August 2011

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Happy Birthday!
Correct – another year chalked up on the wall and none the taller (still stuck at 6’2.25″). This year an amazing birthday present arrived via the Zapatos, those lovable characters “from Queens” who appear in these stories from time to time. Gift certificate to an LIC wine institution in hand and with Hurricane Irene bearing down on NYC it was the perfect time to stock up on provisions. Scavengers had already picked up every last 24-pack of oversized water bottles in New York City but somehow they had forgotten the more important liquid provision.

Thanks to scavenger nearsightedness, Brunello came home with Exacto and me. Yes, THAT Brunello. As in Brunello di Montalcino, Italy’s first DOCG (translated from Italian as: (i) we know it’s from here – DOC – and (ii) it’s “pure awesomeness” – that’s what the G stands for in DOCG). And, Brunello is made from 100% Sangiovese. Even a drop of a lesser grape disqualifies it from elated Brunello status.

Kardashians and Machiavellis

But wait, there’s more. Brunello di Montalcino is from Tuscany, that region of fame for something that no one remembers anymore. Like an Italian Kardashian, Tuscany attracts media attention and revels in the limelight. To be fair, Machiavelli (described by urban dictionary as “Awesome dude who lived in Italy a loong time ago”) is from Tuscany so that’s probably what got everyone in a tizzy at the beginning.

Italian and then some
Brunello di Montalcino happens to be pure Sangiovese, the grape that is more Italian than Marco Borriello and Sophia Loren (pre-gross phase). No grape is more planted in Italy than Sangiovese. Tuscany might be the heart of this grape (and of mawkish Eat, Pray, Love, Tuscan Sun) but it’s all over Italy like poorly-timed railroads. Sangiovese followed the Italian immigration wave into the new world and Argentina’s Mendoza boasts a pretty sizable amount of acreage devoted to Sangiovese. California too, some in Washington and some in Australia but it’s sorta fallen by the wayside in the New World, with the possible exception of Australia where growers are discussing an uptick in Sangio-interest.

Detail Up!
Brunello di Montalcino 2004 from Castello di Camigliano in Siena, Tuscany, Italy

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Dusty, dark nose, like walking into a cellar. Light body start that fills out to medium – black cherries and deep flavor with blueberries and slight sweetness at the end. Really excellent crescendo.

Random Googles:
* Brunello has a little lad, its fleece as white as snow. And everywhere that Brunello went, you better believe they serve Rosso di Montalcino (aka “Baby Brunello”). Baby Brunello is a DOC (notice no G – so potentially awesome, but not G-uaranteed awesome).
* Fierce debate rages over how many DOCGs there are, despite the fact that the Italian government could easily answer the question. 47 seems as good a number as any with Piedmont (12), Tuscany (8) and Veneto (6) leading the pack.
* Brunellogate shocked the wine world (pop. 2,000?) in 2008 with stories of OTHER grapes showing up in Brunello. Even the US government acted – a rare feat.

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Explanation Essential

Cserszegi Fűszeres requires a lot of explanation. There’s one bottle and one bottle only that I’ve ever seen with this grape (yes, this is a grape, not a Polish hot dish). Might be the only bottle in the USA also as the importer shows up as hit #3 when you google the grape name.

Pronounce Please
So, first things first – pronunciation. Cserszegi Fűszeres is “chair-say-ghy, foo-seh-resh.” Chair, say, ghy – foo, seh, resh. Even saying it out loud is on the difficult side. Personally, I picture a sage Ali G sitting on a chair saying “foo, seh, resh.” It’s the only way to remember this grape. Difficult, foo-seh-resh.

Ali G in a Chair
Then, where does this impossible to pronounce Ali G arrive from? Hungary, land of famed dessert wines and unknown white wines. This is one of those unknown white wines, much harder to remember than Furmint, that’s for sure. Chair, Ali G – Foo seh resh.

European Indiana
Hungary, though not a large country (it’s slightly smaller than Indiana), does have several wine regions. But then, the same can be said for Indiana. Hungary though boasts 22 wine regions dotted across its Indiana-shaped hide. One of those 22 regions even produces the most-awesomely-named wine: “Bull’s Blood.” If you ever find yourself in the Eger region of Hungary, ask for Bull’s Blood. Please report back.

Today’s wine comes from Neszmely, better known as the region on the edge of Hungary that’s almost in Slovakia. Not Slovenia – that’s the other side. Slovakia, featured in Eurotrip as the country of post-Communist gloom and splendor. Next to Slovakia, one finds Neszmely, an hour’s drive north of Budapest.

