Saturday, December 23, 2017

Getting the Crew Back Together for the Holidays

Pictured: Us.
A couple of nights ago, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I hosted a lovely little shindig for a reunion of the Tennessee Alley Drinking Club. Two of the charter members, Christine the Pie Queen and her husband Jeff, of Jeff’s Dinner Club fame, have unfortunately departed the ‘hood – heading to Washington State where they now boast a big ol’ mountain in what amounts to their backyard.

The holidays are a time for reunions, and we were blessed with the opportunity to spend some quality time with our little gaggle of friends, reminisce and share about what’s happening in our various worlds, and to do what we do best – polish off large quantities of vino while we work our way through a good meal.

The SPinC and I fired up the sous vide machine and did a couple of London Broils at various levels of doneness – cooked to perfection and seared off on the grill, a potato and mushroom soup, an arugula salad with candied walnuts and poached pears, a bunch of roasted root vegetables, and a rich spice cake with cinnamon ice cream from Graeter’s.

Fortuitously, our friends at Colangelo had also sent along a couple of quality, meat-friendly reds to sample. In the spirit of many of our other tasting adventures through the years, we took the opportunity to do a side-by-side of these two wines. The quickly quaffed competitors with our delicious repast:

Caroso 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva ($22)
Charles Krug 2014 Napa Valley Merlot ($25)

I took a look at the Caroso a few months ago in this space. As I noted then, I usually think of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as a tasty and flavorful but light table wine. Inexpensive versions of it are standards here in Vine land. The Riserva, aged for two years in barrique and six months in bottle before release, is a different animal altogether.

This wine’s a bigger, more fruit-forward entry. Black currant and blackberry flavors come strongly at first sip. The nose has a fair amount of spice and vanilla and the finish is fruity with a considerable roughness of tannin.

Neither Napa wines nor domestic Merlot get a lot of run around here in general, for one reason or another. I’ve tried so many one-note Merlot over the years that I tend to skip it in favor of Merlot-dominant Bordeaux if I’m in that kind of mood. This Merlot from Krug might cause me to do a little reconsideration of that corner of the wine store.

The Krug Merlot is actually a blend – but any domestic wine with more than 75% of one varietal can be labeled as that varietal. The Krug is 82% Merlot, with the rest made up of Bordeaux elements Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Plums and raspberries were the order of the day flavorwise, and the tannins – holding in the background – are nicely balanced. The finish is lasting, with a nice back-and-forth between cherry and graphite.

We opened these up for the assembled at the table to try with the various courses. Alas, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to take copious notes. The general consensus, however, held that the Krug was the superior wine in balance and general flavor. While I liked both of them well enough, I found myself drifting back to the Krug, which paired better with most everything we had on the table, although I thought the Montepulciano was a good match with the soup, which did have a bit of an Italian flair. The SPinC thought the Caroso was too jammy for her tastes. At the end of the day, the Krug won by unanimous consent.

But the real star of the evening was the conversation and the reconnection with our friends, who spoiled us from across the alley for many years. The spirit of the season found itself in full effect around our table, and we have many happy memories (as well as a number of other empty bottles!) to sustain us in the new year! Many thanks to Jeff, Christine, Marlane, Phoenix, Ken, and – always – the Sweet Partner in Crime for the lovely evening.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Le Focaie -- A Tuscan Coastal Surprise

When the Sweet Partner in Crime and I made our last jaunt to Sonoma, we made our home base Bodega Bay, right on the Pacific. From Bodega, we tooled around to a number of wineries close to the coast.

We loved the California coastal wines. The climate by the Pacific is considerably cooler than in the rest of Sonoma County, partly because of elevation and the various microclimates there. The resulting "mountain fruit" wines were more subtle and less fruit-forward -- and we ran into many more cool weather grapes like Pinot Noir than the Zinfandels and Cabernets grown elsewhere in Sonoma. We liked those wines a great deal.

When I was offered the chance to try to Le Focaie 2016 Maremma Toscana, and I read a little about the wine, my palate perked right up. "Focaie" translates from Italian as "Flint" -- a reference to the mineral rich soil found in the coastal area of Maremma. The producers, Rocca di Montemassi, grow grapes not far from the ocean, where the Sangiovese grapes catch the sea breezes. I was thinking, "Hey, flinty and coastal. Sign me up!"

When the time came for me to crack this wine -- I thought that a roasted chicken dish with lemon and bread would be a good match. I have to admit that I did not see this wine's flavors coming. Instead of a Chianti-ish Sangiovese, with its attendant light cherry flavors, what I found was something considerably more muscular. There's cherry flavor there, but it's quite deep -- backed with an aroma of smoked meats as well as some darker fruits. "Rustic" would be an apt description of this wine. The finish is fruity and smoky -- it reminded me a little of a pinotage, to be honest.

My chicken idea turned out to be a little on the light side for this wine. It really calls for some bigger flavors -- some big red sauced pasta, or something like osso bucco would be better alongside.

Now, this said -- if you're looking for a big Italian red that's a little rough around the edges, you could do a lot worse than this, and at $15 -- it's could be a great winter dinner wine. Keep it on your radar.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Revisiting Australia with Hope Estate

Australian wine played a major role in the early days of my wine education. I was in graduate school, invited to one of my first “grownup” parties. The party was hosted by the boyfriend of one of my classmates, a debonair business sort who hailed from Sydney. He’d bought the local wine store out of Jacob’s Creek and Penfolds, it seemed. I was a beer guy at the time, but was always willing to drink for free learn about new drinks.

After that, Shiraz from Australia became one of my “have a bottle lying around” reds – largely because it was decent, inexpensive, and easy to drink. The Sweet Partner in Crime (who also has an Australian wine history thanks to her stint as a server at Outback back in the day…) and I went through our courtship consuming copious quantities of Rosemount Estates’ Grenache-Shiraz.

But times change and palates change. Most of the Australian wine available in my price range for many years was relatively uninteresting – big jammy reds, semi-sweet Rieslings, and steel tank one-note Chardonnay were always available. A friend of mine in the wine business referred to the inexpensive Australian juice as “Pop-Tart Wine” – because every flavor basically tasted the same. There were some higher quality Australian reds to sample, but many of them were out of our price range at that point. As my wine education took my palate to different areas of the world, Australian wine largely dropped off my radar.

Until recently, that is. My recent dispatches about the wine shortages brought about by climate change in North America and Europe prompted me to start looking below the equator for better wine values. Fortuitously, the wine fairy dropped off a package of wines from Hope Estates in Australia’s Hunter Valley, in New South Wales near Sydney.

Hope Estate, founded by Michael Hope in 1992, started as a single vineyard, but has expanded to an entertainment complex which includes a brewery, a café, and a 20,000 seat amphitheater – if you’re ever in the neighborhood. A four pack of Hope Estates wines got me rethinking the lack of Australian wine in my portfolio, as they were all quite good and sit at a nice price point:

Hope Estates 2016 Wollombi Block Semillon – I don’t know when the last time was that I tried a straight Australian Semillon. Must be a decade, at least. Semillion’s a native grape of France, where it’s usually blended into white Bordeaux or noble rotted to make Sauternes, the most expensive (and for good reason) dessert wine in the world. In Australia, though, Semillon is grown as a primary white varietal. If this wine’s any indication, I’ll need to work this into the rotation somewhere. This version’s a crisp, minerally white full of lemons and limes. Lots of minerals on the palate, which has a nice weight and a little honeyed sweetness. Most wines this acidic feel much lighter. Pretty floral nose, too. $14.

