Friday, December 19, 2008
Let’s tackle Christmas dinner first. If you are doing turkey, and many do, please see my blog, You Turkey! Finding the Right Wine for Your Bird. If you favor a Dickensian Christmas with goose instead, most of the selections for turkey will work. Just remember, the higher fat count of a goose means no wimpy wines. Another English favorite is Beef Wellington, and here you can pull out the Bordeaux Cab and Merlot, or perhaps a Napa Cab if you lean toward New World styles.
This strategy will work with other beef roasts. This is one time when the drier tannin-rich Cabernet Sauvignon grape can work its wonders as meat sauces interplay with its mouth-drying effects. The lamb roast, however, will work better with Pinot Noir. Red Burgundy works here or try a New Zealand Pinot, if your pocketbook is stretched tight this year, many New Zealand wines are very good values. If ham is your choice, it’s best to go with a smoked ham, which will pair nicely with a Sangiovese or Tempranillo.
The really big question, however, is what wine will pair with the fruit cake. For this, I’d skip the wine and go for the rum. Half on the fruit cake and half to your guests so they won‘t really notice what their eating. Fruit-based pies go well with a late harvest Riesling or Muscat Canelli. Port is a good choice for heavier desserts or chocolate, but consider late harvest Zinfandel for a match made in heaven. Many of these wines are ripe with flavors; or maybe that should be overripe, but that’s the point.
If you want visions of sugar plums dancing in your glass instead of your dreams, try Castoro Cellars 2005 Late Harvest Zinfandel. Located south of Paso Robles in California’s Central Coast area, Castoro Cellars has been my favorite winery from this area for more than twenty five years. Their Zins are always excellent so it’s no surprise their late harvest is a hit as well. Check them out at http://www.castorocellars.com/, you may still be able to get some before New Year’s Day.
Castoro Cellars also makes an outstanding Primitivo, which is the Italian clone of the Croatian grape that also found its way to California as Zinfandel. Nonetheless, both grapes produce distinctly different, but excellent wines. The Castoro 2005 Primitivo has the earthiness one would expect of an Old World-styled wine, but with the muscular strength of a Central Coast Zinfandel. You definitely don’t want to pair this with the goose, it’ll be cooked even before it goes into the oven. On the other hand it will add a new zest to a roast or Beef Wellington.
When it comes to sparklers, our own New Mexico versions are my top choice for price and value. Gruet has been producing outstanding method champenoise sparkling wines for many years, and has the medals to prove it. They also have one of the best price points. The Gruet Brut and Blanc de Noir are favorites at our house, but if you want a step up, try the Blanc de Blanc made with 100% Chardonnay grapes.
If you want to really impress your friends, try the Gilbert Gruet Grande Reserve for a wine that will compete successfully with fine French champagne. A word of caution, however, champagne and high-end domestic sparklers are most suitable for those with an appreciation for the unique flavors these wines possess. As I mentioned in my blog, Blind Wine Tasting, in a panel of more than 500 tasters of sparkling wines and champagne, a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut from Washington’s Columbia Valley was 1st of 27 sampled, while a $150 bottle of Dom Perignon Cuvee came in 17th. I only wish the Gruet wines could have been in that mix.
When you serve sparkling wine, make sure it is icebox cold, or your ceiling may sample more of the wine than your guests. Only championship sports teams are supposed to spray each other with the stuff. Special resealing corks are available, but their efficacy leaves some doubt. Some people use a spoon, inserting it handle first to save the bubbles for the next day. A recent study by Stanford University wanted to test this French folk lore and came up with interesting results. They found the best results were obtained by leaving the bottle opened in the fridge, uncorked!
I’m going to have to try that one myself this Christmas, but it will probably be with a Gruet Blanc de Noir. No way do I want to take a chance with my Gilbert Gruet Grande Reserve for that test. Salut!
The latter method is the one I employed when I set up blind tastings for my students in Silicon Valley a few years back. Wine knowledge was not part of the two-week course on data communications and networking concepts, but they found it a welcome relief from the intensity of the class. Little did I know then that I’d become a wine writer, critic, and teacher of wine!
My own experiences with blind tastings led me to a number of conclusions that have been amply documented in a new wine book, The Wine Trials, by Robin Goldstein. The book is offered through Fearless Critic Media out of Austin, Texas. Their website is http://www.fearlesscritic.com/ and their conclusions may be quite surprising to some.
They held 17 tastings in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. A total of 560 wines were tasted by 507 volunteers (yes, I know, who wouldn’t) in venues from casual wine bars to top restaurants. The tasters were selected from a broad stratum of people who ranged from professional tasters to casual wine drinkers. In many cases, not even the type of grape was identified, allowing each taster to judge the merits of each wine on a number of qualities.
One of the conclusions in the book was that professional tasters and knowledgeable wine drinkers often could detect the quality of a more expensive, well-made wine, but not always. They also found that many wine critics scored wines correlated to the wine’s price. In most cases the wine critics saw the labels, and knew the reputation and history of the wines they evaluated. This technique is at odds with a blind tasting methodology. As a result, inexpensive but well-made wines usually did not score as well.
The tasters for the Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide for 2007 also use a blind tasting methodology, although they know the region and grape of the samples. A number of less expensive wines were rated over more expensive ones, suggesting that blind tasting is a better arbiter of true wine values.
The Fearless Critic group decided to test for the placebo effect. This effect is well known in medical circles where one target group gets the real pill and the other group receives a placebo. The belief that something will work or that something should taste good can significantly affect the results of testing. The placebo effect in wine tasting is accomplished by putting a lesser wine in a more expensive bottle, and vice versa, to see what influence a highly regarded label has on taste perception. The wine testers saw a moderate to high impact on the taster’s evaluation of a wine.
I’ve seen this scenario play out at a restaurant, when an expensive wine I tasted turned out to be mediocre, yet others at the table, with less experience, thought it was wonderful. While the placebo effect allowed them to enjoy the wine more than its actual merits, which could be a good thing, it had the undesirable effect of compromising their knowledge base of how a good wine should taste. And yes, I’ve been guilty of the same thing.
I’ll draw just one example from the book. When tasting sparkling wine and champagne, Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut from Washington’s Columbia Valley ranked 1st of 27 sampled. Dom Perignon Cuvee came in 17th of 27. Ste. Michelle goes for $12, the Dom for $150. I always wondered how Gruet would have done in this tasting; I’d bet close to the top as well.
Some of the wines under $15 that rated high are ones I’ve often found dependable. A good well-made and inexpensive wine can often trump a more expensive one. Think of it this way, if you had a reputation that commanded high prices for your wine, and you turned out a mediocre wine one year, would you drop the price to its true value? More than likely you’d sell it for about the same price as a previous year, and if it didn’t move, offer it on sale. You didn’t think this ploy only works with Persian rugs, did you?
In Napa, if a new up-and-coming winery comes out with an outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon that, based on costs, can be sold for $40 instead of the $75-$100 range of comparable Cabs, what would happen? Experience has shown that the wine will be ignored by many buyers. After all, look how cheap it is. In the wine world price does not always signal quality, but it does drive the demand for many wines. The prestigious label will still impress your friends, and the placebo effect assures that most of them will think the wine is great.
So is the placebo effect in place when Dom Perignon is served, label showing? Think about that the next time you want to celebrate a great occasion and are looking for the best. It is seldom the most expensive. Come to think of it, I do believe we have holiday occasions coming up where you can put that theory to the test. However, if you try to switch bottles; I would strongly recommend you not try to put the Gruet in a Dom Perignon bottle. Trust me, you won’t get that fat cork back in the bottle. Salut!
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The Chardonnay Curmudgeons (CC), mirroring the success of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was formed to provide support to those addicted to heavily oaked, 100% malolactic fermented (MLF) Chardonnays. Bob Barker said the stated goal is to provide any means short of intervention to wean CC addicts away from Chardonnays so oaked the supplicant can tell the tree type, location, and age of the wood. Many addicts report deriving extreme pleasure from picking splinters out of their tongues. Many claim the pairing of their wine with buttered toast is the greatest food pairing.
Now that may be a bogus story, but I do wonder at the level of loyalty some wine lovers have for over-oaked wines. They will even try to pair them with seafood, turning their noses up at Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and even Pinot Grigio wines. I do have to admit to being a recovering CC myself. I often tried to pair an oaky/buttery (O/B) Chardonnay with seafood, but always found the taste of the wine distinct and different from the flavors of most fish and crustacean-inspired dishes. The flavor equivalent would probably be slapping a fish filet on buttered toast, which is OK if you wanted a fish sandwich, but wrong if you’re having Sea Bass and rice pilaf.
