Wine and Weed: A Colorado Vacation

I’ve pretty much given up on souvenirs.  I always try to buy something unique when I travel — something that represents the place I’m visiting.  Something I can’t get at home.  But the Internet is making it nearly impossible.  It’s a double edged sword of course, but I can satisfy any craving or whim with a couple of clicks and a credit card.  You want a miniature Big Ben from London?  Click, click, done.  Leather goods from Argentina?  Click, click, done.  Pottery from Mexico?  Click, click, done.  Whoopie pies from Maine?  Click, click, done.  You get the picture.

We’ve been in Colorado this week, visiting family.  We’ve been to Colorado many, many times. We have the t-shirts.  Is there anything left to buy that truly represents Colorado?

420The ubiquitous Colorado curiosity right now is weed — it’s the ultimate in “you can’t take it with you” mementos.  I have no problem with the legalization of marijuana.  If you want to smoke weed, knock yourself out. I’m all in on Live and Let Live, but I’m not really a Got Pot?  t-shirt kind of gal.

I learned a lot about marijuana this week. If you see a store with a green cross — that’s a weed store.  And I now know that 420 is code for “let’s light up”.  (Last week, if you had asked me what 420 meant, I would have said Hitler’s Birthday).

Weed is everywhere in Colorado, especially in the mountain towns.  You can smell it in the air, and especially the public restrooms.  My kids now have the answer to their “What’s that smell?” question.  Every other ad on the radio is weed-related.  We saw more than one person lighting up in their car (you can have marijuana in your car, but it’s illegal to use it in your car — but people do, obviously).   The new Mile-High Voodoo Doughnuts opened in January next to a cannabis shop.  Capitalism at work, folks.

Before you start thinking I’ve come home with a suitcase full of really funny brownies . . . we did not sample any weed in Colorado.  We did have several discussions with our tween and teen about the ratio of pot-heads to overachievers not being in the pot-heads favor, though. And pot is decidedly illegal in the Commonwealth of Virginia, so what did I buy that represents Colorado?

Nothing represents place more than wine.  And yes, Virginia, they make wine in Colorado.

That said, I don’t bring a lot of wine home with me when I travel.  (I send quite a bit of it, though).  Wine is heavy (by the time I get two bottles into my suitcase, I’m already maxing out the airline imposed weight restrictions).  And, more to the point, I can get almost any wine my little heart desires with a couple of clicks.  So, over the years, my vacation wine-buying strategy evolved to this:  “What do you have that I can’t buy in Virginia?”  If I can buy it in Virginia, I’m not interested.  And usually, there’s something.  Even if it’s one little bottle, there’s something.

So what am I bringing home from Colorado?  I’ve got it down to a science.  We have three suitcases, so we can take three bottles of Colorado home with us, one in each, very carefully weight-distributed, suitcase.  Here’s what I chose:

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Two Rivers Vineyards Riesling 2011
Colorado is home to two AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) — Grand Valley and West Elk.  Two Rivers is located in Grand Junction, Colorado — extreme western Colorado, almost in Utah. That’s the Grand Valley AVA.  The sales rep at the liquor store told me Two Rivers is getting a lot of favorable press lately, especially for their cool climate grapes.  I decided on a Riesling with 12.4% ABV, hoping it’ll be on the dry side.  Fingers crossed.

Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey
Located in Breckenridge, the eponymous distillery is the world’s highest at 9,600 feet. Breckenridge bourbon is made with snow-melt from the Rocky Mountains.  OK, I’m sold. Breckenridge also won Bourbon of the Year, so it’s bound to be at least a little bit good.

Leopold’s Navy Strength Small Batch Gin
Located right in Denver, Leopold’s is known for its small-batch gin.  Navy Strength sounds more like it should be deodorant than gin.  My husband went to the US Naval Academy — I’ve smelled the Navy.  They could use Navy Strength deodorant.  But apparently, Navy Strength refers to the ABV, and this one comes in at 57%.  Wow.  Why so high?  Here’s the scoop, straight from the bottle:  “Because it was stored next to gunpowder munitions on naval warships, Navy Strength gin was distilled to a proof just high enough that if it spilled during battle, the ship’s gunpowder would still ignite”.  Navy. It’s Not Just A Job, It’s An Adventure.

After reading some extremely favorable reviews of Leopold’s regular small-batch gin (and a few reviews calling Navy Strength gin a punch in the face), I’m kind of kicking myself for buying the Navy Strength.

Can I buy all of these things on the Internet?  Sure.  But they all take at least 3 clicks to find and buy.  And for sure, I can’t buy them in my local ABC (Virginia’s state-run monopoly on liquor sales) or wine store.

Update . . . I just figured out I can place a special order for Leopold’s small-batch gin through our Virginia ABC Gestapo, but I can’t special order the Navy Strength.  So now I’m back to feeling good about buying Navy Strong.

And that’s my haul from Colorado.

Do you buy souvenirs when you travel?  If you buy wine and spirits on your vacation . . . what’s your strategy?

Salud!

