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.

Can a Glass of Wine a Day Keep the Doctor Away?

wine-glass-medI’m sure we’ve all seen the myriad headlines over the past few years touting the health benefits of wine.* But can including wine in your daily diet really make a difference? I’m pleased to report that, in moderation, indeed it can. Extensive studies on the topic disclose some pretty impressive findings suggesting that wine—especially the red variety—may promote a longer lifespan, improve mental health, protect against certain cancers, and provide benefits to the heart.

Here are just some of the benefits that you get from drinking wine:

The Benefit: Promotes Longevity

The Evidence: A Finnish study of 2,468 men over a 29-year period, published in the Journals of Gerontology, 2007 showed that wine drinkers have a 34 percent lower mortality rate than those consuming beer or spirits. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Slows the Aging Process

The Evidence: Researchers from Harvard Medical School reported that red wine has anti-aging properties. Specifically, resveratrol (from the red grape skin) was the compound found to have the beneficial effect. Their findings were published in the journal Cell Metabolism. Source: medicalnewstoday.com

The Benefit: Reduces Heart-Attack Risk

The Evidence: Moderate drinkers suffering from high blood pressure are 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack than nondrinkers according to a 16-year Harvard School of Public Health study of 11,711 men, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 2007. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Lowers the Risk of Heart Disease

The Evidence: Red-wine tannins contain procyanidins, which protect against heart disease according to a study at Queen Mary University in London, published in Nature, 2006. Wines from Sardinia and southwest France have more procyanidins than other wines. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Reduces the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

The Evidence: Research on 369,862 individuals studied over an average of 12 years each, at Amsterdam’s VU University Medical Center, reveals that moderate drinkers have 30 percent less risk than nondrinkers of developing type 2 diabetes (as published in Diabetes Care, 2005). Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Lowers the Risk of Stroke

The Evidence: The possibility of suffering a blood clot-related stroke drops by about 50 percent in people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol according to a Columbia University study of 3,176 individuals over an eight-year period, published in Stroke, 2006. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Decreases the Risk of Cataracts

The Evidence: Moderate drinkers are 32 percent less likely to get cataracts than nondrinkers; those who consume wine are 43 percent less likely to develop cataracts than those drinking mainly beer according to a study of 1,379 individuals in Iceland, published in Nature, 2003. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Cuts the Risk of Colon Cancer

The Evidence: Moderate consumption of wine (especially red) cuts the risk of colon cancer by 45 percent according to a Stony Brook University study of 2,291 individuals over a four-year period, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2005. Source: foodandwine.com

The Benefit: Lowers the Risk of Developing Dementia

The Evidence: A Loyola University Medical Center study, published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, reported that moderate red wine drinkers had a 23 percent lower risk of developing dementia compared to nondrinkers. Source: medicalnewstoday.com

The Benefit: Reduces the Risk of Depression

The Evidence: Drinking wine may reduce the risk of depression, according to researchers from several universities in Spain. Data was gathered on 2,683 men and 2,822 women aged from 55 to 80 years over a seven-year period. The findings were published in the journal BMC Medicine. Source: medicalnewstoday.com

*The health benefits come from moderate wine consumption, defined by the American Heart Association as one to two four-ounce glasses a day.

Smartphone Apps to Improve Your Wine Smarts

hello-vino-resultIn this age of smartphones, tablets and instant access to information, it’s no surprise that the adage of “there’s an app for that” has made its way to the wine world.

Whether you’re a seasoned oenophile or a novice wine drinker, a little knowledge can go a long way towards choosing the perfect bottle. In researching this article, a few apps appeared repeatedly as favorites and I’ve summarized them for you here:

Hello Vino (hellovino.com) is a robust wine pairing and suggestion app for the iPhone and Android. It can recommend wines with popular picks, value options and accolades. It lets you browse categories and subcategories of wines based on occasions, taste preferences, and wine varieties. You can take pictures of wine labels and use the app to get ratings, food pairings and tasting notes among others. It has a photographic memory which will help you remember your favorite wines. It also provides audio reviews. Cost: Free

Snooth Wine Pro (snooth.com/iphone-app) for iPhone lets you snap a picture of a wine label and the app automatically matches it to Snooth’s database of over one million wines. Once a match is found, the app gives you plenty of data to help you locate it near you or find an appropriate substitute if it’s not available close by. With this app, you can also add the wine to your Wishlist or Virtual Cellar; purchase the wine online through the Snooth retail network; read expert and user reviews and post your own; and browse for similar wines by winery, region, or varietal. Cost: $4.99. Note: A free version of this app is available as well, but the image recognition capability is not available and ads are displayed.

For Android users, check out Swirl Pro. It has a lookup function that accesses the Snooth database for similar details, but you have to type in the name of a wine rather than taking a picture. Cost: $2.99. Note: There’s also a free version that allows all of the browsing and tagging, but only lets you add a couple of wines.

