Fire Up the Grill – It’s National Zin Day!

Any wine person can tell you: when it comes to BigSexyReds, Zinfandel has got to be the biggest, sexiest red of all. For one thing, it’s one of the booziest grapes on earth. Zinfandel grapes produce kick-ass wine, usually at least 14 percent alcohol and often reaching 15 percent and higher.

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I say Zinfandel deserves its own day, and the good folks at ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) agree. (Yes, even grapes have advocates these days.) ZAP exists to promote Zin; they even sponsor a five-night trip to Croatia, the “ancestral home of Zin.”

It may have originated in Croatia, but Zinfandel took a detour or two on its way to America in, we think, the 1820s. Our bold black grape is genetically identical to Primitivo, grown in Puglia (Apulia), the section of Italy that makes up the stiletto “heel” jutting out into the Adriatic Sea. It’s also the genetic twin of Vrljenak Kastelanski, an ancient Croatian variety.

In this country it thrives in the Central and Sonoma Valleys of California. It’s also made its way to South Africa, Dalmatia and the Margaret Valley region of Western Australia. That’s because those places offer the perfect conditions for growing Zinfandel: warm, sunny days with sandy soil that drains well and retains enough heat to produce aromatic wine grapes.

You’ll see “Old Vine Zinfandel” on a lot of labels. Take that with a grain of salt – “old” is relative in the wine world. Technically, the vines should be at least 50 years old to merit that designation, but a lot of vineyards sneak in grapes from vines that are only 25 or 30 years old. But in California they take their old vines seriously, and in Lodi, renowned for its quality Zinfandel, it’s not uncommon to find century-old vines still producing. And if the vines genuinely are that old, you’re in for a treat; the wine will not only be beautifully full-bodied, it will have developed the intensity and layers of character that you expect to find in anything (or anyone) that has survived that long.

Still, the wine’s quality always depends to a large extent on the skills and schemes of the winemaker and vineyard manager -not unlike wines produced by any grape variety. Zinfandel happens to grow in tight bunches, making it susceptible to an affliction known as “bunch rot.” The winegrower must train the vines so the clusters of differing sizes don’t touch each other, and cull the grapes to make sure every grape can get the right nutrients and sunshine.

Once you finally get that lush, inky wine in your glass, you’re in for a taste sensation of black fruit and spice, and satisfying heat from the alcohol as it rolls down your throat. Pair your full-bodied Zinfandel with full-bodied food – beef, lamb, duck, barbecue or blue cheese. And please don’t confuse it with White Zinfandel, that sweet “blush” wine that still sells well, especially in the Midwest. I guess I’ll write about White Zin at some point, but I’ll need a few glasses of Zinfandel before I can face that.

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Wine Lingo of the Day:  Vine “Vigor”  = the vine’s strength, and how well (and how much) it produces quality fruit. A vine with low vigor may not have enough leaves to provide adequate nourishment and shade for the fruit to ripen, while a high-vigor wine may be overgrown and shade the grapes too much to get enough sun – like kids fighting over porridge – and can produce wine that’s thin and overly acidic.

Vino ‘View:  Every party host has been there: you buy wine that’s not quite as fine as you’d like because you know you’ll be stuck with five (or a dozen) bottles of opened wine. We’ve found a solution: VineyardFresh, an aerosol Argon product that protects your wine so you can buy better wine, open more bottles, and be confident that it will be fresh a week from now.

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Argon is heavier than air, so when you give a bottle two quick bursts of 100 percent Argon gas, you create a barrier between the wine and the air, and stop oxidation – and it works. I kept a bottle of pricey Bordeaux for about 10 days; when I poured a glass after that time it smelled and tasted as if I’d just opened the bottle. One canister (though it’s so lightweight it feels empty) preserves 50 bottles of wine, guaranteed. I’m taking  VineyardFresh as hostess gifts instead of wine this holiday season. (www.vineyardfresh.com, $29.95 set of 2)

Cheers,

Mary

[Photo, “Making the wine 2012 edition,” by Wayne Marshall courtesy of flickr.com]

Sniff Your Wine, Prevent Alzheimer’s?

People who know wine are forever swirling and sniffing it. Swirl and sniff, swirl and sniff, sometimes several times before each taste. You might think they’re being silly, even pretentious, but in addition to enhancing the wine’s taste they’re actually boosting their brain power: scientists recently discovered that inhaling those exquisite aromas just might keep you from getting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

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Vinepair reports that researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas studied the brains of 13 master sommeliers and 13 people who, in the scientists’ words, held “less interesting jobs.” They found the sommeliers, who sniff and taste wine every day, were less likely to get Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s than those who don’t smell for a living.

