Monday, July 31, 2006

Pining for Ice Wine

While nothing beats air conditioning in weather like this, a close second has to be ice wine. I cool down, and get happy, just thinking about it.

Trouble is, who wants to routinely shell out $80 a pop, like we do for the real deal from Germany. Even my favorites from Niagara go for $50 to $60 a bottle. I don't mind buying a couple now and then, but this hot weather is hanging in there, and I can't keep up with my own insatiable thirst for this summertime nectar of the gods.

So, I'm always on the hunt for cheaper alternatives. I've made a point of trying ice wines wherever I find them, no matter how far off the beaten track they are. I've found some good ones out on Long Island, for example, though these tend to be faux ice wines.

In case you don't know, real ice wine is made from grapes harvested in the middle of the night when the temperatures dip below 20 degrees F. Only trace amounts of super concentrated sweet juice are left in the shriveled frozen grapes, which makes the final product quite expensive. Faux ice wines are made from late harvest grapes that are brought inside and then frozen artificially. These wines generally do not have as much character as real ice wines, but some are pretty darn good. And they're cheaper.

So, I'm open to the better faux ice wines. I even found one at a Connecticut winery recently that was good, though still a little steep at $39. When we were in Maine recently, I was optimistic about finding a good one -- after all, we were just about as far north as Niagara.

We even found one very nice Maine winery, the Cellar Door, that is not overly reliant on fruit wines. But when I inquired about ice wines, I found out just how hard it is to do an ice wine even when you have favorable weather. They told me that in that part of Maine it's a real struggle to keep grapes on the vines until traditional harvest, let alone late harvest, because of the moose, bears, wild turkeys and birds. And, if they are lucky enough to have some frozen product hanging around come late fall, there would be so little juice harvested they would have to charge a great deal for it. Small country wineries don't think they can get away with charging those kinds of prices. Helps you realize what they're up against, and it makes you all the more grateful for the ice wine you can find.

But all was not lost while in Maine because I remembered to pack a couple of bottles of Bonny Doon's Muscat Vin De Glaciere, a faux ice wine that is simply incomparable in its price range. For under $20, Bonny Doon delivers year in and year out one of the most reliable dessert wines to be found. I never fail to be smitten by the gobs of candied apricot that awaits me when I pour a glass.

I've sung the praises of Bonny Doon before. I'll keep doing so as long as they make wines like this, capable of soothing the most fevered brow.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Wine Fraud Terminator

I was absolutely amazed by one of Tom Wark's posts this week over at Fermentation. Apparently an Australian winemaker has threatened to sue a wine blogger over a negative review of his wine.

This is just astounding. First, haven't they ever seen Gene Shalit or Roger Ebert trash a movie? They don't have a clue just how good they have it now. Wines never get trashed the way movies or other forms of pop culture do. Plus, I could go on and on about the value that blogging brings to consumers, from hot tips to red flags about all kinds of products.

But a story I read today has given me a new thought. Scientists have developed a robotic winetaster capable of sniffing out fraud of all kinds. Perhaps we should consign the bulk of wine reviews to the winebot? Right now it can correctly identify 30 unique organic components of wine, and can sniff out fraud of many kinds, such as using varietals not labeled or proportions not permitted because of what's stated on the label. Yup, winemakers could have it a lot tougher, and they are going to.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lobsters Respond

I can't believe that any self-respecting lobster wouldn't be tickled to be paired with a white Burgundy or a premium California chard. But I guess some just can't get past the boiling water part. Check out this guy from somewhere in St. George, Maine.

I love dry Yankee wit. But the old salts take some things very seriously, like how lobster should be prepared. The lobster fisherman who lives next door to the place in Maine where we stayed last week, swore that the only way to eat boiled lobster was to have it cooked in seaweater. And, the butter should be mixed with vinegar, white or balsamic, he insisted.

Now, having eaten lobster from lobster pounds along the coast for years -- where they use only seawater for boiling lobster -- I wholeheartedly agree that if you have access to seawater it makes the lobster even tastier. But I've got to part ways with our fisherman friend on the vinegar.

The lobster is good with the butter/vinegar combo. But the intense briny sweetness of fresh Maine lobster is lost when masked by vinegar. The sweet natural flavors come through better without the vinegar. Sans vinegar is best, in my book. And, of course, it's easier to match a wine without the vinegar. Need I say more?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Lobster Lover's Libations

We're back from Maine, a few pounds heavier but a whole lot more mellow and content. Resting, reading, walking on the beach and indulging a passion for lobster will do that. We ate a lot of lobster...for research purposes, of course.

