Friday, July 29, 2016


Montepulciano, one of my favorite wine double-entendres.

“Montepulciano” is a wine term that gets tied up in Italian wine naming conventions and can be somewhat confusing. To avoid getting addled, you need to distinguish between the Montepulciano grape and the Montepulciano region. I recently had the chance to try one of each for comparison's sake.

The Montepulciano grape is largely cultivated in the province of Abruzzi. Abruzzi is on the east coast of Italy – on the other side the country from Tuscany, which is where you’ll find the Montepulciano region. Wines from Abruzzi are usually made from at least 85% of the Montepulciano varietal and are aged for a minimum of five months. Predictably, these wines are labeled "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo" ("The Montepulciano of Abruzzi").

Here at the ranch, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is one of our house wines. 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 episode. The fact that it’s around $10-12 for a 1.5 liter bottle doesn’t hurt, either (or a box for around $18). These wines tend to be relatively inexpensive. I’ve seen bottles of Montepulciano for as little as $5 in my local stores.

There are higher-end versions, such as the Marina Cvetic 2011 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC San Martino. Marina Cvetic married winemaker Gianni Masciarelli in 1987, and Gianni dedicated his top-line wine to her. She has run the Masciarelli production operation since 2008. 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.

The Montepulciano region is just to the northwest of Chianti in Tuscany. Most wines made in the Montepulciano, just like those made in Chianti, are blends made from around 70% Sangiovese. The best wines from the Montepulciano region are designated "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” (“The Noble Wine of Montepulciano”). They are aged for a minimum of 24 months, 18 of which must be spent in oak, before being released. Like most Sangiovese-based wine, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is high in acidity, which allows it to go well alongside meats and big sauces. They’re known for having much more aging potential than many Tuscan wines. They’re also more expensive – you won’t run into many of these for less than $25, so they fall into the “nice dinner” wines category for me.

Our example from here, the Avignonesi 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is somewhat unusual for this type of wine. Going against tradition, the winemaker, Virginie Saverys, made her wine out of 100% Sangiovese rather than doing a blend. Few other wines in Tuscany are single varietal – the best known of which is Brunello di Montalcino.

With the Avignonesi. I prepared chicken thighs braised in an herbed porcini mushroom and tomato sauce, served with a side of gnocchi. Before I plated it up, we tried the wine on its own. I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t generally prefer Italian wine on its own. Something about the minerality just makes my palate crave it with food. This wine, however, had no issues with flying solo.

I found some strong and lush cherry and dark fruit flavors riding alongside some tannins that gave the flavor some great depth. I don’t run into many wines with that level of fruit intensity that don’t taste “thick.” The mouthfeel was ample, but not too full. Lovely aromas, and a silky, smoky lasting finish. It’s just a pretty wine.

It shined with the meal, as well. There was enough acidity to cut through what evolved into a very rich sauce, but enough strength of flavor not to be overwhelmed. I couldn’t have imagined a much better pairing than this one became. We sat out on the patio on a perfect temperature of a Sunday evening, laughing, eating slowly, and going through the bottle over the course of…well, I don’t know how long. When a wine lends itself to losing one’s sense of time, I have to recommend it.

If you’re into Brunello di Montalcino, you should check out the Avignonesi. I think you’ll find it compares favorably. Since, generally, you can’t find Brunello for less than $50 a pop, and the Avignonesi clocks in at around $30, I think you’ll be pleased.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Naked Vine Tour de...Wait, What? (Savoie)

I promised you sporadic coverage. You can't say I don't deliver on my promises.

When we left our pelotonic friends last, they were biking through the Rhone Valley before making the climb into the French and Swiss Alps. Before I started writing this little series, I was under the impression that the Tour de France was actually...well...a tour of France. Instead, if you check the map... can see that, after the riders finish tooling around over in the Alps, they catch a flight to Chantilly, from where they make the last ride into Paris.

I've had a busy few days, so I thought, "Hey, I should check in on where the riders are..." Of course, I discovered that today is the final stage of Le Tour, and as I'm writing this, the riders are in Stage 21, closing in on the Champs-Elysses.

That will not, however, stop me from giving you my last bottle of the Tour -- a white from the Savoie region, which is -- as you can see -- over on the eastern side of France, bordering both Switzerland and Italy. It's best known as a cheese-producing region, cows grazing in the valleys among the steep hillsides to which the vineyards often cling.

