Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Garden update, May 17th.

Well, it's official, all my plants from this year's garden are out of their seedling stage and into their permanent pots, so I thought I'd snap a few photos this weekend to show everyone how they're coming along. I don't actually have a lot to say, other than I'm pleased with how nice my trailing plants already look when hanging off the tops of my bookshelves; plus you'll undoubtedly notice some mildew on the dirt of some of these pots, which apparently came from adding too much water to the soil before transferring my seedlings, although the internet tells me this will eventually go away and that the mildew isn't actually hurting any of the plants. Other than that it's business as usual around here, so stay tuned in a few more weeks for yet another update!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Wine tasting: Yaluma "Y Series" Viognier, Australia, 2015.

Hey, long time no see! For new readers who need a catch-up, I'm in the process this year of fulfilling a New Year's resolution to finally get better educated about wine; and the first tasting project I'm doing as part of this education is to do thoughtful tastings of the world's twenty most popular types of grapes, taking them on chromatically from the darkest reds to the lightest whites. I've been at it since January, which means I've now gotten through Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti (Sangiovese), Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Beaujolais (Gamay), Cabernet Franc, White Zinfandel, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay; and after a three-week hiatus I'm now ready to take on my 14th wine in this series, the obscure Viognier (pronounced vee-OWN-yay).

Once a much more popular wine than it currently is, most believe that Viognier goes all the way back to Croatia and the birth of wine in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago; although definitely we have records of the Romans bringing this as one of the first grape types to France when they initially established the "fine wine" tradition there in the early AD years. On the plus side, low acidity makes this wine lush and smooth like a Chardonnay, but with it being an "aromatic" wine it also usually contains a lot more subtle aromas of flowers and fruits than many other whites. (In fact, this is often added to harsh reds such as Syrah to make the resulting "red blend" both softer in taste and better-smelling.) But on the minus side, it's one of the fussier grapes in existence, a fruit that needs a long growing season but in a place where it never gets too hot, that is prone to mildew, that has low and unpredictable yields, and that gets oily and flat if picked too late in the year.

Although once commonly grown in France's Rhône Valley (in fact, to this day it's still the only grape officially allowed in that region's Condrieu wine, one of the few French "luxury" wines deliberately meant to be drank soon after bottling), Viognier actually got very close to going extinct altogether, from a combination of that country's huge phylloxera plague in the 1800s and then this grape's vineyards being right at the heart of the Western Front during World War One. In the 1960s and '70s, though, this was one of the grapes that helped fuel America's rise into world-class winemaking (since it does well in moderate temperatures, this is one of the more common grapes used in wineries outside of the west coast -- never forget that all 50 states in the US have at least one local winery, not just California, Oregon and Washington); and in more recent years Viognier has also become a popular choice in the exploding wine industries in Australia, New Zealand and South America.

In fact, Australia is the home of the Viognier I tried for this tasting, a company called Yalumba which is that country's oldest family-owned winery (dating back to 1849) and one of only four wineries on the planet which makes its own oak barrels. (They have a beautiful website as well; I encourage you to check it out.) You can read my detailed tasting notes below; but in general this was partly like how I was expecting it to be (so fragrant, for example, that the smell immediately hits you like a punch right when you open the bottle), but partly a surprise from what I was expecting (the aroma wasn't as sweet as I heard typical Viogniers are, but the taste wasn't as dry). This was one of my favorite wines so far of this entire series, and as always I want to thank the smart and friendly staff of my local Binny's for helping me pick it out.

“The Y Series” Viognier, 2015
Angaston, South Australia
14.1% ABV

Look: A pale yellow the hue of straw, easily transparent to the light.

Smell: True to this grape's reputation, a powerful aroma that hits you the moment you open the bottle. Not as sweet a smell as I was expecting, with strong hints of lemon and honey.

Taste: A beautifully thick taste in the mouth, with the distinctive oily sensation on the middle of the tongue that comes with this varietal. Although often known for its dryness, this particular brand is semi-sweet, but with the kind of perfumy bite like you get when putting a flower petal in your mouth. Easy to see why this is a little-known secret favorite among wine experts; it has all the good qualities of a Chardonnay, but is also more delicate, more complex, and more fragrant. One of my favorite whites so far this year.

After a Full Glass: After a full glass paired with grilled salmon and broccoli, I was surprised to discover that this comes off as even sweeter than before, and pleased to find that its taste doesn't overwhelm the food at all. I'm willing to bet that this goes REALLY well with spicy food.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Garden update, April 21st.

Thought I'd post a small update today about this year's indoor garden, so I could mention that all my trailing plants for my bookshelves are now big enough to transfer to their permanent pots. We'll call these images "before," so make sure to check back in August for the "after" images.

And there's not much else to report as of today, actually, besides that I recently put together my second round of seedings; on the right there are the basil, opal basil, dill and oregano that I planed on April 4th, while on the left are my brand-new plantings of thyme, rosemary, lavender and chamomile. As always, more updates as this spring and summer continue!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Head-to-head wine tasting: Wente and Meridian Chardonnays, 2014.

Hey, hello! Long time no see! For people just joining in today, I'm a writer and software developer in Chicago, who as one of his New Year's resolutions decided that 2016 was the year I was finally going to get better educated about wine; and the first project this year I'm taking on in order to do so is to do thoughtful tastings of the world's twenty most popular types of grapes, which I've been taking on in chromatic order, from the darkest reds last January to finishing the lightest whites in May. This is week 13 of the project, which means that I've already gotten through Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti (Sangiovese), Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Beaujolais (Gamay), Cabernet Franc, White Zinfandel, and Gewürztraminer; and that means it's time for me to finally try one of the most popular types of wine in existence, the often praised but just as often insulted Chardonnay.

The child of a type of grape native to France and one originally native to Croatia, that the Roman Empire brought with them when setting central Europe, two of the big reasons that Chardonnay has become so popular is first because it's so easy to grow (it's cultivated in more different wine regions on the planet than any other single type of grape), and because it's so "malleable," which means that its flavor and texture changes radically based on what kind of soil and weather it's grown in (which together is known as a wine's "terrior"). For that reason, this is a perfect type of wine to use as a base if you want to sample different brands from around the world; Chardonnays from cooler climates tend to taste like apples and pears, while those from hot areas have strong hints of tropical fruit like bananas and mangos. (And for what it's worth, this is also one of the most popular types of grapes for making sparkling wine as well.)

But of course any American who grew up in the 1970s will know of Chardonnay's special significance to this country; along with White Zinfandel, it was one of the wine types that first turned California's wine industry into a world-class one, and eventually so exploded in popularity that there are now more Chardonnay grapes grown here than in France itself. But this is also what caused the backlash against Chardonnay; for not only does this grape type take on much of the terrior of wherever it was grown, it's also highly influenced when aged in oak barrels, giving it a buttery taste that became a favorite of '80s casual wine drinkers. That led to massive infusion of oak into the cheaper brands of Chardonnay in that decade, leading to the rise of the so-called "butter bombs;" and by the '90s it was common to hear people order "ABC" when choosing a wine at dinner, standing of course for "Anything But Chardonnay."

