I Heard It Through the Grapevine – It’s Spring!

Ah…about four hours ago, spring arrived here in the northern states. It’s my favorite season because it’s the most forward-looking; already I’m getting jazzed about new projects, new discoveries – new possibilities!

Spring vineyard

[Photo: “The de Brye Vineyard” by Hanzell Vineyards, courtesy of flickr.com]

Vineyards love spring; it’s their time of rebirth and reconnecting with the world. Their new growth cycle has begun, and vineyard managers will respond with long hours of aerating the soil, planting and never-ending weeding. Soon they’ll begin trellising and training their vines so the leaves will be ready to soak up the sun.

In case you’ve forgotten your 6th-grade science lessons, today is the March equinox, also called the “vernal” or spring equinox, one of two annual occasions when the sun shines directly on the equator (the other equinox is in September). When that happens, day and night are almost equal the world over. Technically, it’s the moment when the sun crosses the “celestial equator” – an imaginary line in the sky that sits directly over earth’s equator.

The earth still is tilting at 23.4º, but today our tilt is perpendicular to the sun’s rays. We could go into the differences between “astronomical spring” and “meteorological spring,” but I think we’ve had enough science for one day.

March 20 also is World Storytelling Day, when we’re supposed to promote storytelling by, um, telling stories. Here’s one about a particularly fun spring tradition (though it’s likely give my sister Margie an episode of PTSD):

Chichen Itza small

[Photo: “Chichen Itzá” by Esparta Palma, courtesy of Flickr.com]

The ancient Mayans, you probably know, devised a remarkably sophisticated calendar. Each year on the vernal equinox, they sacrificed one of their own on top of their huge pyramid, El Castillo, at Chichen Itza, Mexico. Can you see those tiny people in the photo, slithering up and down the narrow stairs to the sacrificial altar? Margie slithered up – but then she was too scared to come down. No railing, no rope – just her and a few other brave souls who, unlike her, were not terrified and sobbing. I couldn’t help her; I’ve been called a lot of things, but brave-with-heights isn’t one of them. Fortunately, she enlisted the help of an older gentleman who helped her down. The temperature that day was at least 100º; it’s a wonder no one toppled over from heat exhaustion. Twenty years later she still accuses me of being unsympathetic.

We celebrate spring with a bit more restraint in Cleveland. No gruesome sacrifices here, though I do expect the high-spirited guys across the street to dance naked on the front lawn tonight. (You know who you are!) I like to celebrate in some way that acknowledges spring’s rebirth and renewal. Some years I pledge to meditate every morning – a vow I have to repeat, since my resolve usually breaks down over the months. This year I’m starting to clear my space and get some fresh energy into this place.

If that sounds like too much work, you can always kill some time trying to balance an egg on its pointier end. Folklore says this is the day when it’s possible.

Wine Lingo: Bud break = when dormant buds on the grapevine break open and the shoot begins to grow. It happens when spring rain sends water and nutrients up through the roots and into the vine; the buds swell and finally burst, liberating tiny, exquisite grape leaves. Bud break is the first stage of the vine’s growth cycle.

Missianer

Vino ‘View: Last year in early spring I visited Trentino Alto-Adige, a mountainous wine region in northern Italy. The landscape was adorned with wildflowers, and I wanted tonight’s wine to reflect that adventure. I chose 2016 St. Pauls Schiava Missianer (12.5 percent alcohol, $14), made from 100 percent Schiava, a red grape that thrives in Südtirol (South Tyrol) Aldo Adige DOC. One reviewer called this wine “lightweight” and I think that’s fair; it’s definitely light-bodied with strong strawberry and red cherry aroma and taste. I also got some floral hints, though it could have been self-suggestion; I was thinking of those wildflowers in the foothills. Treat it like a Pinot Noir but with more acidity. I chilled it for 30 minutes and paired it with broasted chicken.

[St. Pauls Missioner Vernatsch was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Happy spring!

