Have No Fear...I'm Still Here

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s tends be a little hectic, and things have finally slowed down to a more manageable pace. Despite not having posted about booze in a while, trust me…I have been sampling plenty of good stuff and you deserve to know about it.

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So today I am keeping it very simple: here’s a three-bottle flight of French wines I have tasted since Thanksgiving that is worth your time, money, and effort to find in your local beverage depot. Three different styles from three different regions of France. Ready…go!

Domaine du Petit Clocher Anjou Blanc ($14): Chenin Blanc continues to be an underrated grape variety, and you get 100% of it here. Lemon curd flavors and a fleshy texture are countered by a zing of acidity to balance things out. A solid way to introduce yourself to the Loire Valley’s style of Chenin Blanc.

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Pascal Aufranc Chénas Vignes de 1939 ($16): The “Cru” level wines of Beaujolais have always been some of my favorite light reds as they have more substance than village-level Baeujolais and definitely more depth than the candy-like Nouveau. This wine is made from 80 year old vines, featuring violet aromas, vibrant strawberry fruit, and a stony/earthy character with gentle tannins.

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Chateau d’Arcins Haut-Medoc ($25): A 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot., this wine shows textbook blackberry and cedarwood flavors and aromas with noticeable tannin and acid that are synonymous with Bordeaux from the Left Bank. The wine I had was from the 2014 vintage, which is a damn fine year for Bordeaux, but you may need to let the wine air out a bit to soften (pour this into a decanter and let it sit for a couple of hours before drinking). With time, the texture becomes more plush, the blackberry fruit seems riper and more powerful, and a dark chocolatey note seems to come out on the finish.

Fun To Say, Fun To Drink: Muscadet

Wines from the vineyards near the river city of Nantes (pictured) are exactly what you need this summer.

Wines from the vineyards near the river city of Nantes (pictured) are exactly what you need this summer.

It's fun to drink

And it's fun to say.

It comes from France.

It's Muscadet [moose-cah-day]!

You know that I am an unabashed fan of wines from the Loire Valley of France, and with the heat returning to the northeast, I love them even more. There are so many dry, zesty white wines and fresh, lively red wines to choose from. However, today we focus on a white wine from the city of Nantes in the western Loire whose low alcohol, light body, and refreshingly simple flavor is perfect for this time of year. Additionally, it was a wine that my two older sons absolutely loved to say when they overheard me discussing my wine studies; it's clearly fun to say for kids, but they have over a decade to go before it can be fun to drink.

Muscadet is one of the unique protected production areas in France in that it does not refer to a grape variety or a geographic region. Wines made with this name are made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape (often shorted to Melon), whose tendency toward neutral flavors was ideal base material for Dutch traders to turn into brandy. This, along with the deep freeze of 1709, led to an increase in plantings of Melon. The name "Muscadet" is believed to have come from the supposed "musky" character that Melon displayed. Perhaps earlier clones of the variety showed this funk, but in today's examples there is no muskiness to be found.

Muscadet wine is produced from an area of roughly 32,000 acres, a significant swath of land for producing one type of wine, but still pales in comparison to Bordeaux's nearly 300,000 acres. Within the boundaries of the Muscadet zone, there are more specific terroirs and names that may be appended to the name of Muscadet on a label if the wine follows the production rules.

Map of the Muscadet production zones. Chéreau Carré is an important producer of Muscadet wines Image credit:  DeMaison Selections

Map of the Muscadet production zones. Chéreau Carré is an important producer of Muscadet wines Image credit: DeMaison Selections

Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine: this is the one we see the most often on the shelves; it is often the richest and most complex of all three sub-zones.

Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire: the northernmost region, where vintage variations are noticed the most out of the three sub-zones. Coteaux de la Loire tends to be the highest in acidity of the three sub-zones.

Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu: this didn't receive its own sub-zone until 1996, so prior to this vineyards were producing basic Muscadet. Soils are lighter and sandier, leading to delicate, light-bodied wines with floral aromatics.

In addition, these three sub-zones can all add "sur Lie" if they use a specific winemaking technique. In order to impart a creamier texture and give Muscadet a fuller body, fermented wines will sit in a tank or vat with the spent yeast cells (called the lees) from fermentation. The cellar hands need to stir the lees, which release sugars and proteins into the wine, leading to a richer texture. Temperature needs to be kept under control and lees need to be stirred, otherwise spoilage can occur in the wine. Additionally, if lees aging goes for more than a twelve months, it can lead to "off" flavors, such as rotten eggs in the wine (Yum!), unless serious care is taken in the cellar.

