Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Alphabet Soup Project -- "M" is for "Meatless" (Wine pairings for vegetarians)

Pumbaa: “Hey, kid, what's eatin' ya?”
Timon: “Nothin'. He's on top of the food chain!”
-The Lion King

Astute observers of the Vine know that I love me some meat. Well, I love most food in general, but I'm not sure that I could ever be a vegetarian. I tried removing animals from the ol' diet during a brief, dark once-upon-a-time down Florida way, but it didn't take. I've got too much of the "how do you know you don't like it if you've never even tried it" hardwired into my palate, I guess.

I try my best to include potential food pairings with my reviews – pairings which often involve some suggestion of a meat dish. I do realize not everyone shares my particular omnivorous eating pattern. There are lots of folks, like my friends opening Kitchen 452 in Cincinnati, who choose to be more kind to our web-footed friends (and their hoofed, finned, & clawed compatriots), sparing these critters a quick trip to Dinnersville.

One of the better dinner parties we've thrown here at Vine HQ involved an entirely meatless menu, so I've seen firsthand not only how much wine my vegetarian friends can throw down, but also how well vegetarian dishes go with well-paired wine.

In the interests of egalitarian dining, or if you’re considering doing some more meatless meals for health purposes or new year’s resolutions, here are some general wine recommendations to go with whatever meat substitute you’re planning to plate up for the evening.

All these recommendations should be viewed through the prism of one of the Vine’s universal truths: "People make wine to go with what they're eating.” For example, if you’re making an Italian-based recipe, Italian wine is your best bet. Tapas will work with Spanish wine. Also, if you’re making spicy curries or other Asian flavors, the classic pairings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer will likely be winners.

Tofu: The Swiss Army knife of vegetarian cooking, tofu is made by taking soy milk and adding a coagulant of some sort to curdle the milk. The resulting curds are then pressed into the blocks you see in the grocery store. The type of coagulant used determines the texture of the tofu, so combinations are often used. Acid-coagulated tofu creates softer, “silken” tofu while salts and/or  enzymes create a firmer texture.

As for what wine to pair with your tofu dish? There’s not an answer to that question. Tofu in and of itself barely has any flavor, as you probably know. It does, however, absorb the flavor of whatever else is in the pot, wok, skillet, or other cooking implement. Your wine pairing reflect the dominant flavor of the sauce. For Asian preparations, a dry Riesling or a very light red like a Beaujolais would be fine. For grilled tofu, especially if marinated, a fruity wine like a merlot would go well. For flavored tofu preparations like “soyrizo” or “tofurkey” use the corresponding pairing for the meat. I’d go with Rioja and either a pinot noir or a chardonnay, respectively, in those cases.

The same sort of pairing suggestions guide also works with tofu’s first cousin Tempeh, which is made from soybeans fermented and pressed into blocks. This has a much firmer texture and can be used for kabobs, broken up for a ground meat substitute in something like vegetarian chili, etc. It has a slightly nutty flavor, but is generally pretty neutral. 

Roasted Vegetables: When you roast almost anything, the heat causes the sugars in whatever you have in the oven to caramelize, bringing out the sweetness and deepening the flavors as the cooking process proceeds. Sweet potatoes, zucchini, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes – you name it. Toss them in olive oil and sliding them into a 425˚ oven for an appropriate amount of time yields a scrumptious base for any number of dishes. Smoky, bright, and slightly sweet works well next to a chardonnay that’s got body and a little oakiness. California chardonnays make an excellent choice with almost any roasted vegetarian preparation, as do most white Burgundies other than Chablis. Chablis’ delicacy gets run over a bit by roasted flavors. In my kitchen, there are two major exceptions to the chardonnay rule, which are…

Eggplant and Mushrooms: Two of my favorite foods of all time. I use eggplant in any number of dishes – my favorites being eggplant parmesan where I grill the eggplant slices and a roasted eggplant and tomato dish served over couscous. Eggplant gets a very smoky, savory flavor when roasted or grilled. The chemical composition that can give eggplant a bitter flavor is actually countered nicely by tannic wine, so think big. For the Parmesan, I’ll break out a Barbera, or Super Tuscan Italian wine. For the roasted dish, I look to the Rhone region. If you’re feeling like splurging, roasted eggplant and Chateauneuf-de-Pape is a gorgeous side-by-side, but Cotes du Rhone works well, too. Young California cabernet is also a good match with almost any eggplant dish.

