31 August 2012

Woodchuck Private Reserve Ginger

After recently getting back into hard cider, I found myself wanting to try more. I know that I'll exhaust the locally available options pretty quickly, but while driving home one night I was thinking about the subject and wondered, "If the wine shops carry big beer, do they carry big cider?"

The answer is a delicious yes. In the little corner devoted to Russian Imperial Ales and strong Belgians, I found a sixer of Woodchuck that was a bit stronger than the usual and whose details were far more interesting than the hard-to-read yellow on yellow label. I love a really good ginger ale and in recent years have used the rhizome a lot more in cooking, so I was excited for the inclusion in the cider. Would it be hot and spicy?

I let it chill in the fridge, got out my tall pilsner glass, and gave it a try...

Woodchuck Private Reserve Ginger
Middlebury, Vermont
6.9% abv., $10/6-pack

With low carbonation and a high alcohol content, this is approaching an apple wine. What's the difference? Hard cider is lower in alcohol and carbonated. Apple wine is still and higher in alcohol. (In fact, cheap, mass-produced cider can be made by importing apple wine from Canada and diluting it with fizzy water.) It has a glorious Golden Delicious aroma and flavor that is bright and full of sunshine. Crisp and dry with just a little bite from the ginger. Julia and I had some of the other bottles with a couple of hearty salads and it was a great accompaniment. Highly recommended and worth a little detour while you're at the liquor store.

29 August 2012

Two Bitter Beers

As I grumble and sweat through yet another blistering Memphis summer that never seems to end (the discomfort is a small but annoying price to pay for all the delicious fresh local fruits and vegetables), I find myself turning to beverages other than wine. The simple unsweetened ice tea is welcome at lunch. For dinner, I might want something simpler, more refreshing, and in a smaller bottle. And thus I remember that I've been neglecting beer for a while.

I love bitter beer, and really love something full of hops that bites back at you. As I was putting together the mixed six pack with the recent bottles of cider, I grabbed a couple of hoppy brews to try at a later date. Even though you're occasionally not getting the best deal, those "build your own six pack" kits are wonderful for trying a wide variety of beers over the course of a week, and with new bottles showing up all the time, there's always something interesting waiting for you.

O'Fallon Hemp Hop Rye Amber Ale
O'Fallon, Missouri
5.5% abv.

Slightly musty, buttery aroma with a great bitter rye flavor. Light copper color and very low carbonation . A nutty, sticky finish that stays with you for a while. The brewery is located on the western outskirts of St. Louis and has had some financial struggles recently before being acquired by a former Anheuser-Busch marketing executive.

Yazoo Brewmaster's Series Hop Project
Nashville, Tennessee
6% abv.

There's a citrus note of candied orange peel along with a strong bitter mouthfeel. Underneath some of the rich malts shine through, but the dominant sensation is a lip-puckering bitterness you get from a very strong IPA. Each batch of the Hop Project is different as they try out different combinations of hops. This is batch #66, made from a "blend of Cascade, Magnum, CTZ, and a proprietary blend from Hopunion called Zythos".

27 August 2012

Carnaval Sparkling Wine

Wine has been made in Brazil since the 1530s, but not a lot of it has made its way up here to the States. I'd certainly never had one until I got a sample offer a few weeks ago. Cooperativa Vinícola Aurora is Brazil's biggest wine producer, a co-op of 1100 families though not a dominant and controlling force like South Africa's KWV used to be. They produce a wide range of wines using both classic European grapes as well as Vitis labrusca hybrids.

Aurora has many labels, and Carnaval is relatively new. There's not a lot of information on the website but the company is promoting the bubbly through Twitter, Facebook, and the promotional group Wines of Brasil.

The grapes for these wines (and most Brazilian wines) were grown in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is still a good bit north of the Chilean valleys and the Argentine Mendoza region. The area was the site of lots of German and Italian immigration during the 19th century which had a major impact on the type of wine produced.

NV Carnaval Moscato
Serra Gaúcha, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
$13, 7.5% abv.

