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Music and Wine, by Dave Matthews

November 29th, 2011 No comments
Dreaming Tree Wine Bottles

Dreaming Tree: a collaboration between Dave Matthews and Steve Reeder

Dreaming Tree…  That’s a song title, right?  Actually, it’s the product of Dave Matthews’ musical mind, along with winemaker Steve Reeder’s wine talents.  When Matthews was performing at Robert Mondavi Winery, Steve Reeder was there and conversing with representatives from Constellation wine brand.  Ideas centering around the perfect union of wine, food, and music were flowing, and someone asked Reeder’s opinion about working with Dave Matthews to create wine.  After a little research, Reeder called Matthews “a true artist,” in the sense of the multi-talented artists of the Renaissance, adding that Matthews also has a small Virginia winery, as well as a farm.  In short, Reeder was delighted to initiate a collaboration.  Reeder sent Matthews some Simi wines to sip, and Matthews reported back what he liked, and why he liked it.  After some trial blends, the duo of “Dreaming Tree” has produced three new wines.  These include a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a red blend.  Sold at around $15 a bottle, the wines are “Wine Institute certified sustainable” meaning that their bottles are lightweight and eco-friendly.  Reeder commented that Dave is concerned about being socially responsible, and that this type of packaging is the “right” thing to do “for the right reasons.”  Reeder also commented that just as Dave Matthews loves music, so does he love wine!

All About Champagne

August 3rd, 2011 No comments

Champagne is a summertime wedding necessity, or rather a necessity at any wedding!  But, is your toast made with the “real” deal, or with a different wine called by the same name?

Champagne toast with champagne glasses

Photo by Mike Gifford

In the U. S., the label “Champagne” is used generically to denote almost any sparkling wine (some good, some bad), but in almost all other countries it is used specifically to identify a sparkling wine made in France’s Champagne region.  Champagne used to set the worldwide standard for sparkling wine, and the wine consists of three grape varietals: the white Chardonnay grape, and red Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes.  Today, there are quality sparkling wines produced in California and Australia that are giving true “Champagne” a run for its money.  Still, in countries other than America, these wines are not called Champagne.  The “Champagne method,” however, is used by quality, sparkling wine producers worldwide.  The method includes a secondary fermentation process that happens right inside the bottle!  Because quality sparkling wine (which my or may not be, technically, “Champagne”) is created this way, a wine’s label often reads “Traditional Method” instead of “Champagne Method.”  (And has your Champagne ever looked a little more on the red side?  If so, you probably drank Champagne rosé, which is just a type of rosé Champagne made by creating a blend of red and white wine.)  While in America, “Champagne” is used generically to denote a good, sparkling wine, true Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France.  This does not mean, however, that other sparkling wines from California and Australia are inferior in taste and bouquet.  It just means that, technically, such wines should be called “sparkling wines.”  Cheers!

Want to learn more about sparkling wines, how to store sparkling wine, or the “traditional method” that produces them? All that and more can be found in the Wine Storage Education Center!

Map region of Champagne, France

Champagne, France

Red, White, and One Grape for Two Zins

March 30th, 2011 1 comment

red zinfandel

Zinfandel grapes (image from Wikipedia)

Recently, the Washington Post ran an article recommending various Zinfandels.  Although the recommendations were quite good, particularly the Frog’s Leap 2008, the Washington Post piece confused many wine newcomers.  White Zinfandels are well-known and well-liked, but few non-wine-expert-folks realize that Red Zinfandels exist. 

White Zinfandel makes up 9.9% of U.S. wine sales, which is six times greater than sales of Red Zinfandel.  This could mean people prefer whites to reds, or perhaps many folks are simply unaware that Red Zinfandels exist, which has been my experience. But they are well worth getting to know! Zinfandel grapes thrive in cool, coastal locations–like California’s wine country–and arrived in this state in the early 1800’s.  Red Zinfandels are spicy, peppery wines containing complex berry or dark cherry flavors.  In my own kitchen, they have paired very well with both American and Italian foods.  Hamburgers, steaks, and hearty pasta sauces make for delicious Red Zinfandel companions!  Like Rosés, Red Zins also work well as solo summertime sippers. 