P.S.  Snoop Dog is hosting a “Wellness Retreat” (because when I think wellness, I think Snoop Dog) at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado tonight — 4/20.  And it’s sold out.  I’m pretty sure The Dude will be there . . . that rug really tied the room together, did it not?

Field Trip: Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery

I’ve driven by Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery hundreds of times (it has a great location right on Route 29 in Leon, Virginia), but we’ve always been on the way to or from somewhere else, so we never stopped.  But a few weeks ago, we had a Carpe Vinum moment . . . and pulled over.

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I LOVE the metal wine glass sculptures in front of the winery . . . I want one for my yard!

The wine tasting room at Prince Michel is circular and insanely busy.  But I’m not talking about people, I’m talking about tchotchkes — they’re everywhere.  And clutter makes me a little twitchy (you can call me Felix).  My girlfriend and I felt a little like we were tasting wine at a Cracker Barrel.  The tasting bar is welcoming, and the hostess was friendly and approachable, but I was on sensory overload before we tasted a single wine.  I’d be really nervous if I was trying to taste wine and watch little hands in here!

Case in point . . . here’s that rattlesnake wine bottle holder you’ve been looking for.  Oh!  And how ’bout a flask tie?  For those times when you need to look like a professional frat boy.

Prince Michel has a self-guided tour, which is an interesting option, but we weren’t really in a tour mood, so we skipped it.

We tasted a total of 12 wines for an obscenely reasonable $5.

BTW, Prince Michel has what just might be the most adorable dump buckets EVER:

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Prince Michel Pinot Grigio 2010 ⭐⭐/82
We were told these are the only grapes grown on-site at Prince Michel.  The remaining grapes are sourced from other vineyards in Virginia.  I get an unexpected bleach note on the nose — really hoping it’s just the glass.  Almond and herb flavors with a steely finish.  There’s some lime in here, but overall, not much going on.  $19/bottle.

Mt. Juliet Petit Manseng 2008 ⭐⭐/84
My favorite of the “white flight”.  Banana and clove note on the nose.  Reminds me of a sugar cookie with a pear finish.  $30/bottle.

Prince Michel Viognier 2010 ⭐⭐/81
A decent backbone of acidity with a creamy texture, yet the balance still seems off.  Loaded with tropical notes of mango and coconut.  $15/bottle.

Prince Michel Chardonnay 2010 ⭐⭐/80
Aged in 85% stainless and 15% French oak.  There’s some peach notes in the glass, but overall, nothing special.  $15/bottle.

Prince Michel Barrel Select Chardonnay 2010 ⭐⭐/83
Aged 2 years in French oak.  A lovely petrol note on the nose.  The oak is very present on the finish — vanilla and buttered toast.  $19/bottle.

Prince Michel Cabernet Franc 2010 ⭐/75
Ooof.  Sour and aggressively tannic.  Not a fan.

Mountain View Cabernet Franc 2009 ⭐⭐/83
Aged in French oak.  I really like the mint note that runs throughout — a departure from the vegetal component I usually find lurking around a Cab Franc.  A little tannic right now, I’d love to taste this one again in a few years.  $30/bottle.

Prince Michel Merlot 2010 ⭐/79
3% Shiraz.  The edges on this wine are just harsh.  Where’s the fruit?  Reminds me of pepper crackers.  $15/bottle.

Prince Michel Merlot-Cab Reserve 2008 ⭐⭐/80
LOADS of pepper obscure fruit notes.  There’s some smoke on the finish, too, but again, it drowns out the fruit.  $15/bottle.

Prince Michel Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ⭐⭐/80
Thin and astringent, with violet candy notes on the nose.  $15/bottle.

Crown Orchard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ⭐⭐/80
Sour, smells like WD40.  Maybe some currant . . . really hard to discern.  $30/bottle.

Prince Michel Symbius 2010 ⭐⭐/84
42% Merlot, 32 % Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Cabernet Franc.  The blend is paying off here — definitely softer and more complex.  $30/bottle.

Prince Michel also has a “sweet flight” of wines from their second label, Rapidian River.  I’m not a fan of sweet wines, so I passed.  The flight consists of a couple of sweet Rieslings and a whole array of fruit wines (raspberry, blackberry, peach, etc.).  There’s also a chocolate wine. Shudder.  That said, I know plenty of folks who only drink sweet wines, so if that’s your bag . . . you might want to give it a try!

The Bottomline:  For me, the wines at Prince Michel are mostly meh.  The stars of the party are the Mt. Juliet Petit Manseng and the Prince Michel Symbius.  I encourage you to visit and form your own opinions — my palate is my palate, not yours.  Prince Michel has a great location, and I’m sure you can find a cozy corner to sift away an afternoon . . .

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Salud!

Hungarian Wine: What a Bor!

No, I did not just slight the viticultural traditions of an entire nation — the Hungarian word for wine is Bor.  And Hungarian wines are anything but boring.

DSCN4572A couple of weeks ago, I participated in an online wine chat on Twitter (#winechat), hosted by the Protocol Wine Studio and the Blue Danube Wine Company.  Several wine bloggers have already written their impressions from the evening, providing detailed explanations of Protocol, Blue Danube, and how the #winechat works:  Talk-a-Vino, Cliffswinepicks, and Winecompass.
I won’t duplicate their fine efforts, so if you’re curious about the process, click on one (or all) of the links.

