4.23.2012

Wine column no. 31: American dream alive and well ... in France

They call it the American dream. It's the idea that you really can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that all your sweat and toil will get you everything you want in life — or, if not everything, then at least something you can be proud of.
But when Gerard Bru started out with nothing, he wasn't an American believing that hard work was the key. He's French, and what he's done with Chateau Puech-Haut in Languedoc, France, is proof that the American dream isn't just taking place in America.
Take, for example, the 2010 Le Prestige from Saint-Drezery, a small town in southern France that sits just 12 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. This blend of 55 percent Grenache, 35 percent Syrah and 10 percent Carignan is subtlety in a bottle, velvet in a glass. And Bru, who made his fortune as an industrialist, built the vineyard from scratch, according to Chateau Puech-Haut's website, after purchasing about 60 acres in the 1980s.
We searched high and low for wine information about the Languedoc region of France, and we'll be honest: This is not Bordeaux. Neither is it Burgundy. If you're looking to impress people who base their opinions of wine solely on labels or regions, then don't waste this wine on them. Because Le Prestige is a wine for wine lovers, not label lovers. We say this because Chateau Puech-Haut isn't well known.
You can peruse the website at www.puech-haut.com, and the winery has a Facebook profile. Languedoc is an up-and-coming wine region of France, and as a result, you'll find a wide range of qualities of wine there.
"Central to the Languedoc is the huge Coteaux du Languedoc appellation, a nursery for potential appellations of the future," said Chris Kissack, also known as The Wine Doctor. "This is a region in flux."
He went on to say that while, at present, the region is a seeming hodgepodge "of terroirs, crus and subregions, it is becoming clear with time which regions have true potential. On the back of this knowledge, it is likely that the Coteaux du Languedoc will eventually develop a tiered classification system like Burgundy or Bordeaux."
Kissack has a lot of other useful information at www.thewinedoctor.com.
But one thing he does point to is how Bru is really making a name for himself. Or, if you don't believe Kissack (or us, for that matter), then consider the weighty words of Robert Parker, who gave the 2009 vintage of Le Prestige a rating of 94 out of 100.
"Michel Rolland was their first consultant, and then Claude Gros," Parker said. "As of 2009, it is Philippe Cambie. So three of the most talented oenologists in France have worked (at Chateau Puech-Haut) ... just amazing what is available from this region."
Now keep in mind that Parker was talking about the 2009 vintage, which was a blend of 55 percent Grenache and 45 percent syrah. We've only had the 2010 vintage (which is 10 percent less Syrah and 10 percent more Carignan), so we can't compare how the two differ. But what we can tell you is that the 2010 has a black cherry nose and flavor, with some elements of earthiness. But remember, this isn't a Californian creation, so this wine won't shock you with flavor. If you want a subdued glass to go with braised beef, for instance, especially a dish that teems with a richly flavored red wine sauce, then the 2010 Le Prestige with 15 percent alcohol will definitely fit the bill.
In fact, that's essentially the pairing we had when my father prepared a delicious meal of beef cheeks with carrots. Beef cheeks are a muscular cut of meat from a cow's facial cheeks, and because they are so tough, they have to be braised for hours. What you end up with is a very rich, soft and tender dish that you'll likely just gush over. And what made it even better, for us, anyway, was that this 2010 Le Prestige was the perfect pairing.
This blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignon didn't go as well with rotisseried chicken, however. We think it was the salt in the seasoning, and maybe the fact that the chicken wasn't nearly as fatty as the beef cheeks, that made Le Prestige seem a bit rough. But then, we tried it with a bit of creamy St. Andre cheese, which is very similar to a Brie, and that brought back the wine's softness.
In any event, if we've piqued your interest in this up-and-coming vineyard, then Vecchio's Italian Market and Delicatessen in Newburgh is expecting a case of the 2010 vintage soon. It should retail for $22 to $25.
And finally, if you're interested in learning more about the Languedoc region, you're not alone. In fact, one of the United Kingdom's most well-known wine writers, Master of Wine Rosemary George, has moved to the Languedoc-Roussillon region to explore more of what it has to offer.
"Why the Languedoc?" she asks in her blog at http://tastelanguedoc.blogspot.com. "Quite simply, it is without doubt the most exciting and innovative wine region of France. Everything is possible."
And when everything is possible, that's more than just an American dream.
Victoria and Greg Grabner live in Evansville and have been writing a blog (growingthegrabners.blogspot.com) for three years.

