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Has Your Spring Sprung? Time for Rosé

Date: Wed, Apr 7, 2010 Wine Tasting

My family on the east coast tells me its in the upper 80s. Here in LA, it's in the low 80s. Spring, apparently, sprung.

Seasonably speaking, it's time to find the grill and get some rosé in the house. At this point in the year, chances are you can still find a lot of last year's rosé on the shelf. As long as the wine store has been storing them properly, that's not a problem. So head over to your favorite wine retailer and pick up a pink wine to enjoy this weekend.

One that you might be able to put your hands on is the 2008 Château Viranel Saint-Chinian (suggested retail $13; available for $10) Made from Syrah, Grenache, and Cinsault, this wine epitomizes the sunny, Mediterranean feeling that I want from my rosés. It is true salmon in color, and has aromas of rose petals and raspberries. These elements are echoed in the palate, and there are nice stone notes in the aftertaste. Dry, refreshing, and perfect for charcuterie, salads, grilled sausages or just plain sipping on the patio, this wine has very good QPR--and excellent QPR if you can pick it up on sale for around $10.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

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GWU$20 Named Best Wine Blog by Saveur

Date: Tue, Apr 6, 2010 Wine Tasting

Yesterday, I received news that Good Wine Under $20 had been voted Best Wine Blog of 2010 by the readers of Sauveur Magazine and its online site.

This was the first year Saveur ran the contest, and it is an honor to be chosen in this category. I'm a regular reader of Saveur, which makes this all the more sweet.

Here's a list of all the winners. If you haven't checked them out, you should do so. My congratulations to all those who were nominated.

David Lebovitz

Good Wine Under $20

Smitten Kitchen

Homesick Texan

La Tartine Gourmande

Cafe Fernando

Smitten Kitchen

Food Wishes

Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn

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Finding Value in Napa Valley Cabernet

Date: Mon, Apr 5, 2010 Wine Tasting

"Napa Valley," "value," and "Cabernet Sauvignon" are not often found in the same blog post title, nor are they often found in the same sentence. Now, the same people who are bringing you good, affordable Pinot Noir are bringing you classy, wallet-friendly Cabernet Sauvignon, too.

If you are looking for a great value in a Napa Valley Cab, look no further than the excellent QPR 2007 Hayman & Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Selection (suggested retail $14.99; available for $9-$16) When you uncork it, expect to detect blackberry and fresh ground coffee aromas. Your first sips will yield a nice currant and blackberry fruit core, accompanied by elegant, well-integrated tannins. The aftertaste is smooth and lingers in the mouth, turning spicy. Though this wine is perfectly lovely know, it should continue to improve over the next few years, so you may want to put some aside not only for this summer's barbeques but next winter's stews and roasts, too.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample

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Red Wines from the Southern Hemisphere

Date: Wed, Mar 31, 2010 Wine Tasting

Last week was the vernal equinox, the point in the year when the days are as long as the nights. This year, celebrate spring by drinking wines from the southern hemisphere. Below the equator, they are celebrating fall and looking forward to the cooler temperatures of winter. Here, we've got other things to look forward to: warm sunshine, the first cookouts of summer, the last pots of stew to keep the chill away during the spring rains. Red wines from Argentina and South Africa go well with all these foods and more, with their warm, spicy, fruity profile.

Here are my recommendations for very good QPR wines including a Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Shiraz-Pinotage Blend that will help you bridge from winter to spring to summer without missing a step.

2007 Bodega Septima Cabernet Sauvignon (suggested retail, $12; available for $7-$12) From Argentina, this luscious Cabernet has aromas of warm baking spices and currants, touched with herbal notes. The flavors are rich, too, with coffee and currants predominant. There is good acidity, and a juicy aftertaste. Drink now, or set aside for 12-18 months.

2008 Sebeka Shiraz-Pinotage "Cape Blend" (suggested retail, $7.99; available for $6-$8) This blend from South Africa features currant and plum aromas and flavors, accented with espresso and baker's chocolate. Like most red blends, it will pair nicely with a variety of foods including burgers, chili, and grilled chicken. Drink over the next 9 months.

2008 Diseño Malbec (suggested retail $7.50; available for around $9) Always a reliable choice in affordable Malbecs, this bottling has floral, blackberry, and truffle aromas. The blackberry and mocha flavors are silky in the mouth. At present the tannins are slightly drying, so give it some air if you're drinking it now or set it aside to drink over the next two years.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples.

