Wine, Any Way You Spell It

Today we’re wrapping up Palindrome Week, a 10-day string of dates that read the same forwards and backwards: 9-10-19, 9-11-19, 9-12-19…you get the picture.

Although I couldn’t find any wine grapes whose names are palindromes, the quirky dates got me wondering: how did wine grapes get their names, anyway? Was there once a Frenchie named “Monsieur Sauvignon”? Or an Australian cat named Sherlock Shiraz?

Coronation grapes

[“Coronation Grapes” by Amber Fox, courtesy of Flickr]

The origins of grape names, it turns out, are logical for the most part, though some are more interesting than others. I found the stories behind eight common wine grapes:

  1. Chardonnay actually is a small village in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, a part of France where Chardonnay grapes thrive. (If you weren’t aware, Chardonnay wine from that part of the world is sometimes referred to as “White Burgundy.”) The word means “place of thistles.”
  2. Gewürztraminer translates to “spiced Traminer,” a mutation of the Traminer grape from Tyrol, or northern Italy. We know it as an almost-perfumey star wine of Alsace.
  3. Malbec is mostly known as a red wine grape from the Mendoza region of Argentina, but it was once known as Auxerrois from the Cahors region of France. There, it’s known as Côt, Cor, Cos, or Cau, obviously derivatives of Cahors. It may be called Malbec because it was planted in Bordeaux in the 1780s by a Monsieur Malbeck.
  4. Merlot‘s history is pretty straightforward: the name of the dark, rich grape came from “merle,” the French word for Blackbird.
  5. Pinot Noir means “pine” and “black,” relating to the dark, pine cone-shaped clusters of Pinot Noir grapes on the vine. Pinot lovers refer to Burgundy as the “spiritual home” of Pinot Noir, and when you see a bottle on a wine store shelf that’s simply labeled “Bourgogne” or Burgundy, it’s Pinot Noir.
  6. Riesling references date back to 1477, when some writings in Alsace called it “Rissling.” There’s also a small vineyard and stream in Austria called Ritzling, and some claim that’s the origin of the name. A third possibility: the origin may be traced to durchriesein, a word with many spellings and meanings, including  “inability to flower in cool temperatures.”
  7. Sauvignon boasts a wild history, so it’s appropriate that its name derives from the French word “sauvage,” which translates to “wild.” Cabernet Sauvignon is an accidental cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
  8. Shiraz might be known as the signature grape of Australia, but its ancestry spans three continents: the name refers to the wine-producing city of Shiraz in Iran, and the grape originated in southeast France.

Enjoy what’s left of Palindrome Week, because the wacky pattern won’t happen again until 2021–on 12-1-21, to be precise. The 10-day string of palindrome dates happens every century, always in the second decade. And you might want to pour a special glass this evening, Thursday, September 19 at 19 minutes and 19 seconds past 9, when it will be 9-19-19, 9:19:19.

That factoid has nothing to do with wine history, but it’s an excuse to celebrate anyway, just a little.

Wine Lingo: Wine thief = no, it doesn’t mean your cousin Lizzie who “borrows” one of your best bottles and never replaces it. If you haven’t seen a wine thief in person, you’ve seen photos: it’s the long glass or metal tube used by winemakers to draw samples from wine barrels.

Peterson Syrah med

Vino ‘View: 2011 Peterson Syrah, Gravity Flow Block, Dry Creek Valley (13.8 percent alcohol, $48) Get out your decanter, because this full-bodied Sonoma red will need to breathe for an hour or so. It’s not a cheap bottle, so you’ll want to drink it at its best. The aroma is intense, with smoke and black fruit wafting up. After decanting, the wine finds a good balance, with smoke and oak remaining on the palate through the long finish. Dry leaves sneak in–have you tried CBD oil? I detected a bit of the same mushroomy, earthy taste. Not that the fruit is lost; I tasted plum, blackberry and maybe avocado. Drink it now; this wine won’t benefit from any more aging.

[The Peterson Syrah was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

Advertisements

For Your Next White Vino, Try Albariño

“I’m ready for a new wine experience.”

This came from a friend who loves white wine, refuses to even smell my reds, and now she insists that Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc all taste the same these days. (They don’t, but I let her go on with her rant.) “Is there another white I’d like?”

Albarino tasting

I had the perfect remedy for her wine boredom. Thanks to the good people at Rías Baixas Wines and wine discovery website Snooth, I had two bottles of Albariño in the fridge, just waiting for me to crack them.

