25 September 2005

Wine & Cheese

Barbara had a post today about a delightful bleu cheese from New Zealand, which in the comments she admits to pairing with a 10-year old Italian Valpolicella. The main point of her post was about restrictive regulations on unpasteurized cheeses and whatnot, but when she mentioned the wine, it hit me like a ton of bricks...

December 1996. I'm only 20, and I'm in Italy for a three-week long tour of the country with my girlfriend at the time. There's an entire book that could be written about that relationship debacle, but I'm going to focus on one thing here. We were in Assisi for Christmas, and had been told by various travelers that this city like many throughout the country shut down on major religious holidays. We had booked a dinner through our youth hostel (which turned out to be amazing--handmade tortellini, white bean soup, smoked salmon, panettone, and all the wine you could drink), but needed something for lunch. So the day before, we stocked up at the local markets: some sliced Genoa salami, a fresh loaf of bread, a hearty chunk of Gorgonzola cheese, and a bottle of inexpensive Valpolicella made by the cousin of the pizza shop owner.

Now, Gorgonzola is not exactly a "bleu" cheese, it's a little more on the green side, and tends to be softer at room temperature. Though we lucked out, as rustic youth hostels in Italy tend to be around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, practically a refrigerator. But let me digress a bit before talking about the wine and cheese combination.

After dinner at a trattoria, we attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at the Basilica of St. Francis. Funny tradition there--at 11:30 p.m., they start ringing the church bells, and everyone finishes their drinks or coffee at the bar. At 11:45, they ring again, and everyone begins walking up the hills to the Basilica. The church service was lovely (even for this Presbyterian), and was delivered in a variety of languages.

The next morning, we had Christmas breakfast with the family running the hostel, which was delightful because we got to watch the kids open their Christmas presents over fresh rolls and coffee. And like I said, we were going to have dinner at the hostel that evening. But for lunch, we had our meat, cheese, bread and wine, and were on our own. It was a little chilly--not cold. As we were locked out of the hostel for most the day and the city was shut down, there wasn't much to do. We milled about the old city and finally found a church that was holding an afternoon service. It was an ancient building, originally a Roman temple to Minerva that still had bas relief carvings of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. On the steps of that temple, my girlfriend and I had our simple, elemental lunch. The bread and meat were nourishing and delicious, but the cheese was divine. I'd kept it close to me to warm up, and it was soft and malleable, showing rich veins of mold throughout the pure white cheese. And when washed down with the red Valpolicella--consumed with alternating swigs straight from the bottle--it provided for one of the most memorable lunches of my life.

Shortly afterwards, we attended the afternoon mass, conducted in the tiny room by two Franciscan monks, one who read the service and the other who played the acoustic guitar during the songs. The two dozen or so attendees--mostly locals--huddled together with us for warmth during the service, and my halfway decent Italian was enough to make us part of the family.

Gorgonzola isn't seen a lot in these parts unless it's one of the milder varients used sparingly in a salad or something, but the combination of a good moldy cheese and an Italian wine is one that is always going to throw me back into the gentle embrace of fond memories.

Beer Review: Shiner Kölsch

A brief departure... Tonight I'm drinking Shiner Kölsch produced by the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas. I've long been a fan of the Shiner Bock made by the same brewery. Who would have thought that Czech and German immigrants to Texas could have joined forces to make such good beers? The Shiner Bock is a medium dark beer that has a great nutty flavor and goes down smooth. The brewery makes a half dozen or so beers, but aside from the Bock, the one other one to reach the Memphis market is the Kölsch, and that was just last month.

(For my international readers, that creature on the label is a horned toad, actually a lizard. They're angry little things that can swell up and shoot blood from their eyes, and live in the deserts of the American Southwest.)

Kölsch is a light, mildly bitter beer from Köln (Cologne), Germany. Even though that's a controlled appellation for the region, the folks at Shiner are still using it. That kind of thing happens here... we've got loads of terrible wines that go by the names Burgundy and Champagne, but this is a decent beer. It has an appealing, smooth aroma, with a slightly bitter, crisp flavor and great hops and malt tastes on the back end. Somewhere in there is just a tiny bit of lemon.

