Monday, March 26, 2007

WF Archives, March 2006: Single Malt Scotch

Shortly after I submitted last month’s Saké/Shochu article, I noticed that January 4th edition of The New York Times featured an article on Shochu made from sweet potato in their “Dining In” section. The article is highly recommended for those who would like to further educate themselves on the recent Shochu trend.

Winter is a good time to discuss another distilled beverage with character, complexity and uniqueness rivaling that of wine. Like wine, this particular beverage showcases differences in region, aging method, and aging length. This beverage is none other than Single Malt Scotch.

The regional characteristics are reflection of differences in the combination of natural elements and production methods. Scotches produced in proximity to the sea, such as those from Islay (such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin), Campbeltown (Springbank), Orkney Islands (Highland Park), and Isle of Skye (Talisker), have a noticeably briny element. Traditionally, Scotches of the Highlands used peat as a main source of heat during production, giving them smoky flavor with medicinal edge. On the other hand, Scotches of Lowland used coal as a source of heat, infusing them with distinctively oily and smoky flavors that are reminiscent of bacon fat. Once the rail systems connecting Highland and Lowland were established, Highland distillers also started using coal, although small amount of peat are still used. Speyside, where many of the Single Malt Scotches are produced today, are renown for their complexity and diversity in both flavor and body weight.

Second element that plays a significant role in determining the color and flavor of Scotch is the aging method. While the law stipulates that the whiskies are to be aged in oak casks, distillers can choose between American or French oak or both, as well as new wood versus pre-seasoned casks. The flavors imparted by those casks vary: Burgundy cask showcases fruits with hints of vanilla; bourbon imparts softness, sweetness, and oak; sherry adds fruitiness; Madeira infuses fruits, nuttiness, and dryness; and port mellows the flavor while adding darker fruit. One way to experience the differences in flavors would be to try horizontal tasting, and Glenmorangie (Highland) offers 12 year- old whiskies aged in Burgundy, Madeira, port, and sherry casks. Each bottle is available for a under $50.

On a side note, there is an interesting practice in the world of Scotch where independent bottler send handpicked casks to the distillers to be used for aging their special releases. Some of those practitioners include Duncan & Taylor, Dun Bheagan, Gordon & MacPhail, Signatory, and Cadenhead.

Third major factor is the length of aging. By law, whiskies must be aged for minimum of three years, but most whiskies out on the market are aged ten years or longer. Naturally, there is a positive correlation between aging and pricing. The $64,000 question, then, is whether there is a positive correlation between the quality of whisky and pricing. “Surely, older Scotch must be better just like older wine or port!” my instinct screamed. After much research, I discover that there is no definitive correlation between the cost and performance, much to the delight my wallet.

Both young and old Scotch has their strengths and weaknesses. To simplify the matter, young Scotches offer vibrancy, spiciness, and full flavor, while risk being harsh. On the other hand, more mature Scotches are often mellow and complex, with the potential downside of having cask overpower its natural flavors. Ultimately, it comes down to personal taste.

To illustrate my point, the best value of the month goes to Glenmorangie 10 Year-Old (Highland, $37). In the market dominated by 12 and 15 year-olds priced in $45 range, Glenmorangie 10 Year-Old offers tremendous complexity. The nose is spicy, yet gives hint of balanced sweetness. The flavor is blend of peat, caramel, and toast, leading to a spicy, dry, and crisp finish. I rated this Scotch second in a six- bottle tasting, narrowly edged out by slightly bigger and smokier Dalwhinnie 15 Year-Old ($45). The others ontestents, listed in order of finish, were Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year-Old (Speyside, $43), Glenlivet French Oak 12 Year-Old (Speyide, $30), Glenfiddich Special Reserve 12 Year-Old (Speyside, $35), and Macallan 12 Year-Old (Highland, $40).

There are two bottles that compete for the best Scotch I’ve had the pleasure to taste. It is hard to pick out a sole winner, as each bottle takes a very different approach. The first Scotch is Dun Bheagan 35 Year-Old Cask Strength (Campbeltown, $349), and its assertiveness and complexity is evident starting with the nose, where there is a conversion of fruit, grain, and smoke. The palate is a delicate balance between sweetness, acidity, and softness from the grain and oak, followed by a long finish with blend of mild spiciness, oiliness, and saltiness.

The second bottle is the 1968 Duncan & Taylor Glenlivet 34 year-old (Speyside, $199), also released through an independent bottler. While not as assertive or complex as Springbank 35 Year-Old, this bottle highlighted outstanding balance between flavor and softness, and what really stood out was its gentle and pleasant tactile sensation. Unlike other Scotches I’ve tasted, the soft and dry flavor seemed to suspend itself in my mouth and gently radiating flavor instead of clinging to every taste bud and letting its presence known. I’ve experienced this sensation only on one other occasion, courtesy of Tesseron Cognac from the 1920’s.

WF Archives, February 2006: Trends in Japan

When those of us in the United States is asked to name the most popular beverage in Japan, many would undoubtedly and enthusiastically reply, “saké!” They would always be right, as “saké” in Japan is actually a generic term that refers to any alcoholic beverage. If you meant “rice wine,” then that answer maybe in jeopardy. Incidentally, long-time popularity of “Nihon-shu” in Japan made “rice wine” synonymous with the term “saké,” and that reference has carried over to the U.S. Getting back to the original question, I found out during my recent two- week trip to historic Kansai area that there is another beverage that has taken Japan by storm: shochu.

