Every bottle has a story

I am not a wine expert, but with each bottle I try and share with friends, I learn more. Wine is an exceptional social drink; it is the marijuana of alcoholic beverages because it must be shared. I seek to share with you my thoughts and experiences as I drink the wine in my closet, as well as my enthusiasm for the finds that come my way and the excellent values that I find. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too, so please share!

Monday, November 29, 2010


Ah, the Rhône, that region of France from whence my favorite wines come. And a locale in the Southern Rhône that I am finding intriguing is the appellation Côte du Rhône Villages.

One of the villages in this area is Sablet, which interestingly was lucky enough during the Plague to be spared, escaping the disease virtually untouched.

Among the producers there is Domaine de Piaugier, whose Sablet Rouge is a blend of just Grenache and Syrah. The wine has received erratic scores over the years, everywhere from the mid 70s to the mid 80s. Apparently, the producer is better known for its Gigondas, which is regularly of higher quality, according to Parker.

The 2007 was good, but unremarkable in my view. The nose was delicious, but when tasted, there just wasn’t any follow-through. It wasn’t awful at $15, but I probably won’t buy from this producer again.

I rate this with a 6.5 using my scale at the left.

A consistent Malbec

It’s always a delight to find a producer you can count on, and the Don Miguel Gascón Malbecs from the Mendoza region of Argentina is such a find. The 2009 vintage of this wine can be had for as little as $9, although $11 is more common. The wines of Bodegas Escorihuela have consistently scored with high 80s for the past decade. And all of them are inexpensive.

The 2009 vintage is rich with earthy flavors melding well with delicate fruit. It has enough heft that if you bought a case, it would keep well for at least a year. While I could not find a rating for the 2009 vintage, I rate it with an 8.5 using my scale at the left.

More fruit than I need

The 2007 vintage of The Wolftrap, a South African blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier, I remember as being a delightful find for the price. It was hefty, with firm tannins and an almost chocolate smoothness. But the 2009 vintage is a fruit bomb. It’s more than jam. And there wasn’t any of the firmness I remember with the 2007. Alas, my experiences with South African wines have been spotty.

Wine Spectator rates it with an 85 (the 2007 got an 88). I’ll give it a 4.5 on my scale at the left.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Washington Cabernets bring it on

While there’s no doubt that there are outstanding California Cabernets out there, you will pay a premium for them. And sometimes that premium is not well deserved. On the other hand, Washington had made tremendous strides with both Cabernet and Pinot Noir, and one that is easily found right now is worth the couple extra bucks it will cost you.

The Dusted Valley Vintners 2007 vintage Boomtown Cabernet Sauvignon can be had for about $13 and is a delicious find for the price. It is smooth, velvety, with enough fruit to make it interesting, but with a firm finish that is delightful to quaff. I’ve had this one twice, once with a steak and the other with pasta, and both times it was delicious.

Wine Spectator scores it with an 88, while Wine Advocate is more generous with a 91. I peg it with a 9 using my scale at the left. Definitely worth picking up.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The secret of lamb stew

Do you know what the secret is for making delicious lamb stew? It’s the wine that you use to cook with.

Many years ago, I remember some chef on television talking about wine in a recipe. I can’t recall who the chef was, but the comment made an impact. He said that when cooking with wine, use a good wine, not some cheap “cooking wine” or other cheap swill. His comment was, “If you wouldn’t drink it by the glass, then why would you want to cook with it?”

Sage advice, indeed. And it holds up after repeated testing.

As you may recall, I wrote about a lamb stew that I went over the top with by cooking it with a 2004 Châteauneuf du Pape, and it was delicious! The second time I made lamb stew (sorry, I didn’t write about this one), I used a Sicilian red, the 2008 Cusumano Nero D’Avola. And that stew also was delicious! I’m talking really good folks, positively heavenly!

While the Châteauneuf du Pape I used was a $39 bottle of wine, the Sicilian was just $11 and still made an outstanding stew.

I recently made lamb stew again, and this time the wine I used was an inexpensive 2007 Bordeaux, Chateau du Pavillon. The stew was very good, but it wasn’t the same heavenly delight as the previous two batches had been. Your guests might never know the difference, unless they happen to eat a lot of lamb stew that you prepare. But this most recent experience will likely lead me to shy away from using a Bordeaux again. If there is anything I’ve learned so far, the closer to the Mediterranean you are with the wine, the better the lamb stew.

This latest serving was accompanied with the Saint Cosme 2009 Cotes du Rhone, a really splendid wine that isn’t going to cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, Saint Cosme is a very reliable producer of Cotes du Rhone, St. Joseph and Châteauneuf du Pape.

The Chateau du Pavillon I rate with an 8 using my scale at the left. The Saint Cosme I will rate with a 9.

But enough of that, here’s my recipe.

So far, I haven’t made a lamb stew using lamb stew meat. Rather, each time I’ve used the leftovers from a leg of lamb I prepared earlier. I’m usually left with at least a pound of meat, which I cut up into large cubes. Even all the other seasoning and preparations I retain (such as pine nuts, spinach, and goat cheese).

I brown this meat in a large kettle with a bit of olive oil. Next, I add about 32 ounces of beef broth and 2 cups of wine. That’s right, 2 bleeping cups of wine. To this I add 2 cloves of minced garlic, 1 teaspoon of dried marjoram, 1 bay leaf, and about a half teaspoon each of salt and pepper. After bringing this to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.

Next come the vegetables. After simmering long enough the meat is tender, add 2 cups of peeled potatoes cut into chunks, about 1.5 to 2 cups of sliced carrot, same amount of celery cut into half-inch slices and a half to three-quarters cup of chopped onion. Bring this back to a boil and then simmer again for another 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

Things are starting to smell really good about now.

When the vegetables are tender, remove the bay leaf. Take a half-cup of sour cream or plain yogurt and mix with 3 tablespoons of flour. Mix it well. Then take about a half-cup of the stew liquid and mix it with the flour and sour cream until smooth. Return that to the kettle and stir thoroughly, cooking for another minute or so. Your stew is ready now. Don’t faint when you taste it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Behold the lamb of Halloween

I got the itch to cook an opulent meal again, as I had a few wines that were likely ready to drink. I also wanted to prepare a pumpkin soup fit for the season. The main course was to be a boneless leg of lamb prepared with goat cheese, spinach and pine nuts. I also had fresh beets to make a delicious beet greens dish, but alas, I forgot about the beets themselves and they stayed in the refrigerator. And there were also some simple skillet potatoes cooked with rosemary.

The wine selected was the 2004 Damilano Barolo Lecinquevigne, something that Wine Spectator described as a full-bodied wine with round, chewy tannins, “but turns slightly hollow on the finish.” I’ve only drank a Barolo once before, several years ago at an Italian restaurant in Chicago’s Loop with my sister, Roberta, and her husband Jack. Barolo has been called the “king of wines,” however by 2007 the king’s thrown was being usurped.

Lettie Teague writes in Food and Wine that, “the Barolos of only two decades ago bear little resemblance to the wines of today.” A new breed of winemakers had decided that Barolo needed a new look and feel with some Cabernet added to the traditional Nebbiolo grape, then aged in French oak rather than the Solvenian casks used by traditionalists. Interestingly, it was the Frenchman Louis Oudart who, back in the mid-19th century, left his mark on this Piedmont wine after being solicited by the Marchesa of Barolo. The modernists also wanted a wine that could be drank young, whereas the traditionalists required barrel aging for a minimum of two years, followed by further aging in the bottle.

Interestingly, Barolo has earned the moniker of being the Burgundy of Italy. As Teague writes: “First, Nebbiolo is a lot like Pinot Noir, the great red grape of Burgundy, in that it is also thin-skinned, difficult to grow and possessed of beguiling aromas. Second, Barolo, like Burgundy, requires its followers to memorize many names—not only dozens of producers (traditional and otherwise) but also names of communes and vineyards. And finally, like Burgundy, Barolo can be quite inconsistent. The highs are high and the lows, very low. And it doesn’t come cheap.”

The Damilano follows the traditionalists’ style using Nebbiolo only, selected from five different estates. Like a Pinot Noir, the wine’s color in the glass is a deep cranberry that is easily seen through. It was very subtle and friendly, working well with the strong flavors in the lamb. As the meal went on, there was a period when the tannins burst forward, giving this wine some real muscle, but by the time the meal was ending, those tannins had softened again and the wine finished delicate and smooth. Wine Spectator, I thought, gave it an undeserved 88 points; I thought it was a 90-pointer. And it was definitely a good find at $34, as its normal retail price is pegged at $50.

I rate this with a 9 on my 10-point scale on the left.

Here’s the recipe for the stuffed leg of lamb.

