Friday, May 28, 2010

Memorial Day Wine: Pommery Summertime Brut Blanc de Blancs NV

Summer may not officially begin for another few weeks, but for most of us, it may as well as soon as we head out of the office this afternoon and kick-off the Memorial Day weekend. And for those of us here on the East Coast, it seems as if the weather is going to cooperate, with plenty of sunshine, warm temperatures, and an all-around perfect atmosphere for lazing around and starting the season off right.

Personally, I make it a point every year to begin this weekend with the pop of a Champagne cork. And this year, with the Pommery Summertime Brut Blanc de Blancs NV, it’s pretty much a no-brainer what I’ll be drinking. (At least as far as my first bottle goes; after that, there are plenty of options...)

This Champagne, a blanc de blancs (produced entirely from Chardonnay grapes, 45% of which are from grand cru villages and 35% from premier cru), is pitch-perfect for the occasion. It starts off with a nose that finds a beautiful balance between the chalk notes you’d expect top-quality Chardonnay to transmit, and a hint of something sweet, an aroma along the lines of honey and springtime flowers: I could smell this all day and be perfectly happy.

On the palate, the crispness of the style dominates, and the precision and refreshment of this Champagne seems beautifully suited to the warm weather we’re all celebrating this weekend. Flavors of lime, green apple, and--unexpectedly--something hinting at the freshness of an early-summer berry sing through. There’s also the intimation of gingerbread, but just barely--a whiff for added depth.

Complexity and exuberance rarely commingle as well as they do here--how perfect for the kick-off to the holiday weekend, and the summertime we’re all looking forward to, starting this afternoon.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

All About Chenin Blanc

Continuing our coverage this week of wines that will work well with the traditional foods of the summertime, there are a couple of interesting stories that ran this week that are worth reading.

The first one, from the San Jose Mercury News, is on Chenin Blanc, one of the great white grapes of both the Loire Valley and South Africa (where it’s often referred to as Steen). This is an excellent primer on the variety’s different styles around the world and within its key regions, with a focus on France's Loire Valley. For our purposes, it’s certainly one of the grapes that you should try at your Memorial Day BBQ, as its typically rich flavors and high acidity make it perfect for sipping either on its own or alongside richer holiday-weekend preparations. I’m a big fan of it, for example, with barbecued shrimp.

Then there’s this one, from yesterday’s New York Times, on another great Chenin Blanc--Savennieres. Eric Asimov, the wine columnist for the Times, begins: “Sure, one could describe Savennières as 100 percent Chenin Blanc, but what does that get you? Chenin Blanc is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated grapes in the world, achieving greatness only in the Loire Valley, though promising wines do come from South Africa and isolated pockets of the United States. Many people may have heard of Vouvray, a Chenin Blanc wine from the Touraine region of the Loire east of Savennières, but I doubt many people can summon an impression of what the wines are like.” This story will help you do just that.

For a run-down of what South African bottlings of the variety are like, take a look at this link--it’s the web site for the South Africa-based Chenin Blanc Association.

Read up, then pick up a bottle and enjoy--I promise you will.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Memorial Day Wine: Candor Zinfandel Lot 2

With Memorial Day right around the corner and sales of gas tanks for backyard grills climbing, we’ll be focusing this week on an issue that affects (or, perhaps, afflicts) far too many holiday-weekend hosts in the spring and summertime: What to serve with the traditional foods of the season.

There’s a difference this time of year, however: With outdoor sipping and eating the norm, and the overall casual nature of things at BBQ-centric gatherings, I don’t necessarily go for complexity; rather, I prefer wines that I can sip and enjoy without too much fuss.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d be thrilled if someone offered me a mature bottle of First Growth Bordeaux at my in-laws this coming weekend, and I'd absolutely drink it with pleasure, but it would seem to miss the point: Who wants to swirl, sniff, slurp, and parse while standing around in shorts and a polo and still sunblock-sticky from the morning round of golf?

