30 June, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: Veraison.

Not too long ago I posted pictures of champagne grapes int her early flowering stage from Champagne Tarlant. It's only fitting that we talk about grapes at another stage of development. This stage pictured here is called veraison. This is the stage that signals the beginning of ripening, "when the grapes change from the hard green state to their softened and colored form" (to quote the Oxford Companion to Wine.) The grapes are moving from green to red-black if they are red grapes and to yellow-green if they are white grapes.

This all happens fairly quickly and not evenly as you can see from the photo above. During this stage, sugar is increasing and acid is dropping. And that balance of sugar to acid is critical if a wine is going to be bright and zippy rather than dull and flabby. It is critical for the vigneron to pick all grapes at the right moment. Unfortunately for him or her, this can happen at different times in the same vineyard depending on the microclimates of the site. That's why they harvest the same vineyard several times and why it's important to pick the grapes in a fairly narrow range of time. 

Makes me appreciate why good wine cost so much. It's not all just marketing.


28 June, 2010

Glassware: does it matter?

Image via  martinvarsavsky's flickr.

I had always wondered if buying better and more expensive glassware for wine made a difference. Glassware makers like Riedel (pronounced Ree-del) always claim it does. They offer the wisdom that the shape of the glass can direct the flow of the wine over your tongue helping to emphasize certain characteristics of the wine such as acid which you reportedly feel on the sides of your tongue. However, the idea of the tongue map (where you taste sweet, bitter, acid and salty on different areas of the tongue) has long been debunked.

So I signed up for one of Riedel's glass tasting classes with more that a little skepticism. But it didn't take long to be humbled by what I learned. The tasting started with sitting in front of 5 glasses: one plastic beer cup, one standard restaurant glass, one Burgundy glass, one Bordeaux glass, and one Montrachet (Chardonnay) glass.

Our first taste was of a French Chardonnay from the Montrachet glass, which was balanced and delicious. It highlighted both the acid and the sweetness. Second we tasted the same wine from the plastic cup: it became harsh and almost burned the back of my throat, highlighting the alcohol. To make matters worse, you could not smell the wine. The same was true of the standard restaurant glass.

Next we tasted a Burgundy (Pinot Noir), full of fruit with a smooth texture and finish. When we tasted the Burgundy from the Montrachet glass, the wine lost its balance. Now it tasted green and acidic. When we tasted it from the restaurant glass, the tannins were enhanced and the wine was astringent.

And so the night went. I won't bore you with anymore details of wines and glasses, but needless to say the night made a believer out of me. I've repeated this experiment many times over for others (albeit on a smaller scale) and have convinced many of them as well. So how do you pick out wine glasses? Here are a few tips and guidelines I've come across:
  1. Buy glasses with a large enough bowl to swirl the wine in. I get irked when a restaurant uses a small wine glass and then fills it virtually to the rim. One of the great pleasures of wine is the smell and if you can't swirl the wine and then get your nose into the glass, then you can't smell it well. Look for a minimum of 10 ounce glasses and then fill it a little less than half way full. That empty space inside the glass is where all the good stuff happens.
  2. Look for glasses that taper to the top. This allows for the aromatics to collect in the glass, enhancing your experience. Both the plastic beer cup and standard restaurant glass at the Riedel tasting had straight sides. This really dulled the aromatics to the point where you really couldn't smell much from the wine.
  3. Look for thin rims, preferably polished cut rims versus rolled. I know, it sounds like I'm being a bit too picky here, but I think this matters more than what the glass is made of. A thin glass will allow for the wine to glide into your mouth where as a thick glass kind of sloshes it in there. 
  4. Spend about as much on a glass as you would on a bottle of wine. This advice makes sense to me, in fact, it even makes sense to spend a bit more. My rationale is this, if I can enhance a cheaper wine with a glass, then I get more bang for my buck out of every wine I buy. 
I'm not one to believe that you need a different glass for every style of wine. I personally use all purpose reds and whites that I purchased from Crate and Barrel most of the time even though I have a set of Riedel Sommelier series (a bonus from attending the Riedel tasting class) that retail for about $100 a stem.

I am, however, partial to glasses with stems. The Riedel stemless O series are very popular, but I find holding them awkward and don't enjoy all the fingerprints that wind up on the glass after only a few drinks. I also prefer real glass over plastic, but truth be told, neither substance will affect the taste or smell of the wine.

