Thursday, December 16, 2010

Affordable Holiday Sparklers

When I'm not indulging in dessert wine this month, I'm usually rooting through the cabinets for a bottle of sparkling wine. It's not something I save for special occasions--unless you consider a Tuesday night sufficient! More sparkling wine is sold in the US between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day than in the rest of the year. So what will you be drinking this month to put some sparkle in your life? Here are my recommendations for tasty, affordable bubbles for the holidays--and of course they're all under $20.

NV Jaume Serra Cava Cristalino Brut (suggested retail $8; available in the market for $5-$8). Quite possibly the most excellent QPR of any sparkling wine I've had this year, this is stunning value. The aromas and flavors tend toward lemon, toast and apple. There is a yeasty aftertaste, and a strong yet small bead. Delicious for the price.

NV Presto Prosecco Brut ($10.99, Whole Foods; available elsewhere for around $12)
I'm not sure I agree this is a dry enough to be brut, but it is delicious anyway with soft fruit, citrus, and yeast notes. The wine is very well balanced between acidity and richness. Very good QPR.

NV Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley ($19.99, Whole Foods; available in the market for $16-$20) You just can't go wrong with this classy, excellent QPR sparkler from the Anderson Valley. Rich notes of apple, hazelnut, and toast leave an appealing freshness in the mouth.

NV Gloria Ferrer Va de Vi Ultra Cuvée (just over $20 in my local independent grocery store; available in the market for $16-$22). The warm, pale yellow color of this wine is a good indication of the gentle wine within. Abundant mousse and fine bead sets up the aromas of pear and lemon. These elements are echoed in the flavors, and are accompanied by cherry and toast notes. Predominantly Pinot Noir, with some Chardonnay and a touch of Muscat. Very good QPR.

NV Laurens Crémant de Limoux Brut ($15.99 in my local independent grocery store; available in the market for $12-$18) Another reliably excellent QPR sparkler, this wine has a creamy mouthfeel and aromas of citrus pith and brioche dough. Creamy pear, apple, and lemon flavors are enhanced by tiny, frothy bubbles. Delicious and lively.

NV Vinos de Terrunos German Gilabert Penedès Brut Nature Reserva ($14.99, domaineLA; available in the market for around $13) This excellent QPR sparkler has an aromatic profile reminiscent of French Champagne: yeast, lemon pith, mineral. Brightly intense lemon and bread dough flavors with lively bubbles.

NV Latitude 50 Pinot Noir Spatburgunder Sekt ($16.99, domaineLA; available in the market for around $15) This very good QPR dry sparkling wine is pale rose in color. Faint aromas of wild strawberry and bread dough lead to a rich, round-tasting strawberry flavor accented with notes of toast and clay.

2008 Reginato Malbec Celestina (suggested retail, $20; available in the market for $17-$20) Unlike any other sparkler I've had, this is very dark in color--like watered-down pomegranate juice. The flavors are quite fruity, with lots of raspberry and a hint of deeper plum as well. There is a dry finish, making for a delicious, seasonally appropriate cranberry-colored sparkler for holiday toasts.Very good QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of the Reginato and the Jaume Serra sparkling wines for review. The rest I purchased when out shopping in my favorite wine and grocery stores.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dessert Wines for Drinking and Gifting

I don't drink much dessert wine between January and November, but something happens to me at Thanksgiving and between then and New Year's Eve I find myself longing for a glass of sweet wine, a good book, and some holiday music.

Dessert wines typically come in smaller bottles (usually 375ml or 500 ml, rather than 750 ml), although there are exceptions. They are perfect for four to five people to share after dinner, and survive on the counter or in the fridge with a cork in the bottle for 3-5 days if you don't finish them up.

Though they are a bit more expensive than most of the wines reviewed on this blog, 'tis the season for gifting and indulging, so I decided to do a roundup of some of the more affordable bottles I've enjoyed recently in case you wanted to give a friend--or yourself--a bottle.

