Friday, February 29, 2008

Sicily: Final Wine, Final Thoughts

February provided me with one more day to wrap up my month enjoying the wines of Sicily. I have a dessert wine review, and some final thoughts. In the past 18 months I've enjoyed 7 Sicilian wines--and three of them I popped open in the last 30 days. So I am far from an expert in the wines of the region. But I've been really impressed with the quality, diversity, and value coming out of Sicily. (the symbol of Sicily--the trinacria--photographed by John Lee)

As I reviewed my tasting notes, I realized that I have a misperception or two to erase as I continue on this journey through Italy. The first is that not all Italian reds are big, bold wines. Sicily is no exception. From the delicate and floral Frappato, to a 2003 Cos Pojo di Lupo that I enjoyed in a restaurant, to the 2004 Firriato Nero d'Avola Chiaramonte I picked for my blogger pack at domaine547, Italian reds are as likely to be herbal with good acidity as they are to taste like drinking red velvet. This is one of the reasons why they are such great food wines.

The second is that not all Italian wines are red. I'm only two months in, but I already know that the whites of Italy are going to be the big revelation of the year. If you can put the omnipresent Pinot Grigio aside, a white wine lover can get an awful lot of bang for the buck trying indigenous Italian white varieties. The Italian white that I had this month cost around $11, and delivered delicious, distinctive flavors for a very attractive price. Why? Because its a blend of chardonnay and a grape you've never heard of before. Low recognition (and hence demand) means big value.

I'm just starting to look for sparkling wines other than Prosecco, and for Italian dessert wines. Here I'm still meeting with mixed success and would appreciate any help or advice that you have to offer. I tried a Sicilian dessert wine, the 2004 Colosi Malvasia delle Lipari, which I found on sale at a local retailer. ($17.99/375ml, K & L Wines on sale; available from other merchants for between $23 and $30)The wine was peachy-amber in color, with aromas of honey and apricot. The flavors of sweet fruit (mostly apricot) had a slightly cloying honeyed aftertaste. Even on sale, this represented poor QPR in my opinion as there wasn't enough acidity to counteract the sweetness. It is better with some nutty cookies or shortbread than on its own, but this was not a wine that made me want to rush out and buy more.

Overall, I'm astounded with the range, versatility, and affordability of the Italian wines I've had--and was especially impressed this month with Sicily's bottlings. If you are on the hunt for good value wines, look for Sicilian labels on your local store shelves. I think you'll be pleased with what you taste.

Next Month: Campania

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wine's Gender Gap?

We hear a lot about the gender gap these days. Women are from Venus, men are from Mars. Men are for Barack, women are for Hillary. Women like white wine, men like red. (photo Moët is Murder (or "Where Wine Comes From") by Bitrot)

While I have to respect the fact that in some households there is tension about wine choice, there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that gets my blood pressure on the rise faster than the notion that somehow women have to be treated "special" to get them to buy, drink, or understand wine. Wines named after clothing, beauty products, derogatory names, sexual come-ons--we've seen them all, with press releases that announce "wine especially for women." Richard the Passionate Foodie reports that the most recent advanced market studies have concluded that older women can be convinced to buy wine by putting some flowers on the label.


They're kidding, right?

Alas, no. This kind of bizarre thinking on behalf of wine marketers is fueled, I think, by the "I only drink chardonnay" and "White wine is wimpy" nonsense that you sometimes overhear in restaurants and bars. I always want to walk over, remove the wine list from hands of the people engaged in such conversation, and tell them to order martinis and/or daiquiris and be done with it. Turns out this wine gender gap is so treacherous, entire articles have been written to try to guide couples across it. Try beaujolais--your wife will love it, and never notice it's not chardonnay. Try a BIG chardonnay--your husband will thank you for introducing him to a high alcohol wine that's not zin.

Here's what I think: this is not about gender, it's about fear. Women are afraid to try something new and red in case they get either the hard sell ("you don't love this wine? You have to love this wine? It's HUGE!"), the dismissal ("I can't believe you don't know enough to know this is a great wine"), or the disappointment of drinking a wine that is so alcoholic that they wake up the next day feeling dreadful. Though, ladies, you need to check that nice chardonnay you're drinking--they often have more alcohol than the reds. Men are afraid to try something new and white in case they get the "real men don't drink white wine" speech from a friend, because they found they liked zinfandels in 1976 and haven't wanted to appear ignorant about wine since then so order the same thing over and over, or because they actually can't taste anything that isn't a 15.5% alcohol red (these are the same people who say "white wine is so THIN" while drinking a German Riesling Spatlese).

I'm all for people liking what they like, and then drinking it. But I put it to you: how do you know you only like chardonnay if that's all you drink? And don't reply that you tried an Australian cab in 1992 and didn't like it so you called it a day. Where's your spirit of adventure?

What I'm not for is marketing tactics based on fear. We're being told this all boils down to whether we have XX or XY chromosomes. Fiddlestix (a line of damn fine wines made by a woman that includes both reds and whites--you should try them). This is not about whether you are a man or a woman, or like reds or whites when you go to the wine store. It's about how to get a fearful wine consumer to buy a wine despite the terror they are going to do something wrong. Slap a flower, a man in a cowboy hat, or a fuzzy animal on a wine label and it turns out that their fear evaporates.

I don't buy it. Their fear hasn't gone anywhere. Thank you Marketing Geniuses. You've actually made the fear of wine worse by explaining it away as a gender issue.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ooh La La! Affordable French Champagne

I'm off to a late start with my project to drink more French champagne this year. It was one of my New Year's Wine Resolutions, but Italian wine and weird varieties have definitely taken center stage here at GWU$20.

