Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Tuscany in Ten Minutes

Learn all you need to know about Tuscan wines in ten minutes by watching the video below, produced by the Guild of Sommeliers:

The Wines of Tuscany from guildsomm on Vimeo.

Ask Vino Joe: Should Chilled Wine Go To the Fridge?

A WineWeekly reader asks:

I had a party and put two bottles of wine in a cooler with ice. One bottle was unopened (Chardonnay) and I say it now has to be put in the fridge and my husband says it can go on the counter at room temperature until we drink it and it will not be affected. Can you settle this for us pleeeeeease!

A fair question, and one I’m sure many have contemplated in the past.

red_cooler.jpgIf given the choice, then the wine absolutely should be transferred from the cooler to the refrigerator. I say “given the choice” because my fridge is often filled with leftovers (both food and wine) — offering little room for (yet another) bottle of wine.

One of the most damaging conditions for any bottle of wine is a drastic change in temperature. Assuming that the cooler was packed with ice, and the bottle was inside it for a significant amount of time, it’s likely the wine sunk to a level at least 25-30 degrees below “room temperature” (we’re talking Fahrenheit). That qualifies as significant. Does that mean the wine will be ruined if it’s left on the counter instead of the fridge? Not necessarily — in fact you may not notice any difference in the wine at all.

That’s because the length of time the wine has remained at different temperatures also factors in. If the wine was kept exceptionally cool for a week, and then left out in the sun for a week, chances are it’s going to be affected. But if the time on ice was only a few hours, and the temperature spike not too drastic, the wine likely will be fine.

This is an issue that is of more concern in the distributor warehouses and the retail stores, where inexpensive wines are rarely — if ever — kept at a constant temperature (storage and transportation included). Your wine may have been on ice, then moved to the counter, but the real damage could have been done long before that — for example, when the wine was sitting sweltering on a non-refrigerated truck on a hot summer day. Unfortunately, the consumer has no control over the bottle prior to purchase — you have to trust that it was properly stored and moved by the wine shop, the distributor, and the supplier.

OK, this answer went a little off tangent. Bottom line? Get the wine into the fridge if you have the room, and keep it at a constant temperature. And, cross your fingers that the bottle has received similar care before it came to you.

Wine Grape: Albarino

albarino_grapes.jpgIf you are living in a similar part of the world as me — where the summer weather has become hot and sticky — then you likely are reaching into the fridge for chilled white wines to cool you off.

No doubt Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are standbys, but if you haven’t given Albariño a try, now’s the time to do it.

The Albariño (al – bah – REE – nyo) grape is grown mainly in the Spain and Portugal (though I understand Qupe and a few others are planting it in California as well), to make dry white wines. It is a thick-skinned grape with strong aromatics that may remind you of ripe peaches — to me the smell is kind of like Viognier. Unlike Viognier, however, the wine tends to be very high in acidity and lighter in flavor — it’s more like a sharp Pinot Grigio in that respect. That zesty acidity cuts through fatty foods, stands up to salad dressings, and can be refreshing on a hot summer day — it’s not as tart as you might expect, and has a nice buttery texture. Flavors you may recognize include apple, peach, and apricot, as well as a distinct mineral component.

Geeks will tell you that the very best Albariño comes from Rias Baixas (ree-ahs buy-shuss) area of Galicia, in Spain, and they may be right. Personally, I have enjoyed Burgans Albarino, which is a consistently good value. However, there are also fine examples from Portugal, where it is often labeled as “Alvarinho” (that’s how they spell it there). And, as mentioned earlier, California’s Qupe makes one (called “Verdad“) but they don’t make much of it and I’ve never had it — if you have, please post your notes in the comments.

Regardless of where the Albariño comes from, make sure you pick the youngest you can find (as of this writing, 2008 is the vintage you want), as it’s not meant for aging. Albariño tends to lose a lot of its fresh, attractive aromas and flavors as it ages. Expect to pay between $8 and $15, though the best bottles can run as high as $25.

Wine Term: Earthy

Jar of soil from Verite wine vineyardsDoes this term mean the wine is 100% organic? Does it mean it’s “plain and simple in style”, or “plain in taste” as Merriam-Webster defines? No, no, and no. While a wine that is organic CAN be earthy, an earthy wine is not necessarily organic, and an earthy wine is often the opposite of plain — though, a plain wine can have an earthy character. Sufficiently confused? Read on.

