Vines & Vittles

I was asked the other evening to expound on the qualities of a particular grape grown in a number of different geographic wine regions around the world. How did it differ in taste and quality from one appellation to another? Good question, right?

Things seemed to be going well as I began to describe the qualitative differences in terms of not only the taste and aroma of the wine, but also how climate and soil affected the finished product. So when I mentioned that this particular grape flourished in places like California, France and Australia, my friend asked: “How does the wine made from that same grape in Israel compare to the others?

Huh? To my knowledge, I assured her, that grape is not widely planted in Israel. “No”, she insisted, “I just read how wine produced from that grape in Israel is similar in style and substance to what is made in California.”

The grape we were discussing is syrah (which the Australians call shiraz) and I could tell from her disappointed look that my wine credibility had taken a serious hit. Could they really be growing syrah now in Israel?

I asked my friend to spell the grape in question and she did so correctly without hesitation. However, she also added the word “petite” before spelling syrah. Ah, now I understood. The pronunciation of sirah (seer-ah) is the same as syrah, thus the misunderstanding. And, indeed, petite sirah is produced in Israel’s emerging wine regions. But, of course, petite sirah is a completely different grape than syrah.

Holy obfuscation! There can’t be any other product that is more difficult to understand than wine. Maybe quantum mechanics, but I doubt it. To start with, much of the language – even on American wine labels – is foreign (i.e., “cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, etc.). And when some of the so-called wine-illuminati use terms like ethereal, orgasmic or unctuous to describe “Uncle Amos’ Purple Mountain Majesty,” normal folks- who would like to learn a little more about wine – are left scratching their heads.

montepulciano

And unless you’re studying to be a sommelier, you probably wouldn’t know that “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” (which is from Tuscany and comprised of at least 70 percent sangiovese) is a totally different wine from “Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.” This latter wine is from the state of Abruzzo and is produced from the montepulciano grape.

Confused? You should be. And while it can be maddening to someone who just wants to find a good bottle of wine to accompany their meatloaf and mashed potatoes, it can also be fascinating for wine geeks like me who enjoy nothing better than translating that bewildering gibberish for you.

So here are four different and delicious examples of wines representing the confusing language discussed above. I think you’ll like them and I promise to use common words to describe them.

2010 Terre Rouge Cotes de l’Ouest Syrah ($22) – This California wine is full of bright cherry and spicy black pepper flavors. Unlike some new world full-throttle syrah’s, this one is medium -bodied and similar to a northern Rhone wine. This would be lovely with a spicy casserole of Chicken Cacciatore.

2014 Boogle Petite Sirah ($14) – There is nothing subtle about this inky purple monster, but it is still very well balanced with gobs of black and blueberry flavors and just enough acid to make it an excellent food wine. Try it with a hearty, garlicky beef stew dusted with a generous portion of coarsely ground black pepper.

2012 Fattoria dell Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($27) –You will need a glass of this delicious wine after trying to pronounce it! A nose of flowers, cola and mint is followed by notes of black cherries, vanilla and spice on the palate. Match this delicious wine with a crown roast of pork that’s been rubbed with olive oil, sage, black pepper and minced garlic.

2014 Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($22) – Another tongue-twister, this wine bursts with sweet and sour cherry flavors along with nuances of cinnamon and tea. Round and rich, but with a good zing of acid, marry this baby with roasted or grilled lamb chops that have been marinated in lemon juice, Dijon mustard, garlic, olive oil and rosemary.

Port: A necessary winter adjustment

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There are not many good things one can say about winter except it is the season of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But otherwise winter is gray, cold and depressing, and I wish it could be shortened. But until we figure a way to adjust the rotational tilt of the earth or flee to terra firma nearer the equator, we’ll just need to make some adjustments to survive this uncomfortable time of year.

As you might have guessed, my adjustment to winter involves consuming endorphin-enhancing sustenance. In other words, good wine and food. And while I’ll be uncorking full-bodied red wines to accompany cold weather foods such as stews, pastas and hearty soups, I will also open a bottle or two of Port to enjoy as a postprandial digestif by the fireplace. And don’t worry if you don’t have a fireplace. Anywhere indoors will do just fine.

Port or Porto (as it is called in Portugal where the wine is produced) is made from a variety of grapes grown along the steep slopes of Douro River. In fact there are more than 80 varieties of (unpronounceable) grapes which are permitted to be used in the production of port, but most producers use less than ten.

