What’s for dinner? Spicy Paella and Petite Sirah

Paella from the grill

Paella from the grill

So… after a few sketchy attempts at paella earlier this month, we decided to invest in an authentic paella pan. In this case, the word authentic meant two things to me. First, the label had to at least make me believe that it was actually made in Spain. And second, the label could not bare the word “artisan” anywhere on it. Yes there does exists a little contempt for the word “artisan!” Click this post link for a quick reminder.

Since we were having company over for a little outdoor early Spring dinner, I was also looking for a grill-friendly paella pan. The traditional all steel pan in the picture above cooked up one spicy and filling paella of grilled chicken, three beans, saffron rice, Andouille, chorizo and as you can see… a handful of plump shrimp.

Conventional wisdom pairs spicy Spanish paella dishes (like the one we grilled) with a Garnacha or Tempranillo based wine. It is an appropriate choice, but if your local shop is sluggish in the Spanish wine category then a rich, fruit-loaded Petite Sirah from California can pinch-hit well.

And truly when it comes to Petite Sirah the best place to start is where the varietal actually got its famous American beginning; the Livermore, CA based winery of Concannon Vineyards. Last year Concannon’s Petite Sirah blend, Crimson & Clover, was runner-up for best red blend in my annual “Best Wine Values” review for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

But their mastery isn’t limited to one wine. From their entry level “Selected Vineyards” Petite Sirah (with its punchy, cherry drop profile) to their “Reserve” Petite Sirahs (whose range can show off blueberry and plum notes as well as a touch of cinnamon or mocha), Concannon has this wine covered.

What a little wine can do …

Ottella Le Creete

Ottella Le Creete

Journey back in time, some 500 years ago, and you’ll become astonished at how history can (uncannily) repeat itself.

Envision an old Italian vineyard. The farmstead lies quietly, just off the banks of Lake Garda, in the northeast region of the Veneto. The manicure of the Roman Empire has long since been windswept. The land here is flatter, but a jaunt up the coast reveals a lake nearly encapsulated by the southern arms of the rugged and mountainous Italian Alps. Arguably, Lake Garda is the birthplace of the Violin, the love poem and poignantly (on this ancient farm) the original Octomom.

It seems wine, music and poetry span timeless generations. Probably due, in no small part, to the notion that when properly mixed they lead one generation to make the next. And so it was with the original, nameless Octomom of lore. The winery, now named Ottella in honor of the multiple birth folktale, was the Renaissance era birthplace of eight (otto in Italian) little bambinos.

And what greater way to honor a woman that has probably just labored for the better part of a week, than to name a winery after her legend? She’s probably going to need a drink or two and it sure beats giving her a “movie” gig.

Pasta Primavera

Pasta Primavera

The Ottella Winery has been home to my favorite Italian white wine since a visit to Lake Garda seven years ago. Subsequently, I’ve made sure when Spring rolls around to order a six-bottle case of their turbo-charged Trebbiano wine, the Ottella Le Creete. A refreshing minerality and snappy citrus essence are what distinguishes Le Creete from other Trebbiano wines that tend to be flat or one dimensional in nature.

Paired with orecchiette pasta, cherry tomatoes, zucchini and Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Ottella Le Creete makes for an agreeable evening outdoors, perhaps overlooking you’re favorite new bluff view, the cool water below and a kaleidoscope-like spring sunset.

And speaking of birds-eye water views, perhaps an aerial map of Lake Garda might explain all that fertility.

Travolta, pork bellies and one wine you shouldn’t overlook

The other white meat

The other white meat

“Fat is flavor, flavor is fat.” Or so goes the old culinary expression and defender of all things related to swine. Actually, maybe Vincent Vega said it better in Pulp Fiction: “Mmmm, bacon taste good, pork chops taste good.”

If the slight sweetness or savory saltiness of pork isn’t enough to make you a complete fanatic of the other white meat, then perhaps a little red wine or a little white wine will help. And that’s the real beauty of pork; not only is it salty and sweet but it also pairs well with a host of different wine varietals.

Typically, you’ll find the tried and true pork pairing of Pinot Noir to be the safest bet, as the lighter bodied red is a natural pairing for white meats in general. But the fatty, salty side of pork also allows it to be a solid counterpart to several California Chardonnays.

The 2011 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay was a sample I received a few months back. It was, coincidentally, one of the first nicer Chardonnays I tried upon entering the beverage industry almost thirteen years ago. A good mix of apple and pear fruit flavors, the Landmark bares all of the creaminess and oak influences that lovers of this style of Chardonnay seek out. Plus, it has a wonderful butterscotch note tagging along.

Paired with the perfectly pan-seared pork loin and shallot sauce pictured above, the Landmark provides an optimal choice for white wine drinkers. Think caramelization meets creaminess.

Look to pay in the mid-twenty range. Just don’t overlook this Chardonnay.

the 2011 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay

the 2011 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay

Rosso Piceno

Stefano Antonucci Rosso Piceno and Boccadigabbia Rosso Piceno

Stefano Antonucci Rosso Piceno and Boccadigabbia Rosso Piceno

Stefano Antonucci wines have finally made it to the South, and more importantly they’re in our own backyard of Knoxville. The first arrival landed this spring and it’s one of the real workhorses of his Santa Barbara Winery.

The 2011 Rosso Piceno comes from the Central Italian region of the Marche and is a snappy blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese. Its food pairing versatility runs the gamut from prosciutto topped pizza and spicy Asian pork burgers to pasta with red sauce or a Mediterranean influenced menagerie of grilled vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.

The Sangiovese shines through on the dry finish with enough cherry and dried plum favors that any professor of wine acumen could appreciate. And for around $13 retail, I’m guessing even the winemaker had no clue of just how good this wine really is. They could – so very easily -charge more.

Thank you for the Nomination

Wine Blog Awards Really the only way to say it is…. Thank You!

Thank you to all of this blog’s followers and readers. What’s in the Bottle has been nominated for a handful of wine blog awards including Best New Wine Blog via the North American Wine Blog Awards.

I’ll keep researching, sampling, cooking, pairing and writing and you keep reading, experimenting and enjoying! Finalists for the awards will be announced in early May. Special thanks to an old friend in Nashville and to my very svelte bride.

- Roger

You say Qupé (kyoo pay)

Central Coast Syrah

Central Coast Syrah

My muse and I have been on a soul searching Syrah kick for the past five months. So before we totally committed to the cyclical wine changes, we had to explore one more from the Central Coast. The 2010 Qupé Central Coast Syrah starts as a firm, gripping wine that you surmise won’t let go of your imagination anytime soon.

Over in the food-explorative and restaurant-friendly city of Nashville, my aesthetics aficionado compares the Qupé’s aromatic infusion to a big city steak house. You’ll know what he’s talking about when you catch that first whiff… or if you’ve had it, then ooh la la… lucky you. It offers vine ripe blackberry undertones and an inimitable flavor of an old-fashioned (but properly Southern) rhubarb pie – not overly sweet but lustrous and appetizing.

Part two of my interview with Ronnie Sanders

This is part two of my interview with Ronnie Sanders, owner of Vines Street Imports.

RK: What wine trends do you see for 2013 and into the next year or two?

SANDERS: There is no question that the Australian wine category is coming back, but what I think is most interesting is in the style of wines coming out of Australia that are becoming popular. They are wines from singular sites, that are bio-dynamically or organically farmed and are generally lower in alcohol. These are wines of balance and finesse rather than wines that club you in the head. Also there seems to be more adventurous winemaking including whole bunch ferments, longer maceration times with more skin contact, less formulaic winemaking and more thoughtful winemaking.

RK: What are you drinking tonight? What would you pair it with?

SANDERS: Tonight it’s a fish night and it’s looking like a Lethbridge Riesling from Geelong. A beautiful, crystalline wine.

Rich Dixon of Knoxville Beverage with Ronnie Sanders of Vine Street Imports at "Defend Australia" in March.

Rich Dixon of Knoxville Beverage with Ronnie Sanders of Vine Street Imports at “Defend Australia” in March.

RK: What is your favorite wine country to travel to and explore?

SANDERS: That’s pretty easy and I guess as an Australian specialist this is not the politically correct answer, but its Piedmont and Barolo specifically. Damn I love Barolo!

RK: What is the hottest super-value that you have in your portfolio this year that consumers should be trying and why?

SANDERS: Two wines. The first is Boxhead Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon both from South Australia and the second would be any of our Poggio Anima wines, which are all mono-varietal wines from their indigenous place of origin in Italy. I personally like the Primitivo from Basilicata the best: it’s made by rock star winemaker Emiliano Falsini.

RK: What was the wine “wow” moment that first peaked your passion for wine and started you on the path as a wine importer?

SANDERS: My father was a great wine Enthusiast with a passion for Bordeaux, so I tasted a lot of great wine when I was a kid but it was really a 1954 DRC La Tache and then a 1961 Gaja Barbaresco. I tried them both around 1994 and that really got me hooked.

RK: What advice do you have for young wine-enthusiasts who are eager to break into the business?

SANDERS: Be prepared for a ton of work and to not make a ton of money.

RK: What is your “deserted island” wine varietal or specific bottling?

SANDERS: It would be Barolo and anything from Bartolo Mascarello, Edoardo Sobrino or Roberto Conterno.

RK: If you had the power to change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be?

SANDERS: It would have to be the reliance on the major press channels and that seems to be already happening

RK: What’s the hardest thing about the importing business?

SANDERS: That’s easy, the US Dollar which has been brutal for us with the Aussie dollar being at all time highs in the last couple of years.

Let go my Breggo

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

Anderson Valley has always been my chosen home for tremendous Pinot Noir. Unfortunately a few years back, massive wildfires put a layer of ash and smoke in or around the vineyards. The resulting influence was dubbed “smoke taint” and anyone who opened a bottle of the 2008 vintage (and some may argue 2009) would easily catch a scent reminiscent of an old ashtray or used matchstick.

The good news is that the Pinots in the 2010 vintage from Anderson Valley have shown a return to their polished, urbane style. The 2010 Breggo Pinot Noir is the pudding’s proof with rich black cherries and that marvelous cola-like mouth feel. Say goodbye to poopie Pinot; Anderson Valley has found its mojo and it’s time to start strutting again.

Interview with an importer

* This column was originally published in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Once you’ve met him, Ronnie Sanders is one of those people you won’t forget. The animated owner behind the bustling wine import company Vine Street Imports has brought some of the most interesting and conversation-starting Australian wine labels to the U.S. Some of Sanders’ eye-popping labels include Cycle Buff Beauty, Barrel Monkeys and The Mistress.

Q: You have some fantastically insane visual designs on the labels in your portfolio. Where do these producers and/or yourself derive these creative influences?

SANDERS: I’ve always been fascinated with record albums, and when I was kid I bought records according to the album cover. Of course, there were mistakes (Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell” comes to mind), and for me I really equate what I loved as a kid with albums to wine label art. It’s hard to put a finger on it but I’ll see an artist that I really like or a concept maybe in a magazine or the cover of a book, and that just gets the creative juices flowing. Considering that I have absolutely no artistic ability at all, I’ve aligned myself with people who are super-creative and let them do their thing.

Q: Do you have any new endeavors on the horizon that you’d like to share with us?

SANDERS: We are having an event in Philadelphia that I am pretty excited about called “Defend Australia,” which is essentially a master class. The vast majority of our distributors nationwide are coming in, including your very own Rich Dixon from Knoxville Beverage as well as many top retailers and sommeliers from around the country. Although we feel the pull again on our category, we wanted to give it a push, as well as feature many of our new wines from wineries that are brand new to the market.

Q: What’s your opinion on the changing of the guard at Wine Advocate now that founder and owner Robert Parker has sold it?

SANDERS: Lisa Perroti-Brown is an incredibly gifted person and I think she’ll do a great job. So far I think her Aussie reviews have been on point. I’m curious to see who will review Italy now that Antonio Galloni is no longer doing the Italian reviews for the Advocate.

Q: Do you think the ongoing debate about the 100-point wine rating system in America (where one or a handful of people crown a wine as king) will lead to any real change in the near future?

SANDERS: I never had a problem with the system as it stands. Nowadays, I think that the average wine-drinker seems to be more comfortable with their palates, but I still have friends who will only buy on press. Hopefully, that will eventually change.

The second half of this interview will be posted on Friday.

Guest Blogger: The Mayor talks Cava

* The final post of Spanish Week features guest blogger, Lou Arpino – The Mayor of Rocky Hill

The Spanish came to the New World in search of sparkling gems and metals. Today, they are returning the favor by sending us a sparkling liquid in the form of Cava wine.

Poetry in a glass

Poetry in a glass

In the US, Cava has become a very acceptable, economical alternative to French Champagne. The Spanish produce Cava using the same “traditional” fermentation method used in the French Champagne industry, but they have added a unique automatic riddling process which eliminates the costly hand process used by the French to slowly remove yeast sediment which builds up in the bottle during the fermentation process.

Cava is produced in a number of regions in Spain, with Catalan being the largest producer. Three grapes are blended to produce Cava. Referred to as the “holy trinity” by Spanish winemakers, a blend of Macabeo, Xarello and Perllada are blended in varying degrees (depending on annual growing conditions and the personal preferences of each winemaker) into each bottle of Cava.

Just like its French cousin, Cava comes in a range of dryness depending on its sugar content. 
Cava has an alcohol content of between 12 and 14 percent and can be generally described as having an aroma of light yeast and biscuit, a flavor of orange, pear or green apple and a smooth, slightly acidic finish. Cava, when poured, treats you to lively, youth full bubbles and a creamy mousse.

Keep in mind that Cava is a younger wine compared to Champagne, so it has a shorter shelf life, usually one to two years. 
You may be surprised to know that because Cava is inexpensive and very approachable it has become the largest selling sparkling wine in the world.

So, what are you waiting for? Your wine retailer should have a selection of Cavas in his or her sparkling wine section, give one a try the next time you are about to grab that bottle of Champagne or Prosecco.

Tempting Tempranillo

Old vine, good wine

Old vine, good wine

Spanish Week wouldn’t be complete without recommending more than one Tempranillo based red wine. And although most people automatically think of the Rioja region for their Tempranillo fix, the nearby region of Ribera del Duero produces some stiffly competitive ones. You can’t go wrong with the classic selection of Tinto Pesquera, but for Spanish week I wanted to introduce one that I was previously unfamiliar with, Finca La Mata.

Imported through the Grapes of Spain, Finca La Mata is 100% Tinta del Pais.

Wuh? …..I thought you just said it was a Tempranillo based wine?

And herein lies the tricky part if you don’t have your smart phone with you at the wine shop. Let’s just say that the Spanish do things…. a little differently.

I’ve discovered this week, for instance, that they cook backwards. You’ll know what I mean if you tackle any of the main dishes I feature this week. And as I was familiar with going in, they use lots of local names for various grapes varieties. So, simple old Tempranillo is called Tinta del Pais in Ribera del Duero and confusingly enough it’s called Tinta Fina in several other regions. Simpatico.

So what about the Finca La Mata?

Located directly north of Madrid (in the wine region of Ribera del Duero) Finca la Mata is made from 100% Tinta del Pais (Tempranillo) and comes across as a less-fruity, meatier version of what I usually taste in like-priced Riojas. Aromas of bacon fat and flavors of prunes and dried black fruits persist from start to finish. All this wine really needs is some chorizo and peppers, tagging along for an upbeat lunch date.