Why should we care about Hungarian wine?  Because wine is a passport to the world.  As wise Saint Augustine once said, ”The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”  As a wine lover, I don’t want to read just Merlot or Chardonnay in perpetuity.  I want to read new pages . . . and Hungary is a new page.

Hungary is famous for it’s decadent Tokaj wines.  But beyond that (unless you’re having dinner with Robert Parker and his merry band of wine critics), if you asked ordinary folks what they know about Hungarian wine, you’d probably get crickets.  Hungarian wine is definitely a niche — you have to seek it out.  And seek you should . . .

The story of Hungarian wine mirrors a great many stories of European wine:  Wine begins and flourishes under the Romans; comes close to ruin under 16th century Islamic Rule; comes closer to ruin with the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s; faces ruin yet again under Communism (which wiped out almost any shred of viticultural uniqueness in favor of mass production); and finally . . . rebuilding, with an emphasis on shepherding the indigenous grapes to have their Phoenix moment and rise from the ashes of socialist farming.

Trivia Break:  The Hungarian language is known as Magyar.  It probably came from the Huns (you remember the Huns — the warlike nomads who terrorized much of Europe and Asia in the 3rd – 5th centuries), and is related to Finnish and Estonian.  Hungary has a rich folk tradition, evident in their national dress, embroidery and paintings.  I opened my cedar chest and unearthed this little doll my dad brought me from a trip to Hungary, many moons ago. She’s probably pushing 40 now, but she’s aging gracefully.  And the photo on the right is a Hungarian painted plate that belongs to my BFF.  Aren’t the colors against the black backdrop spectacular?

Wine has been made in Hungary since the days of Bacchus, and Hungary boasts 22 different wine regions.  Discussing all of them here would make this post waaaay too long, so I will happily leave that to the Hungary experts.  I can’t think about wine from any geographic region without a map . . . so here’s a map, which includes the three wine regions we “tasted”.

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Now that you’re properly oriented — which Hungarian wines did we taste?

DSCN4567Eszterbauer “Nagyapám” Kadarka Szekszárd 2011 ⭐⭐⭐/86

Label Decoding:

  • Eszterbauer is the name of the winery — the Eszterbauer Family emigrated to Hungary from Bavaria in 1746.
  • Nagyapám means grandfather in Hungarian.
  • Kadarka is the grape, which is indigenous to Hungary.
  • Szekszárd is the name of the wine region. I love the 1930s black & white family photos on the wine label — what a great nod to family and history.

This wine is supposed to be served with a slight chill, so I threw the bottle into the fridge for half an hour before the tasting.  Slight in color, very clear in the glass.  There’s a smokiness on the nose — not unpleasant, though.  And the flavor?  Won’t you take me to . . . Funkytown??  Kadarka has some of peppery funk on it, but it’s a fresh funk.  Light-bodied, it’s juicy and edgy at the same time.  A beautiful expression of terroir!  13.5% ABV and $18.  I tried the Kadarka again on Day 2, and it went from Clark Kent to Superman!  Richness and character abound.

Hungary is famous for its paprika — and it’s national dish is Goulash (pronounced Gooyash), a cross between soup and stew.  And I wish I’d thought to make some so I could enjoy it with this wine!

Trivia Break:  Hungary’s second most famous wine (behind Tokaji) is probably Bull’s Blood of Eger, or Egri Bikavér.  According to legend, in the 16th century, Turks laid siege to the Castle of Eger.  Frightened villagers sustained Hungarian troops with red wine from their vineyards, and the Hungarian troops fought courageously and tirelessly — eventually beating back the Turkish army.  Rumors circulated that the wine the Hungarian troops drank was mixed with bulls’ blood to give the soldiers strength.  Eger was saved, Bulls Blood wine was born.  I got the impression during the chat that Bull’s Blood is sort of a schtick wine, but I still want to try it.

DSCN4565Bodrog Bormühely Lapis Furmint 2011 ⭐⭐⭐/85
The dessert wines of Tokaj are legen . . . wait for it . . . dary.  (Sorry, just watched the HIMYM finale). Furmint is the most important grape used in the production of Tokaji, but Furmint is also used to produce dry white wines . . . which brings me to the wine we tasted for #winechat.

Label Decoding:

  • Bodrog is a river in northeastern Hungary that converges with the Tisza River in the town of Tokaj.  Anytime I see the word river associated with wine, I immediately think microclimate.
  • Bormühely translates to wine workshop.  They’re basically hand-picking the Furmint grapes that haven’t been affected with botrytis.
  • Lapis is the name of the vineyard.
  • Furmint is the grape used in this wine.
  • Tokaj is the region.

100% Furmint.  There’s a sweetness on the nose of this wine — almost mandeln-like, but this is a bone dry wine.  You’ll think I’m nuts, but the sweetness reminds me of root beer (call it sassafras).  The oak aging is apparent, lending a creaminess to the texture of the wine.  13% ABV and $22.  On Day 2, the creaminess is even more intense, the finish longer, and the mineral notes much more apparent.  This is a wine that craves time.

