Monthly Archives: August 2011

Everything But The Kitchen Sink

31 August 2011

I tossed together some hearty rigatoni with spicy peppers, pea-sized green tomatoes, Italian sausage and San Marzano tomato sauce, and I needed a muscular red to pair with it. The 2007 Monte Volpe Primo Rosso looked about right; its name means “Wolf Mountain” and it packs a 14.5% alcohol punch.

Reading the back label left me feeling a bit skeptical, however. I was intrigued to try this California blend of exclusively Italian varietals, but they really threw just about everything they could in this wine:

Primo Rosso (meaning 1st or best red) is a proprietary blend of several old world red grape varieties including Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Carignane, Negroamaro and Nebbiolo… This wine was aged for 18 months in American, Eastern European and French Burgundy oak barrels.

So let me get this straight — there are at least five varieties (maybe more) aged in three different kinds of oak. I’m no winemaker, and I certainly have only the most rudimentary knowledge of blending, but good heavens, is that necessary? I mean, how many different kinds of oak does one really need in a wine?


The Desert Vineyards Of Washington State

27 August 2011

A hurricane may be raging along the East Coast, but in Chicago we’re having some of the loveliest weather we’ve had all year. It was a perfect chance to relax outside with a glass of rosé, my favorite fun summer wine.

Although my wine rack currently overflows with bottles, only one rosé was left — a 2010 Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese. I couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sangiovese rosé, much less one from Washington State. It was an ideal choice (of course, the total lack of other options also contributed to the selection process).

Before settling down with a glass, I researched Sangiovese a bit, wondering what this common Italian varietal might be doing up in Washington State. It came as a surprise to read in The Oxford Companion to Wine that “Sangiovese’s principal characteristic in the vineyard is its slow and late ripening…” Washington isn’t known as the sunniest of states, leading me to wonder how this grape might get enough sun to fully develop.

I really became curious how on earth anyone could grow this varietal in Washington when I went on to read that “The grape’s rather thin skin creates a certain susceptibility to rot in cool and damp years…” Washington State would seem to be the epitome of cool and damp — who would be crazy enough to grow Sangiovese there, and how did they possibly make it work?

And here my lack of knowledge about the Columbia River Valley’s terroir became all too apparent. (more…)

Cognac: Not Just For Rap Stars

24 August 2011

Cognac can be easy to dismiss as the purview of either grey-haired blue bloods or freewheeling young hip-hop fans. But those who subscribe to that view miss an obvious point: Cognac must be something quite special to appeal to both the château and the crib sets.

Cognac is a type of brandy made, as you might have guessed, in and around the city of Cognac in France. It must be double-distilled from white wine, 90% of which must be Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano), Colombard and Folle Blanche. The grapes for this wine can come from a range of favorable or less favorable growth zones. Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne (not to be confused with the sparkling wine region) tend to be the best, and anything with “Bois” in the name tends to be less impressive.

Just as important, Cognacs are graded according to age. In order from youngest to oldest, the grades are V.S., V.S.O.P. and X.O. But just to keep you on your toes, Cognac can also be labeled as Napoleon, Extra, Vieille Reserve and Hors d’Âge, indicating an age greater than X.O., or simply Vieux (literally “old”), which falls somewhere between V.S.O.P. and X.O.

Those marketing Cognac to non-French consumers might wish to consider simplifying this system a bit.


An Odd Array Of Toasts

20 August 2011

While planning the order of our upcoming wedding reception, we ran into trouble figuring out who we wanted to toast and when. It can get a little complicated, matching differing family structures and sets of friends. We needed a guide.

I have a set of vintage etiquette books, including the incomparable Emily Post’s Etiquette, but we thought Letitia Baldridge’s Complete Guide to the New Manners for the 90’s would be more helpful in this case. She offered very clear, direct advice, as she always does. So should you find yourself wondering who should toast and in what order, here is the official list:

The best man toasts the bride.

The groom toasts the bride.

The bride toasts her groom.

The father of the bride toasts the couple.

The bride toasts her groom’s parents.

The groom toasts his bride’s parents.

The matron or maid of honor toasts the couple.

The father of the groom toasts the couple.

The mother of the bride toasts the couple.

The mother of the groom toasts the couple.

