked me for wine suggestions, so I thought I’d shoot along a range for you to choose from, depending on your taste and the evening’s event.

One caveat with these recommendations, however – these are all meant to be general wines that go well with a range of dishes. They’re not supposed to be “perfect” wines, because with the wildly varied spreads that you might get at many parties, there’s no such thing. You’ll just want to look for something that falls squarely into the “good enough” category.


Friexenet Extra Dry (NV) Cava – The Swiss Army knife of sparkling wine. One of my fallbacks for years. The trademark black bottle is available just about anywhere. Light, crisp, and flavorful. I prefer the Extra Dry to the Brut. (Remember, brut is actually drier than extra dry…) The dab of residual sugar makes it a more flexible food wine. Also a fabulous mixer if you’re doing cocktails like kir, bellinis, and the like – or if you need a mimosa to start the next day.

Riondo (NV) Prosecco – Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine, makes an absolutely perfect aperitif. Light, floral, and pleasantly tasty with flavors of pear and peaches, it’s a great way to start out any event. Also an excellent brunch wine, if you’re looking for a solid choice along those lines.

Lighter Whites

Santa Rita “120” 2009 Sauvignon Blanc – From Chile, this very light styled sauvignon has a very high acid content, so it will handle most lighter foods with ease. It’s also a pleasant, refreshing sipping wine if you’re in the need for something along those lines. Packed full of grapefruit and flowers, it’s a nice “open as needed.”

Terra di Brigante 2008 Falanghina – Sannio, the home of this tasty little number, is the province adjoining Campania, where Naples is located. A very pretty nose of green apples and peaches. Nice amount of body with some gentle acidity and a backbone of light oak. The finish is crisp and slightly oaky. Another refreshing option on its own. It holds its own with grilled pork and fish dishes, especially if lemon sauces get into the act.

Lighter Reds

Louis Jadot 2009 Beaujolais-Villages – Another wine you can absolutely rely on when you have no clue what to expect on the other side of the door. For a red wine, Beaujolais is about as flexible a wine as you’re going to find. Beaujolais can sometimes be a little watery, but the Jadot is a bit firmer than most of its counterparts. Strawberries and cherries greet you with a fair amount of acidity backing them up. Serve it slightly chilled.

Hahn 2009 Pinot Noir – I almost hesitate to put this under the “lighter red” section, since for a pinot noir, it’s pretty substantial. Most pinot noirs at this price are either watery messes or lacking in any kind of complexity. They’ve done a nice job here. Big, smoky cherry flavors in a wine that could almost, almost pass for a light-bodied zinfandel. Very approachable either right out of the bottle or next to a plate of almost anything,

Bigger White/Rosé

Pacific Rim 2007 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling – Any time I host a meal where I know there’ll be folks who aren’t huge wine drinkers, I try to make sure that I have a couple of bottles of dry Riesling stashed away. Dry Riesling (or “trocken” if you’re in the German aisle) usually still has a little bit of sweetness to make it a crowd pleaser with many, but with enough complexity to be interesting to corkheads. The Pacific Rim is a solid bet. Plenty of orange and apple with some mineral on the finish. If you’ve got something spicy (whether Asian, Hispanic, Indian…doesn’t matter) to serve up, this wine hangs in against the heat.

La Vieille Ferme 2009 Cotes Du Ventoux Rosé – Heavier whites are tough. Chardonnay, the obvious choice, has flavors that are often too strong to be good “general” wines. I thought I’d avoid that quandary by going pink, since there are few better food pairing wines than dry rosé. Rosé works as a food wine because of the same principle as light whites – in general, wines with higher acid contents cut through food more easily. The red wine grapes that create rose give it a little more oomph than a white if you’re looking for something a little more substantial. This wine has plenty of tart cranberry and citrus flavor with a pleasant mineral backbone. Don’t fear the pink!

Bigger Reds

Charles Smith "The Velvet Devil" 2008 Merlot – Charles Smith’s wines don’t leave much to the imagination. This is a big hearty wine from a big-spirited man. Merlot is usually a good bet for reds with muscle, as it pairs equally well with heavier meats and chocolate. The Devil has a big nose of blueberries and violets. The body yields more forward blueberry flavors along with a hint of bacon. (And that's not a bad thing in the slightest.) It’s a little tart at the end with a long, nicely balanced-but-tannic finish.

