What is Wine?

I think you might discover that there is a lot more to this question than it appears.  Wine is, after all, fermented grape juice. But in the conversion of the juice into the wines we love there is a lot happening. Wine is made up of some key elements that are known as components.  And it is these components that give it its taste profile, its scent, its color, its age-worthiness and, to my mind, its magic. So lets take a little swim through the liquid together. And like most of the swimming we do we need some water!

The single biggest component of wine is water. This is water from the juice of the grapes, not the tap, and wine is anywhere from 80 – 90% water. Now this water wont hydrate you, because that juice undergoes fermentation in order to be turned into wine, and we know what that means – alcohol.

Alcohol is the second largest component of wine and to find out how much is in there all you have to do is look at the label. What you’ll generally see is anywhere from 10 – 15%, but dessert wines and fortified wines like port go even higher. Alcohol gives the wine depth and mouthfeel. It seems to add weight to the wine that you can both taste and see.  When you taste higher alcohol wines there is a noticeable fullness to the sip and sometimes it might even seem a little hot.  By the way – Good wine doesn’t need to be highly alcoholic and one criticism I have about some California winemakers is an over-reliance on too much alcohol to give the wines some “punch” or make the them more robust.

You can actually see the alcohol in wine when you swirl it and look at the tears or legs on the side of the glass. Slower moving legs indicates higher alcohol because alcohol is volatile and it evaporates faster that water, resulting in those slower legs but also wafting the aromas up to your nose when you stick it in the glass and take a good whiff. (See Sips Approach to Wine Tasting). And here’s your Sips Warning: Alcohol is intoxicating – don’t over-consume and don’t drink and drive – call Uber or Lyft instead.

Then there are sugars. Sugar in the grapes are the fuel for fermentation. Fermentation is the conversion of those sugars into alcohol by the action of yeast cells. The yeast are like little Pac-men gobbling up the sugar and spitting out alcohol! Wine contains less than 1% sugar. When the sugar is below our ability to taste it then the wine is considered Dry.  When there is some sugar we can taste the wine is generally considered Off Dry and this can range considerably.  This is known as the Residual Sugar and winemakers specifically make some wines to give us the little hint of sweetness that many folks like in wines like Riesling or Chenin Blanc. Noticeably very sweet wines are typically found as dessert wines and they have marvelous viscosity and beautifully present tastes of honey – like yummy Ice Wine from Canada or the great Sauternes of France.

Acid is key to a wine’s balance.  There are a number of acids present in wine but the main ones are tartaric, malic and lactic.  We wont get into the chemistry but acidity in wine can give it a little zip, make it taste fresh, add some taste notes like green apple or that buttery quality of chardonnay, and even influence the color. Lighter colored red wines tend to have more acidity than darker purple wines; pale yellow or greenish white wines tend to be more acidic than mellow yellow ones.

And finally we have the fun stuff – the phenolics.  These are the compounds that give wine everything from its color and the vibrancy of its taste, to longevity and age-worthiness. For example, these are where the color gets from the grape skins into the wine, or the flavonoid that give white wines from warmer climates a golden glow. Tannin is a phenolic from the skins and seeds giving red wine a noticeable astringent quality and are critical to aging. And vanillin, with its vanilla bean smell, appears from interaction with oak barrel aging.

So What is Wine? It’s water, alcohol, sugar, acid and a bunch of magic beans called phenolics.  But most of all…

“Wine is bottled poetry.” Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Loire Valley and Its Wines

It’s hard to generalize about the Loire Valley and its wine – the Loire River flows for about 300 miles from its inland reaches near Sancerre to the Atlantic west of Nantes.  And all along that beautiful geography are glorious chateaux, a mass of French history, and vineyards.  The vineyards follow along the river and are classified within wine growing regions. Each of these regions are distinct in terroir and viticulture, and each tend to feature a particular grape variety.  But you won’t find the variety on the label so I’ll highlight what to look for in each region by the best known places within them.

