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Wine of the Week: Summer Whites and Rosés

Thu May 21, 2009

I used to be one of those people who thought a wine had to be red to be good. But my first sticky-hot summer back in New York City—the kind that has you leaving trails of sweat behind like snail tracks—quickly changed my mind. My fifth floor walk-up on 97th Street had no air conditioning, just two little fans, each the size of a breadbox that blew the sweat around on your body like the drier in a car wash. So, on the hottest days, I stayed out until the sun went down, and my favorite thing to do was sit outside at ‘inoteca on the Lower East Side, sipping a glass of pale, crisp, Italian rosato. Continue reading

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Wine of the Week: 2005 La Fleur de Bouard, Lalande-de-Pomerol

Fri Apr 24, 2009

La Fleur de BouardOkay, I have to be honest here—when I first tasted many of the 2005 Bordeaux at last year’s UGC (Union des Grands Crus de Bordeax) tasting in Santa Monica, I wasn’t exactly a fan. For all my excitement about getting to taste Mouton and Cheval Blanc out of the gate, wines that I had only read about, my actual experience was less interesting. Many of the wines were huge, tannic monsters that made your mouth feel like it was stuffed with wine-saturated cotton balls. Subtle cassis, raspberry, anise and coffee notes lurked beneath the surface, hinting at what was to come, but after 20 or 30 wines (I was spitting, I promise) I had the worst case of palate fatigue. Discerning aromatics or flavors was next to impossible another 10 wines in, and all I was left with in my notes were comments about structure and texture.

I’ve been barrel tasting before, and up until the UGC tasting had prided myself on my ability to taste past a wine’s youthfulness, to anticipate its potential. But I realized that Bordeaux was a different animal entirely. At a tasting like the UCG, you’re not trying to determine what the wine might taste like in six months or even a year, you’re trying to gauge the quality of something that, most of the winemakers would hope, will sit in your cellar for a decade or more before the cork is popped. In that case, my crystal ball was quite blurry, particularly since I haven’t had the opportunity to taste many of these wines over time, to have a frame of reference of how they would evolve. It made me appreciate my colleagues at K&L with 30-plus years of experience even more. Not only had they tried many of the wines we sell in their astringent nascent stages, they have watched them mature—first like parents, surprised at how life influences their children, then like grandparents, with decades of life experience lending a little insight into who their grandkids will become.

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Wine of the Week: Charbay Pomegranate Dessert Wine

Fri Apr 3, 2009

I love tradition. Not the staid, dogmatic kind, but tradition that bubbles up through generations,  crafts  passed from grandfather to son to grandson. These traditions hold the secrets of the land, of the sun and, in Marko Karakasevic’s case, the still. Marko is a 13th generation winemaker and distiller at Charbay, a winery and distillery perched atop Napa’s Spring Mountain. He works with his father, Master Distiller Miles Karakasevic,  mother Susan,  sister Lara and  wife-to-be Jenni, to create and promote some of the most adventurous spirits on today’s market.

I first learned of the Karakasevic clan from the folks at Martini House in St. Helena while working on an article about pomegranate cocktails for the San Francisco Chroncile. I’m a big fan of their clean-drinking, natural tasting pomegrante vodka, along with a number of their other products, particularly their Ruby Port. So I was duly excited when I recieved a sample of their newest product, a Pomegranate Dessert Wine, in the mail. Made using organically grown, tree-ripened, California pomegranates, this digestivo combines the tart-sweet flavors of full-flavored pomegranates with the earthy undercurrents of barrel-aged Pinot Noir brandy.

I have to admit, I wasn’t immediately a fan of this, like I was of their vodkas. I served the bottle with a sweet fruit dessert, which just amplified the port-style wine’s sweetness. I also served it room temperature, which made the wine’s 18.7% alcohol seem overwhelming. I tried it again though, about a week later, at cellar temperature and on its own, and was swept away by the tangy, deep pomegranate flavor. It had the vibrancy and fruitiness of ruby port with high tones of orange zest and cherry to counter the spice-spiked chocolaty richness in the mouth. But what really wowed me was the prominent acidity, which lingers with a faint pomegranate flavor on the palate long after your last sip. At cellar temperature, the alcoholic heat faded and the sticky sweetness was tamed by the juicy acidity. I recommened trying this with a triple-creme brie and Marcona almonds or poured over vanilla ice cream. It would also make a delicious Kir or a possible substitute in brandy-based cocktails (Pomegrante Sidecar?). I’m thinking I might pair it with strawberries for an upcoming sorbet experiment. So many options!

