Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The End of the Bottle. The End of the Year.

I get reflective when the calendar flips to this chunk of the annum. I like it – and I think it’s healthy. It makes me appreciate how nothing happens in isolation. And how the interplay of circumstance and happenstance creates our day to day lives.

I believe it’s a natural time to do it, considering how our society looks at the calendar. We talk about the changing of the seasons, but not many folks are out there celebrating Beltaine or Saturnalia. Our collective point of annual reflection is the last week of December, culminating in the concrete marker of New Year’s, with its resolutions and promises sometimes kept.

What does a semi-professional wine reviewer reflect on during this time of year? Open a magazine, go online, or just read the rest of the issue where this column appears. You’re going to run into Best of 2013 lists, Top 10 lists, Bottom 10 lists – we love our lists. We collectively enjoy putting things into categories.

I thought about doing something like that, but I quickly realized that my own experience isn’t broad enough to put together a proper spread. I’ll leave that sort of thing to some of my other compatriots in the wine world.

When people I meet discover that I’m a wine writer, the countdown begins to the inevitable, “A wine writer? What’s your favorite kind of wine?” I’ve learned, in the spirit of Bull Durham’s Crash Davis, to have my clichés ready. “Whatever’s open!” is my usual quip.

That usually earns me a couple of weak chuckles and I can move on to other topics. Why? Because if I try to answer the question honestly, I fall to stammering. An honest definition of my favorite wine is my “one hand clapping.” It changes and slides, depending on the season, the day, even the hour. When I try to think of the best juice to cross my palate – I can’t conjure a singular image.

That doesn’t mean I can’t try. When I do, little vignettes play across my cerebral cortex of times that I’ve tried this wine or that. I can recall opening a shipping box to pull packing material from a particular wine I’ve been waiting for, or the memories of a particularly good meal that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I put together to go alongside a bottle we’d bought on one of our travels. I can sometimes close my eyes and remember the music I was listening to when I experienced a certain wine. I still, however, can’t definitively identify a favorite.

While I may never be able to come up with a singular answer to that seeming simple question, meditating on it a bit made me consider why I like wine as much as I do – and I’ve come up with an answer that, for me, is good enough:

Every glass of wine, whether from a jug of cheap plonk or a thousand-dollar bottle of Bordeaux, tells a story, and wine tells more stories than any other beverage. Wine comes from earth, air, water and sun. (And yeast.) A glass of wine communicates the soil the grapes were grown in; how they were harvested; how long ago they were bottled. There’s a direct, unadulterated line from the seed through the harvest past the winemaker to the glass. And that’s pretty astounding, if you take the time to think about it.

Other alcoholic beverages require additional work. Beer requires mashed grain. Whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila – they need to be distilled. You can brew a craft beer in any of the 50 states and it’ll taste like a craft beer. I’ve seen bourbon from New Jersey and scotch from Washington. But pinot noir won’t grow in Maine. You’re not making good sparkling wine in South Florida. Each glass of wine communicates something unique. Scent. Taste. Flavor.

I don’t have an extensive wine cellar, but there are some pretty good bottles down there. Many of those bottles came from trips that we took. There might have been something about the description of the wine that resonated with me – be it a detailed description of the terroir or just an interesting tale about how the winemaker came to follow that trade.

For instance, I have a number of bottles of pinot noir from a winery we discovered in Oregon called Libra. We tried these wines on the back deck of the home of the winemaker, Bill Hanson, at the end of a beautiful day. We swapped tales. We drank wine and watched the sunset. Is it the “best” pinot in the world? Who knows? But every time I open one of those bottles, I flash back to that deck, and it’s glorious.

In fact, the night I wrote this, I was doing dinner prep. Roasted duck breasts on sweet potato puree with wilted greens. I asked the SPinC what pinot she thought would go best. Without skipping a beat, she said, “One of the Libras.” She said later, after she read this column, that she’d pictured that moment on Bill Hanson’s deck before she made the suggestion.

Every civilization lives through its stories. Stories connect the present to the past; demonstrate place and longevity; and connect an individual to something larger. The story, the ritual -- that’s what keeps me coming back, and that’s my favorite thing about wine.


So as not to leave you empty handed on Christmas or New Year’s – you might need a bottle of sparkling wine before heading out this time of year. If you’re looking for a bottle under $10, you can’t go wrong with my old faithful – Freixenet Extra Dry Cava. In the black bottle. Simple, basic bubbly that’s good with just about anything, food-or-occasionwise.

