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

All About Tempranillo

tempranilloThe couple had been sitting at the restaurant’s bar for just over 90 minutes.

They’d been noshing on an array of tapas — mushroom carpaccio with wasabi vinaigrette, a mini Spanish omelet with chorizo sausage, fried eggplant with honey, chicken croquettes — all washed down with glasses of white-wine sangria and Spain’s signature red wine, Tempranillo.

All of the selections — the food and the wine — had been carefully curated by two enthusiastic young ladies from, ironically, Peru. Ironic because this tapas bar was in Barcelona. The staffers had immigrated to Spain seeking a better way of life, and had found it working at this restaurant a few blocks removed from Barcelona’s main tourist thoroughfare, Las Ramblas.

Tipping is not something that is done in Spain’s restaurants, but the couple (from the United States) felt compelled to thank the young ladies for their excellent service, and tucked the equivalent of a $10 tip under their payment slip as they prepared to depart.

“Wait! Wait!” the young ladies yelled in unison after seeing what the couple had done. “Please, just one more dish.”

They poured fresh glasses of Tempranillo, then brought out a simply prepared plate of lamb, grilled to perfection, lightly seasoned and drizzled with olive oil from the frying pan. The couple stayed for another half-hour, savoring the melt-in-their-mouths bites of lamb and sipping the complementary (and complimentary) Spanish Tempranillo.

Lamb may be the only thing you really need to know about Tempranillo. If you love lamb, Tempranillo is an ideal wine-pairing partner.

The variety has a tannin structure, similar to Cabernet Sauvignon’s, that enables it to “stand up” to hearty meats, including beef. Those tannins also enable it to age for several years before revealing its full flavor spectrum.

Younger Tempranillo wines typically are bursting with red cherry flavor. As they age, they become more complex, adding earthy notes. If aged in American oak barrels, a vanilla flavor emerges over time.

Tempranillo is one of those varieties that doubles as a satisfying sipping wine or a compelling companion to food — particularly, as that couple in Barcelona discovered, lamb-based dishes.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log, Wine in the Glass

Which Glass? Why the Shape Matters

glasses.jpgIf you’ve paid a visit to your local Costco store lately, you may have come face to face with a giant wine glass that stands nearly 4 feet tall.

That is NOT the size or shape of wine glasses we’re talking about here. The Costco glass is a conversation piece. The (much) smaller glasses we use to drink wine perform an important function: making the wine in them smell and taste as good as possible.

Wine glasses are produced in many different shapes, and some would tell you that each shape is designed with a specific variety of wine in mind. Glass-maker Riedel even conducts tasting seminars to prove the point.

While some would argue that their contention is based more on theory than scientific fact, I’ve personally attended several of the seminars and believe subtle differences can be detected in a given wine when served side-by-side in glasses of different shapes.

That said, I honestly believe one could get by with three or possibly four wine glasses and never feel cheated about experiencing any given wine to its fullest. With that in mind, it’s good to have on hand:

* A Bordeaux glass. Tall with a broad bowl, this is the type of glass most restaurants use. It’s intended for big, bold red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or (red) Zinfandel, as it helps direct the wine to the back of one’s mouth, thus avoiding most of the harsh tannins that may be present. Of all the wine glass shapes, it is perhaps the most versatile.

* A Chardonnay glass. For use with white wines, it has a smaller mouth to help preserve the crisp, clean flavors of many different white varieties.

* A Champagne flute. A long stem topped with a long, narrow bowl that’s designed to accommodate and showcase the bubbles associated with sparkling wines.

And if you’d like to add a fourth type, go with a Burgundy glass, which has a wider bowl than the Bordeaux glass to showcase the delicate aromas and flavors of wines such as Pinot Noir.

You could spend a lot of money on a set of a dozen or even a dozen-and-a-half different shapes of wine glasses, or you could stick with three or four shapes and spend the money you save on what goes in those glasses.

The choice is yours.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

The 10 Most Important Terms for Wine Lovers

Food Pairing Reds (1)Wine has a language all its own, and learning it can be like learning a foreign language — even when the terms are 100% English.

