John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Slow down and relax with some bargain wines

I hope that I’m preaching to the choir, but there are few things more pleasurable than sipping a glass of wine with dinner, particularly after a long day of toiling in the vineyard – so to speak.

Wine not only enhances the dining experience, it also relaxes the mind and spirit and fosters friendly conversation among diners. Sound like a commercial for slow food?  Well, I am a disciple of this reemerging philosophy, and I would argue that wine is a key component in the slow food movement.
Unfortunately, many of us rush around trying to fit too much life in too little time and, consequently, many of us view wine as a special occasion beverage.  In my humble opinion, just making it through another day in this crazy, complex world is reason enough to celebrate with a glass or two of your favorite wine.
But, in these rough economic times, can I afford to drink wine each day? Ah ha, that’s what I hope to impart to you  here today. The fact is that most regular wage earners can afford a glass or two of wine each day. In fact, there are thousands of inexpensive and quality wines  now available from which to choose.  

The demand for good, affordable wine is at an all time high, and producers are responding with a sea of new products from all around the world. In addition to the recognizable tried and true wine producing countries such as the US, France, Italy, Germany and Australia, other nations, less known for their viticultural acumen, are now making very good wine.

Recently, exceptional wine has been produced  in such geographically diverse nations as  South Africa, Spain, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Portugal and Austria, just to name a few. Whether you’re looking for red, white, sparkling or rose, you’ll find excellent wines in every country I’ve mentioned.
So how do I learn about these wines (in addition to this erudite and eminently understandable blog/column)? Just ask your wine purveyor or simply take a chance and try the new wines you see on the shelf.
Another great way to learn about wine, in addition to periodicals and magazines (The  Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate are a few  of my favorite sources), is to go online and use a search engine such as Google, Ask.com or Yahoo to request information on wine reviews or wine blogs like this one.

So, to give you a push in the right direction, here are a few eminently affordable wines to try with your everyday “slow food” meal whether it is filet mignon or mac and cheese.

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Collecting wine: patience and will power rewarded

You’ve probably read from time to time about the superb quality of this or that particular vintage in some part of the wine world.  In California, wine makers have had almost a decade of pretty good to excellent vintages, particularly for cabernet sauvignon. In Bordeaux, wine made in 2000 and 2005 have been hailed as the “greatest vintages” of the century (of course the century is less than a decade old now). And the silky wines made from Brunello Di Montalcino have also had a string of exceptional vintages recently. 

I’ve sampled some of the aforementioned wines and have concluded that, hyperbole aside, these are excellent vintages and you would be wise to purchase them - if you can afford them. Even in this troubled economy,  people will pay excessively for highly rated wines.

But where do you age these vinous gems if you don’t have a special, temperature controlled wine cellar or wine cabinet?

Finding an appropriate place to store your bottles requires paying attention to a few key details that will ensure your wines emerge from their Rip Van Winkle-like sleep mature and ready for you to enjoy. Since everyone knows that aging wine in a cool place is desirable, why not just store your bottles in the refrigerator?

Well, for wines you’ll be consuming in the short term – both red (particularly) and white – the refrigerator is fine as a short term storage alternative. However, for those wines you hope to age for several years, it is both impractical and ill advised to store that wine in the refrigerator.

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Barbecue 101: grill meets (wine)boy

With summer gaining on us pretty quickly, you’ll be spending more time in the great outdoors grilling all manner of animals, vegetables and fish.  This American tradition, often referred to as barbecuing, really originated in prehistoric times and even before cavemen knew how to start a fire.  So, how could they enjoy barbecue delicacies if they didn’t know how to start a fire?  They would simply wait for the conclusion of a lightning-induced forest fire, and then gingerly roam the charred woods to feast on the roasted remains of various animals. Can you imagine any other way to barbecue a tyrannosaurus rex?        Anyway, many of us will soon be dusting off the old grill, laying in a good supply of charcoal (or propane for you gas grillers) and purchasing all manner of animal parts to roast in the great outdoors. And the good news is you won’t have to wait on a lightning-induced forest fire! Regardless of what cut of meat, fish or even vegetable you intend to barbecue, preparing the food before grilling is crucial to achieving success with the finished product.  Many people make the common mistake of firing up the grill, laying on the meat and immediately inundating the food with commercial barbecue sauce. Wrong move.    The problem is that when you add sauce to meat over a hot grill the food catches on fire and turns the stuff into crispy, unidentifiable, blackened hunks of formerly organic matter. And I don’t have anything against purchased sauces even though I’ve never bought one without adding other ingredients. However, I know you can do better with your own concoction.Here are few recommendations (from BarbecueBoy) for avoiding a disaster and for turning your grilling experience into a rousing success.  Let’s deal today with two of the most popular cuts of meat: chicken and pork ribs. I like to begin by trimming a portion of fat from both cuts of meat.  Next, I always apply a dry rub of spices or powders to impart flavors to the meat during grilling.Try using different combinations of dry rubs.  A good one for ribs is a teaspoon each of black pepper, chili powder and cumin.  Or try these other store-bought rubs on either chicken or ribs: Cajun seasonings; lemon pepper; Indian curry spices; or Jamaican Jerk spices.I generally cook the meat, particularly ribs, very slowly (by closing the lid and adjusting the air vents on the top and bottom of the grill) and I use the indirect method of grilling.  To use the indirect method, simply move the charcoal to either side of the grill and placing the meat in the center of the rack.  For indirect grilling with gas, simply turn one or more of the burners off and move the meat to that side. You can even add water to an aluminum pie pan directly under the meat to catch any drippings and to keep the meat moist during cooking.Sometimes, I will simply slow roast the meat with just the dry rub and serve it that way without any sauce, or other times I’ll serve the sauce on the side.The key, however, is not to add the sauce to the meat until the very end - for the last five minutes or so. If you wish, you can take the ribs or chicken off the grill, add more sauce to the meat and cover the dish in a warm oven for a while longer.So now I suppose you want my barbecue sauce recipe?  Okay, I’ll share this one with you:  one cup of ketchup; 3 oz. of orange juice; two table spoons of Tabasco; one teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce; 3 oz. of white vinegar; and one teaspoon of brown sugar.  Bring this concoction to a boil and let simmer for about 15 minutes.  This is particularly good on ribs.Now what about wine for the above mentioned dishes?  I am a great believer that rose’ is the perfect barbecue wine, particularly ones that are dry or just slightly sweet. Here are two that would be especially nice with the barbecued chicken or ribs mentioned above. 2007 Masciarelli Rose’ d’Abruzzo ($12) This delicious dry pink Italian rose’ has aromas of spice, strawberry and freshly mown hay. In the mouth it is full of delicate cherry flavors with just a touch of cinnamon and enough acidity to make it a special match to barbecue. 2008 Las Rocas Rosado ($14) This Spanish rose’ is a deeper color of pink than the Masciarelli and the flavors are more intense. On the nose, the wine has a berry and floral character and on the palate has rich cherry and spicy tones with excellent balance.  The wine starts off slightly sweet and then finishes dry. Try it with heavier, spicier barbecue sauces or dry rubs. 

