27 March 2005

Benito's Wine Manifesto

Here's a overview of what I like and dislike in wine... Hopefully this will be helpful in evaluating whether or not these reviews will be helpful for you, the reader. For instance, the late, great Julia Child was not a fan of Italian or Mexican cuisine, or Indian or anything else that is generally characterized as hot and spicy. If you're fond of those cuisines and are looking for recipes, you wouldn't dig out the Julia Child cookbooks. But if you want classic French recipes written for the American kitchen, giddyup!

So consider this my statement of personal bias, which has influenced the prior reviews and will certainly color future ones. And these opinions will certainly change over time, and I might reorganize this into a more coherent document.

General Feelings about Wine
  • I tend to prefer wine with food, but I don't obsess over the perfect match. I'm often willing to experiment with unusual combinations, which sometimes work beautifully. Citrus fruits tend to screw up your palate while drinking red wine, but a cheap red, fresh oranges, and grilled steak is an amazing trio. Consider it a shortcut to sangria. This weekend I served an old favorite (the sparkling Zardetto Prosecco) along with a roast turkey breast and boiled artichokes. Beautiful combination.
  • I don't have much of a sweet tooth. A few years ago, I just lost interest in sweet beverages and foods, and haven't looked back. I'm not diabetic, nor do I get goofy under the influence of sugar, but I just don't crave it anymore. This has definitely influenced my wine drinking. However, when it comes to sparkling wines, I prefer something roughly demi-sec as opposed to brut. Basically, don't come here looking for info on White Zinfandel. Which leads me into...
  • I try to avoid wine snobbery. If you like something, drink it and enjoy it. I try not to insult anyones wine preferences (mine certainly aren't perfect), but I do encourage people to at least try other wines. Don't just find a grape and hold on to it for dear life. Again, I have to mention White Zinfandel, a favorite of the suburban housewife and college student. It's a great, non-threatening entry-level wine. But if that's all you will drink, try a Riesling or a Gewürztraminer. Be daring and grab a non-sparkling Vouvray. All of these are sweet wines, but you'll get a little more complexity and refinement than White Zin, and they'll pair better with food rather than overwhelming it with sweetness. And they're all easily affordable, which reminds me...
  • I try not to spend a lot on wine. $20 is about the most that I'll spend on a bottle, unless it's for a special occasion and I'm intimately familiar with that particular wine. You can find some amazing wines in this price range, but be forewarned: it doesn't hold true for all grapes or varieties. Specifically, I'm talking about Cabernet Sauvignon. It's an amazing grape and produces some of the finest wines in the world, but it needs care and age and often benefits from careful blending with lesser-known grapes, as is done in Bordeaux. If you want something beautiful, you're probably going to have to start at $25 and work your way up. This is also true for Pinot Noir, though there are some fun jammy bottles out there for $10-15. Don't let this discourage you, though. There's thousands of other grapes from multiple countries that are inexpensive, delicious, and meant to be drunk now rather than later.
  • I don't personally keep wine at home for more than a couple of weeks. Part of that is that I'm a little impulsive, and like to grab wine after I've made up my mind about dinner. I've read a lot about the proper storage of wine for aging, and it's led me to believe that I'm not going to be able to do it properly in my house. For one thing, there's too many extremes of temperature, particularly in the winter when my roommate tends to crank up the heat to keep the house sauna-like. I'd like one of those standalone wine refrigerators, but I'm not ready to make the investment right now. While I've seen the amazing results of proper aging over many years, with my current lodgings any investment in ageworthy wines is going to be a losing proposition.
  • Because of that, I try not to save wines for special occasions. I'll certainly go out and pay extra for a properly maintained great bottle of wine, but holding on to a bottle in the average home is going to be a grand disappointment. I'll never forget a couple of friends who kept a bottle of $10 Cabernet Sauvignon in the kitchen cabinet over the stove. They bought it on their honeymoon and were saving it for their 10 year anniversary. I didn't say anything, but given the heat and likely inability of the wine to age properly, they're going to be greeted with a sour, brown liquid that can be smelled from across the room.
  • Even properly maintained wines can be flawed, such as corked, oxidized, or dozens of other things. This means two things: try to smell a flawed sample kit at some point, and always have a backup wine on hand.
  • I support the use of synthetic enclosures in ready-to-drink wines. The jury's still out on how these wines will age, but for everyday use, it's a godsend. I prefer the synthetic corks to the screwcap (it preserves the pomp and circumstance of the wine experience), but both are generally reliable.
  • I love wines that are interesting, obscure, have a great story behind them, or are just plain weird. I'll try almost anything once, and sometimes a mediocre wine with a great backstory can be elevated at a dinner party through the power of suggestion. And people will remember that wine fondly.

