Fire Up the Grill – It’s National Zin Day!

Any wine person can tell you: when it comes to BigSexyReds, Zinfandel has got to be the biggest, sexiest red of all. For one thing, it’s one of the booziest grapes on earth. Zinfandel grapes produce kick-ass wine, usually at least 14 percent alcohol and often reaching 15 percent and higher.

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I say Zinfandel deserves its own day, and the good folks at ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) agree. (Yes, even grapes have advocates these days.) ZAP exists to promote Zin; they even sponsor a five-night trip to Croatia, the “ancestral home of Zin.”

It may have originated in Croatia, but Zinfandel took a detour or two on its way to America in, we think, the 1820s. Our bold black grape is genetically identical to Primitivo, grown in Puglia (Apulia), the section of Italy that makes up the stiletto “heel” jutting out into the Adriatic Sea. It’s also the genetic twin of Vrljenak Kastelanski, an ancient Croatian variety.

In this country it thrives in the Central and Sonoma Valleys of California. It’s also made its way to South Africa, Dalmatia and the Margaret Valley region of Western Australia. That’s because those places offer the perfect conditions for growing Zinfandel: warm, sunny days with sandy soil that drains well and retains enough heat to produce aromatic wine grapes.

You’ll see “Old Vine Zinfandel” on a lot of labels. Take that with a grain of salt – “old” is relative in the wine world. Technically, the vines should be at least 50 years old to merit that designation, but a lot of vineyards sneak in grapes from vines that are only 25 or 30 years old. But in California they take their old vines seriously, and in Lodi, renowned for its quality Zinfandel, it’s not uncommon to find century-old vines still producing. And if the vines genuinely are that old, you’re in for a treat; the wine will not only be beautifully full-bodied, it will have developed the intensity and layers of character that you expect to find in anything (or anyone) that has survived that long.

Still, the wine’s quality always depends to a large extent on the skills and schemes of the winemaker and vineyard manager -not unlike wines produced by any grape variety. Zinfandel happens to grow in tight bunches, making it susceptible to an affliction known as “bunch rot.” The winegrower must train the vines so the clusters of differing sizes don’t touch each other, and cull the grapes to make sure every grape can get the right nutrients and sunshine.

Once you finally get that lush, inky wine in your glass, you’re in for a taste sensation of black fruit and spice, and satisfying heat from the alcohol as it rolls down your throat. Pair your full-bodied Zinfandel with full-bodied food – beef, lamb, duck, barbecue or blue cheese. And please don’t confuse it with White Zinfandel, that sweet “blush” wine that still sells well, especially in the Midwest. I guess I’ll write about White Zin at some point, but I’ll need a few glasses of Zinfandel before I can face that.

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Wine Lingo of the Day:  Vine “Vigor”  = the vine’s strength, and how well (and how much) it produces quality fruit. A vine with low vigor may not have enough leaves to provide adequate nourishment and shade for the fruit to ripen, while a high-vigor wine may be overgrown and shade the grapes too much to get enough sun – like kids fighting over porridge – and can produce wine that’s thin and overly acidic.

Vino ‘View:  Every party host has been there: you buy wine that’s not quite as fine as you’d like because you know you’ll be stuck with five (or a dozen) bottles of opened wine. We’ve found a solution: VineyardFresh, an aerosol Argon product that protects your wine so you can buy better wine, open more bottles, and be confident that it will be fresh a week from now.

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Argon is heavier than air, so when you give a bottle two quick bursts of 100 percent Argon gas, you create a barrier between the wine and the air, and stop oxidation – and it works. I kept a bottle of pricey Bordeaux for about 10 days; when I poured a glass after that time it smelled and tasted as if I’d just opened the bottle. One canister (though it’s so lightweight it feels empty) preserves 50 bottles of wine, guaranteed. I’m taking  VineyardFresh as hostess gifts instead of wine this holiday season. (www.vineyardfresh.com, $29.95 set of 2)

Cheers,

Mary

[Photo, “Making the wine 2012 edition,” by Wayne Marshall courtesy of flickr.com]

Sniff Your Wine, Prevent Alzheimer’s?

People who know wine are forever swirling and sniffing it. Swirl and sniff, swirl and sniff, sometimes several times before each taste. You might think they’re being silly, even pretentious, but in addition to enhancing the wine’s taste they’re actually boosting their brain power: scientists recently discovered that inhaling those exquisite aromas just might keep you from getting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

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Vinepair reports that researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas studied the brains of 13 master sommeliers and 13 people who, in the scientists’ words, held “less interesting jobs.” They found the sommeliers, who sniff and taste wine every day, were less likely to get Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s than those who don’t smell for a living.

