Monday, November 29, 2010

The $10 Red Wine Miracle for the Holidays

Most of us are planning meals in the next four weeks that call for red wine. No matter what your family tradition--latkes, brisket, bowls of spaghetti and meatballs, roast beef, or even turkey--I have THE red wine for you. It's versatile, it's rich-tasting, and it's around $10 in most markets.

The wine in question is the excellent QPR 2008 Marchesi de' Frescobaldi Rèmole Toscana, a Super Tuscan blend of 85% Sangiovese and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Sangiovese grapes are known for making bright, cheerful, versatile wines that are acidic enough to stand up to tomatoes and spicy enough to weather stews and roasted meats.

When you add a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon to the Sangiovese, however, you get a wine that is deeper, richer, and darker. These blends have been given the name "Super Tuscans" and they usually come with a super pricetag, too. Not so this wine. This humble price (between $8 and $13 throughout the US) gets you a wine that is rich and lively, with plummy and cherry notes in the aromas and flavors. The wine retains a nice acidity, however, with a peppery aftertaste. As it opens up, leathery and herbal notes emerge.

Most of us need all the help we can get in December. Like having a little black dress in the closet, with this wine in the house you will be ready for most occasions.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for review.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Malbec and Mole, or How to Transform Your Turkey Leftovers

I love turkey leftovers--the day after Thanksgiving. Then, I want nothing more to do with turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. I crave spice and warmth and something that will go with red wine. So what do you do with the leftover turkey? I'm too busy to make soup!

First, dive into your wine closet or go out and buy a nice, affordable bottle of Malbec, like the very good QPR 2009 Budini Malbec from Argentina's Mendoza region. (suggested retail $13; available for $9-$14) This smooth, berry-inflected Malbec has rich, spicy notes as well as subtle, integrated tannins. It reminded me of an extremely well-made, fruit-forward Cabernet but happily was not manipulated into something else. The fruit-forwardness of the wine and the juicy aftertaste make it capable of handling something rich and spicy, like the recipe that follows.

Then, head to the market and pick up two 16 oz jars of medium-heat Roasted Chipotle Salsa and a small bar of 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate.

You are now set to make a quick and easy turkey mole to go with some rice, or some tortillas, or even some crusty bread. Butternut squash that has been peeled, cubed and tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper before putting it into a 450 oven for 15-18 minutes is good, too.

Quick and Easy Turkey Mole
Note: I adapted this recipe from a Wegman's recipe that calls for various Wegman's proprietary ingredients not available where I live. No leftover turkey? A rotisserie chicken works just fine.

1. Head a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add your leftover turkey (on the bone is fine, or large chunks of leftover meat. If the skin is still on it, you will want to cook it in a skillet on medium heat a bit to crisp up the skin and render the fat.) Cook for 3 minutes, turning once in the middle of the cooking time. Remove turkey and reserve.

2. Put 1/2 cup of water in the pan and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom. Reduce heat to medium. Add 1 tsp cinnamon and the 2 jars of salsa. Simmer, covered, over medium-low heat for 15 minutes. Remove lid, and cook for a further 6 minutes or so until the liquid is reduced a bit.

3. Reduce heat to low. Then add 1.5 oz of the chocolate, chopped into small pieces. Stir until melted.

4. Return turkey to pan and warm through on low for 8-10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with a nice glass of Malbec, some accompaniments like squash/rice/bread, a cool salad of avocado, tomato, and red onion and you are all set.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for review.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Albariño: Not Just for Summer

Many people think of Albariño as a summer wine. Its bright, citrusy flavors and saline tang do conjure up images of warm evenings on the deck, long walks by the beach, and the fresh fish and vegetables of the summer season.

But Albariño shouldn't be drunk solely between June and September. Right about now, with the days shorter and the cold temperatures setting in, we can all use a lift. And with one heavy holiday meal right around the corner and more to come, I'm filling my shopping cart with lighter food options that won't leave me groaning come the New Year.

Here is an Albariño for you to look for in your local shop, as well as some menu suggestions for dishes to serve with it. One final note: if you will be having a mountain of leftovers in your fridge this Friday, Albariño is your friend. Turkey sandwiches and leftover Waldorf salad will be spectacular with this wine.

2009 Condes de Albarei Albariño Salneval (available for $8-$16) This is a wonderful example of the grape that showcases its versatility and food friendliness. It manages to be fresh, lively, yet mouth-filling at the same time. A nicely-balanced set of aromas and flavors including apple, lemon, and bitter orange finish off with a nutty, slightly salty edge that reminded me of Marcona almonds. Excellent QPR, and a great starter bottle if you're not familiar with the grape. This will set a good benchmark for future comparison.

