30 September 2009

A Late Night Snapshot

Much like Gallia, this post est divisa in partes tres.

The Cigar
I recently picked up a solitary Hoyo de Montoya Dark Sumatra Media Noche, 5.7" x 54, from Honduras. Ecuadorian wrapper, Connecticut binder, and a blend of Dominican and Honduran filler. While being nearly black in color, this is a mild and smooth cigar with wonderful spice aromas and a rich, savory flavor. The construction is impeccable and I don't think I've ever had a cigar that burned this evenly. Plus, I'm a sucker for cedar-wrapped cigars. It looks classy and I like the flavor/aroma that comes from such contact.

The Beverage
Ever since Sam turned me on to Madeira, I try to keep a bottle in the house. In the current rotation is the Sandeman Fine Rich Madeira. Retailing for around $15, this is an excellent introductory Madeira that has the complex spices, raisin qualities, and slight sweetness indicative of the style. It is a bit more tart and harsh than the more well-aged varieties, but it hits the spot when an after-dinner splash of fortified wine is required.

The Book
One little treasure of my eclectic home library... The Schwa World Operations Manual. It's been out of print for years and pristine copies can fetch upwards of $150*. What is it? The Schwa Corporation was a graphic design project by Bill Barker. This book, which came out in 1997, details an alien takeover of the earth and how the human population will be controlled through dummy companies, advertising, and propaganda. The entire book is designed in stark black and white--no gradients or shades of gray. On top of that the only font used is Gill Sans, though often manipulated in interesting ways.

The book was an underground hit at the time, and a source of confusion for many others as there's no plot or apparent logical organization. It was also repeatedly vandalized at bookstores; if you're buying a copy make sure that it has the membership card, postcards, and stickers in the back. I've been carrying around my Schwa Planet Operator ID for over a decade now.

Barker fell off the radar for a while, but was recently the subject of a search at BoingBoing during which he was successfully located and appears to be working on a new project.

*I bought my untouched first edition for $1 at a Friends of the Library sale in 1998.

28 September 2009

2005 Barón Balch'é Reserva Especial

The Roommate doesn't drink, but she was kind enough to snag me a bottle of Mexican wine during a summer trip to Cancún. I told her, "I don't really care what it is, I just want to be able to say I've tasted a Mexican wine." She found a shop with a helpful proprietor. To use a baseball metaphor, I was expecting a foul ball or perhaps a single. Instead, The Roommate knocked it out of the park.

The wine she got was the 2005 Barón Balch'é Reserva Especial from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, Mexico (just south of the US border). This is a beautifully restrained 12% abv--it drinks like silk. I've had similar low alcohol wines from places like Israel and Turkey, which runs counter to the conventional wisdom that the closer you get to the equator, the higher the alcohol must be.

It's a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah, much like a lot of the creative blends coming from California in the US. It's got a blackberry nose with a touch of leather. Good berries: cherry and blackberry, with a lingering cassis flavor on the finish. For a hotter climate this is surprisingly smooth and mild, far more delicate than you would imagine. I served it with a Tex-Mex dinner of turkey tacos and baked beans (trio of black, kidney, and pinto--good flavor combination). However, this could be outstanding with any grilled or roasted meats.

Food & Wine has an informative article on the wines of Baja California. And as that writer points out, Mexican wines are difficult to find outside of the country, but I would strongly suggest trying some of the more European-styled wines like the Barón Balch'é. You can add another wine country to your merit badge sash, and get to enjoy a delicious bottle in the process.

The name is unusual, and on first glance it looks more Hebrew than anything else. But it's actually a combination of Spanish and Mayan, meaning roughly "noble ceremonial beverage".

Now for the fun part... I had this with dinner the night before I was going to meet up with Fredric Koeppel for a wine tasting, and couldn't resist the opportunity to give him a blind pour. You can read his full writeup on his blog. Part of it was just the joy of sharing an obscure wine with a friend, but I also needed to, in some small way, get revenge for his classic Blind Petite Sirah Tasting that stumped a room full of wine lovers, retailers, and certified experts.

