Canned Sparkling Wine: Good for Cocktails, Not For Wine Snobs

Very recently, I was introduced to something that should make my wine sensibilities cringe: canned sparkling wine. From producer Francis Ford Coppola Winery, and named after Coppola’s daughter Sofia, comes the Sofia Mini sparkling wine, available in four 187 ml cans (adding up to one 750ml bottle total). As if the little pink cans weren’t enough, each one also comes with a little pink straw attached to the outside of the can with cellophane, creating an experience that seems more fit for a hyper-trendy bar or a kindergarten snack-time than any situation where sparkling wine would be called for. Of course, the wine is also available in traditional 750ml glass bottles, but if you’re going Sofia, you might as well go all in, right?

The real reason I am calling attention to this wine is because of the convenience that these cans serve in the manner of creating cocktails. If you have a recipe that calls for just one ounce of sparkling wine, and you’ve only got 2 people to serve, opening a full 750ml bottle is righteous overkill. Heck, even opening a half-bottle might be a little much for such a small amount required.  There are approximately 6 ounces of wine in each of these miniature cans, breaking down into very handy amounts for most sparkling wine cocktails.

But how does the wine itself taste? After all, having wine available in such handy portions doesn’t mean much if the wine is undrinkable.

To be honest, it’s not bad. It’s a little sweet and exceptionally fruity, but it’s got an okay bite to it. It’s a blanc de blancs, comprised of 82% Pinot Blanc, 10% Riesling, and 8% Muscat. It’s mostly fruit, but very lightly floral, with orchard fruits and flowers creating a fairly pleasant flavor and giving the it the nose of a countryside in spring.

Sofia is definitely geared towards simpler palates, with little complexity other than a layer of citrus that comes forward on the finish. For a cocktail such as a Bellini or mimosa, you can’t go wrong. It’s definitely not going to replace the Cava or Champagne in your life, so don’t expect miracles from it. For a $12 to $15 bottle of California sparkling, however, it’ll serve its purpose.

The lesson here? If you’re serving the wine to someone not of the most open mind, go ahead and pour the glass before you serve it to him/her. Unless their palate demands only the driest sparkling wines, chances are, though they won’t be blown away by it, they’ll be satisfied.

But having this knowledge is useless unless you’ve got a cocktail to try it in. Might I suggest the Champagne Julep? It’s a unique experience, and one heck of a delicious drink for sipping outside.

2 sprigs fresh mint

1 sugar cube

sparkling wine of your choice

splash of bourbon

Place the mint sprigs and sugar cube at the bottom of a high-ball glass. Add ice cubes. Pour the champagne slowly, stirring the entire time, leaving room for the bourbon. Add a splash of bourbon and stir one last time.

Going Against the Grape: Wine-Based Mixed Drinks

What we are about to embark upon will surely offend the sensibilities of the more fastidious wine critics in the world. We are going to taint the purity of fine wine with the basest of mixers and bourgeois liquors. We are going to desecrate months of hard work and careful planning by treating a glass of wine like a shot of tequila. Is everyone ready?

The Wines

2008 Traza RiojaThe two victims of our experimentations are the 2008 Traza Gra2, a 100% Graciano Rioja, and the 2009 Walnut Block Wines Sauvignon Blanc.

The Traza Gra2, crafted by David Sampredo of the collective Vinos Sin-Ley (translated as “wines without laws”), is a rich, perfumey red with a very deep, complex purplish-red color. Red and dark fruits accompanied by just a touch of spice accent a relatively full body. Good balance, bone-dry, and velvety tannins make it a good, pleasant Rioja experience for around $15.

The Walnut Block Wines Sauvignon Blanc is a bright, juicy, prototypical New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Rich grapefruit, lime zest, and very prominent herbal undertones match very well with just a touch of sweetness and a ripe acidity. The color is striking, with an almost colorless silver luminosity, just a tinge of greenish-gold. It’s $11 and worth every penny.

Both wines were purchased from Hillsborough Wine Company in Hillsborough, NC.

