Sunday, February 28, 2010

In Celebration of Arizona Wines

Page Springs Cellars was winemaker/owner Eric Glomski’s first foray into winemaking in Arizona, but not until he’d honed his skills in California, rising to co-winemaker at the prestigious David Bruce winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Pinot Noir is king. In Arizona, without the benefit of the climatic conditions that yield the best examples of Pinot, Eric has focused primarily on Rhone varietals. Along the way he picked up a young man with a similar passion for the Arizona grape who now makes the wines under his directorship.

That winemaker, Joe Bechard, began working at the winery after writing about it. He started his career as a journalist right out of college and quickly learned it would be more fun to work with grapes than a pen. Once on board he rose to winemaker, and if he did look back it was only to confirm that his choice was the right one. Joe made time available for me to interview him at the winery during a busy week that saw the launching of the movie Blood into Wine, featuring Eric and rock star Maynard Keenan.

The vineyards on Page Springs road southwest of Sedona off highway 89A are bounded by the undulating creek for which the road is named. The vines are trellis-trained and bordered by bales of hay to shield them from the colder winds off the creek. The shorter growing season yields lower brix but higher acidity resulting in lower alcohol of 13-14%, but with an acidic backbone that insures the wines will be food-friendly.

The Rhone grapes Eric and Joe work with include; Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Roussanne. The Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are represented but take a back seat to the Rhone. Neutral French oak barrels (5 years old or greater) is used principally, with some newer French oak, American, and Hungarian. A bit of the new oak is artfully blended into the wines until it achieves neutrality, after which it stays in service until the barrel reaches old age.

This results in fruit-forward wines that shamelessly reveal all the nuances of their varietal makeup; ripe berry, a cornucopia of spices, and earthy notes. Tannins are subdued and silky, making for very drinkable wines in their youth. The variable weather means each vintage will offer unique characteristics and challenges according to Bechard. The art of blending is evident in the many wines which combine 3 to 7 different grapes. Blending is a fact of life in Bordeaux, where each vintage requires a different mix to maintain quality, and this art is well represented at the winery. The wines are not fined or filtered, but the lighter tannins and aging in neutral oak still yield wines with jewel-like colors.

It takes many vineyards to accomplish the range of varietals offered at the winery/tasting room, most using Arizona fruit. The Arizona Stronghold Vineyards near Wilcox, Arizona in Cochise County have a longer growing season, but present a different set of challenges. Developed by vignerons (French for wine grower) Eric and Maynard , this area was the stronghold of Cochise when his band eluded U. S. and Mexican armies for many years. The varietals used in the Arizona Stronghold label, include Viognier, Chardonnay, Grenache and Syrah. Honor is given to the great Apache chief as his name and those of his sons and relatives grace many of the wine labels.

While strolling through the Page Springs vineyards, Joe Bechard pointed out the poles topping the trellis which support the nets used to keep birds away. This is a common technique employed in many vineyards, although it doesn’t restrain insects that come to nibble. Good fruit attracts more than wine lovers. Joe related how once after the nets were in place they found entire rows denuded of grapes. Puzzled as to the cause they kept a watch on the vines only to discover it was a pack of Javelina. Black bears even take down the vines, but are not so easy to chase off. And you thought your job was hard.

The Arizona Stronghold 2008 “Dayden” is identified as Arizona Pink Wine and is made with selected classic red varietals and fermented like a white wine. It is one of the best examples of a French-styled Rosé I’ve tasted. My wife Barbara has a passion for such wines and I was lucky enough to get one of the last bottles of this vintage. Her look of delight told me I’d done well. Don’t be put off by the “pink” label, this is no blush wine, it has structure, depth and vibrancy. The only blush might be the color it puts in your cheeks.

Later in the week we had a lobster dinner at a local Sedona restaurant and selected a bottle of the Arizona Stronghold 2008 Tazi, named after the eldest son of Cochise, who led a peace delegation to Washington. Tazi is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Malvasia Bianca, and I can only describe the pairing as “heavenly”. Typically I’d select a Burgundian Chardonnay to stand up to the lobster, but this was an even better choice.