While many people mistakenly refrigerate Red Zinfandel wine, it should be served around 65 °F.  Though this is sometimes “room temperature” to folks experiencing a New England winter, the same can’t be said for the rest of the country!  To keep Red Zins at their ideal temperature, consider investing in a small wine refrigerator that has a setting for serving temperature (as opposed to storage temperature, which is around 55 degrees). 

With all that said, what’s the difference between Red and White Zinfandel if the grape used to make both is the same?  Answer: Red Zinfandel is made using the entire Zinfandel grape, while White Zinfandel is made with naked Zinfandel grapes (the skins have been removed). Skins impart color, flavor and tannins to the wine, creating the characteristic differences between red and white wines.

Wine Profile: Beaujolais Nouveau

November 8th, 2010 No comments


Beaujolais Nouveau may just be the all-around perfect wine for Thanksgiving.  It’s mentioned in wine guides again and again as the ideal accompaniment for the annual turkey feast.  So let’s talk a little bit about this great wine and why it’s such a perfect choice for a food lover’s favorite holiday.

Beaujolais Nouveau is a very young wine (hence the “nouveau”), grown in the Beaujolais region of France (part of Burgundy).  It is fermented for only a few weeks before it is officially released for sale each year on “Beaujolais Day,” the third Thursday of November–just in time for Thanksgiving.

Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, which has been used to make French wine since the 1360s.  All grapes in the Beaujolais region must be harvested by hand.  After they are picked, the grapes undergo carbonic maceration, a type of fermentation that emphasizes the fruitiness of the resulting wine, but doesn’t extract the tannins from the skins and seeds of the grapes.  This results in a very light, soft wine.

Beaujolais Nouveau is not a complex wine.  It lacks structure and depth.  But for Thanksgiving, it might just be the perfect choice.  Its soft, light characteristics make it easy to drink and pleasing to a variety of palates.  These characteristics also mean that it won’t overwhelm any of the various traditional Thanksgiving dishes.  It works with both light and dark meat, pairs splendidly with the herbs in the stuffing, and doesn’t clash with the vegetable dishes.

Beaujolais Nouveau might just be the perfect choice for Thanksgiving.  So this year, stock up on this food-friendly wine and please your guests from mashed potatoes to green bean casserole.

A Great Wine for Fall: Unoaked Chardonnay

October 21st, 2010 No comments
Chardonnay grapes ready for harvest

Chardonnay grapes ready for harvest.

It’s that time of year: the leaves are changing and we’ve traded t-shirts for sweaters and scarves.  Soon, we’ll settle in for a long winter’s nap.  But what to drink in the meantime?

Sure, there are the rich, deep reds that warm you from the soul, like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.  These are the quintessential wines of fall.  But not all the dishes of the season call for something so rich; in fact, wines like these overpower many dishes.  And by no means should you be limited to red wine when the temperature starts to drop.  So let’s talk about a perfect fall wine that’s maybe not so common: unoaked Chardonnay.

Unoaked Chardonnay, if you haven’t tried it, is a great pleasure, and a truly different taste from the Chardonnay you’re probably used to, which is aged in oak barrels to impart that strong, oaky taste to the wine.  What you might not know is that unoaked Chardonnay is a throwback to the way the wine used to be made.  Winemakers of old may have aged their Chardonnay in barrels, but they were usually old barrels that all the flavor-changing chemicals had long been leached out of.  Chardonnay makers today use new barrels that impart the maximum amount of flavors from the wood to the wine.  And so while we might not realize it, what we think of as Chardonnay isn’t much like the “real” thing.

Many wine experts think that modern winemakers have gone overboard with their oaky Chards, and that these flavors overpower the more delicate flavors of a good Chardonnay.  So try an unoaked Chardonnay and taste this great varietal the way it was originally meant to be enjoyed.  You might be surprised by what you find.

Be aware: the vanilla, butter, and creaminess that you might love so much about Chardonnay won’t be present in the unoaked version: they are all flavors that come from the wood.  So what does an unoaked Chardonnay taste like?

A good unoaked Chardonnay should have strong fruit flavors and a bright, refreshing acidity.  Common flavors are pear, apple, and other stone fruits.  The wine might have a mineral taste or even citrusy notes.  Sound like a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio? It’s not.  The fruitiness of the Chardonnay grapes keeps the wine bigger and more flavorful.