NV Martini & Rossi Asti Dolce ($6-8/375ml and $8-11/750ml) A sweet sparkling wine from Italy, this is frothy with ripe peach and honey aromas and flavors. Would be very nice with any desserts involving orchard fruits, and is a glass of this on its own is a dessert in itself! Very good QPR.

2009 Susana Balbo Torrontés Late Harvest (suggested retail $30/500ml; click here to find retailers in your area who might have it) A winning dessert wine from Argentina, with great acidity and spice along with honeyed citrus peel aromas and flavors. The wine becomes more flowery as it warms slightly and gets some air. This is a little like a Sauternes in its balance between sweetness and bright acidity. Very good QPR.

N.V. Rotta Black Monukka Dessert Wine (available for $26/375ml; also available directly from the winery) Exceptional in every way, this may well remind you of old and rare Palo Cortados or Olorosos from Spain. Fantastic caramelized orange peel and toffee aromas and flavors are rich and pure. This wine would be superb with pumpkin pie, caramel desserts, or with a selection of aged cheeses. Highly, highly recommended and a steal for the price. Excellent QPR.

2008 Susana Balbo Malbec Late Harvest (suggested retail $30/500ml;
earlier vintages available for $22-$30/500ml) This smells and tastes just like the holidays with cinnamon, clove, orange peel, and anise aromas and flavors. The wine has a silky texture, and is much lighter than a port. Bright red fruit, with cinnamon--yes, cinnamon--running from the midpalate through the finish. Very good QPR.

2005 Château Doisy-Védrines Sauternes (available for $23-$26/375ml or
$36-$60/750ml). A lush, affordable Sauternes with characteristic apple, honeycomb, orange peel, and a touch of pineapple. This wine is still very young, and will continue to improve with age but it is drinking just beautifully now. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of the Asti Dolce, Late Harvest Torrontes, Late Harvest Malbec, and Black Monukka wines for review. All other wines mentioned were purchased by me in the market.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Comparing Oregon and California Pinot Noirs

Pinot Noir's popularity doesn't seem to be waning. That's no surprise, since the grape is capable of producing food-friendly wines that have a beautifully silky feeling in the mouth and great acidity along with bright fruit.

As with most grapes, however, the final flavors in the bottle can vary widely depending on where the grapes were grown. When I tasted two Pinot Noirs side by side--one from Oregon and one from California's Russian River Valley--the differences were clear. Both were delicious. But one will appeal more to people who like fruity, bright wines and the other will appeal more to people who are looking for a richer, spicier wine. Which would you prefer?

From Oregon: the 2008 Erath Pinot Noir Oregon (suggested retail $18; available for $13-$20)
This pure-tasting, fruit-forward Pinot Noir represents excellent QPR. There are clear and focused raspberry aromas that are bright and lively. On the palate, the raspberry flavors gain weight with some deeper notes of earth and leather. The overall impression is light, juicy, and vibrant. This wine would be perfect with salmon, roast chicken, or why not pair it with an easy, slimmed-down version of the French classic, coq au vin? You'll need a bottle of it for the recipe, so pick up two while you're in the store!

From California: the 2009 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir Estate Vineyards (suggested retail $20; available for $12-$22)
Pinot Noir is grown all over the state of California but this one is made from grapes grown in the Russian River Valley, where the coastal fog gets sucked into the vineyards providing the cooler climate that the grape prefers. Rich and spicy, this affordable Pinot Noir also represents excellent QPR. Juicy cherry cola aromas hint at the cherry, cola, and black tea flavors. Then there is a spicy, juicy aftertaste. The wine feel satiny in the mouth. Try this one with mushroom risotto topped off with a dollop of mascarpone, a classic patty melt, or even a softer cut of steak like filet mignon.

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

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Got Gewürztraminer?

This week, I'm on the run. From home to work to appointments, to the store, to run errands--you know exactly what I mean. Often, this means that there is a fair amount of takeout and/or prepared foods bought at the supermarket sitting on our dinner table. When I'm feeling frazzled, I'm always glad if there's some Gewürztraminer on hand.

