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Don’t Blame the Oak

December 1st, 2011 No comments

Oakiness: you read about this quality on some wine bottles, along with acidity, tannins, and sweetness. How long a wine ferments in oak barrels does impact its taste, nose, and texture, but a lot of winemakers don’t like to discuss this part of the aging process.  In recent years, they’ve become afraid people will jump to conclusions that their wines are too “oaky”, meaning that the grape flavor is overpowered by heavy oak flavors.  And winemakers have good reason to fear; oak aging is often wrongfully blamed for wines that are too dry, dull, tannic, or thick.  (The real cause behind such wines is almost always unripened grapes, not oak aging, however!)

Oak Wine Barrels

Oak Wine Aging in Barrels, photo by Sanjay Acharya from Wikipedia

While inferior wines aged in oak are abundant, so are several of the world’s most prized, quality wines; these gems possess an intriguing degree of complexity (plus have a fantastic shelf life) because of the oak aging process.  Wines that benefit the most from oak aging are Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay.

When discussing such wines aged in oak, words like leather, cedar, mushroom, and vanilla may be familiar to you.  These flavors have been perfected over the years by fantastic winemakers who still produce oaked wines.  (Do a little field research, i.e. tasting; they are out there!)  You can usually tell a quality, oak-aged wine with ease: enhanced by the oak, it tends to be much smoother, more rich, softer on the tongue, and better balanced than a non-oaked wine.  Of course, you will taste some oaked wines that miss the mark entirely, but remember that in these instances the reason for the wine’s failure was not the oak, but rather the initial grapes.  Think about the old computer programming phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” (abbreviated as GIGO).  With computer programming, as well as winemaking, the final product is only as good as the quality of the initial input, or grapes, in our case!  For more information about the science of aging wine, visit the Vintage Cellars Wine Storage Education Center.

Wine Review: 2007 Arrogant Frog Croak-Rotie

October 30th, 2010 No comments

Ever since our post on weird wine names, I’ve been on the hunt for wines with quirky names.  Finally I got the2007 Arrogant Frog Croak-Rotie chance to try one–the 2007 Arrogant Frog “Croak-Rotie.”  And surprise!  A funky wine name does not a funky wine make.  In fact, I deemed this one good enough to share with you.

Ok, I’ll admit it–it’s the label that drew me in.  I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and you certainly shouldn’t judge a wine by its label.  But how cute is that beret-and-walking-stick-clad frog?  (Sorry, manly-man readers, but you have to admit it.)  I don’t know if I can bear to recycle it.

Label aside, this is a very good sipping wine.  It’s a Syrah-Viognier blend, with 85% Syrah and 15% Viognier–an unusual and interesting combination.  The big, bold Syrah benefits from the addition of the aromatic, fruit-forward Viognier: the wine is a rich, bold one that’s also soft and mellow.

The wine’s aromas are of deep, jammy blueberries and strawberries.  The wine has medium tannins, which give it structure, but balances its fruitiness with hints of spice and licorice.  It would be perfection for a picnic or backyard gathering, with some Gruyere cheese and a nice baguette.  Or serve it for dinner with pasta in a hearty tomato sauce, or a simple fall stew.  It would also be great with (and in) our recent Coq au vin recipe.  Enjoy!  (Or, as an arrogant frog would probably say: “À votre santé!…ribet.”)

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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.

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 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!