Thursday, May 16, 2019

Naked Vine Double Barrel: A Pair of Prosecco

Not long ago, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon with my Wizardly brother-from-another-mother and his lovely wife, the Breaker of Chains. They'd been in the market for some new furniture -- and when it arrived, I popped by their place to help them do a little interior redecorating.

Since it was mid-afternoon and any sort of design work goes better with alcohol, I brought along a couple of bottles of Prosecco to sample side-by-side. After all, a new comfy sofa is a perfect excuse to crack some bubbly, no?

Prosecco, and sparkling wine in general, has been on a bit of a domestic tear over the last several years. Once largely a celebratory bottle, sparkling wine's showing up as an "ordinary day" beverage more often, driven in a great part by Millennials embracing bubbly. (Since sparkling wine goes wonderfully with anything fatty, avocado toast is a great Prosecco pairing.)

Prosecco has led the way in driving this sales increase, eating into the market share of both Cava from Spain and many domestic sparklers. Sales of the stuff were up almost 25% in 2018, and that trend seems to be holding.

What is Prosecco? To nod at the last couple of columns here, Prosecco is an Italian wine region not far from Venice. For many years, however, the grape from which the wine is made was also referred to, somewhat incorrectly, as Prosecco. The proper varietal name, Glera, is now the primary referent.

Like most sparkling wines, Prosecco can be produced in any number of styles -- from dry to sweet -- based on the amount of residual sugar left after fermentation. There's no need to guess about the level of sweetness. You'll see one of these terms, from driest to sweetest, on the label:

Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-Sec.
Yes, you're reading that correctly -- Extra Dry is slightly sweeter than Brut.

Extra Dry and Brut are the most common styles, and those were the bottles that I brought over for our little design session. We had these to sample:

Tenuta Sant'Anna Prosecco DOC Extra Dry
Bacio Della Luna Prosecco DOC Brut

We tried them side-by-side, first on their own and then as the backbone of mimosas.

The Tenuta was a very easy-drinking bubbly, full of peaches and pears. The Bacio leaned more in a apple and peach direction. On their own, we all preferred the Bacio for its crispness and its more pronounced flavors. "The sparkle makes the flavor really pop," noted the BoC.

As for making mimosas, and I find this to be true with almost all sparkling wine, the extra dry version tends to make for a better balanced cocktail. That little bit of residual sweetness allows the various flavors in a cocktail a little more of a platform to strut their stuff. I thought the Tenuta also would have been a particularly strong choice if you're a summertime chugger of Aperol Spritzes.

You should be able to find either of these wines for just north of $15. Either of them should take care of your bubbly needs nicely.


Sunday, April 28, 2019

Kin & Cascadia -- Thinking about "Regional" wines

As I mentioned in the recent Chianti column, the naming convention surrounding most European wines revolves around the region, subregion, or -- in some cases -- the very patch of ground on which the grapes are grown. While this convention is helpful for delineating how a wine is a reflection of terroir -- the combination of soil, climate, weather, and history that go into a particular wine, it's often less helpful if you're...say...looking for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon.

Here in the States, by contrast, we tend to name our wines primarily by the main grape in the bottle. If at least 75% of the juice is made from, say, Merlot -- then the bottle can read "Merlot." The identity of the grapes on the rest of the blend can be disclosed or not, depending on the winery's desire.

Wine's about a sense of place, though. A Chardonnay from southern California will taste very different from one grown in..say...Missouri. Even more applicable, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California's. Napa Valley will taste very different from a Cabernet Sauvignon grown by the coast in neighboring Sonoma County.

To establish a sense of place, in 1978, the federal government developed a system by which a wine's location could be classified. Winegrowing regions were classified by climate and topography into American Viticultural Areas, or AVA's for short. For a wine to claim a particular AVA, such as "Anderson Valley" or "Yamhill-Carlton" -- 85% of the grapes must be sourced from that particular area. A particular AVA, such as "Napa Valley" can contain multiple sub-AVA's -- like "Los Carneros" or "St. Helena." But the broader-based "regional blends" are one way to get a sense of how terroir shapes a wine in a particular area -- so you can see if you like it.

