Wine column no. 20: The risk factor

Shots are different. Need proof? Just look at the way they're described. Have you ever met an ounce of hard liquor that at some point hasn't gotten slammed, chased or knocked back?

But wine? The more artful critics sculpt versions of a masterpiece, shaping words into the representation of a living, breathing thing. Think that glass of wine smells like blackberries or earth? Wine critics call that a nose. Did you just see the wine in your hand make a slow, thin crawl down the inside of your glass? The experts call those legs. And don't get us started on wines that have come home with you in your checked baggage. These prima donnas, it turns out, actually need to rest, preferably for at least a month.

As a result, some might wonder, with all these complicating factors — and we've just touched on a few of them here — what's the point? Why open a bottle of wine when a glass of 40-year-old Irish whiskey is much more reliable?

Well, we're not ones to take anything away from the Irish, or a very expensive bottle of whiskey. But we like the fact that wine needs to be coddled, that it's a member of our dinner party, that it's expected to contribute to the meal. This is because we think it's got something to say, and that unlike the 40-year-old whiskey whose personality got trapped in its bottle — condemned, some might say, to a straight line of predictability — wine develops over time.

So here are some wines that we had good experiences with that we'll likely come back to later on, maybe months or years from now. We like them, and so we'll buy more of them to cellar, and when we decide to open them again, we'll compare what we experienced now with what we experience then, in the future.

Of course, it won't be apples to apples, since we'll have changed just as much as the wine will likely have. Sometimes it will improve; sometimes it won't. And even if it improves, it won't always turn out as sublimely as that 40-year-old whiskey — though sometimes it will. But for us, that makes it fun. We like unpredictability. This is a wine column, after all; if we wanted consistency, we'd write about hard liquor.

The owner of Varsity Liquors said the 2002 Ceago Vinegarden merlot would be spicy, and she was right. This was definitely the best wine we've gotten there. We paired it with grilled seasoned chicken, and this Mendocino, Californian, was worth the roughly $21 we paid for it. I got cinnamon and clove flavors, with a touch of blackberry, while Greg said it was gentle and had an earthy nose. It also had a good amount of sediment and came in at 14.5 percent alcohol. We've only had this wine the one time, but it's one we would get again without any hesitation.

Later that month, we were in a lasagna mood, and Paula Deen had just the recipe. You can find it at www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/paula-deen/lots-omeat-lasagna-recipe/index.html. Greg was itching for a 2009 Luiano Chianti Classico that we'd had before.

To be honest, I had forgotten what this particular Chianti was like, and I was afraid it would be very tannic, since a lot of the Chianti we've had have been that way — and I'm just much more about flavors than tannins. But this Italian was very pleasant, fruity with some very minor acidity, which was perfect because of the corresponding acidity in the tomato sauce (acidic foods, in general, tend to pair well with acidic wines, making the wine taste sweeter.) We got this for about $14 at Winetree. Also, for those looking for a smaller bottle of wine to serve for just two people, this was perfect.

Now here's a bottle of Riesling we got at Schnucks that we really liked. The 2007 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett was silky, elegant and tasted slightly of lemons. I covered two salmon fillets with a paprika fish rub, salt, black pepper, freshly squeezed lemon and fresh cilantro and then baked them for about 30 minutes.

This Mosel, Germany, creation was only 7.5 percent alcohol, too, so it was a very light accompaniment to the meal. About $18 or $19 at the Schnucks on North Green River Road. Wine Spectator gave it a 91 out of 100.

And finally, Greg grilled up some Delmonico steaks to pair with a 2008 Robert Hall cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles, Calif., we bought from Winetree for about $23. This 14.5 percent creation was to me mellow, restrained and somewhat tannic with a berry nose. It also went very well with the steak since it wasn't rich, and the pepper in the steak seasoning enhanced the wine experience.

At first taste, Greg said it was a bit sweet and fruity, but it mellowed after being open for a while. This Californian didn't outdo the steak, but neither did the steak outdo it. Each enhanced the other.