No, I’d much rather have something more straightforward, more easily enjoyable.

Which is why I’ll be sipping, alongside the barbecued ribs and spicy cole slaw, a big glass of Zinfandel--in particular, the Candor Zinfandel Lot 2, a non-vintage bottling from Hope Family Wines that’s composed of fruit from both 2007 and 2008 and sourced from 60+ year old vines from Lodi and younger ones from Paso Robles. The wine smells of blueberry preserves and the immediate vanilla and caramel warmth of oak, and tastes of blueberry compote, ripe red berry fruit, sweet oak spice, and a hint of licorice that really comes through on the finish, too. It’s fruity, straightforward, and utterly gulpable. And though you’d never confuse this with a super-complex Zinfandel like, say, a great-vintage Turley or Carlisle, you’re not meant to: This is a wine custom-made for the easy drinking season we’re about to kick off. And absolutely perfect for it.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Interview with

Just a quick link on a Monday morning: was featured this past weekend on the excellent South Florida Food and Wine blog. Every week, the blog runs an in-depth interview with a wine writer from either their own Floridian back yard or somewhere else around the country, and yesterday's was with Click here for the full interview.

Right now, I'm heading up to New York for a tasting of, and lunch alongside, a number of Greek wines, which are, in my opinion, going to be huge in the coming years. I'll write more about them--and about this lunch in particular--in the next few days and weeks as I organize my notes.

In the meantime, enjoy the interview, and keep an eye out this week for news, columns, and--as Memorial Day is approaching--wine recommendations for the big kick-off to summer.
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Friday, May 21, 2010

Wine Pairing for Vegetarians and Vegans

With Memorial Day just around the corner, and the official kick-off to barbecue season and summertime following quickly on its heals, I’ll be offering wine recommendations throughout next week, in addition to the usual assortment of links, articles, and commentaries.

As a lead-up to that, though, I wanted to link an article that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle late last month on wine pairing for vegetarians and vegans. This is a subject that not only often goes under-reported, but that also gets mis-reported: Just because a person doesn’t eat meat or other animal products does not mean that they can’t find some remarkable wine pairings.

The article begins: “It's the classic pairing mantra: red with beef, white with chicken or fish. But what if the winemaker is a vegetarian?”

This is a big issue for vegetarians, especially this time of year, with its focus on grilled meats and other quintessentially summery foods.

But, “as winemaker Thomas Houseman of Anne Amie Vineyards in Carlton, Ore., points out...’Anything that you can pair with meat, if you think about it stylistically, it's easy enough to pair with either vegetables or meat alternatives,’ says Houseman, a former cook and a vegetarian since high school.”

So what are the tricks? Read the full article, linked up right here, for a complete rundown. But for a quick primer, take a look at the tips below, which also ran with the article.

“Cooking styles can be a hint. If the traditional pairing is roasted meat, try roasted root vegetables instead. Instead of duck and Pinot Noir, try a platter of oven-roasted root vegetables. A meaty grilled portobello mushroom is another option.

“Winemaker Thomas Houseman likes Pinot Noir with french fries. To go all out, toss the fries with truffle oil, salt and maybe a dusting of fennel pollen.

“Pizza and rustic Tempranillo can be good partners. The same is true of a vegan pizza made with lots of vegetable toppings and soy cheese, says winemaker Jon Grant, a vegan.

“For a challenging pairing like asparagus or artichoke, Grant adds lemon and salt to offset the umami, or savoriness, of the vegetables and bring the flavors into balance.

“When in doubt, try sparkling wine.”

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: St. Francis Claret 2006

There’s a column in today’s New York Times that posits the theory that Bordeaux has lost its Stateside mojo. Eric Asimov, the columnist for the Times, writes that, “...for a significant segment of the wine-drinking population in the United States, the raves heard around the world [for the much-lauded 2009 vintage] were not enough to elicit a response beyond, perhaps, a yawn. For these people, Bordeaux, once the world’s most hallowed region and the standard-bearer for all fine wines, is now largely irrelevant.”