Red Wines
  • In general, I don't like heavy tannins. With proper aging and blending, these soften out over the years. However, as I drink a lot of younger wines that aren't going to age, I don't enjoy having the lining of my mouth worn off.
  • I love full flavor. Australia has been amazing with this, even at the affordable end of the spectrum. California produces fruit-forward wines as well. France has been slow to catch up, but I also find their more subtle and refined flavors to be enjoyable for contrast.
  • I pay a lot of attention to balance and aftertaste. Both are very important. An unbalanced wine will strike your tongue and confuse your palate. A bad aftertaste is going to make you avoid another glass, and it will stick with you until you brush your teeth.
  • Grapes that I love: Zinfandel, Syrah/Shiraz, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc. There's none that I really hate, but I'll address the Merlot question here. Despite the bad press it gets from the movie Sideways, it's not a bad grape. In fact, it's beautiful for blending, as it softens out the harsher edges of Cabernet Sauvignon. On its own, I just find it kind of boring, and don't really buy it. However, keep in mind that since it is soft and non-threatening, it does make a great gateway wine for those who are uncertain about red wine.
  • I try to drink red wine before and after breathing. Sometimes breathing makes a difference, sometimes it doesn't, but it is interesting to look for those changes.

White Wines
  • Here's where the sweet/dry divide really hits home. I prefer dry or mildly sweet white wines. Lately I've been excited about the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, which have a lot of citrus flavor but aren't sweet. It's difficult to explain, but the taste is incredible.
  • I prefer unoaked white wines. Once you try several oaked and unoaked whites, you'll quickly be able to tell the difference between the two. In fact, with a lot of California Chardonnays all I taste is oak. They're also much smoother to drink, and survive a wider range of temperatures. All wines taste a little different at various temperatures, but a room temperature oaked white is going to taste nasty.
  • Speaking of temperature, the colder a wine is, the less you'll taste. This is useful for bad wines, but for what you hope will be a good wine and one that you want to examine, don't drink it ice cold.
  • Grapes I love: Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, French Chardonnay, Moscato. Again, none that I really hate, but I'll state once again that Pinot Grigio has little or no flavor in my experience.

Rosé and Sparkling Wines
  • I really enjoy a good rosé, but I'll admit that I haven't explored the field very much. I think these wines deserve better attention and study than they've traditionally received. They're excellent for a wide variety of foods, which is good for the often confusing American meals.
  • I don't drink much proper Champagne unless someone else is buying, but I'd hope that everyone would drink more fun sparkling wines. They're great informal wines, and can make a lackluster dinner look really classy. And don't be afraid to drink them with food--again, lots of dishes that are traditionally difficult to match with wine work well with sparklers.

2003 Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel

Before I get to the wine review, this is the first Saturday in months that I haven't attended a wine tasting. I couldn't find one in town. I was tempted to go to the locations of my previous regular tastings and sit in the parking lot with a bottle of wine and try to appease Bacchus.

I was fascinated by the label and price of the 2003 Bogel Old Vine Zinfandel. I still can't get over how much I enjoyed Bogel's Petit Sirah, and for $10 this zin looked like a sure bet. Plus, I couldn't recall drinking a wine specifically labeled as "Old Vine", though I see the age of vines mentioned in the fact sheets available from the producer or distributor.

I didn't feel that the wine had a lot of that lovely Zinfandel flavor. It was a little heavy on the tannins and high in alcohol, giving it a harsh, hot feel in the mouth. I liked it better the second day with some heartier food, but I'm still not overly impressed. I don't think that it's designed for the long haul.

So what's the difference between old vines and young vines? It's a complicated question, and I'd suggest that you go here (scroll down about halfway) to read some detailed information on this topic and other traditional wine misconceptions. Basically it doesn't indicate quality on its own; there's a lot of other factors that are far more important than the age of the vines.

19 March 2005

Tasting Notes for March 19, 2005

I went to a different tasting this week, one that I don't particularly enjoy. It's crowded, there tends to be a lot of wine, and most of it's a little pricy for me (and I don't think most of it justifies the price). Ideally at a wine tasting, there needs to be enough space for people to sit and contemplate a wine, or if you're showing a lot of wines, have several people presenting two or three wines a piece at separate stations, so that you can actually pay attention to what you're tasting. Here we had two people pouring fifteen wines and it was in such a small room that you had to fight your way to the front, get a splash of wine, and retreat to the back of the room to stand around and try to figure out what you're drinking. I don't know if I'll go back to this one unless I'm really into the region or theme that's being showcased.

I'll provide links where possible, but this is going to be a very abbreviated set of notes. The theme was Italy, namely the northern regions of Tuscany, Piedmont, and Veneto. Also, I've linked to a lot of reviews rather than vintner websites, as these are from pretty small producers.

