Not Your Usual Holiday Meal Wine Pairings

24 November 2015

Christmas TreeThis season, banal lists of the best wines to pair with your holiday feast clog the internet. Riesling and Pinot Noir rank among the usual favorites, and indeed, fine Riesling and carefully crafted Pinot will work beautifully with your turkey and stuffing. But fine Riesling and carefully crafted Pinot don’t tend to come cheap. The most exciting Rieslings imported from Germany, Austria and the Alsace usually cost more than $20 a bottle, and excellent Pinot Noir from almost anywhere costs the same (or more) because the variety is one of the wine world’s finickiest.

And let’s be honest. If you’re buying wine for a Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah meal, you’re likely buying it for relatives who may or may not especially care what’s in their glasses. Even if you have the means, it seems a shame to pour expensive wine for Aunt Susie who just wants to get buzzed to dull the feelings of resentment and anxiety that surface at every party at which Grandma is present.

On the other hand, it’s considered impolite, alas, to drink expensive wine while simultaneously serving your guests the cheap stuff. Holiday parties therefore require something inexpensive but delicious. You can find inexpensive Riesling and Pinot Noir, to be sure, but you’re likely to be disappointed on both counts.

If you’re willing to deviate a bit from the beaten track, you can find all sorts of exciting, reasonably priced options to serve with that turkey, ham, goose or turkey-shaped tofu mold. Bring the list below to your wine shop, and you’ll surely find at least one example of each sparkling, white and red recommendation.



Dr. Loosen Sparkling RieslingRiesling Sekt: Cheap Sekt from Germany can be made from who knows what from who knows where, but Riesling Sekt is 100% German Riesling. Dr. Loosen makes a delightful example with just a hint of sweetness, but any Riesling Sekt you find in the U.S. is likely to work well.

Cava: The least expensive versions of this ubiquitous Spanish sparkler can have unappealingly large bubbles. Stick to Cava in the $13 to $16 per bottle price range, and/or Cava including an international grape such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in the blend. If in doubt, ask a wine store employee for the Cava in your price range with the smallest bubbles.

Prosecco: This northern Italian bubbly is hardly a secret, and so much of it is bland and one-note. There are notable exceptions, however. Seek out Proseccos with the word “Valdobbiadene” or “Conegliano” on the label — they tend to have the most character.

Kir Royale: For this cocktail composed of sparkling wine and crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), it’s traditional to use Crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy. But really, just about any dry (brut) sparkling wine will do, because the cassis covers over a lot of imperfections, including big bubbles and lack of complexity. I like a ratio of about 1/6 crème de cassis to sparkling wine, but add more if the guest has a sweet tooth or if the bubbly is particularly cheap.



Simonnet-Febvre Saint-BrisDry Furmint: I was lucky enough to find a couple of bottles of this exotic and spicy Hungarian white wine at a new shop down the block. This grape features most prominently in Tokaji, one of the world’s greatest dessert wines, on par with Sauternes. Hungarian winemakers have now started to realize the great potential of dry Furmint as well, but unfortunately, they can be hard to find. If you do spot one, snap it up: It’s likely to be a sensational value for the money.

Saint-Bris: I’ve only had one example of this unusual Sauvignon Blanc from Burgundy, a region known almost exclusively for Chardonnay, but it was one of the best values for the money I’ve tasted. Elegant, floral, tart and great with food. Who would ever expect to find such bang for the buck in Burgundy, of all places?

Rhône-style white blends: Whether from the Rhône Valley or elsewhere, white Rhône blends have an appealing richness matched with food-friendly acidity that make them ideal for a hearty turkey dinner. Look for wines including Marsanne and/or Roussane in the blend.

Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige: Pinot Grigio is the grape all wine geeks love to hate. It tastes almost invariably insipid and wan, and pairs well only with Wonder Bread-mayonnaise sandwiches. The great exception to this rule is Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, a high-altitude region north of Venice on Italy’s border with Austria. These Pinot Grigios are anything but boring. Expect ripe fruit and impressively focus. Pinot Grigios from Friuli can also be interesting, but at all costs, avoid those from the Veneto.

Argentine Chardonnay: Expensive Californian and French Chardonnays are outstanding, if you can afford them. Argentina also makes some standout Chardonnays, but because Malbec is the grape everyone thinks of, Argentine Chardonnay can be a stellar value.



Argentine Malbec or Pinot Noir: There are a lot of cheap Malbecs on the market, and you can go that route, but if you invest a little more and keep to the $12 to $15 range, your palate will reap great rewards. Even Aunt Susie is worth the upgrade. I’ve also noticed a smattering of Patagonian Pinot Noirs on American shelves, and these can be a very fine value for the money, too. Look for Pinot from Neuquén or Río Negro.

Lapostolle's Single-Vineyard Carmeneres

Lapostolle’s Single-Vineyard Carmenères

Carmenère: Chile’s signature grape, a formerly obscure Bordeaux variety nearly extinct in its birth home, can produce supple and richly fruity reds of great character. Again, you can find cheap examples, but if you keep to the $12 to $18 range, you’ll quite likely strike gold. Ever more single-vineyard examples showcase the beauty of Chilean terroir.

Beaujolais: Beaujolais Nouveau used to be a fun, simple and inexpensive red released around this time of year that made for an ideal Thanksgiving choice. Now it’s a marketing juggernaut, and I’ve seen prices reach dangerously close to $20 a bottle, which is lunacy for such a wine. Opt instead for a heftier Beaujolais-Villages, or better yet, a Cru Beaujolais from one of 10 specific villages in the area. My favorite for the money is Morgon.

