Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Fizzy Pink For Spring

30 March 2013
L'Étage

L’Étage

For years, one of my very favorite wine and cocktail bars in the world, In Fine Spirits, stood just down the street from my home. Unfortunately, it transformed itself into a fine-dining restaurant, which then proceeded to fail. The neighborhood never quite forgave the popular In Fine Spirits for jilting it (thankfully, the excellent In Fine Spirits shop remains open).

I greatly missed having a wine bar within easy walking distance, and so it was with no small amount of pleasure that I discovered L’Étageoccupying a cozy space directly above where In Fine Spirits met its untimely demise. Its by-the-glass wine list isn’t nearly as ambitious, restricting itself to “French” and “Domestic” selections, but it contains a few unusual gems, including a refreshing Domaine Giachino Jacquère from Savoie, redolent of vanilla, green apples and lime.

But since I had already written about the Domaine Giachino in this post, my attention turned to another odd duck, a Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen a rosé Crémant de Loire — most versions of this French sparkling wine are made primarily with Chenin Blanc, but in this case, Cabernet Franc dominated. The idea of a sparkling Cabernet Franc fascinated me, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try.

Château Moncontour Crémant  de Loire Brut  Rosé

Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé

I didn’t realize at the time that I was taking a bit of a gamble. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, more and more sparkling Cabernet Francs from the Loire are showing well, “However, the aggressive potential of this grape can quickly turn a thrilling raspberry-flavored fizz into something hideous.” Cabernet Franc is infamous, after all, for a tendency towards herbaceousness. Fortunately, L’Étage did not attempt to foist the equivalent of a glass of bubbly green peppers on me.

A flute came filled to the brim with the watermelon-colored Château Moncontour, and it lacked any bouquet whatsoever. It wasn’t until I took a few sips, giving it some room to breathe in the glass, that I discovered how aromatic this crémant actually was (not that I’m one to complain about an overfilled glass). Once I could actually smell it, I found the notes of red fruit and yeast enticing.

The bubbles erred on the foamy side, but their tiny size made them feel elegant nevertheless. It started off quite dry, moving to tart acids and a finish of rich, red fruit. It tasted perfectly delightful on its own, but paired with some duck rillettes topped with grainy mustard, the jammy notes became even more deliciously pronounced.

The Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé  would make a fine aperitif or an excellent mate with a range of food. The Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia makes me hesitant to recommend picking up any old rosé Crémant de Loire that you find, but if you do happen to come across one that your local wine shop recommends, don’t hesitate to give it a try. It’s perfect for a party, because it will satisfy guests who require sweet wine as well as those who demand something dry.

Thanks to L’Étage for introducing me to this festive sparkler, and welcome to the neighborhood!

SUMMARY

NV Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé: Festive but elegant, with a dry start and a jammy finish. Tasty on its own, but even better paired with poultry (pork, light pastas and many Asian dishes should also work well). Serve well-chilled.

Grade: B+

Find It: I paid $9 for a glass at L’Étage. Wine Searcher listed two retailers selling the wine, each charging about $15 per bottle.

The 0.6 Percent

27 March 2013

Aglianico del VultureWith winter’s chill lingering unwholesomely into Holy Week, I found myself still yearning for hearty red wines and rich food. I started preparing a batch of ratatouille-like casserole and consulted my wine rack. Since it would just be me drinking wine this evening, I didn’t want anything too expensive. (And despite what your mother may have told you, there’s nothing wrong with drinking alone.) I reached for a 2009 Bisceglia ”Terra di Vulcano” Aglianico del Vulture.

What a mouthful! Aglianico del Vulture (pronounced approximately “ah-lee-ah-nee-coh dell vool-too-ray”) is one of Basilicata’s few wine regions of any note. Basilicata, set in the arch of Italy’s boot, doesn’t get a lot of press. It produces, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, a minuscule 0.6 percent of total Italian production. Its neighbor Puglia accounts for a whopping 14%, and even unsung Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, manages a respectable 1.6 percent.

