29 October 2010

Book Review: The Wine Journal by Jennifer McCartney

There are lots of ways to keep your wine notes. One of the worst ways is to jot down scribblings on the backs of receipts and envelopes and throw them in your pocket, because then you forget and discard them later.

A dedicated wine book isn't mandatory, but if you set your keys on it during a tasting you're not liable to leave it behind. Also, in theory you can keep several volumes over the years and collect them on your bookshelf. And while taking notes on a laptop can be expeditious, there's always that worry about spillage. A few bucks worth of Chardonnay can turn a $1000 laptop into a $0 paperweight. It doesn't matter if you have a wine blog or merely enjoy wine--if you take a few minutes to transcribe your thoughts about each bottle you try, you'll learn a lot about wine within a year.

One such printed wine book is The Wine Journal by Jennifer McCartney. $10.36, Skyhorse Publishing, 272 pages.

The first 30 pages are just some basic wine terms and a few quotes. The remainder of the book is comprised of pages set up for taking notes.

In the photo to the right, you can see that I tested the book with a multitude of writing implements. (For the record, this got me laughed at during a wine tasting. Not the book, the fact that I wrote "Test of Writing Implements".)

The pages in this book are glossy stock, thicker than regular book pages. What you're writing on is the kaolin coating, not the wood-based paper itself. I could get into a whole discussion on substrates, but this isn't a printing blog and I'm not going to go into how tentacular polymers adhere to certain stocks. Let's just say that my background in printing means that I know a lot about paper and ink. I wrote on the page using five different common writing tools: Sharpie, pencil, mechanical pencil, ballpoint pen, gel ink pen. I let everything sit with the book open for 30 minutes, did a smear test with my thumb, and everything worked except for the gel. The rollerball style pens are going to smear on this kind of stock.

That being said, I like the size and look of this book--it will fit into your pants pockets or purse, and there's enough room in the various categories to write out what you're tasting. Particularly "Shared With"--it's something I often leave off the blog for privacy reasons, but it's nice to look back over your notes and remember with whom you enjoyed a certain bottle. Consider this another possible wine gift for the upcoming Christmas season, especially for those wine lovers who are just starting out.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

27 October 2010

Den Tredje Pinky Vodka

As the title states for those of you that speak Svenska, this is my third review of Pinky, the strawberry and rose petal-infused vodka from the land of the Vikings that I discovered via a sample last year. Each time I receive a new bottle, I try to think up some interesting cocktails to make with it. Previous reviews are here and here. I enjoy it for two very important reasons: it is actually a wonderful flavored vodka, not just something cheap and sweet thrown into a novelty bottle; and secondly, the ladies love it.

Here's two original cocktails using this vodka:

Benito's Last Gasp of Summer
1/3 cup Watermelon Cubes
1/2 oz. Limoncello
2 oz. Pinky Vodka

Combine the watermelon and Limoncello in the cocktail shaker, and use a muddler to thoroughly crush the watermelon. Add the Vodka, add ice, and shake and strain to serve.

Watermelon is available year-round these days, and you might find yourself with a fruit platter that has a few uneaten cubes of watermelon. This is a great way to use up a few leftovers for a single cocktail, or much more for a group. It's interesting because with different sips you get lemon, watermelon, or strawberry, all of which I associate with summer.

Alternate: If you don't have any Limoncello and also want a lighter cocktail, combine the Vodka and melon and then shake and strain. Top off with Sprite or 7-Up, or even lemon-flavored sparkling water.

In the late 18th Century, Thomas Lawrence painted Pinkie and Thomas Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy. A cocktail named after the former would be far too easy, but based on the common pairing of the two paintings together, I thought I could capture some of that steel blue color using Pinky Vodka. There are many cocktails out there called Blue Boy, so I will call this one...

Benito's Gainsborough Cocktail*
2 oz. Pinky Vodka
½ oz. White Vermouth
A few drops of Blue Curaçao

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake thoroughly, and strain into a cocktail glass. This is an odd twist on the Vodka Martini. Normally I'm a gin purist, but sometimes you want room for other flavors to show through. It only takes a few drops of the blue liqueur to go from pink to lavender to blue, so go easy when you're mixing. The Curaçao gives a nice orange tang to the various strawberry/floral/grape flavors you get from the Vodka and the Vermouth.

*Note that "Gainsborough cocktail" crops up in some old references, where cocktail refers to a mixed breed racing horse. Out of all the competing etymologies for the word, I've always preferred this explanation. It makes more sense than a bunch of garnish sticking out of the glass like a rooster's tail.