While I don't have a lot of nice things to say about these wines, I'm sure most of them would taste fine with a proper meal. On their own, it's difficult to run through fifteen wines in a short period of time, and due to the high levels of tannins in the reds, my tongue was fairly numb by the end. I'll also admit that I don't know a lot about highbrow Italian wines; I've been focusing on France, California, and Australia for the past year.

Wine 1: 2003 Inama Soave. Tart and crisp white wine, lacking in complex flavor. $14.

Wine 2: 2002 Valditerra Gavi. White wine; dry and musky with a slight aroma of bananas. Not bad. $24.

Wine 3: 2002 Icardi Cortese. White wine, my only note was "boring as hell". $16.

Wine 4: 2001 H.Lun Muller-Thurgau. This region is a little weird--Alto Adige used to be part of Austria, and German is still natively spoken there. This white wine was lightly sweet and smooth. $19.

WIne 5: 2003 H. Lun Riesling. (Link goes to a review of the 2001 vintage, but provides useful information on the winery and region.) Not bad, some of that musky riesling flavor, but dry and easily drinkable. I don't know if I'd go out of my way to pick this over a German riesling, but it's definitely interesting. $19.

Wine 6: Braida Moscato d'Asti. I love this variety. Lightly sparkling, great aromas and flavors of honey, delicious. $20.

(Note: all of the following wines are red)

Wine 7: 2003 Parusso Dolcetto Pian Noce. Some hearty toast aromas on top, light tannins, smooth. $23.

(Another note: every wine from here on had really heavy tannins)

Wine 8: 2002 Parusso Barbera Ornati. Bright cherry flavors, well balanced. $26.

Wine 9: 2003 Icardi Barbera d'Asti. I thought this had a very harsh finish. Nothing special otherwise. $17.

Wine 10: 2002 Parusso Nebbiolo. I don't remember anything special about this wine. $29.

Wine 11: 2000 Seghesio Barolo. Smoother than the other selections, but these wines are supposed to be amazing in the 10-20 year old range. Don't know if I'd pay this price for this wine. $55.

Wine 12: 2001 DaVinci Chianti Riserva. The one wine red out of the month that I really enjoyed, and might actually purchase. Softer tannins, none of that cheap chianti flavor. $22.

Wine 13: 1997 Vito Arturo Sangiovese. Blecch. I've had many old wines and expensive wines, but neither of those automatically mean that they taste good. Slightly sour, a faint aroma of brett, and I poured out most of my sample. Possibly a flawed bottle that no one wanted to speak up about, or maybe I'm just way off base. I typically love sangiovese wines, though. $100 (1.5L).

Wine 14: 2000 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre. Supposedly a classic wine, but I wasn't impressed, though I don't think I could taste anything by this stage. $23.

Wine 15: 2000 Bottega Vinaia Pinot Noir. So this wine contained much of what I dislike about Italian wines and nothing that I like about pinot noir. Eh. $19.

2002 Turning Leaf Sonoma Reserve North Coast Pinot Noir

Not a bad little bargain pinot noir. I picked up the 2002 Turning Leaf Sonoma Reserve North Coast Pinot Noir to go along with some corned beef reubens. (I also had a bottle of the Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc reviewed last week.) Some good strawberry flavors that mature to jam after some breathing. Fairly well balanced and drinkable. $8.

12 March 2005

Tasting Notes for March 12, 2005

Wine 1: 2004 Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Another fun sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. You know, I'm really beginning to enjoy this grape and particularly the Kiwi interpretation of it. From the Marlborough region, this a a crisp, citrus-focused wine with excellent flavors and aromas of grapefruit and pineapple. I also picked up a bit of fresh grass clippings. A fun spring/summer wine, and a bargain at $8.

Wine 2: 2004 Kendall Jackson Vintner's Reserve Riesling. Not a bad little California riesling, but nothing to get excited about. I picked up aromas of dried fruit, just a pinch of honeysuckle, and maybe a hint of nutmeg in the flavor. And it's a sweet grape. Supposedly this would be good for various Asian fare; I'd be willing to give it a try. Not spectacular, but not bad for the price. $10.

Wine 3: 2003 Napa Valley Vineyards Chardonnay. A standard California chardonnay, lightly oaked, fall fruit flavors, yada yada yada. I've had better, I've had worse. $12.

Wine 4: 2003 Echelon Vineyards Pinot Noir. Not bad on the beginning, but this wine had a bitter aftertaste that was difficult to ignore. I think I've had this before, during my big flirtaiton with pinot noir over last summer. (Note to all who are reading: that was before the release of Sideways) I'm begining to learn that pinot noir, like the moon, is a harsh mistress. Though I'm by no means an expert, I've discovered that at lower qualities, it's fairly easy to distinguish pinot noir from other grapes. But at higher qualities, it often presents more complex flavors. $12.