It turns out the parts of the brain that control smell, also control memory. It’s no surprise that our memory regions are the first to decline when a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s sets in. And we’ve known for a long time that these same regions – the right insula and entorhinal cortex, if you must know – also identify aromas for us. But this study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, is the first time scientists have documented that those areas not only become thicker when we smell a lot, but that thicker brain-parts means less risk of Alzheimer’s. “Smell lots of wine, build resistance to memory loss,” researchers wrote.

So when it comes to staying sharp and knowing your wines, (brain) size does matter. They called this a pilot study on “expertise in the brain” – isn’t that a great phrase? And those who smell deeply every day, exercising that part of the brain, apparently strengthen not only their ability to smell better – a critical skill for wine pros – but also their memory, another requirement for sommeliers who must remember vintages, soils, weather patterns and other details that make them wine experts.

But you don’t have to be a master sommelier to thicken-up your sniffing and memory quarters. It is true, researchers wrote, that “these differences [between the brains of professional sniffers and non-professionals] suggest that specialized expertise and training might result in enhancements in the brain…” But if you drink wine – or spirits, or beer – you might be able to sharpen your own memory and head off dementia by sniffing what’s in your glass and, with every sip, reaching with your mind to identify the smells.

This jibes, in an indirect way, with what a friend told me years ago. This lady, a nurse by training, built the first Alzheimer’s facilities in Ohio. We were talking about exercising our brains by doing mental calisthenics – crossword puzzles, Sudoku and other brainy games. She said those activities were fine, but a better tactic is to keep learning. Take a class – learn a language, visit new lands, keep exposing yourself to new information and memorize as much as you can.

She forgot to add, it helps to sniff and sip wine while you’re doing it. All of that learning is thirsty work.

(And if your friends, family, good-looking neighbors, UPS delivery person and other contacts enjoy learning, too, please share via the social media buttons below. Thanks!)

Wine Lingo of the Day: Brett” is short for Brettanomyces, a yeast that can infect a barrel, a vineyard or an entire winery. It produces an unfortunate smell in the wine that will remind you of horses or a barn. At the same time, a tiny amount of Brett actually can improve the wine’s complexity. At that very low level, the Brett smell often dissipates with decanting and swirling.

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Vino ‘Views:  Brett is on my mind this week because I thought I detected a slight smell in my wine the other night. I was drinking one of my favorites, 2013 Montes Alpha Carmenère (14.5% alcohol, $25), and I wondered if it was infected. But after a brief decanting, the Brett aroma was gone and  an earthy, sultry suede layered with French roast coffee emerged – and, in fact, the winemaker suggests decanting the wine for 30 minutes. The tannins were medium-low but the taste of thick grape peel lingered on the finish, with a hint of cantaloupe rind. On the second day the manly leather character softened to a plum, slightly floral taste. I’d saved this bottle for a cool fall evening; the Carmenére’s high alcohol level warmed me in my chilly living room. This wine is a BIG Sexy Red, and I loved it.

Stay warm,

Mary

[Photo: “Mr. Sniff” by Mário Fernandes, courtesy of Flickr. Montes Alpha Carmenère sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

 

 

Raise a Glass to Grandma (and Gramps)!

Thanks to President Jimmy Carter, the first Sunday after Labor Day is dedicated to our parents’ parents – National Grandparents Day. The day was created by a West Virginia woman named Marian McQuade who, if you look up her photo online, bears an uncanny resemblance to Betty Crocker.

The poet Ogden Nash wrote, “When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window.” So how will you honor your elders tomorrow, September 11?

One website suggests visiting Grandma in a nursing home – pretty ageist, don’t you think? Most grandparents I know would rather spend the day hiking, or playing a game of softball with the grandkids. Mine weren’t quite that active by the time I came along, but I know they would have wanted the celebration to include alcohol.

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Grandma Mihaly was a whiskey drinker – a shot with every meal. She had low blood sugar and said whiskey was better for her teeth than a candy bar. (Makes sense to me.)

My mom was a grandmother, too. For decades she drank “highballs,” usually Canadian Club and soda. But in the mid-1970s she and my dad visited Paris, their first trip across the pond, and Mom came home from that trip a wine drinker. From then on, she always asked for Chablis.

