Friday, May 27, 2011

Starting up the Summer

I had the good fortune last week to co-lead a tasting with my pal Danny Gold from Party Source. The theme of the tasting changed quite a bit during our planning stages. We thought about doing wines from every continent or just sticking to cabernet blends from all over – but neither of those really rang true.

We each ended up picking three wines that were relatively inexpensive and we “just liked.” To our sold-out crowd, this seemed to work just fine. Only after everything was over and done did I realize that we’d unknowingly cobbled together a pretty decent slate of beginning-of-summer bottles: two easy drinking and interesting whites, a couple of light and flexible reds, and a couple of bigger red wines suitable for grilling. So, Since Memorial Day and the “official start of summer” are upon us, without further ado:

Cucao 2009 Pedro Ximenez – This light white caught my eye because of the grape. “Pedro Ximenez” (or “PX”) is the name of a Spanish grape used largely in the production of Sherry. (If you recall, I haven’t had the greatest experiences with that particular tipple.) Certain grapes do interesting things when planted outside their native home. I’m a huge fan of Malbec, which was largely a minor French blending grape until it was planted in Argentina. I thought I’d take a chance and see what the soils of Chile might have contributed here.

Turns out that the Chilean terroir is very kind to PX. The nose is quite lovely, full of flowers and spice. It’s light bodied and quite acidic like a citrusy pinot grigio, but with an interesting melony flavor and a slight “briny” taste that echoed the not-unpleasant parts of Sherry. The finish is light and crisp. This would be a perfect summer porch day wine and the high acid content makes it a match with many summer cuisines – fish or shellfish, chicken, salads, light pastas. At around nine bucks, it’s a pretty complex, intriguing wine. Certainly worth a try. Vote for Pedro!

Terra di Briganti 2009 Sannio Falanghina – Danny’s selection was another “unfamiliar” grape – this time from Italy. I admitted being somewhat skeptical. My first experience with Falanghina was the wine sent by Savannah Samson a few years ago. It wasn’t, shall we say, the tastiest of whites. Danny knows his stuff, though. This one won me over. Another light bodied white, although with a somewhat creamier feel. The flavor brought more tropical fruits – peaches and pineapples – to the table. The finish was soft and pleasant with a nice little acidic zing. Goat cheeses would go nicely, as would richer fishes like trout or salmon. Lobster would be divine here. I also found it very drinkable on its own. If you’re a fan of Italian whites, give this a run at around $15.

Domaine Dupeuble 2009 Beaujolais – I make no secret of my love of Beaujolais in the summer. I ask you, what’s more perfect for a warm weather bottle than a light, easy-drinking red wines that pair with almost anything foodwise and taste best with a slight chill? Sign me up! The 2009 vintage in Beaujolais was, by all accounts, a year for the ages. Some of the best Beaujolais are being compared favorably to higher end Burgundy. The 2009’s are now readily available and you should snap them up if you’re into this sort of thing.

Off the bat, lovely waves of rich cherry flavor and a bit of smokiness greet you here. Most straight Beaujolais are nowhere near this “full” tasting. Great fruit, nice acid, and just an overall sense of well-balanced yumminess follows. There’s a lot to pull apart in this wine, but don’t work too hard on it. I think it’s best enjoyed as a whole, non-thinking “experience.”

French wine can be confusing, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions. One thing you can do is to check the bottle of a French (or Italian or anywhere, really) wine that you liked and check the name of the importer. This particular Beaujolais is a Kermit Lynch selection. I’ve had very good luck with almost anything that has his name on it. Around $13.

Tenuta delle Terre Nere 2009 Etna Rosso – Danny was stoked about pouring this. The Rosso is from vineyards on the side of Mount Etna in Sicily which were left fallow for decades. Winemaker Mark DeGrazia opened these vineyards and made this red from the indigenous Nerello grape. The grapes are grown at the highest elevation in Europe for growing red grapes in soil that’s basically volcanic ash. The method of production is almost identical to that used in Burgundy. The result is a light-bodied, fragrant, exceptionally tasty wine that strongly echoes the flavors of French pinot noir. It’s very well balanced, has a light earthiness to the flavor that I really enjoyed, along with layers of raspberry and minerals. I’d nestle it up nicely next to light red-sauced pastas, grilled fish, or something like a chicken/veal picatta. $15-18.

