There’s no question that wine tasting lends itself to a lot of nonsense. We have all seen the hyper poetic descriptions that often times sound either like a love letter between Victorian thespians or the rantings of some sicko (who the hell knows what the underbelly of a hare is supposed to smell like?!). It does not need to be that way if it’s done with a certain down to earth purpose.
The sense of smell is hugely important when tasting. It provides those nuances that go beyond pure “palate” tasting of bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and umami (savory). The problem is that in our culture we do not particularly have a vast olfactory memory bank. Beyond a few smells that have forever become indelibly forged into our minds, we typically have a hard time putting a name to a scent.
I think that it’s fun, and hence enjoyable, to work ones way through the nose of a glass of wine. But in doing so just keep it simple by coming up with a few simple descriptors such as fruits and other non-fruit aromas. For instance, red wines tend to have dark fruit aromas such as currants, cherries, blackberries, blueberries, plums, etc. White wine tends to express more of citrus, apple/pear, pit fruits, and even tropical fruits. By just being aware of this mental check box, you will not start to pick out the different aroma nuances.
Then move on to the non-fruit stuff. For example, when smelling oak one tends to identify vanilla, caramel, and toasted bread. Then there’s this other category I like to call “the funk”. Love a little bit of that “funk” which is often described as forest floor or barnyard. But be careful because too much of it may herald a spoiled wine.
Finally, there’s the drinking part. This is when it’s time to talk about structure. Is the wine dry (means no perceptible residual sugar) or off-dry (there’s sugar alright!)? The trick here is not to confuse “fruitiness” with “sweetness”. Your brain will be tricked into it. Then there’s acidity; that mouth puckering sensation that reminds you of eating one of those tart candies. Acidity is not to be confused with tannins which are not a taste per se but a texture sensation of astringency. Tannins dry your gums of saliva to the extent that your lips rub against them. That’s why a tannic wine is often is described as “grippy”. Alcohol is that hot sensation one feels down the throat and upon exhaling. High alcohol wines (15% and up) will show like this. Finally, there’s the body of the wine. This is purely a mouthfeel sensation often described as light body (like skim milk), medium body (like whole milk), and full body (like cream).
When you put it all together, then you can render an opinion as to whether the wine feels “balanced”. If there are many factors you can identify in the wine, then it is felt to have “complexity”.
That’s the beauty of wine! While it has all these layers to enjoy, it also can be a refreshing drink to throw back without much thought except for remembering to call that Uber.
To most, thoughts of American wine conjure the wines of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. But that’s not an illogical notion as California is the #1 wine producing state with more than 3,700 wineries making about 90% of the country’s wine. Thus, it is not illogical that many forget that the second largest producing state, albeit a far second, is Washington State.
This Northwest state’s ability to produce quality wine comes as a surprise to many for when we think Washington State, we think Seattle: incessant rain, coffee houses, grunge, plaid shirts, Kurt Cobain, etc. But the reality is that the state’s geography lends itself to successful grape growing by serving the old dictum that “vines don’t like wet feet” via the Cascade Mountains’ rain shadow. This is a climate phenomenon, seen in many of the great grape growing regions of the world, by which rain is kept at the windward side of a mountain range by the precipitation it induces away from the leeward side. The result is that the vast swath of land east of the Cascades sees about 8 inches of rain/year as opposed to the average 25 inches/year that fall in Napa. Since vines need approximately 20-30 inches of rain/year to thrive, this rainfall shortage is mitigated by irrigation from the many rivers that transverse the region.
Washington State has 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) of which the most gargantuan one is the Columbia Valley at 11,000,000 acres! The AVA’s of Washington, with their vast array of microclimates, lend themselves to the production of many whites and reds. Many of these tend to be “value finds” as their prices, by California standards, typically are very reasonable relative to their quality. This is to a great extent a function of the vastly cheaper cost of land as well as good old supply-and-demand economics. I mean, when was the last time you craved a Washington wine?
Washington is very well known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Many of these are readily available wines that typically sell in the $15-20 range while (if you are into points) scoring in the 90’s. If you are a fan of concentrated and robust reds, you ought to check out this aisle in the store.
If whites are part of your drinking world, let it be known that Washington produces some of the best Rieslings in the country! “Kung Fu Girl” by Charles Smith, for under $10, is emblematic of what I am talking about.
