Friday, December 30, 2011

Champagne / Sparkling Wine, Part 2


There is only one method of making Champagne and that is the Traditional Method, or Methode Champenoise.   There are three other methods of producing sparkling wine that can be employed elsewhere.  These are the transfer method, the tank method and the asti method.  The rest of the world may still choose to make wine in the traditional way but, as we have already learned, cannot call it a Champagne.  Whatever method is chosen will have an effect on the aroma and flavor profiles of the final product. 
To make wine in the traditional method, only two pressings of the grapes are allowed before the first fermentation.  Pressing is the manner in which the juice is extracted from the grapes.  It occurs exactly as it sounds.  A still wine is produced and may be used alone or may be blended with another still wine of a different grape or from another vintage.  After this base wine is produced, a mixture of sugar and yeast (liqueur di tirage) is added.  The wine is then bottled, where it will go through a second fermentation. 
After an appropriate amount of aging occurs, the bottles are placed in racks neck down.  For six to eight weeks thereafter, a person known as the Riddler (Remueur) turns each bottle a slight and modestly downward until the sediments are resting in the neck of the bottle.  What then follows then is degorgement, where the bottle necks are dipped into a solution that freezes them.  Once frozen, the temporary cap is removed and the settled particles fly forth from the bottle. The final stage is dosage.  This is where the wine's sweetness level is determined, when a mixture of wine and sugar is added before final bottling. 
When the transfer method is used, all the steps of the traditional method are employed, until the riddling stage is reached.  Instead of going through that process, the bottles are emptied into a pressurized tank where the wine is filtered then rebottled.  This method makes it easier to maintain consistency bottle to bottle and will maintain most of the quality of a traditional Champagne, but at a lower price.  The label may give you a clue that this method is employed if it says, “Bottle Fermented.”  This is to distinguish it from a traditional method wine that may say, “Fermented in this Bottle.”
With the tank method (also called the Charmat method), fermentation takes place in a stainless steel tank.  These tanks are sealed to prevent carbon dioxide from getting free and yeasts can be easily filtered out without interrupting the fermentation process.  Since the yeasts are filtered out, these wines will be lighter and will show more of the fruit’s varietal character than those fermented in the bottle.  Wines made in the traditional method will have more contact with the yeast during fermentation, so there will be a more bread-like (yeasty) aspect to these wines.  It is also a less expensive method of production and the prices of the ultimate wine will reflect that.
The asti method does not begin with the production of a still wine.  The freshly pressed juice, or must, is stored near freezing until it is ready for production.  Once “called,” the must is warmed and placed in pressurized tanks for fermentation until the alcohol level reaches 7 to 7.5%.  The wine is then chilled, filtered and bottled for immediate distribution.
Champagne may control the name, it does not control the market.  There are several delicious sparkling wines made around the world, using several different grape varietals and going by different names.  Outside Champagne, but still within France, these gems are called “Cremant.”  Germany and Austria produce “Sekt.”  Spain makes “Cava.”  Italy is famous for a few breeds of nose-ticklers.  “Prosecco” can either be “spumante,” which is a standard sparkling wine, or “frizzante,” a lighter sparkling example.  The other is Piemonte’s Asti DOCG, where fruitier, sweeter wines reign supreme.
Tasting Exercise
For this exercise, choose one wine made in the tank method and one made in the traditional method (which should be marked, "Methode Champenoise,” "Methode Traditionnelle,” "Metodo Tradicional,” etc).   Sekt, Asti and most Proseccos will be made from the tank method.  Cava, Cremant and, of course, Champagne will be made from the traditional method.  In the New World, the bottle should tell you if the traditional method is used, as it is a great marketing tool.  Try to stay within the same sweetness category.  
How do the wines contrast in flavor?  Can you taste the yeast in the classic method wine?  Pay attention to the size of the bubbles in each; how long do they last?  They should live longer with the traditional method.
On The Label
Champagne, Sparkling Wine, Cremant, Cava, Prosecco, Sekt, Spumante, Frizzante, Lambrusco, “Bottle-Fermented”, “Fermented in this Bottle”
In The Bottle
Green fruit, stone fruit, mineral, chalk, bread, nut
At The Table
Aperitif, oysters, caviar, sushi, fried food, egg, fruit
Photo Credits:
Couple w/Champagne - http://www.lordprice.co.uk/DRCC1012.html
Riddling - http://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/webcasts/process/images/5-riddling.jpg

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Champagne / Sparkling Wine, Part 1

Be careful not to put your foot in your mouth when discussing these wines.  A wine labeled as “Champagne” MUST come from the Champagne region of France.  The quickest way to show you are a novice is to refer to a sparkling wine from California as “Champagne.”  Unfortunately, this occurs quite often.  You may use the term, “Sparkling Wine,” when it comes from anywhere outside Champagne.
Located north of Burgundy, we can easily surmise that the climate of Champagne is a cool one.  The soil here is chalk, which helps reflect the sunlight to the grapes during the growing season.  Its natural conductive properties keep the vines warmer in winter and cooler in summer.  When drinking Champagne, if you pick up on a bit of chalkiness, know that it is a derivative of the soil and not a faulty wine.  
Champagne is made predominantly from one, or a combination, of three grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier or Pinot Noir.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir we already know as white and black, respectively; Pinot Meunier is also a black grape.  Within Champagne, there are five subregions with different specialties.  Cotes des Blanc uses Chardonnay, Montagne de Reims likes Pinot Noir, and Valley de la Maine (Epernay) uses Pinot Meunier.  The last two, Cotes des Sezanne and Cotes des Bar, use all three.
Sparkling wines made with white grapes are called Blanc de Blanc, which means “white of whites.  Those made with red (black) grapes are Blanc de Noir, or “white of blacks.”  Rose Champagnes or sparkling wines are made either by allowing the wine to sit on the skins a bit longer to extract some color ow by adding a small amount of red wine.  
When choosing a grape for sparkling wine production, high acid and low sugar are key.  To understand why, you need to know a few things about winemaking.  First, during fermentation sugar is converted to alcohol.  Therefore, low sugar equals low alcohol.  Second, alcohol kills yeast.  When the yeast is gone, fermentation stops.  Finally, sparkling wines go thru a second fermentation.  Yeast is necessary for this additional process.  As such, low alcohol ensures enough yeast is around to finish the job.
If the bottle is labeled as “Vintage,” this means that it contains only grapes picked during that particular year.  A “Non-Vintage” is going to consist of grapes of several different vintages.  In fact, it really should be dubbed “Multi-Vintage” to avoid confusion.  Since a wine will only be labeled “Vintage” if the weather conditions - and thus, the yield - of that particular year are exceptional, these wines are going cost more. 
Sparkling wines from areas outside Champagne may or may not have such strict regulations as to their required ingredients.  While you may very well find one or more of the three grapes present, you are also likely to find other local varieties.  To give you some examples, the Loire Valley will use Chenin Blanc.  Germany will use Riesling and/or Gewurtztraminer.  Sparkling wines of Italy will include Muscat, Brachetto or Glera (Prosecco); where Spain uses Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada.  Australia is making sparkling wines with Shiraz and the United States likes to use the traditional grapes, but also may include Pinot Blanc.  
There are seven styles, or sweetness levels, of Champagne and sparkling wine.  They are as follows, starting with the most dry: Brut Nature (next to no sugar), Extra Brut (really dry), Brut (dry), Extra Dry (semidry), Sec (semisweet), Demi Sec (sweet), Doux (really sweet). Most of what you are going to see on the shelves will be Brut, Extra Dry and Demi Sec.
Before you start uncorking any new purchases, we should talk a little bit about the proper method of opening a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine.  The pent-up carbon dioxide inside can lead to some unfortunate accidents if you are not careful.  Make sure the wine is chilled well before you start and do not ever point the bottle at anyone or anything you don’t want broken.
To begin, place a kitchen towel or serving napkin next to the bottle.  Make sure the bottle has been well-chilled.  Then, remove the foil.  Fold the towel over the top of the bottle and, with your thumb on the top of the bottle, loosen the cage, but do not remove it.  With the top of the bottle in one hand, maintaining a firm grip on the cork, and the bottom of the bottle in the other, begin slowly turning the bottom of the bottle.  Never remove your thumb from the top and always point the bottle away from danger.  The pressure inside will push the cork out.  If you really want to open Champagne like a professional, practice until you can remove the cap with only a hiss, not a “Pop.”
Tasting Exercise
If you are not yet sure which sweetness level you prefer, choose one Brut or Extra Dry and one Sec or Demi Sec for this tasting exercise.  If you're already confident you like dry wines better, choose one each of the first two.  If your sweet tooth carries over to your choice of wine, try one each of the last two.  Note how they compare as you go along the sweetness scale.
On The Label
Champagne, Sparkling Wine, Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir
In The Bottle
Green fruit, stone fruit, mineral, chalk, bread, nut
At The Table
Aperitif, oysters, caviar, sushi, fried food, egg, fruit
Photo credits:
Foot in mouth - http://hellosunshine.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/footinmouth.jpg
How to open Champagne -http://topcultured.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/howtoopenchampagne.jpg