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Wine of the Week: 2007 Côtes du Rhône, St-Cosme

Tue Mar 24, 2009

CdR Saint CosmeThe economy looks like it’s been tied up in a plastic bag and dragged through the sewers of Wall Street Shawshank-style. When we finally emerge on the other side, things are going to look a lot different. It can be unnerving, to say the least, and downright frightening for many. I count my blessings every day that I work in the wine business. I feel like there’s some semblance of job security where I am, since when things are good people drink, but when things are bad they drink more.

It’s what people drink that seems to be changing. Wines with a high value ratio are the hot ticket item, while expensive cult bottlings are languishing on the shelves. It doesn’t phase me much, since my wine budget’s always been pretty low and one of my favorite regions, France’s Rhône Valley, is always a source for high quality wines at the lower end of the price spectrum. Even more exciting is this: the 2007 Rhônes are among the best wines the region has produced in a a generation, collector’s items. Like 2005 in Bordeaux, these are wines that you won’t want to miss and, fortunately, the wines are stellar across the spectrum.

One wine that really has me skipping like a school girl is the 2007 Côtes du Rhône, Ch. Saint Cosme, made by Louis Barruol, who makes one of my other favorite value buys, the non-vintage Little James’ Basket Press, which is predominantly Grenache. While this wine is labeled as a Côtes du Rhône because it comes from the Southern Rhône – Barruol’s St-Cosme is best known for their Gigondas – it is made entirely from Syrah, in the style of the Northern Rhône. So think of this like a baby Saint-Joseph for at least one-third the price!

The 2007 Côtes du Rhône, Ch. St-Cosme is approachable for an everyday drinker, but it’s got the structure to age a few years, too, which I like, since it’s priced for me to put some in my wine fridge to enjoy through wedding chaos (or at the wedding, hmmmm). The fruit on the nose and palate reminds me of  the wild blackberries that grow everywhere is Oregon, from well-hiked hillsides to overgrown, abandoned parking lots where the bushes are at least a foot taller than me. There’s a hint of campfire-cooked bacon and tangy red fruit that glide across your mid-palate with a wave of juicy acidity that bursts across your palate like the center of Chewels gum.The tannins are ripe, refined and well-integrated, not like the many grippy, overoaked domestic versions at this price that I avoid like the plague. While I could imagine this poured over pancakes (it’s 7 a.m. as I write, after all), this makes me think of a good cassoulet or maybe the Braised Beef I recently whipped up from A Platter of Figs.

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Wine of the Week: Pinot Meunier Champagne!

Mon Mar 16, 2009

Pascal Cuvee Emeric

It’s almost impossible to write about Champagne without the excessive use of exclamation points. It’s like the bubbles themselves invade your speech, making each word sparkle with lyrical effervescence. And yet, until I started working for K&L, I didn’t really like Champagne. I found the mousse distracting, the bread-dough yeastiness uninteresting and the hangovers unbearable. But then our Champagne buyer, Gary Westby, introduced me to small, grower-producer Champagnes, like the Franck Pascal Cuvee Emeric, and my opinion of the bubbly stuff changed completely.

The Cuvee Emeric is one of K&L’s direct imports, a wine we get straight from the producer, which means that it’s an incredibly good value ($54.99), something that those of us on a limited budget or feeling the crunch of today’s economy can surely appreciate.  It may not be inexpensive, but it’s worth every penny for a special occasion. Moreover, this beautiful sparkler is made from Pinot Meunier, a grape I knew nothing about before I started at K&L. Most Champagnes are made from Pinot Noir (Blanc de Noir), Chardonnay (Blanc de Blanc) or a combination of the two. You’ll occasionally see cuvees where Meunier is a significant part of the blend, but 100% Pinot Meuneir Champagnes are rare, which is another factor that really sets this wine apart. The Meunier gives the Champagne a distinctive mushroomy-earthy quality that I love, and it has more pronounced acidity, which makes it a great companion to a meal and more age-worthy.

The wine, though it’s not labeled vintage, comes entirely from the 2003 vintage, and all of the fruit comes from just one vineyard, planted to uncloned vines (yet another rarity!). Like I said before, it’s aromas tend to the Chanterelle end of the spectrum with hazelnut undertones, pain grille and a hint of fresh sea air. On the palate, the wine has yuzu, apple and Camembert flavors with a creamy, soft mousse that fills your mouth.The wine builds in complexity with air, which always makes it quite moreish, as Gary would say.

