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November 25, 2010

The Ultimate Post-Thanksgiving Food-and-Wine Victory Lap

 I’m guessing that in the wake of Thanksgiving dinner you may be thinking of lighter fare for this weekend?  Certainly that makes sense, but since the holidays are just starting, you won’t want to shift into austerity mode straight away.  So, if light but still festive is the question, here’s my answer:  Lots of freshly shucked oysters.

I should disclose that this is my answer to most questions, regardless of the question.  I grew up in an oyster-deprived condition in Chicago, and have been making up for that at breakneck speed ever since.  For the past 16 years I’ve also been able to incorporate my love of wine into my oyster mania by helping to conduct the world’s premier judging of oyster wines:  The Old Ebbitt Grill International Wines for Oysters Competition.

I wouldn’t blame you for asking whether this is a serious undertaking or just a big party masquerading as one.  However, one sign that something serious has been going on at the Ebbitt judging in Washington, D.C. each autumn is that--as in all successful scientific experiments--the results are impressively uniform year after year.

The judging is always conducted “blind,” with the identity of all the wines rigorously concealed.  The judging panel is always carefully assembled with a mix of experienced judges and new blood, and likewise with a mix of chefs, civilian food lovers, and wine experts.  In the latter category, a plurality of our WRO contributors have been involved over the years, including Paul Lukacs, Marguerite Thomas, Robert Whitley, Michael Apstein, Gerald Boyd, Linda Murphy, and Yours Truly.

And virtually ever year the results are the same:  Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough district in New Zealand beats the pants off of every other wine in the world when it comes to matching up with a delicious raw oyster.

This year’s winner was the 2010 bottling from Sileni Estates Winery, which was fabulously zesty and energetic and cleansing, producing an irresistible synergy with the briny richness of the Kushi oysters.

This year’s runner-up was a California sparkler, Laetitia Brut Cuveé from Arroyo Grande, but seven of the other eight wines in the top ten were Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough:  Glazebrook "Ngatarwa" 2009; Babich 2009; Kim Crawford 2009; Babich “Black Label” 2009; Nobilo 2009; Kato 2009, and Matua Valley 2009.  The remaining Gold Medal winner was from Chile, the 2010 Santa Rita “120” Sauvignon Blanc, which has made previous appearances in the Ebbitt winner’s circle, and is one of the world’s very best values every year.

If you are an oyster-pairing partisan of Sancerre or Muscadet or Champagne or Chablis, I can only say to you what I say to all of my fellow fans of the Chicago Cubs:  Maybe next year.  But until next November, please pass the oysters, and make mine a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc….

