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What To Drink On Valentine’s Day

February 12, 2015 18 comments

BollingerI generally avoid holiday-related wine posts, and I do it for a number of reasons. First of all, every information source on the planet considers it to be their duty to produce some piece of writing with wine recommendations. And then for someone who drinks wine all the time, the holidays are not so much of a special occasion to have a reason to open a bottle of wine. Oh well – somehow I felt compelled to share my thoughts on the wines for the Valentine’s Day, hence this post…

Pink. Red. Extreme. Commercialized beyond belief, still increasingly so year after year. Heart-shaped to the point of insanity. There are many things which turn people away from the Valentine’s Day, and I can understand that. However, I take this holiday as an extra opportunity to celebrate love and life. All you need to do is to find your way – ignore pink paraphernalia, ignore meaningless cards, ignore conveyer belt – style experience at the restaurants – and celebrate love and romance as a pure meaning of this holiday.

Let’s agree that we will celebrate love and romance in our oenophile’s way, and let’s talk about wine – without wine on the table, celebration is … just another boring dinner, right? By the way, when I said “felt compelled” in the opening of this post, this was not entirely true. I also had a pleasure to be a guest at the Off the Vine Radio Show, talking with Benita and Latisha about … you guessed it – Valentine’s Day wines – thus as you can imagine, I gave some thought to the subject (and then yes, “felt compelled”). In case you have a bit of time, you can listen to that episode here.

What can I tell you about wines for the Valentine’s Day? First of all, if you have a plan already, it doesn’t matter what I have to say. If you have some specific celebratory dish in mind, and have a pairing ready – it doesn’t matter what I have to say. But if you are still thinking how to make this holiday special, then let me share my thoughts with you. But remember – drink what you like. The wine for the Valentine’s day doesn’t have to be pink, and it doesn’t have to be sweet. It has to be something which will give you pleasure – as simple as that.

The wine for the Valentine’s Day should have balance and it should have finesse. While thought provoking is good for the wine, on Valentine’s Day you should focus on romance and not on deciphering the complex flavors. Go after balance, finesse and simplicity. This is why I would never suggest, for instance, the natural wines of Frank Cornelissen or Jean-Pierre Robinot, or the dark magic of Randy Dunn with his Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – those wines will drain you emotionally, and it is a wrong angle for the Valentine’s day. Thus let’s talk about balance and finesse.

First wine I want you to consider is Champagne. As the very least, it can be an Italian Sparkling wine from Franciacorta or Trento, or some of the California sparklers. Prosecco, Cava and many other sparklers are simply not consistent enough, so for the Valentine’s Day, go with classic – remember – balance and finesse. For the Champagne, my choice would be Bollinger, as I think it is one of the finest non-vintage Champagnes, with lots of finesse. Ferrari from Trento and Bellavista from Franciacorta in Italy would definitely my next choice. But – I don’t want to forget California – Roederer Estate L’Ermitage, Schramsberg Rosé, J Cuvée 20 or any of the Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines would live you with a happy smile.

Moving on, let’s talk white wines. As we are looking for the balance and finesse, I have a few recommendations for you – and you might be surprised with these. For this holiday, I want you to step outside of your “usual circle”. My first recommendation is for the white wines of the Rhône valley in France. Yes, Rhône is mostly known for their reds, but the white wines there are equally stunning. For instance, try to find Domaine Saint Préfert Cuvée Speciale – I called this wine once “a symphony in the glass”. But in general, look for the Clairette or Grenache Blanc wines from Southern Rhône, or Marsanne/Roussanne from the North – those wines are often not easy to find, but they will deliver lots of balance, finesse and pleasure. 

Let me give you a few more suggestions – equally difficult to find, but worth looking for. Viognier from Washington is a white wine worthy of celebrating love and romance with. Look for Mark Ryan or Willis Hall – their Viognier is nothing short of stunning. To close on the whites, here are 3 more rare beauties. First, 2 Sauvignon Blanc from … Italy: Gaja Alteni di Brassica and Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia – stunning balance and finesse. And the last one – Ken Forrester The FMC. You can’t go wrong with either one of these wines – go, start looking, you don’t have lots of time.

