Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Red Wine from Germany???

So I'd decided I wanted to learn more about Rieslings this summer, and was reading about some German Rieslings when I came across a reference to a red wine made in Germany - a Dornfelder. Red wine?? Germany?? Those two thoughts had never occurred in the same paragraph for me, so I was very curious to try some.

Since red grapes have trouble ripening in the colder German climate, most German wines have been white (which require less ripening time on average), or have been very pale, thin reds. The Dornfelder grape was bred to provide Germany with a grape capable of producing deep, dark reds with some tannins to them. Turns out the Dornfedler is a pretty new arrival to the wine grape scene: it was bred in 1955 at Staatliche Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Wein- und Obstbau Weinsberg, which as far as I can tell is a German viticulture and enology school. The grape was named "Dornfelder" after Immanuel Dornfelder, the founder of the viticultural school.

2005 (Weingut) Anselmann Dornfelder (Pfalz, Germany)
So German wines are a bit of a mouthfull to pronounce - probably part of their marketing problem in the U.S. This is definitely not an "easy" wine in name, region, or taste, so only the vinologically adventurous would likely seek this wine out for purchase.

This wine hails from the Pfalz (Palatinate) region, the largest wine-producing region of Germany. Pfalz mainly grows Müller-Thurgau and Reisling, although they have been diversifying of late, creating more artisanal wines as well as some different varietals (such as Dornfelder).

Tasting Notes
This Dornfelder was deep ruby in color. The label advised drinking it chilled - 55 degrees F or slightly warmer. This was far too cold for the type of wine I was anticipaitng, so this immediately sent up little warning flags for me - this is not going to be a "normal" red wine...

The nose was very subdued - likely due to the colder temperature stifling the aromas. On the tongue, the Dornfelder was sweet, with flavors fo dired fruits and smoked gouda. There were few tannins - I thought this was supposed to be a "real" German red, and to me that means tannins. This wine reminded me a bit like the sweet Banyuls I recently tasted for WBW #33 - and in this case, that was not a good thing. I thought that a red German wine would be a lighter Pinot Noir-like red, suitable for pairing with fish or lighter fare - not so, with this wine.

Overall Recommendation
I am always interested in trying something new, so was glad I gave this Dornfelder a go. However, I think I was expecting to taste a German version of a Pinot Noir or something like that, and this wine ended up so very different than my expectations. Possibly because of that, I just couldn't appreciate this wine. It was just too sweet for me, especially when I was anticipating something like a fruity, smooth Pinot. My recent experiment with Banyuls made me consider, and this Dornfelder experiment has appeared to confirm, that I just don't like sweet reds unless they're Port, Madeira, Sherry - the fortified reds. So unless you think you'd be a fan of sweet reds, I'd steer clear of the Dornfelder for greener, more fortified pastures...

2005 Anakena Carmenére

OK, so I realize I've had an almost week-long lull in the posting action here - I've had one heck of a week! So I'm going to post-date these blog entries to when they were supposed to have been written up! I'll catch up and get back on track - I promise!

Brief History of Carmenére

So, as I have alluded to in several previous posts, I am totally loving Chilean Carmenére. Don't worry if you've never heard of "Carmenére" - it's a bit of an obscure grape, but one well worth memorizing. Carmenére is a bit of an outcast, and I think that plays in to the appeal. Carmenére was originally grown in the Bordeaux region of France, but its low yields caused it to lose favor when French viticulturists were replanting after Phylloxera invaded Europe in the 1880s. This resulted Carmenére becoming all but extinct in its native Bordeaux.

Prior to the Phylloxera invasion, several plantings of Carmenére made their way to Chile (along with other Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec). Carmenére found a natural home here, and really took off. Interestingly enough, wine made from Carmenére in Chile was inaccurately labeled as "Merlot" up until genetic testing in the 1990s confirmed its identity as Carmenére. "Oops" said the Chilean winemakers, who then hastily remade their labels to say "Carmenére" instead of Merlot. Carmenére and Merlot look extremely similar in the field, and the winemakers really didn't know what they were dealing with until quite recently.

Carmenére = Chile
Similar to how Zinfandel is now associated with California, Shiraz with Australia and Malbec with Argentina, Carmenére is now seen as "Chile's grape". What could have been a mini-catastrophe in mistaken identity with Merlot, Chilean winemakers turned into a boon by instead touting the benefits and unique characteristics of Carmenére. And lucky for all of us that they did, as Carmenére has ended up being a very fascinating wine - with generally lower tannins than Merlot and big juicy fruit and spice, Carmenére is a very versatile wine that can match well with a variety of foods, or just be enjoyed on its own.

Anakena Carmenére
Anakena makes one solid Carmenére. And for only $10 (at Total Wine in McLean, VA), this wine has Excellent Quality-to-Price Ratio (QPR). The best way I can think of this Carmenére is as "a Merlot, but more so" - it's spicier, fruitier and more in-your-face than a Merlot (in a good way!), but with subtler tannins. Alternatively, think of this as a toned-down California Zinfandel. Regardless of how you think about it, I strongly recommend giving a Carmenére a shot.

The Anakena Carmenére had dark, ripe berries and spices on the nose that carried through to the palate. Clocking in at 14.5% alcohol, you'd think this wine might be a bit "hot" on the tongue, but somehow it manages to avoid that. I've had this wine on several occasions now, and enjoy it enough each time to make a point of buying more on my next vino purchasing expedition. Hopefully you'll give it a shot - let me know what you think!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Tasting the Big Six

Ever since I started flipping through Andrea (Immer) Robinson's book Great Wine Made Simple, I have been itching to try out her series of recommended tastings to train the palate and help you learn to identify certain aspects / flavors / styles of wine. Well, last weekend I finally got my chance, as Kris and I held a "Big Six" tasting event!