Posted by Michael Franz at 12:19 PM

November 23, 2010

Linda Murphy's Wine Picks for Thanksgiving

The family members with whom I celebrate Thanksgiving these days drink only red wine.  They will politely sip a flute of sparkling wine, for the sake of celebration and to humor me, yet they can’t wait to pull the corks on some sturdy red wines with the meal; that’s when they really get down to wine-drinking business.  They don’t care if the Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot clobbers their palates; they drink what they like, and don’t worry about whether the wine complements the food.
Personally, I prefer white wines for turkey and the trimmings -- in particular, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Pinot Blancs and light-handed Viogniers -- and rosé still wines on the dryer side, made from Grenache, Pinot Noir, Syrah and other red grapes.
But since Mom and Dad host the Thanksgiving meal, I’m called upon to provide the hearty red wines they expect.  I typically bring a bottle each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, yet I also perform a selfish act:  I open a couple bottles of rosé or blanc de noirs sparkling wine.  Everyone has a splash of bubbly during happy hour, and I continue to enjoy the fizz throughout the meal, leaving the heavy reds to everyone else.  We all push away from the table happy. 
Rosé and blanc de noirs bubblies are perfect with roasted turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, and don’t clash with my favorite Thanksgiving dish -- mashed potatoes -- nor yams or butternut squashes.  The berry/cherry -- even cranberry -- flavors of sparkling pink wines are great companions for the smorgasbord of holiday food flavors, their weight is enough to handle food, and the effervescence cleanses the palate for another bite.
I also like to drink American on Thanksgiving, so that means no Champagne, Cava, Prosecco or other non-native sparkling wines.  There are so many great bubblies produced in the U.S., that there is no reason to venture outside the States for satisfaction on this most American of holidays.
Domaine Chandon’s California Rosé is a beauty -- full-flavored yet elegant.  It has a suggested retail price of $22, yet I purchased a bottle at a chain grocery store last week for just $13.  Roederer Estate in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley produces a truly fine non-vintage Brut Rosé each year, and the current bottling ($27, sometimes discounted) has vibrancy and a subtle note of yeastiness that comes from Champagne-style production methods and aging.
The same can be said for Schramsberg’s 2007 North Coast Brut Rosé ($40), which offers a bit more complexity and generosity than the Roederer, though at an additional cost.  I love it nonetheless.  Schramberg’s second-label, non-vintage Mirabelle Brut Rosé, sells for $27, and while not as layered as the North Coast bottling, is bright and rewarding. 
New Mexico’s Gruet Winery Blanc de Noirs ($14) is delicious for its wild raspberry character and biscuity complexity.  It’s widely distributed, and a tremendous value in methode champenoise sparkling wine.  So is Mumm Napa’s Brut Rosé Napa Valley ($22, often discounted), which is crisp and refreshing in its strawberry flavors and brisk acidity. 
Keep in mind that these bubblies also elevate Thanksgiving leftovers to new heights.  Reserve a bottle -- or a partial one -- for the day after the holiday.
Posted by Linda Murphy at 12:44 PM

November 22, 2010

Ed McCarthy's Thanksgiving Wine Picks

On this most festive, celebratory day--when we’re with family and friends--in my world it’s an absolute necessity to start with Champagne to complement all of the opening nibbles. 

If your taste runs to dry, light-bodied, elegant Champagnes, I would recommend Ayala, either their Brut Zero, or even better, Rosé Nature, one of the few rosé Champagnes with absolutely no dosage (added sugar).  Both are totally delicious.  Another one of my favorite Champagne producers in the light, dry, elegant mode is Bruno Pailliard.  All of his Champagnes are outstanding; I especially enjoy Pailliard’s Chardonnay Réserve Privée. 

For Champagnes with a little more heft, you can’t go wrong with Gosset’s Grande Réserve or Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve, two of the  best non-vintage bruts being made today.  Another favorite is Pol Roger; I particularly like this producer’s Blanc de Blancs.

One of the great aspects of Thanksgiving is that the main course, which is usually turkey, goes well with both white and red wines.  I like to have both types on hand.  Chardonnay has an affinity with turkey.  I prefer leaner Chardonnays made with little or no oak.  Chablis, which is 100 percent Chardonnay and made in the cool-climate region around the village  of Chablis in France, is my top white wine recommendation.  It’s fairly lean, pure, and not as expensive as the white Burgundies from France’s famed Côte d’Or region.  A producer to look for is Louis Michel, who makes Chablis wines without using oak.  The 2008 vintage is an excellent one for Chablis, by the way.

I have never been a big fan of California Chardonnays, but I have noticed that many producers are making some excellent Chardonnays lately.  Two favorite producers from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley are Williams Selyem and HannaHanzell, also from Sonoma, is another perennial top Chardonnay producer.  Other fine Chardonnays include Long Vineyards from Napa Valley and Mt. Eden Estate from the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco.

The red wines that I prefer with turkey should be fruity rather than tannic.  I would rule out Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, and all similar types of red wine for this reason.  Two inexpensive reds that I believe pair well with Thanksgiving dinners are Beaujolais and Barbera.  I like the more serious   Beaujolais wines from small producers such as Jean-Paul Brun.  Barbera, from Italy’s Piedmont region, is another can’t-miss red.  But I’d avoid the expensive, over $25 Barberas, almost all of which are aged in oak.  You can find wonderful, lively under $20 Barberas, such as Vietti’s Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne, that are more suitable wines for your Thanksgiving dinner.

