30 July, 2010

Left Bank. Right Bank.

(Image via clodius_maximus' flickr)

Yesterday I was yammering on about a great Right Bank wine, only to have my friend say, "The right bank of what?" Hmmm, I guess my inner wine geek was showing a little too much here.

So here's the 411. Left Bank and Right Bank refer to two separate regions of Bordeaux in France. They are each located on two separate rivers (the Garonne and the Dordogne) which meet and create the Gironde Estuary. These geological features are important because they create very different growing areas and therefore, they create very different wines. There's a great map here.

Both regions favor growing a mix of different grapes to combat climatic variations. This acts like an insurance policy against things like hail or rain. By planting different grapes and creating a blend each year, the winemaker can be assured that he will have something good to offer the buying public year after year. So if the weather conditions render the Cabernet Sauvignon crop less than spectacular, there will be four other grape crops that can be used to fill the void. Those four other grape varietals are Merlot (giving the wine a nice softness and great color), Cabernet Franc (offering great aromatics), Petit Verdot (a contributor of color and structure) and Malbec (adding tannin and color).

First, the Left Bank. This region is famous for gravely soils that are heat retaining and well drained. These soils favor the Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs heat to ripen. It doesn't do well in the Right Bank because it has difficulty ripening in the region's cooler soils. The majority of the left bank wines will have a blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The best assurance of good wine from the Left Bank is to buy from one of the better regions and to be prepared to spend a little more. Look for Paulliac Margaux (the region, not the famously priced Chateau), and St. Julien.

Second, the Right Bank. As I've alluded to above, the soils of this region are very different. The are more moisture retaining clay, which Merlot does very, very well in. This region, too, creates blended wines but Merlot will be the dominant grape. Interesting, though that the most expensive wines in the world can come from this region, even though the Merlot grape has been much maligned in recent years. Petrus and Cheval Blanc are two Chateaus that are much celebrated Merlot blends. And here's a bit of ironic trivia for you. In the movie Sideways, Miles loudly proclaims, "I'm not drinking any f*@$ing Merlot!" However, his treasure wine that he's been saving for a special occasion is a 1961 Cheval Blanc. Yep, a Merlot.  If you're going looking for a Right Bank wine, try something from Pomerol or St. Emilion.

Finally, a word about pricing. Be prepared to spend $30 to $40 for one of these wines. Bordeaux is typically overpriced (in my opinion). There are cheaper options out there, but frankly, they are not very reliable and relatively poorly made. If you're looking for a big red in a lower price point, you are better off buying something from California, Washington State, Australia or South America.


28 July, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: Green.

 (Photo from Champagne Tarlant) 

Tasters often describe wines like Sauvignon blanc as "green," but there is a great deal of variance in the word green. If you're tempted to use that word, consider asking yourself to be more specific about what kind of green. Try taking your tasting note to a new level. Here are a number of ways a wine can be "green":

Green fruit: green fig, honeydew melon, green apple
Bitter green: arugula, green tea ice cream
Exotic green: lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaf
Smoky green: Lapsang Souchong tea
Citrusy green: lime
Vegetable: pea pods, green beans, green bell peppers
Green herb: sage, thyme
Piquant green: jalapeño chilies
Green outdoors: new-mown grass, meadows 


27 July, 2010

How to become a better taster.

 Are professional tasters just naturally better at tasting than the average person?

No, no, and no.

What makes them better tasters is that they taste more frequently and that they have systematic way of evaluating each wine. They use that system each time they taste, even if seems that they are pulling those flavors out of thin air (or sometimes thin wine).

Here's a quick guide for when you are evaluating a wine through either smell or taste: Just look for a FEW things.

Fruit, Earth, Wood.

Start by asking yourself, what fruits are here? Citrus? Apples? Tropical? Berries? Prunes? It's good to have a list of general fruit categories that you can use as a check-list. In a later post, we'll dive into those lists for both white wine and red wines.

