Arro Brings Excellent French Wine to West 6th Street

This week the new Arro restaurant hosted a series of soft openings before its official opening this Saturday. This casual French joint from the good folks who brought us 24 Diner, Easy Tiger, aka ELM Restaurant Group, is whipping up quite a buzz and landing lots of juicy reviews from salivating bloggers and journalists.

If you read this blog, you know damn well it’s not a food review site. The good news is that Arro has a kick-ass, all French wine list put together by Master Sommeliers, Craig Collins and Devon Broglie. West 6th is far better known for its bro bars and beer taps than for wine, with the exception of the stellar retail shop, Austin Wine Merchant. Arro is set to change that with a solid list.

Broglie and Collins assembled a line up of wines that will appeal to insouciant drinkers and serious wine aficionados alike. The list features 10 sparkling wines and Champagnes with five by the glass with prices starting at $10. Beautiful Wife and I started with Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé – Simonnet Febvre  to go with our mussels and vegetable tart starters.

The white wine list has some of my favorite varieties from all over France. I had a hard time choosing from the 22 bottles and seven wines by the glass of Savignon Blanc, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Marsanne, and Chardonnay. Luckily the brilliant Collins helped me choose the 2011 Domaine des Aubuisières “Cuvée de Silex” Vouvray to go with my Vol-Au-Ven with crawfish.

The red list made me hyperventilate with eight wines by the glass and 28 bottle selections from all over France. We were pouring over the Burgundy, Rhone and Bordeaux wines ranging from $10 to $14 by the glass and wanted to try them all. Collins paired the 2009 Maison Deux Montille Soeur et Frere Bourgogne with Duck Confit. Deelish.

I’m a huge fan of dessert cocktails and wines. The sticky sweets get me misty. Arro has a delightful Cordial Cart with all kinds of seductive after dinner drinks to pull you deeper into your seat. I chose a glass of 2009 Perrin Muscat Beaumes de Venise to go with my Dark Chocolate Pot de Creme. The Port-like wine was just the thing to seal the deal.

Beautiful Wife and I will be back many times to eat the delectable French chow from executive chef/partner, Andrew Curren, and more importantly, to work our way through that incredible wine list.

Disclosure: our meal was provided at no charge, but we paid for our wine.

What are you drinking? 

French Underdog Wines at Austin Food & Wine Festival

Flocks of men in Tommy Bahamas print shirts and women in breezy sun dresses swirled and sipped their way through Sunday at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. As wood smoke from the pits fuzzed the air, people gathered to learn the finer points about wine and beer from nationally recognized experts.

Dozens of eager wine lovers drug their hangovers into a tent the first thing Sunday morning to hear Anthony Giglio, wine correspondent for CBS News Radio, hold court in a session on lesser-known French wines. (Giglio himself was self-medicating his fragile state with a bloody Mary backstage after a night of rocking his taco.) He put on a brave face and welcomed the crowd with a hoisted wine glass, “Breakfast of champions,” he said. “Who is still drunk from last night?”

There may be no finer way to start a Sunday than with a selection of six French wines. The session featured wines chosen by Giglio that are either less familiar varieties or from less popular regions. His guiding principle for picking the wines was to find ones that are not only delicious and easy to find in Texas, but are also inexpensive.

“The ‘Great Divide’ between the Old World (Europe) and New World is that we name almost all of our wines by the grape, and in Europe they almost always name wines by the region from which they hail,” said Giglio. “I thought about all the wines I love from France that are off the beaten path; the wines I recommend to friends and they say, ‘Huh? Where’s that from?’ Some are usually right up front in wine shops, but others may be worth searching out. All it takes is asking questions at a wine shop or to a wine steward at a restaurant. They’re hiding in plain sight.”

Giglio instructed the crowd to taste wine in a process that he calls the “Five S’s of Tasting”

  1. See: Hold your glass over white paper and assess the color and weight of the wine.
  2. Swirl: Spin the wine in the glass to release its perfume.
  3. Sniff: Take three little sniffs to evaluate the aromas, which make up a big part of the flavor.
  4. Swish: Take a small sip and swish it around your mouth. The first sip never counts as it is just waking up the mouth.
  5. Sip: Try the second sip to get the full flavors of the wine.

