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Wiping the dust off…

So let’s catch up since my last post. Yikes! That would be the last 10 months! Much has happened, and I put my blogging aspirations to the side (obviously). Time to get back into the game! So my last post was in December of 2011, right around the time that I was accepted to sit for the Master Sommelier Diploma in July of 2012. What an honor. However, this was like staring up at the Mount Everest of wine exams for me. Yes, intimidating. BUT…others have climbed it so it must be possible. I buried myself in the books and the “new” way to study, which is through the incredible website of www.guildsomm.com . The intensity of my studies increased as the date of the exam grew closer, and from May, June, and the first 2 weeks of July, this is all I lived and breathed. Long story short, I came up short for my first attempt at passing this exam. Yes, that implies that there will be a second attempt and I can’t wait. After my exam, it was time to blow some steam and take a break of wine studies. For me, that means enjoying as much craft beer, rose and golf as possible, which is exactly what I did. Fast forward to today, and I’m starting up my studies again (this time months earlier than my first try). I’m also starting to drink more wine than beer as we’re moving into the cooler Fall weather here in Chicagoland. This has inspired me to get back into my blog and try to write more posts.

I drink wine nearly everyday. That means, at least for me and probably much of the wine drinking world, that value is important. My everyday drinking wines hover around $10 a bottle. Where can you find quality wines with interesting character that retail at this price? Europe baby! France, Spain and Italy are some of my favorite countries to look to for a great quality to price ratio (qpr).

For now, I’ll just write about some of my favorite regions in France. Here’s where I find some killer values–>

Loire Valley: some of the best value sparkling wines, white wines, rose wines, red wines, and sweet wines are produced here. They do it all! I’ve had a number of stunning whites lately from the appellation of Vouvray (100% Chenin Blanc. dry and off-dry styles, about $11-$16). Great with chicken dishes, seafood dishes, Thai and asian food. Check out the appellation of Muscadet for some of the best value dry white wines. Muscadet is one of the quintessential wine pairings with steamed mussels! For red wines, I look to the grape Cabernet Franc, from the appellations of Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, and Chinon. These soft reds offer tremendous character and complexity, age well, and are also versatile food wines. For lighter reds, check out the Gamay-Pinot Noir blends of Cheverny. Light and easy drinking with dried red fruit and herbal flavors.

The next place in France that I hit up for killer values is….pretty much the entire wine producing area in the south of France! This is a treasure-trove of delicious wines and I mostly drink up the reds, many of which are blends, from dozens of different grape varietals. Some main red grapes you might recognize are Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan. These medium to full-bodied, juicy red wines offer warm, ripe fruit-forward flavors layered with earth, minerality, spice, and dried herbs. A couple specific regions I find myself going back to again and again are Corbieres, Minervois, and Cotes-du-Rhone. Enjoy these reds with an enormous variety of foods from steaks, to chicken, to pork, pasta dishes or simple burgers off the grill. They’re also great to drink on their own.

These past few days, my wife and I have been enjoying a variety of wines with my parents (Fran and @VinoBobTV) who are up for a visit from Florida. We only get together a few times a year, so we really try to enjoy ourselves. My dad( www.twitter.com/vinobobtv  ) has been into Pinot Noir lately, so their first night here I started us off with a delicious California Pinot Noir: Bedrock “Rebecca’s Vineyard” Russian River Valley 2008 (www.bedrockwineco.com). This was warm and inviting, with luscious red mixed-berry fruit and sexy oak spices. Soft, round and elegant, it was the perfect start to the evening paired with a little salami, Gruyère and strawberries. We then headed out to dinner to a restaurant in Westmont called Bakersfield (www.bakersfieldrestaurant.com). It was our first time eating here, and we were pleasantly surprised when we found out that their was NO CORKAGE FEE! So we brought one of our favorite wines to drink when we get together…Zinfandel from www.robertbialevineyards.com . We had a 2009 bottling from St. Helena, Napa Valley. The exciting part about drinking this wine was how well it paired with all four of our different dishes. My mom had ricotta stuffed gnocchi with meatballs in tomato sauce. My dad had a French dip sandwich. My wife had a grilled trout with creole-mustard sauce and I had fried chicken. This just goes to show the versatility of America’s own variety, Zinfandel, to pair well with all types of different foods. Also, Robert Biale Vineyards makes some of the best, if not THE BEST, Zinfandel on this planet.