Salsa Barbacoa Catalana

Spanish Week rolls on

Spanish Week rolls on

Just saying Salsa Barbacoa Catalana will probably make you hungry!

The Spanish dinner (pictured right) not only looks and tastes good, but it also sounds pretty damn appetizing! That’s Pollo con Salsa Barbacoa Catalana, Maíz Español and Espinacas a la Catalana. Or for us bilingually challenged, that very roughly translates to grilled Spanish chicken topped with Catalan Barbecue Sauce, Spanish Corn and Spinach with raisins, pine nuts and anchovies. Probably had you hooked until you read anchovies!

The Spanish region of Catalonia is home to the Spanish cultural juggernaut of Barcelona and lies to the northeast, rubbing shoulders with the Pyrenees and France. Catalonia plays host to two of the recipes above, as well as being ground zero for delectable Spanish sparkling wines and their Cava houses.

Uncorked and reporting for duty

Uncorked and reporting for duty

The garlicy, nutty BBQ sauce and baked corn casserole needs a wine that is very food friendly, especially when you throw in a cooked spinach dish. And since we’re dealing with a Catalonian recipe then a home turf wine (like a Priorat) is an ideal source to draw from.

The 2004 Ardévol Priorat Coma d’en Romeu comes at you with a distinct and appetite building aroma of high dollar olive oil that is both earthy and smoky. And if you’re lucky enough to have a little left over on day two, then you’ll also notice a developing plum jam element in the flavor.

Predominantly a blend of Carinena and Garnacha (with a smidgeon of bordeaux varietals added), the Ardévol’s small production level and cha-ching price tag may make it a little more difficult to track down… but well worth the endeavor.

The bottle was dusty (and label jacked up) but the wine was spot on

The bottle was dusty (and label jacked up) but the wine was spot on

Albariño and Paella Alicantina

Zoom in a little closer

Zoom in a little closer

That’s Spanish for closeup, as in you better scroll to the bottom of the post and see the closeup pic of the paella.

Over the past few years, Albariño has slowly become one of my favorite white wines. And I know I’ve waxed about it poetically a hand full of times on my blog. This article makes for a little refresher course: All about Albariño.

The only thing better than getting to enjoy one of your favorite white wines in early Spring is getting to enjoy it twofold. This is where my muse and I found ourselves last night, with two affordable and accessible bottles of Albariño to accompany a seafood paella recipe.

First, the time-honored and old school- Martin Codax Albariño- provided lively aromas of peaches. It is one of the more acclaimed and historic Albariño producers. In fact you’ll see it recommended in several of the more venerable books about wine.

Dos Albarino

Dos Albarino

And while the Eidosela Albariño is more of a neophyte, its flavor profile of fresh pear and honeydew melon means that it probably has some staying power.

Albariño’s simplicity and freshness makes for a natural partner for seafood dishes. And it being Spanish Week, I knew that eventually I would have to delve into the unchartered waters of paella. So, I sought out a paella recipe with a seafood component and GOT AFTER IT.

The key to good paella is getting the rice just right – a perfectly crusty bottom that’s neither dry nor fluffy. We added prawns, crawfish and mussels to the Paella Alicantina mix and although the rice wasn’t as “just right” as it should be, the melding of seafood and saffron probably could have made cardboard taste good.

Paella Alicantina

Paella Alicantina

The “W-word” of the wine world

Back in my retail days, there was a winery rep who use to come ‘round promoting his wares. Without fail, he would always refer to his (really below average) wines as having “that wow factor.” All I could really think was yes – they sure do have that wow factor, as in WOW these wines really suck! From that point on I promised myself not to use the W-word lightly.

I had forgotten all about the swill peddler and that moment until just a few weeks ago when I popped open a very inexpensive wine for the first time. It went something like this:

Symphony of Raspberries

Symphony of Raspberries

Pop cork.
Pour glass.
Bend neck.
Raise stemware.
And before the wine could reach my lips…

And so the symphony began for this 100% pure Spanish Tempranillo.

The 2011 Sinfonia grabs your attention like Mrs. G-Clef getting down to a clash of cymbals. Its bouquet, not only offers that W-moment, but also provides enough captivation to keep you coming back for a discovery of lovely cedar notes, woodsy cigar box aromatics and peppy dark fruits.

The Sinfonia’s juicy texture flowed over with crazy-good raspberry flavors and a thirty-second finish. This deep, dark purple Tempranillo is produced by Bodegas Abanico and imported to the US through the Grapes of Spain. And if you didn’t catch enough the second whiff around, then upon subsequent visits the mysterious and elusive spice-box menagerie will truly amaze you.

Valsacro & Pollo al Jerez (sort of)

Spanish Chicken with Olives and Sausage

Spanish Chicken with Olives and Sausage

Growing up as a kid there was a much older, retired couple that lived down the street from us. The Knebels were great hosts to all the adventurous kids in the neighborhood and over time they taught several of us how to do woodwork, how to walk on stilts, how to play chess (and sometimes win) and to be open-mnded when exploring different foods. The dish I enjoyed the most from those dinner parties was Spanish chicken with olives. Suffice to say, like most kids I hated olives… until then.

So as part of Spanish Week, I researched the above recipe of Spanish Chicken with olives in a sherry sauce. The variation on this recipe was my addition of a little spicy sausage to the saucepan. The sherry in the Pollo al Jerez really makes the dish come together and can seemingly make mishaps (along the way) a little more forgiving in the final product. Perhaps it was the sherry that helped me to learn to embrace the olives back then.

The city of Jerez is situated in the southern most part of Spain and halfway between Seville and the Strait of Gibraltar. It is the epicenter of Spanish Sherry production, so the recipe was indicative of locals using the ingredients and indeed the wine of their region. The catch to pairing up this meal was that most of this part of Spain is known specifically for Sherry and I certainly couldn’t imagine a bottle of Osborne or La Gitana Sherry sitting in the background of my Spanish chicken photo.

So I put the sherry in the Spanish chicken and pulled out a dusty bottle of the 2005 Valsacro from Rioja. A blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Mazuelo, the Valsacro is a great all-rounder with aromas of cedar and oak and lots and lots of blackberry and dark fruit flavors. Almost inky in color, the lusciousness of this blend made well for taking on the diverse and savory flavors of chicken, olives, tomatoes and sausage.

Seven days, seven wines: Spanish Week starts now

Layla & Laya, doggone good

Layla & Laya, doggone good

Let me count the ways I love some Laya. A 70/30 blend of Garnacha and Monastrell, Laya is one poser of a wine – showing off bright, vivid red hues with plenty of lip popping succulence. Think of the always-fruity Evoida Garnacha but with more textural preference.

Discernable by its cornucopia of strawberry and raspberry flavors, the 2011 vintage is layered with gobs of luscious spring inspired fruit. Its bodega, Atalaya, hails from the eastern Spanish wine region of Almansa, near the Mediterranean. And for such a great bottle of wine to come such a long way, it’s an astounding find that falls right in that holy-grail price point of only $10.

Culinary creations in a glass

* A version of the following article was first published in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Cilantro, Peach, Cucumber and Lime

Cilantro, Peach, Cucumber and Lime

Back in the 1980’s vodka took its first small step into the world of flavored spirits. With the American launch of Absolut Peppar, the world of Bloody Mary’s and indeed vodka would never be the same. Today, flavored vodkas are everywhere and being made by almost everyone who distills vodka. A stroll down the vodka aisle shows just how much the category has grown from the pepper or citrus-based beginnings to the threshold-pushing flavors of bacon, bubble gum and even birthday cake.

Muddling through the bizarre efforts of some vodka distillers can be formidable, so recently I sat down at the Grill At Highlands Row to talk turkey (did I just create a new flavor) with Chad Barger, general manager at the Grill. Along with bartender Laura Musgrave, we wanted to examine some of the more culinary-driven flavored vodkas and see just what creative and enjoyable mixed drinks we could invent.

A few years ago the Sazerac Company (purveyors of outstanding Bourbon) launched an organic vodka with unusual flavors of cucumber and lime called Rain. Musgrave, who has been with the Grill At Highlands Row since it opened in 2010, took the Rain Vodka and quickly focused in on a mojito influence with the mixing of muddled mint, lime and simple syrup to the already cucumber enhanced vodka. The result was a savory, balanced cocktail with an air of freshness to it.

With Musgrave’s creation, dubbed the Muddler in the Rain, she was able to walk the fine line of the citrus influence. Too much would have overshadowed the cucumber and not enough would have meant loosing that crispness and thus balance of the drink.

With the Nielsen ratings showing that premium vodkas were up over 33% last year, it was no surprise when the trendsetters at Absolut rolled out a new premium vodka in 2013. Little did anyone know; however, that the line extension would include the popular herb of cilantro.

Cilantro is one of the few things that my wife and I disagree on. You either love it or hate it for its floral, herbaceous nature. And obviously Absolut was thinking of culinary-influenced mix drinks when they created this herb-guided vodka. So, I was enthusiastic when Barger and Musgrave collaborated to concoct two killer cocktails with this uniquely flavored spirit.

The first creation was a mix of the Absolut Cilantro and Lime with some ginger beer, lemon and lime juice. For all of those who enjoy a nice pre-dinner cocktail to stimulate the appetite, this “Appetizer Cocktail” is just for you. The piquancy of the ginger plays out nicely to the late arriving but appetite-building cilantro.

Second, they fashioned a full-circle tribute to the whole reason Absolut introduced its first pepper-flavored vodka 27 years ago, the iconic cocktail – the Bloody Mary. With the Absolut Cilantro and Lime being mixed with Musgrave’s zinged up rendition of Zing Zang Bloody Mary Mix, they added a garnish of in-house jalapeño stuffed olives. It’s the perfect prelude to some shrimp and grits for Sunday brunch.

Finally, as a lover of all things Italian I was eager to sample a third flavored vodka invention, the “Epic Bellini.” A natural twist on the Italian Bellini, it is a simple mix of prosecco and Knoxville’s newest vodka brand, Epic. Wonderfully aromatic and true to its fruit source, the Epic Peach flavor offers a jazzed up version of the classic Venetian cocktail with a garnish of blood orange.

Straight off the shelf, flavored vodkas may not be for everyone. But with the proper mixology and some professional advice culinary delights can be a sip away.

All over but the drinking

Louisa's Limoncello

Finally it’s complete. And man is it good!

My good friend Lou, swung by this week so that we could finish up our month long project of making limoncello. The second part of the project involved a little stirring of the high proof alcohol that for the past four weeks had played host to a lemon tree full of zest. The aroma was strong but fresh and clean.

After making and cooling a simple syrup of water and sugar, we added it to the lemon zest/alcohol mix and set it aside for one more night. The next day I bottled about three liters worth of limoncello using some of the old labels and bottles from the last go-around as well as a few new ones. The color is just as amazing and tempting as the pic above. And the taste? Let’s just say, the Neapolitans have nothing on us.

Onward Lemon Soldiers

Onward Lemon Soldiers

Besides sharing and enjoying the final product with friends, the only task left to do is give the limoncello a label name. My last batch was named in tribute to my grandparents. This year we have narrowed down the label name to the following and would appreciate your input:

(1) Distillato Clandestino (Moonshine)
(2) Chiaro di Luna (Moonshine)
(3) Contrabbando di Italiano (Italian Contraband)
(4) Boot Hooch (cheap liquor from that country shaped like a boot)

Spanish Week starts April 1st

Sinfonia, Laya and Finca La Mata

Sinfonia, Laya and Finca La Mata

During the week of April 1st through the 7th, “What’s in the Bottle” will be featuring seven different wines from España. Here’s a chance to pick up a few insider selections on great Spanish values! And you’ll get to read up on what the Mayor of Rocky Hill has to say about Cava. Spanish week starts Monday!

Flashback: The United Front of Merlot

FLASHBACK: * This article is a re-print from a two-part series written for a retail newsletter back in the Spring of 2009. I thought it was appropriate since it’s about time for the Merlot Kings to initiate a second round of resurrection. Or for those who were in denial about Merlot last time to adopt the same approach mistake about Pinot Noir.

All is quiet on the Merlot front.

All is quiet on the Merlot front.

Across our domestic wine scene, there’s a united front building up in support of reinventing Merlot. Since the movie Sideways came out, I’ve seen more and more consumers make the switch from Merlot to Pinot Noir. So, it was only a matter of time before growers in Napa and Sonoma were going to have to get a game plan together and try to stop the bleeding.

Similarly, “new red wine drinkers” are now starting out with Pinot Noir as opposed to the old go to, Merlot. Retail teams in various markets seemed to follow the trend as well and started recommending more and more Pinot Noir just as mid-price and high-end Merlot bottles worked on their dust tan.

So, what’s a Merlot producer to do? Well for starters, like a lot of declining businesses, they were seemingly in denial at first. Then, when many vintners started throwing down Pinot Noir vines and buying up fruit sources across the West Coast, France and even Northern Italy, the “old schoolers” in Napa and Sonoma knew that Pinot Noir was here to stay. After realization set in, the long time Merlot Kings worked on holding the line on price and trying to gobble up as many high ratings and reviews as they could. Inevitably though, the writers and critics followed the popular trend to Pinot Noir as well and started to share in the love, the press and the trend.

The next wave of counter attacks came in March, when both a popular national newspaper and an independent wine periodical ran somewhat similar slants calling for the revival of Merlot.

First, The Wall Street Journal ran a wine article on Merlot being on the comeback trail. Co-writers, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher of the WSJ pointed the finger at greedy wine producers, over planting and over production. They then went on to list their suggestions for value-oriented Merlots, including Blackstone. Some retailers got excited about promoting Blackstone Merlot, again, and bought into the united front. After all, who would doubt or question such a reputable news source.

The second round was fired off that same month when the normally connoisseurs at Connoisseurs’ Guide ran an exposé demanding in very adult-to-child like condescension that “the temptation to treat Merlot as a less than serious version of Cabernet Sauvignon needs to stop, and it needs to stop now.” They too blamed the decline on over planting, poor climatic choices, high demand perceptions and of course what’s his name from Sideways.

CG (Connoisseurs’ Guide) gives out ratings based on a 100-point scale and signifies anything over a 90 rating as a Two Star Wine on a Three Star scale. So after they reviewed 72 Merlots for their latest issue, what did we learn? According to their scores 11 out of the 72 wines reviewed got a Two Star rating. That means 15% of the Merlots they reviewed were higher then a 90 and considered “distinctive.” What the untrained eye doesn’t see is that only 2 of those “distinctive’ Merlots were under $42 (ouch!) And on average those reviewed higher than a 90 would cost you $61.82 plus tax. Thanks but no thanks. For that kind of money, I’d rather buy two or three Pinot Noirs.

Milbrandt Cabernet & brisket revisited

My muse's musical brisket and braised carrots.

My muse’s musical brisket and braised carrots.

Back in the fall, my muse made an outstanding brisket with braised carrots. So savory and rich, her brisket is usually a cool weather staple. But I was craving a last bite of winter fare and she surprised me one night, a la an unexpected rendezvous with brisket.

With the arrival of the vernal equinox, we’re finding our tastes making the natural and expected migration towards white and rosé wines. So having one last supper of hearty meals (like brisket) meant a last chance at a thicker, more engaging red to join in the mealtime regalia.

Milbrant Traditions

Milbrant Traditions

Long time readers know that I champion some of the super valued wines that Washington State continually puts out. So I wasn’t surprised when I tried a sample of the Milbrandt Traditions Cabernet from Columbia Valley, Washington.