Savoie's mountainous, cool terrain supports largely indigenous grapes used primarily to make white wines. In the cool climate, most red grapes don't do well. The most widely grown grape is Jacquere, which produces a fairly crisp, citrusy, minerally white. The best known red grape is Mondeuse, but it can be difficult to find outside france.

As a representative from here, I chose the Domaine Labbé 2014 Abymes Vin de Savoie. (Abymes is the town nearest where the grapes are sourced.) I found green apple and lemon aromas on the nose. Those flavors are mirrored on the palate with a richer body than I expected. I expected a lighter, crisper drink, but the mouthfeel is somewhat honeyish for such an acidic, light wine. It finishes slightly tart, with a bit of lemon crème. Clocking in at 11% ABV with that sort of food-friendly flavor, this would be lovely for a picnic or other brunch-ish occasion.

Finally, we bid adieu to the newest Naked Vine sports hero Tejay Van Garderen, the highest-ranking U.S. finisher this year. Our hero has had a rough couple of years at the Tour. Last year, he was in third place going into Stage 17, when he had to abandon the ride because of illness. This year, he was in a solid position going into the Alps, but ran into some unfortunately difficulties and slipped down the roster. He finished the Tour 29th out of 174 finishers.

And with that, au revoir de Paris...

Thanks, Tejay. Good luck next year!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Naked Vine Sporadic Tour de France Coverage -- Rhone Valley

Hello there, cycling fans. For a quick recap of the actual race, Chris Froome of the soon-to-be-dis-United Kingdom still holds the yellow jersey after 15 stages, leading the pack by 1'47", even after crashing, wrecking his bike, and running up Mount Ventoux. (How a person can run in cycling shoes is beyond me.)
Uh oh.

Our new friend Tejay Van Garderen, native of Tacoma, Washington, has acquitted himself well thus far, currently standing in 8th place, 4'47" behind Froome as the riders prepare to enter the Swiss Alps.

Over the last couple of days, the riders have been in and around the Rhone Valley, one of the more productive -- yet strangely overlooked by many American wine consumers -- wine regions in France.

The Rhone Valley is roughly divided into north and south sections by the River Drôme. The climate in the northern Rhone tends to be cooler than the south. The only red grape grown in the northern Rhone is Syrah. Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane are grown for whites.

In the South, Grenache is the major grape of choice, although Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault are often included in red blends. Whites include Ugni blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Clairette and, in recent years, Viognier.

The Rhone's most famous wine is Chateauneuf-de-Pape, grown in the south. The north produces such yummies as Côte Rotie, Croze-Hermitage, Hermitage, and Condrieu -- the last being an expensive white made from Viognier.

However, for our purposes, most of the wines you'll see from the region will be labeled Cotes-du-Rhone. "Côtes-du-Rhone" (pronounced "Coat dew roan" as if you have a stuffy nose) can be made from grapes grown anywhere within the region. Reds labeled as such must contain at least 40% Grenache. The remaining 60% will be largely a blend of the red grapes we've already mentioned. The south produces 80% of the wine, so most of the wines you see labeled "Côtes-du-Rhone" are going to be from the south and will be dominated by Grenache, sometimes as a single varietal.

Côtes-du-Rhone cranks out a lot of very good, very approachable red wine. These wines tend to be drunk young -- within five years of bottling. These reds tend to be medium bodied with lots of cherry and dark berry flavors. The "old world funk"/earthiness classic to many French reds is usually there to some extent -- but not as powerfully as in many Bordeaux. Even so, these are usually great wines to go with anything earthy or sausagey -- or even just to uncork and pass around. The main issue with CdR is that the quality can be all over the place. Because there's such a broad variety in the various blends, finding a consistent CdR can be a challenge. The flipside is that, with a little research, one can find a CdR that fits almost any palate. Ask your friendly wine store person for assistance.

I had the chance to try the Les Dauphins 2013 Cotes du Rhone Reserve Rouge recently. It's a straightforward, bold red with a nose of cherries and other dark fruit. I got a burst of fruit at the first sip, but that yields fairly quickly to a mild flavor of tannin and graphite. Finish is softly tannic, although the tannin builds after a few sips. I thought it was a pretty solid red wine for almost all occasions. You could put this up against barbecue chicken or pork or grilled steak and veggies and do quite well. It retails for about $13, which is around the price you'll find many CdR.