P.S. Lots of people ask me, "Should you sniff the cork when you open a bottle of wine?" I've never learned anything useful from smelling a cork, but looking at it closely can be helpful. The cork on this one was constructed well, no leakage, mold, or other problems, but it was a 2004 cork in a 2005 wine. Is this a big deal? Not for this wine. There's not a big collector market in Mexican wine and it's a pretty recent vintage. Most likely they just had extra 2004 corks lying around and wanted to use them up. If you're shelling out a lot of money for a special bottle, it's a different story. If the cork is from a different region, different winery, or substantially different year, then you might have a counterfeit bottle on your hands, the restaurant might be committing fraud, or other foul play is afoot. Check out the New York Times Freakonomics blog for a story on the trade in empty wine bottles from highly collectible vintages.

25 September 2009

Noilly Prat, Before and After

Back in January I read a terrifying article in the Wall Street Journal: the formulation of my beloved Noilly Prat dry white vermouth was changing. I socked away a few bottles and ignored the new stuff for a while, putting off the inevitable switch as long as possible. As has been discussed many times here and elsewhere, martini drinkers are stubborn creatures and a change to the most delicious, widely-available white vermouth struck fear in many hearts.

Eventually it was time for a new bottle, and I figured that I should give the new and old formulas a fair taste test. It couldn't really be blind--one is obviously sweeter and darker than the other. But I sought to evaluate them fairly.

Things may get a bit confusing here, as the "new" vermouth (pictured on the left) is actually the original European version that has been made on the other side of the Atlantic for 200 years. The "old", brighter, drier version (on the right) was a separate product developed for the American market around the 1940s and sold until this year. I'll just use the terms European and American to avoid confusion.

I tried both straight (if your vermouth tastes bad on its own, you're using cheap, nasty, or stale vermouth) as well as in a 4:1 ungarnished martini made with New Amsterdam gin.

American Version
Tasted on its own, it is light and tangy, like a Bordeaux Blanc made mostly from Sauvignon Blanc (although it's actually made from southern French grapes, mostly Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette). Crisp and herbal. In a martini... well, this is the house martini here at Casa de Benito and I've had it too often to be objective. But it provides a dry, bracing flavor to the cocktail.

European Version
Just like the new 2 liter Coke bottles, curves were apparently necessary. The WSJ is correct in that the flavor is closer to Lillet Blanc, though nowhere near as sweet. It is easier drinking as a strait apéritif where it has lower acidity. Made into a martini, it smooths out the gin considerably for what I felt was a great drink. If you want the additional acidity, a twist of lemon or a dash of lemon bitters will take care of that quickly.

Neither version is really superior to the other, but they are different. I will still be on the lookout for another, purely dry white vermouth, but for the meantime I'm happy to have this in the bar. I think the WSJ assessment (and my own initial reaction to the news) was unfair, and I would highly recommend trying out this European version if you get the chance.

23 September 2009

Drinking Local: Bluff City Brewing

Recently I got a chance to meet up with fellow Memphis blogger and home brewer Brett Donnals of Bluff City Brewing. Not only does he make his own beer, but he's growing his own hops! He was kind enough to pass along some samples of his brews, and I was really excited to give them a shot.

A note on home brewing: You can make wine in your kitchen, but it's probably going to be worse than 99% of the wine available in the store. On the flipside, it's possible to make beer in your kitchen that is better than 99% of the beer available in the store. Because of the shorter fermentation period and the fact that you're not constrained by the seasons, it's quicker to learn how to make decent beer and the production is not dependent on sunlight, weather, geology, etc. Unlike Coors or Budweiser, you can change your recipe every week to suit your tastes without alienating millions of customers.

Plus beer is pretty forgiving of additional flavorings and ingredients. Want to make a pumpkin, blueberry, strawberry, or cardamom-star anise beer? Want to use a recipe from the Revolutionary War, Medieval Germany, or Ancient Egypt? Go for it! This creativity, innovation, and rediscovery is happening in garages and basements all across the United States. Some of your neighbors are likely into the hobby.