Detail Up!
2009 Hilltop Winery “Craftsman” Cserszegi Füszeres from Neszmely, Hungary

Full, round nose of peaches – smells like a big bodied white but *trickery* it tastes really acidic with grapefruit and lemon coming out swinging an enormous bat. Disjointed as it sounds, it’s great for that bait-and-switch shock that your wino-friend never expected. Well played, Cserszegi Fűszeres, well played.

Personally, not my favorite white. I don’t like being tricked and this one sucker-punched me. Sure, I’ll go back for seconds and see if it’s just this bottle and not the grape. Might get punched again – we’ll see.

Google Randoms:
* Cserszegi Fűszeres has Gewurtz as a parent – hence, the big Cyrano nose.
* Cserszegi Fűszeres received the award for “White Wine of the Year“… in Britain… in 1998.
* Listen to the legend of Bull’s Blood – invading marauders and children be afraid.

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Memory, all alone in the Mooooon-light
Certain wines take you back – to specific, memorable moments complete with cherubs, picnics and wooded vales. Barbera is that wine for me, except the cherubs are replaced by parking lots and the wooded vales were clear-cut for a strip mall. Welcome to Suburbia – Picnics still allowed.

As bleak as that sounds, the restaurant at the edge of the strip mall next to the flat expanse of concrete was excellent. Rosso Pizza – look it up if you’re ever in Santa Rosa, California. Consueldo, Exacto and I plopped down and immediately opened the menu (yes, the WINE menu – our priorities are straight) to decide what to order. We asked the waitress about a local wine with an English grandmother name “Barbera” and… it happened.

Rosso Waitress
Never before has a waitress verbally orgasmed in front of three unsuspecting guests at Rosso Pizza in Santa Rosa. Words like “God,” “unbelievable,” “sooooo good,” “THE BEST,” “love,” “amazing” spewed out between moans of ecstasy. Sitting in the strip mall next to the parking lot, we felt a little awkward being in public… and near children. Still, we ordered two.

Thanks to that energetic waitress, Barbera is forever seared into my mind. And it’s a good thing too as it’s the kind of wine that tickles the food fancy. Not too big and overpowering, seems to work with pretty much anything carb-related and fairly easy to find – this is Barbera.

Barbera’s Summer Home
Unbeknownst to this wino, Barbera shows up all over the place, not just in California pizza joints. Italian sailors couldn’t get enough of Barbera and took it with them wherever they landed. New World, meet Old Italians. Even though it’s original home is Piedmont, up in the northwest of Italy, the New World is Barbera’s summer home. Argentina received more than its fair share of Italians back in the 20th century immigration wave and, true to form, they had loads of Barbera (sadly, no more). Brazil, Australia, the US and Uruguay all received big influxes of Italians and all have grown Barbera with delight.

Grape Joys
One of the joys of the grape is that it produces lots of fruit. Plus, it can be harvested early so a late frost isn’t going to destroy your crop and leave you with nothing but water for the winter. To top it off, the tannins are on the lower side so it’s easy to drink young and with food. No waiting around for your unborn child’s college graduation on this wine – bottoms up!

Notes from the wine(s) ordered at Rosso kept it simple and could sum up what’s best in a food wine. “Cherry, violets, medium body with long finish and some spice – really excellent.” Should have added, “totally worth the public embarrassment. NSFW.”

Detail Up!
UNTI Barbera 2009 from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, California (thanks for the image UNTI guys)

Random Googles
* Italian reds in three words: Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Barbera. Numbers #1, 2 and 3, in order of how much acreage Italians devote to the vines.
* They don’t make learning wines easy in Italy. Barbera synonyms include: Barbera Mercantile, Gaietto, Besgano, Ughetta and (my favorite) Barber a Raspo.
* Hanna-Barbera. Not hard to guess what language Hanna’s partner grew up speaking at home.

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Minor Key of Grapes
Minor grapes are usually minor for a reason. Too acidic, too tannic, too sexy for your glass. Once in a great while, minor grapes also produce minor miracles. Think Cahors – a grape headed for extinction in France that takes an ocean voyage in its junior year of college to “discover itself” and ends up in Argentina. Goodbye Cahors, hello Malbec!

Petit Bordeaux
Petit Verdot is one such minor grape that gets buried at the bottom of the wine label, in the part that nobody reads except those really fastidious, tedious wine geeks searched for their pH buzz. Try and name the grapes that go into classic, famous Bordeaux. Cabernet – check. Merlot – check. Ummmmmm…. Cabernet Franc? Yes. And some others – correct. Turns out those “others,” at least in the red Bordeaux, are Malbec/Cahors and Petit Verdot (RIP Carmenere). Petit What? – correct.