The Big Six
The idea behind the Big Six is twofold: First, by tasting the big six grapes (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), you will have tasted the "guts" of roughly 80% of all wine produced throughout the world; Second, you get the opportunity to experience the full range of "bodies" - light, medium and full- in both red and white wines.

Robinson helpfully recommends specific wines in "budget", "moderate" and "splurge" monetary categories that she thinks will best illustrate varietal character and appropriate body for each grape. I found her list a very helpful starting point, and I stuck to it fairly closely. She recommends that all wines be selected from within the same price category, as you don't varying quality of wine interfering with the point of the tasting, namely varietal expression and body.

Kris and I decided in advance upon the "moderate" category - we wanted wines that tasted good, and were of high enough quality to accurately express varietal character and body, but we wanted them affordable enough so that participants could consider purchasing their favorites for casual dinners at home. This goes along with our general philosophy that wine is an "everyday beverage" - we like good wines that are affordable enough to enjoy each evening with dinner without feeling like we are blowing our budget.

Our Wine Selections
On to our selections. As I mentioned, the purpose of the Big Six is to distinguish differences in body across the major wine grapes of the world. For whites, Riesling typifies light-bodied, Sauvignon Blanc medium-bodied, and Chardonnay full-bodied; for reds, Pinot Noir typifies light-bodied, Merlot medium-bodied and Cabernet Sauvignon full-bodied. The following wines were purchased from Total Wine in McLean, VA:

Riesling: 2004 Domaine Trimbach (Alsace, France) - $16
Sauvignon Blanc: 2006 Stony Bay (Marlborough, NZ) - $12
Chardonnay: 2005 Franciscan Oakville Estate (Napa Valley, CA) - $13

Pinot Noir: 2006 Sockeye (Chile**) - $14
Merlot: 2003 Chateau St. Michelle (Columbia Valley, Washington) - $11.50
Cabernet Sauvignon: 2004 Simi Winery (Alexander Valley, CA) - $14

**Note: This is what happens when you don't do your research. I am a Pinot Noir neophyte, but have been interested in trying some Oregonian Pinots. Sockeye (like the salmon) sure sounds Northwest-ish, and this wine was filed under "Oregon". Turns out Sockeye sources grapes from different locales, and their 2003 was from Oregon, their 2004 was from Australia, and as I discovered upon returning home, their 2006 was from Chile! I thought this boded poorly for the tasting, since I have heard of a lot of great wines coming out of Chile and no one has ever mentioned Pinot...

The Wine Tasting Setup
To really be able to directly compare the different wines in the Big Six, Robinson recommends using 6 different glasses so that all wines could be poured at once. Thinking that this could end up pretty chaotic, I made a nifty little tasting mat to keep the wines in the right order.

Note to my viewers at home: this is actually a legal sized sheet of paper (8.5" x 14") - a standard 8.5" x 11" paper was just too small to allow for adequate spacing between the glasses!

So, everyone was provided with 6 glasses and a tasting sheet listing the wines we would be tasting and allowing space for them to take notes and rate them. Kris and I own a fair number of wine glasses, but at six-per-person, we had to make this a partial BYOGlasses event. In terms of the rating system, I wanted to keep this fairly straight-forward so used what many are now familiar with - the Netflix rating system: 5 stars Loved It, 4 stars Really Liked It, 3 stars Liked It, 2 stars Didn't Like It, 1 star Hated It.

The Tasting
So how'd it all work out? I must say, I was quite pleased with the results - not only did all of the wines rock in my mind (with the exception of the Chilean Pinot, which was just "OK"), but I was totally getting the whole "body" thing after about 30 minutes or so! The "tongue memory" of wine body is slightly fading, and I'd love to do this sort of tasting one more time to really solidify it, but I think the Big Six is an excellent tasting to start training your palate, and really fun to boot!

I think I will follow up this post with a second one detailing exactly why the Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay (and I didn't even think I *liked* Chardonnay!), Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon rocked. But suffice it to say that I would rate them all as exhibiting Excellent Quality-to-Price Ratio (QPR).

So What's Next?
Having had so much fun with the Big Six, I am already looking forward to the next of Andrea Robinson's recommended tastings. This next tasting involves 8 bottles, and is designed to help illustrate exactly what is meant by the tasting terms "dry", "crisp", "oaky" and "tannic". You pit a Dry Riesling vs. a Sweet Riesling, a Crisp, High-Acid Sauvignon Blanc vs. a Low-Acid Sauvignon Blanc, a "No-Oak" Chardonnay vs. an Oaky Chardonnay, and a Low-tannin Pinot Noir vs. a High-tannin Cabernet Sauvignon. This grouping seems a little more intuitive to me, as I think you pick up these terms while tasting easier than you may with wine body. But I trust Andrea's advice, and figure it's just too much fun to skip a recommended tasting! I'll let ya know how it turns out...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #33 - Entry #3

Yes, I really went all out for this, my inaugural Wine Blogging Wednesday (WBW) event, and tasted THREE qualifying wines. As I've mentioned in my previous entires, the theme for this month's WBW was "Mid-Priced wines from the Midi" (i.e., $15-$30 bottles of wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, also known as the Midi). You can read all about it at the WBW#33 host's blog, Doktor Weingolb.

Saving what I hoped would be the best for last, my third entry into WBW#33 was a 2004 Domaine Le Pas de l'Escalette "Les Clapas". The label proclaimed it was from the Coteaux du Languedoc AOC, and it also mentioned Terrasses du Larzac. A little research determined that Terrasses du Larzac was one of the Northern-most regions of the Languedoc-Rousillon in Southern France (I guess that just makes it Middle France?). This wine was produced by the same winemakers as my Entry #1 for WBW#33, only this wine costs an additional $5 per bottle ($20 at in Gathersburg, MD) and carries that added designation of "Terrasses du Larzac".

