The Art of Wine Tasting

If you’re going to learn about wine, you have to know how to taste it. That doesn’t mean tossing back a big gulp of vino and deciding whether you like it; there are steps and dimensions to tasting, and they get pretty involved. Tasting correctly has nothing to do with whether you enjoy a particular wine; it’s your vehicle for describing the wine to others – and one of the best places to appreciate that process is The Winemakers Studio in Livermore Valley, California, part of the iconic Wente Vineyards.

I was there with other bloggers attending the Wine Bloggers Conference in August, and we got an up-close look at “all the critical decision points a winemaker goes through every day,” our guide told us.

One of the most important aspects of tasting wine is detecting its various smells. Our first session was the Wine Aroma Experience, pictured above, where we took whiffs of pure essences that could have been any fruit, bark, seed, nut, vegetable or spice, and tried to match them with the actual samples on the table. The idea was to “reach back into our memories and bring back experiences” we associate with those smells. Fruits and spices are easiest for me, but spices always trip me up.

Our next stop was Wine & Food Pairing, with a twist: instead of pairing foods with two different wines, we sipped two vintages of the same wine – a 2014 and 2015 Semillon by Cuda Ridge Wines. I’d never tried pairing foods with different vintages of the same wine before, and was surprised at how they influenced the foods differently.

Pairing photo

For starters, the wines looked different – the 2014 was watery-white, while the 2015 had more of a corn-silk hue. Tasting both with crab salad, the 2015’s minerality came through much more than the older wine, which was more mellow with a strong pear taste. With the brie, the 2014 was predictably richer and “bigger” than the 2015, which was noticeably more tart, cutting into the creamy brie taste.

We went on to “Size & Shape Matters,” a session showing how a glass can influence the aroma and taste of the wine. I’ve written on this (and probably will do a blog post on glasses at some point), so I knew the wine in the crystal Riedel glass would taste much smoother and more expensive than the same wine in what the instructor called the “Outback Steakhouse glass.”

Our last class was a blind tasting. Wine was poured into two black glasses – one white wine, one red – and we had to guess which of four varietals each wine was. The answers were Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon; I missed both because I didn’t think they would give us such obvious choices. I was wrong!

Classes at The Winemakers Studio are open to the public, but you have to book in advance at 925-456-2385. You can take one class or all four, or a special wine blending workshop. Our sessions were abbreviated; plan on one to two hours per class, and have fun with it!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Fruit-forward = A wine is said to be fruit-forward when tastes of fruit dominate over all other tastes, such as oak, spices or smoke. Some use the term “fruit-driven.” The fruity taste will be most noticeable towards the front of your mouth.

Mark West Black, small

Vino ‘View: As summer ends, I’m not quite ready for the bold Cabs and Zins that I love, but I get a hankering for something red. The perfect compromise is 2014 Mark West Black Pinot Noir (13.5% alcohol, $13.99). The color is a dark wine-red – I once had a skirt that color; we called it “burgundy.” The wine is full-bodied for a Pinot, and I feel some heat as it goes down, though the alcohol level isn’t high. Aromas of smoke, dry leaves and blackberries remind me that fall is almost here, and the taste has a lot of layers – it’s fruit-forward with black raspberry flavor, then dark chocolate, black walnuts, black olives, smoke, and a slight peppery note emerge. There is, as they say, a lot going on in that glass.

Enjoy your holiday!

Mary

[Bottle shot courtesy of Mark West Wines. This bottle was sent by the producer to be reviewed.]

 

 

 

When Wine Bloggers Meet: 8 Takeaways

As soon as I heard about the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, I knew I had to be there – and what a spectacle it was! With about 300 of my new best friends, I swirled, sipped and spit my way through the Livermore Valley and Lodi, California wine country. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

1) Yes, you can appreciate good wine at 8:15 a.m.

image

The good folks at Murrieta’s Well Estate Vineyard prepared a lavish breakfast for us one morning, paired with three of their tastiest wines. “Best of show” for me was The Spur, their primo red blend, which sells for $30/bottle.

2) Those aren’t grapevines, they’re windmills.

You can’t miss the massive wind farm on the fringe of the valley; the freeway cuts right through it. You’ll be surrounded by nearly 5,000 small-ish wind turbines, but they’re gradually being replaced by bigger turbines – it turns out the smaller version kills some 4,700 birds each year, 1,300 of them raptors. The new turbines sit higher and turn more slowly, so they’ll be less dangerous to animals.

3) If you want a career in wine, volunteer at a winery and learn the basics.

