30 December 2009


If you're lucky this holiday season, you'll have lots of delicious leftovers. If you're creative, you can throw together a medianoche or Cuban Sandwich. And it's appropriate for New Year's Eve, because medianoche means "midnight", and a salty savory sandwich like this would go very well with a young bubbly wine full of crisp acidity.

Take a soft, long loaf of bread and slice it open lengthwise. If it's really tall, you might want to slice an inch out of the center. On the bottom slice of the loaf, lay down some mustard. The traditional option is just yellow mustard, but I prefer Dijon, and I also add a bit of mayo, which I know is anathema to some purists. Whatever your spread, layer on sliced Kosher dill pickles. Again, opinions vary: delis and restaurants tend to skimp here, but I say double up on the pickles. So much of the flavor comes from pork that you need something tart and acidic to balance it out. Then layer the sliced pork loin (or shredded pork shoulder, or whatever roasted pig you have on hand), the ham, the Swiss cheese, and finally the top half of the loaf.

Many guides will tell you to butter the inside of the bread, and I will admit that this is tasty. But I prefer to spread the butter on the outside, as it aids in crisping. With a manageable 12" loaf, I'll do it in a skillet and press it down with a casserole dish, but with anything longer you'll want to do this in the oven, on a cookie sheet, with another sheet on top of the sandwich and a set of weights on top of that to press it all together (clean bricks are ideal). Flip it occasionally to make sure both the top and bottom get equal heating.

Personally I prefer the shorter sandwich in the skillet or on the griddle; like I said, take anything solid and sanitary and press down as hard as you can on top of the sandwich while it's grilling. Not only will it smash the flavors together but the bread will become this buttery, crusty, compressed wonder. (If you're using a fancy panini press, just heat up the meats beforehand, otherwise you'll have a hot exterior and a cold interior.)

Traditionally this would be served with French fries or perhaps rice and black beans. Both are delicious, but in the interest of balance and digestion, I'd heavily recommend a salad with a light vinaigrette or some fresh fruit. As wholly delicious as this sandwich is, keep in mind that it's a concentrated mass of meat, salt, fat, and starch. The pickles and mustard are key to balancing it out, but they're not quite enough. Make a salad, grab some celery sticks, or even go with cole slaw. It's all about harmony, folks.

28 December 2009

Assorted Leftover Bottles

Here's a few bottles that got tasted and reviewed, but not posted in 2009. They sat around in the bullpen for a while, and I decided I might as well let them out for the 9th inning.

* * *

This wine comes from the time when Bonny Doon's Ca' del Solo line was still whimsical and lighthearted. With a move to biodynamics and a trimming of the wild mix of grapes and products, Ca' del Solo wines now bear very unusual labels. This older label reminds me of the children's book Madeline, though this little girl is obviously not an orphan.

There's not a lot of information out there about this wine--a few reviews of various vintages going back to the 90s, but Bonny Doon is a company that has grown, shrunk, exploded with products, focused on a handful of wines, reinvented itself, and has built up certain mythologies about its products. Like how people mistake the Ca' del Solo line for Italian wines, or think the Big House wines (no longer part of Bonny Doon) were actually made by prisoners. Press releases and company info on old products seem to disappear completely, like the Fraise strawberry liqueur I tried in 1997, leaving us with second- and third-hand accounts and reviews.

Our mystery white is the 2005 Ca' del Solo Malvasia Bianca from the Central Coast of California. $12, 13% abv. Lots of lime on the nose, like lemon curd but with more of a lime tang--think Key Lime Pie. Plenty of fruit flavor here, and a quick finish. Tropical fruits like papaya and pineapple. I had it with a little cold pasta salad, and it definitely needs something salty like olives to balance out the touch of sweetness. I would have liked to have tried this in its youth; I have nothing to directly compare it with, but I think there might have been some more sparkle a few years ago.

* * *

Different European countries have different rules and regulations when it comes to what kind of grapes can be grown in various regions. France is pretty strict; I often think that Italy and Spain are more accommodating because they have thousands of indigenous grapes that might only be a few hundred distinct vines with ten names each. (It's possible for a wine grape to have over 150 different names.) In Italy the IGT system has permitted well-crafted wines to be produced using plots planted with both indigenous Italian vines and imported French vines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are popular blending grapes, even as far south as Sicily.

One relatively mainstream example is the 2005 Bonizio Cecchi from Maremma, Italy (the western corner of Tuscany). $10, 12.5% abv, 90% Sangiovese, 10% "other" red grapes. This little Tuscan IGT has a little blackberry and clove on the nose, with mild tannins and cherry flavors. It performs well for the price and was a decent accompaniment to a pepperoni pizza.

* * *

This is a very inexpensive Pinot Noir, decent enough for the price. After Sideways a lot of people rushed out and bought the cheapest Pinot on the shelf. Many of those folks were sorely disappointed, but it doesn't mean that bargain Pinot doesn't exist. It's just hard to find. I've often considered taping a note to my wallet that says, "Don't buy a Pinot Noir under $20. They've never made you happy."

But for the same reason that I've always dated [REDACTED], I decided to try another bargain California Pinot that showed up at the local shop. This is the 2006 Jargon Pinot Noir that retails for a paltry $7, 13.5% abv. Surprisingly, it is pretty soft and smooth, with decent black cherry notes, but lacking real complexity. Just a touch of acidity, tannins are pretty much nonexistent. It's the kind of wine I'd suggest for a diner if my local diners actually served wine.

* * *

A lot of folks like to beat up on Red Truck, and while it pales in comparison to fine Burgundy or Bordeaux I've always thought it was a fun table wine. Better in previous years, I think, but it's a great "gateway wine" for men. If a guy has never tasted wine before, flowery labels and French language aren't going to convince him. But if there's half a hog on the smoker, and you pull out a slightly chilled wine that has an old pickup truck on the label... You might have just made a convert. In five years he'll be criticizing your Barolo vintages and explaining why he prefers Spiegelau glasses over Riedel.

The 2006 Red Truck is $12, 13.5% abv, and shows notes of plum, brambles, with notes that are vegetal. Just a touch of herbs. Big tannins and acidity but they subside with an hour of breathing. The grapes are a proprietary blend of Syrah, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. While this may sound like a confused mess, it's probably close to the spirit of pre-Prohibition California "red wine" that used to flow out across the country years and years ago. Fortunately, you'll get a chance to enjoy it in bottle or cask form instead of having it shipped in tankers via train.

* * *

I'm an unabashed fan of the metric system and curse the archaic, illogical standard system we use here. However, for historical and literary purposes I do find obscure forms of measurement fascinating. Fathoms, leagues, hogsheads... Italian miles versus German miles versus Arabic miles... Gold gets measured in troy ounces, and horses get measured in "hands" from the ground to the withers, units now standardized at 4 inches. 14-16 hands is pretty average for a horse. (Similar human body-derived units are feet, paces, cubits, and the Selleck, used to measure mustache thickness.)

Another random wine selection based on the name is the 2007 14 Hands Merlot, $12, 13.5% abv. It's comprised of 85% Merlot, 14% Syrah, and 1% "other", sourced from a variety of locations in Washington state. Pacific Northwest wines are growing in popularity and availability, and it's always interesting to talk to people that just got back from a trip to Washington or Oregon wine country. They talk about it in this dreamy way like they've been to France.

Jammy, with an initial cherry and blueberry nose that can be overwhelming. After some breathing, it mellows out and you're able to get notes of chocolate, tobacco, and tomato vines. Definitely fruity, with medium tannins and a long chocolate-covered-cherry finish.

