29 March 2013

Book Review: Into Wine by Olivier Magny

Olivier Magny is the founder and operator of O Chateau, a wine bar and education center in Paris. In addition, he is the author of the 2011 book Stuff Parisians Like: Discovering the Quoi in the Je Ne Sais Quoi.

He contacted me recently to see if I'd like to check out his latest work, and it sounded interesting.

Into Wine
Olivier Magny
Published by Gourmand Horizons
213 pp.

I'm not a huge fan of translations--I prefer to watch foreign movies with subtitles, and I suffered through a lot of dry, stale book translations in high school and college. However, this is not a translation. Magny writes in an easy, colloquial English that is approachable and engaging. Terroir is one of the few French terms used in the book and even that is explained in plain English. (His wife is from Mississippi, so his English is even better tuned to my ear.)

The book is a collection of brief essays that cover dozens of wine topics, heavily footnoted and including charts and tables. However, this is not a technical book. Instead, it's aimed at the American wine novice, and while much of the focus is on France, he covers other regions as well. He also speaks to his own self-education in the world of wine, and the early days of hosting wine tastings out of his apartment in a dodgy neighborhood.

Magny on the subject of oak in wine, and I thought this was brilliant: "I like to consider oak for wine like make-up for women. Sometimes, it's not needed; used sparingly, it can be quite lovely; when it's the first thing you notice, it's rarely a sign of elegance."

Magny takes us through wine production from planting to bottling, and along the way comes out in favor of organic and biodynamic wines. Some of my experience from the past weekend speaks to the split in American and European wine appreciation: we're focused on fruit, they're focused on soil. Fruit elements change with the weather (hot/cold/wet/dry), but rocks and earth remain constant.

More than anything else, the book is a love letter to wine. Enjoy it, let it be natural, share it with others, and don't overthink it.

Into Wine is not available for purchase yet, but when it is I will update this post with a link.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

27 March 2013

African Passion Wines

There are many more posts to come from the Snooth PVA weekend, but in the meantime I encourage you to check out some of the bloggers that I spent time with in New York. In no particular order... The Wine Hub, Wine Julia, Jameson Fink, Wine Harlots, RJ on Wine, Wine Folly, Reverse Wine Snob, Maker's Table, Brunello Bob, Vineyard Adventures, Vine Sleuth, Serious Eats' Seema Gunda, Vindulge, Wannabe Wino, My Vine Spot, and Avvinare. Additionally, all of these blogs have been added to the National & Global blogroll on the right. I'll have some more on all of these fine folks in the future, but for now I hope you enjoy their sites.

To give a sneak preview, I'll be posting about Scarpa Barolo and Barbera d'Asti, Oregon Wines, Wines of Brazil, Ribera del Duero, White Wines of Italy, Assorted Wines from the People's Voice Awards, Wines of Austria, Wines of South Africa, and finally, Rioja. Plus tons of food coverage for several of those tastings.

And now, for three wines tasted a couple of weeks ago...

African Passion Wines appear to be a rebranding of the Golden Kaan wines for the American market. Regardless, both are part of the powerful Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt (KWV) co-operative that has been a major player in South African wine since 1918. This brand is being launched with the help of Danny Glover, who had some harsh words for the Apartheid regime of 1980s South Africa in the great movie Lethal Weapon 2, but part of the proceeds from this brand go to charities in South Africa. What a difference a generation makes.

While I could have roasted up a ring of boerewors or a haunch of springbok, a lack of both in the local greengrocers meant that I instead tried these wines alongside a rich pepperoni-jalapeño calzone from Mellow Mushroom in Germantown.

2012 African Passion Chenin Blanc
Western Cape, South Africa
100% Chenin Blanc
$10, 12.5% abv.

This Steen is grassy with a citrus tone, but more round than tart in the body. Low acidity and a clean finish. Would be perfect with a grilled chicken salad topped with a few pomegranate pips.

2011 African Passion Cabernet Sauvignon
Western Cape, South Africa
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
$10, 13.5% abv.

Lots of red fruit, plenty of cherry and a hint of plum. Very low tannins. Perfect match with the calzone, and one that I think would go great with a wide range of Italian dishes.

2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot
Western Cape, South Africa
54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 46% Merlot
$10, 13.5% abv.