Finally I managed to make bubbles my top priority, and went around the shops looking for something that wasn't a big name on sale, or my trusty (but not creative) Veuve Clicquot with the orangey-yellow label. I took some advice from the folks at Chronicle Wine Cellar, and picked up a bottle of NV Beaumont des Crayeres Brut Grande Reserve ($26.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; available elsewhere for under $30).

Beaumont des Crayeres is actually a cooperative venture that winemakers in the Champagne region began in 1955. More than 240 "partner-members" provide grapes for the wines, often grown on very small family plots near Epernay. This combination of small plots and a single, larger house style was intriguing to me because it seemed to me (based on my very limited knowledge, to be sure) that Beaumont des Crayeres is halfway between the big Champagne houses and the smaller houses where a single grower is able to put out a very small amount of limited production wine.

The combination yields very good results, if my bottle of Grande Reserve is representative. Made from 60% Pinor Meunier, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Pinot Noir, this was an excellent QPR Champagne for under $30. It had, as I hope the picture shows, a very dynamic small bead that filled the glass with vapor trails of bubbles. It was pale straw in color--much paler than you would expect--and had shy aromas of biscuit and citrus that you slowly emerged from the glass as it became a bit warmer. The flavors were full of bread dough, lemon, and a bit of stone. the overall impression of the wine was one of clean freshness, and every sip made you head straight back to the glass (and the bottle for more).

This wine was a definite rebuy, and if I had the space I'd buy a case and keep it on hand for a whole year's worth of impromptu celebrations. After this success, I think you can count on seeing some more Champagne reviews shortly.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wine Book Club #1: Vino Italiano

Welcome to the first edition of the Wine Book Club. Today, wine bloggers and their readers throughout the blogosphere will be discussing Vino Italiano! by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch.

David McDuff, of McDuff's Food and Wine Trail, is the leader of this discussion, and he posed some wonderful questions to help us write our reviews. They are so good that I'm just going to go ahead and answer them and contribute to the discussion here and elsewhere on the web.

First and foremost, I think that Vino Italiano is a terrific book if you want to expand your knowledge of Italian wine. The book is divided into regional chapters, and each one opens with a "scene setting" vignette about life in the region, and the role of wine in regional culture. Then there is a discussion of leading makers, grape varieties planted, and specific wines. The authors cover reds, whites, sparklers, and dessert wines. At the end of each chapter their is a regional recipe to accompany the wine courtesy of either Lidia Bastianich or Mario Batali. By the end I felt like I had a much better grasp of the geography of Italian wine and the specialties of various regions. The wine regions that I want to know more about turn out to be Liguria (where Genoa is) and Calabria (at the heel of the boot) for no other reason than the wine sounds so unique and interesting. I find now that I am much more confident in the Italian section of the local wine store, and it was terrific to feel that I could pick up an Italian wine from somewhere other than Tuscany or the Veneto and know what I was getting myself into (at least a little bit).

There are, however, also scads of native Italian varieties--and that's where I still don't feel confident. Perhaps it's because this is the kind of knowledge that really only sticks when you've had a wine made with a specific grape. I read all about Frappato prior to WBW #42 --but without tasting the grape it didn't have a whole love of sticking power. Going back and reading the information about Sicilian grapes after I tasted it, however, made the material stick.

That said, Vino Italiano is more a reference book than a ripping good read. It's the kind of book that you'll probably refer to again and again to figure out where the Valle d'Aosta is, or what the flavor characteristics of Nero d'Avola are, but you aren't going to come away thinking that there was a great story to be told and remembered. But the overall message is clear: wine is part of daily life in Italy, and it's woven into every meal, every social occasion, and every moment.

Where the book really succeeded for me--apart from imparting lots of useful information and becoming my go-to book on Italian wines--was that it did inspire me to go out and look for specific wines. I haven't found all of them yet, but I'm looking forward to finding a Pigato from Liguria. And right now, as I type, I'm sipping a dessert wine from Sicily, which I bought because I read about Sicily's reputation for sweet wines in Vino Italiano. I'll have more to say about that wine at the end of the week.

I'll be interested to hear what others have to say about the book this month. Don't forget to join in the discussion by leaving comments on any wine blog, over at McDuff''s Food and Wine Trail, on Facebook, or Shelfari. The book for April will be announced on the first Tuesday of March by host Tim Elliott of Winecast, so stay tuned for the next installment (and yes, the book is shorter).

Monday, February 25, 2008

Open That Bottle Night: Vincent Girardin Echezaux

Saturday was Open That Bottle Night, the one night of the year when Wine Street Journal critics Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher urge you to go into your closets, cupboards, wine fridges, and cellars and pull out a bottle of wine you are "saving for a special day." Sometimes they're old bottles. Sometimes, they're bottles you set aside to celebrate a specific event. Sometimes they were gifts that you couldn't bear to open because they were so special.

The wine I drank for OTBN fit into categories 2 and 3. It was given to me by a dear friend in July of 2006 to celebrate a major career milestone: turning in my second book manuscript. This is the kind of thing that you just DO, you stick it in the mail and go home and eat chocolate. So this wine was very special to me and even after the book came out I couldn't bear to open it.

Open That Bottle Night to the rescue!

The bottle in question was a 2003 Vincent Girardin Echezeaux. I know, I know, I could have opened this for OTBN 2018, but I opened it now. And I'm not sorry that I did, either. This wine was just spectacular, and I loved the way that it tried to find 100 ways to say cherry -- iron-inflected cherry, herbal-inflected cherry, mushroom-inflected cherry, cherry blossom. The wine had a beautiful color, too, as this picture showed, which only added to the pleasure that I had in drinking it. After it settled down a bit it evolved into a cherry and truffley set of aromas and flavors wrapped in a silky package. There were also interesting meaty and gamy notes in both the aromas and the flavors. There was a slightly sweet aftertaste--like cherry essence--and smooth, smooth tannins.

