The Daily Sip: Early Thanksgiving wine tip -- Chiarlo’s winning and versatile Barbera d’Asti

Michele Chiarlo is one of the biggest estates in Italy’s Piedmont, producing a range of wine from Barolos and Barbarescos among the reds to Gavis and Moscato d’Astis among the whites. chiarloOne of Chiarlo’s most familiar and popular wines in this country is the Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Le Orme.” For a simple pasta sauce I  made using some of the season’s last tomatoes, I picked up a bottle of the 2007 the other day for about $16 and was not disappointed.

Barbera, with its signature acidity, happens to be one of the great food wines, especially for tomato-based sauces, which have their own high acidity. Add to that the concentrated fruit of Chiarlo’s wine, and you’ve got a winning combination. Sometimes the acids can be a bit over the edge in Barbera, but that’s not the case here with everything in balance. Black cherry and blueberry notes dominate with some cedar, herbs and a vanilla touch on the smooth, long finish. The fruit was even prettier the next day, the wine benefitting from a day of breathing. I thought to myself that this would also be an excellent Thanksgiving wine, holding up to the myriad tastes on the holiday table. Alcohol is 13 percent. Imported by Kobrand Corporation, New York.


Swirls: Twitter wine, sweet German riesling, elephant crushes grapes

SWIRL: You’ll recall that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, recently announced a $100 million grant to the Newark, N.J. school system. Well Fledglingnow comes word of another literacy initiative  involving Twitter and wine. Twitter has teamed up with Crushpad, a California custom winemaking facility, to offer a pinot noir and a chardonnay under the Fledgling by Twitter label, each priced at  $25. For every bottle sold, $5 will go to a non-profit group that promotes literacy in developing countries. Read more about it here.

SWIRL: As a riesling lover, I was struck by Eric Asimov’s excellent column in The New York Times today on German rieslings, specifically the spatlese category, which refers to a ripeness level that allows the grapes to be made into sweet wines. Such wines can be sublime, and if the sweetness “is carefully balanced by other qualities, like a lively acidity,” Asimov writes, “you end up with a high-wire balancing act in which the tension between sweetness and acid is refreshing and thrilling.”

SWIRL: If some of the wine produced by one Oregon elephantwinery comes off as a little “heavy handed,” it may be understandable. That’s because Reustle Vineyards used an elephant named George this past weekend to crush some of its grapes. Read the full story here.


The Daily Sip: From Austrlia, Peter Lehmann’s excellent dry riesling

After attending the Riesling Rendezvous event in Washington state in July, my appreciation of riesling as a highly versatile everyday wine only increased. With that in mind, I continue to taste excellent dry rieslings, and one of the latest is from South Australia, Peter Lehmann's 2009 Eden Valley Dry Riesling. Lehmann riesling

This is a straightforward and focused wine that's easy to drink and simply delicious. Aromas of wet stone and citrus are followed by tastes of lime and yellow peach with crisp acidity coming through on a long finish. Alcohol is a modest 11 percent.

Dry rieslings (and even off-dry examples) deserve much more attention as "go to" white wines because they match well with so many foods, including fish and shellfish, simple chicken dishes, Asian cuisine and salads. In this regard, I think they are actually more useful than sauvignon blancs. Peter Lehmann's $17 Dry Riesling is also perfect on its own as a refreshing warm-up wine before dinner. Imported by The Hess Collection New World Wines, Napa, California. Received as a press sample.


A critic’s lament: why can’t we taste and judge wine with a food context?

For the most part, critics taste and evaluate wine in isolation, often “blindly” so as not to be influenced by what’s on the label, be it a winery’s name, a pretty picture or a self-serving  description of what’s in the bottle. By isolation I mean without a food context, although wines are often judged in groups – 2007  Napa Valley merlots, for example.

I started thinking again about the importance (and under-appreciation) of the food component in wine tasting the other day over lunch – a plate of chicken stew with leeks and rice. When I decided that a little wine would be nice, I reached into the hanna refrigerator to see what I had re-corked in the days before --wines that, on first tasting, didn’t capture my attention.

The wine I chose was from California, Hanna Winery’s 2008 Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Now, the night before, I had dismissed this wine as a bit too dominated by oak, at least at this stage. So back in the fridge it went in favor of something else. The next day I decided to give it another try, thinking that it might match well with the chicken and leaks and herbs and rice. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised. Here was a wine that came alive with the right food, which seemed to “tame” the oak and allow the fruit to emerge. Or, put another way, the oak blended seamlessly with the chicken and its accompaniments.

