Monday, December 27, 2010

Top Ten Bubblies To Ring In The New Year

This year's resolution: I vow to quit drinking. I know it sounds crazy, but I figure if I pick one I know I'll break right away, I don't have to deprive myself of something for a month only to end up failing anyway. And whether it's Cava, Prosecco, or Champagne, sparkling wine is the ultimate symbol of celebration. It's the beverage of choice for ringing in the new year, and in my case, for breaking the new year's resolution. Some of you may splurge on a special bottle, others enjoy the excitement of hunting for an inexpensive treasure. These ten are some of my favorites from a variety of price points, styles, and regions.

1. Veuve Clicquot - 'Yellow Label' Brut - Champagne, France NV - $45
Sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France is the quintessential symbol of celebration. The wines of this region show depth, complexity, and more importantly, carry with them a level of prestige. With this bottle you definitely pay for the "Nike Swoosh," but it's still a delightful Champagne for the price. Quick history: The Veuve Clicquot Champagne house was run by the famous Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin-Clicquot, who revolutionized the industry with techniques like riddling (remuage), the process of getting sediment into the neck of the bottle. Her innovative marketing techniques and attention to detail made her wines an international symbol of quality and celebration. Today the Champagne house is owned by the luxury brand company Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey, whose portfolio consists of big name Champagne brands like Moet & Chandon, Mercier, Ruinart, and Krug.

This wine is a non-vintage, which means it is a blend of several years' grape harvests. Non-vintage is the very essence of Champagne. While vintage Champagnes show us what a producer can do with good quality grapes in ideal conditions, the non-vintage Champagnes showcase the house's style and reputation. It's their calling card if you would. This wine is made from all three of the principal grape varieties of Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Brut on the label indicates this wine is dry, with 15 grams of sugar per liter or less. The Yellow Label is the most accessible of all of the Clicquot line, available in most retail locations. What I love about the 'Yellow Label' is its finesse. This wine is racy, with bright fruit flavors and a wonderful yeast component.

If you've ever wondered what makes Champagne so much more expensive than, say, Cava or Prosecco, consider these three factors: The labor-intensive traditional method of production in Champagne, branding - the Nike Swoosh, if you will, and the amazing flavors and aromas that, as a result of the traditional method, are unique to Champagne. If you're looking for something special for this year's countdown, try Veuve's luxury brand, the Grande Dame, from a spectacular vintage like 1990 or 1996. But be aware, you will pay upwards of $150.

2. Nicolas Feuillatte - Brut Rosé - Champagne, France NV - $48
Nicolas Feuillatte, or Nicky Foo as many call it, is a value-packed Champagne producer. The house started production in 1976, and today they sell more than 9 million bottles annually. Their flashy style and youthful approach to marketing helped them quickly become one of the top five Champagne producers in the region.

Like Veuve Clicquot, this wine is both non-vintage and brut. But what separates this from the widow is its pink color. This particular rosé gets its color from blending white and red wine together. This bad boy is loaded with spicy aromas and berries on the palate. Its silky texture, great flavor, and long finish landed it a spot on this week's top ten list. The same producer also makes a non-rosé non-vintage brut that is definitely worth trying if you get a chance.

3. Domaine des Baumard - 'Carte Turquoise' Brut - Cremant de Loire, France NV - $19
Also French, this next top-tenner is a great bang for the buck. What separates this bubbly from the Nicky Foo or Veuve Clicquot is where it comes from and the grapes that used to make it. Cremant de Loire is a sparkling wine made using the same method used in Champagne, the traditional method. It comes from the Loire region of France located just south and west of Paris, or more importantly, Champagne. The grape used to make this wine is Chenin Blanc, a principal white varietal in the Loire. This value-packed bubbly displays aromas of green apple and nuts, with a creamy texture and bright acidity. A great alternative to Champagne for a fraction of the price.

4. La Marca - Extra Dry - Prosecco DOCG - Veneto, Italy NV - $12
Looking for something a little less traditional that won't break the bank? Then the La Marca is perfect for you. This wine comes from the Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene sub-region in the greater Veneto region in northeastern Italy. It has this ridiculously long, and hard to pronounce, name because the grapes are grown near the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. The grape used to make the wine is Glera, formerly known as Prosecco. Unlike Champagne or Cremant de Loire, this wine is made using the tank method, not the traditional method. This means that the wine is produced in a big tank and then sent under pressure into the bottles rather than being fermented in the bottle itself.

This wine could be one of my favorite summer sparklers. Its light and fresh, showcasing aromas of green apple, lemon, and grapefruit. The palate is refreshing, making it incredibly approachable. The term 'Extra Dry' on the label indicates that this wine has just a touch of sugar, making it more off-dry than dry. One would assume extra dry would have less sugar than say brut, but this isn't the case. This is because the term Brut on a label traditionally indicated that the wine was meant for the Brits, who like it very dry. Extra Dry was the style sent to the Americans, who claimed they liked it dry, but really liked a touch of sweetness in their wines. And now you know the rest of the story.

5. Nivole by Michele Chiarlo - Moscato d' Asti DOCG - Piedmont, Italy 2009 - $15 (375 ml)
Also in Italy is the Asti sub-region of Piedmont, well known for producing delicious bubblies from the Moscato (Muscat) grape. This one is sure to entertain the masses. With its candied nose, filled with citrus and green apple aromas, this wine is perfect for any of your non-wine drinking guests. But the best part is it's delicious, so you'll love it too. What I like about this wine is its sugar content. It's not sickeningly sweet or syrupy like you may have experienced with other Moscato d'Asti's. Instead the flavors are naturally sweet, like fresh strawberries versus concentrated strawberry juice. Like the La Marca, this wine is made using the tank method. If you are entertaining a lot of guests and don't know what to get, pick up the Michele Chiarlo. It's great little bottle that is sure to be a real crowd pleaser.

