Better Know A Varietal – Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc has recently become a favorite white wine varietal. Part of that is boredom with yet another Chardonnay but part of it is the general high quality of inexpensive wines made from the grape.

Sauvignon Blanc probably originated in the Bordeaux region of France were it is most often blended with Semilion. Bordeaux’s based on this blend are most frequently light to medium bodied wines with some mineral notes and frankly not that interesting to me. There are exceptions but they tend to be pricey.

In France’s Louire Valley (which is another contender for where the grape originated) they make much better use of the grape, usually vinifying it alone to make dry, semi dry and sweet wines as well as sparkling wines. Flavors typically have some citrus notes but can also include tropical fruits, melon and honey. Many of the dry ones have nice mineral finishes.

I credit New Zealand with the grapes current popularity. Starting in the 1980’s New Zealand started exporting consistently good, reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc’s with tropical fruit flavors and nice zesty refreshing qualities. At the time the trend in white wines had been to ever heavier and oakier wines. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc may not have seemed “serious” in comparison but they sure tasted good.

Sauvignon Blanc is now made in just about every country that produce wines and a remarkably high portion of them are pretty good. Warmer climates such as California and South Africa tend to make more full bodied wines that can loose some of the refreshing character that I like but they are usually well made wines.

There is one partial exception to my feeling that Sauvignon Blanc is a safe bet. For many years many vineyards in Chile said they had Sauvignon Blanc planted when they had Semilion. Semilion makes for less characterful wines that can be prone to oxidation. There are many fine Sauvignon Blanc’s from Chile but it helps to know the producer.


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Red Wine and Fish?

One question I get asked is what red wine to serve with fish. There are a lot of variables here. Among them are what kind of fish. The meaty or oily the variety of fish the easier it is. Swordfish can handle anything but the biggest and most tanic wines. It is hard not to overwhelm a light fish like sole. How the fish is prepared is also to be considered. Fried and grilled fish are more friendly to red wine than poached fish. Cream sauces and white wine sauces are difficult. That said my go to red wine for fish is Barbera. It has low tannin levels and goes very nicely with fish as lean as trout. Other lighter low tannin wines such as some pinot noir (not oak aged) and even some tempranillo’s can work. In the end it is what you like that counts.


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Better Know A Varietal – Pinot Noir

This little primer on Pinot Noir is a bit harder for me to write than the others. Pinot Noir is the grape for many of my favorite wines. That said, I am a bit opinionated and keeping my populist hat on here is a bit harder.

Where Pinot Noir originated is not known but it most associated with Burgundy where it has flourished for hundreds of years. There it is made into some of the most sublime red wines in the world. There it is also made into overpriced under flavored crap (oops that populist hat is tilting). Explaining red Burgundy would take a book but here is my very abbreviated take. Getting wines from producers you know to be good and from good years is even more important here than in most other regions.

A good Burgundy is a medium to slightly lighter bodied wines with fruit flavors such as cherry and raspberry and more earthy flavors like cedar and tobacco. They are not sweet and have fairly high acidity making them go well with meat, particularly game.

Pinot Noir is made into red wines in other regions of France where while they can be decent, rarely are as good a a good Burgundy. Other countries such as Italy, Chile, New Zealand, and the US also make red wines from Pinot Noir. I have a some very nice Pinot Noir’s from Chile. My luck in New Zealand has been mixed but I have never had a bad one from there. The Italian ones I have had so far taste like generic Italian reds with little Pinot Noir character. The US is a real mixed bag. California has popularized a style that is very fruit forward and sometimes a bit sweet. It is not for me. Oregon has a climate that is closer to that of Burgundy and makes some very nice wines.

Pinot Noir is not just used for red wine. When it is pressed such that the grape skins are quickly removed from the juice it yields a white juice that is a major component of many Champagnes and other sparkling wines. When some contact is allowed between the juice and the skin a rosé is the result. I love Champagne and appreciate ones that have high Pinot Noir content. The rosés I have had have been pleasant but nothing special.


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Better Know A Varietal – Syrah/Shiraz

Syrah, AKA Shiraz is a red wine grape most identified with the northern Rhone region of France, and as Shiraz Australia. Legend has it that it was brought to France from the middle-east by a knight returning from one of the Crusades.

In the northern Rhone it is usually vinified alone or with very small amount of other grapes. These wines tend to be big bold wines with spicy and woodsy flavors and powerful tannins. Wines made from Syrah in the Cotes Rotie and Hermitage are among the best red wines in the world. Unfortunately they are also expensive. Less prestigious regions such as Crozes Hermitage can make some fine wines from Syrah but you have to pick with care. In the central and southern Rhone Syrah is most often blended with grapes such as Grenache, Mourvedre, and Cinsuult. The most prestigious of these wines is probably Chateaueneuf D’ Pape. In a blend it ads considerable structure while the other grapes can add fruit and some softness.

Syrah is also grown to the west of the Rhone in Langduec and Roussillon and to the south in Provence. Some excellent wines are made here but even more than in the Rhone you have to pick by producer.

In the 19th century Syrah was brought to Australia were it is known as Shiraz. Australian Shiraz range from very fruity, slightly spicy factory wines to some harder to find examples that can hold there head up with the finest offerings from the Rhone.

Syrah is popular with some northern California wineries who believe that it is more suited to the warm dry climate than the ever popular Cabernet Sauvignon. As in Australia, the style can vary widely.

Recently there has been a trend to use the traditional southern Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, making wines called “GSM”, in places such as California, South Africa, and Australia. The few I have tasted I have enjoyed.



