Monthly Archives: August 2012

Red Green Wine

29 August 2012

I’m not usually a fan of Vinho Verde, which translates as “green wine,” so-called because it’s typically consumed very young. Portugal’s famous low-alcohol, semi-sparkling wine usually tastes too tart for me. It’s been years since I’ve bought a bottle of the stuff. But my dry spell finally came to an end when I came across a bottle of 2011 Vera Vinho Verde at Binny’s. It’s not white (or green) at all — it’s rosé.

A semi-sparkling Portuguese rosé might bring back memories of Mateus, but this wine from the northerly Minho region looks nothing like that mass-market precursor to White Zinfandel. Though called “rosé,” the Vera’s cherry-red color could barely qualify as pink. A red Vinho Verde? And with 11.5% alcohol, no less? I was most intrigued, and I snapped it up.

There’s a reason I had never seen a red Vinho Verde on the shelves before. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Foreign palates struggle with these deep-coloured, rasping reds, and although it is still prized locally, little red Vinho Verde leaves the north of Portugal.” I suspect foreign marketers also struggle with varieties such as Vinhão and Rabo de Anho, which make up 60% and 40% of the Vera, respectively.

Vinhão, at least, is in the Companion. Also known as Sousão, this variety is “widely planted in northern Portugal, where the wine is notably high in acidity as well as colour…” The label on the bottle translates Vinhão as “big wine.”

But the Vera label declares that Rabo de Anho “does not translate at all,” and it may be right. I can find precious little about this variety, the first variety I’ve encountered which doesn’t have an entry in the Companion. According to Wikipedia, it shouldn’t be confused with the white-skinned Rabo de Ovelha, a variety the Companion also notes as white. But the website regards Rabo de Anho and Rabo de Ovelha as synonyms. So I don’t know what the heck is going on.



A Hotbed Of Innovation

25 August 2012

I needed something to pair with the game of Bionic Woman we were sitting down to play. For such an obscure board game, only an especially oddball wine would do; I uncorked a 2009 Espirito Lagoalva, a blend of 50% Touriga Nacional and 50% Castelão from Portugal’s Tejo region. It proved to be delightful, fortifying us as we saved joggers from angry mountain lions and brought runaway hot air balloons under control.

Jaime, had she been a wine connoisseur as well as a superhero, would have been very surprised to find us drinking a dry Portuguese wine. Until relatively recently, Portugal was known only for Port and Madeira, both of which are sweet, fortified wines. But nowadays, “Portuguese winemakers have…woken up to the tremendous potential of the terroirs and native grape varieties that their country offers, making it a hotbed of innovation,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.

The Douro Valley (where most grapes for Port are grown) and the Dão region just to the south produce many of Portugal’s best vintages, and I’ve rarely been disappointed by a dry red wine from either of these regions. They tend to be fantastic values for the money, probably because the grape varieties are unfamiliar to non-Portuguese. They are actually not all that hard to find anymore. Keep an eye out for them.

But this wine comes from Tejo, a region just northeast of Lisbon that I had a devil of a time finding anything about. The problem, I discovered thanks to Wikipedia, is that Tejo was called Ribatejo (translated as River Tagus) until 2009, when the name was changed to hopefully appeal more to the international market. I haven’t seen much of an international rush to Tejo wines, but I suppose Mendoza used to be just as unknown.

Unfortunately for Tejo, the most of the grape varieties grown there don’t come as trippingly off the tongue as Malbec. I mean, what the heck are Touriga Nacional and Castelão?



Make Your Own Unusual Cocktail

22 August 2012

Experimenting with mixology is great fun, but with the vast array of booze and mixers at our disposal, it can be daunting. I floundered for years in the cocktail creation department, because I had no idea where to begin. I still flounder a bit today, honestly, but my experiments taste a heck of a lot better than they used to.

There aren’t any strict rules, but if you’re an aspiring mixologist, your cocktails have a much greater chance of being palatable if you keep a few basic guidelines in mind:

  1. Start with a key ingredient. It can be almost anything, really. Often, my key ingredient is something I need to get rid of, like a week-old lemon, or a bottle of mango juice taking up space in the fridge, or some fresh basil that didn’t make it into my marinara. Sometimes the key ingredient is a liquor or liqueur I want to try. Or maybe I just feel like having a cocktail with tequila (or whatever) in it.
  2. Decide on a main spirit. (If your key ingredient is a liquor, move on to #3.) If your key ingredient is herbal, bitter or floral, the botanicals in gin might complement it. If it’s sweet, using a sweet liquor like rum or tequila might be too much. If it’s citrusy, well, that can go with just about anything, including whiskey and cognac. If all else fails, choose vodka.
  3. Add something sweet. (If your key ingredient is sugary, move on to #4.) Some cocktails work very well completely dry, like a gin martini, but most drinks taste best to me with some sort of sugar, like fruit juice or simple syrup. It doesn’t have to be much. Like salt in your food, sugar helps bring out the other ingredients’ flavors. Without it, a cocktail can feel unbalanced or flat.
  4. Consider texture. Adding something sweet will tame the burn of a liquor, but usually that’s not enough to create a pleasing texture. Compare, for example, the texture of a vodka cranberry with the texture of a Cosmopolitan. It’s night and day, because the fresh lime juice in a Cosmo balances things out. Any fresh-squeezed citrus can serve this purpose, or vermouth can also be useful to round out a drink.
  5. Consider depth and complexity. If you taste your concoction and it seems too bright, add a dash of bitters. Bitters can do wonders to ground a cocktail. The wonderful Pegu Club would be a bit abrasive without bitters. Amari (bitter Italian liqueurs) have become very popular with bartenders as well. But it need not be something bitter. In the Cosmopolitan, Triple Sec rounds things out. Without this sweet orangey liqueur, a Cosmopolitan would seem too pointy.
  6. Work in small batches. In order to not waste booze when experimenting, I use a tablespoon as the measure of one part, rather than a shot glass. Once the proportions are to my liking, I scale up to proper cocktail size.
  7. Be brave! Work with fresh herbs, fresh fruits and unusual juices. Try infusing vodka with something. What’s the worst that could happen? After all, by the third or fourth sip, whatever you’ve made will taste just fine.