Hope Estates 2015 Hunter Valley Chardonnay – As I mentioned, for me, Australian Chardonnay always seemed uncomplicated and forgettable. Some winemakers seem to have taken up the challenge of improving these wines. This estate grown Chardonnay is aged in French oak with extended time on the lees to add to the mouthfeel. It has a very fruity nose -- bananas and pears, which leads to a full flavored body with a nice creaminess. The flavor yields plenty of pears and peaches, transitioning to a well-balanced oakiness. The finish is lasting, fairly crisp, and with a nice little smokiness. A nicely put together wine. Good value at $14.

Hope Estates 2014 “The Ripper” Shiraz – The first of two Shiraz bottlings in this set. Don’t be frightened by the name of this wine – “Ripper” is an Australian slang term for “Great.” Honestly, I feel like that’s a pretty solid interpretation of this particular bottle. Full of Oz-Shiraz red fruit-forwardness on the nose and palate, the Ripper pulls back into a nicely balanced middle of spice, licorice, plums, and leather. Not the fruit bomb you might expect from an Australian Shiraz, the finish on this is long and fruity, but with a solid tannic backbone. A particularly strong value at $18.

Hope Estates 2014 Basalt Block Shiraz – The “Basalt Block” is a parcel of land in the Broken Back mountain range with deep, volcanic soil, which lends an earthy characteristic to this wine not found in the Ripper. This one has a lovely nose of coffee and plums that transitions into a deeper, smokier fruit on the palate. Blackberry, graphite, and smoke entwine on a firm tannic base. The finish tickles on for quite a good length of time, with smoke and dark fruit alternating. Fans of Rhone Valley-style blends will really enjoy this wine. Again, $14.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Naked Vine’s 4 B’s of Holiday Wine Buying

Congratulations, you social animal, you! You scored an invite to a holiday party. People like you…they really like you! I mean, that is, as long as you walk in the door with a bottle or two.

Sometimes a host or hostess will make your job easy. They might say, “Here’s what we’re having for dinner, so can you bring X, Y, and Z?” Chances are, though, you’re going to be on your own in the wine store, and, lucky for you, the Vine’s your trusty wingman.

Over the years, I’ve been asked to lug in a lot of wine. Unless something in particular gets specified, I’ve learned through experience that you can make holiday partygoers oenologically happy about 90% of the time with wine from one of four categories, and you shouldn’t have to spend more than $15 on a bottle. Think of them as our “Four B’s” of holiday wine buying: 
  1. Bubbles
  2. Blush
  3. Beaujolais
  4. Big

First off, Bubbles. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Sparkling wine’s going to be a good choice for any number of reasons. A quick aside – you might notice that I didn’t say “Champagne.” While northerners may call all carbonated beverages “Pop,” not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Only wine from the specific region of France is Champagne. And, unless your friends are a lot swankier than mine, you’re not going to need to drop the kind of coin on actual grower Champagne for most occasions.

I have two go-to sparklers for parties. First is Prosecco, a sparkling wine made largely from the Glera grape made in the Prosecco region of Italy. Prosecco tends to taste of lemons and pears and has a fairly high level of carbonation. Prosecco has had a popularity boom over the last few years -- it globally outsold Champagne for the first time in 2013.

Next is Cava – Spain’s national sparkling wine. Made largely from the grapes Macabeau, Xarel-lo, and Parelleda, Cava’s flavors run towards the peach and pear with more and more of a toasty finish, similar to what you’ll find in Champagne.

Which to get? I prefer Prosecco with antipasti and light appetizers, while Cava is a traditional accompaniment for any sort of tapas or spread of various sorts of food. Also, most of the Prosecco and Cava you’ll find will be labeled either “Brut” or “Extra Dry.” Believe it or not, Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut. With food, I generally prefer Extra Dry. On its own, refresh with Brut.

Our second B, Blush, refers to the wine I’ve championed in this space for a decade – dry rosé. Now, I love the stuff no matter where it’s from. For my money, it’s the most flexible of the still wines, and the stigma of looking like you’re carrying white zinfandel into a party has largely gone by the wayside.

Rosé is made all over the world. French rosé, especially rosé from Provence, tends to be lighter-bodied, delicate, and acidic. Spanish and South American rosé tend to be somewhat bigger and fruitier. Italy generates what might be called “red wine drinker’s rosé.” Many of those rosato are full and rich, and could pass as light red wines. American rosé is steadily improving and is made in a variety of styles – depending on the wine region. Warmer climates, like central California, will produce fruitier wines, while cooler or higher altitude regions like Oregon offer wines which are more delicate. Choose according to your preferences.

Third, to make up for my Champagne slight, I’ll tip my hat to one of my favorite party reds, Beaujolais, the wine with something for everyone. Beaujolais, a French wine made from the Gamay grape, is a red that I find is best served slightly chilled. Beaujolais is another super-flexible food wine, pairing nicely with everything from salmon to steak. I think it’s the perfect wine for a Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s very enjoyable on its own.

The $15 price-range Beaujolais you’ll see most often is “Beaujolais-Villages” – meaning the grapes were grown anywhere within that particular region. You’ll likely get flavors of red berries, cherries, and cola therein. If you want to splurge, there are ten municipalities within Beaujolais which make more complex versions of the wine. These wines will cost $20-30 and will have the name of the town (like “Fleurie,” “Morgon,” or “Julienas”) on the label.

Also, don’t get suckered by Beaujolais Nouveau, the “early release” Beaujolais. In the States, the Beaujolais Nouveau release is little more than a marketing ploy. The wine’s of lower quality than other Beaujolais, and it’ll cost you more. Skip it.

Finally, when in doubt, go BIG. There will always be rosy-cheeked folks at a party who want super-fruity, high-alcohol red wine. Indulge them with a California Zinfandel. While there are many expensive California Zins that are rich, complex wines – we’re at a party (or maybe a barbecue) here, so we don’t want complicated and expensive. Zins are typically big and jammy. You won’t be hurting for flavor here. They’re the best wine pairing for ribs that you’ll come across.

I recently had Zinzilla, the “California Monster Zin” from McNab Ridge with a Groot-like creature on the label. While not for the faint of heart, it is well-balanced for a $12 wine that could easily have lurched into plonk territory. You can find this wine, and others with “Zimmilarly” fun names at wine stores everywhere.

Hope this helps you get your party on this holiday season. Cheers!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Montes & Kaiken...and a bit on climate

Let’s talk for a second about climate change. The planet is warming. One immediate impact is going to be on terroir. 

Tour any winemaking region, and a grower will tell you about the particular “microclimates” in certain valleys that make the grapes grow just so. A growing season’s weather largely determines the success of an individual season’s harvest.

While some regions are doing well, many of the major grape growing regions have been smacked simultaneously with some climate-driven calamities. Wildfires in California chewing through vineyards, huge hailstorms in France, abnormally hot weather in Italy and Spain – all these things are combining to produce, on average, one of the worst yielding harvests in memory across the Northern hemisphere.