At the end of the day, you can enjoy wine from a jelly jar, a mason jar or that plastic beer cup if that's what you have on hand. After all, it's about the wine, not the glass. Oh, and those $100 stems I received. . .
they sit on the shelf, untouched. I'm too afraid I'll break them.



23 June, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: Tartrates.

Ever open a bottle of white wine and see white crystals on the bottom of the cork? Or for that matter have you ever seen white stuff in the bottom of your glass of white wine? You might think they look like sugar or perhaps a bit of glass. Fear not, your wine is not bad, it's just a tartrate.

Tartrates are cystalline deposits that separate from the wine during fermentation and aging. It orginates as part of tartaric acid, the most important acid found in wine. Without it and other acids, wine would be incredibly bland. Acid also acts like a preservative, allowing both reds and whites to age. As the wine gets older, the acids soften.

So next time you see the white crystals in your wine, impress your friends by dismissing them as just part of the wine making process.


22 June, 2010

Nebbiolo, the king of Piemonte.

Image via TorreBarolo's flickr.

When did my love affair with Nebbiolo begin? When you fall this hard and fast for a grape, it seems like one would remember that first bottle, that first sip, but I think I started to swoon before I had even met the grape. When I was younger I heard more experienced oenophiles gush over Barolo, but of course when I browsed the shelves it was clear that it was too rich for my wallet.

It's also not an easy grape to get to know. Drink it too young and you'll be greeted with a mouthful of gripping tannin and acid leaving you to wonder what all the fuss is about. But drink one that's been hanging around for awhile (even decades) and all those structural elements have faded into the background to reveal plum, cherries, spice, licorice, roses and even tar (in a good way). All that mouth drying tannin will be come a soft back drop which the fruit can play upon. 

Nebbiolo is a fussy grape that's hard to grow outside certain conditions, that's why we see so few examples outside the Piemonte region of Italy. It seems to love the dry, warm conditions of this region. Too warm, too cold, too wet and the grapes don't flower, fruit doesn't set or it rots. Australia, the U.S., even Mexico and South Africa have all had their flings with it, but with marginal success. High maintenance indeed. 

So how does one get a fix for this wine without breaking the bank? First, get to know a little more about the Piemonte region. Both Barolo and Barbaresco are made from Nebbiolo and carry a regional label. These are the heavy hitters in the area. I'll still pick a couple of these up whenever there is a good sale. And I cellar them for a few years. That way I always have at least one on hand for a special occasion. Other regions to look for are Gattinara, Ghemme, Langhe and Nebbiolo d'Alba. However, in Itally, wines are either regionally labeled or varietally labeled. I was able to find one of these last night at Bar LaGrassa for a fairly reasonable price.

This Enzo Boglietti from Langhe was listed at $52 (by comparison, they had a Barolo for $100 and many Barolos are well over $50 at retail).This was full of fruit and very earthy. While it was good with the rich pastas that my husband and I ordered, I still think this 2006 could age for a number of years and still improve. Even so, the bottle was empty when we left. 


18 June, 2010

Champagne flowers.

I'm used to seeing pictures of big, purple berries hanging on the vines, but it's unusual to find photos of flowering vines. These photos are by Champagne Tarlant, from the Champagne region of France. And they are stunning. These flowering buds will develop over the summer and become grapes during that time. Hopefully Tarlant will post more photos as they develop. Enjoy!

All photos posted with the permission of Champagne Tarlant.


16 June, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: Charmat

 Image via WordRidden's flickr.

Most of us refer to all sparkling wines as Champagne. However, as I've written before, only sparkling wine from the French region of Champgagne can legally be called Champagne. One of the reasons (and there are many) for the desire to protect the quality perceptions of the Champagne region is the method by which they make it. Methode Champenoise is a method where a second fermentation takes place in the bottle. This is a very expensive, labor intensive and time consuming method of making sparkling wine.

Enter Eugene Charmat, a Frenchman, who in 1907 invented a bulk processing that allowed for the second fermentation to happen in a pressurized glass tank. It's best suited for sparkling wines that will not benefit from aging. So if the bottle isn't a candidate, there's no reason to add expense to a wine whose fresh and fruity flavors are meant to be enjoyed young.

 Image via vmiramonte's flickr.

