February 2010

The Waterbrook Chardonnay 2007, from Washington’s Columbia Valley, is completely delightful, but it’s intriguing also — at least to geeky ol’ me –for its unique oak regimen.

Forty percent of the wine is fermented in barrels, 60 percent in stainless steel tanks; after fermentation, the wine ages eight months in a combination of half Hungarian oak barrels, 40 percent American oak and 10 percent French oak; only 25 percent of the barrels are new. Obviously a great deal of thought went into this process and these proportions — Waterbrook winemaker is John Freeman — and I have to say that in 25 years and seven months of writing about wine, I don’t recall ever encountering this scenario before. Perhaps it contributes to the wine’s seductive balance and harmony, its gentle spiciness and lovely resonance. Oh, there’s 1.5 percent sauvignon blanc in the wine, too, a device that I assume nudges up the pronounced floral element.

Floral the Waterbrook Chardonnay 2007 certainly is, with notes of honeysuckle and jasmine wreathed around scents of green apple, grapefruit and orange rind and a middle tone of limestone. This is a juicy chardonnay, ripe with classic pineapple-grapefruit flavors shot through with mango and touches of baking spice and lightly buttered toast, these myriad effects knitted by vibrant acidity and a finish of damp stones. Perfectly charming. Very Good+. About $15.

A sample for review.

Every January, food magazines and newspaper food sections come out with stories about “new,” healthier, sustainable, non-grease-bomb snacks for nibbling while watching two Super Bowl football teams destroy each other in mud, blood and gore on large-screen televisions. But come on, guys, we all know what you’re going to be scarfing down: fiery-hot fried chicken wings with vats of blue cheese dressing; nachos dripping with melted cheese and sour cream studded with ground beef, refried beans and sliced jalapeno peppers; slabs of barbecue ribs slathered with spicy sauce; tortilla chips dipped into mouth-searing salsas; pigs-in-blankets, fer gawd’s sake!

In keeping with the kick-ass tradition of Super Bowl snack food, I offer a roster of kick-ass red wines that will nestle in there amongst your manliness and man the barricades of Guydom Snack Food.

Let’s start with the Penley Estate Hyland Shiraz 2006, Coonawarra, a smoking depth-charge of a wine that smells and tastes like roasted meat, bacon fat, wet dog, black pepper and intensely rich and ripe black and red currants and plums. To give you some idea of this wine’s bragging rights, we drank it last night with flank steak tacos; I slathered the meat with chili powder, chipotle powder, ground cumin, adobo seasoning (onion, garlic, pepper, Mexican oregano, cumin, cayenne pepper) and mapuche spice from Chile, a mixture of cacho de cabra chilies and coriander seeds, let it meditate on its worthiness for four hours and then seared it in a cast-iron skillet. Woo-hoo! The alcohol level is 15 percent, but you can handle it. Excellent. About $19 to $21.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.

Or to stay in the Antipodes, try the Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2007, South Australia, a Platonic model of gravel-like minerality, smoke, gritty tannins and pumped-up black and red currants with a rooty, feral tang. Don’t let that touch of rose petals in the bouquet bother you. The blend is 67 percent shiraz, 33 percent grenache. Excellent. About $19 to $21.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa Cal.

Also from the Southern Hemisphere, but from the opposite side of the wide Pacific, comes the Trapiche Broquel Bonarda 2006, made from 100 percent bonarda grapes grown in Argentina’s Mendoza region. This intriguing wine, which ages a year in new French and American oak, is dark, dry, spicy and a little exotic, a little black leathery; its compelling black and red cherry and black currant flavors wrap cozily around a core of sassafras and orange rind, smoked ancho chilies and bittersweet mocha with a poignant fillip of fresh cracked pepper. Zowie! Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

Shifting briefly to Europe, we have the Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2007, from Sicily. Boy, this is one smoky, spicy, tarry, exotic and robust red wine for drinking with full-flavored, hearty food. Flavors of ripe red and black currants and plums are bolstered by cloves and bitter chocolate, by some rooty, earthy tea-like element, by notes of wild berry and slightly shaggy tannins. The wine is so engaging and lively that it practically vibrates in the glass. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain at $13 to $15.
Imported by Vin Divino, Chicago.

The rest of these, to set your patriotic minds at rest, were made in the U.S.A., that is, if you consider California part of the country.

