Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving Wines

Regardless of how you celebrate Thanksgiving, one thing is certain: the Thanksgiving meal is all over the place. Sweet and savory, lean and rich, spicy and neutral, soft and crunchy, even hot and cold all find a place at the Thanksgiving table.
Oregon's 2012 vintage offers ripe and delicious Pinot Noir such as this beauty from Ken Wright 

With all those flavors, it’s no surprise that hosts and wine-toting guests find themselves in a pickle when it comes to choosing the best Thanksgiving wine.

To make your wine selection easier this year, keep a few of these ideas in mind.

If you’re serving one wine, make it a rosé. For all-around food-friendliness, it’s tough to beat rosé. Pinks, whether sparkling or still, will sing with turkey, savory stuffing and many of the Thanksgiving sides – except for Grandma’s sweet potato casserole. Skip the very dry and lighter Provençal styles and look for a lustier, heftier version such as rosés made from Malbec, Pinot Noir, Montepulciano or other non-traditional red grapes.

Add some sparkle to your table. Consider starting with a bubbly that’s just slightly sweet and refreshing such as Prosecco. If many of your dishes have a fruit base, consider floral and fruity Moscato d’Asti. Red sparklers such as Lambrusco or Brachetto d’Acqui make terrific Thanksgiving wines that are practically guaranteed to make your celebration a bit more festive and special.

Cover your bases: serve two types of wine. It’s practically unfair to expect a single wine to work with all the flavors and textures of Thanksgiving. Besides, some of your guests might be full-blooded white or red wine drinkers who will want to drink their favorite color no matter what. Give your guests the choice.

These simple rules will guide you to wines that will reward your inner sommelier:

  • Lower alcohol wins. Not only will you help keep your guests from getting tipsy, but lower alcohol wines also offer better balance with the heaviness and sheer quantity of holiday foods.
  • Serve palate refreshers. Higher acids wines will keep the palate refreshed for multiple courses, especially with richer foods. 
  • Slightly sweet works. Off-dry whites or sparklers can work well with a variety of foods, from savory to spicy to somewhat sweet. With reds, look for fruitier wines or try some of the new slightly sweet reds and red blends.
  • Nix the tannin and oak. Big and oaky wines will fill your belly faster than that third helping of stuffing. Tannic wines won’t work with lean turkey and most of the holiday sides – save these for the December holiday roasts.

Here’s my list of wines or styles that have a better chance of working with all the trappings of Thanksgiving, with my favorites in bold:

Sparklers: Rosé, Prosecco, Vouvray, Lambrusco, Moscato d’Asti, Brachetto d’Acqui

Pinks: Rosé, still or sparkling

Whites: Chenin Blanc/Vouvray, Pinot Gris (Oregon or Alsace), Riesling (off-dry)

Reds: Pinot Noir (New World), Beaujolais, Valpolicella

Whichever wine you end up serving, resist the temptation to bust out that monster Cab, killer Zin or awesome Amarone. Pop those corks at next month's holiday celebration.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

New Wine Class: What's My Wine?

If you’ve ever left a blind tasting feeling totally clueless about wine, here’s your chance to fine-tune your wine savvy.

Join me at 6 pm this Thursday, October 30th at Cooking with Class for our first wine class of the season and leave cluelessness behind for good. The new series, dubbed The Tasting Room, begins with What’s My Wine?

Your guided wine adventure begins with a series of wines that you will taste blind. With each wine, as you develop a simple, logical system for tasting wine, you’ll learn how to tease out the clues to that wine’s identity.

Starting with the wine’s color, nose and body, you’ll move on to the more nuanced flavors and other taste sensations on the palate and finish. With a little practice, you’ll be ready to assemble the pieces of the puzzle.

By the time we taste the last wine, you'll be ready to surprise yourself by zeroing in on that wine’s identity.

So why bother, as Bette Midler would say? By creating a tasting routine that helps you read the grape leaves, you’ll find it easier to pick out the types of wine that you’re bound to enjoy the next time you stare down a wine list or tour the wine aisles of your favorite wine shop. What’s My Wine? also aims to help you understand the crazy world of wine styles and how to find the variations that suit your tastes – or not.

Another goal for this class is to build your confidence in choosing wines that will pair with your dishes and vice versa.