This lip-smacking white, called “racy but not sharp” by one reviewer, is produced in the Rías Baixas DO, a tiny wine region in Galicia, the part of northwest Spain adjacent to Portugal. It’s believed that the Albariño grape was brought there in the 12th century by Cluny monks, who migrated from Burgundy in France. A small number of Portuguese winemakers also grow Albariño; on their side of the border it’s called Alvarinho. They sometimes use it to make Vinho Verde (translated: “green wine”), a dry, fruity-light wine with just a touch of deliberate frizzante, or effervescence.

Albariño is watery-yellow in appearance; if you were reviewing it for a major wine magazine you might refer to it as “pale straw”–a perfect description but not one that would occur to most people.  (When was the last time you looked at straw close-up?)

If you’re a fan of Spanish wines, you probably drink a lot of Tempranillo, an easy-to-drink red and Spain’s most popular wine. It’s also one of the more affordable quality wines on the shelves. You’re likely to find Albariño costs a bit more, partly because this thin-skinned grape doesn’t hang on the vine as long as many varieties, so it produces less juice.

Still, Albariño accounts for nearly all of the grapes grown in Rías Baixas (96 percent), a region where about 99 percent of all wine produced is white. But don’t expect them to all taste the same. The government permits 12 grape varieties in that corner of Spain, and although the wines all are dry, there’s a diversity between them because of the different terroirs, grapes used in the blends, and microclimates in Rías Baixas’s five sub-zones.

Even in the vineyard, Albariño stands out. It’s grown on trellises called “parra” that stretch up to seven feet, preventing mildew and giving the fruit more sun exposure to encourage a more even ripening. By harvest time, the grapevines have formed a gorgeous canopy overhead.

When you buy Albariño, plan to drink it soon; it’s a delicate grape that will lose its fruit quickly. I’d give it a year or two at the most.

Wine Lingo: Capsule = the wrapping, often metal, that protects the cork and neck of a wine bottle, also referred to as the “foil.” Traditionally capsules were lead, but now you find them made of aluminum, plastic, tin, laminates or beeswax.

Albarino bottles med

Vino ‘View: Yep, you’re looking at two dead soldiers in this photo: Marqués de Frias Albariño 2017 (12.5 percent alcohol) and Santiago Ruiz 2017 (13 percent alcohol, $21). Here’s something to watch for when you buy this wine: you’ll see that the label on the Marqués de Frias  bottle announces that the wine is Albariño. It’s earned the right to do that because the wine is 100 percent Albariño, with no other grapes involved in making it, while the Santiago Ruiz is a blend. Spanish law says that, in order to use the word “Albariño” on the front label, it must be the only grape in the wine. Regardless, both bottles were delicious with strong minerality from the granite bedrock found throughout Rías Baixas. The Santiago Ruiz gave the stronger rocky taste, along with apple cider, roasted pear and a subtle licorice aroma. I got a slightly bitter aftertaste, but it was pleasant–it seemed to keep the cooked pear and stone fruit from taking over. The Marqués de Frias provided more of the lime, grapefruit and green apple tastes I expected–a persistent citrus tone that folded into tart cantaloupe by the second glass. Overall I thought it tasted young and rich–two positives!

[The Marqués de Frias and Santiago Ruiz were provided to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

Viognier, the “White Wine for Hedonists”

The cherry blossoms are about to pop in northern Virginia, and I’m looking at the first green grass I’ve seen in six months. We’re sipping Viognier, the state’s signature grape—crisp, fruity and the perfect varietal for welcoming spring—but this bottle is from the other side of the country: Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington.

977E7728-8E78-4DCC-B6D9-B90CF58C2AD5

I visited Maryhill, perched above the Columbia River near Mt. Hood, last October after the Wine Media Conference in Walla Walla. At about 8,000 cases of Viognier a year, Maryhill is the state’s biggest producer, though the American Northwest is a latecomer to Viognier-growing.

Viognier—a close DNA match to Syrah, by the way—may have originated in Croatia. One story has it imported into southern France as early as 281 AD: we know it grew in Condrieu during the Roman Empire. But it’s a notoriously difficult grape to grow because it’s more prone to disease than most varieties, and by the 1960s it was nearly extinct—only about 35 acres remained across the globe.

But as wine’s popularity grew, so did wine lovers’ awareness of this luscious white grape. Growers planted vines in California and Eden Valley (Australia) in the ’70s; now it’s found in New Zealand, Israel, North and South America, and the Cape Winelands of South Africa–for starters. In spite of its susceptibility to disease and unpredictable yields, Viognier also is drought-resistant, so it can thrive in warm, dry climates.