Muscadet wines are natural matches for seafood. Sea scallops and raw oysters are both phenomenal with Muscadet, as are mussels cooked in white wine with garlic and herbs. Keep the seafood preparations simple,and you will be in business. The other good news about Muscadet is that it does not break the bank, even on the higher end of the price spectrum. I have four wines for you to try, all of which show a progression from delicate and easy-drinking to assertive and complex.

Château de La Chesnaie Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie ($12): Briny and citrusy, this is an easy way to get yourself introduced to what everyday Muscadet is all about.

Château l'Oiselinière de la Ramée Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie ($17): More defined citrus fruits, such as grapefruit and lemon zest, are complemented by a subtle floral note A softer texture than the Chesnaie, but still has some bracing acidity to keep the wine from feeling flat in your mouth.

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Les Gras Moutons ($23): Vines are 20-60 years old, so fruit concentration begins to increase when compared to the previous two wines. The range of citrus fruits show up in this wine, but now stones and earth start to show. The texture is richer than the two as well, and this is where you begin to see what happens when Melon is grown in more specific vineyard areas with organic farming techniques.

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Clisson ($28): Organically farmed, "Clisson" is the first recognized "cru", or great growth of Muscadet. Pépière stretches the limits of lees aging by going to nearly two years on the spent yeast cells. Vines ages are anywhere from 50 to 110 years old, leading to very concentrated flavors. White peaches, apples, brioche bread, and a smoky/stony character make this one of the more complex Muscadet examples out there. I highly encourage you to try this wine if you can find it!

 

 

Back to Basics: Premium Blends Around The World

You may have noticed that a lot of my posts have been of the exotic variety of late. Aside from recapping vacation adventures, I have gone into great detail on cocktails, plenty of spirits, and unusual grape varieties. So today, it's time to ease up on the gas a little and get back to basics with some good straight-up wine discussion. In this edition of Flight School, I share with you some classic and interesting red and white blends of which I have really received a high level of enjoyment from.

Franciscan Estate Winery does a blending class on-site, but we were fortunate to get one of their blending kits for our classroom. Image credit:  Franciscan Estate

Franciscan Estate Winery does a blending class on-site, but we were fortunate to get one of their blending kits for our classroom. Image credit: Franciscan Estate

At the store, we once ran a blending session using Franciscan Estate's "Magnificat" as our reference point, a kit that is sold by the winery. It is a lot of fun to take the five grapes from the Magnificat (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) and create your own wine in the proportions you see fit. Tasting your own "Franken-wine" alongside the Magnificat is a great practical exercise in how the different grape varieties play off of one another.

When it comes to wine blends, remember that there is always a method to the madness. While it used to be that some producers would just throw disorganized grapes into the fermentation vats and make a wine from them, individual grape varieties are bringing something to the party. The goal is for the grapes to work in harmony to achieve a desired style. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, for example, have long been partners in Bordeaux wines; Cabernet's "structure" (acid, tannin, and aromatics) have often been a foil for Merlot's plush texture and ripe fruit flavor. However, one can also amplify a specific characteristic in a blend. In an example like this, A Merlot-Malbec blend in Argentina will feel ultra-soft on your palate with very ripe fruit flavors since the two grapes have some marked similarities.

I have three whites and three reds for you to try that have been recent favorites of mine. None of these break the bank and provide you with casual, yet interesting wines to enjoy.

The White Wine Flight

Wieninger Wiener Gemischter Satz ($20): You may remember me mentioning "Gentil" blends as a way to get introduced to the grapes of Alsace, France. Gemischter Satz is a similar concept in Austria. This particular blend is mostly Grüner Veltliner, Weissburgunder, Welschriesling, and Chardonnay, but there are smaller proportions of many local varieties like Riesling, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Sylvaner, Traminer, Neuberger. The producer refers to this as "All of Vienna in One Wine." This is aromatic and fresh with delicate citrus and stone fruits, along with some minerally/earthy notes. Perfect with lighter seafood dishes or as a counter to Wiener Schnitzel!

Domaine Lafage Côtes Catalanes "Côté Est" ($14): The Côtes Catalanes region of France near the Spanish border is delivering great value with these unique blends of native and international varieties. Côté Est uses Grenache Blanc (popular for its body, alcohol, and tropical fruit), Roussanne (a high-acid aromatic white grape of the Rhône Valley) and the well-known Chardonnay. The end result is a vibrant, yet creamy white wine with pineapple, apricot, and wild herbs.