Marquis Phillips 2007 Roogle Red – A tasty blend from Down Under. It’s half Shiraz. The other half is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Another worthwhile choice for either red table wine next to steak and mushrooms, as a chocolate accompaniment, or just on its own. The wine’s nose is big and plummy with a full body of dark fruits. The finish dries out the fruit with some substantial tannin. Make sure you either give this wine time to breathe or decant it. If you don’t, your first sip will be a mouthful of tannins – but give it some room and it wakes up really well.

Have a great holiday season and be careful out there!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wine and Dinner of the Month Club – November 2010

[For your Thanksgiving dining pleasure, here’s the latest entry from the Naked Vine’s intrepid contributor Jeff. We here wish you and yours a wonderful holiday!]

This month’s dinner features a very nice French pinot noir combined with lamb skewers. There were a couple hiccups along the way, but we enjoyed the results. This is another dish I’m sure we’ll revisit and, if you do it right, it’s pretty easy. Most of the work can be done the day before.



  • 2007 Mongeard-Magneret Bourgogne Pinot Noir

I hadn’t actually planned an appetizer, but Christine had gone to Findlay Market in the morning and picked up a roasted garlic bulb at the farmer’s market. You simply squeeze the soft garlic out of the cloves onto crackers for a tasty bite. Add in a little creamy cheese and you have a simple, but delicious first course. I dug around in the liquor cabinet and whipped up a quick and tasty cocktail – citrus vodka, triple sec, and cranberry juice cocktail martini.


Next I started the main course. I was doing fine, until I got to the part about marinating the lamb overnight. Hmmm, wish I had remembered that beforehand. As it turns out, you can put the lamb in a sealed plastic bag with the marinade and massage the meat to force the marinade into it and speed up the process. It turned out fine, but an overnight soak would undoubtedly have made the flavor more intense. The garlic yogurt was simply plain yogurt with garlic and mint folded into it. You want to make this a few hours ahead so the yogurt can take up the flavor of the garlic. This step could also be done the day beforehand. For the eggplant, I cut it into thick slabs, brushed on some olive oil and baked at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, sprinkling feta cheese over the top for the last five minutes. The lamb cubes were taken out of the marinade and skewered with onion pieces and cooked on the grill. I cooked them for about four minutes, turned them once and then cooked them for four more minutes, and they turned out perfect. I also cooked up some rice for a side and placed the skewers on them for serving. We had already opened the wine and I poured fresh glasses for dinner.


For dessert I made poached pears. They were supposed to soak in a hot liquid until soft, soaking up all the flavors of the liquid. It was pretty simple to make the poaching liquid, but I apparently had the wrong types of pears, which didn’t soften adequately. For the record, use either bosc or Anjou pears, not bartlett. It took a long time for them to cook adequately and they were still a little on the crisp side. They were tasty, nonetheless.

So, there were a few kinks in the evening, but all in all the food turned out great. And once again, the wine was delicious and I would certainly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Naked Vine Tries The Naked Grape

The Naked Grape is a new line of wines from Grape Valley Wine Company in Modesto, California. They do four varietals: Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

According to the press release from the winemaker, Hillary Stevens, “More and more people are looking for ways to simplify their lives…we’re happy to assist in that venture by providing wines that stay true to the fruit in the bottle and provide an utterly uncomplicated sipping experience.” The wines are also described as “easy to enjoy” and “focusing on what’s important and stripping away the rest.”

What all does this mean? Since I was sent a bottle each of the Pinot Grigio and the Pinot Noir to sample, I hoped to sort out the quote.

One thing to remember: just because a wine has a varietal name on the label, it doesn’t always mean that you’re entirely drinking what you’re thinking. For example, when a wine from California has “pinot noir” on the label, the law requires that it has to contain 75% pinot noir. However, once you get to 75%, any other grape in that 25% is fair game.
There’s nothing new about blending grapes. All French Bordeaux are blends. Wines are usually blended to enhance certain flavors or add complexity. In this case, these wines were blended in such a way to remove complexity and make the wine more straightforwardly fruity. Why would a winemaker do this?