So there you have it — the basic formula: A main spirit, something sweet, something sour, and something round or bitter. Of course, there are countless ways to come up with a fine cocktail, but I find these guidelines invaluable.

I would love to hear about your own cocktail experimentation. Feel free to e-mail your recipes to, post them to my Facebook page, or just write a comment below.

Happy mixing!



The Obscure Will Almost Always Cost Less

18 August 2012

A fantastic article by Lettie Teague in today’s Wall Street Journal served as a reminder of why I love drinking the unusual and obscure in the first place. And in 150 posts to this blog, I’m not sure I’ve ever made that truly explicit. There’s the fact that I find oddball wines and spirits thoroughly fascinating, but I suspect that if I were fermenting in vats of cash, I would be drinking far more famous Burgundies and Bordeauxs than Moschofileros and Macabeos.

Honestly, a big reason I gravitate towards the unusual and the obscure is simply price. It’s right there, in big letters on page D6: “The obscure and the uncurated will almost always cost less than the well known and well placed. If you don’t know what a wine is, you’re unlikely to pay a high price for it.”

If you, like me, have to buy wine on a budget, you will frequently get the biggest flavor bang for your buck by buying something without a major name. I’ve reviewed a lot of delicious wines on this blog, and though there are exceptions, the majority cost less than $15. You don’t have to be rich to drink fabulously. Just a little adventurous.

Do check out Lettie Teague’s excellent article in praise of the “Miscellaneous” or “Interesting” section on the wine list. She makes some tempting recommendations, and more important, she reminds us of the joys of drinking fearlessly.


Don’t Miss These Virginia Wineries

15 August 2012

4. JEFFERSON VINEYARDS: In this pretty piece of Virginia countryside, Thomas Jefferson planted the first commercial vineyards in Virginia and probably the first in the entire New World. His viticultural efforts generally failed, unfortunately, but nowadays, Jefferson Vineyards produces some very tasty wine indeed. The reds here were particularly appealing.

The light-bodied Cabernet Franc (a blend of 2010 and 2011 vintages, since the 2011 vintage was marred by Hurricane Irene) had an aroma of dark fruit and iron, and it tasted fruity and earthy with some good structure. Jefferson Vineyards was the first to bottle a varietal Petit Verdot in Virginia, and the 2010 vintage continues that proud tradition. It had a jammy nose and plummy, meaty flavors with juicy acids and a touch of tobacco in the finish. And the rich Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”), a Bordeaux-style blend, smelled marvelously rich and had a palate to match: jam, vanilla, balanced acids and a chocolatey finish. Delightful.


3. PIPPIN HILL FARM: The wines here tasted just fine; a through-line seemed to be rather limey, occasionally pointy acids in many of the whites and some of the reds. I’m not necessarily dying to try any of them again, but I would kill to be back on the gorgeous terrace outside the tasting room. My stars and stripes, what a view! Vineyards, farms, mansions, the Blue Mountains in the distance…

It’s truly spectacular. A glorious place for lunch and a glass of wine.



2: BARBOURSVILLE VINEYARDS: One of the first modern wineries in Virginia, Barboursville was founded in 1976 by the Zonins, a renowned Italian winemaking family. As you might expect, you’ll encounter several Italian varietals here, such as a richly fruity Sangiovese, an earthy Barbera and a tightly wound Nebbiolo. The sharply focused Viognier Reserve, austere Octagon (a Bordeaux-style blend) and Sauternes-like Malvaxia Reserve also made quite an impression on me.

Because the tasting room can be quite crowded, especially on weekends, I recommend trying the wines paired with some wonderfully delicious Italian cuisine in the adjacent Palladio Restaurant. The Caprese salad with perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes and sumptuously creamy burrata cheese haunts me still. Work off lunch with a stroll past the vineyards to the ruins of Governor James Barbour’s mansion, dating from the early 19th century.




