Game Box Wines – An Idea for Our Times?

The new package from Game Box Wines features a sense of fun at every turn.

Remember when wine was fun and nothing more? For many of us, that was likely in our early days of discovery, before we bought wine according to score, prestige, investment value or what food it paired with. We just bought wine to try on the way out of the grocery store. And you know what? We enjoyed most of them.

I thought of those days, long ago for me, when I got an email about the introduction of a new box wine. Wait, wait, wait! Before you stop reading, give me another 10 seconds please – here’s why I think the new Game Box Wines are good for our industry, and the right product for our current times:

  • It’s the environment. Duh. – The #1 contributor to wine industry emmissions is the production and transportation of glass bottles. As much as I LOVE the tradition and romance and sound of a popping cork, the future belongs to alternative packaging such as boxed wines. The industry refers to them as “Bag-in-Box” (or BiB), as it’s actually the mylar bag and the one-way valve that weighs just ~5% of a bottle.
  • Wine Preservation. – As with all boxed wine, the package protects a wine from oxidation for weeks instead of days. And it does it wihtout any expensive technology, gas cannisters that need replacing, or valuable counter space. And speaking of storage space, the box requires far less than the 4 bottles it contains.
A small sample of Game Box Wines’ sense of fun, inspired by childhood cereal boxes. Click for more.
  • Fun. – When a wine doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s more approachable. And that is key to attracting new fans. And Game Box achieves this in spades, with a box design inspired by childhood memories of fun cereal boxes. To get a taste of the humor just click the image, above.
  • Quality! – We’re not talking about the Franzia crowd here. Or if we are, we’re talking about the slice of that vast market who are ready for an upgraded wine experience. On the Quality-Price grid, I put Game Box in the same quadrant as Black Box Wines, which has fairly well dominated the space for over 20 years now. The wine inside the package is reportedly sourced from “quality grapes from appellations adjacent to Napa Valley”, which I suspect to be Sonoma, Lake County (already a significant source of quality grapes used in Napa-designated wines, just below the 15% requirment), and perhaps including the lesser vineyards in Solano and Yolo counties.

Let’s keep an eye on Game Box Wines. Of course, there are many hurdles between today and their eventual success in this hyper-competitive, insanely regulated industry. But I have a feeling the minds behind this new product will weather the storm.

Dave the Wine Merchant - Logo

Mt Etna Wines Are Exploding (Literally)

Mt Etna Erupts, Spring of 2021. Nearby wineries jubilant???

In rather dramatic fashion, Mt Etna has been erupting again this week. Though volcanic eruptions are a humbling testament to the raw, unpredictable power of nature, wine lovers can be thankful their black, volcanic soils produce uniquely delicious wines like those from the Etna DOC. Assuming the vineyards survive the eruption, of course.

And it appears that neither vines nor structures are at risk this week, despite the awesome power of this eruption – the lava is flowing down into an empty valley, where it’s flowed for untold previous eruptions.

But about those volcanic soils… Even when the lava isn’t actively flowing, Mt Etna quietly belches clouds of black volcanic dust. It’s nearly constant. The vineyards of the Etna DOC are perched on steep vineyards between the 10,000 foot volcano to the West and the ocean to its East (where the Mediterranean and Ionean meet), so the vines are frequently covered in volcanic ash.

While its the region’s extreme, “adrenalin-rush winemaking” that adds interest to the wines of Etna, they’ve grown hot (sorry) on their own merits. They just happen to be uniquely delicious – the fact that every bottle comes with a story of wonder and delight is just a side bonus.

Here’s why I think these unique wines are worth a portion of your wine budget:

Volcanic Vineyards
It’s all about the flavors and aromas from these well-drained, nutrient-poor and mineral-rich, black volcanic soils (yes, yes, yes, and also the vineyards’ altitude (starting at 500 feet and rising up the mountainside to and impressive 4000 feet ), exposure, ocean influence, yadda yadda). But it’s the area’s unique soils that make the Etna wines worth sampling.

The Grape Caveat
Not to be sold short, however, Etna’s ancient grape varieties also play a key role in shaping these wines. They come from grapes believed to originate on the island, and that are known only to a handful of serious students of the vine. But serious can be boring!
 
Don’t be serious. Be curious!
Etna Rosso
Etna’s reds must be made from at least 80% of the ancient Nerello Mascalese, believed to have originated in Sicily. The grape is similar in style to the medium-bodied reg grapes – Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. The second red grape in these blends is equally obscure Nerello Cappucio (which adds color and ripeness/alcohol). Finally, should the winemaker so desire, up to 10% of the blend can comme from a handful of other Sicilian varietals. 