You don’t often hear people order “Chablis” in restaurants and clubs anymore. It’s more fashionable to ask for Chardonnay, which is the grape that makes Chablis.

It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Chablis is a small region in the northern part of Burgundy, France. If you live in Chablis and want to start a vineyard, the only grape you may grow is Chardonnay. (Yes, the French government tells vineyard owners which grapes  they’re allowed to grow, how many vines they may plant per acre, and a lot of other rules that winegrowers in the U.S. don’t have to follow.) Chablis produces some 32 million bottles a year, and you can expect all of it to be deliciously dry.

So, all “Chablis” from Burgundy is really Chardonnay. It tastes more crisp and light than the full-bodied, creamy Chardonnay from California, partly because the limestone soil in Chablis lends a steely minerality to the grapes. Not all wine labeled “Chablis” is produced in Burgundy, but it’s all Chardonnay, and almost all white wine from Burgundy is Chardonnay. (A small percentage of white from Burgundy is made with Aligoté, a less prominent grape variety.)

I guess that is slightly confusing. So let’s keep it simple: if you’re celebrating Grandparents Day, you might want to take the folks a nice bottle of Chardonnay – or Chablis, if they like their white wines a bit more racy. Pair it with goat cheese, maybe a wheel of goat cheese brie with apple wedges and almonds.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Vitis vinifera = the grapes from which 99.9 percent of all wines in the world are made, according to The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil. Vitis is the genus and vinifera is the species. Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and most other familiar grape varieties are vinifera; out of about 60 species of vitis, vinifera is the only one native to Europe.

Vino ‘View:  It was a warm evening this summer when I cracked a bottle of 2013 Broken Dreams  Chardonnay (13.5 percent alcohol, $18.99) from SLO Down Wines in Napa, so I was glad to discover it was a French-style Chard – meaning, it would have that lemony, mineral quality typical 

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of French Chardonnays. It’s fruitier and lighter-bodied than most California Chards; aromas of banana and cantaloupe led the way to my tart, lemony first taste. After a few minutes the wine  mellowed to an orange zest taste with the slightest bread undertone, a pleasant surprise alongside the fruit I was tasting. Dinner with my wine was a salad – greens, chicken,  mandarin oranges and sliced almonds – a pairing that worked. Because of the weather, I was glad the wine didn’t have that thick, tongue-coating sensation, nor did it pretend to be a Sauvignon Blanc – but it is citrusy.

Cheers to you and your grandparents!

Mary

[Chablis photo: “Dauvissat” by D. Potera via Flickr; Broken Dreams photo provided by SLO Down Wines.]

In Praise of Cheap Blackberry Brandy

My last few weeks were spent on the couch, nursing bronchitis, doing as little as possible and coughing a lot. There’s not much you can do to comfort a sick person – sometimes an illness just has to run its course – but I did find some soothing relief in a drink I remembered from my childhood: blackberry brandy.

We’re not talking Cognac or Armagnac here. Leave the Hennessy for a better day. When your chest is congested and you’re on your fifth box of tissues, reach for the bottom-shelf stuff. It’s the only kind that works.

Brandy

The word “brandy” is a modern version of the Dutch word, “brandewijin,” or “burnt wine.” Dutch traders in the 16th century distilled their wine to help preserve it while it was shipped to Holland. Shipments also were taxed according to volume, and without the water their shipments were smaller. They intended to add water back into the higher-alcohol liquid on arrival, but once their customers sampled the distilled version, more potent and tastier after being stored in wooden casks, they liked it more than the original wine.

My mom used to pour me a little blackberry brandy when I had a bad cold. She said it would make me feel better – and as it turns out, Mom knew what she was talking about. Brandy, blackberry in particular, has healing qualities that have since been documented, I kid you not. A few things medical researchers have learned:

  • Blackberry brandy is packed with antioxidants, especially vitamin C, which helps protect against damage by free radicals. (For that reason, some advocates say it also helps prevent the spread of cancer, but I think that might be stretching it.)
  • In moderate amounts, blackberry brandy boosts heart health and your immune system.
  • Again in moderate amounts, blackberry brandy helps you to relax. Duh.
  • Blackberry brandy can help with sleep issues. That’s why it’s often served after dinner; in olden days people believed it helped them prepare for sleep.
  • A 2009 study in the journal Food Chemistry showed that the longer blackberry brandy ages, the higher its antioxidant levels.
  • The brandy’s antioxidants have anti-aging qualities.
  • Blackberry brandy contains selenium, a cancer-fighting mineral.
  • Finally, the quality most useful to me this summer: blackberry brandy aids with respiratory issues; it helps to loosen phlegm and mucus. To me, it just feels better than other spirits for a chest cold.

