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Mouthing Off

By the Editors of Food & Wine Magazine

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Wines Under $20

10 Great Wine (& Spirit) Gift Ideas

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I was thinking through what I'd tasted, and read, and heard about, and so on through the course of 2009, and it seemed like a good idea to recap a few highlights as possible gift ideas. After all, there's still time left—and even if the holiday season passes, why not give a few more gifts to people? The wine business—in fact, the entire U.S. economy—will thank you!

10. Evan Williams Three-Ounce Flask ($13.50) Long flight? The cagey folks at Evan Williams are there to keep you from having to drink rotgut from a cart; this stainless steel flask holds only three ounces, which makes it OK for airport security. You could fill it with, just on a whim, the latest release of Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon ($26), the lightly spicy, supple 2000 vintage. As usual, it's a great deal in a single-barrel Bourbon. 

9. Wine from Italy's Lazio region  I had the interesting pleasure of running a tasting recently of wines from Lazio, the region that surrounds Rome and is bordered by Umbria and Tuscany to the north. Lazio tends to get overlooked, because the vast majority of the wine it produces is utterly forgettable white Frascati that flows in a vast river into the glasses of Rome's countless trattorias. But there's a hidden realm of ambitious small producers in the region, making some fantastic wine. I'm particularly fond of the in-your-face fragrant 2008 Cantina Sant'Andrea Oppidum ($24, try contacting the importer), a dry Muscat that smells like a fistful of flowers and tastes of citrus fruit with a nut-skin edge, as well as the dark cherry-and-silk 2005 Damiano Ciolli Cirsium ($40, ditto), made from the local Cesanese grape variety. Cool wines. Unfortunately, both a bit hard to find.

8. Easier to find: The 2007 Twenty Bench Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($19, find this wine). This is a stupidly good deal in Napa Cab, so much so that when I used it in a blind tasting on the CBS Early Show the other morning, it bested a 2006 Bordeaux from a second-growth property (admittedly a bit unfair, as '06 Bordeaux aren't exactly user-friendly at the moment). 

7. Even easier to find: The 2008 Foxglove Chardonnay ($16, find this wine) I don't know what sort of deal Jim & Bob Varner cut with the infernal forces to be able to keep producing such a good Chardonnay for such a modest price, but whatever it was, wine drinkers owe them some thanks. 

6. The One wine glasses ($50 for four)  Andrea Immer, Master Sommelier & general wine-authority-about-town, designed these glasses with the specific thought in mind that (a) you would only need one red and one white glass, and (b) you could dishwash the darn things without breaking them. I've tested them out; they work. Nice glassware is a good thing. Alternatively, you could buy someone the Riedel stems that I've always used as my go-to all-purpose glasses, the Riedel Vinum Chianti/Zinfandel glass (model 6416/15, about $40 for two). I know, doing this defeats the whole point of Riedel glasses, but hey, I'm a journalist, not a millionaire.

5. For Pinot Noir fanatics, winemaker Ross Cobb is making some of the best Sonoma Coast Pinot I came across all year. I didn't get a chance to write about them in the magazine, because they're small production and fairly expensive, but they're truly impressive wines. My favorite was his 2007 Cobb Coastlands Vineyard ($68), which had lovely floral and balsam aromas, gorgeous wild berry fruit with a hint of white pepper, an orange peel note to the acidity, and a taut, streamlined structure. Just terrific stuff. You have to sign up on the website to receive an allocation, but from what I can tell it's not sold out yet.

4.The Food & Wine Wine Guide 2010. Great stocking stuffer. Almost as good as a subscription to Food & Wine.

