Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holiday Gifts for Wine Lovers

Giving the gift of a bottle of wine to a wine lover can be tricky business. After all, wine aficionados have a reputation for being fussy about wines they like. Never mind that their taste in wine may fall outside your budget. Unless you're a wine geek yourself, there's also a good chance you might miss the mark on a wine they'll really enjoy. And good luck finding a winner they haven't already tasted.

For a different, yet sure-fire way to please a wine lover, give the gift of wine smarts. Wine lovers are a thirsty bunch – and their thirst for wine savvy extends to non-liquid forms, too. That's where these gift ideas come in.
The first of this two-part post presents wine books to thrill the wine lovers on your list. Later this week in Part 2, I'll cover magazine, online and mobile wine treasures, as well as wine toys and tools that really work.

The reading and reference picks below are updated from a resource list I've given out at Wine Essentials, a series of wine education classes at Cooking with Class in La Quinta. Because everyone learns differently, try to pick a format your wine-loving friend will find appealing. All gift ideas here are easy to find locally or order online. Best of all, most won't set you back more than the cost of a good bottle. Happy Holidays!

For the List Lover – Guides and Reviews

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2012
This slim, annual reference by a legendary British wine expert tackles grape varieties, vintage reports, major brands, food-pairing suggestions and hundreds of wines listed by country.

A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks 
By George M. Taber (2011)
A chewy list of splurges, favorites and best buys by country, brands, wine styles and varietals. The first half of the book tells the stories of winemakers who are rattling the vines to create value and drive wine-drinking trends. To take in a remarkable piece of American wine history, pick up Taber's Judgment of Paris, too.

1,000 Great Everyday Wines From the World's Best Wineries
Jim Gordon, Editor-in-Chief
New in 2011, this expert-led hardback serves up wines by world regions with handy tips from reading wine labels to storage and serving. While some prices may not fall into what you consider everyday drinking, the producers and wines in this book are definitely worth seeking out, for budget-seekers and special occasions.

Wine Library Must-Haves

The New Wine Lover's Companion 
By Ron Herbst
The latest 2010 edition is a wine dictionary of sorts, with more than 4,000 entries that cover terms, varietals, techniques, regions, styles and much more. Concise and helpful appendices with tips on glassware, pronunciation, lots more. 

Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course (25th anniversary edition 2010) and Kevin Zraly’s Complete Wine Course (2011)
Region-by-region wine smarts and geography made easy by a straight-talking wine educator. The 2011 edition has smart phone tags to his videos.

Wine Style: Using Your Senses to Explore and Enjoy Wine 
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan & Ed McCarthy (2005)
By presenting wines in four basic styles of reds and whites, plus two each for rosés and sparklers, the authors offer an interesting approach to understanding your wine palate. Best suited for experienced tasters, or advanced beginners looking to learn more.

Grapes and Wines: A Comprehensive Guide to Varieties and Flavours 
By Oz Clarke (2010)
With the author's distinctive charm, this book lists more than 300 grape varieties in an A-to-Z format with pictures, maps and more. The new edition describes Old vs. New World styles, aging capacity and beyond.

Dummies and Idiot’s Guides

California Wine for Dummies 
By Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan (2009)
Straight talk from Wine Style authors with essential knowledge, maps, AVAs, wine travel tips, history and tips, tips, tips galore. Not to be pooh-poohed, these books are great stepping stones for friends who are just starting to get into wine. Also useful for those who are already into wine, but could use a compass on their wine journey.

Wine All-in-One for Dummies by Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Maryann Egan (2009)
Includes Wine for Dummies (2006), French Wine For Dummies, Italian Wine for Dummies (2001), California Wine for Dummies (2009) and Australian and New Zealand Wine for Dummies. The 2010 mini-edition of Wine for Dummies available on Kindle.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine Basics 
By Tara Q. Thomas (2008)
Another great overview of wine with helpful bullets on “the least you need to know.”

For the Food-and-Wine Lovers

Perfect Pairings: A Master Sommelier’s Practical Advice for Partnering Wine with Food
By Evan Goldstein, recipes by Joyce Goldstein (2006)
Much more than its subtitle, this treasure includes essential information on major red and white grapes, sparkling and dessert wines, recommended producers and glossary – a goldmine of useful information with awesome recipes by Evan's mom, the groundbreaking chef-creator of San Francisco's Square One.

Daring Pairings: A Master Sommelier Matches Distinctive Wines With Recipes From His Favorite Chefs
By Evan Goldstein (2010)
Evan tackles 36 grapes with pairing recipes by 36 top chefs, including Suzanne Goin, Philippe Jeanty and Cindy Pawlcyn. There's also a review of concepts introduced in his first book, tips on shopping for wine and an at-a-glance table that summarizes wine styles by varietal. Both books are go-to resources to use over and over again.

The Food Lover's Guide to Wine 
By Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg
Heavy with tips and comments from master chefs and sommeliers, this duo's latest (2011) book is a one-stop resource for pairing wines with food. Easy-to-use quick lists and timelines make learning about wine fun and provocative. From the authors of What To Drink With What You Eat, another must-have favorite.

For Wine-Loving Men

Swallow This: The Progressive Approach to Wine 
By Mark Phillips
Not for everyone, this humorous guide to wines was written by an iconoclast with a knack for explaining wine and wine concepts in plain English. Big on silliness and fueled by testosterone, but also practical.

Coming later this week in Part 2: Magazines, Online and Mobile for Wine Lovers, plus Wine Toys and Tools That Really Work

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Holiday Sparkler from Argentina

Party planners have bubbles on the brain this time of year. Do you splurge for Champagne or go with a domestic sparkling wine? How much should you spend? What should you serve? And of course, how do you open that pressurized bottle without making a mess or unleashing a cork missile?
We uncorked last week's food and wine tasting dinner at Cooking with Class with an Argentine sparkler that's sure to jazz up your holiday get-together – Spirit of the Andes. Made by Tapiz, a winery owned by former nephrologist Patricia Ortiz, Spirit is a sparkling wine made from the Torrontés grape. Although Argentina's Torrontés was once believed related to a grape from Spain's Galicia that goes by the same name, genetic studies indicate that the desirable Torrontés riojano variant or cultivar represents a cross between the pink-skinned Criolla chica (Mission) grape and Muscat of Alexandria. It is this Muscat parentage that gives Torrontés its captivating perfumy aromas.  

