Saturday, July 28, 2012

Grafton Village Cheese

Last week we received a forty pound block of cheddar from our wholesaler in New York.  It was a promotional item from a sales circular that only said it was from Vermont.  Since we could retail it for ten dollars a pound, we jumped on it.  When it arrived here, the heavy plastic wrap was clearly stamped Grafton, which is a brand we purchase in volume for the holiday gift baskets.  We never taste those eight ounce waxed cheddar bars because they are usually in and out of the store within a few weeks via the gift trade.

So we cut into the forty pound cheddar last week and immediately I was struck by the texture.  Our Widmer's four year old cheddar  and other forty pounders we have had here have all been hard and difficult to cut.  This one was relatively soft and crumbly and that was an eye-opener.  Coming from the midwest this cheese clearly felt different.  This almost reminded me of the real stuff, English Cheddar.

With a crumbly cheese, you can't help but taste it, right?  Actually anyone standing near the cutting table opportunely gets to taste a crumbly cheese and the feedback (and sales) have been very good on this one.  The cheese is creamy and mild but also pleasantly winey enough to work with a light red or medium bodied white wine in my opinion and I don't usually think of cheddar that way.   

The following is information gleaned from the Grafton website,

The company was formed in 1892 as a cooperative to support small neighboring dairy farms.  After its original physical plant was destroyed by fire, the nonprofit Windham Foundation of Grafton, Vermont, with a similar cooperative philosophy, rebuilt that cheese plant and later built another one in Brattleboro, Vermont as the business grew.

Grafton markets many dairy products along with other goodies but essentially just four cheddars, aged one through four years.  Our unmarked forty pound block is probably the one year old.  They also offer a maplewood chip smoked cheddar.

Grafton uses no artificial hormones in their cheeses and their rennet is not animal based, therefore it is suitable for vegetarians.  In 2010 they hired cheesemaker Dane Huebner who has added a line of eight cave aged artisanal cheeses which may be seen at their website.  We will inquiry as to the availability of these soon.

At next Friday's wine tasting (5-7pm) we will set out the Grafton just as we did last Friday.  Please come and taste.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chenin Blanc

Writing about light dry summer wines prompts me to take a look at one of the most ordinary of white vinifera grapes, Chenin Blanc, which only finds nobility in French Loire Valley Vouvray and, perhaps, in South African production. I am also prompted to write because Vouvrays seem to have been rediscovered here at the store this summer and our Friday evening tasting this week includes a South African. So it doesn't hurt to advertise what's current, right? But what about the quality question? Is Chenin Blanc good wine or isn't it?

First of all, this summer if it's cold and refreshing, as we have been saying here recently, it's good wine. But critically speaking? For most of my thirty years in the business, I would say not, largely because I have held to a hierarchical schema regarding grape types. Those that were historically proven to produce harmoniously complex wines occupied the top tier. Those that produced such quality only occasionally were at the next rung. The ordinary grapes were below that and at the bottom was, well, you don't want to know.

Michael McNeil, the highest ranking sommelier-credentialed connoisseur in the Atlanta wine business, took me to task about this approach recently. For him it's about wine improving in the bottle, i.e., if it improves in the bottle, it's noble. So for him, Chenin Blanc is a noble grape in those instances where the terroir allows for superior production to the extent that the wine improves in the cellar. I humbly stand corrected.

Now, I have always known of the great Vouvrays, having tasted them thirty years ago. I knew then that they were truly special cellar-worthy wines. I just always thought of those examples as an anomaly, an accident of nature. Chenin Blanc was just ordinary as a rule.

The most noble of red grapes is Pinot Noir and I learned that thirty years ago from my mentor, Jim Sanders, the father of the fine wine business in Atlanta and the French Burgundy expert of the southeastern United States at the time. Here's the rub though. Pinot Noir only produces nobly in Burgundy, France to my knowledge. What's the difference then between that and the Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley? I believe Mr. McNeil may have a point: nobility is an overlay that covers all wines with only a few examples of certain types standing out.

