Monday, November 29, 2010

The Wines of Israel

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it’s time to focus on the wines that will be uncorked at the holiday table this year. And, as always, I cannot recommend strongly enough how important it is to break with years past, drink outside the box of habit and tradition, and take advantage of the full range of wine options available these days.

Much has been made recently--and by recently I mean the past 10 years or so--about the wide range of wine-producing countries that are finally making names for themselves on this side of the Atlantic. In just the past year, this blog has covered wines from no fewer than a dozen countries around the world, many of them relatively unfamiliar in wine-drinking circles just a few short years ago.

And now, this weekend, both The Virtual Gourmet and Bloomberg Muse News ran an excellent article by John Mariani on the wines of Israel, a country that, thousands of years into its history, is really starting to make wines of note.

“A decade ago,” Mariani begins, “I’d never have written this sentence: ‘On a recent trip to Israel I was very enthusiastic to order Israeli wines with my meals.’” He goes on to note that, though there were the occasional pitfalls that so many up-and-coming wine-producing countries fall victim to, the wines he tasted, particularly the reds, “were clean, well made, and dry.” He added: “Many can compete with the better wines coming out of Lebanon, Eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal.”

The complete article is linked up above. It’s a fantastic overview of a country whose wines will likely get plenty of attention during the holiday season, but that are enjoyable throughout the year, improving all the times, and certainly worth learning more about.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Restaurant Wine Strategies

Now that Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror--turkey’s sliced and frozen and packed away for a month’s worth of sandwiches, the kitchen no longer looks like FEMA needs to condemn it, and the sale-mad crowds have begun their annual search for bargains--most of us would probably love a night out. At a restaurant. Eating food and drinking wine that doesn’t require our own planning and clean-up.

Which is why the short piece that Alan Richman wrote this past September in GQ, on tips for ordering wine in restaurants, is so timely, even nearly three months after it initially ran. Because now that the holiday season is fully upon us, and now that the cold weather and early-setting sun and free-spending nature of the next month or so provides us with all the reason we really need to splurge on a bottle or three of wine at dinner, some strategies will prove helpful.

Richman recommends some standard pieces of advice here, like always having the confidence to tell the sommelier when you think the wine may not be up to snuff, or not sniffing the cork when it’s presented to you, or not slurping loud enough for the people three tables away to hear you. But there are some less-commonly heard ones too. And to his words of wisdom, I’d also add five of my own:

Try wines from out of the way regions that you’ve never heard of before; discovery equals joy.

Start off with something to whet your appetite, like a bone-dry Fino Sherry.

Don’t get roped into the great-vintage hype; ask for an off-vintage wine from a favorite region and see how it shows.

Scan the wine list for half-bottles and order several different ones; mixing and matching wines and dishes throughout a meal is a lot of fun and a great education.

End the meal with a digestif: Grappa, amaro...anything to settle your stomach after eating a lot of food. (If you do this, have someone else drive home.)

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Thanksgiving Edition

Thanksgiving dinner is one of the more difficult meals to pair a single wine with. From the hors d’oeuvres that you nibble as the rest of the family slowly makes its way to the house, to the roasted turkey (which itself wouldn’t be too much of a headache, blank canvas as it is), to the more troublesome sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, tomorrow night’s meal is enough to challenge even the most wine-versed among us.

Which is why you shouldn’t worry about sticking with one wine. Keep your options open, mix and match throughout the meal, and see what works best. Personally, I always have a bottle of bubbly on the table, as well as crisp whites (both dry and a bit sweeter), an aromatically bright red (try Pinot Noir or Beaujolais-Villages), and something for dessert. Below are three wines I’ve tasted in the past week that would work beautifully.

Gini Soave Classico 2009

There’s a distinctively crisp, clean, mineral-driven nose here, with flecks of dried apricot and spice at the edges; it’s a fantastic counter to anyone who says that Soave can’t have a sense of purpose and real complexity. On the palate, it shows zippy peppercorn flavors wrapped around ripe lemon and orange, preserved lemon peel, and something approaching acacia. For all this linearity, however, this is a Soave that should not be drunk too cold: You want to experience it in 360 degrees, and this one has more than enough character to shine at cellar temperature.

Rocca Sveva Soave Classico 2008

This is a totally different expression of Soave: Waxy and nutty, with lots of cream and perfumed flowers. It reminds me, in a lot of ways, of a white Rhone, especially considering the density of the aromas. The nuts and cream continue through to the palate, where they take on a slippery, almost glycerine texture that gives this wine remarkable weight and presence. The minerality and lemon notes are still here, as are loads of apple and a hint of something near persimmon. Totally different, completely unexpected, and thoroughly delicious.