Winemaker Fabian Valenzuela follows the traditional or champenoise method used in Champagne to make Spirit. At an average vineyard elevation of 3,000 feet, sustainably farmed grapes ripen in high-altitude sun while cool Andean nights allow grapes to retain their essential acidity. Hand-harvested fruit is first stainless-steel tank-fermented and made into a still wine. Once clarified, the wine is bottled and liqueur tirage, a combination of sugar dissolved in wine plus yeast, is added to kick off second-fermentation fizzes. Next, the wine rests on its lees, or spent yeast for 12 months, after which bottles are turned or tilted to funnel sediment in the neck. To finish the process, the temporary crown cap is released, sediment is disgorged and a small amount of extra brut dosage is added – a fudge factor of sweet wine that the winemaker adds to adjust the wine to its final desirable profile. The bottle is immediately sealed with a natural cork and wire muzzle.

Ah, that nerve-racking muzzle. One tip for safely opening a sparkler under pressure is to use a folded dish towel the entire time you handle the bottle. Find a sturdy surface and an area where an errant cork won't cause any damage. Sandwich the towel between your firm hand and the top of the wire cage. Keep gentle downward pressure with the towel hand as you untwist the cage. Now, still holding firm downward pressure with your towel hand, slowly twist the bottle while keeping your towel hand steady. As you feel the cork begin to emerge, be sure you have control over the cork end with your toweled hand. Control your slow twist on the bottle until you feel the cork pop into your toweled hand. If executed gently and properly, you should have total control of the cork and little, if any, spillage. Voilà, you're a pro!

In the glass, Spirit sends up delicate, white flower aromas with sweet nectarine and honeysuckle on the palate. Bubbles are persistent, as is the finish, all crisp, clean and utterly delightful. The barely perceptible sweetness is balanced by lively acidity, a combination that makes Spirit a worthy choice as an aperitif or with lighter first courses.

Chef Andie Hubka served a grilled radicchio salad with applewood-smoked bacon, Rogue River blue cheese, scallions, grapes and a drizzle of cactus honey. The salad's sweet notes played off the sparkler's tropical fruit basket flavors while the wine's acidity handled the creamy Rogue blue with finesse.

If holiday bubbles have you bemused, give this southern hemi sparkler a pop. At about $20 at Cooking with Class, Spirit of the Andes Sparkling Torrontés will turn your occasion into a celebration in no time. And if you're curious to learn more about the many different types of sparkling wines from around the world, catch some New Year's cheer at this month's wine essentials class on sparkling wines Thursday, December 29 at 6 PM. Sign up here, or call the school at 760.777.1161. Cin-cin!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The French Paradox, 20 Years Later

Call it preaching to the choir if you want, but a few days of scientific presentations earlier this month at the 6th International Wine and Heart Health Summit confirmed the belief that there are many health benefits associated with a glass of wine at dinner, at least for this attendee.
Dubbed the French Paradox two decades ago by Serge Renaud, famed researcher at the University of Bordeaux, the phrase refers to the strikingly decreased rate of heart attacks and deaths due to heart disease among the French, despite a diet rich in saturated fats, cheeses and assorted high-calorie treats.

CBS correspondent Morley Safer concluded a 60 Minutes broadcast on November 17, 1991 that investigated what might account for the paradox by posing a question: Could the answer be found in the propensity of the French to wash down fat-laden meals with a glass of red wine? The broadcast sent shock waves through the research community as well as the lay public, causing red wine sales in the United States to jump by nearly 40%, and ushering in an era of increased red wine consumption among Americans.

This year's Wine Summit brought together some of the most prominent researchers in this active field. Held at the magnificent Allison Inn & Spa in Willamette Valley, Oregon, the panelists included Arthur Klatsky, MD, and Curtis Ellison, MD (featured in the original 1991 broadcast), as well as young researchers currently investigating other ways in which wine may enhance our ability to combat or stem other diseases from periodontal disorders to dementia. Ralph Brindis, MD, President of the American College of Cardiology also examined historical and political issues surrounding alcohol use and abuse.

Presentations covered a lot of ground. Winemaker David Adelsheim traced the brief, yet red-hot trajectory of Oregon winemaking while Wine Spectator and Oregonian columnist Matt Kramer shared his take on finding wine values. Event host Donald Olson, MD of Torii Mor Winery moderated a spirited panel discussion among Oregon winemakers that included founders from Bergstrom, Ken Wright Cellars (with single-vineyard soil specialist Ken Wright himself), and Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards. Bernau told an intriguing story about how he was about to get the US Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) to allow WVV to include resveratrol content of Pinot Noir on their wine labels.

In the two decades since the broadcast, studies have pointed to a range of health benefits associated with not only moderate amounts of wine but also moderate intake of other alcoholic beverages. In case you were wondering, moderate consumption, as defined by the USDA 2010 dietary guidelines for people who choose to drink, means one 5-ounce glass of wine at 12% alcohol daily for women (or two 5-ounce glasses for men) or 12 ounces of regular beer or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

While this story is still being written, we're placing bets on a healthy lifestyle that includes wine to come out on top. You don’t just have to take our word for it. Here's a look at FAQs from the Centers for Disease Control that answer a few more questions you may have. This link will take you to a recent CDC report that notes how certain low-risk behaviors – never having smoked, following a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity and moderate consumption of alcohol – can help you live a longer, healthier life. Salute!

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Rosé for Rosé-Haters

Girlie rosés, move over. The new gal in town hails from Crios, the second label from Argentine winemaker Susana Balbo. The Crios line includes a lovely Torrontés, an easy-drinking Chardonnay and three approachable reds: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah-Bonarda blend. 

The trio of handprints on the label represent Balbo and her two offspring, or crios. 

Then there's the Crios 2010 Rosé of Malbec, perhaps the gutsiest wine in the lineup − and certainly the most fun. Balbo uses the saignée method to bleed off the first-pressed juice from old-vine Malbec grapes. The result is a darker, richer rosé with spiced black raspberry and wild strawberry flavors that stomp the palate to take note of its surprising complexity, like an exuberant child showing off new tricks on the trampoline.

Crios shows a burly edge that sets it apart from delicate Old World rosés. At 13.9% alcohol content, it's easily a fuller-bodied rosé any red wine lover can embrace. In-your-face flavors and aromas are sure to win over a few rosé-haters and seduce wine enthusiasts who haven't yet been dazzled by rosé's singular charms.