This Friday (5-7pm), along with the South African Chenin Blanc, we will taste some combination of new inventory in California Cabernets, Spanish dry rose, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, and Argentine Pinot Noir. The wines we are offering at our tastings this summer really are special, after all, we do have to drive away the summer heat somehow. Please join us and say you read this article for a free Danish Dancake.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hot Weather Wines Part 3: Reds

This is what I omitted from the summer white wine report: When in doubt, buy Italian.  While there are some heavier Italian whites, most are charming light refreshers perfect for the season. 

We have had a couple of tastings here recently that featured some wonderful summer reds.  Two weeks ago we tasted the "Young" Cabernet and Malbec from Testimento of Argentina.  Last night we tasted Senda 66 Spanish Tempranillo, Masciarelli Italian Montepulciano, and Santa Julia's Organic Malbec and Cabernet from Argentina.    The Europeans were lighter versions of what each could have been, while the Argentines seemed fruitier along with being lighter.  All could have been labelled "cafe" or "bistro" wine or for that matter "picnic" wine.  The Europeans, which really needed food to show their best, did alright in sales but the Argentines were very popular.

So what made the Argentines so popular?  It had to be the fresh forward fruit style that made them such a nice cocktail.  (Wine tastings are cocktail parties, aren't they?)  While California pioneered this style, many examples we have tasted here recently have been heavier Zinfandel-based blends, which may or may not be the current California style but don't seem to be hot weather wines in any event unless they could be used as a base for Sangria.

Here are some varietals to try now: Gamay, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese.  As with white wines, the European red style is lighter and more food friendly.  Gamay and Pinot Noir find their best examples in Burgundy, France; Tempranillo, in Spain; and Sangiovese, in Italy.  For lighter Tempranillo look for the word, "Crianza" on the label; for lighter Sangiovese, look for "Rosso". 

All of these types, while light, would still work well with meats on the grill.  Because we have become so enamored with our reds in this country, we sometimes forget that most all reds are intended to be paired with foods. If your grilled meat is actually charred with smoky flavor, crunchy texture, and a carmelized crust, go with either a light structured Cabernet-like red or balance the char with a fruit-driven light red like Sangiovese.  Pinots work best with meals with a sauce,  and spicy meals require spicy wines, and as always, Italian red wine with Italian cuisine.

Here is my last summer red wine consideration: Chill your bottle of red wine for an hour before dinner to ensure it is below 60 degrees in temperature  and if you are dining outside bring the ice bucket. Who wants warm wine? Tuesday July 20th between 5 and 7pm, importer Bob Durand and distributor Gail Avera will be pouring the new Chilean line called Dogma. Bob actually had a hand in the design of these wines so those who want to learn about such things are encouraged to be here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hot Weather Wines Part 2: Whites

There is much on the internet in the way of summer wine recommendations with every kind of magazine with their own hired expert plugging what he/she thinks works best when the temperature hits the discomfort zone.  Without citing chapter and verse (and expert), here are some truisms I have gleaned.  Remember, this segment deals only with white wines.

We said last time that oak-aged whites, Chardonnay primarily, may not be optimal for these  times because of their heaviness.  Other fat, high extract, full-bodied new world wines like Viognier or Gewurztraminer would similarly conflict with the lightness theme.  Even some ordinary white varietals like Chenin Blanc, Colombard, or Trebbiano when made in new world forward fruit styles often end up being somewhat heavy in the mouth.  What does work well in these times are your standard European models: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Bianco, Dry Riesling, Spanish Albarino, Macabeo, and Verdejo, and countless types that are unknown to inhabitants two villages away from the vineyard.

Let's get even more specific.  If you like Sauvignon Blanc you may want to try French Sancerre or Pouilly Fume for best-of-kind examples.  For Pinot Grigio or Pinot Bianco, Northern Italian, Slovenian, Hungarian, or Romanian command the fruitier style while the French Alsatian style rules with austerity.  For dry Riesling look no further than Germany or Alsace.  If it's Chardonnay that you love, French Macon or Chablis (steel barrel) is the thing.  More arcane would be Gruner Veltliner from Austria and even more so would be Assyrtiko from Greece.  We have already mentioned Spanish Albarino but what about Portuguese Vinho Verde, perhaps the lightest wine of all.