Wine Labels
A good rule of thumb I've learned when reading labels is "the more specific the label, the better the wine". For example, you may see bottles labeled as simply a "California" Cabernet Sauvignon - this is likely of lower quality than a "Sonoma County" Cabernet Sauvignon, or better yet - a "Russian River Valley" Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County, CA. And the best yet is often when the label designates a specific vineyard - this is about as specific as you can get. Thus I was excited to taste a wine that should be "one step up" from my WBW#33 Entry #1 wine.

Tasting Notes
Most of the time, Kris and I see pretty eye-to-eye when it comes to wine. This is obviously quite fortunate as it makes splitting a bottle much easier! This wine was a bit of an exception however; I don't know if seasonal allergies just had me stuffed up a bit so that I was missing out, but Kris was a lot more impressed with this wine than I was.

I thought the nose was quite subdued, with hints of old leather and spices. Kris was gushing over all of the bright, young fruit on the nose, which I missed completely. On the tongue, Kris continued to taste the fruit, whereas I enjoyed the tangy spiciness of this wine. We both agreed that it had very nice complexity, especially for grenache, with nice tannin structure.

As we drank it with dinner, the wine really started to open up, and *then* I was able to start picking up some of the fruit. By this point the wine was over half gone, and we were kicking ourselves for not decanting it in the beginning. I bet if we had, I'd have had a similar initial reaction as Kris.

Overall Recommendation
This was a very enjoyable wine, but at $20, this is several bucks above our usual $8-$14 nightly bottle. Considering that, I have to rate this wine as "OK quality-to-price ratio" - the quality was there, but the price was a bit high. Kris pointed out that it was probably pretty hard to get this much complexity into wines of this style, so for her it was a good QPR. Although she could have found a bottle she enjoyed more for less, she thought that this Les Clapas was a great example of what could be done with Rhône-style blends at a much more affordable price than a Chateauneuf du Pape.

In terms of this month's WBW theme, we both really enjoyed exploring wines from the Midi, and will definitely consider Languedoc-Roussillon wines in a restaurant or for adding to our cellar! Thanks for the great theme Marcus!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #33 - Entry #2

For my second entry into Wine Blogging Wednesday (WBW) #33, I tried out a "vin doux naturel" from the Banyuls region of Languedoc- Roussillon, France. As I described in my first WBW#33 entry, the theme for this month was "Mid-Priced wines from the Midi" (i.e., $15-$30 bottles of wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, also known as the Midi. You can read all about it at the WBW#33 host's blog, Doktor Weingolb.

The wine I selected for Entry #2 was a 2003 Banyuls Rimage Les Clos de Paulilles, purchased for $16 (for a 500 mL bottle) at Total Wine in McLean, VA. The Banyuls region is located in the far south of France near to the border with Spain/Catalonia. "Rimage" is a Catalan word meaning vintage, so much like a vintage Port all grapes for this wine came from a single declared year (2003, in this case). Also like a vintage Port, this wine has been fortified: neutral grape alcohol is added in a process known as mutage to halt fermentation, allowing some of the natural sugars to remain in the wine. The Clos de Paulilles Banyuls was made from 100% Grenache (noir) grapes.

Tasting Notes
Rusted red in color, this Banyuls had a bit of an astringent nose (not too surprising given its 16% alcohol; this is less than many Ports however, which can be in the 20% alcohol range). You'd think this may make the wine "hot" on the tongue, but it was quite smooth. On the palate were flavors of dried cherries and dried cranberries (my wife wasn't so sure about the cranberries) - the point here is "dried" since this was a rich, intense wine, almost syrupy sweet due to the concentration of fruit flavor. I also detected a hint of berries and chocolate.

Overall Recommendation
I'm a big fan of tawny Ports, so I was interested in trying something a little different, which the 2003 Banyuls Rimage Les Clos de Paulilles most certainly was. When judged on it's own however, I would only give this Good Quality-to-price Ratio (QPR). I was definitely enjoying the wine, but for the $16 price tag I can get a 750 mL bottle of a nice tawny that I would enjoy as much or more.

But then I broke out some Green & Black's 70% Cocoa Dark Chocolate. YUM!! I frequently attempt to match red wine and chocolate, but I have to say I think this is one of the most perfect matches I have yet tasted. Once the dark chocolate entered the picture, the QPR shot up to "Great". If you're interested in trying Banyuls, do yourself a favor and make sure you've got a good bar of dark chocolate in the house!

I also think the 2003 Banyuls Rimage Les Clos de Paulilles would make an interesting choice for someone looking for a red dessert wine that hasn't found what they were looking for in a Port. The slightly lower alcohol level helps ease the burn, which is what I think turns a lot of people off of Port initially. So consider this a Port Alternative for non-Port drinkers.

Working at Three Fox Vineyards

Kris and I started volunteering at Three Fox Vineyards in Delaplane, VA last weekend. This is one great little winery. The owner's Holli and John Todhunter are intimately involved in all aspects of operation, and they have (successfully) attempted to create a little bit of Tuscany and La Dolce Vita here in Virginia. If you are touring Virginia wine country, Three Fox is where you want to stop to enjoy the beautiful day, have a picnic lunch, play croquet or bocce ball, and sip on some of their fabulous Italian-styled wines.

We decided to volunteer at Three Fox to learn more about wine from a completely different perspective. It is our dream to someday make a life-long career move into the wine industry, so we thought that volunteering mainly in the tasting room (with additional winery and vineyard duties as they come up) would be a nice introduction to that.

Another big advantage is that Three Fox is very dog friendly, and allow us to bring our two border collies (Owen & Iris) as adopted winery dogs while we're working! Luckily, since they're border collies, they never wander very far and can mostly be found greeting new customers or chasing bees around the vineyard!