The popularity of shochu (also known as “soju”) is reflected in the fact that most bars in the western and southern prefectures carry more selections of shochu over saké, and the southern most prefecture of Kagoshima is known for producing only shochu. To see more shochu offered in bars in Osaka was especially revealing, since it is near a major saké producing area of Nada, essentially Bordeaux of saké world. Perhaps as a sign of the changing of the guard, , you may even receive shochu when you order “saké” at a bar in some parts of Japan!

Simply put, shochu is to saké what brandy is to wine; in other words, it goes through the extra process of distillation. Distillation is a process of adding heat to the fermented beverage, which results in a spirit with higher alcohol percentage per volume, mostly in the 20~24% range. Some claim that distillation process helps remove impurities and minimize the risk of a hangover, a point well received by the marketers of the industry.

While the analogy with brandy is a very simple one, the topic of shochu is very complex. The complexity of shochu can be attributed to the ingredients and distillation method. Shochu can be made from wide range of ingredients that contain residual sugar, and they include barley, rice, sweet potato, brown sugar, soba (buckwheat noodles), and shiso leaf, among others. Some shochus are distilled once to preserve the flavor of the original ingredient, and they are best served neat or on the rocks. Others are distilled several times to add smoothness to the texture, and they are suitable for drinking neat, on the rocks, or for blending.

A shochu that many may recognize is Iichiko ($20), distilled from barley. Think of Iichiko as a lighter and smoother version of vodka with a clean and dry finish. Iichiko can be served in a myriad of ways: chilled and neat, on the rocks, with soda, juice, oolong tea, or the Japanese favorite of blending with hot water infused with umé plum.

A single distilled shochu of note is rice-based Tori Kai ($40). Because the base ingredients are same as saké, the flavors are very similar to ginjo-class saké. Distilled once to showcase highly aromatic flavors of tropical fruits, floral notes, and hints of licorice, Tori Kai is best served chilled or on the rocks to maximize the flavor and smoothness.

The biggest selling shochu in Japan right now is not made from the traditional ingredient of barley or rice, but sweet potato. This phenomenon is not unlike the recent popularity of the potato vodka such as Belvedere and Chopin here in the U.S. Shochu such as Shiranami, available in some saké bars and Japanese restaurants, have a distinctive earthy notes and deeper sweetness that complement the dryness.

Perhaps the most interesting shochu I tried was a brown sugar shochu called Black Amami (not available in the U.S.). Black Amami had an uncanny resemblance to a cleaner style whisky, with the alcohol to match at 40%.

All the shochus were perfect accompaniment to traditional saké bar fares, such as yakitori, fried chicken cutlets, teriyaki, and earthy root vegetables. For grain-based shochu like Iichiko, they would favor beef dishes and fried food, while fragrant rice shochus are better suited for lighter meats, fish, and vegetables.

Since my visit was in Osaka and Kyoto, I was not able to visit any shochu distilleries. However, I was able to visit several saké breweries in Nada (Hyogo Prefecture.) Shushinkan brewery was generous enough to offer guided tour of the facilities and describe the process in detail, and the guide was very receptive to answering many questions I posed. Although I learned a lot about the process, the biggest impression I took with me was the pride each brewery and each worker has in their craft.

Of course, no self- respecting brewery tour is complete without the tasting, and this was no exception. Our generous guide was kind enough to allow me to try some rare sakés that are unavailable on the market, in addition to the standard offerings. Between my experiences at several breweries and establishments, I was able to get a good grasp of the taste of traditional- style saké: light, crisp, pure, clean, and dry. Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo, available in some saké bars, is a good representative of such approach.

While saké is still slowly gaining acceptance in the U.S., and have yet to reach its peak popularity in my opinion, shochu remain anonymous for most American consumers at this point. It will be interesting to see how the recent trends in saké and shochu in Japan reflect on future trends in the U.S. over the next several years.

Monday, February 26, 2007

WF Archives, January 2006: Decoding Wines

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had safe and wonderful holidays, and may 2006 be a good vintage!

To start the New Year, Id like to state the obvious: Lot of people are intimidated by the subject of wine. In many cases, it is because of the complex and technical terms that show up in tasting notes. You may have heard description at a wine store that went something like this:

“The wine is a bit closed at first, but then opens beautifully to a pure sangiovese. The color is dark amber with wonderful deep age on the edges, while the nose is mixture of leather and tobacco. Dark, beautiful, plummy fruit with amazing balance, with an underlying hints of just the right amount of sweetness and terroir. This wine found a wonderful acid/tannin balance.”

Upon hearing that, you would probably nod knowingly, feigning agreement, or worse, back away slowly from the shop without breaking eye contact. In retrospect, you would rather have heard something simple, concise, and reassuring, something to the effect of, “it tastes great!”

However, wine is a fairly complex subject matter where simple, concise and reassuring just is not enough, especially when dealing with bottles that exceed your monthly dues at the Club. Rather than going over fundamental characteristics of wine (sweet versus dry, oak versus steel, difference in varietals, etc.) I will cover three categories that may be considered obscure but nonetheless are integral in understanding the composition of wine.

The first is the concept of “acidity,” which should not be confused with “acidic” wine. Consider that a ripe fruit is high in acidity, though it may not necessarily be acidic. Therefore, when it comes to acidity in wine, I usually evaluate the level by judging the degree of how much it makes my mouth water. Dr. L Riesling by Loosen Brothers ($10) is a good example of wine that is high in acid but not acidic.

