30 May 2012

Magyar Borok: Deresƶla Pincészet

The folks at Cognac One contacted me and asked if I'd like to try one of their recent portfolio additions from Hungary. I am always excited to try wines from outside the "mainstream" wine world, which is ridiculous because Hungary has been a wine powerhouse far longer than anywhere in the New World.

The wines here come from Deresƶla Pincészet or Chateau Deresƶla, so named because it's currently owned by the French D’Aulan family of Champagne. Prior to that it passed through many hands and national powers since the founding in the early 15th century. Owners included the Turks, Austrian Empire, Prince of Transylvania, various other minor European nobles, a Jewish merchant family until the Holocaust, a crippling time under the Communists, and then an acquisition by a French co-op called CANA in the 1990s. I think it's in pretty loving hands now with the D'Aulans and hopefully they are able to have a peaceful and stable future.

2010 Chateau Deresƶla Dry Tokaji
85% Furmint, 10% Hárslevelű, 5% Yellow Muscat
$15, 12.5% abv.
I served this with the crespelle from Monday's post. It is a light and crisp wine with light floral aromas and excellent minerality. Balanced acidity, a medium finish, and just a hint of sweetness. It was a good contrast to the rich cream sauce and nutty flavors of the spinach and prosciutto. Also quite good with the white asparagus. While I was excited to try the wine, my main goal was to demonstrate that the same grapes, same region, but different process, can produce...

2006 Chateau Deresƶla Tokaji Aszú
70% Furmint, 30% Hárslevelű
5 Puttonyos
$40, 11.5% abv., 500mL
1,420 Cases Made
A rule I have with Tokaji is always to serve it with someone that has never had it before, and it was a pleasure to introduce it to Julia's parents. Part of that is because I get so much joy from seeing the reactions, but also there's no way I can finish off a 500mL or even 375mL bottle. I love it, but I just need a small glass. Rich, musky aroma with notes of honeysuckle, clover, overripe apricot and peach, and honey. On the tongue there is amazing acidity that is not citric but rather more like that tang of really ripe stone fruit. Definitely sweet but not cloying, and just a delight. Sunshine in a glass, and highly recommended.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

28 May 2012

Afternoon Delight

Some guys may wilt at the thought of cooking for the girlfriend's parents. Hell, some might even fail while opening a can of Chef Boyardee. I have no such fears.

Today I had the opportunity to cook dinner for Julia's parents while they were passing through town. I was in the mood for some traditional northern Italian eating, and we started out wiht a platter of cheeses and olives and marinated mushrooms. The first course was one of my favorites, crespelle. I love this dish, and don't know why stuffed crepes have never really caught on here in the states. They're so delicious and so much fun to make and serve.

Mine were made with spinach, prosciutto, and béchamel sauce, topped with a bit of grated asiago cheese. Grilled white asparagus on the side because I was craving it. This was served with a California Chardonnay that will show up in a future review. Stay tuned!

Salads are a favorite palate cleanser between courses here at Casa de Benito. Here I've got frisée, oak leaf, and butter lettuce topped with tomatoes, dried figs, shaved asiago, fried shallot rings, and a vinaigrette made from Chilean olive oil, white wine vinegar, mustard, an egg yolk, and other bits of magic.

Two of these salads are missing tomatoes: Julia and her father are not fans of that particular ingredient in its raw form. Dee and I enjoyed our fresh farmers' market diced tomatoes.

The salad was crisp and tart and refreshing, though in the proper European tradition I had stretched out lunch quite a ways. I think from first appetizer to final dessert was about three hours. And honestly, there's no reason to rush good food, and you fill up the time with actual human conversation and maybe a stroll around the backyard with the dogs.

My main course for the evening was gamberi fra diavolo, deviled shrimp or shrimp of the devil's priest or some other odd translation. The presence of a tiny bit of dried chile flakes is enough to condemn this dish to eternal damnation. I made it with white wine and San Marzano tomatoes and fresh parsley and basil at the finish. I kept the shells on because that's where a lot of flavor resides.