Trivia Break:  The Tokaj region and its famous wine sit on the highest of pedestals in Hungary. So much so, the Hungarian national anthem thanks God for dripping the sweet nectar of Tokaji into the region.  ♫♫♫

DSCN4560Fekete Béla Olaszrizling, Somló 2011 ⭐⭐⭐/84

Label Decoding:

  • Fekete is the name of the winemaker (Fekete Béla).
  • Olasrizling is the name of the grape.  Olasrizling has several aliases — Graševina (Croatia), Welchriesling (Germany), Riesling Italico (Italy) and Laški rifling (Slovenia).
  • Somló is the wine region (the smallest wine region in Hungary and sitting on what used to be an underwater volcano).

100% Olaszrizling.  The Fekete is a glass of minerals – the nose reminds me of a bottle of multi-vitamins. There’s a lemon-sherry quality to it, as well.  And even some saltiness.  Very strong finish of white pepper.  Interesting.  Day 2:  I’m getting a buttered vegetable note, maybe green peppers.  The finish is a little chemical now.  Huh.  This wine is supposedly best after 2-3 years of aging — I would love to revisit this wine with some age on it.  14.5% ABV and $25.

Trivia break:  Did you know the Rubik’s Cube was invented by a Hungarian engineer named Ernő Rubik?  I never could solve more than two sides of that confounded cube!

Thanks again to Protocol Wine Studio and Blue Danube for hosting . . . and to everyone who offered their time and thoughts on the wines of Hungary.  It was a night of education and intrigue.

I can’t wait to read the next page . . .

Egészségedre!

Virginia Wine: Chatting with Williamsburg Winery

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Sounds like good advice to me.

Last Thursday (March 20th) was my inaugural experience tasting and participating in a Virginia Wine Chat. Sure, I’ve stalked a few chats before, but I’ve never actually contributed.  After some initial Tweet-fright, I dove into the deep end of the Twitter pool . . . and had a GREAT time!!

For the unfamiliar, the Virginia Wine Chat was created (and is hosted) by Frank Morgan of the always well-written blog, DrinkWhatYouLike.  The chat takes place roughly once a month and includes Virginia winemakers, bloggers and consumers.  Each chat features a particular Virginia winery and/or winemaker.  Virginia Wine Chat had been a Twitter only venue until December of last year, when it expanded to include live video feed via UStream. This was my first time watching the live video feed, and the format worked very well.  Frank is a great facilitator and moderator — the conversation was lively, entertaining, and educational.

Incidentally, if you’ve never participated in a live chat on Twitter before, it’s barely organized chaos.  My synapses felt like they were on speed!

The guest for this month’s chat was Matthew Meyer, winemaker at Williamsburg Winery in Williamsburg, Virginia.  If you’re a wine lover in the Commonwealth of Virginia, no doubt you know congratulations are in order — Williamsburg Winery’s Adagio Red won the Virginia Governor’s Cup this year. This is a big bleepin’ deal!

Williamsburg Winery offered a 3-bottle chat-pack at a reduced price (and reduced shipping) for the Virginia Wine Chat.  You don’t have to live in Williamsburg (or even in Virginia) to taste along with the chat!  I hadn’t been to Williamsburg Winery since before my son was born — so 16 years ago.  And let me tell you . . . Williamsburg Winery isn’t what it used to be . . . it’s far, far better!

Midsummer Night’s White 2012 ⭐⭐/84
I’m not a huge sweet wine fan, and this wine is definitely on the sweeter side at 1.6% residual sugar.  But I’m guessing it’s an immensely popular wine for Williamsburg Winery, especially in the warmer months.  It’s a blend of 40% Traminette, 40% Vidal Blanc, and 20% Viognier.  And wow, you can really taste the Traminette. The wine smells so much like Gewürztraminer, which makes sense because Traminette is a cross between a French-American hybrid grape called Joannes Seyve 23.416 (yeah, the number is a head-scratcher for me, too) and Gewürztraminer.

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Myer spoke about a tasting he participated in at UC Davis in California in the mid-90s, where they tasted a Virginia Viognier from Horton Vineyards.  Everyone was surprised — “This is from Virginia?!?  Amazing!”  I couldn’t agree more.  A Horton Viognier was responsible for my very first “Wow! This is serious!” moment about Virginia wine.

Both of the red wines we tasted are blends, which, according to Myer, are the future for Virginia reds.  “A lot of the wines we do out here [on the east coast] are blends, on the red side, and they’re more of an Old World style.”  I have a somewhat tenuous relationship with Virginia reds, but the ones that have impressed me have all been blends.  Food for thought.

Virginia Trianon Cabernet Franc 2010 ⭐⭐⭐/89
A blend of 78% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot.  Some currant-funk on the nose.  The veggie notes of the Cab Franc are very present.  But my favorite thing about the Trianon is its softness — those veggie edges have been sanded down, and it remains incredibly well-structured. My favorite of the night — consider my socks knocked off!  Bravo!

