Wines For Winter – Part 1
Both Christmas and New Year’s are fast approaching which means that we’re transitioning from autumn to winter. This also means a transition from lighter food to more hearty fare which means wine enthusiasts are afforded the opportunity to transition from lighter style wines to those that are more robust and bolder.
For white wines, I’m drinking less Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Vino Verde, but more Gewürztraminer and Viognier. For reds, I’m drinking less Pinot Noir and Beaujolais, but more Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and red blends.
The wine flight described below is just a brief sampling of great wines that seem to go well with both the weather and the comfort food we enjoy this time of year. Start with these and then expand your horizons by experimenting on your own. (Note: I have received no compensation of any kind from the producers, distributors, or retailers of the wines listed below.)
You should make an effort to look for the following wines because they’re both good tasting and represent an intriguing cross-section of what’s good for this time of year. Remember, if you can’t purchase the specific labels locally that I’ve recommended, then either look for another label from the same specific region, or go to the winery’s web site and see if you can order online.
1/ Viognier: Koenig Vineyards, Snake River Valley (Idaho)
The dry, desert-like climate, and the volcanic-derived soils, of portions of the Columbia Valley and Snake River Valley make ideal conditions for growing the Viognier grape. Often used for blending, Viognier as a varietal is one of my favorite cold weather whites.
Viognier has both awesome floral notes and orchard fruit elements. It tends to be more lush than other white wines due to lower acidity.
But what a wonderful nose it has! It’s one of the most aromatic white wines on earth. It’s not uncommon to detect honeysuckle and orange blossoms in addition to peaches, apricots, and ripe red apple
The flavor of Viognier comes through just like the nose. It’s a great wine to pair with shellfish, especially crab, scallops, clams, and lobster.
It’s also a great wine to enjoy with vegetable dishes, especially when the veggies are braised or roasted. And Viognier is also a wine to enjoy with roasted chicken or turkey.
Note: Viognier is a relative newcomer to the United Sates, and plantings of the vine have increased dramatically over the past 20 years. However, Viognier is a grape variety going way back in time in France where it is especially prized in the Rhone Valley of Southeastern France.
2/ Gewürztraminer: Hugel, Alsace (France)
Gewürztraminer is best known in France and Germany, but is catching on more these days in the States. However, you might be hard put to find a domestic version that has been made in the classic dry style. Your best bet is to look in the Alsace and German sections of your local wine retail store. It’s a sure bet that they’ll have a selection of at least three or four to choose from.
Like Viognier, Gewürztraminer has aromas of orchard fruits, but also mixed in will be tropical fruits like pineapple. The taste has a certain delicate, sweet spicy character, while the wine overall will strike you as being bold.
Because of this nature, I wouldn’t pair Gewürztraminer with most fish dishes, nor with spicy dishes. This white wine comes into its own, though, when paired with roast chicken, turkey, duck, and goose, as well as pork roasts and chops.
It’s also is a classic for ham, so keep Gewürztraminer in mind when you serve ham for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, or any other time.
Note: Many U.S. Gewürztraminers are made off dry, meaning that they are a touch sweet. They pair wonderfully with pungent cheeses such as blue cheeses.
3/ Zinfandel: Castoro Cellars, Paso Robles (Central Coast)
One of my favorite wine appellations within the large Central Coast wine region of California is Paso Robles. My wife and I had a most enjoyable tour throughout the area a few years back. The region is especially known for its red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, red blends, Zinfandel, and Syrah.
Zinfandel is a distinctly American wine and is virtually unknown through the rest of the world of wine except for Italy where it is called Primitivo. However, American Zins are different in character, being very fruit forward and soft. I enjoy drinking them anytime throughout the year, but in winter I think of Zinfandel as a comfort wine.
Zinfandel is a comfort wine because it pairs so well with many cold weather comfort foods. It’s great with chili (but not the flaming hot varieties) and grilled pizza. Enjoy it also with baby back ribs, spaghetti and meatballs, beef stew, and grilled sausage. It even pairs with certain steaks such as hanger steak.
Heck, about the only thing I wouldn’t eat with Zinfandel would be seafood dishes because there are just too many other outstanding wines to enjoy with seafood.
Note: The gold rush of 1849 in California kicked off a period of planting huge amounts of Zinfandel vines in order to provide cheap, easy drinking wine for the miners and all the other people flooding into the state at the time.
4/ Red Blend: Waterbrook Mélange, Yakima Valley
I’ve repeatedly toured the Walla Walla Valley wine appellation because I consider it one of the very best in the States. (See the wine touring page of this web site for tour suggestions for Walla Walla.) One of the outstanding wineries you’ll find there is Waterbrook, just several miles west of town.
Waterbrook is known for a number of premium wines, but this red blend called Mélange is a comfort wine made from grapes grown throughout the Columbia Valley. True to its name, Mélange can include 15 or more grape varieties with Cab, Merlot, Syrah, and Malbec being primary.
The wine is a beautiful deep garnet color and has wonderful, delicate aromas of blueberry, caramel, and cedar. The palate is a mix of red and dark fruit, the tannins are there but not overwhelming, and the finish is long and satisfying.
Pair this wine with anything lamb: lamb chops, lamb shank, etc., as well as with duck dishes, beef steaks and roasts, and beef chili. It will also go well with a pork crown rib roast.
Note: Red blends such as Mélange are often referred to as proprietary blends. The term means that only the winemaker knows what the exact blend is. The reason for this hasn’t much to do with a desire to be secret; rather, the blend usually changes year to year depending on the availability of grapes. In some cases, it’s just winemakers kicking back and having fun experimenting with creating a blend from many different varieties, tasting and tweaking the ratio until they come up with what they consider to be a darn good tasting wine.
5/ Syrah: Kestrel
The Kestrel folks are another one of those Columbia Valley wineries producing exceptional wines. Their Flacon Series Syrah is an example of how well suited this grape is to the dry, relatively mild climate of eastern and central Washington. In fact, it’s my opinion that many of the Syrahs produced in this part of the country are world class.
Kestrel Syrah has a lovely deep, inky purple to black color that’s so very typical of the grape. The nose is classic as well, containing heavenly notes of leather, bacon, tobacco, and even a touch of floral like lavender. The palate is full of dark fruit flavors like black cherries, black currants, and blueberries, as well as a delicate spiciness that reminds you of white pepper.
Pair Syrah with robust, hearty fare. The classic is lamb, so don’t hesitate to serve just about any lamb dish with a well made Syrah. This red is also great for steaks and roasts, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, beef stew, meatloaf, and hearty chili (but not with a lot of heat).
Note: Syrah is becoming more and more popular in this country, although the grape has a long history in France. It is especially prized in the Northern Rhone as a varietal, and is a staple in the classic blends of the Southern Rhone.
Early Fall 2012: All About Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a light to medium-bodied red wine popularized by the movie ‘Sideways.’ The meaning of the term Pinot Noir translates as ‘black Pinot’ and the word ‘pinot’ is a variant of the French word for pine tree. The name of the grape probably took on its form because of the rough similarity of a Pinot grape cluster to a pine tree.
France is the ancestral home of Pinot Noir where it originally was cultivated in the Burgundy region southeast of Paris. Today, almost all red Burgundy except Beaujolais is still made exclusively from Pinot Noir. The best red Burgundy from the best vineyards sells for more than $1000 per bottle, and even mass produced Burgundy from within certain areas can sell for $40-$50 or more a bottle.