Nevertheless, Aglianico del Vulture was granted DOCG status in 2011, the highest status an Italian wine region can achieve. Up until then, this land around the extinct Vulture volcano in the far north of Basilicata ranked only as a DOC, the qualification indicated on my 2009 bottle. The ancient variety of Aglianico was originally thought to be of Greek origin, as Wikipedia still asserts, but according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, DNA profiling work “in the early 2000s could find no relationship with any known Greek variety.” My theory is that Greek colonists in southern Italy discovered Aglianico already growing there, and it became known as a Greek variety because they were the first to exploit its potential.

Today, Aglianico del Vulture is grown “with unusual skill for this part of the world,” The World Atlas of Wine rather tartly notes, on the slopes of Mount Vulture up to 2,500 feet. The elevation keeps the vines cool at night, which is vital this far south in Italy. When it works, “The grape’s best wines are deep in color with full chocolate and plum aromas, fine-grained tannins, and marked acidity on the palate,” according to the Companion. Sotheby’s agrees, calling Aglianico del Vulture a “big but balanced red wine of warm color, rich, chocolate-cherry fruit, and firm tannin structure.”

I certainly enjoyed the Bisceglia ”Terra di Vulcano” Aglianico del Vulture. It lived up to its name, offering plenty of earthy notes. The wine was very aromatic, smelling of dark red fruit and iron. It had a rustic texture, with ripe fruit, ample acids, some earth in the middle and a hint of something (not unpleasantly) bitter on the finish. And paired with the Parmigiano-laced ratatouille casserole, it grew even rounder and spicier. I found it to be rather addictive, I must admit.

If you relish rustic, earthy, fruity wines, I suspect you might find wines from Aglianico del Vulture to be rather addictive as well (in a non-abusive way, of course).

SUMMARY

2009 Bisceglia ”Terra di Vulcano” Aglianico del Vulture: Rustic, earthy and ripely fruity. Pair with casual food like pizza, pasta in red sauce and pork roast. Chill for 20 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: I purchased this wine for $13 at Binny’s. A fine value.

An Exotic Hungarian Beauty

23 March 2013

Evolucio FurmintThe wines of contemporary Hungary have yet to achieve the fashionability of their Austrian neighbors. Although Hungary’s decadent Tokaji Aszú was all the rage in the 18th century — in fact, in 1707, the vineyards of Tokaj were part of “the first national vineyard classification anywhere,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine — there have been a few bumps on the road since then, most notably when the communists invaded and the state monopoly took over.

Communism tends to value quantity over quality, and during this unfortunate period in Hungarian history, much of the wine industry was devoted to exporting “huge quantities of very ordinary wine to the USSR,” as the Companion explains. Fortunately, Hungary managed to maintain a somewhat mixed economy even under the communist fist, and many individual vineyards remained privately owned, easing the transition to a mostly free-market economy.

Hungary once again exports high-quality wines, both red and white, though it’s usually much easier to find the famed Tokaji Aszú than any of the fine dry table wines being produced. Part of the problem may be that, like Germany and Austria, Hungary often labels its wines according to the grape variety used to make them. This theoretically should be an advantage in the U.S., where we’re far more comfortable with varieties than geographical locations, but it starts to get dicey when the varieties have names like Kadarka and Hárslevelű. And Furmint.

Furmint, unlike Hárslevelű, we Americans at least have a shot at pronouncing. If you happen to find a dry Hungarian white wine in your local shop, it will likely be made from this exciting variety. The Companion calls Furmint “fine and fiery,” and The World Atlas of Wine notes that when Furmint is treated like Chardonnay, “the result is dry, intense, perfumed and mineral-laden.”

The delights of Furmint are unknown to most wine consumers outside of Hungary, however, which means that Furmints tend to be excellent values. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the 2011 Evolúció Furmint is the best white-wine value I’ve tasted since I started writing this blog. The Furmint in this wine came from Tokaj (just to keep things confusing, Tokaj is the region and Tokaji is the sweet wine), where volcanic soils and plenty of south-facing slopes make for ideal vine growing. Beyond that, some sort of magic must happen in Tokaj, because they managed to bottle a thoroughly memorable wine that retails for less than $10.

