30 January 2009

Simply Citrus

I've always wanted an exprimidor, a cast aluminum citrus squeezer popular in Mexico and Latin America. You can buy fancy versions (in different sizes for limes, lemons, and oranges) at a gourmet shop, or you can haul your gringo ass down to the local mercado and buy one for $5. My advice: just get one large squeezer, the smaller ones sometimes choke even on limes. And don't buy a plastic one... A metal one will last forever.

Now I just got around to getting one, and not from fear of shopping in ethnic grocery stores (my track record should be pretty clear there), but because I only thought of the damned thing at the oddest times. Like waking up at three in the morning and telling myself I really need a Mexican citrus squeezer.

How do you use it? Cut your citrus in half (quarters for oranges) and place flesh-side down in the cup with the holes. Then just squeeze. On lemons and limes, it completely turns the peel inside out. While it's not perfectly clean (you'll splatter some juice around), I like it because it catches the seeds but lets the pulp fall into the glass.

For the first run I took a Meyer lemon, a blood orange, a tangerine, and a lime. Squeezed the juice and topped it off with sparkling water. No tequila, no rum, no umbrella here, just a refreshing breakfast beverage.

28 January 2009

Benito vs. the Beautiful Swimmer: Blue Crabs

How did I celebrate my 4th anniversary last week? No wine, oddly enough. Wasn't in the mood. I'm not burnt out or anything, but I felt like crabs and beer. Fortunately the crazy international grocery store at Winchester/Kirby has started stocking live blue crabs. As Grace is the most enthusiastic crab fan I know, I invited her over to join me for the feast.

Meet Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha. A quartet of gals dolled up with fresh red nail polish. Actually, that's natural coloration and an easy way to tell the boys from the girls. These are mature female crabs, or sooks, as can be determined by turning them over. Be careful: I only handled these things with tongs, because those claws are sharp, strong, and not constrained by rubber bands. Plus they'll snap at anything that moves into their field of vision. As you can see at right, they'll even clip off each others legs while you're trying to take a photo. (It's one thing to remove a minor blemish or stray crumb in Photoshop. But a detached leg? Too weird to edit out.)

I grabbed a sixer of Fat Tire Mothership Wit from Ft. Collins, Colorado. A wheat beer flavored with orange and coriander sounded good with fresh shellfish. On the label "Mothership" refers to the headquarters of the brewery, but I'd like to think that it also gives a little love to Parliament Funkadelic.

The best way to replicate the flavor of a Mothership Wit is to eat an orange wedge and then drink chai tea.

After cooking, the crabs took on a nice red color, and I also had two pounds of snow crab legs warming up in the oven (unlike boiling or steaming, this is the least messy and easiest way to heat up frozen crab legs--just throw them on a cookie sheet at 350ºF for 15-20 minutes).

To clean and eat the blue crabs, check out one of the many online tutorials. Some even have video. And while the meat is sweeter and more tender than anything else you can get this far from the coast, it's tricky to extract all of it. It's one of those skills that only gets better with practice: crab lovers along the Chesapeake Bay can easily dismantle one in under a minute.

The title of this post is a reference to the scientific name for the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus or "Beautiful swimmer - savory". It's also the name of a great book on the crab, its history, and the impact on the Bay, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William W. Warner.

26 January 2009

Benito vs. Scotland: Burns Night

Every year on January 25, Scots, people of Scottish descent, and folks who simply want to eat, drink, and be merry gather together to celebrate the memory of the immortal Robert Burns. There's a lot of ceremony that goes along with such a gathering, but I won't go into much detail here--it's one of those things you have to experience rather than read. And yes, I happily threw out phrases in a proper brogue here and there, much to the amusement of the assembled guests. Though I scrapped the plan of wearing a sword and kilt. That would be fine if I were simply Master of Ceremonies, but with all the cooking and running around I was bound to injure myself or a dog.

