Spanish Wine That’s Inexpensive, Delicious

Spanish Wine That’s Inexpensive, Delicious

By Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

The region of Navarra in northern Spain is home to two cultural events whose reputations have risen beyond popular to mythical, each year attracting the rompish and pious in droves.

One of them, for contemplative Christian pilgrims, involves a long walk across the top of Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, beginning in Navarra and ending in Galicia. The other, for thrill-seeking crowd-lovers, involves a short run (with bulls) through the streets of the city of Pamplona during the San Fermin festival, which Ernest Hemingway made famous in his 1926 novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” Papa mentions wine from the neighboring region of Rioja in the book, but surely he drank his share of Navarra wines there too. And Lord knows, many a pilgrim has quaffed the local wine after a long day on the trail in Navarra.

I have never walked with the pilgrims or run with the bulls for two reasons. One, I don’t really like hiking, and two, I generally try to avoid putting myself in the path of confused, charging livestock. It’s just one of my little quirks. I have enjoyed some beautiful wines from Navarra, though, because another personal credo of mine is, when a bottle of Spanish wine is open and available, I do what I can to score a glass of it.

Although the wines of Navarra are not as well known as the Camino or Pamplona, they should not be overlooked. What you get from Navarra is a variety of solid wines at a lower cost than the wines from more-famous Spanish locales. You like lower costs, right?

The Navarra wine region covers the southern half of the overall region of Navarra and is broken up into five subzones: Ribera Baja, Ribera Alta, Tierra Estella, Valdizarbe and Baja Montana. Long a stronghold for roses made from the native-Spanish grape garnacha, today the area’s leading grape variety is tempranillo, another Spanish gem.

In the 1980s, the region adopted grape varieties from nearby France — including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot — and today those two reds figure prominently in Navarra blends, while chardonnay is the region’s most popular white, despite accounting for less than 5 percent of all grapes grown there. When local winemakers ferment it in oak barrels, the results can sometimes remind us that rich, buttery chardonnay is not exclusive to the New World.

The 2013 Castillo de Monjardin (barrel-fermented) Chardonnay ($15) is made of 100 percent chardonnay from a single vineyard, where the high-altitude guarantees this wine’s crisp acidity and its bright, clean lemon and citrus finish. For a little more body and richness, try the 2013 Pago de Cirsus (barrel-fermented) Chardonnay ($18), which gives off more tropical fruit aromas, and creamy vanilla and butterscotch flavors — closer to a New World style.

For reds, the 2012 Bodega Inurrieta Sur Roble ($13) is one of the best under-$15 bottles of wine I have tasted in a long time. “Roble” translates to “oak,” but it is not over-the-top here, as this half-garnacha/half-syrah blend packs leather, tobacco and fresh red fruits with a soft mouthfeel. The 2011 Bodega Otazu Premium Cuvee ($14) is 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, and the rest of it is tempranillo and merlot. Together they create raspberry and plum aromas along with a hint of green pepper, spice and incense — another surprisingly good bottle for the price.

Ramping up in cost and wine bigness, the 2009 Bodega Albret La Vina de mi Madre Reserva ($29) is made almost entirely of cabernet sauvignon with just a touch of merlot and spends 21 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels, offering notes of plum, dates, eucalyptus and tobacco. This is a Spanish steak wine if ever there was one. For a wine with power and elegance, try the 2009 Pago de Larrainzar ($30). A blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and garnacha, it spends 17 months in French oak and emerges with prominent blueberry aromas, a touch of anise and earth, and a long, slow finish indicative of its complexity.

Despite the famously kinetic events of Navarra, Spain is a place that knows how to slow down and even stop at times. We could all use a bit of that, I’m sure. I never say nunca, but you probably will not see me on the Way of St. James or in the way of the bulls any time soon. No pilgrim’s scallop shell shall dangle from my backpack; no runner’s red sash shall flutter from my waist. There’s a great chance, however, that you could find me sipping a glass of wine from Navarra, perhaps with some Navarra-related reading material laid out in front of me.