Etna Bianco
The equally (more?) delicious white wines of the Etna DOC are crafted largely from a relatively unknown white grape – at least 60% of the blend must be from the Carricante grape. And while the Catarratto is Sicily’s most widely planted white grape, it too is virtually unknown to most of us, and is the second grape on the list of credits for the Etna Bianco wines, followed by a short list of others. 

But more important than all these details – the wines are simply delicious and worth a try!
Three Etna DOC wines worth a bit of your wine budget this month:
Discover a new favorite!To Your Health! The health benefits of moderate drinking.
Dave the Wine Merchant*
866-746-7293
 
*P.S. These wines have become popular lately. If my supply has been depleted before you can order, rest assured I’ll be bringing in more. Just reply to this email with your interest and I’ll contact you once they arrive. Vintages and vineyards may change, however.

Pairing Wine and Chocolate – What Works Best?

Gourmet Chocolates for Wine Pairing

Wine and chocolate. It sounds like a match made in heaven, but quite honestly, the pairing rarely lives up to expectations. Why? The natural tannins in red wines fight with the chocolate, and the sweetness of the chocolate make the wine seem more tannic – a visious cycle.

The solution? Pair dark chocolate with sweet wines.

Though Americans turn up our nose at sweet wines, the truth is they can be heavenly when part of the dessert or cheese course. It has always struck me as odd that the country that consumes Coca Cola (at 10 cubes of sugar per can) won’t touch high-quality dessert wines. I’m not talking about table wines with high degrees of residual sugar – please leave those on the bottom shelf at the wine shop where they belong. For pairing with chocolate, turn to wines made as dessert wines.

But before we get to the wines, let’s talk for a moment about chocolate. Because Mmmmmm.

The Ideal Chocolate:

While most of the chocolates you see on the market, especially around Valentine’s Day, are often milk chocolate, white chocolate, or cream-filled, I recommend pure chocolate bars – the darker the better. Those with almonds also work well, especially with the wines I’ve recommended here, which are known for their nutty characteristic (called Rancio by wine collectors- our wine geek word of the day).

Fortunately for all of us, there has been an explosion of artisinal, single-source chocolate producers in the past decade. Look for Dandelion Chocolate (“bean to bar” chocolates), Dick Taylor and many, many others. Melissa Clark of the New York Times, published a good article last year listing 13 of her favorite gourmet chocolate producers which includes these two favorites of mine plus 11 others.  I also recommend her article on chocolate tasting techniques –  we’ve found the approach she describes to have significantly elevated our tasting experience.

The Ideal Wine:

And now for the wine – the crowning glory in the whole affair!  While some have found pleasure in pairing dark chocolate with highly extracted/high-alcohol table wines (the reds from Rombauer come to mind, as do those from Frank Family, Biale, many Lodi Zins…) I skip this intermediate step in favor of wines specifically designed to pair with dried or baked fruits, nuts and dark chocolates – fortified wines such as these:

 

Value Option: Passagem Tawny Port. $19.99/500ml btl. ($0.04/ml)

Tawny Port

Port is the term for a fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro region. Wines made in a similar style that are NOT from Portugal can’t use the term “Port” (such as the one from the fun and jovial winemaker, Andrew Quady, who calls his Port-style wine “Starboard”). But the real thing is sufficiently affordable to justify a trial purchase. Look for a basic Tawny without any age indication for a deliciously satisfying and affordable Port. Passagem Tawny Port $19.99/ 500ml bottle.

All ports are part of the family of fortified wines – wines whose fermentation was stopped by the addition of a grain alcohol, thus preserving the grape’s natural sugars before they could be fully fermented into alcohol while also raising the alcohol level in the finished wine.

Ports are generally 18%-20% ABV, and because they are so rich on the pallet and high in alcohol, they’re served in smaller pours than regular wine. Most producers of high-end stemware have a line designed specifically for Port, and if you have sufficient storage space, Port glasses make a nice addition to your stemware collection. Otherwise, use the smallest wine glass you have and pour less than half full – about 4 ounces. Ideal serving temperature is “Cellar temperature”, or about 60-65 degrees.


