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H1N1... Wines?

mexico (wine) fevahOk. Bad joke. (I can't take full credit as one of my best friends, fellow foodie and wine lover actually fed it to me.) What can I say? Sometimes a little levity is needed!And it was Cinco de Mayo yesterday.... Mexico is actually the oldest wine producing country in the New World. Who knew? (Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, apparently. There are two full columns dedicated to Mexico in their most recent edition of the World Atlas of Wine.) I was intrigued - but not surprised - to learn the Spaniards got the ball rolling in the 1500s; but there was a significant interruption in 1699 when "the King of Spain banned new vineyards in Mexico, fearing competition to Spain's wine industry, thus halting the development of a wine culture in Mexico for three centuries." Egad! 3 C's? No wonder no one really knows about Mexican wine - and the country is better known for tequila and refreshing cerveza.

It wasn't until the 18th Century that vines started to get a little local love. Grenache, Carignan and even Pedro Ximenez (used in the production of a yummy, rich Sherry) varietals landed on the scene. Somehow, someway, "they" also figured out that Baja, Mexico was quintessential vine country, er... wine country. Only 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Baja has a terrific climate and mineral-rich soil ideal for viticulture. Today innovation seems to be setting in - albeit slowly.

If you caught the recent "Diary of a Foodie" episode on PBS, a work of Gourmet magazine, none of this is news to you. Rather, Casa de Piedra Winery is synonymous with innovative, tasty Mexican vino.  Piedra plants a range of "uncommon" Mexican varietals and their philosophy is to keep yields small while employing a "simple technique". The episode reports they plant Grenache and Mission grapes for the reds, and Palomino for the whites. Further research on their website suggests their repertoire of varietals is much greater: Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are additional red varietals planted; Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are some of the whites grown. That's certainly a diverse lot! I applaud their willingness to experiment.

Unfortunately I've never had the (dis?)pleasure of sipping on a Mexican wine offering. But by Robinson's account, while "Mexican tastes and drinking habits have long lagged behind the increasingly exciting achievements of Mexico's modern vineyards and wineries", they are worth checking out.

Are Mexican wines even available in your market? Have you had a chance to sample them?

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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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Turkish wine

I first had the opportunity to vacation on the lovely (Turkish) Cyprus island two years ago when my friend invited me to stay with her family for a couple of weeks.  Whether it was because Turkey is largely a Muslim nation or because my friend's parents don't imbibe very often, drinking wasn't a big part of that trip. I tried Raki once - a strong, clear brandy that tastes of anise - but was not a fan, as my nephew would say. I also remember trying a glass of red wine at a Beer Garden there and found it almost undrinkable. It was so acidic and unbalanced I was happy to stick with the thirst-quenching Effes beer that dominated nightspot venues. This summer we were visiting for the same friend's wedding celebration and decided to spend a few days in Istanbul on the way. The first night we were there we saddled up to a local mezze joint and selected a half bottle of wine from the restaurant's wine list. I should also mention doing so was a rather bizarre task....

Turkey is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world.  It is also fourth in grape production. But something like only 2% of these grapes are used for wine, the majority consumed as fruit or raisins themselves. Most of their grape varietals are also indigenous; and you've probably noticed subconsciously the US does not import Turkish wine - or at least not for mainstream consumption. I easily admit I knew nothing of Turkish wines beyond my one attempt to drink a Beer Garden offering two years prior. This trip I really wanted to dig in - and it was so hot it was easy to long for a cool glass of white or rose to quench my thirst.

My task was not an easy one however, as in Istanbul we discovered right away wine lists were not terribly helpful. They provided the Turkish Producer and Turkish Wine Name (both having no meaning to me), followed by a brief, generic description (e.g. Dry, White; Dry, Red; etc.), not the grape varietal or a sense of flavors present in the wine. Wait staff were not fluent in describing the wines either, even if their English was quite good. The sum of these parts was a recipe for a hit/miss wine-selecting approach. Fortunately, I was open to experimenting.

That first night I pulled a David Ortiz. My random selection of the Kayra Buzbag Beyaz white hit it out of the ballpark. It was medium bodied and fleshy, full of gorgeous, succulent fruit flavors and citrus. It had a touch of minerality, too, but was not spicy. This was the ultimate blind tasting: I had no idea which grape varietal it could possibly be or could be related to as a potentially indigenous varietal or, better yet, if it was a blend. All I knew was that it reminded me of Semillon or perhaps Vouvray (Chenin Blanc). I took down some notes and vowed to research the wine once home.

