Wine Memories – Sipping Special Places

Let’s do some traveling together.  We just returned from a vacation overseas and we captured the memories in pictures and videos as well as locking special moments into the memory bank. Isn’t savoring new experiences and building the memories why we travel? We have been blessed with many opportunities to fill the memory bank with special times involving wine so I thought it would be fun to highlight some of them, especially since they also offer insight into wine with food and wine with different places. In a way this is wine pairing at the source! Cue the traveling music please…

  • New Zealand may be known for lamb but did you know about the green lipped mussels? These are large, tender and flavorful mussels you can enjoy either hot or chilled. I like ‘em chilled and there’s nothing better than sitting around the table like we did in Blenheim – drinking some Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc and sharing a heap of green lipped mussels. The tart and herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc is an ideal match to the soft texture and slight taste of the sea. In the memory bank.
  • More seafood? The most enjoyable bottle of Pinot Grigio I can remember was sipped with a bucket of steamed “pisser” clams on a dock in Nantucket. The small clams, steamed in white wine, served in a bucket under the summer sun with the swish of the Atlantic waves under the dock, screamed for chilled, somewhat fruity yet bone dry Pinot Grigio. With a crusty loaf to dunk in the juice it was the perfect summer lunch and Nantucket memory.
  • Barcelona is an amazing city filled with the fantastical art of Gaudi and museums devoted to Picasso and Miro, but there is also art at the La Boqueria market where the variety of foods and tastes is almost overwhelming. IMG_4776So pull up a stool, order a bottle of wine from the Priorate and start noshing. The wine of Priorate is primarily Grenache and there is nothing like ordering up an array of tapas amid the bustle of the market, especially with a bowl of squid and beans as part of the choice, and sharing the bottle with good friends. It is a highlight memory of what Barcelona is all about… art, food and life.
  • Then there is my favorite bottle of Chianti, which we sipped with grilled-to- perfection sliced Chianina beef in a little trattoria called La Grotta della Rana (the courtyard is pictured above) in the small village of San Sano in Tuscany. The San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva is not the most famous or priciest of the area, but it was perfect – the vineyard is just a few kilometers away in the rolling countryside near Giaole. It’s pairing food and wine from the place – the easiest pairing rule you can remember for sure! And doesn’t the wine always seem to taste better when you’re in the special place of its origin? Sure does for me.
  • We’ll always have Paris – and the memory of dining at Alain Ducasse. The tasting menu was outrageously enjoyable as were our dinner companions, Parisian friends who know their way around a wine list!  This was one of the best splurges ever, complete with a bottle of the famed Chateau Haut Brion. Haut Brion is one of the 1st Growth Bordeaux estates and the wines are exceptional (both in taste and price!). Typically a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot the wine is an amazing experience, with layers of tastes that punctuate it as a memorable sipping experience. This night was the epitome of French fine dining. I saved the bottle.

I could go on and on – but will spare you! The amazing thing about wine is that its experience can last well beyond the empty glass or bottle.  And sometimes those most amazing experiences are right at home too. For Cris’ last birthday we grilled a steak, sat on the deck and opened a bottle of 1994 Silver Oak Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  We not only celebrated her birthday but were reminded of trips to Napa and Sonoma and all of the magical moments that wine has brought to life for us.

And that’s what Sips, and wine memories, are all about.

About Grenache

Grenache is a grape variety and wine that is unfamiliar to many people.  Yet it is a prime player in some of the tastiest reds and rose’ around. It’s also one of the most widely planted grapes in the world and it thrives in hot and dry environments.  This means that it is one of the staple grapes in Spain (where it is called Garnacha), the southern Rhone, south of France, Australia and that lovely island off the coast of Italy, Sardinia, where it is called Cannonau.  Cannonau di Sardegna is actually required to be at least 85% Grenache.  Mostly Grenache is used to blend with other grapes to add punch and color to them since it is typically higher in alcohol yet lower in acidity than many other grapes of those regions.  But there are several very popular, affordable and tasty wines that are mostly, if not all, Grenache.  So what’s in a sip?

Usually young Grenache wines have flavors of red fruits like raspberry and strawberry – not unlike Pinot Noir, but with an underlay that is spicier, less earthy and lacking the acidity and tannin that give Pinot its character and longevity.  I like to describe Grenache wines as ‘juicy’ due to their fruitiness and soft drinkability.  These are not aggressive wines but plain fun to drink and at prices that make them terrific every day choices and great for parties.  Keep that in mind for the upcoming holiday season.  I’ll point some our below to help you shop.