Castellargo Friuli Grave "Albus" ($16): Friuli is tucked away in the far northeast of Italy, touching the Austrian and Slovenian borders. Native grape Friulano is blended in near equal proportions with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to create a pungent citrus, herbaceous, earthy wine with some texture on the palate and a slightly floral nose. Delicious with a pasta of fresh herbs and green veggies.

The Red Wine Flight

Viberti Langhe "Dolbà" Rosso ($16): The "Dolbà" refers to the blend of Dolcetto (40%) and Barbera (60%). Dolcetto (translates to "the little sweet one") when fully ripened gives you wines with dark berry, almost jammy fruit that has some tannin and strong aromatics. Barbera is the workhorse grape of the Piedmont area, and in this case provides plenty of acid and fresh red cherry fruit to counter the Dolcetto. A wonderful pizza wine!

Domaine de la Solitude Côtes du Rhône ($18): Solitude is a well-regarded producer of the ageworthy Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In some ways, this is the "baby version" of their flagship wine. 50% Grenache (for body and berry fruit flavor), 30% Syrah (for dark, earthy fruit, acid, and tannin), 15% Cinsault (for juicy red raspberry fruit and acid), and 5% Carignan (for additional "structure" such as acid and tannin). What you get is a well-balanced, versatile red blend that goes great with anything from a burger in summertime to a hearty stew in winter.

Graffigna Centenario Elevation San Juan Red Blend ($14): This is a blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec (both well-suited for many Argentine wines), Syrah, Tannat (an old Southwestern French grape that actually thrives in neighboring Uruguay!) and Bonarda (a fruity red grape that gets lost in the shuffle at times). Tannat's structural and dark fruit content are very high, and Bonarda's fruitiness and full body help counter the aggressiveness of Tannat (which takes its name from "tannin"). The Syrah actually adds a touch of smokiness to the finished wine, too. Sear a cut of red meat, pour a glass of the Elevation, and be happy!

Fun To Say, Fun To Drink: Gewürztraminer

The Battle of Turckheim, Alsace, 1675. Only the beginning of the fighting in this revered territory that produces some of the most exquisite wines in the world. Image credit:  Wikipedia

The Battle of Turckheim, Alsace, 1675. Only the beginning of the fighting in this revered territory that produces some of the most exquisite wines in the world. Image credit: Wikipedia

Sometimes, you need an excuse to step outside of your comfort zone. Internally, you might recognize that you need to branch out and be more adventurous in your drinking. However, it can be difficult to choose a direction, particularly if you are not familiar with some of the grape varieties available to you.

So today, I unveil the "Fun To Say, Fun To Drink" feature for you. Need a run-down of a wine grape that you might have seen on a shelf, but you were hesitant to spend the money on it? I have you covered, and the debut involves the distinct and unusual grape called Gewürztraminer.

Umm...how do you say that, and what is it?

Gewürztraminer (guh-VERTZ-trah-meen-er) is an aromatic white grape variety which, despite having a German name, has its roots in Alsace, France. If you read your history books, you will remember that this eastern section of France was fought over for many centuries, changing hands from French to German rule a number of times until the end of World War II. It's cool, yet sunny climate lets Gewürztraminer and other aromatic varieties thrive. Despite being considered a white grape, Gewürztraminer has a pink/red color to its skins. Because of that, the wines end up having a coppery hue to them.

Gewürztraminer ripening in a German vineyard. This bunch is packed with wild aromas and rich flavors.

Gewürztraminer ripening in a German vineyard. This bunch is packed with wild aromas and rich flavors.

So what does Gewürztraminer smell and taste like?

Gewürztraminer is loaded with tropical and exotic fruit, perfume, flowers, and spices; these wild flavors and aromas make sense when we find out that "Gewürztraminer" translates to "spiced traminer", where "traminer" is an ancient family of aromatic varieties that made its home in northeastern Italy's Tyrol region (near the Austrian border). When I went to school at the International Wine Center and studied the Alsace region, our instructor for the session claimed Gewürztraminer to be a "banker" grape; it's aromas are so distinct that if I encountered it on an exam, I could easily identify it and "take it to the bank" that I would be right. Guess what? So can you.

