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Some New Buttons and Gizmos

Date: Sat, Jul 24, 2010 Wine Tasting

A mini site update--

Those of you who come to the website, as opposed to those who get this through a feed reader, will have noticed the site has a new look. It was time for a dusting off and a change, and I hope you like it.

As part of the update, I've installed some new "reactions" and "share" buttons at the bottom of each post. They provide an opportunity for you to agree or disagree with my take on a wine (if you've tasted it, too) and to indicate that the review sparked your interest in a wine ("wish list"). There are also handy buttons to share a post with your friends on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites.

Thanks for your continued readership. GWU$20 has more than 8000 daily subscribers and nearly 500,000 people have stopped by since the site went live in October 2006.

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Putting Some Sparkle in the End of the Week

Date: Thu, Jul 22, 2010 Wine Tasting

Sparkling wine is one of life's greatest pleasures. Regular readers know how fond I am of wine with bubbles in it, and I'm always on the lookout for new ways to bring some into the house without breaking the bank.

So when Jill at domaineLA mentioned she had a new sparkling Riesling on the shelves, I decided to give it a try.

The 2008 Reichsrat Von Buhl Riesling Brut [Sekt] is a dry wine with piercing apple aromas and hints of petroleum around the edges which is characteristic of Rieslings from this part of the world. Abundant yet fine bead gives the wine a nice texture that is lively without being harsh or raspy. You will find flavors of yeast, bread dough, and apple as you sip and the aftertaste left in your mouth will draw you back for more. A fun sparkler for $25, with lots of class and very good QPR.

I think you could easily open this bottle when you are tempted to splurge on a French champagne, given its classic flavor profile.

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Daring Pairings for Your Grape Adventures

Date: Mon, Jul 19, 2010 Wine Tasting

I know that there is no such thing as a "correct" wine pairing, and that the only thing that really matters is what works for your tastebuds. Nevertheless, I do enjoy the alchemy of good wine and food pairings--that semi-mystical thing that happens when the two hit it off perfectly.

Many of us have figured out over time what favorite foods work with our favorite wines: oysters with Champagne, Gewurztraminer with Thai food, Merlot and hamburgers. But what do you serve with Arneis? How about Xinomavro? If you are into grape adventures, and often pick up wines made with unfamiliar, unpronounceable grapes then you are left in the kitchen contemplating a wine you've never tasted before and wondering what to eat with it.

Enter Evan Goldstein and Daring Pairings (University of California Press, $34.95; available on Amazon.com and at other retailers for $23 and up). The subtitle reads "a Master Sommelier matches distinctive wines with recipes from his favorite chefs" and this book delivers on that promise.

I'm a member of the Wine Century Club, so I'm always on the hunt for new grapes. Many of my favorites are profiled in this book from the increasingly common (Albarino, Malbec, Tempranillo) to the still rare (Trebbiano, Tannat, Aglianico). The book is arranged in two sections (white grapes, red grapes) and then alphabetically by grape. Each grape gets an excellent, readable description, cheese pairing advice, and a tasty recipe.

In some pairing books that include recipes from chefs, the recipes are so complicated you never get around to making them. Not so this book. I immediately made a terrific pasta dish dreamed up by the Union Square Cafe's Michael Romano with asparagus, prosciutto, and roasted peppers to accompany that wonderfully weird Bordeaux I had last week. A few days later, I made Charlie Trotter's salad of Cornish game hens with Shitake Mushroom Vinaigrette. Both were delicious, neither was too complicated--and were wonderful with the recommended wines.

I highly recommend this book. It's fun to read, and Goldstein wears his obvious expertise lightly. There is nothing intimidating about this book, but it still offers new wisdom to wine enthusiasts who know a little bit about wine. It's fun to go to the wine store with a list of funky grapes you now want to try. And it's fun to head into the kitchen to whip up a sophisticated dish to go with your first sip of Txakoli, confident that the two will taste great together.

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book.

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Beating the Bordeaux Blues

Date: Thu, Jul 15, 2010 Wine Tasting

So, how are your purchases of 2009 Bordeaux futures coming along? If, like me, you decided to sit out the hysteria this year (the prices are epic and the hysteria just as epic), you may be feeling a little blue. For me, its budgetary. I just don't eat enough of the kind of food that goes with a fantastic bottle of aged Bordeaux to warrant the splurge. Riesling or Champagne? That's another matter.

It's not that I don't like the taste of Bordeaux wines--I do. But I think I've got enough 2003 bottles in my cellar (none of which will be ready to drink for another few years) to keep me going.

