Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Easter Wines

Easter means a food fest and a food fest means good wine.


One of the most popular main courses for Easter is, of course, ham. Ham is not as easy to match as you might think, although the mix of sweet and salt brings some great possibilities. For the white drinker, Riesling is an excellent choice. Get one with just a touch of sweetness, which rounds out the saltiness and has the good acidity to support the sweetness and fruit of the wine. My choice from Washington is Kung Fu Girl. From Germany, go with a Kabinett, like Dr. Loosen Blue Slate ($20.99.) Another white to try is Joseph Cattin Gewurztraminer from Alsace. Big fruit, spice, and a bit of residual sugar work very well with the ham.

For the red drinker, a big fruit-forward wine works well, such as a California Zinfandel.  Seven Deadly Zins or Dashe are good examples. Even better would be a Nero D’Avola or Negroamaro form southern Italy. These are similar to Zinfandels only a little lighter on the alcohol, a little earthier, and a little more elegant. Occhipinti’s TAMI Nero D’Avola is awesome at $18.99 and N Zero is a $12.99 Negroamaro that will make your ham wonderful.


If you are lucky enough to live in a house where your wife doesn’t think lambs are too cute to cook, then nothing is better for Easter dinner. As far as I’m concerned, the perfect match for lamb is a red from the northern Rhone. These earthy Syrahs bring out the gamey rich flavor of the lamb like nothing else can. J.L. Chave is one of the Rhone’s great producers, and his Croze-Hermitage Silene ($27.99) or his St. Joseph  Offerus ($29.99) will guarantee a return invitation to dinner. For less money, a southern Cotes du Rhone blend such as Chateau Pesquie Terrasses ($15.99) will do fine.  If you don’t want French, a nice Spanish Rioja like Zuazo Gaston ($14.99) or a big Nebbiolo such as Dominico Clerico’s Capisme-E 
($37.99) are excellent choices.

Prime Rib

A marbled prime rib literally screams out for a big tannic wine like a California mountain Cabernet. Staglin’s 2007 Salus at $89.00 is epic, but Mt Veeder ($35.99) and Educated Guess ($20.99) are both very nice. Even better is Aglianico, a tannic, rustic monster from southern Italy. San Martino’s SIIR at $19.99 is a true bargain. Taurasi is the world’s greatest expression of this grape. If you brought a bottle of Mastroberardino Radici 2006 ($63.99) to my house, you’d get a lifetime invitation to dinner anytime you want. But you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy your prime rib properly. 1907 Madiran from southwestern France (home of the Tannat grape) is a wonderful accompaniment for a whopping $12.99.


Last but not least, Easter Brunch. If you are looking forward to those mimosas, Spanish Cavas and Proseccos are great bang for your buck and they have big exuberant bubbles that will stand up to your O.J. Sonim is a great Cava for $13.99 and Le Colture Sylvoz at $12.99 is my favorite Prosecco for the job. Don’t bring a nice Champagne from France. The very fine bubbles will flatten in about ten seconds if you add O.J., peach nectar, or Kirsch…very unimpressive indeed.

These are by no means your only choices, especially if you’re having a different or unique food for Easter. And for dessert? You may have to consider a nice Port for all that chocolate.

Above all, though you may not eat responsibly, please drink that way. Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Spain—A Bargain Hunter’s Paradise

“Show me your favorite $10.00 bottle of wine.”

I get that question all the time at the store. The customer always expects me to lead him to the domestic section, thinking imported wines are too expensive. I surprise him by taking him to the Old World section, because I truly think the best wines in that price range come from France, Italy, and especially Spain. If I can get him to raise the ante to $12.00, he can do really well.

Spain offers an opportunity to sample some varietals in their pure form that are often blended in other countries. Not only do you get nice wines for really great prices, but you expand your knowledge of the vast number of grapes that are made into the wines we love to drink.

