Archive for May, 2012

Start your coals: Memorial Day marks beginning of wine and grilling season

Every neighborhood has the die-hard who grills year-round, but for most us the Memorial Day weekend marks the official start to the summer grilling season.

Now that we’re already a weekend into grilling season, you’ll have abundant opportunities to discover how wine fits into your favorite backyard meal. Here are a few suggestions gleaned from years of tending hot coals and hungry friends.

Kidmissile via Flick’r Creative Commons
Summer means grilling season, whether you prefer a double-decker or single deck to feed the croiwd. Finding a wine match is just as easy, with many affordable options for backyard dining.

It matters not whether you are are firing that grill for hot dogs, thick steaks, sausages or portobellos and veggies, don’t hesitate to grab a glass and enjoy the recommendations.

The appeal of hot dogs and burgers is they are easy and popular, but they also tend to get a lot of distracting side flavors, so pick your wine to fit the main dish.

Hot dogs, which can range from bland to super-spicy, find their match with a chilled light red (see below) or fruity, crisp white wine such as a dry or off-dry Riesling, sauvignon blanc or Gewurtztraminer.

For burgers, chicken and other grilled meats, you want something smoky to complement the charred meat along with little sweetness (fruit, not sugar) to bring out the sauce and offset the char from the coals.

Light-sauced chicken and pork also beg for Riesling and Gewurtztraminer but if the sauce is rich and heavy, better a zinfandel or cabernet franc.

I’d suggest avoiding both harsh tannins (most American cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels, Australian shiraz), which tend to be drying, and high-alcohol wines, which make you full and sleepy.

Simple burgers call for a simple red, with soft tannins, bright fruit and a little heft to stand up to the extras pile on top. Some favorites include medium-weight zinfandel, Garnacha or Tempranillo.

A thick steak or ribs call for something with bit more heft, darker fruit and bit of structure so they aren’t overwhelmed. Some examples include malbec, Rioja, mourvedre or shiraz.

Remember that wine is a condiment; use the spice, pepper and fruit to highlight your summer menus.

Argentinians really love their beef, eating an average of 121 pounds of beef per year (Americans chomp down 92 pounds each), so it makes sense an Argentinian malbec is a great barbecue wine.

Most can be enjoyed young, offering bold but not overwhelming flavors of dark fruit and spices. And since most of us spend a great deal of time entertaining around the ‘cue, it’s good to know there are plenty of delicious malbecs available for $20 and less.

For grilled mushrooms and other vegetables, I’d go with a pinot noir, a full-bodied, dry sparkling rosé or an unoaked chardonnay for the white wine fans.

A note for summer wines: The last thing you want on a hot day is a hot drink. Summer heat often means reds are served too hot; 30 minutes in the refrigerator before serving can perk up a lot of summer reds.

Not all reds: chilling deadens heavy, oaky reds, which lose their flavors and become blocks of alcohol, tannin and oak. Lighter reds — delicate pinot noirs, Italian merlots, Barberas and Beaujolais- Villages — chill beautifully.

Recommended: Malbec, of course, with the best coming from Argentina.  — Clos de los Siete 2009 Argentina Malbec, $15. This wine, with a delicate balance between dark fruit and oak, is made under the watchful eye of Bordeaux-based but international in scope winemaker Michel Rolland.

Others: Los Alamos 2009 Malbec, $13; Doña Paula 2010 Los Cardos Malbec, $9; Crios de Susana Balbo 2010 Malbec, $14.

Rosés are a natural for summer quaffing and, thanks to their growing popularity, the selection, quality and affordability are better than ever.

Look for rosés that are crisp, low-alcohol and food friendly. The best rosés still come from France, Spain (rosados) and Italy (rosatos), with plenty of choices under $15.

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Viewing the latest Italian earthquakes from afar


A rainy afternoon spent walking the spring-time vineyards on the Drei Dona estate in Emilia Romagna.

News of the series of earthquakes (and here) that since early Sunday have been hitting the north-central Italy region of Emilia Romagna brought concerns for the many winemakers and artisans in the area.

