Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Natura Wines -- Chile's inexpensive organic alternative

Chilean wines benefit from the country’s unique geography. The Andes border the various winegrowing regions on the east and the Pacific Ocean does so on the west. The relatively high altitude, notable daily temperature shifts, and relatively dry climate create a solid environment for grape growing – protected from many of the pests and diseases like the phylloxera louse which can plague Northern Hemisphere vineyards. Because of the relative pest-free nature of the country, Chile boasts some of the oldest, ungrafted vines in the world.

To further preserve the natural bounty, many Chilean winemakers produce grapes and make wine using organic, biodynamic, and sustainable techniques. One of these environmentally-friendly producers, Emiliana Vineyards, recently released a line of affordable wines under the brand name Natura in the United States. These Chilean wines, all of which retail for around $12, include sauvignon blanc, unoaked chardonnay, rosé, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carmenere (which are quite similar), malbec, and syrah.

I had the opportunity to try four of these wines, and my thoughts on them follow. (Thanks much to Rebecca at Banfi for the samples.)

Natura 2014 Sauvignon Blanc – A few of my wine drinking friends refer to themselves as “acid freaks.” While I generally can’t speak to their admiration for either Ken Kesey or Mastodon, their affinity for tart, crisp wines largely define their palates. The Natura Sauvignon Blanc falls squarely into the category wines they’d likely glug by the bottle come summertime. The nose of this sauvignon blanc gives a hint of the strong grapefruity, pineapple flavor that I subsequently ran into on the palate. I thought it was crisp without being overly light. The mouthfeel has just a bit of heft, which gives it a little more of a backbone than many inexpensive acid balls. The finish is grapefruity and peachy, with a pleasant little bite.

Natura 2014 Dry Rosé – Keeping with the acidic theme, we’ll move on to the Natura dry rosé. Dark salmon in color, the Natura has a fairly fragrant nose for a rosé. I discovered some pleasant peach and apple blossom fragrances at first sniff. On the tongue, the predominant flavors are strawberry and Granny Smith-ish apple. The finish is quite fruity, with more tartness that lingers with some nice fruit and a wee bit of smokiness at the end. I think it would make another flexible, summerish food wine, and I thought it was quite good with grilled chicken and veggies.

Natura 2013 Syrah – First off, if you try this one, definitely let it get some air. I thought it definitely needed a little time to open up. The nose: plummy and fairly fragrant. The first sip hit my taste buds with a quick pop of big dark fruits. I was afraid it was going to be a big, jammy mess, but that calmed down pretty quickly. The palate – much more restrained than I expected -- has plenty of dark fruit and a good amount of tannin. The finish has plenty of fruit, pepper, and graphite. Had this alongside a roast braised in an onion, herb, & mushroom sauce – and the wine really caused the peppery flavors in the sauce to pop out. Pretty interesting drink, all in all.

Natura 2013 Pinot Noir – For an inexpensive pinot, this one holds its own. The flavor rests at a decent midpoint between earthy Burgundian/Oregon style pinots and bigger, fruitier offerings from certain parts of California (which makes sense, as these vineyards are at a southern latitude equivalent to being between France and California). I found it to be a fragrant pinot with berry and cola flavors on the palate. There’s a considerable fruitiness in the body, but that doesn’t overwhelm the smokiness expected in a decent pinot. The finish has a nice bit of acidity, which would make it work with many rustic, tomato-based dishes. We used the Natura Pinot Noir as a stand-in for an Italian wine for a Tuscan vegetable soup we’d thrown together, and it easily took the place of the Chianti I’d forgotten to snag at the store. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Breathing Life into the Heavy Hitter

Celebrations abound at Vine HQ! Your intrepid reviewer just had a bit of a milestone birthday, coupled with graduating with his doctorate from the University of Kentucky. (Now you get your wine advice from an actual doctor!)

The SPinC and I, post graduation...
The latter celebration, in particular, means that I can finally get back to more oenological-based writing, rather than spending my days looking at “Generational Differences in Transfer Student Capital among Community College Students,” which is the title of the aforementioned dissertation. (They almost didn’t pass me because there’s no colon in the title.)

