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!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel, Vintners Blend, 2011

I haven't been a fan in general of Zinfandel, which often can be a fruit bomb. But I've always been a fan of Ravenswood, and the 2011 Old Vine Vintners Blend is a great bargain at $10.

Make no mistake, there is strong fruit in this bottle; it is juicy and jammy. But it's finely crafted to make it easy drinking with a combination of cherry and herbs and a finish the makes it a great pairing with grilled meat. Wine Spectator recently rated it as a Best Value. Plenty has been made, too, so it should be easy to find (I even found some in a Walgreens!). I hear the 2010 is really good too! And you should be able to find it in some shops (I know I did!).

Another great bargain. I score it 8.5 using my scale at the left.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Famille Perrin, Côtes du Rhône Villages, 2010

Nothing is better than finding a $10 wine that drinks like something more expensive, and this one does. The Famille Perrin line is from the fabulous house Château de Beaucastel, crafter of some great Châteauneuf-du-Pape and some high-end Côtes du Rhône Villages, the latter costing you close to $40.

The Famille Perrin line retains that richness and earthy quality with a nose filled with cinnamon and dark chocolate. The fruit is subtle and lightly hoisted on a mineral beam that gives a clean finish with smooth tannin. It's cherry, but it's not. It's cassis, but it's not. Currant, perhaps, but it's not. Delightful, it is! This is a great wine for a party because it won't cost you a lot to impress your guests.

This is a great bargain. I score it 8.5 using my scale at the left.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A raspberry of a rosé

When drinking rosé, what's the fruit that initially comes to mind? For me it's always been strawberry. I would almost venture to say that strawberry is the sin quo non of rosé. But what of raspberry? That's what the label on the Charles & Charles 2010 Columbia Valley Rosé says, and when I tasted it, I had to agree. This rosé has a delightful crisp raspberry flavor that is really interesting. This makes it a tad sweeter than other rosés, but not too sweet. It finishes dry like a delicious rosé should.

This wine is a blend of Syrah, Morvèdre, Cinsault, and Grenache, very much a Rhône style, not unlike the whites from that region. It holds up with bolder and spicier dishes too. I had it with my "famous" Balinese pork dish, which is both sweet and spicy. See the recipe below.

This has been a great year for rosé and I have found many wonderful wines for $12 and less. And this one comes right up to that $12 price point. I have seen it for more, but seriously, if you shop around, you'll find it for $12.

Wine Spectator scores this an 88. I give it an 8.5 using my scale at the left.

Balinese pork recipe

I find the best pork to use is boneless rib meat. But the meat from boneless pork chops works also (not as tender though IMO).

Partially freeze the meat so it's firm and easy to slice, but not so hard you can't slice it.

Slice the pork thinly and lay out on a plate, sprinkle with salt and pepper; use a lot of black pepper.

Depending on how much pork you use, you can make layers, salt and peppering each layer. Let the pork sit for a while with the salt and pepper.

Prepare/ready the following:

One small or half a medium onion, thinly sliced (use either white or red)
2-3 whole cloves of garlic, or use about a teaspoon of minced garlic
2 teaspoons of ground ginger
150 ml of hot water (hot from the tap is fine)
5 tablespoons of sweet soy sauce (the thick kind, Indonesian style)
1/2 teaspoon of sambal olek (more if you like it really spicy)

Stir the sweet soy sauce into the hot water so it's all mixed.
Heat oil in a wok (I used bacon grease for added flavor, but sesame oil is good too, or just regular corn oil).
Stir in all the pork at once, stir around.
Add the garlic, stir until pork is cooked.
Add sliced onion and ground ginger, stir quickly (the ginger will start to coat the wok).
Add sambal olek, stir so that the chili is distributed evenly.
Add the water and sweet soy mixture, stir and scrape the wok so the ginger that stuck to the wok gets mixed in too.
Bring mixture to a boil, then turn down heat to simmer and cover.

While the pork is simmering, start your rice.
Check the pork occasionally and stir.
When the rice is done (or after about 20 minutes), remove the cover from the pork and let it bubble for a while so the liquid evaporates slightly and thickens.
Serve with the rice.

This also goes well with a Riesling or Gewürztraminer.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A consistent rosé does it again

Each spring as I go through my round of rosé tasting, I always pick up the latest release from Château Beauchêne. The 2012 Le Pavillon from the Côtes du Rhône lives up to its reputation of being an inexpensive and quaffable wine. These aren't classic wines, but solid performers that are light and easy to drink. The strawberry and kiwi is fresh and light on a mineral beam that finishes clean.

This wine is food-friendly as well. You should be able to find it for less than $10. The producer has a solid reputation for steadiness and consistency. It's a great wine to pick up a case for entertaining, your guests will love it.

