Monday, September 26, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter -- Montefalco Bianco

We've had a number of posts around these parts about the wines from Montefalco. Most recently, I added a post about the relief efforts following the recent Umbrian earthquake that caused widespread devastation in the area. I got word the the consortium of winemakers from that region donated a portion of their proceeds from the recent Oenologica festival in Montefalco to the relief efforts. Let's hope that folks get their lives back to relative normalcy very soon.

From a wine standpoint, while I've been doing a fair amount of writing about Montefalco's red wines, Umbria is best known for its white wines – and Montefalco produces a number, although they are lesser-known than the whites from neighboring Orvieto. Umbrian whites tend to be fruity and full-bodied, driven by the strong flavor from the locally indigenous grape Grechetto.  As an example:

Broccatelli Galli 2015 "Nido Del Falco" Montefalco Bianco: This white, whose name translates as “Nest of the Hawk,” is made from a blend of Grechetto and Trebbiano, with some Chardonnay blended in for good measure.  After a sunshiny nose of pears and honey, the body is fairly round. There’s a little more tartness to the taste than the nose led me to believe, which is a similar sensation to many Viognier. Lemon and peach roll into a finish that’s a bit creamy. I imagine it would be relatively flexible, foodwise – we actually had it with a pork roast that I’d marinated in vinegar, soy, honey, and the Korean spice paste gochujang. I was delighted at how well that worked. 

I think it's certainly worth looking for a few of these if you like your Italian wines with a bit more oomph.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

All About Olive Oil

One nice thing about my little wine adventure is occasionally being asked to do samples of other gastronomically-themed items. Restaurants, decanters, wine chillers – these have all been brought under my umbrella. Today brings a new one – high-end olive oil.

The good folks at Ancient Olive Trees asked me to sample some of their artisanal olive oil. As anyone who’s spent any time poking around my writing knows – the Sweet Partner in Crime and I cook quite a bit, and olive oil is a staple in our kitchen.

Since Rachel Ray softly cooed about EVOO, the use of olive oil in many American kitchens exploded. American consumers go through about 80 million gallons of olive oil per year, only about 2% of which is actually produced in the United States. The U.S. has been steadily increasing domestic production – both among large, factory farmed oils and smaller producers like Ancient Olive Trees, which is headquartered in California.

Olive trees need temperate-to-warm climates to thrive. Olive oil is currently produced in California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Oregon and Hawaii. (I can attest to the Arizona production. When I was in graduate school out there, I discovered that the blooming of olive trees gives me hay fever something awful.) Most oils come from olives harvested and pressed when they’re green.

As you know, there are different classifications of olive oil. Most of the world uses a system based on guidelines set by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). The U.S. uses a USDA classification which predates the IOOC. (As American olive oil production grows, there is some movement towards joining the IOOC standards.) Either way, there are three basic varieties of edible oils: extra virgin, virgin, and standard olive oil.

Now, if you’re like me and have the sense of humor of an average 12-year-old, you’ve snickered at the notion of anything being “extra virgin.” The nomenclature doesn’t have anything to do with the quick pressing of the olives or the dating habits of the trees. Instead, the chemical composition, processing, and flavor are what creates the distinction among the various types.
Olive trees in Greece
Extra virgin and virgin olive oils are created from the first pressing of the olives, which removes about 90% of the olive juice. These oils can have no further refining or processing after pressing. The backbone of the definition is the amount of oleic acid present in the oil. The less acid, the better. The premium extra-virgin oils have less than .225% oleic acid. The cutoff for extra-virgin in the U.S. is 1%. As the acidity level increases, we move through the various “virgin” categories, until we reach “semi-fine virgin oil.” We rarely see stand-alone oils considered “virgin” in the U.S.

Once the acid level gets above 3.3%, or there are flaws in color, flavor, or aroma which render the oil “unfit for human consumption” – these oils are generally refined with heat, chemicals, and or filtration. The result is a nearly colorless, flavorless oil. They are then generally blended with one of the aforementioned virgin olive oils to impart a little flavor. These are the standard “olive oils” you see for cooking or packing food. There is also “pomace oil” made from paste left over after pressing and refining.