On the other hand, if you’re thinking hot tub wine, then an O/B Chardonnay will work just fine. While you don’t need a hot tub to enjoy one of these wines, it certainly helps. As a stand-alone wine or with some cheeses, these wines are adequate, but a true food-pairing wine has many attributes that overwrought Chardonnays do not possess. A food wine needs good acidity to help break down food and integrate the flavors. Lower alcohol avoids the “heat” found in more powerful wines that can blur delicate flavors. Little or no oak for a white wine permits the fruit flavors to come through more cleanly, and a touch of sweetness extends the range of foods a wine can pair with. The result is a marriage of food and wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Recipe for a Bad Food Wine
The problem starts with too much oak. The caress of oak in a French Chablis or Montrachet comes from subtler French oak. These wines maintain good balance because of the rich flavor of their grapes, lower alcohol, and good acidity. In New Zealand most Chardonnay is un-oaked, relying on maritime influences and grape flavors to shape the wine. In California and other locales in America, oak chips are used during the fermentation process, which has a most telling effect on the grapes. The process is similar to brewing tea, except the tea bag in this case is filled with oak chips and the wine is steeped until the desired oak consistency is achieved. No, I’m not making this up.
The wine is then often laid down in new American oak casks to complete the process. Other choices for the aging process are neutral oak barrels – most oak barrels become neutral after five years – or French oak. The aggressive nature of American oak often adds too much influence to white wine grapes. The cost differential between French and American barrels is one of the reasons many domestic wine makers choose American. The result, however, is that many white wines taste more like oak then grape. The one saving grace would be to maintain good acidity and lower alcohol, but this can be compromised by extended grape hang time and/or malolactic fermentation (MLF).
Additional hang time increases the sugars while reducing the acidity and punches up the alcohol level. MLF is started by inoculating the grapes with lactic bacteria to induce a second fermentation that converts the crisp malic acid, such as found in apples, into lactic acid, such as found in butter. This creates the well-known oaky/buttery (O/B) Chardonnay flavor profile, which reminds me so much of soda pop. While MLF is common in red wines, and does promote a richer mouthfeel, the lack of crispness in a white wine makes it more challenging to pair with many foods.
The end result is the closest thing to genetic modification you can approach in the wine world. Over-processed, over-oaked, and over the edge, these wines seldom pair well with food, and can become cloying on the palate even before the first glass is finished. Yet many wine drinkers will turn their noses up at the thought of substituting a more food-friendly wine with dinner.
Scene in a restaurant
Waiter: “May I suggest a Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to go with your ginger/pecan encrusted Sea Bass?
Diner: “No, I’d like a bottle of Old Oaky Lactose-tolerant Chardonnay.”
Waiter: Wrinkling his nose in disgust: Very well, sir.”
Diner: Turning to his dining companion: “How do like that guy, trying to pass off some weird wine on us.”
Dinner companion: “What’s a New Zealand wine?”
Alternate White Wines
You might be thinking - if you got this far - so what would be a good substitute to an O/B Chardonnay? Since many wine drinkers are wedded to Chardonnay, one alternative is to seek out those wines that emphasize the fruit and show respect for the terroir. This is accomplished by picking the fruit while the acidity is still good, employing a subtler use of oak, and using no MLF or only a small percentage of the MLF fruit in the finished wine. There are many Chardonnay wines crafted in this way, and their numbers are on the rise as more wine drinkers turn away from over-manipulated wines.
However, most winemakers know there are better grapes for crafting food-friendly wines. Riesling wines, either domestic or imported, do provide such a flavor profile. Since the Riesling grape seldom takes to oak, these wines are primarily made without it; insuring good, rich, fruit flavors that this grape has in abundance. The wine is typically lower in alcohol, and has a natural sweetness that pairs with several challenging foods including oriental cuisines and spicy dishes. These wines are plentiful, offered in many styles, and often less expensive than equivalent Chardonnay wines.
Sauvignon Blanc is another good food-friendly wine that is generating more interest, primarily due to the popularity of New Zealand wines. Many wine professionals claim the NZ Sauvignon Blanc is the best example of this grape, and its success is prompting Californian and French wine makers to take note and copy the style. As a result many domestic makers of this grape are significantly reducing the amount of oak used in crafting their wines and emphasizing the fruit. The French Sancerre is another example of how to craft a wonderful white from this grape. The mineral-like quality of this wine makes it very popular, but seldom inexpensive.
The Chenin Blanc grape has not completely recovered from its jug wine days in the U.S., but it is another grape that is compatible with many kinds of food. The best examples come from France in the Loire Valley where Vouvray is popular. It also makes wonderful desert and sparkling wines. Because it is easy to over-produce the grape and make uninspiring jug wines, Chenin Blanc has gotten a bad rap. In fact I often pulled a Sideways riff by refusing to try the few examples California winemakers crafted into drier, richer tasting wines. “No Chenin Blanc,” I said, as easily as Paul Giamatti said, “No Merlot!” Well, I was wrong, and so was he.
I recall while I was still in the thrall of oaky/buttery Chardonnay, turning up my nose at Riesling wines – too sweet – and Sauvignon Blanc – too grassy – and Chenin Blanc – too boring! I didn’t give them a proper evaluation. Unless you are considering how a wine will go with food, or experimenting with food and wine pairing, a stand-alone Chardonnay often seems like the best choice.
Viognier has become popular as a Chardonnay-alternative. Although it can be a finicky grape to work with, it makes a lush full-bodied wine under the right conditions. The version of the grape grown in Languedoc, France is the most common variety planted in California, particularly the Central Coast region. It has also found a home in New Mexico where a number of producers are crafting very tasty versions. This is a good wine to segue to for the “only-Chardonnay” crowd.
Pinot Grigio is another good wine for seafood and lighter fare. The Italian Pinot Grigio is quite popular and plentiful, but try the Oregon versions, often called Pinot Gris, which are much richer in flavor with lush mouthfeel. This makes Pinot Gris a good entry wine for recovering Chardonnay-ites. Other choices that can work well include Semillon, which is often used in blends, but can make a very good food wine with flavors of baked figs. This is the principal grape of French Sauternes, such as Château d’Yquem, one of the most expensive wines in the world.
Less common but also worth seeking are wines made from the Pinot Blanc grape. A very popular grape in the Alsace, it has been used as an alternate to Chardonnay in many places. I still remember a Congress Springs Pinot Blanc that was their featured wine a year or two after their Chardonnay won triple gold, (the first California wine to do that). But after I tried their Pinot Blanc, I began searching up and down the state for more of the same. Regrettably, not many wine makers took to the grape, but I still sample every one I can find.
So Chardonnay lovers, there are alternatives, particularly if you enjoy food and wine together. Who knows, you may find a new love, or multiple loves to enrich your wine life. After all, it is perfectly legal and moral to be a polygamist when it comes to wine, and in a world beset with more rules and regulations than we can keep up with, isn’t that good to know? Salut!
Monday, November 24, 2008
If this is November, it must be turkey time, or how do we find a wine to go with the bird? This yearly guessing game stems from the fact turkey can be notoriously hard to pair with your favorite wine. On the other hand, this is also the time of year you’ll get too many suggestions for pairing wine and fowl. Some people - I’ve been told – even go to the extreme of eliminating the bird entirely and going for roast beef to ease the frustration of bad pairings.
That will cause most traditionalists to cringe, perhaps even double over in pain. Such extremes are really not required, however. There are two methodologies for pairing food and wine; decide on the food and find a complementary wine, or choose a wine and find the right food for it. It would seem we are constrained to the former, but there are ways to insinuate the latter in our decision-making process.
Let’s say you prefer red wine with a meal. The old rule of white wine with fowl would cause some problems, unless we view the entire meal. Remember, side dishes can offset some of these difficulties, even within the context of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Sweet potatoes with a caramelized brown sugar topping can go with many red wines. The stuffing is fertile ground for offsetting the flavor profile of the turkey. Adding a spicy sausage and compatible herbs can change a turkey’s DNA to conform to a favorite Sangiovese or Tempranillo.
Both of these wines, of course, can work with even a traditional bird if they have the right palate notes. I’ve sampled Sangiovese wines with a definite cranberry aspect that can favorably complement the trimmings. In fact, many berry-rich red wines can work with end of year holiday celebrations.
One of the key elements to look for is lower alcohol. Any red wine over 14.5% can be challenging to pair with foods unless the alcohol is well integrated into the wine’s structure. Aggressive oak-heavy wines can also be off-putting, muting the berry flavors that provide an integrating influence to the meal. The fruit flavors should be pronounced, with red berries working better than black berries, or plum-like notes which are characteristic of many red wines derived from fruit picked after a longer hang time.