NV Carnaval Moscato Red
Serra Gaúcha, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
$13, 7.5% abv.

I'm combining these two reviews because they were so similar to each other. Both have a foxy, musky aroma that reminds me a lot of some hybrids but is also present in your fuller-bodied Muscat family grapes. Lots of honey and floral elements with just a tiny bit of citrus peel. The red had a little strawberry edge to it. While designed to be served chilled, I found the wine more relaxed and well-balanced at room temperature. Both wines are fairly sweet, and with the low alcohol content and high fizz they would be fun for parties. I'd like a little more acidity but they were close in spirit to the northern Italian moscatos.

Between the two I was expecting to prefer the rosé, but found the white to be a little better. More even, a little crisper, and a more refreshing beverage. Lots of fun with appetizers and as the intro to a mixed grill dinner with smoked chicken, grilled steak, and grilled summer squash.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

24 August 2012

Benito vs. Cider: Woodchuck & Crispin

While I was doing research for the Serious Eats article, Julia ordered a Woodchuck Amber Cider and I realized it had been a long time since I'd had any cider. How long? If only I had some sort of electronic log of every beverage I've consumed in the past eight years... Ah yes, I had some cider back in 2006 and pointed out that it had been a long time since I'd had any cider. Look for my next review in 2018!

The next time I was at the grocery store I figured I'd get one of those "Build a Six Pack" things and try all the ciders. In terms of loose bottles they only had Woodchuck Amber and Crispin Original. But at least I had a baseline cider and a new one for contrast, and the color of the Crispin was tantalizing. This was also an interesting battle because Woodchuck is owned by an LLC in its native Vermont, where the company helped reintroduce hard cider to America after decades of neglect and now controls half of the market in this particular beverage. Crispin, on the other hand, was founded in Minnesota by a South African cider enthusiast, became the third biggest cider producer, and is now owned by beer powerhouse MillerCoors. So the independent is the big market leader and the smaller English-style cidery is part of the global consolidation of the brewing industry...

Woodchuck Amber Hard Cider
Middlebury, Vermont
5% abv.

The classic that we all know, and found in bottle and draught form throughout the country. I've always wanted to know the varieties, but cideries tend to be pretty secretive about their apple blends. The Amber seems to dominate with reds and is rich and slightly sweet with a bit of thickness to it, like standard apple juice. Slightly sour aroma and the drink clings to your lips a bit. It was good to try it again after so long, but I'll always prefer their Granny Smith version.

Crispin Original Natural Hard Apple Cider
Minneapolis, Minnesota
5% abv.

This one is made with a blend of red and green apples, living a lighter, crisper profile that reminds me a lot of Sauvignon Blanc. It's not as sweet as the Woodchuck and has a brighter, more refreshing character. I started craving shellfish, and I think I'm going to serve this in the future with a big batch of moules normande. I'm also really excited to try some of their wide and fascinating other ciders made in a variety of styles.

In this instance I'm going to call Crispin the winner, but have to give Woodchuck credit for bringing cider back to the nation and maintaining a standard of quality and independence over the past twenty years. It's still hot outside, so chill some cider and work a few bottles into the old beer rotation.

22 August 2012

New Article at Serious Eats

Today marks the publication of my fourth article at Serious Eats and the one that I'm most proud of so far. My goal as Memphis Correspondent is to show the rest of the world that there's more to our cuisine than just ribs, pulled pork, and fried peanut butter banana sandwiches. At the same time, I care a lot about our local BBQ restaurants that attract people from around the world.

Since this is how I tend to order when I'm escorting a visitor on yet another Memphis BBQ marathon, I chose to focus on delicious non-pork menu items at some of those establishments with the 8 Best Non-Pork Dishes at Memphis BBQ Joints.

Also, congratulations to the winners of the 2012 Wine Blog Awards! I didn't win my category but I was in great company and hope you check out all of the winners and finalists. Lots of them attended the Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland, Oregon where the awards were announced. There are plenty of recaps and hundreds of tasting notes waiting to be read.

