Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tare What?

Hang out with corkheads long enough, and someone will eventually start talking about terroir. Wine's typically not something to be scared of, so what gives?

No, not "terror" -- "terroir!" It's pronounced "tare-WAHR" and is the backbone of any wine. Specifically -- it's where the bloomin' grapes come from.

The term is often used in discussions of the soil in which grapes grow, but I prefer the broader definition. Terroir certainly includes the soil itself, but also encompasses the climate and the topography of the growing region. The most obvious example of the expression of terroir is in the classification of French and Italian wines.

To wit, the terroir of the Bordeaux region produces a certain type of wine. That’s then further divided into the specific area of Bordeaux (Pomerol, Margaux, etc.) and then even further into the various Chateaus – like Lafite-Rothschild, et al. You see this more and more with many American wines as well. You’ll see wines labeled “Central Coast” or “Willamette Valley” – and these wines often get down to listing the individual vineyards from which the grapes are harvested.

So, why does all this matter? What difference does it make where these wines are from – especially wines like the ones we’ve got here – wines that aren’t the tippy top of the scale?

Because where the grapes are grown can tell you as much about what’s in that bottle as the grape varietal itself. If you’ve been reading the Vine for awhile – or even if you’ve just stumbled your way through Wine School, you’ll notice that there are often huge flavor variations among wines made of the same grape. The largest of these flavor differences go hand in hand with geography. For instance, a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand will generally have flavors of tropical fruit, a white Bordeaux often has a lighter, minerally taste, and an American sauvignon might taste more like grapefruit.

Terroir also explains why some regions grow certain grapes. Pinot noir, for instance, needs a very particular type of climate. That’s why so few regions produce the grape. And it’s no accident that New Zealand is about as far south of the equator as Oregon and Burgundy are north.

I bring all this up because knowing a wine’s terroir (and the general flavors of wines from that area) comes in very handy when you’re trying to find a wine either to pair with food or just to have on its own. As a rule of thumb – wines grown in cooler climates tend to be more delicate and have more complex flavors. Warmer climate wines tend to be higher in alcohol and have much more powerful fruit tastes.

One of the complaints you'll often hear about wines in the price range we're most interested in is the "uniformity of flavor" these wines often have. "One tastes like another," you'll hear many people say. Even among similarly priced wines from the same country, you’ll find significant differences. As an example, I tasted three American syrahs -- often considered to be fairly uniform. I looked at three, all between $10-12:

I started with the J. Lohr 2005 South Ridge Syrah. J. Lohr's syrah comes from Paso Robles. Red wines from Paso Robles (about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and inland across the Santa Lucia mountains) have some consistent notes across varietals. The Paso Robles Wine website quotes Matt Kramer’s book in stating that almost all their reds (they grow primarily Cabernet, Merlot, Grenache, and Syrah) have soft tannins and rich fruitiness. This is another perfect example of terroir description -- common flavor elements across grape varietals. This syrah falls squarely along those lines. The nose of this wine is big, fruity and smoky. It tastes much like it smells -- with flavors of blueberries, blackberries and leather. The finish is leathery and dry, but the tannins soften considerably as the wine opens. If I hadn't known better initially, I'd thought I'd been handed a cabernet, and this certainly could pass as a cabernet’s first cousin.

From there, we move on to the Rock Rabbit 2004 Central Coast Syrah. Rock Rabbit grows most of its grapes slightly north of J. Lohr in the "Central Coast" region near Monterey. The wines from this region tend to be big and juicy, and this syrah also follows right along. According to the winemaker, this wine is made in "Australian style," and I would concur. The nose is big and plummy -- a fruit bomb to be sure. The flavor is very fruit dominant, although it mellows a bit after a sip or two. Plenty of plums and licorice, and the finish is only slightly dry. It's quite a contrast.

Finally, I went with the Hogue 2005 Syrah. I expected a big difference, and I wasn't disappointed. Hogue is from Washington State, where the weather is considerably cooler than what you'll find in California. As such, the wine is much more balanced and almost delicate. The nose has much more subtle fruit -- raspberry comes to mind, with a smoky undertone. The flavor is "smooth earthy" -- blueberries and caramel. The finish is long and not very dry. A very pleasant wine, and a much more complex one than the other two.