6. Bellavista - Brut Cuvee - Franciacorta DOCG - Lombardy, Italy NV - $42
This next bubbly is a treat for any wine geek. Franciacorta is a sub-region in the heart of Lombardy known for producing world-class sparkling wines using the traditional method. This wine is made from 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc). The problem with this Franciacorta is production; not how they do it, but how much they make. It's incredibly difficult to find these wines in common retail locations. They must be sought out, and when they are found, they must be purchased. Franciacorta, like Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene and Moscato d'Asti, is a DOCG, the highest quality wine tier according to the Italian wine laws. Once you taste this bubbly delight you will see it is NOTHING like Moscato d'Asti or Prosecco. Close your eyes and you could mistake this beauty for a high quality Champagne. It's dry, yeasty, creamy, and delicious. All other Italian DOCG's could learn a lot from Franciacorta.

7. Roederer Estate - Brut - Anderson Valley, California NV - $23
The Roederer Estate is owned by the infamous Louis Roederer of Champagne, the house that produces the ultra-popular luxury cuvee Cristal. They debuted their Roederer Estate Brut from California in 1988. Like Cristal, this wine is made using the traditional method, the same process used in Champagne, France. And sticking with tradition, Louis Roederer uses Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, two of the three principal varieties used in the production of Champagne. All of the fruit used to make this wine comes from the Anderson Valley, which is located in Mendocino County, just north of Napa and Sonoma. This area is cooler, similar to the climate of Champagne. Like the other non-vintage wines on this list, this dry domestic sparkler is made from a blend of several years' grape harvests. If you are looking for a great bubbly for the price, look no further than the Roederer Estate Brut from Anderson Valley in California. They also make an award winning rosé that is outstanding.

8. Argyle - Extended Triage - Willamette Valley, Oregon 2000 - $60
This next bubbly was one of the only domestic sparklers to make it on Wine Spectator's elite top 100 wine list. Anyone who knows me knows that no top ten sparkling wine list is complete without the Extended Triage by Argyle. Like the Roederer Estate, this wine is made using the traditional method and is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It comes from the prestigious Willamette Valley, a region noted for its premier growing conditions for world-class Pinot Noir. This winery was started by Rollin Soles, an American, and Australian native Brian Croser. With a focus on creating high-quality Pinot Noir and sparkling wines, these two took a dream and made it reality. This wine is loaded with ripe fruit aromas of pear and apple complete with a creamy, rich palate. This coupled with the fact that the winery practices eco-friendly winemaking techniques makes this wine a perfect for just about any top ten list!

9. Petaluma by Croser - Piccadilly Valley, Australia 2007 - $30
For our next wine on this week's list we head down under, but a familiar face is there to greet us. Petaluma is an Australian wine project by Brian Croser. That's right, one of the men behind the Argyle wines. This wine, like many of the others on the list, is made using the traditional method. And like the other traditional method wines on the list, this one is made from the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

In the Piccadilly Valley sub-region, located just outside of the city of Aidelaide, the vines grow in altitudes of 1300 to 2300 feet. This elevation provides ideal climate conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If you are looking for a light, yet aromatic wine full of tropical fruit, like pineapple, and citrus fruit, like lime, then you came to the right place. This wine is dry with a crisp acidity that is sure to please just about any palate. Unlike most of the other wines on this list, the Petaluma by Croser is a vintage wine which means that all of the grapes come from the year stated on the bottle, in this case 2007. An OUTSTANDING sparkling wine from a world-class producer. Truly a must have when the clock strikes midnight!

10. Freixenet - 'Cordon Negro' Brut Cava - Spain NV - $12
Last but certainly not least is the Freixenet Cava from Spain. The Cordon Negro, often called the Black Bottle by Freixenet, is the number one imported sparkling wine in the world. Over 350,000 cases of this bubbly are exported to the United States alone each year. Like the Veuve Clicquot, Nicky Foo, Bellavista, Roederer Estate, Argyle, and Petaluma, this wine is made using the traditional method. But unlike the other traditional method production wines on this list, this one is made from the Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada grapes. These three native Spanish varietals are commonly used in the production of Cava. Much of the Cava produced in Spain comes from the Penedes region located in the northeast. So despite the fact that the label simply states the wine comes from Spain, I would venture a guess that the majority of the fruit is from the northeast. With its lively acidity and pear and apple characteristics, this wine is a value-packed alternative to traditional Champagne this New Year's Eve. Plus, it's really easy to find.

Each one of these sparkling wines will make for a great celebratory bottle on December 31st. I tried to incorporate a variety of regions, price points, and styles to showcase the versatility of sparkling wine. Be advised, many of the wines on this list are dry, so beware criticism from your old-school family members who's quintessential "champagne" is a bottle of Andre Spumante. And don't let them put cola in it. Just buy a backup box of Franzia if that's the case. Whatever you selected and whoever you choose to share it we at Cru hope you enjoy your celebration. From all of us here, have a safe and happy new year.

For more incredible wine picks and delicious pairings, check out Cru Wine Online. We pair original recipes with delectable wines, and bring them to you in an entertaining video short, complete with a brief explanation of the wine, the dish, and the pairing.

Sign up today for a 6 Month Membership and receive a FREE wine glass set, a $19.95 value. Life's short, so drink it up. At only $7.99/month you can't afford not to! Happy New Year.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten Fruitcake Wine Pairings

It's said that one in four Americans give the gift of a fruitcake during the month of December. So like it or not, there's a pretty good chance you'll find yourself stuck with one this holiday season. Maybe you like them, maybe you don't, but before you toss yours in the trash or re-gift it to your least favorite cousin, consider how the right wine might just make it worth keeping. From liquor-soaked to tropical fruit, there are a variety of fruitcakes available, and a wine for each. This is why I put together my list of the top ten fruitcake wine pairings.

