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A Perfect Perfection

February 15, 2021 6 comments

Yes, I know. “Perfect Perfection”. The English language offers more than 170,000 words, and this “writer” can’t even come up with a decent title for the post. Shame on me.

And nevertheless, I insist on my choice of words. Let me tell my tale to see if this will make sense to you too.

Valentine’s Day is a very personable holiday, loved by some, and hated by others. Many years ago, we decided that it will be simply a family holiday for us (no restaurant Prix Fix menus and back to back sitting), which translates into an opportunity to cook and  – it is a special holiday, after all – open a special bottle of wine.

A special bottle of wine means a special selection process. “Special selection process” usually means trouble – going from a wine fridge to a wine fridge, opening the door, pulling the shelf, looking at the bottles, pulling another shelf out, still not finding anything appropriate, and repeating until full exhaustion. For this dinner, however, a choice of the main dish greatly simplified the process.

In this house, special dinners are often associated with the steak. Such was this Valentine’s Day – New York strip was acquired and ready to be cooked. Many wines can play well with the steak, but in simple terms, steak needs Cabernet Sauvignon or a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. With that in mind, choosing the wine was almost easy and straightforward – California Bordeaux-style blend with a nice age almost popped into my hand on its own.

I never had this wine before. While looking for the 1998 wines to buy (birth year of my son) at the Benchmark Wine, I came across this 1998 Reverie Special Reserve Meritage as it was described. At $30, 22 years old unknown wine from California sounds like a risk I was willing to take (so far, I didn’t miss  – “knock on wood” – even a single time buying aged wines from Benchmark Wine, everything was tasty and perfectly drinkable). In the wine fridge, this wine was laying on one of the first shelves I pulled out, and the inner voice quickly said “this is it” – I decided not to argue.

I had the wine warm up a bit before opening it. About an hour and a half before our decided dinner time, I carefully pulled out the cork – I had quite a few corks crumbled almost to the dust on me lately, so was extra careful pulling this one out. To my delight, the cork came out in a perfect shape, practically intact.

The first whiff of this 1998 Reverie Special Reserve Diamond Mountain (13.5% ABV, blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot, aged in 100% new small French oak barrels) simply suggested taking a sip immediately. The wine had aromas of cassis and mint, a pure, classic, beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon profile. The palate followed almost in the impossibly perfect way. Cassis, mint, and eucalyptus, all in pristine, perfect, form. There was nothing extra in that sip – it was perfectly round, perfectly smooth, with just enough acidity, with just enough of the tannins, with just enough of the fruit. A perfect, perfect, perfect balance, an absolute harmony which is not easy to find – the one which puts a stupid smile on your face. Yep, that’s how good the wine was.

Our impressions seemed to match perfectly with what the back label said: “we only designate the blend made from the best lots of the traditional Bordeaux varietals as Special Reserve when we believe the wine is extraordinary. We believe this wine is worthy of that designation. We are incredibly proud of this very limited release wine and know you will also enjoy it immensely. A wine this fine should be saved for a special occasion and enjoyed with the finest cuisine and good friends”. It is rare to find a back label to be spot on describing the wine – but in the case of this special Reserve, this was a complete success.

I don’t think my pan-seared steak belonged to the finest cuisine category – but at least it was not burnt and raw at the same time – and it paired very well with the wine. We also made special potatoes in the air fryer and oven-roasted asparagus came out super-tasty (from now on, this might be the only way I will cook asparagus).

This is my story of the perfect wine experience – truly at the level which will be hard to replicate. What are your “perfect wine” stories?

New Year’s Escapades – 2021 Edition

January 18, 2021 Leave a comment

New Year is my favorite holiday. It revolves around food, wine, friends, and a good time. New Year’s Eve is always special, and then on New Year’s Day we usually get together with friends, to talk and open some special bottles.

Yes, that how it always was. But not this time – no friends in the house, except via FaceTime or zoom. Better than nothing, but all the food and wine sharing is completely virtual, and therefore, not endorphins-producing.

Obviously, this New Year’s celebration was scaled down. In terms of wines, I mean. Our family can’t scale down food, this is not in our genes, so cooking was mostly as usual, with all the appropriate holiday favorites. But the wine I had to scale down – my mother-in-law prefers tequila, my wife would only have a glass of red for the evening, and kids, while grown up, don’t care much about alcohol. So I had to mostly count on yours truly for any wine adventures.

Here is what I decided to open for the New Year’s celebration:

Let’s talk about these wines.

At first, I thought that Mailly Grand Cru would be the only bubbles I would open for the night, to drink with dinner and celebrate the arrival of 2021, as I was the primary consumer of bubbles. Then I decided last minute that I will leave that Mailly Champagne just for the midnight toast, and instead would have NV André Chemin Champagne Brut Tradition Blanc de Noir Premier Cru (12% ABV, $26.99 WTSO, RC) with dinner. I’m always curious who makes the Champagne – you know, those little letters and numbers which you can find practically on any Champagne label. Is it NM (Négociant-Manipulant, majority of the big Champagne names are in this category), or the RM (Récoltant-Manipulant), which signifies grower’s Champagne? I found the letters RC on the bottle of the André Chemin Brut, which I never saw before. With the help of this website, I was able to figure out that RC stands for Récoltant-Coopérateur – grapes are provided by the grower to Coopérative-Manipulant who makes wine on the grower’s behalf and under grower’s label but without grower’s involvement.

