Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A One-Way Ticket on the Train

I’m sure you've been wondering where I’ve been.

Maybe you were thinking I’ve been exploring the cellars of Burgundy, tasting the last hundred years of magic from the finest winemakers with Eric Asimov. Or maybe I've been circling the globe as Michael Rolland’s personal assistant.

Sadly, I’ve been in a not-so-happy-place, besieged by work and stress. Things turned worse when I found out that January 24th is the worst day of the year. My life spiraled out of control.

Luckily, the amazing Ms. E found me napping between a couple dumpsters, cradling a half-empty bottle of Night Train in my arms, and brought me back to reality.

So, kind reader, don’t desert me now. There’s lots of good stuff to come: great wine, bad humor and…other good stuff.

January just isn’t my month.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Of Wine and Dogs

Wine is one of two subjects about which I can speak with a small amount of authority. The other is dogs.

In what now seems like another lifetime, I was co-owner/trainer of a dog training, boarding and day care facility. I spent two years—365 days a year, 7 days a week and 12 or more hours a day—with dogs. And that doesn’t count the pack of dogs I was living with at the time.

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much similarity between these two subjects. The differences are pretty clear: one is a living, breathing animal and the other is a liquid (although Kermit Lynch would argue that good wine is also living). The more I consider it, however, the more I find in common between these two passions of mine.

The more you learn about wine, the more you realize you don’t know. The same can be said about dogs. The sheer number of breeds and various mixes certainly rivals the number of grapes, blends and wines. People have spent lifetimes breeding and blending genetic traits in search of the perfect dog, just as winemakers pursue the perfect vintage or cuvée.

Although I know very little about winemaking, I think there are some similarities between making wine and teaching dogs. Both require lots of time, patience and experience. And for those who master either trade, the results of their work can be breathtaking. Anyone who has ever watched a service dog in action should understand.

Both wine and dogs never cease to amaze me. There is subtly, beauty, grace, aggression, simplicity, complexity, strengths and defects to be found in each.

For an information junkie like me, there is an endless amount of knowledge waiting to be discovered on both subjects. And they both require hands-on learning; books can provide a foundation of knowledge, but can never replace the glass, or the leash, in your hand.

And just as each individual bottle of wine is different, so is each individual dog. No two Labrador Retrievers are carbon copies any more than any two syrahs are exactly alike.

I imagine these two passions will stay with me until the end. I can’t imagine a life without holding a nice glass of wine in one hand and stroking a dog’s head with the other.

That one in the picture is a Belgian Malinois Eastern North Carolina 1996. She’s a little funky on the nose, but once you get past that she’s warm, delicate and soft with undertones of neurosis and the suggestion of an impending bite.

I wouldn’t trade her for two cases of Château Lafite-Rothschild 1961.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #29

Welcome to Wine Blogging Wednesday # 29. Muchas gracias to Fork & Bottle for being the gracious hosts.

When I went looking for a biodynamic wine, the wines of M. Chapoutier immediately came to mind. I have a serious affection for Rhône wines and Michel Chapoutier stands tall (not in stature, but in reputation) as one of the superstars of the Rhône Valley.

He is also an outspoken proponent of biodynamics. All of the vineyards under his control are managed using biodynamic techniques, and he is clearly a man who respects the soil.

In “A Hedonist in the Cellar,” Jay McInerney quotes him as saying, “I am a soil discoverer.” Most of his quotes are peppered with references to soil, earth and terrior.

Apparently there are quite a few people who would describe him in different terms. The term “Napoleonic” has been tossed around. (The fact that he has a pronounced limp probably doesn't help.)

But whatever his quirks, he does make a mean bottle of wine. Unfortunately (or fortunately for my checking account), the only one of his many wines that I could turn up was the M. Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône “Belleruche” Rouge 2003 ($12.99). I was hoping to find one of his white Hermitages, but no dice.

It was far from a disappointing find, however. I drink a fair amount of Côtes du Rhône wines and so I am somewhat hard to impress. This wine definitely impressed me.

The nose was absolutely gorgeous—deep, concentrated and swimming with dark cherries, cassis and white pepper. The flavor was just as stunning—silky and rich with a nice balance of black and red fruit, a pleasant earthy note and finishing up with that white pepper I love so much.

The grapes for this wine are hand-picked, 100% destemmed before crushing and the wines is aged in a combination of barrels and vats. The blend varies from year to year, but as best I can tell this vintage is 50% syrah and 50% grenache.

So did it taste biodynamic? It’s hard for me to say. It tasted like a bottle of wine that someone made with a whole lotta love. And if they did so without the use of pesticides and chemicals, while also treating the soil with respect, then all the better. It certainly makes me want to seek out other biodynamic wines.

