Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Midwest Wines Worth the Risk Taking

One of the toughest things about wine is not knowing what you're going to get, whether or not you're going to like it and still having to fork over (sometimes a lot of) your money for it. It's the reason we're less likely to buy wine from a region or grape foreign to us. This is also the beauty of drinking wine. Consider the Midwestern wines below (from my SwirlSavvy wine column for the Chicago Sun-Times) a little adventure for your palate.

Eating locally or regionally sourced food, be it cheese, milk, fruits and vegetables or meat, has become an incredibly popular movement for good reason. Fewer chemicals are used, produce is fresher, the carbon footprint is reduced and local farmers are supported. Plus, locally grown products just taste better.

Those same reasons should apply to drinking locally — and by this, I don’t mean increasing your frequency at the neighborhood pub.

While drinking locally sound like an achievable and enjoyable goal for beer drinkers given the plethora of top-notch microbrews coming out of Illinois and Wisconsin, drinking local wine if you live near Chicago may seem unlikely.

When we think of wine from the United States, California wine usually springs to mind, followed by Washington, Oregon and maybe New York.

But did you know that wine is commercially produced in each of the 50 states (although Alaskan wine is made from local berries, not grapes)? Wine from Arkansas or Idaho? Yep, they have you covered. We all can drink locally, after all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all of the wine is fantastic, or even palatable. But for Chicagoans, the good news is that wineries within reasonable driving distance don’t produce merely OK wines, they produce some great wines.

Look for Chambourcin, a relatively new, late-ripening grape perfect for Midwest temperatures, and Vignoles, also a lesser known grape that expresses itself well here in a range of dry to sweet styles.

Support your local winery and try some of my favorites below — as if you needed another reason to drink more good wine.

Prairie State Winery
Located in Genoa, about one hour northwest of Chicago. The winery has several of its wines available for purchase at local retailers. For my recommendations below, contact the winery or, better yet, take a day trip out to their tasting room.

Prairie State is run by Rick Mamoser, a former high school chemistry teacher. The winery specializes in Illinois-grown grapes and is making strides toward sustainable farming.

Some to try:

Vin Rouge ($19). A full-bodied, robust blend of Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin and Norton. Give this wine time to breathe and see how wonderfully it evolves over an evening.

Chambourcin Reserve ($16). A beautiful example of this regional grape. The oak aging gives the wine a toasted vanilla note and a soft, smooth finish.

Fenn Valley Vineyards
Located roughly two and a half hours from Chicago, in Fennville, Mich. Fenn Valley’s proximity to Lake Michigan and the resulting temperature-moderating effect give it what most great viticulture sites have in common.

The winery recently gained national notoriety. Its ice wine was served at the White House Governors Ball in February. If it’s good enough for the President and international dignitaries, it’s certainly good enough for me. Order directly from the vineyard by calling (800) 432-6265.

Some to try:

Edelzwicker 2009 ($12). The Traminette and Riesling blend is a touch off-dry, with soft floral aromas and a refreshing, not cloyingly sweet finish.

Lakeshore Demi-Sec ($8). A “best buy” semi-dry blend of Vidal, Vignoles and Riesling that screams fun and fruity; perfect for all those summer bridal events.

Meritage 2008 ($18). Rich and brooding with black pepper and dark cherry flavors, this traditional “Bordeaux blend” is less than 12 percent alcohol, a welcome change from similar-tasting Napa Cabs that hit over 16 percent.

Blue Sky Vineyard
Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda opened in 2005 and is a leisurely five-and-a-half hour drive south from Chicago. It is part of the Shawnee Hills wine trail of 12 wineries in southern Illinois, which make the trip worth taking as a weekend getaway; you can stay at or near the winery’s Tuscan-inspired inn.

Try the estate wines below for a showing of the winery’s best efforts. Order wines online at or by calling (618) 995-9463.

Some to try:

Cabernet Franc ($19). The seductive smokiness of this wine makes it a perfect pair for coal-fired oven pizzas.

Chambourcin Reserve 2006 ($12). A bargain price for a wine of this depth. Get your hands on several bottles before word spreads.

Vignoles 2009 ($18). If you enjoy Chardonnay from the warmer regions of Australia, try this full-bodied white bursting with tropical fruit flavors.

Chateau Grand Traverse
Not all Midwestern wineries are small, nor are they all new. Started in 1974, Chateau Grand Traverse is one of the oldest and most well-known commercial wineries in the Midwest, producing more than 85,000 cases of wine annually.

The winery is on a mission to turn the area’s “up-and-coming” label into a respected, well-known wine region.

Due to its location in the Old Mission Peninsula of Michigan, Riesling is the grape best suited to the often frigid local climate. It’s the winery’s stand-out grape, whether in a blend or on its own.

Some to try:

2008 Dry Riesling ($13). A great example of how Riesling shines in this region. You’ll find aromas of green apple and grapefruit and a crisp finish.