Washington State is worthy of your wine curiosity. Wineries such as the ubiquitous Chateau Ste. Michelle (one of the largest producers in the US) and Columbia Crest, one of its other brands, are a good place to start to explore these inexpensive, easy drinking, every night wines.
Heck, next time you come over for dinner, if you bring me a fine Washington wine, you’ll be alright by me.
So let me tell you about the northwest corner of Spain: Galicia. Besides being the reason for my brief hiatus from this weekly blog, this region is mostly known as “Green Spain” as a result of its rainier climate. This “Spanish Seattle”, with its Celtic roots, is a corner of the world bursting with delicious wines that are perfect for a hot Chicago summer. Although they make a good share of great reds, it is the whites that have drawn most of the attention. I want to tell you about their main three varietals: Albariño (W), Godello (W), and Mencía (R).
Albariño, the better known of the three, is often compared to Pinot Grigio. It has a perfumed nose that tends to express citrus notes like lemon and grapefruit. As it warms up in the glass, it gives off interesting notes of riper fruit such as melon and nectarine. Often, there’s even certain “saltiness” to the nose. Frequently these wines can have a “dough-biscuit” nose as many wine makers allow the wine to sit on its yeasts for some extended time in order to create certain creaminess on the palate. In keeping with the time tested aphorism of “if they grow in the same place, they are a good match”, these whites are a great match for shell fish; of which there’s abundance in this part of the world. And here’s the good news: Albariño remains one of the great values with a fantastic bottle coming in at about $15.
Godello, typically produced further inland, also offers tangy lip-smacking acidity that results in great thirst quenching. In that regard, it often pleases those of us who like a nice Sauvignon Blanc. But if a creamy oaky Chardonnay is more your thing, never fear because this malleable grape often is vinified as such. Although for my liking this is one of those drink alone wines, it pairs beautifully with the local cheeses (goat, etc.). But you know what? Be adventurous and give it a try with a limey/cilantro packed taco and see what happens!
Mencía, with its flowery/strawberry/raspberry flavors wrapped into a light to medium body frame often piques the interest of Beaujolais and Pinot Noir enthusiasts. This lively red seems to be a great pairing with the local Galician beef (which to me has a gamier taste) and sausages. This is one of those wines that tend to be a great value in local steakhouses’ wine lists.
Please do not fall into the trap of thinking that because these are “value wines” their quality is less than remarkable. These are well crafted wines that lend themselves to great food pairings or stand-alone deliciousness. İSalud!
Well before Miles, the character in “Sideways”, angrily declared “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!” many of us were just fine ordering glasses of the stuff. You well know that many of those Trixies and their Chads (ahem, some of us?) couldn’t get enough of this wine while wistfully looking at each other over heaping portions of cheese and pine nuts stuffed manicotti at Rose Angelis. But soon after the release of the film, Merlot sales took a dive as the American public began to take wine advice from fictional movie characters. But in spite of the bad press, Merlot saw a rebirth to climb to its rightful status to even make it as Wine Spectator’s 2014 Wine of the Year.
Merlot, the most planted grape in Bordeaux, has traditionally been one of its most important blending grapes. In a climate where ripening can sometimes be challenging, this early ripener has been a good “hedge” against Cabernet Sauvignon’s late ripening idiosyncrasies. Its name is thought to come from the French “merle”; a little local black bird…perhaps for the similarity in color to the berries it produces (and the birds like to eat!).
Unquestionably, Merlot has been a grape that when overripe, could turn flabby and even taste like a room temperature glass of Ovaltine. In California, with its near perfect weather, sunny days abound and grapes can often ripen to taste like alcoholic jammy fruit bazookas. But the American palate for this type of wine did change and with it the winemakers’ mission for now producing more restrained and better rounded Merlot based wines that show better vibrancy through higher acidity. Remember, the same happened to Chardonnay wines even in the absence of any declarations against drinking “Any fucking Chardonnay”.
Merlot expresses itself well in those climates where cooler nights and some elevation contribute to a less fruit forward style. Try some of the Merlot from Washington State for fantastic values. Many French ones are also very affordable and simply delicious. But if value is not your thing, try to get your hands on one of the most acclaimed wines of the world: Chateau Petrus from Bordeaux. This is 100% Merlot at about $2,500 per bottle. Just sayin’.