In this context, individual descriptors of the wine – the currency of wine criticism -- didn’t seem to matter so much as the fact that the food and wine had become one as each enhanced the experience of the other. And isn’t that what it’s all about? For the record, this $25 wine has notes of baked apple, a bit of pineapple, cinnamon, a touch of butterscotch, a lemony finish and, most importantly, good underlying acidity, which gave it a refreshing character with the food. As I tasted it again on the second and third day, the oak was less pronounced, reinforcing the fact that this is a young chardonnay that needs bottle age.

All of this makes me wonder, how many wines dismissed by us critics would actually end up being recommended if only they had a chance to prove themselves with a meal or could be tasted again after a day or two? (Wine received as a press sample.)


Swirls: Jersey wine, Wine on tap, wine and beer “addiction” at Starbucks

SWIRL: The president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Richard Nieuwenhuis, makes the case for why his state should join 38  others in permitting viNJ wine 2neyards and wineries to ship directly to consumers. Among his arguments: New Jersey, with 39 vineyards (who knew?), including Bellview Winery, whose vineyards are in the photo, is also the country’s fifth largest wine producer, with the industry contributing $25-$30 million to the state’s economy. Read the full article at DailyRecord.com

SWIRL: Fascinating story about the increasing popularity of wine on tap, mainly in the San Francisco Area. The owner of one small restaurant chain says recycling has been cut in half and the wine is a good deal cheaper than typical wholesale bottle costs.   The supplier is a winery that sells chardonnay and pinot noir only in kegs and small steel canteens. Read (or listen) to the full NPR story here.

SWIRL: Just about everyone has noted Starbucks’ turn to beeStarbucks-logo1-295x300r and wine, starting with one Seattle store that began the sales yesterday, a  development first reported to be in the works some months ago. I was struck by Time.com’s characterization of the development: “From One Addiction to the Next: Starbucks To Offer Beer and Wine.” Hmm.


The Daily Sip: Esporão, from Portugal’s Alentejo, hits the mark with its distinct and delicious wines

Another Portuguese wine company is starting to make its mark in this country and, based on a tasting the other night, it is not hard to see why. The company is Esporão, located in the Alantejo region in Portugal’s south. At a dinner for wine media and trade professioEsporao 2nals, I tasted 10 of Esporão’s wines and came away impressed by their quality and scope.

The evening began with a sampling of several limited production, single varietal wines. This was an interesting exercise in that blends are the norm in Portugal, in the wines as in the Ports. Among the standouts were the 2007 Alicante Bouschet and the 2007 Touriga Naçional, cleverly and simply called AB and TN on their labels.

Both grapes do well in the arid conditions of Alantejo. The Alicante Bouschet is a muscular wine packed with red and black fruit and black pepper, meat and leather notes. David Baverstock, an Australian who has been Esporão’s winemaker for 18 years, maintained that it needs years in the bottle to reach its peak, though I found it quite accessible.

The Touriga Naçional is a delicious example of Portugal’s flagship variety with dark cherry and violet notes, good supporting acidity and well-integrated oak. When I asked Baverstock about the need for acidification of the wines, given the region’s hot climate, he conceded that there was “a little bit of touch up, for sure.” Production of the wines is about 550 cases each and the suggested price is $35. Production is about 550 cases of each wine.

As we moved on to dinner at the restaurant Craft in lower Manhattan, it was time to taste Esporão’s two flagship Reserva wines, which should be competitive with many similarly priced wines in the American market. The 2007 Reserva White, $20, is made from the Roupeiro, Arinto and Antão Vaz grapes. This elegant, aromatic wine is marked by citrus and floral notes. Partial barrel fermentation imparts a bit of creaminess. It went particularly well with monkfish wrapped in pancetta.

The 2007 Reserva Red, $25, which I have tasted several times now, has become a favorite. It’s a blend of Aragonês (Tempranillo), Cabernet Sauvignon and Trincadeira, which combine seamlessly in a wine of beautiful complexity and approachability. Lots of layers here, including blackberry and red berry notes, black pepper, and touches of meat and herbs, earth, chocolate and coffee. It was superb with roasted beef sirloin.

This is the second group of wines from Alentejo I have sampled in recent months (see my review of Enoforum’s wines), with both showing impressive fruit and and winemaking and whetting my appetite for more from a country that has long languished in the American market. Esporão’s wines are imported by Aidil Wines & Liquors, Newark, New Jersey.


Swirls: Discovering the hidden charms and values of South West France

Yesterday I moderated a panel discussion here in New York on the wines of South West France. This corner of the country, which has long lived in the shadow of Bordeaux to the north and even Langudeoc-Rousillon to the east, deserves much more attention for its unique, terroir-driven wines. The region is  large, framed by the South WestAtlantic Ocean on the west, Spain and the   Pyrenées on the south and the Massif Central mountains on the east.

