Ode to Greek Wines

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

I love it when a plan comes together!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wines for Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Day Sips – Wines Under $25

Guest Sips – Wines to Give or Get from $25

Splurge Sips – Wines Over $50

Many Napa Valleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sips Approach to Wine Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Sip!

Italy’s Sardinia

I admit it – I love all things Italian. From the ancient history to modern dolce vita; from mountaintop perched villages to the bustle of Roma; from sumptuous foods to lip smacking wines, I am completely besotted. And I never tire of sharing that passion so buckle up for more. Let’s venture to a lesser known wine area floating in the blue of the Mediterranean – Sardinia (in the Italian it’s Sardegna). This is a pretty big island, second only to Sicily in the Mediterranean and it’s got an old winemaking culture.

First let me say that there is not a lot wine from Sardinia out there on the retail shelves, but I like to try to be ahead of the game when it comes to sharing the undiscovered wine regions and the unique wines they offer.  The two most popular and available wines from Sardinia are Cannonau di Sardegna and Vermentino, a red and a white respectively.

The interesting thing about Cannonau is that it is the Sardinian name for Grenache or Garnacha, and there remains a debate as to whether it is the place of origin for that grape, as opposed to Spain.  Not that I really care, but if you’re from there you do!  So right away we can expect some old vine Grenache in the bottle.

This is a hot Mediterranean climate so the wines are ripe and offer red berry fruitiness – think raspberry and strawberry, much like Pinot Noir. There’s good acidity and they tend to be medium bodied with just a little kick of white pepper or spice when you sip. Often they’re a bit higher alcohol too. Cannonau is a good food wine because of that acidity. It’s not a very “sophisticated” wine and tends to the simpler side which is why I think it’s just right with a burger on the grill or pizza, or just about anything you might like paired with Pinot Noir. In some ways it is like a more rustic version of Pinot, without the nuance and subtlety of that more finicky and classy grape. But it’s also less expensive when you can find it – I picked up a bottle today for $15 at my local wine store. So let you fingers do the walking online or just ask your retailer to get you some.

Then there is Vermentino. Vermentino is a widely planted white grape in Sardinia.  This is good wine for the warm days of summer. Sardinia is known for great beaches and I can’t think of a nicer afternoon than gazing at the sea under the shade of an umbrella as you lunch on a chilled seafood salad.  Get the picture?  Since it’s not likely we’ll be in Sardinia itself anytime soon, I plan on keeping that picture in mind when I pop one open!  Pale, straw colored, light bodied, soft and fruity, Vermentino has a fragrant nose and often an apple-like flavor. Like many Italian whites this is easy sipping wine, especially since it’s less that $15 a bottle.

Cannonau and Vermentino aren’t the only wines of Sardinia, but it’s likely that they’re the ones you’ll see. The other most produced one is Carignano, which is Carignan. Carignan is found widely in Spain and southern France, so again there is that shared Mediterranean heritage.

This evening I am grilling some chicken kabobs – and I think my wine choice is pretty obvious – I’ll be sipping some Cannonau di Sardegna!

Ciao!

P.S. If you’re following along with my New Year Resolution then we just made good on 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.”

Ever Day Sip
2012 Sella E Mosca Riserva Cannonau di Sardegna $15
2014 Contini Pariglia Vermentino di Sardegna $14

The Wines of Alsace

As spring turns to summer I begin thinking more about white wines and the pleasure of a chilled glass in my hand. So let’s dial in to the wines of Alsace. It’s a wine region that seems a little out of place in the whole scheme of French wine country. It’s unique because there is a distinct geographic, cultural and wine making connection to Germany, which lies just across the Rhine River.

Alsace is narrow wine region running north to south from near Strasbourg for about 60 miles and is plunked right between the Vosges Mountains on the west and the Rhine on the east. Like its German wine neighbors it is a cold climate region, but the mountains ensure that it is also a dry and sunny one, which helps the grapes reach maturity before the chill sets in. That’s why Alsace is a terrific place to find refreshing, fruit forward, dry Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Muscat.  And the good news is that Alsace, unlike other French wine regions, labels the bottle with the grape variety.  At the store you’ll see those tall green bottles that look German, with German domaine names too, but the wine will be pure French and easy to identify.

What’s the Alsatian style?  Well I mentioned fruit forward and that’s for sure, but the other thing to know is that they really don’t use any oak and generally what is says on the label is 100% in the bottle so you get a full expression of that grape.

  • The Riesling will have the classic flavors of stone fruits like peaches and won’t be as sweet or acidic like most of its German counterparts (read more about Riesling here). It’s a delightful sipping wine, especially to begin an evening or a meal since it’s traditionally lighter in alcohol.
  • The Gewurtztraminer is a favorite of mine. Gewrurtz may seem sweet when you take the first sip but that’s its profound fruity character. Usually tropical flavors of lychee, jasmine, pineapple and honeysuckle lead the way with spiciness underneath. These are floral and aromatic wines.  Gewurtztraminer is awesome with Asian foods and just plain terrific with smokey ones. And this is my wine choice with Indian food – Vindaloo chicken anyone?
  • Pinot Blanc is like a more delicate version of Pinot Gris (FYI –  I think the Alsace Pinot Gris is richer in style than Italian Pinot Grigio) and they’re both easy drinking. I like them best simply to sip or to share with some seafood.
  • Then there is Muscat. Muscat is an ancient grape found in many wine regions where it is often made into sweet dessert wines, but in Alsace this is a dry and lively wine with notes of orange blossom.

