Three party-friendly wines for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is around the corner (two days, to be exact), and I’m feverishly trying to figure out which wines I want to take to my in-laws for the big dinner. I’m a red drinker, but not everyone likes red, and all the experts say you’re supposed to drink white with poultry. To make everyone happy, I’m taking one of each. dreaming tree

The red choice was easy. I love Crush, a red blend by Dreaming Tree Wines. This is Dave Matthews’ vin-venture with veteran winemaker Steve Reeder, and they knock it out of the park. (is there anything that man can’t do?) I love Reeder’s philosophy: “I make wines for people to drink. I don’t make wines for people to put into their cellar.” Crush is so drinkable, I know that anyone in my eclectic group coming together this Thanksgiving will enjoy it. I won’t have to worry that it’s too tannic, or too sweet, or too… red. It’s the perfect easy-drinking red.a bottle of each. (for my first review of Crush, read here)

The white choice was a little harder, mostly because I don’t drink much white wine. I’m pretty picky with my whites, but I guess that means that if I bring a white wine that I like, there’s a good chance that everyone will like it. I’m pretty hard to please. Image

I recently sampled a rose’ by Sequin Wines and have a bottle of the winery’s pinot grigio at the ready. I opened it tonight and think it will make an excellent choice for Thanksgiving dinner. Sequin wines are “delicately bubbled” and have just a touch of fizz on the pour. The carbonation is so light, it’s just a breath of fizz on the tongue. Don’t worry, you won’t be taking up valuable real estate in your belly before the turkey arrives. Sequin pinot grigio is sweet, but not syrupy or heavy. It would balance nicely with a roasted turkey and green bean casserole (can you tell which dishes are my favorite?).

Party bonus: The Sequin website has some great recipes to turn their wine into festive party drinks. (hello, “Sequini”!)

Because Sequin isn’t readily available in every region, I’m suggesting an alternative for your white wine: 14 Hands Chardonnay.

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I know that some chardonnays can be heavy and oaky, and that is NOT what you want for this National Day of Eating. But 14 Hands is wonderfully versatile – a balanced blend of floral and fruity. It has touches of apple and pear with a hint of green grass and fresh flowers. 14 Hands can be found in most grocery stores with a decent wine aisle, and is priced around $15. (I reviewed it here.)

Whatever your plans are this Thanksgiving, may your day be filled with gratitude… and a healthy pour of great wine!

14 Hands and a Standing Ovation

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Oops, I may have poured a little too much. Don’t judge. It’s a good wine and I knew I’d finish it, so I was just a little generous on the pour. No one’s looking. I can do that from time to time.

I first tried 14 Hands wines at the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland, Ore., and remembered wishing I had more time to really investigate it. I made a mental note to come back to it while I moved on to the myriad other wines being poured that day.

As it turns out, this Washington State wine is readily available at grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest (sigh… what I wouldn’t give for a Fred Meyer near me!) and is now readily available in my home state of Nevada too. I brought a pinot noir home with me and picked up a chardonnay once I got home.

The 2010 Chardonnay is tonight’s pick, pairing perfectly with my husband’s barbecued chicken and fresh spinach salad with a berry vinaigrette.

The aroma is slightly grassy and apple-y, but with a fantastic floral note. The bouquet is not deceiving – the first sip on the tongue echoes the nose, bringing forward fresh apple, pear and spring flowers.

The feel is soft and supple, perhaps a bit sweet with the floral tones. But it’s not heavy in its sweetness, like a crisp apple lined with veins of natural sugar – both sweet and fresh and perfect in balance. This light mix of floral sweetness and fruit tartness produces a chardonnay safe to serve with just about any meal.

I love the idea of “patio wines” – those wines you can sip all afternoon on the patio while the sun warms your face and the cold wine cools your head. This is one of those wines, and that’s a good thing in my book. It’s something I’d be proud to serve to guests, but would be happier keeping to myself and sipping on a hot summer day.

The winery’s name, by the way, is an ode to the wild horses that used to roam freely over Washington’s Columbia River valley. Horses were measured by hands – 14 hands were the height of these particular mustangs, and the image they evoke of freedom and spirit is reflected in the winery’s approach to winemaking.

