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!

Spin the Wheel: Indie Music Wine Pairings, Large Bodies of Water Edition

I’ve had a thing for unnecessarily long titles lately. You’ll have to forgive me on that front. This week, and I promise I had no hand in this, the two indie songs that came up on shuffle were Sparta’s “While Oceana Sleeps” and Jeniferever’s “From Across the Sea.” Hmm, Ocean… Sea… sounds like a parallel to me. Rest assured, however, that what I plan on pairing with these will be at least a bit more palatable than a glass full of brackish ocean water.

Sparta – While Oceana Sleeps

Sparta is a band with an interesting history. Way back in the day (read:: late 1990s) there was a band called At the Drive-In. They played ridiculously complex music, adding weirdly metaphoric and abstract vocals to off-rhythm drumming and an odd combination of punk and progressive guitar-work. However, there were two members, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the vocalist and guitarist, who were unsatisfied with their mainstream recognition as simply a punk band. They decided to start their own project, The Mars Volta, to pursue some ridiculously outlandish progressive orchestrations. The remainder of the band, Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar, took their sound in an entirely different direction, towards a classic indie rock sound. Thus, Sparta was born. The band has split once again, with Jim Ward forming an alt-country band called Sleepercar with some guest musicians from previous Sparta releases as well as his father on bass. Go figure.

Sparta’s sound began with that dark passion leftover from At The Drive-In. Ward would play furious guitar riffs and shout-sing his vocals, employing direct lyrics that actively engaged the audience (“How can you sleep at night?”) on matters both personal and political. By the time they released the album Porcelain, however, their sound had seriously softened, employing a slower tempo and more melodic guitarwork. Ward began really exercising his vocal chops, returning to a more poetic, metaphorical lyric style.

If I were to match this band, both in history and content, I would pair them with a Pinot Blanc. Pinot Blanc, an on-vine mutation from the genetically unstable Pinot Noir, produces brilliantly-colored white grapes side-by-side with Pinot Noir’s dark berries. The flavors are suitable for either a dry, acidic style or a sweeter, tamer one, though that largely depends on terroir. As Sparta suddenly split from a darker, more intense parent, so does Pinot Blanc.

As far as the substance? You’re not going to get a world-class cellar-worthy wine from Pinot Blanc, but you will get a fairly safe, palatable wine just about every time. Sparta? Sparta may have a large following, but they’ve yet to release a hit single. Their music is pleasant, with a bit of variety, but still, you always know what to expect in a Sparta song. They’ll give you just a hint of stadium rock, a bit of punk, and a slice or two of indie, all delivered with earnest emotion. It’s certainly enjoyable, but by no means is it life-changing.

Jeniferever – From Across The Sea

Jeniferever is a band that I simply cannot hype enough. They’ve taken in a variety of 21st century-style influences: the vast, distorted soundscapes of post-rock bands like Sigur Ros, the staggeringly complex drumbeats of modern progressive bands like …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, the saturated, pedal-aided hum of shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine; these are all very mature, orchestrated bands.

However… This band doesn’t reach that same level of maturity. The name, Jeniferever (Jennifer Forever… yes…) sounds like a band that has 15000 friends on Myspace with an average age of 14.77. This can partially be blamed on the fact that they’re from Sweden; English is not their first language. And to be fair to them, they’ve carved out a sizable fanbase in the indie/shoegaze scene. If I had to personify the nature of their style, their vocals and lyrics, it would look something like this:

Jeniferever is childlike in their innocence, endearing in their romanticized notions of life and relationships, attempting to put on the big-boy emotions with a pre-teen’s heart. While many modern bands intone that honesty must be brutal and ugly, Jeniferever approaches hard truth from an almost resigned perspective: if it’s unpleasant, why worry about it? A running theme in their music is the inability to accept loss, and the loss is so vague it could be anything: childhood, love, home, a friend, life. When they do get specific, such as the song “Avlik,” the dedication to youth and inexperience really shines through:

He held his breath to hold your hand,
To hear the words to the picture he’d seen.
Watched how you reached for your things to leave,
To walk a block to the car that would take you home
To where you belong.
These hours just made it worse,
For now you’re far from here.
But oh, it was worth it;
‘Cause you’ll always be close to his heart.
You’ll always be close to his heart.

Sappy, straight-forward, Jenifever calls for a Gewürztraminer. If Jeniferever is the aural equivalent of a candy-smeared child handing you a bouquet of flowers, a Gewürz is that in wine. Some people think it’s the greatest thing ever; others are utterly put off by the experience. If you’re someone who can absorb a mouthful of overwhelmingly saccharine indulgence, you’ll get along fine with either of these offerings.

Cinco De Mayo Wine Pairings

A recent example of wine pairings that went well together is my company’s Cinco de Mayo party this past Wednesday. I’ve reviewed both of these wines before, so I won’t repeat myself in those regards, but I will link to those reviews in case you missed them.

