Warming up to a delicious Loire Valley white

When I opened a bottle from France’s Loire Valley this past weekend, Hervé Villemade’s 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, I was reminded of the importance of temperature in enjoying the full spectrum of a wine’s flavors – and that wines without prestigious appellations on their labels can often be delicious values.

What turned out to be a lovely, subtly complex wine appeared at first one-dimensional and enclosed. But within a few minutes, the wine seemed to come alive, releasing wonderful and complex aromas and tastes and reinforcing my confidence that a wine with the broader “Val de Loire” classification could indeed be memorable.

What had happened, simply, was that the wine had warmed up a few degrees or so,  literally taking the chill out of the bottle and allowing the wine to express itself. If you have left a white wine in the fridge for more than an hour so or ordered one at ...

Why you need to try this Brazilian wine before (or after) the Olympics

Brazil produces a ton of wine, most of it in the temperate south with its four seasons. The fact that Brazil makes wine at all is something that most people in this country probably don’t realize, given how Chile and Argentina, with their marketing muscle, dominate South American imports and sales. I can’t recall being queried about my interest in wines from Brazil -- until this summer with the obvious Olympics tie-in.

You’re not going to find many (or any) bottles from Brazil in your local wine store or in restaurants, unless, of course, they’re serving Brazilian food. I can see that changing, however, if more of them knew about wines like Lidio Carraro’s 2014 “Agnus” Tannat.

Carraro, which, like many Brazilian wineries was founded by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, notes that tannat is Brazil’s “emblematic” red grape, as it is in neighboring Uruguay. The variety was ...

Beating the heat with these refreshing whites from France’s little-known Quincy

It’s mid-August, and with the heat and humidity truly stifling here in New York, I have no use for wines that aren’t fresh and light (while still interesting, of course). Among whites, sauvignon blancs immediately come to mind. For the “interesting” component, my mind -- and palate -- naturally veer toward France’s Loire Valley.

The Loire is sauvignon blanc country, unparalleled in its quality and range of perspectives on the grape, from the racy and relatively uncomplicated wines of the large Touraine appellation, to the complex and celebrated offerings from Sancerre and its neighbor Pouilly Fumé.

Somewhere in between are the wines of Quincy, a storybook village in the upper Loire that lives in the shadow of its
more famous neighbors like Sancerre. I remember thinking the first time I was there that lunch didn’t get much better than a hunk of the local chèvre, a baguette and a bottle ...

From Atlantic Spain, a fresh white wine shows off its lovely fruit

As I write this on a warm, early autumn day, I am reminded that many fruits on the farm stands are at their peak: the last of the peaches are being scooped up as the apples and pears take their place; there may still be some berries around.

What made me think of this was a gorgeous white wine I am tasting from the Rias Baixas region of Galicia in northwest Spain -- the 2014 Abadia de San Campio Albarino from Bodegas Terras Gauda.

I have tasted this wine many times before. Never has it been this delicious, suggesting that 2014 must have been one heck of a vintage in Rias Baixas. Albarino is the region's most important grape and is in its glory in this $19 bottling, bursting with ripe tropical fruit and rich lemon tastes, fresh and lively with great balance between fruit and acidity.

I also detected ...

In an endless winter, wines that will transport you to summer


As I write this, it’s about to drop down to two degrees again here in New York, hardly the kind of weather that brings on thoughts of refreshing summer wines. But as part of my own strategy for coping with this brutal blast of winter we’ve been enduring for weeks, that’s exactly what I’ve been tasting. They're not a substitute for a warm beach, but they've taken some of the chill out of my mind, at least, and given me a jump on some exciting new releases to be enjoyed in the months ahead.

From New Zealand, Mud House’s 2014 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($12) immediately got me in the spirit of spring. This is classic Kiwi sauvignon with delicious grapefruit and gooseberry notes, vibrant acidity and a touch of cream on the long finish. It’s notable as well for its roundness -- there’s nothing strident, as New Zealand sauvignons can sometimes be. Alcohol is 13 percent. Imported by Accolade Wines North America, Napa, California.
I have often said that rosés can and should be drunk through the year, a point reinforced by the first two rosés I’ve tasted this year. They represent two very different styles and both are memorable.

