Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Valentine’s Pack

As I get started here, let me once again thank Jeff, the Naked Vine’s foreign correspondent, for his great work with his monthly dinner club writeups. I’m sure Christine the Pie Queen was pleased with her birthday present. If you enjoyed his writeups, please drop him a line in the comment section here.

This set of releases, sent for sampling by the California Table Wine folks, was scheduled to coincide with the king of the Hallmark Holidays. So, would you want to put these in a gift basket? I was sent three samples:

  • Apothic Red 2008 California Winemaker’s Red Blend
  • Barefoot (NV) Sweet Red
  • Bear Flag (NV) Dark Red Wine Blend

Before we get to the wines themselves, I realize I haven’t mentioned what “NV” means – it’s “non-vintage,” meaning the wine is made of a blend of wines not produced in the same year. For instance, when producing a blend, a winemaker might blend a barrel of 2008 Zinfandel with a half-barrel of 2010 pinot noir and a half-barrel of 2009 Tempranillo to get the flavor he or she was looking for.

You see non-vintage most often with sparkling wines, but more and more table wine blends are going to this model. In a relatively consistent climate like California, such a process is usually less expensive and gives a winemaker more flexibility in producing an “even” product from year to year.

As for this bunch of blends, we started by trying the wines individually.

The Bear Flag was our first sip. This wine had, by far, the most interesting label – a potentially chemically-fueled cacaphony of images by an artist named Benton Eduardo. A description won’t really do it justice, so see for yourself:


With a label that screams, “pick me and don’t worry about what’s inside,” I wondered if there would be due diligence done with the product itself – a Petit Sirah based blend with Alicante, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, and Tempranillo. With that combination, I didn’t expect a blast of acidity, but that’s what I got on the first drink. However, the wine balanced with about half an hour of air. There’s a medium bodied blueberry flavor to it with some smoke on the end. Nothing complicated – a somewhat dry-and-fruity red wine with enough character to make it interesting. Not bad for $9.

Next, we moved over to the Apothic Red Blend. This is a Zinfandel based wine backed up with Merlot and Syrah. I’ve had any number of fruit bombs over the years, but this was, perhaps, the first vanilla bomb I’ve tasted. “It tastes like vanilla candy,” said the Sweet Partner in Crime. I concurred. It calmed down a bit after some air, but the vanilla dominated everything. The promised notes of “mocha, chocolate, and brown spice” from the description were swamped. We set it aside for later to see if it would be worth the $14 pricetag.

We cracked open the Barefoot Sweet Red with some trepidation. We’re clearly not the target audience for this blend of Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Barbera, Grenache, and Petit Sirah. I was a little nervous when I saw that the alcohol content was only 10.5%. Zinfandels can get up to 14-15% alcohol without trying, so I wondered just how much residual sugar there must be in there. The answer? A bunch. This tasted very tart and rather sweet – like Sangria or a Seabreeze. Set me back a step. I’d imagine that this is built for drinkers of white zinfandel who don’t want to be seen drinking pink wine. The flavor profile is very similar. $6.

California red blends tend to be less tannic and more food friendly than the single varietal wines. With red wines, we thought we’d try a classic red table wine pairing. I picked up a couple of filets at the store, boiled some gold potatoes and topped them with butter and parsley, sautéed up some portabella mushrooms with some garlic and red wine. Even in in the middle of winter, I like finding a good excuse to grill, so I knocked the snow off the cover, fired that puppy up, and threw the filets on there for a good searing. (Rare. Yes, please.)

With the wines, the Bear Flag continued to be the top performer. Since it was a little more restrained to begin with, it evolved into a nice companion for the meal. It didn’t really stand out in any way, but it was a nice accompaniment.

The Apothic needed food. Even after a couple of hours of air, the vanilla was still overpowering. With a steak, however, those vanilla notes got blunted quite a bit, allowing some of the other flavors in the wine to come out. The potential was there for a very interesting wine, but it wasn’t evident by itself. It may benefit from a little more time in bottle.

As for the Barefoot? I ate a bit of the filet, had a sip of the wine, and declared, “That was the most unpleasant bite of steak I’ve ever had.” I can’t recommend it, unless you want to either make sangria or pour it over ice with a splash of club soda. As a spritzer, it’s quite decent. (Hey, it was for the sake of science…)

Finally, how about alongside that box of chocolates in your potential gift basket? We actually tried the wines with two-bite brownies. The Apothic was quite good, actually. The vanilla worked with the brownies nicely. The Bear Flag was decent. Nothing outstanding, but a solid choice. The Barefoot? No. Just no.