It doesn’t take much before you can feel its healing effects. I usually poured a 1- or 2-ounce shot and sipped on it for an hour or two. And if you’re not sick but want to relax with a drink of brandy, serve it in a stemmed “tulip glass” or “balloon glass,” made of the finest crystal you can afford. Don’t swirl brandy in the glass; that mixes and dissipates its subtle aromas. I like my brandy neat, with no ice or mixer, but if you feel like experimenting, you can find plenty of brandy cocktail recipes online.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Brandy = distilled wine or fruit juice. When wine is distilled, in simple terms, the water in the liquid evaporates. Without the water, the more condensed liquid has a much higher alcohol level than the original wine. The Paramount brandy in the photo above is 37.5% alcohol, or 75 proof – almost as high-proof as many whiskies.

Vino ‘Views:  Once I started feeling better, my taste for wine returned (thank goodness!). Since it’s been such a hot summer, I opened what I thought would be a crisp white: 2015 Tariquet Classic (10.5% alcohol, $9.99).

Tariquet small

With its low alcohol level, this Gascony creation is a great summer-evening wine – but we were surprised it’s so young, because it tastes much more “together” than that. It’s a blend of Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon and Gros Manseng – dry as August and fruity as the tropics. The first taste in my mouth was bananas, then some melon came through, and finally soft citrus. We drank it with fried chicken and coleslaw – a wonderful value and delicious!

Sip in good health!

Mary

Aw, Nuts! Try These Wines for Pecan Day

In the final run up to a major holiday like Easter, it’s easy to overlook an obscure observance like Pecan Day – and we have an abundance of wine choices to accompany our pecan-encrusted trout, pecan pie or a few handfuls of roasted pecans.

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This is the day, back in 1775, when George Washington planted a pecan sapling at his Mount Vernon estate. The baby tree was a gift from Thomas Jefferson, who grew “America’s own nut” at Monticello.

Botanists tell us the pecan, named for an Algonquian word that means, “a nut requiring a stone to crack,” actually is a fruit related to hickory. This inch-long treat is my favorite nut and a nutritional powerhouse, packed with antioxidants, vitamin E, beta-carotene, vision-friendly lutein, and cancer-fighting ellagic acid. It’s a heart-healthy, brain-healthy snack – although, at just under 200 calories for 20 halves, it’s fairly fattening.

You always want to pair fatty foods with an acidic wine, so if you’re eating your pecans plain, without a sugary coating, they’ll go well with a chilled dry Rosé or Sauvignon Blanc. Pecans also are a slightly sweet nut and the wine’s brightness will bring out the pecans’ sweet notes.

If dinner is trout or chicken with a pecan crust, Champagne or Cava (sparkling wine from Spain) will pair nicely; and if you think you’d enjoy just the slightest sweetness to match the natural sweetness in the nut coating, try Prosecco, an Italian bubbly. But keep in mind, you can find sparkling wines at every sweetness level; if you’re eating candied pecans and want to drink a sparkler, look for one that’s a little sweeter.

Candied pecans, in fact, will pair with a lot of lively, acidic wines. Pinot Grigio, Riesling  and Albariño are all good choices. And if your pecans are super-spicy, flavored with Chipotle or other peppers, go for the gusto and open a bottle of Gewürztraminer.

Reds don’t generally pair will with pecans; the nuts are just too mild to make a good match. But if you insist on drinking red wine (and I usually do), reach for a lighter grape such as Pinot Noir, or, if you want a wine with a bit more attitude, a Garnacha.

And if you’re eating pecan pie – the real reason pecans were invented, I think – you’ll want a dessert wine because your wine should be as sweet as your dessert. Look for Tawny Porto or, maybe better, try some Vin Santo from Tuscany, Icewine from Canada, or Sauternes from France. For a more economical choice, look for a late-harvest Viognier (white) or Zinfandel (red).

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Fortified wine = this is a handy place to mention fortified wines, because some of the wines you’ll choose to accompany dessert will have been fortified. These are wines to which alcohol has been added to raise the alcohol level to 15 percent or higher. Fermentation ends, and the winemaker is left with a high-alcohol wine.

Cheers – and for those celebrating this weekend, have a wonderful Easter!

Mary