red wine

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Swiss Family Wine
Never really thought that Swiss wine would remind me of my dad and his brother, both men in their 50s who behave like teenagers when they get together. This is a fraternal duo who still prank call co-workers with Kennedy accents on special holidays. This is a fraternal duo who still laugh about spinning their youngest brother on the whirly-stools at McDonalds to make him dizzy and nauseous so he wouldn’t be hungry and they could eat his fries and happy meals. Predictably, the youngest brother is now a thin engineer who develops electric engines to replace internal combustion engines that rely on repetitive spinning motion. Coincidence or utterly predictable consequence? Only the engineer can say.

Photo by Kaboodle (Halloween Fun Purveyor)

Blame the Milkmaids
Swiss wine though has little to do with vintage McDonald’s, GM’s hugely successful Volt engine or brotherly sing-alongs. Swiss wine has to do with weird, unexportable grapes that are available in Switzerland only thanks to voracious Swiss milkmaids and inexplicable yodelers. At least, that’s the reason this wino believes the Swiss refuse to export their wines. Notice that it’s not the high price of the Swiss currency, the world’s most expensive prices or the fact that they’re landlocked and the size of West Virginia – it’s the fault of the milkmaids and yodelers.

Suprise – there is such a thing as Swiss Wine
Swiss wine (when available) has a few surprises with it. Random indigenous grapes that nobody else grows such as Humagne Rouge (today’s featured bottle), the surprisingly unrelated grape of Humagne Blanc, a Petit Arvine, Cornalin (the parent to today’s wine) and probably lots of others that are even rarer and can’t be found even in everyday supermarkets on one’s lunch break.

West is Best – for wine
Humagne Rouge is practically unknown anywhere outside of Switzerland and even in Switzerland, it’s really only in that region around Geneva in West Switzerland known as “Valais” that it’s somewhat known. This is a region that’s one wrong turn from the route of the Tour de France and straddles that lower part of the country near Geneva (American for “Geneve”). Most of Switzerland’s wine comes from this area, likely due to its lower altitude and proximity to France where all wine is consumed immediately and in enormous quantities.

View Tour de France 2011 in a larger map

Voulvez-vous boire avec moi, Moulin Rouge?
Humagne Rouge, as the “Rouge” name implies, is all about the color red and Nicole Kidman trying to play a French whore (ah-hem: “courtesan”) in red makeup. Spoiler alert: Ewan McGregor and Humagne Rouge are still together at the close of the movie. And yes, true to its name, Humagne Rouge is a grape that makes a pretty dark, really red wine that goes well with venison and soul-crushing lost love in French bordellos.

Photo by Wildsound, with assistance from Nicole Kidman

Quaffing Cherries
Why then does this obscure Swiss grape with overtones of lost love and excessive makeup remind me of my dad and his brother? If not obvious already from that description already, it has to do with the taste. Quaff back a glass of Humagne Rouge and you’re hit with cherries – not just normal cherries, but sweet cherries, then black cherries and then sour cherries at the end. And if you’re in Switzerland, you’re probably pretty close to ridiculously good chocolate. So you’re drinking your glass of Humagne Rouge with a bar of dark chocolate in one hand.

Gently Used Gifts Only
And if you’ve ever been to Dad and Tio Steve birthday, Christmas or Kennedy-themed parties, you know that there’s only one acceptable gift: chocolate-covered cherries. In a box, probably with one or two missing. This wine with that chocolate is pretty much that memory gift-wrapped, then unwrapped, then missing a cherry or two, then gifted.

image h/t photohead

Near full box of chocolate covered cherries. We’re talking Dad and Tio Steve sharing their Christmas gifts without anyone eating a couple cherries out of the box – an unheard-of feat! OK, maybe only a couple missing but certainly more than half a box remain.

Tasting-wise, it’s a cherry smell, then with loads of black cherry. Slightly sweet taste with moderate tannins that grow deeper throughout but still a light body. More wild blackberry later on that has some krækiber (pronounced “craigberry”) and other wildberry pungency – medium finish, not lasting crazy long or falling off a cliff like a coyote either. Kinda different in a good way with bit of sour cherry at the end. Drink quickly before your brother steals it.

