Monthly Archives: December 2011

Some Odd Resolutions

31 December 2011

Many of us use the beginning of the new year to take stock, examining our lives and bodies and, finding faults, we resolve to correct them. For the next month or two, we flail around the gym in sweaty desperation, lay siege to armies of dust soldiers in their well-defended closet fortresses, or simply try to “be more positive.” Worthy pursuits, all.

But surely you deserve a fun (and easy) resolution or two as well. Consider adding one of the following to your list:

1. Drink more sparkling wine. Many people indulge in elegant Champagnes tonight, but for most, it’s the only time of year they break out the bubbly. Cava, Prosecco, Crémant and, yes, Champagne, are wonderful at any time of year, and pair well with all sorts of foods. The pop of a cork makes any gathering feel more festive.

2. Drink some dessert wine. I’ve attended very few parties where one has been served, and I can’t think of the last time a dining companion ordered one in a restaurant. Any dessert wine worth its salt isn’t just candy in a bottle; it will exhibit a delicious balance of sweetness, acid and perhaps even some minerals, wood or other flavors. Ask for a recommendation in your price range at your local wine shop, and I am 100% certain you’ll delight your guests. Or heck, just drink it yourself.

3. Drink some rosé. Sweet, boring White Zinfandel ruined the reputation of rosé in this country, therefore any American winemaker who produces a proper dry rosé probably really puts his or her heart into it. But dry rosés from anywhere can be a delight, particularly in warmer weather. I can think of few finer ways to lunch than sitting outside in the sun, dining on simple picnic fare with friends, a glass of rosé in hand.

4. Get out of your cocktail rut. Type “Classic Cocktails” into a search engine, and you’ll find all sorts of fun, time-tested ideas (or, of course, you can click on one of the spirits listed just to the right). If you’re feeling more adventurous, make your own cocktail recipe. A good rule of thumb is to use a base liquor (like vodka, gin, brandy, etc.), a smaller amount of a liqueur (like triple sec, crème de cassis, maraschino) and a mixer (fresh lime juice, pineapple juice, cranberry juice). If it feels like it’s missing something, add a dash of bitters.

5. Go into your favorite wine shop and ask for something weird. Sometimes for my birthday, I request that party guests do this for my gift. I’ve received everything from root beer schnapps to a wine from Santorini that tasted like stone and sunshine. If the wine store employee looks at you like you’re crazy, resolve to find another wine store.

Happy New Year!

An Unpronounceable Holiday Tradition

28 December 2011

Germany has some of the loveliest Christmas and New Year’s Eve traditions anywhere in the world. But one of my favorites has yet to catch on in this country, perhaps because of its daunting name: Feuerzangenbowle (literally “fire tong punch”). Pronounced “FOY-yer-tsahng-en-bowl-eh,” this drink brings serious Gemütlichkeit to any gathering.

First, and most important, be sure your fire extinguisher has been recently recharged and is within easy reach. Feuerzangenbowle, like most great party drinks, involves an element of risk.

To make this delicious and heady punch, you set a cone of rum-soaked sugar aflame over some mulled wine. It melts into the wine, sweetening and strengthening it. Since you’re adding a fair amount of sugar into the punch, it’s best to use a very dry red wine. This year I used a 2010 Venta Morales Tempranillo, because that’s what I had lying around, but I usually opt for an inexpensive Bordeaux.

It’s also important to use a rum of the appropriate strength. A Rhum Agricole with around 53% alcohol, like Chauffe-Cœur from the island of Martinique, works quite well and flambées relatively easily (purchased for $27 at Andersonville Wine & Spirits, tel. 773-769-0858). Do not — and I can’t stress this enough — do not use Bacardi 151. The first time I attempted to prepare Feuerzangenbowle without the aid of German friends, I made this mistake. The flames almost reached the ceiling, dazzling my guests, horrifying my roommate and singeing my eyebrows.

Now, if you’re prepared to embark on the adventure that is Feuerzangenbowle, here is your shopping list:


A State Of The Vineyards Report

24 December 2011

Living in Chicago, far from any wine country of note, it can be hard to feel connected to the winemaking process, the most important parts of which happen in the vineyard. It was therefore especially fascinating to meet Bruce Curtis, the E-Commerce Manager of Artesa Vineyards and Winery, at this year’s Wine Blogger Conference. He works on the front lines of the American wine industry in Napa Valley.

