Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Party Wines

We had a party last night--the kind with about 80 people and lots of standing around talking, eating and of course drinking wine. Finding good wines to serve at parties is always a bit of a challenge, because you need to find a wine that is affordable, that suits a wide variety of palates, and that doesn't require food to be at its best.

I set a strict under $10 limit for party wines, and usually head over to a wine superstore like Beverages and More to make my selections. For most parties I stick pretty much to pinot noirs from New Zealand and Sauvignon Blancs from California or New Zealand. This time, though, I went a bit mad and decided to get chardonnay and sauvignon blanc for the white wines, and two red blends because I just couldn't find an affordable pinot. But I did find four wines that promised to have good QPR or very good QPR.

I ended up with the 2004 Falesco Vitiano ($9.99, Beverages and More; even less elsewhere, like Wine Library). Made from equal parts of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot it has received high marks from critics, but mixed reviews from consumers. Still, I thought it would appeal to folks who loved cabernet, but be a little softer and less in need of food to drink well. I was right, and people were drinking this down with great enthusiasm. I didn't get a chance to drink a proper glass and think about it, but will post a full review in the upcoming weeks.

My other red choice was the 2005 Rosenblum Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Rhone ($9.99, Beverages and More), a red blend of 98% Syrah mixed with touches of petite sirah and zinfandel. I love syrahs--so drinkable, so lush tasting. From my brief encounter with this wine last night it was very juicy and fruit forward. A bit simple but very quaffable, which is what you are looking for in a party wine. I think this would be excellent with bistro fare, like burgers, rotisserie chicken, and French onion soup as well as your Friday night pizza.

For the whites, I picked up the latest release of the 2006 Pomelo by Mason Cellars ($9.99, Beverages and More). I reviewed the 2005 Pomelo in November, and this wine was consistent with its grapefruity flavors and aromas. Definitely a hit, and its Stelvin screw-top closure made it a great wine for a party. The other white was definitely most popular among the dedicated oaky chardonnay lovers. The 2004 Buehler Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($9.99, Beverages and More), was bright gold in color, with aromas of smoke, pears, and apples. There were proncounced oaky flavors, tempered slightly by ripe pear and a barely discernible rocky taste, which was more apparent when the wine was cool. As it warmed, however, the oak took over. It was my least favorite wine, but it was a big hit among the Chard Brigade.

Parties are a wine challenge, but it is possible to serve some good wines like these without breaking the bank. What do you serve at your parties, and how do you figure out what types of wine to buy? Leave your comments and suggestion since I still think I could do a better job finding wines that are more interesting and get people talking about the wine, and not just drinking it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Back to the 60s with a Smokin' Sauvignon Blanc

Chateau St. Jean wines are available everywhere--at least in LA. In the supermarkets, CostPlus, and of course in every pallets section of every Costco in the greater metro area. I recently picked up a bottle of their 2004 Fume Blanc from Sonoma County, and it turned out to be a good QPR wine with a 60s, retro feel to it.

What, you might ask, is fume blanc? It's actually a term unique to America, coined in 1968 by the legendary Napa winemaker Robert Mondavi, to describe a dry, oaked sauvignon blanc. Modeled after the Loire's Pouilly-Fume, the fume blanc wines were intended to be smoky, inflected with the taste of minerals, and elegant. They are a far, far cry from the New Zealand style sauvignon blancs popular today, with their tangy, grassy, and citrus flavors and aromas. Back in the 60s, though, this was as trendy as could be when it came to sauvignon blanc.

The 2004 Chateau St. Jean Fume Blanc from Sonoma County ($7.49, Costco) is pale straw in color. It has aromas of smoke and citrus, which are followed by round flavors of melons, citrus, pear, and oak. This wine was a little disjointed--the flavors didn't evolve smoothly, one into each other but seemed at times to almost fight for dominance. Initially, the smoke won out, and if you're going to try this you might want to open it a bit before you drink it and let some of the smoke blow off. As the wine sat in the glass, the melon and pear flavors began to move to the foreground. This wine might overwhelm delicate food, and I would recommend thinking of pairings that might work well with chardonnay, rather than sauvignon blanc if you want to serve this wine with dinner.

I thought the wine would be perfect with a salad, so we had it with a suitably retro, only-in-California fusion salad of hotly contested origin--the Chinese chicken salad--updated by the folks at Sunset magazine to include more vegetables (asparagus and avocado). It was good with the wine, and I suspect that the wine would do equally well with other retro favorites (like chicken tetrazzini), or even a simple (and timeless) roasted chicken.