What to eat with Merlot? If your thing is the big and bold style, try it with the same dishes you would eat with Cab Sav such as charred meats. The light body styles will interestingly hold up to roasted chicken and even some salmon.
So come back to Merlot and enjoy its middle of the way fruit, tannins, and acid…just like Miles does at the end when he drinks his prized Cheval Blanc; ironically a Merlot based wine!
With the constant ebb and flow of the American palate, it came to pass that the “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay) movement became a thing. Most of you reading these lines will remember the days when the more brooding the Chards could be, the better. Those were very ripe, heavy, alcoholic, and oak charged wines. Heck, it sometimes felt like chewing wood. But the proverbial pendulum has swung, as it always does, way too far into a place where oak is unjustifiably made the villain.
Oak barrels, arguably the second most expensive feature in wine making after labor ($1,200-$1,500 each!), can truly add beautiful layers of taste to wine. Think of it as the spice rack of wine. In fact, if you were to taste certain un-oaked wines, you would probably find them harsh and difficult to drink. The oak “signifiers” (wine geek word) that can enhance the aromas of wine include among others: toast, butterscotch, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, coconut, and caramel. And no, the buttery smell, is NOT from the oak. Instead is comes from a chemical compound (diacetyl) which is a byproduct from a different wine making technique that is not oak related. Who knew, right?
Oak barrels are mostly made from either American or French oak. Oak trees, like vines, vary with site specific features such as soil and climate and for that reason certain forests are more coveted than others. Overall, American oak, which is heavier and denser, tends to impart more of the vanilla and coconut flavors while French oak is more on the subtle side. The choice of one type of oak over the other is based on stylistic and financial considerations.
The “oakiness” flavors are also a function of the “toast” and age of the barrel. Coopers will use fire to gently burn the inside of the barrel so that as more of the staves become toasted, more of the oak taste is imparted into the wine. Oak typically ceases to leach its goodness after 4-5 uses. After that time the barrels are rendered “neutral”. With that in mind, winemakers can choose to use a percentage of a certain age barrels when making their wines. What happens to neutral barrels? They can become aging vessels for spirits or sometimes even furniture.
So, please do not be a “oakist” and hate on this ancient form of wine making. What you don’t like is not the oak per se but the overwhelming amount that sometimes can be distracting. In that, I’m with you.
If you have lived in the Chicago area for more than a week, it is quite likely that you have made the mandatory pilgrimage to one of the many outstanding steak houses in the area. And after the now fashionable "have you ever eaten here with us before?" greeting (not sure why they ask this as it is pretty much the same drill anywhere) there’s a good chance that you have been "served" with some encyclopedic wine list.
Now, the truth of the matter is that a few things go better with steak than a robust red wine. Why? The key word here is "tannins". Tannins are not something you taste, like sugar, but rather a sensation of astringency/drying-out that occurs when this compound (mostly found in the grape skins, seeds, and stems) binds the proteins in your saliva. It is precisely in the binding of the wine tannins with the steak protein that the alchemy of this iconic food and wine pairing resides. But is there an option to breaking the bank when ordering those big name Napa Cabs?
Oh yes, there is.
I have looked over the wine list of 5 prestigious Chicagoland steak houses to come up with some recommendations that will undoubtedly make your steak memorable while saving some money to someday take my classes (ahem...) and found that most lists are indeed Cali Cab heavy with most middle of the way bottles at about $85. With that in mind, the following are some alternative great wines from the same lists to pair with your steak. They all have in common a healthy dose of tannins in their structure.
1. Malbec - The Argentinians know a thing or two about steaks. Do as they do and drink this bold wine; actually a French original.
2. Chile Cabs - Some of the best around. Do not let the country's reputation for value wines dissuade you from trying them.
2. Tempranillo - The Spaniards are about much more than just paella and tapas. Lots of grilled meats in the Iberian Peninsula.
3. Sangiovese - Chianti's grape. Perfect match for their Bistecca Fiorentina. So why shouldn't it work for us in Chicago.
4. Zinfandel - Should you choose to stay in the country, this all-American grape is often bottled as a good value.
5. Washington State - Vast and cheap land make for also cheaper wines that happen to be beautifully made.
6. Australia - Don't forget about Shiraz! A great Steak-au-Poivre match. Many of their bottlings are incredibly reasonable.
In looking for a value wine selection, bear in mind that the folks who put together these lists are smart enough to not overload them with "deals" as most would probably order those wines. In other words, the "cheap" wines on the list are still going to be above $50. So be realistic and please chew your steak well.