One culinary note: If you’re really into dressing, drizzling, or dipping, the flavors of an extra-virgin oil can be a real enhancement. However, actually cooking with extra-virgin olive oil is really a bit of a waste. While there are some inexpensive extra-virgin oils which might be considered “dual use,” what sets extra-virgin oil apart from regular olive oils is the subtlety of flavor. Heating an extra-virgin olive oil to its smoking point denatures the flavor compounds, rendering it little different from regular olive oil. For the stove, regular olive oil is a superior choice.

This brings us to our Ancient Olive Trees sample. We tried a side-by-side-by-side comparison of the AOT oil alongside a store-brand extra-virgin oil and an extra-virgin oil from Hawkes in Sonoma.

The differences were pretty striking, especially between the two “artisanal” oils and the store-brand stuff. The store brand stuff tasted like…well…oil. There was an olive flavor, but it didn’t have a great deal of complexity. The Ancient Olive Trees oil had a sweeter, lively flavor, with a little bit of an antioxidant zing in the back of the throat. The finish was smooth, somewhat fruity, and tasted a bit of hazelnut. The Hawkes oil was stronger and spicier, with an almost peppery note at the finish. I preferred the Hawkes on its own, followed closely by the AOT.
Mmm...Caprese salad...
With food, we had some farm-fresh tomatoes from the farmshare, so with some of our garden basil, we put together a nice Caprese salad for lunch. More specifically, we did a couple of small Capreses. The AOT oil was the winner among the three for a simple preparation like this – as it  had enough zestiness to make the olive oil a distinct player in the flavor, but it didn’t overwhelm the tomatoes, as the Hawkes did a bit.

There is, of course, the question of price. The high end extra virgin oils can be pricey. Ancient Olive Trees sells a 375ml bottle of their olive oil for $25 + $5 shipping, so it’s not really inexpensive. You can get a gallon can of the “dual use” store brand stuff for the same price, which doesn’t have the same breadth and depth of flavor.

If you think of olive oil as more of a condiment – if you’re a compulsive drizzler, dipper, or dresser – then having something around that’s a bit more high-end might be a nice bit of culinary pampering. Most oils of this quality will start at $20-30, so this would be a good option if you’d like to explore the world of oil. If all you’re doing is glugging it in a pan – you have better options.

As an aside, Ancient Olive Trees also does sell established olive trees. You can grow your own – but only if you live in hardiness zones 9 through 11, which means that you’re getting long, hot summers and temperate winters. Not going to be raising many anywhere near the Ohio river, but if you’re one of my far-flung readers and you’re looking for some new outdoor décor, just an option…

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wine for Rehab Addicts

Home renovation shows are the Sweet Partner in Crime’s guilty pleasure. Especially the one where
an inordinately attractive person finds a suitably run-down or outdated target, starts a renovation, bickers and banters, runs into a complication that chews up the budget – but still manages to create a beautiful entryway out of wood reclaimed from an old gazebo they borrowed from a property up the road just in time for the big reveal…you know, that one. Or that one.

What does this have to do with wine? Well, we all like shiny things.

There’s an apocryphal “study” – that I’ve never been able to actually find anywhere – which allegedly states that the average person takes 38 seconds to select a bottle of wine. I’m not sure how exactly to read that. Were they controlling for the size of the wine store? Did they include choosing whether a person knew they were looking for red Burgundy or California Chardonnay?

Regardless...if you’re an everyday wine drinker, unless you have a particular bottle that go back to time and time again, wine buying is largely an impulse purchase. There’s the glance at the rack, a price comparison, a quick scan of any Parkerish scores that happen to be on the shelf, and the “Is a $10 wine at 88 points going to be different from this $15 at 90?” cross-reference.