Garnacha, known as Grenache everywhere else, originated in Spain. It is now grown extensively in southern France and in Australia, where it is often blended with Syrah and Mourvedre, and also in Sardinia, where it is known as Cannonau. Grenache is medium to full-bodied and has spicy berry flavors. It tends toward low acidity because it does best in hot climates due to its long ripening time. Wines from this grape can be found for ridiculous prices. Garnacha de Fuego is an outstanding example for only $9.99. It has huge berry, currant, and blackberry flavors. Honoro Vera, recognized by its artsy label, is a nicely balanced mouthful of spice and blueberry-blackberry fruit, again for $9.99.

Monastrell is another grape commonly grown in southern France, especially in the Languedoc and Cotes du Rhone, the U.S., and Australia (where it is often called Metaro). It is usually known as Mourvedre outside of Spain. It is the “M” of the GSM blends from the U.S. and Australia, and is also usually blended with these grapes in France as well. In Spain, where again the grape is believed to have its origins, the varietal often stands on its own. At the turn of the century, Monastrell was the fourth most planted grape in Spain, but it is slowly being replaced by international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. It is still the only grape, or at least the major one, found in the reds from the D.O.s of Jumilla and Yecla. The wines are big, with dark fruit, earthy, and savory flavors, and usually moderately tannic. One of my personal favorites is Tarima, recognized by the large passion flower on the label. It is 100% Monastrell from Jumilla and is a very big wine filled with flavors of  blue and black fruits, chocolate, and licorice. It is priced at $11.99, so buy as much as you can.  Another good example is Wrongo Dongo, which to me sounds like it should come from Australia. Another wine from Jumilla, it is almost, but not quite, entirely Monastrell.  It is a big fruit-forward wine with lots of blackberry and blueberry flavors in a spicy background. It is a great barbeque wine and costs a mere $10.99.
Rioja, found in northern Spain, is perhaps Spain’s best known growing region. Here, Tempranillo is the king of the varietals, with Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo (Carignan) also in the mix. Although some of the wines made here can be very expensive, yet another Spanish varietal can be sampled for very little money. Castillo Montebuena is 100% Tempranillo. It is typical of this varietal—medium-bodied, with a bouquet of spicy vanilla and cherries and a palate of cherry and raspberry fruit. It is full flavored and has a persistent pleasant finish, a bargain at $11.99. And don’t miss Martin Codax Ergo Rioja. Primarily Tempranillo with a bit of Graciano thrown in, it is vibrant ruby in color with decadent aromas of ripe fruit and flowers integrated with the vanilla and toast of oak. The wine is medium-bodied, elegant, and rather complex, with flavors of cherries, currants, coconut and fresh raspberries. The finish is surprisingly lingering for a wine priced at $11.99.

Ratings by various wine periodicals tend to drive wine sales. Customers come in looking for wines rated in the 90s from Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate. I’m not going to get into my opinions of the value of wine ratings. If you’re curious, come into the store and find me when I have some time to expound. At any rate, Robert Parker (The Wine Advocate) recently reviewed Spain. Clearly he was in a very generous mood, because he gave high ratings to these very inexpensive wines—Tarima 90 points, Garnacha de Fuego 92, and the more expensive wines in the mid to high 90s. As a result, these wines have been flying off the shelves. This is a true case of “if you snooze you lose,” so come in and check out these wines.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ripasso—Veneto’s Gem
“Poor Man’s Amarone?”

Valpolicella is a viticulture zone in the region of Veneto in Northeastern Italy. The climate is cool but the region still manages to rank second only to Chianti in total D.O.C. wine production. The red wines are made from a combination of Corvina, Rondinella, and occasionally Molinara.

The vast majority of this wine is labeled as Valpolicella. The wines tend to be light bodied, fairly simple with flavors of red cherries, and low in alcohol (11-13%). Some of them are quite Beaujolais-like and are served slightly chilled. Some are more serious and complex, aged in oak for at least a year, and are labeled as “Superiore.” While perfectly drinkable, they are simple and for the most part uninteresting.

