Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Thoughtful Gift

28 November 2012

Not too long ago, my friend Will brought over a bottle of wine, and he chose something right up my alley. Knowing my preference for the unusual, he purchased a 2009 Can Blau Montsant, a blend of 40% Mazuelo, 40% Syrah and 20% Garnacha (Grenache).

What? A Mazuelo-based blend from Montsant?? Be still my obscure heart!

The Montsant D.O. (Denominación de Origen), I discovered, came into being only in 2001. It was carved out of the Tarragona D.O. in Catalonia, Spain, in order to “highlight its superior quality,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It can apparently produce wines “similar in style and quality” to those crafted in neighboring Priorat, which is pretty high praise as far as I’m concerned. And it’s no surprise. According to the map in The World Atlas of Wine, the Can Blau winery is barely a kilometer outside the Priorat region. So close!

Now, Syrah and Garnacha I’ve heard of and sampled, but Mazuelo? Well, it turns out I’ve tried that too — “Mazuelo” is the term people in Rioja use for Carignan (also spelled “Carignane”). But why a winery in Monstant would label its wine with a term from the Rioja region instead of the locally used “Cariñena” is a mystery. Or is it?

I realized that though I’d tried wines made from Carignan before, I didn’t know all that much about the grape. I read the entry about it in the Companion, and it began to make sense why Can Blau wouldn’t necessarily be anxious to announce the Carignan component in its wine. The Companion praises old Carignan vines, but calls the variety in general “the bane of the European wine industry…distinguished mainly by its disadvantages.” Varietal wines from this rot-prone grape tend to be “high in everything — acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness — but finesse and charm.” Which boils down to wines that are too rough to drink young but are also “unworthy of maturation.” Ouch.

But if late-ripening Carignan is going to do well anywhere, it seems, it’s in sunny Catalonia. I have no idea how old the Carignan vines of Can Blau are (the website of its parent company is only in Spanish), but I suspect the Companion might not entirely approve. The wine was big and a little unpolished, but it was great with a bowl of hearty vegetable gratin on a cold Sunday evening. An appealing deep magenta, the Can Blau had fragrant aromas of jam and vanilla. On the palate, it started with a zing of black pepper before moving on to dark fruit, big rustic tannins and expansive acids. It finished with some sweet notes; a bit of anise and a quick reprise of vanilla.

Well, I suppose this wine didn’t exactly scream “finesse!” It was more of a robust farmer than a refined city type, but I very much enjoyed it nevertheless. After all, robust farmers can be a lot of fun every now and then.

SUMMARY

2009 Can Blau Montsant: Big, fragrant, fruity and a little rustic. This wine might be a little much for some tastes, but I thought it was great fun. Chill in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: Binny’s carries the 2010 vintage for $16, which is not at all a bad deal considering the wallop of flavor this wine packs.

Thankful For Wisconsin Wine

24 November 2012

I am thankful for so many things, most of which don’t really relate to this blog. But one thing I can write about here is that I’m thankful that nowadays, tasty wines are being made all over the place. Americans have become much savvier wine consumers, demanding higher quality, and entrepreneurs have set up wineries in all 50 states. Ever more countries have discovered what unique combination of terroirs and grape varieties work for them. I am thankful that in all of known history, there has never been a time when so much fine wine from so many different places has been available at such affordable prices.

One winery I’m thankful for is Von Stiehl, in the lakeside town of Algoma, Wisconsin, where I had a memorable tour and tasting led by a former cast member of Hee-Haw. I wrote about Von Stiehl’s well-made Cabernet Sauvignon in this post a little while back, but I also brought home another bottle from that visit: A non-vintage Von Stiehl Lakeshore Fumé.

This wine is not actually a “Fumé Blanc,” a somewhat indeterminate style of Sauvignon Blanc invented in the 1970s by Robert Mondavi involving some oak aging. Von Stiehl made this wine with Seyval Blanc, a French hybrid which is “productive, ripens early and is well suited to relatively cool climates,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It sounds ideal for a Wisconsin winery. But because it has some non-vinifera relations, you’re unlikely to find any wines labeled as Seyval Blanc in its home country. Europeans always have been rather intolerant of those lacking respectable lineage.