Screwcapped and priced around $10 at Dan's Wine Shop in Palm Desert, it's a no-brainer to have on hand any time of year, and a wine we look forward to snapping up every vintage.

If you're already thinking turkey day, look no further. Broad-shouldered and juicy with a spice-packed palate, Crios makes a terrific Thanksgiving wine. It's a crowd-pleaser that can sail through the entire meal, from earthy first courses through to turkey and the trimmings. Give it a good chill and let the party begin.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

White Wine Essentials

Last week's White Wine Essentials guided tasting was the first in our new wine education series, Wine Essentials at Cooking with Class. The sellout group of wine-curious attendees tasted their way through the three top-selling varietal wines in the country: Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
By tasting two wines styles or expressions of each grape, the group was able to pick out what made the two wines smell, taste and feel different by harnessing their senses in a more focused way. Tasting the two styles side-by-side helped each person better understand their own wine palate and discover which style they preferred − and why.

Each taster received a complete tasting sheet that described the wine's scents, tastes, style, food pairings, alcohol content and region. They also learned about each winery and were given ideas for other types of wines they might like if they enjoyed that particular style of wine. Surprise giveaways were awarded to those whose questions or comments heightened everyone's wine appreciation.

The fun continues at Red Wine Essentials at 6 PM on Thursday, November 17 and again with Sparkling Wine Essentials during the holiday week on Thursday, December 28. Sign up online or by calling Jane at 760.777.1161 as seats as going fast. All sessions are independent and open to all levels of wine enthusiasts. Whether you're new to wine or an experienced taster, you'll learn more about your palate in a way that will broaden and deepen your wine enjoyment for years to come. 

The six wines we tasted at White Wine Essentials are given below. All are available at Cooking with Class or can be ordered for you to pick up. Together, they beautifully demonstrate stylistic variations that make wine tasting a constant challenge and a thrill:

Pinot Grigio
Vigneti Pittaro, 2009 (Friuli, Italy) and Montinore Estate 2009 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

Sauvignon Blanc
Spy Valley 2010 (Marlborough, New Zealand) and Cannonball 2010 (Sonoma County, California)

Los Vascos 2010 (Colchagua Valley, Chile) and Samantha Starr 2008 (Monterey County, California)

For those of you who want the complete food- and wine-pairing experience, our next Food & Wine Tasting dinner at Cooking with Class in on Friday, October 28 and next month on November 11 at 6:30 PM. We'll feature two whites and two reds with four exciting dishes paired to perfection and created by Chef Andie and her talented crew, plus a special dessert.

See you soon!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Get Fresh with Barbera

Who doesn't want fresh? Just-picked, farm-to-fork and catch-of-the-day freshness are easily understood when used to describe produce, eggs or the local fish catch. But freshness also applies to wine, despite being bottled and aged. For wine, as with food, fresh is the ultimate compliment.
Say fresh to describe a white or pink wine to a wine lover and their mental switchboard lights up with sensory images. Fresh may conjure a racy, kiwi-scented Sauvignon Blanc or a watermelon-cool rosé that rouses the palate with waves of pure, clean flavor. Another might recall the ripe peach perfume pops from a frizzante Moscato d'Asti or a blast of sea salt in a sip of Muscadet.

So does freshness also come in red? It sure does, and it's a quality to seek out and appreciate in warmer weather.  

To this taster, fresh flavors in red wines are vibrant, pure and focused. A fresh-tasting Syrah unfurls berry-licious flavors seasoned by exotic perfumes that waft from a juicy basketful, plucked at the height of season. While a more developed Syrah may show a more nuanced berry profile, perhaps with aromas and tastes that recall a favorite aunt's fresh-baked pie, fruity freshness remains its calling card.   

Pinot Noir is known for fresh flavors of bright red or dark cherry fruit. Even when layered by mushroomy notes or floral aromatics, Pinot's energetic red fruits dance across the palate with vigor, sending out a wake-up call that has us smacking, sniffing and coming back for more.    

Italian Barbera is another fresh red wine with flavor traction worthy of more than just a summer fling.  Bright red cherry flavors streaked with clean minerality unleash a flavor-burst that not only satisfies the senses but also leaves the palate primed for another savory sip.  Despite 14% alcohol, the 2008 Vietti Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne retains its muscular vitality. With a scent of earth after a sun-shower, the wine shows dimension that pairs well with grilled ahi tuna topped by a barely cooked sauce of chopped ripe tomatoes and black olives. Nearly raw, freshand gone.

More often than not, fresh-tasting notes shine brighter in wines that are lighter in oak, higher in acidity and lower in tannin and alcohol. These wines tend to feel more angular than round in the mouth. They're not the brooding wines we so enjoy in cooler weather, nor are they the heavily extracted fruit bombs that assert their place at the table and in the cellar, too.

With hotter-than-July August around the corner, give your palate a blast of freshness in the color of your choice, at least for a few more weeks.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Summer Reds

As thermometer-busting temperatures climb day into night, it's no exaggeration to call desert summers extreme. Adding insult to injury for red wine lovers is the thought of months in white-wine-and-rosé exile. Instead, take these tips for choosing summer reds to help keep cool at the dining table or poolside get-together.

Tame the tannins
Mmm, a beautifully charred steak with a tasty, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. While that combo is a food match made in heaven in cooler weather, it's hardly so during the Hades heat of summer.
As much as beefy proteins mute Cabernet's mouth-puckering tannins, a drying mouthfeel is downright unpleasant in parched, hot weather. Save the Nebbiolo and age-worthy Cabs for autumn. Now's the time to switch gears and seek out lower-tannin reds instead. Think Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Barbera, Valpolicella, Loire Cabernet Franc, Beaujolais, fruitier Merlot, Syrah and many Côte-du-Rhône blends. Still miss your Cab? Try cooler-climate Australian Cabernets that offer bold and juicy fruit with tannins that are less harsh. The fun-loving group at last night's food-and-wine tasting at Cooking with Class enjoyed the Four Sisters Cabernet from Central Victoria. Its currant and blackberry fruit laced with a hint of mint was lip-smacking delish, with not a dry mouth in the house.
Similarly, at last month's summer wine dinner, the popular closer from half a world away was the Val de L'Ours 2008 by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). The famed house of Bordeaux purchased an abandoned estate in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of southern France in 1999, now replanted with many of the traditional Corbières grapes. This 75% Cabernet, 25% Syrah blend is vinified in traditional Bordeaux style yet approachable now, with aromas of anise, spice and dark berries and rounder tannins on the palate. Ripe flavors of plum, currants and dark cherry ride out with a peppery kick on the finish. Try this palate pleaser with steaks, barbecue, pizza and spicy pastas.

