Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Budget Snobbery I

It is a common misconception that the finer things in life cost an arm and a leg. For the majority of us who don’t have spare limbs lying around, I offer this fine guide to the richer experiences in life without breaking the bank.

Now, one of the finest means of experiencing the “Good Life” is wine. Yes, that age old staple of the posh and pompous that many of us don’t fully understand, mostly due to the air of confusion and complexity. Well allow me to strip away this veil with a handy and helpful guide to some good, cheap wines that won’t make you cringe in your seat. We won’t go through the whole gauntlet, but devote a couple of articles to make things simpler. Today we will speak about the lavish American Reds, the bold and daring newcomers to the world of wine.

Pinot Noir
Ah, the wine made famous by the film Sideways. There are numerous pinot noirs on the market and since the rise in popularity the wine itself has reached new levels of expense. Not to worry though - there is hope on the horizon, like a cowboy from the high plains, only with wine.

Rex Goliath $8-$11: Don’t let the rooster on the label fool you. This is not some California knock-off of a good wine looking for a gimmick, but a rather smooth and robust wine. What people look for in a pinot noir is somewhere between the full body of a cabernet sauvignon and the mellow textures of a merlot, and this wine sits right on the fence. One of the key characteristics of this wine is its adaptability. With the hints of cranberry and slight earthy texture, this is one of the very few wines that match yet another complex bird, the turkey. The turkey, unlike other birds, is a dry and bland bit of meat, even the dark meat has no real flavor to it and doesn’t lend itself well for traditional wines like chardonnay. Not the case with this plucky rooster. Of course, the family meal isn’t Rex Goliath’s only avenue, for it also is a pleasant sipping wine, with no bitter after taste but a smooth, lingering ambiance of berries after it leaves. I highly suggest you cross the road for this little rooster.

Merlot
This is the classic red wine that needs no meal and can add a warm glow to any evening. Merlots are by far the most common and most enjoyed wine in the U.S. and has created a veritable forest of confusion with many paths leading to disappointment. But never fear with this Budget Snob, for I have the compass to get you on the right path.

Pepperwood $7-$10: They say you can’t see the forest through the trees, well just be glad you found yourself in this neck of the woods. Pepperwood is an exceptional wine selection, despite the price, especially when it comes to their merlot. This wine has a distinct peppery taste to it that gives it a bit more texture and body than a normal merlot, but the undertones are not over-powering in any sense. The mixture of the woodiness of the barrels that it is fermented in allow it to be thoroughly enjoyed as a sipping wine, as well as something with a meal. Might I suggest, though, that if this wine is to be paired with a meal, stay away from really meaty dishes such as steak or stew, because the wine will be completely over-powered. A good combination would be Italian dishes, pork chops or even veal.

Cabernet Sauvignon
This is the wine that put California on the map in the world of Snobbery. Aside from its European roots, cabernet has become an American speciality, with all the robust flavors that California has to offer. It is true that there are other states that make fine wines but none more closely satisfies the flavors of berries and deep rich textures that California climate can yield.

Frei Brothers $10-$12: They say Philadelphia is the city of “Brotherly Love." Well, after having this wine, you might think that Napa Valley might be closer to the mark. The Frei Brothers have various cabernet, but the best for Budget Snob is the standard cabernet. This subtle wine still has all the strength and delicious flavor of the standard cabernet, but it doesn’t overwhelm the palate with tannin heavy texture.

For those not in the know, tannins are the organic compounds in wine that are created in the fermentation process from the skins, pits and stems of the grapes that give a wine its sense of body. High tannins means the wine is full-bodied and low means light. Too high a tannin count makes the wine tart and rather unpleasant, which can be common in lower quality cabernet.

This is not the case of course with the Brothers. With a complex taste of currents and spice, this wine has a rather mild, fruity nose which allows it to be a rather pleasant sipping wine. Now don’t think though that the Brothers shy from meals, due to their cabernet heritage, the Brothers are an excellent compliment for most stews, steaks and even hamburgers. So if you want to enjoy a rich experience, pick up the Frei Brothers, and keep it in the Family.