From France’s Loire Valley, Saget La Perrière’s 2014 La Petite Perrière Rosé ($14) is as refreshing a rosé as you’ll find, It is made from 100 percent pinot noir, an under-appreciated Loire variety. I was struck immediately by a liveliness produced by its bright acidity, just the right quality to counteract a deep-winter funk. With its light salmon color its tastes evoke ripe cherry and strawberry with some lemon, orange and a touch of cream on the finish. Alcohol is 12 percent.

In a slightly fuller style, the 2014 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé ($14) is notable for its minerality that punctuates concentrated strawberry and raspberry notes. There’s a refreshing citrusy finish on this one as well. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Los Vascos is produced in Chile’s Colchagua Valley and is owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Both rosés will be available this spring and are imported by Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, New York....

A wine made when Nixon was President reminds us how sexy ‘old’ can be


As a critic, I get to taste many hundreds of wines each year and sometimes get invited to events, many of them involving wine regions, wineries or importers presenting their latest releases. Sometimes the wines are memorable and I write about them; sometimes not.

One of the more unusual experiences of this kind came not long ago when I was invited to stop by Morrell & Co., the well-known New York retailer and wine bar just across the street from my  office in Rockefeller Center. The occasion was an updating of the store and bar and a chance to taste a few wines. There was a rosé from Provence, a red Bordeaux and a California chardonnay. Good wines, but hardly the stuff of which memories are made.


Fortunately, there were more wines to taste. There, on the counter, sat three very large bottles that towered over the others around them. Each was a Barolo, the famous wine from the region of the same name in Piedmont in northern Italy. Not only that, they were from the 1970s -- a ‘79, a ‘76 and a ‘70 to be precise. They represented an unusual chance to go back in time.
 
Wine is all about connections -- to those with whom we enjoy it and, for me, connections to wines themselves and their histories. The most interesting and vital of these old Barolos was the 1970, which was clearly a very good vintage for Barolo.

To put the year it in context, Richard Nixon was president, the Beatles broke up and the computer floppy disk was introduced, all of them relegated to history long ago. In Barolo, on the other hand, Giacomo Borgogno would make a wine that would remain vibrant for decades to come, the 1970 Barolo Riserva “Antichi Vigneti Propri.’
The nebbiolo grape attains its greatest expression in Barolo and the wine is made for aging, gradually losing the strongly tannic character of its youth and evolving, in the best vintages, into a transcendent experience in which fruit and wood and sense of place become one.
As I stood at the counter, David Johnson, Yung Leung and Jura Almeida carefully poured small quantities of wine from the big bottle, which held 3.78 liters and would cost more than $500 today, into a decanter for aeration. Then they poured a half an inch or so into our glasses. The color was light brick red; the aromas conveyed red fruit, roses and cedar.

This is the kind of wine that makes you want to talk about it with anyone around you, and I found myself doing just that – describing how it was still very much alive after all these years, with vibrant acidity, still-firm tannins and beautiful fruit.

With each small glass I found myself focusing on something different: in one glass an emphasis on the secondary tastes of leather, meat and beef bouillon cube; in another hints of raspberry, blueberry and a long, mineral-driven finish.

We all had the sense on this evening that we were tasting something unique, something that could not be replicated. I found myself transported back to another era, thinking of the images and the history of the time, and in my glass, enjoying something old that was still very much alive.

In the under-$10 wine crapshoot, an impressive Spanish white


In the middle of summer, I crave fresh, lighter white wines, preferably with little or no oak but with good complexity and a price that will permit me to buy plenty of them to have on hand to sip with weekend lunches, before dinner or with the fresh fish and shellfish. 

With those requirements, I tend to gravitate to the wines of the lesser-known appellations of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, which can still offer excellent values. One of them is  Avelino Vegas’s 2013 “Abadía Real” verdejo-viura blend, a $9 Vino de la Tierra from the large Castilla y León region of northwest Spain.

