Put a Cork in It! (Your Wine Bottle, That Is.)

“His heart danced upon her movement like a cork upon a tide.” — James Joyce

We all have such romantic notions about wine, don’t we…I wonder if we’d have felt the same way 300 years ago, when wine bottles were sealed with oil-soaked rags?

Corks

Corks lend a fanciful touch to the ceremony of cracking a special bottle – a sense that we’re about to celebrate something – that screw-on caps just can’t emulate. We sniff our corks, we admire their calligraphy, we hoard them. Have you ever met anyone who hoards screw-on caps? I think not.

Corks (the real kind, not those annoying, synthetic polyethylene things) are made from the light, tough outer layer of bark of the cork oak tree, a.k.a. Quercus suber – not to be confused with the cork tree, which also sports a corky bark but isn’t used for making wine corks. The cork oak is considered sustainable because it can be harvested without cutting down the tree; once the tree reaches 25 to 30 years old the bark is stripped and the tree lives on. Every seven or nine years (depending on whom you ask), the tree is ready to be stripped again; it’s the second stripping that produces the best wine corks.

Cork tree

[A guide explaining the cork oak tree on the grounds of SIMI Winery in Healdsburg, California.]

Cork oaks, which live an average of 200 years, grow in half a dozen countries, but most corks are produced in Portugal  – where the higher-quality corks are sourced – and Spain. And here’s something to remember when you dream of opening your own winery: the finest corks can cost bottlers as much as 1 Euro each, or at today’s conversion rate, about $1.17.

Harvesting cork is a delicate operation. Workers called “extractors” use a sharp axe to make two cuts: one horizontal slice around the tree, called a crown or necklace, and several vertical cuts called rulers or openings. Then they push the axe handle into the ruler – gently, to avoid damaging the tree – and peel off large sections of cork called planks.

Cork is a remarkable substance: its tiny air pockets make it buoyant, about four times lighter than water. It’s fire resistant (which is why it’s used in making home insulation) and forms a watertight seal in the neck of a wine bottle. Yet it permits a tiny bit of oxygen into the bottle, about one milligram of oxygen each year, enabling the wine’s flavor and aroma to evolve over time.

There are advantages to using synthetic corks, of course. They allow a consistent amount of oxygen into the bottle, and they don’t carry “cork taint,” caused by TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the chemical compound that can make your wine smell like Grandma’s moldy basement – an affliction found in about 1 percent of wine bottles. And TCA isn’t picky; it’s just as happy spoiling a $100 bottle as that cheap $6 bottle you snuck into your grocery cart.

For you cork hoarders, you can spin your cache into cash: used wine corks sell online to crafters and jewelry artists, about $8 to $10 in batches of 100. You can unload your used synthetic corks, too, for up to 14 cents each. And by the way, don’t bother sniffing the cork when you open a bottle. Flaws are detected more easily by smelling and tasting the wine itself; the cork probably won’t indicate anything important.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  NVnonvintage. When you look at the labels of most wines, you’ll see a year – the year when the grapes were grown and harvested, or the “vintage.” But in wine reviews or restaurant wine lists, you’ll often see the initials “NV.” That indicates the grapes used to produce that wine were harvested in two or more years. Winemakers blend grapes from different vintages if they’re looking for consistent aromas, tastes and other qualities in the wine, year after year.

Caranto PNVino ‘View:  A delicious example of an NV wine is Astoria’s Caranto Pinot Noir (13 percent alcohol, $11). The spicy, cinnamon first taste opens up to plums – maybe prunes – with a smoky, blackberry jam finish. My last glass was especially creamy (think fig newton, blackberry pie crust). This full-bodied wine with medium tannins is a terrific value! We paired it with pasta from Rustichella d/Abruzzo that was gluten-free, made from a red-lentil base, in a cold chicken-cashew salad – a recipe we found online. We chilled the wine slightly for our perfect summer supper.

Cheers!

Mary

Napa vs Sonoma – Which Sparkling Wine Shall We Pour Tonight?

If you’re a fan of fizzy wines, you already (probably) know that California is not a one-bubbly-fits-all state. If you didn’t know that, we won’t out you! Just get a few basics down and you’ll get more out of your sparklers.

Gloria Ferrer glass

[Photo by Sarah Stierch, “Sparkling Wine at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, California” via Flickr.com]

The first sparkling wine in America was a sparkling Catawba, produced in Ohio (we Ohioans like to boast), downstate near Cincinnati, by Nicholas Longworth in the 1830s. It only took another 30 years for Jacob Schram to purchase his vineyard property in Napa Valley and start producing California’s first quality sparkling wines. By 1870, Schram had planted 30,000 vines and was aging his earliest vintages in cool caves.