Gabriel Archer Reserve 2010 ⭐⭐⭐/87
Another blend: 32% Merlot, 29% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 19% Cabernet Sauvignon.  There’s a HUGE nose on this wine.  Gonzo from The Muppets wishes his nose was this big.  Loaded with tobacco and dark berries.  Gorgeous balance, reminds me of a mocha latte — eat your hear out, Starbucks.  I accidentally paired Gabriel Archer with a 3-Musketeers bite and WOW!!  The cocoa notes in the wine just sing with the chocolate!

The next Virginia Wine Chat will be on Thursday, April 24th at 7:30pm.  The guest will be Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards.  Btw, Barboursville had not one but three wines featured in the Governor’s Case (the top 12 finishers at the Virginia Governor’s Cup).  They’re doing something really right over there!

Barboursville will be offering a 3-bottle chat-pack for the #vawinechat on the 24th.  Though, it’s my understanding it won’t be available on their website — you’ll need to call to get it.

Please consider joining in the chat . . . or just stalk it by searching for #vawinechat on Twitter. Either way, you’ll have some fun and learn something new.

Salud!

Carpe Vinum: Passport to Catalonia

catalonia flag picAnother one of my Carpe Vinum girlfriends is dusting off her passport — she’s on her way to  Barcelona, Spain.  So . . .  the theme for Carpe Vinum this month was The Wines of Catalonia.

I wrote a separate background post on the wines of Catalonia.  If you missed it, you can find it here: Homage to Catalonia.

We had a terrific afternoon (when do we not?), sampling our way through Catalonia.  As always, the recipe titles are links to the recipes.

¡Bon Profit!

Spanish Potato Chip Omelette paired with Raventós i Blanc De Nit Cava 2011
If you make nothing else from this month’s Carpe Vinum . . . make this!!  It’s an omelette made with potato chips — how much more incentive do you need?  This is a José Andrés recipe, and my girlfriend went for the totally authentic experience, using JA potato chips and JA olive oil. The omelette is finished slightly underdone, which acts as a sauce, and it is insanely good!  And you MUST watch the video in the link.  I could listen to José Andrés all day long — he’s adorable:  “The omelette is so joo-neek!”

Learn from my mistake:  I tried to make a potato chip omelette myself, and I don’t think I had enough olive oil in the pan because mine stuck to EVERYTHING!!  Instead, I made a potato chip scramble.  It still tasted great, though.

Raventós i Blanc De Nit Cava 2011 ⭐⭐⭐/92
A classic Cava blend of Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada . . . with the addition of 5% Monastrell for color.  And the color on this Cava is like cutting into a Ruby Red grapefruit — gorgeous! Beautifully textured.  Floral and citrus.  And it’s only $18.  I should buy a case.  Go ahead, Raventós, say it:  Eat my Shorts, Champagne!

The Pairing 👍👍
The omelette is amazing.  The Cava is amazing.  Together, they’re otherworldly!  I would have been happy to sit and eat potato chip omelette and drink Cava all day long.  The Cava was the perfect complement to the saltiness of the omelette.

Chicken with Catalan Picada paired with Coto de Imaz Rioja Reserva 2008
Picada is a popular sauce in Catalonia.  I’m told it’s not used as a condiment, but as an addition to various dishes.  It’s basically almonds (doesn’t have to be almonds, though), stale bread, garlic and some kind of broth to bind it all together.  This particular chicken dish is made with bittersweet chocolate, so it reminds me a little of the Mexican chicken mole, but without the spiciness.  It’s rich and so flavorful.  An absolute must try!

Coto de Imaz Rioja Reserva 2008 ⭐⭐⭐/90
Yes, yes.  I know Rioja isn’t from Catalonia.  But stuff happens and this is what my girlfriend ended up with . . . so we roll with it.  Rioja is like crack for me . . . I can’t resist the stuff. Tempranillo is so smooth and silky.  Sip after sip, this is a glass of chocolate covered cherries. An absolute delight.  And it’s only $17.

The Pairing 👍
This pairing, though not a Catalonian wine, ended up working extremely well.  The chocolate notes in the wine just sing with the chocolate in the Chicken Picada.  And I started singing Pharrell (Smoky the Bear hat) William’s Happy song in my head!

Baked Ricotta Meatballs with Romesco Sauce paired with Vinos Pinol Terra Alta Ludovicus Red 2009 AND Clos Dalian Garnacha Monsant 2009
Romesco is another almond based Catalonian sauce, but this one is made with ground almonds and a melange of peppers.  My girlfriend used smoked paprika in her Romesco.  I’m not a fan of smoked foods (I won’t even buy smoked turkey at the deli), so I recused myself from critique.  But everyone raved about the sauce.  The meatballs were fantastic.  It never would have occurred to me to use ricotta in a meatball.  Yum!

Vinos Piñol Ludovicus 2009 ⭐⭐/84
This is a wine from the Terra Alta DO of Catalonia.  So glad we got to taste outside of Penedès and Priorat!  A blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Soft berries upfront, but a spicy black pepper on the finish.  A bargain at $10.

