Today’s Bordeaux Won’t Break the Bank

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

I don’t write much about it here, but I love wine. When I lived in France for a year, it was all I drank, besides the odd demi-pêche at the pub from time to time. Because I’ve traveled there frequently and have family there, I’m particularly partial to Alsatian whites, but the truth is I never tasted a French wine I didn’t like.

Stateside, it’s not always affordable to slake my thirsts with French vintages; most for sale in my neighborhood tend towards the higher-end—good for special occasions, but not priced for my daily drink. Or at least, I thought they did. I rarely look at the French wine shelf because I just assume it will be too expensive.

I won’t be making that mistake again.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

Last week, I sampled nearly 50 Bordeaux priced under $55—and the majority under $35. Bordeaux have a reputation in the US as high-quality (read: expensive) wines suitable for older drinkers, in part because their so-called “old world” characteristics have fallen out of fashion as more fruit-forward (and affordable) offerings—like those from Argentina and Chile—are in their ascendency. It hasn’t helped that Bordeaux futures have led to some producers overpricing certain vintages, creating a difficult market situation where many bottles are priced beyond what consumers are willing to pay. (See this excellent Wine Spectator article for a detailed explanation, and take a look at the comments to see the disenchantment of many US consumers.)

But let’s put those notions aside for a moment. I’m here to tell you that there are remarkable, delicious Bordeaux in reach of even budget-conscious non-profit workers. Some of my favorites from the tasting were priced well under $15. If you’re not obsessed with labels and if you can get past the “expensive=better” hangup that so many of us seem to fall for, you too can enjoy high-quality Bordeaux without breaking the bank—or even bending the budget.

The tasting, presented by the Bordeaux Wine Council, featured 100 wines representing 22 appellations as part of the Today’s Bordeaux selection, “value wines [that] can be enjoyed by wine aficionados and novices” alike. I put myself firmly in the latter category, as well as the “value wine buyer” box. (In general, most of my booze budget goes to whisky.) And while I might not drop $20 on every bottle I tasted, there were quite a few that I intend to look for in my liquor store. If you’re in New York, every bottle listed is available here, while other states may offer a selection.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

The wines were poured by professionals in the industry who were more than happy to talk about the characteristics of these Bordeaux. One of the comments I heard again and again was that wine doesn’t have to be complicated to be good—and that’s something I can agree with as a whisky-drinker. Sure, who doesn’t love to spend an hour or two rolling the liquid around in the glass, sniffing and sipping and contemplating the deeper mysteries of the bottle? I take deep pleasure in those moments. But when it comes to everyday life, they are rare. I’m much more likely to pour a glass of something familiar and comforting just to soothe my soul after a wearying day, enjoying the taste for itself and nothing more.

These Bordeaux fit that bill nicely, being fairly uncomplicated (many were young, 2011 or 2012) and well suited for food. As I was tasting, I ran through pairing possibilities in my mind, and I couldn’t think of any food without one wine or two presenting itself as a suitable accompaniment. To be fair, French wine, like most Old World wines, evolved to be drunk with food. That attitude—that wine is meant for everyday consumption—pervaded this tasting, and was well supported by the pricing.

It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. I learned this when I spent a year drinking on a student’s budget in France, and I’m happy to continue in this vein stateside. I have no doubt that $300 bottles would excite my palate and transport me to realms of ecstasy hitherto unknown—but I don’t need that. I’m just looking for what tastes good!

Check out the Bordeaux Wine Council’s website for full list of the 2013 Today’s Bordeaux, searchable by color and tasting notes, grapes, price range, and occasion. You can read more about the tasting here. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite pours of the day, all well under $20. If you see these, snatch them up! They are a delicious bargain, albeit by no means a complete list of the top affordable offerings from Bordeaux.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

Whites

Château La Maroutine, 100% Sauvignon Blanc. $11.

Château Fonfroide, 76% Sémillon, 18% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Muscadelle, 2% Colombard. $13.

Château Les Clauzots, 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Sémillon. $16.

Reds

Château de Ricaud, 90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc. $12.

Château La Croix Saint-Pierre, 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec. $15.

Château de Paillet-Quancard, 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc. $15.

Special thanks to Creative Feed and Tasting Table who graciously presented the tasting and provided the photos.

Sun Dried Tomato and Black Olive Tapenade

sun dried tomato tapenade black olive capers

I’ll admit it: I get lazy about cooking sometimes. There are nights that I get home from work and want nothing more than to change into sweatpants and crack open a beer. These are the times I turn to that old meal-substitute standby—crackers and some sort of topping (cheese, sausage, schmear, dip). As summer approaches, and the sweaty, smelly commutes increase, I’m having more and more of those nights.

Happily, crackers (or, if you have access to a good bakery, baguette) lend themselves to all sorts of low-key add-ons, from fresh sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and a basil leaf to sweet fruit compote with sharp cheddar. If you have hummus lying around, perfect. Greek yogurt, cucumbers, lemon juice, and dill make a quick and delicious tzatziki. All things that require minimal effort and no turning on the stove.

This tapenade makes another great ready-to-go spread, and keeps in the fridge for up to a week. Feel free to use green olives if you prefer them, and if you’re using oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, you may want to decrease the amount of olive oil added.

Black Olive Tapenade with Sun Dried Tomatoes

Ingredients:

1.5 cups black olives, preferably Kalamata, pitted
1 cup sun dried tomatoes, soaked 5 minutes and drained (no soaking necessary if using oil-packed tomatoes)
1 Tbs. capers, drained
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Pulse first three ingredients in food processor until roughly chopped.

2. With food processor going, add olive oil in a thin stream until well-blended.

Serve with crackers, sliced baguette, or crostini. Keeps up to one week in the refrigerator.