And, of course, a purchaser looks at the label. Wine producers know this. We’re a long way from the days of plain wine labels with a winery, a region, a varietal, and a vintage. Bottle labels are packed with information now – tasting notes, food pairings, stories about how the wineries came to be. Each meant to distinguish one bottle from another, so a wine consumer can find what they’re looking for.

The current state of wine label marketing has been called “label porn” as producers try out newer, more eye catching, more quick-catchy displays and label artwork. Walk into any contemporary wine store and you’re deluged with an overwhelming array of funky fonts, cute art, and bright colors.

But cleverness only goes so far. Once everyone starts getting clever, then the buy me now message gets diluted. With all this variation, how can a producer get their bottle to call out “Pick me!”

One possible way? Make the bottle itself look different. Bargain-basement wines have done this for years – jugs of Almaden, lozenges of Mateus and Lancer, straw-covered cheap Chianti, or the hangovered fortifications of Black Tower are regulars. But among “normal” wines, a few standard bottle shapes and colors rule the shelves.

After getting a couple of interestingly-bottled samples, I popped down to Big Wine Store and did a pass through the aisles to snag a couple other interesting containers, with the notion of “When I’m done drinking this, could I repurpose the bottle into some interesting artifact” in mind:

Astoria 2014 “Caranto” Pinot Noir – Pinot isn’t something I usually think of when I think of Italian wine, but I’m always up for new things. Apparently, Pinot Noir grows in the northeastern corner of Italy, near Venice. I was quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wine. I’m used to lighter Italian grapes like Sangiovese and Valpolicella yielding light bodied wines – but this Pinot had a surprising amount of oomph. Nice palate weight with raspberries and cherries combining silkily. Smooth smoky tannins are nicely balanced and yield a smoky finish. It’s a solid wine. I was stunned to see it listed for around $11. A great value in this stubby, high shouldered bottle.

Vilarnau (NV) Brut Reserva Cava – Let’s just give props first for the beautiful label design – a colorful mosaic-ish riot of color that easily stands out from a row of Cava. I make no bones about my enjoyment of Cava, one of my favorite “Don’t think” sparklers, but this one gets a few bonus points from me. First, it’s a “brut” that’s actually brut. Many brut Cava either lack fruit flavors or taste like they have extra residual sugar. This wine has some lovely green apple and yeast aromas, but the palate is dry, crisp, and refreshing. One of the more complex, balanced Cava at its price point. And pretty!

Gérard Bertrand 2015 “Cote des Roses” Languedoc Rosé  -- A truly unique bottle style, tall and tapered, with the bottom of the bottle cut into the shape of a rose blossom, so you can show up at your intended’s door like:

The wine itself is minerally and crisp, with light strawberry and citrus flavors. I found lemon peel and stone on the finish. A really versatile rosé, workable with anything from porchtime sipping to spicy pork dishes. You should be able to find this for around $13.

The curved, feminine lines of the Aimé Roquesante 2015 Cotes de Provence Rosé also caught my eye in the pink aisle. This inexpensive, dry, strawberry-filled quaffer that looks lovely in both the bottle and glass. The salmony color is backed with a lean, zingy acidity and and friendly fruity finish. An excellent value at $10, as well.

Finally, while traipsing through the store, I came across a cute little high shouldered bottle, the Scholium Project 2009 Lost Slough Vineyards “Riquewihr” Gewurztraminer. The Scholium Project does small batches of grapes from interesting vineyards, using natural fermentation and long aging. Their small lots are mirrored in their small bottles. I likely would have let this one pass if it hadn’t been on deep sale, as for 500ml, it would have run $35+. This Gewurz, sourced from a vineyard outside Sacramento, fooled me into thinking it was a Viognier with its perfumey nose of peach blossoms that marches quickly into a minerally, Alsatian characteristic. Honestly, it was a very interesting wine, while not my favorite.

Now that you’ve got some extra glassware, let your ideas for objects d’art run wild. While my own mind generally doesn’t run towards design, I hope the SPinC will enjoy this:

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Montefalco Rosso (Slight Return) – and relief from the Italian earthquake

The good folks in Umbria must have had a couple of good Sagrantino harvests. I keep winding up with bottles of Montefalco Rosso, an Italian red made from that expensive to produce grape, blended with some other varietals. These wines make good options for your Labor Day grilling.