In addition to turkey leftovers, try your Albariño with these recipes from your favorite food magazines:
Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for review.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Simply Delicious Syrah

Syrah is one of my favorite grapes, as most regular readers know. Finding a good, affordable bottle can be a challenge, however, because a lot of Syrah out there today is overproduced and not terribly impressive. Syrah should have some recognizable characteristics, like blackberry fruit flavors, spicy notes of black pepper and clove, and perhaps some cedar and licorice, too.

I've just had a wonderful bottle of Syrah made in Australia from fruit picked on South Australia's Limestone Coast: the very good QPR 2007 Greg Norman Estates Shiraz. (suggested retail $15; available for $9-$20) It has delectable plum and characteristic blackberry aromas. Smooth, chalky tannins give the pomegranate and blackberry flavors some grip. There are allspice and clove notes in the aftertaste, too. This nicely-balanced, fruit-forward Shiraz does not match a Barossa Shiraz in terms of overpowering intensity, but is more food-friendly as a result.

This would be excellent with lamb, roasted chicken, roast beef, or pork as well as vegetarian entrees involving cheese, eggplant, or mushrooms. We had it with some lemony Moroccan lamb sausages and a salad and it was heavenly. The berry fruit played nicely off the earthiness of the lamb and the Moroccan spices blended with the allspice and clove elements of the wine.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for review.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

When Spending a Little More Is Worth It

Though my wine reputation is all about finding great bottles that cost less than $20, I do on occasion stray over that financially responsible line. Sometimes I regret it, since the wine I splurged on (even if it's only a $2 splurge!) isn't worth it. Other times, I feel like those few extra dollars deliver significantly more in terms of taste and enjoyment.

What follows are some recommendations for wines that deliver excellent QPR even though they are a bit more than those I usually recommend here on the blog. None, I hasten to add, cost more than $30. Perhaps you're looking for a special bottle for a special dinner. Maybe you're looking for a bottle to give a host or hostess for a gift. Then again, you might just want to treat yourself. While there is certainly no need to go over $20, one of these bottles may just tempt you into plunking down a little bit more at the cash register. When you pop the cork, however, I think you'll agree that it was money well spent. (click on the wine name to be taken to a list of retailers)

Great Napa Cabernet--for around $25: the 2006 William Hill Estate Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. This delivers everything that is good and great about Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for a pricetag that won't leave you gasping. Rich aromas of cassis and plum serve as a prelude to the equally rich, beautifully balanced flavors. More currant and plum notes on the tongue are accented by a herbal aftertaste. Abundant acidity keeps the wine from feeling heavy. This is delicious now, and it should continue to improve through 2014 if you have a cool, dark place to keep it. Kudos to William Hill for making classic Napa Cab for the people.

Fantastic Italian Red for around $22: the 2006 Marchesi de' Frescobaldi Chianti Rùfina Nipozzano Riserva. I adore Italian red wines, but tend to steer clear of Tuscany because of the high prices . This pure Sangiovese wine from the Chianti Rùfina is one of the rare exceptions to that rule. It had delicious blueberry, blackberry, and spice aromas. The flavors are equally berryish, with some cherry and a nice tobacco element that keeps it from getting sappy. Excellent and fruity now, but I would expect it to really bloom in the next few years.

Distinctive Malbec for $25: 2008 Bodegas Escorihuela Gascón Malbec Don Miguel Gascón Reserva. Many Malbecs are perfectly enjoyable fruity red wines. This is not that kind of Malbec. Instead, it's the kind that makes you sit up and think "wow--this is what Malbec can be." It has plum blossom aromas, a blackberry fruit core, and an aftertaste that reminded me of the smell of my mom's cedar chest and the way the spice drawer smells after years of use. This would be terrific on a holiday table that featured beef.

Complex, Layered White for around $22: the 2008 V. Sattui Winery Sauvignon Blanc Vittorio's Vineyard St. Helena. From the prestigious St. Helena appellation of Napa Valley, this is a complex, layered white wine that delivers a great deal in terms of flavor and style for a relatively modest cost. Meyer lemon, hay, and apple aromas give way to a more bitter taste of lemon pith, grapefruit, and stone. The contrast between the sweeter aromas and the dry, more powerful flavors is subtle but clearly drawn and this is a very nice change of pace from assertive Sauvignon Blancs. Very elegant, and far above the ordinary.