As an east-coaster, I consider Maine lobster to be one of the ultimate summer foods, so I've been giving some extra thought lately to the subject of pairing wine with lobster. I have long been a fan of white burgundy with lobster, but the last thing I want to do is get stuck in a rut. So, I brought along a bunch of different whites and put my old formula to the test.

Just to be clear, we're not talking about pairing wine with different lobster dishes. The subject at hand is what wine really goes best with good ole boiled lobster with drawn butter. White, of course. You probably know that red really doesn't belong with lobster at all -- unless, perhaps, the lobster is in a fra diavolo.

I brought along four wines to try:

  • 2005 Trumpeter Torrontes (Argentina)
  • 2004 Gessami Gramona (Spain)
  • 2002 Verget Grand Elevage Bourgogne (Burgundy)
  • 2002 Chalone Vineyard Estate Chardonnay

I have to say the Chalone was the favorite of both my brother and my wife, with the lobster. The flavors worked quite well. The Chalone was complex with its vanilla and pear and spiced apple flavors, with a buttery finish. Very nice companion to the the lobster and butter -- except that I was a little concerned the finish on the wine overshadowed the food. It was not too aggressively oaked, but the 14.3 percent alcohol meant that the wine came on a bit strong at the end. To my taste buds, a little too strong.

The Tumpeter was an interesting experiment. The proprietor of one of my favorite wine shops recommended this as a nice lobster wine, one that would offer a acidic counterbalance to the fat of the lobster and butter. I did like the flavor pairing very much -- like having a bit of lemon in your butter. But there just wasn't enough body to carry it through to the end, shoulder to shoulder with the butter-drenched lobster.

The Gessami also was an interesting experiment. This muscat, sauvignon blanc blend from Spain has a rich, creamy texture and nice aromas of peaches and melon. It was closer in richness, but I didn't find the flavors a good match for the briny, buttery flavor of lobster. I would like to try this wine, however, with certain other foods -- maybe the lobster salad in mango dressing that I do.

Then there was the white Burgundy. Damn, if it didn't marry as good as ever with lobster. The pear and vanilla flavors mingle together so well with the butter, and the finish is crisper and cleaner than the California chardonnay. Yup, the winner and still reigning champ, Bourgogne, except for the small detail that I was outvoted. Oh well, they can get their own blogs.

However, we're not done. I'd like to do a Part 2 lobster/wine tasting before the summer's out. I'd like to try additional combinations, such as pinot gris and a nice Montrachet. Any other ideas?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Summer Swill

Since yesterday was Bastille Day, of course that meant French wine was required to commemorate the occasion -- an inexpensive Burgundy to go with a Provencal (headless) salmon, in this case. Delicious.

Today, I'm thinking about some white Burgundy...again. But this time, I'm thinking we need to put this default wine to the test. We're off for a week to the land of lobster, which means there won't be any blog updates for the next week. But we will be thinking about wine, specifically which goes best with lobster.

Hope you can check back in a week or so to learn more about what we found out from this highly controlled, clinical taste test. See you after a week of tough work.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hopkins Vineyard

I hit the Connecticut Wine Trail again recently, and I'm happy to report that Kathy and I had a terrific tasting experience at the Hopkins Vineyard in New Preston, Conn. Not only do they make some very good wines, they enjoy one of the prettiest settings around, on a hill overlooking Lake Waramaug. It also has a 200-year-old pedigree as a farm and is one of the older Connecticut vineyards, though the first vines were planted in 1979.

The Facilities
If I can revisit my theory about visiting wineries, for a minute, I believe most visitors to wineries are not wine experts but tourists or yuppies out for a weekend, looking for a taste of that wine experience they hear so much about in California. They do not need to be hit over the head with $100 cabernet; they just need to feel like they're immersed in the real deal, and that the wine is good enough to buy so that they can celebrate the adventure again later.

I can tell you that Hopkins will probably come closer to meeting most people's expectations than will most other wineries in Connecticut. In fact, I would compare it to many of the good Long Island vineyards we've visited and even some of the more pastoral wineries we've visited in California in Paso Robles and the Sierra foothills -- except for the quality of the reds.

From the outside, Hopkins looks like a picturesque red barn but otherwise does not promise much. In fact, it is a very accommodating environment in which to soak up the wine experience. The winery includes extensive retail space for all kinds of wine-related purchases (my wife's favorite so far) and a very nice winetasting bar. Upstairs, the winery hosts a lovely cafe featuring wine by the glass, cheese plates and some other nibbles to enjoy with the wine.