Note: This vodka was received as a sample.

25 October 2010


One of the more clever marketing slogans I've seen since I started paying attention to wine is the name of the Petite Sirah advocacy organization: PS I Love You. When I was contacted by Jo Diaz, I jumped at the chance. Petite Sirah is not particularly rare, but not terribly well known either. "Oh, does that mean half a glass of Syrah?" Also known as Durif, it's a cross between Syrah and Peloursin, and the tiny berries have a lot of concentrated flavor. However, skilled winemakers can shape it in a number of ways, and especially in Sonoma it is a delightful blending addition to Zinfandel.

I tried these wines with a group of friends and for a few people it was their first introduction to the grape. I'd encourage any wineblogger that has a bunch of samples on hand to invite some acquaintances to help with the tasting. (Note that the greatest PS tasting of all time was Fredric's Blind Tasting of '07, also involving PS I Love You.)

2008 Line 39 Petite Sirah
Lake County
$9, 13.5% abv.
Boysenberry and blackberry, medium tannins, slightly ashy and short finish.

2007 Victor Hugo Petite Sirah
Paso Robles
$13, 13.8% abv.
Raspberry and ash and earth. Little brambly. This and the Line 39 were big favorites due to their bold profiles and big fruit. I was surprised to see the big bold versions be so popular.

2009 The Crusher Petite Sirah
Don Sebastiani
$18, 13.5% abv.
Big and jammy, wild blueberries, touch of spice, creamy finish.

2008 Vina Robles Petite Sirah
Paso Robles
$26, 15% abv.
Sharp and tart, with big tannins. Overripe strawberries and a little earthy nose.

2008 Diamond Ridge Petite Sirah
Lake County
$18, 14.5% abv.
Blackberry and eucalyptus, with a big tannic finish. Dark fruits, roasted plums, deep lingering flavors. This is a great one to show off if you have friends that love the huge brassy Zinfandels. It's not overpowering, but you get a whole lot of fruit here.

2007 Parducci Petite Sirah
$11, 13.5% abv.
Dark and closed, very light body, mild, earthy.

2007 Parducci True Grit Petite Sirah
$30, 14.5% abv.
Plum and black cherry, light body, mild, earthy as well. Much better than the other Parducci, and one that went exceptionally well with steak and creamed spinach.

2007 Clayhouse Petite Sirah
Red Cedar Vineyard
$25, 14% abv.
Violets, mild, plum, blackberry. Light, low tannins, and a pleasant finish. Serve with roast duck or good cured pork.

2007 Clayhouse Show Pony Petite Sirah
Red Cedar Vineyard
$40, 14.6% abv.
The aroma is similar to the above, but the body and flavor are a lot different. This one is tarter, leaning more towards raspberry. With some breathing it softens out, and I would recommend it as a good pairing with high quality pork chops stuffed with diced apple and raisins.

2007 Clayhouse Late Harvest Petite Sirah
$30/375mL, 19% abv.
Nice black cherry, deep, dark fruit, prune, and stewed fruit flavors. Of course, since it's California you can't call it a Port, but this is a Port in everything but name. We served this with a selection of chocolates from around the world, and it was a big hit with the assembled group.

I had one latecomer that showed up after the tasting and photos, but it was a big and powerful Petite Sirah.

2007 Pedroncelli Petite Sirah
Dry Creek Valley
$15, 14.3% abv.
This one displays elements of violets, cherry, and pepper, with big bold tannins. Petite Sirah can be delicate or strong, fruity or restrained. It all depends on the winemakers, and there are enough quality wines out there on the market that you can explore a wide world of flavors within a small grape.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

22 October 2010

Beaujolais Taste Live Event

Wednesday night I participated in the Beaujolais Taste Live event called "The Feminine Side of Beaujolais: a focus on the lighter style crus". I disagree with the assignment of gender to wines; it's like saying beef is for men and poultry is for women, ignoring the manly appreciation of fried chicken, chicken wings, and turduckens. You can drink a rosé while holding a rifle and standing over the corpse of a 500kg/1100lb moose. It doesn't cause you to lose any man points.

Indeed, during the tasting I brought up the concept of "quiet strength". Think about Gary Cooper or James Stewart. They didn't make their way in Hollywood through explosions and screaming, but none would deny the power in the roles they played. Cru Beaujolais is sort of like that. It's not going to hit you upside the head with a baseball bat, but there's some great structure and complexity. I also recommended during the online tasting that many of these would be great with game like duck, rabbit, venison, etc.