Whether you prefer drinking Cabernet or Counoise, what happens in the northern California vineyards affects all of us wine consumers in the United States. I checked in with Bruce to see how this year’s harvest turned out:

2011 will go down as a winemaker’s year in Northern California, meaning each and every winemaker this side of the Golden Gate Bridge really had to earn his or her keep and be super-proactive throughout the entire season.  This was not one of those years where the winemaker could coast along on semi-auto pilot; it was a challenge the entire way, to say the least.

The season began cool and wet which lasted through most of the spring. The rain also came during the most sensitive time of year …pollination. This can lead to disaster if the vines get damaged, resulting in lighter crops. The summer was decent, and gave the vines a fighting chance to pull off a great finish to a slow beginning.  Alas, Mother Nature would not let us get away with it that easy, and she threw a massive curve ball of rain across Northern California in early fall that pretty much lasted until the end of the growing season.

Being in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley [at a relatively high elevation in the mountains], Artesa’s vineyards escaped a lot of the botrytis issues that most areas suffered heavily from, and they also managed to bring in most of their white varietals before the wet weather set in. For those growers and wineries that didn’t, the outcome was pretty tough with a lot of loss up and down the valley.

The silver lining that comes from such a hard year is that having less of a yield means the grapes picked were much more highly concentrated, bringing in super quality grapes for what we hope will be super quality wines, putting a cork on the end of a very tough, rough and tiring season!

I’ll drink to that.

It sounds like though it was a tough year, those wines that do come out of 2011 will be quite good. I’ll drink to that as well!

Thank you to Bruce Curtis for putting this report together. You can follow Artesa Vineyards on Facebook, and you can read my impressions of their tasty Pinot Noir here.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

The Cabernet Of Umbria

21 December 2011

During the dark, cold days around the winter solstice, it’s a great comfort to drink rich, hearty red wines. They warm the soul and tend to pair well with the similarly rich, hearty foods served this time of year.

I’d been saving a bottle of 2005 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino, received as a free sample at the Wine Blogger Conference, for just this season. Having already sampled this wine at the Conference, I knew I wanted to try it with some steak. A recent visit to my rather carnivorous parents provided the perfect opportunity.

The Tabarrini family has tended their 55 acres of vineyards just south of the Umbrian town of Montefalco for four generations, according to their website, but they have bottled their own wines only since the late 1990s. Half of their vineyards are dedicated to Sagrantino, a thick-skinned local variety which almost died out in the 20th century. The varietal really came into its own in 1992, when it lent its name to the Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG (as distinct from the Montefalco DOCG, which produces more “basic” wines, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia).

I found conflicting opinions about the current state of Sagrantino-based wines, oddly in two books by the same author. In The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson argues that with some notable exceptions, “the overall level of viticultural and oenological sophistication in the production zone is not high…” But The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson describes Sagrantino as “packed with flavor and potential longevity,” and goes so far as to hail the varietal as one of Umbria’s two “great gifts to the world of wine” (Grechetto is the other).


Finding An Odd Champagne

17 December 2011

To be perfectly honest, I would have loved to have been able to write one of those articles comparing Champagnes, declaring that yes, the 2002 Dom Perignon really is worth $125, but the 1996 only gives you about $300 of flavor, so it’s not worth the $400 price tag. But times and budgets being what they are, a simpler blog post will have to suffice.

While there’s nothing unusual about drinking Champagne on New Year’s Eve, it is possible to find an unusual Champagne to drink. While lately I’ve been doing most of my wine shopping at my favorite neighborhood shop, In Fine Spirits, their Champagne selection is small. To find an unusual Champagne within my budget — that’s with a capital “C” from the Champagne region of France — I take advantage of the large selection at Binny’s.

Unfortunately, the last time I sought an unusual Champagne at Binny’s, the wine consultant steered me towards a Moët & Chandon that was on sale (you can read more about that interaction here). When I asked for a recommendation of a Grower Champagne, he had no idea what I was talking about. I don’t want you to be on your own, as I was, in your hunt for an exciting, unusual Champagne to try. As long as you have good reading glasses, your quest should actually be relatively easy to complete.

My experience at Binny’s notwithstanding, it’s always worth asking a wine store employee for a recommendation first. Let him or her know what your budget is, and ask the wine consultant to recommend a Grower Champagne. These wines are produced by vineyard owners exclusively from the fruit of their specific vineyards. Many therefore regard grower Champagnes to be more terroir-focused than Champagnes from larger houses, which purchase fruit from across the entire Champagne region to ensure a consistent style from year to year.

