Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly In Galicia

30 November 2011

I love when out-of-town friends come to visit, giving me an excuse to splash out on a fancy restaurant or two. It’s especially fun when those visitors happen to be from New York — a city known for thinking it has the best of everything — because Chicago’s culinary scene officially rocks.

Mercat a la Planxa, an upscale Catalan (tapas) restaurant in The Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, has been on my list for a couple of years. The food and wine from Catalonia in northeastern Spain almost never fail to impress me, and I wanted to see if Mercat did this region proud. The food indeed delighted us both, particularly the eye-rollingly delicious rabbit-filled agnolotti topped with roasted chestnut purée, brandied cherries and brown butter (pictured). But I must admit I failed to order a single Catalan wine from the by-the-glass list.

Only two were offered, one of which I already knew and loved, the floral Viña Esmeralda by Torres. I opted instead for a 2010 Finca Os Cobatos Godello from the Monterrei D.O. (Denominación de Origen, or Orixe in Galician). Completely unfamiliar with either the Godello variety or the Monterrei wine region, I had no idea what to expect. The wine had a fresh, green aroma, and it tasted juicy and a bit floral, with food-friendly acids. Had I been served it blind, I might have guessed it was a fun Sauvignon Blanc from some New World appellation.


The Advantages Of Wine Tastings

27 November 2011

Dave of H2Vino with some Mallorcan Callet

Though I don’t do it as often as I’d like, it can be surprisingly easy to go to wine tastings. Many wine shops and liquor stores host them on weekends, and even grocery stores occasionally offer samples. Tastings are a great way to get to know new wines and try things you would never consider buying a whole bottle of. More important, when you try an array of different wines in rapid succession, it becomes much clearer what kinds of wines you most prefer.

My favorite wine shop, In Fine Spirits, offers wine tastings Saturday afternoons, but every once in a while they’ll put together a big wine tasting shebang. Recently, they hosted a wonderful “Rare Vines” event focusing on limited-production wines, an exciting opportunity to try a wide range of wines made in batches of less than 1000 cases (most were under 500).

For just $10 per person — less than the price of a glass of wine in many restaurants — we sampled more than 30 wines and took good advantage of the gourmet cheese tray. (We should have taken better advantage of the spit buckets, however.)

Here are the wines I found most exciting:


A Winning Cabernet From Cheese Country

23 November 2011

Edie explains the bottling machine


Returning to Chicago from a stay in Door County, Wisconsin, my husband and I decided to stop for a couple of nights in Algoma. This lakeside town may not exactly be synonymous with wine, but since activity options are relatively limited, we took a tour of the historic Von Stiehl Winery.

Built in the center of town in 1868 as a brewery, the winery’s main building features an attractive tasting room and atmospheric aging cellars. We ended up enjoying a private tour of the facility with Edie, a memorable guide who used to perform from time to time on Hee Haw.

Back in the tasting room, we selected a range of mostly dry wines to sample. As we tasted, we looked at each other, perplexed, trying to understand the unusual journey of the wines. “Ah,” my husband exclaimed, “the wines come to a point at the end.” He was exactly right — rather than expanding at the rear palate, several of these wines tightened up and focused. Fascinating!

We expressed our thoughts to Edie, who politely nodded in agreement. Noting we hadn’t selected any of the sweeter wines to taste, she insisted we try a little of this and a little of that, and before we knew it, we were stumbling to the cashier with a few bottles of Lakeshore Fumé. I also had the good sense to buy a bottle of the non-vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, made from “California and Washington State’s finest fruits.” That was in 2008, and the bottle has mouldered on my wine rack ever since.

I decided it was high time to open this buckaroo. While making my first-ever batch of homemade tagliatelle, I took  a wine break and poured a glass, expecting something drinkable (perhaps) but past its prime.


