Speed-Tasting Wines – Keep Up!

It’s not easy to properly taste up to a dozen wines in an hour, especially if the wines are fine and complex. Racing past their nuances means missed opportunities; you want to detect the subtle twists of winemaking and terroir that set them apart from your everyday bottles.

But speed-tasting sessions – one for whites and rosés, the other for reds – were popular highlights of the Wine Bloggers Conference earlier this month in Sonoma. So we sharpened our palates, filled our water glasses and plunged in. Here are a few favorite reds:

 

 

Look out! We started with 1000 Stories Zinfandel, Batch 35 and wondered for a moment who brought the whiskey! At 15.6 percent alcohol, the intensity of this 2015 bottle, made with Mendocino grapes and bourbon barrel aged, took us by surprise. We tasted charcoal and dried herbs (helped along by 17 percent Petite Syrah), with dark plums on the finish. At $18.99, this wine also was the most affordable of the bunch.

The 2015 Gracianna Reserve Pinot Noir was fairly high-alcohol, too, at 14.8 percent. The winery only produces 150 cases, so most of their sales happen in their tasting room in Healdsburg – but at $72 a bottle, they’re wise to keep it exclusive. The aroma of pecans greeted us as we raised our glasses, then red fruit dominated the taste, which grew deeper as we kept tasting. (News flash: at that price, we didn’t spit.) The Pinot Noir is unfined and aged in neutral French oak.

“Wine is a journey,” reads Donelan’s website – but last month the Donelan family’s journey took a big detour: their Santa Rosa vineyards were lost to the fires that ravaged Napa and Sonoma. But the winery itself survived and the vines will be replanted. For now, their 2013 Cuvée Moriah Red Wine (14 percent alcohol) is worth the $50 price tag. It’s full-bodied, almost thick, with lively raspberry and cherry tastes and smooth tannins. Take time to find the nuances in your glass; this wine has finesse.

 

 

Here comes more alcohol: the 2014 Conundrum Red Blend is one smooth customer at 15.1 percent, and don’t be fooled by the $25 price tag. The winery’s motto is “both serious and playful” – hence the conundrum – and it carries into the wine, with tastes ranging from red berries to dark, smoky plums. No wonder; the grapes in the mix include Zinfandel and Petite Syrah.

Then there’s inky, sultry 2014 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon. One sniff and you know you’re drinking a California Cab, strong and smoky. This is a true Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot from Napa’s steep, rocky Stags Leap District. We tasted black licorice, black raspberries, cloves and a bite of black pepper, with the slightest hint of prime rib on the finish. Big, sexy, dark – think Poldark, baby – a bargain at $78.

Lastly, we loved that one of the tastiest wines on the table hailed from the Midwest, a 2015 Stonehill Winery Norton from Missouri. Norton is the official grape of the Show-Me State, and at $19.99 this bottle is another affordable choice. It’s a full-bodied, potent wine  – more than you’d expect from its moderate alcohol level (13.3 percent) – with a strong smell of buttery, movie-theater popcorn and dark berry, plummy taste. As I set down my glass, a faint fig taste lingered.

Trinity Hill PN

Vino ‘View:  Need a break from California wines this holiday season? I just tried the 2015 Trinity Hill Pinot Noir Hawkes Bay (13 percent alcohol, $16.99). New Zealand reds are different from those produced in this hemisphere – zestier, not as big – and this one smells of ripe watermelon, taffy and cherry. I tasted cherries, chocolate chip cookie and slight cinnamon; the tannins are mild, watch for a black pepper bite at the end. Two years after its release this bottle still needed decanting to bring the flavors together, then it’s a great turkey-dinner wine. Drink it now or in the next two years.

[The Trinity Hill Pinot Noir was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

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Wine Bloggers On the Move

You probably think all we did at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma was sit around and drink, right?

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Actually, that’s pretty close to the truth. Sometimes we even cleaned up and moved our hootenanny to a place with class, and one night it was a tasting at the iconic Stags’ Leap Winery on Silverado Trail in Napa.

