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!

Wine Memories – Sipping Special Places

Let’s do some traveling together.  We just returned from a vacation overseas and we captured the memories in pictures and videos as well as locking special moments into the memory bank. Isn’t savoring new experiences and building the memories why we travel? We have been blessed with many opportunities to fill the memory bank with special times involving wine so I thought it would be fun to highlight some of them, especially since they also offer insight into wine with food and wine with different places. In a way this is wine pairing at the source! Cue the traveling music please…

  • New Zealand may be known for lamb but did you know about the green lipped mussels? These are large, tender and flavorful mussels you can enjoy either hot or chilled. I like ‘em chilled and there’s nothing better than sitting around the table like we did in Blenheim – drinking some Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc and sharing a heap of green lipped mussels. The tart and herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc is an ideal match to the soft texture and slight taste of the sea. In the memory bank.
  • More seafood? The most enjoyable bottle of Pinot Grigio I can remember was sipped with a bucket of steamed “pisser” clams on a dock in Nantucket. The small clams, steamed in white wine, served in a bucket under the summer sun with the swish of the Atlantic waves under the dock, screamed for chilled, somewhat fruity yet bone dry Pinot Grigio. With a crusty loaf to dunk in the juice it was the perfect summer lunch and Nantucket memory.
  • Barcelona is an amazing city filled with the fantastical art of Gaudi and museums devoted to Picasso and Miro, but there is also art at the La Boqueria market where the variety of foods and tastes is almost overwhelming. IMG_4776So pull up a stool, order a bottle of wine from the Priorate and start noshing. The wine of Priorate is primarily Grenache and there is nothing like ordering up an array of tapas amid the bustle of the market, especially with a bowl of squid and beans as part of the choice, and sharing the bottle with good friends. It is a highlight memory of what Barcelona is all about… art, food and life.
  • Then there is my favorite bottle of Chianti, which we sipped with grilled-to- perfection sliced Chianina beef in a little trattoria called La Grotta della Rana (the courtyard is pictured above) in the small village of San Sano in Tuscany. The San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva is not the most famous or priciest of the area, but it was perfect – the vineyard is just a few kilometers away in the rolling countryside near Giaole. It’s pairing food and wine from the place – the easiest pairing rule you can remember for sure! And doesn’t the wine always seem to taste better when you’re in the special place of its origin? Sure does for me.
  • We’ll always have Paris – and the memory of dining at Alain Ducasse. The tasting menu was outrageously enjoyable as were our dinner companions, Parisian friends who know their way around a wine list!  This was one of the best splurges ever, complete with a bottle of the famed Chateau Haut Brion. Haut Brion is one of the 1st Growth Bordeaux estates and the wines are exceptional (both in taste and price!). Typically a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot the wine is an amazing experience, with layers of tastes that punctuate it as a memorable sipping experience. This night was the epitome of French fine dining. I saved the bottle.

I could go on and on – but will spare you! The amazing thing about wine is that its experience can last well beyond the empty glass or bottle.  And sometimes those most amazing experiences are right at home too. For Cris’ last birthday we grilled a steak, sat on the deck and opened a bottle of 1994 Silver Oak Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  We not only celebrated her birthday but were reminded of trips to Napa and Sonoma and all of the magical moments that wine has brought to life for us.

And that’s what Sips, and wine memories, are all about.

On the Road – In Marlborough Country

Marlborough New Zealand that is.  We just finished a few days in Blenheim and got to immerse ourselves in the winemaking culture and attitude of Marlborough.  An aside – when we disembarked the Interislander Ferry from Wellington at Picton and took the short drive through the hills into the Wairau River Valley I had to pinch myself to realize I was actually in New Zealand, a place I’ve longed to visit (as I wrote about). They take their wine seriously here and, remember, it’s really Marlborough that put New Zealand on the world wine map with lively and zingy Sauvignon Blanc. They still focus on that but Pinot Noir is finding its place along with other varietals like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. Notice a theme?  Yep – Marlborough is where you find cool climate varieties.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the vine

New Zealand has several wine growing regions, and even though they have not yet adopted an appellation system like the US and other major wine growing countries, each does have unique characteristics. In Marlborough it’s the moderating influence of the rain shadow from the western mountains, the combination of clay and rocky greywacke soils and the ocean breezes from Cloudy Bay that give the wines their signature. The days are long and usually sunny and there are not high heat spikes so there is an extended, cooler growing season. Geek Alert: Greywacke is the mineral rich rock that makes up the mountains of the Southern Alps so its all over South Island New Zealand.