The numbers given for each of the beers reviewed here are IBUs, or International Bitterness Units. The higher the number, the more bitter the beer, though other flavorings and methods can impact the final taste and balance.

From left to right as pictured:

American Pale Ale, 53.3 IBUs.
Crisp and light, with medium bitterness and an overall refreshing quality. This one tasted best cold, straight out of the fridge, and had a short but tasty finish. Try this with a natural-case bratwurst that has a good "snap" to it and you'll learn why beer and sausage were meant to go together.

American Brown Ale, 62.8 IBUs.
Similar in style to Newcastle, but more bitter and with a lighter body. A great all-around beer for many different kinds of food. It stood up well to both white and supreme pizzas from Memphis Pizza Cafe. I can imagine this beer being great for Thanksgiving, preferably served from half-gallon growlers.

American Stout, 75.6 IBUs.
This pours an almost black color with a dark brown head, and has elements of coffee and chocolate. This one I felt was best as an after-dinner beer, particularly after it had come up to near room temperature. Cold it was difficult to get all the flavors; warmer it opened up and made for a smoother drink. Despite the highest IBU rating, it was well-balanced and delicious.

* * *

Homebrewers are fun people to know, and a lot of times there's a few extra bottles or experimental batches rattling around in the back of a fridge somewhere. Check out Brett's blog, where he posts photos of the beermaking process as well as providing information on other microbreweries and local beer events.

21 September 2009

Chicken Tikka Masala & Southampton Altbier

A British dish, influenced by India, paired with an American beer, influenced by Germany. It's like a complicated wedding right on the table.

Like anyone else that's been to an Indian restaurant in the United States or Great Britain, I've enjoyed the big plate of chicken tikka masala from time to time. It's pretty well known by now that this is not an authentic Indian recipe; although its precise origins are unclear, it was developed in the UK as an attempt to adapt Indian food for the British palate.

I looked at several dozen recipes online, and none of them matched up. I'm not talking about a difference of a certain spice or cut of chicken. The only consistent part of any chicken tikka masala recipe is... chicken. For instance, the red color can come from food coloring or tomatoes. (And it doesn't have to be red; varieties from yellow to deep crimson exist.) For the tomatoes, the quantity required for a recipe serving four varied from a tablespoon of tomato paste to a 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes. Adding a creamy texture? Optional, but cream, milk, yogurt, or coconut milk are used, all of which behave differently when cooked.

I decided to ditch the recipes and just freestyle it. Half a stick of butter, an onion, a bell pepper, all sautéed. Add in some garam masala and a healthy dose of cayenne pepper. Throw in a big can of crushed tomatoes. Blend, allow to simmer. Add yogurt. Mix in leftover chicken and let simmer for a while.

The result wasn't perfect, but it was definitely edible. Not quite like what I've had in restaurants, but it worked OK. I made some basmati rice and picked up some naan from the grocery store. (Yes, it is easy enough to make naan, but I was using up leftovers and trying to keep things simple.)

When it comes to Indian food, I prefer beer to wine, though you could probably crack open a Gewürtztraminer. I picked up a sixer of a beer I'd never seen before, the Southampton Publick House Altbier brewed on Long Island in New York. It pours a dark amber color with a head that disappears quickly. It's lightly hopped and has a bittersweet quality to it--well balanced. Slight roasted quality, but what I love most about this beer is that it's got a great malt flavor, something I haven't had in a beer in a while. In fact, this Düsseldorf-style beer is similar to the Germantown Alt I cut my teeth on at the dearly departed Bosco's in Saddle Creek. Don't get me wrong, I love the beers at the Midtown location, but I miss having a brewpub on this side of town.