If you’re thinking under $15, consider Da Luca Prosecco. This Italian sparkler was the bottle we cracked as an aperitif when my family came calling for Thanksgiving. Prosecco makes you happy, and it goes delightfully with almost any appetizer that you might want to throw down.

And if you want to spend up to $25 for a bottle to ring in 2014, I’d be hard pressed to find anything better than Mumm Napa Brut Prestige. Extremely elegant, flavorful, and appropriately celebratory. I think you’ll like it very much. If you don’t – I’ll be happy to take any unopened bottles off your hands.

And with that, The Naked Vine closes the books on 2013. Thanks for continuing our mutual wine explorations. May your year be full of good health, much happiness, and excellent times.

Later days.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Naked Vine Double Bubble -- Mumm Napa and Biltmore Estates

OK, folks – we’re coming down the home stretch to New Year’s. Do you have your sparkling wine for your big end-of-year bash? If you’re planning to spray bubbly all over your fellow partygoers, feel free to load up on Korbel and Asti Spumante. However, if you’re looking for something with a little more complexity and style, you can still find perfectly good bubbly without shelling out fifty bucks for Taittinger or Veuve Cliquot.

Thanks to the good folks at Folsom, I had the chance to preview a spread of sparklers in the $20-30 range, which in my opinion, works just fine for an end-of-year celebration.

First off, a pair from one of my favorite California sparkling producers, Mumm Napa:

Mumm Napa (NV) “Cuvee M” Napa Valley Sparkling Wine – I would certainly recommend this as a classy aperitif. The Cuvee M is a soft, slightly sweet sparkler that explodes on the palate with a rush of pear and peach, followed by a nice zingy acidity. The peach blossom bouquet is quite pretty, and it holds up all the way to the creamy, fruity finish. All in all, just a very pleasant, friendly, subtle wine that brought a smile to my face. The smile broadened when I tried this with some paté. Sparkling wine is usually good once you’ve “got a little fat in your mouth,” and this was no exception. If you’re doing a swanky party with a spread of nice appetizers, you’d be well-served to pop a bottle of this alongside.

Mumm Napa (NV) Napa Valley Brut Prestige – If the Cuvee M is the greeter, then the Brut Prestige is the dignified hostess, making sure everyone’s glass is filled, needs are met, and that all are having a good old time. “Elegant” is one of the terms I put down for this, and I found drinking this to be a lovely experience. The nose is full of ripe melon and bread yeast scents, which leads to a very tight, persistent “bead” (WineSpeak for “those wonderful bubbles”). Once you take a swallow of this wine, you can feel the bubbles tingling as they make their way tummyward. The melon and peach flavors transition to an expansively dry citrusy finish that’s just delicious. One of our traditions around here is bubbly with homemade pizza – and we had a bit of an odd one to pair: prosciutto, artichoke, roasted tomato, and olive on a thin crust with pesto. Not to fear – it went together like it was made to do so. Thumbs up.

Both the Mumm wines retail for around $22. Money well spent.

As you know, I love doing experiments with wine. And did ever I get a good setup with this pair of wine from the Biltmore Estate winery, which I’ve written about on a couple of other occasions. I’ve never had the opportunity to try two wines from the same producer, made in the same fashion with the same grape – except that the grapes were grown on opposite sides of the country. To wit:
  • Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009 Methode Champenoise Brut
  • Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blancs 2010 Chateau Reserve Methode Champenoise North Carolina Brut
Both these sparklers are 100% Chardonnay. They’re made in the traditional “Methode Champenoise” style, which to review, works like this: After a wine has barrel-aged for what a winemaker deems a proper length of time, the wine is bottled with a little extra sugar and yeast and capped. The additional yeast and sugar causes fermentation -- but since the CO2 cannot escape, the bubbles are forced back into the wine, carbonating it. However, as most wine drinkers prefer a clear product, after the carbonation is complete and the wine has "rested on the lees" for an appropriate length of time (usually at least a year, the wine is “riddled.”

During riddling, the bottles are racked with the neck pointing downward about 45º. The yeast settles into the neck of the bottle. The bottles are turned a quarter turn every day or more often and the downward angle is increased. After a month or two, we are ready for the removal of the yeast or "dégorgement." At this stage, the neck of the bottle is plunged into a sub-freezing liquid, and the settled yeast freezes into a plug. When the plug is fully formed, the cap is removed and the carbonation forces the plug from the bottle. The bottle is then quickly corked and "caged." There are, of course, less expensive methods of bottling, but méthode champenoise tends to create the best quality of carbonation (meaning the tiniest, longest lasting bubbles) and flavor.