Not to be confused with the also-iconic Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. also on Silverado Trail in Napa. For 13 years the rival wineries slugged it out in court until they decided one of them would move the apostrophe and they could be friends. Their winemakers sealed the deal in 1985 by collaborating on a wine they called “Accord.”

The first Stags’ Leap grapes were planted in the late 1800s by the Chase family (of Chase Bank). The winery is nestled in the shadow of the The Palisades Mountains; in the yard behind the manor house stands a cactus the size of my kitchen, a spiky sentinel that not even the most wine-ripped intruder would challenge.

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Stags’ Leap greeted us with a glass of their 2016 Viognier – lush, just crisp enough.

Monday I’ll share one of the Blogger Conference’s most exciting events: a speed tasting where winemakers showcase their finest – 12 wines per table, five minutes per wine, sharpen your palates!

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Vino ‘View: We wanted to crack a big sexy red for sweater weather, and Concannon  2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles (13.5 percent alcohol, $20) was a great choice. It brings a mouthful of body and a bit of jam, but the tannins were smooth and the alcohol didn’t overwhelm. Expect classic California Cab flavors – dark berries, black cherries, slight caramel, accented with healthy acidity. Cozy up with this bottle.

[This bottle was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

When Wine Bloggers Convene…

So, how many wine bloggers does it take to conquer Sonoma?

About 350, this week at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa. BigSexyReds will step away from our usual format for a few days, skipping the reviews and wine lingo and sharing images and discoveries – always involving alcohol, of course. First up:

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we got our $115-wine fix on an excursion to Stags’ Leap Winery with their 2014 Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah, on the right. A close second was the 2014 The Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, next to it – liquid silk.

Coming up: wineries, laughs and plenty to learn!

Cheers,

Mary

 

Body Language (in your wineglass, that is)

You love pouring wine into your body – but what about the body parts in your wine?

I don’t know when somms and oenophiles started naming wine features after human traits and body parts, but it’s genius, right? Describe a wine as “bright” or “light-footed” and people pretty much get the gist.

It doesn’t always work, though. “Foxy” people are seductive, but a foxy wine can smell musty, like a sweater stored in a damp basement. Still, we humanize wines in an attempt to describe them in a distinct, meaningful way. Here’s my list of hominified (ha! how’s that for a word!) wine descriptors – some are familiar terms, others will be new:

Bottle necks

Neck and shoulders: We can skip the neck; everyone knows where to find a bottle’s neck. The shoulder is where we find our own shoulders: just below the neck. As you can see in the above photo, wine bottles have either a “high shoulder,” like the bottle on the left, or a “sloping shoulder.” The high-shoulder bottle evolved in Bordeaux, possibly to catch the sediment as aged Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were poured. The sloping-shoulder, or Burgundy bottle, is often used for lighter reds – Pinot Noir, Gamay – and some whites. German, Alsace and sparkling wines typically are bottled in an even skinnier sloping shoulder, but today, anything goes –  you can find all wine styles in a variety of bottle shapes.

Body: If we use body parts to describe wine, it makes sense that “body” itself should be part of the jargon. It refers to the weight in your mouth; wine is described as light-, medium- or full-bodied. It helps to compare it to milk: skim milk is light-bodied, whole milk is medium and heavy cream is full-bodied. Sugar and alcohol content add weight, so dessert wines and high-alcohol Zinfandel, for instance, tend to be full-bodied.

Nose: This one’s simple: a wine’s nose tells you what you smell – either a simple aroma or a more complex bouquet of smells. It also can be a verb, as in, “nosing a glass of wine.”

Legs: You see legs – sometimes called “fingers,” “curtains,” “tears” or “church windows” – coating the inside of your wineglass after you swirl, separating into rivulets as they slide down the glass. Legs usually mean you’re drinking a rich, full-bodied, higher-alcohol wine; they also can indicate warm-climate grapes or aging.

Backbone: A wine with good backbone has a balanced “structure” – meaning, its body, acidity, tannins and other elements are all detectable but in proportion, with none of them overpowering the others.