While Grenache makes fine wines all on its own, the main job of Grenache is to be a key player in the blend of wines like Chateauneuf du Pape, Cotes du Rhone, the wines of the Languedoc – Roussillon, Provencal reds and Australian GSM blends.  The GSM stands for Grenache-Syrah-Mouvedre and it is a pretty standard blending inherited from the French who also use Cinsault and Carignan.

And then there is Spain.  Spain claims the origin of Grenache (Garnacha) and the most prominent use is in the the Priorate and Montsant regions of Catalonia southwest of Barcelona, and in the Rioja and Navarra blended with Tempranillo.

Now all this may seem a bit confusing – but that’s why I’m here!  No, not to confuse, but to offer a bit of a roadmap to sipping all kinds of wine.  And one thing that is clearly not confusing about Grenache is that it is largely the favored grape for the best (in my opinion) rose’ made – those from the south of France and the Rosado of Spain.

Let’s get to sipping!  Here is a list of some of the Grenache based wines I like and I think you’ll see just how much they can fit into a wide variety of every day sipping, group get togethers and special occasions.

Everyday Sips
2013 Las Rocas Garnacha $10. Easy crowd pleaser
2014 Bodegas Borsao Garnacha $8. Parker description: exuberant
2014 Evodia Old Vines Garnacha $8. I buy this all the time and just watched the Cubs win the pennant while sipping it with friends and enjoying Chicago-style Italian beef.  Doesn’t get much better than that!
2013 Domaine Lafage Cuvee Nicolas $14. 100% old vine Grenache from France.
Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2011 $15. A bit more depth and texture due to 95% Grenache.
2014 Les Vignes Bila Haut Rouge M Chapoutier $14.  Great blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan from the south of France from one of the best Rhone producers.
2013 Yalumba The Strapper Grenache Syrah Mourvedre $18. A mouthful from South Australia.

Guest Sips
2014 Alvaro Palacios Terrasses $40. One of my personal favorite wines.  Juicy, versatile and lush.

Fall In To Fuller Wines

It’s official… summer is over.  But in many parts of the country we get to enjoy a great time of year – Fall.  And it’s also time for me to get back to some posting!

In Fall the days are strikingly clear, the nights crisp and cool, and I love the crunchy rustle of the fallen leaves as you walk through them.  In the vineyard the vines begin to shut down too and the leaves turn reddish rust or golden – a beautiful time to visit.

But no matter where you live Fall seems to signal that it’s also time for heartier foods and a return to the bigger style wines that go with them.  If summer is a time for Zippy Whites then Fall brings me back to mouth-filling reds, so I find myself reaching for different ones that fit the season.  It can be the ideal tailgate wine – California Zin,  juicy Merlot from Washington, tasty Syrah/Grenache blends from the Rhone in France, lush Tempranillo from Spain, spicy Shiraz from Down-under or terrific everyday Malbec from Argentina.  And, of course, there is always Cabernet Sauvignon in all of it’s kingly splendor.

Sure, that’s a pretty big list, but the tastes of Fall bring a lot of variety into the mix. At our house we’ve already chopped the carrots and chunked the beef for hearty stew, baked chicken and Italian sausage in the oven, braised short ribs, made a pot of chili, grilled thick cut lamb chops, roasted the pork all day to pull for tacos al pastor and slow cooked Osso Buco – and it’s only early October!

If you follow Sips or remember The Wine Experience then you know that my personal food and wine pairing mantra is “drink what you like.”  Well I like putting many of the tastes of Fall foods together with reds that just seem to complete the package.  Here’s what I mean:

  • Chili and Zin. Zin adds a dash of peppery flavor and has the attitude to stand up to the multitude of ingredients, especially the tomato and peppers. Other choice: Primitivo.
  • Beef stew and Merlot. Merlot’s jammy flavor seems ideal for the supple gravy and soft beef chunks, as well as the sweetness of the carrots. Other choice: Cabernet.
  • Baked chicken and sausage with Rhones. The Grenache based blends of the southern Rhone bridge the mild flavored chicken and the spiced sausage.  This one is interesting because we actually use white wine in cooking but I like the way the red pulls it all together when it’s time to eat. Other choice Sangiovese.
  • Thick cut grilled lamb chops with Cabernet. The tannins of the Cab are like an exclamation point to the richness of the lamb. Other choice Tempranillo.
  • Braised short ribs with Shiraz. I love the fruit and spice with the meatiness. Other choice Merlot.
  • Osso Buco and Tempranillo. I like the acidity of the Tempranillo with the deep hearty flavor of the slow cooked veal shank. Other choice Nebbiolo.
  • Tacos and Malbec. Si.

