Thursday, January 8, 2009

About This Blog

I've decided to add a new category to my blogging (I do this cheerfully, with enthusiasm even, as if someone is reading what I write). Tidbits: A category for random thoughts of a line or two that don't seem to need elaboration.

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms (2010): Cyclamen Coum

Cyclamen coum blossomed today. It gets the honor of being the first new flower of 2009--at least in this small corner of the world. I planted a drift of these under the coral bark maple behind the house two years ago. Those that survived have taken hold and begun to spread slowly. This is a beautiful little plant that seems unjustly neglected to me. It has variegated heart-shaped leaves and a tiny blossom that doesn't overpower the plant the way the oversized blossoms of ordinary cyclamen do. The blossom of coum is no bigger than a dime. It appears to be native to the Black Sea coast from Bulgaria to Georgia and south into Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. That explains why it survives our summer dry period. In the first year, I thought I'd lost every one I planted, but new leaves appeared once the winter rains began. A very pretty and cheerful flower that is most welcome at this time of year. I'm guessing that Daphne (Daphne odorata--buds are visible in the second photo here) will be next to bloom, followed by our Japanese flowering plum--two of the most wonderfully fragrant plants in the garden. I wish you could smell them.

(My Cyclamen coum plants are from Cottage Gardens, which has stores in Petaluma and Bennett Valley. I haven't seen this plant elsewhere, but no doubt it's available on line.)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Plants I'm Growing: Aloes

At year-end I visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden, in Walnut Creek, a small but interesting collection of cacti and succulents. A lot of plants were covered for frost protection (a disappointment), but quite a few aloe varieties were blooming. There was a small selection of plants for sale. I added three frost hardy (I hope) new species to the garden--Aloe pratensis, Aloe mudenensis, and Aloe distans. Staff member Brian Kemble kindly provided me a list of the more hardy aloes. His list can be found various places on the Web, for example on the site of the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden (the link is to the list, not the garden itself). A pleasant detour. (The photo shows a large Opuntia, or prickly pear, with a persimmon tree in the background--no aloes.)

Wines I'm Drinking: Carménère

Last night friends and I blind tasted three Chilean wines made from the Carménère grape, a fairly obscure variety that interests me for its history and the quality of the inexpensive (so far) wine it makes. We started the evening with a rosé made from Carménère, called (oops). Yes, (oops). Don't let the silly name, the gimmicky packaging, or the ridiculous price ($2.99 at our local Grocery Outlet) fool you. This is well made, delicious wine. It is a very pale orange-pink. It smells of honey and strawberries and has real presence on the palate--which is a bit startling given the pale color. It tastes vaguely like honey, but it is quite dry and crisp with acid. It lingers for a long time on the tongue, finishing with a hint of spicy prickle. I seem to have bought the store out of its supply, but don't hesitate to buy this if you see it and happen to be a fan of rosé, like me. 

Why (oops), you ask? Wine enthusiasts probably know the story by now, but Carménère is Bordeaux's "lost grape." Once grown in that famous region, it appears to have been entirely neglected during the slow recovery from phylloxera (the aphid-like root louse that devastates vines that have no resistance to it) that began late in the 19th century. No one seems to know exactly why it wasn't replanted (I'm still doing research, but the most obvious explanation would be low yield relative to the more familiar Bordeaux grape varieties*). 

Carménère, once counted among the noble grapes of the Bordeaux blend, alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, apparently died out in France. Cuttings were alive and well and making wine in Chile, however, although these were confused there with Merlot (grape varieties can be very difficult to sort out). Recently, scientists have determined that a significant fraction of Chile's Merlot acreage is actually Carménère. Oops!--and thus, the name of our rosé. It is indeed a mystery to me why the variety was allowed to die out in Bordeaux. It appears to make excellent wine. At least in the Chilean examples, it seems to be consistently more interesting than indifferently made Merlot. The best of the Trader Joe's cheapies we tasted last night (at only $4.99 a bottle) was a cut above typical California Merlots that routinely sell for four times the price or more (your experience may be different). At any rate, this is a variety well worth exploring.  We tasted the following wines. Brief tasting notes follow. 
2006 (oops) Valle Central Rosé of Carménère (Grocery Outlet, $2.99)
2005 El Toqui Rapel Valley Carménère Reserva (Trader Joe's, $4.99)
2005 Tierra Salvaje Maule Valley Carménère (Trader Joe's $5.99)
2007 Panilonco Colchagua Valley Carménère Reserve (Trader Joe's $3.99)

2005 El Toqui Rapel Valley Carménère Reserva
Unanimously chosen by our group as the best of the three red wines. Excellent and recommended. A steal at $4.99 a bottle. Deep medium red (not tending either toward purple or garnet). Scents of butter and butterscotch at first. Distinctly meaty scents as well, tending toward leather with more air and time. Something suggestive of fig jam and dark berries. Later got hints of bacon, cayenne pepper, and rose water on the nose. Very interesting. Soft tannins on the palate. A bit closed at first, but opened up to reveal a nice core of concentrated fruit and leather again. Elegant, well balanced, and delicious. While this may be a bit too reserved to appeal to people raised on California fruit bombs, it is delicious wine, in my view. 

2005 Tierra Salvaje Maule Valley Carménère
Paler than the first wine and tending a bit more toward garnet in color. Quite closed at first but scents suggestive of roasted meat, leather, and blueberries develop. Distinctly meaty on the palate--roasted meat. Light tannins. Less body than the first wine. Moderate length. More tannin on the finish. Didn't evolve much in the course of the evening. Good, but not especially exciting wine. 

2007 Panilonco Colchagua Valley Carménère Reserve
Most tasters liked this wine the least. Deep purple-red, but not as dark and inky as some Carménère I've seen. Good fruit on the nose. Very strong vanilla scent. Hints of honey and raw beef. Blueberries. Tastes of vanilla, too. Light fruit on the palate. Moderate tannins. Quite drinkable, but overall lacking in body and interest. Tastes thin compared with the other two. After a while it began to develop the banana-like scent typical of Beaujolais Nouveau and some citrus notes. Reminded me of the wines of Cahors in its somewhat austere, tannic, citrusy aspects. 

I'll be hitting Trader Joe's today to buy a case of the El Toqui wine.

[Update: Just back from Trader Joe's. Got my wine. Next door, at Beverages and More, I found five more Carménère wines. I couldn't resist. Stay tuned for more notes.]

[More notes on Carménère wines]

*Jancis Robinson notes in her Guide to Wine Grapes (Oxford University Press, 1996) that Carménère is susceptible to coulure (a failure of the grapes to develop after flowering), which causes low yields. It can also be noted that the grape is a late ripener, which may simply have made it inconvenient to work with. She points out that Grand Vidure is a synonym, used by Carmen in Chile, a company that has been a pioneer in the Carménère revival. In her more complete Vines, Grapes, and Wines (Mitchell Beazley, 1986) she notes other synonyms: Carmenelle, Cabarnelle, Grand Carmenet, and Carbouet. Is it any wonder that wine confuses people? Carménère seems to be planted in small quantities also in northeastern Italy (Colli Orientali). 
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