The result? Well, aside from many boutique wineries shuttering permanently and vineyards that may take decades to recover from the damage – the immediate impact likely will be a steady increase in the price you’ll pay at the store for your vino, especially from regions in our half of the planet.

So, what to do? Well, grit our teeth and bear it, mostly, but it doesn't hurt to peek into some other regions to get the best bang for your wine buck. And our friends South of parallel zero will be happy to fill the need.

I recently had the chance to sample four bottles from Montes, a major Chilean wine producer. Montes began producing wine in 1987, and their Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon was, according to their website, the first “premium” wine to be exported from Chile. They followed that with Chardonnay, Syrah, and Merlot – then began producing an “Icon” series of higher-end wines as well as some more affordable options. Eventually, the Montes operation expanded across the Andes into neighboring Argentina, where they began producing wines under the “Kaiken” label (“Kaiken” is a wild goose, native to the area, often seen flying over the Andes…)

Here were my thoughts about these reds and whites:

Kaiken 2016 Terroir Series Torrontes – The nose on this wine is striking and powerfully floral. Peach blossoms practically explode from the glass here, reminiscent of many Viognier. My first taste impressions of this medium-bodied white reminded me a lot of a Dreamsicle, if you dial the sweetness way back. The finish, however, is quite dry and slightly alkaline, which for me detracted a bit from the wine’s overall balance on the palate. I liked it well enough, but it would be better with the right food pairing, like sushi – even grocery store sushi – with which it worked nicely. Around $15.

Montes Alpha 2014 Colchagua Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – The tech notes for this wine include the statement “Recommend decanting for 30 minutes.” In all honesty, I was surprised to see this on a Chilean cab, many of which – especially in our regular price range – tend to be more of the “pop and pour” variety. This bottle, however, definitely needs to breathe a bit. And I’d recommend full-on decanting, rather than just opening the bottle. Even after an hour, this wine was extremely tight – I got little but tannin and a little dark fruit to go with the steak I’d made. The fruit was still emerging after a day or two – plums and blackberries with a fair amount of lingering pepper on the finish, to go with some pretty robust coffee and leather. A “beef and chocolate” wine, certainly. Around $20-23.

Montes 2017 Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc – If you’re a fan of citrusy, grassy Sauvignon Blanc, this is going to be a good choice for you. Fragrant nose of grapefruit and lemon leads into a crisp, acidic body of lemons and melons. Finish is tart, with a streak of minerality to go along with a lemon custard aftertaste. A very refreshing, lighter bodied Sauvignon Blanc that would pair nicely with harvest salads and the like. Let the wine’s acidity cut through heavier cheeses and fruits. $15-17.

Kaiken 2014 “Ultra” Malbec – The ol’ Argentinean champ, Malbec, is going to be a great alternative if you’re trying to find some richer flavors. This “Ultra” line from Kaiken is the complement to the “Icon” line from Montes which I mentioned earlier – these being wines of some complexity and depth. With this Malbec, I found raspberry and cherry on the fragrant nose. The mouthfeel is big bodied at first sip and lives up to the “Ultra” name. It’s quite tarry and mouth coating. The flavor runs to berries and dark, chewy tannins that lead to a leather and charcoal run at the end. It’s a big honkin’ wine — maybe too big for sipping solo – but with something that has a little fat, like a good chop or ribeye, alongside, it’s a quality choice. $18-21.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Naked Vine Double Barrel – A Couple of Cava

While we’re in Bubbles Mode, let’s look at Spain’s answer to inexpensive sparkling wine – and a longtime go-to staple around these parts…Cava.

Cava, which translates from Catalan Spanish as “Cave,” refers to the underground spaces in which the sparkling wine was aged. Most of this wine is produced in the Penedes region of Spain due west of Barcelona. Made primarily from the grapes Parellada, Xarel’lo, and Macabeu, Sparkling wine was produced in the region 1851, but the Cava industry truly launched after a major Catalan wine producer, Josep Raventós, traveled through France and decided to produce a sparkling wine in the style of Champagne. The first Cava was bottled in 1872.

Cava is produced in the same method, known as Methode Champenoise, as Champagne. In this method, the wine is carbonated from secondary fermentation in the bottle. The fermentation is caused by the addition of a small amount of sugar and yeast, known as liqueur de tirage, before the bottles are capped. Carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation is forced back into the liquid. The dead yeast is removed from the bottle through a process called riddling, and the wines are then corked for sale.

The sweetness level of cava is indicated by a designation on the bottle. Brut Nature is the driest version, followed by Brut, Extra Seco (sometimes labeled “Extra Dry”), Seco, and Dulce (sweet). Cava is a traditional accompaniment for tapas, so it can pair with a broad spectrum of foods.

I’ve long sung the praises of cava as an inexpensive sparkler, especially in the holiday season. Here are a pair of these Spanish darlings that I’ve come across recently:

Anna de Codorníu (NV) Blanc de Blanc Brut Reserva Cava – Emblazoned with a profile of Anna de Cororníu, the heiress whose family’s history in Spanish wine can be traced back to 1551, her Blanc de Blanc is an interesting twist on traditional Cava., which takes a big step towards its French cousins. 75% of the wine is made from Chardonnay, which is a rarity, at least for my experience. The result is a Cava that tastes a great deal like Champagne, with a toasty, nutty nose from the Chardonnay, which is followed by lemon and pear flavors and a crisp, zingy finish. There’s a little bit of residual sugar at the end – and that mild sweetness makes it a very flexible food wine. Whether with a shellfish or soup course, or with something more fatty like cheese or fried chicken, this is a surprisingly well-balanced wine for $15. A solid offering.

Freixenet 2013 Vintage Cava Brut Nature – Longtime Vine favorite Freixenet (of black bottle fame) has rolled out a new series of sparklers – this time a vintage cava series. I haven’t seen a lot of vintage Cava, especially in this price range, so I was curious to give it a go. I thought, all in all, it’s quite good for a reasonably inexpensive sparkler. There’s It’s a few dollars more expensive than the “black bottle” Freixenet that I’m used to. Lemons and apples on the nose, with a delicate lemony flavor and zingy, lasting finish. The carbonation is quite sharp, and the finish is very clean. It’s very dry – as you might expect. “Brut Nature” means that it’s even drier than a standard Brut. It would be a great match for anything fatty – from cheeses to KFC. It’s a few dollars more expensive than the “black bottle” Freixenet that you see most commonly – the bottle I found ran around $16. If you like your sparkling wines on the delicate side, those might be dollars well spent. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Naked Vine Double Barrel – A Pair of Prosecco

Prosecco is enjoying some unprecedented boom times at the moment. In 2016, for the first time in history, the sparkling Italian wine surpassed Champagne for the first time in history.

Honestly, I’m not surprised. Champagne has grown more and more expensive over the last several years – partly because of demand, but also because the effects of climate change have taken a toll. This year’s harvest, because of weather, may be one of the lowest-yielding on record.