Pinot Noir has been planted all over the world with varying amounts of success. It’s difficult to cultivate and a vineyard owner needs to have the right soil and climate conditions. Even then, it can take considerable winemaking skill to produce an elegant wine.
In my opinion the best Pinot Noir outside of France comes from California and Oregon. Santa Barbara, Monterrey, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties in California produce the best, with the Willamette and Hood River Valleys in Oregon a close second.
As for South America, unfortunately, I have found Pinot Noir tends to be too light-bodied and without character. The Bio Bio Valley in Chile seems to be the best bet. The same is true for Pinot Noir from Down Under. I’ve found Pinots from the Marlborough region of New Zealand to be too weak for my taste. Much better, but much harder to find, is Pinot from the Central Otago region of New Zealand.
The flight of five wines described below is just a brief sampling of Pinot Noir from around the world. Start with these and then expand your horizons by experimenting on your own. (Note: I have received no compensation of any kind from the producers, distributors, or retailers of the wines listed below.)
You should make an effort to look for the following five wines because they’re both good tasting and represent an intriguing cross-section of Pinot Noir. Remember, if you can’t purchase the specific labels locally that I’ve recommended, then look for another label from the same specific region.
1/ Red Burgundy: Domaine A. Machard ‘Les Beaumonts’ (Chorey-Les-Beaune)
Although California winemakers misappropriated the term Burgundy in the middle part of the last century, true Burgundy comes from the Burgundy region of France. And except for the Beaujolais subregion of Burgundy, red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir can also be found in other regions of the country. For example, the most important red grape from which Champagne is made is Pinot Noir, and from one of its variants called Pinot Meunier. But Burgundy is where Pinot Noir in France is the most well known and you should try a good one.
Burgundy is very different from American Pinot Noir in character. It has a pronounced minerality to it and is not as fruity, either on the nose or on the palate. Thus, people describe American Pinot as being fruit-forward because the fruit stands out much more than in a Burgundy.
The Domaine Machard pictured nearby comes from the Chorey-Les-Beaune appellation, a subregion of the Cotes de Beaune wine district, one of the two major districts within Burgundy for Pinot Noir. The appellation is named after the village of Chorey and the ‘Les Beaumonts’ term refers to the name of the vineyard in which the grapes were grown.
This Pinot is slightly smoky on the nose while the palate has a distinct minerality combined with notes of red cherry. It is moderately tannic and has a long finish. It should be opened and allowed to breathe for an hour or two before serving.
Note: Pinot Noir is a red wine that should be served slightly chilled to bring out the best of its character. A good Burgundy need not be restricted to light fare; it can certainly be served with steak or lamb.
2/ Santa Barbara County: Byron Santa Maria Valley
The West Coast of the U.S. is well known for its outstanding Pinot Noir and this is because of unique soil and climate conditions. The coastal region of California from Santa Barbara County northward to Mendocino County is dissected by east/west valleys that open into the Pacific. This allows the vineyards to bask in warm/hot sun during the day while being cooled off at night due to cool, moist air being funneled in from the ocean. This creates classic growing conditions for Pinot Noir grapes.
When you buy California Pinot, try to obtain wines with Santa Inez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande Valley, Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, or Anderson Valley on the label. These will be some of the best Pinots you can enjoy from California.
The Pinot Noir of Santa Barbara County tends to be drier and has more red cherry flavor than the Pinots further north in California. As such, they can be paired with a variety of food dishes, including steaks. The Byron Pinot Noir pictured nearby is a classic wine from the well respected Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County. It’s medium-bodied and intensely flavored with raspberry and red cherry notes, along with hints of smokiness and spiciness, and has a long finish. It’s a Pinot that the Miles character in the movie ‘Sideways’ would have thoroughly enjoyed.www.byronwines.com
Note: If you ever plan to tour the wine country of Santa Barbara County, I advise you to do it in any season but summer. Daytime temps can be extremely hot in summer which is also the peak of the wine tourist season. By visiting off-season, you’ll have a much more enjoyable time.
3/ Northern California: Husch Anderson Valley (Mendocino County)
The Anderson Valley of Mendocino County is one of my favorite wine regions to visit. It has the huge advantage (at least to visitors) of being north of Sonoma and Napa Counties which siphon off most of the tourists. As a result, you can visit most wineries without being elbow to elbow with other tourists.
The valley is very rural in nature, and very rustic as well, as a visit to Husch Vineyards will reveal. It’s a family operation with an unpretentious tasting room but friendly staff. As likely as not, sheep will be grazing in the vineyard next to the small parking lot.
Husch Anderson Valley Pinot Noir is distinctly fruit-forward in character, with the flavor profile being more on darker fruit side due to elements of ripe dark cherry and blackberry. It also has the tell-tale spiciness of Sonoma and Mendocino Pinots which I so enjoy.
Pinot Noir from Northern California generally pairs better with food dishes like grilled salmon, roast pork, roast turkey, and baked or grilled chicken. Because it’s less dry than the Santa Barbara Pinots, you probably wouldn’t enjoy Anderson Valley Pinot Noir as much with steak.www.huschvineyards.com
Note: Besides the Anderson Valley, look for labels from Northern California that say Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley. These will also be excellent fruit-forward Pinots with a delightful spiciness.
4/ Oregon: Argyle Willamette Valley
The Willamette Valley of Oregon has perhaps the most fruit-forward Pinot Noir in the U.S. It’s a lush wine with lots of dark, ripe fruit flavors, some smokiness, and hints of spiciness. In fact, it’s so fruity that it seems a tad sweet at times. It’s not sweet; rather, it’s a perception of sweetness due to the fruitiness.
Oregon Pinot Noir is a classic pairing with grilled salmon, but also goes well with roast turkey and chicken, as well as grilled pork chops. In fact, almost anything with a little grill char on it will pair well with such a fruit-forward red wine.
Argyle is a well-known producer in Dundee, Oregon, which is located at the north end of the Willamette Valley. As opposed to California’s east/west coastal valleys, the Willamette Valley is a major north/south valley. The presence of the Cascades to the east allow cool, moist Pacific Ocean air to settle in the valley at night, while in the day the temps warm up. Thus, ideal Pinot Noir conditions.
Argyle produces several outstanding Champagne style wines, some of which use Pinot Noir. If you are ever passing though Dundee, you must stop in at Argyle and taste both their still wines and their sparkling wines. You’ll enjoy these at an impressive, hand-made, polished wooden tasting bar. The staff will be happy to tell you the story behind it.
Note: If you enjoy wineries with a view, then you should make a point to visit two other Willamette Valley wineries: Willamette Valley Vineyards and Domaine Serene. WWV is near Salem while Domaine Serene is closer to Dundee.
5/ New Zealand: Tarras ‘The Steppes’ Central Otago
New Zealand and Australia both produce Pinot Noir, much of which is very good. In fact, some excellent Champagne-style sparkling wines are made from Pinot Noir by Down Under wineries. The problem is that few of the excellent still and sparkling wines find their way to retail shelves in the States.
This is especially a problem with New Zealand Pinots because what you do find in the States is from the Marlborough region. Although this region produces world-class Sauvignon Blanc, I’ve found their Pinots to be very poor and not worth buying. Look instead, for Central Otago on the label and you’re liable to have much better luck.
The Tarras winery produces several decent Pinot Noirs, one of which is called The Steppes and is named after the vineyard from which the grapes were harvested to make the wine. It has lots of delicious berry flavors as well as silky tannins. It’s a lighter style than West Coast Pinot Noir, but still very enjoyable.