On to the good stuff. Giglio described each of the wines in the flight as the crowd hung on his words.

The first was Cameron Hughes Lot 353 Saint Péray Blanc, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, Semillon from the Northern Rhone Valley. Giglio quipped that Sauvignon Blanc often smells like cat pee. “Does it taste like cat pee? I don’t know.” This $24 wine was light and refreshing with green apple and grapefruit light flavors.

Next up, Chateau de la Chaize Brouilly Cru Beaujolais, a gorgeous Gamay from one of Beaujolais’ 10 cru villages. While Beaujolais is widely known for the unsophisticated and fruity Beaujolais Nuevo, the cru wines can be elegant and complex. This selection had bright cherry, raspberry and smoky strawberry flavors. It’s a sound value at $16 a bottle. “This will be your summer red. Trust me.”

The third wine was Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhones a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre from the Rhone Valley. The Colombo has scents of cherries, licorice, violets and tastes of raspberry and cherry. This wine, at $12, could be a summer staple at my house. “Grenache and Syrah are my favorite grapes on the planet. They make wines that are easily drinkable with or without food.”

Moving on to another Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre blend, this time from southern France, we tried Chateau Paul Mas Languedoc. The wine had lovely scents of cedar, dried fruit, plums and powerful blueberry, blackberry, pepper flavors. At $12 this one is my favorite of the flight. I’ll definitely seek this one out.

Next we tasted Chateau Greysac Bordeaux 2008 from the most renowned region for red wine. There are five grapes allowed in Bordeaux by law and Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape in the Medoc, where the Greysac is produced. It had lovely scents of eucalyptus, mint, brambly blackberry and tight, dry, black fruits flavors. “This is the best Bordeaux bargain on the planet at $14 and one of the easiest to find,” said Giglio.

The last wine, Clos la Coutale Cahors, was a Malbec, Merlot and Tannat blend from Southwest France. This crowd pleaser had fragrant chocolate covered cherries and raisin aromas and rustic black cherry and blackberry flavors.

By the end of the session, the color had returned to Giglio’s cheeks and he was clearly pleased to be in Austin. “With Austin it’s the music weaved into all of the events, whether in the background or right up front. This year we have Allen Stone, the Whiskey Shivers, Delta Spirit and DJ Mel spinning throughout,” he said. “I also love that most of the events are held outside in parks, either under tents or under the stars. You can’t do that everywhere, and that resonates with a city boy like me.”

This story was originally posted in a different format on CultureMap.

Disclosure, I was provided a press pass to cover the festival.

What Are You Drinking? 

Special Occassion Wine, 2005 Chateau Franc La Rose

When I was single and I had a big date, I used to put on special underwear. You know, the nicest pair in the drawer. Ever since I’ve been married, I just buy all special underwear, because, well every night could be a big date.

As an aside, this reminds me of the proper way to shop for lingere. Men, you do know how to shop for lingere don’t you? Go to the best shop you can afford. Ask for a sweet sales person to assist you. Have her select the sauciest number possible – I’m talkin ’bout one that would raise Monsieur Eiffel from the dead. Once she finds the right one, rip it from her delicate perfumed grasp and toss it to the floor. Survey it for a moment laying prone on the rug, then declare, “That looks  perfect. I’l take it.”

OK, back to the topic. Now when it’s going to be an exceptional night, one with a reason to celebrate, I pick a distinctive wine. What could be better than a classified red wine from Bordeaux, the most celebrated wine region in the world?  Last year I grabbed a several 2005 bottles to hold on to as it was a pretty good vintage. The sad thing is I can’t seem to leave them alone. I keep drinking them.

Last night we decided to celebrate one of life’s important moments and opened up a 2005 Château Franc La Rose Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. It is produced by Jean-Louis Trocard, a family that has made wines since the year 1620. Saint-Émilion is the oldest area of Bordeaux and produces arguably the heartiest wines in the region. This particular wine is a blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc grapes grown on 40 year old vines. It’s aged for 18 months in new French oak to round out the tannins.

My mouth was watering as I decanted the Château Franc La Rose. This is special underwear wine.