Prosecco, long a favorite at the world’s brunch tables, has ridden its flexible, fruity nature into the world of mixology in the new world of Millennial drinking. With its lower price point, bartenders have turned to Prosecco not only as an aperitif, but as the backbone of many cocktails. Good Prosecco can also be had for about half the price of grower Champagne, so that adds to the appeal.

As background, Prosecco refers to the region of northeast Italy just north of Venice. Prosecco is a subregion of the larger Veneto district. Prosecco also used to be the name of the primary grape that comprises the wine. In 2009, the grape’s name was changed – or more accurately, changed back – to its original Slovenian name, Glera. The name change was to prevent the region’s growers from making wine from other varietals and marketing it under the “Prosecco” umbrella.

Prosecco also differs from Champagne in that it is carbonated in a different manner. This method, called Metodo Italiano or the “Charmat Method,” is a less expensive, less time-consuming carbonation method than the tried-and-true Methode Champenoise. In the Charmat Method, rather than being carbonated in bottles, the wine undergoes this secondary fermentation in steel tanks, which are sometimes coated in enamel. The wine is bottled under pressure in a continuous process.

Prosecco is an incredibly flexible food wine, and is an excellent choice for many holiday events – be they social gatherings or dinner parties. I sampled a couple of Prosecco from the town of Treviso recently. My thoughts:

Ruggeri (NV) Prosecco Treviso Brut – To be honest, I didn’t get much of a nose to speak of from this sparkler initially, but the flavors kick in once you get a mouthful. Golden apple and peach flavors are quite pronounced. A nice tight perlage (WineSpeak for “quality of bubbles”) that crisply sparkle through a finish of peach nectar and lemon rind. Very refreshing. Would cut through a lot of rich foods, whether cheeses or white sauces. Would be lovely also with shellfish. $16-20.

Santome (NV) Prosecco Treviso Extra Dry – Peaches again, this time backed with tart apples. The undertone of sweetness associated with an Extra Dry designation is certainly in effect here, but that sweetness fades quickly into an aftertaste that I honestly found a little unpleasant. I thought it was quite sharp, and that flavor masked the slight crisp sweetness that was there in the background. I didn’t much care for it on its own. With food, however, it was certainly acceptable. I had it with a roasted red pepper soup and chicken sandwich combo that I put together, and it was a decent accompaniment. $14-16.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Canned Rosé – A Naked Vine Examination

The contenders...
A couple of our neighbors recently invited The Sweet Partner in Crime and I out on their boat for some fun in the sun out on the Mighty Ohio. I brought along some beer for myself, but the SPinC prefers rosé for her day drinking.

Bottles of wine pose their own unique portability issues, so on my load-up trip to Big Wine Store, I ambled by the “bulk” section to see if there were suitable containers. That’s when I discovered that the powers-that-be have gifted us with rosé…in easy-to-boat-with aluminum cans.

I’ve covered the idea of wine-in-a-can in this space before. My initial experience with Underwood Pinot Noir led me to purchase a couple of cans of their rosé for our trip. But I noticed that there were several other companies joining the canned wine – and specifically canned rosé – movement. And judging from the state of the shelves, it seems like these are becoming more popular options.

As a note, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a can as a storage system for wine…at least for wine that’s designed to be drunk in a casual manner. Wine cans are lined, like beer cans are, to avoid direct contact with aluminum and juice. That said, I’d suggest pouring the wine into a cup or glass. Drinking wine (or beer, for that matter) straight from a can eliminates much of the flavor, because there’s no olfactory component other than “can lid.” While this “no smell” effect might be useful for your summertime case of PBR or Beast Light, it defeats the purpose for wine or craft beers. Pour, dammit!

A few thoughts on these metal-clad pinks, starting with good ol’ Underwood:

Underwood 2016 Rosé Wine – When I first wrote about Union Wine Company’s Underwood wine in a can, they were still rolling out their pinot grigio to go alongside their pinot noir. But we’re here to talk about the rosé. Their can clocks in at 12% ABV and is produced from a proprietary blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Muscat, Chardonnay, and Syrah. The tasting notes printed on the can read “Strawberry. Watermelon. Peach.” – which is pretty much exactly what you’ll get. There’s a fair amount of body to this wine, which is straightforwardly fruity all the way through. It’s easy enough to drink without thinking and made for a perfectly suitable quaff while we were out on the water.

Underwood now produces five different canned wines – the three I’ve previously mentioned, along with two carbonated wines: “Bubbles” and “Rosé Bubbles.” They’ve also rolled out a “Riesling Radler” – a carbonated wine cooler made from of Riesling and grapefruit juice that sits at around 6% ABV, the same range as an IPA.

Essentially Geared Wine Company (NV) Rosé Wine – “Seek the Everyday Uncommon” is Essentially Geared’s slogan. The website clearly caters to folks who are outdoorsy, on the go folks, and the can design was the most interesting, in my opinion, of the wines we tried here. It’s made from 100% Pinot Noir from Napa and suggests pairing with “Pizza by the slice, barbecue brisket, and falafel” – which sounds like an interesting evening’s menu.

Unfortunately, the wine itself wasn’t as interesting. In the words of the Sweet Partner in Crime, the experience of this wine was “Pink. Wet. Gone.” Honestly, it didn’t feel all that much like drinking wine. There was an initial burst of watermelon and strawberry to let you know “Hey! You’re drinking rosé,” then a little alcohol and “wine-ish” taste, and not much of a finish. The note on the can said, “Think: Pink Starburst and 80’s Punk Rock,” but I didn’t get a lot of Clash, Misfits, or Buzzcocks here.

Essentially Geared also produces a California Chardonnay and a California Red made from Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Alloy Wine Works 2016 Central Coast “Everyday Rosé” – Another California entry, but in a larger format. Most canned wine that I’ve seen comes in a 375ml can – so the equivalent of a half-bottle. Alloy’s rosé (a product of Field Recordings winery) comes in a 500ml can, so think of a tallboy next to a standard beer can.

There’s a French rosé called La Vielle Ferme which I’ve reviewed here many times. It’s basically my “house” rosé – a simple, relatively light, minerally-but-fruity pink bottle of goodness. I expected more of a California thump from a wine in a big can, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a lighter-styled, very French, pinkness therein. Their tasting note is “Tastes like: strawberry, grapefruit, mint and guava, Sour Patch Kids, and rose petals.” I don’t think it’s quite that complex, but it does have strawberry and citrus with a refreshing minerality on the finish that I liked quite a bit. It was quite reminiscent of good ol’ LVF, and I certainly recommend it among the three here – for value and for flavor.

Alloy also produces a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, a red blend they call “Fiction,” and a dry-hopped sparkling chardonnay made from ale yeast called “Weissland.”

All of the above wines run around $5-7 per can. Costing that out for bottle price comparisons, that equates about $10-15 a bottle, depending on the can size.

While these are marketed as “everyday” wines – I likely wouldn’t stock my fridge with them on a regular basis. However, a bottle of wine runs about 2-3 lbs, while two cans are about a pound and a half, and are much less likely to shatter if you happen to drop your backpack. As long as you’re not looking for high-end juice, these will be just fine for you in the wild.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Naked Vine Triple Play: MOAR ITALY!!!

On the heels of my little adventure across the hills and beaches of Italy comes another set of Italian samples for your consideration as you continue to bask in the afterglow of Losing your V-Card.