Muscular: muscular wine is a bold, full-bodied red – a BigSexyRed! – that’s sometimes referred to as “masculine.”

Fat: fat wine is rich, full and flavorful but with low acidity. If the acidity is too low, the wine might be called “flabby.”

Heavy: A relative of fat, heavy wines are out of balance, with high alcohol, low acidity and strong tannins.

Meniscus: It’s less technical than it sounds. A wine’s meniscus is simply the wine’s rim inside the glass. The color can imply maturity and richness.

Brawn: brawny wine is young and full-bodied, with high tannins and probably high alcohol. It’s described as being “woody” or on the raw side, but aging should soften it.

Butt: This doesn’t describe where you’ll land if you drink too much wine, though that does happen (so I’ve heard). A butt actually is a unit of measurement equaling 570 liters. In the wine world, a butt is a type of barrel used for storing sherry in the Jerez region of Spain.

Dead arm: This unfortunate condition is a group of fungal vineyard diseases that rots the wood. Also called “grape canker,” dead arm sometimes kills entire vines.

Bladder: No, it’s not a dried sheep gut that you fill with wine. Ick. A bladder is the strong, rubbery bag inside the wine box you buy in the supermarket. If you search YouTube, you’ll find videos showing different ways of repurposing and recycling the bags.

Nervy: Lastly, a “nervy” wine is the opposite of the bold reds we’ve referenced. It’s a dry white with acidity you can detect, but it’s in balance with the wine’s other elements.

Wine Lingo of the Day: You haven’t had enough with the words? Fine, here’s one more body-ish wine word: Dumb. Generally, “dumb” refers to a wine with little taste, as when a white wine is over-chilled and it’s too cold to discern its wonderful flavors. A wine in its “dumb phase” is in a transition time between youth and maturity (just like teenagers in their dumb phase, eh?). The fruit flavors are mellowing but the complex tastes and aromas of an aged wine haven’t developed yet. 

Cultivate PN small

Vino ‘View: Just as its winemaker believes wine’s “greatest gift is its power to bring people together,” Cultivate 2014 Pinot Noir (14.1 percent alcohol, $27.99) brings wine regions together, blending Pinot from Santa Barbara County, Monterey County and Sonoma County. Sourcing fruit from these diverse regions gives the wine its own unique complexity. Strawberry and black cherry aromas swirled up from my glass, along with a whiff of pomegranate and a little cinnamon. The red fruit stayed with me as I drank, along with juicy orange and a dash of cardamom, spiked with a little black tea. Expect full body – no surprise at this alcohol level – but it’s smooth with subdued tannins. Share this bottle with somebody you want to impress.

[This bottle was sent to BigSexyReds.com to be reviewed.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

 

Buying Wine Online – Smart or Risky?

So, whose bright idea was it to schedule Get Smart About Credit Day and Evaluate Your Life Day together? I guess somebody thought we could handle soul-searching on those two scary subjects simultaneously.

The credit part, for me, is a fait accompli; I started living on a cash basis a few years ago and eliminated that awful stress. Life evaluation is trickier – for most of us, I think – but entering the world of wine professionals was more of a process than a decision, and once I started training I couldn’t get enough. I soon learned that partnering cash management and wine-buying can be loads of fun.

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I buy most of my wine (and gifts, and other items) online. I hate to shop, and the convenience of having wine delivered to my door is addicting. You can find some real deals on quality wines online if you keep these few tips in mind:

  • I never, EVER pay shipping fees on wine. Shipping can cost more than the wine itself; if I’m going to pay a fortune I’ll just drive to the wine shop and buy a premium bottle.
  • Check to see if the winery or wine seller will ship to your state. Fortunately, most outlets can ship to Ohio, where I live. That wasn’t always the case, and those laws change all the time. Last week I spoke with a marketer in California who reps an Italian winemaker; she wants BigSexyReds to review his wines but the law prohibits her from shipping imported wines from her locale. I have to fetch them when I’m in Sonoma next month.
  • Pinpoint the delivery date and plan to be home then. Someone over 21 will have to sign for the wine. If that’s not possible, arrange with the delivery service to hold it and you can pick it up. I often have FedEx hold my wine.