1. Graham's - '10-Year-Old' Tawny Port - Douro, Portugal NV - $35
When it comes to wine and fruitcake, you can't go wrong with a delicious tawny port. This value-packed treat by Graham is no exception. When pairing wine with dessert, you want the glass to be as sweet or sweeter than the dish. This puppy has more than enough sugar to compliment, ensuring neither the dish nor the wine get lost. And its apparent spice component will draw out the spices in your fruitcake.

Brandy-soaked fruitcake brings a distinct flavor and an apparent alcohol component to the pairing, so this variety can overpower light wines. But the tawny by Graham has more than enough weight and alcohol to compliment. If pairing an alcoholic dessert with more alcohol isn't a recipe for holiday cheer, then I don't know what is!

2. Hardy's - 'Whiskers Blake' Tawny Port - South Australia, Australia NV - $13
While a wine should only be called Port if it comes from Portugal, this producer does a nice job of mimicking the style and stealing the coveted title. It's a great alternative to spendier traditional Port from Portugal. Like the Graham's, this light-colored fortified dessert wine has the spice, flavor, weight, sugar, and alcohol to enhance just about any fruitcake. Improving on the world's most hated dessert might not sound like much of an accomplishment, but trust me, these wines had their work cut out for them. The Hardy's, like the Graham's, is a non-vintage, which means the fruit used to make it came from several years' grape harvests. Overall this tawny from Australia has a little extra kick, making it a great wine not only for the fruitcake, but also help ease the pain of having to spend time with your family during the holidays.

3. Campbells - Tokay - Rutherglen, Australia (375ml) NV - $19
This next top-tenner also stole its name from a prestigious style of wine. In Hungary, Tokaji is a delicious dessert wine produced from botrytis (noble rot) infected grapes. This wine is made from the Muscat varietal (aka. Moscatel, Moscato, Muscadelle, etc), and is slightly fortified, resulting in a high 17.5% abv and dried fruit flavors and aromas. These components, along with its high sugar content and spicy notes, make it a perfect for your holiday fruitcake, especially if it's filled with raisins.

4. Chambers - 'Rosewood' Muscadelle- Rutherglen, Australia NV (375ml) - $18
Number four literally tastes like liquid fruitcake. Like the Campbells, this wine is made in the Rutherglen sub-region of Australia. Also like the Tokay by Campbells, this wine is made from the Muscadelle grape, a blend of six to ten of your old Muscadelle grapes to be more specific, and is fortified to give the same alcohol and surge of sugar. If you believe that like pairs well with like, then this one's right up your alley.

5. Quady - 'Essencia' Orange Muscat - Madera, California 2008 - $20
Close your eyes and think oranges and apricots. The Essencia by Quady is another fortified dessert wine, but this one is made from the Orange Muscat grape. Orange Muscat is native to France, but today little grows in the area. In fact, most of the plantings of this varietal exist in Italy and Australia. Andrew Quady, owner and operator of Quady wines, has taken this native French varietal and perfected it in the warm climates of Madera county in California, not be confused with the Madeira region of Portugal. If you have a fruitcake with dried apricots, oranges, and peaches, add a touch of honey and this is your ideal pairing.

6. Chateau Ste. Michelle - 'Eroics' Riesling - Columbia Valley, Washington 2008 - $24
A partnership between Washington wine giant Chateau Ste. Michelle and German Riesling legend Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen, this wine is the perfect balance of weight, flavor, and sugar. The reason I chose a Washington State Riesling over one from Germany is because the Pacific Northwest style tends to have more body, and the fruit flavors and aromas are usually ripe. This wine's lush characteristics of peach, pear, and apricot make it a great pairing for just about any "non-drunken" fruitcake. Well-balanced acidity and sugar make this a great wine to enjoy all on its own if you just can't bear to eat the fruitcake.

7. King Estate - 'Vin Glace' - Willamette Valley, Oregon 2007 (375ml) - $15
The term Vin Glace (Vin de Glace) is French for Ice Wine, called Eiswein in Germany. Ice Wines are produced from frozen grapes either naturally, by leaving the grapes to hang on the vine until the temperature drops below freezing or artificially through cryoextraction. Cryoextraction, which is basically putting the grapes into a freezer, is used in places and vintages where the temperature doesn't get low enough to freeze the grapes naturally. Traditional producers from notable Ice Wine-producing countries like Canada and Germany frown on this method of production. The King Estate Vin Glace is made from 100% organically grown Pinot Gris grapes frozen with the cryoextraction method. The end result is a sweet wine full of tropical fruit and apricots, perfect for tropical fruitcakes.

8. Bricco Riella - Moscato d' Asti - Piedmont, Italy 2009 - $12
Yhis bubbly made from the Muscat grape, called Moscato in Italy, comes from the Asti sub-region inside the greater Piedmont region. This delightful little sparkler is full of fresh flavors and aromas of green apple, pear, and lime. This wine's wonderfully racy acidity, low alcohol content, and bubbly texture make it a great compliment for most fruitcakes. For only $12 this bottle is a great value and a real crowd pleaser, so convince your friends and family help you through the fruitcake, and reward them with this pairing.

9. Banfi - 'Rosa Regale' Bracchetto d'Aqui - Piedmont, Italy 2009 - $20
This slightly effervescent red by Banfi makes a great pairing for the fruitcakes that have dried red fruits and berries. Made from the Bracchetto grape, this wine comes from the Aqui sub-region, which like the Asti sub-region is located in Piedmont, Italy. It displays characteristics of strawberries, raspberries, and cherries, and has a the perfect sweetness, bubbly texture, and weight to pair with fruitcake, especially a chocolate one.