The only problem with the Cuvee Emeric, frankly, is that I want to keep drinking it. And I have a one-glass-of-Champagne rule, no matter how good it is. Oh well, it means I’ll have to share it with friends. Time to toast the launch of the pet website my fiance has been working diligently on for the past six months. Welcome Cute as Hell and bon chance!

Cin Cin!

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Wine of the Week: I Love Croatia

Sat Feb 14, 2009

Bibich RiservaI love Croatia. I’ve never been there, sure, but there are plenty of places that I love that I’ve never been: Argentina, Japan and Greece, to name a few. But before I wanted to climb the mountains of Patagonia or eat Argentine beef, before I learned about tiny village sake makers in Japan or imagined eating fresh feta as salty as the Aegean, I wanted to visit Croatia.

When I first learned about Croatia, it was the bullet-marred neighbor of Bosnia and Serbia, suffering amid the turmoil of the Yugoslav wars. Needless to say, it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to go. But, the next time I heard about Croatia was from some friends who had gone on Semester at Sea. They came back with “I heart Croatia” bumper stickers, and told of the cerulean waters of the Adriatic Sea, more beautiful than anything they had seen in the world. I decided I wanted to paddle up the Dalmatian Coast from Dubrovnik to Split, eat fish harpooned from the clear blue sea, and explore a civilization that has survived since the first millennium BC.

Now I’ve discovered yet another reason to want to visit Croatia—wine! The country is home to more than 300 diverse wine regions, producing whites (about 70%), reds and small amounts or rosé. The wines are similar in style to northeastern Italy, Austria, Hungry and Germany and include some of the same varietals, particularly Frankovka, also known as Blaufränkisch. But Croatia also makes some incredible, acid-driven wines from native varietals like Plavac Mali, which is an ancient relative of Zinfandel, and it seems that the best wines come from the Dalmatian Coast.

This Valentine’s Day, I’m paying tribute to my love of Croatia with a bottle of 2006 Bibich Riserva from the town of Skradin in North Dalmatia. A blend of three native varietals—Babich, Plavina and Lasin—the wine is full of fresh cherry and raspberry fruit, hints of clove and cardamom from aging in American oak, and an undercurrent of spicy black pepper. What I really love about this wine is its vibrant acidity and lighter body. It’s perfect for an evening when the meal might ordinarily call for a white wine, but you’re really in the mood for red (Dungeness crab, anyone?). I first tried the wine at Providence, for my birthday dinner, and it went remarkably well with the Black Bass and truffles I ate. It’s also equally tasty with a hearty roasted chicken or braised short ribs or stinky cheeses. Better yet, it’s got something for everyone—a little oak for the California wine lover and plenty of acidity for Old World wine geeks. And fortunately, since my enthusiasm for Croatian wine isn’t shared by many people, you can get this, and most Croatian wines, for less than $20.

Try it, and I think you’ll love Croatia, too.

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Wine of the Week: 2007 Château Suzeau Côtes du Rhône

Thu Oct 9, 2008

Suzeau

On Monday the Dow plunged like Paris Hilton’s neckline. It continued to fall on Tuesday and again yesterday, all the while our national debt has climbed. The economic turmoil might drive you to drink, if you could still afford a quaffable bottle of wine.

Fortunately, affordable wine is my specialty. Working at K&L Wine Merchants, I have the opportunity to taste dozens of wines a week, from the dirt cheap to the “I wish I could afford this.” One recent discovery on the “dirt cheap” end of the spectrum is this delicious, snappy Côtes du Rhône from Château Suzeau. This beauty comes from winemaker Cecile Chassagne’s negociant project, where she buys fruit and occasionally finished wine and helps to get it to market. K&L has done business with Chassagne for years, importing her wines directly and passing the savings on to customers, which is why this incredible little wine only costs $8.99 a bottle!

Surprisingly fresh and approachable for such a young wine, its deep crimson color has a purplish rim, like velvet trimming on a royal robe. Comprised of 80% grenache and 20% syrah, the wine’s black cherry and blackberry aromas mingle with a little garrigue and black pepper spice. On the palate the wine is soft and giving (as in: give me more), with savory herb and black fruit flavors, fresh acidity and barely there tannins. Sure this doesn’t offer the complexity of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but it has enough intrigue to enjoy on its own and the style to enjoy with everything from braised lamb shanks to short ribs with parsnip puree or a even a warm Brussels sprout salad with pancetta and sherry vinegar. Because it’s so young, I recommend decanting for an hour before drinking to full appreciate everything this wine has to offer. And if your belt isn’t too tight, buy a little to stash away. This kind of deal doesn’t come along everyday, but the wine will continue to develop over the next five years.

