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Spain is on my table: Montsant's Magic

We're having schizophrenic weather (again) here in Beantown this late fall/early winter. Monday it was 53 degrees. Today we're capping out at 25, and it was bitterly cold last night. Someone said they heard it was "March weather" because it is all over the map. Whatever. It's Boston. It's always all over the map. But this year I can't complain, since we've had an absolutely ridiculously terrific weather year. Besides, I'm happy shopping at Wilson Farm for all the gourds and root vegetables that are prolific this time of year. Stuffed squash? Check. Pork tenderloin with Port-glazed brussel sprouts? Check. Hearty chicken soup? Check. In the wine scheme of things accordingly, it's true, I've had a good run in the Languedoc finding wines for "warmer" Fall days and that go easy on the wallet. But with the smell of winter in the air, I'm thinking more and more about Spain. It's a winemaking nation that’s impossible to synopsize because it is a country that has a great history in wine production, but today is one that looks to modern times (and palates) for guidance. As a result, it is arguably the Old World Mecca for innovation.

Ever heard of Samso? That’s ok, it’s just an alternate, local name for Carignan, which comprises the full 100% of fermented juice in a wine made by Clos de Noi. These folks are based in Montsant, one of my favorite nooks in Spain (and one I plan to visit next year). Carles Escolarhas is the winemaker behind this floral, intensely concentrated, fruit forward, teeth-sinking red. Ripe blackberry, black raspberry and bramble fruits, are accented with a touch of spice and Montsant’s increasingly sought, slatey minerality. Personally, I love the Clos de Noi all the more for its long, seductive finish.

There are plenty of places in Spain (Rioja, for example) that will warm you up this winter. But if you are a particular fan of big, bold reds with plenty of nuance - or even Priorat, Montsant's better known (pricier) neighbor - than this is an area for you to explore this winter.

What wines are you enjoying as our temps drop and we head into winter?



Uncorked! April Wicked Wines

We figure there’s no time like springtime to select wines that may tend to hibernate otherwise without a little special attention, simply because they are lesser known. So this April we’re keeping things both familiar (staying closer to home with domestic wine picks) and more… interesting! Our red wine choices don’t exactly roll off the tongue, but with such powerful juice in the bottle, we know that’s about to change. Enjoy learning about these noteworthy April Wicked Wines on Wicked Local today! Are you familiar with any of these more off-the-beaten path picks?



Minervois, a god-like wine

Chateau Coupe Roses Bastide MinervoisI was channeling Disney and Belle a couple of weeks ago. Today I envision a Greek god named Minervois. Except the name  "Minervois", a small sub-region of the Languedoc in France,  actually comes from the village of Minerve. Who knew? Because when I re-tasted an old favorite from this area, I wasn't just pleased with the result, it was a near-spiritual experience - for just $13 (retail). Backing up a touch, Minervois offers the world reasonably priced reds typically comprised of Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre, perhaps with some Carignan or Cinsault mixed in for good measure. It depends. It's an experimental part of the world down there. Some wines are purely easy quaffing selections. But others are quite memorable. Typically the latter come from low-yield vines (remember, this means concentrated fruit flavors) in the rocky hills above the plateau.

The 2006 vintage of Chateau Coupes Roses Minervois La Bastide was a wine I first tasted nearly two years ago. I remember it having very floral notes and a tannic structure. It was very good, but it needed either food or a few breaths of fresh air to come alive and loosen up a bit. Perhaps both. Several weeks ago I happened to retaste this same vintage. Holy canolies. The extra bottle time served this wine well! If you can get your hand on a bottle (or several) I highly recommend it because it is tasting out beautifully right now. I saw the imaginary god Minervois, I'm not kidding.