From “The Sun Also Rises,” I would reflect on the passage that encourages us to, as they say, stop and smell the roses: “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”

Photo: Grapes from the Pago de Cirsus, one of the Spanish wineries who has a recommended wine on this list. Miguel Ángel García. via Flickr

Resolution: Vow To Learn More About Wine In 2016

Resolution: Vow To Learn More About Wine In 2016

By Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

I can’t say that just about anybody could keep a New Year’s resolution to drink more, because frankly, I don’t believe it.

We’re not talking about spring break-drinking here or the kind of drinking one might have done while on tour with an arena rock band in the ’70s. We’re talking about thoughtful drinking, more about tasting than getting your buzz on. The softening, euphoric effects of wine will always be there, but that is only part of what draws most of us to the world’s most enchanting beverage.

What also draw us are the aromas and flavors, the way wine makes food taste better, the places it leads us to in our imaginations. Learning more about wine — what you personally really love about wine — will only enhance your enjoyment. But this kind of drinking requires focus and commitment, and not everyone is up for that. Some people just want to relax, say, “Mmmm,” and leave it at that. No one is going to stop you. But for those of you who are on a continual quest to know more, it’s going to take some work.

In 2016, vow to keep a steady supply of wine on hand and stick to a system as you work your way through it. Keeping a log is a good idea. It forces you to critically consider what you’re drinking, so that the next time you choose a wine, you’ll have that much more information in your brain. It provides a record of your thoughts, so you don’t have to memorize every wine you’ve ever tried, and it allows you to look back and reflect on your journey — like stamps in a passport or stickers on a suitcase.

But as a friend of mine asked recently about navigating the dense forest of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, “Where do you begin?” The answer is, you start in the middle and work your way out. Don’t try to learn about cabs from Napa Valley as a whole. First, learn about cabs from Rutherford, Oakville or Howell Mountain (or the Napa Valley region of your choosing), and then move on to other regions.

That same approach could be tweaked and applied to anywhere in the world. Don’t get overwhelmed by France, or even by Bordeaux (or Pauillac). Instead, start with the Loire Valley, but rather than focusing on its legendary whites, dive into the cabernet francs of Chinon. There is no wrong entry point, as long as there is enough wine to taste.

If you are at the beginning of your wine journey, start by familiarizing yourself with some classic grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or riesling (which is not always sweet, as many beginners believe). Pick a grape, and drink it for a month. It doesn’t matter where the bottles are from — just smell and taste as much of that grape as you can. If you’ve got those grapes in your knowledge bank already, venture into syrah/shiraz, sangiovese, tempranillo, malbec, grenache or zinfandel. Drink a grape a month.

If you are more about place and love maps as much as I do, pick a wine spot on the globe and explore one of its classic offerings: Chile (carmenere), Argentina (malbec), Australia (shiraz), South Africa (pinotage). Obviously it’s easier to find cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley than carmenere from Chile, which is why these categories are so broad. If you can zero in even more, go ahead and pick a region, and drink a specific grape only from there — like shiraz from the Barossa Valley of Australia.

Regardless, the approach remains: Start at the bull’s eye of your choice, and proceed to the edges of your wine education dart board. You can’t go wrong. What if you learned everything there is to know about pinot gris from Oregon or became an expert on Chianti but you didn’t know much about the wines of Spain or Germany? How worse off would you be?

What if you knew the wines of one producer in Sonoma County the way you know your own family or if you knew the malbec grape so intimately that you could expound on the differences between styles from France and Argentina? Wouldn’t either or both of those scenarios help you understand all other wines better? Of course they would. The point is, be deliberate.

Get yourself a notebook; commit to keeping a log. Focus on one category of wine a month. Jot down descriptive words. Devise a rating system: numbers one through five, letters A through C, or the words Yes and No. Up to you. Just make wine tasting a part of your life, and start thinking more about what you are tasting. If you are a lifelong learner, someone interested in the evolution of all things alive, you can only go, “Mmmm,” for so long before your inner searcher demands to know more.

Knowing more requires drinking more, but it doesn’t have to be about volume. It can be about frequency. Have you ever seen a drunk Italian? It’s rare because they drink a glass or two with dinner and then cut themselves off. If they have 14 glasses of wine in a week, it probably breaks down to two a night — not seven each on Friday and Saturday.