The differences? Well, one you can guess. One bottle is made of chardonnay grapes from the Biltmore’s North Carolina vineyards, while the other is sources from the Russian River Valley in California. The other difference is in aging. The California wine is aged in the bottle for 24-30 months before dégorgement. The North Carolina version ages for 12-16 months. Oh, also – the California one retails for around $25. The North Carolina is about a $30 bottle.

Side-by-side tasting, you ask? Absolutely. We cracked these at the same time and gave them a try. First impression? I expected the NC bubbly, as with most whites I’ve had from North Carolina, to be a little sweeter. Not so! This was a brut that earns its stripes. This wine is bone dry. As a refresher, when it comes to sparkling wine, the classifications from sweet to dry go: Doux, Demi-Sec, Sec, Extra Dry, and Brut. There’s actually a dryness level beyond Brut called “Brut Sauvage” – and the NC wine reminded me of one of those. There’s pineapple and apple and a nuttiness to go with the tight sparkle. It’s very refreshing.

The California Blanc de Blancs is still “brut,” but there’s more of a roundness to it. There’s more of a creamy yeastiness, along with a basketful of Granny Smith apple flavor. The bubbles are tight and firm with this wine as well. It’s much more of an elegant wine than its Carolina-based cousin. Both wines are quite good. It just depends on the mood you’re in.

Though we opened both, we decided that we’d save most of one bottle and have the other later (and if you don’t have a sparkling wine stopper – run, don’t walk, and get one). We decided to start with the NC bubbly. We had this with a smorgasbord of appetizers – bacon-wrapped scallops, liver pate, and creamy cheese with crackers – and it was simply delicious. Get a little fat in your mouth with this one and you’re golden.

The California sparkler we saved for one of the Sweet Partner in Crime’s homemade pizzas. I stand by my notion that pizza is second only to KFC as a perfect sparkling wine accompaniment. The pizza – with roasted tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, lots of garlic, and shredded parmesan couldn’t have made a better match for this wine. Delicious.

If you’re looking for some wines that fall into the “classy” range but you don’t want to break the bank – any of these four will do you. I am interested in seeing if North Carolina can consistently create sparkling wine like this, though. If they don’t take advantage of what seems to be good terroir, they’re missing a big opportunity.

(Thanks much to Michaela and Kate at Folsom & Associates for the samples.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Crazy for Chianti

How does a wine so flexible get overlooked so often?

I ask the question for myself as much as anything. Chianti, the most well-known Italian wine in the U.S., is a delicious, easy-to-drink wine that pairs up with almost anything. I love the stuff. But when I make my trips to the wine store, I usually scoot right past Chianti completely. Or, if I’m in the Italy aisle, I’m usually wandering to other areas – snagging myself a Barbera, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, or a Dolcetto depending on my mood. Then I get the chance to drink one and I think to myself, “Well, hello there! Where have you been?” I almost take it for granted.

Not exactly.
Chianti was one of the first wines that I wrote about in this space, and I won’t go back over my old tropes about straw basket candleholders and Hannibal Lecter’s food pairings with the organs of certain government employees (which he got wrong, in my opinion – he’d have been better off pairing that poor census taker’s liver with a Bordeaux) – but let’s get a quick review in of what Chianti actually is.

First off, Chianti is not a grape. Italian wines are named after the region from which the wine is made. Chianti is a large region in central Tuscany which encompasses parts of several Tuscan sub-provinces. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in this region. Speaking of those grapes, at least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese to fall into the Chianti category. The balance of the wine is usually a blend of other Italian indigenous varietals, along with the occasional addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Chianti tend to be relatively lighter-bodied, full of cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, and with a mineral character that feels a little “chalky” to me.

You might see “Chianti Classico” on a bottle if you’re looking. “Classico” has nothing to do with being a “classic” wine. The term refers to the area in the heart of the Chianti region bordered by Florence on the north and Siena on the south. This was the “original” area of Chianti which produces arguably some of the best wine. Chianti Classico must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The complement of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region.

There is one other Chianti-related terms with which you should be familiar. “Chianti Riserva” means that the wine is aged for a longer period of time in barrel – a minimum of two years. A standard Chianti is only aged for 4-7 months. Chianti Superiore must be aged for at least nine months and Chianti Classico for at least ten. The terms can be stacked, so you might run into a “Chianti Classico Riserva” in your travels.