A full-bodied wine can be too heavy to marry with white meat and root vegetables, medium and light-bodied wines pair better. Finally, a bit of sweetness to the wine also works, as too-dry reds will drive us to ladle on the gravy to offset the astringent hit. However, if you want an excuse to load up on gravy this type of wine could be a godsend.
Two other wine grapes that work well within this area are Barbera and Pinot Noir. Both are generally acknowledged as great food-wines, and both are typically vinified with less oak and medium body. Both offer rich berry flavors. Many Barbera wines have Bing to Dark Cherry flavors while Pinot exhibits aromas of cherry, strawberry, and even rhubarb in more herbal varieties. Spice accents of cinnamon also indicate a good companion to a turkey dinner.
If these are not your favorite red wines, maybe this is a good time to try them out. Otherwise, consider the other options. While Cabernet Sauvignon is often difficult to match, Cabernet Franc, with its cherry and raspberry flavors can work better. Most California Zinfandel is too highly alcoholic (up to 16.8%!), too heavy in tannins, and too full-bodied to pair up, but the rare lighter-bodied, lower alcohol versions can work because of the bright berry flavors this grape offers. Syrah, Shiraz, and Petite Sirah are generally too heavy as well, but if you love these wines seek to add flavors to the meal that will complement them better.
If you wonder how to accomplish this feat, consider the following. Try an Italian-flavored bird with garlic, rosemary, and oregano. Complement this with Italian sausage in the dressing, and maybe even a pasta side dish. I don’t advise covering the poor turkey in red sauce, however, as it will create a most revolting sight. Subtle notes are best. Alternately, go for Spanish or Mexican accents with peppers, cumin, and spicy sausage again, and other elements that will be at home with a Tempranillo or Spanish Rioja wine.
Right about this time of year, the Nouveau Beaujolais makes its appearance, and many people clamor to add it to their Thanksgiving shopping list. While I’m a fan of the Gamay grape, I’m not a fan of Nouveau Beaujolais. I consider this the closest thing to a slapdash wine. It is 90% marketing and airmailing the stuff, and 10% putting it together. On the other hand, well-made Beaujolais, not the commercial junk that gets exported, can be a perfect match. These wines are carefully crafted to emphasize the best elements of the Gamay grape, and marry with the bird as few wines can. If you never tired a Cru Beaujolais, but do like Nouveau, you are in for a revelation.
If white wine is your preference, then we need to leap in another direction. Sparkling wines are made for the holidays. If you don’t think so, start counting all the advertisements and commercials around this time of year. I think most domestic sparkling wines work best as a contrast to the meal, but ones that mirror the classic French Champagne flavors of caramel, cream, and yeasty notes can complement as well. Or just buy French Champagne.
Chardonnay is often selected to go with the meal, because, well – it’s our most popular white wine. Nope, that’s not a good enough reason. Look for something other than an oaky, buttery Chardonnay, unless you’re doing a Butterball turkey with corn-on-the-cob side dishes. Yuch, that was almost painful to write. Remember the characteristics I mentioned above for choosing a wine, light on the oak for one thing. Splinters in your Chardonnay suggest a really aggressive use of oak. Acidity is one of the things going for a white wine that acts as an integrating force. Using 100% malolactic fermentation to alter the chardonnay’s acidic edge to add the buttery notes makes it a flabby choice for a meal.
Much better choices are Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Chenin Blanc. Some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines may be a bit too acidic to pair, look for good balance and a medium-bodied mouth feel. A French Sancerre is a good choice, particularly if you are a doing a rich herbal or Provencal version of the bird. Riesling is probably the most versatile of white food-friendly wines, with the kinds of flavors to work with anything from sweet potatoes to herbed stuffing. A good dry Chenin Blanc will also work, but they are harder to find.
Viognier is a good alternative for those that want a bigger wine, and are trying to combat their Chardonnay addiction. Some Oregon Pinot Gris wines are also a wonderful complement to Thanksgiving. I’ve paired a Willamette Vineyards Pinot Gris quite successfully with many foods in the wine dinners I create.
And then there is my current favorite turkey wine: Ahlgren Vineyards 2004 Livermore Semillon, a rich wine with flavors of baked fig that had all the partakers of last year’s Thanksgiving meal all agog. If you only experience this marriage of turkey and wine once in your life, you will never forget it. I have not tried the current 2005 vintage, but if it is anything like the 04 you should buy up a case while this small producer of quality wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains still has it in stock. Check them out at http://www.ahlgrenvineyard.com/ and while you’re at it, sample their red wines as well.
While I presented you with perhaps too many choices, consider which of the wines I suggested is your favorite, then plan the sides and the style of turkey that will best complement your choice. Don’t try to make it too difficult, this should be fun after all. Or you could just say the heck with it and go with the roast beef. Salut!
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
A common question I receive, as do all wine writers I imagine, is: “What is your favorite wine?” It follows the basic form of, “What is your favorite x?” The “x” can be wine, food, color, movie, etc., and it often gives the querent insight into the responder’s value judgments. It also gives me fits. Do I even have an absolutely favorite wine, and will this stand for all time? Can I post my favorites with qualifications? We all have qualifications around this question.
Recently I was asked to join a nation-wide group answering that very question about their favorite wines in a particular region. I picked two white and two red wines that I think deserve recognition within New Mexico, which is my home state. The wines I chose came from wineries I have a high regard for as well, and which I believe have a bright future. Time will tell, but many indicators suggest that New Mexico wines are poised to make a big impact nation-wide, and I don’t mean just Gruet.
Milagro Vineyards 2006 Chardonnay: Rick and Mitzi Hobson began planting grapes in Corrales, which is just north of Albuquerque, in 1985 and opened the winery in 1999. Rick is a hands-on guy who exemplifies the saying, “great wines are made in the vineyard.” While I usually prefer the Milagro reds, his 2006 Chardonnay is a step or two above others within our state.
Buttery notes are obtained without malolactic fermentation (MLF) and resting on the lees adds to the depth of this wine, and provides rich natural flavors. In fact, it brought me back to the California Chardonnays of the eighties, when MLF and death by oak bludgeoning was still in the future. The delicate handling of the French oak and a long satisfying finish make this one very special. The Milagro Chardonnay is also a very versatile food wine, with the kind of crispness that only comes from grapes not put through MLF, the death-knell of food-friendly wines.
This wine has more in common with Burgundian Chardonnay than Californian. After all, when a Charles Shaw 2005 Chardonnay wins a double gold in the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, what does that tell you about the state of Chardonnay in the Golden State?
La Chiripada 2007 Viognier: This winery located in Dixon just south of Taos is one of many creating good wines from the Viognier grape. The high altitude of the winery at 6000 feet means very cool nights during the growing season. At this location they predominantly plant French hybrids to handle the radical weather changes this area is subjected to. Although not yet a defined AVA, the Embudo Valley is beginning to make a name for itself with both La Chiripada and Vivac Winery down the road producing very interesting and quality wines.
The 2007 Viognier has a floral bouquet of pears and peaches, with undertones of other stone fruit. I particularly liked the mineral notes that accompany the long citrusy finish, which reminded me of a Sancerre. Good acidity means this is also a food wine, and it paired brilliantly with a seared Ahi and ginger dish I prepared to go with it.
Luna Rossa 2004 Barbera: Paolo D’Andrea comes from a long line of Italian winemakers, and is one of the most knowledgeable grape growers and wine producers in New Mexico. He manages New Mexico Vineyards, Inc., the largest in the state, supplying grapes to many NM and Texas wine producers. He opened Luna Rossa in 2001 and has been crafting fine wines, many using Italian grapes, such as Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and Barbera. Many New Mexico and Texas wineries source their fruit from New Mexico Vineyards, which means Paolo’s influence and his vineyard management style are impacting many other wineries that are more than happy to have Paolo’s grapes.
His latest Barbera is big, mouth-filling and earthy, with red and black berry flavors and black cherry. Long a fan of Shenandoah Valley Barbera wines, I can now add Luna Rossa to my list of favorite makers of this grape. I could easily have added one of six other red wines I tasted recently, but since this is one of my favorite grapes, I’ll stick with the Barbera. For my money Luna Rossa is on the cusp of great things with their wines, particularly the reds.
Corrales Winery 2005 Sangiovese: Keith Johnstone made the first New Mexico wine I fell in love with; a Cabernet Franc. Since then I’ve brought home Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese wines as well. I probably stock as much of his wine as any producer in my wine cellar. The fact that his winery is only a short six mile drive from my house only sweetens the pot. If I want to see how any of my wines are doing, I only need to stop by, sample, hope I’m not enticed to buy more, and see where each wine is heading.