Viognier is a crisp, fruity wine, with aromas of peach, honeysuckle and tangerine. On top of the stone fruit layer you might detect a steely quality, along with some herbal notes–pine, chamomile, perhaps thyme. This festival of aromas is why wine authority Jancis Robinson calls Viognier, “the hedonist’s white grape variety,” but the perfume party doesn’t happen by accident. In order for the nose to fully develop, Viognier must hang on the vine longer than most grapes, sometimes rendering it “too rich to ferment to dryness.”

I think Viognier makes a delicious varietal, but increasingly I’m seeing it in blends, often with Grenache Blanc. Italian winemakers sometimes blend it with Chardonnay, especially, as Jancis Robinson notes, if it needs the Chardonnay’s added acidity. A few  creative winemakers, especially in California and Australia, have even started mixing it with reds, especially its close cousin Syrah, for a deeper texture and brighter color. And if you’re a person who likes a little oaky taste in your whites, look for Viognier that’s been aged in oak; it will give you that creamy mouthfeel you get in oaked Chardonnay.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  pH = a measure of a wine’s acidity, indicated by the amount of hydrogen in it.

BF7F484D-BAA1-4D25-9A3C-35FA4FDB2E24

Vino ‘View:  Maryhill 2017 Viognier (14.5 % alcohol; $19) delivers superb balance in spite of that high (for a white) alcohol content, thanks to a hot summer and late harvest that give the wine a slightly tingly acidity. The grapes were sourced from four vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA, picked in the cool morning hours to keep those peachy-bright aromas. The wine was partially fermented with French oak staves, but it’s so lively and fruity, I wouldn’t call it an “oaky” wine at all. Don’t drink it straight out of the refrigerator; take it out half an hour before you serve it so you can experience its richness. I drank mine with a spicy Thai curry, a perfect pairing for the grape’s natural sweetness.

[The Maryhill Viognier was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

Wine & Spirits Exams: Not for Every Palate

Studying can be a greedy master. It devoured much of my time this spring, but the outcome was worth it: I passed my CSS (Certified Specialist of Spirits) exam, and the experience got me thinking about exams in general.

I hate them. When I’m not cramming for my next wine or spirits test, I feel a bit adrift. I love the studying part. But when it comes to the exam itself, no matter how well I know the material, I’m anxious and confused.

 

 

                         [From left: Three levels of Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) pins; Certified
                  Specialist of Wine (CSW) pin; Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) pin; CSS “pass letter”]

Each path to wine or spirits certification, whether you pursue credentials from the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), Court of Master Sommeliers, Institute of Masters of Wine, or college-based Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance (VESTA), has its own strategy. One school might emphasize technicalities – soil types and grape varieties, winemaking styles, wine laws across the globe – while others focus on vintages and subtleties of restaurant service.

Their exams are just as diverse. The WSET Level 3/Advanced exam, for instance, is mostly about wine, divided into three segments: First up is a set of multiple-choice questions, followed by an “essay” portion (some questions are brief sentence completions, while others require lengthy answers, such as discussing wines from various regions of Italy – and you dare not leave out any important details or terms). The last part of the exam is a blind wine tasting, which isn’t nearly as scary as you would think. You’re given two wine pours, a red and a white, and when I took the test we were required to list 26 separate attributes of each wine – appearance, four aromas, five tastes, alcohol level, tannin level, acidity, and so on, ending with the wine’s grape and region. Fortunately, my instructor, Marianne Frantz of American Wine School, was mercifully generous with those tastes, because after nearly three hours of testing we were ready for alcohol.

The CSW and CSS exams from the Society of Wine Educators are multiple-choice, which implies they would be easier to pass. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: every question from the exams is drawn from the textbooks. The bad news: there’s a pool of about 5,000 randomly selected questions for each exam, so each candidate gets a different set of questions to answer. Your only hope of passing is to memorize the book.

For the spirits certification, you might be asked, which scotch-producing region delivers the highest-quality whisky? How long is bourbon required to age? Which country is best known for distilling barley to make vodka? What is the Lincoln County Process? Who was “Old Forester”? Which cocktails are typically made by shaking, rolling or stirring? Which types of stills are used for which spirits? What’s the difference between a doubler and a thumper? What are the aging requirements and bottled alcohol levels – both in the U.S. and Europe, because they’re different – of whiskey, vodka and gin? And you’d better know every detail about Prohibition and Repeal Day.

The most punishing is the Masters of Wine exam – which is why, at this writing, only 370 individuals in 28 countries (125 of whom are women) are MWs. Candidates write papers on such topics as the effects of a worldwide labor shortage on vineyards, or the role of enzymes in winemaking. But far more terrifying is the blind tasting: three flights of 12 wines each. Grapes, regions, characteristics, every detail a true expert would be expected to know. Lastly, MW candidates must submit a report of original research, up to 10,000 words long.