This Wine Blogging Wednesday has made me consider the importance of vineyard management techniques in the winemaking process. On a personal level, it also reinforces some of the home gardening practices I have adopted: not using pesticides or chemicals, using natural compost and selecting plants based on harmony within my environment.

Cheers, Jack and Joanne. Thanks for spreading the gospel on biodynamics.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"F" is for Friuli

I like pinot grigio. I’m not afraid to admit it.

I even like the cheap, quaffable pinot grigios that come in large bottles. Especially during our long, hot, South Carolina summers, when a reliable “porch wine” is absolutely necessary for survival.

I like Italian white wines in general, especially the light, refreshing, simple white wines like pinot grigio, Orvieto and Frascati (another F!). They don’t take themselves too seriously. Not meant for contemplation, they are meant for drinking and enjoying.

But pinot grigio (or pinot gris, as it is also known) does have a serious side, as Oregon and Washington wineries are proving now, and as Alsace has been doing for a long time. This mutation of pinot noir can make serious wine in the right place and with the right winemaking.

The place in Italy to look for good pinot grigio is Friuli, or officially, Friuli-Venezia Giulla. This is Northeast Italy, where it borders Austria. It makes sense that this cooler-climate area produces richer, more interesting wines from pinot grigio.

The wine I selected from this region was Primosic Pinot Grigio 2005 (Alfio Moriconi Selection, Total Wine & More, $9.99). It’s straw colored with a nose of apple, lemon and pear. It’s quite a mouthful for pinot grigio. Underneath the fruit is an earthy note along with some spice.

This wine is from the Friuli Isonzo, which is one of the numerous DOCs within Friuli. At this point, I have to make another plug for Italian Made. It is a very informative and cool resource about Italian food and wine.

Primosic is a family-owned winery, which produces some other whites, including another pinot grigio from the Collio DOC (another region within Friuli), a native varietal called ribolla gialla and a single-vineyard pinot grigio.

Friuli also produces some reds, mostly from merlot, cabernet franc and pinot nero. However, living in an area which doesn’t have a wide selection of Italian wines, I doubt I’ll ever find any.

And whatever you do, don't be the guy who, after I recommended a pinot grigio from Friuli, looked at the label and said, "Nah, it says it's fruity."

God, I don't miss retail.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"I Wonder What the Poor People Are Drinking?"

NEW YORK, NY--(MARKET WIRE)--Jan 9, 2007 -- According to the 2007 Luxury Institute Luxury Brand Status Index (LBSI) survey of Super-Premium Table Wines, Robert Mondavi Private Selection edged out Sterling Vintner's Collection. Raymond placed third, followed closely by Chateau St. Michelle and Antinori.

Wealthy consumers who know the brand rate Robert Mondavi Private Selection highest in delivering consistently superior quality and being consumed by those who are admired and respected.

(Read the entire press release here.)

Thanks to St. Vini over at Zinquistion for pointing me towards this information. Having worked retail wine sales, I can confirm that a surprising number of well-heeled customers prefer brands like Mondavi PS. Probably for the same reasons they like Outback, Starbucks and Borders—they know what to expect.

There are so many wine drinkers that just can’t bring themselves to deviate from their favorites. And while I can rant about trying new things—and Eric Asimov can write about it, people don’t change.

But that’s just fine with me. They can drink up all the Sterling VC they want. That leaves more Argentine malbec, Côtes du Rhône, white Bordeaux and all of the other, lesser-known wine bargains in the world for the rest of us.

For about the same $10 that a bottle of Mondavi PS would run me, here are two wines that I’ve had recently that put to shame most of the corporate wine out there.

Wishing Tree Shiraz 2004 ($9.99) – This is a blend of grapes from Western Australia and South Australia, which is another way of saying that they are from Somewhere in Australia. In any case, wherever they got them…those were some good grapes. I referenced this wine when I mentioned my affection for Aussie fruit-bomb wines, and for that I owe it an apology. I’m sorry.

While the fruit is both prominent and pleasant, there is much more to this wine. In addition to flavors of blackberry and cherry, there is licorice, a little smoke and a lovely aroma of tea. The wine’s firm acidity gives it a focused mouth-feel and keeps it from being flabby and overly soft.

Winzer Krems Grüner Veltliner “Reid Sandgrube” 2005 ($7.99) – Yeah, yeah, I know that I usually try to stay away from any wine that is “hot.” However, if the “hot” wine happens to be $7.99 and real tasty, I can make an exception.

This is a lovely example of grüner on the cheap. The flavors are reminiscent of apricots, peach, apple and Alpine flowers. It’s soft, refreshing and very food-friendly; it made friends right away with our sushi.

(By the way, I made up that bit about “Alpine flowers.” It does have some nice floral notes though.)

I was interested that Chateau St. Michelle was on the short list. For a big corporate winery, they crank out some seriously-good value wines.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Who You Callin' Fat?