So, to sum up: I’m not the best judge of the Barefoot. It’s not a wine for me. The Bear Flag is a solid, value-minded choice for drinking or food. With chocolate, the Apothic is good now. It may evolve into a better food wine in a year or so.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wine & Dinner of the Month Club - January

So here we are with the last of the Wine/Dinner of the Month Club entries (that is, unless Mike gives me a bump up in my royalties). This month, for only the second time, we go on the road. Christine and I headed out to West Virginia for some cross country skiing at White Grass Ski Touring Center. We try to get out there at least once a winter, hoping for good snow. This year there was plenty and the trails were as good as I have ever seen them. So good, in fact, that I hardly fell at all which is a pretty good measure of conditions. We were joined by our friend Patty in a cute little rental cottage with a hot tub. The kitchen conditions were a little less ideal than the skiing conditions, but we made the best of it and had a great meal. No recipe links this month, but the recipes should be easy enough to find from the sources below. One other note, the pictures are not their usual high quality. We forgot to bring our camera and wound up taking the pictures with Patty’s cell phone, but I think they give a good sense of how everything turned out. Bon appétit.


  • Mushrooms Stuffed with Walnuts & Cheese. (The Silver Palate Cookbook, by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins with Michael McLaughlin © 2007 Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins)
  • Spanish Style Braised Lentils with Sausage and Chard. (The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, Third Edition © 2010 by The Editors at America’s Test Kitchen. A well received Christmas gift from the lovely Christine.)
  • Cherry Pie. (Delivered by Patty.)

2005 Alain Paret Valvigneyre Cotes-du-Rhone

While Christine and Patty were taking a well deserved après ski soak in the hot tub--I had been in earlier and got out to start dinner--I worked on the stuffed mushrooms. These are super easy to make. You simply prepare the filling, stuff the mushroom caps with stems removed, and pop in the oven. The filling is mostly walnuts and spinach, with a little of two kinds of cheeses in the filling (gruyere and feta) to give great flavor and texture without being overly rich. Patty, who is not huge fan of mushrooms, said, “I could eat these every night for the rest of my life!” I’m not convinced that wasn’t the Maker’s Mark 46 talking that she and Christine were enjoying in the hot tub earlier, but the mushrooms were very good.


Christine and Patty both helped in making the main dish because there was quite a bit of chopping to do. It wouldn’t have been a problem at home, but with the limitations of the rental kitchen, it was nice to have some extra hands helping out. We substituted regular brown lentils for the lentils du Puy called for in the recipe. They worked fine and actually required a little less cooking time. We also used some chi-chi, non-antibiotic packaged andouille chicken sausages instead of the kielbasa called for in the recipe (Christine did the grocery shopping). This worked out as well, but after browning the sausage, there was very little fat in the pan, which is what you are supposed to use to cook the rest of the dish. I just added a little olive oil to the pan to make up the difference. One nice thing is that this is pretty much a one dish meal, which makes for easy clean up. I baked a quick loaf of crusty bread and plated up the meal. Both the mushrooms and the lentil dish had a lot of very earthy flavors. We all felt the wine did as well and so it was a great accompaniment to both dishes.


Patty had been kind enough to bring a cherry pie (my personal favorite) for dessert. Here the evening took a peculiar turn. We took the pie and a bottle of prosecco (and Christine in her pajamas) and drove into the little town of Davis to visit with a couple of Patty’s friends who were also out for a ski weekend. To protect the innocent, we’ll just call them The Russian and The Russian’s Boyfriend. Once there we all enjoyed some pie and prosecco. Some of us also had some of the Russian’s Russian vodka and a little more Maker’s Mark. I think the skiing the next morning was a little rough for at least one of us, but we all had a good time and I have to say it was probably one of the more eventful and entertaining of the past year’s wine dinners.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Alentejo, Portugal

Portuguese Wine.

I’ll be honest, I’d never given it a second thought. I knew that Port originally came from northern Portugal, and I’ve had my share of vinho verde, that summertime slightly sparkling slice of refreshment, but I’d never considered other wines from there, largely because I don’t remember seeing them in one of my regular wine store haunts.

