Fabulous French Finds for the New Year

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

New Years aren’t just for resolutions; they’re also for doing something a little different, like getting out of the old comfort zone. 2014 has already offered some fabulous wine finds from the country that gave us both Lafayette and Lady Liberty. And keeping with that “road less traveled by” theme, these food-friendly French wines aren’t from well known Bordeaux or Burgundy. Rather, some of the first great finds for the New Year come from less heralded French regions like Languedoc Roussillon and the Loire Valley.

Ode to the food friendly French!

Ode to the food friendly French!

If the beautifully earth-toned mosaic label of the 2011 Tessellae Old Vines isn’t enough to rattle your curiosity to attention, then perhaps the aromatherapy it’ll deliver will be. From the Côte du Roussillon and made from a traditional GSM blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, the Tessellae has a wonderful appetite inducing bouquet of mixed berry fruit reduction, saddle leather and bacon fat.

Remember the old adage, “fat is flavor, flavor is fat?” You’ll want to pair this sultry French red with a salty pork dish like tenderloin medallions, covered in a creamy béchamel sauce with nutmeg and sweet onions.

Trying new things, especially wines, often produces the dual effect of causing both excitement and some trepidation. So, don’t let the moniker of this next wine scare you off or have you feeling alone. Instead, embrace its intended adventure!

The 2011 Flying Solo is a Grenache/ Syrah mix from France’s southern wine hub, the Languedoc Roussillon. Its peculiar microbiological aroma quickly opens up and gives way to some fast fruit. Cherry bombs continue to drop from one quick quaffable sip to the next. Great with a heart warming, youth inspiring comfort food like tomato soup, the Flying Solo could be your road map for better drinking in 2014.

When France’s Loire Valley is mentioned in the company of wine lovers, the first thing to come to mind is usually a white wine from Sancerre, Sevre-et-Maine or Vouvray. But this coastal influenced wine region also makes great Cabernet Franc. The 2011 Laporte “Le Bouquet” is a prime example of 100% Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. Herbaceous and earthy aromatics of asparagus and bell peppers are greeted by the wine’s lower alcohol level, producing a thinner easy-to-drink red with some notable red berry fruit. Look for a healthy pairing of marinated Mediterranean vegetables and some roasted poultry to go with the Laporte.

All these fabulous French finds will retail for under $20, making your New Year an even happier one!

What’s your Turkey Wine this year?

We’ve been charged with bringing dessert pie to Zia Carol’s Thanksgiving Feast on Thursday. If it makes it that long.

My, my, me oh my! Nothing tastes better than homemade pie.

My, my, me oh my! Nothing tastes better than homemade pie.

Since I didn’t write a Thanksgiving and wine column this year, I thought at the very least that I should send out a reminder of some styles that go well with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. These wines tend to be very versatile and solid food supporters.

1 – Syrah & Grenache blends from the Rhone (French)
2 – Rieslings from the Mosel, (German)
3 – Dry Rose from Provence (French)
4 – Pinot Noir from Oregon
5 – Barbera from Piedmont (Italian)

Love to hear back about which wines you’re serving with Thanksgiving this year!

Happy Thanksgiving! – Roger

Alphabet wine- dumbing it down

I heard it through the grapevine, CDR was the preferred wine of the Fogerty Brothers.

I heard it through the grapevine, CDR was the preferred wine of the Fogerty Brothers.

Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. That could be said for the simply named wine, CDR, from Domaine Select Wine Estates and winemaker Henri Milan. Great wines from the Côtes du Rhône wine region have been abbreviated and affectionately referred to as CDR’s for years now. So, it was only a matter of marketing time before a label came out bearing exactly that.

CDR is a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, displaying a little brickishness and a whole lot of funky blue cheese. Flavors of dried cherry Luden drops develop into a brighter red berry medley with some lingering violet notes. An exquisite partner for a traditional beef tip southern stew, CDR retails for $13-15.

Social Lubrication

Over the last few falls and winters, we have taken to hosting more dinner and house parties. Something there is that loves the communion of various friends, the intimacy of the in-house setting and the planning/execution of rich, hearty, savory dinners. If only we had a second dishwashing machine, right?

Your next dinner party red!

Your next dinner party red!

My philosophy on which wines to serve has held a few basic tenets over the years. First, I like to have one choice each for red, white and sparkling. Experience has shown that too many selections will often turn into everyone focusing on that one “amazing” wine that is now empty and irreplaceable. “Too many to chose from” also inevitably leads to a sense of forgetfulness when it comes time to recall all the different wines one has sampled that night. Last, and perhaps more importantly, having a wine that is going to be versatile while simultaneously providing instant gratification will make your hosting duties all the easier.

The versatility assists you by having a wine that can pair up with the variety of foods in the feast ahead. But that instant pleasure, that the right wine can provide, helps your guests to become comfortable with meeting new people and settling into the moment… sort of a social lubricant. If they like what they’re drinking right away, then there’s a good chance they’re going to enjoy the evening altogether.

