Monthly Archives: June 2011

Lip Stinger

29 June 2011

I helped staff a booth at a local street festival this past weekend, and though I appreciate the work of the organization, I knew their cocktail selection would likely be suspect. So as not to be stuck with the cheap vodka and imitation lemonade of years past, I perused my wine collection for something inexpensive, bright and cheery (and not too alcoholic — it was barely noon).

I found just what I was looking for in a bottle of 2009 La Chapelle de la Bastide Picpoul de Pinet. After chilling it for 45 minutes in the freezer, I tossed it in my backpack and hopped on my bike.

The cocktail selection in the booth proved as dire as my predictions: Vodka and Sierra Mist. Hardly the worst mixture one could concoct, but it exuded a whiff of frathouse improvisation. I opened my Picpoul.

Picpoul de Pinet is quite an unusual cru in France, in that it’s named after a variety, Picpoul, as well as a place, Pinet (most French appellations refer only to geography). It’s no surprise this cru, just west of the canal-laced town of Sète, is set in the heart of the rather wild and wooly wine appellation of Coteaux du Languedoc, “France’s most anarchic wine region,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Perhaps only here could a variety work its name into the French AOC system.

Picpoul (also written as “Piquepoul,” which means “lip stinger,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine) dates back to at least the 17th Century, according to the Picpoul de Pinet website, when it was already recognized as a quality variety. It apparently waned in popularity due to its low yields and suceptibility to fungus, notes Wikipedia (without citing any sources), but it’s relatively easy to obtain now.

But enough of that — this is supposed to be a fun, festival wine. I cracked it open, poured a generous helping into a clear plastic cup and held it up to the sun. A beautiful yellow-green, this wine looked like summer. The back label claimed “wild roses” on the nose, but I detected only green apples. The wine tasted satisfyingly bright, with apples and juicy lemons, before closing with a pleasantly chalky finish. Sunny and fun, this wine surely reflected its terroir near the coast of southwestern France.

It certainly beat Vodka + Sierra Mist.


2009 La Chapelle de la Bastide Picpoul de Pinet: Fun, bright and juicy, with a hint of minerality. A great value summer white.

Grade: B

Find It: This bottle was purchased on sale at Whole Foods Market Evanston South for $5.50, but $9.00 is a more representative price.

Honeysuckle and Tobacco

23 June 2011

Before some friends came over to dinner the other night, they thoughtfully called to offer to bring a bottle of wine. I planned on making some Southeast Asian-inspired dishes, which always seem to cry out for Gewürztraminer. I have a soft spot for floral, aromatic whites, and a good Gewürztraminer can work wonders with fresh herb-heavy Lao, Cambodian and Thai recipes.

My friends obliged with a 2009 Robertson Winery “Special Late Harvest” Gewurztraminer (they spell it without the umlaut) from South Africa, far from the varietal’s most well-known home of the Alsace. I’d sampled German, Australian, French, American and even Spanish Gewürztraminers, but never one from South Africa. I was intrigued, but concerned that “Special Late Harvest” might just be a fancy way of saying “cloyingly sweet.”


North Bass, Middle Bass, South Bass

19 June 2011

“Bass,” whether North, South or Middle, is not a name commonly associated with wine. Nor is Lake Erie, for that matter, but it wasn’t always so.

I’ve recently been reading History in a Glass: Sixty Years of Wine Writing from Gourmet, a fascinating compendium of wine articles written between 1941 and 2004 for the now unfortunately defunct magazine. The early pieces, mostly written by Frank Schoonmaker, provide an eye-opening glimpse into the state of post-Prohibition wine in the United States.

The Napa and Sonoma Valleys ranked as the top wine-producing districts, along with some other familiar California names, but there was no mention of Washington or Oregon. Instead, I was surprised to see Mr. Schoonmaker list the Lake Erie Islands as a top wine region:

The important wine-producing districts of the East, the South, and the Middle West can all be numbered on the fingers of two hands. Outstanding in point of quality is, perhaps, the Finger Lakes region of Western New York State, closely followed by the Lake Erie Islands district, north of Sandusky, Ohio. —Gourmet, June 1941


A New Frontier – Part 4

17 June 2011

Our explorations of Serbian drink were not confined to wine. Mr. Goran Sevic of importer Vino et Spiritus brings a number of spirits into the United States, including loza (Serbian grappa), brandy and slivovitz. (You can read a previous post about slivovitz here.)

I briefly felt concerned that hard alcohol might not agree with my stomach, still recovering from a bout of food poisoning, but after tasting six wines, some sremska sausage and a stalk of green garlic, I decided to just go for it.


A New Frontier – Part 3

14 June 2011

In addition to the wines from Ivanović and Botunjac, which come from the Zapadna Morava region of Serbia, we tried two wines from the town of Vršac in Banat. This northeastern wine region (once the largest in Europe) has produced wine since at least the 15th Century, and likely much longer. Vineyards decorate the town’s 1804 coat of arms, as does a sword flinging a bleeding, severed head. Clearly this is a wine region to be reckoned with.


