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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas 2013

Raise your hand if you love Steely Dan.  Now raise your glass if you love Steely Dan while sipping good Pinot Noir.  There’s something about the smoothness with a slight edge and complexity of the music of Steely Dan that I believe pairs perfectly with the similar characteristics of good Pinot Noir.

That’s not what this blog post is about, but since I’m listening to Steely Dan and it makes my mouth water for Pinot Noir (I’m thinking Cotes de Nuits), I couldn’t help but pose the question.

What I want to tell you about in what’s probably my last wine blog post of 2013 is what I drank on Christmas.  Everything showed really well so that’s a good start.

Christmas Eve in our house is the Feast of the Seven Fishes (and after counting, it looks like we got it up to around 9 or 10 or perhaps even more) - anyway I chose some really fun things from the stash.  I started with a sparkling wine - a sparkling Mauzac from Gaillac, to be more specific, made in the Methode Ancestrale (which is generally used only in places like Gaillac and Limoux, and is worth checking out).  Gaillac is a place in Sud-Ouest that makes some of the more expressive reds I’ve tasted from Sud-Ouest, with such minerality even on the least expensive of them, that I’m impressed each time.  Well, this one was a dry sparkling blanc.  It had some apple notes with a hint of rose water, licorice, and tiny bubbles.  Sounds like a fun start to Christmas Eve?  It was.

Next up with all the shellfish dishes were two interesting whites.  Going back to Sud-Ouest, I chose a Jurancon Sec that had a lovely pale yellow-golden color to it, and it was on the aromatic side, which I had sort of expected, and showed characteristics of lemon curd, apple, and an almost perfumed sensation toward the end.  The grapes were Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, and something I was less familiar with, called Camaralet (which is used in Jurancon sometimes).  The other white I selected (because it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without something Italian in my glass) was a bianco di Toscana made up of 50/50 Semillon and Trebbiano.  Go figure.  And I’m sure you can guess that one was aromatic too, with a tangerine peel note up front, and some orchard fruit characteristics, some soft spice and floral notes, and a slightly richer texture than the Jurancon.  Great pairing with shellfish, calamari, and some of the funkier fish in the frutti di mare.

As the fish dishes got heavier in texture and flavor (fried cod and flounder, followed by linguine with a marinara sauce and shrimp and scungilli), the two reds were the 2004 Gruaud Larose Saint-Julien and the 2006 Ridge Lytton Springs (Zinfandel with Petite Sirah and Carignan).  I’m always surprised when I hear a wine lover insist that 2004 Bordeaux wasn’t so great.  Nonsense.  I love the way they’ve been showing the past year or two, particularly those from the better chateaux.  And after my experience with that standout bottle of Gruaud Larose at my 1983 birthday dinner party, I had high hopes for this 2004.  And it met my expectations, and then some.  (Suffice it to say that the Gruaud Larose was the rock star of the two day Christmas celebration.  And no, I’m not surprised.)  Oh, and both reds were carefully decanted - the Ridge, it turns out, needed it much more than the Bordeaux did.  So the final wine of the night was the 2006 Ridge, and it was very good.  I was really unsure which should be opened first and after guessing Bordeaux followed by Zinfandel, I ran the idea by two other wine pros, and the consensus was a toss-up, with Bordeaux being before Zinfandel.  Good thing I did that, because after tasting both, it wasn’t actually a toss-up after all.  The Lytton Springs was still a big wine with lots of texture and mostly dark fruit notes and dark spice and pepper, as opposed to the red plum, wild berry, rare meat, and white pepper and herb notes of the Bordeaux.  Anyway both reds showed very nicely.

Dessert was fun (I’ll do a quick post on the food blog about struffoli) and with the struffoli there were loads of Christmas cookies.  Out came my homemade limoncello.

Christmas Day is less about food for us that Christmas Eve, and we’re sort of still full when it’s time for dinner of Christmas Day.  So with the wines, I decided to keep it fairly simple.  With leftover baked clams from the night before, I popped open a bottle of Macon-Villages, which was so refreshing and perfect with shellfish, with characteristics of lemon, green apple, barely ripened peach, a touch of pineapple, and stony white mineral, and perhaps a tiny hint of baking spice.  And with lasagne, I chose the 2010 Stag’s Leap Napa Artemis.  I do love the 2010 vintage from Napa (which I decided after first tasting the 2010 Duckhorn), and the Artemis was lovely as always, with cassis, plum, raspberry, bramble, vanilla, clove, and graphite characteristics - so refined and expressive, yet so delightfully satisfying - my kind of California wine, as opposed to some of those enormous fruit bombs laced with excessive vanilla oak, that they seem to get in their own way, let alone the way of the food on the plate.  No, Artemis is exactly what I love to see in a properly executed California Cabernet priced around $65 USD.  Artemis is more than capable of expressing its own identity and that’s as it should be.

