French Wines to Try: Let the Label Be Your Friend

thursAlthough label laws have been relaxed in recent years, trying to figure out what’s inside many bottles of French wine can still be a daunting task.

That’s because most bottles are labeled by region (known as an appellation in France) rather than grape variety. You may be looking for a good bottle of Chardonnay, but it’s very possible that the word Chardonnay won’t appear on the bottle label. Instead, you need to know that the best French Chardonnay comes from the Burgundy appellation, and look for the word Burgundy on the label.

With geography in mind, there are some general guidelines one can follow to de-mystify the selection process. Keeping in mind that there can be stylistic differences from estate to estate, here’s a “cheat sheet” for identifying French wines you might like:

* Alsace — Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir and Cremant (sparkling wine).

* Beaujolais — Gamay.

* Bordeaux — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, red blends, Sauterne (sweet dessert wines), Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

* Burgundy — Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

* Champagne — Champagne (sparkling wine).

* Languedoc-Roussillon — Carignan and Rhone-style blends.

* Loire Valley — Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet and Cabernet Franc.

* Provence — Mourvedre (a.k.a. Bandol) and rosé-style wines.

* Rhone Valley — Red blends (primarily Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre), Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.

More and more French wine labels are including the varietal makeup of the wine inside the bottle. But if you encounter a “traditional” label with only the appellation to guide you, use this “cheat sheet” as a guide.

Who knows? You just may discover a new favorite!



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Posted in Wine Buzz

Napa or Sonoma? The Small City Vibe vs. the Country Side

TUESDAYWhen planning a getaway weekend to Northern California’s wine country, you have many decisions to make: where to stay, where to eat, which wineries to visit…

But the very first decision that must be made is which region to visit: Napa Valley or Sonoma County.

The cool thing about this conundrum is that there is no wrong answer. Both regions have so much to offer. It just depends on what you’re looking for.

Let’s start with the Napa Valley. This is America’s most famous wine region, promoted to prominence during the late 20th century primarily by one man: Robert Mondavi.

It was Mondavi who helped transform wine drinking from an occasional luxury into a lifestyle. He introduced educational programs, stressed the idea of pairing wine with food, hosted concerts on his winery property, and so much more.

Over the years, many other wineries followed Mondavi’s lead, positioning wine not merely as an enjoyable beverage, but as part of an “experience.” Today, dozens of wineries throughout Napa Valley offer a menu of wine-tasting experiences, many of which include food pairings.

We could devote dozens of blogs to “Things to Do in Napa Valley,” but today we’ll simply note that there are three basic ways to experience Napa: 1. stay in the city itself; 2. explore Highway 12; 3. traverse the Silverado Trail.

The city of Napa has invested millions to transform its downtown area into an attraction, now home to gourmet markets, restaurants, outdoor art and numerous tasting rooms. If you enjoy walking over driving, just stay in the city of Napa.

If you’d prefer to explore the small towns of the valley in between winery visits, then head north on Highway 12. Each of the communities has its own charm, and there is no shortage of world-class restaurants at which to grab lunch or dinner.

The semi-secret Napa Valley thoroughfare is the Silverado Trail, which roughly parallels Highway 12 but doesn’t go through the various downtown areas. This is the road locals take to get from point A to point B when tourists take over the valley, and there are several wineries one can visit along the trail.

The Silverado Trail would fit in perfectly in Sonoma County, which I think of as providing the more “rural” wine-tasting experience.

A few statistics tell the Sonoma story: There are 60,000 acres devoted to vineyards, more than 425 wineries and 17 American Viticultural Areas. Think about that: Sonoma County is home to 17 areas with distinctive climatic characteristics.

What does that mean for a wine lover? While Napa Valley specializes in a handful of wine varieties, Sonoma County vintners are able to produce numerous varieties, increasing the odds that you’ll find something you’ll love.

And while there is no shortage of world-class wine estates to visit on the Sonoma side, you’re much more likely to encounter tiny tasting rooms often “staffed” by the owner/winemaker.

Whether you prefer the small-city vibe of Napa or the country side of Sonoma, Northern California wine country will not disappoint. Here are a couple of resources to help with your planning:

* Napa Valley

* Sonoma County

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log

A Trip to a Tasting Room: Do I Really Need to Spit Out Each Wine?

thursYou’ve probably read it in wine books, or perhaps even in this blog: When visiting a winery tasting room, it’s a good idea to spit out each sip of wine after sloshing it around your mouth to taste it.