Along came an opportunity to sample a few bottles of table wine from Portugal. As a public service, of course, I gave them a spin. We’ll get to them in a moment. A little background, first.

Portugal is actually fifth in the world in total wine export. The biggest importer of Portuguese wine is Angola with Brazil not far down the list (not surprisingly, since Portuguese is the national language in both places…) Much of that volume is comprised of Port, followed by headache-inducing pink wines like Lancers and Mateus. Vinho Verde is also gaining more of that market share. While Portugal grows some of the world’s more “common” grape varietals such as Syrah and Moscatel, most wines from Portugal are made from their abundant varieties of indigenous grapes – over 500 of them.

Like most European countries, Portuguese wine nomenclature generally follows the region of the country where the wine is produced.Vinho Verde, I learned, is not only the term for “green wine,” but is, in and of itself, a wine region. Other regions/wines include Douro (the most famous region – the birthplace of port), Dao, Bairrada, Colares, and Alentejo.

It’s the last region I mentioned, Alentejo, which produced the wines that I had the chance to try. Alentejo, as a region, covers a great portion of the southern third of Portugal. It’s not heavily populated and was best known around the world for the production of cork. However, it produces a great deal of the country’s red and white table wine, which was largely forgettable on the world stage. Over time, winemaking techniques improved along with the quality.

Since Portugal’s entry into the European Union in 1986, they adopted a similar quality classification system as several of the other countries. The “top” classifications are labeled DOC. The next step down is “Vinho Regional.” DOC is to Vinho Regional the same way you might consider Chablis to regular (white) Burgundy.

From the marketing materials I received with the samples, The broadening of the Portuguese wine market doesn’t seem to be focusing, at least initially, on “fine wine” – instead focusing on the “good table wine” range. [Note: many thanks to Jo Diaz from Diaz Communications for giving me the opportunity to try these wines.] So, how were they? I had the chance to sample a red and a white from two different producers: Finisterra and Alente. Finisterra sold around $7, Alente sold around $9.


The first one opened was the Alente 2007 Alentejo Red Wine (or “Vinho Tinto” if you prefer). This is a DOC wine. This is a blend of Trincadeira and Aragonez grapes. It’s a fairly light red. There’s not much of a nose on this wine – faint raspberry scents. The flavor is somewhat acidic with some soft tannins at the end. On its own, it wasn’t great, but the pairing suggestion was for Spanish-spiced food. We tried it with some leftover (and damned good, I must say!) ropa vieja that we’d made for a party. The wine was an OK accompaniment, but it didn’t do anything to set itself apart. Not my favorite.

We moved on to the Alente 2009 Alentejo White Wine (or “Vinho Branco”), another DOC entry made from Antão Vaz and Arinto grapes. There wasn’t much of a nose on this wine at all: some apples and light wood with a slightly astringent smell like a bandaid in the background. Once past that, the body was pleasantly fruity. It’s moderately acidic with apple flavors and a little bit of mineral kicking around. The finish is fruity and soft with a little pepper that kicks in at the very end. I had high hopes with this with a paella that I’d cobbled together, since it was about as close to regional cuisine as I could manage. It turned out to be a very nice complement, but, like its red brother, it wasn’t memorable.

Then came the Finisterra 2009 Alentejo Red Wine – This is a “Vinho Regional” made from Aragonez, Castelão, and Tincadeira. The nose was quiet with faint raspberry and strawberry, but the body was a very different experience. The flavor isn’t especially fruity – some dark fruit there, but it’s generally lean and tannic. The palate isn’t complex, but it’s pleasant and there’s a solid finish of coffee and dark chocolate. The tannins are pronounced without being too strong, so it’s very easy to drink. We found it to be a really nice food wine. We had this with a winter vegetable soup – plenty of butternut squash and leek and other earthy flavors. It worked really well in a context where my first thought would have been something in the neighborhood of Cotes du Rhone. A Cotes du Rhone wouldn’t have been nearly as good with end-of-meal chocolate, either.

