Tuesday, January 29, 2008

2006 Castaño MONASTRELL (Yecla, Spain)

Made from organically-grown grapes, this wine is a steal -- a gutsy, full-bodied, soft red for $8.

Dark black purply-ruby color. Needs a bit of air time after opening, but then reveals big, fruity nose of crushed blueberries, with strong minerally scents in the background. Soft, round, ripe, and full, this wine sports flavors of smoky, loamy raspberries, underbrush, and iodine. Lots of soft tannins indicate that this wine will last and improve over the next 2 years or so. Tremendous value. 88. I got this at Whole Foods on Bellaire (case stacking near the meat counter).

2003 Domaine Ehrhart RIESLING GRAND CRU HENGST (Alsace, France)

This was a fully mature, complex white.

Medium dark brassy gold color -- which led me to think this might be past its prime. But it wasn't. Deeply honeyed nose, with minerally, marzipan-y, overripe pear and honeysuckle flavors. Excellent concentration, yet in a medium-light bodied frame, with nice acidity to keep things tasting fresh. Long finish, showing just the barest hint of oxidation at the tail end. Drink this right away, as it is certainly at or just past its peak. Very nice. 88. Got this several months ago at Richard's on South Shepherd for $24.

2006 Milton Park SHIRAZ (South Australia)

This was a good value in a soft, ripe, reasonably complex red.

Very dark black ruby with violet highlights at the rim. Ripe, soft nose of spiced, sweet plums and warm cream, with some sweet, toasty oak as well. Soft, round, and balanced, this wine featured very minerally flavors (hot, salty stones) together with cassis and graphite. Pure, long, but somewhat warm finish, with no discernible tannin. 87. Was about $12 at Central Market.

Monday, January 28, 2008

"LITLLE JAMES' BASKET PRESS" (non-vintage, Domaine St. Cosme) (Rhône, France)

This was a gutsy, relatively inexpensive Rhône wine.
Dark ruby garnet. Spicy nose of sweet-and-sour berries, lemon peel, and earthy chalk dust. Concentrated, dense flavors of blackberry extract, with earthy/iodine notes. Full-bodied, with lots of fairly soft tannins, building in the long finish. A gutsy, straightforward, earthy Grenache. Good value at $11.13 at Spec's on Holcombe. 87.

2004 Barone Cornacchia MONTEPULCIANO D'ABRUZZO (Italy)

Great color saturation but disappointing in smell and taste.

Saturated black ruby with crystalline ruby highlights. Introverted nose reluctantly gives up scents of chokecherries, ashes, and a hint of Ivory soap (in a good way). Dense but very low-toned flavors of chokecherry syrup and charcoal. So low toned, in fact, that you actually have to concentrate to taste it. It feels like it should have more taste but, curiously, it doesn't. I don't like having to work to get my Montepulciano flavors -- they should roughly kind of bang around in your mouth like they're trying to escape, not try to slunk down your throat hoping you don't notice. 79. Was $10.99 at Spec's on Smith.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Plea to Houston wine stores: Please get some (1) Aglianico-based reds, and (2) reds from the Marche region of Italy!

When I left the northeast almost 10 years ago, I was a tad concerned that it would be harder to find good wine down here. I was dead wrong: Houston is a great wine town, generally speaking.

But almost every place I regularly shop (Spec's, Richard's, Whole Foods, and Central Market) have Italian sections that do not do Italy justice. Spec's, especially, has oodles of wines from Piemonte, the Veneto, Sicily, and, especially, Tuscany, but is spotty as to other areas in Italy.

In particular, these stores seem NEVER to have any reds from the Marche region, where my grandparents were born. The Marche has many excellent reds, most common among which are the kissin' cousins, Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno. They are made from the Montepulciano and Sangiovese grapes. Typically, Conero has more Montepulciano, Piceno has more Sangiovese. Rosso Conero tends to be far more elegant than its rustic cousin to the south, the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. They're not exactly common in the stores I used to troll in New England and New York, but they are completely non-existent in Houston.

The Aglianico grape is also M.I.A. from Houston wine stores. In my opinion, this is the very best grape grown in the southern half of Italy. Its most famous DOCs are Taurasi and Aglianico di Vulture. When done right, the Aglianico grape can go toe-to-toe with the Nebbiolo grape for weight, complexity, and balance (especially at present, since the overwhelming majority of big-name Nebbiolo wines, like Barolo and Barbaresco, are now made in the so-called "international style," which means it's hard to tell them apart from $%&^!# merlots) (well, actually, you can tell them apart from $%&^!# merlots by their $50-$100 pricetags).

