Monthly Archives: June 2012

Toast Independence Day With A Bang

30 June 2012

If I were to be perfectly honest, I would recommend cracking open a refreshing bottle of dry rosé with your July 4th barbeque. This is very likely what I’ll be drinking, but frankly, dry rosé seems too effete, too continental, for celebrating America’s Independence Day. We didn’t gain our independence by playing nice with the Brits, negotiating at endless length, relying on the hope of their essential good nature.

No longer able to bear, among other indignities, taxation without representation, our ancestors risked their lives and the well-being of their families so that we could live as a free people. They took up arms and kicked those colonial bastards out of the country by force, because force is the only language tyrants comprehend.

No, as delightful as dry rosé may be, it does not rise to the task of commemorating the wisdom, bravery and strength of our foremothers and forefathers. Independence Day calls for something unabashedly powerful and unashamedly American. Something with a bang. Something like Artillery Punch.

The first time I had Artillery Punch was at a friend’s holiday party. I remember consuming only about two glasses of the punch (along with, admittedly, a fistful of rum balls), before we all decided it would be a great idea to strip off our Christmas sweaters and take some topless group photos. It’s that kind of punch.

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A Wine Region On The Cusp: Part 2

27 June 2012

As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, I still hadn’t quite put all the pieces together. How was it that Arizona, of all places, was coming up with these numerous high-quality wines?

In the professional and lively tasting room of Page Springs Cellars, an assistant winemaker named Matt pointed out the obvious: “We have ample water from the creek outside, and there’s an aquifer below.” He continued describing the terroir, how the rocky hillsides were well-drained with poor soil (the soil shouldn’t be too fertile — you want the vines to struggle a bit). The weather was hot during the day, of course, but at night, the high-elevation vineyards stayed nice and cool. Indeed, I had cozied up to my fireplace the evening before.

In short, the Page Springs terroir is pretty darn great. Most of the fruit, however, still seems to come from Arizona’s southeast, which is at a similar elevation.

Matt thought Malvasia might become one of Arizona’s signature varieties, and my tasting at Page Springs Cellars certainly supported that theory. I sampled that along with a number of other excellent wines, mostly Rhône varietals and blends, the quality of which no longer came as a surprise. If you only have time to visit one winery while in the Sedona area, this should be it.

Here’s a rundown of my tasting. Again, all the fruit from these wines comes from southeastern Arizona, not the Page Springs area, unless otherwise noted:

2010 Bonita Springs Malvasia: Like all the other wines I sampled at Page Springs Cellars, this one came with an eye-catching black and white label. The nose had big fruit and a touch of flowers, and juicy acids balanced subtle flavors of peach and pineapple. $28

2010 La Serrana: Try this blend of 50% Viognier from the Arizona Stronghold vineyard and 50% Rousanne from the Colibri vineyard as soon as you can. According to the Page Springs Cellars website, “A portion of the [Colibri] vineyard was burned to the ground. Thirty-foot high flames cooked the vineyard on three sides and damaged many other vines.” The wine had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet. $30

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A Wine Region On The Cusp: Part 1

23 June 2012

When I tell people about the quality of many Arizona wines, most respond by saying something like, “They make wine in Arizona?” Before I visited, I had my doubts as well. Surely it’s too hot and too dry to make serious wine, I thought. The overblown wines I tasted at Tlaquepaque confirmed some of my fears, but a visit to Page Springs restored my confidence in the potential of Arizona to make delicious wine.

My first stop began inauspiciously. I asked to taste the entire range of wines on the menu at Oak Creek Vineyards (except the white zin), and requested a spit bucket. “We don’t have spit buckets,” the friendly but rather taken-aback employee replied. Spitting at the bar was actually expressly forbidden by the health department, because cheeses and charcuterie are served there. After wrapping my head around the idea of a tasting room without spit buckets (you can’t walk to this tasting room, after all), I managed to negotiate a spit-friendly place at a different table.