A more expensive choice of red wine with turkey and the trimmings would be a red Burgundy.  With turkey, I’d choose a fairly young Burgundy (from 2002 thru 2007) from the Côte de Beaune, such as a Volnay.  Pinot Noirs from California’s Sonoma Coast can also be fine, but choose carefully.  Some of my favorite California producers include Littorai, Hartford Court, Hirsch Vineyards, and Williams Selyem.

After all of that food and wine, I usually am not looking for a dessert wine at the end of the day.  Instead, I’d opt for a digestif, such as Fernet Branca.  And, finally, I’d look for a nice, soft couch  to take a nap--while pretending to watch the football games.

Posted by Ed McCarthy at 4:38 PM

November 17, 2010

Paul Lukacs' Thanksgiving Wine Picks

Since everyone agrees that no single wine can be “perfect” at the groaning Thanksgiving table, why not choose a wine that fits the holiday in a different way--one that you are thankful for being able to enjoy?

I am in the process of finishing a book on the history of wine, and the biggest thing I’ve learned while writing it is how lucky we all are.  Not all that long ago a great deal of wine tasted unpalatably shrill and sour, much of it being either oxidized or infected by bacteria.  Today, no matter whether you’re paying $7 or $70, it’s nearly impossible to buy a seriously flawed wine.  We may argue, as the writers at Wine Review Online are wont to do, about the merits of different styles, but it’s inarguable that wine drinkers today are blessed with more good wines at all price levels than ever before in human history.  Surely, that’s something to be thankful for.

Thinking specifically about Thanksgiving dinner, I’m firmly in the camp that advocates drinking American wines on what--after all--is our country’s national feast.  So while I’m very grateful for all sorts of imported wines, everything from luxe Champagnes to more humble but delicious offerings (like the riveting bottle of Beaujolais Blanc--yes blanc--that I enjoyed the other week), I’ll confine myself to recommending a few domestic wines that should enhance the holiday.  Though made from different grapes and evidencing different styles, these represent the surge in quality that should have us all giving thanks.  

The first is Chateau Ste Michelle 2009 Dry Riesling ($9), which won the Critics’ Challenge Competition last May, and which offers outstanding value.  Twenty years ago, Riesling of this quality was simply unavailable from the United States, no matter the price.  Today, more and more excellent examples of the varietal are coming onto the market all the time.  Many hail from the Pacific Northwest, but fine Rieslings now also come from eastern states like Michigan and New York. 

Speaking of the east, my second recommendation is Michael Shaps 2008 Viognier ($32) from Virginia.  This winery (and winemaker) consistently turns out some of the best examples of this particular varietal made anywhere--and that includes France.  The wine exhibits a seductive floral bouquet, followed by rich peach and apricot fruit flavors, without ever seeming hot or heavy.  For hundreds of years people dreamed of being able to make world-class wines on the eastern seaboard.  It’s happening now.

My red recommendation is Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc ($22) from California’s North Coast.  It tastes of raspberries and plums, with a kiss of vanilla and a sharp tang of green herbs, and while medium-bodied has plenty of flavor to hold its own with even the least wine-friendly Thanksgiving dish (think candied yams).  This is an example of a California wine with a truly individualistic personality, something I sometimes wish were more common in the Golden State, where the wines these days are invariably good but perhaps too often indistinct.

While I easily could come up with many more specific recommendations for Thanksgiving dinner, my larger point is that, for those of us who love wine in all its fascinating forms, this is an age of unparalleled riches.  We sometimes may lament not being able to afford this or that wine, or regret missing out on a particular bargain, but it makes sense at this holiday to give thanks for the bounty we have--more high-quality wines from more place and at more different price-points than ever before.