I have to admit that I wonder what this wine would have become in another 5 or 10 years, but I'm glad that I took the plunge and drank my special bottle of wine. You can read what others opened up by checking out the WSJ forum dedicated to Open That Bottle Night. If you missed this year's event, just open that bottle anyway, and start uncorking all the memories that you've stored away.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wine Blogging Wednesday #43: Unwinding with Wine

Joel at Wine Life Today will be our host for Wine Blogging Wednesday #43, the online tasting event started by Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours. This one is coming up quickly--in just under 2 weeks on March 5--so I wanted to get the word out ASAP.

Joel's theme is comfort wine. He wants us to drink a wine--any wine at all--that we enjoy just because it helps us to relax and unwind. Which wine do you drink under these circumstances? A particular maker? A particular variety? Pick your comfort wine, drink it, and write it up for March 5. Full details are available on the Wine Life Today blog.

See you back here on March 5!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sicily Makes White Wine, Too

When you think Sicily you might think of big, brawny red wines that go along with ample bowls of pasta with red sauce. This side of Sicilian wine and food is well known--but Sicily makes white wine, too. The island off the toe of Italy's boot is known for its volcanic soil, and its rich whites that seem to soak up the essence of warm Mediterranean sunshine.

One of the wineries that makes the most of the sun and soil is the Gulfi winery, located in the ancient province of Ragusa. Evidence of Ragusa's viticultural heritage extends back as far as the 4th century BCE. Gulfi's owner, Vito Catania, has been making wine in Ragusa since 1996, and specializes in Sicilian grape varieties, including Frappato (my choice for WBW #42).

This time, though, I picked one of his whites to try. The 2005 Gulfi Valcanzjria was a very good QPR choice. (K&L Wines, $10.99; available from other merchants for $12-$14). Made from a blend of Chardonnay and an indigenous Sicilian variety, Carricante, it had rich aromas of apple, honey, and almond. Carricante is known for its nuttiness and citrus-like acidity, with brought nice dimensions of richness and freshness to the wine. On the palate, the mouthfeel is rich and round with apple and citrus notes. The wine had a lovely satiny texture, and the nuttiness turned into a slightly bitter almond aftertaste.

We had our Sicilian white with some cheddar cheese grits topped with pan-seared sausages tossed in the pan with apple, fennel seeds, and a splash of apple cider vinegar. A southern Italian white was the suggested wine to go with this dish, and it was a very nice pairing. The nuttiness of the Carricante went well with the earthiness of the grits, and the acidity cut through the fat of the sausage and picked up the sharpness of the cheddar cheese.

I'm only two months into my Italian wine adventure, and feel like I've already learned an awful lot. I can already tell that Italy's white wines are going to be a revelation and an inspiration as I continue through the other regions.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book club, and wine blog awards, and new sites--oh, my!

There's a lot going on in the world of wine blogs, so I thought I'd catch everybody up on the news.

First, a reminder: next Tuesday, February 26, will be the first meeting of the Wine Book Club. Our fearless leader, David McDuff of McDuff's Food and Wine Trail, will be leading our online efforts to post reviews and generate discussions about Vino Italiano! by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch. If you've read all or part of the book we hope that you will post your reactions on Tuesday by leaving comments on David's blog, on the Wine Book Club sites on Shelfari or Facebook, or posting on your own blog if you have one. Stumped about what to write? David has posted a fantastic set of questions to get you started. The questions had me thinking about what I'd read in the book in new ways, and I'm looking forward to bringing all those thoughts together next week--and to hearing what other people thought about the book, too.

Second, Tom Wark has the put out the call for nominations for the 2008 American Wine Blog Awards. This is the AWBA's second year, and there are is a new category (Best Business Wine Blog), and a slightly modified voting method (70% popular vote, 30% panel of judges). Tom does a terrific job running these awards, and they provide a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on the wine blogosphere. When you reach Tom's site you will see a set of easy buttons in the right sidebar directing you to nominations in the various categories, which include Best Wine Blog, Best Wine Blog Writing, Best Graphics, Best Business Wine Blog, Best Winery Blog, Best Wine Review Blog, and Best Single Subject Wine Blog. Everybody gets three nominations per category, so think through your favorite wine reads and if you don't see one of them mentioned in the comments/nomination area you can make them a nominee simply by mentioning the blog's name.

Third, fellow blogger John G. from Quaffability has a new blog: the Web Tasting Room. It's a great new format: a combination of video blog, on-camera tasting, discussion with a winemaker, and wine store that is linked directly to the wineries involved. I really liked seeing someone taste the wine and talk to the winemaker about it at the same time. It was like being a fly on the wall in a tasting room. Kudos to John G. for coming up with something new. Head on over, check it out, and you'll probably end up signing up for the feed like I did.

I think that's everything. Have fun cruising around the blogosphere, and see you back here tomorrow.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Grape Variety # 94: Touriga Franca

Portugal is home to numerous grape varieties that are relatively unknown in the US. One such grape--Touriga Franca--is used in the blend that makes up Port. But it also goes into Portuguese table wines, where it imparts rich flavors and aromas. With Portuguese wines in general rare finds on wine shop shelves, I was thrilled to find an example of Touriga Franca in a local store for under $10 and check off another box on my Wine Century Club worksheet.

The 2004 Symington Altano is made from a blend of Tinta Roriz--the Portuguese name for Tempranillo--and Touriga Franca grapes. ($6.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; available from other merchants for between $7 and $9) The wine was dark, dark ruby in color--a characteristic of the variety. There were heady aromas of plum, flowers, blackberry, and chocolate. Flavors of black raspberries and sour cherries picked up a deeper, earthy note as it moved across your tongue. There flavors dissipated quickly after the wine was swallowed, and the aftertaste was predominantly of earth. Good QPR.