Since this year marked the 250th birthday of Burns, I thought I ought to host my own Burns Night gathering. Yes, it would involve making a haggis, but I'm of partial Scottish heritage and have a certain familiarity with organ meats. My buddy Paul was willing to host, and I locked in eight other friends and family members. And just to keep things interesting I decided on an all-Pinot Noir night, since over the past year I'd managed to accumulate a bunch of Pinot that wasn't simply red wine.

We started things out with the NV Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs, $13, 12% abv. Columbia Valley of Washington. This is really my go-to bubbly, and if I could just keep a few cases around the house at all times I would do so. It's got a ripe strawberry profile, with lemon hints, and its pale salmon tint is beautiful. There's enough body here to stand up to a wide range of foods, and for my first course I took a slab of smoked salmon (thoughtfully provided by my parents) and made little open-faced sandwiches. Start with a base of toasted rye, add a spread of Dijon mustard, then smoked salmon, topped with sour cream and a few rings of green onions. My brother remarked that it tasted like a really good ham sandwich--and indeed, if used properly smoked salmon can serve as a delicious (and kosher!) substitute for various cured pork products.

Next up on the wine list was the 2007 Novy Blanc de Noirs from the Willamette Valley of Oregon (on the far right in the photo). $26, 13.9% abv. A real freak of the wine world: a still white wine made from Pinot Noir. I first heard about this from Michael at Midtown Stomp and I had to swing by Joe's to grab a bottle. It's been painful waiting to open the bottle, but what better occasion than a Burns Night dinner party? This was probably the star of the night, with butter and vanilla aromas with a smooth, round mouthfeel. It has a beautiful golden color with just a tint of peach. This is really spectacular but I don't expect to see much of it in the future.

This amazing wine was served with the minimalist cock-a-leekie soup. It's almost Japanese in its simplicity: just a chicken boiled in water with peppercorns and the green parts of leeks. Strain and return the chicken meat to the pot with prunes and the white parts of leeks. Remove most of the fat and serve. As usual, I served the soup in mugs for the sake of dishes and portion control.

I made a fresh salad fortified with raw leeks and fennel and served it along with the first Pinot Noir, rosado Cava made in Spain. This oddity is the NV Codorníu Pinot Noir, a chunky sparkler that won't fit in your wine rack any time soon (far left in the above photo). But as Queen wisely told us, fat bottomed girls, you make the rockin' world go 'round. Ahem. Apricot and peach flavors with a touch of raspberries.

The story of my haggis is pretty long, but I'll keep it short here. While traditionally the entrails are minced and stuffed inside a sheep's stomach, I elected to use corn husks instead. That's right: HAGGIS TAMALES. Why? They're already in single-serving sizes and are perfect for holding the filling together during a long period of steaming, the ideal semi-permeable membrane. Some may consider this blasphemy, but I found the solution far better and, in the grand economical tradition of Scotland, far more appropriate than purchasing a pre-made haggis or attempting to assemble all the original parts. Besides, there's a long tradition of haggis being adapted to local ingredients.

For my wee haggis I used beef heart, beef liver, and leg of lamb along with onions, steel-cut oats, and some seasonings. Instead of the traditional "boil until grey and flavourless" method, I just browned it all in a skillet, let cool, and then ground the mess in a food processor before stuffing in the husks. I was very happy with the results (having tasted both domestic and imported haggis in the past), but the flavor is pretty much like meatloaf or sausage. It's not quite as scary or exotic as most people think.

Before serving the haggis I of course had to recite the Address to a Haggis in the proper Scots dialect.

For a sauce--one of the unexpected successes of the evening--I just heated up two jars of red currant jelly with Dewar's Scotch. I was surprised at the reaction: aside from my father and me, no one at the table had had haggis before, and almost all enjoyed it. I poured a French rosé from Burgundy (middle photo): the 2005 Frédéric Magnien. This one was really liked by many at the table that hadn't preferred some of the previous selections, and had raspberry and lemon elements to it. While that sounds tart, it was quite smooth and refined.