Pair Tarras Pinot with lighter fare. It would make an excellent Thanksgiving wine to go with roast turkey or baked ham (as long as you don’t prepare the ham with too much sweet fruit glaze). In fact, it’s an excellent light red wine for someone who is transitioning from whites to reds.
Note: Central Otago is located on the South Island of New Zealand and is the one region where I have found decent Pinot. Although the North Island also produces Pinot Noir, I have found it, like the Pinot from Marlborough, to be too weak and watery for my taste.
Mid Summer 2012: All About Chardonnay
Chardonnay is the most well-known white wine grape in the world. Indeed, the word Chardonnay is almost synonymous for white wine. Not only is it the most common white, non-sparkling wine for the table, but it’s also a major component of Champagne-style sparkling wines. (The term ‘blanc de blancs’ denotes Champagne made from primarily Chardonnay grapes.)
France is the ancestral home of Chardonnay where it originally was cultivated in the Burgundy region southeast of Paris. Today, most white Burgundies are still made from Chardonnay. The term ‘Chablis’ refers to a specific Chardonnay region within the legally defined Burgundy wine appellation, while the term ‘white Burgundy’ refers to Chardonnay from anywhere else in Burgundy.
The Chardonnay grape can have nice acidity if it’s harvested before it becomes overly ripe, and this lends a wonderful crispness and many interesting fruit flavors to the resulting wine. Some winemakers alter Chardonnay’s natural characteristics by fermenting and aging in new oak barrels, and using techniques such as maleolactic fermentation, to produce an oaky, buttery wine.
The flight of five wines described below is just a brief sampling of Chardonnay from around the world. Start with these and then expand your horizons by experimenting on your own. (Note: I have received no compensation of any kind from the producers of the wines listed below.)
You should make an effort to look for the following five wines because they’re both good tasting and represent an intriguing cross-section of Chardonnay. Remember, if you can’t purchase the specific labels locally that I’ve recommended, then look for another label from the same specific region.
1/ French Chablis: Domaine L. Chatelain 2010
Although California winemakers misappropriated the term Chablis in the middle part of the last century, true Chablis comes from the Chablis region of France. Technically part of Burgundy, it is not contiguous to the rest of Burgundy.
Terroir-wise, the Chablis region has more in common with the nearby Champagne district, since both share the same chalky soils that have developed from the underlying chalk bedrock. This lends a distinctive dry, mineral-like element to the wine. (This same chalk bedrock extends westward across France and continues across the English Channel to make up the famous white cliffs of Dover.)
This chalk bedrock and its resulting chalky topsoil lends a unique minerality to the Chardonnay wine made in this part of France. Indeed, you could say that Chablis is the very archetype of Chardonnay. In other words, Chablis is the standard to which all other Chardonnays could be compared. If you’ve never enjoyed one, then you need to. Put it on your wine bucket list.
Chablis Chardonnay has historically been made to have a crisp, refreshing, steely character, since oak is rarely used in the making of the wine or, if it is, only lightly so. Some of the better Chablis is very expensive, but moderate priced Chablis that is still quite good is readily available throughout the U.S.
Chablis is a perfect white to pair with all kinds of seafood from raw oysters, sushi, and seared tuna to just about any cooked seafood dish you care to name. (Oysters Rockefeller is pictured nearby). It’s also a prefect aperitif to be enjoyed with cheese, especially soft, creamy cheeses such as Brie and smoked Brie.
Other well known Chardonnay wine districts within Burgundy are Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puilly Fuissé, Chalonnaise, and Mâconnais. Wines from these regions can be quite expensive, although the latter three can be available at more moderate prices.
Note: The best values in French Chardonnay are labels that either say ‘White Burgundy’ (Chardonnay from anywhere within Burgundy) or ‘Languedoc’ (the south of France).
2/ American Chardonnay: Sunset Hills Virginia Chardonnay 2011
The East Coast of the U.S. is not generally known for fine table wines due to a wet, humid climate that makes raising French wine grapes a challenge. An exception is Sunset Hills lightly oaked Chardonnay produced by a winery in Loudoun County, Virginia.
Sunset Hills Chardonnay is a delightful white wine that pairs exceptionally well with soft cheeses. This very pale straw-colored wine has nice notes of ripe red apple, pear, and melon.
Although it has some acidity, it is softer and more lush than steely Chardonnays, reminding me more of the orchard fruit notes of Viognier. It would still pair nicely with many seafood dishes, however, especially poached or baked white fish dishes rather than with raw or partially cooked seafood.
Note: The Virginia wine industry boasts more than 200 wineries today, the result of grape growers discovering that the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge foothills make more suitable vineyard sites than the lower elevations.
3/ Sparkling Chardonnay: Piper Sonoma Blanc de Blancs Sonoma County
Blanc de Blancs is a French phrase meaning white from white (white wine from white grapes). Traditionally, this has meant sparkling wine made primarily from Chardonnay. Why is this unusual? Because most Champagne is a blend of three grapes: one white (Chardonnay) and two dark (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Thus, if you want to make an unusual sparkling wine, you make it primarily out of just one grape.
Due to the ideal growing conditions found in much of California, French wine grapes thrive and a booming wine industry is possible. After the success of the Korbel company and other local sparkling wine producers, old line French and Spanish companies came to California and set up production facilities to produce Champagne-style wine. Today, these companies dominate the California sparkling wine industry.
Piper Sonoma is a case in point, being owned by the French company Rémy Cointreau and employing an experienced winemaker from France. This knowledge of making Champagne-style wine resulted in the Piper Sonoma Blanc de Blancs winning a double gold at the prestigious 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition. It’s pale straw in color and has aromas of various fruits, green apples and citrus being two of the most prominent.
Enjoy this wine with almost any food dish because a fine Champagne-style wine pairs with just about anything. Of course, it’s also excellent as an aperitif.
Note: The counterpart of blanc de blancs is blanc de noirs which means white from dark (white wine from dark grapes). How is this possible? Most dark-skinned grapes have clear juice, so if you immediately separate the juice from the skins after crushing, you will preserve the clear nature of the juice and thus make white wine. Champagne-style wines that are denoted as blanc de noir are either made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.
4/ Australia/New Zealand Chardonnay: Kim Crawford Marlborough New Zealand 2011
Because Chardonnay has become such a popular white wine, wineries all over the world make it. South of the equator, there exists a geographic belt that is identical in climate to one found north of the equator where all the great French, Italian, Spanish, and Californian wines are made. Thus, areas of South America, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia have the same ideal growing conditions as their counterparts north of the equator. (This belt is 30˚ - 50˚ degrees north and south of the equator.)
The Kim Crawford winery has become well-known for its world class Sauvignon Blanc wines made with grapes from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Since Chardonnay is a cool climate grape like Sauvignon Blanc, it’s no surprise that the Kim Crawford folks also make Chardonnay. In fact, they were making Chardonnay before they started making Sauvignon Blanc.
It comes as a great surprise to most wine enthusiasts that grape vines do not need topsoil in order to thrive, and this is why most Old World wines have such intriguing notes of minerality. The roots of the vines absorb many of the mineral notes of the underlying bedrock or cobbles. In the New World, however, much topsoil still remains, so the resulting wines do not have as much minerality to them, expressing, instead, more of the elements of the fruit itself.
