Wine Basics – Terroir

I decided to put this in wine basics because the term gets thrown around a lot and it doesn’t have a hard and fast definition. “Terroir” means earth or soil in French. In wine it is a concept that a wine which comes from a place is influenced by the soils, exposures, climate, flora, fauna, and culture of that place.

The idea has come into focus in part because of the large number of wines which are made from grapes from very large areas. For instance The Cotes du Rhone region stretches for about 200 Kilometers (132 miles) along the Rhone river. There are over 32,000 acres of vines used in the appellation. Much of the wine is made by co-ops or big firms which mix fruit from a wide range of vineyards. This is not to say they are bad wines. Most of them are good wines and I enjoy them fairly frequently. The idea of terroir is that by blending grapes from a large area you loose the individual characteristics of that area which can add the hard to define something extra which elevates a wine from good to very good or even great.

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Upending Assumptions

It is easy to let your preconceptions go unquestioned but if you do in the wine world you can mis some very good wines. This was recently demonstrated to me when I tasted some wines from Paso Robles, an area on California’s Central Coast. I was immediately prepared for big fruit forward wines and wouldn’t have been surprised if they lacked in acidic structure. Boy was I wrong.

The wines were from the Tablas Creek winery and they do things very differently there, growing mostly Rhone Valley varieties. They don’t just restrict themselves to Grenache Syrah and Mourvedre for reds and Roussanne and Marsannne for whites. They also grow grapes like Tanant and Picpoul. I didn’t know anybody outside of France was growing Picpoul.

So how where the wines. Well not a fruit bomb among them. They were all well balanced with plenty of acidity and structure. All were good and most were delicious. It was a very pleasant way to have my assumptions upended.

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Wine Basics – Glasses

There is a bewildering variety of wine glasses available. The companies marketing the glasses have a vested self interest in convincing people that you need a different kind of glass to properly enjoy each kind of wine. According to some of them you need a different glass if your Sauvignon Blanc is from New Zealand versus France. This is nonsense. The proof is that most professional tasters use one kind of glass. This is usually a tulip shaped glass with a stem and a wide enough top that you can get a good sniff of the wine.

Using one kind of glass is great if you are trying to objectively compare wines. If you are on a tight budget or lack space an all purpose tulip shaped wine glass is a great start. I do prefer glasses with a stem, particularly when drinking chilled wines. If I were adding to this I would go for a Champagne glass, either a tall thin tulip shape or a flute (narrow angled straight sides). These allow the bubbles in sparkling wine to take their time rising through the glass. In addition to being nice to look at it slows down the process of the wine going flat. They also can serve as desert wine glasses.

For most people that will be more than adequate. Professional wine service will often include having white wine glasses that are smaller than red wine glasses, which are sometimes more bowl shaped, and desert glasses which are smaller versions of Champagne glasses. I have a hard time seeing a reason for anything more unless you just like glasses.


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Wine pairing – Sautéed Duck Breast with Tokaji

It has been a while since I posted a wine pairing but I thought this one was worth writing about. I recently found a long Island Duckling on sale at my local supermarket. I separated the duck into parts, keeping the legs and thighs for making confit and the back for making into stock. The breasts I sautéed. I love Pinot Noir with duck but for this dinner I reached for something different, a 2007 Tokaji from Château Dereszla. Tokaji is a white wine from Hungary. It is typically a blend with the native Furmint grape being the major one. Historically Tokaji has been considered one of the worlds great wines after slipping somewhat during the period of Soviet domination of Hungary, the wine has done much to regain its former glory. It also is most frequently a sweet or semi-sweet wine. There are dry ones out there and they are nice interesting wines, but the best are sweet or semi-sweet.

Sweet and semi-sweet wines don’t get served much with main courses anymore which is a shame. If they have enough acidity to not be cloying they can be great matches for fatty foods with robust flavors like duck, goose and some pork dishes. This one highlighted the sweet flavor of the duck while the acidity cut through the fat. Yum.

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Wine For Cooking

Most writing on wine doesn’t address wine for cooking. Some cookbooks do and some of them do a pretty good job, others not so much. So here are some thoughts on the subject.