It turns out the parts of the brain that control smell, also control memory. It’s no surprise that our memory regions are the first to decline when a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s sets in. And we’ve known for a long time that these same regions – the right insula and entorhinal cortex, if you must know – also identify aromas for us. But this study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, is the first time scientists have documented that those areas not only become thicker when we smell a lot, but that thicker brain-parts means less risk of Alzheimer’s. “Smell lots of wine, build resistance to memory loss,” researchers wrote.

So when it comes to staying sharp and knowing your wines, (brain) size does matter. They called this a pilot study on “expertise in the brain” – isn’t that a great phrase? And those who smell deeply every day, exercising that part of the brain, apparently strengthen not only their ability to smell better – a critical skill for wine pros – but also their memory, another requirement for sommeliers who must remember vintages, soils, weather patterns and other details that make them wine experts.

But you don’t have to be a master sommelier to thicken-up your sniffing and memory quarters. It is true, researchers wrote, that “these differences [between the brains of professional sniffers and non-professionals] suggest that specialized expertise and training might result in enhancements in the brain…” But if you drink wine – or spirits, or beer – you might be able to sharpen your own memory and head off dementia by sniffing what’s in your glass and, with every sip, reaching with your mind to identify the smells.

This jibes, in an indirect way, with what a friend told me years ago. This lady, a nurse by training, built the first Alzheimer’s facilities in Ohio. We were talking about exercising our brains by doing mental calisthenics – crossword puzzles, Sudoku and other brainy games. She said those activities were fine, but a better tactic is to keep learning. Take a class – learn a language, visit new lands, keep exposing yourself to new information and memorize as much as you can.

She forgot to add, it helps to sniff and sip wine while you’re doing it. All of that learning is thirsty work.

(And if your friends, family, good-looking neighbors, UPS delivery person and other contacts enjoy learning, too, please share via the social media buttons below. Thanks!)

Wine Lingo of the Day: Brett” is short for Brettanomyces, a yeast that can infect a barrel, a vineyard or an entire winery. It produces an unfortunate smell in the wine that will remind you of horses or a barn. At the same time, a tiny amount of Brett actually can improve the wine’s complexity. At that very low level, the Brett smell often dissipates with decanting and swirling.

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Vino ‘Views:  Brett is on my mind this week because I thought I detected a slight smell in my wine the other night. I was drinking one of my favorites, 2013 Montes Alpha Carmenère (14.5% alcohol, $25), and I wondered if it was infected. But after a brief decanting, the Brett aroma was gone and  an earthy, sultry suede layered with French roast coffee emerged – and, in fact, the winemaker suggests decanting the wine for 30 minutes. The tannins were medium-low but the taste of thick grape peel lingered on the finish, with a hint of cantaloupe rind. On the second day the manly leather character softened to a plum, slightly floral taste. I’d saved this bottle for a cool fall evening; the Carmenére’s high alcohol level warmed me in my chilly living room. This wine is a BIG Sexy Red, and I loved it.

Stay warm,

Mary

[Photo: “Mr. Sniff” by Mário Fernandes, courtesy of Flickr. Montes Alpha Carmenère sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

 

 

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

 

On Earth Day, I’ll Take My Wine Organic

Every community celebrates Earth Day – or, more accurately, International Mother Earth Day, as the United Nations renamed it in 2009, though I’ve never heard heard anyone use that wordy title. School kids plant flowers, neighborhoods sponsor cleanups, environmentalists remind us to reduce, reuse, recycle. It all helps.

This year, Earth Day stands out for a couple of reasons: more than 150 UN members will sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, an initiative supported by all 196 member-countries across the planet, pledging to strive for no more than a 1.5ºC global temperature rise. And the Earth Day Network, the group that first organized Earth Day in 1970, set this year’s theme as “Trees for the Earth” with the goal of planting 7.8 billion trees over the next five years.

Organic wine

My contribution will be a glass (or two) of organic red wine. I’ve tasted organic wines from various countries, including Chile, Argentina, Spain and Portugal. But if it’s made in the US, it must have that little green sticker you see in the photo above, “USDA Organic” – the US Dept. of Agriculture’s stamp of approval – or the winery can’t claim it’s organic.

For winemakers, it’s not easy being green. The government’s National Organic Program (NOP) set forth its requirements in a 7-page labeling guide. The most important feature of organic grapes is that they’re grown without fertilizers or pesticides. There’s a difference between organic grapes and organic wines – long story – but basically a vineyard must be free of substances on the NOP’s list of prohibited materials for three years before it can be certified organic.

So, how to keep a vineyard free of chemicals? By getting creative, mostly, and spending money. Spraying fertilizer and pesticides is easier and cheaper than investing in mulch to keep weeds down, or buying specialty soaps to help control insects. Some vineyard managers buy predator insects to eat the bugs that destroy their grapes. Some of the organic processes call for more people in the vineyard, which always drives up the cost.