Famous for its cheeses, ceramics and Sangiovese-based wines, among other things, Emilia Romagna has to me been one of the cherished off-the-tourist map areas of Italy.

Of course, I’m sure I’m not seeing how really busy the region can be, since all my visits have come in early spring, well before the weather warms and the tourists begin their migration to the so-called Romagna Riviera on the Adriatic Sea, where they frolic on the longest beach in Europe.

Early spring is when the winemakers are relaxed and vineyards are deserted, wines quietly evolving in the tanks and barrels and vines just starting to reflect the change of season.

I’ve walked the rolling vineyards of Fattoria Zerbina with winemaker Cristina Geminiani, a determined woman who took on the naysayers of a skeptical Italian wine press and wine industry to produce her lovely Scacco Matto (“Checkmate” in English), a passito made from Alabana di Romagna grapes. Are the wine barrels she stacked so carefully quite as neat as they were before the terremoto?

Is that massive porcelain elephant still standing in the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza? It stands high as a man’s head and that’s not including the Hindu-like riders mounted on its back.

And I wonder if the 15th century watchtower on the Drei Dona estate Tenuta La Palazza, around which the main house was built and where Giovanna Drei Dona showed off some of the wineries oldest and its finest labels, all named for the estate’s horses , still stands.

We can only wait and hope.

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Memorial Day and the start of something big

Memorial Day marks the beginning of what Team Wine Openers refers to as the summer holiday party season (not to be confused with winter holiday party season), when you’re faced with buying wine to match a picnic or other outdoor get-together where you may not know either the menu or all the guests.

Buying wine for a crowd (even a small crowd of, say, two) doesn’t have to be confusing. It doesn’t even have to the very expensive. First, remember it’s not your job to make sure everyone is happy (unless, of course, there ARE only two of you and then you might at least act as if it were your responsibility). No matter what you open, someone is bound to be disappointed and probably will remind in you in their loudest voice.

Second, unless it’s a special occasion or you’re sharing this wine with that special friend (meaning someone who will appreciate the wine and you), don’t spend a lot of money. I’m not saying price is the sole determinant of quality; there are way too many under-$10 wines out there refuting the “high dollar, great wine” theory. It’s often true you get what you pay for, but if you’re careful, you’ll get more than you pay for.

Third, buy quantity. If your tasked to have enough wine for six people, don’t stop at two bottles. Figure about two glasses apiece (with four servings per bottle). Large-format bottles (magnums and up, see tip No. 4) usually cost less per glass and will ensure you don’t run out early.

Fourth, be resourceful, thrifty and environmental – serve a boxed wine. The acceptance of boxed wine has grown in recent years, with big-name writers such as Eric Asimov and Ray Isle giving at least modest approval of non-glass containers.

Boxed wines commonly hold three liters (equal to four bottles), are easy to pour and stay fresh longer than an opened bottle. They also are less-expensive per glass and an added plus: they don’t break, in case your party involves a river raft or two.

Fifth, buy something you know a little about. You may get asked about the difference between the sauvignon blanc you brought and an over-oaked California chardonnay, and it makes everyone feel smarter when you give a reasonable and honest answer.

Six, focus on low-alcohol wines. Summer meals can range from grilled meats to light salads, and while a zinfandel goes great with the former, high-alcohol wines have a tendency to fill you up and make you sleepy, which puts a damper on most parties.

Seven, don’t worry about glassware. Plastic glasses are just fine, thank you, for informal backyard picnics where the dog and the Frisbee may be bounding around the crowd. If you want a nicer glass, the so-called Libby glass (because that manufacturer makes a decent inexpensive wine glass) can be your out. Our advice is to leave home your $139 Riedel sommelier black glass.

Finally, bring a wine you like and enjoy yourself.

Wines I’ve enjoyed lately:

Cupcake 2011 Cupcake Vineyards Riesling ($13.99, srp) – Cupcake sources fruit from many of the world’s best growing regions for its line of wines, and this Riesling comes from Germany’s famed Mosel region, where vineyards grow on near-vertical hillsides lining the river. Lots of citrus, melon, and zingy acidity.

Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre 2008 Merlot ($17-$23) – A long growing season in Chile’s Apalta, a sub-region of the Colchagua Valley, allow Lapostolle’s merlot to reach prime ripeness and ideal maturity, qualities reflected in this elegant, intense wine. Offers a mouthful of complex flavors, from spice to dark blueberries and red fruit, with a hint of complementary oak. With 15 percent Carmenere.

Folie a Deux Russian River 2010 Chardonnay ($18, srp) – The touch of French and American oak enlivens this California-style chardonnay, with crisp green apple, pineapple and tropical fruit across the palate and a lingering finish.

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Finding sustainabilty in the wine business

DENVER – We all learned a couple of things from the recently concluded DrinkLocalWine 2012 conference here, among them that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who played a key role in the early days of the state’s micro-brewery industry, is a staunch supporter of Colorado wine.

Hickenlooper made a couple of much-appreciated appearances (well, one that I know of, but he was agile enough it seemed like he was several places at once, a sure sign of a capable politician) during the conference, including the opening dinner Friday night where he encouraged and challenged the visiting bloggers to explore Colorado wines.

Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar and Gov. John Hickenlooper were welcome guests for the opening dinner of the DLW 2012 conference in Denver.

“What the Colorado wineries are doing right now, it’s so similar to what Colorado brewpubs and microbreweries were doing 25 years ago,” said Hicklenlooper. “They’re beginning to see that success.”

Thanks to Jacob Harkins at and Colorado Urban Winefest for the video.

How do you measure success? I think Colorado winemakers, and here you can substitute any state except maybe the Big Three (Cal., Wash., Ore.), are struggling to find the secret to success. Success, like eternal happiness, true love or the perfect apple pie, has many interpretations.

Maybe it’s “economical sustainability,” a phrase from state enologist Steve Menke. “Colorado is running out of room (to grow) vinifera” grapes, Menke said, suggesting hybrid varietals may spur further growth in the industry.

While some winemakers dream of reaching bigger markets and pushing more cases out the door, I don’t think Colorado is alone in having a handful of its 100 or so licensed wineries seemingly not concerned with growth. If, that is, you mean turning what really is a full-time hobby into a full-time profession.

Many winemakers seem quite content to make their 500 or so cases of wine each year, an amount they can sell easily to the tourists wandering off the highway. Do the winemakers make a living doing that? Probably not, but there are a lot of second-income winemakers in Colorado who don’t rely on wine sales to pay the bills. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to make great wine, it just means they don’t have to make great wine to hear compliments on their wine.

Colorado’s not unique that way. Winemaking regions worldwide have benefited from fortunes big or small made elsewhere. And often that money allows winemakers the freedom to experiment, making everyday good wines while moving toward that great wine.

However, having that back-up bankroll may keep us from improving. State viticulturist Horst Caspari often reminds winemakers in the cool-climate North Fork Valley that getting a grape crop every third year is not the road to economic sustainabilty. Still some winemakers carry on, making elegant pinot noirs and cabernet francs every year they have the grapes and cultivating a following that waits patiently for every vintage.

Would the industry benefit if some winemakers quit pinning their hopes on temperamental pinot noir and started focusing on hardy nonvinifera varietals such as noiret, baco noir or traminette? Can’t say. Some of the nonvinifera hybrids I tasted last weekend weren’t very good. I had a Norton from Pennsylvania that was smooth, balanced and similar to a cabernet franc, but right next to that was a Norton from Virginia that was foxy, a bit rank and hard to swallow. The grape or the winemaker?

Economic sustainability? You have to give consumers what they want or think they want. Sweet reds, oaky whites, fruit-forward wines with soft tannins and berry pie flavors. Maybe not the most-complex wines but they sell.

Personal sustainability? Making elegant pinot noirs every third year may not pay all the bills, but it soothes the soul.

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