Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Luscious Cabernet, Low Price

They've done it again. Catena Zapata has packed a bundle of flavor into a reasonably-priced Cabernet Sauvignon. This 2006 Mendoza Cab is concentrated and luxurious in the mouth and shows off cassis, berry, cedar and woodsy notes in the nose. An absolutely charming finish leaves your mouth watering for grilled food and hearty stews.
The low price ($15. in South Jersey stores) makes this multi-dimensional wine an absolute bargain.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Angels, Thieves and Winemakers

Angels, Thieves and Winemakers

Joseph Mills

Winston-Salem: Press 53

86pp $12 (paper)

Everybody who enjoys wine often enough and long enough ends up being something of a poet. Winedrinkers just naturally seem to connect each facet of the splendor in the glass with everything in their universe. This is a reaction that’s only occasionally provoked by beer and not at all by spirits.
What’s up here? Is it the way wine focuses the attention as its flavors unfold? Is it wine’s curious ability to provoke the appetite as it quenches thirst? Is it the twelve per cent alcohol? Maybe it’s the way that winemaking has of reminding us of ourselves, of seasons and aging, hopes and rituals.
Given the poetifacient nature of wine it’s surprising that there’s not much wine poetry, at least not poetry on paper and without slightly slurred speech. Joseph Mills, who seems to have kindred spirits in Billy Collins and Robert Frost takes on the business of making the connections between wine and the rest of life and making the words sing in the process.
From the way microscopic debris in the champagne glass provides the birthplace of bubbles, Mills finds praise for our impurities, hoping that they make us sparkle. From the champagne flute molded from Marie Antoinette’s breast, he fantasizes drinking-each of us-from the shapes of our beloveds. In his tiny daughter’s mimicry of his behavior with a wine glass, he conjures the hundred fears that parents live with and reminds every parent of the fears they live with.
A few of these poems are startling, more tell truths that we may have forgotten. One or two, like The Ordinaries and Riddle are heartbreaking: some others like American Beaujolais are wry. It’s hard not to love his suggestion that a great first date activity is watching your date open a bottle of wine, praying for a broken cork or his reminder about a full wine rack:

A full wine rack
is a Saturday morning,
the first day of summer vacation
a tank of gas,
a promise of good dinners
and future celebrations.

Look, the shelves say,
There’s plenty,
Don’t worry.
You’re safe.

I know-you’ve had that feeling. Me too. But Joseph Mills had that feeling and wrote these poems and I think they’re worth a toast.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Big Wine Questions

Whenever I lead a wine tasting, it seems that the same questions always come up. Millions of people are falling in love with wine and most of them are intimidated by the enormous variety that they see in the wine shop. Here's an excerpt from The New Short Course in Wine that I hope will help.

Chapter 4 – Standing in the Wine Shop Trying to Make Sense of It All

When you finish this chapter, you will:
• Understand what makes one wine shop a better place to shop than another
• Understand the difference between red and white wine • Know when age helps a wine and when it hurts
• Appreciate the unique position of Beaujolais
• Know what makes sparkling wine sparkle
• Know how and when to best serve champagne
• Have a beginning of an idea about the appeal of fortified wine
• Appreciate why some sweet wines are so expensive even though most sweet wines are very cheap
• Understand why many great wines are very expensive

Now let’s turn from the sensual and pharmaceutical to the crassly commercial business of buying wine. You are standing, let’s say, in a well-stocked wine shop. You are staring at perhaps 8,000 different labels, and they seem, somehow, to be staring back at you. The whole thing is very intimidating. You know that wine is important, you know how to taste, and you are aware that alcohol, like fire, is a friend only if judiciously contained. None of that is the same as knowing what to bring home for dinner. Let’s reduce the confusion by sorting the wines out by type. [MN:
What should you look for in a wine shop? There are four things to keep in mind.
o Selection
Having thousands of bottles to choose from isn't the same thing as having a good selection. Many of the large discount stores simply pile in the wine, focussing on the labels that are most heavily advertised and the ones sold to them at the deepest discount. A good selection is one that's been carefully picked by a knowledgeable wine buyer. You're much better off choosing from a few hundred wines that have been tasted by someone in the store than from a few thousand that came in by the carload.