And herein lies the dilemma for the Champagne consumer: To go with tried-and-true large houses which maintain a consistent flavor profile, or risk a Grower Champagne with more local character but sourced from vineyards of perhaps unknown quality. The French consume great quantities of both, but here in the U.S., there is no contest. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, grower Champagnes accounted for only 3% of the market as of late 2008.

With such a small market share, it would be no surprise if you encounter a wine consultant who has no idea what Grower Champagnes even are, let alone which ones offer the best value. Here’s when the reading glasses come in handy. Most Grower Champagnes are labeled as such, but none will actually say “Grower Champagne.” Why would the French want to make it easy on us Americans?

Instead, you need to look for the serial number of the bottle, usually printed in a ridiculously small font. This number can be on the front or back label, so you may have to hunt for it. Once you find the serial number, note the letter or letters in front of it. Most commonly, you’ll see “NM”, which stands for Négociant-Manipulant, meaning the fruit for this Champagne was sourced from any number of vineyards around the Champagne region. This is not a bad thing — plenty of excellent Champagnes are labeled NM — but it’s not what we’re looking for.

If you’re lucky, some of the Champagnes will be labeled “RM”, which stands for Récoltant-Manipulant. These are the Grower Champagnes, made from specific vineyards. In the photo above, you can see the label of this Champagne also indicates the village from which it came: Mesnil sur Oger, one of the region’s Grand Cru villages, which have (theoretically) the very highest-quality grapes.

You might also see other letters. “CM” stands for Coopérative-Maipulant, designating a Champagne produced by a cooperative of growers (see photo below). Champagne can be marked with yet other letter combinations, such as RC, SR, MA, R and ND, but I’ve only very rarely encountered any of them.

If your wine consultant tries to convince you that RM Champagnes are surely much more expensive than the famous brands, don’t believe it. Like NM Champagnes, RM Champagnes come in a wide range of prices. Get out the magnifying glass — they’re worth the hunt.

Delights From The Daughter Of The Winds

14 December 2011

Dessert wines get short shrift in this country, perhaps because sweet wines are often perceived as unserious. It’s a shame, because a good dessert wine makes for an elegant finish to an evening. But lower demand means lower prices, which is a boon to those of us man enough to drink sweet wines.

We recently opened a bottle of 2009 Ipsus Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, a charming maple syrup-colored wine from a tiny island between the coasts of Sicily and Tunisia. Although it’s part of Italy, the volcanic speck of Pantelleria is actually closer to the sands of Tunisia than the shores of Sicily. It seems fitting then, that the island’s most famous variety should be Moscato di Alexandria, called Zibibbo in Italy, an ancient variety thought to have originated in Egypt. (Note this variety is distinct from the more highly regarded Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains, also simply called Muscat Blanc.)

Wikipedia describes how the island acquired something approximating its current name in A.D. 700, when conquering Arabs called it “Bent El Riah,” meaning “Daughter of the Winds.” These winds have led to quite an unusual style of viticulture on Pantelleria; gobelet-trained vines are actually buried in holes to protect them from fierce gusts that sweep across the island, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. If you’re having trouble picturing these semi-subterranean vineyards, as I did, this photo will help.


Some Holiday Sparkle

11 December 2011

I recently had the fortune to receive a complimentary tasting sample of three bottles of Cava, the world’s second-most famous sparkling wine. Catalonia, that feisty, autonomous region around Barcelona, produces the vast majority of it, and two companies, Codorníu and Freixenet, dominate this production.

Ordinarily, I’m biased towards the little guy, but in this instance, it seems wiser to go with the big boys. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The best Cavas tend to be produced by the larger firms who control their own vinification rather than those producers who buy in ready-made base wine from one of the large but often outdated co-operatives that continue to flourish all over Cataluña.” (“Cataluña” is the Spanish spelling, “Catalonia” is the English spelling, and you may also encounter “Catalunya,” the Catalan spelling.)

Freixenet (pronounced “Fresh-eh-net”) Cava may not seem especially unusual or obscure, but these three Cavas were all pink. Rosé Cava really came into its own only in the late 1990s, perhaps hindered until then by Cava traditionalists who “…for some bizarre reason always considered black grapes in a white Cava to be sacrilegious,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia goes on to describe how Manuel Duran, then chairman of Freixenet, experimented with black Spanish varieties, producing a notable Monastrell-Xarel·lo sparkler in 1997.

I looked forward to seeing what Freixenet had been up to since then, and organized a little party to find out.