I knew at first sniff I would love the Evolúció — the spicy, exotic aromas of incense, apples and ginger sucked me right in. It had lush fruit, a midsection of ginger and white pepper, and a punch of tart acids on the finish. I can’t deny that it had a bit of a watery underbelly, but it tasted exotic and sexy nevertheless.

When I found this wine at Binny’s on North and Clybourn, I bought half a case. I never do that. But with flavors like that and a price tag of just $9, I dare say I found my new house white.

SUMMARY

2011 Evolúció Furmint: Aromatic and sexy, with lush fruit and exotic spices. Chill well before serving, and pair with mild to moderately spicy chicken and pork dishes. An amazing value for the money.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this wine at Binny’s for $9.

Read about another fine dry Furmint I tasted here, an unusual late-harvest Furmint here, and a Slovenian Furmint here.

The Joys Of Ginger Liqueur

20 March 2013

Koval Ginger LiqueurOne of the great benefits of living in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood is the easy walk to both a brilliant brewery and a distinctive distillery. I’ve written before about the carefully crafted spirits produced by Koval Distillery, and I was recently fortunate enough to receive a tall, slender bottle of its Organic Ginger Liqueur as a gift from a friend.

Each 10-gallon batch of Koval’s Ginger Liqueur requires 60 pounds of fresh ginger, which explains both the deliciously rich ginger flavor as well as the periodic e-mails I receive encouraging me to come to Koval’s ginger peeling parties. The effort pays off — the liqueur (with 20% alcohol) has a seductively warm aroma of ginger and caramel, and it tastes lusciously smooth with a spicy bite at the end. It tastes so smooth, in fact, that my friend exclaimed, ”It’s smooth enough, even a child could drink it!” This friend, reassuringly, has no children of his own.

As delicious as this liqueur was served neat, I had a feeling it could do wonders in a cocktail. My friend and I got to work. We kept things simple for our first attempt, a basic martini that  allowed the ginger flavor to shine. It’s strong but smooth, with a citrusy start, a ginger midsection and an alcoholic punch on the finish:

GINGER MARTINI

–2 parts vodka (For the money, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better vodka than Sobieski.)

–1 part Koval Organic Ginger Liqueur (or Stirrings Ginger Liqueur, should Koval be unavailable)

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Squeeze half a lemon first, and use the amount of juice as the measure of half a part. Depending on the amount of juice you squeeze, you should be able to make one large drink or two small ones. Add all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass. If you’re so inclined, garnish with a twist of lemon peel or a thin slice of fresh ginger.

GINGER MANHATTAN

–1 part bourbon (I used Rowan’s Creek, because life is short.)

–1 part Koval Organic Ginger Liqueur

–2 or 3 dashes of Angostura bitters (or similar)

Combine all of the above in large cocktail shaker with ice, and if you’re not in too big of a hurry, stir it for 60 seconds or more for maximum smoothness. Or just give it a good shake and strain into a martini glass. If you’d like to garnish, I recommend a twist of orange zest. This combination makes a wonderfully bright and spicy Manhattan, but it has a surprising creamy quality to it. It’s not as sharp as you might expect.

And finally, my favorite:

GINGER SIDECAR

–1 part Cognac (I used XO in this tasting, but if you’re not lucky enough to have a free sample bottle of that lying around, VS or VSOP will work just fine.)

–1 part Koval Organic Ginger Liqueur

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Combine all of the above in a cocktail shaker with ice, stir or shake as is your preference, and strain into a martini glass. It’s traditional to rim the glass with sugar, but I can’t be bothered with that sort of thing. Garnish with a lemon twist if you like. This cocktail moved from flavors of molasses to citrus to ginger — it was stellar.

I’m sure this is only the beginning of the cocktail possibilities. A bottle of Ginger Liqueur belongs right next to the Triple Sec in your liquor cabinet. Happy mixing!