Charles Smith “The Velvet Devil” 2009 Washington State Merlot – I like throwing Charles Smith’s wines in tastings when I can, since they’re just fun wines. Smith, self-taught winemaker and former manager of Scandinavian death metal bands, has a number of wines in his “Modernist Project” set of offerings. Modernist Project wines (easily locatable in your store by the black and white labels and interesting names) are designed to be wines you can crack, pour, and drink – but that aren’t one-note, unbalanced wines. I think that this merlot is absolutely killer. Blackberry, cinnamon, dark chocolate – all blended and balanced. For a wine this sumptuous, it’s very easy to drink. Grill some meat. Pour this wine. Eat. Drink. You’ll be happy. You’ll also be happy if you want something with a chocolate-based dessert later on and you have a bottle of this on hand. And at around $10, you can afford a couple of bottles.

Thorn-Clarke 2009 “Shotfire” Shiraz – Danny wanted to finish up with a bang, so he dug into the Australian aisle and pulled out this monster of a red. The Shotfire is a jammy, high-alcohol shiraz. It checks in at around 16% alcohol, so make sure you give it a few minutes to catch its breath after you open it before you dip your nose in. You’re hit with big, plummy shiraz flavor backed with a white peppery finish. While you get some enormous flavors, I didn’t find them overwhelming. You just have to know what you’re in for and plan accordingly. If you’ve got yourself a slab of barbecue ribs or almost anything else with a rub or a sauce that you want outside, this is your wine. Like many Aussie Shiraz, it’s also a winner with chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Right around $15.

Drink up and enjoy!


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Monday, May 16, 2011

Wine & Dinner of the Month Club – May 2011

One thing you need to know about Christine is that she loves the bubbly. It doesn’t matter if it is champagne, prosecco or cava; if it sparkles, she’s a fan. I think it matches her sparkling personality. So when picking out the wines for her monthly dinners, I always include a couple of sparklers. Last year I picked up a bottle of Les Rocailles Brut and paired it with a brunch of quiche and cinnamon buns. She like it so much that I decided to repeat it this year. This time, however, we had as special guests - our friends and neighbors Marlane and Steve and Pam and Mike, the Naked Vinester himself. With the exception of the green salad and citrus salad, which I made up myself, all the recipes for this month came from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook Third Edition (© 2010 by The Editors at America’s Test Kitchen).


Les Rocailles Brut Sparkling Wine


  • Farmer’s Market Green Salad with Cucumber and Asparagus
  • Fresh Citrus Fruit Salad
  • Breakfast Strata with Spinach and Havarti
  • Cinnamon Rolls

I have to say that I really love these recipes that you can assemble ahead of time and then pop in the oven. I did that with both the strata and the cinnamon rolls so that in the morning all I had to do was put them in the oven while I made the citrus fruit salad and green salad. For the strata prep I toasted the bread and then layered that in the pan with a sautéed spinach mixture and grated havarti cheese. I then poured over the layers a mixture of eggs, half and half and a little white wine. The strata went in to the refrigerator overnight. One tip from the cookbook is to put plastic over the strata and then place plastic bags of sugar on top as weight. This helps force the egg mixture down into the lower layer of bread.

I had a little trouble with the cinnamon rolls, as it was a particularly humid night and I accidentally added a little too much liquid to the dough. It was very wet and sticky and I was just about to throw it out and start over. Fortunately, Christine was there to talk me down. We added extra flour, got the dough into a nice ball, put it in a bowl and left it alone. A couple of hours later it had risen properly and I was able to assemble the rolls and get them into the refrigerator, ready to be baked the next day.

In the morning I made the citrus salad while Christine rode her bike to the Bellevue Farmer’s Market where she picked up some beautiful spinach, lettuce, cucumber and asparagus for the green salad. At the appointed time, the guests arrived and while we chatted and sipped mimosas (not made with the Les Rocailles, heaven forbid) the strata was baking. We served it up with the salads.



While we enjoyed the strata and salad course, I put the cinnamon rolls in to the oven to bake. After they came out golden brown, I drizzled them with a cream cheese and sugar icing. I served them with some great tasting Starbucks House Blend Coffee.


Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the cinnamon rolls that were (almost) as big as their heads. We even had enough left over to send a couple home with everyone.