3. What the heck. While I'm at it, why not give someone a gift from the Food & Wine Wine Club.

2. The Macallan 57 Year Old ($15,000) OK, it's a little pricey. But I did get a chance to taste this stuff, and, whether it's worth fifteen grand or not, I can definitely say that it's truly gorgeous whisky. It isn't remotely dried out (a common problem with extremely old whiskies), gives off whiffs of caramel, sweet spice, tobacco and peat, and tastes of orange rind, spice drop, rancio, and dried fruits; it's tremendously complex and also lovely, with a rich viscosity. Plus, it's bottled in a fancy-pants Lalique decanter, of which there are exactly 400 total for the world. But, if you don't feel like trading your child's college fund for a bottle of hooch, you could instead pick up the nifty new half-bottle size Macallan 18 ($80), which is exactly the same Macallan 18 as in the traditional 750ml bottle (extremely good, in other words) but smaller. Really great stocking stuffer.

1. Champagne  The Champenoise are having a tough time this season, people are holding onto their shekels & not shelling out for the pricey tête-de-cuvées they once did, but hey—as far as I know, no one is ever unhappy to be given Champagne. Why would they be? It's festive, it tastes great, it's fun, and even if you're one of the weird anti-fizz minority and don't like the stuff, it's eminently regiftable. There's plenty of good Champagne out there, but I'm particularly partial at the moment to the chalky, aromatic NV Henriot Blanc Souverain (about $50, find this wine), a graceful—and findable—blanc de blancs bottling not to be confused with the similarly named (and also quite good) Henriot Brut Souverain.

Wines Under $20

Today Show: Wines for Takeout Food

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Had a fun time today, as usual, on the Today Show with Kathie Lee & Hoda. This time around the subject was wines to pair with takeout food, part of my secret plan (actually not so secret, given I'm blogging about it) to convince the world that wine (a) doesn't have to be fancy/elegant/effete and (b) that it goes with almost everything. You can see the segment here, but to give a quick rundown:

1) Unoaked Chardonnay with Sushi: 2008 Spring Seed Wine Co. Chardonnay ($15 or so, find this wine). My experience is that oaky whites don't do well at all with raw fish (or with shellfish, for that matter) but unoaked ones do. I could have used a Sauvignon Blanc, but from experience I know that Kathie Lee is not a fan—to say the least—of Sauvignon Blanc, so I opted for this tasty Australian Chardonnay. 

2) Gewurztraminer with Kung Pao Chicken: 2007 Hugel & Fils Gewurztraminer ($22 or so, find this wine). The oil and heat of some Chinese dishes can make them tough to pair; I find that Alsace Gewurz's substantial body and spicebox character works pretty well, especially drier versions like Hugel's. For even hotter dishes I'd turn up the sweetness on the wine, maybe to something in a Zind-Humbrecht style.

3) Champagne with French Fries: NV Henriot Blanc Souverain ($42 or so, find this wine). Basically, if it's salty and fried, Champagne is a good bet. And what's more fun that eating French fries and drinking Champagne? Only eating French fries and drinking Champagne while lounging in a bed in a stupidly expensive hotel room with a fantastic view of Paris.

4) Chianti with Pizza: 2007 Antinori Pèppoli ($22 or so, find this wine). Well, Chianti and pizza, right? But there's legitimacy to this beyond the sort of no-brainer cultural connection, which is that with something cheesy and oily (yep) like pizza really needs a red with firm tannins and a nice cut of acidity—which Chianti supplies quite well.

5) Pinot Noir with Tacos: 2008 La Crema Monterey ($19 or so, find this wine). I owe my sommelier pal William Sherer for this one. The reason it works so well is that Pinot's bright fruit can hold up to all-over-the-place flavors in something like a taco; but also, when you've got hot peppers/jalapeños/hot sauce, what you don't want is a particularly tannic red—tannins tend to amplify heat, rather than subdue it. Though, if you're one of those lunatics who likes chewing up scotch bonnets for fun, hey, pour a Barolo with your Mad Dog 357-smothered wings and go to town. 

Wines Under $20

Thanksgiving Day Wines

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I was on the Today Show over the weekend, suggesting wines not just for the big Thanksgiving meal but all the other activities that go on this week—parades, football games, recovering after being mashed and jostled at the mall, you name it. The clip isn't up yet, but here's a link to my November column, which was the spur for it.

