Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wine & Dinner of the Month Club – September 2010

This month’s entry heads to South America for both the main course and the wine. Only one recipe was found online, so I will try to reference the other sources and describe how they are made.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Churrasco (Beef Tenderloin) with Three Herb Chimichurri

Green Salad and Oven Baked Potatoes

Sweet Cherry Cobbler with Chocolate Truffle Crust

2007 Bodega Goulart Malbec

The wine this month is from Argentina and for a food pairing Mike at TNV suggested the following – MEAT! MEAT! MEAT! As an alternative he also suggested MEAT! But if you’re vegetarian you could go with lamb (see My Big Fat Greek Wedding, 2002). I was trying to find a good recipe and found one in How to Grill: The Complete Illustrated Book of Barbecue Techniques by Steven Raichlen (© 2001 by Steven Raichlen). The grilling was pretty straightforward, but the preparation was a little involved. You start with center cut beef tenderloins, slice them thin and then pound them to a quarter inch thickness between pieces of plastic wrap. This process tenderizes the meat and also is a great way to work out any frustrations from your day at the office. You then marinate the meat in a three herb chimichurri made up of parsley, cilantro, mint, garlic, olive oil, white vinegar, salt and pepper, and water. The recipe for the marinade is also in the book How to Grill. Place the meat in the chimichurri and let it sit in the refrigerator for about an hour. Reserve some marinade for serving later.

I next started the potatoes. I cut these into French fry size pieces, coated them in olive oil and herbs (rosemary, sage, marjoram or whatever else you want to use) and put them on a baking sheet. Cook these at 475 degrees for about 20 minutes, turning them a couple times to cook evenly. Watch these closely so they don’t dry out.

While the potatoes cooked I make the appetizer, fried green tomatoes. These are really simple. I took green (unripe) tomatoes from our garden and cut them into slices. I coated them in cornmeal and fried them in olive oil until golden brown on both sides, seasoning with salt and pepper while cooking. I served these with a homemade aioli, which I made by mixing some olive oil, salt and pepper, and lots of garlic with some mayonnaise. Simple and delicious!


While the potatoes were finishing cooking I grilled the meat. On a hot grill cook the meat about four minutes on each side, depending on how rare you like it. I did ours about medium. I plated it with the potatoes and a green salad with ripe homegrown tomatoes. We had some of the meat left over, which made for great steak salads the following night.


I had made the dessert before and it is always a hit. The recipe is for 12 servings but you can always cut it down to whatever number of servings you want. Usually you would top this with ice cream but we used whipped cream. Mmm, mmm, good!


As for the wine I can honestly say, wow! It had very luscious berry and cherry flavors and I think when I poured it I thought I got just the slightest whiff of tobacco. The color was a deep ruby red. This was definitely a food wine, as I don’t think I could sit around drinking this by itself. It went great with all the courses of the meal, nicely offsetting the garlic in the aioli with the fried green tomatoes, complementing the steaks and herb chimichurri, and, because of the berry/cherry flavors in the wine, it also went surprisingly well with the dark, sweet cherry and chocolate flavors in the cobbler. I would definitely buy this wine again, especially to go with steaks off the grill. Thanks to Mike for another great recommendation.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Box Wine II – Electric Boogaloo

