Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Blending Fields of Temecula

A lush California valley with dozens of wineries and acres of vines cooled by ocean breezes.  Napa?  Sonoma?  No – you are in the heart of Southern California’s Temecula Valley.  Few of us realize that until well into the 19th century, it was southern – not southern – California that was the heart of the state’s winemaking industry.  In fact, it all started in the south at Mission San Diego in 1769.

Today, Temecula is the home to small, charming, family-owned wineries that contrast sharply with the corporate-owned behemoths of the Napa Valley.  Here, despite its location only an hour or two from both San Diego and Los Angeles, there are no traffic jams or lines in tasting rooms, and you often find the knowledgeable person discussing the wine with you is the winemaker or vineyard manager.

Framed by coastal mountains, Temecula is a land of rolling hills with vineyards planted at elevations of 1,500 to 2,500 feet.  Cool climate grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling do well here, as evidenced by Thornton Winery which specializes in sparkling wines (alas, Thornton persists in calling their sparkling wine “Champagne”, but at least it is all m├ęthode champenoise).  Their 2004 Brut Reserve was one of those great surprises that wine geeks live for – sipping it with low expectations for “Champagne” from southern California, I found it was quite simply the most enjoyable sparkling wine I have ever had.  Full bodied in the style of Roederer or Bollinger, it had a wonderful yeastiness that was made all the more enjoyable by the outdoor patio setting in the midst of vineyards under skies a shade of blue only achievable in coastal California.
But it was the classic Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc – that turned my head on a recent visit here.  While a number of the single varietals were notable, it was the 2005 Field Blend at Oak Mountain Winery that best captured the spirit.  Exactly what its label implies, this
wine was from a vineyard planted with all five of the reds grapes permitted in Bordeaux, all harvested and fermented together.  While I believe selective blending is perhaps the highest expression of the winemaking art, somehow the romance of the ancient field blending practice appealed to me.  The resulting wine was a deep, complex, structured fusion of blackberry and plum flavors with a lingering finish.  And once again, the picturesque hilltop setting didn’t hurt a bit.
Surprisingly good wines in a relaxed, idyllic setting – what’s not to like?  Put the top down and cruise the wineries of the Temecula Valley on your next winery adventure.       

Monday, January 10, 2011

Super Tasting Tools II

Interested in a few inexpensive, easy-to-use tools that make affordable wines taste expensive, and make the bottle last longer once you open it?  I got a lot of comments on my last posting about my favorite wine tasting tool – the aerator – so I thought I’d share a few more tools that I find enhance the enjoyment and convenience of every-day wine drinking.
As far as enjoyment, my other indispensable tool is the Riedel wine glass.  Many of us go to great lengths to choose a good wine, store it properly, and serve it at the right temperature.  But we don’t realize what a difference the glass that we serve it in makes. 
Riedel has created a line of wine glasses, one for each major varietal, designed to emphasize and promote the different flavors and aromas of a given grape.  For example, the Cabernet Sauvignon glass is more conical to focus the aromas, and the lip is designed to direct the wine toward the tip of the tongue, where the taste sensors are tuned to sweetness.  This enhances the rich fruit in the wine before it spreads out to the sides and back of the palate, where we then experience the more acidic and tannic elements.
If all this sounds absurdly high-brow or like a marketing gimmick, I thought so too.  Then I attended a trade show in Dallas where a Riedel representative poured wine from the same bottle into two glasses, one Riedel and one the conventional tulip-shaped glass.  The difference was profound.
Moving on to convenience, the two wine tools I use every day are the Vacu Vin wine saver, and a simple waiters corkscrew.   The Vacu Vin is an inexpensive plastic vacuum pump which extracts the air from the opened bottle and re-seals it with a rubber stopper.  The vacuum slows down the oxidation process so much that I find I can keep a bottle of white wine open for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator, and a bottle of red open for up to a month.  While this takes away a good excuse for finishing a bottle in one sitting, it can certainly save some money by extending the life of the wine.  Further, if you like variety in your wines as I do, you can have several bottles open simultaneously.
The final tool is perhaps the most essential of all – the corkscrew.  Since wine corks came into common use in the 18th century, people have seemingly spent more time trying to design a better corkscrew than mousetrap.  The next time you visit the Napa Valley, stop in at the old Christian Brothers winery, now the Culinary Institute of America building, and see Brother Timothy’s collection of corkscrews – hundreds of models in every design imaginable, some made with precious metals and stones.
Personally, I like the classic waiter’s corkscrew since it’s effective and still has some degree of flair.  But many consider the Screwpull to be the most nearly effortless and infallible design.  Which corkscrew to use is strictly a personal choice – just make sure it has a long, thin helical open worm that can penetrate and grip the cork without shredding it, and a method to lever the cork out with ease.
So there you have it – the four simple wine tools I would take if stranded on a desert island - an aerator, Riedel wine glass, Vacu Vin saver, and corkscrew.  With those and an endless supply of good wine, what more would you need?  A votre’ sante!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Super Tasting Tool

As a man of a certain age, I can remember rushing home from school every day to watch Superman on TV.  Without fail, every time the mild mannered Clark Kent stepped into that phone booth he was transformed into the bold Man of Steel.
I’d like to offer you a simple and relatively inexpensive tasting tool that can transform even the most modest wine into one bold enough even for Superman:  the wine aerator.
We are all aware of the concept of letting a wine breathe – exposing it to air to soften and open it up.  However, simply pulling the cork and letting the bottle sit opened for a few minutes just doesn’t work.  The tiny area of wine exposed to air in the thin bottle neck is too small relative to the total volume of the bottle to have any effect.
The simple and effective way to thoroughly aerate wine in seconds is to use a wine aerator.  These aerators are designed to mix just the right amount of air with the wine to allow it to breathe instantly. The result for both reds and whites is better bouquet, enhanced flavor, and a smoother finish.  Aerators have an especially dramatic effect on young, tannic reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, where they can add the equivalent of a year of tannin-softening oak in a few seconds.
Wine aerators come in several basic styles: some, such as the Soiree, fit into the neck of the bottle much like a pour spout; others, like the Vinturi, are held while wine is poured into the top and empties from the bottom into a glass; and, yet another, the WineWeaver, sits directly on top of the glass.  Whichever style you choose, I guarantee it will be much easier to use than the old alternative of splashing an entire bottle of wine into a decanter or carafe.  Further, you can aerate individual glasses as you drink them and preserve the rest of the bottle for later.
As a general skeptic of the many snobby or anachronistic practices surrounding wine, I was skeptical of these aerators at first.  However, while visiting a tasting room in the Texas Hill Country, the pourista served me the same wine in two identical glasses, one poured through an aerator and one not.  The difference was startling, and I bought my aerator on the spot.  Try this test for yourself, and you’ll be a believer.