Lets do our tour starting with the most inland region which is called the Upper Loire.  This is home to perhaps the best known of the Loire wines, Sancerre and its neighbor, Pouilly-Fume. These are the star Sauvignon Blanc of France and among my own favorite expressions of that grape. (FYI – don’t confuse Pouilly-Fume with Pouilly Fuisse from Burgundy which is Chardonnay). On the spectrum of Sauvignon Blanc taste these are smack in the middle between the fruit forward wines of California and the grassy, new mown hay style of New Zealand – and I love it.  They are crispy but without a bite, pale green with a hint of grapefruit, melon and herb along with mineralty from the limestone based soils.

From Sancerre head west through Orleans and into the region known as Touraine and it’s here we find the next most well known wines of the Loire.  Vouvray is all Chenin Blanc.  Chenin Blanc is lovely wine with tastes of green apple and honeydew melon. It can also be a little hard-edged due to its acidity so often you’ll find just a hint of sweetness left to ease the way. It offers great versatility with foods that are cured or salty as well as with Asian dishes the have some heat or spice to them. The other significant wine from Touraine to look for is the red wine, Chinon. Chinon is Cabernet Franc.  Unlike in Bordeaux, in Chinon Cabernet Franc is a standalone wine, not just a part of the blend, and it deserves our attention. To me there is usually a dark raspberry flavor along with notes of green bell pepper. It’s softer than Cabernet Sauvignon and mellower too. I like it a lot with roasted chicken or grilled pork chops.

Working our way to the Atlantic we now come to Anjou-Samur. The red of this region is generally Cabernet Franc but the most highly regarded wines are the Chenin Blanc of Savennieres, the sweet desert wines of Bonnezeaux and Quarts-de-Chaume and lovely sparkling wines known as Cremant de Loire.  The desert wines are made from Chenin Blanc that has been subject to  botrytis.  Geek Alert: Botrytis is the fungus known as the “Noble Rot” that pierces the grape skin which leads to water evaporation and the concentration of sugars.  Sounds bad but tastes great when the wines are made. Similar wines are the spectacular wines of Sauternes.  The Cremant is traditional method sparkling wine but made mostly with Chenin Blanc grapes.

At last we approach the coast and the region named for the largest city there, Nantes. There are several varieties of wine made in the Pays Nantes but the most fun to learn about is Muscadet.  Don’t confuse this with the grape Muscat because it’s not!  The grape is Melon de Bourgogne and the winemakers have a special approach to making the wine Muscadet. You see, Melon tends to be a lean and acidic wine if it’s just fermented and bottled. So the winemakers take an additional step and age the wine on the lees. Another Geek Alert: Lees are the sediments left over from fermentation, mostly the dead yeast cells.  This aging process is call sur lie in the French and it results in creating a fuller bodied and nicely drinking wine. I truly enjoy Muscadet.  Its appley tartness along with a little chalkiness makes it great with fresh seafood, especially oysters.

There’s even more to the Loire than we can cover in just one post, including delightful Rose’ and even other wines including some Pinot Noir, but I like to narrow the focus and concentrate on the best of any one given place.  I know I’ve thrown a lot at you about Loire Valley wines and it can get a bit confusing.  Here’s a quick summary so you can be ready to Sip!

Region Appellation Grape
Upper Loire Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc
Pouilly-Fume Sauvignon Blanc
Touraine Vouvray Chenin Blanc
Chinon Cabernet Franc
Anjou-Samur Savennieres Sauvignon Blanc
Bonnezeaux Chenin Blanc (dessert)
Quarts-de-Chaume Chenin Blanc (dessert)
Cremant de Loire Chenin Blanc (sparkling)
Pays Nantes Muscadet Melon de Borgogne

Spirit of Independence – Virginia Wine

I love Independence Day – Backyard cookouts, flag waving parades, the fireworks and, of course, the celebration of our history at the heart of it.  And it also reminds me that wine is as American as apple pie and baseball. Why? Because none other than Thomas Jefferson himself was infatuated with wine. Jefferson developed his love for wine during the many years he spent in France serving the cause of our new nation and was convinced that his native Virginia, and his own estate at Monticello, was perfect for grape growing and winemaking.  03_thomas_jeffersonUnfortunately, while he continued to be a major supporter and promoter of wine, he was never able to bring “fruit” to his labors to be a grape grower.  But he did stock the first wine cellar in the virtually brand new White House when he became our 3rd President in 1801.