It’s this tastiness factor, combined with the acidity, that makes unoaked Chardonnay a great choice for fall.  The full fruit flavors make it a big enough wine to be satisfying, but the acidity makes it the perfect candidate to pair with the rich, buttery dishes that are so often served as the temperature drops: the acid cuts through the fattiness, leaving your palate refreshed for each comforting bite.  Try it with a chicken roasted simply with fall vegetables and served with crusty bread: it’s sweater-weather perfection.

The Spiel on Kosher Wine

September 16th, 2010 No comments

A bottle of kosher wine

Kosher wine’s got a bad rap.  But is it deserved?

A decade ago, there weren’t very many wine options available to observant Jews.  There was really only one choice: Manischevitz, a syrupy, sickly-sweet wine made from Concord grapes.  Concord grapes are typically only used to make three things: grape jelly, grape juice, and–you guessed it–kosher wine.  Needless to say, this isn’t the ideal wine grape.  Unfortunately, this cough syrup-excuse for a wine became synonymous with kosher, and the reputation of kosher wines has suffered ever since.

But in reality, there’s no reason that kosher wines have to be any worse than any other wine.  In fact, many of them can be just as good.  Let me explain:

Kosher wine can be grown from the same grapes, harvested the same way, as any other wine.  The difference is in the production: to be kosher, the grapes must be handled only by Sabbath-observing Jews.  A rabbi or specially-trained supervisor must oversee the whole process, and no winemaking can be done on the Sabbath.

Kosher wines also can’t have any non-kosher ingredients.  This can (but doesn’t necessarily) mean that things like casein (which comes from dairy products, gelatin (from non-kosher animals) and isinglass (from non-kosher fish) won’t be in the wine.  They are replaced with kosher substitutes.

At Passover, there are two kinds of kosher wine which may be served: meshuval and non-meshuval.  The Jewish faith dictates that non-meshuval wines must only be handled by Jews if it is to maintain its integrity.  This stems from the long history wine has played in many non-Jewish religions; according to Jewish law, wine isn’t kosher if it might have been used for “idolatry.”

Meshuval wine is wine that has been treated and is thus considered safe to drink, no matter who has handled it.  In the past, this was achieved through boiling the wine, which completely changed the wine’s chemical structure and so, its taste.  This is another reason kosher wine has such a bad reputation.  However, modern-day flash-pasteurization techniques ensure that the wine is meshuval without damaging it.

So technically, there really isn’t that big of a difference between kosher and non-kosher wines.  Kosher wines can be made from the same great grapes, processed nearly the same way, as any other wines.  Kosher wines have experienced huge increases in popularity over the last few years, and their ratings have been steadily climbing.  So don’t be afraid of kosher wine…just stay far away from that cough syrup stuff.  L’chaim!  (“Cheers” in Hebrew.)

Wine Profile: Syrah

September 10th, 2010 No comments

A beautiful Syrah leaf

It’s still hot outside, but it won’t stay that way for long.  Soon, fall will be here, and its chilly breezes will make you crave wines that are deep, rich, and robust.  One perfect wine for fall?  Syrah, sometimes called Shiraz.

Syrah or Shiraz is a very dark wine grape–almost black in color–that produces bold and rich wine.  Syrah grapes have long been grown in the Rhone region of France–the first vines were likely planted around 600 BC.  Great Syrahs, along with Viogniers, have been cultivated in this region ever since; in fact, about half the Syrah grapes in the world are grown in France.  Syrah is also grown in many other parts of Europe, as well as Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Uruguay, and the United States.

It’s also widely grown in Australia, but there, as well as in Canada and New Zealand, it’s called Shiraz.  Since Syrah was the original name, on this blog, that’s how we usually refer to it.

Syrah is used sometimes alone, sometimes in blends.  It makes the famous wines of Côte Rotie and Hermitage, as well as playing the major role in most Rhône blends, including the famous Chateauneuf du Pape.

Syrah makes very dark, blackish-violet wine.  Syrah wine has a bold, rich flavor and a heavy, chewy texture.  It tastes more of spice than fruit, with clove, thyme, bay leaves, and black pepper commonly noted flavors.  From the terroir, or soil it’s grown in, it can attain flavors of earth or even truffles.  Syrah is often a great candidate for aging, and some years in the cellar will impart to it secondary and tertiary flavors of rich wood, tobacco, and smoke.