To paint you a clearer picture, the Bastide is comprised of Grenache and Carignan with a touch of sultry Syrah. Today I find those same enticing floral aromatics from two years ago, with violets and juniper coming through most clearly. Tasting it is also like taking a dip in my spice rack! Sage and marjoram flow on the palate, with accents of resin and other earthy notes chiming in. It's the lush, fleshy- smooth, velvety blanket of black raspberry, plum and strawberry fruit that leaves you breathless, however.  The wine finishes with mouthwatering acidity, like a little wave washing onto the shore.

aquitaine-beet-salad-and-beet-soupImagine my delight when I popped over to Aquitaine in the South End last week and discovered this wine is available by the glass. It really is a savory wonder, absolutely delightful on its own and, of course, a good match for their beet salad, steak, lamb or chicken dishes. If you think you'll have more than one glass (and I suspect any wine-sipping citizen might), just treat yourself to the bottle!

Do you enjoy Minervois? What selections are in your "cellar"?



Wines with Style

Thanks to Gourmet for their image of The Achilles Project/Persephone!Ever been wary of a "Wines by the Glass" list? Been dubious the wines were opened two days prior to your debut at the bar? Or better yet, ever been overwhelmed by a list that's a real list, offering an ample array of wines you've never heard of?  The bars/restaurants that take their glass pours seriously are a rare and wonderful breed. The trick is navigating their list with style and grace. Not always an easy task! The Achilles Project/Persephone here in Beantown offers more than 20 different wines by the glass. To me, this is the first indicator they are serious about wine. The second indicator is that a good number of the wines on their list are "nerdy" (read: boutique offerings you don't see everyday). Like the boutique shop they run up front, they are focused on being fashion-forward, offering something new for folks to try. And because they are serious about glass pours, they also tend to be on the lookout for any wine that is past its prime, giving customers a greater opportunity to enjoy a "fresh" experience.  Sign me up!

Today I thought it would be fun to go through their "Wine By The Glass" list and pick out a handful of grapes that might cause a customer or two to scratch their head - when really they should be doing a little jig and embracing the list's fabulous uniqueness. Buckle your seat belt!

Lambrusco: This red wine varietal from Emilia Romagna, Italy is something else... Lightly sparkling (frizzante, as the Italians like to say), this wine offers smart red berry fruit flavors, often with just a touch of sweetness eminating from the ripe grapes they pick for this elixir. Think antipasto or anything with a touch of saltiness or lightly fried (calamari anyone?) as a perfect pairing. Or sip it on it's own! It's a real charmer.

Assyrtiko/Asirtiko: This white grape varietal may have different spellings, but to me they say the same thing: crisp, citrus deliciousness. The closest "mainstream" varietal I can reference for new Assyritko drinkers would be Sauvignon Blanc. But Assyrtiko brings additional minerality and even a hint of smoke to the table. This is a probably one of the most well respected varietals in Greece, with its real home in Santorini. Unique, bright goodness in your glass.

Scheurebe: This is one of Germany's best known hybrid varietals, yet it is still somewhat of an orphan.... DNA tests prove that this grape's dad is Riesling, but Mom is still unknown (though previously thought to be Sylvaner). Gotta love a freak! This wine typically offers tremendous floral aromatics and a touch of residual sugar (RS).  Tasting the wine out on the town can be a bit of a gamble, but your bartender should be able to guide you on just how sweet it is (though often enough you'll find they err on the drier side). Very much worth the experimentation, I've found. Often a great match for slightly spicy Asian dishes.

As for the Reds on their list, well.... some of these may be better paired with food than as a "cocktail wine" but it is certainly not everyday you see Austria's own delicious and lightly refreshing test-tube varietal Zweigelt on the roster, let alone a Mencia or a even a Monastrell (the Spanish name for the grape Mouvedre, which is better recognized in French wines). Nero d'Avola is up and coming, thought to be a pseudo Syrah with additional notes of currants, clove and vanilla; I find them more often distinct in their own right and offering far less oomph than Syrah can. But they are often just the thing to scratch the itch at a very reasonable price. Carignane can be wonderful, but I prefer to enjoy it when dinner's up, rather than at the bar with friends. I find it too dry, earthy and edgy without a bit of food on hand.

Any which way you look at it, the key thing is context. Do you want to sip something easy like a bit of Zweigelt while you chat with friends? Do you prefer something more familiar but still adventurous (like an Assyritko) to take the edge off a long day? Or do you crave a bit more body in your wine as you snack throughout the evening? If you're unsure you can either start with a bit of bubbly or white wine to get the ball rolling - and you can always ask your bartender for a recommendation to suit your mood!