The Unusual And The Obscure — On Video

19 November 2011

Most wine-related videos on YouTube tend to be pretty uninspiring. There are the “How to Taste Wine” videos, the videos in which people taste wine and talk about it, and the videos that make fun of people tasting wine and talking about it. It’s all fairly predictable stuff.

There are a few delightful oddballs I’ve run across, however, and I would be remiss in my duties as a booze blogger if I didn’t share them with you.

First, as is appropriate for a blog about the unusual and the obscure, here is most definitely the oddest wine tasting I’ve ever seen.

YouTube also has its share of charming old wine commercials. If you like classic television, it’s worth making a quick search for them. My favorite is not actually a commercial itself, but outtakes from the making of a Paul Masson spot. Orson Welles is clearly very dedicated to getting to know the product.

Finally, do not miss this “commercial” for La Crema, a California-based wine company. I am dying to comment, but saying any more would spoil it.


Some Sauce For Thanksgiving

16 November 2011

If you conduct even the briefest of Internet searches, you will discover all sorts of blogs, newspapers and magazines recommending wines for Thanksgiving. I’ve seen articles recommending Beaujolais (ideally Cru) and rosé Cava, for example, both of which sound lovely and not nearly alcoholic enough for a major family holiday. I decided it was time to dust off my mixologist cap.

A pumpkin or pumpkin pie martini sounded too much like dessert, and neither turkey, gravy, stuffing, nor green bean casserole offered a flavor profile I wanted to recreate in a drink. That left cranberry sauce.

Since I’d never worked with 100% unadulterated cranberry juice, as distinct from the cranberry juice cocktail used in Cosmopolitans and Cape Cods, it seemed like a fun challenge to use it as my inspiration.

Because 100% cranberry juice tastes extremely tart, it requires some sweeter ingredients for balance. I tried mixing two parts bourbon and one part cranberry, but the bourbon couldn’t begin to balance out the cranberry on its own. Simple syrup seemed like a cop-out; why not just use cranberry juice cocktail?

Then I remembered when an old roommate of mine decided to make cranberry sauce for my family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Wanting to be sure to cook enough for the ten of us, he filled an entire stockpot with the stuff! Fortunately it tasted delicious, with orange zest adding an extra layer of sweetness and flavor. Fresh-squeezed orange juice could be just the thing for this cocktail — juicy and sweet, but not too sweet.

But even with two parts bourbon, one part cranberry and one part fresh-squeezed Valencia orange juice, the cocktail didn’t sing. The flavors were all too high; I needed some low notes to feel satisfied. Some Angostura Bitters did the trick. Four dashes, and the cocktail tasted well-rounded at last.

I had a quick look around to see if anyone else had stumbled upon this concoction. Cocktail chronicler Eric Felten came close when he described the Bardstown Sling, a drink of bourbon, triple sec, cranberry juice cocktail and lime, which is essentially a Cosmopolitan with bourbon instead of vodka. The blog Cold Glass gets even closer, substituting 100% cranberry juice and Cointreau for Felten’s cranberry juice cocktail and triple sec.

But since my cocktail indeed seems to break new ground by using bitters and fresh-squeezed orange juice, I will offer up a name: The Thanksgiving Helper. Here’s the recipe:

Thanksgiving Helper

–2 Parts Bourbon

–1 Part 100% Cranberry Juice

–1 Part Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice

–4 Dashes of Angostura Bitters (or other standard bitters)

To get the proportions right, squeeze half an orange first and use the amount of juice you recover as the measure of one part. The juice of half a small orange should be about right for one cocktail. Combine all the ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a martini glass, and if you must, garnish with an orange slice or a few fresh cranberries.

Don’t be fooled by the beautiful deep pink color of this cocktail. It’s quite strong and tart, but the dash of bitters keeps its feet on the ground.

Is This Beaujolais? No, It’s Iowa.

12 November 2011

It came as a great shock to me, years ago when I was deciding which college to attend, that Iowa has much more to offer than just corn. Set on a hill over the Iowa River, pedestrian-friendly Iowa City has charm to spare and a palpable buzz from the University of Iowa’s large student population. I still make a point of visiting every year or so, because some friends understandably simply didn’t want to leave (despite the region’s lack of creativity when it comes to place names).