This brings us to this edition's wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir from Kin & Cascadia -- an oenological partnership between the Sager and Master families in the Pacific Northwest. The two wines that I had the opportunity to try boast their roots from particular AVAs.

To start with -- the Kin & Cascadia 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (~$16). The wine is listed as being from "Columbia Valley, Washington." The Columbia Valley AVA is a very large area, shared between Oregon and Washington. Within the Columbia Valley AVA are seven subregions, one of which is the Wahluke Slope AVA -- from where a good portion, but not quite 85% of the grapes come.

I tend to like Washington State cabernets. I think they're generally a little less alcohol-driven and more subtle with their fruits than their brethren in California. The Kin & Cascadia is relatively decent. It's a drinkable Cabernet -- with coffee and black cherry flavors being the dominant flavors. Unfortunately, there's little else to note flavorwise. The finish has a somewhat sharp tannic quality, even after an hour of air, that I didn't find personally pleasant. I thought it was decent enough alongside a steak or a rich stew, but I didn't think it was overly interesting itself.

The Kin & Cascadia 2017 Pinot Noir (~$14) is a different story. This Pinot sources its grapes from the Willamette (rhymes with "Dammit!") Valley, the best known and largest of the Oregon AVA's. Now, I love me some Oregon Pinot -- and I've had enough of it to be able to somewhat ascertain the difference between the various sub-AVA's within the Willamette. The grapes here are likely from a variety of places around the Valley, and that's not a bad thing. Sometimes, especially with wines at this price point, finding the right grape sources makes for a tasty blend.

That's the case here. This particular blend of Pinot grapes yielded a lighter-styled but still quite interesting Pinot. Strawberry and cherry flavors go alongside a nicely floral nose, a solidly smoky, fruity midpalate, and a lingering, softly smoky finish. For a Pinot Noir at this price point, it's a pretty impressive offering. I think it's an incredibly good value at this price point, especially for fans of lower-alcohol Pinots. I also thought it was better with a steak than the Cab, to be perfectly honest.

Learning about different AVA's gives you an opportunity to fine-tune the sorts of wines you'll tend to enjoy, even if you might not recognize a certain producer. Think it an AVA as a high-level overview of what you should expect.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Castiglioni Chianti

As I've gotten older and more full of years, my palate's changed a bit. Lighter-styled wines have been finding their way to our table more and more often. As a result, I've been grooving on Chianti -- that famously food-friendly red from Tuscany.

Now, if you're new here, remember that the naming conventions for Italian wines (as well as many European wines in general) are different from here. Many folks I know think that "Chianti" is a grape and "Chianti Classico" means a higher grade of Chianti. Release yourself from those assumptions. Chianti is the region within Tuscany from where the wine hails. (Chianti Classico is a subzone of the Chianti region.)

Chianti is made primarily from the Sangiovese grape -- at least 75% of the blend must be Sangiovese to be considered a Chianti. There are a number of other grapes, that can provide the other 25% of the blend, including red grapes Syrah and Merlot -- and whites like Malvasia and Trebbiano.

Because of this blending diversity, Chianti can be all over the map as far as flavor profile. Leaner, more acidic Chianti tend to have a higher percentage of white grapes blended in. The Chianti I had the chance to try recently -- Castiglioni 2016 Chianti -- was on the other end of the spectrum.

Castiglioni is the original estate of the Frescobaldi wine family. Wine has been produced from its vineyards since the 1300's. Their current version of Chianti is a straight blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. The result is an Italian wine that's a bit more approachable than many Chianti.

I find Chianti to have a bit of a "chalky" background flavor, which might not sound great to drink on its own -- but it actually allows it to mesh in a complementary fashion with just about any type of food. The Castiglioni has less of that chalk flavor because of the merlot in the blend, which masks it with a bigger dose of fruit. Cherry and blackberry are the dominant flavors here. This is a round, full, uncomplicated version of Chianti that can be sipped on its own.

With food, as with many Chianti, it's a much better choice in my estimation. We had this over the weekend alongside a savory lamb stew and it was a very nice accompaniment. It would also be a solid choice with roast chicken, red sauced pasta, or almost any kind of cheese, in my estimation.

