Ugni blanc shows possibilities

UgniBlancSign1This post, written by Amber Nimocks, appeared in the September 15, 2013 edition of The News & Observer. While I haven’t been to Mandolin restaurant, I look forward to trying it soon and especially sampling some of their wines-by-the-glass! Enjoy.

My recent discovery of ugni blanc made it clear just how much I have left to learn about wine, which is almost everything.

Since the discovery coincided roughly with the occasion of my birthday, I have decided to view it as a harbinger of possibility. That may seem outsized, but 40-something birthdays are the sorts of inauspicious milestones that spur one to seek meaning from what’s close at hand, so I’m happy to take my hopeful signs where I can get them.

Actually, I’ve been drinking ugni blanc (oo-nee blank) for a while, I’m sure. I just didn’t know its name. Abundant in Gascony in southwest France, its’ most often distilled to make cognac and armagnac, but that’s not why I know it. Ugni blanc is a social type, kind of a popular-girl varietal that mixes well and never goes anywhere alone, so it winds up blended, often with colombard and gros monsenge as white table wine. The same varietal is similarly used in Italy, where it’s known as trebbiano. As I’m a huge fan of the $10-per-bottle French table white, I’ve had plenty of ugni blanc.

But on a recent evening when my husband and I found ourselves at dinner without our child, the entry of an ugni blanc-cassagnoles blend on the by-the-glass wine list at Mandolin seemed exotic. We were, of course, in a hurry, because we’d left ourselves too little time to eat before our movie started, so we opted for a table in the bar area. It was our first visit to the restaurant, and its reputation had primed my imagination. That combined with the casual magic of the setting — sleek armless chairs, low lights, and the view of the cooks at work through the long, wide kitchen window — made me feel like a tourist in my own town. I was eager for a discovery.

The ugni blanc was several shades more golden than the summer whites I’d been drinking, and the nose was dank and earthy. It surprised me with a mouthful of Granny Smith apple, almost as tart as good, hard cider. The acid helped it stand up to the charcuterie plate I was nibbling, proving especially good with the chicken liver paté and head cheese. This, I thought, is the perfect wine for fall.

Charles Kirkwood, the thoughtful curator of Mandolin’s wine list, puts a lot of emphasis on the by-the-glass offerings. The cassagnoles is a mainstay on that list because it’s a good value and readily available. “One of the big, stand-out characteristics that I look for in by-the-glass is that it has high acid, because the acidity is very important in pairing with food,” he said. “That wine, I find it has exceptionally balanced acidity and has minerality as well.”

Mandolin’s by-the-glass list is ripe for exploration with an orange wine, eight to 10 whites and reds, four sparkling wines, a rosé, four sherries and 14 dessert wines. Kirkwood changes the list monthly or weekly.

When I called to chat with him about the ugni blanc, I was at first a bit disappointed to learn that it was a varietal I’d had before. It’s kind of like seeing a name you don’t recognize on a guest list, and wondering who the exotic stranger might be, then finding out it’s an acquaintance you’ve always know by her nickname, which prompts you to greet her with “Oh, it’s you.”

But because it is my birthday as I am writing this, I pause to consider the possibilities of “meeting” an acquaintance under a new name or “discovering” a wine you’ve already known about. And those are vast.

So I’m taking my encounter with ugni blanc as a sign that the universe wants me to look more closely, to be more open to the wonders of everything I think I already know.

Turn the hip wine into a cocktail

moscato-cocktailThis post, written by Amber Nimocks, appeared in the July 21, 2013 edition of The News & Observer.  I’m looking forward to trying her Moscato cocktail. Cheers!

Figuring out how to embrace pop culture becomes tricky after you reach a certain age. Once someone starts calling you Mommy, it’s hard to pull off fashions and trends championed by icons closer to their age than your own.