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A Great Gewurz for Spring

Date: Mon, Mar 29, 2010 Wine Tasting

Now that it's spring, my mind has turned to cleaning, lightening up, and enjoying the outdoors. In the wine department, that means my mind has turned to Gewürztraminer, a grape that always reminds me of this time of year.

Finding a good, affordable of the grape can be challenging. Some are too sweet, and some have an almost plastic quality with the aroma of cheap perfume. So if you have had Gewürztraminer in the past and not enjoyed it, make it your mission this spring to find one that suits your palate and your pocketbook.

One that I like is the 2009 Dancing Coyote Gewürztraminer (suggested retail, $10.99). It's a very good QPR domestic example with springlike aromas of apple, litchi, and honeysuckle. All of these notes can be found in the flavors, along with a nice acidity that adds to the juiciness of the wine and balances out the natural sweet impression that the grape gives.

This wine will be terrific with grilled sausages, salads, and spicy Asian cuisine.

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

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A Case of Bubbles for Spring: J. Laurens Crémant de Limoux Brut

Date: Wed, Mar 10, 2010 Wine Tasting

Upcoming spring brunches--check.
Celebration of first flowers blooming--check.
Toasting friends who just got engaged/married--check.
Toasting friends who just had new baby--check.
Mother's Day--check.

See how many celebrations you have coming up in the next few months?

That's why you need to know about this wine. It costs under $15 a bottle and is absolutely yummy. Buy it by the case, and you will have bubbles to see you through into June (provided you don't toast too many Tuesdays along the way...).

The NV J. Laurens Crémant de Limoux Brut is one of the best sparklers--if not the best sparkler--I've ever had for under $15 and represents excellent QPR. Available in lots of markets for between $9 and $13, this wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France has a lovely, creamy taste. Abundant fresh citrus pith and brioche dough make a point-counterpoint of zest and richness in the flavors, with fruit notes of pear, apple, and lemon. A great feature of the wine are the tiny, frothy bubbles which make for a delicate impression. The wine is dry (brut), but it's a soft, gentle brut like spring itself. You can enjoy this wine with a wide range of foods and for this price, why wouldn't you??

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

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Looking for Affordable Pinot Noir?

Date: Mon, Mar 8, 2010 Wine Tasting

The idea of affordable Pinot Noir is a guaranteed attention-grabber. Blame it on the movies, the delicacy of the grape, or its status as a fashionable tipple. No matter what you blame it on, there's one thing for sure: Pinot Noir is pricey.

And, in my opinion, deservedly so. When Pinot Noir is well made, it is a joy to drink. It's juicy, fresh, and silky. It pairs beautifully with a wide variety of foods. And there is something elegant about the grapes that are made with this wine that always leaves me wanting more: more of it on my dinner table, more in my glass, more in my cellar.

Many of the things I love best about Pinot Noir, however, can be hard to find in less expensive bottlings. Which is why these two selections are such finds--and both cost $20 or less.

2008 Hayman & Hill Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Reserve Selection (suggested retail, $18; a new release so ask your local merchant about whether they will be stocking it). Very characteristic of the Central Coast appellation where the grapes were grown, this wine had juicy black raspberry and elegant floral aromas with hints of chalk and limestone around the edges. Its fruit-forward core reminded me of homemade raspberry jam and fresh blackberries. It had the hallmark smoothness in the mouth, and left behind a satiny feeling that is hard to find in inexpensive Pinot Noir. Excellent QPR.

2008 Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir (suggested retail, $20; available $14-23). The grapes in this Pinot come from the Russian River Valley which makes for a spicier, earthier wine. Expect notes of raspberry and earth in the aromas, which are echoed in the flavors. There is lots of allspice and clove in the aftertaste. At this early stage of its life, the wine's initial impression is disjointed and awkward but as it gets air (give it a vigorous swirl!) the flavors start to deepen and knit together. This wine is suitable for short-term aging, and will continue to improve until around 2012. Perhaps buy a few bottles if you find it, and set some aside in a cool, dark place for your 2010 Thanksgiving dinner. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples.

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A Dry Spanish Sparkler for Champagne Lovers

Date: Wed, Mar 3, 2010 Wine Tasting

If you think all Cava is fruity, perfectly enjoyable, but not too interesting--think again. (image from the great LA Food blog, Food She Thought, where you can also read another review of this wine)

I had a great bottle of Cava lately, and it made me realize I just don't know that much about the stuff other than it's from Spain, has bubbles, and is usually affordable.