Nero d’Avola: This red grape encountered most frequently in Sicilian wines tends to have big cherry fruit and rustic spice without overpowering tannins. That makes it a fine choice for a hearty poultry-focused feast. Again, you can find examples for $9 or $10, and you might even get lucky with such a bottle, but keeping between $12 and $15 is safer.

Grenache: A cheerful grape variety, Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) produces fruity, soft reds that don’t tend to be especially tannic. I’ve got a couple of old-vine Garnachas from near Toledo that I’m itching to open on Thanksgiving.

St. Laurent from Austria: If you can find some bottles of this sexy red from Austria, you win the prize. Not nearly enough bottles of this dark, velvety descendant of Pinot Noir make it to the U.S. Any of these would be a delight, but the only one I’ve managed to purchase myself is Sattler’s.


Saint-Emilion Grands Crus ClassesDAMN THE TORPEDOES

If you feel like splurging on your holiday guests but don’t want to serve the obvious, opt for white Pessac-Léognan, redolent of rich tropical fruit, and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, a sumptuous Merlot-driven wine full of rich cherry fruit and mocha. A Grower Champagne or a top-quality Franciacorta would make for an ideal aperitif.


If your wine shop doesn’t have at least some examples of the wines listed above, well, you need to find a new wine shop. I wish you much merriment this season, and holidays filled with delicious and wallet-friendly drinking!

Cocktails: The Season For Unusual Citrus

16 November 2015
Pink variegated lemon

Pink variegated lemon

In Chicago, we’re slowly running out of seasonal produce to look forward to. We’re in the midst of kale, cabbage and carrots, and then there’s quite a dry spell until the first ramps of spring poke out their heads in April. Fortunately, this is also the season of citrus (well, somewhere it is), and all sorts of exciting tart fruits start appearing in grocery store produce departments. And citrus, of course, is a key ingredient in countless cocktails which can be made quite sexy and seasonal with an interesting citrus substitution.

The easiest “unusual” citrus to find tends to be blood oranges, which look either like small navel oranges or oranges rubbed with blush. The juice tends to be tart and delicious, and it turns any cocktail a gorgeous reddish color. I experimented with it a few years back and came up with some delicious drink recipes in this post.

But I must admit I don’t always have the energy to come up with exciting new cocktail recipes to showcase an unusual piece of citrus. When faced with an irresistible piece of fruit, but unwilling to devote the time and money necessary to come up with a fancy new recipe, the lazy mixologist in me turns to a simple and tasty classic: the daiquiri.

This restorative cocktail combines just three ingredients: rum, citrus (traditionally lime) and simple syrup (one part sugar dissolved in one part water). I like the ratio of two parts rum, one part citrus and a half part of simple syrup. The result is balanced, refreshing and boozy. Just how I like. Lime and rum work beautifully together, but other tart citrus fruits can work just as well.

Pink variegated lemon daiquiriFor example, at Whole Foods, I recently found a display of pink variegated lemons, and I certainly was not about to pass up the chance to work with them. I purchased a couple, juiced them and mixed up a daiquiri using five-year-old Ron Centenario from Costa Rica. (I ordinarily recommend using unaged rum in a daiquiri, but I was fresh out and impatient.) The resulting drink tasted sour and sweet, with a pleasant note of powdered candy.

And every year at Whole Foods, there are about two weeks when Buddha’s hands appear. This citron looks like a little alien or sea creature, with several finger- or tentacle-like segments extending out from a central hub. These fruits have no juice to speak of — the interior is almost entirely pith — but the peel smells sensational. It has a wonderfully floral, perfumed character, and even just having a Buddha’s hand in the room can make it smell like sunshine.

The Buddha’s hand lack of juice doesn’t mean it can’t be used in a daiquiri, but it takes a little more effort. I zested about half of my Buddha’s hand (careful to avoid the pith) and muddled the peel with a cup of sugar, which helps release the fragrant oils in the rind. After letting it sit for a bit, I added a cup of water and heated the mixture on the stove, dissolving the sugar and extracting additional flavor from the zest. Once it cooled, I strained the mixture to remove the peel and stored the contents in a little jar in the refrigerator.

Buddha's hand

Buddha’s hand

This Buddha’s hand simple syrup made for an exceptional lime daiquiri, adding a floral note to the tart citrus and round molasses sweetness of the rum. But the syrup doesn’t keep forever, as I learned to my chagrin, even in the fridge. Be sure to use it within a month or so.

Next, I’m looking forward to trying some daiquiris with Meyer lemons, which have both tasty juice and a fragrant peel. It’s hard to go wrong when you combine citrus of just about any kind with rum.

If you try making a cocktail with some unusual citrus, be sure to let us know how it goes in the comments section of this post. I’d love to see your recipes!

The Potential Of Pinot Meunier

3 November 2015

Bouchaine Pinot MeunierThe Oxford Companion to Wine feels rather judgmental of those who grow Pinot Meunier outside of continental Europe. “Elsewhere,” it pronounces, “Meunier tends to be grown by those slavishly following the Champagne recipe (as in England and California, for example).” Last I checked, the Champagne recipe seemed to be working just fine. I haven’t had any English sparklers, but Champagne-style wines from California can be delicious. Why shouldn’t they use a recipe with such a successful track record? Perhaps the Oxford Companion would rather that the Californians and English make sparkling wines with indigenous grape varieties? But I digress.

Unfamous Pinot Meunier ranks among the world’s most ubiquitous obscure grapes. According to the Oxford Companion, “…until recently, it was Champagne’s most popular variety by far, but [it] has now been overtaken by Pinot Noir.” (Chardonnay completes the Champagne grape variety trinity.) I’ve twice been to Champagne, and though I sampled many a Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noir, not once did I taste a Blanc de Meunier. The grape, a mutation of Pinot Noir, features almost exclusively in Champagne blends.