The role of acid in wine is to give the flavor both backbone and depth. Acidity is a vital term when considering the food/wine pairing, as wines with higher acidity allows the flavor of the wines to stand up to richer dishes. It should be no surprise that high acid wines such as Rieslings, Champagnes, other sparkling wines, and Pinot Noirs are considered to be among the most food-friendly wines.

Of course, wine can be both high in acid and acidic. One such example would be Muscadet. To alleviate the confusion between acidity and acidic, I typically use the word “astringent” in place of “acidic.” Muscadet is said to be an ideal pairing for raw oysters. The acidity in Muscadet allows the wine to stand up to the fatty flesh of the oyster, instead of being overwhelmed. At the same time, citrus-like astringency serves to complement the flavor of oyster, a lá lemon juice.

On the other spectrum, wine with no acidity results in a very flat or “flabby” wine that lacks the staying power. One such example is Bacchus Red Wine from Republic of Georgia. Everything about the wine seemed perfect at first: deep and rich in color with elegant and regal nose reminiscent of an old cigar box. When I tasted the wine, the flavor was thin without depth, and had a very clean and dry finish. Although there were hints of currants and violet, it was not memorable on the palate. This wine would have been practically undetectable had I paired it with steak.

If I were to pick one characterization of wines as being elusive, it would have to be “terroir.” Terroir (‘terr-wah’) is a French term used to describe the flavors bestowed upon grapes by the geographic factors rather than the grape varietal or production method. It is a loose term that could include such variables as the soil and microclimate. A common description is the presence of minerals, a briny undertone that is common in many of the Old World white wines. Try a bottle of 2004 Lugana, Tenuta Roveglia ($10) made from Trebbiano grape to taste the minerals.

Aside from minerals, some wines can feature flavors derived from the soil. In white wines, I noticed a very distinctive flinty flavor in 2002 Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, Fritz Haag ($26) from Germany. In the red, 2003 Na Vota Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato by Cantine Sant’Agata ($18), using indigenous Ruché grape of Piedmont, does a fine job showcasing the soft chalky flavor and clayish texture derived from limy soil.

Lastly, I will mention tannins as important element in considering wine selection for three reasons: weight of the wine, ageability, and mouth- feel. Tannin is a bitter tasting substance found in red wines that serves as a preservative, and is derived from grape skin, stems, seeds, and barrels. Aside from wine, tea and coffee are also known for their tannic content.

Because tannin is a preservative, there is a direct correlation between the weight of the wine and ageability. Heavier the wine, longer they can age. Examples of such wines include Bordeaux, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo, and Amarone, among others. Conversely, wines that are meant to be drank young are either light bodied red wine such as Pinot Noir and Beaujolais Nouveau, or white wines in general. As a simple guideline, tannic wines complement red meats and game, while the lighter style favor white meats such as poultry, pork, veal, and fish.

Tannins also have direct impact on the mouth-feel, a very underrated quality in wine. They range from being silky smooth to chewy in texture. Many wines fall into the category of silky wines, and I find that the majority of Rioja Crianzas, Portugese Vihno Tintos, Merlots, and younger Californian Cabernets consistently exhibit that texture. A good bottle to sample would be 2001 Chateau Le Bonnat ($13) from Bordeaux.

The wines with silky yet substantial body and flavor can be referred to as being “inky” or “plummy.” Examples of such wines include higher-end Shirazes (i.e., Penfold’s in the $20 range), many of the recent vintages of both California Cabernets and Zinfandels in the $15~25 range, and Primativos from Italy. A-Mano Primitivo ($11) is a good representative.

Lastly, there are the super heavy weights. These are the wines that stick to your gums, tongue, and roofs of your mouths, turning your smile into one that would rival Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s. Wines of note would include 2002 Bogle Petite Syrah ($11), 2000 Chateau Cadillac Lesgourges ($13), and Veramonte Primus, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cameňere ($15).

Armed with such knowledge, I hope that you can now decode the tasting note from the third paragraph to get a better idea of what that wine would be like. And please feel free to break eye contact with me at any moment.

WF Archives, November 2005: Thanksgiving Wines

November is synonymous with Thanksgiving, and no wine is associated as closely with Thanksgiving turkey dinner than a light and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau wine.

Because Beaujolais Nouveau is from France, it is a named after a region instead of the grape varietal. The region of Beaujolais is located near Burgundy and north of Lyon, and the wine is made strictly from Gamay grape. While Beaujolais produce different styles of wines, Nouveau is unique in its production process. After the grapes are handpicked, they are fermented by carbonic maceration. In layman’s terms, the grapes are fermented as a whole rather than crushed. This minimizes the exposure of the wine to the skin of the grape, resulting in a fruity and aromatic red wine low in tannins. The suggested serving temperature of Beaujolais Nouveau is slightly chilled at 55F, served within 6 months of the bottling.

Beaujolais Nouveau wines are traditionally released on third November of each year. Since the release of the wine is roughly 7 weeks past my deadline for this article, I would not be able to offer you tasting notes of the 2005 Beaujolais Nouveau wines, unless they are byproduct of my active imagination and series of fantastic lies. As an alternative, I decided to conduct a month- long food and wine pairing experiments between the traditional Thanksgiving dinner and wines not named Beaujolais Nouveau.

The tasting mainly focused on pairing wines with turkey and gravy, stuffing, and turkey and cranberry sauce. I also limited wines to those priced $15 or less, in order to be competitive with Beaujolais Nouveau prices. In the end, I sampled seven red wines and two white wines.