For the alternate main course (I really hadn't expected so many people to eat all their haggis), I roasted Paul's leg of lamb stuffed with rosemary and garlic, and served it with roasted cubed potatoes and rutabagas. The side dish is the traditional Scots "neeps & tatties", but I chose to roast the root veggies with olive oil and a dash of maple syrup rather than boil them into a bland mush.

More haggis sauce was poured over the lamb, and we uncorked the last wine of the evening, the 2005 Beringer Napa Valley Pinot Noir. $20, with very ripe strawberry characteristics, a round flavor that was really bold and firm after all the "weaker" Pinot variants we tasted. I think this would be a great introductory Pinot Noir for anyone that wants to get to know the grape.

Bear in mind that I took pauses of 15-20 minutes between courses, no reason to force this much food and wine into people quickly. For dessert, we feasted on Dad's bottle of The Macallan 12 Year Scotch. Nice and peaty, with smoke and spice elements like nutmeg and a hint of cinnamon. Macallan is a dependable producer and I was proud to have it at the table.

Continuing with my theme of not liking to cook dessert and the fact that by this point in a dinner party I'm running low on steam, the Squirrels once again saved the day with a honey cake, made with Scotch and topped with a Drambuie glaze. We each just had a small piece but it was the perfect way to cap off the evening.

All in all it was a great evening. I enjoyed making haggis for the first time, and having the poetry and history associated with Robert Burns really helped tie everything together. My thanks to all those who helped out with the dinner, both by contributing items and being willing to eat the finished products. My first Burns Night was back in '94 with the Memphis Scottish Society, and I'm glad to have hosted the first one for so many of my friends and family.

22 January 2009

4th Anniversary

Nearly 600 posts, over 2,000 wines, and one sampling of the world's hottest pepper later, I'm proud to celebrate my 4th Anniversary writing Benito's Wine Reviews. And even though there's more wine bloggers out there than ever before, I'm still on the list of the Top 100 Wine Blogs.

Favorite post of the past year? I'd have to say cooking salmon on my car engine in honor of several meals my grandfather fed me on long road trips.

There's not that many wine blogs that have been continuously operating longer than mine: Lenn, Alder, Tom, Stephen... When I started the blog I was 28 with zero experience regarding the wine industry and limited wine drinking knowledge. In fact, one of my favorite comments comes from March 2005 in respect to a tasting of 15 heavy Italian reds that pretty much killed my palate that day. An anonymous reader wrote, "This idiot knows nothing about wine."

At the time I knew slightly more than nothing, but I'd like to think that I've made some significant progress since then. By January 2005 I'd tried wines from six countries and five US states, probably representing a dozen different grape varieties. Now I'm up to 25 countries, 16 states, and over 150 grapes. I've toured vineyards, received sample bottles, tested wine gadgets, and engaged in lively e-mail correspondence with winemakers, bloggers, and readers from around the world.

If you're a fan of this blog, do me a favor. Well, two--throw a little change in the collection plate through a purchase on my Amazon Store, but more importantly, explore new blogs that cover subjects similar to mine. A great starting point would be some of my new friends from the past year. In no particular order:

The Wine Commonsewer sticks to red wines with the tenacity of a bulldog. A Marine, libertarian, tax attorney bulldog, that is. I swear the man stepped out of a Robert Heinlein novel.

Samantha Dugan sells wine in LA and has a wine label tattooed on her back. A great change of pace when my posts get too manly with the cigars and roast pig's feet.

Wine Diver Girl is a wine professional and SCUBA enthusiast out of California, but does not recommend combining the two activities.

Paul Ryburn has established himself as the voice of Downtown Memphis, and while he appears to be more of a beer lover, his site provides a resident's view of the area that so many of us merely visit.

Wine Smash takes the Gary Vaynerchuk style of video wine blogging to the Nashville area. Lots of fun and I'm always happy to see another Tennessean online.

How about Mondosapore for all your Italian wine needs by way of New York? It's the only wine blog I read where I can comment in bits of Italian.