Canadian Whisky: My First Foray

Mail time!

The best kind of mail.

Sometimes I forget how short a time I’ve actually been drinking whisky. For the record, I first tasted whisky in December 2007 as a freshly-minted 21-year-old, and I hated it. I probably offended my friend’s kind father who had generously poured a flight of three different Scotches to try. I wasn’t ready yet.

But in September of 2011, I had just moved to Edinburgh and wanted to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings. Simultaneously, I was re-entering student life and didn’t have much disposable income for new hobbies. Luckily, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society came through with a massively good deal: buy a £10 membership and, twice a month, taste 5-6 whiskies for only £6. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with Scotch whisky and, since then, it feels as if I’ve always been enjoying it. Each tasting with the Society was a new adventure, as we never repeated drams, and I continue to approach my whisky drinking in this way, as an education, preferring to try something new rather than stick with what’s familiar. (Though, to be sure, I do have bottles of some of my favorites.)

Since returning from Scotland last August, I’ve been casting about for ways to keep learning. I love New York City, but it’s not a town for whisky lovers on a budget. Even the cheapest tastings run upwards of $50 or more, making them an infrequent treat. And while New York’s bars and liquor stores have probably the best selection and availability of Scotch whiskies in the country, eventually you get around to trying them all (except those that are $150 per pour). I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but the day is coming.

What’s a drinker who craves the novelty of varied drams to do? Expand my palate, not with just Scotch, but with other whisky iterations. Bourbon is the obvious first choice, and I’m slowly feeling my way down this long and interesting path. But North America produces other whiskies, too. Recently I got the opportunity to venture north of the border and begin exploring Canadian whisky, using Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux as my guide. Paired with “mystery tastings” on Twitter led by Davin and Johanne McInnis, I spent four weeks reading, re-reading, nosing, tasting, and asking questions about the complex spirits made up north.

A brief review of the book: If you ever wanted to know anything about Canadian whisky, this is the resource for you. Davin has spent years mapping out the distillation process, visiting distilleries (not a mean feat in Canada, where distillery access requires security clearance due to post-9/11 US import regulations), researching the history of great Canadian distillers, and learning boatloads about chemistry. He expressly dispels well-accepted myths about Canadian whisky (e.g. it always contains rye) and he takes the reader from grain to glass in a clear, detailed yet understandable way. The book is a pleasure to read. You can choose to plow right through from A to Z (or zed if you’re Canadian) or jump from a chapter on enzymes to one about the Seagram family. Historical and contemporary photos and helpful diagrams support the text and provide helpful visual references.

I learned some things that surprised me, like Canadian whisky is (nearly) always a blend—even single cask bottlings, as the spirit can be blended before it goes into the barrel. The blending process is pretty fascinating: most distilleries have recipes for “base whisky” and “flavoring whisky.” Each has a different grain profile and ABV, as the spirit interacts differently in the barrel depending on what sort of congeners (aka flavor makers) are present. (Typically, more distillation=higher ABV=fewer congeners.) Depending on what grains are available in a given year (crops vary, of course, according to weather and growing conditions), distillers must adjust their recipes to account for any differences that could show up in the finished product. I can’t even imagine what their formulas look like, but I have an immense respect for the people who do this job.

Also of note is the importance of yeast in making Canadian whisky. Obviously, all whiskies require yeast to carry out  fermentation, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Scotch world discuss yeast with as much emphasis as here. Especially for flavoring whiskies, yeast really matters, and each distillery carefully cultivates and “fingerprints” its yeast to ensure the right fermentation takes place. Such a tiny micro-organism makes such a big difference!

One of the best features of the book is its extensive tasting notes, covering 100 expressions on the market at the time of publication. (The notes, organized throughout the book to match up with the chapters about their respective distilleries, are handily indexed so you can easily locate them, which I found a thoughtful touch.) It was from these notes (with one exception) that Johanne and Davin chose the mystery whiskies for each week’s tasting. Although I never guessed correctly, it was great fun to try!

Below are my notes for each whisky. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. Every one of these was exceptionally delicious, though, and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.

Lot No. 40
Nose: Caraway galore! And gingersnap.

Palate: Sweet like a dark butterscotch, spicy with cloves and cinnamon. Fresh herbal notes too, especially mint. Adding water reveals white pepper, ginger, and dried orange peel.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Nose: Fruity and floral with cherries, plums, notes of peony, lavender, and lilac. Also a hint of rubber or slate, not unpleasant.

Palate: Cloying with cherry cough syrup and cigar smoke. Water opens up a more nuanced profile with spice notes, notably fenugreek.

Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 year old
Nose: Big fruit, especially cherry at first, then brown sugar, fresh sawdust and something earthy like slate.

Palate: Warm butterscotch with zesty citrus peel and bitter pith. Floral topnotes and lingering spice (white pepper, cinnamon bark) finish. Adding water brings out more herbal notes but mutes the spice.

Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Tons of spice (cinnamon, black pepper) and herbs. Wet earth and a slight mustiness, like a mushroom. Over time it picks up fruit and flower notes, too.

Palate: Sweet and spicy in a perfect mix, with cooked ginger, leafy greens, and birch syrup.

I am so grateful to Johanne and Davin for inviting me to participate in this project. Their passion for Canadian whisky really shines, and they are dedicated and fun ambassadors. Furthermore, Johanne’s organization of the event and Davin’s willingness to thoroughly answer each and every question showed off the famous Canadian generosity of spirit beautifully. Huge thanks to both of them, and to Davin’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., for the book. I learned so much and I feel like it’s only the beginning. I can’t wait to see (and taste) what comes next in my Canadian whisky explorations.