Next, ask yourself, is there earthy notes in the wine? Earthy notes include mushrooms, dried leaves, forest floor, truffles, peat and more. However, if all you can detect is earthiness, you're good to move on to the next question. This is a good way to determine is a wine is from the old world as old world styles tend to emphasize earthy flavors over fruit flavors.

Finally, ask yourself, do I detect wood? What you're looking for here is evidence that the wine has been either fermented or aged using oak barrels or other form of oak. This will present itself as tasting like wood or perhaps cedar or in other forms such a vanilla, coconut, and smoke.

That's it. Use this system each time you taste a wine, and soon you'll be tasting like a pro.

Let me know how it goes!


21 July, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: AOC.

 (Image via steve_lacy941's flickr)

Today we're not really looking at a word, but an acronym. AOC is part of the wine classification system of France (and many other countries have adopted similar systems of regulations). It stands for Appellation d'Origine Controlee (with appropriate accent markings which I admit a cannot figure out how to do in Blogger) and translates to "Controlled Name of Origin." It refers to a specific place with delimited boundaries and the set of regulations regarding the grape growing  and winemaking standards the wine producer must follow in order to use AOC or refer to the appellation on their labels. Regulations include permitted grape varieties, minimum sugar levels at harvest, aging, and other winemaking techniques. AOC's can refer to a region, a district, a Commune,  or even a single vineyard. And yes it's complicated and does require some knowledge to be able to understand a French wine label.

I could go through some of the details here, but frankly, that could get a bit boring. My personal philosophy on studying a French wine label is you better have some French wine to taste alongside the "lecture."  What is interesting is the history behind why these laws exist. It all started with the new found ability to more easily cross the Atlantic Ocean via steamship in the 1800's. French and American wine makers started to "trade" grapevine cuttings and roots and along with those cuttings came a tiny louse called phylloxera. American grapevines and rootstock had immunity to this little pest but the French vines were devastated by it. By the mid to late 1800's the majority of the French vineyards were destroyed with little solution in sight. With huge pent up demand and little supply to satisfy it, fraud became rampant. North African wine, for example, was being passed of as prestigious Burgundy. In order to protect the consumer, the French government created a system of regulations that both protected the growers and assured consumers of the wine's authenticity. The system has been in place since the 1930's and is updated every now and again.

Now, I don't expect you to go out and learn about French wine laws, but do know that when you see AOC on a French label, you are being assured of some level of quality. Whether you'll like the wine is a different story.


19 July, 2010

A great sparkling wine from an unexpected place.

When you think of sparkling wine, you most likely think of places like Champagne or California. But would you have ever expected a quality sparkling wine, let alone a quality wine from New Mexico? I didn't think so, because this really surprised me, too. In fact, it's likely you've seen this wine at your local wine shop and didn't think twice about where it came from; you might have even thought it was from France. I'm talking about Gruet Sparkling Wine from the Gruet Winery just outside Albequerque, NM.

First, let's tackle why this delicious wine comes from such an unexpected place. It's been determined that fine wine is best produced between 30 and 50 degrees North and South latitude. New Mexico is at 31 to 34 degrees north of the equator so it just squeaks by. By comparison, North Africa is at 38 degrees and Southern Italy is at 40 degrees latitude. Still this seems like it could be too warm to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both traditionally cool climate grapes that are used in these sparklers.  The secret is the altitude. They grow at 4300 feet so while it may get hot during the day, it can very cool at night, dropping 30 degrees. This is significant because this night time cooling allows the ripening process to slow down, exactly what these grape varieties need -- a long growing season.

I was lucky enough on Saturday night to attend a surprise birthday party for a friend and one of the guests brought the Gruet non-vintage Rose. It was delicious and like most sparklers, pairs with most everything very nicely. Here are the tasting notes from the website:

This nearly garnet Rose, like all our non-vintage sparkling wines, is aged 24 months en tirage. It has a lovely, bright floral bouquet with hints of strawberry, raspberry, and cherry. On the palate, it is rich and fruity in a dry, Brut style. The flavor of berries continues on the palate, revealing more strawberry, raspberry, cherry. 