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Riesling

Riesling has a bad rap with many wine drinkers, who often think of it strictly as a sweet wine. While several are made that way, there are many not-so-sweet versions out there. Products of Riesling include dry, medium and sweet wines. Some are even capable of aging due to the grape’s higher acid level. You may even see some on oak.
The grape itself is an aromatic one with higher sugar levels, which does not help its reputation. While not as intense as some others we will get to later, you will often detect floral notes when whiffing this varietal. It is a very hardy grape that ripens late. Like Pinot Noir, Riesling is also very expressive of the soil type in which it grows. It does its best in moderate or cool climates.
Wines of different climates are going to be somewhat different in aroma and flavor. In Rieslings, for example, green apple and fig will be detected in cooler climates, peach or grapefruit is typical of moderate climates and tropical fruit is a common clue of a hot climate wine of any type. This is easy to remember if you think of what fruits fare mostly from the subject climate. Although this variety does not do well in hot climates, you will find some winemakers giving it a shot anyway. While honey notes may show in Rieslings of any climate, it will really show in the warm climate wines.
Germany, where the grape originates from, is famous for its Riesling. When buying quality German wines, there are two important classification terms to become familiar with. “QbA,” or Qualitatswein bestimmter Angaugebiete is a basic sample of quality wine that must come from one of 13 qualifying regions, or angaugebietes. The next level up is “Pradikatswein,” or Pradikat wine. Pradikat is a wine of distinction from a qualifying region. Within the quality classifications is another system of classification with whom you should also become acquainted. This classification is based on the must weights (the amount of sugar in the juice) of the grapes at time of harvest and serves as a general guide of the order of sweetness. You should be very careful, however, as a wine from any of the first three categories can be dry.
Since fermentation turns sugar into alcohol, a slightly more reliable guide is to look at the alcohol level on the label. The higher the alcohol, the lower the sugar; but, again, this is only a guide. They will start around 7%. If you are looking for a drier wine, do not go any lower than 10% abv. At the beginning of this classification is Kabinett. These grapes were picked at a normal harvest. They can be dry or sweet but should be delicate, light bodied aperitif wines. Spatlese is a late harvest wine. They can be dry or sweet but should be more concentrated and have more body. Auslese are from extra ripe bunches of individually chosen grapes. While they, again, can be dry or sweet, you are going to get riper fruit characteristics. Since I am one who does not like my Rieslings cloyingly sweet, I am able to remember the order using "KSA" or "Keep Sugar Away."
From this point forward, you can count on the wines being quite sweet. Beerenauslese (BA) are made with select berries that will often have noble rot on them. Do not be frightened by the term “noble rot.” Botrytis, as it is otherwise called, is a perfectly acceptable mold that develops on the grapes, which dries them out and makes for some wonderfully concentrated sweet wines. Sandwiched in the middle is Eiswein, or Ice Wine, wherein the grapes are not harvested until they have frozen on the vines. Hanging around this long leads to some serious ripening and, thus, higher concentration and sugar levels. Because there is no rot involved, the wines will show their pure fruit characteristics. Finally we have Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). These wines are only made during select vintages, are quite sweet, and will always be affected by noble rot. Due to their rarity, they have a high pricepoint.
Regions of Germany to look for are Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz. Mosel will have the lightest in body, where Rheinhessen will show fullest. Rheingau will give you the best chance of finding a dry example; Pfalz for sweet. If dry is your thing, look also outside Germany. Great Old World Rieslings can be found in Alsace, France and Austria. In the New World, look to Clare Valley or Eden Valley in Australia, the South Island of New Zealand (Marlborough) or the Finger Lakes region of New York.
Tasting Exercise For this comparison, choose one wine from a cool climate (Germany, Alsace, New York or New Zealand) and one wine from a moderate climate (Australia or Washington). You will not only be looking for differences in aroma and flavor, but also for differences in color and, possibly, sweetness. See if you detect any petrol, which can develop in Rieslings from warmer regions. Although I would recommend you choose both wines with the same approximate sweetness level (and I would pick either dry or off-dry), it may be fun to try some sweeter examples. Consider a comparison among the different must weight categories.
On The Label Riesling, White Riesling
In The Bottle Green fruit, stone fruit, citrus fruit, floral, mineral, petrol
At The Table Pork, fowl, shellfish, Thai, Indian, spice, salt, soft cheese, salads, dessert

Photo Credits: Riesling Scale - www.klat.com German Wines - http://www.germanwineestates.com/113d044e0.jpg