The 2005 Sangiovese has dense tannins and muted flavors until it begins to open up. Most red wines will benefit from a little time to breathe. Some of them seem to be eager to scream out of the bottle, and then settle down once they know they are free. This Sangiovese is more on the shy side, and is somewhat closed until it has had at least 20 minutes breathing time in the glass or decanter/carafe. It all has to do with a wine’s personality. I don’t want to get fully anthropomorphic about this, but for most wine lovers, it’s an easy way to convey some attributes of a wine’s character.
Once this wine has decided it’s time to come out, it reveals both red and black fruit flavors including dark cherry with an acidic backbone, and the tannins settle in to black pepper. This wine should continue to develop over the next few years. I’ve paired it with a number of dishes and it always manages to deliver, from grilled meats to pesto chicken.
If you are new to New Mexico wines, or have not tried them in several years, you owe it to yourself to sample our Wines of Enchantment. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the chance to plug my book again.) Salut!
Monday, October 6, 2008
Another wine festival season is coming to a close in New Mexico and there are good things to report. The first festival, new this year, was held in the village of Corrales just north of Albuquerque. Boasting quilts as well as wine, the Corrales Quilt & Wine Fair was celebrated Mother’s Day weekend. I was there giving wine talks on a host of subjects, some of which I’ll be covering in future blogs.
It was a first for the village, and a first for me to talk about wine without having a glass in my hand – except to demonstrate my world famous swirling technique. Hey, it’s not everybody that can swirl wine in those diminutive festival glasses without spilling a drop! By the end of the day, I was so ready for a glass of wine. Fortunately, my pals at the local wineries were there to provide me with generous pours.
July - Toast of Taos
The Southwest Wine Competition held in Taos in late June is followed by the Toast of Taos the week of July Fourth. The winners of the competition are then featured at the various wine dinners during the festival week. The competition this year included wines from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. I was privileged to witness the entire judging series.
During the competition the support staff verifies the temperature of each wine, pours tastes into approximately 6 wines of a particular grape, such as Chardonnay, and brings them out to the judges. There were approximately 12 tasters at two tables to judge each flight of wines. Since no labels are on display each wine is judged on its appearance, bouquet, and taste from the initial attack through the mid-palate and on to the finish.
To qualify as a judge you’d need to pass a one year program covering all aspects of wine judging. Sorry to burst your bubble if you were thinking of volunteering for the next one. I interviewed several of the judges as well as attending the wine dinners – Oh, the busy life of a wine writer. Not that I have any complaints, mind you.
The Toast of Taos is in its third year and much of the success is due to the inexhaustible energy of Sally Trigg of Holy Cross hospital. The hospital has sponsored the event since its inception. Sally and her volunteers put their hearts into making it a success and I have no doubt that next year’s Toast will be even better.
Dining and Lodging in Taos
Taos has many fine restaurants including the Trading Post Café just south of Taos. The façade, which does call to mind a trading post, belies the interior, where very well-prepared food fills the rooms with enticing aromas. Most of the Southwestern wines I sampled at the dinners were very well made, and indicate a shift to higher quality as the winemakers better understand the terroir of Southwest AVAs. Many judges commented that they believe the general quality level of the wines offered for judging have noticeably improved. This confirms my own belief that better crafted wines are coming from this part of the country.
If you are planning on attending next year’s Toast, or other wine events in Taos, the Taos Inn (http://www.taosinn.com/) should be your first choice for where to stay. This historic inn encompasses several outbuildings all interconnected with atriums and courtyards that invite a leisurely stroll. Just off the main entrance is Doc Martin’s Restaurant, named after a much loved country doctor from the 1920-30s and contains several rooms and courtyards to handle any diner’s whimsical choice of atmosphere and food. The wine list, prepared by Craig Dunn, is extensive and imaginatively designed, and more suggestive of the Four Seasons in NYC than a southwestern outpost. The restaurant has won the prestigious Wine Spectator Award of Excellence 20 years in a row, which will come as no surprise once you’ve dined there.
I returned to the Taos Inn for July Fourth weekend, bringing my wife, and we attended an outstanding wine dinner at Bravo!, just south of downtown Taos. The “!” is part of the name, just in case you thought I was being dramatic. The restaurant featured many of the medal winners of the previous month’s competition. Chef-owner Lionel Garnier was on hand to bathe in the applause he evoked whenever he came out to see how the dinner was going. They even provided us with two intriguing dinner guests to converse with and comment over the wine. Sadly, the restaurant closed its doors in August, but the memory of that dinner will remain.
Although I’ve only been to Taos a few times, its stimulating atmosphere always hooks me. This is a place your feet compel you to canvas, even if you’re not a power walker. While I can’t comment on all the fine wines I sampled, I’d like to focus on a few I think deserve your consideration.
Guy Drew Vineyards (http://www.guydrewvineyards.com/) makes very impressive wines, particularly the reds. The 2004 Syrah won a gold medal and best red award from the Southwest Wine Competition. I was in the back room with the support staff while they set up the flights of wine for the judging and one of the helpers said, “You gotta try this Syrah.” This Syrah is one of those obvious must-have wines that you just want to cozy up to in your favorite chair and sip long into a wintry night. This was my first heads-up alert to Colorado wines, but definitely not my last.
I took home a Guy Drew 2004 Meritage and left the half-full bottle (obviously, I’m an optimist) in my wine cellar after using a vacuum sealer, thinking I’d finish it the next day. The next day ended up being a week later. Knowing most of my opened reds don’t last more than a day or two I was sure I’d be using the Meritage as cooking wine. In fact, it was still showing good fruit and most of the flavors were still there! That was a first. Check them out before they realize what a bargain their wines are and raise prices.
The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey (http://www.abbeywinery.com/ ) was another gold and silver winner that is producing fine wines. I’m a big fan of Cabernet Franc and their 2006 vintage was well executed with classic Cab Franc flavors. The 2006 Reserve Merlot was also excellent and both were silver medal winners. Still a young winery, it was established in 2002, the numerous medals the winery has already garnered suggest that this is one to watch.
While there are many wine festivals in New Mexico, few can match the location of Taos and the many fine restaurants and lodging landmarks it offers. Put it in your plans for next year, I know I will. Salut!
Since the village of Corrales is my home I take a special interest in our local wineries. Both Corrales Winery and Milagro Vineyards have been producing high-quality wines for years. This was the first time I had the opportunity to participate in a grape harvest, however. I plan to stop short of actually making wine, but I’m beginning to have my doubts. When you have a passion for wine, it is sometimes hard to draw the line.
Harvesting the Grapes
Surrounding the winery and tasting room of Corrales Winery are two fields of Muscat grapes. Looking across Corrales Road, the Sandia Mountains loom, serene in the stillness of a Saturday morning. There were about twenty of us, decked out in wide-brimmed hats and carrying shears or curved-blade knifes suited to the work of severing the clusters from the vine. The grapes we were harvesting are used to make Muscat Canelli, one of Corrales Winery’s most popular wines. In Keith Johnstone’s hands it is crafted into a lush wine that isn’t overly sweet, but makes a killer dessert wine I’d pair with just about any fruit-based concoction.
I still remember cutting one fat cluster of golden yellow grapes, be speckled with darker accents and visualizing it being replaced by a bottle in my hand. Naturally, I had to sample a few grapes to see what they tasted like. The rich juice caressed my tongue as I spit out the seeds and indulged in classic Muscat flavors; sweet, musky, and grapey. After that first taste I had to discipline myself against being over-indulgent. The idea was to pick the grapes, after all.
One bit of excitement came about while we were removing the black netting that covers the vines to protect them from birds. A 5 to 6 foot Bull snake had become ensnared in the netting. A yearly incident I later learned. While I wasn’t going to see if my gloves would protect me from snake bite, two of our intrepid harvesters held down the squirming reptile until they could cut away the netting covering his body like a Gordian knot. Mouth wide open, fangs showing, and with a loud hiss, he made his feeling known. Once free of the entangling threads he was tossed up on the culvert walkway and slithered away, without a show of gratitude. Snakes can be like that.
Once all the grapes were picked and brought down to the winery, a distance of thirty feet, we went into the backyard for a lunch feast. Al Knight, who recently opened Acequia Vineyards and Winery in Corrales, had cooked up steaks, chicken, and sausages to go with the rest of the spread. I don’t think this is typical of grape harvesting though, otherwise everybody would be doing it. Nonetheless it put a wonderful cap to the day. I also quickly signed up for next year. Who knows, I may be the one to free the snake next year?