So, have no fear of terroir – let it be your ace in the hole when it comes to picking the “right wine.” Much as in the description of Paso Robles above, you can feel pretty safe in picking out a flavor profile once you get exposed to a certain terroir. Give it a go and see what you find!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"...when you're having more than one."

Let's face facts.

Lots of wine drinking has nothing to do with "wine tasting," especially in summertime. Sure, there are gatherings where people taste a bunch of wine and there are dinners where it's nice to have a good pairing, but this is the season for long nights out on the patio and for gatherings. Backyards. Front porches. Picnics. Reunions.

Somewhere near the cooler of beer, there are usually at least a few bottles of wine about. Now, some believe that "more is better" applies, and the jugs of Gallo get stuck in the ice next to the PBR. While I'm happy to toss back wine sans swirling -- I want to slug something that's not going to make me feel like I've just poured a plastic cupful of battery acid.

So, we're basically looking for some wines that aren't going to be center stage. We're not going for complexity. We're not looking to take flavors apart. We want some wines that will be inexpensive enough that you can load up, but of enough of a quality that no one's giving their glass that "one squinty eyed" frown.

I've found a few that could fill the bill -- so, for your gathering pleasure...

Sundial 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon -- When I bought this bottle, I was told by the person in the wine store, "People who buy it usually come back and get some more." After a glass or two, I understood why. For a bargain-line cabernet, this is a surprisingly big and tannic wine. ($13-14 for a 1.5 liter) An absolute must: make sure you let it breathe for awhile. Once it opens up, you'll get a nice nose full of raspberries and dark fruit. It's got solid body with some uncomplicated fruity flavors, and a decently dry finish. Perfect for any grilling occasion.

Twisted PiG 2006 Pinot Grigio -- I've been seeing a lot of Twisted Head wines on the shelves of various wine stores, and I happened upon their pinot grigio. This wine certainly fits the "uncomplicated" mold. It's very light and has some decent fruit, but it wasn't anything overly exciting -- until we had it with some salty snacks. Pretzels were fantastic, and I'd imagine chex mix would have been, as well. It's about $8 for a 1.5 liter bottle. Easy enough to drink without ill effect or ill flavor.

Borsao "Vina Borgia" 2006 Campo de Borja -- I'm intrigued by a wine that tags itself as the wine of an infamous noble family, but hey -- why not? (It actually refers to the town in Spain, Borja). I've long been a fan of Spanish wine, and I'm glad to see them start to release value-sized bottles of the stuff. In my experience, especially with Spanish reds, even the most inexpensive have been drinkable. This wine is 100% Grenache. It's solid fruit if you try it right after it's opened, but given a few minutes to get its legs under it, it's got a very pleasant fruit scent, enough tannin to be interesting blending with the flavors of berries and cherries, and a slightly dry finish. Another great wine for anything grilled, and really tasty with chocolatey desserts. $11-12.

Le Faux Frog 2005 Pinot Noir -- I admit, this was an impulse buy. I was walking past the box wines and I saw this very cute frog on one of them. Closer inspection revealed that this was actually a Toad Hollow production, so I picked it up. At first pull, very tight and really tart, but after a few minutes, and for subsequent glasses, one of us remarked, " a dangerous wine." The nose is largely cherry, but nothing complex. But definitely a real pinot-ish scent. Flavor, again, after a few minutes to let it open is soft fruit and has a somewhat complex finish of blackberries and coffee. It also lulls you into a false sense of security because it's super easy to it's probably good that it's only $23-25 for the adorably-frog-adorned 3 liter box.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Sweet Wine

Sweet wine, hay making, sunshine day breaking.
We can wait till tomorrow.
Car speed, road calling, bird freed, leaf falling.
We can bide time.