The first white wine pairing was conducted in the Tap Room, when I ordered a glass of Rodney Strong Chardonnay along with open faced turkey sandwich with giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Rodney Strong Chardonnay is your prototypical full- bodied Chardonnay with lots of oak. The flavor is mixture of citrus and melon, softened by the oak with solid yet balanced acidity. The pairing was very solid, if unspectacular, as the flavor of the wine shone without overwhelming the dish. However, the interaction between the two did not elevate the flavor of either element to the next level.

Perhaps it is best if my mother were to skip this paragraph, where I make the following disclosure: the rest of the tasting was conducted in my apartment with sautéed turkey breasts, instant stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, instant gravy, and canned cranberry sauce. In my defense, buying instant food was a necessity in order to ensure consistency in preparation while saving me countless hours for cooking.

The second white wine was 2004 Portal do Fidalgo Alvarinho ($12) from Portugal, a departure in style from Chardonnay. This light and off-dry wine possesses nose of honeyed peach, bracing acidity, and balanced combination of minerality and white fruit on the palate. I think of this wine as an off-dry version of Muscadet. Unfortunately, the pairing with this wine was below average. This wine experienced a common problem of the wine not being sweet enough to complement the cranberry sauce, leaving the wine tasting astringent. Thus, I would question the wisdom of serving other off-dry white wines such as Chenin Blanc, Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Viognier with the turkey dinner.

The first two reds I tried were red Zinfandels, as some claimed that it’s a natural to go with turkey. I tried the lighter style (2003 Cline’s Zinfandel, $10) and richer and creamier style (2004 Joel Gott Zinfandel, $15). This would be a good time to refer to the October Edition of the Winged Foot from your archives for tasting notes on those wines. My preconceived notion was that Cline’s with their lighter style would be a better match, due to its similarity in structure to Beaujolais Nouveau. Although the pairing was good for turkey and stuffing, Cline’s came across as bit astringent when paired with cranberry sauce.

Joel Gott was an interesting pairing. It had the widest variance in the result, as it was the best complement for turkey and gravy, while ranking near the bottom with cranberry sauce. I rated the stuffing as slightly below average, as the wine had too much body and overwhelmed the spices of the stuffing. This would be a great choice for those who are serving richer stuffing such as sausage stuffing, or those not concerned about cranberry sauce.

I had high hopes for 2003 St Magdalener Classico Suditrol ($12), a light, fruity, Pinot Noir- like wine from Alto Adige in northern Italy. The wine did not disappoint, as it earned solid review in all aspects of pairings. It ranked very high with both turkey and gravy and cranberry sauce, a rare feat among the wines I’ve tasted. It was also very good with the stuffing, making this selection a fool-proof one.

Perhaps the best of the experiment was a jammy and spicy Pinot Noir from California, 2003 Ramsey North Coast Pinot Noir ($15). It had the second best pairing with turkey and gravy, while earning high marks for both stuffing and cranberry sauce. Best of all, Ramsey should be readily available in many stores.

Other wines I tried include fruity, punchy, and dry 2004 Gulfi Rosso Ibleo ($15) from Sicily, perfumey and medium- bodied Coté du Rhone by Vidal-Fleury ($10), and full- bodied Carmenére by Laura Hartwig ($10) from Chile. Rosso Ibleo, a wine based on Negroamaro grape, was a good selection overall. It had more body and drier finish than St. Magdalener. Vidal-Fleury was average at best, as its body, presence, and lasting finish competed rather than complemented with the dishes. Bringing up the rear was the Carmenére, as its body turned out to be too much for the dishes. The biggest fault, though, was evident in the combination of the turkey, gravy, and wine that detrimentally amplified the flavor of the oak.

Of course, there are suitable alternatives outside of the wines I have tried or the parameters I have set. For those looking to exceed the $15 threshold, I would recommend lighter and fruitier Nebbiolo-based wines such as Sandro Fay Sforzato ($36). The success of Pinot Noirs pairing indicate that there are promising leads pointing to both the New World, such as Mount Difficulty ($30) from New Zealand, and Old World Burgundy wines. For those who are really thinking outside of the box, I would recommend rich and fruity Junmai Saké such as Nanburyu ($22), the winner of my tasting experiment from last year.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

WF Archives, October 2005: California Red Zinfandels

I would like to restore the honor of Red Zinfandel wines from California, still fighting the stigma associated with the image of sweet, glorified party wine courtesy of White Zinfandel wines. That is not to say that White Zindandels, such as Sutter Homes, are without merit; they can succeed where other ‘bona fide’ wines fail, such as pairing well with sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. What needs to be clarified is that White Zinfandels and Red Zinfandels ("Zinfandels”) are as similar as night and day.

To this day, there is a shroud of mystery surrounding the origins of the Zinfandel grapes. Although Zinfandel grapes are unique to California, scientists believe that they are genetically identical to Primitivo grapes of Italy. What remains unanswered, owing to the lack of clear documentation, is how this European varietal ended up in California. Historical evidence suggests that Zinfandel did not reach California by the way of Italy, rather from country of a common origin, possibly Austria. What is clear is that after considerable time of separation, California Zindandel and Italian Primitivo grapes have developed a widely different style, character, and flavor.

At the very fundamental level, Zinfandel wines are medium bodied, fruity, and dry, with hints of spices or black peppers on the finish. My tasting of over dozen Zinfandel wines proved that there are surprisingly wide range of style and character within the Zinfandels. They are very versatile in pairing with food, accommodating wide range of meats, from light to dark to game. They also pair very well with mild ethnic food but not the spicy food, as the spicy finish of the wine serve to amplify the spiciness in food.