Where this wine shone was with food, which helped to keep the earthiness of the wine in balance. It was especially good with pork in tangy BBQ sauce, since the sourness of the cherry paired nicely with the sweet, tangy sauce.

Friday, February 15, 2008

WBW #42 Roundup of Italian Reds in Seven Words

Andy from Spittoon has posted the complete round-up of reviews from Wednesday's WBW #42--and it's only Friday!

Fifty-three wine bloggers from around the world accepted the challenge to drink an Italian red and describe it in just seven words. The entries were wonderfully creative, evocative, and fun. I highly recommend that you head over and read them all--they're all posted on Andy's site in their entirety--and then click over to find out the identity of the reds that the 7-word reviews describe. You'll find yourself chuckling at some of them, and then marveling at their accuracy and insightfulness. An entry from Baltimore's A Food and Wine Blog just may have been my favorite: "Closed for business--opens in three hours."

Thanks again to Andy for one of the most difficult and fun Wine Blogging Wednesdays ever. And remember: if you would like to come up with a new logo idea for this monthly event, the deadline for submissions is March 31, 2008. See the Wine Blogging Wednesday community site for details.

Washington Wine from the Walla Walla Wine Woman

There's a new source for tasty, affordable wines from Washington. I don't know about you, but I had some trouble last year for WBW #34 when I looked for Washington Cabernets. In LA, I could find a lot more wine from Oregon than Washington. But I really enjoyed the wine I had back in June, and have been thinking that I need to get some more Washington wine in stock. Now I have a great source.

Fellow blogger Catie of Through the Walla Walla Grape Vine has opened an online retail shop that specializes in wine and food from her beloved Washington State. Born and raised in Walla Walla, Catie's family made their own beer and wine long before shops in strip malls offered up this possibility to suburban types.

The Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman Shop focuses on wine that is from Washington state and is priced under $25. As always, you may find some exceptions along the way, but I found a number of interesting looking bottles that I will definitely be ordering after payday this month. The 2005 College Cellars Lemberger definitely beckoned to me at just $12, and will give me a great chance to try Washington's iteration of Blaufrankisch. I also liked the sound of the NV Forgeron Smithie Red ($16), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, and Zinfandel. And the 2005 Couvillion "Hoobie" Sauvignon Blanc ($18) has the kind of great story behind it that always adds to my pleasure when I drink a glass of wine. Catie even has some of her own Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman labels: a 2004 Merlot ($16) and a 2004 Red Blend ($18) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

Swing on by, check out all the bottles that Catie's selected for us, and support this new entry into the ranks of specialty wine retailers. Despite all the advantages of the big chains, retailers like Catie who provide a focused list of wines in their area of passion and expertise offer something special to the wine world--we need to show them we appreciate their efforts.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Open That Bottle Night Is Coming Up

Farley, over at Behind the Vines, reminded me that Open That Bottle Night is scheduled for February 23--just nine nights from today.

What is Open That Bottle Night, you ask? It's the brilliant annual event started eight years ago by Wall Street Journal wine critics Dorothy Gaiter and Jon Brecher. They ask people to open a bottle that they've "been waiting to open forever." Why wait? Do it now. Join up with friends, or just someone special, and open up a bottle that you've been waiting for a special occasion to try. That special occasion is NOW! (picture of the Bonanza Wine Tasting Group's 2007 OTBN event, from

You may find that there are Open That Bottle Night events near you (like this one in Philadelphia), or you may want to start your own with a tasting group that you already enjoy spending time with.

You also have a few more days (until February 20) to enter Farley's contest to win two bottles of Rosenblum (shipping restrictions apply) in exchange for telling her what you plan to open. Details on the contest can be found here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wine Blogging Wednesday #42: An Italian Red in 7 Words

It's time for the 42nd edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, the online tasting event founded by Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours. This month Andrew Barrow, from the UK wine blog Spittoon, is our host. Inspired by BBC 6's challenge to describe what you did last night in just a handful of words, he charged wine bloggers around the world with this task: drink an Italian red and review it using seven words (or less).

As it's Sicily month at GWU$20, I decided to drink a Sicilian red. Primitivo would have been the classic choice, but I'm trying to drink outside the normal range of grapes so I selected an indigenous Sicilian grape called Frappato instead. Frappato is the gamay of Sicily--lighter and fresher than Primitivo. Mondosapore's Terry Hughes (aka Italian Wine Guru), gives valuable (longer) tasting notes and serving suggestions over at his site, so if you are interested in this unusual grape, you may want to check those out. I tried a later vintage of the wine he discusses in his post, the 2006 Valle dell'Acate Frappato ($17.99, K & L Wines; available elsewhere for between $15 and $18)

This has to have been the most devilishly difficult WBW yet. So, without further ado, the review:

Musky flowers perfume this bright, cherry wine.

Finding the perfect pairing for a Frappato turned out to be a challenge. It was so-so with pizza, even with a slight chill on it. I tried pasta with turkey and sun-dried tomatoes, and it was also kind of bleh. Then I made some chicken souvlaki--and the wine just sang. The Mediterranean spices went well with the brightness of the wine, and finally I felt like I understood its charms.

Check back here for the roundup of tasting notes and details about WBW #43, hosted by Joel of Vivi's Wine Journal (now the Wine Life Today Blog). Thanks to Andrew for a fun and enlightening WBW that underscored the value of words in describing what it is that we drink.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

That's Amore--Italian Style

It's Valentine's Day on Thursday, and if you are still looking for something to pop open with the one you love, one of Italy's largest winemakers, Zonin, has an idea for you.