Take a 5-pound boneless leg of lamb, untie it and spread it out on a cutting board. Cut slits into the meat at about 2-inch intervals to help the meat lay flat. Cut away any excess fat. Cover the meat with plastic and pound the hell out of it until it’s about three-quarters of an inch thick. Salt and pepper it, then place a layer of freshly washed spinach greens on the meat. On top of that, crumble goat cheese, about 6 ounces-worth. Sprinkle pine nuts on top of that. Then roll the meat back up tightly and tie it with kitchen twine.

In a dish, mix a cup of flour with 1 tablespoon each of salt and pepper, and 1 teaspoon each of thyme and fennel seeds. Roll the lamb in this mixture until it is evenly coated. Then in a cast iron skillet, heat sesame oil until hot. Sear the lamb on all sides, including the ends, in the hot oil. When finished, leave the lamb in the skillet and place it into a 400-degree preheated oven. Cook about 40 minutes until the internal temperature is 140 degrees for medium rare. Let it rest outside of the over before slicing and serving.

A soup fit for a great pumpkin

The aperitif planned for my Halloween-eve lamb dinner was a curried pumpkin soup I had made in the past. Given the spiciness, I thought a semi-sweet wine like a Riesling or Gewurztraminer would work, but I wasn’t sure which one or what particular wine to buy. I’m not very familiar with either varietal. So off to the wine store I went and I asked one of the fellows there what would be a good choice. I was standing in the German aisle as he suggested that a Gewurztraminer would work better with the spicy pumpkin soup, but was I set on a German wine? Would I consider an Alsace wine? Yes, why not? While my experience with German Rieslings is limited, I have no experience with wines from the French region of Alsace. I was intrigued.

What he showed me was the 2008 Weinbach Reserve Personnelle. The store clerk told me that the wine was drier than what I might normally associate with a Gewurztraminer, but would still have the peach and tangerine flavors that would go well with the soup. Plus, he said the wine had its own spiciness that would complement the curry in the soup, a sort of spice-on-spice play that should work excellently.

His recommendation was spot on. Pairing the Gewurztraminer, with its smooth fruit and spicy texture, with the curried pumpkin soup, which had its own spice kick as well as some apples blended into the mixture, allowed each item to fully express itself without dominating the other.

Wine Spectator rates this with an 89, saying that it can be cellared for another four years. It's pegged to retail at about $29, but I picked this one up for a bit less.

I rate this with a 9 on my 10-point scale at the left.

Here’s the recipe for the curried pumpkin soup, which I found in the 1996 edition of Better Homes and Gardens Annual Recipes.

This soup can be served in a pumpkin. However, the small pumpkins I had selected for serving the soup were cooked too long and became soft, so it was served in bowls.

Take one large can of plain pumpkin and mix together with 32 ounces of chicken broth in a large saucepan or crock pot. The recipe calls for a lot more broth, but you can start with 32 ounces and add more if you want to. Stir together and begin to heat over medium. As this begins to heat up, peel and core two baking-type apples. Chop into bits and add to soup. Follow this with one medium to large carrot, chopped up as well, 2 teaspoons of freshly grated ginger root, a half-teaspoon of cumin, and 1-2 teaspoons of curry powder. Heat all this, stirring occasionally, until it begins to bubble, then simmer until the carrot and apple is cooked.

Let the soup cool for a while. Next, transfer about 3 to 4 cups of soup to a blender and blend until smooth. Repeat until all the soup has been blended and returned to the pan. Reheat the soup. While reheating, fry two strips of bacon (I prefer thick cut) until crispy. Remove and in the remaining drippings (you can pour some off if there is too much), sautee about a quarter-cup of chopped onion in the drippings with two tablespoons of sugar. Crumble the bacon and stir it into the onion.

Serve the soup and sprinkle with the bacon and onion on top. You can also add croutons to the bacon and onion while they’re in the pan.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ain’t got no bone

My friend Curt gave me a call a couple weeks ago to say that he purchased a boneless leg of lamb and he was sure I could do something with it. Stuffing it sounded like a good idea. So I used the rest of the week to think about how to stuff this bit of meat. I found a very simple recipe, although it did require a bit of work.

I took the lamb, spread it out on a cutting board, and trimmed all the excess fat and gristle from it. I then scored it with some half-inch cuts so that the meat would lay flat. I covered it with a plastic bag and then beat on it with a rubber mallet until it was more or less even in thickness. After seasoning it with a bit of salt and pepper, I took fresh spinach and layered the leaves over the lamb. This was then followed with a layer of goat cheese.

I rolled up the meat with the spinach and cheese, tied it, then seared the meat on all sides in a cast iron pan. The lamb was then oven roasted in that pan at 400 degrees until it was rare. I prepared some herb pan-roasted potatoes, but they were overcooked, sadly, and were disappointing. I also prepared a butternut squash and seasoned it with a bit of nutmeg.

The next time I try this recipe, I have some other things in mind. I found a recipe that would have you roll the meat after it is tied in some flour with fennel and thyme. I might add some pine nuts as well to the stuffing.

Anyway, I served the lamb with a Southern Rhone gem, a 2007 Gigondas from Domain Brusset, the Tradition le Grand Montmirail. It’s a deliciously powerful wine that paired stunningly with the lamb (but not like that Brunello, I must admit). This is a relatively inexpensive Gigondas – I picked it up for $21. Delicious blueberry and blackberry with just the right mineral quality.

Overall a very good meal; I just wished I hadn’t screwed up the potatoes.

I rate this wine with a 9 using my scale at the left.

One good leg deserves a stew

Needless to say, after that wonderful leg of lamb in mid-August I prepared with the Brunello di Montalcino, I had some left over. And what better meal to prepare with leftover leg of lamb than lamb stew?

Now, most lamb stew recipes, and the one I selected was no exception, call for some red wine in addition to the beef stock. When cooking with wine, I tend to take a rather extreme position. I can’t remember where I read this, but I recall reading someplace that if you wouldn’t drink a wine, why would you use it for cooking? Grocery stores have plenty of “cooking wine” on the shelves, and isn’t it curious that the “cooking wine” is generally never found in the wine aisle? That’s because these “cooking” wines are not for drinking. Well, if they’re not for drinking, why use them for cooking?

Hence, I always use a wine that I like to drink as a cooking ingredient when a recipe calls for wine.

So I was feeling a bit daring following that wonderful meal with the leg of lamb. I found a lamb stew recipe I wanted to use, and this wild hair of a notion consumed me as to what wine I should use. And what did I select? Yes my fellow oenophiles, I went all out and selected a 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Raymond Usseglio & Fils, the Girard. I poured two cups of that wine into my stew, and drank the rest while eating what was most definitely a heavenly meal.

I have no regrets over my decision. It was divine. I’ll post the recipe later, as I have another lamb stew post coming up.

I’ll rate this wine a 9.5 based on the scale at the left. The stew I rate with a 10.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A boot-heel of a wine

The Italian wine region of Apulia runs down the “heel” of  Italy along the Adriatic Coast. Interestingly, this region produces more wine for Italy than any other region, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s production.

The Cantele Primitivo 2007 comes from the area known as Solento, which is in the southern-most area of the heel of Apulia. The grape is Primitivo di Manduria, a red that a California researcher, Carole Meredith, proved to have the same DNA as American Zinfandel.

Wine Spectator rated the 2001 and 2004 vintages with a 78 and 80 respectively, not a very good showing. However, I thought this 2007 vintage to be a good wine, particularly at its price point of $10. It does come off as being simple and even one-dimensional after you first open it, but give it some time to breath and it develops a nice character with some decent tannin.

I served with is a pork tenderloin marinated in a Korean BBQ sauce, accompanied with potato salad, cole slaw and some sautéed zucchini and summer squash mixed with yellow and red bell pepper.

Using my wine rating scale at the left, I give this a 7.

When a famous name means nothing

A wine’s name – particularly when that name is a person’s or family’s – can carry great weight and be a moniker for consistency. But increasingly, a celebrity’s name attached to a wine is more of a marketing gimmick and less so a sign of quality. Case in point: the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon by the Andretti Winery. Knowing a great deal about car racing hasn’t helped Mario Andretti much when it comes to wine.

It’s not that this wine was lousy. But at a retail price of $45, a wine ought to speak something special. This one did not. Thankfully, neither I nor my friend Curt bought this wine ourselves. Rather, it was a gift to Curt from someone else.

We both agreed that this was a perfectly acceptable wine with our bison strip steaks, had it cost about $10. But at $45, this would have been a rip-off.

Using my wine rating scale at the left, I give this a 5.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A tasty mystery

Back in June when I was sampling a variety of white wines and rosé, a store employee suggested I give an Italian white a try. He handed me a bottle of Frascati, of which I knew nothing; but I must say the label had some appeal.

Anyway, this was a delightful wine, bright and fresh, light and crisp, and excellent quaffer to enjoy on any summer day. And the price was quite nice too at $10. But I really couldn’t tell from the label what this wine was all about.