I did once find a German Pinot Meunier varietal, as I described in this post, and I very much enjoyed its fruity character, focused spice and undertones of earth. But that post dates back to September 2012. It took another three years for me to encounter a second Pinot Meunier varietal wine.

Bouchaine Pinot Meunier at Jibek JoluBouchaine, based on the Napa side of Los Carneros in California, sent me a complimentary bottle of its 2013 Pinot Meunier. According to Emily in the winery’s tasting room, Bouchaine planted the Pinot Meunier with the intention of making still wine — no “slavish” imitation of Champagne was ever planned. It had a lovely dusky red-fruit aroma overlayed with some violet. A light-bodied wine, it’s not for those who gravitate towards Napa Cabernets or Argentine Malbecs. But I immensely enjoyed its ripe red fruit, broad and well-balanced acids, and light but rustic-feeling tannins. It cut right through the creaminess of a cheese blini at Kyrgyz restaurant Jibek Jolu, and it became bigger and spicier paired with a savory carrot salad. It even stood up well to beef pelmeni (tortellini-like dumplings) with sour cream.

Pelmeni dumplings at Jibek JoluThe wine was a delight, but Bouchaine grows only 3.2 acres of Pinot Meunier, planted in the lowest, most frost-susceptible plots on the winery’s estate (Pinot Meunier requires a shorter growing season than Pinot Noir, budding later and ripening earlier). I love that Bouchaine exploited the full potential of this vineyard’s terroir by using this little-known grape, rather than growing a more famous variety not as well.

It’s a shame more wineries don’t follow Bouchaine’s example. I suspect Pinot Meunier’s lack of name recognition is the biggest stumbling block. I’d love to see more wineries take a risk on the variety. I wonder how Pinot Meunier might fare in the cooler vineyards of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for example, a region already famous for its Pinot Noir. But for now, unfortunately, Pinot Meunier varietal wines remain quite a rarity. Should you encounter one — even though they tend to be rather expensive — I recommend splurging and buying it.

Note: The Bouchaine Pinot Meunier was provided free of charge. The wine usually costs about $40. Read about my side-by-side tasting of two different clones of Pinot Noir by Bouchaine here.

The Unusual Pinot Clones Of Bouchaine

24 October 2015

Bouchaine Pinot Noir and MeunierThese days one hears a great deal about terroir. A single-vineyard wine might be described as “terroir-driven,” meaning that the bottling reflects the characteristics of the vineyard’s geographic location, such as soil composition and rainfall levels. Terroir used to be more of a European obsession, but winemakers the world over now bottle wines illustrating the merits and differences of various vineyard sites. Entire wine collections are devoted to expressing terroir. But when is the last time you had the opportunity to taste the difference between two grape clones?

Like any other living thing, grapevines of the same species and variety still have genetic variation. It’s perhaps no surprise that Germans first developed clonal selection, demonstrating the practice in 1926, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine. The concept is simple: When you find a vine that has especially appealing characteristics, you propagate it by taking cuttings. Each of the resulting vines is genetically identical to the parent, barring the rare mutation.

And, as clearly illustrated by last night’s tasting, different clones can result in big differences in the bottle. Bouchaine, a winery on the Napa side of the Los Carneros AVA, kindly sent me samples of two of its Pinot Noirs made from different Pinot clones.

Los Carneros (or simply Carneros) encompasses southern sections of California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, but breezes off San Pablo Bay make this AVA cooler than AVAs farther north. Pinot Noir, which arguably reaches its apotheosis in the still wines of Burgundy and the sparkling wines of Champagne, grows best in cool-climate wine-growing regions, and it’s long been popular in Carneros. Louis Martini first planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines here in the late 1940s, according to the World Atlas of Wine, and since the 1970s, Carneros has been highly regarded for both its still and sparkling wines. In addition, the World Atlas notes that Carneros vineyards are “regularly plundered by wineries in the warmer country to the north,” which seek cooler-climate fruit to round out their blends.

Bouchaine itself merits its own description in my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, which deserves quoting in its entirety:

Noticeable by its absence from most American critics’ thoughts, Bouchaine’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are probably too light and elegant to stir up much opinion in the U.S., but have a purity and finesse much appreciated by European palates.

In other words, these aren’t Robert Parker‘s Pinots.

Indeed, the two Pinot Noirs I tried over dinner with a couple of friends struck me as more Old World than New World, with their relatively light bodies and earthy undertones. They were controversial. I really liked them, one dining companion expressed general support, and another, who gravitates towards hefty Malbecs and Cabernets, turned up his nose at them entirely. (We also tried an unusual Pinot Meunier varietal, but that’s for another post.)

So if you prefer jammier wines with lots of richness and heft, don’t fork over the $40 required to try one of these Pinots. But if you’re an Old World kind of wine drinker who ordinarily avoids anything with the word “California” on the label, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by Bouchaine’s Pinot Noirs.

The first we tried, the 2013 Swan Pinot Poir, comes from a clone “clouded in mystery,” according to the wine’s tech sheet. It goes on to say that some think it came from the Romanée-Conti vineyard, one of the most famous patches of land in all winedom, but all we know for certain is that Joseph Swan brought the clone to the U.S. and first planted it in the Russian River Valley. It had a subtle and round red-fruit aroma underpinned by earth, and on the palate, it exhibited very taut fruit, ample acids and even some tannins on the finish. This Pinot had some power, but it kept itself firmly together in the center of the mouth.