Monday, December 26, 2011

Learning About Wine One Grape (or so) At A Time

It was while preparing study materials for my first formal wine class that I realized the industry makes learning about wine much more difficult than it should be. Most people who are interested in wine do not care about how it is made or what type of soil makes for the best Merlot. They care about how it tastes, what they like, how to buy it and what to choose from a wine menu.
It did not take me long to notice that, even though I had made a conscious decision to take my wine knowledge to greater heights, while in class I found myself watching the clock through lecture waiting for the time when we put the books away and started tasting. While it is certainly important for someone in the trade to know about regions, climate and soil, most people just want to get down to the business of discovering their own tastes - likes and dislikes.
What I also found is that nearly every wine course, whether it be formal classroom or via the “over-the-counter” book, is organized by region, not by grape variety or type of wine. However, when a customer goes into a shop looking for wine, nine times out of ten they are asking, “where are your Malbecs” or, “can you recommend a good Malbec,” versus, “where are your wines from Mendoza?”
I am not saying it is a waste of time to learn that a Pinot Noir from California is going to taste more like red fruit and less like earth than the same grape from Burgundy. Once you find that you like Pinot Noir, this is an important distinction. If, however, you find that you just don’t care for Pinot Noir as you much prefer the fuller-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, the difference between a Pinot from Paso Robles and one from Oregon means nothing.
The characteristics of the grape itself are much more important when it comes to pairing with food as well. For example, most of us know that Chianti is present on nearly every Italian restaurant menu in the country. You may think that is because Chianti is an Italian wine. This is only partially true. Chianti is made from the grape, Sangiovese, which has a high acid level. Tomatoes, which are a staple ingredient in many Italian sauces, also have high acid level. This complement is why they work. Now, if you are stopping at the market to pick up ingredients for tonight’s spaghetti and they don’t have Chianti, or any Italian wines for that matter, what do you do? You are inclined to grab a Cabernet, because you read they are also being grown in Italy, but the match up will be a disaster. The high tannin levels of the Cab will clash with the high acid of the red sauce. If you know, however, that Pinot Noir also has a high acid level, you will be much happier with your pairing.
So get out there and start learning about wine one grape (or so) at a time. Get to know your wine merchants and, “get thee to a tasting.” Find what grape you like first, then start exploring the regions they do well in. The next step is to take note of the key words on the bottle that will tell you what is inside. If you find that you like a French style of Merlot, know the names “Pomerol” or “St. Emilion.” If you find that you don’t care for Merlot at all, don’t waste the brain space.

Photo Credits:
One grape at a time - http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l99f8snhSp1qz7tyk.jpg
Girl confused - http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l99f8snhSp1qz7tyk.jpg

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Grenache (Garnacha)

For a grape that was once the second most planted red in the world, few have ever heard of Grenache. It is a variety that is packed with fruit flavor, specifically red fruit. It also has low tannin levels which makes it a very easy wine to drink. It is also easy to look at with its intense ruby color. This grape contains high levels of sugar, which makes for wines with higher alcohol levels. Because they tend to oxidize quickly, they are great candidates for screwcaps, no matter which side of the fence you are on in that debate.
Grenache has thinner skins, buds early and ripens late. This longer hang time leads to more concentrated flavor. They are tolerant to drought, which ensures they do really well in hot climates, although you will also find Grenache growing in some moderate climates. They make still red wines, roses and “white” wines, in the manner of White Zinfandel or White Merlot, where a limited amount of time on the skins leads to wines much lighter in color.
Garnacha, as it is known in Spain, is the most planted red grape in that country. Spain is going through a bit of a wine revolution right now, focusing on perfecting what is working and getting rid of what is not so that they can establish a greater international presence. What does this mean as it relates to this grape? In the past, Garnacha wines were mostly made in high volume (i.e. inexpensive) versions. Now, many high quality Garnacha can be found. They can stand alone or they can be blended with Tempranillo, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. Spain’s most popular product of Garnacha, however, is rose.
Navarra and Rioja produce blends or roses, but Priorat is getting a lot of attention recently. The last few decades have seen a great deal of investment and change in the region and it is one of the first two to be awarded the prestigious DOCa status. A group of producers have been working to revamp long neglected terraces on the steep slopes of the vineyards in this region. The local soil, llicorella, is low in nutrients which makes the vines work harder and, thus, produce a more concentrated fruit. This, of course, transcends into a more concentrated wine.
While Syrah may take center stage in the Northern Rhone, Grenache takes over in the Southern Rhone where the temperatures are higher. While sometimes Grenache stands alone here, it will often be blended with Syrah, Mourvedre or Cinsault. The main appellation to look for is Cotes du Rhone, but the very best, and pricier, samples are found in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Lesser priced, but still good quality, wines can be found in Gigondas.
Outside Europe, Grenache wines are being produced in Paso Robles, California and South Australia. In fact, if you can tolerate the name, “Bitch” wine from Barossa Valley is an easy-drinking 100% Grenache listed by Robert Parker as a value red. It makes a great gift for bachelorette parties or girlfriend birthdays.
Tasting Exercise
Find a Garnacha from Spain for your base comparison. A contest with France would be nice but 100% Grenache is quite difficult to find. A Cotes du Rhone is quite likely to be a blend, but Grenache will be the dominant grape, making up 75-80% of the wine. Priorat is worth a splurge for comparison as well. These wines may not be 100% Grenache, but the grape is a constant ingredient. If you would rather, compare it to a New World Grenache from either California’s Central Coast (Paso Robles, in particular) or South Australia. You may find also find a Grenache Blanc or Rose for contrast.
On The Label
Grenache, Garnacha, Gigondas, Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat
In The Bottle
Dark fruit, dried fruit, spice, sweet spice
At The Table
Barbecue, beef stew, goat cheese, hard cheese

Photo Credits:
Grenache wine - http://leitesculinaria.com/9604/writings-michel-chapoutier-wine-tasting.html
Priorat - http://www.citytoursbarcelona.com/priorat_wine_district.html

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Wide Range of Bubbles

There is no shortage of Champagne and Sparkling Wine tastings at this time of year. If you haven’t already found yourself in attendance at one of these, I recommend you get out there and do some sampling. Even if you are not looking to be too picky since your guests are usually too “happy” to care about what’s in their glass at midnight, a good sale usually accompanies these tastings. It will also better help you determine what is your preferred style or whether your tastes are changing. For example, I have been choosing Prosecco and Cava over Champagne for several years now, choosing their crisp fruitiness over breadnotes. I quickly recognized this year that Pinot Noir dominated traditional styles - Blanc de Noir or Rose - will now become my “go to.”
So last night I attended what I am hoping is only my first of the season, wherein I was able to sample 41 different sparklers. (Had my teenager planned her night a little better, there would have been many more.)
Traditionally speaking, the NV Perrier Jouet Grand Brut at $36.99 was the standout soloist, utilizing all three of the Champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Light, floral and sophisticated. (If you’ve never been to their website, I encourage you to check it out. Beautiful.)
My favorite table was the Heidseick table. Both the Charles Heidsieck Champagnes and the Piper Heidsieck were impressive. There really was not a bad wine at the table. If forced to choose, however, both Rose were very good - NV Charles Rose Reserve, with its strawberry notes resulting from addition of Pinot Noir wine, at $72.99 and NV Piper Cuvee Rose Sauvage, with more cherry and citrus, at $46.99. The real treat was the 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc Des Millenaires of 100% Chardonnay, with its perfect amount of butter and cream, at $175.
Two other, more affordable, Roses that impressed me were Terres Dorees FRV 100 at $18.99, which is made with Gamay (sour cherry flavor) and has a hint of sweet, and Casteller Rose Cava and its balance of acid and strawberry at $11.99.
The Segura line, of which I am a fan, had two very interesting and tasty comparisons, the crisp and fruity NV Segura Viudas Aria Pinot Noir (Cava) at $9.99 and their Italian NV Voveti Prosecco (conjures thoughts of green apple) at $13.99.
For those of you looking to branch out into different grapes, I found three for you. NV Vigneau Chevreau Vouvray Petillant at $17.99 is made with Chenin Blanc, so will have notes of pear. NV Marenco Brachetto D’Acqui (frizzante = lightly sparkling) at $22.99 is more on the sweet side and would be a great brunch selection (think all red fruits that would be just perfect with French toast and powdered sugar). Finally, the most exciting try of the night for me - “The Chook” Sparkling Shiraz with its dark cherry and sweet spice flavors at $16.99. And ladies.......it was being served with chocolate - delicious!