First off is another Italian white, since we’ve been on that kick. Not a “V” wine, but an Italian autochthonal grape nonetheless. This wine is made from the Insolia grape, grown on the island of Sicily. The Feudo Principi di Butera 2015 Insolia Sicilia is minerally but rich. I didn’t expect a wine with a backbone of flint like this to have such a full mouthfeel, but this one surprised me. Nose of peach and banana. Firm, elegant body with some stone fruit. Finish is almonds, lemons, and minerals.. A really nice all-around white wine. Was a lovely pairing with a sous-vide salmon filet alongside a fatoush-ish salad. Enough oomph to both stand up to the oil in the salmon and to stand out against the vinegar and acid in the salad. Reminded me a little of a Condrieu from France, which would retail at around twice the price. A steal at $15.

Next up is an example of doing something typically thought of as a basic wine really, really well. I’m a fan of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as an inexpensive, everyday table wine. There’s also a Riserva version of this underrated quaff, which means that it’s been aged for at least two years.  

That’s the case with the Caroso 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva, whose body immediately jumps out of the glass as richer and fuller than most of its more inexpensive cousins. With blackcurrant and blackberry on the palate, it boasts a firm tannicky backbone. I thought I could have easily mistaken this for a Cabernet Sauvignon, especially on the finish, which has an interesting blend of tannin, cherries, and figs. I was so pleased to find a complexity I’m not used to with my friendly Montepulciano, and it was a stunningly good match with my “Eggplant Pamesan,” one of my special occasion meal for the SPinC. I don’t usually splurge on Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, but at $22, worth a shot to see if it’s up your alley.

Finally, there’s a current trend in Prosecco that doesn’t thrill me. A few years ago, Moscato had a big moment on the culinary stage. Moscato was a good brunch choice – low alcohol, a little bubbly – so it went well with breakfast food. But it was always a bit sweet for my liking on a regular basis. Most Prosecco I’d tried reminded me a lot of slightly fruitier Cava – both were straightforward, fairly dry sparkling wines. Moscato has fallen a bit out of favor, but Prosecco is taking up that market share by becoming more Moscato-like.

The Castello del Poggio (NV) Prosecco is an example of this very thing. At 11% ABV, it’s a fairly light white. The carbonation is creamy and soft next to a flavor based around golden delicious apples. Listed as a “demi-sec” (medium-dry) wine, I found the honey sweetness to be a bit overpowering, all in all, and the wine’s whole flavor tended to be a lack a crispness that I like in a sparkling wine. It’s not that it’s a bad wine, per se, but it’s not normally what I’d reach for. If you were making cocktails, it might not be a bad mixer. $13.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Lose your V-Card in Italy

Breezes off the Mediterranean lightly caress your skin. You lean back, sated under a cerulean sky. Italian summer sun warms you as you feel a single drop of sweat glide down the gentle curve of your neck. Heavy-eyed with relaxed languor, you turn your head and reach your hand to softly caress…your wine glass.

OK. I’ll stop. I’m your wine guy, not your Scrittore di romanticismo. People with more adjectives than I have for scenery, food, and sex have set countless pages of romantic fiction under the warmth of the Italian sun. Still, if you’re into daydreaming about seduction and romance in Italy, we’ve got you covered here in Vine land for whatever your scenic backdrop.

Italy is home to more than 600 autochthonal (WineSpeak for “native”) grape varieties, both red and white. Until the last couple of decades, many of these grapes were completely unknown in American markets. With an increased interest in indigenous varieties driven by expanding palates and books like Bianca Bosker’s “Cork Dork,” more and more of these grapes are making their way onto wine lists of all stripes.

Interestingly, many of these Italian white varieties start with the letter “V” – and they share a winesexy aspect. Most summertime wines are either a bit watery and flabby (like cheap Pinot Grigio) or have such high acid that they can be hard to drink (like many Sauvignon Blanc). These V-wines nestle themselves into a sweet spot – less acid and more fruit richness – that make them particularly welcome partners, especially when you’ve got a bit of an appetite on a warm day.

With glasses outstretched, let’s meander to a few of these romantic Italian spots and see what they’re pouring…

Our first stop is under the Tuscan sun in the town of San Gimignano, known as the “Town of Fine Towers” and also for production of the Vernacchia grape, considered to be a simple, everyday white wine to enjoy on the palazzos of this hillside town. An example I could offer you would be the Fontaleoni 2016 Vernacchia di San Gimignano – full of apples and pears on the nose, with more citrus on the palate. However, that citrus doesn’t mean thin. The wine gently coats the midpalate. The acid comes in a bit on the finish, which is fairly gentle, with only a little lemony twinge at the end. It tastes like summertime, like a tart lemonade with intentions. 

We set sail from here to the lovely island of Sardinia, with its crystal blue waters and gorgeous natural scenery. Love lasts on Sardinia, which boasts some of the longest life expectancies on the globe. Perhaps this is driven in point by consumption of Vermentino, the best known grape on the island. I like to think of Vermentino as the Viognier of Italian white wines. The example I came across, the Castanzu 2015 Vermentino di Sardegna is lovely and lush, rich with lemon, peach, and cedar on the nose. Rich without much sweetness, I found lemon rind and peaches as the main fruity characteristic, backed up by distinct creaminess. Plenty of minerals and a little smoke on the finish, which is quite dry and lemony.

From here, let’s pay a visit to the rolling hills of central Italy, specifically the Marche region, where they are best known for your other romantic obsession – Italian shoes. In addition to cobbling, they’re known for growing Verdicchio, which was largely a blending grape until improvements in winemaking techniques over the last half of the 20th century smoothed out many of the acidic rough edges of this particular grape. Our version here, the Indigenous 2015 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is a good illustration of the balance. It’s tart without being overly acidic. The nose is full of orange blossom with a flavor of pineapples and apricot. I found a nicely balanced weight in the body with a little lemon zip at the end. There’s plenty of minerality throughout, yielding a very refreshing sip that you might enjoy while you try on that pair of Fabianis.

Moving southeast down the coast from Marche brings us to Puglia, the “heel” of the Italian boot – and to the Itria Valley, where you and yours can lose yourselves for hours amidst the olive groves and charming towns lined with pointed stone houses called trulli. In this valley (which is technically not a valley, as there are few distinct mountains), they produce whites from the Verdeca grape.

Once a primary grape in vermouth, Verdeca is largely used as a blending grape to give body to leaner whites. Some producers are now producing single varietal Verdeca wines, like the Masseria Li Veli 2014 Verdeca di Valle d’Itria. A bit darker in color than the other whites here, the Verdeca has a bit of a funky, somewhat herbal nose, followed by a very minerally, lemon and tangerine body. The finish is flinty with a flavor which reminds me a bit of orange bitters. Stronger as a food wine than on its own, it’s great with a seared tuna steak with a niçoise-ish side of roasted potatoes and green beans with sliced olives and a vinaigrette.

Pick your favorite Italian spot. Pour yourself a glass. Take a sip. Let your eyes unfocus and close. Have yourself a vision…and let yourself be awakened with a kiss. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Game of Thrones Wine -- Just in Time for Your Watch Party

Gather ‘round, Khals and Khalessi, Ladies and Sers. Game of Thrones returns after its hiatus to whisk us back to Westeros this evening and our respective water coolers on Monday.