The 2013 Mariafeld Pinot Noir, by contrast, had a more open nose of dark cherry and a bit of cough syrup. It felt lighter and fruitier, with even a floral quality, but there was still an undertone of earth keeping it grounded and balanced. This clone originated in Switzerland, according to the wine’s tech sheet, and it “produces large, loose clusters which promote airflow and prevent rot in cold, wet weather,” important characteristics in cool, foggy Carneros.

Lagman at Jibek Jolu

Lagman at Jibek Jolu

The Media Relations Consultant who sent me these wines will likely be distressed to learn that I paired them with Kyrgyz cuisine at Jibek Jolu, a friendly hidden gem of a restaurant just north of Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. I ordered my favorite, lagman, a dish of tender beef, bell peppers and delectable hand-pulled noodles in a savory broth. Both wines paired quite well, standing up admirably to the lagman’s hearty flavors. The Swan became fruitier and more focused, and the Mariafeld grew bigger and more powerful.

It was absolutely fascinating to do a side-by-side tasting of these wines, highlighting their surprisingly distinct characters. They’re not inexpensive at $40 each, but the high level of craftsmanship is clear. And if you’re a wine geek like me (which you must be, if you’re still reading), it’s money well-spent. The wines are delicious, and opened together, they offer the rare opportunity to taste the difference clonal selection can make.

Note: These wines were provided free of charge.

Szigeti’s Unusual Sparkling Grüner Veltliner

12 October 2015

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutThat Austria makes delightful Grüner Veltliner is no secret — Grüner varietals appear on many a wine list these days, because they tend to be not only delicious but food-friendly, with plenty of acid and spice. I love them. Last year when I visited Vienna, I had the fortune to sample a number of Grüner Veltliner Smaragd wines, which blew me away with their rich fruit, focus and power. But until a recent vacation in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I’d never tasted a Grüner with bubbles.

You don’t have to go to Austria (or Northwoods Wisconsin) to find a sparkling Grüner Veltliner, however. Szigeti may be a family company, but it’s not a small operation. The winery corks 100,000 bottles of non-vintage Grüner Veltliner Brut each year alone, out of a total production of some 600,000 bottles of various sparkling wines, according to U.S. importer Winebow. That means, in contrast to many of the other wines described on this website, you actually have a fighting chance of finding this one.

At first glance, Szigeti’s location near the Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake on the Austrian/Hungarian border surrounded by plains, seems unpromising. The lack of beneficial hills is worrisome, and then there’s the fact that the Neusiedlersee region isn’t one of Austria’s best for Grüner, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (it argues that Grüner is at its best in the Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal, Weinviertel and Donauland). The World Atlas of Wine isn’t reassuring either, focusing on how the Neusiedlersee region produces appealing sweet wines, because mists from the lake encourage the growth of botrytis (noble rot). Neither book mentions anything about quality Grüner Veltliner coming out of Neusiedlersee.

But then, you don’t hear anything about quality Chardonnay coming out of Champagne. As the Oxford Companion explains, “Wines that are good raw material for the sparkling wine-making process are not usually much fun to drink in their still state. They are typically high in acidity and unobtrusively flavored.” Still wines made from Neusiedlersee Grüner Veltliner may not be much to talk about, but the grapes work beautifully in bubbly.

I brought a bottle of NZ Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut up to Boyd’s Mason Lake Resort, where the family gathered to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. One night, the charmingly old-fashioned resort served a Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner, and it seemed like an ideal moment to try this unusual sparkler. Under the gaze of the fish and deer heads mounted on the lodge’s wall, I popped the cork.

I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes — I was on vacation, after all — but the wine proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s use of the most time-consuming and expensive means of producing sparkling wine, méthode traditionelle, in which the second fermentation — the fermentation which causes the bubbles — takes place in the bottle as opposed to a large steel tank. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to the turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.

The Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut isn’t inexpensive — it costs $17-$20 a bottle — but in this case, that’s money well spent. The obvious quality of the wine along with its unique character and versatility make it a value at that price. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again, and I’m going to keep my eye out for other Szigeti sparklers as well.

A Top Wine Value: Tejo

3 October 2015
Wines of Tejo lunch in a private dining room of Chicago's Sepia restaurant

Wines of Tejo lunch in a private dining room of Chicago’s Sepia restaurant

I love having leisurely wanders through wine shops, taking time to ferret out one or two unusual treasures. But then there are the times I just can’t be bothered, because I’ve got people coming over soon, and I don’t want to spend a lot of money on them because they’re friends but not good friends, yet I have to pour something delicious because they know I’m a wine blogger, so I need something unusual but at the same time normal enough to please a varied group of people about whose wine preferences I know very little. That’s when I reach for Portugal.

Portugal’s blessing and curse is its array of unique indigenous grape varieties. Grapes like Touriga Nacional and Encruzado make distinctive, potent and exciting wines, but they lack name recognition outside the country. Who wants to risk a lot of money on an unknown? The fact that many Portuguese wines blend several semi-pronounceable grape varieties into a complete mystery bottle only confuses matters further for foreign buyers. That keeps prices, even for high-quality wines, much lower than they might otherwise be.

Casal do Conde

Casal do Conde Alvarinho and two fellow tasters

My impression of Portugal — as a country which produces crowd-pleasingly fruity and balanced wines for excellent price — was only reinforced at a recent lunch I attended showcasing the wines from the Tejo region (formerly Ribatejo), just northeast of Lisbon. The Duoro Valley farther to the north, home of Portugal’s most famous wine, Port, gets all the press, but as this lunch demonstrated, vineyards along the Tejo River (also known as the Tagus) are also producing wines that offer impressive flavor for the money.

