Tuesday, May 26, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 2: Vermentino

Two weeks ago we tasted two whites from Montauto of Tuscany.  While both were good examples of the white blends we're writing about here, the lower priced wine was the more popular of the two. Vermentino was part of the blend in each, but in the tasting winner it was a full eighty percent of the blend and my experience validates our tasting group's verdict: Vermentino-based blends rock!  I just have to wonder how popular the wine would be if it had a less unfortunate name.

Tuscany, especially along the Ligurian coastline, is one of the classic venues for Vermentino vineyards.  Sardinia would be another and the Cotes de Provence of France, a third.  The Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, however, is the place to watch for new Vermentino blends since that's where plantings are increasing the most now.  In Tuscany the grape is called Pigato; in France, Rolle; and wherever it's planted in Spain, it's called Favorita.  In my opinion, any of these monikers would do better in the American marketplace than Vermentino.

Ampelographers are divided as to the origins of Vermentino.  Some say Spain; others, Italy.  There is also some uncertainty as to whether it's related to its frequent blending partner, Malvasia.  It definitely shares some DNA with Hungarian Furmint.

Vermentino is typically light-to-medium in body with bright, crisp acidity extending to the finish.  It is low in alcohol and has just a tinge of greenish-yellow color.  What it really brings to any white wine blend is an aroma of basil, pine nuts and minerality and flavors of green apples, limes, and herbs.  In other words, the wine has an intense and persistent personality all the way to the finish.

In California, Vermentino is successfully grown by Tablas Creek amongst others in Paso Robles AVA.  Bailiwick of Sonoma also makes a Vermentino featuring juice sourced from Paso Robles and the Red Hills of Lake County.  That one is in the store at this time and compares with European wines if just a bit fruitier and bigger in the mouth.  Like all Vermentinos, Bailiwick is seafood wine but also like most superior California wines, it stands on its own as a cocktail.

This Friday at the After 5 weekly event David Hobbs of Prime Wines presents a lineup of European reds and whites.  On the 5th of June Dean Johnston of Eagle Rock returns with new selections from that great company and then on the 12th, Rose Adams representing Aveleda of Portugal, shows us all what summer wines should taste like!  Please join us.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 1: Malvasia

European dry white wines never cease to amaze me with their quality-to-price ratio.  Just how they do it is something I don't think I will ever fully understand.  Nonetheless, this series beginning right here will attempt to examine wine types by their constituent grape varietals.  We are starting with Malvasia (mahl-vah-Zee-ah) only because we had the Montauto Maremma Toscana Bianca on the tasting table last week and I thought it was exceedingly good.

Malvasia is actually a family of five or more grapes that share a common ancestor more than two thousand years ago, probably in Greece.  Laconia is a region in southern Greece that featured a fortress Italians called Malvasia and that fortress is believed to be the namesake of the grapes grown thereabouts.  Malvasia was extremely popular with the ancient Mediterraneans, so much so that Venetian wine shops became known as "Malvasias", one of the earliest examples of international commercial branding.

Of the many affiliated Malvasia grapes, the Malvasia Bianca is the most widely grown type. It is at home across southern Europe in Spain, France, and Italy, along with Greece.  In all likelihood what the ancients preferred in their white wines would have been a sweeter styled Malvasia.  Today that style is still popular especially in the dried grape dessert wine, Vin Santo of southern Italy, which is a style known as "aromatic passito" in Sardinia and Sicily.

Disease prone in damp conditions, Malvasia vines like hillside vineyards for drainage in hot, dry climates.  Naturally low in acidity, Malvasia wines oxidize easily which explains its place in  Malmsey, the dark, richly textured Madeira dessert wine of Portugal.

The essential character of Malvasia lies its bouquet of honey, bosc pear, and allspice.  In a sweet wine that character is supplemented with lush fruit on the palate in an amply round textured body.  If the wine is made in a drier style it retains the distinctive bouquet and fruit but in a medium body format, which seems to be what Malvasia brings in general to a white wine blend.  In central Italy Malvasia is commonly blended with Trebbiano, a flavorful light white grape.  In Spain, where more experimentation is allowed, the body Malvasia brings fleshes out any other constituent grapes.

Besides the locations already mentioned, Malvasia is now grown successfully in eastern European countries and around the world including California.  The finest examples of dry Malvasia wine, however, still come from Italy, in particular, the DOCs of Collio and Isonzo in Friuli-Venezia-Giuli in northeastern Italy.

This Friday at the After 5 tasting we will have more French and Italian whites on the table, a rose, and a few Italian reds as Robert Jones of Mediterranean Wine Merchants makes his inaugural appearance at the store.  We ask for a ten dollar donation to taste which is refundable on a fifty dollar purchase.  Please join us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Cahill's Original Irish Porter Cheddar

For a lot of us, all you have to do is look at Cahill's Irish Cheddar with Porter and the oral juices are already working up a storm.  Even before cutting into it, the packaging seduces you with it's plain chocolate brown wax overlaid with bygone homespun images of women making cheese.  If Norman Rockwell had been a nineteenth century Irishman, he might have painted the picture that now adorns Cahill's cheese wrapper.

