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Chilling: It’s Not Just for White Wine

February 28th, 2010 No comments

So everyone knows that you’re supposed to serve white and sparkling wine chilled.  But red is supposed to be served at room temperature, right?  Wrong.  Red wine tastes best served at a temperature between 55º and 65º.  The average room temperature is 70°: great for lounging around without your jacket, bad for red wine.

But what’s the big deal?  Why is that slight chill on the  bottle of red important?  Serving red wine at the ideal temperature allows the flavors to come through.  The tannins and structure of the wine are more fully expressed, and subtle aromas are enhanced.  When wine is served too warm, the alcohol becomes the central characteristic, overpowering the more enjoyable flavors and making even a good wine taste cheap.

So how do you get your wine to this perfect temperature?  You can certainly stick the bottle in your refrigerator for about an hour (for lighter reds like Pinot Noir), 45 minutes (medium-bodied reds like Chianti) or 30 minutes (the big powerhouses like a bold Cabernet Sauvignon).  However, this is a very imprecise science–your refrigerator is so much colder than the ideal temperature that it’s very difficult to get the temperature right.  At the very best, the wine will be unevenly chilled, with the bottle much colder than the liquid inside.  If it’s within your budget, the best option is a wine refrigerator with red-chilling capabilities.

One option that won’t break the bank is this 30-bottle refrigerator by Avanti.  Streamlined, it’s great for small spaces, and it comes equipped with a digital touch-control for temperature, allowing you to tailor the cooling environment for a specific wine.

But the ideal system is something like this EuroCave Performance Elite (pictured).  It has three temperature compartments: one for aging (53-57°F), one for chilling white and sparkling wine for service (40-44°F), and one for chilling red wine to the perfect serving temperature (62-66°F).  This kind of specialized refrigerator allows you to always have a perfectly chilled bottle right on hand.

If you’re someone who invests in your wine collection and takes pride in serving your carefully chosen and aged bottles, you don’t want to overlook service.  Chilling a perfectly aged red to the ideal serving temperature does justice to your collection.

Wine Profile: Chardonnay

February 25th, 2010 No comments

As the days start to be sunnier and the nights begin later and later every day, I start to long for the things that say ‘spring’ to me, like asparagus, apricots, and sandals.  And after months of craving nothing but Cabernet and Pinot Noir, I start to want something different: something light enough to remind me of the sun, and robust enough to drink with the hearty pastas and roasted chickens I’m making right now.  So let’s talk about the perfect choice for early spring, and the world’s favorite white wine: Chardonnay.

Chardonnay grapes, which can trace their evolution back to France’s Burgundy region but are now grown in vineyards in California, New Zealand, and everywhere in between.  Chardonnay grapes are very neutral in flavor, and, kept protected from other influences, the resulting wine can be very delicate-tasting.  But their neutral flavors are easily dominated by other flavors, mostly those of the terroir (local soil), and oak barrels Chardonnay is most often aged in.  As a result, Chardonnay flavors range across a broad spectrum.

In recent decades, California has especially become known as an internationally-respected producer of fine Chardonnays.  In fact, 40% of the grapes grown in California in 2000 were Chardonnay grapes.  While Chardonnay grapes are hearty and durable, they produce the best wine when grown in cool climates like the those of California’s central coast.  Unfortunately, the booming popularity of Chardonnay years back meant that the grapes were also grown in the hot and arid part of California, where Chardonnay grapes tend to ripen too quickly and lose acidity, resulting in a “clumsy” product–a wine without structure.  Currently, colder regions such as Oregon and Washington are producing fine Chardonnays, and a more “natural” kind of Chardonnay is coming back into style.