Amarones are another story. The same grapes used in the simpler wines are left on the vine as long as possible to get maximum ripening, then dried for up to three months (a process known as “appassimento.”) They lose up to a third of their water content which concentrates the sugar and flavor while maintaining a high acidity. The wines are aged for at least two years before release, but often remain in oak for up to five years. This results in very powerful, aromatic, and age-worthy wines. The flavors are almost port-like, with chocolate, dried fig, raisin, and mocha. They are very expensive, starting around $50.00, and can escalate easily to triple digits…but the “Wow” factor makes them worth saving for a special occasions.

So in an area making a ton of wine, we have a choice of a simple quaffing wine or a very expensive monster? That would seem a little absurd if it were true. Fortunately, Bacchus, the God of Wine, has given us Ripasso.

Ripasso means “repassed.” Otherwise standard, unremarkable Valpolicella is added to casks containing the skin and the lees left over from fermenting Amarone. This “repassing” of the lighter wine over the remains of the “bigger” wine imparts additional color, flavor, texture, and complexity, often impressively so. A secondary fermentation is induced which increases the wine’s alcohol as well.

Ripassos can be awesome wines and are true bargains. They are sometimes called “baby Amarones” as they have some of the flavor profile of that wine, but are more approachable early (Amarones sometimes don’t reach their maturity for ten to fifteen years.) They often taste more like an Amarone than a Valpolicella for a fraction of the cost of the former. Most Ripassos give you all this flavorand an interesting story to make you sound really wine savvyfor $15.00 to $30.00.

Ripassos can be served with risottos (especially mushroom) and hearty pasta preparations, but are at their best with roasted veal and lamb or braised beef or game. They are a worthy accompaniment to hard cheeses as well.

Customers will often come into the store interested in Amarones until they are horrified by the price. When I introduce them to Ripassos, they come back in large numbers to try more. We have a good selection of these wines as their popularity is increasing. Here are a few examples.

Cesari “Mara” Ripasso della Valpolicella 2009: This warm and elegant single vineyard wine with its seductive dark fruit flavors is a great introduction to Ripasso. $19.99.

Zenato Superiore Ripassa della Valpolicella 2009: This is an absolutely delicious wine. It is aged in small and large oak barrels for eighteen months and six months in bottle before release. It is very full bodied and very Amarone-like, with flavors of dried fruitraisins, plums, and dark cherriesaccented by rich spice. It has a velvety texture, gentle tannin, and a long finish. $31.99

Allegrini Palazzo della Torre 2009: A consistent finding on Wine Spectator’s top 100 list year after year is this Ripasso from one of Veneto’s top estates. It is a blend mainly of Corvina and Rondinella with a tiny amount of Sangiovese. Rather than the usual method of making Ripasso, this estate dries 30% of the harvested grapes and processes the others as for Valpolicella. Then the dried grapes are added to the fresh grapes and they are fermented. I love this wine, and it is one of my staff picks. It has aromas of wild berries and vanilla, followed by a palate of blackberry, black currant, and kirsch. It is well structured and elegant, with supple tannins and a lingering finish. $20.99.

These are a few examples of the many to choose from. Next time you go to your local wine shop, make Ripasso one of your priorities. It is yet another example of the ingenuity of Italian winemaking, and you will not be disappointed.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Red Bordeaux—Expensive and Confusing?
Nope… Hints to “Bank” On

Customers are afraid of the Bordeaux section because first, they figure it will be expensive, and second, they don’t understand what they are reading on the label. Have no fear. Simply put, a red Bordeaux wine is a wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France. It is the largest French wine producing area, composed of over 120,000 hectares of vineyards and producing over 700 million bottles of wine each year.

The region’s hub is the city of Bordeaux, which sits on the west bank of the Gironde River and runs from southeast to northwest on its course to the Atlantic Ocean in west central France. Just north of Bordeaux, the Dordogne River empties into the Gironde from the southeast, forming a “Y”. The Estates along the western bank of the Gironde are known as “Left Bank” and those along the east bank of the Dordogne are known as “Right Bank.” The area between the two arms of the “Y” is known as “Entre Deux Mers” (“between two seas.”)