I’ve recommended this procedure for years, primarily as a way to avoid excessive drinking and becoming an unsafe driver along the highways and byways of wine country. And I stand by that suggestion.

Think about it: If you were to visit a winery that has a dozen wines available to taste and offers a 2-oz. taste of each wine, you could be “over the limit” by the end of the tasting, depending on your body size.

That said, that are other ways to avoid the “less-glamorous” side of wine tasting, to stay safe on the road, and to avoid that morning-after hangover.

First, don’t feel as if you must finish the entire sample poured into your wine glass. All you’re really trying to learn is what the wine smells like, tastes like and — if you like it — is worth purchasing. That can be accomplished by placing your nose deep into the glass, breathing in deeply, and then taking a small sip of the wine.

The aroma of a wine reveals almost everything about its flavor, once you’ve learned how to pay attention to the differences from wine to wine. A blackberry aroma will equate with a blackberry flavor. A cherry aroma leads to a cherry-like flavor.

Thus, once you’ve trained your nose, your palate won’t need to do as much work, and that means you won’t need to taste as much wine. Using this method, tasting the wine will be more about how it feels in the mouth, and the sensation you experience as it goes down your throat.

Another way to eliminate the need for spitting is to drink lots of water during the wine tasting. While water won’t “dilute” the amount of alcohol you’re ingesting, it will keep you hydrated, which is important because a prime cause of hangovers is dehydration.

I still spit when I taste because it’s my preference to enjoy wine with a meal, or as an aperitif before a meal. I like to savor the nuances of a given wine, rather than going from one wine to another or back and forth among multiple wines. For me, visiting a winery’s tasting room is about tasting, not drinking.

So, if you feel like using the spit buckets that most tasting rooms provide, feel free. If you’re self-conscious about spitting in front of others, cut back on the amount of wine you ingest and drink a whole lot of water.

We want you not only to enjoy wine, but also to avoid the day-after hangover.

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Unusual Food-and-Wine Pairings That Will Surprise Any Wine Aficionado

tuesda-blog“Red wine with meat, white wine with fish.”

For eons, that was the mantra of both winemakers and chefs, who sought to simplify the often-mystifying challenge of pairing our favorite adult beverage with specific dishes.

That myth was exploded in 1989 when David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson released the groundbreaking book, “Red Wine with Fish: The New Art of Matching Wine with Food.”

Held up as a prime example of a sublime red wine and fish pairing was Pinot Noir poured alongside salmon.

What we’ve learned in succeeding years through constant experimentation and a new generation of creative chefs is that wine should be selected to match the most dominant flavor of a dish. Simply put, you don’t pair wine with spaghetti; you pair it with the spaghetti sauce.

As the popularity of ethnic cuisine exploded across the United States and around the world, new wine pairing challenges were presented. With so many dishes showcasing so many spices, many of them hot, another approach was needed. Instead of seeking complementary flavors, we sometimes sought opposing qualities, such as a high level of acidity in the wine to balance the heat of the dish.

These days, one of my go-to books when it comes to pairing wine with unusual or challenging dishes is “Kendall-Jackson’s Small Plates, Perfect Wines: Creating Little Dishes with Big Flavors.” It’s a cookbook, written by Lori Lyn Narlock, that includes suggested wine pairings for all of the recipes.

Here are 10 pairings that even an avid wine drinker and/or foodie may find surprising:

* Sauvignon Blanc — Lemon-Chicken Kebobs with Moroccan Herb Sauce

* Chardonnay — Caramelized Pear and Walnut Salad with Prosciutto

* Riesling — Curry-Dusted Halibut with Arugula and Jasmine Rice

* Muscat Canelli — Plum Crostadas

* Rosé — Chilled Corn Soup with Meyer Lemon Olive Oil

* Pinot Noir — Grilled Eggplant and Tomatoes

* Merlot — Lamb-Filled Roasted Onions

* Zinfandel — Roasted Cauliflower with Braised Radicchio

* Syrah — Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chorizo

* Cabernet Sauvignon — Braised Chicken with Swiss Chard

Red wine with white meat? White wine with spicy dishes? Wine with salad? All can work.

Wine-and-food pairing need not be a daunting endeavor. Keep an open mind, be willing to try new things, and you’ll soon be enjoying some truly satisfying and memorable — not to mention surprising — culinary experiences.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Visit These Haunted Wineries… If You Dare

thursblogHalloween will be here before you know it. This I know because two full aisles of my local pharmacy are packed with candy and decorations.

