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Wine Tasting: Horizontal vs. Vertical

April 30th, 2010 1 comment

No, these terms don’t refer to the respective positions you end in before and after wine tasting.  Instead, horizontal and vertical are two different types of tastings, or comparing wines by sampling them.  The best way to judge wines is to compare them side-by-side, and so, a couple of different methods have developed to facilitate the best way to do that.

There are many different ways to organize wines for a tasting.  You can, for example, choose wines in a certain price point or from a certain part of the world.  But if you want to taste like the pros, you’ll decide on either a vertical tasting or a horizontal tasting.

Vertical wine tastings are best if you want to learn about a particular wine producer and the style of their wines.  It involves tasting several wines from the same winemaker.  You can take a variety of wines, but most vertical wine tastings limit themselves to one wine from several different vintages.  This is a great way to learn a lot about wine quickly, because it allows you to compare wines that are identical except for the vintage.  Since the only differences between the wines will be their year, what you’ll learn in a vertical wine tasting is how greatly the growing conditions affect the final product.  The subtle differences between vintages really become apparent in a vertical wine tasting, and you’ll probably learn that the variation from vintage to vintage is actually much larger than you thought.  Vertical wine tastings help develop your palate by teaching you to pick out subtle differences between wines.

To host your own vertical wine tasting, all you need is a few different vintages from the winery of your choice.  An ideal vertical tasting would have one bottle of every vintage every made by a certain producer, but this isn’t usually practical or even possible.  Realistically, there are no limitations on the number of bottles you should taste, but since the more you sample, the more you learn, you might want to call over some friends to help you.  Serve the wines in chronological order from youngest to oldest, so that your palate moves from the simpler young wines to the more complex and subtle flavors of the old ones.

Horizontal wine tastings are a great way to learn about the differences between producers.  In a horizontal wine tasting, you taste several different wines from the same vintage.  The wines usually have something more in common as well.  Usually, the wines in a horizontal wine tasting come from the same region.  If they don’t, the characteristics can be so different that you really won’t get much out of tasting them.  But you don’t have to be limited by region.  A more casual horizontal tasting could include just white wines, wines from a single variety of grape, or whatever parameters you choose, as long as each bottle is the same vintage.

Wine tastings are a great event to do with a group, whether its a small and intimate one or a loud, large party.  They make the perfect ice breaker, giving your guests an instant topic of conversation.  And wine tastings always tend to be full of fun and laughter.  By making your basic tasting into a vertical or horizontal tasting, you give yourself and your guests the opportunity to really get something out of the tasting by learning more about the wine and educating your palate.

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Wine Profile: Malbec

April 27th, 2010 No comments

Meet Malbec!  Malbec grapes are a beautiful deep purple color, and they produce a rich, dark wine.  Malbec is commonly used in combination with other grapes to create Bordeaux-style blends, but can stand alone as an exceptional wine as well.

The Malbec grape is very thin-skinned, delicate, and easily ruined by frost.  It requires more sunlight than most grapes, and ripens mid-season.  Malbec is the principle grape of the French wine region of Cahors.  Malbecs grown here are often highly tannic.  In recent years, however, Malbec has earned a reputation as the grape of Argentina.  Argentina’s Mendoza region has both cool nights and lots of sunshine, producing Malbecs that are softer and more approachable than their French counterparts.

Many wine experts think that Malbec’s move to Argentina was of great benefit to the grape’s development.  Argentine producers have brought Malbec back to an old way of growing, by dramatically cutting yields and focusing instead on quality.  They have put much time and thought into selecting the best planting sites, and developing vineyards that benefit from their individual environments.  As a result, Malbecs, which were once high-priced and sold only domestically, are now available around the world, and many quality bottles can be had in the $15-$30 range.

Malbec is particularly deep in color and intense in flavor.  It can be very plummy or very peppery, and can also have notes of dark berry and leather.  Because of its tannic nature, Malbec is a great candidate for aging.  The tannins will mellow out as the years pass, and the more subtle, richer flavors hidden in the bottle will become apparent.  Many Malbecs have the structure necessary to allow them to age well for a decade or even more.