In fact, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, Tejo “was for many years the anonymous source of some of Portugal’s best red wines, the Garrafeiras… sold under the name of a merchant rather than that of the region.” And since the end of the last millennium, the quality has only improved, according to The World Atlas of Wine, because “EU subsidies persuaded hundreds of growers [in less favorable areas] to uproot their vines.” The remaining vineyards occupy better locations, and just as important, “There has been a move towards the nobler indigenous grapes,” as the Atlas goes on to describe. At the lunch, I also learned that foot-treading grapes is still in use at many wineries!

Even in a large wine shop won’t likely offer too many choices from the Tejo; you’ll be lucky to see two or three. But if this recent lunch and tasting was any indication, you can pick up just about any bottle you find and trust that you’ll get some good bang for your buck. Here is an idea of what to expect:


The foundation of the zucchini-basil gazpacho

The foundation of the zucchini-basil gazpacho

2014 Quinta da Alorna Arinto: According to both the Wine Atlas and the Oxford Companion, Arinto is a grape prized for its high acidity, a good indication that an Arinto varietal wine will pair well with food. This example had an aroma of dried herbs and fresh, cool white fruit, and it tasted clean, spicy and bright. The lemony acids mellowed with some zucchini-basil gazpacho enriched with creamy burrata cheese. Not too shabby for a $10 wine!

2014 Casaleiro Branco Reserva: I liked this blend of 50% Arinto and 50% Fernão Pires even better, with its fresh swimming-pool aroma and round, spicy character. Its zesty limey acids stood up very well to the soup. Fellow wine blogger Thaddeus Buggs of the Minority Wine Report remarked, “It reminds me of a Sancerre; it’s mineral-driven and has lots of acids.” High praise, especially considering the $11 price tag.

2014 Quinta da Ribeirinha Vale de Lobos Branco: The World Atlas of Wine describes Fernão Pires as “adaptable” and notes that it produces “large volumes of simple, honeyed, and sometimes slightly spicy, dry white wine.” That doesn’t sound especially encouraging for this 100% Fernão Pires from the Valley of the Wolves, but I quite enjoyed its rich fruit, tart orangey acids, ample spice and slightly bitter undertone. It had weight and focus, and I found it quite classy. Of the three whites, it stood up best to the soup. A superlative value for $11.

Ricotta cannelloni

Ricotta cannelloni

2013 Casal do Conde Alvarinho: You might be familiar with this thick-skinned grape variety by its Spanish synonym, Albariño. Casal do Conde, which focuses on varietal wines expressive of their terroir, did a masterful job with this aromatic white. It took me on a real journey, moving from white fruit to wood to focused spice. Another sensational value for $14 a bottle. Casal do Conde is a winery to watch.

2014 Quinta do Casal Monteiro “Margaride’s”: This blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Arinto paired beautifully with some ricotta-stuffed cannelloni, or more specifically, with the savory Parmesan crisps atop them. I enjoyed its rich, dusky aroma marked by a touch of creaminess, and its focused peachy fruit and orange-peel acids. Thaddeus also detected “almost a lychee note.” Unique and delicious, and — it can’t be a surprise at this point — it’s a great deal at $12.


2012 Pinhal da Torre Quinta do Alqueve Tradicional Tinto: This winery employs traditional foot treading, which theoretically treats the grapes more gently than a mechanical press. Master Sommelier Eric Entrikin, who presented all the wines at the lunch, met the winemaker on recent trip to Portugal. “Every tenth word out of his mouth was, ‘I suffer,'” Eric related. Perhaps, like grape vines, it’s beneficial for winemakers to suffer as well; this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Trincadeira and Castelão had ripe-but-taut fruit, ample acids and a focused, spicy finish. I loved its combination of ripeness and tightness, and it’s a ridiculous value for $12.

Red-wine braised pork cheeks with smoked mushroom escabeche and polenta

Red-wine braised pork cheeks with smoked mushroom escabeche and polenta

2012 Adega Cooperativa do Cartaxo Bridão Classico Tinto: While tasting this wine, Entrikin remarked, “Portuguese wine has a very fruity character in the nose, but when it hits my palate, it dries right out.” A blend similar to the one above, this wine paired especially well with a dish of red wine-braised pork cheeks, becoming even bigger and spicier. It smelled of rich red fruit and vanilla, and though it tasted ripe and a bit sweet, plenty of white-pepper spice kept it balanced. Apparently its standard retail price is $9, which is just insane.

2013 Quinta do Casal Branco Tinto: If you like softer reds, such as Merlot or Grenache, this blend of Castelão, Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet is for you. Made with grapes pressed by foot, this wine had a fresh and clean aroma of ripe red fruit, plenty of fruit on the palate mixed with some vanilla and a touch of white pepper. It had a much more velvety finish than the two reds above, and again, it’s a fine value for $12.

2011 Quinta da Lapa Tinto Reserva: You won’t find foot-treading at this thoroughly modern winery, and I can’t say I missed it. This blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute delight. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with the pork cheeks. The price of $25 may come as a shock, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value. I would spend my own money on this wine.

2011 Falua Conde de Vimioso Tinto Reserva: At $35, the most expensive wine of the bunch lived up to its relatively lofty price tag. Its rich, raisiny aroma sucked me right in, and again, it had that delightful rich-but-taut character I really enjoy. There was no shortage of fruit in this blend of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Aragónez, but it had an elegant austerity emphasized by focused acids and refined tannins.

After this tasting, I won’t hesitate to snap up a wine from the Tejo when I see one. If I have a choice, I’ll look for a Fernão Pires varietal or a blend of Arinto and Fernão Pires, and red blends based on Touriga Nacional. They’re almost sure to be superlative values for the money.