As I learned, Frascati is the region the wine hails from. It is produced by Tenuta di Pietra Porzia, an estate southeast of Rome that is known for its olive oils as well as its wines. Still no real clues, however. All the label on the wine indicates is that this bottling is a Superiore, which really only signifies that it is a wine of higher than normal alcohol content (this one is 13 percent by volume). But I did find this other site, which provides a bit more information about the grapes predominant within the region.

“Frascati is situated in the town that bears the same name and has an excellent reputation for producing secco wines from a partnership between Malvasia di Candia, Trebbiano Toscano and Greco that give wines a distinct yet subtle character. According to tradition Frascati should be fermented 'on its skins'. This gives the wine its golden color and a hint of rusticity and astringency that characterizes this white.”

As I said, this was a delightfully refreshing wine, perfect for a day by the pool or at the beach or on a pleasant evening enjoying an outdoor concert.

I rate this an 8.5 using my scale at the left.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An octameter of delight

I think it was late autumn 2007, just before I moved to Chicago. I was staying at my friend’s home, Curt, while I was visiting Benny – who also lived in Curt’s home – and interviewing for a new job. Curt had been so generous with his hospitality and his tolerance of my regular arrivals to stay with Benny was so gracious that I wanted to show my appreciation. Curt, like me, knows how to enjoy a good wine, although his appreciation and knowledge of fine wine – as well as his wine-centric stories – eclipse mine: If Curt’s knowledge of wine was a degree, his would be a Doctor of Letters from Saint Andrews University, while mine would be an undergraduate degree from Ball State University. Hey I’m not knocking Ball State – it has an outstanding journalism program. My point is while my education would be solid and do me well, it would pale against Curt’s.

But I digress.

A bottle of wine seemed like an appropriate gift to show my appreciation, but what to buy?

I’m not sure of the precise time of year; was it close to Thanksgiving? There was a recent snow on the ground as I recall. Curt I believe was out of town, and Benny I think was visiting his family in Hong Kong during his break from DePaul where he was completing a Masters Degree in statistics. I was on my own and I decided to take a walk through Andersonville, which is not far from Curt’s home. While there, I walked into this corner liquor store where I was surprised to find a rather splendid offering of good wine. There were many fine wines from France and Spain, but this vendor had a very deep selection of Italian wines. There were so many, and I became distracted by the bins filled with Barolos and Brunellos. What to do, what to do? And there it was. Just a few left, a 1998 Brunello that was marked down to $35 from its regular retail price of $70. Even if I know nothing about a wine, a markdown like that gets my attention. I mouthed the words, let them roll off my tongue as they produced a magical cadence: Brunello di Montalcino.

There is only one other wine that I love to say its name, and that is Châteauneuf du Pape. There is something truly mystical about these names, as though the mere uttering of the pentameter of the appellation (octameter in the case of the Brunello) produces an incantation and fills one with the power of Dionysus. It is a spell that I easily fall under.

I bought one bottle (alas, you shall soon read why I should have purchased two), and left it at Curt’s home with a note of thanks. But I needed to know more about what I had just purchased. So when I returned to my home, which was then in Holland, Mich., I searched for this wine on the Web: Castello Banfi, Brunello di Montalcino, 1998.

It appeared that I had made a very lucky purchase. However, the reviews were mixed. The preceding year of 1997 was an outstanding year for the wine’s premium reserve bottling, which was scored with a 96 by Wine Spectator. The 1998 turned a very respectable 93 though. A blind tasting of eight 1998 Brunello di Montalcino by Weimax Wine & Spirits of Burlingame, Calif., conducted February 2004 placed this wine in seventh place.

From the tasting notes: “’This wine is short, nasty and lacks fruit,’ opined one critic. Another felt the fruit was ‘almost unripe.’ Someone else found it, also, to be ‘green and showing green tea notes. Maybe it's 'closed down' and does have decent fruit?’ A third taster felt it was ‘one dimensional and really grippy and tannic, not to mention herbaceous.’”

Clearly, these “tasters” had no idea what they were drinking. They are unfortunate rubes, perhaps. I preferred to side with the Wine Spectator notes: “Loads of mineral and dried flowers behind the ripe fruit and almost raisiny character. Full-bodied, with smooth, silky tannins and a long fruity, berry, almost fresh herb aftertaste. An exceptional wine. “

Recently, I began hinting at Curt that we ought to pull out that wine; “You still have it?” I enquired. He did, and so we began to think about what to serve with it. Curt was gunning for lamb. I’ve never cooked lamb, and I have only eating it twice in my life. The first time was at The Palamino, a fine dining restaurant in Tucson, Ariz. (Not the chain steakhouse of the same name) Not sure if it’s still there; I took my parents there in maybe 1979 or 1980. I remember the place had a rather frilly décor. I had lamb chops, and as I recall, they were OK.

The second time I had lamb was with Curt and Benny when we went out to eat at erwin one time. I had a lamb shank, which tasted good, but gave me the foulest breath afterward for two days. When I burped, it was the stench of death.

Needless to say, I was looking up beef recipes I could find that paired well with Brunello. There were many, but the overwhelming nod went toward a pairing with lamb. I gave in. And this past Saturday I called Curt to suggest he pull that wine out of his cellar and I would prepare a roast leg of lamb (I did make one more appeal to prepare a pot roast provencal, but I gave in – it would be lamb).

I found a very simple recipe in my 1997 edition of Better Homes and Gardens Annual Recipes. Lamb, as many of you may well know, can have a very strong flavor. The simplicity of this recipe attracted me. I made a rub of salt and fresh ground pepper with fresh mint. The recipe called for dried mint, but the Whole Foods I shopped at didn’t have any. Hindsight tells me the dried mint would have been better. I pierced the leg in 16 different spots, then inserted into each piercing a clove of garlic (half a clove for larger ones). Next, I rubbed the herbs into the leg and after that, smeared honey on it. I set the leg in the refrigerator to set for two hours.

Shortly after that, Curt called. “Have you ever carved a leg of lamb before?” His description of the task led me to search the Web for guidance where I found a very helpful video that I watch three times.

The side dishes were going to be quite simple: boiled Yukon gold potatoes, steamed asparagus and baby carrots. The lamb roasted for about two hours. While I let it rest for about 15 minutes, I opened the Brunello and set it out on the table with glasses. When everything else was ready and the table set, Curt asked if I had tasted the wine. I had not. So we didn’t take our first sip until we sat down to eat.

Curt and I both tasted at the same time; neither of us said anything. His expression betrayed nothing, but I sensed a bit of doubt, because that was what I was having – doubt. The wine tasted alright, but not stellar. There was a strong mineral note, but not much character.

I then took a bit of lamb, which was delicious, tender, and juicy and followed this with another taste of wine. It was the most brilliant food and wine match I have ever experienced. What initially struck me as rather dull suddenly came alive, the lamb pulling from this wine its deep flavors and character. It elevated the entire dining experience; and the simplicity of the side vegetables was excellent.

Do I dare do it? Yes! This wine I give a 10 from my scale. Not only was this an exceptional wine matched perfectly with the leg of lamb, but the excellent company that included Curt and our friends Nate and Steve made this a wonderful meal. And that is what wine is all about – living life with good food among excellent friends.

When the moment arrives

How long have you held on to a wine, waiting for a special moment? Perhaps if you have relatively good conditions for storing wine, you might hold on to something for many years, even decades. But when your wine cellar is a closet, well, the word “nervous” takes on a new connotation.

I wrote an article back in 2001 or so for The Morning Sun in Mount Pleasant, Mich., about Michigan wineries (sorry, there is no online version of this article). One of the wineries I visited along with photographer Dick Bolton was the L. Mawby winery in the Leelanau Peninsula. In general, I am not very impressed with Michigan reds, and the good whites are frequently overpriced. Mawby, however, produces only sparklers following a French style. He makes them well.

There was one I was particularly interested in, the Millé Brut 1997, but he didn’t have any left at the winery. He talked about this particular bottling with pride, and I picked up on that. So when we departed, I looked for the Millé 1997 everywhere. And then one day I found one bottle on the shelf of a store in Holland, Mich.

That bottle stayed in my closet for probably six to seven years (I can’t recall when I bought it). I wanted to save it for a special occasion, based largely on what I had read and heard about the 1997 vintage. So it stayed in my closet, on its side, waiting for that moment.

The moment came this year when I learned that Benny’s work visa for returning to the United States was approved. But would the wine be as special as the news I was going to associate with it for the rest of my life?

What a risk. I was going to take it.

I decided I would serve the Millé as an aperitif, but with what? At Whole Foods, I found the wine lady and told her what I had. Her expression after I said it was a 1997 was not helpful. What color was it, she asked? Was it a clear bottle? No, it was a green bottle. But she quickly went back into her pairing mode (I think it helped to tell her I had a very nice French rosé as a backup). She thought the Millé might taste either mushroomy or toasty, and so she recommended a cheese with truffles. We discussed options with the fellow at the cheese counter (he also grimaced when he heard 1997 – was it concern for the wine or ambivalence about their ability to make the right recommendation?) and settled on a pecorino tartufello, a cheese made with sheep’s milk. She also told me that if the bottle didn’t “pop” when I removed the cork, that didn’t mean the wine was flat or spoiled. I picked up some smoked wild salmon as well.