Castiglioni Chianti retails for around $15. It's a very decent quaffer. Also, if you're new to Italian wines, this might be a good gateway bottle to start a vinous exploration of the region.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Alìe -- A right, round rosé

Longtime Vineheads know I've long been a champion of rosé. For over a decade, I've been chanting my "pink is not a flavor" mantra to winedrinkers worried someone might think they ordered a glass of white zin.

While I can't take credit for the now-social appropriateness of the pink stuff, I certainly appreciate that the upswing in the rosé market has driven a number of countries and regions to up their respective rosé games. One particular example of this -- Italy.

I've never been a huge fan of Italian rosé, in general. I've found their rosés, often marketed as "rosato," to be overly fruity, usually a little too sweet, and honestly inferior in quality to any French rosé. I'd prefer a very light Italian red, slightly chilled, to almost any rosato.

But this old dog can certainly learn a new trick -- because I had the chance to try this new offering from Frescobaldi in Tuscany -- Alìe 2007 Toscana Rosé.

Alìe draws its name from a legendary sea nymph. Like most ancient Roman myths -- the story of Alìe is derived from a similar Greek story -- her name was "Halia" in the Greek version. Thankfully, the story of this wine is much more pleasant than Halia's own legend -- google if you want, but fair warning: like most women in Greek myths, Halia/Alìe doesn't get a happy ending...

In any case, this particular wine, made largely from Syrah with a touch of Vermentino for crispness, is a uniquely bold rosé. Alìe boasts one of the more striking bouquets of any rosé I've tried in quite some time. Many of these wines have very light, delicate airs -- this one, not so much. I found a full nose of ripe melon, fresh blossoms, and tropical fruits. The tropical fruit flavors are certainly present on the palate, as well -- alternating mango, pineapple, and a little cherry flavor. I expected the finish to be a little flabby with this much fruit on the palate, but I was pleasantly surprised to get a crisp, clean wind-down, with those fruit flavors lingering on a rounded mouthfeel.

It's a pretty substantial rosé, so if you're looking for something super light and flinty to drink on a hot day, this probably isn't going to be your speed. As a food wine, though, it really excelled. We had this next to some chicken roasted with lemon, capers, basil and torn bread -- and the roundness of the palate made it an excellent complement.

If you're interested in breaking out of a rosé rut, this would be a nice change of pace. Alìe retails for $17-20.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Bubbly Cocktails for Spring with Zonin Prosecco

Ladies and gentlemen, pardon the long winter hibernation. There’s a lot happening on the home front here at Vine HQ, which I’ll catch all y’all up on before too long.

In the meantime, however, the Wine Fairy dropped a bottle off at the door which, if you’ve been around here awhile, you’ll probably recognize: Zonin “Cuvee 1821” Prosecco Brut.

This particular sparkler’s shown up here from time to time over the years, and it’s a consistently solid performer, especially at an ~$13 price point. On its own, it’s is on the dry-but-fruity side. I found it had a gentle, blossomy nose of apples and pineapples. Green apple and lemon flavors on the palate are balanced with a touch of almond and a zippy acidity. The finish is fruity, with more of those pineapples lingering at the end.

Thankfully, spring is just around the corner – and Prosecco, while a year ‘round beverage, has a warm season flavor to me. This winter, I’ve been grooving on cocktail making – and with the bulk of this bottle to work with, I decided to try mixing up a couple of springtime drinks with the stuff I have around, using the Zonin as a base.

First off, there’s the good old Aperol Spritz, the warm weather champ which I’ve written about before:

3 oz. Prosecco 
2 oz. Aperol
1 oz. club soda

The classic sunshine beverage. Pour the Aperol into a wine glass filled with ice, top with Prosecco and top with the club soda. Garnish with an orange wheel. The sweet/bitter flavors play off each other in a particularly refreshing way.

Moving on a bit, there’s the breath of springtime that is the French 77.

