Vines & Vittles

Selecting the right wine

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I am always fascinated by how we make choices regarding the wines we choose to purchase and drink. Whether for every day consumption or for special occasions, we can all agree that quality wines that offer great value are worth seeking out.

So how do we determine what is not only an acceptable wine, but one that is also exceptional?

Of course, the easy answer is that wine, like art, food or any other aesthetic thing, is evaluated subjectively so that judgments on quality must be evaluated in a quantitative context before they can be accepted.

In other words, if I claim that “Uncle Rupert’s Rustic Rose” is a superior wine and 500 others (or at least a reputable wine critic) rate it as something akin to witch hazel, then the majority or the critic’s views would logically prevail.

Many of us depend on rating systems such as the 100- point scale used by The Wine Spectator or by wine critics such as Robert Parker or Steven Tanzer to guide us through the purple maze, while others will purchase wine from exceptional vintages or from acclaimed regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Still others focus their choice on wineries that consistently produce excellent wine. And unfortunately, a large number of folks with too much money to spend think there is a direct correlation between quality and very expensive wine.

In my opinion, the best way to judge a wine’s quality is to taste them blind. Be assured this has nothing to do with using blindfolds or drinking to excess. A blind tasting involves obscuring the wine label by having another person place the bottle in a bag before you taste. This will eliminate any possible price or winery bias so that you can truly judge the product on its quality.

Blind tastings are something I do regularly so I can objectively evaluate the aroma, taste and visual qualitative elements that are the basis for whether I recommend a wine or not.

While all these evaluation methods have merit (except for basing your selection solely on price), there is one consideration we often overlook that can sometimes cloud our judgment. I’ll call it context.

Here is an example of what I mean.

On a beautiful early fall evening, my wife and I were dining al fresco at a small restaurant overlooking Lake Garda in northern Italy. The food was simple, but delicious. And the wine? It was made by the family that owned the restaurant and I swear – at that time and place – it was among the best wines I had ever tasted.

That entire multi-course meal with wine did not exceed $45, but this was one of the best wine and food experiences of my life. Why, you ask? Well, simply put, it was the context under which I had the experience, and I believe it is one of the most important, and underrated, elements of food and wine appreciation.

You cannot underestimate how the setting or context of your wine tasting affects your perception of its quality. Why? Well sometimes it has to do with whom I am forced to consume the stuff, the location of the tasting or even my mood.

Business dinners, where tensions are high and where the food and wine are secondary to accomplishing some corporate objective, are, for me, among the most difficult times to enjoy and objectively evaluate wine. At such dinners, I am tempted to order a wine that I actually dislike so that it will pair well with the sometimes distasteful subjects under discussion – but, of course, I don’t.

So the next time you ‘re using your critical wine appreciation skills to determine the quality of a specific bottle, think about the external influences that just might cloud your judgment.

Try these two –context-neutral- but excellent wines for your sipping pleasure.

2013 Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris ($20) – From Oregon’s Willamette Valley, this round and refreshing pinot gris is full of citrus and melon flavors and finishes with nice acidity. Sip it on the porch before dinner or pair it with grilled chicken thighs with a lemon, rosemary and honey glaze.

2013 Sierra Cruz Carmenere ($9) – This medium -bodied cabernet franc from Chile is a black cherry, fruit forward wine that finishes fairly dry. Chill it for 20 minutes and then drink it with grilled flank steak that has been rubbed with coarsely ground black pepper and marinated in soy, olive oil, and garlic with a dash or two of red wine vinegar.

It’s okay to chill red wine

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After a winter when I wondered whether the weather would ever warm up, summer has come and now I feel obligated to complain about the temperature- not outside- but rather the temperature at which my favorite beverage is being served to me in restaurants.

It is extremely important any time of the year to serve wine at the proper temperature, but in summer it is especially critical so that both whites and reds are not only cool to the taste, but also provide a pleasing counterpoint to the warmth of the accompanying food.

Here is a universal and unfortunate truth: White wine is served too cold and red wine too warm.

In my estimation, the problem is twofold: for whites it is the ubiquitous convenience of refrigeration; and for reds it is our confusion over the term “room temperature.”

Let’s start with white wine and the almost fervent belief by some that if we have the capability to make something cold, then we should therefore serve our liquids – including white wine – at Arctic temperatures. Drinking wines that are served at just above freezing will give you a headache and, worse, you won’t even be able to taste them.