At the introductory level is a lighter 2002 Zinfandel by Cline Cellars ($10). The nose of the wine is suggestive of the flavor consisting of the sweetness from new French oak barrel and cherries. The finish is dry with spiciness of black peppers. This wine is low in tannins and should be drank young. This wine pairs especially well with lighter meats and pizza.

The second offering by Cline Cellars is their 2003 Ancient Vines Zinfandel ($15). These grapes are harvested from vines that are more than 100 years old, and there is a pronounced difference between regular vines and ancient vines. Much darker in appearance, the wine has a very toasty nose of oak. The flavor is full of sweetness of concentrated dark cherries, followed by hints of chocolate, coffee, spices, and peppers. The texture is much softer, and richer tannins suggest aging potential. The sweetness of this wine allows it to pair with wider range of food than their regular Zinfandel, and it is worth paying the extra $5. I had success matching this wine with gyro, while its tannins proved too much body for pizza.

Three of the best Zinfandels of the tasting reside in the $15~20 range. 2004 Joel Gott Zinfandel ($15) has a creamy nose that indicating good amount of oak. This medium-bodied wine has jam-like flavors of sweet dark cherries and raspberries, balanced by notes of vanilla and complemented by spicy finish. Unlike the Cline Ancient Vines, this wine possesses silky tannins. Joel Gott possesses enough sweetness to go well with barbecue sauce or spaghetti and meat sauce, always a difficult task for red wines.

A very similar wine with slightly more body and enhanced sense of richness is Seghesio Zinfandel ($18). Seghesio is my pick as the best of the category and best value performer. I had an opportunity to pair this with Dr. Canario’s slow roasted barbecued pork and grilled rib-eye roast. While the wine was a natural for the rib-eye roast, the interplay between rich and silky texture of the wine with smokey, supple and tender pork was simply extraordinary.

For those who prefer more fruit forward Zinfandel, I would recommend 2001 Burgess Zinfandel ($17). The grape has been distressed by the combination of high altitude and volcanic soil, resulting in a low-yield grape packed with concentrated fruit. The palate is packed with vibrant jam-like red berries flavor, followed by firm and spicy finish.

One of my all-time favorite Zinfandel was bit of a disappointment in this tasting. 2001 St. Francis Old Vine Zinfandel ($16) was unusually rich and Cabernet-like in body, owing to a very warm vintage of 2001. While I always admired the great balance of coffee-like oak and fruits that define St. Francis Winery, I found 2001 vintage to be out of balance due to overly inky texture and flavor. I must admit that I was very surprised with this conclusion, as the 2001 vintage is regarded as the best vintage of the recent years.

As one would suspect, the wines were very full-bodied at a higher price point. 2002 Ridge Vineyard Lytton Springs ($33) was a powerhouse, with concentrated sweetness of the dark cherry flavor as well as hints of dark chocolate, coffee, spices, and peppers, providing massive presence. Soft on the palate, the wine is very tannic with a “chewy” mouth-feel; that is, the wine seems to stick to the gums on the finish. This is no surprise, as Lytton Springs is a blend of rich red grape vairetals: 75% ancient vine Zinfandel, 20% Petite Syrah, and 5% Carignane. While the wine is approachable now, pairing very well with grilled fare such as sirloin cheeseburger, steak, and game, it can easily age for at least 10 more years.

The most expensive wine was 2002 Howell Mountain Vineyards “Black Sears” Zinfandel ($40). Although this wine was heavily tannic, it maintained vibrancy of the heavily concentrated dark fruit flavors. While Ridge was “chewy” on the tannins, Howell Mountains was silky, resulting in inky texture. This wine will need to age before its full potential can be realized. The signs are promising, but the jury is still out on this one.

On the final note, I had a rare occasion to taste an aged Zinfandel recently, courtesy of my colleague Gregory dal Piaz: 1975 Monterey Vineyards Zinfandel. We were cautiously curious of this tasting as one can be when discovering that Zinfandels are not typically seen as type of wine to age, and 1975 was not particulary a great vintage. At first, our initial fears were confirmed: the wine was vinegar. 15 minutes after opening, the brown/orange liquid was disjointed mess of highly acidic character with veil hints of fruit, and we proceeded to thank the spit bucket. Out of curiosity, we decided to give it more time figuring that we can wait for couple more hours after 30 years of waiting. Our patience was rewarded two hour later, as the flavors did opened up considerably, leading to a wine with a coherent balance between acidity, sweetness, and fruit. I guess the moral of the story is, if an old wine tastes like vinegar, wait few more hours with a spit bucket on hand.

Encouraged by this discovery, I will put aside a bottle of Ridge Zinfandel for prosperity. Perhaps, my tasting notes will show up in the October 2035 edition of the Winged Foot.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

WF Archives, September 2005: New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs

By the time this article is released, the summer is beginning to wind down. It’s hard for me to imagine that concept, as we are in the midst of 95F temperature days at the time of this writing. The days of suffocating summer heat naturally made me gravitate my wine selections towards white wines, leading to my latest wine discovery: New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Dry by nature, Sauvignon Blanc wines represent medium-bodied white wine component of the six major varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling are the others.) Aside from New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc grapes are notably grown in France (“White Bordeaux”), California, Chile, Argentina and South Africa.