20 August 2012

Whiplash Wines

Last week I wrote about Reata wines, and today I'm focusing on a division of their company called Whiplash Wines. These are their bargain wines, though still quite tasty and worth checking out.

The labels continue with the western/cowboy theme of the Reata style and, given my Calvinist Presbyterian background, the Redemption name was particularly amusing.

2010 Whiplash Chardonnay
$11, 14.5% abv.

Firm oak presence with bright acidity. Peach and vanilla aromas with a bracing oak flavor and a long finish. I found it to be delicious with smoked chicken and black bean tacos topped with a vibrant salsa verde.

2009 Whiplash Redemption
65% Syrah, 25% Barbera, 10% Zinfandel
$11, 13.2% abv.

Big fruit and firm tannins, blackberries and black cherry. Tart, tannic finish. If a wine ever called out for a bacon cheeseburger, it would be this one. Great casual Wednesday wine after getting home from work.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

17 August 2012

Reata Wines

Reata Wines is based in Napa and takes its name from the Spanish word for lariat. The winery sources grapes from selected vineyards throughout Napa and Sonoma with a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

I had some salmon on hand, as well as a bunch of fresh produce from the downtown Memphis Farmer's Market. Purple hull peas, ripe tomatoes, corn on the cob... I love salmon with Pinot Noir but the hot weather was making me lean towards Chardonnay. I chose to open both, and each performed admirably, mostly based on their mild, restrained profiles. A stronger, brasher Pinot Noir would have been overpowering and a more "buttered popcorn" style Chardonnay could have blown out the subtle flavors of the peas and corn.

2010 Reata Chardonnay
Carneros, California
$20, 14.3% abv.
11,500 Cases

Even though two thirds of the wine was aged in French oak, the effect is mild and balanced. Just a touch of caramel underneath the soft tropical fruits. Low but even acidity with a long, relaxing finish. I loved how it worked with the assortment of fresh vegetables, in particular the lemony sorrel, which I mixed with Greek yogurt to top the salmon.

2010 Reata Pinot Noir
Sonoma Coast, California
$30, 14.2% abv.
6,200 Cases Made

Like the Chardonnay, this was also aged in French oak for a more Burgundy-style wine. Very mild plum and dried cherry aromas with low tannins and a soft finish. As I'd hoped, the poached salmon worked really well with this wine, and I would highly recommend it for similar seafood and properly roasted poultry.

Did I mention the cornbread? While the purple hull peas were simmering with bacon and chicken stock, I got a powerful craving for cornbread and made a fresh batch, served as I prefer it with soft butter and local clover honey.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

15 August 2012

Broken Shed Vodka

Every year there are more and more premium vodkas coming on the scene, and much like bottled water the producers seek to attract customers through packaging and an exotic origin. Ultimately vodka is just 40% alcohol and 60% water. The alcohol can be distilled from anything and the water can either come from glacial ice or the tap. (I'm waiting for the first commercial Antarctic vodka. I say commercial, because my high school physics teacher flew there a lot as a US Navy pilot in the 70s and used to make a drink with PGA swiped from the scientists, snow, and orange juice crystals called "Absolute Zero".)

Broken Shed surprised me, and not because it uses spring water from both islands of New Zealand. No, what really struck me was that it's distilled from whey, the liquid byproduct of cheesemaking. Whey is rich in protein and lactose, a sugar. The Mongolians have been making airag from mares' milk forever, and variations on fermented milk exist throughout Asia and the middle east. Given the Kiwi origin of this spirit, I'm going to guess sheep's milk was the source of the whey.

Broken Shed Premium Vodka
Wanaka, New Zealand
$50, 40% abv.

Like Grey Goose, this bottle features a frosted bottle but with icy mountains instead of big waves. It's a tall, slender bottle with a cork stopper--an elegant touch in comparison to the usual thin metal screwcaps. While I like screwcaps on wine, with spirits I like stoppers, whether natural or synthetic. A bottle of wine will be consumed within a few days of opening, whereas a spirit may hang around for years. I've had leakage issues with screwcaps, and besides the mess that also means that other things are getting into the bottle.