Look A royal amethyst ring of deep garnet with ruby edges.
Smell Intense woody, cocoa, spicy and bold blackberry. Fleshy enough to put a nice curve in her most special underwear.
Taste After the anticipation brought about by the wine’s heritage and the luscious nose, I expected an audacious, rich wine. What I tasted wasn’t the dark blackberries and cocao. It was more like reserved raspberries and the saline peck of meaty blood. A much less voluptuous wine than I expected, although it had the courtesy to have a long, vanilla and oak finish.
Price $28

It turns out that this was decent underwear wine. The kind you wear when you’re not exactly sure you’re going to get lucky, but think it might be a possibility. For the money, I think I’d buy a different bottle the next time.

What are you drinking?

Discover the Right Bottle at Austin Wine Merchant

Trying to select a bottle of wine to accompany dinner can be daunting for even experienced wine drinkers. Walk into the wine section of an average grocery store and you’re confronted with hundreds of labels from producers all over the world. Now walk into a wine shop and the selection explodes. It’s impossible to know all of the producers you like even within one region. Can you imagine if you had to have that kind of comprehensive knowledge for a test in school. No way. How can an average mortal be expected to find the right bottle for dinner? Let’s not even talk about finding the right wine for a special occasion dinner with someone you are trying to impress.

Here’s an idea – go to a wine shop with incredibly knowledgeable, unpretentious and attentive staff who are eager to match your preferences with a great bottle of wine. There are shops like this in every town. In Austin, one that you can count on for fantastic advice is the Austin Wine Merchant. This shop on W. 6th street has been demystifying wine buying for schleps like me since 1991.

This isn’t a wine mega-store, but they have a fantastic selection. Co-owner, John Roenigk, and his staff choose wines with an eye for what customers will enjoy at prices that make sense. How do they know what customers want? They keep track. You can let the Austin Wine Merchant keep your purchases in a database. The next time you visit, they can make recommendations based on what you like the last time. It takes the guessing out of it.

I overheard John counseling one customer, “Do you really want to buy a $15 Burgundy? I’ll tell ya, the best $15 Burgundy is a Côtes du Rhône.” That’s the kind of help that makes the difference between having some wine and having wine you like.

I talked to a couple of customers in the store about what they like about the shop. They drive out of their way because they learn something new about wine every time they visit. They like the large selection of small producers and old world wines that are priced competitively. They admitted that they were initially intimidated by the higher-end appearance and assumed it must be an expensive shop full of trophy and first growth wines for oenephiles. They were pleased to see that despite a serious approach to wine and some higher-end selections, this is a store that caters to casual and expert wine drinkers alike. Oh, and they love the wine tastings held every Saturday from noon to 3:00 p.m.

What do I mean by “serious about wine”? The first thing is that keep the entire shop chilled to 65 degrees F and at a constant humidity. Take a coat if you plan to shop for a long time. This is one big wine cellar. They also arrange wines geographically by appellation within regions. That might not be unique, but it sure is helpful.

After watching John dish out advice to several customers. It was my turn to let him find a nice bottle for me. I bought two right away. I intended to review those wines, but, uh, Beautiful Wife and I liked them so much we drank them in one sitting with a fantastic dinner. I didn’t take the time to write a single note. I guess I’ll have to go back and buy more.

I totally struck out with my wife

Sometimes I get a little romantic when I shop for wine. I look for a bottle that I think will warm the cockles of Beautiful Wife’s heart. Last night I found one that instantly made me think of her. A 2001 Chateau Potelle Cougar Pass. I know what you are thinking and you’re right. Beautiful Wife is much too young to be a cougar. That’s not it. The hook is that we went to Chateau Potelle on our honeymoon. It’s a gorgeous property sitting at about 1,800 feet of elevation with spectacular views. It’s a bit off the beaten path west of Yountville, CA. It’s a stunning drive of about 5 miles straight up Mt. Veeder on a winding road.

 The memory of being there in our new marital bliss is one thing, but they also make decent wine. They also have a sense of humor. The higher end wines are designated “VGS,” or Very Good Shit. With all of this in mind, I presented the bottle with a gleam in my eye, knowing that it would stir loving emotions in Beautiful Wife.