With the “holiday” comes tales of the unexplainable, of ghosts inhabiting places far beyond those we expect to encounter them (such as cemeteries).

Yes, including wineries.

Ask any Napa Valley local and they’ll tell you. They either believe or have heard that the Rhine House on the Beringer Vineyards estate is haunted.

As the story goes, the winery’s late founder, Frederick Beringer, has been spotted in his old bedroom and walking around the upstairs halls.

The Rhine House was completed in 1884 and serves as the centerpiece of the Beringer property. It exhibits the detailed craftsmanship of the period with its interior wood paneling, stained-glass windows and exterior stonework. With its numerous gables, turrets and ornaments, it seems to scream, “Haunted!”

History often defines haunted, and Bartholomew Park Winery in Sonoma, Calif., at various times served as a hospital, a morgue and a women’s prison during the early 19th century.

Vines were planted on the property in 1830, but that apparently did nothing to scare away the ghosts.

Are those ghosts somehow responsible for the closing of Bartholomew Park Winery on October 28, just three days before Halloween? We’re told it’s actually about a long-term lease coming to an end, leaving the future of the site uncertain for the time being.

And then there’s the story of Zephaniah Farm Vineyard in Leesburg, Virginia. Even its name sounds haunted, and like Bartholomew Park Winery, it dates to 1830.

Northern Virginia Magazine tells the spooky tale:

– – – – –

Canoodling couples should proceed with caution when wine tasting in Zephaniah Farm Vineyard’s manor house… That’s because Zephaniah Farm Vineyard’s chief ghost — Mattie Nixon — stirs when she feels an engaged couple is ill suited for one another.

“Mattie seems to come out when there are people who are about to get married because she didn’t have a great experience,” says owner Bill Hatch.

– – – – –

Don’t let these creepy tales keep you from getting out and visiting a winery — even one that might be haunted. Stay away, and you could miss out on some scary-good wines.


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Those Red Leaves Mean It’s Time for Red Wine

fallWe are heading into one of my favorite times of the year: Leaf Peeping Season, otherwise known as autumn.

This is not a recently acquired interest or hobby. My Mom was born in Vermont, where some of this country’s best leaf peeping takes place each year.

Although the forests may not be as thick nor the hues quite as intense, there are plenty of leaf-peeping opportunities available in California Wine Country — especially during and just after the fall harvest season.

Those red leaves serve as a vivid reminder that it’s time to make the transition from drinking (mostly) white wines to drinking (mostly) red wines. The red wines of autumn tend to range from medium-bodied to full-bodied, and almost without exception make wonderful food companions.

Here are just four of the red wines I’m stocking up on to take me through autumn to winter…

* Merlot— This could become your go-to autumn sipping wine. Its tannins are much milder than those found in Cabernet Sauvignon, which explains why the most common adjective used in association with Merlot is “mellow.”

* Malbec— Most New World Malbecs are medium-bodied, and I can’t think of a better pairing partner than a burger — preferably grilled over oak chips. The end of summer is not the end of the grilling season. It just means it’s time to switch from refreshing rosés to reds.

* Zinfandel— Speaking of grilling, if you’re more of a steak person, the char of the grill and the combined fruity/spicy character of Zinfandel is a culinary combination made in heaven.

* Pinot Noir— Thanksgiving will be here before you know it, and the red wine that pairs nicely with more main courses and fixin’s than any other is Pinot Noir. Whether you’re serving a turkey, a ham or a veggie casserole, Pinot will taste great with it, as well as with corn bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy and even candied yams.

I’ll definitely be drinking some Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends this autumn, but I’m saving most of those wines for when the last of the autumn leaves have fallen.


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Grape Growers and Their Timely Harvest

winemakerWhether it’s peace and tranquility that you seek, or total immersion in the winemaking process, there is a season in wine country that will fit your demeanor and desires.

California wine country, from Temecula in the south to Lake County in the north, is in the process of finishing up the 2018 wine grape harvest.

“What a difference a year can make,” Harvest Napa reported on September 11. “A year ago, many winemakers were busy bringing in fruit and keeping up with Mother Nature’s curveballs, while this year’s harvest is quiet.

“Many producers throughout the valley are steadily bringing in Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and the first few bins of red wine. We are still weeks away from harvesting Cabernet Sauvignon as growers are waiting for temperatures and sugar levels to rise.