The vodka is crisp and bracing on its own, though when chilled and mixed in a cocktail it takes on a--dare I say it?--creamy smooth quality. Maybe it's just the power of suggestion, but it does blend quite well into martinis, Salty Dogs, and even kicks up a bit of homemade lemonade quite well.

A bit of doggerel, because I couldn't resist:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Staring at leftover whey.
"If this can be distilled
My bottles can be filled
In a most delectable way."

Note: This bottle was received as a sample.

13 August 2012

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

From 1904-1913, Windsor McCay drew Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Every comic strip had the same setup: somebody has a bad dream and wakes up in the last panel to blame it on Welsh rarebit (toast topped with a savory cheese and beer sauce). What made it special was the artwork, which became more and more surreal as the dream progressed and incorporated lots of tiny details. During the same time he was drawing the better known and more popular Little Nemo in Slumberland, which also explored dreams.

Originally, the strip was supposed to be about nightmares induced by tobacco cravings, but the newspaper made him change it to Welsh rarebit, leading generations to wonder why it's so bad to eat cheese toast right before bed. While perusing some of these lovely drawings, I found myself with all the ingredients necessary to make the legendary dish, but I didn't want to make mere toast. Why not try something different?

I thought that using a rarebit sauce for macaroni and cheese would be neat, but it turns out that many others (including Rachel Ray) had the idea first. However, I could still put another twist on it.

This past week the grocery store had a freezer case full of cooked lobsters on sale. These are usually older and slower lobsters that are steamed and frozen rather than throwing them out. Not quite as good as fresh, live lobsters, but perfect for use in recipes like lobster rolls or pasta applications. I love lobster macaroni and cheese, and thought that it would be particularly good with a rarebit sauce. For the sauce I used half Australian white cheddar and half Italian fontina, fortified with the usual seasonings and a good dose of a Sam Adams IPA. I boiled up a batch of farfalle, tossed it all together with the shredded lobster meat, and sprinkled breadcrumbs on top. A little time in the oven, and we're ready.

It was rich and savory, buttery and delicious. I had intended for this to be a first course for dinner, but it proved to be so filling that I never got around to the second course. In the future I'd probably use crawfish tails and maybe not bake it, but rather toss the pasta, seafood, and sauce at the last minute before serving. And I'd also use a less bitter beer--the IPA was delicious, but probably not the perfect choice for this sauce.

Dreams that night: perfectly normal.

10 August 2012

Retiring a Notebook

I bought this little Moleskine notebook on January 13, 2008, en route to a legendary Barolo tasting. Four and a half years later, it's full.

Now, I haven't taken all of my wine notes in it since then, though it did go with me to Sonoma (as seen in the photo). Most of the time I take notes on the back of envelopes, post-its, or whatever else is lying around. I often use the blank backs of the numerous pieces of paper that arrive with each set of wine samples. But this humble black notebook has accompanied me to many tastings and dinner parties. I'm not going to toss it out--there are phone numbers and stains and little notes scribbled in by various mischievous young ladies who enjoyed swiping my notebook sometime around the third course of wine. There are plenty of pages torn out, never from regretted reviews, but when I had to scribble a recipe or write down the address of my blog. In fact, just a few months after getting the notebook I got tired of ripping out back pages and got business cards to hand out instead.

I've got a few other wine journals of varying elegance and size, but I think this weekend it's time for another Moleskine. After all this time it still feels just right.

08 August 2012

2010 Yard Dog White

Monday I reviewed a pink purse wine and today I've got a white wine with a Chihuahua on the label. It's turning into Legally Blonde around here. Time to go back to strange organs and weird critters, I think.

But until my next adventure in the odd meats case of the international market, it's time to take another look at a fun little white wine from Australia. Redheads Studio used to have its own website but it now redirects to Laithwaite's, the British wine company that founded Redheads Studio in order to showcase the creativity of young Australian winemakers. I've had the Yard Dog Red in the past but have not seen any of their other products in the local market. And yes, for a change, I did purchase this wine as I happened to be completely out of white wine and needed half a bottle to go into my spaghetti sauce. The remainder was chilled and served as an apéritif for Saturday lunch. Julia loved it and adored the cute label.