Kept free of outside influence, Chardonnay is perhaps best described as crisp and fruity: its delicate natural aromas are of lemon, pears, and apples.  Oddly, many Chardonnay drinkers don’t associate these kind of flavors with Chardonnay.  This is because it’s such a good vehicle for other flavors.  By aging Chardonnay (or more often, by treating it with malolactic fermentation), it develops a distinct buttery flavor that is decadent and satisfying.  Chardonnay is often aged in oak barrels; this is to allow the tannins in the oak to produce a vanilla flavor in the wine.  As Chardonnay grapes have begun to gain popularity  in cooler climates, the original “crisp and clean” Chardonnay is gaining in popularity.

Chardonnay is generally a very forgiving wine that can be paired with many different dishes, so it’s a great idea to have a few extra bottles in the cellar or wine refrigerator for easy pairings.  It goes well with seafood, poultry, and pasta dishes.  Pair the lighter citrus- and tropical fruit-flavored bottles with foods with more delicate and subtle flavors: halibut, for example, or spaghetti with lemon and spring vegetables.  For dishes with deeper, richer flavors, like roasted chicken or cream-sauced pastas, drink a richer Chardonnay with buttery notes.   Older, more mellow Chardonnays pair well with dishes dominated by earthy flavors, such as mushroom soup or cheese.

Regardless of which style of Chardonnay is the “proper” one, there’s no doubt that this delicate-yet-rich wine is here to stay.  And good thing too, because what else would we drink in the spring?

Wine Review: 2007 Juan Gil Jumilla Red at Costa Brava Restaurant

February 22nd, 2010 No comments

If you live in San Diego and love good wine, you probably steer clear of Pacific Beach.  And I don’t blame you.  Garnet Avenue, with its tattoo spots, smoke shops, and hordes of unruly college kids, isn’t the most obvious location for a great wine spot.  But lucky for those of us who live in PB for the affordable housing and prime beach location, there are a few such hidden gems.

Costa Brava is something special, to say the least.  It’s hidden not only in the depths of PB, on Garnet Street North, but behind a wall of greenery.  From the street, you can’t really see what’s back there.  And good thing, too, for Costa Brava is concealing a secret that I’d love to keep to myself, but just can’t help sharing: GREAT Spanish tapas and GREAT wine.

Every time I’ve been to Costa Brava, the server has hooked me up with an incredible, reasonably-priced Spanish wine (and often the choicest bottles are off-menu, so don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation!)  It’s been delicious every time, but last night was something special: a 2007 Juan Gil red wine, from Jumilla, Spain.  Above all descriptors, you should probably call this a balanced wine.  It’s fruity yet dry, with tannins and a high alcohol content (15%). Yet no flavor overshadows the rest, and the taste is long on the finish, and full of spice flavors without being overwhelming.  We noticed flavors of dark berries, nutmeg and fig, and loved how the wine was bold but not overwhelming, even when paired with the variety of dishes we tried.  And it was well worth the $38 at Costa Brava (though it’s available for about $15 online).

Don’t miss the 2007 Juan Gil paired with the restaurant’s imported Manchego cheese.  Though we’ve discussed on the VC blog the difficulty of pairing wine with cheese, this was a perfect match.  The sharp but smooth Manchego (comparable, we thought, to a Swiss Gruyere) was the perfect counterpart to the dry yet rich flavors of the Juan Gil.  Try the two together and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

I plan to post more about Costa Brava and their fantastic food and wines soon, but in the meantime, venture into PB and check it out for yourself!  Visit Costa Brava’s website here.

Categories: Wine Reviews Tags: ,

Wine Preservation: What to do with That Open Bottle

February 19th, 2010 No comments

Tightly sealed, a bottle of wine can keep for years.  In fact, if you’ve been reading this blog you know that many times, the best thing you can do for your bottles is to let them hang out in your cellar for a few years.  Wine slowly improves with age, in part because of a minimal exposure to a small amount of oxygen, which facilitates many of the reactions amongst the chemicals in the bottle.