At lunch years ago, an Italian winemaker poured a bottle of his wine into a thin-necked decanter. Someone asked how anyone would clean it. He looked puzzled. “There is no need to clean it,” he said. “Just keep putting wine in it.”

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Ease Into White Wines With 6 Under $10

Ease Into White Wines With 6 Under $10

By Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Surely color has a lot to do with why most people think of white wines as lighter and easier to drink than reds. Whites are usually served at lower temperatures, too, and that does something to increase the refreshing factor.

Whites often work better as aperitifs than reds, but just so no one relegates whites to cocktail status, let’s not forget that whites can be serious and essential accompaniments to food. Anyone who has had raw oysters or a smear of goat cheese with the right sauvignon blanc would testify to this. The same is true for anyone who has experienced the sympathetic cohesiveness of crabcakes with a rich, cream-based sauce and a medium-bodied, lightly oaked chardonnay.

Some white wines simply rev up our appetites, or warm up our palates and get them ready for the bigger flavors that are on their way. Other whites make food better than it would have been without wine, and certainly better than it would have been with red. You probably don’t want to drink a glass of malbec with crab ceviche, but that’s not because of the old red/white rule. Red wine with meat, white wine with fish? Puh-lease. If you’re still on that program, I have to ask you something: Who delivers your ice? Because I might come across someone who needs a block or two when my time travel machine finally kicks in and does what it’s supposed to.

There are classic pairings, and there are unconventional pairings that somehow work, but no matter where your dinner or wine-drinking evening is going, white wine is almost always a great place to start. Begin light, and progress into weightier more flavorful styles; that’s a good plan for both food and wine.

For the most part, whites don’t age as well as reds, so if you find a white you like, buy a few bottles instead of a case of 12. It’s never a bad idea to have some crisp white wines on hand. Use them to kick off a social gathering or to accommodate those who shy away from reds — the people I will be doing my best to persuade otherwise. Meanwhile, here is something to consider in the white-versus-red debate: Just about every ounce of juice that has ever been squeezed out of a wine grape is basically clear, or what we identify in a bottle or glass as “white.” Wine professionals have mixed up “red” and “white” in true blind tastings (i.e., with their eyes covered, not just the bottle covered).

White is not always the lesser wine or the easier wine. But there are plenty of whites that are made for easing you in. Once you’re eased in, there are whites that will raise your food up higher than it could ever go on its own. Don’t cling to white, but don’t shun it either. Drink it for what it is. Yes, buying an inexpensive white can be dicey. You don’t want it to taste like water, and you don’t want the other extreme: corn syrup. So here are half a dozen to try, each at a price that will be hard not to like.

In the 2014 Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio ($9), tropical fruit aromas co-exist with citrus flavors, walking hand-in-hand to an instant, crisp finish. A well-balanced, clean wine from northeastern Italy, this would work well as an aperitif or with light seafood.

Like the New Zealand rugby dudes who do that group dance before games, the 2014 Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($10) is not shy. It packs all of the expected grapefruit aromas and flavors of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc into one zesty, entertaining experience. It might even make you want to dance.

Also from the Southern Hemisphere but an ocean away in Chile, the 2014 Cono Sur Bicicleta Sauvignon Blanc ($9) is a little more reserved than its Kiwi cousin. Bicicleta has a fuller body and suggests subtle pear and peach rather than the no-two-ways-about-it grapefruit.

The 2014 La Vieille Ferme Blanc ($8) is a blend of white grapes from France’s Rhone Valley that is made by the famous Perrin family. A lime-and-lemon-curd treat with a soft mouthfeel and stony dry finish, this wine would be great with roasted chicken or just on its own.

Hailing from Washington state, the 2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay ($10) is for anyone who likes some vanilla and buttery notes. The richness is not over the top, but if you want stone, steer clear. If you like medium body with enough acidity to stand up to food, buy two bottles.

The 2012 Beringer Chenin Blanc ($6) is fun because it smells like a dew-dropped prairie and, when it hits your tongue, it offers mouth-coating lime and melon. Serve this one well chilled, and take a pass if you don’t like a little sweetness in your glass. Drink it with moderately spicy Asian food.

