Bridging the Gap - The "Talk"
People new to wine may have a vague feeling that they like white, or red, or maybe rose wine, but they may have no idea how to describe why, nor to understand the language that is necessary whether you are ordering wine for a dinner out or walking the walk down to your local wine shop to pick up a bottle or two of, say, white wine. This is where several things can help: some familiarity with the vocabulary (talking the talk), some tastings; getting together with other people, like a group of friends or perhaps joining an on-line wine discussion forum, and visiting wine websites.
It is useful to think of wine vocabulary as similar to discussing food. Is it sweet, sour, or spicy? With foods, these terms may refer to the food itself, as apricots, or ice cream. With wines, the terms have to do with the aroma of the wine and its taste. Wine making is a process that involves grapes - their type, the soil, the climate, the type of barrel they are aged in, and their fermentation into wines. The wine doesnâ€™t have additives like apricots, but some wines may smell and taste of apricots because of those other factors. So you need to consider what you think you like in wine: something sweet and light (perhaps a Riesling) or maybe something dry and crisp (a Pinot Gris or Grigio). Do you like acidic wines, that go well with spicy foods (think Italian Chianti), or maybe you prefer a pungent wine with peppery spice and an exotic hint of foreign lands (Australia - think Shiraz). Or you may like more alcohol, as in a California blend that might be 15 or 16% alcohol as opposed to the usual 13-14%. The first step is observing your response to a wine as you might a food. What turns you on?
Next, having noted what you think you like, check out something like wineloverspage.com/lexicon, a very good website for words and their meanings in wine talk. This site has color coded sections, "so simple a cave man could understand them," and a look at this as you try to apply your mind to what you want to taste or have tasted, can be helpful. Here you will get descriptions of types of grapes, growing areas, New World and Old World, and other information that you can use to refine your experience. Also there are various wine forums, including a Wine 101 one, that could be fun.
In our first column we suggested taking notes, perhaps note cards or setting up a file, to help record your impressions and give you a start. Wine 101 also has some forms that you can print to help you do this. There are at least 8000 different descriptive terms and sensory perceptions applicable to wine, and a beginner can get overwhelmed, but keep in mind that you are not trying to test for your Master Sommelier, you are trying to understand your experiences and be able to explain them to someone else.
As you go through all of this, record names and characteristics of wines you consider of interest. Then select a particular type, say white chardonnay, and get ready for that first walk. A few chardonnays that we have liked, including the price, are these: Red Bicyclette Chardonnay 2004, from France, a crisp, tart wine and usually priced around $8-9; Ravenswood Vintnerâ€™s Blend Chardonnay 2003 from California, hints of melon and oak cask; and A by Acacia Chardonnay 2005, also from California, an interesting blend of vines from all over California, with hints of pear and tropical fruit on the nose. This wine is about $13, so a little more money for an unusual wine.
It's Not California Wine if it's Not Breaking the Rules
Whether the result of the manifest destiny archetype that seems to be burned into their collective minds or the sheer primal urge to make things bigger, Americans have a unique and peculiar logic that permeates through everything they do: Why drive a Geo when you can drive a Ford F-350? Nowhere in the wine industry is this sentiment causing more controversy than in the heart of California wine growing country, where wines are clocking in at 16% alcohol by volume or higher. In an international market place where wines rarely break 13%, the California-sparked trend towards higher alcohol in wine is upsetting the foundation of wine traditionalists.
On the surface it doesn't seem like such a big deal, but when you consider that a 15% alcohol by volume wine has 25% more alcohol in it than one labeled 12%, it puts the debate in perspective. If people want to get inebriated, after all, they can always move on to vodka, scotch or everclear. A wine brought to the dinner table at that level will go to the head noticeably faster than what many people are used to.
However, it's important to realize that the producers making these high-octane wines are typically smaller vineyards interested in a high-quality product. Sure, the alcohol is higher, which means there was more sugar when the grape was picked, but the acid in the grape and the grape skin also have time to mature to offset that high alcohol. The California producers releasing these wines are determined to make sure they remain balanced, so they cultivate the acidity and the tannin to match the alcohol. As a result, many of these wines are $25 or more, and it's not rare to see them priced at $100 a bottle.
