Short Sips – Useful Sips of Wine Info

The world of wine is pretty complex. Lots of technical, geeky things are a part of it. Lots of history and culture define wine around the world. There’s lots of attitude and posturing sometimes and there’s chemistry and science, artistry and creativity too. So I thought I’d offer up a series of posts I’m calling “Short Sips” in order to bring some order to that chaos in bite-sized bits of information, not lengthy posts about each topic of interest. If nothing else I hope these will give you some interesting things to add to a conversation over a nice glass if wine!

The Use of Screwtops.  I love them. And why not? The use of screwtops has grown dramatically because it makes wine easy. In my view they are the ideal way to seal a bottle of every day wine. And the use of a screwtop insures you wont be getting a “corked” bottle. I’ll always love the pop of the cork, and I believe that cork is best for age-worthy wine (another topic), but give me a screwtop for the convenience of every day.

Buying Futures. Buying futures is a strategy for wine acquisition to lock in a price well before the wine is released to the market, basically when it’s in the barrel. It’s a strategy used by collectors and investors who are betting that the wine will be at least worth the price they lock in, and hopefully more. But also by people who want to ensure they get the wine they want. Futures are a good deal for the winery since they get their money upfront – and they can be a great deal for the wine lover too. I’ve even known people who have bought a case of wine this way when a child or grandchild is born as a future (pun) gift. Like any investment do your homework.

About Sulfites. Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist or an MD, but I’ve been around wine for quite a while, so here’s what I think: I believe that any issue of sulfites in wine is over-stated. Virtually all wines contain added sulfites. Sulfur is added during winemaking as a preservative, as it is in many foods. And sulfites even occur in small amounts naturally. I’ve had friends tell me they can drink European wines when on vacation without getting a headache or runny nose because they don’t have sulfites. That’s a myth. They do. Even most organic wines contain sulfites although some do feature “no added sulfites.” US law requires labeling (click to read about labels) for any wine sold here with a base level of sulfites. Often the headache, runny nose culprits are the natural histamines people are reacting to, not the sulfites (although there are small percentage of folks who have an allergy that’s real, and I’m not dissing you here). If you are reacting at all it’s likely from red wine since there is longer grape skin contact – and likely more histamines. If your reaction is across all types of wine then you may truly be one of the approximately 1% who are sulfite sensitive.

So that’s it for the first post of Short Sips – I hope you like having more little sips of wine info add to your wine experiences!

From Vine to Wine – Winemaking!

It’s that time of year, at least if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, the time to harvest the grapes and begin turning them into wine. In fact I just heard from one Napa winemaker that she has three varieties already picked – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. They’re in the winery undergoing the early stages of winemaking. The Cabernet Sauvignon is still hanging on the vines just waiting a bit longer to get to the perfect ripeness for its harvest as well.

Then what happens? At the winery quite a lot!  But for you – Pour a glass of wine, put up your feet and get comfy. Then think about what it is you’re about to sip – and appreciate the magic in your glass.

Getting from vine to wine is where the art and science of winemaking takes over.  And while nothing can substitute for the best grown grapes (remember – great wine begins in the vineyard), it’s also true that the craftsmanship of winemaking can make or break even the best grapes by the time the wine is in the bottle.

So let’s do a some Wine Smarts 101 and go through the steps of winemaking. I find that knowing it makes me even more appreciative of the effort and passion that goes into each Sip I take. Maybe you will too. A quick word – I’ve streamlined the process to give you the best overview without getting too geeky and technical.

Harvest is a terrific time to be in wine country. And if you get the chance, doing some picking –  it’s great fun (and some hard work too).

Crush Camp 001
Ken Picking Grapes

The single biggest determinant about when to pick is the sugar level of the grapes along with a watchful eye on the weather. When the grapes are picked it starts a sequence of activities that happen rather quickly. There is a bit of difference between white and red winemaking but essentially the idea is to get the grape juice fermented and turned into wine. Here’s how that happens.

As the grapes are brought into the winery the first step is typically sorting out damaged and less ripe grapes and bunches and then moving the rest into Step 1. NOTE: There are nuances and additional methods that winemakers can use in each of these steps but we are sticking with the basics.

