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carlos vii pedro ximenez alvear

This blog rarely discusses mermaids, but that is changing right now. Somehow, as a native English speaker, I think of mermaids and sirens as two different sea creatures. Mermaids being the really hot, friendly companions of sailors too-long at sea that likely originated from manatees. Sirens are the mythological Greek creatures with beautiful, intoxicating voices but hideous phases that caused Odysseus to lash himself to the mast rather than being sucked into crashing his boat on the two rocks that acropophiles will probably know the names of.

Las Sirenas
In Spanish, there’s one word for mermaids and sirens – las sirenas – and apparently the connotation is more of the ancient Greek connotation, but with some kind of latter-day comely sea maiden overlay. Basically, it’s a lot of overlapping meanings, histories, sounds and sights layered onto a single word. Pretty fascinating how some words have that depth of meaning where they encompass 1+ words of another language.

Anyway, listening to an ambulance shriek by recently, it struck me that this ambulance “siren” probably comes from the original Greek “siren” of the mermaid/sirena type. Never really thought about how those words overlap but it’s one of those connections that seems so obvious in retrospect that it’s incredible it’s taken 30+ years to make that connection.

The same thing happened with this wine. Pedro Ximenez is a hugely undervalued wine that I think makes consistently great (and crazy sweet!) dessert wines from all over the world. I’ve seen them in Spain, Peru, the Canary Islands, Australia and California and looks like Argentina and Chile grow it too.

Selenhos with their Sherry Fetish
It’s no secret among the cohort of friends that sherry is a style the Selenhos adore and the rest of us are unsold on (most of the group) or generally regard with suspicion (me). Fascinating story on the solera and pretty awesome how palo cortado is made, and there is tons of history layered up on sherry, but it’s still a big gamble when ordering it. And, unless I’m with a connoisseur like Selenho, it’s unlikely a bottle will be ordered for my table. Fortunately, for this story, the Selenhos insisted and we ordered the bottle you see above. Sidebar – pretty amazing typewriter ring in the photo courtesy of Selenhos.

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Sherry from Montila-Moriles?
Circling back to the sirena-ambulance connection, this bottle of what I thought was sherry is made from Pedro Ximenez grapes. Thinking sherry, I checked out what Montila-Moriles DO, which turns out to be close to Jerez (land of sherry) but actually separate. Montila-Moriles makes its wines in the same stunning solera system of Jerez (google it – seriously), but the wines from Montila-Moriles are not fortified, unlike their names from the south.

Amontillado Wine
The wine itself is Alvear “Carlos VII” Amontillado Montilla Moriles DO NV, a name hard to remember even for those used to weird-sounding names from Spain. The key bit of that long name though is Amontillado. Amontillado is a style of sherry in the middle – darker than the lighest style (Fino) and not as dark as Oloroso (the dark, sweet style I prefer). It starts life as a Fino but somehow the yeast protector that usually allows Finos to deliver dies (or is killed off) and the winemaker generally fortifies the wine up in alcohol to keep it from turning too bitter (oxidizing too quickly in wine-speak). That’s the sherry style of Amontillado in a nutshell.

Amontillado, that aha! moment
Cue the ambulance and have a good look at the word “Amontillado.” Looks pretty similar to Montilla-Moriles DO, right? Bingo – apparently, that’s where this style of sherry originated. So even though I was dead wrong about this Amontillado bottle being a sherry now that we know it’s from Cordoba a bit north of Jerez, there’s a pretty strong linkage between these two regions and styles. And the next time I pull out Edgar Allen Poe’s creepy short story on Amontillado and basement terror, it will be thinking of mermaids, ambulances and Montilla-Moriles.

I don’t recall exactly as it was quite a long time ago but The Wine Advocate description struck me as the most accurate of the 3 descriptions on this website dedicated to this particular wine (copying the description below). I remember sharp smells and earthy taste, really good with the more biting or pungent food and only ok with the blander foods. Lots of nuts too, especially almonds, which again threw me onto the sherry trail.

“From a 25-year old Solera system, its medium to dark amber color is accompanied by a medium to full-bodied sherry revealing loads of pungent, earthy, nutty notes, a slightly oxidized character, and a long, persistent finish.”

Detail Up!
Alvear “Carlos VII” Amontillado in a 25 year solera from Montilla Moriles DO NV in Cordoba, Spain

Random Googles:
* Five main grape varieties are grown in the Montilla Moriles DO: Pedro Ximenez (the most common by far), Moscatel, Airen, Baladi-Verdejo (aka Cayetana and mostly grown in Southern Spain) and Montepila (almost nothing online about this grape)
* Pedro Ximenez (the grape) meet Pedro Ximenez (the wine). Apparently the wine is a dessert wine made from raisins, a fairly labor-intensive process from the sound of it. Sounds kind of similar to how dessert wines are made in Italy (Vin Santo) and Cyprus (Commandaria) with laying out the grapes in the sun so they shrivel up before being pressed.
* Citrus flavors are common in dry Pedro Ximenez styles (kinda surprised by that) and fortified wines are more figs, dates and molasses (which sounds consistent with the ones I’ve tried)

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RWC Madeira Savannah Verdelho

Least Favorite of the Best
Verdelho might be my least favorite Madeira grape, through no fault of its own. There’s little to dislike about the grape, seeing as it grows on Madeira, has a slightly sweet and mostly nutty flavor, and works with all kinds of foods – more foods in fact, than most grapes on the market.

Not quite taking on Molten Lava Chocolate Cake
And yet, Verdelho doesn’t seem to have a very strong or clear identity. Of the four noble Madeira grapes – Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey – the first and last have clear identities that mark them as the ends of the Madeira spectrum. Sercial has that really nutty dryness going on, and Malmsey has to be one of the truly great grapes in the world. Seriously, I still haven’t found another grape that holds up to the molten lava chocolate cake… and wins.

Process of Elimination
Bual’s a pretty delicious grape too. Granted, it’s not KO’ing any seriously bad-for-you desserts but it’s sweet and complex, and comes in lots of styles from quite a few producers. Tinta Negra Mole has that under-dog image going for it since it’s not in the noble grape category, Bastardo has a name that just makes you want to love it, Moscatel’s all around goodness and Terrantez is really close to going extinct so it’s important to fight for it, even if its taste isn’t the greatest (sample size 1). So sorry, Verdelho – you’re nutty and complex, but it’s just not enough to avoid being the least favorite Madeira grape. Good thing you still beat most of the wines on the market.

Figs, burnt caramel, custard and brown sugar on the nose. Nutty and almonds but slightly sweet on the taste. Chewy and dry finish, with back of the mouth salivating and cleansing refresher on the tongue and teeth – how Zeus would brush his teeth.

Detail Up!
Rare Wine Company Historic Series – Savannah Verdelho Madeira in Madeira, Portugal

Random Googles:
* Australia has a long history of producing Verdelho in nearly all wine-producing parts of the country, where it has more of a honeysuckle and lime flavor than its European brethren.
* Verdelho is one of 82 permitted grape varieties in Port, and even makes the cut into the “Recommended” grapes for Port.
* Star Mixologists can even use Verdelho Madeira in creating their drinks

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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.

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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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