In any case, I liked this Seyval Blanc enough to buy a bottle and cart it home. Unfortunately, it then remained on my wine rack for years, essentially unprotected from Chicago’s hot summers. I decided it was high time to open this half-forgotten bottle, because it would surely gain nothing from aging any further. So while making a batch of chicken saltimbocca with roasted Brussels sprouts, carrots and sunchokes, I cracked it open and hoped for the best.

The wine had deepened in color, turning a rich gold, and it had some pineapple in the aroma. I was relieved to smell fruit instead of mildew, dung, or nothing at all. It actually reminded me of a light Sauterne, with some woodsiness and tropical fruit, but it was but a shade of this noble French wine at this point. The fruit felt a bit flabby. Some acids remained, especially in the first 15 minutes after the wine was opened, but they started to dissapate thereafter. The wine became too white-grapey, and flab replaced what was once surely some lively fruit.

I enjoyed the first intriguing glass, but the rest of the bottle just didn’t make it. I had waited too long, and once again, a fine bottle of wine died a slow, silent death on my wine rack.

Maybe it’s time to be thankful for the wines I already have in my collection, and open the rest of the older wines now, before they too suffer a similar fate.

SUMMARY

NV Von Stiehl Lakeshore Fumé: Originally surely well-balanced with lively acids, tropical fruit and a touch of wood, this wine didn’t age all that well. The acids decayed, and the wine became flabby. A fine choice, but drink it soon after purchase.

Grade: I can’t really give this wine a fair assessment.

Find It: Von Stiehl now sells this wine under its “Up North” label as “Tranquility Lookout,” priced at about $13.

Unusual And Undrinkable

21 November 2012

Most wines I write about on Odd Bacchus receive pretty good grades. I prefer to write posts about wines which excite me, because I like to think I’m helping bring unheralded wine regions and grape varieties to light. Even more important, I hope I’m helping my readers find some great values, since delicious unusual wines and spirits tend to cost less than delicious well- known wines and spirits.

But a regular reader of this blog could be forgiven for thinking that I am happy with almost any alcohol that passes my lips, an opinion shared by most of my family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances and neighbors. Indeed, I do try to be charitable with wines — a very non-snobby French sommelier shamed me into that — but a recent selection really rubbed me the wrong way.

My husband returned from Whole Foods last week with a bottle of 2011 Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz from South Africa, thinking it would work well with the red-wine pickled pears he planned on canning. Mixed with vinegar, cinnamon and other spices, it made a perfectly lovely pickling liquid for the pears, and I gaze at the Mason jars of pears with no small measure of anticipation. Drunk on its own, however, this wine was an offense to the palate.

A simulacrum of raspberry jam pervaded the nose, and something artificial marred the flavor as well. It started a bit flabby before coalescing into acidic, chemically-tinged fruit. An unpleasant tomato note took over before the wine climaxed into a diabetic, teeth-coating finish. I don’t know what Jam Jar did to make this Shiraz “sweet,” but I have a feeling it didn’t happen in the vineyard.

What a waste of money. My husband spent $12 for this bottle of raspberry sugar water. Don’t be suckered in by Jam Jar’s cutesy font — behind the innocuous label lurks an unpleasant, saccharine wine, offering yet more evidence supporting my theory that the cuter the label, the crappier the wine.

SUMMARY

2011 Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz: Certainly sweet, but marred by chemically fruit and abrasive acids. Barely drinkable.

Grade: D

Find It: If you want to experience this charmer yourself, you can find it at Whole Foods. At the store on Halsted in Chicago, it’s on sale for $10 as of this posting. Still a poor value.

An Ideal Thanksgiving Sparkler

17 November 2012

Last year, I wrote that wine alone might not be enough to get you through Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, as a host, you’ll likely be expected by at least some of your guests to serve wine, or as a guest, your hosts may very well expect you to bring a bottle of wine. In either case, since family is almost surely involved, you probably aren’t in a mood to spend a lot of money. But of course, you also don’t want your family whispering behind your back — for years to come – about that crappy wine you served, with which they could barely wash down that desiccated turkey and gelatinous stuffing.