They've just come out with a new line of wines called "Primo Amore" designed with the younger, just-starting-out oenophile in mind. All of the bottles have bright graphic labels, and they also have screw caps. They are also priced for the budget-minded, at just $6.99-$7.99 suggested retail.

So far there are four bottlings under the "Primo Amore" label, and I'm going to focus today on the white and red that Zonin sent me to sample named for the famous star-crossed lovers: the NV Zonin Primo Amore Romeo and the NV Zonin Primo Amore Juliet. Just like young love, these wines are slightly sweet, fun, and fizzy. They are also low-alcohol, which makes them a perfect option for sipping before or after dinner with some appetizers or some chocolate, and one of them will even go with your main course.

The NV Zonin Primo Amore Juliet is a fresh and crisp wine made up a blend of Garganega and Moscato grapes. With lots of small bubbles and a low, 7.5% alcohol level, this would be a great pre-dinner sipper. Where it would really shine, however, it as a dessert wine. There were nice aromas of apples and flowers that drew you into the glass. Flavors of pear, apple, and peach kept this wine from becoming too sweet. Think of this as a perfect partner to fruit-based desserts, simple biscuits, or on its own. At under $8, this is a very good QPR choice for Valentine's Day, or any day.

The NV Zonin Primo Amore Romeo is made from a blend of Merlot and Malvasia Nero. It is just barely off-dry--not a wine for dessert, in my opinion. Indeed, the label suggests chilling it and having it with pizza or pasta. Pepperoni pizza is made for this wine (I tried it out with sausage pizza, and it was excellent), and it would go equally well with a big Italian sandwich or sub, or spicy antipasti with lots of salami. It is the color of cranberries, and is also effervescent with lots of fine bubbles. There is very little aroma to this wine (unlike the Juliet), and flavors of plum and cherry that are simple and eminently quaffable. For the price, this is another very good QPR wine to keep on hand for pizza night, or to have for parties this spring with big platters of antipasti when the weather gets warm.

Because we all -- ahem -- procrastinate, Zonin also set up a site where you can send the one you love an email with a snippet of classic poetry. The selections include not only Shakespeare and Yeats, but also more modern contributions from Elvis and Oscar Hammerstein. The emails come with a nice heart graphic made out of roses and a simple calligraphic script in red and black.

So now there's no excuse. Send the one you love a little note, buy some flowers, and get some light, sparkling wine. Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Taking the Riesling Shortcut to Alsace Via Oregon

When I bought the Good Grape blogger pack from domaine547 I was promised a trip to Alsace via Oregon. I got one! Even better, I discovered a winery I think I want to develop a lifetime relationship with--and it's a small producer I would never have heard of or had the chance to try in the normal course of buying and tasting wine in Southern California. So thank you to Jill and Jeff Lefevere of Good Grape for introducing me to Brooks Wines.

There is a heart-tugging story behind this winery, and it revolves around Pascal Brooks--who just may be the youngest winery owner in the US. Pascal was just 8 years old when the winery's ownership sadly passed to him after the death of his dad, Jimi. Friends and neighbors rallied to support the Brooks wine-making efforts to provide Pascal with a steady source of income and financial support. Since 2004 Pascal has had help making his wine, including the assistance of his aunt, Janie. They continue to bottle wine made from only organically- produced grapes, and to adopt biodynamic farming methods dedicated to sustainability. (photo of Brooks founder Jimi Brooks mixing biodynamic preparation for the vines,

I got two Brooks wines in my blogger pack, and the first one I opened was the 2006 Brooks Riesling from the Willamette Valley (included in the domaine547 Good Grape Blogger pack of 3 Oregon wines for $52.99). This was an excellent QPR domestic riesling that (quite frankly) blew the highly touted Eroica of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen out of the water. If you like that wine, and pay more than $20 for it, then treat yourself to a Brooks Riesling. There were complex aromas of lime, apple, Meyer lemon, petrol, and stone. I could have sniffed the wine all night without drinking any of it and kept myself happily busy. Flavors of lime, honey, slate, and even a hint of fresh red currants zinged in my mouth. I preserved the wine and left it overnight, and I think it should age nicely over the next 12-24 months, if you can wait that long.

With our Oregon Riesling we had a delicious pasta dish that used butternut squash and some zingy spices created by Mario Batali. It may seem odd to put Riesling with pasta and squash, but it was a dynamic pairing. The creaminess of the squash and pasta was nice with the silkiness of the wine, and the acidity of the Riesling cut through to the heart of the thyme, red onion, and red pepper that spiced the dish.

Brooks Wines are committed to making "exceptional wine at modest prices," and with this bottle they have succeeded and then some. Only 493 cases of this wine were produced, so get it while you can. And if you're in one of those states like Massachusetts that domaine547 can't ship to (and you know who you are!), check out Table & Vine in West Springfield. They have it, too.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Grape Variety #92: Pineau d'Aunis

It's pink. It has bubbles. It's under $15. It's Pineau d'Aunis.

It's what?

Pineau d'Aunis is a red grape variety that is native to the Loire. Popular in the late medieval period among those who could afford it, Pineau d'Aunis is relatively obscure today. With spicy flavors inflected with what some call piney and others graphite notes. The grape can also make a sparkling wine, which is even harder to find than the still reds made with this variety. In my hunt for the seldom-sipped to fill out my Wine Century, this was definitely a grape on my "must taste" list.

Vincent Girault, the winemaker at the biodynamic and organic Chateau Gaillard, makes just such a wine, and when I had the chance to buy it from Garagiste back in June, I jumped at the chance. Doktor Weingolb has had a Cab Franc made my this maker, and Girault also makes two sparklers, a NV Brut and this NV Rose Brut. I've had both, and definitely prefer the rose. As usual with the biodynamic wines I've tasted, I found that this wine had a nice mineral twang as you swallowed the wine.