With this tasting we covered four of the crus, including one that's new to me: Chiroubles. That leaves only one cru to try, my white whale, Côte de Brouilly. I must admit that I was really excited about this tasting. I love good Beaujolais, and these bottles represent producers that I haven't seen in Memphis.

2009 Domaine Cheysson Chiroubles
$19, 12.5% abv.
Little meaty on the nose, with a touch of rose petals and leather. A little tart acidity, cherry flavors, and a very light body and finish. Serve with some smoked salmon and toast points, capers, that sort of thing. Think about an occasion where you would serve a young Pinot Noir, and this is your pick.

2009 Henry Fessy Brouilly
$17, 13.5% abv.
Toast, with a hint of black cherry jam. Light cherry flavors with a little woody undertone. This wine is practically screaming for some pissaladière, the onion pizza of Provence. This wine also takes advantage of a bit of breathing, but the rewards are great.

2009 Charly Thevenet “Grain et Granit” Régnié
$36, 13% abv.
This is the deepest of the group, with a strong prune aroma with a bit of cinnamon. Medium body, firm black cherry flavors, and just a little tannic edge--the only one that showed any tannins. No argument here: grill up some lamb. Chops, legs, ribs, doesn't matter. Grab some ground lamb and make burgers to go with brioche rolls and mesclun greens and aioli.

2009 Alain Coudert Clos de la Roilette Fleurie
$20, 13% abv.
Bacon fat and a little smoke, ballet dancer light and delicate, it simply melts in your mouth. Just a hint of a raspberry flavor. I loved the way this one rolled around, and when I say "ballet dancer", what I mean is this: the wine seemed to expertly respond to my palate, even as I tried it with a few different foods. It was graceful but professional, and was a sheer delight.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

20 October 2010

Wine Packaging and PR-Blogger Relations

Last week fellow wineblogger Alder published a post about How to Send Wine Samples to a Blogger. In it, he takes on the wine public relations community for their shipping procedures. I agree with some of what he said, and am currently checking with PR reps to see what winebloggers can do to make things easier on their side--there are simple things like providing a phone number with the shipping information and having someone at least 21 at home to receive the wine that make everything move along faster. PR folks, feel free to contact me if you have suggestions, and I'll pass them along anonymously in a future post.

I'm also going to make it clear that I'm not complaining here--it's exciting to get to taste wines from all over the world, and I'm proud that my little patch of the internet has generated enough attention that I get this opportunity. I always try to be friendly and professional in my dealings with wineries and PR agencies, and I think that open communication is a good thing for everyone involved. I do have a few specific issues regarding shipping, based on my prior role as a corporate trainer. One of the things that I taught was proper pack and ship procedures, and I've also been involved in the testing and purchasing of customized cardboard solutions for specific products.

While I was thinking about Alder's post, I noticed that I had a lot of empty boxes in the living room, representing some of the most common shipping methods. Since most people will purchase either single bottles in a store or receive a 12-pack case with simple cardboard dividers, I thought I'd show what it looks like when you receive bottles one or two at a time. My primary concern is that the wine be delivered safely, with as little internal motion as possible. If the bottles are free to rattle around and bang against each other, there's a good chance of breakage.


Some folks are as passionate about their hatred of styrofoam as I am when it comes to the metric/standard debate. (METRIC RULES!) I'm not personally bothered by it, but here are the arguments: Styrofoam is rigid and provides great insulation regarding temperature. However, it's not recyclable, not compressible, and if you get a lot of it your house can fill up with the stuff between garbage pickups.

If you get one that holds a full twelve bottles, it can be kept and reused as a wine rack in a closet. It's not going to be as good as a climate controlled, sealed container, but that styrofoam will provide a lot of stability against the normal temperature fluctuations of a house.


This is my personal favorite. Easily recyclable, and it has some great benefits: it holds the bottle in place securely, is lightweight, and those ridges provide a surprisingly strong structure. This is very similar to the egg containers you see at the grocery store.

Additionally, and this is just a minor note, I love the boxes that open along the long edge like this. It's much easier to get the wine out. Sometimes the ones that open from the top are packed a little tight and you either have to rip the whole box apart or shake it to remove the bottle.