 Cougar Pass is an interesting blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot. Sounds like a party. Oh the anticipation.

 With the first swirl and sniff my heart sank. It was corked. Blast it. By “corked” I mean that it was tainted with TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole). If you’ve ever had a cork tainted wine, you know what I mean. It smells bad and the fruit flavors are muted, hidden under stench. Beautiful Wife took a sip, frowned and handed her glass back to me. This wasn’t VGS. It was VBS; Very Bad Shit.

 I dumped the entire decanter full of wine down the drain. Strike one.

 2001 Chateau Potelle Cougar Pass Paso Robles

Look Deep dark garnet like the shadows of Mt. Veeder.
Smell The first scent was a big dog wearing musty cardboard boxes followed by faint leather and blackberry.
Taste It tasted like I was drinking it out of a dirty leather work boot. You know what really sucks? I could partially detect what the wine was supposed to be with lush blackberry, gentle tannins and I wanted to march back to the store for a replacement bottle to taste it like it was supposed to taste.  
Price $15

 Knowing that it was too late to go back to the store, I turned to the wine rack and selected a 1998 Domaine Benazeth from the Minervois wine appellation in the Languedoc region of France. How could I go wrong with picking a wine made the year that we met? I could see the Mediterranean Sea breeze tussle her hair as I opened the bottle.

We’re typically fans of Rhone style wines. This wine is driven by Syrah and Mourvèdre, but is also a hodge podge of grapes typical in a southern Rhone including Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Lledoner pelut, Piquepoul and Terret.

I handed a glass to Beautiful Wife. She smelled. Ah, not corked. She sipped. She set the glass down and reached for a bottle of vodka to make a mixed drink. Strike two and no opportunity for a third pitch. I struck out tonight.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with this wine. I thought it was delightful. It just didn’t suit her tonight. Sometimes it’s like that.

1998 Domaine Benazeth Minervois

Look Opaque as the plum colored Mediterranean at midnight.   
Smell A gardener’s delight with fresh turned soil, sweet rose petals and black currant.
Taste It is floral, with muted fruit and stoic minerality. Plum, currant, cinnamon and violet, finishing with the lingering taste of a limestone cave.
Price $14

 The second wine somehow tasted like rejection as I sat there drinking it by myself. A gift scorned. A lover’s advanced rebuffed, standing dejected still in the buff. I drank it knowing there would be another chance tomorrow.

In flight at House Wine

Do you remember ten years ago when wine bars started popping up here and there? Not tasting rooms, or wine shops that served by the glass, but honest to goodness establishments fully dedicated to the enjoyment of wine by the taste, the glass or by the bottle. Outside of New York and San Francisco wine bars were few and far between. Much has changed. In Austin there are at least a dozen different wine bars.

My beautiful wife and I decided to try House Wine before going to dinner. This place is in a little house just south of Lady Bird Lake a block west of S. Lamar on Josephine St. They are definitely going for the South Austin vibe – casual, cozy and a little sloppy. The space is intimate (small) and eclectic (mismatched shit). We felt pretty comfortable right from the start.

There wasn’t table service, so we bellied up to the bar and looked through the menu. House Wine has about 25 whites and 30 reds by the glass and by the bottle. The prices are pretty damn reasonable ranging from $7 to $11 and bottles in the $20s and $30s. We were there at happy hour – hey hey 2 bucks off each glass.

On this particular night, we were indecisive, so we decided to order two flights. Three half glasses for $15. A bargain. I ordered a Spanish Tempranillo, a Côtes du Rhône and Spanish Verdejo (white). My beautiful wife asked the bar tender to select a flight for her. She had a sparkling rosé, an Argentine Malbec and a California Pinot Noir. We also ordered a selection of cheese and smoked salmon. The cheese and salmon were nice, served in a gorgeous wooden bowl and gave us something to clear our palettes between wines. Worth the order.

Here’s what I had.

I started off with Paso a Paso Verdejo 2008.  Lovely pale yellow in the stemless glass. Nice scents of pear. The Verdejo grape makes a nice medium bodied, citrusy, honied wine that is right at home on the shabby back porch of House Wine and at your summer party.   