Pineau des Charentes: Good!

july 2011: le pineau des charentes -- a type of sweet white wine that my grandmother served as an alternative to port when she had a neighbor stop by for an aperitif :) it was quite good. oh yeah, and that's one of france's delicious melons in the background.

2007 Domaine Marin Pouilly-Fuisse: Pre-dinner drink and then later with crab

july 2011: this was a very tasty 2007 we had a glass of before dinner with grandmere on a sunday night in dinard. this white burgundy (chardonnay) was a bit round in terms of flavor, but it was definitely nowhere near as buttery as some californian varieties. (and i'm definitely not complaining!) we had it with live crab that my father boiled in lots of salt. the crab was wonderful and this pouilly-fuisse was fantastic with it. somehow the salt in the crab really enhanced the minor butter flavor in the wine, making both almost sweet. i think lobster boiled in very salty water would also make a good pairing with this pouilly-fuisse.

1993 Chateau de Chasselier de St. Fiacre Muscadet de Sevre et Maine Sur Lie: Honey and lemon

july 2011: this 1993 chateau de chasselier de st. fiacre muscadet de sevre et maine sur lie we had with lightly pan fried mackerel, salad, potatoes and bread. it was honey and lemon on the nose, but mostly citrus on the tongue. very yellow color. apparently most muscadet are drunk young, so this bottle being from 1993 is unusual. its age probably accounts for the darker yellow color. we thought it held up quite well. view on boats in dinard harbor in background.

Cuvee D'Erpigny beer aged in Monbazillac barrels

july 2011: my summer stroll in france continues ... this 15 percent alcohol belgian beer we had with palets bretons (butter cookies that are way too fattening for my own good), and that were very tasty together (a real devil-on-left-shoulder-wins-out-over-angel-on-right-shoulder moment). this beer smelled kind of hoppy i think (but greg would really know better than i would) and was slightly sweet, with an ending minor bitterness. my parents both liked it. my dad had picked it up in belgium in a small beer store with more than 300 different types of beers. those belgians really know what they are doing with beer! anyway, the palet bretons (pure butter cookies) are on the bottom right.

2008 Savigny-Les-Beaune Les Narbontons Mongeard-Mugneret: Black peppery

sometime in july, 2011: this 2008 savigny-les-beaune 1er cru les narbontons mongeard-mugneret, a red burgundy, was light and black peppery flavored. i liked this a lot, though my mom prefers red wines with more body. my father ordered it to go with my cousin philippe's veal, since philippe doesn't like white wines very much. we had this at a restaurant called crouzil in plancoet, about 30 minutes from dinard in brittany, with grandmere.

2005 Pascal Chiffoleau Chateau de Biran Pecharment: Round, gentle, good

sometime in july, 2011: this 2005 chateau de biran pecharment by vintner pascal chiffoleau is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot (but mostly cab) and is 13.5 percent alcohol. my dad bought it in the dordogne, which is a region in the slightly southwest central part of france. i thought it was earthy and had somewhat of a berry nose. the texture was gentle and round, with minor tannins. a good bottle. my father's glass, which was empty, actually had more of a fruity nose than mine did when it was half full.

2010 Gerard Bigonneau Quincy: Sublime

july 19, 2011: this 2010 gerard bigonneau quincy had a grassy nose, with some grapefruit to the flavor at the tail end. i loved this wine! it was the best white wine of my july trip to france. 12.5 percent alcohol. we had it with st. pierre, a type of white fish, in a very rich butter sauce with mashed potatoes and green beans, at a very nice restaurant in dinard. i think it was a sauvignon blanc grape but i can't confirm that. it kind of reminded me of a muted new zealand sauvignon blanc. my dad thinks it comes from near sancerre, in the loire valley of france, which would likely make it a sauvignon blanc, too. dinner with my parents and grandmere.