What's noticeably missing from my list are sparklers and they are most appropriate for summer.  French Champagne, Italian Prosecco, and Spanish Cava all have their place and price point.  Cava is of course the bargain of the three but it is often heavier than the others.  Prosecco seems to always be light in the mouth and moderately priced but if you want the "bomb" in sparkling wine get a Blancs de Blancs French Champagne, the epitome of fine wine.

Sweet whites?  Yes!  European sweet whites are usually a lighter style again than new world wines with German Riesling and Italian Moscato being the leaders there.

This store is Pinot Grigio Central in the summertime.  This Friday from 5 to 7pm we will be tasting one of our best at $12.99/btl.  We will also have three other European whites open for tasting.  Next Tuesday we host importer, Bob Durand, and his personally selected Chilean line, Dogma.  Please join us for these events.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hot Weather Wines Part 1: Roses

There is an elephant in the room.  It's hot.  What do we do?  Grab something cold and wet and refreshing, right?  And quick!

It's obvious, isn't it?  If we haven't done it already, we need to shift gears and turn away from the heavier reds and oak-aged whites and go to something lighter, cooler in temperature, and perhaps lower in alcohol, fruitier, and subjectively refreshing.  Does it have to be white?  Actually, no it doesn't and that opens the door for exploration into new adventures in wine appreciation.

Where to start.  First, let's acknowledge the parameters.  We have reds, whites, and roses as options and we have already ruled out heavier wines in general.  Let's also acknowledge our limitation in space in the blog, therefore in this segment we'll tackle the sleeper, roses.

We need to also acknowledge our deficiencies, guys.  There is a male-specific malady called Rosephobia which, without going into the Freudian implications, dictates that roses are girly wines and real men don't drink them.  Hogwash!  Insecure men don't drink roses.  And besides, they are the seasonally appropriate "light and refreshing" style and, surprise of surprises, they go with grilled foods!

Are we on the same page now?  Let's go down that page then.  Roses are either sweet or dry.  If you want a sweeter cocktail, choose White Zin or pink Moscato or another known quantity in that category.  If you want something before dinner or with salads, try a French Provence or Cotes de Provence Rose, a very light but dry example of type.  If you're having pasta or pizza, as always, grab an Italian.  Seafood in a sauce?  Italian.  Alone?  French.

So what if you really want a red but-she-who-must-be-obeyed wants something lighter.  Here is where it gets interesting.  You don't have to get into a white.  Have a Spanish, Chilean, or Argentine rose.  If you choose carefully for color, they're practically red wines anyway.  The finest roses in the world, by the way, are from Spain and you can pair them with any charred meat on the grill.

This Friday from 5 to 7pm we will be tasting new California wines from my favorite mega-wine company, DFV, tenth largest in the world, privately held, and not content to "phone it in" with regard to quality.  We need to also pour a rose that night also.  On Tuesday July 24th, importer Bob Durand and distributor Gail Avera of Allgood Wines will be here pouring tastes of the new Dogma line from Chile.  Please join us for both of these events.

New cheeses due in this week include Italian Piave Vecchio, the best cheese in the deli along with plenty of new crackers too.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Chilean Wine Tastings

Last night we tasted three from Santa Alicia of the Maipo Valley of Chile: 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Reserva, 2010 Carmenere Reserva, and 2008 Malbec Reserva.  Santa Alicia markets a lower priced tier of wines so the "Reserva" designation is intended to separate the two lines, I am sure, and not to imply cellaring for the Sauvignon Blanc.  That said, the Sauvignon Blanc could have used some time.  It is that popular citrusy style but the 2011 fruit tasted unripe.  It sold the poorest of the total of six wines on the table.  Six months from now I bet it shows better.

The Malbec showed the best of the three and that may be due to its vintage.  2008 was an average vintage, as these things go, but it was pre-earthquake of 2010 which not only decimated that vintage but due to the devastation, perhaps set producers back in 2011 also.  We blogged about this subject here on April 21st of '11. 