It's light and refreshing enough for summer consumption, but amazingly, the weather finally shifted to something fall-like here in Memphis, due to the arrival of the remnants of Hurricane Rita. I used one bottle in the beef stew and quaffed two bottles with dinner. Although this isn't as strong as an India Pale Ale, I still love a good bitter beer. Tea and coffee are bitter, but are frequently softened with sugar or cream, and neither are really drunk with meals (except for iced tea, the staple of Southern restaurants, but it's almost always modified with sugar or artificial sweeteners). So the only option for a bitter beverage for dinner is a hoppy beer. Sometimes you're in the mood for it, and why deprive yourself?

Tasting Notes for September 24, 2005

This tasting was devoted to wines from all over Spain. Many of these appear to come from small wineries without websites--in some cases I've substituted reviews or catalog entries for links. Most of these were scored around 90 by Robert Parker. I don't pay a lot of attention to the scoring scales, which is why I don't use them on my blog. I'm more interested in how it tastes, smells, and feels in the mouth, which tends to be more useful in matching a wine to a food or an occasion than a score.

Wine 1: Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad Brut. Ribera del Duero, Spain. From the northwest corner near Barcelona. Two thirds Macabeo and one third Parrellada, this sparkling wine had a bright, fruity aroma with a crisp and yeasty flavor. Very interesting bottle design--a metal ring on the bottom and a metal seal on the side. This would be a fun presentation for some sort of medieval/Renaissance-themed dinner. $23.

Wine 2: 2004 Hermanos Lurton Blanco. Rueda, Spain. Sort of between Barcelona and Madrid. This is a white blend of Verdejo and Viura. Grapefruit pith and peel all over the place. Slightly sweet but surprisingly not tart. Lovely little white to serve chilled in the summer. $12.

Wine 3: 2003 Pazo de Señorans Albariño. Galicia, Spain. Same area as above. There was a slight musky aroma, no oak present, and delectible well-rounded construction. Not complex, but a pleasant and mellow wine. $20.

Wine 4: 2003 Vina Mein Blanco. Ribeiro, Spain. Northeast corner near Portugal. 70% Treixadura, 15% Godello, 10% Loureira, and 5% Albariño. I'm really not familiar with those first three grapes, but I wasn't impressed by the wine. It was thin, no dominant flavors, and maybe just a hint of lemon. $18.

Wine 5: 2003 Bodegas Luan Red "Equis Viñas Viejas". Vino de Tierra Castilla, Spain. Sort of in the center near Madrid. "The wine is a blend of Bobal, Mazuelo (the local term for Carignan), Garnacha (Grenache) and Cencibel (Tempranillo)." Strawberry jam on the nose, with matching flavor but dry and with a short finish. Really Surprising. $10.

Wine 6: 2003 Venta Mazzaron Tempranillo. Toro, Spain. Around the center of the country. There's a touch of toast on the top, with heavy tannins that arrive in mid-taste. Very dry. $12.

Wine 7: 2002 Bodegas Castano Solanera. Yecla, Spain. Southeast. The aroma was alcoholic, with dark berry notes like a Zinfandel or Port. Surprisngly soft tannins. Made from Monsatrell, the Spanish name for Mourvèdre. $15.

Wine 8: 2002 Abadia Retuerta "Rivola". Sardon del Duero, Spain. Northeast Spain. 60% Tempranillo and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. A little too mellow for me--I really wonder if I tasted the same wine as mentioned in the review. There's a chance that the alcohol in the previous wine hampered my tasting ability, but I was still able to pick out lots in the next wine... $14.

Wine 9: 1999 Sierra Cantabria Crianza. Rioja, Spain. North Central Spain. Tempranillo. Big black cherry aroma, soft fruit flavors with hints of vanilla and hazelnuts. Nicely aged with a lovely garnet color. Great wine at a spectacular price. $15.

Wine 10:
1999 Fernando Remirez de Ganuza Rioja Reserva
. Rioja, Spain. Another Tempranillo from the North Central region of Rioja. Deep purple color with concentrated flavors. Dry and distinguished, and while I was having a difficult time picking out any individual flavor elements, it was an amazing wine. $60.

23 September 2005

2003 Desolation Flats "Rustler's Red"

An odd selection that caught my eye... The 2003 Desolation Flats "Rustler's Red", a blended California table red that combines Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Petite Verdot, Malbec and Refosco. The last grape was used to produce the favorite wine of Augustus Caesar's second wife. Unlike some other "kitchen sink" red blends, this one has a solid character--I got a lot of the Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon, but the other grapes obviously added complexity and I'm sure the Malbec did wonders to soften the edges.