When I talk to new people about wine, I'll usually hear "I don't like dry wines. I like them sweeter," at least once. The gender mix is irrelevant. I've found as many men as women out there who prefer sweet wine -- they just don't generally admit it in public. Chances are, many of these folks got smacked in the face with a big-ass cabernet when they first started drinking wine. (Or at least after they'd moved past Boone's.) Since we tend to return to that we find pleasant, and most folks have at least one positive sweet wine experience, "Sweet is better" often plays pretty well.

I'm not here to dislodge that idea from anyone's mind.

As we've covered before, when yeast is added to wine, the yeast eats sugar, farts carbon dioxide, and pees alcohol. If a winemaker wants to make a wine sweeter, he or she will add something to the wine to stop the fermentation before it's complete, leaving some "residual sugar" in the wine. Many wines leave at least a little residual sugar to improve the taste. Also, a lot of mass-produced wines do so as well, since a little sugar can cover a lot of shoddy winemaking.

I go through phases where I prefer sweeter wine. They aren't long phases, mind you, but I certainly can relate to enjoying that sugar from time to time. I also checked my archives and realized that I hadn't written about Riesling in awhile. Since Riesling is probably the best known "sweet" wine, without further ado, I decided to compare American and German Riesling:

I started with Pacific Rim 2006 Columbia Valley Sweet Riesling -- Pacific Rim is one of the many faces of Bonny Doon winery. Bonny Doon has long been a favorite in Vine land. Their Dry Riesling is one of my standard go-to bottles if I'm having sushi or almost any kind of spicy Asian food. "Sweet Riesling" isn't normally a term you'll see on a wine's label, so when I saw this offered by Pacific Rim, I decided to give it a go. I set this up as a side-by-side with the Selbach 2005 Riesling Kabinett, a German Riesling I know to be sweet and basically at the same price point. (Around $10 for either bottle.)

At first taste, the Pacific Rim is a much more straightforward wine. This is a very low alcohol wine -- only about 9%. The nose is peachy and light. The flavor is very fruity and, as promised, quite sweet. Peaches and pineapples are the dominant flavors. The finish is a little sugary and not as crisp as I generally prefer in a Riesling. Compared to both their Dry Riesling and the Selbach, it's not as good as either.

The Selbach was more interesting. The nose was also very light, but the first taste had a lot more going on. Like many German Rieslings, there was a mineral undertone to the sweetness and fruit, giving a flavor I find appealing. The main flavors centered much more on apple and pear. The finish was crisper, again largely because of the minerality.

We also tried both of these wines with a spicy stir fry that we put together. With the food, the Selbach outperformed the Pacific Rim as well. The minerality cut through the spices much more effectively.

However, one should certainly not turn away from the Pacific Northwest if you're looking for a good choice among Rieslings. Not long ago, I had the chance to try Charles Smith "Kung Fu Girl" 2006 Washington State Riesling. As Charles himself puts it, "WHY? BECAUSE, RIESLING AND GIRLS KICK ASS!" and I wholeheartedly agree on both counts, although the caps are his. Charles brings rock and roll panache to his winemaking, and this particular Riesling brings the house down.

This Riesling is on the sweeter side, but takes off in a number of directions. The minerality of this wine reminds me of an Austrian or German Riesling, but there's more complex fruit as well. Mango, pear, some citrus -- you can find something different with each sip. The finish is slightly sweet and nicely crisp. I first had this at a wine tasting with a number of friends whose palates ranged from "only sweet wines" to "sweet wines really bite." The table was unanimous in praise for this wine. At around $13, it's an absolute steal -- and with a name and bottle design like this one has, it's a perfect wine to bring to a summer party, regardless of the flavor preferences of the gathering.

If you're looking for something sweeter, you're probably better off looking down the German aisle if you're trying to find something in the $8-10 range. For a few dollars more, you'll find some wonderful domestic offerings from places like New York’s Finger Lakes region and the Pacific Northwest -- but, in my experience, the U.S. hasn't gotten the hang of inexpensive, sweet, and high quality just yet.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Another New Wine Resource

One of my online acquaintances, David Pearce, is starting The Weekly Wine Round-Up, a selection of quality wine articles and blogs from around the world. Since I know many of you have interests beyond my inexpensive little corner of the Internets, this may be a resource of interest to you. Hop on over and sign up!