So that’s what we did on Christmas (ending with a delicious apple pie made by my sister).  Please check out my post on struffoli (Italian honey balls) on my food blog, and I’ll see you in the New Year with some notes on Champagne!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

For the Love of All Things Good...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of my online friends and blog readers!  I’ll be back again to give you an update on how my selections show on Christmas Eve (Feast of the Seven Fishes) and Christmas Day, and again to tell you all about our Champagnes on New Year’s Eve.  But I wanted to say something to you before you set that Christmas dinner table and before you touch your corkscrew.

Please, for the love of all things good, drink well this Christmas and New Year.


Because you deserve it.  So do your guests.  Yes, I said it.  You deserve it, and so do your guests.

How do I know?  Because you’re here reading my blog, aren’t you?  Which means you have at least some curiosity about good wines, otherwise you wouldn’t bother sharing your wine thoughts and tasting notes with other people.  You wouldn’t bother reading other people’s observations about wines. Right?

I thought so.

And you probably want to know what makes me think that your guests also deserve to drink good wine.  Well, this is how I know.  If you’re opting to spend time with them over Christmas and ring in the New Year with them, then they must be as awesome as you are.  (And if you don’t like them, why do you spend time with them?  Give your time to those you truly love, and those who truly love you.  And if they don’t know how much you love them, you need to tell them, and you need to show them.  But that’s another topic altogether.)

I’m blessed.  I have a wonderful family.  I have some awesome friends.  And I have a very special guy in my life.  Those are just a few of the reasons why I believe I’m blessed, but for purposes of this blog post, I’ll focus on those reasons.  And those are the people I love sharing wine with.  It’s partly because some of the people closest to me are either in the wine industry too, or they’re just so used to being around me and sharing cool wines with me, that we have that in common.

Anyway, I’ve picked some really fabulous things to share with them.  I’ll tell you more about what I’ve picked when I write my blog posts after Christmas and after New Year’s Eve.  For now, I want to focus on you and your selections for this special time of the year.

What I suggest is that you pick a few dependable wines that you know already and wouldn’t want to celebrate without them.  It’s one less thing to worry about at an already stressful time (a good idea if you’re working with some challenging recipes and flavors).  I also suggest you pick a few really fun, off-beat wines because the best way to experience wine is to share them with others, and what better conversation topic (especially among wine enthusiasts) is there than wines that provide an interesting learning experience (and trust me, it’s a lot safer than many other topics) - what’s more fun than wine, really?  And then I also suggest you splurge just a little - spend on a few great bottles.  Just a few.  Because it’s a special time, and you deserve something special.  Do it for you.  And do it for the people you love the most.  The memory of what you enjoyed that night will last you all through the year, until next Christmas and New Year.

A few suggestions, if I may.

For my fellow Italians - well, I’m fortunate that my Italian-American family is not the kind that despises all things French.  I come across a lot of Italian-Americans who claim they just don’t like French wine, French food, or anything French really.  Nonsense.  I repeat, NONSENSE.  If you don’t like French people, that’s just flat out narrow minded to begin with.  (I’ve gotten to know a lot of French people since I’ve been working with wine - they’re really wonderful people.  And they make amazing wine.)  Fortunately for me, my Italian-American family has what appears to be an infinite amount of patience and curiosity with my little (read: major) obsession with off-beat French wines.  So I get to bring out lots of French wine, but I also remember to bring out many other things too.  (For the record, so far I’ve chosen wines from France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and the United States for dinners and gifts for Christmas.)  So, for my fellow Italians - please, for the love of all things good, do not bring out the straw basket.  There are plenty of incredibly good Italian wines to enjoy with dinner.  For the curious type, go with Sicily or Campagna.  They’re not just delicious; they also pair well with lots of foods, and they tend to show characteristics that other wines don’t, including expressive minerality and sometimes cool floral notes.  For the elegant type, how about some aged wines from Piemonte, like a great Barolo or Barbaresco, or some Gavi with your Seven Fishes, Dolcetto and Barbera with your macaroni dishes, and if you love bubbles, go for a good quality Moscato to start off the evening.  If you and your guests prefer something a little safer, go with some Tuscan selections - Chianti is safe and very food friendly, but if you want to rock the dinner party for real, go with Super Tuscans (Bordeaux type blends made by some very talented Italian winemakers) and Brunello.  Wow.  And for the lovers of luxury, Amarone is your wine.