Culture creep is pervasive, however. Those day-glow yellow shoes start to look cool when every runner pounding a downtown Raleigh sidewalk is wearing them. Read “OMG” and “IMHO” on your Facebook feed and before you know it you’ll be slipping “WTH?” into your texts. And don’t even get me started on that Lumineers song (love it!). So while I remain vigilantly opposed to and perplexed by the staying power of such phenomena as Go-Gurt, Uggs and Guy Fieri, I have decided resistance to some trends is futile. Among those is the insatiable American thirst for Moscato.

I know I’m a couple of years behind the curve here. If you’ve read anything about this trend — or got on the Moscato train when it first rolled out of the station — you know culture watchers credit hip-hop star Drake for blowing it up when he rapped about it in 2009.

Pretty soon it was everywhere. U.S. Moscato sales doubled in 2010 and have been going up since. California vineyards began planting muscat grapes like mad. Just about every major wine label put a version on the shelf. And last February, Wine Spectator deemed Moscato the third most popular white wine in America. Millennials love it.

But it’s the near-apoplectic response of the fine wine establishment to the Moscato craze that makes it truly fun to watch. The standard refrain of respected wine bloggers: “Once these kids grow up and get tired of this sweet stuff, they’ll see the error of their ways and start drinking real wine.” Or “It’s a gateway wine.” Just Google “Moscato” and “gateway” and see if you don’t get 58,000 hits.

At the top of the results you’ll find a recent NPR piece that focused on the connection between Moscato, pop culture and race. While not everyone agrees with its conclusions, the piece raises the valid point that maybe sweet wines like Moscato can no longer be dismissed as merely entrees to a deeper, more fully realized wine life, but are actually what people want to drink at any age, at any sophistication level.

If you consider the Moscato craze alongside every other fast-paced societal change of the past five to 10 years, it’s completely possible that it’s not a craze at all, but that sweet is the new normal. Maybe this blossoming generation will entirely reject the taste standards set by the baby boomers and decide that what they like is good.

Sure, I agree with the wine establishment that most of the Moscato on the shelves is hastily produced stuff full of residual sugar that doesn’t measure up to the well-made Moscato d’Asti from Italy’s Piedmont. But what fun is it to sit on the sidelines staring sourly through an unoaked chardonnay while everyone else at the lawn party is sipping sweet and fizzy?

As I said up top, though, pulling off the latest fashion trend isn’t always easy. Drinking from a bottle covered in shiny polka dots and called “Sequin” feels a little too much like trying to shop at Forever 21 — I know I’m too old for it. A Moscato cocktail would be a better fit, so I created one.

You could serve it in a wine glass, but a rocks glass or a tumbler lends it some heft. If you use Campari, a bitter orange Italian liqueur, you get a bit of bright red color, too, which helps everyone look more like a grownup.



Juice of 1 lime

Juice of 1/2 an orange

Moscato Dellatori or a solid Moscato d’Asti

Angostura bitters or Campari

FILL a rocks glass with ice. Add lime and orange juice. Fill almost to the top with Moscato. Add a healthy dash of bitters or a splash of Campari. Give it a swirl. Sip with authority.

Yield: 1 cocktail

Can’t remember wine name? Now there’s an app for that

Flemings-SteakhouseThis article, written by Amber Nimocks, appeared in the June 16 edition of The News & Observer. I hope you find it to be as informative as I did. Enjoy!

Occasionally a wine tasting will bring a revelation, usually involving the personal discovery of a new varietal or region. But recently, a profound universal truth became clear to me as I was test-driving a new iPad application designed for wine lovers. I now know the real reason evolution has led humanity to become addicted to hand-held personal communication devices: to relieve us of the burden of remembering the names of wines we like.

This aha moment occurred last month as I spent an evening fiddling with a Winepad, the sleek new electronic wine menu that Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse has rolled out in all 65 of its restaurants. Winepads are iPads fitted with a custom-made app, developed by the chain’s national wine director and an in-house IT expert, that take the place of hefty, printed wine lists. The restaurant now offers one at every table and at the bar.

