Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Spain- A Revolution in Wine Quality

You may be old enough to remember when Sangria was considered a “cool” drink. Sangria was a mix of wine, sparkling water, lemons, limes, oranges and lots of sugar. Back in the day, that was about the only experience most of us had with Spanish wine. It was sweet and alcoholic and did the job, but no one really took it seriously as wine.

Today, Spain is booming in the wine world. With close to 70 wine regions from Alicante to Yecla, Spain has a wildly diverse range of very good wines. The famous regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero are being challenged by the hot, up- and- coming regions of Bierzo, Jumilla, Toro, Utiel-Requena and Vinos de Madrid (the newest wine region).

Why Spain Is Hot
Americans bought over $170 million worth of Spanish wine last year—10 percent more than the year before, and an almost 44 percent climb from five years ago. Why? Possibly because Spain is producing more new, world-class wines than ever before, thanks in part to an abundance of brilliant winemaking talent. At the same time, Spain remains a source for some of the best wine values around, especially robust reds from emerging regions.

Rewind to the early 1980s: most Spanish wines available in the U.S. came from the Rioja region and most were made from Tempranillo or from a few obscure white grapes. Although Spain had been growing vines and making wine for at least a thousand years, the wine industry was stagnant and old-fashioned. As a result, almost all the wines tasted like Sherry, Spain’s flagship aperitif wine. (It wasn’t a good thing! One of the signs of oxidized wine is a Sherry-like taste.)

The stagnation of the Spanish wine industry reflected the malaise of Spanish society, which had languished for decades under the rule of the repressive dictator, Francisco Franco. But after Franco’s death in 1975, things were going to change, and change in a big way.

I was in Marbella, Spain in 1975 and wearing a modest bikini, and I stopped traffic because so few women were wearing them. Fast-forward to 1982 and most of the sunbathers were topless…that’s change! The wine was still pretty bad, though, but it was at least cheap- my husband was able to buy a bottle of iffy white wine to drink on the beach for all of 69 cents, although the bag of ice he bought to keep it cold, cost over a dollar.

Enjoying a new-found freedom, Spain was ready to modernize in every way. And making world -class wine was one way they could leapfrog into the then 20th century. Starting in the mid-1980s, Spain invested in modern viticultural and winemaking techniques, using state of the art equipment and processes. Maybe because a lot of the wine used to be of such poor quality, the quality control monitoring by Spain’s independent regulating council is now more stringent in many respects than what we find in the other European wine producing countries like France and Germany. The commitment to quality is that important to them. Nowadays, if you want wine that tastes like Sherry, you have to order Sherry.

A Great Spanish Oldie
Of course, even in the bad old days, there were always exceptions to the bad wine rap. Vega Sicilia is Spain's best-known prestigious estate. Located in the northerly region of Ribera del Duero, Vega Sicilia produces three wines, primarily from the Tempranillo grape. Vega Sicilia has been producing wines in the Ribera del Duero region since 1864. And at least since 1962, their flagship wine, Vega Sicilia Unico, has gotten the highest recognition from critics worldwide. Unico is made mostly from Tempranillo, sometimes mixed with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Malbec. The 1998 Unico, with a score of 98 from a top critic is selling for $350 and up today.

Rioja is the oldest wine region in Spain, having produced wine as far back as the 12th century. Rioja was the epitome of fine red Spanish wine for generations, and it can still be superb. Tempranillo is still the principal grape used in Rioja and the wines are recognized as being some of the best for cellaring. Two top Rioja wineries, Artadi and Bodegas Sierra, produce spectacular, tannic wines that need to be aged for 15 years before drinking. Intestingly, much of Rioja's character depends on long aging in American oak. Rioja also produces some more accessible, value- priced wines. Ribera del Duero, which does not have the long history of Rioja, was only recognized as an official wine region in 1982.