Now that we’re acquainted with the victims, let’s look at the mixed drinks we will be attempting to create in the mad mixologist’s lair:

Kalimotxo

The first drink we tried was the Kalimotxo (pronounced Cah-lee-moh-cho), which is a fairly simple concoction with Basque origins. The recipe is as follows:

3 parts red wine

1 part Coca-Cola

Pour the red wine over a glass of ice, then add the Coca-Cola. Stir. Garnish with a lemon or lime wedge. Simple.

We tried this in the tasting with the Rioja, but there was just something slightly off about the flavor. After a second attempt at making this cocktail with a 2007 Mr. Black’s Concoction Shiraz, I came to the conclusion that a stronger, fuller, juicier wine makes for a more delicious cocktail, and at 15.9% with bountiful dark fruits, Mr. Black’s Concoction was exactly what I wanted. Avoid lighter reds and avoid adding too much cola to keep this drink in check. The lighter the red wine you use, the less cola you should add to compensate for the more delicate flavors. Too much fizz, and the drink will devolve into a bitter experience.

White Wine Mai-Tai

While not a true Mai-Tai (a Mai-Tai is neither pink in color nor this simple to create), this drink is nevertheless a delicious and surprisingly potent addition to your bartending repertoire. Here’s the recipe:

1 part clear rum

1 part white wine

splash of grenadine

Mix all ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Pour over a glass full of ice. Garnish with a pineapple wedge or a maraschino cherry.

Because the rum flavor is so heavily featured in this drink, you need to splurge and go one step above Bacardi to get the full experience. For the white wine, go with something full, dry and juicy, something along the lines of a Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, or Picpoul de Pinet would work well here. If you go off-dry, the sweetness combined with the grenadine will overwhelm the delicate wine flavors in the drink and turn it into a syrupy mess.

Take it easy with this one. Because you’re mixing alcohol with more alcohol, it’s going to be a lot more potent than most mixed drinks, up near 30% alcohol, and you won’t hardly be able to taste it. One or two of these will be good for an afternoon on the beach.

A Pleasant Surprise

While preparing for this experiment, I of course paid a visit to the local ABC store. There, I happened upon one of the biggest surprises of my alcohol-consuming life. The clerk saw me browsing the rum section and asked me if I needed any help. When I told him about my plans for the tasting, he handed me this bottle, saying that it was by far the best rum in the shop. There were 2 or 3 rums at a higher price point, but I took him at his word on it.

It’s lucky that I’m such a trusting person because this truly was one of the best rums I have tasted. This is a rum that’s built for sipping. I almost felt guilty blending it with the wine because of how pure and clean it tasted. Flavors of sugarcane, vanilla, banana, and molasses. It’s perfectly suited to tropical mixed drinks, especially if you’re looking to go heavy on the rum. I wouldn’t waste this rum on mixing with cola. Leave that to the Bacardis of the world.

I paid about $40 for this rum, and it’s freely available online at that price if you’d like to give it a try. For another look at it, hop on over to the Drinkhacker review. I don’t have much experience with liquor tasting, and a more trained palate can provide a better review than mine.

The Conclusion

What I learned from this experiment is that, despite the thirst for purity in the wine industry, there are other alternatives for wine use outside of cooking. Depending on the descriptors of a wine, it could make a pretty tasty cocktail. Now I turn to you, dear readers, for help. I’ve only scratched the surface of mixing wine. Have any of you given these a try? What other delicious concoctions have you heard of or produced with your favorite wine? My weekend is in your hands.

Music Monday: A Diet of Blues and Pinot Noir

The Music

This weekend, I hosted a dinner party for a few close friends. The meal we’ll get to later. The music, however, was a mix of two blues-influenced bands, The Black Keys and Minus the Bear, and two jazz- and funk-influenced hip-hop artists, Ohmega Watts and Othello. I wanted something energetic that wouldn’t be annoying playing quietly in the background, and these bands fit the bill. The Black Keys features an incredibly talented blues-trained guitarist and vocalist in Dan Auerbach and an equally talented blues-trained drummer and producer in Patrick Carney. They are especially notable for their lo-fi recording style, using very basic equipment and minimal production. It gives their music a garage-rock kind of edge that really suits Dan’s guitar and voice.