Its cedar nose and aromatic display of eucalyptus and mint were almost intoxicating. The Traditions promptly offers an immediate gratification of rich and dense dark berry fruit. Its delicious offering of black cherry and currant fruit camps down in the mid-palate and acts like it isn’t going anywhere fast.

What I like most about this (“drinks like a $30”) Washington State Cabernet is that it’s under $15. Damn! This is one to buy by a buggy full.

Your steak, hamburger, barbeque chicken, crawfish, pizza, err brisket will thank you. Once again Washington State brings the heat and Milbrandt makes other similarly priced Cabs taste like Milquetoast.

The Last of a Vintage

Vintage Vincent

Vintage Vincent

To all the home-vintners and garage juice makers who will never be discovered for their exploratory contributions to the world of wine, may each consecutive vintage be your best. And a special shout-out for my great Uncle Skip (whose last vintage you see here); may the afterworld offer fields of elderberries and all the tomato vines a man could harvest.

You can learn more about the resurgent craft and the skinny on who turned it into something bigger at these links: RECIPE and TOMATO WINE

Mizz Jackson comes to dinner

Mizz Jackson came to dinner the other night, and she brought some nasty wines. Nasty Good Wines!

Mmmm Hmmm!

Mmmm Hmmm!

Yes I know… I risk dating myself with the weedy, lame musical reference… carbon dating.

My wife’s good friend joined us for dinner with the challenging assignment of pairing a wine with risotto that’s been prepared with parmesano, lemon zest and mint. It would have been a simple task had the risotto not included the grilled Southern shrimp and a small cap of homemade pickled red onions. And before I go any further I need to fess up that the recipe came from my old college roommate and owner of Café Roma in Cleveland, Chef Shannon. He is living proof that you can trust a skinny chef.

So with this daunting endeavor in mind, Mizz Jackson arrives with…CHOICES! Amen to that! Because after all, the thought process goes something like this: peas and rice probably a dry white, cheesy risotto needs something to balance… err maybe cut through the creamy texture, the host really likes Italian red wines, seafood normally equates to white but it’s been grilled and no telling what seasonings have been added, pickled red onions… man you’ve got me there, I better just bring some… choices.

Excellent choice Mizz Jackson!

Round Pond Estate 2011 Rutherford - Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Round Pond Estate 2011 Rutherford – Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Our token white was the 2011 Round Pond Sauvignon Blanc with Rutherford, Napa Valley. Citrusy aromas and a straightforward flavor profile framed a balanced fruit-driven sauvignon blanc, that’s not overly acidic. Quite simply, it’s a good match for unpretentious food and wine pairing.

The compulsory (keep the host/ cook happy) Italian red was an awfully generous gesture- the Fanti Rosso di Montalcino, Toscana. I’ve tried Fanti’s dessert wine – Vin Santo recently, but it’s been a good decade since I took a bite out of one of their elegant dinner reds. Fanti Rosso The Rosso di Montalcino poured into the glass with the customary brickish red that many wines from the area are known for. The surprise was seeing this wonderful orange and vibrant halo encapsulating the wine. Aromas of licorice and leather catered well to the crushed red cherries and Luden-like nostalgia of the Fanti’s essence.

The often overlooked, Santa Ynez Valley represented a third level of diversity in our wine line-up. Andrew Murray’s 2011 Tous Les Jour Santa Ynez Syrah carted out scents that were reminiscent of a late autumn hike through a well-trodden forest trail.

All day...any day.

All day…any day.

As it tries to be coy with this almost dismissive spice note, it holds absolutely nothing back in an all out barrage of blueberry flavor. Lots of wineries and wine labels talk about having or displaying the really elusive blueberry flavor in wine. But the Andrew Murray Tous Les Jour Syrah is one of only a handful of wines that actually delivers. It reminds me of the deep, rich and decadent blueberry pies my great Aunt Susie use to make while visiting her farm as a boy. With such explosive flavor, the Syrah is a blueberry lover’s dream.

Mizz Jackson agreed. And although dinner was fantastic, the wines were a showstopper.

Time to think pink – with these hand picked selections

* A version of this column originally ran in Saturday’s online edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Get ready! They’re going to be here before you know it; the annual and swift invasion of fresh French rosé wines will touchdown in the East Tennessee marketplace in early April and won’t let up until mid summer. So it’s time to shake off those rainy winter blues and to start to think – pink.

Over the past few years, importers like Robert Kacher, Fran Kysela and Dan Kravitz of Hand Picked Selections have done a remarkable job at bringing reliable, high quality rosé wines to the US. With the rosé portfolio of Hand Picked Selections fetching wines from France that are incredible and rousing, this year is no exception. Here are five Hand Picked choices worth asking for at your neighborhood shop this spring.

The Four Rosemen of Notre Dame

The Four Rosemen of Notre Dame

Finding value in a wine category where prices tend to inch up every year can be formidable. For this very reason, I wanted to seek out at least one French rosé that is both under $15 and still rocking and rolling. That quest led to the discovery of the $13 Le Cirque Rosé. The indulgent and tempting fruit-laden essence of Le Cirque matches its grape make up of being half Grenache and nearly as much Mourvèdre. A unique hint of clove as well as a lively cotton candy color would seem intriguing enough. But throw in a melon patch of summer time flavors and suddenly it’s like having an amusement park in your glass.

Although the previous vintage may have been a little uninspiring, I’m a big fan of the 2012 Domaine de Malavieille Charmille Rosé. Organic conscious wine drinkers will appreciate the extra effort by the winery to attain its biodynamic certification. A dry, Syrah-based wine with richer than normal rosé-like flavors, the Charmille pairs up well with some garden ripe strawberries and a slice of shortcake. In fact, it’s one of those wines with a long and winding, if not meandering, finish that ends right at the point where you find your lips meeting glass for yet another sip.

If you don’t mind paying a little more, then you won’t be able to get enough of the 2012 Chateau de Lancyre Rose from the Languedoc. With spicy notes and a gulp full of tangerine and grapefruit, this wine has been one my favorite rosés for the past few years. A classic blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, Lancyre is a clean representation of all that is good and fresh in the world or French rosé wines.

Finally, lovers of the bone-dry and mineral style rosé won’t be disappointed with either release of the 2012 Commanderie de la Bargemone or the 2012 Château du Donjon Minervois rosé wines. With cheery cherry, strawberry and quince notes both of these wines make it easy to think pink as the new batch of springtime rosés roll into town.

What to pair: Verdicchio and Tuscan Seafood Stew

Open wide!

Open wide!

That is one scrumptious looking spoonful of good eats!

Last weekend, I finally got around to making my own version of a Tuscan seafood stew that I’d put off for too long. Slow cooked, and by that I mean sslloooooww cooked, this zesty Italian recipe included lots of basil and tomatoes and oregano along with a sea-worthy cornucopia (think hugh conch shell) of all that mother ocean has to offer- calamari, clams, a school of your favorite finned creature – with shrimp and scallops added late. This recipe is the sea’s mighty bounty simmered long and delicately, with the bright sweetness and acidity of good tomatoes all in one bowl.

Verdicchio - dry white from the Marche.

Verdicchio – dry white from the Marche.

One of Italy’s old-school and often dismissed white wines is Verdicchio. Typically, mineral-laden and singularly focused, Verdicchio’s simplicity is a natural pairing for a lighter stew that is both fish based and tomato influenced. The 2010 Azienda Santa Barbara Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is an exceptional representation of the varietal. That extra year or two of age has given it a truly golden color. And although most wine drinkers don’t equate aging and Verdicchio, the lush mouthfeel and soft rolling stone fruit flavors are beautiful balancers that allow the wine (as well as the stew) to shine through.

Kale Chips and Beer

Kale chips dressed and ready to go

Kale chips dressed and ready to go

Kale chips are quickly becoming one of the healthiest snack fads. Easy to make, nutritious and quite tasty, the finished product has the texture of popcorn with the crunch of a classic American chip.

Lightly coated in olive oil and tossed with your favorite single season, the kale is then baked for about ten minutes at 350 degrees. The trick is to make sure the kale pieces are de-stemmed, torn into bite-size pieces and not touching on the cookie sheet before you pop them in the oven. That way they’ll firm up properly and result in this hard to believe crunchiness.

The finished snack... ready to eat

The finished snack… ready to eat

The best I’ve made so far is olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano. Don’t skimp on the cheese. Get the king of parmesan and not the sand that comes out of that plastic shaker. Other good single seasonings include smoked paprika, garlic or just a dash of sea salt.

Chris Morton of the Bearden Beer Market recommends an easy-drinking pilsner that won’t overshadow the kale, like Finch’s from Chicago or even the very hot-selling Bitburger Pilsner. Best of all, kale chips appealing duet of being healthy and tasting good, leaves a little extra wiggle room for that extra beer.

Three wine categories to avoid in 2013

* A version of this column originally ran in the Saturday on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

It’s easy to tell a consumer what the good wines are from year to year. The more difficult, or truthful, aspect is telling them which wines or at least which wine categories to avoid completely. Getting that extra special, insider information usually requires building up a respectable relationship with your favorite wine merchant. And that can take time, especially if your favorite store has a lot of turnover.

Like any year, there will be some hits and some misses. But based on personal experience these are three wine categories that I’d be hesitant to embrace this year, along with a little rationalization as to why.

First, inexpensive and domestic red blends have been hot for over two years now. Everybody, and by that I mean every supplier, has gotten in on the trend of putting out a cheap, but quite enjoyable red blend. Originally, this was done because a lot of wine producers had some quality, left over juice. Now that most have depleted their extra baggage, they’re left to sourcing cheap wine from wherever they can find it. This typically means a lower quality of wine that is often reflected in the taste.

Wine Cave

Have you ever wondered why a certain red blend just seems to get lighter and lighter or sweeter and sweeter from one vintage to the next? Often the answer is money. It costs more to produce quality wine, but many wineries know that they won’t be able to sell as much from one year to the next if they raise their prices. And if they’re out of the good, leftover juice, then they have to resort to finding a cheaper and lower-grade supply line. After putting out a great value their first vintage, many producers (of the trendy red blend) will assume they have you hooked on their brand and not necessarily maintain the quality into the second or third vintages.

Second, sidestep the cheap Pinot Noir shelf. Since the movie Sideways came out, vineyards in California have ripped up more vines and replanted them with more Pinot Noir grapes than most of us have ripped up and replaced our new year’s resolutions. That means the bottle of cheap Pinot Noir is being filled with juice from vineyards that aren’t very mature. It’s kind of like asking a newborn to recite the alphabet…backwards.

Third, oaky-style Chardonnays have started to take a backstage to the trendy, un-oaked version. Some aficionados argue that this is happening because American tastes are changing. However, the argument could be made that the movement is actually driven by costs. The production of oak barrels and subsequent aging in them is quite expensive, so wineries could be looking for ways to cut back.

Over the years, they have used the insertion of oak staves into the grape juice to impart the creamier textures and buttery nuances that oaky style Chardonnay lovers prefer. And in more recent years, they have used a “dusting” of oak in the Chardonnay to accomplish the same goal. That being said, it may be best to avoid oaky-style Chardonnays under $10.

Once again the reason is simply a matter of dollars or in the sometimes smelly case of wine, scents.

Wine of the Sea

maredevinasLast Sunday, I returned from a mini vacation to Louisville. The home of legendary horse racing, the greatest boxer of all time and some renowned bat making, also had a few wine shops that were swinging away. It wasn’t soon after returning home with some mixed cases of first time wines, that I discovered a favorite new everyday white wine. The 2011 Mar de Viñas Albariño (Rias Baixas, Spain) proves that you can find a varietally correct Albariño without having to overpay.

St George

The Mar de Viñas cost me about $14, much less than comparable ones inching toward the $20 range, but had just as much depth of flavor and enjoyable fruit. Green apple aromas were followed by a flavor profile of tropical influences like bananas, kiwi and guava.

Great with your favorite sea offering, the Mar de Viñas’ freshness and vibrancy are evidence of its versatility and also acted as an inspiration for a little beach time getaway. For more on Albariño, check out my column from last year; All About Albariño.

Burns Night 2013

Great job editing! Must have been the scotch.

Great job editing! Must have been the scotch.

This January we celebrated our fifth annual Burns Night Supper. Named for Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns, the dinner is celebrated every year on the late poet’s January 25th birthday. Although there are slight variations on the evening’s itinerary, the gist of it involves a traditional meal (and scotch), some background on the old bard (more scotch), readings of his work (as well as some personal venting or ribbing) and two signature toasts. RobertBurns.org and Scotland.org have two of the better sites for replicating your own tribute to Burns and all things Scottish.

Anthony's First Burns Night

Our previous four Burns Night Suppers varied in size from a humble group of 7 to a rowdy mob of 19 just last year. This January we settled into a comfortable table of eleven that included my son Anthony Joseph. This is Anthony decked out in his tartan shirt and enjoying his first Burns Night Supper at the ripe age of seven months. He had to skip the haggis, and actually everything else, but was allowed to guzzle some milk and chow down on some delicious applesauce.

The haggis arrived ready to cook from the Caledonian Kitchen. After five years of doing this, we highly recommend them for all your Scottish supplies and we highly recommend steaming the haggis as opposed to other cooking methods.

The Haggis

When we hosted out first Burns Night Supper back in 2009, we were adamant about keeping with tradition. But this year we decided to mix up the menu a little, while still trying to honor some of those Scottish roots. Besides the obligatory haggis and HP sauce, the menu included a lamb stew puff pastry pie with some Indian influenced rice and spicy vegetables.

Burns Night Supper

And although we didn’t have cousin Brucie’s irrestible Scottish eggs as an appetizer, we did manage to round up some killer desserts including a Tipsy Laird Trifle and heavenly sweet Banoffee Pie.

Banoffee Pie

Special thanks to Mama Desai who traveled 400 miles in the blistery blizzard for her fifth Burns Night and for taking these pics, as well as Sweet Bonnie Mary for the skeetch, Gerry for the best damn Irish bread ever, the Gang of two for the Indian influence and Kritti for some spot on B-A-N-A-N-A meet toffee – pie. That pie was bananas!

Burns Night Table

Man Salad Part Duex


Here it is! Protein meet Mr. Green! You pick the lettuce, green or mix of your choice then..

Top with a pinch or two of goat cheese, bacon that isn’t obnoxiously over-smoked, fresh avocado wedges, beautifully rare- aged beef, and a sliced (picture evident) perfectly boiled egg. Finish with a drizzle of blue cheese or green goddess dressing and you have a killer, filler of a dinner.

Here’s the tricky part! What wine do you pair with a steak salad?

With most everyday, run-of-the-mill green salads the answer would revolve around a white wine. But with some big steak and fatty pork, things get a little tougher. You don’t want a huge beastly, tannic red like Cabernet or Syrah because the flavors of the greens and avocados will disappear. And the typical white isn’t going to stand up to all that heavy meat and protein.

Otello Nero di Lambrusco

The answer lies in this little beauty from the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna… the Otello Nero di Lambrusco. I had this captivating and exquisite wine in Parma about nine months before my son was born. Try not to think of 1970′s American-preferred jug Lambrusco. Although there is a little sweetness to the Otello, it has enough tannic structure and dry finish to play along with both the greens and the beef in this salad. And unlike its namesake, the Otello doesn’t have your typical wicked operatic ending.

If you can’t find a drier-style Lambrusco your next best bet may be an Italian Dolcetto.

