Thursday, May 29, 2014

Italy in Spring on the Cheap: Fontana Candida Terre dei Grifi Frascati

This week I sampled Fontana Candida Terre dei Grifi Frascati, 2012.  It comes from Frascati Secco DOC in the province of Lazio, Rome.  It's a simple weeknight wine, so I paired it with something simple I made for a weeknight dinner.  More on the food in a minute.  First the scoop on the wine.

50% Malvasia di Candia
30% Trebbiano Toscano
10% Malvasia del Lazio
10% Greco

Vinification:  Fermented in stainless steel, then allowed to rest on the lees (dead yeast cells) for 4 months.

Color:  Pale yellow with a hint of green

On the nose:  Citrus with a little pineapple and some minerality.  Just a hint of that slightly "bready" aroma you get with Champagne, due to the lees aging.

On the palate:  Dry, medium body, high acid.

Alcohol:  13%

Now for the food pairing!  I'm a big fan of making random leftovers into something new.  We had hamburger buns leftover from Memorial Day, some eggplant, onion, and spinach in the fridge that were threatening to get funky, some leftover marinara sauce, and basil growing in the yard.  Time for a roasted veggie sandwich! 

I was happy to match an Italian wine with Italian-ish food, and white wine is often a nice choice for a vegetarian meal, but I was worried about the marinara.  I would normally go for a red wine with marinara sauce, because the strong tomato-and-herb flavor can overwhelm white wines.  I needn't have worried.  The amount of sauce on the sandwich didn't phase this wine a bit.  The wine's strong acidity came through, and this ended up a lovely pairing.  The earthy sweetness of the roasted veggies with the brightness of the basil and the fresh crunch of the spinach worked really well with the bright-fruity-earthy qualities in the wine.

To see how far I could push the tomato sauce match-up, I ate a spoonful by itself and then took a sip of the wine.  The wine's flavors were muted, but not totally obscured.  If you're a staunch white-wine-only person (it makes me sad to even type that), you could have this with spaghetti in a pinch.

So here's a recommendation for an inexpensive, weeknight wine, which can pair with all but the strongest of flavors.  It's $8 at the big Spec's on Bay Area Blvd.

(And for those of you with very sharp eyes, yes that IS a Messina Hof tasting glass!)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Tasting Emiliana's Organic and Biodynamic Wine from Chile

I recently tasted 3 wines from Emiliana, the first producer of a certified biodynamic wine in Chile.  (A few weeks ago I wrote about the Top 3 Things to Know about Biodynamic Wines, so check that out if you’re unfamiliar.)  I paired the wines with several different foods:  goat cheese, oil-cured green olives (these are milder and less acidic than the typical marinated varieties), smoked turkey, rosemary-lavender bread (this is a southern French flatbread topped with herbs and olive oil), and Mario Batali’s eggplant caponata*.  Grab your Chilean Wine Cheat Sheet and let’s taste!

Wine:  Novas Gran Reserva
Grape:  100% Sauvignon Blanc
Growing Method:  Made with organically grown grapes
Region:  DO San Antonio Valley
Nose:  Herbal, grassy, mineral, and citrus aromas with a hint of asparagus.
Palate:  Very mineral and herbal, high acid, hint of asparagus, med alcohol, med-to-long finish
Pairings:  The goat cheese was an excellent match, since the grassy flavors of the cheese and the wine complemented each other, and the acidity of the wine cut through the creaminess of the cheese.  The olives, turkey, and herb bread were good matches as well, which isn’t surprising since Sauvignon Blanc is such a versatile wine.  It was not quite as good with the caponata.
Price:  Average price is $13, but I haven’t yet found a seller in the Houston area.

I liked this wine, and it scores points for value and versatility.  If you’re into Sauvignon Blancs, you’ll want to know that it’s more of an old-world style, and less fruit-forward than a typical New Zealand example.