Now we approach another Independence Day and Mr. Jefferson would be delighted by the vibrancy of the US wine industry, and particularly thrilled that his home state of Virginia, including his estate grounds at Monticello, are now producing wines of which he would be proud. Winemakers in Virginia have mastered the respected grape varieties of the world (with Viognier gaining a nice foothold) as well as some American varieties that aren’t as familiar to us, like Norton and Chambourcin.

Today there is wine being made throughout the state.  And this is wine country that is not only incredibly beautiful, but accessible and intimate. It’s intimate because you can get up close and personal at the wineries – they aren’t huge production businesses overrun with tour buses.  It’s accessible because it makes for a delightful side trip from the visit to DC every American should make – as well as easy driving into the history of our country from Monticello to Richmond and Jamestown to Williamsburg, and from the awesome beauty of the Blue Ridge to the shores of Chesapeake Bay.

So this Independence Day let’s take a Sip in honor of America’s Third President, Thomas Jefferson, and discover the heritage of Virginia wine country. After all, how can you not raise a glass to the man who said, “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”

Here are some Virginia wines for you from online sources – until you get the urge to pay a visit in person! And if you are in the DC area be sure to check the wine lists for local favorites. On my last visit I had some awesome crab cakes with a Virginia Viognier!

Every Day Sip
Williamsburg James River White $8
Horton Norton $12
Barboursville Cabernet $14
Horton Tower Series Viognier $18
Monticello Claret $20
Monticello Chardonnay Reserve $20
Pearmund Ameritage Red $22
Fabbioli Cabernet Franc $24

Ode to Greek Wines

A few weeks ago I went to a tasting hosted by the Wines of Greece.  It was pretty timely because, if you follow along with me, you know that I have some resolutions that I am keeping up with throughout the year. One of them was to share some info about Greek wine: June – let’s stay in the Mediterranean and sail on to Greece.  They’ve only been making wine there since Homer was a boy! 

I love it when a plan comes together!

The tasting was terrific and the visiting winemakers and other staff from the wineries and distributors couldn’t have been nicer – or more informative about their wines. Too often the wine from Greece is associated with simple Roditis along with shouts of “Opa” at the restaurant or aggressive Retsina, but don’t’ let that fool you into misunderstanding how much quality wine there is to enjoy from Greece.  The Greeks are making wonderful wines from their indigenous grapes, but also from the international varieties too, meaning Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.  And the result is some unique blending which can offer us wines with familiar names on the label alongside grapes new to many of us. In my view that’s the ideal way to introduce us to the wines of Greece.

There are four local varieties I’d like to highlight: The whites are Assyrtiko and Moschofilero.  The reds are Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko.

Assyrtiko. This is the white wine of Santorini and if there is a wine that is the ideal partner for the bounty of the sea, this is it.  santorini_greek_island_greeceAssyrtiko has vivid acidity along with citrusy flavor and telltale mineralty.  Whenever we see the word mineralty Chablis comes to mind, but unlike chardonnay, Assyrtiko leads with a fresh lemon zest quality that seems perfect for sun-drenched sipping. And this grape blends particularly well with Sauvignon Blanc giving us delightful wine that is very food friendly.

Moschofilero.  Tropical flowers and food friendly acidity make Moschofilero a lively choice for everyday white sipping. Much like Pinot Grigio, it’s the kind of wine that is pleasant and refreshing all by itself yet shines when you put some steamed clams on the table. I think it’s a lovely starter wine with salad.