Argentina, the current most popular producer of Malbec, is also known for its excellent grass-fed steaks.  Grass-fed beef is leaner than its American corn-fed counterpart, and so can be a bit tougher, but it more than compensates with its rich, intense flavor.  It’s no mere accident of geography that great Malbecs and great steaks both come from Argentina–the two complement each other perfectly.  Try Malbec with your next steak.  Its intense, spicy characteristics mean that it can handle the most flavorful steak you want to try.  So this time, skip the filet mignon and go for a flavorful ribeye or t-bone: it and a glass (or three) of Malbec is truly a mouthwatering combination.

TOMORROW-California Wine Festival in Dana Point

April 23rd, 2010 No comments

If you didn’t already know about it, for the last few days, Dana Point has been playing host to the annual California Wine Festival.  This is a new venue for this event, and it looks like a great one: the whole event takes place beachside on the grass at picturesque Doheny State Beach.  The festival started on Thursday, but don’t fret if you didn’t know about it–the grand finale event takes place tomorrow.

From 1-4PM on Saturday, April 24 (that’s tomorrow!), participants will be able sample unlimited food and wine, while enjoying the sun, ocean, and music.  Hundreds of California wines will be available, as well as dozens of gourmet appetizers, cheeses and breads, fresh fruits, and craft-brewed beers too.  If it’s anything like the annual San Diego Wine and Food Festival, it’s sure to be a great time.  Tickets are $59 in advance and $75 at the gate, so if you can make it, order yours now.  Here is the link to the event page.  Cheers!

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Sherry: Is it for the Kitchen or the Bar?

April 22nd, 2010 1 comment

This morning, I picked up a bottle of sherry for dinner tonight.  Not to drink, but to cook with.  But then it struck me: why was I abjuring it from my glass, and banishing a cup to the soup pot and the remainder to a slow death in the cupboard?  Sherry is wine, after all.  Why don’t we drink it?

It’s not like sherry has always been denied a place in the bar.  In the 70s, twice as much was exported as is today.  It comes from the far south of Spain, near a town called Jerez.  Here extreme summer heat meets cool Atlantic breezes, creating the perfect sherry-making environment.  The soils in the region are chalky and preserve moisture well.  There are three grapes grown here for Sherry-making: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel.  Approximately 90% of the grapes grown for sherry are Palomino grapes, which produce a very neutral, crisp wine, a blank canvas upon which production paints sherry’s distinctive flavors.

In production, the wine is put in barrels (called “butts” in sherry-making).  A large amount of space is left in the top of each butt, giving yeasts the opportunity to collect, grow, and add their flavors to the final product.  After fermentation, brandy is added.  This step was originally introduced in the 1400s, so that the sherry wine wouldn’t rot during the long, hot voyage to the New World.  Now, it’s the essential step in the process, and what makes sherry a “fortified wine.”

Sherries come in a variety of styles.  Some are dry and light, some heavy and sweet.  The two main types are Finos, which are very dry with a light body, and Olorosos, which still fall on the drier side but are much heavier and more flavorful.  Also available are Manzanilla, Palo Cortado, Sweet Sherry, Cream Sherry, Pedro Ximénez, and Amontillado, (yes, the Amontillado made famous by Edgar Allen Poe).

Sherry is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity.  Many wine experts think it’s under-appreciated.  Sherries pair well with cheeses and desserts, or as aperitifs.  They are usually served in copitas, small, tulip-shaped glasses.  This shape is ideal because of the sherry’s high alcohol content–the small opening of the glass limits the alcohol fumes that reach the nose, allowing other flavors to come through (and the small size keeps you from drinking too much).  If you’re willing to give sherry a try with fresh taste buds, pick one up today!  If you don’t like it, you can always use it for cooking–many soups and sauces, especially tomato-based ones, call on sherry to add richness and depth of flavor.

Online Wine Auction Tips

April 20th, 2010 No comments

If you’re interested in scoring great deals on wine and prefer your pajamas over your formal wear, you should check out online wine auctions.  Whereas live wine auctions are most useful to that select group of wine collectors that is in a position to drop thousands of dollars an hour on wine, online wine auctions are great for every casual wine collector.