Napa is a warm, narrow valley, protected from the cold air of the Pacific Ocean by low mountain ranges but still cooled by the waters of San Pablo Bay. Growers there enjoy calcium-rich soil and a Mediterranean climate with a warm, sunny growing season – ideal for growing Chardonnay, one of the prime grapes used in making their sparkling wines. The southern part of Napa, nearer to the bay, is cooler than the rest of the valley.

Schram’s little enterprise didn’t make it past Prohibition, but new owners resurrected Schramsberg Vineyards  in 1965 and still use those caves to store their wines, considered some of the finest in California.

About 20 years later, the Ferrer family from Barcelona discovered the Mediterranean climate and terroir of Sonoma County. Just west of Napa and more diverse in terms of soil and plantings (think: redwood forests), Sonoma has cooler nights, thanks to 60 miles of Pacific coastline and an ocean cool-down. The region reminded José Ferrer of his family home in Catalonia, especially good for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so it was there he built Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and named the new winery after his wife.

Only the practiced palate would discern real differences between Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines. Schramsberg’s might taste a little stonier, slightly bready and creamy, with clear tropical fruit notes. Gloria Ferrer’s sparklers might be fruitier with a little more cinnamon coming through.

But when you’re staring at that confusing wall of bottles in the store, maybe it’s most important to remember that both wineries produce their sparkling wines using the Methode Champenoise, or “Classic (Traditional) Method.” We’ll save the long version for another day; suffice it to say that sparkling wines displaying any of those phrases on the label, and “Fermented in This Bottle,” have undergone the hands-on, multiple steps necessary to create the finest sparkling wines. It’s the same technique used to produce Champagne (which comes from the Champagne region of France, but you knew that, right?). It will cost a little more than sparkling wine whose label says it was fermented inside the bottle (rather than this), or using the Charmat or “outside the bottle” (i.e., in a tank) method, but it’s worth paying extra for the classic-method wine. That’s a difference you will taste.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mayacamas and Vaca MountainsWhen you’re looking at wines from regions as popular as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, it helps to orient yourself geographically. Any serious discussion of Napa and Sonoma is likely to mention these important mountain ranges because they affect the grapes and, ultimately, the wine: the Mayacamas Mountains run along the western edge of Napa, protecting it from the cooler Sonoma air, and the Vaca Range forms Napa’s eastern boundary. If you’re contemplating any form of wine certification, memorize these two names – you’ll see them on just about every exam.

Patrick bubbly

Vino ‘View:  With the onset of summer, we wanted a couple of cool sparklers to sip on the porch. We chose two delicious, affordable California bottles: Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs and Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs (both Methode Champenoise, both 12.5 percent alcohol, both $22). The 100-percent Pinot Noir has a rosy tinge and gave us tiny, assertive bubbles. The aroma was lemon at first, then it melted into a rich pear that changed to apple in our mouths. The all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs was a melon-and-banana delight, a super-tropical feel and perfect for our warm-weather neighbor-watching. That handsome fellow in the photo is my nephew, Patrick Straffen – we were celebrating because he and my niece, Emily Straffen, had just passed their Level 2 WSET exams! You go, guys!

Cheers,

Mary

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.]

 

 

 

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 

 

Forget Exercise – Raise Your Glass Instead?

Let’s get one thing on the table: today is National Beer Day. That’s a good thing, but it’s not my thing. I’d rather write about wine: why at BigSexyReds.com we love learning about wine, writing about it and most of all, drinking it.

And the best reason for drinking red wine especially: because it’s good for you – apparently as beneficial as a one-hour workout at the gym.

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Scientists aren’t telling us to hang up our sneakers just yet, but they have discovered some surprising gains in recent years from drinking a glass of vino.

Researchers from Oregon State University found that ellagic acids, antioxidants found in grapes, can delay the growth of existing fat cells and slow the development of new ones. Pretty cool, yes? When they tested the acids on mice, those that were given extracts of Pinot Noir grapes stored less fat in their livers and had healthier blood sugar levels, while those who scarfed down “mouse chow” developed fatty liver and symptoms of diabetes—“the same metabolic consequences we see in many overweight, sedentary people,” the researchers wrote.

Jeff Gargiulo, now owner of Gargiulo Vineyards in Napa Valley, isn’t surprised. “We all agree out here that wine is very healthy,” he told BigSexyReds.com. “People out here live it.”