And that’s the way it is with Kim Crawford Chardonnay. If you wish to enjoy the pure fruit aroma and flavor of the Chardonnay grape, then this completely unoaked Chardonnay is a must have. What fruit flavor do you wish to experience? Citrus? Peaches? Pineapple? Melon? It’s all there in this outstanding wine.
Enjoy Kim Crawford Chardonnay with soft cheeses, creamy pasta dishes, white fish, and white meat. Of course, it also makes a wonderful aperitif when you’re socializing before dinner.
Note: Australia and New Zealand both make wonderful Chardonnay, as well as outstanding Champagne-style sparkling wines incorporating Chardonnay.
5/ South America Chardonnay: Los Vascos Colchagua Valley Chile 2010
When it became apparent that outstanding wine could be made in South America, especially in Chile and Argentina, a number of French wine producers established wine making operations. Los Vascos is one of the oldest wineries in Chile and in 1988 came under the management of one of the best known French wine companies, Barons de Rothschild Lafite of Bordeaux fame.
Using grapes from two of the best valleys in Chile—Colchagua and Casablanca—Los Vascos makes a refreshing, delicate, very fruity Chardonnay ideal as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to dinner.
The Los Vascos Chardonnay that’s made with grapes from the Colchagua Valley contains all the orchard and tropical fruit notes of classic Chardonnay.
Lightly oaked, it begins with aromas of bananas and melon, then opens up with crisper, more citrusy elements. The light oak, however, softens out the wine, making it a tad more lush and smooth than unoaked Chardonnay. It’s a different style but still is very good.
Note: The South American wine industry goes back to the 1880s and, unlike in the U.S., never suffered the devastating effects of Prohibition. Thus, a number of wineries in South America have an uninterrupted production history of more than 100 years.
July 2012: The Wines of Summer
You should make an effort to look for the following five wines because they’re both good tasting and intriguing. Remember, if you can’t purchase the specific labels locally that I’ve recommended, then look for another label of the same type of wine from the specific region.
1/ French Chenin Blanc: Bougrier Anjou Blanc Loire Valley
Chenin Blanc is an ideal warm weather wine due to its wonderful crispness mixed with floral and fruit notes. Its character is often described as being that of a fruit bowl. Besides the floral notes, you can pick up apples, citrus, peaches, pears and so on. It can even have hints of cinnamon.
Some of the best Chenin Blanc comes from the Loire Valley of France, although excellent examples can be found from South Africa as well. Either way, the price is very affordable.
Chenin Blanc is a great wine to have available at the start of your party or get together. But because of its crispness combined with a touch of sweetness, it’s a great seafood wine as well as a superb choice for spicy dishes.
Serve Chenin Blanc with spicy or tangy grilled shrimp, chicken kabobs, or Thai food. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well it pairs with these foods. And your friends will be impressed that you’re serving great tasting French wine. Just don’t tell them how little you paid for it.
Note: The Loire Valley of France is home to a number of world class wines, Chenin Blanc being just one. The Anjou region is one of the best known appellations within the Loire valley.
2/ Italian Pinot Grigio: Albino Armani delle Venezie
Another white wine that’s similar to Chenin Blanc is Pinot Grigio, especially the original from Italy. Containing the same wonderful fruity properties, Pinot Grigio differs by being lighter and drier in style. This makes it perfect for summertime get-togethers where you just want something inexpensive and light to sip while socializing or nibbling on appetizers.
Pinot Grigio, however, is also excellent for pairing with food, especially lighter fare. If you’re grilling seafood or chicken, then definitely try it with Pinot Grigio. Its lightness and crispness will make the grilled fare taste all the better. Try it also with cold salads such as a Cobb salad.
Note: The word “Venezie’ it Italian for Venice. The region to the north and west of Venice is known as the Veneto, a region that produces many great Italian wines, including Pinot Grigio.
3/ White Blend: Wine 4 Chilling (California)
Box wines can be great values for parties and family get-togethers. One of the best white wine blends that I’ve found in box format is from the Trinchero Family Estates winery in California. Called Wine 4 Chilling, it’s a blend of three classic summertime grapes: Chardonnay, Moscato, and Chenin Blanc.
This medium-bodied white blend contains all the crispness and fruitiness that you could want for a patio/deck wine. It’s perfect for sipping while socializing, or for enjoying with cheeses and other food bites before dinner.
As with the other two whites already discussed, Wine 4 Chilling can also be paired with lighter food dishes. Enjoy it, especially, with seafood, chicken, and pork.
Note: Box wines contain four bottles worth of wine, often for the price of one modestly priced regular bottle. Keep Wine 4 Chilling in your refrigerator and it’ll last at least a couple months due to the collapsible bladder inside which keeps oxygen out as wine is withdrawn.
4/ Red Blend: Wine 4 Grilling (California)
Folks love to grill steaks, chops, burgers, and ribs, and for these you really need a red wine. One of the best, most easy drinking, red wines that I’ve come across is a box wine called Wine 4 Grilling from the Trinchero Family Estates winery in California.
Wine 4 Grilling contains three of the best grapes for grilled foods: Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Zinfandel component pairs well with burgers and ribs, while the Cab and merlot component pair well with chops and steaks, so you’ve got all bases covered.
Try Wine 4 Grilling with pizza as well. It’ll go well with any tomato sauce based pizza, especially those with Italian sausage on them.
Note: Keep your box of red wine on the counter at room temperature. It’ll last at least a month under such conditions because the collapsible bladder inside keeps oxygen out.
5/ Zinfandel: Four Vines Old Vine Cuvée (OVC) California
California is the epicenter of Zinfandel production in the U.S. and the grape thrives in the various meso climates throughout many areas of the state. This leads to different styles of the wine and the folks at Four Vines have taken grapes from different regions of California and made a great tasting blend (cuvee).
Zinfandel is my favorite wine for grilled burgers, ribs, and pizza. In fact, one of my favorite foods is making homemade pizzas and cooking them on my gas grill. They’re perfect when enjoyed with a great tasting Zinfandel.
Four Vines OVC is a medium-bodied red with hints of spiciness and lots of dark fruit notes like blackberries and plums. If you’re preparing grilled chicken or ribs to be enjoyed with BBQ sauce, then this Zinfandel is an excellent red wine to pair with them.
Note: The reason that California has so much Zinfandel is because the grape was brought over from Italy shortly after the gold rush started and was used to make large volumes of inexpensive wine for the miners. Today, the Renwood Winery in the heart of gold rush country claims the oldest Zinfandel vines in California, being approximately 150 years old.
The country of Spain makes some of the best wine on earth. They really do it all: fantastic sparkling wines made in the Champagne style, a variety of thoroughly enjoyable whites, and reds that are the best you could ever hope for. If you’re not enjoying Spanish wines, then you’re missing out on some awesome wines.The flight of five wines described below is just a brief overall survey of Spain. I could easily do a two or three part series. Come to think of it, I’ll follow-up in a month or two with another sampling of Spanish wines.
1/ Pennedes Cava: Freixenet Carta Nevada Semi-Dry
Freixenet (pronounced ‘fresh-en-et’) is one of the world’s largest producers of sparkling wines made in the Champagne style. In Spain, sparkling wine is called Cava, and my favorite region for Cava is the Pennedes wine district outside of Barcelona.
I’ve toured the Freixenet winery and got to sample their entire product line which was a truly wonderful experience. In the U.S. you’ll typically find only two products: Cordon Negro and Carta Nevada. Of the two, I like Carta Nevada best, in either the brut style (dry) or semi-dry style (a little sweet).