2009 ranga.ranga Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand

2009 ranga.ranga Sauvignon Blanc bottleWe celebrated the victory in battle of the Mexicans over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 by hucking an inflated rubber ball at a metal hoop. Appropriate, I know. We played next to a freshly cut lawn, the sweet, pungent scent of clipped grass still very prominent on a soft spring breeze. The temperature, just over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with a light humidity, was enough to work up a quick sweat without being sweltering or oppressive. I mentioned in my review of the ranga.ranga that it “just smells and tastes like a summer party after a hard day of gardening and yardwork.” In this case, we got the experience without actually putting in the effort, which was doubly enjoyable.

The herbal, citrus-y, and grassy flavors in the Sauvignon Blanc matched perfectly. I’d take time away from the game to have a quick sip, and the brisk acidity and tart flavors were both cooling and refreshing. Though the complexity of the wine was lost, as I didn’t exactly have the focus or time to enjoy the finish, the flavors still functioned very well as a thirst-quencher.

It was almost too easy to just gulp it down instead of having a mere sip, and I might have had to refill my glass once or twice more than I otherwise should have. The high alcohol content also made me a lot more confident in my abilities, which hadn’t been adequately exercised since last April, and I found myself jacking up three-pointers that would even make “Zach Randolph, Point Guard” blush.

2008 Yellow + Blue Torrontes, Cafayate Valley, Salta, Argentina

The other wine that we had for our Cinco De Mayo party was a pairing for the food, which was an old-fashioned shrimp boil. We had yellow and blue torrontes cartontwo pots going on, one with a garlic-seasoned brew and the other with a classic creole-style boil. The scents mingled together immaculately in the air around the picnic area, “forming up like Voltron,” to borrow a phrase from Rick Bakas.

On the review for this wine, I raved about the seafood pairing, creole flounder stuffed with shrimp, crab, and peppers. Obviously, this experience had a lot to do with why I brought this wine for the shrimp boil. The floral notes of the wine accented the spicy scents of the shrimp boil very well. Aside from the food, the Torrontes was still crisp and very cool, well suited to an outdoor spring party. The floral scents worked for the season as well.

While I spent a lot more time with the ranga.ranga than with the Yellow + Blue Torrontes that day, probably because I spent 2/3 of my time at the party playing basketball, I found both to be perfect for the conditions. If you plan on having an outdoor party before it gets too warm, especially one that will involve any kind of athletic activity, you can’t go wrong with a dry Marlborough-style Sauvignon Blanc. If you’re doing any kind of spicy cookout with a seafood or poultry theme, a South-American-style Torrontes will hit the spot.

Chardonnay as a (sort of) Cold Medicine

The Backstory:

This week has been an absolute hell of being not healthy for me. I overworked my body playing in the sun all weekend and developed a stomach bug in the process. Combining an exhausted me with an aggressive microbe leads to decidedly unfortunate consequences. I finally recovered enough last night to uncork and really enjoy a wine again. Since my experience with tasting food and drink was like drinking stale milk and chewing paper for 3 straight days, I needed something with enough oomph to knock my palate around and bring me back to life. Unfortunately, after that one glorious night of getting a taste of wine, I’m back under the weather with yet another ailment. This one’s got the nose and throat on lockdown, so it looks like last night’s affair will have to get me through the week.

What’s the 2009 Gouguenheim Valle Escondido Chardonnay got for me in regards to helping me get back on the wine-tasting horse? It comes from the Mendoza Valley, specifically the colder area that rests above 1000 m.a.s.l. (meters above sea level). This area is particularly kind to the noble grapes and Malbec, leading to a rapid growth of wineries in the area. The propensity for high acidity in this region combined with the proven quality of the plantings here means you can expect a fuller, better developed white wine. Is it enough to suit my convalescent palate? You bet your stemless Bordeaux glass, it is.

The Results:

2009 Gouguenheim Chardonnay bottleThe appearance of the wine is a light gold color with a noticeable depth. It appears to have a medium texture, not syrupy but substantial.

The nose of the wine is rather rustic; it has a very orchard-y smell, consisting primarily of ripe apples, pear cider, and peach for the fruit combined with a light floral scent.

The mouth feel of the wine is actually fairly delicate. It’s medium-bodied, but its texture feels lighter and more airy as it moves about the mouth.

The flavor of the wine is what stands out the most. It is very dry, but it has a very full fruit flavor. The attack is heavy ripe apples and pineapple, and you can easily detect the decent alcohol (13%) and high acidity. The acidity is prominently featured in the flavor, and it would simply overwhelm the wine if the flavors weren’t so expressive and it didn’t have that touch of sweetness. There’s a distinct hint of honeysuckle and buttery cheese, a pleasant diversion from the usual orchard fruits I was expecting, and a medium peach finish. As it stands, the only knock I have against this wine is it’s just a little imbalanced… too much alcohol heat and acidity for the flavor. If it weren’t so robust, it would utterly fall apart.

The Conclusion:

Coming out of a sickness that impacted my ability to taste, this was a fantastic wine to bring be back from the brink. With a lively acidity, full, robust flavor, and enough sweetness to match the aggressiveness, it makes for a great under-$10 white wine. 6/10

Note: this wine was provided by the distributor as a sample.

Bonus wine-pairing:

Coma Therapy by Strata. A normally hard-rock-styled band with a vocalist who has some serious pipes tones it down just enough to make an edgy, ominous ballad. A wine with a serious kick and acidity tempers the aggressiveness with some sweetness and cool flavors. Enjoy!


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