A Surprisingly Odd Malbec

16 March 2013

Georges Duboeuf MalbecWhile browsing the wine section at Whole Foods, I noticed something surprising: a Georges Duboeuf Malbec. Georges Duboeuf is one of France’s most famous vintners, infamously producing an ocean of (usually overpriced) Beaujolais Nouveau each year, as well as a range of perfectly tasty standard wines. But I had never seen a Duboeuf Malbec, and I had never seen a wine of any kind from Comté Tolosan, the Indication Géographique Protégée listed on the back label. This Georges Duboeuf wine had become very oddly irresistable, and I snapped it up.

Almost every wine drinker these days has heard of Malbec, thanks to its Argentinean success. I used to think Malbec originated in Argentina, but it’s actually a French variety, though ever fewer French vineyards grow it. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Malbec is “still the backbone of Cahors,” a red made in France’s southwest, and it is from this wine that Georges Duboeuf must have drawn his inspiration for the Malbec varietal.

And that’s where the real story is. Comté Tolosan is classified as a Vin de Pays, a very loosely regulated wine region which in this case encompasses almost the whole of southwestern France. Often in France, or in any terroir-driven wine country, the more specific the geographic designation, the higher the quality of the wine. The regulations on these geographic designations, or AOCs, can be very restrictive, however, preventing innovative winemakers from experimenting with different techniques or varieties.

In contrast, the Vin de Pays regions typically have very loose rules. In fact, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, red wine grapes in Comté Tolosan “are not specified beyond ‘what is growing’!” (Exclamation point in the original.) It took the regulation-happy French a while to get to this point — it was only in 2000 that varietal wines were legalized, but even then, they had to be 100% that variety (most of the rest of the world allows winemakers to blend up to 15% of other varieties in varietal wines). Finally, in 2004, producers were authorized to adjust their varietal wines with a bit of blending, making them more palatable.

And with that, the French finally had a shot at capturing consumers who look for “Chardonnay” or “Malbec” instead of “Chinon” or “Mâcon-Villages.” Now, according to the Encyclopedia, the Vin de Pays category of wine “includes some of the most innovative and exciting wines being produced in the world today.”

I’m not sure the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Malbec Grain Noir qualifies as one of the most exciting wines in the world, but I certainly enjoyed drinking it. It had a pleasant aroma of brandied cherries, and some rustic fruit on the palate. That moved to black pepper spice and a softly tannic, more velvety finish. It kept an even keel, avoiding any surprises, making it sure to satisfy a wide range of red-wine drinkers. And after all, at about $10 a bottle, what more could you ask?

SUMMARY

2009 Georges Duboeuf Malbec Grain Noir: Moves from a rough, rustic start to a velvety finish. A fine value for the price, and sure to be tasty with pizza or pasta with red sauce. Chill in the refreigerator for 20 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: I bought this wine at the Whole Foods on Halsted and Waveland for $10, but a rather harried employee told me they don’t have it in stock at the moment. You might see it in the wine departments of other Whole Foods branches, however.

Port’s Unhearalded Brother

13 March 2013

Bin 152Even if they’ve never sampled it, most everyone has heard of Port. This fortified wine from Porto, Portugal, deserves its fame — a glass of fine caramelly tawny Port or deeply flavored vintage Port always makes a deliciously relaxing end to a meal. But the Portuguese don’t have a monopoly on these sorts of wines. The farthest southern corner of France can give northern Portugal some serious competition.

I once had the fortune to visit the spectacular vineyards here, around the town of Banyuls. I was about 24 years old, and really beginning to appreciate the joys of wine tasting. Around every bend it seemed, a shop or house or even just a roadside stand offered “Degustation,” and to my parents’ eventual annoyance, I wanted to stop at every one. But what could I do? After tasting some Banyuls paired with a Banyuls-poached pear covered in melted chocolate and cinnamon, I was hooked.

