Regions

Bobbing On The Surface Of The Finger Lakes

26 August 2015
The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

As I departed this year’s Finger Lakes-focused Wine Bloggers Conference, I felt something strange. A lack. This subtle absence might have even gone unnoticed, had I not participated in previous conferences in Virginia and British Columbia. After those two conferences, I felt a strong connection to the wine regions. I can still viscerally feel the rolling vineyards of Virginia, planted along roads where Thomas Jefferson rode in his carriage, and the sweeping vistas of British Columbia, where the vineyards melted into a vast landscape of rugged mountains and lakes. This time, as my plane departed the minuscule Elmira airport in rural New York, my viscera barely twitched. Something was wrong.

Glynis of Vino-Noire.com and Reggie of WineCasual.com with the author

Glynis of Vino-Noire.com and Reggie of WineCasual.com with the author (center)

I went over the events of the conference in my mind — the tastings, the dinners, the receptions, the after-parties — all of which had been delightful. Nor could it have been the people. I deepened several friendships made at the British Columbia conference, and forged new ones as well. I left feeling more strongly connected to the wine blogger community than ever. And the winery representatives I’d met couldn’t have been more personable. One winemaker even invited me to stay at his house, should I return to the area! Then the problem became clear.

Somehow, over the course of my three nights at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Corning, I had managed to avoid visiting a single winery or vineyard. How was this possible?

I am as much to blame as anyone, since I didn’t make time for either the pre- or post-conference excursion to the Finger Lakes, both of which included multiple winery visits. The town of Corning itself, charming though it may be, with its quaint downtown and impressive museums of glass and American art, is bereft of vineyards. I knew this, and just assumed that an excursion to a winery or two would take place during the conference as had happened in the past.

We did hop on buses at one point to get into the countryside, but we didn’t know where a bus was going until we were already en route. My bus made a perfectly pleasant trip to the Manor House on Keuka Lake, where we tasted an array of delicious Rieslings. The word “exotic” keeps appearing in my notes about these Rieslings, which exhibited aromas like jasmine and incense and flavors of roses, ginger and fleshy peach. These were well-balanced and rather sexy wines, made by the likes of Ravines, Vineyard View, Barrington and McGregor.

The Manor House on Keuka Lake

The Manor House near Keuka Lake

I loved this flavor journey along the Keuka Lake Wine Trail, but it was unfortunately unaccompanied by a physical journey to any wineries or vineyards. The Manor House made for a pretty event venue, with food stations set up inside the house stocked with fluffy gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream sauce and sweet-and-sour glazed pork meatballs which we nibbled on the lake-view terrace. But it could not substitute for a winery.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit an array of wine regions over the years, and when I drink something from a place I know, the wine transports me there in the manner of Proust’s madeleine. When I drink Tokaji, I find myself back in that 500-year-old cellar caked with mold or on the vine-clad hillside near my hotel, staring aghast at the gash where the communist regime mined a Grand Cru vineyard for clay. When I drink a well-crafted wine from Mendoza, my skin remembers how the breeze felt as it swept down from the distant Andes and across the vineyards surrounding me. I can still physically feel these places in a way that I simply can’t the Finger Lakes.

This lack made something clear to me which, in retrospect, should probably have been obvious. I don’t feel like I know a wine until I’ve actually visited where it’s made. When you stand quietly for a little while in a vineyard, the terroir seeps into you, just a bit, just like it does the wine. Touching and smelling the casks in a cellar — it connects you to the wine, deepening your experience when you taste it. Tasting alone is not enough.

I’m still bobbing on the surface of the Finger Lakes. One day soon I’ll have to fix that.

Finger Lakes Speed Blogging: The Whites

17 August 2015
Peter Weis pouring Dr. Konstantin Frank

Peter Weis pouring Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Grüner Veltliner

Speed blogging at the Wine Bloggers Conference never fails to be wild and woolly, and this year was woollier than most. The WiFi during the first session proved woefully inadequate for a giant conference room full of wine bloggers, which made writing my post as I tasted — my preferred method of speed blogging — impossible. So, alas, this post did not come straight from the glass to my blog, it passed through a paper notebook first.

Hopefully this detour did little to dull or dilute my descriptions. Certainly, none of the white Finger Lakes wines we tasted were dull:

2014 Three Brothers Wineries and Estates Grüner Veltliner: “So Grüner — it’s gonna take over,” presenter Jon Mansfield, one of the three brothers of this winery declared. “It has the best parts of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer smashed together.” I’m not entirely convinced that’s true, but I certainly liked this Grüner. It had a humid green aroma, Jolly Rancher apple fruit, tart and zesty acids and an almost bitter finish. Surely food-friendly, and unquestionably refreshing.

2014 Americana Vineyards “Apparition”: I’m a little confused by this wine; the fact sheet notes that it’s 100% Vidal Blanc, but the winery’s website describes it as “a blend of Cayuga grapes.” The presenter described it as Vidal Blanc, however, so I’m going with that. In any case, this semi-dry wine had a round aroma marked by some orange and peach, and peachy fruit flavors balanced by very tart acids and a texture verging on petillance. Fun and well-crafted. Not too shabby for a hybrid varietal!