Given all the reasons for celebration lately, I’ve had some lovely opportunities to wind down with the Sweet Partner in Crime, enjoy some good food, and get my brain back about me. One of those celebrations happened to coincide with a visit from the wine fairy, who left me a bottle of the Colpetrone 2011 Montefalco Rosso.
photo: Hungry Hong Kong blog
Does that name “Montefalco” ring a bell? You might recall a couple of articles in  this space about a wine called “Sagrantino di Montefalco.” Montefalco is a town in the Italian region of Umbria, which is in Central Italy just east of Tuscany. Sagrantino di Montefalco is one of the top-end wines of the region – and is a wine that I deemed “The Italian Heavy Hitter” because of its inky blank color, enormous loads of tannin, and tooth-staining richness. It’s also a bit on the expensive side.

Even decanted, Sagrantino can be a challenge to drink – and as it’s often quite expensive, it’s not something I consider snagging at the store for an everyday bottle. However, when the Colpetrone showed up at my door, I sensed an opportunity. As a celebratory meal when I turned in the full draft of my dissertation, the SPinC and I decided to grill some strips, sauté some mushrooms, and have ourselves a little feast. We needed a good, big red, and I figured this would fit the bill. (The suggested recipe for this wine was a pasta in a sauce made from a bunch of herbs, 2 pounds of ground duck and ¼ pound of pancetta. A 25-year old Naked Vine might have gone for the pasta, but my slowing metabolism preached caution…)

I had high hopes for the pairing. This Montefalco Rosso is the “junior version” of the full-blast Sagrantino. It’s actually a Sangiovese-based wine – 70% of the blend. Sagrantino makes up another 15%, with the remainder as Merlot. I knew it was going to be a big wine, so I poured the wine into a decanter a couple of hours before dinner. I hoped it would combine the heft of the Sagrantino with the food-friendliness of the Sangiovese while the merlot rounded off the edges.

I was close. Big, thick layers of plums and raspberries come first, followed by some pepper and vanilla, and then a big tarry wash of mouth-drying tannin. The finish is long and dry, with just a hint of fruit hanging around. While not as massive as a Sagrantino di Montefalco, this is still a big ol’ muscular wine. Even after decanting it for a couple of hours, the SPinC declared, “It’s still too much for me. Maybe in winter.”

I didn’t want our celebratory meal to be interrupted by a tannic overdose, so I broke out one of the few wine-related pieces of merchandise that I’ve been asked to review: the Fete Home Wine Aerator. I’ve mentioned the importance of decanting before, and a wine aerator can speed the process. Decanting allows more oxygen to get into the wine before drinking. Wine sitting in a decanter is more exposed to air, speeding the oxidative process. This process allows the wine to “open” – revealing more of its flavors and softening some of the harsher notes. Harsher notes like – say – a big mouthful of tannin.

Using an aerator forces more air through a wine than does decanting alone, so an aerator can be useful, especially with big, tannin-fueled wines, to bring out more of the fruit without waiting half a day for a wine to decant. I thought this dinner might be an excellent opportunity to test drive the Fete Home.

This is a very attractive aerator. It’s about eight inches long and feels very sturdy. It’s made from clear acrylic with stainless steel accents. It comes with a stand, and it looks quite impressive on a countertop. (They also include a pouch if you want to store it.)

On top of the aerator, there’s a dial with a 0-6 scale. The higher the setting, the more slowly the wine pours through the aerator, and the more air bubbles its way through the wine. The more tannic the wine, the higher the recommended setting. In this case, I did two small pours – once on “2” and once on “5.”

In a nutshell, it works, and it looks good doing it. I thought the wine was much improved post-decanting. The tannins weren’t quite as rough as with decanting for a couple of hours alone. The fruit rose more effectively on the palate and onto the finish, which developed more of a vanilla and butterscotch flavor. Different speeds might well help certain wines, but I didn’t think decanting on “5” was really any different than decanting on “2.” Your mileage may vary.