Online wine auction houses allow you to bid on your own time, meaning that you can do your research before you buy a whole case of something you’ve never tasted.  They allow you to look for something specific or browse easily.  As the auction progresses, you can also easily keep track of what other bidders are offering.  Most auction sites even give you the ability to automatically track your bids, so you don’t have to worry about constantly checking the auction to keep track.  And don’t forget the PJ factor!

If you’re interested in using online wine auctions, make sure to read the fine print.  Delivery of wine is prohibited across some states.  Some sites may charge extra for usage fees.  And make sure that the shipping costs won’t add more to the price than you’re willing to pay.  With a little research, online wine auctions can be just as safe as live ones–and a whole lot more user-friendly.

Here are a few online wine sites to get you started:

Wine Bid: Wine Bid is the largest, most popular wine bidding site.  It offers lots of collector-quality bottles, many at great prices.  You can browse their plethora of bottles without registering.

Ebay: The old standby now sells wine too.  Ebay ranks highly because of their trustworthy, easy-to-use interface.

Wine Commune: Wine Commune has been around for more than a decade.  Its searching feature is extremely user friendly: it allows you to find the specific bottle you’re looking for and then compare prices from thousands of sellers.  Like Ebay, it also has  “buy now” option for those without the patience to bid.

Bringing Wine to a Dinner Party

April 16th, 2010 1 comment

So you’re on your way to a dinner party.  You stop at a wine shop to pick up a bottle.  But then you stand there, bewildered.  Red or white?  How expensive?  What do your hosts like?  What will go with their dinner?

Let us simplify matters for you:

First of all, you should not expect that your hosts will serve your wine at the actual dinner.  Remember that gifts should not come with obligations.  Especially if they’re wine lovers like you, they might have put a lot of time and planning into their wine selections, and your wine just might not fit with their planned menu.  It’s always polite to relieve your hosts of any obligation by saying something like, “You definitely don’t have to serve this tonight, unless you want to.  Put it aside and enjoy it another day!”  With this as your tactic, you don’t have to worry about pairing your wine gift with their food.  A bottle of wine that you’ve tasted yourself and enjoyed makes the best gift, and it can be a great conversation starter!

Another tactic is to call ahead of time and offer to provide wine for the dinner, or part of it.  If you don’t know your hosts well, this may be stepping on their toes, so use your judgment.  If you’re good friends with your hosts, they will probably be grateful to you for taking some of the planning–and expense–off of their hands.  If you’re going to bring wine to share, a great choice is champagne to be served with appetizers.  Champagne is almost universally liked (especially if you stick to a dry champagne, to please more palates), and it goes well with almost any kind of appetizer your hosts might serve, even those tough-to-match cheeses.  Just make sure you provide more than you think you’ll need–champagne goes fast!

If your host wants you to get involved, you can bring a wine that pairs with a specific dish or course.  But remember that pairing goes far beyond that simple “whites with fish or chicken, reds with red meat” rule.  If you want to learn more about pairing wine with food, click here to see our post on the subject.

Remember that picking out a bottle of wine to give shouldn’t be a stressful experience.  Put a little time and thought into it, and your hosts will be happy!

How to Read a Wine Label

April 12th, 2010 No comments

If you’re just starting out collecting wine, you probably find wine labels more than a little daunting.  How do you pick through all the fine print and strange words to get the information you need?  What’s just advertising and what’s useful to know?

Although every wine bottle is different, and labeling practices differ between countries and even wineries, there is information listed on every bottle that will help you find out more about the wine in the bottle.  Let’s decode it:

Wine maker or winery: Usually in the largest font and often at the top of the bottle (though it can be located in the middle or bottom too) is the name of the company that made the wine.  In the French label pictured here, the winemaker is Jo Pithon.

Vintage: Contrary to popular belief, vintage does not denote the year the wine was bottled, but rather the year that the grapes were harvested.  Some wine makers may wait several years before turning grapes into wine.  Here, the vintage is listed as 1994.