25 December 2009

Merry Christmas

Here's hoping you all have a safe and happy Christmas, whether with friends, family, or in a strange land far from home.

Taken at Zoo Lights at the Memphis Zoo in 2005.

23 December 2009

NV Segura Viudas Brut Rosé

Continuing with the bubbly theme, but this time on the bargain side...

I selected this wine for a recent Commercial Appeal online tasting. I'm repeating some of my background notes here, because this is an interesting little wine that deserves some attention. And since you can find it for under $10, it's the kind of thing you can keep in the fridge and open whenever you're in the mood. It's also extremely food-friendly, so have fun trying it with practically anything.

The NV Segura Viudas Brut Rosé. $9, 12% abv. This wine comes from Penedès, part of Catalonia in the northeast corner of Spain, near the French border. 80% Trepat, 10% Monastrell, and 10% Garnacha. Monastrell and Garnacha are just different names for Mourvèdre and Grenache. Trepat is a grape that's only grown in this region and is mostly used for rosés.

About 2800 years ago the Phoenicians were buying wine in Catalonia and selling it to the Egyptians. Cava (meaning "cave") is a more recent invention, from the 1870s. Cavas are really popular in Spain, and have gained a lot of ground here in the US as well. Segura Viudas also makes a Reserva Heredad that's bottled with a metal badge and base. You've probably seen it in the store--it looks like a prop from "Lord of the Rings".

Segura Viudas has been making wine commercially since the 1950s, but the estate goes back to the 11th century. We get excited when a building is 100 years old; some of the buildings on that property are a thousand years old.

So how does it taste? Yeasty nose, with a hint of strawberry leaves and seeds. Dry but fruity. Very crisp, firm acidity, tart berry flavors of unripe raspberries or cranberries. Big bubbles, big flavors, just what you'd expect from a casual everyday sparkler. Serve it with appetizers, salty and fatty things like olives and ham.

I took a picture of this wine using a 1/8th second exposure--just long enough to get some fun trails of the rising bubbles. I lucked out and got a fun "flame" effect there at the top of the glass. Since bubbles only form at the site of microscopic imperfections inside the glass, better Champagne flute manufacturers will laser-etch the interior to provide symmetrical "scratches" that will cause a constant and aesthetically pleasing bubble experience.

You don't really get that from a can of soda, which is one of the many reasons why we love sparkling wines.

21 December 2009

NV Gaston Chiquet Tradition

Typically I don't even mention a wine here unless the blessed grape juice has passed my lips, but I'm making an exception in the run-up to New Year's Eve. While I've written about a lot of different wines here, covering many obscure grapes and lesser-known regions, one glaring omission has been proper Champagne. Oh, I pop Prosecco and Cava and Washington sparklers like cans of soda, but I almost never drink real Champagne. Why? Part of it is a cost issue, part of it is that most of my personal friends prefer the more everyday sparkling wines I serve, and the other part comes from the fact that all the wine samples I receive are still, not bubbly.

This shouldn't be taken to imply that I don't like Champagne--on the contrary, I'm quite fond of it. I've had Dom Perignon, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Taittinger, all of the big producers. But this year I wanted to ring in 2010 with something different, and so I turned to a pair of friends who happen to be both wine bloggers and wine retailers: Michael Hughes of Joe's Wines & Liquor in Midtown Memphis, and Samantha Dugan of The Wine Country in Signal Hill/Long Beach, California. Both of them have tasted much more Champagne than I have, so I issued them a challenge: collaborate, pick out an interesting selection for me around $50, and I'd buy a bottle here in town while plugging both stores*.

It didn't work out quite like I expected, but Sam and Michael performed admirably. Turns out that the selections and prices were much different between the two sides of the US, and without an individual bottle to recommend, it was time to switch to a certain category of Champagne.

There's an interesting trend of récoltants-manipulants or harvester-producers: farmers who have historically supplied grapes to the big houses, but have begun making their own small-batch Champagne. In the US, these wines are known as grower Champagnes, or sometimes the more casual "farmer fizz". While I've read quite a bit about this movement and admire it in the broader trend towards small production food and wine, I haven't ever had one myself.

Consensus was reached on the NV Gaston Chiquet Tradition, which I purchased at Joe's on Saturday. $53, 12.5% abv, made from 35% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir. (A plurality of Pinot Meunier? Be still my beating heart!) According to the importer website, it's a blend of the 2004, 2002, 2001, 1998 vintages. I'm really excited about trying this wine, but I have to just stare at it for the next ten days.

Is this my official recommendation for your New Year's celebration? Well, it's what I'll be drinking, but I think I bought Michael's last bottle and Sam doesn't carry it. But if you're looking for my formal advice, I'd say try a grower Champagne. It's going to be something different, something individual, something with personality. I like Veuve Clicquot, but you can find that yellow label anywhere in the world at any time of year. When you buy a grower Champagne, you're one of a select few people who will be enjoying that specific wine as the clock ticks down to midnight. You can brag to your friends, impress that girl you've been dating, and most importantly, you'll be drinking a solidly produced wine rather than just an excuse for breaking out the sparkling wine flutes.

Many thanks to Michael and Sam for their assistance, and I'm sure this will be a New Year's Eve to remember!

*This isn't advertising, and I didn't receive any financial compensation for this project. Basically two good writers happen to be passionate about Champagne and are in the retail business. A knowledgeable wine salesperson who has the bottles on hand in your city is worth more than all of the Top 100 lists ever written. If you stop by Joe's or The Wine Country in search of a great Champagne for New Year's, tell 'em I sent you.

18 December 2009

2008 Colores del Sol Malbec Reserva

What do you do when you've got holiday leftover side dishes but no turkey or ham? A narrow strip steak fits in nicely on a crowded plate, but this demands a somewhat bolder wine than the usual holiday middle-weight compromises.

Faced with this delicious dilemma, I poured the 2008 Colores del Sol Malbec Reserva from the Luján de Cuyo region of northern Mendoza in Argentina. $13, 13.5% abv. Blackberry and plum nose, with a touch of pencil shavings. Starts off pretty brash and tart, but with a couple of hours of breathing it is smooth and fruit-filled, and a slightly ashy plum flavor pulls through. Strong tannins on the finish.

With this ample bounty on my plate, full of all sorts of wonderful flavors and textures, it's still the humble deviled egg that brings me the most joy. They're easy to make, I almost always have all the necessary ingredients on hand, and they're a good platform for some recipe modification and experimentation. But I almost never eat them except around the holidays. Hmmm... might have to make another batch and incorporate some of that pickled okra.

16 December 2009

Hendrick's Gin

One of the overlooked Christmas classics is The Thin Man. OK, it's not really a Christmas movie, but is set during the season and has a lot of partying and humor, so we'll let it slide.

In this scene, William Powell (as Nick Charles) lectures the bartenders on martini theory before sampling his fifth of the evening, just a warmup to #6. A fan of the shake method, Nick says, "The important thing is the rhythm! Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time."

I considered counting up how many cocktails and other drinks he consumed during the course of the 90 minute film, but he was never empty-handed and frequently referred to prior and subsequent beverages. What does he do if Nora wakes him up in the middle of the night? Fortunately there's a little bar right in the bedroom! I'm pretty sure that Asta the dog was the only sober character.

While I don't advocate Nick's dawn-to-dusk drinking, I did find myself craving a martini during the movie. And since I was housesitting at Paul's, I helped myself to a bit of the Hendrick's Gin, made in Ayrshire, Scotland (in the southwest near Glasgow). Gins are made with a wide variety of spices and obscure ingredients left over from the old days of Dutch expeditions to the tropics, but Hendrick's is unique. Its flavor and aroma come from rose petals and cucumbers in addition to the more traditional coriander and juniper. It's smoother and has a rounder mouthfeel than most gins, and the scent is so alluring you can sip it over an hour and never get bored.

