Friday, September 29, 2006

Mediterranean meze and Greek wine

The other day, one of my friends from Turkey prepared a variety of meze dishes for lunch. Like the Spanish tapas, meze (or Mezédes in Greece) are small plates that are served in Turkey to accompany wine or more likely raki, the anise-flavored national drink. I was in charge of bringing the wine but I could not find any from Turkey. Instead, I chose a couple of wines from Greece, a white and a red, both from the Peloponnese.

The Peloponnese has a long tradition of winemaking. In the ancient times, Homer called it Ampeloessa, which means of vine leaves. Many indigenous grapes grow in the region, including the white varieties, Roditis, Sklava, Moschofilero and the red Agiorgítko. International varieties such as Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are also cultivated and increasingly popular among winemakers that want to win entry into the foreign markets.

Our first wine was the 2003 Mercouri Foloi Roditis, “a fine, dry wine made from the Roditis variety grown at altitude on the plateau of Foloi, Ilias, in West Peloponnese, Greece — an area famous in Greek mythology for its aromatic wines.”, as it is described in the back label.

Roditis is a white variety that mainly grows in Central Greece and in the Peloponnese. The finest Roditis wines are produced from low-yielding, high elevation vineyards with a north-facing exposure. The wine had a light golden color and a nose of lime and grapefruit. The palate was crisp and well rounded with a refreshing finish of herbs and light spices. I really enjoyed the wine with the Imam Bayildi dish (The Imam Fainted), a dish of eggplants stuffed with onions, garlic, and tomatoes, simmered in olive oil.

Our red wine was the 2003 Skouras Grande Cuvée from the Neméa appellation. Neméa is now considered by some to be Greece's most important appellation. It produces deeply colored and complex red wines exclusively from the Agiorgítko grape. The wine had a dark purple color and a peppery nose of blackberry and blackcurrant. The palate was medium-bodied with a well balanced acidity and notes of mint on the finish. The wine was a great accompaniment to Kabak Dolmasi, a tasty dish of zucchini stuffed with ground beef, rice, onion and spices, and served with a yogurt, dill, and garlic sauce.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lucia Pinot Noir: sorry but not my cup of tea

Choosing a wine in a restaurant that is good and affordable at the same time is becoming, I think, more and more challenging. The other day, I was struggling to find a reasonably priced Pinot Noir and I asked the waiter about a wine that had a Sleepy Hollow Vineyard designation and sounded interesting. He seemed to ignore my question and came back with what I guess is one of the restaurant's best selling wines, a Pinot Noir from Lucia Vineyards.

The Lucia Vineyards winery is owned by the Pisoni family and produces wines from the renowned Garys' and Pisoni Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The wine that the waiter poured had a dark color and a nose of vanilla and black cherry. The palate was very rich and unctuous with toasted oak and more vanilla flavors on the finish. I couldn't really say that the wine was bad although I found it overpowering but my friends were all happy with the waiter's choice and we kept the wine. However, was this wine the Pinot that I was looking for? Certainly not.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Sad that summer is over? Drink a Corsican wine

Have you ever been to Corsica? For me, this rugged and mountainous Mediterranean island is one of the most beautiful places on earth. As a kid, I spent a few wonderful summer vacations in Corsica, although I remember that getting there was far from easy. I haven't forgotten the crowded and uncomfortable ferry that we used to take to cross the Mediterranean sea from Nice to Bastia. My sister and I were always seasick but there was no room for us to lay down. Fortunately, on our way to our vacation place, we could quickly forget our miseries; there was so much to see: dense forests of chestnut and cork oak, wild boars running freely on the twisty mountain roads, pristine white-sanded beaches. And I also vividly remember this heady scents of myrtle, cistus, and heather that emanated from the sun-drenched maquis.

Palombaggia beach

Not far from Bastia, Patrimonio is one of Corsica's best wine region. On chalky soil mixed with clay, the vineyard has an exceptional western exposure facing the sea. Surrounding mountains protect the vines from the strong winds coming from the Rhône Valley. The deeply colored Niellucciuniellu means dark in Corsican — grows particularly well in the area and in Patrimonio, it must account for 95% of red wine. The grape is actually identical to the Tuscan Sangiovese and was most likely imported by Genoese during their rule of the island between the mid 15th century and the late 18th century.

The 2001 Domaine Leccia Patrimonio Petra Bianca is one of the few Corsican wines that can be found in the United States. It is a Kermit Lynch import that I bought last year at his Berkeley store. It is produced by the Domaine Leccia, a family-owned estate established in 1850. The domaine has a 54 acre vineyard located just a mile away from the sea and planted with traditional varieties such as Niellucciu, Grenache, Malvoisia, and Muscat. It is farmed with no pesticide and the harvest is done manually. Petra Bianca (white stone) is the domaine's special cuvée, made from lots that are particularly rich in limestone and schist.