10. Pacific Rim - Framboise - Columbia Valley, Washington 2009 - $14
Number ten on this list tastes like bottled raspberries, and for good reason. It's made from raspberries grown in Mount Vernon, Washington. Framboise is kind of a wine, because it's fermented fruit, but is often considered more of a beer. Pacific Rim winery is owned and operated by Randall Grahm of the famous Bonny Doon label. This wine solidified its spot on this top ten list because it can make literally any fruitcake palatable. Its 20% ABV gives it enough weight to hold up to dense fruitcakes, and it has enough sugar and intense fruity flavors to take on the fruitcake covered in dried fruit.

If you can't bring yourself to eat the fruitcake, consider this your list of sweet wines to pair with good company. Travel safely this holiday season and enjoy your time with your loved ones. Merry Christmas!

For more incredible wine picks and pairings, check out Cru Wine Online. We pair original recipes with delicious wines, and bring them to you in an entertaining video short, complete with a brief explanation of the wine, the dish, and the pairing.

Sign up today for a 6 Month Membership and receive a FREE wine glass set, a $19.95 value. Life's short, so drink it up. At only $7.99/month you can't afford not to! And while you're there, don't forget to finish your Christmas shopping in the Cru Wine Shop.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, December 13, 2010

Top Ten Holiday Ham Pairings

It's that time of year again. Time to break out the fine China, turn on Andy Williams, wrap presents, and invite your family over to share in the holiday festivities. Everybody's holiday dinner is a bit different. Some of you may bring back the turkey, others go with something less traditional, rack of lamb, lobster, or perhaps lasagna. But for those of you sharpening your knives for the traditional Christmas ham, I've put together a list of my top ten holiday ham wine pairings.

1. Reilly's - 'Barking Mad' Riesling - Clare Valley, Australia 2009 - $15
When people see Riesling on a wine label they either think, "Yay!" or "Oh, I don't do sweet." This refreshing white is perfect either way, because it showcases delicious fruity characteristics and it's dry. The Clare Valley is known for producing world-class dry whites from the Riesling grape. These wines tend to be a little weightier than, say, a German Riesling. This racy white has the weight to hold up to the ham, with the acidity to hydrate the palate after each salty bite. An incredible, food-friendly wine for the price.

2. Alexander Valley Vineyards - Gewurztraminer - Mendocino County, California 2010 - $9
Alexander Valley Vineyards is one of my favorite "value" producers in California. They are known for their Cabs, red blends, and Chardonnays, but this little ditty shows a whole new side of this value-packed producer. This California Gewurztraminer from the cooler Mendocino County displays typical Gewurz characteristics. With aromas of lychee nut and spice followed by an oily texture and a kiss of sweetness, this weighty white is your ham's soul mate. Its mediumish body and touch of sweetness make it a perfect partner for a honey glazed ham.

3. Trimbach - 'Reserve' Pinot Gris - Alsace, France 2007 - $28
I've said it before: Alsace produces some of the most food-friendly wines in the world. What separates their Pinot Gris from Italy's Pinot Grigio, other than the name, is the added weight and lush, versus lean, fruit flavors and aromas. Alsatian Pinot Gris has a fuller body, making it a great partner for a protein like ham. Oven roasting concentrates flavors on the outside, so pairing a roast ham with a fuller-bodied white ensures the wine won't get lost. In addition, this Alsatian Pinot Gris has the lush fruit flavors and aromas to compliment a variety of sides on the table.

4. The Crossings - 'Unoaked' Chardonnay - Marlborough, New Zealand 2009 - $18
Chardonnay is probably the most adulterated grape of them all. Its delicious characteristics are commonly masked by winemakers through the use of oak and malolactic fermentation. This producer takes a different approach with Chardonnay. They preserve the grape's natural acidity by not aging or fermenting in oak. The result is a dry, clean, refreshing wine, perfect for pairing with your Christmas ham.

5. Beckmen - Grenache Rosé - Santa Ynez, California 2009 - $18
When in doubt, think pink. Rosé is one of the most food-friendly styles in the world. The apparent acidity and light structure of these wines make them a great match for a wide range of foods. The Beckman's light red color and soft tannin comes from a limited amount of time spent soaking with red grape skins. This producer used the Grenache grape to make its delicious rosé, resulting in a spicy pink delight. I like this pairing because it won't overpower the ham, but more importantly, because it has a touch of tannin to cut through fat. Plus it has a little spice to compliment any mustard accompaniments. I would describe this pairing as an instant holiday classic!

6. Wild Horse - Pinot Noir - Paso Robles, California 2007 - $25
For those of you who prefer the redder side of life, this beautifully-crafted Pinot is for you. I had the pleasure of visiting Wild Horse back in 2003, back when you could get a great Pinot from the lesser-known central coast of California for under $20. Today it's harder than ever to find a good quality US Pinot Noir for under $50. Wild Horse is a steal at only $25. It has a wonderful medium weight, but more importantly a clean, medium acidity. This is a result of the cool climate where the grapes grow on the central coast. When it comes to pairing, Pinot Noir is much like rosé - incredibly versatile. Like Kevin Bacon in Footloose, this bad boy has all the right moves in all the right places.