Meanwhile, if you are watching/listening/participating in the 2009 Futures Follies, you may want a nice bottle of Bordeaux to go with it. Here are two bottles--one unusual bottle from Bordeaux and one Bordeaux-like bottle from California--that will help see you through the process.

The first bottle I'm recommending is the 2007 Château Tire Pé DieM ($7.99, Garagiste; available currently for $10-$14) This is not your father's Bordeaux, but it's just fantastic. Imagine, if you will, the vinous love child of a wine from Bordeaux and one from the Beaujolais and you've pretty much got this wine. It's a classic blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon that oozes personality and old world charm but is much lighter in weight than most bottlings from this part of France, which tend to be heavy, complex, and age-worthy. The first impression of the wine is crushed raspberries, some soil, and some rocks--very Beaujolais, in my book. The feeling of the wine is silky in the mouth. Then the funkier notes kick in, along with some vegetal greenness, some spice, and a hint of pencil lead--all very Bordeaux. And it's a terrific excellent QPR buy that certainly constitutes a great candidate for a house red (and when was the last time you said THAT about 2007 Bordeaux??) For food pairings, think of any foods you would pair with Gamay or Cabernet Franc, such as roasted chicken, sausages, or pork.

If you are looking for a heavier, more complicated wine made with true Bordeaux style, reach for the 2007 Trefethen Double T (available for $16-28) from the Napa Valley. I was extremely pleased with this blend that includes all five classic Bordeaux varieties. The wine was unusually complex for an excellent QPR bottling, with cassis, plum, and tobacco leaf aromas. Layered cassis, graphite, and herbal notes are present in the flavors, with a juicy aftertaste that lingers long enough to invite you back for another taste. Excellent with heartier fare, like this molasses/mustard marinated pork tenderloin.

Full Disclosure: I received the Trefethen Double-T as a sample.

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Summer Rosé Report: Drinking Local

Date: Wed, Jul 14, 2010 Wine Tasting

Sorry for the silence on Monday and Tuesday, but here's the excuse: first, I'm writing (though obviously not this blog...) and there really is a point at which I feel that my brain may run out of words if I spread too many of them around. (My friend and wine guru Jeff Stai from Twisted Oak Winery says this will not happen--at least not to me--but I remain unconvinced). Second, I'm drinking rosés--lots of rosés. I had this notion I'd wait and post reviews of all of them at once.

Then I thought: who am I kidding? It's summer. People need their rosé reviews NOW because no matter how many times I (or another wine writer) say rosés are good all year around, how many people pay attention to us?

This summer's rosé reviews are all going to be local wines--and by local I mean wines made in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties where I am currently writing to you from deep within a belt of fog that refuses to leave and has given us temps in the fifties (that's the high...). Which is proof that rosés are good whatever the weather!

Without further delay, here is the first of the summer rosé reviews:

2009 A Donkey and Goat Grenache Rosé Isabel's Cuvée ($17.00, domaineLA) This was a lovely, weighty rosé--though not in the color or in the fruit profile, so I am left grasping for a way to describe why it feels so substantial in the mouth. There were juicy aromas of watermelon and strawberry, which (though faint) were very alluring. Warming the wine slightly from fridge temperature helps to draw these aromas out. There were more dry strawberry and melon notes in the flavors, with lots of minerality. Excellent QPR for a dry, flavorful pink wine that will please both red and white wine lovers.

This mouthfilling wine will stand up well to spicier foods, like buffalo chicken wings or these delicious spicy chipotle shrimp tostadas.

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Looking for Grapes In All the Wrong Places

Date: Thu, Jul 8, 2010 Wine Tasting

People have different ways of locating good wine values. Some shop the sales, while others haunt the box stores. A few turn their backs on their favorites--Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, sparkling wine--and settle for something they're less fond of hoping it will suit their tastebuds.

My number one budget strategy (other than finding yourself a good wine retailer who will get to know your taste in wine and can steer you away from costly errors) is quite simple, can be done in any store, and is neither a strategy based on abstinence or rock-bottom clearances. Here it is:

Look for grapes in all the wrong places.

Certain regions become justifiably famous for producing a single grape--like Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, or Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley--and this means that growers can command the highest prices for their wines. But Cabernet Sauvignon is not the only grape grown in Napa Valley. Trust me on this. Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling (rare, but it's there!) are excellent and represent excellent value, too, because really, when is the last time you heard anybody ask "Do you have any Napa Riesling??"

Here are a few of my recent finds that fit the "great grape in a surprising place" mantra for wine value.