Martini Cab

I’m sure that many flawed wines benefit from this chilling effect, but the delicate flavors and nuances of taste in say, a riesling, gavi or sauvignon blanc, will be absolutely neutered by excessive chilling. The good news here is that if you wait 10 or 15 minutes, the wine will warm to a reasonable temperature.

So what is the proper temperature to serve white wine? Whites served at between 48 and 53 degrees Fahrenheit are about ideal. However, since most of us don’t carry thermometers with us, the easiest way to judge the proper temperature is to drink them when they are cool, refreshing and you can actually taste the flavor nuances of the wine.

There is one exception to this rule and that is Champagne or sparkling wine. These “fizzers” actually benefit from colder temperatures (around 45 degrees F), where the chilling effect blunts some of the carbonation yet still allows you to enjoy the complex flavors of these wines.

Red wine is a bit more complicated. In fact, you can trash the old axiom that proclaims red wine should be served at “room temperature.” Why? Well, that room temperature rule was adopted in the middle ages when the average castle, lean-to or hut’s temperature was about 55 degrees F. – in the summer.

Unfortunately, some individuals and restaurants assume room temperature means somewhere between 70 and 80 degrees. When you are at home, this problem is easily resolved by simply refrigerating the wine for 15 to 30 minutes, which should bring the temperature down to around 60 degrees.

But what if you are in a restaurant and you’re served red wine that is too warm? While there are a few establishments – Noah’s Eclectic Bistro in Charleston comes to mind –  that actually keep their reds at the proper temperature both summer and winter, the overwhelming majority do not. In this case, you should simply ask for an ice bucket to chill the wine for a few minutes.

However, don’t be surprised if you’re lectured by some clueless waiter on the “proper” serving temperature of red wine. Don’t laugh, there are restaurants with award-winning wine lists where hundred dollar bottles of red wine are served lukewarm.

So, while dinning at your favorite restaurant this summer, insist on reds and whites served at a temperature that is both refreshing and also complimentary to the food you are eating. And don’t be embarrassed to ask for an ice bucket to chill your red if it is served to you at “room temperature.”

Here are two wines I think you will enjoy this summer:

2012 Buty Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc/Muscadelle ($33) This complex white blend is from Washington State. It’s a medium-bodied wine with aromas of ripe pear and slate, and a rich, creamy mouth fill with anise and citrus flavor nuances. Try this wine with ripe tomatoes drizzled with the best Tuscan extra virgin olive oil you can find and topped with fresh mozzarella and basil.

2011 Louis Martini Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) – Ripe blackberry and cola flavors highlight this balanced and very approachable cabernet. Decant and chill this tasty wine in the refrigerator for 15 minutes before serving it with a grilled rib eye rubbed with garlic, coarsely ground black pepper and kosher salt.

State restaurants with excellent wine lists

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I have always appreciated the exquisite synergy between food and a companion beverage. Now that beverage is wine, but in my formative years, I discovered others that not only whet my whistle but were also improved when I sipped them with food.

The first epiphany occurred when I poured a small bag of salted peanuts into a bottle of RC Cola and took a drink of the mixture. Holy Molley! Both the peanuts and the cola were vastly improved by the marriage of these humble products. Later, when I was old enough to place a quarter on the bar at Joe’s Sportsman Inn and request a “cold one,” I discovered that even alcoholic beverages were improved when consumed with food and vice-versa.

At Joe’s, it was a hot dog made with mouth-searing chili sauce created by the proprietor to keep patrons from ordering food. Joe, who preferred to sip Calvert Reserve blended whiskey without interruption, could never understand why his thermo-nuclear hot dogs were so popular. Anyway, that’s when I realized that food was a lot better when accompanied by a complementary beverage other than water or even RC Cola.

Since then, I’ve had the occasion to dine at some pretty special restaurants in the US and around the world. As a matter of fact, we have quite a few good ones right here in the Mountain State that also understand the importance of cultivating a good and fairly priced wine list. Others have noticed too, including the Wine Spectator Magazine that has recognized eight Mountain State establishments with “Awards of Excellence” and another for “Best of Awards of Excellence” for their wine lists.

 Food and Wine = Synergy
Food and Wine = Synergy

The state restaurants receiving Awards of Excellence are: Bridge Road Bistro, The Chop House and Laury’s in Charleston; Provence Market Café in Bridgeport; Final Cut Steak House in Charles Town; Sargasso in Morgantown; Savannah’s in Huntington; and Spats in Parkersburg (within the Blennerhassett Hotel). Another state restaurant, The Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, received “Best of Awards of Excellence” and that’s quite an honor since fewer than 1,000 dining establishments achieved that distinction.