Incidentally, before I left home for this tasting, I read a brief article on Argentina proving they can also make sparkling wines. I had hoped that I would see one at this tasting. I did not, but I must have done something right because at dinner afterward, the Chinese Bistro we chose had an Alma Negra Sparkling (Chardonnay) Wine. I could not have been more pleased with the crisp green fruit flavors and the tiny bubbles never stopped. I knew it would be a perfect accompaniment to my salt and pepper shrimp appetizer, but I did not know how well it would pair with my hot and sour soup. The spiciness of the soup actually opened up a sweetness in the wine that was magical.

Piper photo from www.wine-searcher.com

Thursday, December 8, 2011

'Tis The Season To Buy Jolly


Christmas is getting close and, if you haven’t already, it is time to start thinking about the gift shopping. There are many articles out there eager to help you buy the perfect gift. There are even articles out there discussing the conventions of choosing the perfect wine. This year, I say throw convention to the wind and have a good time. The following are my unconventional, or at least non-traditional, ideas for buying wine as a gift:

1. Find a great value. A customer recently came into the store looking for a Spanish wine. He was not looking for anything in particular, he just knew it had to be Spanish. I did not ask why. It just so happened that we currently have a great deal on a Priorat normally priced at $34.99 on sale for $26.99. After explaining how the region is trending upward right now and explaining the value and the 92 pts it scored with Wine Advocate, he spotted a $21.99 next to it and said, “I’ll just take this one.” After taking a couple steps away, he stopped dead in his tracks, turned around and said, “What am I thinking? This is for my boss and I’m trying to save $5.” He put it back and grabbed the sale wine. Good choice since he really saved $13 and now, should the recipient do his/her own research, they will see that he chose a wine with a reputation (no matter how you feel about point systems) and will also think he paid more than he did. (In fact, internet searches show this wine at a suggested retail price of $46.99.)

2. Buy based on a hobby or interest. One of the most fun customer experiences I’ve had was with a woman who came in asking, “do you have any wines with dogs on the label?” Fortunately, it was a slow night, so we had time to look together. My first choice was Australia, since they are doing some fun things; the second choice was American red blends. Next, I went back to Spain as they are making a great effort to appeal to international markets right now and I found a Mencia that did not have a dog on the label, but a pawprint. “It is perfect.” The wine inside was not so important as the label. The intended recipient was both a dog lover and a wine adventurist. Wine is a very subjective thing. Her friend may hate this new wine, but she may also love it. At the very least, she knows the giver put a personal touch on it and she tried something new.

3. Buy based on the name. With a caveat that the person you are buying for can take a joke, my favorite wine to buy for girlfriend birthdays or bachelorette parties is a fabulous grenache blend called “Bitch”. “Fat Bastard” is great for a guy’s 40th (or other) birthday. “Ball Buster” Shiraz is perfect for the recently promoted. There is also “Mommy’s Time Out” Pinot Grigio for Mother’s Day or new moms. Wine shouldn’t be stuffy. Have fun with it!

4. Buy based on the label. Paco & Lola’s Albarino has a very fun polka dot label. This is great for showers or any other parties where the decorations may echo the bottle. (For some reason, I always think Audrey Hepburn when I look at that label.) Clos Galena Formiga del Galena has ants on the label. Can you think of a better wine to bring to a picnic? Many customers come in asking for “that circus wine,” which is Michael David’s Petite Petit Syrah. While I’d love to take credit for originating the idea, “Buttery Books” suggests it for a “Water For Elephants” book party. What an awesome idea!

5. Buy an alternative. Many people are afraid to step outside their comfort zone and will shy away from buying a wine they are not familiar with. This is where the beauty of gift giving steps in. If you know someone who mostly drinks Chardonnay, buy them a Semillon or Pinot Gris. These are all white wines that may see oak treatment. If they like Cabernet Sauvignon, pick up a Syrah. You may also pick up a Barolo or Barbaresco, which is made from Nebbiolo. These three grapes are all high in tannin, so will give a similar mouthfeel. If you’ve often seen them order Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, grab an Orvieto or Albarino, that are also easy-drinking wines. If you’ve heard them talk about wines of the Rhone Valley, look for a GSM (grenache, syrah, mouvedre). They are the same combination of grapes you will see in the Rhone. In fact, if you already know they’ve had a GSM and would like to step it up a notch, the reverse is a great idea - buy a Chateauneuf du Pape.

(Santa photo from http://www.kerstencards.com/funny-christmas-cards/20021.html)
(Michael David wine photo from http://www.wine-searcher.com/wine-43088-0001-michael-david-winery-petite-petit-lodi-usa)
www.butterybooks.com
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Think Dante Was On To Something

“So I was at this wine tasting”.....This is my “once upon a time.” I mean, really, don’t all good stories start this way?
Anyway, so I was at this tasting over the weekend and, among the interesting samples, one wine stood out to me both for its production method and its character. It is not a wine I would normally care for as it does have that aroma of gauze (medicinal) that anyone who has tasted with me knows I pick up from some Italian reds. This is quickly overcome, however, by the “everything else” in the bottle. I knew I had to have it and I knew exactly what I was going to have with it.
The wine is Vernaccia Di Serrapetrona, produced by Alberto Quacquarini. It is a Vino Spumante Secco (dry red sparkling wine) made with Vernaccia Nera grapes, a local variety found only in this region of Marches. Rumor has it is also the wine referenced in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. The wine is produced using triple fermentation. What this means is that half the grapes are made into wine in the traditional red wine way. The other half are left to dry, or raisin, on mats (recioto) and are then made into wine. The culminating two wines are blended and then the third fermentation takes place using the Charmat method to maintain the intensity of fruit. Aromas and flavors of raspberry and red plum are accompanied by bananas, earth and cured meats. Tannins are up there, but so is the acid to balance it out.