As Mike has told us many times, sparklers are very food friendly wines and can go with a wide array of cuisines. In this case, I think it was a great accompaniment to the variety of flavors from the egg-y, cheesy strata to the acidity of the citrus salad. On a personal note, this meal rated high on the fun-meter. Of course, with company like this, every meal is delightful.

[Editor’s Note: I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Jeff!]

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Alphabet Soup Project – “H” is for “Horizontal”

Wine tastings. Sources of inspiration, knowledge, and occasionally a pretty decent buzz by the time all’s said and done. When I’m asked how I started getting into wine, I can point to a monthly wine tasting series the Sweet Partner in Crime and I used to attend regularly. These events introduced us to varietals, wine regions, the idea of terroir – but the most important part of it all is that we got to compare wines.

Comparison is key. Tasting a chardonnay from California next to one from Chile next to one from France gives you a clear vision of how wildly different a grape can taste when grown in different places. Similarly, you can taste three California chardonnays next to each other – one might be oaky, one buttery, and one crisp – all because of how the wine was treated after harvest. on These kinds of comparisons helps you learn what you like and what you’re looking for in a glass of wine.

Most tastings you find are freeform. They’re often simply collections of wines that someone either thinks would taste good together (like “Wines for Summer” or my May 18th “Wines across the Continents” tasting with Danny Gold at Party Source…hint, hint…) There’s nothing wrong with these and they’re a lot of fun, but it’s not necessarily the most educational experience.

If you hang out in the wine tasting world long enough, you’ll hear the WineSpeak terms “Vertical Tasting” and “Horizontal Tasting.” Either one of these should make your ears prick up like a beagle. These types of tastings are where you can learn the most.

I’ve only been to a couple of vertical tastings. A vertical tasting is a series of wines, usually from the same winery, from different vintages. As you can guess, these don’t come along too often. They’re often pretty high-end affairs, since if someone has that many bottles from a single winery lying around, they’re usually a collector – which will usually put the pricetag largely out of Vine range. So, if you ever get invited to one of these – jump at the chance and befriend this person! It’s a unique experience.

Much more common (and much more naughty sounding) is the Horizontal Tasting. Horizontal tastings you can do at home. (Hmm…more naughty sounding by the minute!.) A horizontal tasting is usually wines of the same varietal, vintage, and region. They often have similar price points. They’re usually from different wineries. If you find a region’s wines that you really like, you can gather a few bottles (and perhaps a few friends) to compare and contrast. This sharpens your palate and gives you a much better understanding of what you like and don’t like about that particular wine.

For example, the SPinC and I decided to do a horizontal tasting of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. When we’re out on the town looking at pre-dinner drinks, she tends to go for these wines. We like them – they’re usually crisp, relatively light, grapefruity, and have an “herbaceous” quality on the nose. They’re good food wines because of their high acidity, but they’re plenty quaffable on their own. We decided to try three of them, all in the $12-15 range:

  • The Crossings 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
  • Brancott 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
  • Kim Crawford 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

Our selections established quite a contrast. We started with the Crossings, which is so light in color that it practically looks like water. It was extremely acidic, full of grapefruit and lime, and very light. Lighter than most pinot grigio, I’d say – although with more character. I thought it tasted delicate and finished somewhat “prickly.”

The Brancott was heavier on the palate and richer. It wasn’t quite as tart – there were some honey flavors next to the citrus. The wine had a little more “oomph” to it. “If the the first is a lime, then this one is key lime pie,” remarked the SPinC.

The Kim Crawford tasted like it was designed for an American palate. Everything was toned down and smoothed out so as to be firmly middle of the road. Very easy to drink. There wasn’t as much herb and the citrus was less pronounced. “This is key lime pie with plenty of whipped cream,” came the comparison. It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t nearly as interesting.

For dinner that evening, I grilled up some turkey burgers and some asparagus and tried the wines. We topped the burgers with avocado and tomato, and had some extra tomato slices alongside. When we did a little research, New Zealand sauvignon blanc was a recommended pairing for both asparagus and avocado – two foods that can be wine killers.

We discovered that the Crossings was one of the few white wines that tasted really good with tomatoes on their own. It makes sense with its high level of acidity, but we almost always think red wine with tomato-based stuff. It was also our choice with the asparagus (which we drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil). Some people think the “herbaceousness” of New Zealand sauvignon blanc smells like cat pee. While it might, it was a benefit with the asparagus. The flavors actually melded nicely.

