Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 41

A few days ago, I received a belated Christmas gift from a good friend (we find the holidays are more magical if you stretch them into February).

Check out these lovely glasses made out of recycled/repurposed wine bottles.  These are right up my wine alley, and believe it or not, I didn’t already own a set!  My Friday night gin & tonic is going to taste even better when I drink it out of one of these beauties.

I’ve often admired sets of plain recycled wine bottle glasses, but these are even better — they’re festooned (people don’t use the word festooned enough) with these fine words from the Godfather of American Wine:

DSC_3637-1Seems like sage advice to me . . . let’s start pouring!


Weekly Photo Challenge: Symmetry

Our theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is:  Symmetry.
Our instructions:  “Share an image of symmetry.  Don’t limit yourself to architecture — you can bend this theme in any way you’d like.”

I love symmetry and balance.  Chaos makes me twitch.  But I concede, sometimes you need to sprinkle a little chaos into your life to keep things exciting.

Against all odds, I have an orchid that blooms twice a year.  I keep it next to a window in my bathroom — I think it likes the humidity there.  After that, I pretty much ignore it.  I forget to water it for weeks at a time.  I never fertilize.  I’ve never changed the pot.  You orchid enthusiasts out there are probably about to throw an aneurysm.  It’s only a matter of time before it stops blooming.  But for now, it blooms.

And . . . it’s symmetrical.  As far as exotic varieties go, it’s definitely one of the more pedestrian orchids out there.  But this is my orchid.  There are many like it, but this one is mine (nod to Full Metal Jacket).

DSC_3650-1-2My first crop of this photo was a little too symmetrical, too balanced.  So, I decided to sprinkle a little chaos and leave it slightly off-kilter (hello, rule of thirds), and include the orchid buds off to the side.  It’s symmetrical without being rigid.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Nikon D800
ISO 400 | 105mm | f/14 | 1/60 sec


Provence: It’s Not Just for Rosé

Well . . . it’s mostly for Rosé.  After all, 80% (give or take a percent) of all the wine made in Provence is Rosé.

Carpe Vinum (the wine club I’m part of) is today — it’s my favorite Friday of the whole month! It’s also the coldest Friday of the whole month (maybe even the whole decade, if you believe the local weather oracles).  It’s Canada Cold here this morning (-1 without the windchill), but that won’t stop me from venturing out for Carpe Vinum — that’s what my Nanook of the North parka is for!  A couple of us are heading to France on vacation this summer (I’m going Paris and north; my girlfriend is going Paris and south), so for the next 4 months, we’ll be doing an in-depth study of the French wine regions where we’ll be traveling.

Our first study is Provence . . . 


I want to sit in that preppy, pink chair and drink Rosé.

Photo Credit

Over the centuries, many cultures came, saw and conquered Provence, each leaving their mark on viticulture.  Grapevines in Provence can be traced back to sometime around 600BC, when the ancient Greeks established the city of Marseilles, which became a major trading port (and the source for bronze tchotchkes).  Marseilles began producing its own wine, trading and exporting it as early as 500BC.  Btw, women weren’t allowed to drink wine in ancient Marseilles (an obvious black mark on the history of civilization).  Hannibal marched his elephant army through Provence in 218BC, no doubt stopping for some Rosé along his way (you work up quite a thirst after marching a bunch of elephants through the Pyrennes).  Then came the parade of conquerers — the Romans, the Christians, Visigoths, Merovingians, Franks, Arabs, Saracens.  You get the picture.  They all left their mark.

Once you check a map, the climate in Provence is pretty obvious — Mediterranean.  Mild winters, warm summers, tons of sunshine, very little rainfall.  Provence has to deal with something called the Mistral Winds, which are great for cooling and drying things off in the vineyard (preventing pesky vineyard pests), but they can also beat the heck out of fragile grapes and vines.  Soils vary considerably in Provence, anything from limestone and shale (near the coast) to schist, quartz, clay and/or sandstone.