Some really good wines with WineBoy menu suggestions

So friends, how about some new WineBoy recommendations that will titillate your palate, soothe your weary psyche and free your spirit? 

Okay, I know, that’s a little over the top.  So how about this:  the following wines are real good (especially with food), reasonably priced and will likely knock your socks off!

Now that’s more like it, right?  Okay, so here goes.

2007 Patient Cottat Sauvignon Blanc ($13) – This lovely, delicate wine is grown in and around the world famous vineyards of Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley.  Sprightly and lively enough to be an aperitif (or porch- sipper), this baby has lovely citrus and melon notes with just a hint of anise and would make a superb accompaniment to pasta with asparagus and prosciutto.

2007 Domaine Matrot Bourgogne Blanc (Chardonnay) ($20) – White Burgundies from even bad vintages can cost as much (or more) than a digital camera.  So, when you find one that is good – and also reasonably priced – grab that sucker (and forget about the camera). The beauty of this chardonnay, which was produced near the esteemed vineyards of Mersault, is its subtle flavors of apricot, butterscotch and minerals along with perfect balancing acidity.

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On the menu: roasted sea bass on pastina with an arugula salad

 Today, I’m going to tell you about a great warm weather meal beginning with a simple salad, followed by a light, spicy, yet rich, seafood entrée.  Oh, and by the way, I’m going to suggest a couple of complementary wines that will make this a meal to remember.  
Some years back, a good friend was kind enough to present me with some arugula seeds which had somehow found their way into his luggage on his return from a trip to Italy. This was about 15 years ago and arugula was an exotic, rare and highly prized salad green.  I planted the seeds and fortunately the arugula flourished.  
Consequently, each spring and early summer we have enjoyed this aromatic, peppery and nutty tasting perennial vegetable in salads and in pasta dishes. Nowadays, you can find arugula in many grocery markets and from smaller fruit and vegetable vendors (The Purple Onion in Charleston’s Capitol Market usually has a good supply). The following recipe feeds four. 
The Salad                       
You'll need: one-half pound of arugula cleaned and dried ; one-half Vidalia or Osso Sweet onion thinly sliced; one bulb of thinly sliced fennel; one seedless orange, peeled and sectioned; two ounces of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano; three ounces of extra virgin olive oil  and the juice of one lemon; Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. 
To make this salad, simply clean the arugula, dry it and then dress it with olive oil, fresh lemon, sweet onions and salt and pepper. To this mixture, add thinly sliced fennel (from the bulb), sectioned seedless oranges and top the salad off with thinly sliced (one inch long) pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano.  
The Fish  I visited my favorite seafood purveyor -Joe’s Fish Market in Charleston - and purchased four six-ounce fillets of Chilean sea bass.  For those of you who have not experienced the exquisite flavor of truly fresh fish, I suggest you travel to Joe’s and let the experts there tempt you with their deep sea goodies. While this entrée would work just as well with grouper, halibut or some other firm, yet mildly flavored fish, this dish works best with Chilean Sea Bass.  
1.  Pre -heat your oven to 400 degrees  
2.  Dredge the sea bass in a dry mixture of flour, salt and pepper and sauté in two ounces of extra virgin olive oil for about two minutes a side and remove from the pan. 
3.  In the same sauté pan, add more olive oil and lightly brown  (until translucent) a  teaspoon of freshly chopped garlic, one-half cup diced sweet onions along with one diced sweet yellow pepper.
4.  Add to this mixture one cup each of freshly cored and peeled sweet tomatoes (canned tomatoes will do in an emergency) and one-half cup of dry white wine (preferably the stuff you will be drinking with the entrée).  
5.  Cook vigorously for another three minutes then add pitted and chopped Greek or Italian black olives, and two teaspoons of capers. Remove from the heat and cover the mixture.  
6.  At the same time, boil one cup of pastina (the tiny pasta that is about half the size of a grain of rice) in two quarts of water until cooked al dente,  drain and add a teaspoon of butter, salt and pepper to taste and set aside.     
7.  Place the fish in a shallow oven pan (rubbed with olive oil) and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes until it is firm, but not overdone.   
 8.  Spoon the pastina onto a plate and put the fish on top of it. Then ladle the pepper and tomato mixture over top the fish and Viola (that’s pronounced Vie-ole-la where I come from), and you’ve got yourself some good eating. 
This is a dish which needs a light to medium-bodied white and I’ve got a couple of recommend ions for you.  