But once opened, wine is extremely delicate.  An opened bottle is exposed to a drastically different environment than it is used to; one full of air, light, and temperature fluctuations: all the factors that drastically change the rate of the reactions the wine is undergoing.  An opened bottle of wine will oxidize and the next day will be, at best flat in flavor, and at worst, be full of acetic acid and taste like vinegar.  The wine drinker will have to pour that long-anticipated wine down the drain.

And so the wine drinker faces a conundrum: she must wait an agonizingly long time for her wine to reach the perfect age, using part science, part artistry to decide when it will reach its peak in flavor, but once she opens the wine, she must drink it all within a few hours.  Some bottles are so good that she’d rather savor them slowly.  And sometimes she’d like to enjoy a single glass of good wine without imbibing in the whole bottle.  Those who make an investment in wine shouldn’t feel pressured to down the whole bottle in a single sitting.

Fortunately, new technologies now allow the wine connoisseur to have her wine and drink it too.  Wine preservers (also called wine savers or wine keepers) allow an open bottle to stay perfectly fresh and ready to be enjoyed for several days.  Wine preservers attach to the top of the bottle and work by removing some of the air in the space between the wine and the top.  Some wine preservers displace the air in the bottle with a harmless gas, a practice that ensures that all of the air is removed and the aging process is drastically slowed.

Vintage Cellars offers several different types of wine preservers.  The Wine Keeper is a great one.  Its design is simple: a stopper attached to a small canister of nitrogen gas which flows into the bottle, keeping oxygen out and flavor in.

But the Pek Wine Steward is my personal favorite.  It replaces the air in the bottle with argon gas instead of nitrogen, and also micromanages the temperature of the wine bottle, serving as a perfect small-scale wine refrigerator.  Its sleek modern design is attractive enough to look great in any kitchen.

If you’ve ever had a bottle of wine go bad because you didn’t want to drink the whole thing in one sitting, check out these great products from Vintage Cellars and savor your wine at your own pace.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Wine Profile: Pinot Noir

February 15th, 2010 No comments

Maya: You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?
Miles: Sure.
Maya: Why are you so into Pinot? I mean, it’s like a thing with you.
Miles: [Laughs softly] Uh, I don’t know, I don’t know. Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.

-Sideways, 2004

Miles’ obsession with Pinot Noir in Sideways has given the fruity, subtle wine a renewed popularity in recent years.  But what is it about this wine that’s just so good?

The most appealing aspect of Pinot Noir may be its soft and velvety texture.  Its flavors are invariably delicate and complex, but subtle.  It is a smooth wine, easy on the palate.  Pinot Noir varies greatly from bottle to bottle, but it generally falls into one of two categories: Old World and New World.

Old World Pinot Noir is light-bodied, with fruit flavors taking a backseat to earthy ones.  Common flavors are mushroom, smoke, spice, and tart red fruits, like cranberry.  New World Pinot Noir is full-bodied and fruit-forward.  It often has flavors of juicy fruits, such as strawberries or raspberries, and also flavors of flowers, toast, or red meat, particularly bacon.  The two categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, so certain Pinot Noirs can exhibit flavors form both styles.  Also, “Old World” and “New World” do not refer to regions; wines from America, for example, can follow the Old World style.

Pinot Noir is a particularly good wine to pair with food.  It is flavorful enough to stand up to  rich flavors, and smooth enough to not interfere with more delicate ones.  It pairs well with fishes and leaner meats, but can go well with red meat provided the dish isn’t overtly heavy.  Spicy or strong-smelling foods also go well with this subtle wine.

In Sideways, Miles is absolutely telling the truth when he waxes poetic about how difficult Pinot Noir grapes are to grow.  They are unusually fickle, requiring warm days and consistently cool nights.  The classic region in which to grow Pinot Noir grapes is Burgundy, France.  This two mile-wide, thirty mile-long stretch of gentle hills has produced the best and tastiest Pinot Noir grapes since the beginning of of winemaking.  Burgundy’s hills slope towards the East, providing its vines with many hours of sun exposure each day but protecting them from the intense afternoon heat.  The soil is also high in calcium carbonate (this kind of soil is often called “chalky”), which means that the soil drains easily and retains a higher average temperature, making it conducive to ripening.