The bottle pictured nearby is the semi-dry version of Carta Nevada. This is a sparkling wine perfect for pairing with spicy dishes found in Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Mexican cuisines.
Note: the grapes used in Cava are not the same as the grapes used in Champagne. The Carta Nevada is a mix of Macebao, Xarel-lo, and Paraellada. These grapes are typical of what is grown in the Pennedes region.
2/ Albariño: Bodegas Martín Códax Albariño Rias Baixas 2010
The classic seafood white wine of Spain is Albariño which is produced in the extreme northwest corner of Spain in a region called Rias Baixas (pronounced ‘ree-ahs bike-cuss). Since it borders on the Atlantic Ocean, Rias Baixas has long been known for its bountiful supply of seafood, and the local winemakers long ago developed a delightful wine to enjoy with it.
Albariño has a wonderful blend of refreshing acidity and clean fruit flavors. Citrus, green apple, and tropical fruits are all present and make this wine suitable as both an aperitif and a dinner wine for seafood, poultry, and light salads.
Note: Albariño is best when enjoyed young. You should buy it no more than two years old. Serve it chilled (45˚ - 50˚) to preserve the refreshing crispness of the wine.
3/ Grenache: Bodegas Borsao Tres Picos 2010 Garnacha Campo de Borja
The two great red grapes of Spain are Grenache and Tempranillo. Although many other reds are grown (such as Cabernet Sauvignon), Grenache and Tempranillo produced in Spain are world class.
Grenache is called Garnacha in Spain and is grown throughout the country. It is common in the famous northern wine district, but also does well in the middle of the country, as well as in the southeast.
4/ Ribera del Duero Tempranillo: Emilio Moro 2007 Tinto Fino
The Tempranillo grape is considered the great, noble grape of Spain. It’s used to make fantastic, full-bodied red wines that are a classic match for steaks.
The grape goes by many names in Spain depending on the region. In the northern, western part of Spain, the Duero River heads towards Portugal. One of the many wine districts along this river is called Ribera del Duero where Tempranillo is known as Tinto Fino.
The wines here tend to be a little less robust than the big, bold ones in nearby Rioja (see wine #5 below) but are still very food friendly and very drinkable.
Although the Ribera del Duero region does not have an aging classification system like Rioja does, I would still lay the bottle down for several years after it’s been released for sale. Three to five years should be about right so, for instance, a 2011 vintage should be about ideal by 2014 or 2015.
Note: The Duero River changes names when it enters Portugal and is known as the Douro where it provides the valleys for the vineyards of the famous wine district of Porto, home of Port wine.
5/ Rioja Tempranillo : Bodegas Muga Prado Enea 2004 Gran Reserva Rioja
The best Tempranillo in Spain is produced in the Rioja wine district in the central north of the country. Rioja in Spain is sort of like Napa in the U.S. – it’s known for outstanding, premium red wine, in this case Tempranillo instead of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Joven: Released in the second year, less than one year in oak
Rioja reds have a formal classification system for aging wine in oak, and then in the bottle. The divisions are:
Gran Reserva: Released in the fifth year, at least two of which must have been in oak.
The Muga Prado Enea pictured nearby is a bold, robust wine with notes of mixed red and dark fruit, tobacco, and leather, as well as well-structured tannins. It’s a great steak wine that can be enjoyed now, or laid down for another five years.
Note: Open a Rioja red and let it breathe for an hour or two before enjoying.
Spring 2012: An Italian Sampler – Part 2
The country of Italy probably presents the most mystery to American wine enthusiasts of any wine region and for good reason. Many labels are hard to understand, plus Italy has more grape varieties than any other country. However, if you don’t explore the wines of Italy, then you’re missing out on some awesome wines.
The flight of five wines described below is the second part of my Italian Sampler series. (For Part 1, just keep scrolling down the page.) Exploring Italian wines is really a never-ending adventure.
You should make an effort to look for the following five wines because they’re both good tasting and intriguing. Remember, if you can’t locally purchase the specific label that I’ve recommended, then look for another label of the same type of wine and the specific region.
1/ Prosecco: Tesoro Della Regina
In Italy the term Spumante means sparkling wine, and Italy certainly produces a lot of bubbly. One of the best known sparkling wines is Prosecco, produced in Northeastern Italy in the Veneto region outside Venice from the grape of the same name.
Most Prosecco is high quality and very affordable. It compares favorably with French Champagne in many respects, although Prosecco is made by a completely different method.
This offering from Tesoro pictured nearby is a delightful, dry sparkler that’s crisp and refreshing with wonderful aromas of apples, citrus, and pears.
Prosecco pairs heavenly with seafood, especially shellfish such as crab, oysters, and shrimp. In fact, my friends and I enjoy Prosecco with Oysters Rockefeller. I think it’s one of the classic food-wine pairings of all time.
However, Prosecco can also be enjoyed on its own as an aperitif before dinner, or just sipped while sitting on the deck or patio and socializing on a summer afternoon or evening. It’s so affordable that you can have two or three bottles on hand for parties.
Note: Serve Prosecco chilled (50˚ - 55˚) to preserve the refreshing crispness of the wine. After opening, put the bottle on ice and use a Champagne bottle closer to keep the bubbles in.
2/ Soave: Bolla 2010
Another offering from the Veneto region is a dry white wine known as Soave. It’s one of Italy’s best known white wines but had fallen out of favor in the past due to mass production and poor quality. Today, however, producers are making higher quality wine in an effort to regain market share.
Soave is known as a ‘soft’ wine due to its aromas and flavors of orchard fruits such as pears, apricots, and apples, as well as a hint of citrus. Bolla offers a crisp and well-balanced Soave made mostly from the Garganega grape, but also including a small amount of Trebbiano for complexity and body.
I recommend enjoying Soave as both an aperitif and as a wine to pair with starter dishes such as salads and appetizers. It also goes well with fish and chicken dishes. It’s so affordable that you can use it as a socializing wine at larger group gatherings.
Note: Serve Soave chilled (50˚ - 55) for maximum enjoyment of the light fruity flavors. Take it out of the refrigerator 15-20 minutes before opening and it should be at the right temperature.
3/ Dolcetto: Mauro Sabaste Santa Rosalia Dolcetto d’Alba 2010
Dolcetto is a light-bodied, fruity red wine from Northwest Italy and is made from the grape of the same name. Although sometimes it’s made on the sweet side, these days there are many dry versions such as this Mauro Sabaste offering which is a nicely balanced red.
Dolcetto pairs well with lighter fare, but can be enjoyed with just about any grilled dish, whether meat or vegetables. It’s said that in the Piedmont area of Northwest Italy Dolcetto is the everyday wine of the makers of Barolo, a premium, expensive red made in the same area.
Look for Dolcetto on the wine list of an Italian restaurant. Chances are that it’ll be affordable and will be enjoyed by everyone in your party. Plus, it’s a good conversation piece since most wine enthusiasts aren’t familiar with it. The term “d’Alba” on the label means that the grapes were grown in the region of the city of Alba, a famous wine region of the Piedmont.
Being a light-bodied red, Dolcetto is at its best when very slightly chilled before serving to maximize its flavors. Put it into the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes prior to opening and it’ll be just about right.