Posted by Paul Lukacs at 10:42 AM

November 15, 2010

W. Blake Gray's Wine Pick for Thanksgiving

 I'm kind of the mascot here at Wine Review Online.  Unlike my colleagues, I've only been writing about wine professionally for a little over a decade, which means I've only written the Thanksgiving wine story 10 times.

Usually I write the same thing -- open a bunch of bottles and leave them on the table, don't skip the pink wines, save your treasures for a more wine-friendly meal.  And, because Thanksgiving is all about celebrating harvest and survival on this fierce continent, buy American. 

This year, though, I'm going rogue.  You want to know what wine would really go well with Thanksgiving dinner?  Riesling, particularly sweet Riesling from Germany's Mosel region.

Thanksgiving is a challenge for wine pairing because there's sweetness on every plate, whether you top your sweet potatoes with marshmallow or not.  Wines with no residual sugar can taste sour when paired with cranberry sauce.  But who wants to tell Aunt Mabel to cleanse her palate with water before sipping your Cabernet?

Mosel Rieslings, especially at the Spätlese level, not only have the sweetness to work with the food; they also actually taste like a basket of exotic fruit: mango, guava, Key lime.  They have great acidity to wash away mouth-clogging food like mashed potatoes and stuffing.

And they're usually less than 10% alcohol, which means you can have two glasses and still drive home unimpaired.  Or, if you're hosting, you can gently push your relatives out the door without feeling overly guilty.

Sure, you can have New York Riesling, and that can be just as good.  And if it were widely distributed, maybe that's exactly what I would suggest.

But here in San Francisco, where I can buy wine from just about any country that makes it, New York Rieslings are more foreign than Georgian or Turkish wines.  But good Mosel Riesling is not that hard to lay my hands on. 

Frankly, though, as much as I like New York Rieslings, the top wines from the Mosel would still be my choice.

Next year I'll probably go back to waving the flag.  If I eat healthy, I can look forward to writing the Thanksgiving wine story another, oh, 35 times or so.  Or maybe by then I'll just think it and, if you follow my brain scans, you'll know what I'm thinking.  (Yikes!  I just got something else to be thankful for this year -- that certain technologies aren't quite here yet.)

Mosel Riesling.  Amen.

Posted by W. Blake Gray at 10:55 AM

November 12, 2010

Thanksgiving: Recession Be Damned!

By now we’ve all heard at least a million times how difficult it is to pair wine with the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Every year we’re told how impossible it is to find any wine that goes with the holiday’s grand mish-mash of flavors, and what a challenge it is to select wine to please all palates, and that no wine can really be drinkable with marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes,and blah, blah, blah.

Well, to use one of the most currently over-used clichés, the meal and its inherent wine challenges "are what they are," and so those of us who aren’t planning to be drinking iced tea with our turkey should probably stop concentrating on how hard it is to find the “right” wine to pair with the food and instead start seeking out wines that will be pleasant, easy-going, versatile, and--most important--inexpensive in this year of recession Thanksgiving (or should that be, Thanksgrieving?).

With all this in mind, I’ve looked back over the wines I’ve reviewed at Wine Review Online this year and have come up with a working list of extremely sippable, multipurpose wines to choose from for the occasion. Not one of these wines is priced over $20.

Sparklers: It’s hard for me to imagine any festive meal that doesn’t begin with bubbles. Among Gloria Ferrer’s extremely good sparkling wines, one of my favorites is the soft, creamy Blanc de Noirs, which is characterized by lively strawberry and cherry flavors ($20). There are plenty of reasons Prosecco is a popular fizz, including its relative affordability. One of the top-notch Prosecco producers is Adami, whose “Dei Casel” offers beguiling aromatics and a ton of fruity flavors balanced by savory spiciness; it will set you back only $18.