The result is an excellent aperitif or the perfect accompaniment to antipasti, which is exactly what I paired it with. As you know, most pairing discussions that take place involve finding that perfect wine to match with the food you are serving or the dish you will be ordering. The flip side of that is just as fun - finding food to match your wine. For this, I picked up some prosciutto, salami, mozzarella, fontina, focaccia and some selections from the olive bar. The duo was divine!
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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bordeaux's Top Growths - 2007 v. 2008

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the Comparative Bordeaux Tasting hosted by Hart Davis Hart Wine Company at Wright auction house in Chicago where 20 of the best chateau in Bordeaux and their 2007 and 2008 vintages were represented. It proved to be quite an educational, as well as enjoyable, venture. Hoping to get the most out of the experience, I did do some background research prior to attending and I will share the hi-lites of this research, what I experienced and what I learned with you here.
I had a bit of a mix of preconceptions going into this event. On the one hand, I can honestly say - with the exception of a bottle of Dom Perignon - I have never had a wine of the caliber or reputation represented here. On the other hand, I was a bit pessimistic since Wine Spectator’s report card on the 2007 and 2008 vintages were a C+ and a B-, respectively.
The education gleaned here was invaluable. The primary lesson learned was what a wine that will benefit from aging is supposed to taste like. The finish on all of these wines was remarkable. I had to force myself to move on to the next wine due to a 90 minute time limit, when I really just wanted to sit and enjoy the last wine still lingering on my palate. It did not take me long to notice the consistently higher tannin in the 2008s versus the 2007s. While one explanation offered was an increase in heat (alcohol %) in the 2008s, I feel strongly it is just an illustration of the benefit of the additional year in the bottle. The 2007s were softer and less astringent across the board. It really made me want to see what these wines will be like in another 5, 10, 15 years.
The journey here will start with the Medoc on the left bank, specifically in Saint Estephe. Saint Estephe is considered by some to be the “bargain basement” of Bordeaux. The three producers represented here were Chateau Cos d’Estournel (2eme Cru Classe), Chateau Montrose (2 Cru Classe) and Chateau Calon-Segur (3eme Cru Classe). My favorite was the 2007 Calon-Segur with its delicious red fruit and spice flavors. In addition to the increase in tannin that the 2008s had consistently over the 2007s, the 2008 here also had a notable “greener” feel.
Next is the Pauillac, home of the majority of the premier crus, but also home of the majority of lower level crus. It is in this area that Cabernet Sauvignon’s blackcurrant character is said to shine at its brightest. The six producers represented here include Chateau Latour (1er Cru Classe), Chateau Lynch-Bages (5eme Cru Classe), Chateau Pichon-Longueville Lalande (2eme Cru Classe), Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron (2eme Cru Classe), Chateau Lafite Rotschild (1er Cru Classe) and Chateau Mouton Rothschild (1er Cru Classe). Black fruits certainly dominated the Latour, but the surprise was in the finish. The 2008 ends with notable graphite, whereas in the 2007, this was more of a minerality. While the black fruit was certainly present in all others from this region, I did not pick up that finish on any of the others. In comparing the Pichons, the Baron ended in both vintages with licorice and the Lalande had a bit of a “stemmy” taste, even in the 2007. Lynch-Bages, which is said to be the “poor man’s Latour", made its oaky characteristics known, which I found interesting since it uses less new oak than the other producers in the area. Finally, some of you may know that a different artist is commissioned every year to design the label for Mouton Rothschild. I believe I would be lax if I didn’t share the artwork with you here. My favorite - the 2008.
We now move a bit farther south to Saint Julien, the smallest of the Medoc. The three candidates here were Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou (2eme Cru Classe), Chateau Leoville Poyferre (2eme Cru Classe) and Chatau Gruaud Larose (2eme Cru Classe). My least favorite wine of the night was the Larose as it has what I describe as a “gauzy” taste, but others describe as medicinal, which is something I have not been able to get past in all my years of drinking wine. Another of my favorites of the night, however, was right next door in the Ducru. In addition to the concentrated ripe black fruit present in both vintages, the super-soft texture just drew me in.
Margaux is the most famous of the Medoc regions and the wine bearing its name - Chateau Margaux (1er Cru Classe) - is the most famous wine in the world.....for good reason. This wine was, by far, my favorite of the night with its absolutely delicious black fruit flavors, lush texture and crazy long finish. I did not fully understand the term “sweet tannins” until I tried this wine. I am not ashamed to admit I went back for seconds and I am very glad I did not start with this table as I cannot see how I would have been able to much appreciate any of the others. To illustrate, my tasting note for the Chateau Palmer (3eme Cru Classe) - the only other Margaux wine here - reads simply, “just not as good.” It didn’t have a chance.
Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion (Cru Classe) and Chateau Haut-Brion (Cru Classe) of the Pessac-Leognan bridge the transition from the Left Bank’s Cabernet dominated wines to the Right Bank’s Merlot. Although La Mission showed one of my favorite combinations of blueberry and licorice, I still preferred the mixed fruit of the Haut-Brion (black fruit, red fruit, stewed fruits - yum!).
Moving to the Right Bank’s Saint Emilion, we have the Chateau Cheval Blanc (Premier Grand Cru Classe A) and Chateau Pavie Macquin (Premier Grand Cru Classe B), where the average age of their vines is 35 years. The 2007 Cheval Blanc was a better wine for me as it was dominated by 55% Cabernet Franc. It returns to majority Merlot (60%) in 2008 and loses me when it loses some intensity of fruit in the transition.
As much as I preferred less Merlot in Saint Emilion, I preferred more of it in Pomerol where the Chateau Trotanoy and its 90% Merlot made a better impression on me than the Vieux Chateau Certan and its 65-70% Merlot. Interesting comparison on the two who compete with Chateau Petrus, the world’s most expensive wine.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Windy City Wine Festival 2011