Verdelho, Albariño and Grüner Veltliner--From Clarksburg: Dancing Coyote may just be the greatest value wine producer you aren't drinking--yet. But if you see a cavorting coyote on a wine label, buy it and try it. You are going to be amazed at the taste and quality inside the bottle. Dancing Coyote is in Clarksburg, CA along the Sacramento River delta. I tasted a number of their wines (and reviewed their Petite Sirah a little while ago) and all of them were impressive. The whites were especially excellent QPR, however, and made with grapes that are normally associated with the Iberian Peninsula or Austria. The 2009 Dancing Coyote Verdelho (suggested retail, $10.99; available for $8-$14) was fresh and clean, and had well-balanced flavors of apple and lemonade with a bit of spritz. Try it with some spicy shrimp and chorizo kebabs for a fast weeknight supper. The 2009 Dancing Coyote Albariño (suggested retail $10.99; available for $8 -$10) had loads of green apple flavors and aromas, with citrus threaded through. And the 2009 Dancing Coyote Grüner Veltliner (suggested retail $10.99, and available through the winery) is a terrific example of domestic Grüner Veltliner, with typical grapefruit, lentil, and dust aromas and flavors. A bit more full and round than an Austrian example, this went well with pasta with ham and asparagus.

Pinot Gris from Australia: When you think Pinot Gris you may think Alsace or even Italy--but not Australia. The 2009 Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris from Australia's Yarra Valley (suggested retail $15; available between $13 and $23) demands you reconsider this notion. It had a distinctive aroma profile of muted mandarin orange and nectarine. The flavors included notes notes of white nectarine, white peach, and Meyer lemon. Nicely balanced between fruit and acidity, this was an excellent QPR winner from Innocent Bystander.

Chardonnay from Italy: When I think Chardonnay I think California or France--not Italy. But Italy makes some beautiful Chardonnay, including the excellent QPR 2008 Tormaresca Chardonnay from Puglia (available for between $9 and $13). Straightforward, clean pear and apple aromas and flavors, with slight citrus inflections and no discernible oak, which was a nice change of pace. It was terrific with Ina Garten's Szechuan peanut noodles.

Malbec from California: Americans have finally discovered Malbec, which is a good thing since it's a terrific red grape with roots that extend back into French viticultural history. Now, Malbec is most often associated with Argentina, but it's grown in California, too.The 2008 Red Rock Winery Malbec Reserve is an exceptional Malbec for the price (suggested retail $10.99; available for $8-$14), with a "blue" flavor profile of blueberries and huckleberries. The aromas are accented at first with white flowers, and a nice note of baking chocolate enters into the aftertaste. For $11? Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples.

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Wine for Tomato Season: Grechetto

Date: Mon, Jul 5, 2010 Wine Tasting

If the tomatoes aren't yet bursting on the vines where you are, it's only a matter of time. Tomatoes are an interesting wine pairing challenge. The acidity and sweet edge of fresh tomatoes can fight with some wines, and be overwhelmed by others.

Enter Grechetto. Grechetto has been grown in Umbria for centuries (I was corrected on this point when I drank an earlier vintage of this wine!). And it goes great with fresh tomato dishes, like caprese salad or this fantastic roasted cherry tomato pasta dish which uses barely blistered tomatoes to make a delicious sauce for spaghetti.

The 2008 Arnaldo-Caprai Grechetto Grecante (available for $16-$20) tasted quite different to me than the one that I drank in October 2008. That might be because that one had been in the bottle a bit longer, and was deeper in color and richer in taste as a result. This bottling--at least at this time--was much paler in color. The aromas reminded me of preserved lemons--the Moroccan kind, with salt. This aroma is echoed in the flavors, which take on savory herbal notes as well which will draw out the flavor of any herbs you use with your fresh tomatoes. Deliciously complex, dry, and not your ordinary summer white. Excellent QPR.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

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Sizing Up Sauvignon Blanc

Date: Thu, Jul 1, 2010 Wine Tasting

Summertime. And the living is hot. (image from DKC Service)

Sauvignon Blanc always has the effect of a liquid air conditioner on me. One cool glass and I can feel my core temperature drop and imagine a fresh breeze on my skin.

It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot of Sauvignon Blanc in the market. Let's face it: there's tons of the stuff. It comes from nearly every region of the globe, and finding your way among the options can be a bit daunting. Happily, most bottles are eminently affordable, which makes it possible to experiment without facing bankruptcy.