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Now, we arrived at the red wine junction. Looking for the balance and finesse will dramatically reduce our choices. I would say, let’s go for Pinot Noir. I will limit my recommendations to this one grape only – and here is why. We are looking for the balance and finesse, right? Think about Cabernet Sauvignon from California – what would be the first word or words you would use to describe those wines – probably “big and powerful” – and this is not what I’m looking for suggesting the wines for the Valentine’s Day. Same goes for many Merlot, Syrah and Grenache wines – never mind the Petite Sirah. Even with my beloved Rioja – there are few wines, which will deliver that exact balance and finesse – La Rioja Alta Reserva Especiale would be definitely the one – and I highly recommend it. But for the Rioja – and then for Barolo, Brunello and even Super-Tuscan –  as a general class, the probability of running into “big and powerful” is a lot higher than finding “balance and finesse”.

Talking about Pinot Noir, I wish I would recommend some of the classics to you – yes, the Burgundy – but unfortunately, my exposure to the Burgundy is way too limited, so you will need to ask your trusted wine merchant for the advice. Next up – California and Oregon. For the most of the time, California Pinot Noir will deliver exactly that – balance and finesse. To give you a few names, go look for Siduri, Loring Wine Company, Calera, Drew, Copain, Laetitia – but there are many others and it is hard to go wrong with California Pinot Noir. Oregon would be also a perfect choice – look for Adelsheim, Chehalem, Antica Terra, Evening Land – finesse is a middle name for the Oregon Pinot, so you will not be disappointed. And last but not least – don’t forget the New Zealand! Pinot Noir from Central Otago, Marlborough and Martinborough are typically well balanced and round, perfectly fitting our quest for finesse. Look for the wines from Craggy Range, Mt. Difficulty and Amisfield among the others.

Dessert time! People often underestimate how bad the dessert wines can be – one sip of the cloying, single-sugar-note wine would ruin the experience of an amazing dinner. You really have to put a lot of care in selecting the dessert wine which will have balance and finesse. Of course I would like to recommend Sauternes and Barsac wines for you, but again, my personal experience is very limited. I’m sure you can’t go wrong with Château d’Yquem – if you can afford it, go for it! What would be a bit easier to find (and afford) is a Port. Not just any Port – balance and finesse, remember – so go for a nicely aged Tawny, 20-, 30- or 40-years old. As Port ages, it loses power, and becomes fragrant and sublime, guaranteed to deliver lots of pleasure. Look for Rozes, Graham, Quinta do Noval – lot’s of excellent choices. Then of course, the king of the dessert wines – Riesling. For the special experience, I would only recommend to go to the BA and TBA levels – you know, the stuff which always comes in the small bottles. You see, it is very hard to mass-produce BA or TBA level Rieslings – you can’t harvest enough grapes at those sugar levels – thus it is hard to go wrong with BA or TBA Riesling from any producer. And the last recommendation for today – an Icewine. Not any Icewine, but I want to recommend my personal favorite – Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine. This wine is vibrant, perfectly balanced and has lots of finesse – I guarantee you will finish your Valentine’s Day dinner on a high note with this wine.

Here you go, my friends – in the quest for the balance and finesse, these are some of my personal recommendations to enhance you Valentine’s Day experience. Let me know what do you think about my suggestions and feel free to provide your own. Happy Valentine’s Day and cheers!

 

 

Oh, My Sweet Valentine… – 2005 Version

February 8, 2012 2 comments

Inniskillin Cab Franc Ice WineAs I did recently with the post about Champagne, let me present you with an article written for the same Stamford Times newspaper in 2005 – talking about sweet wines for your special Valentin’s day, which is coming up in less than a week. For what it worth, here it is in its entirety.

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Well, Valentine’s Day is around the corner. All stores are full of heart-shaped things, candies in particular. Seems that “sweet” is closely entwined into our tradition of Valentine’s Day celebration, and sweets and romance usually go together. While we are on the subject, did you ever think of where the word “honeymoon” came from?  If you know the answer – great, you can skip the last paragraph, if not – please keep reading and you will get an answer at the end.

Now, let’s talk about the sweet substance which usually doesn’t come in the heart-shaped form, but nevertheless is worth mentioning – let’s talk about sweet wine. So how come the wine can be sweet? Do they add sugar to it? No, usually, nobody adds sugar to the wine. Sugar is developing in the grape as it ripens, and it is a result of photosynthesis ( no sun – no sugar  – no wine, very simple formula). As the grape ripens, the amount of sugar is increasing, thus the idea is very simple – the longer time grape spends under the sun, the sweeter it becomes. The later harvest is, more sugar the grape will have. Have you seen the words “late harvest” on the wine label? What it telling you is that the grape spent more time on the vine and was harvested late, thus you should expect that the wine under such label will generally be sweeter.