2014 Dr. Konstantin Frank Grüner Veltliner: Peter Weis, pictured above, cleverly flattered his audience, explaining to us that he chose the Grüner because he wanted to pour something “unusual and sophisticated.” He chose wisely. It had a fresh, rather herbaceous aroma, and it tasted wonderfully crisp and bright, with notes of fresh hay, ripe fruit, limey acids and a dry-pasta finish. Delightful. And my word, what a steal at $15 a bottle. Maybe Grüner will be taking over after all?

2014 Atwater Estate Vineyards Chardonnay: This wine was, in a word, bonkers. Harvested from 40-year-old vines, the Chardonnay grapes are fermented with skins, seeds and even some stems, and the juice then sits unfiltered for six months in neutral oak barrels. Nor does Atwater filter the wine when it comes time for bottling. It ends up looking quite turbid and bright orange, like a slightly more subdued Tang. “This is a style of wine made since the beginning of time,” the presenter explained, “fermented in open-top wood bins.” It smelled almost perfumed, and it had quite a texture. Citrus, ripe stone fruit, and a tart, dry finish. Fascinating!

2012 Wagner Vineyards Caywood East Vineyard Dry Riesling: Presenter Katie Roller poured Wagner’s first single-vineyard Riesling, which proved to be quite tasty. Aromas of orange and shower curtain, and appley fruit, tart acids and a dry finish. Well-balanced and a good value at $18 a bottle. Another fine effort from Wagner.

2014 Lamoreaux Landing Red Oak Vineyard Riesling: This wine was named by someone important, I didn’t write who, as one of “The World’s Top 20 Single-Vineyard Rieslings.” That’s a lot to live up to — the world has no shortage of superb single-vineyard Rieslings. But I must admit I really liked this wine. It felt classy and refined, and it took me on a nice flavor journey. Ripe fruit, some exotic spice, a pleasantly dry finish… Really lovely, and at $20 a bottle, it’s a deal.

2010 Casa Larga Fiori Delle Stelle Vidal Blanc Ice Wine: “Ice wine — it’s not just for breakfast anymore,” according to Leslie, the vivacious presenter. Made from vines grown on the extreme northwest edge of the Finger Lakes AVA, this Vidal Blanc ice wine takes no shortcuts. The winery lets the grapes hang on the vine until they freeze naturally, rather than harvesting them and freezing them by artificial means. The effort pays off; the wine has a gorgeous rich gold color, a fresh honeyed aroma, and a lush texture balanced by orangey acids. It’s pricey at $40, but making ice wine is risky business.

Whoops! No one presented a wine to us during this five-minute block, despite my increasingly loud pleas for someone to pour us some wine, for heaven’s sake. Our glasses, sadly, remained empty for all five minutes. It doesn’t sound like much, but five minutes without wine at a Wine Bloggers Conference is an eternity.

2014 Boundary Breaks Dry Riesling  #239: “I bet everything on Riesling,” Boundary Breaks owner Bruce Murray confided. “I took my life savings and I put it in the ground.” I’m not one to support gambling, but I can’t deny I’m glad Murray went all-in: #239 tastes fantastic. The number refers to the Riesling clone from which this wine is made, Geisenheim #239, named after the German wine research institute which popularized it (see page 29). It has a really ripe and fruity nose, and plenty of rich tropical fruit on the palate. That moves to some focused spice and some tart acids, keeping everything wonderfully balanced. Well worth the $20 asking price.

2013 Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc: Winemaker Michael Reidy presented this delicious Sauvignon Blanc, of which only 600 cases were produced. “I use as many yeasts as I can to get complexity,” he explained. “because we machine-pick [the grapes].” I rather loved this wine, with its dewy grass/green hay aroma, creamy fruit, supple white-pepper spice and surprising light-caramel finish. A great value for $19, and a thoroughly delightful finish to Speed Blogging, Finger Lakes Whites Edition!

For more speed blogging action, check out this post about Finger Lakes reds.

Finger Lakes Speed Blogging: The Reds

15 August 2015
Speed Blogging - The Reds

Fred Merwath presenting Hermann J. Wiemer’s Cabernet Franc

I currently write from New York’s beautiful Finger Lakes region, where this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference has taken over the town of Corning. We recently finished one of my favorite of the conference’s annual activities: Speed Blogging.

Here’s how it works: Winery representatives move from table to table around the room, spending five minutes at each pouring and describing their wines.

We did the whites first, but because of an internet connection snafu, I had to do my “blogging” in a paper notebook. So we’ll start with rosés and reds:

2011 Ventosa Vineyards Cabernet Franc: Winemaker Jenna LaVita poured our first of 10 tastes. “It’s a trustworthy wine,” she explained, “and it’s the first grape I really worked on. It showed me the ropes. I feel like I have a personal connection to it.” It shows. The wine has big, fruity aroma and it tastes rich and round and full. It has a heft that some of the other Finger Lakes Cabernet Francs have been missing. It’s beautifully balanced, and I would happily pay the the $27 price tag, and then some.

