Happy New Year, Woo and Wine Fans!

Happy 2011 everyone! The beginning of a new year is always a good time for reflection, and I have been thinking a lot about how much has changed over the past year. I’ve found my passion, become closer to my family, met lots of wonderful people, adjusted my priorities, and of course, drunk lots of amazing wine! I’ve also realized that some improvements could be made, starting with this blog. If I am serious aboutย  making wine my career, this is a good launching pad – not necessarily because it will make me famous, but because it is an ideal place to post both tasting notes and describe the fun times I’ve had. I look forward to a wonderful year of love, laughter, and libations! Cheers!

An Ideal Welcome to 2011

New Year’s Eve – that frustrating holiday which never fails to raise our expectations and often promises to dash them. Many people seem to think that if they’re not invited to the biggest party in town, then the night is a bust. I actually learned a few years ago that for me, there’s no better way to usher in the new year than with a few of my favorite people and good food and wine. Fortunately, the food and wine have improved over theย  years, while the friends have been consistently great. ๐Ÿ™‚ This year, I was very pleased to have a laidback dinner with five amazing people, and of course, some very high-quality wines.
I felt it was my obligation to obtain some good value bubbly, so I asked one of our reps for the two best Champagnes in his portfolio under $50. What he recommended were the Chartogne-Taillet “St. Anne” Cuvee and the Gaston-Chiquet “Carte-Verte,” both of which are NV and Brut. Both of them were wonderful (although admittedly the latter was consumed quite late in the evening, so my memory of it is less vivid), with good fruit-forward qualities balanced with a light toastiness. For the price, these were amazing. The first Champagne was paired with a delightful cheese plate, including homemade Parmegiano-Reggiano crisps, Walsertolz (Austrian raw cow milk), Le Fleuret Le Chevrefeuille Moulage Manuel, and 5-year aged Gouda.
We then moved on to the appetizer, which was my and Heath’s contribution. (All I really did was find the recipe – he thankfully made it since I had to work earlier in the day!) It turned out wonderfully – a Mushroom, Butternut Squash, and Gruyere Tart, on puff pastry. Our hosts paired it with a 2008 Zepaltas Chardonnay “Babushka” from Keefer Ranch in Russian River Valley. It accompanied the dish well, although I am clearly very sensitive to oak, because even though the winery website says this was aged in only 40% new French oak, it was still a bit oaky for my taste.
Although we probably could have stopped eating at this point, we would have been sorely disappointed if we had. The hosts served a Couscous dish with Braised Tofu, Dates, Figs, Moroccan Spices, Raisins, and Toasted Almonds. It was divine, particularly since I love all those dried fruits. I should have also mentioned that our hosts were kind enough to agree to an all-vegetarian meal (as was Heath), even though they are all meat eaters. With the couscous, we enjoyed two French reds – a 2007 Domaine Jean-Louis Tribouley Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes “Orchis,” (a Grenache blend from Languedoc) and a 2007 Domaine de la Mordoree Lirac Cuvee de la Reine des Bois, a Rhone blend. I know that I am not living up to my status as “Woo Wine Girl,” but I was too full/tipsy/relaxed by that point to take good tasting notes. Suffice it to say that I thoroughly enjoyed them. ๐Ÿ™‚
Somehow, on New Year’s Day, we managed to gird ourselves for another round of feasting. At another friend’s house, we gorged on Thomas Keller’s French Toast, Heath’s Black-Eyed Pea Curry, and a wave of Mimosas. It was a peaceful, relaxing afternoon, complete with Rock Band. Afterward, we joined my parents for ANOTHER meal, but this time I got by with just a bowl of lentil soup – after all, I may need some money in the new year. ๐Ÿ™‚
I can’t think of a better way to usher in 2011.