Blenheim is the heart of this wine region and from there it’s very easy to explore the whole area – none of the wineries were more than a 20 minute drive from our base station, the unique Antria Lodge, and owner Phil pointed us in all the right directions!  Most offer open to the public and free tastings at their “cellar door.” So we went off to sip some Marlborough wines.

This was like a Sauvignon Blanc seminar. When you consider that 85% of the wine in Marlborough is Sauvignon Blanc there’s a lot of sipping to cover – but somebody has to do it!

Tasting 2016 Auntsfield Sauvignon Blanc and the grapes from 2017

What did we find?  We found characteristically grassy and tart wines and we found those with elegance and finesse.  We found wines with fruit forward flavors of gooseberry and herbaceous asparagus and wines with tropical grapefruit tastes.  We found edgy and acidic offerings and some lightly oaked with supple flavors. We found single vineyard wines and the high volume Marlborough wines you see all over the world. We found winemakers who are devoted to the heritage of their land (read the Auntsfield story), those who are experimenting with the nuances of the terroir (visit Clos Henri)and those using native wild yeast to give their wines a specific signature (see Greywacke).  In short we found a vibrant and eclectic wine country experience. There’s a lot more to a sip of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc than you may think. I know it opened me up to new sipping experiences.

Greywacke visit

We were very fortunate to be able to wander these wines first hand, but a great way to pay a virtual visit to Marlborough, and help you find some wines near home, is by visiting Wine Marlborough.

Here are some Marlborough sips for you to enjoy from our visit. I tasted them all and they are a nice reflection of being “On the Road – In Marlborough Country.”
Let’s sip!

2016 Omaka Springs Sauvignon Blanc $14

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc $16

2016 Babich Sauvignon Blanc Black Label $16

Lawson’s Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2015 $16

Auntsfield Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc $18

Zephyr Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $18

Villa Maria 2016 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc $18

2016 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $20

Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $24

2014 Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25

Perfect New Year Resolution

This is not about working out.  And it’s not about doing the “cleanse” that is so popular or paying for a membership at the Bikram yoga studio.  My Perfect New Year Resolution is this: I resolve to experience a new wine every month.  I am up for the challenge (and the rules are pretty loose) – this can mean a varietal I’m not really familiar with, or a wine from a region from which I don’t normally buy the wines, or a particular style or approach to winemaking that is new to me, or a wine that is just different, or maybe something from off the beaten track.  I think this is a heck of a way to end up with a mixed case of new wine experiences.

This is one resolution that I know I can keep – how about you?

Over the years I’ve tried to be open to finding as many different wine experiences as I can.  And one of the things that enamors me most about wine is its almost infinite variety.  So here are my resolution sips and each month I’ll share them with you:

  • January – starting the year off with a journey south and an exploration of Carmenere from Chile
  • February – means something for my Valentine and this year we’ll celebrate with Sparkling Shiraz from Australia
  • March – as we look forward to spring in the northern hemisphere they are picking grapes in New Zealand so I think we’ll try some of the Cabernet and Merlot from the North Island
  • April – makes me think of the song April in Paris so let’s head to France. Hmmm, how about some of the lovely whites of Alsace?
  • May – we drink a lot of Italian wine at our place but there’s still a lot of Italy to sip into.  So let’s hop over to the island of Sardinia and see what we find
  • June – let’s stay in the Mediterranean and sail on to Greece.  They’ve only been making wine there since Homer was a boy!
  • July – time for the 4th of July and some wine from Jefferson’s home state, Virginia
  • August – did you know that Spain is the 3rd largest wine producing country in the world with more wine than the US and Australia combined? That’s a lot of wine to experience so we’d better get on it. Hint: following the footsteps of Don Quixote
  • September – crush time begins in California and what better time to step off the beaten path and take in some wine from places outside of Napa and Sonoma
  • October – the Danube flows through and separates the cities of Buda and Pest – but not the amazing wines of Hungary
  • November – when I visit Mexico I drink local.  Not tequila, but tasty wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja.
  • December – down at the tip of South Africa there’s a wine with a unique heritage to uncover

Stay tuned and keep sipping!


Take a Look at the New “My Sips”

Since I started this blog last summer I’ve been adding to the “My Sips” pages regularly.  My Sips are just that, wines I’ve had that I want to share with you.  I chose them based on the particular post, whether it’s about a wine region, a grape type or some good wine geek information!  And, after all, it’s lots more fun to drink wine than it is to read about it, right?