When pairing Syrah with food, you’ll need to serve something with strong flavors to match up to the intensity of the Syrah.  Grilled red meats like lamb work well, or try it with an intensely herbed and perhaps spicy sauce.  Syrah is perfection when its deep, rich flavors are allowed to play off of something rich but simple, like grilled sausage and mustard.  So as the weather starts turning colder this year, start thinking about Syrah.

Love Champagne but Hate the Price? Try Cava.

July 20th, 2010 No comments

I love to drink champagne.  It doesn’t have to be a special occasion, in fact, sometimes I’ll make one up just to have an excuse to celebrate with the bubbly stuff.  Whether I’m toasting to a job well done or a job I didn’t quite get done, champagne always puts a smile on my face.  But what doesn’t make me smile is the price: champagne isn’t cheap!  So today on the VC blog, let’s talk about a delicious and more affordable alternative to the fancy french stuff: cava.

I discovered cava on a recent trip to Spain.  It’s a Spanish sparkling wine, and something that Spaniards take quite seriously.  Spain is renowned throughout the world for their excellent wines: they are known especially for the care they take in growing wine grapes perfect for their different regions.  Their wines are generally excellent and highly regarded throughout the world.  Not as popular in the US, but just as important to Spaniards, is cava.

Cava is produced in the Catalonian region of Spain, concentrated in the northwestern Penedès area.  130 million bottles of cava is produced each year by 250 Spanish cava makers.  The grapes they use are predominantly Macabeo, Xarello, and Parellada, which give cava light, bright, and perfumed characteristics.

Cava is made in the traditional French method used to produce champagne: méthode champenoise, and in fact was called champán or xampany after true French champagne until champagne was given Protected Geographical Status.  In fact,  there are very strict rules governing what can and cannot be labeled a cava (just as there are such rules for champagnes) and one of them is that it’s not a cava unless it is made in the proper méthode champenoise. Thus, in terms of production at least, it’s really no different than a true champagne.  The same, of course, can’t be said for its grapes and growing conditions, but Spain’s reputation in these categories definitely makes cava a tough competitor.

Because cava isn’t as well-known as champagne, you can generally get significantly more bang for your buck by reaching for the Spanish, rather than the French stuff.  Be aware that cava comes in different degrees of sweetness, with Brut Nature being the driest (no sugar added) and Dulce being the sweetest (more than 50 g/litre of sugar added.)  Also be aware that not ever sparkling wine from Spain is a cava (and those that aren’t are not subject to the same production quality regulations).  Here’s an easy way to tell: all true cavas have a 4-pointed star on the cork.

So, fellow champagne lovers, get out there and try some cava, and let us know what you think!

How to Choose a Great Rosé

May 25th, 2010 1 comment

Summer is so close that you can practically taste it!  Well, in my case, the tasting is more literal than figurative, because right now, I’m enjoying a chilled glass of rosé and dreaming about the beach.  Rosé is the quintessential summer wine: it’s light and refreshing, meant to be enjoyed chilled, and goes perfectly with summer foods like grilled chicken and fresh salads.

“But what’s up with that color?” you might ask (especially if you’re of the male persuasion).  Yes, rosé is pink.  But don’t let this deter you!  Remember that rosé is pink by necessity, not design.  Rosé attains is color, which can vary from a pale orange to a vivid purple, because at the beginning stages of winemaking, red-skinned grapes are crushed and allowed to remain in contact with the wine for about two or three days.  The skins are then discarded, but they were in the mixture long enough to impart their color–and flavor–to the finished product.  The skins give rosé its appealing tart, flavorful quality, setting it apart from the generally lighter white wines.

In the 1970s, the style was for rosés to be of the medium-sweet variety.  This has perhaps contributed to a negative public perception of rosé: many think of it as a pink, sweet wine that isn’t taken seriously by true wine connoisseurs.  But what’s stylish and cool in the wine world is constantly changing, and as a result, drier, bolder rosés are now all the rage.  Rosé is being produced in new and different ways that are resulting in unique and complex wines: many rosés are now made from grapes from the Rhone region such as Syrah and Grenache.  And in France, arguably the wine capital of the world, sales of rosé have now surpassed the sales of white wine.

So how do you pick a good one?

The number one characteristic of a good rosé is crispness.  “Crisp,” in wine terms, conveys that a wine has a tart, acidic quality–one that’s not overbearing, but is rather pleasing and refreshing.  Taste a couple of rosés, and you’ll probably find yourself especially enjoying those that are highly crisp.