This is an interesting style I don't see often, but I like. There's a double-layered corrugated cardboard insert that can be adjusted to fit different sizes of bottles. Combined with the outside cardboard box, this falls into the category of practically indestructible. Corrugated shipping boxes are a lot stronger than they look, and when you have a total of three layers it's really strong. The adjustable tabs allow for different shapes and sizes of bottles.

Also, when you break down the box to throw out or be recycled, everything lays flat. Volume is a big thing when it comes to efficient disposal.


The worst thing you can do is wrap a bottle in bubble wrap and let it bounce around inside an oversized cardboard box. Motion is the enemy! Sometimes this method involves a bottle wrapped up like a football and then surrounded by several cubic feet of packing peanuts. It's overkill, and also doesn't keep the wine still.

In addition to the above, I've also received bottles wrapped in air cushions, wadded up newspaper, straw, and many different kinds of cardboard inserts. There's no perfect, one size fits all solution for wineries and agencies, but the cardboard and recycled paper options have multiple benefits for the shipper and receiver: they take up the least amount of space, reducing shipping costs; they firmly secure the bottles to avoid unnecessary motion; and they're more environmentally friendly than plastic or styrofoam solutions.

Wineries? Retailers? Bloggers? I'd love to hear your further input on the topic.

18 October 2010

Westside Red Troublemaker

Occasionally here at Casa de Benito I'll point to one the dogs or The Roommate and just say, "Troublesome!" with no further explanation. So when a wine called Troublemaker showed up for review there were some chuckles.

The Westside Red Troublemaker is comprised of 53% Syrah, 37% Mourvèdre, 10% Grenache, sourced from Paso Robles, California. $20, 14.5% abv.

Big fruit, touch of cedar, touch of tannins on the middle of the taste, with a tart, fruity finish. Raspberries, bit of brambles, chocolate on the aftertaste. I had this with a burger and fries and it was an excellent pairing--this is a wine for your pizza, gyro, steak sandwich, etc. I'm not saying it's a fast food wine, but it's got a character that lends itself exceptionally well to pub grub. Consider this for BBQs and events like Thanksgiving when you've got a lot of different and competing flavors on the table.

This classic Rhone GSM blend is made by Austin Hope of Hope Family Wines, and combines wine from three vintages: 2007, 2008, 2009. That's part of the "Troublemaker" tag, an irreverent approach both to the construction of the wine as well as the marketing behind it.

There's a video inspired by The Office. Having seen a thousand bad internal corporate parody videos (and being responsible for more than a few myself*), I winced as soon as I heard the theme music. But it's actually entertaining and informative. "Creating a wine? That's like giving birth, but you're not naked." Also love the bit with the graphic designer.

Good little wine here, and worth checking out. I'm impressed with these experiments that Hope is conducting with wines like this and the Candor line.

*I spent several months in my junior year of high school as the producer of a daily morning TV show broadcast on public access cable. School started at 7 a.m., but by that point I'd been up since 4 a.m. writing stories, prepping the studio, and filming the program. After school I wrote stories and lined up interviews. Fascinating time of life. Doing high quality TV work (we won Cable Aces and other awards) made me particularly sensitive to the terrible, embarrassing internal videos produced by various companies I've worked for. Even if I was drafted to help, it involved a ridiculous script written by an unfunny manager, acted out by terrified employees not quick enough to run away, and all filtered through HR/Legal to strip out anything interesting. The result was always a source of unintentional humor for the viewers and eternal shame for those who put it together. Kudos to the Hope folks for putting together something decent.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

15 October 2010

Chilean Red Blends

This Wednesday, it was time for yet another multimedia Wines of Chile tasting. Previous tastings have focused on single grapes: Sauvignon Blanc or Carmenere. This was a refreshing change of pace, with eight red blends from multiple valleys, displaying a wide range of flavors. Amazingly, that same day the miners were rescued from their months-long entrapment in the mines down in Chile, and we were able to join in with a celebratory toast with the Chilean winemakers. Our online tasting was a minor note in the grand scheme of things, but it was a joy to have something to celebrate with the good people of Chile.

#1: 2005 Valdivieso Éclat
Maule Valley, Chile
$27, 13.5% abv
56% Carignan, 24% Mourvèdre, 20% Syrah

This Rhone blend has a real old world feel to it. Light, mild, with very restrained cherry aromas and flavors, and a slight earthiness. The tannins are almost nonexistent, making it very smooth.