The Windy City Wine Festival, otherwise known (to me) as Chicago’s birthday present to me, took place this weekend. We decided to go Friday despite rain forecasts and, although we did get wet the first half hour, our parking space was excellent. As always, the festival overall did not disappoint. I will say, however, that they really need to forego the whole ticket situation. Most distributors there don’t adhere to it, much less embrace it. They are there to peddle their wares - the more you taste, the more you buy. Give it up, U. S. Bank, Whole Foods or Chicago (whoever is responsible for this), and treat it like every other tasting out there. It is for this reason I wait until I get home to make my purchases just on principle.
So now I will take a backward step (watch your feet) off my soap box and tell you what I feel are the good, the bad and the ugly of the festival. I can say that my wine courses have definitely paid off as I was able to help an unfortunate soul working the festival that was in over his head - either voluntarily or otherwise - who, when asked what grape(s) are in the Telmo Rodriguez Basa Rueda Blanco ($16.99), replied, “Rueda,” after searching the label. He was quite appreciative when I pulled him aside and explained that Rueda is a region, the grape is Verdejo. The wine, by the way, was one of my favorites, with standout flavors exactly as the grape intended - fruity, floral nose followed by fresh, crisp citrus and tropical fruit.
I seemed to have been on a white wine roll as every one of my real favorites were whites - and cheap. There was another Verdejo - Francois Lurton Rueda White ($13.99) quickly followed by another of my favorite aromatic varieties, Terrazas Reserva Torrontes ($14.99). We then moved to France for a Chenin Blanc, Chateau Moncontour Vouvray ($15.99) and the steal of the day - an Ugni Blanc/Colombard blend called Tariquet Classique. This wine was wonderfully fragrant and fruity (apple/peach/pear) and for $8.99 is a definite stock up wine.
The reds were not a complete bust. Vina Zaco Red from Rioja was quite tasty (another steal for $13.99). This is 100% Tempranillo with red fruit, vanilla and a little spice. Arrocal (Fine Vines) ($16.99) of Ribera Del Duero was pretty yummy as well (as was the guy pouring, if memory serves). Another Tempranillo with red fruit and vanilla, but this one adds some black fruit as well. Santa Julia Malbec Reserva ($11.99), Four Vines Zinfandel Old Vine Cuvee ($11.99), 6th Sense Syrah ($16.99) and Cass Winery’s Grenache (sorry, the wine is not listed and the annoying couple next to us did not allow me to get a price) are honorable mentions.
I did ask the gal at Bodega Elena booth to show me a great sake for those new to the sport. She came thru by having me try a Gekkeikan Nigori and a Zipang sparkling sake. Both are $5.99 for 300 ML or 250 ML, respectively. The first had, to me, a cantaloupe flavor (although, surprisingly, she said I was the first to pick up on that) and the second was just a very subtle, slightly sweet, almost Fino Sherry-like flavor. Her advice to me was to order either unfiltered or sparkling the next time I want to try sake at a premium restaurant and I should not be disappointed. I plan to take her up on that.
What I was hoping would be the hi-lite, but turned out to be a disappointment, was the Cotes Du Rhone (Southern Rhone) booths. I could live with the fact that they were somewhat unorganized and even that most of their wines were not on the sheet. What bothered me most is that I do like Grenache - not as much as the Northern Rhone’s Syrah - but I found nothing that I liked here. With two notable exceptions. The first was a Tavel rose - Chateau d'Aqueria Rose (looks to be around the $16 range). The second was a surprise I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I was excited to discover the white wines made from Grenache; on the other hand, I was disappointed that, in all of my courses to date, these little gems (more like amethyst than emerald or ruby) are glossed right over. My clear favorite was the Ogier Heritages White ($15.99). My other favorite could have been M. Chapoutier Belleruche White ($13.99). While my notes, which were taken on very wet paper due to the rain say “Grand Marrenos”, I could not find this wine in online research.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Vindication At Last!!!


Wow. I had not realized it has been a full two months (plus) since my last post. I do have a perfectly good reason, though. During that time, I passed my Intermediate Wine course and the Level 1 Sommelier exam. The Level 1 Sommelier exam was brutal and I don't think I could have done it without my fabulous instructors at Midwest Wine School. I am looking forward to the Advanced class in the fall. One of my instructors for the Sommelier course was local celebrity, Alpana Singh, MS. I must confess, however, that my favorite was Matt Citriglia, MS from Ohio. He really makes learning fun and, in addition to rekindling my passion for wine, I learned a lot from him.
By the way, I aced my blind tasting. Was only off on the vintage by one year. 2010 Napa Valley Viognier. I will never forget that wine.
In addition to studying for these exams, I have also been working on a book, trying to get that published, and learning how to design apps (or trying to anyway). I'm not sure what you call what I've got - OCD, ADD, ADHD??? I have also begun the recommended reading for the Level 2 Sommelier. I did get sidetracked at the library, however, by a book called "The Wine Trials 2010". What a great book! On a practical level, the book contains a list of 150 great wines from around the world for under $15. On a deeper level it has some great information on experiments that put inexpensive wines up against much more expensive ones - with both average consumers and wine experts as judges.
The roots of these wine experiments go all the way back to a beer experiment conducted in 1964. The experiment was in judging a beer that contained vinegar against a beer that did not. 388 judges were divided into three separate groups - one that was not told what they were tasting, one that was told at the beginning what they would be tasting and one that was told after tasting, but before rating the beers. Interestingly, the first group preferred the beer with vinegar 59%. The last group was very close to the first group. The second group, however, who had been told what they would be tasting before the tasted, only preferred the vinegar beer 30%. What this tells us is that the knowledge that there was vinegar in the beer changed their taste experience, but did not change their taste judgment. In other words, expectations have more influence over a person's taste experience than does their actual judgment.
What the authors are trying to explain - at least indirectly - is the discrepancy between what the expert tasters and wine writer for Wine Spectactor, etc are liking versus what the masses enjoy - those of us who don't have a lot of expectations built up based on the history of the winemaker or the quality of the grapes in 2010 Bordeaux.
Probably the most shocking result of the wine trials (they were conducted twice) is that Chateau Ste Michelle Brut (sparkling wine) beat out Dom Perignon both years. This is a $12 bottle of wine. Another shocker is that Black Box wines, who are marketing wines - yes - in boxes, showed on the list of winners with their Cabernet Sauvignon. Two buck chuck from Trader Joes also made the cut with their Chardonnay and Cab.
Favorites of mine on the list include: Gascon Malbec, Segura Viudas Cava, Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Alamos Malbec, Red Truck Petite Sirah, Ironstone "Obsession" Symphony, Francis Ford Coppolo Bianco, Fat Bastard Chardonnay, Cycles Gladiator (Merlot and Syrah), Conquista Torrontes, and Quinta de Cabriz Dao Sul.
What am I drinking today? Today I am taking a break from wine and am exploring the spirit world. I am drinking Firefly sweet tea vodka with lemonade, while sitting on the deck smelling the smokey goodness of the pork picnic my husband is making for dinner tonight. Cheers!
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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Riddle Me This!


This week's wine bus took me to the world of sparkling wines and sweet wines. Aside from the delicious samples (which I can't share via the web with you anyway), I was intrigued by the traditional way of making Champagne - Methode Champenoise, Methode Traditionnelle, Classic Method, Metodo Tradicional, Method Cap Classique, etc.

Only two pressings of the grapes is allowed before first fermentation. A still wine is produced here. After the still wine is blended with other grapes or that of another vintage, a mixture of sugar and yeast (liqueur di tirage) is added and the wine is bottled, where it will go thru second fermentation. After an appropriate amount of aging occurs, the bottles are place in racks (neck down). The Riddler (Remueur) - for six to eight weeks - goes thru and turns each bottle a bit and also slightly downward until the sediments are resting in the neck of the bottle. During degorgement, the bottle necks are then dipped into a solution that freezes them, the temporary cap is removed and the sediments fly forth from the bottle. The final state of dosage is where the wine's sweetness level occurs when a mixture of wine and sugar is added prior to final bottling.