Xinomavro. From the northern part of Greece comes Xinomavro, a red wine that typically is more medium bodied with bright acidity and red berry flavors.  Most often people compare it to Pinot Noir.  In my own tasting I wouldn’t disagree, however I found it to be more like Nebbiolo, the wine of Italy’s Piedmont, that kept coming back at me – a flavor with roses and violets. That said, the Pinot comparison is a great way to quickly shortcut to Xinmavro’s versatility with food.

Agiorgitiko.  This is perhaps the best known of the Greek reds, but you may know it by its English name, St. George. I really like these wines. They have good structure and are tannic enough for meaty dishes.  Mostly I tasted black cherries and dried fruit with a little spicy quality. Well made and aged in oak, these wine have complexity and all of the nuance one would expect from a world class wine.

The one challenge to enjoying Greek wine is finding them. The Wines of Greece hosted a tasting for restauranteurs, retailers and the media – to get the word out that there are terrific wines just waiting to be discovered. The good news is more retailers are carrying them, and we can let our fingers do the walking online.  On your behalf I let my fingers walk so here are some Greek wines for your to explore.

Every Day Sip
Santo Santorini Assyrtiko 2015 $14
Nasiakos Moschofilero 2015 $16
Boutari Moschofilero $18
Skouras St. George, Nemea $18
Gaia Agiorgitiko 2015 $20
Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro 2012 $24

Guest Sip
Domaine Karydas Xinomavro 2012 $28
2015 Tselepos Assyrtiko $30

Wines for Summer

Some things bear repeating – “Don’t forget to brush your teeth!” “Look both ways!” “Buckle your seatbelt!”  We’re never too old, or too young, to be reminded. Okay, it may be a stretch, but I want to remind you “Don’t wait to enjoy the wines of summer!”  And I promise this isn’t a lecture, just a gentle nudge to motivate your Sips.

For me the wines of summer occupy a special place in the Sips universe – the whites are fresh and zippy; the reds are punchy and ready for cookouts and al fresco dining; and then there is rose’.  Vive la Rose’ I say!  Just yesterday we sat on the deck with a couple of friends sharing a gorgeous salad with all kinds of mixed greens and goodies like grilled chicken breast and sipped on chilled rose’ from the Cotes du Provence, savoring the warm sunshine and gentle breeze.  How good is that!

So since some things bear repeating I want to get a few earlier posts back on your radar so that you can make the most of summer sipping.

Zippy Summer Whites will give you a good overview of some lighter and refreshing wines from around the world that are picture perfect for summertime.

Then we paid particular attention when It’s It’s Time for Sauvignon Blanc – the sassy Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand to Sancerre to California USA.

And when we wrote about Keeping Your (Wine) Cool we didn’t ignore the lighter styled reds either – wines like Barbera, Chianti and young Rioja that are ideal for the the way we eat during the summer.

But we also went right to the Weber when we Q’d the Zin! and got the fire under some dry-rubbed, slow cooked, sweet and smokey baby back ribs and the jammy yet peppery flavors of Zinfandel.

And before we leave the backyard, don’t forget Burgers and Bordeaux.

My favorite summer wine thing, however, is to be the Preacher in the House and convert you to Rose’.  I love Rose’. Did you get that? I said I LOVE ROSE’!  To quote me “Rose’ is everything that is crisp, lively, summery and tantalizing about wine.”

The beauty and magic of wine is that is brings us a never-ending variety of tasty experiences that can match the meal, the season or the mood.  Frankly, that is the reason I like to write about wine and spread the word about what it can add to our life experiences… even if it means repeating things some times!

If you would like to wander though some of the wines of summer, or any other time of year, then just be a regular visitor to our Sips pages for Every Day, Guest and Splurge choices.