Half the fun of wine is where you  are, what you're doing or who you are with. It's worth a touch of experiment; don't you agree?


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Open That Bottle Night wine report

The OTBN Line-up!I hope you and yours had a wonderful time popping a cork or two last Saturday night for Open That Bottle Night. For my part, a handful of my closest friends descended on my place for a wonderful meal of braised paprika chicken, orzo and lemon-garlic asparagus. We started with an appetizer of oysters, a small aperitif of exceptional Dolin Dry Vermouth and a glass of white Bordeaux ('06 Ch. le Tucau, Graves). Then with dinner we moved on to our "serious" wines - those we had been saving for whatever special occasion had yet to materialize. I wasn't exactly sure what my bottle of Spanish wine from Terra Alta, Spain would bring - but I had high hopes, too. This isn't a region you often see here in the States; my bottle was actually hand-carried back from Barcelona by my best friend after her wedding there.

The Terra Alta D.O. boasts only 28 vineyards. The region is characterized by its Mediterranean & Continental climate (very cold winters, very hot summers), steep slopes and valley floors, and its proximity to its better known neighbor, Priorat. The cierzo breezes from the northeast do their part to keep the grapes dry, preventing rot. Terra Alta is considered an up and coming region, with many winemakers experimenting with better known grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, which have been permitted since 1995. More often you'll find native grapes Garnacha Tinta and Carinena as well as Garnacha Peluda and Morenillo, as far as the reds go.

Doing my best to navigate the Catalan description on the back of the bottle, I anticipated the Ede Aria 2003 would be a big boy, with need of decanting.  The wine was a blend of three grapes: Garnacha Peluda (40%), Syrah (35The Ete Aria%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (25%). My inspiration for the paprika braised chicken was distinct from the wine I knew I would have on offer, so decanting was a priority to soften any rough edges and remove the sediment the wine was likely to throw. Since I know my friend prefers fruit-forward wines to uber-dry ones, I hoped this wine would deliver a nice silky mouthfeel, with both red and black fruits apparent. Finally, given the region's proximity to the Priorat, I hoped it would have a gentle herbaceousness and a touch of earthy leather. I was pleased to discover it delivered on all of the above!

The other two wines we opened Saturday night were the 2004 Stevenot Tempranillo (Sierra Foothills, California) and the 2004 Villa Antinori Toscana (Tuscany, Italy).

Yes, Saturday evening I traveled the world with my friends! It was a pleasure to do so.

What wine(s) did you open for OTBN? Any highlights or disappointments in the mix?

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winter warmers go west!

California and wineCalifornia wines were largely where my wine journeys started. But living on the east coast, and in New England more specifically, the influence of Old World cultures means there is also a large supply of Old World wines. California became less and less a part of my at-home wine drinking as my tastes took me in different directions and the rich history of winemaking abroad sucked me in. But that doesn't mean California doesn't have quite a bit to offer. It's not exactly a small state and it certainly has myriad climates, micro-climates, soil types, winemaking styles/influences and even its own unique history. So today my quest for winter warmer wines takes me - er, us - west! One winery that continues to impress me is Spencer Roloson in Napa Valley. It's not often I find one single winery where I have more than one "favorite" wine in their repertoire. With these guys I do. Perhaps it is because founder/winemaker Sam Spencer has a crush on the Rhone Valley & Spain, too. (In his vineyards you will  find Rhone & Spanish varietals planted like Syrah, Carignane, Valdigue, Viognier, and even Grenache Blanc.) But what's particularly cool is that Spencer believes, as I do, that wines need to be "true to their varietal character with enough finesse, elegance and focus to reveal the origin".