Some grapes really are fat.

They can’t help it; it’s hereditary.

When it comes to describing wine, you can’t mince words. Some grapes are plump and round; others are lean and angular.

Merlot is fat; temperanillo is lean. Malbec is fat; grenache is lean. As with any rule, there are exceptions. Winemaking techniques can lend some curves to a skinny grape or can whip a fat one in to shape.

Mourvèdre is a big, fat grape.

I was reminded of this when I opened a bottle of Salvador Poveda Monastrell Toscar Alicante 2005 the other night. This is a serious bottling of monastrell (mourvèdre). Aromas of smoked meat, earth and plum billowed out of my glass. In the glass, the color is inky-purple. A sip reveals layers of plum, blueberry, baking spices and bacon held together by firm tannins.

And that was just the first night. When we returned to this the next night, some of the smoky, earthy notes had blown off, leaving gobs and gobs of rich, unctuous black fruit framed by those nice baking spices. Decanting is definitely a good idea for this wine, as well as a rich, hearty meal to accompany it.

This is yet another from my eclectic case. The label notes really caught my eye on this wine. I truly appreciate being given some basics about what’s in the bottle on wine labels. In this case, I learned this wine is produced from dry farmed vines in stony soil, and that it’s bottled unfined and unfiltered. Sold.

Mourvèdre by itself (it is more commonly used as a blending grape) is certainly not for everyone, but if you want to see this grape displayed in all of its big, fat, naked glory. This is a good place to start.

Friday, January 05, 2007

I Will Serve No Wine Before Its Time.

This recent article by Eric Asimov, put me in mind of two things:

1.) I am terribly jealous of Eric Asimov.
2.) Most wine enthusiasts reach a point in their disease where they begin considering keeping wine for aging.

Unfortunately, most of us aren’t lucky enough to have a large underground cavern. Hell, I don’t even have a basement in my house.

Cellaring wine can mean stashing a couple of cases in a closet, purchasing a wine storage unit or excavating your backyard. I’ve been reading about Dr. Debs' venture into wine cellaring (also slightly jealousy inducing) over at Good Wine Under $20.

My “cellar” consists of a stack of wooden wine boxes where I stash bottles that I think could benefit from a couple years of rest. The longest I expect wines to stay in “the stack” is five years. My one nod to proper storage conditions is that “the stack” is located in the most temperature-consistent, dark and quiet corner of my tiny bungalow.

Although I know I’m not keeping my wines in optimal conditions. I’m comforted by the knowledge that much wine is stored under less-than-ideal conditions and somehow survives.

I’ve mentioned my friend, Steve, and his large, improperly stored collection. He does his best to treat his wine right, but it’s hardly perfect. All the same, I’ve drunk some amazing bottles that were stored for a decade or more under those conditions. He’ll readily admit that he loses some bottles, but everyone who stores wine, even under pristine conditions, will say the same thing.

One day, I’d like to invest in some sort of proper cellar, but for the time being “the stack” will have to do. As a rule, I don’t stash expensive bottles, so there’s never much to lose. And since I’m not planning to keep them more than five years, there’s less of a chance that they will go bad on me.

All that being said, I am fortunate enough to have experienced the joy of drinking properly aged wine. There’s just nothing like tasting the magical effects of just the right amount of time and oxygen.

After reading Eric’s article, I remembered that I had a bottle of a 1994 Barolo that needed drinking. The last one I opened had turned bad, so I was fully expecting to send this one down the drain.

But, I’m an optimist, so I popped the cork, poured it in a decanter and went to work whipping up a simple red sauce with meat to serve over pasta.

The cork was in perfect condition—one good sign. The aroma coming out of the decanter was pleasant—another good sign.

The wine was Giuseppe E Figlio Mascarello Barolo DOCG 1994. This isn’t an expensive bottling and ’94 wasn’t a stellar vintage (in fact, it was a lousy vintage). But someone recommended it to me, so I grabbed a couple bottles.

I didn’t store it either, but I know the distributor that did is one of the few around here that actually has a temperature-controlled warehouse. It spent around three years in "the stack."

So how was it?

It was lovely. It probably was a little worse for the wear, although I can’t really say because I never tasted it young.

The color was a light garnet/brick. The nose was all alcohol at first but gradually gave way to cinnamon, dried cherry and wet earth. The flavor was cherry, cedar, a little leather and some very muted spice. It went great with the simple, rustic pasta dish.

It was subdued, subtle and dignified. It was a really nice change from the boisterous young wines I normally drink. It might have gotten better with a few more years of age, but maybe not.

Luckily, I don’t stress over such things.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Glass of Wine and a Bowl of Soup

Many years ago, a customer at the wine shop where I worked befriended me and introduced me to a whole new world of wine appreciation. I’m not sure whether to thank him or curse him.