I score this with an 8.5 using my scale at the left.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A luscious Bordeaux Blanc

I previously wrote about Château Haut Sarthes Montravel Bordeaux Blanc, praising it for its food-friendly profile, but noting that the citrus was a bit too forward to drink alone.

Guess what? Same blend, different experience entirely. Well, not precisely the same blend. The 2011 Château La Freynelle is another Bordeaux Blanc made with Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle, but this blend is 60-30-10, whereas the 2011 Château Haut Sarthes was 50-40-10. And despite the higher Sauvignon Blanc content in the Château La Freynelle, the citrus notes were decidedly more subdued, making this blend a delight to drink on its own.

Having said that, this blend is very food-friendly as well. This widely-available wine can be had for $10 to $15, and it stood up well with marinated swordfish. It should also do well with lighter fare such as sushi and sashimi. A really nice find for the price.

Interestingly, Wine Spectator (which scored it an 85) notes that this "forward white offers good grapefruit," while I thought the grapefruit was quite subdued. Which is why my tasting notes are just as good as the "experts." At the end of the day, it's all about personal preference.

I score this wine with an 8.5 using my scale at the left.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Another Merlot disappointment

What is it with Merlot? And I mean New World Merlot. Why is it so uninspiring?

I been disappointed with Merlot ever since I tried my first Merlot nearly 20 years ago. It was a Chilean Merlot and I still have a vivid memory of how heavy the oak was. It was as if there were wood chips floating in the glass. And the fruit was just, meh.

Yet many of the great wines of Bordeaux are made with Merlot. Pomerol and Saint-Émilion are both noted as using Merlot as their primary grape, but the grape is widely used in many other regions of Bordeaux. These are fantastic wines.

But as soon as you cross the Atlantic, Merlot becomes mundane.

So, yes, I was a bit skeptical the other day while at Binny's and one of the staff asked me if I liked classic style Merlot.

"I like Bordeaux style Merlot," I replied.

So certain then that he had the wine for me, the salesman showed me the 2010 Markham Napa Valley Merlot, telling me it was crafted in the classic French style and was half-off for Binny card holders. I had a Binny's card. The discount turned a $28 wine into a $14 wine. I thought, what the heck. I grabbed two.

And now I have one bottle left that I wonder if I'll ever drink.

It was very fruit-forward and very oaky. That sense of wood chips floating in my glass came to mind, reminding me of that Chilean Merlot I had years ago. The finish was hardly noticeable. It wasn't awful, mind you, but certainly not worthy of even the half-price $14 I paid. It was more like a $6 bottle of wine.

Perhaps I will use the remaining bottle to cook with. But I'm not drinking it.

I rate this a 4 using my scale at the left.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

2012 Provence rosé shines again

My search for the perfect summer wine has been exceptional so far because of the plethora of great rosé that is available. The Rhône region of France, more specifically Provence and the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region, traditionally produces great rosé, and many of these can be had at bargain prices. My latest tasting exploration brought be to the 2012 vintage Minervois from Chateau Sainte Eulalie.

While the DMZ from South Africa and the Spanish Jumilla rosé I tasted remain top contenders, you won't go wrong with this wine, particularly when you consider it's just $10 a bottle.

Like all the rosé I've tasted so far, this is very food-friendly and would go great with roast chicken.

It is a blend of primarily of Syrah and Cinsault with smaller proportions of Carignan and Grenache. It's full of strawberry, raspberry, and even cranberry, with a hint of herb. It has a long, fresh finish that leaves the palate clean.

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

Friday, April 26, 2013

Jumilla rosé hurray!

My annual hunt for a summer wine is getting very interesting! My latest find comes from the Spanish region Jumilla, an appellation I'm quite familiar with in terms of its red Tempranillo. These wines are often very inexpensive and very expressive, although they are frequently wound so tight you can leave a bottle open for hours before it will finally relax and connect you with a sumptuously complex red that is both easy drinking and food friendly.

Needless to say, when I saw the Bodegas Olivares 2011 rosé for just $8 a bottle at Whole Foods, I grabbed one, expecting it to be tightly wound and delicious.

I was correct on one count: The wine was delicious! Juicy with strawberry and subtle spices, yet remaining dry and fresh. It was not as tightly wound as I would expect from a wine from Jumilla, but then again, this wasn't made with Tempranillo. It is a blend of 70 percent Monastrell and 30 percent Syrah. Like all great rosé, this wine is both great for just drinking and food-friendly. This is a wine I will be definitely going back for more!