The André Chemin Brut happened to be an excellent addition to the group – the wine was superb, offering warm notes of the toasted bread and fresh apple, perfect acidity, round, fresh, and delicious – pretty much the way I prefer my Champagne.

2012 Mailly L’Intemporelle Champagne Brut Grand Cru (12% ABV, $115, CM) was also a learning experience. I found letters CM on the label, which stands for Coopérative-Manipulant – this is when a group of small growers blend grapes collectively and make wine under one or more brands – with growers involved in grape growing and winemaking. I poured this wine to toast 2021, and unfortunately, it didn’t do anything for me ( my son said that he enjoyed it quite a bit). The wine had mostly Granny Smith apples without much of the roundness and creaminess – I definitely expect a lot more from the vintage Champagne and this wine didn’t deliver.

I also opened the 2014 Tiefenbrunner Turnhof Sauvignon Südtirol Alto Adige AOC (14% ABV) “just in case”. I had this wine before, and it was quite delicious and elevated. On the first night as the wine was opened, it didn’t offer much of anything, it was closed. It opened up, however, over the next few days, offering whitestone fruit, a touch of honeysuckle, and good acidity.

My choice of red wine was the 2007 Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (14.5% ABV) – it happened to be another perfect choice. There was a rumor (never confirmed) that this wine had some grapes coming from Harlan vineyards. Harlan or not, but this was a perfect California Cabernet – cassis all the way, mint, eucalyptus, round tannins, big but perfectly balanced body with well-integrated, smooth tannins – lots of pleasure.

Then, of course, there was food. As I said, scaling down the food is not an option in this house. The majority of dishes were the ones you would expect to find at the Russian New Year’s table, such as “shuba” (herring under the fur coat), Olivie salad, deviled eggs, and cod liver salad. We even managed to find reasonably priced black caviar – which was really a black caviar imitation, but a very tasty one.

Our entree was just one dish, stuffed chicken rolls, but it was definitely a tasty dish:

Most of these dishes are quite simple to make but really tasty – a note to self to add recipes to my food collection here – food, same as wine, is the best when you can share it.

That’s all for my New Year 2021 celebration notes. Yes, this was all scaled-down – but we still had a delightful evening to end an interesting year on a high note.

How was your 2021 celebration?

Happy New Year 2021!

January 1, 2021 6 comments

Whatever doesn’t break you makes you stronger. 2020 became an ultimate test for humankind, and I hope we will all emerge in 2021 stronger and a little bit wiser.

I really appreciate each and every one of you, my readers – and I want to take a moment to wish you and your loved ones a healthy, happy, and peaceful New Year 2021!

And … needless to say … lots and lots of exciting wine discoveries.

To the new beginnings! Cheers!

Categories: Holidays, Life Tags:

Thanksgiving Day Experiences – 2020 Edition

November 28, 2020 2 comments

2020. What a year.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, as it revolves around family, food, wine, and friends. Close friends, who are more a family. Friends we celebrated Thanksgiving together with for the past 29 years. And 2020 managed to put a damper on that too, among a vast array of destruction this year will leave behind. Thanksgiving 2020 was about immediate family, food, and wine.

But even in 2020, the proverbial silver lining can be found. This probably was the most relaxing Thanksgiving ever. The menu was dramatically reduced – the family of 4 doesn’t need much of the elaborate appetizers and a vast array of side dishes, so cooking was mostly stress-free. Mostly, however, is a keyword here, as the cooking of the turkey became an unintended study of the operations of our oven.

I’ve cooked the turkey using most of the possible ways over the years, with the exception of deep-frying – roasted, roasted in the bag, turducken, deboned and roasted, smoked (smoked was the house favorite for the past 3 years). I’m also a big fan of slow cooking when you cook low and slow for a long time, so we decided that this was the way to go this year. Turkey was all buttered up with cavity stuffed with aromatics (garlic, lemon, celery, herbs), and the turkey went into the oven at around midnight at 200°F. Or at least I thought that it was 200°F. In the morning, the thigh registered only 152°F (you really need 185°F there) – this is when we decided to check the temperature in the oven using the same meat thermometer, and found out that it was at least 20 degrees lower, barely reaching 180°F, which greatly extends cooking time. We spent the next 6-7 hours playing with that temperature until we finally reached the desired doneness. 40 minutes at 450°F uncovered rendered a beautiful bird with crispy skin. So as long as you trust your oven, slow cooking is the way to go. Added benefit – the best ever turkey gravy, made from the drippings (here is the link to the recipe in case you need one).

The rest of the food prep caused no heartburn, everything came out quite well. We did the same stuffing for the second year in a row. While the recipe is very simple (but it takes time), the result is simply a delightful dish loved by everyone. One more standout was Nantucket Cranberry Pie, which is incredibly simple to make but yet again, the result is superb.

