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Wine Tasting...



OK I'm a little behind with almost everything including writing my blog... but on the upside I do have the outline to my soon-to-be-eagerly-awaited-best-seller... almost completely rewritten... so this is a little something I wrote a few years ago to tide you over until I get back to writing here...
I explained to you a few weeks ago a little of what I know about Champagne but neglected to point out that the more expensive varieties are not always the best in my opinion... the best are the ones that you most enjoy drinking. This week I'm going to take you on a brief tour of what I know about wine (most of which I leaned visiting vineyards, wineries and attending wine tasting classes here and there) I used to buy wine based on it's name and how much I liked the label on the bottle... sometimes it worked out but it's far and away better like everything else in life to be armed with some knowledge. 
For me wine is most significant  of celebrating life, a good meal, and friendship and  it has been enhanced by having some knowledge of it's different varieties and flavors... what I remember best without looking at the notes I've made over the years are...
Some red wine is better for cardiovascular health than others because the higher in altitude the grapes were grown the grapes have a greater concentration of sunlight that create higher levels of polyphenols the substance that prevents artery-hardening... Cabernet and Chianti are the best... you should always smell wine before you taste it for a very simple reason--- most of your taste sensations come through your sense of smell and it might save you from putting an inferior wine in your mouth.... Sediment at the bottom of a bottle is a good sign that the wine has not been over filtered and the particles in the wine will help it to age and mature... Red wine vinegar is red wine that has gone bad so don't throw it away; keep it for vinegar--- that's what practically every restaurant in the world does... finally the majority of wine should be consumed in the first year because only the very best (about 1%) of wine will continue to improve after 10 years; the top 10% of all red wine and the top 5% of all white wine will improve after a year and will not continue to improve after four years--- oh and one more thing if you have a cork that you are having trouble getting out of a bottle  you should wrap a hot towel around the neck and it will expand the glass slightly allowing you to remove the cork a little more easily (I learned this fun little fact as a Flight Attendant)  corks are always more difficult to remove at 35,000 feet for some reason... I'm assuming the pressure inside the bottle is opposing the pressure in the cabin of the aircraft.
I think a lot of people are a little intimidated by a wine list and feel some degree of apprehension when asked to select wine--- but with some basic information you should be more comfortable (you will by no means be an expert  so don't be a big show-off) when ordering a bottle or buying wine in the future... OK so here is what I have learned in my travels (but had to refer to some notes and records I have kept)  visiting vineyards and wineries around the world...
It all starts with the grape... wine grapes come from the species Vitis Vinifera that include many varieties of grapes... the following are the three major categories...

Cabernet Sauvignon          Concord                                    Baco Noir
Chardonnay                      Catawba                                   Seyval Blanc

Grapes have very specific needs for optimal growing conditions... you would not try to plant lemon trees in Alaska you need to pick the best locations for the best grapes and wine... You need to consider the days of sunlight in the growing season, the angle of the sun and average temperature and rainfall (the right amount of sun ripens the grapes properly and gives them the proper sugar/acid balance that makes all the difference between fair, good and excellent wine ; also of major importance in growing grapes are soil conditions and having proper drainage.

The five major factors in making wine are---
  1. Geographic location of the vineyard
  2. Weather Conditions
  3. Soil quality
  4. Grapes
  5. Vinification (the actual winemaking process) 
Most red grapes require a longer growing season and are best planted in warmer more southern locations like Italy, Spain and Portugal. In colder locations like northern France and Germany usually white grapes are planted and harvested. Vines are usually planted in April or May (but remember in the southern hemisphere it would be October or November)... A vine does not usually produce a grape suitable for wine making for the first three years but most vines properly maintained will continue to produce quality grapes for up to about 40 years provided  the conditions of the vineyard don't change.

If you visit a vineyard in the late spring or early summer the grapes will taste very bitter but if you go back to the same vine  right about now in late September and early October they will be sweet ( the months of sun have given sugar to the grape from photosynthesis) "Brix" is the winemaker's measure of sugar in grapes.

Weather Conditions have a tremendous influence in the grape and harvest... if there is a frost in the spring as the vines come out of being dormant it may stop or delay the flowering thereby reducing the yield of the harvest. A strong wind, rain or hailstorm  can also adversely affect the grapes at a crucial time in their development. If it rains heavily just before a harvest  the grapes will swell and dilute the juice and lack of rain will deplete the juice levels... if the growing conditions have not been peak through out the year the results could be a small as a reduced yield of grapes to unripe fruit, rot, dead vines and/or scorched grapes.

A couple more important points are...