Rioja and Ribera del Duero represented the twin peaks of Spanish wine quality until the 1990s. But other regions are now challenging their dominance. In just 20 years, wines from Priorat have gone from obscurity to being the most expensive in Spain. The surging popularity of wines from this rugged mountainous area in Catalonia, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, stems from their ability to deliver the power and ripeness associated with California or Australia wines balanced by an uplifting freshness. Their chief drawbacks are their limited production, availability and steep prices.

Up and Coming Winemakers
Today, world-class winemaking superstars, are raising the (wine) bar for quality and accessibility by making lush, fruit- forward wines that are drink beautifully upon release. Alvaro Palacios, who makes the pricey L’Ermita (the 2001 is going for about $500) in Priorat, also makes inexpensive reds under his own name. Other highly regarded winemakers include Mariano García of Bodegas Mauro, Carlos Falcó of Marqués de Griñón and Peter Sisseck of Pingus. Meanwhile, creative young winemakers like Jose Maria Vicente, Sara Perez and Eduardo Garcia are creating marvelous, juicy reds by working in formerly obscure wine regions with unusual grapes and blends like Tempranillo/Grenache/Merlot, Bobal/Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Grenache/Cabernet Sauvignon.

Tempranillo still reigns supreme in Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Toro and other regions of Spain. Nobody really knows where Tempranillo came from, but some believe its original home was southern France. But there are now over 150 different red and white wine varietals being vinified in Spain, from Airen to Xarel-lo. Some of the varietals you are (or should be) familiar with are Albariño, Monastrell (known as Mourvedre in France) and Garancha (Grenache).

Grapes from France’s Rhone region have become very popular in Spain. Grenache, (called Garancha in Spain), is now taking a starring role in Priorat and other regions. Drought- and heat-resistant, Grenache yields a fruity, spicy, medium-bodied red wine with smooth tannins. Grenache is also used in Rioja as a secondary grape in wines dominated by Tempranillo, and is also vinified in Priorat where it often takes the lead in blends that may also contain Carignane, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.

The Priorat region, whose winemakers also blend Carignane, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon with Grenache, has become one of Spain’s shining success stories, exploding in production and quality since the late 1980s. Some other hot regions (not in temperature, in delicious wines!) to keep your eyes on include Jumilla, where the Monastrell grape is being made into powerful reds, and Yecla, which is producing value -priced Mourvedre. Bierzo has revived the Mencia grape and is delivering elegant red wines that some say resemble a cross between Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.

White wines used to be an afterthought in Spain, but have improved dramatically in recent years. White wines made from the Albariño grape in the northwest region of Rias Baixas offer a nice mix of ripe fruit and refreshing acidity. Look for Albariño producers Martin Codax, Pazo de Senorans and Vionta for delicious, aromatic Albariño. Sparkling wines, called "cava," come from the Penedès region, near Barcelona. Cavas, made by the classic Champagne method but the using native grapes, Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada (don’t ask, just drink!), also provide good value.

Even the Balearic Islands are getting into the act. They form an autonomous community and a province of Spain, of which the capital city is Palma de Majorca. When I visted the island of Mallorca in the 1970s, all I knew of it were lovely beaches filled with vacationers, yet a mere 20 miles off the beach lies a land filled with rolling hills dotted with windmills and countless small winemaking bodegas.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

West Coast Whine

When I lived in New York--Manhattan to be specific--I used to have trouble finding, in New York’s wine shops, all the great California wines that I lusted after. That problem is no more, but a new one has presented itself—finding wine from the rest of the left coast. I adore California wine and we certainly have a lot of it here. But I also adore Oregon and Washington State wines.

I am not a fan of thin, high acid, cellar- for when your grandchildren are ready for retirement-French wines. I have a mostly American palate, having grown up on cheap, overly sweet sodas and chocolate milk. Make no mistake, I drink a good deal of California wine. But even so, I find many of the wines that my fellow California favor to be far too sweet for my palate.

