30 January 2013

Super Bowl & Alsatian Pinot Blanc

I get a lot of press releases and wine samples asking me to endorse a certain holiday or event, but one that I agreed with wholeheartedly was the pairing of Alsatian white wines with the Super Bowl. Alsace is a part of France that is all about sausage, bacon, beans, and sauerkraut. Not only are these foods wonderful during the winter with the right wine, but you're likely to encounter such ingredients at any reputable Super Bowl party spread and I think you'll find that Alsatian wines (still and sparkling) go great with them. I tasted some of these with a traditional party dish incorporating tiny Frankfurters ("Li'l Smokies") braised in BBQ sauce.

Some of these white wines might seem a little austere on first sip, but add a little pork fat and salt and suddenly you can taste all of the great layers designed by the traditional family winemakers of the region. And if you read the company tasting notes in the original French, you'll see pairing suggestions for salted meats and cheese and other goodies.

Before I go any further, I'm not a huge fan of American football, but due to my year spent working in Cleveland I always root for the Browns. And thus, despite no particular interest in the San Francisco 49ers, I have to cheer against the Baltimore Ravens. (Explanation here)

2011 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc Les Princes Abbés
Alsace, France
70% Auxerrois, 30% Pinot Blanc
$14, 12.5% abv.

Light and thin with a little green apple. Probably the true textbook Alsatian Pinot Blanc, with a mild body that allows for pleasant and gentle sipping over the afternoon.

2009 Trimbach Pinot Blanc
Alsace, France
80% Auxerrois, 20% Pinot Blanc
$14, 12.5% abv.

Light and creamy with just a touch of lemon on the finish. Low acidity with a round mouthfeel. While not sweet, it reminds me a lot of a lemon meringue pie. This one goes exceptionally well with potato chips, where the crunch and salt activate the palate.

2009 Cuvée Les Amours "Hugel" Pinot Blanc
Alsace, France
100% Pinot Blanc
$16, 12% abv.

Very mild and restrained, mineral and a little earthy, well-aged. Aromas of wet stone and just the tiniest hints of red apple peel. This is what I consider a perfect Alsatian white, a tremendous bargain, and I'm going to go on a mild rant here about art. If you give a chimpanzee a brush and some paint, he might make something interesting if you grab the canvas at an opportune moment. Otherwise, Bonzo is going to keep going until the substrate is covered completely with a dark smear of paint and potential angry simian flingings. What separates human art from animal art is the decision to stop when it is right. I could take a wine and keep making it fruitier, more acidic, higher in alcohol, hell, I could end up with a bracing cordial if I kept to it. But the judicious decision to stop at some point is what truly separates us from the animals. The Beatles didn't need fifth or sixth musicians. The Mona Lisa didn't need some cherubs around her quizzical gaze. My wine doesn't have to go crazy in every direction in every glass.

Wines from France aren't the only ones that do subtlety and restraint, and there are plenty from Gaul that violate those concepts. But often I'll encounter wines like this one that remind me why that one country is so highly regarded in the realm of wine writing and criticism.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

28 January 2013

Wolfgang: 1998-2013

"When a man's servant shall play the cur with him,
look you, it goes hard: one that I brought up of a
puppy; one that I saved from drowning, when three or
four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it.
I have taught him, even as one would say precisely,
'thus I would teach a dog.' I was sent to deliver
him as a present to Mistress Silvia from my master;
and I came no sooner into the dining-chamber but he
steps me to her trencher and steals her capon's leg"

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act IV, Scene iv, li 1-9

Four hundred years ago Shakespeare wrote about the relationship between a servant named Launce and his grouchy dog Crab. Crab stole a chicken leg in the above passage, and in another scene, Crab had gas and it offended the Duke. Launce stepped up and said it was his fault, and took the whipping to protect the dog. When I read that play in high school, Crab was just a background detail, but now I think he's my favorite part of that particular comedy. Wolfgang was not above stealing a sandwich or famously pooping on the floor during a first date, and though the Bard was not fond of dogs, I'm sure he would have found much humor in my pup's exploits over the years.