There are some recipes that call for expensive wines, “Beef in Barolo”, Chicken Gevrey Chambertin, anything in a Champagne sauce, etc. By and large using expensive wine for cooking is a waste of good wine and money. On the other hand the rule that if you wouldn’t drink it don’t cook with it is a pretty good rule. A quick note, there are some wines that are so distinctive or an inherent part of the dish that I would not make a substitute. Riesling comes to mind. But I still would use an inexpensive one.

White wines for cooking: Most white wines work well for cooking. There are two things I would stay away from, oaky wines and sweeter wines. Oak flavors can get harsh when heated and sweetness gets concentrated and is rarely a flavor that is desirable when a recipe calls for white wine. Some wines like Gwertztraminer and Riesling are so distinctive I would tend not to use them unless the recipe calls for them or you are feeling adventuress. Inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc from France or Chile work well as do most inexpensive Italian and Spanish white wines. I find inexpensive California whites frequently lack the acidity I am looking for even when they aren’t oaky or sweet.

Red wines for cooking: Once again I am leery of sweeter styles but it is excessive tannins that cause most of the problems when cooking with red wine. If brought to a boil, tannins can become very bitter in a sauce. My go to red is Barbera as it has good red wine flavors with low tannins. Merlot’s can work well too.

Sparkling wines are called for in some recipes. If they are going to be heated you will lose the bubbles so there isn’t much point in paying for them. A light acidic white like a Pinot Grigio should work well. If you insist on bubbles, I probably would use an inexpensive Cava.

I haven’t seen may recipes that call for Rosè but they are out there. With its growing popularity I expect to see more popping up. Once again I would avoid the sweeter ones. I have had some nice Vin D’ Pays level Rosès that were inexpensive and would work well.

Fortified wines for cooking: Most recipes that call for fortified wines are pretty specific about what to use. Just try and match the level of sweetness without breaking the bank.


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Better Know A Varietal – Merlot

Merlot is a major grape variety though it has been loosing popularity as a single varietal in recent years. It is a large part of the success of the red wines of Bordeaux though often Cabernet Sauvignon gets all the credit. Originating in Bordeaux, there it is a frequent blending partner with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Unlike those two grapes it is also vinified alone in some parts of Bordeaux.

In the 1980’s and 90’s it became a popular varietal wine in California and other new world countries. Even there regulations often allowed other grapes to be blended with what was labeled as Merlot. So frequently you were still getting a Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon blend that was dominated by Merlot.

Merlot makes somewhat softer wines than the Cabernet’s with flavors of red plums and aromas of violets and raspberries. When over ripened it can get flabby loosing needed acidity. When treated with respect it can reward with wonderful full bodied wines bursting with flavor. In addition to the Merlot based wines from Bordeaux, I find Chile makes some fine examples. I enjoy it with lamb.


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Organic, Natural, and Biodynamic – The Good The Bad and The Ugly

Organic, natural, and biodynamic are words you increasingly see used for wines and sometimes see on the labels. They can be confusing and confused with each other. Here is a brief primer and some of my thoughts on the subject.

Organic wines are wines that are raised without the use of petrochemical based fertilizers or pesticides. Any additives used in the wine must be organic. Addition of sulfur is in not allowed however it is allowed to be used in cleaning etc. In the US wines are required to be certified organic to be labeled organic.

So the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is pretty straightforward. Organic farming and organic wine production put fewer nasty chemicals into the environment and should have less chance of having harmful chemical residues. The bad is a bit trickier. Organic wineries are not allowed to add sulfur and in small quantities sulfur is a safe way of stabilizing wines. Un-sulfured wines are more likely to oxidize and more likely to get bacterial infections. A second bad point is one of reputation. Most of the first organic wines that hit the market in the US where pretty bad. They gave Organic Wines a bad name in the marketplace that they still have not entirely shed even though there are some very good and even great organic wines out there. The ugly is simple. It is expensive and time consuming to get a winery certified organic in the US. This restricts many small producers from using the organic label even when they follow organic methods.

