Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Red Bubbles

I've read a bit lately about sparkling shiraz, an Australian quirk that some people like and others seem to despise. The thought of a sparkling red still gives me shivers, as I recall the Cold Duck on my parents' Easter dinner table. But sparkling shiraz is supposed to be dry, though I have never tried one for myself. In fact, a sparkling red wine of any kind is still rare enough in my neck of the woods that I was truly intrigued and anxious to partake of one at a recent winetasting event.

It was a Castello del Poggio Brachetto from the Piedmont region of Italy, where truly extraordinary reds are found. What could be a more promising vehicle for entering this new terrain?

Not everyone felt the same. A couple standing next to me took their first quaff, made faces and declared, "too sweet." I had my own doubts as I tasted, but I was at the very least not turned off. I took another sip and thought to myself, this actually would not be bad as an apperitif or as a dessert wine. With chocolate covered strawberries, simply heavenly.

Brachetto is, whithout a doubt, somewhat sweet and a bit simple. It has nice aromas of strawberries and cherry pie. But it is not cloying, by any means. And, it may do more than complement the dessert on your table. It might even work well with spicy Thai food.

But my hunch is that Brachetto will never really catch on and be enjoyed by more than a handful of fans of Italian wines. Most people I know are still afraid to be seen with a sweet wine, let alone a sweet red sparkler that's bound to cause your wine-swirling friends to want to check your papers. After all, riesling is only now starting to catch on with Americans, and that's after decades of wine experts and writers singing its praises. Brachetto has few champions.

Few will pine for this wine, but if you have a chance, especially with dessert, give it a chance. Especially on a warm summer day. Sorbet and sparkling wine anyone?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Ever in search of terrific pinot noir, I look to my wine broker to come through with new and different pinots, which are shipped to my door every other month or so. Generally, I can get my hands on most of the cabs and zins and almost everything else I crave around here. But scoring unusual pinots from small producers is all but impossible, unless you've got a good broker -- the only kind of broker you really need.

A shipment came not too long, and just the other day I got to try my first Sadler Wells pinot noir, a 2003. While it was not a blockbuster, I was definitely impressed by the true pinot noir flavors and the subtle but spicy signs of terroir.

So many of the pinot noirs from the large producers these days have similarly really ripe cherry/berry flavors. Not really anything wrong with that, but the complexity and balance of a Burgundy-style pinot can do so much for a dinner that I sometimes pine for a more distinctive California pinot.

The Sadler Wells hit the spot. This is a wine that starts out with smooth blackberry flavors that slowly morph into cinnamon and other brown spices. And, it showed terrific balance that made it a great companion to our black pepper- and sesame-crusted ahi tuna. While it has 13.9 percent alcohol, I was not aware of any heat on the tongue. Like I said, balanced. This pinot reminded me very much of some of the more interesting Oregon pinots that I've had.

I definitely am looking forward to some more special deliveries. Single-vineyard wines from small producers like this are not easy to come by in the East -- outside New York. It's nice to know these small producer-pinots are not just for Californians.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Blind Ambition

For someone who enjoys wine and who is not a professional taster, there is no more humbling experience than tasting wines blind and having to identify them. Unless you have that invaluable trait, an ability to laugh at yourself, it can be downright humiliating.

I have done blind tastings before, though usually with some context. For example, I once did a pinot noir tasting of wines from different countries and did OK, sort of. And, I did a tasting of cabernets vs. Bordeaux reds and was able to correctly identify two wines, including a Mouton Rothschild.

But, as I said, there was some context -- I knew we were tasting cab-based wines or pinot noirs from around the world. Kathy and I went to a charity winetasting on Saturday night, and every table of wines included a "mystery" bottle. Tasters were not necessarily expected to shout out identifications, but I took this as a personal challenge -- and failed miserably.

At one table, I tasted a very prune-like, raisiny full-bodied wine so I guessed I was tasting an Amarone -- it was a 2004 Bargeton Chateauneuf-du-pape. I didn't get any of the spicy earthiness I've noted in other Chateauneufs, but no sense grumbling about it.

At the next table, I struck out again, mistaking a delightfully fruity cab for a zinfandel. I just didn't notice the structure, cassis and cedar I expect from many cabs. But what kept me from having a good time at this table was the horrified expressions and groans of the pourer, who greeted my comments with thinly veiled incredulity. The 2002 Bennett Cabernet Reserve was nice, just not typically cab-like, Scheisskopf!

At the next table, we tasted several Chilean and Argentinian wines, and the mystery wine was also a Chilean -- I did not feel bad about not getting this one. To identify a wine you have to have tried it or something like it more than once. This mystery wine, a 2005 Inaki Reserve, a blended wine that leans heavily on malbec, was absolutely sensational, by the way. A terrific buy at $19.

I came closest to getting the next one right -- I actually thought I was tasting a zinfandel but changed my mind at the last minute when I thought I picked up a bit of black pepper. California syrah was my guess, but it was a Rosenblum zinfandel.

We finished up at a table featuring all Italian wines, so here, at last, was some context. I figured the mystery wine had to be a premium Italian, judging by the body and the earthiness. So I thought Barolo or Barbaresco. Wrong. It was an atypical Barbera, a Poggio Masarej Barbera. Now this was really tricky because the first wine on the table was a typically light, acidic Barbera. But this one was big -- I've blogged before about some of the muscular Barberas that are being made today. Terrific wines, but not what you would expect from Barbera unless you taste a lot of them. So, tasting a wine like this blind obviously is meant to be a fun eyeopener because it goes against type and can easily lead one astray.

So, after failing so miserably, does that mean I'd recommend avoiding blind tastings? Absolutely not. They can be fun and are almost always educational. But tasting blind with absolutely no context or guidance is the least meaningful kind of blind tasting. Heavy emphasis on the guesswork. But comparing wines blind of the same varietal or country of origin can teach you a lot. Just don't be cowed by an obnoxious pourer. Like Alex Trebek, they have all the answers and are irrelevent.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Day Late Shiraz

Yesterday was Wine Blogging Wednesday, a regular event in which bloggers tackle a common theme and compare notes (on their blogs) about what they found. This particular event was about New World syrah or shiraz.

Unfortunately, since I'm now back in school working on my master's, I hardly have time for anything. So, I'm a day late, but, I'm happy to report, not a dollar short because I managed to stumble across another terrific bargain wine -- Bulletin Place Shiraz from Australia. It's not only a terrific example of Australian syrah/shiraz but a deal by anyone's standards at about $9.

Luckily, I've been enjoying quite a few really good syrahs lately and could just have easily recommended a dozen different wines for this edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday. But it's more fun when you discover something brand new that's also priced so that you can recommend it to anyone.

What I really liked about this wine was it's seductive fruit. It's not the spicy, peppery syrah that can be so intriguing to drink with foods. Instead, like many Australians, this is a really ripe, fruit-forward wine. But what makes it worthy of mention is its blackberry and cocoa notes on top of a lake of red raspberry flavors. And, did I mention it's only $9?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a South African shiraz that's probably a little more interesting and, perhaps, more European in character. But the Bulletin is simply a delightful wine that is well worth checking out.