The list has grown pretty quickly – and to make it a bit more user friendly I’ve reorganized the pages so that it’s easier to find what you may want to try.  There are a couple of different ways to get to them and once you’re there I hope you’ll find the organization by main wine variety helpful.  Each category is on the main navigation as well as under the My Sips tab.

Just to refresh – there are three categories of My Sips:

  • Everyday Sips.  These are wines that sell for less than $25.  I know we each have our “everyday” price point so you’ll find a mix of wines at different prices, with most under $15.  Here’s the link: Everyday Sips
  • Guest Sips.  These are wines to give or get. Going to a dinner at friends?  Check the list.  Need a bottle for a BYO? Check the list.  These are nice wines that you can share whatever the occasion.  You’ll find them priced from $25 and up – generally to about $50. Here’s the link: Guest Sips
  • Splurge Sips.  Special wines for special times, or just when you want to treat yourself or friends.  Full confession – I don’t drink these often either!  But you’ll find wines I have had and that I think are worth the “splurge” when you feel like it.  These wines are $50 plus. Here’s the link: Splurge Sips

I don’t rate wines and these are not “reviews.”  But I know I appreciate it when someone can point me to a new wine or even get me back to an old favorite.  And I am always happy to hear what you like too – so feel free to share.

I hope you enjoy the new My Sips!

A Sip to Discover Viognier

Last week I wrote that Viognier was an overlooked Thanksgiving dinner wine.  Let’s expand on that.  I believe Viognier is an overlooked wine, period.  Many of you may not be very familiar with it, but it has been the premier white wine of the Rhone in France for ages, there is some terrific Viognier now being grown in the US, and the Australians have discovered its versatility as a tasty addition to some other varietals.  Viognier has actually become an important grape to the winemaking in Virginia.

Viognier has been held back hitting the mainstream largely because it’s a bit of a fussy grape.  It likes a long and dry growing season, but not too hot.  The vines are relatively lower yielding than say, chardonnay, so devoting time, energy and land to it is a significant economic decision.  And, a lot like Pinot Noir, it can be a bit finicky during the winemaking, requiring some extra care as well as a deft touch by the winemaker.  But it’s beginning to come into its own so that’s why I hope you try some.

Let’s start with the taste.  The classic profile of Viognier is stone fruit with lusty aromatics.  And I usually find a dollop of honeysuckle aroma as well.  The stone fruits – apricot, peaches and pear –  are most predominant.  I have often heard it described as a “pretty” wine and I think that’s because it doesn’t bowl you over with big oaky or buttery influences like a lot of chardonnay.  It’s pretty because you get this wonderful sniff of fruitiness followed by a full bodied yet subtle texture in your mouth and pleasingly dry taste overall.

The undisputed pinnacle of Viognier are the vineyards of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet in the northern Rhone of France (pictured above).  Here the wines have been sought after for years and they are 100% Viognier, no other grapes are permitted to be blended in.


Viognier is, however, sometimes used with Syrah in the northern Rhone red wines to add additional flavor and texture and it is this technique that the Australians have fully embraced as well.

You will find stand alone Viognier offerings from Australia, particularly from the Eden Valley but much of the production is added into Shiraz or other varieties.  Yes, white grapes and red grapes can play nice together… remember, the purple/red color comes from contact with the skins, the grape juice is basically clear.

In the US Viognier is mostly from California, but you’ll find some from Washington too (and Virginia as mentioned above).  California has ideal growing areas and the Viognier from Napa and the Central Coast lead the way.  What I am most excited about is that there is now Viognier priced for everyday in addition to more expensive offerings.

And there is a lot to love about Viognier and food.  I think it pairs up exceptionally well with richer seafoods and fish dishes, but it is equally terrific with veal or a roasted chicken (and we already covered the opportunity as a Thanksgiving addition).  And I think Viognier and lobster salad are amazing together. But just consider what you like to match up with Chardonnay and you won’t be disappointed.

Here’s a key point – don’t serve it ice cold.  Serve it lightly chilled to really bring out the aromatics and the lush texture.  If you have a wine fridge, great, but if you don’t then just put it in you regular fridge for 20 minutes before you serve it.  Once it’s out I don’t put it in an ice bucket either but just leave it on the table – heck, it doesn’t last that long anyway!

Now that we are heading into the festive season put Viognier on your shopping list.  It’s a really good entertaining wine for a couple of reasons: first, it’s not that expected pour of Chardonnay and, second, your guests will likely be having a new kind of Sip experience.

Let’s Sip.

Everyday Sip:
2014 McManis California Viognier $10.  A simpler expression but a surprisingly tasty bottle at a great price.

Miner Viognier, Simpson Vineyard, Napa Valley $20
My personal ‘go to” is consistently yummy.  It bridges everyday and more.