I made a 4:1 martini with Hendrick's and the European-style Noilly Prat (stirred slowly... adagio). And if I garnish Hendrick's with anything, it's going to be a thin slice of cucumber. I think olives would clash, and lemon peel would obscure some of the more delicate aromas. The cucumber is mild enough to just enhance the flavors already there, and it floats gently on the surface of the cocktail.

If you haven't tried Hendrick's, or if you've been turned off by gin in the past, I'd urge you to give it a try. Many of your better restaurant bars carry it (in fact, that old-fashioned medicine bottle is a great sign that you're at a quality bar), so order a martini or a shot. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Still image ©1934 MGM.

14 December 2009

2007 Cuvée A Midnight Saignée

The croque-monsieur is, in its basic form, just a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Some might roll their eyes at the thought of giving something so simple a fancy name*, but it basically means "Mister Crunchy" back in France. There are dozens of variations on this theme, but I found myself with the ingredients and appetite for a croque-madame, which is topped with a fried egg and a béchamel sauce. I tweaked it a bit, trying out blindfolded eggs and a sauce mornay (béchamel plus cheese and spices).

The blindfolded eggs are fun (act like you're frying an egg, but throw in some water and cover so it steams the yolk), just don't overcook them. As for the sandwich? Savory and delicious. I wish open-faced sandwiches were more popular; there's so much that you can do with them.

For wine I cracked open the 2007 Cuvée A Midnight Saignée from Anne Amie Vineyards in the Willammette Valley of Oregon. $14, 13% abv, pure Pinot Noir. Some of the greatest dry rosés are made with Pinot Noir, and this specimen is wonderful with its striking salmon color. Delicate wild strawberry aroma, tart ripe berry flavors with a touch of brambly earthiness. There's a slight green tea finish--just a hint of tannins to remind you that you're drinking red grapes.

While this was a fun and delicious pairing with the croque-madame, I think it would be a great match for grilled seafood. That dash of bright acidity would really help bring out the flavors of trout or redfish.

*My favorite example of a goofy French food is the name for little scraps of pastry dough that are deep fried: pets de nonne. Follow the link to find out what it means!

11 December 2009

Beaujolais Showdown

I was going to skip the Beaujolais Nouveau this year. I got turned off in 2008 by the high price and low quality. But the price was better this year, and I'm hearing that 2009 is a great year for Beaujolais (i.e., the real Cru Beaujolais we'll be drinking in a year or two). Why not give it a shot? I took the opportunity to perform a wholly unscientific experiment testing two ideas:

1) Supposedly Beaujolais Nouveau is better a couple of weeks after the official release, allowing it to settle down and recover from bottle shock. I have no proof of this, nor did I try it before and after, but I thought it'd be worth it to try the wine after a few weeks rather than guzzling it down 45 minutes after bringing it home.

2) Find a real Beaujolais at the same price and alcohol content and evaluate it against the Nouveau, adding additional credence to the widespread fact that any Beaujolais is better than Nouveau.

Starting off... the 2009 Georges Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau. $13, 12.5% abv. Bananas and strawberries, as usual, though the 2009 is far smoother than the 2008 and has a more pleasant tartness. It tastes better chilled than at room temperature, and after being open and in the fridge for two days, it was even more relaxed. Did the waiting and resting make a difference? I can't say for sure, but with the haste and jostling of the bottles in the runup to Bojo Novo day ever year, it wouldn't hurt to wait a few days at least.

At one point I began thinking that unused Beaujolais Nouveau could make a really delicious red wine vinegar, one of those odd intersections Terry Pratchett described as "where the falling angel meets the rising ape".

A lot of people have said this year's label design looks Chinese, but to my eye it seems more inspired by the Хохлома folk art of Nizhny Novgorod. I'm by no means an art expert or a specialist in Khokhloma, but having looked at a lot of Russian vases, plates, and lacquer boxes from the region I always wondered why they designed everything in red, gold, and black. Just look at examples of the style, particularly the swan at the bottom of this page.

I lucked out and found a Beaujolais at the same price and alcohol content. 2007 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages. $13, 12.5% abv. Much more balanced, with a dominant raspberry profile and an alluring hint of cardamom. The tartness and acidity of the Nouveau is completely gone, with a light red wine that goes down as easily as water. In fact, it's a joy to try a restrained red after so many fruit bombs. This wine tastes better at room temperature; chilled it loses complexity. All in all a much better wine, and I can't stress this enough, AT THE SAME PRICE AS THE NOUVEAU.

The Nouveau is enclosed with a short plastic cork, and the Jadot has a composite Diam cork, which is engineered using granulated natural cork and treated to avoid TCA contamination. I haven't encountered a lot of Diam-branded corks yet, but they provide the look and feel of "real" corks with fewer of the drawbacks.

First I invited my brother over for dinner (steaks and baked potatoes) and tried the pair of wines. They performed well, and I took my initial notes, but it really wasn't an ideal pairing. That would have to wait until two days later, when I served the leftover Beaujolais with some delicate lamb chops, coated in Dijon mustard and breadcrumbs and baked/broiled until cooked to medium doneness. Together these three little chops barely topped a half pound, but were perfect in flavor, tenderness, and juiciness. I'll eat any cut of lamb at any time of the day or night, yet I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've had a Gamay-based wine with lamb. It's a good pairing, and while the Nouveau worked well, again, the Beaujolais-Villages came shining through as the superior choice.

I know it's become popular in some circles to bash Beaujolais Nouveau for a variety of reasons from anti-French sentiment to snobbishness to carbon footprint, but I don't think it should be completely avoided. As a fun holiday novelty wine at $10? No problem. But I'd urge any fans stocking up this Christmas season to consider picking up a Nouveau and a Cru or Beaujolais-Villages rather than two bottles of the Nouveau. Try them side by side, see what you think, and I've got a hunch you'll be buying a lot more "real" Beaujolais in 2010.

Correction: Alert reader Fredric noted that Beaujolais-Villages is not a Cru, but rather an intermediate level below the ten official Crus. The post has been changed to reflect this, but note that Beaujolais-Villages is made like a traditional wine, not the quick method used for Nouveau. Thanks!

09 December 2009

2007 Montevina Merlot

Even though I rarely follow recipes precisely and have a cavalier attitude towards measuring ingredients, I think it's always a good idea to read recipes for new flavor combinations. Thus I discovered anchovy butter as a topping for steak. It's a great savory mix of butter, fish, and garlic, but I didn't like the recipe as written. I tripled the garlic, doubled the anchovies, and didn't rinse the little fishes. Why waste any of that great flavor?

Making the butter was easy, I just used a firm spoon and a bowl. Partway through the process it smells like the dumpster behind a cheap seafood joint, but keep mixing and it settles down. I broiled a couple of Delmonico steaks* and served a healthy knob of the anchovy butter on each one.

It tastes great, but of the various compound butters I've made and tried over the years, I think sage butter and red wine butter are better candidates. Yes, this had a salty/savory/umami quality to it, but it's harder to make than the other compound butters and I can't see it being a successful menu item anywhere. Plus you end up with a good bit of leftover anchovy butter, and it's difficult to find other uses before it goes south.

With the steak I served the 2007 Montevina Merlot from California, $12, 13.7% abv. Touches of coffee and spice on the nose, with flavors of black cherry, jam, medium tannins. A pretty basic and drinkable California red wine.