Port is a “fortified” wine and that means brandy is added to it during the fermentation process. The addition of brandy causes the fermentation to stop, leaving the wine with about 10 percent residual sugar while bumping up the alcohol content to approximately 20 percent. Once the new wine is made, it is shipped to the city of Oporto where it is sold to companies, known as Shippers, who then age the young wine in barrels and label it under their house name before exporting it all around the world.

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The Styles of Port

Vintage Port -This is the best and most expensive type of Port and is produced only in exceptional years (about three years in a decade). A “vintage year” is declared by an agreement among the Shippers who then take special care in aging and then bottling the wine. Vintage Port can improve in bottle for 15 to 50 years (or more) before reaching maturity. The Wine Spectator Magazine rates the 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2011 as among the best recent vintage Port years. You can expect to pay between $50 to more than $150 a bottle for vintage Port.

Late Bottled Vintage Port – It is a blend of Ports from different vineyards in the same vintage year. Late bottled vintage Port (or LBV) will have a vintage date on the label, but it is not vintage Port. LBV is usually priced between $15 and $30 a bottle.

Tawny Port – This is sometimes called the “poor man’s” vintage Port because it is aged for many years in oak and, when released, it is very smooth and rich like an old vintage Port. Without a doubt, this is my favorite. It is affordable Port with prices ranging from $10 to about $40 a bottle.

Ruby Port – Young port wine blends from several different vintages comprise Ruby Port. Ruby Port is lighter and fruitier than other styles and usually the least expensive Port ($10-$20 a bottle). Ruby Ports can be cloyingly sweet and fruity.

White Port – Made from white grapes, this is the only Port-style wine that is produced dry. It is usually crisp, yet full-bodied, and makes a nice aperitif wine. Really lovely with lightly flavored and pan seared white fish. ($10-$25 a bottle)

Here is a list of some of top Port producers you can look for in your local wine shop. Warre’s, Graham’s, Taylor-Fladgate, Croft, Dow’s, Fonseca and Ramos-Pinto. One of my favorite American Port-style wines is Ficklin. Try their 10-year Old Tawny – it’s absolutely delicious.

Many people prefer to accompany Port with nuts or with blue cheese like Stilton. I love to have a glass of Tawny after a nice meal as a liquid substitute for dessert. Yummy!

So, go out and sip the winter away with a warming glass (or two) of Port!

Wines and your holiday spirit

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It’s that special time of year when we all willingly succumb to something loosely defined as “The Holiday Spirit.” And while it is generally a good thing, the holiday spirit induces in me a kind of euphoria that causes me to recklessly disregard my own financial limitations.

Yeah, you guessed it. In other words, I am about to spend a whole lot of money on wine – for family, for friends and for ME!

And it’s not just yours truly either. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans will spend about seventy percent of their yearly wine budget, purchasing bottles for Christmas gifts, parties, and for holiday dinners. To accommodate this demand, local wine shop shelves are now overflowing with bottles of every type and pedigree.

Christmas Clarets

I‘ve already been searching those shelves (and online too) for that special bottle and there is an incredible selection of wine from all over the world available to fit just about any budget. And I’ve always said that giving the gift of wine, particularly to someone close to you, can have its own reward since there is a good likelihood you’ll be invited to sip along with the giftee once that special bottle is uncorked.

But whenever I consider a wine for myself, I always ponder what type of meal will present the best opportunity to showcase the bottle. In my particular situation, I’m thinking about Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals, and the wines that will make the feasts memorable. I’m also shopping for the right wine to celebrate New Year’s Eve. So let’s consider wines to match Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners, as well as celebratory sparklers for New Year’s Eve.

In our home, my wife and I divide up responsibility for the holiday meals. I’m in charge of Christmas Eve and she is the Christmas Day chef de cuisine. Drawing from my Italian- American roots, my menu will consist of seafood -ala The Feast of the Seven Fishes- and I will accompany the meal with some of my favorite chardonnays.

For everything from squid and lobster to shrimp and smelts, I will use rich, full-bodied chardonnays. Here are some you might consider for a similar type feast: Falcor Henry Ranch or Sonoma Mountain, Mer Soleil, Cakebread, MacCrosite, Rombauer, Far Niente and/or Amapola Creek.