Every Day Sips – Wines Under $25

Guest Sips – Wines to Give or Get from $25

Splurge Sips – Wines Over $50

Many Napa Valleys

When it comes to defining wine in the US most people probably sort right away to Napa Valley.  It was the wines of Napa that really put the US on the world wine map, and Napa seems to serve as the shorthand for our wine in general, California wine more specifically, and all of the images and texture that conjure up “wine country.” And that’s all good for sure.  But there’s a lot more to Napa than those generalities capture.  In fact there are many Napa Valleys. No, not geographically, but within the confines of this amazingly special county there are clusters of growing regions that truly give it more meaning and definition when it comes to the wine.

These are called AVAs – American Viticultural Areas, and within the Napa Valley, which is an appellation all on its own,  there are sixteen sub-regions.  Each exists because there are some shared characteristics of earth and sky, a confluence of soil and climate that lend distinctiveness to the grapes and wines.  When it comes to getting deeper into the bottle and appreciating the magic of wine, the more you know about where and how its grown, and how its made, the more each Sip becomes more than just a taste.  So when you see an AVA on the label it’s your first clue about what’s in the bottle.

Here are the 16 Napa Valley AVAs along with a map from the Napa Valley Vintners.  And if you visit their site here there’s even more detail.  But I’d like hit a few of the highlights from my own, nontechnical perspective.

  • Atlas PeakNapaValley AVA Map
  • Calistoga
  • Chiles Valley
  • Coomsbville
  • Diamond Mountain
  • Howell Mountain
  • Los Carneros
  • Mount Veeder
  • Oak Knoll
  • Oakville
  • Rutherford
  • Spring Mountain
  • St. Helena
  • Stags Leap
  • Wild Horse Valley
  • Yountville

I don’t pick favorites (insert the smiley face emoji here!) – but I love

  • The Cabernets from Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap. To me these valley floor growing areas are what Napa Cab is all about – ripe and lush, structured and textured with layers of taste and tannin to drink now or park for a while.
  • That Los Carneros is unique and is a shared AVA with Sonoma – and its an area that greets us with the cooler and windy influences of San Pablo Bay, which means Pinot Noir with bright berry fruitiness and tingly acidity and Chardonnays that seem to mimic the mineralty of Chablis
  • The grapes from the mountain ridges where they grow above the fog line, ripening in the sunshine to robust flavors. From Spring Mountain to Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain to Diamond Mountain the Cabs are powerful and the Merlot are lip-smackers.
  • That the northern part of the valley up by Calistoga and St. Helena is the warmest. I like it for the big tastes of Zin and Syrah and for Cabs that are densely fruity. We paid a visit to Calistoga in an earlier post you can check out.  This is also where I get my favorite Cabernet Franc direct from the winery.

Napa Valley is many wines and many Sips and no single post can possibly capture them all.  But as you dive in a little deeper and choose some wines from the different AVAs you’ll find the diversity and nuance, as well as the variety and vitality, that make the many Napas the quintessential wine country.

Here are some Sips for you to explore – as well as some tips on paying a visit to Napa Valley.

Every Day Sip
2015 Frog’s Leap Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc $12
Cameron Hughes Lot Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $20
Martin Ray Chardonnay Los Carneros $20

Guest Sip
BV Rutherford Cabernet $28
Steltzner Cabernet Stags Leap District $35
Cuvaison Pinot Noir Carneros $35
Mondavi Oakville Cabernet $40
Ballentine 2014 Cabernet Franc Pocai Vineyard Calistoga $48
Terra Valentine Cabernet Spring Mountain $48
Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain, 2012 $50

Splurge Sip
Groth Cabernet Oakville $55
Chimney Rock Cabernet Stags Leap $70
2012 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $180

The Sips Approach to Wine Tasting

You’ve all seen it. Most, if not all of you, have done it.  The it is the ritual of tasting wine. Sometimes all that swirling and sniffing looks pretty affected – But the truth of the matter is that engaging with the wine in the glass is the best way to enhance your Sip appreciation. First, a simple tasting ritual can tell you if the wine has any faults that will hinder or prevent you from enjoying it.  Then there’s the fact having a regular way to taste the wine in your glass will jumpstart your sipping experiences – kind of like lighting up your tastebuds!  Finally, there’s an opportunity to know a bit more about wine every time you raise a glass to you lips, and I think that adds to the overall enjoyment and entertainment we get from this amazing beverage.