The blood, the magic, the palace intrigue – they give welcome respite from the Drogon-ing of our country’s democracy. (And what I wouldn’t give to watch a face to face between Our Dear Leader and Lyanna Mormont…)

With Season 7’s premier in the offing, I got a text from my good friend The Wizard of Covington a couple of weeks ago that read “Winter is Coming” next to a picture of a bottle of Game of Thrones red wine. I did a little research and was able to make contact with my friends at Folsom, who are heading up the PR for this new label, and they were goodly enough to get me a couple of bottles to sample in time for the premiere.

Game of Thrones Wines are produced by Vintage Wine Estates – the California company behind Cosentino, Firesteed, Middle Sister, and many other brands. They make three versions of GoT wine – a Chardonnay from California’s Central Coast and a red blend from Paso Robles, both of which retail for around $20, and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $50.

My samples were of the first two. How were they? Well, as they say around (what’s left of) King’s Landing…

Valar dohaeris:”

Game of Thrones 2016 Chardonnay – This Chardonnay started out very floral, likely from the 10% Riesling blended in. I thought it smelled like peach ice cream next to a bouquet of wildflowers. The Chardonnay/Riesling interaction creates a pleasant, integrated set of flavors. Mouthfeel wise, there’s a bit of “stickiness” that comes from a Riesling, with a little accompanying apple-y sweetness. The Chardonnay creaminess and lemon flavors come through secondarily as the acidity kicks in. The finish is a bit on the fruity side, with the peaches returning, followed by a bit of lemon peel. Really not much oak to be found anywhere, other than at the tail, tail end of the finish. My guess is that this would be a crowd-pleasing white – the perfect sort of thing for a watch party – but it’s not one that I’d probably snag just for general consumption. The Sweet Partner in Crime thought that the wine was one of the better Chardonnays that she’d had in a while. She really liked the floral/fruity combination, saying that it reminded her a lot of a Viognier. I wasn’t quite as keen on it, but I certainly thought it was decent.

Game of Thrones 2015 Red Wine – When we first really got into wine tasting, we loved big reds. Back then, this field blend of Malbec, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and Syrah from Paso Robles would be been right in our wheelhouse. “This wine would have been my jam,” said the SPinC, “and now it’s just jam.” She’s not kidding. This full-blooded, fruit-forward inky monster wouldn’t be out of place on a table with roasted joints of meat and mince pies. You want extracted blackberries and dark cherries? Check. You want tannins chewy as an old waterskin? Bingo. You want some vanilla and pepper in your finish? Aye. That’s your quaff. If you want to understand the XY side of the “masculine vs. feminine” wine divide, try this one. The testosterone level matches the alcohol. While it was too much for the SPinC’s pinot-loving palate, I thought it was a pretty strong offering for what it was – a wine that will pull your attention back from the screen to let you know you’re drinking *wine*. For science, I had this next to a strip that I bought from the local butcher. It was as good as you might expect.

While these wines may retail for around $20, your wine stores will probably be running specials on them not long after the premiere. Bottom line – they’re pretty solid wines, but they’re hardly subtle. But who watches GoT for the subtleties, I ask you?

So, saddle up with Dany as she gets across the Narrow Sea, pour yourself a flagon or tankard of your choice, and return to one of the last instances of “appointment television” that we still have left.  Enjoy, and try your best to be nice to that guy yelling “NO SPOILERS! NO SPOILERS!” from a few cubes down and the bummed out lover of the novels who can’t hit you with a “You know nothing” anymore.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Greek Wine: From Across the Ionian Sea

There are wines in the Vine’s archives from all over the world – but one place we haven’t stopped often in our oenological travels is Greece. The Greeks have been making wine longer than anyone else in the Western world. They’ve got nearly 6,000 years of experience cranking the stuff out. Why don’t we Statesiders know more about them?

The Vine's proprietor gets all animatronic
at the Santorini Wine Museum
First off, production – Greece produces in the neighborhood of 300 million liters (about 80 million gallons) of wine each year. Compare that to their neighbors across the Ionian Sea, Italy, which churns out between four and five billion liters annually. Second, winemaking processes in Greece only really began to modernize in the 1980’s. Before then, Greece produced a lot of interchangeable table wines and Retsina – a native wine-based beverage flavored with pine resin. Yes, you read that correctly – and it’s as much of an acquired taste as you might imagine.

Third, not to disparage Greek language, but the nearly 300 autochthonal (Winespeak for “indigenous”) varieties of grapes carry names that translated, to the uninitiated, can look like a Scrabble draw pile. While many American consumers would undoubtedly enjoy a glass of Athiri or Malagousia – they tend to shy away from unfamiliar grapes.

Well, stop overlooking them. Greek wines are excellent food complements, especially seafoods, cheeses, and other Mediterranean-styled dishes. If you’d like to give them a go, there are four primary Greek grapes with which you should start your explorations. Here are examples of each of the Greek Big 4:

Moschofilero grapes -- red grapes for white wine!
Tselepos 2015 Mantinia Moschofilero White Wine – OK, first -- to unpack this wine’s name: “Tselepos” is the winery. “Mantinia” is the region, which is just north of the city of Tripoli in Pelleponese. “Moschofilero” is the grape. This particular grape, pronounced MOS-ko-feel-er-o, although used to make white wines, is reddish in color. I found the wine’s flavor to be quite similar to a Muscadet – fairly high in acid, floral notes on the nose, and lemony flavors over a flinty, minerally backbone. The finish is crisp and cool. Noting that it was Muscadet-ish, shellfish immediately sprang to mind as a pairing, and we tried it with a bay scallop ceviche. Our thoughts were correct, as the acids complemented each other to make a lovely meal on a warm summer evening. $16.

Bairaktaris 2015 “Monolithos” Nemea Agiorgitiko Red Wine – This red wine’s moniker comes from, what else, a giant rock that sat in the midst of the vineyards of Nemea. This rock was demolished and the dust spread across the vineyards, which apparently improved the quality of the soil. For mythology geeks like myself, Nemea is the site of one of the 12 Labors of Hercules, where he slew the Nemean Lion and then probably settled in for a flagon of red wine made from Agiorgitiko (AY-ee-or-YEE-tee-ko), the most widely cultivated red in Greece.

I found the wine that the Big Man might have been drinking to be quite an interesting quaff. It’s a lighter-styled red in body, but there’s still a considerable amount of tannin and flavor punch here. Plenty of cherry and blackberry flavors and scents alongside nice, even tannins and an interesting mineral character. I think it’s along the lines of a Languedoc red or a less “chalky” Chianti. We had it alongside a couple of grilled lamb steaks, and I thought it a very solid summertime red. $18.

Chatzivariti 2016 “Eurynome” Goumenissa Assyritiko White Wine – Eurynome is one of the Titans who ruled Mt. Olympus before the Greek Gods took the place over. When cast from Olympus into the earth-encompassing Ocean, according to myth, she had nowhere to rest, so she
“split sea from sky” and danced on the waves, creating the land. (Hey, don’t ask me for the physics of it…) Assyritiko (Ah-seer-tee-ko) is Greece’s signature white – the most exported and well known grape on the international market.