I've included a closeup here, because this is a gorgeous label that evokes old stock certificates, currency, and California fruit crate labeling. But it has a fatal flaw: the date (click the picture to enlarge). Many wineries use "shells": loads of label sheets printed and then later overstamped with the vintage as needed. You see this a lot in French wines, with the year in red. I'm not against the practice, but two things made it difficult here. For one, you're printing on top of other ink, which is always problematic, and two, the designer made an ornate but painfully small target for the printer to hit. Even under the best conditions this would be hard to pull off properly, and you can see the result here. The ink has bled, the registration is off, and the end result looks like the sloppy application of a hand stamp.

I'm not assessing blame to one specific group here, though having worked as both a designer and a press operator I'm going to say that the pressmen probably did the best they could under the circumstances. The design would have been unified if the year could have been printed in brown along with the rest of the label, perhaps with a few separate runs to cover the next few years. Or it would have been easy enough to fill up that corner with the script text or simply leave it blank, and save the vintage to go along with the grape name on the separate lower label. "2007 Merlot" would have been elegant and informative in reversed white text.

At some point a compromise was reached and the result is a flawed label.

It wouldn't have bothered me if this were just another mediocre label, but I really love this design. Someone obviously worked very hard to create this look and feel, with the kind of engraving that was more common a century ago. It is otherwise perfect... It pains me that the only people who will really appreciate the layout are likewise going to notice the scarred vintage.

*There are many definitions of the Delmonico steak, but this one was a ribeye from the portion near the chuck roast. My local Schnuck's carries them occasionally, and always at a dollar less per pound than the ribeyes. It's difficult to tell the difference just from looking. The shape on this one is a bit odd as I'd trimmed off a third for The Roommate, who just wanted a small steak without anchovy butter.

07 December 2009

2008 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc

Costco sells these gigantic chicken pot pies: 2.5 kg/5.5 lbs, enough to feed a good ten people. I've always walked past them with a mix of curiosity and regret. It's a common blend of emotions at Costco, as you pass by five gallon jugs of mustard and 50 lb. bags of rice. But I thought, what the hell, it's only $15, I can grab a few friends and gnaw on the leftovers for a couple of days. In case you're curious, the crust is delicious but the rest is pretty basic. The sauce in particular needs more oomph, with reduced chicken broth and white wine, but hey, it works for simple comfort food.

I decided to serve the 2008 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, $20, 13.9% abv. Marlborough, New Zealand. Golden delicious apple aromas, with a touch of flowers and Meyer lemon. Balanced acidity with full citrus fruit flavors. There's a touch of cedar and minerals on the finish. (Had I served a South Australia wine, I would have put the pie upside down in 16 litres of pea soup for the ultimate pie floater.)

I was very impressed with this wine, and it delivers additional complexity as it reaches room temperature. A great white wine tastes good but subtly different whether it's cool or at room temperature; a bad one only tastes good when it's near freezing. Oddly, this rule holds for beer as well. But I purchased the wine not based on its merits or land of origin. No, I noticed it years ago in an ad because the winery shares its name with my home neighborhood in Memphis.

Whitehaven is a little suburb on the south side of Memphis. It would be otherwise unremarkable, but this patch of earth where I was born and raised is also home to the world's busiest cargo airport (MEM, thanks to FedEx), as well as Elvis Presley's Graceland, which gets more than a half million visitors a year from all over the world. On the modern food front, Whitehaven is also the birthplace of Bryant Terry, pioneer of vegan soul food.

Still, despite the fond memories of my childhood it's not a part of town that I generally associate with wine. Poll a hundred random people in Memphis to come up with the name for a classy Sauvignon Blanc and nobody is going to answer "Whitehaven". But this is a damned good wine, and I'd encourage any current or former residents to try this out. And yes, a slightly crisp, full-fruit white wine like this will be an incredible pairing with many of the southern/soul food options available in the Whitehaven area.

* * *

As a followup to the Thanksgiving post last Monday, this wine was felt by many to be the best wine at the gathering. The above post was a test run about a week before the holiday to check it out. The other more serious wine served was the Höpler Grüner Veltliner, though I don't have pictures or detailed notes to go along with it. Suffice it to say that the Höpler is a great way to get into Austrian wine, and I've found that it is a delicious pairing with shellfish like seared scallops. I'll revisit it in a couple of weeks.

04 December 2009

Dirty Sue Martini Mix and the End of Prohibition

As far as I can recall, the Dirty Martini (a regular Martini with a dash of brine from the olive jar) is the first cocktail I ever had. I seem to remember someone pushing one in my hand when I was a bit short of my 21st birthday. It was on the rocks, a bit cloudy and salty. But hey, free Martini! My first legal Martini came later that year, with the release of a James Bond film and a bar within walking distance of the movie theater. That cocktail considerably improved the experience of Tomorrow Never Dies.

Some say that Franklin Delano Roosevelt toasted the end of Prohibition on December 5, 1933 with a Dirty Martini, his first legal drink in years. Some say it was just a Martini. It's hard to say for sure, but if you're interested in the topic you can read this article about FDR in Modern Drunkard Magazine, which contains quotes from the president's family and associates regarding his martini preferences.

Arguing about the specifics of cocktail history is usually a pointless endeavor, since so much of it has devolved into legend and myth. We have more hard data about the Roman Empire than we do about such topics as where and when the Martini was invented. While most of this hazy history has to do with the fact that few people at the time felt such topics were worth recording and publishing, let's be honest and point out that all of these crucial events occurred in bars with people who were drinking and decided to mix a few ingredients. A police officer often can't get a coherent story out of five guys about what happened at the bar 30 minutes ago; now try to pin down events of 100 years ago. (Wine history is much more solid due to property/tax/church/inheritance records.)

Back to the cocktail at hand... The essential problem of the Dirty Martini is that you'll run out of olive brine before you run out of olives. Recently I received a sample of Dirty Sue Martini Mix, a bottle of olive brine that makes it easier to make Dirty Martinis without leaving your poor olives high and dry. $6 for a 375mL bottle, and with the below recipe, you can get 17 drinks from one bottle, more if you lighten up on the olive juice.

Dale DeGroff's
Dirty Martini

2½ oz. Gin or Vodka
Dash of White Vermouth
¾ oz. Dirty Sue
Pitted olive, no pimento

Stir with ice and strain into a martini glass, garnish with the olive.

I tried it both with gin and vodka, and this is a rare time when I'll come out in favor of the vodka version. With gin there's just way too much fighting for your palate's attention.

Dirty Martinis are, by their very nature, more salty than a regular Martini. Thus, they're better suited to drinking on their own, perhaps slowly over an afternoon. (If you find it too salty, add an ice cube or two until the dilution softens the drink.) Cocktails often go well with the sort of salty appetizers and hand food of a party, but if your drink is already salty you're going to lose your desire for prosciutto and Kalamata olives and even certain cheeses.

Still, there are those times when I have a huge craving for olives, but don't have any in the house. Having a bottle of this on hand will be a great temporary substitute, and I know enough people that are crazy about Dirty Martinis that it will be great to take along to the next party. I also applaud the makers of Dirty Sue for using real olives in this product--so many bottled drink mixtures are nothing but corn syrup and citric acid with artificial coloring. This product is by no means a cheat, just a convenience. If you want a different twist on your Martini routine, grab a bottle of Dirty Sue in the store or via Amazon.com.

Saturday, raise a glass to the 76th Anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition. It doesn't even have to be anything with alcohol in it. Celebrate the freedom to choose.

Photo of FDR ©1937 Life Magazine. He's drinking wine, not a cocktail, but do you think you'll ever see a future photo of a sitting president (no pun intended) drinking and smoking?

