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WineIQ: Diploma Course Wines

January 17, 2011

Studying for Unit 3 of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is no easy task. You’ll have to just trust me on this one, there is a LOT of reading, studying, and worrying about the details. And a lot of practicing the WSET’s standardized tasting method. Yeah, okay, so that means tasting a lot of wine, too. I know, I know…poor me.

Sharing the tasting notes, though, can help everyone’s wine IQ, I realized recently (after drinking a supremely delicious  Duckhorn Merlot a week ago, see previous post). It’s second best to sipping these wines, but if you read along it will help you build your own internal guide to what various types of wines might taste like. But nothing like tasting for yourself, so get out there and try some of these too! Look for the same grape variety from the same region and similar price point.

Week 1, Bordeaux Wines:

Wine #1:
2006 Chateau Carbonieux Blanc, Pessac Leognan (65% sauvignon blanc, 34% semillon, 1% muscadelle), $46 – clear, pale, lemon appearance with a medium intensity nose of hay, almond, marzipan, vanilla, and a touch of floral aromas. The wine is dry with citrus flavors of lime, tropical fruit and a creamy mouthfeel with a long finish.

2006 Chateau Carbonnieux

Wine #2:
2005 Haut-Gaucherie, Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon, merlot), $11.50 – red fruit, plum, black cherry and cedar on the nose. The palate was a little thin

2005 Chateau Haut-Gacherie

with red fruit and a short finish.

Wine #3:
2005 La Louviere PessacLeognan, Graves (64% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 3% cabernet franc, 3% petit verdot), $43 – nose of black fruit, red fruit, cranberry, graphite, spice. Palate was similar, with plenty of ripe fruit.

2005 Chateau La Louviere

Wine #4:
2000 La Louviere Pessac Leognan, Graves (64% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 3% cabernet franc, 3% petit verdot), $40 – deep, ruby color; aromas of herbal spice, pepper, charred smokiness. The palate was soft, medium acidity with black fruit, pepper, sour cherry, cranberry, under-ripe plum.

2000 Chateau La Louviere

2000 Malescot St. Exupéry, Margaux (50% cabernet sauvignon, 35% merlot, 20% cabernet franc, 5% petit verdot), $57 – deep, ruby color with black fruit, plum, blackberry, and tobacco on the nose. Very ripe with medium-plus alcohol and medium-plus body. Flavors of baked fruit, plum, tart red fruit, blueberry with some smoky notes. The wine showed good balance of fruit  with soft tannins.

2000 Chateau Malescot St Exupéry

Wine #6:
2000 La Grave a Pomerol, Pomerol (90% merlot, 10% cabernet franc), $43 – the color was ruby with some sediment. The nose was clean, medium intensity and still developing. The wine had hints of tobacco with red fruit, cranberry, cooked prune, and tar on the nose. The palate followed through with baked cranberry, sweet spice notes of clove, cooked prune, red fruit, and a touch of savory meat or gamey flavors with a medium length finish. Very satisfying and the best wine of the night. (So much for the merlot myth, the Right Bank of Bordeaux makes some fantastic wines!)

2000 Chateau La Grave a Pomerol

Perfect Pairing Secret Revealed

January 8, 2011

Does the title of this post sound like one of those annoying pop-up ads, or a headline from a tabloid newspaper? But this is a lot more delicious than even the most scandalous, look-what-the-Hollywood-starlet-did-now headline.

Ok, food and wine pairing. When it’s done poorly, everyone notices. Truthfully, it’s not so common yet not unheard of to have a wine that just completely tastes horrible with a chosen meal. The basics of food and wine pairing will get you there (red wine with meat, white wine with fish, and match regional food with similar regional wine, i.e. a nice Chianti with pasta and red sauce).

Follow these simple guidelines, and the food and wine both taste good. Easy, right?

But have you ever had an intensely sublime experience, where the both the food and the wine tasted better together than they did separately? One that makes your taste buds sing, that you look back on even years later and say ‘Now that was a great meal!’ That takes some extra work. But if you’re a foodie or a wine lover (and who among us isn’t both?!), then this is what we’re after.

Ok, no more dancing around it. Here is a super secret revealed: the 2006 book What to Drink with What you Eat by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. It is by far the best volume written on the subject. There are upfront chapters on wine, on theories and rules of food and wine pairing and the like. But the heart of the book is an easy to follow listing of practically every type of food imaginable and recommendations of what beverage to pair with it.

Beyond wine, they also list beer choices, even coffee, tea, sake, and other beverages. It’s a complete, thorough work. Through the use of text size and font changes, they make it a snap to discover the top choices for which wines pair best with every entry, as well as other wines that work but would be second or third recommendations for that pairing.