Zinfandel
The long overshadowed wine of the famous White Zinfandel, which is more of a blush than a white, the Zinfandel has surprising depth and hearty flavor despite being rather sweet for a red. It can be said that due to the popular White Zinfandel incarnation, that regular Zinfandels are hard to come by and even harder to find cheap and good. Thankfully there are birds of a feather that flock together that help with this small dilemma.

Ravenswood Vintners Blend $7-$10: What is it when it comes to birds and wine that just makes everything better? So far I’ve had a giant chicken on this list and now I have ravens. Fret not, these are not the harbingers of ill-omen, but bringers of good wine at Snob approved prices. Now don’t let the “blend” fool you, this is a singular grape variety with all the lovely flavors of this highly misused grape. What makes Ravenswood a step above the others is that it allows the zinfandel to fully utilize its unique blend of sweet and robust flavors. The wine itself has a pleasant mixture of strawberries, spice and oakyness, and is a perfect companion for chocolate - especially cakes. This is not a dessert wine and not overwhelmingly sweet, but with the fruity aroma and lovely after taste chasing the chocolate makes an afternoon on the deck on a fall day even more memorable. Now pairing zinfandel, due to the inherent sweetness, is rather difficult. At best, zinfandels work with chicken or fish, especially if it is either grilled or baked. Anything else will upset the natural sweetness of the wine and make the whole dish bitter. So follow the flock and grab yourself a bottle of Ravenswood - it has a real shiny label.

Well that concludes today’s addition of Budget Snobbery. Some of you might be wondering why I didn’t include malbecs or syrahs in my list of American reds. Well, the reason is I have found better, cheaper equivalents in other countries which I feel should be given their own articles to fully explore their complexities and wealth. So I hope this list was of some help and until next time, enjoy lifestyles of the Moderate and Frugal.

Robert Parson is an employee of the Navy Federal Credit Union, and a connoisseur of fine wines. His article, "Budget Snobbery" appears in this blog sporadically, much to the relief of the editor, who can use the break from normal posting duties.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The CAO MX2

I’ve been on a CAO kick as of late and was preparing to review the CAO Brazilia, but haven't been able to get ahold of them at my local store. So I decided I’d to go back to one of the first cigars that really hooked me. I’d probably only smoked maybe 10 cigars at that point and was looking to try something different than the Africa I always pick up. There sat the Mx2, dark, dangerous and inviting with its black oily wrapper. I picked up a couple of the Toro’s and went down to the bar with a buddy of mine to grab a beer and enjoy some cigars. It was love on first puff and then some. I actually remember lighting up the second one right after the first because I’d enjoyed it so much.

I’ve smoked probably 5 CAO Mx2’s in the past few weeks (um... preparing to do this review... yeah) and I haven't had one with a bad draw. The Mx2 is a bit intimidating with its black oily wrapper and black band. Typically this cigar burned very even, with a dark gray ash. I also found the Mx2 to burn fairly slow, taking a bit longer than your typical robusto. Expect to take 45 minutes to an hour with this, and I tend to burn through cigars.

I didn’t remember this cigar being so complex, but I guess with tobacco from seven different countries your going to have some complexity. I could definitely pick out the flavors from the Connecticut Broadleaf. The smoke was heavy and seemed to coat the mouth like heavy cream.  Around the halfway mark the cigar starts to pick up some spice and lose the sweeter notes. Bitter chocolate, strong black coffee, pepper and a bit of licorice were dominant at this point. The Mx2 seems to lose some of the creaminess at this point. I’d say the cigar finished out like this, becoming a bit too harsh for my tastes with about 1 1/2 inches to go.

I would pair this cigar with Cognac in the late evening or early afternoon, or sambuca after dinner - the strength of the first would compliment the pepper and black coffee tastes, while the latter's licorice taste pairs up with the licorice in the burn.

Even after a few years of smoking so many other cigars the Mx2 is still one of my favorites. If you do some shopping around you can find pretty good deals on these as they aren’t as heavily promoted as some of CAO’s newer cigars.  I rate this cigar a 3.8 on a four-point scale.

Size: 5X52
Shape: Robusto
Wrapper: Connecticut Broadleaf Maduro
Filler: Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, and the Dominican Republic
Binder: Brazilian Maduro

The Editor requests that you buy a few Mx2s for your next social event - nothing will bring together men-about-town like this experience.