Note: I received this bottle of olive juice as a sample. All other ingredients in the cocktail were my own.

02 December 2009

Egg Nog

Egg Nog wasn't a big part of my family Christmas tradition. Mom was more fond of Boiled Custard, Dad enjoyed the odd cup at a company Christmas party, and for some reason Egg Nog always tasted funny to me. When I purchased my first bottle of Bourbon in my early 20s, I tried spiking a bit of store-bought nog and was disappointed with the results.

But times and tastes change, and eventually I grew to love the nutmeg-scented holiday beverage even in its virgin, mass-produced, pasteurized form. Maybe a small dash of rum for fun, but part of me always felt like I was missing out on the real thing.

This winter, destiny came calling.

I received a pair of acrylic moose mugs, inspired by the glasses used in the holiday classic National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. These mugs hold 260mL of liquid, or a bit over one cup. They're packaged in individual boxes, so in theory you could repack them each year with the Christmas ornaments and other decorations. Frankly I'm going to be looking for excuses to use them year-round, such as any time I have Canadian beer in the house.

I've got lots of different glasses for various wines, beers, and cocktails, but now I've got the world's finest Egg Nog mugs. This demands a classic, made-from-scratch recipe. How about...

David Wondrich's Virginia Eggnog
from Esquire, adjusted to a third of the original quantity
serves 4

4 Eggs
4 TB Sugar
⅔ cup Cognac
⅓ cup Dark Rum
⅔ cup Milk
⅓ cup Cream

Follow the link for detailed preparation instructions, though it's more like making dessert than a regular cocktail. Absolutely nothing about this recipe is healthy, and if you're queasy about raw eggs, keep in mind that most aficionados recommend keeping the jar of nog sitting unrefrigerated in the pantry for weeks, or even years for the flavor to really develop. The substantial amount of alcohol (about ¼ cup per serving) works as a strong preservative.

I used Brandy and Bourbon in place of Cognac and Dark Rum, respectively. It's definitely the best Egg Nog I've ever had. It's got a lighter texture and more intense flavor than the store-bought variety, which some have compared to melted ice cream. If your guests aren't afraid of raw eggs, I'd highly recommend this recipe.

The mug performed admirably, and it's difficult not to grin like an idiot while drinking from it. Since the antlers are on both sides, it works for right- or left-handed people, though there's a natural inclination to grab both like a toddler.

P.S. The authentic glass moose mugs identical to those in the film can be purchased online from the original artist, but bear in mind they're $90 per glass with a two glass minimum order. The acrylic ones mentioned above and shown in the photo are $25 per mug.

Screenshot ©1989 Warner Bros. Pictures

30 November 2009

Smoked Rack of Pork

I like turkey, but I've always felt Thanksgiving was a big enough feast to incorporate alternate proteins. Personally I've always wanted some seafood, but it gets difficult to do this with an oven full of casseroles and a stovetop full of gravy, mulled cider, and other odds and ends. When I was a kid our standard family gathering always included a spiral-sliced ham with a brown sugar coating. For the past couple of years, as I've been helping my friend Paul out with his big family gathering, I've been trying a few different things. Last year it was pork loin and leg of lamb. With a smaller crowd this year, I decided to stick to one meat, and found a lovely and affordable rack of pork (also known as a pork rib roast).

This is the same cut as a rack of lamb, or a beef bone-in ribeye roast, just from the pig instead. But since modern pork isn't as tender as lamb nor as laced with intramuscular fat as beef, I always brine it. Pictured at right is the five pound roast after 12 hours of brining. I don't have exact measurements, but there are thousands of brining guides out there. (If you'd like a good starting point, try something like this.)

I usually just eyeball it and focus more on flavor than precise proportions. My brine included unfiltered apple cider, water, kosher salt, mustard seeds, peppercorns, and star anise. I brought it all to a boil, let it cool, poured it over the pork, and turned it every few hours. After about twelve hours I rinsed and dried the roast and let it rest for a couple of hours before smoking.

For the fire, I placed a tray of aluminum foil under the center of the grill and banked lump charcoal on either side (started in a chimney, of course). I threw chunks of raw mesquite on top of the hot coals, covered it, and sat back for an hour and a half.

Around the time to add more coals and mesquite, Alaina graciously made me a martini with a huge garlic-stuffed olive. I had my laptop with me out on the porch, and discovered a higher plane of BBQ nirvana.

As you can see, I trussed up the roast with some cotton kitchen twine. It's not mandatory, but for this particular cut (from whatever animal), I find that the twine helps keep it in a rounder shape, keeps the center from getting overcooked, and frankly, it's just fun to tie up your dinner.

Here's the finished product, after three hours of smoking and twenty minutes of resting. I sliced off part of the end for the photo and was immediately surrounded by Thanksgiving guests lured by the aroma of pork. You can see the nice pink smoke ring around the edge, just about perfect at ¼" depth. For a sauce I had made a batch of fresh cranberry sauce, ditching part of the sugar and water and adding the juice and zest of one orange, walnuts, blackcurrant preserves, and a dash of brandy.

What's nice about this roast is that you can serve it a number of ways. You can cut off thick or thin pork chops, you can just carve thin slices of meat, or you can pull off the bones in case anyone's in the mood for very meaty ribs.

I'm not doing justice to the wide range of awesome food that was there. Paul fixed the turkey in the style of America's Test Kitchen, with plenty of lemons, rosemary, and butter. There were casseroles galore (frankly my favorite part of the holiday), and gigantic Sister Schubert's rolls. I was too busy eating at that point to snap pictures of everything. I did want to highlight two odd wines that I brought along, which were pretty well received by the crowd. I was going for bottles that were lightly sweet, barely fizzy, and very low in alcohol, i.e. perfect for people that don't drink wine on a regular basis.

The first was the Gazela Vinho Verde. Around $8, 9% abv. This "green wine" from Portugal is fun and light, but it had been sitting in the cellar since the summer and I just never got around to it. Crisp and slightly tart with a hint of sweetness, this is the closest thing to a fizzy lemonade you'll find in the wine world. Like many Portuguese wines, it's made from multiple grapes with names that are mostly unrecognizable to us: Loureiro, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso and Azal. While I don't often drink this wine, I do think that it's one of the most perfect appetizer wines available, and the low price means it never hurts to keep a bottle on hand.

Second was the 1917 Stella Rosa Il Conte d'Alba from the Piedmont region of Italy. Contrary to the date, this is a non-vintage wine probably made last year. Around $10, 5.5% abv. It's a light, barely red, slightly fizzy wine that's just a bit sweet. While many people think of it as a dessert wine, I think something more robust like Brachetto d'Acqui works better there. This is more of a summer picnic wine, and I picked it out for its refreshing qualities. With such a low alcohol content, this falls into a specific EU wine category called "Partially Fermented Grape Must", which is perhaps one of the most unappealing phrases you can put on a label. This is sort of like an elegant grape soda with the strength of beer, but it's pretty tasty.

If there's one thing this wine is good for, it's helping someone make the mental leap from only drinking white wines to trying reds. Give the Stella Rosa a shot, then move up to Beaujolais, then Pinot Noir, etc. Eventually your target will be swilling pure unaged Cabernet Franc and demanding more tannins.

There were other, more distinguished wines, but more on those later...

27 November 2009

Back Monday

An excellent Thanksgiving was had by all yesterday, with tons of food, friends, and laughter. And I've got a good bit of food and wine to discuss, but that can wait. For now, listen to Turkey the Dog:

"Curl up with a blanket, watch some movies, and put a serious dent in those leftovers."

Enjoy your weekend, folks. Safe travels to those of you headed back home.