That’s the long way for saying; I’ve found which red wine I’m serving at my next house party. The 2010 Chateau d’Oupia displays interesting beefy aromas and some pepperiness. Follow that up with a black cherry flavor profile and dash of bittersweet chocolate at the end and you have all the ingredients for a wine with quick strike capability. The Chateau d’Oupia comes from Minervois in France’s Languedoc wine region. Its hillside vineyards account for well maintained Carignan grapes, the chief ingredient in the d’Oupia. The rest of the wine is comprised of Syrah and Grenache, so you know you’re staring at potential winner.

Imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, the Chateau d’Oupia comes in at an amazingly fair $13 price tag, something you’ll appreciate when it comes time to keep the post party-party going a little longer.

Offer a salute for Father’s Day

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

Wines fit for a king

Wines fit for a king

This Father’s Day you may not be able to send dad on that much needed vacation touring the vineyards of the Tuscan countryside or to be pampered by any of the countless numbers of wineries in California’s Napa Valley. But you can bring the vineyard to him, at least the best part of it. On his day of appreciation, give dad a beautiful and distinctive bottle of wine that he may enjoy at his leisure. Who knows he might even open it the next time you’re around.

Some dad’s are all about comfort. They like to know or be familiar with something before they dive into it. These are the old school, map in hand Pops whom plan almost everything in advance and are going to want to at least be able to pronounce the wine gift you chose for them. Chances are they’re quite aware of Napa Valley and their award-winning litany of sturdy, reliable Cabernets.

With that in mind, the preferred Napa Valley Cabs that I recommend for Father’s Day come from Cliff Lede Vineyards and Bell Wine Cellars. The 2009 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon, in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, represents the tannic, bold style Cabernet with its firm structure and dark berry fruit. The Cliff Lede (pronounced lady) is a steak lovers Cab that will need to be opened well in advance of firing up the grill. Look to pay around $60.

Likewise, Anthony Bell’s 2009 Claret will amaze any wine enthusiast. Its local popularity was made possible by Mr. Bell’s continued presence in the market and by the long time listing on the wine menu at the Northshore Brasserie. A mostly Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, the Bell Claret is excellence defined. For the ready-to-drink wine man, only the layers of supple, luscious fruit surpass the Claret’s polished tannins and elegant mouthfeel. And it’s a very reasonable gift for under $40.

Father & Son

For the jet setter, aspiring world traveler or even the modern day “foodie” father, one needs to look no further than the vineyards of Tuscany for an impeccable bottle of wine and exceptional gift idea. Aged for three years in oak, the 2008 Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino is a delectable mouthful of 100% Sangiovese Grosso grapes. With dense black cherry flavors, a hint of anise and a finish reminiscent of wild berry reduction, the Castelgiocondo Brunello just begs to be paired with some braised lamb shank. Leather notes and holiday spices combine for an aromatic tour de force, so Dad will know his $70 gift was special the moment he leans in for his first sip.

Keep in mind that buying an expensive bottle is a commitment and not an investment. Always ask your local shop for a discount to defer some of the cost of your purchase. They should be more than glad to help you with such a special gift.

Burger Night with the Big Guy

Burger's best friend

Burger’s best friend

Budget week wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the all-American hamburger (and what to pair with it). And although the scope of what goes on that burger continues to change, the central ingredient is customarily beef. From there, interpretation seems to be limitless, including this version of goat cheese, avocado, bacon and egg; all ready to join a chimichurri mixed beef patty.

And that’s the thing with the evolution of the iconic American burger; there’s a whole lot going on between the buns. Selecting one, all encompassing wine to match perfectly is a bit of a challenge.

That being said it’s usually a safer bet to fall back on a well-established red blend that has some combination of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. The Cabernet and Syrah are experienced partners for beef and the Merlot brings more fruit and a softening element to the wine.

Washington State is a great place to start in your search for a $10-12 red blend for burger night. They have a host of choices and should be readily available at your local shop.

But if you have a little extra coin left over at the end of the week, grab a bottle of Bell Wine Cellar’s 2010 Big Guy Red from California. This Syrah and Merlot blend (with a touch of Cab and Sangiovese) has a remarkably well polished texture, especially considering its under-$20 price tag. The Big Guy ranks high on the gulpability meter and when it comes to chowing down on a great burger, the land of all beef patties has no greater partner.

Build a better burger

Build a better burger

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.

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.

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.

You say Syrah, I say Shiraz

*Shiraz is popular. It’s been that way for some time and the popularity is due in no small part to the mass influx of the Australian version of Shiraz. At a recent tasting, I was reminded of the power of kangaroo wine, both from a value and flavor standpoint.