Now, I personally have a problem with anyone who writes off an entire region. (Not that Asimov is doing that; he’s merely reporting on a phenomenon he’s observed.) It’s just not reasonable to do so, especially given the sheer volume of wine, and the range of styles, that are available from all over the wine world right now.

Still, this turning-up of the nose at Bordeaux is nothing new. And, in the interest of addressing the craziness of those who do, I’d like to feature a classic Bordeaux blend for today’s wine review.

Except it’s from California.

The St. Francis Claret 2006 is a Bordeaux blend through and through, composed of 30% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot, 22% petit verdot, 12% cabernet franc, and 11% malbec. And while the percentages may be a bit different from what you’d see around the Gironde, the grape varieties are the same.

This is how influential the wines of Bordeaux really are, no matter how many people may argue otherwise these days: Cab- and merlot-based wines, regardless of where they’re produced, will invariably be compared to their cousins in Bordeaux, no matter how different the styles may be.

This one, which wears its pedigree right on the label (how much clearer an homage can there be than naming a wine “Claret?”), is a lovely example of how well the style travels. The wine starts off with a nose of violets, lavender, cigar tobacco, humidor, and minerals, as well as sweet dark cherry, plum, and a hit of alcohol-borne licorice providing a treble note. On the palate, the texture is the first thing that hits you, its melted velvet coating the tongue and providing a sense of weight. The flavors range from cedar, more dark cherries, and brambly fruit to hints of grilled sage and pencil lead. And though the fruit is certainly ripe enough, the focus here is on the non-fruit characteristics that are so typical of Bordeaux.

So: Bordeaux is dead? No way. Not there, not on this side of the ocean. This is an unexpectedly accurate homage to the classic Clarets of Bordeaux from right here in Sonoma, and an awfully tasty one at that.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wine Q & A With What Does Aerating a Wine Accomplish?

One of the top wine questions on is an issue that perplexes most wine drinkers: What does an aerator do?

For this one, though, I’d extend the question itself and also consider what a decanter does, because we’re essentially talking about the same thing, which is exposing wine to air in order to accomplish...something.

As for what that something is, it’s both simple and tough to wrap your mind around at the same time. Basically, we’re trying to ‘open up’ a wine when we aerate it in one way or another. And what we mean by ‘open up’ is best addressed as a question: Have you ever popped the cork on a bottle of wine, poured a glass, and felt as if the acid and tannins had some sort of Darth Vader-like death grip on the fruit? As if the wine itself was closed in on itself? (Picture how people hold themselves on a frigid winter day: Shoulders hunched up, elbows and hands curled into the torso, teeth gritted and muscles tense...)

By aerating a wine, we’re hoping to loosen it up, just like your muscles do when you finally get inside and sip a cup of hot chocolate.

It actually makes sense that some wines should be this tight: Even if it’s sealed with a cork (which is not perfectly air-impermeable), the juice in the bottle has essentially gone without much air except for the little bit of space between the top of the liquid and the bottom of the cork or screw-cap. It needs to breathe, which is what aerating or decanting it does. And depending on the wine, it might need a lot of air, a lot of time in the decanter. This varies by wine and by personal taste.

Sometimes, of course, old wines are decanted in order to pour the liquid off the sediment, but I’d caution you here: With very old wine, you risk showing it too much air and killing it. (It’s kind of like the wine equivalent of spending your entire life atop Mt. Everest and then, suddenly, taking an elevator down to sea level without acclimating: Could cause some problems, to be sure...) You might be better off just pouring individual glasses and allowing the wine to open up that way. Think of this as a bit of an insurance policy against over-aerating your wine.

The truth, though, is that most of us don't drink very old wine, and barring your being lucky enough to be offered, say, a 70-year-old Burgundy, aerate your wines to your heart’s--and your palate’s--content. It will almost always make your wine more approachable, softer, and ultimately more pleasurable.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Wine and Health: Red Wine, Resveratrol, and a Long, Contented Life

Some of the most exciting medical research in recent years has had to do with the potentially life-altering and life-extending compound resveratrol, which is found, famously, in red wine, and which has been the subject of countless reports in the popular wine press, national news outlets, and right here.

