Saturday, March 26, 2011


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.

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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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tasting & Pairing

Yesterday was my first day of formal wine training. Since I knew before I even started that I was going to love the class, I am very glad that my expectations were confirmed. Our first lesson was on systematic tasting. I will not share all of the details of my lessons with you here, but I will share things that I think were useful or interesting.
In class, we tasted six different wines with nine different basic foods representing sweet, bitter (tannic), acidic, salty and spicy. After trying them with the wines, we ranked them on a 0 to 3 scale of how well they worked together (3 being the highest). The results are here and depict some simple rules for pairing. Several combinations are missing. You are going to have to experiment on your own to fill in those blanks. I highly recommend it anyway.
The adjectives on the left are for food; those on the right are for wine.
salty + acid in a white = 3
salty + acid in a red = 0-1
salty + tannin = -1
savory + sweet = 3
salty + sweet = 3
bitter + tannin = 0
spicy + sweet = 3
sweet + tannin = 0
acid + acid = 2
high acid + low acid = 0
sweet + sweet = 3
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tonight's Pairing Experiment

The dish - Thai Basil Chicken
The wine - Sauvignon Blanc
The competitors - 2009 Sterling from Sonoma County, CA v. 2010 Oyster Bay from Marlborough, New Zealand
The winner - Sterling (and this was not influenced by a previous post; I have always been fond of Sterling wines)

The main components of this dish were jalapeno, garlic, basil and chicken served over a bed of steamed bell peppers mixed with Asian vinaigrette. The recommendation was that a Sterling-type would pair well with a vinaigrette. Oddly, the vinaigrette was hardly noticeable, but it still worked. The Sterling just "jived" with the dish. It was harmonious mostly with the bell peppers. The Oyster Bay was good - don't get me wrong - just not good for this dish. (Both bottles were finished.)
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