It's a strange little wine, and a good bargain at $9. There's a hot, alcoholic aroma on top (13.9%), tinged with dark plum, but the flavor is remarkably soft and well rounded... yet the finish is surprisingly tannic and dry. I served it with beef and noodles in a cream sauce, earthy country fare for a hardscrabble wine. Highly recommended for both the interesting palate sensations and the lovely logo design.

22 September 2005

23rd Post, 5th Sentence

Barbara tagged me for one of the recent blogging memes/challenges. This one requires that you look at the fifth sentence from your 23rd post and elucidate on its meaning. My 23rd post on this blog was a review of the 2002 Turning Leaf Sonoma Reserve North Coast Pinot Noir. And my fifth sentence was "Fairly well balanced and drinkable."

So what do I think about that? Well, I'm glad it was a wine I enjoyed, and good balance and drinkability are factors that every good wine should include. It's not the kind of thing I'd want on my tombstone, but it certainly could have been worse.

As for tagging others... I'm going to pass for the moment. Might update this later.

19 September 2005

Wine Blogging Wednesday Contest

Lenn recently announced a contest to design a logo for Wine Blogging Wednesday. I've got a half dozen ideas, but this was my first submission. There's a couple of others that will be more interesting, and even if I don't officially submit them, I might post them on this site.

Though the jpg here is only low-res, I built this in Illustrator, so it can easily be sized to make a crisp and clear wine label for any empty bottles lying around.

2004 Viña Vilano Rosado

Last night with a dinner of roast chicken thighs in a savory sauce and some pine nut couscous, I served a bottle of the 2004 2004 Viña Vilano Rosado, a $9 Spanish rosé from the Ribera del Duero region in the north. It's 100% Tinto Fino and the flavor is all about the berries--strawberry and raspberry mostly. There's a crisp, almost effervescent feel on the tongue. It's a great bargain, but I was personally wanting a softer finish. Good entry-level rosé for picnics or casual occasions.

18 September 2005

Tasting Side Note

There might not be any large wine tasting notes in the next two weeks--my usual places are taking a break, though I'll probably stumble into something before the end of the month. I will continue to post notes on the wines I drink and serve for friends, and might expand a bit with some beer or liquor reviews depending on what I'm in the mood for.

2003 Crane Lake Petite Sirah

Continuing my run through the bargain offerings from Crane Lake, I decided to give the 2003 Petite Sirah a try. This isn't on the floor at our local shop, but the owner is keeping a couple of cases in the back for friends. And who couldn't resist the temptation to try a $4 Petite Sirah? I've got to say that it's quite good. Not as good as the $10 bottles from Bogle or Concannon, but a solidly built wine in its own right. Blackberry aromas with a matching, jammy flavor. Deep purple color, and well-rounded tannins. And yes, it stains your tongue dark blue if you have more than a glass.

I had two bottles this weekend, one with New York-style pizza and one with some boneless ribeyes. Three other people tasted this wine with me and were very impressed even before I told them about the price. I doubt that it will age well, but this is a fun little wine, particularly if you haven't had any prior experience with this grape.

14 September 2005

Cuban Sandwich

This doesn't really have much to do with wine (except for the splash of white wine I used in the black beans), but I enjoy linking my photoessays here. As a native of Memphis, Tennessee, the smoking of lots of pork products is in my blood... and my arteries, I suppose. If you watch the stores well, you can almost always find some part of the pig on sale. In this I smoked a picnic roast (lower half of the front leg of the pig)--I got it for 99¢ a pound, and slow smoked it for about six hours. I know it's not genteel to discuss such matters among the wineblogosphere, but in past years I've stayed up all night tending the coals of a whole hog roasting in a pit dug out of the ground:

A week later I used some of the frozen leftover pork to make dense, delicious Cuban sandwiches. Obviously here I drank the great Red Stripe beer, but if I had to pick a wine to go with this, I'd go with an inexpensive California sparkling wine or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. You need something cold and crisp to cut through the grease, and anything with good citrus notes would enhance the flavors of the sandwich and side dishes (hence the lime in the Red Stripe).

Click here for more details!