Note: Dolcetto is made in the same general as Barbera, another wine often on lists at Italian restaurants. Dolcetto is light-bodied whereas Barbera is medium-bodied and heartier.
4/ Chianti Classico: La Castellina Chianti Classico Riserva Squarcialupi 2006
Italians seem to excel at creating long-worded wine labels and this is another example. First of all, La Castellina is the name of the producer. Next, we have Chianti Classico which is slightly different from regular Chianti. The term ‘Classico’ refers to an area of legally defined vineyards in the heart of the Chianti region of Tuscany considered to produce grapes that make superior Chianti.
Next, the term ‘Riserva’ refers to extra aging in oak, in this case for 18 months. Finally, the term ‘Squarcialupi’ honors a beautifully illustrated codex of 14th & 15th century Florentine music created by Antonio Sqaurcialupi. Perhaps the winemaker thought that this wine was a harmonious blend of grape and vineyard elements that creates a pleasing wine.
In any event, this Chianti Classico is one of the best produced in Tuscany, being a very dry, earthy, medium-bodied red with lots of cherry notes so characteristic of the Sangiovese grape.
The La Castellina is made from 90% Sangiovese, along with minor amounts of Cabernet and Merlot to lend balance. Medium tannins lend the wine to pairing with heartier fare, which means it can be enjoyed with red sauce pasta dishes as well as the finest grilled steaks.
Note: The black rooster on the neck label is a 700 year old tradition that denotes the wine is from the Classico zone under control of the city of Florence. Way back when, the cities of Florence and Siena fought battles over control of this area. The dispute was eventually settled in Florence’s favors and their symbol was a black rooster, so it’s been used ever since.
5/ Brunello di Montalcino: Casisano-Colombiano 2004
You can debate which wine is the king of Italian reds, but Brunello will be on the short list every time. It’s a prestigious wine of Tuscany and made from 100% Sangiovese grown in the region of the hilltop village of Montalcino.
Brunello is a robust wine nicely balanced with high acidity and firm tannins, and contains awesome notes of dark fruit, earthiness, and dried herbs. It’s a great wine to pair with hearty fare, including grilled steaks. Open a bottle of this wine when you want to make a statement at a dinner party.
Spring 2012: An Italian Sampler – Part 1
As I write this, spring is officially only one day away, so I wanted to celebrate the change of seasons with some unusual wines. The country of Italy probably presents the most mystery to American wine enthusiasts of any wine region and for good reason. Many labels are hard to understand, plus Italy has more grape varieties than any other country. However, if you don’t explore the wines of Italy, then you’re missing out on some awesome wines.
The flight of five wines described below represents only a fraction of what I could recommend, so I’m calling this flight ‘An Italian Sampler, Part 1.’ I’ll explore more Italian wines in the near future.
You should make an effort to look for the following five wines because they’re both good tasting and intriguing. Remember, if you can’t purchase locally the specific label that I’ve recommended, then look for another label of the same type of wine and the specific region.
1/ Gavi: Mauro Sebaste 2010
The famous wine region of Northwest Italy is known as the Piedmont (or Piedmonte in Italian) and is home to many outstanding wines. The town of Gavi is the center of production for a delightful white wine named for the town. It’s made from the Cortese grape which is common in northern Italy.
Gavi is a refreshing, somewhat sharp, white with lots of citrus aromas and flavors, lime generally being predominate. It’s also high quality and budget priced. The wine is classified as a DOCG wine (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) which means its production is legally controlled and the quality is guaranteed. Therefore, Gavi can only be produced in a restricted area of roughly a dozen villages, and the local wine board supposedly ensures that producers consistently make high quality wine.
Gavi is a superb white wine for shellfish, white fish, chicken dishes, and hard Italian cheeses. It’s also great to just sip when out on the deck or patio on a warm day or evening. Serve a bottle of Gavi when you have friends over and they’ll be impressed with your worldly wine knowledge.
Note: Serve Gavi chilled (50˚ - 55˚) to preserve the refreshing crispness of the wine. Take it out of the refrigerator and let sit for 10 – 15 minutes and it should be about right. (If served too cold you’ll lose some of the wonderful citrus aromas and flavors.)
2/ Orvieto: Bellini Orvieto Classico 2010
Orvieto is an unpretentious and inexpensive white wine from the province of Umbria in central Italy named after the city of Orvieto. It is perhaps the most well known of Italian white wines, and production of it goes back to pre-Roman times, although the style today is much different, being light and dry instead of heavy and sweet. It is a blended wine made primarily from the Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes, but up to five other grape varieties can also be in the blend.
Orvieto wine can be called simply Orvieto, or it can have several other terms such as Classico added. In this case, Classico means the grapes have been grown in the traditional area of Orvieto production and, thus, supposedly makes for a higher quality wine.
Orvieto has light notes of mixed citrus and makes an excellent aperitif to be enjoyed before dinner. It can also be enjoyed while nibbling on hard Italian cheeses and cured meats. You could enjoy it with seafood as well, but personally I think Gavi is the better wine in that regard. I recommend that you simply enjoy Orvieto while socializing and relaxing with friends. Due to its inexpensive price, it makes a great alternative to cheap, jug Pinot Grigio for large group get-togethers.
Note: Serve Orvieto chilled (50˚ - 55) for maximum enjoyment of the light fruity, citrus flavors in the wine.
3/ Nero D’Avola (Sicily): Caleo Nero d’Avola Sicilia 2010
Perhaps the world’s greatest red wine value is Nero d’Avola from the island of Sicily. It’s a simple, incredibly drinkable red wine that goes with almost any food that you would enjoy with red wine. It hints of fruitiness and earthiness, and contains a bit of spiciness, plus it’s made with low tannins, so it’s a wine to drink right now. You wouldn’t gain anything by aging Nero d’Avola, but you could open a bottle up and let it sit for a half hour or so before serving.
Considering how darn good it tastes, and its inexpensive price, I think Nero d’Avola is one of the greatest values around for red wine. It’s sort of a lighter version of Malbec from Argentina. I enjoy it much more than cheap Shiraz from Australia, for instance. I recommend it as a substitute for cheap Merlot at your next large group get-together.
Nero d’Avola can easily be enjoyed with tomato sauce-based pizzas, any red sauce pasta dish, cured Italian meats, hamburgers, and grilled meats with BBQ sauce that’s not sweet.
Note: Nero d’Avola is truly a classic peasant wine enjoyed all over Sicily. It’s served as an everyday dinner wine in many Italian households.
4/ Valpolicella Classico: Antica Corte Valpolicella Classico Surperiore Ripasso 2008
Wow, this label is a mile long and a mouthful to say. However, everything about it describes a very specific wine which is one of my favorite Italian dinner wines when in an Italian restaurant. It’s so versatile with meat dishes, plus it’s economical, even on a restaurant wine list.
Let’s look at the label and decipher it. First of all, Valpolicella is made in northeastern Italy in the province of Verona (west and northwest of Venice). It’s a great red wine made from a blend of several grapes. The classic blend is Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, but there can also be minor amounts of a couple other varieties. The descriptor ‘Classico’ refers to a specific region of a handful of villages that originally produced the wine, thus the quality is supposedly better than just plain Valpolicella made in a wider area.
Secondly, the descriptor ‘Superiore’ refers to the fact that the wine has been aged an extra year and has a bit more alcohol (12% rather than 11%). This gives the wine more body and heft.