What didn’t work well at all (every occasion needs a flap, right?) was my attempt to recreate childhood memories. I ordered black caviar from Costco (yes, guilty as charged), which came pre-packaged with Creme Fraiche and tiny blinis (a dollar-coin-sized Russian pancakes). First, the caviar itself was just so-so, both in texture and in the taste. But following the instructions and serving it with blinis was a complete disaster, as those dry nibbles resembling poorly made English muffins were, in a word, disguising, both in the taste and texture, especially the texture. Talk about disappointments… But as I said, this was the only flap.

And then there were wines. Over the years, I developed an “All-American” approach to my Thanksgiving wine selection. 2020 was not an exception, and I decided to open definitely more than we could drink, but still have fun with the wines.

Two out of four wines came as part of the mystery pack from Last Bottles which were offered during Thanksgiving. I always missed that deal, but this year I managed to grab the 12 bottles for $144, which made it a great deal. So far I tried 5 bottles out of those 12, and they were all excellent, so the white and Rosé were coming from that set. Vinum Cab Franc was a sample that I received as a preparation for the upcoming #CabFrancDay celebration. I also managed to get cellar-aged Cayuse as part of this year’s offering (directly from Cayuse), so I decided that it might make the Thanksgiving celebration quite special. And yes, it did…

For what it worth, here are my wine notes:

2017 Casino Mine Ranch Vermentino Shenandoah Valley (14.1% ABV)
Light golden
Honeysuckle, white flowers, inviting
Delicious. Whitestone fruit and tropical fruit, a touch of honey undertones, Gewurz-like spiciness, good acidity, good balance.
Should play well with food (pre-dinner notes)
8-, it was good with food

2018 Azur Rosé Napa Valley (12.5% ABV)
Gold with a copper hue
Similar to the previous wine, honeysuckle, ripe strawberries
Good acidity, strawberries all the way, fresh, vibrant, full of energy. Excellent.
8-/8, tremendous acidity on the second day. Worked well with food.

2016 Vinum Cellars The Scrapper Cabernet Franc El Dorado (15.18% ABV, $35, 26 months in 2 year French Oak)
Dark garnet
Red and black fruit, a touch of black currant
Black currant, dark chocolate, sweet cherries
8, good balance, well-made wine.

2011 Cayuse Syrah En Cerise Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (13.9% ABV)
Dark garnet, almost black
Liquid rocks, a touch of barnyard, iodine, can’t stop smelling
Liquid rock, tart cherries, tar, pepper, iodine, firm structure, layers and layers of flavor. Wow.
9-/9. Surprising pairing – worked amazingly well with Nantucket cranberry pie. Worked well with turkey as well.

As you can tell, the wine program was a complete success – and I definitely can’t complain about spending the holidays with just the closest family

That’s my Thanksgiving story. Hope you have fun too!

Seeking, Overcoming, and Finding: Amarone for the Father’s Day

June 25, 2020 Leave a comment

Let’s take this step by step, starting with seeking. What am I seeking?

If you read this blog for some time, you know that Amarone is my pet peeve. Ever since falling in love with Le Ragoze Amarone during Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine School session, Amarone has a special place in this wine lover’s heart. I generally would never admit the existence of the pivotal wine in my wine journey, but if I would really think about it, this will be the one. The combination of the dried fruit on the nose with the firm, powerful, impeccably balanced palate really created an everlasting memory. I had this experience about 17 years ago, in 2003, drinking 5 years old wine (1998 vintage) – and ever since I’m trying to replicate it. Which brings us to the next step: overcoming.

We are talking wine here, so what is there to overcome, you say? Fear. Trepidation. An attempt to avoid disappointment – over and over again. While seeking to replicate the amazing experience, over the years I tried many, many Amarone. A few times I managed to get close to that magical Le Ragoze experience – but the majority was really, really far from it. Why? Lack of balance. Let’s make it more precise: severe lack of balance. Often expressed in the form of the alcohol burn.

In the last 20 years, Amarone’s alcohol level progressed from the typical 14.8% ABV to the typical 16.5% ABV. I get it. What makes Amarone an Amarone is an additional step in the winemaking process, which is rarely used with any other wines – drying of the grapes before they are pressed. After the grapes are harvested, they are placed outside (historically, on the straw mats, but now, on specially arranged shelves) to dry under the sun, to literally shrivel into the raisins before they will be pressed – this process typically takes between 3 and 4 months. Drying concentrates sugars (and dramatically lowers the yield, which explains the high prices), and thus you can expect higher alcohol in the resulting wine. Yes, I get it – but still…

At 16.5% ABV, true mastery is required to achieve balance. True mastery is rare – and the real downside here is personal self-doubt. While tasting yet another hot and biting wine, a tiny voice in your head says “what is wrong with you? You really say you like this type of wine? Are you sure you are even remotely qualified as an oenophile? Maybe water should be your drink of choice?” So yes, tasting yet another Amarone requires overcoming this fear – who wants to prove oneself wrong time and time again?

Now, let’s continue to finding.

When I was offered a sample of Zenato Amarone I said (not without fear) “of course, thank you”. Zenato, which started producing wines about 60 years ago, in the 1960s, initially white wines in Lugano, produced its first Amarone in 1988. The grapes for Zenato Amarone wines come from the Valpolicella Classico area, grown in Sant’Ambrogio township.