One restaurant that is conspicuous by its absence from the Wine Spectator list is the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs. I spoke to an official at the Greenbrier who noted that the restaurant lists are currently being reviewed and updated. Once this process is completed, the resort will be presenting them for review. Expect them to be among the Wine Spectator awardees in the future.

Not every good restaurant in the state has sought national recognition  and there are several establishments that deserve mention here for their exceptional food and their thoughtful wine lists. Here a few of my favorites.

The South Hills Market and Café in Charleston, owned by Richard and Anne Arbaugh, features a superb and ever-changing menu of continental, low-country and new American delicacies with a visually appealing presentation. The wine list is well conceived, priced fairly and complements the cuisine.

Another Capitol city establishment — Paterno’s At The Park — has become the city’s best Italian restaurant with a very good and reasonably priced wine list. And Rocco’s in Ceredo features artful and inventive southern Italian delicacies. Rocco knows his wine and the list marries seamlessly with his creative cuisine.

The charm and atmosphere of Café Cimino in Sutton is only exceeded by the Italian and Mediterranean dishes inspired by Chef Tim Urbanic. I once participated in a 10-course Italian meal with accompanying wines, including consecutive older vintages of Barolo. Café Cimino is also a B&B and should be on your must go-to list.

In the northern part of the state, the Wonder Bar, between Bridgeport and Clarksburg, has always been known for its excellent steaks. With new ownership, the steaks are still superb, but the wine list has been completely improved and updated.

Three other restaurants in Charleston deserve mention here. Noah’s Eclectic Bistro is a small, 11-table establishment that, as its name implies, showcases a very wide-ranging menu and a wine list exceptional for its variety and value. And the good folks at the Bluegrass Kitchen continue to improve their small, value -oriented and well thought out list to accompany the excellent menu offerings. And finally, some of the best thin crust pizza in the state, along with an extensive wine-by-the-glass list, can be enjoyed at Soho’s  at the Capitol Market.

Tipsy Hot Smoked Salmon

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It’s pretty obvious that most of us plagiarize each other’s recipes. Unless you have discovered a new fruit, vegetable or species of animal, everything ever prepared to be consumed has been documented and then revised by someone else.

So this is my rationalization for borrowing – and personalizing – a recipe from my favorite local fish monger. Joe’s Fish Market in Charleston (304-342-7827) is a great place to buy fresh seafood. Two brothers – Joe and Robin Harmon – have perfected a “hot smoked” salmon recipe that I have taken the liberty of altering somewhat, and which I’ll share with you (see recipe below).

Robin is the smoke master for this delicious treatment of salmon, and each week he labors on his smoker out behind the market to produce this culinary masterpiece. The easy way out is to get to the market early in the week (or call and place an order) and purchase a slab of Joe’s hot smoked salmon. It is simply delicious!

But if you have a couple of spare hours, particularly on the weekend when the alternative is yard work or worse (honey-do’s), then you just might try your hand at hot smoking a side of salmon. Oh, by the way, you will love the wines I am recommending to accompany the dish.

First though, it’s important to understand the difference between hot and cold smoked salmon. Traditional cold- smoked salmon is produced by hanging sides of the fish in a smoke house where a wood fire is constantly tended to insure that the temperature is between 80 and 90 degrees (F). This process can take a few hours, overnight or a couple of days to complete.

If you want to cold smoke your salmon at home, there are actually electric smokers you can purchase for a few hundred bucks. Bradley Smokers are often recommended for home use, but I prefer to hot smoke my fish using my trusty old Weber grill.

At Joes, the hot smoked salmon produced in house is brined in water, salt, brown sugar and garlic for a few hours and then smoked for up to an hour over apple wood. They also use farm-raised salmon and recommend using it rather than wild salmon that tends to dry out if you are not careful.

Tipsy Hot Smoke Salmon

The main difference between Joe’s version and mine is the brine where I believe in giving the salmon a little sip of wine and maybe a beer or two. It’s also a good idea to have a taste or two while you’re creating this culinary masterpiece. After all, dehydration is a terrible thing.

If you live around these parts, go on down to Joe’s and try his hot smoked salmon, and then go back and buy a side of salmon and smoke it yourself. I don’t claim to say my recipe is better, but it’s pretty good. I hope you give it a try.