Watch the Weight
Stay ahead of the heavy, sinking feeling that comes with oppressive heat by choosing foods – and wines – that are lighter in weight, both in terms of body and alcohol content. Medium-bodied Pinot Noir does double-duty as a favorite low-tannin choice to make it ideal for a range of lighter summer food preparations. Pinot Noir goes especially well with foods that don't take well to tannins, as in lighter meats such as pork, veal and chicken, as well as most fish.

At our summer wine tasting, we served 2009 Pinot Noir by Block Nine, a winery expressly created in response to an American market pining for Pinot. The medium-bodied Pinot by this small California producer clocks in at only 13.5% alcohol. On the nose, it is fragrant with violets, strawberries and dark cherries.  Silky on the palate, the wine sends out cherry and cola flavors layered with a touch of earthiness and sandalwood. You'll want to bring on the mushroom, savory and woodsy dishes for this one, perhaps a cherry-sauced pork or fisherman's-style grilled salmon.

The Dashwood 2009 Pinot Noir savored at last night's tasting event hails from Marlborough, New Zealand, a site better known for Sauvignon Blanc and home to more than half of the country's vineyards. The Dashwood blend of Pinot lots from two Marlborough valleys is light on its feet, with bright cherry fruit, crisp minerality and gentle tannins. It made a tasty match for Chef Andie's potato-crusted salmon with pomegranate beurre rouge and 'cousotto,' her risotto-styled couscous creation with basil and goat cheese.

So go ahead and lighten up your red wine palate this summer. You won't miss the mouth-coating heaviness of fuller-bodied wines in stifling heat while you'll still enjoy a range of seductive aromas, delectable flavor profiles and the layered complexity red wine lovers adore. And, at less than $20 a bottle for these winners, you'll stay within your summer budget as well. The school's July food-and-wine tasting falls on Friday, the 22nd. See the online calendar, make your reservations or call for event information and wine availability: 760.777.1161.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Summer Wines

What makes a wine a winning partner for warm-weather foods? We tasted our way through four different answers to that $64,000 question at Friday's summer wine dinner at Cooking with Class
Turn down the heat
Choosing lower-alcohol wines is one way to keep summer heat in check. These wines don't feel as hot in the mouth as high-octane wines, a sensation you might enjoy by the fire in winter but not so much on a hot desert night. Stay cool with wines that clock in under 13 percent. If you have trouble finding lower-alcohol wines in your wine shop's domestic section, venture over to the Loire, northern Italy and Germany for more choices in the 11 to 12.5% range.

Leave oak in the forest
The fresher flavors and lighter weight of summer foods can make wines with overt oakiness seem heavy or clunky. While the toasty flavors imparted by oak can play up to the smoky flavors of barbecue and outdoor grilling, all that wood can clobber the palate. Instead, try lighter-oaked styles or blends with neutral-oak aged or unoaked lots in the mix. If you can't find clues to a wine's oak ageing on the label, ask your wine merchant. More Chardonnay producers are trumpeting their no-oak or less-oaked wines with label terms such as oak-free, unoaked, naked, virgin or references to steel or metal. Whites that are often unoaked include dry Muscat, Torrontés, Riesling, Albariño and most Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

Take a wine vacation
Summer is a perfect time to sample the un-chardonnays of the white wine world. Lighter sauces and breezier preparations call out for wines with bright acidity, fresh fruit flavors, delicate or floral aromas and a solid core of minerality. White wines from cooler climates deliver the goods. Look again to the Loire Valley of France for whites that seem made for summer salads, shellfish and lighter meats, as in Muscadet, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Gotta have red? Loire Cabernet Franc is a versatile match for picnic and warm-weather foods, including herbed vegetables and white meats, salmon and grilled ahi.

Soave from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy has made giant leaps in quality since it unleashed oceans of watery, thin wines last century. Labels that bear a classico designation on the label are good bets for elegance, lemony and mineral flavors, smooth texture and hint of almond on a clean finish. Further south, sharper Vermentino from Sardegna is a lip-smacking tart white that cries out for seafood and acid-based dressings.

Stateside, the cool northwest is producing whites that are big on value and flavor. Oregon Pinot Gris has just the right amount of weight and citrusy verve to pair well with summer vegetables, appetizers, fish, poultry and lighter meat dishes. Venture into Washington wines too – their Rieslings are getting better and better.

So what did we serve Friday? We began with Guy Saget Les Clissages d’Or 2009 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, a 100% Melon de Bourgogne lovely from the Loire. Aged on its lees for a lush, creamy texture, this Muscadet offers food-friendly refreshment with a salty tang. Adorned in les clissages d'or, the handwoven gold threading on the bottle, it was also the prettiest bottle of the night.  

For the second course, the nod went to Italy's Veneto and the Filippi 2008 Soave made from 100% Garganega. Its lemony freshness and medium body made it a lively pairing for Chef Andie's version of shrimp scampi with creamy polenta.

Next up, we'll tell you about warm-weather reds and the two that brought our summer wine dinner to a grand finale – one by a single-minded California newcomer and the other a surprising debut from southern France by a storied winemaker .

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tantalized by Torrontés

If the beauty of a wine's perfume makes you giddy, point your sniffer to Torrontés, the signature white wine of Argentina. Swirl a cool glass of Torrontés to breathe in a lei-stand of lofty scents, all tropical flowers and exotic fruits.
The 2009 Zolo pictured here made last summer's pool party all the more fun.
Ampelographers and grape geneticists have pegged the Torrontés grape as a cross between the Mission grape brought to the New World by the Spaniards and Muscat, specifically Muscat of Alexandria. Known for exotic, heady aromas of orange blossom, honeysuckle and jasmine, Muscat is perhaps the oldest wine grape used in modern wines. Versatile Muscat can be vinified into a wide range of wines, from delightful sparklers such as Moscato d'Asti to dry still wines (Botani from southern Spain is a favorite pick), off-dry and sweet versions, such as the honeyed Beaumes de Venise.