I was happy to discover I wasn't terribly far off when I found these wine notes: “Selection Beyaz” is produced from Narince and Semillon grapes selected in their respective vineyards of Tokat and Trakya. Well-structured, citrus fruit, fresh quince and coconut taste. It goes well with chicken and fish with sauce.

Not too shabby! My only regret is we never found this bottle of wine again. We discovered another restaurant in Istanbul with truly phenomenal cacik (apologies for the lack of accents), hummus, and chicken shish (kebabs) and a dynamic Maitre D we couldn't help but return to - though their wine list offered the more mainstream (completely drinkable) wines produced by Doluca.

Have your summer adventures take you to new wine frontiers?

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Wine Blogging Wednesday: Sileni all-star summer

Yes, it's Wine Blogging Wednesday again! Since I knew it was coming up right after my fourth of July getaway, I sneakily packed a few wines in my Survival Kit that fit with this month's theme: Wines Brought to you by the Letter 'S'. I also packed two wines which have come to mean Amazing Summer Sipping as far as I'm concerned - and both have an 'S' component. I've decided to share my thoughts today on the one I realized I just barely favor over the other. (It is only fair I share in the greatest goodness with those who come to read my musings!) Enter the 2007 Sileni Estates Sauvignon Blanc.

I wasn't much of a white wine drinker even as little as two years ago. I had been burned one too many times by (oaky) Chardonnay or overly tart (to my taste some years ago) Sauvignon Blanc, arguably the two white varietals you come across most often here in the US. I was only experimenting with half the possibilities and a true wine adventurer needs to at least know what the heck white is all about. So I solicited a little help from my local wine shop. Whenever I wanted a case of wine in the warmer months, I asked the wine manager to throw in a few whites, too. Soon enough I was hooked! The summer months became a fun time to focus on finding new white varietals to beat the heat; the winter could be reserved for my red addiction. Fair is fair.

Why this side story now? Well, the Sileni Sauvignon Blanc is one of those amazing wines I find many palates (red and white drinkers alike) can appreciate, or as in my case, saddle right on up to with an empty glass. Sauvignon Blanc from warmer climates can take on more tropical flavors of banana and pineapple - of course backed by characteristically citrus (lemon/lime) goodness. Sauvignon Blanc from cooler climates (e.g. New Zealand) errs on the grassier, super zesty grapefruit side. Either way it is an intense, lively, herbal, often zippy little number with great acidity to quench thirst on the hottest of summer days. What can I say, cheesy as it may sound, an image of a tall reed of grass blowing in the sea breeze now comes to mind when I find myself sipping Sauvignon Blanc.

Semillon on its own can take on fuller, rich, almost honeyed flavors. It is widely produced in France, particularly in Bordeaux and used in Sauternes. Australia is also becoming a big producer of the grape. When it is blended with the lean, zesty-tart Sauvignon Blanc, this varietal works some serious magic. The best winemakers know just a little bit goes a long way. Without strong-arming, a drop or two of semillon produces lovely, fleshy and refreshing white wines.

What about the Sileni offering, you ask urgently now that I've wet your whistle??

I'm always amazed by the color of the Sileni. It is a fairly light, almost star-bright color - when I always anticipate it being more honeyed in color, because of it's gorgeous richness on the palate. Indeed, while the label doesn't indicate as much, the winemaker blends in just a touch of tasty Semillon. The result is a fuller bodied Sauvignon Blanc. I find nice tropical fruits, gooseberry freshness and some minerality leap from the glass and similar flavors emerge on the midpalate. Its more typically New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc grapefruit flavors show on the finish. It is so well integrated, the wine's components dance together harmoniously. We paired it with fresh Swordfish steak, corn on the cob and an apple-cider vinegar coleslaw. The weight of the wine complemented the steakier fish perfectly, and the sweetness of the corn and slaw were brilliantly off-set by the fresh acidity of the wine. Yum, indeed!

What wine with the Letter 'S' tickled your tastebuds and fancy this holiday weekend?