The Roommate and I hadn't been living together long when, in the summer of 1998, she announced that we needed a dog. She'd grown up with lots of dogs, and despite a brief period with a black Labrador named Duke in my first two years that I don't remember, I didn't have dogs in my life as a child. I was 21, living a semi-Bohemian life in an East Memphis apartment, and thought, "Why not?"

We went to the Germantown Animal Shelter and looked over the dozen dogs in their cells. One stood out: a nine week-old puppy with light yellow fur and a sad, Oliver Twist look about him. He was not friendly or aggressive, but quiet and kept to himself. We debated the decision over Chinese food for lunch, and then realized we had to adopt him. "He's got short fur, so he shouldn't shed too much. He looks like a wolf cub, so we'll call him Wolfgang."

Fifteen years and five vacuum cleaners later, I know that I'll have Wolfie fur following me around for the rest of my life. Once we got some protein into that little coyote, he took on many of the traits of an Alaskan sled dog, but Memphis weather meant that the Arctic fur flew off at every opportunity.

Wolfie and I were pretty tight for the past fifteen years, a great run for a scraggly little shelter dog. He never got above fifty pounds, never had any serious health issues, and was content to keep to himself--the perfect companion for an introvert like me. We could respect each others space, get together for meals, and he'd keep a warm spot on my bed all night.

We hiked thousands of miles together, and every night would go out to look at the stars while he did his business. In fact, something I miss the most is that celestial observation each evening. Having dogs means that you have an internal timer of feeding and peeing and other daily events, and when that little alarm goes off but there's no dog ready to receive your attention, it hurts.

One of the great things about Wolfgang was that we enjoyed living with him so much that we added Macbeth, and then my parents adopted Mac's mother Goldie, and my brother and his wife got three dogs, and my buddy Paul got three of his own over the past decade. I can't give him credit for all of those relationships, but Wolfgang taught me the magical bond that has existed between man and dog for the past fifteen thousand years, and it was a pleasure to share that joy with friends and family.

This is the last photo I took of Wolfie, a few days before he passed away. He was very old, but up to the end was in good shape, and, aside from a a particularly sad 72 hour period, was able to walk and eat and do everything else under his own power.

Wolfie, you were a grouchy coyote dog, but we all loved you, and are better people for having had you in our lives. I hope that heaven is full of field mice to chase, cow hide to chew on, and soft couches for sleeping. Until we meet again, you're a good boy, Wolfie dog.

23 January 2013

8th Anniversary

2012-2013 is a stretch of my life that involves a lot of changes, both personal and professional, and while I don't share everything on this site, I do have to thank all of the readers and fellow writers whose e-mails, comments, and friendships make this endeavor so enjoyable. As I've said many times, I only started this whole thing as a way to keep notes. I had no idea it would introduce me to so many amazing people here in Memphis and around the world.

Highlights of 2012:
  • Probably the biggest news was the paid writing gig for Serious Eats (list of my articles). I'm still doing it, despite a little hiatus during the hectic holiday season. Working with an editor and dealing with assignments was a great learning experience, and I look forward to a continued relationship with the site.
  • I joined the Southern Tastes panel for Memphis' newspaper The Commercial Appeal, which means that a couple of times a month I join area chefs and food personalities to opine about various topics. It's nice to have your picture in the good part of the newspaper.
  • I finally managed to make perfect pasta from scratch, culminating in an amazing batch of rabbit ravioli served with some delicious Edna Valley wines.
  • My friend Juli Eck introduced me to the amazing Stetson Salad, which I had fun rebuilding.
  • The April Fools' Day post about twineblogging actually resulted in some offers from various jute twine manufacturers.
  • Further explorations into authentic Mexican cooking with mole negro oaxaqueño.
  • Getting to share Tokaji with Julia and her family for the first time was a magical experience.
  • The shrimp and grits in lobster stock was a real show-stopper.
  • Lots of great online tastings this past year, far too many to mention, but it's nice bumping into the same bloggers once a month or so.

2013 is off to a great start, and after a brief break in the holidays, it's time for the rush of Valentine's Day samples. Thanks again to everyone for reading, and I can't wait for us to make it to the big 10 in 2015. Stay tuned!

