Tempranillo Time!

If there’s a perfect antidote to my never-ending POTUS blues, it’s sipping $65 Rioja (“ree-OH-ha”) wines and learning about them from the incomparable Doug Frost, MS, MW. Not only is Frost the funniest, most exuberant wine expert anywhere, he’s also one of only four people on the planet who’s both a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine–making him one smart wine dude.

 

And by Rioja wines, I mean Tempranillo. Like France, Spain sometimes does that annoying label thing where they name the wine according to the region where the wine is produced, not the grapes that go into it. In the case of red Rioja, the grape is Tempranillo–sometimes blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo (also known as Carignan, more often associated with the South of France), and Graciano grapes to give the wine a certain structure or taste. Mostly, though, you’ll be drinking Tempranillo.

The grape has a bit of an identity crisis; its half-dozen pseudonyms throughout Spain and Portugal include Tinta de Toro, Cencibel, Aragon and Tinta Roriz. But it was Rioja that bestowed Tempranillo’s global reputation as one of Spain’s premier grape varieties. In fact, Rioja is one of only two Spanish wine regions, the other being Priorat, that’s been elevated to DOCa status (Denominación de Origen Calificada)–the country’s top-ranking regional classification.

We can thank Rioja for yet another type of label confusion: if it simply states the wine is Rioja, it was bottled fairly young, after aging just a few months in the barrel. Crianza is a step up: wines labeled Crianza spent a minimum of one year in oak and at least a few more months in the bottle. “Reserve,” we know, can often mean whatever the winemaker wants you to believe it means, but in Spain they follow rules; if they label a wine as Reserva it’s been aged at least three years–one year in oak, two in the bottle. And if the label says Gran Reserva it spent two years in the barrel and another three years in the bottle before it left the winery.

If you’ve drank Tempranillo more than once, you already know that the aromas and tastes can be as different as bacon and pork roast. In the Doug Frost tasting, the second glass I tried felt a little oily in my mouth, while the next was warm and spicy, heavy on the cinnamon. Two glasses later, a caramel aroma hit me in the face, but that wine’s finish had a cranberry tartness. Some drinkers taste cherries in Tempranillo while others notice earthier tastes–fig, tobacco, herbs. Wine expert Jancis Robinson notices a masculine character, more savory than sweet, like “fresh tobacco leaves.”

Tempranillo was my first red-wine love, partly because it was one of the few “real” wines I could afford to buy. It’s still surprisingly affordable: you can spend $65 on a rare Gran Reserva if you like, but you can find Crianzas and Reservas for less than $15 in nearly any wine shop. And Rioja (or any good Tempranillo) is always a welcome hostess gift–especially if you’re coming to my place.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Staves = the vertical wooden planks, or slats, that form the sides of wine barrels.

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Vino ‘View:  Anciano Reserva 2010 Tempranillo (13 percent alcohol; $10.50-12.50). See what I mean? A fine Reserva, less than $13 online at Cost Plus World Market. I bought this bottle in person for $11. It’s from Valdepeñas (DO), (“valley of rocks”), so named because the soil there is rich in limestone rock, sandy loam and clay. That lends a leathery, dry-leaves taste to the wine, balanced with the darker fruits grown in the region, directly south of Rioja in Castilla-La Mancha. It’s velvety-soft–a sexy wine, so I snapped it with the sexy photo in my dining room, “Powerhouse Mechanic” by Lewis Hine (1921). But this bottle won’t keep much longer; buy the 2010 to drink now.

Cheers!

Mary

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Viognier, the “White Wine for Hedonists”

The cherry blossoms are about to pop in northern Virginia, and I’m looking at the first green grass I’ve seen in six months. We’re sipping Viognier, the state’s signature grape—crisp, fruity and the perfect varietal for welcoming spring—but this bottle is from the other side of the country: Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington.

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I visited Maryhill, perched above the Columbia River near Mt. Hood, last October after the Wine Media Conference in Walla Walla. At about 8,000 cases of Viognier a year, Maryhill is the state’s biggest producer, though the American Northwest is a latecomer to Viognier-growing.