On a recent visit, I discovered there’s a well-regarded winery between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. I didn’t have a chance to take a tour this time around, but I found a full range of Cedar Ridge Vineyards wines at the New Pioneer Co-op, the apotheosis of granola-chic grocery stores.

In the mood for a light red to pair with some pizza, I cracked open the non-vintage Marechal Foch, made with estate-grown fruit. This variety, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, is a French hybrid of Goldriesling (a cross of Riesling and Courtiller Musqué) and… something else. The Companion makes no guesses, but Wikipedia posits a Vitis riparia/Vitis rupestris cross or a variety known as Oberlin 595.

So there’s a fun tidbit to trot out at your next cocktail party.


The ’09 Holmes

9 November 2011

Because of my recent travels, I hadn’t cooked a thing in at least three weeks. My sanity demanded that I return to the kitchen. I knew I wanted to use up the last of some bread my husband baked and the luscious dates I brought back from Dubai, so I cooked up some Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan tomato-bread soup) and Moroccan tagine with lamb and dates.

Deciding on the recipes was easier than choosing a wine — I had trouble figuring out what red would pair well with both of these dishes. A Bordeaux might have worked, but it’s hardly odd, so I opted for a 2009 Big House Red. This wine blends no fewer than 12 different varieties, and I figured something in there would surely pair well with each recipe.


Rosé In The Desert (Part 2)

6 November 2011

Guests arriving at Six Senses Zighy Bay, a resort on the coast of Oman’s Musandam Peninsula, can descend the mountains to the hotel by road, or, for those inclined to flinging themselves off a cliff strapped to nothing but a piece of fabric and a Bulgarian fellow, by paraglider. I found myself in the latter camp the day we arrived, and after catching an array of “awesome thermals” followed by a death-spiral descent to the beach, a drink seemed to be in order.

I later learned that the resort tries to avoid “common labels” when stocking their cellar, so it comes as no surprise that the house rosé was something unusual — a 2010 Fantail Pinotage Rosé from South Africa’s Stellenbosch region.

Now, I have long tried to like Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (also known as Hermitage), but I usually find them rather off-putting. It’s been a while since I’ve had one, to be honest, but I recall an overheated quality, with notes of heavy red meat that weren’t to my taste. It was a bit of a relief then, to read Tom Stevenson argue in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that Pinotage “does not have half the potential of either [Zinfandel or Shiraz].”

But the variety certainly worked in this particular rosé. It had an herbal, almost oregano-like nose, and bright, fruity flavors giving way to some spiciness and a minerally finish. I liked the journey this rosé took me on — just the antidote for the more adventurous journey I had just undertaken.


Rosé In The Desert (Part 1)

3 November 2011

Although Allah frowns on the consumption of alcohol, so I hear, I did manage to sneak a few glasses during my trip to Dubai and Oman. In that hot, dry climate, I found myself regularly drawn to juicy rosés.

One afternoon, I sat down to a light Persian lunch of lentil-studded meatballs with pomegranate sauce and herb salad at a restaurant called Anar, set in the Souk Madinat Jumeirah. I ordered the one rosé on the menu, a 2010 Sauvion “Chemin des Sables” Rosé d’Anjou from France’s Loire Valley.

Rosé d’Anjou sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember ever trying one. The color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher, it tasted fruity and fun, taking on an extra tang with the meatballs. I didn’t feel moved to deep contemplation, but it was a satisfying choice for a sunny al fresco lunch.

I later went to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine to research Rosé d’Anjou. She doesn’t pull any punches, calling it “sickly.” Tom Stevenson’s Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia takes a more gracious tone, tepidly arguing that “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a wine that happens to be pink with some sweetness.” It seems Rosé d’Anjou is the White Zinfandel of the Loire Valley!