By this point in the afternoon, I think everyone was a bit worn out, but this dish was still a hit and appropriate for a hot summer afternoon. Fun to eat with fingers! Just enough of a sauce to add flavor, but not enough to require pasta or a spoon. It was a pleasure to dine with Julia and her parents, and I look forward to more meals in the future.

25 May 2012

The Mint Julep

On Cinco de Mayo this year, I went out and had margaritas and Mexican food with Julia and some friends, but that afternoon I had to make a certain cocktail. The event was the Kentucky Derby, and the cocktail was the classic Mint Julep.

I've written about this cocktail many times before, but I don't think I've ever shown one in my nickel-plated brass julep cups. I love these things, but so rarely get to use them. Click on the photo for the bigger version and you can see the thousands of tiny drops of condensation clinging to the metal. Enjoying it through a whole bouquet of fresh mint is also a really wonderful sensory experience.

I achieved a perfect Mint Julep thanks to one special ingredient: a cup of ice from a nearby Sonic Drive-In For those not familiar, it's a fast food chain where you drive up to a parking space, order through a speaker, and if you wish, eat your meal there after it's delivered by a young woman who may or may not be on rollerskates. Sonic is decent enough when I'm in the mood for it, but they have this rough little pelletized ice that is just amazing for the Mint Julep, which is really sort of an adult snow cone.

As much as I enjoyed my classic cocktail, I looked around at my ingredients and thought I could try something fun yet profane. I used Buffalo Trace Bourbon for the former, and have found it to be a reliable performer in one of my other favorite classic cocktails, the Manhattan. Could I have a peanut butter and chocolate moment here?

Benito's Manhattan Derby
2 oz. Bourbon
1 oz. Sweet Red Vermouth
Fresh Mint
Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Aged Old Fashioned Bitters
Bourbon-soaked Cherry

Muddle the Bourbon and Vermouth with fresh mint and small pieces of ice. Add more ice and shake thoroughly. Fill a tumbler with ice and add a few drops of a good quality dark bitters. Pour the cocktail over the ice and bitters and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint and a cherry. (I like to get a jar of maraschinos, drain out the red corn syrup, and replace it with Bourbon. Leave it in the fridge for months.) While I don't think this cocktail will ever catch on, it was a lot of fun and tasted great. It's less sweet and somewhat smoother than a Mint Julep, and I'm now wondering which of my 20 different bitters would best improve that cocktail...

23 May 2012

Middleton Family "Chardonnay Sensory Spectrum"

Middleton Family Wines sent out an interesting trio called the Chardonnay Sensory Spectrum. Amidst a flood of California Chardonnay, it provides an opportunity to try an unoaked wine from Washington and both oaked and unoaked bottles from Western Australia.

Personally I thought the two Western Australia bottles won out, but the Washington representative is no slouch. Serving a group of diverse Chardonnays to wine novices is a great way to show how versatile a single grape can be.

2009 Ad Lib Hen & Chicken Chardonnay
Pemberton, Margaret River, Western Australia
$17, 13.5% abv.
Dried apricot, touch of acidity, round and smooth with a short finish. I love the calligraphic chickens on the front and was inspired to enjoy the wine with some fried chicken. The wine was aged in French oak for ten months, providing a nice balance without going overboard. There were just minor notes of vanilla and toast.

2010 Ad Lib Tree Hugger No Oak Chardonnay
Karridale, Margaret River, Western Australia
$17, 12.7% abv.
I laughed at the disclaimer "No trees were harmed in the making of this wine." And once again, nice label. Simple black and white geometric design. This wine was more acidic with touches of lemon and peel, and a crisp, refreshing body. Clean with a touch of minerality and delightful on a hot spring day.

2009 Buried Cane Whiteline No Oak Chardonnay
Columbia Valley, Washington
$14, 13.3% abv.
I wrote a while back about the rebranding of Buried Cane and still like the old woodcut designs. Green apple and pear aromas and flavors dominate, and this one has a bolder body than the Tree Hugger but still retains that light and crisp no oak experience.

These are all great food-friendly wines, and should pair with just about anything you're serving in the increasingly warm afternoons. I tried them over a few days with a wide variety of salads, sandwiches, and other dishes.

P.S. Here's a closeup of the Hen & Chicken wine. It's just delightful in a children's book way:

Note: These wines were received as samples.

