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Wine Review: 2008 Saddlebred Cellars Chardonnay

November 30th, 2010 No comments

I’m always on the hunt for a great Chardonnay.  And I have to admit that I’m especially drawn to creamy, buttery Chards.  You can’t drink Cabernet Sauvignon all winter, and sometimes the smooth decadence of a good Chardonnay hits the spot perfectly.  And as always, when I drink a nice wine, the first thing I want to do is share it with you.

Tonight, that’s the 2008 Saddlebred Cellars Chardonnay.  If you’re partial to rich, buttery Chardonnays, this one’s for you.  It’s easy-drinking, great for those times when you’re craving something other than red wine in the wintertime, but it also has a richness that would make it pair well with the stews and creamy pasta dishes that we crave this time of year.

The 2008 Saddlebred Cellars Chardonnay is rich with the aromas of vanilla and butter, but it’s well-balanced by oak and tangerine flavors.  Give it a chance–it just might become your go-to Chardonnay grab.  And at about $15 a bottle, it’s totally reasonable.  Cheers!

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Course-by-Course Thanksgiving Wine Guide

November 15th, 2010 No comments

This Thanksgiving turkey might be too pretty to eat!

There’s nothing wrong with picking a wine or two that will please all your guests and complement your full buffet of Thanksgiving dishes.  In fact, if that’s your style, we have two posts for you: one on great Thanksgiving wines, and one on Beaujolais Nouveau.

But if you’re more of the adventurous type when it comes to wine, you might think about another great technique: pairing a wine with each course.  This can be a great way to facilitate spirited dinner table conversation (something you might be looking for if you have guests you don’t know that well), or keep the table talk away from that family-dinner mood-killers: politics.  If you find your interest piqued, take a “pique” at our handy Thankgiving pairing guide:

Appetizers (think olives, pate, cheese and crackers, and the like): Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, and sparkling white wine.

Creamy soup (like a first course of roasted butternut squash soup, my family favorite): Full-bodied whites such as Chardonnay.

Green salad with vinaigrette (one with orange slices, bleu cheese and toasted walnuts makes a festive fall first course): High-acid wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Zinfandel.

Turkey and sides (of course): Think smooth.  Crisp and medium-bodied are words you should look for.  Try Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Grigio.

Desserts: If you can handle a dessert wine after all that food, go for Sauternes or Vin Santo.  If the mere thought makes your sweatpants feel tight, go for more Champagne, or (yes, we said it) coffee.

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.

Which Wines Age Well?

September 7th, 2010 No comments

Some VERY old bottles. Let’s hope they have what it takes to open up well!

Aging a bottle of wine has a very distinct, qualitative effect on the contents. But it’s a very unpredictable effect. This leaves wine aficionados in a rough place–you don’t want to spend the time and the money aging a nice bottle of wine, only to open it up and find out that: a) you didn’t wait long enough, b.) you waited too long, or c.) it wasn’t a good candidate for aging anyway. Although wine aging is imprecise, there are some clues that can help you, like some psychic detective who figures out the crime in advance, determine the right bottles to cellar.

Sugar content and alcohol: A high percentage of sugar and alcohol slows the aging process, keeping the wine chemicals from reacting too fast and becoming unbalanced, or worse, turning to vinegar.

Tannins: Highly tannic wines are generally great candidates for aging. Tannins are phenolic compounds present in the skin, seeds, and stems of grapes (and thus, usually only in red wines). You know the wine you’re drinking is tannic when it gives your mouth a dry, puckering sensation that can be very unpleasant. But as tannins age, they bind to each other, losing their astringent quality and making the wine supple and smooth. They also bind to other compounds in the wine, changing their chemistry and giving the wine new, complex flavors.

Structure: Tannins don’t mean good aging by themselves. They need the proper acidity and fruitinesss to back them up.  Having great tannins or wonderful fruitiness alone isn’t enough. A wine that will age gracefully needs to have a backbone–or “structure” to it that will keep the wine from deteriorating into muddiness as it ages. A wine with good structure should have tannins backed up by distinct acidity and concentrated, nuanced fruit flavors.

Varietals that age well:

Riesling: A wonderful candidate for aging. A good Riesling can go on improving, growing rounder in flavor, virtually forever.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabs from Bordeaux, California, and many other places have the bold richness needed to age well. When determining whether a Cab will develop delicious secondary and tertiary flavors, ask yourself if it has the structure, tannins, and richness of fruit needed to hold up to years of aging.