Having this wine was another good reminder about wine trends and fashions. Soon the New Zealand style sauvignons will have to make way for something else--wonder what that will be? This is one of the true joys of being a wine enthusiast: no two bottles are the same, and the world of choices is always changing and evolving.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Bordeaux Step 6: Hitting the Books

Once upon a time, before there were wine magazines, people used to see advertisements like this one and trot down to their wine merchant to order up some Bordeaux. All research was done in the shop. Now, the trade magazines tell us "time to buy!" and we hit the internet for more information. Modern bordeaux buying typically involves a lot of research, and the wine buyers and critics are happy to put their oar in the water to help out. I just got my March 31 Wine Spectator, for example, complete with their list of the 50 best Bordeaux under $50 and notes for the 2004 vintage (which kind of got lost between the 2003 and 2005).

Every year, lots of ink is spilled on giving consumers like you and me advice on how to spend money on Bordeaux wines. And if you want to make savvy choices, and spend wisely, you need to read barrel reports, early bottling reports, and later tastings once the wine has developed a bit. Even if you don't read Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Decanter, or any of the other magazines regularly, if you're going to buy Bordeaux futures on the basis of barrel samples, or pre-arrivals on the basis of early tastes from bottles coming soon to a retailer near you, researching your options is imperative.

But this research can be confusing. Early responses to Bordeaux wines are typically prognostications about how a buyer or critic thinks a wine will develop and taste when it is at its peak. As a result, leading critics and wine buyers at big retailers like K&L Wines often give point ranges ("89-91," for example) because it's just not possible to exactly predict how a wine will perform. Often, you will see indications that a wine might be a "sleeper of the vintage." This term is used to describe wines that might be from lesser-known producers but show early indications of maturing into interesting, complex, and highly-drinkable wines.

Some of the best values in Bordeaux are among wines given an "89-91" rating in the initial barrel tastes, and among so-called "sleepers." Among K&L's 2005 Bordeaux and Sauternes Pre-Arrivals available now, for example, there are more than half a dozen wines under $20 that fit into one--or both--of these two categories. But it's absolutely vital that you buy for flavors not just points. I like currants, licorice, flowers, and a silky texture in my Bordeaux, so I gravitate towards those wines regardless of the scores.

My advice is to find a critic, a blogger, or a buyer whose palate more or less coincides with yours and follow their lead. I find Clyde Beffa, the Bordeaux buyer at K&L, likes the same kinds of wines that I do and tastes pretty much what I do when I drink the wines. Another person whose recommendations I like is Chris Kissack, aka the Wine Doctor, who has great tasting notes for Bordeaux, all available right here on the web. I think his palate is fantastic, and his notes are really detailed and informative so check him out if you haven't already. Most of these resources will also be able to give you a sense of when the particular wine is likely to reach its optimal drinkability--something that can help you to plan your storage.

In general, I find that the best value Bordeaux are lurking among cru bourgeois wines. Bordeaux wines are divided among a dizzying array of classifications, beginning with the 1855 classification of Medoc wines and Sauternes and Barsac into crus. These wines tend to be very, very expensive. More classifications followed when the wines from Graves were classified in 1959, the wines of St Emilion in 1996, and the Medoc's cru bourgeois in 2003. A lot has changed since 1855, and this newest classification of cru bourgeois wines began as a way to recognize the excellent wines being made by chateaux not included in the original 1855 classification.

Bordeaux prices tend to rise steadily as the wine progresses from barrel, to bottle, to retailer shelves, to retailer storage facilities. Your best bet is to buy as early as you feel comfortable doing so. So if in your research you trip across a barrel tasting that describes a wine that sounds just perfect for you, the buyer or critic predicts it will develop into a very good or excellent wine, and it's under $20 you probably want to order it then. Next time you see it on offer, it's likely to be $25, and the next time $30, and so on.

Bargain hunting among merchant websites and magazines can be a lot of fun but it's easy to get carried away and end up forgetting what you've already ordered and have stashed in the closet. Don't forget to sign up with CellarTracker or keep a good list of your futures and pre-arrival orders so that your budgetary limits and your storage constraints won't be forgotten in all the excitement.

Next week: a few final recommendations regarding how to twiddle your thumbs productively while you wait for your Bordeaux to enter its ideal drinking window.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

That's Amore: the 2004 Forchini Papa Nonno

Every now and again I just need to watch Moonstruck. I love the scenes in the Italian restaurant, the dinners at home, and the omnipresence of wine throughout the movie. And then there's the soundtrack.