As a dry white wine, Argentine Torrontés makes a great warm-weather choice. Flowery aromatics typify Torrontés from higher elevations in northern Argentina's Salta province while Torrontés from more southern La Rioja can be richer in tropical fruit flavors. Both are low to moderate in acidity, which makes these lively wines delightful aperitifs or a breezy choice with lighter fare.  

For a small gathering of wine-savvy friends, we chose 2009 Torrontés from Bodega Colomé. Located in the mountainous Calchaquí Valley of northern Argentina, Bodegas Colomé is the country's oldest winery and, at 7,500 feet, one of the highest in the world. Now owned by Swiss financier Donald Hess, the location is so remote that Hess built schools, housing, a place of worship, roads, a medical facility and other structural elements to make the operation self-sufficient. Word is he bought it for a million dollars – and then spent ten times that amount to bring it online in a first-rate manner.

Despite a rocky start, Bodega Colomé is now known for a wide portfolio of outstanding wines. The 2009 Torrontés is crafted from hand-harvested grapes plucked from 30-to-60-year-old vines. Seductive floral aromatics give way to juicy nectarine and guava flavors. So easy to enjoy by itself, it will also go well with lightly spiced Asian dishes. Or, do as they do in Argentina and savor Torrontés with empanadas.

We treated another private party to Zolo 2010 Torrontés, this time at Cooking with Class in La Quinta. Made from lower-altitude 10-year-old vines in La Rioja, nearly halfway between Mendoza and Salta, grapes for Zolo pass through a pneumatic press at the winery's über-modern facility. This method employs a blanket of inert nitrogen to insulate grapes from exposure to oxygen and preserve vibrant floral aromatics. Although our guests were new to Torrontés, they were won over at first sip by Zolo's delicate scents and limey, tropical flavors accented by starfruit and papaya. Chef Andie played off the wine's exotic notes with a seared scallop creation finished with a tangy garlic-basil yogurt and avocado-mango crudo. Sound awesome? It was.

Try Torrontés at your next get-together. It's delectably different and sure to please any crowd – including the guys, in case you were wondering. Just don't keep it around too long. Torrontés is best consumed young, probably no more than two years or so after the vintage date. Get to know this Argentine beauty and tango your way to Torrontés all spring and summer long. Find Zolo at Cooking with Class and Bodega Colomé at wine shops around town.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Elizabeth Rose 2009 Rosé

Nothing says springtime like a refreshing glass of rosé. At a recent food and wine tasting at Cooking with Class, guests were spellbound by Elizabeth Rose 2009 Rosé. All eyes were riveted by the colorful elixir that gushed glassfuls of dark pink and magenta hues. And boy, did it deliver on the palate too, with taste buds shifting into high gear as the first sips went down.
Newcomers to this wine might mistake the gorgeous color and bold strawberry aromas as a sign of sweetness. Instead, this lip-smacking lovely finishes dry and crisp. Napa winemaker Kristi Koford uses grapes sourced from two certified organic vineyards in Yountville and Oakville to craft the Syrah-based Rhône-style blend. The cold soak and stainless steel fermentation yields a juicy sipper that bursts with fresh-tasting, ripe raspberry and strawberry fruit. Rosy to the end, it blossoms with warm spice and rhubarb tang on the finish.

And yes, there really is an Elizabeth Rose. The fetching label of this family-owned winery holds a story of tradition and pluck. A few years ago, this special rosé was created and named for the daughter of one of the winery founders to mark her 21st birthday. As told to us, that red-headed young lady hails from a long line of flame-haired beauties, one being her beloved great-grandmother after whom she was named. The youngster loved all things red and rosy. Flush with youthful imagination, she would often sign her name Elizabeth Rose. Her bemused dad later interpreted this as Elizabeth Rosé. So, with a birthday that marked the end of a childhood era as fanciful Elizabeth Rose and an official passage into adulthood, the wine was given the name Elizabeth Rose Rosé in honor of both youthful exuberance and strong family bonds. 

Do like they do at Bonded Winery 9 and pair this wine with barbecue and a host of warm weather fare such as lightly spiced salads, white meats, fish and appetizers. Or, take a tip from Elizabeth Rose and drink it all year round, especially with seasonal watermelon salad for total refreshment.

Claim your screw-capped bottle for about $12 at Cooking with Class in La Quinta, behind the big Walgreen's off 48th Avenue and Washington Street. Chances are good Chef Andie and I will share this springtime goodness at another Cooking with Class event but why wait?

Check out the April class schedule now posted online. A week from today on Friday, April 1st is next month's food and wine tasting. Sign up today or call 760.777.1161 to stake your place before this popular event sells out again.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bodegas Borsao 2008 Tres Picos Garnacha

Tres Picos 2008 Garnacha hails from Campo de Borja. Campo de what? Borja, the Spanish name for Borgia, the infamous Italian Renaissance family of Spanish heritage whose scandals gave nobility a bad name.

Reds rule in Campo de Borja, and none rules mightier than Garnacha. The region, recognized as a D. O. (Denominación de Orígen) in 1980 lies within Zaragoza province, southeast of La Rioja. Although it is home to only 17 wineries, Campo de Borja Garnacha casts a long shadow to fans of this spicy varietal.

Bodegas Borsao 2008 Tres Picos is made in a modern style, with rich, mouth-filling texture and plush flavors of blackberry and dark cherry fruit. Herb and spice notes unfurl cloves, pepper and anise followed by leather and sweet pipe tobacco. Over and above its seductive aromatics, the wine's greatest reward is its food-friendliness. Try it with grilled sweet Italian sausage and a dab of Walla Walla onion whole-grain mustard.

Garnacha goes by Grenache in France and many parts of the New World. Italians know it as Cannonau, a word taken from Sardinian dialect, and the place where the grape probably originated. Although Garnacha is known for high-yielding vines and ripe, alcoholic wines, the grapes grown for Tres Picos have it tough. Harvested from old vines that struggle in poor soil along rugged edges of hillside terrain, the meager yield of two tons per acre produces concentrated wines, expressive of terroir and layered with flavor and nuance. 