To this Nevadan who loves to see our wild horses trotting through the sagebrush, the winery couldn’t have chosen a more perfect moniker. My two hands applaud 14 Hands, and then they pour another glass.

Chardonnay in April

I am admittedly partial to red wines and not a huge fan of white. But I think, like most prejudices, my dislike is founded mostly in ignorance. So I’m dedicating this spring to learning about white wines, starting with chardonnay this month.

Chardonnay is a pretty standard white wine – it grows in every wine region and every winery makes it. (so says Wikipedia) It has different characteristics depending on where it’s grown and how it’s treated, but overall it’s a fairly straightforward wine. (Yes, I know I’m pissing off 2/3 of the wine community by saying that. It’s overly simplistic and doesn’t do justice to the grape. But bear with me. I’m laying my uneducated cards on the table and building on that.)

By the way, I welcome recommendations and good old-fashioned tongue-lashings from those who can teach me what I’ve missed while paying so much attention to my beloved reds.

What I want to learn is what distinguishes a chardonnay from other white varietals. I can recognize a sauvignon blanc, but what makes a chardonnay a chardonnay?

Tonight I’m tasting the 2010 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Chardonnay (on sale at Raley’s for $11). Robert Mondavi is one of the grandfathers of California wines, and I know I can’t go wrong.

The color is a light lemon yellow, the pour and swirl releasing a wonderful aroma of vanilla, spice, lemons and peaches. I’m generally turned off by melon aromas and flavors in white wines (hence my fairly solid dislike of sauvignon blanc), but there is no melon in this wine.

One flavor I detect in most chardonnays is popcorn — yes, popcorn. Some chards that have been aged in oak have a heavier popcorn flavor, but even the fruitiest chards still seem to have that hint of butter and grain.

So here’s my first note on chardonnays: butter.

This flavor can be accentuated by oak aging, but even steel barrels can’t mask the buttery characteristic.

What other flavors are common to chardonnays? Anyone? Anyone?

Fear not, I will end this month with a great understanding of white wines and will be better able to review them on this meager blog. Suggestions are welcome. Mild criticisms are accepted.

Martinborough Vineyard and Wairarapa region

A recent trip to New Zealand led me to the tiny wine town of Martinborough. Let’s not confuse this with Marlborough, the more famous wine region on the north end of the South Island. No, Martinborough is a tiny, picturesque town in the Wairarapa wine region – on the southeast corner of the North Island –  and it accounts for only 1 percent of New Zealand’s wine, producing primarily pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. For comparison, consider that the more famous Marlborough region comprises 146 wineries while Wairarapa comprises only 62 (re: www.nzwine.com).

This particular tour I was on included Martinborough’s first winery, the aptly named Martinborough Vineyard. Only 31 years old, the vineyard claimed international attention when it won the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy for best pinot noir in the world at the International Wine and Spirit Challenge in 1997. Winemaker Paul Mason explains that the climate in Martinborough is remarkably similar to Burgundy, France, which also specializes in pinot noir. Martinborough Vineyard only grows 120 acres of grapes, 75 percent of which are pinot noir. (while not certified organic, bonus points to the winery for its organic practices!)

My tour was fortunate to taste two pinot noirs at Martinborough, produced from its youngest and oldest vines. The 2010 Te Tera vintage, from the winery’s newest vines, tasted of sharp tannins and evident alcohol while the 2009 (from the vineyard’s oldest vines) was noticeably more mellow. The 2009 was aged in oak for 12 months which lent a honey scent and savory, mineral flavor to the wine. The 2009 was by far my favorite… and of course costs about twice as much as the 2010 ($70 NZD vs. $32 NZD).

Another winner for me during this tasting was the 2009 chardonnay, from some of the original vines planted at the winery. This chardonnay has a slight butter aroma that belied the heavy buttery taste. But don’t be scared off by the butter; the wine was richly balanced with toast and honey.

Martinborough Vineyards exports about 50 percent of its wine and is distributed nearly worldwide. Don’t worry, my American and Canadian readers, you can find in North America, but it may take some searching.