2012 Damiani Wine Cellars Barrel Select Cabernet Franc: Our second Cab Franc had a fruity and spicy aroma, verging on herbaceousness. Owner Lou Damiani explained that this wine is unfined and unfiltered, and it’s his favorite wine. Again, it has some heft to it. It’s a big wine, with serious dark fruit, big but supple tannins, a little underlying funk and plenty of acids for balance, not to mention a significant 14% alcohol. It has a serious price tag, too, costing a cool $43, but I suspect that only seems expensive because I’m sitting here in the Finger Lakes.

2013 Lamoreaux Landing T23 Unoaked Cabernet Franc: Presenter Mario Del Rosso brought over an entirely different but still lovely Cabernet Franc. “Now we’re thinking about Loire Valley style,” he began, “and this [unoaked] style is one that really showcases the grape. It’s a nice choice for white wine drinkers who want to go to red.” After those two hefty Cab Francs in a row, I can’t deny I felt suspicious of this stainless-steel fermented version, but I really enjoyed its ample cherry fruit, focused white pepper spice, hint of violets and generally cheerful character.

NV Hazlitt Vineyards Schooner Red Blend:  Director of Winemaker Tim Benedict “We call this an ‘international blend’ because it includes 64% Malbec from Argentina.” He wanted to see what would happen when they blended the Malbec with local grapes, in this case 28% Cabernet Franc and 8% Merlot. That’s a gutsy move considering the current fashion for wines representative of their terroir. It has a meaty red fruit aroma, plenty of fruit, a big violet note and some white pepper spice. Not a bad deal for $14, though I would probably cough up $10 more and go for the Ventosa…

NV Idol Ridge Winery “Sparkle” Rosé: Made by a family winery (presenter Michaela Martin is third-generation), this unusual pink bubbly made from Noiret has a very herbaceous aroma, and flavors of strawberry cotton candy, as Glynis of Vino Noire beside me astutely noted. Small bubbles and plenty of lemony acids. Is it worth the $19 price tag? I liked it, but I don’t know if I $19 liked it.

2012 Swedish Hill Cabernet Franc Lemberger: According to winemaker Derek Wilbur, the 2012 season allowed the grapes to ripen very well, which is important for both varieties in this blend. This 60% Cab Franc and 40% Lemberger has an enticing aroma of cherry fruit and mocha, a light body, a touch of spice and some tannins on the finish. It feels a little watery in the middle, but by the third taste, it was opening — I wish I had a little more time with this one! Ah, the perils of speed blogging. $16 or $17, and a good value at that.

Americana Vineyards Baco Noire: This pretty magenta French hybrid is “wonderfully hearty and disease-resistant,” according to the presenter, but that’s not going to sell me on a hybrid. I am intrigued by its spicy and herbaceous aroma, but it has a fairly simple light and fruity flavor, and a dry finish marked by soft tannins. It’s fun and fruity, but I can think of a better way to spend $16.

2012 Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards Cabernet Franc: Presenter Fred Merwath knew how to impress this table of wine bloggers, pouring his wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It’s less weighty and more cheerful than the first two Cab Francs above, and I loved it. A fine value at $25 (for the regular bottle, not the magnum, alas).

2011 Wagner Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve: This reserve Pinot is made only in certain years, according to presenter and PR Director Katie Roller, when the vintage proves to be especially high-quality. The aroma of dried herbs, cherries and earth certainly smells encouraging, and yes, it has a delightful quality of restrained power. Bright cherry fruit leads slowly to earth and building white-pepper spice. As is so often the case in the Finger Lakes, it’s a fine value, costing $30 a bottle.

2010 Lucas Vineyards Cabernet Franc Limited Reserve: Winemaker Jeff Houck told us that what makes this wine “Limited Reserve” is the vintage. Like Wagner, he chooses only certain years in which to release these wines. It has a surprisingly bright aroma unlike any other Cab Franc I’ve smelled here in the Finger Lakes: red fruit overlayed with eucalyptus. I immensely enjoyed its big red fruit, sparkly white-pepper spice and underlying freshness, followed by supple tannins. Delightful! And again, it’s a great deal at $20.

Next up: The whites!

Phylloxera And The TSA

13 August 2015

As I write this, I’m awaiting my flight to Corning, New York, where this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference will take place. The wine talk this year started a little early, however.

When I walked through the metal detector in the TSA Precheck line in O’Hare’s Terminal 1, it beeped, most unexpectedly. As a relatively frequent traveler, I’ve perfected a uniform I wear through the detector that I know won’t set it off. But it wasn’t my outfit that caused the beep.

“You’ve been selected for additional screening,” the security guard informed me. Ah well. I alerted him that I preferred to opt out of the backscatter machine and do a pat-down instead. I don’t trust the emphatic government claims of the machine’s safety. It’s only been in operation a few years — not long enough to ascertain any long-term effects — and it’s no secret that the government isn’t always honest with the public.

In any case, I opted out, and a tall gentleman in his late 50s led me to the pat-down mat. “Have you done this before? Good — OK, so you know I’ll be touching inside your collar and brush against some potentially sensitive areas with the back of my hand. OK, please raise your arms.” He felt my sleeves, and asked, “So where are you off to today?”