7. Georges Duboeuf - 'Cru Beaujolais' Morgon - Beaujolais, France 2009 - $13
I have highlighted Cru Beaujolais' food-friendliness in the past. Its juicy flavors, light tannins, and bright acidity make it a great partner for salty foods, especially pork dishes. Morgon is a larger Cru in Beaujolais, and this region produces wines that display concentrated fruit. I love this pairing, but then again, I'm a sucker for Cru Beaujolais. I think it's because many wine professionals view the Cru's of Beaujolas as a joke, and I like to fight for the little guy.

8. Joseph Drouhin - Volnay - Burgundy, France 2007 - $42
Basically the same rules apply for the Drouhin as they do for the Wild Horse, since they are both made from the Pinot Noir grape. This particular Pinot comes from the Volnay sub-region inside of the great Beaune region of Burgundy in France. Volnay produces some amazing reds for the price, and is often described as firm yet silky. The style produced in Burgundy is more subtle, and slightly more earthy than the Pinot's of the central coast of California. This beauty has the characteristics to compliment and enhance a ham, plus you get a great taste of Burgundy without having to empty your pockets.

9. Dashe - 'Dry Creek' Zinfandel - Sonoma, California 2007 - $24
Not too many people think Zin when they think ham. But a young, juicy Zin can make for a great pairing. Dashe Zin comes from the infamous Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, viewed by many as the grape's finest growing region. Although this writer believes the styles tend to be a bit big at 16%+ ABV, this juicy red will compliment a variety of sauces and sides on the table. Plus it appeases the big-red-only drinker, important if you've got one sitting at your holiday dinner table.

10. Allegrini - Valpolicella Classico - Veneto, Italy 2007 - $18
Valpolicella is a region in Italy that produces red wines from the Corvina grape, along with a few other regional varietals. The styles tend to be muscular in their youth, but after only a few years they soften and become incredibly food-friendly. Allegrini is a great producer in the region, and makes a great example of this value-packed red. It's easy to drink, easy to pair, and has a little muscle for that same big-red-only drinker who swears Cabernet Sauvignon won't beat up the dish...which, of course, it will.

My suggestion would be to pick up both a red and a white for the dinner table. This allows you to see the major pairing differences and cater to the many palates present. Plus, isn't the holiday season all about making everyone around you happy at the expense of yourself, all while maxing out your credit card? I may sound like the Grinch, but I truly am a fan of the holidays. Above all, I think the holiday season is about being with the people you love...and sharing, of course. So this year I am planning on sharing with the people I love just how much they annoy me. Happy holidays!

For more incredible wine picks and pairings, check out Cru Wine Online. We pair original recipes with delicious wines, and bring them to you in an entertaining video short, complete with a brief explanation of the wine, the dish, and the pairing.

Sign up today for a 6 Month Membership and receive a FREE wine glass set, a $19.95 value. Life's short, so drink it up. At only $7.99/month you can't afford not to! And while you're there, don't forget to finish your Christmas shopping in the Cru Wine Shop.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, December 6, 2010

Top Ten Holiday Gift Wines

When it comes to the holiday season, I think family, friends, co-workers, and wine. Lots of wine. I find the wine makes everything else on that list more tolerable, so I start with a glass at Thanksgiving and drink right on through to the New Year. But no one likes to drink alone, so I make sure the chubby guy in the red suit brings a few treats for my family and friends too.

Selecting wine for a holiday dinner or to put under the tree for a loved one can be a bit intimidating. So before you go dashing through the snow looking for that perfect wine gift, consider these tips to help in your adventure.

1. Argyle - Extended Triage Sparkling Wine - Willamette Valley, Oregon 2000 - $60
Nothing says holiday spirit quite like a bottle of bubbly. Sparkling wine is incredibly versatile, and thus makes for a great gift. This is because it can be drank in celebration, with a meal, or for no good reason at all. I like the Argyle Extended Triage for two reasons. One, it is absolutely delicious. It has depth and character, and the right component balance to last for another couple of years. Second, it is the only domestic sparkling wine to make Wine Spectator's Top 100 list. While I'm not a ratings whore, I will say that is a pretty remarkable feat; one that Argyle certainly earned. The 2000 Extended Triage makes for a great gift to give a loved one, co-worker, or just to bring as a guest to a holiday celebration.

2. Pierre Sparr - Alsace One - Alsace, France 2008 - $13
Looking for something a little less expensive? The Alsace One by Pierre Sparr should be right up your alley. This food-friendly, slightly sweet white is a real crowd-pleaser. It'll satisfy even the pickiest drinkers. It's a great gift for the wine collector who has everything, or nothing. If he has nothing he likely doesn't collect, and is looking for something delicious to enjoy right now. If he collects, chances are he would love a slightly sweet white to entertain guests with. In addition, because this wine is so food-friendly, it's a fabulous gift for your holiday party host. Affordable, delicious, easy to drink...these make Alsace One a great gift bottle this season.

3. La Crema - 'Russian River' Chardonnay - Sonoma, California 2005 - $27
I like to give La Crema to the "name collector". La Crema is like the Reebok of wine. Sure they make wonderful wine, but name recognition is what really sells their juice. No need to ask how much was spent on this one, it's a dead give away. This gift says "We're more than acquaintances, but I'm not going to break my bank for you." It let's your loved one or friend know you reached to the top shelf, but they can still drink it anytime.

4. Chateau d'Arch - Sauternes - Bordeaux, France 2005 - $31
Chateau d'Arch's 2005 Sauternes is a great gift for the collector. This bottle won't leave you penniless, but still has another decade or so left to age. Sauternes is a region in France that produces sweet, concentrated whites from Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is full of honey and apricot aromas with wonderfully sweet flavors, and the best part, it's only $31. Sauternes from great vintages like 2005 can range in price from $50 to $500. This is a great value, plus it's delicious. Pick up a bottle and give it to your friend who has everything, they will appreciate it. If they don't know what it is, tell them it's a delicious sweet wine from France that pairs well with desserts like Creme Brulee or Peach Compote, but will also stand up to Foie Gras. If you get a blank stare just tell them it's nummy and rare.