Map Credit

If you’ve ever been to Provence (which I have not, but I’ve read the brochure), Provence is an aromatherapists dream — it’s overrun with assorted shrubbery like lavender, rosemary and juniper.  It has to be one of the most relaxing places on the planet.    People say (people who have a lot more experience with Provence wines than I do), that this part of Provence terroir shines through in its wines.  Oh, I hope so!  I’m going to be looking for hints of lavender, whispers of juniper, and reflections of rosemary in my wines today!


Everyone breathe in . . .

Photo Credit

The AOCs in Provence use a dizzying array of grape varieties and and even dizzier system for how much of what grape can be blended with another grape.  I read it twice, and I’m still bewildered.  All I really need for Carpe Vinum is a cheat sheet, so here goes:

The main grape varieties used to make Provence Rosé:  Grenache and Carignan.

The main grape varieties used to make Provence whites include (to varying degree):

  • Bourboulenc
  • Clairette
  • Grenache Blanc
  • Marsanne
  • Roussanne
  • Rolle (aka Vermentino)
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Semillon
  • Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano)

The main grape varieties used to make Provence reds include:

  •  Mourvèdre is the star!  After that, it’s all about blending in varying amounts with . . .
  • Grenache
  • Cinsault
  • Carignan
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Syrah

The primary appellations in Provence are:

  1. Côtes de Provence — The largest appellation in Provence, and as such, has a lot of climate and soil variations.  Accounts for 75% of all wine produced in Provence, and of that, 80% is Rosé.  The main grape varieties include Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, some Cabernet Sauvignon (also the local reds Tibournen and Calitor). Côtes de Provence is large enough to have four sub-appellations:  Sainte-Victoire, La Londe, Fréjus, and Pierrefeu.
  2. Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence — Makes red, white and Rosé wines, using Grenache, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre, and small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon.  The white grape varieties used here include Bourboulenc, Clairette, Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon.
  3. Coteaux Varois de Provence — Specializes in red wines, made with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.  An occasional white wine from Rolle.  Vines here are inland and at higher altitude, making them a bit more intense.
  4. Les Baux de Provence — The warmest appellation in Provence, focuses on reds from Grenache, Syrah and Cinsaut.  Blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
  5. Cassis — The appellation for white wines in Provence, focusing on Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Marsanne.
  6. Bandol — The appellation for red wines in Provence, Mourvèdre is the star.  Both red and Rosé from Bandol tends toward spice notes.
  7. Palette — Tiniest appellation.  Mourvèdre is the star here, too.  If any lesser known grapes come into play, it’s in Palette.  There are only two estates here.
  8. Bellet — Red, white and Rosé.  The Rosé from Bellet is known for it’s nose of rose (hey, that rhymes!) petals.
  9. Pierrevert — the newest AOC in Provence, they’re still working out their kinks.

Provence Trivia:  The traditional bottle used for Provence Rosè is called a skittle, and it’s shaped like a bowling pin.  I used two different Provence Rosé skittles to make my wine bottle tiki torches, which, btw, is the most popular post in the history of this blog.  Apparently, I should do more crafts (shudder).


And with that . . . I’m heading out into the Canadian tundra.  I’m ready to taste Provence!
Stay tuned for our wine and food pairings.


Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 40

Happy Birthday, Mr. Washington!

The Father of our Country was a huge fan of the grape — his favorites were Madeira and Claret.  Washington’s friend (and Secretary of State), Thomas Jefferson, was his wine buyer. Jefferson ordered oceans of wine for Washington.  In 1790, Jefferson ordered 100 dozen bottles of wine (40 dozen Champagne, 30 dozen Sauterne, 20 dozen Bordeaux de Segur, and 10 dozen Frontignan) for President Washington.  I guess you do a lot of entertaining when you’re the President.  But you’d also need a decent sized space to store 1,200 bottles of wine, so I’m guessing those bottles lived in Mount Vernon’s wine cellar, since Washington never lived in the White House.

IMG_3166This week’s words come from John Hailman’s book, Thomas Jefferson on Wine.  It’s a meticulously researched Jefferson history told through the lens of wine.  And an absolute treasure of wine words for me!