That said, here are the online wine sellers I recommend (and no, I’m not being compensated for plugging them – not even with free wine):

  • LastBottle.com. By far my favorite, Last Bottle offers free shipping on six or more bottles, including mix-and-match batches, and I’ve never been disappointed by the wine. They buy surplus wines; register for free and they send one email per day with a daily deal. Twice a year they have two-day “madness marathons” in which you can constantly refresh your screen for new deals; during the marathons you get free shipping on single bottles. Deals range from $8 to $100 or more, always far below retail price and usually less than the lowest Web price. Refer friends and you get credit toward your next purchase.
  • Martha Stewart Wine Co. This is a new one for me. She was advertising an introductory 6-bottle deal for $4.99/bottle with free shipping. Martha is picky about products carrying her name, so I felt confident the wine would be drinkable, and I was right. I chose the reds-only option; last night I cracked the 2016 Cuvée Joëlle Malbec et Merlot, produced in Cahors, a small wine region south of Bordeaux, and it was fruity-delicious. (Wine-Searcher reports a 4.5-star rating of the wine and average selling price of $18.)
  • Heartwood and Oak. You’ll find these sellers advertising often on Groupon. My first purchase from them would have been about $85 per case with free shipping; I chose to order their premium red collection for an extra $25, so for less than $10 per bottle I got some great wines.
  • Amazon wines.com. I haven’t ordered from Amazon’s wine store yet, but I’m going to try it out. Most wines are priced under $30 – many brands you’ll recognize are less than $10 – and quite a few offer 1-cent shipping for six or more bottles.
  • AstorWines.com. This will be another blind adventure for me, but I looked at their reds and saw some nice $9 wines that sell in the local supermarket for $13-$15. They ship your first order free if you spend more than $99.
  • QVC.com. Check out the mega-seller’s website from time to time. I bought a case of Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary’s wine last year for $128 and free shipping. It wasn’t the most exquisite wine I’ve tasted (I did try it beforehand, on my last visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake), but it was good enough, especially at that price. At this writing a case of O’Leary’s sells for $149, but keep an eye out for sales as the holidays approach.

You’ll find good deals on the ground, of course – Trader Joe’s is famous for selling decent, affordable, often hard-to-find wines. Sam’s Club and Costco sell some of their wines at a discount, but others are marked higher than at other retailers. And if you’re touring a wine region far from home, buy at the source even though it usually costs more than in stores. Of the thousands of wineries across the U.S., the vast majority are boutique operations that only sell on-site or in local groceries. If you love it, buy it because you probably won’t find it again.

And this year, consider buying California wines. Wineries in Napa and Sonoma aren’t all big corporations; a lot of struggling entrepreneurs, artisans and lower-skilled workers lost their jobs to the fires, and your purchase will help them get back on their feet.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Horizontal tasting = a tasting of wines that are all from the same vintage, but produced by different wineries or wine estates.

StandOut small

Vino ‘View: We all want to stand out, right? While you’re evaluating your life, sip some aptly-named 2013 Stand Out (4.8 percent alcohol, $18.99) by SLO Down Wines. “Sip” is the key; this California blend (59 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 41 percent Merlot) is potent. It even looks strong, with its inky-dark color and thin red rim; it leave thick tears that drip so slowly they barely travel down the glass. The aroma is strong, too – coffee and fresh dark cherry, right off the tree. A dark grape taste dominates, yet it’s medium-light bodied with very low tannins. I could taste my grandma’s black raspberries. Halfway through the glass, the taste mellows with strawberries and green peppers, and leaves a long, fruity finish. At this time the winery is sold out, but 2013 Stand Out is available online at Wine-Searcher.com.

[This bottle of wine was sent to BigSexyReds for review purposes.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

Wine Labels 101

This Friday, September 8, is International Literacy Day, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to read wine labels.