Cellers Unió Clos Dalian Garnacha 2009 ⭐/87
From the Montsant DO of Catalonia, this is another bargain at $10.  100% Garnacha.  I love the cinnamon notes.  And there’s definitely a black licorice component that tames the smoky paprika, so it really worked for me.  There’s a little chocolate on the finish, so I went back and tried it with the Chicken Picada . . . Mmmmm!

The Pairings 👍
Both wines worked really well with the meatballs.  My preference was the Garnacha because it tamed the smokiness of the paprika.  Everyone else preferred the Ludovicus.  You see how that worked out?  Something for everyone . . .

Catalan Pork Sausage (Butifarra) with Mushrooms paired with Terra de Verema Triumvirat Priorat 2006
This is another José Andrés recipe.  I wanted it to be authentic, so I ordered the pork sausage (butifarra) from La Tienda, a Spanish grocery in Williamsburg, Virginia.  I’ll admit, I’m not much of a sausage fan — I get a little weirded out by the fattiness.  And when I cooked this dish, there was a crazy amount of fat from the butifarra.  And even though José didn’t say to drain it, I did.  I had to.  The dish is rustic and simple — the splash of Moscatel and the raisins give it a touch of sweetness for balance.  José suggests serving the dish alongside simple white beans.  I did follow that advice, and wow . . . deliciós!

Terra de Verema Triumvirat Priorat 2006 ⭐⭐⭐/90
Priorat definitely has something special going on.  The complexity here is a notch above the other DOs.  A blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah.  Beautifully balanced between fruit and funk.  Blueberry and pencil-lead swirled together in a glass.  A bit more expensive at $30, but worth the splurge.

The Pairing 👍
Rustic food loves rustic wine . . . what else can I say?

I hope my girlfriend is enjoying her time in Catalonia . . . and I hope you all enjoyed this month’s Carpe Vinum pairings!

Next month:  The Governor’s Six-Pack.  Curious, aren’t you??

Salut!

Field Trip: Early Mountain Vineyards

I’ve visited a ton of Virginia wineries over the years.  But I’ve only been writing this blog for 15 months, so I’m gradually revisiting favorites, not so favorites, and new wineries so I can blog the experience.   According to Virginiawine.org, there are 248 wineries in Virginia.  Visiting all of them is starting to sound like Mission Impossible.  But I’ll do my best . . . 

DSCN4511A couple of weeks ago, I visited Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Virginia.

Early Mountain Vineyards is owned by Steve & Jean Case (of AOL fame & fortune).  And it’s a stunning venue — it might be the prettiest winery I’ve ever visited.  Absolutely no expense was spared to create an exceptional aesthetic experience.

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See what I mean? Gorgeous!

That said . . . I felt more like I was at a restaurant than a winery.  But more on that later.

Early Mountain Vineyards has a really interesting business model.  It’s called Best of Virginia. They host cooperating wineries from all over the state (the selection of which rotates) whose wines are available for tasting as part of a “wine flight”.  I love the concept of showcasing the best Virginia wines in one place.  When we lived in Monterey, California, we used to visit a super-fun collaborative tasting room called A Taste of Monterey.  I’ve long wished we had a similar venue here in Virginia.  Early Mountain is as close as I’ve seen to that idea.

That said . . .

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and mine was this sign, posted right beside the front door:

The Welcome Mat

The Welcome Mat

Whaaaa?  My girlfriend and I brought a picnic lunch with us.  Uh-oh.  It was 14 degrees outside, and neither of us was in the mood for an Arctic lunch, so we asked if we could eat our picnic inside.  No dice.  So right up front, my feathers were a little ruffled.  Did I miss something when I checked their website before our field trip??  Steve Case founded AOL — he’s obviously on a first-name-basis with the Internet.  And the website is gorgeous, but I found absolutely no heads-up about the no outside food inside rule.  Btw, I couldn’t find any information about how much it costs to taste a flight of wine, either.  It’s a small thing, but why not let people know what’s available for tasting . . . and exactly how much it will cost?

Just to make sure I wasn’t having a blond moment, I went back to the website when I got home, and here’s what it does say:

Taste and discuss the Best of Virginia wines by the fireplace. Bring friends, the kids, or the dog and have a picnic on The Terrace.  Sample local delicacies from the Marketplace.

Hindsight being 20/20, I suppose “have a picnic on The Terrace” technically means my picnic has to be outside . . . but it’s a bit of a stretch.

Maybe it was the picnic rebuff, but my girlfriend and I were starting to feel a little underdressed in our jeans and now über-conspicuous picnic basket.  Fortunately, this lady and her BFF strolled in wearing fox stoles and the entire Burberry’s catalog.  So that helped.  Of all the days to forget my chinchilla vest!

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Faces have been blurred to protect the innocent.

There is a beautiful wine tasting bar at Early Mountain, but we were quickly ushered away from the bar, straight to a table . . .

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Pretty, but deserted.

. . . where we were given a menu of wine flights available for purchase.  And another menu for our now compulsory lunch selections.