Whites: One thing to avoid with eclectic meals is wine that’s extreme in any way--whites that are shrill in their acidity or, conversely, excessively sweet, or ultra oaky. Extremes not only fatigue the palate, they also usually have limited compatibility with food. But keeping that caveat in mind, the range of choices seems almost limitless. If you’re looking for a seductive yet inexpensive sipping wine to serve before the meal, it’s hard to beat Torrontès, Argentina’s signature white grape. Among the many good labels to choose from is Alamos, which crafts an exceptionally charming, crisp and dry Torrontès for a modest $13. Sauvignon Blanc, especially any of the classic ultra crisp selections from New Zealand, is almost a cult favorite for certain wine drinkers. For a lighter, simpler, effusive version of the varietal try Le Jaja de Jau from Southwestern France ($9), or the Chateau de Parenchére blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle (who knew you could get such an elegant, silkywhite from Bordeaux for a mere $10?). One of the most appealing California Sauvignon Blancs is the Estate Bottled selection from Foppiano,which tastes both refreshing and substantial ($19).

Despite the current fad for dissing Chardonnay, it remains one of the world’s most popular and delicious wines, versatile in both style and price. To randomly select a region from which to choose a Chardonnay for this Thanksgiving I might turn to Chile and go with the “Visión” bottling from Cono Sur, a complex and lush wine that finishes on a brisk, clean note ($12). If you are fortunate enough to be starting your meal off with oysters, you absolutely must accompany them with the Guy Saget “Les Clissages d ’Or,” a Muscadet that I described in a recent review as providing “cool, vibrant, briny texture, like tongue-kissing an oyster.” And at $16 a bottle, you’ll be able to afford to lay in at least another dozen oysters.

But of all the possible whites for the Thanksgiving table, no varietal is more appropriate than Riesling. It used to be hard to find exciting or even decent Riesling for under $20, but today every region in the world turns out reasonably priced Rieslings that can be exhilarating and also provide respectable matches for just about every food on the table (ok, perhaps not the marshmallow-infused yams--but Riesling will still be better even with those than just about anything else).

From Germany, the original go-to place for Riesling, comes St. Urbans-Hof’s juicy, refreshing, lip-smacking good “Urban Riesling” (a steal at $13). Villa Wolf offers a pretty little $13 peachy, grapefruity Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz region. In this price range it’s hard to find a satisfying, non-cloying dessert wine, but the Hans Eiffel Rheinhessen Risling squeaks in at $20. Good inexpensive California Riesling is generally an oxymoron, but Loredona, in Monterey, makes one that’s redolent of honeysuckle and pears, with plenty of acidity on the finish, for a mere $11. True Riesling lovers will agree that no one in the US produces more appealing and reasonable variations on the theme than Washington state’s Chateau St. Michelle. One of the best buys in this winery’s lineup is the dry, fragrant, fruity “Waussie” ($17).

Rosé: Many people serve rosé at Thanksgiving in the hopes that it will have more universal appeal than either red or white wine. As a rosé lover myself, I sort of understand this fall back-position, but the problem is that since pink wine is sometimes insipid, sweet and/or characterless, it’s apt to be good with nothing on the menu. But still, a trustworthy wine such as the Beaujolais Rosé offered by Louis Jadot for $11 has a judicious layering of fruit and is just perky and crisp enough to be a supremely pleasant match for the Thanksgiving menu.

Reds: As is the case with whites, it’s probably a good idea to avoid extremes when selecting red wine to accompany the typical Thanksgiving culinary orgy. Highly tannic wines, for example, and those with extreme intense and concentrated flavors, can overpower the eclectic holiday buffet as well as quickly exhausting the taste buds. Big, beefy inexpensive Cabernets may well be over-the-top for this occasion, but blending Cab with other grapes sometimes softens the blow. This is true with Veramonte “Primus,” in which Cabernet tangos gracefully with Syrah, Merlot and Carmenère ($20). Argentina’s own Malbec grape canyield plumy, spicy, friendly wines such as one from Tercos ($12).

