Refreshing Wine Cocktails for Summer Sipping

cucumber-mint-wine-cocktailWhile attending a North Carolina Symphony Summerfest concert recently on an unusually pleasant June evening under the stars at Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, I was reminded of how occasions such as these—basking in the laid-back easiness of the season with dear friends and good music—are perfect for a light, refreshing wine cocktail.

In searching the Web to find some recipes to share with you, I came across these concoctions that combine two my most favorite things: wine and herbs. I’m super excited to try them all, and I hope they whet your palate, too. Here’s to many more carefree summer evenings!

Gewürztraminer Agave Ginger Ale (From WineFolly.com)

Perfect wine cocktails balance sweet, spice, sour and savory. In this cocktail, the spiciness of the ginger is balanced with sweet (agave) and sour (wine). Cava adds spritz without reducing alcohol content. Tabasco adds just the right amount of savory to the mix.

Recipe:

• 3 oz Gewürztraminer (such as $7 Chateau St. Michelle)
• 3 oz Cava (such as $7 Cristalino Brut)
• teaspoon of muddled ginger
• 3/4 oz agave syrup
• Optional: 1-2 dashes of Tabasco

How To:

Put sliced ginger and agave in a cocktail glass and muddle with a wooden spoon until ginger pieces are fragrant. Add Gewürztraminer. Stir. Strain into a sugar-rimmed cocktail glass with ice. Top with sparkling wine.

Cucumber Mint Fume Blanc Fizz (From WineFolly.com)

If you’re not into super-sweet, this potent potable sounds like a yummy alternative. Cucumber wine cocktails are refreshing and savory. Mint and lime add sour to balance the drink. This drink is not for everyone because it’s not sweet. However, if you’re reading this and your mouth is already watering because you’re sick and tired of overly sweet summer drinks, then read on!

Recipe:

• 3 oz Fume Blanc / Sauvignon Blanc (such as $6 Barnard Griffin)
• 3 oz Cava (such as $7 Cristalino Brut)
• 1 oz cucumber water
• 1/2 oz lime juice
• 2 teaspoons sugar
• pinch coarsely chopped mint

How To:

Make cucumber water by grating, blending and straining a cucumber. Add cucumber water, fume blanc, lime juice, sugar and mint to a cocktail shaker. Shake with ice. Strain into a serving glass and top with 3 ounces sparkling wine.

Strawberry Basil Moscato Lemonade (From WineFolly.com)

In this summer stunner, basil adds more savory.

Recipe:

• 6 oz Moscato (such as Wine Cube Moscato, from Target)
• 4 Strawberries
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 sprig basil
• 1 ounce lemon juice

How To:

Blend all ingredients, except wine, together. Strain into tall glass with ice. Pour over moscato. Add bendy straw.

Lemongrass & Blood Orange Wine Spritzer (From KitchenConfidante.com)
Serves 4.

Recipe:

Lemongrass Syrup
2 stalks lemongrass (plus extra for garnish, if desired)
2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar

Spritzer
ice cubes
2 cups Lemongrass Syrup
1/2 cup blood orange juice
white wine (Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio work well)
seltzer water

How To:

To make the lemongrass syrup: Trim the ends off the lemongrass and chop into 2-inch pieces. Using a morter and pestle or the back of a knife, crush the lemongrass stalks to help release the juice. Combine lemongrass, water and sugar in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Let it cool in the refrigerator. Strain.

Fill glasses with ice cubes. Add 1/2 cup lemongrass syrup and 1/8 cup blood orange juice to each glass. Fill remainder of glass with white wine and a splash of seltzer water. Garnish with a lemongrass stalk and serve.

How to Taste Wine Like a Pro

030110Sommelier 1.jpgIf you’ve resolved to make 2014 the year you become more educated about wine, I welcome you to what promises to be a most pleasurable activity. A great way to discover which wines are your favorites is by tasting a wide variety of them! Start with your basic senses of look, smell and taste and you’ll be appreciating wine in no time.

These tips from the Pennsylvania Winery Association and winetasting.com will guide you on your way:

Pour. Pour some wine into a glass, allowing enough room for swirling. If you only plan to sample the wine before moving on to another, pour just enough for a few sips.

See. Tilt the glass away from you against a white background. Note the color of the wine from the rim edges to the middle of the glass. Different wines will vary in their color intensity (white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose their intensity and may turn brownish or brick red). Wine color is affected the most by the age of the wine, the grape variety, and the amount of time spent in oak.

Next, notice the wine’s clarity; is it clear and brilliant or cloudy and dull? Can you see sediment? Also observe the body of the wine by the way it coats the sides of the glass. If the “legs” trickle down slowly, it has more body; if it falls down in sheets, it has less body.