I also learned there are six levels of sweetness, in order, from dryest: : Extra Brut (really dry), Brut (dry), Extra Dry (semidry), Sec (semisweet), Demi Sec (sweet), Doux (really sweet).
I hope all of you know that only a wine made in the Champagne region of France can use that title. Regions of France outside Champagne refer to these wines as Cremant; in Italy, Spumanti (you will also see Prosecco, but these are made mostly in the tank method); in Spain, Cava; in Germany, Sekt; elsewhere, Sparkling Wine.
The three major grape varietals used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. In other regions, you may find glera (formerly known as prosecco), muscat, chenin blanc, riesling, or shiraz (those crazy Australians).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Terroir (not the yappy dog)


I have discovered now why I love the grape so much - it's a headstrong, stubborn little thing, best when grown in the worst conditions. Before I get into that, let me clear up a misconception about the word, "terroir". If you are like me (and most), you think it is synonymous with soil. While soil is a part of it, it is nothing near the all of it. Oxford defines terroir as "for the total natural environment of any viticulture site". It is a French term with no English equivalent (sounds like a dare). It includes climate (and microclimates), sun, wind, temperatures, water and, finally, soil.
Nearly all grapes are grown within 30 and 50 degrees, either way, of the equator. For the most part, they need moderately temperate regions with a long, warm period of good weather to help them develop. The size and amount of leaves that grow on the vine play a part as well - too many keeps the sun from shining on the grapes; not enough allows too much sun to shine on the grapes, turning them into raisins (which is good for some wines, yes, but from time on the vines , not from sunburn).
Now here is what I like best about the grape - what is great for them are conditions that are challenging. When the vine has to work to grow, the plants have to concentrate their efforts (and sugars) to make a limited amount of grapes. Think survival of the fittest. While they cannot see frost late Spring or early Fall, they do not do well after a warm, wimpy winter. Irrigation.....not for this fruit; it wants to work for its water. As for soil, what else can you think of that grows well in chalk , volcanic ash, stones, granite, sea fossils or clay?
Now that I have a newfound respect for the fruit, I will be sure to tip my hat to my next glass of wine.
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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Beaujolais


First and foremost, I am talking about Beaujolais, not Bueaujolais Nouveau (although it will get a shout out later). Beaujolais is going to be made almost exclusively with 100% Gamay, which is quite user-friendly in that it is very fruit forward. It is also suggested that the wine be cooled (not chilled, but cooled), which is unusual for a red wine. There is also a small amount of white Beaujolais made from Chardonnay and Aligote grapes, but you are not going to find them in the U.S.
Beaujolais wines are made using a process called carbonic maceration, which converts sugar in uncrushed grapes to alcohol. Whole clusters of grapes are placed in a chamber excluding oxygen, without yeast, and the fermentation takes place within each grape.
The three different quality levels of Beaujolais are Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and Cru, with Cru being the best. Cru wines will actually be named for the producing village. The ten crus are Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote De Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie and St. Amour.
Beaujolais Nouveau is a celebration of the harvest. It was designed to be drunk in the vineyard, but has now become as popular with the masses as Thanksgiving. It should, however, be drank as close to its release date (the third Thursday in November) as possible. While it is most certainly of a lesser quality, I must confess to taking part in the celebration every year.
Tasting:
Today I tried two Beaujolais Crus. My first was a 2007 Moulin-a-Vent. My first taste was at room temperature. While I did smell some black cherry, there was not a lot going on for taste - in fact I did not care for it much - but I pushed on. I poured my second glass while capping the bottle and putting it in the refrigerator. It was a little softer, but still nothing spectacular. Unfortunately, after cooling, there was still not much going on. I had my fingers crossed for the second wine, as this was the more expensive of the two.
Number two is a 2006 Morgon. It is looking a little more promising. Same dark cherry smell, but a little vanilla as well. We'll see how it does with time and/or cooling......Turns out it was a little better. This is definitely my favorite of the two, but I don't know if I will buy again. To finish that first bottle (I don't like to waste), I seriously considered adding 7Up.....but did not.
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Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Grape By Any Other Name.....

Now that I have completed my intermediate studies on the main grape varietals, I figured this would be a great time for me to sum up what to look for when tasting wines made from each. I've always been a good student, so taking the multiple choice exam in a month doesn't frighten me. For some reason, with as much tasting experience as I have, it is the tasting (identification) exam that does.

This post - hopefully - will help me study for this portion of my exam. I will also include the best places to find the wines. Material is quoted loosely from my WSET text. Here goes.....

Sauvignon Blanc
In cooler climates: vegetal flavors and green fruit
Moderate climates: less strong, stone fruits
May also find: elderflower, mineral
Where to find? Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Bordeaux, Marlborough (NZ), Napa (Fume Blanc), Coastal South Africa, Casablanca (Chile)

Riesling
Cool Climate: green and citrus fruits
Moderate Climates: citrus and stone fruits
May also find: smoke, honey, tropical fruit, mineral
Where? Germany (Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz), Alsace, Austria, Clare and Eden Valleys (Australia), South Island New Zealand

Chardonnay
Cool Climates: green fruit
Moderate Climate: citrus and stone fruit
Hot: tropical fruit
May also find: oak, butter, hazelnut, mineral
Where? Burgundy (Chablis, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Macon, Pouilly-Fuisse), Australia (Hunter Valley, Victoria, Limestone Coast, Adelaide Hills, Margaret River), New Zealand (Hawkes Bay, Gisborne, Marlborough), CA (Coastal, Sonoma, Carneros), Casablanca (Chile), Mendoza (Argentina)

Pinot Noir
Cool: vegetal
Moderate: red fruit
May also find: animal
Where? Burgundy (Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Beaune, Pommard), New Zealand (Martinborough, Marlborough, Central Otago), CA (Coastal, Sonoma, Carneros), Casablanca, Coastal South Africa

Merlot
Moderate: red fruit
Hot: black fruit
May also find: oak, fruitcake, chocolate
Where? Bordeaux (St Emilion, Pomerol), Margaret River (Austr), Hawkes Bay (NZ), Napa/Sonoma, Central Valley (Chile), Mendoza, Stellenbosch (S. Africa)

Cabernet Sauvignon
Moderate: black fruit (high acid)
Hot: black fruit (moderate acid)
May also find: oak, bell pepper, cedar
Where? Bordeaux (Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Graves), Australia (Connawarra, Margaret River), Hawkes Bay (NZ), Napa/Sonoma, Central Valley (Chile), Argentina (Mendoza, Cafayate), Stellenbosch

Syrah/Shiraz
Moderate: pepper, black fruit
Hot: spice, black fruit
May also find: oak, vegetal, animal, chocolate
Where? Rhone Valley (Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Cotes due Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape), Australia/moderate (W. Austr, Western, Central Victoria), Australia/hot (Hunter Valley, Barossa, McLaren Vale)

Grenache/Garnacha
Hot: red fruit
May also find: spice, toffee
Where? Southern Rhone, Spain

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bordeaux


Today we talked about Bordeaux and its three major grapes - cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Unlike Burgundy, where you are only allowed to use one varietal, Bordeaux wines are nearly always going to be blends. I have often overheard people at tastings say they only like straight cabs or straight merlots. I cannot wait to tell them that over 90% of the wines we drink are blends. Our teacher today summed it up best - the only reason a winemaker would add another grape is to make the wine better.