Tonight we went to a somewhat new seafood restaurant in Oak Brook called Devon (www.devonseafood.com). We always do a bottle of red with the entrees, so I went back to Pinot Noir. Once again, California, but this time we had a wine from the beautiful Pinot Noir producing region of Santa Barbara County. The wine, Au Bon Climat SBC Pinot Noir 2009 (www.aubonclimat.com). Soft and easy drinking, with juicy red fruit flavors, this worked just fine with the variety of seafood dishes that we had. So, red wine with seafood? You betcha!!

So what’s next? I have a feeling that Sunday means Italian! Thanks for checking out my new post, which hopefully wiped a little bit of dust off of my blog. I hope to keep it dust-free going forward, sharing more wine drinking experiences as well as giving you a peek into my studies for the Master Sommelier Diploma (www.mastersommeliers.org).

Chateau La Croix de Roche Bordeaux Superieur 2005

Does a wine need to carry a high price tag to put down in your cellar and age? No way!! A wine’s ability to age has nothing to do with the cost of the wine. While many wines that are purchased for cellaring cost upwards of $50 per bottle, there are still plenty of wines out there for less than $20 that will improve with age.

France is one of the best countries to find high quality inexpensive wines for short-term aging, meaning up to 5 years. Nearly every major wine region in France will offer some of these great values. I have a few tips for selecting these inexpensive gems that will reward you if you have a bit of patience.

First, you have to know your vintages. The great vintages of a particular wine region will always end up yielding higher quality wines in the lower price categories. How do you know what the best vintages are? Well, you can do a google search just like you do for everything else you’re curious about. Or you can hop on to twitter and ask me @VinoMike, or any of the other wine professionals that are buzzing all over the social media scene! The wine I’m drinking now is from the great Bordeaux vintage of 2005. This is a legendary year for the Bordeaux region and the top producers made some of the best wine in the world, with many being capable of cellaring for upwards of 30 years! However, Bordeaux is a large region, and many of the countryside producers outside of the prestigious areas also ended up with perfect grapes for their humble wines.

Second, I recommend that you taste the wine before you buy any to cellar. This is what seals the deal for me. I first tasted the Chateau La Croix de Roche Bordeaux Superieur Rouge 2005 over 4 years ago. At the time it had big, chewy tannins, fresh bright acidity, spices from oak aging, and rich, ripe, concentrated fruit, all in harmonious balance with a lengthy finish. The big tannins and bright acidity, along with the oak aging, really help preserve a wine as it ages. The tannins take time to soften, and the oak spices integrate with the fruit adding new layers of flavors and complexity. This is the process of allowing a wine to “mature.” The bonus with this wine is that it came with a modest price tag of $10.

Today, over 4 years later, I’m enjoying it with a casual dinner on the couch in front of the TV, and it’s absolutely wonderful. The powerful aromas of rich fruit and oak spice have been replaced with a nose of earthy gravel, pencil lead, garden herbs and tobacco leaf with dried cherries and raspberries. The mouthfeel still has some grip to it but the tannins are much softer and silky.  A real pleasure to drink and not bad at all for $120 a case!

If you want to start gaining some experience with cellaring wines, you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg. As always, you should visit your local wine merchant for tips and advice, not the big supermarket and drug store chains. Cheers, and happy cellaring!

Bartolotta in The Wynn, Las Vegas

Memorial Day 2009, I took my girlfriend, Erin, to Las Vegas for her first time. It was one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever had, and part of that is due to the dining experience we had at Bartolotta. Being from Chicago, I thought it would be great to check out this restaurant because the chef, Paul Bartolotta, used to be the chef at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue. I’m glad we went here because this is now my favorite restaurant I’ve EVER dined at. The decor is spectacular whether you eat in the plush comfortable dining room or outside under your own cabana. Are you a fan of the show Top Chef? Do you remember the fantastic Las Vegas season? Well, one episode featured Paul Bartolotta as a guest judge, and as a perk, the remaining chefs were taken out to dinner at his restaurant and given a grand feast. Well, this dinner happened to be the same night that Erin and I ate there… Memorial Day 09! We noticed all of the TV cameras right away and our server told us what was going on. This was spectacular on many different levels. First, we are big fans of Top Chef. Second, we knew when we watched this episode we were going to be able to relate to it personally because we just happened to be dining there too. Third, chef Bartolotta had so much magnificent seafood available because he was wowing people even more than usual, and this included us! All of his seafood is flown straight from the Mediterranean, is 24-48 hours out of the water, and is still partially alive. It doesn’t get any fresher!  Long story short, this was the best dinner we ever had!