 2007 Clos Du Bois Sauvignon Blanc ($14)   This wine has very balanced flavors of melon, herbs and citrus that meld beautifully with the dish   

2007 Geyser Peak Chardonnay ($15) Ripe apple flavors and a creamy mouth feel highlight this well-balanced chardonnay that has just a kiss of oak. Matches very well with the richness of the sea bass. 

Beyond Chateauneuf Du Pape: the other wines of Provence

Ask a Francophile to describe the outstanding attributes of France’s southern Rhone region known as Provence, and you’ll likely get responses that heap praise on it’s striking mountains, fields of lavender, delicious Mediterranean cuisine, Roman ruins and Papal Palace in Avignon.

Ask an oenophile (or just some wine geek like me) about Provence and we'll quickly tell you it is home to Chateauneuf Du Pape, the most famous and expensive wine of this southern Rhone River region. As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of spending some time in Provence in the summer of 2002, and visited Chateuneuf Du Pape as well as many of the other wine villages and towns of that picturesque region.  

While Chateauneuf  Du Pape can produce truly exceptional wines, particularly from producers such as Fortia, Beaucastel, Vieux Telegraphe, Chapoutier, Paul Autard and Rayas, there are a plethora of other exceptional wines being made in Provence that are very reasonably priced. And, while there are some good white wines made in Provence, the emphasis here is on red, and that’s what we’re examining here today.

There are 13 grapes that can be used to make red Chateauneuf Du Pape and other wines of the region, but most wineries blend a combination of syrah with the ubiquitous grenache and a touch of mourvedre to produce these lovely, full-flavored wines.

First, understand that there have been a series of exceptional to superlative vintages in the Southern Rhone region over the past decade. With the exception of 2002, when many vineyards were inundated by torrential rain and flooding, every vintage that has been released  since 1998 is rated over 90 (in a 100 point scale).

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Sprintime pasta and sauvignon blanc: ramping up the menu

Ramps!  Like snails, single malt scotch or sweet breads, you either love ‘em or hate ‘em.

Maybe it’s because of my familial ties to the ramp capitol of the world – Richwood, West Virginia - but I really do love those little odiferous lilies that dot the mountains of our wild and wonderful state this time of year.

The stories about Richwood and ramps are many, outrageous and sometimes true. The late Jim Comstock, publisher of the now defunct West Virginia Hillbilly, chronicled many of them in his newspaper. He is also responsible for literally creating a national stink when he added ramps to the printers ink for one edition of the newspaper. The US Postal service was not amused, but it sure did put his town and ramps on the map.

My paternal grandparents hailed from that little mountain village fast by the shores of the Cherry River, and I spent many happy summers there, escaping the heat and humidity of Clarksburg in the days before air-conditioning. I don’t remember ever having been exposed to the little lilies back then, but I do remember my first experience with them.

I was in the US Army at the time and home on leave, enjoying a few days with my family before heading off to Southeast Asia to defeat communism. One evening, my next door neighbor brought over a six pack (or so) of beer and a mess of ramps.  He suggested the best way to enjoy the little veggies was to sprinkle them with salt and eat them raw – which we did until the wee hours of the morning

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A tasty Rioja and some special wine and food events

A superb wine for your sipping pleasure: 

2005 Ramon Bilbao Rioja ($15) – I love the wines of Rioja in northern Spain and this special 100 percent tempranillo is a real stunner! With 14 months in oak, the wine has a nose of vanilla, leather and cola. On the palate, bright, ripe cherries give way to a rich, round, toasty mouthful of Rioja that lingers on the finish.  You need to try this wine with roasted meat such as tenderloin of pork which has been rolled in rosemary, garlic, crushed black pepper, sea salt and olive oil.

Wine and Food Events 

Join the good folks at Bridge Road Bistro on Tuesday, April 21st for a reception and special dinner featuring the wines of France.  Olivier Lotterie of Vineyard Brands will describe the wines which have been specially selected to match the multi-course meal.

The reception begins at 6 p.m. followed immediately by dinner. Cost of the dinner is $69 (plus tax and gratuities) per person. To make reservations, call the Bistro at 304-720-3500. 
 Canaan Wine Weekend 

Just about every six months, I have the pleasure of participating in and presenting at a wine weekend event at Canaan Valley Resort in the mountains of wild and wonderful West Virginia.  The fourth version of this mountain gourmet extravaganza will take place May 8th and 9th at the lodge on the grounds of the Tucker County state park.