I have been collecting and drinking wine from Washington State and Oregon for many years. For me, Washington wines, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet blends (often called Meritage in the U.S.) and Syrah, are halfway measures between Cali and Bordeaux. And Pinot Noir from Oregon are, stylistically, halfway between California and Burgundy.

I thought it was going to be a slam-dunk getting Pacific Northwest wines in California, since it is so close to Oregon and Washington. Those wines, it turns out, are very difficult to find in Southern California. So, like when I lived in New York and ordered most of my California wine online, I order my Washington and Oregon wines online. That takes the fun out of it for a wine geek like me. For me there is nothing better than going into a wine shop and browsing and schmoozing with clerks and other customers.

Washington on the Rise
It took decades to ripen, but, today, the reputation of Pacific Northwest wines among American wine drinkers is rising. The main players, of course, in "the Pacific Northwest" are Oregon, which I will tell you about next month, and Washington.

Washington is still a distant second when it comes to total U.S. wine production, but their wines have rapidly snuck up to rival California’s as some of the best in the world. By 2000, there were twenty-two wineries in Walla Walla alone; and today there are over 100. In the whole state of Washington there are about 500 wineries. Washington's wine industry, in fact, has become one of the country’s fastest growing agricultural sectors. Over the last decade, the number of wineries in Washington more than doubled. While a few of thee wineries are growing into fairly large producers, the majority remain boutique operations aimed at aficionados (read: geeks like me!)

French, German and Italian immigrants pioneered the earliest plantings. The first commercial-scale plantings began in the 1960s. The industry expanded rapidly in the mid-70s, but that expansion has been overtaken by today’s breakneck pace, with a new winery opening every couple of weeks.

Washington State's most important viticultural areas are the Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley and Yakima Valley. Some of the world's best wine grapes are grown on Washington’s Red Mountain, at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley. Washington is known for its Bordeaux-style wines, producing dynamite Cabernet and Merlot, plus Syrah that can “out Syrah” Aussie Shiraz!

The father of the Washington State’s modern wine industry, Walter Clore, died a few years ago at age 90 or so. Now, if that is not an endorsement for drinking wine (in moderation, of course), I don’t know what is! There is even a highly rated Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blend honoring Walter Clore, from the Columbia Crest Winery, called Walter Clore Private Reserve Red Table Wine 2003/4. At about $35 a bottle, grab it if you see it! Columbia Crest Winery, large but not well known, also produces wines in the $10-15 range that are very good everyday drinkers.

A Perfect Score
My purchases from Washington come from small, mostly- off- the- radar wineries that produce astonishing wines at a fraction of the price of Napa wines. For quite a few years, I have been collecting wines from Quilceda Creek Vintners, which produces only about 3500 cases of its Cabernet Sauvignon each year. These are not cheap wines, running about $120 a bottle, but have consistently gotten scores averaging 95 points and up from all the wine critics. Imagine my delight when the 2002, 2003 and 2005 vintages garnered perfect 100 point scores from the critic dubbed “the emperor of wine,” Robert Parker! All of a sudden, Washington State has gotten on serious wine drinkers’ and collectors’ radar—even among staunch California devotees. Those two vintages are now selling for an astonishing $300 a bottle!

But here’s a secret, Quilceda Creek also makes a red wine from grapes not quite “perfect” enough to be put in their “grand vin.” This red wine sells for about $55-$60 a bottle and is highly rated as well. Another way to get amazing wine from the same vineyards that Quilceda Creek sources its grapes from is to buy the marvelous wines of Andrew Will and Cadence for about $50, which are available locally. It’s worth a little sleuthing to find them. Some other excellent below- the- radar producers include Abeja, Arbor Crest, Boudreaux, Delille, Mark Ryan,
Mc Crea and Sineann.

My Wine is Bigger than Yours
So why is top tier Washington Cabernet Sauvignon still less expensive than Napa’s gold-plated names like Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Grace Family and Bryant Family? Those wines, if (and that’s a big IF) you can get your hands on them, start at about $500, and go up to over $1500 for Screaming Eagle! And most of them have never even achieved the perfect 100- point score from any of the big-gun critics.

