It’s a wine opener. No, a wine preserver. Or maybe . . .

What about both in one? I just read about Coravin, an ingenious new device that enables the extraction of wine from a bottle without pulling the cork, while simultaneously preserving the bottle’s remaining contents. For those of us who keep a bottle going over several days, this tool sounds like progress.

The Boston Globe yesterday described how Greg Lambrecht’s quest for a better wine-saver solution led him to invent one himself. An M.I.T.-educated nuclear engineer and owner of a medical device manufacturer, Lambrecht figured out how to draw wine out through a needle that pierces the cork, and to introduce an inert gas – in this case, argon – to pressurize the bottle. With this system, the oxygen that causes wine to deteriorate never enters the bottle.

Starting this week the Coravin 1000 system, including two argon capsules, is available for sale on the company’s website.

But is it affordable or practical? The introductory model costs $299. Coravin can raise the standard for quality at restaurants and wine bars committed to serving only the freshest by-the-glass offerings. And it gives collectors an exciting new ability to sample from the same bottle repeatedly, over months or years, so they can experience aging in real time.

Yet the system doesn’t solve the oxidation problem for screw-cap bottles. And, until Lambrecht produces a cheaper model, most consumers will likely stick with a less-expensive wine-preservation option such as Vacu-Vin.

I’m delighted, though, that entrepreneurial drive and scientific know-how are being applied to improve the wine-drinking experience for us all. Thanks, Greg Lambrecht!

Have corkscrew, will travel?

Last week I wrote about buying wine while you’re on the road, which raises the issue of traveling with corkscrew in tow. Going by car, bus or rail, the corkscrew question is merely a matter of personal preference. But when going by air, the opaque and sometimes-changing TSA rules for prohibited carry-on items should make some travelers carefully consider their packing lists.

When I fly and I’m going to check my bag, I don’t hesitate to pack a corkscrew (generally the cheap one I picked up in Paris years ago) inside.

Cheap-o corkscrew for travel

Cheap-o corkscrew for travel

Some veteran flyers say simple pulls are safe to bring in your hand luggage; others insist that standard waiter’s corkscrews – those with retractable foil-cutting knives – are now okay since the TSA earlier this year revised its list of prohibited items to allow carrying on blades shorter than four inches.

My advice, given screeners’ discretionary powers and aversion to sharp objects, is to pack a corkscrew in your carry-on only if you don’t care if you have to surrender it at the check point.

In any case, once I’ve arrived at my destination, I’m always glad I brought along my three wine-related travel essentials: aforementioned corkscrew; Vacu-Vin pump; and a rubber stopper (or two).

Vacu-Vin pump and stopper

Vacu-Vin pump and stopper

To my fellow corkscrew-toting travelers, can you pass along any air-travel advice or anecdotes?

In defense of rosé

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Eric Asimov’s “Wines of the Times” column yesterday relayed the apparently pervasive disdain wine professionals have for rosé wines. Asimov does not count himself in this contingent, and expressed appreciation for this wine type in general and for specific bottles he and his sommelier tasting team sampled for the column.

But if the dismissive attitudes of Asimov’s tasters represent the consensus view in the industry, I’d like to offer a counter opinion.

First, there is a reason many wine drinkers enjoy – and some even adore – rosé. Rosés in the bottle are beautiful to look at, so it follows that sipping them is an aesthetically pleasurable experience for many people. (Studies have demonstrated that the color of substances we consume affects how they taste to us.)

Second, the variety of rosés being produced has exploded over the past few years, offering casual drinkers as well as serious connoisseurs a range of wines never available before. Many adventurous drinkers are delighted to explore these new choices, a number of which are priced below $15.

Provence used to hold a near-monopoly on rosé production, and its standard grape blend usually included some mix of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. This southern region of France continues to turn out what are arguably the world’s highest quality rosés but its monopoly has certainly evaporated. This summer’s Sherry-Lehmann catalogue, besides its Provençal selections, lists rosés from the Rhône, Vaucluse and Bordeaux regions of France, along with Argentina, Spain, South Africa, Sicily, Lebanon, Long Island, Napa and Sonoma – and this roster is far from exhaustive.