Like any academic pursuit, sitting for wine and spirits exams can be grueling. Is it worth the trouble? That depends on your personal goals, how hard you want to study, and frankly, how much money you want to spend. I spent several thousand dollars; by the time you become a Master of Wine or French Wine Scholar, you could spend a small fortune. For me, it definitely has paid off – but now I might be finished studying. Stay tuned.

Liquor Lingo of the Day: Angel’s Share = the whiskey that evaporates as it ages in the barrel. Wood is porous, so the angels get a sweet allowance – up to 4 percent every year. A smaller amount is sacrificed to the Devil’s Cut, the liquor that seeps into the wood and is absorbed by the barrel itself.

LVOV new

Liquor ‘View: Eating your veggies is one thing, but drinking them is a party! I couldn’t wait to try LVOV Vodka (80 proof, under $20), a Polish import distilled from beets. I wasn’t disappointed; you won’t detect any beet flavor (though I love beets, so I wouldn’t have minded a hint of beet) or color. Sipped on the rocks, the mouthfeel is satiny and creamy, reminding me of a sweet whipped cream. It had no aroma and little taste except a hint of wheat, so I expected it would be a versatile cocktail vodka. It was fine in Bloody Marys, but really shone in summery drinks. I mixed citrus coolers and later some boozy watermelon slushies, and the bottle emptied – always a good outcome!

[A bottle of LVOV Vodka was sent to BigSexyReds for review purposes.]

 

Cheers,

Mary

We’re giving away a subscription to Wine Enthusiast magazine!

I don’t know about you, but I found yesterday’s solar eclipse moving. Poetic, in an Albert Einstein kind of way. Not to get sappy, but the universe gifted us, gave us a common curiosity – something we could all appreciate together, for just a few minutes.

Then I learned that today, August 21, is Poets Day! That’s a bit of synchronicity I wanted to celebrate, so BigSexyReds is giving away a 1-year subscription (13 issues) to Wine Enthusiast magazine – just to keep the togetherness going, you know. We all love wine, and reading Wine Enthusiast is one of the most accessible ways to keep learning about it.

Wine EnthusiastI have a love-hate relationship with poetry. My clearest poetry-memory is sitting in Mrs. Weber’s 9th-grade English classroom with half a dozen friends. She was punishing us for talking in class, keeping us there until we memorized Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet: “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself and curse my fate,…” I still haven’t forgotten that damn iambic pentameter.

But today we celebrate all poets, even Willie – persons, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “possessing special powers of imagination or expression.” You can join in and, if your name is chosen, get Wine Enthusiast delivered to your door. Entering is easy. Here’s how:

— All current and new followers of http://www.BigSexyReds.com who are 18 years of age or older, and live in the U.S., are eligible. If you’re already a follower, you’re already entered. To start following, just click on the “follow” tab at the lower right corner of your screen.

— You also can enter by leaving a comment on this post. If you follow BigSexyReds, a comment gets you an extra entry. You can also enter (or get extra entries) by re-tweeting us on Twitter.

— Feeling poetic? Writing a short poem (4-5 lines) in the comment box of this post gets you a whopping five entries!

— One prize will be awarded: a 1-year (13 issues) subscription to Wine Enthusiast magazine (a $29.99 value). This giveaway begins when this post goes live (about 12:30pm, August 21, 2017) and ends at 11:59pm Monday, August 28, 2017.

— The winner will be randomly selected the morning of Tuesday, August 28, 2017, and will be notified by noon that day. No purchase is necessary (a no-brainer, since I’m not selling anything). The odds of winning depend on the number of entries received. If the winner does not respond to claim his or her prize within 48 hours of being notified, he or she forfeits the prize and BigSexyReds will randomly select a different winner. This giveaway is also listed on JustSweep.com and BlogGiveawayDirectory.com.

— The winner is solely responsible for any federal, state or local taxes on this prize, and BigSexyReds reserves the right to publish the winner’s name on this blog and social media unless the winner specifically requests anonymity. If you win and don’t want your name published, I’ll honor that request.

— Lastly, by entering you will be providing your contact information to me and me alone. BigSexyReds will not sell or share any entrant’s email address, or Twitter or Instagram handle, and will use it only for the purpose of contacting the winner.

That’s it!  Cheers, and happy reading!

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.

7647648608_d8145fc5f7_z

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.

15261728850_2afee8753a_z

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]