Off the winetasting room, you can follow a self-guided tour into the winery itself and check out the fermentation tanks and oak barrels. Very nice ambience. The only complaint I have is that with all that space, could they have made the winetasting bar a bit bigger. When we were there, there were not very many people, but we still had a hard time getting space at the bar.

Still, the accommodations are really enjoyable and bound to make virtually everyone feel like they truly are in wine country. And, they can choose between browsing, winetasting or enjoying a leisurely light lunch in the cafe. I give the facilities a 5 out 5 score.

The Staff
Hopkins appears to be a fairly big operation, compared to other Connecticut wineries, and so they employ a number of young people to conduct their tastings. Consequently, you're not likely to meet the winemaker or gain some first-hand knowledge of vineyard conditions.

The young pourers were fairly knowledgable, if unexcited about the products. They had memorized flavor profiles and were prepared to answer most questions. But what they lacked was any real passion for the wines and, consequently, fell a bit short in stirring real excitement in us. Not that this is much different from some of the best wineries. I recall having really sensational wines at a Washington State winery a few years back, only to have the experience soured by a thoroughly bored, even acerbic young blond woman.

Still, some real insight and passion could really help enthuse those just learning about wines. So I give the staff here a 3 out 5 score.

The Wines
Let's start out by noting that winetasting at Hopkins will cost you $5.30 per person, or $7.50 for the full line-up, including the ice wine but excluding the sparkling wine. These prices are consistent with what wineries charge in many other states, but it doesn't seem like that long ago that Connecticut wineries were charging little or nothing. Ah, the good old days.

The good news -- Hopkins makes some excellent white wines. The bad news -- I'm still searching for a good Connecticut red. Here we go:

2003 Estate Bottled Chardonnay $15.99. Very nice, barrel fermented and aged in both American and French oak, it imparts some nice butter and apple spice aromas with a crisp finish.

2004 Estate Bottled Duet $10.99. A blend of chardonnay and vidal blanc, this wine has excellent fruit and pleasant acidity, very little oak.

2005 Vineyard Reserve $12.50. Made from seyval blanc and vidal blanc grapes, this wine is a nice, light, crisp package with notes of fig.

2003 Estate Bottled Cabernet Franc $17.95. It starts out with a spicy tart cherry taste that quickly fades into a thin, diluted imitation of cab franc. Surprisingly, it achieves 13 percent alcohol but not the extraction to match. I'm told they really do make good cabernet franc, and that the previous vintage was much better. But '03 was nothing to write home, or even send a postcard, about.

Red Barn Red $12.50. This blend of cab franc and three hybrid grapes was interesting for its gamay-like flavors, despite a slightly sour finish. Not too bad.

2004 Estate Bottled Westwind $10.99. A semi-sweet wine, it showed some nice citrus notes and decent acidity.

Sachem's Picnic $10.99. Semi-sweet and simplistic. Definitely disappointing.

2003 Estate Bottled Vidal Blanc $13.99. This late harvest dessert wine had a hint of an apricot nose but was quite sweet without the needed acidity. Fair.

2003 Estate Bottled Ice Wine $39.50. This ice wine was very nice indeed, with honey and apricot aromas. While ice wines are traditionally labor intensive and expensive to make, the price feels a little steep for Connecticut. But it really is a very enjoyable dessert wine.

While Hopkins did little to unhinge my antipathy for Connecticut reds, it showed more promise than the other wineries we've visited so far. And, many of the whites really are very good. I think most people would very much enjoy tasting these wines, so I give them a score of 8 out of 10.

Overall, I think the Hopkins offers winetasters a very enjoyable experience. It also offers the convenience of being located in an ideal, pastoral tourist location next to a popular inn and restaurant. My total score for Hopkins is 16 out of 20 -- the highest score so far and a number that could easily increase even higher with a little extra effort from the staff.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

New England Futures?

Seems this story has been getting lots of play in the press the last day or so. Could California wine's day in the sun, so to speak, be almost over due to global warming and rising temperatures? And, could New England be poised for future winemaking stardom thanks to the same phenomenon?

As someone long concerned about environmental issues, I never dreamed there could be an upside to this disturbing trend. As I read the latest, my mind started to wander -- could Connecticut cabernet become the new gold standard? Could a new winter tradition of warming one's selve with Puritan port emerge?

