30 March 2009

2007 In Fine Rosé

Quick note on my California trip: I saw some of the most beautiful country I've seen in my 32 years on God's green earth, and tried 72 wines at 10 different wineries. The details, tasting notes, and explorations of organic/biodynamic/sustainable winemaking will follow in small bits for the next couple of months. Needless to say, at one point I almost called The Roommate and asked her to ship all of my belongings to Sonoma County.

So after a week of California's best, how about a French wine?

Last year I tried the In Fine Blanc, but I never got around to writing about it. (Hey, sometimes it happens. I forgot to take a photo, or lost my notes, or maybe I just felt like taking the night off.) Both the white and the pink shown here hail from southeastern France in a part of the Rhone near Provence. Affordable, delicious grape combinations, and a unique label design that looks like a printing error.

Here's the 2007 In Fine Rosé from Côtes du Ventoux in France. $12, 13.5% abv. 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 10% Cinsault.

Bright cherry flavors, touch of red apple, round mouthfeel. Lots of forward fruit here, and a body that leans more toward red than white. Served with grocery store sushi, part of an effort to prove that rosés are pretty food friendly with a wide range of ingredients. Ideally you want to serve this on a weekend afternoon, nicely chilled, with some sort of snack after you've completed the yardwork and errands of the day.

27 March 2009

Rued Wines

I recently had the pleasure of trying a trio of wines from Rued Vineyards of the Dry Creek Valley near Healdsburg, California. That's Rued pronounced roo-ed, and the Swiss-originated family has been at it for six generations in Northern California. As I told the publicist who sent me the wine, my family has been growing cotton around the Mid-South that long, but alas, cottonblogging really hasn't taken off as a mainstream phenomenon yet.

I tried the white wines with the recent Lenten Feast, and the red with a savory meatloaf in a rich tomato sauce.

2007 Rued Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc. $16, 13.5% abv, 642 cases made. Lemongrass aroma, almost clear color. Lemon peel flavor with a rounded finish containing some grassy tones. Bright acidity. While it paired well with the roast Dover sole, I think this one has a serious future with Thai food, and that's a segment that's constantly begging for a great wine.

2007 Rued Russian River Chardonnay. $18, 14.5% abv 881 cases made. Golden apple aromas and flavor, with just a hint of caramel. Honeydew melon flavors and just a touch of lemon on the finish. Lots of rich depth without the butter and toast explosion you get from many California Chards. This was my favorite of the three.

2005 Rued Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. $45, 15.4% abv, 280 cases made. Prune, black pepper, black cherries on finish... Slightly bitter edge with a touch of tobacco. Starts off hot, but that can be softened with some decanting beforehand. Big, firm tannins--I'd give it another couple of years in the cellar to mellow out. Despite that, it worked out nicely with the meatloaf. Use good quality ingredients, slow cooking, free-form baking on a sheet of parchment, and even the humble 'loaf can be haute enough for a good quality red.

25 March 2009

Where's Benito?

This is the view outside my window here in scenic San Rafael, California... Halfway between San Francisco and Sonoma. Over the next two days I'll be visiting local wineries (Sonoma, Healdsburg, Windsor, etc.) that specialize in organic/green winemaking, and will report on these wineries over the next couple of months, taking a day each week to focus on a different producer.

It's interesting to be in an internationally recognized wine region... I've visited vineyards in other parts of the US (Arkansas and New Mexico come to mind), and I've glimpsed them from the train in Italy, but this will be my first, direct exposure to the glories of NoCal viticulture. Stay tuned!

My stay here is sponsored by the Four Points by Sheraton hotel here in San Rafael. As a good Southern boy my instinctual reaction to hospitality is to offer to mow the grass, cook dinner, or help with the laundry, but for a trip like this I'm willing to sit back and accept the generosity. It's convenient, far enough form San Francisco to avoid the traffic but close enough if you want to see the city, and of course it's a great jumping off point for the nearby wine regions. If you're going to be in the area, consider this hotel, and tell 'em Benito sent you.

23 March 2009

Lenten Feast

Like a pianist in a bar, I love taking requests. It keeps life interesting. Most recently, Grace asked for a proper Lent dinner on a Friday night. In the Presbyterian tradition of my childhood, there were no food restrictions of any sort*, but I've happily cooked around the dietary restrictions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and vegetarians of all stripes. Sometimes it's more fun to cook with certain categories removed; it sharpens the senses, breaks you out of a routine, and pushes creativity.