If you, on the other hand, love French wine, then the sky is the limit in terms of good French wine.  For the love of all things good, please try to stay away from just the safer stuff.  And yes, we know you love to strut your stuff (I do too), but don’t just bring out the names that everyone will know.  Sure, some splurge wines of the most luxurious nature will be great over the holiday.  But anyone with a good Christmas bonus can do that.  Put down your issue of Wine Spectator, and leave Robert Parker out of this.  Where’s your sense of adventure?  Here it is.  Burgundy lovers, look to Cotes Chalonnaise for great quality at very good prices.  Bordeaux people, how about Fronsac and Pessac-Leognan?  And go south too - an aged Bandol or Saint-Joseph can be quite mind blowing.  Want something big and bold - how about Cahors?  Need a lighter alternative - look to the reds of Loire.  And speaking of Loire, don’t just go to Sancerre.  Everyone knows Sancerre.  Please, for the love of all things good, find yourself Muscadet, or even more exciting, Menetou-Salon.  And don’t forget some fun Cremant!  (And on New Year’s Eve, maybe consider Grower Champagne and small production sparkling wines?)  See what I mean about French wine?  The possibilities are endless.

And what about those of you who love (and whose guests love) the fruitier wines?  Germany.  And for the love of all things good, don’t keep on going for that same blue magnum of the same old thing.  You know what I’m referencing.  Find bottles labeled Kabinett, Auslese, Spatlese, and the like.  If you’re not sure what’s on the label, ask your favorite wine shopkeeper.  They’ll be able to help you out.  (And if they can’t figure out the label either, find a new favorite wine shopkeeper.)  German wines are often a great value for some of the purest, most delicious wines.  And not just sweet wines, either.  In fact, while we’re at it, not just Riesling.  But I, for one, love opening a dinner with a German Riesling.  The fruitiness is fun and delicious, and the bright acidity toward the end primes my palate for more wine and more food.

Hanging with hipsters and an off-the-beaten-path crowd?  Hunt down some fascinating wines from Austria.  They’re not cheap, but they’re worth it, because they’re not like anything else.  You can find some really fun Rieslings from Austria, and Gruner Veltliner is one of the most food friendly whites out there, especially if you’re going with lighter dishes and chilled foods.  (And for vegetarian fare, you cannot go wrong with Gruner.  Its typical notes of celery and white pepper are a match made in heaven with vegetable-based dishes.)  But Austrian wines also love to be matched with cheeses and cold meats.  And for reds, on the heavier side you can go with a Blaufrankisch, and for something a bit lighter and fruitier, try a Zweigelt.  And if you’re a total geek like me, it’s worth looking for a good quality Sankt Laurent.  I promise you, Austrian wines are among the most fascinating, so for the love of all things good, pop open a Sekt and do your homework.

One of my favorite Christmas movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  One of the lines is spoken by Nick, the bartender.  He tells George and Clarence that he serves drinks for men who want to get drunk fast.  Do you want to get drunk fast?  Well, let’s not go quite that far, but if you want the ultimate party wines at good prices (and some with insanely high alcohol levels), then you, my friend, need a little Spanish wine at your party.  I’m sure you know all about Rioja.  Did you know that Rioja Crianza often comes in at under $20, and packs quite a punch?  And if you want to try something really cool, try a Priorat - they’re (in my opinion) among the most expressive of all Spanish wines.  Want to bring out the big impressive wines?  Find some great wines of Ribera del Duero.  And if you need some whites, Albarino and Godello are perfect.  Bubbles?  Cava is your wine.  One of the great things about Spanish wine is that you don’t have to spend much, they’re fairly easy to find, and they are the ultimate party wine.  But for the love of all things good, don’t overdo it, because it’s really easy to overdo it quite quickly on Spanish wine (it’s happened to me, trust me) - and please behave responsibly by the end of the evening.

Other great values can be found in wines from South America (in particular Argentina and Chile), Australia, New Zealand, and some of my favorite value wines are from Portugal.

I hope you didn’t think I forget the United States.  That would never happen.  If you’re serving hearty meat dishes, Napa and Sonoma are for you.  But while you may want to go with some of your safer picks that you’re used to, in order to avoid conflicting flavors and stress, you may also want to find some other cool American wines.  For the love of all things good, please don’t just find something local and drink it just because it’s local.  If you want some local wines, find the best ones!  After all, if you’ve got guests from out of town, you want your hometown to shine and make you proud.  (Insert shout out to my favorite New York producers.)  Find the best local wines.  And if you and your crowd have an elegant style palate, Oregon Pinot Noir and Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah from Washington might be a fun thing to bring to your table.

So you see, the possibilities are endless.  All you need to remember is that you ought to be drinking good wines over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, because you and your guests deserve it.  Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, drink something(s) FABULOUS, keep it interesting, and I’d love to hear all about the wines that grace your tables this season!