January 21, 2010

At some point, every wine enthusiast experiences an epiphany. It’s that moment when you “get” wine. For me it happened in a small Bavarian village in the Alps at a place called Heidi’s Evening Café. To impress one of the girls at the table, I ordered wine instead of the usual beer. Thankfully, Heidi’s wine list included something other than the rack of Friday evening specials found at my college campus liquor store. Before that glass I was the guy who pushed the cork into the wine bottle with the end of a fork and drank it as fast as possible to get some before my friends finished it all. After that glass I realized, “Hey, there is something to this wine thing.” I realized that wine could offer more interesting flavor profiles than just the hints of ammonia or the nuances of sulphur that I experienced when tasting some of the cheaper, mass produced wines. In wine circles this is called the “wine moment” or the “ah-ha moment”. 

I remember the wine was a Cotes du Rhone, a French blend, although that meant nothing to me at the time. As I sipped, one by one, various flavors began to sneak out of the wine like sorority sisters emerging from a fraternity house on Saturday morning. I began to recognize things on my palate, really good things, like different fruits, an array of spices, even leather and other odd flavors not usually associated with food. That moment began my life-long passion for wine. In an effort to share the experience, I’ve listed two wines below that could be your “ah-ha” moment.

Edmeades Mendocino County 2007, Zinfandel ($16.99): This wine carries the masculine, big flavors of toast, leather, and tobacco with lots of dark ripe fruit but it presents them in a way so elegant and refined it’s like a guy who wrestles alligators for a living but plays the harp in his spare time.

Conundrum 2007, Table Wine ($25.99):  Twenty six bucks is a lot to drop for a bottle of wine, I get it. But drinking this wine is a bit like listening to a junior high orchestra: It keeps a solid, recognizable tune for structure but at the same time sudden notes of grapefruit, honey, orange, and apricot unexpectedly escape in all sorts of directions.

Weeknight Wines

January 14, 2010

As much as I would like to, I just can’t bust open a $40 bottle of wine every night. Unfortunately, buying some of the wines out of California today would require me to take out another student loan. Some of the wines from France would require a second mortgage. For that reason, I need a backup. I need something to drink when it’s not a special occasion. I need something to open for my neighbor who pours 7-Up in his wine because it “gives it more fizz”. Something that is good, yet affordable. I call wines for these occasions my “Weeknight Wines” and they are the equivalent of a good backup quarterback. They are good enough to rely on, yet don’t command the outrageous salaries of the franchise players.

After years of using Darwin’s natural selection, the weaker low cost wines in my rack are now extinct in favor of better performing price-conscious specimens. They display all the complexity, structure, balance, and taste that the more expensive wines possess but also cost less than $14.00. So for those of us who aren’t parking a boat somewhere in the South of France, here is a short list of some of my favorite Weeknight Wines.

Big House White 2008 ($8.99): This rated number one on Wine Enthusiast’s best buy wines of 2009 and is a blend of four lesser known varietals. On the nose there are peaches and mandarin oranges. It has flavors of citrus fruit, lemon grass, and a mineral element that keeps the light sweetness in check. If you’re missing summer right now, pick up a bottle.

Chateau St. Michelle 2008, Columbia Valley Riesling ($9.99): This wine shows a sweetness that continues throughout the finish. It displays flavors of apricots and pears with a drizzle of honey mixed in. If you like sweeter wines this one is done well.

Pascual Toso 2007, Malbec ($12.99): This Malbec is slightly fruitier than many and displays so many flavor profiles it’s hard to list them all. Coffee, cherries, violets, and blackberries are just a few. The tannins, typically big in Malbecs, are nicely integrated.

Montecillo 2005, Crianza ($12.99): With a light to medium body, this Spanish Crianza is European in style. Hints of smoke, hints of apples, and hints of copper are all tucked nicely into a very solid effort. Everything about this wine is subtle and tasteful.

The Cabernets of Shakopee

January 12, 2010

Once, in a Michigan liquor store, I was shown a bottle of Champagne after asking for a Zinfandel recommendation. It got me thinking about how the shops in my own neighborhood would do when given a similar request. So, this week I decided to visit each of Shakopee’s seven liquor stores and ask for their best Cabernet Sauvignon for under $15.00. In each case, the shop employee not only suggested a bottle, but explained why I would like it. Well done, Shakopee wine stores! I purchased each of the recommendations and opened them at the same time for a head to head competition. I specifically asked for a Cabernet because so many on the market at that price have too much oak. During production, keeping the wine in oak barrels imparts the delicious character of the wood into the wine. Lately, however, there’s been a tendency to overuse oak, overwhelming everything else about the wine until it becomes boring and one dimensional. It leaves your mouth wanting something else, anything else, but oak. Let me explain it this way: remember when you were a kid at summer camp? Remember that one kid in your cabin who could belch longer than anyone? Remember how funny it was the first day? Remember how old the joke got by the end of the week? Exactly.