Prosecco is just that kind of wine. Virtually all Prosecco is made with the Charmat method. Simple, fruity and often the perfect apertif or refreshing brunch wine. Or apparently during a knitting club. Give it a try!


15 June, 2010

When good wine goes bad.

I don't think I've ever read a blog post about a bad wine. Or in my case a wine I let go bad due to neglect. So I thought I would serve myself up as a cautionary tale for others.

Drink your Rose. Don't sit on it.'Cause soon it will look like this:

Yes, believe it or not this used to be one of those beautiful pink wines that I've been gushing over recently.

Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking on this one. Okay, that's not entirely true. I'll confess that I received 2 bottles of 2006 St. Supery Rose in a wine club shipment in probably 2007 or 2008. I opened one bottle right away but wasn't blown away and wasn't inspired to open the second. So I let it sit until now; now when I know it's past it's prime and I need to make room for other wines. I should have known better. And while it pains me to send anything down the drain, this just had to go. (Just for the record, almost everything I've received from St. Supery has been fantastic. I'm still sitting on a bunch of reds I can't wait to open and I adore their Sauvignon Blanc.)

You can see that it's starting to turn brown. It tastes oxidized, too. It's like drinking prune juice, only not as good. It's sad to see this happen; I should have shared it or given it away to some one who would have appreciated it.

Okay, lesson learned. I'll never let a wine go past it's prime again.


13 June, 2010

Champagne, it's not just for special occasions anymore.

Image via bgvjpe's flickr

I'm a big fan of sparkling wine, even those not from the Champagne region (the only sparkling wines legally bearing the name Champagne). They are incredibly food friendly and come in a variety of styles that should be able to please anyone.

That's why I found this post on the WSJ blog, On Wine, intriguing. Apparently, Robert Mondavi's low priced Woodbridge line has launched an everyday sparkling wine. To launch the brand as an "affordable luxury" they teamed up with Daniel Boulud's DGDB in New York, known for 14 different kinds of sausages. The idea is to bring sparkling wine to the everyday, to be enjoyed with comfort foods like sliders and fried chicken.

Hooray! But we didn't need Woodbridge to usher in this trend. There are a number of great Cavas from Spain and Proseccos from Italy that nicely fit the description of an everyday affordable luxury. Neither of these have the complexity of a high end sparkler, but for everyday drinking, you're not looking for that. Rather, these at the lower end provide simple pleasing flavors that complement food and snacks perfectly. Try them with saltier foods like sushi, chinese take-out, pizza, french fries, and the like. No doubt you'll find it enjoyable.


09 June, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: Malolactic Fermentation

Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan's flickr

Ever wonder what gives some wines a buttery taste? Some mistakenly say it's from oak, but really it's from a process called malolactic fermentation. The name is somewhat misleading as it isn't really a fermentation at all. Rather, malolactic fermentation (or MLF) is the conversion of harsh malic acid into the softer lactic acid. Lactic acid bacteria is either present in the wine or a cultured version is added. It always happens after regular fermentation, if it happens at all.

This is an important step to take in the practice of wine making because it can control how well balanced the wine is. It is a step that is universally taken in red wines, especially in those from cooler regions where acid levels would be out of balance with the sweetness levels. However, it is used far more judiciously in white wines where high levels of acid are needed to balance out sugar levels and where preservation of the delicate grape flavors is desired. You'll never see it in a Riesling, for example, or in Sauvignon Blanc.

Chardonnay is an exception to this rule (and in wine there is always an exception). Chardonnay is a very neutral grape and seems to have an affinity for the creamier flavors that MLF produces. Just try a California Chardonnay or a White Burgundy and compare that to Chardonnay from Chablis. You'll notice a very distinct difference in the levels of acid and the flavors. Steely for Chablis, creamy for California Chardonnay and White Burgundy. (Or just read yesterday's post).

So where does butter come in? If MLF gets out of control, it will reduce acid too far and produce excessive amounts of diacetyl. At low levels, it is perceived as toasty or nutty, but at high levels it produces buttery flavors that can be unpleasant in wine. Interestingly, levels of diacetyl are much more easy to detect in white wines than in red wines. Fortunately, new world winemakers have become much more cautious with MLF and that super buttery California Chardonnay should be a thing of the past.


