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

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      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

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.

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.

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