Inniskillin Vidal Icewine 2007

It’s clear that this is a very special wine from the moment you pour it into the glass: The rich gold tone is the first thing you notice, but then the aroma lifts out of the bowl and intrigues with its scents of dried pineapple, caramelized apple, candied orange peel, and the slightest flutter of flowers. These fan out on the palate and are complicated by flavors of super-fresh pineapple, grilled white peach, mulling spices, and spun sugar. It’s a rich wine, like the best sweet ones are, but never heavy or plodding: There’s a strain of acidity keeping it bright and maintaining a sense of linearity from attack through finish, which itself lingers on with more tropical fruit, flowers, and mouthwatering brightness. Wonderful intensity and balance, and never too sweet: What a great way to end Thanksgiving dinner.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Very Old Champagne

Earlier in the year, we reported on the discovery of very, very old Champagne in the Baltic Sea. Now, finally, some of it has been opened and assessed. A video from The Wall Street Journal is below. It speaks plenty for itself...

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Wine Origins, Sherry, and Thanksgiving

The Center for Wine Origins, the organization that works to "protect and promote unique wines from unique locations," and works closely with the wines of both Champagne and Portugal, recently featured us on their blog. Click here for the column I wrote about the trip I took to Jerez this past September. It's a region that fits perfectly into the Center for Wine Origins' goals: Real Sherry can only come from this part of Spain, and is unlike anything else in the world. They are fighting for something that maters deeply, especially as the wine world grows and shifts from one center of gravity to another. Check out their site--it's a great education.

Also, a reminder to check back frequently next week, as we'll be featuring wines all week--in addition to our usual coverage of wine news and happenings--that will work well with Thanksgiving dinner.
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Idiosyncrasy and Refreshment

This week, we feature three very different wines, and hopscotch around the globe in the process. From California to Chile to Australia, Wine Review Wednesday this week is all about the kind of crystalline expression and idiosyncrasy that make wines like these such a joy to drink.

ForeFront by Pine Ridge Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2009

With 50% of its fruit from Sonoma, 32% from Napa, and 18% from Mendocino, this bright, springlike Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect antidote to the encroaching wintertime blues. Super-fresh aromas of subtly spicy white-berry fruit, sun-warmed hay, and grapefruit pith lead to a nicely concentrated palate whose flavors maintain that brightness while also turning a bit darker. A real sense of minerality comes through, as does not-too-sweet orange and more of that spice from the nose. Beautiful wine, amazingly complex for the money, and rich enough to work well as the days grow shorter and colder.

Santa Carolina “Coastal Hills” Syrah 2009

From Chile’s exquisite Maipo Valley comes this beautiful, deep-cranberry hued red. The nose is all creamy, expressively brambly berries, wild strawberry, and plum fruit edged with a note than reminds me of grilled beef with some sort of creamy peppercorn sauce. It’s impossible to smell this wine and not get hungry. On the palate, the sweetness of the cherries is kept in immediate check with flashes of pencil lead and cedar. The balance between ripeness and earth, between fruit and terroir, is wonderful here. Really well-made, and a pleasure to drink.

Xavier Flouret “Waroo” Shiraz 2009

The nose on this Shiraz, coaxed to life by winemaker Bernie Stanlake of Fonty’s Pool, is as alive with peppercorn as any I’ve smelled all year. In fact, considered blind, I’m not sure I’d ever guess this is from Australia. Then again, many of the best producers there are working diligently to educate the wine-drinking public that Australian Shiraz doesn’t have to be a fruit bomb. With air, sparks of iron, black cherry, subtle black plum, and oregano come out. All of that follows through to the palate, too, where it’s joined by macerated black cherries, blackberries, hints of dried figs, and herbes de provence. Balanced, spicy, and expressive in both the fruit and terroir departments: This is the new Australia. This is deeply satisfying Shiraz.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There's More to Beaujolais than Nouveau

With Beaujolais Nouveau arriving in two days, this seems like the right time for a discussion on Beaujolais in all its many incarnations. After all, though the Nouveau is an often fun and almost always gulpable wine, it is far from the extent of the region’s potential.

There are four kinds of Beaujolais you can find. They are, in ascending order of quality:

Beaujolais Nouveau, which is released on the third Thursday of November each year, and should be consumed in the very short-term.

Beaujolais, whose grapes come from anywhere within the Beaujolais region itself.

Beaujolais-Villages, whose grapes come from any of the more than three dozen specific villages whose fruit is supposed to be of higher quality than elsewhere in the region.

Cru Beaujolais, which comes from any of 10 specific crus, is often surprisingly age-worthy, and whose labels note the name of the cru and not Beaujolais itself.

