Monday, March 26, 2007

Wine School! (Class #3 -- Pinot Noir)

Pinot Noir, the elegant grape.

The pleasure of learning about wine expands when you start to explore the differences that exist between wines made from the same grape. It's easy to tell a Pinot Noir from a Syrah, but learning how pinots themselves differ gives you the opportunity to find something you really like and to find the perfect wine for the right occasion, food, evening, gathering, person, etc.

We'll start with regional differences. The area in which a wine's grapes are grown is known as its terroir. (Pronounced tare-WAHR) Literally translated as "soil" in French, a wine's terroir changes the taste of a wine dramatically. Wines made in similar styles with identical grapes can taste radically different, even if those grapes are grown on adjacent plots of land. I find wine tastings of wines from a single growing region fascinating because of those differences.

However, we're not splitting flavors that fine here. Wines from a certain region tend to take on a certain character, and that character can often be food-driven. I've found that winemakers create wines to accompany their home's cuisine and lifestyle. If a regional diet includes a lot of earthy-tasting food, the wines will be earthy tasting. Lighter traditional menus will almost always yield lighter wines, and so on.

I think the best way to learn about a wine is to try several versions of the same grape. With that in mind, here are three markedly different pinots to pour side by side by side:

Tortoise Creek 2005 Pinot Noir -- The French may be slow to change, but they do know which way the wind blows. Over the last couple of decades, international demand for French wine has declined. While some blame American animosity towards France in the wake of 9/11, I believe that there's a simpler economic explanation: French wines are more expensive, difficult to unravel, and almost impossible for a beginner to grasp.

If you look at most bottles of French wine, the name of the grape is nowhere to be found. The French name their wines by region: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Sancerre, Chablis, etc. You'll typically see the name of the chateau where the wine is made, the region, the year -- and that's about it. I had a hard time initially with French wine because I didn't realize, for example, that most red Burgundy is actually pinot noir. (This is not to be confused with jug "Burgundy" of Gallo fame.) There's also white Burgundy, which bears no resemblance to white Zinfandel.

Anyway, the French wised up. While there is still an abundance of traditional French wines, some growers committed the heresy of putting the name of the grape on the label and marketing wines to…well…regular barbaric wine lovers like us. Tortoise Creek (which sounds like it should be from Australia, no?) is an example of one of these "Americanized" pinots.

This wine greets you with a nose of chocolate covered cherries. The flavor is extremely light with a little cherry fruit flavor and a somewhat chalky body. The finish is much drier than many pinot noirs that I've had. Interestingly, this wine reminded me more of Chianti (another wine named after a region) than a French wine. This wine would definitely be better with food. It would be excellent with any roasted or baked fish, or pasta in lighter red sauces. At $8-10, this is an excellent value.

Bogle 2004 Russian River Pinot Noir -- The Russian River valley in Sonoma is better known for bolder wines like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, but there are some very decent pinots tucked away among the bolder grapes. You'll get a wonderful terroir contrast here. French pinot noirs tend to be extremely light and slightly acidic, while wines from California tend to reflect the boldness of those wines. They're generally fuller and fruitier.

The Bogle is no exception. The nose is much stronger, with berry flavors jumping right out at you. The flavor is rich with a very round body. You might taste cherries and raspberries. The finish is dry, but much less acidic than the French version. I found this to be the most drinkable of the three wines. Since it's slightly heavier, it would go well with chicken, lighter meats, and pretty much any kind of red sauce short of one with sausage. $12-14 for a very nice wine.

Cono Sur 2005 Pinot Noir -- California, Oregon, and France may be best known for pinot, but some other places are trying with mixed success to break into the market. Chile, one of the current leaders in value wine, has started to produce pinot, including this entry from Cono Sur. These are surprisingly decent wines for the price, and you get the chance to be the "Cono Sur" at any gathering.

Cono Sur is the lightest of the three pinots in color but not flavor. The nose is slightly fruity and has a scent of earth. The flavor is certainly the most acidic of the three and a bit smoky. The finish is dry and slightly tannic -- unexpected in a pinot. This wine is the least "pinot" tasting to me. It's really neither fish nor fowl (although it would pair with both). It's supposed to be "new world styled," but it tasted more "Old World" -- meaning that the more earthy character stood out. I'd probably pair it with light gamey foods -- duck, for instance. Lamb or something along those lines would also work. It's worth trying for the difference, if nothing else. $9-11.