I must confess that I have a predilection (especially when the temperature rises) for Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, which are the epitome of refreshment. But don't forget that regions closer to home, like the Napa Valley, make excellent Sauvignon Blanc, too. Check out some of my favorites below.

2009 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc (available for $12-$20) This classic Marlborough Sauvignon blank shouts "citrus!" with abundant grapefruit and lime notes, accented with grassy nuances. In some vintages, this wine can be a bit assertive for me, but the 2009 was delightfully balanced and has very good QPR.

2009 Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc Icon (suggested retail $22; available for $14-$25) Another New Zealand bottling, the very good QPR Nobilo has piercing aromas and flavors of lime zest, herbs, and green tea. If Crawford shouts "Citrus!" this wine shouts "Green!" even though its not grassy. The wine is quite complex, and it would be interesting to see how this would pair with Thanksgiving dinner come November, so pick up a few bottles while you're in the store.

2008 Franciscan Oakville Estate Sauvignon Blanc (suggested retail $17; available for $12-20). This lovely domestic example of Sauvignon Blanc is rounder, with nicely-balanced notes of Crenshaw melon, hay, and lemon pith. Fresh but robust enough to stand up to lemon-grilled chicken or a rich fish like Halibut. Not assertive, this wine shows the Napa sunshine in its warmer fruit profile. Very good QPR.

2009 Cupcake Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc (suggested retail $14; available for $7-13). My final recommendation is another affordable New Zealand example with excellent QPR. In this bottle you will find focused Meyer lemon, pink grapefruit, and lime aromas and flavors. Very refreshing, and excellent with fish, salads, and other summer fare. Don't be surprised if this becomes your leading contender for a summer house wine.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples.

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Mighty Fine Malbec

Date: Mon, Jun 28, 2010 Wine Tasting

Malbec just tastes right this time of year. In the summer, I always try to keep a few bottles on hand for cookouts, and whenever I go shopping there always are new bottles I want to try.

This wine, though, counts as a familiar favorite--one of those wine friends that we know we'll enjoy spending time with. The 2008 Clos de los Siete Clos de Los Siete is made by Michael Rolland from grapes grown in the Mendoza region of Argentina. This rich, smooth blend traditional Bordeaux grapes (suggested retail, $19; available for $15-$20) including not only Malbec but Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, has excellent QPR with its plum, herb, and espresso notes. There is some smokiness in the aftertaste, making it a wonderful partner for grilled food such as steak, chicken, pork, and sausages.

Malbec goes very well with Mexican cuisine, and we had it with Chile-Spiced Skirt Steak Tacos. The Ancho and Chipotle chile powders in the marinade add a rich, flavorful dimension to the meat that is perfect with a rich, smoky wine like the Clos Los Siete.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

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Wanted: Good Value in Chardonnay

Date: Thu, Jun 24, 2010 Wine Tasting

Good value, high quality, authentic-tasting Chardonnay may be America's most wanted wine. Sometimes, you might think it's as difficult to find as it would be to track down a known fugitive. Why is there so much terrible cheap Chardonnay? Every year there seems to be more of it. But finding a good bottle that is also affordable--that's the trick.

In the summer, the high temperatures and our tendency to serve foods like grilled chicken, corn, crab, and fish make even those of us who are not huge Chardonnay fans head for the store in search of that elusive bottle. When I made some fantastic Tandori-style grilled chicken and slapped it between some grilled naan for a fast weeknight supper, I was definitely on the hunt for a Chardonnay that would be rich but not overly oaky, and luscious without tasting fake and plastic.

Here are some recommendations for Chardonnays that fit the bill--both in terms of cost and taste.

2008 Trefethen Chardonnay Double T (available for $15-$19) This nicely-balanced Napa Valley Chardonnay had authentic, creamy oak and baked apple aromas and flavors. Though it was rich, there was plenty of acidity to keep it from getting to flabby. Very good QPR.

2008 Hayman & Hill Chardonnay Reserve Selection Russian River Valley (SRP $15; available for $14 to $17) Another California Chardonnay, this one from the cooler climate of the Russian River Valley, delivered creme fraiche, apple, and citrus aromas and flavors. The citrus notes kept the wine quite lively, although this was still a full-bodied wine. Layered, complex, and very good QPR.

2008 Concannon Vineyard Chardonnay Conservancy Livermore Valley (SRP $15; available for $9 to $13) From the Livermore Valley, the Concannon Vinyeard bottling struck a perfect balance between richness and freshness with its abundant apple, citrus, pear, and sour cream aromas and flavors. This well-made wine will appeal to those who like their Chardonnays rich, without turning off those who prefer a wine with a lighter flavor profile. Very good QPR--and excellent QPR if you can pick it up for around $10.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples.