Marche reds and Aglianico-based wines shouldn't be that hard to find, as the stores I've listed obtain their Italian wines from the same excellent importers who also offer Marche reds and Aglianico-based wines. Heck, Spec's, for example, stocks the Sangiovese, Cabernet, and Ramitello from the southern Italian winery Da Majo Norante -- but fails to stock this winery's very best wine: its "Contado" Aglianico. So it's not like Houston stores can't get these wines, they just aren't doing it.

So please, someone, start looking for and stocking these unjustly overlooked reds.

Two recipes featuring olives

Had a hankerin' for the olive-based flavors of Provencal cuisine yesterday, so I cooked up a Provencal pasta dish and a Provencal-inspired chicken dish created by our friend (and excellent cook) Robert Finley.

Rosemary Pasta with Black Olives and Carrots

3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
3 cloves garlic
1/2 medium onion (or mixture of onions & shallots) chopped
1 to 3 carrots (depending on size), peeled, sliced into very thin discs
1 Tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup oil-cured black olives
1 lb. pasta (penne, fusilli, or something else along those lines)
fresh grated parmigiano (to taste)

Bring large pot of salted water to boil.

Meanwhile, warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add half the garlic, all of the onion and carrot, and saute for 7 to 10 minutes (until carrots start to soften).

Add remaining garlic, generous grinding of black pepper, half of the rosemary, and the olives. Continue to saute about 3 or 4 minutes more. Add remaining rosemary, then turn off heat and cover pan until your pasta is ready.

Water for the pasta should be boiling by now, so add pasta and boil until al dente. Drain, place in serving bowl. Add sauteed veggies and pan juices, season with salt and more pepper to taste, add remaining tablespoon of olive oil (or more if you like) and toss. Grate parmigiano on top as desired.

The above recipe was adapted from The Foods and Flavors of Haute Provence, by Georgeanne Brennan.

Whole Chicken Braised with Garlic, Calamata Olives, Lemon, and Rosemary (Here's the link to Robert's blog)

1 whole chicken (take out the stuff in the cavity!)
1 med. yellow onion, chopped
8 cloves garlic.
1 cup pitted calamatas (Don't be lazy! Get the best olives you can find and pit them right before you prepare)

1/4 cup ground calamata or olive tapenade.
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (don't be lazy here either.)
6 inch sprig of rosemary cleaned and chopped
2 cups dry wine (Robert suggests a dry rose, and that's what I used)

Prepare in a solid braiser, Dutch oven, or rondeau that fits the size of the chicken fairly snugly (so that the braising liquid rises up to a level that covers most of the bird -- I used my trusty oval Le Creuset dutch oven.)

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. With your finger loosen the skin of the bird and spread ground calamata under it, reaching as far as you can. Season outside of bird with salt and pepper.

3. Brown that bird....all over. Remove from pan.

4. Cook onions and garlic till soft.

5. Return the bird along with everything else and place in medium oven for no less than an hour!
Serve bird, olives, garlic and braising liquid over a plate of fresh polenta.

NB: Robert's unusual technique of braising the chicken WHOLE results in an incredibly flavorful braising liquid and a falling-apart, remarkably tender bird.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

2006 Yalumba SANGIOVESE ROSÉ (South Australia)

This excellent value is from Yalumba's bargain-priced "Y-Series." Lots of bright, balanced fruit in a fairly full and soft frame.

Beautiful watermelon-pink color. Ripe nose of watermelon, cherry, and strawberry, with a pleasantly pungent minerally component in the background. Round, soft, and ripe in the mouth, with cherry-strawberry fruit and lots of steely minerals providing a nice counterpoint to the ripeness. Just barely off-dry, which probably helps avoid the sometimes bitter finish that full-flavored rosés sometimes can have. This will hold for the next several months. 89. Widely available (Spec's, and Whole foods too I think) for under $9.

2004 Sella & Mosca CANNONAU DI SARDEGNA "Riserva" (Sardinia, Italy)

This was a disappointment. Cannonau is what the Sardinians call the Grenache grape, and what I like about Grenaches -- and the Cannonaus I've had in the past from another Sardinian winery, Argiolas -- is the soft, fleshy texture and spicy raspberryish fruit it frequently gives. This had neither.

Medium ruby garnet. Very light intensity nose of cherries, balsa wood, and pungently metallic minerals. Rather meagerly-endowed in the mouth -- thin cherryish fruit, followed by an increasingly drying finish than veered toward dried old leather. 74. Around $12 at Spec's and at Whole Foods, if you need to know for some reason.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

2004 Luis Felipe Edwards CARMENERE "Gran Reserva" (Colchagua Valley, Chile)

An unusually elegant rendition of a Carmenere (a Chilean varietal that is fast becoming one of my favorites).