“I’m headed to Corning, New York, to go to a Wine Blogger Conference. It should be a hoot.”

“Really, so you’re a wine guy,” he asked, feeling the inside of my shirt collar. He started brushing his hand down my back. “You know, I buy wine now and then myself.”

“Oh really? What sort of things have you been drinking?”

“I’ve bought a few bottles of Caymus,” he replied, and he noted a few other brands. “I like to wait until Binny’s [Chicago’s biggest wine store] has a sale, and then I stock up. The good stuff is all sitting in my basement, and when I retire, I’ll start opening it,” he laughed, running his fingers around the inside of my waistband.

“That’s a really good strategy,” I concurred. “Binny’s has some great sales!”

“Absolutely,” he agreed, now standing in front of me and patting my torso. “You know, It’s funny, but I really like Chilean wine, too.”

“Ah, Chilean wines give you a lot of bang for the buck,” I said, because it’s true.

“Right, they’re really good! You know, there was a fungus in the 80s that attacked American vines. Yeah, they had to cut the vines off, and transplant them to different roots.” I realized he was talking about phylloxera, which is an insect, not a fungus. And it caused the most damage in Europe, not the United States, and that was in the late 19th century, not the 1980s.

“Oh right!” I nevertheless replied, not correcting him because doing so would have been inconsiderate, and because he was at that moment running his hands down my legs, starting at a “sensitive area.”

“But in Chile,” he explained, “they never had the fungus [insect]. That’s why I think their wines taste a little better,” he confided in me, giving me a wink as he checked his gloved hands for bomb residue. And he may indeed be right — there are those who say that American rootstocks adversely affected the taste of European wines post-phylloxera, and that Chilean wines may have a slight advantage, growing on their original vinifera roots. “Have fun at your conference!”

I put my belt, shoes and watch back on, wondering how the heck I ended up talking about phylloxera with a security guard’s fingers partially in my pants. I can only imagine that it’s an omen of things to come at the Wine Bloggers Conference!

Postcard From Fiji: The Hibiscus Bleach

8 August 2015

Bartender Tila at Nanuku in FijiI asked the Nanuku resort’s bartender, Tila (affectionately known as “Tila Tequila”) to repeat the name of the cocktail she was making for me. “Hibiscus Bleach,” she said again.

Still unwilling to believe I was about to drink a cocktail with the word “bleach” in the name, I ventured, “Hibiscus Beach?”

“Bleach,” she responded, with impeccable diction and infinite patience (she’s Fijian, after all). Hibiscus Bleach it was, and there was no getting around it. I watched intently as she prepared the drink, partially in hopes that it would make for a good blog post and mostly to reassure myself that none of the ingredients could be used as cleaning products.

“Start with four or five hibiscus flowers,” she explained, “and remove the insides.” She plucked out the pistils and stamens, stuffed the remaining petals in a large beaker and poured hot water over them. As the flowers steeped, she squeezed a lime and measured out some honey. It didn’t take long for the water to turn a deep pink.

Hibiscus BleachHere’s where things got interesting. When Tila removed the flowers, they had lost nearly all their color — the petals had turned white with only veins of pink remaining. I relaxed as I finally understood the name of the cocktail. She added the lime juice to the fresh hibiscus tea, and in rather spectacular fashion, it changed from purplish pink to almost fuchsia. I usually resort to flames if I want to dazzle guests with a cocktail, but this presentation felt just as impressive as a flambée.

Mixed with honey, the alcohol-free concoction tasted delightful. It was tart and sweet, with a note of strawberry to it. It’s a delightful mocktail to serve guests who don’t drink. Mixed with two shots of dark Fijian rum, it became a powerful Hurricane-like cocktail with an undeniable sense of place.

I sipped my Hibiscus Bleach in the resort’s open-air bar beneath a cascade of mother-of-pearl shells hanging from the ceiling, accompanied by a guitar-and-ukulele men’s quartet singing in harmony, and in that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything more delicious.

HIBISCUS BLEACH

–Five fresh hibiscus flowers (or dried hibiscus tea)

–Hot water

–Juice of one lime (do not use bottled juice)

–1 tablespoon honey

–High-proof dark rum (Fijian Bounty Overproof Rum is 116 proof)

The author with his new favorite bartender, Tila

The author with his new favorite bartender, Tila

Five fresh flowers yield enough for about two cocktails. If you’re not someplace where hibiscus bushes grow like weeds, substitute hibiscus tea instead. Make it strong, using one tea bag per cocktail. Remove the stamens and pistils of the flowers, and pour three cups of hot water over the petals (or tea bags).

Meanwhile, juice one lime. After you’ve let the hibiscus steep for a minute or two, remove the flowers or tea bags and add the lime juice and honey. Mix well. Pour over two lowball glasses filled with ice (use larger cubes for a stronger cocktail), and top with a shot (or two, if you’re on vacation) of high-proof dark rum. Give the drink a brief stir, and garnish if you like with a lime wedge and a hibiscus petal.

It’s Fiji in a glass.

