Monday, October 22, 2012

Österreichischer Rotwein (Red Wines of Austria)

Quick…”Austria” – what just popped to mind? The Hapsburg Dynasty? Any one of a list of composers longer than my arm? A certain ex-governor of Gully-fornee-uh? Probably. How about wine?

“Aha!” a couple of you might say, “I thought about wine! That groovy sounding grape Grüner Veltliner.” Well, bonus noogies for you. You’re absolutely right. Austria wasn’t exactly a major player in the world of wine until the last decade or so as more and more folks discovered that umlaut-speckled, mineral-slathered bottle of deliciousness. About half of the wine made in  Austria is white, with Grüner making up two-thirds of that. Austria is on a similar latitude as Alsace, and the mountainous terroir yields lean, minerally, acidic wine.

Austria actually has a long history of winemaking. There’s archeological evidence of wine production as far back as 700 BC in Austria. Through the Middle Ages, wine production waxed and waned, depending on various invasions, religious incursions, and various pestilence. In the 19th century, Austrian wine really hit its stride – only to be laid low by that little louse phylloxera. Austria bounced back quickly, though – and after World War I, Austria was the third-largest wine producer in the world, selling largely to other Central European countries.

In the 1980’s, though, everything came crashing down because of a scandal in the Austrian wine industry. Austrian wines are generally acidic, light-bodied, and minerally. Some enterprising winemakers discovered that the taste could be “fattened up” a bit by adding small amounts of diethylene glycol to the wine. The more common term for diethylene glycol is...well…antifreeze.

Needless to say, this did the Austrians no favors. Even though there were only a small number of producers following this creative production method, many countries out-and-out banned Austrian wine. In the 1990’s, Austria set up a control board for their winemakers to ensure quality. As a result, more care was taken in general in production of wine, and a higher-quality product resulted. Quality versions of Grüner reopened the gates for Austrian whites, and over the last five or six years, there has been an increased demand for Austrian red wine.

Austrian reds are largely autochthonal varietals (you may remember this term, meaning “native grapes,” from our profile of 20 Mondi). These grapes, alas, don’t roll trippingly off the American tongue. Asking for “Blaufränkisch,” “Zweigelt,” or “Sankt Laurent” is likely to cause an accidental spray of saliva in the face of your unfortunate local wine salesperson.

I’d encourage you to practice your Germanic pronunciation, however, as there are some tasty offerings out there. So you know, the pronunciation of Blaufränkisch is “Blau-FRONK-isch,” the pronunciation of Zweigelt is “ZVEI-gelt,” and the pronunciation of Sankt Laurent (St. Laurent, as it’s sometimes written) is “Zankt LAUER-ent.” All of these wines are in the weight class of pinot noir and Beaujolais, so if you’re looking for a red that’s a little different (perhaps for Thanksgiving dinner), these would be distinct possibilities.

Neckenmarkt 2009 Blaufränkisch and Neckenmarkt 2010 Zweigelt – I include these together because I found them to be very helpful wines, vocabulary-wise. Both have helpful phonetic spellings of the varietals on their labels. The Blaufränkisch a very light, pleasant red. I thought it had a surprising depth of flavor for a wine this light in body. Lots of cherry and blackberry flavors without a full mouth feeling, although thankfully not fading into watery. As the wine opens, I got a little more mineral and a little more spice. An excellent summer red alternative, had I found it a couple of months ago. We poured this wine with some roasted grouper and vegetables and it went splendidly. About $10.

As for the Zweigelt – I was hit initially with a whiff of cranberries and graphite. Its taste is light – almost a bitter cranberry flavor. The flavor feels like it should be a lighter bodied, but there’s almost a glycerine-y thickness. (Um…what was that about antifreeze again?) The finish is graphite and light tannin. Not my favorite. Around $13.