Like last week, I thought it would be good to sample two different types of this wine at once, to give me at least a small sense of what kind of variety I might find out there; for one I picked an oaked Chardonnay from the warm region of Napa Valley, the kind sold at grocery stores for under ten dollars, then for the other I picked an unoaked version from the cool region around San Francisco, which was $15 and came specially recommended from my neighborhood Binny's, not to mention getting a score of 90 from "Wine Enthusiast" magazine. (It's also worth noting that, with its 1883 incorporation, Wente is one of the oldest wineries in California to even sell Chardonnay in the first place; plus its vineyards are also an entertainment destination, including a thousand-seat amphitheater that has hosted such big musicians as James Taylor, Harry Connick Jr., Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, and a lot more. Not a bad way to move some bottles of wine!) You can read my detailed tasting notes below, but basically I discovered that there's a lot of validity to what I read about Chardonnay types; the cheaper brand from the warmer climate was indeed the drinking equivalent of literally pouring butter on my popcorn at a movie theater (which is not necessarily bad, don't get me wrong), while the more expensive brand from the cooler climate has the kind of sharp and crisp nature you would expect from apple juice, and turned out to be pretty easily my favorite white wine I've so far tried in this project. Don't count Chardonnay over yet! These were both quite delightful drinking experiences, and I imagine would especially go well on a hot day spent outdoors.

Chardonnay, 2014
Napa Valley, California
13.5% ABV

Look: Clear and fairly yellow, with no legs whatsoever.

Smell: An exact match to what I “expect” wine to smell like, based on attending all those hippie parties my parents threw back in the '70s, with a strong sour/savory aroma and a powerful strength.

Taste: Yep, it's buttery all right! I have to admit, I didn't quite know what to expect after reading about this so-called buttery nature in all my pre-tasting research; but it's quite literally like a lighter, drinkable version of putting butter on your popcorn at the movie theater, a sort of velvety drinking experience that unfortunately overpowers any distinct flavor this wine might have. A mass-market taste for a mass-market brand, the type of wine you often see on sale for eight bucks at your neighborhood grocery store.

“Morning Fog” Chardonnay, 2014
Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay, California
13.5% ABV
Wine Enthusiast Score: 90

Look: A bright, pale yellow, barely noticeable.

Smell: A subtle, dry, crisp aroma, with a slight sour/savory edge.

Taste: An enjoyably dry and light taste on the tongue, with the distinct taste of pears, suprisingly thicker in consistency and mouthfeel than the more highly oaked Meridian. A sharp, acidic aftertaste, which I mean in a good way. Bright and delicious; the best white wine I've so far tried this year.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Garden 2016 update, April 9th: Ivy by mail, and my first sprouts.

(For all the updates from this year's indoor garden, click the "garden2016" label at the bottom of this post, or just "garden" for everything I've ever written on the subject.)

So, an interesting experience this weekend, as I start up the first early actions of this year's indoor garden; namely, I tried ordering live plants through the mail for the very first time. This is something I've been thinking about doing for years, since of course otherwise you're beholden to whatever plants your local brick-and-mortar store might just happen to choose or not choose to stock; and I have to admit, I'm less than thrilled with the choices I have in brick-and-mortar garden stores here within the large urban confines of Chicago. (My main choices from where I live in Uptown are either Home Depot, which is really hit-and-miss when it comes to the quality and selection of plants they have at any given time; or the usually much-loved Gethsemane in Andersonville, which I myself find so snooty and pretentious that I can barely stand even walking in the front door.) And now that I have an Amazon Prime account which gives me free shipping on all orders, there's really no excuse anymore for me to not try ordering some plants online, other than the worry that such a thing is simply not feasible and that all my plants will arrive dead.

For my first experiment I tried ordering some English ivy, to complement the morning glories and moonflowers that I'll be growing in order to let hang off the tops of my bookshelves and trail down the fronts, something I've tried in previous years which produces a messy, overgrown look I really love. (See the above photo for more, taken during last year's garden.) I ordered from a place called Hirt's Gardens in Ohio, and you can see here at the top of this entry how they arrived three days later -- basically a mixed bag, with some leaves that were browning but also with brand-new healthy growth among other leaves, the planters all taped up to keep the soil in and the whole thing packed tightly with styrofoam peanuts so that there was no shifting or settling during delivery. I repotted them into three medium-sized containers like you're also seeing above, which essentially cost me about four bucks a pot, which is even cheaper than buying them in-person here in Chicago, even if you could find a place that happens to be selling this particular type of plant. It remains to be seen what the long-term health of the plants will be; but for now, I have to say that I'm quite pleased with this first experiment in mail-order plants, and I think I'll be doing a lot more of this as the months and years continue.

And speaking of trailing plants, I'm pleased to say that, a mere five days after planting the seeds, I'm already seeing tremendous sprout growth among my moonflowers and morning glories, as expected since this is what happened last year as well. That's one of the wonderful things about these particular plants, is that they're hearty and grow extremely fast; and since the bigger goal with my decorative plants is the square footage of greenery I get out of them, as opposed to growing something particularly fancy or showy, that makes these particularly great things to grow for the confines of my particular apartment. More updates soon!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Garden 2016 has officially begun!

It's the beginning of April, so you know what that means -- time to start my third year of experimental indoor gardening! This is something I tried literally on just a random whim for the first time in 2014, because I had this new apartment and suddenly had the resources to do so, a new hobby that I quickly discovered was something I really enjoyed; then last year I simultaneously upped my game a bit (by buying grow lights for the first time, and trying out hydroponic salad greens) and had a setback (namely, the overwhelming amount of time that DevBootcamp took up last spring brought a sad early end to last year's garden). So this year I'm looking forward to a really great and productive growing season, hopefully uninterrupted by other concerns in my life, and especially enjoyable this year because I'm now throwing dinner parties on a regular basis, which means there will be other people besides myself to actually appreciate it all.

Like last year, I've made some adjustments to my 2016 plan based on what worked and didn't work in previous iterations of my garden; for this year's plan, that mostly consists of dropping all the stuff that's cheap and easy to buy at the grocery store (like salad greens, onions, peas, etc), and instead devote the preciously small amount of window-sill space I have to the herbs that are ridiculously expensive to buy at the grocery store (like basil, sage and lemongrass, all of which I grew last year as well, plus this year adding oregano, rosemary, thyme, dill, the spicier opal blend of basil, and mint). I'm also mixing up my plans a bit for the decorative plants I'll be growing this year; coleus is out for 2016, cape primrose is in, and I'll be adding the trailing plant oxalis (aka purple shamrock) to the usual moonflowers and morning glories I've grown in previous years, all of which hang off the tops of my bookshelves when mature and give my apartment this great "post-apocalyptic Victorian greenhouse" look by the middle of the summer.

I'm also hoping to pick up some more store-bought shade-friendly plants this year; I still have my snake plant from last year, which is still doing really well, and the succulent jade plant I've been growing for two full seasons, but all my other plants from last year have died by now, so I hope to add some ferns, perhaps a spider plant, and maybe a dracaena or two. And finally, I'm trying something really intriguing this year for the first time, which will either be a huge success or a dismal failure -- I've decided to try growing three palm trees all the way from seeds to their full seven-foot height! The subject is of course more complicated than this, but basically all those palm trees you see being sold for twenty bucks or whatever at Home Depot every spring (usually of the Majestic variety) are bad for indoor growing, which is why they sell for so cheap (I bought two of them two years ago, but then both died ignoble deaths over the winter); so this year I thought I'd buy Kentia palms, which are the ones most recommended for indoor growing and year-around health. The problem, though, is that you can't find any local Kentia palms for sale in the city, and to buy a full-sized one and have it shipped is nearly a thousand dollars; but Kentia seeds are only three bucks apiece, so I thought it would be interesting to make a long-term plan out of it, and see if I can't cultivate several thousand dollars' worth of palm trees using just some time and patience. If it goes well, I should be really rewarded in another three years or so; and in the meanwhile, I thought it'd be a really fun project to track online for all of you who follow along with this blog.