What does this really mean? It means the true flavors of each grape varietal are evident, demonstrating the characteristics they are known for; they simply taste like they are supposed to, not 'manufactured' through winery tomfoolery, if you will. And the best part is (drum roll please) they have a sense of place. In tasting Spencer Roloson wines, you know they come from Napa Valley, California. Ok, so maybe you don't taste volcanic deposits necessarily... Suffice to say, the Spencer & Roloson wines have a distinctly New World, California flavor: uber-round edges, deep layers of rich flavors, often sweeter notes of vanilla or chocolate... I know you know what I'm talking about. These wines coat your tongue and go down smooooth. But this smoothness does not hide the lovely fruit or earthy, floral/herbaceous flavors each wine delivers.

"Forced" to choose just one winter warmer wine for today's post, I'm going with the 2004 Spencer Roloson Palaterra, their red blend. This wine is modeled on the wines of the Rhone with this vintage a blend of Syrah, Carignane, Valdigue grapes. If this wine was a musical instrument, I'd say it is a cello. With every movement of the bow across its strings, deeper blackberry and chocolate covered strawberry flavors are accented with higher notes of fresh cut rosemary and thyme. The finish is just as graceful and intoxicating as its flavors on the midpalate. A solid food wine, I imagine the heartier wine-lover would enjoy this alone, too.

Which California wine is your winter warmer of choice?



Winter warmers: Exploring Espana!

montsant_wine_countryWhile I may talk a lot about my love of rustic, French wines, Spain is also near and dear to my heart. In particular, I frolic in the Priorat whenever I have the excuse to take home one of their higher ticket sensations. What is it I love about these wines? Let's see... how about: Layered with flavor.

Concentrated with ripe dark and red fruit flavors.

Medium-plus bodied so as not to overwhelm and distract, and instead packing just enough of a mouthfilling punch.

Food friendly with  solid acidity, but dry enough to warrant a bite or two of cured meat, manchego cheese or lamb. And to my taste, perhaps their best attribute:

Rustic, though in a distinct, clean, minerally sort of way (rather than having the damp-trodden forest floor or barn-tastic qualities of many Cote du Rhone wines).

The combination of seriously old vines (less fruit produced), super challenging growing conditions and the fact that the Priorat is the new 'hotness', means these wines fetch worthy, but not necessarily recession-sensitive prices.

Enter the Montsant region. Montsant is the lesser known horseshoe region that encompasses the Priorat. Here the climate is similarly arid, but the soil has its own unique mixture of slate, granite, sand, limestone and clay; each vineyard has a unique terroir. Like its better-known counterpart, Montsant also boasts a tremendous number of 100+ year old vines. (Yes, you can let out a cheer!) In fact, 55% of the vines in Montsant are >20 years old; Priorat can "only" boast 40%. And there you have it - tremendous concentration and distinct, let-your-heart-sing flavors! All that hard work by the vines to produce just a few clusters means happiness in your glass.

When its cold outside and dinner "in" with friends is on the menu Montsant wines are a brilliant option. I proved this little theory of mine last weekend when I  hosted a bit of a dinner party. I was serving a spinach and beet salad with cashews and feta; garlic, lemon and thyme roast chicken; and roast potatoes. I wanted a wine with solid acidity, a bit of rusticity and great concentration. It also had to be light enough on its toes (that is, have enough bright fruit) to be universally appealing to my guests. I was tempted to go for a basic Cote du Rhone, but wanted riper, redder fruit flavors and something with a touch more minerality and less barnyard "funk". The steep-sloped Priorat region came to mind, but I knew I'd open several bottles and didn't want to spend $20 on each. A Montsant was a natural solution.

The Etim Seleccion 2006 is a new Montsant wine brought to us by the folks at Ole Imports. It has entered the market at a great time, too, just when we're looking for fabulous wines at accessible prices. The Etim is 60% Grenache, 30% Carigane, and 10% Syrah. This varietal combo means sweet, juicy, ripe, red fruits are delivered in a mouthfilling package; and the terroir in Montsant means you'll find a touch of clean, wet-slate minerality to boot.

Too much wine speak mid week? Let me put it this way: if you were going on a first date with the Etim, you'd be waiting for the moment when you could escort her out of the restaurant into the mind-clearing chill, gently push her up against the brick and discover for yourself  just how succulent, sweet and edgy she is.

Can you beat that? What wine did you enjoy last weekend?