Zinfandel, and why it matters

image Zinfandel drinkers of the world, it ?s time to unite. The wine world, it appears, is conspiring against us.

On the one hand, the establishment, which has always looked down on zinfandel as something inferior to cabernet sauvignon and merlot, continues to do so. One world-class wine maker, an otherwise fine fellow, compared it to South Africa ?s pinotage — which is the definition of an acquired taste.

On the other hand, the hipsters and social climbers who are always looking for the next groovy thing have discovered zinfandel.in a big way ? as in big and alcoholic. They ?re touting wines that have as much as 25 percent more alcohol than traditional zinfandels, which makes them almost as boozy as fortified wines like port, Night Train and Thunderbird.

It’s entire possible to make lovely, food-friendly wines at 14 percent or less. See any of the Nalle zinfandels, for example. Not to fear, though. The Wine Curmudgeon can shine a light at the end of this tunnel.

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Tuesday tidbits 31

? Texas wine winners: It was quite a competition for Brennan Vineyards in Commanche. The winery’s 2007 viognier (white wines) and rose (pink wines) were Grand Star winners at the 2008 Lone Star International Wine competition. That means the wines were the best of the best in their categories. The complete list of winners is here.

? Say no to higher alcohol: I popped open a rose the other day, as the temperature reached 100 for the first time this summer. The wine was quite undrinkable, and I dumped it down the drain. The culprit, which I smelled as soon as the cork came off, was the alcohol level — 14 percent is much too high for a pink wine. Rose is supposed to be refreshing, not hangover inducing. No need to mention the California winery; it knows who it is, and I hope it it knows better next time.

? Wine ice cream: And why not? It’s a novelty in upstate New York — and regulated by the state. Ice cream makers won’t need a liquor license, according to a new law, but they can’t sell to anyone under 21 and their products can’t contain more than 5 percent alcohol.

Riccardo Cotarella is a genius

image And it’s not because the Italian winemaker makes high end wine that gets big scores from the wine magazines. Or that the wine is merlot, hardly an Italian mainstay. Or that he is renowned the world over for his talent.

No, it’s because Cotarella makes some of the best $10 wine in the world. The Wine Curmudgeon regularly raves about the Falesco Vitiano red, white and rose. And if I needed any reassurance about how well made they were, consider this.

One of my local retailers had a bottle of the 2004 Vitiano white, stuffed on a back shelf and in need of serious dusting. This retailer doesn’t usually carry the white, though they do have the red and sometimes the rose. (It’s one of those vagaries of retailing that the Wine Curmudgeon has never been able to understand.)

Know, too, that inexpensive white wine isn’t made to last this long. Most should be drunk within two years — in this case, by 2006, or the middle of 2007 at the latest.

So the retailer and I huddled, and we decided I would pay for the wine, take it home, and taste it. If it had turned, I would bring it back and she would refund my money and get rid of the other half-dozen bottles on the shelf.

What do I mean by turned? In this case, the wine would have changed color, from a clear, crisp white to an aging newspaper kind of yellow. It also might have started to oxidize, becoming brandy-like as the cork failed and oxygen seeped in. Or it might become vinegarish (there’s actually one of those angel on a head of pin arguments about whether wine can turn to vinegar) for many of the same reasons.

So what happened? I checked the color — a touch yellow, but nothing untoward. I sniffed — not quite as fruity as it should be, but nothing off about it. I tasted it– a little thin and not quite as crisp as a newer vintage, but not spoiled by any means. I drank it with dinner (home-made egg rolls, stuffed with cabbage, bean sprouts, and onions) and served with Thai peanut sauce.

In other words, Cotarella made a $10 white wine that lasted four years. How impressive is that? I have tasted wine at two and three times that price that doesn’t hold up for two years. Or taste as good as the Vitiano at any time, for that matter.

True story: I met Cotarella five or six years ago when he was in Dallas, and tasted through his wines. He asked me what I liked best. We had had the pricey stuff, but me being me, I didn’t pick the merlot. I picked the Vitiano red — apologetically, but I picked it. Cotarella didn’t miss a beat. He was as gracious and as charming as he could be, and thanked me for my opinion and my time. What a guy. How many Napa winemakers would have let me off the hook so easily?

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The basics of enjoying wine, part III

image This is the third of a three-part question and answer series about wine basics. To see part I, go here; part II, here.