Sattler 2010 Burgenland Sankt Laurent  -- A very light, fruit forward, flexible red that I found exceptionally easy to drink. I found it full of smooth berry flavors with a firm, pleasantly smoky backbone. I found it quite pinot noir-ish in character, although not quite as complex. I recently rigged up my little kettle grill to double as a smoker. I sugar-and-salt cured some trout filets and put them over the applewood. We had a little smoked trout with the Sattler. My tasting note reads “Holy crap!” An unexpectedly wonderful pairing. You could conceivably have this for a brunchtime red, as it’s clearly a wine that’s not scared of a little oil and a little salt. Solid for around $15-16.

Heinrich 2008 “Red” – So, what happens when you start blending these autochthonal grapes? Oftentimes, these grapes take on entirely different characteristics when blended as when poured alone. (Case in point – just about any non-Burgundian French wine will be a blend.) This Austrian table wine is a blend of 60% Zweigelt, 30% Blaufränkisch, and 10% Sankt Laurent. The result? A much darker, deeper wine than any of those varietals singly. This one has a very fragrant nose of cherries and herbs. The mouthfeel is considerably heavier, and the flavors are fuller. Those flavors resemble pinot noir: cherry and smoke – with some pepper thrown in for good measure. The finish is long, firmly tannic, and peppery. For a fairly unique experience, give it a run for about $18.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wine Fairies and the Unexpected Picnic – Robert Mondavi Wines

Vine HQ was a happy place last week. Not one, but two unexpected deliveries appeared from the wine fairy –samples from Robert Mondavi winery. I learned later that they were from our friends at Folsom & Associates, so thanks very much!

Robert Mondavi is a ubiquitous label. I’m trying to remember the last time I walked into a wine store and didn’t see at least a few selections from Mondavi. One reason we should all appreciate Mr. Mondavi -- back in the 1960’s, Mondavi was one of the first vintners in California to label wine by varietal instead of by vineyard – which is now, of course, the standard in the nomenclature wine bottled outside France, Italy, and a few other places.

Mondavi was known in the 60’s and 70’s for making high-end wines (and they still do – their 1997 reserve Chardonnay was rated #1 in the world). Over the years, the wild success of their more inexpensive labels like Mondavi Coastal and Woodbridge overshadowed their more premium bottlings (aside from some of the super high-end stuff like Opus One, done in partnership with Chateau Mouton Rothschild of Bordeaux). Mondavi has been trying to improve the marketing of its “inexpensive premium” wines, as well as giving a facelift to some of the less expensive lines. I had the opportunity to try a couple from each of these categories.

The first lot we received was from the “Napa Valley” series. This wines run $20-50 and are from selected sites within that appellation. This series includes a fumé blanc (aka sauvignon blanc, the wine that put Mondavi on the map), chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and merlot. We had one bottle each of the pinot noir and the chardonnay:

Robert Mondavi 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir – Carneros is a region that bridges Napa and Sonoma Counties. It includes some of the cooler climates found in either region – which makes Carneros a very good candidate to grow pinot noir. This bottle definitely needs a chance to breathe before you get down to it. Short of giving it a good solid spin or decanting it for a bit, I expect you’ll be a bit taken aback by the initial tannin level. Once it calms down, there’s lots of vanilla on the nose, followed by big flavors of plums, cherries, and smoke. The finish is firm, lasting, and smoky. We thought that it went well with a challenging pairing of stuffed green peppers. Quite nice with dark chocolate, too. If you like your pinot on the bolder side, it’s a pretty solid choice. Retails for $27.

Robert Mondavi 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay – I imagine makers of California Chardonnay as engineers hovering over three dials labeled “Oak,” “Butter,” and “Fruit” -- manipulating dials to generate an algorithm of time in barrel, type of barrel, percentage of malolactic fermentation, residual sugar, etc. to create a consistent profile. This Chardonnay, sourced from all over Napa with a little Sonoma fruit thrown in, had a winemaker crank up the “Oak” and “Fruit” knobs. On the nose and palate, you’ll experience ample but reasonably well balanced oak. Flavorwise, I found pears, cantaloupe, and oak in a relatively friendly, stable environment, which follows through to the finish. Poured on its own, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I split on this wine. I liked it, but she didn’t. With a slow-cooked fall vegetable soup, the roasted veggies played off the oak nicely, making it a tasty meal wine. It retails for around $20.