Other relatives and close friends of the bride or groom continue toasting.

At which point the reception guests start sawing at their forearms with the butter knives.

Fortunately with our guests, we feel certain that the toasts will be at least as interesting as the sparkling wine we’re toasting with: Crémant de Loire. This bubbly from France’s Loire Valley makes an elegant, less-expensive alternative to Champagne. The bubbles tend to be fine, and they frequently express a bit of that yeasty goodness on the nose that I enjoy in real Champagnes.

So give a Crémant de Loire a try the next time you need a sparkler; they usually cost between $15 and $20 per bottle.


Soak It In Some Vodka

16 August 2011

Many an upscale cocktail bar like to tout specialty drinks concocted with house-made vodka infusions. It’s not difficult to make vodka infusions at home, however, and it can be a hoot to experiment with different flavors.

I recently bought some produce at the neighborhood farmers market, and the vendor thoughtfully gave me a bunch of lemon basil to try. It didn’t quite work with the roasted vegetables and sausage I made that evening, but the fresh herb sounded perfect for an infusion.

I found an old jam jar and filled it up with Sobieski Vodka, my favorite home brand. Imported from Poland, this vodka is distilled from 100% Dankowski Rye. “Real vodka is not made from grapes or soybeans,” the Sobieski website declares, before asserting that “Distilling vodka one more time than the next guy does not make it better.”


Never Waste A Good Wine Bar

12 August 2011

Every once in a while, I’ll be in a wine bar perusing a carefully edited wine list laden with exciting selections, and then I’ll overhear someone say something like, “Well, I’ll just have what I always have: Pinot Grigio.” Now, when faced with a range of potentially delicious but unknown wines, this person chickened out and failed to venture forth from their comfort zone.

Wine bars are the perfect places to experiment. You don’t have to commit to a whole bottle, the staff will likely be able to offer knowledgeable and friendly guidance, and the selection will hopefully include a few types of wines you’ve never tried before. Then later, you can confidently order that Washington State Blaufränkisch, knowing it will impress your date. (Ordering Pinot Grigio, incidentally, almost certainly will not impress your date.)

I recently met my cousin at Avec for some dinner and drinks, and we had a great time trying new things from their ever-fascinating wine list. (more…)

An Arcadian Oddity

10 August 2011

Greece, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, boasted a sophisticated wine industry long before the Gauls or Goths grew a single grape. And yet today, barbarian Bordeaux is celebrated the world over, while Greece’s wines are generally regarded as crap, not to put too a fine point on it, representing just 2% of Greece’s GDP (Sotheby’s).

Retsina bears no small share of responsibility for this fact. This pine resin-infused white was formerly popular in American Greek restaurants (The Oxford Companion to Wine calls it “a potent catalyst of taverna nostalgia”), but many people agree with Sotheby’s assessment that it’s little better than “pine cleaner.”

Resinated and oxidized wines continue to be popular with Greece’s older generations, but numerous winemakers have once again started to realize Greece’s potential to make international-style wines. I wrote briefly about a deeply satisfying Alpha Estate “Axia” recently, for example, and the ur-wine blog Vinography recently featured a fascinating article about the wines of Santorini. It’s easier and easier to find delicious Greek wine.

And the names! Who couldn’t love the wonderfully unpronounceable indigenous varieties of Greece? Xinomavro, Assyrtiko, Moschofilero… But my very favorite has to be the glorious Aghiorghitiko, which even Sotheby’s can’t manage to spell consistently.

Since I was cooking up a Greek-ish dish of ground lamb with zucchini, peppers, summer squash, cabbage, brown rice, garlic and dill, I decided to chill a bottle of 2009 Domaine Spiropoulos Mantinia. The Mantinia appellation requires that wines be at least 85% Moschofilero, a pink-skinned white varietal. (You may also see this grape spelled as Moschophilero or Moscophilero.)

At first I found the quote at the top of the label a little lofty. But in this case, “Et in Arcadia ego,” or “I too was in Arcadia,” is no symbolic allusion to an innocent pastoral past — this wine bottle literally came from the Greek province of Arcadia.