Gewürztraminer is a spicy white wine that, though dry, gives a sense of sweetness on the tongue. As a result, it's perfect with:
  • sausages
  • roasted chicken from the supermarket
  • roasted butternut squash soup
  • Thai curries
  • Pho
  • Sushi
  • Indian food
  • Spicy Chinese Food
If these are turning up on your table with some regularity, having some Gewürztraminer in the house will make your life easier.

My recommendation is the 2009 Snoqualmie Vineyards Gewürztraminer Naked (suggested retail $10; available for $9-$14). I've enjoyed getting to know this line of wines better, and reviewed their Chardonnay positively, too. In fact, I can't remember the last time I've had a domestic Gewürztraminer that pleased as much as this one did. Exotic aromas of honey, cinnamon toast, and cream entice you to take your first sips. The flavors reminded me of spicy apple compote, with a bit of honey in the aftertaste. Though the impression in your mouth is sweet, the wine is actually quite dry. Excellent QPR.

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

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.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Halloween

Wishing you all a safe, spooky weekend.

(Image of Kim Novak and her familiar Pyewacket from the 1958 film "Bell, Book, and Candle" starring Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon.)

And remember: don't drink and fly.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Keeping Things Light with Sauvignon Blanc

If you aren't downing bowls of pasta and stew, then you might be trying to keep things light in the weeks leading up to the holidays.

Should fish, salads, and lots of vegetables feature in your upcoming menu plans, you will want to have some Sauvignon Blanc on hand. Sauvignon Blanc is a grape that can be used to make wines in any number of styles: from smoky and rich to round and melony to sharp and grassy. With fish and salads, I find that the sharper Sauvignon Blancs really bring out the clean tastes of the seafood and the fresh crispness of salads and vegetables.

Year in, year out, I turn to Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand when I want a sharp, grassy wine. And more often than not, the wine I reach for as my standby is the widely available, appealingly affordable Cupcake Vineyards bottling.

The most recent version is the 2010 Cupcake Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. (suggested retail, $14; available in the market for $7-$12) This is another winning vintage, with tart gooseberry, lime, and cut grass aromas and flavors. The wine has plenty of fresh acidity, and a juicy, citrusy aftertaste that will bring almost any fish, chicken, or vegetable dish to life. Excellent QPR.

We tried it with a recipe in a recent Food & Wine Magazine: grilled shrimp salad with avocado-citrus salad. It was an outstanding combination, with the acidity of the wine playing off the rich avocado, the grassy notes pulling out the cilantro used in the recipe, and the lime and other citrus elements combining beautifully with the orange, lime, and tomatoes in the dish.

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

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cal-Italians for Pizza and Pasta

It really feels like autumn here in Southern California. And before you laugh, yes, we DO have seasons (they're screwy, but we have 'em). There's a whole lot of stew, soup, and pasta being cooked up in my house these days, whereas a month ago if it couldn't be cooked on the grill it wasn't on our table.

Today I have two picks for your pizza and pasta nights--and if your calendar looks like mine does between Halloween and New Year's Eve that means most nights of the week. Both of them come from California, but are made with traditional Italian grapes: Sangiovese and Dolcetto. When you are having tomato-based dishes and want to serve a red wine, it's important to pick one with good acidity and not too much tannins (that pucker on the sides of your tongue). So if you can't find one of these selections, ask your local retailer for their suggestions.

First up is the 2008 Ortman Family Vineyards O2 Series Sangiovese. (suggested retail, $17; available for $17-$22)This is a rich, layered wine that will pair beautifully with robust, meaty pasta dishes and spicy pizzas. The wine had aromas of cherry cola and chocolate. Expect to taste cherry, blackberry, dark chocolate, and spice as you sip the wine. The nicely layered quality of the flavors extends into a juicy finish, with plenty of acidity to keep the wine from getting heavy. Very good QPR.

The other wine to try is the 2007 Naughty Boy Dolcetto ($15.99 in my local independent grocery store; available for $15-$17). The grapes for this wine were grown in the cool Mendocino County AVA, and they made a very enjoyable wine with kirsch, blackberry, and licorice aromas. When sipped, the wine was smooth on the tongue with cherry, blackberry and pepper notes. There was a slightly smoky aftertaste, which made the wine ideal with an easy, hearty eggplant bolognese. Try it with sausage or mushroom pizza, too. Very good QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of the Ortman Sangiovese for review.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Comforting Weekend Wine and Food Pairings

So, it's the weekend again. Nearly. Almost. If you are biting your nails waiting for 5 pm today, you aren't alone. This time of year it's easy to feel a bit frazzled and in need of some major comfort.