Also quite mellow, and my favorite of the three. Black cherry and the barest hint of coffee with a little tannic edge before melting into a soft finish. The stronger flavors and firmer finish from the grape skins mean that this one is much better suited for the barbecue grill. Let the charred flesh of pork or goat play against those stronger flavors, and your palate will be rewarded.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

25 March 2013

This Weekend Rocked

I spent the past weekend in Manhattan as a guest of Snooth, a wine website that combines information, sales, pairing advice, and networking opportunities. I joined around twenty other wine bloggers for a series of instructional tastings and the big Public Voice Awards, which was open to public ticket buyers and featured some 300 wines. Great food was prepared for us, we got to speak directly to winemakers and industry representatives, and were surrounded by the iconic architecture of the Flatiron District.

So why I am I showing you a pair of rocks? It's not just an easy pun. Those rocks were handed over to us by Aldo Sohm, sommelier of Le Bernardin. Both of those chunks of limestone come from Austria, but one of them comes from the vineyard that makes his own wine. That's how I spent my Sunday morning, sitting three feet away from Aldo while he handed over his personal rock collection and we sipped some amazing Grüner Veltliner.

Not a bad way to spend a quiet SoHo morning. I will apologize in advance for a lot of these photos--I was using my small auxiliary camera, the pocket-sized Canon A480. Not as powerful as my preferred Nikon D40, but much easier to carry around while running around the city. When possible I'll link to some similar posts from my fellow wine bloggers to see the scenes from a different angle.

Having left my house in Memphis at 4:30 a.m. on Friday and returning Sunday night just before the stroke of midnight, I am exhausted. But I have many wonderful stories to share, and eighty-nine wine reviews to transcribe... Stay tuned!

22 March 2013

Sauska Wines of Hungary

Hungarian wines occupy a special place in my heart. So few make their way to this little river city in Tennessee, yet the traditions go back thousands of years and bear the weight of emperors and popes, cloaked in a language isolate that is only related to Finnish and Mongolian. However, it is equally fascinating to try the wines of Sauska, founded in 2006 by Christian Sauska. These wines are imported via Opici Wines in the United States. While I didn't have to be sold too much further on any of these bottles the fact that the various cuvées are named after prime numbers (to signify the uniqueness of each blend) warmed my mathematician heart. 7, 11, 107, & 113 are represented here, though there are others in the portfolio. Yes, I often look at dates or license plates or other strings of digits and try to determine if the number is prime, or a factor of primes, or a square or other significant number. Force of habit.

The red wines are aged in French oak (combination stainless steel and oak for the whites). The reds that I review here are pure French grapes (genetically, not by soil), while the whites are mostly Hungarian natives with French grape additions. At first, I was a little disappointed that I wasn't getting some pure Kadarka and other Magyar reds, but was happily surprised by the quality and aging of the blends.

2010 Sauska Birsalmás Furmint
Tokaj, Hungary
100% Furmint
$45, 13.5% abv.
1,400 bottles made

Birsalmás is a vineyard in Mád, a region that produces some Tokaji-style wines without the actual designation. Furmint is, of course, a major ingredient in the botrytis-infected sweet wine, and is the most widely planted grape in Hungary. Rich aroma with notes of apricot, honey, and vanilla. Dry but tart and the flavor has a slight dried fruit edge to it. Highly recommended with a spicy chicken dish, as I did with some Vietnamese food.

2010 Sauska Cuvée 113
60% Furmint, 17% Hárslevelű, 11% Chardonnay, 9% Sauvignon Blanc, 2% Muscat
$27, 13% abv.
20,000 bottles made

Floral apricots and peach with firm acidity and a bright yellow apple flavor. Nicely tart and the primary grapes make me start thinking about Tokaji. Golden straw color and the only wine of the group to come with a screwcap.

2009 Sauska Cuvée 107
51% Hárslevelű, 49% Chardonnay
$58, 14.5% abv.
1,800 bottles made

Peach and a touch of butterscotch on the nose with some floral undertones. Dry but full-bodied with a deep white fruit flavor: overripe peach, a little pineapple. Firm acidity and a very long finish.

2008 Sauska Cuvée 7 Villány
Villány, Hungary
47% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 10% Syrah
$58, 15% abv.
16,000 bottles made

Coffee and spice on top, with deep, dark plum flavors. Firm acidity for a red and a firm tannic finish. Very Bordeaux-like, though also unlike similar California Meritage blends. I found it to be a perfect companion to my recent lunch of lamb chops and colcannon.