I think you get the idea -- while a rose is a rose is a rose, a pinot ain't a pinot ain't a pinot. The variance of a single grape among regions, styles, and flavors will keep you fascinated for years. Just don't blame me if it becomes an expensive habit. Just remember, home equity loans are not meant for stocking a wine cellar.

Next up is Sauvignon Blanc -- class dismissed…

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Naked Vine...delivered!

If you look to the right of the page, you'll see that I've started a mailing list. I'll be sending alerts for postings of new wines, other various announcements, and an occasional surprise or two. Simply fill in your email address to subscribe.

Rest assured -- no selling of addresses or other such unpleasantries. Spam bad, bad, bad.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Wine School! (Class #2 -- Whites, the basics)

Moving to the other side of the wine aisle…

When I started drinking wine, I thought (as many do) that red wine came from red grapes and white wine from white grapes. Let's have a look see. Here's a picture of some ripe cabernet sauvignon grapes:

And here are some ripe sauvignon blanc grapes:


The color of wine has little to do with the color of the grape. If a winemaker wishes to make a red wine, the skins of the pressed grapes stay in the fermenter with the juice. The alcohol produced acts as a solvent, drawing color from the grapes. This process is called maceration. Grape skins are not present in the fermentation of whites. (Rosés are made by leaving the skins in briefly, yielding a "less red" color.) Since tannin also comes from the skins, white wines tend to be less dry and have more fruit flavor than reds. Tannins also act as a preservative, which is why -- as a rule -- it's better to drink whites and less tannic reds young, while cabernets can age for long periods of time.

As I mentioned before, there are three major white varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. And, as before, pick up a bottle of each of these varietals, pour a little, and taste them in this order.

Dancing Bull 2005 Sauvignon Blanc $7-9
Rabbit Ridge 2004 Central Coast Chardonnay -- $9-11
Selbach 2004 Riesling Qualitätswein -- $8-10

First, Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon blanc likely originated in the Bordeaux region of France. Most white Bordeaux are made largely from this grape. Sauvignon blancs tend to be tart and crisp. The tartness of a sauvignon blanc comes from the wine's higher level of acidity -- much as an orange is more tart than an apple. As you sniff this wine, you'll usually smell something a little tropical -- pineapples and grapefruits, usually. There's also often a smell that many people describe as "herbaceous" -- like freshly cut grass.

You'll immediately taste the acidity on the first sip. Many SB's have a very pronounced citrus flavor. Some also have a mineral character -- and we'll get to that when we explore sauvignon blanc in more detail. The finish is usually tart and crisp. On a hot day either after working outside or sunning poolside, there are few more refreshing choices than sauvignon blanc.

Sauvignon blancs are incredibly food-friendly because of their high acidity. Much as a cabernet sauvignon's tannin allows it to cut through the fat of a piece of red meat, the makeup of a sauvignon blanc allows its flavor to stand up to many other foods. Spicy foods like Mexican, Indian, or Thai go well, as would a simple salad. (Salad, honestly, is one of the more difficult food pairings.) Light fish dishes also go well, as the sauvignon's flavors won't overwhelm those tastes.

On to Chardonnay, the most popular white varietal in the world. Why? In my opinion, there's more variation in taste among chardonnays than almost any other varietal, red or white. Thus, there's a "flavor" of Chardonnay for almost any palate. In general, Chardonnay generates a full-bodied white wine, less tart than the sauvignon blanc. The fruit is less pronounced, and the finish tends to be smoother.

As for that variation in flavors, if you ever hear discussions of "old world" versus "new world" wines, Chardonnay is a classic example. Old World-style chardonnays (such as white Burgundies) tend to be slightly acidic and crisp. The fruit flavor tends to be mellow, pleasant, and refreshing. New World Chardonnays (specifically, California chards) have two distinct additional flavors: butter and oak.

The "butter" flavor comes from a process called malolactic fermentation. This bacterial process converts the very tart malic acid into lactic acid. Lactic acid is not as tart -- it's the same acid found in dairy products. The result of malolactic fermentation is a compound called diacetyl, which has the aroma of buttered popcorn. If you hear someone referring to a wine "undergoing full malolactic fermentation," that's longhand for "this wine won't be very tart."

The "oak" flavor is unmistakable. Many New World chardonnays are aged in charred oak barrels (or toasted oak chips are added), which makes the wine slightly darker and imparts a character of oak or vanilla. For many years, the California wine industry went overboard in "oaking" wines, leading to a signature flavor on one hand, but a tough wine for many palates to handle on the other. Some California wineries are swinging the other way, specifically making "unoaked" Chardonnay.