As for the tasty, tasty fungus – mushrooms add, unsurprisingly, an earthy flavor to any dish. On their own, whether grilled or sautéed, they’ll have a flavor that you want to keep far from almost any white wine. You want something with an earthy backbone, yet not too heavy. Either of the French “B’s” – Bordeaux or Burgundy – work well. I personally think grilled Portabella mushroom caps and an Oregon pinot is a little slice of heaven.

Quinoa – America is finally catching on to this wonderful, nutty-flavored South American grain, which is one of the best meat substitutes our there as far as nutritional content goes. Quinoa (pronounced KEE-nwah) has a complete spread of amino acids, lots of iron, and cooks faster than rice in most preparations. Often used as a side, much like brown rice would be, I find it’s also an excellent base for a Latin-flavored salad, tossed with bell peppers, black beans, lime juice, cilantro and such. The “regional” pairing works nicely here, so look for a red from South America. You can’t go wrong with either Malbec or Carmenere. And speaking of beans:

Beans, Chickpeas, and other Legumes – Ah, the musical fruit. Beans and their various cousins are also very high in protein, fiber, B-vitamins, and all sorts of other goodnesses. The basic pairing rule is “the darker the berry, the darker the juice.” White beans like cannellini and cranberry beans, as well as chickpeas, like to go next to lighter whites. Sauvignon blanc and Chablis are good choices. For lentils, peas and the like – go with dry rosé or lighter reds like Chianti and Beaujolais. With kidney beans, black beans, and other dark ones, go bold! Zinfandel and earthy French reds like Cotes du Rhone and Bandol will pair nicely.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hardly Monastic: Franciscan Estate Winery

A double barrel of holiday cheer showed up the other day – a couple of bottles from Napa’s Franciscan Estate Winery. Franciscan was founded in 1972 by Justin Meyer and Raymond Duncan – a couple of the old-heads in Napa winemaking. Meyer purchased the winery outright in 1974 and produced the first vintage in 1975. He sold the winery in 1979 to pursue his other venture, Silver Oak, now one of the best-known names in Napa Cabernet.

In the 1980's, Franciscan bottled "Magnificat" -- one of the first "Meritage" blends in California, along with a chardonnay called "Cuvee Sauvage," the first barrel-fermented California chardonnay made with wild yeasts.

Franciscan's popularity expanded throughout the 90's and oughts. They still make the aforementioned wines, as well as estate cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, merlot, and chardonnay. The samples I received were of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay -- which are "two of our most widely available wines," according to Janet Myers, Franciscan's director of winemaking. Myers believes that these wines "represent classic expressions of each variety." Here are my thoughts:

Franciscan Estate 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay – A cool growing season in Napa like 2011 usually means an extra boost of richness for the white wines. This richness is definitely reflected in this 100% Chardonnay, which I thought was nicely structured and full. I got a whiff of caramel-covered apples on the nose. The mouthfeel is creamy with enough mineral to keep it from being overly thick. There's a nice array of melon, honey, cream, and minerals with some oak as an undertone rather than a feature. The finish is crisp and a little flinty with just a touch of oak at the end. The note I wrote sums up with "Nicely done." For $18, you're getting a quality bottle of Chardonnay -- one of the better ones I'd tasted from Napa this year.

Franciscan Estate 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- We were in the mood for a special meal one evening around Vine HQ and roast leg of lamb sounded like it would fit the bill nicely. Since the promotional material from Franciscan specifically mentioned lamb as a potential food pairing, we got the roast ready to go (cloves of garlic plugged in, rosemary paste smeared all over), and let this cabernet get some air. Once we took the roast out of the oven -- and it turned out marvelously, by the way -- we poured a glass of the wine (85% cabernet sauvignon, with merlot, syrah, and malbec thrown in for good measure) for a first taste. Even after an hour or so decanting, the flavors were still quite tight. Very strong coffee notes -- so strong initially that it overwhelmed the fruit in a large fashion. We set the glasses aside, finished preparing the side dishes (buttered carrots, some herbed couscous, and small salads), plated everything up and moved to the table.

After some time sitting in glasses followed by a good swirl, the wine improved dramatically. Plum and fennel flavors started to emerge in a much more harmonious fashion. The tannin was considerable, but hardly off-putting. My first reaction was that it was a very solid, complex wine. I don't have detailed notes after that, and I think that's a good thing. We had a lovely meal, laughing and talking and savoring. We'd cobbled together one of the better tasting meals in quite some time, and the wine complemented it as I hoped it would. Flavors were married, lips were smacked, glasses were poured. Blissfully yummy all around. It retails at $28, but for such a meal, it's worth it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Little Uneven, But Not Rusted -- Tin Roof

Thanks to Tiffany and the good folks at Balzac, I had the chance to do a rundown of the Tin Roof Cellars portfolio. Tin Roof, a widely-available series of wines from California, produces a slate of reds and whites all available for around $8-9. All the wines are in Stelvin screwtop bottles, a delivery system of which I heartily approve, especially as an evening wears on.