Mary

 

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Hoarding Souvenir Wineglasses

It doesn’t matter whether you drink from 50-cent water glasses or $100-a-pop fine crystal  – if you love the grape, then you have a stash of souvenir wineglasses.

 

 

I’ve collected these over the years, starting long before I actually knew anything about wine. I don’t need the glasses, don’t even drink from most of them. I have a cupboard full of divine Riedels and Marquis by Waterford that I use every day.

Yet I keep these, I think because they remind me of good times with good friends. That stemmed glass in the back row with the big “2” is from 2 Lads Winery on Mission Peninsula in northern Michigan. I was there with my sister Margie sometime in the last century, shortly after the winery opened. We drank our way up Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, stopping at any winery with a pretty lake view (which was most of them).

Another sister trip got me the beer glass in the upper righthand corner. I was with my sister Carol in Dubrovnik. It was hot that day and we exhausted ourselves shopping, so we stopped at a sidewalk café for a cold glass (or two) of pivo. I remember having to practically drag her away because she couldn’t stop staring at our handsome waiter.

The stemmed glass in the upper left corner is from the annual tasting fundraiser for the International Women’s Air and Space Museum on Cleveland’s waterfront. It’s a small affair, as tastings go, so it’s an easy evening for strolling and talking. I never miss it. Last year they switched to the small stemless glass, second from left in the front row. I brought the stemless, ridge-bottom glass in the corner from the Island Wine Festival at rowdy Put-in-Bay. It was my friend Anne’s maiden voyage on the Miller Ferry to the Lake Erie Islands  – how could that be, I wondered, when she’s lived here all her life? – and she was smitten.

The tall water bottle from Livermore Valley in California isn’t a wineglass, but it says, “Live a little more” – how could I toss away that cheery message? Livermore was one of the excursions offered at the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi; this year we’ll meet in Walla Walla, Washington, and I know I’ll snag at least one good glass there, too. I might even drink from it while I’m there (twist my arm).

Wine Lingo:  Avvinare i bicchieri = an Italian wineglass custom. Clean glasses aren’t ready to drink from until the server pours a little wine into the glass, swirls it, then tosses out the used wine. Then the glass is ready. Author Karen MacNeil, in The Wine Bible, called it a “baptism of sorts.”

Bervini Rose

Vino ‘View:  I took half a dozen photos of this bottle, trying to capture its gorgeous salmon color. We’ve had a few warm days here in the northern states – our harbinger of spring – and they sparked my taste for a nice rosé. This is Bervini 1955 NV Spumante Extra Dry Rosé (11 percent alcohol, $17.99), a sparkling wine that tastes as pretty as it looks, filling my mouth with red berry flavor, floral notes and plenty of tingly acidity. The bubbles  come fast and tiny, making it even more elegant. Bervini rosé is a blend of Glera, best known as the white grape that produces Prosecco (no surprise, since the vineyards border the Prosecco region of Italy) and Raboso, a red grape that adds backbone, color and some tannins to the more demure Glera. I drank it before a salmon salad dinner (a nod to the wine’s color) with a berry vinaigrette and just a bit of blue cheese.

[The Bervini 1955 NV Spumante Rosé was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

How Wine Writers Have Fun at Work

Are we having fun yet? We should be, since it’s Fun at Work Day. Let’s get this party started!

Actually, my good time started earlier this week, when I reached 2,000 Instagram followers! It takes some time and attention to keep that number inching up, but scrolling

Instagram thanks

through hundreds of new photos is one of my favorite ways to spend an hour or two. I’m impressed every day at the quality of others’ images – who knew martinis and wine photos could be so creative? It’s downright inspiring – and if you’re not following me, I invite you to check out my feed; I’m @BigSexyReds (of course).

Some folks claim that Fun at Work Day actually is January 28, but since that falls on a Sunday this year, there’s no way working on that day would be fun. I’m in the group that observes it on the last Friday in January.