A Distinctive French Sparkler for under $27: the N.V. Philippe Bornard Crémant du Jura Blanc de Blancs. Made with Chardonnay grapes, this wine is a delicate, refined sparkling wine that will impress palates used to clumsy, raspy sparklers at this price point. A touch of salt accents the lemon and apple flavors and aromas. Refreshing and light, this wine will not bowl you over but instead entice you to sip more--and more.

Full Disclosure: I purchased the sparkling wine at a local wine store. I received bottles for review of the Cabernet, the Chianti Rufina, the Malbec, and the Sauvignon Blanc.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fondue! (and the wine that goes with it)

In an a rare moment of retro chic, I bought a fondue pot. We had one growing up. It was that burnt orange color so common in the early 70s (or at least that's how I remember it). As the years went by, the regular presence of a flame underneath discolored the burnt orange to something more like burnt umber. There were forks with wooden handles and colored discs at the end. Why the forks deserved color-coding I never understood. It's not like you left them around--you were too busy spearing bread chunks with them!

My excuse for this purchase was the two bottles of wine already in my cellar that came from France's Savoie region. One, a red--the 2007 Charles Trosset Vin de Savoie Arbin L’Expression de Terroir-- came from Garagiste and cost around $24. Sadly, it's not available anywhere now but it was delicious. The other, a white, is available for under $15. Once you add the fondue pot, these turned out to be pretty expensive bottles of wine. However, if you already have the fondue pot then the white was an especially good bargain!

The 2009 André et Michel Quenard Vin de Savoie Les Abymes is purity in a bottle. (purchased for $14.99 from domaineLA; available in the market for $11-$15). Made from the region's own Jacquère grape, it is THE wine that goes with the region's trademark cheese fondue. Clean mineral, mint, and stone aromas remind me of snow--or at least that highly-oxygenated sense of cleanness you feel when you are tromping around in freshly fallen flakes. There's more of the same crisp cleanness in the flavors, accented with a creamy lemon note. It is a great white for cheese, and appealing because of its clarity and lightness. Excellent QPR for a wine that delivers a lot of adventure and refreshment for relatively little money.

The obvious thing to have with a white wine from Savoie is fondue. I used this recipe from Saveur, which produced a nutty, fragrant, and gooey dinner that took me back to my childhood (don't omit the Kirsch, and don't use pre-ground nutmeg!). In addition to cubes of bread I sliced some apples for dipping into the cheese, and we gobbled them up, too. With all that cheese, you really need a clean wine and the little licks of citrus and stone were a bright, welcome note.

No fondue pot and no plans to repossess the one in your parents' basement or garage? This wine would also be excellent with delicate fish, shellfish, or just sipping on while you serve some cheese and crackers before dinner.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Do You Know What Chardonnay Tastes Like?

Here's a quiz.

  • Do you think Chardonnay tastes like vanilla pudding?
  • Do you think Chardonnay tastes like toothpicks?
  • Do you think Chardonnay tastes like what you imagine it would be like to lick an oak tree?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you don't know what Chardonnay tastes like. But don't worry, you're not alone. All those flavors that you're describing above don't actually come from the grape, but from what happens to the grape after it leaves the vineyard. In the process of turning grape juice into wine the Chardonnay undergoes fermentation which can give it a creamy, buttery taste. And it can be put in oak barrels which can impart a vanilla or coconut tinge to the flavors as well as notes of oak, smoke, toast, and bread dough.

Even if you prefer your Chardonnays big, creamy, and bready you might be interested in tasting the grape itself for educational purposes. And if you steer clear of Chardonnays because they taste clumsy and overblown in your mouth, remember that it's not the grape's fault.

In either case, you might like the 2009 Snoqualmie Vineyards Chardonnay. (suggested retail $12; often available for under $10) Provocatively labeled "naked," this wine is unoaked and made from organic grapes. The juice never sees any wood: it's fermented in stainless steel and put in bottles. What's more, the fermentation itself is halted before the wine develops those creamy flavors. The result is an excellent QPR example of--who knew!--Chardonnay. This beautifully balanced wine has aromas and flavors that are crisp and clean, like apples and lemon peel, and a clean minerality in the aftertaste that is refreshing and light.

We had it with some sensational smoky shrimp and cheese grits and the clean flavors really shone with the shellfish, warm paprika, and cheese. I recommended this wine for Thanksgiving, too, because it will pair so beautifully with a wide variety of foods, but I don't want it lost in the holiday shuffle. It would also be wonderful with salmon, halibut, roasted chicken, and turkey pot pies (think about those leftovers!)