Then they turn it around. The last section of this gustatory encyclopedia lists wines and other beverages with the food choices that make the best pairing. It is brilliantly simple to look up either the meal you’re having and choose the best wine, or look up a wine you have and discover some great food choices to go with it.

And trust me, since this book was published, many wine shops, professional kitchens and writers libraries have this on hand. Secretly.

Enhancing My OWN Wine IQ (1 Cork At A Time!)

January 4, 2011

Here’s just a *little something* I popped open on Sunday night. Yeah, it was good!! I was watching a wine instructor’s DVD, just to see how I stack up against someone who has been doing it for far longer than me (I’ll unabashedly state that my WineIQ class is very similar, which I created from my own experience).

Well, after lasting all of about three minutes of watching that video without a glass in my hand, I decided it was finally time to open this bottle that I had been saving for a while. It’s from a good producer, and from a good year for Napa Valley. Though I thought it might be starting to get a little old at 16 years, the wine still had plenty of life. The fruit was a bit diminished, but was still there. The tannins were really smooth and integrated, the acidity made the wine still seem fresh and alive,  and on the whole the wine drank wonderfully!

1994 Duckhorn Merlot

For more on the joys of aged wine, see my earlier posts on the subject (as well as the post on proper storage).

Also, since I just started a 20 week round of wine classes (Unit 3 of the WSET Diploma course), I’ll be sampling lots of wine over the next 5 months, so stay tuned here for more pics, tasting notes and reviews of what we’re sampling. And of course, go pop some corks yourself!


Something Bubbly This Way Comes!

December 22, 2010

What a great time of year to enjoy something bubbly! But I do believe it my duty to point out: sparkling wine doesn’t have to be just for holidays and celebrations. Bubbly wine is versatile, delicious, and can make any day or event feel special. So pop those bottles more often!!

But since it is a holiday, sparkling wine is on a lot of shopping lists for dinners, parties and gifts. What to get? Here’s a quick guide.

First, remember that sparkling wine is not on the same scale as still wine (non-bubbly) when it comes to the sugar content. A dry wine has no residual sugar, but dry on a sparkling wine bottle is slightly sweet. Since sparkling wine tends to be more acidic than other wine, leaving more sugar behind made it more drinkable. But people who wanted ‘dry’ to resemble still wine, someone made sparkling wine drier (but still with a bit of residual sweetness) and called it “Extra Dry.’

Better, they said, but still not dry enough. So sparkling wine with less sugar (basically, dry tasting on the palate, though still with some sugar) was made. So a smart person came up with a new moniker, Brut. It’s easy to remeber this way: Brut is drier than Extra Dry, or ‘brutally dry,’ which became just Brut for short.

So, there’s champagne of course, where bubbly wine was born. The best champagnes aren’t necessarily the most expensive or most well-known. Most producers in Champagne are large houses that make lots and lots of wine produced by grapes purchased from the thousands of grape growers in the region. A real special bottle would be the ‘Grower Champagne,’ so called because the wine is made by the same domaine that raises the grapes. The thought here is that these producers know their own land, vines and harvests better than anyone, so that they are also the producers of the wine gives them the innate ability to make fantastic wines.

Most of these grower Champagnes are in the $40 – $70 range, still less than some of the big, international brands that everyone is familiar with. Their not available at all stores; you’ll need to ask if they’re available where you shop. (Yes, we have some where I work at Canal’s Bottle Stop. Six different grower champagnes, in fact!)

Now, if spending that kind of money isn’t what you’re after, than look to some domestic sparkling wine or some from regions other than Champagne, but still made in the same, traditional method as Champagne (look for “Made in the traditional method” on the bottle).

A couple of great examples:

Varichon & Clerc – a blanc de blancs (made from 100% chardonnay) from the southwestern part of France. Delicous, crisp and a steal at $9 (found at Canal’s Bottle Stop, Route 70 in Marlton where I work).

Gruet – very interesting because it is well-made, also done in the traditional method, and moderately priced. More so because this is from New Mexico.

Alma Negra – a really interesting bubbly found by Pinot wine class attendee Courtney Moorhead (thanks, Courtney!). It is made from Malbec in Argentina, and is lightly sparkling. This is a darker rosé style wine that has big flavor to it and a creamy texture. And for only $14 you are sure to have a bottle that no one else is likely to have brought to the party!