The regional differences produce wide range of styles Sauvignon Blanc of wines. Of those styles, I especially enjoy New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs for their complexity and structure. Stylistically, they stand out for their vibrant, herbaceous, and tropical fruit flavors that shine on the palate. The structure of the wine is defined by their tangy acidity that allows complex flavor layers to stand out from the first sip to the finish.

A wine that embodies the best of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($24.) Cloudy Bay features the signature flavor of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: a complex blend of gooseberry, cilantro, straw, green tomato, and green peppers. This core flavor reminds me somewhat of the aftertaste one gets from eating salsa. Others have noted the signature New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc flavor contain, to use the technical term, the elements of ‘cat pee,’ a flavor that I fortunately have no experience tasting to either confirm or deny. The vegetal and herbal flavor components are balanced by fruity hints of melon, passion fruit, and black peppers on the finish. Cloudy Bay may not be easy to find due to their enormous popularity, but they are certainly worth your effort. It bears mentioning that they may be allocated, where purchase limit per customer may apply.

If Cloudy Bay is unavailable, a fine alternative is Koura Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($18), which has slightly more body and come across as being slightly less dry. Mt. Difficulty Sauvignon Blanc ($14) is lighter than Cloudy Bay, and Huia Sauvignon Blanc ($19) is the lightest and most off-dry of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines that I have tried. All those wines feature that signature core flavor, which I find to be very food- friendly. The herbal notes are fine complement to soft cheeses, pasta salad, tomato sauce based cuisines, vinaigrette dressings, grilled vegetables, fish, poultry, and pork. Cloudy Bay and Koura Bay can also pair with slightly richer fare than Mt. Difficulty and Huia, owing to their richer body.

There are Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand with a different flavor profile than those four bottles. Selak’s Sauvignon Blanc ($14) from Marlborough region is one such example. Instead of the herbal and vegetal notes, it has nose of grapefruit and dried grass, fruity palate of kiwi, and a very clean and dry finish. On the other end of the spectrum, Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc ($10) is very distinct for its smoky white and black pepper flavors that complement rich flavors of tropical fruit. The strong pepper influences make Villa Maria ideal wine to pair with well- seasoned fish, poultry, pork, and beef, and examples of such food include bouillabaisse, salmon, barbecued chicken, Cajun sausage, vitello tonnato, and beef teriyaki.

I consider New Zealand to be one of the world’s premier wine producing regions that have yet to gain the full recognition. For those already thinking about autumn, I invite you to try their well-crafted Pinot Noirs. As the season of Sauvignon Blanc draws to an end, I trust that you will file this article away in your Winged Foot Magazine archives for future references.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

WF Archives, August 2005: Amarone

Note: There was no July article written by this author.

Amarone is, without a doubt, my favorite style of wine. I love everything about the wine, from its history to vinification process to its taste. A good Amarone possesses everything I look for in a wine: complexity, depth, presence, harmony, and most importantly, great taste.

Amarone (Ah-ma-ROH-nay), formally known as Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, is a full, complex, and dry red wine made in the town of Verona in northeastern Italy. Although it was initially seen as an accident or failure, Amarone is gaining prominence as one of the world’s most desirable wines.

The roots of Amarone can be traced to Recioto from Valpolicella, a hilly section of Verona. For the trivia buffs, the name Valpolicella is derived from Latin for “vallley of many cellars.”

Recioto is a concentrated sweet red dessert wine that is popular in a region lacking sweet desserts. To create Recioto, vintners pick the sweetest grapes on the upper perimeter of the vine late in the season. This prestigious section of the grape is referred as “the ears” or “recie” in Italian, giving Recioto its name. The common grapes used in Valpolicella region wines are Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella.

After picking, the grapes are laid out on straw mats in a climate- controlled room for several months. This “apassimento” process results in the grapes losing 35~40% of its weight in water, leaving behind shriveled grapes of highly concentrated flavor. The grapes are pressed then fermented for a brief period of time, leaving enough residual sugar to produce a silky, rich, and sweet red wine. Recioto is traditionally served with dry biscuits and fruit tarts, although I discovered that Trabucchi Recioto pairs very well with tiramisu.

When the wine is accidentally fermented for too long, it is left with no residual sugar. Not surprisingly, this wine was much bitter than Recioto, and was dubbed the “big bitter” (“amaro one” in Italian). Although it was initially considered undesirable, the production of Amarone became popular in the 1950s.

The Amarone that absolutely stunned me was the 1997 Corte Sant’Alda, which I first tried at a tasting. I liked it so much that I bought two bottles for Christmas dinner with family and guests. The nose was alluring blend of dark chocolate, raisins, and fruits. Interestingly, the warmth and spiciness from the raisinated grape combined with vibrancy of the fruit conveyed both sense of maturity and youth, a harmonious dichotomy captured in a glass. I found myself taking considerable amount of time just to enjoy the aroma.

On the palate, Corte Sant’Alda features a striking balance between vibrant fruit of black berries and rich qualities of raisins, prunes, chocolate, and vanilla. The silky tannins offered a very pleasing mouth feel, allowing it to pair well with roast beef dinner.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered that vintages make a big difference in the character of the wine. 1996 Corte Sant’Alda favored more richness in both taste and texture. I did not sense as much vibrancy of the fruit in this wine, and noticed that tannins were bigger, softer, and not as silky. Stylistically, it reminded me of the young and powerful 2000 F. Ili Speri Amarone with its cocoa flavors and heavy tannins. The 1996 vintage paired exceptionally well with herb-crusted medallion of lamb, as the citrus flavor from the crust highlighted dormant fruit of the wine while the deep character of the wine provided richness while masking the gaminess of the meat.