18 September 2009

Birthday Dinner Party Part II

A Caesar salad is not Italian per se... It's the creation of an Italian chef working in Tijuana during Prohibition. I haven't had a good one in a long time, and even the last time I tried it the whole thing fell apart from residual water on the romaine (I used pre-washed organic this time). You've got to have raw egg yolks and lots of anchovies and quality wine vinegar, plus all the other ingredients. Made by hand right before serving, it's a whole different experience than the fast food versions we see today. Inspired by the Surreal Gourmet (I saw him make this salad during a book signing in the 90s) and with the confidence that my salad-fu is strong these days, I made an incredible dish. I think a few might have even licked their plates.

Why not an Italian wine with the Mexican salad? I opened the 2006 Campogrande Orvieto Classico from Umbria in central Italy. 40% Procanico, 40% Grechetto, 15% Verdello, 5% Drupeggio and Malvasia. For a $10 table wine, this was delicious. Aroma of Meyer lemon with floral touches, full bodied with bright acidity and just a hint of a honey flavor.

Finally, the main course! I've spoken many times about trying recipes from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. I've had pretty good results, but one recipe kept staring at me: gigot de sept heures, or a leg of lamb cooked for seven hours--seven hours of not peeking or using the oven for anything else. Lots of garlic (24 cloves!), some onions and carrots, and a bouquet garni, sealed up in a Dutch oven for the long haul. Also known as spoon lamb due to the tenderness (and a favorite of James Beard), this looks a lot like beef stew, and is similar in appearance and texture. But the garlic and lamb combine to create their own unique flavor, and folks liked it. On the side I've got braised radicchio and endive, sweetened up a bit at the last minute with a honey-balsamic vinaigrette. Not the prettiest plating, but very succulent.

In the opposite of the pasta course, Italian wines with French food... I had the opportunity to serve two wines from the same vintage, producer, and grape composition. First is the 2005 Masi Valpolicella Bonacosta. 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara, from the Valpolicella region near Verona in northern Italy. Bright cherry, lovely garnet color, rich fig flavors with a touch of tartness and brambles. Fascinating wine.

After everyone had a pour of the straight Valpolicella, I served the 2005 Masi Campofiorin. This is basically the exact same wine but passed over the leftover skins from Amarone production to boost the flavor, a process called ripasso. There's a slight bitter edge that went great with the chicory vegetables, and the wine is similar to the first but with a fuller body, a deeper mouthfeel, and a new flavor of stewed plums. Definitely more complex, but I can't say one was better than the other. Mostly it was fun to try them back and forth over a half hour.

It should be clear by now that I'm not a dessert person, and generally don't feel like making another course after several hours of cooking, eating, and entertaining. So I typically pass off the duty to a guest, and leave it totally up to them. Laura M. surprised me with homemade tiramisù, by far my favorite. I think it's the mascarpone and coffee that make it less dessert-like for me, and she did an amazing job.

Paul added to the festivities with a bottle of the 20 Year Tawny Port from Taylor Fladgate, not pictured. My tasting notes descended into mere scribbles by this point, but you can't go wrong with a well-aged fortified wine from an established producer.

As always I thank Paul for the gracious use of his house for these gatherings, as well as for the snifters of Glengoyne 17 Year Single Malt with which we toasted before the guests arrived.

* * *

Aside from the ego boost of a successful dinner party and the relief of being able to finally open a half dozen bottles I'd been waiting to try, the friends at the table were what made this evening special and fun. A couple of the guests stuck around for a few hours and the conversation lingered on until nearly two in the morning. I spent the next day exhausted and full, but immensely happy.

17 September 2009

Birthday Dinner Party Part I

My birthday was on Sunday, and on this annual occasion I really don't like to go out. I'm not big on presents or anything like that. But I love throwing a dinner party, and I generally try to invite a group of new friends or people I haven't seen in forever. They don't know it's my birthday, so there's no sense of obligation or confusion ahead of time. Yes, I explain what's going on during the toast, but this is precisely how I want to spend the day.