Each wine flight is between $14-20.  You get two ounces each of four different wines, delivered to your table in a handy, custom “wine flight tote”.  But . . . if you want to taste more than four wines, you’ll need to invest at least $30 — for 16 ounces of wine.  I don’t need (or want) 16 ounces to taste 8 wines.  By way of comparison, in a “normal” wine tasting, you pay anywhere form nothing to $10 and taste anywhere from 5 to 20+ wines. If you don’t like a wine, you dump it.  But once you invest in a wine flight, not liking/finishing a wine feels like setting fire to five bucks.

DSCN4473We ordered a Mini Charcuterie plate with local meats and cheeses ($26) along with our other selections of French Onion Soup ($7) and Ham & Brie Pannini ($10).  The food was actually quite good.  My picnic would have been good too, though.  Just sayin‘.

DSCN4508My girlfriend and I both chose the Flash Flight of the Day:

Early Mountain Vineyards Malbec Merlot Rosé 2012 ⭐⭐/84
Not a bad little Rosé.  Delicate and dry with bright cherry flavors and a buttery finish.  $18/bottle.

Early Mountain Vineyards Block 11 White Blend 2012 ⭐⭐/83
Very Viognier-like.  65% Petit Manseng, 35% Moscat.  Petrol nose with tropical flavors of pineapple and gardenia blossom (yes, seriously).  $25/bottle.

Lovingston Seyval Blanc 2012 ⭐⭐/83
Bone dry.  Mouth-puckering, itchy-tongue dry.  There’s a bitter pineapple thing going on, too.  I don’t dislike it, but it needs the right food. $20/bottle.

Trump Blanc de Blanc Sparkling Wine 2008 ⭐⭐⭐/88
My favorite of the flight.  Crisp and clean with white peach and toast flavors.  Decent acidity and balance, too.  $30/bottle.

By the time I finished my $15 flight and my $32 lunch . . . guess what I wasn’t in the mood to do?  Buy wine.  I left Early Mountain empty handed.  Not because the wines weren’t good.  I just blew my budget on the wine flight and lunch.

Will I visit Early Mountain again?  Probably.  But with a different set of expectations.  You aren’t so much wine tasting at Early Mountain as you are sitting down to experience a snapshot of Virginia wine and food.  If you go in knowing that . . . you’ll have a great visit.

My biggest disappointment?  I left not knowing any more about the wines than I did before we got there.  I wanted to taste and learn more of Virginia.  I’d love to see an option for a more traditional tasting upfront (and tasting sheets with some information about the wines) with the option to purchase a flight of my favorites to take to a cozy table afterwards.

But on the plus side, I spent a couple of hours with a good friend, sitting in front of a warm fireplace, eating good food, and drinking some pretty decent wines.  Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Salud!

Footnote:  My girlfriend made a special stop at Pastries by Randolph to buy us these exquisite pear tarts for our winery picnic.  I had visions of the Soup Nazi chasing us out of the winery with a giant ladle if we attempted to eat them inside, so we had to go to Plan B . . .

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Homage to Catalonia

Another one of my Carpe Vinum girlfriends is dusting off her passport — she’s headed to Barcelona, Spain next month.  So, the theme for Carpe Vinum this month is (you guessed it) The Wines of Catalonia.

George Orwell published a book called Homage to Catalonia in 1938.  The book details his experiences in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.  It’s difficult to imagine any experience in Spain without wine, and wine makes frequent cameos in the book.  Orwell’s description of his encounter with a Spanish porrón is greatly amusing (at least to me):

“[We] drank out of a dreadful thing called a porrón.  A porrón is a sort of glass bottle with a pointed spout from which a thin jet of wine spurts out whenever you tip it up; you can thus drink from a distance, without touching it with your lips, and it can be passed from hand to hand.  I went on strike and demanded a drinking cup as soon as I saw a porrón in use.  To my eye the things were altogether too like bed-bottles, especially when they were filled with white wine.”

The potential for hilarious mishap with a porrón is significant.  I really hope my girlfriend has at least one swig of wine from a porrón while she’s in Barcelona.  And I hope she Instagrams the hell out of it!

franco fur

El Generalísimo
All the best dictators wear Dracula fur collars.

In case you need a refresher . . . Catalonia is an autonomous region in northeastern Spain.  Though not independent, Catalonia has its own flag and its own language (Catalan). It’s worth noting that Catalan is distinct — it’s not a dialect of Spanish.  Catalonia has experienced varying degrees of autonomy throughout its history.  After the War of Spanish Succession (a pretty big yawn in World History textbooks), Catalonia lost its sovereignty.  And then it got worse — Catalonia found itself on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).  As a result, Catalonian culture and language were all but crushed during the reign of Ferdinand Franco (1939-75).  Under Franco, it was illegal to use the Catalan, although it was still spoken (softly) in private homes.  When Franco died in 1975, a democratic constitution for Spain recognized Catalonia’s autonomy and language.  Today, calls for Catalonian independence are back on the table in a big way — change is in the wind.

Circle back to Orwell.  My favorite quote of the book is this observation:  “For some reason, all the best matadors were Fascists.”  It just makes me laugh . . . and suspect that Franco was a closet matador.