Appellation: The bottle will always list the country or region where the grapes that made the wine were grown.  Appellations can be as broad as “The Napa Valley” or as specific as the vineyard the grapes were grown in.  But beware: just because the wine label lists a certain appellation doesn’t necessarily mean that all the grapes that went into the wine were grown there.  Most regulations allow from as much as 15% of the grapes to be grown elsewhere.  Here, the appellation is listed in the middle of the label as Coteaux du Layon St. Aubin. This information is also listed near the bottom of the label.  The word Controlée after the appellation means that the area the wine was grown in is defined as a wine-growing region by French law.

Varietal: Many, but not all, wine labels list the varietal, or the specific kind (or kinds) of grapes that went into the wine.  Most Italian and French wines (like the one pictured) do not list the varietal, because their wine laws dictate that the wines from each region must be made from traditional varieties.

Ripeness and Quality: Some wines list information about the ripeness of the grapes used.  They may also list information about the quality of the wine.  This is common in wines from Germany and Austria (but wouldn’t it be helpful information from all wineries?)

Other: Much more additional information is often available, what it is depends on the bottle.  If a wine is estate bottled (made from grapes grown in the winery’s vineyard), the label will usually say so.  The wine’s alcohol content and the size of the bottle will usually be disclosed.  In the U.S., the back label of the wine will contain the Surgeon General’s warning regarding alcohol consumption and whether the wine contains sulfites.  The back label also, of course, carries the description of the wine, but you can usually disregard this as advertising hype rather than useful information.

Next time you purchase a bottle of wine, take a second look at the label.  You can learn a lot about the wine in the bottle if only you know where to look.

Why You Should Store Wine on Its Side

April 9th, 2010 No comments

a wine shelf with bottles in both upright and side-lying positions.Sure, you’ve heard that wine should always be stored on its side.  But grocery stores and even many wine shops display their bottles upright.  The bottle is meant to stand that way for a reason, right?  Wrong.  Storing wine in the vertical position, especially if you’re trying to age it, is a big mistake that can ruin your wine.

Here’s why: your wine shares a fickle friendship with oxygen.  Oxygen reacts with the chemicals in your wine to change its flavor compounds.  In other words, without oxygen, wine could not age.  But oxygen also reacts with the alcohol in wine to form acetic acid, or vinegar.  Exposure to too much oxygen will ruin a bottle of wine.

So how do you limit the amount of oxygen that comes in contact with the wine?  This is where the cork comes in.  An old but ingenious solution to the oxygen problem, a cork can expand and contract as its environment changes.  Storing a bottle of wine upright keeps the cork high and dry, away from the wine.  It can dry out, and when it dries, it shrinks, leaving room for air to enter the bottle and let oxygen react with the wine.

When you store a bottle of wine on its side, the liquid keeps the cork moist.  The cork keeps its size (and can even expand if needed, for instance, if a warm environment causes the glass bottle to expand), and so maintains a tight seal against the outside air.  The only air that gets in is through the small pores in the cork–the perfect amount to age the wine well.

The best way to store wine on its side is in a wine rack specifically designed for the purpose.  Vintage Cellars offers a variety of beautiful and functional wine racks, any of which will store your precious bottles safely on their sides.

How to Make Your Own Red Wine Vinegar

April 8th, 2010 11 comments

Are you tired of throwing out half-full bottles of wine?  (If this is a frequent problem, maybe it’s time for a preservation system!) Do you wish you could put those leftovers to good use?  You can!  Try making homemade red wine vinegar.  Not only is it a great way to use up the ends of bottles, it’s easy and the results are spectacular.

Homemade red wine vinegar is very different from the store-bought stuff.  Even expensive store-bought vinegars are often rushed through fermentation, making them highly acidic and lacking in flavor.  Homemade vinegar, by contrast, has a milder, more rounded taste that is great for deglazing a pan, incorporating into a sauce, and of course, for making a great vinaigrette.

You’ll need a starter, commonly referred to as a mother.  A vinegar mother is composed of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria.  It

A vinegar mother

feeds on a fermenting alcoholic liquid (in this case, red wine), and uses oxygen from the air to turn alcohol into acetic acid.  A mother is a strange-looking, cloudy-whitish substance (see picture), but it can’t hurt you or the vinegar, and it’s easy to strain it out from your product with a coffee filter.

