Wine column no. 9: The Wallflowers

They filter in when you're not listening. Someone tells a funny story, and the half-smile on their face tells you they've almost reached the punchline.
Meanwhile, you're sipping that chardonnay — it is a chardonnay, right? And you're eating your chicken, and the night goes on and you haven't even really noticed the wine that keeps getting poured into your glass.
These are what we call wallflower wines. Like dinner music, they're the stuff in between the words you choose to say and hear. They're wines that don't stand tall enough to be singled out as winners; yet they're not low enough to be excluded from the get-go.
This column is about those wines, because truth be told, not every bottle is going to catch your eye. Some just need to be fillers. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Speaking of chardonnay, let's start with the 2009 Newton from Winetree. This chilled 58 percent Sonoma Valley and 42 percent Napa Valley Californian was instantly green apple. It remained that way for about 20 minutes before the vanilla started to peek through ... like the sun does, sometimes, through the clouds. Think subdued, because that's what this oakiness was. We both liked this. There was no butter, no manufactured softness, and this 14.5 percent alcohol bottle is a good buy if you like vanilla and green apple flavors. Paired with lightly seasoned chicken, it'd be a good bet. $10-$19.99.
Now it's on to the 2008 Bogle Vineyards Old Vine red Zinfandel, which was about $9 at Schnucks. We thought it was rough and a bit bolder than other versions of Old Vine Zinfandel we've had. In terms of flavor, it's earthy, but texturally there are smoother versions of red Zinfandel out there. That said, for a less-than-$10 bottle, it's not bad at all.
Here's a red that won't rob you blind, either: The 2008 Tamas Double Decker Red, which you can find at Winetree. This 13.5 percent alcohol blend of cabernet sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Barbera is light but tastes of red fruit. It's got some tannins, so you'll know you've just had a swig of that post-Prohibition juice. But it's an easy bottle to drink, and to like, without distracting you too much from your dinner companions. About $10-$15.
And finally, the 2008 Concha Y Toro Xplorador Malbec is likable without being high maintenance. This somewhat fruity Mendoza, Argentine, has texture you can breathe in and take with you, meaning it's like a lot of other lower-priced Malbec. Big Red Liquors in Bloomington. $5.99-$9.99

hoosier honey wheat: heavy, smooth, a bit honeyish

june 29, 2011: tim recommended this at winetree because i like wheat beers. i have to say i like this. greg wasn't so enthusiastic about it, saying it was too sweet and too heavy. but i liked that about it; it was definitely concentrated, almost syrupy, but this wasn't a watery creation (and i hate those). 7.5 percent alcohol. indiana all the way, too, with honey from martinsville, and it was brewed in brazil by bee creek brewery. i'd get it again, though at around $10 for a six-pack, it's kind of pricey.


If you'd like a bit of humor with your wine ...

check out this link that our friend dave messina recommended. it's a very amusing take on the (albeit alleged) relationship between wine and wine labels.


Wine column no. 8: Stepping out of the shadows

So here's the story. Lately, red wines have been hogging the spotlight. Red Zinfandel got a whole column sometime back, and Cabernet Sauvignon's used its substantial muscle power to strong arm a few mentions as well. Not so for Sauvignon blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, their fairer, more restrained cousins. These white wines have stood on the sidelines, waiting for their moments to shine. And with the sun doing just that, it's time for the wines of summer to cool our throats and soothe our backyard souls. Thankfully, we know which ones will do just that.

A good one to start with is the 2009 Magnolia Lane Sonoma Valley Kunde Estate Sauvignon blanc. This Kenwood, Californian, isn't grassy like a New Zealander, and neither is it overly acidic or rife with grapefruit overtones. Instead, this Winetree purchase hints at peaches, trends toward sweetness, offers up some minor acidity and yet finishes smooth. At 13.8 percent alcohol, it's not exactly a low-alcohol wine, but it is a lower dose of relaxation compared to its heftier cousins. And with grills aflame and umbrellas providing much-needed shade, it's just the thing to pour into your glass. $10-$19.99 range. Wine Spectator rated it an 86 out of 100.

Now if it's a bit too hot for you, and you'd rather avoid the grill and prepare your meal inside, then you may want to invite these two charming companions to your dinner table. We marinated two rainbow trout filets with lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, pepper and fresh thyme for several hours, then we dredged them in flour and pan fried them briefly in a mixture of butter and vegetable oil. The recipe it's loosely based on can be found via http://www.yummly.com/recipe/Lemon-Thyme-Rainbow-Trout-Recipezaar. Knowing lemon was going to be a prominent guest at the dinner table meant we needed a wine with some crispness or acidity. So we opened a 2007 Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling from the Mosel Valley in the southwestern part of Germany. We'd had this bottle for a while, and we were waiting for a good dish to pair it with. The rainbow trout did not disappoint, and neither did the wine. We thought this German was crisp but not acidic, with traces of lemon and honey that were neither too sweet nor too tart. Plus, at 9 percent alcohol, this is a wine that's a great partner for all this summer heat. Sahara Mart in Bloomington, Ind. $20-$29.99 range. Wine Spectator gave this a 92 out of 100.