2008 Hamilton-Stevens Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

2008 Hamilton Stevens Russian River Valley Pinot NoirThe wine was a bright, deep red with just a splash of purple in the mix. It threw off some pretty appetizing hues as it swirled in the decanter.

The nose was rich, juicy and very aromatic. I served it in a decanter, mostly for aesthetics, and every swirl released rich dark fruits, spice, and chocolate scents into the air. The flavor was exactly what you’d expect from a California Pinot Noir. It gave a light plum and strawberry fruit attack matched with a fairly intense acidity, a decent amount of earthiness and spice, and an aggressive cinnamon-spice finish. Great balance, with an alcohol level of 14.5% matched with a very full flavor.

It paired very well with stuffed pork chops, though there was just a bit of alcohol heat on the finish. If the pork had been prepared with similar spices (ground rosemary, thyme, dried garlic, sea salt, and just a pinch of celery seed) and without the added salt and savory seasoning of the stuffing, I think it would have been a fantastic pairing. The mushroom cream sauce that was baked over the whole thing worked with the wine very well.

We also paired it with a tray of chocolate bits for dessert. While the milk chocolate was an okay pairing, the dark chocolate really brought out the best of this wine. With the chocolate, an intense earthiness developed, giving off rich flavors of mushrooms and earth that came forward with the spices and fruits of the wine. It was so good that I opted for another glass of the Pinot for dessert rather than the port that I’d served with the chocolate.

This wine is a phenomenal value, certainly a higher quality than the $10 price tag would suggest. 8/10

For another take on this wine, check out the review from Jason’s Wine Blog.

The Wine: Pinot Noir

Producer: Hamilton-Stevens

Vintage: 2008

Region: Russian River Valley, California, US

Varieties: 100% Pinot Noir

Alcohol: 14.5%

Price: $10

Music Monday: Chardonnay and New Jersey Punk

Every Monday, I’m bringing you what I sipped on over the weekend as well as what I listened to to enhance the experience.

The Music

This weekend, I reconnected with my college days with the band Hidden in Plain View. Yes, I was one for the weepy pop-punk brand of emotional bloodletting, and in some cases, I still am. Not exactly a world-beater in talent or popularity, they’re still a lot of fun for singing along to at an unnecessarily high volume in the car, screechingly-nasal falsetto highly recommended.

I can only imagine how much fun it would be to be their drummer… nothing fancy in his work, nothing intricate, just a straight-up 4/4 hard rock with ample room for fills. He really does drive the band; as often as they cut to him on chorus transitions just in time for a drumstick flourish or crash cymbal roll, his energy necessarily has to be infectious.

The Wine

2008 Concannon Conservancy ChardonnayThe wine for the weekend was a stalwart classic, the California-style Chardonnay. From Concannon Winery’s Conservancy vineyards in the Livermore Valley, the 2008 Conservancy Chardonnay brings every classic characteristic of the California Chardonnay with an ecological benefit: the vineyards were planted to protect land from urban development, and the production of wine is just an added bonus.

The wine has all the traditional notes on its nose: palpable oak, a touch of toast, a hint of butter, a good dose of vanilla, and just a bit of apple and lemon untouched by oak. The flavors match, with just a hint of citrus and tropical fruits that manage to overcome a significant oaking in French and American oak barrels.

Though the wine underwent malolactic fermentation and oak aging, the mouthfeel is not as round as you would expect, as the acidity is a little off. The alcohol, however, provides ample structure at 13.5% without bringing the heat.

Overall, I’d say it’s a serviceable Chardonnay, subtle enough to avoid becoming one of the many over-oaked monstrosities that originate in California, and at $15, it’s not going to put a hurt on your wallet to give it a try. 5/10.