Is all Gewürztraminer the same?

Not at all. Gewürztraminer has the tendency to get high in alcohol and low in acidity, so it can have a flabby, oily texture if the grapes ripen too quickly. Underripe Gewürztraminer can be very light in flavor; I would describe that sensation of drinking rosewater or green tea. There is a wide range of expressions in between those extremes, and vineyard site selection is critical in getting the most out of this grape. Aside from Alsace, you can find Gewürztraminer from northeastern Italy, Germany, Oregon, Washington State's Columbia Valley, the Finger Lakes of New York, and even South Africa. Examples can also finish fruity (with a pleasant bitter edge), dry, or sweet (in the case of "Late Harvest" examples that turn to raisins on the vine).

So what do you have for me and what am I eating with them?

I am glad you asked! By the way, due to Gewürztraminer's fussiness and difficulty to deal with in the vineyards and winery, it is not a cheap wine. That being said, I have some reasonably-priced examples that you should be able to find at your local wine shop or beverage depot.

Montinore Estate Willamette Valley Gewürztraminer ($18)

Floral, citrusy, and gingery, this zesty example from Oregon's Montinore Estate will work great with a range of Thai or Indian dishes. A great way to get yourself familiar with Gewürztraminer for under $20.

Abbazia di Novacella Alto Adige Gewürztraminer ($25)

Fermented in stainless steel tanks, this Italian example is very lively and aromatic, but lush on the palate. It's full-bodied texture makes this great with a plate of sausages or a pasta with ground sausage, cream, and basil. The honeyed mango flavors would make this work with duck, too.

Pierre Sparr Alsace Gewürztraminer ($25)

Pierre Sparr traces its history back to the year 1680. Anise, apricots, and dried peaches show in this wine, along with a touch of residual sweetness. If you are familiar with the lychee fruit, you might detect that here, too. I would go with bacon-wrapped scallop with this one.

Pierre Sparr Alsace Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Mambourg ($40)

Pierre Sparr's Mambourg vineyard is dominated by Gewürztraminer vines, which have an average age of 40 years, leading to intense, concentrated wines. This wine is rich and full-bodied with a spectrum of dried tropical fruits, honey, and spice. If you are living it up this would be a great match with foie gras. 

The Skurnik Files: How Back Labels Can Make You A Smarter Shopper

Last week, I wrote of my experience at the Grand Portfolio Tasting presented by Skurnik Wines & Spirits. That event spurred a ton of thoughts on how I can help you, my fellow beverage consumer and today I guide you in a direction that I think most shoppers take for granted.

Skurnik, along with other suppliers, distributors, and importers, sell their products to your favorite wine shops and beverage depots across the country. Depending on the retailer you give your hard-earned money to, you could be speaking to salespeople at a specialty shop to help guide you or you are left to your own devices at a big box store, based on the level of knowledge and experience of the employees. No matter the type of store you frequent, there is always one way to help yourself get an idea of what you might like.

Take a look at the back label of that bottle

The front label of a wine bottle or whiskey bottle is always the sexy, magnetic way of drawing you into the product. It is what is displayed on the shelves, and a lot of times there are some great pieces of information to help you get an idea of what is inside those bottles. There are names of grape varieties, a wine region shown, vineyard names, village names (often in French wines), whiskey age statements, and flavors of a vodka just to name a few examples.

However, on the back is where we find the names of the suppliers. A lot of times, the web sites are listed so you can see their whole portfolio. A supplier may be heavy in Old World/European wines (like Skurnik), almost exclusively Italian (Dark Star Imports), or into South American wine, lesser-known California wines and sake (Vine Connections). Click on any of those links, and you will get stories on individual producers and their products available. You can read about the company's philosophy. Maybe you share the love of organic wines that a supplier is focused on. Or perhaps you see a supplier focused on aged rums (which you might be able to add to your personal collection of aged rums). While each product may not be available in each state, you can oftentimes approach your retailer to see if they can order you anything of interest...and your order typically arrives in 1-2 days if the supplier has the products in stock.

So if, for example, it turns out you really like Skurnik's La Colombina Brunello di Montalcino, you may end up liking Skurnik's Brunello from the producer Mocali. Even if the style is different, it should still taste good. You liked the Mocali? Try their Rosso di Montalcino or the Brunello Riserva. This is how you can develop a personal flavor profile. A high-quality supplier is carefully screening what will do well in the U.S. market or individual states, and when a wine makes it into the portfolio, it will almost always be worth trying if the wine is a style that intrigues you. I like those odds.