Grape:  85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 6% Syrah
Growing Method:  Made with organically grown grapes and sustainably farmed
Region:  DO Central Valley 
Nose:  Rich, ripe black fruits, a hint of sweet spice, tobacco, vanilla
Palate:  Medium acid, fruity up front, strong tannin, a bit lean.  Opens up as it breathes.
Pairings:  The goat cheese, olives, and caponata were the star pairings here. The tartness of the goat cheese and the caponata matched the acidity in the wine and all 3 became smoother and richer as a result.  Cheese also famously smoothes out tannin, so that was a bonus.  The salty olives brought out the fruit flavors in the wine.  The bread worked well, and though the turkey was nearly overpowered, the fact that it was smoked highlighted the smokiness in the wine and allowed the turkey to hold its own in this match-up. 
Price:  Average price $10, but I haven’t yet found a seller in the Houston area.

This Natura Cabernet blend is also a good value.  Like the Sauvignon Blanc, this wine falls somewhere between old and new world styles – it’s fruity, yet not as rich and juicy as a California Cabernet.  Decant it or let it breathe in your glass for 15 minutes or so, and it really opens up.  

Wine:  Coyam 2010
Grape:  38% Syrah, 27% Carmenere, 21% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Mourvedre, 1% Malbec
Growing Method:  Biodynamic
Region:  DO Colchagua Valley.  
Nose:  I wanted to smell this forever.  Red and black fruits, cinnamon and chocolate, tobacco and leather, vanilla.
Palate:  The flavors on the palate echoed the aromas on the nose, but weren’t quite as rich or complex.  I suspect this is a big wine that needs time.  It really opened up as it breathed, and became as rich and wonderful as the nose had led me to believe it could be.  Decant this one, or hold it for 5 (or even 10?) years.  
Pairings:  The goat cheese won again, rounding out the tannins of the wine.  The bread and caponata shone here too. The currants, cinnamon, and chocolate in Batali’s recipe brought out the fruitiness and spice in the wine, for an unexpectedly amazing combination.
Price:  This one we can get in Houston!  Spec’s carries it, but not at every location.  It’s $30, so get a bottle for a special occasion and make that caponata to go with it!  And consider cellaring it for a few years, because it will only get better.

As far as I can tell, organic and biodynamic wines are not significantly different from other wines, in the sense that there is not a tell-tale organic or biodynamic taste or a certain quality that indicates the grapes were grown that way.  However, these wines fit with my general experience of organic wines, which is that the grapes have been treated well, so the wines demonstrate an attention to quality at whatever price point they may be. 

Even though we can only get 1 of these wines at the moment, keep Emiliana on your radar.  I suspect Houston will get more from them in the future, and I’ll be happy when we do!

*Note on the caponata recipe:  I like my eggplant very well cooked, so I let my caponata simmer on the stove about 30 minutes longer than the recipe suggested.  As it cooked, I added extra liquid as needed to keep everything from burning – first white wine, then some tomato sauce, then water until everything was as cooked as I wanted it to be. 

See the full collection of the wine cheat sheets here!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Sparkler from Spain for a Weeknight or a Picnic

On a whim, I recently picked up a bottle of Blanc Pescador from the Spec's on Bay Area.  It was only $8, I had never had it before, and it looked interesting.  I'm glad I tried it, because it's a good, cheap weeknight pick.  

Blanc Pescador is a dry, white, lightly sparkling wine.  It's labeled "petillant" (the French term for lightly sparkling), so it's about half as bubbly as a regular sparkling wine. It comes from the region of Spain where Cava is produced, it uses the same grapes as Cava (Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo), and the cork actually says Cava on it.  (Cava is Spain's answer to Champagne.)  Like Cava, Blanc Pescador is dry, with aromas of citrus and minerals, but Blanc Pescador is lighter and simpler (and cheaper).  If you're familiar with Portugal's Vinho Verde, Blanc Pescador might remind you of it, though Vinho Verdes are often sweeter.  