2002 Crane Lake Cabernet Sauvignon

My second wine from this bargain label... I found the 2002 Crane Lake Cabernet Sauvignon to be interesting, but not terribly satisfying. There's a unique aroma of chocolate and molasses on top, which is quite alluring, but the wine itself doesn't deliver. There's a quick, crisp flavor with no real tannins and an impossibly short finish. It ain't bad, but it's not great either. Still, it's unoffensive for $4.

11 September 2005

Tasting Notes for September 10, 2005

All of the wines at today's tasting came from winemaker Lionello Marchesi of Castello di Monastero. Signore Marchesi was present for the tasting, and I was delighted to dust off my college Italian. The winery is located near Siena in Tuscany, and the wines tasted were a combination of I.G.T., D.O.C., and D.O.C.G. classifications. The wines are also produced under a couple of different labels, the names of which I'll include below.

The three Chiantis (wines 1, 2, and 4) are 85% Sangiovese with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the quantities of the latter two grapes varying with each year. This smooths out the flavor somewhat, and makes the wines more appealing to the US market.

Wine 1: 2002 Montetondo Chianti Superiore D.O.C.G. Firm tannins, a rich, dark aroma, and a soft finish. $15.

Wine 2: 2002 Castello di Monastero Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. Hint of tobacco on the nose, softer tannins than the first one with mild cherry flavors and a soft finish. $18.

Wine 3: 2002 Poggio Sughere Morellino di Scansano D.O.C. Very mellow aroma, and amazingly smooth. This one is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. If you ever wanted to convert someone with a fear of Italian wines based on a lifetime of cheap jug Chianti, this would be a perfect wine. This would be mild enough to serve with hearty chicken dishes but is still strong enough to stand up to roasted beef. $18.

Wine 4: 2000 Castello di Monastero Chianti Riserva D.O.C.G. Oak and plum aromas, great fruit forward flavor, with a short finish. Really nice wine here. $34.

Wine 5: 2002 Coldisole Rosso di Montalcino D.O.C. 100% Sangiovese Grosso. Good balance, more restrained than some of the other offerings. A hint of tannins left on the tongue, and a faint taste of licorice. $27.

Wine 6: 2001 Poggio Sughere Splendido 2001 I.G.T. 70% Sangiovese, 30% Merlot. Black cherry, almost no tannins. Short finish with just a tiny bite on the end. A great wine. $45.

Wine 7: 2001 Castello di Monastero Infinito I.G.T. 60% Sangiovese, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. Soft and well rounded, well aged enough that the more mellow and flavorful elements of the two grapes are really able to shine. $50.

Wine 8: 2000 Coldisole Brunello di Montalcino D.O.C.G. 100% Sangiovese Grosso. A touch of toast on the aroma, with dark, slightly oaky flavors. The color, intensity, and flavor of this wine really showed proper aging. $45.

Wine 9: 1999 Lunanuova Vin Santo di Chianti D.O.C. 80% Malvasia, 20% Trebbiano. Vin Santo is an Italian fortified wine, somewhere between a tawny Port and a sherry and only 16% alcohol. It's got that great Port aroma but a feel and taste closer to sherry or Madeira. I first had Vin Santo in a trattoria near Florence, where it was served with dessert. The waiter brought out an entire bottle of Vin Santo, some small almond biscotti, and almost thimble-sized cups. It's sweet and strong, but warms you from the inside out. This tasting brought back some really fond memories. $60 (375 mL).

10 September 2005

2004 Crane Lake Chardonnay

I haven't found any solid information about Crane Lake Cellars, but they produce bargain table wines in California. Supposedly the grapes come from the Central Valley and are bottled in Napa. I grabbed a bottle of the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Chardonnay, and here I'm talking about the latter. Again, at $4, I'm happy to use it for everyday cooking and casual quaffing. (Supposedly they make a Petite Syrah at the same price point--the manager of a local shop is getting a case of it based on my interest, and if I like it I'll certainly spread the word.)

This Chardonnay really isn't a bad wine. It's unoaked, and has a crisp initial feel with a mellow following. A slightly floral nose with some apple and pear flavors. I used it to enhance some slow simmered black beans to accompany a homemade Cuban Sandwich (more on that in a future post).