On Christmas day, my wife will prepare a standing rib roast and accompany it with Dauphinoise potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. Of course, this meal demands a rich and full-bodied red wine such as a cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux Red or a Bordeaux -style blend (i.e., blends which might consist of any combination of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, or petit verdot). Here are several which would fit the bill perfectly for the beef roast or just about any roasted meat – even grilled or smoked turkey:

Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon; Joseph Phelps Insignia; Dominus; Harlan Estate- The Maiden; Merryvale Profile; Chateau La Dominique; Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; Chateau Lynch Bages; Chateau Brainaire Ducru; Chateau Cos d’Estournel; Saddleback Cabernet Sauvignon; Pontet Canet; Leoville Las Cases; Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; and Ornellaia (from Italy).

To ring in the New Year, I always pop open a sparkler. Try one or more of these bubblies: Roderer Estate (sparkling) Paul Bara Brut Champagne; Nicholas Feuillatte “Blue Label” Brut Champagne; Mumm Napa Cuvee (sparkling); Veuve Cliquot Brut Champagne; Iron Horse Russian Cuvee (sparkling) Krug Grande Cuvee Brut Champagne; Perrier Jouet Grand Brut Champagne; Taittinger Comptes De Champagne Rose.

Have a great Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve, but watch out for that “runaway” Holiday Spirit!

That other ‘Special’ Thursday in November

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When most of us think of November in the context of food and drink, Thanksgiving comes immediately to mind. But there is another date – also a Thursday and always one week before Thanksgiving -that should have particular significance for wine lovers.

On November 17, the 2016 Beaujolais Nouveau will be released in France and available in the US- even here West Virginia. Beaujolais Nouveau is a fun sipper full of fresh strawberry and cherry flavors that is the first wine of the 2016 vintage. The Nouveau, produced from the gamay grape, is only two months old when it arrives in wine shops and cafes around the world.

You can expect Beaujolais Nouveau to be a lively, frothy, fruit- forward mouthful of wine. At its best, the wine is a pleasant quaffer that is never meant to be taken too seriously, but rather should be enjoyed in celebration of the new vintage. It would also be a good wine to use as an aperitif before your Thanksgiving dinner.

Serious Beaujolais

But there are more serious wines made from the gamay grape in Beaujolais and today I’ll tell you about them. The Beaujolais region lies just south of Burgundy and descends along a 34-mile stretch of rolling hills ending where the Rhone wine appellation begins. Gamay is a lighter pigmented red grape that regularly produces a medium bodied wine similar in texture to pinot noir.

In addition to Nouveau, most of the other wines in the appellation are labeled Beaujolais, Beaujolais Superior or Beaujolais Villages. These wines are all more substantial in texture and flavor than Beaujolais Nouveau. The very best wines of the region, though, are called Cru Beaujolais and they are much more serious and can actually improve in the bottle for many years.

These Cru (which means “growths” in French) wines are named after the villages around which the grapes are grown. The ten Cru Beaujolais wines are: Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie and Saint Amour. Each of these Crus produces distinctly different Beaujolais from very light and delicate (i.e., Chiroubles and Fleurie) to fuller-bodied wines (i.e., Moulin a Vent and Morgon).

Like Burgundy, it is very important to select your Beaujolais from reputable producers and shippers. Among the most reputable of these are: Joseph Drouhin, Georges Duboeuf, Louis Jadot, Louis Latour and Domaine Manoir du Carra. And unlike Burgundy, these are wines that are reasonably priced – usually between $15 to $30 a bottle.

In matching these wines to food, I suggest you use the Crus Beaujolais like you would a medium-bodied pinot noir. These Crus show the best qualities of the gamay grape, producing in good years silky smooth wines with cherry and tea flavors and aromas of crushed flowers. I particularly like to pair them with roast pork tenderloin, grilled salmon or Thanksgiving turkey.

So celebrate the first wine of the 2016 vintage by sipping a glass or two of Beaujolais Nouveau. Try it with cheese or as an aperitif and then open a bottle of Beaujolais Villages or Cru Beaujolais to accompany the dinner entree.

A Votre  Sante’!

Some value Sippers for your consideration

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Hey, friends of wine, I’m back! After that last column where I focused too much attention on that other beverage, I was whisked away in the middle of the night and brought to a wine reeducation center for an intervention by a group of masked wino’s called “Warriors For The Vine.

As a result, I want you to know that I’m back and more dedicated than ever to expounding on the virtues of that liquid we all love. As a matter of fact, I have had my nose in a plethora of wine glasses lately, spending hours sniffing and sipping my way through dozens of bottles just to present you with several vinous recommendations.