That got me thinking that I should recommend a few other worthwhile wines to hunt down in the remaining couple of days—affordable bottles that will pair well with a wide range of foods, which is pretty much what Thanksgiving is all about (since turkey itself doesn't taste like a whole heck of a lot).

From Spain's Rias Baixas region, Albariño is a terrific food wine, crisp and refreshing, with a kind of saline minerality and juicy citrus notes. I was there recently, and among the wines I liked were the fragrant, focused 2007 Pazo San Mauro Albariño ($17 or so) and the complex, stony 2007 Do Ferreiro Albariño ($22 or so, find this wine). Another good white option would be the 2007 Hugel & Fils Gewurztraminer($18 or so, find this wine). It's less florid and in-your-face than many Alsace Gewurzes, instead dry and crisp with a little white pepper note at the finish.

I also tasted through a heap of California Chardonnays the other day, with almost universally disheartening results. Most of them seemed blocky and blob-like, with too much oak and too much alcohol—the kind of wine that beats up your food rather than partnering with it. But, for a splurge, I did find the 2007 Lynmar Quail Hill Vineyard Chardonnay ($35) extremely impressive, its clean peach character succulent and inviting, with soft creamy lees and oak spice notes. 

In reds, a couple of recent discoveries in the tasting room were the 2007 Pulenta Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), a lush mouthful of blackberry fruit from Argentina with just enough light herbal character to keep it from being a fruit-bomb, and the 2006 Mazzoni Toscana Rosso ($16, find this wine), a firm-spined, tart, cherry-inflected blend of 72% Sangiovese and 28% Merlot from, well, Tuscany. As the name suggests. 

Finally, you have to have a value pick for turkey-day, and this year I'm in favor of the 2007 Vinum Cellars PETS Petite Sirah ($13 or so, find this wine). It's smoky and toasty, with that classic dark, spicy Petite Sirah fruit—think of a melange of blueberries, black plums and blackberries. Very drinkable, and a good deal, too.  

Winemakers

Wine Week, Part One

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This week, New York is overrun by fashion models, designers and those who have to be in-the-know for Fashion Week, with runway shows all over the city. Coincidentally (at least I don't think there's any connection, as winemakers aren't exactly known for being a fashion-savvy bunch), there has also been an invasion of wine-industry folk, from winemakers to importers to sommeliers to retailers from all over the place, all in town for tastings and dinners and other such events.

This has made for a very exciting, albeit hectic, time around here.

Yesterday, I was able to taste with producers from three different wine regions around the world without ever going below 43rd Street, above 46th Street or west of Sixth Avenue. It was a doozy of a day, but I tasted some wonderful wines—so many that I've decided to break the highlights into parts. I'll deliver them one at a time today, so stay tuned.

Part One

The day began at the office, tasting with Kiwi winemaker Dave Pearce from Grove Mill in Marlborough, who was fascinating to talk to because of his commitment to figuring out which grape varieties will maximize the potential of the region. His next experiment will be with some Grüner Veltliner that he planted a couple of years ago.

We tasted through a bunch of wine, but the standouts for me were his Riesling and Pinot Gris. I know that sounds a little odd, as New Zealand is best known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but these wines were particularly fascinating.

The 2007 Riesling (find this wine) had just a smidge of residual sugar that expertly balanced its zap of acidity and minerality. There's a bit of petrol aroma to the wine, which is matched by sweet citrus-think mandarin orange-flavors. I mentioned the wine's peppery character to Dave and he corrected me, saying that it was more raw ginger than anything else. He was spot on.

As for the 2006 Pinot Gris (find this wine), it was so rich and pear-filled that I can almost still taste it. Dave told me that he approaches Pinot Gris as if he were making red wine. "With Pinot Gris, it's all about the weight. It should have texture and be unctuous and weighty," he said. The wine was precisely that—with elegant viscosity and fullness, overflowing with fruit. Dave thought the wine was pitch-perfect with blue cheese. I look forward to that experiment.