Balzac sent me six of their recent releases. My thoughts on this set of yummies:

Tin Roof Cellars 2011 Chardonnay – Simply put, this is a solid, basic California chardonnay. Fermented in stainless steel and aged for five months in oak, the fragrance and flavors are largely apple and peach, with a strong shot of vanilla on the palate. There’s some woodiness and buttery, creamy flavors but thankfully not too much of either.  It’s a little bit heavier palate-wise than chardonnays I usually prefer, but if you’re into a fuller style for whites, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Tin Roof Cellars 2011 Sauvignon Blanc – The grapes for this sauvignon blanc are from Lake County and the Sacramento delta, both cooler climate regions. Cooler climate whites tend to have a little more complexity in my experience, and that was the case here. At first sample, some slightly herbal overtones led to a green apple scented nose. This wine’s mouthfeel has pretty reasonable weight with tart apple and lime as the major flavors. The finish has a bit of an acidic bite, but that’s what you’d expect in a sauvignon blanc. I found it flavorful and drinkable, although this isn’t the season where I drink a ton of sauvignon blanc. I’ll keep it in mind after winter.

Tin Roof Cellars 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon & Tin Roof Cellars 2009 Merlot – The evening menu came up “steak and sweet potatoes,” so these two got a side-by-side tasting. The merlot is sourced from North Coast and Central Coast and includes small amounts of petit sirah. The Cabernet is sourced from grapes across California and includes a splash of syrah in the blend. In all honesty, the Cabernet was one of the better sub-$10 bottles I’ve had in quite some time. Good tannic structure, nice flavor, and actual complexity within its dark cherry and berry notes. With both the steak and the chocolate, also a winner. An excellent effort.

As for the merlot – on its own, I wasn’t impressed. I thought it was rather flabby and unremarkable. I thought it leaned over to the fruit juice side of the ledger, and the tannins were so soft that they were almost unnoticeable. I did notice that this wine improved greatly with food. One thing I don’t see U.S. winemakers doing very much is making (or at least marketing) inexpensive, all-purpose table wine – wines that can be poured with almost any sort of food and be decent, as with inexpensive Italian Chianti. This merlot showed a little more backbone as a complement to the strong, meaty flavors in the food – largely by staying out of the way. That would be this wine’s niche, in my opinion.

Tin Roof Cellars 2011 Lodi Zinfandel – When Zinfandel began its recent meteoric rise in popularity, California winemakers engaged in an arms race to see who could create the highest alcohol fruit bomb possible. I cut my wine-tasting teeth on Sonoma County zin, but as the years went by, the profiles of most California Zinfandels became so in-your-face that I stopped buying – turning instead to its Italian cousin, Primitivo. This relatively inexpensive California Zin gives me hope that the pendulum has begun to reverse its swing. Clocking in at a modest 13.5% alcohol, this wine actually has a lighter touch than some California pinot noirs I’ve tasted recently. It’s not especially fancy or complex, featuring raspberry and blueberry flavors in a reasonable balance with alcohol and tannin. With roasted meats, barbecue sauces, and (of course) chocolate, it’s a nice quaffable entry that reminds me more of an import from Puglia than a California monster with some “zin-based” pun for a name.

Tin Roof Cellars 2011 Red Blend – The vast majority of domestic wines you’ll see in a wine store as “Cabernet Sauvignon,” “Merlot” and so on are actually blends. If a US wine contains at least 75% of a single varietal, it can be labeled as that varietal. (See above, for instance.) If a wine is called a “blend” (or “meritage” or “claret”), it’s a blend where no one varietal is above 75% of the composition. In this case, this wine is a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, and Petit Sirah. Honestly, I found it a little too fruity for my tastes. It reminded me a great deal of the Merlot I mentioned before, although it’s got a little more structure. I got berries and cherries here with a tannic finish. All in all, I think it’s decent but unremarkable on its own. Like the merlot, however, it would work as a table wine if you’ve got some heartier fare on the table. I had it with roasted red pepper and eggplant soup and it worked just fine.