But, as with all such research, progress is marked by an uneven trajectory, and the fits and starts that it experiences along the way are quite typical.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a story in the Boston Globe today notes that, “even as [a number of pharmaceutical companies] have published results showing the promise of the ingredient, resveratrol, against diseases of aging, several groups of researchers have questioned whether the original findings that led the company to create a new class of pharmaceuticals really explain why the drugs work.”

Several times a month I’m asked about the health benefits of wine, and, inevitably, the question of which red wine is healthiest is posed. My answer is always the same: What’s most important right now is that people consume a moderate amount of wine, preferably at mealtime, as part of an overall healthy diet.

That having been said, and this being America in the 21st century, the quest is on to maximize the benefits of this so-called miracle compound. To that end, resveratrol pills are being developed, resveratrol-enhanced wines are being considered, and more and more people than I ever thought possible are bragging about the fact that they’re drinking a glass of red wine a day “for the health benefits.”

What matters most, though, is that wine--good, old-fashioned red wine, without any added resveratrol, when it inevitably comes along--is a part of your life. The benefits of enjoying it with friends and family, alongside a well-considered meal, will certainly make life more pleasant. And that, it seems to me, has to lead to a longer, healthier, more contented life.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Weekend Reading

With the work week drawing to a close, this is the perfect time to start considering some weekend reading. Here, then, are three articles that are worth the time to check out this Saturday and Sunday.

First is this week’s wine article from The New York Times, this one on Cava. With warmer weather here and the thirst for bubbles peaking, Cava should be on everyone’s mind. Last weekend, in fact, after the Race for the Cure here in Philadelphia, I brought along a bottle of Juve y Camps Reserva de la Familia Brut Nature 2003 to enjoy with brunch with my wife’s extended family, and it was fantastic--mature, nutty, complex, and wildly affordable. The article, including a rundown of styles and standout bottles, is right here.

There was also an excellent piece on the cork industry the other week in The Wall Street Journal. And while I’m no great fan of plastic corks--though I’m a huge one of screw caps--this article on them is eye-opening, to say the least. You have to respect the in-roads that synthetic closures have made.

Finally, a mystery: Domaine de la Romanee-Conti was the victim of an attempted blackmail recently. You just have to read it to believe it--the full story is here in the UK's Telegraph paper. Sad that this is what the wine world has come to. Thank goodness the caught the culprit.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: German Pinot Noir

German pinot noir? Ja--German pinot noir! If I’ve ever tasted a reason to break free from grape-variety orthodoxy and drink outside the accustomed box, this is it: The Weingut Bernhard Huber Pinot Noir 2007 from Baden (just east of France, toward the center of the map above), a dead ringer for a well-crafted Gevrey-Chambertin and a wonderful, supremely self-possessed example of how far this too-long-maligned varietal-and-country combination has come.

Ask the naysayers and they’ll tell you that German pinot tends toward the hard-edged and sulky. This wine, however, puts the lie to that claim with resonant finality. Its nose is all lovely cherries, flowers, and hints of horseradish with a fleeting undertow of cigar humidor. These follow through to a palate that’s bursting with bright, still-quite-primary cherry fruit, root beer, and brown spices, all of it lifted by bright acid and given delicate structure by well-integrated tannins. For all its apparent youth, though, this is a pinot possessed of a telltale silky texture and a promise of several years of evolution in its future.

Sometimes, drinking outside your comfort-zone is the best way to find vinous bliss.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Restaurant Wine Mark-Ups: What's Fair, What's Not, and Some Strategic Advice

Among wine lovers, especially those of us who know what a bottle costs at the retail level, there are few things more frustrating than finding a wine we want to drink on a restaurant’s wine list, only to move our eyes over to the right-hand side of the page and see that it’s been marked up some obscene amount. And depending upon the restaurant, that amount can range from less than 100% (perfectly fine; in fact, on the very low side) to well more than 400%.