Bicycles outside Martinborough Vineyard

If you happen to be fortunate enough to travel to New Zealand, take time to stroll through the tiny town of Martinborough. Note the layout of the town square – designed after the Union Jack! (check it out) You can take the train – the Tranz Metro – from Wellington to Martinborough, and get off at Featherston (about an hour-long ride).  The all-day excursion ticket to Wairarapa is only $20 NZD and can be purchased at the Wellington station, and there is bus service from the Featherston train station to the town center of Martinborough. I saw several wine-tasters bicycling to wineries, and that would be my top recommendation for hitting the various wineries in town.

Another option is a private tour.  Zest Food Tours led the group I was with, and in full disclosure, the tour was built into the price of the conference I attended, so this was a hosted excursion. However, they did a fantastic job! If you want to see the region like a local but with the expertise of a professional, book a tour. They can pick you up from the train station or from your hotel if you’re staying locally, and the tours are for two to four people (if you hate big group tours like I do, this is a huge bonus point!).

Martinborough may not have the name recognition of Marlborough, but it produces some seriously great wine and has earned a solid reputation for its boutique wineries and hand-crafted wines. The countryside is positively idyllic, and is an unexpectedly wonderful way to get away from the bustle of Wellington for a day and explore one of the world’s up-and-coming wine regions.

NOTE: This trip was part of the Society of American Travel Writers National Convention, so many activities such as this wine-tasting tour were included in the registration fee for the convention. I consider it a hosted trip, and I hope my readers do too.

Chameleon Semillon

This year’s post-Thanksgiving festivities involved leftover pumpkin pie and a father-son-grandpa-uncle pheasant hunt. Planned killing of (yummy) birds gives Black Friday a whole new meaning, huh? While I stalked one-day-only markdowns, my husband stalked brilliantly feathered birds. And tonight we reaped the rewards from his hunt. (I’m still trying to convince him we’ll reap the rewards of my hunt when my credit-card bill arrives. Wish me luck!)

He skinned the birds and stuffed them with green onion and oranges, rubbed them with “kick’n chicken” seasoning and wrapped them in bacon. He basted the pheasants throughout the hour-and-a-half cooking time with teriyaki sauce and garnished the finished product with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

I decided to pair his wild game with a wild deal… 2011 Bungan Head Semillon-Chardonnay (Australia), $5.99 from Wine Insiders. Have you noticed a trend in this blog? More and more of my wines are coming from either WineInsiders.com or BarclaysWine.com, two discount wine websites that I discovered through Groupon. I’ve been having a lot of fun trying wines I don’t ordinarily see in my local grocery store. (and for unbelievable prices!)

I’m not very familiar with semillon wines, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this bottle or how it would pair with the pheasant. The color coming out of the bottle was sunshine yellow, a clear yet deep shade of gold. I don’t know if this is due to the semillon or chardonnay, or perhaps the blend of both.

The aroma is almost like poached pears, lightly fruity with a wonderful hint of vanilla and nutmeg. Likewise, the flavor is not overly tart or citrusy, just a calm, mellow stone fruit toned with vanilla. It has a hint of earthy spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and perhaps cardamom.

This is definitely a white wine I could sip on with or without food, but tonight it’s all about the pheasant dinner! And this is where I have to mention the chameleon nature of this wine. It goes well with everything! The buttery French bread brought out hints of yeast and butter in the wine. The chipotle-ranch dressing on my salad brought out the spice notes. The seasoning on the bird and the tinge of bacon brought out the heavier, earthier flavors in the wine. And when dinner was over and I poured my second glass, it was still perfectly mellow and soft with just the slightest kick of lemon all on its own.

This is the white wine to pour for those who think they don’t like whites. It is so easygoing without being buttery, oaky or heavy. It’s good with a main dish and would be outstanding with a bowl of vanilla ice cream or chocolate-chip cookies. It would be good with a plate of fruit and crackers or a grilled fillet of fish (a mild white fish like mahi-mahi).

I will be adding Bungan Head Semillon-Chardonnay to my permanent wine rack to use when I just don’t quite know what else would be better.

Chardonnay and stroganoff

“Which white are you drinking tonight?” my husband asked oh so innocently.

“Huh? I’m not drinking white,” I replied, not so nicely. (hey, it’s been a long day and I’m cranky and CLEARLY the wine in my glass is not white)

“Yes you are, because I need some for my sauce, so which one do you want to open tonight?”

Oh dear. Now THAT’S a good question.