You can make your own mother by leaving out vinegar, uncovered and ideally in a shallow dish, to catch the naturally-occurring bacteria from the air and allow it to cultivate.  But this can be a tough and time-consuming process; it’s easy to start cultivating the wrong bacteria and watch your vinegar attempts rot again and again.  If you want to make it easy on yourself, you can either get a mother from a vinegar-making friend, or you can order one from a beer-and-wine-making supplier.

Besides your mother, you’ll need an earthenware crock with a plastic or wooden spigot.  Bigger is better here–a crock that holds at least a gallon will free you up to make a large quantity of vinegar.  If you think you might want to bottle your vinegar for friends–it makes a great gift–buy a bigger one.

Vinegar-making doesn’t require a specific recipe, but here’s a basic one to get your started: Add two parts red wine to one part vinegar to your crock, and toss in the mother.  Cover the crock with cheesecloth (to keep out insects) and attach it with a rubber band.  Then simply add a couple cups of red wine to the crock twice a week for the next two weeks.  Let the crock sit for about 10 weeks.  When it tastes and smells like vinegar, it’s ready.

The best wine vinegars are made from good wines.  Typically, fruitier, younger wines result in tastier vinegars.  After your vinegar is ready, you can let it age in the bottle for a deeper, richer flavor.  You can even add herbs or spices to make flavored vinegars.

Stop throwing away your leftover wine!  Put it to good use, and enjoy a tasty, homemade red wine vinegar for many meals to come.

We’ve also written about white wine vinegar! Check it out.

Wine Profile: Pinot Gris/Grigio

April 3rd, 2010 No comments

Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris, but more on that later) has long been a wine scorned by experts.  It is thought to be a wine easy to drink—light on acidity, structure, and aroma; in other words, only good for those whose palates aren’t sophisticated enough to enjoy the truly great things about wine.  But is this reputation deserved?

First off, let’s clear up the name issue: Pinot Gris is a long-grown grape varietal nearly genetically identical to its red cousin, Pinot Noir (the color difference between the two is due only to a genetic mutation, and in fact, the leaves and vines of the two plants are so similar that the color is the only way to tell them apart).  In Italy, clones of Pinot Gris are called Pinot Grigio.  In California, many winemakers copy the Italian style and also change the “gris” to “grigio” because of their wines’ similarities to the Italian style.

“Pinot” means “pinecone” in French, and might reflect the fact that Pinot Gris/Grigio grapes grow in pinecone-shaped and –sized clusters.  “Gris” means “grey,” and is so called because the grapes are usually bluish-grey (but can often be brownish, pinkish, or even almost white or almost black).  The wine produced from the grapes can be a variety of yellows, from copper to gold to pinkish to almost clear.

Pinot Gris most likely spread from Burgandy along with Pinot Noir about 700 years ago.  Since 2005, it’s been one of the most popular wines with consumers (if not with critics), and today is sold in competing numbers with Sauvignon Blanc, a wine so popular that it is grown in almost every location in the world that will support it.  But despite its growing popularity among casual drinkers, Pinot Grigio has kept its poor reputation with serious drinkers.

Most Pinot Grigio deserve its stigma.  It is often an unimpressive wine, without much flavor or aroma to speak of.  But with its increased popularity has come some increase in quality.  A good Pinot Grigio will be a highly acidic wine, perfect for light summer foods, especially those prepared on the grill.  It can be highly mineral-tasting, a clean, crisp backdrop to the terroir, an honest reflection of the soil in which it was grown.  A good Pinot can have a pleasant aroma of pears, apples, or flowers.

If you’re willing to give Pinot a second chance, start with the Italian and Californian Pinot Grigios, as their flavors are usually superior.  Another great region for Pinot Gris is Alsace, France, which grows the grape on nearly 14% of its available vineyard space.  The cool climate, warm, volcanic-rock soils, and long, dry fall seasons, which allow the grapes plenty of time to mature on the vine and develop the deep flavors that many Pinots lack, is the perfect environment for the Pinot grape.

Pinot Gris or Grigio is a perfect example of a wine in which reputation should not play too strong a role in your opinion.  Go out and try Pinot for yourself—you might be surprised with what you find.