Becoming familiar with the 10 terms that follow can go a long way toward increasing your enjoyment of wine, not to mention making you the smartest person at your next dinner party…

  1. Swirl. This is the first thing you should do after pouring wine in a wine glass — which means you should not fill that glass much more than half-way. Swirling releases the aromas of the wine.
  2. Sniff. Once those aromas are released, it’s time to stick your nose deep in the glass (another reason not to fill it much more than half-way) and take several short sniffs. This is the best way to see what the wine smells like, including its fruit-like aromas, as well as those that may have been created during the fermentation and aging processes.
  3. Slurp. Take a sip of wine into your mouth, but don’t swallow it. Instead, allow it to coat your tongue, and then “gargle” it before swallowing. This will serve to aerate the wine and release its flavors.
  4. Finish. This is the impression the wine creates after it has been swallowed. It can be long and lingering, or quite short. A long finish generally is an indicator of a high-quality wine, although a short finish need not be indicative of a lesser-quality one.
  5. Dry. This is not the opposite of “wet.” Rather, it is a wine containing no more than 0.2% unfermented sugar, a.k.a. residual sugar.
  6. Malolactic Fermentation. This is a secondary fermentation, typically taking place in barrels, whereby harsher malic acid is converted into creamier lactic acid. If you like the “creamy” style of Chardonnay, you have experienced wines that have undergone this procedure.
  7. Oaky. A term used to describe woody aromas and flavors that are imparted either through barrel fermentation, barrel aging, or both. Other “impressions” commonly found in oaky wines may include toast and buttered popcorn. (Yum!)
  8. Reserva. A Spanish term for a red wine that has spent at least three years in barrels and bottles prior to being released.
  9. Reserve. A term found on many American wine labels, but that has no “legal” meaning. It typically is a reference to a winery’s higher-end wines, but because the term is not regulated, the actual meaning may vary from winemaker to winemaker.
  10. Silky. A term used to describe a wine with an especially smooth mouthfeel. Pinot Noir is the variety most commonly described as silky, and that’s one of several “S” words associated with Pinot. Others include smooth… seductive… and sensuous.
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Posted in Wine Buzz, Wine FAQ

The Secrets to Reading a Wine Label

labelWhen you’re buying a can of corn, there’s usually not much mystery involved. True, there are variations such as “cream style” and “no salt added,” but other than that, determining what’s inside the can is a pretty straightforward exercise.

Oh, if only it were so easy with a wine label. The information you’ll find on the label of our favorite adult beverage ranges from very little to a whole lot, including terminology that may or may not have “legal” meaning.

Labels from European countries can be truly daunting, particularly if there’s a language barrier to overcome. So, for the purposes of today’s blog, we’ll stick to the secrets of deciphering an American wine label.

Here’s a look at the key elements you either will or are likely to encounter:

  1. The brand name. This most often is the name of the winery or producer, but it also could be one of a number of different brand names used by a single producer.
  2. The vintage. This is the year that’s shown, and it’s indicative of when the grapes were harvested — not when the wine was bottled or released to the public. For a vintage to be shown, 100% of the grapes used to make the wine must have come from that year. (Note: Non-vintage wines are most common among sparkling wines, although a more precise term would be “multiple vintage.”)
  3. The type of wine. Most often, a varietal grape name (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, et al) is used. One exception would be for special blends, which typically call for a…
  4. Fanciful Name. Often, there’s a story behind such a name — the name of the winemaker’s daughter, the type of trees overlooking the wine estate, an unusual type of soil in the vineyard, etc.
  5. A special designation. In America, it’s common to see terms such as “Barrel Select” on a label, but be aware that these terms are not regulated.
  6. Appellation of Origin. This is one area that’s strictly regulated. The more precisely an area is listed on the label, the higher the percentage of grapes there must be from that area. A “California” designation, for example, means that the grapes used could be from multiple locations within the state. A “Dry Creek Valley” designation means that at least 85% of the grapes from that defined area must have been used to make the wine.
  7. Alcohol Content. This is simply the wine’s percentage of alcohol content by volume. Generally speaking, it will be lower for white wines than for reds.
  8. Estate Bottled. If you’re looking for a “hands-on” wine, made by a vintner who was involved in every step of the process, look for these two words on the label. They mean that 100% of the grapes used to make the wine were grown, crushed, fermented, finished and bottled on the same property.