Chardonnay: It depends. A rich, buttery Chardonnay doesn’t have the structure to age well and will fall apart within a few years. But acidic Chardonnays with rich mineral tastes can very well improve with aging.

Fortified wine: Port, Madeira and the like age wonderfully because their high quantities of sugar and alcohol act to slow down the aging process, meaning that they can open well after even hundreds of years.

Pinot Noir: Professional opinions vary. Many experts think that the taste of a young Pinot is so great that you shouldn’t hang on to one for more than five years. But others hold that a well-aged Pinot is the holy grail of the wine world. This grape, so unpredictable on the vine, is unpredictable in the cellar too.

Syrah: Most Syrahs age well, but only up to a limit–about 10 years.

Merlot: Merlot is a very forgiving wine. Many bottles taste great young, but will still benefit from some time in the cellar. So Merlot is a great varietal to experiment with–try a variety of ages and see what suits your tastes.

Zinfandel: Like Cabernet Sauvignon, many Zinfandels have the potential to age to greatness.

Old Italian wines: Yes, they’ve already been aging, so you might say they don’t count, but these wines can make a valuable addition to your cellar. Italian wines from the 50s and 60s age wonderfully because they were made by farmers with primitive equipment. Their wines ended up very high in tannins, making them great aging candidates.

Varietals that don’t:

Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and most Rosés: They don’t have the structure necessary for good aging.

Wines under $15: They’re made to drink now.

Champagne: Though some champagnes can age well, becoming rounder, softer, and less bubbly over time, most are not meant to. If you’re holding on to a 20-year old bottle from your wedding, you probably won’t like it.

Why age at all?

You may have heard that since most wine nowadays is drunk within 48 hours of purchase, winemakers are starting to cater to the customer who plans to open the bottle right away. There is some truth to this statement–some winemakers, for example, are tending to harvest Cabernet Sauvignon grapes when they are very ripe–almost too ripe. This results in a wine that is high in fruit, acid and tannins, meaning that you can drink it younger, but not necessarily that it tastes good. Wines like this lack the subtlety and grace of a “true” Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a richness of background flavors that makes drinking it anything but a one-note experience.

Wines that have the foundational flavors to age well–a balance of tannins, acids, fruit, sugar, and alcohol, will develop secondary and even tertiary flavors, meaning that the wine will keep surprising the palate with new tastes and aromas from the first sniff to the end of the bottle. These flavors, which can remind the drinker of smoke, leather, figs, soil, or a thousand other subtle smells and tastes, make the drinking of a properly aged bottle a completely unique experience.

Hints for wine collectors:

No one can predict the perfect age at which a wine should be opened.  If you want to come as close to perfect as possible, the best thing to do is buy a case of wine at a time, and open a bottle every so often to gauge how it’s coming along. And don’t think of it as a waste–it’s an entertaining an educational experience to see how the flavors change as a particular vintage matures. Alternatively, you can look online to find people who have opened the vintage you’re holding on to, and see what they thought of it. This is the best way to determine the right age.

Be sure to keep tabs on the ages of the wines in your cellar. Remember that there’s no use aging wines if you’re just going to let them turn to vinegar in a forgotten corner. Keep tags on your bottles‘ necks so that you can read the label without disturbing the contents, and keep a detailed record of everything in your winery, whether on paper or digitally (such as with an  eSommelier wine cellar management device). Don’t forget to include tasting notes when you finally open the bottle.

Wines for Grilling

July 26th, 2010 1 comment

Summer’s here and that means grilling season.  When the summer days mean it’s too stifling to cook over a hot stove, I loveto take the kitchen prep outside and cook as much as I can over the open flame.  Not only does it keep the house cool, grilling outside lets me enjoy the warm summer evenings, and offers the delicious reward of smoky, crisp-on-the-outside-juicy-on-the-inside grilled food.  There’s nothing that says summer as much as grilling.  But where do wines fit into this?  Does enjoying the tasty experience of grilled summer food mean that you have to trade your wine glass for a beer can?  Not unless you want to!

Grilled foods’ unique, strong flavors offer their own unique set of pairing challenges.  Luckily, there are many wonderful wines that are up to the test.  Here are a few of our favorites:

Zinfandel has a reputation as the quintessential grilling wine, and deservedly so.  Zinfandel‘s full-bodied character makes it the perfect accompaniment to rich grilled meats like steaks, burgers, and lamb.  It also has a unique fruity-yet-spicy flavor that matches perfectly with the rich, spicy sauces that are so often seen on barbecued food.  But be careful: you want the flavors of your wine and food to complement, not compete.  So pairing a spicy Zin with an especially spicy barbecue sauce might make the spice flavors overwhelm the dish.  If you’re cooking something especially spice-forward, try a Merlot–its fruity characteristics will let the spice shine without masking the subtler flavors of meat and smoke.