If you are in the mood for Italian-American food (spaghetti with meatballs, a pizza) a movie, and some amore, you might want to pick up a bottle of the very good QPR 2004 Forchini Papa Nonno red blend ($13.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar). Forchini Vineyards was started by up by Jim and Anita Forchini in 1996, after Jim had worked in the business as a wine maker for nearly two decades. (Previously he'd been a mechanical engineer--there is hope for us all!) The Papa Nonno is a tribute to Jim's grandfather Pietro Bernacchi, who arrived in the US from Lucca, Italy in1908.

The 2004 Forchini Papa Nonna ($13.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar) blends together red and a small amount of white grapes. With 58% Zinfandel, 27% Cabernet, 11% Carignane, and 4% mixed whites--nearly all from grape vines that are 50-90 years old--I found this to be a soft, medium-bodied wine. It was deep, inky garnet in color. I didn't get much aromas, just a little bit of red fruit and spice. Flavors of blackberry and brambles from the Zin were accompanied by mild spiciness and dusty tannins from the 19 months the juice spent in American oak. I thought that the winemakers did a good job capturing the bright acidity of a Tuscan chianti, even if there wasn't a drop of sangiovese in the mix. We had it with a pizza margherita and salad, which was a perfect pairing, but it would be equally good with spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant parmesan, or any other Italian-American favorites.

The 2004 Papa Nonna has received several awards, including a Silver Medal from the 2006 Sonoma County Harvest Fair and a Silver Medal from the 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. If you can't find this wine near you, and you can accept direct shipments, the wine is available through the Forchini's own website. Buon appetito!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Gewurztraminer's Turn? the 2004 Snoqualmie "Naked" Gewurztraminer

With riesling moving steadily from the unfashionable to the fashionable side of the wine spectrum, and costs bound to follow from affordable to sky-high, perhaps it will soon be gewurztraminer's turn to take a spot in the bright lights. There are many similarities between Geuwrztraminer and Riesling--both can be off-dry, both pair well with ethnic foods--yet it can be difficult to find good gewurztraminer at affordable prices, not least because relatively little of the grape is cultivated here in the US.

But there are good gewurztraminers coming out of California and Washington, including this one from the Columbia Valley. Winemaker Joy Andersen of Snoqualmie Vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA of Washington state, faced a difficult vintage in 2004: hot and dry conditions led to early ripening and the beginning of grape harvesting, followed by a cold snap and a "second harvest" in October. From these challenging conditions sprang this good QPR Gewurztraminer, made from certified organic grapes. It's the organic status of the grapes--bare of pesticides and chemicals--that gives this wine its pure, "naked" character.

The 2004 Snoqualmie Naked Gewurztraminer ($12.99, Malibu Wines) was golden straw in color. There were subtle aromas of pear and honeysuckle, but nothing like the perfumed spiciness that often accompanies a wine made with this varietal. I was struck by its slightly syrupy texture, which I enjoyed very much. It accompanied tastes of sweet apple and white peach, which finished with a honeyed note. Though it had many of the varietal calling-cards of gewurztraminer, I felt that it lacked the spiciness and the fresh acidity to bring everything into focus and produce a really memorable wine. We had it with a spicy stir-fry, but I think it would have been even better with very spicy Indian food or even Thai cuisine. The next day, I had a glass before dinner while I was just unwinding and it was an excellent aperitif, so it's worth thinking of this wine if you are having a drinks party. The 2004 may not be easy to find (although there were quite a few bottles up at Malibu Wines when I was last there), but there is a 2005 version of this wine out now.

Feel free to leave a comment if you like gewurztraminer and would like to give us all a heads up on your favorite finds.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Beating Back Burgundy Anxiety: 2000 Baron de la Charriere Volnay Santenots


Now I see.

I just had my first encounter with Burgundy that was not in a restaurant or at someone's house where I couldn't think about it properly. Recently I bought a selection of red Burgundies from Chronicle Wine Cellar, all of which were Vincent Girardin wines labeled for European markets under the "Baron de la Charriere" brand. This was my chance to start drinking them.

What a good experience--and a reminder that we all benefit from getting out of our wine comfort zones once in a while, whether its drinking more/less expensive wines, wines from a different region, or wines made with a different varietal. We are creatures of habit, and it's easy to fall into ruts without realizing it.