Tannin is the natural substance that comes from the stems, skins and pips of the grapes and even from the wooden barrels certain wines are aged in and it acts as a preservative that without the wine would not age properly and improve. 
Vintage refers to the year the grapes were harvested (so every year is a vintage year)  A vintage chart will reflect the weather conditions for various years... the better the weather is usually an indication of a better vintage rating.

You can read all you want about grapes and winemaking but to really understand wine you need to taste it... the following is what you need to understand about tasting...

Color--- White wines colors range from pale yellow-green to yellow-brown and reds range from purple to ruby red to red-brown. Color tells you a great deal about the wine; white wines as they age get darker and reds tend to loose color.
Swirl--- Swirling the wine in the glass aerates the wine and gives you a better smell or bouquet.
Smell--- The smell is the most important part in tasting a wine because you can only taste sweet, sour, bitter and salty, but you can smell over  a 1,000 different scents. You will want to smell a wine three times, the third  time will give you more information than the first and second. What type of "nose" a wine has is what wine tasters use to describe the bouquet and aroma of the wine... understanding the nose of a wine is important in the tasting process... the nose of a wine can range from acetic, astringent, bitter, bright, corky, fresh, hard, metallic, nutty, rich, sulphury, tart,vanilla-ish, woody, yeasty... I tend to avoid the more pretentious descriptions like tired, seductive and austere when describing the wine because I think it makes you look and sound like a douche but you make your own decisions on this. Defects in wine are usually vinegary that indicates too much acetic acid in the wine, If it tastes like Sherry the fermentation was stopped too early and it's sweet. If it's corky the wine absorbed the taste of a defective cork, Sulphury is too much sulpher dioxide (smelling like burnt matches)

What you should consider when tasting a wine are...
Sweetness --- found on the tip of the tongue
Fruit & Verietal Characteristics --- found in the middle of the tongue
Acidity --- found on the sides of the tongue, the cheek area and sides of the throat (it's most common in white wines and some lighter reds)
Tannin --- the sensations from tannin begin in the middle of the tongue and usually exists in reds and wood-aged whites (when wines are too young it dries the palate to excess... if there is a lot of tannin it can coat your whole mouth)
Aftertaste ---  this is the overall taste and balance of all of the components if the wine that linger in your mouth after you swallow. The usual sign of a high quality wine is a long, pleasing aftertaste with all the components of the wine in harmony.
Savor --- you need to take a moment after you have tasted to consider the wine and savor it...think about the whole experience you have had from the color to the smell and taste and consider the following...
  1. Is it light, medium or full bodied? (think about skim milk, whole milk or heavy cream)
  2. How was the acidity?
  3. Is the tannin strong and astringent or pleasing?
  4. How long did the balance of all the components last?
  5. Is the wine ready to drink? (Remember the ad slogan? "We will serve no wine before it's time.")
  6. Is the wine worth the price?
  7. What is the strongest component of the wine? ---Sugar, Fruit, Acid or Tannin
The most important thing when considering a wine and defining it is... Did you enjoy it? Don't let anyone or any other factor dictate to you what you like. I think this is especially important when paring wine with food.... Forget everything you have heard about wine-and-food pairing, the best wine to pair with your meal is whatever you like best; don't worry if it does not seem right to other people.
I will however offer a little guidance but I firmly believe in drinking what you like...
In a white wine  light- bodied wines go best with sole, oysters and clams, a medium-bodied wine will pair best with red snapper, shrimp and scallops and a more full-bodied  white will go best with salmon, lobster or chicken.
With reds a light-bodied will be good with salmon, duck and chicken and medium-bodied with game birds, veal and pork while a more full bodied red pairs with steaks and chops and game meats. --- so these are things to perhaps consider if you are asked to bring a bottle  of wine to a dinner party you should ask the host or hostess with what they will be serving it with--- and you should also consider that sauces can influence the taste of your wine and overall enjoyment of the meal. Foods that have a subtle-flavor let the wine shine as the star of the meal, while dishes with bold and spicy  flavors can sometimes overpower the flavors and nuances of the wine served with the meal. A meal and the people you are sharing it with are meant to be savored and enjoyed--- if you are just starting out on the road to becoming a wine aficionado then start off with the most user-friendly wines---
Rose or Blush --- I think most all rose and blush wines are about the same.
White --- Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Pouilly-Fume, Champagne & Sparkling Wines.
Red --- Chianti, Pinot Noir, Merlot.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when buying a bottle of wine is... do you want to drink it now or do you want it to age? If you want a wine that's ready to drink you want  a greater chateau or vineyard and a lesser vintage, if you are stocking a wine cellar or collection you may want to consider the opposite.