Our first day as volunteers ended up being pretty hectic, with two large (40-50+) groups arriving on tour buses, and a couple other large groups dropping in unannounced. Overall, we had some 220 something visitors, which seems like a lot for a small operation like Three Fox! I'll continue to provide updates on our "Will Work For Wine" volunteerism at Three Fox, and will try to remember to take some pictures of the 3-acres of new vines they just planted just so you can see how "baby vines" look when they're just starting out!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #33 - Entry #1

We popped open this bottle of vino specifically for entry into this month's "Wine Blogging Wednesday" (WBW), the 33rd such event since its inception in September of 2004. The idea is that everyone in the wine blogosphere finds a bottle that satisfies that month's theme, then everyone drinks them and we all compare notes!

This month's WBW is being hosted by Marcus over at Doktor Weingolb. The theme is "Midi-priced Wines for the Midi" meaning wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France (often called "the Midi") that cost between $15-$30. For more information on "the rules", check out Doktor Weingolb's explanation of WBW #33. You don't need a wine blog to be able to participate - Marcus will be setting up a comment area where you can post your tasting notes directly to his site, so please join in! As with all things "wine", the more the merrier...

Wines from Languedoc-Roussillon
So this is the part of the post where I'd normally go into too much detail about where the wine comes from, or how its made, that sort of thing. However, since this is a WBW wine, Marcus has already done all of that background research for me! Check out all of the WBW#33 posts on Doktor Weingolb to learn more than you ever wanted to know about wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. Being a wine-geek, I can't let myself off quite that easily though, so I'll recap.

The Languedoc -Roussillon region is in Southern France, stretching along the Mediterranean coast from near the Spanish border to just south of the Rhône. From the geography alone, I'm thinking this would be a fantastic place to visit - wineries and beaches in the same trip!

Within the Languedoc-Roussillon region, there is a mind-boggling number of subregions and appellations - luckily, Marcus has compiled a truly exhaustive list of all L-R regions.

If you actually click on that link, you'll notice that a lot of the names are preceded by "VdP", which stands for "Vin de Pays". This is literally translated as "wines of the country", and is a step or two up from the generic "table wine" designation allowed by France's strict wine labeling laws. Similar to my recent discussion about Super Tuscans, VdP wines are ones that "breaks the rules" of their appellation by creating wines with grapes or techniques not allowed in that region. Recognizing that the end result of many of these wines are quite spectacular, the "Vin de Pays" designation was created to recognize wines superior to simple "table wines" that would otherwise not be allowed under current wine law.

Domaine Le Pas de L'Escalette le 1er Pas Rouge
While I typically seem to be a fan of non-conformist rule-breakers, I apparently didn't end up with a VdP wine for WBW #33 - my 2005 Domaine Le Pas de L'Escalette appears to come under the Appellation d'Origine de Contrôlée (AOC) Coteaux du Languedoc. This wine was purchased at in Gaithersburg, MD directly from the winemaker during their recent French winetasting event. (I also purchased the slightly more expensive Domaine Le Pas de L'Escalette Les Clapas Rouge for $20, which I also hope to taste and submit for WBW#33!)

This wine was 13.5% alcohol, and made from Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Syrah - all grapes near and dear to me from my experience with Santa Barbara's Rhone Rangers (predominantly California winemakers, especially from Paso Robles / Santa Barbara, creating wines in the Rhône / Southern France style).

Tasting Notes
The wine was bright, light cherry in color. It had a fruity and spicy nose - so much so that I would have never thought of the wine as French (French wines always seem a little more subdued to me). The spice on the nose continues enthusiastically through to the palate, with smooth tannins and a fair amount of fruit.

Overall Recommendation
I see this wine as a good "transition wine" for white drinkers looking to try out some red. It is very approachable, yet has some depth with its fruit and spice to hold your interest. However, you may have been able to tell by the lack of specificity in my tasting notes that I was not totally digging this wine. It's not that it was bad - it was quite good, in fact - but at $15, I'm looking for more. So I would have to say that this wine has "just OK" QPR (quality-to-price ratio). Thus I would not classify this as one of the "wine bargains" that Doktor Weingolb has convinced me that the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is capable of producing. Stay tuned for tasting notes from this wine's big brother, the Les Clapas Rouge - at $20, I think it may bump up the QPR rating quite a bit! I also have a "vin doux naturel" from the Banyuls - kind of like a Languedoc-Roussillon version of Port (more on that in a few days!).

Friday, May 11, 2007

Toscano v. Toscano (a pitched battle)

Why open just one bottle when you can open two? That was my thinking in opening up both the 2001 Castello di Tavolese Rubicondo Toscano and the 2005 Per Me Sola Rosso Toscano.

Under the Tuscan Sun
I've never really gotten into Italian wines - I don't know much about them, and most of my previous experience with Italian wine has been with cheap Chianti in those bottles with straw wrapped around them. Speaking of Chianti, let's clear up some confusion about it: Chianti isn't a type of wine per se, its actually a region of Tuscany, famous for its red wine made predominantly from Sangiovese. Italy has 20 different wine regions, which label wine using a fairly comprehensive Italian appellation system. This system may ensure the quality, but it's also somewhat daunting to have to learn yet another system just to figure out what the label means on that Italian bottle of wine staring at your from the wine store shelf.

Well, I haven't learned that system yet, so I made my selection of these two wines based on the sole criteria of their being Tuscan. I'd love to visit Tuscany some day, and somehow by purchasing some Tuscan wine its like taking some baby steps in that direction.

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Super Tuscan!
The Castello di Tavolese Rubicondo was described in Total Wine's write-up as being a "Super Tuscan". To explain what's meant by that term, we need a bit of a history lesson.