I’ll select wines from around the world that will be paired with a cornucopia of culinary delicacies prepared by Canaan Valley Resort’s executive chef Nemat Odeh.  Chef Odeh, who received his culinary training in Europe, knows a thing or two about food and is also adept at working with wine – and picky wine guys like me. 
Here’s the schedule: Friday,  May 8 at 7 p.m.: Guests will kick-off the weekend with a "taste-around reception" where  more than 20 wines from the world's most prestigious regions can be sampled with matching culinary treats, including crab cakes, beef tenderloin, smoked salmon, pasta, a raw bar, desserts  and other treats.  This wine and food “graze around” is a wonderful way to evaluate wine with food. In fact, I always seem to experience a wine and food “epiphany moment” at these informal taste arounds.  
The next day at 11a.m., yours truly will conduct an educational wine tasting and seminar followed by a delicious luncheon with specially selected wines. Chef Odeh will then conduct a nutrition and culinary demonstration after which guests can enjoy an afternoon of activities or take a nap and get ready for evening ahead.  
Saturday evening’s activities begin at 7 p.m. with the multi-course Grand Gourmet Dinner with accompanying wines.  The menu includes Lobster Martini, Tabouilli Salad in a Cucumber Boat, Duck Cake with Tomato Lavender Marmalade, Steamed Pacific Cod with Napa Roasted Tomatoes, Braised Veal Shank with Morel Mushroom Risotto, and Baked Alaska with Huckleberry Puree.

Guests have the option of attending the entire weekend for a package price, or choosing to participate in individual events ala carte. For pricing and additional information or reservations call 800-622-4121.  I hope to see some of you at this great event.

Wine By the Rules

My good friend Rich Ireland , author of the eminently informative “Beers To You”  blog,  is a passionate proponent of all aspects of the stuff of which he writes.   Not satisfied  that he has almost single-handedly improved the number, quality and  availability of craft beers in the state, he also insists that we (and those who serve us) observe proper suds etiquette.  

In fact, his recent blog taking to task one of my favorite area  restaurateurs  for having the audacity  to serve beer in an iced tea glass got me thinking.  I should probably be more observant and critical regarding  the myriad wine-related faux pas committed each day by well-intentioned, but under- educated, wine lovers.

However, I must admit, when it comes to following rules of etiquette, I am a swine.  Just ask my wife.  In my rush to experience the sensory pleasures of certain liquids, I sometimes take shortcuts that might be as egregious a sin as eating with my bare hands. But, as someone who has served time in Catholic school, I am a great believer in redemption.

 So, from now on, I hereby give fair warning that I will be on the lookout for those of you in my line of sight who do not observe the rules (see below) of proper wine etiquette.

Rule #1 – Never drink from a wine skin that is made from the following animals:  anacondas; skunks; wombats; flying squirrels (still on endangered list); frogs; coyotes; muskrats; aardvarks; ring-tailed lemurs; porcupines; llamas; or hyenas. The best wine skins are still made from mature sheep by celibate shepherds.

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Valpolicella on steroids!

My brother-in-law (let’s just call him Uncle Bunk)  is a really good guy. I say this with conviction and affection because, in addition to his winning personality, good humor and great character (and believe me he is a great character), he occasionally surprises me with gifts of wine.  And I ask you:  what better measure of character is there? Anyway, several years ago Uncle Bunk presented me with bottle of wine that, to this day, remains one of my “go to” reds when I need something I can count on to compliment the full flavored or heavily seasoned foods that regularly grace the table in my home.Some of you who have read my vinous tomes over the years know of my fondness for full-flavored purple zins. However, you might be surprised to find out zinfandel is not the wine to which I refer.   No, that wine would be Valpolicella!  Valpolicella? you ask incredulously.  Yes, but not just any Valpolicella.  I’m talking about Valpolicella on steroids and made in the ripasso (or ripassa) method.   Valpolicella is located in northeastern Italy’s Veneto region and has, along with its neighbor Soave, gotten very little respect from the wine cognicenti. In recent years, that has changed and now both regions have begun to produce some exceptional wines. And while we’re talking today about Valpolicella, you might try the Gini Soave Classico ($17), a round and rich white that is nicely balanced and would make a great accompaniment to baked flounder stuffed with lump crabmeat. But I digress.    Valpolicella is made from corvina, rondinalla and molinara  grapes, all of which produce light to medium-bodied red wines that can be very pleasant quaffs.  Valpolicella becomes something more, though, when a process called ripasso  is employed during the wine making process. First though, it is necessary to tell you about Amarone which is like ripasso's bigger brother.

Amarone is produced from the same Valpolicella blend, but instead of taking the grapes from the vineyard to the crusher, the little buggers are put in buildings and on trays and allowed to shrivel up and dry out like raisins.This exercise increases the sugar content so that the resulting wine is a powerful, dark and very alcoholic brute that is then aged in wood for a couple of years before it is bottled.  Amarone usually costs between $50 and $100 and is one of the most unique wines I’ve ever tasted. To make a ripasso, new Valpolicella wine is refermented by combining it with the pressings or pomace from the Amarone, and sometimes with the addition of dried grapes. The resulting ripasso wine is considerably darker and fuller bodied than Valpolicella, but not as powerful as Amarone. The ripasso process was invented in the early 1960’s by the well-respected Valpolicella producer Masi. Their ripasso is called Campofiorin and is still among my favorites. So how was I introduced to this lovely elixir? Well, it turns out that Uncle Bunk – who is quite the world traveler and bon vivant – took his lovely bride to Verona to visit the apocryphal home where Romeo met Juliet.As luck would have it, the Bunkster’s amorous advances later that evening were not repelled, due in large measure to the quantity of ripasso consumed by the love birds. I’m grateful for Romeo, er…Uncle Bunk’s night of ecstasy in Verona because it  prompted him to present me with a bottle of Allegrini Pallazo Della Torre on his return from Italy.  To this day, I find it difficult to pass up the latest vintage of ripasso. The wines are just shy of the intensity of zinfandel, with ripe, dark plum and blackberry flavors and with balancing acidity that makes them excellent food wines. Just this past week, I opened up a bottle of 2005 Zenato Ripassa ($22) to accompany the beef short ribs I had braised in red wine. Spectacular! In addition to Masi, Allegrini and Zenato, other ripasso producers to look for are Bertani, Tommasi, Farina, Righetti and Mazzi.  You should be able to find some of these wines around the state and, if not, you should ask your wine shop to order them.  Most are priced between $15 and $25 a bottle.   