21 January 2013

Hourglass Wines Online Tasting

I've written a lot recently about bargain wines, but I am able to appreciate the finer things when given the opportunity. Recently I go to attend an online tasting of Hourglass wines with the owner (Jeff Smith, son of Ned, the founder) and winemaker (Tony Biagi, formerly of Plumpjack). The winery was founded around the famous Judgment of Paris, and Time magazine author George Taber joined us.

The winery is named after the hourglass shape of Napa Valley, specifically the pinch, fractured bedrock formation where the ancient rocks get pushed outwards instead of down. Lots of discussion on fog and heat going through the valleys through this formation, adding a climatic element to the terroir. The vineyards were mostly devoted to Zinfandel, but after a Phylloxera infestation, the vines were replanted in 1991 to showcase more Bordeaux grapes. Ned's widow wanted to sell the property, but Jeff wanted to keep making great wines. It turned out to be a great decision.

We tasted half bottles, all of the prices below are for regular 750mL bottles.

2010 Hourglass Blueline Vineyard Merlot
Calistoga, Napa Valley
83% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc
$75, 16.5% abv.
Cassis and cedar, really deep aroma of dark fruit, tart, tangy flavor and finish. A really huge Merlot without being a fruit bomb. Gets smoother and yet still very rich with breathing room.

2010 Hourglass Blueline Vineyard Cabernet Franc
Calistoga, Napa Valley
94% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon
$135, 15.2% abv.
20 year old vines. Hard to grow in Napa. Pyrzine gives the herbal characteristic,
Stony and mineral, very delicate touch of the green tobacco leaf. Very mild body, light finish. Really loved this one.

2010 Hourglass Blueline Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
100% Cabernet Sauvignon (1 lot of clone 337 [France], 2 separate lots of clone 4 [California])
$125, 15.5% abv.
Notes of red cherry and licorice, flavors of plum and some more of that great mineral undertones.

2010 Hourglass Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
$155, 14.9% abv.
Wow, amazing black cherry and leather, chocolate, deep, dark wine. Very light tannins, long, supple finish. Very well structured and highly recommended if you can find it.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

16 January 2013

Round Hill Wines

Continuing with the sequence of Rutherford Wine from California, a follow up to the November post on Silver Buckle. I've also tried the Round Hill wines for the first time back in 2011.

I'm reminded at times of my barber named Hawk, who cut my hair from the ages of 3-31. He operated out of the same storefront in Whitehaven for that entire period (and many years before), and at one point told me that he'd have someone come in for a haircut and think that the fellow looked familiar and upon further discussion, it was determined that the customer was a son or grandson of someone he cut hair for decades ago.

My own legacy with wine tasting is barely at the two decade mark but there are still times when I try something, go to look up information about it, and find that I wrote a review four or five years ago.

2011 Round Hill Chardonnay
100% Chardonnay
$8, 12.5% abv.

This is a classic California Chardonnay with strong buttered popcorn, vanilla, and apricot aromas. Full fruit flavors and a long finish. While I prefer a milder Chardonnay, I always love serving these wines to friends because the aromas are so powerful and it can be an easy way to show that wine can smell like things other than fermented grapes.

2010 Round Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Syrah, 3% Zinfandel
$8, 12.5% abv.

A fun little blend that contains notes of green herbs, black cherry and tobacco. There's a touch of leather on the palate with medium tannins. Strong enough to stand up to a hearty burger or pepperoni pizza.

2010 Round Hill Merlot
90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Other Red
$8, 12.5% abv.

Ripe red cherry aroma with just a little white pepper. Mild mouthfeel and low tannins with a round, plummy finish. A very quaffable casual red, and of the three I found this to be my favorite. Just a pleasant red table wine to enjoy with dinner or while reading a book. Sometimes I really want a heavily structured wine with 3,000 years of history and aristocratic origins and a label that requires knowledge of four languages, and other times I just enjoy the simple pleasure of a glass of red enjoyed from a tumbler at the end of a long day at work.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

14 January 2013

Darkhorse Wines

I tried a lot of wines over the holidays--so many that will probably be February before I'm fully caught up. It's tempting to do a huge laundry list of reviews, but there's no easy grouping by style or region. So I'll continue on in the slow and steady fashion to which I've become accustomed.