But as you stand in front of that wall of bottles at the wine store, do you really know what you’re looking at? Wine labels can be a mystery, even to longtime lovers of the grape, because there’s no consistency. Labeling laws across the globe are all over the place (pun intended) and impossibly complex.

Wine labelsHere’s all you really need to remember: anyone who’s literate can understand enough to know what they’re buying. You just need to identify whether the label is telling you the name of the grape, the winery, the wine region, or a combination of the three.

Take the above photo. The wine on the left is made from Dolcetto (dol-chét-toh) grapes. The name translates, by the way, to “little sweet one,” but all the Dolcetto I’ve tried is big, bold and dry. “D’Alba” means it was produced in or near Alba, a town in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. (Any version of d’, di, de or a on a label means “of,” so even if it’s an unfamiliar word, you’ll know they’re talking about a place, not a grape.) The winery is Abbazia, shown at the top of the label. So if you’re familiar with Piedmont and specifically Dolcetto, you have a pretty good idea of what’s in the bottle.

The wine next to it was made by those flashy Ferrari winemakers in the Trentino region of northern Italy – as you can see by their name emblazoned across the gold label. The grape is Perlé, a white grape often grown in Italy, and Trentodoc is essentially the designation for sparkling wines made in Trentino. This bottle also tells you the vintage, 2007, on the front; the Dolcetto’s vintage (2015) is on the back label.

Winemakers often list a vintage (the year the grapes were harvested), or you might see the initials “NV” – non-vintage, a recent BigSexyReds Wine Lingo – meaning the winemaker blended wines from several vintages to get the taste and quality level he or she wanted. A 2016 vintage wine could taste dramatically different from a 2014 or 2015, even if the grapes were picked in the same vineyard.

Sometimes the producers only tell you the region, and they expect you to know what that means: Champagne, for instance, is a region in France. If the label says Champagne, that’s where it’s from; the wine will almost always be a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, with smaller amounts of other grapes, including Pinot Blanc, permitted in the mix. (There is a “Champagne grape,” but it’s not used for making Champagne. Confused yet?) A bottle labeled Burgundy (or Bourgogne), Beaujolais, Chianti or Bordeaux likewise is telling you the region, not the grapes that go into the wine. (**Next week we’ll talk more about those place-name labels, so if you pick up a Chianti you’ll know what to expect in your glass.)

Usually, too, the label will display, sometimes in the tiniest font possible, the alcohol content – ABV, or “alcohol by volume.” Most wines range from about 12 percent ABV to 15 percent, but you can find them lighter or boozier – and you will get more of a buzz from a 15-percent Zin than a 12-percent Pinot Noir.

Some labels list tasting notes on the back. I wouldn’t take those too seriously; just because the winery’s PR people think you should taste cinnamon and plums doesn’t mean you won’t taste black pepper and pecans. Everyone’s palate is different. But you might find hints at why the wine you selected is pricier than others: a label that refers to “low yields on our sun-kissed slopes,” for instance, tells you that the grapes were picked by hand (because tractors don’t work so well on steep hills), so labor costs were higher than if they’d been picked by machine, and the clusters were culled for maximum nutrition and sun exposure.

And don’t even think about learning sugar levels. Sometimes those percentages appear on the label, sometimes not. When you’re not sure if a wine is dry or sweet, ask the wine steward.

Nothing on the label, of course, can guarantee that you’ll like the wine. But with a few essentials you’ll at least be better informed about it.

Wine Lingo of the Day: One of the most headache-inducing wine label words is Montepulciano. You just need to memorize the difference between Montepulciano  d’Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. When you see Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, it means Montepulciano is the grape, and the wine was produced in Abruzzo, in eastern-central Italy. Or, you might buy Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. This wine comes from the village of Montepulciano, and it’s made with Sangiovese grapes. They don’t make wine from Montepulciano grapes in Montepulciano. But don’t stress about it; they’re both delicious Big Sexy Reds.