 

Tipsy Hot Smoked Salmon

Ingredients

One salmon filet with skin on (usually 1.5 to 2 lbs)
Two bottles of pilsner (any American beer will do)
One-half bottle of dry white wine
Two quarts of cold water
One half cup of Kosher salt
Four garlic cloves minced
One half cup, plus teaspoon of light brown sugar
Two teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil
One teaspoon each of cumin, black pepper and chili powder
Three cups of apple wood chips

How To

Make a brine (in large pot) of the salt, sugar, water, wine, beer and garlic
Mix and pour brine into a gallon baggie
Place salmon filet in brine making sure the liquid covers the fish
Put baggie into the pot and place in refrigerator for two to three hours
Soak wood chips in warm water for same amount of time
Remove salmon from brine and pat dry
Rub olive oil all over fish and place on aluminum foil in a cookie pan
Sprinkle cumin, black pepper, brown sugar and chili powder evenly on filet
Make a small charcoal fire (about three handfuls of coals)
Move coals to one side of grill, drain wood chips and place in and on charcoal fire
Place pan with salmon on the opposite side of grill and put lid on
Smoke slowly by adjusting grill vents to control temperature (no more than 300F)
Check salmon after 30 minutes and then again after 45 minutes
Salmon is done when firm, but not hard to the touch

Wine Recommendations: This tipsy hot smoked salmon needs medium to full-bodied white or red wines. I prefer pinot noir from cooler growing areas in California or ones produced in Oregon. I also suggest Rhone-style whites and medium-flavored chardonnay for the salmon. Here are ones you might try.

Pinot noir: 2010 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee ($45); 2011 Melville Santa Rita Hills ($30); 2012 Acacia Carneros ($20); 2012 MacMurray Ranch Russian River ($25).

Whites: 2011 Paul Mas Marsanne ($12); 2012 Anselmi San Vincenzo ($14- blend of garganega and chardonnay); 2011 Mer Soleil Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay ($27); 2012 d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne ($15).

What it takes to make good wine

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Try as I might, I can never comprehend more than just rudimentary mathematical calculations. I do know simple math and can recite my multiplication tables (but not beyond nine times nine) so I am able to function fairly well in this increasingly complex world.

Most of us want simple answers to the subjects or hobbies that pique our interest. Take wine for example. I am often asked to disclose the most important factor in producing good wine.

Well, among the plethora of qualitative components that must be present to produce a good bottle of wine, it is difficult to single out just one as the most important. So I’ll focus on two basic conditions that must exist for good wine to be made.

In my opinion, the two most important influences are the geographic location of the vineyard and the weather. Assuming these two variables are in place, then other influences such as soil composition, topography, orientation of the vineyard to the sun and a whole host of additional esoteric factors come into play.

You don’t have to be a horticulturist to know it’s impossible to cultivate a vineyard at the North Pole, in Death Valley or at the top of Mount Everest. We all know that grapes require a moderate climate in order to grow and ripen to full maturity before being turned into wine.

What, then, is more critical to the production of good wine? The vineyard location or the weather? The obvious answer is both, but reality is a bit fuzzier. For example, take the world famous appellations of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France.

The best wines from these two regions are among the most expensive on earth, some of which cost thousands dollars for a single bottle. The French proclaim loudly that wines produced in these places are superior because of the soil in the respective geographic locations.

What they don’t tell you is that less than five out of every 10 vintages is average to awful in quality. Why? Simply put: Mother Nature. Weather in both Bordeaux and (particularly) Burgundy can be less than ideal for grape growing.

A perfect year can quickly morph into disaster when a sudden hailstorm in the summer or torrential rains during harvest wreaks havoc on the vineyards. Just this past vintage, hailstorms in July and August decimated many vineyards in Burgundy.

Sunny days don't insure good wine
Sunny days don’t always insure good wine

Conversely, those in California, South America (Chile and Argentina) and Southeast Australia tout the consistently good weather as the reason for the outstanding wines they produce. Weather is usually not an issue in these regions. Yet, too much of a good thing (e.g. long, hot growing seasons) can result in a vintage of out of balance, insipid and with overly alcoholic wines.

So how do winemakers in the most prestigious appellations around the wine world deal with an imperfect geographic location or intemperate weather conditions? A lot of different ways actually.

For years, wine makers in California struggled to make decent pinot noir and consistently failed. It was widely held that the state was just too warm to successfully produce this fickle grape, which requires a long, cool growing season.