In the classification hierarchy of Spanish wines, Vinos de la Tierra are a step below  Denominación de Origen wines, but as this one shows, they can over-deliver on quality for the price, which is exactly what I’m looking for. With modest alcohol of 12 percent, the wine is both easy to drink and interesting, with pear, white peach, tropical fruit and subtle vanilla notes. An impressive summer value. Imported by Spain Wine Collection, Congers, N.Y.


Sips: From California, Donelan’s Kobler Vineyard Syrah

I've been thinking a lot in recent weeks about a growing trend in California winemaking -- a return to more modest and elegant wines that still have great fruit concentration but with lower levels of alcohol. Some of this has to do with weather conditions, some with vineyard location and some with a winemaker's decision on when to harvest grapes (the longer they hang the higher the sugar and resulting alcohol levels).

You may have read about an excellent Dry Creek Valley zinfandel from Dashe Cellars that I reviewed in my column on NBCNews.com. Its alcohol is a modest 13.7 percent. Another superb wine in this more modest style comes from Donelan Family Wines in Sonoma, which produces a line of vineyard designated wines, mostly syrahs, but also a pinot noir, a chardonnay and a rousanne-viognier blend.

One of Donelan's syrahs, the 2010 Kobler Family Vineyard Syrah from the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, is among the  most beautiful California syrahs I have tasted, a wine of retrained elegance, wonderful balance and gorgeous fruit. And here's the kicker: the alcohol level is a mere 12.8 percent, a function, to some extent, of the cool 2010 vintage.

What does this mean in terms of what you'll experience in the glass? This is a wine that is at once complex and effortless to drink, a wine that easily invites you to take another sip, to pour the next small glass. Sip again and repeat. Aged for two years in French oak, none of it new, the wine is plummy with raspberry and blackberry notes. There's some spice here as well, along with cinnamon and touches of licorice and white pepper.

The wine reminds me more of the northern Rhone than California, but is, hopefully, another sign of a broadening return to leaner times in California winemaking. The suggested price is $45. Recieved as a press sample.




Swirls: A wine to support equality for gay Americans


These days, making wine is often about creating a concept, for better or worse. The store shelves are loaded with bottles depicting everything from animals to cars and trucks to those that donate part of their sales to research on various diseases. And now, a new concept -- a wine billed by its promoters as "the first wine created in support of equality for gay Americans."

It's called Égalité, and it comes to us from Biagio Cru & Estate Wines, an importer based in Rosyln, N.Y., that says it will donate part of the proceeds to organizations that promote quality for gay Americans.

Égalité is a sparkling wine, a Crémant de Bourgogne from France with a suggested price of $24. A press release says that it's the product of "exhaustive research by Biago Cru as well as input from the gay community." A focus group helped develop the name and label.

Part of the strategy, not surprisingly, is to capitalize on moves by an increasing number of states to  legalize same-sex marriage, and Biagio Cru calls its wine "the perfect touch for weddings, engagements, anniversaries, galas, and all celebrations." And it hopes, of course, that the wine will have broad appeal beyond the gay community.

          

Sips: A classic California cabernet sauvignon, to drink and gift


Beyond Bordeaux, California became synonymous long ago with great cabernet sauvignon. That said, it’s also true that memorable California cabs don’t come inexpensively -- unlike Bordeaux, where it’s still possible to find notable cabernet and merlot blends for $20 or under.

And yet price alone is no guarantee that a California wine (or one from anywhere else) will be interesting, as I discovered the other night when I opened a $60 cabernet wine from a celebrated Napa Valley winery and found it one dimensional. The opulent California fruit was there but not much else.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case with Hanna Winery's 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This superb $39 wine made from 100 percent cabernet has beautiful complexity and balance with a delicious blackberry and black cherry core and undertones of fennel seed and even fresh fennel, giving it a nice licorice note. Ripe tannins round out the picture in a wine that, despite its youth, is drinking very well now. It's a natural for steak and lamb, and as a serious wine for a holiday gift that won't completely break the bank. Available on Hanna's website and elsewhere. Received as a press sample.