Wine 5: 2000 Fife Vineyards Petite Syrah. This was the mystery wine, and I was way off. I won't embarass myself with the guesses here, but this is a petite syrah from California. Overall the flavor was pleasant, but I'm not sure if it was worth the price, particualry after the glory of the bargain Bogle version of this grape. $17.

By the way, I felt that these wines were much more balanced than those sampled last week. And while I completely bombed on the mystery wine, I did recognize that it had a higher alcohol content than the other wines sampled. There's this... heat that comes with higher alcohol wines.

05 March 2005

Tasting Notes for March 5, 2005

Wine 1: 2003 Pacific Rim Dry Riesling. This didn't taste like any riesling I'd ever had before. Mixed from grapes grown in Germany and Washington, like it's name suggests, this is a dry riesling, which really lets you focus on some of the flavors that you haven't noticed beyond the sweetness. I got a strong grapefruit flavor out of the wine. I think they're heavily marketing this as a good wine for various Asian fare, so it should go well with Thai or Vietnamese or Chinese or whatever. I'm anxious to try it out in that environment. Recommended. $11.

Wine 2. 2003 Kris Pinot Grigio. An Italian wine from the Venezia region, in the upper northeast. Not bad for a pinot grigio, but I'm beginning to dread this grape. I got hints of apple, lemon, and ginger in the taste, which only served to remind me of when Mom would send me to school with apple slices soaked in lemon juice (so it wouldn't brown before lunchtime). I appreciate the trouble she went to, but I really would have been better off with a whole apple. $10.

Wine 3. Can't remember--this was the mystery wine, called Fire something or other. Red wine, made from a blend of a dozen different things. There were some decent plum and blackberry flavors, but overall not an exciting wine. $12.

Wine 4. 2003 Ca'del Solo Big House Red en Screw Cap. I've always had a great admiration for Bonny Doon, ever since I bought that bottle of Le Cigare Volant lo these many years ago. (For those who don't speak French, the name refers to a flying cigar, which refers to the description of France's first UFO sighting. The label featured a pastoral scene with a farmer looking up at a UFO in the clouds.) Anyway, this is a table red made from a lot of different grapes. Personally I thought it tasted a lot like a sangiovese, and would be suitable as a good accompaniment for any Italian food with a tomato-based sauce. $10.

Wine 5. 2003 Fairview Goats Do Roam in Villages. Man, I'd been looking for this wine for a long time--I thought that the pun on "Côtes du Rhône-Villages" was hilarious, and applauded the win of the small South African farmer over the French wine labeling authority. And the name is quite descriptive--the wines are grown on a goat farm, and they also produce goat cheese (and presumably goat meat for local consumption). The wine itself is an odd bird, and for the record, TASTES NOTHING LIKE Côtes du Rhône. There's no grenache, but there's a truckload of pinotage, a weird South African grape with a clay taste that's difficult to pin down. This is a strange and difficult wine--hot, heavily tannic, and with an abundance of hard-to-place flavors. But as God is my witness, I'm bound and determined to serve this one day with a barbecued leg of goat. $13.

2002 Francis Coppola Diamond Claret

Friday night was sort of an impromptu tribute to the British. Broiled boneless ribeyes with a bleu cheese-butter-garlic-rum sauce, potato salad, and a viewing of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. And the wine? In honor of the great Winston Churchill, who drank enough of the stuff to float a whole feet of battleships, it had to be claret. And which claret did I choose? 2002 Francis Coppola Diamond Claret.

Claret presents an interesting riddle... In England, it was the name given to bottles of Bordeaux as a convenient bit of marketing deception. Yes folks, long before America was ridiculed for "freedom fries", the landed gentry of Merry Olde England were referring to the wines of France's premier region as "claret", a harsh word that begins with a fricative and ends with a glottal stop.

All of that aside, this was one damned good wine. Since claret is a generic term that is not restricted by any regulations, it can mean pretty much anything, but today generally refers to a Bordeaux-style wine produced just about anywhere. This wine from Coppola breaks down as follows: 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot. I've never had that last grape as a separate wine on its own, so I couldn't pick it out in a lineup, but I assume it's a tiny grape like Petite Syrah. Despite the odd colleciton there, this is a very well balanced wine, and easily drinkable. In fact, a substantial proportion of it disappeared while waiting fo rthe steaks to cook.

There's a lot of dark fruit flavors like blackberry in there, and just enough of a tannic/tart element to keep it interesting. Not a lot of complexity on the nose, but amazing flavors on the tongue, and it paired quite well with the meal. At $17 a bottle, this isn't an everyday wine, but I'd highly recommend it.