Clinging to the Roussillon coast, the narrow roads winding through the vertiginous vineyards of Banyuls make for hair-raising driving, and tending to the vines requires hard labor. Because the terrain makes machinery all but impossible to use, the very ripe grapes — often picked when halfway to raisinhood – must be harvested by hand. Yields are very low. Hell for winemakers perhaps, but ideal for drinkers.

Red Banyuls must contain at least 50% Grenache, and because the wine is fortified with alcohol, the result tastes remarkably like Port. Or perhaps more accurately, in the inimitable words of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Banyuls] lacks the fire of a great Port, but it has its own immense charm.”

I happened to have an immensely charming Banyuls about a week ago in Charleston. Bin 152, a stylish wine bar run by an engaging French couple, had one on its by-the-glass menu, and goodness knows after my tireless explorations of Lowcountry cuisine, I was in need of a serious digestif.

Fanny, who hails originally from Nice, poured me a glass of 2008 Domaine la Tour Vieille Banyuls, before refilling Brooke Shields’ glass of white Burgundy (she looked great). The wine proved to be even more exciting than the celebrity sighting, however. It had the big, round, raisiny fruit I was expecting, but what surprised me was its steady, driving force. It had power, this wine, but its development from fruity to spicy to tannic was so slow and so rhythmic, I could only but marvel at its self-control.

This Banyuls demanded attention, and it made me forget all about my distended stomach. Not all of them rise to these heights, but every Banyuls I’ve sampled has been at the very least quite good. It pairs wonderfully with chocolate, berries and celebrities, and it tends to cost less than Port of similar quality, because Banyuls lacks Port’s famous name. If you see one in a wine shop or on a wine list, don’t hesitate to give it a try.

An Argument Lost At The Cocktail Club

9 March 2013

A Valiant Soldier at the Cocktail ClubThe Cocktail Club on north King Street in Charleston offers an atmospheric place to sip craft cocktails, accompanied occasionally by live music. I had settled in with my drink at the bar when I overheard the young lady next to me ordering drinks:

Woman: “Hi there. I need something for a girl and something for a guy [indicating the fellow next to her].”

The bartender, to his credit, delved further into their taste in cocktails, made some recommendations and got mixing. I felt fascinated — especially after attending a conference dedicated to women and Cognac — to hear her order drinks this way, as if gender had something to do with palate.

Me: “I couldn’t help but hear you order your cocktails, and I wanted to ask — why did you order them that way? I mean, do you think women have different palates than men?”

Woman: “Oh, that’s interesting — I don’t really know why I did that, actually. I’m actually a bartender myself, and I like all sorts of things.”

Me: “Right, absolutely. I mean, what if I’m a guy in the mood for something sweet and spicy, and I see this cocktail on the menu here with cinnamon, chili peppers, chocolate vodka and so forth. I probably won’t order it because it’s called ‘For Her Pleasure.’ But why is it called that? Because it’s a dessert drink?”

Woman: “Yeah, I don’t know. But it’s funny, because I actually ended up with a pretty strong martini, and my boyfriend’s is on the sweeter side. So I’m not sure me ordering the way I did made much of a difference after all. What are you drinking?”

Me: “Ahem. This is a ‘Valiant Soldier.’”

Woman: [Raises eyebrows.]

Oops. And with that, this valiant soldier was forced into retreat!

Laura’s Luscious Loquat Liqueur

6 March 2013

Loquat Liqueur in processI had the opportunity to drink a number of thoroughly delightful tipples while in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of the best things I tasted was homemade. If you go to Charleston, and I certainly recommend that you do, give Laura Wichmann Hipp of Charleston Tea Party Private Tours a call. The tour isn’t inexpensive at $100 per person, but it’s worth every penny. She gives you wonderfully personalized, idiosyncratic insights into Charleston that only a lifelong resident could. How else would I have learned that “north side manners” dictate that you don’t linger at the windows on the north side of your home? If your neighbor’s yard and piazza (porch) are on the south side, Mrs. Hipp explained, staring out your northern windows infringes on your neighbor’s privacy.