Limoncello with the Mayor of Rocky Hill

Zen and the Art of ZestingThis past Tuesday, I got together with an old colleague for my third attempt at limoncello. What I discovered between round one and round two made a world of difference in the final product. First, don’t use any pure grain alcohol (PGA) or Golden Grain when concocting this homemade hooch. Instead, opt for a 100 proof vodka (Smirnoff blue label works well) and be thankful you paid a little more. Likewise, spring for some organic lemons. You’ll have no nuance of a chemical component in the final product since the lemons (and thus skins) aren’t treated with mouth-numbing carcinogens.

Lou & Lemons

My second experience in making limoncello also taught me to use big, fat lemons. Handling and zesting the little guys can get tricky and it’s hard enough just to keep the white pith from the lemon zest. My friend, Lou “the Mayor of Rocky Hills” demonstrates the perfectly zested lemon. Here is just another instance in which that Fine Italian Hand comes in… well… handy.

There are a hundred recipes on line for limoncello and most are fairly similar. Using only four ingredients (vodka, lemons, sugar and water) means these little tips will be the difference between good limoncello and furniture cleaner.

After the zesting is complete, the vodka is poured over top then sealed and stored for anywhere from two to four weeks. Ours is resting in this airtight plastic gallon drum, where we will revisit it in March for step two which involves the addition of some simple syrup and a little more Italian patience.


Roast and Toast


He tried to get loose.

Chicken doesn’t have to be just chicken. So leave the boneless, skinless, tasteless chicken breasts in the freezer for another week and tie up one of these. Roasting a whole chicken really isn’t hard. Stuffed with lemon and rubbed down with some garlic and oil, a whole chicken only requires some additional time in being strung up and rotated a few times in the oven.

The beauty of roasting the whole bird is the increase in flavors brought on by having a juicier inner core surrounded by a crispy layer of finger pulling, can’t wait to dinner sampling, Kentucky Colonel inspiring, perfectly cooked and delectable chicken skin. Better yet, the additional flavors and textures mean more wine pairing possibilities.

This would include anything from the great French Rose wines that are about to come out this Spring to a pinot noir-based red to a (depending on the amount of butter you might use) creamy Chardonnay. My reliable Reliance connection recommended the Davis Bynum Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley. Think cream, toasty oak, vanilla and Royal Riviera® Pears in a bottle accompanied by some divinely roasted chicken and a well stocked (thank God Spring is almost here) picnic basket.

Davis Bynum Chardonnay

(new) Mexican Food & Wine

Gruet Blanc de Noirs Towards the end of last year, one of my favorite haunts bombed out and failed to pass the mustard during its inspection. And I haven’t been brave enough to return and risk catching a whiff of the East Amazon, z-Nola stomach bug. YET. Until then…which by that I’m thinking not anytime soon…I needed to assuage a south of the border, good-ole boy hankering for some savory enchiladas.

Although I began my typical taqueria spread with a few Modelo Especiales, I figured the non-grazing segment of dinner (that involved a first crack at enchiladas) deserved a little celebratory clinking of the glasses. So we popped a bottle of the finest valued bubbly that New Mexico – as in the state of New Mexico- has to offer, the quarter century old Gruet Winery Blanc de Noir.

On its own this Pinot Noir based, southwest sparkling wine is a keeper. Its solid citrus core is balanced with some creamy texture and a crispy, cracker-like finish. But mix it with some festive and dinner-appropriate guava juice and you have a great twist on the old school mimosa or Italian Bellini. Suffice to say, we liked the drink well enough to dub it the New Mexico Mimosa.

And not by accident, the sweet nectar of the guava juice was a refreshing chaser to some savory but very spicy enchiladas. My music doctor would recommend enjoying this pairing with a little title befitting tune from the Fountains of Wayne!

About that romantic holiday last week…

DelasAbout that romantic holiday last week….it came a little late. It’s not that I forgot Valentine’s Day but it just seemed like I was forgetting something. And that something had nothing to do with that guy and the arrow, or what was in the bottle or what it should be paired with. It’s just that last Thursday, St. Valentine’s Day, was busy.

And the adventuresome brainchild (of taking a first stab at Osso Buco and highlighting it with a killer Rhone wine I’d had stored away for over a year) was regrettably delayed. Probably would have been delayed later than that weekend in fact, had it not become a concern that the born-on-date for veal was about to run its course. Don’t forget the shelf life.

And then the post got pushed back a little more with the prospect of trying to be a little too cheeky in the subject line. Originally, I was flirting with the idea of quoting Thoreau and his marrow/ life analogy. You can remember your high school LIT class with a stroll down amnesia lane by clicking here and reading stanza 16. It is Osso Buco after all!

Then came the interlude of veal/feel word plays…. Can you veal the love tonight…. I veal good…. Come on veal the noise. All really, really bad Valentine ideas and outside of James Brown – really bad ear worms.

So, Valentine’s dinner and its ensuing blog post were late. Lucky for me, my date didn’t seem to mind. Especially when I popped open and decanted a bottle of 2009 Delas St. Joseph François de Tournon. Sound like a mouth full?

The Delas St. Joseph is a lava-red colored Syrah from the Northern Rhone. Young and brawny on the nose, it balances out with refined flavors of dried cherries and chewy dark fruits. The subtle herbal notes beckon for more and there’s no mistaking the necessity of having something meatier and richer to play along with its tannic nature.

So along comes Osso Buco! That delicacy of marrow rich, bone-in, braised veal. Covered in a typical Milanese sauce and backed-up by doubling down on the fashion capital’s own version of risotto, Risotto alla Milanese or risotto with some decadent saffron love. Ode to the crocus flower. …Flowers! …That’s what I forgot.


Jack up your Mac ‘n Cheese

Mac & Cheese 2

This ain’t yo momma’s mac and cheese! Or Kraft’s for that matter. No, this is grown-up macaroni meets some Italian-style influence meets anything other than the prepackaged, processed DayGlo orange “cheese.”

Penne pasta has become a mainstay for restaurant’s making gourmet mac’n cheese. It’s thicker and acts as an instant hideout for more gobs of gooey melted cheese. However, tonight’s deviation involved bowtie pasta with a rich and thick sauce that included garlic, red pepper flakes, cream, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, parmesano cheese, fontina cheese and tomato paste. The tomato paste and cream combination is what gives the modern day Mac its old-school orange coat. Just boil the pasta separately before stirring it into the sauce. Garnish with some freshly chopped mint before serving.

Mint? What? Trust me it works.

The heat from the red peppers and the sweetness of the sun-dried tomatoes also make for an interesting back-and-forth on the palate. And since it’s mac and cheese with a tomato influence there are several wines that could pair well with it including a Spanish Tempranillo, a California Zinfandel or even an Italian Nero D’Avola. Look for the Campo Reales, the Four Vines Zinfandel or the Morgante Nero D’Avola as pictured below. These three recommendations can go in and out of the market but should be available by request.


Dessert in a Bottle

* A version of the following article originally appeared in the Sunday edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

When it comes to the pride of Portuguese red wine, nothing stands as prominent and posh as the tawny or amber colored elixir of a delectably sweet port. Customarily made from native grapes such as Touriga Nacional, port hails from the historical vineyards of northern Portugal. Here, many producers often have a British background, linked to days of old, when port was a preferred libation of the island nation.

The old world practice that separates the production of wines like Port, Madeira and Marsala (from most other wines) involves the addition of neutral grape spirits to the fermenting grape juice. Essentially, this method has a dual effect. First it stops the fermentation, allowing some of the sweetness to stay in the wine, as not all the sugar is turned into alcohol. And secondly, the addition of the grape spirits increases the alcohol content of the wine, thus fortifying it.

The fortification makes for a longer lasting, well-preserved wine that travels better in old world Europe, or more specifically for those trips to the Isles just north of the Iberian Peninsula and numerous other outposts of the once British Empire.


Across the world, the names of key port producers have become universally renowned and include the likes of Fonseca, Dows, Taylor, Croft and Grahams. These vintners have been making port for centuries and they’re still getting it right today. From the young cherry notes and light-hearted appeal of Dow’s Crusted Port to the aperitif like quality of its White Port, Dow’s is a prime example of how the best port houses make successful fortified wines that range from the aforementioned entry-level ports to a pricier and more rare vintage port.

Over the years Fonseca has become a personal favorite of the big port houses. Its Ten Year Tawny Port is dessert in a bottle. With a cornucopia of flavors like butterscotch, plum and toffee, the Fonseca Ten Year is a hard-to-beat introduction to what the wonderful world of port is all about.

Additionally, there are less recognized port houses that deserve some props. The William Harrison import of Quinta de la Rosa also makes a fantastically focused Ten Year Tawny Port. Since most ports come in a traditional darker glass bottling, it’s refreshing to see the clean, clear glass of the Quinta de la Rosa displaying the wonderful and rustic burgundy-like hues of the port wine. A sturdy 20% alcohol by volume, the Quinta de la Rosa has a wonderful honeyed aroma whose magnetism is only surpassed by its decadent and indulgent essence of raisons and dates.

During the wintertime, the sweet and warming charm of a good port may make for a cozy fireside companion, but throughout the year port is the quintessential embellishment after a magnificent meal.

Harissa and Riesling


New red potatoes, spinachy greens with garlic and a bright orange sauce called Harissa longingly await your creation this evening. Not only is it colorful and tasty but pretty damn easy to throw together.

Harissa is an African chili sauce make of roasted red peppers, cumin, cayenne, olive oil and a dash of red wine vinegar. Half and bake the new potatoes for about 40 minutes and sauté the spinach with some garlic and oil until rightly withered. All that’s left is finding a fresh fish that suits your taste and spooning some of the savory, slightly spicy African sauce onto the gently baked fillet.
German Wine Institute logo
Choosing a wine that holds its own with a spicy sauce while not burying the greens or being outweighed by the starchy potatoes in this dish can be tricky. You need a wine that understands both the politics of the palate and the benefits of balance. Enter – a German Riesling, preferably one from the Mosel. The stone fruit flavors and racy texture mean it can handle the spiciness and still compliment your vegetables.

“You broke my heart” (al) Fredo

So goes one of the more memorable lines of The Godfather trilogy. Michael Corleone delivers the kiss of death to his brother, Fredo. You can jog the old memory here:

I always think of that line when I hear or read or cook alfredo sauce. Obviously, it’s because the sauce and the character have the same name. But on a different level, it’s because I still remember tasting my mom’s alfredo sauce for the first time. And every time since. Originally her mother’s recipe, the family “alfredo” had a secret ingredient that’s really hard to put your finger on. And when I tried it for the first time it was soooo good it broke my heart. Still does.

So this past weekend, I popped open the freezer to find a not-so-discreetly hidden bag of homemade Swiss Chard Ravioli. It seems my son’s nonnie had popped them in there during a recent visit. Swiss chard ravioli are really the best; wholesome, simple and with the right sauce – magic! All that was left to do was slowly boil the pasta and attempt to replicate the family “sauce.”
Most alfredo sauces are truly quite simple with perhaps a half dozen ingredients at best. Nonna Louisa’s follows the book in that regard; butter, cream cheese, cream, more cream, the obligatory S & P, cream, etc. Seems the difference was ingenuously in the slow, constant stirring of the sauce. Yeah right!
Still, the net result was the same…. cheesy, greeny, pasta goodness. Voila!

Served family style with some grilled red and yellow bells and zucchini, the alfredo and swiss chard ravioli went well with a nice bottle of Orvieto by Sergio Mottura. A blend of indigenous Procanico and Grechetto grapes, the Mottura Orvieto is a minerally and citrus infused Italian white with a palate cleansing finish. Its prickly acidity helps cut through all the heavy cream of the alfredo while still complimenting the freshness of the green filling. And there’s no secret ingredient involved.

Fartisanal Pizza and Wine

The one thing I loathe the most about the modern “food movement” in America is the trite use of the word artisan or artisanal. Really, I’m just adverse to the word in general. It’s crap. Fartisan crap!

I first heard the word used in a food context about four or five years ago at a wine dinner. Some guy was waxing on about how the food was artisanal and the chefs were artisans and their artwork (food) was better than a regular chef’s food because well, once again, it was artisanal. Blah, blah, blasé.

I love Frito Lay brand chips. They now have “Artisan” chips. Haaah! And, quite possibly, the crust in tonight’s dinner and wine pairing might just have been made from mis-purchased “artisanal” dinner rolls. Artisan is the new black. So much, in fact, that it’s almost been worn out and faded to gray,
Fartisanal Pizza Nonetheless, this evening I used my wife’s five hundred pound marble rolling pin to re-roll the dough of a half dozen dinner rolls into a Fartisanal shaped pizza crust. Looks pretty good, after all it isn’t perfectly square or round or rectangular. Must be artisanal!
My Fartisan pie was topped with some of my Nonna’s recipe white sauce as well as a mixture of the “six super greens” like kale, spinach, chard, and romaine. Finish with mozzarella, parmesano and a few strategically placed but artisanally hatched hen eggs and you have a protein and fiber rich pizza that would have been done half an hour earlier if I’d only paid attention and purchased the desired rectangular pizza crust that rolls out a whole helluva lot easier.

To pair with it, I chose the new vintage of a French wine I fell for last year. The Guillermarine Picpoul de Pinet has simple citrus notes and some delicate apple flavors that don’t overwhelm the eggs and greens in the pizza. Plus, it’s French and different and hard to pronounce. If only it were artisanal.

Basil Risotto & New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

basil risotto

walnutblockI had to start this post with a small pic of the Risotto! Creamy with gobs of bright basil freshness, the risotto created a better mind frame than any rodent, err groundhog could manage to deliver. Delicate nutty flavors from the parmesano and pine nuts brought balance to the minty, pepperiness of the basil.

Normally I’m a purist when it comes to something like risotto and would be looking for an Arneis or Trebbiano to pair it up with. But tonight, I found myself enthralled by a 2012 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc called Walnut Block. Bright and pleasantly acidic, with crisp citrus flavors of lemon and grapefruit, the Walnut Block has a herbaceous bouquet that went toe-to-toe with the basil risotto. With aromas like green pepper, asparagus and lemongrass, the Walnut Block (and the basil risotto) are a much needed and early prelude to the vine of spring.

What’s in the bottle: primitivo

AnarkosHow about something different tonight? The Anarkos Primitivo recently landed in our market and by all indications it couldn’t have gotten here soon enough. Its earthy and deep cherry flavors along with the distinct aroma of blue cheese will immediately crank up the taste buds and have you planning for dinner. The Anarkos is produced in the southern Italian region of Apulia, more affectionately known as the heel of the boot. Here, grapes like Primitivo and Negroamaro grow in abundance.

A quick reference in the Joy of Cooking brought prompt enthusiasm to the Monday chicken breast routine. Stuffed with Italian bread crumbs, sage and thyme, the savoriness of the herb stuffed chicken nicely complimented the aforementioned flavors in the Anarkos. Side up with some cinnamon and red pepper sweet potatoes, and the drudgery of a Monday meal is over.

Stuffed Chicken

Hummus Fried Chicken and Oregon Pinot

Hummus Fried Chicken

Only half of my heritage may be southern, but that’s more than enough to make me a fried chicken fanatic. This recipe is an adaptation of a Readers Digest hummus “fried” chicken. Since it’s baked and not actually fried, it does make for a healthier version. I used boneless chicken thighs, smothered it in Tomato Head brand hummus out of Knoxville, Tennessee and topped with some fresh and very juicy slices of Cushman’s HoneyBell tangerines.