A Concrete Christmas Cocktail

7 December 2011

It’s not necessary to clog a glass of brandy with egg nog to enjoy a festive cocktail. Many seasonal recipes lean toward the hot and heavy (buttered rum, anyone?), but something zesty and light can make a much better drink for pairing with rich party food. Oddly enough, the beautiful Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary provides some help.

Perhaps best known in America as the location of the Grandhotel Pupp, where Queen Latifah stayed in the film Last Holiday, Karlovy Vary is the home of Becherovka, a 76-proof spirit brewed with, of course, a secret blend of herbs and spices. According to the Becherovka website, only two people in the world know the formula. Presumably they travel on different airplanes.

This rather bitter liquor might be placed in the same category as vile Jägermeister, but I find Becherovka much more complex and palatable. Although many consume Becherovka neat or on the rocks, I enjoy it most in a “Beton,” which translates as “concrete” in Czech. The name actually comes from the ingredients, Becherovka and tonic.

Like a gin and tonic, a Becherovka and tonic features aromatic herbal and floral notes as well as a touch of bracing bitterness. But the Beton goes further, with strong flavors of clove, pine and even some cinnamon. A gin and tonic is unquestionably a summer cocktail, but a Beton is Christmas in a glass. The recipe is simple:


1 Part Becherovka

1-1.5 Parts Tonic

Gently mix the above in a highball glass with a large cube of ice or two. If you’re feeling fancy, garnish with a lime slice or a sprig of rosemary. If the ratio above proves too boozy for you, you can adjust it to your taste, of course.

I usually purchase my tonic at Whole Foods, which sells a corn syrup-free version in inexpensive six packs. But for this post, I stopped at In Fine Spirits to pick up some “craft” tonics. After all, a cocktail this simple calls for quality ingredients.

Both Fever Tree and Fentimans are wildly expensive at about $2.50 per bottle, but you can eke two cocktails out of the Fever Tree and three out of  the Fentimans. In our taste test, both tonics did well, with relatively small bubbles and aromatic herbal/floral notes. Alone, the Fever Tree tasted more austere, with a slightly more medicinal aftertaste and a flavor that made me think of little white flowers. The Fentimans tasted a bit sweeter, and instead of white flowers there was a hint of Lemon Pledge.

Mixed with the Becherovka, the Fever Tree version hit me with a lusty blast of clove,  juniper and cinnamon. It was a Christmas party in my mouth. The Fentimans Beton still felt very Christmasy, but it tasted somehow rounder and deeper — more like an intimate gift exchange by the fireplace.

Either tonic makes a beautiful Beton, but if you prefer Canada Dry or Schweppes, go for it. You’ll have a uniquely delicious cocktail in any case.

Find It: If your favorite liquor store doesn’t carry Becherovka, Binny’s offers it for $23 per bottle.


The Virtues Of Inert Gas

3 December 2011

It may surprise some of you (family especially) to learn that when I open up a bottle of wine to taste for this blog, I do not usually finish the entire thing. I love to have a glass or two while cooking and a glass or two with my meal, but I can usually down half a bottle at best. What to do with the rest?

I used to try to save wine by simply putting it in the refrigerator, but after 24 hours (or even 12), the wine oxidizes anyway and becomes unpleasant. Realizing the folly of this technique, for a time I attempted to drink all the leftovers. Waste not want not! But though the wine was not wasted, I certainly was.

Finally, some patron saint of the liver introduced me to inert gas. Of all the ways to preserve wine after it’s been opened, inert gas works the best. With an inexpensive spray can, you can replace most of the air in the bottle with a blanket of argon, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The gas blanket is heavier than air, preventing oxygen from reaching the wine and significantly slowing the process of oxidation.

Even vacuum pumps, which purport to suck all the air out of a bottle, always leave some oxygen knocking around, and there is nothing to prevent it from interacting with the wine. The notes on the back of my Private Preserve canister add that vacuum devices “strip out bouquet (volatile esters),” though I’m not convinced inert gas preserves the bouquet entirely intact, either. Even so, it’s the best choice we’ve got.

Recently, I left a half-filled bottle of Von Stiehl Cabernet Sauvignon on the counter for a week, since I was out of town and unable to finish it. When I finally did pour myself a glass, the wine tasted surprisingly good. It didn’t reach the heights of flavor it hit when I first opened the bottle, but it was perfectly adequate to sip while attempting my first cassoulet.

If you find from time to time that you have some wine left over, don’t leave it alone in the refrigerator without any protection, condemning it to death by oxidation. Lead your wine into a gentle slumber under a comfy blanket of inert gas.