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!

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.