21 May 2012

Gentle Riposte

Last week, my dear friend and fellow Memphian Fredric Koeppel posted an article titled America Will Never Have a Genuine Wine Culture, based on his long history of living in our fair River City and some recent statements about our suburbs. And for the most part, I agree with him. The present state of our city is hostile to wine lovers, but I think there has been real progress recently, and I have a great deal of hope for the future. Why?

Much of the legal and social opposition to wine drinking (or any alcohol consumption) comes from a fairly specific WASPy segment. But Memphis is changing quite a bit, and our newcomers are not as uptight, and international corporate headquarters like FedEx, AutoZone, International Paper, and others have brought in people from all over the world. The additional growing immigrant population of the city is not made up of teetotaler Mennonites from Moravia, and the food scene is already showing that it's much easier to get odd organ meats, obscure vegetables, and delightful spices than it was ten years ago. Saturday I bought Swiss chard from a Vietnamese farmer but chose to pass on his arugula, which was wilting under the heat.

The Gift Bottle
It used to be that when I'd give someone a bottle of wine, they'd leave it beside the oven for months or even years. And that's fine--if you don't want to drink it, I don't care. But in that sort of environment it will get cooked pretty quickly, more so once it's been opened. But now when I give non-wine enthusiasts in Memphis a bottle of wine, it gets consumed within a few days. I don't think people are as scared or as intimidated as they used to be, and I hear more and more about folks visiting wineries just for the fun of it while on vacation, due to the fact that there are wineries everywhere these days.

Wine Tastings in TN Wine Shops
I honestly never thought it would happen, but it did. I've only engaged in this activity a few times (I've got plenty back home that needs to be tasted), but I was really surprised when the laws loosened up a bit. Anything is possible.

The Rest of the Country
Some states like Virginia are getting fiercely enthusiastic about their native grapes. When I was traveling a lot in 2007-2008, I got to see things like a gas station in Dallas that not only sold decent wine but also had weekly tastings. A Super Target in Denver that had wine in racks next to the checkout lanes beside the soda and candy. A Whole Foods in Cleveland that had its own sommelier with a lot of opinions on organic Spanish wines. Five wineries in the middle of Arkansas that are carrying on a tradition of Swiss/German winemaking from the 1800s and sell to busloads of senior citizens every weekend.

My hope is that within the next decade, Fredric and I will be able to walk into a wine shop, on a Sunday, and not only purchase whatever wine or spirits we desire but also some cheese and a spare wine glass because a friend broke one at the last dinner party. And neither of us will look out of place, because we're bumping shoulders with lots of customers walking into the shop.

Cheers, Fredric!

18 May 2012

2009 Montes Alpha Syrah

Chile continues to surprise me to this day, both in terms of the wines and regions but also with a knock on the door from a friendly driver who is happy to pass along a bottle or two or eight from that tall skinny country in South America.

I recently reviewed the Montes Cherub Rosé of Syrah, but was excited to have the opportunity to try the full-blooded, proper red wine Syrah, but perhaps a slightly modified version...

I always love throwing some Viognier in with the Syrah! The French figured that out with Côte-Rôtie a long time ago, but it works so well... Much like the comedy music team of Garfunkel & Oates. Are Viognier vines taller than Syrah or do I have this whole thing backwards? Aw, those girls are both so sweet and talented I'm not going to take this analogy any further aside from the fact that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

2009 Montes Alpha Syrah
Apalta Vineyard, Colchagua Valley
90% Syrah, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Viognier
$16, 14.5% abv.

Firm aroma of plum, black pepper, and a touch of bacon fat. Strong tannins with a long, spicy finish. I enjoyed it with a Hawaiian pizza (guilty pleasure during NBC's Community), but obviously this wine could benefit from a few years of aging. Great pairing with the pizza, and such a nice way to end the day before shuffling off to bed.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

16 May 2012

Crémant d'Alsace

I've always wondered why Alsatian cuisine hasn't really caught on in America. Choucroute garnie combines sauerkraut, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and potatoes. It's like the entire 1950s middle America on a plate. Add in the pizza-like tarte flambée and a love of fruit pies, it doesn't seem that exotic. German heartiness with French names and a few regional twists.