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for review.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Before Your Thoughts Turn to Turkey...

It's easy in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving to lose sight of everything but turkey and what to have with it. After Thanksgiving? I don't know about you, but the weeks between late November and early January are always a complete blur with too much going on.

So I'll be suggesting some wines in the next few weeks that you might want to get in the house before the Holiday Zanies hit. My time-saving hint is to buy three bottles of them if you think you will like the way they taste and know that you and your family will be eating lots of the food that I suggest as perfect pairings for the bottle in question. That way, you will have one less thing to worry about.

My pick for this week is perfect if:

If any of these describe you, try to get your hands on some 2007 Guglielmo Family Winery Petite Sirah Private Reserve. (suggested retail, $19) This is, hands down, one of the nicest examples of this hearty grape I've had in some time. It is rich, warm, and perfect for winter meals. Delicious aromas of mocha, blackberry, and plum blossom provide a hint of the range of flavors to come: more mocha, tobacco, plum, and some smoky cigarbox notes. This smooth, mouth-coating wine is a bit lighter on its feet than many domestic examples, and slightly lower in alcohol, too, which is welcome news to me. The result is a food-friendly Petite Sirah that doesn't leave you feeling like you've had an unfortunate encounter with a hammer the next morning. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for review.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Thanksgiving Wine Under $20: 2010 Edition

Here we are: at the starting line for the annual holiday rush. That's right, it's almost Thanksgiving. Every year, thousands swing by GWU$20 in search of wallet-friendly wine recommendations for their celebrations.

Below, you will find my picks for the most appropriate and affordable wines to have on this year's holiday table. If you search the tag "Thanksgiving" in the left sidebar you will be able to locate my previous posts on the topic. Some of those wines might still be available, too.

A few reminders: these wines were selected because I believe they represent very good QPR or excellent QPR in the under $20 wine market. All of them were chosen with an eye to pairing well with the unbelievably wide range of Thanksgiving foods. And all of them are available somewhere (usually many somewheres) in the US.

Finally: Thanksgiving should be a day of happiness and sharing, not stress. Relax, enjoy yourself, and your guests will, too!

Sparkling Wine: The perfect partner for any celebration, many people choose to serve it before the main dinner but be advised it goes well with the whole thing so if you really want to keep things simple and festive, buy a bubbly and stick with it throughout the meal.

NV Vinos de Terrunos German Gilabert Penedès Brut Nature Reserva. Fantastic for the price, this has a yeasty, lemony aroma followed by bright lemon and dough flavors and a a bit of stoniness in the aftertaste. (available for around $13)

NV J. Laurens Crémant de Limoux Brut. This delicious sparkler from the Languedoc will make you embrace French sparkling wines for their affordability! Creamy and luscious with lemon, apple, pear, and brioche aromas and flavors. Lively, soft, and dry. (available for $12-$18)

NV Freixenet Cava Elyssia Brut. A very nice bottle of Cava, made from Pinot Noir grapes. It's dark rose in color, and has aromas and flavors of strawberries, cucumbers, and a touch of mint. Fresh tasting, yet round and lush, too, with nice body. (suggested retail $18; available for $13-$22)

NV Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley. Reliably one of the best under $20 sparklers made in the US, this has lovely aromas and flavors of apple, hazelnut, and toast. (available for $16-$20)

Rosé Wine: Most people won't have the guts to serve pink wine for Thanksgiving, but if you do you'll be the in the knowledgeable minority. The wines I'm highlighting here are lush enough to stand up to turkey with all the trimmings, while being crisp enough not to weigh down the meal. Plus, they're great with a leftover turkey sandwich at Friday lunch.

2009 Rotta Zinfandel Rosé. Now. Listen to me. This is NOT white Zin. It is a rosé made with Zinfandel grapes grown in Paso Robles. As a result, it is a true, rose pink in color, dry on the tongue, and there's even a bit of a spritz for fun. Rich cran-raspberry aromas and flavors, and a relatively low level of alcohol make this a terrific holiday pick. It's different, it's fun, and it's a steal. (available for $10 direct from the winery)

2009 Cep Vineyards Rosé. Quite possibly the perfect rosé, this one is made with Pinot Noir fruit from the prestigious Sonoma Coast appellation. Lovely aromas of warm strawberry, stone, and baked earth. Flavors are purely strawberry and there is a dry yet juicy aftertaste. (available for around $19)

2009 Bedrock Wine Co. Mourvedre Ode to Lulu Rosé. Very dry aromas and flavors--think strawberry, lime, and chalk. Rich in spite of dryness. A memorable rosé.(available for around $20)

White Wine: White wines are the obvious solution to a heavy holiday meal, with their crisp flavors and clean aromatics. They're refreshing and versatile, so your chances of them clashing with the food are minimal. One warning: beware of oaky whites. If in doubt, ask your wine store owner for a white wine suggestion that uses minimal or neutral oak.