Although the chicken isn’t quite as crispy as regular fried chicken, it comes close enough with a brief finishing under the broiler. Avoid squeezing any extra citrus or other liquid on the hummus to increase crispness. And some garden fresh rosemary does make a fragrant touch.

A less fruity and slightly Burgundian style Pinot Noir goes well with the dark chicken meat and bean coating. Look for a food friendly Oregon Pinot like the Bergstrom Pinot Noirs out of Willamette Valley or the more affordable Adelsheim Pinot Noir, also from Willamette.

Adelsheim Pinot Noir

Bourbon leads straight to Kentucky

* The following article originally appeared in Saturday’s online edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Corn may not grow at all on old Rocky Top but they have managed to find enough just north of us to make some of the best American whiskeys, namely Kentucky Straight Bourbon.

Kentucky Straight Bourbon has several requirements for authentic production. These include being comprised and made from a majority of corn grain, a minimal aging of at least two years in charred oak barrels and no addition of artificial flavorings or colorings. The result is a pure bottle of American tradition that has survived the setbacks of both war and Prohibition. The following five bourbons are all produced at Kentucky’s legendary Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

E.H.Taylor Bourbon

If Kentucky Straight Bourbon had a post-Civil War godfather, his name would irrefutably be Edmund Haynes Taylor. One of the early architects in both modernizing and defining bourbon techniques and specifications, Taylor has been immortalized through craft production bourbons made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Its E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection includes a “Small Batch” bourbon that strikes a perfect balance between an ultra-polished, sweet-smelling whiskey and a brawny, flavorful one with a dead-on amount of edginess. Sumptuous aromatics of brown sugar and butterscotch infuse a glass of this attractively, amber-colored bourbon, leaving little room for second-guessing what your new favorite bourbon is likely to be.

Successfully combining Kentucky’s two iconic images — that of bourbon and horseracing — can be as simple and seductive as a fresh Mint Julep on Derby Day or as unique and commemorative as Blanton’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Blanton’s 93 proof is a golden, straw-colored bourbon with warm aromas of vanilla bean and caramel. Designated as the “Original”, Blanton’s Single Barrel (like all its distinguished bourbons) is topped with a Kentucky-appropriate, pewter-like stopper resembling a racing horse and jockey. There may be no better way to celebrate all things Kentucky than with Blanton’s at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Aged for a sturdy 10 years, Eagle Rare Single Barrel reveals a dessert-like bouquet of banana-laden banoffee pie and a freshly caramelized crème brule. But don’t be fooled by all that post-dinner revelry; its underlying structure is one of leather and grass. And it is that very concept of being so well-rounded that makes the journey from rich aromas to rugged flavors an adventure in every Glencairn glass.

Similar in undertone to the Eagle Rare is Buffalo Trace’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Both are 90 proof and carry that same distinct delivery. But the Buffalo Trace separates itself from the crowd with a deeper richness of nut bread or heavy cake.

Finally, no tour of bourbon force would be complete without a mention of the Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel. Its golden color and lighter aromas produce a polished, rounded texture with subtle caramel notes.

Pasta Carbonara & Corbières


Ahh Carbonara! It’s like adding breakfast to pasta. This simple Italian recipe includes your pasta of choice. I prefer a bite-sized but meatier pasta (like the sea shell shaped Campanelle pasta you see here) as opposed to the vast array of tubular pasta that is traditionally used. Stirred in with Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, pancetta or any decent domestic bacon along with eggs and pepper, the Campanelle is a hearty, quick dinner fix and soul-soothing bowl of all that’s good in the food world, namely pasta, cheese and pork.


Look for a lighter red to go with the pork component in the dish. We chose a Corbieres to toe the line and also to counter some of the extra red pepper that was added. The Domaine du Grand Planal Corbières Cuvée Guy Roger (what a great name) is a light and relatively fruity blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan.

* As a side note, for all the Bourbon lovers out there, my next newspaper column is on that very Kentucky-born topic and should be running in a not-too-far-off Sunday edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Hawk in the Heavens

Hawk in the Heavens
Nutty and dry with a wholesome savoriness, the Tentaka Kuni represents a step-up in class and in price from the usual restaurant variety of clunk that is served as sake or Japanese rice wine. Translated to “Hawk in the Heavens,” the mid-tier selection from Vine Connections, promptly soared in for a weekend visit including a nice pairing with this homemade Asian Beef Pho Noodle soup.

Easy to make, the Pho is a warm, brothy bowl of rice noodles, flank steak and a host of spices like star anise, cinnamon, thai chili, clove, ginger and mint as well scallions and bean sprouts. You can check out the unmodified recipe here.


Alsace G-wine & Soup du Jour


If I only had a bottle of wine for every time I’ve stumbled trying to pronounce Gewurztraminer! You can hear how to properly say it by clicking on the G-wine Link. And it’s probably why I’ve heard more than one person call it the G-wine.

The Hugel Gewurztraminer comes from the much fought over strip of land between Germany and France, known as Alsace. Stylistically drier than say a Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer from Washington State, the Hugel and other Alsace G-wines are often hooked up with spicier dishes because they have a touch of sweetness, their own spicy overtones and lively aromatics. The golden potato & cauliflower soup proved why so many foodies resort to a Gewurztraminer with such spicy fare. Cauliflower itself would most likely add enough pepperiness to the soup, but I couldn’t resist tossing in a dried Thai chili or two. The buttery texture and bright color of yukon potatoes create a bowl of warm, creamy and golden goodness.


Man Salad & Chenin Blanc


Heavy clouds but no snow may be the weather story of the season for this dreary Eastern Tennessee “winter.” We can’t spring ahead but we can start dreaming of April. This healthy, but slightly heartier, salad carries some extra oomph with olive oil marinated portabella mushrooms, sweeter red bells and protein-rich eggs.

Although, this salad will keep you fuller for longer, you’ll still want to look for a lighter white wine to avoid overshadowing the delicate nature of greens. Anything from the Loire Valley like a Sancere, Vouvray or even Muscadet will do fine. I went with the American version of Vouvray and got a classic California Chenin Blanc.

Perhaps the flagship white in their collection, Pine Ridge Vineyards is well-known for their Chenin Blanc- Viognier blend. Lots of stone fruit flavors and crisp apple aromas surround this clean-finishing white. Its fresh and versatile nature is ideal for salads and day dreaming of not-too-far-off Spring evenings.

Pine Ridge Chenin

Fig & Basil Stuffed Pork Chops with a nice Chianti


Renzo Masi’s Fattoria di Basciano continues to put out a mega-valued Chianti Riserva. Dried cherry and crushed red berry flavors, with a slight whiff of smoke and anise, superbly compliment this stuffed pork dinner.

Slowly grilled, the pork chop is sliced to pocket a filling of California figs, Genovese Basil, other spices and homemade bread stuffings – then finished in the oven.

Buon Appetito!


Not your grandmother’s gin

* The following article originally appeared in Saturday’s online edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Gin has the discouraging reputation as being the preferred spirit of an anachronistic era when taste buds were seemingly immune to the notion of wincing.

From its early Dutch and English origins, gin amassed the ignoble status as a cheap, easily available spirit that went from being “mother’s ruin” in England to the homemade American version in countless, Prohibition-era bathtubs. At times, its quality was so poor that it probably could have used a good scrubbing.

That being said, this herbal-inspired libation has moved well beyond its Swann Rubbing Alcohol predilections and into unique interpretations by numerous, modern-day gin distillers.


A new favorite of mine comes from an Atlantic island just off Scotland’s western coast. The Botanist Gin boasts a whopping 31 botanicals, including 22 “native” botanicals from the island of Islay. With some heartier aromas, this 92 proof gin is a clean representation that receives my PDS award, or Pretty Damn Smooth. Excellent on the rocks, it also makes one of the better gin and tonics that I’ve had in awhile.

Not to be outdone, France’s Magellan Gin isn’t shy in displaying the “grains of paradise” that have encouraged its panache as a well-seasoned international traveler, including Iris flower, cardamom, orange peel, cassia and half a dozen other herbals. Named for the world’s most renowned explorer, Magellan is a floral, striking translation of gin with an exotically ice blue tint. Lovers of the juniper berry and aromatic style gin have to put this on their list.

The steep 94 proof Broker’s Gin from England carries the banner as a more traditional gin. Medicinal in nature with a focused delivery, Broker’s could have conventional gin connoisseurs showing their approval with a mere tip of the old top hat.

Also distilled in England is Martin Miller’s Gin. For those looking for a not-so-dry gin, Miller’s flavor profile of sweeter botanicals and a fruitier nature is unequalled. Blended with Icelandic water, Martin’s Gin makes for an ideal introduction to this oft-maligned liquor category.

Finally, if you’re part of the “buy local” movement, you won’t have to look to Europe or even outside of Tennessee to fill the gin supply line. In fact, the not-too-far-away Music City has its own melodic gin to sing about. The first thing you’ll notice about Corsair is its curious aroma. With heavier notes of coriander and cumin-like aromas, Nashville’s Corsair Gin (with a splash of club soda) makes a fantastic pre-dinner appetite builder. Also well suited for a slew of martini recipes, Corsair Gin carries that adaptable and exemplary modern-day swagger.

You say you want a resolution…

HealthyDinnerLet’s face it; the only thing that we’re going to read or hear about for the next few weeks is how to eat right in 2013. So for the sake of conformity and not wanting to sacrifice on flavor, I found this great dish from an on-line fitness mag. Colorfully filled with the healthy sweet potatoes, butternut squash, kale greens and black beans, this vegetable chili has a distinctive chocolate/cinnamon pseudo-mole sauce with a nice sweet-heat undertone.

Skip the parsnips (that’s just overboard healthy) and match up the dish with a nice spicy bottle of Amador County Zinfandel like Renwood or an aromatic and briery Dry Creek Vineyards Zinfandel.

Got the bubbly? Now get the cure!

There’s plenty of Champagnes, sparkling wines, proseccos, cavas or bubblies that would make for an excellent choice to ring in the new year this evening. But if that’s the plan for tonight, then I highly recommend you consider plan B for tomorrow: the always needed “I drank too much champagne, hair of the dog, I’ll never do that again, WTF, down on your knees” remedy.


Plan B: The easy, no-fail Bloody Mary with Zing Zang tomato juice mixer, Ketel One Vodka and the celery stir. Keep it simple and Happy New Year!

Blueberry cheesecake & Brachetto d’Acqui


When it comes to matching dessert wine with the post-dinner dolce, foodies can easily over think the pairing. If doubt comes knocking at the cellar door just remember that it’s really hard to beat a good cup of coffee, especially with cheesecake.

This miniature ode to the classic dessert has an extra dash of nutmeg inside and is topped with a Grand Marnier and blueberry reduction.

So if coffee is not your cup of tea, then trying a Brachetto d’Acqui from the Marenco sisters might be enough to get your just deserts.

PinetoBrachetto d’Acqui (brah-KET-ohh daKwi) comes from the Piedmonte region near France. Slightly effervescent with raspberry and strawberry flavors (whose aromas you’ll notice as soon as you fill the glass), Brachetto d’Acqui typically runs close to $20 for a standard 750 ml size bottle. You also can’t go wrong with a sweet or semi-sweet style of Vouvray from the Loire Valley.

Guinness & Beef Pie

GuinnessIt’s a wee bit dreich outside today! So, what better way to except and embrace this cold, nasty weather than with a pint of Guinness and a quasi-traditional British beef pie?

My muse found this recipe by Paul Hartley in a short read about the historically famous beer. The puff pastry is filled with a beef and Guinness stew that includes mushrooms and figs. It takes 2-3 hours to put together but all that wait gives you an excuse to pour another pint. If you’re not beer versatile, you might look for a French Rhone or Spanish Priorat to compliment your cold-weather concoction.

Say Cheese!

SottocenereSanta delivered two of my all-time favorite cheeses in time for Christmas Eve dinner this week. Sottocenere (left) comes from the northeast Italian region of the Veneto. Its grey ashen rind is coated with cinnamon, fennel and a handful of other spices. But the hints of truffle in this slightly creamy cheese will stretch the smile and evoke a nod of approval.

The Beehive Cheese Company in Utah makes an outstanding and addictive Barely Buzzed cheese from cows milk. Rubbed with lavender and coffee, this domestic cheese proves just how well American cheese makers can hang with the European big boys.

I recommend either of these cheeses with a lighter red, but I couldn’t resist a “long held back” bottle of the Cabernet based 1995 Chateau Cos Labory Grand Cru Saint Estephe. Tis the season to treat others and maybe yourself!

American Syrah still the bridesmaid

* The following article originally appeared in Saturday’s online edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel. Special thanks to Russ, Daniel, Lee and Julie.

The last holdout for taking its turn as America’s darling red wine has to be the Syrah grape. Although the US consumer had a brief fling with the Australian Shiraz, the domestic version has yet to capture our imagination or fill our stemware like Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and, more recently, Pinot Noir have done.

Less than 25 years ago, the Syrah grape accounted for just more than 500 tons during California’s crush season. Now its grape crush tonnage is over 125,000. Yes that sounds like a lot, but in reality, Syrah represents only three percent of California’s total haul. So, it may be quite some time before domestic Syrah is elevated to rock star grape status.

In the meantime, keep your eye open for higher quality Syrah’s that are priced over $15 from both California and Washington State including these three stylistically different options.

A voluptuous Syrah that makes a superb first impression is the 2009 Klinker Brick Farrah Syrah for $18. From Lodi, Calif., the Klinker Brick winery may be better known for its big, luscious Zinfandels, but their Farrah Syrah should not go unnoticed. A round, creamier mouth feel introduces surprising favors of vanilla and milk chocolate truffles. Hints of sweet oak and perfumed clove contribute to this wine’s intoxicating appeal.

In contrast, the 2006 Novelty Hill Columbia Valley Syrah, which goes for about $19, offers a bit more of that Rhone-style Syrah profile. This Washington State Syrah may need a little time to open up; however, once it does you’ll enjoy an array of aromas from cedar and smoke to a funky blue cheese predilection. A definite food wine, the Novelty Hill’s rich meatiness and lively pepperiness begs for a fat steak au poivre.

And if your tastebuds lend themselves to a wine with a little softer, more approachable fruit style or a need for immediate gratification, grab a bottle of Charles Smith’s Boom Boom Syrah from Washington State at around $16. With lighter, fruitier and really affable raspberry notes, the Boom Boom will be the fruit bomb your palate is thirsty for.

Since this is gift giving season your shopping list may include a very hard to please wine guru. Syrah is an often overlooked variety that would impress the most grape-savvy friend. Consider a nicer bottling of the harder to find Truchard, Tablas Creek, Qupe or Longboard Syrahs.

Good Green Soup & A Pennsylvania Red

Green SoupI’m in the middle of making soup tonight, when a surprise package arrives at my door, containing a bottle of red wine from the wine producing mecca of … wait for it … Pennsylvania. I’ve tried successfully produced vinos from New York, Virginia, Indiana and even New Mexico, but one from central PA would be a first. After discovering the blend was part Cabernet Franc and part Chambourcin, I thought I might be in luck for a new spicy soup partner.

Brookmere Alexander Red

The lighter, paler color of the Cabernet Franc blend brought along raspberry flavors and a fruitier style that would match well with a slightly spicy bowl of green soup, really good green soup. A purée of swiss chard, kale, spinach, rice and sauteed garlic and onion, the green soup was a healthy change-up to the very savory dinners and often times sugary sweets of the holiday season.