Pinot Noir seems to reflect more Gout de Terroir, or flavor of the soil, than other types of black grapes.  The ideal soils of Burgundy make for a great product.  But grown in inferior regions, Pinot Noir can easily be flat-tasting and flavorless.  Although for many years a good Pinot was hard to find, now impressive vintages can be found all over the world, not just in Burgundy.  Oregon, California, New Zealand, Australia, Germany and Italy have all produced quality Pinot Noir.

So the next time you’re sipping a glass of Pinot Noir, enjoying the smooth texture and the complexity of flavors, consider how much expertise went into growing the perfect Pinot Noir grapes.  And if you’ve never really gotten to know Pinot Noir, now is the perfect time to swing by your local wine shop and extend your hand in friendship.


Wine and Chocolate: The Perfect Valentine’s Day Gift

February 8th, 2010 No comments

To all you boyfriends and husbands out there: it’s that time of year again.  Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, which means that you’d better get thinking about what you’re going to give the lovely woman in your life.  Sure, there are the old standbys like a dozen roses or a nice dinner out, but the gift that will truly wow her is something a little more original and personal.  If she’s like me, she’d like nothing better than a box of good-quality chocolates and a bottle or two of wine to enjoy with them.  Choosing the chocolates and wines you think she’ll like best is fun and creative, and shows that care and thought went into your gift.  If you play your cards right, she might even let you share!

Matching wine with chocolate can be an intimidating task, especially since no two experts seem to agree on pairings.  But luckily, many of the same rules that guide us in pairing wine with food can help us decide which wines might go best with which chocolates.  Just like in food pairing, the most important consideration is balance.  You don’t want either the wine or the chocolate to overpower the palate, so pick wines and chocolates of similar intensities.

White Chocolate: The extra sweet, delicate flavors in white chocolates respond well to wines that enhance their buttery qualities, like Sherries or Muscatos.  Though experts often recommend pairing chocolates with sweet wines, I find that this matchy-matchy approach results in a cloyingly sweet tasting experience.  The combination of a sweet wine and a sweet chocolate can be overwhelming to the palate, making it difficult to pick up the more subtle flavors in both the wine and chocolate.  If you feel the same way, try a Pinot Noir or a mellower Merlot with your white chocolate–the key is to pick a wine that isn’t too tannin-heavy or acidic.

Milk Chocolate: Milk chocolates provide perhaps the widest range of possibilities for pairing.  If you prefer to pair the chocolate with a sweet wine, try a Muscat, a Riesling, or a sweeter sparkling wine.  Dessert wines and port wines, especially Ruby Ports, are a classic pairing for milk chocolates, as the richness and heaviness of a port blends well with the creaminess of milk chocolate.  And if the milk chocolate you’ve chosen happens to surround some succulent strawberries, don’t mess with something perfect–choose champagne!

Dark Chocolate: Some women (including me) feel if it isn’t dark chocolate, it isn’t really chocolate at all.  If your significant other doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth or loves strong, rich flavors, she might prefer chocolate of the dark and decadent variety.  Dark chocolate needs to be served with a wine that can match up to its strong flavors.  The higher the percentage of cacao in the chocolate, the stronger the wine needs to be.  Ports are a great choice on the sweeter side, but I find that dark chocolate pairs best with bold, spicy reds.  Try a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Zinfandel for a truly mouthwatering flavor combination.

For a unique tasting experience, try a chocolatier that specializes in unique flavors.  Chocolates made with chili powder or filled with goat cheese ganache are unique and interesting, and their savory flavors can break up the sweet-on-sweet monotony.

If you want to give something a little different, pair your wine choices with a chocolate souffle, chocolate mousse, or chocolate cake, either chosen at a great bakery, or (for the especially intrepid) homemade.