And sometimes nothing works. If the vines become diseased or a pest invasion overwhelms the vineyard, the winegrower has no choice but to get rid of the problem as quickly and painlessly as possible. Once a non-approved fertilizer or pesticide is used, the vineyard loses its organic certification and has to undergo the long process of trying to go organic again.

It’s easier to grow organic grapes in some parts of the country than others. Few growers attempt it in the Midwest, for instance, because the humidity makes it easy for mold and rot to take hold of the vines, while dryer environments see fewer disease and insect problems.

Corks

But since few of us are lucky enough to own vineyards or wineries, there are other ways we can go green with wine. One is to recycle corks. We’ve all seen “cork art” – I’m not a fan, though I’ve seen a few works that were extraordinary. But there’s an easier way to recycle your corks, and that’s to sell them online, for about a dime each. A bag of 100 can bring you a cool $10, and they weigh so little, shipping costs are minimal. (You can sell those dreadful plastic corks, too, but you’ll only get about 5 cents each for those.) Some sellers “batch” them in different ways – Spanish wine corks, California corks, French corks.

Empty bottles

You can sell your empty wine bottles, too, for about $1 each. These cost more to ship, of course, but people who make their own vino need them. Soak the labels off, and you might want to separate them by color and shape.

Box wine

One last way to reduce your environmental footprint, wine-wise: drink boxed wines. It takes far fewer natural resources to manufacture and ship cardboard boxes with rubber bladders inside, than glass bottles. And stop snickering; some of this stuff is delicious. (And yes, some is nasty.) I’ve had great luck with Big Sexy Reds produced by Bota Box, Vin Vault and Black Box.

If you want to go on record as an “official” supporter of curbing climate change, go to the Earth Day Network’s website, http://www.earthday.org, and become a “citizen signer.” You can brag about it to the kids someday – over a glass of organic wine.

Wine Lingo of the Day =  Sustainable viticulture, growing grapes in a way that not only protects the environment organically, but also considers the long-term future of society and wine growing, addressing such issues as global warming, greenhouse gases and water usage.

[Photos by Mary Mihaly, Deb Harkness/Flickr (corks), Monika Andrae/Flickr (empties) and anokarina/Flickr (boxed wine).]

Cheers!

Mary

Like Water for…Wine?

So…how are you celebrating World Water Day today?

What’s that you say…you actually went to work??!?

I get it; it’s been a fairly obscure holiday. But back in 1994, the United Nations designated every March 22 henceforth as UN-Water Day. It makes sense, since 71 percent of our planet is covered with the stuff, and more than half of us (1.5 billion) work in some water-related job. It makes even more sense that this year’s theme is water and jobs, focusing on how enough quality water can change lives and even transform societies. Just ask Lady GagaPharrell Williams and Beyoncé, celebrities promoting the cause.

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And we know what water means to our favorite vines. Wine guru Jancis Robinson has written that in arid regions, grapevines reach as deep as 20 feet underground to quench their thirst. Water carries nutrients from the soil up into the plants, which need 20 to 30 inches of water (from rain or irrigation) every year. We’re talking about some 19 million acres of vines across the globe, giving us 70 million tons of fruit, about 70 percent of which end up in our wineglasses.

Is that wine-geeky enough for you? Here’s a little more: During photosynthesis, water molecules combine with carbon to make glucose, the main source of energy for the vine. It gets complicated, though. How well water performs its many tasks can be impacted by evaporation, climate, soil type, and a slew of other factors. Not enough water and the vines undergo “water stress” – essentially, the grapes stop ripening. Give them too much, especially at harvest time, and the grapes get waterlogged; they swell up, their sugar is diluted, and the outcome is a crop of bland, watery-tasting grapes (and wine). I saw this dynamic firsthand years ago, when I used to grow my grandma’s black raspberries – those vines loved a good downpour in the spring, but come June and early July, they needed bright, hot sunshine to give us the sweet berries we waited for every year.

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An over-abundance of water can bring other challenges, too – bacteria, mold, fungi. Good drainage is essential. And all of these water-related factors can vary between regions, vineyards, even individual vines.

The wine in your glass is 80 to 90 percent water, almost all of it from grapes themselves. So when we raise a glass to celebrate Easter this weekend, maybe we can pause to appreciate the delicate balance achieved by those smart, long-experienced winegrowers all over creation. They use their water well, don’t they?

But if you run out of vino, don’t try changing jugs of water into wine. That job is taken.

Cheers, everyone! And if you want to keep reading about wine and spirits every week, please click on the “Follow” button in the bottom righthand corner of your screen and BigSexyReds will appear in your mailbox.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Coulure = In English, it translates to “shatter.” Coulure happens when the tiny flowers on the vine fail to develop into healthy berries, and is often brought on by cold, rainy weather, especially in spring.

Happy sipping,

Mary

[Photos courtesy of cold bologna and whity at Flickr.com.]