2008 Sauska Cuvée 11
Villány, Hungary
40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon
$40, 15% abv.
40,000 bottles made

Light and mild with aromas of red cherry and violets. Mellow and relaxing with a delicate, soft finish. More left bank Bordeaux in presentation. I found this one to be perfectly aged and ready now for consumption with mild fare like braised pork or veal.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

20 March 2013

March Alsace

The past year has been blessed by a veritable pipeline of fermented grape juice from the verdant fields of Alsace to my own humble abode here in the mid-South. I've enjoyed dry and sweet, still and bubbly, white and pink... And in so sampling, I've found great joy in the few grapes grown in this region between France and Germany. Likewise, the wines have been good pairings for hearty and seasonally appropriate dishes of sausages and baked beans and thick, rustic bread.

2011 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris
Alsace AOC
100% Pinot Gris
$20, 14% abv.

Half of this family has been making wine since the 17th century Thirty Years' War, a Protestant-Catholic conflict that involved the great Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus and the Hapsburg General Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein, who had his horoscope written by the brilliant astronomer Johannes Kepler, and well, I'm getting too deep into the history of northern European science and war following the Reformation. This wine is lightly sweet with rich overripe peach flavors and aromas and a tart acidity. Long finish. A perfect match for mild seafood with steamed greens.

2011 Willm Pinot Gris Réserve
Alsace AOC
100% Pinot Gris
$12, 12.8% abv.

In an interesting note, the house of Willm began exporting their light white wines to the US shortly after Prohibition was lifted, and yet had that partnership disrupted by the events of World War II. This particular bottle has a deep amber color with mild pear aromas and flavors and a gentle, lightly sweet finish. No acidity to speak of, leading to a soft and relaxing Pinot Gris. Quite enjoyable and good with a ham and Swiss sandwich topped with stone-ground mustard.

2011 Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris
Alsace AOC
100% Pinot Gris
$15, 13% abv.

An important Alsace producer since 1680, though the vineyards were completely destroyed during WWII. However, I've found that they have done an exceptional job of rebuilding since then. This Pinot Gris has a touch of honey and nectar, followed but a clean, smooth, and round body. Low acidity and a long finish. Perfect for trout served with a wilted arugula salad.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

17 March 2013

St. Patrick's Day Lunch

What percentage of me is Irish? Blond hair, red beard, freckles, short and stocky... I'm some combination of Scottish/Welsh/English/Irish thrown upon the shores of the New World, but I can say that when I was in Boston I blended into the crowd in a way that was unique amongst my many travels upon this green Earth.

As a Protestant I do not celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick for religious reasons, and as a responsible citizen I do not head out to bars where good beer is adulterated with blue dye to produce pitchers of green piss. However, I do enjoy cooking something Irish on this particular day, and my meal began early with a batch of whole wheat soda bread, using the unique pint glass recipe from Saveur magazine. The result is a dense and chewy bread with a firm crust that marries well with soft butter and molasses. Though it is heavy, I've always enjoyed a wedge of soda bread when it's cold outside.

Instead of just boiling a chunk of corned beef or making potato soup, I decided to go for a proper lamb dish combined with traditional colcannon. For the latter, I used Yukon Gold potatoes, rendered lamb fat, kale, and onions. The result was rich and savory, and the use of kale instead of regular cabbage was the choice my father made earlier in the week for his holiday colcannon. The lamb fat meant that no additional butter was required.

I broke out the mortar and pestle to make a good spice rub for the rack of lamb. Peppercorns, coriander, allspice, sea salt, and dried lemon zest. I rubbed that on the ribs and let them rest for a good hour before slow roasting the rack in the oven. A quick blast of heat at the end to crisp up the edges, and we were done.

Lastly, I drizzled the ribs with a reduction of Guinness Stout, honey, and balsamic vinegar. Cooked down to just above the syrup level and carefully poured over the tender ribs. It provided a sweet and piquant contrast to the savory and fatty lamb.

The end result of it all was decadent and delicious... Earthy and savory flavors of lamb and potato and kale combined with great spices and sauces, all enjoyed on a quiet Sunday afternoon rather than in a bar with a hundred green-clad miscreants spilling beer and trying to sing along to faux-Irish music.

13 March 2013

2010 Francis Coppola Director's Cabernet Sauvignon

I received the sample of Francis Coppola's "Director's" Cab Sav a few days after the Oscars, but I did make note of the fact that his son Roman Coppola was nominated alongside the great Wes Anderson for the original screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom. I really loved that film and could write a long essay on it, but will save that for a future post when I've had time to watch it again with a critical eye.

While I'm talking about movies, and Roman has nothing to do with this wine, as a former graphic designer I thought that his 2012 film A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III was brilliant. Most people think that it's just a vanity project for the crazy Charlie Sheen but it's all about a set piece in 1970s Los Angeles and some bold filmmaking choices.