Not long ago, Italian wine producer Banfi did a promotion called “Crazy for Chianti” to drum up renewed interest in the wines of Chianti. I was fortunate enough to receive some samples of the various sorts of Chianti from Banfi and their affiliated producers. As you’ll see, I found some distinct differences among the styles:

Bolla 2011 Chianti – If you’d like to classify a wine as “perfectly serviceable,” you’d probably land on this inexpensive bottle of Bolla. For a whopping eight bucks, you end up with a table wine that will go perfectly well with just about anything. It’s very straightforward – nice red fruits on the palate, some chalk and mineral in the middle, and a gentle, fruity, lightly tannic finish. It’s not what you’d call a memorable wine, but it falls squarely into the drinkable category. It’s also readily available in a 1.5l bottle for around $12. Not a bad red to have around when you’re feeling indecisive.

Cecchi 2010 Chianti Classico – A very different bottle from the Bolla. While the “regular” Chianti is fruit driven and simple, this Chianti Classico has a great deal more depth and structure. The characteristic cherry fruit is backed by a deep earthy flavor that reminded me a lot of a Bordeaux. This wine felt considerably heavier to me, and it wasn’t quite as good a food wine with somewhat lighter fare. This one would need something heavier – meat sauces, sausage pizzas, or something along those lines. If you like a richer version of your Chianti, it’s not a bad choice.

Banfi 2011 Chianti Superiore – A very interesting contrast to the Chianti Classico. Rather than the light red fruits in the Chianti Classico, there are strong notes of dark fruits like plums. There’s also a strong earthy component that adds a lot of richness. The finish is tart with a little bit of earth, and the traditional Chianti chalkiness popping in to say hello right at the end. It’s a really nice wine. I liked this one a lot. With penne in a goat cheese marinara with bits of cappacuolo “bacon,” it was absolutely delicious.
Recommended as a killer value at $11.

Banfi 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva – Certainly the richest of this set of wines, and also my personal favorite among them. Again, a much more deeply flavored wine than a standard Chianti, hearkening back to the earlier Chianti Classico, but this one had a richer, smoother texture. The nose is scented with cherries and vanilla. It’s about as full-bodied a Chianti as I’ve experienced, with plenty of dark cherry and spice flavors, along with a backbone of cocoa instead of that signature chalkiness. The chalkiness does show up at the end, but it’s complimented by more of that bitter chocolate flavor. It’s an exceptional food wine. We had this with a pan-cooked chicken puttanesca over orzo tossed with parsley and olive oil. Really nice, and a solid value for $16-18.

If you’ve been drinking an array of wines and Chianti has somehow become lost in the shuffle, make it a New Year’s resolution to get back on this Tuscan train. You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- A Perfectly Serviceable Pair: Mandolin

Sometimes you just need WYSIWYG wine.

For those of you unacquainted with the acronym, WYSIWYG (pronounced “wizzy wig”) is old tech slang for “What You See Is What You Get.” The term refers to a user interface where the content you see on the screen is more or less identical to what you’d see if you printed or displayed it. For instance, as I’m typing this, the document looks more or less like the post will end up the way you see it now.

As this relates to wine, when I’m thinking about a certain meal or if I’m in the mood for a certain flavor, I can say to myself, “I’m in the mood for a chardonnay.” I know I want a decent wine, but I don’t really want to spend a lot of time with pairing or subtlety. In other words, a solid quaffer in a general category. Both bottles of the recent pair of samples from Mandolin Wines qualify as WYSIWYG.

Mandolin, though headquartered in Napa, focuses on making wine from Monterey County, California and a few other areas along the Central Coast. Their wines all retail for around $10-12. They’re straightforward wines that, in both cases here, made me say, “Yep. That’s a decent [insert grape name here].” Was I blown away by either of them? No. Would I buy either of them again? Sure. They’re table wines. Think of them along those lines, and you’ll be very pleased. For a little more detail:

Mandolin 2012 Monterey Chardonnay – Definitely a California chardonnay, but a middle of the road once, intensity wise. I got cream and sweet apples on the nose. “The flavor doesn’t explode your tongue with oak,” said the SPinC, “but it’s definitely there.” The label mentions tropical fruits. I’d say that pineapple is the dominant of those types flavors, but it’s not sweet pineapple. The fruit quickly gets overtaken by considerable oak. Rather than lingering on the finish like many oaky chardonnays, the oak gets clipped by a wave of lemony acidity. All in all, a good quaffer on its own or with food. Our meal was salmon filets “poached” over white beans, rosemary, and bacon. Tasty meal.