The wine was the German Gilabert Brut Nature Reserva (domaineLA, $14.99; available elsewhere for $14-$15). This interesting Cava had a price point under $15 and an aromatic profile like Champagne: yeast, lemon pith, and mineral notes. It is dry--and I do mean dry--with no sugar added (the technical term is dosage). Bright, intense lemon and bread dough flavors are accented by a bit of stoniness in the aftertaste. Fine, abundant, active bubbles make for a very fresh, brisk feeling in the mouth, although the overall impression is rather creamy despite the dryness.

If tasted blind, I think that most would think it was a French sparkler, perhaps an inexpensive Champagne. And if you like very dry sparkling wine but have steered clear of Cava in the past fearing it might be too fruit-forward for your tastes, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by this.

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The Benefits of Short-Term Aging: the Case of Cabernet Sauvignon

Date: Mon, Mar 1, 2010 Wine Tasting

I suppose there is a technical difference between cellaring and short-term aging. Cellaring wine, for me, means putting wine away for so long that you forget you have it and then are pleasantly surprised to discover you actually do NOT need to buy wine for Christmas 2015 because you actually bought wine for that occasion back in 2007!

But even short-term aging--by my definition wine that you set aside for 1-3 years--can make for a nice discovery when, on a cold winter's night, you make yourself a soup or roast or even whip up some burgers and find that you have a perfect bottle of wine that's been sitting around waiting for you.

As you know I drink mostly wine under $20, but even bottles that cost relatively little can benefit from some time to grow. What happens when they do? To my taste, the wines become smoother and more subtle. The fruit steps quietly aside and lets other notes--floral, herbal, woody--come forward. These are all transformations that I enjoy.

Take, for instance, my recent experience with the 2005 Black Sheep Finds "Genuine Risk" Cabernet Sauvignon. I bought it from online retailer domaine547 (now with an LA-based store, domaineLA) back in February 2008 for $20.99. Fast forward two years to February 2010. I loved this wine, and found it had excellent QPR because of its outstanding Cabernet characteristics. There were aromas of currant, plum, graphite, and licorice, all of which were echoed in the flavors. Hints of herbs and a nice spark of green pepper emerged, too, keeping the wine lively and interesting. It never became too vegetal, with red and purple fruit continuing through into the aftertaste.

If you are interested in more recent releases, the 2006 is available. Based on my experience I'd recommend buying three bottles, enjoying one now for a point of comparison, and drinking the remaining two bottles sometime between 2011 and 2013.

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Goldilocks on Pinot Grigio

Date: Wed, Feb 24, 2010 Wine Tasting

Remember the children's story of Goldilocks and the three bears? She wanders into a cabin and finds three bowls of porridge. The first is too hot. The next is too cold. The third, however, is "just right."

I often feel like Goldilocks when tasting Pinot Grigio. Some of them are too bitter. Some of them are too sweet. Some, too tart. Some of them are too fruity. Why are wines made with this grape so often out of balance?

If you're looking for a nicely balanced Pinot Grigio, look for a bottle of the 2007 Swanson Pinot Grigio from the Napa Valley. ($13-$22) Though it costs a bit more, it is very good QPR and worth every penny. Expect bitter lemon aromas, accented by a bit of blood orange. The flavors are nicely creamy yet still citrusy, like lemon curd. This wine is poised between fruit, acidity, lushness, and bitterness.

As Goldilocks would say: "Just right."

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample.

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Food and Wine: the Search for Versatility

Date: Mon, Feb 22, 2010 Wine Tasting

Pairing food and wine can be a perplexing, confusing business. People can be nutty on the subject and I have to admit I can be a bit obsessive about finding the perfect food to go with Pinot Gris and the ideal wine for spaghetti and meatballs.

In a world of shrinking bank accounts and free time, I've started prizing versatility in wine. When I go to the store, I'm increasingly drawn to wine that goes with everything. What that often means is that my shopping bag contains a red blend and a bottle of Gewurztraminer. Here's why.

Why Red Blends? Here in the US we tend to gravitate towards single-variety bottlings--Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah. The rest of the world does things differently. Chianti is made from a blend of red grapes that includes at least 80% Sangiovese. In the Rhone, red wines can include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and other red grapes. Like Bordeaux reds? These bottles typically contain Merlot, Cabernet, and juice from Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc. In my mouth, blending grapes takes some of the hard varietal edges from a wine. Put Merlot with Cabernet and some of its green pepperiness goes away, for instance. This makes red blends great food wines, capable of adapting themselves to a variety of cuisines--from burgers to roast chicken to beef curry. In the US, many red blends feature Zinfandel and Syrah. This makes them smooth to drink, and a bit higher in alcohol levels than those from Europe so read your labels! One nice red to try is the 2007 Adastra Ed's Red ($15). This big, yummy, smooth red blend is comprised of 43% Syrah, 39% Zinfandel, 13% Petite Sirah, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot. Made with organic grapes (see note below), it has abundant notes of dark chocolate, plum, and black cherry in the aromas and flavors. This wine is not only very good QPR--it goes own VERY easily too, so remember it's 15% ABV. Pair it with anything from soups, stews, burgers, spaghetti, pizza, roast chicken with rosemary, pork tenderloin, beef curry--let your imagination fly. NOTE: the nice folks at Adastra tell me that because this is a blend, the mix is not made exclusively from grapes grown Adastra's organic vineyards.