Wine follows the same pattern, with an emphasis on white wines but a different varietal makeup when it comes to the grapes. Alsatian wines are often great bargains, are easy to introduce to newcomers, and the sparkling wines--the Crémants that make up this post--are exceptional values and are highly recommended for parties and weddings and other festive occasions where you want to serve good bubbly to lots of people but don't want to spend $40-50 per bottle for traditional Champagne.

I'm particularly happy that I enjoyed all of these with meals, not as bottles opened at parties or other special occasions. The prices are reasonable and over four or five meals I never found something that didn't match well. Plus, a decent sparkling wine brings a touch of class to an otherwise simple dinner.

2008 Domaine Albert Mann Brut
60% Auxerrois, 40% Pinot Blanc
$20, 12.5% abv.
Lovely floral aroma with a lot of green apple character. Wonderful balanced acidity and a good mineral base. This one reminded me the most of white wines I've had from the region.

NV Pierre Sparr Brut Reserve
80% Pinot Blanc, 20% Pinot Noir
$16, 11.5% abv.
Crisp and refreshing. Pear aroma with medium acidity. A little lighter than the former wine, and an outstanding "Champagne replacement" if you're looking for something to serve at a big gathering.

NV Willm Brut Rosé
$17, 12% abv.
100% Pinot Noir
I was so excited to try this one, based on my love of dry rosé. It surprised me with a nose of crabapple! I don't think I've ever encountered that before. Bright acidity, dry but fruity, touch of toast on the nose and a lovely salmon color. This one is just a lot of fun, and I'd love to start off dinner parties with this wine for months to come.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

14 May 2012

Chamisal Vineyards Pinot Noir and Rabbit Ravioli

It's rare that I stand beside a dish I've cooked and say, "That was amazing." While I'm not insecure or self-deprecating, often I can point to things I could have done better. But with this meal, I not only thought it was beautiful but also so perfect from a flavor perspective that I walked away from the table saying, "I ROCK! Come with me Julia, I need a nap."

Homemade pasta filled with rapini and braised rabbit, topped with browned butter and toasted walnuts, and served with a little salad topped with carrot shavings and a fresh red wine vinegar/honey vinaigrette. I made the ravioli in a variety of shapes (triangles, half moons, circles, squares), but all of them were fairly large and boiled to perfection. I'd considered using the braising liquid of tomatoes and white wine for a chunky sauce, but felt that these dumplings needed something more special, and browned butter is one of the most delicious things on the planet. Such a meal begged for some serious Pinot Noir...

Chamisal Vineyards was founded in 1973 as the first vineyard in the Edna Valley AVA of San Luis Obispo. The name of the winery derives from the Adenostoma fasciculatum or chamise flowering shrub that thrives in the chaparral biome.

2009 Chamisal Pinot Noir
Edna Valley
100% Pinot Noir
9 months in 40% new French oak
1,169 cases made
$38, 14.5% abv.

Mild aroma of wild strawberries and a smooth mouthfeel with an aftertaste of raspberry seeds. Low tannins and a long finish. I'm sipping this as I write the post on the second day and it holds up so very well...

2009 Chamisal Califa Pinot Noir
Edna Valley
100% Pinot Noir
16 months in 60% new French oak
796 cases made
$60, 14.7% abv.

Really spectacular. Very similar to the prior wine in profile, but more earthy and far more refined. Smooth as silk and each sip was a true delight. More of the wild strawberry character, with hints of mushroom and great minerality. Highly recommended.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

11 May 2012

2006 Neyen Espiritu de Apalta

The recent Wines of Chile tasting and a few other samples means that there's been a lot of bargain Chilean wine in the house, such that I can come home from work and open una botella chilena with dinner. As always, I taste blindish... I don't read the website, price, label, notes or other collateral material, I just tend to pick white or red and make a vague decision on the grape variety to figure out what's going to go with the evening meal. I opened up this one and was immediately impressed. A glass later I decided that I couldn't do it justice with leftovers and needed to save it for a proper meal when I could sit back and properly enjoy it.