Loic Raison Cidre Bouche Breton Doux: The only possible pairing with galettes and crepes!

sometime in july, 2011: as i wrote in an earlier post, grandmere is 91, so convenience is very important to her. she discovered this creperie in a mall near her condo that she could drive to, and she said it was easier for her to park there and it usually wasn't crowded. the galettes amd crepes weren't bad, either. grandmere ordered this 2 percent alcohol loic raison apple cider from domagne, in ille et vilaine, and it was lightly sweet, had some tannins and was crisp. then we went shopping at the grocery store for some fresh mussels. it was a fantastic food day and i spent it with someone i greatly admire.

2008 Chateau Saint-Jean Plan de Dieu Cotes du Rhones Villages

july 16, 2011: another very late posting from this past summer ... my grandmother is 91 and, as a result, she doesn't cook as much. so after she picked me up at the train station in st. malo, we headed to her favorite chinese restaurant outside the walls of the city. the restaurant is a buffet much like the ones we have here, except the seafood is fresher and the wine selections are typically better and more exact. so grandmere ordered a bottle of this 2008 chateau saint-jean plan de dieu cotes du rhone, which i thought was woody and had some cedar notes. it was also somewhat sweet with light tannins and paired very well with the chinese food. 14.5 percent alcohol.

? vintage Yves Guegniard Evanescence Anjou-Villages

UPDATE: chris kissack pointed this out to us: this is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, not a cabernet franc. so keep that in mind when you read the below post, which we won't revise (it's been too long since we had it to relive the experience). kudos to chris for noting the need for a correction. we were either operating on bad notes, or we had bad information from the wine seller we got it from, since we were looking for a cab franc at the time.

july 15, 2011: i'm catching up on some postings from this summer, when i was in france visiting family. we picked up this unknown vintage yves guegniard evanescence in a wine shop in dinard, across the harbor from st. malo, where my mom grew up (and where my grandmother still resides, intermuros). we had this cabernet franc with sauteed sole from a local fresh market. this red had more of a nose when it warmed up. as inarticulate as it sounds, for some odd reason cabernet francs always remind me of the scent of crayons. this anjou had definite tannins. my parents aren't big fans of cabernet franc, but they were willing to take a break from white wines that evening to let me explore the varietal a bit more. didn't get the alcohol percentage. these are old notes!


Wine column no. 19: When vintners have their way

Chardonnay: Most people see it in its finished product, sitting there obediently on a shelf. But this lion of the wine jungle wasn't always so submissive. That's because in many cases, this grape had to be wrangled from its vines, shoved into oak barrels or stainless steel tanks and then carefully guided through a signficant fermentation process. And that's even before it ended up as the latest pour into your wine glass. Meaning: Give Chardonnay a break. It's gone through a lot for you.

Or rather, it's gone through a lot for its vintners, who've not only tamed this lion but made it both a beast and a beauty. It turns out that Chardonnay is one of the most widely planted grapes throughout the world, which is both good and bad. Think of it as the Norm of that old "Cheers" sit-com, where (most) everyone knows its name. Want a wine that'll go with chicken, or with salmon, cod, lobster or sole? Chardonnay's your man. But there's a downside to being so malleable, and so popular. Would you believe that there's actually an Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) Club? It's nothing official; it's not like you have to pay dues. But Greg and I became inadvertent members of that down-with-Chardonnay group for a while, largely because we'd encountered some flamboyantly buttery versions that convinced us it was something we needed to avoid.

That was our loss, since we've come to realize that Chardonnay, known as white Burgundy in France, is a grape that's just trying to please. And vintners, for better or for worse, are the ones calling the shots. That's why the wine world uses several key words and phrases when describing Chardonnay, and getting to know the terms that you like and dislike, and their various grades, can make a good amount of difference.