If you have been drinking wine for a long time, you might already know the term “earthy”, and likely have experienced this characteristic. Wines described as “earthy” will have aromas and flavors of soil, minerals, vegetation, and/or wet leaves. Yes, I said soil, and yes I mean as in dirt. Believe it or not, many people find dirt — er, earthiness — to be a positive element in a wine (myself included), as it adds to a wine’s complexity.

Typically “earthy” wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo — though just about any red wine can pick up an “earthy” element. As you might guess, it’s believed that the earthiness comes from the soil in which the vines are planted. Generally speaking, white wines are rarely described as “earthy”, although I’ve had some wines with a component in the flavor or aroma that could be described as “mushroom” — and mushrooms come from the earth, so go figure.

Wine Term: Lees

White Lee jeansNo, these aren’t what you might wear for pants, and you will be hard-pressed (pardon the pun) to find them in white (though blue is not unusual).

The lees (pronounced like the jeans) are the dead yeast cells, grape seeds, pulp, stems, skins, and tartrates that separate from the juice during wine making and aging.

When there’s “stuff” at the bottom of the bottle, it’s referred to as sediment or dregs; when you’re discussing the technical aspects of the winemaking, it’s called “the lees” — as in, “this wine was left on the lees for two months, blah blah blah”.

Some wines (usually white) are left in contact with their lees to increase the complexity and enhance the structure of the finished wine. By leaving the juice to remain on top of the lees (and/or occasional stirring) after fermentation, all the dead yeast and skins, etc., can provide additional flavors, body, and richness. After a predetermined amount of time “on the lees”, the juice will then be “racked” — a.k.a., moved to a new container (barrel, tank, etc.) — with the lees left behind.

An example of a wine left on the lees is Muscadet “Sur Lie”; many white wines in the higher price ranges are also left on the lees — it’s a common tactic for ageable whites and Champagnes.

All About Beaujolais Nouveau

Beaujolais Nouveau — the first wine of the 2007 vintage (from the Northern Hemisphere, anyway) arrives tomorrow.

Here is almost everything you need to know about Beaujolais Nouveau …

What is Beaujolais?

Beaujolais is a region in France, just south of Burgundy; depending on who you talk to, some experts will include Beaujolais in their discussion of Burgundian wine. It is made up of 12 appellations (or specific winegrowing areas) — thus the “s” at the end of the name.

What is Beaujolais Nouveau?

Beaujolais Nouveau is a wine made from Gamay grapes grown in the Beaujolais region and released in the same year of its harvest.

When does Beaujolais Nouveau arrive?

Bottles of the current year’s Beaujolais Nouveau are officially released on the third Thursday of November. For many years, the official date was November 15th (ironically, this year’s arrival date), but in 1985 it was decided that a Thursday release would bring about a more festive celebration, as people tend to party on the weekend. What? you don’t start your weekends on Thursday? Might be time to move to France.

What is the history of Beaujolais Nouveau?

Legend has it that the wine was something of a cult wine in the French bistros, bars, and cafes surrounding Beaujolais and Lyons, produced by the local growers and delivered in barrels. In the 1960s, Nouveau was bottled and marketed outside of France for the first time, and the rest is marketing history.

How is Beaujolais Nouveau made?

Few other wines are produced, bottled, and released within a few weeks of the harvest. The most strategic way to do this is to employ a winemaking method called carbonic maceration. Without getting too technical, carbonic maceration is essentially the fermentation of grapes occurring inside the skins. Traditionally, the winemaking process begins with the crushing of grapes; the juice of the grapes is pushed out of the skins and gradually ferments. For red wines, this juice is often left to sit with its skins so that tannins are extracted, giving the wine a fuller, more concentrated structure, and often adding some bitter flavors. With carbonic maceration, the grapes are not crushed. Rather, the grapes are piled on top of each other in a sealed container that is filled with carbon dioxide. More CO2 is emitted by the grapes on the bottom of the container, as it is gently crushed by the weight of the top grapes. All this carbon dioxide causes fermentation to take place inside the grape skins (don’t ask why, take a chemistry course!). The resulting wine is fresh, fruity, and very low in tannins.

What Does Beaujolais Nouveau Taste Like?

It’s hard to say, because it tastes different every year. Typically, it’s a lot like a kicked-up grape juice. Nouveau will have very bright, fresh, red fruit flavors, such as cherry, strawberry, and raspberry, and will be delivered to your palate with a distinct zing. Because of the lack of tannins, it should be very soft in the mouth, and easy to drink. Beaujolais Nouveau is not a wine to sniff, swirl, and contemplate; it’s a wine to pour and party with. Consider it a beverage accessory.