Detail Up!
Humagne Rouge 2010 Valisiana from Valais, Switzerland (13.5% alc.) – sorry guys, no link. Find it at the really-fun-to-visit Coops. Perhaps Zurich’s best value lunch or dinner or wine store.

Google Randoms:
* Humagne Rouge (not related to other known Swiss grape Humange) is the love-child of an unknown grape and Cornalin (a vigorous Swiss grape also grown in the Valais canton)
* Valais is Switzerland’s largest wine canton.
* 1 person has liked Humagne Rouge on facebook. Ed. note: it wasn’t me but you can be the second.

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Colorino wine label

Wine with Pizza
Colorino – not exactly a well-known grape. This wino had never heard of it before noticing it on a menu at Motorino (arguably NYC´s best pizza, although Nick´s gets my vote). When friends visit you in New York (hola xime), it´s these kinds of places that you have to show off – not just Wall Street, the High Line and the insufferable mayhem of Times Square. So Exacto and I met up after work with xime-amiga to show off one particularly tasty restaurant in one particularly food-friendly neighborhood.

Easy to Pronounce
Motorino thankfully had a pretty fun and reasonable wine list, and Colorino sparked immediately attention thanks to its easy-to-pronounce grape name. Colorino, it turns out, is both easy to say and easy to remember. “Colorino” means colored and for a dark grape with red flesh (yes, that´s right – they exist!), colored makes perfect sense.

Red fleshed grape

Photo by Lane Greer, Oklahoma State University.

Red, Red Grapes
So, red flesh in grapes? Yeah, didn´t know that was a thing either. Most grapes that get turned into red wine have white flesh with a dark skin that turns the white flesh into red wine. However, there are a few grapes that manage to be red through and through. These are the despised and eminently mockable The Ohio State University (Go Blue!), the lackluster Cincinnati Reds or the recent Big Ten debutantes, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. All red, all the way through – for better or for worse, but mostly for worse.

Teinturier – seriously?
Colorino isn´t exactly the most famous of these red-fleshed, red-faced grapes. That honor goes to Alicante Bouschet (one of Portugual´s awesome grapes). Apparently, red-fleshed grapes are at least common enough to have their own unpronounceable French word – “Teinturier” – which includes Colorino, Alicante Bouschet, Saperavi and Dunkelfelder. Probably others too.

What I thought… Medium body, medium dry, blackberries finish, blueberries taste. Ate it with pizza and worked really well.

What experts think (since apparently we drank VERY different wines)… scents of ripe red berries, sweet flowers and pepper; taste is full bodied, with intense fruit and chocolate flavors and a very fine finish. Pairs with grilled food, pasta, meat and soft to medium cheeses (apparently, not with pizza – except it´s delicious that way).

Detail Up!
100% Colorino from 2005 La Spinetta Il Colorino di Casanova from Pisa in Tuscany, Italy

Random Googles:
* La Spinetta means hill in the local Piedmontese language (sidebar: there´s a language in Piedmont other than Italian?). Not sure why a place in Tuscany is using a language from Piedmont but sure, they make good wine so no complaints.
* Colorino is often used as a blending grape in Tuscany where it goes into the pot with Sangiovese. Think inky Petit Verdot in the Bordeaux blend and you´ve got the right idea of how it works in the Tuscan countryside.
* Colorino shows up in those blending amounts of 5-10% in Chianti and also in Vino Nobile di Montepulcino, two of Tuscany´s most famous wines.

