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, 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.