Because of its high acidity Blanc Pescador could pair with many types of food.  It could cut through the richness of a buttery or creamy sauce, and its simple flavors would complement a lighter chicken or fish dish or a salad.  It would pair perfectly with picnic foods, and I've put it on my list of go-to wines to take to Miller Outdoor Theater.  With only 11.5% alcohol it's also a good choice for drinking in hot weather (high alcohol and heat don't mix well).  This is definitely a plus when the Houston summer is right around the corner!

Also check out:
Champagne 101
The 2-Minute Guide to Bubbles

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Top 3 Things to Know about Biodynamic Wine

Biodynamic farming for wine grapes is a growing trend.  Some believe it makes better wine, others think it’s crazy.  So what is it, and does it work?  Read on!

1)  It goes beyond organic.

Biodynamic farming follows all the guidelines of organic farming (such as avoiding synthetic chemicals, fertilizing with compost, using natural pest deterrents, etc.), plus more.  Biodynamic growers practice sustainable agriculture and view the vineyard as an holistic, interconnected ecosystem.  

The Chilean winemaker Emiliana produced the first biodynamic wine in Chile and has a great demonstration of a biodynamic vineyard on its website.  This interactive virtual vineyard shows how organic growing practices, crop rotation, the natural features of the land, energy efficiency, and farm animals are integrated to maintain a balanced and sustainable system.

Sounds great, right?  Here’s where some people become skeptical:  Biodynamic growers also follow a farming schedule that is influenced by astrological calendars and lunar cycles, and use specific preparations for spraying and fertilizing, which some find bizarre.  For instance, one of the compost recipes calls for stuffing chamomile blossoms into small intestines from cattle, burying them in the autumn to decompose, and digging them up in the spring.

2)  It has its own international governing body.

The U.S. government regulates the term “organic,” but does not regulate the terms “sustainable” and “biodynamic.”  Biodynamic wines are certified by an internationally recognized governing body called the Demeter Association.  The Demeter Association certifies that growers meet biodynamic standards through their Demeter Certification. Because the Demeter Certification uses the USDA National Organic Program standard as a base upon which additional biodynamic requirements are built, growers earning the Demeter Certification can also be certified organic.  

Note the difference between “biodynamic wine” and “wine made from biodynamic grapes.”  Biodynamic grapes were grown biodynamically, but the winemaker may not have followed the stringent rules of biodynamic winemaking.  The same distinction applies to organic grapes vs. organic wine.  (The difference is often whether sulfites have been added to the wine.  Sulfites are used as a preservative in most wines, but organic and biodynamic wines cannot use them.)

3)  The wines score better.

Biodynamic growers say they have adopted the practice because it makes their wines better.  Skeptics reply, “of course they would say that” and dismiss biodynamic agriculture as superstition or a marketing tool. However, in blind tastings, biodynamic wines have outperformed wines made from conventionally raised grapes, and experts find that biodynamic wines better express terroir (the idea that a wine should reflect all the natural elements which impacted the grapes as they grew, and which are unique to each vineyard).

There is not yet a scientific reason why the unique biodynamic preparations would make better wines, but experts rightly point out that because biodynamic growers must pay closer attention to the grapes and take better care of the soil, the grapes are raised in optimal conditions and can make a better wine.  


I’m a big believer in organic farming and the way it keeps the soil healthier and more productive than conventional/industrial methods.  It makes sense to me that organic farming leads to higher quality produce, so I’m not surprised that organic grapes would make better wine.  The addition of sustainability and energy efficiency is a positive thing too.  I don’t understand how the biodynamic calendar, lunar cycles, or special preparations make a difference. So I’d be interested to see the results of a blind tasting comparing organic wines to biodynamic.

In an upcoming post I’ll be featuring 3 wines from Emiliana, the biodynamic/organic winery mentioned above, so I’ll let you know how they taste!

Have you tried any biodynamic wines?  What did you think of them?