Gruet is widely distributed, so seek some out and enjoy!


15 July, 2010

Paella and Bordeaux

(Image via bluewaikiki's flickr)

I must admit that I prefer white wines with seafood dishes so the headline of this WSJ post caught my eye. Lucky Jay McInerney is a neighbor of Eric Ripert, the famed seafood chef of Le Bernardin in New York. The article relays a tale of a great paella dinner cooked by Ripert and served with a great Bordeaux.

What makes this pairing work? Says McInereny, a heavy hand with the chorizo. Yum. Sounds like a dish and a pairing I'll have to try soon. Maybe I can get my Ribs and Red friends to join in. Anyone else up for some fun?

Check out the post, you'll be inspired and jealous.


14 July, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: Bouquet and Aroma.

(Image via supermariolxpt's flickr.)

What do you smell when you sniff your wine? Where do words like tobacco and mushrooms come from? These are words that typically describe a wine's bouquet versus its aroma. (You're getting two words today since it's impossible to talk about one without describing the other.) Yes, these are technically different terms in wine tasting, yet they are often used interchangeably and often confused. 

Aroma describes those smells that are derived from the grape itself. These words will be familiar to you. They are all the fruit and floral words you read in tasting notes. Green apple, lemon, mango, peach, raspberry, black currant, strawberry, cherry, violets, gardenia, figs, and hundreds more.

Bouquet on the other hand describes those smells that are derived from processing or aging the wine. This is where the funkier terms come in: Mushroom, cigar box, damp leaves, vanilla, earth, leather, tobacco, cedar, and so on. 

This is one of the ways that professional tasters can detect the age of a wine. An older wine will have a predominate bouquet while its aromas will be muted. Why would that be important, you ask? When wine is being purchased as an investment or a high end wine is being served at a restaurant, you need to be wary of fakes or being served the wrong wine. Knowing how something should taste helps them be better consumers of wine. 



13 July, 2010

Twin Cities Wine Event: Andrea Robinson

 (Photo from Andrea's Website)

When I was first learning about wine, I came across a show hosted by Andrea Immer Robinson on the Fine Living Network. The Fine Living Network is now defunct and I don't recall the name of the show, but I do remember that Andrea made wine accessible and down to earth. She gave simple guidelines (note: not rules) for choosing wines to pair with foods.

Andrea's now an enterprise or really a brand with great books and a great website. She also works with Macy's Culinary Council and they are hosting a free food and wine pairing event at the Macy's Southdale in Edina. The event will launch Andrea's new wine glass: The One, an all purpose wine glass good for both reds and whites. It's something that I know many people who enjoy wine but don't like the fussiness of it all will appreciate. I just checked them out and they are very pretty.

Here are the details:

Wednesday July 14
Macy's Southdale in Edina (third floor Home Department)

Andrea will pour forth a lesson on the basics of proper food and wine partners while she shares some of her favorite recipes for you to sample. This Master Sommelier and Chef will also introduce her new stemware collection - "The One"TM - which is available at Macy's and is a line created to take the guesswork out of choosing the proper wine glass. Customers making a purchase of the The One TM stemware the day of the event will receive a complimentary copy of Andrea's 2010 Wine Buying Guide for Everyone. Following the cooking demonstration, Andrea will be available to meet greet customers and sign copies of cookbook purchases made the day of the event. Andrea's latest cookbook, Great Wine Made Simple, will be made available for purchase the day of the event.

You'll need to call and make reservations for this event as seating is limited. The number is  1800-329-8667. Click here for more information.

Thanks to Genna at 100andsouth.com for the heads up on this event!

Maybe I'll see you there!


12 July, 2010

Gewurztraminer: Love it or hate it.