Winemaking isn’t new to Catalonia — wines have been made in Catalonia for thousands of years.  Catalonia has absorbed the influence of numerous cultures throughout its history, and wine has either ebbed or flowed in tandem.  Wine flourished under the Romans, vines were neglected under the Moors, and the Christians shepherded a vineyard resurgence during the Middle Ages.  Incidentally, El Generalísimo was no friend to wine.  During his reign, a lot of vineyards and grapes were neglected or uprooted altogether.

The theme in modern Catalonian winemaking is resurgence.  Since the 1980s, Spanish wineries have been making a push to modernize.  And with modernization came cutting-edge wine making equipment, and an influx of young, motivated, well-educated wine makers — who are just beginning to put Catalonia on the world’s wine map.

Catalonia has a varied climate — dry and arid inland, but Mediterranean on the coast.  These climatic differences give Catalonia a huge portfolio of grapes, and an equally diverse range of wine styles. Because of the area’s proximity to France (just on the other side of the Pyrennes Mountains), Cava is heavily influenced by Champagne, and still red wines are heavily influenced by French Rousillon.

Important white grapes in Catalonia:  Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo (mostly for Cava)
Important red grapes in Catalonia:  Garnacha, Cariñena, Monastrell and Tempranillo

Catalonia is home to 10 Denominació d’Origen (DO) regions, and 1 Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) region — the Priorat:

Arguably, the most well-known wine in Catalonia is Cava, Spain’s traditional-method sparkling wine.  And I love Cava!  It’s clean, crisp and deliciously cheap.  Don’t get me wrong — I heart Champagne, but my wallet hearts Cava.

Penedès – Here’s something important to know:  Cava isn’t a region — it’s a style.  The name Cava doesn’t derive from a place or a grape name.  Cava refers to the stone caves where the wines are aged.  There are roughly 160 areas that are authorized to make sparkling wine and call it Cava, and most of them are located in the Penedès region of Catalonia.  Penedès was a pioneer in the modernization of Spanish wine, it was the first to use temperature controlled steel fermentation tanks.

The three classic grapes for making Cava are:

  1. Macabeo — Usually the bulk of a Cava blend because the grape buds late, which insures against early frost damage.  It’s floral with honey and grapefruit flavors.
  2. Xarel-lo — Xarel-lo is high in the antioxidant resveratrol.  So, grab a bottle of Cava and drink up.  You know, for medicinal purposes.  Xarel-lo also lends Cava some earthy flavors that help distinguish it from French Champagne.
  3. Parellada — Native to Catalonia, it grows almost nowhere else in the world.  High in acidity, with green apple and citrus flavors.

Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Garnacha, and Monastrell are also permitted in Cava — the last two are used especially for making Rosé Cava.

Priorat — Priorat is one of two DOC regions in Spain (the other is Rioja).  Garnacha is the primary grape of Priorat, followed closely by Cariñena.  Some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also used.  The name Priorat originates in the 12th century, when Carthusian monks planted a vineyard and started a priory in that location.  At the end of the 19th century, Phylloxera devastated vineyards in Priorat, and vineyards weren’t replanted until the 1950s. The soil in Priorat is a somewhat unusual blend of quartz and slate called llicorella.  Vines grow on steep terraces and are harvested mostly by hand.  Priorat wines are fairly high in alcohol, usually between 13-18%.

Alella — Located on the Mediterranean coast near Barcelona, this region makes mostly white wines.  The main grape here is Pansa Blanca, a local pseudonym for Xarel-lo.  Red wines here are mostly Ull de Llebre, the Catalan name for Tempranillo.

Catalunya — Created in 1999, the Catalunya DO is a blanket appellation that applies to all the other little regions in Catalonia that don’t have a DO or DOQ status.

Conca de Barberà – The focus in this region is on growing grapes for Cava production.  Although, some Rosado is made from the local Trepat grape.

Costers del Segre – This is Catalonia’s most inland wine region.  A great many vineyards weren’t replanted after the phylloxera epidemic, shifting focus to olive groves instead.  The main grapes here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Macabeo, Merlot, Parellada, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo.

Emporda — This region borders the French Roussillon.  The main grapes are Grenache and Carignan.  Lots of Rosado is made here.

Montsant — This region is starting to gain international recognition for its still red wines, which are distinguished by older Garnacha and Cariñena grapevines.

Pla de Bages — The town was originally named Bacassis, after Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine.  It evolved over time to Pla de Bages, or Plain of Bacchus.  The region is most known for it’s crisp, dry whites, but increasingly, international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are taking root.

Tarragona — Most of the grapes here are used for Cava production.  The region also produces some sweet, port style wines, which end up as communion wines for churches.

Terra Alta – This is the southernmost wine region in Catalonia, and also the region with the highest altitude (this makes sense, because Terra Alta translates to highlands).  During the Middle Ages, the Knights Templar are said to have tended grapevines here.  Terra Alta is known for Garnacha Blanca wines.

There are a ton of wine choices on the menu in Catalonia.  For sure, the most readily available Catalonian wines are Cava and Priorat.  It’s more of a challenge to find the other Catalonian DO wines, but it can be done.  You just have to be willing to look.

Here’s to Catalonia . . . stay tuned for the wines and our food pairings!

Salud!