Next stop, Sauternes!

Wines Under $20

Dungeness’s Perfect Match

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There’s a reason I only visit Seattle in August—Dungeness crab season. (OK, sunny days don’t hurt, either.) My family sets its traps with crab catnip (a.k.a., turkey legs) and is usually rewarded with enough large males to boil up a feast. The crab was especially rich and sweet this year, thanks in part to its pairing with a local wine made with organically grown grapes from Lopez Island Vineyards and blended specifically to accompany Dungeness. Only 100 cases of Salish Sea White ($16, find this wine) were made, and a portion of the price goes to The SeaDoc Society, which studies the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest. The wine, composed of the obscure grapes Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe, reminded me of an off-dry Riesling due to its grapefruit and floral notes and nice acidity. Nothing fancy, but perfect to go with a simple meal of fresh crab dipped in melted butter. If you can't get Salish Sea, the 2008 Long Shadows Poet's Leap Riesling is also a good bet. ($20, find this wine)

Wines Under $20

Three Weekend-Perfect Sauvignon Blancs

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We have hit prime Sauvignon Blanc season here in New York City, with 90-degree days and unbearable humidity. Lucky for me, the Food & Wine wine fridge happens to be loaded with Sauvignon Blanc, so I took the opportunity to taste through a dozen or so and turned up a few that would be great for the steamy weekend.

2008 Bogle California Sauvignon Blanc ($10, find this wine)
This affordable California bottling is made with grapes from both Monterey and the Russian River Valley. Not at all a complex wine, it's simply refreshing, with lemon-lime and tropical-fruit flavors.

2008 Robert Oatley Sauvignon Blanc ($18, find this wine)
From Western Australia, this Sauvignon has a spritzy pink-grapefruit flavor and cool sage-y notes.

2008 Valentin Bianchi Famiglia Bianchi Sauvignon Blanc ($16, find this wine)
This Argentine white from Mendoza is bright, crisp and fresh, with a pretty key-lime aroma.

Winemakers

Argentina’s Great Imported Winemaker

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Alberto Antonini is one of the world's most influential winemakers, consulting on wines everywhere from his native Italy to Uruguay, California and Portugal. I recently sat down with Alberto to taste through a selection of wines he's consulting on for Bodegas Nieto Senetiner in Argentina's Mendoza region. We had a fascinating conversation about the importance that he places on making each wine specific to the place it's from, rather than aiming for a broad international style. As winemakers become more international, this ongoing discussion of terroir will become increasingly interesting.

Philosophies aside, the Bodegas Nieto Senetiner wines are standouts, with gorgeous, concentrated flavors thanks to the grapes' growing conditions: very warm days and cool nights. Here's what we tasted.

2008 Reserva Torrontes ($11, find this wine) Argentina's top white, Torrontes, has inherent floral notes, but this bottling has a tremendous white-flower aroma of orange blossoms, jasmine and magnolia alongside bright citrus flavors. This is the perfect wine for these hot summer days. My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it.

2007 Reserva Bonarda ($30, find this wine) Alberto told me that Bonarda has a particularly long growing season and needs lots of sunlight. Extra time on the vine gives this soft, rustic red its spicy black fruit.

2007 Reserva Malbec ($11, find this wine) Alberto ferments this juicy, cherry-scented Malbec in concrete tanks, because he thinks it gives the wine fuller flavor.

2006 Don Nicanor Malbec ($17, find this wine) This deeply colored Malbec is loaded with black cherry and blackberry, plus a refreshing menthol note that keeps it from overloading the palate.

2005 Cadus Malbec
($45, find this wine) This single-vineyard Malbec is surprisingly fresh, even though it's also quite structured. It's long and elegant with pretty, spiced-cherry flavors.

Wines Under $20

Opened Wines that Stay Fresh in the Fridge

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In a staff meeting recently, we talked about whether there are clear ways to predict if a wine will be just as good, or even better, on the second day after the bottle's been opened. In general, young wines do better than old wines. But young wines that are meant to be consumed, well, young, lose their freshness quickly. (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I’m looking at you.)