I poured a glass and was delighted by the golden color, betraying just a bit of pink in its hue. The Oxford Companion notes that this variety makes “strongly perfumed white wine,” and indeed it does. The bouquet overwhelmed me at first. It smelled heady and haunting, and — I couldn’t quite decide — like oregano or burnt rubber. (The label makes a case for “bergamot aromas.”)

The oregano/rubber flavor continued on the palate, supplemented by lemony acids. I would have to try another bottle to be certain, but I fear this bottle may have been flawed. Unwelcome compounds known as mercaptans (or thiols) can sometimes produce burnt rubber aromas, and it would seem odd indeed that a winemaker would purposely shoot for a rubbery wine.

I wish my Moschophilero/Moscophilero/Moschofilero experiment had been more successful — I had very much looked forward to trumpeting a new discovery. I’m afraid there’s just one thing to do: Drink another bottle of Moschofilero. Or maybe two, just to be sure.


2009 Domaine Spiropoulos Mantinia: Pleasant lemon and oregano flavors were overwhelmed by rubbery taint. Perhaps a flawed bottle.

Find It: Binny’s Beverage Depot has a reasonable selection of Greek wine (I purchased this bottle there for $13). Ask one of their wine consultants for guidance, avoiding “Michael,” of course.

Between Two Seas

6 August 2011

I had been mostly avoiding cooking during this recent Chicago heat spell, but as the “spell” turned into a full month, the desire to get back in the kitchen became too great. Despite the 90+ temperatures and a non-air-conditioned kitchen, I decided it was time to get back to the stove.

My thoughts turned to the warm-weather cuisine of Morocco, since we had recently made a batch of preserved lemons. A tagine of slow-cooked chicken thighs, fresh green olives, preserved lemon and caramelized onion seemed just the thing.

But what to pair with this Moroccan stew? It may or may not surprise you to know that I had no Moroccan wine on hand. Instead, I made the most of Morocco’s connection to France and opened a white Bordeaux from Entre-Deux-Mers, which means “between two seas” (in this case, the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers). The name itself already seemed cooling.

Bordeaux may not be especially odd or obscure — indeed, it’s perhaps the world’s most famous wine region. But many people seem to think of Bordeaux as invariably expensive and out of reach, and so almost never drink it. When is the last time someone showed up to a party of yours with a bottle of Bordeaux in tow?  It’s arguably the ultimate snob wine.

Somehow it’s escaped the notice of the general wine-drinking public that Bordeaux can be a staggeringly good value. What many see as a snob wine, oddly enough, is some of the most accessible wine in the world. (more…)

A Weekend In The Country

2 August 2011

Monticello: The beginning of the U.S. wine industry

Now that I’ve undoubtedly frustrated you by describing all sorts of wonderful Virginia wines that you can’t find in your local wine shop, I thought I had better come up with a way for you to try them at the source. Here is a great itinerary for a long weekend in Virginia wine country:

Thursday: Fly to Charlottesville. If you’re coming from Chicago, take advantage of the new non-stop flights from O’Hare with American Airlines (my tickets cost about $215). Pick up a rental car at the airport and drive to the Clifton Inn, a manor house built by Thomas Jefferson for his daughter, set on 100 rolling acres. Check in and relax at this elegant estate before driving to downtown Charlottesville.

Have dinner along the historic pedestrianized Main Street, perhaps at the noted wine bar Tastings of Charlottesville. Return to the Clifton Inn for the evening. (If the Clifton Inn looks pricey, there are numerous charming bed-and-breakfasts and reasonably priced hotels in Charlottesville itself.)

Friday: Spend this morning at Monticello, Jefferson’s Palladian-style mansion. Wander the gardens, stand in Jefferson’s renowned wine cellar and tour the house itself, still decorated with Jefferson’s personal furnishings. The history and beauty of this great house are thrilling — it gave me chills to visit.

Drive to nearby Barboursville Vineyards, Virginia’s most famous winery, and have lunch in their renowned Palladio Restaurant. After a stroll along the vineyards to the evocative ruins of Governor Barbour’s mansion, tour the cellars and taste their superb wines. The nearby Horton Vineyards is also well worth a visit. Where else could you taste a sparkling Viognier, an Rkatsiteli, a Petit Manseng, a Tannat and a Pinotage, and have them all be delicious?

Return to Clifton for some time to relax at the infinity pool before dinner in their romantic gourmet restaurant. (more…)