Memorial Day Wines

As we head toward the unofficial start of summer and outdoor cooking (and drinking), what wine and food pairings are you looking forward to this holiday weekend? Let me know in the comment link below if there’s an inexpensive red or white that flag you’ll be serving on the patio … or something more substantial. As I found a couple of years ago at a Memorial Day cookout, hot dogs and white Bordeaux actually do go together. Here’s to a great weekend of fun, relaxation and good food and wine.


Sips: some exciting new dry rieslings

I’m catching up on a couple of excellent dry rieslings, a category that deserves much more attention as an alternative to the ubiquitous chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. These two are from Australia and Washington state, which are both making world-class rieslings. From Australia, Wakefield’s 2008Wakefield Estate Riesling NV Clare Valley Riesling, $17, is bone dry and refreshing and would be great with broiled fish, which may not be the typical pairing that comes to mind with riesling. I found this wine exquisite, with  notes of Meyer lemon, apricot, a bit of the interesting petrol-like quality that is often found in riesling (don’t worry, it’s not at all offensive), a hint of honey and then lime and minerals on the finish. As you can see, there’s a lot going on here. Imported by American Wine Distributors, San Francisco.

Another winning example, from Washington, is Mercer Estates’ 2009 Yakima Valley Riesling, $14. Mercer, which opened just two years ago, is making some impressive whites, including a pinot gris that I reviewed last fall. The riesling is quite dry and  full-bodied with melon and petrol notes, a creamy mid-palate and citrus, mainly lime, on the finish. Enjoy it with a range of foods, including Asian and other full-flavored dishes, or as an elegant aperitif. (Wines received as press samples.)


Sips: An ‘Over the Edge’ pinot noir at (gasp!) $15

It took the right bottle of New Zealand pinot noir to get me interested in the category, and I found it the other day with an exceptionally tasty example from the Martinborough sub-region on the southern tip of the North Island, where pinot noir  is the signature variety.  The area is known for its cool temperatures, dry autumns and low yields, making parallels with Burgundy inevitable. Those conditions, note Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in “The World Atlas of Wine,” Sixth Edition, give Martinborough’s wineries “the chance to make some of the most vivid and Burgundian pinot noir.” They go on to say that the wines range from “potently plummy to lean, dry and earthy; but then so does Burgundy.” Over the Edge

The wine I enjoyed was the 2009 Pinot Noir called Over the Edge, and the name reminded me that New Zealand is among the regions smitten with creating catchy names for their wines, something that has always given me a bit of pause. If your wine is good, why is it necessary to slap a clever name on it, especially since there are an awful lot of bottles out there with labels that are, to be frank, more interesting that the wines inside them? In any event, the Over the Edge pinot noir will draw people with the name and reward them with what’s inside. I loved its expressive fruit, mainly cherry and blueberry notes, combined with a bit of meat, its earthy minerality and conservative use of oak.  And yes, it is Burgundian in style, with refreshing acidity that obscures the fact that alcohol is 14. 5 percent.

The wine is produced by Escarpment Vineyard, whose vines grow  in alluvial gravel soils along the Huangarua River and whose winemaker and part-owner, Larry McKenna, is one of New Zealand’s foremost makers of pinot noir. My biggest surprise about this wine was the price. It’s listed at under $15 on several Web sites. Enjoy it with everything from grilled salmon to lamb and duck. Imported by Meadowbank Estates, Alexandria, Virginia. (Received as a press sample.)


Swirls: Manchester United, Gordon Ramsay, China Rising

Some wine news from all over, starting with something I doubt you’ll see anytime soon in the United Stconchaates: an official “wine sponsor” of a major sports team. But in England, Manchester  United has just signed up Chile’s biggest wine producer, Concha y Toro, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Meanwhile, the scandal over nasty-mouth restaurateur Gordon Ramsay’s alleged unpaid bills to wine and food suppliers continues to grow. The Huffington Post touches all the bases in its latest roundup.

And … thank God for China, legions of winemakers are saying from Bordeaux to Napa and beyond as the country’s thirst for expensive wine continues to grow. Sealing a business deal? Break out the Petrus. The San Jose Mercury News quotes one private club owner as saying that opening a bottle of Bordeaux worth thousands “shows generosity and indicates you are cultured."


Sips: Le Bernardin and Muscadet

Le Bernardin and Muscadet might seem to some like a food and wine oxymoron, pairing the cuisine of the famed New York restaurant with the modest, inexpensive wine from the western end of France’s Loire Valley. After all, isn’t Muscadet, made from the melon de Bourgogne grape, a fresh and slightly briny young wine that is in its element with a dozen oysters on the half shell? Or as a wash-down wine for fried clams served in a basket on a red and white checked tablecloth? Well, yes and yes, but the point of the dinner convened for a group of wine muscadet 1writers last week (we sampled 11 wines, with as many glasses in front of each of us) was to reinforce the fact that Muscadet can and should be about much more than just the simplest of food pairings. This is something that I and others who have studied the wines have understood for some time, appreciating them as terroir-driven wines that express the range of soils in which the grapes are grown. And yet, the producers and promoters of Muscadet have had a hard time moving it more broadly beyond its reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of white wine.