Last Thursday, I opened a 2008 Gamay from Clos Roche Blanche (find this wine), a culty natural wine from France's Loire Valley. It’s made from the same grape used in Beaujolais, and it’s a decidedly cerebral version with complex minerality, a great earthy funk and tart berry flavors. Put it this way: If most Beaujolais-Villages is like Vampire Weekend (an immediately likeable band), then Clos Roche Blanche is more like Wilco (a band that initially seems weird, but breeds curiosity and eventually love—or hate).

After a glass or two, I corked the bottle and put it in the fridge…and accidentally forgot about it until Monday night. By then, the wine was softer, more gulpable, with ripe strawberry flavors. It was very much alive. I shouldn’t have been surprised: I’ve heard rumors that this wine can last for over a week in the refrigerator. Extraordinary for a $17 bottle.

Wines Under $20

Today Show: Made in America Wines

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I had a good time appearing on Today this morning, recommending wines for their "Made in America" Friday whip segment. (On the whip they run through four or so variations on a topic in a speedy way.) In this case "made in America" meant not made in California—which was a great chance to highlight some of the other great wine regions in the country. I brought along:

• The NV Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Blancs ($12), a nice, creamy and fairly full-bodied sparkler from Washington State

• The 2008 A to Z Wineworks Rosé ($12), a fragrant dry rosé from Oregon made with (oddly enough) Sangiovese grapes

• A terrific, crisp, Kabinett-style Riesling from the Finger Lakes, the 2007 Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard Dry Riesling ($17), which will also age beautifully if given the chance

• And one of my favorite Texan wines, the 2006 Flat Creek Estate SuperTexan ($19), a juicy, robust Sangiovese blend that I first ran into while touring around the Hill Country with my father, doing some barbecue research.

Plus, I got to see Al Roker sing part of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from on top of a crane, which was definitely the sort of experience you don't get every day.

Winemakers

A Little Grenache Geekery & A Good Cheap Cabernet

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Chris Ringland, the star Australian winemaker whose eponymous and much acclaimed Chris Ringland Shiraz sells for a modest (ahem) $600 or so a bottle, stopped by the office the other day to pour a few of his substantially less pricey wines. (In the interests of full disclosure: they're made in partnership with Dan Philips of Grateful Palate, who is an F&W Contributing Editor.)

Anyway, the wine that particularly struck me was from the amusingly named Chateau Chateau project, which will focus on single-vineyard Grenache from Australia. "Grenache really is a warm climate analogue to Pinot Noir," Ringland said, specifically referring to this grape's ability to express tremendous flavor without necessarily being color-saturated; but I think also in regard to Grenache's gift for expressing vineyard site character as well (I warned you there might be some wine geekery in this entry...).

He also noted that, in Australia at least, Grenache grown on lighter and sandier soil tends to be more perfumed and spicy, whereas on red-brown, more clay-dominated soil "it's more red berry getting into chocolate."

The latter was certainly true in the 2006 Chateau Chateau Magic Window Marananga Grenache (about $65, find this wine), which comes from a more clay-heavy vineyard in the Marananga area of the Barossa. Translucently ruby-hued, it had fragrant cherry, coffee and sassafras notes, and smoky, dark cherry fruit that ended on mocha. 

On the other hand, and though it doesn't have a darn thing to do with Grenache, if you're interested in experiencing Ringland's winemaking at a much more modest price point, you could do worse than to pick up a bottle of the 2008 Darby & Joan Cabernet Sauvignon ($9, find this wine). It had appealing black currant and tea leaf notes, soft tannins, and no intrusive oak. Of course, no oak was used to make it, so that would account for the lack thereof. Said Ringland regarding 2008 in Australia, by the way, "It was an extremely good vintage, even though there's word around that it was a climatic disaster. I think we'll see that it wasn't what people were expecting..."

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