5. A to Z Wineworks - Pinot Noir - Oregon 2008 - $20
I have been drinking and writing about A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir for the last three years. I first discovered this wine in a blind tasting and was shocked when I found out the price. Upon further investigation, I discovered I liked their style - a lot. Their slogan is "Aristocratic wines at democratic prices." For only $20, this is a steal, but wait there's more! This wine a 90-point rating from the Wine Spectator, solidifying its spot on the magazine's Top 100 list. This bottle is practical, affordable, and lets the recipient know you did your homework. It makes a great bottle to give to just about anyone because it's a light red, and pairs with just about any dish. This factor also makes it a great wine to bring to a holiday party. It's easy to find in retail stores, so buy one for yourself too. You're going to love it!

6. Marques de Casa Concha - Cabernet Sauvignon - Maipo, Chile 2008 - $22
This next top-tenner makes a great gift for the Cab-lover. This bottle is fairly easy to find, but is often passed over by the "I only drink Napa Cab" drinker. This one will blow your hair back, plus it's easy on the wallet. It's big and bold and will compete with many of the bottles in their cellar from Napa that retail for $35 or less. Because it's so big, I might not suggest bringing it to dinner if you are planning a Turkey or Ham. It's a bit to tannic, and would beat up the dish. But put a bow on it, and set it under the tree. It's a bottle that the recipient won't feel bad about opening, and will feel so good after tasting.

7. Taurino - Rosso Reserva - Salice Salentino, Italy 2006 - $14
Looking for something red and unique for a steal? The Taurino Salice Salentino is just the one. This approachable red is incredibly versatile, and will pair well with many dishes, especially pizza. The wine lover who has everything will appreciate the fact that they have something to open that night or soon as a "daily drinker." It's a cute little red, and something most people likely haven't tried, and it's easy to find at your local retailer.

8. Cyrus by Alexander Valley Vineyards - Red Blend - Sonoma, California 2006 - $55
While Sonoma has struggled a little bit in the new Millennium this producer continues to make good quality red wine year after year. Tom Stevenson of the Southerby's Wine Encyclopedia said that Alexander Valley Vineyards' Cyrus red blend could easily be classified as one of California's top ten red blends. The best part: it's under $100 and a tad obscure. This bottle makes for a great gift for the person who doesn't have a cellar. Consider this their "starter bottle". For $55 you can pick up a red that will age for 3-5 more years, which is perfect for the non-collector, because he often buys special bottles, but can't wait to drink them. If you are looking for a special gift for your boss or co-worker and you have a few bucks to spend, make it a Cyrus.

9. Graham - 10-Year-Old Tawny Port - Douro, Portugal NV - $35
I love to give the gift of Port during the holidays. I think it's because I live in a place where it snows, and I can think of nothing better than curling up next to the fireplace with a blanket and a glass of port...well, almost nothing better. The 10 year old Tawny by Graham is a fantastic Tawny for the price. This style is light brown in color and displays aromas of brown sugar, caramel, vanilla, and burnt almonds. It's a great companion to dessert or stinky cheeses, but also works great on its own. Because it's fortified (a spirit - brandy - has been added), it holds up a little longer once it's opened. Most wines like a Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc don't make it much past a few days, but this wine will be good for a couple of weeks once opened. Perfect to nip on from time to time. This is a great gift to give anyone because they will always find a special time, dish, or partner to drink it with.

10. Dow - Vintage Port - Douro, Portugal 2007 - $80
Last but not least we have the 2007 Dow Vintage Port. This monster says "I frickin' love you" or "I really need a raise." For only $80 you can purchase a bottle of wine that was a perfect 100 on Wine Spectator's rating scale. It also ranked number 14 in the world in 2010. The best part: your recipient can lay it down for a decade or two because it needs some time to mellow. This bottle is a statement and a quality product, so don't give it to just anyone. Instead save this bad boy for your boss, your spouse, or yourself. What? The holidays are about giving, so don't leave yourself out.

You may notice I didn't include a single bottle of Champagne on this list. I felt it might be a bit too cliché, and your money could be better spent elsewhere. What I like about this list is there is something for everyone. So whether it's your boss, your sales team, your mom, your husband or your best friend, you should be able to find something in there they will enjoy.

For more information about me, more incredible wine picks and delicious food and wine pairings, check us out online at Cru Wine Online. You'll find daily Wine and Recipe pairings just for our users. We pair our chefs' recipes with delicious wines, and bring them to you in an entertaining video short, complete with a brief explanation of the wine, the dish, and the pairing.

Sign up today for a 6 Month Membership and receive a FREE wine glass set, a $19.95 value. Life's too short not to enjoy every sip, so drink it up. Entertain your senses with Cru Wine Online's monthly membership. At only $7.99/month you can't afford not to! And while you're there, don't forget to finish your Christmas shopping in the Cru Wine Shop.

As always, feel free to contact me via email, on Facebook, or simply leave a comment here on the blog. Thanks again for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, November 29, 2010

Top Ten Steak & Wine Pairings

On average each person in the US eats over 200 pounds of meat annually. That's more than half of a pound a day! Couple that with the fact that we, as a nation, consume more wine at 760 million gallons than any other country in the world, and you have yourself this week's blog topic.

Even though the grill is a steak's best friends, wine and steak pairings aren't just for the summer months. While those of us crazy enough to live in states that reach -20 degree F do put away our grills come fall, we don't put down the steak knife. So let's cut into this delicious list of pairings.