The wines I tasted were all good, and some were excellent. Priced between $20 and $30, these wines aren’t inexpensive, but if you can find them, they’re worth it. Not only will you get a tasty bottle, you’ll be investing in an up-and-coming wine region I feel is destined for greatness. Many of the wineries are less than 10 years old, but they are already producing impressive stuff.

Here’s what I discovered at Oak Creek. All of these wines, unless otherwise noted, are made with fruit from Arizona’s southeast, not Page Springs:

2010 Oak Creek Fumé Blanc: An almost limey aroma, with a little intriguing funk. Bracing, limey acids, and some stone on the finish. Very refreshing. $24

2010 Oak Creek Viognier: I loved this one. It had peaches and pineapples on the nose, but it wasn’t a perfume bomb. I tasted lily of the valley and litchi, followed by some light acids. In spite of how it sounds, this well-made wine was definitely dry. I’m a sucker for these aromatic dry whites, and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it. $26

2010 Oak Creek Sunflower Chardonnay: This blend combines Chardonnay from the Page Springs estate with Roussane (a Rhône variety) grown in southeast Arizona. It may have been the power of suggestion, but I had to agree that this wine smelled like buttery roasted sunflower seeds. Or perhaps buttermilk? It felt creamy on the palate, but lemony acids kept things alive and balanced. $24

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A Drop Of Britain In The Mediterranean

20 June 2012

Although Great Britain controlled the exquisite island of Menorca off and on for less than a century between 1708 and 1802, its influence can still be felt in the local cocktail culture. The traditional tipple isn’t sangria or sherry, but gin. In fact, Menorca is one of the few places in the world with its own gin D.O., Gin de Menorca, because of the unique local distillation process.

British soldiers stationed on this small island off the coast of Spain longed for a taste of home, and residents obliged, distilling gin mostly from local wine rather than grain, in the manner of Dutch genever. I’m not sure how many distillers were crafting gin 200 years ago, but now the production of Menorcan gin is now dominated by one company, Xoriguer (sho-ree-gair), owned by the Pons family, which traces its lineage back to the very first Menorcan distillers. Xoriguer still uses wood-fueled copper pot stills to craft its gin, much like the first gin makers on the island.

I had my first opportunity to taste Xoriguer gin when I visited Menorca in late April. In need of a little refreshment after touring some of the island’s mysterious megalithic sites, we climbed down to Cova d’en Xoroi, a bar and club inside a spectacular cliffside cave overlooking the Mediterranean. It felt a little too early to drink the gin straight, so I opted for a classic Pomada cocktail. Traditionally, a Pomada is a mix of Menorcan gin and lemonade over ice, but at Cova d’en Xoroi, the bartender substituted lemon Fanta. It still tasted great — cool, refreshing, aromatic and just a bit tart. Of course, the flavor wasn’t hurt by the stupendously scenic setting.

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A Spectacle in Sedona

16 June 2012

At Tlaquepaque, an open-air mall in Sedona, I found a gourmet shop offering tastings of Arizona wines. I couldn’t resist, of course, and ordered four tastes. As I sat outside, sipping a rather odd white and three overheated, overly alcoholic fruit bombs, I noticed people looking at me. One fellow sitting on a bench kept turning my way to see what I was up to, and a whole family turned their heads when they passed.

I wondered what the heck was going on here. Do people not drink wine in Sedona? Or was it that I had a flight of four glasses in front of me? Or maybe I looked like an illegal immigrant?

Finally, one older gentleman wearing a sun visor stopped dead in his tracks, not 15 feet in front of me, and just stared. I looked back at him, confused, but he maintained a steady gaze. “Can I help you?” I asked.

“Oh no, you’re giving me all the help I need, drinking those wines!”

“OK…”

“What are you all drinking there? Merlot? I like Merlot. It’s easy on the throat.”

“Oh yeah, well, these are actually blends of some different varieties. They’re all Arizona wines.”

“Don’t you think it’s sacrilegious to mix wines together?”

“Um?”

“Isn’t it sacrilegious though? I think it’s sacrilegious. But sometimes I like to do it a little bit. Ha!”

“Well, it’s not sacrilegious if you like it. That’s what I say.”