Sounds simple enough, but not all would-be winemakers get it. “We get kids coming to us all the time, wanting a job,” Stuart Spencer, program manager at the Lodi Grape Commission, told his audience. “They have oenology degrees, but they don’t know how to hook up a pump.”

4) There’s a “trail” for everything, even plants that don’t get thirsty.

Livermore Valley has a “drought-resistant trail,” showcasing drought-resistant gardens or plants at wineries. California is in its 5th year of drought with no relief in sight (something to keep in mind if you dream of owning a vineyard on the West Coast), and this trail is popular among visitors who garden.

5) “Old vine” in these parts means really old.

It’s a little comical, here in the Midwest, when wineries label their 30-year-old wines “old vine.” In Lodi and Livermore, it’s not uncommon to find century-old vineyards, some dating back to the early 1880s. Now, that is wine with character.

6) No, you’re not in Greece, but go ahead and pretend.

Those tall, skinny, pointy trees dotting the landscape are Cypress trees, a familiar sight in Greece and other Mediterranean countries. It makes sense; Livermore has a Mediterranean climate. At least five species of Cypress grow here, some reaching a height of 65 feet, and they’re gorgeous juxtaposed against palm trees and oaks.

7) Some of the finest spirits around are crafted by artisans.

image

I learned that at the after-hours Spirits Lounge, organized by “whiskyologist” Justin Koury. Two standouts: Few Rye Whiskey, produced by Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, and Willie’s Coffee Cream Liqueur by Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana, possibly the best-tasting drink in the history of drinking.

8) Winemakers are generous souls.

This was evident when so many hosted us, led workshops and spent hours talking with us – even though they were in the middle of their grape harvest. They also shared their finest top-shelf wines, most notably Ehlers Estate’s 2013 “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon ($110/bottle) and Livermore Valley’s Lineage ($165/bottle).

I have much more to share about the Wine Bloggers Conference, but I’ll save it for next week.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Tears = These used to be called “legs,” but if you use that term in front of wine people they’ll think you’re old-fashioned. You can see tears on the inside of your wineglass after you swirl your wine. They’ll be more evident with higher-alcohol wines (say, above 13 percent) and, of course, easier to see with reds. There may also be a relationship between tears and the wine’s age; that’s one of those geeky points experts like to debate. The scientific explanation of tears involves molecules and something called “interfacial tension,” but if I talk about that my brain will hurt and I’ll need someone to bring me alcohol.

Vino ‘Views:  It would make sense to review a California red today, especially since August 28 is  Red Wine Day, but I have Abruzzo on my mind. An earthquake devastated much of central Italy this week. I can’t do much to support the region, but I can pour their wine and send good thoughts for their quick recovery. I’ve chosen a bottle of delicious Borgo Thaulero Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (13% alcohol), a dark ruby-colored wine that leaves thicker, creamier tears than you’d expect for a wine of this alcohol level. The smoky, dark-grape aroma prepares you for smoke and a little leather in your mouth, mixed with ripe plums and a long blackberry finish. The body is medium-light, so in spite of the bold tastes I wouldn’t drink this with anything heavy like steak or sausage. This is more a chicken sausage-with-pasta wine, with lots of Parmesan on top. 

Salute!

Mary

 

In Praise of Cheap Blackberry Brandy

My last few weeks were spent on the couch, nursing bronchitis, doing as little as possible and coughing a lot. There’s not much you can do to comfort a sick person – sometimes an illness just has to run its course – but I did find some soothing relief in a drink I remembered from my childhood: blackberry brandy.

We’re not talking Cognac or Armagnac here. Leave the Hennessy for a better day. When your chest is congested and you’re on your fifth box of tissues, reach for the bottom-shelf stuff. It’s the only kind that works.

Brandy

The word “brandy” is a modern version of the Dutch word, “brandewijin,” or “burnt wine.” Dutch traders in the 16th century distilled their wine to help preserve it while it was shipped to Holland. Shipments also were taxed according to volume, and without the water their shipments were smaller. They intended to add water back into the higher-alcohol liquid on arrival, but once their customers sampled the distilled version, more potent and tastier after being stored in wooden casks, they liked it more than the original wine.