o Storage
Wine stored at temperatures over 80 degrees quickly loses its flavor.
That's why wines are often made and stored underground. It also explains why the bottle of wine that you left in the hot beach house doesn't taste as good.as the one you drank right away. Shipboard containers, tractor trailers and uncooled warehouses do the same nasty thing. Look for a store where the temperature is around 60F/16C and the staff is wearing sweaters in summer, a sure sign that the place is well-cooled and the wine is happy. If there’s no cashmere in sight, ask where the wine that’s not on the shelves is stored and at what temperature that room is maintained. (Sometimes turnover on a sales floor can be so rapid that a slightly warmer front room doesn’t matter.)

o Information
A good wine store is a good source of information. Sometimes wine merchants have merchandise that they were forced to buy and they may want to dump it on you. It's a good idea to ask the wine guy to recommend a few bottles. If you like what you bought, if there are no more than one or two obvious losers, then you may want to keep doing business at that store.

o Price
Wine prices vary widely and I have never found one store that's consistently lower than all its competitors. Even the big discount shops are not reliable money savers. The best way to save money is to subscribe to the various newsletters that the shops mail out to their customers. Remember that the only real saving is a good price on a wine that you enjoy, and that there's nothing special about a 'special' on bad wine.

• • • •

You can find out more about The New Short Course in Wine by clicking here. Or you can get the first chapter of bang BANG-the exciting new novel about sex, guns and wine here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Three 2007 Petite Sirah California

Petite Sirah is a grape many wineries treat as a condiment: the extra ingredient that spices the stew of their red wine blends. Every once in a while though, a bottle of 100% Petite Sirah wine escapes to the market. These are deep, passionate wines and they are also profoundly appetizing. They leave your mouth watering and your mind dreaming of meat and cheese and pasta. Petite Sirah is-if you don’t mind personality words used for wine-assertive, maybe even ill-mannered. The kind of wine that tells a dirty joke and then laughs a bit too loud. 100% Petite Sirahs are also very rare and for people who resent the macdonaldization of wine, very precious.

The Winery:

This wine exists thanks to the foresight of Matt Cline who has sought out these small, family-owned parcels. Cline was the winemaker of Cline Cellars, famous for delicious varietals at great prices. The Petite Sirah grape itself is the result of cross-breeding to find a grape that was resistant to another vineyard plague: downy mildew. These are tough old guys and we really like that in a vine.

Tasting notes: dark chocolate and red berries followed by a soft tannic grip. Later tasting emphasized a dry earthy character with a touch of red fruit and white pepper.
With Food: room temperature slices of dry cheese intercept the tannins in this baby and allow a dry, earthy palate to come through. Our favorite food combo was a ripe tomato sandwich on crusty bread with a slice of cheddar and some field greens.

For more about Petite Sirah and other varieties, check out The New Short Course in Wine.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Big Wine with Giant Shrimp

The easy call for wine to go with shrimp is a brightly acidic white. Since there are so many of those, it's particularly easy to come up with something novel to delight your customers or friends. The bright light whites work especially well if the shrimp are presented near-naked without much saucing and with a slightly fatty coating. Think sauteed in butter, or grilled with olive oil and understated herbs.
But if the cook is more ambitious, these wines start to get watery pretty quickly. Let's say the dish is shrimp with pasta, and let's say that the pasta is dressed with a sauce made from onion and guajillo peppers and a touch of cream. Suppose you're complicating things a bit more by sprinkling the pasta with little cubes of crispy sweet potato. What's a sommelier to do?
One of the easy choices is a great big Condrieu laden with peach and apricot and lying thick in the mouth. Unfortunately, Condrieu is-for most of us-hideously expensive. Other Viognier-based wines have a pretty normal price/quality curve too. You might try an Orange Muscat, but I wish you luck finding one, especially a dry version. So what's left? Most of us would move to a red, but are there any whites that are big enough and cheap enough? How about the Argentine specialty Torrontes? (torr-on-TES)
This grape seems to be related to white Malvasia, but there's a big gap between Malvasia in the eastern Mediterranean and Torrontes which grows only in South America. Whatever the history, this is a chewy-bodied wine with a load of peach blossom and apricot aromas and refreshing citrus in the mouth. The best news is that two of the best examples to be found in the Delaware Valley are reasonably priced. Look for Alamos, which is bringing in a bottle at around $8 and Alta Vista Reserve at about $12.