The NV Chateau Gaillard Cuvee Charlette Voyant was a dry rose sparkler with very good QPR. (Garagiste, $11.84; unable to find this one online at any merchant). The wine had aromas of those tiny little European wild strawberries which are always a bit tart. Accompanying the strawberries in the flavors was a pleasant creamy note and a bit of stone in the finish. When you poured the wine there was lots of frothy mousse/foam, and a relatively large bubble or bead. Still, it was a great sipper, especially for early spring, and a definite conversation piece.

I know lots of folks are looking for sparklers for next week's celebrations, so if you are on the hunt for a wine to share with your loved one on Valentine's Day, ask your favorite merchant if they stock a sparkling wine from the Loire. You may not be able to find a biodynamic Pineau d'Aunis based sparkling wine, but you still may find something with great QPR.

Tasting Burgundy

I had the opportunity to attend a wine tasting devoted to celebrating the wine heritage of Burgundy recently that was sponsored by the Burgundy Wine Council. I wanted to share some of my observations from that tasting with you. Getting over my Burgundy anxiety was one of my 2007 wine projects, and I can't say that I had a lot of success. I still felt that I was paying too much for wines that were pleasant, but not memorable. And I was often stumped in the wine store by selections of wine that I simply could not afford. So I was particularly interested in this tasting because the organizers were emphasizing "Burgundy Best Buys" that cost less than $35. I wanted a chance to taste these wines, and to compare them with more costly wines from the same region.

Here are my thoughts, after tasting more than 60 different wines from this one spectacular wine region.

1. Yes, there are great buys in Burgundy.
Let's get that out there right away. Sparkling wines, white wines, red wines--there were excellent choices for under $35 in each of these brackets. I loved the fresh biscuity aromas and flavors of the 2004 Dufouleur Pere et Fils Cremant de Bourgogne ($NA), and the unexpected anise note in the finish. Among the white still wines, I adored the aromas of golden apple in the 2006 Domaine Sylvain Langoureau Saint-Aubin 1er Cru Le Sentier du Clou ($NA). Though the 2005 Champy Saint-Aubin 1er Cru Le Charmois ($NA) had more muted aromas, the soft and balanced flavors of apple and citrus opened up nicely and I was impressed by how food-friendly the wine would be. Among the reds, the 2005 Chateau de Chamirey Mercurey ($35) was a stunner with aromas and flavors of earth, spice, and cherry. There was a pleasant lift at the core of this wine's flavors, and a nice silkiness, too.

2. These affordable Burgundy wines are not easy to find. Burgundian vineyards are tiny, tiny, tiny in most cases. The small number of cases each producer is able to produce means that it's going to be difficult to find these wines in most markets. The one bargain I could find online, for instance, is available only through NY merchants.

3. There are a lot of great wines that aren't being imported into the US. I tasted some great, great wine that is simply not available in US markets--and not because the winemakers don't want us to drink it! Champy, who makes the great white I mentioned in #1 is looking for an importer. I tasted nine of their wines, and with one exception each one was a wine I would recommend. They were complex, balanced--and not available in the US. Other producers whose wine I loved across the board, but who don't have importers at present, include Maison Lou Dumont and Domaine de Mauperthuis.

4. Gevrey-Chambertin. Because I was able to drink wines from many different appellations, I was able for the very first time to realize that I love wines from Gevrey-Chambertin, with Pommard coming in as a very close second. The 2005 Maison Albert Bichot Gevrey-Chambertin Les Corvees was just lovely, with its pure cherry aromas and flavors and spicy notes. And the 2005 Maison Albert Bichot Pommard Clos des Ursulines Domaine du Pavillon ($43) was just as nice, with deep aromas of black cherry and plum.

5. Entry level Burgundies can be just terrific. If you think there's no point in drinking entry-level Burgundies, think again. These will not have a specific vineyard or appellation associated with them, and often carry a varietal designation. But I was really impressed by the freshness and appeal of the "Bourgogne Chardonnay" and "Bourgogne Pinot Noir" that I had. the 2005 Maison Albert Bichot Bourgogne Chardonnay Vielles Vignes was clean and fresh, with creamy apple aromas and flavors. The 2006 Champy Bourgogne Pinot Noir had lovely aromas of cherry and cherry blossom, a gorgeous true ruby color, and a slightly drying finish. And the 2005 Maison Lou Dumont Bourgogne Red (which retails in Europe for around 10 euros), had a terrific structure and a cherry nose with a pleasantly earthy underpinning.

In just one tasting I was able to push my knowledge of Burgundy well past what I knew going in to the event. And it gave me hope that with some more experience, I might be able to return to my Burgundy project one day.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Great House White from Ceja

Choosing house wines is a difficult business. A house wine must be affordable, obtainable, and versatile. It has to fit many moods, and go with many types of food. Ideally, you keep a few bottles of your house wine around to make your life easier because you know you like it and you know what it tastes like. Last minute dinner invitation? House wine to the rescue for a hostess gift. Last minute decision to sit in the backyard and watch the sunset? House wine to the rescue to toast the colors as they change and darkness falls. Forgot to pick up wine for dinner? House wine to the rescue, since it will probably go with the meal.

Given it's label's claims, I was interested in trying the 2005 Ceja Vino de Casa White Table Wine. I purchased this through my WineQ wine club for $19.99, but it's sold out from WineQ and the winery itself (expect the 2006 soon), but is available from online merchants for between $15 and $20. Ceja is a historic Napa winery, owned by the Mexican-American Ceja family, who came to the US in 1967 and bought 13 acres of land in Carneros in 1983. They celebrated their first vintage in 1988, and have been making wine ever since. Around the top of each bottle is a Latin motto: "vinum, cantus, amor," or "wine, song, and love." This sums up the family's winemaking philosophy, and is an indication of the passion that they bring to the job. I discovered on The Cork Board that Ceja's downtown Napa tasting room is now open for business, so I encourage you to check out the wines if your plans take you to Napa.

