Monday, August 30, 2010

This Time, I'm Thinking IN the Box

Boxed wine has a terrible reputation in some circles. Critics charge that boxed wines lack distinction and have a manufactured taste.

In other circles, however, boxed wines are preferable. And this doesn't just include folks who throw lots of big parties. Single drinkers who live alone and can have problems keeping a wine from oxidizing before they have a chance to drink it also like boxed wines because the packaging often ensures that the wine inside is free from air contact--thereby keeping the wine as fresh tasting as possible.

So just in time for big Labor Day parties or for unpacking the belongings in your new studio apartment, I've got reviews of two wines that are packaged in Octavins. These are eight-sided boxes that contain a bag of wine with a spout that you poke through the front when you are ready to open your wine. You can learn more about the packaging here. The spouts themselves have a nifty and sturdy turning mechanism that makes them easy to pour and (more importantly) easy to turn off again. Inside each Octavin container is the equivalent of four bottles of wine, and the average cost for an Octavin nationally is around $20-$24--which makes the wine inside a genuine bargain--and for the two wines that I tasted, excellent QPR.

First up is the 2008 BOHO Vineyards Zinfandel Old Vines from California. This wine had a nice mix of blackberry fruit, some pepper, and some spice. It was very smooth in the mouth, and though definitely on the jammy side it still had some acidity and lightness which is to be prized in a wine of this price. Though not terribly complex, it is a nice, drinkable red that will go wonderfully with barbecue, grilled sausages or steaks, and hamburgers and hot dogs.

Next up is the 2009 Silver Birch Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's Marlborough region. This was another example of a great wine for the price, with abundant grapefruit and bitter lemon aromas and flavors, accompanied by a bit of lime. There was none of the grassiness that often comes with higher priced bottlings from this part of the world, but it was nonetheless a refreshing and nicely balanced example of a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc that would pair nicely with grilled fish, chicken, or salads.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Keeping It Light with a German Riesling

This week's posts are dedicated to making the hectic transition into fall. For those of us who are teachers, or have kids, this marks the beginning of the academic year with all the running around and organization that requires. So my mantra right now is: keep things simple, keep things light. I covered simple on Monday. Today I turn to something light. In the wine department, nothing says "light" to me like a bright refreshing Riesling.

The 2009 Weingut Baron Knyphausen Riesling Kabinett Baron K' (available for $13-$18) is epitomizes the light, enjoyable charms of the grape. This is not a dry wine, but instead has a decidedly sweet edge to the flavors, with rich peach and apple notes. When you take a sniff, you may get a whiff of honey and when you sip it a bit of stoniness flirts with all those rich orchard fruits. Good QPR.

This wine is ideal for pairing with spicy foods--the spicier the better!--which can be a real treat in these late summer days. We paired the wine with an absolutely delicious plate of shrimp that had been soaking in a coconut-lemongrass marinade for four hours and then popped on the grill. The marinade's rich coconut and spicy Fresno pepper flavors were a perfect counterpoint to the wine's sweetness, while the lemongrass and lime juice added some welcome acidity to the wine's flavors. (This marinade would be terrific on firm, white fish like halibut, too).

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Keeping It Simple with a Cabernet from Down Under

It's back to school time at GWU$20, so life is more than usually hectic as I settle into the new routines and rhythms of the semester. During transitional moments such as these, it's wise to remember to keep it simple and keep it light--otherwise the stress can get to you. So that's my theme for this week's blog posts.

When it comes to wine, keeping it simple doesn't mean settling for a bland or boring example of a particular grape. But it does mean not spending much money, not worrying about whether this is the best "X" you've ever tasted, and not trying to impress your friends and family with something staggeringly complex and deserving of three hours of wine geek conversation. Keeping it simple means getting a good bottle, for a good price, and having a good time while you drink it.

Cabernet Sauvignon may seem like the wrong option if you're needing to keep things simple, but this bottle just may change your mind. The 2008 McWilliam's Cabernet Sauvignon Hanwood Estate is made with grapes from South Eastern Australia. (suggested retail, $11; available for under $10 in many markets) This is a very nice Cabernet Sauvignon for the price--and it actually tastes like Cabernet, rather than just "red wine." It has a characteristic aroma and flavor profile: red currants, blackberries, and white pepper. I detected a hint of something more like green pepper when it was first opened--which I happen to enjoy--but this note mellowed out very quickly. Very good QPR for a bottle that will remind you how good Cabernet can be when the maker doesn't out-think the test question and is content to let the juice shine.

