Monday, October 31, 2011

Spicing Things Up With Zin

Whether you love them or hate them, the next eight weeks are widely regarded as something of a challenge. Holidays. Family. Bad weather. Trips to the mall. Schlepping kids all over creation. Lots of turkey and mashed potatoes.

To survive, you need to keep some spice in your life. Start with some nice Zinfandel, and throw a pot of chili or pasta on the stove. It will keep you going during the darkening days of winter.

Here are two highly affordable Zinfandels for you to consider:

2009 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Vine Vintners Blend (suggested retail $10; available in market for $7-$13) This very good QPR Zinfandel has smooth black cherry and blackberry aromas. You'll find the same fruits in the flavors, along with a smoky, spicy aftertaste. The wine has fine tannins, giving it an impression that is fruit-forward, but not too jammy.

2010 McManis Family Vineyards Zinfandel (suggested retail $11.99; available in market for $9-$14) Pure of taste and light on its feet, this is all about the blackberries in the aromas and flavors. There are nice spicy and pepper notes in the aftertaste, too. At 13.5% ABV, this is not a monster of a wine, but a lovely reminder of how Zinfandel can be elegant. Excellent QPR for around $12.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Exiting the Wine Superhighway with Malvasia Bianca

One of the great things about wine is that no matter how much of the stuff you taste, there is always a new adventure to be had on the shelves of your local store or at your local winery (and yes, most of us actually do have a winery somewhere within driving distance!)

Don't get me wrong: I love the taste of wine. But I also love discovering new tastes, and locating wines I like that are off the normal Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc-Cabernet-Pinot route. Today's wine pick is definitely out of the ordinary. Drinking it was a little bit like exiting the familiar wine freeway and taking a back road to your destination.

When I first opened up the 2010 Wild Horse Malvasia Bianca San Bernabe (suggested retail $20; available in the market for $20) from California's Monterey County AVA, I wondered if I had ever had the grape bottled on its own. It often turns up in blends, especially Italian blends. It turns out I have had straight-up Malvasia Bianca before, back in the spring of 2008 when I was looking for a wine to pair with asparagus, and I enjoyed it a great deal. Three and a half years later, I had the opportunity to taste my second example!

And what a nice change it was from the same-old same-old. First off: don't expect to smell lots of fruit when you open this wine. Instead, this delicious white had floral and spicy aromas with an underlying note of litchi. In the mouth, the impression was bone dry, and there was a spicy aftertaste that was unlike anything else I've had before. In some ways, it tasted like a Gewürztraminer without that grape's lush, fruit-forward profile. As the wine was exposed to air and warmed up a bit in the glass, I tasted lean, elegant traces of pear, litchi, and lemon pith. Very good QPR. The 2010 Wild Horse Malvasia Bianca would pair beautifully with delicate fish and shellfish dishes, as well as Pacific Rim cuisine including fish tacos and sushi.

This autumn, make it a point to go wine adventuring. If you're at a restaurant that has a wine-by-the-glass list, try a grape variety you've never had before. If you're at your local wine shop, tell them that you love Pinot Noir but you'd like to try something new. Chances are you'll walk out with a Gamay or a Blaufrankisch--and you may just find a new wine favorite. And kudos to Wild Horse for offering us some unusual varieties like Verdelho, Malvasia and, yes, even Blaufrankisch, to tempt our tastebuds and expand our horizons.

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

Monday, October 24, 2011

Much-Maligned Merlot

Once the darling of wine-by-the-glass programs around the country, and purchased by the gallon by people who didn't know what else to buy, Merlot has been relegated to the margins of wine culture. "You drink Merlot?" people have asked me with horrified expressions.

Yes. I drink Merlot. It's a great food wine--far easier to pair with most dishes than its more structured sibling, Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot has a bit of softness, a hint of richness, that make it a good choice for autumn and winter meals.

But Merlot critics do have a point: there was such a high demand for Merlot some people got carried away and began mass-producing wines that lost all of the plummy, peppery, clove, and mocha notes that make wines made with this grape distinctive.

Here are a few affordable bottlings that will get you reacquainted with Merlot. And here's a handy list of foods that go well with them: Mustard, Mushrooms, and Meatloaf (and other dishes made with ground beef). It's an easy list to remember, and will help you out in the store whether you're inspired to make Melissa Clark's Chicken with Mustard Croutons, Jamie Oliver's pappardelle pasta with wild mushrooms, or a classic meatloaf or burger.