Anyway, as always, more details and updates as this spring continues. Looking forward to another busy and productive growing season!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Head-to-head wine tasting, Gewurztraminer: "The Furst" vs Paul Cluver.

Greetings, oenophiles! It's week 12 of my first big wine-education project of 2016 (inspired, to remind you, by a New Year's resolution to finally learn more about the subject), in which I'm trying the world's twenty most popular types of wine in chromatic order, from the darkest reds to the lightest whites. So far this year I've gotten through Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti (Sangiovese), Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Beaujolais (Gamay), Cabernet Franc and White Zinfandel; and while technically the next wine on the intensity list to try is Chardonnay, I just got done trying one of the other most popular types of wine in the US, the White Zin previously mentioned, so I thought I'd take a break between the two and slip in a much more obscure wine that I've never tried before, Gewurztraminer.

And why is this obscure? After all, it's known as one of the 18 "noble" grapes first designated in the Renaissance, one of those fabled varietals that's been grown since at least the birth of Christ, and that was one of the founding grapes of the "fine wine" movement in France during the Roman Empire. But it's simply out of trendy popularity as of the exact times I'm writing; the Old World (i.e. European) version is delicate and sweet like perfume, which is not currently in style in our "bold reds all the time" age, and it's mostly known as a Germanic type of wine which is also currently out of fashion in the early 21st century. Now add the fact that, much like Pinot Noir, it's a fussy grape whose growth season can go randomly wrong in all kinds of ways (Gewurztraminer vines bud early, and thus are vulnerable to late frosts, and need dry summers with cold nights to ripen properly); and also add the fact that it's hardly grown anywhere anymore, constituting something like only 4 percent of all the wine made on the planet on any given year, and you can see why it's currently easy to overlook when at your local store.

That's too bad, though, because this is a perfect example of why Old World fans claim to like European wines so much; it's a beautifully subtle drink that's heavily influenced by the terrior surrounding it (including what kind of soil it was grown in, and literally what kinds of produce was in the field next to it), unique from most other whites because of being what's called an "aromatic" wine, meaning that it kind of smells like flowers and that you can tell that literally across the room from the bottle in question. Its traditional popularity is tied more to the geographical region of the Alps than it is to any political boundaries; so in other words, Gewurztraminer is mostly well-known in eastern France, southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the northern tip of Italy, and trailing off into the Balkan areas of Croatia and Slovenia, which used to be the extreme western border of Mesopotamia, the ancient region where wine was first invented 20,000 years ago, which is why this particular grape goes so far back in European winemaking history.

Out of all those areas, though, the one place in Europe most known for Gewurztraminer is the Alsace region of France; for those who don't know, this is the eastern tip of that country that butts up against Germany and Switzerland, a land that has exchanged ownership between France and Germany something like 50 times since the Roman era, and thus is this wonderfully perfect cultural blend between the two. That's where I picked up one of the bottles of tonight's tastings, from a winery known as Les Vignerons Reunis de Kientzheim-Kaysersberg; interestingly, the winery itself has no website or other online presence, and like New World wines markets itself through a trendy brand name ("The Furst") and a hipster label by visual artist Dan Steffan, and when a European winery does all this it's a pretty clear sign that they're not taken very seriously in the Old World country where they reside, and that they've decided to instead compete against New World brands for American dollars and mostly export sales. (With this in mind, it's also not surprising that, out of the twenty different types of Alsace Gewurztraminer wines being sold at my neighborhood Binny's, this was literally the only one under $20, with in fact most of the others going in the $75 to $100 range.)

Ah, but! One of the things I've been learning during my research this year is that white wines are much more susceptible to being changed in aroma and taste by the circumstances behind their growth than red wine is; so for at least the next two wines I try (this and Chardonnay), I thought it would be interesting to not only pick up a traditional Old World version but also a New World one from somewhere particularly hot and arid, just to see what kinds of changes I might discover between the two because of it. The New World version I picked up is in fact my second wine from South Africa -- a winery called Paul Cluver, located in a cooler region of the country called Elgin, with an estate that goes all the way back to the late Victorian Age. And I have to say, the cliche about American wine drinkers is true, that we automatically like a wine more when there's an interesting story behind the company that made it; a former beneficiary of apartheid, the enlightened current generation of Cluvers was one of the mentors of the very first black economic empowerment wine brand, Thandi Wines, who has also worked with the South African government to set aside half their large estate to serve as a UN-recognized biosphere (including wandering herds of wild antelope), complete with a 600-seat outdoor amphitheater on the grounds that hosts various popular South African musical groups all summer long. Wow, I want to visit this place!

The head-to-head tastings of these wines did indeed turn out to be remarkably different, so I will leave you today with the detailed tasting notes below. Next week is my tasting of the notoriously crappy Chardonnay, otherwise known as "butter bombs" because of California wineries' tendencies in the 1980s to literally float giant splintered chunks of oak in the juice as it was fermenting; so if you have a recommendation of a particularly great California Chardonnay for me to try, please do drop me a line at ilikejason@gmail.com and let me know!

Les Vignerons Reunis de Kientzheim-Kaysersberg (no website)
“The Furst” Gewurztraminer, 2014
Schlossberg, Alsace, France
13.5% ABV

Look: A clear bright yellow with surprisingly strong legs.

Smell: Befitting its “aromatic wine” status, this has an intensity of smell that hits you all the way across the room when you first open the bottle. It's hard for me to place the aroma, probably because most people compare it to the lychee fruit and I've never had a lychee; it smells sort of weakly citrusy like a grapefruit, but also perfumed like a flower.

Taste: An interestingly unique taste I wasn't expecting; dry despite the perfumy smell, lighter on the tongue than I would've guessed, with the consistency of literally fruit juice and a pleasantly mysterious aspect I have a hard time identifying, almost as if maybe you juiced a watermelon and mixed it with grapes.

Gewurztraminer, 2013
Elgin, South Africa
12.0% ABV

Look: Another clear, bright yellow, this time with many bubbles almost like the head of a beer.

Smell: Like the other Gewurtztraminer, a strong aroma that carries across the room, but this time the much more traditional sour/savory smell I usually associate with New World reds like Malbec and Shiraz.

Taste: So incredibly different than the other Gewurtztraminer – bold, strongly reminiscent of passion fruit (think mango), with a thick consistency that leaves a coating in the mouth, and a powerfully strong oak aftertaste that I usually associate with Chardonnay.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Wine tasting: Sutter Home White Zinfandel, no year listed

An exciting week around here; I'm officially halfway through this first self-taught wine course of 2016* (which I'm doing, to remind you, as part of a New Year's resolution to get better educated about the subject), which means I'm now done with all the ten reds I'll be trying (including Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti/Sangiovese, Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Gamay/Beaujolais, and Cabernet Franc), and am ready to start the ten whites that are left. Or, well, that's not strictly true; because first before I get to the white whites, I'm trying out a pink wine, also known as rosé wine, which yet other people refer to as blush wine.