Take the words oak and malolactic fermentation. It's a rare person who's actually chewed a piece of oak, but in wine label terms, at least when talking about Chardonnay, oakiness usually means there's a little bit of a vanilla flavor. Also, the inside of oak barrels that have been intensely charred can impart a smokey, toasted flavor, so this is something to keep in mind as well. There's a long, historical relationship between oak barrel-aging and wine, and we won't go into that here. But suffice it to say that there's something about oak and its many variations (American oak barrels, for instance, apparently impart more of a vanilla flavor than French oak barrels) that really makes a difference when Chardonnay is the grape you've decided to bring to your table. Some wine labels are actually quite specific about the types of barrels they use to age their wine; maybe it's a mix of both French and American oak, for instance. Maybe it's just one type. But labels that say they use American oak to age their wines aren't just telling you a fun fact; it's usually an indication that this will be a more strongly flavored Chardonnay, though of course there are a variety of other factors, too.

Malolactic fermentation is a term we've covered before. Basically, it's a process whereby a green-apple flavored grape acid is converted to a silkier, more buttery flavored grape acid. Some wines, in our opinion, let the malolactic fermentation process go too far, so that it tastes like you're drinking a glass of melted butter. But sometimes letting the wine start this process seems to soften the liquid, adding a little bit if textural richness that evens out its corresponding flavors.

Here's a wine that, at least according to our understanding of the label, was not aged in oak barrels but was allowed a subtle amount of malolactic fermentation. The 2006 Trevor Jones Virgin Chardonnay is from South Australia, and it's a new vineyard for us. We got it at Varsity Liquors in one of those demi-bottles, which apparently Varsity Liquors is going to be getting more of, especially around the holiday season. Now we've had some good wines from Varsity Liquors that we'll talk about in future columns, but this Trevor Jones really wasn't our cup of tea.

When we dissected what we didn't like about it, Greg and I both thought this 13 percent alcohol speciman was sour. But my biggest complaint was just how much it reminded me of the flavor of greenish herbs. That being said, Trevor Jones, a subsidiary of Kellermeister Wines in the Barossa Valley of Australia, proudly touts the herbaceousness of this Chardonnay on its label, so those flavors clearly weren't accidental. While this wasn't our favorite Chardonnay, it was a good example of how varied this grape can turn out to be. About $7.

Here's another Chardonnay that was made in a completely different style -- and, take note, it's from a different geographic area, too. The 2007 Benziger Family Winery Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay from Carneros in California is a 14.1 percent alcohol Winetree purchase we'd happily buy again. Washington Avenue Winetree Manager Ron Hull had told us about this one, which fit our preference for a more citrusy nose followed by a smooth and silky texture. By the way, terms on wine labels like "smooth" and "silky" usually mean that a Chardonnay has gone through some measure of malolactic fermentation. The wine label also described the flavors as ripe peach, pear and pineapple, but we didn't get that -- an indication that you won't always agree with the label. This wine, the label goes on to say, was exposed to oak, but we didn't get a sense of any over-arching vanilla or toasty flavors, so we're not sure if it was barrel-aged for long. Either way, it was well-paired with pan fried tilapia. About $19.

Another Winetree purchase that we were really pleased with was a Tim Wilkins recommendation. He'd tried the 2009 Snoqualmie Chardonnay from Columbia Valley, Wa., on a tasting, and he told me it was the first Chardonnay he actually liked. For us, this 13.5 percent alcohol creation was sweeter than we were used to, and Greg said it reminded him of a Gewurztraminer or a Riesling because of its sugar content. I thought it was fruity, with inklings of pears, peaches and apples. It was smooth without being too buttery, but it definitely wasn't crisp. The wine label says it has a creamy texture and a soft finish -- key terms that usually mean it has gone through some level of malolactic fermentation.

This wine, for me at least, also had a slight herbaceous nose, but it wasn't so strong that it impacted my overall impression of the wine, either. We'd both get it again. About $11.

Wasn't expecting this from Joe Lieberman ...

nov. 14, 2011: we're not political, and i don't expect this blog to make many references to this in the future. but kudos to u.s. senators joe lieberman, susan collins, tom carper and scott brown for introducing a bill that would simultaneously help the u.s. postal service and people like you and me by allowing licensed wineries to mail wine to homes if the wines are not to be resold and the person accepting the delivery is 21 and over.

http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Home.PostalReformBill (you'll have to download it, and once you do, search for "wine" in the search box.)