The final word is more general but no less useful a tip: Cava from Spain and Prosecco from Italy have almost universal appeal and much easier price tags than Champagne. Prosecco is generally less effervescent but still bubbly enough to be fun and the perfect choice for Mimosa’s or other blended drinks calling for sparkling wine. Cava is crisp and goes with a variety of foods, especially with small-plate appetizers. Most places have several good choices from $9 to $15.

Wine Label Words – German wines

December 16, 2010

It’s a good time to start a series on how to decipher wine label words, the kind that make buying Old World (European) wines a mystery for some folks. The timing is good, because the holiday season which is now upon us, brings about more interest in rieslings, gewurtztraminers and dessert wines.

So let’s start right at the top with Germany. German wine laws are among the hardest to decipher, so everything after this will seem easy!

First, the good news: German wines generally have the grape variety listed right on the front, so you don’t need to try to memorize Germany’s geography. There are a few varieties that may not be familiar to you (e.g. Lemberger, Scheurebe), but the most commonly found wines on local shelves or wine lists are the better known riesling, gewurtztraminer, and spätburgunder. (Yeah, you actually know that last one, it’s the German name for pinot noir).

Now the harder parts. First, there’s a ripeness hierarchy which doesn’t have a comparison on American wine labels. But it’s not as hard as it seems. Here’s why it exists: Germany is a very cold growing region, and that can cause grapes to have less sugar than those grown in warmer climates. Since sugar turns into alcohol during fermentation, the wines can be too low in alcohol. The levels in the hierarchy are based on the sugar levels in the harvested grape. It does not, however, determine the sugar level of the finished wine (which can still be dry, off-dry or sweet).

So, German wine law allows for adjusting the alcohol level of the finished wine (which is done by either adding sugar to the unfermented grape juice (called must) or concentrating the juice, removing water thus increasing the sugar percentage). The first two ‘levels’ of the ripeness hierarchy allow this. I’ve included a helpful graphic, taken from a fantastic site that explains German wines in more detail:

The first level of wine is considered a table wine, written as Deutscher Wein (“German Wine”). Basically, it’s a wine made of grapes all grown in Germany and harvested ‘early.’ The ensuing must could be low in sugar, so altering the sugar level is allowed. While these can be good wines and tend to be dry, they can also be simpler, less complex wines. In fact, this category until recently was just known simply as “Table Wine” (Tafelwein in German).

The next level, Deutscher Landwein (German Land Wine) is considered to be better because the grapes all come from a named region, which must be shown on the label. There are 13 wine regions in Germany, with Mosel being the most commonly seen in US stores. Land Wine has to have a little more alcohol than Table Wine, so are theoretically a little riper. These wines can be dry or off-dry but not sweet.

Next level up is Quality Wine, annotated as QbA (Qualitatswein in German). These are wines that also come from a single named region, but also are made from approved varieties and are ripe enough to make a quality wine (though the laws still allow for adding sugar to the unfermented must, which would create more alcohol and make up for any shortfall in ripeness). Many of the lower priced wines found in the German section of your local store would fall under this category. While they are still considered ‘simple’ wines in the larger scheme of the hierarchy, these wines do carry a minimum guarantee of quality (in the same way that that Italian, Spanish or French wines that bear a named location do).

After all of that, we’re finally entering the last, highest level, though this one is itself separated into various categories. This level is called QmP (for Qualitatswein mit Pradikat in German) or just Pradikat for short. It translates as ‘Quality wines with Attributes.’ The attributes in reference are increasing levels of sugar-ripeness, attained by letting the grapes stay on the vine longer.

This is where people tend to get even more confused, if only because this one level has six categories. But stay with it; you’ll be amazed at how easily it can all fall into place.

The first category of Pradikat wine is called Kabinett. They are made from ‘fully ripe’ grapes, meaning that they can’t be picked early and have sugar added to the must. The nice thing about Kabinett wines is that they tend to be lower in alcohol than to what we’re accustomed, so they can be enjoyed easily with food. Kabinett wines can be dry, medium or sweet, so trying a few different labels might be necessary to find one that is just how you like it (of course, a knowledgeable wine store clerk or sommelier can help here, too).

[A sidebar tip to Kabinett (or other) level wines: the term ‘trocken’ on a label means dry and ‘halbtorocken’ denotes half-  or off-dry. The new designations ‘Classic’ and ‘Selection,’ either of which would be found just after the grape variety, also would be dry wines.]

The next level of Pradikat wines is called Spatlese (speyt-lay-suh), which translates as Late Harvest. Allowing the grapes to hang longer on the vine provides for greater ripeness and more concentrated flavor. These wines can still be dry, medium or sweet. The takeaway here are the words “concentrated flavor.” The longer ripening leads to more intense and concentrated flavor.