I think of all the wines and grapes I've introduced people to, Gewurztraminer is the most polarizing. People either love it or hate it. Those that hate it often believe it's a very sweet wine, which it can be as it is vinified in a variety of styles. Others find its aggressive aroma off-putting; it's very floral and fruity with aromas of roses, gardenias, peaches, mangoes and lychee. Those that love it have come to know its spiciness as unique and easy  to distinguish. They know it's a great accompaniment to spicy foods such as Asian cuisine or Indian cuisine. Some just avoid it since it's so hard to pronounce. Ga-verz-tra-meaner.

The first time I had a Gewurztraminer was in college. It was probably at the first wine tasting I had ever attended. At this point I was a fan of sweeter wines and was often seen drinking wine spritzers made with Piesporter Michelsburg, which at the time, I didn't even know was a Riesling. One of the group had brought the Gewurztraminer. We had no idea how to pronounce it, so we just called it #2, the order in which we tasted it. We liked it, yet never figured out how to pronounce it so for years after we always referred to it as #2.

As time went on, I moved on to other wines, often finding the Gewurztraminer in restaraunts too sweet as my palate started to perfer drier styles, until one day when I had my first taste of Singapore cuisine at Straits in San Francisco.

Singapore and Malaysian cuisine is wonderfully flavorful and spicy, dominated by ginger, garlic, coconut, lemongrass and chilies. Straits did a wonderful thing and had wine recommendations for each of their dishes and that's how I found one of my favorite Gewurztraminers by Navarro of Mendocino.

This wine is not the typical sweet Gewurztraminer you often find on the wine by the glass list. It's a dry wine yet still incredibly aromatic and fruity. It's been hit with most everyone who's tried it. This wine is worth seeking out, yet you may need to order direct from the winery. Good news, however, if you order a case you will get a discount and they often give free shipping. And they have many other wonderful wines. You can even order one of their sampler packs. Here are the tasting notes for the Dry Gewurztraminer from their web site:

Floral aromas leap out of the glass in the 2008 bottling and the flavors suggest peach, quince and lychee. There are hints of vanilla from the oak casks and yeasty notes from aging on the yeast. It is dry, refreshingly tart and balanced to complement sausages, curry or Pad Thai. Gold Medal winner. Best of Class.


07 July, 2010

Wine Word Wednesday: Structure.

(Image via obenson's flickr)

For the longest time, I would read tasting notes and see that a wine had good structure. But, honestly, I had no idea what that meant. At first, I thought it must mean that it was big and bold, since it's often a word used with wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. And then I would run across a Riesling that was described as having a good structure. Huh? These wines are very different.

So I tried a Google search and found this: "structure: the way a wine is built; its composition and proportions." Hmmm. Clear as mud, right?

What I have come to learn through my studies with the International Sommelier Guild, is that structure is the components that support the body of the wine, just like a skeleton supports the human body.  So in wine, it's the tannin, acid, sugar and alcohol that supports the luscious fruit. Without these components, any wine will be boring and flabby, no zip, no reason to want to sip again and again. These components make the fruit come alive in your mouth.

These also do something more. A well structured wine gives it the ability to age for many years, evolving into something different, more interesting. Tannin and acidity in particular can be particularly off-putting in a wines youth. However, with age, they will soften and blend into the fruit creating something spectacular, just like a good stew or chili become better the next day.


04 July, 2010

Seduced by a pretty label.

When faced with a line of unknown options, I usually look to the staff reviews for a description of the wine. It can go a long way in helping me understand what the drinking experience is going to be like. But at some wine shops and liquor stores they neglect this simple selling tool. In these cases, I'll admit, the label can do a lot to influence my purchase. While I avoid critter labels, I do find myself drawn to great design and intersting stories.

This is exactly what happend to me and a friend last Friday. It was a beautiful afternoon (although a little hot, but we in Minnesota really shouldn't complain about heat), perfect for whiling away the afternoon on the deck. The perfect wine? A nice Italian prosecco, bubbly, light and refreshing. We had been to lunch and decided to stop by the liquor store for a cold bottle since neither of us had any chilled already.  None of the labels that were available were familiar to us, but this bottle stood out.