Guest Sip:
2013 Alban Estates Viognier, Edna Valley $28
Lush and flavorful.  Has a full mouthfeel.

2013 Tablas Creek Viognier, Paso Robles $30
From their estate vines, Tablas Creek is a California Viognier pioneer and it shows. If you see it, try it.

Splurge Sip:
2012 Guigal Condrieu $60
Lovely. Classic.  Richly satisfying from one of the best Rhone producers.

If you really want to Splurge chase down some Chateau Grillet Condrieu but be prepared to spend a bunch – $100 per bottle or more – and let me know what time to show up!

Real Chablis

Do you like chardonnay?  If you do, but have been frustrated by the move to big, buttery and woody styles then there is a wine for you that’s 100% chardonnay you need to try.  If you DO like that big chardonnay style that’s great… there’s room for all tastes in the world of wine.  But if you want to try something new, or prefer a more medium bodied and balanced approach to chardonnay then here’s one to put on the list.  It’s the wine of Chablis.

Chablis got a bad rap in the US because years ago lots of the jug wine producers plastered “Chablis” on the label of some pretty simple and often plain bad white wine, and still do.  You might see it on the shelves at the grocery store or in the cheap “jug” aisles at the liquor/wine store.  This is not the real Chablis.  The real Chablis only comes from that appellation in France and it is wonderful wine.  Chablis is the furthest northern wine region in France’s Burgundy region. (For an overview of Burgundy please see my post from September, Beginning Burgundy).

What makes Chablis a different kind of chardonnay?  The answer lies in the dirt and the weather.  In Chablis there is a soil that provides an exceptional blend of minerals and nutrients.  It’s called Kimmeridgian clay and it underlies the most favored vineyard sites – those that have south facing hillsides and more protection from the chill winds.  You see, it’s chilly up there in Chablis.  In fact, the very cool summers and cold winters make it tough to fully ripen the chardonnay.  So when you combine the climate with the soil you end up with wines that have a pretty unique flavor profile than what you are used to in chardonnay, especially from California or Australia, or even from the rest of Burgundy.

Here’s the taste you can expect:

  • a wine that offers higher acidity and more crispness than other chardonnay
  • usually a pronounced mineralty which people often describe as flinty or slate
  • more discernible citrusy flavors, like lemon and lime, or even Granny Smith apple when you sip
  • less oaky, however there is barrel aging so you might taste some vanilla, but most are fermented in stainless steel so there is less wood influence
  • usually lower alcohol so they will taste lighter to medium bodied, which makes them quite versatile with food
  • vintage variation, especially if you like some wine to hold a while since the climate plays such a strong role.  According to Hugh Johnson’s  Pocket Wine Book the best recent years have been 2010 and 2011.  2012 and 2013 had smaller crops and tougher weather conditions. Not bad wines and still some really goods to drink now and even hold a few years

Here’s what to look for when you shop.  If it has the producer name and just “Chablis” on the label then it is from most widely sourced area.  If it has either one of the 79 Premier Crus or is wine from one of the Grand Cru plots these will be more specifically noted.  The Premier Cru will have it stated on the label along with the specific vineyard name.  There is only one Grand Cru designated vineyard but within it are seven plots, or climats.  These will be the prominent name on the label.  They are: Blanchot, Bougros, Grenouilles, Les Clos, Les Preuses, Valmur and Vaudesir.  You’ll find a pretty broad range of prices, with the Grand Cru obviously more.  Some examples of the labels:

Chablis LabelChablis 1erChablis Grand Cru

Real Chablis is terrific chardonnay and just may be a tasty diversion from what you’re used to – and that’s what makes it much more fun and interesting that jug wine on the shelves.

Everyday Sip: A couple of good Chablis to get you started
2012 Agnes & Didier Dauvissat Chablis $20
2013 Domaine William Fevre Chablis Champs Royaux $20

Guest Sip:
2012 Chateau de Maligny Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume $36
Granny Smith with a squeeze of lemon.

Splurge Sip:
2013 Domaine Servin Chablis les Clos Grand Cru $60
“Pale, bright yellow-green. Subtle, pure aromas of lime, white peach, white pepper and white flowers, with the faintest exotic hint of tangy fresh apricot. Supple, silky and elegant, conveying an impression of elegance to its sweet lemon, lime and white peach flavors. Vibrant and energetic for 2013. Like the rest of Servin’s 2013 crus, this wine should be accessible early and give pleasure over the next decade or so.” – Stephen Tanzer. Tasting date: June 2015