The main part of this meal was Dover sole. But that filet looks two inches thick, right? It's a trick I picked up from a little French bistro in Little Rock, Arkansas. If you've got a lot of little flat pieces of sole, just season and stack, and you have greater control over the cooking time and texture. Here I made a blood orange and vermouth reduction, dipping each filet and then assembling the whole mess into a brick shape inside foil. Topped with blood orange slices and baked until done, it came out tender and flaky. For sides I sautéed some baby bok choy in olive oil and soy sauce, and made a quick pasta dish using angel hair, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and fresh basil.

This was all pretty easy, and it was very tasty. What about the wines? I tried a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc... more details on those in a future post.

*Now that I think about it, there was one Presbyterian food rule. At a church potluck dinner, you avoid the most appealing and delicious food and fill up your plate with the cold casseroles and slimy 7-bean salads that haven't been touched yet. You don't want anyone to go home with hurt feelings. So by the end of lunch, the soggy pile of corn-tuna-pea-mayonnaise salad would be gone, but a stack of beautiful golden-brown fried chicken would only be half-consumed.

20 March 2009

2006 R Wines Luchador Shiraz

I love the idea of a wine named after a wrestler. Even though I'm not personally a fan (despite growing up in Memphis, an influential city in pro-wrestling history), there's something about the pageantry, over-the-top acting, and stock characters that is reminiscent of a stylized artform like commedia dell'arte. In the Mexican tradition, such garish grapplers are known as luchadores.

The 2006 R Wines Luchador Shiraz is yet another amusingly-labeled wine from the folks at The Grateful Palate. $16, 15.5% abv. 95% Shiraz and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from the McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley of South Australia. Vegetal nose with hints of grass clippings. Blackberry, cherry, and plum flavors, with a back end of spice. Firm, drying tannins.

This is a great burger or pizza wine, and would be fun to take to a party. Some people get tired of the puns and silly labels on some wines, but when you have so many others that are intimidated by the general concept of wine, every little bit helps.

18 March 2009

Martín Códax Wines

Martín Códax was a Galician troubadour who roamed around Spain 700 years ago, singing songs and reciting poetry. Almost nothing is known about the man, but some of his music survives and has been performed using traditional instruments. His name, and that of the wine, is pronounced more or less as mar-TEEN CO-dash.

Take a listen to his Cavalgaba noutro día and marvel in the Medieval tones, as well as hear for how far removed Galician is from Castellano or modern Spanish. Or check out Mandad'ei comigo, which features the unique sounds of the hurdy gurdy!

First up is a clear, delicate wine: the 2006 Martín Códax Albariño. $10, 13% abv. Grapefruit pith aroma, crisp and tart citrus flavor, green apple on the finish. I found this to be a delectable accompaniment to crab, though I think any shellfish would be a perfect match for this wine.

Next up is the 2006 Martín Códax Ergo Rioja Tempranillo. Both wines are from north central Spain, near Basque country. $15, 13.5% abv. 99.7% Tempranillo with .3% Graciano. In a standard 750 mL bottle, that comes out to 2.25 mL of Graciano or roughly half a teaspoon. But I'm not a winemaker, and I enjoyed this wine. Perhaps it was that tiny splash that made the difference.

It has blackberry tea flavors (sort of like a Celestial Seasonings blend), medium tannins and fully ripe plum flavors. Lingering finish that allows you to savor an extra glass after dinner. I bucked tradition and served this with ricotta-stuffed manicotti. Mixing Italian and Spanish? I know I could get burned at the stake for that, but I figured Mediterranean is Mediterranean and it wasn't that big of a stretch. It worked out quite well and a few salty olives helped with the enjoyment of the wine.

16 March 2009

2007 Sofia Blanc de Blancs

This weekend I tried the 2007 Sofia Blanc de Blancs from Francis Coppola. Like the rosé I enjoyed a few years ago, this was named after Coppola's daughter Sofia. On that note I just recently saw her movie The Virgin Suicides for the first time, but Lost in Translation is still my favorite of her directorial efforts.

It's made in Monterey County, California, $19, 12.6% abv. 81% Pinot Blanc, 12% Sauvignon Blanc, and 7% Muscat--a fascinating blend quite different from the Champagne tradition, even if Pinot Blanc is allowed in tiny amounts. Lovely melon and peach aroma, hints of Bartlett pear after it warms up, and the dark scent of the Muscat just barely comes through. Very crisp, firm acidity no doubt helped by the Sauvignon Blanc, with a mild apple/pear flavor and good minerality. I was expecting some sweetness but was pleasantly surprised to find it dry and refreshing. I would strongly recommend this if you want a tasty blanc de blancs that's not made out of Chardonnay.