Next I had a Volver Tempranillo 2005.  Bright ruby with a fruity nose. This guy started off with round cherry, cassis and vanilla and finished with cocoa and a bite of tannins. The smoked salmon tasted great with this.

My third glass was REDblanc Côtes du Rhône. This organic Grenache, Syrah blend had a warm plum color and a nose to match. It was a mouthful of raspberries, violets and licorice with a touch of cedar on the finish.

Decent wines for the price.  If you are looking for a very relaxed, inexpensive wine bar with a decent selection, try House Wine. If you want knowledgeable wine guideance and service in an elegant setting, you’ll be disappointed here. Good news is there are several other wine bars in town.

Suitable Wines for a Summer Romance

“Summer romances end for all kinds of reasons. But when all is said and done, they have one thing in common: They are shooting stars-a spectacular moment of light in the heavens, a fleeting glimpse of eternity. And in a flash, they’re gone.” – The Notebook

 Lazy summer days are perfect for carefree romance. What better way to while away a languid day with a lover than a picnic with feet dipped in the lake? Like the thrill of romance, a chilled white or rosé wine makes everything in a picnic basket tastes better.   

 This week I set out to find wines that have the ease of summer and brighten the mood at any occasion. I’m looking for bottled sunshine. When it’s hot out, I often find myself reaching for a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. I guess I’m a loyalist. I decided to break out of that mold just a little bit, and selected four different wines from Italy, France and Spain that are perfect for a picnic.

 San Felice Vermentino

The first one I cracked open was from Tuscany, a 2009 San Felice Vermentino Maremma Toscana Perolla. San Felice has been cranking out reds and whites in a modern winery since 1967 amidst a medieval village.

The dominant grape in this wine is Vermentino, which is widely grown in the hills of Maremma. The grapes sun bathe in the hot sun all day, then sleep in the cool Mediterranean breezes at night. This stress free grape lifestyle gives the wine a fresh, bright flavor. Did I mention that I like Sauvignon Blanc? I guess habits are hard to break. This wine has about 15% of it, which gives it more complexity and a little heft. 

This baby has less alcohol than big red wines, clocking in at about 12.5%. Drinking a couple glasses of this on a hot afternoon won’t make you too drowsy. If that’s your goal, have a third glass. 

Look This is sunshine in a glass.  
Smell Like a tropical beach breeze carrying flint-kissed citrus scents.
Taste San Felice tastes like the perfect shade to prevent sunburn. Its gauzy body gently releases tart, crisp green apple and lemon zest flavors easing into hint of meringue and a clean finish. This is not a wine to lay down waiting for a special moment. Drink it now. Every summer day is a special moment.
Price $16

 Château Bonnet Blanc

Second up, is Château Bonnet Blanc from the AOC Entre-Deux-Mers in the Bordeaux region. The storied vineyards of Chateau Bonnet are downright ancient with the first plantings emerging from the dirt in the 16th century, and the current regime took over in 1956.

 OK, so I’m still on the Sauvignon Blanc train. This one is made up of about half Sauvignon, 40% Sémillon and the rest Muscadelle grapes. Semillon is the rich, supple, subtle Angelina to balance the Brad of Sauvignon Blanc, which can be fragrantly belligerent and acidic. Like Jolie and Pitt, these two make a fantastic blend, particularly with a smidge of Muscadelle thrown in for good measure.

You know what can spoil a picnic quicker than ants? Forgetting your corkscrew. Never fear, this baby is packaged with a screw cap. Just twist and pour. If you miss that ceremonial pop of the cork, just stick your finger in your mouth, bend it into a gentle “J” shape, pucker tightly around it, and then pull it out briskly. “Pop!” This is the genius move that was created centuries ago specifically to mimic the sound of a cork being pulled. It’s fantastic.   