There’s one other term you’ll find on a lot of American wine labels: Reserve. We’ll take a look at its meaning in our next blog.

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Posted in Wine Buzz, Wine FAQ

Are You Ready for International Cabernet Day?

cabdayThere would be no International Cabernet Day were it not for Chardonnay.

What could one type of white wine possibly have to do with developing a special day for one type of red wine? More on that in a moment.

First, you need to know that today — Thursday, August 30 — is International Cabernet Day for 2018. It’s a day set aside for celebrating everything we love about Cabernet Sauvignon.

Here are five of those things:

  1. Cabernet Sauvignon is known as the “king of red wines” primarily because of its complexity — its aromas and flavors being a mix of the grape variety’s qualities and the use of oak barrels for aging the wine. Among the common descriptors for Cabernet are blackberry, plum, raisin, black currant, spice, pepper, vanilla, cedar, smoke, oak, tar, leather, earth, herbs, tobacco, coffee and chocolate. Complex? You bet.
  2. The two hubs of Cabernet Sauvignon are the Bordeaux appellation of France (in particular, the gravelly soils of the Left Bank), and California’s Napa Valley (where outstanding wines are made from both valley-floor and mountain-grown fruit).
  3. Cabernet Sauvignon shows up in places you may not expect, and sometimes its presence is not readily apparent. For example, in Italy, the so-called “Super Tuscan” wines are blends of indigenous grapes (primarily Sangiovese) and non-indigenous grapes (often Cabernet Sauvignon, and occasionally Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc).
  4. In 1996, DNA testing by the University of California at Davis revealed a previously unknown “secret” about Cabernet Sauvignon: It’s actually a natural crossing of two other varietals: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. The crossing occurred during the 1600s, according to U.C. Davis.
  5. Because of its complexity, Cabernet often is consumed solo. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed with food. Among its sublime pairing partners are mushroom stroganoff, braised short ribs, a Kobe burger (or any burger with melting Gruyere), lamb chops, and Santa Maria-style tri-tip.

Here’s a recipe for an easy-to-prepare dish that make a wonderful Cabernet pairing partner…

ONION AND GRUYERE TARTS

Ingredients

* 1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced ¼-inch thick

* 10-inch pre-baked tart shell

* ½ cup Gruyere cheese, grated

* 1 heaping tablespoon smoked onions (from above), chopped

* 4 whole large eggs

* 1 cup milk

* 1 cup whipping cream

* Pinch of kosher salt

* Pinch of fresh ground black pepper

Preparation

  1. Using a home-style smoker, place the onion slices on the smoker rack and smoke them for 2 hours.
  2. Wrap the smoked onions in aluminum foil and bake in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes, or until the onion slices are tender.
  3. Chop the onions and refrigerate.
  4. When ready to prepare dish, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  5. Whisk together the eggs, milk and cream. Season to taste with the salt and pepper. Add the smoked onions.
  6. Spread the cheese evenly on the bottom of the tart shell, and pour the custard mix over the cheese.
  7. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and the tart filling has puffed up some.

Pour a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon to sip while the tarts are cooling. Then pour another glass to eat with the tart.

So, how did International Cabernet Day come to be? It was the creation of an accomplished marketing guy, Rick Bakas, who spent eight years helping to building the Nike brand before striking out on his own.

Bakas had created Chardonnay Day, primarily to assist winery clients who sold that variety.

“Naturally, we needed something on the Thursday before Labor Day,” he explained. “So Cabernet Day was born that same year.”

By the way, there’s no rule against extending International Cabernet Day and making a long weekend out of it.