#2: 2006 De Martino Las Cruces
Cachapoal Valley, Chile
$45, 14.5% abv
66% Malbec, 34% Carmenere

Interesting mix of grapes here. Lots of great plum and dark fruit aromas without being jammy. On the back end you get elements of cassis and blackberry. Mild tannins but they're not absent. Overall a spectacular balance, and one that is still fresh and bright after four years.

#3: Estampa Gold Assemblage
Colchagua Valley, Chile
$22, 14% abv.
57% Carmenere, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot

Chocolate, coffee, leather, light tannins, rich finish. A nice distinguished wine with classic old world elements.

#4: 2008 Montes Limited Selection
Colchagua Valley, Chile
$15, 14% abv.
70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Carmenere

Green bell pepper and tobacco, touches of coffee and cherry. Slightly bitter finish. This wine has a few rough edges that might smooth out with time. Like the above two wines, this takes advantage of Carmenere's Bordeaux heritage for blending.

#5: Maquis Lien
Colchagua Valley, Chile
$19, 14.5% abv.
42% Syrah, 30% Carmenere, 12% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot, 7% Malbec

Lots of blackberry and blueberry, soft and well aged. I found myself wanting liver, or oxtails, or something earthy and gamy to go along with this.

#6: 2008 Hacienda Araucano Clos de Lolol
Colchagua Valley, Chile
$23, 14% abv.
31% Syrah, 29% Cabernet Franc, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Carmenere

Syrah dominates with black cherry and black pepper. Light tannins, fruity, with a touch of cherry pie filling. Definitely a great one for the Rhone fans out there.

#7: 2007 Emiliana Coyam
Colchagua Valley, Chile
38% Syrah, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Carmenere, 17% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot, 1% Mourvèdre
$29, 14.5% abv.

Chocolate and leather, with firm tannins. There's an overall red cherry flavor. This deep purple wine is much bigger and beefier than most of the other selections. Serve it with some of the best lamb you can get your hands on.

#8: 2007 Casas del Bosque Gran Estate Selection Private Reserve
Casablanca Valley, Chile
61% Syrah, 26% Merlot, 13% Pinot Noir
$50, 14% abv.

Also big and purple, with a really strange mix of grapes. I think the Pinot Noir is overwhelmed by the other two grapes. Smoke and brambles, a bit oaky. Some cherry cola and prune elements. Firm, drying tannins, bitter finish.

This tasting kit included two extras: a bottle of extra virgin olive oil and a tiny jar of smoked chile called merquén, a combination of dried and smoked chiles with salt and cumin and coriander.

I don't really have anything to compare the olive oil against at the moment, but it's rich and fruity with a pronounced olive aroma. The spice is mostly dominated by the smoke, with a strong BBQ aroma and flavor. On its own, the merquén is hot and spicy, and tastes like you've just eaten some smoked sausage. But I can see where a judicious pinch would add a wonderful element to certain meats and fishes. I will report back when I've found a good use for it.

Overall a great lineup of wines. I think my favorite was #7 with #5 right behind. Very interesting mix of grapes, and I was glad to get the opportunity to try these wines.

Note: These wines were received as samples from Wines of Chile.

13 October 2010

2008 Monthaven Cabernet Sauvignon

Time for a return to The Octagon. Not sure how much crossover appeal there is between fans of wine and mixed martial arts, but it's what springs to mind whenever I encounter an Octavin package.

This contender from the Central Coast of California is the 2008 Monthaven Cabernet Sauvignon. $24/3L, 13.5% abv. Interesting mix of grapes here: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petite Sirah, 4% Carignan, 4% Tempranillo, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Zinfandel, 2% Merlot and 1% Mourvèdre. Of course, with that 75% Cab Sav, it only has to be labeled with that, but it's nice knowing the full composition.

It's a pretty straightforward red wine with blackberry and raspberry aromas. Slightly jammy berry flavors continue, with medium tannins. Short finish, and much smoother than comparably priced bargain Cabernet Sauvignon.

Like with the other Octavin wines, this is a boxed product that is a good bit above what you normally think of as boxed wine, but is still ideally suited to parties. We have to remind ourselves that many people just want a glass of red or white, and not to sit and talk about it for an hour. I would also recommend this for cooking purposes--if you've got one of those old French recipes that calls for a lot of Bordeaux, consider using this. I'm thinking coq au vin, daube du jarret d'agneau, or sauce bordelaise, for instance.