So what did I found in that bottle? The first sip instantly quelled all the fears and brought back happy memories. What made that Le Ragoze so memorable was the contrast. I know, I already said it – the wine had an intense nose of the dried fruit. I don’t know about you, but I love dried fruit – especially figs and raisins. But dried fruit is sweet, and this is what I expected from the wine to be – only it was not. The wine was dry, absolutely dry, massive, concentrated, and firmly structured. It was also perfectly balanced.

Those were the memories. And 2015 Zenato Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico DOCG (16.5% ABV, $60, 80% Corvina Veronese, 10% Rondinella, 10% Oseleta and Croatina, 4 months of drying, 36 months in oak) instantly brought them back with the delicate nose of the dried fruit and dry, massive, concentrated, but a perfectly balanced body. Firm structure, a touch of dried cherries, sage – just an excellent wine overall (Drinkability: 8+/9-). Wine is all about the balance. And pleasure. Zenato Amarone delivered both.

As I opened this bottle on Father’s Day, you can see in the picture a dilemma I now will be facing – I got another glass from another kid – now I will be forced to pick and chose the glass and try to avoid playing favorites… Oh well, not the worst problem to have, isn’t it?

Do you have a favorite Amarone that never disappoints? What’s your most memorable wine? Is there a wine out there you always crave?

Valentine’s Day Experiences

March 1, 2019 2 comments

Valentine's Day RosesCooking is the ultimate expression of love. This is always true, but even more though on Valentine’s Day, as the whole holiday is all about love – the holiday which exists since about the 5th century – it is really fun to celebrate something so deeply rooted in history.

Our personal love story was simple – yet, probably, equally uncommon – the love at first sight. It took three days since the moment we saw each other for the first time until everything was decided. So you can imagine that Valentine’s Day was always an important holiday for us. At first, we tried to follow to common path, working hard to score coveted restaurant reservation – until the dinner at one of the most expensive, and supposedly, best Italian restaurants in Connecticut, which we left asking each other “what was that???”. That was the end of our “eating out” Valentine’s Day celebrations, and the beginning of the “eat in” tradition.

One of the advantages of “eat in” celebrations is a much better wine program. You don’t need to desperately comb through the pages of the wine list, finding that you can’t afford any of the wines by the bottle you want to drink, and common sense preventing you from getting any of the wines by the glass which can be classified as a “seemingly affordable rip off”. Instead, you can spend hours combing through your own wine shelves, looking for the bottles which you will deem worthy of a special celebration –  and which will also work with the menu you have in mind.

Valentiens Day wines

Martinelli Syrah which you see in the picture was a backup wine in case anything will be wrong with the Pinot. Now it is back in the cellar, waiting for its turn.

Last year’s celebration was about steak and Cab – obviously, I couldn’t repeat myself, so the search was on to find an appropriate protein replacement. Somehow that resulted in the duck breast – and what wine does the duck breast call for? Of course, the Pinot Noir!

Before we talk Pinot we need to talk bubbles. Bubbles don’t have to exclusively narrow down to Champagne. Champagne is a wonderful sparkling wine, perfectly appropriate for any celebration – but the world of wine moved up tremendously over the past 15-20 years. I don’t have any stats to prove this objectively, but I have a feeling in the USA at least a third of all wineries if not half of them produce sparkling wine – if not for the wide distribution, then at least for the wine clubs and tasting room visitors.

I also have to say that ever since I visited the Franciacorta region in Lombardy, Italy, Franciacorta sparkling wines became my go-to choice of bubbles for any special celebrations. In my mind, Franciacorta wines are very consistent, and today, as they honed their production methods to perfection, this translates into the “you can’t go wrong with” Franciacorta wines in general. La Valle was one of my top highlights of that Franciacorta trip and the La Valle Rosé really hit the cord then – and it continues to do now. This 2011 La Valle Brut Rosé Franciacorta was superb – fine mousse, delicious strawberries on the nose with the hint of the toasted bread, and more strawberries on the palate – a perfect opener for our evening.

Now, the Pinot time. Similar to the bubbles, Pinot Noir also enjoys quite a universal appeal around the world nowadays. There some regions, however, which do a better job than the others – and California Russain River Valley is definitely one of them. I tried 2007 Charles Mara Pinot Noir for the first time back in 2010. It was silky smooth and powerful at the same time. I was so impressed with this wine that it became the top wine of the inaugural Talk-a-Vino Top Dozen Wines list. I still had a bottle of 2007, and I decided that it would be a perfect choice for our Valentine’s Day dinner – and the wine didn’t disappoint. Now, 9 years later, this 2007 Mara Laughlin Road Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley became even more round and less “in your face”. Characteristic California Pinot plums and smoke on the nose, succulent dark fruit on the palate with a hint of violets, perfect acidity, perfect balance, lots and lots of pleasure. And it also worked perfectly with the duck.