Viognier—a close DNA match to Syrah, by the way—may have originated in Croatia. One story has it imported into southern France as early as 281 AD: we know it grew in Condrieu during the Roman Empire. But it’s a notoriously difficult grape to grow because it’s more prone to disease than most varieties, and by the 1960s it was nearly extinct—only about 35 acres remained across the globe.

But as wine’s popularity grew, so did wine lovers’ awareness of this luscious white grape. Growers planted vines in California and Eden Valley (Australia) in the ’70s; now it’s found in New Zealand, Israel, North and South America, and the Cape Winelands of South Africa–for starters. In spite of its susceptibility to disease and unpredictable yields, Viognier also is drought-resistant, so it can thrive in warm, dry climates.

Viognier is a crisp, fruity wine, with aromas of peach, honeysuckle and tangerine. On top of the stone fruit layer you might detect a steely quality, along with some herbal notes–pine, chamomile, perhaps thyme. This festival of aromas is why wine authority Jancis Robinson calls Viognier, “the hedonist’s white grape variety,” but the perfume party doesn’t happen by accident. In order for the nose to fully develop, Viognier must hang on the vine longer than most grapes, sometimes rendering it “too rich to ferment to dryness.”

I think Viognier makes a delicious varietal, but increasingly I’m seeing it in blends, often with Grenache Blanc. Italian winemakers sometimes blend it with Chardonnay, especially, as Jancis Robinson notes, if it needs the Chardonnay’s added acidity. A few  creative winemakers, especially in California and Australia, have even started mixing it with reds, especially its close cousin Syrah, for a deeper texture and brighter color. And if you’re a person who likes a little oaky taste in your whites, look for Viognier that’s been aged in oak; it will give you that creamy mouthfeel you get in oaked Chardonnay.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  pH = a measure of a wine’s acidity, indicated by the amount of hydrogen in it.

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Vino ‘View:  Maryhill 2017 Viognier (14.5 % alcohol; $19) delivers superb balance in spite of that high (for a white) alcohol content, thanks to a hot summer and late harvest that give the wine a slightly tingly acidity. The grapes were sourced from four vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA, picked in the cool morning hours to keep those peachy-bright aromas. The wine was partially fermented with French oak staves, but it’s so lively and fruity, I wouldn’t call it an “oaky” wine at all. Don’t drink it straight out of the refrigerator; take it out half an hour before you serve it so you can experience its richness. I drank mine with a spicy Thai curry, a perfect pairing for the grape’s natural sweetness.

[The Maryhill Viognier was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

On Prime Rib Day, the Wine’s a No-Brainer

…Or is it?

I don’t have a beef with National Prime Rib Day.  I’ve mostly lost my taste for red meat in recent years, but on occasion I reach for a great burger or juicy steak. Someone, somewhere decided to dedicate this day to prime rib, and that’s enough of an occasion for me.

Ad Hoc Blowtorch Prime Rib

There’s a reason why prime rib is a relatively pricey steak on most restaurant menus. It’s taken from between the 6th and 12th ribs on the cow’s upper back – a high-quality cut that earns the highest grade from the USDA.

The prime rib’s juiciness depends on its marbling, or fat. I like mine medium rare with plenty of marbling, as in the photo above. If you’re dining in tonight, you’ll want to cook it on a low, slow heat, positioned with the meat resting atop the bone so that the meat itself doesn’t touch the roasting pan. (That’s why prime rib is sometimes called a “standing rib roast.”) And if you’re counting calories, one 3-ounce serving is just 200 calories – but a full prime rib in a restaurant is likely to be four times that amount. Then there’s the baked potato, with butter and a dollop of sour cream, and the wine…

You’d think pairing wine with prime rib would be a given: grab a bottle of Cab and you’re done, right? But if you enjoy learning how food and wine interact and change each other in your mouth, there’s a bit more to consider – namely, how you “dress” or finish the meat. With chicken or seafood – protein dishes that you can prepare a hundred different ways – pairing can get more involved. Prime rib, though, is fairly straightforward, and it’s easy to narrow your wine choices to two categories: spicy and spicier.

If you like to top your prime rib with au jus, then you’ll want a Big Sexy Red such as Mourvedre (or, as it’s called in Spain, Monastrell). It’s a wine that gives you structure without heavy oak aromas, with tastes of black pepper and thyme – spicy herbs that stand up to the fatty coating in your mouth. You’ll get those same lively spices from a Syrah or Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) – those elegant Southern Rhône grapes with just enough acidity to cut the fat.