2009 Rutherford Ranch Merlot (suggested retail $18; available for $14-$20) With characteristic chocolate, plum, and spice notes that persist from the aromas, through the flavors, and continue on into the aftertaste, this is a very good QPR choice. Nicely balanced between fruit, acidity, and oak, the wine impproves with air, suggesting it is suitable for drinking between 2011 and 2014. Buy a bottle for now--and set one aside for 2012 or later.

2009 Arroba Winery Merlot (suggested retail $19.95; available for around $15) A good QPR choice with plum and baking chocolate aromas and flavors. Good acidity and spice in the aftertaste makes you head back to the glass for another sip.

2009 Bella Sera Merlot (suggested retail $7.99; available for $7-$11) Very good QPR at around $8, this Merlot smells and tastes of plums with hints of chocolate around the edges and pleasingly smooth tannins. It may not convince Merlot skeptics, but those who enjoy the grape should give this Sicilian bottling a try.

2008 Concannon Vineyard Merlot Selected Vineyards (suggested retail $10; available for $7-$11) Another very good QPR Merlot for the price, with more structured rich plum and currant aromas. These fruits are evident in the flavors, too, which are nicely accented with spice. A reminder of the versatility or Merlot, and that the grape can be great if treated well.

If you haven't had Merlot for a while, give it another try. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised by what's on offer these days.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Pursuit of Chardonnay

There are days when I just despair for the future of Chardonnay. All it takes is a string of uninspired, overly manipulated examples with loads of fake oak flavors and it makes me swear off the stuff for weeks.

But it only takes one good bottle to remind you why some of the world's great wines have been made from the grape.

If you're in pursuit of Chardonnay, this bottle should help you remember what Chardonnay can be.

2009 MacMurray Ranch Chardonnay Sonoma Coast (suggested retail, $20; available in market for $12-$20) This is a good example of a California Chardonnay that has seen some time inside a barrel, so there are flavor elements that derive from oak, namely a vanillin note that did not strike me as at all fake or forced. Hurray! The entry for the wine comes from its aromas of dough and apple (a bit like an apple crumble), with a note of honeyed vanilla that is the prelude for tastes to come. The flavors are dominated by cream and apple, with a cantaloupe note that I can't say I've ever tasted in a Chardonnay before, but which added an interesting dimension to the wine. Creamy vanilla notes linger in the mouth after your last swallow. Very good QPR, if you like rich and full-bodied California Chardonnays that remain true to the grape.

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Napa Cabernet for Under $20

Cabernet Sauvignons from California's Napa Valley are among the iconic wines of the USA. They have a cult following, and are in heavy demand, which means that they have hefty price tags, too. Is it possible for those with leaner wallets to see what the fuss is all about.


If you're looking to try a Napa Valley Cabernet--with all the rich flavors that the appellation promises--try to get your hands on this bottle. It may not have all the complexity and structure of a $100 bottle of Napa Cabernet, but for around $15 it's far more affordable.

The 2008 Irony Cabernet Sauvignon (available in market for $11-$17) is a very good QPR choice in Napa Valley Cabernet, with good varietal character and some distinct Napa pizzazz. High-toned plum, cherry and pomegranate aromas and flavors gain depth with a cedary, spicy aftertaste that reminds me of much more expensive bottlings. Though the tannins pucker the tongue with a nice grip, the wine is never heavy. As a result, it is very food friendly and will pair beautifully with stews, roast meat, and steaks.

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

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Something to Celebrate

Five years ago, on 7 October 2006, I wrote my first blog post after going wine shopping. Here we are, more than 714, 000 visitors later. As with most things in life there have been ups and downs, some bumps in the road, and some unexpected miracles which led to unexpected hiatuses in posting. Thanks for sticking by me through thick (when I wrote a post a day) and thin (when I wrote no posts for months) and everything in between (like now, when I'm doing my level best to post every Monday and Thursday--or in this case, Sunday and Thursday).

Since a 5th Year Anniversary is something to celebrate, today I've got a round-up of under $20 sparklers for you. They come from Italy, France, and Austria. And because they're affordable you don't need any particular excuse to buy one and open it just because it's Monday!

2009 Weingut Markus Huber Zweigelt Hugo ($18, domaineLA; available in market for $16-$17) A nice choice in sparkling roses under $20, this is made with Zweigelt, and has distinctive strawberry aromas and flavors. Very yeasty (almost beery) in terms of the carbonation, this is a more rustic sparkling wine perfect for charcuterie or a plate of grilled sausages. Very good QPR.