The Muscat grape is of the species vitis vinifera and is believed to the oldest domesticated grape in the world. There is a theory that many grapes of the vitis vinifera sprang from the Muscat. Most wine regions in the world make use of this grape, typically for sweeter or dessert wines but also in blends. It is also the basis of Muscato D’Asti, a very popular Italian lightly sparkling (frizzante) wine from Piedmont, Italy, and is one of the three grapes permitted in Spanish Sherry (Jerez). I’d call that a well-traveled grape.
Other wines from Corrales Winery include Cabernet Franc, one of my personal favorites, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese depending on grape availability. One or more blends that change from year to year, round out the reds. Riesling is another popular wine the winery does well. Check out the tasting room with its expansive views of the Sandia Mountains, and enjoy a glass or bottle under the outdoor covered patio. But don’t wait too long, many of these wines sell out early. Check out their website for tasting room hours and contact information at http://www.corraleswinery.com.
There is something very special about living in an area surrounded by grape vines, and then sitting on a patio and enjoying the fruit of the harvest. Not every place is as blessed as our village in this regard. Milagro Vineyards wines come from grapes planted in Rick and Mitzi Hobson’s vineyards and by grape growers they contract with in the surrounding area. These are places I pass every day on my way home. After I began drinking Corrales wines I found I’d developed an almost proprietary feeling about the vines, the grapes, and the wines made from them.
Because Rick likes to check the grapes each morning before deciding when to pick, a harvest party like we had at Corrales Winery is more difficult to plan. I decided tasting his wine and getting information on the harvest would work better here. The new tasting room will soon be set up for scheduled tasting hours. For now, you’ll need to make an appointment to taste his wines, but it is worth the visit.
As you can guess, Rick is a very hands-on guy, pays close attention to his vineyard as well as those he contracts with, and uses French oak to age his wines. The results are obvious when you taste them. His Merlot is a perennial favorite at my house, the Corrales Red is a very good value blend, the Chardonnay exhibits the kind of fruit found in French whites, and his Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon flit between New and Old World styling. Vin ordinaire this stuff is not.
At a Milagro tasting in late September, I tasted wines that had now spent months in the bottle since my previous visit. The 2006 Chardonnay had really opened up since then, which is also a characteristic of French Chardonnays of the Burgundy persuasion. They need time in the bottle to really show off their complexity. Buttery notes without malolactic fermentation (MLF) add to the depth of this wine, and provides rich natural flavors. In fact, it brought me back to the California Chardonnays of the eighties, when MLF and death by oak bludgeoning was still in the future. The delicate handling of the oak and a long satisfying finish make this one very special. Rick has also tweaked the label graphics, and Wilbur the pig looks more self-satisfied than ever.
The 2006 Zinfandel provided another flashback to when I was sampling Lytton Springs Zinfandels in Dry Creek Valley while swatting away the fruit flies in their barn-cum tasting room. Ah, the good old days! This wine announces itself on your palate with fresh spicy berry flavors, but without thickening your tongue with too much jam. In other words, this well-balanced wine will also pair with food. Check out their website for updated information at http://www.milagrovineyardsandwinery.com. If you want to wake up your palate to the honest flavors of a hand-tended wine, Milagro Vineyards is the place to go. Salut!
While sea cruises around the Hawaiian Islands are not something I do every year, and I’m there every year, it seemed like a good idea this time. Since the island of Kauai is our usual destination and the Captain Andy cruises our favorites, a sunset cruise looked to be made to order. For once I could let someone else do the driving.
If you’re not familiar with Kauai, the Garden Isle, you’ve seen parts of it in countless movies, including Fantasy Island on TV. It lies at the top of the Hawaiian chain of islands, with only little Niihau, the Forbidden Isle above it. It’s been my favorite island for close to forty years. I’ve hiked it, flown over it in helicopter, sailed around it in all manner of craft, swum most of its beaches, and biked all the accessible parts including climbing up Waimea canyon, a peak experience. Well, the downhill part, anyway.
Most sunset cruises involve punch-less Mai Tai punches and typical island fast food -and not tasty, fast-disappearing fare at that. Nonetheless, the Captain Andy cruises include good crews, reasonable fare, and boating under sail. It always seemed odd to me, boarding a 50 foot sailboat to motor around the island.
This time, however, we had the problem of vog. I’m not sure if this is a new term, but it means a fog-like haze created by wind-sown particulates from a volcano. The volcano in this case is Kilauea on the Big Island (Hawaii), which has been active since January of 1983, making it the longest continually active volcano in recorded history. It is also the youngest volcano in the chain that comprises the Hawaiian Islands. Just like a troublesome youth to call attention to himself, don’t you think?
The Hawaiian name "Kilauea" means "spewing" or "much spreading," apparently in reference to the lava flows that travel almost 7 miles before reaching the sea, creating a huge steam cloud. During our cruise in mid-June of 2008, Kilauea Volcano’s noxious outpouring, hastened by a Kona wind, were moving all the way up the Hawaiian chain to our little island at the top. Hardly fair, I thought. That did not stop Captain Dave from expounding on points of historic interest on our southern excursion of Kauai, nor descriptions of which movie was shot at which place, and what key scene of the movie the shot came from. As an occasional screenwriter, I appreciated this a lot.
It also took our minds off the vog, and when the sun appeared as a hazy brownish red globe, low in a washed out sky we were still in the thrall of our sailing and wine tasting journey. The quality wines were a surprise to me. In the past, I often opted for a watered-down Mai Tai, which should tell you something about the quality of the wine on most cruises.
Not so this time. I later learned that Capt. Andy has connections with a local wine distributor, and obtains good wines at a reasonable enough savings to offer them to us on his cruises. Lucky us. Besides enjoying being on the ocean, I also got to savor a Chilean Merlot Reserva while I glimpse the entourage of Dolphins we’d attracted. The white wines were also good quality, and if the food was not as inspired as the wine, at least they complimented them.
Since I’m also the Wine Maestro, orchestrating food and wine for multi-course dinners, the thought occurred to me that pairing food and wine, ala tapas, or little tastes as the Spanish define it, might be a great way, to cruise Kauai’s fabled coast. Vog or no vog. Salut!
Monday, September 15, 2008
The location at the top of my list was New Mexico Vineyards, Inc., which is managed by Paolo D’Andrea. In fact, it was Paolo I was most eager to meet. He came to New Mexico in 1986 to train workers on how to prune the vines and stayed to manage this 300 acre vineyard. Paolo grows 36 different grape varieties at last counting. Subsequently he opened his own winery, Luna Rossa, in 2001.
At the winery I tasted nine of his red wines and found all of them to be impressive interpretations of the Barbera, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Merlot grape among others. His signature Nini blend and I were already good friends, and renewing acquaintances was once again a pleasure. His wines are big, earthy, packed with fruit flavors and eminently drinkable. The Barbera, one of my favorite wines, would shine in California or Italy as well.
His wife, Sylvia, kindly guided me to the vineyards --I was in no mood to take another MapQuest mis-adventure -- and graciously led me on a tour until Paolo returned. It became obvious early on that these were two tireless grape growers and wine makers. Paolo comes from several generations of wine makers in Rauscedo, Italy which is above Venice. He is also a premier grower of Italian grapes, and not surprisingly, a premier maker of Italian wines.
She pointed out their nursery on this site, which has 100,000 plants. Truly appropriate for a native of Rauscedo, which is home to Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo (VCR) – the world’s largest and most respected grapevine nursery. Paolo is constantly experimenting with grape varieties, and his passion for grape growing and wine making are known state-wide by other wine producers. When I spoke to Jerry Burd of Black Mesa about New Mexico Vineyards from whence he sources many of the grapes for his wines, he referred to them as “Paolo’s grapes”.
I really enjoyed gazing out over a sea of grapevines, with the backdrop of the Florida Mountains. It was easy to fantasize that I was in a world of vines and grapes and not high desert terrain. Walking the holding facility I came upon the new grape harvester they are employing as hand-picking has become too time-intensive for the demands placed on the vineyards. I was invited to climb aboard the high-tech machine, and from the cockpit could imagine effortlessly combing a field of grapes. This was an interesting contrast to hand-picking grapes back home in Corrales, which I did at the end of August. See “Corrales Wines” for details.
No, Paolo doesn’t own the grapes, he manages them, but his influence is on every grape, every leaf, every rootstock, and every new grapevine he brings into the world. A goodly number of New Mexico and Texas wineries rely on Paolo for quality grapes. With that kind of influence you can perhaps understand why I was so eager to meet him.