Super Tuscan with Roman Lamb

Roman LambItalian winemakers have been producing successful “Super Tuscans” for the past few decades. With a necessity to move beyond the confines of both Chianti and Brunello, vintners in Italy started making fabulous red wines with a handful of grapes that most don’t associate with the boot. These wines took Italian reds to a whole new level by transcending the traditional tethers of Sangiovese and blending together additional Bordeaux style grapes like Cabernet and Merlot. The result was and is nothing short of lovely, food friendly and diverse red wines, like the Leopoldo I di Toscana D’ Echo.

Paired tonight with some heavenly, Roman inspired lamb & potatoes with garden fresh rosemary, there are a few of these less expensive or “baby” Super Tuscans that are both affordable and absolutely amazing.

The Masterful Martinelli

The masterful Martinelli Zinfandel (affectionately named for the family’s nonno and nonna, Giuseppe & Luisa Martinelli) ranges in ABV from a heady 16 to 17% plus. I just opened my last bottle of the 2009 vintage, so if you were looking for something to send me for the holidays… this would suffice.

A few years ago, I lucked out and ran into the very amiable Regina Martinelli at a Lamour du Vin wine auction. Her family’s portfolio of wine is just as classy as she is.

The Martinelli “Giuseppe & Luisa” Zinfandel is sourced from a select family vineyard on Jackass Hill in the Russian River Valley. Apparently, it’s a pretty steep hill and you’ll need to be a sure-footed creature to traverse it. The 2009 vintage resonates with plenty of powerful plum notes and decadent dark fruit flavors of blackberry and black cherry. Don’t forget to Decant!

Cheap Port & Cheese Cake

I have your next cheesecake companion: a slightly chilled, nutty and inexpensive Tawny Port.

A typical blend of half a dozen or more Portuguese grapes, the Porto Cruz Tawny is a lighter style, dessert friendly Port with aromas of fruitcake and caramel. There’s not too many competitors lining the shelf in that magical $10-$15 price range, so feel safe in giving it a whirl this holiday or into the winter season.

Remember that Port is also great with a woodblock of assorted cheeses, nuts, figs and dates. Cheers!

The Best Wine Values of 2012

* A version of this column originally ran in the on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

One of my favorite columns to write each year is a recap of the best wine values. 2012 had its fair share of remarkable values, due in large part to the influx of new and original domestic blends. Although there were quite a few leading the charge, one red blend really stood out. And as always, Europe continued to export extraordinary values geared more towards food lovers. Sit back and enjoy, for these are the best your dollar could buy in 2012.

Best French Value
The Grand Veneur Reserve Cote du Rhone by Alain Jaume is an amazingly rich wine with inky, crimson hues. Its bouquet shows off a dichotomy of rustic aromas and dried cherries, backed up by pomegranate tastes and a decadent finish. What a fabulous food wine!

Best Spanish Value
Ahhh, if only our market could get more Jorge Ordonez wines and get them regularly. It’s not just the wine that’s missing the boat ride over. This Spanish importer represents some of the best values that all of Europe has to offer. The 2010 El Chaparral by Vega Sindoa is Garnacha at its best, diverse and complex in aromas, easily enjoyable and inspiring in flavor. This wine is all about the fruit forward style. Runner up: 2009 Evohe Garnacha

Best Red Blend Value
What Ste. Michelle Wine Estates does for Washington in producing varietally correct, affordable wines, Bogle Vineyards does the same for California. And although Washington State led the charge years ago with early introductions of red blends, the release of the 2010 Bogle Essential Red proves that getting into the game a little later can make for a better game plan. Runner up: Concannon Crimson & Clover

Best Rosé Value
Any consumer would be fortunate to find this French Rosé still shelved at their favorite wine shop, let alone any of the fine Rosés from the 2011 vintage. The Hecht & Bannier Languedoc-Roussillon Rosé had a lot of stiff competition this year, including Oregon’s latest venture with the Acrobat Rosé. But its amazing blood orange color and raspberry/ strawberry fruit punched a whole lot of would be contenders down the rankings. Runner up: 2011 Michel Chapoutier Les Vigne Bila Haut Rosé

Best Zinfandel Value
Earlier in August, I blogged that the 2010 DeLoach Russian River Valley Zinfandel was the new “it” wine. There may not have been a ton to go around but this spicy tongue enticer was a summertime BBQ’s best friend. Runner-up: 2009 Brazin Lodi Zinfandel

Best Chilean & Best Sauvignon Blanc Value
With more grapefruit, lime and tropical expressions than a banana republic, it’s no wonder that the 2011 Leyda Sauvignon Blanc took home two “Best Of” awards. Sauvignon Blanc Runner-up: 2010 Vavasour from New Zealand

Best Italian Value
It’s done it again. This isn’t the first time that a southern Italian co-op topped the charts. The 2009 Colosi Rosso is easy drinking Nero d’Avola from Sicily. Runner-up: 2009 Masi Chianti Riserva

Best Cabernet Value – 2009 Milbrant Traditions Cabernet. Runner-up: 2009 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet

Best Austrian Value – 2011 Wimmer Gruner Veltliner

Best Merlot Value – 2008 Santa Ema Merlot

Best Malbec Value – 2009 Trapiche Broquel from Argentina

Best Chardonnay Value – 2010 Four Vines from Santa Barbara

Best Sparkling Value – Lamarca Prosecco Brut NV and Cupcake Prosecco NV

Oyster Cayuse

The 2007 Cayuse En Cerise Walla Walla Valley Syrah received some of the best (across the board) acclaim of any Washington State Syrah my lips were ever lucky enough to try. Its distribution is very limited, so I had to rely on one very good friend, who is on their mailing list.

Paired with some specially prepared fried cajun birthday oysters, the smokiness and spicy nature of the Cayuse was a dream date. Lots of rugged old-world flavors persist throughout this wine, including olives, anise and roasted wild game. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but your birthday is well worth the extra coin.

Sultry Syrah

Good California Syrah isn’t cheap. So finding an exceptional one in the $25 range can often be fortuitous. Dinner tonight portended such an unexpected find. With a robust dusting of some five spice dry rub, I dressed up a tenderloin and sided it some roasted fingerling potatoes and butter sautéed Brussels sprouts that were doctored with Wright’s bacon.

The wine partner? How about a Russian River Syrah with an all-out, surfs up California motif – the 2008 Longboard Syrah! Combining a nice melody of woodsy, cedary aromas and chewy dark fruit, the Longboard in short order became a spectacular find for the fast approaching and hearty, winter weather foods.

Alban Patrina Syrah

What’s in the bottle? How about 100% of delicious Syrah from Edna Valley!

Alban Vineyards dedicates itself entirely to the production of Rhone varietals like Syrah. Its 2008 Patrina Syrah packs together decadent jam-like flavors of strawberry puree and fleshy, perfectly ripe black cherries. Hints of cedar are delivered mid-palate, as a perfectly integrated acidity rounds out this complex, robust and inviting red.

Highly recommended with an earthy, porcini and mixed funghi risotto, some bright English peas and a flurry of Parmigiano Reggiano, the Alban amazes every time.

The new Scotch is not a re-Peat

* This column was originally published in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

If you’ve ever taken a long train ride into the Scottish Highlands, you know that you’re likely to see more sheep, inexplicably dotting steep mountainsides, than you are to see trees. These areas are often barren and limited in vegetation. Because of this, the long history of whisky making in Scotland has been singularly dictated by the source of fuel needed to toast the barley grains, which in turn created great malt whiskies.

Not to be denied the pleasurable warmth of a nice whisky, the great Scots relied on the burning of dried peat moss as a natural and cheap source of fuel in their whisky making process. The peat, in turn, produced toasted malts with smoky, earthy and musky notes that, out of necessity, became the trademark characteristic of Scottish whisky.

Eventually though, all of that began to change with the industrial revolution as alternative sources of fuel became accessible deep into the remote areas of northern Scotland and indeed many of the isles. With transportation facilitating the access to these sources, it also established a supply line for malts that weren’t as smoky or for that matter pre-disposed to peat at all.

Fast-forward to modern trends in making Scotch whisky and any purveyor can tell you that the new Scotches, hitting the store shelves, mostly seem to be avoiding that old-school peaty style. In fact, today’s new malt whiskies place more emphasis on what they’re aging their product in, namely unique and diverse barrels that once were homes to sherry, port, sauterne, madeira and just about anything else just shy of root beer.

Naturally, this new trend is designed to introduce more consumers to Scotch as these different casks greatly alter the final whisky into something less austere and more likely to be enjoyed en masse. If you want to get a sense of this newer, less peaty style, then the following four whiskies offer differing insight into today’s new Scotch.

Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or 12 year (glen-MORE-an-jee)

Aged in French Sauterne casks, Glenmorangie’s “Golden Nectar” creates a substantially sweater aroma, reminiscent of a traditional Irish whisky. A bouquet of orange peel and ginger ale compliments a honeyed finish and a Sauterne-inspired nuance of honeysuckle.

Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year (Bol-VAINNY)

As far as experimenting with new interpretations of Scotch whisky, the Balvenie Distillery is perhaps one of the original pioneers in this modern whisky movement. Its DoubleWood 12 year whisky sees aging time in both a whisky oak barrel as well as a sherry oak one. The result is a Speyside whisky with minimal peat influence that shows off caramelized brown sugar notes, warm vanilla aromas and a fluid, mellow mid-palate.

Bruichladdich Rocks (broo-kladdie)

The western Isle of Islay is known for making some of the peatiest, smokiest whiskies in all of Scotland. So, it’s a bit ironic that the Islay based Bruichladdich Distillery decided to produce this completely unpeated whisky. Bruichladdich Rocks has scents of warm cake and vanilla with just the faintest of medicinal finishes.

Glengoyne 10 year (glen-goin)

Since a very good Scottish-born friend recently recommended the Glengoyne 10 year, it’s the next whisky on my list to sample. Located halfway between the Eden-like Loch Lomond and the workingman’s capital of Glasgow, the Glengoyne Distillery produces an unpeated, 10-year whisky. And I can’t wait to try a not-so-wee dram of this insider information.

Fiore de Sol Timpano & Pinot Noir

Are you hungry yet? Yes it’s edible. Introducing my own spin on the master of all dinner flytes from the classic cult film, Big Night!

Before you try to wrap your spatula around just what it is, I really recommend you grab the movie off Netlix. Starring Stanley Tucci, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub and a very young Marc Anthony, Big Night is a story about… well… a lot…including the restaurant business, the quintessential love triangle, the Italian American immigrant story – of trying to make it big, as well as being about music and yes FOOD. Or in this case a big bundt pan full of humble pie!

I knew I couldn’t make my timpano look quite as good on the inside (as the one in the movie), so I asked my girl to put a little makeup… errr food coloring on the outside. The result was a nice looking sunflower timpano, stuffed with tomatoes, cheese, soft-boiled eggs, sausage, pork, funghi, pasta et al.

Since it was more of a pork-based timpano, I popped a bottle of Pinot Noir. The 2011 Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir is a whole lotta luscious love, layered with more fresh fruit flavors than a subscription to Harry & Davids. I found the Belle Glos on sale at Pop’s Wine & Liquor in Powell for $28 and quickly realized that I should’ve purchased a second bottle. Just remember not to mix your starches!

Sunday’s Cabernet Column in the KNS

2009 Napa Valley Cabernets to seek out while they last

Napa Valley extended its run of outstanding Cabernet vintages to six years in a row with the successful harvest of the 2009 crop, but some vintage trackers are showing a return to mediocrity with the 2010 release. With the possibility of a drop-off looming, now may be the last best chance to secure some quality and yet affordable 2009 Napa Cabernets for the year ahead. With that in mind, I set out to find what’s left of the best.

Back in October, I blogged that the 2009 Martin Ray Cabernet promised to be a viable choice with some classic and comforting cedar notes and an all-out black cherry sensation. Its quality, for an under $20 bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet, may be surpassed by few, but one wine with the most likelihood of doing so is the 2009 Black Stallion.

A virtual newcomer to the Napa Valley wine scene, Black Stallion offers an alluring profile of sweet oak flavors, cinnamon stick aromas and an all-spice cadence that is akin to catching that captivating scent of a freshly unwrapped piece of Big Red. It has a certain something to it that’ll remind you of old-school Christmas charm. For under $20, Black Stallion Napa Valley Cabernet is the quintessential “go to” for cool weather drinking and heartier dinnertime fare.

Continue reading at knoxnews.com

Brisket Love and Nut Brown Ale

Sometimes you just want a beer for dinner. And although it would have been easy to pair a nice Sonoma County Cabernet or Washington State Syrah with this fabulous brisket, I couldn’t resist a nutty, slightly sweeter brown ale.

This very tender brisket is wrapped in a heaping hug of sassy sauce that includes brown sugar, cumin, red pepper, tomato paste, red wine, beef stock, garlic, basil, bay leaf, oregano and onions. It’s also perfect for smothering onto some side-kicking carrots and a serving of buttery egg noodles.

Blackened Mahi Mahi & Greco di Tufo

Guest Blogger: Ricardo Burnelli returns

My favorite dish of the week is one that brings back fond memories of living in Charleston, South Carolina. We would set out from Charleston Harbor at about 4:00 or 5:00AM on a 34 foot center console Pursuit (fishing boat) in search of the schooling dolphin fish, more popularly known as Mahi Mahi. Once reaching the weed line at about 60 miles off the coast, it was time to put the lines in the water. After a few hours, we would head back to one of our favorite restaurants on the water to prepare the fish and deliver them to the cook to add his famous blackened seasoning.I don’t know precisely what his secret ingredients were, but my own version includes paprika, onion & garlic powders, thyme, oregano, basil, cayenne pepper, cumin, sea salt and pepper. Preheat the grill to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, dip the fish in olive oil, coat with seasoning and grill for about 10 minutes. Sprinkle some lemon juice on after it’s finished, and then choose the perfect wine.

The wine we most recently chose was the Vesuvium Greco di Tufo 2011. This wine is grown in the volcanic soils near Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy. This is a dry white wine with just the right amount of lemon and lime notes. For just under $20 per bottle, I believe this wine to be quite a bargain and a great complement for seafood dishes.

- Ricardo Burnelli

Eat more Kale

Here’s that Hungarian spicy sausage and lentil soup (with extra Kale thrown in) that I’ve been telling you about. With porcini mushrooms and smoked paprika added to the mix, this cool weather comfort food will jump start the taste buds and warm the belly with savory goodness. Paired with Irish Cheddar topped crusts and the Alain Jaume Grand Veneur Reserve Cote du Rhone, this recipe covers all the basic food groups; sausage, cheese and wine. Just add more.

Storm weather update!

Day Two:

The Fonseca 20 year Tawny Port has become the surprise hit of October. Day two showed an evolution of the port with butterscotch and toffee flavors dominating the eastern seaboard of my glass. With this much gale force and strength of character there probably won’t be a third night. Batten down the cork top!

Frankenport from Fonseca

This late October day finally feels like Autumn; cooler temps, cold rain drizzling down, leaves raining to the earth floor and of course the Frankenstorm – led by a woman named Sandy. If only this year’s “S” hurricane had been Shelley, then we would know for sure that the literary stars were inauspiciously aligning, too.

The one thing that a cool fall climate and a doomsday scenario have in common is their remedy; namely a good glass of warm, sweet port. My muse had been waiting for quite some time for me to open a tucked-away bottle of Fonseca’s 20 year Tawny Port. A fourth reason to do so would not be necessary.