For the most part, the producers claim that they are merely falling in line with the nature of the California climate, which is hot and can support a long growing season. Opponents are concerned that the wine will overwhelm food and will lose its elegance. Whether you personally prefer the soft and subtle elegance of a Burgundy that clocks in at 12.5% or the driving boldness of a 16% blended red, surely you can appreciate that in this world, it takes all kinds, and aren't we better off with more options?
Where the Health Benefits of Wine Tip to Health Risks
Okay, the cat's out of the bag: wine is good for you. With 5th century Italian monks as inspiration and double blind clinical studies as proof, modern medicine has accepted that the benefits to drinking a moderate amount of wine on a regular basis far outweigh any that could result from not engaging in the practice. The key to this life-giving scenario, as recently pointed out by a group of Australian researchers, is moderation.
Their efforts were targeted at understanding the relationship between the beneficial antioxidants in red wine and the blood-pressure increasing properties of alcohol. There was a hope that the good stuff in wine would offset alcohol's tendency to raise blood pressure. The study was conducted on 24 healthy, non-smoking males who did not intake any alcohol intake for several months prior to the study. Half the group was given beer on a daily basis and the other half was given wine. The result was that daily wine drinking raised systolic blood pressure nearly as much as beer.
The implication is that if more than two glasses of wine are taken in daily, men at risk of hypertension and men with hypertension will tip the health benefits of wine to a health risk. Two glasses daily is the optimum sweet spot for those interested in achieving the maximum benefit for the heart. At this level, people can still benefit from the HDL (good) cholesterol-raising effect and anti-coagulant properties of alcohol.
Cheers to that!
Award Winning Wines That Actually Won Something
Australian wine fans may have noted over the last several years that some of the gold, silver and bronze stickers that adorn an Aussie wine label brag about awards that seem at best bizarre and at worst totally suspect. Finding a wine that was a gold medal winner at Grandma Nicky's Barbeque, for example, might not carry with it the prestige you had hoped. In order to combat the recent explosion in obscure wine awards running rampant through the Australian marketing industry, The Winemakers Federation of Australia has decided to self-regulate. From here on out, vintage gold, silver and bronze discs would be allowed only on wine which received an award at an open, objective and independent competition.
The current wine boom is not unlike past booms (the 90's coffee boom, the recent cigar boom) in that there are just as many shady marketing gimmicks that enter the playing field as there are legitimate high-class producers selling a great product for a cheaper price. Consumers have access to more great wine than ever before, but they also have to sift through more to get to those wines.
At least now we don't have to worry about being distracted by the gold medal winners from Aunt Ida's Dinner Party.
The Beauty and the Beast of Wine Blogs
Wine bloggers, like technology bloggers, are relishing in the fact that they are posting in a time unlike any other. The wine industry is exploding all over the world and the benefits cannot be overstated. One of the keystones of this phenomenon is that more great wines are available at prices that can actually match the el-cheapo brands like Yellow Tail and others. Of course, because operations like Yellow Tail have access to loads of marketing capital, they will be the bottles the average consumer reaches for.
Wine bloggers are feeling empowered to change this phenomenon by offering features like tasting notes, reviews and cyber tastings. As these things spread through the net in the form of RSS feeds and blog watches, they can serve as the underground marketing fire needed to introduce consumers to wine that may be more complex and enjoyable than many of the name brands.
The thinking is: Hell - if the blogosphere can lead to the firing of major corporate executives, surely it can enlighten people to buy better wine. While this is certainly a fulfilling quest for the average wine blogger, is it not at best elitist and at worst intimidating to suggest there are wines consumers should enjoy? When I hold a wine tasting the first thing I do is make sure everyone in the room speaks their mind - giving the wine a personal score from 0-100. If there's one thing that is absolutely a given at each tasting, it's that everybody rates the wine differently.
The beauty of the wine revolution, it seems to me, is that wine is losing that perception of righteousness and snobbery that has accompanied it, especially in the United States, for hundreds of years. If someone wants to rate Yellow Tail a 95, I'm not going to tell them their wrong or deluded by mass marketing gimmicks. If that's the wine they want to reach for when they shop, that's great! The point is that they are enjoying their wine. As bloggers, the best we can do is to introduce new wine to people that might not otherwise find it. Let them decide if it fits the bill.