Let’s talk about the duck. I had it a number of times before, either made by friends or at the restaurant – but duck is rarely my go-to dish. The form of duck I cooked before was either duck legs as part of the Cassoulet or the whole duck as part of the Turducken. I never attempted cooking the duck breast before, so obviously was concerned with the outcome. After studying a number of recipes, I was concerned even more, as a number of commentators complained about rendering duck inedible even after repeated attempts, so I was really not sure about my own success.

I don’t know if it was a quality of the ingredient, Moulard Duck Magret, which I got at our local Fairway Market, or the cast iron pan, a combination of the above, or the beginner’s luck, but the duck breast came out perfectly. I also made a Port (you saw it in the picture above) and berries reduction, which elevated the nicely gamey taste of the duck breast and was a bridge to connect it all to Mara Pinot Noir – all in all, a delicious dinner. Nevermind the paper plate in the picture – everything in life has a story, but this is not the story for this blog post.

There you go, my friends – not a timely share, but still an experience worth sharing. If you still remember, I’m curious to know how was your Valentine’s Day dinner. Cheers!

 

 

Bubbles for the New Year 2019

January 9, 2019 2 comments

I pride myself with not discriminating against any type of wine – white, red, sparkling, Rosé, dessert, fortified, $2, $10, $100 – doesn’t matter.

In theory.

In reality, most of the days, I drink red. And wish that I would drink more white and bubbles. Especially bubbles.

But luckily, we have at least a few holidays in the year, where the only appropriate choice of wine [for me] is bubbles. New Year’s Eve is absolutely The One – bubbles all the way.

As with all the holidays, a little prep is involved – the word “little” is a clear exaggeration, as deciding about the wine is mission impossible around here. However, this year it was easier than usual. Shortly before the New Year day, I received a special etched bottle of Ferrari Trento, the oldest Italian traditional method sparkling wine and one of my absolute favorites (I wrote about Ferrari many times in the past), so it was an easy decision regarding the bubbles to ring the New Year in with. I also wanted to start the evening with some vintage Champagne but considering that nobody was thoughtful enough to send me the gift of Krug Vintage, I had to settle for whatever I already had in the cellar. And then there was a bottle of generic French sparkler (non-Champagne) “just in case”.

2008 Philippe Fourrier Cuvée Millésime Brut Champagne (12% ABV, $29.99 WTSO) was outstanding, just a perfect sip to start the holiday evening right. It had just the right amount of yeast and toasted bread notes on the nose, just enough to enjoy without going overboard. Apple and lemon notes on the palate, round, fresh, elegant, perfect balance – just a beautiful wine (Drinkability:  8+). It was also a steal at the price (seems that the wine is no longer available at WTSO).

The vintage Champagne disappeared in no time, it was still long before the apple would start its slide down in the Times Square, so the generic French sparkling wine was next. The weather outside was far from ideal for the New Year’s Eve (non-stop heavy rain) but it didn’t stop me from the pleasure of sabering the bottle into the darkness – worked like a charm even with the wine glass, unlike the #$%^ (insert your favorite expletive) with the saber at the French Laundry.

The NV Prince d’Estivac Blanc de Blancs Brut Vin Mousseux de Qualite (12% ABV, $13.99 WTSO, Melon de Bourgogne 50%, Ugni Blanc 25%, Chardonnay 25%) was excellent in its own right – fresh and vibrant, with rich mouthfeel, touch of a fresh apple, a bit bigger body than a typical Champagne – delicious in every drop (Drinkability: 8). It was also interesting learning for me as I’m not really familiar with “Vin Mousseux de Qualite” designation. It can be used for any French sparkling wine made with the traditional method. I’m assuming with the Vin Mousseux de Qualite designation the grapes can come from anywhere in France, where all of the Cremant wines (Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Loire, …) require the grapes to be from the defined geographic area – if I’m wrong, please let me know in the comment.

Last but not least the time has come for the NV Ferrari Brut Trentodoc Emmys’ Special Edition (12.5% ABV, $24, 100% Chardonnay, 24+ month on the lees). Ferrari wines generally don’t disappoint, and this one was not an exception – crips, bright, bubbly (pun intended), good minerality, cut through acidity – sparkling wine worth any celebration (Drinkability: 8).

Of course, there was more than just the wine – New Year’s Eve is calling for a full table – here is a fragment of ours.

How did you celebrate the arrival of 2019? What were your bubbles of choice? Cheers!

Thanksgiving with Smith-Madrone, And a Few More Delights

December 9, 2018 4 comments

Holidays are all about pleasure. The pleasure of the company. The pleasure of food. The pleasure of wine. As the very least, they should be.

Let me tell you about the pleasures of my recent Thanksgiving – in one picture:

Turkey with Smith-Madrone wines

If this would be an Instagram, I could end my post here, but in this blog, I can add a few words, right?

Let’s talk about the wine first. Everyone has their ideas as what is the best Thanksgiving wine. Some talk about how difficult it is to pair any wine with the Thanksgiving table, due to the large variety of dishes and often prevalent sweet flavors (this is not universal, of course). I have a very simplistic view of the wine and food pairing – give me tasty food and good wine, and if they don’t work together – no problems, I’m happy to consume them one by one. Difficult or not, pairing is not the focal point of my Thanksgiving wine selection. I really have only one strong preference for the Thanksgiving wines – they should be all American. Thanksgiving we celebrate here in the USA is all about this country, and so the wine should match that. And thinking about American wines, you understand how easy it is nowadays to have all-American wine experience.