Look The delicate color of gold coins shimmering just below the surface of a gentle green stream.
Smell This wine smells just like a vivacious young girl picking up those gold coins, while eating grapes and drinking lemonade with white blossoms in her flowing hair.
Taste Château Bonnet Blanc introduces itself with smooth grace before racing into crisp, fresh citrus fruit flavors with vivid acidity that draws out a long, relaxed finish. It’s hard not to lounge just a little longer enjoying the after-glow once you’ve had it.  
Price $11

Blanc Pescador

Don’t you just love the delicate tickle of an effervescent wine? Like miniature angles frolicking over my tongue. For my third selection, I opened a young Blanc Pescador. This isn’t a rollicking sparkling wine – its less bubbly than Champagne, but has more fizz than a Vinho Verde. The good folks at Castillo Perelada in the Empurda Costa Brava region of Spain work a little magic during fermentation to conjure a fine, light and natural sparkle. In Spanish this is called “vino de aguja”, which means “needle-wine”. I have no idea what that means, but I read it somewhere.

Finally I’ve taken a complete departure from Sauvignon Blanc. Blanc Pescadore is made up of Macabeo, Parellada and Xare-lo grapes.

This is a picnic wine if there ever was one. Its entire attitude and outlook on life is casual fun. You could try to dress it up for a black tie event, but it’s much more comfortable in flip flops and a sundress eating finger foods in the breeze. If your lovely day gets rained out, bring it inside and serve it with ceviche while sitting on the floor in a circle of friends.  Better yet, serve it for brunch with a crab omelet. The tart fruit and acidity are an ideal date with shellfish. With only 11.5% alcohol, it won’t knock you down so soon after you woke up.  

Look Daisy petal soft yellow with hints of spring green.   
Smell Grapefruit mist carried on a sea breeze with a whisper of yeast.  
Taste It tastes like wearing white linen while playing badminton. Clean, fresh and crisp with a sparkling bounce in its step.  
Price $11

Riondo Prosecco Raboso, Pink Spago Argento

I can’t get enough bubbles, so my fourth wine choice is a spirited Prosecco made with Raboso grapes, grown on the Veneto hills of Italy.  Riondo opened in 1999 and is nestled in Monteforte d’Alpone in northern Italy, west of Venice.    

Pink Spago Argento is a frizzante with frothy bubbles that make me smile. The wine makers get the gentle sparkle by controlling the temperature during fermentation. It is impossible to be in a bad mood while sipping a glass of bubble gum pink wine that begs you to take it sailing. Like most of my summer choices, this is somewhat low in alcohol at 10.5% to give us license for day drinking.

Look As bright pink as the crinoline of a fairy princess tutu.
Smell  It smells like the delicate breath of that lovely fairy princess after she’s eaten a bowl of sweet cherries and freshly picked strawberries.
Taste Pink Spago Argento dazzles the mouth with a crisp pop of fresh fruit and brisk acidity. It finishes with a subtle bitterness that reminds you it isn’t simply cute and sweet. Its gentler than the bittersweet end of a summer romance.
Price $9

 Try one of these wines pool-side, at the lake, in the hammock or on a picnic blanket this weekend. Let me know what you think. What is your favorite wine for making summer memories?

Biting into a Fleshy Grenache

Oh boy I love a good Rhone. The juicy gush of fruit flowing from the mainstay grape, the delectable Grenache, tempered by its sassy, spicy cousins,  Syrah and Mourvèdre make for a glass of Nirvana (um, not the grungy band). Tonight I’m going for a Southern Rhone from the village of Plan de Dieu, a 2007 Côtes du Rhône, Domaine de l’Espigouette, from Bernard Latour.   

Damned nice wine. Turns out that 2007 was a pretty good vintage for the good people at Domaine de l’Espigouette. A vigorous swirl of the glass kicked off scents of ripe cherry, coffee and provincial spice. I think I drooled a little. Remember that moment when you finally got to kiss Bethany inside the huge tractor tire on the playground after school in 5th grade? Remember how your lips tingled with the sweet narcotic of her soft lips? Well I do. Anyway, the first sip of this wine was just as intoxicating. A big mouthful of dark cherry, liquorice and raspberry with whispers of saline blood, vanilla and coffee. The Finnish was as meaty as a New York strip, slightly smokey and rich. I could have chewed that bitch.

Sounds expensive, doesn’t it. Nope. This baby’s a steal at about $13 a bottle. You really outa get some of it. Deelish.