The term ‘Ripasso’ refers to a special technique of making the wine in which it undergoes a second fermentation using the skins of dried grapes used in making an unusual wine called Amorone. The Ripasso technique gives Valpolicella a bit more structure and complexity, so to me it’s worth paying a few dollars more.
However, the important point to remember is that Valpolicella Classico is much preferred to just plain Valpolicella. Good Italian restaurants will have the Classico version on their wine lists, and it can be your go-to wine if you’re unfamiliar with Italian reds. Order it with confidence and your dining companions will be impressed.
Note: Valpolicella is very food versatile, so enjoy it with just about any dish you would normally enjoy with red wine.
5/ Barbaresco or Barolo: Produttori del Barbaresco Pora 2004
Our fifth Italian wine is actually two very bold, robust reds from the Piedmont region. I list the option of either Barbaresco or Barolo because the two are very similar, having once upon a time been the same wine called Barolo (named after the town of Barolo). However, the grape growers around the town of Barbaresco rebelled and went their own way and named their wine after their town. In order to be different, they age their wine one year less.
Both Barbaresco and Barolo are made from the Nebbiolo grape which is grown in the same general region around the towns for which the wines are named. Both wines are high quality DOCG wines, Barolo aged for three years, Barbaresco aged for two years. Because of their high tannins, these two reds need a minimum of five years of additional aging after release for sale in order to become softer and more rounded.
Needless to say, Barolo and Barbaresco are red meat wines suitable for the best steaks. If you enjoy the best Napa Cabs and high quality Bordeaux, then you should enjoy Barolo and Barbaresco as well. Like all high quality wines, these are considered premium wines and are priced accordingly, usually $40 or more.
he Barbaresco I list above has the term ‘Pora’ on the label which means the grapes came from vineyards in the Pora region which is considered to produce high quality grapes.
Note: I would not open a Barolo or Barbaresco unless it was at least 8 – 10 years old, except if advised otherwise by your local wine shop owner. Some of the wines today are made differently in order to be enjoyed sooner. So far as I know, however, the cooperative called Produttori del Barbaresco still makes their wine the traditional way which is why I’m now just opening my 2004 bottle.
March 2012: New Discoveries
I’ve been on a roll recently, discovering some truly great wines. These are all value wines, generally $20 or less, that have turned out to be some of the best wine I’ve had in a long time.
You should make an effort to look for the following five wines because they’re both elegant and intriguing. Remember, if you can’t purchase locally the specific label that I’ve recommended, then look for the same type of wine and the specific region. I’ve included web site addresses for American producers.
1/ Italian Prosecco: Astoria Val de Brun Extra Dry
This is one of the best Proseccos I’ve ever had. It’s a delightful, light wine with lots of enchanting fruit flavors of apples, pears, and hints of citrus. Did I say Prosecco? You could have fooled me – this sparkler acted like Champagne. There are all kinds of Proseccos, but this one knocked my socks off. It’s everything you want from a sparkling wine.
To start with, this Prosecco fizzes like the wine is boiling; you pour it into your flute and the bubbles furiously boil at the surface. In fact, my wife and I were amazed that the production of bubbles was at the same frantic level the next day. We had enjoyed half the bottle one evening, then the second half the next evening. We couldn’t tell the difference; the wine was awesome with its bubbly nature, and the bubbles were extremely tiny, just like French Champagne.
Val de Brun comes from the Veneto region of Italy which is west and northwest of Venice. It’s renown for a number of wines, Prosecco being just one. It’s made by a different process than Champagne, but the best Proseccos compare favorably to Champagne.
Enjoy Val de Brun with fruit, hard cheeses, or appetizers before dinner, and with entrees of shellfish, poached fish, and poultry. Serve it somewhat chilled (50˚ - 55˚) because there are so many wonderful fruit notes in this wine that over chilling it suppresses these flavors.
Note: The term ‘Extra Dry’ is an oxymoron – the wine is actually sweeter than dry, not more dry. The term ‘Brut’ means dry; the term ‘Extra Dry’ means there’s a touch of sweetness to the wine.
2/ Spanish Albariño: Val do Sosego Rias Baixas
One of the great seafood wines of all time, Albariño is from the Rias Baixas region of northwest Spain. Developed centuries ago to be enjoyed with the seafood the local fishermen brought in each day, this wine pairs extremely well with shellfish and white fish. If you’re having snow crab or king crab, this is your go-to wine. Ditto for shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half shell, stuffed clams, lobster tail, or Oysters Rockefeller.
Albariño is a crisp, acidic white with lots of wonderful citrus-like aromas and flavors, yet isn’t quite as sharp as, say, a New Zealand or South American Sauvignon Blanc. It’s one of those flavorful, crisp whites that everyone can enjoy, not only with diner but also as an aperitif.
The Rias Baixas region (pronounced ree-aas bike-cuss) encompasses the extreme northwest of Spain, which means it’s exposed to both the open Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay. As such, it has a long history as a major fishery for northwest Spain. The local vineyard growers and winemakers developed a crisp, acidic white wine to pair with the natural oils of the local shellfish and white fish.
Note: Serve Albariño somewhat chilled (50˚ - 55) for maximum enjoyment of the fruity flavors of the wine.
3/ Zinfandel, Mendocino County, California: Bonterra
There are way too many cheap, distasteful Zinfandels on the market. Most are watery and lacking in fruit or character. Although very inexpensive, they’re a waste of money. In my opinion, truly great Zinfandel comes from the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys of Sonoma County, and from Amador County and Mendocino County. (There are a handful from the Lodi area, but you really have to know what you’re looking for.)
Bonterra Vineyards (www.bonterra.com) is located in Mendocino County and makes a line of excellent wines from organic grapes. Unlike many other California Zinfandels that are lush fruit bombs, Bonterra is made to be a fine table wine. It’s a delightful dry red that’s full of nuanced dark fruit flavors of plum, blueberry, and blackberry. A wonderful peppery spiciness lends complexity to the wine.
Enjoy this fine Zinfandel with Italian dishes that incorporate tomato sauce (e.g.: spaghetti & meatballs, pizza) or with hearty BBQ ribs. You can also enjoy this red with seafood that’s covered with black pepper and seared (I enjoyed Bonterra Zinfandel with seared black pepper scallops).
Note: Zinfandel can be served slightly chilled (65˚ - 70˚). Putting the bottle in the refrigerator for 20 minutes prior to serving should do the trick.
4/ Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir: Adler Fels Santa Rita Hills
Santa Barbara County was the setting for the Sideways movie. One sip of this Adler Fels (www.adlerfels.com) Pinot will tell you why Miles waxed so poetic over Pinot Noir from this region. Santa Barbara is a large county and encompasses many sub regions such as the Santa Rita Hills which is known for its quality Pinot Noir.
This Pinot is a light to medium-bodied red with nice notes of red fruit combined with a wonderful spiciness and light tannins. It’s great on its own, plus it pairs well with many diverse foods. As far as I’m concerned, this is how West Coast Pinot Noir is supposed to be.
Enjoy this wine with grilled or baked salmon dishes, grilled steaks, roast pork loin, pork loin chops, roast chicken, Cornish game hens, grilled vegetables, Maryland crab cakes, and even simple fare such as meatloaf. You couldn’t ask for a more versatile wine.
Note: Pinot Noir is at its best when slightly chilled. Put it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before serving and it should be perfect.