Enjoy this lovely reflection on Sherry by Angela Crowley; a graduate from Level 2.
I’m delighted to share a piece for the new Hinsdale Wine Academy blog! My husband and I recently finished level 2 and had a blast. We really miss our weekly meetings with great wine and conversations. Lorenzo asked me to share a bit about one of my favorite drinks, sherry.
Is sherry just for cooking and little old ladies? If you have lived your life believing that to be the case, hopefully, I can convince you otherwise. One of my favorite restaurants in the world was a tapas place in New Zealand that is, sadly, now closed. The first time I was there, I tried a glass of sherry and was hooked. I had been reading a book series at the time about a lady who enjoyed some now and then, so I wanted to see what it was all about. The dry, smoky, floral and almond flavors went perfectly with the ambience of the restaurant, the cheese board and smoked almonds. So, for me, it’s like many wines can be, reminding you of a time and place you can never really replicate. Over the years, I have come to love and appreciate all types of sherry and the complex way it is made. So last month during our trip to Spain, I had to go and check out the process for myself.
All Sherry is aged in an area in the Andalusia region of Spain called the sherry triangle, which is formed by the cities of Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda, and Puerto de Santa Maria. Andalusia is the home of flamenco and bullfighting, with beautiful white-washed cities throughout. Some of the highlights of our trip to this area included visiting Seville and Granada, where we toured the beautiful Alhambra. Obviously, a drink from this region of the world must be full of character. For our sherry tour, we drove to the Sherry Triangle, and stopped at Jerez, which isn’t much of a town at first glance. In fact, we were told not to leave our luggage in the car during the tour! Our time was limited, so we could only do one tour. We chose to visit Bodega Tradicion, which is a relatively new sherry bodega, however it is run by a family that has been involved with sherry production for generations, and had access to extremely old sherry barrels, which is critical. The inside of the bodega was beautiful, and my pictures do not do it justice. There was something magical about all the barrels, which are always dark black, stacked up containing sherry from decades. The barrels are quite old, and therefore can occasionally break down. The black color of the barrels allows small leaks to be easily identified and then are fixed using equally old barrel pieces kept for this purpose. Sherry is grown in a solera system in which barrels are stacked on top of each other and over time, up to 1/3 of the liquid inside each is mixed in with the liquid in the barrel below it. This ensures that the final bottles contain sherry that is decades if not over a hundred years old.
During our tour, I learned that sherry should not only be saved for appetizers or desserts. There is a sherry to pair with any part of a meal and it should be served in regular wine glasses, not the small ones that are often used for dessert wine. Just be careful of the alcohol content (around 15-22%)! From the lighter Fino to the heavier Oloroso and the sweet Pedro Ximenez, sherry covers a wide range of flavors and experiences, each worth a try. My favorite tends to be Amontillado and now also a less common one I tried for the first time in Jerez called Palo Cortado...the Palo Cortado made at the bodega we visited averages 32 years of age! One of the things that gives sherry a unique flavor is the flor, which is a thick layer of yeast that covers some types of sherry in the barrels, preventing oxidation as it grows. I was very disappointed that our tour did not include an opportunity to check out the flor inside any of the barrels. I guess it’s a good reason to make another trip someday! So, if you haven't yet tried sherry, I certainly think it’s worth trying...and if you have and it wasn't your cup of tea, try a different kind!
Remember when some years ago, while in the midst of the latest Chicago culinary fad, you might have found yourself asking questions such as: "Where was (may include here: pesto, tapas, Thai food, short ribs, goat cheese and beets, sushi, bacon wrapped dates, martinis, etc.) 5 years ago?" as you sat across the table from a date in restaurants such as Rose Angelis? It seems like today the same question can be asked about Rosé.
According to the Provence Wine Council, rosé imports from Provence amounted to 1.27 million cases in 2016. This is a tremendous increase when one considers that only 17,500 cases were imported in 2001. And the American palate, not withstanding its certain affinity for “sweeter” wines, has been moving away from the “blush” Rosé of years past (remember white zinfandel?) for drier styles. What’s the reason behind this surge? Hard to say. But the exposure that some celebrities have brought to pink wines has been undoubtedly an important factor. Who does not want to drink Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie, or Bon Jovi wines? At least I feel more assuredly macho with their blessings.