You see, opening a bottle for both cooking and drinking is not as easy as it seems. I use cheap wine in cooking, but no one wants to drink cheap wine. (Readers, I know you know the difference between cheap and inexpensive.) So that rules out my cooking-only wines. And if I were to give my husband a pinot grigio that I don’t especially like, then I’m left with a half-bottle of wine I don’t really like. (basic logic here, folks)

This warm evening calls for a glass of refreshing sauvingnon blanc, but that’s much too fruity and tangy to use in a stroganoff sauce. That leaves me with chardonnay. But chardonnays can be very oaky and buttery and I’m not sure I want to pair that with a heavy cream sauce and beef.

What to do? What to do? (Hey, this is serious business!)

I decided to open a Hayton 2009 Family Reserve Chardonnay* from Cannery Row Cellars. It was part of a Wine Insiders shipment (currently $14.99 on the website) I recently received and not a wine I was familiar with. I took a gamble, knowing it could turn out to be oaky and heavy, so I was pleasantly surprised by how smooth and light it was.

The flavor is mostly apple and lime but it not biting or tangy. The acidity is perfectly balanced to be smooth yet refreshing. This chardonnay made an incredible stroganoff sauce and was a delicious wine to pair with the dish. And since it didn’t start out too tart, I feel like I can drink a glass and  put the rest in the fridge until tomorrow without running the danger of it turning into vinegar.

Moral of the story: Take a chance on cooking wines – you might be surprised. Bonus lesson: Don’t worry about cooking wines – your HUSBAND is COOKING after all!

* The 2009 is not on the Wine Insiders website right now, so the link is to the 2008.

Cannery Row Chardonnay

Thanks to Groupon, I’ve been able to try some new wines much cheaper and more easily than browsing the wine aisle at the grocery store. As much as I love reading labels and looking at the selection on the shelves, shopping online is fitting my hectic schedule much better. My latest online find was through WineInsiders.com’s Groupon offer: $75 of wine for only $25. Yeah, baby!

I browsed the WineInsiders site and found several great deals, including tonight’s pick, Cannery Row 2007 Chardonnay.  It has a delightful aroma of buttery pear. It has a creamy mouthfeel with a clean finish. The pear is soft and smooth without a hint of syrupy sugar. This is truly the perfect chardonnay for me. I despise sweet, overly tart wines. While I have an affinity for heavy oak in my chardonnays, I’m discovering how tasty a buttery layer can be in the absense of oak.

This wine would pair really nicely with a fatty salmon steak or pasta and lemony alfredo sauce. I expected it to be more tart, so I made Betty Crocker’s spicy peanut chicken stir-fry, something I thought would pair well with a bright, lively white wine. I should have opened a sauvignon blanc to go with dinner, but I enjoyed the chardonnay despite the poor pairing.

While we’re on the subject of Cannery Row, I’m dying to check out the Wine Walk there. Has anyone done this? Monterey, on the coast of California south of San Francisco, is an adorable little town with tons to do (my last time there was for a family camping trip, but we spent plenty of time wandering the shops in downtown and digging for shells on the beach). But I didn’t know they have so much wine there! Add another line on my To-Do List!

The case of the missing New World

Tonight I made grilled chicken breasts stuffed with roasted red peppers and mozzarella cheese with sides of rice and corn on the cob. My selection of white wines is pretty limited right now, so I grabbed a New World 2010 Chardonnay (South Africa) and tossed it in the freezer to chill while the chicken grilled.

When I opened the bottle, I detected a bit of apple scent. At first sip, the chardonnay is bright with a melon twist.  The flavor is tart but the mouthfeel is creamy. Quite tasty!

This is a very sippable wine on its own, but it really hits the spot with the grilled chicken. I don’t know if it was the char from the barbecue, or the roasted red peppers, but something in the dish blended perfectly with the chardonnay and made both more enjoyable.

I can’t find any information online about New World. I ordered it through Barclay’s Wine for about $10 I think, and the only information on the bottle is that it’s imported by Barclay’s. This doesn’t tell me much.  I couldn’t even tell you for sure where you can buy it because it’s no longer on the Barclay’s website. This does not bode well for my readers or the value of this post. But hey, I’m drinking tasty wine, so there! (That was uncalled for, I suppose. Sorry, readers.)