When I returned home, I put the Millé in the refrigerator to chill for the next day. The wine level was a bit low in the neck, I thought. Nervous.

Curt, Steve and Nate arrived for dinner and I explained my trepidation with the Millé. Curt apparently shared my trepidation to the Nth degree because he said he would have an extra-large martini in case the sparkler was a dud. But I had a very nice French rosé chilled and ready as a backup.

I brought the Millé out and pulled the cork, delighted to hear that wonderful pop. It bubbled nicely as I poured the flutes, and the taste… well, this was one freaking good wine. It had a fresh apple nose, but the taste was all warm and toasty with a hint of grapefruit. And with the cheese? It was awesome. Excellent with the smoked salmon as well. And needless to say, we toasted our first drink to Benny.

Given the company, ambiance and the wine, I unabashedly score this with a 10. Is it grade inflation? Well, you were not there.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A delightful Riesling style wine from West Virginia

On my birthday this past July, my sister Pat and her husband Chip gave me some wine, which included this interesting item from the Forks of Cheat Winery in West Virginia. The label only indicates that the Schwarzer Bär – or black bear – is a semi-dry white table wine. Nothing on the label hints at what grape varietals are used for this. The winery’s website doesn’t offer much more, other than to say that the wine is “finished in a German style.”

Judging by the bottle’s shape, I guessed this wine would drink like a Riesling, but despite the label identifying it as “semi-dry,” I couldn’t be sure of its sweetness. So my plan was to serve it with some spicy food in the event that it was sweeter than the label indicated.

That day for drinking was this past Saturday. My friend Curt came over and I prepared a Balinese pork stir fry served over steamed rice with a Caesar salad and some cold beets. The recipe for the pork is provided below. The dish is rather spicy, but has a sweet core as well from the Indonesian-style sweet soy sauce used in its preparation.

When I uncorked the bottle, I half expected a very pungent, sweet nose wafting out of the bottle but instead, I was delighted by its delicate and fruity nose. When poured, the wine was extraordinarily pale, just the barest hint of straw. The taste was slightly sweet, but fresh with a smooth, even mineral finish. It was all peaches and pear, even some lychee, but as I said, the finish lacked that cloying sweetness some American “German style” wines possess. This was really quite good and an excellent match with the spicy Balinese pork.

This is a very inexpensive wine as well, retailing for just $10.50 on the website. I rate this with an 8.5 on my scale, which can be found to the left. I would certainly buy this again on my own. Below is the recipe for my Balinese pork stir fry.

1 pound of pork stew meat or boneless pork rib meat, thinly sliced.
1 medium to large white onion
2 teaspoons of ginger powder
½ teaspoon of sambal olek (spicy chili sauce); use just ¼ teaspoon if you can’t handle really hot food, more if you can
150 ml of warm water
5 tablespoons of sweet soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper

Partially freeze the meat so it is easy to slice to the thickness of a dime. On a plate, sprinkle salt. Place a layer of the sliced meat on the plate, then sprinkle with salt and cover liberally with ground black pepper. Add another layer of meat and repeat the seasoning until you have prepared all the meat. Let it sit.

Cut the onion in half and remove the outer layer and the ends. Cut in half again across the rings, then slice about ¼ inch thick so you have half-rings. Heat a wok with high flame, add a dollop of bacon grease (olive oil if you feel like being healthy). Peel the garlic cloves and smash them with the flat side of a large knife, then chop. Just as the bacon fat starts to smoke, add the garlic, stir quickly. Add all of the meat at once. Stir, cooking until meat is just about cooked all the way.

Add the onion, stir into the meat until the onion just starts getting soft. Add the ginger powder, stirring to coat everything evenly. Add the sambal olek and stir again. Mix the sweet soy sauce into the water, then pour all at once into the wok. Stir until everything is evenly spread, then cover. Turn the heat down and let it simmer covered for about 20 minutes. Uncover for another 5 to 10 minutes so some of the liquid evaporates.

Serve with steamed rice and whatever side dishes you like.

Another great French rosé

I recently enjoyed this bright and fresh rosé from the southern Rhône region of Costières de Nîmes with my friend Curt. The 2009 Mas Carlot Tradition had a lively, dry flavor of delicate strawberries with a hint of spice. The blend is 60 percent Grenache, 35 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvedre. This 2009 vintage was delightful as an aperitif, which we enjoyed instead of martinis before heading out for dinner at Broadway Cellars in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.

There are a lot of really good French rosés on the market right now. While I don’t know how much Curt paid for this wine, it’s suggested retail is just $11. Wine Spectator gives it an 89, a rating with which I thoroughly concur. It gets an 8.5 on my rating scale, which you can see on the left side of this blog.

Bodegas Montecillo Albariño

Another very tasty and inexpensive Albariño from the Rias Baixas region of Spain. While this 2008 from Bodegas Montecillo received only faint accolades from Wine Spectator, which rated it with a mere 81, I found this wine to be quite nice, especially for $10 a bottle. I did not detect a taste of bubble gum on the finish, which WS had.

It smelled fresh of green apple, just a hint of grapefruit with some delicate floral scents. The taste was opulent, fleshy, filled with the same green apple as well as pear and nectarine. There was a subtle spice to it as well. This was all built on a mineral back of river stones, round and smooth.

It was definitely an easy drinker, one I would not hesitate to buy again. I rate it with a 7.5 on my scale to the left.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

One that should have been decanted

Last night I prepared a dinner to go with a wine that should have blown me and my guest away. But instead, it was vaguely unsatisfactory. The wine was a 2005 Gevrey-Chambertin; the year was stellar for red Burgundy, but this wine was not stellar. Coming from Domaine Drouhin-Laroze, it had plenty of potential, but never seemed to push through.

I served it with roast chicken presented with an herb jus I prepared with some leftover Barbera d’Alba. Even the chicken was not as savory as I had hoped. This should have been a fantastic pairing, and it had been in the past, but for this time, it was most emphatically mediocre.

Decanting this wine might have helped, because at the very end of the bottle, the delicious fruit of the wine was finally showing through the strident minerals that dominated the wine for most of the night. I’ve had much better Gevery-Chambertin in the past, particularly for 2005.

I will rate this with a 4.5 based on my scale at the left. For $40, this was definitely a disappointment, but even at half the price, this wine just failed to show up.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

French rosés are back

More and more French rosés are showing up on the shelves, and there are many very good ones. One I shared with friends about a month ago is the 2009 Le Pavillon du Château Beauchêne. This light, refreshing and delectably juicy rosé is from the Côtes du Rhône applellation and retails for less than $10.

I drank this as an aperitif with my friend Curt, and another friend Carl, before we went out to dinner at Broadway Cellars in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. We had some delicious goat cheese and a halibut dip. The wine was quite dry, with a delicious strawberry flavor backed by minerals giving it a bracing taste with a fresh finish. This wine is all summer and good conversation.

One other review of this wine I read came very close to calling it awful, then added the note that perhaps they had a tainted bottle. I think so! Because this was really good! I give it an 8.5 on my scale to the left.

A decent New World Chardonnay

When looking for an inexpensive Chardonnay from a New World producer (and even when tasting some expensive New World Chardonnays), I have been so disappointed that I would exclaim that I don’t like Chardonnay the way some might say they dislike Merlot. My complaint is that New World Chardonnay is often too cloying, too much like an over-ripe peach that is about to spoil. They remind me of Elton John’s song “Rotten Peaches.” And then one day I was caught in my contradiction, because I frequently sing the praise of white Burgundy, which is, of course, Chardonnay. So my lament has changed to that of, “Why can’t New World producers create something like a white Burgundy?”

One comes pretty dang close, and that is the Chilean producer Cousiño-Macul. Its 2009 Chardonnay is a delightful quaff that can be had for $10 per bottle, sometimes less. This wine has a round and fleshy taste of both light citrus and orchard fruit with a brilliant finish that has a subtle mineral quality: None of that cloying puffiness of many other inexpensive Chardonnays from the New World.

Cousiño-Macul has been around for a while; it was founded in 1856 in the Maipo Valley. This winery has been a very-consistent producer over the years, and not just with its whites, but with its red varieties as well.

I drank this one several weeks back with my friend Curt, and as I recall, it was with a meal of some pan-seared salmon with a vegetable medley of sautéed peppers and summer squash. It had the right crispness and fruit for the salmon, and would make a suitable choice for a similar dish any time.