Then wineries began planting the grape in cooler locations and using rootstock from Burgundy. Consequently, by adapting their vineyard practices to what the grape required, California has been making excellent pinot noir for the last thirty years.

In Bordeaux and Burgundy, growers and wine makers now use advanced weather forecasting to protect their vines and to know exactly when to harvest. In addition, they employ new world techniques in the winery to improve the quality of their wines. And Voila (that means “hot damn” in these parts), they are able to mitigate some of the most vexing problems.

So, the take away is to do a little homework before you go on a wine-buying spree. Check out vintage reports and tasting notes for the wines you are interested in, particularly those like Burgundy, that require a serious investment. You can also surf the Internet to get the latest information.

Wine Recommendations:

2012 Kiona Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) – From Washington State, this is a perfectly balanced cabernet with medium tannins that should keep getting better for years to come. Delicious now with flavors of cassis and blackberries, I suggest decanting the wine for two hours and pairing it to a grilled strip steak that has been rubbed with kosher salt and ground black pepper.

2013 Charles and Charles Rose ($14) – Also from Washington State, this salmon-colored Rhone-like rose blend is dry, delicate and infused with strawberry and cherry flavors. This Columbia Valley beauty is just the right bottle to sip on the porch or at a picnic with a slice of honey glazed ham.

Ramps, bow-ties and wine

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I spent a few days in Canaan Valley recently and, as all who frequent that unique and spectacular mountain getaway know, mother nature usually puts on quite a show, particularly in spring. Bored with the weather? Wait five minutes and watch it change.

And, like other mountain communities around our wild and wonderful state, spring ushers forth bountiful quantities of allium tricoccum or as they are more commonly known: ramps.

Yes, that odiferous wild lily pops up through the earth in early spring and is both adored and despised by disparate groups of people who find themselves within sniffing distance of the controversial plant.

Ramps and the Fruit of the Vine

Count me among those who wait impatiently for the little buggers to peek through the  ground. For a month, I checked my special ramp patch for the green shoots (resembling the leaves on scallions) that signal their arrival. Finally they appeared and I spent an hour digging them out – one by one – until I had what we refer to as a “mess” of ramps.

Like some of my other controversial predilections, my fondness for ramps does not endear me to my significant other. Their smell, when raw, can be eye wateringly painful to more delicate creatures. However, like garlic and onions, the pungency of ramps is greatly diminished when they are cooked.

This time of year, just about every town in our state features a ramp feed at which people are introduced (many for the first time) to over-ripe and under-cooked ramps. After experiencing the culinary massacre of ramps by those who fry them in lard or bacon grease and add them to potatoes or (worse) pinto beans, many people leave the events belching and flatulent, vowing never to get within a country mile of a ramp.

Today, I am going to provide you with two recipes for ramps that may well give you the courage to try them. The first is a delicious ramp and pasta dish I call Ramps and Bow Ties. The second is to simply and quickly grill them (no more than three minutes) and then pair them to grilled meats or veggies. By the way, I have purchased ramps at the Purple Onion store at Capitol Market in Charleston. Do a Google search and I’m sure you will find purveyors in your area.

Oh, surprise – I’m also going to give you a couple wine suggestions that will enhance the dishes.

Ramps and Bow Ties

Shopping list:
One small bunch of ramps –-
One pound of fresh asparagus
Two slices of thick sliced bacon
Three table spoons of extra virgin olive oil
One-pound of farfale (bow tie pasta)
One teaspoon of red pepper flakes (optional)
One cup of grated pecorino-romano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Grilled Ramps with Veggies
Grilled Ramps with Veggies

Creating the Dish
Dice two pieces of bacon, sauté until crisp then put bacon onto paper towels
Reserve one tablespoon of bacon fat and add olive oil to sauté pan
Chop approximately ten ramps (white parts) and the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces
Sauté the ramps and asparagus in the oil and bacon fat until tender
Reserve the green parts to add as garnish to the pasta dish when completed
Cook the pasta (al dente) in a large pot and reserve one cup of the cooking liquid
Transfer the cooked pasta to the sauté pan and add the reserved cooking liquid
Mix the pasta into the sauce and add the cheese and red pepper
Serve with the green ramp leaves as a garnish

Wine Recommendations:
2012 St. Supery Virtu Meritage ($32) is a great pairing with this pasta/ramp concoction and lends a refreshing and herbal element to the dish. This blend of sauvignon blanc and Semillon also has the texture and depth to stand up to and enhance the aggressive flavors of the sauce. It is also a great match with the ramp and grilled vegetables dish pictured above.