Mandolin 2012 Monterey Pinot Noir – “Perfectly serviceable” reads my note, especially since it’s twelve bucks. A decent “drinking not thinking” wine that would be solidly food-friendly. Cherries and sawdust stand out on the nose. Body is quite light, although there’s good cherry and raspberry flavor that segues into a considerable amount of smokiness which continues through the finish. I don’t usually find the kind of smokiness and silkiness at this price point. Alongside leftovers of a roasted cauliflower soup with toasted almonds and prosciutto, it made for a pretty good pairing. The soup was tasty and the wine was there. Neither of us had the brainpower that evening to think much, so it made for a good pairing.

Mandolin also makes a Riesling from Monterey, and Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.

(Thanks to Folsom + Associates for the samples.)

Friday, December 06, 2013

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Da Luca Prosecco

Prosecco is generally a solid aperitif, as it’s a lighter-styled sparkler with nice fruity flavors that complement many cheeses, fruits, and other appetizerish finger foods. The Da Luca (NV) Prosecco certainly fills the bill. It clocks in at 11% alcohol, so it’s not going to beat you over the head right off the bat. The effervescence is a bit sharp, which isn’t out of the norm for an Italian sparkler, so it’ll certainly perk up your taste buds. Nice apple blossom scents get carried up by the bubbles. Flavors start out as apple and pineapple and get a little more tart towards the end. The finish has some fruitiness along with the dance of bubbles on your tongue.

All in all, a very nice wine to start a party with. I opened my sample bottle over Thanksgiving as an aperitif for my family and people seemed to enjoy it. As appetizers for folks’ arrival, we laid out shrimp cocktail, baked brie with apples and cranberries, salami chips, and roasted carrot dip and the wine flexed easily enough among the various flavors. For $12-14, a good starter wine for an event or an evening.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Naked Vine One-Hitter: More Morellino, please…

Wine grapes can be like sandwiches.

A sandwich, by any other name, is a sub…or a hoagie…or a grinder…or a torpedo…depending on where you’re placing your order. Similarly, wine grapes can have regional monikers. Sangiovese, one of the best known Italian wine grapes, has 50+ regionally derived names.

One of these Sangiovesian synonyms is starting to make its way to the States in greater quantities – Morellino, from Maremma – a coastal region of southwestern Tuscany next to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The genesis of the name “Morellino,” which translates as “Little Dark One” may come from the brown color of the Morelli horse, uniquely of Tuscany; or it may come from the flavor of the Morello cherry, which mirrors many of the flavors in Sangiovese.

Regardless, if you have the opportunity to try one of these (and I hope you will), think of it starting in terms of a Sangiovese-based wine. The climate in Maremma is somewhat warmer than in the more northern areas of Tuscany, such as Chianti. As such, the wines tend to be more fruit-forward and soft, in contrast to the angular flavors typically found in the northern wines. The warmer climate also allows some non-indigenous grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to flourish. The original Supertuscan wines, which are Sangiovese blended with those non-indigenous varietals, came from Maremma.

Thanks to the good folks at Colangelo, who you may remember from my experiences with Sagrantino di Montefalco, I received a sample of the Tenuta dell’Ammiraglia “Pietraregia” 2010 Morellino di Scansano Riserva. To break down the name, “Tenuta dell’Ammiraglia” is the name of the estate. “Pietraregia” is the actual name of the blend. “Morellino” is the aforementioned grape, which comprises 85% of the blend, along with 10% Ciliegiolo (typically a blending grape), and 5% Syrah. “di Scansano” means “of Scansano” – the town in Maremma. Finally, “Riserva” means that the wine has been aged for a particular length of time, which is Tuscany means generally more than 27 months. (Whew.)

So, how does this Scansano scan? Pretty darned well, honestly.

I found a fragrant nose of fresh cut plums and sawdust. The body is substantial and full-flavored with big tart cherry (Morello!) flavors backed up by dark plums and cocoa. As promised, this is very smooth for a Sangiovese-based wine, which I attest to both the Maremman climate and the Syrah smoothing everything out. The finish is long and dusky, with a combination of bitter chocolate and more tart cherry. This is really nice wine if you like rich, Supertuscan-type flavors.

With big foods, it’s also a winner. Maremman cuisine is known to be rich, hearty, and often sauce-laden. With that in mind, I made one of my eggplant parmigianas to go alongside this, and it was simply a heavenly pairing.

This Morellino retails for $25, and I think it’s definitely a worthy bottle at that price point. Be on the lookout for this one from Marchesi de Frescobaldi, and others that will undoubtedly appear on the wine store shelves soon.

Oh, and happy birthday to my sister Annie, who has a milestone birthday today!