Saturday, March 29, 2008

Corks & Corkscrews

We were never particularly concerned with the type of cork or closure used for wine, and besides, consumers don’t have a choice – we’ve stuck with whatever cork a winemaker puts into a bottle. Until last night.

Like everyone in the wine world, we’d heard of “corked” bottles – wines tainted by TCA, a chemical found in (among other places) cork, which makes a wine smell like wet dogs or dirty socks. Last night, we opened one of our regular House wines, and the wine was unmistakably corked. We’ve had “bad” wines – vinegary, past their prime, or with other flaws – but never one we could point to and say, “That wine is corked.”

It really wouldn’t be fair to point out the wine and winery (unless subsequent bottles show the same flaw, at which point we’d want to alert the winery and consumers), but suffice it to say the wine was from a large producer that we’ve found consistently reliable. (Two good articles about cork taint can be found at The Wine Academy and BlogCritics.)

So, our little meditations on corks and corkscrews.

After opening wine bottles for many years, we’ve gravitated toward some preferences in corkscrews. Our three favorite types are:

Waiter’s Corkscrew – The old standby classic. It has to have an “open” worm, not one with a central shaft. Unless the cork is old or damaged, or we insert the corkscrew incorrectly, this opens everything every time.

Ah-So – This is the two-prong “rock-and-twist” corkscrew, which is absolutely essential for getting broken corks out of bottles. It’s also a good everyday corkscrew, but doesn’t have the traditional appeal of a worm-type screw.

The Lever Types – These come by a lot of names: Screwpull, Rabbit, etc. They generally have open worm screws, and have a three-step lever action which inserts the worm, removes the cork, and then removes the cork from the worm. We love these, but find that the worms need frequent replacement as they loose their coatings or break.

(To us, the absolute worst are the wing-type corkscrews. They almost always have a central shaft, and chew up corks like a dog with a bone. For some reason the new-to-wine set in the 1970s just seemed to love these. We don’t know why.)

Corks & Closures
Even before we had our corked wine experience, if we had a choice, we’d prefer a screw top (despite its lack of traditional charm). Yet despite that bottle, our second choice would be a good old real Portuguese cork from a tree. To us, the other big problem with real cork is that it deteriorates with age – even some five-year-old corks have crumbled on us. (Guess we’ll just have to start drinking our wines younger.)

We detest composite corks (we know they aren’t, yet we think of them as full of wood glue, sort of like plywood), as they seem cheaply made and prone to crumbling and breakage. (The corked wine we had was closed with a composite cork.) We also dislike synthetic (plastic) corks, as they are next to impossible for screwpull openers; an Ah-So often slips on them; and they’re even a lot of work for a waiter’s corkscrew. Conversely, they’re as TCA-proof as are screw tops. (I say “we,” but this is mostly Ken’s writing. Weirdly, Francesca, who is tiny and struggles with most corks, actually prefers synthetic corks.)

And as opinionated as we are, we really don’t spend a lot of time worrying about foils, plastic foils, or wax on a cork. We’d prefer anything but wax, but for us it’s a non-issue.

Left to right: Real cork; 2 synthetic corks; 2 “one-plus-one” composite corks (real cork on ends and composite middle); screw cap.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Columbia Crest Merlot Cabernet 2002 – Washington

Black cherry, blackberries, plum. Smooth, nice, but not much character. To us, more Merlot-style than Cab (actually, it’s 52% Merlot, 28% Cab Sauvignon, and 20% Cabernet Franc). Maybe (and we’re not giant fans of Cabernet or Merlot). $6 on sale (usually about $8).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Covey Run Dry Riesling 2005 – Washington

This is a pleasant wine, but without a great deal of character. Floral and tangerine/orange scents in the glass, with some mild tangerine flavors. Dry, but little discernable acidity. A “good enough” wine, but there are many other affordable Rieslings with more “oomph” to them. Maybe. $8.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chateau Ste. Michelle Pinot Gris 2006 – Washington

Floral and citrus nose. Tastes of melon, tangerine, and a touch of creaminess. This is why Ken hadn’t been too excited about Pinot Grigio (same wine and grape as Pinot Gris) in the past – a “good enough” wine but nothing special. A Maybe for Ken, Yes for Francesca. $9 on sale (usually about $15).

Monday, March 17, 2008

Columbia Crest Riesling 2006 – Washington

Very similar to the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling previously reviewed. Nose of apple, peaches, and apricots. Tastes of citrus, peach, apricot, and a little white pepper. A little sweeter and a little less acid than the Ste. Michelle. Yes (not quite to “House” standards). $6 on sale.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Wine Review We Always Wanted To Write (and Read)

Chateau du Cal Pinot Meunier

When I was living in Paris in the early 1970s, I dated a French woman who smelled of olive oil and violets. She used to lounge on a feinting couch covered with green velveteen that was probably upholstered by her grandmother in the 1920s. Her hair was dark, her eyes wide, and the smells of her apartment were encapsulated in the first hint of aromas from this wine. I breathed deeply, memories of an idle youth contrasting with the warm glow emanating from my glass. This was going to be a wine to remember.

I hesitated even to take a sip, as I was afraid my memories would be deceived. I was hoping for perfection, but would have gladly settled for merely wonderful. Alas, the wine’s promise didn’t initially quite live up to my heated desires. Oh, it had a rich nose and tastes of an English summer garden, and a round, sensuous feel that coated my mouth like chocolate pudding. Yes, this wine reminded me somehow of the Brits – warm, uptight, and reserved all at the same time. But slowly, I began to open to the wine, as the wine began to open to me.