At a big tasting event I attended several months ago in the Loire Valley, for example, a prominent producer told me of people who get excited about the complexity and depth that one can taste in Muscadet, only to laugh dismissively when told of the prices (Muscadets tend to be in the $12 to $20 range). According to this line of reasoning, wines of such dimension need to be priced higher to be taken seriously. That’s okay. The rest of us will enjoy them at their humble tariffs.

At our dinner last week, the wines were separated into three groups: young and fresh wines from 2009 and 2008; those with a few years or so of bottle age, and a few that go back 15 to more than 30 years. The young wines were paired superbly with a first course of smoked yellowfin tuna “prosciutto” served with crunchy Japanese pickled vegetables, and some of the slightly older wines, which tend to take on a more creamy quality, matched well with the main course of baked wild striped bass in a delicious light Périgord (truffle and wine) sauce.  Here are my favorites:

Domaine l’Aujardière 2008 Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu sur Lie, $13. Chablis-like with lots of minerals and a honey note.

Michel Delhommeau 2009 Cuvée St. Vincent Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie, $13. Delicious apricot, tropical fruit, pineapple and mineral notes.

Domaine de la Louvetrie 2008 Amphibolite Nature Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, $16. Young and austere with a pear note and beautiful balance. Organically and biodynamically farmed.

Claude Branger 2007 Les Gils de Gras Mouton Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie. Spicy with a green apple note and lots of creaminess; still quite young.

Domaine Luneau-Papin 1995 L d’Or Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie, $30.  Beautiful fruit and mineral mix; rich yet still refreshing.

Domaines Ollivier Frères 1986 Domaine de la Grenaudière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie. Probably the most interesting wine of the evening with exotic spices, a good deal of creaminess and still-vibrant fruit. Alas, it’s no longer available but demonstrates the wonderful aging potential of some Muscadets.

And by the way, did I mention that we enjoyed one of Pascal Guilbaud’s Muscadets with oysters? And that the pairing was nothing less than superb?


Sips: California chardonnay the way we like it

I’ve just tasted a couple of superb new California chardonnays in a crisp, cool-climate style that makes them delightfully refreshing and easy to enjoy their complexity and sophistication. Both are from Rusack Vineyards, which I’ve written about before and is located in Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. This area produces some of California’s most exciting chardonnays, notable for their exceptional balRusackance produced in part by the cooling influences of the nearby Pacific Ocean. 

The wines reminded me of my visit to this breathtaking region three and a half years ago during which I got to sample a fair number of chardonnays, pinot noirs, syrahs and other wines (my MSNBC.com column on the area and an accompanying video won a James Beard Award). The Rusack chardonnays immediately brought to mind some of the wines I tasted from fruit grown in  the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, which I visited on that trip and which for years has been supplying grapes to some of the region’s most notable wineries. And so I wasn’t at all surprised when I read that a good deal of the fruit for both Rusack chardonnays came from Bien Nacido (as well as the Sierra Madre Vineyard).

Rusack’s 2008 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, a bargain at $23, shows a delicious combination of Meyer lemon, pear and a bit of vanilla reflecting judicious use of oak aging. The 2008 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay Resreve is a bit richer, showing those same flavor profiles, along with some pineapple, a spicy note and a good deal of minerality on its long finish (2,228 cases produced). A much greater percentage of the Reserve wine is aged in new oak, giving it that spice and a bit more fullness. It’s $36 with just 338 cases produced. Alcohol in both wines is listed at at a moderate 14.2 percent. With their limited production, I suspect that a visit to Rusack’s Web site may be the preferred method of buying the wines. (Wines received as press samples.)


Sips: More bubbly notes

A quick addendum to my last post on Limoux, the sparkling wine from France’s Languedoc, with some other sparklers in the news.

Some of the best examples of Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, are considered by Eric Asimov in the NYT’s Wines of The Times; two  ubiquitous and inexpensive cavas, FreixenChampagne_corket Cordon Negro and Cristalino, didn’t make the cut.

And something you might not have known: they make sparkling wine – very good sparkling line – in England. And the industry, it appears, is being helped by the unanticipated effects of climate change, according to an interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Who knew there were 416 vineyards in the U.K.? Or that one  of the best bubbly makers, in southern England, has chalky soils like Champagne’s and is less than a hundred miles to the north?