The best part about Beaujolais is that the values are often stellar, and the price differences between standard Beaujolais and a well-made cru bottling is typically far less than the difference between, say, Bourgogne Blanc and Meursault.

So while Thursday will be a time for revelry, take advantage of all that this region has to offer. It’s about so much more than the light, fruity, fun juice we’ll all be gulping in 48 hours.

(As an aside, here is an excellent article by Jancis Robinson on the fantastic 2009 vintage in Beaujolais.)

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Only in Paris...

Just a quick post on a Friday afternoon, and a suggestion to check your favorite travel sites for cheap tickets to Paris. Because this weekend, is reporting, "The Crédit Municipal de Paris – the city of Paris's treasury – is hosting its second annual wine auction, on 16 November, at its offices in the Marais."

"Next week's sale," the article continues, "features 400 lots of fine wine and spirits. Highlights include single bottles of Salon le Mesnil (from 1959 to 1964, and estimated at €2,000-3,500); Domaine de la Romanee Conti Romanee Conti (from the 1970s, 80s and 90s and ranging from €1,500-2,800); and Gaja's 1997 Sori San Lorenzo and Costa Russi."

In other words, this is the perfect time for a long weekend in the City of Lights...and potentially great deals on some spectacular wine.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Seasonal Warmers

It’s been cold here in the northeast--daytime highs in the mid-50s and nights dipping into the 30s. And while I’d take the warmer weather of spring and summer over this given the chance, there is one advantage to the chill in the air: It provides a perfect excuse for popping the corks (or unscrewing the Stelvins) on juicy, soulful wines that seem to wrap you up in a blanket of warmth from the inside.

Over the past week, then, I’ve focused on tasting either wines that have brought warmer seasons to mind, or that were juicy and rich enough on their own to make me forget about the fact that, a month or so from now, I’ll likely need a Snuggie to keep from shivering.

Tilia Torrontes 2009, Salta

Torrontes does brilliantly in Northern Argentina, and few places are home to more exciting bottlings than Salta. This one smells just like slicing into a ripe honeydew while sitting on a honeysuckle- and orange blossom-ringed patio: If there’s a wine more evocative of springtime, I haven’t found it. In fact, that melon is so ripe that it’s edged with a sense of funkiness, which provides an unexpected depth. The white peach flavors here are less sweet than the nose implies, and kept in check by acid that comes racing up the back end with flashes of white pepper, menthol, and sun-warmed grass. Drink now, and think of warmer days to come.

Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc Reserve 2008, Napa Valley

What a wholly unique and utterly Californian expression of Sauvignon Blanc. It smells of some sort of rich, vaguely smoky, delicately peach-scented popcorn and spice, with a twist of white pepper, white grapefruit, and kaffir lime leaf. The lively palate is far brighter than the nose implies, with lots of pink and white grapefruit, mandarin orange, kumquat, and spice notes, a finish that whispers of honeydew, vanilla and nutmeg, and nervy acidity perfectly in tune with the richness of the texture. Exceptionally complex and well-crafted, and a serious Sauvignon Blanc that should continue to evolve for 2 - 4 years. But don’t hold back now--the pleasures of this wine are tremendous.

Montes Alpha Syrah 2008 “Apalta Vineyard,” Colchagua Valley

Blackberries, asphalt, and a touch of bacon define the nose here--serious Syrah aromas that are lifted by the subtle perfume of flowers and whole black peppercorns. The palate here is fresh and juicy, with a serious core of macerated black cherries limned with vanilla pod that, in a couple of years, will integrate seamlessly. This Syrah is chewy yet light on its feet, concentrated but not jammy, and beautifully expressive, with deeply steeped tea on the finish. It demonstrates exactly what I like most about Chilean Syrah: Its balance between the brambly fruit and asphalt of the Northern Rhone alongside a nicely chewy New World ripeness, all of it balanced by fresh acidity. Drink now through 2014.

Ravenswood Petite Sirah “Vintners Blend” 2008, California

A vivid purple color is an accurate advertisement for the juiciness of this easy-to-love wine. There’s plenty of grape jam and mixed-berry preserves on the nose, as well as vanilla and clove and a touch of earth. This Petite Sirah seems built for veal, pork, or leaner cuts of beef, its fruit-driven character remarkably consistent from the moment it’s poured into the glass. Gulpable, food-friendly, and a great value. Drink now. And then open another bottle of it and drink that one, too.