For an especially romantic gift, consider setting up a private wine and chocolate pairing session, just for the two of you.  Pick a variety of wines and chocolates and taste all the variations.  Besides encouraging great conversation and a romantic mood, this method will let you and your sweetie discover your favorite flavor pairings.

See some of our suggestions for Valentine’s Day wine pairings.

The Top Ten Wine Tasting Terms

February 4th, 2010 No comments

The top ten most common wine tasting terms, and how to use them correctly:

Aroma: Since the human tongue is limited to detecting the five primary tastes of sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and umami, the aroma of wine is primarily detected through smell.  This is why we smell wine before drinking it; by both smelling and tasting, we allow our senses to perceive more of the complex and subtle aromas of wine.  Words like “smokey,” “buttery,” and “clean” all describe aromas.  Aroma is not to be confused with bouquet, a term that refers to the specific set of smells that characterize a wine that has been aged.

Balance: The four main components of a wine’s flavor are sweetness, alcohol, tannins, and acid. The interplay between these four components is what forms the primary tastes of the wine.  Acidity counteracts sweetness and alcohol, and fruitiness counteracts tannins.  A balanced wine has a harmonious level of all of these components, without one standing out and dominating the rest.  An unbalanced wine could be harsh or bitter (tannins in dominance), cloying (sweetness in dominance), acidic (acids in dominance), etc.

Crisp: A term exclusively used to characterize white wines, “crisp” denotes a pleasant sense of acidity or tartness.  Crisp wines are also often called “fresh” or “eager.”  They can often include flavors of apples, honey, flowers, and citrus.  This bright acidity is usually seen in young wines, as age tends to mellow a wine, and so, crisp wines tend to be a clean yellow color or even yellowish-green.  A dry Riesling is a classic example of a crisp wine.

Finish: The final stage of wine tasting is noting the finish, or the residual taste that the wine leaves in the mouth.  Specific flavors, like tannins, can dominate the finish of a wine.  Finish can be short or long and lingering, depending on how full-bodied the wine is.  Aged reds tend to have a bigger finish than whites.

Fruity: The specific grapes used give wine its sense of fruitiness: therefore, it is the fruitiness that characterizes the grape varietal.  Fruity wines are high in alcohol, low in acid, and obviously, high in fruity flavors.  Fruity wines tastes of berries, apples, or herbs.  Some fruity wines feel “hot” in the nose because of the alcohol vapors.  “Fruitiness” often implies a little extra sweetness.

Smooth: Also called “soft” or “velvety,”  smooth wines are low in tannins, acids, and alcohol.  They therefore don’t pack as big of a punch to the palate as other wines, and are so “accessible” or easy to drink.  Smooth wines have a long finish; with no alcohol to take over, the flavors slowly melt away from the palate.

Spicy: “Spicy” refers to a flavor of spice in the wine.  It refers to the taste of strong spices like pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Structure: Related to balance, structure denotes the overall flavor plan of the wine.  The acids, tannins, and alcohols in wine make up its structure.  The term is used to suggest the basic flavor of the wine, and is always used with a modifier, such as “brawny” or “soft.”

Tannins: Tannins are polyphenols that come from the grape skins, seeds, and stems, and so are prevalent in red wine.  Tannins contribute to the bitter or astringent (mouth-puckering) taste often present in stronger reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon.  Though too much tannin is considered a fault, tannins contribute to the structure of the wine.  Tannins bind together and fall to the bottom of the bottle as sediment as wine ages, so aged wine loses its tannic bitterness and becomes “mellow.”  To decrease the bitterness or astringency of a a young red, decant it.

Taste: The taste of the wine, perceived by the 5 types of taste receptors on the tongue.  Humans can taste bitterness, sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and, as recently discovered, umami or MSG (monosodium glutamate, a naturally occurring chemical that enhances flavor).  Umami is often characterized as “richness” or “savory”.