Every day at work brings little thrills, doesn’t it? Since I work from a home office, my “fun” often arrives in my email. This morning, for instance, someone offered me a job working as a “tax professional” – obviously sent by someone who’s never seen the mess that is my checkbook, which hasn’t been balanced since I opened my checking account. Another email came from a man (I suppose) who insists he “will be glad to reacquaint with you, you are exceptionally beautiful and alluring.” I needed a shower after reading that one.

Today’s best email, though, is confirmation that I’m headed to Italy in April for a week of touring grappa distilleries! You might recall my post last April when I waxed on about grappa, after I tasted it at the gorgeous Ferrari winery in Trentino, Italy. This trip will be a tasting-and-learning trip across northern Italy – stay tuned for more details and plenty of photos!

Wine Lingo:  Grappa di monovitigno = grappa that’s made from just one grape variety, rather than a blend. Some consider grappa di monovitigno a finer drink than that made from several varieties because it can impart the aroma and taste of the specific grape.

Ruggeri Prosecco

Vino ‘View: Reaching 2,000 Instagram followers calls for a celebration, and that means it’s time to reach for something bubbly! This time I selected Ruggeri Argeo Prosecco D.O.C. Brut ($15-$25, 11 percent alcohol), produced in Treviso, just north of Venice. The wine is both floral and fruity, harmonizing with a crispy, fizzy acidity. Immediately I got a golden apple aroma that came back in the taste, along with subtle honeydew and orange. This light sparkler paired perfectly with my smoked salmon on crackers. 

[The Ruggeri Prosecco was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

My Top 10 Wines & Spirits in 2017

As you might guess, I enjoy an adult beverage (or two) pretty much every day. That adds up to a lot of different wines and spirits. Selecting 10 favorites was a challenge – but holy Zinfandel, was the research fun!

These bottles range in price from super-affordable to impress-the-boss splurge, but none are ridiculously pricey. Any would make superb holiday gifts.

In no particular order, these are my 2017 picks:

 

 

  • When I served Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva (40 proof, $38) to a few friends, none of them knew they were sipping rum – they thought it tasted like brandy or a honey-infused bourbon. That’s not too far-fetched, since this Venezuelan beauty is aged for up to 12 years in bourbon barrels. Long aging bestows elegance on a fine rum; this one carries notes of fennel, caramel, oak and corn. I wouldn’t mix Diplomatico – savor it neat or cool it with one ice cube.
  • If you haven’t tried reds from northern Italy, the 2016 Colterenzio St. Magdalener, DOC Alto Adige (12.5 percent alcohol, $14) is a good introduction. Its vegetable tone is delicious, tinged with parsley and, as it rests, tea and black cherries. It’s a bit stony, and the ashy aroma continues into the taste with milk chocolate and smoke in the finish. If you don’t like tannins, you’ll love this wine, but keep it for a year or two before you crack the bottle.
  • I drank my 2014 Yarden Malbec (14.5 percent alcohol, $32.99) while I munched on olives, cheese and pepperoni – a typical lazy supper for moi – and it held up beautifully. This Israeli wine, produced in the Golan Heights in Galilee, is a real Big Sexy Red – plums and smoke aroma, followed by bacon, blackberries and a bit of dark raisin tastes. It reminded me of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered shortbread stars, but with heat.
  • Whenever I see Zweigelt, I buy it because it’s not that common in the U.S., but I had never tried a Zweigelt rosé. Earlier this year, a friend gave me a bottle of 2015 Josef & Philipp Bründlmayer Grafenegg Rosé vom Zweigelt (12 percent alcohol, $50) and I’m on a mission to find more. Although Zweigelt is a relatively obscure grape in the U.S. it’s actually the most-planted red in Austria. The soft salmon-colored wine is a high-acid gem – “almost fizzy,” my friend said – but creamy and earthy at the same time.