“If the weather continues this way, we’re in for a beautiful harvest with an abundance of elegant and complex flavors developed through a balanced and even growing season.”

It sounds as if 2018 will be a vintage worth stocking up on once the wines from this harvest season come to market.

So is harvest season a good time to visit wine country? It depends on your expectations.

If you enjoy picking the brains of winemakers at small estates where the vintner also staffs the tasting room most of the year, forget it. They will be too busy monitoring their grapes and overseeing fermentations once those grapes are brought in.

If the size of the estate doesn’t matter and you just want to experience harvest season, there are plenty of wineries up and down the state that will gladly accommodate you while you soak in the breathtaking scenery and heady scents (and dodge the bees!).

Harvest season is a busy time in wine country, so be aware of that and don’t be surprised if you don’t get the one-on-one attention you may enjoy during other times of the year.

The best time to go for a more intimate, less-hurried experience? Spring, hands down.

The cuvees of the previous autumn are resting in barrels or tanks, the grapevines are beginning to bloom as another growing season beckons, and you’re much more likely to encounter a winemaker in a tasting room.

Winter can be a bit dreary, while summer is tourist season, with tasting rooms overrun by visitors. So stick to spring or fall — depending on what you’d like to experience — and your visit to wine country will be pleasant and memorable.

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What Does It Take to Become a Sommelier?

tuesday_1It’s one of those wine words, not unlike Gewurztraminer, that is difficult to pronounce. For some, this adds allure to the pursuit of wine wisdom. For others, it’s just another source of frustration.

But just as learning how to pronounce Gewurztraminer (ga-VERTZ-trah-mee-ner) can open up a whole new world of delicious vinous delights, learning how to pronounce sommelier (suh-mel-yay) can make one less shy about asking for assistance in selecting a wine when dining out.

Of course, not every restaurant that serves wine employs a sommelier. Often, the restaurant owner or chef plays that role, because they are well equipped to know the restaurant’s menu and understand the types of wine that would pair well with specific dishes.

But when you find a restaurant with a certified sommelier on duty, you would be wise to place your wine selection in their capable hands. They are trained not only to make pairing suggestions, but also to ask you questions that will result in the selection of a wine you are virtually guaranteed to love.

So what does it take for one to become a sommelier? It’s much like getting a college degree in a specific course of study. Visit the website of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and you’ll see that there’s an Introductory Sommelier Course and Examination… a Deductive Tasting Method Workshop… a Certified Sommelier Examination… an Advanced Sommelier Course and Examination… and a Master Sommelier Diploma Examination. You can read more about the Court and its educational programs here.

Becoming a sommelier requires not only vast knowledge of the world’s wine regions, but also the ability to identify specific types of wine from specific areas. A whole lot of reading is accompanied by a whole lot of wine tasting. (Hey, somebody has to do it…) And then, after all that, one must pass a pressure-packed test that most fail, at least on the first try.

A documentary called “Somm,” released in 2013, provided a glimpse of the process, and probably served to scare a lot of people away from the pursuit. Its accompanying soundtrack, a mix of classical and jazz music, provides a great dinner party playlist. Both the movie and the soundtrack are available on Amazon.

Once you understand what goes into becoming a sommelier, you’ll never question one of their wine suggestions.


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Riesling Is Sweet… But Moscato Is Sweeter

MoscatoMoscato has taken America by storm, replacing Champagne as the fizzy party drink of choice among young adults — and many not-so-young adults as well.

The Moscato movement has been fueled, in part, by a number of songs that mention the wine in their lyrics. The Drinks Business came up with this “Top 10” list of such songs:

  1. Lighters Up — Lil’ Kim
  2. Make Her Feel Good (Remix) — Teairra Mari featuring Jay-Z and Kanye West
  3. Do It Now — Drake
  4. No Hands — Waka Flocka Flame featuring Wale and Roscoe Dash
  5. Moscato — Ab-Soul featuring Kendrick Lamar
  6. Moscato — Roscoe Dash
  7. Oh My Lyrics — DJ Drama
  8. Gentlemen’s Song — Sinful D
  9. Gone Insane — Ab-Soul
  10. Moscato Love — Bigg Robb

(You can find the lyrics to those songs here. Parental warning: Many of the lyrics are explicit.)

