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.

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