The wine had a dark, brick/brown color. The nose exhibited aromas of sweet blackberries and spices. On the palate, it was full-bodied and well balanced, leaving an aftertaste of bittersweet chocolate. There were also some herbal notes that reminded me of the myrtle berry liqueur, a Corsican specialty that my parents bought one day as a souvenir and that we used to top our crepes with.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Margaux en danger!

During the visit of my parents in law this summer, I decided to open in their honor a special bottle for dinner, a 1998 Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux. This brought my father in law to tell us one of the hot stories in France at the time: the Bordeaux bypass project that could destroy some valuable vineyards in the renowned Margaux appellation.

The project that made many Bordeaux producers take up arms this summer is a plan to build a motorway that will bypass the congested town of Bordeaux and connect Spain with Northern Europe. The problem is that some of the proposed routes run through the vineyards of Margaux, including one route that could completely wipe out the vineyard of Château Cantemerle. More than 70 chateaux, including Château Margaux, signed an open letter to the local prefecture. Moreover, the representatives of the appellation created a dedicated website and blog — — to fight the proposal.

The latest news is that the government is trying to reach a compromise with the vintners and has published a revised plan that should not impact any vineyard. But opponents of the project are still worried about lead related pollution and damage to the terroir.

As we were discussing this, we were savoring the wine. It was dark in color, concentrated on the palate and, at the beginning, still tight and closed, so I decanted it. But as the wine opened up in the glass, it started to reveal its full personality, a perfumed nose of black fruits, a delectable, full-bodied palate with well-balanced tannins, and a finish that was long and classy — undoubtedly Margaux.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

WBW #25: A Sparkling Blogging Wednesday

The 25th edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday is all bubbly thanks to Sam at Becks and Posh, our host this month. She wanted us to taste a sparkling wine coming only from the Champagne region.

If you're a Champagne fan, I highly recommend the extensive K&L Wine Merchants Champagne selection. K&L Champagne Buyer Gary Westby direct-imports fantastic wines from small grower producers. Grower producers farm their own vineyard and make their own Champagne, therefore produce wines that have distinctive personalities, expressing the vineyard they come from and the unique style of the winemaker.

One of my favorite Champagnes from K&L is the Champagne Leclerc Briant Brut Premier Cru Clos des Champions, a single vineyard wine at an amazing price of $29.99. But today, I wanted to try something different that Gary had also recommended: a Blanc de Meuniers from Tarlant, a Champagne house owned by the Tarlant family since 1687.

The wine of Champagne is generally a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Pinot Noir accounts for nearly 40% of the plantings in Champagne and is often the backbone of the blend. 26% of the vineyard is planted with Chardonnay, which brings finesse and elegance, and 35% with Pinot Meunier, which provides acidity and fruitiness.

The Champagne Tarlant Extra Brut Blanc de Meuniers Cuvée La Vigne d'Or is an unusual wine made entirely from Pinot Meunier. It comes from a single vineyard in Tarlant's home town of Oeuilly with vines averaging 51 years of age. The wine had a straw golden color and a yeasty nose showing apple cider flavors. On the palate, it was dry, vivacious, but also slightly creamy, leaving a distinctive pear à l'eau de vie aftertaste.

We enjoyed our Champagne with a Grilled Tuna Basquaise, a dish that calls for a light and fruity wine. This was a joyful and sparkling dinner, thanks Sam!

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Monday, September 11, 2006

An ice bucket for my red wine please!

Maybe this summer has been warmer than usual; maybe I tend to drink my wine cooler than before. But for sure, I have been served red wines in restaurants this summer that were way too warm. I don't know about you but for me, a Pinot Noir that is poured at 80F is simply not drinkable.

In France, we say that red wine has to be chambré which means at bedroom temperature. But what most people must have forgotten (even in France) is that bedrooms were traditionally the coldest rooms of the house.

At this point, the solution is to ask the waiter for an ice bucket to chill the wine. Now, in few cases, I even had the waiter argue with me that ice buckets were for whites only and much too cold for reds. Therefore, I was extremely pleased when I found the following lines on the wine list of a new restaurant in Palo Alto:

It is always a good sign when a restaurant seems to care about wine. This means that you'll most likely find a wine in the wine list that will work well with the food. And it is even better if the wine is served at the proper temperature.

If a wine has been ordered by the glass and is too warm, the problem is trickier. I sometimes prefer to order the ubiquitous Chardonnay that I known will arrive nicely chilled rather than having a warm red. The alternative is to chill the wine with a few ice cubes, stir, and quickly remove them before they melt completely and dilute the wine too much.