1. Rib Eye
Caymus - Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa, California 2006 - $70
The rib section is home to the Prime Rib and Rib Eye steaks. These cuts are loaded with flavor thanks to heavy marbling. Rib Eye is the boneless interior of the Rib steak, and some argue it's the most flavorful cut because it's so tender and succulent.

The reason I selected the Caymus Cab from Napa for this pairing is because of its tannins. Tannins (mouth-drying astringency) beg for protein, and can cut right through fat. Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa has plenty of grippy tannins, making this wine a great pairing for the Rib Eye. Caymus is an iconic producer in the region, and consistently makes good-quality wine year after year. The 2006 vintage in Napa was great for Cabs. While it was a bit rugged in its youth, this wine has had a little time to mellow and harmonize. Being only four years old, however, its tannins are still firm enough to hold up to the steak.

2. Flat Iron
Torres - Salmos - Priorat, Spain 2005 - $32
Our Flat Iron steak is the Butler's steak in the UK or the Oyster Blade in Australia and New Zealand. This relatively new cut comes from the shoulder, and also has a significant amount of marbling. The Flat Iron was rated by the North American Meat Processor (NAMP) buying guide as the second most tender cut after the Tenderloin.

Priorat is a DOCa (Spain's highest quality) located in the Northeast of Spain. The region is well known for producing big, powerful reds from native and international varieties. The Torres Salmos is made up of Garnacha (Grenache), Syrah (Shiraz), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carinena, a classic Mediterranean varietal. This wine has the body and tannins to hold up to the marbling in this cut, and a symphony of flavors to enhance the pairing. The '05 received a 90-point rating from the Wine Spectator.

3. Filet Mignon (Tenderloin)
Chateau Frombrauge - St. Emilion - Bordeaux, France 2005 - $37
In the hind quarter, directly behind the ribs we find the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin runs along the sides of the spine, and is usually taken in two long, snake like cuts. Although this cut doesn't have the marbling or intensity of flavor of the Rib Eye or Flat Iron, it is supremely tender, hence the name. Filet Mignon is the French term for the cut taken at the large end of the Tenderloin. This is traditionally one of the most expensive cuts of beef.

The Chateau Frombrauge from the St. Emilion sub-region comes from the Right Bank of the greater Bordeaux region. While the Left Bank, with regions like Medoc, Pauillac, St. Estephe and many others, is dominated by the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, the Right Bank tends to make the majority of their wines from Merlot. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot has plenty of weight and structure. But Merlot tends to mellow a little better than Cab. The vintage I suggest is 2005, a monster in Bordeaux. While 5 years aging is not enough to drink this bad boy on its own, it will have the perfect tannin structure and balance to enhance this tender cut of beef. Plus, I figure this is kind of a play on the "grows together, goes together" concept of food and wine pairing seeing as this wine is French and so is the cut, although not necessarily the beef.

4. New York Strip
E. Guigal - Cote Rotie 'Brune et Blonde' - Rhone, France 2006 - $70
The New York Strip, like a portion of the Tenderloin, is taken from the short loin just behind the ribs. Because it comes from a muscle that doesn't do much work, Strip steak is very flavorful and incredibly tender, although not as tender as a Rib Eye or Filet Mignon. Internationally it's called the Club steak, but it also goes by the names Strip Loin, Shell, and Kansas City Strip in North America.

Cote Rotie, found in the Northern Rhone region of France, produces big reds from Syrah with just a dash of Viognier to soften them. The term Brune et Blonde goes back to a story of the land owner having two daughters, a blond and a brunette. On their wedding days the father/land owner gave each of his daughters a piece of his land and named one Brune for the brunette and one Blonde after the blond. This wine is a blend of grapes from each site. E Guigal is a great producer who makes rich and full-bodied, yet elegant wines from Cote Rotie. The 2006 has plenty of tannins to chew through the meat, but has matured with time, so it won't overpower the tender cut. A great marriage of power and finesse.

5. T-Bone
Castello di Brolio by Baron Ricasoli - Chianti Classico - Tuscany, Italy 2006 - $55
The T-Bone is like a twofer because it's cut from both the short loin and tenderloin. The "T" shaped bone divides a small Tenderloin and a large Strip, making it an indecisive diner's dream come true. This steak has the best of both worlds - the most tender cut on one side, and one of the most flavorful on the other. Due to its large size and high-quality, it is often one of the priciest steaks on the menu.

Because we have two cuts of beef, we want a wine that will be gentle to our little Tenderloin, but in the same breath one that won't get overshadowed by the rich Strip. Chianti Classico is a sub-region inside of the greater Chianti region of Tuscany that is classified as the "original" Chianti delimitation. The wines here are made up primarily of the native Italian Sangiovese grape. This full-bodied, spicy little devil is an incredibly food-friendly varietal. Baron Ricasoli is one of the oldest producers in the world, and is still family owned and operated in its 32nd generation. The 2006 Castello di Brolio by Ricasoli was given a 96-point rating by the Wine Spectator, solidifying its spot as number five on their top 100 wine list. While I'm not a ratings whore, I will agree this is a great quality wine. This wine will be able to chew through the Strip without overpowering the Tenderloin, a tricky balancing act.

6. Porterhouse
Chappellet - Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa California 2006 - $42
The Porterhouse Steak is basically a thicker T-Bone with a larger Tenderloin. There's some debate over what truly separates the two, but for our purposes, it's not really important.

With this pairing I wanted something with structure, but also something that had a bit of age to it so it wouldn't overpower either cut. As I mentioned earlier, Napa makes big, robust, tannic Cabs. Chappellet is a quality Napa producer that instead makes well-balanced reds, showcasing good levels of alcohol, acid, and tannin. With its apparent tannin, but mellowed flavors and textures, the 2006 has had enough time to soften for our Tenderloin, yet still retains enough structure to take on the Strip. A great wine with a great steak.