Fast forward to August 8th, 2011. Erin and I went to Vegas again, but this time it was the start of our honeymoon. Of course, we had to go back to Bartolotta. Once again, we were blown away! We did the menu degustation which, by the way, was enough food to feed four hungry people, let alone two, but that’s a trademark of the chef. He serves a lot of food! I will also say to bring your wallet, but it’s really worth every penny if you appreciate everything that goes into preparing your meal. The wine list is very thoughtful and there are a lot of great wines by the glass and value bottles to help save some money. We had a $48 bottle of Nigl Gruner Veltliner that carried us through the whole meal. If you like fine dining and you’re visiting Las Vegas, this is a DO NOT MISS restaurant and still my #1  favorite!

 

An Experiment in Aging Wine

#AgeYourWine! This is a hashtag I use in numerous tweets to try and promote bottle aging. Many wines, both red and white, deserve to be aged even if only for 12 months. The extra maturation in the bottle can improve the quality of a wine greatly. It’s also a satisfying feeling to enjoy a bottle of wine with friends or family that you’ve kept for the purpose of allowing the wine to get better. It tends to make you savor that wine and pay attention to it more so than if you “popped the cork” (no offense to wines under screwcap) when you first brought it home. Do you need ideal wine cellar conditions (55 degrees and humidity controlled) to age wine, or can you just keep it in the closet of your bedroom? I believe that professional storage is not necessary for aging wines in the short-term, and this experiment will allow us to find out…. eventually.

What’s Considered a “Splurge” for a Bottle (plus #drinkmoresyrah)

I recently asked the question on www.twitter.com “What price do you consider to be a splurge for a bottle of wine?”

I received quite a few responses that I would like to share with you here in this video. Following the responses is a review on Zaca Mesa “Mesa Reserve” Syrah 2007 from the Santa Ynez Valley.

Please leave your comments below on what you consider to be a “splurge.”

Wine Review: Chateau Haut-Bergey Rouge, Pessac-Leognan 2005

Bordeaux… haven’t tasted one in a while so the palate was craving one! I picked the Haut-Bergey 2005 for a couple of main reasons:
1. I haven’t had it and it has been receiving a lot of attention as un underrated and under-the-radar property. Accompanying this hype is its modest price which typically hangs out around $30-$35 a bottle.

2. I own some 2009 which may or may not be still maturing in an oak barrel in the Chateau’s chai. I figured it was a good idea to drink some other vintages to gain a sense of style and what I can expect.

A brief bio on the wine: Haut-Bergey is a property located in the GRAVES region just south of the city of Bordeaux. More specifically, it is located in a sub-appellation inside of Graves called Pessac-Leognan. This region was referred to as the Haut-Graves (the northern section of Graves) and received its own official appellation in 1987 (not too long ago considering the history of wine production here dates back well over 500 years ago)! The region is named after two towns: Pessac in the northern part of the region and Leognan in the southwest part of the region. The highest quality wines are located outside of Pessac, the most famous being one of the five First Growth Bordeaux, Chateau Haut Brion. Tonight’s wine, Haut-Bergey, sits just west of Leognan.

Like most Bordeaux rouge from this region, the Haut-Bergey is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (65%) with the balance being Merlot. I was told that the 2005 (a stellar vintage overall for the entire Bordeaux region) is really fun and delicious to drink now but you just need to decant it and give it the time that it needs to open up. Does this mean 5 hours, or 45 minutes? Well, i didn’t decant it, but I did drink it over the course of 4+ hours, and by the third hour it started to reveal its inner beauty. This says to me that the wine is still very much in its youth. I was also told to save some for day 2 when it really starts tasting great. This is not happening, which is a credit to the wine for how easy drinking and deliciously approachable it is now.

I think what impressed me the most was the balance. What do I mean by balance? It’s when all of the different pieces of the wine are in harmony, like the different pieces of an orchestra. For me, I think about the fruit, earth, oak, alcohol, acidity, and tannins.

Fruit: there are a few levels of fruit going on here which is very appealing to me. There’s the darker red fruits like black cherries, but there’s also some nice blue fruits and subtle black fruits, but not as dark and concentrated as blackberry or cassis.