Vino ‘View:  We had a chance to taste this Piovene Porto Godi Merlot 2015 (14.5 percent alcohol; $25) and it was unlike any Merlot we’ve tasted in years. It was powerful – well, just look at that ABV – and more intense than most Merlot. Produced from three 

Piovene Merlot

Merlot clones, this dark-purple wine spent more than a year in French oak barrels, and  you can taste the oak, along with black cherries and some smoke. And it’s a great bottle for practicing your label-literacy skills: Piovene is the family name and Piovene Porto Godi is the brand. “Frá i Broli” describes the special Merlot medley (“frá” means “among”). The back label adds more information; the winery is in Colli (“hills”) di Berici, a district in the heart of Veneto, near Toara (meaning, “good earth”) di Villaga – the name of the town.

My best label-translating advice: keep your phone handy in the wine store, set to Google.

Happy reading!

Mary

[Piovene Porto Godi was submitted to BigSexyReds.com for review.]

Going Screwy Over Corkscrews – Happy Thrift Shop Day!

Writing about corks in my last post reminded me of my old corkscrew collection.

I miss it. I had found unusual antique corkscrews at yard sales, flea markets, street fairs and in thrift shops. One of my favorites came from a street vendor in Brussels who sold nothing but old bottle openers; he displayed about 150 of the treasures and I wanted to buy his whole inventory.

Corkscrew

[Photo “Corkscrew” by Kaino Kaihomieli, courtesy of Flickr/Common Creatives]

Most corkscrews are simple tools – you have the helix, or “worm” (the metal spiral you stick into the top of a cork) and a perpendicular handle of wood, bone, ivory (boo!), tin, brass, steel – but you knew that. Some models come with a foil cutter, though it’s not vital; you can twist the foil off of most bottles with your bare hands. (Yes, you can – try it!)

If you’re in a shopping mood, August 17 – National Thrift Shop Day – is the perfect day to launch your corkscrew hunt. You can find dozens of different styles, especially if you’re looking at old-fashioned varieties. There’s the Champagne tap, a confounding device that looks as if it belongs in a torture chamber. You’ve probably seen the “direct pull” with just a worm and a wooden handle; older versions had brushes sticking out of the handle.

The “winged” or lever type, with two handles that extract the cork as you push down on them, is the model found in most kitchen drawers. When you’re traveling you’ll come across souvenirs called “figurals;” these have a screw protruding from a dog- or other animal-shaped handle, or from a man’s (ahem!) groin area. If you want to get fancy, you can buy an electric corkscrew. One popular brand is the Rabbit; mine lasted three years before it stopped taking a charge.

Food and Wine magazine chose the “waiter’s friend,” also called the “wine key” or “sommelier knife,” invented in 1939, as the best corkscrew on the market. It’s my favorite, too – more efficient and less cumbersome than most models, and it fits in your pocket. The worst, in my view, is the two-pronged “butler’s friend.” It’s almost impossible to pull a cork with that thing, and it’s no friend of mine.

I usually carry a corkscrew – but if I forget, there’s no need to panic, as I discovered when I found myself in a hotel room without one:

Key corkscrewWhen you’ve forgotten your wine key, a house key will do the job.

I sold my corkscrew collection several years ago, but if I wanted to collect again, several websites, including Corkscrews Online and Corkscrew Collecting, provide great tips for buying and spotting fake “antiques.” And if you want to view a terrific collection, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena, California, has one of the best. Housed in the former Christian Brothers Winery, the CIA showcases more than 1,000 corkscrews in its main entry hall – plenty of examples to make you go screwy.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Helixophile = a person who collects corkscrews.

Vino ‘View: I put my waiter’s key to work cracking this bottle of Sexual Chocolate (13.5 percent ABV, $24.99, http://www.SLOdownwines.comand was sorry when it was empty. This 

Sexual Chocolate

California blend was a true BigSexyRed – dark purple and full-bodied, with tears clinging to the inside of my glass. I got a strong aroma of dark chocolate and walnuts, then a taste of tobacco, Ferrero Rocher milk chocolate truffles and even more nuts. On the finish, blackberry and slight black pepper lingered, then a surprise – a subtle bit of orange liqueur on my tongue. The winemaker’s bootlegging story on the label is a bonus.

Cheers!

Mary