 

Comparing the color of the 10-year Tawyny (L) and the Tawny (R). Passagem’s 10-year Tawny, $33.99 / 500ml bottle ($0.068/ml)

10-Year Tawny

Aged in smaller oak barrels than is a Vintage Ruby port (aged in huge, often century-old wooden casks), Tawnies age more quickly due to the higher ratio of wood-to-juice. A ten-year tawny like this one (left, above) was aged in oak for ten years, while the regular Tawny (right, above) still shows its youthful color and brighter fruit flavors. But it’s color is not the only difference – the older wine exhibits greater nutty, spice and Sherry-like notes that go quite well with chocolates of all styles. Passagem, 10-Year Tawny, $33.99


 

A delightful but obscure dessert wine – Rivesaltes Ambre. $25.99/750ml bottle ($0.035/ml)

Rivesaltes Ambré

Rivesaltes is a town in the South of France and a demarcated wine-making area known for sweet wines – this is one of six types produced there (Rosé, Grenat, Ambré, Tuilé and Hors d’Age). The Ambré style sees at least two years of oxidative aging that yields a deep golden hue upon bottling, and which darkens further with bottle age. The flavor is distinctly nutty with citrus peel spice notes. ~16% alcohol. Read more about this fascinating place here at – Domaine Fontanel 2008 Rivesaltes Ambré, $25.99


  

2003 Banyuls Grand Cru, Cuvee Joseph Nadal. A true treat! $47.99/btl ($0.064/ml)

Banyuls

La Cave de l’Abbe Rous is a co-operative of small growers from the best sections of Banyuls, producing wines at the highest quality level for the appellation. Among the best dessert wines I’ve tasted, but also one of the most obscure (the vast majority being consumed within France), the wine is similar to an aged Tawny Port in both alcohol (~20%), aging (9 years in cask) and flavor profile (nutty with a ginger and spice top note). Read more about it here – 2003 Banyuls Grand Cru Joseph Nadal, $47.99 

Whatever wine you choose to pair with chocolate, I encourage you to experiment with something new – new chocolates, new wines, and maybe, even new friends to share them with. Physically distanced, of course, as long as our health requires it, or even virtually if necessary!


About the Author: Dave the Wine Merchant has been involved in wine for four decades. He now enjoys discovering and sharing global wines that stretch the imaginations of curious wine lovers and encourages them to “discover a new favorite!” 

2021 – Your Best Valentine’s Day EVER!

Valentines Day 2021 – a celebration like none we’ve had before!

(Internal dialogue) “Valentines Day 2021? This is gonna suck! Stuck in the same rooms since COVID lockdown began? How do we even BEGIN to make Valentine’s Day enjoyable this year?!”

By re-imagining the entire evening! Here’s how…

Valentine’s Day “Before Times” – Think about it. Before COVID, things weren’t really that great, come February 14th.

We’d make reservations at a great restaurant, over-pay for a Prix Fixe menu and a temporarily-inflated wine list, then wait at the bar for forty minutes past our reservation time because the restaurant packed in “just one more turn of the tables”, until finally (tipsy after our second cocktail) we’d have to call the sitter to see if he/she/they could work an additional hour…

Valentine’s Day in the Before Times

Come on, friends. We can easily cook up a more enjoyable Valentine’s Day than that!

Here are some fresh, wine-themed ideas for a truly memorable at-home Valentine’s Day celebration.

And remember, Valentine’s Day 2021 falls on a Sunday and is followed by a national holiday. Many of us will benefit from built-in snuggling and recuperation time on Monday morning!

Valentine’s Day 2021

Whichever activity you choose (ideas to follow), there are a few basic ingredients in our recipe for a memorable at-home Valentine’s Day. Start with the essentials listed here, then build on them using any of our ideas – or ones of your own:

The Basics

To begin with, we suggest these essential ingredients in our recipe for a memorable at-home Valentine’s Day. Bring in the basics listed here, then build around them using any of our event ideas:

  • Flowers: There is no better way to brighten your space than with fresh flowers. But before you resort to the standard – red roses – consider that many people have fallen seriously out of love with this old standard. Perhaps, in part, because rose prices get seriously inflated for Valentine’s Day! If you need creative ideas for flower arrangements, consult the florists at Foothill Flowers (800-742-2551) before placing your order.
  • Candles: Candle-making is now a common at-home business for many of the bartenders and waitstaff that once served our Valentine’s Day meals at now-shuttered restaurants. But as you shop for hand-made candles, note that the scented ones add unwanted flavors and aromas to your wine and food and often become over-bearing. Best to stick with unscented. You’ll find candles you like here on Etsy.