Wine Enthusiast Magazine reported on its web site the other day that, “In a recent survey of consumers’ wine-buying habits in restaurants, Julie Brosterman, CEO of, found that 70% of respondents felt restaurant wine prices were too high. ‘People are savvier about wine markups than they used to be,’ Brosterman says. ‘They know retail prices, and they can look up wine prices on their Blackberrys while sitting in the restaurant.’”

This is an issue, especially as the economy starts to turn around a bit and people are beginning to spend a touch more on dining out. And it’s not only an economic issue, but a pride one, as well: It’s difficult to feel good about paying four times a bottle’s retail value--especially if it’s a mediocre one you can find yourself--just because you’re dining out.

Of course, there are other factors at play: The nature of the restaurant, the range and composition of the list, the kind of wine service that’s offered--all of these play a role in potentially adding to a wine’s mark-up. And, personally, I have no problem with high mark-ups at fine-dining restaurants that employ a team of sommeliers, a wine director, a glass-polisher, etc. As the article notes, that costs money, and part of the mark-up pays for that. My real issue is when more casual establishments play that game, and do so with mass-marketed wines. How are we supposed to react to a $9 bottle of shiraz that’s marked up to $50?

There are, however, some strategies that consumers can employ, including, as noted in the Wine Enthusiast article, the following:

Spend more for a better value. Most lists have higher markups on the cheapest wines and lower markups on high-end wines, so often the more you spend, the better wine you’re getting for the money.

Order mid-list. The second-least-expensive wine on the list is often marked up the most. Why? ‘People don’t want to look cheap, so they order the second cheapest wine,’ [an economics professor who has studied the issue] says. Go one or two bottles higher for a better deal.

Beware brand names. Popular brand names always get the full markup because they sell no matter what, [a well-respected wine consultant] says. ‘The restaurant is kind of punishing you for being a creature of habit.’

Be adventurous. ‘If there’s a wine I really want on the list but don’t think a lot of people will order, I put an even lower markup on it,’ says Jay Frein, wine manager at Margot Café in Nashville...’”

And, finally, go to the restaurant with an understanding of what’s more or less appropriate given the nature of the establishment.

And if the mark-ups are just too high to justify?

Ask what their corkage fee is, and bring your own.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Review: "Decanting Napa Valley: The Cookbook"

Food and wine pairing is a tricky business; matching up recipes and wines is even more difficult. There are, of course, far more variables to take into consideration with the latter, not least of which are the vagaries and weaknesses of nonprofessional kitchens and the problems faced by recreational chefs all over America. After all, no matter how dedicated a home-practitioner one is to the culinary arts, there are certain ingredients that just will not be able to be sourced, or, if they are, the quality may not be up to the same level that a professional has access to. Wild salmon, fiddlehead ferns during their blink-of-an-eye season of availability, grass-fed beef, heritage-breed pork: These are among the items on a shopping dream list that, try as we might, not all home cooks can easily find.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn’t strive, and it certainly doesn’t imply that, just because corners must sometimes be cut, we should simply give up on the idea of crafting the best possible matches for our standout bottles of wine.

Paging through Decanting Napa Valley: The Cookbook (set for release on June 16th), you’re likely to come across a telling quote from famed importer Terry Thiese: “...wines which slide smoothly onto the palate and dance in sync with food are the wines which, paradoxically, have the most to say to us.” Few of us would be able to argue with his logic. And, indeed, the recipes in this excellent cookbook do just that: They help us mere cooking mortals make the most of our wines, and, often along the way, afford us the opportunity to surprise ourselves with just how easy it is to create a great wine-friendly dish on our own. They also give us a glimpse of who we are as American eaters in the early 21st century. The view from these pages, at least, is bright, indeed.