The experience of tapping and scrolling through the Winepad’s pictures and descriptive blurbs makes the traditional exercise of sorting through the pages of a traditional print wine list seem as onerous as reading the phone book.

Become your own mixologist

cocktail_shaker_2by Shelby Sheelan-Bernard – McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Home bars are back in style in a big way. Tapping into the nostalgia of the dry martini era, they’re all about embracing the ritual and resurgence of the classic cocktail.

“You remember that generation — the man would have his Beefeater martini and the wife’s got her Tom Collins,” said Tony Abou-Ganim, author of the Modern Mixologist book and “Modern Mixology: Making Great Cocktails at Home” DVD. “You can offer guests wine and beer, and that’s great. But offer them a classic cocktail? Now that’s an experience.”

Check out these tips to get you started:

Liquor: “You could spend $100, $500, $3,000 or more,” Abou-Ganim said, suggesting you start with the basics and go from there: vodka, tequila and a light-bodied rum.

Vodka, he said, is a must. “It’s the No. 1 consumed spirit, and most people like it.” As you add to your collection, he suggests extending to a citrus-flavored vodka.

Tequila is another good bet. Abou-Ganim suggests 100 percent agave silver, which is great for that summertime favorite: margaritas.

There’s a seemingly endless variety of rums on the market, but Jordan Catapano, author of This Girl Walks Into a Bar book and website, suggests a white rum. “It’s really popular and can be paired with simple ingredients,” she said.

If you want to expand further, Abou-Ganim recommends picking up both a masculine gin (like a Tanqueray) and a feminine one (such as Bombay Sapphire).

[Read more…]

Cocktail gardens raise the bar

Mojito cocktaiShake things up in the backyard this summer: Cocktail gardening puts a new twist on edible landscaping.

Fresh herbs and fruit have long been the key ingredients in some of summer’s most refreshing libations, and when they’re within easy reach of the backyard bartender, every cocktail becomes a flourishing signature drink.

Making a mojito with homegrown mint is only part of the picture, though. A successful cocktail garden should be a comfortable and inviting place to be.

“You can’t just translate the indoors to outdoors,” said J’Nell Bryson, a landscape architect in Charlotte. “An outdoor room needs more space to be in scale with nature.” Postage-stamp patios in big backyards don’t look right, she said, but if a small space is all you have, there are lots of ways to make it work as a cocktail garden. “Even if you live in a condo and just have a tiny patio, you can do a vertical garden, or use pots.”

Amy Stewart, author of “The Drunken Botanist,” turned the challenging side yard of her Northern California home into a lush and colorful cocktail garden worthy of her book, which delves deep into the horticulture and lore of hops, rye, barley, grapes and dozens of other plants used to make and garnish the world’s greatest drinks.

Eat This, Stay Sharp

Heart_StrawsBlues2I was going through some back issues of AARP – The magazine recently, and ran across this article written by Monica Bhide in 2011 that sings the praises of berries for protecting against mental decline.  Enjoy!

Glorious blueberries, sweet acai berries, luscious strawberries — new research shows they may boost your aging brain.

As we get older, damaged cells accumulate in the brain, which can lead to age-related diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. That’s where berries come in. Polyphenols, which give berries their deep-red or -blue hue, activate proteins that “clean up” damaged cells, breaking down and recycling the age-related mental decline, says study author Shibu Poulose, Ph.D., a molecular biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston.

These berried treasures do more than help your mind: Blueberries rank first among fruits for their antioxidant powers, strawberries are tops in vitamin C, and acai berries contain high levels of omega-6 and -9 fatty acids, thought to play a role in cardiovascular health, says nutritionist Robyn Webb, food editor of Diabetes Forecast magazine.

So — ready to increase your berry intake? Add them to cereal, purée them into sauces, or just each them fresh.