This wine, made from 100% Assyritiko, is a difficult wine to pin down. Initially acidic, the wine develops an interesting creaminess as it gets some air. Reminiscent of a Sancerre or a light unoaked Chardonnay, there’s plenty of peach and citrus over a steely backbone. The creaminess that emerged made for an interesting balance. We actually tried this with a thin crust pizza with serrano ham, artichokes, olives, roasted garlic, and Parmesan. Darned good combo, if you ask me, although the price of this particular bottle -- $24 – seemed a tad high.

Boutari 2012 Naoussa Red Wine -- This wine is made entirely from our fourth autochthonal Greek varietal, Xinomavro (Ex-SEEN-o-Mahv-ro). Nouassa is a region in northern Greece in Macedonia. (This is not to be confused with the Republic of Macedonia, which was once part of Yugoslavia – a locale which also makes darned good wine.)

After I cracked the bottle and poured, I could have been looking at a glass of light-styled Beaujolais. The nose is a little more alcohol-scented than a Beaujolais, but the basic profile is similar, and reminded me somewhat of cranapple juice, minus the sugary scent. There are some nice understated red fruit flavors -- it's almost delicate…until you swallow. The wine then hits you with a load of tannin on the long, dry finish. The bottle suggests pairing with "roast meats and cheeses of…an intense character." I can certainly see that -- the tannins will slice through just about any kind of rich flavor. Lamb, again, would be great with it, not surprisingly. $14.

Since these wines are lesser-known at the moment, they’re fun to spring on your wine-loving friends as a change of pace. They’re certainly worth getting to know, especially in restaurants, where their relative anonymity will keep the markup to a minimum. Give them a go.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Voga Italia, at Home Amidst the Product

I took a look at wines that try to win your heart with interesting bottle designs before. A new entry to this category is the Voga Italia 2015 Pinot Grigio Della Venezie.

Rather than the slenderly-tapered container into which most Pinot Grigio goes, the Voga comes to you in a clear cylindrical bottle topped with a black screw cap that would look at home amidst the Sweet Partner in Crime’s collection of Aveda products. (As a male, I am genetically incapable of understanding what many of those products do, but that’s another story.) The screw top actually hides a cork underneath, so if you bring this wine on a picnic, make sure you pack an opener.

Italian PG has a reputation for being ultra-light, acidic, and largely forgettable. The Voga has a little more meat on its bones. Pale straw yellow in color, the nose is more fragrant than many of its Italian brethren. The weight to the body was, to me, more along the lines of many Sauvignon Blanc. The pear and apple-driven sensation of both the nose and body is pleasant enough, and there’s a little zippy acidity towards the finish -- longer lasting than many PG’s.

All in all, it’s a pretty solid summertime wine at $11. I’d have this either on its own, or with some sort of light fish preparation. We had some of it with some uncomplicated grocery store sushi, and it worked well enough.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Naked Vine Showdown: Inexpensive Rosé -- Bota Box vs. Black Box vs. La Vielle Ferme

As the heat of summer continues to build, more and more of you are reaching for tasty bottles of cold rosé. Lots more of you, in fact. Whether from Provence or Petaluma, American consumption of rosé has exploded in the last decade.

When I wrote the first words in this space in 2006, the U.S. imported somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 liters of rosé from Provence. In 2016, upwards of 8 million liters found their way to American palates. Big Wine Store near me recently rearranged its shelves – devoting practically an entire aisle to the pink stuff from around the world, where I used to hunt for my goodies from Tavel and Provence tucked away in a dusty corner near the White Zin.

As I started my quest to get my readers to embrace my oenological mentor’s mantra that “Pink is not a flavor” and that dudes could drink pink wine and still feel manly, dry rosé was one of the best kept secrets of the wine world. But as the world’s caught on to just how daggone good the stuff is, winemakers and distributors picked up on the public’s new thirst and began raising prices to match demand. Where a $15 bottle of rosé was almost unheard of just a few years ago, many quality entries are now in the same range as premium reds and whites – in the $25-30 range. Heck, I sampled a rosé a few months ago tagged at $70.

The Lineup -- Drink Pink and Don't Think!
People, that’s just crazypants. Rosé is a wine for happiness. It’s a great choice for meals, sure – but it’s darned near impossible to drink rosé and be depressed. There’s something about that fruit and acid balance that just calls for friends and a social setting. And while, yes, there are certainly levels of quality that can roughly correlate with price – come on, that’s simply excessive. Give me $70 and the Spanish section and I’ll get you three bottles that will knock your socks off. A $70 bottle of rosé is just showing off.

The other end of the spectrum, thankfully, hasn’t been pushed out of the market entirely. I like my rosé cold and plentiful and if you’re reading this, I know you do, too. After a recent trip to the store where I saw that a couple of producers are now boxing rosé, I decided to pit three large-format rosés against each other in a happy-go-lucky wineglass rodeo. The contenders:
  • Bota Box 2016 California Rosé (3 liter box -- $20-25)
  • La Vielle Ferme 2016 Rosé (1.5 liter bottle -- $14-18)
  • Black Box 2016 “Limited Edition” California Rosé (3 liter box -- $20-25)
[Side note – a few of you may remember that I swore off Black Box wines after a series of messes in my fridge from spout issues. I let one back in the house…you know…for science.]

The La Vielle Ferme is from the Southern Rhone valley, just northwest of the Provence region. It’s a blend of Cinsault, Grenache, and Syrah. The Bota Box and Black Box wines are considered “California blends” – meaning there’s not 75% of one varietal in either. The Black Box wine says that it’s “built around Syrah,” and I couldn’t find info on the makeup of the Bota. I suspect it’s also Syrah-driven.

Pouring the wines side-by-side-by-side, the LVF was by far the lightest in color – the pale pink traditionally associated with much French rosé from Provence and surrounding environs. The Bota Box was a slightly darker pink, although still clearly on the lighter side of the ledger. The Black Box was a darker salmon color, almost orange. This shouldn’t be considered a defect – rose gets its color through brief contact with grape skins. The longer the contact, the darker the wine, so one would expect a richer flavor with a darker colored rosé.

On to the flavors – rosé typically has a fairly delicate nose, as was the general case here. The Bota Box’s nose was light with peaches and strawberries as the dominant characteristic. I found it to be medium weight for a rosé, with more strawberries and a mildly acidic palate. The finish was crisp and fairly clean. I see this as an inexpensive American riff on a French rosé.

The LVF was along the same lines as the Bota, but classed up a bit. While peaches and strawberries were in the game here, the nose was much more “blossomy” on those particular flavors. The wine was lighter and more crisp, with lemons, peaches, and strawberries all taking their turn on the palate. While it’s certainly not a complex wine by any stretch, it tastes like what you would expect from a dry French rosé.

The Black Box was produced in a different style altogether. Oranges and grapefruit were the first flavors I got from the bouquet, which was followed by melon and cantaloupe on the palate in a somewhat heavier style. The finish was fruitier, lower in acid, and had a minerally/metallic taste that wasn’t nearly as pleasant to drink as the other two. Served cold, this would be good if you really weren’t thinking about it much. A cheap rosé for day drinking perhaps.