2009 Snoqualmie Vineyards Chardonnay. Not sure what Chardonnay tastes like? This is it--a pure expression of the grape from Washington's Columbia Valley. Unoaked, with aromas and flavors of crisp apple, lemon peel, and a clean minerality. (available for $8-$11)

2009 Albino Armani Corvara. With pure white white peach and tart Granny Smith aromas, this Pinot Grigio frmm Italy has that combination of freshness and lushness I look for in Thanksgiving wine. The same elements are in the flavors, accented with pink grapefruit and a clean, bright aftertaste. (available for $8-$16)

2009 Oberon Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley. Expect soft melon, Meyer lemon, and apple aromas and flavors from this wine. Though it has a round feeling in the mouth, the finish is clean and bright. (available for $11-$16).

2009 Vina Robles White4 Paso Robles. Perfectly poised between rich and crisp, this wine contains an unusual blend of Vermentino, Verdelho, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc. Loads of tropical fruit aromas and flavors, along with citrus and mango. There is some nice spice in the aftertaste, too. A versatile food wine--and one that will please most of the people at your table. (available for $12-$16)

2008 Field Recordings Wine Chenin Blanc Jurassic Park Vineyard. This white may be a touch cloudy because it's unfiltered, but it is unmistakably Chenin Blanc with its mix of citrus, stone, and grass aromas and flavors. Well-balanced and refreshing. (available for $14-$16)

2008 Franciscan Oakville Estate Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley. There is a nicely-balanced set of flavors in this wine: Crenshaw melon, hay, and lemon pith. The wine is fresh, but robust enough to stand up to turkey and sweet potatoes. (available for $9-$20)

2008 Robert Hall Chardonnay Paso Robles. If you want Chardonnay, this is one of the best for Thanksgiving. Delightful golden delicious apple and pineapple aromas and flavors. Remarkably crisp and light, this Chardonnay will even please Sauvignon Blanc fans. (available for $15-$19)

Red Wine: I have to admit this has never shown up on my Thanksgiving table before--but it will this year. In preparation I've done more thinking than usual about the best red wines to serve. They need to be relatively light and savory in order not to overwhelm your tastebuds, but still taste rich and satisfying.

2007 Château Tire Pé DieM. Yes, the label says Bordeaux. But it tastes like a vinous lovechild of grapes from the Bordeaux and grapes from the Beaujolais so it works just fine with the turkey. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon with oodles of charm on a light-weight frame, your first impression will be of crushed raspberries, then some soil, and then some rocks. The wine finishes off with peppery, spicy notes. (available for $10-$14)

2008 Red Rock Winery Malbec Reserve. After the Bordeaux above, this is my most unorthodox pick. Everybody goes for Pinot or Zin, but how about Malbec? Flavors of blueberries and huckleberries are accented with white flower aromas and then there is a nice note of baking chocolate in the aftertaste. (available for $7-$13)

2009 Thierry Puzelat Vin de Table Français Le Telquel. This totally fun, totally raspberry wine made from Gamay grapes will give your Thanksgiving a lighthearted feeling. You may get a hint of spritz on the tongue at first, but it doesn't detract at all from the pure fruit flavors of this wine. This red is good served at cool room temperature to emphasize its freshness, so don't sit it on top of the oven while the bird cooks! (available for around $15)

2007 Clos LaChance Zinfandel Buff-Bellied. Lots of people swear by Zinfandel with turkey, but it's really hard for me to jump on this bandwagon. Still, if you are wanting Zin,this is the one I would try to find. Rich aromas of coffee and blackberry lead into flavors that reminded me of chocolate-dipped cherries. A peppery aftertaste keeps it fresh and lively. (available for $14-$18)

2008 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir Estate Vineyards. A Russian River Pinot, with earthy and berry notes. Expect a spicy, rich aftertaste reminiscent of cloves and allspice that is very much in keeping with the holidays. (available for $14-$22)

Full Disclosure: I purchased the Gelabert, the J. Laurens, the Roederer, the Cep and Bedrock rosés, the Field Recordings Chenin Blanc, the Chateau Tire, and the Puzelat. I received samples of the other wines for review, or tasted them on professional tasting tours or at tasting events.