2006 Neyen Espiritu de Apalta
Apalta, Colchagua Valley
$60, 14% abv.
50% Carménère, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon

Bold currants and figs with a spicy nose. A touch of tea, slightest hint of cedar. On the palate it is quite smooth with a slightly tannic finish. Forward fruit but excellent balance. An amazing pairing with heavily seasoned steak and roasted sweet potatoes.

The vines are between 35 and 120 years old. Not sure how that works out on the "old vines" designation argument, but I will definitely put these in the "of a certain age" category. Highly recommended, and while it was great now, I think this one could continue to improve for the next couple of years.

By the way, the word Neyen is Mapuche for "breath" or "spirit", though the word spirit also comes from the Latin for breathing. When you expire, you stop breathing. When you conspire, several of you act with the same breath. When you aspire, you're so excited you breathe more. When you perspire, you breathe through the skin. If you inspire someone, you fill them with breath; if you are uninspired you are fairly deflated. Next week, tune in for my ramble about the Latin verb scribere and the many English words that derive from it.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

09 May 2012

Portuguese Wines

Today at BWR we're looking at a couple of white Portuguese table wines. This is a further exploration of the Vinho Verde/Minho River region, which has far more depth than the simple but fun "green wine" that most people know. It's also a region curious for bottles: even some of the whites like this one get a little blue tinge to the glass to give that verde look, but I'm fascinated by the tall conical bottle of Alvarinho. Do any readers know the name of that bottle style? It's just 750mL, though too tall to fit upright in the refrigerator (or on its side in the wine fridge), but I love the shape and I'm thinking that this is going to live on my counter as an olive oil repository. Not only will the dark glass protect the oil, but I can provide a slight drizzle over crostini from across the dinner table.

2011 Las Lilas Vinho Verde Branco
Loureiro and Treixadura
$8, 10% abv.
Light and mild, lemon and rose petals, just a touch of acidity and a pleasant finish. Not fizzy at all like the more well known Vinho Verde, just a mild white table wine. I had this with grilled salmon and steamed sweet corn, and the latter turned out to be a pairing made in heaven. I wasn't missing the buttered popcorn flavor of a heavily oaked chardonnay, but it was so much fun to enjoy the light wine between bites of salty, buttery corn.

2011 Arca Nova Alvarinho
Vinho Regional Minho (sort of a Portuguese Vin de Pays designation)
100% Alvarinho (Albariño)
$13, 13% abv.
Slightly dusty aroma of dried apricot, but very slight. Very austere with low acidity, good minerality, a round mouthfeel, and a quick finish. It's a solid wine, but doesn't really shout about any of its characteristics. Almost too mild for food, but on its own it's remarkable in its restraint. I don't often compare wines to songs, but this one made me think of Njósnavélin by the Icelandic group Sigur Rós. Ignore the images in the fan video, just listen to the song and think of a stony, restrained white wine that is nothing like the tinny Pinot Grigios or fat Chardonnays that dominate the market.

Both of these are highly recommended great bargains, but also tie in to my constant advice that there are so many affordable, delicious, food-friendly wines from the Iberian peninsula. You won't be wowed every time for under $15, but you'll rarely be disappointed and once the food is on the table, you'll figure out why these wines were developed there over the past four thousand years.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

07 May 2012

Chilean Cool Climate Wines

Time once again for an online tasting hosted by the folks at Wines of Chile. This time the focus was on cool climate white wines, and we were joined by representatives in New York as well as the winemakers down in Chile. In addition to the wines, participating bloggers got a citrus salt blend and a customized pepper blend. The best part was the Olave extra virgin olive oil from Chile, which is rich and buttery and bright. I've been drizzling it on salads and vegetables all month.

Wines of Chile has been engaging regional chefs and food suppliers for the last few tastings, and it's always fun. I have so many neat spice blends from South America.

2011 Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc
Colchaugua Valley
100% Sauvignon Blanc
$25, 13% abv.
Green bell pepper and lemon on the nose, tart but well balanced with a crisp herbal finish.

2011 Los Vascos Sauvignon Blanc
Casablanca Valley
100% Sauvignon Blanc
$14, 13.5% abv.
Light and refreshing, good acidity, touch of lime peel flavor.