Sips: Marqués de Cáceres’s superb 2011 “Deusa Nai” Albariño



Marqués de Cáceres is a big producer based in Spain’s Rioja region, but the winery, it turns out, also bottles a terrific wine from Rías Baixas in Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain. This is white wine country where the most important grape is the indigenous albariño, which is either bottled as a single variety or blended with others. Marqués de Cáceres’s 2011 “Deusa Nai” Albariño is made exclusively from the variety and is among the best of a dozen or more albariños I’ve tasted this year. It’s a wonderful wine for fish and shellfish or on its own as an aperitif. Pear and grapefruit tastes are accented by floral and mineral notes and a touch of vanilla. The price is about $14 and although production is limited (about 6,600 cases), the wine appears to be widely available based on a check of Wine Searcher.

Pasta with a sauce of yellow tomatoes and hot and sweet sausage

A couple of weeks ago, after I reviewed an excellent Tuscan red made by the tenor Andrea Bocelli in my NBCNews.com column , a number of readers asked if I could provide a recipe for the pasta dish I had with the wine. I use yellow tomatoes when available for this sauce because I like their lower acidity and their sweetness, but I have also enjoyed this dish many times with red tomatoes, both fresh and canned, so feel free to substitute them.

Ingredients:

½ pound sweet Italian pork sausage
½ pound hot Italian pork sausage
2 tbsps olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
Small bunch of Italian parsley chopped
2 pounds of yellow or red tomatoes, cored, broken apart by hand or coarsely chopped
1 pound penne, fusilli or other pasta
Grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Spoon the olive oil into a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, preferably cast iron. Add sausage (if sausage is in casings squeeze the meat out). Over low to medium heat, break sausage into small pieces with a wooden spatula and cook for 10 minutes or so, tossing frequently, until nicely browned but not burned. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic and stir with onions and sausage until golden. Add tomatoes and mix thoroughly with other ingredients. Use the spatula to break the tomatoes apart. Cook over a low flame, partially covered, for 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes have softened. Remove cover. Break tomatoes apart more with spatula if needed. Simmer 10-15 minutes more until tomatoes have cooked down and sauce has thickened. Stir in parsley. Toss with penne, fusilli or your favorite pasta and top with grated Parmesan. Serves 4.

Sips: La Quercia’s 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

I am always on the hunt for juicy, fruit-forward Italian reds, the kind I can pop open on the spur of the moment to enjoy with pasta, pizza or other casual foods. One that really over-delivers for $11 or so is a red from the Abruzzo region, La Quercia’s 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

This is a relatively soft, easy-drinking casual wine that’s made from the native montepulciano grape without oak and is all about the fruit – blackberry and blueberry tastes with a hint of unsweetened chocolate on the finish. When you breathe it in, it fills the nose with these dark fruit aromas. It’s delicious on its own and, as I said, is a versatile wine for all kinds of Italian and other dishes at a price that can’t be beat.

Imported by August Wine Group, Seattle, Washington. Received as a press sample.



Sips: An under-$20 Pinot Noir from Oregon rises to the occasion



Finding good, inexpensive pinot noir is one of the bigger challenges in the wine world. But one that passes the test is the 2010 Rainstorm Oregon Pinot Noir, which sells for $15 or so. The fruit  comes from two distinct Oregon regions, the cooler Willamette Valley in the north and the warmer and drier Umpqua Valley in the south.  The 50-50 blend results in a wine that is fruit-forward and accessible and ready to drink now.

That said, it did take a little while for it to open up when I sampled it the other night with a main course of chicken sautéed with mushrooms and white wine that my wife had made. It was enclosed at first with not much dimension. But then, after a half hour or so, a deliciously fruity, balanced and refreshing wine emerged that was perfect with the dish. Beyond its spicy cherry, raspberry and subtle blueberry tastes, just enough tannic structure and a subtle oak treatment give it nice complexity. Alcohol is just 12.5 percent, which makes it easy to drink, served preferably after it is slightly chilled. Wine received as a press sample.