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!

Skip The Tie. Buy Him Booze!

This Sunday marks one of the highlights of the calendar. National Turkey Lover's Day? National Go Fishing Day? Well, if you love turkey and like or want to go fishing, then yeah...you will be on Cloud Nine. No, I am referring to Father's Day. Additionally, do you know what today is? Apparently, it is National Bourbon Day. What a great time to be a whiskey-loving father!

Yawn. Can I drink this?

Yawn. Can I drink this?

You may be looking for a gift for dear old Dad this week or anyone you know who is a father. Sure, you could go with the cliché gifts, but why?

A toolbox? Guess what...I haven't a handy bone in my body.

A tie? I don't use one in the wine and spirits biz. Things tend to be casual around here.

How about a service, like mowing the lawn or washing the car? Cute, but the grass and the car will be in worse shape that it was before.

Nah. Assuming dad likes a good adult beverage, skip all that stuff and buy him booze! You are in luck, good Father's Day gift shopper. You have more options at your disposal than ever before. I something interesting today when tasting products with Berkshire Mountain Distillers: they received the 50th distillery permit in the country back in 2007. Today, there are over 1,300 permits. Craft spirit fans rejoice!

What about wine? There's a style for everyone. White, pink, or red? Sparkling? New World or Old World? Perhaps Dad is also a cigar-lover and would enjoy some Port, Sherry, or Madeira along with a stogie. I also know if I see my father, I can walk in with a bottle of red wine and everyone will be happy. In fact...red wine is required prior to entry of my parents' house, or I get sent away.

Of course, you have beers, too. There are over 5,300 breweries in the U.S. alone. Europe has about as many, too. So many choices available to you!

This isn't a comprehensive buying guide, but here are some brews, wines, and spirits that I enjoy personally or have brought as gifts before. Any of the following would make a fine choice for the old man, with some emphasis on Bourbon for spirits. To all the dads out there, have a great day this Sunday and keep kicking ass in the parenting department! Your family will (hopefully) reward your efforts with something below.

Two Roads Brewing Rye 95 Tripel Blonde Ale ($10/4-pack): Fruity, hoppy, spicy, complex, and rich. It may not be an ideal drink for the summer, but it does taste fantastic. At 9.5% abv, it's a beast, but after a long day for Pops it can be very satisfying.

Goose Island Sofie Saison ($12/4-pack): This Belgian-Style Ale takes 20% of the beer and ages it in wine barrels with citrus peels. Golden in color, peppery, citrusy, and lively. It's a great way to treat Dad.

Ventisquero Grey Glacier Single Block Red Blend ($25): I remember how good the Single Block series is when Ventisquero's wines were presented in the classroom. This is a red blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignan), and Mataro (Mourvèdre) that is big and bold, full-bodied, and fruity. This has a surprising acidity on the finish that doesn't make this wine feel to heavy on the palate, and it is a steal at this price.

Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Grünlack (Green Seal) Spätlese ($55): If Dad is out there fishing and catching some trout, enjoying lobsters, or even sausages on Sunday, this is a killer pairing with any of those dinner options. Schloss Johannisberg is a single vineyard estate in the Rheingau region of Germany that has been making exquisite wines for 500 years. Pineapple, peach, green herbs, and a beautiful balance of acidity and sweetness make this an awesome wine to either enjoy now or let dad stick in the cellar to evolve further.

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve 120 Proof ($48): I really enjoy Knob Creek's flagship 100 Proof expression, but let Dad taste what their whiskey is like almost straight from the barrel. Bottled at this high proof, the Bourbon has a ton of character and fire, with toasted nuts, vanilla, caramel, and a little bit of smokiness on the finish. Get the fire pit going and grab a dram of this whiskey!

Berkshire Mountain Distillers Smoke and Peat Bourbon ($60): Out of western Massachusetts, Berkshire Mountain distills and ages all of their product on-site. This expression takes Berkshire's flagship Bourbon that was already aged four years, then ages it another six months in casks that previously held Laphroaig 10-Year Scotch Whisky. Plenty of smoke and medicinal notes from the peat, but does not overwhelm the corn-based sweetness of the Bourbon. Great for those who aren't sure if they should buy Bourbon or Scotch...this brings the best of both worlds!

 

Ask Tony: What's The Deal With Asparagus And Wine?

In my best Jerry Seinfeld voice, "What's the deal with asparagus?"

In my best Jerry Seinfeld voice, "What's the deal with asparagus?"

Welcome to my newest segment: Ask Tony! You have questions, I (maybe) have answers.

Spring's arrival means the first bounty of green vegetables. While these don't make it to the forefront of a meal for some, certainly this is an important time for the vegetarian and vegan diners out there. Still...you should be having greens on the side with your meat dishes! Listen to your parents for once!

Asparagus: rough stuff if it comes in contact with the wrong wine. Proceed with caution!

Asparagus: rough stuff if it comes in contact with the wrong wine. Proceed with caution!

So among the leafy harvest of kale, Swiss chard, collards, and salad greens also comes the distinct, stalky vegetable called asparagus. It's chemical composition is unique; there are things called "asparagusic acid," "asparagosides," "asparagine," and "asparenyol" involved. These are group of building blocks that make asparagus so asparagus-y. To boot, 60-80% of the asparagus-consuming American population notices quite the "aroma" that emerges when you need to use the potty. All of these asparagus-y chemical components become the bane of many a wine pairing enthusiast. One has to be careful when marrying wines to these spears of green goodness. The wrong choice leads to overly tart, metallic, and astringent flavors on your palate. It's a beyond unpleasant chemical reaction for your senses.

I know...it doesn't sound like there is a lot of upside to getting wine into the equation when asparagus is being served. However, there is always a way. It's not impossible to enjoy both. A really simple guideline is to go for fresh, fruity, unoaked white wines. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Finger Lakes or Alsace Riesling immediately come to mind. You can even go with a Grüner Veltliner, which has always been an equalizer when it comes to greens.

A Grenache-based rosé wine, such as those coming from Navarra (Spain) or from the Côtes du Rhône in France will give you fruitiness if you are not a fan of white wine. If you must have a red, it can be a tougher pairing; any tannins will create chaos. Mild, unoaked, low-tannin reds such as the Gamay-based wines of Beaujolais would be useful in this spot, but go simple. If you spend for the "cru" wines, some (such as those from Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Côte de Brouilly, and Brouilly) have tannin in there; you might want to search for cru regions like Fleurie, which are lighter and gentler.

If all else fails, wrap a piece of prosciutto around a bundle of asparagus or cover asparagus with cheese. That will make life easy and you can just drink whatever you want!

Here are a few specific options for you. Try them for yourself and let me know what you think!

If you have questions you want answered, get in touch with me and maybe I will feature your question in another segment!

Silver Thread Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($18)

Vibrant and peachy, this dry example from New York finishes clean and should help tame the green monster.

Dog Point Vineyard Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc ($20)

Bursting with passionfruit, herbs and a hint of stony earthiness, the ripeness will work wonders with asparagus.

Vega Sindoa Navarra Garnacha Rosado ($11)

Not having any part of white wine? This simple pink wine gives you lots of strawberry and spiced flavors at a terrific bargain.

Chateau de Pizay Beaujolais ($15)

A producer who has been a longtime favorite at the store, this is straightforward raspberry and baking spice that will satisfy the red wine fan.