 

  • Play Lists: If your youthful dream was to be a DJ, you’ve probably already compiled a romantic playlist for Valentine’s Day. If not, just search your favorite streaming service for ‘Valentine’ or ‘Romance’, and find a list you like, one that will last… all night long.
  • Food: Whether your plans include cooking or ordering delivery/take-out, eating together is an essential part of a romantic evening. To make this night different from the prior 333 dinners you’ve shared during lock-down, why not dress up as if you were going out (when was the last time you did THAT?!) to make the evening more memorable… and the unwrapping more fun.
Visit Black Lapel, A Style Journey. Not an ad partner.

OK, Now Build on Those Basics! – build on this foundation with one or two of these ideas:

  • Wine and Chocolate Pairing – Contrary to popular belief, wine and chocolate don’t really pair very well. And many sparkling wines paired with chocolate can be downright offensive. But here’s my time-tested tip for making this fantastic – select an oxidized dessert wine (one with the nutty flavor also known as ‘rancio’) such as an aged Tawny Port, a Banyuls or one of the unique and special wines from the Rivesaltes. Pair these wines with three or four exquisite chocolate bars containing varying amounts of Cacao and vote for your favorite combination. Pure delight, and a great hopping-off point for one of the other activities below!
  • Spa Night – Grab some bath bubbles (our new favorite is from Alaffia – not an ad partner) foot scrub, lotion, face masks, massage oils and candles for an evening of pampering. If a good soak is how you like to begin your spa night, light loads of candles to enhance your relaxation and stress relief. Cap it off with a new pair of luxurious bathrobes to preserve the warm glow until bedtime. And to go with the bubbles for your bath, you’ll need some bubbles for your flutes of course! 
  • Movie Night – We’ve all watched a lifetime of movies during the pandemic, so suggesting yet another movie night for Valentine’s Day means we have to take it up a notch! Some ideas: 
    • Give each other a pair of luxurious pajamas to relax in as you watch the movie. Or as you don’t watch the movie, should distraction happen.
    • Pick a killer movie! Here’s LifeHack’s thoughtful list of the top 21 romantic movies.
    • Add plenty of popcorn and some great Champagne (trust me, this odd-sounding pairing works well!) If you can afford caviar, go for it!
    • Bonus Idea: Top this evening off with a gift of special Champagne glasses. My wife recently expressed an interest in the vintage Coupe glasses (see a non-vintage version, below), and I scored some points Christmas morning by presenting an unmatched collection I’d gathered from several vintage shops. Go ahead, draft off me.
12 for $77 at Bed Bath & Beyond. Not an advertising partner.
  • Bring the Valentine’s Day Heat! – Baking and icing heart-shaped cookies as a family provides a creative activity for any number of participants. And for wines to pair with sweet cookies or other deserts, remember the wine needs to be sweeter than the food. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

 

  • Become Immortal – Well, a small part of you anyway, by recording a brief video of each family member. So that this can be done in a single evening, limit your time to about 5 minutes per video, with one family member acting as the Host to introduce the “guest” and ask questions such as these:

For adult couples:

    1. How did you meet?
    2. When did you know there was something special, beyond just dating?
    3. Tell us about your first date
    4. What did your family think?
    5. What was the best part of your wedding?

And for kids of any age:

  1. What is your earliest family memory?
  2. When have you been the proudest of another family member?
  3. What do you think is the best part of being in Covid lock-down with your family?
  4. What are you looking forward to once lock-down orders are lifted and your life is back to normal?
  5. What do you think is the right age for getting married?

In advance of Valentine’s Day, create a private channel on YouTube or create a folder on a cloud storage platform so you’re ready to store your videos in perpetuity. Then share the link exclusively with your kids and/or friends and family members.

Chordboard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you use one of the ideas listed here or something you dream up on your own, we hope that Valentine’s Day 2021 becomes enjoyable and memorable for you and yours.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my friends!

Dave the Wine Merchant

What is Cognac? Which One’s the Best?

Although I’m a wine merchant whose license is limited to the sale of fermented and fortified beverages, my clientele often asks about Whiskies, Brandies and Cognacs around the holidays. Today’s posting is about Cognac, a Brandy from a specific area within France, the commune that lends its name to its famed beverage (please note, in this reference, a commune is a demarcated governmental area, not a residential facility inhabited by un-related families or individuals sharing living quarters, expenses and duties).