Spring forward to white wine!

Lately, I seem to be on a white wine tear.  Maybe it’s because I feel that sipping a nice, refreshing white will hasten the approach of spring, or maybe I’m just tired of the plethora of ponderous reds I’ve been drinking lately. Whatever the reason, I have had the delightful experience of tasting more than a few excellent whites recently, and that’s put a smile on this haggard face.

It started with a glass of 2007 Liberty School Chardonnay ($15) at Soho’s a couple of weeks ago. Liberty School (formerly the second label of Caymus) has always been a reasonably priced wine, and this chardonnay was more creamy than tropical fruit driven, making it a good match to my slab of gorgonzola-stuffed chicken. 
Next, as is often my custom, I was rooting around the cellar for a white sipping wine to enjoy before the obligatory red with dinner when I came upon a bottle of 2006 Oxford Landing Viognier ($14) from
Australia.

Since this wine was almost three years old, I was a little concerned that it might have lost the apricot, honeysuckle and melon flavors that were the most impressive features of this bottle. However, while the fruit component of the wine had mellowed out a bit, the flavors actually seemed even more intense.  I liked it so much I forgot about the red and finished the bottle over dinner – with a little help from my wife of course. By the way, viognier makes an excellent aperitif wine and it does quite well with Asian dishes that feature a little heat.
The next white to please this jaded palate was presented to me at one of Bluegrass Kitchen’s Tuesday evening wine flight tastings.  Wine enthusiast Gary Thompson and Bluegrass owner Keeley Steele were offering a flight of New Zealand wines that night and I was truly impressed with the 2007 Villa Maria Riesling ($18).
 From New Zealand’s Marlborough district, this off-dry style riesling (that means just slightly sweet) is a wine with loads of citrus and melon flavors, an underlying minerality and bracing, but balanced, acidity. I liked it so much I ordered another glass to accompany my porcini-crusted Puget Sound halibut the restaurant was highlighting that evening.
Is your mouth watering yet?  Well, hang on because the next wine I’m about to describe is about as true to its style as is earthly possible. 
I believe it’s fair to say that not many of us drink white Bordeaux on a regular basis. However, I think you might be willing to add these lovely wines to your shopping list if you give the 2007 Chateau Graville-Lacoste  ($21)a try.  Why? Well, first of all 2007 was an excellent vintage for white Bordeaux. The customary grapes used to produce the wine are semillon and sauvignon blanc with just a touch of muscadelle.
In addition, this particular wine typifies the best of what you can expect from white Bordeaux. While hints of grass and citrus are evident in the aroma (typical of sauvignon blanc), the wine has very complex flavors of anise, melon and minerals when you put it in your mouth. That’s the effect of semillon – an under used and under appreciated white grape that I really love.
The Graville-Lacoste is restrained, yet it has ripe fruit flavors and is perfectly balanced. I paired it with roasted North Atlantic cod that had been seasoned with lemon, butter and just a touch of truffle salt. 
I think spring has arrived!

There’s more to Beaujolais than Nouveau!

I bet when most folks think of Beaujolais, they think of that frothy, grapy new wine called Beaujolais Nouveau that is released with great fanfare in France each year around the middle of November.

Beaujolais Nouveau is a fun wine full of fresh strawberry fruit flavors (it’s only about two months old when it arrives) that is more a celebration than an exercise in fine wine drinking.  Most Nouveau is relatively inexpensive (around $10 to $15 a bottle) and is meant to be drunk within the year after bottling. 

In the last decade or so, importers have gotten Nouveau to the US within a day or two of its release in France, and so now we Americans also celebrate the “new” wine. In fact, a few local wine shops have Beaujolais Nouveau “barrel” tastings each November.

Today I’ll tell you about the other Beaujolais wines that, while less known, are considered far superior to Nouveau. Don’t get me wrong. I really do enjoy Beaujolais Nouveau in all its frothy, fruity glory. However, I think most folks don’t realize there are also some serious wines being made in this region just to the south of Burgundy.

Beaujolais is produced from a grape called gamay. Gamay is a lighter pigmented red grape that, when allowed to soak for extended periods on its skins, can produce a medium and, in some rare instances, full bodied wine.

Beaujolais lies just south of the Macon region of Burgundy. From there, it descends south along a 34-mile stretch of rolling hills and ends near the famous Rhone wine region of Cote Rotie.  In addition to Beaujolais Nouveau, you will see wines labeled Beaujolais, Beaujolais Superior or Beaujolais Villages and these can be decent to very good wines. While I do enjoy these wines, the best of Beaujolais are much more serious wines and some can actually improve with bottle age for up to ten years. 

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Navigating the wine economy: Abstinence is not the answer!

In this depressing economy, where certain staples of existence such as food, fuel and shelter have all become more affordable, I have not yet seen a comparable drop in the price of wine. 

Oh, believe me, I am out searching the hinterlands each day for affordable sippers so you and I can continue to enjoy a glass of wine with our mac &cheese at the end of the work day.  But it’s not easy.

In ruminating about ways of economizing the wine budget, I’ve decided to suggest  several wine categories  for you to explore (according to price) in the hope  you’ll be able to find a wine to suit your palate and wallet too. So, here goes.