Albemarle County’s Celebrity Wineries

11 August 2012

The wines of Virginia blew me away at the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last year in Charlottesville. I had no idea such great things were happening down there; after all, I’d never even sampled a Virginia wine before the conference. They’re not available in every corner grocery. And because of the rarity of these wines up north, I was excited to have the opportunity to return to Albemarle County and get my palate around a few more of these beauties.

Two wineries I put at the top of my list were Trump and Blenheim, owned by Donald Trump and Dave Matthews, respectively. I missed their wines entirely on last year’s visit, and I was curious how these celebrity wineries, set less than a mile apart from each other, would perform. Would Trump wines be overblown, lacking restraint and finesse? Would Blenheim’s be, as iTunes describes the Dave Matthews Band’s debut album, “long-winded” and “unfocused”? I was determined to find out.

The Trump Winery, as you might imagine, comes with quite a story. Trump purchased the winery from Patricia Kluge, a figure who is not beloved in the Virginia wine scene. She engaged in some major real estate bets and winery expansions just as the economy tanked in 2008, and lost much of her fortune, including her winery. A certain sommelier told me that he engaged in a little Schadenfreude, attending the auctions of her furniture, jewelry and wine, managing to purchase hundreds of cases for as little as $2.00 each (most cases of wine went for $14). But an assistant winemaker I spoke with said that Kluge was actually great for the Virginia wine industry. She brought in major winemaking talent, but no one could stand to work for her longer than a year or two. They would then quit, and go off to start their own wineries or find employment at existing ones.

Donald Trump purchased Kluge’s winery, as well as the front lawn of her palatial mansion (he’s waiting for the price on the house itself to go down, as it surely will, since Trump owns all the land right up to the front door). Amid all these shenanigans, Kluge Estate (now the Trump Winery) continued to produce acclaimed wines, and I wanted to try some myself. After a drive through some beautifully rolling countryside past notable landmarks such as Monticello, I found my way to the glossy tasting room.

Some Trump wines worked better than others. Calling the rather tart Chardonnay “Chablis-style” was a bit of an exaggeration; it lacked Chablis’ steely, minerally, focused vigor. The Sauvignon Blanc, rosé, and Bordeaux-style blends were all pleasant enough, but it was the sparkling wines, produced in the traditional Champenoise method, that really caught my attention. The Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) had a strawberry and honey nose, a touch of sweet apples on the palate, and ample but elegantly small bubbles. Berry notes marked the aromas of the Rosé as well. This blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir had some currants and yeast to it, along with those same delightful bubbles. The Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir) had an almost jammy nose, but lemony acids, some yeastiness and a dry finish kept it balanced. Well, I suppose it makes sense that Trump’s Champagne-style wines were the most successful!

A two-minute drive away, Blenheim Vineyards has a dramatic vaulted tasting room overlooking a wide tract of vineyards. The space alone makes a visit worthwhile, particularly since you can bring your own picnic to enjoy with some Blenheim wine on the terrace. All of Blenheim’s wines had very prominent, food-friendly acids, and they would surely be fun with some picnic fare. But tasted without food, most of the wines were a little over-acidic for my taste. I did enjoy the Viognier, with its honeysuckle nose, tropical fruit flavors and limey acids, and the light-bodied Cabernet Franc, with surprising aromas of vanilla, dark fruit flavors and very bright acids. I wish I could have tasted these wines with food, because I suspect the acids would have felt more in balance.

Next Up: The four wineries you absolutely shouldn’t miss in Virginia.


A Cross Of Riesling And Whoops!

8 August 2012

I’ve been excited to try more Scheurebe ever since I had an Austrian Beerenauslese version (Beerenauslese indicates a very, very high level of ripeness in the grapes). This variety intrigues me; according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, it’s “the one early 20th-century German crossing that deserves attention from any connoisseur.” But what constitutes that crossing is a bit of a mystery.

Dr. Georg Scheu intended to cross Silvaner with Riesling, in order to produce a more productive version of Riesling (according to the Oxford Companion) or to produce a superior version of Silvaner (according to Wikipedia). Let us hope it was the first, because DNA analysis in the 1990s discovered that the cross has no Silvaner in it whatsoever. The Riesling is there, but the other parent in the cross has yet to be determined. Some speculate that it’s a wild variety Dr. Scheu had been experimenting with. The noble Riesling crossed with some sort of untamed table grape? Gott in Himmel!

Whatever he ended up crossing, Scheurebe (SHOI-ray-beh) seems to work quite well, though only if allowed to thoroughly ripen. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia warns that Scheurebe “is not very pleasant at Qualitätswein level, but develops a beautiful aromatic character at higher levels of Prädikatswein.” The Oxford Companion agrees, calling it “distinctly unappetizing if picked too early.” But when handled properly, the Oxford Companion continues, Scheurebe can do a fine job in reflecting the specifics of its terroir.

I hoped for the best with 2010 Louis Guntrum Scheurebe Qualitätswein from Rheinhessen, the sandy terroir south of Mainz for which Scheurebe was developed in the first place. It didn’t have the ripeness level recommended by any of my sources, but In Fine Spirits, the wine shop where I found this wine, almost never steers me wrong. I needed something German to pair with the Beethoven playing in Grant Park one evening, and brought it along.


Next Page »