Italy has been making wine for a very long time, and because of this had some very old laws which prescribed exactly how certain wines would be made - which grapes would be used, in which percentages - if it was to bear the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) seal. In the 1970s, Italian winemakers started to question the wisdom of this stringent system, and began making wines that "broke the rules": perhaps they added in the non-Italian Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend, or aged the wines in French oak barrels. Whatever the transgression, these wines could not be classified classified under the DOC regulations (i.e., you couldn't call it a "Chianti" if it didn't follow the Chianti rules), so they had to be labeled simply "Vino da Tavola", or "Table Wine". This category had typically been reserved for the cheapest and simplest of wines, but Italian winemakers started using this term to describe their top-of-the-line offerings that didn't comply with Italian wine law. These "renegade" wines started gaining mass appeal, and were nicknamed "Super Tuscans".

(The DOC system has since been overhauled to allow for designation of these not-so-renegade-anymore wines using the Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or IGT)

Head-to-Head Toscanos
Enough history! Let's drink some wine!

Both of these wines I'm describing were made with 100% Sangiovese. Upon the pour, both of these wines were much deeper in color than I was expecting from Sangiovese: the Rubicondo was a deep strawberry reddish color with a hint of brown; the Per Me Sola was a deep purple-red, and more juicy-looking.

The Per Me Sola had what I can only describe as "cheap wine nose" - a very young, grape juice smell that I have found in cheap reds like Two Buck Chuck or a low-end Aussie Shiraz. Sadly, Kris and I made up a batch of Old Vine Zinfandel ourselves a few years ago (using excess juice from Lodi vineyards), and it too had this overly fruity nose to it. This was not a good sign.

I really enjoyed the nose of the Rubicondo - it had so much going on. There were some dark fruits (cherries maybe?), and an almost floral quality to it - I think this could have been a touch of vanilla blending in with the fruits. The vanilla makes sense, as one reason this wine is a "Super Tuscan" is that it was aged using French oak - a no-no under traditional Chianti rules.

On the tongue, the Per Me Sola was a bit harsh, some fruit to it but generally very simple with not much of a finish. It was medium-bodied though, which I wasn't expecting in a Sangiovese - I had always thought of them as lighter-bodied reds. Similarly, the Rubicondo was also medium-bodied (leading to believe that perhaps my association of Sangiovese as lighter-bodied was incorrect). It was very smooth and had a nice tannin structure to it, drying out your mouth just enough to appreciate their presence. The dark fruits on the nose came through, as did some oak, and it had an almost dusty finish to it (in a good way). My mind kept comparing this wine to a Southern Rhône-style blend, which is odd since this was 100% Sangiovese, but once the association was in my head I couldn't shake it.

So I said that this Toscano v. Toscano duel was a bit of a pitched battle - both wines were purchased at Total Wine in McLean, the 2001 Castello di Tavolese Rubicondo for $13, the Per Me Sola Rosso Toscano for $7. Between the age (2001 vs. non-vintage) and the price (the Rubicondo costing almost twice the Per Me Sola), I had a pretty good idea of who I thought the winner would be. But since both age and price are definitely not always accurate predictors of quality (especially in this "everyday wine" price range), I tried to keep an open mind going into this match-up.

However, as you can tell by the tasting notes, the Rubicondo was the clear winner. I'd say this wine has good quality-to-price ratio, and is worth trying out if you're feeling like an Italian wine. Although almost half the price, the Per Me Sola really came up short on taste, and I would say had a poor quality-to-price ratio. It was slightly better with food, but that was mainly because the food masked the wines general lack of complexity and finish. And if all you're going to use it for is simple table wine, you can buy it buy the jug for far less than $7.

I enjoyed delving a bit into Italian wines though - as I mentioned, I have limited experience with Italian wines from Italy (having tasted several versions of Italian varietals grown in California) so it was nice to go "to the source". If anyone has any recommendations on other Italian wines I should try, I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Spanish Cava!

Summer is here!! I can tell it's summer and not spring because the humidity shot up to around 60% or so today - perfect Cava weather!

And Just What Is Cava?
Last month, I posted a mini-rant about Champagne; I'll save you the gory details and jump to the punchline: Champagne is the region of France best known for their sparkling (i.e., bubbling) wines, and is also the *only* region that can name sparkling wine "Champagne" (or even "champagne"). So while we often call anything with bubbles in it "champagne", that's kind of like using a kleenex or making a xerox of something - we've made a generic term out of something that was once very specific.

What does this have to do with Cava? Well, the French aren't the only ones who make their own bubbly -the Germans make Sekt, the Italians make Spumante, and the Spanish make Cava! (The French even make other sparklers not from the Champagne region - these are known as Cremant).

What Makes Cava Different?
I love Cava. It's the perfect summer sipping wine - it's very clean and refreshing, nice and crisp with good acidity. What's somewhat unusual about Cava is the grapes it is traditionally made from: 40% Macabeo, 40% Parellada and 20% Xarel-lo in the case of this Casteller Cava. Never heard of those grapes before? Me neither - they're all mainly grown in Spain, and mainly used to make Cava (although Macabeo is an important grape in its own right in Rioja, where it goes under the pseudonym Viura; also, Macabeo seems to have snuck across the border and is also cultivated in Southern France).

Casteller Cava Brut
The Casteller Cava Brut is pale gold in color, with plenty of nice bubbles! It has a crisp, fresh flavor, with tastes of green apple, citrusy lime, and just a touch of sweetness. It lacks the "yeasty" flavor that I often associate with Champagne, which I think makes it taste cleaner, and makes it such a good summer sipping bubbly. Purchased for $14 at in Gaithersburg, MD, this Cava has a good quality-to-price ratio. I suspect if I bought this in Virginia, it's cost a couple bucks less, making it an excellent QPR.