Vino Jigundo

First (and perhaps least appealing) would be to search the jugs, boxes and wine skins for the large volume products that are something more than colored water with the addition of grain alcohol.  I’m no snob, but most of this mass-produced plonk is,  at best, unappealing.

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Falcor Winery: Charleston’s Napa Valley connection

Falcor Winery: Charleston’s Napa Valley connection

It’s not often many of us can have our dreams come true, but that’s pretty much the case for two Charleston lawyers whose love of wine has morphed from a passionate hobby to another full-time occupation.

While Mike Bee and Jim Petersen (at right) won’t be giving up their day jobs any time soon, the two local residents are spending a considerable amount of time in their second jobs as owners of a boutique Napa Valley Winery – Falcor. 

As enthusiastic wine lovers and regular visitors to California’s North Coast wine country, Bee and Petersen decided to take the plunge and start their own winery. After visiting Napa and talking to many people in the trade, the men were encouraged to modify their idea of building a full-fledged winery and begin their foray on a more modest scale.  
First they set about finding the right wine maker. A mutual friend introduced them to   Ray Coursen, then the winemaker at Napa Valley’s Whitehall Lane and now owner of Elyse Winery who agreed to take on the task.  Coursen is not only a fine wine maker, but is also familiar with many of Napa’s finest vineyards and is able to procure fruit from them for his (and Falcor’s) wines.
Their first wine was a 1996 full-bodied style Napa Valley Chardonnay. Mike and Jim were very pleased with the result and that led to a stable of limited production  wines (about 500 cases for each varietal) including two chardonnays, sangiovese, syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, Le Bijou ( a Bordeaux-style blend), cabernet franc and a rose.
Mike’s son, Ryan, is now Falcor’s general manager and, in addition to his day-to-day duties, he oversaw the building of Falcor’s new winery and up-scale tasting room which opened last summer in the town of Napa. If you’re in the area, you can visit the winery at 2511 Napa Valley Corporate Drive, Suite 115 for a tasting of the wines. 
While Falcor wines are available at wine shops and fine restaurants throughout the state and the southeastern US, you may also order wines directly from the winery by calling 888-402-9463 or visiting the website at www.falcorwines.com.
I have reviewed a few of their wines in the past and today I’ll give you my impressions of the latest releases from Falcor.
2005 Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay ($42) – Grapes for this rich, full-bodied wine come from the Durrell vineyard in Sonoma County where renowned wineries Kistler and Patz & Hall also source their fruit. This wine shows flavors of ripe pear and creamy vanilla and will benefit from two to three years of bottle age. Try it with chicken cordon bleu or Chilean sea bass.
2005 Sangiovese ($35) – This Napa Valley wine is comprised of 88% sangiovese and 12% cabernet sauvignon. Medium-bodied, it is brick red in color and full of bright cherry and cinnamon flavors with a lingering finish. Excellent balance insures it will continue to improve over the next five years, but would be a great pairing now with a roasted veal chop.
2004 Syrah ($32) – Also from Napa, this wine has dark, juicy plum flavors with a hint of toasty oak. Stylistically, it reminds me of a big Barossa Shiraz and would marry nicely with marinated and grilled leg of lamb.
2003 Le Bijou ($40) – This Bordeaux blend of cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot is a symphony of flavors and always a favorite of mine. Complex with tack-room and spicy aromas, the wine has forward fruit and cola nuances and is well balanced. While drinkable now, it too will benefit from further aging. No question of the food match here:  grilled or roasted filet.
2003 Cabernet Franc ($38) – Ripe, rich , blackberry fruit with a touch of anise and toasty oak, this Napa wine is stylistically  more like a Chinon (from the Loire region of France) than a California wine – and that’s a good thing. Drink it with pork tenderloin that has been marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and rosemary and then roasted.
2005 Dry Creek ( Sonoma) Zinfandel ($36) – Like its Dry Creek Valley neighbors A. Rafinelli and Lytton Springs, the Falcor Zin is bursting with blackberry fruit typical of the area. Rounded out with a touch of oak, this wine will benefit from about three more years in the bottle. This wine needs baby back ribs slathered with a Kansas City style sauce.
2003 H. Block Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) – This is a special wine made from grapes grown around the town of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. It is a rich, full-throttle cabernet, but is well balanced with black currant and cola flavors with just a touch of oak. Decant it for an hour if you want to drink it now and serve it with roasted red meat or…with a “death by chocolate” dessert.  

Can anyone make a good chardonnay?

Can anyone make a good chardonnay?

I have to admit, I have been very critical in recent years about how certain winemakers, usually from
California, vinify perhaps the greatest of all white wines - chardonnay. In a word, too many chardonnays are “overdone.”

How? Well, some chardonnay growers allow the grapes to get overripe on the vine which produces not only hot, high alcohol wines, but also ones that lack balancing acidity.  Then, many of these same wines are put in new wood barrels and allowed to absorb huge amounts of oak flavors, completely overwhelming the fruit and producing a wine that doesn’t even resemble something that once actually grew on a vine.

What you’re left with is a beverage that’s about as subtle as “White Lightnin' ” without the benefit of corn liquor’s kick! And forget about matching the stuff with food unless your tastes run to dishes like anaconda and habanero casserole.
Now, I am not the first wine writer to criticize chardonnay made in this bombastic manner, but I may be one of the first to complain about the knee-jerk response to this style by other wine makers.  I refer to them as the ascetic school of chardonnay producers.
These guys have ridden the pendulum to the other extreme, making some of the most austere, acidic and painfully bland chardonnay in a pitiful attempt to capitalize on the criticism with the overblown stuff.
Help!  Is there anyone out there who can restore sanity and a sense of balance to producing this absolutely wonderful wine???
Just when you’re ready to give up on ever enjoying  a chardonnay that actually reaches it’s enormous potential….bam, pow wee.. you taste something that renews your faith in the unpredictability of wine.
So there I was in a restaurant called Frank’s at Pawley’s Island, escaping from the brutal frigidity of
Charleston to bask in the near temperate climes of North Cack-a-lacky when, to my lips, I placed a glass of chardonnay.