Lynn Hoffman, author of The New Short Course in Wine

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Now Mouthing Off at The Broad Street Review

In Philadelphia, a lot of people get their news from a single, out-of-town newspaper. Those folks often turn to blogs or radio for their sports news and to The Broad Street Review for news of the arts. I've always been disappointed that the premier arts source in this town disdained news of Food and Drink as beneath its dignity and while I sympathized with the prejudices and insecurities that prevent the culture-vultures from talking about The First Art, I felt it time to protest. Here's what I wrote:

Dear Editor,

Congratulations on the success of Broad Street Review. It's a brave and wonderful thing you're doing. There is a certain pleasure in connoisseurship, in thoughtful appreciation of the good things, in studying and knowing something well enough to get as much pleasure from your knowledge of it as you do from the thing itself.

There's also a bit of cultural and political statement involved. In an age when mass pleasures like TV grow more feeble and homogeneous, the very act of discrimination becomes a form of protest. And so I am a bit shocked a publication so fervently dedicated to refined appreciation and support of the arts shows such cultivated disdain for the culinary arts. ...

To read more of my diplomatic, persuavive and gentle plea: go to The Broad Street Review itself. For real inspiration on the topic, check out The New Short Course in Wine.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cépage de Sake-try this at home

Why on earth would anyone talk about sake on a wine blog? Sake, as I'm sure you know, is a drink made from rice. The brewing process uses an starch-breaking enzyme in tandem with the fermenting yeast. It sounds like a beer-brewing process. In fact it is, but sake, by virtue of its alcohol content and the way it's integrated into drinking life, is a lot more like wine than beer. Cépage? A cépage is a blend- a mixture of two different wines to produce a more balanced or more complex drink. Wine drinkers tend to be a bit skittish about cépages: you will rarely find someone pouring a bit of sour white into a jammy, flabby red. We tend to have a great deal of respect for the original formulation of wines, even if the wines in question don't deserve it.

Personally, I think this is over-delicate. Anything that makes the stuff in your glass taste better is just fine. That said, we have to admit that most amendments to a wine don't work. A splash of 7-up is probably a bad idea, so's a shot of vodka or a spoonful of concentrated fruit juice. But a raisin or a leaf of sage in a decanter? Well, sometimes.

One of the ways we might all get over our wineolatry is to start with a beverage that's worth
thinking about and in which we don't have too much symbolic investment. Sake might be just the right place to start. It is already much easier to talk about the taste of sake than the taste of wine. There is a wonderfully direct seven-point profile that you can apply to an individual sake. The dimesions are: Fragrance, Impact, Sweetness, Acidity, Presence, Earthiness and Finish (Tail).

With this in mind, it's easy to see how a sake that was, let's say, a bit lacking in Acidity but a little overbearing in the Presence department could be made more to your taste with a dash of another, less assertive and more acidic drink. Of course, there are seven different dimensions here and blending would be a matter of careful selection.

There is one instance though, in which a simple blending of two different sakes can yield a useful and immediate result. If you're a sushi lover, you've probably floundered around trying to find a good wine to take to the sushi bar. Sauvignon Blanc should work, but sometimes the bouquet has components that don't work-citrus and gooseberry for instance. Woody Chardonnays are awful and most Gewürztraminer is too distracting. A Grüner Veltliner is fine, but the better ones can be overpowering.
Hmmm. Maybe the folks who invented sushi have a solution: perhaps the best wine for sushi isn't wine at all, but sake? Fair enough, but which of the many on the shelves should we buy? If you've already grabbed a big, cheap bottle and tried it out, you may have found it too dry and ethereal. Even in the gentle presence of toro, the flavor disappears.
It may be time to try the fuller body and fruity presence of unfiltered sake. It's called Nigori Sake and it looks like milk-creamy and white. There's a great one made in the U.S. by Takara. You take it home, chill it, shake it up and try it. Perhaps you find yourself saying things like 'yummy' and 'dee-lish'-both very unusual words for wine-tasting, but perfectly appropriate here. So you cart your bottle off to the sushi bar and by the second glass you are thoroughly disappointed. Everything about the sushi has accentuated both the sweetness and the texture of the Nigori Sake and it now seems like there's a lollipop competeing with the kampachi for your attention.