The Page Springs label also yielded many wines of surprise and delight. The 2008 Page Springs ECIPS (spice spelled backwards) is all about spice. If you don't believe me, hold the label up to a mirror. Spice, right? A blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Pfeffer and Counoise, it evokes an entire spice rack of nose and palate accents. Cabernet Pfeffer is a hybrid created by Dr. Pfeffer that is aromatic and spice-laden, and is an inspired choice in this blend.

These are wines well worth seeking out. Also check out Eric and Maynard’s new movie documenting the evolution of their winemaking team in Arizona. Blood into Wine premiers at the Albuquerque Guild cinema, March 13. It rocks, which is only apropos for a rock star. Salut!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Wine and Chocolate: Heavenly Pairings

Chocolates are gifts for all seasons, but most especially on Valentine’s Day, particularly those heart-shaped boxes. In fact there’d be a worldwide recession among chocolatiers if it wasn’t for Valentine’s Day. But now that box of chocolates that mimics life according to Forrest Gump, and been hanging around since last Sunday, needs a little help. That’s where the wine comes in.

Pairing wine and chocolate
Who was the first to pair wine and chocolate? If we consider the history of that beloved confection, we only have to go back to the 19th century. In 1828, Dutch chemist Conrad Van Houten was the first to press cocoa butter from chocolate liquor which led to the creation of cocoa powder. Twenty years later he combined cocoa butter and sugar to chocolate liquor, and chocolate as we know it had arrived.

It couldn’t have been too long after that date that some wine lover paired the two, but it’s only been in the last few decades that the wine industry has discovered the wonderful leverage of offering chocolate with their wines in tasting rooms. Here’s a word of warning; most full-bodied and many medium-bodied red wines will pair with chocolate like symbiotic twins, but that doesn’t help evaluate the wine, and may prop up some weak performers.

The astringency and sweetness of many chocolates will also impact the palate, making further sampling difficult. If it's the last tasting of the day, though, I'd go for it. Otherwise, save these pairings for home. After all, you have to get through that box somehow, so why not make a game out of it. Set up a pairing party and invite your friends to bring their favorite wine. You only have to provide the chocolate. There’s a good chance that even the “bad” pairings will be good.

The Chocolate Continuum
Just as most wines have their own unique flavor profile, so do chocolates. The percentage of cacao, the amount of milk, if any, and other additives shape the flavor and also influence the pairings. In New Mexico, with our passion for all things pepper-based, we get a potent hit from indulging in chile-infused truffles.

The texture of the candy is analogous to mouth feel in wine, except more sensual. The visual appeal is another factor in judging the pairing, as is the attack, mid-palate and finish of the candy. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. One advantage of chocolates: you don’t have to swirl to pick up the heady aroma of Belguim dark chocolate.

Here is where one challenge comes in; how do you deal with the other ingredients? Caramel, fruit fillings, coconut, nuts of every type all add their own spin to the mix. What wine goes best with caramel, for example? And does temperature play a role as it does with wine? Do you need to get that sticky stuff off your teeth before indulging in another pairing?

Does raspberry filling affect a wine that exudes blackberry notes? Will the coconut flavors imparted by the oak aging of wine pair well or badly with its counterpoint in the box? How many pairings can you indulge before your palate screams; enough!

Wines for Chocolate
You probably thought this would all be so easy. Actually it is far more complex than even I thought. If you don’t think so, check here and here for fascinating information and charts from The Nibble website. The site defines many terms used to describe chocolate, some also being analogous to wine. The origin of the cacao beans, how the beans are prepared, and the percentage of cacao used in each chocolate, factor in the taste. And that’s even before we add the fillings. So many variables suggest at least a perusal of The Nibble pairing chart, which is very extensive and illuminating.

The wine choices they recommend include most red wines, some white wines, liqueurs, ports, Sherries, and other fortified wines, late harvest and dessert wines, cognac/Armagnac, and whiskey. These are paired to everything from bittersweet (70% cacao) chocolates to white chocolate, and various filled chocolates and truffles.

The only thing I can add to the list is late harvest Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, which are definitely in the minority to late harvest Zinfandel, but softer and mellower. I’d suggest trying them with a wide variety of chocolates. Wine and cheese and wine and chocolate are naturals, but still require proper matching to bring out the best in both. And did I mention the health benefits of both wine and chocolate? What are you waiting for? Salut!