I have three wine suggestions--sparkling, white, and red--and three recipe ideas for you. One menu is vegetarian, one is easy to prep and bakes in the oven (filling your house with yummy aromas and giving you some time to put your feet up), and one is a fun twist on a family favorite.

Brie, Apple, and Arugula Quesadillas with NV Presto! Prosecco Brut

(10.99, Whole Foods; available elsewhere for around $11)
You may have seen this recipe in the latest Cooking Light. It's delicious, fast, and as good for brunch or lunch as it is for dinner. Brimming with gooey cheese, crisp apple, and peppery arugula, what's not to like? Pair it with a softly citrus sparkling wine like this one, and it tastes even better. The wine is a shade past brut in my opinion, with a nice yeastiness to accompany the citrus elements. The fruit aromas and flavors are a lively counterpoint to the apples and the bubbles cut the richness of the Brie a bit. Very good QPR.

Meatloaf and 2008 Meridian Vineyards Merlot
(suggested retail, $9; available for $8)

Meatloaf has to be one of the all-time most comforting foods. I always use the same recipe from the revised Joy of Cooking that includes ketchup, lots of onions, three eggs, and a cup of quick oats instead of the usual breadcrumbs.
You can make meatloaf as light or as rich as you want by using lower-fat proteins like turkey or chicken, but we always go for good old ground beef. With it? Merlot. It's the perfect match. I was impressed by the very good QPR of this bottle of wine, with its rich blackberry and plum aromas. Expect flavors of cocoa, plum, and dark chocolate, with a rich, mocha aftertaste. This wine stands up to the meatloaf, with a nicely plush texture that complements the food.

Hot Dogs with Cheddar and Apples and 2009 Schloss Castell Silvaner Trocken
(available for around $12)

Hot Dogs are a guilty pleasure, one that I indulge in rarely. When I do, I want to enjoy them without any excuses. Finally, I found a recipe that elevates the simple hot dog to an even greater treat: hot dogs in pretzel rolls with sauteed apples and cheddar cheese. Kids will adore them, but grownups will gobble them up, too. The recipe provided an interesting pairing challenge, given the slight sweetness of the hot dogs which was accentuated by the apples. The answer was a dry Silvaner from Germany, with its pure apple aromas and flavors. This is a dry wine, but there is a slightly honeyed note in the finish which made it ideal for hot dogs and apples. Expect a fresh, stony, even slightly saline element in the wine, too--like smelling a beach after a rainstorm. Delicious, and excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure:
I received samples of the Silvaner and Merlot for review.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Witches, Vampires, and Wine

Because today marks the official beginning of the 13 Days of Halloween (don’t worry if you’ve never heard it before because I came up with this holiday concept myself), I’m here to come clean and explain why posting on GWU$20 has been sporadic and what it all has to do with witches, vampires, and wine.

In the fall of 2008, my life took an unexpected turn. Regular readers of the blog noticed a steep decline in posts. In January and May 2010, there were no posts at all. “What’s up?” many asked in the comments and by email. At the time, I didn’t want to say. That’s because the answer was unbelievable: I wrote a novel—and Viking Press is publishing it.

My first non-fiction book was about 16th-century chemistry, alchemy, and magic. Unless you are completely cut off from all popular culture, you know that there has been a lot of recent interest in witches, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night. Our modern fascination with these premodern topics intrigued me.

So I started spinning a tale that imagined our world was populated by all kinds of strange and wonderful creatures that human beings refuse to recognize thanks to our awesome powers of denial. These creatures include daemons (creative, destructive types), witches (who can tap into supernatural knowledge), and vampires (who are not immortal, though they live for a long time). What do they do for a living, I wondered? One question led to another (where do they hang out? who do they hang out with? what problems do they have?).