A New Frontier – Part 2

11 June 2011

After tasting two unique and delicious Serbian varieties, I was excited to see what some of this country’s most thoughtful winemakers could do with more well-known grapes. Could they hold their own on the international market?

The 2009 Botunjac “Rasplet” Reserve Riesling certainly could. It seemed hardly believable that this dry, character-rich wine came from the same variety that ends up in Schmitt Söhne. A very pale gold, this Riesling had a rather alcoholic nose of apples, and rich, musky-dusky flavors of pear with a touch of resin and a whisper of yeast. I have never visited Serbia, but I have to imagine the rich, dry and stylistically unusual Rasplet to be very expressive of its terroir. It worked wonderfully with smoky, slightly spicy Serbian sremska sausage.

The vintner, Kosta Botunjac, certainly takes great care making his wines. He comes from a family of dedicated winemakers; while in a German POW camp in 1942, his grandfather Dragomir managed to send a postcard home with instructions for making the Pinot Noir. (more…)

A New Frontier – Part 1

9 June 2011

Since the 2007 Jović Vranac currently stands as the highest-rated wine on this (newish) blog, I was delighted when the importer, Goran Sevic of Vino et Spiritus, invited me to taste more of his Serbian wine portfolio. It’s rare to find even one bottle of Serbian wine — wine regions like Banat, Timok and Zapadna Morava don’t leap readily to the tongue — let alone have the opportunity to taste several all together. Fortunately the food poisoning I’d experienced the day before the tasting abated, and I paid Mr. Sevic a visit.

We couldn’t be expected to taste all this wine on an empty stomach, a most hospitable Mr. Sevic declared, and he produced a beautiful board of Serbian sremska sausage, Serbian pancetta, Italian sausage, Jarlsberg cheese and slices of baguette. Unsure how my almost entirely empty stomach would respond, I started with a bit of baguette. Reassured by my gastric non-reaction, I sampled the first wine.

We started with a 2009 Ivanović Tamianika from Zapadna Morava in southern Serbia. My research yielded little about this Serbian variety (more commonly spelled “Tamjanika”), other than that it’s a relative of Muscat. Mr. Sevic, and the wine’s label, for that matter, confirmed this fact. Wikipedia asserts it came from southern France to Serbia 500 years ago, but it cites no source for this information.

A blog I found notes that some people find it smells like incense, and indeed, tamjan is the Serbian word for incense, according Google Translate.

I didn’t detect incense in the nose of the pale yellow Tamianika (actually a blend of 85% Tamianika and 15% Riesling); I got a wonderful whiff of ripe pineapple and wet stone. Flavors of apple transformed into something spicy. Incense? Perhaps, but to me the spiciness tasted almost like ginger. The Tamianika finished with some bracing minerals, completing a wonderful ride.

The Ivanović winery had stagnated under communism, but vintner Dragoslav Ivanović found his grandfather’s old winemaking notes and rejuvenated the family business, creating small-batch, organic wines sourced from nine tiny vineyards in Zapadna Morava, each under an acre. (The wines are not certified organic, incidentally, because Mr. Ivanović would “rather buy his wife a new dress than pay for certification,” according to Mr. Sevic.) Mr. Ivanović’s care clearly shows; his expressive Tamianika tasted delicious.

We tasted another wine produced by Ivanović, the 2008 Prokupac, a blend of 85% Prokupac, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot sourced from just 5.6 acres in the same area. This chewy, tannic, dark red wine featured a heady nose of leather and brandied cherries, and flavors of red meat, tobacco and ripe raspberries. It tasted even bigger when paired with the smoky Serbian sremska sausage. Prokupac clearly warranted some additional investigation.

Wine Searcher offers precious little about the Prokupac grape, and Wikipedia and the Oxford Companion to Wine (via Wine Pros) offer little more. Vino et Spiritus writes that Prokupac is an indigenous Serbian variety, which, according to Wikipedia, dates back to the Middle Ages. Though almost entirely unknown outside its homeland, I hope we’ll see more of this variety on the market in years to come.

Up Next: What Serbia can do with Riesling, Blaufränkisch, Vranac and the ever-fickle Pinot Noir.


2009 Ivanović Tamianika: An aromatic, complex delight with flavors of apple, ginger and stone. Chill, and remove from the refrigerator 5-10 minutes before serving.

Grade: A-

2008 Ivanović Prokupac: A chewy, hearty, meaty red, tasty with smoked sausage and surely also with steak or pork. Chill in the refrigerator about 10 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: The wines of Vino et Spiritus imports can be found for sale at City Fresh, Adriatic Café Restaurant, Theater Café, Beograd Café, Boem Restaurant and Zupa Restaurant.

The Second-Most Aristocratic Sangria

6 June 2011

Sangria my not be the oddest thing I’ve discussed on this blog, but it’s undeniably unusual to find really high-quality sangria. Indeed, “high-quality sangria” may seem like an oxymoron to those accustomed to flabby, sugared-up red wine swirled with some mealy apples and orange peel. But sangria can be a wonderful and even complex drink, worth making with care.