These new production areas mean that rosé is now being made with red varietals never before associated with this wine type – Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and more.

Is all of this wine great or even good? No, but the same is true for reds and whites.

Do all of the rosés now on offer adhere to a “standard” style? Not at all, given the numerous regional and grape varieties involved. Some wine experts may insist that rosé should fit an aperitif profile, that is, light, with mineral tones. But why must there be orthodoxy? Why can’t a diversity of rosé styles evolve?

Wine makers are responding to consumer demand by producing more of it. A story published last year in Yahoo News stated that Nielsen Company reported a 14% year-over-year increase in 2011 in the U.S. sales, by volume, of rosé, marking the seventh consecutive year of growth.

Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Wine aficionados get political

When it comes to influencing state laws controlling the wine industry, lobbyists have traditionally hailed from the ranks of wine producers, wine retailers, wine wholesalers and wine distributors. As of late June, wine drinkers now have their own voice, through a new organization called the American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC).

In a conversation on the Huffington Post, AWCC founder and executive director Tom Wark pinpointed the impetus behind the coalition: the plethora of anti-consumer state laws that inhibit consumer choice around buying and consuming wine. As examples, he noted that Massachusetts bars the direct shipment of wine to state residents. Pennsylvania controls all retail wine sales through its network of “state stores” – although there are moves by Governor Tom Corbett and the legislature to abolish this state monopoly; stay tuned for progress on that front . . . .

Additionally, Wark pointed out, 36 states ban purchases from out-of-state retailers; 17 prohibit buying wine along with groceries; and a number of states – including my home state, Indiana – have “blue laws” that ban wine sales on Sunday.

Can a group like AWCC have any realistic hope of standardizing wine-consumer laws and regulations across the U.S. to benefit customers? It’s an ambitious mission but as long as states retain control over the laws in this realm, I am skeptical.

Nevertheless, AWCC’s Action Alerts provide informative updates on various state initiatives affecting wine sales; they’re worth reading and the group is delivering a great service by compiling them for us.

Wine shopping for the traveler

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If you’re in the habit of shopping at local wine retailers while you’re away from home – on vacation or traveling for other reasons – be prepared to investigate your options in advance, as they can be limited in some places.

Indianapolis, for one.

I spent a week this summer in Indiana’s capitol, my hometown and where I visit often to see family. So I’ve learned that fine-wine retailers are in short supply there.

In this city or anywhere away from home you may find yourself, supermarkets can be the best bet for mainstream selections, but it may still be worth seeking out the more-discriminating retailers.

Online searches are easy – but look at several “best” lists to confirm that you’re not merely getting a biased promotional recommendation. And if you have friends who know the locale you’ll be visiting, ask them for ideas as well.

I discovered Kahn’s Fine Wines some years ago by repeatedly passing its 53rd and Keystone store in my drives around town. In business since 1979, these folks now operate from three locations, the newest being a “superstore” on the city’s booming northside.

Delightfully, Kahn’s also has a store in the heart of the city’s downtown, arguably today’s trendiest residential neighborhood for young professionals. The downtown location is a terrific resource for that captive audience, and a great find for visitors at the area’s many hotels (among them, JW Marriott, Omni Severin, The Canterbury and, the newest, The Alexander) who need to pick up wine gifts or a bottle or two for aperitifs in their rooms.

The downtown store, at 25 N. Pennsylvania, was once a bank and so boasts a cellar readymade for tastings. The vault has been repurposed for vintage Bordeaux and Burgundies and other higher-end bottles.