Cautionary note to all readers: I am not well-versed in Burgundian wines, so take this as "notes from a palate in development." I do drink a lot of US pinot noir, but this bottle clarified the differences between French and US style wines made with this varietal--just as there is with any grape. The 2000 Baron de la Charriere Volnay Les Santenots ($19.95, Chronicle Wines) was an excellent QPR wine. It was bright ruby in color with a richness and opulence that was very attractive. It had aromas of herbs and cherries that kept coming from the glass in waves, right down to the very last drops. Flavors of cherries, fresh raspberries, rare roast beef, and a mineral twinge kept this wine interesting. There was a nice juicy finish. My overall sense of this wine was balance: it was fruity without being jammy, velvety without being syrupy, lush without being over the top, with its elements kept in perfect symmetry.

The miracles of podcasting made it possible for me to drink this wine while listening to part 1 of Grape Radio's interview with Allen Meadows of Burghound fame. It's an excellent show, and I learned a lot. If you are new to Burgundy, I recommend you check out this podcast from the American Wine Blog Award finalists at Grape Radio--even if you don't have a red Burgundy or pinot noir to sip with it.

I wanted something rustic, earthy, and warming to go with this wine, so with Allen and the Grape Radio boys playing away through my favorite Christmas present--the IHome under cabinet iPod player--I started cooking some roasted pork with blue cheese polenta. You were supposed to roast the pork in the oven with fresh figs, but they aren't in season right now so I threw a couple of handfuls of whole button mushrooms in around the pork and they were a good substitute. (I also substituted a pork loin for the pork tenderloin in the recipe simply because I prefer that cut--you can, too, but it will take a bit longer to cook so use a meat thermometer to make sure it's done before you pull it out of the oven.) The blue cheese tang of the pinot was a perfect counterpoint to the cherry flavors and aromas in the wine, and I think roasted pork is always great with pinots.

After this, I'm feeling much less generalized Burgundy anxiety. And I'm really looking forward to continuing to explore the wines of Burgundy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Bordeaux Step 5: Where the *&!% is Pessac-Leognan?

OK, so you know you know you like Bordeaux wines, you understand that they're blended wines that are not going to taste like New World cabs or merlots, and you actually managed to find a cupboard/closet/unused fireplace where you can put several dozen bottles. You've got a merchant in mind, and now you want some Bordeaux.

Then you read the labels. Confusion sets in and your resolve to try Bordeaux begins to crumble.It's like having a bad flashback to 9th grade geography. Where exactly is Pessac-Leognan, you wonder? How does this wine from Pessac-Leognan differ from the wine advertised beneath it, that is from Haut-Medoc?

Every Bordeaux lover discovers that they need to brush up their French geography if they are going to buy wines that they like at a good price, and they have to come to grips with French appellations, too. And we're not even talking about classifications yet (tune in next week). Adding to the confusion, the Bordeaux region is dominated by the Gironde river, which runs through the area. So we have appellations, classifications, and even "Left Bank" (Medoc, Haut-Medoc, and Graves) and "Right Bank" designations (Pomerol and St. Emilion)

It's really nothing that can't be sorted out with a map and a chart (map right, chart below). The French appellation system (AOC) is strictly controlled and covers not only the geographical origins for grapes used in a wine, it also covers what grape varietals can be grown, how they can be grown, how wine is to be produced, and alcohol levels. There are over 40 AOCs in the Bordeaux region (map from Terroir-France, click to enlarge), each specializing in a handful of wines made in a handful of ways. Of course, the genius of the place and the talents of the winemaker make these wines taste different, despite all the precision and regulation.

Most of the AOCs that produce red Bordeaux, and the most popular white Bordeaux like Sauternes, have varietal guidelines that can help you to make the best wine choices for your palate. Like the pencil lead and cassis of Old World cabernet? Head for wines from the Medoc, from St. Julien, or any of the other AOC that produce red wines made predominantly with that varietal. Prefer the softer, fleshier merlot blends? The Right Bank AOCs of Pomerol and St Emilion are for you. And if you like a balance between cabernet and merlot, the Pessac-Leognan, Entre-Deux-Mers, and Graves AOCs all produce wines that should suit your harmonious palate.



Médoc and
Haut Médoc

Cabernet Sauvignon


Cabernet Sauvignon


Cabernet Sauvignon

Saint Estèphe

Cabernet Sauvignon

Saint Julien

Cabernet Sauvignon



Saint Émilion



Cab/Merlot 50/50


Cab/Merlot 50/50


Cab/Merlot 50/50


Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc

Next week: professional tasting notes, how to read them, and how to use the classification system to help you sort through them in search of bargains.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

WBW #31 Announced: Non-Traditional Packaging

The theme for next month's Wine Blogging Wednesday has been announced. Hosted by Box Wines Blog, the brief is to pick a wine in a non-traditional package (box, tetrapack, goatskin--although I think that's the most traditional, isn't it?), drink it, write up your tasting notes, and post them on March 14, sending a note to the hosts about your submission. For the full brief, click on the announcement link.