With smart guidance and an open mind, in other words, it’s possible to eat and drink better than we likely thought possible.

The recipe authors themselves form a who’s who of Napa Valley’s and America’s dining royalty, but don’t let that scare you. Because though we’ve all, at some point in our culinary lives, paged through cookbooks studded with recipes that looked about as easy and inviting as a decades-too-young Napa cabernet, the ones provided here are do-able. And while some ingredients may be a bit more exotic and therefore difficult to find--the cardamom and Vietnamese pepper, say, in La Toque Restaurant’s warm Maine lobster and roasted sweet potato salad recipe--they are available, especially these days, with just a bit of effort.

The cooking techniques employed here, too, are generally accessible. This is in keeping with author Michelle Higgins’s note that these “recipes were developed by professional chefs for the ‘seasoned’ home chef.” So while this is certainly not a cookbook for the raw beginner, it is more than accessible to casual cooking enthusiasts with a bit of experience. And for wine lovers who haven’t cooked much in the past, this volume will work very well as an aspirational cookbook of sorts, as well as an excellent source of inspiration to page through while developing one’s cooking skills and deepening one’s repertory of techniques.

But for me, the pairings constitute the key to this book. For while few home cooks will work their way through all of the recipes, Julie and Julia-style, the pure intelligence of the pairing suggestions will open eyes and broaden horizons on their own.

White wine and pork, for example, are still not considered together nearly as much as they should be on these shores--it’s a sad hangover from the red-wine-with-meat-and-white-wine-with-fish mentality that weighed down American eaters for far too long. But the pairing of, say, the Fantesca chardonnay with a bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, fava beans, onions, and a cider jus turns out to be a no-brainer, a tour de force of flavor and texture that highlights the ridiculousness of that antiquated (and so often incorrect) pairing orthodoxy.

This is the advantage of offering recipes that are intended to match with one particular wine from one particular producer: In the pairings’ specificity, universal truths can be extracted, and often ones that run counter to what so many of us have always assumed to be correct. There are, as a result, some excellent incidental lessons here about the key roles that texture, weight, and flavor profile play in creating a great pairing, and the reader is forced to get past the old accepted rules and explore the reasoning behind the matches here. To that end, there are brief commentaries on the pairings or the wines themselves by either or both the chef and winemaker, and their explanations are illuminating and concise, as are the suggestions for what shape of wine glass to pull from the cupboard. (Georg and Maximilian Riedel, of the great Austrian glass manufacturer, provide excellent advice here, too, and it goes well beyond which of their glasses is most appropriate for a particular wine; their essays on stemware and decanting are very helpful, as are the multitude of other ones, by luminaries in the worlds of food and wine, about everything from food photography to wine label design and covering seemingly all points in between.)

As for that photography, it’s as evocative and inspiring as in any cookbook I’ve seen recently. From glamour shots of the estates and vineyards, to the kind of glistening food close-ups that fans of the Food Network will recognize and find comfort in, to photos of the restaurants that provide an unexpected sense of context for the recipes themselves, Decanting Napa Valley is a pleasure to page through even when cooking a meal is not on the agenda. Skimming Food and Wine Magazine, for example, isn’t always about planning a meal, and sitting down with this hefty book doesn’t demand having a dinner party in your future: The pleasures here go far beyond the flavors themselves and bleed--happily--into the aesthetic, too. It is a tasty, evocative combination that’s rewarding on any number of levels, and a fitting homage to what is unquestionably one of America’s culinary jewels.

(Note: Decanting Napa Valley will be released on June 16, 2010 and is available for pre-order at and at

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Remembering Vietti's Alfredo Currado

I’m hoping to write about the wines of Vietti in the next couple of weeks, but right now is the time to remember the man who raised this top Piedmont producer to the uppermost echelon of the wine world.

“Alfredo Currado, a pioneering winemaker at the Vietti estate in Barolo, died on April 30 after several years combating Parkinson's disease and, more recently, pneumonia. He was 78,” Wine Spectator Online reported.