Just saying…

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes, Wine in the Glass

The Natural Wine Craze: What’s It All About?

bottleEvery generation wants to make its mark, and in the world of wine, the spreading popularity of “natural wine” can be credited largely to the interest of Millennials.

As Tom Madrecki, who has partnered in a pop-up wine bar in the parking lot of Washington, D.C.’s Union Kitchen, puts it, “Millennials are more adventurous and more willing to try new things — if presented to them properly.” (Yes, even in a parking lot.)

Everything is cyclical, and the natural wine movement is reminiscent of the hippie movement of the 1960s — young people defying convention and embracing a more “natural” way of eating and living. Sound familiar?

At this point in history, Millennials primarily are consumers of natural wine. The men and women making the wine may be of similar age or older — in some cases, a lot older.

In fact, the natural wine movement can be traced to the vineyards and cellars of France, particularly the Loire Valley. There, the primary white wines are Chenin Blanc Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne, while the main red is Cabernet Franc.

What “defines” a natural wine? In general, it is a wine that’s made with as little human intervention as possible. And although there are no set “laws” or certifications governing their production, natural wines typically:

* Are made from grapes that are grown either Biodynamically or organically.

* Use native yeasts, not commercial strains, in the fermentation process.

* Have no or very little sulfur.

* Utilize no chemicals in their production.

Some believe natural wines go a little too far with their restrictions, as a certain amount of human intervention and science can be helpful in stabilizing a wine and preventing it from becoming a bit too funky for most taste buds.

Then again, that also is part of the allure of natural wines — the idea that the finished product will be a true representation of a varietal, a place and vintage.

A number of wine bars and restaurants that are focused on natural wine have popped up around the country, and unlike Tom Madrecki’s “pop-up” in D.C., have regular hours and permanent seating. Four of the best are on the West Coast and East Coast:

* San Francisco — Terroir

* Oakland — The Punchdown

* Manhattan — Wildair

* Brooklyn — The Four Horsemen

Just like every “new” generation, the Millennials take a lot of heat from generations that preceded them. Ultimately, Millennials will become the primary influencers in the marketplace, including the wine marketplace. So don’t be surprised if — no, make that when — natural wine goes mainstream.

After all, there was a time when you had to go to Trader Joe’s or another specialty grocery to buy organic fruit.

 

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log, Wine in the Glass

Does the Price of Wine Really Reflect the Quality?

cheersIt’s only logical to presume that a crystal bowl from Tiffany is going to be of higher quality than a glass bowl purchased at a 99 Cents Only Store — no disrespect to that wildly successful discounter.

But what about wine? Is there really that much of a quality difference between a $10 bottle bought at the supermarket and a $50 bottle purchased from a wine club or wine shop?

Many factors play into the answer to that question, including where the grapes were grown, whether they were estate grown or purchased, whether new oak barrels were used to age the wine, how much aging (think: storage) time was planned before the wine was released, and so on.

Sometimes a wine is “formulated” to hit a specific price point, with a targeted marketing plan in place even before the grapes are harvested. In other instances, a winemaker simply takes what Mother Nature provides, and crafts the best mix of varietal wines and multi-variety blends possible.

There are times when no amount of planning can provide the best result. Several years ago, a varietal Cabernet Franc won the “Best of Show” award at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition. Unfortunately, from a future marketing and pricing standpoint, that winery would not be able to offer a varietal Cabernet Franc because all of the juice from the succeeding two vintages already had been blended into the winery’s red cuvee. Had that not been the case, the next few vintages of Cabernet Franc could have commanded higher prices than the award-winning vintage.

Another factor involves price protection. Many wineries work hard over multiple vintages to improve the quality of a specific bottling, and as the quality factor generates additional sales and demand, the price can be raised. A winery never wants to see a price decrease from one vintage to another because that can destroy years of brand building.

All of these factors make it virtually impossible to compare wine quality based solely on prices. A $10 bottle today could be a $50 bottle tomorrow. Ultimately, the best strategy is to trust your palate, and drink what you can afford.