My mom used to pour me a little blackberry brandy when I had a bad cold. She said it would make me feel better – and as it turns out, Mom knew what she was talking about. Brandy, blackberry in particular, has healing qualities that have since been documented, I kid you not. A few things medical researchers have learned:

  • Blackberry brandy is packed with antioxidants, especially vitamin C, which helps protect against damage by free radicals. (For that reason, some advocates say it also helps prevent the spread of cancer, but I think that might be stretching it.)
  • In moderate amounts, blackberry brandy boosts heart health and your immune system.
  • Again in moderate amounts, blackberry brandy helps you to relax. Duh.
  • Blackberry brandy can help with sleep issues. That’s why it’s often served after dinner; in olden days people believed it helped them prepare for sleep.
  • A 2009 study in the journal Food Chemistry showed that the longer blackberry brandy ages, the higher its antioxidant levels.
  • The brandy’s antioxidants have anti-aging qualities.
  • Blackberry brandy contains selenium, a cancer-fighting mineral.
  • Finally, the quality most useful to me this summer: blackberry brandy aids with respiratory issues; it helps to loosen phlegm and mucus. To me, it just feels better than other spirits for a chest cold.

It doesn’t take much before you can feel its healing effects. I usually poured a 1- or 2-ounce shot and sipped on it for an hour or two. And if you’re not sick but want to relax with a drink of brandy, serve it in a stemmed “tulip glass” or “balloon glass,” made of the finest crystal you can afford. Don’t swirl brandy in the glass; that mixes and dissipates its subtle aromas. I like my brandy neat, with no ice or mixer, but if you feel like experimenting, you can find plenty of brandy cocktail recipes online.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Brandy = distilled wine or fruit juice. When wine is distilled, in simple terms, the water in the liquid evaporates. Without the water, the more condensed liquid has a much higher alcohol level than the original wine. The Paramount brandy in the photo above is 37.5% alcohol, or 75 proof – almost as high-proof as many whiskies.

Vino ‘Views:  Once I started feeling better, my taste for wine returned (thank goodness!). Since it’s been such a hot summer, I opened what I thought would be a crisp white: 2015 Tariquet Classic (10.5% alcohol, $9.99).

Tariquet small

With its low alcohol level, this Gascony creation is a great summer-evening wine – but we were surprised it’s so young, because it tastes much more “together” than that. It’s a blend of Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon and Gros Manseng – dry as August and fruity as the tropics. The first taste in my mouth was bananas, then some melon came through, and finally soft citrus. We drank it with fried chicken and coleslaw – a wonderful value and delicious!

Sip in good health!

Mary

Bastille Meal: No Big Deal (Just Add Wine)

It was a grass-roots movement that actually succeeded: the storming of the Bastille by a mob of raging Parisians on July 14, 1789. Louis XIV’s ruthless soldiers had been holding political prisoners there, and the powerless but growing proletariat was fed up.

image

So they revolted, liberating the prisoners – all seven of them – and taking down the monarchy’s most conspicuous symbol. Today the French celebrate Bastille Day – La Fête Nationale, national holiday since 1880.

They do know how to celebrate; they’ve even named an official Bastille Day drink: Lillet, an apéritif or, according to EU law, an “aromatized wine.” Produced in Podensac, a small village south of Bordeaux, Lillet is an apéritif, 85 percent a “blend of rigorously selected wines” and 15 percent fruit liqueurs.

Meals for this holiday are hassle free: there are no traditional foods connected to Bastille Day, but you’ll find families literally “breaking bread” together, eating simple peasant foods as a nod to their rebellious ancestors. Baguettes, cheeses, charcuterie and a bottle of wine will do; some get a bit fancier, serving savory crêpes filled with mushrooms and sausage or bacon.

If you’re in Paris this week, you’ll be treated to spectacular fireworks and the world’s largest and oldest military parade. Wherever you celebrate, let’s raise a glass to the proletariat everywhere – and to liberation!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Apéritif = a drink served before a meal to stimulate the appetite.

image

Vino ‘Views:  I like a light-bodied red with my savory crêpes, so I picked up a bottle of 2013 Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Réserve Rouge (13% alcohol, $12.99). Ruby-red and fading to a rim that can only be described as fuchsia, this wine stands up to a savory dish, yet lets you know its origins with a scent of lavender. Mild tannins and gentle tastes of strawberries and tropical fruits make Les Dauphins Rouge a great choice for a summer evening.

Vive la France!

Cheers,

Mary

[Photo of Bastille Day celebration, courtesy of the United Nations/Rick Bajornas via Flickr]

 

The Great Chocolate-and-Wine Myth

If you’ve ever felt like devouring a giant wedge of chocolate cake for dinner, today you have an excuse: it’s World Chocolate Day, and according to Wikipedia, “celebration of the day includes the consumption of chocolate.” Duh.