08 June, 2010

A new appreciation for Chardonnay

Okay, I admit it. I have never been a fan of Chardonnay. They're just too... buttery, oaky, sweet (even though they are supposed to be dry), too much for food; just too everything. I've winced when someone has brought a bottle over and I've turned my nose up at every wine list that has five Chardonnays to every one Sauvignon Blanc.

But lately, I've been working on my tolerance, even appreciation for America's favorite white wine. I realized that I absolutely love sparkling Blanc de Blanc which is made of 100% Chardonnay. So I decided I have to get over my prejudices and see what else there is behind the butter and oak. I'm not the only grape nut exploring the world of Chard these days. Jay McInerney at Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article about Santa Barbara Chardonnays that makes me want to seek them out. And it's been a favorite topic on the Chowhound message board.

Chardonnay is a grape that is easy to grow and very adaptable to soil and climate conditions, no wonder it is grown everywhere. But what I didn't know was easy it is to manipulate in the winery. So it was big surprise to me that there are more styles out there than the big butter bombs from California that I'm used to tasting. To expand my knowledge, I recently did a tasting of three major Chardonnay regions to get a sense of the different styles that exist.

First up, Chablis. Now hold on to your hats, this isn't the Chablis you saw in the '70s and '80s that came in the big jug. Nope. This Chablis is defined by where it's grown, Chablis, France. What makes this style so unique is the soil that it's grown in: chalky, limestone with high levels of minerals. I tried the William Fevre 2007 and it was completely different from the Chardonnay I've grown to mock. All that chalky soil really creates a different kind of Chardonnay expereince: lots of green apple and lemon but that fruit is dominated by flintiness and the aromas of wet stones. It has a steeliness to it that's created by high levels of acidity. Unike the typical California Chardonnay, this does not see one bit of oak as it's femented in stainless steel. It also doesn't typically undergo malolactic fermentation, a process where the harsher malic acid is converted into the softer lactic acid, but more on that tomorrow. And all that acidity makes Chablis a good ager. It's heralded to be a good pairing with oysters, something I hope to try someday.

Next up: Burgundy, France. You could call Burgundy Chardonnay's spiritual homeland. Burgundy has been growing Chardonnay for centuries, carefully documenting which vineyards produce the best examples of the grape. This wine was my favorite of the tasting, somewhere inbetween the steeliness of the Chablis and the richness of the California, it was dry with medium levels of acidity. I could taste apples, meyer lemon and creaminess rather than a butteriness. It was a bit like having a great apple pie. I could also dectect that it had seen some oak, but it wasn't overwhelming, indicating it was likely a blend of stainless steel and old oak barrel fermentation. It has enough acidity to cut through richer foods like cream sauces and would make a great partner to most seafood dishes.

Finally, California. This Sonoma-Cutrer 2006 is a favorite of Chardonnay lovers.  I know a number of people who go gaga for this wine. For me it is a classic example of the rich and creamy style of California Chardonnay. Their website espouses a adherence to the Burgundian style, however, you can't take the California out of the grape. This rich wine had aromas of apples, pineapples, coconut and caramel. It was very rich and buttery. I think most Chardonnay lovers would really enjoy this wine.

So, have I become a Chardonnay convert? Perhaps not quite yet but this exercise has made me less fearful of them and more willing to explore the grape from different environments. Here's to new experiences!


06 June, 2010

Three years of wine club.

Three years ago I came back from a class at the Culinary Institute of America's Professional Wine Studies Program. The week long class inspired me to learn more about wine, but in Minneapolis, and with a full time job, there were limitations to the extent I could learn at a more professional level.

So I gathered a group of wine loving friends and made them a deal: If you pick a theme, I'll research it, pick wines and create a tasting for the group. Over the next three years, we studied grape varietals, regions, sparkling and even beer. We've all gotten smarter about wine and we've kept a great group of friends together that would have long lost touch with one another without it. 

Lately it's getting more difficult to to get us together as we're going through a stage of weddings and pregnancies. So for our last club meeting we chose to meet at a local restaurant, Corner Table. It's a great venue for a wine club because every Thursday night is Vinyl + Vino. Bring in your own wine and pay only  $1 corkage. Bring in you favorite vinyl record and they'll spin it. But these are the not main reasons you should check out Corner Table. Chef Scott Pampuch is absolutely passionate about working with local farmers to bring in sustainable, high quality local products. And the results are phenomenal.