Let's get back to Francis and his fermented grape juice…

2010 Francis Coppola Director's Cabernet Sauvignon
Sonoma County, California
78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Syrah, 1% Petit Verdot.
$21, 13.7% abv.

Rich blackberries and dark fruit, with a bit of spice underneath. Not quite a Bordeaux blend with the inclusion of Syrah, but I never reject a properly made Sonoma red mix. Still quite tannic in its youth, but I believe this bottle has good potential with another year or two of aging. Lovely with a steak sandwich topped with grilled onions.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

11 March 2013

2009 Château St. Didier-Parnac

I will never stop being fascinated by the little nooks of the French wine world... Places that use an odd bottle (like the 62cL format of Jura) or a lesser known grape like Tannat in Madiran.

I had an early fascination with the Cahors region. After growing to love Argentine Malbec, I wondered how it would taste if made in its native France, in a small corner of the southwest. I have to thank Tom Rickert for my first bottle of Cahors, which was a gift and, alas, spoiled. I also have to thank him for being kind enough to find a second bottle which was delightful and represented my first true taste of this tiny region.

Seven years later I'm getting to sample a lovely Cahors on a rainy Sunday afternoon while eating Munchkin burgers with Julia. And yet, after many other Cahors and thousands of other bottles, I still retain my enchantment.

2009 Château St. Didier-Parnac
Cahors AOC
80% Malbec, 15% Merlot, 5% Tannat
$18, 13% abv.

Although it has a few years of age this wine remains dark. Aromas of black cherry and tobacco leaf lead in to a deep red with flavors of plum and stewed fruit and coffee. Touches of leather on the finish. The tannins have mellowed from what I imagine was a fairly strong young wine, leading to a glass that is mild and refreshing. Incredible depth and a great price makes this wine highly recommended.

Though I sampled this with sliders topped with red onion marmalade and smoked Gouda, I do think that the most perfect pairing would come from roast lamb aggressively studded with garlic and rosemary.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

08 March 2013

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon Trio

I recently got to try three pleasant and affordable Chilean red wines, all primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and available for well under two sawbucks here in los Estados Unidos.

2010 Peñalolen Cabernet Sauvignon
Maipo Valley, Chile
90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc
$15, 14% abv.

The haunting stoneware head on the label is the work of Chilean sculptor Benjamín Lira. His website features a lot of similar work, and these faces are much larger than you might expect. I imagine they are truly spectacular in person. Plummy aromas and flavors with lots of deep jam and blackberries. Touch of ash on the nose and a nice ripe dark fruit profile with medium tannins that last a long time. Slightly vegetal aftertaste. Perfect with a little thin crust pizza covered in garlic. Additional side trivia: when you encounter a Chilean word that is not in the Spanish dictionary, it's probably Mapuche. Peñalolén means "meeting of brothers”, and reminds me a bit of the 80s software company Brøderbund (roughly Scandinavian "band of brothers"), but let me stress, not the Afrikaner Broederbond of old South Africa.

2011 Hacienda Araucano Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva
Colchagua Valley, Chile
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
$11, 13.5% abv.

This offering from François Lurton has pleasant aromas of cedar and red cherry. Luscious red fruit with very mild tannins and a soft finish. Quite mild for such a young Cab Sav. The website's recommendations for lamb and duck are spot on.

2011 Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva
Colchagua Valley, Chile
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
$11, 13.5% abv.

Black currant and ash on the nose, with deep blackberry flavors and a tannic, spicy profile. Long finish. Great bargain and highly recommended with a grilled burger topped with bleu cheese.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

06 March 2013

Late Winter Vinho Verde

While I often crave the light and sparkly Vinho Verde in the hot Memphis summer, I enjoy it in the colder months as well. It's a fun wine to bring to family Thanksgiving, and during a cold March afternoon Julia and I got to sample these with various appetizers and sushi. The latter was a new pairing for me, but it worked out well. Nothing too terribly fancy, but the grocery store carries a lot of nigiri rolls and sashimi that are fun to nibble while watching TV.

Vinho Verde lightly sparkling wines are the ultimate in casual wine consumption. Low prices, low alcohol, low fizz, and delicate flavors. You can pair them with just about anything, and it doesn't hurt to keep a few bottles around for that guest that swears he or she "doesn't like the taste of wine". With Vinho Verde, there's none of the waiting around for a special occasion like with Champagne, it's more about trying to find any argument not to just open it up and enjoy it with a grilled cheese sandwich.

NV Broadbent Vinho Verde
Vinho Verde, Portugal
Loureiro, Trajadura and Pedernã
$9, 9% abv.