I mentioned that there are also whites in this region, although they are fewer and farther between. 80% of the blends of those wines have to be made up of the above varietals. These wines tend to be medium bodied and food friendly, especially as an aperitif with appetizers. One example is the M.Chapoutier 2014 “Belleruche” Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc, which started me out with a nose of pineapple and a little wood. The body was medium weight with a nice creaminess. I thought it was interestingly complex for the price point ($12-13) with tropical fruit flavors backed with a gentle acidity. Its finish is fairly long and somewhat tart. An interesting change of pace for your table.

As I mentioned, the Tour turns northward into the French and Swiss alps next. We'll keep you posted as best we can...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Le Tour Scoots South

Yes, there's a point to this. Read on.
As we continue our occasional Tour de France coverage here at The Naked Vine, the peloton now swings across southern France. I was hoping that the route would go farther south, down into Provence, so that I could write oodles of joyous words about the beauty that is Provence rosé.

A quick aside -- long-timers around here know my rosé fetish. I've been pimping pink wine from the second-ever column I posted here. When we made our foray to St. Martin recently, rosé was the typical accompaniment with most of my meals. I think a good dry rosé is about as close to a perfect summertime wine as exists on the planet, and I've continued to sing its praises.

Fast forward ten years from that column. I walk into Big Wine Store (and most other smaller ones) now to find end caps full of quality dry rosé. Dry rosé has even found its way into the glasses of the hipster community, and I'm in full support. The mo' pink, the mo' better. But do kindly remind them that we've been waiting for them here in rosé land for a long time.

In any case, back to the Tour -- as I said, I was hoping that the course would run down into Provence, but alas -- the route stays north of the coast, again skirting the prime growing region for those rosé. However, closer inspection showed that the Tour *is* passing through the Ventoux region, home of Famille Perrin winery, producers of one of the house standards around these parts: La Vielle Ferme.

If you're a fan of inexpensive French wine, chances are that you've come across a bottle of LVF at some point. Instantly recognizable from the image of the big rooster on the label, LVF wines usually run between $8-10. They make a refreshing white from Bourboulenc (an indigenous grape), Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Vermentino; as well as a juicy red from Carignane, Cinsault, Grenache, and Syrah.

But it's the LVF Rose that really tickles my fancy. The La Vielle Ferme 2015 Rosé is built on the same "grape platform" as the LVF red, minus the Carignane. It's not as delicate and clean as the more expensive versions that you'll find in Provence, but for my needs -- when I want to pull something cold from the fridge, pour a hefty glass, and unwind after being out in the summer warmth all day long Nice light fruits, a goodly shot of acidity, and a nice crisp finish -- it's just about perfect for a "I don't wanna think, and this is perfectly tasty" wine.

The other aspect of the LVF Rosé that I really like is that it's one of the few French rosé out there in my area that comes in a 1.5 liter bottle. If I don't get the big bottles, I tend to power through it a little too quickly.

In any case, if you stop by the HQ, you'll probably find a bottle of this in the fridge. I'd invite you to help yourself, but that might entail breaking and entering.

The Tour's next area will be the Rhone Valley, where we'll definitely find some wine...

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Following the Tour de France, sorta.

Hey everyone! It's Tour de France time! You know, the one time a year where Americans pay cursory attention to the sport of cycling. (The leading American as of the writing of this article was household name Tejay Van Garderen, currently in 15th.)

I thought it might be fun to write a series of articles tracking the wines of the various regions through which the riders were speeding. (The idea came from Sean at Colangelo.)

In years past, I remember the Tour basically zooming through all of the various regions of France, but this year is different. This year, they started with several runs around Utah Beach, the site of the Allied D-Day invasion. From there, the peloton will make its way south through Saumur and Limoges before heading towards the south of France.

Unfortunately, the route skirts most of the major wine producing regions, like Bordeaux and Burgundy -- and the subregions therein. Northwest France isn't really known for producing much wine, and I don't really have the cash to casually write about Armagnac, which is where the riders are headed today.

However, after that -- the Tour heads into Gascony, which is a region where wine is inexpensive and plentiful. Gascony, located in southwest France, near the Spanish border, along the foothills of the Pyrenees. The best known wines from that region are white wines. These wines tend to be crisp, acidic, and are made from local grapes like Ugni Blanc and Colombard. The average price of a white from Gascony (which you'll find as "Cotes de Gascogne") are usually around a ten spot.

