Full Bodied Red Wine

Body is one of the most common descriptors of wine – and I think most of us know instinctively what it means.  It’s easy to identify with.  Some wines are thin.  Some are rich and full.  Others can be described as ‘muscular’ or ‘flabby.’  Sounds like people doesn’t it?

Body is really about how the wine feels in your mouth and much of that has to so with how much alcohol the wine has and the grape variety as well as the wine making style.  For a lot of wine drinkers, full bodied wines are the wine of choice.  After all, they tend to pack the most punch per sip.  We love the roundness of the flavor and heft of the wine.  Americans have never been accused of embracing delay of gratification in anything, have we?  I also think that we have learned to seek out these taste experiences in the US since we gravitate to bigger flavor foods.  How many of us were raised on a meat and potatoes diet? Lots of dairy.  Burgers?  Not a lot of nuance there.

And then there is the “New World” style of winemaking and the very popular rating scales used in the media.  The New World style, of which California’s influence is the most notable, is fruit forward, mostly drink-it-now, driven by the grape variety and the winemaking.  More extraction and higher alcohol are common.  A highly respected and followed publication, Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate, became known for higher ratings of big and powerful wines. Higher ratings mean higher prices and greater sales – and more wineries jumped on the upfront style. So it’s no wonder that fuller bodied wines seem to dominate what we drink most.

What are these wines?  Most are red, but there are a couple of whites (particularly Chardonnay and Viognier, although we’re talking red today). If you like it full and bold here’s what to look for, with one caveat – one size does not fit all.  Each of the following cover the spectrum of weight and body.  Consider these a place to start.

Cabernet Sauvignon: In my post, “A Taste of Cabernet” I wrote, “Cabernet is a conundrum – big, bold and powerful as well as elegant, refined and beautiful.”  Cabernet has it all – structure, weight and depth to go along with its finesse and age-worthiness.  It fills your mouth with bursts of dark fruit and plum, tobacco and leather, cedar and mint – all kinds of layered flavors.  California, Chile and Australia lead with the fuller bodied styles dominated by fruit and drinkability. Bordeaux wines can also be considered full bodied for sure, but to me where they fall is much more dependent on the specific area of Bordeaux and the nature of the blend in the bottle.

Syrah/Shiraz:  Syrah from the Northern Rhone – Cote Rotie (the “Roasted Slope”), Hermitage and St. Joseph, and the Aussie Shiraz are midnight dark and intense with blackberry, currant and smoke. The tannins are softer than Cab.  I love Syrah/Shiraz with lamb and beef.  More Syrah is coming out of California too.

Petite Sirah: Not the same as the above, it’s its own grape and it is a chewer!  It’s on the shelves on it’s own from California and is frequently blended into Zinfandel to add punch to that wine. Inky black and bold.

Zinfandel:  Much Zin is really more medium bodied, but there are bolder styles driven by the blacker fruits, as opposed to red, and higher alcohol, as well as those with some Petite Sirah in the blend.  The “old vine” estate and single vineyard Zins are typically fuller bodied.

Merlot: Yes, Merlot is usually fuller bodied.  But it tends to get overlooked by its softness, its less tannic structure.  To appreciate Merlot’s full bodied appeal have a cheddar cheeseburger.

Malbec: Malbec has come into its own in Argentina.  It’s softer than Cab and to me has more of an edge to it than Merlot.  It’s affordable and approachable – a good choice to have on hand at home as your go-to glass of red.

To get into all the potential full bodied reds and the iterations of blends and indigenous grape varieties would turn this post into a tome!  One thing to take away – if the wine is 14.5% alcohol or higher you can be pretty sure that it will be a full bodied sip.

But know that the truth is in what YOU taste, and in what you expect out of the wine and the time you’re enjoying it.  I don’t like rules about wine.  I like guides that leave up to me to decide what I like or don’t like.  And the fun is in exploring it all.

Not a bad way to sip.

Does the Vintage Year Matter?

It is the most common and consistent item on wine labels around the world- the vintage year.  The vintage year is the year that the grapes were grown, harvested and made into wine. And the short answer to the question, “Does the vintage year matter?” is Yes. But as with most things about wine the short answer needs a little longer explanation!

There is a saying in the winemaking world that “great wine begins in the vineyard,” which is the recognition and acknowledgment that wine is the product of well grown and tended grapes – and nothing impacts the growing more than Mother Nature.

While the grower can control for lots of things throughout the season, and the winemaker can ply his or her craft expertly, it’s really Mother Nature that has the greatest power and influence over the wine that ends up in the bottle.  And we know that Mother Nature can be unpredictable and fickle, especially as we witness our changing climate around the world.

So in a word Yes, the vintage does matter because it allows us to assess the single biggest factor that influenced the wine we are buying – the growing conditions of that season in the field. This is particularly important if the wine we are buying is expensive or expected to improve with age, or with wines that are made to drink young and fresh, like rose’.