Speaking of the toast, we kicked off the evening with the NV Toad Hollow Amplexus. Proprietary blend of Chardonnay, Mauzac, and Chenin Blanc. This is a Blanquette de Limoux from the south of France, in an AOC that was making sparkling wine before Champagne. Dominant flavors of green apple and lemon, with a light and refreshing character. Deeper body than Champagne.

Of course, Toad Hollow is fond of irreverence, and it should be noted that amplexus refers to a set of actions that take place during frog sex. This probably explains why I've had such a hard time finding this wine since I first heard of it years ago, but sharing that little nugget of information was a fun way to break the ice with the group, some of whom I hadn't seen in fifteen years. Never be afraid to invite lovely young women from your high school graduating class, it's a strategy that has always worked well for me.

It was a rainy night, evidence of fall's arrival here in Memphis. This worked out well, as my rustic French-Italian menu plans were more geared towards autumn than the blazing heat of summer. I wanted to start out with a soup, but got stumped for a few days. I didn't want to make a "cream of x" soup, nor did I want anything tomato based. I'd already done minestrone and French onion and lots of other standards... A clear broth peasant soup seemed like a good idea. I finally settled on broeta de verza de magro, a Christmas soup from Dalmatia. (Dalmatia is in modern-day Croatia, but it was part of the Republic of Venice for a long time.) It's very simple: fish broth, potatoes, cabbage, onion, garlic. Different, but interesting and surprisingly good. I served this with the Bulgarian Sauvignon Blanc mentioned in Monday's post.

Note: I used Kitchen Basics Seafood Stock, which is delicious. I'm content to use quality boxed stock for cooking, especially since I have limited space in my freezer. But I think this soup could be ten times better if you boiled up a few fish heads, tails, and spine scraps to make the broth from scratch. I would have happily done so, but I faced the problem of not wanting to scare off my diners with the first course. When you get a reputation for weird chickens, organ meats, and Swedish banana casseroles, sometimes you have to reassure folks.

For the pasta course, I was dying to use campanelle, the little bellflower-shaped pasta. Further fiddling around online yielded the perfect recipe, involving salsiccia and cannellini beans. Not a heavy gloopy sauce, but one that would nestle in the bells properly. For a change of pace, I tried out turkey salsiccia and was very happy with the results. A little shredded Piave vecchio on top... My friends loved this dish.

I was excited to finally open the 2008 Domaine de la Mordorée Tavel from the southern Rhône region of France. 60% Grenache, 10% Cinsault, 10% Mourvèdre, 10% Syrah, 5% Bourboulenc, 5% Clairette. I've been staring at this lovely rosé for a month, thirsty after reading Fredric's review of the same. Watermelon aromas, with a bright raspberry flavor, light acidity, a touch of earth, and a tiny lemon finish. This wine has layers of complexity that unfold as it creeps up to room temperature. This is a distinguished, serious wine worthy of attention and reflection. Dry rosés can be a show stopper with the right crowd, and this group really enjoyed trying this one. I would strongly recommend the Domaine de la Mordorée if you can find it in your area.

* * *

To recap: a French sparkling wine with a naughty name, a Croatian soup paired with Bulgarian wine, and an Italian pasta dish paired with a French rosé. Where else but in America? But there's more to come... Check back Friday for the final three courses of the dinner party!

16 September 2009

Grace Restaurant Sneak Peek

For the past couple of months I've had access to some behind the scenes info on the development of Grace Restaurant Memphis, the new project of Chef Ben Vaughn. I was a big fan of his work at River Oaks, and can't wait to see what interesting dishes show up on the Grace menu. He's planning on changing menu items regularly, and if the work at River Oaks was any indication the dishes will be driven by the quality of the ingredients and the seasons. It's a great philosophy of cooking and I think it will resonate well with a city that is caring more and more about what it eats.

Named after Vaughn's daughter, the restaurant is located on the northeast corner of the Cooper-Young intersection, in the site of the former Sweet Bistro.

I will have more details next week, but you can also follow Grace Memphis on Facebook. Until then, enjoy some of these photos taken during the final stages of construction.