Finally a beat up pickup arrived in a swirl of dust and he got out to survey his vineyards. We had a brief exchange in his office after which he apologized for having to get back to work. I got the feeling he spent little time behind the desk and most in the field with his grapes. Back outside I watched his workers getting ready to deliver their first harvest of grapes. It occurred to me that I was still thinking of harvest in California timelines, not those of Southern New Mexico.
Dressed in shorts and a red polo shirt, he quickly donned a wide-brimmed straw hat and set to work. My conversations to him were interspersed with his directions in Spanish and Italian to his staff as they prepared to load the just harvested Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio grapes into a big semi that arrived soon after him. After a discussion with the truck driver as to the sequence of grapes to load based on which wineries are on the delivery route, he tore off strips of masking tape with the name of each winery destined for each set of grapes.
The grapes are stored in bright red containers that look like a larger version of ones used for milk bottles. The grapes are then dumped into white carboys with about a 50 cubic foot capacity until they nearly overflow with grapes. Firing up his Mitsubishi forklift, I watched Paolo expertly load one carboy on top of another and then take the two-stack and load it into the semi. It didn’t take long observing Paolo in action to realize the Eveready Bunny would have been exhausted watching him at work.
The following day when I visited Tularosa Vineyards, Chris Wickham took me on a tour of his facility. Behind the tasting room under an overhang he proudly showed me his grape crusher which was busily crushing grapes. Paolo’s grapes. Salut!
So why would anyone but a wine guy do such a tour? If your impression of a winery was formed at one of our festivals, you may be missing the best they have to offer. Typically, a winery brings their most popular wines to a festival, and makes their biggest sales. In New Mexico, many of these wines are sweet or specialty wines, such as chocolate or Chile-infused wines. These are often the big money makers so they receive more attention than they deserve. If you are like me and prefer drier wines, then a winery is the place to go.
First up was La Vina Winery, which skims our border with Texas, El Paso. Nestled in the Mesilla Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), it is the state’s oldest winery located in an area that saw America’s first grapes planted in about 1630. I sampled some of Ken and Denise Stark’s offerings, which included a well done Semillon among the whites. The Cabernet Sauvignon competes very well with under $40 Napa Cabs, and it doesn’t cost nearly that much.
I was grateful to Denise for guiding me to the winery as MapQuest seemed intent on giving me a tour of La Union. Instead, use the map on their website. The next day I drove to Deming, stopping first at St. Clair Winery. I called for directions this time as the MapQuest route looked more like a tour of the entire Southwest. Maybe the program doesn’t work in Southern New Mexico? Thankfully, the counterperson in the tasting room provided a more direct and easier to follow route.
The DH Lescombes wines, named for the founders, are still my favorites, but check out the other labels: St. Clair and Blue Teal being the most prominent. The Mademoiselle label seems to be going away as I only found one varietal, a Sauvignon Blanc listed. Too bad, I really enjoyed fanaticizing about the cowgirl on the label.
New Mexico’s largest winery is also known as Southwest Wines, the umbrella under which all the labels are produced. Their vineyards are located near Lordsburg, and are within the Mimbres Valley AVA, which stretches from Deming to Silver City. They also have a bistro/tasting room in Las Cruces and another in Albuquerque close to Old Town that I make a regular stop for food and wine. Check them out.
Since my next stop was not too far from St. Clair on Pine Street, I decided to ignore the convoluted instructions once again. This time, however, I should have followed them as Pine terminated in an entrance ramp for highway 10 headed toward Arizona. Off to my left, I watched Luna Rossa Winery fall off behind me on the other side of the highway. Fourteen miles later I turned back, getting off on West Pine, which is also the eastbound frontage road. Rats! I sincerely hope you laugh at my mistakes, but don’t repeat them.
I tasted nine Luna Rossa reds, including wonderful Barbera and Tempranillo wines. Keep in mind; I use a spit bucket so I can sample many wines. OK, I did swallow a couple of these. It’s hard not to; they’re rich, earthy, and reminiscent of Italian and Spanish wines. Since Paolo D’Andrea comes from several generations of Italian wine makers, that’s not too surprising. I have been a fan of Paolo’s wines for years, and his latest releases can compete with the best nation-wide.
Sylvia D’Andrea graciously guided me from the tasting room to the New Mexico Vineyards, which Paolo manages as well as his own vineyards. Three hundred acres and thirty six varieties of grapes are grown here, as well as a nursery of 100,000 plants. Many New Mexico and Texas wineries source their grapes from here. For more information on Paolo D’Andrea, see my blog “Paolo’s Grapes”.
When Paolo arrived he immediately set to work, taking the harvested Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio grapes and expertly loading them with a forklift. In between, we exchanged a few words as the semi-trailer was filling with grapes. Watching him in action, I realized where the Eveready Bunny learned his non-stop drum pounding. The man is tireless.
Finally, I headed for home by going through Tularosa. The Tularosa Basin is not yet an AVA, but will become one soon as land is constantly being given over to grape production. Here along highway 54/70 you’ll find Arena Blanca and Heart if the Desert just down the road from each other. Both focus on pistachios as well as wine. I forgot to ask which came first, but I’d bet it was nuts. Heart of the Desert is currently expanding their grape production, and I’ll be watching this development with keen interest.
My last stop was, appropriately, Tularosa Vineyards. David Wickham began planting grapes in 1985, and recently turned over the wine making duties to his son, Chris. I was in time to see him crushing grapes he’d just received from Paolo. Watching grapes go from harvest to crush was a real thrill for me. You don’t often get to see the labor, and love that goes into wine making, but this brought the reality into sharp focus.
The thought of all that work made me very thirsty, so after a tour of the facility, Chris took me back inside to try some of their wines. While I focused on the reds, I was impressed with the broad selection of wines offered. As I’ve mentioned before, the premium New Mexico wine makers experiment with many different types of grapes, looking for the optimum fruit to make their wine. This pioneering spirit is one of the reasons many of these wineries should be on the US wine map as well as New Mexico’s.
Tasting wines and talking with the winemaker is one of the special joys of this tour, and Tularosa Vineyards did not disappoint. Nor did the time I spent with Chris. While many people extol the value of family, wine makers express it better than most. How many industries can you think of that have sons and daughters eager to go into the same line of work as their parents?
The majority of wines I sampled on this tour don’t show up at wine festivals. By touring a winery you can sample many wines in limited supply and only sold there or in limited distribution. I’d guess there were at least a dozen wines I fell in love with that were not available at wine festivals. If you’re lucky, you’ll also have the opportunity to talk to the winemaker and learn more about the renaissance in wine that is New Mexico today. Salut!
The wine question for today: What do you think of sweet and specialty wines? Do you love them, hate them, or ignore them? Results will be posted on this wine blog.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
The New Mexico Vine and Wine Society, sponsors the New Mexico State Fair wine competition each year for evaluating and awarding wineries for their best efforts. For the most part the judges are volunteers with a passionate interest in wine, and can include grape growers, commercial wine makers, and amateur wine makers. It can also include wine writers, which is how I came to be a judge at this event.
This invite came right after I’d attended the Southwest Wine Competition that precedes the Toast of Taos wine event. I jumped at the chance to be part of it. You may be thinking, free wine! Actually, the judging takes all day and requires a judge’s full attention. We also make judicious use of a spit bucket, to keep our palates and brains sharp. The fellowship of other wine lovers and the conversation – always on wine – is part of what I most enjoyed.
I also gained insight into objectively evaluating wine apart from my own palate preferences, which serves me very well as a wine writer. I also discovered that using the traditional swirl, sip, and inhale technique does not work very well when you try a specialty-green chili wine. My eyes watered profusely down the sides of my ruined nose and my palate went into hibernation. Good thing it was the last wine I tried.
The Gold, Silver, and Bronze medal winners can be found on the Vine and Wine Society’s website at http://vineandwine.org/State_Fair_Medal2008.pdf and includes awards to newly emerging wineries and smaller wine making organizations as well as the bigger wineries such as Gruet.
As it turned out, my biggest challenge was finding where the event was held. The Sandia Courtyard Hotel and Conference Center was previously a Howard Johnston hotel, which was the information I was given. When the familiar blue and orange colors did not appear I had to do the unprecedented: ask directions. You know how hard that can be for a guy to accomplish. I still made it on time.
One of the interesting things I learned was that the judges first taste a know varietal. The calibrating wine chosen is one true to its grape’s primary characteristics. It’s sort of like the first violin tuning the orchestra. Once that is accomplished we all begin to taste flights of wine, usually all six or seven wines are of a particular grape variety, except for blends and specialty wines.
By the time I got to that last wine, my palate was reaching saturation. The green chili wine completed the saturation. You might keep that in mind if you decide to become a wine judge. Salut!