During the Revolutionary War (almost a decade before Washington was ordering 1,200 bottles of wine at a time), a French officer named Marquis de Chastellux, served as a liaison between French General Rochambeau and General George Washington.  Chastellux would later become a close personal friend of Washington.  The two exchanged letters in July of 1781, three months before the Battle of Yorktown (which would put a fork in the Revolutionary War).

Washington had a rule against accepting gifts, but rules are meant to be broken, especially when you are running dangerously low on your favorite Claret. Chastellux realized how serious this deficit was, and offered Washington some of his own wine, specifically “ten barrils of Claret.”  Chastellux (through a brilliant dose of wit) told Washington that if he were not to accept his gift, he would have no choice but to assume he was an “enemy to French produce.” And then (get this), he accused Washington of consorting with the enemy — “you have a little of the tory in your composition”.  (And to think, Chastellux wrote this without benefit of winky-face emojis).

Egad.  Did he just question George Washington’s patriotism?!?

Here is Washington’s response (sorry for the word curve, I was trying to hold the book open with one hand, and photograph with the other):


Who knew the Father of our Country had such a subtle wit??  I think I have a crush.

Well, that settles it.  Washington has no choice but to accept the Claret!  Clearly, he feels a little guilty about taking so much of Chastellux’s wine, but as long as Chastellux promises to come and hang out at Mount Vernon, and partake of Claret’s hilarity, then we’re all good.

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to share a glass of hilarity with Mr. Washington!


P.S.  Mars Update:  I am the Fish Wisperer!!  I am pleased to report that Mars (my daughter’s sick betta fish) has been released from his hospital tank and is now resting comfortably at home.  He’s looking and acting like himself (phew!!)  I anticipate a full recovery.  Apparently, I should have been a marine biologist.

Wine Pairing Challenge: Muffaletta

Snow fell from the skies above Washington, DC last night.  The Federal Government was closed.  Everything was closed, really.  We have a mammoth 4 inches of snow here at Casa Armchair Sommelier, which is enough to shutter schools for at least 2 days.  (I have a theory that our schools shut down at a ratio of 2:1 — inches of snow to days closed).

I’ll pause for a moment so Boston can mock us.

Today is also Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.  Not something I usually (ever) celebrate, but a photo of a Muffaletta sandwich (the classic New Orleans nosh) floated across my computer screen the other day, and I got a craving.  Making a Muffaletta requires a trip to the grocery store.  No biggie, right?


Yesterday was President’s Day, so The Govies and a huge swath of schools had the day off. Combine that with an impending snow apocalypse, and Wegmans (my grocery store of choice) was under siege.  It took me 10 minutes to find a place to park!  And inside was no better — total cart gridlock.  Everyone in the store was suffering from a complete lack of situational awareness.  You wouldn’t park your car in the middle of an intersection, get out, and walk down the street, so why is it OK to do that with your cart in a store?!?  Grrrrr.  Adding to the misery, it’s always the carts with the extended Speed Racer toddler cab (aka the mobile petri dish), which have all the maneuverability of a 1970s Cadillac land yacht.

Right, the Muffaletta.

The Muffaletta has its origins at a grocery store near a farmers market in New Orleans.  Sicilian farmers would come into the grocery store for lunch, and order an assortment of meats, cheeses, bread and olive salad.  At first, they would eat all of the components separately, but eventually, it dawned on someone to stack everything between two slices of bread, and voila!  The Muffaletta sandwich was born.

Mmmmmuffaletta!  My daughter and I can’t get enough olive salad on this sandwich.  But the Mr. Armchair Sommelier is an olive hater, so had his sans olive salad, which means he pretty much ate a ham sandwich.

What wine to pair with my Muffaletta?  I used Emeril’s recipe, and there’s a lot of different flavors and textures going on here.  The bread is pretty benign, but I’ve also got assorted meats (mortadella, prosciutto and Genoa salami — some fattier than others), provolone and mozzarella cheeses, and the acidic olive and marinated veggie salad.