This is the fourth Octavin wine that I've tried, and the only one I had a bit of trouble opening. On the front the cardboard is perforated. You punch through with your thumb, pull out the spigot, and put it back together neatly. Maybe this one wasn't perforated fully, or perhaps I was a little zealous after opening boxes all morning, but I instinctively grabbed a knife and sliced it open. And in doing so, I punctured the plastic bag inside.

I was able to take the box apart and get the bag resting safely inside a pitcher. I didn't spill much wine, but I was able to transfer 1.5L into a pair of empty bottles I had, and that left the bag empty enough that it was easy to pour as long as I pinched the hole I created. This is not a problem with the design, or boxed wines in general. Just a reminder for everyone that if you encounter resistance, don't use something sharp and pointy. Try something like a spoon if you need some more force but don't want to poke a hole in the bag.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.
Octagon image ©Ultimate Fighting Championship

11 October 2010

Canadian Thanksgiving, German Riesling, and French Chicken

Happy Thanksgiving, or joyeux jour d'action de grâce, to our neighbors in the True North strong and free. I've always thought that those of us below the 49th parallel ought not to limit ourselves to one Thanksgiving. We're harvesting year round, so I think we ought to have at least quarterly celebrations in which friends and family gather 'round to celebrate the bounty of the land.

In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, this weekend I made a French/German recipe with a couple of German wines in the company of assorted mutts from all over.

I found this interesting Coq au Riesling recipe via Serious Eats. It's similar to the traditional classic coq au vin, but made with Riesling instead of red wine. It gives it a little lighter look, and allows for a stronger contribution from the onions and mushrooms. I skipped the butter--it's a bit ridiculous to add butter when you've got so much pork and chicken fat involved in the recipe. I served it with some tiny thin asparagus and bowtie pasta that had been tossed in Chilean olive oil and fresh parsley. Big hit at dinner, and while the dish is a little time consuming (there's a lot of moving the chicken in and out of the dish at varying stages of doneness), I was very happy with how it turned out.

I added 175mL/¾ Cup of each Riesling to the recipe. They worked well, but here's how the wines tasted on their own. And I'll say that this is a recipe where using the same wine that you're drinking really helps make the meal sing.

2007 Josef Leitz Riesling Kabinett
Rüdesheimer Rosengarten, Rheingau
$22, 8.5% abv.
This was the sweeter of the two, full of fruit. It has tiny little bubbles clinging to the side of the glass, with lots of apple and pear. As it warms up you almost get a little pineapple acidity. It's not terribly sweet, and manages not to be heavy or cloying. Great Thanksgiving wine, and I'm talking about the turkey and sweet potatoes kind of Thanksgiving we're more familiar with down here. And such a low alcohol content means that folks who don't drink much wine can enjoy a glass or two without getting tipsy.

2008 Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn Riesling Trocken
Jacobus, Rheingau
€8.60, 11.5% abv.
Hasn't quite made it to the US, but this is the entry-level wine in the Kühn profile. This biodynamic and VDP wine is dry and light. It has two elements that I love in good Riesling: minerality and a hint of petrol. The latter is barely noticeable, and mainly what you have is a very mild wine with just a touch of lemony acidity and light green apple flavor. Consider this one for mild dishes like poached trout or vichyssoise.

The other big event of the evening was the very special dinner guest, Bella. Paul adopted Bella last week--she's a five month old Jack Russell terrier mix, found via Tri County Animal Rescue of Horn Lake, Mississippi. It was funny to see the older dogs playing with such a young pup, and they all got along pretty well together. Welcome to the pack, Bella, and to everyone else, remember that there's a lot of dogs out there that need good homes.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

08 October 2010

DeLoach Tasting Kit

Buying gifts for wine lovers is notoriously difficult. If you don't know much about wine, you end up giving German Riesling to the guy who only drinks French reds. Or you buy the latest trendy gadget--like a complicated straw that wraps around your head and is supposed to aerate the wine, but makes you look like a hospital patient. How about a t-shirt with Miles from Sideways screaming about Merlot? It's actually worse if you know what you're doing, because the two of you have tasted a lot of wine together and you have to dig deeper to find something he or she doesn't already have.

I get a lot of offers to review wine gifts, but I mostly don't. I always think, "Would I be happy to receive this, or would I be proud to give this to someone I care about? Will the gift actually be useful and enjoyed, or will it be awkwardly hidden in the back of a closet?"

Here's a real winner that's fun, serious, appeals to multiple levels of experience, and isn't very expensive. DeLoach Vineyards produces a Pinot Selections Tasting Kit for $25. Six different Pinot Noirs from six different vineyards. It's similar to the experience you'd have at a wine tasting or winery visit, except you can do it from the comfort of your own home.