Do yourself a favor - don't save bubbly only for "special occasions"! Or at the very least, be vague in your definition of "special" such that a nice summer day qualifies. Then go out and grab a Cava, pop it open and enjoy the bubbles and the beautiful day!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Number of Calories and Servings in a Bottle of Vino

This is one of those questions I tend to try to ignore - I know that alcohol has a lot of calories in it, and I'd rather not know how much for fear of feeling guilty while enjoying a nice glass of wine. Well, I finally decided to do the math, so here's what I learned.

Servings in a Bottle
One "serving" of wine is considered 150 mLs, which equates to just over 5 ounces. This means that each 750 mL bottle of wine has five servings. So if you split your bottle over dinner with your significant other, you're each getting ~2.5 servings of wine (if you play fair).

Calories per Serving
The amount of calories in a serving of wine obviously varies, with dry wines having less than sweet dessert wines. A good rule of thumb though, is that a glass of "regular" table wine, white or red, contains between 90 -120 calories. Using the multiplication-friendly score of 100, that means your 2.5 servings at dinner contain 2.5 x 100 = 250 calories. Not as bad as I was expecting, actually!

Amount of Alcohol
The general idea here is that one 5 oz glass of wine has roughly the same amount of alcohol as one 12 oz beer, or one shot (1.5 oz) of liquor. So drinking half a bottle of wine has the same amount of alcohol as drinking two and a half (12 oz) bottles of beer, or roughly one and a half pints (one pint = 586 mL = 19.2 oz). Got that? And now for a general public service announcement: your body can only metabolize about one drink per hour, so splitting a bottle of wine at home is fine, but doing so at a restaurant isn't such a good idea if you're planning on driving any time soon (especially not if you live in DC!).

Recommended Alcohol Consumption
New stories seem to crop up in the media every couple of months about this, but the general trend of most of the research I've seen seems to point to the fact that moderate alcohol consumption (of any type) is beneficial to heart health, and that red wine in particular may have additional antioxidants which aid in preventing certain types of cancers. So just what is "moderate alcohol consumption"? The U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines defines this as 1-2 drinks (servings) per day for men, and one drink per day for women (sorry ladies - life is unfair). Being a bit less teetoling than the U.S., the UK recommends 3-4 drinks per day for men, and 2-3 drinks per day for women as part of a healthy diet. Keep in mind that when they say "per day" in the US, they really mean "with dinner"; in the UK, those per day drinks include those consumed at lunch as well, since a glass of wine at noon isn't likely to get you fired as it would in the US.

The Joys of Bicycle Commuting
So I'm one of those people who are lucky enough to actually live within a 10-mile radius of where I work. Because of this, I bike to work nearly every day. Thanks to my trusty heart rate monitor, I know that I burn approximately 300 calories during my 7.5 mile ride in to work. Since the neat thing about bicycle commuting is that you are automatically committing yourself to riding home as well, another 7.5 miles earns me another 300 calories, for a total of approximately 600 extra calories burned each day. (In case you're thinking 300 calories sounds like a lot to burn in only 7.5 miles, understand that Maryland is very hilly - we're not talking 7.5 flat, easy miles here). Comparing that 600 calories burned to the measly 250 calories consumed by splitting a bottle of wine with dinner, I have decided not to feel guilty about it and will thus now enjoy my evening bottles that much more!

And Now We Return to Our Regular Programming...
Sorry for the tangent - I had just always been curious about that, and thought I'd share what I found out in case there were any other calorie-counting wine lovers out there! I will now return to my regular business of reviewing tasty, affordable bottles of wine...

Monday, May 7, 2007

2004 Cousiño-Macul Doña Isidora Riesling

I decided a couple months ago or so that I wanted to learn more about Rieslings. It was actually some of the sweeter, German -style Rieslings that really got me started on wine in the first place several years ago. I think as I learned more about different wines and transformed into a red wine drinker, I just unconsciously presumed the stuff I started on had to have been inferior, and I have sort of ignored it ever since.

Well, a couple weeks ago I started reading Andrea Immer Robinson's Great Wine Made Simple. As described by the subtitle of her book, Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier, Andrea Immer Robinson really knows her stuff and is completely unpretentious as she walks you through a series of several recommended tastings meant to help you develop your palate.

The first of these tastings is the "Big Six" - six grapes that represent the "guts" of about 80% of the quality wine sold in the U.S. There are three white grapes and three red grapes, each grape also representing the range of body (light, medium and full) of each type. In order of increasing body, the white grapes are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay; the red grapes are Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

When I read that, I thought"Hmmm... I've had several wines made from all but one of those grapes within the last couple of years - Riesling. Am I missing out here?" As Robinson says, "First, ditch your snobbery about Riesling. A lot of people hear Riesling and think 'sweet' and 'no thanks.' My theory is that as soon as people spot the traditional long, thin bottle, they have flashbacks to Liebfraumilch. But about the only thing great Rieslings have in common with Liebfraumilch is its traditional home base - Germany."

See, I told you she was unpretentious.

Anyway, that right there was enough to convince me that I needed to widen the (admittedly limited) horizons of my white wine world, and start tasting some Rieslings. With the hot and humid DC summers just right around the corner, when drinking my favorite red wines becomes all but unbearable, now seemed like the perfect time to start my exploration. So I did something I don't normally do - I bought this bottle of wine from the cornerstore "beermart" while picking up some Cinco de Mayo cervezas.

Why You Shouldn't Buy Wine at a "BeerMart"
This was probably a mistake for several reasons, but the biggest one was how the wine had been stored. Being mainly a beer store, they have tons of beer-filled refrigerators which noisily and continuously remove heat from within the coolers and pump it out into the store. I'm just taking a guess here, but this heating effect probably keeps the temperature in this small shop in the upper 70s - not exactly ideal storage conditions for wine. Also, being mainly a beer store, they a) had a very poor wine selection, and b) almost never sold any wine - thus the bottles they did have had probably stewed there on those shelves for some time without being replaced by new stock.