A Very Chill Christmas

Ahhh… getting out early on Christmas Eve and then having two days off in a row is rather unprecedented in my world, so I was prepared to thoroughly enjoy a lovely, relaxing weekend. Christmas Eve started off with a breakfast meeting with my college roomie and her mom, as well as their holiday sweater-clad dogs. After work, I raced over to City Square Steakhouse to meet some friends. Knowing that I could grab a quick drink with some friends before heading to my folks’ for dinner truly made my day. My parents had a delicious dinner waiting for me – fried catfish (which looked delicious, but I did not partake), deep-fried mushrooms, mashed potatoes, roasted butternut squash and apples, and . To accompany it, we enjoyed a 2008 Oregon A to Z Pinot Noir and a Shooting Star Blaufrankisch from Washington State. The former was a bit light with basic cherry flavors, but food-friendly, and I really loved the latter, which was a shout-out to Central Europe. In Hungary, the grape is known as Kekfrankos. We topped it off with an out-of-this-world White Chocolate-Raspberry Cheesecake – wow! We all opened a gift that night, per tradition, and I received a very useful straightening iron, which I am hoping I will continue to have to patience to use on a daily basis.
We started Christmas Day fairly early – 9:00 – as I brought over freshly-baked Cherry Banana Muffins with White Chocolate Chips (mmm!). I inadvertently left out the canola oil, but you couldn’t even tell! We then proceeded to toast with our Christmas Cocktail – a Champagne Cosmo. No better way to start the holiday! The nephews – well, Olley at least – were thrilled to tear open their gifts, although we discouraged them from ripping open ALL the gifts. Sadly, Lilly and her fam had to leave for Christmas dinner at her in-laws’, but I stayed all day at my parents’, barely moving from the couch. I would highly recommend the 1938 The Christmas Carol and The Godfather as an ideal holiday movie combo. ๐Ÿ™‚ We eventually dug into a late lunch/early dinner. My parents prepared the traditional duck, and we also had a Fennel and Parmesan Gratin I had made, soup that had been cooked with the duck’s leftover parts, braised red cabbage and apples, and some leftovers from the previous day. With the meal, we opened a 2009 Cline Viognier, which is a steal at $9.99! It has the unctuous and peachy qualities of a Viognier twice the price.
I’m always a bit down when Christmas is over, but I have a feeling that 2011 has a lot more fun in store!

Lola Never Ceases to Amaze

When it came time to choose a Cleveland restaurant for a celebratory Christmas dinner, Lola was the obvious choice for the uninitiated. Certainly, there are plenty of fabulous area eateries that I have yet to try, but since Heath had never been, it was essential that we go. The day started out a bit on the rough side, as I had overindulged a bit the night before and wasn’t quite up for drinking wine with dinner. This seemed practically like the end of the world, but I figured we could remedy the situation by ordering bubbly instead. Thus, we chose the Schramsberg Brut Rose NV from Calistoga – it was lovely, although because of its fruitiness, perhaps not the wine to pair with rich, hearty food. Of course, we thoroughly enjoyed it anyway. I prodded Heath to start his meal with the Beef Cheek Pierogis, which are mind-blowing. I had tried them during my first Lola experience, and because the memory was so positive, I decided it deserved to be an exception to my vegetarianism, and I sneaked a bite. I wanted to focus entirely on my entree, which was Gnocchi with Butternut Squash, Treviso, Hazelnuts, Mushrooms, and Ricotta Salata. It blew me away – so full of flavor, yet it wasn’t too heavy. I’m salivating just thinking of it… After Heath’s relatively large fish entree, neither of us was prepared to consume an entire dessert, so we wisely split a Coconut-Pecan Chocolate Cake with Spiced Coconut Sorbet. It tasted like a grown-up version of a Samoa Girl Scout cookie – although a million times better! I wish I could go back to Lola more often… but there are so many other places out there to try!!

Two Reds – One to Savor, Another to Avoid

I don’t necessarily think it makes sense to review poor wines – a waste of time, perhaps? – but in this case, since it’s a wine that frequently appears on store shelves and could be mistaken for a good value, I wanted to set the record straight. Well, at least from my point of view.
But let’s start off on a good note. I’ve been meaning to taste through SoMar’s Languedoc and Vin de Pays selection, and with the cold weather upon us, now seems like a good time to pursue this worthy goal. On my boss’s advice, I took home a bottle of 2008 Chateau Coupe Roses “La Bastide” from Minervois. I couldn’t find the exact blend for this vintage, but previous vintages have consisted of Grenache and Carignan. At $21.99, this may not be considered a “value” wine, but I think it is well worth the price. The wine bowls you over with rich blackberry and blueberry, but with a persistent undercurrent of earthy, even mushroom, tones that prevents it from being a fruit bomb. It is full-bodied and rich, and should go well with pork and lamb. Highly recommended!
As for the less-than-stellar wine, the 2008 Palo Alto Reserve from Maule Valley in Chile, a blend of Cabernet, Carmenere, and Syrah, was disappointing. If it were under $10, I probably would have been more forgiving, but at $11.99, I expect it not to taste like cooked fruit. I will allow that this may have been a bad bottle. But what did I do with the wine anyway? Drink it, of course. ๐Ÿ™‚