Candor Merlot Lot No. 2, California

A dark, glistening rich color leads to a nose of sappy black cherry, chocolate ganache, cream, and vanilla. The palate is dominated by sweet fruit and oak spice, with a remarkably consistent expression of the wine coming through the palate from the nose, but here with added notes of cooked-down blackberry and a hint of clay, as well as a bit of toastiness on the finish. Rewarding. Drink now.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Harvest News: Germany is reporting that "Germany is poised for its smallest wine harvest in a quarter of a century after cold weather at flowering and localized hailstorms affected production." The article adds that, “According to the German Wine Institute (DWI), quality will be ‘good,’ and the wines will be less full-bodied than recent vintages, exhibiting greater freshness and fruitiness.”

What’s important here is to realize that this is not necessarily bad news for consumers, at least in terms of the nature of the wines they’ll drink. After all, though many consumers have gotten used to full-bodied, rich wines from all over the world in recent years, an occasional turn away from that style, and back to a less-unctuous, less-giving one, represents a potentially welcome change.

I touched on this topic last week in my post about the 2003s from Bordeaux and the ways in which they are, in many cases, maturing much quicker than initially anticipated. So while wines that aren’t quite as generous in their youth may initially be off-putting, they aren’t necessarily doomed to obscurity. And with the way ratings work, expect these “fresher” wines to garner lower scores, which should make them less expensive and, therefore, fairly good bargains.

Sometimes, good news comes cloaked in bad.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Making the Most of Your Bubbly

My friend and colleague Patricia Savoie recently wrote a cover story, on stemware for Champagne, for Sommelier Journal. In the article, she explores the various ways in which flutes, coupes, and traditional still-wine glasses affect the way in which Champagne is enjoyed and perceived.

She begins by noting that “Winemakers from several of Champagne’s top houses have moved away from the flute to develop or adopt alternative glassware they believe can show their wines to full advantage. They are supported by a small, but growing, cadre of sommeliers and wine directors who have discovered through personal experience that Champagne tastes better in a traditional still-wine glass than in a flute.”

This, of course, runs counter to what most consumers assume: That Champagne is a vessel for bubbles and celebrations first, and a wine second. But those of us who have experimented with tasting Champagne in a variety of stems are likely to agree that, thought he flute is the standard, it is not always the best vessel for great Champagne.

Rather than paraphrase Savoie here, you’re far better off clicking over to her excellent article and reading it yourself. On this blog, however, I though that it would be interesting to test what she discovered with a Champagne that I already know I love no matter what the glass: Ayala Brut Majeur, a top Champagne that more consumers will become familiar--and, I predict, fall in love--with in the next few years.

My notes are below, divided by what kind of glass I tasted it from.

Riedel Vinum Cuvee Prestige Champagne flute: Bready, toasty nose, with nervy acid providing backbone. Lots of autumn-evoking fruit on the nose, including persimmon and spiced golden raisins. It’s quite linear on the palate, with long, generous fruit, a vinous mid-palate, ginger and a touch of flowers on the finish, and a delicate texture. Bright and linear; seems to be holding something in reserve. More feminine despite its richness.

Riedel Vinum Chablis (Chardonnay) glass: Much more yeast and graphite on the nose that in the flute, and less-tightly-wound concentration. I prefer the nose, unexpectedly enough, from the flute than from this glass. On the palate, however, it’s a far bigger and more complex wine, with the minerality of the Chardonnay and the earthiness of the Pinot Noir coming through with real clarity. There’s more detailing to the constituent parts here, less fruit, and more terroir. Masculine.

Riedel Vinum Burgundy glass: A seriously mineral edge to the nose is softened up immediately by the round brioche and toast notes that were so apparent from the flute, as well as thoroughly accurate macadamia aromas. This glass brings the best parts of the other two into beautiful harmony, the persimmons and minerals intertwining easily, and mingling with added flavors of cardamom, dried apricot, and a passing flutter of white chocolate and almonds. Most food-friendly from this glass.

In the end, you cannot go wrong with a Champagne as well-crafted as Ayala Brut Majeur: Even from, say, a Dixie Cup it would show well. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the glass you’re going to pour it into and enjoy it from. Great wine, after all, deserves the right vessel.

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Weekend Reading

With the cold weather starting to clamp down on much of the country, we finally seem to be entering the season for serious wine drinking. Not that you need an excuse to pop the cork on something great any time of year, of course--it's just that, in the heat of summer, I'd often rather have a crisp, refreshing Vinho Verde, for example, than a more demanding glassful.

That having been said, this is also the time of year to bone up on your wine knowledge. After all, it's far too easy to fall into the typical rut of drinking the same stuff over and over again, reading the latest vintage reports in the Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate, and failing to really delve deeper into the world of wine in its broadest sense.