I'm really pleasantly surprised by this wine. It's not sour, it doesn't have a harsh aftertaste, and while it's not the most complex wine out there, I've had California Chardonnays costing five times as much that were terrible. This is definitely a good picnic wine, or something to sip beside the pool, or something to bring along to an informal gathering of non-serious wine drinkers.

The background and taste of this wine really remind me of the bargain Burgundy Roncier Blanc de Blancs. I've also got to give them credit for a classy label--simple and elegant text, with an dictionary-style etching of a crane.

09 September 2005

2003 Hayman & Hill Edna Valley Pinot Noir

Based on my experience two weeks ago with this venture's Shiraz-Viognier, I decided to try the 2003 Hayman & Hill Edna Valley Pinot Noir. (No link because I didn't even see a review.) Around $12, I figured it was worth a shot.

I really need a tattoo on my right hand that says "Do Not Buy Pinot Noir Under $20". Perhaps in gothic script with thorny vines going around it. I worked in graphic design for 8 years, maybe I can work up something.

As my blog shows, I'm a big fan of inexpensive (but well-made) table wines, but I don't think it's really possible with this grape. I did devote a good bit of time in the evaluation of this wine, giving it a lot of consideration. Though it's only 13.5% alcohol, the aroma is predominantly alcohol with just a touch of black cherry or plum. A garnet color, nothing surprising for a two year old Pinot. The taste is smooth on the beginning with a harsh, tannic finish. Not much fruit in the flavor, nor is there that subtle, mellow loveliness that you get from a well-balanced Pinot Noir.

I tried it alone and then with a simple but delicious dinner, roast pork/potatoes au gratin/broccoli. My dinner host had similar opinions about the wine, and I left the remaining third with him. It's a bad sign when I can't kill off a bottle of wine, but I just wasn't up to it tonight. (And yes, my nose is working fine. Had a martini earlier in the evening and had no problem picking out all of the herbal elements as well as those of the garnish.)

And where is the Edna Valley? It's in the Central Coast of California, around San Luis Obispo. Doesn't have quite the same ring as Napa or Sonoma, but I'm not willing to hold the geographic name against a wine. There's a town not far from Memphis called Bucksnort, and a friend of mine was born in the local hamlet of Frog Jump.

However, I can still vividly remember Hayman & Hill's Shiraz-Viognier, and they've bought themselves a great deal of goodwill in my book. I'm willing to give their Zinfandel a chance sometime in the near future.

Quick Update

Sorry I skipped Wine Blogging Wednesday... I've had a little summer cold all week and haven't been in the mood for wine (or food for that matter). Plus, up through yesterday I couldn't smell anything, which would have made for pretty dull wine notes. I'm feeling much better though, and should have some reviews up this weekend.

01 September 2005


By popular demand, comments will be enabled for the next couple of posts. If I have any problems with spam, I might turn on the "word verification" feature. I know it's a pain, but hopefully it won't come to that. Just a couple of caveats: I tend to post at weird hours, and don't necessarily look at the posts every day. So if you ask a direct question, I'll try to answer it when I get around to it, but if there's any sort of lively discussion I probably won't be participating. In good conscience I try not to visit or think about this blog at work--when reading and writing about wine I really prefer to be relaxed and not handling an e-commerce problem with a client in Brazil.

One other thing: I've already heard from a couple of wineries that disagreed with my reviews and have offered to send me a free bottle for re-evaluation. First off, I'm deeply flattered, but due to laws here in the highly enlightened state of Tennessee, I can't receive wine or liquor through the mail. All shipments that cross state lines have to pass through the hands of a distributor. I weep at the thought of some generous gift being intercepted at the post office and being ceremoniously poured down the drain. However, if you want me to give your wine a second shot and you're friendly about it, let me know anyway and I'll try to get around to it in the next couple of months at my own expense. I do realize that there's dozens of things that can make a single bottle go off and that it's not indicative of the vintage as a whole.

It's fun hearing from wineries, particularly the ones where I gave positive reviews. And if I didn't like your wine, don't take it personally--I'm not an expert, and this blog has a lot more to do with my personal tastes and quest for wine education. I also think that wine can be much better evaluated with food, whereas the majority of wines listed here are based off small samples at wine tastings. Even if I say I'm not enthusiastic about a particular wine, it doesn't mean that it's bad, just that it didn't pique my interest. I don't think there's many terrible wines out there, most stuff on the market tends to be average and drinkable with a few that stand out above the herd.