Ice Ice Baby!

The other night I came home from work late. I had a light meal, but wanted something sweet after dinner.  It was a warm evening  so ice cream came to mind, but I had ice cream the night before and wanted to avoid the fat.  I decided to have a little ice wine –  2008 Alois Kracher Cuvée Eiswein from Austria.

Because it was chilled, it was refreshing.  It definitely satisfied my sweet tooth.  What I like about ice wines is that even though they are sweet, they tend not to be cloyingly sweet, as other dessert wines such as late harvest, or ports can be.  That’s because they have more acidity than other dessert wines.  And acidity tends to refresh the palate rather than cling to it.

To make ice wine, like late harvest wines, the grapes are left on the vine to ripen and raisin quite a while after the grapes are picked for the non-dessert wines.  Then the winemaker waits for a frost to come and cover the grapes.  For this reason ice wine is primarily made in limited geographies – places that frost over between November, and January (Germany, where ice wine has been made since the 1700s, and Canada make the most ice wine).

The grapes are pressed frozen. The freezing point of grapes is lower than that of pure water, because the sugar in them lowers the freezing point. Most of the water in the grape doesn’t come out in the pressing, because it’s ice crystals, so the yield of liquid is only 10 to 20 percent of what you would get from grapes that weren’t frozen, but, the liquid that does come out is very concentrated in flavors, acidity and sugars.  As you can imagine, it takes a lot more  grapes to get the juice needed to make the wine.  between the limited geography, and the larger amount of grapes required to make the wine, the ice wine is expensive to make.

Since pure grape nectar is used to make the wines, the wines are very sweet, and pour like syrup. Ice wines are generally made with Vidal and Riesling grapes.  But they may be made from other grape varietals, as was the case with the ice wine I had, which was made from Gruner Vetliner, and Chardonnay grapes.

I tend to like ice wines on their own rather than pairing with desserts because of the sweetness of the wines.  But if you want to pair with a dessert, remember you generally want the wine to be sweeter than the dessert. With that in mind, I suggest using ice wine as an accompaniment to fresh summer berries with cream, chocolate biscuits, a pear tart, raspberry mousse, or a meringue.  Depending on the grape varietal, it might even be poured over ice cream. And don’t forget about pairing ice wine with cheese if you like a cheese plate after dinner.  Because of the natural acidity of ice wines, they can work with a variety of cheeses, including blue cheese.

Ice wine should ideally be served chilled in a chilled regular wine glass – about 2 ounces a serving. Take a walk on the wild side and try some!

Que Syrah Syrah

We went to an Indian restaurant recently.  Indian food can be a challenge to pair with wine, so we asked our food server for a recommendation for the entrees we ordered.  He suggested a couple of wines that he felt would pair well with our meals.  The wines he recommended turned out to be good with our entrees.  But  it got me to thinking about great wine/food pairings. The first such pairing that comes to mind is Hearty Italian Meat Sauce (Sunday Gravy) we had with a 2005 Rosenblum Cellars Reserve Kick Ranch Syrah.

Italian Meat Sauce (Sunday Gravy) is an over the top tomato sauce that typically calls for six different types of meat and a day at the stove.  I took some short cuts, and used 3 types of meats – baby back ribs, meatballs made with ground beef, pork, and veal, Italian sausage, prosciutto, and Pecorino Romano cheese.  It turned out quite well, the ribs were tender, and the meatballs were the best I’ve ever had!

It paired perfectly with the Syrah – meaning the wine and food, each made the other taste better.

I think Syrah is a wonderful varietal for a couple reasons:

  1. Syrah is a pretty versatile wine that can be served with a variety of dishes.  Of course it works well with all kinds of red meat from burgers to roasts, but I’ve found it pairs well with tomato based dishes including jambalaya and pizza.
  2. I think it tends to be a better value than the more prevalent reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, or Pinot Noir.  Particularly the Syrahs (a.k.a Shiraz) from Australia.

Syrah is made in a variety of style depending on where the grapes are grown, weather, and vinification (turning grapes into wine,  including fermentation, types of barrels used, etc.)  Try a few to see what you like.

In terms of flavor/aroma profile of Syrah  – look for black cherry, blackberry, plum, clove, licorice and smoked meat. Its aroma can range from violets to berries to chocolate and  espresso.  These aren’t all inclusive of course, but they’re a good place to start.