With a blend of several grapes including Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional, the Fonseca 20 year hits the catwalk with a kaleidoscope of orange tinted amber and an autumn appropriate reddish-brown, reminiscent of fading leaves from an old red maple. Its sweet warmth balances the mood with caramel apple and plum pudding notes. “Here then I retreated, and lay down happy to have found a shelter…from the inclemency of the season.” - Frankenstein’s beast

Martin RAY Cabernet

With many of the major wine publications panning 2010 Cabernets from Napa and Sonoma Counties, this fall may be the last best opportunity (for a year or more) to get some quality Cabernets from California’s two classic wine growing regions for this varietal. I decided to do some additional research to see what’s left out there and my first find was rock solid.

The 2009 Martin Ray Sonoma County Cabernet reminds me of what I love most about the fall season. Namely, that the cooler weather and darker skies call for a deep, rich red wine to compliment both the evolving mood and seasonal food that we are embracing. This heartier, cozier and soul-elevating persona is best paired with an affordable but classy Cab like the Martin Ray. The warm cedar aromas and decadent black cherry fruit of this Sonoma County Cabernet will inspire you to gather with old friends for a perfectly grilled, garlic laden, thick, juicy steak.

What’s for dinner: Lamb pie and red Rhone

My oh my, that’s one good looking pie!

There’s a whole lot of different versions of a meat pie, but this may be my favorite. Lamb and root vegetable meat pie is like taking a nice gamey stew, wrapping it up and baking it. Think southern stew, meets Cornish pie pastry meets a savory Provencal Lamb recipe.

And most importantly, don’t forget to treat yourself to a nice French Rhone to accompany it. The Chapoutier Bila Haut Cotes du Roussillon Rouge is an affordable Rhone with dried plum and blackcherry nuances along with its own version of some gamey aromas and a sleek structure.

Spicy Curry & Zesty Zinfandel

One of the common ruts that we consumers get into, is thinking that we must have a Riesling or Gewurztraminer with a spicy Asian dish. It does match well and it’s always a safe choice. But playing it safe doesn’t bode well for adventuresome experimentation and pleasant discovery.

My good friend, Mama Desai, artfully put together this unbelievable Indian curry Sunday night and paired it up with an all-American Zinfandel. Nice Surprise! The Pedroncelli Mother Clone had enough of that zesty California Zinfandel to pair-off well with the menagerie of exotic spices in the dinner. And its solid fruit forward style made it just right for a little palate cleansing between bite-fulls or in my case platefuls.

Italy’s forgotten wine regions

The forgotten fields of Italy’s central vineyards cover a swath of land from the Marche to Molise and include the not-to-be-overlooked regions of Umbria, Lazio and the Abruzzo. The grape varieties in these five central Italian regions are immense, albeit unusual. So much so, that it would be challenging to elaborate on all of them in one succinct review.

Nonetheless, with a vast collection of choices to draw from this quintuplet of regions, one doesn’t have to do any selective grape picking to find alluring winners. After shuffling through some Italian reds from the cellar, I noticed that the two wines that piqued my curiosity were both from the middle of Italy.

My initial inquiry involved a wine from Italy’s central-most region, Umbria. This tiny landlocked area produces well-known Trebbiano-based white wines from Orvieto, as well as original and inspiring red wines like Sagrantino and the more recognizable Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet and Merlot. All should make it onto the shopping list of wines to try out.

The 2009 Falesco Merlot, that triggered my interest, provided two talking points that encouraged me to do a little more research. First, the wine had received some remarkable reviews and acclaim (from other wine writers) for such an affordable bottle. And second, the world-renowned winemaker Riccardo Cotarella, who happens to be a personal favorite, made it.

Cotarella’s Falesco Merlot exudes an immediate sense of plush blueberry enjoyment. Its polished mouth feel is notably consistent and creates the sensation that this wine has a serious tendency to make itself disappear. The legendary status of Cotarella continues to grow just as the remarkable reviews of this wine hold much merit.

The second selection that showed promise is produced in the oft forgotten and seldom mentioned region of Molise. Considered by some to be more southern Italian, Molise makes red wines that consist of grapes like Montepuliciano, Aglianico and Sangiovese. It is perhaps Italy’s least known wine producing area.

But that doesn’t discourage it from boasting about its incredibly food-driven wines. Take, for example, the 2008 Di Majo Norante Ramitello.

Continue reading at Knoxnews.com

Cacio e Pepe

The Eternal City called me into the kitchen tonight for a classic Roman dish, Cacio e Pepe, or cheese and pepper. Remarkable easy to make, Cacio e Pepe needs but a few key ingredients; namely authentic Italian cheeses and the best pasta you can find or make.

I substituted the spaghetti with perchiatelli (the #15 long, round pasta) for a little more thickness. And don’t be intimidated by the Parmesan bowl- it’s easy to make. Buon appetito!

We enjoyed our Cacio e Pepe with some balsamic drizzled romaine and what might very well be my choice for the best French red value of the year. More on the wine in an upcoming piece for the Knoxville News Sentinel.


The new 2010 Broadside Cabernet totes a one-two punch of focused fruit with blackberry aromatics and whiffs of Cedar trunk. Sourced from the Margarita Vineyard in Paso Robles, Broadside was recently listed by the New York Times as a Top 12 American wine value. Drier and seemingly less manipulated than a lot of California Cabs in the $15 range, the barrage of beefy notes would have Major Tom agreeing that it’s “just begging for a hunk of meat on the grill.”

Guest blogger: Ricardo Burnelli

This Sunday’s post is by guest blogger, Ricardo Burnelli, who has recently delved into the wonderful world of wine reviews. His own site should be up and running closer to the end of the year.

With the recent cold snap ending and the temperature warming a bit, I thought we would take advantage of what might be one of the last few opportunities to enjoy a refreshing chilled white wine before the cold weather sets in permanently. Last night’s feast consisted of saltimbocca, wild long grain rice and a pear salad. I understand the controversy with veal and am not trying to step on anyone’s toes, however, it is worth trying at least once. The pear salad that accompanied the saltimbocca and rice consisted of baby spinach leafs, fresh Bosc pears, imported French blue cheese, glazed Georgia pecans and an oil and vinegar dressing touched lightly with local honey and grey poupon.

My favorite part of preparing for a fantastic feast involves the selection of the wine to accompany it. So, off I went to the wine cellar (also known as the former utility storage closet) to gaze over my vast selection (of maybe 20 bottles) and use my growing appreciation of wine to select a bottle for this warm evening. I narrowed it down to a white and, feeling adventuresome, wanted to sample one that I haven’t tasted yet. That only left a few to chose from, so I settled on Northern Italy’s Visionario 2011 by Allessandro Gallici. This bottle had recently arrived in one of my various shipments from a wine club I joined in the past year. It turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise as this dry white wine displayed citrusy notes and avoided any type of strong or bitter aftertaste. The wine is from Italy’s Veneto region and is a blend of Fruilano, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and several other white grapes.

As the weather cools, I will slowly be making a transition to the bolder red wines and reluctantly bidding a fond ciao to the cool and lighthearted white wines of what was a very long, hot summer.

Chilly weather wines

That cool autumn breeze these past few nights inspired me to venture back into the kitchen for something a little heartier. Two of my favorite comfort foods this time of year are a spicy Hungarian sausage and lentil soup and the all-American chili recipe. You can easily see which one I went with tonight. And although I typically reach for a cold beer with my chili, I wanted to find some wines that would match with both. I decided on some unpretentious Australian Shirazes.

First up is the Rubus Shiraz from Barossa Valley. Unlike all those in your face, heavily fruit-extracted Aussie Shirazes from 5 years ago, the Rubus is decidedly more focused. There’s plenty of fruit to go around, but it’s much more food-friendly then the previous trend. A whopping 2% Viognier is added to presumably soften the mouth feel and kick up the aromatics. There’s none of that licorice that the Wine Spectator claims but there is a whole lot of juicy cherry cola. Look to pay around $18.

A second one to seek out is the 2010 Thomas Goss Shiraz. From my favorite Australian Shiraz growing-region, McLaren Vale, the Goss needs a bit of time to open up. So twist off that screw top before you warm up the stovetop. A solid buy for under $15, the Thomas Goss is a concentrated mix of blackberry, raison and currant with a hint of matchstick on the nose.

Lastly, the Gosford Shiraz from SE Australia represents the safe budget buy for your pot-o-love. Lighter fruit and red berry notes abound around a supple backbone. Around $10.

The Evergreen State: A thorn in California’s side

Washington State persistently outshines California with tremendous everyday values and the Thorny Rose is another illustration of that trend.

Very vanilla aromas and sweet oak nuances open up to a gentler style Cabernet that isn’t shy in showing off a cluster of darker berry flavors.

The silky mouth feel and bottle-emptying sense of gulpability of the 2009 Thorny Rose Cabernet, helps to establish it as a new go-to case buy for a weekday or large event red wine.

Question from an old friend

What are your thoughts on wine clubs? Laithewaites etc…We recently joined and have received a pretty decent selection each time. It exposes us to some wines we may not have otherwise tried.

I have a convoluted answer to your straightforward question. First, you’re right; wine clubs do force the consumer to be exposed to wines that they probably wouldn’t have tried or purchased otherwise. And that’s a good thing! When it comes to trying something new, too many consumers shop with trepidation, especially when it involves a foreign label.

However, having been in the retail and wholesale side of the business for a dozen years, I’m always raising the red flag when I see a list of 12 wines for a wine club and I’ve never tried, seen or heard of any of them – ever. The clubs may not all be that way and the wines themselves may be fine, but the question of familiarity has to be raised, particularly when you consider the insider knowledge.

The other factor that I’m always worried about is the issue of private labels. Do these companies, contract and label their own wines, thus insuring no one else can then sell these wines and their profit margins go unchecked due to the lack of competition?

If you like the selections you’ve received then roll with it. But I also think building up a solid relationship with the same wine steward (at your favorite shop) who can get to know your tastes, is just as beneficial as knowing a good butcher or good mechanic. They’re in it to make you happy!

Garnacha gaining ground in Spain and beyond

Here’s the unedited copy of my column on Spanish Garnacha that appeared in today’s Knoxville News Sentinel. It’s not quite as riddled with grammatical errors.

The Spanish refer to it as Garnacha; the French call it Grenache or Grenache Noir. However, to most of the world it’s quickly becoming known as one of the most planted red grape varietals. Garnacha’s foothold in the Iberian Peninsula has established it as Spain’s go-to wine making grape.

Although Tempranillo is Spain’s current red grape production leader, Garnacha is increasingly being used in more blends and lands it at a respectable second. In fact, according to the California based RhoneRangers.org Garnacha or Grenache might be the world’s most planted red grape varietal, perhaps eclipsed only by the king of red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Recently, I revisited one of my favorite Spanish Garnachas as well as a newer found love that both confirmed the distinction and dynamic potential of this wine. If this level of quality can continue and these wines work on marketing some of their attractive swagger, there’s no reason why Garnacha can’t continue to gain ground in the international wine market.

For the past few years, the Altovinum Evodia Old Vines Garnacha has been my hands down choice for accessible and affordable Spanish Garnacha. And the 2010 vintage is no exception! Alluring scents of white chocolate persist long after the bottle is opened, allowing the Evodia to tempt most any consumer back for a second glass.

Yet, the one thing I think Evodia most has going for it is its ability to effortlessly play the roll of the prototypical all-weather red wine. Its successful run of back to back to back vintages is remarkable in and of itself, but throw in the fact that the bottle price is holding steady at around $10 and the success is even more staggering. You’ll love Evodia’s plum and blackberry essence, just bear in mind that it totes a huge 15% alcohol by volume.

My newfound love, in the world of Spanish Garnacha, is the 2010 El Chaparral by Vega Sindoa. This old vines Garnacha flaunts the most fragrant and lovely aromatic display of any Garnacha I’ve tried. With an introduction of Indian cloves, El Chaparral’s busy bouquet develops into an olfactory feast of eucalyptus and wintergreen mint. Its refined tannins offer a sleek and polished frame that won’t go unnoticed, especially with a finish that is plump with gobs of very berry and cherry flavors.

Just like the Evodia, El Chaparral Old Vines Garnacha is a little punchier than many comparable red wines with an ABV of 14%. This is due in large part to the late harvesting that is required for the Garnacha grape to fully ripen. That late ripening may equate to more alcohol, but the varietal does an exceptional job during the wine making process of not becoming overshadowed by the higher alcohol content. One sip of either of these wines is all it takes to taste just why Garnacha is gaining ground.

And if you’d like to read the one that makes me sound like someone else wrote it, then click here to go to knoxnews.com

My old friend Barbera

Shuffling around in the wine nook tonight, I found this scratched up bottle of one of my favorite wines, Barbera. This affordable bottling of Araldica Barbera is from the city of Asti in the Italian northwest and imported through VIAS wines.

If Barbera’s ripe plum and juicy cherry notes aren’t indulgent enough, then bury your nose in the all-spice and smoky aromas. The Araldica Barbera makes for a versatile substitute when you need something to lean on at the last minute and don’t want to drop a big coin at the wine shop. Barbera is exceptional with a spicy Indian curry, complete with a cabinet full of flavors and smells like crushed cardamom, cinnamon stick, garlic, clove, cumin, coriander and masala.

Evolution of a wine

I’m guessing my friend Kelly would refer to this selection as the “Last of the Summer Wine.” The 2011 Evolúció Furmint was a well kept summer secret this year. Although it’s made of grapes (Furmint) that we never talk about in the US and comes from a country (Hungary) that few Americans consider when choosing wine (outside of Bulls Blood), this very tasty white has plenty going for it. My first impression of the Evolúció made me think of a lighter style German Riesling from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Bright aromas and flavors of fresh market apples are accented by strides of cantaloupe. Its faint hint of tangerine is just enough to bid this summer a fond adieu.

Organically good: Orleans Hill Viognier

Time for a stroll down amnesia lane!

Do you remember the individually wrapped Super Bubble Green Apple Gum from the 70′s? Perhaps the photo at the bottom right will jog the old memory. As a kid I was a bit of a fanatic for it, so I was a little surprised (if not nostalgic) after tasting the 2011 Orleans Hill Viognier.

For the ABC crowd (Anything But Chardonnay), Viognier is a great substitute as it avoids all that oak and circumstance. The Orleans Hill starts off with a soft honey bouquet rather than all that vanilla and butterscotch that an oafish California Chardonnay tugs around.

But, it’s the semi-sweet green apple and honeydew melon flavors that really separate it from the pack and leave you wondering what that familiar, childhood flavor is.

From California, Orleans Hill is made from organically grown grapes and vegan friendly. And just like the Super Bubble… it may not come in a pack, but it is available by the case.

The new “it” wine…while it lasts

“Well, hello!!!”… That’s the very pleasant, very familiar reception you’ll receive after just one whiff, indeed one taste, of the 2010 DeLoach Russian River Valley Zinfandel. Your tongue will promptly thank you and then beg for another sample of this very tantalizing vixen. The DeLoach is a powerfully enticing Zin showing off an aromatic allure of brown sugar, warm cinnamon and trademark Zinfandel spiciness.

Pour a little of its black cherry goodness into the mix and you’re holding a glass of one of the best Zinfandel’s to rattle your wine rack in about five years. With some very special pricing that I hear is out there, you should be able to claim what was a $20 bottle for under $15. If I were buying a case this year for Fall BBQ’s and tailgating, THIS would be IT.

My interview with Fran Kysela

Recently, I had a question-and-answer session with wine importer Fran Kysela, of Kysela Pere et Fils, Ltd.