©2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: For less than 10 bucks, you can have one of these easy-drinking white wines. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Why You Should Give Merlot Another Look

Why You Should Give Merlot Another Look

By Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Merlot was doing just fine for decades until science and the silver screen weighed in.

The consistently annoying Miles, a Class A wine snob and pedant in the 2004 movie Sideways, had a problem with merlot and made his prejudices known throughout the film, which, if this were a review, would receive four stars from me, merlot-bashing notwithstanding. You could say that Miles delivered the knockout punch to merlot, and you could also argue that merlot had suffered years of self-inflicted abuse before the character of Miles was even conceived.

Since we’re talking about a movie, consider this twist. Years before Sideways came out, a scientific study focusing on the so-called “French paradox” famously hypothesized that while French people ate much more saturated fat than everyone else, they suffered from heart disease much less because they also drank a steady flow of red wine.

It is believed that the results of the study, broadcast on 60 Minutes, caused a spike in red wine consumption in the United States — and it is not a stretch to say that, at the time, merlot was often the closest wine within arm’s reach. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, beginning wine drinkers who had moved past the basics did not even have to think when it was time to order red wine.

Merlot went well with red-sauce pastas, steak, pizza, cheese and happy hour chit-chat about the Nasdaq. The word merlot implied a knowingness every time it was spoken. Anyone who ordered California merlot in a restaurant, or clonked a bottle down at a register, silently said, “I am now, I am cultivated, I lease a foreign car with heated front seats.”

I hesitate to say that the joke was on them because almost all who dive into something with genuine interest look back at their early exploits as charming if they are well adjusted and kind to themselves, and cringe-worthy if they are not. But we simply cannot skirt the facts on this one. A good portion of that ’80s and ’90s merlot was lame. The grape, loosely translated to “little blackbird,” had been overplanted in California, and the wine it was making lacked everything that evolved wine drinkers love.

Merlot had long been thought of as the sidekick to cabernet sauvignon, a blending grape, the younger sibling who resembled the older one in many ways but just wasn’t there yet, and maybe never would be. Together they were legendary, and still are, and cabernet sauvignon continues to do astonishing things on its own, time after time. But for the sidekick to stand on its own would take some doing. It’s been done, and we’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why so many wine rookies with nice cars loved merlot in the Reagan-through-Clinton era.

Merlot often gives aromas and flavors of plum, black cherry, blackberry and chocolate. In general, it has higher sugar, lower acidity and softer tannins than cabernet, and this — more than any aroma or flavor — is probably what those early-transitioning wine drinkers were drawn to. Merlot was what a lot of casual wine drinkers would call “smooth,” and it caught on in a big way. Remember: Those pre-Sideways merlot drinkers of the ’80s and ’90s were going to wine straight from vodka, light beer and fuzzy navels.

California merlot plantings spread like the flu in a grammar school, and the overproduction took its toll on the wines’ quality. According to my trusted Wine Lover’s Companion, California’s merlot plantings “grew from several thousand acres in the mid-1980s to almost 50,000 by the end of the twentieth century.” In this case, more was less. Merlot got dumbed-down and boring. People started avoiding it and talking trash. Finally Miles picked a fight, and it took a dive.

But here’s the big surprise ending! The grape had been, and remains, a superstar in its home region of Bordeaux in France. No grape is grown more there — not even cabernet sauvignon — and merlot is the reason that Chateau Petrus makes one of the world’s most famous, prestigious, expensive wines. Petrus always has a high percentage of merlot in it, and some years it is 100 percent. The golden ticket for our flawed hero Miles, a bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, which he worships and has been holding for just the right situation, is awash in merlot (a beautiful, ironic wink from the filmmaker).

Just because merlot makes great wines in the Pomerol and Saint-Emilion regions of Bordeaux (including Petrus and Cheval Blanc), doesn’t mean it can do that everywhere. Besides France, California turns out some good merlots, as do Washington, Chile and Italy. There are still plenty of merlots out there that, to be kind, probably will not grab your attention. But at its best, merlot offers velvety texture, lush dark fruit and even some earthier elements, none of which will sock you in the mouth like some cabernets. Think of merlot as a kinder, gentler version of cabernet sauvignon.