Sweet Fear And Tasmanian Riesling

20 July 2015

Pressing Matters R69 RieslinsWhen I conferred last night with the sommelier of Jonah’s, a fancy restaurant just north of Sydney, Australia, something all-too-familiar occurred. I read over the list of wines by the glass and decided that the 2014 Pressing Matters “R69” Riesling from cool-climate Tasmania sounded like a good pairing for my first course of tagliatelle with spanner crab, lemon and chilies. The sommelier agreed, and as custom dictates, he poured a small sample for me to try before filling my glass.

Now, sommeliers often respond with concern when I test a wine. Perhaps it’s because I take too long to taste it before speaking, or perhaps my face goes all scrunchy when I concentrate on a wine’s progression of flavor. Usually a concerned sommelier just says something like, “What do you think?” But this time, the sommelier went further, asking, “How is it? Is it too much? Is it too much?” It’s like he had “kick me” sign on his chest, and he expected my foot to hit his stomach at any second. Why? Sugar.

The R69 was a rather sweet wine, the name referring to the number of grams of residual sugar, and sugar in wine is not currently fashionable. People who like sweet wines are often apologetic about the fact, believing their palates to be too unsophisticated for dry wines. Insecure wine snobs agree, their refusal to touch sweet wines ostensibly proving the superiority of their taste. Fiddlesticks. If you like sweet wines, good for you! They’re delicious. And if you don’t like sweet wines, that’s a valid preference, but nothing more. It’s not evidence of sophistication.

But sugar was not really what the sommelier at Jonah’s feared, of course. He feared I would say something like, “Ugh, oh no, that’s far too sweet for me,” with one eyebrow raised in condemnation of his decision to put the wine on the list. I’ve seen restaurant patrons do it more than once. That kind of response pains me, because the R69, like any high-quality wine that dares to include some sugar, was an absolute delight.

The wine smelled of sweet white flower and white peach, leavened with a bit of (varietally correct) plastic shower curtain. It had lush fruit, zesty orangey acids and some vanilla on the finish. I loved the exciting interplay of the acids and sweet fruit — this wine demanded attention, and it worked beautifully with the tagliatelle. The acids absolutely blossomed with its sweet and savory flavors.

There surely are those who can’t abide any wine containing sugar, whatever its quality. But the rest of us have no reason to deny ourselves the pleasures of wines with a touch of sweetness. When acids and spice balance out the sugar, the results can be nothing short of electrifying (consider Sauternes and Tokaj).

If some wine connoisseur judges you for ordering a sweet wine, they’re no connoisseur. They’re just a snob.

Franciacorta: Prosecco’s Upscale Neighbor

10 July 2015

Cavalleri Franciacorta

I love sparkling wine at any time of year, but it tastes especially good in summer. It’s refreshing, it’s light and it works well with everything from potato salad to ribs. Champagne continues to set the standard for sparkling wine, but because of its price, I more often reach for a nice Prosecco or Cava which can be had for as little as $12 a bottle (I tend to avoid those costing less). When I’m feeling a little fancier — but not quite ready to drop $35 on Champagne — I opt instead for a Franciacorta.

Few people outside Italy had heard of this region bordering Lake Iseo in north-central Italy until the 1970s. That’s when, as The World Atlas of Wine explains, the Berlucchi family started to directly imitate the methods of Champagne, methods “subsequently taken up by farm after farm” in the area. The Berlucchis sparked a sparkling wine revolution, bottle fermentation became the norm, and now, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia asserts, “Franciacorta is currently the only Italian dry sparkling-wine appellation that can demand respect from the rest of the world.”

What about Prosecco, you may reasonably wonder. Never one to mince words, Sotheby’s complains that most Prosecco is “boring.” The Oxford Companion to Wine goes even further, arguing that “The finished wines are light and frothing, their neutrality and defects too often masked by over-generous additions of sugar.” Ouch.

Contemplating the CavalleriWell, I have no problem with Prosecco. Its price doesn’t lead me to expect too much of it, and despite its lack of bottle fermentation, it usually has small bubbles and enough flavor to be fun, if not truly interesting. And if you just need something for mimosas, Prosecco won’t let you down.

Franciacorta, on the other hand, aspires to some elegance, as indicated by price tags ranging from about $20 to $40, and occasionally more. Not inexpensive, but certainly not reaching into the lofty heights of Champagne prices, either. That makes it a perfect wine to open over a casual weekend dinner with your loved one. It’s exactly the sort of thing I might bring to my parents’ house to drink at a family barbecue before the rest of the family arrives.