Thanks to Sonadora at Wannabe Wino for giving me the head's up that this had been posted!

Monday, February 12, 2007

A Heroic Wrap-Up of an Epic WBW #30

In case you don't know yet, Tim Elliot's pipes burst right over his wine cellar which required some hasty use of saws and soldering irons, resulting in not only a hole in his cellar ceiling, but a smoldering rafter fire.

Despite this (face it, it would have been enough to send most of us straight into the wine cellar for vino!), he managed to pull together a wrap-up for last week's Wine Blogging Wednesday on New World Syrah that boasted the largest turnout in WBW history.

Head on over to Winecast for links to all 50 (not a typo) reviews of 70 (not a typo) wines ranging from $10 to $80, including:

38 Syrah
30 Shiraz
1 Grenache/Syrah
1 Mourvedre

From the following regions:

3 Argentina
27 Australia
25 California
1 Canada
5 Chile
1 New Zealand
3 South Africa
5 Washington State

I think that all these great write-ups from fellow wine lovers and bloggers will keep us rolling in shiraz and syrah for the foreseeable future. Thanks to Tim at Winecast, our fearless leader who bravely continued despite utter mayhem at home, and to all those who participated by sending in their notes. As soon as the theme for WBW #31 is posted, I'll be sure to announce it here.

Think Pink: the NV Blason de Bourgogne Crémant de Bourgogne Cuvée Rosé Brut

It's Valentine's Day this week--the time when you throw your New Year's diet out the window (if you haven't already done so), buy a box of chocolates, trawl supermarkets for flowers, and put together complicated dinner menus for the one(s) you love. And, even if you are averse to pink most of the year, you suddenly find yourself drawn to the color.

Fulfill your need for the pink stuff by trying this N.V. Blason de Bourgogne Crémant de Bourgogne Cuvée Rosé Brut ($7.99, Trader Joe's). A companion bottling to the regular brut sparkler from this winery I reviewed for WBW #28, the rose brut is salmon pink tending towards rose in color. There is not much of an aroma, but what you can smell is slightly biscuity like toasted bread. Once poured, there is lots of froth/mousse, and the bubbles/bead is a little rough and rasping on the tongue. Flavors of raspberry, toast, and yeast come through as you sip this wine. Brut rose wines are not as common as blanc de noirs and other pink or pinkish sparklers that are softer in style. This is not the smoothest brut rose you'll ever have, but it is still very good QPR. And, if you like your wine brut and pink, this is the way to go.

With this sparkler we had a fabulous pink pasta, as well, that I pulled off of Epicurious. Shrimp and bay scallops were tossed with garlic and oil, then added to a sauce made of tomatoes, clam juice, cream, and basil. This rich meal with its shellfish and tomato flavors responded very nicely to the brut wine, and of course it all looked fabulous together, too. If you are in the mood to bake, you can try your hand at this chocolate souffle cake from Cooking Light. It has a nice touch of orange from Triple Sec and deep, dark chocolatey gooey-ness and is surprisingly low in calories. It's a bit fiddly to make but you do need to make it in advance and refrigerate it, so you can hide all the work and whisk it out of the fridge, topping it with a dusting of confectioner's sugar and some orange peel at the last moment. Also: I think you could easily substitute 3 Tbs of Chambord for the OJ/Triple Sec and top with a smattering of raspberries if you want to stay on the pink/red/V-Day theme.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Bordeaux Step 4: Buying your Bordeaux

Now onto the fun stuff: buying Bordeaux.

There are two ways to buy Bordeaux. The first I call opportunistic (that is, you walk in the shop, see a bottle you want, and buy it), the second I call strategic (that is, you order wine as a future or pre-arrival and wait for up to two years to feel the bottle in your hot little hand). In both cases, however, it is absolutely crucial that you buy Bordeaux from a merchant that you trust. And, ideally, your merchant should be someone with whom you have developed some kind of a working relationship. You want to be able to ask questions, and to know that the answers are reliable. You also need to know that this is a merchant who is going to be around if there are problems with your shipment. Indeed, you need to feel confident this merchant will still be in business when your wine finally arrives long after you've paid for it.