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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

South Africa has a hit rosé

Admittedly, I have not always had good luck with South African wines. The reds I've tasted have been fruit bombs that made many an Australian red seem tame. And the whites I've tasted have been too citrusy and not enough herb. So I haven't tasted many because I've been disappointed so many times.

But the 2012 DMZ rosé from DeMorgenzon is delicious. This rosé is made with Cabernet Sauvignon. It is crisp, juicy, full of strawberry and kiwi flavors that roll deliciously about the tongue and finish with a fresh zest. There's watermelon and pomegranate as well, but it remains a refreshingly dry quaff. The nose is light spring fruit and subtly floral. And the color, wow! A vibrant pink, even reddish, but clear as crystal.

Also, an interesting note, the producer plays music in the vineyards under the idea the vines will produce better grapes!

Best part: it's just $12 a bottle. This will definitely be at the top of my list of summer wines. But the hunt continues!

I score this with an 9 using my scale at the left.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc

Whenever someone asks me what is my favorite wine, I unhesitatingly reply "Châteauneuf-du-Pape." This region consistently produces outstanding red blends that cellar well and can rival classic Bordeaux. Best part too is that Châteauneuf-du-Pape - even the classic ones - can be had for a fraction of the cost of classic Bordeaux.

What is fun for me as well is to see that expression of surprise on one's face, particularly if that person shows any familiarity with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, when I talk about the classic white wines that come from this appellation in the Southern Rhône. I even stumped a chef one time when a friend and I showed up at the restaurant with a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. The chef admitted he had never heard of it. And needless to say, it went spectacularly well with the whitefish on the menu.

Describing a Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is a bit tricky. First, there are six permitted grape varieties that may be used, but all six need not be used. There are, in fact, examples of this wine produced entirely with a single varietal. These grapes are not widely known even among those who consider themselves wine aficionados; they include Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Clairette and Picpoul as the most common. So when first tasting this wine, one might be a bit perplexed. This wine has the stern, mineral character, as well as the lightness, of a white Burgundy, rich with delicate orchard fruit like peach and pear. But there are spices and other flavors here that can befuddle the experienced palate, flavors of star fruit, anise, almond, and even fennel.

It's not a wine that will show up with any frequency at most wine stores, let alone a restaurant wine list. Part of this obscurity is due to its limited production. Just 7 percent of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is set aside for white varietals, and many of these are used in the red blends, leaving just 5 percent of the yield available for white wine production. Plus, despite the price (this wine can start at $30 per bottle, ranges mostly in the $40 to $60 area, but some can cost hundreds), these wines are generally crafted to drink young; very few are cellar-worthy (there is some debate about this).

But oh my, when you find one, they are worth it. And I recently found the 2011 vintage from Domaine Chante Cigale at the tempting price point of $30. I bought two of these and I admit I am tempted to go back for some more.

This particular blend is an even 25 percent each of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne, and Bourboulenc. I served it with sword fish steaks that had been marinated with mango and herbs. It paired beautifully with the heft of the sword fish, the wine showing as bright, juicy, and yet steely clean. There was just the right amount of orchard fruit, but that hint of anise and fennel was there dancing about the chilled taste of river stones.

While this wine is not something to keep for decades, it should store well over the next 3 to 5 years provided the right conditions can be had. And at $30, this is a good find.

I score this a 9.5 using my scale at the left. Wine Spectator scores it 91.

Bargain Bordeaux Blanc

The Chateau Haut Sarthes 2011 Montravel is a Bordeaux Blanc that can be picked for - wait, hold on to your chapeau - $9 a bottle. This is a delightfully food-friendly bargain, but I caution you, it's really not to my taste for drinking on its own.

Sauvignon Blanc is the primary grape in most Bordeaux Blanc and this wine is no exception (there are Bordeaux Blanc blends that use zero Sauvignon Blanc). With 50 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 40 percent Semillon, and 10 percent Muscadelle, this wine retains crispness and acidity with keen citrus notes. There is grapefruit for sure, and this tartness will stand out if the wine is consumed without any food. But combine this with food and that acidic grapefruit disappears with the wine retaining its robustness. Lime with a hint of herb assumes the starring role now.

I tried this wine with sushi and it paired wonderfully. Even with the Miso soup and gari this wine's character and structure held firm. It also managed well with a simple appetizer of sharp cheddar and saltine crackers. This will probably be a good bet as an inexpensive wine to take to a BYOB sushi or fish restaurant.

Because I would buy this again, I score it with an 8 using my scale at the left.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A French quartet

Trying new wines with a group of others can be a fun and educational experience. Will you all have the same reaction to the same wine? What flavor notes do you detect compared with what others are tasting?