Shiraz and Syrah are one in the same grape. Think tomato or tomatoe, quail or Quayle.   Not only are the spellings and pronunciations different, but the flavor profile can also vary greatly from the Pacific Coast of America to the kangaroo fields of southeastern Australia.

BlackBilly Shiraz 2004 ($19)

A wise man once suggested to me that many wine lovers often flock to the same importer over and over gain because they have a certain degree of trust in the style of wines they represent. I took his advice to heart and discovered that it’s true in most cases.  One of my favorite importers from Down Under is Australian Premium Wines (APW).  From their Wishing Tree Shiraz to Elderton Tantalus, their Shirazes have always offered a polished style and and a friendly character.

The same can be said for their release of the 2004 BlackBilly Shiraz.  Grown in McClaren Vale, BlackBilly may have a nose reminiscent of  a barnyard but its fresh flavors of blackberry and dark chocolate offer up a rich and delicious profile and an elevated level of complexity.  So take a wise man’s advice: when you find an imported wine you like, check out the back label and remember the name of the importer. It could lead to a long, happy relationship.

Marquis Philips Shiraz 2005 ($15)

If you like that over-the-top fruit in your red wines, then you’re going to love the 2005 Marquis Philips Shiraz.  Its intense fruit flavors are so diverse and all over the place, that something in there is bound to give you deja vu.  Originally a joint venture between winemakers Sara and Sparky Marquis and import owner Dan Philips, the wine is currently under the guiding hands of Chris Ringland and Lisa Wetherell. This simply means that for the sixth straight year, the Marquis Philips Shiraz is an incredible wine.

Its lush, velvety texture is a great match with “steak au poivre” from the Northshore Brasserie.   And although it’s a whopping 15.9% alchohol, the spices and slender pepper notes weave together perfectly with the dense extracted fruit palate. This wine is never a bad date.

Blackwing Step Rd Shiraz 2005 ($11)

One thing you might notice about the color of these Aussie reds is that they’re much darker if not blacker than their American counterparts.  In fact, their names signify the difference as well. Not surprisingly, the 2005 Blackwing Shiraz lives up to its billing as well. With deeper hues and flavors of plums and black fruit, this little bird sings a sweet song.  Slight aromas of peppermint on the nose provide an interetesting debut, and the heat on the finish of this Shiraz will make barbecue lovers “grin like a butcher’s dog.”

From renowned importer, Fran Kysela, the screwtop Blackwing Shiraz is perfect for those times when you don’t know a wine tool or might have already broken off one cork in the bottle neck. It happens to the best of us.  But with a case of Blackwing on hand you won’t have to stray down to the local tavern for a round of redemption.

Neyers Napa Valley Syrah 2002 ($32)

Allright, I have to confess. I had to taste a lot of California Syrah to find one that I liked.  If I could use the word dreadful to describe affordable California Syrah then I would. Anybody can be a critic, but some of these winemakers might consider going back to school. I’m not one to throw a rock at a glass house, but with descripters like funky, mushroom, old boots and overly oaked it’s no wonder I had to go a up a few price points to find a winner like Neyers Napa Valley Syrah. But I’m glad I did.

Recently poured at the L’amour du Vin fundraiser for the Knoxville Museum of Art, Neyers will make you think kaboom, this wine is the bomb!  With provencial herbs and a distinctly Rhone style, Neyers has a touch of brickish color and requires some polite patience while it opens up and is ready for Friday night dinner.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Shiraz 2002 ($10)

If California falls short in producing quaffable Syrah, Washington state more than makes up for it.  Columbia Crest has been around for years and my friend, Katy, from Chicago refers to it as grocery store wine: it can be found everywhere. I first heard about some great accolades of the 2002 Columbia Crest from a national periodical that dubbed it the number one value of the year for under $25. So I had to pop one.

The bottom line is that here’s the epitome of excellent American Syrah, and it’s a super value for ten bucks. With dark fruit, closer to the Aussie style, and a ready-to-go gulpability, the 2002 Columbia Crest Grand Estate Shiraz is a sheer knockout.

* A version of this column was publishes in 2007 in the Knoxville News Sentinel

Spring brings the fab five of French Rose

Every spring is ushered in with seasonal indicators. In nature we notice the Wordsworth-inspiring daffodils, the golden forsythia and the pink quince bushes. Similarly, in the wine world, spring is distinguished by the arrival of Rose wines. These wines are often the first arrivals from the most recent grape crop.

This year’s first wave of Rose wines hails from France, specifically from the Costieres de Nimes in Southern Rhone. The two best Roses to enter the Knoxville market last year were the Chateau Guiot and the Grande Cassagne, both from that same region.

After checking last year’s notes, it became evident that two trends had emerged. First, both of these wines demonstrate the traditional French Rose style of strawberry nuances, completed by a dry finish. And second, both of these bottlings are really-really good Roses that won’t disappoint lovers of this style of wine.

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