 

 

 

  •  Pinot Noir isn’t always a big-bold red, but the 2013 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir       Carneros (13.5 percent alcohol, $27) is almost chewy, and dark like a California tan. I got an aroma of dark grapes, blackberries and a bit of turkey sausage (and I mean that in a good way). Add black pepper, raspberries, plums, bell peppers and pomegranate on the palate – a well-ordered structure with smoke and mocha on the finish.
  • I discovered Hanson of Sonoma Small Batch Cucumber Flavored Vodka (80 proof, $26) on a trip to Sonoma last spring and when I returned in November, I brought home two bottles. Don’t let the “flavored” deter you; these certified organic artisan distillers infuse their grape-based vodkas with real produce, and you won’t be drinking a cucumber salad – that taste is barely a kiss. It’s only distributed on the West Coast, but I found it online at MissionLiquor.com. Shipping cost for one bottle is exorbitant, but if you buy three or more it gets reasonable.
  •  One of the hottest wine regions these days is Eastern Europe, and 2015 Patricius Tokaj Dry Furmint (12 percent alcohol, $15) is a great example of the quality wines produced there. Tokaj in Hungary is the world’s first designated wine appellation, and Furmint, one of its most abundant white grapes, is used for making both sweet and dry wines. This one is as dry as wine gets – zesty, fresh, with strong minerality and stone fruit flavors, along with a touch of pineapple and banana.

 

 

 

  • I haven’t tasted every rye in the world, but Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (90 proof, $49.99) is the best I’ve tried. Developed by Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell, it’s one smooth drink. The tastes are a delicious blend of toffee, rye, pecan and cinnamon – and don’t you dare mix it; this is a fine sipping rye. Just make sure it’s labeled “6 Year Old,” because the regular Russell’s Reserve Rye is 104 proof and not nearly as refined-tasting.
  • Casal Thaulero’s 2009 Thalé Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (14 percent alcohol, $40) is that special-occasion bottle you set aside – but just for a short while, because it’s at its peak now. After aromas of red fruit and vanilla, expect a big, bold mouthfeel and tastes of maple, pumpkin spice and dry leaves – perfect for fall and winter drinking.
  • It’s probably not fair for me to include this bottle because a friend bought it in Italy, but Limoncello is my favorite digestivo and always makes a great gift. It’s traditionally made with Sorrento lemons in southern Italy, but I’ve come across some terrific limoncello produced here in the U.S., too. Get recommendations from your liquor merchant; the best limoncello is sweet enough that you know you’re drinking liqueur, but not cloying; and tart but not bitter. Like any fine liquor, it should be smooth and balanced. You can find quality limoncello for less than $40.

Bonus picks – Three choice drinks didn’t make the list: Ferrari Grappa Segnana Solera, omitted only because it’s not distributed in the U.S. (but worth ordering online if you can find it); OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve, distributed only in eight states but also available online; and Maker’s 46, a great option when you want a not-ordinary bourbon to sip by the fire. All three are in my cabinet…So many bottles, so little time!

Next up – uncommon, last-minute wine gifts for any wine lover – or treat yourself!

Cheers,

Mary

Wine Labels 101

This Friday, September 8, is International Literacy Day, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to read wine labels.

But as you stand in front of that wall of bottles at the wine store, do you really know what you’re looking at? Wine labels can be a mystery, even to longtime lovers of the grape, because there’s no consistency. Labeling laws across the globe are all over the place (pun intended) and impossibly complex.

Wine labelsHere’s all you really need to remember: anyone who’s literate can understand enough to know what they’re buying. You just need to identify whether the label is telling you the name of the grape, the winery, the wine region, or a combination of the three.

Take the above photo. The wine on the left is made from Dolcetto (dol-chét-toh) grapes. The name translates, by the way, to “little sweet one,” but all the Dolcetto I’ve tried is big, bold and dry. “D’Alba” means it was produced in or near Alba, a town in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. (Any version of d’, di, de or a on a label means “of,” so even if it’s an unfamiliar word, you’ll know they’re talking about a place, not a grape.) The winery is Abbazia, shown at the top of the label. So if you’re familiar with Piedmont and specifically Dolcetto, you have a pretty good idea of what’s in the bottle.