The flavors changed to tobacco, earth (deep, California dirt, from someplace near the central coast, not some loamy mud from the valley or foothills, but rather a clean, sea-sharpened note of wind spray and coastal pine infused into the dry hills), and leather (old, tanned leather, like the native Americans used to produce, of brain-tanned cowhides that were washed with salt and left to dry in the Arizona desert sun). Over the course of the first eight-and-a-quarter minutes that the wine had been in the glass, all these tastes came to the fore, as if they’d been hidden behind some Persian silk screen and only now chose to reveal themselves.

Over even more time – and time now seemed to stand still for me, as I became lost in the depth of this marvel – the wine moved from youth to midlife to maturity, much as a round-the-world traveler moves from continent to continent, from excitement at the beginning of his journey to depression during the middle of his undertaking to finally near the end of his adventure where the very act of travelling brings contentment with the universe and he realizes he has been blessed to see. Finally, the last drop about to be drained from the bottle, I sensed a finish to the wine that I would have never imagined.

As the wine lingered on my palate (pallet? palette?) I knew I was in the presence of greatness, as if Genghis Kahn or Charlemagne were to walk through my door and challenge me to acts of bravery and heroism.

$11. (We found it on sale for $8.99.) 86 points.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Asparagus Pizza & Tempranillo

Tapena Tempranillo 2005 – Spain
We generally enjoy Spanish wines, especially Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache), so it’s fun to find something new and affordable. This has a great nose of cherries, and a lovely garnet color. The tastes are of black cherries, bing cherries, and some delicate spice. To us the wine doesn’t have the “silky tannins” suggested on the label, but some nice, firm, sharp ones. This is a Yes wine, bordering on House (a second bottle tasting will tell). $8 on sale (usually about $11).

Francesca made a fabulous asparagus, onion, and garlic pizza. Used a store-bought pizza shell (we can be lazy), topped with a thin alfredo, pesto, and olive oil sauce. Next, grated Asiago and sharp provolone cheeses. Finally, she sautéed onion and asparagus in Italian spices, and added those to the pizza along with some previously roasted garlic.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Go-To Wineries

There are times when you need a bottle, yet can’t remember the specifics of wines you’ve enjoyed. We’ve also suggested that if you find a wine or two from a producer that you enjoy, keep trying that winery’s other wines. Following our own advice, here are the wineries that we feel we can buy any wine from without thinking, and we’ll almost always get a bottle we enjoy at a fair price.

  • Rosemount, Australia
  • Yalumba, Australia
  • Beringer, California
  • Cambria, California
  • Ridge, California
  • B&G, France
  • Columbia Crest, Washington

Friday, March 7, 2008

Shrimp Louie & Vouvray

We love “Louie” salads, but didn’t really know what they were. We discovered Louie dressings in several old cookbooks, but no reference to a Louie salad. After some research, it seems nobody actually knows for sure the origins of the Louie (Louis) salad, other than it probably began on the U.S. west coast (Seattle or San Francisco) early in the 1900s and was originally made with crab.
Our Louie salads are usually a mish-mash of everything possible. Last night we used sautéed shrimp in olive oil and spices, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, mixed greens, pickled asparagus, artichoke hearts, red pepper, green onions, croutons, home-made green tomatoes in brine, pickled garlic, radish, left-over sautéed potatoes and mushrooms, and thousand island dressing. We’ve also used salmon or crab instead of shrimp, as well as red or yellow onions, fresh mushrooms, black or green olives, sliced carrots, fresh herbs, broccoli, avocado, and other vegetables.

We had a B&G Vouvray (previously reviewed) which went perfectly with the salad. Sometimes wines are hard to pair with salad, but we’ve found that whites or roses that have the very slightest tinge of softness (sweetness) are the best. Wines that are too dry (Sauvignon Blanc) or too hearty (Chardonnays, especially from California) just don’t work that well. Try a Chenin Blanc, any decent rose (as long as it’s not bone dry), or a Gewurztraminer.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Cambria Chardonnay 2004 – California

A pleasant nose of floral scents and honeysuckle. This tastes deep, rich, with honey and tropical fruit notes. There’s obviously some vanilla and oak notes, too. This is a rich California style, but without being overpowering – “industrial strength,” as a friend says of certain California Chards. Cambria also has an excellent website and a nice mailing list program for its smaller-production wines. Yes (House if it were a few bucks cheaper). $18 on sale (usually about $25).

Monday, March 3, 2008

2005 Ridge Geyserville Redux

We gushed about the Ridge 2005 Geyserville on Christmas Eve. Apparently others think likewise. Here is the Connoisseurs' Guide (subscription) review of the wine.

Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine
Volume 32, Issue 3: January 2008

2005 Ridge Geyserville – 95 points
77% Zinfandel; 17% Carignane; 6% Petite Sirah

"Some years back Ridge removed the varietal identifier from its Geyserville red wine made substantially from Zinfandel but a field-blend in reality. But whatever they call it, it has been and continues to be a terrific Zinfandel by any standard. Its deep but still developing aromas of berries, brownies and sweet oak give way to more open and accessible ripe-berry flavors, and, contrary to the latter-day norm, the wine is free of excessive ripeness or evident heat. It has the depth to enjoy now, but given Geyserville's track record for longevity and the wine's nascent character, it is wise to cellar away a few bottles." 95 pts.