Why Gewurztraminer? When I started thinking about this post, I was planning on extolling the virtues of Sauvignon Blanc. That's a versatile grape, too. But Gewurz edges it out, in my opinion. That's because it pairs beautifully with Asian cuisine--Thai, Chinese, Japanese, even Indian. It also is perfect with pork, sausage, and chicken. So whether you've got some delicate sushi or a hearty Alsatian pork stew, a flavorful Thai curry or a plateful of sausages and mashed potatoes, Gewurztraminer turns out to be a surprisingly good option. Gewurztraminers can be made in a dry or slightly off-dry style, so look at the description on the label. The spicier your food, the better it can handle a bit of sweetness in the wine. The most versatile Gewurztraminers, I find, are the dry ones. One I enjoyed recently was the 2007 Joseph Swan Vineyards Gewurztraminer from the Russian River Valley's Saralee's Vineyards ($20, domaineLA). I loved this domestic Gewurztraminer with its classic, restraind flavor profile. Elegant apple and white nectarine aromas lead into flavors that are almost steely in their intensity and dominated by apple and stone. The aftertaste tends towards nectarine, but this wine is by no means sweet. It was lovely with a tamarind chicken curry, with some sausage, and with a pork stew. Excellent QPR.

Do you have other suggestions for wines that go with most everything? If so, leave them in the comments.

Full disclosure: I received the red blend as a sample.

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Can Woman Live By Wine Alone?

Date: Wed, Feb 17, 2010 Wine Tasting

One of the impediments to blogging in the past few weeks was simply this: I had become a bit tired of wine. There were nights I felt like if I drank another "basic red" I was going to scream. I dipped into my tiny cellar, looking for wines that might inspire and turn this trend around, but had no luck. Everything I tasted seemed a bit blah and predictable.

I turned to water. I developed quite an addiction to Honest Tea (and have a growing collection of the lids printed with inspirational sayings to prove it). Then, reminded of happy, relaxing times in England that were accompanied by drinking hard cider, I turned to fermented, alcoholic apple juice.

That did it. My palate and mood lifted.

Aspall Organic Draft Cider ($6.99 for 500ml, Whole Foods) is, in my opinion, the alcoholic non-grape beverage for wine lovers. It has a rich, fermented taste that is not as overwhelmingly earthy and pungent as some ciders in the market, a nice fizziness that makes it good with many of the same foods that go well with sparkling wine, and leaves your mouth full of the crisp taste of English apples. It is also relatively low in alcohol compared to most table wines at 6.8% alc/vol. And for the price, it's certainly excellent QPR.

If you want to try something new, get yourself some Aspall Cider and make this delicious pork stew to accompany it. It's full of apples, parsnips, and pearl onions (confession: I used the frozen kind because life is too short to peel pearl onions), with some sage, shallot, and mustard for zing and lots of hard cider enriching the sauce. This is a one-pot, all-inclusive meal that is comforting and rich without being heavy. It simmers on the stove for hours, too, which makes it perfect for entertaining or just filling your house with the fragrance of autumn on a cold winter day. Of course, if hard cider is just a no-go zone for you, this recipe would be equally nice with an appley, unoaked Chardonnay, a dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer, or a light red from the Beaujolais.

Don't eat pork? Try Aspall's Cider with a Welsh Rarebit, perhaps sliding some apples under the cheese sauce before you broil it.

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New Grape of the Month: Jacquère

Date: Mon, Feb 15, 2010 Wine Tasting

For a grape I've never heard of before, Jacquère certainly has a lot of synonyms and variant spellings.

What is Jacquère? It's a white grape grown in the Savoy region of France. (photo from Charles Neal Selections)

Where is the Savoy, you ask? It's tucked up next to the Alps. And though the region makes good wine, most of it never leaves the area's fondue parties and ski lifts. Nevertheless, I've been trying to get to know the wines of Savoy a bit better, and while they can be hard to find they tend to be very good value when you manage it, and pair nicely with food, to boot.