You may remember back in the late aughts when my dear neighbor Christine the Pie Queen challenged me to write a column on box wines. After some careful thought and consideration, we ended up throwing the First Annual Box Wine Extravaganza.
Somewhat embarrassingly, a couple of years have passed. A lot of wine has been poured across the alley during that stretch, but we hadn’t managed to re-extravaganzize. This year, though, a solid confluence of events stacked the boxes clearly in our path. We were back in business. We coupled the box wine tasting with a reprise of her hubby Jeff’s ribs and let the good times roll.
A quick refresher on box wines. Yes, you can still get your sugar-water box of Franzia or Vella if you really want to make huge batches of sangria, but box technology has improved greatly over the last several years. Advances in production have allowed winemakers to put wines in these containers that can last weeks if not kept cool and months in the fridge.
For a long time, winemakers used box wine as a way to get rid of some of their inferior juice – and there are still clearly cases of that, like the aforementioned Franzia. A couple, however, latched onto the idea that putting halfway decent table wine in boxes for easy consumption was a winning strategy. Three years ago, you’d struggle to find anything other than cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, Riesling, and white Zinfandel in boxes. Now you’ll find malbec, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, and any number of other varietals. Europe has long “boxed” table wine, and some of those are making their way to American shelves as well. As more wines appear on the shelves, quality tends to rise. (Although we have a cautionary tale below.) Prices range from $15-20 for most boxes.
So, in hopes of finding some decent wine, we cracked open four at the Extravaganza:
  • Pinot Evil Winery Pinot Noir
  • Folonari Pinot Grigio
  • Bota Box Chardonnay
  • Red Truck “Mini Barrel Red”
I have different expectations for box wine. I wasn’t looking for any kind of thunderously outstanding vino. When I pour box wine, I want something I can drink pleasantly without thinking too hard. I approached the judging in a very simplified manner. I made a few scoresheets with the following statements:
  1. 1) This wine tastes good.
  2. 2) This wine tastes good with food.
  3. 3) I’d drink this wine at home.
  4. 4) I’d recommend this wine.
People simply checked “yes” or “no” for each statement and added comments if they wished. Each “yes” gave a wine one point. The totals were averaged to determine an overall score. The results?
Folonari Pinot Grigio – Score: 4. The winner of the day. Straight yesses on the scoresheet. “Unassuming, but very pleasant” was one comment. Another noted that it went “very well with the potato salad.” This particular potato salad, interestingly, had olives in it. In retrospect, it makes sense why an Italian wine would be particularly good there. I thought that it was exceptionally drinkable, especially on a warm day. For a setting like our little shindig, it was the right wine for the right time. Around $20 for a box. Folonari also makes a Pinot Noir of which I’ve read some positive reviews. It’s on the list for down the line.
Pinot Evil Winery Pinot Noir – Score: 3.75. Personally, this was my favorite of the four. I didn’t know how well pinot noir would translate to this form. Most inexpensive pinots I see are domestic, but this was a French import. Regardless of ancestry, I thought this was a very solid, lightly fruity summertime option. “Very good. Dangerously drinkable.” was one comment (with which I totally agreed). More than one person mentioned that it was peppery. Also works well with a slight chill. A nice choice for either the patio or living room. Around $18.
Bota Box ChardonnayScore: 3. Bota Box (along with Black Box and Angel Juice) was one of the first “quality” box wine producers that I started seeing regularly. They’ve won awards for their Zin and their Shiraz, and I was curious about their whites. The results were positive, but not overwhelmingly so. “Drinkable, but not that great” was one comment, balanced by “Me like it!” I thought it tasted like someone made a basic, semi-fruity white wine and made “adjustments” to make it taste more like a traditional chardonnay. A hint of butter and oak are certainly in evidence, but they tasted like afterthoughts. There was also some sweetness that I didn’t think belonged there. Still, folks seemed to like it enough to drink it up, so it’s got that going for it. $17.
Red Truck “Mini Barrel Red” – Score: 0. Nope. That’s not a typo. The scoresheet was a universal sea of “no” answers. “Cute packaging. Too bad the content doesn’t measure up.” That sums it up nicely. The packaging was certainly interesting: a small metal “barrel” that’s not obtrusive or unattractive with “feet” that make it stand up. The downside – the wine inside was…well…not good. Somewhat sweet with a vinegary edge. For cooking wine – maybe, but this wine was at least $10 more expensive than the other wines we tried, and the quality was nowhere close. Very disappointing. Box wine is supposed to be economical. Unless there’s a real reason to spend more, why? I think many people saw this wine on the shelf and thought the same. Assuming the wines are of similar quality, why pay $30 for red in a slightly cuter package when you can pay $20 and get something just as serviceable. I suspect that the “cask” I bought had been on the shelf for quite some time and had gone over. If they bring the price point down to a more competitive level, this might be workable. Until that happens, make sure you check the date on the wine and ask your wine store how long those containers have been there. Buyer beware.
And a little something for the kids:

Tuesday, September 14, 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 http://www.planete-bordeaux.eu/) 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.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Italian Indigenous

As you might remember from our Italian Wine Primer, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 grapes indigenous to Italy. Variety may be the spice of life, but that much variety makes the initially-confusing Italian wine nomenclature a straight must to keep the musts straight.