A view from Texas thanks to Wine Enabler, who might also be the first pair of bloggers to explore West Virginia wine.

And you can't forget our correspondent from the wilderness, who blogs from a trailer in Montana and serves up wine wisdom with a side of morels and bison, Ramblin' Wino.

Go forth! Read, digest, comment! Support the bloggers you love, give them encouragement and help them make it to their own anniversaries.

I'll be back Monday with a groundbreaking, historic and folkloric post that will blow your mind.

20 January 2009

A Small Bouquet of Rosé

How about some extra posts this week?

With much rejoicing, I celebrate the fact that dry rosés have enough market share to remain on the shelves well past the hot summer months. These wines have gone from curiosity to fad in the past couple of years, but I think they still occupy an odd spot in the old food+wine thinking. While these are the perfect beverages of summer, let's not forget their ability to pair with a wide range of food and to appeal to a wide range of palates and experience levels.

First up is the 2006 A to Z Oregon Rosé. $12, 13% abv, and a label set primarily in Zapfino. Made from 100% Sangiovese harvested in Southern Oregon. It's pretty rich and full bodied for a rosé, and is a little off-dry. Aromas and flavors of strawberry and watermelon, and it's got a bit of that Jolly Rancher approach to both. I paired it with leftover mushroom lasagne and a little salad... Comfort food on a rainy afternoon.

Now let's turn our attention to Spain with the 2007 Condesa de Leganza Rosado. $12, 12.5% abv. Pure Tempranillo from the La Mancha region. Nose of light raspberry and apples. Bright, refreshing flavor with a sangria tang to it. Dry but fruity, with a tannic edge on the finish. On the color front, is it just me or are many rosés getting darker?

For some reason I've been on a linguistics kick recently, so get ready for some more amateur analysis. While Alaskan native tribes don't really have dozens of words for snow, some languages are better at describing nuances than others. Greek is far better than English when it comes to love, which would make life far less complicated for our nation's teenagers. In a similar vein, the French have an impressive vocabulary to describe rosés. Here's a partial list, and I'll note that doing research in a language you don't fully speak is sort of like walking with concrete blocks tied to your feet, so my apologies for any errors in translation, and I welcome any native-speaking French rosé fans to correct this list, which is in alphabetical as opposed to chromatic order:
  • blanc taché - stained white
  • clairet - pale
  • faible - weak
  • gris - gray
  • jaune orangé - yellow-orange
  • oeil-de-perdrix - eye of the partridge (Très poétique, non?)
  • orange - orange
  • pelure d'oignon - onion skin
  • rosé franc - free or frank pink
  • rosé jaune - yellow-pink
  • rosé orange - orange-pink
  • rosé vif - sharp pink
  • rosé violet - purple-pink
  • roux - russet-red
  • tuile - tile (like a Spanish tile roof)
Obviously other languages have their own descriptive terms for the various shades between red and white, but I leave that exercise to other writers. In closing, often cross-cultural understanding can produce something new and unique. The American songwriter Jim Steinman wrote "Total Eclipse of the Heart", which was popularized by Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler and it became a huge hit in the mid-80s. Years later the Norwegian band Hurra Torpedo made it awesome with the help of some household appliances.

19 January 2009

2007 Albet i Noya Xarel-Lo

It's time for a lovely little Spanish white: this is the 2007 Albet i Noya Xarel-Lo. $14, 12% abv. Grapefruit and apricot aromas, with just a little earth and overripe bananas. This has big, strong acidity, with heavy grapefruit peel flavors. Oh please, give me some garlicky shellfish to go with this wine. Or just take me to a beach and give me a sharp rock, I'll find something salty and edible.

I love this wine but this name/grape combination might as well be Chinese for most folks. For the benefit of Google searches, I'm going to break it down in excruciating detail. Let's start with the grape part. Unlike Chardonnay and Chablis, you'll probably never encounter a stripper with the stage name Xarel-Lo.