Cognac vs Armignac

The two beverages are similar, and yet different. Both are brandies from defined areas within France (see map), Cognac being north of Bordeaux, Armagnac 180 degrees to the south. And their products are polar opposites as well, with Cognac undergoing a double distillation in a pot still and Armagnac a single column distillation in small batches. This leaves Armagnac with more robust aromatics and a thicker mouthfeel which many find intriguing. Traditionally, Armagnac has been small-batch and vineyard-specific, while Cognac is a blend of brandies dominated by big brands seeking to produce a uniform house style (not unlike the large houses of Champagne).


Deciphering Cognac Labels

V.S. – “Very Special” Indicates the youngest brandy in the blend is at least 2 years old at the time of blending.

V.S.O.P.  – “Very Special Old Pale” The youngest brandy is 4+ years old.

Napoleon – Youngest brandy is 6+ years old.

X.O. – “Extra Old” Youngest brandy is 10+ years old.


 

Which Cognac is the Best?

This is a common question from those seeking to purchase a truly fine gift for a valued client of special loved one. But the question is impossible to answer, as it is subject to personal taste and style.

However, I can tell you what the most expensive Cognac is this year – the Rome De Bellegarde X.O. Cognac. Despite the brand’s long history (dating back to King of France Henry III), it has only been since 2018 that the new generation of owners resurrected the brands old panache, reinforcing its world-wide reputation for exclusivity. The world’s most expensive Cognac is from grapes grown in the Grand Champagne region, so named for its white limestone soils similar to those of Champagne. The family leverages their Cognac’s relatively small annual production by limiting sales to Rome de Bellegarde’s website and a handful of well-chosen retail partners around the world.

As a marketer by training and trade, I have to admire this year’s promotional partnership with Britain’s prestigious leather goods brand, Ettinger.  This exclusive tailor has crafted a highly exclusive (only 50!) sets of leather-bound flasks packaged with a 100ml bottle of the Rome de Bellegarde X.O. Cognac (in this case, aged for 25+ years).

If you’re lucky enough to purchase one of them when they go on sale Dec 14th, the privilege will set you back about $610 (at current exchange rates) before shipping and handling.  If you’re interested, put your hat in the ring now – Happy Holidays indeed!

Recipe: Chicken & (Variations on Bittman’s) Overnight Waffles

Delish Recipe - Chicken & Waffles

It may seem crazy to include waffles among my wine-friendly recipes. They’re usually a breakfast item and few wines pair well with the usual waffle toppings of fresh fruit, whipped cream and maple syrup. I can think of about one wine that would be up to the task (very sweet TBA Riesling, anyone?) but even that is far from a perfect pairing, at least to my palate.

No, the reason I include this recipe is because it is not only the best waffle recipe in the world (go ahead, make it and then try to argue the point), it is waaay better than most of the waffles they serve at even the best Southern restaurants that serve Chicken and Waffles. And adding chicken to a waffle creates a sweet-savory combination that expands the wine options significantly (see recommended pairings, below).

Pro Tip – The waffles need a little extra time in the waffle iron – about a minute longer than the  iron’s warning light thinks they need – to achieve the crunchy outside and soft inside that is the very definition of ‘waffle perfection’.  And while they are best when eaten within a minute or two, they freeze beautifully and come to life after a quick visit to the toaster.

Now if I could only bring my fried chicken up to the same level as my waffles (I’m trying this recipe from Delish now – see Bryce Johnson’s tempting food shot above!)

Ingredients:
1/2 teaspoon Instant yeast
2 cups All purpose flour
1 tablespoon Sugar
1/2 teaspoon Salt
2 cups Milk (use Buttermilk for a more savory version, or substitute 1C sour cream for 1C of the milk)
8 Tbsp butter melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla extract optional
Canola Oil for brushing on waffle iron
2 room-temperature eggs

Directions

The yeast will need 8-10 hours of fermentation to bring its full flavor and consistency to the batter, so advanced planning is required (but well worth it!). When preparing the initial batter, combine all the dry ingredients and then stir in the milk. Once combined, stir in the melted butter and vanilla. Cover with a clean tea towel and set aside at room temperature for 8-10 hours.

When you’re ready to prepare the waffles, preheat the waffle iron as you separate the eggs, integrating the yolks into the batter and beating the egg whites to soft peaks before gently folding them into the batter – don’t over-mix or you’ll lose the critical airiness that creates the perfect waffle texture. 

Most waffle irons sold today are made for the deeper, Belgian waffles that are perfect for this recipe. Pour 1/3 cup of the batter onto the waffle iron and bake until the waffle is done, usually 3 to 5 minutes, depending on your iron. Serve immediately or keep warm in a low oven until the chicken is ready to plate.