Inside the wrapping, however, lies something else indeed.  If Norman Rockwell did the outside, Marc Chagall did the tile work on the inside.  Upon cutting into a Cahill's, the dark earth tones on the exterior morph into spider webs inside, segmenting the yellow matte paste into cells of irregularly small dimensions.  Of course, maybe all of this isn't as unusual as I'm painting it here.  Maybe with a little self-examination, it's actually my inwardly conflicted self that I'm describing and it isn't the cheese at all...but I digress.

Cahill's is actually very popular because of its uniquely artistic presentation but even more so, of course, because of its taste.  While the cheese is categorized as a Cheddar, the 2% Guinness Porter taste overshadows everything else; and yes, it really is the historic Guinness that is flavoring this cheese.  Cahill's firm creaminess may, in fact, be a mirror reflection of a healthy swig of draft Guinness Stout.

At their website, Cahill's cites Marion Cahill back in 1759 as a County Limerick cheese-making ancestor of David Cahill who emigrated to America a hundred years later in 1860.  David made his fortune here before returning to Ireland and dairy farming in 1902.  In the mid 1920's his nephew William took the dairy reins and ran with it until 1972 when his son David assumed ownership.
Cahill's is a full, rich, tangy, chocolatey/caramelly mouthful with a similarly rich, pungent finish.  It is clearly a beer cheese down to that pungent finish.  While the cheese has its long history, three things appear to reflect modernity: the cheese uses vegetarian rennet; it's described as a "truckle" (cylinder) but is, in fact, smaller; and since the 1950's, it's pasteurized.

Of course, we're writing about the cheese here because it's in stock and for sale ($19.99/lb) at the store!

Please join us this Friday for the weekly After 5 wine tasting.  David Rimmer of Lynda Allison Cellar Selections represents some of the finest European wines in the marketplace.  This time he will be introducing us to six new Italians.  Of course, the cheeses will be flowing along with David's wines!  We ask for a $10 charge to taste which is applicable to a $50 purchase.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Wine Tasting

Wine tasting is something we in the trade do very regularly and with no illusions of grandeur.  There is an implicit understanding that we in the trade have, a rudimentary understanding that it's not so much an exercise in accomplishment like sommelier training so much as just information gathering for the purpose of exploiting a product.  We are not aspiring to a loftier reality than the realistic station we know.

When we taste we look for value compared to similarly priced wines.  We use accepted standards for types which may include norms for those regions known to be exemplary.  While we may compare our immediate tastes to the ideal wine example, we may also look to eccentric wine making styles that could result in the next Cabernet/Syrah, a blend popularized by Australia a generation ago and now accepted everywhere.  It is a commercial industry after all.

Wine tasting includes four basic steps: appearance, aroma, taste, and finish.  These steps should be done slowly with pauses for reflection.  For us in the trade, it's about deductive deliberation; we're comparing our immediate tasting experience with what is already on file in the old memory banks.  Fortunately (and unfortunately) for us small market retailers, those memory banks also store our memories of impulsively-made bad wine choices which continue to haunt us.

Here is my understanding of how wine tasting works:

1.  Appearance - Using a white background and tilting the tasting stem at an angle reveals not only the basic color of the wine but also its clarity or opacity, all of which lend clues as to grape types, age, filtering, and barrel-aging.  It also reveals the wine's viscosity, an essential quality in most serious wines.

2.  Aroma - This is the most important step in wine tasting.  By immersing one's nose into a just swirled wine stem and slowly inhaling, one can discern the most basic of wine information; that it's good and nothing is tainted, oxidized, or otherwise contaminated.  Because we in the trade know the dark side of the industry, that wines are potentially abused at any point between the winery and the retailer, our nose will tell us whether a recent vintage is actually as pristine as advertised or if it is prematurely aged or damaged through abuse.  Finally, our nose informs us of both the basic fruit flavors of the wine along with secondary flavors like flowers, earth, spices, wood, and more.  As much as 85% of wine tasting is done with the nose which then informs the palate of what to expect.

3.  Taste -  When the wine enters the mouth it is warmed, releasing aromatics retro-nasally to olfactory receptor sites in the brain, an actual continuation of what came previously solely through the nose.  By allowing the wine to sit in the mouth we feel its weight, texture, and structure before tapping those memory banks for reflections on complexity and character.  Complexity may be summed up as the breadth of harmonious flavors while character, or expressiveness, projects well-defined flavors.  To take it all one step further, "connectedness" would show that a bond exists through taste between the wine in the glass and its origins in the terroir where the grapes were grown.

 4.  Finish - This is what we are left with after swallowing and exhaling.  It is both overblown and underestimated.  What it should be is a memorable lengthy pleasant reflection of everything that came before.  "Wininess" is my own descriptor for the continuation of lengthy flavors throughout the entire tasting experience and one only recognizes this quality at the finish.

So who remembers Psychology 101 and the term, gestalt?  Basically gestalt means an integrated whole thing.  Stephen Tanzer is the best widely read American wine critic and has said that when he tastes he doesn't break the tasting into parts to score each and then compile those for a final numerical judgment.  He judges a wine in its gestalt, the entire tasting experience as a whole.  And that's good enough for me too.      

Please join us this Friday after 5 when we taste examples of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Italian Pinot Bianco, French Gamay, California Merlot, and Argentine Malbec.  New cheeses from the New York importer will be on the tasting table also.  We ask for a ten dollar charge to taste which is applicable to a fifty dollar purchase.