Now it's time for you first cépage. All you really need to do is reduce the impact of the Nigori with some relatively neutral sake. You might try SHO CHIKU BAI Classic from the same brewer as your Nigori. Start with about half as much of the classic as you have of Nigori. If that's still too sweet and heavy in the mouth, add a bit more classic. Be sure that your cépage is well-chilled and you will have, in my humble opinion, the perfect sushi bar accompaniment.

By the way, the really great news about all this is that the average price for both components will come out to be about $8 a liter! That's not a typo. Comparing that to wine, you come up with a drink that costs six bucks a bottle and is perfectly elegant. Because of sake's slightly higher alcohol content, one 750ml bottle should get two thirsty people through dinner.

As with wine, sake doesn't last long once it's been opened. Be sure to serve well-chilled and enjoy your sushi.

Lynn Hoffman, author of the delightfully unblended novel bang BANG and the entertaining The New Short Course in Wine.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Portuguese for the dinner table

In the english-speaking world, Portuguese wine has two very well established faces. The first, and most esteemed is Port (Oporto) in all its variations. For richness and intensity of impact, for sheer ability to put a punctuation mark at the end of a meal there is nothing to match it. On the other end of the spectrum we have a host of rosés and vinhos verdes: light and refreshing and, for a generation of Americans, often the introduction to the pleasures of wine.

There have always been a handful of wines in the middle, luscious table wines-mostly from the same Duoro valley that produces port- that recalled the complexity of vintage port or the earthy intensity of a ripe bordeaux. Sadly, these wines are only occasionally available in the American market: Barca Velha is 'declared' like a port, reliable Quinta do Crasto is hard to find and yummies from other regions, Alentejo for instance only show up rarely.

So it's exciting to be able to report reliable supplies of two outstanding table wines from Cortes de Cima. The richer entry is the eponymous Cortes de Cima, ($15US) a blend of Tempranillo, Syrah and Trincadeira. The 2002 vintage showed generous portions of berries with a hint of evergreen, vanilla and raisins against an earthy, licorice background. The color is deep and bright and there's a healthy acidity and a sturdy 14.5% alcohol to keep the whole thing afloat. Serve with intensely flavored, firm textured food. We got the best results decanting several hours ahead of dinner and serving at a cool, cellar temperature.

In the days of increasingly internationalized wine, this one is unmistakably from Portugal and we should be glad of it. From the same vintner comes the softer, more cherry-like Chaminé ($8US), an easy-drinking fruit basket with lots of depth. There's lots of ripe fruit and spice on the nose and the 14% alcohol gives a generous mouth-feel. Except for one mis-match with tomato sauce, this was a delicious choice with dinner.

Both wines are wonderful and at these price points represent unusual values.

Lynn Hoffman, author of The New Short Course in Wine and the spicy, generous novel bang BANG.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Burgundian Style at Lombardian Prices

When wine people talk about 'structure', they mean a feeling in the mouth, a sense of solidity, an almost-chewy character in a liquid medium. Wines with structure are the wines that make us think of wine as food. In general, structure is expensive-it's a product of low yields and high concentration- and cheap wines rarely have it. Red wines get most of their structure from tannin and grape solids and maybe a little bit from alcohols.
The greatest trick in white wine making is to produce a wine that has a semblance of structure. All those California vanilla-bombs are really attempts to introduce structure by adding organic chemicals from barrel-aging, and barrels are expensive too.
So it's remarkable to come across a white wine that has structure and elegant flavor and doesn't cost a fortune. Drinking it makes you feel like you're violating some traffic law of nature and (if you know the price tag when you taste it) you wait to hear the siren and see the flashing light as the wine police pull you over to the side of the road.

The violation in this case belongs to a wine from Lugana, an area in Lombardy just south of Lake Garda. It's from Tenuta Roveglia and the 2006 vintage is the one that's got me swooning.
Along with the beautiful, lush body, there's a deep herbal nose with sexy mineral overtones. If you've ever paid too much for a Riesling, this is a quiet rebuke. There is also a resounding earthy grapiness- the sort of taste that you may have chased with a white burgundy and missed.

The grape? Oh. It's Trebbiano, a grape that has earned its reputation as a lightweight. The price? Well, in the Philadelphia neighborhood known as South Jersey, it costs $12. Better stock up. I have.

Lynn Hoffman, author of The New Short Course in Wine
and the very well-structured novel bang BANG.