Feeling Culinary: What to Pair with Duck Pond’s Pinot Gris?

The Back Story:

The goal for this particular day was to create a dish that would adequately pair with a gift wine. Like the Desert Wind Viognier I reviewed a couple months ago, I received the 2008 Duck Pond Cellars Pinot Gris as a gift from the Fries family as a way for me to taste the wines they were pouring at the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference.

Before I reveal the recipe, however, let’s get an idea of what we’re working with here.

(Yes, I had to sneak a little football into the picture. It’s the time of the season.)

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a very pale straw color with a very slight green tint. The viscosity is low, but the depth and clarity is rather impressive.

The nose of the wine is very bright, with honey, honeydew melon, and pear all standing out stark and sweet.

The texture of the wine is a bit thin, with a light body, but it has a crisp and pleasant texture to it.

The flavor of the wine is very subtle at the outset. It gradually encroaches upon the entirety of your tongue, building to a rich, full finish. The alcohol is just a bit prominent, but other than that, the balance is great. Citrus and orchard fruits contribute to the flavor, with a bit of honey for complexity. The finish is a pure, bright melon.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is a wonderfully light, crisp, and flavorful wine that, unfortunately, would probably fail to impress the palates geared towards bigger reds. Light fruits, light flavors, light body, just a hint of sweetness, this is definitely a warmer-weather kind of wine that would do just fine on its own. It doesn’t need food to shine, though, as you’ll see below, the right food certainly will make it a fantastic experience.

The Conclusion:

Though I’m generally not a Pinot Gris fan, when it’s done right, it’s a very clean and agreeable experience. This Pinot Gris is done right, and it’s a true value buy at $12.00. 7/10

The Recipe:

I took several chicken tenderloins and lightly breaded them in a blend of white flour, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, oregano, celery seed, and thyme. I then pan-fried them in oil, resulting in a golden-brown coating that infuses the spices with the meat itself:

After that, I tossed them in a ketchup-based sauce that was seasoned to my taste… here’s the basics for enough to coat a half a pound of tenderloins (about 6 strips), with some leeway as to your personal taste:

You’re going to need finely chopped vidalia onions and peppers. Which peppers you use really depends on the heat you’re looking for, though I recommend staying away from anything hotter than a habanero pepper. For the flavors to match, ideally you’d go with a combination of Poblano, Mulato, or Anaheim peppers. It’s hard to get those outside of a gourmet produce shop, though, so work with what you know. Chilis and Jalapenos are pretty easy to get. You could even go bell if you want no heat at all. For this recipe, you’ll need about two tablespoons of chopped onion and two tablespoons of chopped peppers per half cup of sauce.

If the onions and peppers are fresh, sauté them (but don’t brown them) for a few minutes to soften them. If they’re marinated or have spent some time soaking in water, they’re good to go.

In a simmering small saucepan, blend a half a cup of ketchup with a tablespoon of either raw sugar (for a lighter sauce) or brown sugar (for a thicker sauce). Add splashes of vinegar and soy sauce. Add the onions and peppers. For seasonings, you want to keep it light so it won’t interfere with the onions and peppers (we’re not going with garlic for this sauce). I suggest just a bit of paprika for heat, a bit of ginger for depth, and cilantro to garnish the flavor, but let your taste buds and your sense of smell be your guide. Let it simmer for a good 20 minutes or so, long enough for the peppers and onions to start to melt into the sauce and release their flavors.

I served it (to myself) with some stove-cooked black-eye peas. The sauce, as I prepared it mildly, matched the Pinot Gris very well, accentuating the bold fruit flavors without overwhelming them. A spicier sauce would need a fuller white, either in body or in sweetness.