This list uses the same terms as the copywrited eBacchus® Top Ten Most Used Wine Terms with new definitions

Categories: Tasting Wine Tags:

Wines for Winter

February 2nd, 2010 No comments

Last time on the VC blog, we talked about how to pair wine and food.  That got me thinking about the kind of foods I’ve been craving and cooking this winter: hot soups, hearty braises served over polenta, and rich pear tarts.  The rich comfort foods of winter definitely call for wines that can stand up to deep flavors.  When looking for a wine to accompany your favorite winter dishes, think bold and powerful.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Often called the “King” of reds, Cabernet is the quintessential winter wine.  A typical Cab has flavors of plum, cassis, and berries (from the grapes), and can also taste of vanilla, dill, toast, caramel, and coffee (from the oak barrels).  It’s a fruit-forward wine with a lot of tannins, those phenolic compounds that give wine its richness, but can also impart bitter, astringent tastes (To limit astringency overkill, decant your wine.  Learn how here.)  The tannins that are so prevalent in Cabs love to bond to the proteins in red meat, “softening” the tannins and making them less noticeable to the drinker.  Because of this, the classic food to pair with Cabernet is beef. A highly esteemed Cabernet Sauvignon that responds well to aging is a French Bordeaux–an old bottle paired with a simple grilled steak and green salad is a true wintertime treat.

Syrah: Syrahs originate from the Rhone Valley in France, so if you want a traditional Syrah, look for wines made there, such as Chateauneuf du Pape or St. Joseph.  Some people don’t like Syrah because the flavors are so strong, but it is this quality of boldness that makes Syrah a great winter wine.  Syrah is often characterized by tastes of coffee, blueberry, rust, and cured meats.  It is strong flavors pair very well with the bold flavors of lamb, so try it with a roasted leg of lamb, or for a special treat, a rack of lamb.

Zinfandel: Zinfandels are a highly fruity, and so, very acidic wines.  There are many times of Zin, from fresh-flavored, low-alcohol types to highly ripe, jammy and sweet times.  Try the lighter dishes with heavy stews and soups: the acidic qualities work as a palate cleanser by ridding the mouth of the fats from the meat, and continually refreshing it so that the dish doesn’t start to taste bland.  The sweeter Zins pair very well with desserts and cheeses, which can be difficult to match.  The Napa Valley, Mendocino County, and Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley are all known for producing exceptional Zinfandels.

Petite  Sirah: Sometimes mistakenly spelled as “Petite Syrah,” this is perhaps the biggest and boldest of them all.  90% of Petite Sirahs are made from Durif grapes, primarily grown in California, Arizona, France, and Israel.  Durif grapes produce highly tannic wines with spicy, plummy flavors.  If aged in oak barrels, Petite Sirahs can also gain an aroma of melted chocolate.  Petite Sirahs are so dark and inky that they may appear to be staining the glass.  When pairing, think of rich beef stew served in a sauce made from its reduced cooking liquid.  Petite Sirahs also make excellent red wine reductions themselves, so try using them in your food, as well as with it.

Winter Whites: Reds are certainly easier to pair with winter dishes, and their hearty flavors and warmer serving temps make them the kind of wine most people reach for when it’s cold outside.  But certain whites can be big enough to stand up to winter too.  Any kind of dish in a cream-based sauce goes better than white than red wine, because the acidic qualities of red can cause dairy products to curdle on the tongue.  Though many types of white wine can work, Chardonnays, especially the rich ones with buttery flavors, which tend to pack more of a punch, are the obvious choice.  Rich New England Clam Chowder, for example, pairs wonderfully with a buttery Chardonnay.

These are some great winter wines, but there are many more that you can discover with a little imagination, perhaps assisted by the resident expert at your neighborhood wine shop.  The most important consideration is that the wine you chose can hold its own against the flavors of your winter dinner.  So pick out a few to try, get that stew simmering, and enjoy winter the right way!