This is a great value wine that ought to bring you nothing but praise should you bring it to a dinner party. And for less than $10, I’ll be buying this one again. I rate it with an 8.5 from my scale at the left.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Domaine de la Solitude 2001

I celebrated my birthday at my sister Roberta’s home where her husband, Jack, grilled some delicious Porterhouse steaks served with huge baked potatoes and Harvard beets. For the wine, I pulled out my oldest bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape, a 2001 from Domaine de la Solitude. I found a very interesting blog with a recent post about this producer. The author, Christian Schiller, notes that for many years, the appellation received little notice until Robert Parker “fell in love” with the region. I, too, love these wines, and now I have Robert Parker to blame for their prices.

At the producer’s website, the wine is described as being a blend of 55 percent Grenache Noir, 25 percent Syrah, 15 percent Mourvedre, and 5 percent Cinsault. The grapes are hand-picked when they’ve reached the appropriate ripeness.

As is often the case with the wines in my closet, the longer I hold something, the riskier it becomes when I decide to open one. Particularly recently, because we’ve had an awful stretch of hot weather and my apartment can get really warm and stuffy during the day when I’m not at home. But I was blessed with this selection.

Like all Châteauneuf du Papes, this one was big. There was a delicious nose of plum and blackberry, bold fruit scents that pillowed upward with a hint of vanilla in the background. In the glass, the color was brick red. And on the first taste, the tannins were there, but soft and luscious. As the wine breathed, the tannins became firmer, muscling through the fruit to let through some more of the vanilla, spice and even a bit of smokiness. Against the steaks it performed well, and complimented also the sweet Harvard beets.

The wine probably was past its prime. Although still very delicious and impressive, it lacked the full breadth of muscle this wine normally has. Roberta commented that there was a taste of prunes about it; not a negative per se, but it does suggest that this bottle may have endured one or two too many hours in my closet at its less-than-ideal climate. The drink window varies significantly when you compare the producer’s recommendation with that of Wine Spectator (WS rated it among the Top 100 wines of 2003, ranking it 33). The latter suggests this wine could be cellared through 2015; but the producer suggests that it should have been opened by 2007. I’m more inclined to think that Wine Spectator had it right, because if stored properly, I’m sure this wine has the staying power necessary for long aging. But given the conditions in my closet, I probably would have done much better to have followed the producer’s guidelines.

Oh well, it was still a handsome choice for my birthday, and I rate it with a 9 based on my scale at the left.

Not strawberries, but peaches

There are some really good rosés out there, and many are very reasonably priced. Another French rosé I recently enjoyed comes from the Rhône appellation of Costières de Nimes. The 2009 Mas Des Bressades has a lovely color, a luscious, clear and bright red that is just this side of pink. It has a light, fruity nose that tends toward the orchard. It is semi-dry and fills your mouth with the subtle tastes of peaches and nectarines delivered on a solid, mineral base. The finish is smooth, but doesn’t linger very long, leaving your pallet feeling fresh.

It’s an excellent choice as an aperitif. I enjoyed this on my birthday with my sister Roberta and her husband, Jack. It went very well with the smoked salmon we had, as well as some sliced cucumbers with whitefish paté.

According to the producer’s website, this rosé is a blend of 50 percent Grenache, 30 percent Syrah, and 20 percent Cinsault. Interestingly, the producer describes the taste as being a “concentrate of small red fruits,” which didn’t come across for me at all. No strawberry or raspberry for me; it was definitely more toward the peach, but none of the cloying orchard fruit flavor that so many poorly made Chardonnays develop. This is likely because the producer asserts this wine goes through no malolactic fermentation.

Overall, this was a great buy at roughly $11. I rate it with an 8 from my scale described on the left.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A ho-hum Puligny Montrachet

Is it possible for a white Burgundy to be, well, mediocre? What about a Puligny Montrachet? Can this appellation be mediocre?

I first learned about the white Burgundy appellations of Puligny Montrachet and Chassagne Montrachet from the Wall Street Journal wine columnists John Brecher and Dorothy J. Gaiter, whose lovely columns brought the elegance of wine to the hoi polloi. Their advice was you hardly could go wrong choosing a wine from either of these stellar appellations along the Cote d’Or, so evening finding a “cheap” Puligny was a good buy. Cheap, of course, is relative. When most of these wines retail from $60 to $80, and many commanding much more, a cheap Puligny or Chassagne would fall in the $30 range. And by and large, that advice has been sage, whether it be a white or red Burgundy; there was only one caveat. Let it be a good year.

So in my closet has been a 2004 Puligny Montrachet by Olivier Leflaive. Wine Spectator rated the year 2004 for white Burgundy with a 90, so I figured that would mean just about any white Burgundy from that year would be good. I selected this wine because I thought the price was at least reasonable at $40.

The trouble is, one comes to have certain expectations with a wine at certain price points and from certain places of origin.

I enjoyed this wine (yes, I did enjoy it) with my friend Curt during a meal of broiled sword fish and our usual accompaniment of vegetables. It had all the wonderful brightness of a white Burgundy on the front end: the brilliant mineral quality, the light and vivacious taste of apples and pear. But on the back end, the finish, this wine was decidedly lacking. Another one of those all tits and no ass types of wine. Which, considering the origin of this wine, made it even more disappointing. If I want to drink a disappointing Chardonnay, I can do that with just about any California bottling and for $10 rather than $40.

But I have to admit, I did enjoy it. It wasn’t awful, or even bad; just disappointing. And that does happen from time to time.

So I shall rate this Puligny Montrachet with a 5.5. Alas, it had such promise.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Albarino - A new discovery

First, I want to apologize for the dearth of new posts. My personal laptop died on me, the motherboard fried because of a shorted connection with the external power cord. Silly me, I tripped over the cord one day, which broke the internal connection just enough to not completely sever it. As a result, the partial connection sparked over time and killed the motherboard.

Anyway, I have found an alternative setup to catch up on my posts while I continue shopping for a new laptop. So don’t be surprised if you see a flurry of new posts here over the next week. It’s not that I’ve drank all these wines in just a few sittings! Rather, I’m just catching up with the wines that I’ve enjoyed over the past month.

As you may recall, I’ve been on a search for the perfect summer white, with the idea of purchasing an entire case. However, my search has been so enjoyable that rather than purchase a case of a single wine, I instead bought a mixed case. It’s just way too much fun trying out all these different wines!

And one new discovery I made was in trying a Spanish white from the region Rias Baixas. It’s an Albarino, a varietal that I admittedly had never tried. The one I sample was a bit pricy at $17, but this Dom Bardo 2007 was really quite nice. Wine Spectator wasn’t very impressed with it, scoring it with a 79. But I thought it was a very nice introduction for me to this varietal.

The wine had a light straw color and a lively nose that was fresh and clean. It reminded a little of Chardonnay, but not those heavily oaked California excuses for wine, nor something too creamy and peachy. Rather, it tended more toward a classic Burgundy style of Chardonnay with just a snap of the liveliness you would expect from a Sauvignon Blanc. The finish was strong and refreshing. One thing I noticed with this wine is that you don’t want to serve it too cold. It really gains character as it warms up a bit.

Given the fact this wine was $17, I’ll rate it with a 6.5: I might buy it again if I see it on sale. But it certainly was a positive introduction for me to this Spanish white called Albarino.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dionysius smiled

During a recent excursion to Binny’s in Schaumburg, Ill., I was delighted to find so many high quality wines priced relatively inexpensively. By that I mean when you can find a 2005 red Burgundy for just $30, that’s a good deal. There was also a Puligny-Montrachet by the same producer, Joseph Drouhin. I showed this 2007 vintage to the fellow at the wine desk and asked if he was familiar; he admitted he was not, but said the producer had a solid record. I thought, what the heck, I’ll take it. I showed him the 2005 red Burgundy I found for $30 and commented that was a very nice price, to which he replied that with the 2005 vintage, you just about can’t go wrong with any of the red Burgundies.

I took a look at some other wines and was about to leave when the same guy asked me, “Did you take a look at this one? It normally sells for $100, but it’s the last bottle.” Frowning, I looked at the mark down. My eyes lit up! It was marked down to $30! “We were holding some of these for a guy, but he never came by to pick them up, so we put them out.”

I grabbed the bottle thinking that any white Burgundy that normally retails for $100 is an absolute bargain at $30. But what did I have?

In the car I called my friend Curt to brag about my find. But when I tried to tell him what wine it was, reading from the receipt, I was a bit flummoxed. “It’s Beaune Mouche something or other, but fercryingoutloud! It normally retails for $100 and I got it for $30!” We immediately made plans to have dinner the following night and drink this bit of luck.

Of course, you all know what the wine is based on the label scan I have with this post. But I didn’t know a thing about this wine until I got home and did a bit of research. And was I ever pleasantly surprised.

This 2006 Clos des Mouches from Joseph Drouhin is from the Beaune appellation within the Cote-D’Or region of Burgundy. It’s name is quite interesting. Literally, Clos des Mouches translates as “closed flies.” There are a half-dozen little flies on the label, but this translation probably isn’t accurate. Does it mean the vineyard is closed to flies? Or have the flies closed the vineyard? If someone can help with a better translation of this whimsical name for this wine, please do!