But, alas, as I got to the last paragraph, I realized that selling shares in my future winery wasn't going to happen. For one thing, could take the next century for this trend to play out. But more importantly, we're just too darned wet and humid out here. Even if our temperatures eventually become perfect for grapes, this is the land of mildew and fungus -- not anyone's ideal bouquet.

As you may know, I've been making it my business lately to visit Connecticut wineries, and I've heard a lot about mold and mildew and the never-ending challenge they pose to farmers. If you're lucky enough to live near more ideal wine-producing areas, you should be more than grateful. You should refuse to stick your head in the sand like these people.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Professor's Cabernet

I found a real bargain cab this week at one of my favorite wine shops. But I suspect few people will rush out to buy it because it's not the ever-popular cabernet sauvignon, it's cabernet franc.

Cabernet franc often makes for wonderful wines, but it has to be one of the most overlooked varietals produced today. Partly, this is what comes from a life spent in the shadows. You see cabernet franc is best known, in wine circles, as one of the five red grapes blended to make most red Bordeaux. As such, it has always taken a back seat to cabernet and merlot, either of which tends to dominate most Bordeaux reds.

In this country, cabernet sauvignon and merlot have emerged as star varietals, though merlot has lost some of its luster of late. But cabernet franc still is not produced as its own varietal very often, and when it is, it seems to be eyed with suspicion by many consumers. It's a shame.

Cabernet franc is closely related genetically to cabernet sauvignon. As a result they share many of the same flavor characteristics, such as black cherry and cassis. But cabernet franc is thinner skinned and earlier-ripening than cabernet sauvignon and, consequently, tends to have less structure, less tannins. As my wine shop friend says, "it's cabernet without the big finish."

What you typically will find in cabernet franc is plenty of fruit and a somewhat herbaceous quality. The cabernet franc I tried for the first time yesterday fits this description to a tee -- and for just under $10 a bottle. It's a 2003 estate-bottled Korta Cabernet Franc from Chile, and it made me think of my professor from last semester whose interests are tightly focused on great value wines. Professor, this cab's for you.

Judging by this wine, Chile may have weather ideally suited to producing this varietal. Of course, California could grow all the cabernet franc it wants, but their interests lie elsewhere. I've also had some very good cabernet francs at Long Island wineries. The varietal is popular with many wineries in the Northeast, probably because it does better in our weather than would cabernet sauvignon. Unfortunately, many are insipid. Just make sure you don't judge the varietal unless you've had it from a prime wine-producing area. And, with the prices they're charging, Chile may be a good place to start.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Media Convergence

When the wife and I were at the White Silo Winery in Connecticut last weekend, the subject of my last blog entry, we coincidentally were there at the same time as someone from AP. I half-heartedly agreed to let myself be photographed, for the story, sipping wine.

The story about the winery was published in yesterday's newspaper and, surprise, surprise -- they decided to use a photo of a young, very attractive couple at the wine bar, rather than this grizzled old winer. I understand that I'm not doing any marketer's supposed demographics any good, but my wife certainly deserves her shot. So, I thought I'd try to make amends (in the foreground, in front of the 20-somethings).

My more objective reaction to the story is that, while it's nice that the newspaper business is on to the growing wine culture phenomenon, I found it odd that AP decided to cover the explosion in interest by focusing on this particular winery. As the story notes, the number of wineries locally is growing, and consumers are getting out there and trying them.

But White Silo is anything but emblematic of the trend. It's a specialty winery producing nothing but fruit wines (non-grape) in a rustic, unadorned old barn. Nothing wrong with this, just like there's nothing wrong with any fresh farm products. But today's wineries typically sport lavish tasting room facilities and increasingly good wines.

I doubt this particular winery represents the future, so I found it an odd choice to be singled out. Still, I hope they enjoy their 15 minutes.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Red, White and Black?

While on the Connecticut Wine Trail this past weekend, we came across a local winery that, by my own criteria, I shouldn't review. When I started making the rounds at Connecticut wineries, I vowed not to review any fruit (non-grape) wines. This despite the fact that so many wineries in the Northeast make them.

When we got to the White Silo Winery on the western edge of the state, in Sherman, we discovered this particular winery serves nothing but fruit wines.

I stand firm. I am not going to review these wines. But all was not lost because I discovered some nice dessert wine to go over those strawberries or ice cream at the 4th of July picnic.

Open to the public for four years now, White Silo is a small, family-run business that features wines made entirely from fruit grown on the farm, including blackberries, raspberries, cherries, black currants and rhubarb. And, get a load of this, I actually liked the rhubarb wine. The only one, really, out of the dry wines that I cared for. It was a nice, simple white wine that could pair nicely with light appetizers, salad meals or white fish.