And with the exception of one wine (out of the 10 I’m recommending today), they are all priced between $9 and $20 a bottle. If you don’t see these wines on the shelves of your favorite shop, just ask the proprietors to get them for you since they are all available in the state.

Oregon's Willamette Valley

As is always the case when I suggest a wine for your sipping pleasure, I will also offer an appropriate food to pair with it. So here goes.

Aperitif Wine or (as we call them in my home) Porch Sippers:
2014 Montinore Gewürztraminer – a spicy, slightly sweet white with aromas of flowers and nutmeg, this would be great with sliced apples and Vermont Cheddar; 2015 Fritz de Katz Riesling – this German Mosel white is tangy, a touch sweet with peach overtones and would be nice with strawberries or brunch food like omelets; and 2013 Pacific Rim Eufloria White – this is mostly riesling blended with a little gewürztraminer and chenin blanc and has citrusy, tart apple flavors that would be a superb accompaniment to Quiche Lorraine.

White Wine:
2014 Ceretto Arneis – Light to medium-bodied and slightly fizzy, this northern Italian bottling is delicate and should be paired with plainly broiled or pan seared white fish; 2014 Clos Pegase Chardonnay ($25) – this Napa Valley wine is very well balanced with a nose of ripe apples and freshly baked bread with flavors of ripe honey dew melon. Pair it with chicken cordon bleu; and 2014 Buil & Gine Nosis Verdejo – a Spanish wine full of citrus and apple flavors that is slightly effervescent.  It would be an excellent pairing with steamed mussels in a little of the verdejo and a lot of garlic.

Red Wine:
2013 Jasci & Marchensani Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – a literal mouthful to say, it is a delicious Italian wine which is round, rich and medium bodied with loads of ripe dark fruit flavors.  This wine would pair exceptionally well with grilled Italian sausages; 2013 Marc Roman Terret – from Southern France, this wine at $9 a bottle is one of the best bargain wines I’ve tasted in a while. Terret is an obscure grape that produces a medium-bodied red that is well balanced and would be perfect with chicken thighs that have been dry rubbed with a southwest seasoning and then oven baked;

2012 Haraszathy Family Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel – a medium to full-bodied old vine zin from Lodi, this wine is chock full of blackberry and cola flavors, and demands to be paired with grilled baby-back ribs; 2015 St. Cosme Cotes Du Rhone – from the magnificent 2015 vintage, this wine must be aerated in a carafe for an hour or so if you choose to drink it in the next year. It is dark purple and very tannic with flavors of black cherries and aromas of black pepper and tack room. Try this one with marinated and grilled flank steak that has been stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, sausage and provolone.

Enjoy!

Outing myself: Confessions of a closet beer drinker

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I was sorry to hear that my good friend and fellow Gazette-Mail colleague, Rich Ireland, will no longer be educating us on the pleasures of sipping that hop-infused beverage he has so lovingly championed over the past decade.

Rich’s “Beers to You” column and blog has been on my required reading list since its inception, and his passionate advocacy for that lesser beverage (just kidding, Rich) has been instrumental in promoting the rapidly expanding craft beer movement in West Virginia.

Rich and I have spent the better part of a decade gently chiding each about our respective sipping preferences. In fact, we will continue to do so at the annual Beer vs. Wine “Feastival” event held each year in February. The event helps to support Festival – our city’s excellent arts and entertainment program held throughout the summer.

This coming February will be the fifth year for the event where each course in a five-course gourmet dinner is accompanied with both beer and wine. Attendees then vote on which beverage they feel paired best with each course. So far, wine and beer have each won two of the events. (Note to Rich: Wine is going to win the rubber match).

While I have (tongue firmly planted in cheek) criticized beer as an inferior beverage to wine, I am also an advocate for and consumer of the stuff, especially locally produced suds. Heck, the first alcoholic beverage I ever purchased was beer as a 14-year old at the Sportsman Inn in Clarksburg

 Jon Robeson picking hops for Stumptown Ales

I’ll never forget sheepishly approaching the bar and asking the proprietor – Joe Serafini (RIP) – if I could buy a glass of draft beer. Joe, who was known to sip a thimbleful of 7-Up with his Calvert Reserve, looked down at me and slurred: “you’re going to jail, Lap.”

Joe called everyone Lap. Don’t ask why. Anyway, as I turned to sprint out of the bar, Joe, wheezing and laughing, called me back. “Don’t worry, Lap. If you can reach up to the bar and hand me a quarter, you can have a beer.”