  1. Step one is the Crusher/Destemmer – a machine that quite literally crushes open the grapes to let the juice out while separating off the stems. This juice is called “Free run” and often it’s captured to keep as the first best start of the wine.
    1. For white wine the crushed grapes are immediately moved to the Press, but not in the case of reds. For whites the Press gently squeezes out all of the juice into a tank to begin Fermentation

      OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
      Antique Wine Press
    2. The reds skip the Press for now and all the crushed goodies go directly into a Fermentation tank to start what is called Maceration. Maceration is letting the juice, skins and seed all stay in contact for a while – this is how the red wine gets red – since all grape juice is basically clear it’s the skins that give the color.
  2. Fermentation is how we get wine from grape juice. Yeast is added to the juice and it gobbles up the sugars and chemically turns it into alcohol.
    1. White wines are fermented cold and it’s best that it happens rather quickly to ensure the delicacy of the fruit flavors aren’t lost. The stainless steel, temp controlled tanks help the winemaker control that speed, and depending on the the wine variety and style, the fermentation can go from about ten days to around a month.IMG_2222.JPG
    2. For reds: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Ok – apologies to Shakespeare’s witches, but reds like to seethe and bubble in the tank. Fermentation is hot and slow, keeping those skins in contact with the juice. As the natural CO2 is released the glop of skins and stuff rises up in the tank forming a cap. The winemaker has to regularly recirculate it to keep it all fermenting (called Cap Management) – usually from two to six weeks depending on the variety, e.g. shorter for Pinot Noir; longer for Cabernet.
  3. Not to confuse anyone but there is a secondary process called Malolactic Fermentation where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.
    1. For white the only wine usually undergoing this is Chardonnay. This takes out tartness and often adds that buttery quality you can taste.
    2. For reds it’s normal to do a Malolactic Fermentation
  4. Now we Clarify the wine. There are several methods winemakers use to make the juice clear – like pumping between one tank to another or barrel to barrel, or filtering, or a process called fining which involves adding things like egg whites to capture the sediments, etc. The important thing is to get the wine clear and the sediments out.
  5. Time to settle and Age the wine.IMG_2256
    1. Most whites stay in the stainless steel tanks, however oak can add complexity to wines like Chardonnay and it’s very typical to put it into barrels for some aging.
    2. Most reds go right into barrels to age and come together by softening the tannins in the new wine.
  6. Blending and Bottling. Blending is a part of winemaking. The winemaker can choose to mix different wines sourced from various vineyards, or from different varieties, etc. For more on Blending see this post. But the key is that when the winemaker is ready to present us with the wine then it’s into the bottle it goes. In many cases there is more aging to be done in the bottle, and some countries there are specific rules about this along with definitions about what makes a Reserve wine. Here’s some further info on that.  However, most of the Every Day wine we drink goes from winery to bottle to the shelf – and it’s time to Sip!

Whew – So that’s how we go from vine to wine.  I hope you’re not worn out by all of this Wine Smarts 101 – I never am!

And that means it’s time to Sip!

Discovering the Wines of Spain

Spain is a big country… especially when it comes to wine. It’s actually the third largest wine producer in the world. And it’s got an ancient and vibrant winemaking culture. In an earlier post we delved into the Spanish Reds, which are led by the noble grape Tempranillo. I suggest you pay the post a visit to get the big picture about these luscious Spanish Reds. This time let’s go further afield and sip into more of the wines of Spain. And even though we’ve written about Tempranillo there’s more to add.

Let’s play a game. It’s kind of like a word association. Since many folks don’t know a lot about Spanish wines, one way to get the hang of them is to relate them to more familiar varieties. So I will toss out some of the more common varieties of wine and then line up what offering from Spain might give you a similar experience.  Let’s fill in the blanks!