14 September 2009

Benito vs. Eastern Europe: България

Bulgaria might not be the first country you think of when it comes to wine. In fact, ask most Americans to locate Bulgaria on a blank map and they'll gesture generally at an area that starts at Germany and ends at the Pacific Ocean. This little nation sits at the crossroads of history, bordered by the Black Sea, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and Macdedonia. It has witnessed every army, religion, and culture that has passed in any direction between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. And it's one of the oldest wine regions in the world.

These wines come from the Thracian Valley in the south, part of the ancient province of Thrace which was home to such legendary figures as Orpheus and Spartacus. Over the centuries Thrace (and the rest of modern Bulgaria) was controlled by the Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, and a dozen other regimes. The Romans in particular valued this region for wine production and it remained a strong wine producer until the middle ages. Unfortunately, 500 years of Ottoman rule meant no wine until the 1870s, and then they had a few decades of wars before Communist takeover... Fortunately since the 1990s the wine industry has rebounded and we're able to try the products of Bulgarian vineyards.

While I've had some of the native grapes (Melnik and Mavrud), here we're going to look at three mainstream grapes aimed at the bargain sector of the American market. All three retail for $8 and are inscribed with Roman Empire motifs: the date, and the inclusion of Julius Caesar's quote "Veni, vidi, vici." The tagline on the back is amusing: "Since we haven't seen you in Bulgaria lately, we've brought you some of the finest local flavors." More information on these wines and others from Bulgaria can be found at BulgarianWine.com.

2008 Vini Sauvignon Blanc, 12.5% abv. Light grapefruit aroma, touch of lemon on the finish with a big, full body and a crowd-pleasing fruitiness. Very food friendly with fish or vegetable dishes.

2008 Vini Merlot, 13% abv. Classic cherry aromas with a hint of cedar and black tea. Plum and black cherry, soft start with a touch of tartness on the finish. Tannins sneak up on you with a mouth-drying feel on the finish. Like some other Mediterranean Merlots I've had it's a bit warmer than what you might expect from France, but consistent with California. With just fifteen minutes of breathing, it smooths out considerably and becomes a pleasant afternoon sipper.

2008 Vini Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% abv. Ripe plum aroma, with a touch of black pepper. Comparable in body and tannins with the Merlot, though with this one I'm craving more strongly flavored meats, like duck or lamb.

11 September 2009

Hetzelsdorfer Bier, ein Fränkisches Vollbier

Much like many German wines, this beer label is a mass of words set in lovely yet severe Fraktur script. Have you ever tried to translate anything in German printed before 1940? Don't. The Germans set everything in this harsh calligraphy: newspapers, books, posters, etc. Many individual letters were ambiguous. The handwriting form was worse, something left over from the Middle Ages. Check out this example of old Handschrift, bearing in mind that the writer is using the exact same Roman alphabet I'm using on this website.

Here's the breakdown on the name:

Fränkisches translates in English to Franconian, referring to an area of northern Bavaria (in the south of Germany) known as Franconia or land of the Franks (ancestral French).

Vollbier means "full beer", a tax category that applies to practically all German beers.

Hetzelsdorfer required a bit of research. It's the name of the brewery, but it means "from the village of Hetzel". Hetzel is a diminutive of Hermann, and refers to either a woodcutter or a stubborn person. Take your pick.

Bier simply means beer, by far the simplest part of this whole damn post.

It pours a beautiful dark amber with a thin head. Nutty and tangy, with a slight orange marmalade aroma. Medium bitter, with a nice bite on the finish. Most importantly, this beer has an elegant, refined quality. Like the difference between a cheap sparkling wine and a really well-made Champagne.

The bottle is interesting, bearing the scars of glass that has been washed and refilled several times rather than ground up and recycled. You don't see this in the US very much, unless you pick up a bottle of Mexican Coke or another niche import. I suppose it's a brand maintenance thing; despite the cost savings and environmental benefits, nobody wants to have the only scratched glass on the shelf.