Hoakey Smokes! The stuff was subtle, creamy, rich yet balanced, and tasted like the fruit of a grape called… chardonnay!  And no, this was not a $200 bottle of white Burgundy or even some trophy wine from Napa. It is the 2007 ZD (California) Chardonnay.

At about $25 a bottle, the wine has a “California” appellation, meaning that the grapes for it could have come from anywhere in the state – not necessarily a prime location like Carneros or Santa Rita Hills, Napa or Sonoma. 
I drank the wine with grilled grouper and the combination was a testament to the old axiom about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. What a superb match.    
Lest I be misunderstood, I would not describe the wine as great. It is just very good and very true to the varietal grape – chardonnay – from which it was made.  However, in producing a wine that is the purest essence of chardonnay, ZD deserves kudos. 
Here are some other wineries that seem to produce balanced chardonnay year in and year out:  Chateau Monelena; Talley Vineyards; Acacia; Pine Ridge; Montes Alpha; Merryvale Starmont; and Alamos.
Go get you some!

A Port for the storm of winter

When the ambient air temperature descends below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, I seem to require foods and beverages of substance.  Stews, soups, roasted meats and full flavored cheeses, such as Roquefort and Stilton, grace the table in my humble abode this time of year. 

To accompany these hearty foods, I usually uncork full-bodied wines such as zinfandel, syrah or cabernet sauvignon and, to cap the meal off in style, a glass or two of Port with coffee, nuts or cheeses. While I have written about the glories of Port for you in this space before, it is winter and it just seems an appropriate time for me to visit this tasteful subject again.  
While our per capita consumption of table wine in this country has increased to a respectable level, the volume of Port (or any dessert wine for that matter) consumed in this nation is so small it could fit on a gnat’s eyelash!   
 In fact, most of us have an aversion to any sweet wine because of either  (a) bad personal experiences, or (b) prejudicial views passed on down to us by uninformed know-it-alls  who assert that “only dipsomaniacs or effete snobs drink Port.” 
I’m still trying to forget the night (a few decades ago)  I spent hovering over the “porcelain alter” after consuming an inordinate quantity of a sweet, high alcohol rocket fuel some low-rent winery had the nerve to call Port.  I’m sure some of you have had similar experiences and have vowed never to let the vile stuff pass your lips again.  And you shouldn’t!
But let me suggest that classifying Port and high alcohol, sweet wine as one and the same is like believing turpentine and chardonnay (both of which are white liquids having alcohol as a component) are also the same.
Port or Porto (as it is called in Portugal where it is produced) can be made from a variety of (unpronounceable) red grapes grown along the steep slopes of the Douro River. The river flows toward the town of Oporto where the wine is sold to shipping companies who age it, label it under their house name and then export it all over the world.
Port is fortified which means that brandy is added to the fermenting wine. This causes the fermentation to stop, leaving about 10 percent residual sugar in the wine and also boosting the alcohol to about 20 percent.  While Port was produced in a mainly dry style for centuries, today’s sweet version was popularized by the British in the middle of the 18th century. Many Shippers are also British companies.
Since there are several styles of Port, here is a description of the most common types:
Vintage Port -This is the best and most expensive style and is produced in only about three years a decade.  A “vintage year” is usually declared by an agreement among the shippers and the wines are given special care and aging.  Once you buy it, vintage Port can age easily for 15 to 25 years before reaching full maturity. Recent vintage Port years are   1983, 1986, 1991 and 1992, 1994, 1997, 2000 and 2003.
Late Bottled Vintage Port - Not to be confused with vintage Port, this wine is a blend of Ports from different vineyards in the same vintage year.  Late Bottled Vintage Port (or LBV) will have a vintage date on the label, but is not vintage Port.  However, this wine is vinified in the same manner as vintage Port, except it is aged in barrel longer to accelerate their drinkablity.

Ruby Port - Young Port wine blends from several different vintages comprise Ruby Port. They are lighter and fruitier than other styles and usually the least expensive Ports.

Tawny Port – This is my favorite type of Port.  I call this the poor man’s vintage Port because it is aged for many years in oak and, when released, it is very smooth and rich like an old vintage Port, though not as fine. I love the caramel flavors ofTawny Port.    

White Port - Made from white grapes, this is the only Port-style wine that is dry.  It is usually crisp, yet full-bodied, and makes a nice aperitif wine.

Some of the great Port producers to look for are:  Warre’s, Graham’s, Taylor-Fladgate, Croft, Dow’s, Fonseca and Quinta do Noval.  Prices for non-vintage Port typically range    from $10 to $40 a bottle while newly released vintage Ports will cost anywhere from   $40 to 150 each. 

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WineBoy economics 101: recession provides buying opportunities

There is no doubt that we are in a serious economic downturn, and I often ruminate on how these tough times are affecting the wine industry as well as those of us for whom the fruit of the vine is more than just an occasional dalliance.

I suppose there is both good news as well as bad in how the economic crisis is affecting wineries around the globe. The law of supply and demand has always been a major fact of life in the wine world.  When a bad vintage limits supply, prices go up and, conversely, an overabundance of wine drives prices down.

