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.

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

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

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.

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.

Getting Serious about Riesling

For one of the world’s most noble grapes, Riesling is pretty much unappreciated, misunderstood and under consumed by much of the world’s wine drinkers – especially in the USA.  And that means we are really missing some special sips!  We are a land long dominated by Chardonnay and infatuated with Sauvignon Blanc, so I think it’s time we got serious about Riesling. Many people carry the misconception that Riesling is a cheap sweet wine that comes in a tall blue bottle when it is really a wine that offers incredible stylistic variety, great age worthiness and terrific versatility with food.

Native to Germany, where it is celebrated as a national treasure, Riesling is a colder climate varietal that does well there and in other areas with shorter growing seasons like Austria, the Alsace Region of France, Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, the Finger Lakes Region of New York and, increasingly, Washington State.

As I wrote in German Wine 101, “Riesling has a wonderful balance of acidity and sugars, yielding wines that smack of ripe peaches along with spiciness, tanginess and mineralty.”

Be sure to visit that post because it is a great overview of the German approach to this wine.

What makes it so drinkable?  The main thing that makes Riesling so drinkable and versatile is its naturally occurring high level of acidity. Much of the Riesling on the shelves has been produced with some residual sugar, and the balance between the acidity and some degree of residual sugar makes the wine drinkable with many different kinds of foods.

When it comes to Riesling my mantra is that “a little heat needs a little sweet.” In fact, Riesling seems ideally suited for just about any dish that has some spiciness so it’s one of my default wines with Asian dishes or Mexican flavors. I love Red Snapper Veracruz – grilled or baked fresh snapper filet covered in a salsa of onions, pepper, olives, tomatoes and capers paired up with a well chilled class of Riesling.  But it’s also a perfect fit for seafoods and other fish dishes like clams casino, shrimp cocktail, a filet of sole or some seared scallops.  And don’t forget the chicken stir fry or, given its heritage just about any sausage you like – along with the ideal (to me) German dish, Schnitzel with Spaetzle!

So let’s recap: what can you expect when you pour some Riesling in a glass?

  • Aromas of peaches, apricots or honeysuckle and maybe a bit of lime but also a telltale note of petrol. Yes I said petrol. It sounds bad but when you sniff it you’ll know its not!
  • Tastes of that ripe stone fruit along with a lush texture and that bit of sweet/tart balance of the sugar and acid all wrapped together with a slate – like mineralty that adds to the freshness in your mouth.

Time to Sip!

Ever Day Sip

2014 Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling Eroica, Columbia Valley $20

2015 Chateau Montelena Riesling $24

2014 Chateau Ste Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling $14

August Kesseler R Riesling Kabinett 2014 $16
Unscrew it an enjoy.

2014 Dr Loosen Estate Blue Slate Riesling Kabinett $20
Great producer. Classic Kabinett profile.

2013 Georg Albrecht Schneider Niersteiner Hipping Riesling Spatlese $15
Nice off-dry Spatlese for your brat!

Guest Sip
2014 Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese $30
Lovely balance of acidity and sugar. Delightful to sip at the dinner table.

2013 J J Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese $50
Elegant wine – terrific producer.

Splurge Sip
Dr. Loosen Riesling Eiswein 2012 $80 375ml bottle

Sparkling Shiraz

It’s February and that means planning something for my Valentine, and this year we’ll celebrate with Sparkling Shiraz from Australia.  That was my resolution a month ago and I’m sticking with it.

Sparkling Shiraz may not be the most elegant and expensive fizzy – but it is certainly fun and interesting to drink.  sparkling-shirazAnd I like to keep things fun and interesting with the wines I pick for different occasions. Valentine’s Day seems like the perfect time to bring out a new sip experience, especially one that is deeply red, almost purple, from the wonderful foaming bubbles that rise in the glass to the rich dark berry flavors that will delight you as you toast the one who is most special to you.

Most folks aren’t familiar with this kind of wine – unless you’re an Aussie that is!  But it’s a style that has become much more respected and refined, especially as Shiraz from Down Under has increased in popularity.  This is not some syrupy, cloyingly sweet fizzy like “cold duck” or some of those 70’s wines many of us may have slurped in our younger days. Sparkling Shiraz is seriously good to drink.  Here’s why: the ones we now have available to us are made in the traditional method, which means that they are made the same way as fine Champagne and other world class sparkling wines. If you want to read more about that process just click on this earlier post. 

Let’s get to the taste – and the taste begins with the sight and smell of this wine when you pour it in a glass.  So start with what we like about Shiraz and then think of this as a Shiraz that has been sprinkled with stardust.  It’s densely purple color is classy and rich, to me it’s like an amethyst hanging on a pendant or set in a ring (not that I am suggesting what you give your Valentine!).  Shiraz gives us inky dark wines so expect it to be almost opaque.  Yet the magic is in those lively bubbles rising in the glass which add the special tingle of sparkling wine.  I prefer to drink it from a tall Champagne flute especially to enjoy those bubbles.  And inside that glass you’ll get the blackberry and peppery flavor of Shiraz.  What a nice combination!

You can enjoy this wine all by itself as an aperitif but it really is a good food wine too:

  • Sip it with cheese like aged gouda or manchego.
  • It’s wine for tapas and tasty morsels like bacon wrapped dates, grilled octopus or stuffed mushrooms.
  • And for entrees you can’t miss with most grilled red meats right off of the barbie Mate!

Serve Sparkling Shiraz well chilled like Champagne, but not ice cold. If it’s too cold you’ll miss out on some of those dark berry flavors.

I don’t think I can wait until Valentine’s Day so I’m off to pick up some Sparkling Shiraz right now!

Let’s Sip!

EveryDay Sips
Paringa Sparkling Shiraz $16

The Chook Sparkling Shiraz $18

Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz, The Red Brute $20

Guest Sips
Molly Dooker Miss Molly Sparkling Shiraz $25

Black Bubbles by Shingleback $28