Remember, in the unlikely event there are any left over, they freeze well for weeks and can be easily called into action by a good toaster.

Wine Pairings – Off-dry, aromatic white wines from cool-climate growing areas. Candidates include Muscat, Gewurztraminer, Muller-Thurgau or Riesling!  Shop our aromatic White Wines here

Ribera del Duero – Affordable Tempranillo

When it comes to red wines, Spain is known for two primary regions – Rioja and Priorat.  And just as Priorat has Montsant as its more affordable cousin, Rioja has Ribera del Duero. That said, some of Spain’s top producers are found here – the wines of Vega Sicilia, Moro, Pesquera and Pingus are highly sought after by international collectors and compete for their cellar space with the best of Rioja.

As with Rioja, Tempranillo dominates the wines of Ribera del Duero. Red wines are required to contain at least 75%Tempranillo, with the remainder being limited to a small group of acceptable blending grapes such as Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec, with up to 5% being allowed from Garnacha or Albillo (the only white grape allowed by DO regulations). Albillo is used to soften red wines to allow for more near-term drinking, and to lift the aromatics. Visitors to Ribera del Duero may find the Albillo bottled as a white wine, but it’s not allowed for sale outside the region.

Ribera del Duero is located just West and a bit South of its more famous sibling, Rioja. (map by Wine Scholar Guild – a great resource for your wine curiosity)

I was recently sent three bottles of Ribero del Duero wines to review, priced between $17 and $24.  In general, they are an exceptional value for fans of the new world style – that is to say, big fruit and tons of oak influence – which is odd, as Spain is and old world wine producer by any measure.  But Rioja started the love affair with oak, particularly American oak, and Ribera del Duero is following suit.

The one delicious exception to this rule was the distinctive Tempranillo (100%) from Bodegas Torremorón, both for its unique approach to production and its story.

Unique Production Approach

The wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks before filtration and bottling without any time spent in oak. This lack of oak influence and the old vines (some as old as 112 years – note the gnarled vine on the wine’s label, above) yields a wine offering a pure Tempranillo experience like no other I’ve tasted. Bright, crackling fruit flavors are balanced by noticeable tannins in this young wine (2018) yielding a light-to-medium-bodied wine with a modest 13% ABV. Some dusty earth notes come through on the mid-palate leading to a finish featuring earthy beets, cigar box /sweet spices. A good food wine for lighter dishes such as grilled meats and roast poultry. You can find this wine for under $20. Sorry, I don’t have it in stock.

Unique Story

Founded in 1957, Bodegas Torremorón is a cooperative of growers and vintners who craft pure examples of high-elevation Tempranillo. Travellers to this remote location in the north-central area of Ribera del Duero will find the very tiny village of Quintanamanvirgo (population 94). Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. Bodegas Torremorón is one of only two businesses in town, and all 94 locals work for the winery! I can’t imagine living in a town of 94 and working for the same enterprise. Do they gossip about who has the most lowest picking metrics, or who slept through their early-morning punch-down duty? Doesn’t the thought of it make you want to visit, to see this place yourself? I’ll go with you, once we can travel again.

The vineyards, which range in age from 80 to 100 years old, reside just outside town in the province of Burgos. At an elevation of 2,703 feet, the grapes benefit from a continental climate featuring hot days and cool nights throughout the growing season; the moderately low annual rainfall lengthens the ripening period, resulting in greater complexity and aromatic intensity in the grapes. Consequently, these wines are darker and more concentrated than those from the west side of Ribera del Duero.

Of the three wine samples we tasted, all under $30 at full retail, this was by far the most interesting. I encourage you to seek it out. And if you love Tempranillo but thought you couldn’t afford them, many wines from Ribera del Duero producers offer great value relative to their pricier cousins from Rioja.

Best Use for Pineau des Charentes

What is this odd wine? Let’s start with the pronunciation – Pineau is pronounced much the same as Pinot but with the second syllable leaning a little more towards “new” than “no”.  Charentes is a bit trickier, and the best I can do to describe it as “Shah-rhont”, with the second syllable rhyming with a word somewhere between “won’t” and “runt”.

Charente is located in western France, named for the Charente River. The department’s most famous towns, also on the Charente river, are Angoulême (a regional center for the wine trace) and Cognac (which needs no introduction!)  