Just like any other wine style, merlot deserves your objective attention. Dismissing a grape based on its reputation is lazy. Merlot is no longer an absent-minded buzzword, and it is fading as a cussword. Drink it with focus, and enjoy its best qualities. Talk to your wine seller, find the good ones, and while you’re doing all of that, save your pennies for a bottle of Petrus or Cheval Blanc.

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Davide Restivo via Wikimedia Commons

To Decant Or Not To Decant? 3 Reasons To Let That Wine Breathe ASAP

To Decant Or Not To Decant? 3 Reasons To Let That Wine Breathe ASAP

By Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

If you are ever in doubt whether you should decant a wine, remember the third reason for decanting: It looks beautiful.

There is your answer. For the most part, decant if you enjoy seeing a ruby wine resting in a clear glass container. Decant also if you enjoy seeing a golden or pink wine doing the same.

The first and second reasons for decanting are more practical, but before we get to those reasons, let us all pause and remind ourselves that creating beauty is almost always a task worth practicing. Regardless of what decanting does for the aroma and taste of wine, it will do wonders for your eyes and soul. A marketing team would call that “added value.”

Pause over; wasn’t that nice? Now, let’s backtrack to reason No. 1: aeration. Young red wines, usually big, tannic ones like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, sometimes need a little fresh air to help them open up. In a bottle, after the cork is pulled, the surface that is exposed directly to the air — let’s call it the roof of the wine — is about the size of a quarter. Tiny. Using the roof analogy, wine in a bottle is a skinny urban skyscraper, and wine in a decanter is suburban shopping mall. A decanter gives your wine a big ol’ sprawling roof.

Think about a young human. Say this child has been confined to his bedroom with the windows closed for a brief period of time. He is comfortable and well taken care of, but he is also young and full of energy.

Now picture a perfect day outside, the air filled with the scent of fresh-cut grass and clean laundry.

Can you imagine that child’s happiness when he is allowed to leave his bedroom and run free in the fresh air? You want to drink the young wine that is allowed to run in the fresh air — not the wine that is sitting on the edge of its perfectly made bed listening to the clock tick.

When a big, young wine is exposed to air, it opens up, relaxes, reveals its best self. You aerate first by simply pouring the wine into the decanter. Don’t be gentle about it. Let it glug and slosh, because that is part of the aeration process. Doctors slap newborns on the butt to wake them up, to get them breathing and living. Slap your wine on the butt and send it out into the backyard.

That kid on the edge of the bed? He’s got a grandpa, and gramps is still sharp and handsome, and the warmest, wisest person the kid has ever known. They have come from the same place and are similar in some ways, but grandpa needs decanting for a different reason than his grandson.

OK, this is where the metaphor breaks down — but it was sounding good, wasn’t it? Let me just say that reason No. 2 for decanting is to separate old wine from its sediment. Unlike that sloshing pour of youth, the gentle pour of elder wines is meant to keep the solids in the bottle and get the precious, aged liquid out.

Before you pour, stand the bottle up for a day or so to make sure the sediment floats to the bottom, like the flakes in a snow globe. As you pour — very slowly — some of that sediment might creep up into the bottle neck. When you see this happening, stop pouring. Shine a flashlight on the neck, or let the light of a candle be your guide if you prefer the antiquated method or if you actually live in a castle with no electricity or batteries and it’s time to open up a ’43.

Too much fresh air can tire out an old wine, so be careful how long you let your aged wine sit in a decanter before you drink it.

That said, trust your taste buds: I decanted a 1986 Ridge Monte Bello recently with some friends, and it kept getting better, and better, and better over the course of about 90 minutes. The only reason we decanted it was we thought there might be some sediment at the bottom of the bottle. There wasn’t. But we were lucky, because the extra oxygen did nothing but help the wine open up and reveal all of its profound, earthy wonderfulness.

Plus, because of its age, it had beautiful brick hue to it, a nice contrast to the younger ruby wines it sat next to, also in decanters, for reason No. 1.

Aeration. Sediment control. Beauty. You’ll never struggle with the decanting decision again. And if you don’t have a proper decanter, looking something like a genie’s bottle, a spaceship or a duck, use a pitcher.

Photo: Decanting wine exposes it to fresh air and helps separate old wine from its sediment. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)