Sidebar:  My teenage daughter initially balked at the mortadella (“Gawd, what is with the Euros and suspending things in meats?”), but she quickly reconsidered suspending of said “things” after she tasted it.  Because it’s good.  Really good.

My gut said Rosé — it struck me as a good compromise between the meats and the acid in the olive salad.  And so far, it’s working just fine.  The acids aren’t necessarily tamed with the Rosé, but they’re at least playing nicely together in the sandbox.

What are your thoughts?  What wine(s) would you pair with a Muffaletta sandwich?

Happy Fat Snow Tuesday . . . Salud!

Virginia Wine: Chatting with Rappahannock Cellars


The site of the 27th #VAWineChat – Rappahannock’s new barrel room.

Live from Rappahannock Cellars . . . it’s the 27th edition of the Virginia Wine Chat!

For the unfamiliar, the Virginia Wine Chat is a monthly virtual gathering created (and hosted) by Frank Morgan of DrinkWhatYouLike. The chat includes Virginia winemakers, bloggers and consumers. Each chat features a particular Virginia winery and/or winemaker.  I usually participate online via Twitter; this was my first time attending in person.

In addition to tasting three very interesting Rappahannock wines, Frank posed three very interesting questions to our live and online group:

  1. Should Viognier be the signature grape of Virginia?
  2. What is the most under-utilized grape in Virginia?
  3. Is there a quality shift underway in Virginia?

Our distinguished panel: Frank Morgan, winemaker Theo Smith, and owner John Delmare.

Should Viognier be the signature grape of Virginia?  In 2011, the Virginia Wine Board designated Viognier as the signature grape of Virginia.  I was pretty jazzed about it, too (would Virginia Viognier take off the same way Oregon Pinot or California Cab has?)  I’ve long evangelized for Virginia Viognier, and a few years ago I was convinced we all needed Virginia is for Viognier t-shirts.  But, over the last couple of years (which I realize have been challenging ones for Virginia Viognier), I’ve noticed an unsettling trend:  way too much Virginia Viognier is waaaay overdone.  I’ll visit a winery, stick my nose into a glass of Viognier, and more often than not, it smells like a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil, a smell that is seared into my brain.  There was a time in my life (during my less-than-bright teenage years) when I thought I could get a tan if I just tried hard enough, and I bought that stuff by the case.  The only thing it ever got me was second-degree burns.  I digress.  The point is, I’m tired of tropical smoothie Viognier (if tropical smoothie Viognier curls your toes, then you’re probably over the moon with Virginia Viognier right now).  I still like the idea of a signature grape, but I’m looking for wineries that encourage Viognier in another direction.

What is the most under-utilized grape in Virginia?  Not the most under-planted grape, the most under-utilized.  Hmmm.  Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape variety in Virginia (Merlot is the most widely planted red grape variety).  If you’re curious about grape production and acreage in the Commonwealth, check out Virginia Wine’s 2012 Commercial Grape Report. But planting a lot of Chardonnay doesn’t mean it’s the most utilized grape in the Commonwealth.  Rappahannock winemaker, Theo Smith, offered Chardonnay as an under-utilized grape, and I agree.  I read a quote from New Zealand winemaker, Neil Culley, and it resonates here (Wine, Words and Wednesday spoiler alert!).  “Anyone can make Chardonnay — it’s a very forgiving variety — but to make a really good one is as difficult as Pinot Noir.”  Bingo. I feel like a lot of Virginia wineries use Chardonnay as their “safety” wine.  Virginia makes buckets of Chardonnay, but a lot of it is a great big bottle of Y-A-W-N wearing an oak cape.  This bums me out, because I like Chardonnay, and Chardonnay is such a blank canvas. It presents the winemaker with a great opportunity to show off his or her stylistic chops, to be extraordinary.  Happily, the Chardonnay bar is rising in Virginia, which brings us to the next question.