This Weekend in Wine: Unfermented Juice and Drinking Jalapeno

This weekend involved two surprises, one really, really good and one really, really bad, as well as revisiting an old standby and a welcome new favorite. The old standby, of course, is the ranga.ranga Sauvignon Blanc, one of the standouts of the Marlborough region in New Zealand. The exceptional herbal, grassy flavors and subdued grapefruit continue to make it a unique experience and one of my most opened bottles. The new favorite? A Spanish blend from Jumilla, Altos de Luzon. 50% Monastrell, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% Tempranillo. Beautiful flavor with a fantastic balance, and a refreshingly full red fruit profile with a subtle earthiness.

The two surprises? Let’s start with the bad one… the 2007 Chateau Saint Roch Chimères. I’ve seen reviews of this wine that describe it as hedonistic, that crusty old standby of wine review terms that means a hell of a lot less than people give it credit for. I can tell you that right out of the bottle, it was nigh undrinkable. It was so spicy it burned the tongue, and the nose was so laden with alcohol it made my eyes water.

After an hour in the decanter, the nose had cooled considerably, so I poured a glass and gave it a go. The texture was so unpleasantly acidic, so rough, that we decided to decant it further overnight, hoping the acids would settle down. The next day, the nose had softened to a fairly pleasant mix of hedonistic ripe dark fruits and herbs. I took a sip only to be overwhelmed by spice and acid again. Paired with a variety of cheeses, it ranged from gag-inducing to barely sip-able. 24 more hours in the decanter, it was too oxidized to be drinkable, and it STILL had a palpable spiciness that overwhelmed the flavor. This is definitely a wine that needs aging, and whoever told me it was a drink now affair was, I believe, off the mark.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews for this wine awarding it anywhere from 88 to 90, so I’m wondering precisely what I’m missing that they aren’t. Anybody had this wine before that can give me some insight? Anyone? So far as I could tell, it wasn’t flawed, though I would love to be proven wrong on that front.

As far as the good, the surprisingly good, we go to an unfermented Gewurztraminer.

Oh yes.

From Navarro Vineyards, their Verjus line is designed for two purposes: to provide a cooking juice with a fuller fruit flavor and to allow those who cannot or will not drink alcohol to experience the beautiful flavors of wine grapes.

First of all, this was the first time I’d ever tasted unfermented juice from a traditional wine-making grape. Let me tell you, it was a fascinating experience. The hints of everything that a Gewurztraminer could be were there, the perfume, crisp acidity, full texture, the bright fruits, all with an overwhelming sweetness that really gives you an idea of what the potential alcohol would be.

I was tasked that evening by my girlfriend, the owner of the bottle, to use it in a recipe. She had received a few bottles of various unfermented varietal wines as a gift and had declined to open them until then. The issue facing me, then, is how in the world do you use what is essentially very expensive white grape juice in a main dish?

I began by thinking about what you could possibly use it in. A sauce? A marinade? I sniffed and sipped the juice, then, with the flavors and aromas on my palate and nose, I shuffled through the spice cabinet, sniffing and tasting the contents of various containers to find anything that has a synergy with this pungent, sweet liquid. The juice had an affinity for poultry-friendly spices, and I decided to try a chicken marinade.

Of course, the juice was too sweet for chicken alone, so I tried to think of a good counter. Cheese, with its satisfyingly straightforward fatty and salty flavors, was a shoo-in. Adding a little spice to the cheese was a no-brainer, and combining it with spinach seemed to make a very substantial filling. My friends, a stuffed chicken bake was about to begin. Long story short, here’s the recipe:

1 cup unfermented white grape juice

4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1/2 cup goat cheese

1/2 cup shredded spinach

flour for coating

generous dashes of dalmatian sage, thyme, rosemary, garlic, crushed pepper, and salt for the marinade.

generous dashes of spicy spices for the cheese filling

olive oil (optional)

I began by marinating the chicken in a bag with the grape juice and the above marinade spices for 45 minutes. During, you want to mix the goat cheese and spinach by hand. By hand is important, because it’ll warm and soften the cheese as it mixes with the moisture from the spinach, forming a moldable stuffing. Spice it up to taste, though I recommend starting with paprika and black pepper.