Wine column no. 18: Candy for the 21-and-above crowd ...

Just in time for Halloween, here's something for oenophiles with a sweet tooth.
Ever heard of ice wine or, as Germans call it, Eiswein? This smooth, high-acid dessert wine often tastes of apples, honey and/or lemon. There's something about this nectar produced from very ripe grapes that have been frozen on the vine that makes it a reliable end to a good meal.
According to "The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine," to make Eiswein, ripe, healthy grapes are deliberately left on the vine past the normal harvest in the hope that the temperature will drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This freezes most of the water in the grapes, leaving sugar, acid and flavor extracts unfrozen.
"If the frozen grapes are quickly pressed, the resulting juice will produce sweet, elegant and distinctive wines marked by a relatively high acidity," Schoonmaker wrote. He added that the freeze more than doubles the proportion of sugar in the unfrozen portion of the juice; the freeze also increases the proportion of acid.
But that acid isn't a bad thing. In fact, the acidity is what prevents Eiswein from cloying your tongue. This means Eiswein usually can be consumed by itself, too, and not necessarily with a dessert.
Take the 2007 Rudolf Muller, which we found at Sahara Mart in Bloomington, Ind. I thought this Zimmermann-Graeff and Muller, or ZGM, creation from a company based in Zell-Mosel in Germany tasted like a deliciously smooth blend of lemon and apples. Greg said drinking this was like smelling and eating an apple tart.
Speaking of apple tarts, I made an apple tart from a recipe at www.puffpastry.com/recipe/23986/apple-or-pear-fruit-tarts that included Granny Smith apples, cinnamon, ginger, sugar and puff pastry shells.
We paired this particular not-too-sweet tart (I didn't add the hot caramel or vanilla ice cream) with a Pellegrini Vineyards Vintner's Pride Finale Bin 3131 that I purchased during an August trip to Cutchogue, Long Island, to visit a good friend. I'd never been to a New York winery before, but it was a beautiful day for a tasting and this ice wine really made an impression. So I brought a bottle home and paired it with the apple tart.
This New York creation was a blend of Gew├╝rztraminer and sauvignon blanc grapes. But not all ice wines use those grapes. In fact, most German Eisweins use Riesling grapes, just because Riesling tends to be a specialty of Germany and Riesling is considered a "noble" grape there.
Ice wine also can be made from red wine grapes. Renwood Winery in California, for instance, makes a 2007 Amador ice wine from Zinfandel grapes, which isn't surprising since Renwood tends to specialize in Zinfandel.
Greg really liked this orangish-caramel-colored ice wine that we got from Varsity Liquors. He said it tasted like golden raisins, while I thought it was nutty and tasted a bit like litchis.
Since Canada is a major producer of ice wine (Germany also is prominent in this regard), we tried the 2007 Jackson-Triggs Niagara Peninsula Vidal Icewine (Canadians make it one word) from Winetree. The Niagara Peninsula apparently has become the world's largest ice wine producer.
Greg thought it had a dill nose and a slightly metallic flavor. He said it also reminded him of golden raisins. I thought it wasn't as syrupy as the Amador, but it tasted like mango and dried figs. It was a bit thinner than the Renwood, too.
Keep in mind that ice wine can be expensive, and it's usually sold in taller, narrow bottles. The Pellegrini was about $40 (though everything tends to be more expensive in New York), while the Rudolf Muller was about $18. The Renwood Amador was about $32; the Jackson-Triggs about $19.
From what we understand, one reason it costs more for less is that it takes a lot more work to see the fruits of a relatively small harvest.
Karen MacNeil in "The Wine Bible" said the frozen grapes are often picked at daybreak by workers wearing gloves so that their hands don't warm the grapes. Also, it's never clear whether there will be enough frozen grapes for such a late harvest.
If the grapes become too frozen, not enough juice can be extracted. And beyond that, these grapes are at the mercy of hungry wild animals, so being able to bottle — and then taste — an ice wine is not always guaranteed. Some might even go so far as to say it's somewhat rare.
And that makes it a real treat, just in time for Halloween.
Victoria and Greg Grabner live in Evansville and have been writing a blog (growingthegrabners.blogspot.com) for two years.