On my latest trip I shopped at Kahn’s Keystone Avenue store, where the racks seemed oddly depleted and the range of selections, in the California aisles anyway, more limited than my previous visit in December. But I’ve discovered some small producers on the racks before (Branham Estate Wines, for one – loved their 2009 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Russian River Chardonnay) and will be back next time I’m in town.

Wishing you serendipitous wine store finds on your summer vacation!

My iconic wine

Iconic1

Until I became a regular buyer and consumer of good-quality wine, my wine drinking was occasional, utterly casual, and fairly unobservant.

Sure, I’d enjoy a wine in the moment; I might even make mental note of names and labels to look for next time I was shopping.

But I was not paying attention to what made a wine distinctive; I was drinking without savoring, without appreciating who produced it or where it came from.

Then, in the early ‘90s, a particular wine became a personal habit. I tried it on the recommendation of a friend. It was not a 95-pointer, not lauded in the wine press, nor rare and/or expensive. Yes, it was an import, which set it somewhat apart from garden-variety California wines of a similar price (it went for around $7 back then; it currently sells for not much more).

But what made this wine special for me was that it marked the beginning of my wine education. For the first time, I really paid attention to a wine’s sensory attributes – its color, taste and aroma. I learned the story of its ownership and noted its French connections. Its story made the wine more interesting than if I hadn’t known, and helped stamp it with distinctiveness.

With a similar curiosity I began seeking out other wines. The wine experience engaged me on multiple levels – intellectual as well as sensual. I embraced the pre-shopping research, the wine store browsing, and of course the ultimate reward, the tasting and the drinking.

Did this particular wine change me? It certainly played a role; it’s a great-value wine and reliable choice for everyday drinking. Rather, I think it’s better described as a catalyst that set me on a delightful journey that continues today.

The wine? Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon, from Chile’s Colchagua province.

It’s been awhile since it was my go-to red, but I’m eager to try it again. Stay tuned; I’ve just picked up a bottle and I’ll be passing along my tasting notes soon.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about wines that are special to you and why!

Corks or caps?

Caps & corks

Lately I’ve encountered a number of wines sealed with screw-top caps rather than corks, probably because I’m deliberately drinking mostly $15-and-under wines these days. But price along with provenance are becoming less and less predictive of a given wine’s use of cap or cork.

Nearly all the South African wines I’ve tried recently employ screw caps. Many Australian and New Zealand producers have switched to caps as well.

Even the French are evolving! At Amanda’s Restaurant in Hoboken the other night, our 2010 Matrot Bourgogne Blanc was capped. The wine was delicious but we couldn’t help feeling that the quick twist of the wrist by our server sapped all the romance out of the bottle-opening ceremony.

A few wine regions are sure to resist the growing move to caps. You won’t find a Rioja that is not bottled with a natural cork, thanks to Spanish law requiring use of natural corks in order to secure D.O. status. (Spain, a major cork producer, in recent years has surpassed Portugal to become the world’s largest producer of cork.)

We’ve heard the arguments, cap versus cork, including the fact that corks (natural as well as synthetic) can break down, causing oxidation and other spoilage of bottle contents; that caps are cheaper and easier to use but may not engender graceful aging of fine wines.

The technical debate may get partially settled by a study now underway at UC-Davis. Natural cork-, synthetic cork- and cap-sealed bottles of 2011 CADE Sauvignon Blanc are being monitored – and tasted! – for oxidation and other chemical changes. Results are due out the end of this year. Even so, the question of how metal caps influence long-term cellaring may need continued investigation.

For me, caps are fine but I expect I’ll always prefer the satisfying pull and pop of natural cork.

South Africa gets liquid, part two

Beyond

As I’m confirming, glass by glass, in my tour around the $15-and-under wine universe, oenophiles need not spend a lot to enjoy terrific reds, whites and roses. And South Africa this year is a great supplier of wines to fit this budget.

South Africa’s wine-making tradition dates back to the late 1600s, although only since the last third of the 20th Century has the country gained global stature as a producer of fine wines for export. According to South Africa’s wine industry association, national wine production rose by more than one third from 2005 to 2012, from approximately 629 million gross liters to 871 million gross liters.