Bottom lines: I liked the Montefalco Rosso more than the SPinC did. Even after decanting, she thought it was still a bit too heavy for her tastes. I thought it went really nicely with the steak and mushrooms. (Despite being another year older and not quite up for the duck/pancetta combo, I nevertheless was feeling pretty meat-cravingly testosteronic after turning in my dissertation. That may have affected my perception.) If you’re a fan of big, rich, complex reds -- $19-25 isn’t a bad price.

This aerator usually runs about $35, but I’ve seen it on sale at Amazon for about $20. If you decide to go the aerator route, or if you’re looking for a nice gift for a wine lover on your list, you’re spending your money well here.

(Thanks much to Laura at Colangelo for the wine sample and to Jennifer at Fete Home for the aerator.)

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Pull of Montepulciano

Most everyone’s got a “house wine.”

In Vine Land, when there are new bottles showing up on a fairly regular basis, it’s comforting to just have a couple of selections that I know will work. I’m not always in the mood to crack open something new, believe it or not. Some wines are comfort food – solid, unspectacular offerings that don’t cost much and are flexible enough to go with just about anything.

Here at the ranch, one of our house wines is an Italian red called Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Montepulciano is our normal red table wine. Simple, fruity, medium-bodied and straightforward, a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is like watching an old episode of Seinfeld. I know exactly what to expect, I can enjoy it without paying too much attention, and I don’t have to search hard to find an open episode. The fact that it’s around $10-12 for a 1.5 liter bottle doesn’t hurt, either.

Not long ago, I got a note from Maggie at Colangelo, offering me a pair of bottles of wines from Masciarelli, an estate winery in Abruzzo credited for “placing the central-western region of Abruzzo on the Italian wine map” with its production of acclaimed wines. These include my old friend Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a version of which is considered Masciarelli’s top-line wine. Nothing against my good ol’ table wine, but I was very curious to see what a “high end” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was like.  

A bit of a geography lesson. Abruzzo is a rather mountainous region of Italy located about “mid calf” on the eastern edge of The Boot, directly opposite Rome on the west coast. The grapes most widely grown in the region are Montepulciano for reds and Trebbiano for whites.

Thus, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is wine from Abruzzo made from Montepulciano grapes. I state this explicitly because there’s a town in Tuscany also called Montepulciano, well known for crafting some of the better Tuscan wines, specifically Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which is actually made from Sangiovese grapes. There is no known connection between the town and the grape. Just one of those linguistical quirks of Italian language and history, much like why most English-speaking outsiders can’t correctly pronounce the name of the Kentucky city Versailles.

Two bottles showed up for sampling – one of each color. I started with the white, the Villa Gemma 2014 Bianco Colline Teatine. This wine is a largely Trebbiano-based blend, with small amounts of Chardonnay and the indigenous grape Cococciola added. Most Italian whites I have these days tend to be on the lighter side and minerally. Not so here. This wine has some depth and creaminess, along the lines of a French Rhone white. I found it much more fragrant than many Italian whites, with some apple blossom notes up front. Medium bodied, it’s got rich apple and pineapple flavors on the palate, with a delicate, creamy finish. We quite liked it. As with most Italian whites, fish is a safe bet, so we did a simple slow-roasted salmon with some roasted veggies and couscous on the side. A steal for a wine you can snag for under $10.

A few nights later, we got into the Marina Cvetic 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC San Martino. Marina Cvetic married Gianni Masciarelli in 1987, and Gianni dedicated his top-line wine to her. She has run the Masciarelli production operation since 2008. While the table version of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the very definition of “sluggable red,” the difference in this more “grown up” version was evident from the moment we poured it. The color was much inkier than what I was used to, and the nose of this 100% Montepulciano is full of plums and strawberries. The body is considerable, with dark fruits wrapped up in vanilla and a solid tannic backbone that becomes very pleasant after the wine gets some air. (I’m not used to decanting my Montepulciano!) The finish is evenly tannic with some nice coffee flavors. With a strip steak topped with mushrooms, just outstanding. Also lovely next to evening chocolate. For $20-25, I thought this certainly worth that price.

I thought it was great fun to take a second look at a wine varietal I’d taken more or less for granted over the years. Try it yourself. I think you’ll dig.