Odonata Chardonnay

Last spring, I went wine tasting in Santa Cruz, Calif., during the quarterly Passport Weekend. It’s a fantastic way to try Santa Cruz wines and spend an afternoon within a short walk of the Pacific Ocean. You buy a passport ($40) that has a page for all the wineries belonging to the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association, which is just about every winery and tasting room in Santa Cruz. And you taste your way through the book. Word to the wise: Don’t try to fill out the entire passport in one weekend (really, don’t! I learned the hard way.). You can keep it and use it again and again until you visit every winery in it. The benefit is that you can use the passport as a guide to tasting rooms, and many wineries pour special vintages while others ONLY offer tastings during Passport weekend. Many local restaurants offer discounts to Passport holders too.

I love family-owned businesses. It’s a small way I show my patriotism; I don’t wear flag pins or have a yellow ribbon magnet on my bumper, but I do support locally owned, family owned businesses. So when my friend and I wandered into the borrowed tasting room for Odonata Wines during Passport Weekend, I was intrigued. The man pouring the wine was the winemaker, Denis Hoey. He talked about his love for wine, the science of winemaking and how he hopes to grow his winery. But he didn’t just talk, he listened. He listened to my reasons for not liking most white wines (too sweet, too fruity, too tart, no depth, too oaky, blah, blah, blah) and he poured me his 2008 Chardonnay.

How did he know? How did he know that this would make me eat my words… or drink them, at least? The Odonata Chardonnay is at first like microwaved popcorn – buttery with just a hint of toasty vanilla . The fruit taste is a mellow apple or pear, not melon like a sauvignon blanc or grapefruit like a pinot grigio. And it doesn’t depend on overpowering oak flavor to give it depth like so many chardonnays. There’s a distinct minerality to the wine, something I haven’t paid much attention to in most other wines. It’s a wine that makes you stop and think about what you’re tasting, and want another taste!

I immediately bought a bottle, and was disappointed to learn that Odonata wines are made in small batches. So like all best things in life, you have to grab it when you find it and savor it.

And savor it, I did. Tonight I made chicken provençal (chicken and bell pepper, onion, eggplant, tomatoes and herbs sauteed in white wine and chicken broth) but went easy on the tomatoes and heavy on the bell pepper and onions. It would have gone well with a red wine, but I chilled the Odonata Chardonnay and was pleasantly surprised by how well it paired with dinner. The bell pepper seemed to bring out the butter in the wine.

Cheers to trying new things, appreciating a vintner who takes the time to talk to his customers, and enjoying a warm spring afternoon in Santa Cruz!

(In checking Odonata’s website, I see that the 2008 Chardonnay is still available. It’s $24, and the winery only offers tastings the first Saturday of the month or by appointment.)

Checking in on chardonnays

I’m a “red” person. I love red wines, or most of them, and just don’t really have much use for whites. On a really hot day in the middle of summer, I enjoy a spry pinot grigio, but it’s not something I’ll pour after a long day at work and just sip.

But for you, dear reader, I’m willing to put my prejudice aside and sample some white varietals. I’d hate to be known as “that red-only gal.” How limiting!

Not one to dive right into a dubious situation, I decided to stick with a winery I know and like. I found a 2008 Montevina chardonnay at Raley’s for $7.49 and decided to give it a go.

Wine-tasting at Montevina in Amador County, Calif.

A couple of summers ago, my friends and I found ourselves on the wine trail in Amador County, a wonderful hamlet of wineries in the Sierra foothills of California (find San Francisco and Sacramento and head east). Montevina was one of the wineries we stopped in to wet our whistles. It’s a beautiful winery, and committed to sustainable agriculture, which scores big points in my book. 

Friends making tasting notes at Montevina in 2008.

OK, back to the wine. At first taste, the 2008 chardonnay is melony and light, in both color and taste/feel. But after a nice swish around the palate, light oak and hints of a nutty vanilla make a brief appearance. It’s good, if you like chardonnay, and I’m learning to. (Oh! Bonus for those of us who can’t drink a whole bottle in one or two nights: Montevina uses a screw-cap rather than cork, so this bottle can stay in the fridge while I get back to my beloved reds.)