The brewery website doesn't appear to have been touched since 2003 and contains no information. Fortunately other sites exist.

Thanks to friend Dave R. for bringing this back from Germany; his long service in the United States Army has provided me with a steady supply of such treasures over the years.

09 September 2009

Smoked Salt

When I was a child, I knew about table salt and rock salt, the latter being useful for making ice cream and clearing roads in the winter. Nowadays I tend to have four or five different salts in the house at any given time. This is the story of one of the more unusual variations on sodium chloride.

In 2007 I got a birthday present from my boss that included a curious little jar of "Oak Smoked Chardonnay Sea Salt". It's seasoned with the smoke from burning oak barrels that were used to age Chardonnay. Thus you get all the butter, caramel, and vanilla concentrated into this salt, giving it a beige color. I loved smelling it, loved cracking it open when guests came over, but how to use it? I really struggled to find a use for it.

Recently I was baking a sweet potato, hoping to add another element beyond the usual butter/brown sugar/kosher salt. And then it struck me... This could be the perfect application for the smoked salt, and glory be, it was. The salt does not have a heavy smoke flavor; it's fairly muted. But it adds a nice touch, and the other dessert-like flavors (vanilla, caramel) play well with the other ingredients.

I'm trying to think up other uses for it... Salmon sashimi is coming to mind, I'm also thinking it might be fun to sprinkle over a steamed mahi-mahi filet. Commenters, I leave it up to you: what other uses can you think of for this fun, aromatic salt?

07 September 2009

Online Tasting: 2005 Château La Paws Côte du Bone Roan

Time for another online tasting--join local Memphis wine fans and me as we try the 2005 Château La Paws Côte du Bone Roan from Rosenblum Cellars in California. Thursday, September 10, 2008 at 7:00 p.m. Central Daylight Time at The Commercial Appeal's Whining & Dining blog. Can't find this wine in your area? Grab another animal-themed wine and drop in to say hello.

Here in town, I know that Whiskers Wine & Spirits in Cordova has it, and I hear that Buster's has a couple of cases for y'all closer to Midtown. Elsewhere, it shouldn't be too hard to find--it was a popular wine on release and I'm anxious to see how it's holding up in 2009. Proceeds from this wine go to Paws With A Cause, a charitable organization that trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities.

I shot the wine with Macbeth, who is The Roommate's dog. He's a 10-year old fox-red Labrador, an unusual color not often seen in this breed. Unlike Wolfie, my dear yet paranoid mutt, Mac is pretty sociable and can make friends with anyone, as long as that person is willing to put up with some slobber and his habit of thrusting his head into your armpit for some petting.

Here's a photo from 2003, when he was six years younger and the lighting brought out the red color a little better. The boy is a strong swimmer but isn't trained for duck hunting. His primary responsibility around Casa de Benito is to begin barking when the UPS or FedEx truck arrives with wine samples. I usually try to kennel him first, but a few missionaries and door-to-door salesmen have been surprised by 80 pounds of harmless but enthusiastic Labrador lovin'.

04 September 2009

2007 Domaine du Gour de Chaulé

How do you begin to love French wines? Some say that if you're not starting out on grand cru Burgundy or premier cru Bordeaux, you're violating your taste buds and may as well be swirling Croatian prune brandy in your glass. Others suggest an approach from the east, starting with light and sweet Alsatian wines. Personally, I've always felt it's best to arrive on the southern shores, working your way through Provence, Languedoc, and Rhone. Why? Most of these wines are fun blends of easily-grown grapes, they're very food friendly, the prices are generally very low, and you've got a wide range of choices among red, white, and rosé--even dessert wines. And if you fall in love with the region, you can explore higher-end AOCs like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côte-Rôtie before moving up to the traditional big leagues.

Here's a great example from Côtes du Rhône, the 2007 Domaine du Gour de Chaulé. $15, 14.5% abv. A proprietary blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault.