Tedeschi Vineyards produces several levels of wines. The Capitel line is their mid-level classification, and their Monte Olmi Amarone is comprised of grapes from a singular vineyard, and should not be too hard to find through your local wine retailer. The 1998 vintage is similar in character to the 1997 Corte Sant’Alda, possessing sweet nose of coffee and raisin with flavors bursting with deep dark prune, dark cherries, and chocolate. This was a fine accompaniment to the classic pairing with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I do have their top-level 1998 La Fabrisera Amarone stashed away, and I look forward to opening it in 5~10 years.

For those reading this at the City House, Main Dining Room does offer one bottle of Amarone on the menu: 1996 Bertani Amarone. Although I have yet to try the 1996, I have sampled a comparably rated 1998 vintage that I found to be very well rounded and approachable. If 1998 is any indication, then it should be a natural pairing with red meat, game, or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

One thing you may notice about Amarone is that they do command premium prices. Low yield due to evaporation as well as risk associated with extended drying process such as rotting, contribute to the higher cost. A wise man once told me that one should look to spend about $50 for a good bottle of Amarone, and I agree with that assessment. I found that some of the inexpensive bottles are too fruity and lack the trademark raisin, chocolate, coffee, or licorice flavors, and others simply lack the complex structure altogether. Although they may be inviting at $30, a better investment may be Valpolicella Classico made through “ripasso,” a process where medium-bodied Valpolicella Classico is subjected to secondary fermentation with the lees of Amarone to infuse richness. Both Tedeschi Capitel San Rocco and Le Ragose Valpolicella Classico (Ripasso) are available for about $15/bottle, and they pair well with lighter meats such as pork.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

WF Archives, June 2005: "Lounge on Eleven"

After attending a meeting recently, I was invited by several fellow committee members for a leisurely drink at Lounge On Eleven. Although I have seen advertising in the City House and Winged Foot, I’ll have to admit that this was the first time I actually visited the Lounge, located in the eastern end of the Main Dining Room.

I was very surprised to find that while many members continue to patronize the relocated Tap Room, Lounge On Eleven was practically vacant. With their elegant and comfortable lounge-styled seating arrangement, commanding view of the Central Park, and complimentary selections of appetizers, I cannot imagine a better place in the Club to enjoy a glass of wine or cocktails.

I was also very eager to see the new “cruvinet” dispensing system, which is to wine by the glass what tap system is to beer. According to the manufacture, cruvinet retards oxidation process in wines by displacing oxygen with odorless nitrogen, allowing an opened bottle to remain fresh for up to six weeks. Since cruvinet is also temperature- controlled, you would be relieved to know that you will not be served skunked wine in the Main Dining Room or Lounge On Eleven!

Looking at the drink menu, I decided to pass on Schug Pinot Noir due to my recent over- exposure from conducting extensive “research.” I started the evening with 1994 Chateau La Tour Haut Brion from Graves (Bordeaux). At first, this wine seemed like your typical Bordeaux, with black currant on the nose and dark berries on the palate. Then something interesting happened. A few minutes after pouring, the flavor began to get slightly funky, as if the wine was reversing its process of aeration after opening the bottle. I decided that it was a good time to shift my focus to the food, which included escargot, salmon, and mozzarella and tomato.

Fortunately, after 15 minutes or so, the wine did level itself out into smooth, silky, and approachable Bordeaux with typically understated elegance. Interestingly, I had a similar experience when I opened a bottle of 1999 Chateau Bel-Air Haut Medoc, which taught me that some wines do really require patience before their flavor reaches peak.

The second wine I had was Penfold’s Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz, which didn’t require such patience. (Writer’s note: the drink menu lists comparably priced 2000 Penfold’s Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz.)

Shiraz is the Australian counterpart to Syrah, which is popular in Southern France (Rhone and Languedoc-Rousillon), where it may be blended with Grenache and Mourvedre. Cote du Rhone, Crozes-Hermitage, and highly acclaimed Chateneauf-du-Pape are representative of such wines. Syrah is also grown in California, and EXP Syrah and Sean Thackery Pleiades Old Vines XIII blend are fine examples of syrah and syrah-blend, respectively.

With its dark fruits character and spicy finish, I think of shiraz/syrah as a fuller-bodied version of Zinfandel. Owing to warm climate, Australian version is richer, fuller, and fruitier, than French and American counterpart, and is commonly referred to as being “inky” or “big.”

Shiraz is one of my favorite wines, and Penfold’s further cemented that status. The appearance is deep ruby in color, almost purple, hinting at its deep and rich fruit. The aroma and palate is full of dried plums and raisin, complemented by hints of coffee. It has silky tannins, with a very warm presence. Although the wine would be classified as being big, it does not feel heavy. Interestingly, Penfold’s lacks the dominant spicy black pepper flavor finish commonly associated with Shiraz.

I enjoyed Penfold’s so much so that when I was invited to join fellow wine aficionado Peter Cella for dinner in the Main Dining Room, I planned my main course around the wine. I decided to order herb-crusted rack of lamb, served medium- rare, off the Spring Special Three- Course Menu, and the pairing was simply sensational. The herbs and spices of the crust really brought out the fruit in the wine, similar in the way sprinkling salt enhances flavor of watermelon (and other fruits.) The rich flavor of the wine, in turn, provided a wonderful backdrop to the juicy nature of the meat; hints of coffee and dried fruits, along with tannins from the wine, served to enhance the full structure and flavor of the lamb. The interplay of texture between the crispness from crust, tenderness of the lamb, and warmth and softness of the wine was harmoniously complex. This was one of the best food-wine experiences I can remember to date.