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Good Wine in Box?

Thu Jul 31, 2008

Among my friends I’m considered a wine snob. But honest, I’m not! No, I don’t like Two Buck Chuck. But I don’t think wine needs to be expensive to be good, or that has to be red to be good. I don’t even think it has to come in a bottle to be good. Yes, I’m talking about box wine.

The bag-in-a-box concept is brilliant, portable and keeps your wine fresh much longer than in bottle. The problem with much of it has been the wine itself, but fortunately winemakers are embracing the box and filling it up with some delicious, characterful wine. At K&L, where I work as a writer and editor, we are importing three-liter boxes of Blason Pinot Grigio from Italy (it’s currently bobbing around the Atlantic somewhere), but already have three-liter boxes of the quintessential summer wine, the 2007 “Le Petite Frog” Picpoul de Pinet Hughes Bealieu ($29.99) in stock. That’s $30 for the equivalent of four bottles of wine and it will last up to six weeks in your fridge.

Picpoul, which means “lip-stinger,” is a high-acid white grape grown also called Folle Blanche; it’s a primary component in Cognac and Armagnac and is also a common grape in France’s Loire Valley. This Picpoul comes from Southern France’s Coteaux de Languedoc, where it manages to maintain its vibrant acidity despite the region’s blistering heat. Juicy peach and apricot aromas and flavors, stony minerality, tarragon notes and low levels of alcohol make it an ideal match for almost anything on your summer table. I’ve paired it with barbecued chicken, caprese salads, rosemary shrimp and grilled peaches all to great success.

Perfect for camping, picnicking, backyard pool parties, beach excursions and, frankly, any other excuse you can come up with to crack open a box of fresh, fun, delicious wine.  You have to try this Picpoul, it’ll convert the snob in you, too.

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Wine of the Week: Marisa Cuomo Ravello Bianco

Tue Jun 17, 2008

With the Fourth of July weekend festivities rapidly approaching and the weather starting to heat up like the inside of a firecracker, I’ve been thinking a lot about food-friendly, refreshing white wines. One that I absolutely can’t do without is the Marisa Cuomo Ravello Bianco. I first had this wine from Italy’s Campania while working at Pizzeria Mozza. It paired wonderfully with the truffle and sage flavors of the Bianco pizza. I’ve brought bottles home since then and paired it with grilled chicken and pork dishes, pizza, salads, fruit and seafood—it’s like the little black dress of white wine.

Marisa’s vineyards are located in Salerno, a small village on the Amalfi Coast near Mount Vesuvius. The proximity to the notorious volcano has created highly acidic soils perfect for indigenous varietals like falenghina and allowed the vines to thrive for centuries, even through phylloxera. The Ravello Bianco is a blend of biancolella and falenghina and is a lighter to medium-bodied white with zippy acidity and a kiss of sea air-like salinity. The fruit flavors tend to toward crisp Granny Smith apple, grapefruit and white flowers. At about $20 a bottle, this isn’t the cheapest white on the shelves, but it’s less expensive than most California chardonnays with a lot more complexity.

Cin Cin.

Next up? Now that you’ve got the wine, I’ll be working out the details for Sage-Smoked Pork Loin…

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Summer’s Perfect Quaffer

Thu May 22, 2008

Wine of the Week: 2007 Côtes de Provence Rosé Château du Rouet Cuvée Reservée

Let’s get this straight. This wine is not pink. It’s not blush, either. Blushing is for schoolgirls. This is rosé. Don’t think white zin; think pale red wine. Made from free run juice from the first pressing of grenache and syrah (a process called saignée), this is red wine with just a kiss of color from the skins. It has body and freshness and is packed full of fruit, but there’s nothing cloying about it. I love this rosé before dinner, with dinner and after dinner. It’s glistens like copper in the glass and smells like lavender and wild strawberries and watermelon. On the palate, the wine’s creamy mid-palate, high-toned fruit, minerality and vibrant acidity make it the perfect foil for farmers market fare. If you buy only one wine this summer this Provençal gem should be it. I’ll have a bottle with me at the Hollywood Bowl, at every backyard barbecue and in the fridge for after work. I wrote this wine up for work already, but I can’t resist singing its praises again here. It’s that good.

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