I have just the thing to thread the needle. Ignore whatever other articles you’ve read, recommending $20 Rhône-style blends or $30 Pinot Noirs. Save those for yourself and your partner — they’ll spruce Thanksgiving leftovers right up. For the big day itself, get thee to Binny’s and pick up some NV (non-vintage) Finca Flichman Brut Extra. It’s $10 a bottle (or even less if you buy a case), and it’s perfectly delightful.

This apricot-colored sparkling wine comes from Mendoza in Argentina, a region much more famous for its Malbec. In fact, it might be tempting to serve Malbec at Thanksgiving, but don’t do it. Everyone thinks it’s inexpensive, so even if you buy a really nice Malbec, you’ll end up looking cheap. On the other hand, no one knows what an Argentinean sparkling wine costs, and when they taste this unusual blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Malbec, they’ll never guess it runs just a few dollars more than Yellow Tail.

The grapes for this wine are, impressively at this price point, harvested by hand, theoretically ensuring that only the ripest fruit ends up in the presses. Unfortunately, the second fermentation does not happen in the bottle, in what is known as the Methode Champenoise. Finca Flichman uses the less labor-intensive Charmat process, which usually results in larger, less-refined bubbles.

I tend to be suspicious of wines made in the Charmat method, but in this case, there was no need to fear. The plentiful bubbles couldn’t be described as “pin-prick,” exactly, but they were smaller and more elegant than I expected. The aromas of strawberry and watermelon also surprised me. They were a feint, however — the wine tasted dry but round, with lively, orangey acids and pleasant note of yeast. The berries reappeared only at the end, as a whisper on the finish. Yum. I haven’t tried it with turkey or stuffing, but I have a feeling it would pair perfectly.

And perhaps most important of all, the Finca Flichman’s pinkish-orange color will match beautifully with an autumnally themed Thanksgiving table. Your family will be pleased, and your wallet will remain more or less intact. Those are things I can definitely be thankful for.

SUMMARY

NV Finca Flichman Extra Brut: Fruity on the nose but dry, round and a bit yeasty on the palate. A stellar value, and a fine match for a range of foods. In short, an ideal Thanksgiving choice.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this wine at Binny’s for $10.

Dinners With Spirit

14 November 2012

Much ado has been made about matching wine with food, but can be just as exciting to experiment with pairing cocktails. Unfortunately, while many wine bars and restaurants have sommeliers who create course-by-course wine pairings, it’s rare to find a suggested menu of spirits or cocktails to go with that prix fixe.

I’m really excited to see someone attempting to rectify that situation. Clint Rogers, the spirits director at Henri, is organizing a “Spirited Dinner Series” here in Chicago. He’s enlisted some top local mixologists to create a flight of cocktails based on a single spirit, such as whiskey or gin, to go with a particular dinner menu.

Chicago cocktail connoisseurs, mark these dates on your calendars:

December 5: Cognac cocktails by Michael Simon and his team, served with dinner at Carriage House.

January 23: Gin cocktails by Danny Shapiro and his time, served with dinner at Scofflaw.

For reservations, call (312) 578-0763. Each Spirited Dinner costs $100 per person (excluding tax and gratuity) and begins at 6:00 p.m.

Alas, we missed October’s whiskey dinner, but at least we can look at the menu and imagine what fun it must have been:

Cocktail 1: Troubadour (Eagle Rare, Punt e Mes, Aperol, Cynar, celery bitters); paired with house-made pancetta with pickle, orange

Cocktail 2: Whitman (Buffalo Trace, Cardamaro, BLiS Maple, Allspice Dram, egg); paired with skin salad with horseradish, black pepper

Cocktail 3: Torrid Affair (Weller Antique 107, Amaro Nonino, lime, cinnamon, Champagne), paired with monkfish with olive, apple, cress

Cocktail 4: Ramos Creole Cocktail (Very Old Barton 100 proof, Dry Curaçao, demerara, Peychaud’s bitters, Angostura bitters, absinthe), paired with venison with Roquefort, smoked fig

Cocktail 5: Sleeping Jolly Pecker (ingredients unknown); paired with buckwheat cannelle with glazed seckel pears, Peychaud’s caramel, Greek yogurt sorbet

Woo! Yum.