5/ Spanish Cream Sherry: Don Benigno, Jerez
If wine enthusiasts are familiar at all with Cream Sherry, it’s most likely the California version which is NOT sherry. True sherry comes from the Jerez wine region of southwestern Spain and is made from the unique grapes grown there. Also, the winemaking style is unique, going back centuries. Forget the California knockoff; for the same money you can enjoy real sherry.
There are a number of different sherries made in Spain. Cream Sherry is often, but not always, sweet. It’s also a fortified wine like Port but much different in nature.
This Cream Sherry has an enchanting light caramel/golden honey color with a very unique nose and flavor that reminds me of roasted nuts. It’s a tad lower on the alcohol content than many fortified wines, being 17.5%.
Enjoy this wine as an aperitif, either at room temperature or on the rocks, or as a dessert wine paired with cheesecake, crème brulée, or bananas Foster.
Note: An opened bottle of Cream Sherry can be stored at room temperature for up to a month. Simply put the cork back in and set it aside on the counter.
February 2012: Wines For Romance
Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and you’re probably wondering what wine or wines would be perfect for a lunch or dinner with that special someone in your life. The truth is, any wine is perfect that you and your romantic partner enjoy.
However, if you’re looking for something that’s both elegant and intriguing—and easy on the budget—then the following five wines fit the bill. Remember, if you can’t purchase locally the specific label that I’ve recommended, then look for the same type of wine and the specific region. I’ve included web site addresses for American producers.
1/ French Sparkling Rosé (Crémant): Louis Bouillot Crémant de Bourgogne Brut
Most folks don’t know that there’s a lot of sparkling wine produced in France outside of the Champagne region. Legally prohibited from using the term Champagne, these producers call their wine Crémant, signifying that the production process is the same as for Champagne. The big difference is often in price – Crémant generally sells for less than Champagne and can be just as good as (or even superior to) Champagne.
The Louis Bouillot pictured nearby is from the famous wine growing region of Burgundy (called Bourgogne in French) and is made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Gamay, the two red grapes grown in Burgundy. The wine is dry and has a delightful palate of red fruit with a wonderful creaminess. The mousse (bubbly nature of the wine) is just as good as any Champagne, enabling you and your partner to enjoy watching your flutes fizz with thousands of tiny bubbles.
Enjoy this sparkling wine with fruit, cheese, or appetizers before dinner, and with entrees of shellfish, poached fish, or poultry.
Note: The Louis Bouillot is available at retail for about $15 and should be served chilled (45˚ - 50˚).
2/ Moscato: Rosa Bianca (Italy)
If there’s one big new trend in wine for 2012, it’s Moscato. This simple wine, made from several versions of the Muscat grape, has come on big in the world wine scene. In fact, major producers in California can’t keep up with demand and are buying up all the Moscato they can find worldwide.
There’s no mystery to this phenomena because the wine is pleasantly fruity, generally semi-sweet, and very inexpensive (often less than $10). It’s a great sipping wine, or pairs well with spicy dishes. I chose the Rosa Bianca for the label with its picture of a rose which makes this Italian white very appropriate, indeed, for Valentine’s Day. But actually, Moscato from just about anywhere will due.
Moscato is ideal for that special person who may not be into dry wines. Plus, there are many fizzy Moscatos on the market as well, so you have your choice of a still wine or a bubbly wine. Pair Moscato with fruit and cheeses before dinner, and with spicy dishes of all kinds during dinner.
The Rosa Bianca has wonderful aromas and flavors of orchard fruit: apples, peaches, pears, nectarines. It’s an easy drinking wine that anyone can enjoy.
Note: Serve Moscato chilled. If it’s a still wine, aim for 50˚ - 55˚, but if it’s a fizzy wine, then serve slightly colder at 45˚ - 50˚.
3/ Sonoma County Pinot Noir: Angeline Russian River Valley
Pinot Noir is a favorite Valentine Day’s red wine for many wine enthusiasts and for good reason. It’s light-bodied and versatile, so it makes a great sipping wine during conversation, and it also pairs well with many diverse food dishes.
Pinot Noir varies greatly by style. I enjoy American Pinots the best with their fruit-forward character, but even in this country there’s a lot of variety. I was first introduced to Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, so there’s a special place in my heart for them.
The Martin Ray Winery (www.martinraywinery.com) makes a line of excellent wines under the Angeline label, and its Pinot Noir is pictured nearby. I first enjoyed it years ago during a visit and tour of the winery, and I buy it frequently today from my local wine retailer. I think it defines the special character of the Russian River Valley which is an east/west valley that has warm summer days but cools off quickly at night when the valley channels Pacific air into it. This change in temperature produces the fog which northern California is famous for. It also creates ideal growing conditions for the finicky Pinot grape.
Angeline Pinot Noir is the perfect light to medium-bodied red wine with a pleasantly fruity palate. It also contains a nice touch of peppery spiciness to give it character and structure. Enjoy it with a variety of entrees such as pork and poultry, grilled salmon, or even with steaks. The best Pinots can stand up to a New York strip steak or fillet mignon anytime.
Note: Pinot Noir is at its best slightly chilled (65˚ - 70˚).
4/ Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon: Apex Cellars Ascent, Columbia Valley
It’s traditional to enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon for Valentine’s Day dinner because it pairs so well with both steaks and chocolate desserts. This year I’m highlighting an outstanding Cab from Washington State’s Columbia Valley, an award-winning wine region producing some of the best wines in the U.S.
Apex Cellars (www.apexcellars.com) produces a number of fine wines and their Ascent Cabernet Sauvignon is an outstanding example. It’s a bold, robust, nicely balanced Cab with lots of mixed fruit (blackberry, raspberry) on the one hand, and moderately high tannins on the other. A nose of smoky bacon invites you to fill your glass and enjoy this red wine with the best cuts of beef and lamb.
Apex Cabernet can also pair well with deep chocolate desserts such as chocolate mousse, chocolate lava cake, and gourmet chocolate brownies. Keep in mind that the darker the chocolate, the better it’ll pair with Cabernet.
Note: Serve Apex Cabernet Sauvignon near room temperature (68˚ - 72˚). You can decant it an hour ahead for optimum enjoyment, although if you don’t have the time, it’s also very good right after opening.
5/ Late Bottled Vintage Port: Dows LBV 2006 Porto
Port is a classic after dinner wine for desserts, or for just sipping as you converse with your special someone. It’s a fortified wine, meaning that it’s had a neutral grape distilled spirit (similar to brandy) added to both increase the alcohol content and to preserve the natural sweetness of the grape sugar. The result is a rich, sweet red wine of approximately 20% alcohol.
Port was enjoyed by our founding fathers due to the fact that the alcohol content preserved the wine when shipped in casks in sailing ships that took a month to cross the ocean from Portugal, the home of Port. The region of the country where Port is made is called Porto, a legally defined region that makes Port by fermenting and blending a variety of local wine grapes.
Dows Port is made by the Symington family which has been in business for more than 200 years, so they know something about making excellent Port. Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) means the wine was recently bottled after being stored and aged for between four and six years. The term ‘unfiltered’ on the label means the wine is a traditionally made Port and should be decanted prior to serving.
Dows LBV is a ruby colored wine with rich dark fruit flavors, as well as hints of chocolate and spice. Enjoy it on its own after dinner, or with chocolate desserts. As with Cabernet, the darker the chocolate, the better the pairing. Port should be served at room temperature.
Note: Port can keep for a month or more after opening. Simply re-cork and leave out at room temperature. It’ll be ready for enjoying at a moment’s notice when the mood strikes you.