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I recently celebrated Halloween by sitting on my front porch, along with my wife and youngest daughter, handing out candies.

Wine, women and smoke? 

click to enlarge What came first—the sweet wine or the smoke?
  • What came first—the sweet wine or the smoke?

I recently celebrated Halloween by sitting on my front porch, along with my wife and youngest daughter, handing out candies. Nothing extraordinary there. Yet, in my mind's recesses, I do have this dread of not being there to dispense the goodies. All Hallows' Eve always recalls my early teen years in suburban Cleveland.

If anyone had the temerity to turn out their lights and pretend that nobody was home, this amounted to a guilty plea and cruel torture sentence. That house would wake up the following morning with raw egg rémoulade on its windows, a blown-up mailbox and toilet paper-laden trees. We were a nice bunch of rotten kids. The police, as today, had more important fish to fry.

So I've decided to enjoy my Halloweens, not avoid them. I set up a couple of folding tables, one containing a huge bowl of treats. Next to that, a table holds a decanted bottle of vintage port and, in my mouth, a colossal, mild cigar to while away the hours. Chairs are everywhere to invite friends to join us and so, the potential grind of costumed critters becomes a festive evening of smiles, smells, relaxation and serenity.

But what about cigars and wine? Can you imagine yourself, or someone sitting beside you, smoking a stogie while you casually sip? I'll start straight out by stating that I'm not of the English school where men "retire" to an oak-paneled room to enjoy cigars, Cognac, Port or Madeira. I do like the idea of male comraderie, but I don't much care for inhaling other people's smoke nor my own! I like smoking outdoors, where the smells waft into the night, while the personal pleasure of a sniff and a taste remain one's own.

As to the drink, it's no secret why wines that are fortified with neutral spirits or with sweeter wine or grape juice work well with cigars. The added glycerin, richness and mouth-coating qualities are a delightful way to take a bit of bite away from your smoldering stick. By the way, I refer only to cigars here. Pipes are acceptable but cigarettes are not. Pipe and cigar smoking are historically calming influences. Look at the "peace pipe" of native Americans. (There was no such thing as a "war pipe.") Smoking was a way to relax and take the requisite time to think about communing with nature or with one's potential enemy. One could say the same about today's ritual, and a smoking woman—her lit corona gorda that is—is always welcome at my outdoor soirées.

What came first, the sweet wine or the smoke? Wine for sure. All wine cultures have dark, sipping wines of extra viscosity and richness (some fortified, some not): Banyuls and Pineau de Charentes in France; Recioto and Marsala in Italy; Sherry and Malaga in Spain. Australia and South Africa have their own historic post-prandial specialties, and we in the United States have begun to produce memorable mainstays that people seek out. Although they are mostly whites (late harvest wines such as Edelwein from Joseph Phelps and Dolce from Far Niente), Ficklin Ports and various late harvest zinfandels have dedicated enthusiasts.

I don't care much for table wines with a cigar, although a great case can be made for high alcohol syrahs, grenache and zinfandel. These wines, approaching 17 percent alcohol, can overwhelm standard dinnertime victuals. But, served with stronger cheeeses or with an Arturo Fuente Double Chateau cigar in hand, they can be a double or triple whammy of joy. Sweetness is by no means a necessity, but body, texture and heft are a perfect fit in the smoker's realm.

I wonder how many closet cigaristi are out there enjoying this pleasure alone, or with a select coterie of friends? If a key to the good life is finding ways to diffuse tension or decompress from the difficult tasks of the day, is there not room for an uninhaled, take the time to look up to the heavens and across the fields, handmade tube accompanying the age-old drinks of civility, refreshment and enlightenment?

Superior choices are:

Pellegrino Sweet Marsala $12.25

Cockburn Fine Ruby Port $12

Taylor Fladgate Special Tawny Port $15.50

Dow's 1992 Colheita Tawny Port (oak aged, single year) $30

Graham 10-Year-Old Tawny $31

Cockburn 20-Year-Old Tawny $47.50

Ficklin Vineyards (Napa Valley) 10-Year-Old Tawny Port $25

Croft LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) 1998 Port $20

Churchill 2000 Vintage Port $80

Domecq Medium Dry Amontillado Sherry $15

Osborne Golden Cream Sherry $11

Blandy's Avada 5-Year-Old Madeira $15 (375 ml.)