All things considered, the Ceja lives up to its label. This nicely made wine was pale straw in color, with aromas of both orchard and tropical fruits. Then there were luscious, mouth-coating pineapple, apple, and pear flavors and a fresh, juicy finish.

With its combination of round fullness and refreshing finish, this wine would indeed go with a very wide range of foods. We had it with roasted chicken and arugula/walnut pesto and the wine stood up nicely to the arugula, walnuts, and cheese as well as complementing the roast chicken. It's versatile enough to go with your Chinese takeout, with appetizers, and with vegetarian dishes, too.

If you don't have a house white yet, this is a great choice. And if you do, let us know what it is in the comments below.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Wine Book Club Spins the Bottle: Wine and Philosophy

How's everyone doing with their Wine Book Club book, Vino Italiano?

We thought that might happen.

To keep you inspired, the Wine Book Club is bringing you a book review just when your enthusiasm for this idea might be flagging, and your New Year's resolutions are being cast by the wayside.

Dr. Vino dubbed these invited reviews "Spin the Bottle" and we liked the name, so we kept it! Every other month, we'll spin the bottle and pick a blogger to review a book in her or his area of expertise. Stick with us to the end of this post, and enter a contest to guess who the next reviewer will be based on the subject matter of the book. The first correct answer will win a copy of both the March/April Wine Book Club Selection, and the next Spin the Bottle selection.

For our first Spin the Bottle, the book up for review was Fritz Allhoff's Wine and Philosophy: A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking (Blackwell Publishing, $19.95). When the bottle stopped spinning, it pointed to not one but two intrepid individuals interested in the more esoteric side of wine enjoyment: Tim Elliott of Winecast, and me. Keep your eyes out for Tim's review of this book in the next day or so, and meanwhile here are my thoughts.

Allhoff is a professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University, and he drew together nineteen philosophers, historians, and writers all of whom were dedicated to the idea that wine is worthy of philosophical study, and that you can enjoy wine even more if you are prepared to think about it. So, if you are interested in the cerebral side of wine enjoyment, and the big questions that wine drinkers, makers, and writers face while they do what they do, then this is a book that you will want to have on your shelf.

The book is organized into six sections. The first three are based on the following assumptions: societies make wine; people drink wine; and people talk about wine. The subsequent three sections cover topics related to the philosophies of language, aesthetics, perception, metaphysics and political philosophy. The sections that I found most engaging were (not surprisingly) those dedicated to wine criticism and wine language, metaphysics, and the politics and economics of wine. Familiar names like blogger Jamie Goode, winemaker Randall Grahm, critic Matt Kramer, and author George Taber appear in these sections, and their empassioned discussions of terroir, history, and why critics mess up (some of the time) gave me a lot to think about. In particular, I found Jamie Goode's question, "whether as wine taster we all share the same (or at least an approximately similar) taste world" particularly interesting as someone who is keenly interested in how and why we know what we think we know about wine.

While it is a remarkably accessible book of philosophy it still IS philosophy so be prepared for something that is provocative in some places, and slow going in others. At the end, however, I was certainly glad that I had read the book, and can imagine dipping back into it in future.

The next "Spin the Bottle" book will be Daphne Larkin's Wine Across America: A Photographic Road Trip. Can you guess which blogger we've asked to review the book? Remember, we ask someone based on their wine blogging area of expertise. If you think you know, put your answer in the comments below. Folks involved in setting up the Wine Book Club are not eligible since they know the answer! The first person with the correct answer will win a copy of both the March/April Wine book Club Selection (to be announced on March 4) AND Larkin's Wine Across America. Foreign entries are welcome, provided your customs regulations allow me to ship the books to you. This contest will stay open until we get the right answer.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Decanting Old Wine: the '99 Mount Langhi Ghiran Shiraz

A few weeks ago I decanted a young red, and led you through the steps necessary to get your young, tight red to open up and strut its stuff. Today, I'm going to show you my efforts to decant an older red. I should admit at the outset that I made a huge boo-boo (see below, step #4). So take this as not only a step-by-step guide of what to do, but also a reminder of what NOT to do.

The wine up for decanting was a 1999 Mount Langhi Ghiran Shiraz that I purchased, complete with authentic cellar dust, from Garagiste back in September for $19.99. You can't get the wine from them anymore, but you can get your hands on a bottle from the auction market for between $30 and $40. I've never had a Shiraz this old, and the early notes on CellarTracker were all over the place--it was still tight, it was over the hill, etc. One thing was clear: it had sediment.

Sediment is common in older wines and it is the primary reason most people decant them. Wines that are old have already opened up in the bottle, and are showing subtle flavor complexities that are not apparent when the wine is young. So in the case of older wines, you don't necessarily want to open them hours ahead of time and let them sit in a decanter. This can expose the wine to so much air that it dulls the flavors. Instead, you want to decant a bit before serving in order to remove sediment and to give it a chance to breathe just a little bit.

First things first: the morning of Decantation Day, set the bottle upright, so that any sediment in the bottle has a chance to settle into the bottom. Put it in a cool, dark place. Then, when you are about 20-30 minutes from drinking it, begin to decant the wine.

1. Gather equipment. This is still a good idea, since it puts everything you need within arms reach. Here's we see corkscrew, foilcutter, wine (complete with dust, for those with sharp eyes), decanter, funnel, and the screen that will help catch sediment.

