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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)

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