Light snacks will be served so you’ll have room for dinner afterwards, if not the opportunity to spread your new wine wings. If you haven’t experienced Chef Andie’s creations at Cork & Fork, head next door after the tasting. Reservations are strongly suggested, and are practically a necessity in the busier months: 760.777.7555

Make your way to The Tasting Room and discover a new level of pleasure, comfort and confidence with wine this season. Call Jane at 760.777.1161 to reserve your spot or book the class online. If you can’t make the October class, next month’s class with another set of wines will begin at 5:30 PM on Friday, November 21.

See you then!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Autumn Rosés Are Just Right

Walk into a wine shop this time of year and you’ll find boxes of pale rosés front and center, emblazoned by stickers enticing you with steep discounts. Their pleading shelf-talkers seem to say ‘Please, buy me now, before it’s too late!” The yearly early fall rosé giveaway can be so blatant that customers making their way to the Rombauer and Prisoner might wonder what’s up (or wrong) with all that rosé.

Nothing at all, it turns out. The kids are back in school, summer tans are starting to fade and the working world has gone back to firing on all cylinders. But must we give up on rosé, the ultimate symbol of summer indulgence and chill?

Heck no! Stretch your summer spirit into fall with satisfying rosés that are sturdy enough to make the transition into the cooler months and beyond. We’re talking dark and yes, meaty rosés. They do exist – and they are delicious. And they are most definitely dry, not sweet.

While summer rosé styles work great with lighter summer fare, even barbeque, darker rosés saddle up to savory fall dishes and even winter’s comfort foods.

So what are these darker fall rosés? One is Italy’s cerasuolo, a rosé that’s often translated as ‘cherry red’ or ‘cherry-based,’ pronounced chair-a-SWO-low.

Rosé wines labeled ‘Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo’ come from mid-southern Italy’s Adriatic coastal province of Abruzzo. Despite limited skin contact time, these cerasuolo rosés are darker than your typical rosé. They also have a different flavor profile and it’s that difference that makes cerasuolo rosés so perfect for fall fare.

Cerasuolo rosés get their more intense reddish color from skin contact of the juice of crushed grapes that give up their color (and yes, tannins) more readily than other grapes. Count among these Montepulciano (the grape, not the region) and similarly styled rosés made from Malbec, Bobal and Cabernet sauvignon, among others.

The flavors and heft of these fall rosés differ from the watermelon-red cherry-raspberry-strawberry profile you might expect from summer rosés. Instead, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo wines are brooding rosés. They’re chock-a-block with darker red fruit flavors, moderate acidity and more pronounced earthiness with a bit of a bite on the finish from the tannins you might expect from their Montepulciano or other assertive grape origins.

And, because any talk of Italian wine has to be confusing, know that Sicily’s only DOCG (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita) wine is Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Not a rosé at all, this is a red wine made from Sicily’s Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes.

So before you swear off rosés until the spring of 2015 or later, try a cerasuolo d’Abruzzo or a rosé of Cabernet before casting off the pleasures of rosé for half a year.

The Vallevò pictured is a charming Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo made from the indigenous Montepulciano grape (not to be confused with the Tuscan town of the same name and the Tuscan wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, made from Sangiovese). Medium-red in the glass and with herb-inflected, black cherry aromas, it is earthier and more rustic than your typical rosé. This is a wine that is burly enough to stand up to heartier pasta dishes and meaty fishes, not to mention Pinot-friendly meats such as pork and lighter stews and burgers.

Vegetarians and vegans will also enjoy cerasuolo and heartier rosés with more complex plant-based dishes, especially those kissed by a touch of umami such as mushroom dishes or vegetables set off by soy-based dressings.

Find the Vallevò Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo for only $6.25 (and ridiculously, even less if you are a wine club member, which we definitely recommend) at 3rd Corner WineShop and Bistro in Palm Desert and other San Diego area locations.

Dan’s Wine Shop, also in Palm Desert, often has South Africa’s Mulderbosch rosé of Cabernet sauvignon in stock, which we also offer seasonally at Cooking with Class. Check out Costco too, for Susana Balbo’s rosé of Malbec from Argentina or seek out a rosé of Bobal from Spain at budget prices at Trader Joe’s – they’re guaranteed to up-end your ideas about light and ethereal rosés. LA Wine Company offers a great selection of many types of rosés, including rosés from producers you probably know from their better-known reds and red blends.