Map by worldatlas.com, by John Moen

The Wine

Pineau des Charentes is a fortified wine that is a popular aperitif in the region but little known beyond its boundaries. It’s produced by blending unfermented (or lightly fermented) grape juice with Cognac, with finished alcohol of about 17%. It’s crafted in two styles – white and red – as determined by the grape juice used. It is aged for at least 12 months in oak, then at least another 6 months (for white) or six months (for red). There is also a very minuscule amount of pink produced as well. Most Cognac producers also craft a bit of Pineau des Charentes. You can find a bottle for sale in the U.S. for anywhere from $20 – $70, depending on how long it’s been aged, the Cognac used, etc.

Pineau des Charentes vary from white to Rose to Red, depending on the grapes that produced the juice.

Serve the wine slightly chilled (about 50 degrees – I don’t recommend serving it on the rocks, as some do) and serve in a sherry glass to amplify the aromas. It’s most commonly served before the meal, and although an aperitif is normally dry, this is an exception. Don’t worry, it does a fine job of tickling the appetite into full force. If serving with or after the meal, an aged version (Old or Very Old are the two classifications) will be far more satisfactory. Serve these higher-end versions just barely chilled – about 60 degrees.

However, as sweet wines go, I Pineau des Charentes to lack sufficient acidity to remain interesting throughout even a modest amount. To illustrate what I mean, think of a refeshing glass of cold lemonade – a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. If too little sugar is added, the lemonade is unpleasantly puker-producing! But if the sweetness is too high relative to the acidity, the once refreshing drink is reduced to a sweet, cloying beverage.

As an aperitif, serve at 50 degrees.

As a result, I found the best use for Pineau des Charentes to be in mixed drinks. The simplest is to mix an ounce with about 4-5 ounces of sparkling wine and garnish with a long lemon peel.

Simple enough! But cutting-edge bartenders have discovered Pineau makes a great cocktail ingredient and cocktalians will want to have a bottle on hand next to their Salers, Amaro, Vermouth, Pastis and dry Sherry. After testing several cocktail recipes, the one I liked best was the Aquarelle, from bartender Brian Elder at NYC’s The Eddy. Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 1 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz Pineau des Charentes apéritif
  • 1/2 oz Salers apéritif (high-quality gentiane liquor, about $20 for a fifth)
  • 1/2 oz Strawberries muddled with sugar
  • 1 oz Fresh lemon juice
  • Garnish: Basil sprig

Muddle the strawberries in a double rocks glass, add the lemon juice and then the gin/Pineau/Salers.  Top with crushed ice and the basil sprig.

Cheers!

Rosé All Day, 2020

Image from Wine Folly, a great source for fun wine info!

The popularity of dry Rosé continued its upward trend in 2019 and now accounts for over 19% of all U.S. wine sales among both men and women.  But today’s demand surge comes after many decades of winelovers shunning the category.

And I’m agey enough to know why! I clearly recall the White Zinfandel craze of the late 70’s and early 80’s – a sweet wine designed to appeal to a generation raised on Colas and KoolAid. The wine was a huge success for a decade, but became anethema to serious wine lovers as they discovered dry Rosés they could take to the table, just as they do in the old world wine regions, where Rosé  is a staple in every seaside village in Europe.

The current Rosé boom can be attributed largely to the efforts of one man, Sacha Lechine, the son of Russian wine writer Alexis Lechine, an influencer in his day and owner of Château Prieuré-Lichine, control of which was turned over to Sacha at the young age of 27.

When Sacha decided to make the greatest Rosé in the world in 2006, he introduced the world to the first Rosé ever to be priced at $100 a bottle (Garrus). Garrus Rosé led Sacha’s more affordable line up – in descending order of price – Les Clans, Rock Angel and Whispering Angel (which now sells for about $20 a bottle), the latter having been dubbed “Hamptons Water” for its popularity there. I’ve made inquiries as to whether Hamptonians actually use it for bathing, but have no reply at the time of this writing. But it’s easy to see how the wine was so named – Sacha’s Rosés are dry and light enough to drink all day, a foundation of the current style of Rosé that has become so popular.

Sadly, Sacha’s wines are so easily found they no longer qualify for my portfolio of interesting wine ‘discoveries’. But with popularity comes higher prices, and many of the following Rosés are even more affordable than his Sotto Voce Angel!