(Yes, yes. I know you’re not supposed to explain your own puns, but in case you’re wondering, “must” is WineSpeak for “freshly pressed grapes.”)

Luckily for us, there are only a few dozen commonly used grapes in Italy, so the major grapes aren’t usually that difficult to keep straight. Most of the others are grown in relatively small quantities and used in local table wines. However, as winemaking technology improves and becomes more and more available to smaller growers, some of these lesser known varietals – each with their own unique characteristics – are starting to find their way off the Boot.

If you’re looking for a change of pace, some of these wines can make very interesting alternatives. I suggest speaking to your local wine guy or gal about them. Also, since they’re not as well known, they tend to be pretty good values for some reasonably tasty juice. Here are a few that I’ve tried recently:

Mustilli 2008 Piedirosso Sannio – Sannio is a subregion of Campania, situated northeast of Naples. Piedirosso is the grape, used almost exclusively in this region. The wines made from Piedirosso tend to be on the lighter side. On a warm summer evening as I was whipping up some marinara from garden tomatoes to serve over some gnocchi, this seemed like a pretty good match to me. I wasn’t disappointed. It is indeed very light – about on the level of a Beaujolais-Villages. In fact, I’d certainly throw this out as a substitute if you like that sort of wine. I’d recommend a slight chill on it, just like a Beaujolais. It’s got a very nice cherry/pomegranate flavor with only a hint of tannin. There’s a little bit of that Chianti-ish “chalk” flavor as well, but only a hint. With I may have “over-basiled” the sauce a little (if such a thing is possible), and it was able to tame that flavor without getting overwhelmed by everything else. A really nice light red alternative with any kind of tomato-ish dish. $13.

Feudo Arancio 2008 Stemmari Grillo Sicilia – Sicilia, obviously, is Sicily. Grillo is a white wine grape. Stemmari is…well…the name of the product line. Sicily has extremely hot growing conditions and Grillo works well in those climates. Grillo is best known as one of the grapes used to make Marsala. (Marsala is a place, not a grape…surprise!) Hot weather grapes often have very strong flavor profiles. It’s quite aromatic with strong floral and lemon aromas. I thought it started just a bit sweet and then tails off into a moderately citrusy flavor. There’s a bit of oiliness to it similar to Viognier. The finish is semi-dry with a few lemony flavors on the aftertaste. It’s a pleasant enough quaffing wine. It held its own with a pseudo-vichysoisse that we created one night and served alongside some “everything” bagels with smoked salmon. A very flexible food wine. You’ll find it for under $10 – an extremely solid value.

Cascina Gilli 2006 Freisa d’Asti – Freisa is a lesser-known red varietal in Piedmont. It’s overshadowed by Nebbiolo, from which Barolo and Barbaresco come; and by Barbera & Dolcetto, the more common “drinking wines.” Freisa yields a tannic, acidic wine like Nebbiolo, but it lacks the power and fullness you’ll see from that grape. This isn’t a bad thing. You end up with a wine that can stand up next to fairly heavy food without being heavy and overpowering itself. Case in point, I recently made eggplant parmesan – one of my specialties. It calls for a muscular wine. The Friesa reminded me of a light Zinfandel with a little Chianti “chalk” thrown in. It pointed up the pepper and the garlic in the sauce while still cutting through the earthiness. I would imagine it would also pair nicely with anything Zinfandel would work with – like barbecue or ribs. Besides, any grape varietal that Robert Parker describes as “totally repugnant” is worth a try in my book. $15-18.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Wine and Dinner of the Month Club – August 2010

This month’s entry includes the meal and wine description, but also a surprise visit that I describe at the end, so make sure you read all the way through. Is this just a cheap trick to get you to read the whole article? Sure, but I’m not above a little gimmickry for the benefit of the greater good.