Monday, August 18, 2008
The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) from Alexander Valley, Sonoma is a case in point. Murphy-Goode recommends pairing it with meat, and this one is hefty enough to overpower more timid culinary offerings, but I’d drink this one all by itself and still feel like I’d had a good meal. The 91% Cabernet Sauvignon grape is balanced with Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Merlot, almost the classic Meritage blend except for the ratios. The intent here though is to balance and enhance the Alexander Valley Cabernet fruit, one of California’s premium areas for this grape. Try to find an under-forty Napa Cab that can compete with this one, I dare you.
I brought this wine to a friend’s BBQ, and the hostess, my wife, and another cab lover covetously sipped and savored it, not willing to share it beyond our intimate circle. Good wine will do that. I’d rate it right at the top of my drinkability index.
The Hammond drinkability index (HDI), although not scientifically-proven, is a measure of not only the taste and complexity of a wine, but also how much you enjoy drinking it. When your hand slips lovingly over the bottle as you pour another glass, when you gaze fondly on its rich, warm colors, when you continue to sniff the bouquet of the empty glass, and finally sigh, contentedly, after the last sip, that is pure HDI. And that is what this wine delivers.
The 2007 Sonoma County Fumé Blanc ($11.50) is the Sauvignon Blanc grape done in the Fumé style, and is partially fermented in stainless with a judicious use of French oak to make it the perfect food wine. I paired it with seared Ahi and loved every drop. While not as aggressively acidic as the New Zealand varieties, there is a riot of tropical fruit flavors with an undercurrent of pear to please most fans of this grape.
The 2006 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($17) is another in a long line of excellent Chards from this winery. The grape’s extended hang time gave it the richness of baked apple pie, but try it with Fettuccini Carbonara, and hold the pie for later. While I’ve gotten bored with the over-oaked, 100% malolactic fermentation (MLF) Chardonnays that dot a wine shelf, the 12% MLF used here helps bring all the flavors into balance.
Finally, there is the 2006 Alexander Valley Merlot ($20), which adds a hint of Petit Verdot and a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon, but this is big, complex Merlot all the way. A great companion to the Cab above, this wine pairs best with hearty fare, but the dark fruit, herbal accents and silky tannins make it just fine on its own if you’re at a loss as to what to fix for dinner.
While it is always fun to discover a new wine from a specialty winery, a wine producer that can score hits over their entire line is the type of winery I love to seek out. Murphy-Goode is just such a winery with a family of value-priced wines that belong in your wine cellar, or on your table. Salut!
Thursday, July 17, 2008
A recommendation from a good friend, and the close proximity to another winery at which I’d scheduled a visit, brought me to one of my favorite wine tasting experiences. Meeting Amelia Ceja, gracious hostess and passionate wine maker of Ceja Vineyards, was the main reason this was a fun and informational visit. Amelia and Pedro Ceja are a wonderful wine and success story. Their story begins in the mid-60’s, much like other pioneers in Napa’s dynamic history. They staked all they had on a belief in their wine making skill and more, making it their way. I know, sounds like a song, but in this case it rings true.
My wife and I were treated to a fascinating story of their quest for the good life – translated as farming the land, growing grapes and a family, and then making a style of wine that reflects both the value of traditions and lessons learned since. Their philosophy puts them squarely among the believers in the effect of terroir on a wine. That includes the choices of grapes, how and when to use oak, quality oak, and when to let the grapes speak for themselves. Always a good balancing act, one I have to say, they have done with every one of their wines. In case you didn’t realize it, that doesn’t happen often.
Terroir has many meanings for many people, some believe only a particular area will produce wines of a distinctive nature, and that the qualities of the soil, sandy, loam, clay-like will influence the flavors found in the wine. Others believe that other regions with similar, if not exact qualities including the weather, longitude will produce similar wines of a high quality. At its most basic, a particular terroir will dictate what grapes will grow best and show their best qualities.
Partly, this goes back to the adage, “great wine is made in the vineyard”, which also has its interpreters. Very little in the wine world is as simple as it seems. The Carneros viticultural region receives its maritime influence from being at the top of San Francisco Bay, and spreads on either side of Highway 37, which skirts the upper bay. Pinot Noir does extremely well here, as do Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
We started with the Sauvignon Blanc, which is a very popular and awarded wine. It was easy to tell that from the nose even before tasting. Lots of fruit, neutral oak for the aging, wonderful acidity, mouth feel from creamy notes – not buttery. In short you have the kind of body often provided by Semillon, but with citrus notes common to the Sauvignon Blanc grape.
We put the wine to the test at dinner that evening at Celadon restaurant in the town of Napa, also suggested by our friend, Judy Diaz. Considering Judy’s hit ratio I was willing to take stock tips from her. I had the Sea Bass, something rare in New Mexico, resting on a bed of forbidden rice, which is even rarer. I later learned the rice came from one spot in Japan and received its black color from the squid that populated that coastal enclave. True or not, it made a great story. The fish did better than melt in my mouth with rich flavors bursting through. The Ceja wine tracked every bite and every flavor. I couldn’t have chosen better. What I loved was that when I had the crème brulee with caramelized banana, the wine paired like it was made for desserts. How’d they do that? Oops, should I have given you a food-alert warning on this?
Their Chardonnay was one of the few non-French version I knew would be a good food wine, something most buttery, malolactic fermentation, heavily-oaked chardonnays cannot be. There is nothing wrong with the style as long as you aren’t trying to pair them with a wide range of foods.
It just got better with the reds. Since you should check this out on your own, I’ll only mention one, the 2005 Ceja Vino de Casa Red, a blend of Pinot Noir and Syrah. This is their gateway wine into the Ceja reds, and priced very well. If you don’t have any food to pair with this wine, not to worry, this wine is food. Both grapes in this wine are also offered separately, and both excel, which is why the blend works so well. How many times do you get a smile on your face after sampling the wine’s nose? Well, get ready. I only wish I could have had a separate meal to test drive this red, but definitely, next time.
Check out their website at http://www.cejavineyards.com/ it is very well done with lots of information on their wines and wine philosophy. And if you don’t think they’re a winemaking family, check out the family photos. Their traditions should be copied by many of the other wineries in Napa. Salut!
In case you wondered where I’ve been the last few months it was busy completing my first wine book and setting up my new Wine Maestro package of wine talks/wine dinners. I apologize for leaving you in the lurch. Now that I’m back I have much ground to cover, many fascinating wines to discuss, and what wine and food pairing is all about.
My new wine book is called Wines of Enchantment: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying the Wines of New Mexico. Yes, I know, long title. It is available as an E-book at my literary website, www.Jim-Hammond.com. Look under Hammond on Wine for the link and payment button. I also plan to blanket the New Mexico wineries with autographed copies.
This all began as a wine pamphlet for the first Corrales Quilt & Wine Fair (you read that right), which was held Mother’s Day weekend. I gave a series of wine talks Saturday and Sunday, which were quite enjoyable. This was nothing like teaching engineers about computer networks and architectures, which I did in a previous life. At the fair, I had attentive attendees who even wore smiles.
The only problem was that this was the first time I’d talked about wine without having a glass of same in my hand. A whole new discipline, because the more I talk about wine the more I want to drink it, and I was so ready for a glass after the last session each day. Fortunately, my many winemaker friends helped out with generous pours of the wines brought for tasting. I left each day sated and happy that the attendees had learned something about wine appreciation that would, hopefully, enrich their wine life.
The wine pamphlet had meanwhile grown in size and coverage until it became a New Mexico wine guide. Pamphlet, indeed! It includes almost 20 pages on how-to-taste wines, information on the care and feeding of wines, wine and food pairing, and summaries of every winery in New Mexico. The table of contents is reprised below for those interested in the wine guide.
The Wine Maestro idea, cooked up between my wife and I, involves my giving wine talks, recommending wines for a wine dinner, or creating a wine dinner for clients that included my providing the catering, serving, tasting notes, wine selection, and also discussing each wine. I’ve done several of these so far with great success, so my involvement in wine has quadrupled since I began my wine blog.
Still, I don’t want to leave my readers out in the cold – is ether-space chilly? I’m re-dedicating myself to keeping it going, as you will begin to see starting this week. Salut!