If you're warming up to Spanish wine, look for the name of Spanish importer Jorge Ordoñez on the label. More often than not, an Ordoñez pick lands a winner of uncommon wine goodness and value over many price points. Find this beauty at Palm Desert's LA Wine Company and Dan's Wine Shop for less than $15 a bottle.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Closer: Smoking Loon 2008 Syrah

Thanks to all the Girlfriends who made last week's Wine Circle get-together such fun – with special thanks to Teri and ATEHO, her gorgeous place to shop for unique, tasteful gifts.
We closed out Spicy Reds with a quirky pick: Smoking Loon 2008 Syrah, a wine that weaves together the ripe berry fruit, pepper and spice that makes Syrah so seductive. I'd read about the wine on Tim Fish's blog for Wine Spectator in which Don Sebastiani, Jr., whose company produces Smoking Loon, made some strikingly candid remarks. Fish noted that his WS colleague James Laube gave the wine an 87 (which indicates a very good wine with "special qualities" in the Spectator's scoring system), leading Fish to ask what it takes to make a very good $8 bottle of wine.

So how does Sebastiani and Sons do it? In essence, they use a combination of science and shortcuts. The wine's color may get punched up by a tiny amount of the natural grape concentrate Mega Purple. How about some oak for toastiness, aging and tannin management? Smoking Loon gets the kiss of oak Syrah needs with oak staves rather than logging time in expensive, space-demanding barrels. OK, no surprises there but few winemakers are inclined to talk about those things, no less to a publication with the reach of Wine Spectator.

The science behind the Smoking Loon Syrah involves micro-oxygenation or "micro-ox," a technique that introduces small, controlled amounts of oxygen into the wine during fermentation or aging. Micro-ox can help soften tannins, weave together a wine's flavors or give winemakers more precise control over the wine's aging. You might liken it to using an aerator on a mega-scale.

Micro-ox has been around for a while. About five years after micro-ox was developed in 1991 by a scientist working with Tannat, an exceedingly tannic varietal, the European Commission allowed for its use in winemaking. You may remember it from the movie Mondovino (2004), in which influential globe-trotting enologist Michel Rolland suggests it to some winemaking clients. Today, micro-ox is used worldwide, from Bordeaux to Chile.

So that's how Smoking Loon was chosen as the closer. Beyond its sure-to-please flavors, it also fulfills an "interest quotient" for added instructional value worth sharing. Loon is tasty, varietally correct, inexpensive and locally available ($6.99 at Trader Joe's and even less at bigger box stores). It earned a respectable score – which carries weight whether we want to think so or not – and carried a good back-story. While my personal Syrah preferences lean to K Vintners, Rusack, Alban, Andrew Murray and Cayuse (if I can ever get my hands on it again), the TJ wine won out with a good story. Come to think of it, those other wines have some pretty remarkable stories too. Join us next time and we'll uncover some more.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Spicy Red: Gravity Hills Zinfandel

Wine #4 for this Wednesday is a spicy red from California's Central Coast: Gravity Hills 2006 Zinfandel. Nicknamed The Sherpa, this medium-bodied Zin has a kick of white pepper along with raspberry and blackberry fruit. Adding interest on the palate are savory baconfat and herbal flavors, perhaps with a touch of eucalyptus.

Sound inviting? How about finding it for only $8.99 at Dan's Wine Shop in Palm Desert? And it's a screwcap too, in case you want to take it with you while mountaineering this weekend per the crazy tasting notes on the winery's website.

We'd rather snap it open with pizza or pasta arrabbiata at home alongside a roaring fireplace. It's a sure pick for barbecue, chili that's not too fiery and sausage dishes.

Have you signed up yet? Don't get left out in the cold – go to the Events page at The Girlfriend Factor and get going! Girlfriend Teri's venue is alive with colors and textures from her hand-painted silk scarves and gorgeous wearable art accessories. It's going to be fantastic – see you there!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Aromatic Whites, Spicy Reds

At the next thoughtful tasting next week with The Girlfriend Factor, you'll learn to make sense of wine scents.

We found a wine that makes a great bridge between the first two aromatic whites and the last two spicy reds − Gewürztraminer, a white wine that's both aromatic and spicy. Grown in the cool climate of Sonoma's Russian River Valley, the 2009 Hook & Ladder is a tasty example of this versatile varietal.

A quick swirl releases aromas of ripe melon and tropical flower blossoms. On the palate, clean flavors of green apple, honeydew and a hint of lychee come to a spicy gingered finish.

Not to be confused with their sweeter late-harvest wine, Hook & Ladder's early harvest Gewurz is barely off-dry. It makes a terrific pairing with spicy and Asian fare, curries, simpler chicken and fish dishes (chutney or mango salsa, anyone?) or just some fresh fruit and cheese. Remember this one in summer for melon and prosciutto, too.

The winery takes its name from owner and winemaster Cecil De Loach's first career as a San Francisco fireman. For nearly thirty years before De Loach winery was sold in 2003, his Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel wines brought worldwide attention to the Russian River Valley region. The district was designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1983 and the appellation's boundaries were expanded in 2005. Today, Cecil and the next generation of the De Loach family continue to develop that region's potential for top-flight viticulture in Sonoma's coastal fog belt.

Get with Gewurz for a refreshing change of pace or just the right wine complement to spicier or fruit-laced dishes. Sign up here to give this a swirl next week and learn more about this under-appreciated varietal. Find it for around $12 at Dan's Wine Shop in Palm Desert.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Valentine's Day Wines

Perhaps more than food, wine is the ultimate consumable Valentine's Day pleasure. For many, what makes wine the libation of lovers lies in the primal appeal of its aromas. Breathe in the bouquet of a worthy wine to experience wine at its most intoxicating, in the non-inebriated sense, that is.

Certain grapes and varietal wines are known for their distinctive aromatic allure. For some, it's the perfumed nose of light Moscato or the honeysuckle heaven of a full-bodied Viognier. Others may fall under the spell of Pinot Noir's cheerful cherries and roses or the blast of berries and spice that wafts up from a swirl of Syrah. Whatever your preference, the smell of wine is not only divine, but it's also what comprises much of what we taste and enjoy with every sip.  

These Valentine's Day picks are intensely aromatic wines. Both are sexy and delicious in completely different ways and each pairs beautifully with a variety of foods. Uncork at your own risk, and be prepared to give in to their charms.

Elio Perrone 2009 Sourgal Moscato d'Asti
Slightly sweet and refreshing on the tongue, this Italian Moscato is racy and delicious. At only 5% alcohol, it's light enough to enjoy as an aperitif or as a closer to your Valentine's dinner, either by itself or served with strawberries, berries, poached pears or a light puff-pastry dessert. Seductive aromas of orange blossoms, honeysuckle and sweet citrus set the mood for a mouthful of bright, fresh fruit rooted by a hint of sage and a bracing, lingering finish. Very sexy, and very Italian. Find it for under $15 at LA Wine Company.