This fall, give one of these meaty rosés a swirl. With each sip, you’ll keep your sweet summer memories alive, even as you flip on that oven to herald the arrival of autumn.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio: Still The One

Once again, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio has snagged the number one spot as the top selling luxury wine brand in the United States. In the latest report by Wines Vines Analytics, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio smoked the competition among wines that are priced at $20 per bottle or more. Sales for Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio topped $36.5 million, nearly double that of Decoy, the #2 wine brand made by Duckhorn. California’s giant Central Coast region only registered a single luxury top seller with Justin (at #8). All the other 18 brands were from Napa or Sonoma counties.

The wine sales figures tracked the 12 months prior to June 1, 2014 and represented off-premise sales, that is, sales of wine that are not meant to be consumed on-site, such as purchases made at grocery and retail outlets, including wine shops. Restaurant and bar sales were not included.

The story of Santa Margherita’s success is itself remarkable. Virtually unknown to American consumers until 1979, the stateside success of Pinot Grigio in general – and Santa Margherita in particular – has been ascribed to one man, the maverick wine importer and vintner, Anthony (Tony) Terlato.

On a trip to Italy to discover the next great thing in wine, Terlato tasted a Pinot Grigio in a Milan hotel that rang his bell. Terlato did his homework, ditched his other plans and drove to Alto Adige, the country’s premier winegrowing region for Pinot Grigio. There, in Italy’s northernmost wine region at the southern border of Austria, as he dined alone in a Portoguaro restaurant, Terlato ordered all 18 Pinot Grigios on the wine list.

Terlato was soon joined by the restaurant’s proprietor and together, the two men tasted through the 18 wines and considered how they paired with different foods. The winner: Santa Margherita.

When Terlato learned that his new tasting partner knew the Santa Margherita winery owner, he struck out to meet the company president the very next day, and inked a deal to be Santa Margherita’s sole importer by evening. (Read about this amazing man’s life and career in his 2008 book, Taste: A Life in Wine.)

The first vintage to hit American shores and stores was the 1979. By 1999, 530,000 cases of Pinot Grigio/Gris were sold in US supermarkets alone, which grew to nearly three-quarters of a million cases by the next year, a 40% increase. By 2009, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio had been voted the top imported wine of any color in fine restaurants for the 14th year in a row by Wines & Vines.

The secret to the enduring success of Santa Margherita might have seemed obvious to Tony Terlato at first sip in Portoguaro. As with Santa Margherita’s version, a well-made Pinot Grigio is light on its feet, refreshing, and food-friendly. Good Pinot Grigio has delicate aromatics and bright acidity, delivering clean, minerality and fruity flavors on the palate that can range from crisp golden apple to citrus, stone and more delicate tropical fruits. Some versions offer a taste of honey, herbs, quince or pear. The best are energetic and happy wines, never brooding or boring.

Both versions of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio are raised in stainless steel to preserve freshness. The Santa Margherita Alto Adige is more perfumed and complex with delicate spice notes. As might be suspected, the Alto Adige bottling is pricier than the more widely distributed Valdadige (available for about $16 at Costco and Total Wine, among others). Both are highly recommended.

If you find yourself pining for Pinot Grigio as your go-to wine, you’re in luck. Costco's Kirkland Signature 2013 Pinot Grigio from Italy’s northeasternmost Friuli region is a lip-smacking quaffer. For about $7, you can enjoy this refreshing, minerally white with tasty citrus and peach flavors – and it’s a screwcap. Even better, it clocks in at only 12.5% alcohol. Now that's amore

Summer is the perfect time to explore Italian Pinot Grigio. Like other Italian wines – and Italian white wines in particular – Italian Pinot Grigio goes swimmingly with food. Shellfish and other lighter fish and fish dishes are natural partners, as are salads, vegetables, rice, pasta and most lighter dishes that can be brightened by a squirt of lemon. Think pasta frutta di mare, halibut, seafood risotto, calamari or sushi. Sara Moulton shares a great recipe for creamy clam open ravioli to go with Santa Margherita’s Pinot Grigio.

In another post, we’ll look at Pinot Gris from Oregon, Alsace and other winegrowing regions. Like Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Gris represents the same grape variety as Pinot Grigio but oh, what a difference the terroir makes.