Yesterday I wrote about two reds from South Africa, both “blends” made from grapes characteristic of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot) as well as Rhone (Shiraz/Syrah, Grenache).

Whites of solid quality may be even more abundant than reds in this price range. And, because South African growers in the past few years have reversed a previous trend in favor of red grapes by planting more whites, that abundance is likely to continue awhile.

Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have dominated there in the past, but an increasing number of white varieties – Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Viognier to name a few — are getting vineyard space, promising more discoveries to come for adventurous drinkers!

Here are three whites I’ve tried this summer. I purchased them all at Sherry-Lehmann; your favorite retailer should offer interesting choices as well.

Ken Forrester Petit Chenin, 2011 – Fresh and fruity. 87 points from Wine Spectator. Ken Forrester’s vineyards were first planted in 1689. This producer is a big champion of Chenin Blanc. $10.

Ken Forrester Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 – Juicy, effervescent in the mouth. Perhaps a shade too grassy for my taste; New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc lovers will appreciate this one. $14.

Buitenverwachting, Sauvignon Blanc “Beyond,” 2012 – My favorite of the three, a citrusy but elegant pour. Buitenverwachting is another long-producing wine property. The Dutch name means “beyond expectation.” $10.

Bonus bottle:

Mulderbosch, Rosé, 2012 – An unusual rosé because it’s made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine is becoming easier to find in retail stores. If you see it, grab two, or six . . . It has a deep pink color to match its bold berry taste. A beautiful choice for summer. $9.

South Africa gets liquid, part one

grapes

For a few years I became less forgiving about wines I would buy for everyday drinking. At least I thought that’s what I was doing when I upped my usual price range to the $15-to-$25 universe. The theory was I’d be weeding out the marginal selections, the third-tier labels of mass producers. At those prices, I kept my quality standards decently high, so I presumed. I’d even go beyond occasionally, with a splurge on a recent great-vintage Bordeaux or a boutique-label California cab. On a whim, I once backed up my allegiance to all things South American with a purchase of a bottle of Cheval des Andes for upwards of $70.

But now that austerity rules, in my household at least, the new ceiling is $15. Based on early tastings, I’m liking the self-imposed limits.

My current source of delight is my mini-tour of inexpensive South African wines. My primary source for these bottles is the venerable Sherry-Lehmann, known for its near-encyclopedic Bordeaux inventory but
offering plenty from the best wine-growing regions around the world. (Tip for non-New Yorkers: watch for Sherry’s periodic free-shipping-anywhere offers.)

No matter where you live and shop, though, South African wine offerings are becoming more plentiful, boosted by good harvests and – for us bargain-hunters – a weakening rand.

What I’ve liked over the past few weeks includes these two reds:

Rustenberg, “1682” Red Blend, 2012 – This Stellenbosch wine estate dates back to 1682, a reminder that this country is no ingénue in the fine-wine scene. This wine is a blend of Shiraz (40%), Cabernet Sauvignon (37%), Merlot (13%), Grenache (7%) and Petit Verdot (3%). $13.

Rupert & Rothschild, “Classique,” 2010 – I liked the first glass but loved the second, consumed the following night (after Vacu-Vinning, which mellowed the immediately strong earthiness). Like Rustenberg, Rupert & Rothschild is produced on a historic wine property founded in 1690. Since 1997, the Ruperts and Rothschilds, established vintner families of South Africa and France, respectively, have jointly owned the estate. This red is also a multi-grape blend reminiscent of Bordeaux yet distinctive to the African terroir: Cabernet Sauvignon (49%), Merlot (34%), Shiraz (8%), Petit Verdot (5%), Cabernet Franc (3%) and Pinotage (1%). $15.

Besides the reds, I’ve discovered several Sauvignon Blancs that drink just right for summer. I’ll talk about those next time.