4.08.2012

Wine column no. 30: Three genres of wine (original and edited versions)

Here's what I actually wrote, not the version that was published in The Evansville Courier and Press today:

Agatha Christie knew it. So does Jerry Bruckheimer. And now, vintners have finally figured it out, too: Everybody loves a mystery.
Take the 2009 Lock and Key Meritage, a red wine produced in the north coast of California. Its producers are cagey about its origins. But what they are willing to say this: It's in a French Bordeaux style, its grapes hail from Lake and Sonoma counties, it's enhanced with French oak, and there were 10,000 cases made.
Luckily, Winetree's got this gem, which thrusts red fruits and an appealing mixture of soothing texture and a spicy kick for under $20. If this 13.9 percent speciman wobbles at all, it's in the finish, which seems short and incomplete compared to the strength of its flavors. And interestingly, that's almost exactly like a mystery.
Thankfully, most good mysteries leave some clues. And this Lock and Key's labeling as a Meritage definitely gives a lot away. If you've never heard of Meritage, then you're not the only one. It's pronounced like "heritage," meaning it's not something you'd want to add a French accent to. Meritage got its name when a group of Californian vintners created the Meritage Association in 1988. They were hoping to emulate French Bordeaux styles of wine. What this means to those of us who drink wine is this: Meritage must be a blend of at least two of the following different varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carmenere. If you're really curious about this vintage of Lock and Key's Meritage, then you can go to www.lockandkeywines.com, where you can play around with the percentages of three possible varietals that were used to create this wine. If not, you can just enjoy a wine that's uncomplicated, relaxed and easy to drink.
Now onto dramas. And no, we're not talking about the kind you love to hate. This isn't soap opera wine. We mean the stuff that gets you thinking about themes beyond white wine and chicken, beyond steak and potatoes. Want conflict? Want pure, unadulterated love? Then turn to the 2010 Venge Scout's Honor from Napa Valley, Calif., that we were fortunate to get a taste of at Madeleine's Fusion restaurant. Because that's one thing about dramas ... they have long finishes. Comedies may make you shake out your laughter, but dramas force you hold the beauty in. Or, in the case of this 15.2 percent alcohol blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Charbano and Syrah, they make you realize what good wine really can be. Here's an example: The word elegance really doesn't cut it. So we won't use it. In fact, we encourage you to throw that word out. Burn it. Grab a knife and physically extract it from this newspaper. Then replace it with a glass of this berry-heavy and exceedingly smooth Californian that, vintner Kirk Venge says, can be cellared for quite some time. Now, want conflict? Then force yourself to wait for another bottle of this same vintage that's sure to become even more beautiful as the years wear on. Simply said: That's drama.
The Venge (pronounced ven-ghee) family has farmed vitis viniferra varieties in Napa Valley, Calif., for nearly half a century. In 1976, the family purchased a 17-acre vineyard in the Oakville District that was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the Venge Vineyards website said. "This fortunate development cast the family among the winemaking pioneers of Napa Valley," the website went on to say. In fact, Kirk Venge's father, Nils, created the first 100-point Robert Parker wine from California. Parker is an influential wine critic who was clearly impressed with Nils Venge's 1985 Groth Cabernet Reserve. Have we had that wine? We can only dream ...
These days, the Venge brand is hard to find in Indiana. But if you want a taste of something that you'll remember for a long time, that exemplifies grace and all-out personality, then don't hesitate to stop in at Madeleine's to try the Scout's Honor.
OK, onto comedies. But we're not thinking formulaic sitcoms. Our brand of funny is dry humor, the kind that makes you think, the kind that makes you yearn for the wink of someone's eye. And that can be found in the 2007 JC Cellars The Imposter, a red wine from California that we purchased at Sahara Mart in Bloomington, Ind., for about $29. Sure, this wine may claim to be something it's not. But it's clear as dawn what this blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Mourvedre and Viognier is. And to our eyes, it's just plain good: Soft, elegant, intense and balanced, with a huge chunk of blackberry flavor and black pepper thrown in for good measure, this wine is about mocking what's not honestly good. Plus, any wine that clocks in at 16 percent alcohol will easily betray the imposters in the room. Are we joking? Surely not.
And neither is Jeff Cohn, the winemaker, president and "JC" of JC Cellars. Ever heard of Rosenblum Cellars? Those who like Zinfandel might be familiar with their style of Zinfandel. Cohn held various
positions at Rosenblum, including winemaker, until he began his own label, JC Cellars, in 1996. He finally set off on his own in 2006, choosing to live in Alameda, Calif., instead of in Napa or Sonoma
valleys up north.
Why? Because, for one thing, he wanted to escape the competition of that region. He wanted to be able to live his own life. And that brings us back to the 2007 The Imposter label. Cohn's philosophy about wine is that it should be honest, it should be true to itself: "Wine should have a personality," he told a reporter. "It’s something that should come from the wine maker’s heart.”
We're certainly not vintners. But as wine lovers, we get that. And there's nothing fake about that.