It gets better: in a separate study out of the University of Alberta last year, scientists concluded that drinking one glass of red wine per day bestows the same payoffs in physical performance, heart function and muscle strength as working out for an hour. Resveratrol, they found, “could mimic exercise” for patients unable to work out, or to boost benefits for those who did exercise.

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But moderation matters: Three glasses of red does not equal three hours in the gym, no matter how pricey the wine. The good news is, you don’t have to spend a fortune; cheaper red wine brings the same health benefits as the good stuff.

And the bonuses keep coming:

  • Drinking red wine can lower your risk of depression, according to a  2013 Spanish study published in the journal BMC Medicine. That’s for people who drink two to seven glasses per week.
  • Another mental health boost: a study published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment showed that 23 percent of participants who drank red wine lowered their risk of developing dementia.
  • A newer study last October found that for patients diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes who also were at low risk for alcohol abuse, enjoyed more restful sleep and higher HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) when they drank one glass of red wine each day. That group, in fact, scored better than patients who drank white wine or water.
  • A bit of surprise, but it makes sense: researchers at the University of Barcelona found that drinking moderate amounts of red wine helps protect against sunburn.

Beer drinking, by the way, carries its own health advantages: it’s a heart-healthy drink, it boosts creativity, and it helps prevent cataracts, among other benefits.

So, I’ll raise my wineglass to beer drinkers today – and whatever you pour, drink it in good health!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Flavonoids = compounds that contribute to a wine’s color, astringency (tannins), texture and bitterness, and are largely responsible for wine’s healthy qualities.

Healthy sipping!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Steve Corey and donireewalker, Flickr/Creative Commons]

Aw, Nuts! Try These Wines for Pecan Day

In the final run up to a major holiday like Easter, it’s easy to overlook an obscure observance like Pecan Day – and we have an abundance of wine choices to accompany our pecan-encrusted trout, pecan pie or a few handfuls of roasted pecans.

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This is the day, back in 1775, when George Washington planted a pecan sapling at his Mount Vernon estate. The baby tree was a gift from Thomas Jefferson, who grew “America’s own nut” at Monticello.

Botanists tell us the pecan, named for an Algonquian word that means, “a nut requiring a stone to crack,” actually is a fruit related to hickory. This inch-long treat is my favorite nut and a nutritional powerhouse, packed with antioxidants, vitamin E, beta-carotene, vision-friendly lutein, and cancer-fighting ellagic acid. It’s a heart-healthy, brain-healthy snack – although, at just under 200 calories for 20 halves, it’s fairly fattening.

You always want to pair fatty foods with an acidic wine, so if you’re eating your pecans plain, without a sugary coating, they’ll go well with a chilled dry Rosé or Sauvignon Blanc. Pecans also are a slightly sweet nut and the wine’s brightness will bring out the pecans’ sweet notes.

If dinner is trout or chicken with a pecan crust, Champagne or Cava (sparkling wine from Spain) will pair nicely; and if you think you’d enjoy just the slightest sweetness to match the natural sweetness in the nut coating, try Prosecco, an Italian bubbly. But keep in mind, you can find sparkling wines at every sweetness level; if you’re eating candied pecans and want to drink a sparkler, look for one that’s a little sweeter.

Candied pecans, in fact, will pair with a lot of lively, acidic wines. Pinot Grigio, Riesling  and Albariño are all good choices. And if your pecans are super-spicy, flavored with Chipotle or other peppers, go for the gusto and open a bottle of Gewürztraminer.

Reds don’t generally pair will with pecans; the nuts are just too mild to make a good match. But if you insist on drinking red wine (and I usually do), reach for a lighter grape such as Pinot Noir, or, if you want a wine with a bit more attitude, a Garnacha.

And if you’re eating pecan pie – the real reason pecans were invented, I think – you’ll want a dessert wine because your wine should be as sweet as your dessert. Look for Tawny Porto or, maybe better, try some Vin Santo from Tuscany, Icewine from Canada, or Sauternes from France. For a more economical choice, look for a late-harvest Viognier (white) or Zinfandel (red).

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Fortified wine = this is a handy place to mention fortified wines, because some of the wines you’ll choose to accompany dessert will have been fortified. These are wines to which alcohol has been added to raise the alcohol level to 15 percent or higher. Fermentation ends, and the winemaker is left with a high-alcohol wine.

Cheers – and for those celebrating this weekend, have a wonderful Easter!

Mary