2011 Cono Sur Visión Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
Casablanca Valley
100% Sauvignon Blanc
$15, 13% abv.
Green and brassy, lemon peel. Firm acidity.

2011 Viña Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
Casablanca Valley
100% Sauvignon Blanc
$13, 13.8% abv.
White grapefruit pith, green pepper. Fragrant and tart.

2011 Veramonte Ritual Sauvignon Blanc
Casablanca Valley
100% Sauvignon Blanc
$18, 13.5% abv.
Smooth and sophisticated. Rich and mild.

2010 Santa Rita Medalla Real Chardonnay
Leyda Valley
100% Chardonnay
$18, 14% abv.
A medium-strength Chard with peach flavors and a smooth finish.

2010 De Martino Legado Reserva Chardonnay
Limarí Valley
100% Chardonnay
$16, 13.5% abv.
Pear nector and floral notes, light and refreshing.

2009 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay
Limarí Valley
100% Chardonnay
$19, 14% abv.
Big ripe peach start with a slight buttered popcorn aftertaste. Strong acidity.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

04 May 2012

Vibrant Rioja

Rioja is a solid region of north central Spain that delivers a lot of bang for your buck. Or pow! for your peseta. Wait, Spain's on the Euro now... That means my joke about counting Spanish currency is also out of date: "One peseta, two peseta, three peseta, four!" Credit for that one goes to a Reader's Digest mail-in joke circa 1988.

These three wines bear the Crianza designation of Rioja, which means that they're aged for a year in oak and at least one more year before release. All three are quite food friendly, and I enjoyed them with olives and cheeses and assorted meats. Not quite tapas, but pointing in the right direction.

2008 Ontañón Crianza
90% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha
$16, 13% abv.
Thick and jammy with blackberry and leather and a touch of smoke (unrelated to the photo, I just thought the chimney starter for charcoal made for a neat background). Those flavors continue on the palate, although the tannins are restrained and there's a slightly earthy, toasty finish.

2007 Conde Valdemar Rioja Crianza
90% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo
$11, 13.5% abv.
Black cherry and pepper aromas, with a medium tannic structure and a short finish. A little closed, but better on the second day.

2005 Muriel Rioja Crianza
100% Tempranillo
$16, 13% abv.
Rich chocolate and touches of cola, hints of cherry and leather. Lots of complexity with this wine, and one that rewards slow sipping over the course of an evening. Amazing that a Crianza is so good after seven years. Outstanding bargain.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

02 May 2012

mole negro oaxaqueño

I've enjoyed my prior experimentation with mole sauces, and have worked a bit to refine my technique. This time I wanted to go with the black mole style of Oaxaca. I used guajillo and pasilla dried chiles. (If you've ever wondered why your homemade salsa and savory sauces don't have the right kick, you're not using the right combination of dried chiles in the right way.) The pasillas are on top, and are so dark green that they appear black in the photo.

As a side note, this is a great opportunity to visit your local international market. I got several months' worth of both peppers for a total of $4, while the same price would have netted only a small bag of one variety at the mainstream grocery store.

I'm not going to go into every ingredient, but my mole included homemade chicken stock, tomato sauce, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Mexican chocolate, the aforementioned guajillos and pasillas, onion, garlic, and many other goodies, all properly toasted, layered, simmered, and blended.

I was going to use this for braised rabbit, but I set aside most of the sauce to rest in the freezer next to the bunnies. Do Cryogenic Lagomorphs Dream of Electric Carrots? Instead, I smoked a pork shoulder and used the mole as a topping for burritos. I also included crema salvadoreña, a cultured sour cream that's a bit milder and sweeter than the American version but very tasty.

My mole isn't as smooth or as dark as it should be, but I absolutely adore it, and it goes so well with pork. I need to work on my dried chile balance and to up the proportion. I'm also still working on a proper nut balance, and like what the almonds and pumpkin seeds bring to the blend. I need to work with peanuts and maybe even pistachios. Kaizen is the Japanese quality concept of continuous improvement, and I will continue to work on my mole recipes until I master the skill and one day create my own perfect mole benito.