2006 Tavel Vin Rose

Originally I was going to go with either pork or duck based on a recommendation from Mike’s (of The Naked Vine) Sweet Partner in Crime, Pam. Unfortunately, earlier in the month I had some gum surgery that precluded me eating certain meats. The tuna steaks were a good alternative.

I prepared the steaks by coating them with olive oil and rubbing on some grated lemon peel and spices per the recipe. These I put in the refrigerator and then made the simple salsa which included peaches, onion, cilantro, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and also put this in the fridge.

To make the bruschetta I sliced a baked French batard and brushed both sides of each slice with olive oil and garlic. I toasted these in the toaster oven and then loaded them up with diced tomatoes and basil from our garden, a little drizzle of olive oil on top, and a dash of salt and pepper. I had already opened and poured the wine so Christine and I sat on the back patio by the pond enjoying the appetizers and the wine, which was immensely drinkable and food friendly. Mike told us this was the case and he couldn’t have been more right.


While Christine relaxed with a fresh glass of wine, I prepared the tuna. Tuna steaks are usually cooked rare so it doesn’t take very long to prepare them. I threw them on the grill for two and a half minutes for my steak and three minutes for Christine’s steak because she prefers them more thoroughly cooked. Once I took them off the grill I plated them up with the peach salsa on top. I completed the meal with a simple green salad and some cherry tomatoes from our garden.


The steaks were good, but both Christine and I thought the salsa make the meal. The sweet and sour aspects of the salsa really complemented the fish. The wine lived up to its billing and went nicely with the steaks. The wine had good texture but did not overpower the fish. Christine commented that it wasn’t very tannic and was very easy drinking. I highly recommend giving this wine a try.

After dinner we sat around the table and finished off the bottle of wine. We were pretty sure it wouldn’t go with dessert since dessert was watermelon that had been soaking in vodka all day. This dessert was super simple to make. I cut up watermelon into bite size pieces and put it in a shallow serving dish. I then poured in a mixture of lime juice, sugar, mint (from our garden again), and plain vodka. I poured in enough of the mixture to just cover the watermelon, put a lid on the dish and set it in the refrigerator the morning of the meal. To serve I simply spooned pieces of watermelon into bowls and poured a little of the remaining liquid over them.


You could certainly taste the vodka in the watermelon, but it wasn’t overwhelming and at the end you had a little watermelon flavored vodka shot at the bottom of your bowl. I think it might be interesting to try this with flavored vodka just to see what combinations you could come up with.

I alluded to a surprise visit earlier. Well, it wasn’t that we had a visitor, it was who we visited. I don’t know if it was the wine, or the vodka or both, but it was a pleasant evening and Christine felt confident that Mike of the TNV and Pam his Sweet Partner in Crime, who happen to be our back alley neighbors, would be sitting out on their back patio so she decided to go over and offer to deliver some of the vodka watermelon. Good friends that they are, they indulged us and Mike even gave us a sneak peek at their newly refinished basement with full on man cave and wine storage under the staircase for about 150 bottles of wine. That’s a lot of wine, but is there ever really enough storage for good wine?

As is usually the case when the four of us get together another bottle of wine was cracked open. Mike picked out a lovely dessert wine from Adelaide by d’Arenberg called The Noble. It is a blend of Chardonnay and Semillon grapes that have been infected with botrytis mold which results in high sugar content in the juice and high residual sugar in the wine. [Ed.note – a very tasty faux Sauternes!] Between the four of us we finished off the bottle, but it was only a 375 ml bottle and the alcohol content of the wine was only 9% so we didn’t really feel any ill effects as we toasted the renovated basement.


It was another great wine meal with the added benefit of ending it in the company of good friends. We loved Mike and Pam’s refinished basement. If you get a chance to visit it in person, you might find yourself with an inexplicable hankering for a burrito and some chips and guacamole. Just ask Mike to pick a nice wine from the cellar to go with it.