2008 Ship of Fools ($14). A charming, easy-drinking off-dry blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

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How to Pick a Summer Wine: The Gentler, Lighter Side of Wine

Summer’s soaring temps beg you to step away from heavy Cabernets and check out the gentler, lighter side of wine. When choosing the perfect summer wine for your outdoor engagement party or wedding, think light, crisp, refreshing--and because people tend to drink more in the heat--lower in alcohol. Nothing more prettily suggests summer than a dry (i.e. not sweet) rose. Avoid the simple, syrupy versions and try French roses from the Mourvèdre grape or roses made using the Saignee method for more complexity. Pick wines from countries where you imagine the locals sipping leisurely at sidewalk cafés while basking in the sun, like Spain. A Spanish fave is Albarino from the Rias Baixas region. Made to drink young, Albarino is a crisp, white wine with intense fruit, lively acidity and generally a lower level of alcohol. It pairs perfectly with summer foods from seafood to grilled vegetables. But you don’t need to swear off red wine for summer. Look for light bodied wines like Pinot Noir from Oregon or a Valpolicella from Italy, both capable of standing up to barbequed foods. And don’t be afraid to put a slight chill on your red wine. It is summer after all!

Rías Baixas Albariño from Spain, “Exceptional with Everything” Oh Really?

There's nothing we love more than a challenge. It's in our makeup. We're two women, thirties. One Indian. One Filipina. The first, founder and CEO of a business in the arguably male-dominated wine world. The second, building experience to be a future proprietess of a wine store. Add to this: In New York City. So when presented with the opportunity to play wine and food critic for a night—to pair Rías Baixas Albariño wines, proclaimed to be "exceptional with everything" with Mercat’s offerings —it is impossible and simply against every ounce of who we are, to refuse.

Mercat means “market” in Catalan, the language of the northern Spanish region where owner, Jaime Reixach, is from and where the restaurant’s menu draws its inspiration. The albariños we’ll be drinking also originate from the northern region, and so we’re already anticipating more perfect wine pairings than tragic mismatches.

It’s a beautiful warm Thursday night—and we are tasting two Albariño wines: Alba Rosa from Martinez Serrantes and Pazo San Mauro, both 2006 vintages. We take our time with each wine—assessing them alone and then side by side. At the end, we agree that both are delightful: the Alba Rosa is sparkling with surprising depth while the Pazo San Mauro would bring life to our springtime picnic. Further, we imagine that if each wine were to be personified, they might just be these two ladies, described as such:

Alba Rosa Martinez Serantes Albariño | Scarlett Johansson: "Sparkling with surprising depth"

Alba Rosa Martinez Serantes Albariño | Scarlett Johansson: "Sparkling with surprising depth"
This golden blonde hued wine gives an almost effervescent quality that shoots racy brightness into your mouth. It has the usual grassiness and citrus qualities one expects from this wine. The reason why this wine fits Scarlett most is because it has the quality of lightness but comes with surprising depth of character and fullness in body. The comparison would be perfect were the wine to show great legs, but its light-bodied, lower alcohol nature doesn’t allow it.

Pazo San Mauro Albariño | Cameron Diaz: “Livens up your springtime picnic”

Pazo San Mauro Albariño | Cameron Diaz: “Livens up your springtime picnic”
Cameron would be a fun addition to any springtime outing. Her lightheartedness would make everyone smile and this wine does the same. The light yellow straw color gives way to granny smith apples, peaches, melon, and citrus scents that jump at your nose, smelling like springtime in a glass. This wine begs to be explored further. The crisp and pleasantly tart apple is balanced with pear and makes it the perfect brunch wine.
Now, we move on to the heart of our challenge: Exceptional with everything? Oh really? How do these two beauties handle themselves in company? After the three and a half hours of glorious sipping, chewing, and chatting, among ourselves and the restaurant staff, here are our findings:

No surprise, our lovely wines get along splendidly with their classic and traditional partners: we have raves for the nicely seasoned patatas bravas—not too spicy, not too garlicky—and the padrones/blistered shishito peppers, the char and oil offset by the tartness of the wines. One of us goes wild for the Canelons de Verdura/eggplant wrapped spring vegetables, manchego, and cranberry reduction. And then Chef Lowder sends over Trencat d’Ous/mushroom with salsa verde topped with a fried egg, which again, goes splendidly with our wines. Even the suckling pig/Cochinillo, which we think will surely clash, in fact becomes the surprise of the evening. Like the beauty and the beast, our wines and the pig make an unlikely but harmonious pair.

We ask ourselves for the last time: Rías Baixas Albariño from Spain: Exceptional with Everything?

If not for being the gluttonous bottomless pits that we are, we would certainly have answered YES with an exclamation point. But since we order those two desserts—Torrades Sta. Teresa/fried bread with lemon yogurt and Pa Amb Oli Xocolata/bread, olive oil, and chocolate, our answer must be: Almost. These two desserts with our two Albariños — are disastrous.

Rías Baixas Albariño from Spain: Exceptional with almost Everything.

--Anu Karwa and Marie Estrada

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