2010 Redheads Studio Yard Dog White
McLaren Vale, South Australia
Chardonnay 41%, Sauvignon Blanc 32%, Verdelho 16%, Viognier 11%
$11, 13% abv.

Light and refreshing with loads of tropical fruit, hints of pineapple and apricot. Mild, balanced acidity and a short, crisp finish. Great chilled and while this unoaked wine is fruity, it's not overpowering and provided a garden fresh character to the tomato sauce.

Australian wine calls for Italian-American food, of course. I was craving Ween's Sunday Gravy and realized it had been a while since I'd worked up a big pot of tomato sauce and meatballs.

I made a few tweaks this time, thoguh I did include the browned pork chops (which add so much flavor and texture to the sauce over hours of simmering). A hot Memphis Saturday is perhaps not the best day to spend making sauce for four hours followed by boiling pasta, but at the end it was worth it and chilled glasses of Yard Dog and purse wine helped cool things off.

This sauce was primarily built around Cento canned tomatoes. I usually use their imported San Marzanos, but due to a supply issue at the grocery store I settled for domestic Romas. In the end I was pretty happy with the result and found them to be great for sauce making. I lucked out and found a wedge of Grana Padano cheese on sale, which along with some freshly chopped parsley made the perfect topping for this big plate of comfort food. I made well over a gallon of sauce, so I got to freeze half litre portions for future enjoyment. Hmmm... might need to go thaw out a meatball or two...

06 August 2012

NV Volére Rosé

When I first saw the press release about wine packaged in purses, I laughed. Julia thought it was cute, so I thought I'd go ahead and try a sample. After all, it's produced by Cantina di Soave, and I've enjoyed their wines in the past. I've also been surprised by the increasing quality of boxed wines, and I get a lot of questions about them from friends and family looking for a casual couple of glasses a week.

There are three purse boxes under the Volére label (which doesn't translate to anything, it's just an Italian-sounding word): a Pinot Grigio in an off-white color, a Pinot Noir/Merlot blend in a red bag, and this rosé in pink. The spigot comes out of the narrow side of the bag. While the packaging got a lot of giggles and interest from female friends on Facebook, I will say that it's a little impractical. It only holds 1.5 litres, the equivalent of two regular wine bottles. Most cask wines hold at least three, and are sturdier and more stackable. But a burlap sack holds a lot more than a designer purse, yet you don't see a lot of women walking around with an old potato sack slung over one shoulder. There's a reason why this isn't a fashion blog.

NV Volére Rosé
$15/1.5 litres, 13.5% abv.

Made from "select grape varieties indigenous to the spectacular Veneto Hills", but beyond that I don't know anything about the grapes. I braced myself for a wave of sweetness, but was relieved to find a quite decent dry rosé. It reminded me a lot of the first dry rosé I ever had, one from southern Italy and made from Negroamaro grapes. The overall profile is dominated by strawberries and raspberries with just enough acidity to keep things interesting without being overly tart. Relatively mild aromas and flavors keep it light and refreshing, and it was fun to sip over the weekend with burgers and spaghetti. Despite my initial impressions, the wine was more serious than I expected and ended up being the perfect wine for a hot summer weekend with casual food.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

03 August 2012

Tiny Wine Olympics with TastingRoom.com

I've got a lineup of six bottles representing five countries and... two languages.

OK, maybe it's not quite as diverse as the 2012 Olympic Games (no Chinese table tennis win, no surprise Canadian upset in the women's modern pentathlon), but it is a neat little tasting kit from the folks at TastingRoom.com. The selection they sent me is called the Wines of the World Super Flight.

I really enjoy these samplers, and each 50 mL sip is just enough to get a general idea about the particular wine (though they do now offer a Wines by the Glass option that involves 100 mL bottles). I've had several of these kits in the past, but one of my favorites was when it was used in an online tasting with fellow winebloggers. But the real application for these is as gifts, and that's where the Super Flight option comes into play. More on that in a bit, so let's see our competitors for tonight's Lilliputian tasting:

2011 Old Coach Road Sauvignon Blanc
Nelson, New Zealand
13.5% abv.

Lime peel and touch of grapefruit, crisp and just tart enough to be interesting. Long finish of grapefruit peel. Recommended with grilled scallops and an Asian slaw.