2 oz. Prosecco
1 ½ oz. Gin
¾ oz. Elderflower liqueur (like St. Germain)
½ oz. lemon juice

Mix the gin, elderflower, and lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a coupe glass. Add the prosecco and a lemon twist. Drop the twist into the drink and enjoy the lovely fragrances.

Sticking with gin here, if you’re a fan of a Negroni, but you’re hoping for something with a little more sparkle, try this take – the Sbagliato (which means “bungled” in Italian)

1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
1 ½ oz. Campari
1 ½ oz. Prosecco

In a rocks glass filled with ice, add the vermouth and Campari and stir. Add the Prosecco and stir again. Sip and enjoy.


Finally, if you’re a fan of aged rums, this riff on the Old Cuban is a crowdpleaser, especially on nights where the springtime temps can still drop:

1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon water
1 ½ oz. dark rum
¾ oz. lime juice
1 ½ oz. Prosecco
Angostura bitters and a mint leaf for garnish

Combine the honey and water in a small glass bowl and microwave for 15 seconds. Stir to combine. Let cool.

Add the honey syrup, rum, and lime juice to a shaker with ice. Shake for 15-20 seconds. Strain into a martini or coupe glass. Top with Prosecco, then a dash of bitters and the mint leaf.

Enjoy!

Monday, January 07, 2019

Rabisco – Chewy, Portuguese, and (halfway) Autochthonal

Since it's the middle of winter (although it hardly feels like it these days), this is the natural season to consume a glass of that delightfully fortified product, Port.

Port, in the world’s least surprising reveal, originated in Portugal. Port is initially fermented like a typical wine, but a neutral grain spirit is added to stop the fermentation and leave some residual sugar in the mix, which ultimately conveys the sweetness to the stuff.

Practically all ports are blends. There are about 100 different grapes approved for use in Port making, but there are five primary native (or autochthonal, if you want to use the official terminology) varietals. The king of these native Portuguese grapes is a varietal called Touriga Nacional.

Touriga Nacional vines bear small grapes with a high skin to pulp ratio – meaning that the juice flavors tend to run to the powerful side. Touriga Nacional provides depth and color to most blends. Touriga Nacional vines are very fast-growing, but those vines have some of the lowest yields of any vinifera grape.

Although Touriga Nacional is generally considered the finest Portuguese red varietal, until the last few years it comprised only around 2% of Portugal’s total vineyard plantings. In the last decade, however, improvements in vine maintenance and crossbreeding have upped TourNac yields, and Portuguese winemakers have begun making dry red wine blends featuring it.

Enter Rabisco 2015 Reserva Tejo -- a dry red wine made from 50% Touriga Nacional and 50% from good ol’ Cabernet Sauvignon.

To break the wine’s name down a bit – Rabisco means “Scratch” in Portuguese. The winery from which this wine hails is part of an animal sanctuary and dozens of bird species pass through during migration. Most famously, storks winter in this region – and the wine label centers on a freehand pencil “scratch” sketch of one of these beautiful birds.

Tejo is the region surrounding the Tejo River, near the vineyards of the grapes. “Reserva” simply means that it’s a high quality, single vintage wine, but official aging or fermenting definitions aren’t attached to that term.

What’s this wine like? Well, for starters, it’s relatively inexpensive (as are many Portuguese wines) – retailing at $13. Not surprisingly, considering the skin thickness of the Touriga Nacional grape, it’s a big, honking mouthful of tannin, especially before the wine’s had time to open up. Decant for half an hour if you can. The Cabernet adds some dark fruit – blackberries and currants – which are deepened by the TourNac – but it’s certainly no fruit bomb.

It’s a wine longer on tannins than richness, so if you’re looking for something with a lighter body but a bigger flavor punch – it would probably appeal. I would imagine that the combination is somewhat of an acquired taste. I thought it was worth a try – especially alongside a braised pork dish or a tapas-y spread of appetizers. The SPinC thought it was too punchy for her palate.

All in all, it’s probably worth a try if you like full-flavored red wines. For someone who wants the combo of big tannin without an associated jamminess, it’s a good choice, especially at the price point. Fans of either Bordeaux or California merlots/cabs might not be quite as enamored.