The wine next to it was made by those flashy Ferrari winemakers in the Trentino region of northern Italy – as you can see by their name emblazoned across the gold label. The grape is Perlé, a white grape often grown in Italy, and Trentodoc is essentially the designation for sparkling wines made in Trentino. This bottle also tells you the vintage, 2007, on the front; the Dolcetto’s vintage (2015) is on the back label.

Winemakers often list a vintage (the year the grapes were harvested), or you might see the initials “NV” – non-vintage, a recent BigSexyReds Wine Lingo – meaning the winemaker blended wines from several vintages to get the taste and quality level he or she wanted. A 2016 vintage wine could taste dramatically different from a 2014 or 2015, even if the grapes were picked in the same vineyard.

Sometimes the producers only tell you the region, and they expect you to know what that means: Champagne, for instance, is a region in France. If the label says Champagne, that’s where it’s from; the wine will almost always be a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, with smaller amounts of other grapes, including Pinot Blanc, permitted in the mix. (There is a “Champagne grape,” but it’s not used for making Champagne. Confused yet?) A bottle labeled Burgundy (or Bourgogne), Beaujolais, Chianti or Bordeaux likewise is telling you the region, not the grapes that go into the wine. (**Next week we’ll talk more about those place-name labels, so if you pick up a Chianti you’ll know what to expect in your glass.)

Usually, too, the label will display, sometimes in the tiniest font possible, the alcohol content – ABV, or “alcohol by volume.” Most wines range from about 12 percent ABV to 15 percent, but you can find them lighter or boozier – and you will get more of a buzz from a 15-percent Zin than a 12-percent Pinot Noir.

Some labels list tasting notes on the back. I wouldn’t take those too seriously; just because the winery’s PR people think you should taste cinnamon and plums doesn’t mean you won’t taste black pepper and pecans. Everyone’s palate is different. But you might find hints at why the wine you selected is pricier than others: a label that refers to “low yields on our sun-kissed slopes,” for instance, tells you that the grapes were picked by hand (because tractors don’t work so well on steep hills), so labor costs were higher than if they’d been picked by machine, and the clusters were culled for maximum nutrition and sun exposure.

And don’t even think about learning sugar levels. Sometimes those percentages appear on the label, sometimes not. When you’re not sure if a wine is dry or sweet, ask the wine steward.

Nothing on the label, of course, can guarantee that you’ll like the wine. But with a few essentials you’ll at least be better informed about it.

Wine Lingo of the Day: One of the most headache-inducing wine label words is Montepulciano. You just need to memorize the difference between Montepulciano  d’Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. When you see Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, it means Montepulciano is the grape, and the wine was produced in Abruzzo, in eastern-central Italy. Or, you might buy Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. This wine comes from the village of Montepulciano, and it’s made with Sangiovese grapes. They don’t make wine from Montepulciano grapes in Montepulciano. But don’t stress about it; they’re both delicious Big Sexy Reds.

Vino ‘View:  We had a chance to taste this Piovene Porto Godi Merlot 2015 (14.5 percent alcohol; $25) and it was unlike any Merlot we’ve tasted in years. It was powerful – well, just look at that ABV – and more intense than most Merlot. Produced from three 

Piovene Merlot

Merlot clones, this dark-purple wine spent more than a year in French oak barrels, and  you can taste the oak, along with black cherries and some smoke. And it’s a great bottle for practicing your label-literacy skills: Piovene is the family name and Piovene Porto Godi is the brand. “Frá i Broli” describes the special Merlot medley (“frá” means “among”). The back label adds more information; the winery is in Colli (“hills”) di Berici, a district in the heart of Veneto, near Toara (meaning, “good earth”) di Villaga – the name of the town.

My best label-translating advice: keep your phone handy in the wine store, set to Google.

Happy reading!

Mary

[Piovene Porto Godi was submitted to BigSexyReds.com for review.]

Italian Wine – Splendido Vino!