All of this is to say that I probably didn't exactly "set myself up for success" for my re-entry into the world of Riesling. And when I first cracked open this 2004 Cousiño-Macul "Doña Isidora" Chilean Riesling, I must say I was not impressed. Since Kris and I had folks coming over to our place for a Cinco de Mayo BBQ, I didn't have adequate time to chill the wine and attempted the "bottle in the freezer" trick which never seems to work out well. It was still far too warm when I first opened it, and therefore quite harsh. It was creamier than I was expecting, and had a bitterness to the finish which was not particularly pleasant. Oh well - time for a Negra Modelo, and the Riesling was pumped and put into the fridge.

The next night, my wife and I were having a grilled lemon pepper (wild-caught) salmon, so I figured I'd break it out and try it again. Having been in the fridge all day, it would now be at a much more agreeable temperature which I hoped would rectify the many faults from my previous failed tasting attempt.

Wine in Chile
But first, let me tell you a bit about Cousiño-Macul. C-M grows the grapes used for their Riesling in the Maipo Valley of Chile. Chile is in some ways the world's most ideal location for making consistent wines. Sandwiched by the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, it is protected from many of the pests that plague other vineyards of the world, most notably Phylloxera. Phylloxera attacks the roots of the Vitis vinifera vine, and completely decimated the world's wine grape vines in the late 1800s. It was only by grafting Vitis vinifera to native American Vitis labrusca rootstock, which was resistant to Phylloxera, that the wine industry was finally able to recover. But Phylloxera never made it down to Chile, and thus grapes in this region are mostly pure, ungrafted Vitis vinifera.

Another advantage that Chile's winemaking regions have in terms of making consistent wines is that they are very arid (receiving less than 12 inches of rain per year), relying upon irrigation. Thus heavy rainfalls late in the season can't "dilute" the ripening grapes which typically makes for thinner wine. Simultaneously, these arid regions are virtually immune from drought as snow melt from the Andes provides a plentiful source for their irrigation.

Now, on to the wine
We selected this wine-on-a-whim because we have thoroughly enjoyed Cousiño-Macul's Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon (although my favorite Chilean wine has been the Carmenère - more on Chilean Carmenères in a later post!) This 2004 Cousiño-Macul "Doña Isidora" Riesling had a syrupy golden-straw color to it. What surprised me about the taste of this Riesling is that although tart, there was also what I think of as creaminess to it. I was definitely not expecting to find that in a Riesling. This leads me to believe that perhaps I confuse body with creaminess, because the tasting notes on Cousiño-Macul's website indicate that there was no malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that changes the tarter malic acids into softer, creamier lactic acids), no aging in oak, nothing that would impart that cream.

So I wasn't that happy with this Riesling as a sipping wine. However, it paired quite nicely with our salmon. It's citrusy, almost pineapple flavor with minerally finish cut through the oily fish very nicely, cleansing the palate. Purchased for just $9 at the beermart, I probably can't expect much more from it than that.

Final recommendation
The last Riesling I tasted was an Alsatian Riesling at the tasting in April. That one was really good, and probably set my expectations a little high for this significantly cheaper Chilean Riesling. Before that, I can't even remember the last time I had Riesling. Thus I have a very limited mental Riesling library with which to compare the Doña Isidora. All I can say is that the Chilean Riesling worked out OK with dinner, but was nothing spectacular. I'm still going to move ahead with my plan to try more Rieslings this summer, but would love to get some suggestions so that my next experience is a better one!

Kris and I are going to be starting in on the "Great Wine Made Simple" suggested palate-developing tastings, beginning with the Big Six tasting in two weeks! I have a Domaine Trimbach Riesling from Alsace slated for that event - I'm hoping to go 2 for 2 on good Alsatian Rieslings! I'm excited to take a more directed approach to improving my palate, so I'll let you know how it goes!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

1998 Rideau Syrah

Rideau Vineyards is one of my all-time favorite California wineries. Located in the heart of "Sideways" country (aka the Santa Ynez Valley) up the road from Kalyra, Rideau makes some absolutely spectacular Rhone-style wines. It was to the Rideau Vineyards cellar club that I bid the most tearful farewell when we moved from Santa Barbara to Maryland and thus fell under the jurisdiction of the Orwellian, asinine Montgomery County still profiting hand-over-fist from Prohibition-era liquor control laws.

But I digress.

Suffice it to say, their wine simply rocks. Most bottles are well outside my "everyday wines" price range, typically costing between $30-$50 a bottle. But if you're going to splurge, Rideau is the place to do it. Every single bottle of red I've ever tasted from them has been nothing short of stunning (a lot more stunning than my bottle photography skills - I clearly still have issues taking a decent pic at night!).

Since Rideau only sells their wines from the winery or via their website, my once hefty supply has been slowly dwindling since our California Exodus. With the consumption of this Syrah, I am down to but a single bottle - a 2000 Syrah/Mourvedre blend available only to Cellar Club members that the tasting room staff simply referred to as "liquid gold". It is *so* good in fact, they had a hard time holding my bottles for me at the winery for an extra month as I was unable to make it up there upon their release for pickup. Since the wine was completely sold out, they told me they were sorely tempted by my two bottles staring at them for a month, but they stoically resisted.

You're probably expecting tasting notes for this wine, but I didn't take any. I clearly love learning more about wine, trying new styles, finding new favorites, and telling people what I've discovered. But with wine this good, I just want to savor it. I want to turn off the analytical portion of my brain and just let the flavor sensations wash over me without applying any sensory filters. I don't want to think about it, I just want to experience it.