Note: This lunch and the accompanying wines were provided free of charge.

Book Review – Wine Folly: The Essential Guide To Wine

26 September 2015

Wine Folly CoverWith all the wine books floating around out there, you need to make a compelling case to write a new one. Madeleine Puckette and Justin Hammack do just that with Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine, released on September 22. I met the engaging Puckette at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in New York, and impressed with her presentation, I was eager to see how her book turned out. I’m happy to say that I can recommend it, especially to someone interested in wine but not especially knowledgeable about it.

What makes this book different from other heftier wine reference guides is its use of clear and easy-to-decipher graphics in order to convey information about everything from flavors to glassware. I especially liked the flavor wheels accompanying each of the descriptions of 55 various single-varietal wines and blends. Organized into categories such as “Herbal/Floral,” “Oak” and “Tertiary,” these wheels clearly organized the numerous flavors one might encounter in a particular wine. Those who sometimes struggle with picking out and describing flavors and aromas (and that’s most of us) will surely find it useful to sit down with a glass and the corresponding wheel to get hints about what we might be tasting.

Besides covering wine varieties and 12 wine-producing countries, Wine Folly includes sections on Wine Basics, Tasting Wine, Handling Wine and Food and Wine Pairing. Of these, the section on “How to Taste” is especially strong, including detailed descriptions of how to glean information from a wine’s appearance, what to look for in an aroma (including an excellent page on identifying wine faults) and how to differentiate among acidity, tannins and alcohol. I also appreciated the sections on Serving Wine and Wine Temperature — there are more than a few restaurants I can think of which would benefit from a review of these pages.

Wine Folly SyrahThe two-page spreads devoted to the different wine varieties also contain useful information. The Syrah page (right), for example, lists the main countries where the grape grows, accompanied by a graphic indicating what percentage is planted where. A “Profile” graphic shows the amount of fruit, body, tannin, acidity and alcohol you find in an average Syrah, and another graphic shows the dominant flavors. And a “Regional Differences” section alerts readers that Syrahs from regions such as California and Spain tend to be “Full-bodied with fruit-foward flavors of blackberry, blueberry, sweet tobacco smoke, chocolate baking spices, and vanilla,” whereas Syrahs from places such as Chile and the Rhône Valley tend to be “Medium- to full-bodied wines with savory flavors of plum, olive, boysenberry, leather, green peppercorn, bacon fat and cocoa powder.” If you know what sort of red wine you like — ripe and rich or taut and earthy — such comparative descriptions can be immensely helpful when deciding whether to choose a Syrah from Argentina or Australia.

Certain parts of the book struck me as problematic, however. Some of the pages devoted to wine-producing countries contained useful information, such as the Chile profile, which explains, counterintuitively, that wine regions there differentiate themselves east-to-west, according to their proximity to the sea and the Andes, more so than north-to-south. Other country pages offered little that you couldn’t deduce from walking into a well stocked wine shop. Argentina’s page, for example, explains that the country is known for “a bold and fruity style of Malbec” and that the top grapes are Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Syrah, Torrontés and Pinot Noir. The flavor descriptions of each variety tended to be too general to be helpful. Malbec’s flavor, for example, “ranges in taste from juicy tart raspberry flavors to rich blueberry and sweet tobacco, depending on the vintage, quality and oak program.” The relative merits of the various wine growing areas in Argentina are unaddressed aside from a brief mention of the benefits of high-elevation subregions. I’m left still wondering what to look for when faced with a shelf of Argentine wine in a shop.

Then there were the parts of the book I simply disagreed with, such as the assertion that “All red wines can be aerated,” i.e. decanted. If you aerate or decant an old, fragile wine, you’ll almost certainly lose whatever fruit and acids might be left. I still smart at the memory of a foolish waiter at a Chicago BYOB restaurant breaking the cork on a 1986 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, pushing the remaining cork piece into the bottle and then decanting it through a coffee filter. When I saw what he was doing at the waiter station, I stopped him in his tracks, but the damage to the half of the wine he decanted was done. It fell flat, lacking the liveliness of the portion remaining in the bottle. I never decant a wine without tasting it first. Otherwise who knows what flavors you might lose in the process?

Wine Folly Tasting PageA book of this brevity can’t cover everything, certainly, but I did regret certain omissions. In the dessert wine section, Hungary’s Tokaji, one of the world’s greatest wines by any measure, was notably absent, as was any mention of its main grape variety, the noble and fiery Furmint, which now also appears in striking dry varietal wines. It also seemed a shame to not include the ancient winemaking center of Greece, which has experienced a wine renaissance in the last decade, producing all manner of exciting wines from unusual indigenous grape varieties.

The book’s brevity and occasional omissions are much less of a problem if you are willing to use it in conjunction with the Wine Folly website. Links on the side of almost every page direct readers where to find more information about a subject. I prefer not to have to make that extra step to find information — it’s much easier for me to pull my Oxford Companion to Wine or World Atlas of Wine off the shelf than turn on my computer or phone to look up a website while already looking at a book.

Criticisms aside, as a stand-alone volume, Wine Folly still works. Someone just getting into wine who wants a systematic, unintimidating, easy-to-understand and visually appealing wine book would surely benefit from Wine Folly. It has a clear organizational structure, and its attractive graphics boil down and simplify a lot of information. Anyone looking for a first wine book should seriously consider this work. And even though I’ve been writing about wine for more than four years, I suspect I’ll refer to those handy flavor wheels from time to time myself!

Note: My copy of the book was provided free of charge.

The Not Very Odd Wines Of Chris Hanna

12 September 2015
Chris Hanna

Chris Hanna

I’m going to take a post and write about some wines that are neither obscure nor especially unusual, and it’s for a very important reason. In fact, it’s for the most important reason to drink a wine. More on that in a moment.