I like to share the flavor/aroma profile of varietals because rather than smelling a wine and trying to think of what it smells like, I like to run list of possibilities through my mind.  I find it easier to hit on the aromas I’m searching for.  For me, it’s the difference between essay vs. multiple choice, if you will.

Cookies and Wine?

I know!  Sounds weird right?!  On the contrary –  I had a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie with Madeira, and they played well together!

There’s a good chance you’re not familiar with Madeira.  I know I wasn’t.  I’ve seen it called for in a few recipes, and occasionally I’ve seen it listed among the dessert wines when dining in a restaurant, but I’d never tried it.

Madeira falls into the category of fortified dessert wines (the other two broad categories of dessert wine being late harvest dessert wines, and ice wines.  I’ll share my late harvest and ice wine experiences another time). A fortified wine is wine to which a distilled beverage (usually brandy) is added.  Aside from Madeira, other fortified wines include Port, sherry, Marsala, and vermouth.   The addition of brandy brings the alcohol level up to 17-20% (most wine is between 10-15% by comparison).  Like most wines, it’s made in a variety of styles ranging from dry, which can be consumed on it’s own as an aperitif, to sweet wines consumed with dessert.

To make Madeira, depending on the level of sweetness desired, fermentation of the wine is halted at some point by the addition of brandy leaving a fortified wine.

Madeira aging in the sun

While most wine is aged under carefully maintained cool temperatures indoor is cellars, what makes Madeira unique toffee-caramel like character  is that the wine is heated.  The most basic (and least expensive) Madeira is made by placing the fortified wine in containers (casks, vat, or even cement tank) that are then heated to an average of 105 degrees for 3-6 months.  However, better Madeiras are heated naturally.  Casks of the best wine are stored in attics of the producer’s warehouses, which sit in the hot Madeiran sun (Madeira is a small volcanic island that is part of Africa, but is a province of Portugal), which creates tremendous heat.  The casks remain undisturbed in the sun for as long as 20 years.  After the heating process is complete, the wine is cooled, and allowed to rest a year or more to recover from the shock.  Thereafter,  the wine further aged.  The additional aging can be very involved process involving aging the wine in casks made of various types of wood, and can take place over a 3-20 year period.  Do the math and some of the great Madeiras can take 40 years, or longer to make!

Properly sealed in bottles, Madeira is one of the longest lasting wines; Madeiras have been known to survive over 150 years in excellent condition. No wonder, after years of sitting in the hot sun, being stored at room temp is a piece of cake.

I had a 5-year Malmsey Madeira, which means the youngest component in the blend is aged at least 5 years in casks.  Other types of Madeira are 3, 10, 15 year Madeira, and Vintage Madeira (unlike virtually all other Madeiras which are blend of grapes from different years – vintage Madeira is made from grapes from a single year.  And like other wines Madeira is made from a variety of grapes.  Malmsey Madeira is made from Malvasia grapes, and is the sweetest style Madeira.

All Madeira has great natural acidity which make then refreshing to drink on their own.  But as I discovered, they can also make a wonderful juxtaposition to the richness of desserts made with cream or chocolate.  And that’s what gave me the idea to try Madeira with a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie.  I felt the toffee/caramel character would complement the peanut butter, while at the same time providing a wonderful counterbalance  to the chocolate.  And this time I was right!  It was also good with a Hershey Kiss with Almonds!

Madeira would work well with nutty cheeses such as Gruyere, and blue cheeses. For those with a sweet tooth, try it with  dark chocolate desserts, and pecan, or pumpkin pie.   Just keep in mind, that as a general rule, the wine should be somewhat sweeter than the dessert.

Everything’s coming up Rosés – for me.

Over the last few weeks we’ve enjoyed a variety of  foods, including marinated grilled chicken, spaghetti with Italian sausage, paella valenciana, grilled salmon and makhani chicken, an  Indian dish.  We’ve had one type of wine with all those different foods – Rosés, which we paired well with them all.  For me, Rosé is the perfect summer wine, and one of the most versatile wines for pairing with all kinds of foods.  The better ones are good all year round.  They have the chillability of white wine, and the bright fruit flavors of red wine.

Rosés are made from red (or black)  grapes.  They may be made from a single type of grape, or a variety of grapes.  For example, of the three Rosés we’ve had recently,  one was Syrah based, one was  grenache based (88% grenache, 12% syrah), and one was  sangiovese based.  Rosés owe their color the process of fermenting grape juices with their skins for a short period of time.  Whereas red wine is fermented entirely with grape skins, and white wine is fermented entirely without grape skins.   The longer the juice is in contact with the skins the darker the color of the wine.