I've visited vineyards and/or wineries in California, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia and have learned quite a bit about each region and their  products from each experience  and can't recommend it highly enough when you are traveling.... in addition to the actual experience I also have quite a collection of wine corks from around the world (I'm still considering what to do with all of them)... so here is a brief rundown---

French Wine
Chanpagne --- sparkling wine
Loire Valley --- mostly white
Alsase --- mostly white
Burgundy --- red & white
Cotes de Rhone --- mostly red
Languedoc-Roussillon --- red & white

(You can go on line and get very specific information on vineyards and wineries by region)

French wine is regulated by the most strict government laws set up by the Appellation d'Origne Controlee (A.O.C.)  only 35% of all French wines are worthy of the A.O.C. designation

As luck would have it I've probably spent most of my visits to vineyards in California; American Vintners are learning which grapes grow the best in different soil and climate conditions and have cultivated their grapes and harvest in accordance,  for example Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes need the cooler climate of Napa to season to maturity  properly--- California is the leading producer of wine in the United States.
One of the reasons California produces such a wide variety of wine is it has many different climate zones... Some areas are as cool as the Burgundy, Champagne and Rhine areas and others are as warm as the wine growing regions of Italy, Spain and Portugal, California has winegrowing areas as well as microclimates (Viticultural Area)... Looking at a label of a bottle of wine from California you will see the following... (as an example)

State: California
County: Sonoma
Viticultural Area: Alexander Valley
Vineyard: Robert Young
Winery: Chateau St. Jean

In California there are four main counties for vineyards and wineries  on the North Coast
Napa--- 36,360 acres of vineyards and 219 wineries
Sonoma--- 34,392 acres of vineyards and 166 wineries
Mendocino--- 12,421 acres of vinyards and 42 wineries
Lake--- 8,800 acres of vineyards and 33 wineries

 North Central Coast has vineyards and wineries in
---Monterey County
---Santa Clara County

South Central Coast has vineyards and wineries in
---San Luis Obispo County
---Santa Barbara County

San Joaquin Valley with vineyards and wineries in
---Central Valley

I said earlier that only 35% of French Wines are A.O.C. designated the rest are everyday table wines... in comparison  San Joaquin Valley accounts for 54% of the wine grapes planted in California and are used almost solely for jug or boxed wines. The major differences in wine making in California and Europe is that California vineyards and wineries are able to take advantage of modern technology and the freedom to experiment that are often unavailable or prohibited in european growing and production.

The style of a wine is determined by the types of grapes harvested and blended and whether or not they are fermented in stainless-steel tanks or oak barrels and how long it's aged in the tank or barrel and again how long it's stored in the bottle before it's sold to be distributed... and much of this determines the final cost of the bottle of wine.

Here is a brief rundown of where I have visited in other travels....

When looking at a label on a German Wine the four most important regions that produce the best wines are---
Pfalz (formerly known as Rheinpfalz)

I have an appreciation for German wines for certain foods and occasions as they are a balance of sweetness with acidity and low alcohol content.

Italy is the world's largest producer of wine... they have been producing wine for more than 3,000 years... and they grow grape vines everywhere in Italy!
The best reds come from Piedmont, Tuscany and Veneto using Sangiovese grapes in Tuscany and Veneto and Nebbiolo grapes in Piedmont. Italian wines are governed by Denominazione di Origine Controlla (D.O.C.) the Italian equivalent to France's A.O.C. that control the production and labeling of wine in Italy. The D.O.C. governs---
  1. The geographical limits of each region
  2. The grape varieties used
  3. The percentage of each grape used
  4. The maximum amount of wine that can be produced per acre
  5. The maximum alcohol content of the wine
  6. The aging requirements, such as how long a wine should spend in a barrel or bottle
The biggest difference between the A.O.C. in France and the D.O.C. in Italy are the aging requirements in Italy.

Here is a brief breakdown of Italian Reds
Chianti ($)
Chianti Classico ($$)
Chianti Classico Reserva ($$$)

The Piedmont Reds are---
Barbera ---Coted du Rhone
Dolcetto ---Beaujolais
Nebbiolo --- the best grapes for Barolo and Barbaresco wines

A breakdown of Whites are---

Barbera --- Chianti --- Rubesco
Nebbiolo --- Barolo --- Tignanello
Trebbiano --- Barbaresco --- Soave

The most important wine regions In Spain are---
Ribera del Duero

It's less than a five hour drive from  Bordeaux France to Rioja Spain and at one point Phylloxera (a plant louse) killed nearly all the vines in Bordeaux it could not make the trip over the Pyrenees.. so some of the Bordeuax vineyard owners decided to establish vineyards and wineries in Rioja. The Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes are what give the Rioja wines their distinctive taste.
Here is an easy guide to understanding Rioja wines---
  1. Crianza ($) aged in oak barrels for a year and a year in a bottle
  2. Reserva ($$) aged one year in an oak barrel and two years in a bottle
  3. Gran Reserva ($$$$) aged two years in an oak barrel and three years in a bottle
The two other regions  for winegrowing are Penedes (near Barcelona) most noted for sparkling wines called "cava" of which the two most well known are Codorniu and Freixenet two of the largest producers of fermented sparkling wine in the world mostly due to the quality and reasonable price; it's also known for fine quality table wine... the other region Ribera del Duero ( between Madrid and Rioja) is best known for the more expensive Spanish wine called Vega Sicilia and a more moderately priced wine  called Pesquera.