How do you pronounce Xarel-Lo? This varies a bit depending on the specific town you're from in Northeast Spain, but either sha-REL-lo or cha-REL-lo works. Want something easier? Remember that your friend Cheryl Lowe recommended it to you. It's a light white grape that's used to make the sparkling wine Cava as well as still wines like this example. That high acid serves as a good clue: fine Champagnes are so high in acidity as to be virtually undrinkable before the second fermentation. This wine is nowhere near that acidic, but it's obvious the grape has the potential, and sometimes that tart flavor is perfect. After all, one night you want the vanilla ice cream, another night you want the lemon sorbet.

So what's up with the name Albet i Noya? First off, it's not "Albert i Noya", there's no r in there.

I know that sometimes royals place the regnal ordinal between two names. For instance, His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf is the current King of Sweden*. Sometimes that number comes before the nickname, as in France with Pepin III the Short, Charles II the Bald, and Eudes I the Insane. However, the regnal ordinal is always a capital Roman numeral. So a few hours of tracing the family tree of Spanish monarchs went down the drain.

Albet i Noya is the family name connected with the winery, but what about that little i? The answer lies in one of the many delightful Romance languages that aren't well known outside of their regions. In this case, it's Northeast Spain's Català (Catalan). In Català the copulative conjunction and is i instead of y as in Castellano or standard Spanish. And then you just follow the rules of the particle y Spanish naming custom that became popular in the 16th century. Mystery solved!

I'm pretty impressed with Spanish wine websites. Many are trilingual, in English, Spanish, and the regional language. I even saw one in Galego (Galician) recently. You don't see this much with Italy and France; I'd love to see a website published in Saintongeais, Occitan, or Friulian.

*He gave her things that she was needin'.

16 January 2009

2003 Wimmer-Czerny Roter Veltliner

How many different wine grapes are there in the world? I don't know if anyone has the definitive answer--that would require detailed knowledge of winemaking, history, and botany as well as the mastery of dozens of languages and the willingness to get involved in centuries-old arguments over grape lineages. Hell, we still don't even know for sure where wine was first produced, with a dozen regions claiming the title. The longest list of grape vareities I could find online details around 2,500 varieties. I've knocked out around 150, but I stopped counting after joining the Wine Century Club for tasting 100 unique grapes. (I'm still the only member from Tennessee; I know some of y'all can join me. They need... Volunteers!)

I'll still jump at any opportunity to try a new grape, especially from a smaller wine country, and thus I was excited to grab a bottle of the 2003 Wimmer-Czerny Roter Veltliner from Austria. $13, 12% abv. Touch of vanilla, whiff of Riesling-like petrol, just a little musk. It remains surprisingly crisp and refreshing, with a bit of lemon flavor and a nice minerality. While it's fruity and dry, it reminds me of some odd cross between a Riesling and a Sauvignon Blanc.

Eric Asimov wrote about a bottle of the 2005 vintage back in 2007. Despite the similar names, recent DNA tests have established no relation between the Roter Veltliner and the better-known Grüner Veltliner grapes. Jancis Robinson also gives us an explanation for the names: Veltliner means "from the village of Veltlin in the Tirol [south Austria near the Italian border]". Both are white wine grapes, but Grüner means "green" and Roter means "red", even though the latter just has a pinkish tinge to it like Pinot Grigio, which isn't gray. Of course, Pinot Noir isn't black and "Blanc" grapes are all yellow or green... You could really screw up a kid by teaching him colors with wine grapes.

What to prepare along with a grape I had never seen before? I wasn't really in the mood for Österreicher cusine, so how about some new ingredients I'd never tasted before? I fixed guinea hen, an odd little bird that resembles a wild turkey. This one is organic from North Carolina. The bird is called pintade in French and faraona (Pharaoh) in Italian, the latter association due to the Egyptian love of the poultry over 4000 years ago.