The Rabbit Ridge I used is very much a "New World" chardonnay. Both the oak and butter flavors are present.

Because Chardonnay has so much variety, you can find a specific one to go with any number of foods. The Old World chards go really well with seafood, while the New World ones pair with chicken, cream sauces, and pork.

Finally, Riesling. Many people's thoughts of Riesling don't go far beyond the mouth-puckering sweetness of Black Tower or Blue Nun -- causing lots of folks to pass on this wonderful varietal. Riesling is generally the most full-bodied white wine and there is usually some sweetness. Riesling is also one of the few whites, along with Sauternes, that can be aged.

I did an extensive entry a while ago on Riesling, so if you want to know your spatlese from your kabinett and your trocken from your halbtrocken, go here.

The Selbach is a "Qualitätswein" -- the German designation for basic table wine. You'll notice a fairly strong apple scent when you swirl. The taste will be "round" and full with a pleasant sweetness. The sweetness will be even more evident next to the other two wines. You'll also get a little bit of acidity on both the taste and finish.

Like sauvignon blanc, Riesling is an exceptional food wine. Thai or Chinese food go remarkably well with Riesling, but traditional German and Austrian cuisines work well here, too. If you're ever at a loss for a bottle of wine to take to dinner, buy a Riesling, specifically a "dry Riesling" (the label will either say "Dry Riesling" or "trocken"). Dry Riesling pairs with anything from sushi to bratwurst.

One final note: Although there's no absolute consensus on the order in which you taste wines -- I tend to taste drier wines before sweet wines, and light wines before heavy ones. A sauvignon blanc will taste better before a chardonnay, rather than the other way around.

I'd suggest you do a couple of these "varietal side by sides" so you can tell the difference among grapes. The next several "lessons" will deal with the varietals individually. First up will be pinot noir.

Until next time…class dismissed.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Notes of Thanks

I want to extend a heartfelt note of thanks to Gina Daugherty of CinWeekly magazine. CinWeekly is one of the two main arts and entertainment weeklies in Cincinnati. Gina put together a piece on local bloggers, and she was kind enough to include The Naked Vine. She also included my good friend Dave Purcell's Radio Free Newport (which fittingly got top billing for the article -- it's brilliant writing and commentary), as well as Chris Glass' The Last Ten Days, Nur Jemal's Rockin' Hejabi, Joe Hansbauer's The 'Nati, and Kasmira Oar's What I Wore Today.

The last trip I took by air was to Los Angeles -- the jumping off point for the Santa Barbara excursion. I flew into LAX at night -- and I still get overwhelmed when I think that every light below is a person with a story to tell. I never cease to be amazed by the sheer number of fascinating perspectives and ideas hovering out there awaiting discovery. It's been fun to add my voice to the chorus.

Many thanks to Gina (one of the cooler people I've met recently), and to David Sorcher for dealing with the glare off my noggin while he was shooting the picture for the piece. Many thanks to the Sweet Partner in Crime and Mooch the Magnificent Mutt for support and inspiration. Most of all, thanks to those of you who found your way to my little corner of the Internets. I hope you can find something useful and fun here.

Here to keeping the Vine rolling for a long time to come. Cheers!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ernest Gallo: 1909-2007

Seems only fitting for a site focused on inexpensive wine to post a postmortem for Ernest Gallo, Lord of Lambrusco.

I'll hold off for now on *cough* tastings *cough* of Gallo. If there's one thing this project taught me -- you don't need to sacrifice taste for cost. That said, Gallo arguably did more to make wine an American household commodity than anyone in recent history. For that, we are grateful.

We at the Naked Vine raise our jugs of "Chablis" and "Burgundy" in salute.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Wine School! (Class #1 -- Reds, the basics)

When I started this little endeavor, I wanted to provide a resource for basic, everyday people to find basic, everyday wine and make the world of wine a little less intimidating.

I was having a conversation with the Sweet Partner in Crime the other day, and she made a great suggestion: "Why not do some stuff on wine basics? If you give people a base to work from, they'll appreciate your regular columns even more."

There's a reason she's the smart one in the relationship.

My plan for the next several installments (although I'll sprinkle in a few other topics here and there) is to provide a basic overview of the major wine varietals, how to recognize them, and what to expect when you do a tasting.

Generally speaking, there are six or seven major grape varietals. There are three reds: pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah. There are three whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Merlot is the seventh varietal. Merlot was used largely as a blending grape until the last several decades, so it's usually left off the list. We'll focus on the main six for now. (But if you want some merlot information, go here.)