If you like ______________________,

then you might like this wine from Spain________________________

If you like… Then you might want to try…
Sauvignon Blanc Albarino. Albarino is dry and fragrant, fruity and crisply acidic. It comes primarily from the northwest of Spain near the Atlantic, an area called Rias Baixas (rees bye shush). When you sip Albarino you’ll likely find a crisp apple-like taste along with a squeeze of lime, although some remind me more of a Bosch pear. It is one of my favorite easy to drink, highly affordable and tasty Sips that is particularly good with seafoods.Think of the classic Sauvignon Blanc tastiness with New Zealand green lipped mussels but pop an Albarino instead and you’ll get the picture.
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris Verdejo. Verdejo is from the Rueda region of Spain within the Duero Valley. This is a light white with reminders of pear and lemony citrus flavors. It’s a lovely sipping wine and always one of my favorite summer picks, but it’s also a nice choice when you just want a glass of white while puttering in the kitchen.
Rose’ Rosado. The Rosados of Spain are much like many of the Rose’ from the US.  They’re a deeper red rose color with boney dryness rather than the pale, salmon colored rose’ of Provence. A bit richer in fruit flavor too with Garnacha and Tempranillo as the primary grapes.
Pinot Noir Rioja Crianza. The young Tempranillo from Rioja remind me of Pinot’s from California with forward fruit, a hint of earth, ripe berry favors and easy drinkability. I love their versatility with a wide range of foods – from grilled salmon to roasted chicken, pork chops to fettuccini with mushrooms.
Cabernet Sauvignon from the US or South America Ribera del Duero and Rioja Reserva Tempranillo. Great expressions of the grape and aged enough to soften the wine for ready drinking. Lush flavors of plum or licorice, dark fruit and currant. Grill some lamb chops and pop the cork!
Bordeaux and Merlot Toro Tempranillo. The wines of Toro have a bit of an edge. Bold just like the name. A bit more rustic and they remind me of the Merlot driven Bordeaux from the Right Bank. (Read about them here). Sip the plump black fruit and plum, graphite and cedar.

And there you have it. Discovering new Sips is one of my favorite things and one of the best ways to do that is to relate what you like to new experiences. So here’s your homework assignment – get out there and Sip some wines from Spain!

And here’s a some help to get you started.

Every Day Sips
2016 Burgans Albarino $15
2015 Martin Codax Albarino $14
2015 Nisia Old Vines Verdejo $14
2014 Shaya Rueda Verdejo Old Vines $13
2016 Cune Rosado $13
2016 Bodegas Muga Rioja Rosado $15
2012 Bodegas Hermanos Pecina Crianza $20
2012 Marques de Caceres Crianza $13
2014 Romanico Toro $15
2012 Hacienda Lopez de Haro Reserva $18

Guest Sips
2011 Marques de Murrieta Reserva Rioja $23
2010 Vinas del Cenit Cenit $50
2012 Pesquera Reserva $50

Sips’ Guide to Wine Smarts

I have long been fascinated by wine, which should come as no surprise since you are reading this blog!  I love to Sip it and share it. I love to discover new wine experiences and regions, tasty tasting opportunities and the perfect marriage of wine and food. But I have also always enjoyed the complexity of wine. It is a product of nature shaped by winemaking art and science. As such, wine has its own vocabulary, its own “wine words.”

Therefore I’ve put some of the most common terms all in one place called “Smarts – Wine Words” which you can simply click on from the main navigation of the blog whenever you feel the need. This is a permanent page so you can visit it anytime.

There are lots of wine glossaries around, and there’s always Google, so by all means take advantage of any resource if you have questions. But here at Sips I’ve tried to put the definitions into every day language with a minimum of techno wine speak. And you have an open invitation to suggest any additions to the list.

I hope you find it a helpful way to become smarter about wine.

Click on through to the Sips’ Guide to Wine Smarts or take a look at the list below.