Welcoming Fall with a Flavor-packed Risotto and Hearty Wines

Fall has most certainly arrived in NE Ohio, although I fear we may already be contending with winter in early November, as flurries have been spotted. But no matter – that’s what heart-warming food and wine are for! Probably my favorite part of this time of year is squash and its many incarnations. As much as I dislike peeling and chopping butternut squash, the end product is typically worth the effort. I discovered a recipe for Butternut Squash, Swiss Chard, and Apple Risotto, and the combination is to die for. Earthy, sweet, and creamy flavors all swirled together meant I never wanted to stop eating. The ideal wine I found for the risotto was the 2009 Domaine de la Ferrandiere Viognier, a Vin de Pays d’Oc, which I received in a two-pack from Cinderella Wine. Even though it’s a white, the fuller body of the Viognier proved a good match for the creamy risotto, but at 13% alcohol, it didn’t overwhelm. This wasn’t the most complex Viognier I’ve ever had, but considering the wide variety of flavors in the risotto, that may have been a good thing. On the nose, the wine offers pear, apricot, and a some minerality, although it is rather subtle. The palate is full-bodied, with a bit of petrol, some citrus and apple, and good acidity. A perfect wine with which to transition into the cool weather!
I also recently tried a rather unusual red blend, the 2007 Lioco Indica from Mendocino. I actually read about it in a feature on the Grape and Bean wine shop in Alexandria, VA – the owner recommended this wine, and I realized we had it at SoMar. It is 78% Carignan, plus Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, and a splash of Grenache. Both the aromas and flavors were very unique – I smelled floral scents, with cooked blueberries and stoniness, and in the mouth, there was more blueberry, as well as cranberry and perhaps some herbs. The acidity was great, and the tannins do not overwhelm. A very different, but great wine!

Italian Delights

Falling behind on my drinks...

My favorite local, recurring wine event – the South Market Bistro‘s wine dinners – took on an Italian incarnation last Thursday. The “Tour of Italy” five-course meal sampled wines from all over the boot and included both wines familiar to most casual wine drinkers, as well as more obscure varietals, which is not difficult when you’re dealing with Italy. In this familiar, frequently-visited setting, I know that I will not be disappointed.
The Bistro almost, but not quite, followed its traditional formula of starting with the lightest wine (DeFaveri Prosecco Brut from Veneto) and building up to the most powerful, and typically most expensive and sought-after wine (Tenuta Carretta Barbaresco Bordino). The third wine, however, was certainly fuller-bodied than the fourth, as well as being rough and rustic – the Alovini Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata

. Although I think this method works with just wine, I think it is more problematic when food pairing is involved, as it is difficult to eat a large, hearty fifth course and drink a heavy wine after already having consumed so much beforehand. I think it would be better to build up to the Barbaresco and then pedal back, perhaps ending with the

Aglianico paired with Butternut Squash and Ricotta Gnocchi

Prosecco, which would refresh rather than fatigue. But before I forget – the second wine was a light, citrusy Pedres Vermentino di Gallura from Sardinia, and the fourth a medium-bodied, red fruit-filled Tiberini Rosso di Montepulciano (Sangiovese) from Tuscany.
All of the food was delicious, but I thought the one pairing that was less effective was the Aglianico with Roasted Squash and RicottaGnocchi. (This was actually what everyone ate, not just yours truly the vegetarian! I can’t thank the Bistro enough for always accommodating my dietary wishes.) While delicious, the squash and gnocchi paled next to the wine, and this was underlined by the fact that the squash were chopped into teeny bits, rather than served in hearty chunks, which could have absorbed more flavor.
Ultimately, while I may nit-pick, I will always return to these dinners, as I can’t imagine a better quality meal for the price, in a cozy atmosphere with excellent company. Salute!