It's fairly rare to see the color of blue on a wine label, which made the La Marca Prosecco our choice for the afternoon. And this wine is as delicious as it is pretty. It's dry and crisp, a little less sweet that most proseccos, which in my book is a good thing. I could taste load of ripe apples and a little bit of lemon. It also had amazingly tiny bubbles, smaller that is typical for this style of wine, very impressive, indeed.


01 July, 2010

Ribs and Red.

Not long ago I got together with friends for a rose tasting. We went through 6 or 7 bottles of rose (between the 4 of us) and at the end of the evening, we vowed to do a Ribs and Red evening. Well, what I really like about these friends is that they follow through on their less than sober declarations. 

Our first annual (hopefully, there will be a second next year) Ribs and Red fest was last Saturday night and it was a resounding success. There were no shortage of ribs, three of us made a couple of racks each. You can see how amazing they looked and how different all three versions were. 

These baby back ribs were made with both a dry rub and a sauce. The sauce was homemade with peaches and had an amazing fruity flavor. Just look at that mahogany bark!

These spare ribs were dry rubbed and offered up with a variety of sauces from an apple mustard sauce to a traditional bbq sauce.

These St. Louis Cut ribs were dry rubbed with Memphis Dust and served with a homemade BBQ sauce from Amazingribs.com. Since I made these, I can offer you the recipes for both. Just click on the links for both to get the recipe. BTW, there are many more great BBQ recipes on the site I'm linking you to. Can't wait to try more of them.

Everyone brought at least 2 wines. We had everything from Carmenere to Zinfandel so there was a great variety to taste with. Here was our line up: 

Fortunately for our livers, we didn't get to open each one. We started by opening 5 of them and placed them along side the ribs and let everyone pair them with the ribs at their discretion. Here are my notes:  

MontGras Carmenere
Carmenere was once a Bordeaux grape that was brought to Chile in the 1850's. It was thought to be Merlot until recently when it was DNA typed. Chile has had great success with it. This particular bottle was quite good. Some Carmenere's have lots of tobacco and cocoa flavors, but this one was very fruity with lots of black cherry and an undertone of earthiness. Had the tobacco and cocoa been more forward this wouldn't have paired well with the ribs. However, with all that fruit, it paired wonderfully. 

Guenoc Zinfandel
Zinfandel is a classic pair for bbq ribs. In fact, my wine instructor here in the Twin Cities has a group of friends that get together annual for a ribs and zin. There's a lot of pressure to bring the best Zin. This one didn't disappoint. It had great flavors of dried fruit and blackberry; very jammy. For some in the group, this was the best pairing with the ribs.

 Henry's Drive Shiraz
This was my personal favorite of the wine pairings. Australian Shiraz is another classic pairing with ribs, (note, not French Syrah. The latter is too earthy and too gamey to pair well.) This particular wine was loaded with great fruit: blackberries, black raspberries and vanilla and coconut flavors from being fermented and aged in oak barrels. The tannins were incredibly soft and luscious. The one downside of this wine was the high levels of alcohol -- a whopping 16%. I almost passed on it because of that. Glad I didn't.

Torremoron Tempranillo
This wine was a miss with the ribs. On its own or with a different food pairing, we all thought this would be a good wine, but alas with ribs, it was just too high in acid and tannin. That said, it had nice fruit flavors of cherry, cranberry and fig. I'd like to try it with something different at another time. 

Etim Seleccion
Lastly, we tried this Spanish wine from the Montsant region. It's a grenache blend that garnered 91 points from Robert Parker last year. At $9 a bottle at Costco, I couldn't help but pick up a case in hopes that it would age well year to year. Our assessment was that it was OK with the Ribs, but not great. Compared to last year, it had really flattened out. There was still good fruit in the mouth but it had lost more of it's zip than I had expected and the flavors were a bit muddied. As my friend suggested, it might make a better cheese and olives wine.

Whew. It was a great evening and we'll definitely repeat a Ribs and Red event in the future. In the meantime, what do you like to drink with ribs? (BTW, beer is also a good answer as that's what my husband drank all night during Ribs and Red!)