It delivers bright, raspberry aromas, with touches of earth and anise. Big red berry flavors, with firm tannins and a long finish. I served it with salad, mushrooms, and thin slices of rare flatiron steak, but it would also work beautifully with roast pork or venison.

I've written a bit lately about wine label design, and this is certainly an example of old school, classic design. Removed from the bottle, there is no question that this is a wine label. It could never be confused for the label from a bottle of shampoo, brake fluid, or bug spray. It is elegant, historical, and symmetrical, using typefaces that bear centuries' worth of attention to every curve, line width, and angle.

Do I think every wine label should look like this? Certainly not. But I do love the fact that such a classy package and approachable wine goes for $15, because there are times when you want that look on the table, on the bar, or on the shelf. This wine, and many other representatives from Côtes du Rhône, are a great way to sneak into French wine and begin to understand the greatness of Gaul without breaking the bank.

02 September 2009

No Animals Were Harmed in this Blog Post...

...although I did yell at my dog Wolfgang when he tried to steal tofu, so there may have been some emotional distress.

While it should be obvious that I am a committed omnivore with few, if any culinary fears, objections, or taboos, I do respect other personal dietary choices. I've cooked for vegetarians, diabetics, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics during Lent, picky eaters, pregnant women, and girlfriends with rapidly shifting food preferences. I'm cool with whatever, just let me know ahead of time.

Recently a vegan wine showed up for review--the first that I have knowingly tried. Vegan means no animal products or byproducts are involved as ingredients or part of the production. In short, think vegetarian but no eggs, dairy, honey, etc. For a wine, it means that the wine was clarified using bentonite or is simply unfiltered. Most wines and beers are clarified with either egg whites or isinglass*, a gelatin-like substance obtained from the swim bladders of fish.

Since I've fixed a kosher meal with a kosher wine, I thought a vegan meal was in order here. I've cooked vegetarian many times, I even was a vegetarian for part of the 90s. And daily I check on local blogger Justin Burks' site The Chubby Vegetarian, which features lots of mouthwatering non-meat cooking and gorgeous photography. This dinner doesn't come from one of his posts, but his writing has inspired me to think outside of the butcher section.

Vegan cooking takes it up a step, but I was ready for the challenge. A brown rice stir-fry with firm tofu cubes, cremini mushrooms, and assorted vegetables. I really do like tofu when it's prepared properly, and it's also a matter of using the right variety for the right situation. The final dish shown here was quite good, though I needed to add some (vegan!) soy sauce to supply the missing umami flavors.

The wine that started this whole project is the 2007 Thumbprint Cellars Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley of California. $29, 14.3% abv. Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause please for a lovely unoaked Chardonnay that bucks the usual California stereotypes. Great aromas of apricot and pear, with peach and apricot flavors. Big fruit profile, dry and refreshing. There is also a brief, but fun citrus finish that vanishes almost before you can identify it. A wine like this can be pretty versatile when it comes to pairing with food, but I liked the way that it perked up the taste buds against the earthy, savory stir fry.

As I've said with organic and biodynamic wines, these methods alone don't ensure quality. But it seems like if you're paying such close attention to one part of your wine production, there's a good chance that you're investing a lot of time and care into other areas as well. With this wine the vegan status isn't treated as a big deal; the word doesn't appear anywhere on the bottle, and I don't know if there's even an official certification out there. Will this trend grow in the wine world? Only time will tell. Regardless of any dietary or ethical concerns, this is a wonderful white wine that makes you stand up and pay more attention to Chardonnay.

*You almost never hear the word isinglass these days, but it survives in a line from the musical Oklahoma! describing the Surrey with the fringe on top:

"The dashboard's genuine leather,
With isinglass curtains y' can roll right down,
In case there's a change in the weather."

In high school, I did the lighting for 12 shows of Oklahoma! plus countless rehearsals. The lines and lyrics are indelibly etched upon my brain. I fear that sixty years from now the last memories I'll be able to retrieve are in the form of dialogue between Curly and Aunt Eller.