The best way to pick a good rosé is by region.  And since rosé is so popular in France, it is France that produces the highest-quality rosés.  Look for the region on the bottle to get a better idea of what’s inside.  Rosés from Bandol and Cassis are very high quality.  They are usually dry and well-balanced.  But since these are the best rosés, they are usually also the most expensive.  If you’re looking for something a little more budget-friendly, look for rosés from the French regions of Tavel and Lirac (which produce dark, rich rosés more like red wine than white), and Coteaux du Languedoc (which produces a wide variety of rosés that are usually of good quality and inexpensive).

So give summer a warm welcome this year: next time you get the urge to cook on the grill and eat outside, pick up a delicious, refreshing rosé to complement your summer mood.

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Wine Profile: Rioja

If you haven’t yet ventured into Spanish wines, it’s time you start.  Spain has more acres devoted to wine grapes than any other country in the world.  They don’t produce as much wine as some other countries because of their obsession with quality.  They don’t force plants to produce over their natural limits, and they don’t overcrowd their vines.  Spain has long been known as one of the world’s best wine producers, and its region of Rioja is particularly well-known.

Vineyards in Rioja, Spain

In 1635, the mayor of a town in Rioja passed a decree banning carriages from driving on the roads next to wine cellars, for fear that the vibration would disturb the aging process and harm the wine.  Rioja’s attention to detail hasn’t waned much since.  Rioja has three main wine-producing areas, each of which has a different environment and so contributes a unique style of Rioja wine.  Rioja Alta, with its high elevation, and resulting shorter growing season, produces wines in the “Old World” style.  Its wines are fruity and light.  Rioja Alavesa has a climate much like Rioja Alta, but much poorer soil quality which necessitates that the vines be planted far apart so that they won’t be competing for nutrients.  Wines from this region are more acidic and full-bodied than those from Rioja Alta.  The third region, Rioja Baja, has a warm and dry Mediterranean climate.  Wines from this area are characterized by intense colors and can often be very high in alcohol content.  These wines are most often used in blends.

Rioja wines can be red, rosé, or white.  Red Riojas are the most common, and for good reason: these wines are classic and bold.  They are usually blends primarily made up of Tempranillo, which is a dark red wine that has flavors of dark berry, plum, leather, and herbs.  Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, and Mazuelo are other grapes that are often incorporated into red Riojas.  Red Riojas age well, with time mellowing their tannins and bringing out their subtle fruity flavors.  Steak is a classic food to pair with red Rioja.

Rosé Riojas are made primarily of Garnacha grapes (called Grenache in the US), which are bold and spicy.  Rosé Riojas are bright pink in color, and make for a great summer wine that is both refreshing and flavorful.  Try rosé Riojas with grilled chicken or seafood.

White Riojas are very light in aroma and flavor.  They are similar to a Pinot Grigio, but with a slightly more tart, crisp quality.  White Riojas are very delicate and refreshing.  Try them with foods with subtle, delicate flavors that you don’t want to overwhelm.  Foods with citrusy flavors goes especially well with the tart characteristics of white Rioja.  Try a one with pasta with a lemony white wine sauce.

Of course, all three kinds of Rioja pair best with Spanish food.  Want a unique party idea?  Have a Spanish party!  Serve all three kinds of Rioja along with different tapas.  Tapas are often very simple: some common ones are shrimp grilled in garlic, skewered lamb, and bread with aioli.  Your guests will be able to chat and nibble and you won’t have the stress of preparing a sit-down dinner.  Best of all, comparing the different Riojas will give your guests something to talk about!

Riojas are always labelled for quality (wouldn’t it be nice if all wines were?)  The quality mark will often be on the back of the bottle.  The simple label “Rioja” signifies that the wine is the youngest available–it’s been an oak barrel less than a year.  “Crianza” means that the wine has been aged for at least two years, and spent at least one of those in oak.  “Rioja Reserva” signifies that the wine has been aged for at least three years, one of which in oak.  And the highest quality Riojas are labelled “Rioja Gran Reserva” and have been aged for a minimum of two in an oak barrel and at least three in the bottle.  The last two types of Rioja are only produced in good years.

Give Spain’s attention to quality a test for yourself!  All three kinds of Riojas are great, enjoyable wines that are easy to pair with lots of dishes.  Happy tasting!