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

 

Advertisements

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

 

 

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

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.

zinfandel

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.

By the way, please don’t hesitate to share this post by clicking on the social media buttons at the bottom of the page! If you’d like to get BigSexyReds by email, just click on the “Follow” button at the lower right corner of your screen – and thanks!

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.

vineyardfreshvinfresh-label

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]

No-Guilt Wine Grapes: Thank You, Cesar Chavez!

He’s a modern-day hero now, with schools, bridges, libraries, parks and roads named after him. But back in the ’60s and ’70s, California’s agricultural oligarchy was hardly enamored of human rights activist César Chávez. That was especially true of grape growers, targets of the 5-year boycott that made Chávez famous.

12097643034_c91433a628_z

[Photo of Chavez with a sign encouraging farm workers to “Huelga” – “Strike” – courtesy of Jay Galvin, Flickr/Creative Commons]

Ironically, although he spent his adult years trying to revolutionize the farming establishment, Chávez started life as one of them. Born in Yuma, Arizona this day in 1927, he spent his early years on the 100-acres-plus farm owned by his grandfather, Césario Chávez. But the family lost their farm in the Great Depression and went to California to labor in the fields as migrant workers.

After a wartime stint in the U.S. Navy, Chávez returned to the fields. He spent his spare hours reading and became a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of social change through non-violence. His world was ready to erupt: migrant workers often went unpaid, got no medical care or schooling in the barrios, worked all day without bathroom breaks and endured other conditions difficult to imagine in today’s first-world lifestyle.

So in his mid-30s, Chávez began the slow process of organizing farm workers for better living and working conditions, and several years later his National Farm Workers Association joined with the AFL-CIO in their strike against vineyards in Delano, California.

Chávez became the national poster boy for underserved Americans – especially those in rural communities, and especially Latinos. Public pressure and support for the boycott was so strong that most growers caved, signing agreements to upgrade conditions for field workers. Chávez became the first man ever to organize a farm workers’ union that resulted in signed contracts, and shortly after the grape boycott ended in 1970, he went after lettuce growers. It didn’t impact the industry as much as the grape protest, but that mattered little; American consumers had awakened.

2334731519_ed3b80811e_o

[Photo of Chávez, right, with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The woman to Kennedy’s right is Chavez’s wife, Helen. Courtesy of Korean Resource Center, Flickr/Creative Commons]

One feature of Chávez’s non-violent protest tactic was fasting. In 1968, to prevent violence during the grape strike, he went on a hunger strike for 25 days. His fast was broken at an outdoor Mass attended by 4,000 supporters, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Chávez conducted several more hunger strikes during his organizing career, and in the end it likely killed him. He died in his sleep in 1993 after fasting for several days – but while not all everything he accomplished was permanent, the most important changes – guaranteed pay for migrant workers, a 70 percent wage increase from 1964 to 1980, health care, schooling and a formal grievance policy – did endure. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chávez’s wife, fellow activist Helen Chávez, and in 2008, Presidential candidate Barack Obama adopted Chávez’s mantra, “Si se puede”–“Yes, we can”–as his own campaign slogan.

And I still have my “Boycott Grapes” bumper sticker.

What should we pour, then, to honor César Chávez on his birthday? It has to be a California varietal, don’t you think? A nice Cab or Merlot is the obvious choice, but they do so well with Zinfandel, I think that’s what I’ll drink tonight. And if you feel like a splurge, try a Schramsberg bubbly. Finally, Chávez would approve.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Alto Adige = Italy’s northernmost wine region. Perched at the very top of the country, Alto Adige sits in the Italian Alps (known as the Dolomites) and borders Austria and Switzerland. When you visit, you’ll drink lively whites with plenty of minerality- Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc) – but you’ll find BigSexyReds here, too.

Cheers!

Mary

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.

IMG_0559

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