The Witches Of Uruguay

10 November 2012

These days, almost everyone has tasted wines from Argentina at some point — its Malbec can be found almost anywhere — but that’s hardly the case for its neighbor, Uruguay. Although this little country on the north side of the Rio de la Plata is South America’s fourth-largest wine producer, you can’t just walk into a wine store and head to the Uruguayan section. Most of its vineyards, which average just 12.5 acres in size, are family owned, and similarly small-scale wineries have inconsequential marketing budgets. If you can actually find the wines, you’re paying more for what’s actually in the bottle and less for splashy ad campaigns.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some bad experiences with Uruguayan wines. I’ve only had two or three, but I can’t remember being excited about any of them. Now, after tasting a 2011 Giminez Mendez Las Brujas Tannat/Syrah/Viognier, I think I figured out what the problem. It’s the very signature grape of Uruguay: Tannat.

This exceedingly dark variety originated in southwest France, where it serves as the most important component of Madiran. As is common in France, the wines of Madiran are not varietals, they’re blends. But the Uruguayan wines I can recall trying were 100% Tannat, which meant that its tough and wooly tannins went unsoftened by any other grapes. In the unlikely event you happen upon a 100% Tannat, I recommend passing it by.

On the other hand, if you come across a Uruguayan blend, snap it up and give it a try. The southern part of the country, where Giminez Mendez and most other Uruguayan wineries make their homes, is well-suited to winemaking, with humid, sunny days mitigated by cool ocean currents from Antarctica.

Unfortunately, the humidity means party time for fungus and rot, making “organic viticulture virtually impossible,” according to the Atlas. Nevertheless, many wineries such as Giminez Mendez work to respect the environment, using a minimum of chemicals in the vineyards. Mendez also harvests all its fruit by hand, which means, theoretically, that only the ripest and best grapes make it into the wine.

The Tannat/Syrah/Viognier blend I sampled certainly smelled enticingly ripe, with a jammy nose of dark currants. Made from fruit from vineyards in Las Brujas, which translates as “The Witches,” this wine was only 60% Tannat, but the tannins came through loud and proud. The wine started innocently enough, with rich, dark, lush fruit. But it gets a little rough in the middle, and before you know it, hefty tannins give you a slap, drying the mouth right out. It’s a bit of a wild ride! This is no Cary Grant of a wine; it’s more of an Axl Rose.

The label says it’s “ideal to drink in any occasion,” but the wine didn’t have great table manners either, becoming a little tart and overly spicy when paired with some pizza.

It’s not a wine to bring home to the parents, but when you’re in the mood to rebel a little and drink something rowdy, Giminez Mendez’s Las Brujas blend from Uruguay is your bad boy (or girl).

SUMMARY

2011 Giminez Mendez Las Brujas Tannat/Syrah/Viognier: Big up-front fruit, rough and tumble in the middle, and bracingly tannic on the finish. Acids afforded some measure of balance, but I’m not sure what food this wine would play well with. Maybe a hearty duck dish? Chill for 15 minutes in the refrigerator before serving, and give it some time to breathe.

Grade: B

Find It: I purchased this wine at In Fine Spirits for $12.50, a fine value indeed.

 

Teutonic Pink

7 November 2012

I know I claimed to be done with rosé for the season, but I had one on my shelf too tempting to leave unopened until the spring: A 2011 Reichsrat von Buhl Pinot Noir Rosé from Germany’s Pfalz region. I remember when I saw it on the shelf at Binny’s. A Pinot Noir from Germany would be odd enough on its own, but a Teutonic Pinot Noir rosé? That’s unusual and obscure gold.

According to The World Atlas of Wine, the Pfalz, a region between Saarbrücken and the Rhein, is “today arguably [Germany's] most exciting wine region… famous for an increasing number of seriously ambitious individual wine producers.” Von Buhl makes its wines in Deidesheim, a Pfalz town surrounded, if the Atlas is to be believed, by “excellent” and “exceptional” vineyards. This is the southern end of the Mittelhaardt, long known for producing some of Germany’s finest Rieslings, with “succulent honeyed richness and body, balanced with thrilling acidity.”

But Pinot Noir? This thin-skinned variety, notoriously susceptible to rot, does surprisingly well in the Pfalz, which is “Germany’s sunniest, driest region,” according to the Atlas. Since the vineyards receive only about 16 inches of rainfall a year, mildew and rot tend not to be a problem. And if you look at map, you’ll see that the Pfalz (also known as the Palatinate) is not too far from Burgundy, home to some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world.