(*And don't forget, my second self-taught course this year, lasting essentially the entire length of this coming summer, is to teach myself all there is to know specifically about French wines, so please do drop me a line at ilikejason [at] gmail.com with any tips or advice you might have for me. And what will be my autumn tasting project? I'm still looking for suggestions on that too!)

Rosé wines don't come from a specific type of grape (there are rosé versions on the market of numerous reds I've already tried this year), but rather the way they're prepared; because for those who don't know, all grape juice starts out as white when first squeezed out of the fruit, and only becomes red because of it soaking with the grapes' dark skins during the fermentation process, meaning that you can achieve all kinds of different shades of red (and thus different intensities of flavor) depending on how long you let the juice and skins mingle. This is exactly, for example, what the small California family winery Sutter Home started doing with Zinfandel grape juice in the early 1970s, mostly to help intensify the flavor of the juice still left in the vats after dumping some of it, but with a local wine shop convincing the company to bottle up that early-removed juice as well and sell it to their hippie customers; it was first marketed by the company under the name Oeil de Perdrix, but then changed to "White" Zinfandel after complaints from the FDA about misleading advertising.

This would've been the end of the story, except that in 1976 Sutter Home's supply of White Zin experienced what's known as a "stuck fermentation," whereby all the yeast dies out before all the sugar's been completely converted into alcohol; but instead of the disaster they thought they had on their hands, one taste made them realize what a delightful concoction they had accidentally stumbled upon; and it was this super-sweet version that became a runaway hit with the public, eventually turning the small winery into a huge corporate behemoth that now sells tens of millions of cases every year, right at the same time that California's wine industry in general first started receiving worldwide attention, these two facts eventually becoming so cemented in the public mind that they're difficult now to separate them. And sure, you can complain (and many do) about all the downsides to this -- that it produced a cottage industry for super-cheap "alcoholic Kool-Aid" that did no favors to the wine world in general, a type of wine that has no subtlety or complexity and is mostly meant for quick drunkenness on hot summer days -- but if you're a beginner like me who is trying to celebrate the uniqueness that each different type of wine on the market brings to thoughtful tastings like the ones I'm doing in 2016, there's no reason to poo-poo White Zinfandel in particular, despite the rather negative reputation it's picked up over the years from people who are serious about their wine.

Usually with these tastings, I go down to my neighborhood Binny's and try to find something on the shelves that is both relatively cheap and that has a high posted score at places like Wine Spectator or Robert B. Parker; but this time I thought, what the hell, why not try the literal brand of White Zin from Sutter Home that made this such a huge success in the first place, which at $4.50 will also likely be the cheapest tasting I'll do all year. (And also note that at 8.5% ABV, this has roughly half the alcohol as most of the reds I've been tasting this year, yet another reason this kind of wine is so popular among casual drinkers at social events on warm days, which gets cut in half yet again if you mix it half-and-half with seltzer water [known as a "wine spritzer"], a hugely popular way to drink light wines like these.) My detailed notes are below, but in general I found this to be not nearly as bad as its reputation makes it out to be; I mean, make no mistake, it's as sweet as fruit punch and lacks any kind of subtlety at all, but it was certainly enjoyably quaffable in a way that made me nostalgic for my '70s childhood when my countercultural parents and all their friends would drink this by the gallon at summer picnics and barbecues. It's undeniable that there are a lot of better wines on the market besides this, but you shouldn't let that stop you from enjoying a nice bottle of White Zin on a warm August day.

White Zinfandel, no year listed
Napa Valley, California
8.5% ABV

Look: A light pink in color, with the consistency of water.

Smell: An almost sickly sweet aroma when sniffing a still glass, but that gets much more complex and darker after swirling it a bit. (I'm surprised by how different this is from one type of wine to the next; some smell the same no matter what you do to it, while others smell like a completely different wine right after vigorously aerating the glass.)

Taste: An almost entirely sweet taste in the mouth, strongly reminiscent of cherries and strawberries, with a light finish that makes your lips a little sticky afterwards. True to its reputation, there is absolutely no subtlety here; the taste is the same from lips to tongue to throat, with no distinct aftertaste at all. Basically like drinking alcoholic Kool-Aid, and it's easy to see why this caught on so big with people who are otherwise not really into wine (and why this was perfect for 1980s California in particular).

After a Full Glass: After an entire glass paired with a dinner of white fish and asparagus, I unfortunately found the sweetness of the wine to be overwhelming, much like trying to eat dinner and dessert at the exact same time. A good wine to drink by itself, but I don't recommend having it with a meal, or at the very least have it with something hot and spicy.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Wine tasting: Complices de Loire "La petite timonerie" Chinon (100% Cabernet Franc), 2013.

(For all the wine tastings I've done in 2016, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this entry, or just "wine" for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

Greetings again, my libatious friends! For those who need catching up, I'm a writer in Chicago, fulfilling a New Year's resolution to finally get better educated about wine, who has started the process by doing thoughtful tastings once a week of the world's 20 most popular types of grapes, doing the run chromatically from the heaviest reds (which I started right after New Year's in the middle of winter) to the lightest whites (which I'll be getting to at the beginning of May, just in time for the warm weather). So far this year I've now gotten through Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, and Gamay; and that leaves only one red left in this series, the decidedly "Old World" (i.e. European) Cabernet Franc.

Much like last week's Gamay, this was not a type of wine I was very familiar with before going into this tasting series; but unlike Gamay, whose unfamiliarity is due to it instead mostly being known by the region most famous for it (Beaujolais), the reason Cabernet Franc is unfamiliar is that the vast majority of wineries grow it just as a stalwart grape to mix with others, not to bottle on its own and promote as its own varietal. (In fact, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, this is one of the three grapes used for the famous Bordeaux blend of French red wine.) In fact, about the only place that still does so is the ancient Loire Valley region of France, which has actually been making wine since literally the birth of Christ, and in the Medieval Period was much more highly thought of than the upstart Bordeaux region. Reflecting its actual genetic relationship, Cabernet Franc grapes are much like Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in taste (sour/savory, unsweet); but much less intense in aroma, flavor, or its lingering quality, greatly helped by these grapes becoming ripe much earlier than most other reds, cranking up their acidity and thus their tart, citrus-like aftertaste (but see my detailed tasting notes below for more on that).

The winery I tried tonight, Complices de Loire, is based out of the village of Chinon which is considered Ground Zero for fans of Cabernet Franc wine, and actually buys their grapes from eight different respected vineyards around the region, instead of growing their own. (Interestingly, much like you usually only see in trendy New World wines, CdL gives fun little brand names to each of their wines, and makes a concerted effort to produce cool little hipster-looking labels; the wine I tried is known in English either as "Little Pilot" or "Little Wheelhouse," depending on which online translation tool you trust.) This is now my fourth Old World/European wine of this 2016 project (two from France, one from Italy, one from Spain -- and among the New World wines, one from Australia, one from Argentina, one from South Africa, one from Washington State, one from Oregon, and one from California), and while I can definitely see the argument that Old World fans make about why they're fans -- that European wines are more complex, more subtle, more nuanced, because of being grown in temperate regions around a lot of other produce whose traits they pick up -- in general I have to admit that I've liked New World wines much better, grown in hot environments that really cook those grapes and lead to these extremely bold tastes that can't be mistaken for anything else. It'll be especially interesting, then, to start the next educational project I'm doing after this one, where I'm going to spend the whole summer doing thoughtful tastings of as many different kinds of French wine I can get my hands on, literally the oldest of the Old World wines still made in the world, and that really puts the "sub" in "subtle and nuanced flavor."