Château Thivin 2009 Côte de Brouilly
This cru Beaujolais from a stellar vintage is bursting with scents and intrigue.  Admire the rich purplish-magenta color as you swirl, provided you can resist nose-diving into its layered floral and cherry-raspberry aromatics. Violets, roses and herbs weave their seductive way through a palette of herbed fruits and minerality juiced by food-friendly acidity. The earthy finish is kissed by sour cherry and smoke. Although this Gamay will surely get better with time, its heady, endless nose will have your head spinning before you take your first sip. A great wine for falling in love, again, now and later. About $20 at LA Wine Company.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Super Bowl Wines

We have pigskin picks to vinify your Super Sunday, but first a few food facts. Just two days after Go Red For Women, the American Heart Association's campaign to raise awareness about women and heart disease comes XLV, the super-snackdown day of the year. 
Incredibly, the amount of food Americans will tackle this Super Bowl Sunday may gut-bust Thanksgiving Day, the defending pig-out champion. The average fan is set to scarf 1,200 calories and 50 grams of fat from game day snacking alone – and that doesn't include any regular meals. Unless you plan to walk around a football field for three hours, no amount of fist-pumping and jump-up cheering is going to burn off those calories. Backfield in motion, baby, and bring out the tape. Or, as comedienne Elaine Boosler would say, why not just rub all that stuff right into your thighs?

Worse perhaps is that so many bowl day foods are close to awful. Can we get a holding foul here? Burgers, fried funkitude and chip-dip combos that scream out for an aspirin-nitro-statin garnish hardly seem worth the angina – or agita either, for the Italians out there. I mean, if you're gonna Hail Mary, doesn't a nice plate of lasagna or a juicy rib-eye off the grill sound more appealing than something that stinks of cilantro or singes your palate? Yuck.   

Bottom line is that many Super Bowl food flavors + wine = false start. Chili, thick dips and weighty or fried foods are hard hits for lighter reds and oaked Chardonnays. In the red zone, Cabernet tannins come across as too harsh when combined with super salty foods. Even bigger or bolder reds such as Syrah or Zinfandel can get crushed in the pileup by four-alarm barbecue sauces or hotly spiced wings. 

Unfortunately, there aren't many takers for the alt idea of super Sunday: flip on the crockpot in the morning and uncork a favorite bottle over a real meal during halftime break. No worries about delay of game or missing the halftime show – odds are it'll be as lame as ever. Bah humbug. So with a shrug to mega-snacking as the official play of the day, here are wine picks sure to score big with the gang:

Riesling racks up huge yardage for how well it goes with a wide range of foods, especially spicy dishes, sausage, salads and smoked fish. Many Rieslings are low-alcohol too, to help keep guests safe and under-the-limit. Costco has a German Riesling now that's only 7.5%. Look for Dr L by Loosen Brothers in the tall, teal screw-cap bottle, around $10 at Dan's Wine Shop and Trader Joe's.

Box Wines
The space-saving eco-packaging by Octavin Home Wine Bar holds three liters, equal to four bottles of wine. With a convenient pour spout, these tasty, good quality wines will douse a couch-full of thirsty fans. Find them at Albertsons and Ralphs grocers, better still when they're on sale. Silver Birch Sauvignon Blanc is refreshing and balanced, without too much grassiness for game day foods. Kickoff reds worth a runback are the low-tannin Monthaven Cabernet Sauvignon (find the 2007 if you can) or Big House Red, sometimes also at Costco.

If you think real men don't drink pink, food-friendly rosé will rock your manly man's playbook. Go with New World rosés made from heartier red grapes instead of more delicate French and Provençal rosé styles. Give it a good chill and watch for conversions. Try screw-capped Tapiz Rosé of Malbec from Argentina (BevMo!), Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese from Oregon or Mulderbosch Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa (World Market Cost Plus).

Finally, if your heart beats for healthier Super Bowl recipes, score with the roasted red pepper dip and others here, more recipes and substitution ideas here and funny but real food safety tips from Uncle Sam here.

Coming soon: Not-so-grouchy picks for a romantic Valentine's Day

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wine #5: Crios de Susana Balbo 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon

After making wine around the world for nearly three decades, Crios is Argentine Susana Balbo's first project as owner and winemaker. The three handprints on the label represent Susana and her two crios, or children.
Untwist the screwcap for a deep purple pour of plummy Cabernet Sauvignon that will only get better with some air or more time in the bottle. As you swirl it around in your glass, take in its heady black fruit aromas with cassis, cigar box and a whiff of violets. Richer and fuller-bodied than our Napa Valley Cab, the Crios is savory and finishes long with a kiss of espresso and fine, sweet tannins.
Argentina's success with Malbec helped catapult that country to fifth place in worldwide wine production. Like many of the country's stellar Malbecs, this Cabernet Sauvignon hails from Mendoza, Argentina's largest wine-producing region that spans an area about the size of Germany. Vineyards for this wine sit at more than 3,300 feet above sea level where grapes are said to have some of the longest hang-times on earth, that is, time allowed for grapes to stay on the vine and optimally ripen. In fact, the mouthfeel, layers, richness and balance of this wine might remind you of lusty Washington Cabernet more so than California-styled Cabs.

Higher altitudes are unfriendly to many pests, which makes it easier for Argentine winemakers to avoid herbicides. Vines planted in these loamy, well-drained soils fed by Andean snow melt produce lower grape yields that benefit from sunny days, cool air and cooler nights. Add a bit of winemaker magic, five months spent in seasoned French and American oak and the results are balanced wines with ripe and rich fruit flavors, good acidity, lower alcohol levels and smooth tannins.  Bottled unfined and unfiltered, you can give this wine a pass through your aerator or open it up ahead of serving time.  

You'd be hard pressed to find a better quality:price value in Cabernet Sauvignon from anywhere. With 25,000 cases produced, you stand a good chance of scoring this wine around town – just in time for Super Bowl too! Enjoy it with steaks, grilled or roasted meats, cumin chili dishes, black bean soup, empanadas and aged cheeses. Find it for about $11 at LA Wine Company in Palm Desert or Costco, if there's any left. 

I'd say that was an awesome tasting wouldn't you? Thanks to all and to The Girlfriend Factor for making it such a great time!