What I read about this wine indicated that when released, it was considered wound up a bit tight, that it would need some aging and probably wouldn’t be ready until at least 2010. From then it should be good until 2016. By virtually all measures, it was considered a 90-point wine. I was excited! So Curt and I planned our menu.

We settled on salmon filets that would be simply prepared by frying in a bit of olive oil. As sides, I sautéed in butter red, yellow and orange bell peppers with sliced zucchini, seasoned with one of those store-bought herb mixtures (sans salt). I also steamed some fresh asparagus, and we split a potato. A simple meal, but it was a perfect match with the wine.

My first sip nearly sent me into a state of euphoria; a crisp taste of honey and hazelnut with a lemon back that wrapped around your tongue with a bracing smoothness and just the barest hint of oak, coming through more like vanilla. And the finish rich and succulent, dry and fresh. There were subtle herbs, perhaps even a hint of melon. The color was beautiful like honey. The mineral quality gave it a clear, clean taste, and with the salmon and the sautéed vegetables, this wine was a match like no other.

Why can’t New World producers create Chardonnay like this? If some do, I haven’t found them.

This is another example of why you should speak to the folks at your favorite wine store, as there is no telling what extraordinary find they will direct you to.

Wine Spectator scores this wine with a 90. But I am giving this wine a 10 on my scale, the first wine of this blog to be rated this high. What a find! I feel blessed to have enjoyed this wine with a wonderful meal and a true friend!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Two delicious Kiwi finds

I had mentioned in an earlier post a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc I had tasted many years ago that had the distinct flavor of bell pepper. It was astonishing when I first experienced it. That was more than 10 years ago, and since then I have not encountered a similar wine. The lush grassiness of the Kiwi wines? Yes, I had drunk and enjoyed many of those. But by and large, the strong herbal Sauvignon Blancs, the ones that taste like a fresh bell pepper, were absent. And the normal experience was with far too many wines in which grapefruit was the dominant flavor.

Well, hello baby! Bell pepper is back big time with these two New Zealand bottlings. And both these intriguing wines can be had for less than $10 per bottle.

The first is from Yealands, a 2009 Marlborough that I randomly grabbed from the shelf at the Binney’s in Skokie. I could smell the herbs and bell pepper right away and I was instantly excited. The bell pepper was prominent on the taste as well, very forward but not over expressive. It had a lively citrus zing as well of lime, and a mineral quality that gave it structure. The finish was juicy and refreshing. It was an easy drinker on its own, but it went very well with some simple baked chicken and frozen vegetables. I’m thinking this one is definitely on my short list for my annual summer purchase.

But then a few days later, I opened another Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, this time a 2008 by Starborough. This, too, had a delightful herbal nose, with the bell pepper on the taste much subtler than with the Yealands, but still the dominant flavor. There was a zest of white pepper as well, just a hint to give this wine some very interesting character. And oh my, the juicy citrus back end and finish left the palate totally refreshed! This was definitely a wine that could be drunk on its own! But again, it paired well with simple foods. One night I had it with penne pasta in an Alfredo and basil pesto sauce served with a chicken breast that had been marinated with Chinese marinade. And right now as I write this, I am finding it goes really well with comfort food, like the homemade chicken noodle soup I am enjoying. The herbs in the soup tend to subdue the herbal nature of the wine, but it’s still there. Coming forward now is the fresh lime with just a hint of grapefruit – just enough to remind you that you are drinking a Sauvignon Blanc.

Also during this recent round I tasted an un-oaked Chardonnay from the Australian producer The Wishing Tree. This 2008 vintage, also for less than $10, is a decent find. The Wishing Tree is a solid and consistent producer, and this wine will be favorably received by anyone you may serve it to. It’s definitely a safe wine to bring with you to a gathering with friends, a picnic in the park or at an outdoor concert. I must say, however, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about this wine. It is good, presenting apple and pear with a little citrus appeal thrown in. But it’s not on my list for my summer case. Despite that, if you’ve been looking for an un-oaked Chardonnay, definitely give this one a try. Remember, everyone’s tastes are different.

The Yealands I will give a solid 8, while the Starborough gets a definite 8.5. The Wishing Tree un-oaked Chardonnay, while good, I will score with a 6.5.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Exploring Italian reds

Not every wine I write about here will come from my closet. On occasion I will share with you an experience with a wine from a restaurant menu because often this is an excellent way to discover new wines and new varietals – that is, if you can be a bit adventuresome. It’s very easy, when dining out, to look for something familiar on the wine list, whether it’s a producer or a particular wine. But if you can allow yourself to try something different, the experience can be delightful. And it helps if you have a server or a sommelier that is knowledgeable to guide you. For that to be successful, you also need to relay some information to your “guide”, such as what wines you like and what are you thinking about in terms of matching a wine with your food.

My friend Curt and I, along with Curt’s friend, Shuji, who was visiting from Japan, went to dinner last night at one of our favorite restaurants in Chicago, anteprima, which is located on North Clark Street in Andersonville. This restaurant has a wonderful wine list that is entirely composed of Italian reds and whites; however, my familiarity with Italian wines is quite limited. With reds, I know the regions Chianti, Brunello, and Barolo, and the grape Sangiovese. And that’s pretty much it. With Italian whites, I am even more limited, with Pinot Grigio being just about the only varietal I can think of. The wine list had these, as well as some familiar varietals by Italian wineries like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but even these offered me little comfort because I didn’t know any of the particular wines.

I listened to what Curt and Shuji were planning to order and considered my choice as well. The wild striped bass special caught my eye, and Curt was going to order the pan-seared soft-shell grab, which got me thinking that perhaps a white wine would be nice, but then Shuji indicated he was going to order the grilled ahi tuna. So now I’m thinking a light-bodied red, something like a Pinot Noir. There was a Pinot Noir on the list. We also agreed to split a pasta dish as part of our starters, and the one recommended was the spaghetti cacio e pepe, with toasted pepper, garlic, baby arugula, and pecorino cheese. Oh my, what to do? The only sensible thing to do was to ask our server.

She recommended a Teroldego Rotaliano, about which I knew nothing; but her description of it being somewhat light bodied like a Pinot Noir that wasn’t going to be too heavy-handed and should match well with all our dishes sounded like good advice. However, I can’t take the first suggestion without making sure it’s the right one. So I asked her about the Valpolicella selections on the menu. She expected them to likely be a good match as well, with the Valpolicella having a spicy beam to it. That sounded interesting, but the notion of a wine with a spicy note going with the spicy pasta we were ordering sounded like a clash of flavors. So I ordered the Teroldego.

The wine is a 2006 Teroldego Rotaliano by Foradori. This grape comes from northern Italy and is almost exclusively grown in the Campo Rotaliano in the Adige Valley north of Trento, Italy. Its sole appellation of origin is Teroldigo Rotaliano D.O.C. The grape is genetically related to Syrah, as well as the Marzemino and Lagrein varieties. The grape is cultivated to produce fruity wines low in tannin that are intended to be drunk while young. General retail price appears to be from about $21 to $28. Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I ordered the wine.

When it arrived at the table, it had a delightfully fresh nose to it of light fruit. The color was quite dark, a deep ruby. And the taste was bright, minerally with very subtle tannin that I expected would soften up even more. It held up well with the pasta, cutting through the pecorino. And with the entrees, it was a very good match. With my wild striped bass, served with roast wild mushrooms and baby spinach, the wine’s tannin was very subdued and a hint of cherry came through that went well with the fish. I detected something that I thought was perhaps cinnamon as well, but I can’t be sure.

With Curt’s pan-seared soft-shell crab – served with spring onions, sundried pesto and preserved lemon – the tannins completely disappeared, letting the mineral and fruit flow smoothly about the palate with a luscious finish (the nice thing about dining with friends is getting to taste everyone else’s dish!). The tannins were firmer with Shuji’s grilled pepper-crusted ahi tuna, which was served with baby spinach and sweet and sour onions, but still paired very well with the deliciously tender tuna.

This wine turned out to be another example of why you shouldn’t be afraid to try something new when dining out. And, of course, it always helps when you have knowledgeable personnel at the restaurant to help guide you.

I rate this wine with an 8.5. Take a look at my wine rating scale at the left.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A bottle of pure POW!

Last weekend I had an urge to pull out a bottle from my closet and enjoy it with someone. There was a tenderloin left over in my fridge that needed eating, a perfect excuse to bring out a big, bold red. So I invited my friend Curt over, who also brought along his own beef tenderloin, some fresh green beans and some slaw. I baked an acorn squash, seasoned it with butter, nutmeg and brown sugar.

The selected wine was from the Australian producer Mollydooker, the 2007 bottling of The Maitre D, a moderately priced Cabernet Sauvignon from the McLaren Vale. I had heard a lot about the various Mollydooker wines, all of it praiseworthy. But many of these wines are very expensive. The Maitre D, however, I saw for $23, so I picked up a bottle and put it in my closet. That was last year.