While the harvests have been strong, Umbria also has some pretty serious issues of its own at the moment. Many of you have probably read about the 6.2 magnitude earthquake in Italy that leveled hundreds of structures. The casualty numbers continue to climb. The epicenter of that earthquake was in Umbria, and many of these wines are produced scant kilometers from cities which stood from Medieval times until last week.

Obviously, we’re limited in what we can do to help directly – although purchasing Umbrian wine is one indirect help. If you would like to make a contribution, you can donate directly to the Italian Red Cross or to the National Italian American Foundation – both of which are currently working on relief efforts.

To refresh your memory, the Sagrantino grape has been grown in Umbria at least as far back as the mid 1500’s, with some scant records indicating it may have been grown as early as the turn of the millennium. This grape, grown primarily for sacramental and religious festival wines, was almost wiped out until the early 1990’s, when growers were able to gain a classified status for the grape and expanded the production.

On its own, Sagrantino creates enormous, tannic reds which have the highest concentration of polyphenols like resveratrol which are the compounds that give red wine its health-related benefits. It’s also the most tooth-staining varietal that I’ve ever happened across, just as a warning. In many regions, heavily tannic grapes are often blended with lighter varietals -- and the juice can be from either red or white grapes – to balance tannin and acidity in big wines or to create wines that are more approachable to the general public.

In neighboring Tuscany, the winemakers there blended their native Sangiovese grapes with merlot, cabernet, and other red wines to create the now-ubiquitous Supertuscans. Borrowing from that model, the Umbrians created Montefalco Rosso, a lighter-styled red wine which features Sagrantino in the blend. Since Sagrantino itself makes for big, honkin’ wine – a little of it goes a long way in the blend.

Also, grapes like Sagrantino tend to be fairly expensive to produce. Most Sagrantino Montefalco start at around $40 and go up front there. Winemakers like to turn a profit, and blending can help them produce quantities of wine at a lower price point to help with the bottom line. Here are a few of those Montefalco Rosso, which you can find for around $20-25.

Arnaldo Caprai 2012 Montefalco Rosso – Once this one got some air (which involved me pouring the wine through an aerator into a decanter, then funneling it back into the bottle after an hour), the Caprai opened right up into a very interesting, bold red. The tannins were considerably softer than many wines made with Sagrantino, and there wasn’t nearly as much heat and roughness as I’d run into previously. The nose is full of currants with a backdrop of menthol. The body is full and rich with red fruits and some firm but not overwhelming tannin. The finish is long with just a little bit of an alcoholic bite to finish. It’s a bold red for any occasion with which you’d like a bold red. Go with grilled meats, nuts, and stinky cheeses.

Scacciadiavoli 2012 Montefalco Rosso – We found this one to be a little more bold than the Caprai. If you like your Italian wines a little on the rustic side, this would be a solid choice. Lots of depth of fruit at first taste up in the plum/blueberry range. That’s accompanied by some slightly rough tannins that remain so even after considerable air. They’re not overbearing, but you know you’ve got a wine with oomph. Finish is long, fruity, and dry. We had this with an eggplant parmesan – both out of the oven and a couple of days later with leftovers. Good pairing which would do well with roasts, big sauces, and such.

Perticaia 2013 Montefalco Rosso – By far the most mellow of the three, and the most pleasant just to drink. The tannins are smoother than in either of the other two, and it’s a little more fruit-forward. Nose is plums again, with a little bit of an herbal tinge. The body’s full, although not as “clingy” as the others. The fruit and tannins are both dark and relatively well balanced. The finish doesn’t have the length that the other two do, largely expected with the lighter tannins. I thought it worked well against a marinara-laced penne dish.

I have learned that the winemakers of the area are also planning their own relief efforts on the ground, so watch this space for additional information there – as well as for some information about the whites from that region. You know, for balance…