Finally, the Finisterra 2009 Alentejo White Wine was an interesting quaff. This Vinho Regional blend of Antão Vaz, Siria, Rabo de Ovelha, and Perrum gave me a snootful of apples and lemons with an odd little “cheese” undertone. The flavor is initially pretty tart, but it calms down pretty rapidly. Light body with fairly high acidity with some oak. The finish turns quite oaky at the end. An oaky pinot grigio, if you need to draw some kind of parallel. This one didn’t make it to food. We opened this one afternoon and it made a nice companion to conversation. A pretty decent value for a “drinking wine.”

All in all, the Finisterra wines earned higher marks from us. I thought they were very solid values for table wine. I’d recommend them for sure.

I’m certainly going to keep my eye on Portugal moving forward. If you like Spanish table wines, but you’re looking for a slightly lighter-styled wine, Portuguese wines could be your alternative.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wine & Dinner of the Month Club - December

[Some of you had been asking about Jeff’s last entry. Sorry to keep you waiting. Computer issues in the Plepysbury household put a momentary hold on the last installment. Enjoy!]

This month’s entry includes classic comfort food for the holidays and for the first time we had guests for the monthly wine dinner. We also got a chance to do a vertical tasting with the selected wine. Unfortunately I was not able to find links to all the recipes, but I have given the sources. Enjoy.


  • Turkish Red Pepper Spread
  • Pot Roast with Vegetables (From Better Homes and Gardens Magazine – December, 2010)
  • Coconut Custard Pie (From Williams-Sonoma, Pie & Tart, © 2003 by Weldon Owen Inc. and Williams-Sonoma)


  • 2005 Dynamite Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2006 Dynamite Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

This wine dinner was extra special because it was on Christmas Eve and Christine’s parents were in town visiting, so they got to see the magic happen. Since we had extra guests I wanted to get another bottle of the selected wine for the meal. Of course, I bought these wines for Christine’s birthday last January, so there was no more of the 2005 vintage available. So instead I picked up a bottle of the 2006 vintage. I figured it would go well with the pot roast too and we would get a chance to compare the two vintages.

The pot roast actually takes about 3 hours in the oven so once I got that in I had plenty of time to prepare the red pepper spread and clean up the kitchen. I find it makes the dinner that much more relaxing when that little chore is already done. The red pepper spread was easy to make in the food processor and then served in a bowl with crackers for a tasty, and actually healthy, appetizer. The red peppers gave it a nice smoky flavor and the spices added a little heat without being over the top.


After the appetizers I plated up the pot roast and we sat down to dinner. The meat was tender with nice flavor from the caramelized onions and the vegetables. I did make one change in the recipe. One of the vegetables called for was a turnip. We couldn’t find turnips so I substituted a parsnip. For some reason the parsnip did not cook as thoroughly as the other vegetables and it was a little hard. I think turnips may be a softer root and would have cooked better with the roast. It was still tasty and I between the four of us, we cleaned up the platter.


The wine had a deep ruby color and a nice flavor that paired well with the pot roast and roasted vegetables.


As you might expect, we couldn’t really tell that much of a difference between the two vintages of the same wine, but we thought the 2005 did have some more complexity in the flavors. This was probably because it had been sitting in our cellar for the last year maturing. If we kept a bottle of the 2006 for the same length of time, I’m sure we’d get the same result.


I had made the dessert earlier in the day because it was meant to be served at room temperature. We had finished off the two bottle of Dynamite Vineyards wine so we opened up a bottle of Beringer dessert wine which had been given to us by our friends and next door neighbors Marlane and Steve. Unfortunately, we recycled the bottle before I had a chance to write this post, and I don’t remember exactly what the wine was. I know it was a botrytis wine, which means the grapes had been infected with a mold spore that causes them to dehydrate and has the effect of concentrating the sugar in the juice. The resulting wine is sweet and we detected aromas and flavors of dried fruit and honey. It went great with the coconut custard pie.


It was a great meal made even better by being able to share it with family. Make sure you check back next month for the last [ed.note – nooooo!!!!] of the Wine/Dinner of the Month Club entries.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Alphabet Soup Project -- “E” is for “Extract”

Happy New Year, everyone! I’ve neglected the Alphabet Soup Project for far too long. Thought I’d start the new year off right…

At your next wine tasting, you could hear a wine referred to as “highly extracted” and wonder what the heck the pourer is talking about. “Extracted from what?” you might think to yourself before trying your sample. When you do get a sip, what will probably come to your mind is “Whoo…that’s a big wine!” Extract is what makes a big wine “big.”A “highly extracted” wine will likely taste somewhat “chewy.”