Swirl. Swirling wine in the glass exposes it to a larger surface area, allowing oxygen in and bringing out its natural aromas. On a flat surface, grasp the stem and move the glass in a tight circle for a few seconds. Or swirl gently by moving your wrist or hand.

Smell. The smell of wine is referred to as its nose, bouquet or aroma. Sniff the wine, first with your nose a few inches from the glass, then lower your nose into the glass and breathe deeply. Repeat if desired, resting your sense of smell in between. A wine with great complexity will offer different aromas each time, as well as several scents at one time. Common aromas include different fruits, spices, herbs and flowers. These will give you an indication of what to expect when you taste it.

The sniff test can also detect a spoiled wine before you taste it. “Off” smells include sherry (the wine has oxidized from age or improper storage), vinegar (the wine contains excessive acetic acid), cork/mustiness (a defective or inferior cork has affected the wine), or sulphur (the wine contains excessive sulfur dioxide).

Sip. “Chew” the wine or roll it over your tongue to cover your taste buds. Different parts of your tongue are designed to taste different things: sweetness (tip of tongue); sour/acid (inner sides); saltiness (outer sides); and bitter/alcohol (back of tongue). A balance of the following characteristics is ideal: body fullness or thinness; acidity; tannin; sweetness; and fruitiness. Because smell and taste are inextricably linked, feel free to breathe lightly through your nose while tasting the wine.

Swallow or Spit. Swallow the wine—or not. While most people choose to swallow the wine, some (especially those tasting many different wines) will spit the wine into a receptacle or paper cup, which is later dumped into the receptacle. If you do swallow, notice the aftertaste, or finish. The better the wine, the more defined the finish. Good finish will linger on your palate for quite some time and will reflect the flavors of the wine or have flavors on its own.

Happy sipping and cheers to your exploration!

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.

Midsummer day’s dream: Using herbs at their peak

By Maureen Gilmer, Scripps Howard News Service

They call it midsummer’s day, the summer solstice or simply the “longest day of the year.” Under any name, June 21 marks the point when days cease to grow longer. The sun sets sooner each evening and the natural world senses this change in the environment.

Old European pagans considered June 21 a pivotal day, and even William Shakespeare wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” inspired by the magical folklore surrounding this auspicious occasion.

Healers, witches and housewives traditionally harvest their herbs on this date or shortly thereafter. This time in the season marks the point at which the alkaloids and essential oils in the plants are at their greatest concentration. These natural chemicals in the plants are responsible for the fragrance and flavor we desire in our herbs.

What makes the herbs so fragrant is the oils concentrated within the stems, leaves and sometimes even the flowers. These oils are highly volatile, so the moment a sprig is cut or the leaves are crushed, the oil begins to evaporate into the warm summer air. Therefore, the key to harvesting midsummer herbs is to handle them with great care.

Careful harvesting will ensure the plants will retain their oil content. In the ancient Hungarian perfume-rose fields, protecting oils from evaporation was vital to the harvest, so women picked the flowers all night long to eliminate oil loss.

Time your harvest well

Growing backyard herbs is a great way to save money, because you will have a renewable supply of herbs, thus reducing your dependence on store-bought herbs. Harvest them in the early-morning hours and use a flat basket or tray so there is minimal crushing of the leaves.

Once they’re indoors, wash the cuttings well. Often little bugs or worms are on those leaves, and if they aren’t removed, they continue to eat the leaves while they are drying. As soon as the cuttings are clean, shake the remaining water from the sprigs and lay them out to dry on a towel in the shade for an hour or two. Once dry, bundle your herbs by their stems. Use wire or a piece of twine to tie a loop to the stems to make them easier to hang. If you have herbs that produce material unsuitable for hanging bundles, then use the window-screen technique. A screen allows air to circulate so leaves and flowers will scatter evenly over its surface. This technique works best if suspended from wires or the four corners of the screen are propped up by boxes.

Herbs dry best in a cool, dark or shady place with good air circulation. This is often indoors  to prevent new bugs from finding a home in the drying bundles. This is also the reason why herbs were often dried in the kitchen so they could be inspected daily for insects. Avoid placing the herbs where they could be exposed to sunlight, heat and wind. A good place to store the herbs is near the hearth or wood stove, which can protect the herbs in wet climates.

Do not neglect your plants after the harvest because they will still be growing vigorously. If well-fed and well-watered, herbs such as oregano spread out, the perennials will produce new growth points, and new shoots will rise to replace the old ones. With the late summer’s growth, you will have plenty of fresh herbs to use in the kitchen for the rest of the season.