The grape types I mentioned above are known as the “noble” grapes of Alsace (except Pinot Blanc) and the local rules permit some blending of them. In a blend when at least half of the wine is from these grapes you will see the word “Gentil” on the label. I have to say, this is a pleasant and typically inexpensive white wine to have around for simple sipping times.

There is also sparkling wine made in the Alsace region.  It’s called Cremant d’Alsace which is made in the traditional Champagne method and may even contain a little chardonnay.  It is a lively sparkler that features delicate bubbles, some toasty flavor and lighter alcohol that makes it fun and simple if you have a taste for a little tingle.

In case you’re keeping track (like I am!) this post is part of the continuing fulfillment of my New Year Resolution!  For those of you playing along at home: “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?”

So now that we know a bit about those lovely white wines I think it’s time to sip!

Every Day Sip
2015 Hugel Gentil $12

2014 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc Les Princes Abbes $15

2014 Emile Beyer Gewurztraminer Tradition $18

Lucien Albrecht Blancs de Blanc Cremant d’Alsace $18

2012 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve $22

2013 Trimbach Riesling $20

Guest Sip
2013 Zind Humbrecht Muscat $25

2014 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Cuvee Theo $30

2013 Ostertag Riesling Clos Mathis $40

Splurge Sip
2012 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Herrenweg de Turckheim $50

New Zealand’s Big Reds

We’re back!  It was a terrific visit to New Zealand. What a beautiful and diverse country – from the verdant hillsides covered in vines to the rugged natural beauty of the South Island, from the bustle of wharf-side Aukland to the laid back charm of Queenstown this is a nation of experiences.  And that certainly includes the full range of wine experiences.

In January I wrote some resolutions so let’s make good on another one: “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.” And let’s add Syrah to that too. Other red varietals as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are grown on the North Island but we’ll stick to the three biggies.

When you think red from New Zealand, think Hawke’s Bay first, then Aukland. These are warm weather places and the regions that produce the most Cab, Merlot, Syrah and Bordeaux varieties and from which we have the best chance of finding some on our shelves.  Hawke’s Bay is also an area that has a subregion with a unique soil type called “Gimblett Gravel.” IMG_2043I had several of these on the trip and I think it brings something different to the taste of the wines – there is a flinty dry mineralty which adds to the character. It’s similar to the Napa Valley Cabs from Rutherford with the well known “Rutherford Dust” of the gravelly soil there.

For the most part the wines I had were big and boldly flavored; ripe, warm weather offerings made to drink today. And, of course, capped with a screw top. Some of the Syrah were like a smack in the face they were so powerful and peppery – more like the inky black Petit Syrah grape. I admit, it took a bit getting used to and to me they definitely needed food at the same time. The best matches I had with the Syrah were a braised short rib one night and a coffee rubbed steak another. Big flavors to match up with big flavors. Not wine for the faint-hearted!

My favorite sips were the Cab/Merlot and Bordeaux style blends. These were good food wines to have with the New Zealand lamb, venison and beef – versatile and drinkable. The Hawke’s Bay wines are clearly “New World” with bursting forward fruitiness and heady flavors of currant, blueberry and brambles. They aren’t tight or tannic making them an easy choice right off of the shelf. One of the wines I had was from Waiheke Island near Aukland which is rich in volcanic soils and it was one of the biggest mouthfuls of Bordeaux styled wine I’ve ever had.

So the bottom line is that we discovered some new sips that add to the big wide world of tasting experiences.  I just love keeping my New Year Resolutions!

Unfortunately for us there are not a lot of these New Zealand wines in US distribution at retail but here are some to try that I have seen, including my favorite, Te Mata “Awatea.” Be sure to give a look to the wine list when you head to your favorite steakhouse too.

Let’s Sip!

Every Day Sip
2014 Villa Maria Cabernet Merlot, Hawke’s Bay, Cellar Selection $18
Good everyday example of a Hawke’s Bay red blend and since Villa Maria is a pretty big exporter of Sauvignon Blanc there are a number of retailers who also carry this. Definitely worth a try if you see it.

2011 Craggy Range Te Kahu $20
From the Wine Advocate: ”A blend of 69% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Malbec, the deep garnet-purple-colored 2011 Gimblett Gravels Te Kahu has a nose of warm plums, crushed black currants and wild blueberries with nuances of cedar, toast, cloves and dried mint. Light to medium-bodied with a slightly hollow mid-palate, it nonetheless gives very drinkable, delicate, black fruit and spice flavors in the mouth supported by crisp acid and chewy tannins. It finishes medium to long.”

Guest Sip
2010 Craggy Range Syrah Gimblett Gravels Vineyard $30IMG_2228
A chewy Syrah with bold flavor and lots of peppery spiciness.

2014 Te Mata “Awatea” Bordeaux Blend Hawkes Bay $30
My favorite of all the ones tasted from Hawke’s Bay during our trip! A blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 8% Petit Verdot. Full flavored and as good as any Napa or Sonoma Cab Blend and equal to even pricier wines from Bordeaux. I think it’s right between both with the approachability of California and the nuance of France.

Splurge Sip
2013 Vidal “El Legado” Syrah Hawke’s Bay $65
Every critic agrees on this one – just a terrific wine with lush dark fruit and complexity.