Interestingly, this wine is not corked. It has a screw cap. And as more and more research evidence comes out, it is becoming increasingly clear that screw caps are superior to cork. The most recent Wine Spectator has an item that shows evidence that wines with screw caps are protected from oxidation much more effectively than bottles with corks. And you don’t have to worry about tainted corks either.

When we opened this wine, it presented the typical Aussie nose full of jammy fruit. When Curt took his first sip, he immediately said, “Wow!” Indeed, this wine had power. There was big, bold fruit, a chewy punch of blackberry backed with soft tannins. As the wine aired out a bit, the fruit took a softer position, allowing flavors of vanilla and chocolate to come through. Later still, it became toasty. But all the way through the bottle, blackberry played the starring role. Clearly, I think this wine could have managed more time in my closet, even with its less-than-ideal conditions. It went very well with our delicious and tender beef tenderloins, and despite the softer tannins, it matched well also with the acorn squash and all its flavors.

I will certainly consider buying more of the Mollydooker wines I find in the moderate price range, but when it comes to the more expensive items, I’ll stick to my French Rhones.

I’ll rate this one an 8.5. See my wine rating scale at the left.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Wow this is different!

If you’ve never asked the folks at your favorite wine store for a recommendation, you ought to. Those guys and gals who are stocking the shelves in most cases are not merely stock people who know little to nothing about the wine on the shelves. They know. You need to ask. And recently as I was searching for a small clutch of whites to test out for my search for the perfect summer white, I asked. One of the recommendations I am drinking right now, and all I can say is “Wow!”

The 2009 Casa Lapostelle Sauvignon Blanc from the Rapel Valley of Chile is the most extraordinary Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted in quite some time. Sometimes Sauvignon Blanc can be so predictable: it’s grapefruit with a hint of grass. But this one, it really opened my eyes and taste buds. And oh yeah, did I tell you it was only $9 a bottle?

Right off, I’m thinking this is going to be a juicy and fruity Sauvignon Blanc like so many others I’ve tasted. The nose is lively with Granny Smith and there’s the expected citrus tang. The color, however, is striking: it reminds me of a very pale vodka gimlet, a hue of Rose’s Lime. But then comes the taste. It wasn’t the expected grapefruit bomb so many Sauvignon Blancs present. Granted, there was the juicy flavor of apple and pear, and even melon, but it was subtle and brilliant (can it be both?) set against an intriguing background of very earthy flavors. I had trouble identifying the flavors at first. It struck me as spicy, like white pepper, but there also seemed to be this level of anise there as well. While the nose held that Granny Smith nicely, there was something else too that was kind of grassy, but not the kind of grassiness I normally associate with Sauvignon Blanc. What was it?

So I had to do a search, and the term I saw made sense: straw. Yes, this wine reminds me of straw; not fresh grass, but wet and aromatic straw. And there was that other flavor that was confounding me, the one I thought might be anise. Other tasting notes say chamomile. Hmm, well, maybe chamomile. I could see that, but chamomile is not the flavor I would come up with. But that’s the wonderful quality of wine. A group of people drinking the same wine can come up with different descriptors for what they taste. They may agree on some flavors, but there will always be a divergence. And that is the sign, in my opinion, of a well-made wine.

At just $9 a bottle, this one is a strong contender for my choice of 2010’s summer white.

I rate this one 8.5. It’s definitely worth seeking out and grabbing some, particularly at this price.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A delicious taste of summer

My search for a summertime wine continues, and I’ve certainly encountered a few excellent prospects. Interestingly, my latest audition was of a varietal that I’ve enjoyed in the past, so I thought I would give it another go: Gruner Veltliner. If you haven't tried this Austrian specialty, please do yourself a favor and go out and buy some! This is a lively and fresh wine, delicious and juicy, and a great alternative to Riesling. And if you need a recommendation, I say pick yourself up some Huber Gruner Veltliner 2009 Hugo.

You should be able to find this gem right around $10 per bottle. It has a very simple and colorful label that lacks some of the specific information you might find on a typical German or Austrian wine label. In this case, Huber is a Qualitätswein, or “quality wine,” which places it a step above of the everyday drinking wines you might find on a typical Austrian table at home. This dry varietal has a solid mineral quality for its foundation, a taste of slate or river stones in my opinion. Layered on top of that is juicy peach and apple, with a definite apple nose. It drinks very smooth, presenting a flavor I identify with those Creamsicle hard candies, but it’s not sugary or too sweet; this wine still has a crispness and a freshness that makes you want to eat and drink more!

In terms of my search for a summer white, this would be a strong contender, and I’ll certainly want to keep some around, but I ended up paying $12 for the bottle, and even at $10, it’s not breaking my price point of finding something less than $10 per bottle. Nonetheless, if you see this one on the shelf next time you’re in the mood for a refreshing and bright, dry white, give it a try! You won’t be disappointed.

I rate this wine with a solid 8. See my wine rating scale at the left.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Searching for a summer white

As the winds of spring return to the aptly-named Windy City of Chicago, I am once again conducting my annual search for an inexpensive white that I can enjoy with friends throughout the summer. While I enjoy many different white wines over the season, I like to buy a case of one in particular and dub it my summer white.

I have one bottle left from the case I bought last spring, which I admittedly purchased blindly. I was perusing the product list from Sam’s Wine and Spirits (which was bought last year by Binny’s Beverage Depot), using the search tool. I selected Sauvignon Blanc, because I really love this varietal, and had the list sorted by price. I wanted something cheap, but good too.

At the top of the list was this curious bottle with a whimsical lable: Chat ‘O Souris, a Languedoc wine from Vin de Pays D’Oc. The description sounded intriguing: I can’t recall it precisely, but it focused on its “crisp and bright flavor” and “dry finish.” What sealed the sale for me, however, was the price: listed at $8 per bottle, if I bought a case, I could have it for $7 per bottle.

Now, I don’t normally do something like that – order an entire case of wine without having tasted it first. I attempted to do a bit of research online to find out more, but turned up empty handed. So with trepidation I went to Sam’s to search for the wine among its aisles of racks and crates and bins. But no Chat ‘O Souris could be seen. I asked a clerk who went to the back to search – she said that it should be on the shelves. She knew what I was looking for, speaking highly of the wine, particularly for its price point. Words like “crisp” and “bright” came from her lips, and then she uttered a key phrase: “with a hint of grass.” She returned with a case to unload on the shelf and asked me how many would I like. Then she made a casual comment that they didn’t have a lot left, maybe one more case.

“I’ll take that case,” I said quickly.

When it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, I like them grassy. While I have enjoyed many a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, these wines tend to be heavy on the grapefruit, which for me can get a bit boring. But there’s nothing like a delightful grassy Sauvignon Blanc with a finish so smooth it’s like tasting a spring day itself. Karen Crawford’s fits this description, but at $17 a bottle, I don’t often pick one up. Villa Maria is another classy and grassy bottling, but at $12, I’m always thinking I can find something cheaper. Something like a Flinders Bay Pericles, which even has a hint of bell pepper. Would the Chat ‘O Souris fit that bill?

Yes and no. As the whimsical name for the wine suggests – roughly translated as “Cat and Mouse” or “Cat or Mouse” – this wine has a bit of duality to its character. When chilled, this wine has citrus clearly at the forefront, particularly grapefruit. It is indeed crisp and light, with a smooth finish. Let it warm up, however, so that it is only cool rather than cold, and the hint of grass starts to come through; however, the finish gets a bit acidic. Regardless, at $7 a bottle, I was very happy.

So will I successfully find another summer white for 2010? I’m not buying a case blind again, so I have begun some tastings. I recently tried the 2009 Overstone Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which I picked up for $8. Like many out of New Zealand and the Marlborough district, there was some grassiness to this wine, but it seemed to lack any oomph. In fact, it kind of struck me as pale. At that price point, it was good, but not one I want to buy a case of.

Which mean the search continues.

I rate the Chat ‘O Souris 2008 bottling with a 7. The Overstone I rate with a 5.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Two powerhouse picks

Last night I played host again for a dinner party to present two wines from my closet that I thought were ready for drinking. Dionysus must have been smiling upon my humble selections.

The first was a 2002 Malbec from Altos Las Hormigas, the Reserva Vina Hormigas. In 2005 this wine was rated in the top 50 of the top 100 best wines of the year (it was ranked 42) by Wine Spectator. WS scored it 92, and when it was reviewed, the suggested price of $25 didn’t seem that bad for such a highly regarded wine. It was released in 2005, so I’m guessing that is when I purchased it (I can’t remember if I bought more than one bottle at the time). The drink window, as suggested by WS, closed in 2010. To say the least, I was a bit nervous, given the fact my wine cellar is a closet.