Everything you have said so far sounds good. But how do I find out what I like to drink?
Drink a glass, of course. If you like it, then buy something similar. If you don ?t like it, pour it down the drain and try something else. Wine is not rocket science. You don ?t have to go to school to learn how to like it. If it tastes good to you, that ?s enough.

Start with inexpensive wines, and work your way up. And don ?t be afraid to try different wines. Just because you like white zinfandel doesn ?t mean that ?s the only wine you can drink. Try a rose or a German riesling. They are similar to white zinfandel, but more sophisticated.

Well, I suppose. But there are so many wines to choose from. How do I get started?
Walk into a wine store, or a grocery store with a good wine department, and ask for help. Do you want to learn about reds? Whites? About a region? About wine for picnics? About inexpensive wines? Don ?t try to learn everything in one day. It can ?t be done, for one thing, and it ?s not any fun either.

Tell the staff how much you want to spend, if you have any preferences (dry vs. sweet, red vs. white, and the like), and ask them to recommend something. In addition, ask if they offer classes or tastings. These days, as wine becomes more popular, more and more stores do those things. They ?re cheap and easy ways to taste even more wine.

How can you tell I tell if the retailer is any good? If they don ?t tell you what wine you should drink, but ask you what you want to drink. It ?s your money ? don ?t let a snooty retailer with inventory to move make you buy something you don ?t want to buy. And if you buy something you don ?t like on a retailer ?s recommendation, it ?s perfectly acceptable to tell them the next time you ?re in the store.

That makes sense. But aren ?t there some simple rules of thumb, just to start with?
Sure. Remember these, and you ?ll always be able to come up with a decent bottle in a pinch. First, all wine doesn ?t have to be a varietal like chardonnay or cabernet. The best values, especially for inexpensive wine, will be blended from several different grapes. It ?s very difficult to find a terrific cabernet for less than $10, but there are a dozen red blends that will do the same thing the cabernet does for one-third less.

Second, younger is better, since less expensive wines were not made to last as long as their more expensive cousins. Stay away from red wines older than 3 and white wines older than 2. It ?s better to have a wine that ?s a little too young than a little too old.

That should you get you started. The rest is up to you. The most fun part about wine is the journey ? so much wine to taste, and so little time to do it.

A great, great look

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Chicago Cubs announcers Len Kasper (left) and Bob Brenley, giving the Wine Curmudgeon a run for his sartorial money. That’s a helluva brown pinstripe that Kasper is wearing. The occasion? The Cubs and WGN, which broadcasts the team’s games, held a 1948 throwback game on Thursday to celebrate the station’s 60 years of showing Cubs’ games.

And why is this post on a wine blog? Because the Wine Curmudgeon has two great weaknesses: white Burgundy and the Cubs. (Note to the faint of heart: The link includes a reference to former manager Lee Elia’s X-rated tirade against Cubs fans.)

Plus, I’m a sucker for fedoras.

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Wine of the week: Taltarni Three Monks 2005

imageHere’s a red blend for Father’s Day from an Australian producer that is one of the Wine Curmudgeon’s favorites, a company that almost always delivers quality for around $20.

The Three Monks (about $17) is 70 percent cabernet sauvignon and 30 percent merlot, which means it’s hardy enough to stand up to big steaks but isn’t overwhelming. Best yet, it’s not only low in alcohol for an Aussie wine (14 percent), but it has a bit of French style, so that the fruitiness doesn’t overwhelm the wine.

Father’s Day wine suggestions

image Call it barbecuing or grilling. Use a smoker or a gas grill or charcoal. Choose between beef or pork or chicken or vegetables. Regardless of which, though, it’s part of the Father’s Day tradition.

So what wine do you pair with kind of food? The classic pairing for grilled sausage is sweetish white wine like riesling or gew rztraminer. And the heartiest red meats, like grilled rib eye or smoked brisket, can take a hearty red wine.

But sometimes, how you ?re cooking the food makes a difference. Grilled chicken marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary pairs with sauvignon blanc. But smoke that same piece of chicken with a dry rub, and it changes character entirely. Then, you ?ll want a light red wine like a tempranillo or a beaujolais. And rose, of course, will go with almost everything except that grilled rib eye. The bright fruit complements barbecue ?s smokiness quite nicely, in fact.

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