 

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Let’s Talk Bubbly: Champagne vs. Prosecco

champYou’ve just poured two flutes of bubbly wine — one a Champagne, one a Prosecco — and placed them next to each other on a table.

They look pretty much the same, with streams of tiny bubbles cascading toward the tops of the glasses.

They probably have similar aromas, and depending on the grapes used to make the wines, may even taste similar.

So what is the main difference between Champagne and Prosecco? There actually are several points of differentiation. Memorize a few, and impress friends and family at your next party…

  1. Champagne is from France, while Prosecco is from Italy.

2.  Even more specifically, Champagne may be made only in the Champagne appellation of France. A sparkling wine made in France, but not in Champagne, is called a Cremant.

3.  In making Champagne, only certain grape varieties are allowed. With Prosecco, Glera is the primary grape used, but others are allowed.

4. There are several quality designations of Champagne. A “Grand Cru,” for instance, requires that the grapes be grown only in and around designated communities within the Champagne appellation, and allows only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to be used in the cuvees.

And we’ve saved perhaps the greatest difference for last…

5. Champagne and Prosecco are made in entirely different ways. In Champagne, the    méthode traditionnelle (a.k.a. the méthode champenoise) is utilized, which involves a second fermentation in the bottle. Most Prosecco is made using the Charmat method, in which the second fermentation takes place in a large tank.

It should be noted that the Charmat method is much less time consuming and, thus, much less expensive. That’s one of the reasons Prosecco generally costs less than Champagne. But that lower cost should not be equated with lower quality. There are many world-class Processos — as well as fine sparkling wines from Spain, South Africa and elsewhere — being made today to complement the fine Champagnes of France.

* Speaking of price, we’ll take a look at that factor in the wine-buying process in our next blog.

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Posted in Wine in the Glass

Discovering the Willamette Valley

blog_thursOregon’s Willamette Valley is best known for producing the same wine variety for which France’s Burgundy appellation is revered: Pinot Noir.

But should you happen to run into a Willamette Valley vintner at his wine estate or a tasting event, it would be best not to try to compliment his or her wine by describing it as “Burgundian.”

Jason Lett’s father is responsible for introducing Pinot Noir to the Willamette Valley in 1965, and back then, such praise was accepted with open arms — if for no other reason than to help the valley garner some attention.

But wine is a product of its surroundings and the climate — what the French refer to as “terroir” — and the Willamette Valley’s terroir could not be more different than that of Burgundy.

“When I hear the comment, ‘Your wines are so Burgundian,’ I usually wave it off as gently as possible,” Lett said in this Forbes magazine article. “The reason we grow Pinot Noir is that it is a completely faithful translator of climate, site and soil. If my wine tastes like a Burgundy, that means I’m making wines that do not respect my site — which is actually a bit of an insult. However, I understand that the person making the remark is trying to be flattering, so I try to receive the remark in the spirit it was given. But it does sandpaper my soul a bit.”

What Lett and other Willamette Valley vintners wish for today is that their wines be embraced as outstanding examples of their site. After all, they are consistently enticing wines in terms of aroma, flavor, texture and finish, and deserve to have their own identity.

The Willamette Valley, located between Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and Coast Range, generally is thought of simply as “south of Portland.” But it actually is more than 100 miles long and spans 60 miles at its widest point. It’s a 50-mile drive from McMinnville, a hub of Pinot Noir-making and home to numerous wine-focused restaurants, to the Pacific Ocean at Lincoln City.

At last count, there were 719 vineyards planted within the valley’s 3.4 million acres of land, along with 554 wineries — a vast majority of which craft Pinot Noir as their star variety.

Although every wine and every vintage is different, Oregon Pinot Noir is generally known for its low acidity (which contributes to its engaging “gulpability”), its lush texture, and its engaging fruit flavors.

Red Burgundy, on the other hand, can be higher in acid, tightly wound (requiring years of cellaring to open up), and in some cases a bit green.

There is a place and a palate for both styles, but the vintners of the Willamette Valley would prefer that you judge their wines on their own merits, and not “compliment” them by comparing them to Burgundy.

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Posted in Wine Region Profiles
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