I think it’s time to start cooking – then pick some wine from our Sips pages for Every Day, Guest and Splurge wine choices.  And as your special treat, here is the Chicken and Sausage recipe!

Cristina Pastina’s Chicken and Sausage
Serves 6
Note:  Your choice on the chicken.  You can use a whole chicken cut up or six split breast if you prefer just white meat.

Ingredients:
6 split chicken breasts (bone in)
4 Italian sausages, cut in thirds
6 medium sized Yukon gold potatoes, quartered
4 large carrots, peeled and cut to large chunks (3 or 4 per carrot)
1 large onion, halved and sliced
½ cup olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup seasoned bread crumbs
3 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt
Black pepper
1 tbs. oregano

Preparation:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees

  1. In a large baking dish, pour olive oil and coat the bottom.  Add the chicken and roll around to cover with oil.  Arrange chicken skin side up around the dish. You may use two baking dishes if more room is needed but this will add to the cooking time.
  2. Pour the wine over the chicken.
  3. Salt and pepper each breast.
  4. Sprinkle oregano, garlic and bread crumbs over each.
  5. Arrange sausage pieces, potatoes and carrots around the dish and between the chicken.
  6. Cover all with the onion slices.
  7. Loosely cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake in the oven for 1 hour.  Remove the foil and bake an additional 30 – 45 minutes to desired doneness – cooking time can vary… the tighter it’s packed the slower it cooks (don’t burn, but make sure the carrots and potatoes are cooked tender)  chicken should be browned by now…if not you may broil for a moment…but watch carefully.
  8. Serve.

What is a “Reserve” Wine?

You see it on the label all the time – the word  Reserve, Reserva or Riserva.  At least on the surface that must mean there’s something a bit more special about the wine, right?  And that’s usually reinforced by the price, which is more than a non-reserve wine from the same producer.  The answer is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.

As with many things about wine there is a lot of “it depends” in that answer. In the New World wine countries – the US, Australia/New Zealand and South America, Reserve is not a regulated designation.  In the Old World there is broad European Union regulation of labeling which is then customized in each country. In Italy and Spain there is specific meaning to the term Riserva or Reserva based on the aging of the wine before it is released for sale. It is time focused.  Therefore, here’s a short guided walk through the meaning of those words on the label.

United States:  The term “Reserve” or other iterations of it on the label has no legal or regulatory meaning. It does not automatically mean higher quality. That’s right, it’s a labeling that is completely up to the winery to use in whatever way they chose.  I think that’s called marketing!

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t believe this is meant to be misleading, rather, wineries typically use “reserve” to indicate they have somehow treated the wine with more special care –  and most will also tell you why it’s more special.  They may have made it from selected vineyards or plots or from a blend of specific barrels or types of oak.  Whatever the case, the Reserve is meant to stand out, fill in their brand offering and generate more selective sales – and, according to the winery, give you a more special sip. The key is to know what you’re buying – so read the back label, check the winery website or rely on a good wine store to help you decide.  And here’s an earlier post on reading the label in general that you may find useful too.

Italy: There is no country wide rule for the use of Riserva but it’s definitive within the different Italian appellations.  Wine from the Chianti zone has different requirements than the Piedmont or Montalcino or the Veneto.  However the general rule is that Riserva have to be aged longer before being released. In Chianti that means a Riserva has been aged at least 2 years and has slightly higher alcohol, for a Brunello it’s 5 years with at least 2 in wood and 6 months in the bottle, and for Barolo the minimum aging is 5 years while Barbaresco is 4 years. These are all meant to be higher quality than non-reserve wines and they are “reserved” or held back for you by the winery while they age and develop. Further Italian wine basics can be found here.