Often the answer to these questions is both yes and no. A group of people can have a similar reaction to a wine in a broad sense, but different people will taste and smell different things according to their own character as well as their own biology. After all, one person may smell something in a wine that another person cannot simply because he  or she cannot detect that particular scent under any circumstances.

Recently I attended a wine tasting with a group of fellow members of the I Like Red Wine Meet Up group here in Chicago. Cities all across America have Meet Up groups and they're relatively easy to set up should you have a particular interest but cannot find a group already organized.

There were four French wines for the evening's tasting, all from the Boystown wine store The Gourmet Grape.

The first was a Bordeaux Blanc, the 2010 Château de Lestiac. As with virtually all French wines, this is a blend, and with virtually all Bordeaux Blanc, it was a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It had a very bright flavor, strong mineral, almost slate-like. There was the signature citrus and herb of the Sauvignon Blanc, but there was softer fruit as well, more like pear, perhaps from the Semillon. I could not taste any oak, although others said they did. I could see this wine working well with swordfish, but surprisingly, I found a website that suggested this wine would do well with a variety of lamb dishes! I don't know about anyone else, but when I think of lamb, I think of earthy reads from the Southern Rhône.

The second wine was a Cotes du Rhône, the 2010 Jean-LucColombo Les Abeilles. Lots of character here built upon smooth tannin. Velvety fruit with black cherry and a hint of spice with white pepper. The blend here is 60 percent Grenache, 30 percent Syrah, and 10 percent Mourvèdre. Another wine that would go well with lamb, but the winemaker also recommends grilled pork, tuna steaks, cured meats and fresh cheese.

Next in line was the 2006 Château de Fontenille, an estate whose lineage goes back to the 13th century. This wine was rich with lots of black fruit with cassis playing the star role. This wine also went really well with a pungent cheese we had, although I can't remember the type of cheese. But it was one we all joked tasted a bit like locker room sox. Yet, when paired with this wine, it was quite good.

The final wine was a 2008 Château Jonqueyres Bordeaux Superior, which actually was a bit of a disappointment. This was all tits and no ass. It was a bit grapey and fruit forward, but lacked a finish. However, it did develop more character after it had been opened for a while, developing strong tannin and more nuanced fruit. But still no finish to speak of.

As the photo suggests, there was a fifth wine that was not on the original plan, a 2012 Beaujolais Nouveau that despite it already being February was quite tasty and fruitful.

So if you want to stir things up a bit, by some wines you've never had before and invite some friends over to taste them. Compare your notes and enjoy yourselves.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Team bonding always easier with wine

When one's wine cellar is a closet, the anxiety experienced prior to tasting something you've kept there for several years can vacillate between clinging fear and scintillating excitement. Such was my array of emotions whilst preparing a dinner party for my work colleagues - including my boss. I had several wines that I thought were ready for drinking, but there was always the risk that one or more of them might have turned.

By the way, I found this "scientific document" that explains what heat does to wine and what you can expect given the storage conditions you have. Closest thing I've found to having a mathematical method for determining when you ought to stop saving that bottle and drink it now.

On the menu was a boneless leg of lamb with spinach, goat cheese, and pine nuts. This was served with a beet salad made with horseradish and Champagne vinegar. The beet greens were cooked and reduced with bacon, cider vinegar, some sugar, and red pepper flakes. For 10 people I had plenty of beets, but barely enough greens for everyone to have a taste, and the greens were awesome. You can buy other greens at the market, but I have never seen beet greens sold separately from the root. Yet you often find just the whole beet without the greens. Where do they go?

The years 2005 and 2006 were both great vintages for the southern Rhône and I had a Châteauneuf-du-Pape for each year, the Les Sinards from Perrin & Fils, and a bottle of Domaine La Roquète respectively. The Les Sinards came out brick red as we decanted, which can be a problematic sign at times. The wine was good, no doubt, expressing that sturdy mineral quality and earthiness the region is famous for. But after we finished that bottle and poured the Domaine La Roquète, we had found the superior of the two wines. Still had that bright mineral quality, but there was noticeable fruit of light blackberry and a bit of cherry. It's bouquet was light with fruit as well, making it an all-around wonderful experience.

I still have one more bottle of the Les Sinards, and based on the one opened for this night, I suspect I need to drink it soon. But who knows? That other bottle may be just fine. And I have two more of the Donaine La Roquète, which I have to add was a tremendous bargain when I found it. I paid just $19 for each bottle, and after that find, I saw that other retailers were asking $42 per bottle for it. It does pay to shop for wine in World Market from time to time!

There was enough lamb left over that I shall be making stew soon. And I wonder what wine I will make that with?

I rate the Les Sinards with an 8.5 and the Domaine La Roquète a 9.5 using my scale at the left.