As the press release also states, “When it comes to The Naked Grape, there are no pairing rules – all of the wines taste great alongside any type of food.” Such a statement makes me skeptical, because I can’t imagine cracking a pinot grigio with a flank steak – but uncomplicated wines do tend to make easier pairings. So, what did we think?

The Naked Grape California Pinot Noir (nonvintage) – As I mentioned, this wine is at least 75% pinot noir, but the rest of the blend is composed of Tempranillo, Grenache, and Alicante Bouchet. It’s light bodied and acidic, and there’s a considerable amount of fruit when you first take a sip. However, the flavor slammed its brakes on the back of my tongue. This wine had one of the shortest finishes I’ve ever had. There were cherry flavors along with a “bite” that reminded me a little of a Beaujolais. Uncomplicated certainly was an applicable moniker. Its uncomplicated nature served it well with food. After trying it with a bite of new potatoes with butter, salt, and parsley, the Sweet Partner in Crime stated: “You don’t find many wines that pair well with salt.” As a dinner wine, it was workable.

The Naked Grape California Pinot Grigio (nonvintage) – Once again, a wine that’s flying by the 75% rule. In addition to pinot grigio, you’ve got Gewurztraminer, Viognier, and Riesling. As a pinot grigio, it’s a reasonable wine. Nothing fancy in the slightest. The other grapes were rolled in specifically to cut the acidity, it seems. There was still a little of that pinot grigio sharpness, and there was some nice solid apple and pear flavors. However, much like its pinot noir cousin, it had a solid dose of the “brakes on the back of your tongue” effect, along with a slight bitterness on the aftertaste. We actually drank this down one afternoon without food. We had it open as a “sluggable” wine and it turned out just fine. It was easy to drink and inoffensive. We thought it was the better of the two we were sent.

I understand (I think) what the winery’s trying to do. They want to make a table wine without calling it a table wine to avoid the connotation of “cheap wine.” (And it’s relatively inexpensive – it’s $9 a bottle.) But “uncomplicated table wine” is probably a better moniker. I think if they were up front about it – even putting that on the label instead of a varietal, they’d draw a more “accurate” audience.
For a relatively generic drinking experience, it’s a decent enough quaff. That said, at a $9 price point, I think I could find something a little more interesting for my palate.

[Many thanks to Marieke at Hunter Public Relations for giving me the chance to sample these wines.]

Friday, November 12, 2010

DEP’s Twitter Tasting – Hahn Estates

Next Wednesday, the 17th, the Naked Vine will be participating in DEP’s Fine Wine and Spirits Twitter Tasting, featuring wines from Hahn Estates.
Four wines are in the queue – Hahn’s Chardonnay, Meritage, and Pinot Noir – along with Cycles Falcon Zinfandel. A pack of these wines is available at DEP’s in Ft. Thomas and Covington for $35.
On Wednesday between 7-8, taste ‘em and tweet ‘em. Want more info? Contact Kevin “K2” Keith at k2@depsfinewine.com
See you then!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cork & Vine Wine Market & Lounge, Dayton OH

At the turn of the century – the 20th century, that is – while futurism was giving birth to dreams of flying cars and regular trips to the moon, a highly modern dining option emerged: fast food. The first fast food restaurants were called automats.

Automats were a staple of big city life until the 1950s. A customer would walk into an automat and face a wall of vending machines. Instead of Dolly Madison snack cakes and Snickers, you could score yourself a hot, usually well-prepared meal and dessert for the change in your pocket. Find something you liked, drop in a few nickels, and snag a table. Dinner.

Automats largely died in the 1950s with the rise of the suburbs, superhighways, and a pair of golden arches. In North Dayton, however, the Cork & Vine Wine Market and Lounge is resurrecting the automat concept with a delicious twist – the Wine Station.

“Basically, the Wine Station is a self-serve wine sampling system,” explained Matt Thatcher, the Cork & Vine’s director of operations, “This allows us to open some finer wines and give people the chance to try some things we ordinarily wouldn’t be able to open and offer by the glass behind the bar.”IMG_1036

Visually, the Wine Station is the love child of a wine fridge and a cappuccino maker. Behind one of twelve windows are bottles of wine – six white, six red. Above each window is an LCD display, indicating the price of a sample.