“La petite timonerie” Chinon 2013 (100% Cabernet Franc)
Chinon, Loire Valley, France
12.5% ABV
$15 (Andersonville Wine and Spirits)

Look: Extremely light in color and texture, the closest I've gotten this year to a legitimately pink wine.

Smell: The same kind of sour/savory aroma as Cabernet Sauvignon, no wonder since these grape types are genetically related, but profoundly in intensity and how far the aroma carries across the room.

Taste: Light on the tongue but an extremely sharp and tart taste, so much like citrus that it makes my mouth water after swallowing, a bit to the wine's detriment if I'm to be honest. A flat-out unsweet taste that will turn off many casual drinkers, I now wonder if this is a reflection of all Cabernet Francs or just this particular brand. Would CERTAINLY go well with cheese or salty snacks, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend drinking it by itself or with a heavy meal like steak. (UPDATE: After further research, I've learned that a historically popular pairing in the Loire Valley is Cabernet Franc and goat cheese, which made immediate sense the moment I read it.)

After a Full Glass: After an entire glass paired with pasta in cream sauce, the more herbal/leafy tastes started coming out on the tongue, a good example of why Old World fans say that European wines have a more “subtle” and “complex” taste than currently trendy New World wines from hotter climates. Also, it was interesting to note after further research that Cabernet Franc is one of the few kinds of contemporary wine that will literally get noticeably better after storing it for ten or twenty years in a cellar; and that it's one of the few kinds of contemporary wine that legitimately gets noticeably better when pouring it into a decanter a full hour before serving. Talk about Old World!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Wine tasting: Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages (Gamay), 2014.

(For all my 2016 wine tastings, click the "wine2016" tag at the end of this entry; or just the "wine" tag for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

Bon mercredi! For those coming by for the first time and need the backstory, I'm a wine neophyte who made a New Year's resolution in 2016 to finally get better educated about the subject; and the first thing I'm doing as part of that education is thoughtful tastings of the world's 20 most popular types of grapes, one a week for 20 weeks, moving chromatically from the darkest reds to the lightest whites (which I'll be getting to right when the weather starts turning warm again in Chicago, which I'm looking forward to). So far since New Year's I've tried Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel and Garnacha/Grenache; and this week I'm trying the Gamay grape for the first time, my second-to-last red wine before starting up on the whites for the first time in March.

Like last week's Grenache, Gamay is a type of wine I had never heard of before taking on this tasting project this year, and it turns out there's a very good reason for that; a staple of "Old World" (i.e. European) fine-wine* since literally the Romans and the pagans came together in France in 600 AD and started making fine-wine in the first place, like many Old World countries France actually labels their wine by the region it came from, not the type of grape used, meaning that every time someone drinks a bottle of the super-trendy Beaujolais style of wine, what they're actually drinking is a bottle full of Gamay juice. That's not the only type of French wine that's made from the grape, and not all Beaujolaises are made from 100 percent Gamay, and France isn't the only place on the planet that grows Gamay (it's become popular in recent years, for example, in the US's Oregon); but the association between Gamay and French Beaujolais wine is so closely linked that you can effectively substitute one word for the other in most cases.

(*And it bears repeating, that we actually have recorded evidence of winemaking going all the way back to the birth of agriculture, ten thousand years ago in the "Fertile Crescent" region of Mesopotamia [making up what we now call Iraq, Turkey, Croatia, and other modern nations], and with there being an entire wine culture in places like ancient Egypt; but the definition of making wine back then was essentially, "Stick the grapes in a jar, let them rot, then drink the juice," resulting in "wine" that you and I would undoubtedly call vinegar instead. It wasn't until the 7th century AD that the pagans and early Christians of Western Europe got interested in making wine in a much more rigorous and better way, assisted by the Roman Empire that was just starting to lose its global influence at that point, which signaled the birth of the kind of "fine wine" we still drink to this day.)

I have to say, Gamay has one of the most interesting histories that I've read so far this year; a favorite among Benedictine monks during the Medieval period, it was famously poo-pooed by a prominent member of the French aristocracy in the 1400s (for being a "poor man's Pinot Noir"), which started its downward slide in popularity that lasted all through the Renaissance (although with a surge again in the late 1800s, when the invention of railroads brought large quantities of Beaujolais to Paris for the first time.)

Ah, but we all know what Beaujolais became so famous for in the 20th century -- the so-called "Beaujolais Nouveau" wines, which after some research I'm realizing is part fact, part savvy marketing. See, unlike a lot of Old World wine back in the early Modern era (1400s to 1800s), which needed to sit in the bottle for five or ten years before it fully ripened into its most flavorful taste (which is where we get the tradition of wine cellars in the first place), Beaujolais wine is both unusually fruity, unusually light, and ripens unusually early, which meant that it was one of the few Old World wines in those years that was meant to be drank immediately after it was bottled. In fact, when the first bottles would start showing up each year in the famous restaurants of nearby Lyon, it became popular to joyfully yell, "Le Beaujolais Est Arrivé!," which was even more cemented with the idea of good times since it coincided with the harvest each year; and starting in the 1960s, some smart salespeople in this region decided to revive this tradition and to sell it as something special to the rest of the world, including the brand-new term "Beaujolais Nouveau," with the French government eventually passing a law that designated a specific day and time each year that bottles around the world could be opened (12:01 am on the third Thursday of November), leading to big parties in the US and Europe among wine novices to herald the famous "wine that must be drank right this moment."

Now, you know, never mind that actually most modern wine is now meant to be drank the moment you buy it -- due to modern science and advances in academic vintner programs, only something like 10 percent of all the wine still made on the planet actually gets better with age -- this was a smart and delightful advertising ploy that eventually led to the region selling tens of millions of bottles each year by the time the 1990s rolled around (including a huge majority of it to Japan, where they do crazy things like fill hot tubs and then bathe in it). Only one problem; in their greed for all that tourist money, the hundreds of wineries in the general Beaujolais region (but more on this in a bit) started releasing really inferior wines to keep up with demand, then got caught in a series of scandals (like illegally adding sugar to their wines behind the backs of government inspectors) that virtually wiped out that area's reputation by the early 2000s. In 2001, in fact, right when all these casual Beaujolais drinkers were first discovering things like South American Malbec and Australian Shiraz, the wineries of this region were forced to destroy literally 1.1 million barrels of unsold Beaujolais Nouveau wine, a huge blow to the area that they still haven't recovered from 15 years later.

Still, though, like every other type of wine these days, there is a core group of dedicated and serious vintners in Beaujolais who are trying to restore their local reputation for quality, and you can largely judge their seriousness based on what kind of Beaujolais they're legally allowed to call themselves on their label: "Beaujolais AOC," for example, can be from any of the 96 small towns making up the Beaujolais region, and is the origin of most of the infamous '90s "vin de merde" (or "shit wine," the term that a local journalist came up with back then to describe his neighbors, and then famously got sued over), while a wine labeled "Beaujolais-Villages" comes from one of a core 30 towns that have been producing such wine for much longer (and have soil with more granite in it, which is thought to improve the wine's flavor), while a "Beaujolais Cru" is the cream of the crop, and can only come from one of ten villages that have proven themselves worthy of the name in the eyes of the law.