As evidenced by the five arrows that define the family seal (on this bottle, you’ll see it on the necker) this wine is from the Rothschild family (the Lafite side of the family, not the Mouton side). The logo has been in use since  the mid 1800’s, and represents the five siblings that inherited the family business – as the deathbed story goes, the patriarch called the family together during his final days and asked each of the siblings to break a bundle of five darts. When they were unable to do so, he proceeded to break each of the five darts separately, illustrating that the family’s strength was in staying together.  

The Los Vascos is a wine I don’t carry, as it’s commonly available in distribution and doesn’t qualify for my “Discovery” status, so there is no link provided here. But I endorse it as an affordable and delicious Rosé. You can generally find it for about $15. 

From Rothschild’s Chilean property, this blended wine is predoiminantly Cabernet – a grape I don’t care for when made as a Rosé. This wine is a delicious exception! It’s refreshing crispness makes me wonder if acid was added, as Cabernet is not known for high acidity, but manual additions of acid during the winemaking phase tend to leave a wine with slight traces of a flavor that reminds me of children’s aspirin or vitamin C, elements I did not detect here. Or perhaps its deliciousness is from the blend of the more traditional Rhone varieites that make up the balance. Either way, don’t question it, just twist off the screwcap and enjoy!

Bucklin Rose of Old Hill Ranch, $23.99

The Bucklin Rose of Old Hill Ranch is a blend of Zinfandel (62%) and the classic grapes of the Southern Rhone – Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Counoise (38%) . The vineyard has existed since the 1860’s, and owned by the Bucklin family since 1981.

The grapes are harvested early (a sign the Rosé is an intentional product and not just the by-product of red wine produciton), whole cluster pressed, then the juice is fermented cold using indigenous yeast and finished dry. The wine is very pale in color, beautifully aromatic and crisp on the finish. Alc. 12.8%. 282 cases produced.

The Bucklin family history is rich and colorful and deserves more space than I have here. So for the curious with a bit of time on their hands, you can read more here.

Five Roses Rosato, $16.99

The Wine – A field blend of Negroamaro (NEH groh ah MAH dho, sort of) and Malvasia (MAHL vah SEE ah)  from Southern Italy. The Five Roses Rosato was first produced in 1943 – the first rosé bottled in Italy and the first Italian rosé to be sold in the U.S. For several generations, each of the de Castris had five children, just by chance, hence the name ‘Five Roses’.  This is their most famous wine internationally.

The Winery -Leone de Castris began exporting in the early 1800’s, nearly 140 years after the company was founded in 1665. Visitors can enjoy the exporter’s gourmet restaurant and luxury hotel, Villa Donna Lisa.  Leone de Castris produces only Apulian products, such is their commitment to the Puglia region of southern Italy (“the heel of the boot”) – a region made famous for its food and wine by the famous A-16 retaurants in San Francisco and Oakland. Their mission is to make the highest-quality Apulian products possible – in the land where they were born and raised.

Malabaila, Italian Sparkling Rose, fermented in bottle! $19.99

This is an example of what the Italians can do with sparkling wine outside of Prosecco.  From the Alba region, consisting of 100% Nebbiolo (which makes sense, right?  Pinot is the dominant grape in most sparkling Rosés, and Nebby has similar acidity and body, so…).  Fermented in bottle on the lees for 48 months.  I got the LAST of this wine from the distributor.  Woot! Just 8 bottles left in stock.

Tasting notes – Crisp red fruits blend with rich stone fruits and finish with an herbal note.  The lack of any dosage means this is a bone-dry, crisp and mouth-wtering wine,T so don’t be afraid to pair it with food! Try a bottle before they’re gone!
Provence Rosé “Le Provencal” $19.99

And this final Rosé brings us full circle – back to the Provence region of France where Sacha Lechine started the whole dry Rosé movement over a decade ago.

The Wine
Food-friendly, crisp and refreshing, and with moderate alcohol (12.5%), it even comes in the distinctive bottle shape French Rosé producers nicknamed ‘the corset’ – what’s not to love! Classic Provence Rosé – Strawberry, peach and citrus, with a zingy crispness and added interest from the wine’s native minerality.
 
The Producer
Established in Vidauban in 1922, the Mâitres Vignerons de la Vidaubanaise today controls 600 hectares of vines in the heart of the Appellation Côtes de Provence. Located on the limestone foothills of the Maures Massif in the southern Var (between the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps) the terroir benefits from the Mediterranean climate so beneficial for traditional southern varietals such as Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan and Rolle. The various vineyard parcels are vinified separately, allowing for more character and complexity in the winemaker’s final blend.
Dave the Wine Merchant
“Discover your next favorite!”
www.DaveTheWineMerchant.com