What is rosé wine? Wine acquires its color from the time it spends in contact with the grape skins. Red wines are darker than white wines because they are submitted to long periods of contact with the red skins (maceration). White wines have little contact, if any, with the skins. Therefore, to make a “pink” wine, one only needs a limited amount of time in contact with the dark grape skins. A second less common method is the “bleeding” method: Some juice if “bled out” of the tank early during the maceration time. This technique has the dual benefit of allowing for “pink” juice to be fermented while allowing further concentration of the ferment sitting in the tank. Mixing white and red juice is not considered a quality way of making rosé. In fact, it’s illegal in most European quality regions.
Rosé wines are meant to be drank young. Therefore, no big deal if it has a screw top. They tend to be made in a style that preserves crisp acidity and aromatics. They seldom see oak during their vinification. Many wineries from all over the world are riding the rosé craze. There are fantastic samples from California, Argentina, New Zealand, Greece, etc. Since as it turns out, what sells most are the lighter colored types (like those from Provence), many wine makers are actively seeking this style.
Rosé, by virtue of its acidity, can be quite food friendly (think of how a lemon squeeze turbo charges flavor in just about anything). Served chilled, it can work very well with just about anything from the grill. For other suggestions think about the many foods that come from Southern France. But for around here, it’s also a great wine to have in the “red Solo cup”.
If there are any topics you would like to have addressed in this blog, please kindly shoot me an email with your suggestions. That would make me a happy Wine Guy.
I know, I know...Another blog talking about...of all things: WINE!
But why wine?
For those of us who survived wine coolers and Zima, wine has become an ubiquitous beverage. In fact, according to The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, as of 2015 the US is the world’s largest wine consuming market notwithstanding that 40% of all-American adults do not drink alcohol in any form! Just look around next time you go to a restaurant and see if you can find the table without wine. When was the last time you hosted friends at your house and they did not bring a bottle of wine? If you ever come to mine, that will certainly gain big favors. Baskets, not so much. Please no more baskets or candles!
Although wine is routinely considered part of a meal in most European and other New World countries, in our American culture it has been slow to gain the status of a meal’s accompaniment. Nonetheless, wine in all its glorious manifestations, has been steadily marching into its rightful place because of several persuasive reasons.
Wine lends itself to be appreciated in many ways. It has the layers to be “geekfully” enjoyed but also it can be a drink to happily quaff because it simply tastes delicious…and beyond all the faux poetry of ostentatious tasting notes, that’s what defines a good wine. And here’s the thing: nobody can tell you what is that you should like. In fact, the best wine in the world is the cheapest one YOU like.
Wine tends to have what I call the “power of convocation”: When was the last time you had some friends over to talk and enjoy a nice Diet Coke (and hey, a chilled one is great from time to time…while at work). Wine, like any other forms of happiness, is better appreciated when enjoyed with others. In addition to great food, wine is exalted over great conversation with great company.
And speaking of food, when properly paired, wine serves as the ultimate food condiment. Without much fuzz, often through trial and error, one can readily find those heavenly pairings that enhance BOTH the food and the wine. The only condition to further this enjoyment is to be adventurous. Go ahead and try a light red wine with that salmon or maybe give your steak a break from that Napa Cabernet.
The cheapest travel I can think of is in a bottle of wine. Who has not been taken back to the place when you first had that certain bottle of wine? Although wine will never taste as good as it did on the day you had it on that piazza or picnic blanket when there were no kids, work, or cell phones, its evocative powers are undisputable. Wine can conjure great moments of years past. The opposite is also true: a great bottle of wine can make you curious about its provenance and the people who worked to make it special. Since vines do not grow in ugly places, that can be your next trip.
Finally, wine can be the best relationship counselor. It is over a glass of wine that we can often communicate best with our significant others. And this is not only because it can be some kind of truth serum (yes, “in vino veritas”) but more so because it is what one enjoys in moments of silence and attention at the end of the day. A glass of wine will make you take it down a notch or two.
It is simple: wine is to be enjoyed to the extent that it should be an object of happiness through sharing great meals, conversations, stories, friendships, and the love of those who you hold close to your heart. The folks who solely count points and define the goodness of a bottle by its price are missing out on the essence of wine as a conduit for happiness. Whether you want to think about it or not, wine allows you the choice. Just do not waste an opportunity to use it to connect or just be.
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.