The result is A Discovery of Witches which will be released on February 8, 2011. At the center of the story is Diana Bishop, a modern, fictional descendant of the first woman executed for witchcraft in Salem way back in 1692. Diana is a historian of alchemy, who finds a lost alchemical manuscript at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and meets a mysterious geneticist named Matthew Clairmont. Matthew is a very old, French vampire and now puts his considerable energy into an occupation that rewards long-term thinking. And, along with the rest of his kind, he has a decided taste for wine.

Vampires may need blood to survive, just as humans need water, but it’s not all they drink. Wine is always changing, never the same, and drinking it helps vampires endure years and years of same-old, same-old. Imagine what they’ve been able to lay down in their cellars over the centuries, not to mention how much fun it is to befriend such a creature. When I was writing the book, I researched the world’s most collectible and historically important wine—something that expanded my wine knowledge dramatically. If you want a peek at some of the treasures in Matthew’s cellar, click here. And no, I haven’t tasted any of those bottles. If you have some you want to share, do let me know.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that a historian and oenophile like me couldn’t resist the idea of a long-lived French vampire with an excellent palate who knew both the biologist Charles Darwin AND the alchemist Nicholas Flamel. If you are so inclined, you can friend the fiction-writer me on Facebook (no wine, just writing), follow me on Twitter (fiction, wine, food, music, and rambling nonsense most days), and of course keep reading here (just wine!). And if you want to find out more about the book, read an excerpt, sign up for updates, or generally procrastinate, head to my website:

Thanks to all of you who keep tuning in here and for your continued patience when I'm not blogging. Now you know that those silences indicate that I'm not only thinking about wine, but about witches and vampires, too.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Zinfandel: One for Now, One for Later

It's raining in Los Angeles, which means it's officially Zinfandel season. Every autumn, when the heat finally breaks, I look forward to making some soups, stews, and roasts and cracking open some excellent wine. Of course, Zinfandel season extends through the winter and even into the months of BBQ to come, so I've got one recommendation for now and one for you to put aside and drink in 6-24 months when the urge strikes you.

2008 Gnarly Head Zinfandel Old Vine is a very good QPR wine for the price (suggested retail $10.99; available for $6-$14) Autumnal blackberry and licorice aromas lead to a smooth, mouth-filling wine with blackberry, black cherry, and pepper notes in the flavors. The aftertaste rounded out the wine nicely, with more licorice and berry. Not as peppery and complex as some Zins, but it doesn't have the big, jammy quality that many have at this price point. Perfect for enjoying now, perhaps with a warm pot of minestrone if you are stuck at home giving out candy on Halloween.

The 2007 Guglielmo Family Winery Zinfandel Private Reserve is a good QPR bottling that I think will deliver very good QPR in time. (suggested retail $19; this new release is only available at this time through the winery) There are reticent berry aromas that can be coaxed forward with air, and lots of pepper and spicy clove on the palate. All are hints of great things to come for this wine, with its solid berry core. It is well-structured, has great acidity, and will start to shine in 6 months or so.

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

Monday, October 11, 2010

Classic, Classy California Chardonnay

California Chardonnay has a bad reputation. Years of overproduced, overly-oaked wines left a sour taste in the mouths of many wine drinkers. But a few (or a thousand) bad winemaking choices shouldn't make you abandon a grape entirely. Recently, I've seen many winemakers going back to classy Chardonnays that are more restrained in style and more focused on the characteristics of the grape.

The 2008 Fess Parker Chardonnay is one of those wines--and I think it may be the finest under $20 California Chardonnay I've ever tasted. (suggested retail $18; available for $14-$20) This is a beautiful example of what Chardonnay grapes can achieve in Santa Barbara. The wine introduces itself with buttered apple aromas. Creamy apple and melon flavors are followed by a toasted coconut note in the aftertaste. Rich and smooth, this wine represents excellent QPR and may restore your faith in California Chardonnay.