Chris Hanna, the engaging president of Hanna Winery & Vineyards, recently hosted a wine tasting and dinner at Ravinia, one of Chicagoland’s loveliest outdoor concert venues. The torrential downpour we suffered throughout the event must have come as a bit of a shock to this Sonoma winemaker and cookbook author accustomed to drought conditions in California.

The worrisome drought was the topic of the audience’s first question for Hanna. Fortunately, the dry conditions haven’t caused her vineyards to shrivel. “The premium wine grape crop is of such value,” she explained, “they’re not going to cut off our water. Yet. If we have one more year [of drought], we may have to meter,” she added in a slightly more ominous tone. But at least for this vintage, Napa and Sonoma wine lovers have no need to panic, she reassured us.

Hanna made her first vintage of wine “at the tender age of 12,” when her family had 12 acres of vines in the Russian River Valley, which, at the time, “were in the middle of nowhere.” She expanded Hanna Winery’s holdings to 600 acres today, split among vineyards in the Russian River Valley, the warmer Alexander Valley farther to the north and farther from the cooling influence of the Pacific, and the high-elevation Mayacamas Mountains yet farther inland.

Hanna Winery wines at RaviniaHanna’s early winemaking start now pays hefty dividends. Her 2014 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc, for example, gets everything right. Hanna notes that in Sonoma, “high-tone flavors don’t get baked out by the sun,” and she maximizes the Sauvignon Blanc’s inherent freshness by picking the grapes at night and fermenting in stainless steel. The wine had that zesty, grassy, minerally aroma I love in a Sauvignon Blanc. It tasted focused and bright, with lively grapefruity acids and edges rounded by a bit of malolactic fermentation. It sliced through some rich Boucheron cheese like a knife. An excellent value for $19 a bottle.

The 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay displayed similar attention to balance. I’ve frequently hear from people scarred by butter bombs that they don’t care for California Chardonnay, or even any Chardonnay at all. I can empathize — I once had a harrowing experience with some Toasted Head. And indeed, this Chardonnay has some wood and butter to it, imparted by aging in French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation. But this wine exhibited beautiful balance, with ripely peachy fruit and broad, lively acids. The Chardonnay felt fresh in spite of its oak and butter notes, and I loved it. A fine splurge for $29.

The finesse of the 2013 Alexander Cabernet Sauvignon impressed me, too. Actually a Bordeaux-style blend of 77% Cabernet, 17% Malbec and 6% Merlot, this wine undergoes a hot and fast fermentation (slow and cool is more common) to avoid harsh, dry tannins. And indeed those tannins were supple, especially considering the wine’s youth. It had a delightfully rich, jammy aroma; big, cool fruit and a shot of black pepper spice. It’s not inexpensive at $42, but this wine has the power and grace to back up that price tag.

Unexpectedly, my favorite of the evening was the 2013 Bismark Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel. Hanna “challenged [herself] to become a Zin believer” and worked hard to create a Zinfandel vineyard on a steep and rocky slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. Although a pain for humans to work, such terrain tends to work beautifully for wine. Grape clusters in this vineyard are tiny, Hanna explained, which means she can get “so much extraction that you Chris Hanna at dinner in Ravinianever get on flat ground.” Indeed, the wine was dark, and it smelled of dusky dried black fruit. Zinfandels can all too easily become overly jammy and ponderous, but this one started cool and clean, moving from big fruit to big spice to some refined tannins on the finish. Something savory underneath added complexity. I don’t drink much Zinfandel, I must admit, but if I could spend $64 on a bottle, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose this one.

It was a delight to taste these wines both alone and with a delicious al fresco dinner, during which their acids helped them work well with a range of different foods.

Which brings me to why, as Odd Bacchus, I would write about these wines at all. To be honest, it’s because I wanted to. I love drinking the unusual and obscure, obviously, but it seemed unnecessarily doctrinaire to deny myself the pleasure of these expertly crafted Sonoma wines.

Wine should always be a pleasure, and I can’t think of a more valid, compelling reason to choose a particular bottle than simply “because I wanted to.” Maybe you’re drinking Chardonnay when you “should” be drinking Malbec. Or maybe you’re drinking, ahem, Sonoma Zinfandel when you should be drinking Slovak Dunaj. But life is too short to shame yourself about the wine you want to drink. “Because I want to” is all the justification you need.

Note: These wines and the accompanying dinner were provided free of charge.

Overdue For A Brazilian

4 September 2015
Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Until recently, I’d never had a Brazilian — wax or wine. I found the idea of either one more than a little scary, and frankly unnecessary. But when I spied a table of Brazilian wines by Vinícola Salton at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference, I decided it was time to face my fears.

Founded in 1910, Salton is one of Brazil’s oldest wineries, but that’s not necessarily an advantage. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Brazil has long made uninteresting wine “because of where it was made: near centers of population, in areas of high humidity with fertile soils, by small farmers with rudimentary skills.” And indeed, Salton’s beautiful winery is located in the old Serra Gaúcha region, where, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, where “Average rainfall… is very high for a wine region,” and soils “have a high proportion of water-retaining clay.” As a result, “fungal diseases are a constant threat,” and wines from here tend to be of “basic quality.”

Fortunately, tradition has not stopped Salton from investing in new vineyards in the drier and less fertile region of Campanha along the northern border of Uruguay. In 2010, Salton purchased 1,100-some acres of vineyards in Campanha, which the World Atlas calls “the focus of fine wine development in Brazil, with particular attention now being paid to matching vine variety and soil type.”