I’m not sure the Pinots of the Pfalz quite reach those lofty heights — that’s for another blog post — but I can tell you that the Reichsrat Pinot Noir Rosé was no insipid White Zinfandel. It had a honeydew aroma mixed with something a little spicy, and the melon notes continued onto the palate. A blitz of sharp, limey acids blasted the fruit out of the way, leading to a spicy finish. There was a prickle on the tongue as well — a hint of bubbles. And indeed, the von Buhl website notes that this wine “is actually a product of [their] sparkling wine production.”

This rosé isn’t “fun,” exactly. It’s not a wine I would serve at a pool party. It demands attention. But paired with an Asian “salad” of wheat berries, beef, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, red peppers, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil, it worked beautifully. The acids rounded out, becoming more orangey than limey, and the wine felt bigger, rounder, and, most interestingly, smokier.

If you’re hankering for a rosé this autumn or winter, the von Buhl would be a great choice.

SUMMARY

2011 Reichsrat von Buhl Pinot Noir Rosé: Verging on sparkling, with melony fruit and sharp, racy acids. Excellent with food. Chill well in the refrigerator.

Grade: B+

Find It: I must admit I don’t recall what I spent on this bottle, and it’s not available on Binny’s website as of this posting. I did a quick search online and found a number of stores selling it; the lowest price I found was $18.

Don’t You Mean Tequila?

3 November 2012

My trip to Cuernavaca and Acapulco last month shocked a variety of people for a variety of reasons. Most of my family was convinced I would be kidnapped, beheaded, or shot. My colleagues questioned the worthiness of Acapulco as a destination. And everybody thought I was crazy when I said I was excited to try Mexican wine.

Well, despite the best efforts of the drug cartels, I managed to escape unharmed. Acapulco was gorgeous, and by golly, there are some excellent Mexican wines. You read that right: Tasty Mexican Wines. It’s not all Jose Cuervo and Corona down there.

Mexico, in fact, boasts the continent’s oldest wine industry, dating back to the early 16th century and Hernán Cortés, who saw no reason to forgo wine in the New World. Mexican wines might be more well-known, but the country lacks a wine-drinking culture, and those that do drink wine tend to drink imports. Nevertheless, some wineries make some impressive stuff in this unexpected country. As The World Atlas of Wine notes, “Mexican taste and drinking habits have for long lagged behind the increasingly exciting achievements of Mexico’s modern vineyards and wineries, although this is slowly changing in the major cities and tourist areas.”

Most wineries cluster at the northern end of the Baja Peninsula, which produces 90% of Mexican wine. In fact, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “vines can thrive in the Mediterranean climate, not unlike Napa and Sonoma’s with its Pacific influence, wherever irrigation water can be found.” The highlands north of Mexico City have also proven to be fruitful territory, with hot days but cool nights.

I sampled a number of Mexican wines on my trip, and I have to say there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. I expected overheated fruit bombs, but everything I tasted exhibited focus and restraint.

2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard: A blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard, this wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos. Monte Xanic is cited by a number of my books as a notable winery, and I can see why.

2011 Casa Madero “Casa Grande” Gran Reserva Chardonnay: This winery, in the high-altitude Valle de Parras just north of Mexico City, is either the oldest or the second-oldest winery in the Americas, depending on whether you believe the Oxford Companion or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Both agree it makes high-quality wines, and this Chardonnay is no exception. It starts rich, with some butter and oak, but these flavors are leavened by tight acids and a bright finish. Well-balanced and delicious.

2008 Casa Madero “Casa Grande” Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine had a red, meaty, raisiny smell, along with something spicy like cinnamon. I was impressed by its focused dark fruit, which gave way to something herbal, some white-pepper spice and ample tannins. Surely tasty with a steak.

2010 Casa Madero Shiraz: Another winner from Casa Madero — fruity, earthy and spicy. As I drink it, I could picture the vineyards growing in a clay-rich soil. Powerful but restrained, as a good Shiraz should be.

I stopped in a wine shop in Acapulco and came away with bottles of Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Domecq Chardonnay/Viognier. We’ll see if they can follow in the rather formidable footsteps of the wines I tasted above.