Ah, primavera – finally it’s spring, the most joyful season. Grapes are starting to emerge from their long slumber and ease into their growing cycle. Here in the Great Lakes region, we get a hint of the Mediterranean with warming sunshine and breezy, cool nights – and to me, nothing says Mediterranean like a BigSexyRed from Italy.

I had a chance to taste plenty of wonderful Italian wines recently at Vinitaly2017, the giant wine expo in New York City staged by Vinitaly, the “strategic arm of Italian wine abroad.” That means they exist to promote Italian wines – an easy job in the US, I think, since we’re consistently one of the top importers worldwide.

Such expos are trade shows: you take a few hundred winemakers; add a swarm of wine writers, buyers, distributors and geeks; put them in a gymnasium and start pouring. Between pours, you visit seminars such as this one on Barolo and Barbaresco, two hearty reds produced in Italy’s Piedmont region, pictured below.

IMG_0438

Trying to cover Italian wines in one blog post would be ridiculous; almost 400 indigenous grapes grow in 20 wine regions throughout the boot. (Yes, I memorized all 20 regions for my CSW certification exam. No, I couldn’t recite them now.) Those grapes, and scores of other varieties that aren’t native to Italy, are blended in thousands of formulas. It’s said that if you sampled one Italian wine each week, it would take you 20 years to taste all Italian wines. You do the math while I sip.

But we can try, right? For a country that’s less than 70 miles wide at its narrowest point, the mélange of grapes, soils and weather conditions of the Italian Peninsula is vast. It’s a rugged, mountainous country: the Apennines run down its spine, while the Alps dominate the northern boundaries, blocking Arctic air that gives most of Europe its cold winters. At the same time, Italy is almost completely surrounded by seas – the Adriatic, Ionian and Tyrrhenian, with the Mediterranean Sea and its hot, dry summers just to the west.

Each wine region celebrates its own specialties. Chianti is the headliner in romantic Tuscany, made primarily from the Sangiovese grape. In the northeast corner, tucked under the Alps, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is known for its crisp whites: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Riesling. On the island of Sicily, Nero d’Avola, the “little black grape,” dominates the hilly vineyards. Abruzzo on the Adriatic Sea presents two stars –  Trebbiano, the white grape known in France as Ugni Blanc, and the delicious red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. And Piedmont produces Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto, the biggest, sexiest reds of all, along with the peachy Moscato, sometimes called Asti.

Every year, Italy competes with France as the world’s biggest wine producer – the ranking depends on whom you ask – but it’s responsible for about one-third of global wine production. Italian wine grapes are typically high in acidity, yet medium-bodied, making them ideal for pairing with – you guessed it – Italian foods.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Super-Tuscans = These wines are born of rebellion (which makes me like them even more!). Back in the 1960s, a small number of winemakers in Tuscany decided the Chianti DOC rules, which regulated the kinds of grapes permitted in quality wines, were too restrictive and limited their potential. Until then, Italian wines that didn’t comply with those rules were viewed as vino da tavola – ordinary table wine. The defiant winemakers fiddled with their blends, many adding “forbidden,” non-indigenous grapes such as Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the 1970s, the wines were tagged “Super-Tuscans” and demand – and prices – quickly skyrocketed. Fortunately, Super-Tuscans are no longer a novelty and have become more affordable.

Montefalco Rosso

 

Vino ‘View:  You may have noticed, this bottle of Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso DOC 2013 (14% alc., $21) is empty. That’s because I shared it with a neighbor who loves Italian reds and we drank every drop. This wine benefits from decanting; although our first glass smelled strongly of dark berries, we tasted only chocolate and dried tobacco. (Nothing wrong with that; I love a smoky BigSexyRed.) The fruit emerged in our aerated second glass: blackberry jam, some black pepper and fewer tannins. Notice the thick tears staining your glass as you swirl; you’ll feel heat in your throat from all of that alcohol. And in the long finish, a tart surprise – a hint of lemon rind toward the back of my tongue. Bring on the lasagna!

Arrivederci for now,

Mary

[The Montefalco Rosso was sent to BigSexyReds for reviewing purposes.]