Sips: From France, a superb $17 sparkler

At a discussion I moderated last week here in New York on the convergence of the wine and social media worlds, part of the fun for the audience was being able to taste a few great wines before and after the event. For starters, we served a superb sparkling wine that I had come across at a couple of recent tastings, including one in which I served as a judge of some of the best wines from the Languedoc region in the south of France (a role for which I received an honorarium).

The wine was the 2008 Blanquette de Limoux Grande Réserve from Antech, and I thought it would present a nice opportunity for those attending to try a very good non-Champagne sparkApril 2010 wine 014ling wine, of which there are many, of course. This one, at a suggested price of $17, is less than half what you would pay for even the most inexpensive Champagnes. And it proved to be highly popular with the audience, very much in a dry Champagne style. It’s bright and very fresh with fine bubbles, made primarily from the local mauzac grape (90 percent), with five percent each of chardonnay and chenin blanc. It’s lemony with a note of green apple and and a nice yeasty quality that also reminded me of Champagne. An altogether delightful wine at a price that can’t be beat.  In my tastings, I also discovered that Antech also makes an excellent sparkling rose called Emotion made primarily from chardonnay with smaller amounts of pinot noir, chenin blanc and mauzac. Raspberry and strawberry notes with a lemony finish. Fun fact: there is some evidence that the bubble-producing method of secondary fermentation in the bottle actually originated in Limoux before it was used in Champagne. Imported by Baron Francois Ltd., New York.


Swirls: A cork alternative (and it’s made of cork)

It’s called the DIAM, and although I’m certain that I have pulled it out of numerous wine bottles, I hadn’t heard it described since a  French winemaker told me about it last night. products_diamBut first, a little background. 

By now,  alternatives to cork are very much in the mainstream of winemaking. The biggest revolution has been the increasing popularity of screw caps. Randall Grahm, the founder of California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard, has used them for years on all his wines, including his signature red, Le Cigare Volant, and white, Le Cigare Blanc; overall, they have gained broader acceptance for white-wine use than for reds, although many producers in Australia and New Zealand are using them for both.

Alternatively, plastic closures have captured a piece of the market, mainly for inexpensive wines intended for quick drinking. Some still question the ability of the new closures to permit long-term wine aging because they allow less air to enter the bottles. One of the leading reasons the industry has turned to them, of course, is the fact that a small but annoying percentage of natural corks are tainted with TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), a compound that “taints” the wine and infuses it with a musty off-smell that is often described as resembling a damp cellar or wet newspapers or cardboard.

That said, there those who still refuse to part with the cork, including most French winemakers. “I’m against plastic, I’m against screw caps,” Pascal Guilbaud, owner of Guilbaud Frères, a producer of Muscadet in France’s Loire Valley, declared as we sat together at a dinner built around Muscadet last night here in New York (I’ll have more on the wines in a coming post). And then he told me and a colleague, Tyler Colman of Dr. Vino, about the alternative he does use, describing a product that is reconstituted from cork after it is broken apart, heated and purified.

With a little research, I landed on the Web site of the DIAM closure, a so-called “technical cork.” How is it made? At a production facility in Spain, raw cork is cleaned by boiling, then ground into a cork “flour.” These cork granules are then subjected to a process using pressurized carbon dioxide that penetrates and cleans them. The company says this removes 99.8 percent of TCA as well as other harmful compounds that can cause bad aromas. The granules are then re-assembled and baked with a binding

agent “to give each DIAM closure a homogeneous structure and perfect neutrality,” according to the Web site. “This combination allows free expression of the wine's aromas without interfering with its natural development.” In other words, the corks allow the wine to breathe. Dozens of wineries are using DIAM closures in the U.S., France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Back at our dinner, Pascal Guilbaud said he now swears by the  newfangled corks and hasn’t seen one bottle of his Muscadet tainted by TCA since he started using them. No, he has no use for plastic or screw caps at this point. But with the DIAM closure, aided by a little technology, he can still say he uses corks in his bottles.


We’re now on Reuters!

Today my wine portfolio expands a bit with  a new association with Reuters, which will feature a column by me monthly and offer it to its clients in imagesthe U.S. and worldwide under the “Lifestyle” banner. I’ve seen it already on  the U.S., British and Indian editions of Reuters, as well as on Yahoo! and other sites. Here’s the beginning, with a link to the the full article:

Vine Talk: The new world of wineries without borders

By Edward Deitch 12 mins ago

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) – Jerry Douglas has grand plans for Biltmore Estate, which is already one of the most visited wineries in the United States.

"The world is our vineyard in a lot of ways," the senior vice president of wine operations tells me in a gentle drawl that suggests the American South.

"We want to have a more global perspective from a marketing standpoint and a production standpoint."

Biltmore is not alone. For a growing number of American wine companies, it's not so much about selling what grows in their vineyards (if, in fact, they have their own vineyards) but developing or expanding a brand that connects with consumers.

Read more