I pulled each piece of chicken out and rolled in a generous portion of flour, making sure each was basically covered. I then sliced each one end to end, as far in as I could get, then added a quarter of the stuffing to each, getting it as even as possible.

Here, if you want a softer, saucier chicken coating (which is what I went for), rub the tops of each piece of chicken with olive oil. If you want it to get crispy, leave it dry. Bake for 25 minutes at 400 degrees. We served it with seasoned boiled red-skin potatoes.

The smells that came out of the oven were heavenly… the marinade was immaculate. The spices and the goat cheese counteracted the subtle sweetness that the chicken picked up perfectly. We paired with a white Cotes-du-Rhone, from Roussanne, Viognier, and Clairette, but the wine was slightly overpowered. Something more aggressively acidic, fruitier would suit this just fine, possibly a German Riesling, a Gruner Veltliner, or a Viognier. You might even be able to get away with one of the more acidic Rosés, something with a bite to it.

Consider me converted. Verjus is my kind of people.

Spin the Wheel: Indie Music Wine Pairings, Reverse Edition

This week I’m going to pick the music to pair with given wines. This first one was inspired by Brian from Norcal Wingman, who suggested on my previous pairing post that my Jeniferever music video, what with all the snow and the chilly-looking guy trudging headlong through it, would pair well with an Eiswein. I had to agree, but it got me thinking about reversing this process.

Instead of choosing the wine to fit the music, I want to try to find a song that is the aural equivalent of a certain specific style of wine. I approached this idea briefly when I paired a Tokaji with “And You Lied to Me” by The Besnard Lakes, using the complex layered-guitar outro as a metaphor for the finish of a fine wine. Consider this an expansion of that line of thinking. First up? The Eiswein. If Eiswein were a music video, what would it be? I’m thinking “A Jagged Gorgeous Winter” by The Main Drag.

First of all, I just want to point out that the lead singers in the band are dressed as Calvin and Hobbes, and the rest of the guys are dressed as Snow Goons. That sets the stage for one of the silliest music videos I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. The music combines whimsical guitar, subdued bass, and electronic drums with a playful synth backdrop. The fact that they have people playing real instruments even though much of the music is very obviously programmed gives it that adorable sort of playing pretend feel that just accentuates the childishness of the video.

The lyrics themselves are a stream-of-consciousness jaunt through various childhood winter activities juxtaposed with college drama. There is absolutely nothing dark or mysterious about what they’re singing. Sure, they’re singing lines like “all the lies you told about me they were totally totally totally true,” but the general feel is more that all these relationship problems can be cured by a snowball upside the head, Susie Derkins-style.

Because of the sweetness of the music and the winter theme, of course I’m picking this song to match the Eiswein. Since I’ve been encountering a lot of white wine pairings with these music posts lately (not surprising, since the majority of my work music is uplifting and light-hearted), I’m going to strike out into red wine territory with a Primitivo. Let’s find a song that can embrace the juiciness that is a big red ripened in the long, hot Italian sun. My money’s on something from Alkaline Trio. Let’s try “Stupid Kid.”

Alkaline Trio is one of those bands that never quite settles with you. They play such gleeful, energetic music with fairly innocent lyrics, but there are always these ridiculously dark, almost ungodly undertones to their music. This music video is an absolutely perfect example of their music. Matt Skiba, the lead singer and lead guitarist, seems just a bit too manic as he sings about making relationship mistakes as a youth. The music video begins innocently enough with a child who struggles to fit in and develops a crush on his teacher. The last 30 seconds of the video, however, are a kick to the gut with how twisted it becomes.

A Primitivo is a bright, juicy, potent red wine, but there are always dark fruits present that keep the flavor from being too giddy. The ample Italian sun offers a fantastic ripeness to the wine that differentiates it from its Zinfandel cousin in other regions. It still has the ability to creep up on you with a high alcohol content, and it’s just a bit heavier than its rustic red fruit flavors would suggest. I’m actually drinking one as I watch this video!

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