The wine I tried tonight is a Beaujolais-Village from Louis Jadot, one of the classic wineries of the area that's been around since the early 1800s. (Their website claims that they're the "number one French wine sold in America," so take that as you will.) The main reason a lot of people like Gamay is that it's basically a much more affordable version of Pinot Noir, and after tasting it I could see what these people mean -- it has a light, fruity touch, a subtle aroma that you have to really stick your nose into to get, and a taste intensity that virtually disappears when you pair it with food, making it much more appropriate for cheese and crackers than for steak and chicken. All in all, I have to admit that I've been underwhelmed by the two Old World wines I've so far tried in 2016; with my preference for things like craft-beer stouts and black coffee, I find myself just naturally drawn more towards the bolder and more "in your face" flavors of such New World wines as Shiraz and Malbec, as well as such darker traditional wines as Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Beaujolais-Villages (100% Gamay), 2014
Southern Beaujolais, France
12.5% ABV

Look: A bright red that easily lets the light through, plus with a distinct magenta glint to the liquid's surface, much like Malbec.

Smell: Much like Chianti, the only other Old World wine I've so far tried this year, this has a uniquely sour and “musty” smell that reminds me of a basement or cellar. Also like Chianti, this wine must be swirled a bit before it will release its full aroma.

Taste: Not nearly as sweet as I thought it was going to be, this has a quite discernable tartness that makes the mouth pucker, reflecting high acidity and undoubtedly why some people call Gamay “the only white wine actually colored red.” A VERY grapey grape taste that leaves a sour, side-tongue feeling in the mouth after swallowing.

After a Full Glass: After an entire glass with some almonds, I realized that, much like the Pinot Noir I tried last month, the flavor of this Beaujolais virtually disappears when pairing it with food.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Wine tasting: Bodegas Borsao's "Monte Oton" Garnacha (Grenache), 2013.

(For all my 2016 wine tastings, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this post, or just the "wine" label for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

Feliz miércoles! For those who need catching up, I'm spending 2016 fulfilling a New Year's resolution to get better educated about wine; and the first thing I'm doing as part of that is detailed tasting reports of the 20 most popular types of grapes on the planet, moving chromatically from the darkest red to the lightest white, and choosing a region of the globe each time that happens to be particularly well-known for that particular type of grape. Since New Year's I've done tastings of Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Merlot and (Red) Zinfandel; and tonight I tried one of the last reds on my list, known in its native Spain as Garnacha but by most of the rest of the world by its French name, Grenache, which I must admit is the first type of wine I've tried this year that I hadn't already heard of before 2016.

And it turns out that there's a very good reason for this; for although this grape has been grown by "fine wine" vintners since at least the 1100s, it's what's traditionally known as an "unstable" grape, with a lot of sugar but thin skin, which only ripens very late in the growing season and only in areas that see very hot days, and with a distinct lack of acid, tannin or even bright colors during most of its general harvesting. It's for this reason that Garnacha is mostly used as a "blending" grape with other types of more famous "noble" grapes; so in other words, when a wine is legally labeled "Cabernet Sauvignon" but is actually only 95 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, that last five percent is usually Garnacha grapes, since a vintner never knows from one year to the next whether that year's Garnacha harvest is going to be particularly great or particularly terrible. And since Garnacha harvests can so often come out as only mediocre, this is also one of the main grapes that are used in such "fortified" wines like sherry and port; for those who don't know, that's wine that's been mixed with hard liquor like brandy, a tradition that started with the British during the Napoleonic Wars so that the wine they were bringing back from allied countries like Spain and Portugal in the 1700s would last for the long sail back to the UK without going rotten.

Oh, but don't say any of this to a Spaniard; for Garnacha wine is a long and proud tradition there in the northeastern "Aragón" section of that country, which in fact goes all the way back to the Borgia family there ("Borja" in Spanish), an old Medieval kingdom that once extended all the way to Sardinia, Sicily, and Italy itself, from which Henry VIII's wife Catherine of Aragon hailed. (In fact, locals in the Aragón region literally refer to themselves as the "Empire of Garnacha.") Like so many of these "minor" grapes around the world, Garnacha for centuries was mostly valued for the cheap "jug" wine drank by blue-collar locals, the same fate of this grape when it was introduced to both Australia and California in the early 20th century; but also much like such maligned grapes in other parts of the world, there are a small but dedicated and passionate group of "craft vintners" in Spain these days that are determined to make Garnacha into the standalone non-blended popular varietal it deserves to be, and in fact I must confess that out of all the wines I've now tried in 2016, Spanish Garnacha has had more articles written about it in hipster wine blogs than any other, the closest I've come so far this year to stumbling across the "next big thing" among wine enthusiasts.

Bodegas Borsao, the winery that made tonight's wine, has an interesting story; although people have been growing grapes on their land since the 12th century (originally monks under the employ of the Borgias), the company itself has only existed since the 1950s, and even more interestingly it is a cooperative corporation, not a family-run business but one literally co-owned by over 600 different shareholders. Unlike a lot of other European wineries, Bodegas Borsao exports a whopping 80 percent of all their bottles to other countries, mostly in America; and that's why their wine has a trendy "brand name" (Monte Oton) instead of going by the grape type, and why their labels have this fun little graphic design, specifically to appeal to the American hipster crowd. And finally, it's worth noting that, at eight bucks a bottle but with a Robert B. Parker score of 89 (out of 100), this is very easily the best bargain I've come across this year for high-regarded "fine wine;" in fact, this is the main reason to even drink wines from this small but dedicated group of "craft wine" aficionados in northeastern Spain, in that they are producing bottles that are getting the same kinds of scores from professionals as more well-known brands of Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, but for literally one-third the price.

"Monte Oton" Garnacha, 2013
Borja City, Zaracoza, Spain (Moncayo region, Aragón)
14.5% ABV
Robert B. Parker score: 89

Look: A deep and highly opaque red that barely lets light shine through, with a distinct brown glint to the liquid's surface, a traditional trait of Grenache.

Smell: An intense and sour/savory aroma much like Malbec or Shiraz, but not as intense and that doesn't carry as far in the air.

Taste: An interesting taste on the tongue -- not quite as sour and dark as Shiraz, Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon, but not quite as sweet as Zinfandel or Pinot Noir -- with a lighter finish than comparable reds of the same color intensity, although still stronger than Pinot Noir. Interestingly, this also has a more distinct aftertaste than any other wine I've tried this year, a lasting sweetness almost like candy (think of the taste of a Jolly Roger each time you take a swallow while having one in your mouth). Not a bad wine at all; but lacking any of the distinct traits of the other wines I've tried this year (for better or for worse), I suppose this is what tasting veterans would call an "unremarkable" wine, which makes it easy to see why this is primarily used as a blender for other more famous grapes, and is not often marketed as its own varietal.

After a Full Glass: After having a full glass with a dinner of couscous and vegetables, I realized that the taste of this Garnacha actually disappears into the food just as thoroughly as Merlot or Pinot Noir, which is unusual for a wine with this much alcohol. This makes me realize that, at eight bucks, this is an EXCELLENT wine to serve with food, as compared to the former varietals which can easily cost two to three times as much for a bottle that scores as high with the professionals as this.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Wine tasting: "Cigar Zin" old vine Zinfandel, 2012.