Spain: Thankfully Spain is really straight forward and has specific aging designations.  For quality red wines Reserva is 3 years with 1 in the barrel and Gran Reserva means 5 years with 18 months in the barrel. For white and Rose’ it is 2 years/6 months for Reserva and 4 years/6 months for Gran Reserva.  So for Spanish wines it’s very clear that wine has been treated to extended cellaring before it’s ready for you to sip. And here’s a link to more about Spainsh Reds.

You won’t typically see Reserve designations for French wine (although it’s not precluded) since there is defined labeling based on the classification systems within the appellations and these are highly focused on the place and producer.  For more see earlier posts on Bordeaux and Burgundy.

So next time you’re in the wine shop, or looking over the list at the restaurant, and the word Reserve pops out you have this little sip of label knowledge to guide you!

Enjoy your reserved and unreserved sips!

Spanish Reds

Juicy. Flavorful. Rich. Drinkable. Versatile. Affordable.  Sounds good to me.  Let’s take a Sip through Spanish reds – and that means we start with Tempranillo.

Tempranillo is the most prominent grape grown in Spain and key to many of the most popular and best Spanish reds.  It’s the grape that shapes the hugely enjoyable red wines of Rioja, Ribero del Duero and Toro, the big name regions for Spanish reds.  While there is some blending that’s part of the deal, make no mistake, these are the signature places for Tempranillo.  It defines them and the wine in the bottle.  From these regions you can expect wines that have lots of character and style offering medium acidity and a disciplined approach to aging before they’re released to us.  On the Sip you’ll find red berry along with a spicy flavor that’s often complemented by some mineralty and tobacco along with an aromatic hint of leather.

While the grape is tannic the wines are made to drink by some of that blending, but mostly because there are specific requirements for the aging before they hit the shelves.  The aging can also guide your taste expectations since it allows the flavors to integrate, the tannins to soften and the complexity to further shine.  Here’s what you will see on the label:

  • Crianza.  Younger wines with a minimum of 2 years aging, including 6 to 12 months in oak (depending on the region)
  • Reserva.  2 years total aging with at least 12 months in oak
  • Gran Reserva. 5 years with 18 to 24 months in oak

More to know (but there won’t be a pop quiz). Tempranillo has a few aliases in Spain, not just to confuse us wine drinkers, but because of regional wine culture. So it is also called Cencibel, Tinta del Pais, Tinto Fino and Tinta de Toro.

Next up let’s look at other terrific red grapes and their wines.  Garnacha is the Spanish for Grenache.  Monastrell is the Spanish for Mouvedre and Carinena is Carignan.  Here’s a hint: if you like the red blends of France’s Rhone region then knowing this can help you frame your expectations for a lot of the Spanish reds from Catalonia, the area around Barcelona as well as some of the lesser known regions.  Within the Catalan are two specific areas to note: Priorat and Montsant.  There are amazing Garnacha driven wines from the Priorat, some of my personal favorites from Spain.  Deep and bold, these are habit forming!  And from Montsant there are some terrific everyday reds based on the Monastrell/Carinena combinations. Three up and coming areas to look for are Jumilla, Bierzo and Yecla where there are a growing number of wines now showing up in US stores with basically the same grape combinations.

Spain is a huge wine making country so there’s lots more to share with you, like the story of Cava and a deeper dive into the key regions and what makes them tick – but not all in one sitting.  For now, enough reading – let’s Sip!

Everyday Sip:
2014 Evodia Old Vines Garnacha $10
Buy it!  Great for everyday if you like a pretty big but also softer red.

2013 Castano Monastrell $8

2010 Hacienda Lopez de Haro Crianza $14

2009 Bodegas Montecillo Rioja Reserva $14
Winemaker’s favorite food pairing with this: Lamb chops grilled over dried vine cuttings.  How good is that!

2009 Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva $20
The picture at the top of this posting is the amazing Frank Gehry designed Riscal Winery and Hotel.

Guest Sip: (these three are perennial favorites)
2012 Tinto Pesquera Crianza Ribera del Duero $35

2011 Muga Reserva Rioja $28

2012 Alvaro Palacios “Les Terrasses” Villes Vinyes Priorat $35
Love Palacios – my always favorite from Priorat.

Splurge Sip:
Alvaro Palacios Finca Dori $80
It’s the bomb.  Single vineyard Garnacha.