Wine Events (localwineevents.com) is a simple, yet useful iPhone and Android app to have if you like to attend tastings, festivals, auctions and other wine-related activities and want to stay current on events in your area. It offers a plethora of choices for wine lovers, plus it gives you the option of posting the event to Facebook. Cost: Free

Cor.kz (http://cor.kz) is an all-purpose iPhone app touted as “like having a sommelier in your pocket.” Its most popular feature is its CellarTracker, which lets you access information on over one million wines. Use the search tab to find wines by name, region or varietal. There’s even a barcode scanner that identifies your bottle and delivers thousands of user ratings, tasting notes and other general information about the wine. Keep track of wines you like or want to try by rating them and adding them to your virtual cellar. Cost: $1.99

Wine Ratings Guide (nirvino.com) is another app for iPhone and Android that’s likened to having a personal sommelier with you at all times. This highly rated, user-friendly app connects to a database of over a million wines to provide reviews, tasting notes, pairing suggestions and price points. It offers room to add your own ratings and the ability to view customized lists from other users. Cost: $3.99

A few other apps worth checking out are Corkbin (corkbin.com), the Approach Guides Wine App (agwine.com), Drync Wine Pro (drync.com), and Vivino (vivino.com).

Have another favorite wine-related app? I’d love for you to share your recommendations with me.

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!

Wines That Entertain for the Holidays

turkey-dinner-with-wineReady or not, the holidays will soon be upon us again—bringing with them all the joy and anxiety that the season is known for. When it comes to entertaining, however, you needn’t stress over what wines to serve. From my years of research on the topic, I share with you the following suggestions that I hope will make your holiday gatherings fun and hassle-free.

Informal entertaining: There was a time when Chardonnay seemed to be the universal white wine, but since I’m not much of a Chardonnay fan, some other pleasing alternatives are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Two of my favorite budget-friendly options are Rex Goliath Pinot Grigio—bright citrus and lemon-lime aromas with layers of fresh stone fruit, sprinkled with intense floral and lavender notes—and Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc, bursting with flavors of Meyer lemons and Key limes with hints of grapefruit, gooseberry and citrus. Both are under $10 and versatile enough to serve with a variety of hors d’oeuvres and entrées.

I have found Castle Rock’s Pinot Noir, offering aromas of cherry, tea and herbal spice, to be consistently good no matter what the vintage. It ranges in price from $9 – $11. The folks at Triangle Wine Company have also introduced me to some superb Spanish reds. One such pick is Borsao Tres Picos, about $12 on sale. It’s 100% Grenache with concentrated flavors of blackberries, strawberries and nuances of leather, vanilla and plums.

Kicking off the festivities: Nothing exudes merriment like a bottle of bubbly. Champagnes and sparkling wines are a fine companion to salty appetizers (think caviar or oysters). Of course I love Champagne –my splurge is Perrier-Jouët Fleur De Champagne— but I have a few other effervescent choices that are gentler on my wallet: Mionetto Prosecco Brut DOC-Treviso, with aromas of golden apples and a hint of white peach, costs about $11; and under-$10-a-bottle Freixenet Cordon Negro, a medium-bodied Spanish Cava, has a palate of apple, pear and bright citrus flavors with a crisp touch of ginger.

Main course whites: If you’re drinking white wine with your main course at this time of the year, chances are you’re eating turkey. I typically pair my holiday bird with Gewürztraminer, but to shake things up a bit why not try a spicy/peppery Grüner Veltliner from Austria? One that I’m looking forward to trying is Loimer’s Kamptal DAC Grüner Veltliner. Flavors of wood smoke and white pepper, with touches of apple and citrus, make this full-bodied and satisfying. Sells for about $17.

Main course reds: Beaujolais Nouveau arrives from France each year just in time for Thanksgiving but personally, I’d opt instead for a bottle of 2009 Beaujolais. This is the vintage that 77-year-old Georges Duboeuf called “the vintage of a lifetime.” Deboeuf’s 2009 Morgon Descombes displays layers of black cherry, raspberry ganache and tea rose flavors, with a spicy thread running through the wine. At $20 a bottle, it’s an excellent value.

Luscious dessert wines: One of the most harmonious wine and food pairings I ever had was an orange muscat with pumpkin pie. Sobon’s Orange Muscat Rezerve ($15) is an exquisite dessert wine with flavors of lush, tropical orange-vanilla and rich cream. Another of my preferred sweet whites is St. Supery’s Moscato ($16 – $20), with flavors of kiwi and mango, a hint of honey dew, stone fruit and a zippy orange rind finish. For red wine drinkers, Banfi’s Rosa Regale ($17) is a classic sparkling red wine whose bright fresh berry flavors complement chocolate-based desserts, fresh fruit and pecan pie. Any of these would make a splendid finale to your holiday celebration.

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.