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King of the Grapes
Just about everything’s already been said about this grape called Cabernet. Pretty much the whole world is in love, and this wino is frankly a little over all the praise. Really, I get it – you love Cabernet Sauvignon. You think it’s the biggest, baddest red on the block and all other reds are a little scared when Cabernet comes strutting down the street with his leather jacket on and his brash, easy charm on full display. He’s the 800 pound gorilla of the red world, the oft-proclaimed, probably self-proclaimed, “King of Grapes.” (Sidebar: the “Queen of Grapes” title generally goes to my favorite grape. she’s probably the true force behind the grape throne)

Bible Wine Time
Really though, this grape is the Grape of Ecclesiastes. Like old school, OT nothing new under the sun grape. Like Noah and Lot showing up sloppy, and Solomon getting a little carried away in his amorous song musings before penning an ode to the sheer brutishness of Cabernet while singing “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Incidentally, I blame The Byrds for all the exclamation points showing up in sentences these days.

Young Candy Cane
Strange thing is, Cab (shortened because it’s that cool) is a pretty young grape. It just FEELS like it’s been around forever (see: Kardashian). Truth is, before the 18th century when Cabernet Franc (a serious sounding, respectable red grape if ever there was one) started shacking up with Sauvignon Blanc (white and minerally as the limestone it loves), there was no Cabernet Sauvignon. But from that moment on, it was everywhere. France, Italy, Chile, California, Australia, Lebanon, probably Fiji and Hawaii for all I know. And what a blend it was. Not since Candy Canes has the world seen such a red-white marriage of elegance.

Napa Obsession
Napa Valley, California’s most famous wine region, has embraced Cab with aplomb typically reserved for reunited lovers at the airport baggage claim. Find Napa on the map, and you find Cab wrapped all over it, smothering it with kisses and making all the other wine regions a little uncomfortable but a little happy at the same time. Famous Napa names in the WoW (“World of Wine” – sorry gamers) often run into the hundreds of dollars a bottle, and the names of Caymus, Cakebread, Screaming Eagle, Mondavi, Opus One and Far Niente all elicit sighs of purple paradise from Cab lovers across the great state of California.

Far Niente
Far Niente, the subject of today’s excess, happens to be a name that two wino friends with incredibly different tastes recommended to try. One friend (Dr. Econ), a lover of big wines and making her dinner guests pass out in her floor from all kinds of delicious paneer makhani (her soporific recipe here), counts Far Niente among her top California wines and she’s BIG into the biggest of California wines so her word is golden. Another friend (Sommi Seleño), a trained sommi who brightens up at the mention of old-growth Verdejo and Romanian dessert wine, highly recommended the Far Niente tour and the wines when discussing highlights of Napa.

Visiting Far Niente
How then to visit Far Niente? Easy – plug in your destination as Far Niente, start your car rolling from its home base in Santa Rosa and drive. Mountains, hills, sun, happiness – you’re nearly there. Then, continuing to follow the directions of Google Maps, continue left onto a dirt path into the middle of a giant field of grapes (is this even a road? Gmaps says it is), continue past the giant fan that spits water onto the field, wave to the migrant workers taking a water break, turn right at the third giant fan in the middle of the field and continue right until you emerge onto pavement. Only then notice the “No Trespassing” sign. Destination reached – thanks Google Maps, you knew we wanted the full (illegal) tour of the Far Niente facilities.

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Detail Up!
Far Niente 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, California, USA – 94% Cab with 3% each of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot

“Dusty velvet draped around an iron fist” – that’s what I remember precisely. True, this wino wasn’t taking the best of notes given all the food, friends and general mayhem (courtesy of a night spent crashing with Dr. Econ) but definitely remember a really long finish that kept finding new tastes every time a breath was taken. *Breath* (plums?) *Breath* (dutch candy?) *Breath* (currant?) *Breath* (chocolate?) *Sigh* (another glass?)

Random Googles:
* Far Niente – meaning “sweet doing nothing” aka “not a care” aka “hakuna matata” – is one of the oldest Napa wineries going back to 1885.
* Bordeaux in France originated Cab and has led some to speculate that it’s the reason the Anglo world is slightly obsessed with Cab. Others say it’s because Cab grows really well globally. Both camps agree the obsession is hard to resist.
* Few wines are bigger than Cab (i.e. have more tannins – that smacking where your tongue gets stuck in your mouth), which is why Cab is usually thought of as the heaviest red wine. There are some wines that can be bigger though – Tannat and certain Italian grapes can go bigger.

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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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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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