25 November 2009

2007 Tormaresca Neprica

Is there a term for those tears of wine that stream down a bottle and ruin the label for photos? Lachryma vino? I'm usually pretty careful about that but this time I was distracted by the delicious food... And I think it kind of goes well with an overall Salvador Dalí look with the sauces.

The Roommate's father has, for the many years that I've lived with her, kindly passed me various packaged meats from his hunting and fishing. This is true locavore organic eating, folks. I've received ducks and bass and various cuts of deer. On this occasion, I was delighted at what appeared to be a perfect sirloin roast. Shot on a Sunday, butchered on a Monday, and cooked on a Thursday. It doesn't get any better than that.

I decided to go for a London Broil approach, and I adapted a recipe from Fletchers of Auchtermuchty. When I want to know about good whisky or good venison, I naturally turn to the Scottish source with the most unpronounceable name. I trimmed the roast and seared it heavily on each side, threw the pan in the oven for the rest of the cooking, and let it rest before thinly slicing. For the sauce, I simmered a soup bone in beef stock for four hours, then added rhubarb for another hour, then strained it all before adding a healthy dollop of black currant preserves and a dash of red wine. A great sauce if somewhat thin. On top of the meat I added a custom mustard made from Penzey's mustard powder, red wine, and a dash of red wine vinegar. Everything was succulent, delicious, and tender, and the various juices created a sauce that went surprisingly well with the Brussels sprouts.

What was the wine used in cooking and eventually served with this noble cervid? The 2007 Tormaresca Neprica, $15, 13.5% abv. This is from Puglia, the bootheel of Italy. 40% Negroamarao, 30% Primitivo, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Hence the portmanteau Neprica formed from the initial letters of the three grape varieties. (Alternate spellings just on the label are Néprica and NéPriCa.)

Slightly vegetal aroma that I wasn't expecting, with just a hint of bacon fat. A little wild and brambly, but such a composition is a great match for game. On its own the wine is a little rough and heavily tannic, but with an aromatic meat and strong sauce, the wine becomes more subdued in comparison. There is a lovely aftertaste of black cherry and plum. I'm not going to lie, you'll have to wrestle with this one a bit, it fights back. But sometimes that's precisely what is needed.

For another take on this wine, check out Fredric's review.

* * *

I hope all of you have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving this year. Eat well, drink well, and enjoy the time with friends and family. Cheers!

23 November 2009

Bloom County: The Complete Library

Most of this battered stack of paperbacks is about to become obsolete and I couldn't be happier.

Those are my old Bloom County and Outland books, collected over the years. Some at the time of publication, others purchased as used copies later on. While they were entertaining at the time and contained humorous extras like a copy of the fictional newspaper (The Bloom Picayune) and the Billy & the Boingers 45, these books were incomplete. Days and weeks were missing, entire plotlines were excised, and in the early ones, Sunday strips were printed in dull black and white. That has finally changed with the recent release of...

Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume 1. This is one of those collections I thought would never happen, as Berkeley Breathed had no desire to dig back through shoeboxes full of original drawings to piece together nine years of work. Fortunately a publisher was willing to do all the hard work on its own, even going back to old newspapers to collect missing strips where necessary.

This volume includes all of the strips from the debut in the winter of 1980 through the fall of 1982. If one only started reading the strip in the mid-80s, the early years may look unfamiliar. Milo Bloom and Steve Dallas were the only survivors from those early months, while a host of other interesting characters (The Major, Rabies the dog, Limekiller) disappeared as the artist honed his direction and allowed the characters to find their voices.

I started reading it around 1982 when I was six; it wasn't a soap opera strip like Mary Worth or Apartment 3-G, nor was it as confusingly political as Doonesbury, but it was obvious that there were multiple layers of humor involved. And it was the only non-soap opera comic strip in the paper at the time that had long-running storylines that lasted weeks or even months. Such long-form writing was common in the golden age, but has been replaced almost entirely by one-off strips that require no knowledge of what happened yesterday, much less a year or more ago.

It's printed in hardback on full 8.5"x11" sheets with excellent detail, even a classy red ribbon for marking your place. (I don't necessarily want a ribbon in all of my books, but I appreciate it in archival works.) 3 strips per B&W page and the Sunday strips fill up an entire sheet. Commentary is sprinkled throughout the margins, either giving insight on the creation of a particular storyline or explaining a controversy.

Volume 2 is available for pre-order now, should be shipped in April 2010, with five total volumes planned in the series. I don't know if there's a similar plan for Outland, but I had to include those books in my top photo for sentimental purposes.

Where am I going with all of this? Have I just gone off on one of my endless and usually pointless digressions on minutiae? Am I just trying to move a few books to make a little scratch for the holidays? Keep reading...

I've gotten a lot of e-mails from eager new winebloggers, and most of them petered out after a couple of weeks or months. I'm not at the top of this field, but I've been at it for a while and have had many successes and failures along the way. I've seen lots of examples of what works and what doesn't.

Ask most people about Bloom County, and if they're even vaguely familiar with it they'll say, "Opus the penguin!" Indeed, Opus became the star of the strip and later migrated to Outland, the Sunday-only project that ran for a few years, followed by his own eponymous strip, Opus. But Opus didn't even show up in Bloom County for six months, whereupon he was forgotten then reintroduced six months later. It was only with a a strip joking about Hare Krishnas that the character became popular, and things took off from there. To be honest, Opus is barely in this book covering the first two years, and certainly not in his fully-formed charismatic version. Still, it would have been insane not to put that big-nosed penguin on the front cover.

Likewise, if you're starting a wine blog, you might not know what works right off the bat. I started out with long, boring laundry lists of stuff I tried at tastings, no photos. It's a wonder that anyone read it, but some did. After a while I noticed that those lists of 15 brief reviews got no comments, but when I'd spend the time with a single wine, that got attention. Or when I cooked something, or tried some bizarre wine or ingredient. Telling deeply personal stories was a big step for me. And pictures obviously helped a lot, even if you can see the odd dog poking a nose or tail into the frame (in my opinion that's a feature, not a bug).

If I'd drawn up a plan in late 2004 for the blog, stuck to it and marketed it as such, it would have been a colossal failure and I'd have given up. But instead I responded to my changing tastes, listened to criticism both positive and negative, and tried to spend more time reading other, bigger wine blogs. Am I huge and successful today? No, but I'd like to think that I have a fairly decent reputation, and a solid backlog of work that is purely my own. Just my words, my photos, my opinions. I have no idea where this will go in the future, but I'm proud of what I've accomplished and the work that I've put into it.

So for you, budding wineblogger, starry-eyed with visions full of Bordeaux and Champagne showing up at your house and offers for luxurious trips to Italy... all these things can be yours, but bear in mind it might be a long time before you even discover your penguin.

20 November 2009

Rued Wines Redux

Several months ago I reviewed a trio of wines from Rued Vineyards of Healdsburg, California. Recently I got the opportunity to try two more bottles from this Sonoma-area winery.

2006 Rued Zinfandel from the Dry Creek Valley, $25, 14.9% abv.
Spicy blackberry, deep and aromatic with hints of smoke and cedar. The blackberry flavor carries through, but it's really ripe and tart, with strong tannins and a long finish. Good choice if you're looking for a big California Zin; pair it with something strong like heavily seasoned pork or flank steak.

2007 Rued Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, $35, 14.3% abv.
Overripe strawberries with just a hint of banana in the background--slightly reminiscent of a Cru Beaujolais, even though we're talking about different grapes. While light and delicate in color this is a full-bodied Pinot Noir with firm tannins and an assertive finish. Lingering elements of strawberry and plum. I think it would be incredible with roast duck.