The second lot was two bottles of the “Robert Mondavi Private Selection” series. Near as I can tell, this is the rebranding of the less-pricey Mondavi “Coastal” line. Most of these wines fit squarely into the Naked Vine wheelhouse, retailing in the $10-15 range.

This pair of wines, however, came with some bonus swag. The wines came in a very attractive soft-side picnic basket with a roll-up picnic blanket, a travel guide to California’s Central Coast, and some very spicy salami. The implication seems to be that these are good picnic wines. We received one bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and one bottle of Chardonnay. The Private Selection catalog also contains all the other major varietals: Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, a Meritage red blend, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio. How did this pair fare?
Look! Stuff!

Robert Mondavi 2010 Private Selection Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon – We’d had a very long week at work and decided to grill some filets. What goes better with steak than California cabernet, right? Whew! On opening, this wine was tight. Tight enough to yield entendres galore on Match Game. My first impressions were tart flavors over graphite – not a particularly pleasant combination. Thankfully, after some air, the flavors mellowed. Some blackberry flavors started to emerge, and the tannin calmed down a bit. The finish was tart and a bit clipped. We sipped on it some more while waiting for the steaks to rest, and we each went through half a glass without thinking. When we had it with the steak, it was a decent accompaniment, but we didn’t notice that it did anything special. My note says, “Well, it’s there.” Simple, straightforward, and not unpleasant after decanting, it wasn’t exactly memorable. Retails for $11.

Robert Mondavi 2011 Private Selection Central Coast Chardonnay – Returning to our “Chardonnay engineering” friends and their hypothetical three dials, this time they’ve got the oak dialed way back. There’s a hint of it at the very end of the finish, and a few notes floating through the bouquet and flavor, but it’s largely background, which is a nice surprise for an $11 California bottle. The butter’s turned up a little, as it has a creamier vanilla flavor, but it doesn’t go all the way to full-on buttery. Fruitwise, it’s actually got quite a nice balance of mango, pear, and apple. I thought this was quite a pleasantly drinkable wine. We did another “breakfast for dinner” evening with this wine – and with an open faced omelet with sausage, a bunch of roasted veggies and mushrooms, it worked right well. With California Chardonnay, it’s a matter of finding a combination of the three dials that you like. I honestly enjoyed this one more than I did its doubly-priced cousin.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Naked Vine One-Hitter: A visit to the Chocolate Shop

Not long ago, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I hosted a dinner in celebration of the retirement of a good friend from her position in the professoriate at the University of Cincinnati. Our guest of honor brought along a bottle of Chocolate Shop, a dessert wine from Washington that she said she'd "always wanted to try." Who were we to say no?

Truth in advertising.
Available for around $15, it markets itself as "The Chocolate Lover's Wine." A "proprietary blend of red varietals" mixed with dark chocolate, it checks in at 12.5% alcohol. There are three varieties: Chocolate Red (the one we tried), Creme de Cocoa, and Chocolate Strawberry Red. There is also a 1.5 liter box version.

I'd never heard of this little confection before. I had a preconceived notion of port mixed with Quik. A bit dubious of the donation, we poured a round, had a sip...

...and, you know, for what it is, it ain't bad. It's not going to be for everyone, that's for sure. It is a sweet red wine with chocolate flavors. The nose is distinct: chocolate covered cherries. The flavor is very much along those lines, as well. While it's certainly got some sugar-weight, the overall feel is much more in the range of a merlot than a port. The finish is actually a bit cherry-tart, and there's a lingering flavor of cocoa powder, and I mean that quite literally. Something about the tannins and the flavors give me the sensation of actually having cocoa powder in my mouth.

Since I had pretty low expectations going in, I'll honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised by this wine. It just isn't the sort of dessert wine I generally prefer. I'd be interested to see how it would taste with some Mexican foods in mole sauce or some such. With dark chocolate, it gets a little overwhelming to my palate -- but if Death By Chocolate is your thing, it might be a good choice to wash it down.