I used this recipe from Jamie Oliver because blood oranges are in season and stuffing some inside sounded great. The skin and meat are darker than chicken (almost purple in places), and the flavor is deeper. Despite this being my first experience with this particular bird, it came out tender, juicy, and delicious. Grace served as willing test subject, and she gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. Will it replace chicken, turkey, or duck? No. But I'd take a guinea hen any day over a Cornish game hen or a pheasant.

For a simple side dish I threw together a batch of Napa cabbage slaw. For added kicks I skipped the carrot in the recipe and instead cut up a watermelon radish since it's related to daikon. The watermelon radish looks like a greenish turnip (it's the size and shape of a baseball) and is available here in Memphis at Whole Foods. They can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled, and here it worked great in the slaw (carefully julienned, the Napa cabbage thinly sliced). This ingredient has the added benefit of being one of the doggone prettiest vegetables ever created. Not that pretty in its whole form, but the cross section or little slices were made for food photography.

I was pretty happy with the way that shot came out, and if you'd like a desktop wallpaper version, click here and then right click, set as desktop background. And if you keep this as your desktop, it will serve as a reminder to try the weird, wild, wonderful vegetables that show up in the store.

14 January 2009

Wine Gift Set

It never hurts to have multiple corkscrews around the house or elsewhere. I keep at least one upstairs, one downstairs, and in my luggage. Some folks keep one in the car's glove compartment (in case of emergencies, of course).

My first corkscrew was on my Swiss Army Knife I got at the age of 11, and although it's a little tricky I've successfully used it over the years, even when I was way too young to drink wine. My second corkscrew served me well in the years after high school before finally self destructing on a problematic synthetic cork. All of the rest that are in use at Casa Benito were gifts from friends or business associates. And the corkscrew makes a great gift: everyone needs one, even if he or she is not a frequent wine drinker.

While the holidays are over, for those in business it's increasingly important to retain clients. Personalized gifts can be a great way to remind your customers how much you appreciate their business, as well as providing a reminder that will keep your name in circulation for years afterward. The Cutter & Buck American Classic Wine Set from FortePromo.com comes in an attractive leather case and includes three tools: a waiter-style corkscrew, a pouring spout, and a metal ring with a felt lining for catching the drips. (The felt ring is the one wine gadget I didn't have before--but it helps save the tablecloth as well as preserving the label for photos or if you like to peel and save your wine labels.)

The nice thing about this is that it doesn't take up a lot of space. It's about 6" x 2" x 4½" and looks classy when closed and sitting on a desk. My big rabbit corkscrew comes in something the size of a shoebox. The corkscrew performs well as do the other components. You can also check out some of their other wine accessories.

Disclaimer: I'm not receiving financial compensation for this review or for sales of this product. It's a genuinely good product that fits my wine needs, and I enjoy supporting companies that produce such wine/food accessories.

12 January 2009

The El Presidente Cocktail

In the wake of the big Festivus Cubano and its voluminous leftovers, I decided to make a round of the Cuban cocktail that goes by the name El Presidente. Hemingway was a fan of many Caribbean cocktails and perhaps one of these passed his lips at some point.

Follow the above link for a recipe, but in the handful of times I've made it, El Presidente has been pretty forgiving of the ratios. Feel free to use a splash here, a splash there, add something nuevo, it's all bueno. The important part is to focus on the citrus flavors. In the pictured variation I used lime juice instead of lemon juice and fresh pomegranate juice as opposed to grenadine: I feel this is fresher and better tasting than the straight recipe. And that's a wedge of clementine floating in the glass, not just a strip of peel. A dash of grapefruit bitters finished things off nicely.

I'll say it again: the importance of citrus cannot be ignored when it comes to proper cocktails. And I'm referring both to the use of fresh squeezed juices (never canned or bottled!) as well as the right liqueurs for the right occasion. My home bar includes Gran Gala (a delicious and affordable substitute for Gran Marinier), Orange Curaçao (made from the peels of the laraha citrus), and of course the elegant Cointreau, which is currently being promoted by the lovely Dita Von Teese.