I think it is important to allow ourselves that luxury upon occasion, just like it is important to allow ourselves to enjoy beauty wherever we may find it during our regular routines. I just read an interesting article in the Washington Post about a musician playing his violin at a DC Metro station during rush hour. Metro stations have not traditionally allowed musicians to play in them, and hidden cameras were installed to record the reactions of commuters to the new addition. The thing is, this was no ordinary musician - this was Joshua Bell, a virtuoso violinist playing a 300-year old Stradivarius violin valued at over $3.5 million. The experiment was set up by the Washington Post to test public perception and priorities - "In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"

The reaction? Of the 1,097 people who passed by during his 43-minute "performance", only 7 of them stopped for any length of time. Bell, used to playing sold-out concert halls where the "cheap seats" start off around $100, was almost completely ignored. I think this is a telling statement of American values. Obviously, context matters here - people were not expecting to hear beautiful music in a Metro station, so they weren't actively listening for it. But the fact that only 7 people even bothered to try really makes you question our cultural trajectory.

Most wine drinkers, I think, are hedonists to some degree. We find pleasure in the boundless variety of scents and tastes wrapped up in each bottle, obviously, but we also find as much or more pleasure in sharing that bottle amongst good company. We realize that our quest for good wine is actually only a part of a much larger quest for "the good life". Wine seems to grant us permission to slow down, relax, and let that right half of our brain run the show for a little while. This is something that is becoming increasingly more difficult to do, as evidenced by the Washington Post musician experiment.

So I say grab your significant other and/or friends, pull out one of those bottles you've been "saving for a special occasion", pop it open, and enjoy. I bet you'll find it was the perfect occasion, after all.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

2004 Concannon Petite Sirah

There were several reasons why Kris and I cracked open a bottle of an old favorite, Concannon's Petite Sirah, tonight.

One reason was that Wannabe Wino's description of her recent "wine find", Mounts Family Winery (in particular their Petite Sirah), had me hankering for one myself. Another reason is that Concannon bottles have a nifty raised relief image on them (barely visible in the photo), and I was just commenting yesterday on how I was a sucker for such "bottle dressing". But the *real* reason I wanted this PS tonight is that yesterday's tasting of the Cèdre Cahors Malbec/Merlot blend oddly reminded me very much of the taste of Petite Sirah.

Thanks to my trusty Vacu Vin, I knew that the remainder of last night's Cahors would still be in prime condition to taste side-by-side with this "fresh" bottle from our collection. Would my "wine memory" of Concannon's Petite Sirah be correct - would there be similarities between tonight's bottle and last night's Cahors Malbec/Merlot blend?

Petite Sirah
Before we get to the tasting notes and answer that question, I want to take a look at the Petite Sirah grape, and at Concannon's role in popularizing this interesting varietal. As I mentioned in my previous tasting notes of a Bogle Petite Sirah last month, Petite Sirah is a completely different grape from Syrah/Shiraz (those two are the same grape, by the way). So while Petite Sirah sounds like Syrah, they are in fact completely different grapes. Petite Sirah is believed to be a cross between Syrah and Peloursin, also known as Durif after its creator, Dr. Francois Durif, who performed the cross in the late 1800s. So like Syrah/Shiraz, Petite Sirah/Durif are also synonyms for the same grape.

Petite Sirah (or "PS" as fans like to call it) even has its own "support group" aimed at marketing this misunderstood grape. The name? PS - I Love You. "Not just for love letters anymore!" They have done a great job at coming up with this extensive history of the Petite Sirah grape. One thing that jumped out to me from this list was a news article from 1890 written to describe the "Million Grape Cuttings" sent from Concannon to the Mexican Government for experimental planting throughout Mexico. One of the grapes mentioned by name in this 1890 article is Petite Sirah. Again, in 1904 there is a historical document from Concannon, written in French, presumably to obtain Petite Sirah/Durif cuttings from France for planting in California's Livermore Valley.

The Livermore Valley
"The Livermore Valley? Where's that?" you may be asking yourself. Located just past the verdant green (in the rainy winter season) rolling hills of San Francisco's East Bay, the Livermore Valley may not immediately spring to your mind as a premier California wine-growing region. But that was not always the case. As detailed in a recent Vinography post,
the Livermore Valley was once one of the most well-known wine growing areas in the United States, having as many acres under vine as the mighty Napa. Early pioneers of California's viticultural heritage compared the Livermore Valley, with its ancient stream beds and gravely soils, to Bordeaux's famous Graves region (whose very name means simply "gravel"). These well-drained soils were thought to be the ideal location for reproducing Bordeaux's success in California.

But while Napa's renown grew, Livermore's gradually faded with few of the original vineyards recovering from the effects of Prohibition. One of the few wineries that *did* manage to pull through was Concannon. Founded by James Concannon in 1883, they proudly proclaim "America's First Petite Sirah" right on the wine label.

Tasting Notes
The Concannon Petite Sirah displays the characteristic inky ruby purple color of a PS (Dark & Delicious, says PS I Love You). It has a very fruity nose of jammy blackberries. Big and juicy, the berries follow through to the palate with hints of chocolate and the chalky tannins which I also associate with Petite Sirahs. It was this chalky tannin structure that made me think of Petite Sirahs will tasting last night's Cahors blend.

So how does this Petite Sirah compare to the Cahors Malbec/Merlot blend? They *did* have several similarities - I had my wife taste them blind, and she initially picked the Cahors as the Petite Sirah. As the Concannon opened up, that fruit really started jumping out at which point distinguishing the two was far simpler. However, the serious dose of tannins serves to keep all that fruit in check, making for an overall balanced and enjoyable wine.

If you like big, fruit-forward reds and enjoy playing with the tannins on your tongue, then the Concannon Petite Sirah is for you. If you like a little less fruit, a little more spice and slightly smoother yet still big and chalky tannins, then I'd go for the Chateau du Cèdre Héritage Cahors. Both are excellent wines, and for around $12, you can't go wrong!