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The Zaftig Wine with the Petite Name: Petite Sirah

Date: Mon, Jun 21, 2010 Wine Tasting

As I've said before, there is nothing "petite" about Petite Sirah. This is a grape that produces big, blowsy wines with intense fruit flavors and a lushness that stands up to almost anything you throw at it--grilled steaks, hamburgers, chili, stew, and summer's favorite BBQ.

Finding a Petite Sirah for under $20 that doesn't tend towards the cough syrup side of the spectrum, however, can be a bit of a challenge. Lush is good, but syrupy is not.

If you like big, bold reds give one of these beauties a try.

2007 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah Conservancy Livermore Valley (suggested retail $15; available from $13) This is a dark and brooding Petite Sirah with plum and black cherry notes in the aromas. Your first sips will confirm that impression, but in the aftertaste the flavors linger and turn darker with a tarry edge that keeps the wine interesting. Very good QPR.

2008 Dancing Coyote Petite Sirah ($10.99) This steal from Clarksburg has terrific varietal characteristics and is a bit lighter on its feet than many Petite Sirah. I loved the black cherry, mocha, and roast coffee aromas and flavors and the balance between fruit and acidity in the wine. The aftertaste was nicely spicy, as well. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples.

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A Summery Sparkler from Ca'Momi

Date: Thu, Jun 17, 2010 Wine Tasting

No matter how much wine you drink, nobody knows everything.

Recently, I've been sampling some wine from Ca'Momi Wines. Located in the pricey Napa Valley, this is a winery that makes some extraordinarily affordable and delicious wines. Put it on your list of small producers to watch for and ask your favorite retailer to get some of their wine in stock.

A wine that I was particularly taken with was the NV Ca' Momi Ca' Secco ($16.99) This was summer in a bottle, with aromas and flavors of Meyer lemon and tangerine. The overall impression was round and fruity, but it was also quite refreshing with a medium-sized bubble to keep everything lively and light. The aftertaste was dry, as you might expect from a blended sparkler made with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat. Very good QPR.

Because of all the citrusy elements in the wine, it would be an ideal choice for summer brunch, or for a lazy afternoon watching the sun go down.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

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Because Traditional Can Be a Good Thing

Date: Mon, Jun 14, 2010 Wine Tasting

As a historian I may be prejudiced, but in my opinion there's nothing wrong with traditional--especially not when it comes to wine. I like big New World fruit bombs, too, but find myself gravitating more and more these days to wines that may emphasize secondary flavor elements like minerals, herbs--even dirt!--over juicy fruit.

The Languedoc region seems to be full of such bottlings, and one of the treasures I've come across recently is the 2006 Mas Bruguiere Coteaux du Languedoc Pic St. Loup La Grenadière (suggested retail $16; I can't find availability online) The wine is decidedly traditional in style, putting its spicy, peppery foot forward before the fruit. Once the fruit shows up, it has dry plum and berry fruit flavors and some spiciness, and a lick of pepper in the aftertaste. This very enjoyable wine delivered very good QPR.

If the flavor profile of this wine intrigues you (and makes you think of barbecued ribs...) check out the current offerings of Languedoc wines in your local wine store or online at vendors like K&L. (That link delivers you to a Pic St. Loup wine that is available, or you can enter "Pic Saint Loup" in the search box for more options.)

This region delivers exceptional value, and it's worth getting to know it.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

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Summer's Go-with-Everything White: The Stump Jump

Date: Sat, Jun 12, 2010 Wine Tasting

Is there a summer white that goes with nearly everything? With the exception of steak and hamburgers (and maybe even with these, if it's your fancy), the answer is yes.

The 2008 d'Arenberg The Stump Jump is summer's equivalent (in wine terms) of the little black dress. Made from a blend of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, and Marsanne the wine has a clean, slightly off-dry flavor profile of apples, pink grapefruit, melon, and hay. I found it surprisingly complex for a wine that retails for a little over $10 (and which you may find at a store near you for between $8 and $11). Excellent QPR.

Soft and appealing, The Stump Jump is an ideal candidate for most summer foods including spicy dishes that you stir fry in a flash, appetizers passed on the back deck or by the pool, light bites when it's too hot to eat, and grilled fish and chicken.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

Buyer Warning: There is a red version of The Stump Jump, so if you're looking for the white wine, be sure you specify.

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