“Robust” scarcely begins to describe the rustic, bumptious Seven Artisans Petite Sirah 2007, from California’s Suisun Valley. This is a dusty, dusky wine whose grainy tannic nature is matched blow by blow with ripe, juicy black fruit flavors and resonant acidity. Smoke and ash circulate in the depths, along with hints of lead pencil of granite-like intensity, dried porcini, crushed ancho chilies and a touch of dried cranberries. Potent and sort of charming in its muscularity. Very Good+ About $18.

No, bullshit, readers, the Turnbull “Old Bull” 2006, Oakville, Napa Valley, is as solid as a lineman’s biceps and as
supple as a quarterback’s thighs. It took a buffet of grapes to get the job done here — merlot (44%), tempranillo (18%), sangiovese (16%), cabernet sauvignon (9%), barbera (6%), cabernet franc (5%) and syrah (2%). The wine is packed with dusty tannins, dusty spice, dusty macerated black fruit and dusty minerals; yep, it’s a dusty wine, all right, which is a reflection of its profound earthy character and fathomless structure. The fruit holds up, though, and in addition to the wine’s emphasis on structure, it’s downright lip-smackin’ delicious. Very Good+. I paid $24 for this wine, but the suggested price is $20.

We drank the X Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley, with pork chops smacked with chili powder and cumin, seared in olive oil with garlic, and then baked for about 10 minutes, so you understand its potential for standing up to a tray of chicken wings. Boy, this is one dense and chewy cabernet — with 10 percent merlot and 2 percent petit verdot — that flaunts intense and concentrated black currant and black cherry flavors permeated by smoky potpourri, cedar and tobacco, a woodsy, autumnal dried moss element and immense reserves of dusty tannins and gravel-like minerals. Lots of character for the price. 672 cases. Excellent. About $25.

The Real Bargain of these eight wines is the St. Francis Red 2006, Sonoma County, a blend of merlot (48%), cabernet sauvignon (28%), syrah (10%), zinfandel (3%) and the mysterious category of “mixed blacks” for 6%. There are truckloads of personality in this hearty, dark, boldly spiced and flavorful wine that partakes of fleshy roasted elements, macerated black currants, black cherries and plums and enough dusty, earthy tannins for whole pallets of wine. Nothing complicated here, but an engaging, slightly rock-ribbed quaff to buy by the case. Very Good+. About $10.

Except for the Turnbull “Old Bull” 2006, these were sample wines submitted for review.

Thanks to these sources of images:
Football: msg.com
Nachos: utopiankitchen.com
Barbecue ribs: bbq-ribs.com
Pigs in Blankets: girlofwords.com
Chicken wings: eldoradobbq.com

In our rather desultory efforts to try different brews, we have been enjoying the products of Samuel Smith’s Brewery in Yorkshire, founded in 1758 and the only independent brewery remaining in that northern county in England. I wrote about Samuel Smith’s Lager and Winter Welcome Ale at the end of November, but today I want to mention the company’s Oatmeal Stout, made not only from the traditional malted barley but from oats, which Dr. Johnson wittily and disparagingly defined in his dictionary as a “grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.” What, did the Great Lexicographer never indulge in a comforting bowl of hot oatmeal with brown sugar and milk? (Or, as LL consumes it, with milk and salt and butter?)

Anyway, we were quite taken with Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. I popped the lid on an 18.7-ounce “Victorian pint” bottle, perfect for two to share at lunch, when I was rewarming (a few days later) a pot of the blackeyed peas, smoked hog jowl and turnip greens prepared on New Year’s. The stout is the blackest of black ambers, as opaque as motor oil, though the generous head is a lovely pale ivory color. Flavors of smoky toffee, rye bread, spiced walnuts and soy-glazed roast beef finish with resounding rooty bitterness, like some medicinal tea concocted by hooded monks in 1143 or thereabouts. The earthiness of the stout, its fleshiness and hint of sweetness worked beautifully with the immensely savory blackeyed peas.

Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout runs $4.59 to $4.99 at specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods or Fresh Market.
Imported by Merchant du Vin, Tukmila, Wash.

We were having swordfish, a great fish to cook at home because it’s so easy, and LL made a smoked tomato sauce to go with it. With swordfish, the requirement is to cook it carefully and briefly, so it doesn’t dry out. You douse it with salt, pepper and lemon juice before searing or get a bit fancier and marinate it in lime juice, minced fresh ginger and garlic and a bit of soy sauce and white wine (or mirin). The point is to sear it on each side for a couple of minutes, so it’s a little crusty on the outside and just beyond rare at the center.