How many of you heard of Napa Valley? Okay, I see that look, this was a stupid question, I know. But let me go on. How many of you heard of Spring Mountain District? Okay, I see your facial expression changing to say “hmmm, I’m not so sure”. And the last question – how many of you heard of Smith-Madrone? Okay, don’t feel too bad, at the end of the day it is one of the about 400 wineries located in the Napa Valley, so of course, one can’t know all of them. But – this is why I’m talking about it – this is the winery you might want to get better acquainted with.

Smith-Madrone is one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley, started by brothers Stuart and Charles Smith in 1971. Smith-Madrone property is about 200 acres, with some parts of the vineyards planted more than 100 years ago, all located near the top of the Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. The name Smith-Madrone combines the family name with the name of the evergreen Madrone trees, prominently growing at the property. Well, instead of me trying to regurgitate the past and present of the Smith-Madrone winery, let me direct you to this article – it is a good story, well worth a few minutes of your time.

Smith-Madrone wines

When was the last time you had Napa Valley Riesling? If you answered “never”, it could’ve been my answer too – until I discovered this Smith-Madrone Riesling. Riesling is simply not a common grape for the Napa Valley, but Smith-Madrone produces the absolutely beautiful rendition of the famous grape. It might be due to the mountain fruit – all the Smith-Madrone vineyards located at the altitude of 1300 to 2000 feet, with slopes reaching 34%. Sustainable dry farming and winemaking practices also play a role, but one way or the other, the 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain District Napa Valley (12.9% ABV, $32) was just delicious. varietally correct both on the nose (honeysuckle, a touch of tropical fruit, lemon, apples) and the palate, which was beautifully balanced with golden delicious apples, a touch of honey and acidity. To make me ultra-happy, the Riesling is sported a distant hint of petrol, which is my pet peeve.

2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain District Napa Valley (14.4% ABV, $40, 10 months in French oak) was equally beautiful. Again, the wines of that styling I call in my book “classic”. A touch of vanilla and apples on the nose, a distant hint of butter, continuing with the same vanilla and white apples on the palate. Clean acidity, noticeable minerally undertones, restrained, balanced – a very classic example of “how to do chardonnay right”.

With the risk of sounding very boring and repetitive, I have one more classic wine for you – 2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District Napa Valley (13.9% ABV, $52, 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot, 70% new French oak, 30% one-year-old French oak for 18 months). How classic was this wine? Bordeaux-classic. The mountain fruit was shining, showing great restraint. This was not an exuberant typical Napa Cab – lean, tight, well-structured, with cassis both on the nose and the palate, the wine was very enjoyable now, and it will be equally or more enjoyable in 30 years.

So that was my main wine story on the Thanksgiving day. The rest was about the food – starting the smoker as 9 am in the 21°F weather (about -6°C), and then watching the turkey slowly getting to the right temperature. The silver lining of that cold weather was the fact that instead of 4-4.5 hours in the smoker, it took about 6 hours to get that big bird to the right doneness – and slower cooking results in more tender and more flavorful meat. A glass of Smith-Madrone Riesling was adding to the cooking enjoyment.

After celebrating Thanksgiving at our house, we went to see our close friends in Boston. What I love about that house is that there are always a few of the older wine bottles laying somewhere on the shelf. You never know what you will find in the older bottle, but that is what makes it fun, isn’t it?

The first bottle I opened was 2007 Tishbi Cabernet-Petite Sirah Shomron Israel (12% ABV, 70%  Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Petite Sirah). Judging by the pronounced brickish, almost orange, color, my first thought was “this probably fully turned”. And it was not! Complex nose of dried fruit and herbs was supported by plums and prunes forward, but balanced palate. Good amount of acidity, tertiary aromas – this was a very enjoyable glass of wine. Only one glass, I have to say – by the time I wanted the second, the wine was gone.

Without much thinking, I pulled another wine, realizing later that I opened another wine from the same vintage – 2007 Marani Kondoli Vineyards Saperavi-Merlot Kakheti Georgia (13.5% ABV). This wine couldn’t be more different from the previous 2007 – dark garnet color, not a sign of any aging, tight, fresh, blackberries and blueberries on the nose and the palate, firm, fresh and young. I’m really curious about how much longer this wine could’ve last.

One last wine to mention – 2010 Massandra White Muscat Crimea Ukraine (16% ABV). Massandra winery roots go back to the old Tsar’s Russia in late 1800, but their cellars hold wines from the 18th century (if you are not familiar with Massandra wines, here is an article by Jancis Robinson). Massandra is best known for sweet fortified Muscat wines, like the one we tasted. To me, this 2010 was most reminiscent of a Sherry, and not necessarily an ultra-balanced one. But then the same Jancis Robinson’s article says that Massandra wines require 45-60 for the full maturity, so I guess the wine tasted within the expectations…

Spring Mountain District in Napa Valley, Israel, Georgia, and Ukraine – not a bad wine play for the holiday, what do you say?