Part of the reason is the price of the grapes. In Napa County, the price for Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhere around $4000 per ton. In Washington, it's $1,261 per ton.
Another factor is the extraordinarily high price of land in Napa. But there’s another factor at play as well…consumer perceptions. Fewer people drink Washington wine, so there is far less buzz about the wines. Also, most of the Washington wineries are young and have not had the opportunity of producing and marketing wines for 20 or more years.

Other reasons include exclusivity and bragging rights. (Nyah-nyah-nyah, you can’t have one, but I can!). Most of Napa’s cult wines are made in batches of only 500 cases or so annually, sold only through the wineries mailing list and are often re-sold for even more money on the secondary market. (Compare that with Bronco Winery’s Two Buck Chuck, with an annual output of around 5-6 million cases!) Some people buy the $500-plus Cali cabs not so much to drink, but to tell everyone about. If a guy is trying to impress a woman or a business associate, he is not going to brag about that great bottle of Januik Champoux Cab he has in his cellar, right? Well, let me tell you that I do have that bottle in my cellar and I can’t wait till it has a little bit of age to enjoy it. Here’s why: it comes from the vineyard where Quilceda Creek sources much of its Cabernet grapes, but it only costs about $45!

But things are changing and the ante has been upped. As the Washington industry becomes mature, more and more collectors are getting the bug. And that will soon filter down to the regular drinking folk.

Washington’s Best

Some of the best Washington State wines are based on Cabernet Sauvignon. As in Bordeaux and Napa, Washington vintners like to blend their Cab Sauv with Merlot, Cabernet Franc (one of my most recent crushes, get it?), Malbec and Petite Verdot. But let’s not forget about the white wines. Look for Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling as well as Semillon, the white Bordeaux grape that does beautifully in Washington.

Long Shadows is a winery begun by Alan Shoup, the long-time CEO of Stimson Lane and Chateau Ste.-Michelle. In 2002, Alan put together a consortium of some of the top talent in the winemaking industry to showcase the best that Washington State’s Columbia Valley can produce. Each winemaker or winemaking team is famous for high-end wines that they produce elsewhere. For Feather Cabernet Sauvignon, Alan got Napa’s Randy Dunn; for Pirouette, a Bordeaux-style blend, he chose Quintessa’s Augustin Huneeus and Phillppe Melka (also from Napa); for Pedestal Merlot blend, Shoup picked famed wine consultant Michel Rolland. For Sequel Syrah, Alan brought in John Duval, who for 15 years made Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most famous (and expensive) Shiraz. Most of Long Shadows wines are available in better wine shops and none costs more than about $55.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wine 101+

Educate the palate with wine basics

People often ask me “what's the best wine?” I explain that the best wine is the one THEY like, not the one that I or another wine critic may like. If they want to know what makes a wine good, I give the stock answer: “the grapes, the ground and the guy/gal.” What that means is good quality grapes, the earth/soil/climate or “terroir” (that's terr-WHAR, not terrier!), as the French call it; and the winemaker, whoever he or she is.

Why does wine seem to intimidate so many people?

Because we did not grow up with it on the table. Little by little, the U.S. is finally becoming a wine culture. But before we get too excited, consider that it was the people on the two coasts who consumed most of the 300 million cases of wine that were sold in the U.S. last year. Up and down the East and West coasts, wine is gliding down gullets like never before. Chicago and a couple of other midwestern cities are doing a respectable job, as are Las Vegas, Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. But the rest of the country is lagging behind. Reuters recently reported that, within five years, the US will be the world's largest wine market, replacing France, which will fall to third place. Italy will remain second. But let's remember that there are 300 million Americans versus about 60 million people in France and Italy. We still have a long way to go before we are drinking as much wine per person as the French and the Italians. But it's a start!