Coming this week: Super Bowl wines

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wine #4: Sean Minor 4 Bears 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon

We closed out our tasting with two styles of Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa Valley led the way with Sean Minor 4 Bears 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. Established in 2005, Four Bears Winery is named for the husband-and-wife founders' four children. Despite their new run on the winemaking scene, Sean Minor is turning out some excellent juice at price points so low, you'd do well to stock up on cases of the ones you like best.

Their 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet blends 83% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The black-fruited beauty delivers the aromas and flavors of cassis and cedar that make Cabernet so irresistible. Unlike fruit-bomb Cabs, the medium-bodied Sean Minor delights with currants and blackberry fruit balanced by dusty earthiness, acidity and toasty oak.  There's enough grip in these tannins to suggest this wine will get even better in another year or two. 

But why wait? Enjoy this wine now with burgers, ribeyes off the grill, smoked mozzarella, roasted bitter vegetables such as radicchio or sautéed escarole. The release price was $17 but you'll find it for a few dollars less at LA Wine Company and Dan's Wine Shop in Palm Desert. If you get a chance to try the Sean Minor Pinot Noir or Chardonnay before we do, drop a comment to let us know what you think.

Last Up: Argentine Cabernet from Mendoza

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wine #3: Mulderbosch 2009 Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon

This charming South African wine bridges our tasting from two styles of Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the Mulderbosch 2009 rosé comes from the Coastal Region of South Africa's Stellenbosch district.
And what a pretty pour it is, all watermelon pink in the glass with aromas of wild strawberries and rose petals. The medium body floats a mouthful of fresh red fruits with a dash of nutmeg and peppery spice on the finish. Take this beauty with you to relax and recharge on the patio or serve it with salads, light fish, curry dishes, sushi or other Asian fare.

Rosé is too good to relegate to the warmer months alone. Snap open this screw-capped delight and treat yourself to a generous pour. You'll be a believer too, just as Eric Asimov wrote in this week's New York Times.

Coming next: Cabernet Closers

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wine #2: Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Chardonnay

Our second wine comes from Washington, the second-largest wine-producing state in the nation. Chateau Ste. Michelle is Washington's oldest winery and while they produce oceans of wine, CSM quality just keeps getting better.

The 2009 Columbia Valley Chardonnay is aged on its lees for more than six months and barreled in mostly older oak barrels to give the wine soft, integrated oak flavors and balanced richness. The final blend is juiced by 10% tank-fermented Chardonnay for a fresh lift that's still opulent.

Flavors of apple, pear and citrus meld beautifully with soft vanilla and spice. This lush wine will pair beautifully with crabcakes, richer salmon and shellfish dishes, white beans, polenta, white mushrooms, chicken tarragon and buttery or cream-sauced pastas.  

For an eye-opening experience, visit Chateau Ste. Michelle's white winemaking facility at their magnificent French-style chateau in Woodinville, a short drive from Seattle. You'll discover a new appreciation for Washington wines and Chateau Ste. Michelle's broad wine portfolio. Lovers of supple and rich red wines will want to seek out CSM's Indian Wells bottlings, named for the winery's Indian Wells vineyards rather than the namesake desert city. Even the Riesling-resistant will find they are powerless in the presence of Eroica and other racy Rieslings.

Find this terrific value at local grocers. If you make it on time to Albertson's wine sale, grab this great bargain at $7 or get your money's worth at their regular $12 price once the sale ends.  

Next up, Wine # 3: A rosier side of Cabernet Sauvignon

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wine Circle Tasting Wine #1 - Unoaked Chardonnay

Two grape varieties will be the focus of my first tasting party for The Girlfriend Factor's Wine Circle this week: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. I don't usually divulge the names of the wines beforehand but I'll use this new blog space to count down the five wines over the next few days.

The first two wines are 100% Chardonnay – the first is unoaked and the second is an oaked variety that's still balanced and fresh. Try this at home with friends as a fun way to flesh out your own white wine palates. It's one way to pinpoint the flavors, textures, aromas and characteristics of wines you like (or don't like) and why. Best of all, this simple exercise will help you become a better-informed wine consumer.

Wine #1: Four Vines Naked Chardonnay

Thumbs up for the screwcap on this pale straw-colored 2009 Chardonnay from northern Santa Barbara County. Winemaker Christian Tietje is a self-proclaimed hedonist, as the bold reds he and Susan Mahler produce at Four Vines Winery attest. With Naked, however, Tietje sets the fruit free.

After hand-sorting, the grapes were gently pressed as whole clusters and fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine was given extended contact with the lees, or spent yeast, to produce a balanced richness. No malolactic fermentation occurred, a process winemakers use to convert sharper malic acids that give apples their acidic zing into softer, rounder lactic acids found in milk and milk products.

Four Vines Naked has clean aromas of fresh peach, pear and apple with a touch of lemon-lime citrusy freshness on the palate. The long lees contact helps give the wine a medium body and balanced acidity. Naked finishes clean and refreshing with a stony edge. Besides the winemaker's food pairing suggestion of oysters, Naked partners well with grilled fish, salads and light appetizers with citrus notes, vegetarian dishes, herbed pastas and lighter meats.

The 13.9% alcohol is pretty typical for this region, and hovers close to this taster's upper limit for Chardonnay. Catch it on sale for just under $10 at Cost Plus World Imports in La Quinta or find it at Costco.

If you like this style of Chardonnay, you may also enjoy unoaked California Chardonnays by St. Supéry, Mer Soleil Silver, Layer Cake Virgin Central Coast and Oregon Chardonnay from A to Z Wineworks.

Coming next: Wine #2 – Oaked Chardonnay.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Welcome to Write on Wines!

Wine is a pleasure that begs to be shared. Welcome to my new blog where I'll write on wines that thrill, elevate a dish or deliver great value. I'll also write on wines with back stories, wines made by vintners worth knowing about and wines from places turning out great juice across the New World. Ditto for the Old World. There will be travel and vacation wines, restaurant wines and party wines. I'll remember to write on easy-drinking wines, once-in-a-lifetime wines and a lot of everything in between.  I'll dig up some special-occasion wines, wines for one and wines that come in a box. As an equal-opportunity wine lover, I'll also be sure to write on red wines, white wines, rosé, bubbly and dessert wines - heck, maybe I'll learn enough about port and sherry to write on those wines as well. Have I missed any? If so, let me know and I'll write on those wines too. Thanks for dropping by!