But more important for the purposes of this blog, Mrs. Hipp also makes her own unique Loquat Liqueur by steeping loquats from her garden in vodka (see right). Now what the heck is a loquat? I thought it might be related to a kumquat, that tiny citrus fruit one eats whole, but the similar names are just a coincidence. Loquats are actually a variety of small stone fruit, which became immediately clear to me when I took a whiff of the liqueur.

It smelled to me like Prunelle, a marvelous plum-based French spirit with a distinctive amaretto aroma shared by the Loquat Liqueur. It tasted floral, sweet and lush, but it wasn’t just a syrup bomb — it had balance, ending with a note of spicy citrus peel. I loved it neat, but it also tasted delicious mixed with some warm apple cider.

For the moment, the only way to obtain the Loquat Liqueur is to head down to Laura’s well-kept Charleston home and pick some up yourself. But Mrs. Hipp has been in off-and-on talks with the owner of Firefly, a local distillery best-known for its Sweet Tea Vodka (mix it with lemonade for a mean Arnold Palmer). The distiller might just be interested in producing this wonderfully unusual liqueur, which would be great news for those of us not fortunate enough to call regularly on Mrs. Hipp.

Until then, I’m glad I brought a bottle home to Chicago, where loquats — in liqueur form or otherwise — are decidedly hard to come by. Every time I take a sip, I’ll be reminded of one of my loveliest days in Charleston.

Galicia’s Answer To Sauvignon Blanc

2 March 2013

She crab soup with sherryUnadventurous wine lists at corporate parties and weddings tend to read something like this: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc tops the list so often because it tends to be fruity and very food-friendly, with fun, juicy acids. But if you’re itching to get out of the Sauvignon Blanc rut — and if you’re reading this, I suspect you are — I’ve got just the white for you: Godello.

This variety indigenous to Spain’s northwestern Galicia region almost became extinct thanks to Phylloxera, and it languished in obscurity for years. It was only “recently re-discovered,” according to the 2001 edition of André Dominé’s Wine, and the Galician region best known for producing Godello, the rainy Valdeorras D.O., now “regularly hits the headlines of the Spanish trade press.”

All my wine books speak highly of Godello grown in Valdeorras. The World Atlas of Wine argues that it “can yield extremely fine wines worth ageing,” and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “The best [Valdeorras] wineries have now been modernized and are even better than they used to be, particularly for white wines made from the Godello grape.”

Even so, it can be hard to find this “fine white grape variety” (The Oxford Companion to Wine), because Galician vineyards and wineries tend to be small, with necessarily limited production, and much of what is produced is consumed locally. The Galicians know a good thing when they taste it. I felt very lucky, therefore, when I spotted it on the wines-by-the-glass list at Carter’s Kitchen, a delightful casual restaurant tucked away in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina.

Carter’s Kitchen offered the 2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello for $8 a glass, one of the least-expensive wines on the list. I needed something with some serious acids to compete with the decadent seafood I’d just ordered, and the Godello proved up to the challenge. It started with some sweet, apply fruit, but this was quickly overtaken by focused, limey acids which carried through to a white-peppery finish. The wine cut right through the richness of a creamy and thick she crab soup (pictured above), and it kept its laser focus against some beautifully fresh fried “doormat flounder” as well.

I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again with seafood, pork, chicken, pasta with cream sauce, risotto… Its juicy fruit and tight acids ensure that it can stand up to all sorts of rich foods, clearing the palate to prepare for the next bite. Keep an eye out for Godellos – if you like Sauvignon Blanc, a nervy Godello from Galicia will be right up your palate.

SUMMARY

2011 Valdesil Montenovo Godello: Fruity but focused, with tight acids that can shine right through a host of rich foods. An excellent escape from a Sauvignon Blanc rut. Chill well before serving.

Grade: B+

Find It: Williams-Sonoma sells this particular Godello for $15, but don’t worry if you can’t find this specific label. Binny’s, for example, lists nine different Godellos on its website ranging in price from $10 to $50 a bottle. Also check out my review of this Godello from Galicia’s Monterrei region.