This is a significant loss to the entire wine world, not just Italy: His passion and work have done as much to shape the fortunes and reputation of Piedmont--and, particularly, Barolo and Barbera--as anyone else’s. Indeed, the Spectator reported, “Currado was one of the first Barolo winemakers to focus on single-vineyard wines. He produced his first cru wine, Vietti Barolo Le Rocche, in 1961, a cru that after many years remained his favorite. A great believer in indigenous grape varieties, Currado was responsible for the rediscovery of the almost extinct Arneis variety and developed a modern white varietal based on it.”

Two years ago, I had a chance to attend a wine lunch with Currado’s son, Luca, Vietti’s current winemaker, and was just as impressed with the wines as I was the family’s history and their passion for the land and the wines that come from it. Alfredo, indeed, was one of the legends of the wine world, and, though he is now gone, his lifetime of work continues to be felt today, and will for a long time to come.

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday (on Thursday): Tormaresca Negroamaro “Masseria Maime” 2004, Salento

This six-year-old wine from Tormaresca still boasts a surprisingly youthful, concentrated color, though the nose is showing some lovely signs of emerging bottle age characteristics--leather, the perfume of brown spice, dried violets. In terms of its aromatics, this is a wine at its peak right now, with hints of licorice and caramel coming out on the nose with some air, as well as a charmingly complex, mysterious whiff of artisanal root beer. On the palate, the dark, brambly berry fruit and deep cherry liqueur are still sweet and ripe, though the tannins give evidence that this is a wine in its maturity: They are silky, gorgeously integrated, and heading in the direction of a lovely melted texture. This wine could go longer, to be sure, but to no real end: Right now, it has arrived at a stage at which it’s perfectly balanced, the fruit is at its sexy best, all mellow and expressive, and the bottle age characteristics are giving it all a real sense of depth. The finish has some smoke and charcoal briquette to it, like breathing in the air the morning after a cookout, though there is still enough acidity to keep it lively. What a profound wine, and totally in keeping with the string of wonderful reds from the south of Italy that I've tasted lately.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Wine in a Keg? Absolutely!

In another fantastic example of how the wine world is finally shedding the pretension that defined it for too long in the eyes of so many people, the San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this week that, “[d]riven by demand from forward-thinking sommeliers and restaurateurs, more and more wineries are ditching the bottle” in favor of kegs.

That’s right: Wine kegs. At good restaurants.

To which I say: Finally!

“Not only do reusable kegs cut down on waste and supply costs, lowering prices all around by as much as 30 percent,” the article continues, “but they also deliver what many believe to be a more reliable glass of wine.”

This is a big step. After all, for many consumers, the label on the bottle of wine decorating their table is part of the point of having ordered it in the first place. And though passionate wine lovers have always known that the connotation conveyed by the brand really doesn’t matter at all, that concept has traditionally been a tough sell.

But with wine from a keg, that’s no longer an issue, forcing consumers to focus on what really matters most: The juice in the glass.

And while “wineries lose...some sense of branding because you don't have the label on the bottle," the Chronicle adds, " allow them to build a brand with what's inside the bottle, [and] it opens up a whole new type of consumer loyalty and appreciation.”

This has to be a good thing--and it’s yet another example of how far America’s wine culture has come.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Wine Q & A With What Exactly is Port?

Five or 10 years ago, it would have been far more surprising than it is today that the third most frequently asked wine question on is “What is Port wine?” After all, this most famous fortified wine is also among the most misunderstood, and for far too long, too many people associated it with the syrupy, overly sweet stuff that their grandparents sipped alongside their cherry-tobacco pipes.

These days, however, more and more wine lovers are discovering the unique charms of Port, and in all its varieties, too: From “grapier” young ruby to toffee- and caramel-rich tawny to age-worthy vintage bottlings, Port is staging a comeback that’s every bit as exciting as it is justified. And it’s doing so among wine lovers of all ages: I first fell in love with Port as a college student, and most of my friends discovered the beauty of them around the same time, too.