How should I drink Beaujolais Nouveau?

Chilled. Unlike most red wines, you will want to put a Nouveau bottle in the fridge for about 15-20 minutes before drinking, as a slight chill will bring out the fresh flavors. Don’t have the time for that? Pour it over ice cubes! One of the fantastic things about drinking Beaujolais Nouveau is that wine snobs won’t come within 50 feet of it. So, you have the pleasure of performing all sorts of wine sacrilege on it. Drink it on the rocks, out of a plastic cup, with a straw, straight out of the bottle if you want. There’s a whole website devoted to drinking the “wine without rules”, including tips on throwing a Beaujolais Nouveau arrival party.

Another thing: drink it within a few months of release. Because of the way it is made — by carbonic maceration — Nouveau has almost no tannins, and tannins are one of main preservatives of red wine. With no natural preservative, the fresh fruit flavors you taste in Beaujolais Nouveau in November will fade away by the following spring (or sooner). But that’s not such a bad thing — that’s around the same time the “real” Beaujolais wines are released. In a way, Beaujolais Nouveau is a preview of what’s to come in the way of Beaujolais Villages and Beaujolais crus, such as Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, and Julienas. More on those wines in a future article.

What foods match with Beaujolais Nouveau?

NOT red meat, that’s for sure. Because of the lack of tannins, you’ll want to avoid proteins, for the most part. However, it’s fresh fruitiness will match remarkably well with simple foods such as pigs in blankets, sausage, ham salad, and macaroni and cheese. There’s a French dish called Gougeres that is typically served with Beaujolais Nouveau; essentially it is a cheese puff made with Gruyere. Nouveau is also a good choice to match with fondue. The timing of Nouveau’s release couldn’t be better for Americans, as it may well be the perfect bottle to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. At one week old, it is just bright and fresh enough to go with turkey, and it has the versatility to complement nearly all the trimmings — particularly the cranberry sauce.

How is this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau?

Vignerons in Beaujolais report that the 2007 vintage will offer full ripe fruit and a round body and will be the best Nouveau in several years. Of course, wine producers will always promote a new wine positively, but I think we can trust that 2007 Nouveau will be fresh, ripe, and fruity. We’ll know for sure in just a few days.

Where Can I Buy Beaujolais Nouveau?

Around the end of November, it will be hard NOT to buy, as it is the most heavily promoted wine upon release. Most wine shops and liquor stores will begin carrying Beaujolais Nouveau on its release date: the third Thursday of November every year (November 15th in 2007). Cases and bottles of Nouveau will likely be surrounded by colorful bunting, banners, balloons, and posters from that date through the new year.

Wine Grape: Malbec

Malbec grapes and vinesIf you ever venture into the South American aisle of a decent wine shop (and having a “South American” aisle is a sign that it IS a decent wine shop), no doubt you’ve noticed a bunch of bottles from Argentina with “Malbec” on the label. In fact, you probably have tried at least one or two Malbecs, as it has become more prevalent and popular in the USA over the last few years. Would you like to know more about this mysterious wine?

To start, Malbec is a grape, and indigenous to France — which may seem strange since all the Malbec you see seems to be from Argentina. Fact is, in France Malbec is known mostly as a mere blending grape, used in faint quantities to soften the strength of Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux wines. Well, that’s not entirely true … the grape is also known as “Cot” in areas outside of Bordeaux — for example it is the main grape for the “black wines” of Cahors (they’re not really black, but they’re a really dark shade of red, and leave your tongue looking like a Chow Chow’s).

Somehow, some way, Malbec found its way to Argentina, where it flourishes. The high altitudes, long, warm sun-filled days, cool nights, extra-dry climate, and sandy, alluvial, porous soils are ideal for the grape. Good thing, because Argentineans eat a lot of beef, and drink a lot of red wine — and for the better part of the 20th century, much of that wine was Malbec. Malbec vines are everywhere in the South American country, producing enormous volumes of red wine for its citizens — who used to be among the highest per-capita wine consumers in the world (80 liters of wine per person per year back in the 1960s — wow!).

However, in the 1980s, someone had the bright idea to pull all the Malbec vines and replace them with more marketable (and exportable) grapes such as Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. By the end of the decade, only 10,000 acres of Malbec were left — at which point more intelligent winemakers came in and said, “hey, there’s nothing special about Cabernet and Chardonnay from Argentina … but that Malbec — wow!”. As you might guess, the Malbec vines went back in the ground. At least the Argentineans became skilled at vine-pulling.