For the smoked tomato sauce, you start by lining a heavy pot with a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Make sure that the lid still fits on the pot tightly. Drop a handful of wood grilling chips, like mesquite or hickory or grapevines, on the bottom of the pot and set a grid of some kind over them, (to hold the tomatoes), put the lid on and turn the burner to high. Let those wood chips start smoking and then put quartered Roma tomatoes on the grid and replace the lid on the pot. When the tomatoes are nicely smoked, put them in a food processor with some olive oil and puree until smooth. Voila! Smoked tomato sauce. It’s pretty damned heady and flavorful, and it made a great accompaniment to the swordfish. On the plate here is also a medley of braised broccoli, turnips and roasted red peppers.

A couple of nights later, we used the smoked tomato sauce on meat loaf, which pepped up the flavor, and that weekend, for the Pizza-and-Movie-Night pizza, I used what was left of the smoked tomato sauce as the base for the pizza ingredients, which included slices of fresh tomatoes and a julienne of dried tomatoes, as well as marinated mushrooms, black olives and chopped salami. Yep, it was one of the good ones.

With all of these meals, we drank wines from V. Sattui Winery, a Napa Valley institution that sells its products only at the tasting room south of St. Helena or by mail order through the winery’s website. The company was founded in San Francisco in 1885 by the merchant Vittorio Sattui; 90 years later, Vittorio’s great-grandson Dario re-established the business at its present site, conceiving the unique idea of not selling the wines to wholesalers or restaurants. V. Sattui makes about 40,000 cases of wine annually, comprising 45 different wines. The company owns 230 acres, mainly in the Napa Valley, and also sources grapes from vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Amador, Lodi and Mendocino counties. Winemaker is Brooks Painter. You can’t miss V. Sattui from Highway 29. It’s an extensive Italianate compound with winery, tasting facilities, picnic grounds and a store that sells all sorts of ready-to-eat foods as well as more than 200 cheeses.

With the swordfish, we tried the V. Sattui White Riesling 2008, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Made all in stainless steel, this exhilarating riesling offers a touch of sweetness on the entry, but that factor is easily balanced with crisp acidity and a prominent limestone element. Aromas of green apple and spiced pear are woven with hints of honeysuckle and roasted lemon, while in the mouth, a texture poised between the spareness of acid and minerality and the slight lushness of ripe peach and pear flavors is highly pleasing. The wine finishes with a touch of grapefruit austerity. 607 cases produced. Excellent. About $24.

With the meat loaf, we drank the V. Sattui Preston Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, which blends a dollop of Carneros merlot with the cabernet from a well-known Rutherford vineyard. This is a terrific old-fashioned Napa cabernet, sinewy and muscular but bursting with black currant and black cherry flavors and hints of cedar, bell pepper, tobacco and baking spices. It’s actually pretty sleek, with polished oak and smooth tannins providing framework and a little resistance — you feel that slight gravity of the tannins — but no interference to the fruit. Balance and integration are everything here, with each element eloquently making its case. 2,934 cases produced. Excellent. About $45.

Finally, well-matched with the pizza, was the V. Sattui Crow Ridge Zinfandel 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. The 94-year-old vines include, as is typical of Sonoma County zinfandel vineyards planted a century or more ago, a field blend of other varieties, including carignane, petite sirah and alicante bouschet, each represented here by a smidgeon. Again, this is a gratifyingly old-fashioned zinfandel in which the blackberry, black currant and plum flavors are twined with notes of black pepper, briers and brambles. It’s profoundly earthy and layered with granite-like mineral elements, yet, as with the Preston Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, this Crow Ridge Zinfandel 2007 embodies an innate sense of balance among fruit and essential acidity, tannin and wood — 15 percent new American oak, 20 percent new French oak and the rest used barrels up to five years old. The alcohol level is 15 percent, but there’s nothing hot or overbearing or over-ripe about this wine. It’s a little shaggy, a little foresty, completely authentic and mainly delicious. 702 cases. Excellent. About $33.

Samples for review; further blandishments included small samples of three cheeses to pair with the wines.

I’ve been meaning to make the Morgan Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Monterey County, a Wine of the Week for, well, weeks now, but finally this week is, well, the week.