For generations, Riesling was more or less the go-to variety when someone wanted a glass of sweet wine. That changed when White Zinfandel came along, and that subsequently opened the door to other types of sweet wine being considered by consumers. Moscato, after centuries as a supporting player, was ready to step up to the big-time.

Although Riesling is crafted at a variety of sweetness levels, particularly in Germany, the style most often served in America would be described as “off-dry” or “semi-sweet.” That is, the fermentation process is halted before all of the sugars from the grape juice are burned away.

But German wine labels can be challenging to decipher, and understanding what the sugar level is in a specific bottle can be daunting. Combine that with Riesling’s tendency to show some petrol notes when aged over an extended period of time, and it was easy for Moscato to overtake Riesling among those with a sweet tooth.

Muscat grapes have a high level of sugar and also low acid, both of which contribute to Moscato’s sweet impression in the mouth.

But the sweet fun begins even before you take a sip, if you’re willing to swirl the wine a bit and then stick your nose in the glass. Do that, and you’ll be rewarded with delicate floral notes of rose petals and elderflowers, reminiscent of a late spring morning.

The flavors of Moscato are all about fruit, and that’s another reason its sweetness is so pronounced. Among the flavors you’re likely to encounter are peach, apricot, orange and other citrus notes.

Winemakers have a choice when making Riesling, and that’s why the styles range from bone dry to extremely sweet, with many sweetness levels in between. With Moscato, the style choice to be made is sparkling or still, because sweetness is not a consideration. All Moscato wines are sweet, and that means lovers of sweet wine can select a glass or bottle of Moscato with confidence.


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4 Ways to Celebrate International Grenache Day

grenache“Deep within Aragon, a region in the north of Spain, a deep purple-red jewel dangles in bunches from vibrant green leaves. It has grown in the warm sun of its native land, filling with a characteristic berry-type sweetness and just a touch of spiciness that make it incredibly interesting to fans of wine.”

So begins a post from the Grenache Association, extolling the virtues of Grenache, known in Spain as Garnacha. To help promote the variety, the association established International Grenache Day which, in 2018, is being celebrated either today or September 21 (depending on which online source you wish to believe).

To me, the specific day does not matter because every day could be Grenache Day. It is one of my favorite gifts of the grape, whether made as a 100% varietal wine or as part of a multi-variety cuvee. In particular, blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (which the Aussies refer to simply as G-S-Ms) can be among the most complex wines you’ll encounter anywhere.

In its native Spain, the style of Garnacha wines is big, hearty and often earthy. The variety also has a long, illustrious history in France, Corsica, Sardinia, southern Italy, Sicily and Croatia.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, plantings of Grenache were spread by Europeans to non-European regions, including Australia, North Africa and California. In those areas, the variety tends to be less earthy and more fruitful.

And over the past two decades, a new generation of winemakers in Spain has been emphasizing varietal bottlings of Garnacha over the traditional blends. They have found that by controlling yields and taking advantage of the old vines, they can produce 100% Garnacha wines of exceptional character and concentration.

Convinced that it’s time to give Garnacha / Grenache a try? Let International Grenache Day provide a few platforms for your personal “testing”…

  1. Open a bottle to enjoy with dinner. It pairs very nicely with grilled or braised meats, including beef, veal and pork.
  2. Take a bottle to your favorite restaurant. This is dependent on the laws of your state and the policy of the restaurant, and if the practice is allowed, expect to pay a corkage fee. Because it’s an underappreciated variety, many restaurants do not include Grenache on their wine lists. Ask your sommelier to suggest menu items that will pair well with the wine. (You can even give him or her a taste if they aren’t sure.)
  3. Invite friends over for a tasting. Open a single bottle alongside a different variety, such as Merlot, so everyone can experience the differences. Or open four bottles — a Garnacha from Spain, a Chateauneuf-du-Pape from France, a Grenache from California and a G-S-M from Australia — and do a side-by-side-by-side-by-side comparison.
  4. Host a “Tapas and Grenache” night. Ask a group of friends to bring over some of their favorite dishes, made or cut into bite-sized servings, and have two or three different Grenache wines on hand to accompany them. Think of it as a Spanish-themed potluck for adults only.

International Grenache Day serves as a reminder that there is more to red-wine life than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. We love those varieties, but you’re missing out on a lot when you don’t give others a try.

As respected wine critic Robert Parker has noted, “Grenache has basically been disregarded for the last century. I find myself buying more and more Grenache-based wines as I get older.”

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Posted in Wine in the Glass
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