09 January 2009

Benito vs. the Cigar: Oliva Serie V

For the first cigar review of 2009, a product line that's been showing up on a lot of Top 10 lists for 2008 is represented here by the Oliva Serie V Special Figurado Nicaragua, 6"x60.

Thick, creamy smoke on this one, with flavors of chocolate, vanilla, and a little coffee. The perfecto shape is a little unusual but is a traditional style and can be a unique experience.

The book is The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. It's an alternative history novel, in which WWII ended differently and European/Russian Jews settled in Sitka, Alaska instead of Israel. (This was a real proposal at the time.) So you end up with a whole Yiddish-speaking micronation right next to native tribal lands. And despite being a novel about Jews in Alaska, it never repeats themes or jokes from Northern Exposure, though I did guffaw at the nickname "The Frozen Chosen".

At the heart of it all is a murder mystery that has to be solved by our Jewish detective and his half-Tlingit sidekick Berko. It's an interesting read but it really helps to know in advance about the alternative history elements.

Going back in time a bit, an author that seemingly required a cigar in hand to be able to write, breathe, or function as a human was Mark Twain. Starting at the age of 8, he consumed upwards of twenty cigars a day for the rest of his life, only purchasing the cheapest, nastiest cigars possible. For his personal cigar philosphy, read his brief essay "Concerning Tobacco".

If you're interested in reading some modern cigar writing, start at Cigar Inspector and then follow the blogroll links. Denis, a Bordeaux enthusiast, wrote me recently about the overlap between cigar- and wine-blogging, and while there's a lot of participant crossover, it doesn't show up much in the writing. As always, I love to hear from readers, and let me know if you're a fan of both cigars and wine, two true pleasures on God's green earth.

07 January 2009

Robert Oatley Wines

I got the opportunity recently to sample two bottles from Robert Oatley Vineyards in the delightfully named Mudgee region of New South Wales. Bob Oatley built Rosemount to international prominence and helped give birth to the highly successful export of Australian wines around the world. These ventures secured him a spot as one of the wealthiest people in Australia and New Zealand. This new winery represents a personal approach to the wines from the area where he started in the business.

Both wines are capped with a Stelvin Lux screwcap enclosure. I don't know if it happens at your 100th or 1000th wine, but at some point removing a cork loses some of its novelty. It's now exciting to open a good wine with a mere twist of the wrist.

The 2007 Chardonnay ($18, 13% abv) presented peach and grapefruit aromas, with a smooth flavor and medium finish. It's only partially oaked, so you get a good balance between the buttery excess of oak and the pristine crispness of "naked" Chardonnay. I served this to some friends alongside a grilled fish course, where it worked well with the delicate seafood flavors. The rich fruit aromas brought a nice touch of summer to a rainy winter up here in the Northern Hemisphere.

My favorite of the two was the 2007 Shiraz ($20, 13.5% abv). This will make you fall in love with Oz Shiraz all over again. Complex nose of stewed fruit, prunes, and dates. Black cherry and plum flavors followed, with an incredible smoothness for such a young wine. Very mild tannins and just a touch of black pepper aftertaste to let you know that it's there. I ended up serving this after dinner, and even after palates had been attacked by another red and glasses of Madeira, this wine stood up and commanded great respect from the assembled guests.

You saw the images of the wine bottles above, but here's a closer look. I worked in graphic design for 8 years, spent 2 years operating a printing press... This was a hard label to print. There's gold foil and gold ink, and the red and burgundy stripes are printed with a high gloss that makes them look like wet brush strokes.

This is the kind of label that was dreamed up by a designer, probably rejected by at least one printer, and then finally accomplished by craftsmen who really knew what they were doing. Have you ever walked into an old church with a stonemason? Gone to a tractor museum with an engineer? Eaten a marvelous dinner in the company of a chef? In each case they'll stop and stare at seemingly insignificant details. They're not looking at the finished product, they're reconstructing the entire process leading up to the finished product. With a fine specimen of the subject matter, they're happily frustrated by the method used to produce that item. How in the devil did he tighten that bolt? There's no good angle to reach it...