The wine has smooth tannins, making it a good pairing for grilled meats yet it still stands up to something like eggplant that can overwhelm a lesser wine. Try this with this zesty pasta dish with grilled marinated eggplant, if you are looking for a satisfying vegetarian option to pair with Cabernet Sauvignon or similarly tannic grapes.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Note to Self: Syrah Can Be Stunning

Because of my special niche in the world of wine reviews, there are times when I have to deliberately uncork a bottle of wine that is MORE than $20. It usually happens when I've sipped 15 terrible/insipid/manufactured iterations of grape X and can no longer remember what the hell it's supposed to taste like.

This recently happened with Syrah. I love Syrah. It is arguably my preferred red grape, and appears in my favorite red blends from the Rhone. Bad Syrah, however, is nasty. As in cough syrup nasty. And after a dozen bottles of nasty, I just swear off the stuff for a while because it hurts my heart to see people treat grapes--especially grapes from the Rhone--badly.

I was touting up what I'd tasted so far this year and realized I'd only found four bottles of Syrah that were remotely drinkable. So I plucked out a bottle I was pretty sure would deliver a reminder of how stunning Syrah can be: the 2006 Zaca Mesa Syrah from the Santa Ynez Valley. (suggested retail $23; available for $15-23) This is not a gentle Syrah, but a big, rich, in-your-face, mouth-coating wine that is a total steal for the price, delivers excellent QPR, and drinks like a wine that costs twice or three times what you will have paid for it. My only caveat about this wine is this: do not even think about having a glass of it and trying to walk in a straight line. The label says 15% alc./vol. and I believe it--and then some.

In the taste department, expect exotic aromas of summery flowers and plums, with a bit of clove around the edges. There are more plum and clove notes in the flavors, along with allspice and mocha. There's a nifty mocha jolt in the aftertaste, too. Very good, nicely made, and a reminder of what Syrah can be all about.

Most people reach for Cabernet when they're making steak, but I love Syrah with cuts like skirt steak that have been marinated for a long time and then popped on the grill. We paired this bottle with a skirt steak marinated in orange and ale and the spicy, coffee, and clove notes in the Syrah were just lovely with the citrus in the marinade. And the robust wine handled the beef nicely.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Another New White Grape: Torrontés

Last week I had a new grape to help get me out of my white wine rut, and I'm continuing with another new white grape this week. Torrontés is grown in Argentina, and has been planted for a very long time. It may have been Spanish colonists who brought the grape to the area, and the grape itself has been shown through DNA testing to be a cross of Muscat Alexandria and the ubiquitous Mission grape. It produces wines that are similar in some respects to Viognier and Gewurztraminer.

The 2009 Bodega Catena Zapata Torrontés Alamos has the characteristic floral aromas and flavors of associated with the grape without the waxy, soapy notes that sometimes can creep in. (suggested retail, $13; available for $7-$12) It tastes fresh, but feels rather weighty in the mouth which makes it a good partner for richer seafood dishes, and the floral elements make it a good substitute for Gewurztraminer. Expect to first detect floral aromas (lemon blossom, white flowers, honeysuckle). These will give way to a palate of citrus (Meyer Lemon and lime), along with fuller flavors of melon and peach. The overall impression of the wine is dry, despite those fruit and flower elements. Good QPR.

We had the Torrontés with crab tostadas one night--a fast, easy pairing that brought out the best of both the food and the wine. The next night, it went with a chilled Indian tomato shorba--think Indian gazpacho, and you won't be far off--and some warm whole wheat naan. While the shorba was also excellent with the wine (which brought out the warm, spicy garam masala that was used in the soup), the crab tostadas were spectacular.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

No Time for Rosé? This Will Change Your Mind

I love rosés. They are affordable, food-friendly wines as I've said on many occasions. At home at summer barbeques, and welcome on Thanksgiving tables, there are lots of times when a rosé is the right wine choice.

So I'm always surprised when people tell me they don't do rosé. Huh? I know--just know--that they're thinking of some horribly sweet White Zinfandel ca. 1987, rather than a crisp, dry wine like the one I'm recommending here. It is, hands down, the best rosé I've ever tasted. And I've been tasting some awfully good rosés lately. But there's something special about this wine, so if you can find it give it a try and see if it doesn't impress you, too.