Of the seven recommended wines, here are my two favorites:

Balance 2005, Cabernet Sauvignon ($14.99): Recommended by Shakopee Wine Cellars. This wine has a big delicious nose with spice, dark ripe fruit, and chocolate flavors. It has a rich mouthfeel and a deep purple color. From Mendocino, Balance is a wine whose flavors are somewhat different than the typical Napa Cabernets. Tasting this was like taking a prune, rolling it Swiss Miss mix, and sprinkling it with cayenne pepper. It may sound a little odd but it’s delicious. I would love to try pairing this one with a few pounds of dark fudge sometime.

Louis Martini 2007 Sonoma County, Cabernet Sauvignon ($13.99): Recommended by MGM Liquors. Louis Martini has a less defined nose but it shows lighter fruit like red raspberries on the mid-palate. It is lighter in body and fruitier than many California Cabernets but still delivers some of the bigger, bolder flavors of coffee and tobacco. Its oak is light and tasteful. Because of its lighter body, it is probably more food friendly than many cabernets.

The Best Wines You’ve Never Heard Of

January 12, 2010

In 1969 Jack Nicholson appeared in the film Easy Rider. Not many knew who he was then but after stealing a few scenes people started asking “Who is this guy?” He was a great actor that nobody heard of. Wines are no different. So many talented wine makers create little-known gems which, given time, will become the stars of tomorrow. In addition, to compete with the better known bottles sitting next to them on the shelf, these stars are often under priced. If the future me traveled back in time to give the present me a few purchasing tips on which wines to buy before everyone discovers them and their price goes up, I believe the following wines would be on that list. Then I would ask future me to travel back a little further and tell me not to buy the tan Chevy Citation.

Montevina 2006, Barbera ($8.99 on sale): Barbera, typically grown in Italy, is now showing success in California. This bottle is already turning up more frequently in wine shops. It delivers the bigger, earthier flavors of cedar and coffee balanced with lighter fruits like cherry and pomegranate. There is an interesting graham cracker note on the finish. So many flavor profiles within such a light body is like a featherweight boxer with a massive knockout punch. For a taste, the Eden Prairie Dunn Brothers serves this wine by the glass.

Envero 2007, Gran Reserva ($13.99): From Chile, this blend of 93% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Carmenere shows aromas of darker berries on the nose. It sports mint and eucalyptus notes up front that fade to lighter, black raspberry like fruit on the mid-palate. The most memorable feature about this wine is the rich, velvet mouthfeel you experience on the finish. It lasts for days.    

Quinta Do Crasto 2004, Douro, Reserva Old Vines (31.99): Don’t let the fact that this wine comes from Portugal scare you. It scares a lot of people and that’s why a wine of this caliber is priced so well. QDC is a blend of various indigenous grapes from Portugal. The nose carries aromas of tobacco and pepper. The tannins, still quite strong, are integrated nicely and this wine will cellar well for another three to six years. Flavors of old wood, spicy raspberry, and a long finish complete this wine. A $32.00 bottle needs to deliver the goods. Quinat Do Crasto does.

Viking Post-Season Wine Pairings

January 12, 2010

I’m going to assume that Adrian Peterson addresses his fumbling problem and the Vikings win the Super Bowl. This will give me the opportunity to spend my Sunday afternoons in January sitting on my couch watching The Purple win three post-season games (assuming the by week) while I munch on my favorite game-time cuisine. I realize that tradition calls for beer during the playoffs but a few years ago I began to offer wine as an alternative. One by one, just like Detroit fans that started the season cheering for the Lions, my friends began to make the change to something new. In case anyone is looking for a change or simply wants to offer an alternative, I have compiled a short list of great wines to pair with classic football fare. And won’t it be fun when your buddy asks you for a drink, to reply “Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Syrah, or Chardonnay?”

Buttered Popcorn: Meridian 2008, Chardonnay ($9.99). This is a perfect pairing. The wine even smells like buttered popcorn. The fermentation style used to produce many California Chardonnays creates a creamy, buttery taste. Combine that with the creamy vanilla flavor that the oak barrel adds to the wine and you have two items that each make the other taste better.

Sausage Pizza: Seven Deadly Zins 2006, Zinfandel ($16.99). The spicy finish makes this wine taste as if it came out of the same pan as the tomato sauce. This Zinfandel is big and bold enough to stand up to fatty sausage without getting overwhelmed. Bold, spicy, hot flavors are perfectly cut out for bold spicy wines.

Peperoni Pizza: Innocento Tramonti 2004, Sangiovese ($13.99): Sangiovese, the grape used to make Chianti, is a natural for all things Italian. The acidity of the wine fits seamlessly with tomato sauce. This wine also displays a faint smokiness that pairs perfectly with an oven baked pizza crust. The flavors of cherries and red apples are a bonus. Like the Vikings playing well for four full quarters, this wine is complete from the first aromas all the way through to the long lasting finish.

Slim Jims and Beef Jerky: McManis 2007, Syrah ($12.99): The pepperiness of a Syrah, or Shiraz if from Australia, goes hand in hand with spicy meats. There is also a gamey element to this wine which pairs well with beef. These two are like meat and gravy.

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