Speaking of smoke, another great grilling wine is Syrah, because it is characterized by smokey notes that go perfectly with grilled foods like sausage, brisket, and just about any red meat.  Syrahs from the Rhone region are especially known for their smokey characteristics.  Syrah also has very fruit-forward flavors and soft tannins that make it an easy-drinking wine perfect for sharing around the picnic table.

Rosé is a great choice for lighter grilled foods because its red wine notes match up to the intense charcoal flavors the grill imparts without overwhelming more delicate foods.  Try it with fish, chicken, or grilled veggies.

Chardonnay is a great wine for summer grilling because its strong oaky notes allow it to stand up to the rich tastes of grilled foods better than most whites.  Its buttery flavors make it a fantastic accompaniment to things like grilled fish with a buttery sauce.  And for a little slice of heaven, pair a Chardonnay with fresh grilled corn on the cob with plenty of butter.

Sauvignon Blanc is another great grilling wine, but for a different reason–its citrusy, herbaceous nature is a great foil to the opposingly strong, rich flavors of grilled food.  It refreshes the palate and makes those grill flavors shine through even more.  Try Sauvignon Blanc with fish grilled with lemon or anything marinated in herbs.

As always, remember that pairing wine with food is an art, not a science.  Don’t be afraid to break the rules a little, pairing a nice red with grilled chicken or experimenting with a brand-new varietal.  Play to your tastes and enjoy the summer grilling season!

Wines for Easter

March 28th, 2010 No comments

The Easter Bunny is hopping our way, bringing with him (or is it her?) eggs, chocolates, and of course, a big Easter feast. Whether you view Easter as a meaningful religious event, the day that frees you from your Lenten sacrifice, or simply as a time to get together with family and friends and celebrate springtime, Easter always involves a great meal.  And if you’re reading this blog, to you, a great meal calls for great wines.

Ham is one of the most traditional Easter dishes.  Ham’s dominant flavors are saltiness and, especially if your ham is glazed, sweetness.  Ham calls for a wine that can cut through those strong flavors without overwhelming the more delicate flavors of the actual meat.

Highly acidic wines are your best choice.  Wines that also fall on the sweeter side can be great choices too, because nothing balances salty flavors better than sweet ones.  But be careful–if your ham is glazed, the combination of sweet glaze and sweet wine could be too much for your guests to handle–and if they’re overwhelmed with sweet flavors, they won’t be able to enjoy their Easter candy!

Riesling and Gewurztraminer are classic choices for a reason–their crisp and acidic but delicate natures make them the perfect companion to ham.  If you aren’t looking for a sweet wine, make sure that the bottle you’re choosing is dry–many wines of both varietals are sweet.  A Pinot Grigio or a lightly-oaked Chardonnay could also be good choices to accompany ham, so if one of those varietals is your favorite, don’t be afraid to serve it.

Tender, flavorful spring lamb is also a popular choice for the Easter meal.  Lamb is earthy yet delicate, with a powerful, lasting flavor.  Lamb is made for red wine.  The perfect red can vary with the method of preparation and cut of meat you’re using.  Sauteed veal medallions will require a more delicate red than roasted rack of lamb.  Grilled lamb (and grilling is a great way to celebrate the beginning of nice weather and capture the fresh nature of springtime) needs a wine that can stand up to the smokey and charcoal-y flavors it creates.

Bordeaux is the classic pairing for lamb, and it’s a good choice that will match well with this meat no matter how you are preparing it.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Malbec can also be great choices.  Look for a wine with the structure (read: tannins) and finish to handle the strong flavors of lamb without overpowering it.

If you’re celebrating a traditional Passover or will have a Jewish guest in attendance, you might be thinking about Kosher wines to serve.  You’ll be happy to learn that kosher wines have moved on from that sweet, syrupy grape juice stuff that was the only available choice in the past.  Kosher wines today are produced around the world and in all classic varietals.  Because of kosher wines’ bad reputation, the good ones often won’t advertise the fact on the label.  Look for the U in a circle, meaning kosher, or the U in a circle followed by the letter P, which means that the wine is kosher for Passover (its makers had to adhere to ever stricter standards).  These symbols will usually be located on the back label.

Whatever you’re serving or whomever you’re serving it to, there are great Easter wine options out there.  Happy Easter!

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?