Here's what actually ran today in the Courier, after substantial editing:

Agatha Christie knew it. So does Jerry Bruckheimer. And now, vintners finally have figured it out, too: Everybody loves a mystery.
Take the 2009 Lock and Key Meritage, a red wine produced in the north coast of California. Its producers are cagey about its origins. But what they are willing to say is this: It's in a French Bordeaux style, its grapes hail from Lake and Sonoma counties, it's enhanced with French oak and there were 10,000 cases made.
Luckily, Winetree's got this gem, which thrusts red fruits and an appealing mixture of soothing texture and a spicy kick for less than $20.
If this 13.9 percent specimen wobbles at all, it's in the finish, which seems short and incomplete compared with the strength of its flavors.
Thankfully, most good mysteries leave some clues. And this Lock and Key's labeling as a Meritage definitely gives a lot away. Meritage is pronounced like "heritage": It's not something to which you'd want to add a French accent.
Meritage got its name when a group of California vintners created the Meritage Association in 1988. They were hoping to emulate French Bordeaux styles of wine.
What this means is: Meritage must be a blend of at least two of the following different varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carmenere.
Those curious about this vintage of Lock and Key's Meritage can go to www.lockandkeywines.com and play around with the percentages of three possible varietals that were used to create this wine. It is a wine that's uncomplicated, relaxed and easy to drink.
This isn't soap opera wine, meaning the stuff that gets you thinking about themes beyond white wine and chicken, beyond steak and potatoes. Try the 2010 Venge Scout's Honor from Napa Valley, Calif., that we were fortunate to get a taste of at Madeleine's Fusion restaurant. This 15.2 percent alcohol blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Charbano and Syrah makes you realize what good wine really can be.
Here's an example: The word elegance really doesn't cut it. So we won't use it. Replace it with a glass of this berry-heavy and exceedingly smooth Californian that, vintner Kirk Venge says, can be cellared for quite some time. Then wait for another bottle of this same vintage that's sure to become even more beautiful as the years wear on.
The Venge (pronounced ven-ghee) family has farmed vitis vinifera varieties in Napa Valley, Calif., for nearly half a century. In 1976, the family purchased a 17-acre vineyard in the Oakville District that was planted to cabernet sauvignon and merlot, the Venge Vineyards website said.
Kirk Venge's father, Nils, created the first 100-point Robert Parker wine from California. Parker is an influential wine critic who was clearly impressed with Nils Venge's 1985 Groth Cabernet Reserve.
These days, the Venge brand is difficult to find in Indiana. But if you want a taste of something that you'll remember for a long time, that exemplifies grace and all-out personality, then don't hesitate to stop in at Madeleine's to try the Scout's Honor.
The 2007 JC Cellars The Imposter, a red wine from California that we purchased at Sahara Mart in Bloomington, Ind., for about $29, may claim to be something it's not. But it's clear what this blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Mourvedre and Viognier is: It's just plain good. Soft, elegant, intense and balanced, with a huge chunk of blackberry flavor and black pepper thrown in for good measure, this wine is about mocking what's not honestly good. Plus, any wine that clocks in at 16 percent alcohol will easily betray the impostors in the room.
Jeff Cohn is the winemaker, president and "JC" of JC Cellars. Ever heard of Rosenblum Cellars? Those who like Zinfandel might be familiar with its style of Zinfandel. Cohn held various positions at Rosenblum, including winemaker, until he began his own label, JC Cellars, in 1996. He finally set off on his own in 2006, choosing to live in Alameda, Calif., instead of in Napa or Sonoma valleys up north.
And that brings us back to the 2007 The Imposter label. Cohn's philosophy about wine is that it should be honest, it should be true to itself.
"Wine should have a personality," he told a reporter. "It's something that should come from the winemaker's heart."
We're certainly not vintners. But as wine lovers, we get that. And there's nothing fake about that.