Cossart Gordon 1990 Colheita Bual Madeira $32 (375 ml.)

Bodegas Olivares 2001 Monastrell Dulce $26

Allegrini Recioto 2000 $62 (500 ml.)


2005 Beaujolais—Oui!

2005 is a great vintage in the Beaujolais region of southern Burgundy. All the wines I've tried are gushing with succulent, "happy face" gamay fruit, with lovely mouth textures that are rich and thick yet balanced and refreshing. From Beaujolais to Beaujolais Villages (slightly higher alcohol), you can't go wrong, and this is a perfect Thanksgiving wine. The "Cru" Beaujolais, those from the best 10 villages of the region, are also superb and very fairly priced. Although these crus will improve with bottle age, it is not infanticide to enjoy them now! Prices here are $10-$20.

Boissieu (Lavernette) Beaujolais Villages

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages

Janodet Chenas

Jacky Piret Beaujolais

Latour Beaujolais Villages Chameroy

Georges Duboeuf Moulin a Vent

Chateau de Lacarelle Beaujolais Villages

If you prefer to drink American, may I suggest a northwest riesling, a Sonoma red zinfandel or a West Coast pinot noir to toast this greatest of American holidays?


North Carolina Update

For the third time in four years, I was one of the judges at the North Carolina State Fair Awards, tasting and critiquing wine produced in The Old North State. Each year the list of wines gets longer (244 in 2006), the number of wineries grows (57 now, with more expected to open by year's end), and competitiveness improves. There are fewer "bad" wines being produced, general quality is up another notch, and the best wines mostly have a way of finding their way to the top.

Still, the opinion of a committee of three (there were three groups tasting simultaneously) and the final composite group of nine judges (voting for the best wines in show) doesn't always satisfy everyone. Committees have a way of rewarding the well-made but perhaps less dynamic wine. Personally, I'd rather drink a wine with pizazz and a fault or two than a perfectly boring choice. A number of chardonnays, viogniers, cabernet francs and syrahs showed not only well but impressively.

The best wine for me was the 2005 RayLen Vineyards Cabernet Franc (to be released in early 2007). It was a complex, subtle wine with a distinctively elegant and beguiling bouquet with middleweight flavors that need a bit of time to settle. Cabernet Franc does well in North Carolina, and specifically in the Yadkin River Valley. The overall winner, in a 5-4 vote, was the 2004 Childress Syrah. This broadly styled wine with extroverted nose and chunky, pleasing flavor was very good. In my mind it was ultimately simple overall, and somewhere deep in my psyche I felt the cabernet franc was not only a better wine but a better "winner" in pointing to North Carolina's future. I just don't see syrah as North Carolina's "golden fleece." There is lots of good syrah grown all over the world. But cabernet franc? Not many great ones outside of Bordeaux and the Loire valley. North Carolina could really make its mark with this stylish, difficult grape.

Fruit wines are hard to make and not to everyone's taste. But the 2006 Hinnant Vineyards Strawberry and the 2006 Old Stone Vineyard Blackberry are terrific efforts. A noseful of garden fruit and a mild, joyful mouth texture await you. The Hinnant might serve as a dinner wine, while the Old Stone's mouth-saturating texture would be more enjoyable after dinner. (Hinnant has good commercial distribution. Old Stone Vineyard is available only at the winery or on their Web site: osvwinery.com.)

Other notable wines to try for yourself, or as a good N.C. gift to be proud of, are:

2004 Rockhouse Vineyards Chardonnay—Native Yeast

2004 Silver Coast American Oak Chardonnay

2005 Buck Shoals Vineyard Viognier

2005 Westbend Vineyards Viognier

NV Shelton Vineyards Salem Fork Snow Hill White

These wines sell in the $6-$20 price range.

* * *

Vino Uncorked is a Nov. 11 wine event in nearby Mebane. It will feature five local wineries plus professionally led seminars on wine tasting techniques, cooking with wine, wine and food, health benefits and a panel discussion about the wineries that make up the Haw River Wine Trail. Admission is free, but for a mere $5 you get an event glass and the ability to taste 15 wines. For more information, go to www.burlington-area-nc.org or call 1-800-637-3804.

Arturo's column appears the second Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net.

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