Whenever I sample wines, I try them straight without the external influences of food, toothpaste, or other potentially conflicting elements. And then I try them along with a meal, even if it's not a traditional pairing. Here the food ended up being burgers... but not just a sack of detritus from a fast food joint. I made 6 oz. patties out of high-quality beef, griddled them to medium while toasting the buttered buns, and served them with aged Vermont cheddar and fresh mesclun greens. Some homemade baked beans incorporating blackstrap molasses, Chinese five spice powder and Dijon mustard really brought out certain elements of the Zinfandel.

Neither of these wines are what I'd call a "pizza and burger" wine, but even something like the humble hamburger can be crafted with skill and care into a delicious meal, and a great wine will only amplify the experience.

In accordance with FTC regulations, I received this wine as a sample.

18 November 2009

Benito Revisits Long Island with Bouké Wines

Bouké is a winery on the north fork of Long Island. I've previously written about the White and the Red blends from Bouké, and with these two wines below I round out the current lineup from this creative winery. All of them are made by Gilles Martin under the direction of founder and proprietor Lisa Donneson.

I'm fascinated by the reviews of all of the wonderful wines made on that little strip of land floating next to the Big Apple, but so few of them make their way down South. How much Tennessee whiskey is consumed in New York? Let's work out a cultural trade here, people. After all, men from Tennessee and New York volunteered to fight at The Alamo; surely we can drink together 173 years later.

Let's start off with the 2008 Bouké Rosé. $16, 12.5% abv. It's made from a blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot--you don't often see Bourdeaux blends made into pinks but the results are great in the right hands. This luscious dry rosé has elements of red apples, raspberries, just barely tart, with an earthy undertone that emerges as the wine warms up. Aside from its use as a great lunchtime wine, this would be a great Thanksgiving selection since A) it's American, from one of the original colonies, and B) it should stand up to the wide range of dishes found on the family holiday table. Personally I'd gather my most joy from drinking it with a turkey sandwich and leftovers on Black Friday while everyone else is out shopping and fighting traffic. Which leads me to this...

I found myself really craving a muffaletta* to go along with this wine, even before I'd opened it. It would be a natural pairing, with the ham, mortadella, salami, cheese, olive salad: a good rosé goes great with Mediterranean snack ingredients. And yes, it did match quite well. It was only after I started writing this review that I realized the different colored stripes on the label look just like the layers of ham, mortadella, salami, cheese, and olive salad, just a little more evenly distributed. Look at it--both the label and my sandwich have one dark red stripe, in the latter denoting the most savory of the cured pork products. In fact, looking at it days later I'm thinking about mortadella and Genoa salami, which makes me very happy indeed. (For New Yorkers: if you can't find a decent muffaletta, perhaps a not-too-lean pastrami on rye would work well. I haven't had one, but I appreciate them in theory.)

Days after emerging from my muffaletta and rosé reverie, it was time to tackle the dessert wine. The 2008 Bouquet Dessert Wine is a new offering this year. 96% Gewürztraminer, 4% Chardonnay. $36 (375mL bottle), 17% abv. It's a fortified wine boosted with a Chardonnay-derived brandy, unoaked and made following a warm and wet season on Long Island.

This has a lovely floral aroma (honeysuckle and jasmine came to mind), with balanced flavors of honey and apricot nectar, perhaps just a hint of ginger. Definitely sweet and best for small doses, but not cloying or thick. Despite the Port-like levels of alcohol, you can't really taste it. It is surprisingly light, going down smooth and easy, and I had the opportunity to serve this to a few friends with varying levels of wine experience. One couple had never had a dessert wine before, and were pleasantly delighted at this sweet treat. "I didn't know you could have wine for dessert!" one of them said. Sometimes, I replied, wine is dessert.

It's always a good idea to keep an assortment of wines on hand for any occasion, particularly as we approach the holidays: a sparkling wine, a Port or Madeira, and a half-bottle dessert wine for capping off the perfect gathering. I'd strongly recommend the Bouquet Dessert Wine for that last category.

*I've been eating these since I was a teenager, but I'm often surprised at how people in other parts of the country haven't heard of this great sandwich. The muffaletta is a New Orleans creation based on a similar Sicilian sandwich. Typically you only eat a quarter of one (as in my picture) or a half if you're starving. It's more economical to buy a whole one, but be ready to split it with a couple of friends. It's a delicious mound of salt, fat, and love.

Required FTC Disclosure: I received these wines as a sample from Bouké.

16 November 2009

Chilean Carménère, Vol. 2

All this week, I'll be revisiting companies or wineries whose products I've tasted in the past. I happened to get three sets of new wines from three such groups, and am happy to present them to you as we begin the slide into the holiday season.

* * *

Last November I tried six Chilean Carménères. One year later, it's time for a roundup of eight additional bottles of this curious little orphaned grape.

As part of the Wines of Chile promotion for these wines, dozens of other winebloggers joined in a combination webcast, conference call, chat session, and Twitter feed. We got to hear from the individual winemakers down in Chile, a representative of Wines of Chile in New York, and share comments and questions amongst ourselves. I think the funniest part for me was hearing a bit of the joking and trash-talking about various valleys within Chile; the total area for wine production is pretty small, and is all focused on a narrow band around the middle of a very narrow country (imagine a snake wearing a cummerbund). But as with everywhere else on the planet, North and South takes on significant meaning.

I tried these wines on my own and made notes, and then a few hours later tried them with a handful of friends. Some are wine lovers, some are novices. I will say that while I love Carménère, I think it has to have some breathing room, and typically a few hours are necessary for it to smooth out. Straight out of the bottle it can be all bitter and strong tobacco. Don't get me wrong, I love bitter flavors and enjoy a good cigar. But these notes can be off-putting to some wine drinkers. With a little air you get more of the fruit, earth, and other elements.

2007 Santa Carolina Reserva Carménère
100% Carménère from the Rapel Valley
$10, 14% abv
This was the only one with a synthetic cork, and the winemaker Magdalena Sosa was a charming favorite during the videoconference. This wine had classic elements of green bell pepper, black cherry, touch of licorice. Bold and tart, short finish.

2007 Armador Odfjell Carménère
100% Carménère from the Colcahagua and Maipo Valleys
$13, 13.5% abv
Cherry, herbal, black pepper and thyme, touch of pine, lighter mouthfeel, a little brash. Short finish.

2007 Viu Manent Reserva Carménère
100% Carménère from the Colchagua Valley
$14, 14.5% abv
Green tomato leaves, touch of smoke, leather, medium tannins, long finish. A solid textbook Carménère, if you're looking to learn more about the grape.

2007 Cono Sur Visión Carménère
85% Carménère, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Syrah
$15, 13.5% abv
Slightly bitter, bright red cherry flavor, touch of seeds. Very light mouthfeel. The first of the blends in this group, and an organic wine to boot.

2008 Viña la Rosa "La Capitana" Carménère
100% Carménère from the Cachapoal Valley
$18, 14.5% abv
Drying tannins, bit of tea, cherry. At this point in the lineup, we're getting more serious... As a side note, La Capitana means flagship in Spanish.

2007 Ventisquero Grey Carménère
85% Carménère, 7.5% Syrah, 7.5% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley
$25, 14.5% abv
Toasty, blackberries, spice, smoother, lingering finish with spice on the tongue. This one began to get really nice as it breathed over the course of five hours.

2007 Terra Andina Altos Carménère-Carignan
60% Carménère, 40% Carignan from the Central Valley
$19, 14% abv
Dark plum, rich and velvety, lovely dark flavors. Paired nicely with the mostly vegetarian appetizers we were enjoying; fascinating combination of two lesser-appreciated grapes.

