Wine as the complement to a meal

image The weather here has finally turned cold, which gave me an excuse to make red sauce for spaghetti. And it also gave me a chance to get  the Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Reserva 2004 ($30) out of the wine closet.

The wine was everything I had hoped it would be — classic chianti with dark fruit, the tell-tale Italian tannins and earthiness, and low alcohol. We finished the bottle, barely noticing that it was gone. Which led me to wonder: Why are Americans so adamant that wine has to be the star of the meal? We’re forced to drink high-alcohol, tannin-driven cabernets — and made fun of if we don’t enjoy them — when these wines will overpower all but the beefiest meals.

The Volpaia was terrific, and mostly because it didn’t overpower the food. It did what it was made to do — complement the food. The acid in the red sauce and the fruitiness in the wine played off each other in a way that too many New World wines don’t. I can’t tell you specifically what made the wine so good. But I can tell you how good it was with dinner, and that’s the most important thing.

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Pinot noir and salmon

Pinot noir really does go with salmon Talk to enough wine people, and the subject of pinot noir and salmon eventually comes up. For one thing, it ?s still considered trendy (even though though Josh Wesson and David Rosengarten wrote a book called Red Wine with Fish almost 20 years ago). For another, it has to do with pinot noir, and that is still considered tres chic in many wine circles.

Which led to a Wine Curmudgeon moment: What about this pinot noir and salmon? Does it really work? Or is it just more winespeak to wade through?

So I paired three pinots, costing $10, $22, and $40, with steamed salmon served with rice noodles and vegetable and saffron broth, to test the theory. And, to make sure the salmon was up to the task, I used wild Copper River salmon instead of a milder, grocery store product. My thinking: The more flavorful the salmon, the more challenge it would pose to the wine, especially for the $10 bottle.

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Holiday gift ideas

No need to be stumped when it comes to the wine and spirits drinker on your holiday gift list:

? Bounty Hunter Bronze Star Club ($49.95 monthly): The Wine Curmudgeon is not a big fan of wine clubs. Too often, what the club says is ?boutique ? or ?hard to find ? is stuff that someone else is closing out. Plus, you have to pay shipping. But Bounty Hunter, a California wine outfit, has a good reputation and this is a more than decent deal: three bottles a month, two reds and a white. Bounty Hunter promises it won ?t send any wines that someone else is getting rid of, and it guarantees every selection.

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Wine of the week: Kreydenweiss Perrières

image Rhone wine isn’t well known in this part of the country, where the most popular French wines are from Bordeaux and Burgundy. That’s too bad, because Rhone wines offer value and and quality.

The Kreydenweiss ($14), a red blend, is such a wine. It tastes like it’s more expensive, featuring nice balance between dark fruit, acidity and tannins. The fruit isn’t candied, which too often happens with wines at this price, and it’s not as heavy as some Rhone wines. This is a fine example of what can be done and should be done with this style of wine at this price.

It also has the classic French barnyard aroma, which makes many people think there is something wrong with the wine. In fact, the smell will blow off after the wine has been open for a bit. Appreciate it while it’s there.

How much does a reasonable wine cost?

image I got a news release from a California winery the other day, touting a new wine. “It ?s a very nice red blend for an extremely reasonable price,” said the release.

The wine costs $17.

Reasonable, of course, is relative. A 1961 Bordeaux for $17? More than reasonable. A New Zealand sauvignon blanc? Certainly reasonable. But California wine from the current vintage, from somewhere other than Napa or Sonoma? Very unlikely.

Let me add that I have not tasted this wine, which is why I’m not naming it. But it is indicative of a trend, pioneered by the largest multi-national wine companies, to make wine based on price. The companies see a figure — and the $15-$20 range is currently very popular — and then produce wine to fit that price. I get a dozen samples a month of wine made that way. I drink a couple of glasses, shake my head, and reach for one of my trusty $10 wines.

This is quite different from the old method, where companies figured out how much it cost to produce the wine and added their profit margin to calculate a price.

The reason Two Buck Chuck is so popular is not because it’s great wine. It’s because it’s a great value. But too many wineries (and especially some of the multi-nationals) refuse to accept the price-value argument. They figure they can throw a cute label on the bottle, get a good score from the Wine Magazines, or pull some other rabbit out of their marketing hat and sell a $10 bottle wine for $17.

That may be great for the company, but it doesn’t do anything for the consumer or for the long-term health of the wine business.

Upgrading your wine for the holidays

image You ?re pretty confident about wine, as far as it goes. You know a good $10 or $12 bottle from a not-so-good one, and if one of your friends needs a recommendation for a decent red wine to take to someone ?s house for dinner, you can offer two or three suggestions.

But there ?s a holiday coming up, and so it seems like the right time to spend a bit more ? whether it ?s as a gift for the significant person in your life or to treat yourself. But if all you know is $10 wine, what do you do?

Consider the following:

? Find out if the $10 wine you like has a more expensive label. Bogle, one of the best $10 wineries, does a couple: The Phantom, a red blend, and a Russian Rover pinot noir, both around $17.

? Buy a less expensive bottle from a winery that makes high-end wines. Ridge and Newton are both expensive and well-regarded California names. But Ridge ?s Three Valleys, a red blend featuring zinfandel, is a steal at about $23. Newton ?s Claret, made with mostly merlot in the Bordeaux style, is another terrific $25 wine.

? Buy a nicer wine from a region that you like. New Zealand is famous for its $16 sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs. So why not try something like Cloudy Bay, whose prices are closer to $30?

? Upgrade your grocery store favorite. Most offer not only a basic line, but one or even two more at higher prices and, usually, better quality. Kendall-Jackson, for instance, sells its vintner ?s reserve wines for $12 to $18. The next step up is the grand reserve, where prices run from $20 to $35.

Lots more wine on the shelf

Thought you saw a lot of new wines on store shelves this year? You weren ?t seeing things. Wine companies launched 423 brands in 2006, with more expected this year, according to a report from the Nielsen Co.

What ?s the reason for all of these new labels? Cheap grapes, especially in California, said the report, as well as marketers trying to cash in on wine ?s health benefits ? perceived or otherwise. Perhaps the most significant finding is that grocery store wine sales showed strong growth, doubling the increase in liquor store sales.

The study also found that:

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