I recently received three free sample bottles of Franciacorta to try, and I managed to twist a few friends’ arms into trying them with me:

La Montina BrutCavalleri Blanc de Blancs: This 100% Chardonnay tasted fine, with notes of wood, round fruit and lemony acids. Unfortunately, the aroma smelled distinctly of varnish (one friend described it as “rancid plastic”). I suspect something happened to this bottle. A notable varnish odor indicates an overabundance of ethyl acetate, which, as Wikipedia describes, can smell sweet in small quantities but like nail polish remover in larger amounts. Average Retail: $20

Ronco Calino Brut: A blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, the Ronco Calino smelled ever so much better than the Cavalleri: like green apples with a touch of minerality. The bubbles felt small, fizzy and very prickly, ensuring that this wine would pair with all sorts of foods. I liked its rather heady flavors of fermented apples and honeysuckle. It would surely be a hit at a party. Average Retail: $27

La Montina Brut: This Franciacorta exuded elegance. It smelled very enticing with notes of red apple and dusky orange, and even a touch of caramel. The tiny bubbles were very classy. It felt fruity, zesty and rich all at once, making for quite a bright and beautiful bubbly, and my favorite Franciacorta of the evening. Average Retail: $25

Celebrating The SCOTUS Marriage Decision

26 June 2015
After our ceremony, my new mother-in-law presented us with Bert and Ernie dolls.

After our ceremony, my new mother-in-law presented us with Bert and Ernie dolls.

It’s not every day that the Supreme Court hands down a ruling so fully and dramatically in support of human rights. This ruling striking down laws banning same-sex marriage is truly historic. It will change the lives of millions of people, who, in at least one respect, lived as second-class citizens of the United States.

That calls for a first-class celebration. I recommend heading straight to your city’s largest gay bar after work, where the mood will doubtless be more than usually festive. And what the heck, order a Cosmopolitan. Yes, it’s terribly dated, but it’s about as gay as cocktails get, and it remains as delicious as ever when properly made: decent vodka, triple sec or Grand Marnier, cranberry juice and fresh lime — not Rose’s or sour mix.

If you prefer to have a party rather than going to a bar — and let’s face it, that’s exactly what most of us married folk prefer — it’s time to pull out all the stops.

PARTY #1: FRUGAL BUT FABULOUS

–Aperitif: Campari and club soda, served in a highball and garnished with lime. It’s refreshing, it’s pink, and you only need to add a little Campari to each glass, making it inexpensive to mix a lot of these. If you aren’t expecting a mob, opt for a slightly more complicated Gaspare: 4 parts club soda, 1/2 part fresh-squeezed lime juice (do not use bottled), 1/4 part simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water), 1 part Campari.

–First Course: Evolúció Furmint. Chicago’s biggest wine shop, Binny’s, sells this exotic Hungarian wine for just $9 a bottle, and you get a lot of flavor bang for your buck. If you can’t find it, consider instead a Torrontés from Argentina, ideally from around Salta. Typically bright with tropical fruit and flowers but still very dry, a good Torrontés can be had for $10 or $12 per bottle.

–Second Course: A Portuguese red blend. Red wines from Portugal tend to be excellent values because most of us can’t even pronounce the indigenous grape varieties, let alone tell you what they taste like. Furthermore, Portugal tends to be overshadowed by its much more famous neighbor, the land of Rioja and Cava. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a ripely fruity and dry Portuguese red for around $10 or $12. Be sure to serve your red wine at cellar temperature — put it in the fridge for a little while if necessary.

–Dessert: Death’s Door Wondermint. This spirit is essentially a peppermint schnapps, but it tastes much more elegant and complex than you might expect because of ingredients such as rose water and bitter almond. It costs around $23 a bottle, but because it’s strong, a little goes a long way. Chill well, and serve in a cordial glass with a chocolate dessert or vanilla ice cream.

PARTY #2: MID-RANGE BUT NOT MEDIOCRE

–Aperitif: Kir Royale. This simple French drink never fails to start a party off right. Traditionally a Kir Royale has a base of Crémant de Bourgogne, but any good dry sparkling wine will do. A decent Prosecco or a quality Cava would work quite well. Add sparkling wine to a flute and top up with a dash of Crème de Cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur.

–First Course: A single-vineyard Riesling from the Pfalz or the Mosel Valley (Mosels tend to be easier to find). You can expect rich fruit matched by lively acids and steely nerve, and all for around $25 to $30. Another delightful alternative would be Savennières from the Loire. Sancerre gets all the attention, which means Savennières tends to be a value for the money. You should be able to find one for about $25.

–Second Course: Something innovative would seem to be in order here. Perhaps a powerful Syrah from Chile. No longer dedicated just to the cheap stuff, Chile has ideal terroir for fine wine, the full potential of which vintners are now truly beginning to exploit. Single-vineyard wines are becoming more and more common here, as well as in neighboring Argentina. A high-quality Austrian St. Laurent would be a delicious alternative, if you can find one.

–Dessert: Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23. This beautiful rum from Guatemala contains spirits ranging in age from six to 23 years. It tastes wonderfully smooth and rich, and it’s a perfect way to end a meal. Zacapa recommends serving it with a single large lump of ice, which I prefer in the summer. But it works equally well neat, should your guests prefer it that way. You should be able to find it for around $50 to $60 a bottle.

PARTY #3: DAMN THE TORPEDOES

–Aperitif: Time for Champagne with a capital “C”. Go for a Grower Champagne, produced by the people who grew the grapes (most Champagnes blend grapes from across the region). You can identify a Grower by the letters “RM,” usually written in the tiniest font possible on the label, as opposed to “NM”, the designation on most other Champagnes.