“You can get a 1 oz taste, a 3 oz half, or a 6 oz. full glass. A taste can range anywhere from $1.25 up to $4-5,” explained Thatcher, “Not that they’re all that expensive. We’ve got a range of things in there from a $12 bottle of Riesling to an $80 bottle of shiraz.”

The Wine Station, designed by Napa Technologies, preserves the wine and pressurizes the bottles with argon gas, creating a neutral atmosphere in which the wine won’t spoil. Hypothetically, the system can preserve a bottle of wine for 60 days after opening. To use the station, a customer would pre-load a Dave & Bustersesque “Smartcard” with an amount from $5-500. The screen displays the amount deducted for each choice.

I don’t sample $80 shiraz very often, so I inserted my card and went for a 1 oz. taste. I held my glass under the spout, pushed the button (the taste was $3.75), and with a whoosh and a gurgle, I had myself a nice little pour.

“We try to make sure things aren’t uptight here,” added Kara York, shifting her newborn in her arms as I swirled my wine. “With the area, a lot of people seem to be kind of intimidated by wine, so between the WineStation and the wine flights we offer, people really get a chance to try some new things.”

So I took a sip of this shiraz (Clarendon Hills 2004 Liandra Vineyards Shiraz if you’re curious). Seriously -- just this side of mindblowing. Imagine your palate resting on a dark chocolate Temper-pedic mattress. I’m personally glad that we didn’t know about the Wine Station during the recent wine cellar addition that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I did. The endeavor might have become a little more expensive.

From the outside, Cork and Vine is doing its best with its somewhat nondescript location, sharing a strip mall building in York Commons near the junction of I-70 & 75 with a Petland, a GameStop, and a Cincinnati Bell Store. They’ve put in an outside patio for folks to relax. Inside, however, they’ve successfully pulled off a “friendly industrial” look, with dark angular shelves, white leather couches, fireplaces, and a contemporary bar area.

In addition to the wine sampling, Cork and Vine also sells wine, as it’s linked with the Liquor and Wine Warehouse next door. “You can pull any bottle off the shelf and drink it right here with a corkage fee. [Currently $6]”

York explained that the owners saw North Dayton as fertile ground for a fine wine store. “There are a lot of people up here who want to get into wine. They’ve really discovered this place over the last year. We have a lot of local folks coming in, but we also have people that travel from a ways after they’ve heard of it. They want to learn more.”

In addition to the Wine Station, the Cork & Vine offers a full bar. While meatloaf and green beans aren’t on the menu as at the old automats, they have their own tapas-ish appetizer menu with antipasti, flatbread pizza, soup, salad, and dessert . As an additional sampling aid, they also offer a number of wine flights, also in one or three ounce pours. York said that they offer flights from big cabernets to sweet wines, “but we try to gently steer people away from white zin.We switch out the flights so that people will have something new to try every week or two.”

North Dayton’s home to any number of hotels and conference centers, so the Cork & Vine offers trolley service. Yes, an actual trolley. “It’s a pretty neat thing,” said Thatcher. “Basically, if you’ve got a group, call us up and make arrangements. If you’re within five miles of the place, we’ll pick you up, bring you here, and take you home when you’re done. A pretty convenient setup on any number of levels, you could say.”

I agreed. And went back for another whoosh and gurgle of Clarendon.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Drinking Honeyed Sunlight -- Sauternes