Wines of Enchantment
History of New Mexico Wine 3
Wine Tasting Guide 9
The Why of Wine Tasting 9
The Taste Test: Discovering Your Wines 11
Wine Dos and Don’ts 31
Laying Down Wine 31
Selecting a Wine Cellar 35
Wine Preparation 37
Wine Equipment Essentials 38
Wine and Food 41
White Wines 43
Red Wines 45
Food and Wine Pairing Basics 49
Wine Tasting in the Land of Enchantment 51
New Mexico Wine Map 52
Santa Fe/Taos Region 53
Albuquerque Region 61
Alamogordo Region 68
Las Cruces/Deming Region 72
Appendix A: New Mexico Grapes 77
White Wines 77
Rosé Wines 79
Red Wines 79
Sparkling Wines 80
Dessert Wines 80
Fortified Wines 80
Appendix B: Wine Events 83
Northern Region 83
Southern Region 84
Monday, March 24, 2008
This is another article I began before my blog was created. As before, I’m including dates for the actual tasting since the chronology would otherwise be hopelessly confused.
Late last fall I had the pleasure of touring wineries in the
Luckily I had a large wine cellar so I was able to enjoy the last bottle even more than the first. By that time, Alexander Valley Vineyard had attracted a lot of attention, as had many other vineyards that dotted
That memory firmly entrenched; I gladly accepted
Stonestreet Alexander Mountain Estate is located near the entrance to
We were greeted by Melanie and Graham Weerts, the wine master for Stonestreet. Graham traveled a long way to become Stonestreet’s wine maker;
He is a firm believer that terroir is significant, and only the grapes best served by a unique slope, elevation, soil, and weather pattern should be grown, not what suits the latest fads and market demands. This philosophy is more in keeping with
At the tasting table a number of white and red wine glasses were arrayed, ending in a very large wine glass that could have doubled as a flower vase. Later I would learn why. We tasted two whites and four reds, and all of them were impressive. The two I’ll focus on are the 2005 Red Point Chardonnay and Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines come from the Mayacamas mountain chain that separates
The Mayacamas name most likely came from the Wappo Indians. The range was created from the lava flow of an exploding volcano. Not to worry, this was a long, long, time ago. The rocky soil, enriched by the volcanic ash, stresses the grapes, yielding smaller, intensely-flavored fruit, which are evident in both these wines.
The 2005 Red Point Chardonnay is 100% estate grown using the subtle caress of French oak to permit the wonderful fruit flavors to be revealed. A good food wine, retaining good acidity and bright fruit flavors with good balance. Robert Parker rated it 92 points and I’d have to agree.
By the time we came to the last red, a single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, grown at 2400 feet, I had gotten more and more excited by the reds. Now we were primed to sample Graham’s signature red. There is only one negative I can think of for Christopher’s Cab, it makes the ones that preceded it pale in comparison. It definitely needed room to breathe, hence the very large glass, which barely contained the nose. Big as the nose was, the taste was bigger with flavors of lush ripe fruit, blackberries, cassis, spice notes and a whole lot more. It’s the kind of wine Opus One only aspires to, and flavors like Silver Oak used to bring to the table. Boy, I miss those days.
Did I keep my affection for this wine a secret? Check them out at http://www.stonestreetwines.com. Highly recommended.
My next stop, also suggested by Melanie was Field Stone Winery. It had been many years since I had last tasted wines there, so I was eager for an update. When I got there I met Scott Sabbadini, the assistant winemaker. Scott very graciously took me through a barrel-tasting of a Syrah that they were testing in four different cooperages. These included American, Hungarian, Rumanian, and Polish oak barrels. Not too surprisingly each one tasted like a different wine. Selecting the right type of oak, deciding on the best toasting level, and even the assembly design all influence the final product, not to mention how long to let the wine age in oak. Getting an opportunity to taste the theory and see how different the results could be suggests how daunting the wine maker’s task once the grapes are in.
Of course, so much theory makes me thirsty, so next I went into the tasting room. I’ve always had affection for their reds and found particular favor in their 2005 Alexander Valley Sangiovese. Saucy strawberry notes were complimented by black cherry and plum. I can’t wait to pair this one with food.
Field Stone winery, http://www.fieldstonewinery.com/ is currently updating their website, but be patient, it’s worth the wait. Salut!
Sunday, March 23, 2008
This is the first of a number of articles begun late last year before I had created a blog and dated so my readers won't be confused, hopefully. My thanks to David and Melanie for their patience while I got my act together.
Late last September, I received an invitation to do a wine tasting of Murphy-Goode wines at the Inn of the Anasazi in
Since I almost never pass up a chance to go to
David Ready, Jr. is the son of Dave Ready, one of the Murphy-Goode founders that include Tim Murphy and Dale Goode. This is definitely a family-run business, and shows the care and love they’ve put into the winery. Producing around 140,000 cases, this is not a small operation by any means. They also have enough estate grapes to produce outstanding single-vintage wines, which always begin with good fruit.
Four wines were served, an elegant Chardonnay, light on the French oak, 25% stainless fermented. A Chardonnay done in the French style must start with good grapes if it isn’t going to be tricked up with heavy oak.
This was followed by a well-balanced Cabernet Sauvignon called Sarah’s Block, a classic Alexander Valley Cab with black raspberry fruit. Lastly, two very good but different Zinfandels. Both went quite well with my buffalo burger, laced with crisp-seared bacon and gorgonzola to stand up to the Zins. The Liar’s Dice Zinfandel has rich blackberry with peppery notes, and lots of taste without being a fruit bomb. Snake Eyes Zinfandel was a well structured and balanced wine with good fruit and depth.
All through the meal I enjoyed the animated conversation and David’s passion for his wines. Well, that’s as it should be; good wine does require passion. That and patience and attention to detail often result in good to great wines. During the conversation, the talk turned to the impact of oak on wine. David mentioned working with a wood (stave) maker of American oak in
Beginning in the mid-1990’s, American oak has seen a renaissance in cooperage. Some coopers suggest this comes from the use of French barrel-making techniques, bending and toasting over a fire, for example. One of the factors that make French and American oak barrels different is the way barrels are assembled. In
Recently, I began putting more focus on oak and how it influences a wine’s taste portfolio. Many vintners bludgeon their Chardonnay with oak until oak and splinters seem to predominate. Choosing French oak, blending a portion of the fruit in stainless, not going the 100% maloactic fermentation route, and working with grapes that bring out the fruit flavors all went into making the Murphy-Goode Chardonnay a much better wine and better food wine. Check them out. Website: http://www.murphygoodewinery.com/
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
To Blend, Or Not To Blend; That Is the Question
Shakespeare aside, a very real question for the wine maker is whether ‘tis nobler in mind to persevere against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take grapes from a single vineyard against a sea of troubles to make a perfect wine. But if that isn’t a consummation devoutly to be wished then they must select from different vineyards the right qualities of the grapes to make the perfect wine. I just hope the bard isn’t rolling over in his grave for the grievous liberties I’ve taken.
Large production wine producers often blend each year to produce a wine with their own “signature taste”. For example Kendal-Jackson has produced their Chardonnays with similar oak contact and maloactic fermentation to produce their signature oaky, buttery Chardonnays. Since many consumers look for K-J wines for that reason they can sell a lot of wine. An economic as well as ascetic choice.
So to blend is the choice of most wine makers, either with the same grapes at different locations, or with the addition of different grapes to improve and add complexity to the principle grape, and there are some classical blends, such as in
Thursday, February 14, 2008
In the past, restaurants offering fine wines in
Many of the supermarkets now carry a good representation of
High-end restaurants do make the biggest splash in terms of cuisine and wine cellar-listings, but many mid-list restaurants are now following suit. It is also possible to enjoy excellent food at even the most pre-possessing cafes. At the Hanapepe Café in the artistic village of Hanapepe, an outstanding vegetarian meal can be had for only a few dollars. Since they allow you to bring your own wine, nay – encourage it, an exquisite lunch of curried cauliflower soup and some of the best fish sandwiches on the island can be had to complement a tart, acidic Sauvignon Blanc for a fraction of the price almost anywhere else. That can be followed by a tour of the many art galleries along the main road for a mini-Canyon road experience, and you’re on the Garden Isle of Kauai!
In short, paradise has gotten more toney without getting too pricey. Even when price is no object, it is hard to beat
Look for accommodations that provide a kitchen, but ask about how well appointed they are if you love to cook. Since many visitors to the islands hate to cook on vacation, some of the kitchens offer little more than a place to mix your rum and fruit drinks and store your wine and liquor.
Both North and South shore have excellent fish markets where Ahi, Ono, and other island delicacies can be had for a fraction of restaurant prices. And now that a wide range of fine wines are available virtually everywhere on the island, the perfect accompaniment to island fare can be had at a reasonable price.
Sauvignon Blancs from
Red wines require a bit more caution. Many red meats are available at a modest premium, and most resorts offer barbeque grills. However, due to the constant high temperatures and humidity – you remember humidity, that’s the thing most locations outside
That caution also applies to restaurants. We went to one Koloa café on the
That being said, most experiences on