Earth: Graves, gravel, earth!! Yeah baby, and this is coming through big time! Especially right now as I write this! There is a strong aroma of rocks, wet stones, and damp earth.

Oak: this dominated the wine for the first hour. Not with oaky spices like vanilla, or toast… it just masked the other components of the wine from showing, covering them with an oak blanket. Right now though, it’s blending in with the other components with a smokiness and almost incense-like aroma. There’s also some dried tobacco leaf and all-spice. The most oak flavors are picked up in the finish of the wine, rather than on the nose. Really wonderfully complex.

Alcohol: The level of alcohol on the label for me means very little… it’s how that alcohol comes across in the wine, especially in the finish, that I care about. A little bit of heat is nice… it kind of sets off the other flavors of the wine, but too much will destroy them quickly giving you very little time to enjoy anything that might be going on there. This wine, which checks in at 13%ABV, comes across as a subtle warmth that just hangs by the side of all the other flavors.

Acidity: On a scale of low, medium -, medium, medium +, or high, the 2005 Haut-Bergey is med+ which keeps everything lifted and fresh, making this wine a wonderful pairing with food and most importantly, making you want to go back and have another sip.

Tannins: believe me, there are still plenty of grippy tannins in this youthful wine, but they are manageable because they are fleshy, ripe, and round, giving them a softer texture that doesn’t dry you out but still provides some chewiness that really fills out the wine.

I am definitely on board with all of the hype and attention this wine has been getting in the press. At $35 a bottle, this has got to be one of the top Bordeaux values you can get. After evaluating all of the different components above, I would say this is easily a 10 year wine and I think 13-16 years old would be perfect. Consider stocking up on this wine in the top vintages like 2000, 2005, and (we hope) 2009!

Wines of Alsace Food Pairing

I recently enjoyed yet another fantastic dinner with my fiance at Chicago’s Blackbird Restaurant (www.blackbirdrestaurant.com) and had to make a separate post about some wines we enjoyed there. We’re pretty straightforward with our dining at Blackbird… first we order our own appetizer, than our own entrée. Always so easy and simple, and the experience is always superb.

My fiance ALWAYS (and I can’t blame her) orders the salad of endives with crispy potatoes, pancetta, basil, Dijon and poached egg. I started with the scallops with pears, brussels sprouts, and powdered sauerkraut. I wanted to pair up some whites to start us off while our bottle of red for the rest of the dinner was breathing (more on that in the full Blackbird review). I checked out the wines-by-the-glass and was delighted to see not one, but TWO selections from Alsace, both from different producers and both from different grape varietals. I ordered the Paul Blanck Pinot Gris(www.blanck.com) to go with the salad for Erin, and the Ostertag Riesling  for my scallops dish. All I can say, is WOW! It has been way too long since I’ve enjoyed some Alsatian whites along with some great food and it reminded me, in a BIG way, just how delicious these wines are and how easy and versatile they are to pair with food.

If you haven’t tried these wines as a food pairing, please do yourself a favor and pick some up at your local wine merchant (not the grocery store… wine merchant!). The main varietals to look for are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Gewürztraminer. There are other wines from the region, but for the beginner I would start here. PLEASE, THIS IS IMPORTANT–> the wines from this region are DRY, NOT SWEET. Yes, even the Riesling! Alsace is on the border of Germany but everything about its food and wine culture is FRENCH. The growing season enjoys long warm and sunny days which fully ripens the grapes  to perfection. These used to be mostly bone dry wines, and some still are, but it is fashionable right now that the wine makers are leaving a small amount of residual sugar in the wine to add the slightest kiss of sweetness. 

Look to pay about $10-$20 per bottle for good entry-level juice, but you will find the top wines selling for $30 and upwards. The most expensive wines tend to be the sweet dessert style wines from the area which are to die for if you have a sweet tooth. Don’t worry about which producer to choose because they’re nearly all great, but if you see either of the two from this article, I can assure you that you will have a delicious bottle! Many of the wine makers practice organic farming and even biodynamic farming in this region. These special wines are pure examples of the noble grape varieties grown here. Pair them with salads, seafood, Asian cuisine, and white meat dishes. Trust me, there’s enough body and acidity in these wines to cut through a double-cut pork chop if you so desire!

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