For this wine club we didn't have much of a theme; just bring something you like. We started our evening off with a bottle of Chateau D'Esclans Whispering Angel Rose, which I've written about before. It was a perfect match for the nosh plate we ordered.

This plate was as good as it looks with housemade potato chips, goat cheese, pickled mushrooms, housemade chorizo and rhubarb moutarde.

Our next wine was a 2009 Trinchero Sauvignon Blanc. This white is from the Calistoga area of Napa and is full of grapefruit, lemon and grass flavors. We did find the wine to be fairly alcoholic for a sauvignon blanc, at 14.2%.

 However, it was a good match for a number of our dishes:

This asparagus and mushroom pasta with a light butter sauce was fantastic!

 A tasty asparagus soup was a nice accompaniment to a great salad with duck confit.

 Isn't this stuffed trout with aspargus gorgeous!

While we were waiting for dessert, Chef Scott brought us a taste of Austrian Zweigelt, something we had never tried before. What a treat! It's a light, fruity red with cherry flavors that make it a perfect summer red wine. I have to apologize for the photo (below), I took it rather quickly and apparently was a bit shaky.

Desserts were equally fabulous with a rhubarb crumble, a chocolate cake and chef's choice.

Above is the chef's choice dessert which was  a rhubarb crepe, a shot of boxelder sap with maple syrup and bee pollen, and a grown up s'more.

This new iteration of our wine club could not have been more fun and we could not have felt more welcomed at Corner Table. Thanks to Chef Scott and staff for a very fun and memorable evening. See you in August!

03 June, 2010

An ode to the bitter one.

A couple of nights ago, I was lucky enough to be with a group of adventurous wine drinkers who wanted to try something different. One of the group was determined to taste something expensive and this Amarone from Zenato fit the bill. At $70, (retail, not restaraunt) it's not a wine I would pick up on the spur of the moment, yet when you think about splitting this with 4 other people, it's not so bad.

Amarone is one of Italy's national treasures.  The word literally means "bitter one." Made in the Veneto region by the same producers of Valpolicella with similar grapes (Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara; I hadn't heard of them either) but with an entirely different process. First, the grapes are left on the vine longer, increasing their sweetness and ripeness. But what makes Amarone so different is that the grapes are then dried on straw mats for several months before they are pressed. The grapes dry and raisinate, concentrating the sugars and the flavors. The wines are then aged, often in barrels, for five or more years. Not surprising, then is the typically high price tag.

But, oh, what a wine! This is not a casual wine, it's serious stuff packing a whopping 16.5% alcohol. Full bodied and dense, you'll imediately notice a great deal of dried fruit and dried black fruit: black cherries, blackberries, prunes, and figs. You'll also pick up some notes of chocolate, vanilla and earth. Medium tannins, full body, and that knock out punch of alcohol. Certainly, not an everyday wine, this is a great wine for intense cheeses at the end of a meal, especially a meat heavy meal of lamb or braised beef.


02 June, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: Supertaster

Ever have a friend who seems to have a stronger response to food and wine? That friend might be a supertaster. Supertasters are defined as those who experience taste with more intensity than others. Literally, they have more taste receptors (or buds) on their tongue. It is estimated that 25% of the population are supertaster, although that percentage increases among women, Asians, and African Americans.

In wine tasting, it has been wrongly believed that supertasters are better at picking out flavors in wine. In fact, number of taste receptors has little to do with the ability to pick out flavors and aromas in wine. Rather, the better wine tasters are those who have been trained and those with good memories. Check this out next time you're having a glass. Pay attention to the wine as it's in your mouth (hold it in a little longer too.) Are you having a hard time tasting the flavors or are you having a hard time identifying the flavors that you detect? If it's the latter, that's really all about memory and assigning words to those flavors.

There is a way to check if you're a supertaster, but it's messy. Using blue food coloring, swab the tip of your tongue. Your tongue will turn blue, but your taste buds stay pink. Take a piece of paper with a hole punched in it, about .5 inch in diameter. Place the paper on the front portion of your tongue and count how many buds are inside the hole. (Might help to have a magnifying glass for this.) The average person will have 15 to 35 taste buds, the supertaster will have more than 35. (Thanks to Jamie Goode's The Science of Wine for this handy test.)

Me? I'm going to just assume I'm average and forego a blue tongue.