You might also see a wine region you never saw before. Google "Salice Salentino". You will discover that Negroamaro is a grape used in this Italian region's red wines. Check out Negroamaro and you'll find descriptions that might mirror Cabernet Sauvignon. If you are a Cabernet Sauvignon fan, chances are you might like wines of Salice Salentino.

Three wines from Central Italy, all from different producers, subregions, and importers. Lots of good data to help you, including web sites for further research.

Three wines from Central Italy, all from different producers, subregions, and importers. Lots of good data to help you, including web sites for further research.

William Grant & Sons is a supplier of the best-selling single malt Scotch whisky, Glenfiddich. If you are a fan of Glenfiddich 12 Year, perhaps you want to try the 12 Year example from Balvenie distillery, which is also in the William Grant portfolio.

Provide your feedback to your retailer. The wine manager is going to meet with representatives of these suppliers, so your favorable reviews or harsh criticisms help make future decisions on what you will encounter on the shelves. A little research and dialogue go a long way in helping you figure out smart ways to branch out, all while sticking with a style that your prefer.

So flip that bottle around every now and then. You never know what kick-ass bottle you will discover next.

The Obligatory Valentine's Day Wine And Chocolate Post

Tuesday is Valentine's Day, a date on your calendar that can be met with a mix of emotions. Some people love it and go all out with the stereotypical package of flowers, candy, and dinner out at a nice restaurant. Others loathe it believing it is some made-up "Hallmark Holiday" or perhaps do not have someone to share the day with, and therefore it becomes a depressing day. Some will do their best to just make a Tuesday night extra special for a loved one.

The mix of emotions is understandable. After all St. Valentine, who the holiday is named for, is quite the complex character in history. He performed Catholic marriages against the wishes of the Roman Emperor Claudius II, so Valentine was subsequently beaten, stoned, and beheaded for his actions in the year 269. Oh, what fun! Also, over time St. Valentine became the patron saint of love, but also the patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, and plague. My goodness...love is in the air!

And whether you view Valentine's Day as a time for love or the plague, chocolate will always be associated with this day. If you are a wine lover (which I assume you are, because you are here reading this post), then you will inevitably see the articles about "Best Wine & Chocolate Pairings This Valentine's Day" or something of that ilk smattered about the Interwebs. So let's get this out there immediately:

Unless you like sweet wines, stop pairing wine with chocolate.

This is not some hot take. It's fact. Chocolate has a complexity unlike any other food out there. Chocolate comes in flavors that are salty, milky, caramelized, bitter, fruit-filled, but the actual chocolate itself is a combination of sweet, savory and umami. This bold array of flavor needs wine with just as much character and has to be sweeter than the chocolate. The only wines that come to mind are Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage or aged Tawny Port wines. Other sweet wines like Late Harvest Riesling and Ice Wine are too delicate. Sauternes and Tokaj can be dominated by chocolate's character, despite bringing the requisite sweetness and richness levels.

Now, I am sure there is a group of you who might be saying something like, "Hey, Jerky Mr. Know-It-All...I have chocolate-covered strawberries and cherries for dessert. What do you say to that?"

Glad you asked! I have two suggestions, each of which will cost you around $20.

Look for Banfi's Rosa Regale, an Italian lightly sparkling low-alcohol wine bursting with cranberry, strawberry, and raspberry flavors. This is a home run with chocolate-covered strawberries. 

Gerard Bertrand's Banyuls (a Port-like wine made in southern France from Grenache grapes) has a deep, dark black berry jam and cherry fruit character. This is what you want with your chocolate-covered cherries. 

Now with such a challenge posed to the range of sweet wines, why are the dry wines going to be even more difficult? The popular and romantic association has been the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon and dark chocolate pairing, but here's what happens: Cabernet's flavors go hollow when chocolate is introduced. All you are left with is a mouthful of acid, tannin, and alcohol. It's not a pleasing experience, and you want satisfaction on Valentine's Day. Pinot Noir also has a misguided presence here, too. Yes, it is fruity and silky-smooth when done well, but it is delicate and low in tannin; chocolate overwhelms any affordable Pinot Noir. 

My suggestion to you this Valentine's Day is to drink those dry red wines with your kick-ass dinner, or maybe enjoy the wine as an "intermezzo" after dinner and before dessert. Your senses will thank you.