In the 1990s, with Argentina’s return to democracy and a hyperinflated economy, winemakers from around the world descended on and purchased undervalued Argentine vineyards — and continued planting the country’s most special grape. The influx is starting to pay dividends now, as more and more high-quality, fairly priced Malbecs are entering the market every year.


OK, But What Is Malbec, Really?

So that’s the background of the grape. But how about what it means to you, poured out into a glass?

Hard to pinpoint, actually. On the one hand, Malbec can be an inky black, rich and deep wine with big tannins and 20-year longevity. Personally, I’ve tasted some $50-$60 Malbecs that rival “Super Tuscans” and Calfornia reds that cost twice the price. On the other hand, Malbec can also be fashioned into a ripe, approachable, soft, ten-buck wine that matches perfectly with pizza or pork.

Generally, though, most Malbec wines share these characteristics: ripe black fruits, such as plum and blackberry; peppery notes; earthy; firm tannins; ample acidity; conducive to oak aging. In other words, a flavor profile that may be somewhere between California Cabernet Sauvignon and California Merlot. The Malbec wines called “Cahors” (which may be found in the France aisle of a very good wine shop) tend to be more inky, more earthy, and a bit more tannic. The Argentine examples tend to be riper and more jammy (though there are some “old school” Argentine wineries that go more toward the rustic side).

If you haven’t yet tried a Malbec, and you enjoy red wines, then it’s a no-brainer — buy one and match it with a grilled skirt steak (or portobello if red meat makes you uncomfortable). As with most wines, you will get what you pay for, so don’t pull a bottle from the bargain bin and expect it to bowl you over. My advice is to get to that decent wine shop, find the South American aisle, and spend somewhere between $12-18. You won’t be disappointed.

Mailbag: How to Store Wine

Your Questions Answered by Vino Joe

How to Store Wine Question

Wine questions answered by Vino Joe

Question:

Is it OK to store red wine (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) at room temperature if it was previously stored properly in a walk-in cellar? I’m moving from a large house with a cellar to a small house with only a portable wine unit that won’t accomodate the amount of bottles I have. Any help you can give would be appreciated.

Answer:

Generally speaking, “room temperature” — which in most homes is about 72 degrees fahrenheit — is a bit too warm for aging wines. However, “ya gotta do what ya gotta do”, right?

The ideal temperature for wine storage is in the 50-55 F range. Unless you have a temperature-controlled wine cave, or a deep cellar, that’s next-to-impossible in most homes. However, what are nearly if not more important than the temperature are three other factors: darkness, humidity, and temperature consistency. While keeping a wine in a 72-degree environment isn’t the ideal, if you can be certain that it is ALWAYS 72 degrees, there is little or no light, and there is some humidity, then the bottle should hold up much better than if stored in a place that (a) has wild temperature fluctuations; (b) in direct sunlight; (c) has dry air; or (d) any combination of the three.

That said, find the bottom of a closet, or underneath stairs as a possible location for your wines. But don’t expect them to age gracefully over a long period of time. If you have expensive bottles in your collection, that need several years’ aging, and you can’t afford/fit a wine cave, then you may want to consider renting cellar space or finding a friend with a good cellar who can hold the wines for you. Or, do what I do — drink them up quickly!

BYOB BBQ Question

Question:

Is it rude to write on an invitation to a BBQ: ‘Bring a Bottle!’ ?

Answer:

No, absolutely not. Assuming that the host is providing all the food, fixins’, space, entertainment, and cleaning up afterward, I think it’s OK to suggest that guests bring a bottle. In the US, it’s common for the food at barbecues and other parties to be supplied by the guests (ex., one brings the potato salad, another brings cookies, etc.), so asking guests to bring a bottle is a fair request, in my book. (But then, there surely are people who disagree vehemently with this idea, so don’t count on me 100%.)

If you’re hesitant, and you’re inviting wine-conscious guests, one way out of it is to turn the BBQ/party into a theme, and make it fun, such as “BYOBB – Bring Your Own Best Bottle”, or similar. I was once invited to a “Chardonnay Brunch” where everyone was asked to bring Chardonnays from different parts of the world, for comparison.