2011 Dolcetto d’Alba Sori Paitin ($19) This northern Italian red is exceptionally fruit forward with dark cherry flavors, yet it is medium to full bodied. The wine marries nicely with the ramp pasta. It would also do well as an accompaniment to barbecued pork or beef that is flanked by grilled ramps brushed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Vinous goodies from Down Under

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In the last few years, Australia has experienced a decrease in export wine sales due to, among other things, the recent world wide recession, an over supply of wines in the American marketplace and over production of wines from “Down Under.”

Yet, with all these difficulties, many Americans – including yours truly – still love the tremendous variety, value and quality of Australian wines.

As a young man a few decades back, I spent a week Down Under courtesy of the US Army. What I remember of that R&R week in Sydney is a bit fuzzy, but one aspect of Australian life was crystal clear: those folks liked their adult beverages!

While my beverage of choice that week was beer – (which came in 10W-40-like cans or served in large draft mugs called “Schooners”), years later I came to appreciate another consumable liquid ably produced by the Aussies – wine.

Over the last 25 years, I have seen the Australian wine market grow from a few recognizable quality brands like Penfolds, to hundreds of excellent wineries from several growing regions in that vast country. The Barossa Valley in southeastern Australia is the most prestigious wine region and, meteorologically speaking, is very much like northern California with vintages that are consistently good.

While Australia is known mainly for its shiraz (which the rest of the world calls syrah), Aussie wine makers also produce excellent cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling, semillon and grenache. I also like the Australian penchant for combining different varieties of grapes into a bottle of wine that is a blend.

The Laughing Magpie
The Laughing Magpie

I’ve often wondered if the cultural diversity of Australia has played a role in the ubiquitous practice by many of their wine makers to blend. Whatever the reason, I’m glad they continue to do so because the resulting wines are not only very good, they provide complex tasting experiences.

Just the other night I opened a bottle of 2002 d’Arenberg’s The Laughing Magpie which is a blend of shiraz with ten percent viognier- a white wine. Adding the viognier gave the blend a more lively and refreshing mouth feel yet did not take detract from exceptional way the wine complemented the grilled strip steak with which it was paired.

In addition to the aforementioned Laughing Magpie which retails at about $30 a bottle, d’Arenberg has a whole stable of very good wines that go by some strange and humorous names, including The Lucky Lizard Chardonnay, Dead Arm Shiraz and The Hermit Crab Viognier, just to name a few.

Try the old vine grenache from d’Arenberg called The Custodian. At under $20 a bottle, this wine is from ancient vines – some more than 100 years old – and yet it is soft, approachable and full of spicy blueberry flavors. It would be a wonderful accompaniment to grilled beef ribs in a tomato-based barbecue sauce.

The Hermit Crab ($15), which is a Rhone-like blend of viognier and marsanne, is well balanced and chock full of ripe pear flavors with a pronounced minerality. Its great as a porch-sipper or with lighter fish dishes such as flounder sauced with lemon and butter.

Another of my favorite shiraz’ is one produced by Torbreck called The Woodcutter’s Red ($25). This is a spicy, elegant wine with hints of blackberries that is pulled together by excellent balancing acidity. Grilled salmon with a southwest seasoning would be a good choice with the Woodcutter’s.

In Australia, semillon (which sometimes is blended with chardonnay or sauvignon blanc) is made in a full-bodied and rich style, yet it has a mineral quality that allows it to go quite well with oysters on the half shell as well as pasta dishes, especially sauced with a basil pesto. Try the Semillon from Simon Hackett, Rosemount and Peter Lehmann all of which retail for under $25 a bottle.

Riesling is also a good choice from Down Under and the following wines are very reasonably priced: Pikes Clare Valley Riesling, Wolf Blass Adelaide Gold and Grant Burge. Slightly sweet, these are great aperitif wines or good matches to lighter foods like seafood salads or brunch grub such as omelets.

So go Down Under for some seriously good wines.

Springtime: bring on the spicy barbecue and wine

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Despite snow flurries and frigid temperatures to the contrary, I am confident that springtime is about to break out and that means firing up the trusty old Weber grill for some spicy barbecue treats.

But first, let’s define the term barbecue – which seems to mean different things to different people.

For some, it’s a verb as in: “I’m going to barbecue some hot dogs.” For others, barbecue is a noun and refers to a type of cooked pork or beef (usually rib meat) that is dry-rubbed and/or immersed in various sauces, chopped or pulled and then served on a bun.