Close your eyes. Picture standing in the middle of a field of honeysuckle. Breathe in that scent. Now, imagine someone’s picked all of the flowers and drained the nectar into a glass, added a little apricot essence, and gave it to you to drink. Sip. Taste it. Let it sit on your tongue like a honey comforter. Swallow. Let the honey and fruit dissolve in your mouth for the next two or three minutes. Focus on the blissful. Then look at the bottle of Sauternes you’ve dropped some serious coin on and smile.
I really didn’t expect to spend $70 on a bottle of wine. Really.
I’m in the midst of putting together a three-part series of columns on wine and cheese, as you know. (If you’ve not read the entries on soft cheeses or hard cheeses yet, follow those links.) I was starting on the third – stinky cheeses. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I had the luxury of a rare free weekend during this crazy part of the year, so we had the opportunity to take an afternoon, relax, and gorge on wine and cheese. The cheeses we picked were Taleggio, Stilton, and Roquefort.
I have a great book, What to Drink with What You Eat, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. We call this our “Book of Armaments” for wine pairings. There have been a few times I’ve disagreed, but for“classic” pairings, they’re spot-on. They made some suggestions – the Taleggio called for an Italian red, which I didn’t want, so I went with Riesling; the Stilton’s classic was port; and the Roquefort – labeled in bold, all-caps, with an asterisk (translation – make sure to try before you die!) – was Sauternes.
I gulped a bit. Sauternes is a sweet, white wine made in Bordeaux from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes. Because of the climate in this region of France, there’s a fungus called Botrytis cinerea (also known as “noble rot”) that attaches itself to the grapes, causing them to partially raisinate while still on the vines. There’s not nearly as much juice. An entire vine might yield enough juice for a single glass of wine. The wines taste sweet and have basic flavors of apricot, peaches, and honey.
Because the yields are so small from the concentrated juice, Sauternes and other “botrytized” wines are ridiculously expensive. A bottle of Château d'Yquem (the most famous Sauternes producer) will set you back $200+. More “pedestrian” versions can be had for around $70.
Considering the high costs, just realize this wine exists because some lazy winemaker with baskets full of moldy grapes said, “Screw it…let’s press these bad boys and see what we come up with!”
I had no intention of purchasing a Sauternes. I’d consider a bottle a ridiculous luxury, since I’m not a huge fan of dessert wine. I couldn’t imagine dropping that kind of coin on a bottle that I wouldn’t just drink. I went back to the Book of Armaments and found that Riesling & late harvest Zinfandel were acceptable with the Roquefort.
A’wine-shopping I went. Picked up Riesling and headed over to the dessert wine aisle to get a bottle of tawny port. I snagged it and happened to glance at the next rack of bottles. There they were, the Sauternes, beckoning. The lowest price was $50 for a half bottle. I must have stared at these bottles for ten minutes until the epiphany came:
“Go big or go home.”
I picked out a bottle in the middling price range. Chateau Clos Haut-Peyraguey 2001 1er Cru Classé Sauternes. 2001 was the year the Sweet Partner in Crime met yours truly, so I was hoping that would be good karma.
There are maybe a dozen bottles of wine that have left me utterly speechless. The SPinC called it an “Apricot-honey flambé.” I simply closed my eyes, slowly rolled my head side to side like Stevie Wonder, contemplating the fruity silk explosion rolling across my palate.
I expect sweet wines to be syrupy. The Sauternes was certainly thick, but because the viscosity is from glycerol (a product of the noble rot) rather than excess sugar, it’s the sheer power of the fruit flavors themselves that create the sweetness.
We were both stunned but said that we couldn’t imagine just drinking a bottle of this by itself. Along came the cheeses and assorted noshables that were to complement the cheeses & the wines. The Roquefort and the Sauternes were every bit as heavenly as I thought it would be. Roquefort is a powerful blue cheese, but the Sauternes was strong enough to hold up solidly, deepening and accentuating as the thick wine and the creamy cheese worked together as a delightfully melty experience. The port was listed a classic pairing with the Stilton, but something about the combination of the Stilton & pears with the honey of the Sauternes was one of the most unique, wonderful flavor combinations I’ve tried.
Then came the topper. The “perfect pairing” with Sauternes is foie gras, which is goose or duck liver paté. Not exactly something you can snag at Kroger, but I was able to find a substitute that was slightly less expensive and close enough. I first tried it spread on a cracker, but the flavor was cut too much – then I tried it again…just a big hunk of the paté, followed by the Sauternes. I almost fell over in delight.
The combination of those flavors – sweet, savory, salty, bitter, sour, fruit, meat, depth. Like perfectly cooked steak and cabernet, the sensation cements the fact that I can’t be a vegetarian. This pairing was nothing short of sexy, causing me to blurt out:
“Holy crap! That tastes like sex feels!”
This was a major moment of blissful exaggeration, and I’m lucky not to have received a well-placed backhand from the Sweet Partner in Crime. Seriously, it tasted naughty. Foodgasm.
Sauternes isn’t going to make my regular wine rotation anytime soon. We go through a lot of wine, and Sauternes is too delicious to be anything but savored. I also have no idea where this Sauternes ranks on the “absolute scale of Sauternes,” and I don’t care. We wrapped ourselves in unexpected decadence for a glorious evening.
More please.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Wine and Dinner of the Month Club – October 2010

Well, I’ve had a good run with the monthly dinners, but at some point good fortune runs out. That’s pretty much what happened with this month’s entrée. I would still recommend trying this dinner and the wine was excellent. Just give yourself plenty of time and don’t get frustrated, like I did.