It's important for us all to remember that the 100 point scale is totally absurd as an objective model, and that a mass produced wine overblown with fruit and oak can be enjoyed just as much in one person's hands as a delicate, silky, mind-bogglingly complex Burgundy in the hands of another. And isn't that, after all, the point?
Celebrating Blue Teeth, John Wayne Style
Not to be confused with Syrah, recent DNA tests have been able to trace this Californian hybrid back to the 1880's when it was imported from France, thought to originally be called Durif. Durif is a likely cross between Peloursin and Syrah grapes.
Originally, Petit Sirah was probably named so because its grapes had similar characteristics to Syrah in that both can be massive, rich and rustic wines. As one might guess they were probably also petite, and smaller grapes are generally favored by wine makers because they have a higher skin to juice ratio. A great deal of the tannin, flavor and subtle aromas in red wine come from the skin, so during wine growing and cultivation smaller grapes are generally prized higher than larger ones.
Today, there is an interesting underground infatuation with the grape, not only because the Americans have renamed it, re-bred it and called it their own, but also because its complexities can be enthralling. Some have gone so far as to nick name it P.S. I love You and refer to it as the John Wayne of grapes.
If you are interested in truly experiencing the grape in its most prized habitat, checkout the Blue Tooth Tour (www.bluetoothtour.com) currently moving through the country. Named after the unavoidable blue color the grape imparts to the teeth and lips, the festival showcases the very best in California Petit Sirah.
Bridging the Gap: In Pursuit of Wine Enjoyment for Novices
In this column, we want to share with all, regardless of age, our experiences, good and bad, as we try to bridge the many gaps we have encountered in our endeavors to go from wine ignorance to wine enlightenment. Twenty-somethings and sixty-somethings on up, may also have trouble doing this. Both groups often have a limited budget and may be early on the wine scene in the one case, or late, as retirement occurs and they discover they like wine and know little about it. The gaps we plan to discuss include the mystiques of wine making, wine touring, wine tasting, and wine costs. We begin with wine tasting, which sounds simple enough unless you have just missed five out of seven wines, like we did at a recent wine tasting. Embarrassing! We have learned that a good sommelier (wine expert) is critical for a successful beginning wine taster, to help guide you through the hundreds of adjectives describing aspects of wines, such as appearance, nose, and taste.
One of the easier distinctions to make in tasting wine, is that between Old World wines, from Europe, and New World offerings (the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). The Old World wines, very briefly, tend to be richer, stronger, with leathery and oak hints. The New World has many of the same grapes, but the offerings are perhaps crisper and more fruit-forward. Any more, it may be hard to tell if a wine is Old or New, but it's fun to try, and we recommend that you keep note cards or a notebook as you try out different wines, and record the color, the taste, what you think it might go well with, and the price, so you can remember and add to this data as you learn more.
At one recent blind tasting, we had trouble distinguishing between an excellent twenty dollar bottle of wine versus a ten dollar bottle of wine. This leads us to believe that there are many delicious wines in the ten dollar and below price range, that are perfectly acceptable wines. Future columns will address the benefits of tastings, both to try out wines and to see how much we've learned, but in this first effort, we have three good, inexpensive wines to recommend.
In a wine discussion, it is usually best to start with a white, and the New Zealand New Haven, 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, is a very nice wine, with a pale, clear color; a strong citric nose (odor, to the newbees), and a value price to go with its pure dry self. This wine, at about $12.00 a bottle, would work well with appetizers, for cocktails, and for seafood or pasta dishes.
Next, from Spain, we loved a Roman de Bilbao 2003 Tempranillo, priced around $10.00, and giving that Old World contrast with its clear, bright but deep red color, and an earthy, slightly leathery, black cherry/strawberry nose. This would be good for cocktails, perhaps with some kind of meat appetizer, as well as making a pairing with a nice prime rib.
Finally, another Old World wine, Franceâ€™s Tortoise Creek Merlot, 2003. This has a darker color, a richer nose, almost like a Cabernet, and a really wonderful price of under $8 a bottle, so you can splurge on a fine steak and have a terrific dinner