This has just as much to do with the increasing range of Ports available in this country as it does with our ever-growing wine culture: As more consumers delve deeper into the intricacies of the world of wine, more of them are discovering wines that they didn’t pay enough attention to before, from sparklers to more exotic reds and whites to fortified beauties like Port.

But the Number Three wine question remains: What exactly is Port?

Put simply and clearly on, “Port is a fortified wine. Grapes, usually red but sometimes white, are picked and crushed, then the must is fermented, just as in any table wine. But before the fermentation is finished, while strains of yeast are converting grape sugars to alcohol, distilled spirits (generally in the form of grape brandy) are added to the must. The spirits kill the yeast, thereby stopping the fermentation while some sugar remains in the must. This gives Port its two salient features: higher alcohol content (generally about 20 percent) and some residual sweetness.”

Of course, Port is made in a number of styles, which tends to confuse consumers, too. Fortunately, they are easy to understand and utterly wonderful to taste when learning about them, which makes an in-depth study of Port as delicious as it is instructive.

There are, essentially, four main types of Port you should become familiar with: Ruby, Tawny, Late Bottled Vintage, and Vintage, as well as other version in between. For an excellent primer on everything Port-related, check out this link to the Center for Wine Origins' Introduction to Port. (The Center for Wine Origins, in fact, is a great go-to for all manner of wine issues and information.)

We also have to address the issue of seasonality with Ports. After all, though they are most famously consumed in the wintertime as a hedge against the cold weather, Port is a fantastic spring and summer treat, too. I particularly enjoy a glass of Port--often sipped alongside a cigar--after a barbecue. There’s something about the sweet smoky flavors of barbecued meat that leads seamlessly to a glass of tawny and brings the evening’s eating to a perfect close.

Finally, I’d like to offer two recommendations as you begin your foray into the world of Port: If you find that you enjoy them (and trust me, you will!), see if you can buy a couple of bottles of vintage Ports from 2007--it will likely prove to be one of the great years in recent memory. And vintage Port represents one of the best quality-to-price ratios in terms of the number of years that the wines will age. (A bottle of great vintage Port that’ll evolve for several decades will likely be far more affordable than, say, a bottle of Burgundy with the same longevity.)

I’d also experiment with tawny Ports of various ages. To that end, I’ve included my tasting notes below for a series of four aged tawny Ports from the great house of Dow’s. I previously posted them this past winter right here.

Dow’s 10 Year Old Tawny – Aromas of pecans and hazelnuts are balanced beautifully by a surprisingly fresh fruitiness and a barrel character that adds seasoning without overwhelming. This is a Port of remarkable structure, its body lighter than you might expect, though without sacrificing any sense of richness. The mid-palate shows both flowers and toffee, and the finish ends on a pleasantly bitter almond note. Delicious and almost dangerously drinkable.

Dow’s 20 Year Old Port – The nose here is much more dramatic, more exotic, than its 10-year-old counterpart, both spicier and possessed of greater density. And, despite the more obvious vanilla and alcohol, it still maintains a real sense of freshness, which is remarkable for a tawny this old. The nutty finish and bolder complexity make this both a perfect digestif and a steal for the price.

Dow’s 30 year Old Tawny Port – Cardamom and sweet tobacco are carried along a nose than can only be described as silky in its subtlety and elegance. This is a Port for contemplation, with warm brown sugar, grilled fruit, dried herbs, and earth all adding a fabulous sense of dimension and depth to the palate.

Dow’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port – The fact that this tawny still maintains a lively zip of acid and freshness is remarkable. So, too, is the sense that it is a completely unified whole, with spice and fruit and darker, deeper flavors in perfect balance. The overriding characteristic here is one of gently spiced caramel, but there’s so much more going on that you’ll need at least an entire glass—and maybe two—to parse it all. Call it the T.S. Eliot of Port: It demands rapt attention, but the work is more than rewarded in the end.

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