Now here is where my knowledge starts to wane a bit but bear with me...

Two of the more well known fortified wines (which is by adding grape brandy raising the alcohol content)... Sherry  is made in southwestern Spain in the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and San lucar de Barrmeda. There are two main variteties of grapes used... Palomino and Pedro Ximenez (the latter named after Peter Siemons who brought the grapes from Germany to Spain) There are 5 types of Sherry...
  1. Manzanilla--- dry
  2. Fino --- dry
  3. Amontillado--- medium dry
  4. Oloroso--- sweet or dry
  5. Cream--- sweet
What makes producing Sherry unique is controlled oxidation (the barrels are only filled to about 2/3 of capacity to allow oxygen into the system) and and fractional blending and maturing  process of blending of several vintages of Sherry in the barrel and at the time it is bottled. Sherry only accounts for about 3% of all Spanish wine production.

Port comes from the Douro region of  Portugal... to avoid the misuse of the name "Port: the true Port from Portugal has been named "Porto" the name of the port city it is shipped from.
There are two type of Port:
Wood Port ---Ruby Red that is dark and fruity and is blended from non-vintage wines  and is less expensive and Tawny Port that is more delicate and light and blended from several vintage wines and aged in casks from 20-40 years and is more expensive.
Vintage Port This will age two years in wood and mature in the bottle over several years. and is the more expensive variety of the Port family.
There are about 30 winegrowing areas in Australia but the best districts for growing  are in---
  1. New South Wales --- Hunter Valley and Mudgee
  2. South Australia --- Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Clare, Coonawarra, Padthaway and Southern Vales
  3. Victoria --- Bendigo, Geelong, Great Western,Goulburn Valley,Milawa, Moonnambel,Morrington Peninsula, Rutherglew, Yarra Valley
  4. Western Australia --- Frankland, Lower Great Southern and Margaret River
Australia produces excellent wine and is not bound by the constraints and rules  vineyards and wineries have in Italy and France...
The major grape varieties in the reds are---
  • Shiraz --- big robust full bodied wine
  • Cabernet Sauvignon --- full bodied and dry and often blended with Shiraz
  • Pinot Noir --- Here Australia is starting to show quality levels found only previous in France.
The white grape varieties are---
  • Rhine Riesling that ranges from sweet to dry
  • Sermillon --- in Australia this is know as "Hunter Riesling" that is medium dry and often blended with Chardonnay
Most vineyards in Australia are in warm dry locations and are known for producing big, robust full-bodied wines... I have found the quality of most vineyard and wineries impeccable and very reasonably priced in comparison to some of their european and american counterparts... the labels on the bottles give the following information...the producer, grape variety, the wine growing district and if it's a vintage and a bin number which is how Australia indicates style.
My final thoughts on all of this--- for the most part reds should be served at room temperature and whites are chilled, but I leaned that a really fruity red like a Beaujolais is best served "slightly" chilled (not cold) to bring out the fruity lively qualities of the wine (however a Beaujolais "crus" has more fruit and tannin and are not really great chilled)... when enjoying  good wine especially Champagne... don't mix it with anything! If you are making a speciality drink then use a lesser quality sparkling wine ... With Champagne don't chill it in the freezer the bottle will explode in about 15-20 minutes which is exactly how long it takes to chill it by turning it in a bucket of ice and cold water; ideally chill it in the warmest part of your refrigerator overnight.... Champagne is hands down my favorite beverage in the world and I could probably write an entire blog about it... so I just might do that in the not so distant future.
I hope you found this helpful.. I remembered some things I did not know I still knew but when I find myself with a question about a certain wine a good dealer should have trained staff to help ... I still want to know and enjoy more varieties and visiting a vineyard, winery and a wine tasting in Chile, Israel, Greece, South Africa are all on my bucket list. So if nothing else you don't ever need to feel intimidated by a wine list or a Sommelier ever again... So until next week... a votre sante and Cin Cin!... life like wine should be tasted, savored and enjoyed.

Edited by Kawika

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