Alicante Bouschet from the now-defunct Rainbow Ridge winery

Alicante Bouschet from the now-defunct Rainbow Ridge winery

–First Course: The obvious choice would be white Burgundy, and I certainly won’t argue if you want to pour me a glass. For something a little more unusual, opt instead for a white Pessac-Léognan from Bordeaux, redolent of lush tropical fruit. Or a Grosses Gewächs (Great Growth) Riesling would also surely impress the fussiest of guests.

–Second Course: A Bordeaux winemaker once told me that he doesn’t spend more than €100 (about $115) on a bottle of wine, because anything more is just for show. Keeping that advice in mind, I’d recommend a Brunello di Montalcino (Poggione makes some exquisite ones), or Las Terrazas de los Andes “Cheval des Andes,” a wine that gave me chills when I recently tried it in Mendoza.

–Dessert: My favorite dessert wines in the world are Tokaji Aszú from Hungary and Sauternes from France. Both use grapes affected by Noble Rot, making them rich, vibrant and expensive. Nevertheless, the flavor-to-price ratio in each case is quite high. If you prefer a spirit, choose one of these Cognacs that brought me to tears.

As for me, tonight might be the night to open my treasured signed bottle of 2001 Rainbow Ridge Alicante Bouschet, the gayest wine in my rack. I have a feeling that after a long period of waiting, tonight it will be at its very best.

What’s Wrong With Wine Labels

20 June 2015

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I made a point of returning to my favorite winery in the state, Casa Rondeña. I ordered a glass of Meritage in the tasting room, and a gentleman next to me asked how I liked it. “Very much,” I replied. “It’s well-balanced, and a fine example of what New Mexico is capable of in terms of wine.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he responded, “Since I made it!” I went on to say how pleasantly surprised I was by New Mexico wines, the Cabernet Francs in particular, but I didn’t disclose that I was a wine blogger who had written about Casa Rondeña previously. I was off the clock. “Have you visited any other wineries?” he asked. “Which ones do you like?”

I listed off a few, including St. Clair, where I remembered liking the D.H. Lescombes line of wines. He didn’t agree with that selection. St. Clair, he noted, adds corn syrup or other sugars to many of its wines. I can see why — in New Mexico, the local palate skews heavily towards sweeter wines, so much so that most wineries will taste reds before whites, de-emphasizing the reds’ dryness.

While certainly not illegal, that practice of adding sugars isn’t necessarily the hallmark of great wines. “They really should have to disclose that on their label,” I protested. But they don’t. In fact, beyond noting that they contain sulfites, a completely unnecessary declaration, wines need not list any of their ingredients. Nor, for that matter, do spirits. Just what is in Blue Curaçao, anyway?

How is it that in 2015, in an era of ever-greater concern about the quality of the things we’re putting into our bodies, that wines and spirits can still get away without listing anything other than their alcohol content? Some studies promote a glass or two of red wine a day as a healthy  addition to one’s diet, but surely some red wines are more beneficial than others.

Red wines with added sugar, for example, don’t strike me as the healthiest choice. At the St. Clair Bistro, our waitress offered us free samples of Chenin Blanc. And indeed, it tasted rather flabby and too sweet. I ordered a $13 glass of D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Franc instead, thinking that this more expensive line of wines would surely adhere to higher standards of winemaking.

It tasted quite ripe and free from any vegetal, green-pepper notes which can sometimes plague Cabernet Franc. But vanilla notes overwhelmed the palate, and indeed, it tasted jammier than I expected. Was I imagining that it was overly sweet because of what the owner of Casa Rondeña told me? I took another sip. No — the too-strong vanilla notes were quite clear. I won’t presume to say whether the wine had added sugar or not, however, because I have no way of knowing for sure.

Of course I wouldn’t have to guess, if wines and spirits actually declared their ingredients! All non-alcoholic beverages in the supermarket have lists of ingredients. Even unflavored water lists “Water” as the sole substance in the bottle.

It’s time spirits and wines followed suit. As a consumer, I want to know if my wine contains “Grape juice” or “Grape juice, high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #32.” Price, as indicated by my rather expensive glass of Cabernet Franc, is not necessarily a guide.

Time to write my Congressman!

Regal Wines: Sachsen’s Schloss Proschwitz

9 June 2015
The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

Schloss Proschwitz ranks among the unlikeliest — and therefore most delightful — wineries I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. First, consider its location in Sachsen in former East Germany, at about the same latitude as London. The fact that the Elbe River and its south-facing bluffs create a microclimate well-suited to grape growing is a bit of a miracle. (You can read more about Sachsen in general here.)

Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe among Schloss Proschwitz's custom-designed fermentation tanks

Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe among Schloss Proschwitz’s custom-designed fermentation tanks

Then there is the winery’s tumultuous history, which I learned about when I met Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe for a tour and tasting. A former television news reporter, the unfailingly gracious Prinzessin (that’s what everyone called her at the winery) ordered flutes of sparkling rosé for us as we sat on patio. As we sipped this unusual fruity and rather smoky sparkler made from Frühburgunder (Pinot Madeleine), she began relating the winery’s dramatic post-war story.