That’s good to know, because the next level is Auslese (aus-lay-suh). These wines are made from grapes that are harvested late (potentially even later than Spatlese) and of selected bunches of grapes. Yes, they are hand-harvesting whole bunches of very ripe, late harvested grapes. So the flavors are even more concentrated and full of rich, ripe flavors. And yes, they can be dry, medium or sweet.

Now we’re near the end. The next two levels are always sweet, basically dessert wines. Beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese wines are of grapes that were extremely late-harvested, hand-picked individually (not even by the bunch, each berry is plucked from the vine!), and in the case of the last one, they are picked only after the grapes start to dry out on the vine. These wines make some of the most luscious, rich and sweet dessert wines on the planet. (Don’t be mislead by ‘trocken’ in the name, it does not mean dry in this case.) Trockenbeerenauslese wines are not made every year, only when growing conditions are right.

Finally, as if the last two wines weren’t rich enough, the final category is Eiswein (Icewine). These grapes are left out so long to over-ripen and concentrate, they’re not harvested until after the first frost. The night of the first frost, harvesters go out into the field before the next sunrise and pick each berry by hand. The frozen grapes make the most incredibly rich dessert wine of them all.

The higher up the scale of the wine hierarchy you go, the more expensive the bottle. Think about the expensive of picking berries individually! That’s a big reason that not everyone drinks Auslese wines on a regular basis, you just can’t find them under $25 or so (and can be far higher in price).

Here’s a tip on navigating these so far: drink a bottle from each level! Homework has never been so fun, right? You’ll likely not find Tafelwein, maybe a Landwein, so seek out a Qualitatswein (Qba), a Kabinett, Spatlese and an Auslese. The Auslese is pricey enough for most of us, so don’t worry about finding a Beerenauslese or Eiswein, unless you want to spend the money and try some of the finest dessert wines on the planet! Which means: try them out some day, it would be a shame to never taste one of these beauties.

My Thanksgiving Wine Picks

November 15, 2010

After writing about how to select appropriate wines for Thanksgiving, I thought it might be helpful to see what I’m bringing to the table.

First, I only barely mentioned sparkling wine in that last post, but I’m definitely bringing a bottle. There’s no better way to start the night. Sparkling wine goes great with appetizers, puts us in a festive mood, and if there’s any left it’s a great accompaniment to the first course.

I’ll be having a superb blanc de blanc value from the south of France from Varichon & Clerk. It’s crisp, has wonderful fruit and is made in the traditional method, just like Champagne but for far less money. Yes, it’s available at the Canal’s where I now work (Canal’s Bottle Stop, 10 W Route 70 in Marlton NJ, just east of the intersection with Route 73). It’s all of $9.99, a fantastic steal at this price.

Next up are  a couple of white wines. Personally, I like a couple of glasses of white wine before moving on to reds. With all of that good food, it would be a shame to pass up on good whites, though for some people it’s only red wines once the weather gets cold. Does this sound like anyone at your Thanksgiving table? Pour them a small glass of good white wine and gently nudge them into trying it with their meal. Yeah, I’m that kind of wine geek, I love to push people out of their wine ‘comfort zones.’

Which leads me to wine number 2. I need to bring some Chateau Ste. Michelle sauvignon blanc for one of my sisters. It’s her comfort zone wine, just about all she’ll drink. But I have introduced her to some alternatives like Argentine torrontés. So maybe I can get her to try my wine #3, a German riesling that’s just a little bit off dry. I haven’t selected one yet, but it will likely be an off-dry Kabinett or possibly a Spatlese, somewhere around $15. (Quick primer: Those German wine terms refer to when the grapes were harvested. Kabinett designates grapes that are fully ripe when harvested, and Spatlese means that the grapes were left to ripen longer, gaining more flavor and sugars in the process.)

Wine #4 has to be a crowd pleaser, so I’m going with one that was in the portfolio of the distributor for whom I sold. It’s no accident that where I work now carries it, a Melville chardonnay from Santa Barbara, California. It’s deliciously clean, not oaky or buttery, though if that’s your style of chardonnay it would go fine with the meal. For me, the Melville’s minerally style with tangy citrus on the palate is right on target.

Now for the reds. This meal, to me, wants some good lighter bodied reds.

Last year I brought an interesting German red made from a grape called Dornfelder. It’s an alternative to more usual light reds like gamay (from the Beaujolais region of France). This year I’m going with a pinot noir from Etude, a producer of big New World pinots from Carneros in Napa Valley. It’s a bigger wine than some of the people there might appreciate, so I’m breaking one of my own rules here. Why pop this $40 bottle for a crowd that would be just as happy with a $12 cab? Why not?! As the family’s wine geek, there are several people who look to me to bring something special each year, so the Melville and this Etude will satisfy that demand.