It is rare to find such a harmonious pairing between wine and food, where each element enhances the character of the other. I invite you to try Penfolds with herb-crusted rack of lamb at the Main Dining Room. For those who are ambitious, I challenge you to find a better pairing. Cheers!

Friday, February 16, 2007

WF Archives, May 2005: The "Sideways" Effect

Note: There was no April article written by this author.

With the recent success of the movie “Sideways,” popularity of Pinot Noir wines have skyrocketed throughout the US. AC Nielsen data cite that national sales of Pinot Noir, a wine heavily rhapsodized by oenophile character Miles, increased 15% compared to the same period from a year ago. March 21st edition of Crain’s New York Business reported that locally, Astor Wines and Spirits responded to 30% boost in sales by creating a Pinot Noir display. Interestingly, Crain’s also noted that Morrell Wine Bar and Café saw a dramatic falloff in the sales of Merlot, a wine famously decried by Miles in a manner not quite suitable for print.

As a wine consultant, I have a first-hand experience witnessing this trend, from being asked the obligatory question, “have you seen Sideways?” to having customers gleefully volunteer to quote that infamous line concerning Merlots. These icebreakers typically lead to the ultimate question: “I don’t know much about Pinot Noir. Can you recommend a good one?” To keep up with this demand, my recent research efforts included viewing of “Sideways” and focusing my tasting notes on California Central Coast Pinot Noirs.

I typically start with a brief explanation that Pinot grapes are the same grapes used for making red Burgundy wines of France, where wines are named after the region rather than grape varietals. Pinot grapes are also one of the three major grapes used in the production of Blanc de Noir Champagnes, which maintain its light yellow hue by rarely involving the skin of the grape during fermentation. A thin skin of the Pinot grape dictates that they thrive in cooler climates, and the best domestic locations for growing these grapes are in California, New York, and Oregon, which incidentally share the same latitude as Burgundy region. International regions of note include France, New Zealand, and South Africa

After that debriefing, the next line of dialogue usually centers on ideal food to pair with the wine. One of the outstanding features of Pinot Noir is its versatility to pair with almost any food. If I were asked to select a bottle of wine on behalf of a table where everyone ordered different style of dishes, Pinot Noir would be the first wine I would look to accommodate the majority, along with Champagnes.

Generally speaking, Pinot Noir wines are low in tannins and high in acidity, making it a rare red wine that can pair well with richer seafood and shellfish, such as salmon steaks, mahi mahi, grilled lobsters, and calamari. Although the tannin/acidity profile clearly indicate that Pinot Noirs are ideal match with white and lighter meats (chicken, pork, and veal), their mouthwatering acidity allows the wine to hold up to beef and game, despite low tannins. Versatility of Pinot Noirs becomes further evident with cheese pairing, where they can complement soft cheeses (brie, gorgonzola, camembert) just as adeptly as hard cheeses (grana padano, parmesan).

At this stage, if I have not already bored the customers to death, they would ask for my recommendation. Rather than tell them what I like, fully aware that my palate may not be the same as everyone else’s, I typically highlight several different styled bottles to allow customer to choose for themselves.

With “Sideways” being the underlying theme, the first wine I introduce is the one Miles quaffed while educating Jack on the process of wine tasting: 2001 Sanford Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara. Ruby colored Sanford is a fruit- driven Pinot Noir that features raspberry and spices on the nose, and raspberry, cherry, and cranberry on the palate. It is a vibrant yet well-balanced wine with slight hints of black peppers on the finish. For about $14 a bottle at Astor, I find it to be a tremendous value performer and certainly worthy of being featured in the movie.

Another affordable Pinot Noir featured in “Sideways” is the 2002 Central Coast Pinot Noir from Calera Winery, where Stephanie worked as a pourer. Like Sanford, Calera is fruit-forward, featuring strawberries and raspberries on the nose. As indicated by its light ruby color, this wine features light cherry and strawberry flavors that are well presented in a package of light tannins and body.

On the other side of the spectrum is the 2003 David Bruce Central Coast Pinot Noir, a big oak-driven wine with very distinct aroma of dark cherries and butter. In contrast with the previous light- styled Pinots, David Bruce is dark ruby in appearance. The flavor features combination of cherries and strawberries, and the presence of tannins provide a soft finish to this complex wine.

The last style of Pinot Noir is the very 2001 Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir from Carneros. It is ruby in color, and has hints of blackcurrants and white peppers on the nose with dark cherry flavor. Its texture is smooth, with velvety tannins providing sense of regal elegance to the wine. This is the most expensive wine out of the four, at $33 per bottle.

I am not sure if the “Sideways” phenomenon is merely a trendy fad, giving Pinot Noirs their “15 minutes of fame.” What I do know is that Pinot Noir is a pretty diverse wine in itself, while being an excellent accompaniment to myriad of dining options. There are many fine Pinot Noirs grown throughout the world, even in the $15~$20 range. For further exploration at that price range, I would strongly recommend Argyle and Benton Lane from Oregon, as well as Piper Brook “Ninth Island” Pinot Noir from Tasmania. And if you happen to be reading this in the City House, try Anapamu by the glass for $6.