The second wine was a 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape cuvee reserve from Domaine du Pegau. Chateauneuf du Pape is my favorite wine, and I had drank this particular bottling before. I believe I purchased two bottles in 2003 when it was released. I got it for $39, which seemed like a reasonable price. When I brought it home and looked it up, I saw that WS scored it at 89, describing it with praise. It had a much longer drink window, all the way to 2020. But again, I’d been holding on to this one for at least seven years. And when I pulled it out from my closet, I saw the wine level in the bottle had dropped to about a half-inch below the foil at the top. Also, the foil at the top was slightly bulged. The signs made me nervous.

Friends Curt, Nate and Steve came over. It was the night before Nate and Steve were to fly to Puerto Vallarta for a vacation. I still had two, quite large, bison top sirloins that I wanted to cook because they had already been in the freezer since the Oscars and I didn’t want them to get freezer burned. I prepared almost the same meal as the one served on Oscar night, with just two modifications: no portabella mushrooms this time, and instead of parsnips, I had parsley roots.

That turned out to be a rather serendipitous error. I thought I was buying parsnips, but when I got them home, I realized my error. Not sure how to prepare them, I did some quick research on the Web and determined I could cook them pretty much the same way as I did the parsnips. I washed them, cut the top and greens off, sliced them down the middle, and put them into a glass baking dish that I had heavily smeared with butter. Then I sprinkled raw sugar on them before roasting. Because I needed a much lower temperature for roasting the bison, I put the parsley root in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, then turned the oven down to 275, the roasting temperature for the bison.

The beet greens were such a hit the last time (I really liked them too), I repeated the dish. The beets were easy and I boiled them well ahead of time. Raw beets take a long time to boil. The key to it is you leave about two inches of green stems on the beet when you boil them. After they are done, put them in cold water until their cool enough to handle and you just rub the skin off the beet. I set them aside in the refrigerator, my intent to microwave them just before serving. At this time also, I complete all the prep work for the greens; my years working as a restaurant cook taught me some very helpful tricks.

For the greens, I washed them thoroughly, using a large pan filled with cold water. I’d let the greens soak for a while each time as well when I’d change the water to ensure they’d stay crisp. I soaked and rinsed them at least three times. Cut off the stems, then chop the greens, after which I placed in a colander to drain. For the other ingredients, I used half a red onion finely chopped, as well as four medium carrots, also finely chopped. I set aside the chopped items, as well as three garlic cloves, and then I chopped two thick slabs of bacon.

Another trick I learned was preparing the wine. The night before I brought the bottles out and set them upright to let whatever sediment was there drift to the bottom. Then, about three hours before the intended dinner hour, I put both bottles in the refrigerator for about 90 minutes. After this, I take the bottles out so the wine will gradually warm to a proper serving temperature. I have found this works really well, particularly if the wine has been stored at a room temperature in the mid to high 70s. This trick seems to temper the wine’s character and subdue the alcohol so the wine doesn’t come out too hot. If you try this, be sure that it’s done well ahead of serving time, because you don’t want a red wine to be served too cold; it should have 90 minutes to two hours outside of the fridge to re-warm.

The first item to start cooking was the parsley root. Once that was in the oven, I opened the Malbec first. The cork came out intact, and a sniff revealed no taint. So far so good. I then sniffed from the bottle and a beautiful bouquet of fruit and something else that smelled delicious let me know that this one was still good. I poured a small taste, looked at its deep color of currant, took another heady sniff, then tasted. I was shocked! Instead of a firm and jammy Malbec as I had anticipated, I tasted rich mineral and soft tannin that I knew would soon firm up. Curt later told me when he tasted it, it also reminded him of something other than an Argentine Malbec. In fact, he said it reminded him of a French Rhone, in particular a Gigondas. I agreed that this also reminded me of a Rhone, the delicious mineral and the firming tannins releasing the fruit elegantly. And paired with the bison – outstanding.

As I was finishing the food for serving, Steve opened the Chateauneuf du Pape. When the foil was removed, it was evident that some seepage had occurred, a rusty and crusty film on the cork. But the cork removed intact, and again, there was no scent of taint. And the first whiff from the bottle was sublime. This wine went through some dramatic changes, as well, during the meal. An early taste gave me a strong acid flavor around the edge of my tongue, almost effervescent in quality. The tannins were quite weak as well at the start. But soon this wine bloomed, the tannins getting quite firm giving the wine a strong finish that suited the bison and root vegetables beautifully. My favorite Rhone comes through again!

I’ll rate the Malbec a 9.5: the mineral quality was a delightful surprise, giving this wine some real terroir. While the Domaine du Pegau was delicious, I will rate this with a 9 because I know what this appellation is capable of.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

An outstanding bargain in stores now

There is nothing more exciting than finding an extraordinary wine for a really cheap price. And friends, there’s an outstanding bargain out there right now on the store shelves. If you ever see any bottles of Vineyard 10 Red Wine 2007, a Two Vines blend from Columbia Crest, grab them. In a Jewell near where I live, I found this gem on the bottom shelf selling for $5.99. I grabbed a bunch. So should you.

Wine Spectator rates this blend with an 88 score, but it drinks better than that to me. Made with Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Grenache and Mourvedre, it’s not a big wine, but it’s smooth and very drinkable. It has a nose like a much higher priced wine, and a silky finish with soft tannins. The blend is very similar to French Rhones, which are my favorites. This is probably why I like this blend so much. It’s fruit-forward, but it’s not like opening a jar of jam.

Normal retail is suggested at $8, so to find this at $6 was great. As the label suggest, it goes well with pasta. But this is easy to drink I think it would go with many things, and is just fine to sip on its own. Do yourself a favor and look for this one. This may be a bottom-shelf wine, but it tastes more like a mid-shelf wine.

On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the absolute best, I give this one an 8.5.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

One that was held too long

As I mentioned in my first post, storing wine for extended periods can be a risky affair if you don’t have a climate-controlled place to lay your bottles. After all, it is literally true that my wine cellar is a closet; has been all along. And one of the oldest bottles I had kept had turned out to be kept too long.

So let me tell you what I remember before I reveal what happened late last summer.

It was my first wine tasting. I was living in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., at the time and was just beginning to enjoy wine. Wine tastings are wonderful experiences because not only do you get to taste a wide variety of wine, but you also get to speak directly with the sellers who can fill you in on the wine’s background, who is the vintner, and other wonderful details. Although I can’t recall the name of the wine, I had my first New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at this tasting, and it tasted like bell pepper! It was really quite extraordinary, because until then the only taste I had ever associated with Sauvignon Blanc was grapefruit.

But the wine that really grabbed my attention was the Penfolds 1998 St. Henri Shiraz. I’m thinking it must have been either 2001 or 2002 when I attended this tasting. I was totally enamored with this wine; there was subtle fruit but firm tannins that gave it heft, and there was a long, delightful and earthy finish. I think it was my first conscious moment of a wine’s terroir.

What’s nice about Penfolds St. Henri releases is that they are like a discount version of that producer’s famous Grange. I have never tasted a Penfolds Grange, but whenever I see a bottle in a wine shop, I dream. And it remains a dream because I just can’t bring myself to spend $300 for a bottle of wine. Not yet. Someday, I will enjoy the Grange.

But the St. Henri is Grange’s more affordable cousin. Although not as sought-after by collectors, it is a brilliant wine nonetheless. Instead of paying $200 to $400 for Grange, you can get St. Henri for between $45 to $60 and still be getting a 90-point or better wine. The 1998s I purchased (I admit, I bought three that night) were rated at 92 by Wine Spectator. Since 1990, only five vintages were rated at less than 90: 1992 at 88, 1994 at 87, 1997 at 88, 2001 at 86, and 2003 at 87. So even those vintages were accorded scores higher than 85, so we’re talking good stuff.

My last bottle of St. Henri had done a lot of traveling: from a closet in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., to a closet in Holland, Mich., and finally to a closet here in Chicago. And late last summer, I had an occasion to bring it out. Benny was soon to be leaving on a trip to South America that would eventually take him back to Hong Kong where he’s from. He and I went out with another friend Eric for a farewell dinner at a really fantastic tapas restaurant just a couple blocks from my apartment – Café Marabella. Unfortunately, this restaurant closed down, I think from lack of trade. The sluggish economy really hit hard the mid-level restaurants like this one. Oh, but the food there was so delicious and very reasonably priced.

When the owner began to open the St. Henri for me, I could see we were in trouble. The cork was very dry despite the bottle having been on its side for the better part of nine years. It fell apart before we could get all of it out. Enough of a butt was left that I could sniff. There was that nutty smell of brandy. I felt a pin stab my stomach. A taste was poured and the nose still had that nutty aroma of brandy, but I could still smell some faint fruit. I took a sip and all I could discern was a specter of what this glorious wine had been in earlier days. I thought that maybe with time and air the wine would gradually open up and develop its character, but it just continued to fade. At best, it was drinkable.

So alas, this St. Henri was a disappointment for me. Normally I think I would give this a 9 or better on a scale of 10, but for this particular evening, I shall be generous and give it a 4.5.