First, opportunistic Bordeaux buying. You can always go into your favorite wine merchant and ask them if they have any Bordeaux wines on the shelf. Some will have aged Bordeaux, and others will have freshly arrived Bordeaux that may or may not be ready to drink. It's important that you trust your merchant, in this case, because you don't want to buy older Bordeaux that hasn't been stored properly, or newer Bordeaux that hasn't been shipped and received properly. Who wants cooked Bordeaux? Not me.

When it comes to strategic Bordeaux buying, trusting your merchant is just as important for reasons of storage and receiving, but you have to add to this the real worries that I always have about shipping. There are merchants that specialize in shipping wine, though, and it pays to find them. Often, big online merchants such as K&L have great selections and prices and I typically browse their futures and pre-arrival wines, find what I want, order them, pay for them, and then wait for them to arrive 18 months to 2 years later. When they do arrive from K&L, I know that they will arrive in a sturdy box (picture 1), packed into styrofoam silos or some other packing material that provide some insulation from temperature changes as well as breakage (picture 2), and that I will actually receive what I ordered (picture 3). I have a long relationship with K&L and had received lots of wines from them without any problem for almost 10 years before I started buying Bordeaux futures. They have excellent customer service, too, as Vivi's Wine Journal reported back in November. On the east coast, I've ordered wines as gifts for family out there from The Wine Library in NJ and I've never had a bad experience with them, either. The wines are always correct, they always arrive in impeccable condition, and I've experienced great customer service during the order and delivery process.

Simply put, finding a merchant that you know and can trust takes a lot of anxiety and stress out of buying Bordeaux. If you have any recommendations for Bordeaux merchants in your area, or online merchants that you have used, please leave a comment and let us all know. Beginning next week: the final three posts on the research you need to do to make the best buying choices.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Love, Biodynamics, and Vino: Responsible Hedonism for Valentine's Day

Do you know what you're serving your sweetie in the wine department for the upcoming Valentine's Day festivities? Something romantic, for sure. But how about a wine that is not only romantic, but organic and biodynamic, too? One publication is urging you to consider "responsible hedonism" as the theme for your celebrations this year.

The good folks at Organic Wine Journal have just released their dozen picks from among organic and biodynamic wines. They include sparkling, rose, white, red, and dessert selections and there are even food pairing suggestions to help you pull it all together. I was particularly drawn to the Brüder Dr. Becker 2004 Scheurebe Sekt Extra Trocken from the Rheinhessen in Germany (available from Crush Wine and Spirits for $22.99 or Smith & Vine for $20) with its pink grapefruit flavors to go with lobster, as well as the Mas Amiel Maury 1990 from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France (available from Appellation Wine and Spirits for $44.99) . This is a yummy port-style dessert wine made with grenache grapes that would go perfectly with chocolate. Though more than $20, it's still cheaper than a dozen roses and probably will last longer, too!

If you don't know the Organic Wine Journal, you should swing over to their site and take a look. They've got some great articles up now about Demeter Certification for biodynamic producers, and another on the use of organic grapes in New Mexico. Clicking on their logo, above, will take you to the home page, and the links above lead directly to specific articles.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Voting Begins for the American Wine Blog Awards

Tom Wark at Fermentation has announced the finalists for the 2007 American Wine Blog Awards, the first awards dedicated to wine bloggers (as distinct from food and drink bloggers). There are lots of familiar names in the categories, but also some that you might not know yet so take some time to do a fair evaluation of all the finalists before voting. Click on the logo to the left to be taken to the survey. You can only vote once, thank God--none of that crazy vote once a day nuttiness--so take your time and think about it. Not sure when the voting stops, but if I find out I'll let you know. Update: voting ends Friday, February 16.

All these dedicated writers deserve major kudos for their efforts to enlighten, educate, and entertain readers like you and me on subjects as varied as appellations and wine shipping laws. But I'd like to give some special recognition to friends of Good Wine Under $20, bloggers who regularly stop by here to leave comments or who have supported my newbie efforts, and who rose to the top of the judges' lists. So in your travels through cyberspace, be sure to check out the blogs of:

Mary Baker at Dover Canyon Winery (finalist in Best Winery Blog)
Jerry Hall at WineWaves (finalist in both Best Wine Blog Graphics and Best Wine Reviewing)
Joel at Vivi's Wine Journal (finalist in Best Wine Blog Graphics)
John G. at Quaffability (finalist in Best Wine Reviewing)
Craig Camp at WineCamp Blog (finalist in Best Wine Writing)
Tyler Colman at Dr. Vino (finalist in Best Wine Blog Writing and Best Overall Wine Blog)

This is a great chance for those of us who read and learn from bloggers to make a point about the power of the medium and the quality of what is produced by the very best among us. Thanks once again to Tom Wark for conceiving of the awards, and handling the process so impeccably and promptly.