“Ha! That’s right! That’s absolutely right. Well, that makes me feel a lot better! A lot better.”

I’m not sure my definition of “sacrilegious” would pass muster with the Inquisition, but I’m glad I could help. In Sedona, it seems, you can get away with being a little loosey-goosey. Unfortunately, the winemakers of the red-wine floozies I was tasting seemed to feel the same way.

Cochise County Surprise

13 June 2012

I’m currently exploring the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, because, after all, who wouldn’t want to explore the Phoenix/Scottsdale area in the middle of June, just before the summer solstice? As I’ve written before in this blog, there are wineries in all 50 states. But I must admit that I didn’t expect any Arizona wines to stand out. Do vineyards even grow here? Or is there just cactus wine?

Vineyards do grow here, I’ve learned, and quite well in fact. If the wines I’ve tasted so far are any indication, Cochise County in the far southeastern corner of the state (bordering Mexico) has some very fine vineyards indeed, kept cool, I suspect, by their relatively high elevation.

Both the Arizona Biltmore and The Phoenician (two high-end resorts) serve wines crafted by Arizona Stronghold, a newborn of a winery founded in 2007 by Eric Glomski and Maynard Keenan. Together, they revitalized the Dos Cabezas vineyard, tearing up underperforming varieties and planting new vines. The results of their efforts, along with winemaker Tim White and Director of Vineyard Operations Craig Martinsen, are nothing short of remarkable.

At dinner in Frank & Alberts, I drank a 2010 Arizona Stronghold “Tazi” white blend (vintage unknown), and it wowed me. A blend of 38% Malvasia, 21% Sauvignon Blanc, 19% Riesling, 15% Pinot Gris and 7% Chardonnay, the Tazi smells very sweet, like ripe apples and pineapples. But on the palate, it starts quite dry, moving into aromatic/floral flavors before some food-friendly acids kick in. It finishes with a bit of white pepper, which became more pronounced paired with some swordfish. Had I tasted it blind, I would have identified it as a high-quality Viognier.

The 2010 Arizona Stronghold “Mangus” red blend impressed me as well. The Canyon Suites at The Phoenician serves this as well as the Tazi during the daily wine and cheese hour. I love that they went with something local, instead of some anonymous Chardonnay and Merlot. The red blend also combines a wide array of varieties: 71% Sangiovese, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot. This mutt of a wine smells rather tight, like iron, clay and red fruit. The ripe, rich flavors surprised me. The wine seemed on the verge of overheating, but it kept itself under control. The flavors of blackberry jam, earth and black pepper tasted great on their own or paired with a chunk of morbier cheese.

I’m heading to Sedona tomorrow, and I hear a few wineries huddle together in nearby Page Springs. I hope the Arizona Stronghold blends are a just a taste of more fine wines yet to come!

My Top 10 Odd Summer Whites

9 June 2012

Here in Chicago, we’re blessed with an array of well-stocked wine shops and adventurous wine bars and restaurants. It’s surprisingly easy to find exciting white wines far outside the American comfort zone of Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. But that’s not necessarily the case for people living elsewhere.

In this 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal, New York wine critic Lettie Teague condescendingly writes that she’s “willing to declare [Chicago] the second-most important wine city in the country right now.” Her jaw dropped “incredulously” when a Chicagoan had the temerity to assert that our city is actually the most important wine city, with a better scene than New York’s. But her article goes on to prove just that, citing our diverse wine bars, low prices relative to New York’s, and huge stores like Binny’s (where, admittedly, she correctly notes that the service is crap).

Because my readers from New York and other such cities may have trouble finding some of the individual wines I write about from week to week, I thought it might be useful to list a number of favorites all in one place. Hopefully a wine shop near you will have at least one or two of my Top 10 Odd Summer Whites:

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A Little Chicago In The Fluteau

6 June 2012

Although drinking Champagne (from France, with a capital “C”) is all too unusual in my household, the beverage itself could hardly be considered obscure. Everyone has heard of it, and I’m pretty sure anyone reading these words likes to drink it. But even Champagne has its odd side.