So how can we create a tasting process that does those things, and without appearing to be some snooty wine aficionado?  The answer is to keep it simple and keep it real.  There are five easy steps that I call the Sips Approach to digging wine: See, Swirl, Smell, Sip and Savor.  Here’s what they mean:

See.  Be aware.  Look at the wine in your glass.  What you See can tell you a lot about what you’re going to taste and experience.  While we all know there is red, white and rose’ wine, within those very broad definitions is a wide variety of shade and texture. For example, if you just poured a taste of chardonnay what do you see?  Is it rich yellow or pale straw? Is it golden or honey-like with tint of amber. Typically the richer golden color will tell you that this chard came from a warmer year or region or spent some time barrel aging. And without taking a sip you can anticipate a more peachy or tropical fruit taste, probably with a fuller feel in your mouth. Each wine variety has its own color and texture profile and the more you See and become aware, the more you’ll come to know wine.

Swirl. Yep – do it. Don’t feel intimidated.  Swirling the wine in the glass is not only a great way to also See and admire it more, it’s the wine’s handspring out of the bottle. Swirling releases the aroma, essentially aerates the wine so that more of the wine is exposed to the air and flavor molecules are ready for your nose. Also, it can tell us a bit about the alcohol too.  Since our taste is driven by smell, swirling the wine in the glass activates the evaporation of some of the alcohol which carries the odor that we will Smell and lets us See the “tears” or “legs” on the side of the glass. Long slow legs indicates higher alcohol which tells us the wine will be more full tasting. Now…

Smell.  That’s it, stick your nose in that glass and give it a good whiff!  This is a fun one. But it’s also where folks get carried away.  Here’s where to keep it simple.  When I Smell I try to look for three types of aromas or odors. First anything bad or off-putting. Common faults are cork taint (think smelly gym socks) or acetone (nail polish) or like a Band-Aid and other unnatural smelling things. If it doesn’t smell right it’s probably not right so send it back or return the bottle to the store. Next, the fruit. Each variety has characteristic smells of fruit and I like to smell for a predominant one – not a litany of every fruit I’ve ever had (like some wine reviewers)! Next there are indicators of how the wine was made so I smell for the oakyness (vanilla, toasty or woody) or things like sur lie aging (yeasty or bready), and so on.  In future posts I’ll give you a whole list of Smell by different grape varieties and winemaking styles. But start now and trust your nose!

Sip.  Yes, you get to actually sip the wine! Here’s where I like to keep it real. Let the wine work around the inside of your mouth, let the aroma work back from your mouth to your nose. What’s there? Don’t try to name everything you experience… pick three, whether they be different fruits, herbal or vegetal qualities, flowers or zippy acidity, woodiness or style, body or astringency, just let the wine live in your mouth before you swallow it.  And then…

Savor. This is where the magic happens. This is where it all comes together – or not. This is where the awareness of what you See in the glass, the liveliness of the Swirl, the aroma assault of the Smell and the payoff of the Sip becomes a wine experience. And as you continue to try different wines and practice the Sips Approach the whole world of wine will be more open, more familiar, less intimidating and more entertaining for you.

Have I got you hooked?  If so here’s a terrific app to help you along the way.  It’s from the University of Adelaide in Australia and it is an interactive way to taste along and keep up with the experiences you Sip.  Find it for iPhone or Android: My Wine World (TM) produced by the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, the University of Adelaide.

Let’s Sip!