Wine Blogging Wednesday #30: the 2005 Hocus Pocus Syrah

Tim Elliott from Winecast is the host for the 30th edition of the monthly wine-blogging event Wine Blogging Wednesday, started by new dad Lenn Thompson from Lenndevours. This month Tim's brief was to find a new world Syrah/Shiraz, or a blend that contained at least 51% of its juice from that varietal.

I decided to try a new wine this month, and was pleased to find a wine from a pair of new winemakers in the Santa Ynez AVA: Black Sheep Finds. The 2005 Hocus Pocus Syrah is their very first wine. 600 cases were made, and it is available through many LA area retailers. Who are these Black Sheep? They are the duo of Peter Hunken (of Stolpman Vineyards, Piedrasassi and Holus Bolus) and Amy Christine (Sommelier of AOC restaurant and rep for Veritas Imports in Los Angeles), and their intention from the start was to make a wine that their friends would find delicious and affordable.

The 2005 Hocus Pocus Syrah ($17.99, Mission Wines) is a supple, almost silky syrah with very good QPR that will appeal to pinot noir lovers. It is dark, dark violet in color and has abundant herbal aromas: thyme, anise, lavender. When you drink this smooth wine, you get loads of blueberry and blackberry fruit touched with a little bit of sweet wood and some mineral and herbal notes. Not as peppery or as dusty as many syrahs, it is also not overly oaky since it spends only 10 months in the barrel--20% in new oak, 80% in used oak. The resulting wine is not small, at 14.9% alc/vol but it is nicely in balance and easy to drink. Grapes for this syrah were sourced from the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez AVAs, so it is a Santa Barbara County wine all the way.

We had the syrah with a Moroccan Lamb Tagine that combined aromatic spices with tomato and lamb cubes. After the lamb went through an interesting braising and browning method, it was cooked for an hour in the sauce before it topped off some fluffy couscous. The Hocus Pocus Syrah's smooth, silky flavors were a nice counterpoint to the cinnamon and cumin in the stew. It would be equally good with burgers, pizza, grilled meats, or other beef, chicken, or lamb stews that might be favorites in your house.

I'm looking forward to watching to see what Black Sheep Finds comes up with next, and checking out their new releases. They will have a Cabernet Sauvignon coming out this spring, and after tasting this yummy Syrah, I'll be eagerly anticipating tasting it. Meanwhile, you can get the 2005 Hocus Pocus Syrah from K&L Wines, the Woodland Hills Wine Company, and Wally's in LA.

Monday, February 05, 2007

New Mexico Sparkles

Gruet Winery is located near Truth or Consequence and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico. Back from London, and impressed with the geographical range of wines in their supermarkets, I decided to pop the cork on a wine from a region in the US I've never had before. Moldavian wine is no doubt grand, but how about New Mexico?

I learned from Appellation America that the first grapes planted in the US were in fact planted in New Mexico, way back in 1639 by Fray Gracia de Zuniga. Floods of the Rio Grande between 1880 and 1900 destroyed much of the 3,000+ acres of grapes that had been cultivated over more than two centuries, and it was only in the 1970s that the area started coming back into its own as a grape producing region.

I was impressed with this very good QPR sparkler from grapes grown 4300 ft. above sea level in the dry air and sandy soil of the region. The NV Gruet Blanc de Noirs ($8.99/375ml, Mission Wines) was pale copper in color. Though it had small bubbles (aka bead) it had lots of froth (aka mousse). There were nutty and apple aromas at first, and as you drank you tasted hazelnuts, apple, and even a touch of berry. This was a nice example of a brut blanc de noirs, that was not harsh and that had much more complexity than many at this price point. We had this with a simple chicken and shrimp stir fry with brown rice, and it nicely picked up the nuttiness of the rice.

There is a lot of the Gruet available throughout the country, according to Wine-Zap, and in many places the 750ml bottles are under $15. The little splits like the one I had are also good to have on hand for pouring a glass or two when you don't want to make a commitment to a whole bottle of bubbly. One of my New Year's wine resolutions was to drink more sparkling wine, and opening this bottle was proof that this is going to be one resolution that's easy and fun to keep!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Weekend Wine Shopping Across the Pond

I've been in London doing some work, and decided to go out and find what folks in the UK are drinking wine-wise. It's a bit heretical not lifting a pint in a pub--and I do love British beer and cider--but the lure of a Waitrose was too much for me, so it was into the wine section of a nearby supermarket that I went.