Here you go, my friends. I will leave you with some beautiful wines to look for. And how was your Thanksgiving, if you still remember it? Cheers!

Embracing Inner Dude At Halloween

November 4, 2018 9 comments

I like action movies. Well made action movies it is – those which have a plot and intrigue, and especially those which might keep you on the edge of your seat. Oh yes, and they better be American made movies. Nope, this is not a patriotic statement – Japanese action movies are beautiful (I love Martial Arts), but in 99 out of a 100, the main character dies at the end. In our, American made action movies, the good always wins – yep, the proverbial “happy end” is literally warranted.

And then there are those American movies where the plot is based on pure absurd, and the only supposedly entertaining element is unstoppable, relentless use of the F-word by everyone, including kids and animals – I guess the endless F-word variations are supposed to create serious drama around, well, pretty much nothing.

Okay, okay, you are still reading (if you are actually reading – and I want to thank you for that) the Talk-a-Vino blog so we will be actually talking wine – I’m not turning into a movie critic all of a sudden.

Sometimes I know that the wine sample had been shipped to me only through a UPS or FedEx notification, without any prior conversations with “the source”. So when the box arrived a few weeks ago from Donna White, I got really curious about what is inside, as the box looked quite big – however, its weight really didn’t support the size, so yes, color me very curious. Inside the box, I found the Halloween costume, the bottle of wine, and the note. From the note, I found out that I’m a Lebowski (and everyone I know is also a Lebowski). Which instantly triggered “The Big Dude Lebowski” to come to my mind – without much of the basis, as I knew the phrase but had no idea it came from the movie.

Now you have the movie connection. I found some movie clips on YouTube, and whatever I watched, didn’t give me an encouragement to sit down and spend time watching the whole movie (hence my opening thoughts in this post). The strong association of the word Dude and “The Big Lebowski”, which is an actual title of the movie, even prompted me to do a bit of the research on the meaning of “Dude” – I was happy to see that the word itself has a much longer history and somewhat easy to relate to (from Wikipedia): “Dude is American English slang for an individual, typically male. From the 1870s to the 1960s, dude primarily meant a person who dressed in an extremely fashionable manner (a dandy) or a conspicuous citified person who was visiting a rural location, a “city slicker”. In the 1960s, dude evolved to mean any male person, a meaning that slipped into mainstream American slang in the 1970s. Current slang retains at least some use of all three of these common meanings.” So “The Dude” can exist on its own, without the “The Big Lebowski” parallels.

Okay, so I explained the movie opening of this post, but we still didn’t get to wine – and it is the time to do it. The Dude actually plays an important world in the wine world – as the name of the Australian Shiraz. Two Hands winery from Barossa Valley in Australia produces the wine called Gnarly Dudes, which has the picture of the old Shiraz vines on the label – which looks like, well, gnarly dudes – hence the name and this whole connection between the Dudes and the wine.

I mentioned the Halloween costume in the box, didn’t I? Can you guess what the costume was? Yep, of course, it was the outfit of The Dude himself, exactly as they show it in the movie. My first reaction was: no. Just no. I will not wear this. A few days later, after the initial desire to reject slowly dissipated, the next thought was “well, this is Halloween after all. Why not?

The end result was simple. I wore The Dude’s costume and I opened the bottle of The Dude wine, just as it was envisioned by whoever put this package together. Below, you can see a proof – lame, but my best version of The Dude. By the way, when I was giving out candies in this outfit, nobody complained – and one person even managed to correctly identify the character I was impersonating.

For the longest time, our family tradition is to carve pumpkins for the Halloween. None of us has any carving skills, but once we finally acquired a good pumpkin carving set from the Williams-Sonoma, we managed to achieve the level of the personal content with the results of our carving efforts.

 

And now, let’s finally talk wine – 2017 Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz Barossa Valley (13.8% ABV, $30, 100% Shiraz, 12 months in French Oak). The wine perfectly demonstrated its “dudiness”. Upon opening and for the most of the evening, it was simply an okay wine. Here are the notes:
Roasted meats on the nose, quite dominant
Dark, earthy fruit, blackberries, a touch of pepper, noticeable sapidity, overall earthy notes, good balance. This is a food friendly wine.

So in terms of drinkability, it was a 7/7+ wine at the best on the first day. The second day (without pumping the air out, just putting the screwtop back on) brought far more enjoyable wine – blackberries appeared on the nose, and on the palate, the wine clearly added multiple dimensions – velvety texture, round dark fruit, both blackberries and blueberries, sage and violets joined the chorus – absolutely next level wine compare to the first day, definitely an 8 wine (my own 1-10 Drinkability scale, yes). I want to mention that the wine remained equally beautiful even on the 3rd day, and showed a touch “over the hill” signs on day 4. An excellent wine, but you have it either give it some time or look for the one which has some age on it. And yes, forget a few bottles in the cellar for the next 10 years – somehow, I expect you to be handsomely rewarded.

Here is my Dude story for you. How was your Halloween? Cheers!

 

Cooking as an Ultimate Expression of Love, or Early Valentine’s Day Experiences

February 13, 2018 13 comments

I’m always happy to admit that Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. Of course this is a personal statement, and of course, I perfectly understand that I’m lucky to be able to say it wholeheartedly, as this is not a universal truth.