2007 Lily Chardonnay

First, a little context. Due to Christine’s travel and some of our other commitments the only night available to make the October meal was Sunday, October 31. This was Halloween, and in our neighborhood that means about 300 kids traipsing by our house between 6 and 8 pm. I didn’t want to wait until afterwards for dinner, so I decided to make it beforehand. This put me under a little time pressure. The shrimp cocktail was easy enough. I just boiled fresh, deveined shrimp for about three minutes and then removed the shells. I put some ice in Margarita glasses with cocktail sauce and arranged the shrimp on the rim of the glass for a nice presentation.


On to the crab cakes, where my troubles began. The recipe was easy enough to follow, but I did not do a good enough job emulsifying the oil in the mayonnaise to keep the crab meat together so when I drenched them in the bread crumbs, they just fell apart. I got a little (okay, a lot) frustrated and finally just mixed the crab meat and bread crumbs all together like a loaf. The result was that, instead of a nice bread coating on the outside of the cakes, there was about four times as much bread crumbs as necessary mixed all the way through the cakes. I also had to add another egg to keep the cakes “glued” together. The result of course was cakes that were dry and a little tasteless, though they did look okay. However, the smoked Gouda béchamel turned out well and was particularly good on the asparagus, which I steamed. The potatoes I boiled whole for about 10 minutes and then sliced and sautéed them in olive oil with dried rosemary. One other issue I encountered was timing everything to be ready at the same time, and I think I used every pot, dish and inch of counter space in our kitchen, as you can see from the picture.


The dessert actually worked out well and was super easy. Just mix a can of pureed pumpkin with a box of yellow cake mix and bake. That’s right, just those two ingredients. No eggs, no milk, no water, nada. Once it is cool, mix up the glaze and drizzle over the cake. Both Christine and I were amazed how moist it was without any extra liquid or eggs. Enjoy, and we’ll see if things turn out better next month.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

TNV’s Guide to Wine and Cheese – Part II (hard cheese)

Last time, we looked at where cheese comes from and looked at a few soft cheeses. I thought we did a pretty decent job of reviewing the cheeses, but my Uncle Alan is a big fan of Brie de Meaux – which I panned. As he put it, “Grasshopper, you have learned much about the grape, however your understanding of the mysteries of God's other great gift is f’d up.”

He may be right, and he’s got free rein to put together his brie recommendations in this space. (Seriously.) Still, it takes different strokes to move the world, yes it does, and as I’ve always said, let your palate be your guide.

This time around, we’ll look at some hard cheeses. As we discussed last time, the basic process of cheesemaking is to allow milk to sour and curdle, allowing the solids to settle out into curds, leaving the liquid whey behind. The curds are then pressed into balls, blocks, or logs; the whey is drained off; and you’ve got cheese.

A cheesemaker will sometimes add a complex of enzymes called rennet to the curdling milk. Rennet can be found in the stomach of any mammal. It greatly speeds up the coagulation of the solids in milk, allowing the body to begin working on digesting the proteins and fats. The rennet added to cheese is normally harvested from the stomachs of kid goats or cow calves.

When rennet is added to a batch of curds and whey, the curds form more quickly and more tightly. The whey is then drained away and the curds are put into molds for pressing to extract more water. When the water is gone, the bacteria still in the cheese actually act as a preservative, allowing aging. As a cheese ages, the flavors gain complexity.

We looked at a range of cheeses from semi-firm to hard. Again, we tried to pair with wines that were suggested as “classic pairings.” For this tasting, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I invited our friend, The Hanging Chad, to assist us with our tastings. Our cheese board:

  • Mild cheddar (pairing: oaky California Chardonnay)
  • Sharp cheddar (pairing: young California Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • Gruyère (pairing: French extra dry sparkling wine)
  • Parmesan (pairing: Super Tuscan – blend of sangiovese and merlot)

Let’s get it started:

Cheddars: Not to be confused with the TGIFridays-esque restaurant chain – cheddar is one of the more ubitquitous cheeses. It was originally made in England in the town of…wait for it…Cheddar. Cheddar Cheese differs from many other forms of cheese because of the “cheddaring” process, in which the curd is kneaded with salt and then sliced into large blocks, which are left to age anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.