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Life in France

A great little song about living the good life from my friend Katrina Maxwell:

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Wine Pairings – Duck Two Ways

This post starts what I intend to be a series on paring wine with food. The traditional approaches to this subject usually begin in one of two places. They start with very general kinds of food (e.g. chicken,fish) and suggest wine to go with them, or they start with a type of wine and suggest very general kinds of food to go with them. This can be helpful when you are trying to wrap your head around the basics of pairings but can miss some of the subtleties that make good pairing a joy. I am going to take a different approach were I talk about specific meals and why I paired specific wines with them.

For starters, last Wednesday was my wife’s birthday; Happy Birthday! I made a roast duck with pan roasted potatoes and sauted spinach for diner. The wine I chose was a Pinot Noir from Chile made by Bosler. People frequently think of Pinot Noir as being either new world (very fruity with low tannins) or old world (less fruit, more tannin and acidity). The Bosler may be made in the new world but it is old world in style. Old world style Pinot Noir’s are a great match for duck. Duck tends to be fatty with a fairly strong flavor. The fruit flavors work well with duck and the acidity helps cut through the fat. The tannin provides a nice balance that makes you want to come back for more duck followed by more wine. Yum.

For the second way, well it was a big duck and we had left overs. I made a duck hash with poached eggs for brunch. The duck hash was mostly potatoes with onions, garlic, celery, carrots, red pepper and some herbs and spices, most notably smoked Spanish paprika. I love bubbles with brunch so I made kir royal’s to go with the hash and eggs. Kir royal is a wine cocktail made from sparkling wine (I used a sparkling wine from Burgundy but any Champagne style sparkling wine works well. It would be a waste to use real Champagne though). The bubbles are mixed with Cassis, a black current flavored liquor. One again the acidity helped cut through the fat of the duck and sauted potatoes and the casis flavor went well with the duck. There is a classic French dish of roast duck in cassis sauce. Once again, Yum.

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Better Know A Varietal – Pinot Gris/ Pinot Grigio One Grape Two Styles

The highly popular white wine grape most known in the US as Pinot Grigio originated in the French Provence of Alsace where it is known as Pinot Gris.

Alsatian Pinot Gris is usually a fairly full bodied wine. While it is not as aromatic as other Alsatian wines such as Riesling, it is still much more aromatic than Pinot Grigio. Flavors and aromas of honey and nuts are typical and they can have some spiciness. The acidity is medium for an Alsatian wine. Pinot Gris is not considered by Alsatians to be among their best varieties so they tend not to be planted on the very best sites. They still make very pleasant wines that go well with lighter pork and chicken dishes as well heavier fish dishes. In addition to Alsace, there are some nice examples coming from Oregon.

The grape may have come from France but it is in Italy that it has prospered. The wine was little known in the US until it was popularized in the late 80’s and early 90’s, largely by the wine concern Santa Margherita. Their wines at the time were fine examples made in the Trentino-Alto Adige region. Today they are mass produced from grapes grown all over the Veneto and quality has slipped. This Illustrates a problem with the grape. When grown on hillsides in cooler climates with low yields Italian Pinot Gregios can be very good wines with a light honey and fruit aroma, a good balance of acidity and a nice mineral finish. All too often they are made as a mass produced wine grown on the plains with high yields. These wines are bland, slightly fruity and acidic. The better ones may cost a few dollars more but are still fairly inexpensive coming in at around $20 a bottle or less. Look for wines made in Trentino-Alto Adige or Friuli.

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The spam bots have been at it again.  I am disabling the comments until I find a better captcha or other way to block them.  Sorry.

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Snaky Comment of the Day and Some Thoughts On Wine-speak

I went this morning to see the Picasso sculpture exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York. The description of the materials used in one piece irked me. It was made mostly of sheet steel. which they described as “Ferrous Metal”. Now ferrous just means from iron. So in ordinary language ferrous metal is either iron or steel. I have never encountered iron sheet metal, so it was steel. So why not call it steel? Steel would be more precise but apparently ferrous metal sounded better.

So what does this have to do with wine. Well I see things like this all the time in wine-speak. There can be a perfectly good and accurate regular word and people will use some word that sounds fancier. Just like any other field there are terms that are specific to wine and the difficulty of describing how it tastes and smells can lend themselves to linguistic exaggeration. But when the words used obscure what you are trying to say you are just being pretentious. End of rant. Time for wine.

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Winter Wines

Here in the north-east US Winter has finally come, and with a vengeance. It was 6f when I woke up this morning here in Vermont. Back in July I wrote about summer wines ( So I thought I would say a bit about winter ones today.

First most of us spend most of our wine time in climate controlled environments so as always, drink what you like. For me winter is a great reason to experience some of the bigger and more alcoholic wines that go so well with hearty winter foods. In whites (yes whites can be winter wines) I am more likely to look for an oak aged wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation. This makes for bigger more rounded wines. If I am going to go for a big oakey Chardonnay it will most likely be in winter. Also whites that have some residual sugar tend to go down better in winter so break out that Riesling.

Once again in reds, bigger is better in winter. While I spend a certain amount of time touting the benefits of lower alcohol content, a glass of a big 14% alcohol red sure goes down nicely when you have just come in from a slushy sleeting day in New York. The big wines of the Rhone such as Chateaus Nuef Du Pape and Gigondas are personal favorites as are Brunello’s from Italy. I find wines that emphasize what I call darker flavors such as plums and blackberries, cedar and mushrooms are a good fit for hearty stews. Madiran from the south-west of France is my go to wine for cassolet which I think is the ultimate winter comfort food.

So stay warm and enjoy your big winter wines.

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