Most Champagnes we encounter in the United States tend to be non-vintage, brut (dry but not austere), and Négociant Manipulant (basically, sourced from a range of different vineyards in the region). I always like to seek out the more terroir-influenced Récoltant Manipulant Champagnes, otherwise known as grower Champagnes. You can tell the difference by looking at the tiny serial number on the label, which will say NM or RM, or, rarely, any of five other letter combinations. It’s France; they like their wine complicated.

In any case, while shopping at Binny’s for a sparkling wine to use for our wedding toast last year, I came across a most tempting bottle of 2004 Château Fluteau Cuvée Prestige Blanc de Blancs. My Odd Bacchus sensors lit up like a Feuerzangenbowle — here was a vintage Champagne that was also grower. And that wasn’t all: 2004 is the year my partner (now husband) and I met! It was too romantic and too unusual to pass up.

When I researched the wine, I learned that it had yet more wonderfully unusual qualities. (more…)

Beyond Flaccid Sugarwater

2 June 2012

Müller-Thurgau’s German origins haven’t done the variety any favors. I remember it well from the year I spent living in Freiburg, where bottles of the stuff would sell for about $3, with $3 flavors to match. German Müller-Thurgau incites thinly veiled feelings of revulsion in noted wine critic Jancis Robinson, whose entry about the grape in The Oxford Companion to Wine reads like a review of a Michael Moore documentary: “fat, flaccid… too often with a slight suspicion of rot… extremely dull, flabby… thin-skinned…”

Dr. Hermann Müller, born in the northern Swiss canton of Thurgau, created the variety in 1882, hoping to combine the nuances and flavors of Riesling with the early-ripening characteristics of Silvaner (itself an old hybrid of Traminer and Österreichisch Weiss). But according to recent DNA profiling, the Companion notes, Müller-Thurgau is actually a cross of Riesling and Madeleine Royale, a simple table grape (a grape intended to be eaten as fruit). Whoops.

Although Müller-Thurgau produces “oceans of sugarwater” in Germany, the variety “can be much more exciting” outside its Teutonic homeland. According to this 2006 article by wine critics Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, the “gold standard” of Müller-Thurgau comes from Italy’s northern Trentino-Alto Adige region. They tried a $36 Kofererhof Müller-Thurgau in a New York restaurant, giving it high marks: “Flinty, with some melons and dirt but brighter than we had expected. Earthy but not heavy, with real vitality. Surprisingly juicy, with some white pepper.” (Unfortunately, the sommelier looked at them like they’d ordered a bottle of Blue Nun and avoided their table the rest of the evening.)

The Companion agrees about Alto Adige, and also cites Oregon as promising Müller-Thurgau territory. A bottle of 2009 Montinore Estate Müller-Thurgau I found from Oregon’s Willamette Valley didn’t quite reach the lofty heights of the Kofererhof, but it certainly rose above German sugarwater.

This Müller-Thurgau smelled to me like very ripe pears. On the tongue, for a moment it just tasted like apple juice. Uh-oh. But then I felt the prickle of some acids, and the wine pulled itself together with a satisfyingly tart finish. It wasn’t the “revelation” that the Kofererhof had been for Gaiter and Brecher, but certainly I enjoyed drinking it. Paired with a spring risotto with peas, asparagus and baby artichokes, the acids became even more prominent, cutting through the richness of the dish.

I love to see serious wineries like Montinore experimenting with this oddly named variety with a bad reputation. We wine drinkers stand to gain much from their risk-taking. Müller-Thurgau may not flourish in Germany, but if you see one from Oregon or Italy, grab it. Your sommelier might look askance, but you’ll know better.

SUMMARY

2009 Montinore Estate Müller-Thurgau: Starts sweet, but the sugars are balanced by food-friendly acids. A fine pairing with risotto, pastas with cream-based sauces or lightly spicy Asian dishes. Serve well-chilled.

Grade: B

Find It: I purchased this bottle for $12 at In Fine Spirits, which isn’t carrying the wine as of this writing. The Montinore website offers the 2011 vintage for sale for $16.