(For all my 2016 wine tastings, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this entry, or just "wine" for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

Welcome, new readers! To get you quickly caught up: One of my New Year's resolutions for 2016 was to finally get better educated about wine, which dovetails nicely with two of my other resolutions (to start throwing more dinner parties at my apartment, and to do more intellectual and creative things simply for the sake of being intellectual and creative). I'm starting the process by trying wines from around the world made out of a total of 20 different types of popular grapes, moving my way chromatically from the darkest red to eventually the lightest white; so far this year I've been through Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinoir Noir, Chianti and Merlot, which means this week I'm finally ready to try the uber-popular Zinfandel for the first time!

And make no mistake, despite its "bubba" reputation among wine aficionados, Zinfandel is still far and away one of the most popular types of wine in America in the 2010s (especially among consumers of low-end "jug" wine), and constitutes an entire ten percent of all the wine made in the entire state of California. In fact, Zinfandel is known as the grape that "made" the California wine industry, albeit through an interesting turn of events in the 1980s; see, this high-sugar, thin-skinned grape does only so-so in the hot California climate (some years see great harvests, some see terrible ones), which led the owner of Sutter Home Winery in one of these bad years to ferment the grape juice with the skins for just a tiny amount of time before removing them, resulting in a light, highly sweet pink wine that he called "White Zinfandel" (ironically because the Food and Drug Administration forced him to, lest he be accused of false advertising*).

[*And even more ironically, although this grape was touted as a "California native" breed when that industry was being bolstered in the '80s, it turns out that this is merely a child of Italy's Primitivo breed of grapes; which even more ironically turns out to not be from Italy at all, but rather from the Croatian region of the "Fertile Crescent" area of Mesopotamia where the act of making wine was first invented seven thousand years ago.]

It's this White Zinfandel that's much more popular than the dark red Zinfandel I tried tonight, with mine in particular being a batch from the treasured "old vines" that miraculously survived Prohibition; but make no mistake, plain ol' Zinfandel (or Red Zinfandel as some people call it) is not the sickly sweet pink concoction we normally think of when we hear this term, but rather a bold and fruity dark red much more akin to Cabarnet Sauvignon. In fact, the wine I tried tonight was specifically branded "Cigar Zin" as a marketing ploy, in order to invoke other such masculine treats as cigars and steaks, although unfortunately the Cigar Zin website is out of date and doesn't contain much information about the company, a real shame since half the pleasure of these tastings is learning about fascinating wineries scattered across the globe. By the way, the White Zinfandel is coming -- it's fourth on the list from now, after Grenache, Cabernet Franc and Garnay -- and given how many notoriously mediocre brands of it are out there now, I'd love your advice on an actual excellent White Zinfandel to try for my tasting. Send it my way to ilikejason@gmail.com, with my thanks!

“Old Vine” Zinfandel, 2012
Sonoma, California
14.9% ABV

Look: The brightest red I've so far tried this year, catching the light magnificently.

Smell: I suspect that what we feel about the aroma of a wine is the aspect most influenced by what other people tell us; for example, after I read that the makers of Cigar Zin named it that as a marketing ploy to match it in people's heads with other “masculine” treats as steaks and cigars, sure enough this wine started seeming to have traces of cigar and steak as part of its aroma. Apart from that, though, this smelled basically like the other deep reds I've tried this year, with a strong aroma of “not-sweet sweet” fruits like blackberries.

Taste: Although this looks and smells like the deep reds I've tried this year like Shiraz and Malbec, it tastes a lot different – a much sweeter and lighter taste than its aroma and look would make you think. It also goes down the throat delightfully smoothly, with almost no hint of tannins whatsoever, and kind of tastes like licking out the semi-solidified remains of an old jar of homemade jam. A big surprise, which I'm assuming at this point is a reflection of Zinfandel grapes having such a higher sugar content than other comparable deep red grapes.

After a Full Glass: After having an entire glass with a plate of pasta, I realized that this wine leaves a tingling sensation in the back of the mouth/top of the throat with each drink, which I believe is the result of it being the most alcoholic wine I've so far tried in 2016 (and at 15 percent, likely the highest I'll ever try this year). Unlike the Merlot I tried in my last tasting, this held its uniqueness quite well against the spicy Cajun pasta I had paired with it.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Wine tasting: Charles Smith's "The Velvet Devil" Merlot, 2013.

(For all the wines I've tried in 2016, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this entry, or simply "wine" for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

So the rainbow of wine tastings here in 2016 continue apace; working my way since New Year's from the heaviest to lightest of twenty famous grape types, I've now tried Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chianti, which means this week it's finally time for Merlot! As most people know, Merlot has been far and away the most popular type of red wine for the last several decades, and for good reason; it features the bold colors and tastes of wines much darker than it, but delivers a much smoother and less tannic taste (due to the grapes being lighter-skinned than other deep red grapes, which then ripen and are picked earlier in the year). It goes with just about every type of food you can imagine, can grow in pretty much any region of the world, and is essentially the wine most people turn to when asked to bring a bottle of red to a dinner party.

Since there's no one particular region particularly well-known for Merlot, I decided to go with a Washington State winery today, Charles Smith Wines which has a fascinating history. (The owner, who seems to be around the same age as me, spent a decade as a rock-band manager in Europe in his youth; then after moving to Seattle in the '90s and opening a wine store there, he got the bug to start making his own, eventually winning accolades from a whole series of industry publications.) Like many "New World" wines, this is known by a cute brand name ("The Velvet Devil") instead of by its grape type, with a sharp little label designed by award-winning Danish graphic designer Rikke Korff.

“The Velvet Devil” Merlot, 2013
Columbia Valley, Washington
13.5% ABV
Wine Advocate rating: 87

Look: A deep and bright purple that looks almost identical to the darker reds I tried earlier this year; apparently this is a hallmark of Washington State Merlot, with wine from other areas having not quite as deep a color.

Smell: Significantly less intense than the darker reds I've so far tried this year, a delicate aroma with a hint of sourness.

Taste: A smooth and soft taste like the Pinot Noir I tried a few weeks ago, but with more of a bite than it, containing a strong flavor of such “semi-sweet sweet” fruits as cherries and with just a hint of oak. With almost no taste of tannins at all, and with lots of acid that make the lips tingle, this goes down as easily as a typical glass of white, making it easy to see why this is the red wine of choice for people who don't normally enjoy red wine.

Friday, January 22, 2016

New diet recipe: Salmon Pan Bagnat.

(For all the recipes I've posted in 2016, click the "recipes2016" label at the bottom of this entry; or just "recipes" for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

New diet recipe! This is a "pan bagnat," a specific type of sandwich that originally became famous in Nice, France, in which a helping of salad nicoise is placed inside a hollowed-out roll and sat aside for awhile to soak in the juices. In my case I substituted salmon for tuna, and left out the hardboiled egg. 250 calories for each sandwich you're seeing!

Serves 4

.3 cup chopped red onion
2 tbsp chopped olives
1 tbsp lemon juice
Pinch of salt and pepper
6 oz (1 can) tuna or salmon
1 hardboiled egg, chopped
.25 cup sliced basil
2 tsp olive oil
1 large baguette
1 garlic clove, cut in half
1 cup sliced tomato

Combine first seven ingredients; combine basil and oil in separate bowl. Cut baguette in half, then scoop out insides. Rub cut garlic over cut sides of bread then discard. Drizzle basil mixture over insides of bread, then spoon in tuna mixture. Add tomato slices. Wrap finished sandwich in saran wrap and let sit for at least a half-hour.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Wine tasting: Renzo Masi's "Fattoria di Basciano" Chianti, 2012.