Darkhorse Wine is a new label from Gallo. I brought these two wines to Christmas lunch with Julia's family, and in a long conversation with a craft beer enthusiast cousin I got to use the bottles as branding examples. It's an odd part of the business when one of the biggest and most powerful wine companies in America bottles so much wine under different names. As I type this I'm relaxing with a martini made with New Amsterdam gin, another product of the Modesto powerhouse.

The Darkhorse wines are bargain table wines made by Beth Liston, aimed at the casual wine market and sold at Trader Joe's.

2010 Darkhorse Chardonnay
Central Valley, California
100% Chardonnay
$8, 13.5% abv.

Bright fruit flavors of apricot and peach, with lots of vanilla and caramel. A little heavy on the oak, but not bad for the price. Worked out pretty well with ham and turkey and assorted holiday side dishes.

2010 Darkhorse Cabernet Sauvignon
Central Valley, California
100% Chardonnay
$8, 13.5% abv.

Black cherry and cocoa, with a little tobacco. This one surprised me--it's not as balanced or complex as I like in a Cabernet Sauvignon, but again, at eight dollars it's entirely drinkable and pleasant.

Both of these wines deliver upon the promise of a table wine: inexpensive, inoffensive, and with short finishes. Sometimes, that's the perfect style of wine, like for a party or wedding reception or other large event. Also, these would be great to grab for cooking or cocktail purposes (like making twin batches of white and red sangria). We don't have a Trader Joe's in Memphis (and our grocery stores don't sell wine anyway), but I'd have no problem snagging a bottle along with some premade guacamole and other goodies.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

11 January 2013

Shiner Wild Hare and FM 966

It's been a long time since I've tried the beers of the Spoetzl Brewery from Shiner, Texas. Over the years I've reviewed many of their brews as well as the 100th anniversary book. While rattling a shopping cart through the grocery store the other day I spied a couple of bottles that I hadn't tried before... And since that Kroger sells individual bottles, I was able to give them a try without committing to six-packs. Though I wasn't too worried--Shiner has never let me down.

Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ale
5.7% abv.

Here we've got a standard American Pale Ale, with a focus on hops--in this case, US Golding and Bravo hops. Munich and caramel malts provide the depth and earthy structure underneath. Pleasant citrus notes, with a tart beginning and a nice bitter finish.

Shiner FM 966 Farmhouse Ale
5.7% abv.

This is a Farmhouse Ale or Saison, a type of beer traditionally brewed in the Wallonia region of Belgium during the winter and meant to be consumed in the summer. Brewing it was a way to keep farmworkers busy during the cold months, which was also a safe time to brew before modern refrigeration. And in the warm months when the barley, wheat, and hops had to be grown and harvested, the saison beers would be used to hydrate the farmworkers (up to five litres a day!). FM 966 is a "Farm to Market" road in Shiner, not a radio station as I originally thought.

Now that I've actually gotten a chance to taste the beer, it's surprisingly grassy and bright and clean, kind of like a Sauvignon Blanc. I'd suggest similar pairings of shellfish and fresh salads. Very mild finish, and it's quite refreshing. Highly recommended for a neat style of beer that doesn't get a lot of pours on this side of the Atlantic.

09 January 2013

Valdo Sparkling Wines

Couple of milestones here... I got to try a new grape (Nerello Mascalese), taking my life list to 175 unique grapes from 31 countries and 17 states in the US. This is the 1200th post on Benito's Wine Reviews, and my eighth anniversary is right around the corner. What a fascinating trip it's been...

The holidays were pretty jolly with the many bottles of bubbles around the house. It meant that pretty much any occasion with friends or family could be accompanied by a popping cork. As much fun as that was, I always prefer enjoying sparkling wines with meals, as they were intended to be consumed. Take these Valdo wines, for example.

NV Valdo Rosé Brut
Veneto & Sicily
Glera & Nerello Mascalese
$11, 12% abv.