Vincent Astor made perhaps the most infamously high-quality sangria in history. According to Eric Felten, writing for the Wall Street Journal in 2007, “Astor was known to astonish waiters by asking for a bottle of Dom Perignon, a bottle of 1947 La Tâche (one of the great vintages of that fine Burgundy) and then instructing them to mix the wines together with cucumbers and plenty of fruit to make the most aristocratic of Sangrias.”

Fortunately for those of us without seven-figure salaries, it’s not necessary to purchase a bottle of La Tâche to make delicious sangria. What is necessary is a fruity, robust wine you would enjoy drinking on its own. If it’s not able to stand on its own in a glass, it won’t support the weight of a punch bowl.

I chose a 2010 Venta Morales Tempranillo from the D.O. of La Mancha in Spain. La Mancha, stretching from just south of Madrid to the foothills of the Sierra Morena north of Cordoba, is the world’s largest contiguous wine growing region. Relatively undistinguished white wines dominate La Mancha, with only about 1/5 of its area devoted to reds. The Venta Morales, according to the label, comes from vineyards near the village of Villanueva, “…handcrafted in small batches to insure the highest quality possible.”

On sale at Whole Foods for $6.29 a bottle — and that’s before a 20% case discount was factored in — the Venta Morales seemed worth a risk. With plums on the nose, this deep magenta Tempranillo offered surprising tannins, a medium body and flavors of raspberry jam with a touch of oak. Paired with a hearty Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan tomato/bread soup), the wine developed distinct notes of spicy white pepper. Dry, tannic and fruity, it seemed just right for making sangria.

A Google search yields a multitude of sangria recipes, and there are easily as many non-digitized versions in cocktail books of varying wisdom. My Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s and Party Guide, for example, recommends adding “Other fruits as desired (bananas, strawberries, etc.).” As much as I enjoy an unusual cocktail from time to time, I draw the line at mixing bananas and wine.

I prefer a modification of Eric Felten’s recipe, restrained to citrus fruits and peaches:

2 bottles robust red wine (chilled)

2 white peaches

1 red- or pink-skinned apple

1 green-skinned apple

3 oranges

3 lemons

1/2 cup triple sec or other orange liqueur

1/2 cup brandy

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar (to taste)

A few drops of lychee liqueur or rose water (to taste)

Slice one orange and one lemon into rounds, and gently macerate with the sugar in a large bowl, keeping the flesh relatively intact. Squeeze in the juice of the remaining oranges and lemons. Dice the white peaches and the apples and add them to the bowl. Add the triple sec, brandy and a few drops of lychee liquor or rose water (adding a floral touch to the nose), stir, cover, and refrigerate for three or more hours.

Combine all the ingredients in a punch bowl, floating the orange and lemon rounds on top. To keep cool, drop in a single large chunk of ice, rather than many small cubes. One large ice chunk, about the size of a fist, dilutes the sangria more slowly than faster-melting cubes.

A tannic Tempranillo should keep things grounded, the citrus adds sweetness and texture, and the peaches and lychee/rose water provide some floral notes at the top. It’s a delightful drink, and I think Vincent Astor himself might have enjoyed it.


2010 Venta Morales Tempranillo: Fruity, some tannins, a bit spicy and very inexpensive — perfect for sangria.

Grade: B

Find It: I purchased this wine at Whole Foods Market Evanston South for a little over $5 per bottle, but $7 seems to be a more representative price.

Dining On The Donald

2 June 2011

The Terrace at the Trump boasts arguably the best views in Chicago, with a 16th-floor panorama encompassing architectural icons such as the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower and the Jewelers Building. It features a “Polynesian Chic” theme, expressed with attractive black patio furniture, some colorful pillows, a few stalks of bamboo and a handful of windblown palm trees.

What it does not feature, unfortunately, is an exciting by-the-glass wine list. A rosé cava briefly caught my attention, but one could buy almost two bottles of the stuff for the $18 the Trump charges for a glass. Similarly off-putting price tags weighed down the other choices. Enjoy that glorious view, because you’re paying for it.

Finding little on the wine list to tempt our palates, we opted for two “Divine Nectars” (otherwise known as cocktails), the Huahine Basil ($18) and the Coconut Castaway ($23). The former, an attention-grabbing mix of Hum Botanical Spirit, ginger beer, fresh ginger and basil, tasted delicious. An unusual, locally made 70-proof liquor, Hum is composed of pot-still rhum infused with hibiscus, ginger root, green cardamom and kaffir lime (pot stills produce more robust flavors). I taste the cardamom and ginger most strongly in this spicy liquor.

In the Huahine Basil, perhaps a riff on the classic Moscow Mule, the Hum really took over, and I could taste little else. Nevertheless, the spirit’s flavors are complex enough on their own, and I didn’t really mind. Huahine, incidentally, is an island in French Polynesia, the name of which apparently translates as “women’s sexual organ,” according to the “Legends” section of Pacific Blue Adventure’s website. A cocktail name this classy could hardly be an accident.

I’ve now exhausted my positive comments about The Terrace at the Trump. If you plan to go and sip a delightful Huahine Basil cocktail as you gaze at some of the world’s most beautiful architecture, captivatingly honey-colored in the early evening sun, stop reading. Those who enjoy reading tales of shockingly overpriced, uninspired cuisine should by all means continue.