The parents of the current owner, the Prinz zur Lippe, did not fare well when the Soviet Red Army invaded eastern Germany. Communists did not look kindly on royalty. They imprisoned his parents and expropriated all their property. Fortunately they were not murdered — instead, after several months spent apart in prison, the Soviets “chucked them into West Germany” with only the clothes on their backs, the Prinzessin exclaimed, her understandable indignation not quite concealed.

Schloss Proschwitz (Proschwitz Palace),  ancestral home of the zur Lippe family

Schloss Proschwitz (Proschwitz Palace), ancestral home of the zur Lippe family, now used for weddings and other events

In need of housing and income, Christian Prinz zur Lippe took a job as a gardener, working for his mother-in-law. His son, Georg Prinz zur Lippe was not, as you might expect of someone with that title, raised in unabashed luxury. He built a successful career for himself as an agricultural engineer, and then the Berlin Wall fell.

His father, still alive at this time, suggested that Georg attempt to recover the family’s property in East Germany. But because the property had been expropriated by the Soviets, not East Germany, the government refused to give anything back. So Georg did things the hard way, negotiating with landowners and convincing banks to loan him money. Eventually, he managed to buy back a large portion of the family’s original vineyards.

The story did not end there, however. The Prinz zur Lippe was not welcomed with open arms back to his ancestral home. In the minds of the East Germans, “My husband was the incarnation of evil,” the Prinzessin explained. “From the West. A prince. He had property that had been expropriated. And he was an entrepreneur!” Like today’s Progressives in the United States, the East Germans had been brainwashed into thinking of capitalists as evil, and that mindset didn’t immediately change with the fall of the Wall. Georg lived for a year in a house on a hill overlooking his new vineyards, during which time all of his neighbors refused to speak with him. It isn’t always easy being the prince.

Entrance to the Schloss Proschwitz winery in Zadel

Entrance to the Schloss Proschwitz winery in Zadel

He also didn’t win any friends when he replanted his vineyards with historically correct but lower-yielding grape varieties, nor when he started employing the latest viticultural methods. Many thought he was insane to drastically reduce pesticide application and restrict yields by cutting off half the grapes and using them to make balsamic vinegar.

But finally Georg and Alexandra started to win the local people over. The sympathetic mayor of the bluff-top town of Zadel offered to sell them a courtyard of historic but dilapidated buildings for their winery. After extensive renovations, Schloss Proschwitz opened a winery, shop and restaurant on the property. It became the first in Sachsen to be admitted to the prestigious VDP, Germany’s top winery association.

In the tasting room, the Prinzessin poured several delightful wines, leaving no doubt as to the potential of Sachsen terroir. A rare Goldriesling (a seldom-cultivated Muscat crossing) had an enticingly floral and spicy aroma, food-friendly green-apple tartness and a mineral finish. The Proschwitz Elbing, an ancient and now-unpopular variety cultivated since Roman times, had a surprisingly colorless hue, a powdered candy aroma and fun, juicy acids. Either would be perfect for a pool party.

The Schloss Proschwitz tasting room and shop

The Schloss Proschwitz tasting room and shop

We also tried some more serious wines, such as the 2014 Weissburgunder Kabinett from the Schloss Proschwitz Vineyard. This Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder translates literally as “White Burgundy”) smelled fresh and spicy. It tasted fruity and cheerful but very focused, with clear minerality. The 2012 Weissburgunder from the Heiligenkreuz Vineyard, in contrast, had more white fruit and cream in the aroma. It tasted very ripe, even with a note of caramel, and it finished on quite a spicy note. I never thought to age Pinot Blanc, but the 2012 clearly illustrated the benefits of a couple of years in the bottle.

But when we reached the 2013 Weissburgunder Grosses Gewächs, the Prinzessin became concerned.  When I smelled this Pinot Blanc, I let out a laugh and a whoop and said “Yeah!” just a little too loudly. Her eyes widened, and she asked the woman behind the desk to bring bread.

Terrace of the winery's restaurant

Terrace of the winery’s restaurant

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk. But I had spit everything I’d tasted up to that point. It smelled so good, this wine, that I couldn’t help but laugh and shout. “Grosses Gewächs” translates as “Great Growth,” a designation something like Grand Cru in Burgundy. And this wine was great.

I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, but not a Pinot Blanc. The aroma had such richness, with ripe fruit and fresh butter and wood. And the flavor! Drinking it was like driving in a car with an expert at manual transmission — it shifted with incredible suppleness from ripe, ripe fruit to classy acids to focused spice. It was a gorgeous, elegant wine.

I had to have it. Terrified of what I might have to spend for a wine of this quality, I looked at the price list on the bar. It cost 25€, or about $28 a bottle. I must admit I’m not used to spending $28 on a bottle of wine, but it seemed like a crazy bargain in this case. Who knew Pinot Blanc could reach such heights?

We had yet more delicious wines over lunch, notably a surprisingly ripe 2011 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) redolent of red currants and earth. And I thought, my God! How wonderful how completely the communists had failed. They took everything from the zur Lippe family except one set of clothes per person. And yet here they were, once again making truly world-class wines from their ancestral vineyards, providing jobs to about 100 people. The power of history — and the power of the entrepreneur — couldn’t have been clearer.

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