Why do we care about all this? Here's why:

By law, only six grapes that can be included in red wines from Bordeaux—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere. The first two are by far the largest contributors. The climate and the soils are vastly different on the Left and Right Banks—so much so that Cabernet Sauvignon grows far better on the Left Bank, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc far better on the Right Bank and in Entre Deux Mers. Consequently, Left Bank wines are Cabernet predominant and therefore more tannic, structured, and long lived as a rule (and less approachable at an early age.) The wines from the Right Bank are Merlot driven, with Cabernet Franc as an important component and much less Cabernet Sauvignon. Right Bank Bordeaux tends to have lusher fruit, somewhat softer tannins, and can be enjoyed at an earlier age. So when you come to the store, you’ll know which “Bank” of Bordeaux you prefer.

If only the label on the wine said “Left” or “Right” Bank, the world would be perfect, but that would be too easy. Instead, the label will usually indicate the appellation, and you should leave it up to your wine geek to know that Medoc, Haut Medoc, Margaux, St. Estephe, Graves, and St. Julian are all Left Bank, and Pomerol, St Emillion, and Canon-Fronsac are Right Bank. As long as you know what style you like, you will get a wine you love.

In 1855, Napolean III requested that Bordeaux wines be classified into five levels, or growths, according to the amount of money they commanded. Four first growths were named—Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Haut Brion, and Latour. In 1973, Mouton Rothschild was added. All five of these wines are from the Left Bank and cost upwards of $1000.00 per bottle upon release. Even fifth growths which fifteen years ago could be purchased for $30.00-$45.00 now cost over $100.00. Although the Right Bank wines aren’t in this classification, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Petrus, and Chateau le Pin are still in these price ranges.

Because of these crazy prices, most of us will never get a chance to try these wines, which fuels the idea that Bordeaux is only for the rich. This is not true. Although the first through fifth growths are the most famous fifty or so wines from the Left Bank, and about twenty similar wines exist from the other side, over 8400 other Bordeaux producers remain. These “petits chateaux” produce very nice wines for $40.00, $25.00, and even $15.00. These wines express the terroir and varietal character of the appellation where they are grown and are pleasant to drink often upon the day of bottling. They don’t age like the classified growths but will improve over three or four years.

Bordeaux wines as a rule are made from rather tannic grapes and they are aged in oak, so they’re going to be tannic. Don’t look to these wines for sipping at a cocktail party or drinking on their own by the fire one evening. These are food wines. They have aromatics and flavors of red and black fruit, with solid structure and good acidity. They tend to be a bit lower in alcohol than their California counterparts. These characteristics are typical of the cooler climate in Bordeaux. Because the climate is cool, year to year variance can be marked. Time of last frost, daily temperatures, and amount and time of rainfall all have a huge influence on the quality of wine in a given year. Be sure to ask your wine specialist which vintages to avoid or look for, or which are best for drinking early or putting away for a few years.

So tonight you are having a dinner of beef, lamb, or game. Bordeaux is an excellent choice. If you want to splurge a bit and like the structure of Cab based wines, the Chateau Mongravey (Margaux) is outstanding for $44.99. The Right Bank and Merlot predominant L’Excellence des Menuts at $42.99 is drinking perfectly.

Want to spend less and still drink well? From the Left Bank we have the Chateau Le Pey (Medoc, $16.49) and Chateau Beauregard Lagupeau (Graves, $16.99), and from the Right we have La Croix Bonnelle (St. Emillion, $16.99) and La Croix Meunier (St. Emillion, $24.99). These are all nice examples of Bordeaux at reasonable prices. There are others in the $10.00-12.00 range that will amaze you.

Bordeaux doesn’t have to be complicated and it certainly doesn’t have to be expensive. Wines from this area have been among the most renowned in the world for hundreds of years. It’s time you found out what all the fuss is about. You will be glad you did.

You can “bank” on it!