Is there a quality shift underway in Virginia?  The past few years have brought an interesting shift to Virginia Wine — Frank has written extensively and well on the topic he calls, the Growing Divide in Virginia Wine.  Me?  I’ve been visiting Virginia wineries and tasting Virginia wines for over 20 years.  And I’ve always thought of Virginia wine quality as a bell curve — some wines are terrible, the majority fall into the average/good range, and some are outstanding.  A predictable and reliable bell curve.  But, in recent years, more and more wineries are squeezing into the outstanding side of that curve (one Virginia winery is so outstanding, it’s not even on the curve — I’m looking at you, RdV).  I still taste a lot of perfectly fine, but ultimately unexciting Virginia wines (along with some that are far less than fine), but I’m encouraged by the growing mass on the outstanding side of the curve.  Even if it is wrecking my curve.


Ready . . . Set . . . Chat!

On to the tastings!

Rappahannock Cellars Viognier 2014
94% Viognier, 6% Petit Manseng.  All estate fruit, aged 2/3 in 2nd year French oak and 1/3 in stainless.  Viognier is a fickle grape and it’s not very cold hardy.  Rappahannock owner, John Delmare lamented, “Viognier drives you crazy as a farmer.”  Well, Rappahannock is doing great stuff with that crazy grape.  I’m officially calling this Viognier the anti-establishment Viognier.  I love the shift away from the Pineapple Express (heavy tropics) toward clean stones.  The inclusion of Petit Manseng adds spice and brightness.  Shows great restraint, elegance and balance.  The best Virginia Viognier I’ve had in a while.  $30.

Rappahannock Cellars Black Label Chardonnay 2013
100% Chardonnay.  Aged 16 months in French oak (23% new).  John Hagarty, of Hagarty on Wine, offered what might be the best quote of the night: “Oak is a spice, not a sauce.”  Touché! The oak in this glass of Chardonnay is focused, providing depth and texture instead of bullying its way around the glass.  There’s a chalkiness to the nose that is so refreshing.  Super balance and restraint.  The banana bread note on the finish is a real treat!  $34 and only available to Rappahannock Club members.


Furiously scribbling tasting notes . . .

Rappahannock Cellars Meritage 2012
Ah, Meritage.  Virginia is having across-the-board success with Meritage.  John Delmare agreed, saying, “Call it Merlot and you can’t sell it. Call it Meritage and it disappears.” 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot.  Aged 16 months in French oak (20% new).  The lavender and violet notes coming off the nose of this Meritage are incredible — I might dab some behind my ears!!  There’s an unexpected softness and balance here that betrays the nose.  Hangs on for quite a while.  I’d love to revisit this wine in another decade.  $34.

I’m at a point in my wine-life where I don’t want to be clobbered over the head with a wine (I call it my palate shift — I want something less obvious and more elegant), and Rappahannock’s wines are showing great finesse and restraint.

The 27th #VAWineChat was well organized and facilitated, as usual.  I learned a lot, and it was great to meet some folks I only usually “see” online.  Overall, a lovely evening.

The March edition of #VAWineChat will be held at Breaux Vineyards in Purcelleville.  Please join the conversation!


Weekly Photo Challenge: Scale

Our theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is:  Scale.
Our instructions:  “This week, share an image that highlights a size relationship — make us pause and take a second look to understand the scale of the elements in your photo.”

This isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  I mean, short of wandering around town, carefully placing assorted coins into all of my photos, scale was a bit of a stumper for me.

And then I remembered my tiny ice cave.  I took this photo at Shenandoah National Park. When I saw it, I pushed pause on my hike so I could get down on the ground and snap a few photos.  It was just so . . . pretty.  So where’s the scale?  Take a look at the decomposing oak leaf on the right side of the photo — it lends some secondary perspective.  Oak leaves don’t very that much in size.  So, if you stop to take that second look, you’ll see how small and delicate this little cave actually is.

I have no idea why the little ice/snow crystals grow that way — they remind me a lot of a geode.  I’m sure there’s a sciency explanation out there somewhere, but for now, I’m content to just admire Mother Nature’s handiwork.