Petit Out of Favor
Petit Verdot has that too _____ flaw. In this Mad Libs experiment, the ________ is “late-ripening” so it’s been falling out of favor in the old world faster than Greeks at a Central Banker retreat. New Worlds have new ways however, and the US, Argentina and Chile have taken up the banner of the crestfallen Petit Greek. California is one of the biggest producer since they’re big into Meritage wines that seek to replicate the Bordeaux blends and often do just that. 1976 – a great year for the California wine industry. Happy Birthday USA!

Minor no more, this is Petit Verdot in its 100% pure form. Ah-hem… this is rare. Not blended, not subsumed, this is Petit Verdot stepping out from the background. Ringo, please take this solo. We’ll manage the cymbal.

So, what’s Ringo do with his solo? He goes dark, very dark. Dark in the glass, dark in the mouth. Thinking blackberry and that black British currant jam they sell at overpriced supermarkets. Really pretty balanced and full… at least until you try tasting it after a couple California Cabs – then it feels thin and anorexic. Moral of the story – save your Cabs for another day and focus on the wine at hand. This one’s an impressive, rare example.

Detail Up!
100% Petit Verdot 2008 Ferrari Carano from the USA out in Dry Creek Sonoma, California

Random Googles
* Peh-teet ver-dough. Sounds way hotter (and more pastry-like) than it’s spelled.
* Keep an eye on Virgina – not just for all those presidents it turned out. It’s now looking to be a big Petit Verdot player.
* Ros̩ Petit Verdot Рapparently, it exists. And is even pretty good, according to this guy.

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Confusing Muscat
Muscat is really confusing. You think you know it because Muscat has that hear-me-roar smell that makes even aromatic wines like Gewurtz and Riesling bow in admiration. Truly, if there is a smelly wine king, Muscat is he.

Fecund as a Father, a Founding Father
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a king, Muscat is also incredibly fertile and has more offspring than Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson combined. And yes, this fecundity makes for very awkward family reunions. Worse still, Muscat is a mutant so image some shape-shifting virile Founding Father and you have an idea who this Muscat character actually is.

Someone told me there are nine Muscat families, presumably all somehow related and trading on Mr. Muscat’s namesake. On this blog, we’re up to Muscat #3 – Muscat of Alexandria. History buffs will already be able to tell where this grape comes from and which queen quaffed this grape before the asp had the last word.

Brewer in the Muscat Family
Muscat of Alexandria is apparently the unscented Muscat of the family who bathes often and refuses perfume like many of his brethren and sistern. He would be perfect to work at a sake brewery, where even the faintest hint of a smell gets into the sake. Muscat would not be in your sake.

No Mancloud of Muscat
As with most unscented men (Mr. Zapato excepted), he’s not that popular. Women like the tall, dark and scented men who wear Italian cut shirts and ferment each more in cologne. Men who love to ride elevators just to asphyxiate lesser mortals who haven’t yet developed the ability to travel in clouds of Acqua di Gio. Muscat of Alexandria spends most of his time at the table wine section, probably busing the tables of his more odoriferous Muscat relatives.

Allez cuisine!
Thankfully, with the right TLC from Mother Nature, there are regions where Muscat of Alexandria reigns supreme in regal dessert wine splendor. Setúbal, Banyuls and Malaga – three tiny regions that won’t be on your wine map unless your wine map is much better than the crayola-marked version hanging on my wall. Setúbal makes a dessert wine called “Moscatel de Setúbal” – spoiler alert, it’s Muscat of Alexandria. Banyuls is in France, literally spitting distance from Spain, and makes its dessert wine from Muscat of Alexandria – its wine’s name, being French, is the same as the location – Banyuls. Malaga takes its Muscat of Alexandria, swirls it with the sherry grape Pedro Ximenez, and punches out the third of the Muscat of Alexandria dessert wines. To the best of my knowledge, none of these have a picture of Cleopatra VII on their bottles.

This particular wine is from the Banyuls region and, true to form, is a sweet dessert wine. Thanks to the good folks at Claret Wine Bar in Sunnyside, Queens, which is easily the best wine bar in a three neighborhood radius, we know this featured wine is 70% Muscat of Alexandria and 30% Muscat Petit Grain (aka millions of other names). For this wine, we’re talking lots of apple smell, extremely sweet taste and a big taste of apricot and some other fruits that better tasters would be able to identify.

Detail Up!
Muscat de Rivesaltes “La Prieure de la Vin” 2009 from Banyuls in Languedoc-Roussillon, France

Random Googles:
* Muscat de Rivesaltes (confusingly made from two grapes also named Muscat) is a French dessert wine with an elfin cousin who only appears around Christmastime – Muscat de Noël.
* South Africans call this grape “Hanepoot” and somebody at Jo-burg thinks it’s a Pan-African panacea.
* Wisconsin, one of 50 states in the US to produce wine, puts Muscat of Alexandria at the top of its wine tourism blurb. Strangely, they fail to mention cheese.

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