This is a pretty hearty rosé, and the Nerello Mascalese has a powerful, fruity, Concord grape flavor. While still dry, it reminded me a lot more of a pre-mixed kir cocktail than a traditional brut rosé. Also interesting: the Prosecco (Glera) came from the Veneto while the red grapes came from Sicily. While it's definitely a bit unusual for a sparkling wine, I did find it to be fun with deep dish pizza on a cold winter Saturday.

NV Valdo Cuvée del Fondatore Prosecco Brut
90% Glera, 10% Chardonnay
$20, 12% abv.

The Supertuscans have established the potential for blending traditionally French grapes with native Italian ones, and it's interesting to see this pop up around the rest of country. While I enjoy Prosecco as a casual sparkling wine, I do think that it benefits immensely from the structure of Chardonnay, which spent a little time in French oak. That provides a hint of vanilla underneath the honey and floral and ripe pear aromas. Overall, a very fine Prosecco and well worth checking out.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

07 January 2013

Crémant d'Alsace from Lucien Albrecht

In 1425, Romanu Albrecht began winemaking in the Alsatian town of Thann. Later in 1698, Balthazar Albrecht moved the family and operation to Orschwir, which is still the center of operations today, led by the 18th-generation Jean Albrecht.

Lucien Albrecht is the current name of the winery, which makes a wide range of Alsatian still wines, but here I'm focusing on two Crémants d'Alsace, made in the méthode champenoise. Crémants throughout France are often a tasty and more affordable alternative to Champagne while still maintaining high quality. Additionally, the blended French-German heritage of the region means that the wines are well suited to dishes involving sausage and potatoes, or similar hearty fare that you'll find on Midwestern dinner tables here in the US. Yes, I love Crémant d'Alsace with bratwurst and sauerkraut and a cold potato salad. Way better than beer.

NV Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace
Brut Blanc de Blancs
80% Pinot Auxerrois, 10% Pinot Blanc, & 10% Chardonnay
Alsace, France
$20, 12% abv.

I've always found Crémant d'Alsace to have a lovely green apple profile, but this one gets a little more rounder feel from the Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. Still crisp and slightly tart, but with a nice mellow finish. Touches of honey and lemon on the aftertaste, and a great all-purpose sparkling wine.

NV Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace
Brut Rosé
100% Pinot Noir
Alsace, France
$24, 12% abv.

The rosé is my favorite of the two, but then again, I'm a little biased towards sparkling Pinot Noir in general. I prefer the slightly deeper flavors and the strawberry notes. Medium sized bubbles with a dry flavor and lovely finish. The beautiful salmon color is wonderful to look at while you're dining, and I found that the leftovers the next day were just as good. Bring this one to a party, because it will be a crowd pleaser but if you love wine, you'll get to enjoy it as well. Strongly recommended.

Note: These wines were received as samples.

02 January 2013

Lander-Jenkins Vineyards

The first time I tried the wines of Lander Jenkins Vineyards, I was making cactus tacos. It reminded me a bit of something that's been nagging me a bit, frankly the eating of "weird" food. I don't eat cactus to frighten people (though they may be honest in their reaction), nor do I do so to show off a willingness to eat everything, like library paste and dog fur. While I personally try non-mainstream meats and vegetables and fruits for my own intellectual curiosity and a love of varied flavors, at the end of the day I recognize that the weirdest thing I'll ever eat is the daily bread of some distant locale. It's what a mom makes for her family and what a kid requests on his birthday. Celebrate it, don't make a spectacle of it.

2011 Lander-Jenkins Spirit Hawk Chardonnay
99% Chardonnay, 1% Muscat Canelli
$15, 13.5% abv.

The Muscat really gives a nice depth to this wine, which is rich and full-bodied with a full bodied apricot flavor with some additional notes of tropical fruits and honey. Soft and supple with a very long finish. As a bird lover, is it bad to drink wine branded with a bird and served with a roasted bird? Nope. This was incredible with slow cooked duck thighs.

2010 Lander-Jenkins Cabernet Sauvignon
Central Coast
96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% each of Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah
$15, 13.5% abv.

Black cherries and tobacco on the nose, with full fruit flavors and a touch of spice on the finish. Medium tannins with just a little toasty oak on the nose. A great match for thick cut pork chops topped with a cherry reduction sauce.

Note: These wines were received as samples.