Wine column no. 17: And it started with shrimp ...

About three weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to head out to Double A Farms in Henderson County, Ky. My assignment? To write about farmer Tim Alexander's Giant Malaysian prawn harvest.
There are shrimp in Henderson? Yes. Or, rather, there were shrimp in Henderson, until Tim sold them all. Just under 350 pounds sold so well and so fast that Tim didn't even get to have any, he said later, which is a real shame because they were delicious.
I know this because I bought three pounds, which Greg and I ate a few days later. Greg whipped up a spicy concoction of shrimp, shallots, garlic chives, Mediterranean Sea salt, a dab of red curry paste, butter, minced garlic, olive oil, Thai chile and one Bulgarian carrot pepper.
My contribution (other than waiting in line) was to open a chilled bottle of 2007 Beringer Napa Valley chardonnay.
We'd purchased this Californian at Winetree after trying it on a Wednesday night tasting, and we were both surprised that we liked it. Why? Well, we've been a bit anti-chardonnay in the past. I'm not a fan of wine that tastes like a stick of butter. Greg tends to be a bit more tolerant. But generally, we prefer chardonnay that's on the green apple side of the flavor spectrum, and we've long blamed the malolactic process for what we consider to be an oily, movie popcorned assault on our taste buds.
But what we're learning is that there are grades of malolactic processing, which is essentially a conversion of a green-apple-flavored grape acid to a richer, more buttery-flavored grape acid.
That process may sound technical and complicated, and it is. So chemistry aside, what we mean by grades of the malolactic process is that it's possible for chardonnay to acquire a silky texture without having to taste like a glass full of melted butter. And with this 2007 vintage, Beringer has managed to get the best of both worlds.
We liked that it tasted a bit like a tart green apple, but we also liked that it wasn't so tart that the acidity stung our tongues. In this case, the malolactic process was able to round out the briskness of the green apple, so that overall this wine was well balanced. Plus, this cool roundness was a refreshing foil to the slight heat of Greg's shrimp. This is definitely a wine we'll get again, In fact, it would likely pair well with white fish, too. It's 14.1 percent alcohol and costs about $18.
Speaking of white fish, the 2008 Los Vascos from Colchagua Valley, Chile, went very well with a dish I prepared with shallots, salt and butter. This Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) creation had scents of peach, lemon, pears and honey, with a slight acidic texture. We didn't get any inkling of butter with this chardonnay, which was 14 percent alcohol. We got it for about $12.50 at the Schnucks on North Green River Road, and we'd get it again, too.
Here's a good chardonnay blend that we paired with grilled chicken breasts seasoned with sea salt, garlic, black pepper, paprika, rosemary, thyme, parsley, celery seed and chili pepper that I marinated in canola oil for about 45 minutes before Greg placed them on the grill. The 2010 14 Hands Hot to Trot White Blend is a mixture of chardonnay and Pinot gris, and it comes in at 13 percent alcohol. This Washington state product gave us flavors of melon and pear, but they weren't heavy. It was crisp, with minimal sweetness, and it was definitely worth the roughly $11 we paid for it at Winetree.
Now if you happen to like buttery chardonnay and, despite our verbal pummeling, still have decided to give us the benefit of the doubt, thank you. Here's your reward: The 2006 Frei Brothers Reserve was too silky, creamy and rich for us, but you might like it. We had it on a very special occasion that involved boiled lobster (a rare night, indeed).
We thought this Russian River Valley Californian would be a good match with the lobster, since lobster has an innate buttery flavor and can feel very soft in the mouth, and sometimes wine and food pair best when they are most alike in flavors and/or textures. But this chardonnay was way too rounded and extreme for us. About $18 at Winetree.