The 2010 Carmenere also sold poorly.  It was poured before the Malbec so it wasn't overshadowed by the better wine.  It was earthier than the Malbec which tells me from my experience that there may have been a stylistic problem with the wine but it was lighter than the Malbec also and that may be due to sourced fruit due to the earthquake.  In my opinion the wine was fine (I like earthy) but not up to the par for Carmenere set previously by Santa Alicia.

Along with the Santa Alicia Malbec, the 2010 Sensi Tuscan Sangiovese and 2011 Peirano Estates Lodi Chardonnay were the most popular wines of the evening.  Sensi overperformed for its modest price and Peirano (blog March 29th, '12) was a fine balance of tropical fruit, honey, and oak.

Two tastings scheduled in the next two weeks relate to the subject at hand.  Next Friday, July 20th, we will be tasting new wines from DFV of Lodi, my favorite mega-wine company.  The wines are sourced from Napa and Monterey and, in a nutshell, DFV simply makes better wines than similar volume-driven companies.  On Tuesday July 24th we will host another importer tasting with Chilean wines.  The label is called Dogma, the importer is Bob Durand, and the facilitator for making this happen is Gail Avera of Allgood Fine Wines.  Please join us.

Italian Piave Vecchio is usually the best cheese in the deli here.  We have one coming in this week so stop in for that also.  



Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wine Tasting Observations July 10, 2012

Last night's tasting was successful in several ways.  The wines were certainly good and presented well by the Akers (importers) and Gail Avera (distributor) and the turnout was wonderful and the monetary support of this program was commensurate.  All in all, I think a good time was had by all.

Three wines outsold the others: the Testimento Sauvignon Blanc, Young Malbec, and Young Cabernet.  Just behind those three were three from Siete Fincas: Rose of Pinot Noir, Estate Malbec, and Secreto red blend.  The Testimento Estate Malbec, which I loved, surprisingly sold poorly.  The wines ranged in price from $15-$26 and, in general, the lower priced ones outsold the higher ones.  Secreto was the most expensive wine offered and it was decanted three hours ahead of time which makes me wonder if sales would have improved for  the Testimento Estate Malbec if we had decanted it.

It's no secret that we are in the bag for Argentine Malbecs at this store.  Big earthy red wines are up there with saurkraut and sausage, Greek salads, and carrot cake in my book and actually may work gastronomically with two of the three, although my tastes are far from mainstream.  The textbook would actually say Malbec is steak wine but this leads to a discussion of styles of Malbec and they are indeed all over the map.  Last night's Young Malbec was fruity making it a good stand alone cocktail or bistro/tapas wine.  Despite the heft of many Malbecs, I still like them as summer backyard cookout wines.  I can't explain that except that I like Malbecs!

Last night's Pinot Rose was a real eye-opener!  Three weeks ago when I tasted it, I was thoroughly unimpressed.  Last night it showed great, almost like a red wine.  It was so flavorful it was like a  Malbec rose.  Just like the young reds, I am sure the rose and Sauvignon Blanc sold well because of the season, which isn't to diminish them so much as to acknowlege how much we are influenced that way.

Lastly let me close with a word of thanks to all of you who support this small business.  Conservatively, it probably costs us $10 per person to do what we do here at these tastings.  As romantically as we look at this subject, wine is a narrow mark-up commodity and, as a wine retailer, I do appreciate your generosity.  Gateway Domestic Violence Center, our chosen charity, does also.

This Friday from 5-7pm we will be tasting the "ones that got away", wines we have announced for tastings but got bounced from the lineup for one reason or another.  Among that list are: Whitehaven Pinot Noir, The Crossings Unoaked Chardonnay, Waterbrook Reserve Merlot, Martin Ray Pinot Gris, Penfolds Bin 2 Shiraz, and Oyster Bay Chardonnay and as I am writing this I am fully aware that some of these will no doubt get bounced again!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Judgment of Paris Part 4

Most assuredly this will be the last installment on this subject and we can then put the historic tasting of May 24th of '76 to rest for good.  In order to do that though we need to tie up some loose ends and because so much of my blogging is not thought out ahead of time, I hope my digressions about wine tastings in general and the abuse of wine in distribution channels have been helpful as they relate to the event of '76.  But let's get back to history class one more time...