Another good bet is a zinfandel, and I’m interested in trying out one called Jelly Jar from California. It’s a uniquely American kind of wine for a uniquely American holiday, and the big, jammy fruit flavors are sure to make this bottle a hit with the family. What I look for is one that isn’t over 15% alcohol.

To round out the selections I’ll break another rule that I wrote about earlier. The typical Thanksgiving meal is not the best partner for big cabernet sauvignons, but there will be guests there who will want nothing but. So, in order to please the crowd, I’ll grab a couple of cabs. I’ve narrowed the choices down to a couple of Washington state wines, since the cabernet sauvignons from there tend to be just a touch lighter than the typical California cabs.

I hope my classes and writing have inspired you to be bold and experiment a little, though I do understand not wanting to make a mistake and bring a wine that disappoints. For an occasion where the wine choice matters, it’s definitely best to try anything new ahead of time; you can always go back to the store for more or opt for a safer bet if the first wine you tried doesn’t work for you.

I’ll do my best to help with other suggestions, too. So if you’re not coming out to my new post in Marlton, drop me a line with any questions at

What wine for Thanksgiving?

November 6, 2010

I was going to skip this topic since this time of year usually brings out lots of these articles in magazines, newspapers, and blogs now, too. But I’ve already been asked by former WineIQ class member and all-around wine lover Lisa, so here goes.

First, know that you’re not really pairing with the center of the table, i.e. the turkey. Unless it is spiced in an unusual way, the Thanksgiving bird is going to work well with a wide variety of wines. What to de here is consider the plethora of flavors and textures in all of the many sides that are on the table. Since there are so many sides with an unusually wide range of flavors at the traditional Thanksgiving feast, there is a wide range of wines that will work well. This, by the way, is one of my favorite things about what I call “the best meal of the year” (yes, I LOVE Thanksgiving dinner!).

Before we get into the do’s of Thanksgiving wine pairing, it’s more important here to look at some don’ts. First, it’s probably not worthwhile to open your best, pricey and ‘been saving this for a great meal’ bottle. Unless you’re really eager to do so or having a smaller or fancier evening, your guests would be just as happy with the cheap stuff. In fact, people who like simple or slightly sweet wines are likely to not like the dry, complex wine that us wine geeks would foam at the mouth over.

No value judgement here, by the way. If good old Aunt Lizzy likes cheap chardonnay, then by all means don’t foist an expensive Grand Cru white Burgundy on her; she might not like it. Save it for your own pleasure! Make her happy, find out what style she likes and have a bottle for her, too.

Ok, my second word of avoidance is to skip high alcohol powerhouse wines. Even if you like Australian Shiraz or California Zins that clock in at over 15% alcohol, dial it back a bit for this night. First, we’re all sure to overeat and possibly over drink, too. So lowering the alcohol content helps us to enjoy the big meal and maybe another glass or two. Plus, some of those mish-mosh of flavors on the table would go better with something softer on the palate.

Now, what should we look for in the wine selections? Mix it up and get some whites and reds, even if you or the family tend to drink only one or the other. It’s a perfect night to pour just a small glass of something you don’t normally drink and experiment with some food pairings. It is a festive meal, too, so some bubbly is perfect as an aperitif or with the meal. Good sparkling wine is very versatile in food pairing, a natural for the big range of foods on the table.

I like to have some interesting white to start with. A good sauvignon blanc or chardonnay is fine, but alternatives can be fun. Torrontés from Argentina is an interesting stand-in for sauvignon blanc, or a good Italian white like verdicchio would liven up the evening. I think there is no better meal for a German riesling; there are plenty of dry choices, but something just a little off-dry would work with all those diverse flavors.

Then there’s the reds. I prefer to stay lighter, avoiding the cabernet sauvignons in favor of pinot noir or sangiovese (the grape used in Chianti). Both of those are fantastic with turkey and won’t overwhelm the other foods on the table. If you like bigger reds, stick to fruitier and lighter in alcohol when choosing something like a Zinfandel. I recently used a Zen of Zin California Zinfandel for a class, and I selected that one because it’s a sane 13.5% alcohol.

Last word of advice is to think about how your selections will work with the biggest flavors on the table, all those sides, the sauces, the spice in the stuffing, the sweetness in the yams.

And don’t forget something yummy for dessert, a good port, a Sauternes, a sweet riesling or a moscato, just to name a few.

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