If you grew up in France or Italy, you would already have a basic knowledge of wine, because you would have grown up seeing your family drinking wine at the dinner table. And you might have had a taste as a youngster. I learned to drink wine over 30 years ago in Chile, a major wine producing country, where every meal features a bottle of wine and a bottle of mineral water on the table. Teenagers are allowed to have a half glass under parental supervision, and only at dinner. In cultures that treat wine as a part of every family dinner, there is far less abuse of alcohol by young people. Drinking a glass of wine with your parents makes if far less sexy and reduces the incidence of sneaking off with teenage buddies to do Jell-O shots.

Becoming a wine lover
The good news is, you don't have to be a wine expert to enjoy wine; you just have to be a wine lover, which is a lot easier than people think. When someone else tastes a wine, they may say, "This is blended from nine different grapes from 12 sub-appellations within the viticultural region which I visited and I now want to describe to you in excruciating detail." If you sample the same wine and say, "I taste apples, pears and
lemon," you're way ahead.

Consider the following review taken from the Wine Spectator, August 31, 2005 Issue: Henri Bonneau & Fils Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve des Celestins 1998 Rhone, France Score 98 points Price $275 at release (current price around $500). “Monstrous, overflowing with roasted chestnut, beef bouillon, bittersweet cocoa, prune, brick dust, espresso and hoisin sauce flavors. This broad-shouldered and immensely concentrated throwback offers accessibility now and for the next 30 years. Drink now through 2035.”

Brick dust? Hoisin sauce? Broad-shouldered? Are we building a house, stir-frying a duck, playing football or tasting wine? To be perfectly honest with you, I can taste and smell many of those descriptors. But, I have been tasting professionally for quite a few years…and you too, can train your palate to detect unusual flavors and aromas. Remember, tasting wine is not brain science.

Visit your local wine shop
A good way to learn is to go to your local wine store and chat up the clerks. Tell them what you like and what you don't like. Something like, “last night I had a bottle of ‘Crocodile River Merlot' and I really liked it, what else should I try?”

The next step is to attend a guided wine tasting. Most good wine shops have frequent informal tastings. When you attend a tasting, you get an opportunity to sample what the experts like and hear their take on the wines. You also get to compare your reactions to those of the other attendees, and discuss the wines with them.

Wine, glorious American wine

If you are new to wine tasting, start with American wine. Why? French, Italian and Spanish wines are marvelous, but they are not made for the typical American palate. If you are just beginning your wine “journey,” it's easier to educate your palate on wine made in the U.S.- and we produce some awesome wine! Don't be afraid to try wines from Washington State and Oregon, which, in addition to California (of course!) are producing spectacular wines.

Another reason to start with American or New World wine is that the name of the grape is clearly stated on the bottle. In Europe, wines are primarily known and named by the region where they are produced, called the appellation (like Bordeaux, Burgundy or Chianti - these are the names of places, not names of wine grapes.) All wines are made from either a blend or one type (varietal) of grape. In the New World - America, South America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand - most wines are labeled by their varietal names: Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot.

Old World wines - French, Spanish and Italian - give absolutely no clue as to the grape involved. France's Burgundy is a big problem because we think of the color, “Burgundy,” which we know as purplish- red. But “Burgundy” wine can be red or white. Red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir, and white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay.

Oh, and that bottle of Henri Bonneau & Fils Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve des Celestins that I told you about is probably a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, but it will not tell you that on the label!

Jump-starting your wine education
A good way to start out if you are a wine newbie is with Zinfandel (the red wine). Zinfandel has easy-drinking, rich, low acid fruit flavors without mouth-drying tannins (one way to think about tannins is to recall the taste of too strong tea). The aromas and flavors are sweet and jammy, with tastes of blackberries, strawberries and a bit of pepper. Zinfandel, called “America's sweetheart wine,” is produced only in California and there are very good Zins for under $20. Some really good Zins are the “three Rs” -Ridge, Rosenblum and Ravenswood.