Just because it comes wrapped in pink cellophane doesn't mean a man can't enjoy this on his own. In fact, I've long maintained that fried chicken is a perfect accompaniment for sparkling wine (hardly an original concept), so I grabbed a box from Popeye's. I mean no disrespect to the chicken or the wine; the crunchy, spicy poultry is a natural foil for the bubbly, crisp sparkler. Reference a recent post by Randy Kemner (guest on Samantha Sans Dosage) on the pairing concepts of harmony vs. complimentary contrast. Simplified version: when you're sad, do you want to listen to happy pop or the blues? There's no one right answer.

The same thing is true for wine. Sometimes you want a wine that tastes a lot like what you're eating, and other times you want a contrasting element, either something missing from the dish (like a squeeze of lemony acidity) or something different enough to wake up your tongue between mouthfuls of food.

As always, I try wines straight, with food, and afterward to make sure my notes aren't adversely impacted by the dish. Do you have to get takeout fried chicken? Certainly not. I'd recommend this wine for a wide range of hard-to-pair foods, including the chicken, seafood, or vegetable dishes of Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese cuisines. It would work well with Cajun or many Indian dishes as well; a good rule of thumb is that if you can't think of a wine that could possibly pair with a certain dish due to texture or spices or intensity, pick a sparkling wine and you'll be happy.

13 March 2009

Bees & Honey

Back in 2007 I posted a video of a bee grooming itself. I actually shot it back in '04, but figured it would be more useful on YouTube than just sitting on my hard drive. As the video didn't involve anyone getting hit in the crotch, blurting a witty catchphrase, or anything remotely disgusting, I never really got any feedback on it.

However... A couple of weeks ago I got a friendly e-mail from Jo Haugland, President of the High Land Beekeeping Club of Littleton, Colorado. She asked for permission to use the video in order to spice up a lecture about bee hygiene. I was more than happy to help out, as I'm a big fan of locally produced honey and it was for educational purposes. I just asked for my name to be mentioned somewhere and for a jar of honey in return if it wasn't too much trouble. I sent along additional photos, the original AVI of the footage, and details on how I shot it.

Last week the Colorado wildflower honey arrived along with homemade preserves and a beautiful beeswax candle. Like bread, cheese, and tomatoes, I've always felt that honey tastes best when produced in small batches.

This has a deep, earthy flavor I've never tasted in honey before. A lot of the Memphis-area product has a tangy, almost citrus edge to it, but this is deeper, darker, smooth, and rich. I tried a few drops straight off the spoon, but I immediately got a hunger for some fresh cornbread with melted butter. Or some sliced pears and goat cheese. Or just a piece of toast. We talk about terroir with wine, but it makes a big difference with honey as well, and you can get an amazing array of flavors across this country. If you've only tasted the industrial stuff in the grocery store, now is the time to branch out and support your local beekeepers!

P.S. I'm going to quote my paternal grandmother here from an e-mail, in reference to her mother:

I wish my mother could read/hear your description of honey. She loved wild honey better than sugar any time, and was happy when someone robbed a tree of great chunks of beeswax dripping the sweet stuff. She knew what blossoms flavored the honey, whether it was trees or plants. She used honey and molasses for cooking cakes and cookies when we had sugar rationing during WWII.

12 March 2009

Online Tasting

Looking for the online tasting? CLICK HERE

11 March 2009

2003 Hagafen Sauvignon Blanc

QUICK REMINDER: Pick up your bottle of Redheads "Yard Dog" Red from Australia and join me Thursday evening at Whining & Dining, the food blog of Memphis' newspaper The Commercial Appeal. Things kick off at 7:00 Central Time--if you're outside of the US and want to join in, keep in mind we just switched to Daylight Saving Time, an event that occurs on different dates around the world (or doesn't happen at all). Use the Time Zone Converter if necessary.

* * *

Sometimes I'll grab a bottle of wine at random. I won't even read the back label. In this case, I hadn't had a Sauvignon Blanc in a while and was craving one, so when I saw one that was unfamiliar and reasonably priced, I just carried it up to the counter. The craving passed and the bottle rattled around in the refrigerator for weeks, finally getting pulled out when a friend was over.

At some point I'd figured out that the wine was much older and much darker than expected; you can see the amber color in parts of the photo. (I thought the glass was just dark when I purchased it.) And a $15 Sauvignon Blanc that's six years old? It could have been a disaster. But something magic had happened in that half dozen years.