As far as quality/price ratio is concerned, Morgan’s Sauvignon Blanc is habitually one of the Bargains of the Cosmos. For 2008, the wine is a blend of 86 percent sauvignon blanc (including a large percentage of the fragrant musqué clone) and 14 percent semillon. The wine ferments in stainless steel and then 85 percent is transferred to French oak, only 8 percent of that new oak. This careful regimen results is an intensely floral and spicy sauvignon blanc with a suave, almost cushy texture balanced by stirring, crisp acidity — marching feet, flags waving and so on — and a flinty, shale-like element. The bouquet weaves lime and grapefruit, green pea and a hint of bell pepper with seductive notes of jasmine and orange blossom. The citrus character increases in the mouth, while a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of dried thyme and grass and a touch of semillon-inspired leafy-fig. Terrific with shrimp risotto. Excellent. About $15.

Schramsberg’s two flagship sparkling wines, the Schramsberg Reserve and the J. Schram, have just been released in their manifestations of vintage 2002. Since they cost the same amount — $105 a bottle — it’s instructive to look at the differences and similarities between them, both in subtleties and broad strokes.

J. Schram 2002 is not quite a blanc de blancs; it’s a blend of 83 percent chardonnay and 17 percent pinot noir. Schramsberg Reserve 2002 is not exactly a blanc de noirs; it’s a blend of 75 percent pinot noir and 25 percent chardonnay. Each wine ages for five years and nine months on the yeast in the bottle in which it will be sold; this is, of course, the “champagne method” of second fermentation in the bottle to produce the essential bubbles and build character and complexity. These sparkling wines receive an additional year’s aging in the bottle after they are disgorged and capped.

Following the winery’s usual policy of drawing on vineyards from Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties, the Schramsberg Reserve 2002 and J. Schram 2002 carry North Coast designations. There’s an interesting contrast, though: With its emphasis on chardonnay, the J. Schram ’02 derives primarily from Napa (56%) and Sonoma (21%); the Schramberg Reserve ’02, however, with its 75% pinot noir, draws mainly from Napa (45%) and Mendocino (33%). The Napa and Sonoma components are from the Carneros district.

What about the winemaking process? The grapes for J. Schram ’02 are 35 percent barrel-fermented, meaning that 65 percent is fermented in stainless steel tanks; for Schramsberg Reserve ’02, the proportion is 45 percent barrel-fermented, 44 percent in stainless steel. Only small portions of the wines go through the malolactic process in order to ensure the crisp acidity necessary for sparkling wine but also to provide some lushness in texture.

So, blah, blah, blah, this is all technical crap and your eyes are glazing over, but what I find interesting is that the two sparkling wines are made in close to identical manner, the primary differences between the products being not what happens in the winery but in the nature and proportion of the grapes themselves. With the blending of grapes in varying percentages from four counties, dominated by Napa Carneros, it’s obvious that winemaker Hugh Davies is not attempting to create a regional identity, and certainly not a narrower appellation identity, but a consistent and expressive house style, as is generally the case with the large houses in Champagne.

So, how does this philosophy and practice translate into the bottle and your glass?

The J. Schram 2002 — remember, 83% chardonnay, 17% pinot noir — offers wonderful presence, tone and body; this is a sparkling wine with plenty of there there. The color is an almost immoderate gold with pale silver highlights and myriad tiny swirling bubbles. Scents of roasted hazelnuts, fresh biscuits, buttered cinnamon toast and orange zest twine with baking spice and an undeniable damp limestone element, like rain on gravel. It’s large-framed, substantial, dignified and earthy, jazzed by scintillating acidity and minerality in a texture that’s both crisp and supple. Massively dry and adroitly confident, this sparkling wine is no light-hearted aperitif; sip with grilled shrimp, gravlox, lobster salad or a seafood risotto. 973 cases. Excellent. About $105.

The pale gold/platinum blond Schramsberg Reserve 2002 — 75% pinot noir, 25% chardonnay — takes the opposite tack toward the ethereal and the elegant; this is the essence of liquid limestone set to an upward drift of bubbles in stately polonaise. This sparkling wine delivers Schramsberg’s typical yeasty, bready aromas but laced with scents of dried red currants, orange zest and crystallized ginger. It’s quite dry but luscious and slightly creamy, and it displays fine-boned balance among clean, bright acidity, a fruit-forward nature and the plangent keenness of chalk-like minerality. An absolute delight, more spare and high-toned than lavish. Again, this is an appetizer and dinner sparkling wine, appropriate for the best caviar (because of its piercing acidity and minerality), smoked salmon, sushi, duck spring rolls and some curry dishes. 1,473 cases. Excellent. About $105.

Obviously, these are priced as special occasion sparkling wines, but then a special occasion is speeding right toward us, and that’s Valentine’s Day. Nothing, it should go without saying, is too good for your sweetie.

Samples for review.

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