After Zinfandel, try Merlot. Merlot is a big red wine, but the tannins are relatively soft compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromas and flavors usually bring to mind blueberries, plums, black cherries and currants. Some reasonably priced Merlots to consider are: California’s Merryvale, Burgess, Chappellet and Bonterra, which is organic, but as my husband jokingly says, “it’s good anyway!”

After Merlot, try Pinot Noir. While you can easily get inexpensive Zinfandel and good mid-priced Merlot, good Pinot Noir, which is made in very small quantities, is expensive (starting at $25-30), but worth it. Pinot Noir, often called the red wine for white wine drinkers, is light on its feet and has gorgeous aromas and flavors of red cherries, cinnamon and cloves. Oregon’s A to Z Wineworks makes a nice reasonably-priced Pinot Noir, Deloach’s Russian River Valley Pinot is a good choice as is Melville’s Pinot Noir.

For the next phase of your wine education, move on to Syrah, with the flavors of boysenberries, smoke and black truffles. Fruity versions come from California and Australia, where Syrah is called Shiraz. A couple to try are: Walla Walla’s Seven Hills Syrah, Qupe’s Central Coast Syrah and as for down under, Jim Barry and Peter Lehmann are solid Aussie Shiraz producers.

Then try Cabernet Sauvignon. With great aromas and flavors of vanilla, black cherries, toast, blackcurrants, bell peppers and cocoa powder, Cab is full-bodied and intense. Cabernet Sauvignon can be a tannic beast, so a good bet is to buy Cabs with a little bit of age. For example, I am currently drinking my 2003 and California and Washington State Cabernets. A couple to look for: Buehler, Ferrani-Carano and Ramey’s Napa Claret.

And if you want to educate your palate with white wines other than Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, try the following: Pinot Gris from Oregon, Viognier and Gewurztraminer from California and Riesling from Washington State.

Tired from all the details? Not to worry, that’s why I am here. You don’t have to learn everything all at once. Wine education is cumulative, that is, it happens over time. Keep reading my columns and you will be an expert in no time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

You Have the Wine List, Now What?

You have reservations at a new four-star restaurant. Your boss/mother-in-law/client is duly impressed. Then the maitre d’ hands you a wine list that weighs 20 pounds and looks likes an unabridged dictionary. “Would you care to order the wine now?” he asks. Your spouse/family/colleagues are staring at you in absolute silence. In fact, it seems as if the whole restaurant is waiting for you to order.

Now what?
Do you just go ahead and order the most expensive bottle on the list (something like “Screaming Ego”)? Or do you close your eyes and throw a mental dart at the list? Do you ask for advice? And if you do ask, will the waiter use this as a chance to unload that overpriced bottle that’s been gathering dust in the cellar? What if you never heard of any of them? Is Macon Lugny red or white? And Dolcetto d’Alba-- isn’t that an opera you once dozed through? Will everyone think you’re a wimp if you play it safe and order a martini, a beer or a soda?

You don’t have to be a novice to have problems ordering wine. Many of us who know quite a bit about wine, have had less than optimum experiences with restaurant wine lists. So, the next time you’re handed the wine list keep these things in mind:

Plan Ahead.
If this is an important business or personal dinner, ask to speak with the manager or sommelier to discuss your dinner plan when you make the reservation. Even better, call ahead and get a copy of the wine list faxed to you, or get there ten minutes early so you can read the list. Also, some restaurants now have their wine list posted on their website, so you can get an idea of what to order.

Ask for the wine list and menu at the same time, so you can pair the wine with the food. You can always order a bottle of mineral water and ask if anyone at the table would like a cocktail while you take the time to look over the list and menu. If there are four or more people, you will need two or more bottles of wine--figure on a half bottle per person. Many restaurants have a respectable list of half bottles as well, so that you can order a half bottle of white for that one person who insists on ordering flounder in a steak house. Or order an interesting wine by the glass as an aperitif and, if you like it, order a bottle. But be careful about wine by the glass. The bottle could have been opened two weeks ago. Ask the server if he would kindly open a fresh bottle for you.