Waitrose is an up-market grocery chain that you can find throughout much of the UK. It's known for its wide selection of food and wine, and the wine section was certainly as good as those in the most expensive, super-selective US grocery chains. Plus, you can pick up a handy catalogue of all the wines currently on offer, order cases online, and a lot more that special services that supermarkets over in the US don't offer their wine-buying customers.

Glancing through the shelves I was struck by the geographical scope of the wine selections. They had wine from Lebanon, Israel, Greece, Moldavia, and Hungary as well as Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and Austria. Europe's everyday wine culture meant that there were abundant interesting wines--and nearly all of them were less than £20, which in terms of buying power is about $20 (a small cappuccino at Starbucks is £2.89, for comparison's sake) The other thing I was struck by was the preponderance of screwcaps--they were on practically everything, including wines from Burgundy.

So what did I sample? I got a 2005 Bouchard Aine et Fils Bourgogne (roughly $16 at this rate of exchange, under a screwcap), which was a brightly cherry-colored red with a nice mixture of fruity and earthy aromas and flavors. I also sipped my way through a 375-ml bottle of sweet vouvray, the 2005 Chateau Gaudrelle Vouvray Reserve Speciale (roughly $18) with flavors of caramelized bananas that struck a good balance between sweetness and acidity. And finally, a truly amazing 2006 Diemersfontein Pinotage from South Africa that practically knocked you out with its double-espresso and bitter chocolate aromas and flavors (roughly $16, under a screwcap).

Though you won't find a single one of these wines in the US, they were eye-opening to me, not least because of their low, low cost and high, high value. Given the fact that the buying power of the pound is roughly that of the dollar (though the exchange rate is not favorable right now at nearly $2.00 to £1.00), at just £7.99, £8.99, and £7.99 respectively, they were all genuine bargains in my book. Maybe in time US grocery chains will be offering the services to wine consumers that are available in the UK at Waitrose? And how about some more Lebanese wines??

Thursday, February 01, 2007


I had never even heard of grenache blanc when I wandered into Malibu Wines last month and saw this bottle on offer. Made by Kris Curran, the winemaker at Sea Smoke, on her new personal label, there are fewer than 100 acres of grenache blanc under cultivation in the US. The wine is popular in both France (where it can provide up to 50% of the juice in Chateauneuf-du-Pape whites) and Spain (where the grape originated in the Priorat region). This is not a "white" version of a red grenache wine--it's a whole other grape.

The 2005 Curran Grenache Blanc ($25.2o, Malibu Wines) is a very good QPR wine that is pale straw in color, with aromas of fresh peaches and apples. A slight spritz on your first sip is the preamble to flavors of ripe, round peaches and melons. As you swallow, you are left with a rich, juicy impression that is all fruit. While grenache blanc is often aged in barriques, Curran ferments in stainless steel and inhibits malolactic fermentation to highlight the fresh flavors of the varietal. This is a full-bodied white with a luscious texture--but none of that comes from oak. It's all from the high-quality fruit.

I looked on the web for some suggestions of what to serve with Grenache Blanc and many sites mentioned pumpkin and squash dishes. I decided to try David at Cooking Chat's recipe for a chicken and butternut squash risotto. He didn't post a picture of his dish, so I took a picture of mine. And I hope David will forgive me for swapping the garlic powder for minced garlic, and omitting the truffle oil which I didn't have in the house and couldn't face shopping for it! It was absolutely excellent, and its rich yet delicate flavors went perfectly with this full-bodied, soft wine. It would also be good with spicy, creamy dishes like Thai and Indian curries, or with traditional French bistro fare. Kris's wines were recently featured at a wine-tasting dinner at Akbar in Santa Monica, where the 2005 Grenache Blanc was paired with an Indian fish dish, confirming my sense that the wine would go as well with spicy fare as it did with my risotto.

This is a special bottle of wine, and even if your normal wine ceiling is $20 every now and again it pays to go above it as long as the wine you are purchasing is of sufficient interest and quality. This one is. There are quite a few bottles of this wine available through retailers (check WineZap for one near you, or one that can ship to you). Curran also has an email list to notify customers of upcoming releases and allocations, in case you want to explore her syrah and other wines.