Rosés can be dry or sweet and the are usually pink,  or washed red in color. I definitely prefer the dry style popularized in Europe, but gaining in popularity here in the US, as opposed to a sweet Rosé such a White Zinfandel which has become  popular in the US.  By dry, I mean the wine has very little residual sugar (An off-dry wine has just a touch of sweetness) A sweet Rosé is less versatile, and tend to not be as complex as the drier style. Typical aromas of Rosés are cherry, berries, and melon.

The beauty of Rosé is that it can be both  an easy drinking thirst-quencher on a hot day, while still pairing well with so many foods — from cheeses to sandwiches, grilled chicken, and seafood — and it  goes especially well with internationally spiced dishes including Indian, Moroccan, and Asian fare.  They tend to not be expensive (between $10-$20/bottle), and also tend to be lower in alcohol.

The most highly regarded Rosés come from France, in particular Provence, and Tavel, but they’re made all over the world.  In California,  they tend to be Grenache, and Pinot Noir based.  Rosés  may also be made from Cabernet Franc, Gamay and several Italian grape varieties such as Sangiovese, and Barbera. They should be served chilled and drunk young.

While Rosé  is the perfect summer time wine, don’t forget about Rosé for Thanksgiving and or Christmas dinner.  Since it’s one of the easier wines to pair with food, it’s a great wine to pair with the many flavors of a holiday meal.

Champagne Day!

August 4th is annual Champagne Day. It’s the date traditionally ascribed to Dom Perignon’s invention of Champagne in 1693. While history has proven claims of monk’s invention of Champagne (along with the quote attributed to him at the time of invention – “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”) to be more fanciful than factual, I like any excuse to celebrate, and hoist a glass of champagne. Why let the facts get in the way of what I’m feelin’;-)?!

Here’s the 411 on Champagne…

Wine can only be labeled “champagne” if is made in the Champagne region of northeastern France. If a sparkling wine is produced elsewhere using the traditional French method, credit must be given to the “methode champenoise” on the label. Personally, I just refer to both Champagne, and sparkling wine as “Champagne”

The three traditional grapes used to make champagne are the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. A Blanc de Blanc Champage is made from Chardonnay only, while Blanc de Noir Champagne wine is made from black grapes Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. True Champagne, as opposed to other sparkling wines, has to have developed bubbles by undergoing the fermentation process twice: once in barrels and again in bottles

Champagne/Sparkling wine comes in various levels of sweetness including (going from least sweet to most sweet) Extra-Brut, Brut (the most popular style, and very food friendly), Extra-Dry (my favorite because it has a touch of sweetness, IMO best as an aperitif), Sec, and Demi-Sec.

And finally non-vintage vs vintage Champagne – Non-Vintage accounts for 85-90% of all Champagne produced, and it is less expensive than Vintage Champagne. Non-vintage Champagne is designated as such because the grapes used are harvested from various years (vintages), whereas Vintage Champagne is made from grapes harvested from one particular year (vintage).

My favorite Champagne quote –“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” – Madam Lilly Bollinger, of the Bollinger brand of Champagnes.
As always…I’ll be practicing what I preach…look for my review!

When Good Wine Goes Bad

In honor of Riesling Week, I popped and poured a 2006  Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen Riesling Eroica.  In the past it’s been my favorite American Rieslings.  I was expecting good stuff, but what I got was a lesser version of a wine I last had 2 years ago.  For my detailed Cellartracker tasting notes under “MartinD” follow the link: – #wine

So what happened?  I’m not sure.  Because it’s a Riesling, I expected it be fine if I laid it down a couple of years.  In this case it wasn’t.  Petrol on the nose is common for German Rieslings in my experience, but not American Rieslings.  Nevertheless petrol dominated the nose,  the wine seemed have a much lighter body that I remember, along with a shorter finish.   Perhaps, it wasn’t stored properly.  I think this is a good example of when  good wine goes bad.  Contrary to popular belief it doesn’t turn into vinegar.  Rather it becomes a lesser version of itself.  In this case, a wine I’d had before (same vintage) went from a wine I would consider to at least be very good (85-89pts), maybe perhaps outstanding (90+ pts) to a wine I scored a notch above mediocre.  Perhaps I just had a bad bottle.  Based on the track record, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and try another bottle.  Next time, I’ll store in the refrigerator.