I have said that thirty years ago the wine culture was completely different from today in that Europe was the center of attention and California was no more than an outpost and not seriously accepted as competitive with French wine quality in any way.  To put it another way, every big American city wine expert of the time would aver that the finest wines in the world come from France and perhaps California made decent ordinary wines but nothing more than that and certainly nothing that could be called "fine".  Those same experts after the '76 tasting would no doubt give California more credit but still not the dignity of the accomplishment because we all knew there must have been some unknown reason for the absurd tasting results.  Or so we thought.

The repeated tastings that followed with their similar results could be explained away just as the '76 tasting could because we all knew the fix was in, that is, until the thirty year anniversary tasting in 2006 when the California Cabs should have failed because of their age, but didn't.  So are California wines really better than French?  According to the expert tasters of these tastings, yes they are!

We have already distinguished the differences between the two wine styles: the French are lighter and drier, winier and longer, and more food-friendly; the Californians are more forward, jammier, and opulent, and they may also be somewhat less dry, making them a better stand-alone cocktail wine.  But because we eat a leaner cuisine than the French, our domestic wines marry quite well with our meals, thank you, just as the French do theirs.  So, are our wines actually better than the French?

I think you know where I am going with this.  You can't over simplify wine appreciation this way.  This wine lover prefers the European lighter, winier style while still accepting the judgment of Paris that California Cabernets were better than the French.  I think George M. Taber, the Time magazine reporter at the tasting and the author of  the book, "Judgment of Paris", said the tasting made wine experts of the time "re-examine convictions that were little more than myths taken on trust".  We go forward from there.

Tomorrow, Friday July 6th from 5 to 7pm, we will taste an assortment of domestic reds and whites that are respectable examples in their own right.  On Tuesday July 10th, again from 5 to 7pm, we will be tasting superior Argentine Malbecs and more from high altitude Andes vineyards as presented here by the importers.  Please join us for both of these tastings. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Judgment of Paris Part 3

Please scroll down to Part 1 and then go forward.

I am not a statistics guy.  Far from it.  It makes sense to me that a numerical scoring scale from one to twenty for scoring a wine per taster and then tabulating the sum of all scores for that wine from eleven tasters and then dividing by eleven to get the average score, would actually be a pretty good system.  But I'm not a statistics guy and apparently there was much wrong with the scoring in Paris on May 24th, 1976.  In summary: The data sample was too small to be meaningful and because there was no common understanding of what the scoring reflected (grading system) the numbers may as well have been random.  So to the statistician, this tasting was not definitive.

In fact there was much disparity from scorecard to scorecard with no one wine topping everyone's card, although there was a total points winner in Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay which outscored all of the reds in total points.  Chateau Montrose red Bordeaux was the top wine on most red cards but Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet earned more points in accumulation over all cards so it was deemed the top red.  The heterogeneity of the judging does weigh toward the conclusions of the statisticians of the above paragraph and our conclusions about subjectivity in tasting in the previous installment would seem relevant also.

So what are we looking for in wine tasting?  We look for color, aroma, taste, body, structure and balance, and finish.  We look for what is not appropriate and we look for what is exceedingly appropriate in a given wine.  Probably the best attribute of a wine is finesse, or fine-ness, with complex and harmonious flavors dancing around and with each other most agreeably before resolving into a pleasant finish that lasts and lasts.  If we are buyers, we look for soft tannins that may indicate cellaring potential.  If we are buying for dinner tonight, we may consult an authority on wine pairings and then trust our own palate about matching wine with food.

Whenever I taste out new world wines with europeans, I always place the europeans before the new world wines because they are drier and show better when not preceded by a fruitier wine.  If I taste out cheese with wine, I try to offer the best european cheeses with european wines for the same reason.

This Friday (5-7pm) we will be tasting our usual assortment of red and white, new and old world fare but next Tuesday July 10th (5-7pm) we will have a special event featuring Gail Avera of Allgood Wines and Mariano Cebrian of Panoram Imports of Argentina with their remarkable high altitude Malbecs and more.  Two months ago we tasted the Laborum line from Panoram and they were as good as you could imagine in the thirty dollar range.  These will be $15-$25.  Please join us.