I'll do a brief overview of the grapes first, and I'll provide more in-depth coverage of the individual varietals as a follow up. I'll start with the reds.

For our first tastings, here are the wines I used:

Mirassou 2005 Pinot Noir ($7-8)
Rex Goliath 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($8-9)
Cline 2004 Syrah ($9-10)

You can, of course, use other wines from these varietals you may have lying around. Fetch three glasses, pour samples side by side by side, line them up, and proceed. Remember, if this process doesn't work as well as you'd like…simply refill the glasses and start again.

We begin with Pinot Noir. Pinot noir is the lightest major red varietal. Watch the wine as you pour -- almost translucent. As you swirl the wine (and the reason we do this is here), take a good look at it. It's very light, isn't it? Then take a big sniff. The nose of a pinot is generally soft and fragrant. You'll often smell flowers and cherries. Now a little taste. The taste mirrors the nose -- light and delicate. The finish (flavors left in your mouth after you've swallowed the wine) tends to be soft, especially in comparison to the other wines here. Wine folks (like those in Sideways) greatly appreciate this wine because the flavors are subtle and complex. Regardless of whether or not you're into pulling apart flavors, it's still a very pleasant tasting, drinkable wine. Pinot's flavors also change and intensify as you drink. After the first taste of the Mirassou, wait a minute or so and then take a second sip -- the flavor and finish becomes almost chocolaty at the end. If you're thinking about pairing pinot noir with food (or any wine, for that matter), the operative concept isn't the type of food -- it's the style of food that's more important. Light wines complement light food. A pinot, then, would go with poultry, pork, or fish. It will also work with a number of spicy or saucy foods, as it's an incredibly flexible food wine.

On to Cabernet Sauvignon. The first thing you'll notice is the color. The wine is a much deeper, darker purple. It looks much heavier bodied. When you take your first big sniff, you'll notice a smell sort-of-but-not-quite like blackberries. If you hear people talking about "cassis" or "blackcurrant" notes, that's what they're referring to (you can stick to calling it blackberry if you want). The taste is also immediately different. There's fruit and alcohol flavor is much stronger than the pinot when you take the first sip, but the real difference emerges a few seconds after. You'll feel your mouth start to "dry out" with this wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is known to be a very "tannic" wine. Tannin is a chemical naturally occuring in grape skin. Pinot noir is a very thin-skinned grape, thus the tannin concentration will be much lower than the thicker-skinned cabernet grape. The effect of the tannins is a sensation is called "astringency," which you'll also get from strong black tea. The finish of a cabernet is longer -- you'll taste the dryness for quite awhile after you swallow. Cabernet is the most tannic of the "major" varietals. That tannin is useful in pairing cabernet with fatty, earthy, or heavy foods. That tannin cuts through the heaviness, allowing the flavor of the wine and the food to complement each other. Grilled steaks, portabella mushrooms, big pastas and chocolates are classic cabernet pairings.

Finally, we arrive at Syrah -- the biggest of the reds. Not the driest…the biggest. You can see when you pour that the wine is the darkest and heaviest. The color is blackish purple, generally. (Wine folks call this "inky.") The nose of this wine is strong and fragrant, often full of plums and blackberries. When you taste, you'll immediately sense the "roundness" in comparison to the others. The flavor is usually full of berries, plums, and black cherries. The finish is fruity and not overly dry, and often has a licorice or chocolate flavor (which is why syrah is a fantastic chocolate pairing). You'll taste tannins in this wine, too -- but they're not as pronounced as the cabernet. A good syrah is generally defined as having "firm" tannins. Foodwise, syrah is best paired with just about anything you can put over fire. Grilled meats and vegetables, big stews -- anything with a rich flavor will go well with syrah's richness. Syrah is also a great wine for cool evenings. One other syrah note: you might see wines labeled Shiraz. The Australians called their syrah grapes "shiraz" after harvesting them for bit. Why? Who knows? Just know it's the same grape.

Differentiating between varietals is one of the keys to appreciating wine, pairing with food, or just finding something to fit your mood. Eventually, try side-by-side tastings with other varietals to see how they compare. You'll notice zinfandel, Chianti, tempranillo, malbec, merlot, etc. all have unique characteristics. For starters, though, stick with the basics. If you'd like, feel free to pass along what you find from your own tastings. I'd be interested to hear.

I hope this gives you a good starting point. Until next time…class dismissed…