I'm not telling you to buy a wine based on a label. I've been burned in the past and some great wineries just have terrible designers. But in an effort to promote quality over quantity, excellence over mediocrity, it's important to recognize good design properly executed. Even better when there's a great personality underneath that pretty face.

These wines are not currently available in the Memphis area but national distribution is expected this year.

05 January 2009

Benito vs. the Turducken

For years the turducken has been something of a white whale among the men in my family. A dish we all wanted to try, but just never got around to preparing. After all, 30 lbs. of boneless poultry and stuffing will feed a lot of people, and it's a little odd to take over an entire Thanksgiving with a carnivorous feast that combines the excesses of pre-revolutionary France with a NASCAR tailgate party.

However, while looking through the "weird meats" section of the Schnuck's freezer (a larger-than-average percentage of my grocery shopping), I found a four pound turducken breast roll from Cajun Stuff. My brother John, friend Paul and I had a guys' night coming up, and this seemed like the perfect main course.

While four pounds is definitely a more manageable size, and this little turducken tasted great, I was disappointed with the amount of duck meat included. In fact, if I were making one from scratch I might double up on the duck and incorporate chicken hearts and livers into the already meaty Cajun sausage stuffing. A more classically trained chef than I might make a terrine or galantine using similar ingredients.

My New Year's Eve wine (the sparkling Segura Viudas) ended up getting consumed with this meal, both on its own and in the form pictured, a Nelson's Blood* Cocktail: one part Port to four parts sparkling wine. You don't necessarily want to use expensive versions of either ingredient for this, but it's fun if you've got the materials on hand. It ended up reminding me of a Brachetto d'Acqui from Italy.

John provided the side dishes--grilled yellow squash and zucchini and a bowl of mashed potatoes kicked up with bacon, gorgonzola, cream cheese, garlic and other flavorings. Good job there, little brother.

Cigars and Port followed dinner during a viewing of Escanaba in da Moonlight, a great independent film from Jeff Daniels about a night in deer camp on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

*Nelson's Blood is also a nickname for Pusser's Rum, the former daily ration of the Royal Navy. When Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson defeated both the Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar, he was mortally wounded and his body placed in a cask of rum to preserve it until burial back on the scepter'd isle. Some sailors on board the HMS Victory purportedly drank from the cask.

02 January 2009

2006 Barton & Guestier Bistro Wine Pinot Noir

There are a handful of wines that have come out of France in the past few years that have unpretentious names, cheerful all-English labels, and require no knowledge of obscure AOCs. Things like Fat Bastard, Red Bicyclette, and a newer entry on local shelves, the 2006 Barton & Guestier Bistro Wine Pinot Noir. Languedoc-Roussillon, $8. I've had bad luck with bargain Pinot, but I heard good things about this and decided to give it a shot. It's from the South of France, meaning it's nowhere near as smooth and refined as those Pinots from up in Burgundy. It had an overall flavor of strawberry jam with a firm acidity and a slight sparkling feel on the tongue. Sounds odd but it worked out fairly well, and served as a good uncomplicated lunch wine.

Is it a sacrilege to take a casual, fun approach to French wine? I don't think so. Joseph Ducreux (1735-1802) certainly didn't take French painting too seriously, as can be seen from his hilarious self portraits.

Hell, even ze Germans are getting into the act with wines like Eins, Zwei, Dry. As I've said before, I took German in high school and can carry on a basic conversation auf Deutsch, but even I'm occasionally intimidated by a novel's worth of Fraktur text that boils down to "Semi-dry Riesling from 2007".

Want to try some other affordable and fun French wines? Look beyond Bordeaux and Burgundy and try some from Loire, Provence, and Alsace. Names and availability are going to vary wildly around the US, so ask your friendly neighborhood wine shop employee for help. When that hard-to-pronounce French label looks scary, just picture Ducreux's sly grin.

Public domain photo of painting courtesy of Wikipedia.