Choc.cake

My mom baked the most decadent chocolate cake; she added mayonnaise for extra moistness. When she cooked a pot of chili, she included a square of dark chocolate to make it richer. From Oreos to truffles, brownies, fudge, hot chocolate or Trader Joe’s dark chocolate-covered coffee beans, we all know some form of chocolate that makes us swoon.

Supposedly, this day marks Europe’s first introduction to chocolate, 466 years ago – but this dark delight has been around a lot longer than that. Ancient Mayans (250-900 A.D.) came upon cacao in the rainforest and taught themselves to roast and grind the seeds into a paste. They mixed it with chile peppers, cornmeal and water to make a spicy drink they later traded to the Aztecs; priests in both societies served it in religious ceremonies. But they didn’t grow sugarcane, so chocolate didn’t sweeten up until the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in the 1500s. They took it back to Spain where someone thought to add sugar and cinnamon, and dessert was served.

Chocolate was one of George Washington’s favorite beverages. A century later in 1886, Milton Hershey launched his biz, but it wasn’t until 1900, when he began mass-producing milk chocolate, that chocolate became affordable.

And somehow, over the years, people got it into their heads that chocolate should be paired with Cabernet Sauvignon and other BigSexyReds. But they make a terrible pairing, and the fact that this misinformation endures is one of the most annoying myths in the wine world.

You don’t believe me? Ye of little faith. Try this: take a bite of your chocolate cake or brownie. Now sip your Cab. That unpleasant sensation near the back of your tongue? It’s bitterness – not dryness, not citrus tang. Harsh bitterness. Pairing chocolate and Cabernet kills the rich, smooth, delicious tastes of both the wine and chocolate.

Now try this: open a nice bottle of Port – Vintage if you can afford it, but Ruby will do nicely. Match the wine to the chocolate if you can; the darker the chocolate, the darker you want your Port. If you’re eating a lighter milk chocolate, pair it with a light Tawny Port.

Bite the brownie, sip the Port – notice the difference? The alcohol and depth of your slightly sweet Port meet the richness of your chocolate, and they kiss. They’re transformed and elevated; each mellows the other and brings out their more subdued qualities.

Now, go ahead and indulge – once a year you deserve a chocolate dinner!

Vino ‘View:  We’re having a heat wave in Ohio. That means glorious summer, a good time to introduce this sometime-feature because I want a light wine tonight – and if it’s a red, “light” usually means Pinot Noir. 

Mark West PN

I’ve tasted this Mark West 2014 California Pinot Noir, and it’s perfect for dinner on the porch (yep, that’s my front porch). It’s young enough to show plenty of acidity, enhanced by the coastal breezes cooling the vineyards. The flavors are summery, too: strawberries, blueberries, cola, a touch of black pepper – a good, soft vino to drink with a cold chicken salad. Since it’s so warm, I’ll chill the wine for about 15 minutes before I open it. (Alcohol 13.5%, $10.99/750ml)

Wine Lingo of the Day:  CadastroPortugal’s vineyard ranking system. The DOC (the officially sanctioned quality wine region) assesses vineyards on 12 factors that influence the wine, including altitude and yield. Vineyards are ranked on their total scores, A through F; that ranking determines the Beneficio, or the volume of Port the government allows each vineyard to produce that year.

[Photo, “Triple Chocolate Cake,” by Meraj Chhaya via Flickr.]

Cheers!

Mary 

 

LeBron, This Wine’s For You!

Pardon me if I sound a little giddy today, but I live in Cleveland (a.k.a. Believeland), and the town is wacko-nuts this week after the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Championship for the first time in franchise history. And by wacko-nuts, I mean an estimated 1.3 million fans  – more than three times the city’s population – left their air conditioning in 90° temps for a glimpse of King James on parade.

King James

In case you’ve been living in Uzbekistan, LeBron “I’m-just-a-kid-from-Akron-Ohio” James is the pivotal reason (pun intended) why Cleveland brought home its first championship trophy in any pro sport since 1964. LeBron, a 4-time MVP, is more than a basketball player; he’s an orchestrator, a natural leader, and from all indications a gentleman and attentive dad. Sure it takes a team to bring home the trophy, but it was LeBron’s mastery, more than any other single factor, that left the Golden State Warriors in Cleveland’s rear-view mirror. He grounded the Cavs in an almost supernatural way, and we mortals had never witnessed such extraordinary leadership on one of our teams. We were all in.