The 2003 Hagafen Sauvignon Blanc is from Napa Valley, California. It has an opening aroma of old magazines. I'm talking about a stack of National Geographics up in the attic, or the periodicals section of a library that's been around for decades. From there things just got more and more fascinating, with various aromas and flavors bouncing around: lemon, honeysuckle, green apples, cotton candy, buttered toffee, marshmallows... It was slightly sweet but unbelievably complex. Over the course of an hour it unfolded like a glossary of wine terms.

Printed on the cork was a tiny bit of Hebrew: לחיים or l'chaim, "To life!" And upon further inspection, the wine is kosher. It's always good to keep track of a few excellent kosher wines. I'm looking forward to trying some recent vintages, and perhaps socking away a couple of bottles in hopes of a future miracle.

09 March 2009

Benito vs. the Plastic Bag: Sous Vide at Home

It's been a while since I did something crazy in the kitchen, so Friday night I decided to switch up the old steak routine and attempt sous vide at home. For those of you unfamiliar with the technique, it's basically poaching an ingredient sealed in plastic at a low temperature for a long period of time. A more refined version of "boil in the bag", popular at cafeterias worldwide.

I'm hardly breaking new ground here, as many bloggers have experimented with various ingredients and techniques. After a perusal of the literature, I took a pair of ribeyes and put them in Ziploc Freezer Bags with just a dash of sea salt and Worcestershire sauce. (These bags are rated to 170°F, but in general you're only supposed to do this with specially designed plastic. And there's chances of all sorts of bacterial horrors, so kids, don't try this at home.) I had three gallons of water sitting at 140°F for about an hour learning how to regulate the temperature--with the inset strainer, I was able to stand up the bags and prevent them from touching the hot bottom of the pot. I used a digital probe thermometer to monitor the water temperature, and through use of adjusting the knob and adding ice cubes, I was able to keep the temp pretty close to my target.

The steaks sat in the bath for about two hours, were allowed to rest, and then I seared them in a very hot skillet. Just long enough to brown the exterior, not to do any actual cooking. At right you can see a close-up after I cut into the steak: it's a nice medium rare, even throughout. The biggest surprise was that it had the soft texture and buttery fat of prime rib, which is difficult to achieve with a single steak. It was very tasty, but I wouldn't recommend the method for everyday use. While fun from a science project standpoint, it's a lot of work to keep the temperature right and it takes forever. Professional kitchens fond of sous vide have industrial water baths that circulate the water, use thermostats, and can tie in microprobes to get the internal temperature of the ingredients.

If you want to play with this yourself, just search Google and you'll find lots of home kitchen experiments. Again, there are some dangers, and you want to be careful with your plastic selections. I'm not suggesting you try it, and the FDA has been against it for years, only recently allowing it under certain very strict conditions.

For the wine I decanted a bottle of the 2004 Sawyer Cellars Estate Bradford Meritage from Napa Valley, California. 52% Cabernet Sauvignon 31% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 13% Petit Verdot. $44, less than 1000 cases made. Cherry and plum aromas with a touch of fennel. Medium tannins, and as the flavor opened up, it displayed notes of bell pepper and black tea. It's obviously delicious now, but could definitely hang around for a few more years.

Through a combination of luck and generosity I've had a good bit of Napa wine recently, and after trekking the tastebuds through every obscure corner of the wine world it's nice to step back and study some serious, well-made wines in the classical tradition.

06 March 2009

2005 Château Bonnet

2005 was a great year for Bordeaux and there was a lot of excitement around this vintage. Prices skyrocketed and bottles vanished off the shelves. I'm sure most of the best stuff has been socked away in cellars and caves, and perhaps collectors will begin trying those wines in another few years. As I'm not a collector nor do I have the proper facilities for long-term aging, I figured that I would mostly miss out on this big vintage when it was drinkable and affordable. But surprisingly some bargains remain on retail shelves: for instance, take the 2005 Château Bonnet from André Lurton, $18, 13% abv.

I'm not an expert on Bordeaux, but I've had the pleasure of tasting Latour and Petrus, and an understanding of the wonderful five red grapes of the region has led me to a deep love of Bordeaux-style blends made in California and Chile.