2010 Spring Seed Wine Co. "Four O'Clock" Chardonnay
McLaren Vale, Australia
$18, 13.0% abv.

Rich lemon meringue pie aroma and flavor, firm acidity and a bright, brassy mouthfeel. Citrus flavors with hints of overripe peach. I absolutely love the old seed catalog artwork on the label, which is another neat thing about these bottles--getting to see the full label in miniature form.

2009 Stickybeak Pinot Noir
Sonoma Coast, California
$15, 14.3% abv.

Ripe wild strawberry aromas and flavors, blending toward raspberry on the finish. Light and mild with a short finish. I think this would have been a really good pairing with my recent veal chops with muscadine grapes.

2009 Il Cuore "The Heart" Zinfandel
Mendocino County, California
$16, 15.3% abv.

Black cherry and an earthy, woody nose. Spicy dark fruit flavors with surprisingly mild tannins, a bold fruit profile, and a mild finish. Great California Zinfandel that would be good at the Thanksgiving table, and certainly one that would be pleasant to sip on a cold winter afternoon.

2008 La Montesa Rioja Red Blend
Rioja, Spain
$18, 14% abv.

Red cherry and bacon fat with a touch of ash. Medium tannins and a tart, ripe cherry flavor with a long finish. Slightly nutty aftertaste. I'm a big fan of Rioja, and this doesn't disappoint. When this flavor profile comes around, I think lamb is the only real option.

2008 Urraca Malbec
Mendoza, Argentina
$20, 14.8% abv.

Plum and white pepper with a hint of tobacco. Rich dark plum flavors with an earthy undertone and a long finish. I'm thinking slow braised oxtails with caramelized onions and steamed broccolini. I have future plans for this wine, but how can I do that with just a drop left in the 50 mL bottle?

This tasting kit came with the "Super Flight" option, which includes a gift card with a code that lets you pick your two favorites from the flight so that you can receive full size bottles. I went with the Chardonnay and Malbec, which should arrive in a few days. These are pretty good deals for gifts, though at first I thought it meant that I just got two extra tiny bottles. And when you buy this category, you'll need to kick in an extra $13 for shipping, but the end total is still pretty reasonable. Check out the website for an ever-growing list of flights and themes.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

01 August 2012

St. Francis Chardonnay and Old Vines Zinfandel

Sonoma's St. Francis Winery has been making wine since 1979, though they grew and sold grapes for a few years before that.

I've reviewed a couple of their wines before, namely "Red" and their Claret. The product line is pretty well distributed throughout the country and shouldn't be too difficult to find. I review a lot of small production, hard to find wines, but it's important not to forget wines that most people can actually go out and purchase on their way home from work. No need to have a friend in Hungary smuggle something through customs or become close with someone that has a massive cellar full of collectibles.

2010 St. Francis Chardonnay
100% Chardonnay
Sonoma County
$15, 14.2% abv.

This is a classic California Chardonnay, with notes of vanilla and butterscotch and a slight tropical fruit profile. Low acidity and a round mouthfeel with a lingering finish. Excellent pairing for roast chicken with garlic and rosemary.

2008 St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel
89% Zinfandel, with the remainder a blend of Alicante Bouschet, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Syrah, and Petite Sirah
Sonoma County
$20, 15.5% abv.

People argue over the exact definition of "old vines", but since these are 55-100 years old I don't think anyone will complain about this label. I liked this wine better on the second day, which makes me think I should have decanted it first. It's a big and jammy wine with lots of blackberry aromas and flavors. Touches of spice and leather and dark plum, but primarily a powerful fruit flavor. Tannins are relatively mild in comparison. On the second day, it was lighter and smoother, and made a great companion to a pepperoni pizza.

Note: These wines were received as samples.