2004 Carmen Wine Maker's Reserve Red
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Carménère, 25% Petit Syrah from the Maipo Valley
$44, 14% abv
Rich, deep aromas, chocolate, leather, black cherry, big and tannic at first but oh so delightful as it breathed. It's a bit unfair to compare this with the rest since it's five years old and is a creative blend, but without prompting from me this bottle was the first to empty out during the tasting with my friends.

These wines were received as a sample from Wines of Chile. The tasting kit included a ceramic spittoon and a corkscrew.

13 November 2009

2008 Kung Fu Girl Riesling

This wine was a selection by the talented Angela Moon of Kirby Wines and Liquors for one of The Commercial Appeal's online tastings. You can read the transcript of that here, though I wasn't sipping the wine at the time--I just dropped in for a bit.

Three months later, I finally got around to trying the 2008 Kung Fu Girl from the Columbia Valley of Washington state. Pure Riesling, $13, 12.5% abv. Fruity but dry, with a green apple and pear aroma, green apple flavors, and a lemony finish. It is tart and acidic, but not mouth-puckering. It seems to be a popular choice for pairing with sushi, but with my own irreverence and as a nod to Hardy's upcoming challenge, I served this wine with a 3 piece and a biscuit from Popeyes and was thus inspired to compose a haiku:

Greasy fried dark meat
Fills up the autumn belly
Crisp wine invites nap

Check out the website for the full range of Charles Smith wines. They've got a great set of labels with that sort of punk poster/90s indie comic vibe to them. This one is a solid demonstration of the skilled use of negative space. The girl's clothing is only shown by the cuffs and collars, but any of us can easily "see" the rest of her robe. She has no eyes, but I can feel that glare.

11 November 2009

Pickled Okra

Recently I've been craving okra, but the season for fresh pods from the farm is over. It's time to turn to the preserved variety, and I felt like a bit of spice as well. Fortunately in the South, okra can be found in many forms, so I procured a jar of Trappey's Hot Cocktail Okra. You can eat these straight, slice them and add them to a sandwich or creamy salad of some sort, or you can take that "cocktail" modifier to heart. Oh yes. The fabled Okratini.

This is not a creation of my own, and I generally hate the -tini suffix that gets added to any beverage poured into a cocktail glass. In my opinion, this is a real, 3:1 gin:vermouth martini; the garnish is a separate issue (more on that in a bit). But the name Okratini is too euphonious to pass up. It sounds like a term from Greek philosophy... "Ωκρατίνι refers to the Aristotelian concept of preferring mild guilt over the just action, as in pretending that you've run out of checks when Girl Scouts knock on your door during cookie season. Mentioned in The Nicomachean Ethics."

Initially you don't get a lot of flavor from the okra, but the heat shows up as a slight tingle on the aftertaste. To release more of the essence, take regular bites out of the pod and give it a thorough squeeze and stir. Once that vinegar and salt brine are released it gets a little closer to a Dirty Martini, though I find that most people go a little heavy on the olive juice.

The heat from the peppers intensifies as the drink steeps and warms, and while I like the added kick, there's nothing wrong with using mild pickled okra. These are also suggested as a good garnish for a Bloody Mary; if anyone tries that out, let me know. I've had lots of different Bloody Mary variations, and have never been very enthusiastic about the cocktail. Plus in the modern age, the garnish has gotten out of hand. A mere sprig of celery is not enough; you must add shrimp and other vegetables, or bacon and pickles and citrus.

When it comes to the traditional gin and vermouth martini, two garnishes are commonly accepted: the olive(s) or twist of lemon peel. Personally I prefer the peel, but I think there's some room for improvisation without getting crazy. A blue cheese-stuffed olive is wonderful. An heirloom cherry tomato, split and skewered with a boconccino of fresh mozzarella and basil is lovely in the summer. Even a swath of orange peel speared on a sprig of rosemary can provide an added dimension to this classic cocktail. The freshness of the garnish ingredients are paramount; nobody wants those dried out olives or sad withered lemon wedges that's been fermenting in the bar tray for a few days. And keep it small and simple--serve the shrimp on the side.

09 November 2009

Larry Gonick's Cartoon History

In the fall of 1990 a 14-year old Benito read about something called The Cartoon History of the Universe in the science magazine Discover. He asked for it for Christmas, and received it. He read it over and over again.

That was the first step in a 20-year journey that ended last week.

Now, for those of you that are beginning to smirk at the idea of me reading "comic books" as a teenager and grown adult, I will kindly ask you to kiss my Scots-Irish ass. The first book in this series was edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (she saved it from the reject pile at Doubleday) and the work was praised by Carl Sagan among others. In a college World History course, I recognized the inferior quality of the assigned texts, and used TCHOTU I & II as my source material for exams. I was one of two people to get an A; the other being a girl that I was courting and with whom I was sharing a lot of that great cartoon history. (Young gents out there: the right kind of lady loves a literate man.)

Who is the genius behind all of this? None other than Larry Gonick, a Harvard mathematician who decided to draw cartoons about science and history. I'm going to focus entirely on his historical contributions here, but he's written similar guides to statistics, genetics, and many other topics. Pictured at right you can see my first editions as I collected them over the past two decades:

The Cartoon History of the Universe I, Vol. 1-7: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

The Cartoon History of the Universe II, Vol. 8-13: From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (1994)

The Cartoon History of the Universe III, Vol. 14-19: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (2002)

The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution (2006)

The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad (2009)

I hate that the books got smaller over time, but cost becomes an issue and these aren't exactly Spider-Man comics we're talking about. The quality and style has been consistent over the twenty years, and I've savored every minute that I've spent reading each of the five books. Things I love about these:
  • Beautiful black and white pen and brush work reminiscent of Pogo and Asterix. Examples here, here, here, here, and here. These little images don't do the work justice.
  • The books are heavily footnoted (with an amusing icon of a foot drawing an asterisk or a musical note). They also contain extensive bibliographies at the end, referencing both established works in the field as well as primary sources when applicable.
  • While it's not possible to list every historical figure and the detail of every society on earth in a space that takes up less than 20 linear centimeters on the bookshelf, Gonick does a great job of covering histories that are frequently ignored in modern western life unless you choose to specialize. Namely the histories of China, India, the Middle East, and north Africa.
  • There are big gaps. Only the briefest mentions are given to Russia, Korea, Thailand and the rest of southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. South America drops off the radar around 1900. Antarctica also gets short shrift, but not much of significance has happened there. For my part, those gaps encourage me to do the research on my own.
  • Because a truly comprehensive history of the world would have required a book for every modern nation, there are points at which Gonick draws a map of the world and gives a quick synopsis as to what is happening where. It's an easy way to get the "big picture" of a specific decade.
  • If it's not already obvious, the whole endeavor was produced with a lot of love and humor. When was the last time you laughed while reading history? And for those of you who have reached the bottom of this post, desperate for food or wine content... He did a great series of cartoon recipes for Serious Eats.
Why do I bring all of this up now? These books will make great Christmas gifts for the curious youngster in your family. If you prefer a geocentric universe that began 6,000 years ago you probably won't like it, but if you want a kid to be able to intelligently argue about the ostracism of Themistocles or the politics of Byzantium at any point from sixth grade to grad school, these books are for you--or more appropriately, for that weird little relative that obsesses over dinosaurs, space, math, and eventually, wine. Though I'd prefer that you give it to the child with a few cracks in the spine and some dogeared pages. We could all use a refresher course in world history.