Each bottle is 50mL/1.7 oz. Going through the entire kit is just 300mL, or the equivalent of two standard glasses of wine. This means that you can run through the whole tasting in an evening without going overboard. The kit does not include a tiny corkscrew, but fear not, these are all screwcaps. (The full size bottles are enclosed with corks.)

I've also included the prices of the full bottles just for the sake of completeness. Also note that the current lineup of wines is slightly different from the kit that I tried. The pencil and quarter were placed here for size comparison.

2007 Green Valley
Russian River Valley
$45, 14.5% abv.
Strawberry and brambles, a solid Pinot Noir with a firm presence.

2007 Masút Vineyard
Redwood Valley
$45, 15% abv.
Stewed fruit, fig, dark aromas, a little lighter but with a hearty nose.

2007 Maboroshi Vineyard
Russian River Valley
$45, 15% abv.
Light cherry, with a touch of rosemary. Cries out for lamb.

2007 Le Roi
Sonoma Coast
$60, 15% abv.
Wild strawberries, a little earthy, silky smooth and light, restrained.

2006 Van der Kamp Vineyard
Sonoma Mountain
$42, 15.5% abv.
Cherry aromas and flavors dominate, with the firmest tannins out of the whole batch.

2006 Sonoma Stage Vineyard
Sonoma Coast
$60, 14.5% abv.
Prunes and stewed fruit, with a hint of spice underneath. Oh this is luscious. Very mild and delicate, with a finish that gently melts in your mouth.

The kit includes an information card--on one side is a map showing where the grapes were grown, and the other side provides tasting notes and detailed information on each wine. I never look at preprinted notes before I try wine, but others may prefer to read along while tasting.

This would be a fun gift for someone that is getting into wine but hasn't made it out to California for a tasting. Or for someone that's interested in how one grape can be made by the same company but have six different flavors and profiles, but hasn't studied wine formally. It's an elegant enough gift to give as a housewarming present or for a company Christmas party. Keep a few on hand in case you need one of those last minute gifts for an unexpected occasion.

I even think this would be great to buy for yourself if you do a lot of traveling. Sometimes you're by yourself in a strange hotel in the middle of nowhere, and instead of having an overpriced cocktail in the lobby, you could set up your own little wine tasting in the room. A little touch of civility and wine appreciation while you're far from home.

Note: This kit was received as a sample.

06 October 2010

Cinzano Vermouths

After going through several bottles of Noilly-Prat vermouths, I decided to try something different. Over time, the advertising on umbrellas, cycling jerseys, and boats worked its marketing magic and I picked up some bottles of Cinzano.

Cinzano has made vermouth since 1757, and currently there are four varieties. Here I use the sweet red (Rosso) and dry white (Extra Dry) versions. Additionally, there is a sweeter white and a new rosé, neither of which I've tried. They're meant to be enjoyed either on their own or in cocktails, though in this country drinking straight vermouth will get you some odd looks at bars. I tried both on their own and with cocktails. Here I compare them mostly against Noilly Prat, since I have the most experience with those products.

The Rosso is bolder and tangier than Noilly Prat. At times it even approaches something like a thin Sherry. I was pleased with its performance in a Manhattan, but if you're using good whiskey, I'd prefer the Noilly Prat for its smoother, milder profile.

The Extra Dry is interesting because it is almost as clear as water. It is crisper and brighter than Noilly Prat. I also note a citrus edge, which is nice because of how much a Martini benefits from a little citrus in the form of peels or bitters. And the Martini that I made was fantastic, with a tart, refreshing profile. Additionally, since it is so clear, you end up with a clear cocktail. I don't mind a Martini with a touch of gold to it, but sometimes it's nice to have that crystal appearance at a party.

I also made a Perfect Martini (using both red and white vermouths), and was pleased with the results. However, I don't often make that cocktail, so I don't have a good frame of reference for its performance.

Verdict: For the time being I'm going to go back to Noilly Prat for the red, but for the white I prefer the Cinzano, especially when viewed against the new sweeter Noilly Prat.

04 October 2010

2008 Hope Estate "Pink Awareness" Shiraz

A quick post in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There are several charity-themed wines out there these days, and breast cancer is a common theme. Generally the situation is that a winemaker has lost a wife or mother, or perhaps someone at the winery is a survivor herself. I don't know the inspiration with this particular wine, but a portion of the proceeds go to the Breast Cancer Network of Strength.

