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.]

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Chardonnay Gets Its Day!

You either love Chardonnay, or you can’t stand it. If you’re a fan, May 21 (or 23, depending on whose calendar you follow) is National Chardonnay Day, and there’s plenty to celebrate about this iconic white.

Chardonnay

The green-skinned grape comes to us from the Burgundy region of France (if you’re drinking “white Burgundy,” you’re drinking Chardonnay). The Wente family brought cuttings to their Livermore Valley vineyards early in the last century, and their 1936 vintage was the first varietal labeled in the US.

Chardonnay is a neutral grape – meaning, it takes on flavors of the terroir where it’s grown and from other influences, such as oak. That makes it adaptable to just about every winegrowing region in the world, with distinctive tastes and aromas no matter where it’s grown: in Burgundy it’s known for its lively minerality, thanks to the abundance of  Kimmeridgian limestone in the soil. In Austria, where recordings of gun blasts are played in the vineyards to scare away the birds, it’s made into sweet wines. In California and Argentina, Chardonnay is likely to be toasty and oaky, often with tropical fruit flavors coming through. Some Spanish winemakers use it in making Cava, Spain’s classic sparkling wine. And if you like your bubbly, you’ll want to know that Chardonnay is one of three grapes (and the only white) used in making Champagne.

In France alone, vineyard owners grow some 34 clonal varieties, all developed at the University of Burgundy in Dijon. Why? So they can plant the specific “Dijon clone” that will perform best in their vineyards, and will produce exactly the traits they want in their wines. It’s a complicated business, and the outcomes range from unoaked, minerality-packed Chablis to full, toasty Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé. It’s France’s second-most planted grape, just behind Ugni Blanc (often known as Trebbiano), the key grape in making Cognac, and ahead of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

If you want to throw an impromptu Chardonnay Day dinner, have fun with it and buy a variety of bottles from different regions and in different styles (oaked, unoaked). Keep some basic pairing tips in mind: Chardonnay pairs well with roast chicken and other white meats. If one of your bottles is an older, more earthy Chardonnay, pour it with an earthy dish such as mushroom soup or winter squash. A lightly oaked Chardonnay will pair well with grilled trout or Lobster Thermador, but not a delicate fish dish.

And next week, we’ll celebrate Chardonnay’s (and California Cab’s) finest hour, on the anniversary of the Judgement of Paris!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Blanc de blanc = Champagnes made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photo by Megan Cole, courtesy of Flickr.com]