This description fits the Domaine du Tariquet 2015 “Classic” Cotes de Gascogne to a tee. Tariquet distills Armagnac, a brandy somewhat similar to Cognac, from the aforementioned Ugni Blanc and Colombard. They produce this white wine from the same grapes. I found a load of herbs and green apple on the nose. It was mouthpuckeringly tart initially, but that acidity smooths out a bit as the wine got a little air. The result were plenty of lemony citrus and green apple flavors, which led into a crisp, quick finish. A decent summertime quaffer for $10. Would be nice as an aperitif or with some light fish dishes.

As the Tour moves along, I'll post a few additional regional bottles. Stay tuned...

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Zonin Dress Code and a Farewell to Friends

Bubbles and bittersweet don’t go together often around these parts.

The mood’s a little downbeat around Vine HQ, even after receiving samples of a new slate of Prosecco offerings from Zonin – dubbed their “Dress Code” collection. There were three bottles – the “Black,” “White,” and “Grey” – as you can see here:

Three bottles of Prosecco are usually a bit much for the Sweet Partner in Crime and I to pop all at once, so we went with our usual strategy. We called our trustworthy alleymates, Christine the Pie Queen and Dinner Club Jeff, to help us polish off sample this bit of Italian effervescence.

Only problem – this is likely the last Naked Vine tasting with our nearest and dearest for quite some time. Jeff has a fabulous opportunity with a new job in Seattle. Being the nature nuts that the two of them are, the foot of Mount Rainier isn’t a bad place to call home. Alas, for us, that means that the decade-old Tennessee Alley Drinking Club is going on hiatus.

Since we all became acquainted through The Hanging Chad and Jeff and Christine ended up buying a house almost directly behind us – we’ve had lots of wonderful times and some on the other end of the spectrum (like the one that involved a two-hour hot tub session and a passed-around bottle of bourbon…).

In any case, the wines we had them over to try were a new twist on Prosecco. I knew of the winery Zonin largely through their production of inexpensive Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I didn’t know that they were also producing bubbly, but they are, under the label “Zonin1821.”

The twist with these particular Prosecco is that they aren’t made entirely with Glera grapes. Most Prosecco are 100% Glera. The regulations for Prosecco DOC (and if you’ve forgotten about those classifications, you can look here) allow up to 15% of other grape varietals in a blend. I think you can see where this is going. All three versions retail for about $15-17.

With bottles in the fridge and antipasti on the table at Vine HQ, C&J crossed the alley to pop some corks with us one more time before departing for the Pacific time zone.

We started with The White – which is 91% Glera and 9% Pinot Bianco. Pinot Bianco is Pinot Grigio’s slightly paler cousin, known best for producing full-bodied whites in France’s Alsace region. In Italy, Pinot Bianco returns a fruitier, somewhat sweeter product, and the result came through in this blend. This was the sweetest of the three bottles, featuring flavors of apricot and tropical fruit. On its own, not the best – but it was the best of the three for brunchtime mimosas the next day.

Next came The Grey – a blend of 87% Glera and 13% of that Italian classic, Pinot Grigio. The result was a drier, more minerally wine, with some green apple and floral notes. There was an odd finish to this one – a slight astringency that cut the finish off very abruptly. Just to sip on, I thought it was a little better than the White, since I tend to prefer drier bubblies. One interesting note – this was an excellent pairing with some very difficult foods. We had olives and marinated artichoke hearts on our little appetizer board, and in both cases, the astringency of the finish faded when combined with the flavors of those foods, resulting in a quite pleasant pairing. Perhaps something to file away for future reference.

Finally, we made our way to The Black – a blend of 90% Glera and 10% Pinot Noir. No, this isn’t a rosé by any stretch of the imagination. Juice from all grapes, whether red grapes or white, is largely clear. The color comes from contact of the juice and the grape skins. Thus, this wine ends up looking like a regular white wine, despite the name. (By now, you likely noticed that “bianco,” “grigio” and “noir” translate from Italian as “white,” “grey,” and “black” respectively…)

The Black was, by unanimous acclimation, the best of the three. The pinot noir gave the wine some more structure and complexity – bringing out notes of roses, green apple, and lavender. This was the first of the three bottles to disappear completely. This would be a solid food wine for almost any kind of light entrée – especially a simple presentation of fish or sushi.

The tasting done, we merrily headed off into the night for dinner at the York Street Café, site of one of the first meals we’d shared. More laughter, food, and wine followed – typical for most times the four of us ended up in the same room. Through the years, Jeff and Christine been some of the best, most supportive “couple friends” that the SPinC and I could have dreamed of.

We wish them all the luck and love in the world in their new adventures.

We miss them already.