This usual supply and demand principle is now compounded by the world wide recession so, if you have a little disposable income, there are some bargains out there to be had.

You’ve heard me proclaim this before, but there are an incredible number of excellent wines in the $8 to $20 a bottle range if you are willing to do a little reading (like you’re doing right now), extensive shopping and internet research.  

Finding knowledgeable local wine purveyors is also very important. Locally, the folks at the Wine Shop at Capitol Market are excellent at determining what you like and then matching a price and wine for you. You’ll also find help at the Ashton Place Kroger and the Drug Emporium on Patrick Street. The Liquor Company in Patrick Street Plaza also has regular wine tastings and a great selection of wines and spirits.

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Good wine and food: a cure for seasonal affective disorder

Looking for way to pull yourself out of the post-holiday blues? How about some reds…or whites… or some top-notch victuals. Well, listen-up buckaroos because there are some nice wine-related events on the radar screen for the greater Charleston area that should help you beat those winter blues.

Good food and wine always seem to lift my spirits and shine some much needed light on my seasonal affective disorder. The following event lineup is sure to brighten your smile this winter too.  

Bluegrass Kitchen

I’ve really been impressed with Chef Gary Needham who has expanded the offerings at this neat East  End establishment. Bluegrass owner Keeley Steele, along with local wine enthusiast Gary Thompson, are taking things a step further by offering wine flights each Tuesday (beginning Jan. 13th). Flights, for those unfamiliar with the term, refer to a series of wines from a particular region or from a specific varietal grape. This coming week will feature the wines of Spain.

Five wines will be offered, including an Albarino, an old vines grenache and a tempranillo. For an additional price, guests can sample Chef Needham’s tapas specially prepared to accompany the wine. These include chorizo stuffed mussels, paella cake with mole and Spanish cheese toast with olives. Price of the tasting flight is $12 and they begin at 4:30 p.m.

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Wine Resolutions for the New Year

Wine Resolutions for the New Year

Welcome to 2009 wine lovers! Today, I’m taking the pledge! Not to go to the gym or to lose 10 pounds, or to (heaven forbid) limit my consumption of adult beverages.

No siree, I’m resolving to go where no wino has gone before. To explore new galaxies of wine appreciation, to set a course for bacchanalian bliss and to sip the most obscure Romulan elixir! [ED. NOTE: I added at right a shot of some Romulan ale, but don't you think that's Rich Ireland's bailiwick?].  So, get on board, loosen up and be prepared to toss wine convention to the wind.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit over the top. But I would like to start 2009 off with some New Year’s wine resolutions that you might find some value in too.  Introspection can provide a powerful wake-up call and my wine -related modus operandi reveals that I have fallen into an alarmingly predictable pattern when it comes to the beverage we all love. So here are some vows for the New Year.

1. Drink more white wine with dinner.  I seem to have fallen into a pattern of using white wine almost exclusively as an aperitif to get my palate ready for the “real” (can you spell red?) wine that will accompany that shank of  wolf pancreas I’m having for dinner.

2. Explore the wonderful world of German riesling and pledge to drink these wines with dinner, too. There are two primary problems Americans have with German wine:  1)  the labels on the wines are written in German, a language that seems to require each word to have at least 15 letters; and 2) riesling tends to be sweet and -- some of us think --  sweet wines are for amateurs or for those who prefer to sip their beverages under a bridge.

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Some holiday gifts for the wine lovers in your life

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I can tell because many of the people I know are calling asking me to suggest a wine gift or two for the special people in their lives.  Even though I probably won’t be considered  “special” enough to benefit from my own advice, I do experience a kind vicarious enjoyment in being a part of this process.

So today, I’ll share with you some gifts I would love to have this holiday season,  and hope that you will pass these ideas along to my family and friends. Of course, depending upon your bank account, you can spend just about as much as you choose on wine and related gifts. However, my budget is not unlimited so we’ll stick with gifts you may acquire for under $100.

Let’s begin with wine.  Here are some bottles that should please the palate of just about every sipper: 2005 Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir ($60) – I have collected wines from this Oregon producer since their first vintage in 1990, and the 2005 Evenstadt is among their best wines yet. If you like earthy, black cherry and mocha flavors overlain with aromas of spice and vanilla, then you’ll love this wine.  The Wine Spectator rated it among the top 100 wines of 2008 and, while the ‘05 Evenstad Reserve is enjoyable today, the balance of this wine will enable it to continue to improve in the bottle for another 10 years.  Match it up with this year’s holiday prime rib roast.

2004 Pio Cesare Barolo ($58) – Pio Cesare is one of the tried and true estates in all of Piedmont (in northwestern Italy) and their 2004 Barolo is a wonderful example of why Barolo is considered one of the greatest wines on the planet. Deep, dark fruit flavors with coffee, mushroom and earthy aromas, this relatively soft (for Barolo) wine will, if consumed now, need to be decanted for at least three hours. However, if you can wait, it will benefit from several more years of bottle age. This would be a wonderful accompaniment to a crown roast of pork sliced and served on top of porcini mushrooms sautéed in olive oil (with a few drops of truffle oil) and seasoned with salt and black pepper.

Rene Coutier Brut Champagne ($48) – This relatively small producer is located in the Grand Cru Champagne village of Ambonnay and this sparkler is a real pleaser. Full of toasty, rich, brioche flavors with a silky texture, this Champagne is a wine you can use as both an aperitif or with a seafood entrée such as mussels cooked in a spicy broth of white wine, garlic and tomatoes.

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