Despite its relative obscurity, it happens to be where some of the most popular international varieties, including merlot and cabernet sauvignon, originated as relatives of cabernet franc, although these grapes are but minor players there today. Malbec, which has enjoyed so much success in Argentina, also originated in the South West and remains an important grape there, most notably in Cahors. Tannat, négrette and braucol among reds and colombard, gros manseng and ugni-blanc among whites are used in some of the more popular wines.

A tasting of a dozen or so wines after the discussion revealed a range of red styles, from the lighter, fruitier wines of Fronton, Gaillac and Marcillac to the bigger, more brooding wines of Madiran and Cahors. The whites were on the fruity and citrusy side, including nice examples from the Saint-Mont and Irouleguy appellations. The whites will serve splendidly as refreshing aperitif wines and will match well with fish, shellfish, sushi and other lighter fare. They are nice alternatives to sauvignon blanc and many are considerably less expensive. In fact, most wines from the South West are in the $10 to $20 range or even less. I’ll have more to say in coming weeks about specific wines from this exciting and distinctive region.


The Daily Sip: From Wente Vineyards, a California original

One of the more unusual reds I’ve enjoyed form California recently is from a grape you’re not going to find all over stores shelves or restaurant wine lists. Although so-called Rhone varieties, particularly syrah and to a lesser extent grenawente mourvedreche, are common in California now, only a handful of wineries offer mourvedre as a standalone bottling. So I’ve got to hand it to  Wente Vineyards, the venerable Livermore Valley winery east of San Francisco, for even bothering with mourvedre. True, just 201 cases of the 2007 Small Lot Mourvedre were produced, but if you can get hold of a bottle (most likely from the winery since the “Small Lot” line has limited distribution), you’ll experience a singular California wine.

Made with five percent syrah and in a  fruit-forward style that is unmistakably Californian, the wine has a grapey blackberry core that is punctuated by an array of herbs and spices and an earthy quality that is a signature of mourvedre. It received 10 months of aging in neutral oak, which keeps the wood influence restrained.  At the same time, it is softly tannic, which makes the wine accessible now but which also means that one should choose food pairings wisely. I would suggest grilled pork or chicken and vegetable pasta dishes. It was rather overpowered, I thought, by some pan-seared steaks we had the other night. In any event, this $35 wine is impressive and represents California with distinction and originality. Received as a press sample.


The Daily Sip: enjoying a first-rate sauivgnon blanc from South Australia

I’m sitting around on a wonderfully pleasant autumn afternoon, charcoal grill firing up, kids occupied, new puppy calm. I’m having a taste of a mouth tingling sauvignon blanc that I know will match well with the cut-up chicken (from a local farm) that I’m about to grill after marinating it in lemon, white wine, olive oil and herbes de Provence. The wine is from South Australia,  Wakefield sauvignon Wakefield Wines’ 2009 Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc. It’s nicely balanced with notes of green apple, lime, passion fruit, gooseberry and a touch of vanilla framed by a “vibrant acidity,” to borrow a phrase from the bottle’s back label.

This one, while on the fresh and racy side, is slightly de-tuned from many New Zealand sauvignons, which should make it broadly appealing to devotees of the grape. It also reinforces what I have known for some time, that Australia is making some first-rate sauvignons that remain largely overshadowed by regions that are better known for the variety. Beyond citrus-marinated chicken, enjoy this $17 wine with simple fish and shellfish dishes and sushi. Alcohol is 13 percent. Imported by American Wine Distributors, South San Francisco, California. Received as a press sample.


Swirls: on Facebook, wine consumers find a new ‘voice’

From sales to distribution to shipping, this country’s wine wars are inevitably fought among groups that have powAWCCerful financial interests – wineries and wholesalers, retailers and importers. But largely invisible in the debate over wine policy are those on whom the entire industry depends – wine consumers. With that in mind, a new wine advocacy group was launched this week, the American Wine Consumer Coalition. It’s the brainchild of Tom  Wark, a California-based wine marketing and public relations executive who also writes a wine blog, Fermentation.

For now, the AWCC “home page” is on Facebook and, as of mid-day today, more than 500 people were listed on it, which is not a bad start. For wine consumers, one of the key goals is expansion of inter-state shipping. A news release sums up the aims: “Of primary concern to wine consumers in America is gaining access to the hundreds of thousands of wines that are now available in the American marketplace. To have access to these wines consumers must have rights to buy and have wines shipped to them from out-of-state wineries, wine stores and importers. Too often the majority of wines simply aren't sold in the various states, making inter-state direct shipment a critical element in wine consumers' lives.”