Of course, I am truly grateful that Steve recognized I was a wine geek in the making. He had, at the time, a thousand-or-so odd bottles crowding every closet, corner, nook and cranny in his modest house. And he wasn’t afraid to share.

Everyone needs a friend like that.

I have previously mentioned him in this blog as the person who taught me that good wine need not be expensive, and conversely, expensive wine isn’t always good. He also pointed me towards a region that abounds with great, value-priced wines—Côtes du Rhône.

At the same time, he introduced me to the wines of Robert Kacher, who imports a great many wines from the Rhône, as well as elsewhere in France.

I was reminded of this last night when I was enjoying a glass of Domain de Coste Chaude Côtes du Rhône 2004. This wine is, to me, heaven in a glass.

It’s 70% grenache and 30% syrah, bottled unfined and unfiltered. It displays the bright cherry and white pepper characteristics of grenache with subtle notes of black fruit and spice from the syrah, all held together by an appropriate amount of acidity. That, combined with a reasonable percentage of alcohol, makes it extremely food-friendly.

My girlfriend and I enjoyed it with a steaming bowl of her potato soup. The acidity was firm enough to cut through the thick, creamy soup and the flavors paired together perfectly.

Although some estates are moving towards bigger, more alcoholic wines, there are still plenty of wines like this in the Côtes du Rhône—wines that lean towards finesse and subtly instead of power and bravado.

With many of these wines costing less than $10 a bottle, they are also gentle on your wine budget. The Coste Chaude set me back $8, less a 10% mixed case discount.

I’d also recommend that you look for the wines of Robert Kacher. He imports many wines in the under-$15 category, and I’ve been happy with his selections more times than not.

Thanks again, Steve.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Trip to Italy

One of the wines I mentioned in my eclectic case was an Italian red from the DOC Rosso Piceno. I’ve mentioned before that I know very little about Italian wine, although, many years ago, one of my first discoveries from "Wine for Dummies" was that Chianti Classico Riserva represents an excellent value.

I uncorked my bottle of Saladini Pilastri Rosso Piceno Vigna Piediprato 2003 the other night and was promptly shamed by my lack of knowledge about what I was drinking. I knew it was 50% montepulciano and 50% sangiovese, imported by Winebow and Robert Parker thought pretty highly of it (WA 90).

A quick Google seach turned up an extremely cool Web site, Italian Made. Within seconds, I learned that Rosso Piceno is located in Marches, which is due west of Tuscany and right next door to Umbria. The vineyards are mostly located in the hills, ranging up to 700 meters above sea level, and montepulciano, sangiovese and trebbianno are the most common varietals, along with a local grape, passerina.

Italian Made is a goldmine of information about Italy’s regions, foods, wines and much more. It’s a great place to spend a slow day at work.

Not that I would know, of course.

If the Saladini Pilastri is any indication of what the other wines from this area are like, then I’ll be hunting down some more real soon. The nose was smoky and earthy with underlying dark berries. On the palate, it was more of the same, mixed with tar, violets and plum.

We enjoyed this one with some of my girlfriend’s lasagna. I was reminded that nothing—I repeat—nothing, goes with tomato-based pasta dishes like Italian reds. Not even Cal-Ital wines really do as well.

I’ll be exploring more of Italy in the very near future.

Molte grazie, Italian Made.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy 2007!

I hope all of you had a wonderful New Year’s Eve and are currently enjoying New Year’s Day as much as I am. Last night was filled with great food, great wine and great company.

As I mentioned, we dined on fondue. I used a very simple recipe using Emmentaler and Gruyère with the slight addition of some roasted garlic. For dipping, we had crusty bread, roasted Baby Dutch Yellow Potatoes, Granny Smith apples and thin slices of prosciutto.

A couple great wines accompanied this feast, both selected from my eclectic case:

Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling Finger Lakes 2005 – I can’t say enough about how well this went with the meal. It has loads of fruit balanced with zingy acidity and a long, complex, dry finish.

Torbreck Cuvee Juveniles Barossa Valley 2005 – this was a great choice for our meal, but perhaps not for everyone’s taste buds. It is entirely done in stainless steel, so the emphasis is on the fruit. Torbreck is definitely a winery to watch. We enjoyed a bottle of their Woodcutter’s semillion at a local restaurant recently, and it was fat, juicy and delicious.

We decided to save our New Year’s toast until today, so we popped a bottle of Schramsberg Brut Rosé. It’s 58% pinot noir, 42% chardonnay and 100% incredible. Delicate flavors of cherry and strawberry dance with melon, lemon and toasted bread culminating in a creamy, focused finish.

Not only that, but it’s a great match with BBQ chicken pizza. What more could you really ask for?

Best wishes for a happy and peaceful 2007 to all of you.