But the real specialty here is the dessert wine, which, for some reason, they bill as semi-sweet. Trust me, almost all are darned sweet. In fact, some more or less fall into the category of syrupy cordials. But the raspberry and blackberry wines would go wonderfully over some summer desserts. Add a little whipped cream and you've got red, white and...too bad they don't make a blueberry wine.

You're not going to impress anyone with these wines on your dinner table, but there are times when a simple taste of the farm will do. The winery itself is located in a converted dairy barn. The ambience is very much about farm life, rather than today's winetasting circuit. Little has been done to the simple interior, which is framed by a concrete floor and an unadorned, planked ceiling. The wine bar and the numerous paintings by local artists are the only concessions to tourists.

One word of warning. The Connecticut Wine Trail brochure says that winestastings are complimentary. They are not. It is $5 to taste the majority of wines. You may have to ponder whether the price is justified, considering the fact that you are not going to get the product you might expect for such a tasting fee. Personally, I love visiting local farms but don't usually pay for the privilege.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Connecticut Valley Winery

If Northwest Connecticut is home to the state's oldest winery, it is also home to one of the newest, the Connecticut Valley Winery. Opening its doors in October 2005, the winery is still going through some growing pains. But judging by the enthusiasm of the Ferraro family, who own and operate CT Valley, there's reason to be optimistic about the future.

At first glance, CT Valley does not look like a particulary inviting winetasting environment. The tasting room is located in the winery itself, which looks more or less like an industrial-size, gray barn with dormers. But they actually did a nice job inside creating a Mediterranean style tasting room with a fireplace and a couple of tables, at which you can leisurely enjoy a glass of wine.

Though located on a busy road, you're in a country setting out here. While we stood at the wine bar sampling wines, we could see a deer feeding near the edge of a grassy field behind the buillding. It was quaint, but deer are not necesarily a good thing around vineyards full of ripe grapes. I give the overall ambience a score of 3 out of 5.

Our pourer was Judy Ferraro, wife of the winemaker and co-owner. Judy is a gregarious host who enjoys talking about the wines. And, since the winery is still fairly new, she gave us great insight into what it's like to open a winery -- a "retirement" project for Judy and her husband, Anthony.

First, there's securing the approval of local officials. Difficulties in another nearby town led the Ferraros to choose New Hartford, in the end, as the home of their new winery. Then, there's the state approvals required for just about everything, including the labels for some new varietals that are still waiting to get out of the starting gate. And, there's the ever-present difficulties of growing grapes in our humid weather.

All of this was conveyed philosophically, with enough conviviality to keep the winetasting experience upbeat. Definitely good ambience. Judy was stumped by a couple of questions, but not a big deal. I give the staff 4 out 5.

The Wines
Unfortunately, as a relatively new winery, CT Valley currently is showing only three wines -- $2 to taste all three. Other varietals are waiting in the wings and are expected to debut in the near future, so I felt pained having to judge the wines overall by the three before us.

The first wine we tasted was a chardonel, a hybrid grape that Judy described as something between a chardonnay and a seyval. I don't know exactly what to expect from seyval, but
I definitely got some spicy apple flavors and a touch of oak (oak chips are used in aging). Lighter in style than most chards, this nonetheless was an enjoyable wine.

Next was a wine they have chosen to call chianti. If you think there's sangiovese growing in them thar hills, forget it. Judy said they call the wine chianti because the word means blend. I had not heard that before, so I looked it up. While chianti does principally refer to dry red table wines from the Chianti area of Tuscany, turns out it does mean also a blended wine.

But this particular blend of grapes such as fauche and frontenac, bolstered with some California fruit, misses the mark. It's a bit thin and unsophisticated, lacking in any kind of complexity. I just couldn't muster any enthusiasm for it.

Same goes for the final wine, called ruby lite. There just isn't enough body in the red grapes to justify blending them with white wine grapes. It is essentially a blend of the first two wines and it falls victim to the shortcomings of the chianti. Final review on the wines, 5 out of 10. However, I definitely would like to come back in a year and see what else they have up their sleeves.

Final score for this winery is 12 0ut of 20. I probably would not recommend these wines to anybody at the moment (maybe the chardonel), but I think it definitely warrants investigation again down the road. They have designed a nice tasting facility, and their passion for wine is evident. Hopefully, all that's missing is more experience and a dry harvest.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.