Sips’ Guide to Wine Smarts

Acidity 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.  The 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.
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. 
Appellation This is a defined and typically regulated area of geography in wine producing regions used to identify common practices and boundaries where grapes are grown.
AVA – American Viticultural Area Clusters of growing regions that truly gives more meaning and definition when it comes to the wine. 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. There are 230 AVAs in the US and if the AVA is on the label then 85% of the wine is from there.
Body 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.
Botrytis Botrytis is a fungus 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, like the spectacular wines of Sauternes. Also known as “Noble Rot.”
Component Wine is made up of some key elements that are known as components – water, alcohol, sugar, acid and a bunch of magic beans called phenolics. 
Corked A fault in wine caused by “cork taint” from a chemical compound called TCA. It causes the wine to have a noticeable smell of mold, wet cardboard or, my favorite, old gym shoes! It is safe to drink but probably not enjoyable. Return the bottle.
Dry Drycontains less than 1% sugar. When the sugar is below our ability to taste it then the wine is considered Dry.
Estate Wine If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes.
Fermentation Fermentation is the conversion of grape sugars into alcohol through the action of yeast cells.
Fortified Wine Wine with additional alcohol, usually clear brandy or other spirits, added during fermentation. Common fortified wines are sherry, port and marsala. Alcohol levels are typically 18 – 20%.
Lees Lees are the sediments left over from fermentation, mostly the dead yeast cells. 
Legs Also known as Tears. The residue from the evaporation of alcohol in the wine in the glass which appear as visibly thicker yet translucent liquid on the inside of the glass. Slower moving legs indicates higher alcohol because alcohol is volatile and it evaporates faster that water.
Maceration Grape juice from red grapes isn’t red, it’s basically a clear liquid.  All the color for red wines comes from leaving this juice in contact with the red grape skins after they’re crushed and during the fermentation into wine. This is called maceration.
Macroclimate Refers to the climate across a broad wine growing region e.g. Napa Valley
Malolactic Fermentation Malolactic fermentation is a secondary process where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.  It’s a common practice for red wines but Chardonnay is usually the only white treated this way.  This results in the “buttery” taste description.  It gives it that big, more full bodied feel in your mouth.
Meritage If no one grape is 75% of the wine in the bottle then it has to be labeled simply Red Wine or White Wine – this is where you find branded, proprietary blends (example is Oracle from Miner), or may see the word Meritage, which signifies the use of the Bordeaux varieties and membership in an association with governing rules – each grape in the blend must be identified.
Mesoclimate Mesoclimate refers to the climate in a pretty small area, like a vineyard.  Climate is what happens over time, weather is what is basically happening now. There can be significant mesoclimate variation in parcels of vineyard land that are even right next to each other.
Microclimate Microclimate is even a smaller area than mesoclimate, even down to a few rows within a vineyard or down to a particular vine.
Mouthfeel The textural sensation of wine when tasted in the mouth. Often described in terms of weight, viscosity, astringency, smoothness, sharpness, etc.
Noble Rot “Noble Rot” is Botrytis, the fungus 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, like the spectacular wines of Sauternes.
Off Dry When there is some sweetness we can taste in the wine it is generally considered Off Dry and this can range considerably between styles and varieties due to the winemaking.
Phenolics These are the compounds that give wine everything from its color and the vibrancy of its taste, to longevity and age-worthiness.
Reserve In the US, Australia/New Zealand and South America, Reserve is not a regulated designation.  In the Old World there is broad European Union regulation of labeling which is then customized in each country. In Italy and Spain there is specific meaning to the term Riserva or Reserva based on the aging of the wine before it is released for sale. It is time focused. 
Residual Sugar When there is some sweetness we can taste then 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.
Single Vineyard You will frequently see the name of a specific vineyard on the label.This means the wine is a single vineyard or vineyard designated wine and, along with featuring the name on the label, there are other considerations that go along with it. If there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard
Structure Structure is the balance between the components of the wine, the relationship between the alcohol, acids, sugars, tannins and other phenolics that you can taste.
Sulfites Refers to the sulfur dioxide added in the winemaking process to act as a preservative. Some sulfites also appear naturally as a by-product of fermentation. Winemakers add sulfur to preserve freshness and retard discoloration. This is a common practice in food production. There is no wine that is truly sulfite free although naturally occurring sulfites are typically found only in minuscule amounts.
Sur Lie Refers to leaving the wine on the lees to enhance flavor. This aging process is call sur lie in the French and it results in creating a fuller bodied and nicely drinking wine. This sur lie aging adds flavor and character to the wine that often is tasted as toasty, wheaty or creamy when you sip it.
Tannin Tannin is a phenolic from the skins and seeds of the grape giving red wine a noticeable astringent quality and are critical to aging. Tannin is also present as the result of oak barrel aging.
Tears Also known as Legs. The residue from the evaporation of alcohol in the wine in the glass which appear as visibly thicker yet translucent liquid on the inside of the glass. Slower moving legs indicates higher alcohol because alcohol is volatile and it evaporates faster that water.
Terroir Terroir is a French word pronounced tehr-wahr  and there is no direct translation into English. Terroir describes everything that is happening in, around, underneath, above and throughout the vineyard – the entire physical environment that impacts the grapes. 

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