Natural Wines are more philosophical than actual. There are organizations that certify Natural Wines but at this time there are no laws in the US (or anywhere else that I know of) mandating standards for Natural Wines. The philosophy behind natural wines is simple: Wine making is a natural process and the less interference in the process by the wine maker the better. This leaves a pretty broad range for interpretation. In general, most Natural Wines are made without the use of sulfur (see above) and with natural occurring yeast rather than added yeast. The use of temperature controlled fermentation is more controversial but is generally frowned on.

In such a nebulous category the good is hard to pin down. I see the Natural Wine movement as a reaction against factory wines that turn an agricultural product into an industrial one. I too don’t like the idea of factory wines. The bad is simple. First people don’t agree on what a Natural Wine is so you don’t know what you are getting when you have a Natural Wine. Second there is a wide gap between factory wines and the “let all just happen” school of wine making. Most of the best wines in the world live in that area. There is a reason responsible wine makers use sulfur and add yeast and use temperature controlled fermentation. The reason is these are valuable tools to make better wine. The ugly is also simple. Good wines can be made following the Natural Wine philosophy. It requires even more attention to detail and particularly attention cleanliness in the winery. Many of the Natural Wines I have tasted have failed in the regard making some pretty bad wines.

Biodynamic wines are made following a specific set or agricultural practices. Many of the practices are shared with organic methods. There is no legal definition of Biodynamic in the US. There are organizations that certify products as Biodynamic. Biodynamic procedures are much more codified than they are for Natural Wines. The procedures range from normal techniques like growing particular plants between the rows to keep down pests and weeds as well as help naturally fertilize to soil to the somewhat bizarre such as using scoops made from cow horn to spread manure around the vines at certain phases of the moon.

The good side of Biodynamic Wines are much the same as they are for Organic Wines with the addition that the procedures require the vineyard to pay a great deal of attention to how the grapes are grown. There is some cost associated with being certified Biodynamic but it is generally less than Organic. Beyond that there isn’t any real bad or ugly side to Biodynamic, just a fair amount of silliness.

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What’s That Stuff On The Cork?

Recently I have talked to a few people who have thought bottles were bad when they found stuff on top of the cork before opening the bottle.

The cover over the cork is called the capsule.  It is typically metal foil or plastic.  If it is metal foil and the bottle is properly stored in a humid environment, you can get some oxidation of the foil that sticks to the cork or the glass lip of the bottle.

In either case if the bottle is properly stored you can get discoloration or even mold on top of the cork.  Believe it or not, there is nothing wrong with this.  You don’t have a bad bottle.  It is an indication the bottle was stored in proper humid conditions.

So just take a clean cloth or paper towel and clean the top of the bottle before removing the cork.  Just to be on the safe side, wipe it down again after you pull the cork and your bottle will be just fine.



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To Cork Or Not To Cork? That Is The Question

Corks have been used to close wine bottles for a long time. They have been pretty much the standard method of closing a bottle since th 18th century. Most wine authorities agree that there are definite benefits to using a cork, particularly when it comes to aging wines. There are some downsides too. Quality corks are more expensive than other stoppers. They require the wine to be stored on its side. Corks can last a very long time but they do degrade over time. Corks can carry bacterial infections that ruin wine.

Alternatives have been developed ranging from composite corks (made up of pieces of cork glued together) to plastic corks, glass stoppers and finally screw tops. Of the alternatives, screw tops are my favorite. Who needs more plastic? Glass is awkward, and the composite corks have all of the negatives and none of the benefits of a real cork. Screw tops are easy to use; are hygienic; and are recyclable. They don’t however allow the very slow exchange of oxygen and the wine that occurs with a cork.

So what’s my call. If you have a wine that should be opened within the first three years after bottling, by all means, please use a screw cap. If you have a wine intended for longer aging, a cork is the way to go.

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Italian Earthquake

Yesterday a powerful earthquake hit the central Italian regions of Umbria and the Marche.  I have had the good fortune to visit these wonderful areas.  It is very sad to think of the devastation that has occurred.  As more information becomes available about how people can help, I will post it here and on our Facebook page.

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