Well, then, if sugar is naturally present in the grape, how come most of the wine we drink is not sweet at all – they are so-called dry wines? After grapes are pressed, when grape juice is fermented by adding yeast, the fermentation process stops by itself once all sugar is converted into alcohol – this is why we usually don’t taste sugar in the wine. Based on that fact, we can see that if grape has too much sugar, we might get wine very high in alcohol, which will usually defeat the purpose. The fact that the amount of sugar in the grape needs to be controlled often dictates the starting date of harvest. But when the goal is to produce sweet wine, the grapes are usually left on the vine for as long as possible, they shrivel under the sun, almost becoming raisins, plus very often it is desirable that the mold, called Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot” will develop on the grapes. This will ensure that grape will have the maximum concentration of sugar, which will be then only partially fermented into alcohol, thus producing a sweet wine.

One more fact would be interesting to note – as it is necessary to wait until the grapes are “raisiny” enough to be made into a sweet wine, usually a small number of suitable grapes is harvested, and also such suitable grapes should be picked by hand multiple times. This translates into the fact that very often sweet wines carry a high sticker price (however an exception, but some German Rieslings, for instance, can go for $400 per 375 ml bottle)

To make sweet wines even more concentrated, as unusual as it sounds, next after sun and heat come frost. This is how so-called ice wine is made – grapes are harvested well into the winter months when the temperature drops below 17°F. Frost leads to the further dehydration of grapes, thus ensuring even higher levels of sugar and flavor in the grape. The grapes are pressed while frozen, and usually, a very limited quantity of the grape juice is extracted, which in turn means once again – you guessed it right – high prices. Just to add a historical perspective, ice wine was first produced in Germany at the end of 18th century and since then it is becoming more and more popular and it is now produced in other countries with great success (Austria and Canada are two of top contenders).

So where sweet wines are made? The answer is – pretty much everywhere. While covering all different sweet wine regions in this article would be impossible, let’s take a quick tour around the world.

We will start in … France, of course. Some of the best sweet wines in the world are produced in the region of Bordeaux called Sauternes. Sauternes wine is made primarily out of grape called Semillon. The most famous wine in Sauternes is made at Chateau d’Yquem – you wouldn’t regret having Chateau d’Yquem served at your romantic dinner.

While we are in Europe, let’s make another stop – Germany. Assumingly, German Rieslings don’t need much introduction. Riesling wine is made out of the grape with the same name – Riesling. There are different levels of sweetness (five of them) in German Rieslings – starting from the one called Kabinett, which is a semi-dry wine, and going to the one called Trockenbeerenauslese ( TBA in short), which makes very rich, sweet, honey-like wine ( the price also follows the trail).

Of course, when talking about wine, we can’t forget about Italy. While most of its fame is coming from the red wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, there are a number of well known sweet wines coming from that beautiful country. Asti Spumante, a sweet sparkling wine, would be one. Moscato di Asti would be another one – lightly fizzed wine with a fresh and delicate aroma. Vin Santo out of Tuscany (produced in the Chianti region) might also sound familiar.

Let’s cross the ocean now – in the United States, sweet wines are produced in the number of regions, best of them arguably coming from upstate New York and the state of Washington. These sweet wines are usually made out of Riesling grape. Canada is also worth mentioning as since 1973 it became a very respected producer of ice wine and compete very well in that category with both Germany and Austria.

While there is more to the geography of the sweet wines ( we didn’t even get to talk about Australia, Chili, Spain, Portugal, and others), let’s talk about how and what to serve them with. The serving temperature range for the sweet wines is rather large, from 50°F to 65°F. You can choose the serving temperature depending on what characteristic of the wine you want to bring out – for the sweetness you can serve it warmer (57°F – 65°F), but if you want to stress the light and refreshing side of the wine, you can serve it colder (50°F – 57°F).

What to serve with the sweet wine?  One possible choice – nothing. After all, there is plenty of sugar in that glass to qualify as a dessert by itself. But if you want to have the sweet wine with food, the rules are the same as for any wine in general – it can either complement or contrast the food. You can serve sweet wine with dessert to complement it, or you can contrast – serve a nice Riesling with blue cheese, for instance.

One thing left before we conclude – the answer to the “honeymoon question”. The word comes from ancient Persia, where it was a tradition for the father of the bride to provide a month-long supply of alcoholic beverage called mead (made out of honey) for the groom to be enjoyed after the wedding. As lunar calendar was used at that time, hence the “honeymoon” word.

With this, we will conclude our short journey to the world of sweet wine. This Valentine’s Day, bring a bottle of sweet wine to your sweet Valentine, and to make sure it will taste the best – enjoy it together! Cheers!

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