2. Inspection time. Open the bottle, checking the cork for signs of damage which can indicate the wine is flawed. Pour yourself a bit, and take a taste to make sure it isn't corked or over the hill. You can tell if it's corked because it will smell like moldy newspaper. You can tell if it's over the hill if the flavors are completely flat (don't get me started on the white Chateauneuf-du-Pape that I forgot I had and which was undrinkable by the time I found it--but trust me, you'll know if this has happened). Good news here: the wine was lovely, bright and complex. I did feel it would benefit from some time in the air, so I decided to let it sit for 45 minutes because in my experience, this wine--for all its age--really was still just a bit tight and coiled.

3. Decantation time. Put the screen in the funnel, and the funnel in the decanter. Gently start pouring the wine through the screen. This is not the time to bottoms-up the bottle, or all the sediment will come out and the point of the exercise will be lost.

4. Stop pouring before you reach the sediment -- because sometimes, sediment is fine. In this case, I merrily poured my bottle, and the wine was a beautiful true garnet in color, and I thought "what's all this sediment everybody keeps talking about?" That's when the dregs of the wine hit the funnel, the abundance of fine sediment hit the screen--and went straight through. This rendered the wine a cloudy purple--not what I was hoping for. It didn't make the wine gritty, or spoil the taste, but the sediment did detract from the wine's aesthetic beauty. If you've ever seen an old movie where a butler pours a wine into a decanter with a candle behind the bottle, this is why: so you can see when you are getting to the sediment and STOP POURING. (bad shot of fine sediment clinging to bottle, but you see my point). So you lose a little wine.

5. Enjoy--even if you got some sediment in there despite your best efforts. What did the wine taste like after decanting? It was unlike any other Aussie Shiraz I've ever had: powerful but with balance and finesse. Aromas and flavors of deep plum, smoke and sandalwood kept this wine interesting all the way down to the very last drop. The sandalwood was particularly nice, and hinted at things old and rare. We had the wine with grilled rib-eyes and all the fixings, but given its complexity I think it would have been even better with lamb, as it would have been more softly suited to the wine.

For just under $20, this was very good QPR, especially for those who don't like the sensation of being hit over the head with a mallet when they open an Australian Shiraz. Given this experience, I will be tempted to let some of my reds from Down Under age just a bit longer in my cellar.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Looking for a Sicilian Red? Check Out My Blogger Pack at domaine547

The blogosophere achieved synergy this week on the subject of Sicilian reds. Yesterday I mentioned that GWU$20's regional focus this month switches from Friuli to Sicily. WBW #42 is coming up, and Andrew from Spittoon wants us to describe an Italian red in 7 words or less. And then domaine547 officially launched their newest blogger pack--a trip around the world for $45 + shipping via some wine selections that combine terroir with great value. And the wines were selected by yours truly! (logo from domaine547)

Domaine547's blogger pack program is unique in that Jill (the brain in the domaine) asks bloggers to serve as guest buyers. I've really enjoyed the blogger packs. The first pack by Ryan and Gabriella really jump-started my love of Portuguese wines, and I'm just about to dip into Good Grape's selection of Oregon wines that refer back to Alsatian grape varieties.

Jill's put up some bits and pieces about the wines that I've selected over on the site, along with ordering information. And one of the wines I picked for the pack was a Sicilian Nero d'Avola that it turns out was recommended by Bastianich and Lynch in Vino Italiano! (the first book in the new Wine Book Club).

This really must be a sign, just like the domaine547 mascot says. Buy the blogger pack, get your Sicilian red for WBW #42, AND have something to sip while listening to Sicilian pop music and reading Vino Italiano! Yet another offer that, as Don Corleone would be quick to say, you can't refuse.

Friday, February 01, 2008

An Offer You Can't Refuse: Sicily in February

It's February, which must mean that it's time to switch Italian wine regions. Last month we focused on Friuli, and this month we are sweeping southwest to the island off the toe of the Italy's boot: Sicily. Sicily is an ancient kingdom that stood at the crossroads of many cultural influences, including Greek, Roman, Norman, Arabic, German, and French in addition to those of its native Sicilian population. As you might imagine, all of those cultural influences left their own stamp on the region's wine, and today Sicily has a thriving viticultural scene as the map to the left shows. (map from Discover Sicily)

I'll be tasting a white, a red, and a dessert wine from Sicily, and sharing my observations about the region's wine with you as I go. I've been reading in the Wine Book Club's first selection, Vino Italiano!, and one of the things I'm continually struck by is how wine and food are an integral part of a region's culture. So, beginning this month I'm going to share some resources that will help you to immerse yourself not just in a region's wine, but in region's culture, too. So here are some of my recommendations for movies to watch, food to eat, and music to listen to while you're sipping some wine from this historic wine region.

For More About Sicilian Wine: web resources include the Wines of Sicily and Wine Country Italy's Sicily page.

Movies to Watch While Drinking Sicilian Wine
: Moonstruck, The Godfather (take your pick of which one), Cinema Paradiso, Il Gattopardo, Il Postino

Food to Eat While Drinking Sicilian Wine: Sicily has a rich culinary heritage and is home to many classic Italian dishes familiar in the US including Involtini de Pesce Spada (Swordfish Rolls), eggplant dishes like Pasta alla Norma, cannoli, ziti with tomatoes and tuna. Click here for recipes for these traditional Sicilian dishes, and many more.

Music to Listen to While Drinking Sicilian Wine: Sicilian folk music, Carmen Consoli, the jazzy, Arabic-inspired sounds of Enzo Rao and his band Shamal.

Enjoy, and remember: WBW #42 asks you to drink an Italian red and describe it in 7 words or less. Why not make it Sicilian?

Coming in March: Campania