2008 Hope Estate "Pink Awareness" Shiraz
Hunter Valley, New South Wales
$13, 13.5% abv.

Plums, blackberries, a touch of raspberry tartness on the finish. Good fruit flavor and medium tannins, but ultimately light due to the restrained alcohol. I know it's odd to say 13.5% is light, but for Aussie Shiraz these days this is practically a German Riesling.

Here are some other breast cancer charity wines I've covered--I'm not sure about current vintages, but you may find bottles still rattling around here and there: Big Tattoo Red & Cline Cashmere.

I had some odds and ends in the fridge and wound up with this earthy Irish-style dinner. At least I prepared it in a fresher fashion than boiling it all to hell in the traditional manner of my ancestors.

The lamb shoulder chop is an unappreciated cut. Normal triangular lamb chops are justifiably popular, and the rack of lamb is one of my all-time favorite things to cook. But I tend to save those for when I'm having dinner with friends. A lamb shoulder, on the other hand, is the choice cut for stews and braises, but it's easy enough to find a half pound, $3 shoulder chop that cooks up very nicely in a hot skillet. Add in some roasted new potatoes with sea salt and Brussels sprouts topped with a little pepper vinegar, and you've got a delicious meal that requires zero culinary skill. Sometimes it's nice to break out a dozen pots and pans and have multiple sauces and microgreens and three different kinds of olive oil, but other times you just want a simple yet flavorful dinner.

01 October 2010

Chilean Pinot Noirs & Oxtails

In the past year, I've had some rough experiences with Chilean Pinot Noir. I tried three bottles from different producers and was let down by each. They were all bad enough to assume that the bottles were flawed or damaged, but I found myself wondering about the region/grape combination.

I finally got the opportunity to try a pair of decent Chilean Pinot Noirs. These are not Burgundy or Oregon, but I think they are closing in on entry level New Zealand Pinot. And that is a very promising start. Both wines here are made by Viña Leyda in the Leyda and adjoining San Antonio valleys. This is a very new wine region, only used for grapes since 1997.

2009 Leyda Classic Pinot Noir
San Antonio Valley, Chile
$10, 14% abv.

The aroma is dark, with a strong element of overripe wild strawberries. Slightly tart, rich finish. Big fruit flavors. At cooler temperatures, the wine is softer. For pairing this with food, you'll want to think more Syrah than Pinot Noir based on the fruit and acidity, meaning it can stand up to some heavier dishes.

2009 Leyda Single Vineyards Las Brisas Pinot Noir
Leyda Valley, Chile
$20, 14% abv.

Softer, milder, more restrained. Similar strawberry aromas and flavors are present but subdued, and with additional plum. Initial tartness gives way to a short clean finish. With a little breathing this becomes a lovely wine and has more of a classic Pinot Noir character. This is one to keep in mind for grilled salmon.

I got a craving for oxtails, and luckily it's a pretty easy craving to satisfy. I happened to post a note about this on Facebook while I was cooking, and there was a lot of interest. If you've never had them, poke around in the butcher section until you find pieces that look like those at the right. Normally one package will have two big pieces and several smaller pieces. There's not much meat on the latter, but don't throw them out--you can take advantage of the flavor.

I patted them dry, dusted them with flour and spices, and heated up a splash of oil in the enameled Dutch oven. I seared them heavily on all sides until well browned, and then added a can of chopped tomatoes and peppers as well as half a bottle of wine. Feel free to use a white wine if you like, or even beer and beef broth works well. Oxtails aren't delicate and will braise well in just about anything. Which is why I added a splash of brandy for added flavor.

For about two hours, I let the oxtails braise slowly on top of the oven, turning them over every half hour to ensure good coverage. Meanwhile I made a batch of lentils seasoned with tandoori spices and slow cooked in chicken broth. Before serving the oxtails, I removed them to a plate and added some sour cream to the braising liquid. I felt like a slightly creamier, tangier sauce would be nice.

Oxtails look difficult, but when cooked right the meat just melts off the bone and the little chunks of fat are buttery nuggets of joy. There's a rich dark flavor involved that is distinct from every other part of the cow, and I love serving oxtails to people that have never had them before but are willing to give them a try. Now that the weather is a little cooler, it was wonderful to enjoy an autumn meal like this with a couple of glasses of Pinot Noir.

Note: These wines were received as samples.