Outside of presents (which is fun), overpriced flowers and cheesy cards (nevermind all the heart-shaped chocolates, I don’t even want to mention those), Valentine’s Day is all about food and wine. Many years ago, we ditched the tradition of oversubscribed and underdelivering restaurants, offering strictly timed moments of celebration in favor of homemade dinners, which also include the whole family.

Valentine’s Day dinners at home offer a lot of pleasure in itself – you get to contemplate and select the menu, and you have an opportunity to touch lots and lots of bottles until you grab the one which somehow, magically, will become “it”. And then you get to cook that dinner, and most importantly, if everything works as you are hoping it will, you get an extra dose of happiness looking at the happy faces around the dinner table. By the way, if you need any wine recommendations for the Valentine’s Day, I wrote a few of them in the recent years – here and here are two of my favorite ones.

This year, Valentine’s Day dinner came in early – we will be leaving for vacation exactly on the February 14th, thus in order to maintain the tradition of family celebration, the dinner had to take place earlier – on Sunday before the Valentine’s Day. And so the next idea was – why don’t we start early on Sunday, let’s say with a nice breakfast?

What is your favorite celebratory breakfast meal? Eggs Benedict is definitely one of my favorites, so that was an easy decision. Smoked salmon is one of my favorite choices for the eggs benedict, so the prep for the breakfast started two days prior, first by making smoked salmon (you can find the recipe here).

This is Valentine’s Day dinner, so we need to up the game, right? What can elevate breakfast better than some crispy bacon? Yep, bacon it is!

Traditional Eggs Benedict are served on top of the English muffin. Truth be told, I don’t like English muffin – not with eggs benedict, not by itself. So my choice of bread? A fresh biscuit. I have friends who can easily whip a batch of biscuits on a moment’s notice, but I have my limits – thus buttermilk biscuits by Pillsbury work just perfectly for me.

Next, we need to make the Hollandaise sauce. It is somewhat of a tedious process, involving a double-boiler and some serious skills – unless you have a recipe from Suzanne, which is very simple and guarantees a perfect result – as long as you follow it precisely. The Hollandaise came out perfect, both taste and texture, so last prep step was to poach some eggs. All you need to do is to get hot water with vinegar to borderline boil (it shouldn’t be actively boiling, so take your time to adjust the heat) in a deep skillet, then carefully crack the eggs, set the timer and voilà. To my shame, I have to admit this is where I failed – I set the timer for 10 minutes (this is what I read in one of the recipes online), and this was a mistake – I completely overcooked the eggs. I believe the right time would be 5 minutes at the most.

Another important step – let the eggs cool off after cooking (ice bath recommended) – I didn’t do it, and as the result, Hollandaise was not covering the eggs properly – oh well, it was still really tasty. So the last step was to assemble the Eggs Benedict – the biscuit on the bottom, then smoked salmon, bacon, egg, and Hollandaise.

Now it is time to make dinner. More often than not, simplicity is your friend when it comes to food. Going the simple route, our Valentine’s Day dinner plan was simple – steak and potatoes.

For the potatoes, we have a recipe where potatoes are thinly sliced on the mandoline, then slices are stacked at the little angle and fried – it is a great recipe except that my fingers and mandoline are not great together, but love requires sacrifices, right?

And for the steak – you can’t beat the simplicity of the pan-fried filet mignon:

Where there is steak, there is also wine. As I mentioned, after spending good 20 minutes going through the different shelves of the wine coolers, I pulled out the bottle which happened to deliver an insane amount of pleasure – 2005 Neyers AME Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley.

I like to know critics scores for the wines, but only out of curiosity – my buying decisions are not based on those scores at all. Besides, my own take on the wine rarely correlates with the critic’s opinion. Except for this wine – when I read Robert Parker’s description, to my surprise and delight, it was well aligned with the way I perceived it – so here is Robert Parker’s take on this 2005 Neyers AME:

” 93 points Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate

The finest 2005 is the Ame (which means “soul” in French), a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon cuvee fashioned from a parcel of the estate vineyard in Napa’s Conn Valley. Perhaps because of that, it possesses more minerality along with licorice, black currant, and cedar wood notes. Dense, full-bodied, rich, and impressively endowed, with good acidity, tannin, and extract, this 600-case offering will be at its best between 2009-2018. Range: 91-93“.
I would only disagree on one point – “best between 2009 – 2018” – it is 2018, and while the wine was perfect, it will go on for at least another 10 years before it will show any sign of age – but I will not be able to prove it to you as this was my last bottle. Nevertheless – spectacular wine, impeccably balanced. This is the type wine which makes people say “OMG, from now on, I’m not going to drink anything else”.
We need to finish dinner with the dessert, right? So what comes to mind when you look at the egg whites left after you make Hollandaise sauce? Egg whites omelet? Sure, but this is pedestrian. Meringue? Yes, now you are talking! So our dessert of choice was Pavlova of sorts, which is, as I learned, one of the national desserts of New Zealand!
Here you are, my friends – our early Valentine’s Day dinner experience. Happy Valentine’s Day! Cheers!
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