Where does this chewiness come from? Think a moment about what wine is – grape juice to which yeast is added. The yeast fermentation creates alcohol. Once the sugar in the wine is converted into alcohol, it’s stored and eventually bottled. The basis of wine is alcohol, any remaining sugar, and what remains of the juice.

Alcohol itself isn’t heavy. (Do a shot of Everclear if you doubt this.) Residual sugar can add weight to the feel of a wine on the palate, but that much residual sugar usually only exists in dessert wines. The heavy feeling of these extracted wines comes from all of the other stuff floating around in the mix.

Along the wending path of fermentation, the wine gathers various elements. “Extract” in a wine means anything that the wine collects or extracts from its surroundings during its creation. Or, in short, anything that doesn’t result directly from the act of fermentation itself.

What do I mean? Red and rosé wine picks up color and tannin from coming into contact with the grape skins during the fermenting process. White wine may gain character from “resting sur lie” (meaning that it sits on the dead yeast for awhile before bottling). Barrels can impart various flavors and additional tannin. Grapes may reflect the composition of their terroir’s particular soil, like the funk of French wines. Winemakers may add additional sugar, juice, or even (gads) flavorings to wines.

Any or all of these things make up “extract,” which gives a wine its particular flavor and character. The level of extract one prefers may be second only to preference for acid in determining the style of wine one will order at a given point in time.

Although it may be absolutely applicable, “extract” isn’t a term that pops up too often with white wines or reds that are traditionally light like Beaujolais. It’s used most often with bigger reds and then, usually, to describe the fullness of the body of the wine and the strength of its primary flavors.

Generally, you’ll hear bigger wines like shiraz/syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel get described in terms of being “extracted.” The level of extract is a major consideration for a winemaker. Wine with less extract will be of a leaner, lighter style – while more extract leads to a chewier, fruitier wine. There is such a thing as too much extract. If a wine is made in an overly extracted style, then any nuance or subtlety of the wine gets blasted out of the flavor by the heavy fruit or tannin.

Through the “oughts,” highly extracted, chewy red wines were in high favor, mirroring what happened with California chardonnay in the nineties. Thankfully (at least in my opinion), winemakers across the board have decided to start moving back to a somewhat less in-your-face style to allow the various components of the extract to make appearances.

The easiest wine for me to use as a demonstration of extract is California zinfandel. Zinfandels as a rule are big, powerful wines. They have full fruit flavors, are high in alcohol, and are usually quite tannic. That particular profile of wine requires a winemaker to create a “highly extracted” wine. It’s very easy for a winemaker to get overly cautious and produce a wine that doesn’t have a lot of body or flavor. It’s also easy to go over the top with extraction and create something mouth puckeringly strong. (Relatively inexpensive zinfandel is notorious for being overextracted.)

I tried a few zins recently that showed off different extraction levels quite nicely. If you’d like to get a sense of the “rules of extraction,” here are a few examples, all $12-18:

Kenwood 2007 Yalupa Old Vine Zinfandel – I would consider this an “underextracted” Zin. The nose is straightforward with plums and menthol. The body is very thin for a Zinfandel. In fact, the wine almost comes across as light-bodied, which is a bit odd. There are some coffee flavors from the tannins, but they’re weak. I tried this wine with dark chocolate, and the chocolate completely overwhelmed the flavor of the wine, which almost never happens with a zin.

Murphy Goode 2007 “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel – This is the flipside of the Kenwood. I find the Liar’s Dice to be overextracted. Now, some people really like this fruit-bomby style of zinfandel. If you’re into big cherry and blackberry flavors on top of some heavy tannin, then this is your wine. For me, that’s really all there was to it. Big fruit and alcohol. Subtle as a cinder block. There’s a time and place for this kind of wine, but they usually involve loud music and lots of people.

Van Ruiten Vineyards 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel – This is still a really big wine, but they did a nice job with the balance here. The nose is amply filled with vanilla and plums. It’s full bodied and spicy. There’s a lot of fruit here, balanced with a pleasant smokiness, the latter of which intensifies on the long finish. With some chocolate, bacon flavors emerge. This is not a bad thing, by any stretch. For me, the most appropriate level of extract of this sample.