Forget about the old rules of red wine with meat and white wine with fish. Today, people often drink lighter reds like Pinot Noir or Merlot with salmon, tuna, swordfish and other meaty fishes. If you are having the Seared Hawaiian Ahi, you could order Chardonnay or Pinot Noir and either one would be a great choice. On the other hand, you can also drink white with meat dishes. Big, buttery, oaky California Chardonnays can easily stand up to a veal chop (and maybe even to a steak!)

Consider how the food is prepared
Plain grilled chicken is very different from grilled chicken smothered in chile-jerk-chipotle sauce. So, rather than simply pair the wine with the main ingredient, you should pair the wine with the sauce, seasoning or dominant flavor of the dish. At Roy’s in Newport Beach, while you might order a rich, ripe California Zinfandel blend, such as Ridge Three Valleys, with your Slow Braised and Charbroiled Short Rib entree, you would do well with a glass of Trimbach’s Pinot Blanc from Alsace with your Shrimp on a Stick with Wasabi appetizer.

Remember that wine drunk by itself tastes different than it does with food. Wine acts on food, similar to the way a spice does, and the fats, proteins and sugars in food change the taste of the wine. The most important thing to remember is the goal of synergy and balance. The wine shouldn't overpower the food, nor should the food overpower the wine.

Go with the restaurant’s theme.

If 90% of the wine list is Italian, don’t order that one bottle of California wine they’ve stuck in at the end. One good rule of thumb is to think of geography—try pairing German Pork Schnitzel with German Riesling, Pacific Salmon with Oregon Pinot Noir.

Drink wines proportionate in quality to the food you are eating.
Don’t order the priciest bottle on the wine list and, unless you really know value wines, you should stay away from the least expensive. Drink an inexpensive red with pizza and burgers and a great red with a great steak.

Try a slightly sweet (off-dry) wine to cool off spicy food.
Sweetness in a wine takes the edge off spice, so slightly sweet wines go well with Thai, Mexican and Indian foods. Drinking water only circulates the spice and makes it worse. To cool off your spicy Ceviche appetizer of Shrimp, Scallops and Calamari with Serrano Chile, try German Riesling.

Stick to the names you can pronounce.

A slightly tipsy business acquaintance of mine once had a whole table of people laughing when he ordered another bottle of “Pinot Gringo” when he meant to say Pinot Grigio. And at an upscale Italian restaurant, the sommelier worked hard to keep a straight face when an executive was trying to remember the name of a wine that he had previously enjoyed. “Bolero,” he shouted, “that’s it,” when he meant to say “Barolo.” But if you do know how to pronounce the names some of the really obscure wines, you can get a great value and a great tasting experience. At many restaurants the best bargains on the list are often the wines that are hardest to pronounce. So, by all means, order a Gewurztraminer or Aglianico del Vulture if you can pronounce them!

Pairing wine and food is a highly subjective process.

If you see a bottle of wine on the list that you had before and loved, order it. Unless your choice is a totally of the charts (like tannic red with Dover sole), your enthusiasm for the wine will transcend all the rules!

Also, remember that you’re drinking wine, not scores. Just because a famous wine critic bestows 92 points or five stars on a wine does not mean that you will like it. Use scores as a reference point only.

Experiment with different varietals when you are by yourself.

We all love our fruit-laden California Cabernet Sauvignons and our delicious, rich Chardonnays, but try a big, brawny Petite Sirah with a steak or a fragrant Viognier with your sushi.