Looking at a map of Bordeaux, you see two rivers coming together - the Dordogne and the Garonne. If you stand right before the convergence (the Gironde estuary), facing the U.S., you can now start referring to the left bank and the right bank. This is important because wines from the left bank are going to be predominantly cabernet; wines from the right bank are going to be predominantly merlot. The reason for this is (again) terroir - cabs like gravel and merlot likes sand and clay.
When blending, adding merlot to cabernet is going to soften it up and make it easier to drink. Adding cabernet to merlot is going to give it more color, tannin and acid. While adding acid doesn't sound like a good thing, it is cabernet's acidity that makes them age-worthy. With Sauvignon Blanc, it is the Semillon grape that is typically blended with it to make it better. Semillon helps to sustain the fruit character, adds complexity and gives the wine more body.

You would think that this knowledge alone would make the buying of French wines easier. It does not. I was nearly as lost this week in the wine store as I was last year. Because France's classification system is so strict and particular, you would have to memorize the entire list of the 1855 classification in order to know exactly what you are buying. Breaking it down into regions does help some and is a little easier for this 40-something to remember. Plus, regional wines are going to be more affordable anyway. Regions on the left bank are Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Pauillac, Margaux, Graves and Pesac-Leognan. Regions on the right bank are Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Sauvignon Blancs are going to come from Pessac-Leognan and Graves.
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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pairing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

After yesterday's post, I realize I failed to include one ov the most important things you need to know - what foods do they work best with. Since I can confess to more messes than successes when it comes to pairing, I am going to utilize/summarize Evan Golstein's "Perfect Pairings" to try to keep it above board and simple. Since I really like his "works well" and "doesn't work" categories, I will go with that, too. If you're looking for help with pairing, or looking for another cookbook, this book is great as there are recipes with commentary (his wife is a chef) on pairing matches specific to the recipes.

Chardonnay
Works well:
*with dishes having rich textures and flavors
*to counterbalance rich dishes by drinking a higher acidity wine (you're gonna need an unoaked, cooler-climate Chard)
*with most mild and sweet shellfish
*with butter, creamy, melted cheese
*with many sweet spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, five-spice
*with nuts or recipes incorporating nuts
*with milder white mushrooms
*with onion and garlic

Doesn't work:
*if too oaky
*with hot or spicy dishes
*with sharp ingredients
*with overly sweet foods
*with many cheeses

Pinot Noir
Goes well:
*with dishes with coriander, cumin, cinnamon, ginger
*with foods smoked, grilled or lightly charred
*with many fish, especially tuna and swordfish
*with vegetables and earthier flavors
*with Asian cuisines
*with cold cuts, charcuterie (sausages), and mild cheeses

Doesn't work:
*with stronger seafood and fish, like mussels, mackeral, sea bass, sardines
*with overly rich dishes
*with fiery heat
*with almost all strong-flavored cheeses

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Grapes of Burgundy


Today's lesson focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - the grapes of the Burgundy region of France. Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, got an honorable mention, but not a tasting. We'll start with Chardonnay.
The single most useful thing (to me) I learned today was what flavors are going to be common to the different climates where Chardonnay is found. Cool climates, such as Chablis or New Zealand, are going to have a higher level of natural acid and you're going to taste apples, pears or some citrus (like with Sauvignon Blanc). Chardonnays from a moderate climate like Burgundy are going to taste of stone fruits (peach) and melon. Those from warmer climates - think Australia - are going to have some tropical fruit showings, like banana, pineapple or mango.


Next we moved on to Pinot Noir, the grape we have all come to know as the sensitive one. There was really not a lot of discussion on this - partially because we were having so much fun with the Chardonnays. The most practical thing to know about pinot noir is that it is softer and lighter in tannins than its other red sisters. Only two were tasted and, while France may have taken the Chardonnay, I was more impressed with the 2008 Marlborough (NZ) than I was with the 2008 Volnay (Burgundy). The Sherwood had a lot more character, smelling of anise and finishing a little creamy.
Per instructor, the best Pinot Noirs to be found now are from Oregon and Central Otago, New Zealand.


Random nuggets of wisdom:
Pinotage is South Africa's grape and is NOT pinot noir.
Kim Crawford sold off his wineries and is now making wine as Mud House.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bottle Shock

Bottle shock (bottle sickness) is defined in The Oxford Companion to Wine as "unpleasant and increasingly rare smell apparent in a wine immediately on opening which dissipates after a few minutes". The smell is from sulfur dioxide, which is added during the bottling process to counter possible oxidation. One of the faults that occur as a result of oxidation is browning of the juice.
George Taber, in his book,"Judgment of Paris", tells us that bottle shock is "when unexpected developments in the wine" occur after bottling. He then explains "pinking in the bottle" by telling us "wine has a natural browning enzyme that disappears when it comes in contact with oxygen" but winemakers used to try to ensure no oxygen touched their wine.
This phenomenon nearly kept the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from the 1976 blinding tasting in Paris where it beat five other California whites and four French favorites. This blind tasting is the subject of Mr. Taber's book on which the movie, "Bottle Shock" is loosely based.
I would highly recommend "Judgment of Paris" for any serious wine lover, or for anyone who likes a story of challenge and triumph. It is a historical chronical, a wine text and great story-telling. "Bottle Shock" is good story-telling, too, and is a "must see" for anyone interested in wine. Although it does not follow the book, it is certainly better than "Sideways" and is a great story. There is romance and comedy (especially between Alan Rickman and Dennis Farina) and you are definitely going to be routing for the U.S., just as you did watching "Miracle". It has a good soundtrack, too, plus Chris Pine (Bo Barrett) is not hard to look at. For fans of Gray's Anatomy, or the men out there, one of the stars of the movie is Rachael Taylor (Sam Fulton), the new pediatrician.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Free Run

Free run is the juice that drains easily from freshly cut grapes before pressing. It is nearly always the best juice you are going to get as it is lower in tannins and doesn't get as much bitterness from seeds or stems. Since it is superior, a wine made from free run will cost more, but should showcase the natural characteristic of the grape.
Interestingly, I could find nothing when I did a search of any combination of words for wines made entirely from or wines made with free run juice. I did, however, get some hits when searching Google Images for photos.
Domaine Chahut's "LaMule" (Beaujolais, France), which is sold only in magnums (and, possibly only in France).
Wente's Shorthorn Canyon Syrah (East of San Francisco in the Livermore Valley) - where they use a process called "rack and return", or delestage, where free run juice is drained off the cap and pumped back over the fermenter. While interesting, I'm still not sure this is what I am looking for.
Ruinart Brut Rose Champagne (from France, obviously), which is made partially from free run.
Hello Kitty Devil Red Pinot Noir (?) - really?!?
2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon advertises it is made from 100% free run juice. This may be the wine I am looking for. At $25 per bottle, the price is right, too.
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