7. Top Sirloin
St. Hallett - 'Faith' Shiraz - Barossa, Australia 2006 - $16
Now we come to the sirloin, located between the short loin and the round section. Although less tender and traditionally less expensive than cuts from the short loin, these puppies are still incredibly tasty. The sirloin section lies on top of the tenderloin, with the top sirloin beneath it, and bottom sirloin below that. The bottom is less tender and much larger, usually what you get when you purchase a steak simply labeled Sirloin. When selecting a Sirloin steak from your butcher or on a mis en place at a restaurant, try to get a cut as close to the loin as possible. Cuts close to the short loin have a flat bone, those closer to the round section have a round bone and are less tender. Of course the most tender and flavorful of your sirloin options is the Top Sirloin, and it's always labeled as such.

Whether you select the Top Sirloin or the Bottom Sirloin, you'll want to pair it with a wine that is fruit forward and juicy. Australia is the king of juicy, fruit-forward wine, especially when it comes to their Shiraz. St. Hallett is a value-packed producer making stunning wines from Shiraz. Their Faith Shiraz is a great bottle for the price. It displays dark fruit flavors with plenty of spice. One of my favorite ways to season a steak is simply kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. This wine will enhance the black pepper, while the hearty Shiraz grape provides plenty of tannin for the meat.

8. Round Steak
Marchesi di Barolo - Barolo - Piedmont, Italy 2005 - $46
The Round steak comes from the rump. In some countries like the UK, Australia, and South Africa, it actually goes by the name Rump steak. This cut is moderately lean, and generally tough, but can showcase nice flavors. Like sirloin, the round section yields three different round cuts. The Top Round is the best of the three, but can still get a little tough on the grill. These steaks respond better to slow roasting or braising. The Eye of Round often becomes stew meat or a roast because it doesn't respond as well to quick preparation methods commonly used for steaks. And the Bottom Round is usually cut into roasts because it requires slow cooking.

For a tough cut of meat like this, we want a little muscle in our wine. And who better to provide that than the Italians. Barolo is a sub-region in the northwestern Piedmont region of Italy. This wine is made from the Nebbiolo grape, a thick-skinned, dark-colored varietal. Nebbiolo produces rich wines that are big and rich, with plenty of tannin. Many times you pay $100 or more for quality Barolo, but Marchesi di Barolo is a quality producer for the relatively low price. This rugged red will get in there and just tear apart this tough cut. A chewy wine for a chewy cut. I feel like making that noise Tim Taylor made on Home Improvement when I think about this pairing. Argh, Argh. Argh.

9. Skirt Steak
Cline Cellars - Syrah - Sonoma, California 2007 - $10
Skirt steak comes from the plate or belly of the animal, right below the rib. It's a long, flat cut that is prized more for flavor than tenderness. Technically the Skirt steak is divided into two categories, inner and outer, but there isn't a ton of difference between them. The outer Skirt steak is covered with a membrane that needs to be removed before cooking, while this was removed from the inner Skirt steak before it was packaged.

Skirt Steak is often used to make fajitas and Chinese stir-fry. Since both of these dishes display spice, I selected a wine that had a little spice itself in order to draw out these wonderful flavors. Cline Cellars is owned and operated by Fred Cline, and focuses on eco-friendly winemaking practices. This Syrah is big and bold to chew through the tough cut of meat, but has a wonderful spice to enhance any spicy flavors imparted by other ingredients. An inexpensive wine for an inexpensive cut.

10. Flank Steak
Alexander Valley Vineyards - Merlot - Sonoma, California 2007 - $20
Last and perhaps least is the Flank steak. Flank steak, also known as Bavette, is one of the toughest there is. It comes from the strong, well exercised belly of the cow, behind the plate and below the short loin. Many mistake this cut for the Skirt steak, but they are different; the Flank is actually tougher. Like the Skirt, the Flank is best in Mexican Fajitas and Asian or Indian inspired stir-fry dishes. The Flank is best when it has a bright red color.

For this last top-tenner, I selected the Alexander Valley Vineyards Merlot. This winery is located in the Alexander Valley sub-region of Sonoma. They produce amazing wines for the price, and their Merlot is top notch. This bad boy drinks more like a Cabernet Sauvignon than it does a Merlot. It has plenty of weight and structure, making it a great match for this tough steak. Fight big and tough with big and tough.

You probably noticed there is not a white wine to be had on this list, and that's because there are very few circumstances that allow a white wine to work with steak. This is generally because whites don't have the tannins that protein, and red meat in particular, screams for. One of the specific cases in which a white will work is when the steak is served with a cream sauce, like a Bearnaise. Here you could pair to the sauce and try a full-bodied Chardonnay with plenty of oak, but still I'd recommend a Barolo or Cru Beaujolais instead.

While some of these pairings are a little pricey, they are equally delicious. I hope you get the chance to try one. For more information about me, more incredible wine picks and delicious food and wine pairings, check us out online at Cru Wine Online. You'll find daily Wine and Recipe pairings just for our users. We pair our chefs' recipes with delicious wines, and bring them to you in an entertaining video short, complete with a brief explanation of the wine, the dish, and the pairing.

Subscribe today and receive a FREE wine aerator, a $14.95 value. Life's too short not to enjoy every sip, so drink it up. Entertain your senses with Cru Wine Online's monthly membership. At only $7.99/month you can't afford not to! And while you're there, don't forget to finish your Christmas shopping in the Cru Wine Shop.

As always, feel free to contact me via email, on Facebook, or simply leave a comment here on the blog. Thanks again for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Wine Director
Certified Sommelier