Dry and surprisingly earthy with aromas of citrus peel and peach. Small bubbles and a clean, fruity finish. This one needs to be served with ham or salmon or something else savory to enhance the earthiness and balance out the medium acidity.

2011 Lagosta Vinho Verde
Vinho Verde, Portugal
20% Arinto, 30% Trajadura, 30% Loureiro, 20% Azal
$7, 9% abv.

Lightly bubbly with crisp acidity and touches of apple and lemon, though still dry. It is pleasant and uncomplicated and refreshing, which after a long day at work is sometimes the perfect glass of wine.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

04 March 2013

Pfendler Wines

Pfendler Vineyards is a small family operation based around a Sonoma Mountain plot. Founded by the late Peter Pfendler in 1992, the winery continues under the guidance of his widow Kimberly with small lots of just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. When I visited Sonoma back in 2009, I was always amazed at the many small wineries in the various microclimates and sub-regions. I did not visit Pfendler at the time, but will be sure to do so on my next trip.

2011 Pfendler Chardonnay
100% Chardonnay
Sonoma Coast, California
150 Cases Made
$38, 13.8% abv.

The wine opens up with rich aromas of buttered popcorn and vanilla, though not overly strong. A classic California Chardonnay but with a milder balance. On the palate are apricot, a touch of tropical fruit, and a mild acidity. This wine has a long buttery finish that suggests a pairing with grilled trout. I think a little crispy skin with brown butter drizzled over would be perfect.

2011 Pfendler Pinot Noir
100% Pinot Noir
Sonoma Coast, California
275 Cases Made
$45, 13.7% abv.

Lots of berries on the nose, with just a hint of cinnamon and white pepper. Dark berry flavors like cassis continue on the flavor, with mild tannins and a light, refreshing finish. For this I'd recommend a rustic French dinner of pork tenderloin topped with walnuts and a side of fresh green beans. Might have to wait a few months for fresh ingredients, but the wine will be fine until then.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

02 March 2013

February Cremant d'Alsace

I think I've had more Alsatian wine in the past two years than I've had in my entire life, and that is a good thing. While I'd sampled some in the past, I mostly thought of them as pale versions of German Rieslings and not as important as French Burgundies.

With age and experience, you learn to appreciate the subtleties in certain regions. Alsace famously sits in a region that has variously been part of France or Germany or various factions of the Holy Roman Empire, but when we drill down to terroir we're not talking about politics or language but rather the fact that this long and thin region sits between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine river.

Thanks to longtime family friend Mike Whitfield, I got to try some spectacular Alsatian wines when he cooked dinner for my family on my 35th birthday. I started taking the region and its wines far more seriously at that point, and since then I've been lucky to sample bottles from the great producers of Alsace. Lately I've gotten a lot of requests for advice on wedding wines. I keep recommending Cremant d'Alsace as the perfect combination of elegance, class, and affordability for a big gathering. Plus, if you're a wine lover, it's something that you'll actually enjoy alongside your guests. Let's take a look at two examples that I tried in February...

NV Clément Klur Crémant d'Alsace Brut
Katzenthal, Alsace
Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois
$19, 12% abv.

"A version of the traditional crémant, but without added brimstone." They're talking about the fact that there are no added sulfites, but I love this translation. Lovely notes of quince with a crisp, medium acidic flavor and a bright finish. Try this with a dinner of blackened catfish because it will stand up well to the spices and strong flavors in the dish.

NV Pierre Sparr Crémant d'Alsace Brut Rosé
Haut-Rhin, Alsace
100% Pinot Noir
$16, 12% abv.

Alsace doesn't grow a lot of Pinot Noir, but what is grown is light and mostly used for rosé or sparkling wines. This one has great aromas of wild strawberries and watermelon with a crisp finish. Just a touch of fruit on the palate, and firm acidity. I served this with a bunch of appetizers where the salty snacks brought out the best in the wine.

One interesting side note to these bottles... I noticed a tiny and unfamiliar logo on the bottle of the Klur. Because that winery does organic and biodynamic wine production, and because the incomplete gold stamping was vague, I thought that it was either a map of the Earth or a map of the Moon. I took a photo close up with the macro settings on the camera and discovered that it was a picture of a pregnant woman drinking with a bar through the circle.

Later, I found a Washington Post article about the labeling law on certain French products. Not being female and not ever having been pregnant, I was not aware of this symbol, but will keep it in mind along with all of the various Kosher and recyclable symbols for future reference.

Note: These wines were received as samples.