In general, the longer the aging, the sharper the Cheddar. Mild cheddar is usually only aged for a couple of months, while sharp cheddar can be aged for over a decade.

Do not confuse actual cheddar cheese with various “cheese foods” like Easy Cheese (“Fromage Facile” if you want to be hoity toity) labeled with the name. Cheddar cheese has a somewhat pungent flavor which gets amplified as the cheese ages. Cheddar cheese is normally either white or very pale yellow. Those bright yellow cheeses you see all have additives – usually annatto or paprika

Starting with the mild cheddar, which just tasted like…well…cheese, the addition of the chardonnay was a good one. The wine brought out the full flavor of the cheese, which includes some smokiness. The smokiness was mellowed with some cream and the fruit emerged in the wine. The two went well together. The cabernet was also a pretty good pairing. The flavors were certainly complementary, but in a more full way. The sparkling wine was just OK. As Chad said, “The sweet dullness of the cheese thumps through the bubbly, but doesn’t do much else.” As for the Super Tuscan – it tastes like one of those “wine/cheese balls” you can get. Not particularly interesting.

The sharp cheddar with the cabernet was a mixed bag among us. I really liked it. I thought it made the flavors meld pleasantly, while both Chad and the SPinC thought it was considerably worse than the mild cheddar and cabernet. The chardonnay simply made the cheese and wine go “flat.” It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t much of anything else. The bubbly made a combination that was much too pungent. As for the Super Tuscan, it amplified everything. Or, as the Chad cribbed, “Too much tang in the ting tang, too much zing in the zing zang.”

Gruyère: Gruyère is a hard cheese made from cow’s milk. Gruyère originated in Switzerland. Interestingly, Swiss Gruyère is a solid cheese, while French Gruyère is governmentally mandated to have holes. (The cheese from Switzerland that traditionally has holes is Emmental.) After Gruyère is pressed, it’s brined and then ripened at room temperature from two months. It’s then cured for between 3-10 months. It’s often used in cooking, as its flavor typically amplifies flavors in foods without overpowering them. It does have a somewhat distinct “funk,” which adds an earthiness to food.

With the sparkling wine, the cheese gave up the noise and gave up the funk. The flavors all blended nicely. Or, as Chad so nicely put it: “It made a great cheese sauce in my mouth.” With both the Chardonnay and Cabernet, the experience wasn’t as good. We all thought the Chardonnay clashed badly. I noted that it was an “absolute waste of alcohol” to mix these two, and I thought that the cabernet forced the cheese to submissively go belly up on my palate. Similar comments came from Chad and the SPinC, but mine were funniest. With the Super Tuscan, we all agreed that it was ok but unspectacular. About as neutral a pairing as you could find.

Parmesan: Parmigiano-Reggiano is actually the name of this cheese, if you want to be most accurate. Parmesan is the French bastardization of the word, but has come to mean most Italian-style hard cheeses that are cooked rather than pressed. Cooked? When this cheese is made, once the rennet is added and the curds have dropped out, the temperature of the vat in which this occurs is raised to about 130 degrees, further speeding up the curdling process. The curds are then drained, heavily pressed, and put in a brine bath for about three weeks. After brining, the cheese is aged for 10-36 months before it is deemed ready for consumption…and we consumed it.

With the recommended Super Tuscan, we thought it was OK, but not fabulous The strong flavors in both meshed reasonably well, but it didn’t blow any of us away. With the Chardonnay, the SPinC simply said, “Clash. Ugh.” Chad and I concurred. The Cabernet was too sharp. Chad found it particularly problematic, saying that his mouth was on “dessicative fire.” The bubbly didn’t work, either. The flavors seemed to fight. Bottom line, it’s great with pasta or in various foods, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar it’s pretty good – but find another cheese for board purposes.

Next time, we conclude with the stinky cheeses.