The 2009 Cep Vineyards Sonoma Coast Rosé is made from Pinot Noir grapes grown in my favorite of all viticultural regions. It is, quite simply, perfect. ($19.49 in my local independent grocery store; available elsewhere for $17-$20) Like the picture shows, it is a true, pale salmon. Lovely, rich aromas of warm strawberry rise up from the glass along with something stonier that reminds me of a wet beach and a touch of baked earth. The flavors are pure strawberry, too, with little mineral inflections along the way. The wine is very dry, yet it retains a juicy aftertaste. Excellent QPR for a rosé that delivers rich, full flavor without a drop of sweetness.

And don't blame me if you are looking for this in November and it's sold out. Buy some now--before I buy all the bottles left at K&L.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Bored With White Wine? Give a New Grape a Try

It's easy to fall into a wine rut. I love Sauvignon Blanc, but there are times when I just want something different, something I don't drink every day. Same thing with Riesling. Love it to bits, but there are times when I'm not sure I can bring myself to open another bottle.

If you're looking for something new--something that is dry, but not the same old/same old, look for a bottle of the 2008 Schloß Mühlenhof Müller-Thurgau Trocken. ($13.50, domaineLA; available for $11-$14 elsewhere) This dry wine from Germany's Rheinhessen region is like a cross between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Riesling. The grape was created in the late 19th century from a cross of Riesling and a grape called Madeleine Royale (a seedling of the Swiss Chasselas variety). Though the wines made with this grape can be sweet, this is a dry example, and will please people who like their whites to have fruit flavors, but exercise a bit of restraint. It has white nectarine and green apple aromas and flavors, as well as a hint of dry pineapple (I know, but that's what it tastes like) in the aftertaste.

This simple, pleasant wine is very good QPR and a nice change of pace. So if you're bored with white wine, don't get stuck. Just get out there and find something new to tempt your tastebuds.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Toasting Summer's End

Over the next few weeks, most of us will be saying goodbye to summer. Labor Day marks the official end for many, but some of us (me) are headed back into the classroom long before that. Many are getting their kids ready for school.

Take an opportunity before summer's warmth fades and the hectic back to school rush starts with a glass of sparkling wine. Even better, share it with somebody you love--or several somebodies. Invite friends over, chill a bottle of bubbles, and sit back and enjoy the long twilight.

If you're looking for a perfectly lighthearted, eminently enjoyable bottle, try the NV Gloria Ferrer Va de Vi Ultra Cuvée ($20.99 in my local independent grocery store; available for $14-$25). This pleasant domestic sparkler has a warm, pale yellow color. That soft, warm appearance is as summery as a sparkler gets, and a good indication of the gentle wine within. The wine is nicely frothy, and the bubbles are relatively fine which provides a smooth drinking experience. I detected aromas of pear and lemon, and these summery smells were echoed in the flavors along with some rich cherry notes and a hint of warm bread. This wine is technically "extra-dry" which means it is not quite as dry as a brut sparkling wine, and is made predominantly from Pinot Noir grapes with some Chardonnay and a touch of Muscat. I think it would be perfect for toasting the season with friends, and pairing with hors d'oeuvres and spicy or fried foods. Very good QPR.

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Great Australian Riesling Roundup

Time for a roundup of Rieslings to put some zip into your summer. When July turns into August, I always start hankering for some boiled spicy shrimp or a garlic and lemon marinated chicken to break up the BBQ sauce, hot dogs, and steaks that many of us have been indulging in since Memorial Day. If this is how you are feeling, there's nothing better to pair with these lively, vibrant summer alternatives than Riesling. And Australian Rieslings seem ideally suited to the warm temperatures and outdoor dining that dominate this part of the year.

Here are my recommendations, culled from Australian Rieslings I've enjoyed lately:

The 2008 Plantagenet Riesling is a very dry wine with aromas of petrol, lemon pith, and apple peel. (suggested retail $20; available for $13-$21) The flavors are a bit rounder--more like Granny Smith apples and litchi--but they remain dry. Excellent with seafood. Very good QPR, for this classically tasty wine.

Despite its name, 2009 Frisk Riesling "Prickly" isn't prickly at all. (suggested retail $10; available for $9-$13) Instead, it's a simple Riesling with a touch of spritz and lively, slightly sweet apple flavors. Far less dry than either of the bottles here, this would be a good pick for sipping on the back patio with some hors d'oeuvres or for pairing with very spicy food. Very good QPR.

With the 2008 d'Arenberg Riesling The Dry Dam we're back to a wine that is dry and elegant, with similar petroleum and green apple aromas. (suggested retail $16; available from $9-$18)The flavors are dominated by green apple this time, and more petroleum sneaks in to the aftertaste. Nice for the price, and widely available. Very good QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received these bottles as samples.