James started training for this moment when he was still a kid playing for Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, skipping college after he graduated to join the Cavaliers’ roster. But the move didn’t diminish his respect for education: since then, he’s picked up the tab for dozens of inner-city kids, spending millions of his own money for their schooling.

Ohio’s favorite son is ambidextrous, a lefty who usually shoots with his right hand. During the parade, it looked as if all the Cavs were using their right hands to swig their Moët Nectar Impérial Rosé, a pale-coral Champagne that will sell for $5,000 per jewel-trimmed bottle in Cleveland nightclubs.

We don’t have any $5,000 Champagne handy, but we did celebrate with a wicked Rosé discovery – Blackbird Vineyards Arriviste Rosé 2012.

Arriviste

That dark-salmon color on your screen is real, and the aroma and taste are just as striking – like a dry cherry soda mixed with a shot of excellent vodka. In fact, the wine tastes stronger than its 12.9 percent alcohol. In another year, I expect the berry and booze to smooth together a bit more. But that’s not a flaw; this wine, produced by the saignée method of “bleeding” free-run juice, is ready for summer. It’s on the pricey side at $25/split, but the city’s first championship trophy in 52 years is worth a splurge.

And if LeBron James wants to reinvent himself as the country’s newest celebrity winemaker, I am all in.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Maceration =  steeping the juice of red grapes with their skins, a process that gives Rosé its pink color. A winemaker can choose to macerate for a few hours or a few days, depending on the color desired; in general, the longer the maceration period, the deeper the color.

If you’d like to join BigSexyReds on my wine adventures, please click on the “Follow” tab in the lower right-hand corner of your screen and you’ll receive these posts by email.

 [Big thanks to Emily Straffen for permission to use her photo of LeBron James, taken at the Cavaliers celebration parade.]

Now for the World Series…

Mary

Doughnuts and Wine – a Tasty Pairing!

You say doughnuts, I say donuts – especially today, because it’s National Doughnut Day.

We can feel good about indulging our collective sweet tooth, since it’s for a good cause and always has been: the holiday was created in 1938 by the Chicago branch of the Salvation Army to honor “Lassies” – women who distributed donuts to U.S. servicemen in World War I. The Salvation Army’s practical aim was to raise money to help needy families during the Great Depression.

But the day puts two decisions on the table: what kind of donut, and which wine to pair with it?

Krispy Kreme glazed donuts

The donut choice is a no-brainer. It must be glazed, from Krispy Kreme. No substitutes, please. Don’t show up at my door with bear claws, fritters, cronuts or other pretenders. I’m adding 400 calories to my day’s total – just enough, probably, to keep me from losing weight this week. So I need to be picky. I’m sure many of you will disagree with my choice (poor misguided souls) and you’re welcome to chew me out in the Comments section.

On the wine I’m willing to compromise. You’ll want to select a wine with at least a bit of sweetness (trust me on this; both the wine and the donut will taste like they were brought together by Divine Intervention). If you’re not accustomed to buying sweet wines, take the plunge and buy a quality bottle – a Vouvray, maybe, which will always have a bit of sweetness, or a floral, not-super-dry Rosé.

If you’re not in an experimental mood, reach for a Prosecco, Italy’s famous sparkling wine. Prosecco is made from a grape called Glera, which is a little sweeter than the grapes used in making Champagne. You can also buy Prosecco without bubbles, but it may not be easy to find.

My choice for this evening will be a glass of Sherry, often called “the whiskey of wines” for its bite and high alcohol content, which can reach 20 percent ABV or higher. I like the nutty, aromatic nature of Sherry. It’s not as thick in the mouth as Port, though I do enjoy a nice Port with dessert, too. Sherry styles could make another long blog post, but I probably will reach for a spicy Oloroso that I can sip like a fine Scotch.

However you accent your dessert tonight, go get a donut (or, if you prefer, a doughnut)! Krispy Kreme is giving away donuts today, no purchase required. Dunkin’ Donuts will give you a free donut if you purchase a drink, and if you buy half a dozen donuts at Giant Eagle, they’ll give you another half-dozen free of charge.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Spumante, Frizzante, Tranquillo = “Spumante” is Italian for “sparkling” and refers to bubbly wine, usually in discussions of Prosecco. “Frizzante” is semi-bubbly; you’ll see bubbles in the glass and feel them tingling on your tongue, but they don’t last. “Tranquillo” is still wine, with no bubbles at all.

Happy sipping and munching!

Mary

[Photo courtesy of Camknows via Flickr.com]