Let us know about any Pinot Grigios you’ve enjoyed lately in the comments.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

La Rioja Wine Touring: CUNE

Nothing quite prepares you for wine touring in northern Spain’s La Rioja region. Not years of winery hopping all along California and the Pacific Northwest to Mendoza, Argentina. Not even Italy and France, which have their share of winemaking quirkiness and peculiar centuries-old traditions that somehow culminate in heavenly juice.

Old wine bottles in the cellars of CUNE winery in La Rioja, Spain.

La Rioja is where mildew and modernism co-exist. By morning, visitors can course through the city of Laguardia’s old and musty labyrinthine underground tunnels and cellars and segue to a spectacular lunch that afternoon at a futuristic architectural wonder and Michelin-starred winery restaurant that is as modern as modern gets.
The City of Wine Marqués de Riscál in Elciego, Spain designed by Frank Gehry includes the winery, a luxury hotel and two award-winning restaurants.

The Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, better known stateside as CUNE, is a fifth-generation winery in the heart of Rioja Alta that has fine-tuned the balance between the old world and the new. Founded in 1879 by the two Real de Azúa brothers, the winery is situated at the old train station that connected historic Haro, the first town in Spain to have electricity, to Bordeaux. The French connection revolutionized Spanish winemaking at the end of the 19th century when Bordelais winemakers, seeking new winegrowing terrain following the decimation of their vineyards by Phylloxera, were welcomed by the Spanish with whom they shared new winemaking techniques and expertise, especially regarding oak aging.

The CUNE winery includes a barrel room designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel that lacks traditional columns to support the roof, thus providing an open design that allows for more efficient and easier barrel movement and management.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel’s cellar at CUNE winery in Haro, La Rioja, Spain.

Today’s CUNE red wines include a Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, aged at least 3, 4 and 5 years total, respectively, which occurs both in barrel and bottle according to the regulations for this DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada, Spain’s highest quality designation). Red wines are exclusively made from Tempranillo, Garnacha (red Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo, also known as Carignan. The CUNE rosé, called rosado in Spain, is made from 100% Garnacha.

Monopole is CUNE’s white wine, made mostly with Viura (Macabeo) and small amounts of floral Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca (white Grenache). Produced since 1915, Monopole is Spain’s oldest white wine brand. Its freshness and versatility with food have made Monopole a popular wine choice at both our Cooking with Class wine pairing dinners and at the school’s sister restaurant, Cork & Fork.  

The Imperial label is a CUNE classic that is made only when the vintage is declared as exceptional. Made only as Reserva and Gran Reserva wines and aged in new French and American oak, Imperial is now more highly sought after than ever since the 2004 Gran Reserva was named the 2013 Wine Spectator top wine of the year.

At a recent tasting at the winery, a group of us chipped in for a bottle of the 2007 Imperial Gran Reserva. With its spicy black cherry fruit, the wine demonstrated Tempranillo’s classic age-worthy and food-friendly acidity with notes of tobacco and leather. At 13.5% alcohol, the wine showed impeccable balance and was a special, savory treat to share with new friends.

The 2007 vintage was ranked as muy buena (very good) in La Rioja – we agreed.  

Since 1994, CUNE also makes Real de Asúa, a tribute to the winery’s founding brothers. Made from 100% hand-picked Tempranillo, Real de Asúa is fermented in small oak casks and aged in French oak barrels.

Other CUNE labels are Viña Real, Pagos de Viña Real and Viñedos del Contino, all from Rioja Alavesa. The Vina Real winery near Logroño, inaugurated in 2004 by King of Spain Juan Carlos I, is considered one of the most modern in Spain. In contrast, Viñedos del Contino is situated in a 14th-century manor, the first château-style design in La Rioja, along with some of the oldest indigenous Graciano vines.

When conditions are right for the development of Botrytis, CUNE also produces a small amount of Corona, a semi-sweet wine.

Now that more people are familiar with CUNE and Imperial, remember that in vintage years that are considered good but not exceptional, the grapes that would have gone into the Imperial Reserva and Gran Reserva bottlings are used instead to make the CUNE Crianza, which we proudly serve at Cooking with Class and Cork & Fork. Those wines might be some of the best values from La Rioja.

Stay tuned for more Spanish wine and travel tips coming soon. We’re also cooking up some new surprises for you at our next Cooking with Class food and wine pairing dinner on Sunday, May 25th at 6 pm – hope to see you there.