Tom Wark believes the “three-tier system” of alcohol distribution in most states (producers, distributors and retailers) is misnamed and should include a critical fourth tier, namely consumers, to recognize “their critical place in that system.” It will be interesting to see how consumers – and the industry – respond to this new initiative.


The Daily Sip: at a wine tasting for a good cause, two delightful and affordable Burgundies stand out

It’s not every day that I get to go home with two lovely discoveries from Burgundy while also supporting a good cause. Friends had invited us to a walk-around wine tasting last night to benefit Partnership with Children, which, for more than a  century, has been providing programs and services to help kids from low-income families here in New York succeed in school and in life.   More than 50 wines from around the world were poured by eight importers and distributors; a retailer, Grapes – The Wine Company, also took part.

In this type of broad tasting, it’s important to be organized. To start, I like to look over the wine list to see which wines interest me. Then, I circle around the room once to sample the whites and then a second time for the reds.

Of the wines I tasted, two Burgundies caught my attention last night. The first, a white, was the absolutely delicious 2008 Chablis from dampt chablis Vincent Dampt. When it comes to un-oaked chardonnay, Chablis is the gold standard, and this one shows why. Clean and focused, it has beautiful tropical fruit and lime notes with an underlying minerality that is a signature of Chablis. It was also poured at the correct temperature (just slightly chilled), which allowed the aromas and flavors to stand out. It sells at retail for about $22. Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York.

In my second pass, it was a charming red Burgundy that got me excited.  Actually, it turned out to be a Burgundy oddball, the 2007  Bourgogne Passetoutgrains from Domaine Laurent. While almost all red Burgundy is made from a single grape (pinot noir), Bourgogne Passetoutgrains is a blend of pinot noir and gamay, which gives it a fresh and fruity character reminiscent of Beaujolais, in which gamay is the principle grape. This uncomplicated wine is marked by pretty cherry and strawberry fruit, a bit of spice and a refreshing acidity that will place it high on my list of Thanksgiving wine possibilities. About $20. Imported by Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, New York.

The wines are available through Grapes – The Wine Company, among other retailers. More information on Partnership with Children can be found at its Web site.


Swirls: Facebook, Twitter gain popularity in wine industry

In case you missed it last month when I wrote about the explosive facebookuse of Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools by the wine industry, here’s a link to my Reuters column out  today based on the same UC-Davis Graduate School of Management survey. The survey provides a good snapshot as well of where the wine industry sees itself – and consumers – in terms of the still-struggling economy.


The Daily Sip: superb, affordable Chianti from a lesser-known part of the famed region

For the modest sum of $15, it’s going to be difficult to find a good example of Chianti Classico, the most celebrated appellation in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Fortunately, there are other lesser-known Chiantis that can be very good and affordable at the same time. One of them is Chianti Colli Fiorentini, which refers to a Chianti sub-petreto1zone in the hills around Florence. I’ve tasted two of them recently, both priced at $15, and one of them clearly stood out (and it was not the one represented by a very well known  promoter of Italian wines).

Petreto’s 2006 Chianti Colli Fiorentini is a fresh and fruity wine dominated by delicious black cherry and blueberry notes, subtle spice and the kind of crisp acidity that makes good Chianti and the sangiovese grape so irresistible. Moderately tannic and easy to drink, the bottle was a crowd pleaser and went quickly at a dinner with friends the other night. While some of its subtlety may have been lost on spaghetti and meatballs, it would do wonders with stews and roasts, hearty vegetable soups and sautéed broccoli rabe and sausage tossed with pasta. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Imported by Farello Wines, New York.


SWIRL: In Pa. vending machine battle, union promotes its agenda by invoking threat of underage drinking

SWIRL: There is a ridiculous new turn in Pennsylvania’s expanding program of placing wine vending machines in supermarkets. As you’ll recall from my earlier pospa vending machinet on the kiosks, when someone attempts to buy a bottle from the machines, his or her identity is verified electronically by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and the transaction is videotaped. Well now, the union representing state liquor store managers is protesting to the PLCB for putting a vending machine in a store that serves the University of Pennsylvania community in Philadelphia.

The argument is that the machine encourages underage drinking. Here we go again – the threat-of-underage-drinking being  invoked by a group pushing its own agenda.  As consumeraffairs.com reports, “The union, of course, represents the people who sell wine, beer and liquor in liquor stores, rather than machines.” Here in New York, I live near Columbia University, and there must be at least a dozen stores that sell beer, wine and alcohol within just a few blocks of the campus. I can’t recall any complaints that they are promoting underage drinking.