Another great Riesling that also happens to be from the Mosel Valley is the 2007 Graff Riesling Kabinett. This Winetree purchase was perfectly matched against a spicy Vietnamese dish I prepared called bun cha, which is basically ground pork patties blended with garlic chives, fish sauce, a homemade caramel sauce, and onions — which I then grilled. The sweet apple flavoring of this Riesling went hand in hand with the spiciness of the bun cha. In fact, this particular Riesling is marketed by Valckenberg, the oldest family owned wine merchant in Germany (or so their website says), as something that would go very well with spicy cuisine. This Riesling is only 8 percent alcohol. $10-$19.99 range. (The Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling above is also owned by Valckenberg.)

Speaking of Asian cuisine, Gewurztraminer is usually a good pairing. Yeah, we have problems spelling and pronouncing it, too — but you don't need to do either to enjoy this, because Winetree carries several that are really worth trying. At least to me, Gewurztraminer on its own has the scent of lychees, and it's a bit spicy. We bucked custom and did our own little taste test, pairing the 2006 Montinore Estate from Willamette Valley, Ore., with spicy andouille sausage from Pearson's Rivertown Butcher Shop. The wine was heavy on lemon and honey, and it's a definite food wine for full-flavored, fatty meats. 13.5 percent alcohol. About $17.

Another good Gewurztraminer is the 2009 Oliver Winery version. We got this Hoosier as a gift from our good friends Brian and Jennifer Fribley, and we paired it with some homemade curried chicken. Greg and I really liked how crisp and smooth this was, especially against the spicy curry. It also had a bit of lemon to the flavor. 12.2 percent alcohol.


2007 Villamedoro Montepulciano d'Abruzzo: Fruity, smooth, worth it

june 10, 2010: greg ordered una pizza, i was coming off a long day, and this 2007 villamedoro was there to rescue both of us. this is quite simply the best montepulciano d'abruzzo we've had since last october. it's fruity, smooth, with a thin line of bitterness at the very end. it went very well with the tomato sauce in the pizza. 14 percent alcohol. binny's in chicago. gift.


Wine column no. 7: Rebels with a cause

Don't wear white pants before Memorial Day. Always match your purse to your shoes. And never, ever drink a screw-top bottle of wine.
Those rules would be fine, if you didn't recognize that times have changed. For one thing, it's been pretty hot this month. On the one day I worried that I'd be criticized for wearing white linen before Memorial Day, three other women wore white pants as well. As for matching your purse to your shoes, Vogue, especially, knows the pitfalls of fashion stagnancy. And when it comes to wine, insisting on corks means you'd hardly ever try Australian Shiraz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or even some versions of Pinot Noir.
The fact is that screw tops aren't what they used to be. Often times, some wine producers -- and certain customers -- prefer them if they know they won't be cellaring that wine for a long while.
Take a recent bottle from 1982 that my father opened up to toast my sister's engagement, her move to Chicago, and a recent meeting with her fiance's parents. The cork was a bit red, but it didn't fall apart. Yet, when he poured us all a glass, the wine seemed a bit musty. The nose and flavor weren't exactly "corked," as some say, but they weren't ideal, either.
This largely could have been because of the cork. According to Wine Spectator, mustiness is typically a sign of contamination with the chemical TCA. Corks also impact a wine's potential to age well, since cork's permeability to oxygen is inconsistent.
Read into the academic parts of that sentence and you'll find this phrase: Corks can cause problems. That's why winemakers like Mollydooker in Australia, Kim Crawford in New Zealand and Meiomi in California have turned to screw tops. And we think there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Take the 2008 Mollydooker Sarah and Sparky Marquis The Boxer Shiraz, which was opened with a firm twist of my left hand. We've always been keen on pairing Shiraz with spicy bratwurst from Pearson's Rivertown Butcher Shop in Newburgh. But jammy, inky wines like these could just as well be enjoyed on their own, even if the high octane alcohol levels -- this one was 16 percent -- might keep you at home for a while. By the way, Mollydooker is a fun winery, and it's introduced some concepts that might seem anathema to those stodgy old wine drinkers who haven't seen fit to change with the times. For one thing, Sarah and Sparky Marquis suggest you shake the bottle of wine after it's been opened and a bit of the wine has been poured into a glass. This "Mollydooker Shake", as it's called, helps release the nitrogen in the wine that the winery uses to help prevent oxidation. Sarah Marquis says the nitrogen "flattens the fruit" in the wine, so "we need to get the nitrogen out" to properly taste the fruit. After shaking the bottle, the nitrogen creates a line of fizz at the top of the bottle, and once that fizz is gone, the wine is ready to drink. How's that for going against the grain? Here's a link to the video:http://www.wineinterview.com/video/wineries/mollydooker/mollydookershake.php Winetree has a lot of Mollydooker wines. The 2008 Shiraz was rated a 91 out of 100 by Wine Spectator.
Then there's the 2010 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, which I had a glass of at a bar in Chicago a month or so ago. If you like grapefruit (and Greg doesn't, but he wasn't with me on this particular trip), then this is the wine for you: All crisp and very citrusy, this is a bottle that might be well-balanced against a dish with goat cheese. Schnucks has this. Wine Spectator rated this an 89 out of 100.
Finally, there's the 2009 Meiomi Pinot Noir, which is a blend of grapes from Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties in California. My father found this in Sarasota, Fla., while on a vacation there, and since then it's been a reliable staple when we've had roasted chicken or fresh fish. This smooth, slightly sweet, red berry-flavored wine is quietly elegant, and you can get it at Binny's in Chicago. The 2008 vintage was rated an 87 out of 100 by Wine Spectator.