(For all the wine tastings I've done in 2016, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this post, or simply "wine" for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

So to give new readers a brief recap: One of my New Year's resolutions this year is to get better educated about wine (which dovetails nicely with two other resolutions, to finally start throwing dinner parties at my apartment regularly, and to start doing more creative and intellectual things simply for the sake of being creative and intellectual); so the first thing I'm doing as part of this education, which will last approximately the first four months of this year, is making my way through a rainbow of 20 different popular wine types, and doing them in order from the darkest reds to the lightest whites, each time picking wineries from areas that are particularly well-known for that particular type of wine. (After that, a couple of months of learning just about French wines, which should be interesting; and if you have a suggestion for a topic for me to take on after that, by all means drop me a line at ilikejason@gmail.com and let me know!)

I've already been through Shiraz* (from Australia), Malbec (from Argentina), Cabernet Sauvignon (from South Africa) and Pinot Noir (from the US's Washington State); and tonight, Chianti! (And yes, in answer to your question I know you're already asking, it is federal law that lazy journalists must always refer to Silence of the Lambs when writing cheesy "Wine 101" guides to Chianti.) Chianti is the first "Old World" wine that I've tried this year, which is another way of saying "European" (seriously, that's all those terms mean -- "Old World" means European wine, "New World" means "everywhere else on the planet"); and like many Old World wines, the word "Chianti" doesn't refer to a type of grape (most Chiantis are made primarily of Sangiovese grapes, most often blended with a small amount of local grapes), but rather a region in Europe, in this case the Chianti region of Italy whose most famous cities are Florence and Pisa. (Chianti is actually a small section of the much larger and more famous "Tuscany" region of Italy, and for many years the word on wine labels referred to just that tiny section of Tuscany; but in 1932, crazy ol' Mussolini expanded the definition of "Chianti wine" to include most of Tuscany itself, a definition that still exists to this day. If you want to get highly particular about what kind of Chianti you're drinking, wine from the original Chianti boundaries is known as "Chianti Classico," and is legally the only type of Italian wine allowed to include a black rooster on their label; the wine I tried tonight is "Chianti Rufina," from a little valley immediately northeast of Florence.)

*And some bad news to report -- in an attempt to delete an extra posting of my Shiraz tasting, the very first wine I tried this year, through my buggy Blogspot user interface, I accidentally deleted both postings so that it no longer exists. I do have my original tasting notes about the wines themselves, though, so maybe one day I'll get around to rewriting the blog post about the subject. Now that I've started getting really active again with my Blogspot blog this year, in fact, I've come to realize that their user interface is really buggy, in a way that it used to not be; makes me wonder just how much support Google is giving to this platform anymore, and whether I should maybe move this entire blog to a place like Medium or WordPress or Tumblr.)

Let's just admit it, that Chianti has suffered a major blow in reputation in the last few decades; originally a highly respected local variety that goes back hundreds of years (like so many now-famous European wines), Italy cranked up its production to massive proportions after World War Two in order to stimulate their economy, eventually becoming famous in America in the Mid-Century Modernist years for its distinctive straw baskets served on red-and-white checkered tablecloths (the literal origin of these American stereotypes for "Italian restaurant"). And while this was enough to make Chianti the most popular red wine in America during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the sloppy quality of their unregulated industry caused the entire region to suffer a huge backlash among American wine lovers starting in the 1980s, as both US drinkers became a lot more refined and the California wine industry suddenly became a world-class one. It's a backlash that still continues to this day, but be aware that most vintners in Chianti are now much like the professionals in New World countries; dedicated to bringing quality back to their much maligned community, that is, including a trend to make modern Chiantis almost entirely out of Sangiovese grapes so to better advertise their "purity."

My tasting notes below are from a few days ago when I first tried the wine, so will repeat a few things I've mentioned here in my recap; but in particular I wanted to mention again how funny it was to taste Chianti for the first time and realize that this smells and tastes exactly like the ideal I've always had in my head of "how wine should smell and taste," undoubtedly a result of being a child in the 1960s and '70s when Chianti was still the go-to red wine for American dinner parties among all my hippie parents and their friends. It was also interesting to try Old World wine for the first time in 2016, and to realize why Old World fans say that European wines are so much more "refined" than New World; since European grapes grow in generally a much cooler climate than the most famous regions of New World wine (such as California, South America, Australia and South Africa), the flavors of Old World wines are less "in your face" and thus more nuanced and complicated. But then again, it's easy to understand why the general wine-buying public has been turning more and more to New World wines recently to begin with; because you have to have a refined palette and some education in order to appreciate refined wines for what they are, while New World wines are much more akin to such modern developments as craft beers and dark roast coffees, a thing to enjoy just unto itself and not necessarily because it "pairs" well with food. An interesting schism to say the least, and I must admit that I don't know enough about wines yet to have a strong opinion one way or another.

Chianti Rufina (95% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino), 2012
Rufina, Italy
13.5% ABV
Wine Advocate rating: 90

Look: A strong dark purplish-red like the other wines I've so far tried this year, only more transparent and easier to catch the light. Liquid surface displays the same magenta glint as Malbec.

Smell: It's funny that Chianti was known as the defacto “red wine” in America during the Mid-Century Modernist years, because so far in my 2016 tastings, this smells more like my definition of “what wine smells like” than any other wine I've tried, clearly a reflection of being around so many bottles of Chianti in my childhood in the 1960s and '70s. An extremely strong musty smell that reminds me of a suburban home's basement, which I'm coming more and more to realize is the same thing that wine lovers call an “oaky” smell, the result of the wine being aged for an extra-long time in a subterranean cellar within oak barrels (over a year in this case).

Taste: Thick like the other dark reds I've tried this year, but definitely sweeter and lighter than the Shirazes, Malbecs and Cabaret Sauvignons, with the kind of “mid-sweet sweet” you might find in a fruit like cherries (versus the “not-sweet sweet” of something like Shiraz, reminiscent of blackberries). Less intense a flavor as well, something that in general just goes down a lot easier than most of the other dark reds I've tried this year; this is in fact my first Old World wine of 2016, and it's easy to see why Old World fans call wines like these a more nuanced and complicated flavor than the out-and-out brashness of New World wines.

After a Full Glass: After having an entire glass with a dinner of chicken and vegetables, it's easy to see why so many people prefer the more “refined” taste of an Old World wine with food, because the uniqueness of this Chianti almost entirely disappeared while eating, as if I was literally having a glass of flavored water instead. I have to admit, though, as someone who loves the so-called “harshness” of things like black coffee and stout beer, I already find myself starting to gravitate more towards the bold nature of New World wines (featuring grapes grown in generally much hotter temperatures than Europe, and thus display a much more intense flavor).

More: The winery's website describes this wine as having an aroma of “violets,” which after the fact I realize is an excellent way of describing an Old World wine like this versus a New World wine – an Old World wine is delicate like a flower, at its most enjoyable when you yourself can appreciate subtle things (and have the education to detect the subtlety).

*And a piece of trivia – this was my first wine of 2016 to come bottled with an actual real cork, versus an artificial cork or simply no cork at all (i.e. a screw-on top), a BIG feature of hipster wineries who take more of their cues off craft breweries than off traditional European vintners.