It all sounds promising, but really, Brazilian wine? Even this odd wine drinker felt a little skeptical as I held out my glass for a sample.

NV Salton Intenso Brut: Vanessa (pictured above) told me I was drinking a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling (!) from Campanha, but Salton’s website describes this wine as a blend of Chardonnay, Prosecco and Trebbiano from Serra Gaúcha. In any case, it has a subtle aroma of dried herbs, a fruity attack on the palate and a rather savory finish. I liked the flavor journey, and for $17, you can take it too. Other sparklers might be better values, but this is the obvious choice with which to celebrate Brazilian Independence Day (September 7).

2012 Salton Intenso Cabernet Franc: This restrained but still-powerful wine had a dusky dark-fruit aroma, taut dark-fruit flavors, a perk of white-pepper spice and some balanced tannins on the finish. I liked it, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it came from Campanha. The next wine, however, was a complete and total astonishment.

2012 Salton Intenso Tannat: “This is a 100% Tannat? That’s brave,” I remarked, trying to sound as positive as possible. I enjoy Tannat in blends, but many of the varietal Tannats I’ve tried tend to be mouthfuls of tannins (see my controversial Tannat post here).

“It’s actually really light and elegant,” Vanessa replied, smiling despite my look of utter disbelief. A light and elegant Tannat seems about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I tasted it and nearly spit it out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Campanha Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

2009 Salton Talento: The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tannat grapes in this Bordeaux-style blend are hand-harvested, and the quality control shows in the wine. It had a clean red-fruit aroma and it tasted beautifully balanced, with ripe fruit, ample spice, classy tannins on the finish and something earthy and funky underneath it all. The grapes come from both Campanha and Serra Gaúcha, which leads me to wonder if coaxing high-quality fruit from Serra Gaúcha might be possible after all. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve this to guests at a dinner party, ideally with some steak.

Brazil opened its markets to imported wine only in the 1990s, which means local wineries have had only about 20 years of competition. These wines are evidence that they haven’t wasted those two decades. There are some interesting things trickling out of Brazil these days, and should you encounter a Brazilian bottle on a wine list or in a shop, I recommend asking about it. Its quality might surprise you.

Bobbing On The Surface Of The Finger Lakes

26 August 2015
The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

As I departed this year’s Finger Lakes-focused Wine Bloggers Conference, I felt something strange. A lack. This subtle absence might have even gone unnoticed, had I not participated in previous conferences in Virginia and British Columbia. After those two conferences, I felt a strong connection to the wine regions. I can still viscerally feel the rolling vineyards of Virginia, planted along roads where Thomas Jefferson rode in his carriage, and the sweeping vistas of British Columbia, where the vineyards melted into a vast landscape of rugged mountains and lakes. This time, as my plane departed the minuscule Elmira airport in rural New York, my viscera barely twitched. Something was wrong.

Glynis of and Reggie of with the author

Glynis of and Reggie of with the author (center)

I went over the events of the conference in my mind — the tastings, the dinners, the receptions, the after-parties — all of which had been delightful. Nor could it have been the people. I deepened several friendships made at the British Columbia conference, and forged new ones as well. I left feeling more strongly connected to the wine blogger community than ever. And the winery representatives I’d met couldn’t have been more personable. One winemaker even invited me to stay at his house, should I return to the area! Then the problem became clear.

Somehow, over the course of my three nights at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Corning, I had managed to avoid visiting a single winery or vineyard. How was this possible?

I am as much to blame as anyone, since I didn’t make time for either the pre- or post-conference excursion to the Finger Lakes, both of which included multiple winery visits. The town of Corning itself, charming though it may be, with its quaint downtown and impressive museums of glass and American art, is bereft of vineyards. I knew this, and just assumed that an excursion to a winery or two would take place during the conference as had happened in the past.

We did hop on buses at one point to get into the countryside, but we didn’t know where a bus was going until we were already en route. My bus made a perfectly pleasant trip to the Manor House on Keuka Lake, where we tasted an array of delicious Rieslings. The word “exotic” keeps appearing in my notes about these Rieslings, which exhibited aromas like jasmine and incense and flavors of roses, ginger and fleshy peach. These were well-balanced and rather sexy wines, made by the likes of Ravines, Vineyard View, Barrington and McGregor.

The Manor House on Keuka Lake

The Manor House near Keuka Lake

I loved this flavor journey along the Keuka Lake Wine Trail, but it was unfortunately unaccompanied by a physical journey to any wineries or vineyards. The Manor House made for a pretty event venue, with food stations set up inside the house stocked with fluffy gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream sauce and sweet-and-sour glazed pork meatballs which we nibbled on the lake-view terrace. But it could not substitute for a winery.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit an array of wine regions over the years, and when I drink something from a place I know, the wine transports me there in the manner of Proust’s madeleine. When I drink Tokaji, I find myself back in that 500-year-old cellar caked with mold or on the vine-clad hillside near my hotel, staring aghast at the gash where the communist regime mined a Grand Cru vineyard for clay. When I drink a well-crafted wine from Mendoza, my skin remembers how the breeze felt as it swept down from the distant Andes and across the vineyards surrounding me. I can still physically feel these places in a way that I simply can’t the Finger Lakes.

This lack made something clear to me which, in retrospect, should probably have been obvious. I don’t feel like I know a wine until I’ve actually visited where it’s made. When you stand quietly for a little while in a vineyard, the terroir seeps into you, just a bit, just like it does the wine. Touching and smelling the casks in a cellar — it connects you to the wine, deepening your experience when you taste it. Tasting alone is not enough.

I’m still bobbing on the surface of the Finger Lakes. One day soon I’ll have to fix that.

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