So, as one might expect, the wine that came in the big bottle topped the two boxes, but not by much. I’d not hesitate to pour either the Bota Box or the La Vielle Ferme on a hot summer’s day for some kickback time or with a meal where you really aren’t looking for a perfect wine pairing. Drink your rosé without thought and with happiness, the way it was intended.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Review: Mighty Mug – A Beverage Threat Reduction System

What’s your typical level of clumsy? 

If you have ballerina-level grace or Messi-quality balance, this product likely isn’t your bag. But if you talk with your hands, enjoy cocktails on a porch or a boat, or just bump into things more often than you might like (any of which could easily apply to yours truly), then you might find the Mighty Mug an intriguing addition to your barware collection.

“Mighty Mug” drinkware – which includes wine glasses, beer pint and pilsner glasses, Old Fashioned glasses, and travel mugs – are all equipped with a special base which the company calls Smartgrip. This rubber footing is designed to create a strong vacuum if the mug is nudged from the side, preventing the glass from toppling over. Lifted straight up, however, it behaves as a normal glass. To wit:

I had the opportunity to test the wine stems and beer pints from Mighty Mug’s collection.

My thoughts:

  • On a smooth or finished surface – countertop, dining room table, computer desk, etc. – the mug performs well. Almost too well sometimes. I learned from the Mighty Mug that I tend to tilt a glass slightly when I lift it. The Mug didn’t much care for my technique, keeping the vessel locked in place until I lifted straight up.
  • That said, on surfaces that are anything less than perfectly smooth – say, a table with a “lightly mosaic-ed” tile top, or the wooden arm of an Adirondack chair, the Mighty Mug behaves like a normal glass. In other words, if it ain’t smooth, don’t bump it.
  • I could see the Mighty Mug being of real use on a boat or other moving conveyance. On a smooth surface, changes in direction won’t make the glass slide around with potentially disastrous results.
  • The enemy of the Mighty Mug, I found, is dust and dirt. When I was testing, there was a stretch of bad pollen days. Most of the outdoor surfaces were covered in the light pollen dust. That dust worked its way into the mechanism, causing the Mug’s adherent properties to fade. The makers of the Mug provide care instructions for reactivating the stickiness, but it would be a good idea to clean the bases on a regular basis.
  • My biggest issue with the Mighty Mug, at the end of the day, is that its greatest strengths – durability and stability – are a major aesthetic weakness. The base is quite thick, and while that doesn’t detract too much from the pint glass, it looks a bit odd for the wine glass. Also, necessarily, the Mighty Mug is made out of fairly thick shatterproof plastic. And drinking wine or a pint out of plastic barware, at least for me, detracts from the overall experience. If I’m on a picnic or some such, that’s acceptable, but if I’m relaxing at home – I’d rather use my usual stemware.
All in all, I can see the utility – especially if you’re either out and about or working at a desk where a spill might fry your phone or other electronics. Take that into account before deciding if Mighty Mug is right for you. You can order them from the Mighty Mug website or at any number of other retailers.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Checking in with Charles Smith

Over the Vine’s period of years, I’ve seen wine trends come and go. Wineries merge, brands change, labels change. Early on in my tasting time, I remember hearing about a Washington winemaker named Charles Smith.

Smith had a reputation as the “rock and roll winemaker.” With his big mop of curly hair and penchant for mosh pit-approved attire, Smith looked more Slayer than Sonoma. Using partnerships and interesting, approachable twists on a number of wines, Smith built up an intriguing portfolio and a great deal of brand loyalty when he discovered that simple, eye catching label designs crossed with quality, reasonably priced juice makes a successful market entry. His labels and their black and white iconography look back at you at most decent wine stores.

Smith has long been into sustainable agriculture. All of his winemaking operations follow up-to-date growing techniques and such. I also have some recollection of Smith being an early adopter of using Stelvin screw-top closures exclusively.

OK...Let's do this...
Recently, a slate of five of Smith’s wines showed up at the door. I was interested to get re-acquainted with many of these, since it’d been a couple of years since I’d actually done a full-on tasting of them.

Charles Smith 2015 “Eve” Washington State Chardonnay ($13) – Eve is appropriate moniker. Ripe sweet apple blossom is the first note that shows up in the bouquet, and that’s mirrored with those similar apple flavors on the palate, backed with some tropical fruit. Very lean style, but not overly acidic. No butter or cream. Tastes like there’s just a kiss of oak to round out an exceptionally well-balanced chard. Super pleasant to drink, and a great accompaniment to some slow-baked salmon alongside some sautéed mixed veggies, broiled with shredded parmesan.

Had the Charles Smith 2014 “Chateau Smith” Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) and the Charles Smith 2014 “Boom! Boom!” Syrah ($18) side by side. This pair of deep reds were cracked and poured next to a quality grill-job on some steaks. The Cabernet was rich and fruity, with dark cherry flavors and some blackberry notes against a medium weighted body. The finish was dry and not quite as long as I thought it might be, at least initially. It improved over the course of the evening.

The Syrah, on the other hand, was a juicy, savory experience. Lots of rich blueberry and blackberry flavors, a somewhat fruity and floral nose from the hint of Viognier blended in. The finish did something quite interesting – it starts off quite dry and earthy, then comes back with a little bit of candied sweetness that I found quite pleasant. Alongside the steaks, in a bit of a surprise to me, I found myself preferring the Syrah.

The Charles Smith 2014 “The Velvet Devil” Merlot ($13) has long been one of my go-to bottles of value-priced red, and not just because of my alma mater. (Although this Devil is much more Purple than Blue.) Smith has always produced a quality merlot – and this vintage is no exception. Dark, rich cool-climate fruits are in abundance here, although there’s enough of a tobacco-ish backbone to keep it from becoming a complete fruit bomb. Good restraint in the flavor and some good earthiness and fruity on the finish. Another quality entry. This ended up being an end-of-day wine that went really well with chocolate.

Then, there’s my old fave, Charles Smith 2015 “Kung Fu Girl” Riesling. ($13) I still remember years ago when I first saw an article about Smith, where he was asked about the name of this particular wine. His booming response was “"WHY? BECAUSE, RIESLING AND GIRLS KICK ASS!" The man knows. In any case, I’ve recommended this Riesling more times than I can count, because I find it hits the middle of the Venn diagram for people who aren’t into super-sweet Rieslings, and those who can’t deal with the flinty dry ones. Rich with citrus and honey, this is one of the better wine pairings with spicy Asian cuisine that you’ll run across. Peaches and some nice minerality round out the experience.
Mr. Smith, himself.

Finally, just to be a completist – and because I happened to run across this wine when I was ambling down the pink aisle – there was the Charles Smith 2015 “Vino!” Rosé ($12) – the newest addition to his catalog. This wine, made from 100% Sangiovese grown in Washington State, which is an interesting twist in and of itself, is a very solid, study quaffer. Full of melon and strawberry with a backing of herbs, I powered through this wine much too quickly on my front porch on a warm day in early May. What was left of the bottle was fabulous with salmon.   

Smith’s wines continue to hold their reputation for being solid, well-priced entries in the “quality everyday wine” category. I still give them a thumbs up.