I’ve had a few beers since then as well as a glass or two of wine. I grew up in a working class neighborhood where beer was an every day beverage. So was wine. In my Italian neighborhood, just about every family made a barrel of red and sometimes a crock of home brew too. So I come by my love of these beverages naturally.

But I am truly excited to witness the growth of the craft brewing industry in our state. Here are some of the towns in West By Golly that are brewing suds: Charleston, Fayetteville, Davis, Thomas, Morgantown, Lewisburg, Martinsburg, Parkersburg, Wheeling and even tiny Wardensville.

Unbelievably, in just a one-mile stretch of beautiful Tucker County there are three craft breweries. And last week, I stopped at Big Timber’s brewery and pub in Elkins for a cold glass of “Forrest Fest” – their version of Oktoberfest produced just in time for the town’s annual Forest Festival.

Happily, some of these craft breweries are joining with restaurants and food trucks to pair their beers with (many times) locally grown or produced foods. A few, like Stumptown Ales in Davis, are also planting and harvesting hops for use in making their beer.

I recently stopped by Stumpton with a few friends for a beer and noticed a food truck parked across the street. It turns out the owners of Stumptown are working with the food truck folks and allowing patrons to purchase meals they can then take across the street to consume at the brewpub.

So wine lovers please do not despair. I promise to get back on that purple track soon. But in the meantime, chill out with a nice West Virginia craft brew while you ruminate about which wine to bring home for dinner tonight.

No more Uncle Vito’s Thunder Mountain Red!

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I like to think that, like a fine wine, my own personal vinous tastes have matured, morphing from “in your face” big, tannic purple monsters to balanced, flavorful and nuanced wines of all colors. This transition did not occur overnight and, in fact, it took about two decades for my mind to accept what my palate had been transmitting to it: that bigger is not always better.

When I became seriously interested in wine a few decades back, my tastes ran to just about any red that was full-bodied. The bigger, the better! These were new world wines produced either in the U.S., Australia or South America, and they always seemed to have tons of rich, dark fruit flavors, mouth puckering tannin and stratospheric alcohol levels. Even the white wines I occasionally drank ran to heavy, over-oaked California chardonnays.

But I have seen the light, brothers and sisters! And it is not bright and blinding. No, it is soft, muted and subtle. And this evolution of taste has nothing to do with  sophistication, aesthetics or a sudden epiphany. Rather, it reflects a realization that I had stubbornly resisted for years: that wine appreciation is all about balance. And finding that balance is a challenging, but fun, life-long pursuit.

Sangiovese grapes at Castello di Bossi in Tuscany

Hey, I will be the first to defend your right to drink any wine you wish. If you prefer Uncle Vito’s Thunder Mountain Red with filet mignon, then go for it. My only wine appreciation admonition is: If you think you’ve found the world’s greatest wine – you haven’t- so keep trying.

It’s easy to enjoy – as I still occasionally do – those big, rich monster wines that provide instant gratification, but they are one dimensional palate bullies that don’t get along with food. And that’s the crux of the issue for me. Wine should almost always be enjoyed with food and especially at mealtime. And finding that perfect food and wine pairing is the payoff.

So today, let’s talk about red wines you might try from appellations that are known for producing flavorful but balanced bottles. In the good old US of A, pinot noir is the red that can be rich, yet subtle and the best regions to find these excellent food-friendly products are: Willamette Valley of Oregon; Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Hills of California.

While you may be surprised by this suggestion, zinfandel can also be produced to provide subtle, lighter styled wines that are very good food companions. Try zins from these California appellations/producers: Dry Creek Valley – Preston, Quivira and Pedroncelli; Amador County: Easton and Sobon.

In Europe, you should try the lighter to medium bodied wines of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. In France, the wines of the Cotes Du Rhone feature grenache as the primary red grape while in Beaujolais it is gamay and in Burgundy it’s pinot noir.

In Italy, you might look for the reds of Chianti in Tuscany produced mainly from sangiovese while in the Veneto look for Valpolicella. In Piedmont, barbera and dolcetto are great choices, and the nero d’Avola of Sicily is a lovely quaff. The wines of Spain provide some subtle, but flavorful offerings. Try Rioja made from tempranillo as well as the reds of Ribera Del Duero and the Penedes region near Barcelona.

And while most people think that Portugal produces only Port, you might ask for the lovely dry red wines from the Duoro River Region produced from the touriga nacional grape.

Enjoy!