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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Airline Wine

I don’t tend to drink while flying.  The air in planes is pretty dry and the alcohol just makes it worse.  If you do this article from The Gothamist should be of interest.

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Wine Basics – Decanting

Among other things, for yesterday’s Thanksgiving dinner we drank, a nice Bourgueil that I had enjoyed before. This time it was on another level of enjoyment. The difference was that about an hour before we sat down to eat, I decanted it. This reminded me that many wines benefit from decanting.

Decanting is simply the act of pouring a wine from one container (the bottle) into another (the decanter). The decanter can be any container that will hold the wine and you can pour from. There are a multitude of designs for decanters but the best have a fairly wide mouth and neck followed by an even wider base. The first two make easy to pour the wine in. The last exposes the wine to more air.

There are two benefits to decanting. First many wines have some degree of sediment in them. If you carefully pour the wine into the decanter, you can stop before you get to the sediment. The second is you expose the wine to the air and the oxygen in the air. 

If you have read other posts in the Wine Basics section you will see that wine has a love hate relationship with oxygen. Oxygen is needed when the juice is fermenting. No oxygen means no fermentation and thus no wine (shudder). Once fermentation is complete oxygen becomes something of an enemy. Anything other than a minute amount of oxygen can make a wine spoil. Oxygen is what makes badly sealed bottle go bad over time. When you open a bottle it is your friend again. All those wonderful aromas need air to develop. Sometimes some less than good smells disappear after a bottle has been open a while. Flavors seem to soften and meld better when they have had some time in the air. After that night though oxygen switches back to being bad as too much oxygen over time makes a wine go bad. 

So what wines benefit from being decanted? First, almost exclusively red wines. While white wines and Rose can benefit from the oxygen, they can be hard to keep cool in a decanter and they tend to get to much oxygen much more quickly than red wines. Second only decant wines you intend to finish that night. 

So which red wines? Any wine that has a lot of sediment can most easily be separated by decanting. That said, the conventional wisdom is that older bottles really benefit as they are the ones most likely to have sediment. While this is true, I am cautious about decanting a really old bottle as if they are past their prime you can loose a lot of flavor and aroma if you decant too soon. I tend to just pour with care from the bottle if I am opening a wine that is over 15 years old. 

I find the most benefit comes from decanting younger bottles. For economic and space reasons many wines are sold and consumed when they are on the young side. While you can’t age a wine to maturity in a decanter you can let it show all that it has.



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Better Know A Varietal – Cabernet Franc

Cabernet is a red wine grape that probably originated in Bordeaux. It differs from its better known “big brother” Cabernet Sauvignon in that it is less tannic and more aromatic. When you smell a Cabernet Franc wine you frequently smell things like violets, raspberries and even liquorice. You can taste those things too and also flavors like black currents and black berries. Some Cabernet Franc wines have a nice peppery aspect too. When less than fully ripe grapes are used flavors such as green peppers and even grass can be present. Some people like those flavors while others consider them flaws. I tend to think of them as flaws unless they are very subtle.

In Bordeaux Cabernet Franc is almost always blended and is considered to give some finesse to wines that are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. In the Loire Valley of France it is usually vinified alone to make wines such as Chinon, Bourgeil, and Samur Champigny. Some very nice varietal Cabernet Franc’s are also made on Long Island in New York, and increasingly other regions are experimenting with it.


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