That evening at Mantra we ended up not ordering a red wine — instead, we felt like having an Austrian Riesling with our dishes — so I don't know if the restaurant really serves red wines at cellar temperature. Next time, I should find out.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Blind tasting of Grenache-based wines

For me, Grenache is the quintessential summer grape. It is often an essential component of the red and rosé wines that we enjoy drinking during the warm and sunny season. It was also the theme of our latest wine tasting gathering where we blind-tasted six Grenache-based wines from Spain, Italy, Southern France, Australia, and California.

Most likely, Grenache comes from Spain where it is known as Garnacha. The grape is extremely heat and drought resistant and thrives in warm and dry climates as well as in poor soils. As it ripens slowly, it can reach high sugar levels. Grenache can produce different wine styles varying from light, fruity rosés, thanks to its thin skin with little pigment on it, to full-bodied reds and rich dessert wines. In the south of France, it is traditionally blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, and Carignan, in Spain, with Tempranillo and in Australia, with Syrah and Mourvèdre in the so called GSM wines. In California, Grenache counts to only 2.6% of the total wine grape acreage but a growing number of wineries known as the Rhone Rangers are dedicated to actively promoting the Rhône varieties in California, including Grenache.

Ridge Vineyards is one of the Rhone Rangers member wineries. The winery produces various rhone style wines using Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, and Syrah grapes. The 50% Syrah/ 50% Grenache blend from Ridge's Lytton Estate was the first wine that we tasted. The Lytton estate is located north of Healdsburg, on the hills separating Alexander Valley from Dry Creek Valley. Ridge's involvement with Grenache in the early 70s happened quite by accident when a high percentage of Grenache vine interplanted with small amounts of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah was discovered on one of the hills. Since then, Ridge bought additional vineyards including a thirty-two-year-old mixed Grenache blockland and 3.2 acres of mature syrah. The 2001 Ridge Syrah/Grenache Lytton Estate had a deep garnet color and a bright nose of sweet vanilla and red berries. On the palate, it was rich, slightly tannic, and well balanced with tasty sweet fruit flavors and a mineral-iron finish. Half of us ranked it first which put the wine in first position.

The second wine took us to Sardinia where Grenache is known as Cannonau. Grenache was probably brought there by the Spaniards during their rule of the island between the 15th and the 17th centuries. The 2001 Contini Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 'Inu had a dark color and a spicy and fruity nose. On the palate, it was full-flavored with a characteristic Grenache taste. That was a pleasant wine that ended up in the fourth position.

Our third wine came from Almansa, a little-known wine region located in Spain's Castilla-La Mancha. The 2004 Bodegas Tintoralba Higueruela gained significant notoriety when it was rated 90 points by Robert Parker. The wine had a spicy nose of sour cherry and blackberry. On the palate, it was smooth and concentrated with some acidity and a fruity aftertaste. The wine finished second.

Our fourth wine was the 2003 Gigondas Moulin de la Gardette Cuvée Ventabren. The winery name Moulin de la Gardette refers to an old windmill that once stood on the stony hill of La Gardette just outside the village of Gigondas Designed for long term aging, the Cuvée Ventabren is a blend of 70% Grenache from very old vines, 20% Syrah and 10% Cinsault. The wine had a dark red color and a nose of raspberry liqueur. On the palate, it was still tight and tannic with sweet and peppery flavors. The wine finished in fifth position.

Our fifth wine, the 2004 Jason Schwarz Thiele Road Grenache Barossa Valley, came from the Barossa Valley in South Australia where Grenache vines are some of the oldest in Australia. Jason Schwarz is the son of an independent grape grower with over 100 acres of vineyards in the Barossa Valley. In 2001, Jason decided to make his own wine and now produces a Syrah and a Grenache from the family vineyards. The nose of the 2004 Grenache was sweet and spicy. The palate was big with sweet strawberry candy and raisin flavors and some definite heat on the finish. For me, the wine was too sweet with too much alcohol and I found out later that the 2004 vintage had an unusual 16% alcohol and 6 grams/litre of residual sugar. The wine was ranked last.

Our last wine came from Château La Nerthe, one of the main producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and one of the most historic domains in France—the wines of Château La Nerthe were served at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles. One of the property's owner was the eminent Commandant Joseph Ducos, the first French grower who imported American rootstock to overcome the phylloxera epidemic, and who is remembered as the soul of the viticultural reconstitution. The 2002 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Château La Nerthe had a medium ruby color and a earthy nose of sweet berry and jasmine aromas. The palate was round, fruity, and peppery. For a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the wine was rather light and easily overpowered by the Schwarz Thiele Road Grenache (2002, known as the "flood" vintage, produced light wines in the Southern Rhône). But, as the dinner progressed, I found the wine to be one of the most food friendly and balanced of the tasting. The wine finished in third position.