I define barbecue as a style of cooking, and you will find just about every kind of food on my grill, including (but not limited to) pork, beef, lamb, fish, vegetables and even fruit.

I am also a “true believer” in using charcoal or wood to cook the animal, vegetable or fruit on my grill. I have used every brand of gas grill – from the most expensive to the most economical -and they all share one fatal flaw: uneven heat distribution.

It’s also a pain in the posterior to try and use smoking woods such as hickory, mesquite or apple on a gas grill, and that’s a problem for me since these woods add a wonderful flavor dimension to barbecue foods.

And okay, I confess, there’s just something compelling and deliciously barbaric about setting charcoal on fire, and then using the coals to sear animal flesh or things that grow. (I’m not sure I want know why this practice is so appealing to me).

So here’s a recipe for my original Barbarian Barbecue sauce that you can use on just about any meat or fish (especially salmon). Of course, I’ll provide you with a few wines that are among my favorites to complete this spicy meal.

Barbarian Barbecue Sauce

Combine a cup of ketchup with half a cup of white vinegar in a cooking pot
Pour a 12-ounce bottle of beer and two ounces of orange juice to the pot
Add a tablespoon each of brown sugar, molasses and Tabasco
Add one teaspoon of dried mustard, Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes until it thickens
Brush the food with the sauce and serve.

Barbarian Baby Backs
Barbarian Baby Backs

Here are some excellent wines to sip that are especially good and will help you release your inner Barbarian.

2013 Moulin Gassac Guilheim Rose ($10) From Languedoc-Roussillon, this dry rose is a blend of each grenache, carignan and syrah. This baby is full of strawberry and red fruit flavors with a crisp acidity that makes it a great pairing with barbecue.

Fisher Ridge Syrah ($12)– From Putnam County, Fisher Ridge is the oldest West Virginia winery and does a marvelous job with this fruit forward and lighter styled version of syrah. Excellent balance and bright cherry flavors marry well with barbecue.

2011 Paul Mas Estate Carignan Old Vines ($11) – This red wine from is also from France’s Languedoc region and is produced from vines older than 50 years. With aromas of spice, tea and just a hint of oak, the wine exhibits dark fruit flavors that finish dry and pair well with just about any barbecue dish.

2011 Las Rocas Garnacha ($15) – From the Aragon region of Spain, this grenache is produced from 30 to 50 year old vines which exhibit blackberry, cherry and tea flavors to create a robust and full bodied wine. This would be excellent with grilled baby backs slathered with the aforementioned barbecue sauce.

2011 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($32) – Produced from 100 percent sangiovese grapes, this round, rich and full-bodied wine will meld its black cherry and cola flavors exceedingly well with a grilled and barbecue-sauced pork tenderloin.

Pairing wine and food: No rules, just do it !

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Wine without food is like, chips without dip, Adam without Eve, spring without ramps, or love without a partner!

Yeah, yeah, I know, we all occasionally sneak a glass or two of wine at a cocktail party to be social, but that little sip tastes so much better with just about any morsel of food. And while finding the perfect pairing is akin to discovering the Holy Grail, even the imperfect matches are so much better than consuming wine or food alone.

While there is some legitimacy to the old adage of red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or white meat, pairing food and wine is a lot more complicated. Today we’ll examine those complications and hopefully provide you with some helpful tips.

Of course, I must provide the disclaimer that what I am about to recommend is the subjective opinion of an avowed hedonist. Still, some matches are so good that they are almost universally embraced. Take steak and cabernet sauvignon for example.

Most carnivores I know agree that cabernet, particularly from California, South American or Australia, is a wonderful accompaniment to a grilled or broiled rib eye, filet, strip steak or prime rib.

Another undisputed winner is to pair a rich chardonnay or White Burgundy with lobster and drawn butter. The richness of the lobster along with the oiliness of the butter is married spectacularly with the unctuousness of a full-bodied chardonnay.

While there would be virtually no disagreement on the accuracy of the above two food and wine pairings, more generalized statements can be dead wrong.

For example, if you assume that all chardonnay is always the best choice with lobster and drawn butter, or that all cabernet is perfect with steak you would be making a big mistake. Here’s why.

A chardonnay from Chablis in France is usually austere with crisp acidity and mineral qualities. It is best paired with oysters and/or plainly cooked seafood. It would be overwhelmed if matched with lobster and drawn butter.