The avocado and burgers worked best with the Brancott. The creaminess of the wine worked well with the texture of the avocado. Since this wine had a little more body, it was able to better handle the turkey. The grilled flavor didn’t overwhelm the wine at all.

The Crawford was just “wine” alongside this particular meal. It didn’t really do anything all that interesting for us. However, when we did a steamed sea bass and sautéed squash, tomatoes, and zucchini the next night, this wine was a very solid pairing. While it didn’t do as well for us next to these other New Zealand sauvignons at our initial tasting, on its own with different food, it was plenty tasty enough. The greater “creaminess” of this wine probably complemented the bass better than the other, more acidic Sauvignon Blancs would have.

All of these wines, in general, fall into the general flavor profile for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that I mentioned above, but it was fascinating to see how much the wines varied within that general definition. This is what I mean by “sharpening your palate.” The more you try, the more you learn. The more you learn, the easier it is to find exactly what it is you’re looking for.


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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Naked Vine Live

A quick reminder to everyone – Danny Gold and I will be leading another tasting at The Party Source on May 18th. We’re going to be looking at “Wines Across the Continents,” so it should be a pretty good spread of tastiness!
To sign up, click here.
Hope to see you there!

Wine and Dinner of the Month Club – April 2011

Special guests joined us for the wine dinner this April. My sister Mary and her husband Bill were in town from Tampa, Florida to participate in the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon. Mary was going to run the half marathon and Bill was slated to run the full marathon (which, if you didn’t know, is 26.2 miles). This seemed like a great excuse for a meal heavy on the carbs! All the recipes for this month came from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook Third Edition (© 2010 by The Editors at America’s Test Kitchen) except for the Turkish Red Pepper Spread, which was also served at the December 2010 dinner..


  • Saintsbury Garnet 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir


I got ahead of the game by making the red pepper spread and apple turnovers a couple days in advance. The spread is simply refrigerated and the turnovers are assembled and placed in the freezer. When you are ready to bake them, just thaw them at room temperature for about fifteen minutes and then put them in the oven, turning once.

Instead of going out for dinner, we decided to have the meal the night before the race so that we would be at home and Mary and Bill could get a good night’s sleep before running the next day. First, we sat down to enjoy the red pepper spread with pita chips. The spread had in it some red pepper flakes for spice and toasted walnuts that gave it a floral note almost like, dare I say, rosewater.

Jeffwith spread and new apron that he bought himself

For dinner, I started by sautéing some bacon for the spaghetti and setting that aside, and making a mixture of egg and cheese, also for the spaghetti, and putting that in the refrigerator. I then washed the spinach and placed it in a big bowl. After cooking some onions, garlic and spices in olive oil, I poured the oil mixture over the spinach to wilt it, sprinkled on some feta cheese and sliced olives, and served it immediately. You need to serve the salad quickly after wilting it or the spinach will get soggy. Everyone thought the salad was delicious and it was surprising how much the spinach shrinks when you wilt it.


I retreated into the kitchen to make the spaghetti. I had turned on the stove so that the water for the spaghetti would start boiling while we were enjoying the salad course. It was a simple matter of boiling the spaghetti, draining it and then tossing in the other ingredients. One hint from the cookbook is to put the serving bowl in the oven at 200 degrees Farenheit to warm up (obviously it has to be an oven safe bowl) and that, combined with the heat of the boiled spaghetti will cook the raw eggs in the egg and cheese mixture. I plated it up and served. The spaghetti was creamy without being heavy and the wine was a perfect accompaniment. It neither overpowered the dish nor got lost in all the creamy goodness.


Next, we had dessert. There is nothing like running a marathon, or hosting marathoners for a weekend, to give you a good excuse to eat dessert! The turnovers took a little over twenty minutes to cook and came out flaky, golden brown and as light and fluffy as a baby’s breath. I had some whipping cream in the refrigerator so I got out the hand mixer and whipped us up some fresh whipped topping to go with the turnovers.


It was a delicious and filling meal, fit for the training table. And by the way, the next day Mary and Bill both finished their respective races. Mary finished the half marathon in about two hours and twenty minutes (2:20) and Bill crossed the finish line of the marathon in just over three hours and fifty-seven minutes (3:57). Congratulations to both of them, and I’ll take some of the credit due to my cooking.