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Oysters and Chablis

August 8th, 2011 No comments

Oysters have, since ancient times, been regarded as potent aphrodisiacs.  While this belief may be partially attributed to myth and sympathetic magic, a group of Italian and American researchers found that oysters, along with certain other shellfish, are “rich in rare amino acids that trigger increased levels of [arousing] hormones.”  History’s most famous lover, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), were he alive today, would probably cheer at this finding; Casanova championed the idea that sharing succulent oysters was the best way to lead to an evening of sensuous delight.  But oysters don’t do it for all couples.  Some people love them, some don’t, and still others are allergic to shellfish.  But even if your companion can’t (or won’t) slurp down the smooth, slippery, succulent little sea critters, he or she can certainly share a good bottle of white wine with you while you enjoy them!
Because there are many kinds of oysters, you will find that certain whites pair better with different varieties.  However, there is one wine that goes with them all, swimmingly: Chablis.  Because its grapes are grown in France’s Burgundy region where the soil is rich with fossilized oyster shells, the aroma of Chablis contains limestone, peach, and (you guessed it) oyster shells!  Its flavor, too, often contains traces of sea salt.  If your lover is into literature, perhaps a passage from Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast may help encourage him or her to partake with you: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”  The next time you order oysters, consider asking for a bottle of Chablis, too.  Enjoy!

Oysters paired with wine

Image courtesy of mailintalks.com

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: 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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

Wine Profile: Gewürztraminer

March 25th, 2010 No comments

First off, let’s get that pronunciation correct: it’s ga-VERTZ-trah-MEE-ner.  Gewürztraminer, besides being a fun way to show off your best German accent, is a great wine that has increased in popularity in recent years.  Besides Germany, it is grown in Alsace, France, and less notably, in California and Australia.

Gewürztraminer grapes are difficult to grow.  They require cold conditions, but can be easily damaged by frost.  Gewürztraminer lacks natural defenses against many diseases that attack vines, and is not a very productive grape varietal, producing very small clusters of grapes even when the vines are in peak conditions.  The grapes have thick, tough skins which protect extraordinarily high sugar contents.  The high sugar content also means that Gewürztraminer grapes can be made into very successful dessert wines.  In dry Gewürztraminers, this can translate to very high alcohol contents.

The Gewürztraminer grape makes an aromatic and pungent wine.  Gewürztraminer means “spice grape,” and it’s true to its name, an exceptionall full-flavored wine that can include tastes of pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg.  It is extremely full-bodied, especially for a white wine.  It has a strong aroma with identifiable tastes of lychee, an Asian seed that is sweet and nut-like or fruit-like in character.  Gewürztraminers taste of lychee because the two share many of the same aroma compounds.  Gewürztraminers that fall on the drier side may have a bouquet that includes passion fruit, roses, and flowers.

Gewürztraminer pairs well with fruits and cheeses, especially Münster.  It has a rich, oily character that complements game and other oily meats, such as smoked salmon.  It is one of the few wines that pairs exceptionally well with Asian food, especially dishes with curry, Chinese five spice, or capasicin (hot pepper).

Don’t be intimidated by the name–try this excellent, fulll-bodied white wine soon!