The same goes for pairing an older cabernet or Bordeaux with a grilled steak. The cabernet or Bordeaux develops layers of delicate flavors and aromas over the years that would be destroyed by, say, a grilled rib eye.

So how do you make good judgments on pairing food and wine when the answers are not obvious? Well, you can rely on “experts” to provide advice and/or you can use common sense and be adventurous. Here are some tips that may help you out if you choose to go it alone.

Think of flavor, texture and weight of the food and wine pairing. You wouldn’t logically pair a full-flavored red wine with delicate broiled seafood such as Dover Sole. Think about it. The flavors, textures and weight are all out of balance. Instead, try delicate White Bordeaux, an Italian Arneis or a Washington State semillon.

Here’s the closest thing to an absolute wine and food no-no: vinaigrette salad with any wine. Why? The vinegar based dressing clashes with the acid in wine destroying the flavors of both the salad and wine. Creamy or cheese dressings work fine with sauvignon blanc, riesling or viognier, but nothing works with vinaigrette.

This one breaks the rules, but is a definite winner. Try a pinot noir, Chianti, or even Beaujolais with grilled salmon, tuna or chicken. Pinot noir also pairs greatly with spicy foods, particularly Southwestern (US) fare. Ditto, gruner veltliner or gewürztraminer. They go especially well with spicy oriental dishes, especially Thai food.

Roasted Thanksgiving turkey can handle just about any white or red, but I particularly like Rhone reds, Alsatian pinot gris and merlot-based Bordeaux with the “national bird.”

Chocolate desserts love – are you ready for this – cabernet sauvignon. Ices and sorbets are great with Moscato and sweet sparkling wines. Try blue cheese with Port and late harvest zinfandel.

One final thought: if you prefer Mad Dog 40-40 with your Peking Duck, go for it! The best food and wine pairing is what you choose. The key is to do the pairing.

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I have never been a big fan of water, though I do know we need to consume a good bit to sustain life. I generally prefer to get my water through the consumption of other beverages (after all, wine is approximately 85 percent water).
I must admit, however, that it has been easier than usual to abstain from water over the past couple of months here in Charleston. Therefore, I have turned our water emergency into an opportunity for you and me.
Since I am only getting 85 percent water out of each  bottle consumed, I needed to rev up my wine consumption in order to remain properly hydrated. Therefore, today I am able to recommend quite a few more wines than normal for your sipping pleasure.

Here are some wines that you might wish to try along with some suggested food pairings.

Voveti Prosecco DOC NV ($20) Fresh, fragrant and light, this delivers a touch of sweetness, followed by aromas of citrus and ripe apples. This wine is crisp, easy and refreshing and would make a great porch sipper or a good accompaniment to mild cheddar, some walnuts and a bunch of grapes.

Mulderbosch Rose
Mulderbosch Rose

2011 Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay ($20) While 2011 was difficult vintage, this barrel fermented chardonnay has apricot and spicy nutmeg –like flavors, balanced by good acidity and toasty oak nuances. Try this with a roasted chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes and rubbed with garlic, olive oil and rosemary.

2011 Gary Farrell Russian River Pinot Noir  ($45) Another good wine from 2011, this pinot noir has ripe black cherry and spicy tea flavors. With a backbone of bracing acidity, this wine begs to be matched with a filet of salmon that has been brushed with cumin, lime juice and honey and grilled over a charcoal fire (or gas grill).

Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs ($22) – This Sonoma County wine is produced using the Champagne-method. Made from pinot noir, this blush colored sparkler is richly textured with a hint of brioche underneath the ripe berry flavors. The wine is round but dry on the finish and would make a good match to grilled baby back ribs with a red sauce.

2012 Mulderbosch Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) This is a very full bodied South African rose that tastes of ripe sour cherries just picked from the tree. It is rich, but dry and would work very well as an accompaniment to lighter styled meat dishes such as chicken coq au vin.

2010 Alto Moncayo Veraton ($27) From Spain, this old vine grenache is rich, ripe, round and full-bodied. Flavors of black raspberries and spicy tea with just a hint of vanilla make this a superb accompaniment to beef dishes such as roasted prime rib with a chimichurri sauce.

Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto ($20) – This Italian sweet red sparkler is chock full of raspberry and black cherry flavors and would make an equally good aperitif or dessert wine. Rosa Regale is especially good with most desserts, especially vanilla ice cream and raspberries or any chocolate dish.

If you’re still concerned about the water, you might want to get your hydration the way I do. Cheers.