Kysela was a finalist last year for Wine Enthusiast’s Importer of the Year Award. The nomination was the beginning of what would be a watershed year for his business. In addition to opening his 73,000-square-foot warehouse in Winchester, Va., Kysela also reached a significant sales benchmark by the end of 2011. After only 17 years in business, Kysela Pere et Fils had booked more than a quarter of a billion dollars in sales. And he foresees a positive trend for U.S. imports in the near future.

What wine trends do you see for the rest of 2012 and into the next year or two?

Kysela: Trends: value red wines globally. California will be producing more and more blends to keep prices from rising and to fill their distribution pipelines. Regardless, imports are projected to increase their market share by 3 % in the next 18 months.

What are you drinking tonight? What would you pair it with?

Kysela: The 2009 Aticus, Rioja with some grilled chicken and vegetables……delicious!

What is your favorite wine country to travel to and explore?

Kysela: Lately South Africa for the wine values and Cape Malay’s food and scenery.

Continue reading at knoxnews.com

* The photo is of Fran Kyslea with Guido Accordini feasting after a big day at Vinitaly.

Hail Caesar!

When it comes to wine, Italian Dolcetto stands out as one of those rare misnomers. Literally translated as “little sweet one,” Dolcetto hails from the northwestern Italian region of Piemonte. It is a blacker, juicy wine that may be lighter in body but is far from being dolce.

The 2007 Pio Cesare Dolcetto from the border town of Alba makes you wonder why more Dolcettos aren’t made available in the Old South. A blueberry component and an attractive “come back for more” attribute impressively enhance a fresh bouquet of violets and crushed berry fruit. Hitting a flawless stride at five years of age, this Dolcetto is in peak performance and should be gobbled up promptly.

In the know with the 2011 Penya Rosé

Late summer is an ideal time to pick up a few bottles of Rosé. With fall now only a little more than five weeks away, many retailers are reluctant to inventory them into the cold weather months. That means solid discounts for the consumer from bottle one.

This week I grabbed a bottle of the 2011 Penya Rosé to retry. Comprised of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, the Penya remains a price-friendly favorite of mine from the 2011 vintage in southern France. Imported by the value-savvy Hand Picked Selections, Penya displays a nice pink poppy color with flavors of cherry and watermelon. Enjoy with the last yields from your summer garden!

Codice Tinto: Code for pretty damn good!

Anyone remember that fantastically spicy seafood paella that Cha Chas use to serve back in the Kenny Siao days? Think large fresh prawns, savory Spanish sausage and big, fat ridiculously fluffy rice. Tonight I was drinking, what would have been, some very complimentary Tempranillo. The 2009 Codice Tinto ($10-$12) is 100% Spanish Tempranillo, with sweet and spicy oak notes, a hint of vanilla and enough succulent fruit to do the cha cha with any plate of piquant paella. The Codice is inventoried only once per year in Knoxville, so seek it out soon.

Hard Cider is ‘sessionably’ on the rise

The adult beverage market in the U.S. has a new player on the block, and it might not be what you would expect. In fact if you had posed the same question just a few years ago, most beverage marketing firms, and in particular beer enthusiasts, probably wouldn’t have predicted that hard cider would have become the upstart that it has.

This year alone, the domestic cider market is on track to eclipse $50 million in sales. Now that’s a lot of apples. Luckily for Knoxville, that spike in popularity was seen well in advance by Chris Morton, owner of Bearden Beer Market. Morton started introducing new ciders to the market shortly after opening BBM in 2010. His sales signal a near double digit growth for hard cider in 2012 and notes that the percentage growth for cider nationally is catching up to that of craft beer.

Continue reading at knoxnews.com

Prosecco & herbed cocktails

Herbed cocktails continue to rise in popularity and last night I was attempting to recreate a concoction I had earlier this spring at a Dogwood Arts event.

The aperitif was predominantly Prosecco based, but had a fresh blackberry and either a sprig of thyme or rosemary added. It was spot-on delicious and refreshing without being too odd or pretentious. Kudos to Mr. Perkins (with Dogwood Arts) for the originality.

When mixing a wine based cocktail, its truly best to use something affordable. Since so many other flavors are coming to the party, you don’t want a shouting match overshadowing an expensive bubbly. A solid Italian Prosecco, like Riondo, or even a nice Spanish Cava are safe and solid go-tos. Check out some other great Prosecco inspired cocktails at Bubbly Girl.

Keep on rolling with Rickshaw Cabernet

Typically, Cabernet is not on my mind during the stale humidity of a Southern drought. But sometimes you have to turn the AC down low and dream of a cooler autumn day. That happened last night when I opened up a bottle of the 2010 Rickshaw Cabernet. Rickshaw’s first impression as an opulent and gratifying Cabernet is supported by the pedigree of its fruit sourcing, including the likes of Napa, Alexander Valley and Paso Robles. It may be hard to imagine something so rich going for around $15 but once the dense and dark fruit flavors start rolling around, you may have discovered just the right rickshaw to pull you through the dream-state and into a cooler frame of mind.

Zinfandel and Primitivo, two clones of one great grape

It has been said that the Greeks brought wine to Italy, and in turn the Italians gave wine to the world. The old ruins and wine presses of the ancient Roman Empire in Germany and France as well as much of Western Europe are the initial proof of this global manifestation. But it wasn’t until Italians immigrated in-masse to the United States, and more specifically California, that this old saying began to take root (in the form of new vineyards) and to establish a sense of street cred in the wine world.

One indication of that new world wine influence can be found in the bulk plantings of America’s beloved Zinfandel grape. Originally traced back as a virtual clone of the Italian varietal known as Primitivo, the Zinfandel grape is believed to have been brought to the United States sometime in the 19th century.

After surviving both the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800’s and American prohibition in the 20th century, Zinfandel was replanted extensively and thrived throughout much of California’s wine country. And the families of Italian immigrants like Sonoma County’s Seghesio family carried on that tradition of giving wine to the world.

Seghesio makes over half a dozen Zins including their flagship Sonoma County Zinfandel that comes capped in a bright blue foil. Melodically fluid with loads of red fruit flavors like cherries, strawberries and raspberries, the 2010 Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel is the gateway to Zinfandel heaven. If you’re a huge fan of Zinfandel then be sure to save up for one of their specialty Zins like the Rockpile, Old Vines, Pagani, Home Ranch or Monte Rosso. You won’t be disappointed!

Interestingly enough, the history of the Italian version – the Primitivo clone, led researchers to track both it and the Zinfandel clone even further back. Although most Primitivo can be found grown and vinified on the “heel” of the Italian boot, its indigenous roots (like that of Zinfandels) have been studied and ultimately linked back to plantings of a Croatian clone just across the Adriatic Sea.

In contrast, Italian Primitivo tends to have a noticeably different flavor profile than its American Zinfandel counterpart. Since it is less fruity, with more of a rustic note, Primitivo is very food friendly especially when it comes to traditional Italian recipes. Producers like Monaci, Cantele and Apollonio are affordable and accurate representations of Italian Primitivo. But, of the Primitivos that I’ve sampled, it is the 2010 Layer Cake that seems to have the closet resemblance to California Zinfandel. The proof is in its fruit-forward style and approachable demeanor.

Finally, if you classify yourself as a Zin-fanatic of Zin-head, then it’s a must for you to check out California’s ZAP Festival. ZAP or Zinfandel Advocates & Producers holds an annual festival in San Francisco at the first of every year that is considered to be one of the best wine events in all of California.

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Great Grüner! 2011 Hofer Grüner Veltliner

Austria’s top drop continues to be Grüner Veltliner. And although there may be a lot of groovy Grüners grabbing up shelf space in the old Austrian section, few have had as a successful run as Hofer has over the past five years.

The mineral-strewn and white pepper aromas of the 2011 Hofer Grüner meld into an agreeable flavor of crisp green apples. This beautiful blonde wine comes decked out in a big green over-sized bottle that may affectionately become your liter of love.

Keep in mind that it’s 33% more in volume than a standard-size 750ml bottle and will run you about $13.

What to drink: 2011 Dry Creek Chenin Blanc

Recently, I was reading about a feud between Eric Asimov (wine critic for the New York Times) and James Molesworth (wine critic for the Wine Spectator). These two gentlemen were doing a little snarky debating about the merits of South African Chenin Blanc via the twittersphere. You can see a highly recommended and succinct play-by-play here:

Asimov vs. Molesworth: the Thrilla in Vanilla

The story written on the wine blog, Dr. Vino, had me laughing out loud, but it also got me thinking about Chenin Blanc. So, I decided to revisit one of California’s best and well-established. The Dry Creek Vineyard, located in Healdsburg, has been producing quality Chenin Blanc for forty years.

Its 2011 vintage displays the palest of gold colors with a tropical bouquet that might remind you of those banana notes from a stick of Juicy Fruit. It has a remarkable creamy texture for being all stainless steel fermented and some easy-drinking flavors of pineapple and honeydew melon. With mass appeal and a wallet-friendly nature for around $8-$9, hopefully your favorite wine critic won’t be so touchy.

Must try: 2009 Klinker Brick Old Vines Zinfandel

The BEST Zinfandel I’ve had this year for under $20 is hands down the ’09 Klinker Brick. Laden with rich dark fruits of chewy black cherries and overly ripe Southern blackberries, this old vines bottling is stacked with layer upon layer of luscious and indulgent Zinfandel nectar. An alcohol level that tops out at a whopping 15.8% best demonstrates Klinker Brick’s intensity. It’s not “just another brick in the wall.”

What to drink: Justin Monmousseau Sancerre

Remarkably fragrant, with aromas of lemon, lime, pink grapefruit and a hint of tangerine, Justin Monmousseau’s Sancerre is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and equally vibrant. I recommend it with some grilled artichoke (lime butter on the side) and a fresh catch of red snapper softly seasoned with tandoori powder, olive oil and lemon. The savory, peppiness of the Indian spices brings out a unique zesty characteristic in the Sancerre.

Drink this: Fâmega Vinho Verde

The owner of Woodland Wine Merchants in Nashville, Tennessee first introduced me to one of my two favorite Vinho Verdes, the Fâmega. Made from a mélange of Portuguese white wines, Fâmega is slightly fizzy with aromas of lemon aioli and green pear. Keep in mind that Vinho Verdes shouldn’t cost anymore than $7-$9. Serve this one extra cold and enjoy its spirited citrus character throughout this insanely torrid summer.

Sassy Sauvignon Blanc is all about the grapefruit

Napa Valley’s most notorious cult winery, Screaming Eagle, just released its whopping 600-bottle production of Sauvignon Blanc through its preferred customer list. Normally this wouldn’t be news, except for the fact that the release price was a staggering $250 per bottle. What makes this story more ridiculous is that some of those customers were able to re-sell the same bottle for upwards of ten times the original asking price.

And if that weren’t enough to get a circus magnate screaming “sucker,” then the fact that the wine is a Sauvignon Blanc (an abundant white grape that’s easy to vinify and not the most noble of keepsakes) should be. Regardless of the inclination of some consumers to overpay for certain wines, Sauvignon Blanc shouldn’t be one of those.

Sauvignon Blanc-based wines have universally become associated with the essence and flavor of grapefruit. Although it is planted and made into crisp, refreshing wines from California to France to New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc holds true to this expressive citrus character despite its globetrotting presence.

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What to drink: 2011 Acrobat Rosé of Pinot Noir

In this wide, wonderful world of wine overproduction, conglomerates are continually creating new brands and labels and blends with the emphasis more on eye catching artwork or clever catch phrases rather than what’s actually in the bottle. So, when established brands (like King Estate’s Acrobat) peel off another new wine label, I’m quick to raise the red flag. This year the king of Oregon wineries rolled out a new rosé comprised of Pinot Noir. And after trying it, I promptly lowered the old flag.

The 2011 Acrobat Rosé mirrors the brilliant color of sashimi grade salmon. Not excessively dry, it delivers refreshing summer-inspired flavors of raspberry and ripe strawberries. If they can keep the price and quality in line with the rest of the Acrobat wines, over time King Estate may go three for three with their entry-level brand.

Wine Muse

All good wine comes, not solely from a vineyard or specific vintage, but from the people we share it with – the conversation – the music selected for that evening with our friends – the food – our experiences, our stories. Politics. Health. Sex. Successes and failures. And really good wine comes down to who you’re sharing it with and the bond it creates. It is a communion between friends. And although you may order different things at the restaurant, together you drink from the same bottle.

All about Albariño

Sometimes proper names can be confusing. Take, for example, the grape varietal Albarino. It may sound like a can of tuna off the supermarket shelf or perhaps even the next great soccer striker to break out of World Cup 2014 in Brazil. Yet, through all the potential for a muddy mix-up, the Albarino grape has kept a relatively low profile and stayed true to its Spanish roots.

Originally grown exclusively in the Spanish region of Galicia, Albarino has taken some baby steps with international plantings in Australia and here at home, as seen through the noteworthy bottling of California’s Dream Albariño from the Clements Hills. And although this venture and others are meaningful, Albarino’s successful productions are mostly still exports from the Iberian Peninsula.

Inside of the Spanish region of Galicia is a specific wine-growing area known as Rias Baixas. Yeah, don’t try to pronounce it. Suffice it to say, it is from here that the creme de la creme of Albariño hails.

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Overcoming Veritable Quandaries in Modern White Wines

Revered sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin said that the one thing that makes life possible is “permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” This uncertainty can occur at any time, like when you get home from the hospital with your firstborn and you’re left with the feeling of “now what?” Or when you move forward with what you’ve always known or start something completely new.

Here’s another similar situation: Since you’ve drunk only Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio all your life, can you actually find a different white wine that you’re not sure you’ll enjoy or even know how to pronounce?

Fret not, because the only thing that’s tentative about the new 2010 Veritable Quandary White is trying to guess what the wine is comprised of. With typical Spanish varietals like Albarino, Portuguese varietals like Verdelho and Rhone varietals like Marsanne and Roussanne, this all-American wine is diverse in composition but still manages to deliver a seamless spirit. Dry without being Saharan, the Veritable Quandary White establishes a juicy tropical fruit flavor held together by an unctuous frame and thick golden color.

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Portuguese pride starts with Vinho Verde

The pride of Portuguese winemaking may gravitate around world-renowned vintage ports but for simple, everyday consumption that pride really starts with Vinho Verde. Translated as “green wine” Vinho Verde is just that, young in age, green in maturation and quite often not even vintage dated. Historically one of the cheaper whites wines that can be found from Europe, Vinho Verde has often been narrowly perceived as tart-like wine with little fruit. There are definitely reasons why labels like this one have survived. However, judging from the recent crop of Vinho Verdes that are coming our way, there is sufficient evidence to prove that that stereotype is just too simple-minded.

n Casal Garcia Vinho Verde by Aveleda ($8.55): Casal Garcia does for Vinho Verde what the “High Life” does for beer. Specifically, it’s a crisp, un-muddled white that is slightly effervescent. If Miller High Life is the “Champagne of Beers,” then Casal Garcia is the thirst-quenching version of Vinho Verdes. The light, bubbly feeling of Casal Garcia bounces on the tongue, stays true to its straightforward, focused nature and finishes with soft green apple notes.

Casal Garcia by Aveleda is so clean, clear and refreshing that it’s void of some typical mineral notes. A low alcohol of only 10 percent makes this white Portuguese wine an easy pushover, and its beautiful light blue bottle is a perfect centerpiece for an outdoor summer dinner under your favorite apple tree.

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