Don’t be intimidated by the sommelier or wine waiter
Fortunately, the days of the sneering older gentleman with and a huge wine list and a silver “tastevin” hanging from his neck are gone. Today, you are likely to see a woman or a young person as your wine server. These highly trained servers are passionate about wine and want to please you. So the wine waiter can be your ally. Really wine savvy people take their time and ask questions, like, “is the 2002 a better vintage than the 2003?” Discuss what you like or don’t like and, unless you are trying to impress someone, mention your price category. If the sommelier recommends a wine that you really enjoyed, a small additional gratuity is a nice gesture.

If you ask the waitstaff for advice, narrow your choices down first.
Then ask the server at “which would you prefer wit the Veal Porterhouse, Truffled Mashed Potato and Cipollini Onions, the Merlot or the Pinot Noir?” Some restaurants take the work out of ordering wine by offering tasting menus paired with wine for each course. These well thought out menus and pairings make for an interesting meal.

Finally, don’t worry about “wine speak.”

This language was invented by insecure wine experts who want to show that they know more about wine than everyone else. Making wine may involve science, but drinking wine is art appreciation!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Can you say Viognier?

Can you say Viognier?
While Chardonnay is still the most popular white wine in the U.S., savvy wine drinkers are starting to catch on that it is not the only great white wine. Many people are trying other white varietals, including Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris (also known as Pinot Grigio in Italy). But along with these interesting whites, save room for one of the hottest white wines on the scene. Viognier (vee-yoh-N’YAY) has the rich “mouth feel” of Chardonnay, but a totally different flavor profile, with sexy aromas of lychee and flavors of peach and lime. Viognier is an unusual grape from France’s Rhône Valley, that has grown in popularity with the “Anything But Chardonnay” crowd.

Some of America’s most interesting Viognier made its way to California in a strange way. While Viognier has been grown in California in small quantities since the late 1980s, Michael David’s Incognito white wine was awarded the title "Best Rhone in the World" in 2000, as a Roussanne, another white Rhone grape. However, using DNA testing, experts at U.C. Davis later determined that this grape was a rare clone of Viognier, and not a Roussanne after all.

Michael David’s Incognito Viognier 2006 is a rich, ripe wine filled with tropical flavors and has the deliciously cleansing bitter-lime finish that is characteristic of the Viognier grape. Think of Incognito Viognier’s flavors as a combination of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat. It makes a marvelous aperitif wine to sip by the pool, and is a great compliment to Asian food. Viognier can also can stand up beautifully to seafood in butter and cream sauces.

Region: Lodi
Price: about $15

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Zinfandel- Hot Fun in the Summertime!

Zinfandel -Hot Fun in the Summertime!

Grills are fired up, wood smoke is in the air and the smell of roasting meat is mouthwatering. It may be 95 degrees in the shade, but this is the time most of us have waited for all year. So, let’s have some barbecued ribs and a delicious glass of red wine. Red wine? In this weather? Of course! Not a light, elegant glass of French Burgundy or a pricey Napa “cult” Cabernet Sauvignon, but a hearty red wine that can stand up to grilled burgers and brauts and ribs.

For summertime sipping, try red Zinfandel. A big, juicy gulp of easy-to-drink red, Zinfandel partners with hearty summer fare. Good Zinfandel has aromas and flavors of chocolate-covered black cherries and sweet blackberry jam, and is a real crowd- pleaser.

Some of the most interesting and food-friendly Zinfandels are made by Ridge. Winemaker Paul Draper has been making Zinfandel (and the pricey Ridge Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon) at Ridge almost 40 years, and is still at the top of his game. To give his Zins well -balanced flavor profiles, Draper adds bits of blending grapes to his each of his different Zins, which include the Lytton Springs, Paso Robles, Ponzo and Geyserville bottlings. The Ridge Geyserville 2005 is made of 77% Zinfandel blended with 17% Carignane and 6% Petite Sirah for structure. This is a beautifully balanced Zin with great fruit and a hint of sweetness, making it a superb match for barbecued ribs with raspberry-chipotle sauce.

Region: Sonoma
Price: about $30