For example, if I am willing to spend $50 for a Splurge Sip bottle of wine I would like to know as much about the conditions that helped to create it; or if I want to put away a special bottle until some occasion in the future, then I want to know if it has the staying power.  When it comes to rose’ I like it young and fresh so I want the most recent vintage, the 2016 versus a 2015 sitting next to it on the shelf.  There’s even a wine from Portugal called Vihno Verde, which means ‘green wine’ named not because of its color but to drink when young and at its freshest.

So all things being equal, the vintage year does become an important factor in making certain wine decisions. Some years the growing conditions are simply better than others and that’s reflected in the ability of the winemaker to make the most of it.

But I also maintain that while vintage matters, it is not particularly important  for most of the Every Day Sip wine consumed. In a previous post titled “When Should I Drink It?” I wrote, “Every day wine is just that.  Buy it and drink it.  It’s not scientific but my own rule of thumb is that any wine produced and marketed for $30 or less is made for today’s enjoyment, not years in any cellar.” And now I will add that the vintage of that wine is less important than the “drink it now” enjoyment. So don’t stress about it.  Will there be differences between years? Sure. But the bigger production wines that comprise most of the Every Day Sip bottles on the shelf are less dependent on the specifics of a microclimate and even broader weather influences. Most of these wines are not estate grown or single vineyard wines to begin with but are made from grapes grown over much larger vineyard areas and brought into the winery.

Here are some resources to help you be the judge about whether vintage matters as well as a couple of earlier posts to guide you through the wine label.

Reading the Wine Label
What is a Single Vineyard Wine?

Vintage References
eRobertParker Vintage Chart
Wine Enthusiast Vintage Chart
Wine Spectator Vintage Charts

All of this writing has made me ready for a break – so I think it’s definitely time for a Sip!

Knowing Bordeaux Part 3 – The Right Bank

Let’s venture to the wine region where Merlot is the most respected and regarded grape. It’s back to Bordeaux.  In Part 1 we went over the basic geography of Bordeaux and in Part 2 we focused on the Medoc and the Cabernet driven wines produced there. You may recall that the wine growing area to the east of the Dordogne and Gironde is known as the Right Bank. fotoBORDELAIS-mapa-post-sobre-cata-Bordeaux-1140x904It’s here that Merlot is the star and the wines are among the finest anywhere in the world.  If that’s surprising to you because you think Merlot is just a simple, easy-drinking every day wine perhaps it’s because Merlot has gotten a bad rap in the US. For a while Merlot was the go-to bar pour and a lot of it was simple and flabby, reinforced by the movie Sideways, from which the reputation of Merlot has had difficulty recovering.

Thankfully we have the wines of Bordeaux to celebrate this grape. Recall that in Bordeaux we don’t typically find single variety wines. The noble grapes of Bordeaux are blended together in the wine. So in the Right Bank, which is also known as the Libournais, Merlot is usually the predominant grape in the blend, with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec varying in the mix. What this gives us is Bordeaux that is more approachable than their cousins on the Left Bank, those dominated by Cabernet. But they are also decidedly French.  By that I mean that the wine is less fruit forward than most American and other new world offerings. They might seem a bit leaner to your taste if you’re used to big juicy wines from California. But just wait – they have nuance and texture that make them awesome food wines.

When shopping for Right Bank wines you’ll be looking for the appellation names based on the villages in the region and the specific producing chateau. I know that can get confusing, especially since St. Emilion is the only area with a distinction between Premier Grand Cru and Grand Cru. Frankly I don’t worry too much about that. I like to drink wines from all throughout the Right Bank – from St. Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande de Pomerol, Lussac, Fronsac, Cotes du Borg and so on.  Like any wine choice I look for quality and value and try to do a bit of homework, relying on friends, retailers and my own sip experiences.

There are some very famous, and pricey wines from the Right Bank. Chateau Petrus of Pomerol is one of the most highly regarded and expensive wines in the world – and it is all Merlot. If you have an extra $3,800 lying around you can pick up a bottle of the 2010 at wine.com! The Wine Advocate gave it a 100 rating.

Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Pavie, Chateau Angelus and Chateau Ansone are right up there in price and prestige with the best of the Medoc First Growths. It has been a rare treat when I have had a taste of any of these! Mostly I try to stay in the Every Day or perhaps the Guest Sip price range.

So if you are looking to expand your wine horizons, and capture some of what Merlot is really all about, head for the Right Bank of Bordeaux. Here are some Sips to point the way.

Every Day Sip
2013 Chateau Cap de Faugeres Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux $16
2012 Chateau Garraud Lalande de Pomerol, 2014 $25
2012 Chateau d’Aiguilhe Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux $25

Guest Sip
2014 Chateau Sansonnet Saint Emilion $30
2012 Chateau Barde Haut Saint Emilion $30
2014 Chateau Berliquet Saint Emilion $35

Splurge Sip
Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere St. Emilion, 2014 $60

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