N.V. Clos de La Briderie Crémant de Loire Brut Pureté de Silex ($15, domaineLA; available in market for $16-$19) Very good for the price, this wine is made with Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon under biodynamic growing protocols. The color is rose-gold, and the bubbles are medium-sized and long-lasting. Crisp citrus flavors are paired with richer notes of bread dough and toast. Even Champagne lovers will be impressed with the quality and depth of flavor for $15. Excellent QPR.

N.V. Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Extra Dry (under $20 at domaineLA; available in market for $14-$18) Clean lemon and lemon-blossom aromas and flavors, and the bead is quite small, which makes for a fun, frothy Prosecco that is good enough to be had on its own as opposed to mixing into Bellinis. Very good QPR.

N.V. Voveti Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (suggested retail, $17; available in market for $12-$15) Greenish in color with small bubbles. this wine is part of a new venture in wine making from a Spanish/Italian team. The partnership really shines in this wine which has the apply/bready notes of Spanish sparklers and the citrusy notes of prosecco without any bitterness or excessive yeastiness. Crisp, but can stand up to food especially vegetables and fish. Very good QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of the Voveti for possible review.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons...

There is something fresh, clean, and bright about the scent of a lemon. No wonder we use the juice to liven up the flavors in food, and put fine ribbons of lemon peel in so many dishes to add just the right crisp, sweet note.

Today I have two recommendations for lemony wines. Like lemon juice or lemon peel, these bottlings will brighten up your table and enhance the flavors in food. And here's something that will put an even bigger smile on your face: they both retail for around $11.

2010 McManis Family Vineyards Pinot Grigio (suggested retail $10.99; available in the market for $8-14) For around $11 this wine impresses with its clean-edged lemon peel aromas, pure lemon flavors, and slightly waxy texture. There's not a false note or a rough edge to be had, and it's not too bitter so it's a perfect wine if you're looking for something citrusy to accompany lemon-roasted chicken or piccata. Excellent QPR.

2010 Robert Mondavi Winery Sauvignon Blanc Private Selection (suggested retail $11; available in the market for $8-11) With loads of lemon and lime zest in the aromas, this wine is reminiscent of the fresh, zippy Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand. The aromas are echoed in the flavors, which take on a nice lemongrass complexity. Clean, zesty, and focused this is another steal for the price. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Future Looks Rosé

Now that we're into autumn, you may think the future looks decidedly less Rosé.

Those of us who drink Rosé wines--those pale to dark pink bottles of wine made from everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel--tend to think of them as summery offerings, suitable for picnics and barbeques but not for serious food.

Actually, Rosé wines are versatile and food friendly. They pair with almost everything. Served with a bit of a chill, they offer refreshment when your table contains spicy dishes. And they are usually very affordable.

Here are two of my favorite Rosés, which I tasted over the summer and early fall and which I have no problem recommending to those of you who are ready to take out your stew pot and turn on your oven. And both of them are dry wines--which means that they will pair with almost everything.

2010 San Giovanni Garda Classico Il Chiaretto ($15.00, domaineLA; available in market for $13-$15) This delicious Rosé is made from an Italian blend of Barbera, Groppello, Marzemino, and Sangiovese. You will smell the strawberries, and the aromas carry over into the flavors. There is a pleasant stony edge to the strawberry tones, and a lovely, savory note in the aftertaste. Well-balanced, medium-bodied, and excellent QPR. We had it with a Jamie Oliver dish of grilled tuna with oregano and lemon, grilled zucchini, and some garlicky cannellini beans, and the wine had the right amount of fruit, acidity, and minerality to pair with the dish. It would also be great with creamy pasta dishes, sausage, or roast pork. Note: It comes in a cute, chubby bottle but it does contain the full 750ml that you're used to.

2010 Château d'Esclans Côtes de Provence Whispering Angel ($20.99 from my local independent grocery store; available in market for $13-$27)
This wine is very, very pale pink in color--think ballet-tights pink. The aromas are even drier than those of the Il Chiaretto, with under-ripe strawberries, chalk, and melon rising up from the glass. The flavors echo the aromas, but the chalk becomes more intense. Very dry, very savory, and very good QPR (though if you can get it for under $15, you will find it's excellent QPR) This wine is made mainly from Grenache, with some Rolle, Cinsault, and Syrah blended in to it. A nice pairing for shrimp or other shellfish, salmon, tuna, or roast chicken.