Turns out there are lots of Quenards making wine in Savoy, as the signposts to the right indicate. The Jacquère I tasted was the 2007 Jean-Pierre et Jean-Francois Quenard Vin de Savoie Chignin Anne de la Biguerne ($12.93, Garagiste; for more information on purchasing, contact the importer at Charles Neal Selections)

The wine was surprisingly hard to describe based on the usual fruit and flowers vocabulary. Instead what I tasted was "clean," followed by "snow." It was very fresh tasting, with faint, pure lemon and mineral aromas and flavors if you dug under the clean snow to find them. For under $13, this was excellent QPR.

What to have with your Alpine Jacquère? Something gooey and cheesey (fondue, grilled cheese, Croque Monsieur) would be lovely. But if you really want a treat, pair it with shellfish. That's what we did recently, when we stopped into the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort on the Santa Barbara coast in Montecito. They have a Thursday night seafood buffet that is a far cry from most sad buffets you are now thinking about with horror. The Biltmore's tables were loaded with fresh shucked oysters, snow crab legs, sushi, lobster, and grilled fish. And they don't charge corkage at the Thursday buffet, so I brought along this bottle and the clean-tasting wine was just perfect with the clean-tasting shellfish. All in all, an excellent value in food and wine in pricey Montecito.

Sitting by the ocean on a beautiful Santa Barbara night, sipping Alpine Jacquère, all I could hope for was that somewhere in Savoy someone was cuddled up to the fire keeping warm with a nice bottle of Central Coast Pinot Noir!

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Sparkling Wine for Your Valentine

Date: Wed, Feb 10, 2010 Wine Tasting

It's almost V-Day. Nothing says romance like some bubbly, and even if you are alone this Valentine's Day, don't you deserve to treat yourself to some sparkling wine? Sparkling wine is great for winding down at the end of a long day, it's not too bad with dark chocolate, and it is fantastic with fried comfort foods (potato chips, french fries, and fried chicken to name a few).

If you're in the market for some affordable sparkling wine, I've got a rundown of some of my preferred bottlings from all over the world that cost between $14 and $23. Bubbly wines may be romantic, but nothing says forever like a nice retirement account, so put the money you would have spent on Champagne into the bank and try one of these instead.

N.V. Freixenet Cava Elyssia Pinot Noir Brut. ($18) This lovely packaging contains a very nice bottle of Spanish sparkling wine made entirely from Pinot Noir. A beautiful dark rose in color, there are aromas and flavors of strawberries, cucumbers, and a touch of mint. This sparkler is fresh tasting, yet round and lush, too, with nice body. Good with chocolate, pasta with vodka sauce, or salmon. Well worth the price, and excellent QPR.

N.V. Cupcake Vineyards Blanc de Blancs. ($15.99) A well-made, 100% Chardonnay sparkling wine, with lots of citrus, apple, and some bread dough notes. The wine's refreshing, mild flavors make it an excellent choice for a pre-dinner sipper, or to go with simply prepared fish or chicken. Very good QPR.

N.V. Pongrácz Brut. ($14.99) An interesting sparkler from South Africa made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this wine has toasted bread, apple, and cherry pit flavors. Some may find the bubbles are a bit harsh and raspy, but it is very refreshing and would also be excellent if you are making mimosas or other cocktails that need sparkling wine. Try floating a hibiscus flower in it, with a dash of the syrup from the bottle. It looks beautiful! Very Good QPR.

N.V. Jansz Premium Cuvée ($22.95, Bristol Farms; available elsewhere for $16-$24) An elegant, creamy sparkling wine from Tasmania, with lots of apple in the midpalate. The wine had a lovely mouthfeel, and would partner well with creamy sauces. Made from Chardonnay with a bit of Pinot Noir. Very good QPR.

N.V. Mumm Napa Cuvée M ($20) I was VERY impressed with this $20 domestic sparkler. It had a depth of flavor that I usually find lacking in cheaper sparklers which are all bubbles and citrus and not much else. Made in a barely sec style, from Pinot Noir and late-harvest Muscat, this wine has aromas of white chocolate, toasted bread, and strawberry followed by layered flavors of white chocolate, rose petal, Meyer lemon, strawberry, and toast. Pretty great stuff. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: with the exception of the Jansz, I received all these wines as samples. Prices given are suggested retail, and you may find that the wine costs more or less in your area. Clicking on the wine's name will take you to one of various wine search engines in case you would like to purchase the wine near you.

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