Is there really an explosion of different Chilean Carmeneres appearing in the market over the last two years or so, or am I just paying more attention these days?

This one is very polished (it even comes wrapped in paper!). Saturated, soft black ruby with violet highlights. Closed nose at first, but with significant air time, it burgeoned, opening up with scents of dark cassis and blackberry, and a scorched earth/smoky graphite component. Unlike a lot of the wines I've had recently, the flavors were even better than the nose on this one: dense, soft, lush sweet cassis, smoky earth, and subtle wood. Very long, perfectly balanced finish. 90. Was about $14 at Whole Foods on Bellaire.

2006 Atteca "Old Vines" GARNACHA (Calatayud, Spain)

This was a powerful wine, loaded with character.

Crystal black ruby with a magenta edge. Focused, intense nose of spicy, ripe raspberries and hot stones. Tightly packed and massive in the mouth, with dense black raspberry fruit and the barest hint of chalky earth. Not complex, but a real bruiser, like a 6'6", 300 lb. defensive tackle of a wine. Will probably improve over the next year. 89+. Was about $14 at Spec's on Smith.

2005 Domaine de Fenouillet COTES DE VENTOUX (Rhone, France)

This wine had a really nice nose but fell short in the mouth.

Dark ruby color with purple highlights. Very elegant, gentle nose of sweet plum juice, cinnamon, powdered sugar and almonds. Soft, but lean, however, in the mouth. Flavors of steely minerals and a small amount of dry, bright fruit flavors, with crisp acidity. Seems like this is another in a recent spate I've experienced of wines whose noses make promises their flavors can't fill. Nose 90, flavors 83, for an overall score of around 86. Was $11 and change at Spec's on Smith.

2005 Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley ZINFANDEL "Mother Clone" (California)

This was a terrific value.

Dark ruby color with purple highlights. Very nice nose of blackberries, cocoa powder, and scorched earth. Deep-toned and rich in the mouth with flavors of blackberry extract, toasty oak, iodine, and forest floor. Long, balanced, and somewhat tannic finish, though the tannins are ripe and soft. A rare excellent value in a Zinfandel. Was $10 and change -- I'll use blogger's license and call it "under $10" -- at Spec's on Smith. 89.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

2005 Rosenblum Cellars "Chateau La Paws" Red (California)

This is a moderately priced blend of Rhone varietals. It had a nice nose, but was kind of hollow on the palate.

Dark black ruby color. Nose tight and astringent at first, but with air time it opens up to reveal ripe, plummy-cranberry fruit with a little gingerbread spice. Full bodied, but with a sense of hollowness in the mouth. Quite a bit of blackberry fruit and iodine flavors, as well as some scorched earthiness, but it's simply not nearly as fleshy and concentrated as the nose would lead you to believe. Decent length and balance, though. Was $12.99 at Whole Foods on Bellaire. 83.

2006 MacMurray Ranch PINOT NOIR (Central Coast, Calif.)

This was leftover from a holiday party Liz attended. I've seen it at virtually every supermarket in town, and it's a correct, cheap Pinot.

Bright ruby with magenta highlights. Lively but very simple nose of cherries, cola spices, and nutmeg. Direct cherry/earth flavors on entry, leading to a flat, somewhat metallic, cherry-ish finish. Not bad. 83. Widely available for around $10 to $14.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

2005 Domaine Les Grands Bois CÔTES DU RHÔNE "Cuvée Les Trois Soeurs" (France)

This wine had terrific color, a terrific nose, but flavors that did not meet the expectations instilled by the color and nose.

Gorgeous saturated purple ruby color. Wonderfully fruity nose of boisterous blueberries and blackberries, with citrus oil and powdered rock dust scents as well. Medium-bodied and lacking weight and concentration of flavor in the mouth, however. What flavors were there were of bone dry blackberry extract, and they led quickly to a rather chalky-textured finish. Nose 90, flavors 76, for an average of 83 (throwing out the score of the Russian judge!).

2004 Martinelli "Zio Tony Ranch" PINOT NOIR (Russian River Valley, Cal.)

This was a tremendous, full-throttle Pinot Noir. We were lucky to be able to share this one with the Hughens while they were visiting us over New Years.

Sultry, medium dark ruby. Intensely fruity nose: sweet, oozing cherries and berries, with tart pectin-like notes and a sweetly musky component. Deep, concentrated, and full bodied, with an almost port-like texture and weightiness. Overripe cherry and plum extract in the mouth, with lots of peppery, steely minerals in the long, but warm (15.6% alc.) finish. Not the most subtle or complex wine, but a big, voluptuous, Raquel Welch of a Pinot Noir. 90. I got this from Flickinger Wines in Chicago several months ago -- I don't remember how much it was (I think around $45).