Grenache, on its own or blended with other grapes, can be a stunningly versatile wine for the Thanksgiving table, and the Languedoc in Southwestern France is an especially good source for these wines. Labels to look for include L’Ostal Cazes, whose $15 “Estibals,” a blend of Grenache/Syrah/Carignan, is deeply colored, dry and chewy, and also presents an unexpected measure of finesse. In “Grande Cuvée”, from the Languedoc’s Castelmaure, Grenache meets Syrah in a bright, plush, thoroughly pleasing wine ($17). For $16 you can get Grenache blended with Cinsault from Les Clos Perdus,a small price to pay for a beautifully balanced wine with rich and complex flavors and a silky texture.

Pinot Noir is championed by many as the ultimate Thanksgiving wine, though truly good inexpensive ones are hard to come by. The Arrogant Frog label, from Languedoc producer Domaine Mas, makes a medium-bodied, lightly floral Pinot which, at $10, is surprisingly sophisticated. For an additional $10 you could get the Rodney Strong “Estate Vineyards” Pinot Noir, which for a California Pinot is mesmerizingly light, bright and silky, with hints of earthiness. Tempranillo can be supremely delicious with turkey and trimmings. Ramón Bilbao makes a notable one that fuses rich aromas with a medium body, and like the best Rioja wines it maintains a strategic balance between oak and fruitiness--for $17, how can you resist?

Posted by Marguerite Thomas at 4:55 PM

November 1, 2010

Gambling on GrĂ¼ner

 At the risk of sounding jaded, I get to taste delicious wines all the time.  However, it is relatively rare for me to taste a wine that seems important, or a wine that makes me want to congratulate the people who grew the grapes or crafted the wine.

Stated in rather more snarky terms, it is rare for me to taste a wine that makes me wonder why hundreds of other vintners were too lacking in imagination or initiative to make something like it themselves.

The wine in question is a Grüner Veltliner, sourced from the Paragon Vineyard in the Edna Valley in California’s Central Coast and bottled by Zocker Winery.  Grüner Veltliner is a grape closely associated with Austria, where it is a distinctive specialty that excels at every level from a simple jug wine served by the pitcher in a tavern (a Heuriger, in German) to a high-end, single-vineyard, estate-bottled wine.  Grüners are terrific young but capable of development with age, and are amazingly versatile and delicious with food.

All of which raises the following questions:  Why the hell aren’t there dozens of Grüners available from California or Oregon or Washington?  At least in limited production, to see what the grape might do in these locations?  Out of those thousands of acres of Chardonnay in Monterey County alone, wouldn’t it have been worthwhile for a bunch of vintners to devote a row or two to Grüner Veltliner?  When so many vineyards had to be replanted after the failure of AxR1 rootstock in the 1990s, wouldn’t it have made sense for many wineries to try some relatively rare grapes that have achieved excellence elsewhere, pushing past Viognier to try Verdejo or Vermentino or Verdelho?  (And those are just the “V” candidates.)

I mean, really, given the great success of Malbec in Argentina and Carménère in Chile, why are we not seeing dozens of experimental Albariños and Grüners being made in the USA?  An unwillingness to gamble a little on grapes like these seems very curious to me.  Curious, or maybe brainless.  Or gutless?

Of course, this is easy for me to say, since I’m not the one who would have to sell the resulting wine.  Perhaps what Zocker Winery has done is a bigger gamble than it seems to me, and in fact “Zocker” is the Austrian word for “Gambler.”

In any case, Zocker’s gamble has paid off, as the wine shows true varietal character in the form of tasty fruit recalling white melons and peaches with a fresh citrus edge.  There’s a suggestion of ripeness in the midpalate, but the acidity is so energetic that the wine really could pass for an Austrian rendition of the grape, and its vibrancy and freshness should make it a prized object in California, which rarely produces edgy whites from any grape other than Sauvignon Blanc.  Congratulations--on grounds of foresight--to all who were involved in bringing this wine to fruition, including the Niven family and winemaker Christian Roguenant.  I scored the 2009 bottling at 91 points, and posted a review here on WRO.

* * *

Questions, or answers?  Write to me at [email protected]

Posted by Michael Franz at 2:19 PM