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Wine Term: Unfiltered

A modern wine filtration deviceOnce in a while, you may see a label announce that the wine is “unfiltered”. This does not mean the winemaker was smoking a Camel cigarette when the wine was bottled, nor does it mean that you need to pour the wine through a coffee filter before drinking it. Basically, it’s an explanation for the wine’s lack of clarity.

For the last 25 or so years, wineries have used fining and filtration techniques to make a wine appear crystal-clear. This makes for a more attractive and trustworthy product. Most wines sold at retail today are filtered, and as a result you can see right through them (this is most obvious with white wines).

A wine is filtered in one or more more of several ways. For example, sterile filtration uses micropore filters, which are fine enough to remove yeast cells, and thus prevent a second fermentation inside the bottle. On the other hand, depth (or sheet) filtration is not unlike the use of a coffee filter, though is a bit more sophisticated than the typical #4 cone you use in your coffeemaker. The process relies on a thick layer of fine material (diatomaceous earth, cellulose powder, perlite, etc.) to trap and remove small particles. There are other methods as well — membrane filtration is common — and there are pros and cons for each process. Regardless of the way it’s done, the goal is to remove any undesirable elements and produce a stable, clear liquid.

However, these filtering processes may also remove elements that affect the flavors and aromas of a wine, so some winemakers choose not to filter. They believe that filtering strips the wine of its true character, and employ other methods of getting the wine as clear as possible (racking, cold stabilization, and other old-school techniques are the alternative). There are also wineries that avoid filtering — or keep it to an absolute minimum — to maintain organic status.

Does an unfiltered wine taste better than a filtered one? Maybe — it all depends on the individual. For many, it can be more of a visual thing than a flavor issue. Some people are put off by a wine that is not completely clear, while others feel a cloudy wine is more “natural”.

Porthos Website Review

Generally speaking, the personalized service you get from a GOOD wine shop cannot be matched by an online retailer. There’s something to be said for face-to-face interaction with a human being who knows something about the wines on the shelf. Add in the touchy-feely enjoyment of picking up and handling bottles, and it’s next to impossible to re-create the experience through a website.

However, there are some online wine retailers who do as well a job as can be done with the virtual process. In my opinion, the key is not to try to emulate the traditional retail experience but rather to make the most of modern technology to create a new / alternative way of selling.

Such is the case with Porthos.com, a site that specifically caters to Napa and Sonoma wine fans. That’s an interesting and effective slant — targeting a very narrow area on the world wine map. Let’s face it, any run-of-the-mill online wine shop is going to have a hard time beating the varied selection and pricing of, say, a Wine.com, WineLibrary.com, or SamsWine.com. But Porthos can stake their claim as “the” place for high-end Napa and Sonoma wines — if that’s what you’re in to.

Naturally, Porthos carries California’s finest, with bottles from well-known estates such as BV, Clos du Val, Far Niente, Etude, Dominus, Duckhorn, Chateau Montelena, and Cain Five, to the lesser-known, “cult” wineries such as Block 16, Barnett, Leeuwin, Newton, Coho, and Pahlmeyer — to name a few. There isn’t a dog in the bunch, a stark contrast to the many “faux-boutique” online retailers that push off unknown, ordinary wines as “undiscovered values”.

What I really like about Porthos.com is the organization of the site. Because their selection is limited, it’s easy and enjoyable to browse. In particular, the “Best Buys Under $30” and “Staff Picks” include intriguing wines that even a geek will appreciate. Too often on other sites, I’m overwhelmed by the dozens and dozens of choices per varietal — while selection is nice, sometimes you just want someone to tell you “here, try this, it’s good stuff.” Based on what Porthos has currently put together in their “best buys”, mixed packs, and “staff picks”, I think they can be trusted.

Last point: though they specialize in Napa and Sonoma, Porthos does have a few bottles from other areas, and also offers a very limited selection of “Passport International Wines“. Again, I have to say that I like what they’ve chosen; for example, their current choices include two bottles from Chateau Routas — who I think makes some of the best pink wine in the world — and a Cahors from Clos La Coutale (IMHO, one of the best bangs for your buck when it comes to Cahors).

So if you are into the wines of Sonoma and Napa counties, I suggest you at least take a browse of Porthos.com and see for yourself. And please, leave your comments here on what you think of their selections and service.

(By the way, if you didn’t major in English Lit in college, you may not know what “Porthos” means. Porthos is the name of one of the “Three Musketeers” — specifically, the wild and amiable, wine-drinking musketeer — from the Alexandre Dumas novel.)