I'm in the middle of reading several review copies of wine, cocktail, and cook books I've received from various publishers recently, and will report on them here in the coming weeks. But for now, click here for two very different wine books that Wall Street Journal wine columnist Jay McInerney recommends. They'll be a very good start to a holiday season of reading.
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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday (on Thursday): Five Recommended Wines from Around the World

After missing a week of Wine Review Wednesday--I spend last week playing catch-up from having been away the previous 10 days in Argentina; I’ll be posting those tasting notes over the course of the next weeks and months--we’re back today with five recommended wines from all over the world. These represent some of the more notable bottles I’ve tasted recently, are are listed in no particular order.

Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Rutherford, Napa Valley

From the excellent 2007 vintage comes this stellar red by Sequoia Grove. It starts out with a distinct note of smoke on the nose, with back-up roles played by rich, ripe blackberry, plum, coffee grounds, asphalt, and mesquite. The youth of this wine becomes apparent on the palate, which right now is still tightly wound, though the ripe currants are appealing right off the bat. With some air, it really becomes clear what the future holds: Smoky tea, morels, cigars, black cherries, chocolate, and cedar--so much promise. This wine’s spine of acidity, careful balance, and dusty tannins imply 10 - 12+ years of evolution for this masculine, terroir-driven, beautifully crafted Cabernet.

Chateau Tanunda Grand Barossa Riesling 2009

With it alluring aromas of sweet, taut green apple and melon, as well as a flutter of sun-warmed granite in the background, this wine smells both richly expressive and structured. The impressions is borne out on the palate with almost vibrating acidity and more of that great green apple, and balanced out by flowers and something hinting at honey. This is serious Riesling, yet so easy to drink. I’d love to taste how well this has evolved in 5 - 10 years: It has the stuffing to go that long, though it’s drinking brilliantly right now. Yet another great wine from this historic Australian estate.

Bernhard Huber Spatburgunder Alte Reben 2007, Baden, Germany

This old-vine German Pinot Noir starts off with sexy scents of smoky cherries, sous bois, red-apple skin, and the higher-toned perfume of pine and violets. There’s incredible detail to the nose here, and its tarragon and cherries nod in the direction of Echezeaux. The palate starts off a touch stemmy, but this is going to resolve itself with some age. And anyway, it really lends a lovely brightness to the wine’s deeply concentrated cherry and raspberry fruit. This is a stunner, leaning toward Burgundy on the nose, New Zealand on the palate, and utterly unique (and thoroughly wonderful) in its entirety.

De Loach Pinot Noir 2008, Central Coast “Cool Coastal Vineyards”

Almost transparent in color, which is nice considering all the opaque, inky California Pinot Noirs you see these days. It sends a message right from the start that this wine is simply about expressing the fruit as it was grown in this specific part of the state. The nose shows really pretty, subtly juicy wild strawberry and red cherry notes, as well as raspberry preserves and tarragon hovering in the background. The flavors of this wine are remarkably consistent, though a touch sappier and riper than the nose implies. It’s a more feminine style, with a pretty, lingering sweetness to the cherry fruit. Well made. Drink now.

De Loach Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast “Cool Coastal Vineyards”

When compared to its Central Coast cousin, this Pinot is deeper, richer, and darker in color, as expected from the Sonoma Coast. The nose, too, is darker and shows more roasted aromas, including smoke, mushroom, charcoal, and dark cherries. The palate, too, is much more masculine, and while it lacks some of the delicacy of the other bottling, it’s winning by virtue of its muscle and smoky persistence. The flavors are almost meaty here, with a touch of Chinese five spice, mushrooms, and licorice. Very nice on its own, and a fascinating comparison when tasted alongside the Central Coast bottling.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Wine and Health: More Good News

As if wine drinkers hadn't heard quite enough good news regarding health and their favorite tipple, Southern California's KPSP 2 just ran a story reporting on a new study that seems to indicate that moderate consumption of wine by women can actually help keep the pounds off.

"According to new research out of Brighton and Women's Hospital in Boston, a teaching affiliate of Harvard, women who drink red wine in moderation can lose weight," the story reports.

"For 13 years," it continues, "researchers put 20,000 normal weight women to the test. They found out that women who drank a glass or two of red wine each day, were less likely to gain weight, than non-drinkers. Apparently, that's because red wine may prevent the development of fat cells. And according to other studies, alcohol in general speeds up a woman's metabolism and helps burn calories."

This doesn’t mean, of course, that women should start downing bottle after bottle this holiday season, but it should give comfort to those who always felt guilty about indulging a bit this time of year. And now it turns out that that extra glass of red at the office holiday party could actually help counteract the effects of all that extra snacking. It's good news all around.

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