The Bonnet is half Cabernet Sauvignon, half Merlot. I decanted it a good four hours before serving, and it delivered a performance I've normally seen in wines at twice the price. The tannins are still firmly in place and no doubt will soften after another five years or so. It's got an aroma of... the best way I can describe it is church basement. It's not corked, I'm not talking about wet cardboard. It's more along the lines of leather-bound books and broken pianos sitting in storage. Beneath that you've got blueberries, white pepper, vanilla, and dried cherries. The flavor is a little more closed, with cherry and plum showing up.

I enjoyed it alongside a Pittsburgh-rare ribeye topped with a sunny side up egg (naturally letting the yolk run down into the steak). It's the kind of meal that some kid reads about in an old novel and gets so ill she decides to become a vegetarian.

During dinner I watched Bottle Shock, the film about the 1976 Judgment of Paris in which American wines beat French wines in a shocking blind tasting. I don't know enough details about the real people involved to comment on the accuracy, but I found the movie fun and enjoyable. Although it should be noted that the film focuses exclusively on the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay; you don't hear anything about the Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon or other reds and whites in the competition.

(Fellow blogger Dr. Vino recently interviewed the writer, and provides some insight on the fact and fiction in this movie.)

The story of the scrappy American underdogs beating the foreign experts reminded me most of Miracle, the film about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. Of course, drinking a French wine during Bottle Shock is pretty much like watching Miracle while dressed in red and singing L'Internationale.

04 March 2009

2007 Bouké Red

Back in October I got the chance to try the Bouké White. It was my first New York wine and I really enjoyed drinking it and telling friends and family about how wonderful it was.

Proprietor Lisa Donneson was kind enough to send along a bottle of her 2007 Bouké Red made on the North Fork of Long Island, $21, 13% abv. Now, it's no secret that I'm fond of claret-style red blends, and I marvel at the winemaker's art of combining different grapes. This one is 35% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, and 5% Petit Verdot. Call it a Bordeaux vacation with a weekend trip to Rhone.

The nose is a pleasant blend of stewed fruit, blueberries, and raisins. Touches of black cherry linger afterwards. The wine follows through on the berry flavors with a tart cranberry mouthfeel and a bit of vegetation presumably from the Cabernet Franc. Medium tannins, warm and pleasing finish. It's well put together, and I can't wait to see what other fascinating wines emerge from Bouké in the future.

After taking my notes on the wine, I had the opportunity to pour it for a group of friends and family at a BBQ hosted by my brother. He had marinated six racks of ribs, injected them with apple juice, and slow cooked them over Jack Daniels coals for several hours. Not only did six more people from the Mid-South get to try a New York wine for the first time, but they all loved it and the strength of the grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot were able to stand up to the flavorful smoked meat. Is it the perfect pairing? Not necessarily--I would recommend lamb chops or beef short ribs--but the combination definitely worked.

Check out this wine if you get the opportunity. The website has a list of retail locations in the NYC area as well as contact info for further distribution.

02 March 2009

Online Tasting Announcement + 2003 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti

In the words of Professor Farnsworth, "Good news, everyone!"

I'll be hosting an online wine tasting for my hometown newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. It's an event held every Thursday night at 7:00 Central Time. On March 12 I'll be popping the cork on a bottle of the 2006 Redheads "Yard Dog" Red, a mostly Petit Verdot blend from Australia. Local readers should be able to find this in shops all over town for around $12. For my readers from outside the Memphis area, I don't know how widely it's distributed. Just look for the ugly, mean-looking dog on the label, but feel free to drop in if you want to give a shout-out.

My advice is to have a pulled pork BBQ sandwich ready for enjoying with the wine. If you can't find such a thing in your area or make it happen in your kitchen, don't forget the tortas or tacos al pastor of your local Hispanic neighborhoods. It's even better if you can find a Cuban place that makes a medianoche or some good lechon asado. Let me make it simple: find some flavorful pig to go with this wine.

I'll post a link the night before the tasting... Hope y'all can make it!

For a completely unrelated wine review that wasn't long enough for a full post, here's a nice little bottle from Italy:

The 2003 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti hails from Piedmont way up in the Northwest corner of Italy. 100% Barbera, $15, 13% abv. Vegetal, asparagus nose with a little black pepper. Black cherry and strawberry flavors with medium tannins and a dried fig aftertaste.

I served this with a braciola that didn't quite look good enough to show here. It tasted great, but I really didn't get the neat spiral cross sections you see in the food magazines. Plus I discovered that pounding out a flank steak becomes problematic in a house with dogs--as much as they may enjoy the random bits of meat that end up on the floor, the loud hammering isn't pleasant for them.