Wine column no. 28: Two Italians and a Spaniard

It's not often that we leave America's shores and head for Europe.
So when a Spanish bottle of garnacha and two Italian bottles of Sangiovese allow us to embrace the Old World without stepping foot outside of the Midwest, it's time to celebrate. As in: Slide a slice of pizza onto your plate, pour a glass of wine, and sit back as you take in three pairings that seem to go together better than most.
As for the pizza, we're not talking about extraordinary fare here.
Like many other Americans, pizza is the standard meal of choice whenever it's been a long day and we're just plain tired, or if we've gotten a Boboli pizza crust and we're feeling a bit creative.
Take the night in January when we'd grabbed two smaller Boboli crusts, a handful of spicy dried Italian meats, cheese and mushrooms and baked them until they became crisp delicacies. That's when the 2007 Falesco Sangiovese from Umbria, Italy, entered the scene, taking an otherwise fun meal and making it memorable.
Greg had bought this at Winetree after a Wednesday night tasting, and we both found this wine was easy to like. It was light, with minor tannins and acidity, not much of a nose, and flavors of cherry. This Sangiovese also went well with Greg's smaller pizza because he had added dried red pepper flakes and a dusting of his brother's crushed dried hot peppers. This all makes sense, since according to the Food and Wine Books 2009 Wine Guide, Sangiovese is best paired with tomato-based sauces as well as pizza, full-flavored salami and other dry-cured sausages. This wine is under $20.
Meanwhile, the 2007 Falesco we had was pure Sangiovese, which happens to be the principal variety used to create Chianti. If this is the wine that conjures up images of straw-covered bottles on red-and-white checkered tablecloths in old-style Italian restaurants — the ones most people associate with Frank Sinatra or that HBO series "The Sopranos" — then you're right. Chianti's just got that kind of reputation. But it's a lot more complicated, too.
Such as: Chianti may be mostly made of Sangiovese, but not all wines created by Sangiovese grapes are alike. That's because Sangiovese is a finicky and demanding grape, according to Karen MacNeil's "The Wine Bible," and it has many genetic variations. Each of these different clones has taken on distinct flavor characteristics. But there's another factor, too, as to why Sangiovese can taste so different in Tuscany, a region along the Mediterranean Sea, compared to Umbria, a region of central Italy just southeast of Tuscany: "Tuscany is a virtual kingdom of distinct microclimates," MacNeil said. "These are created by an endless succession of twisting, turning (and) undulating hills."
That, experts will tell you, is one reason why Chianti is a bit unpredictable. But here's a Chianti that's definitely worth the price, though since this one is a blend that's spent more time aging in the barrel, this isn't an entirely fair comparison. In fact, the 2007 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico is so good we're mentioning it for a second time, since other Chianti we've had haven't been near as smooth as this particular Tuscan. The 2007 Ruffino, with 13.5 percent alcohol, is a blend of at least 80 percent Sangiovese, with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, according to Ruffino's website. We thought it was smooth, light and fruity, and it was very easy to drink. Schnucks. Under $20.
Enough of Italy; now onto Spain. And if you've never had a garnacha, and you've wondered if it would ever be possible to experience a wine that's both smooth and peppery at the same time, then all you have to do is open the 2008 Las Rocas. This 14.1 percent alcohol specimen was created by growers' cooperative Bodegas San Alejandro in Miedes, about 55 miles north of Madrid, in the Zaragoza province. We're far from experts on garnacha, so we turned to "The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine." This book said that garnacha is the most extensively planted wine grape in Spain, found in Rioja, Penedes and many other regions. And this particular garnacha went very well with — believe it or not — a $5 Little Caesar's pepperoni pizza we got after watching the Evansville IceMen defeat the Wichita Thunder 4-3 in late February. Sure, this brand of pizza isn't known for spicy heat, but Greg took care of that by adding some hot sauce. I, meanwhile, just added some dried red pepper flakes. The verdict? This Spaniard managed to hold its own. It was smooth enough to round out the grease in the pizza, and it added a bit of black pepper flavor to the meal.
It also had a cherry and woody nose and is a good value wine for about $11.50. Schnucks.