But to me, one of the best flavors of a prime rib dinner is homemade horseradish sauce.

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It’s not for everyone. Some horseradish lovers prefer a creamier style; others take it plain. Whichever style you choose, you’ll want a robust red with enough tannins to tame the sting of this powerful root plant. Cabernet Sauvignon is an obvious choice, but I would go for a Dolcetto from northern Italy’s Piedmont region – or, even better, a Barbera-Dolcetto-Nebbiolo blend, if you can find it, from the Langhe district of Piedmont. Wines made from any of these grapes are typically rich and earthy, and they can be high-alcohol. These are the wines that will put hair on your chest.

Or, if you live in the Midwest, look for Cabernet Franc. Wine expert Jancis Robinson has called Cab Franc the “feminine side of Cabernet Sauvignon.” It’s a little softer, yet spicy and bold enough to sip with horseradish, with hints of bell peppers and tobacco. You probably can discover a winery in your region that produces it. French Cabernet Franc is lighter, but I enjoy the slightly bolder Midwestern version.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Saumur-Champigny = a small appellation in the Loire Valley region of France that produces only red wines. It’s known for its spicy red wines made almost entirely from Cabernet Franc grapes; blending up to 10 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chenin Noir is permitted.

Enjoy those prime ribs!

Mary

[Photos by Arnold Gatilao (prime rib) and Paul (horseradish), courtesy of Flickr.]

 

Like Water for…Wine?

So…how are you celebrating World Water Day today?

What’s that you say…you actually went to work??!?

I get it; it’s been a fairly obscure holiday. But back in 1994, the United Nations designated every March 22 henceforth as UN-Water Day. It makes sense, since 71 percent of our planet is covered with the stuff, and more than half of us (1.5 billion) work in some water-related job. It makes even more sense that this year’s theme is water and jobs, focusing on how enough quality water can change lives and even transform societies. Just ask Lady GagaPharrell Williams and Beyoncé, celebrities promoting the cause.

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And we know what water means to our favorite vines. Wine guru Jancis Robinson has written that in arid regions, grapevines reach as deep as 20 feet underground to quench their thirst. Water carries nutrients from the soil up into the plants, which need 20 to 30 inches of water (from rain or irrigation) every year. We’re talking about some 19 million acres of vines across the globe, giving us 70 million tons of fruit, about 70 percent of which end up in our wineglasses.

Is that wine-geeky enough for you? Here’s a little more: During photosynthesis, water molecules combine with carbon to make glucose, the main source of energy for the vine. It gets complicated, though. How well water performs its many tasks can be impacted by evaporation, climate, soil type, and a slew of other factors. Not enough water and the vines undergo “water stress” – essentially, the grapes stop ripening. Give them too much, especially at harvest time, and the grapes get waterlogged; they swell up, their sugar is diluted, and the outcome is a crop of bland, watery-tasting grapes (and wine). I saw this dynamic firsthand years ago, when I used to grow my grandma’s black raspberries – those vines loved a good downpour in the spring, but come June and early July, they needed bright, hot sunshine to give us the sweet berries we waited for every year.

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An over-abundance of water can bring other challenges, too – bacteria, mold, fungi. Good drainage is essential. And all of these water-related factors can vary between regions, vineyards, even individual vines.

The wine in your glass is 80 to 90 percent water, almost all of it from grapes themselves. So when we raise a glass to celebrate Easter this weekend, maybe we can pause to appreciate the delicate balance achieved by those smart, long-experienced winegrowers all over creation. They use their water well, don’t they?

But if you run out of vino, don’t try changing jugs of water into wine. That job is taken.

Cheers, everyone! And if you want to keep reading about wine and spirits every week, please click on the “Follow” button in the bottom righthand corner of your screen and BigSexyReds will appear in your mailbox.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Coulure = In English, it translates to “shatter.” Coulure happens when the tiny flowers on the vine fail to develop into healthy berries, and is often brought on by cold, rainy weather, especially in spring.

Happy sipping,

Mary

[Photos courtesy of cold bologna and whity at Flickr.com.]