Try this wine with a seasonally appropriate soup of apples and parsnips, some Tandoori chicken legs cooked on the grill or roasted in the oven, or crab cakes accented with an apple-and-cilantro salad. The apple notes are a terrific companion to the warm spices and fresh flavors of all these foods, and as each recipe uses curry powder the coconut and melon accents in this wine are really brought forward.

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

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Bargains In Pinot Noir

(No, you are not hallucinating.)

Recently I sat down to taste samples of Pinot Noir. This normally fills me with dread. As you all know, I focus on wines under $20. There's not much good Pinot Noir to be had in that price bracket. Still, Pinot Noir is one of my favorite grapes so I often taste my way through the bottles I receive and get thoroughly disheartened with each new bottle.

This time, I was astonished to discover not one, not two, but three bottles under $20 that I felt delivered in terms of taste and quality. One of them has a suggested retail under $10, and all three can be found in the market for $7-$12. Interested? Read on.

2008 Cupcake Vineyards Pinot Noir comes from the Central Coast AVA and is typical of Pinot Noir from that region. (suggested retail $14; available for $7-$12) It has abundant warm cherry aromas, and flavors of cherry, allspice, and a touch of earth lending depth to the aftertaste. Very good QPR.

2008 McWilliam's Pinot Noir Hanwood Estate contains grapes from Australia's South Eastern region. (suggested retail $11; available for $7-$10) The aromas were an interesting mix of cherry and talc, with allspice, nutmeg, red berry, and cherry flavors. More complex than some at this price point, with a spicy aftertaste. Excellent QPR.

2009 Turning Leaf Vineyards Pinot Noir California represents very good QPR with a suggested retail of $8 and wide distribution throughout the US (no listings yet on the wine search engines as this is a new vintage, but you should be able to find it soon). This is a simple, drinkable Pinot Noir dominated by raspberry fruit and a slightly chalky note in the aftertaste. As the wine opens, higher toned notes of cranberry and pomegranate emerge.

If you're looking for a drinkable, enjoyable Pinot Noir, it's worth giving one or more of these bottles a taste and seeing if they suit your palate.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples.

Monday, October 04, 2010

A Great Wine for Harvest Time

How does your garden grow? Mine is still going great guns, filled mainly with herbs like a mammoth Greek columnar basil, drifts of Thai basil, and piles of oregano and thyme. My friends who plant vegetables are swimming in tomatoes, zucchini, and late green beans.

Now that we're entering autumn in earnest, you might be looking for a wine that goes well with vegetables, foods that use up your abundant herbs, and other seasonal foods such as orchard fruits.

If so, keep your eyes peeled for the 2009 Schloss Saarstein Pinot Blanc (available for around $13). This excellent QPR wine greeted me with apple aromas and a bit of spritz on the tongue at first. There were richer apple and lemon custard notes in the flavors. The juiciness of fresh orchard fruits in the aftertaste encouraged me to come back to the glass for another sip--and another.

In addition to autumnal foods, this wine would be terrific with milder Asian cuisine. We had it with Thai curried noodles with pork and Thai basil straight from the garden. The apple and citrus flavors were a bright counterpoint to the aromatic spices of the dish.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Celebrate Autumn with Cabernet Sauvignon

Today is the first day of autumn, when a person's thoughts turn to casseroles, soups, and red wine. Here in Los Angeles, the weather has been cool and foggy and very autumnal. Even though we're due for a last blast of summer temperatures over the weekend, my taste buds are ready for warming, comforting food and wine.

If your taste buds are turning in this direction, too, you might be looking for a good Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2007 Concannon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Conservancy is worth seeking out for its excellent QPR. (suggested retail $15, but you can find it in some markets for around $11) Warm, layered aromas of cassis, black cherry, and licorice invite you to sip the wine, and when you do these notes are echoed in the flavors. An herbal taste can be coaxed out as the wine gets some air, and the aftertaste is rich and plummy.

This Cabernet would go nicely with most autumn soups, stews, and roasts. We had it with a comforting, savory Shepherd's Pie topped with sweet potato. The savory gravy--made with Worcestershire and a dash of mustard--brought out the herbal flavors and the beef and potatoes were a nice pairing with the wine's rich fruit.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine.