Monthly Archives: January 2013

First Look: Temecula

30 January 2013

Ponte Vineyards' Tasting Room/Gift ShopYou probably won’t find a “Temecula” section in your wine shop, the way you might see “Napa/Sonoma” or even “Central Coast.” This wine country about an hour northeast of San Diego is just a baby, oenologically speaking, and it doesn’t have much of a reputation just yet. That might be a good thing. Because from what I’ve seen so far, if Napa is “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Temecula is more “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

I’ve only been to one tasting room so far, that of Ponte Winery. I went on a Saturday, which is always a mistake in wine country, but my schedule allowed me little choice. The tasting room/gift shop was packed, but that wasn’t the problem — I expected a crowd. I did not expect the extortionate $20 tasting fee, however. I’ve never paid that much for a basic tasting anywhere, be it in Napa, Sonoma or BURGUNDY, for the love of Pete.

I suppose part of that fee pays for the glass I didn’t want to take with me, but most of it goes for the inexcusably large pours. I’m not usually one to complain about a slightly overfilled glass of wine, but if one drank all six “tastings” without spitting (no one in view spat a thing), one would be drunk. If the Ponte Winery tasting room were really interested in its patrons learning about the wines, portions would be much smaller and much cheaper. But perhaps Ponte Winery thinks its guests are just interested in getting a buzz before getting back in their cars? And perhaps they’re right.

Nor did the wines dazzle. Beyond a couple of standouts, most tasted just OK, and with most over $30 a bottle, they should have been pretty darn tasty. Here’s a quick rundown of what I sampled:

2011 Chardonnay: Aroma of burnt tire and wood. Light bodied, with watery fruit, limey acids, and a bit of stone and rubber at the end. $24

NV Vernaccia Nera: This one was really fun. A Lambrusco-like sparking red made with fruit from Italy’s Marche region, it tasted like red fruit, iron and jam. Weird, surprisingly complex and even addictive. I was tempted to buy a bottle to take home; it almost seemed worth it at $30.

2010 “Super T”: A Super Tuscan-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. It smelled like earth and plums, and it tasted like dark red fruit with a bit of iron and spice. Light bodied and tasty, but I want more than that for $38.

2010 Zinfandel: Not much nose on this one at all, oddly enough. It felt tight, with ungenerous fruit and a relatively tannic finish. $35

2009 Syrah: The chocolate/raspberry aroma got me all hot and bothered, but when I took a sip, it fell a little flat. It just didn’t go anywhere — it was medium bodied, and just not very memorable. What a disappointment after that sniff! $35

2008 Zinfandel Port: I love a well-made Port, and this was a well-made Port. It had a temptingly rich, raisiny nose, and this time the flavor lived up to the smell. It had lots of jammy, chocolatey fruit, balanced by zesty acids and some tannins on the finish. Delightful! It was nice to end the tasting on a high note. $46

I’m trying out a few more Temecula wineries before I leave… Here’s hoping!

Update: Later that evening, in the bar of the Ponte Vineyards Inn, the bartender offered me a taste of the 2009 Ponte Vineyards “Angry Wife, made from a blend of grapes which is “never disclosed so please don’t ask,” according to the label. Now why couldn’t they have presented more wines like this in the tasting room? It smelled irony and red, and it packed a flavor whallop: lots of fruit, hefty tannins and a final kick of spice. Tasty! Don’t keep wines like this a secret, Ponte!

The Hearty Reds Of Toro

26 January 2013

Toro paired with fusilli BologneseI remember the first time I had a wine from Spain’s small Toro region, which straddles the Duero River not too far from northwestern Portugal. My husband-to-be and I were in New York at a delightful tapas bar in the Village (the name of which is alas lost to history), and at the bottom of the extensive wines-by-the-glass list was a Toro. I asked the bartender about it, and he replied, “Oh, I love that one — if you like big reds, you should give it a try.” We each had a glass, and our memories are so fond of that evening and that wine that we served a Toro at our wedding reception.

This Denominación de Origen (DO) was established only recently, in 1987, and the Toro DO only gained international renown in the last 10 years or so. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “The Alvarez family of Vega-Sicilia fame had been purchasing land [in Toro] since 1997, and after this was announced in 2002, the floodgates opened, so that at last count there were 40 bodegas.” Sotheby’s goes on to say that “the battle for Toro’s true quality has only just begun,” but I say it’s producing some pretty darn tasty stuff already.

Part of the region’s success is no doubt due to what The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “severe” growing conditions, with dry, stony soils and high altitudes. Grapevines need to suffer to produce great wine, the common wisdom goes, and in this “wild and remote zone,” the vines surely suffer indeed. The local specialty, Tinta de Toro (a variant of Tempranillo), has adapted to the Toro terroir, and it produces wines of “exciting quality” according to Sotheby’s, and according to me as well for that matter.

It’s January in Chicago, and I was in the mood, as you might expect, for a big red wine. I browsed the Toro section at Binny’s and discovered that, as usual, most of the Toros were pretty pricey. I picked up a couple of bottles of the least expensive, a 2010 Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago,” recognizable by the big white “g” on its black label. It turned out $15 was quite a bargain for this beauty.

When I opened the bottle, I could immediately detect vanilla aromas, which intensified when I poured the deep-purple wine in a glass. Closer up, the wine smelled more like red fruit, iron and earth than vanilla. It felt focused up front — even a little tight — with flavors of vanilla and dark berries. At the back of the palate, however, it became almost rough, with hearty tannins, rustic power and some rowdy spice. It developed how I imagine a typical date in Las Vegas would. Paired with some Fusilli Bolognese, it became even more powerful and spicy.

This may not necessarily be the best Toro out there, but at $15, the Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago” took me on quite a ride. And if this Toro isn’t available at your local wine shop, try another one. I’ve yet to be disappointed by a wine from this newly discovered region.


2010 Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago”:This tasty Toro starts smooth and then gets a little rowdy. Big fruit and significant tannins. A fun ride and a fine value. Chill in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes before serving, and pair with red meat or strong cheese.

Grade: B+/A-

Find It: I purchased this wine for $15 at Binny’s on Clark Street.

Potentially Confusing Wine Terms

23 January 2013

Wine, like many fields, has its own vocabulary. For some, that’s part of its appeal, and for others, it can feel intimidating. I must admit I use winespeak on this blog not infrequently, with the goal of adding precision to my descriptions. But some of these terms, as my mother recently alerted me, can’t even be found in a typical dictionary.

I thought, therefore, that it would be handy to have a quick glossary of some potentially confusing terms you’re likely to encounter when reading about wine:

Acids: As in citrus fruit, acids can give wine a juicy, mouth-watering quality, and they’re usually very important for making a wine food-friendly. I find they can take on different shapes and colors, like pointy limey acids, or round orangey acids, or bright lemony acids.

Brut/Extra Dry: Ages ago, some marketing genius in deepest France decided it would be smart to use these terms counterintuitively. A brut Champagne (or other sparkling wine) will be dry, and an extra brut Champagne will be even drier. An extra dry Champagne, however, will be on the sweeter side. It’s France — they like to keep us barbarian Americans on our toes.

Cuvée: This word is thrown around willy-nilly these days, and it’s sometimes used just as a synonym for “wine” when wine writers don’t want to use “wine” too often in a single sentence about wine. It usually refers to some specific subset of a wine, perhaps indicating different blends, for example.

Noble Rot: I suppose even a true marketing genius would have trouble making the botrytis fungus sexy. Noble rot can be quite desirable because it creates little holes in the grape skins, drying out and even shriveling the grapes a bit. This concentrates the sugars and flavors in the remaining juice, resulting in (ideally) marvelously deep, rich, sweet and lively wines. Sauternes and Tokai Aszú are two classic examples.

Tannins: In contrast to mouth-watering acids, tannins tend to dry the mouth. If you drink a wine and it sucks the moisture off your tongue, or (in extreme cases) feels like a mouthful of cotton, those are the tannins at work. Wines aged in stainless steel typically have fewer tannins than wines aged in wood, though the amount of tannins tends to be determined more by the grape variety and how much the winery used the stems, skins and seeds in the winemaking process. In any case, tannins help add structure and balance, and help keep a wine intact as it ages in the bottle.

Terroir: More and more, wine drinkers are seeking out cuvées– er, wines, which are expressive of their terroir. This French term doesn’t just refer to the qualities of the soil in which a vineyard is planted. It encompasses the entire microclimate of the vineyard, from soil to sunlight to rainfall to temperatures. Basically, terroir can be anything that gives a wine a sense of place. A single-vineyard wine should theoretically be most expressive of its terroir, as compared to a wine made from grapes grown across an entire region. It matters less whether a wine is a varietal or a blend of different varieties.

Variety/Varietal: Speaking of which, let’s talk about “varietal” versus “varieties.” I admit I confused these terms myself until relatively recently, and you’ll see them used incorrectly in all sorts of prestigious publications. Editors take note! A variety refers to the type of grape, such as Merlot, Chardonnay, or everyone’s favorite, Öküzgözü. A varietal wine is a wine made entirely (or almost entirely) from a single variety, and it should probably express the characteristics of that variety. Although “varietal” is technically an adjective, it’s also common these days to refer to a varietal wine as simply “a varietal.”

My goodness, well that’s enough vocabulary for me. Does anyone happen to have a glass of tannic terroir-focused extra-dry varietal something or other?

Non-Alcoholic Drinks For Alcoholic Guests

19 January 2013
Juniper & Tonic

Juniper & Tonic

Most of us have at least one friend who chooses, for whatever reason, not to drink alcohol. As a host, this presents a bit of a dilemma. Do you offer them something relatively wholesome but boring, like juice or sparkling water, or do you present them with a tasty but chemical-laden soda? A fancy soda, like those made by Fentiman’s, makes a good alternative, yet that still doesn’t exactly feel special.

I want my non-drinking friends to feel like they’re drinking something as fun as everybody else, and so I like to serve them perhaps the most unusual drink of all: The Non-Alcoholic Cocktail. These take a little extra creativity, because there isn’t all that much literature devoted to them, and restaurants only rarely include examples on their menus.

Over the years, I’ve come up with a few that I love and even drink myself from time to time. Here are five fabulous non-alcoholic drinks guaranteed to surprise and delight your most discerning teetotaling party guests:



–Juice of one lime

–One can of club soda

–1.5 ounces (about 1.5 shaker caps’ worth) cranberry juice

–Orange slice

Pour the club soda into a large tumbler over a sizeable hunk of ice (the larger the ice, the slower it will melt and dilute the drink). Add the lime juice and then the cranberry juice (make sure it’s not sugary cranberry juice cocktail, but a 100% juice blend of cranberry and apple). The garnish of the orange slice is important in this case. Besides making for an attractive drink, its orangey aroma stands in for the Triple Sec or Cointreau in a traditional Cosmopolitan.



–Juice of one lime

–20 Juniper berries

–One bottle of tonic

This drink approximates some of the flavors in a gin and tonic. Squeeze the lime into a cocktail shaker, add the juniper berries and three or four large cubes of ice. Shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds, breaking up the juniper berries and infusing the lime juice with their flavor. Take your finest metal strainer, or better yet a coffee filter, and strain out all the juniper berry particles. Pour some tonic over a little ice in a lowball glass (adding the tonic before the juice prevents too much fizzing), add the juniper-infused lime juice, and garnish, if you like, with a slice of lime.


APFELSCHORLE (I didn’t make this one up — this is a classic German refreshment)

–Unfiltered apple cider

–Club soda (or mineral water, if you want to be really authentic)

I prefer club soda in this cocktail because the larger bubbles stand up better to the apple cider, but Germans traditionally use mineral water, because they seem to be addicted to the stuff. Whichever way you go, fill up a tumbler about 2/3 full with club soda or mineral water, and top off with the apple cider. If you want to get really fancy, you can garnish with a long cinnamon stick.


Fancy Cherry Lemon StuffFANCY CHERRY LEMON STUFF (suggestions for alternative names are welcome)

–One can of club soda

–One lemon

–One ounce tart cherry juice

–Orange slice

Juice the lemon. Pour the can of club soda over a little ice in a large tumbler. Add in the lemon juice, and a full shaker cap (about one ounce) of 100% tart cherry juice (available at Whole Foods). This tastes complex and sweet, but not too sweet. Again, the orange garnish adds another layer, its aroma mixing beautifully with the flavors of the drink.



–High-quality ginger beer or ginger ale

–Juice of 1/2 a lime

–Sprig of fresh mint

In this drink, choosing a fine ginger beer is absolutely critical. Do not cut corners with some generic brand, or this will taste dreadful. I usually go for Reed’s. Stand a sprig of mint in a tumbler and add in a two or three large cubes of ice. Rattle the glass to bruise the mint and release its oils. Pour in the ginger beer followed by the lime, and garnish, if you like, with a slice of lime. Delicious.

Cheers, and happy not-drinking!


Food-Friendly Vernaccia Di San Gimignano

16 January 2013

Vernaccia di San GimignanoOver the holidays, I had the fortune to sample a wine hand-carried all the way from Tuscany to Kentucky: A 2011 “La Roccaia” Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Our host opened the wine with some ceremony, poured it, and gave it a sniff. “It’s different,” he noted, rather dubiously. He took a sip, and I asked him what he thought. He replied, quite undubiously, “Well, it goes to show Italians don’t know s— about white wine.”

It’s a shame that the wine he transported so carefully for thousands of miles was so disappointing, but I must admit I couldn’t wait to see what this apparent train wreck of a wine tasted like. The nose didn’t seem so bad: Green, citrusy, and minerally. But I could see why our host, a fan of fine Rieslings, would find this wine so unpalatable.

It tasted bracingly tart, with very focused, limey acids. The wine didn’t unclench until the very end, when it broadened a bit, finishing with a bit of stone. What distressed me was its watery underbelly. The tight acidity may have been what the winemakers were going for, but I doubt that they intended the wine to have such flabby fruit.

Making the fondueFortunately, we were having some classic cheese fondue for our main course, and the fondue saved the day. The pointy acids of the wine cut right through the richness of the cheese, clearing the way for the next bite. It was quite a fine pairing, in fact! I don’t necessarily relish the prospect of drinking this wine again on its own, but the acids made it undeniably food-friendly .

If you go out looking for some Vernaccia to pair with a rich cream sauce or some cheese, note that Vernaccia di San Gimignano is only one of several very different-tasting Vernaccias produced in Italy. And it’s not just a matter of terroir. The Vernaccia grown around San Gimignano isn’t even the same variety as the Vernaccias grown elsewhere. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona is a fizzy red, for example, and Vernaccia di Oristano is almost sherry-like. The name “Vernaccia,” it turns out, means essentially “indigenous,” and it can refer to the indigenous varieties found in a number of Italian localities.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano won’t please everyone, if this bottle is any indication, but if you’re planning on serving something like fondue, brie en croute, raclette or fettuccine alfredo, its crisp acids might just make it a perfect match.

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