Monthly Archives: April 2011

How to Read The (American) Wine Label

I love browsing Snooth and quite often find myself sucked into their forum – before you know it, an hour has gone by! 

Anyway, here’s a question that wasn’t from y’all.  A new enthusiast posed this question in the forum. But, I figure if she wonders, probably lots of others do, too, so think of this as “Reading the Wine Label 101”. 

Question: I just purchased a bottle of Campus Oaks – Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi 2007. Now what that all means…not sure yet; but that is something that I would like to learn. What certain wines mean and what the 2007 stands for? The year that it was bottled, picked off the vine or what!?!?

Now, reading an American wine label is a cake walk compared to most any European label, so let’s start with that. And, fortunately, most new-world wine labels have similar requirements behind them. Grab yourself a bottle and take a look. I just took a bottle of Ideology Cabernet Sauvignon from my “cellar”.

The brand name is usually the biggest thing on the label ūüėČ

Vintage date Next it says 2006: The vintage date is the harvest date. It’s kind of like putting up jam. The weather during the growing season has a huge impact on wine flavors (think of the difference between unripe fruit, perfectly ripe fruit and over-ripe fruit. It’s a simplification, but you get the idea). Continue reading



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Q & A: I Thought Malbec is from Argentina

Question from Bob: Hi! I'm confused. I thought Malbec is from Argentina but you said it's a Bordeaux variety. What's the story? 

Hi, Bob! Thanks for writing. When you look at the shelves of your local wine shop, it's completely understandable that you'd think Malbec is from Argentina, but it was imported to Argentina from France in the mid 1800s. And, then, it' wasn't until the mid 1990s that it really took off as the "it" wine from Argentina. 

Its origins are uncertain, but we know it's been in Southwest France since at least the 1700s and was the most widely-planted variety there until the 1950s. If you've ever had a bottle of the rustic Cahors (where it's called Cot) from southern France, it's at least 70% Malbec. There's also a small amount grown in the Loire Valley, where it's called Cot or Auxerrois.    

In Bordeaux it was used to give the wine weight and color, but the plantings have greatly declined over the past several decades mainly because it's difficult to get it ripe in that relatively cool climate. 

Virtually all wine grapes, worldwide, are of European origin and are members of the species Vitus Vinifera. And, Vinifera came to Europe via Georgia and Armenia. Wine is also made of native American varieties, but it has a tiny market niche. We seems to prefer these old-fashioned varieties that have been used for centuries.

But, no one would argue with you that when it comes to Malbec, Argentina is the immediate association. In fact, any number of producers in Cahors are known to be copying the "new world" style of Argentinean Malbec and ramping up marketing trying to get a piece of the Malbec action! 

Hope that helps. Cheers! Nancy

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Q & A: What’s a Bordeaux Blend?

Question from Eleanor: What’s a Bordeaux Blend? 

Reply: Thanks for writing, Eleanor! If you’ve heard of a Meritage (pronounced like “heritage” – it isn’t a French term), it’s the same thing. It’s a blend made of a mix of grapes that came to America from Bordeaux. These are the big five: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It’s almost always red, but the best known white Bordeaux varieties are Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

If you’ve ever purchased a red Bordeaux, you’ve probably noticed that there’s no mention of the grape varieties. The French regulate which varieties can be used for commercial production for each region. Commit this to memory and it will be easier to buy your Bordeaux: We usually break down the wines by referring to them as right bank or left bank (the banks of the Gironde River that flows through Bordeaux).  The Left Bank, also called Medoc, is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and for the Right Bank (Pomerol, St. Emilion), Merlot takes the lead. With a few exceptions, the other varieties are used in very small quantities.  

Each variety contributes something a little different to the blend. Conventional wisdom:

Cabernet Sauvignon: Power, black fruit and structure
Merlot: Softer, fleshier, red fruit mixed in with the black
Cabernet Franc: Herbaceous, adds perfume, not too tannic
Malbec: Dark pigment, adds a sense of bigness
Petit Verdot: Very deeply colored, pumps up the volume, black fruit, spice Continue reading


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Q & A: Do Those Wine Aerators Work?

Question from Sean: Do those wine aerators work? 

Reply: Hi, Sean! Thanks for writing. This is a question that’s come up a lot over the past few years. 

Let me tell you about a little experiment I did. I got together a bunch of friends who are probably more experienced with wine than a lot of people. I served them 2 wines, blind. One was poured fresh out of the bottle and the other went through a wine aerator.

Their job was to tell me which glass had been aerated and, also, which glass they preferred.

You guessed it. The results were all over the board. Nearly half the group was wrong about which one had been aerated and there was no clear preference. For those of you who insist on a scientific, carefully controlled approach, this wasn’t it. This was done very casually. But, nevertheless, it’s hard not to conclude that the aerators probably don’t work.

Continue reading


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How to Taste: Tasting the wine

Finally!! I saved the best for last…

We’ve taken a look, swirled, slurped, learned about why it’s great to use a wine aroma wheel to get your sensory wheels turning. I should have mentioned that Vinography has a similar tool you can download.

And now your reward. Let’s taste! 

If this is your first sip of the day it may be a  bit of a shock. It’s the rare wine that pairs well with Colgate ūüėČ So, take a second sip, using the slurping technique, and think about how the wine tastes and feels.

Does it taste good? That’s the most important thing of all! 

Flavor: What’s your overall impression? Do the flavors echo the aroma or are they different (the wine maker usually hopes for some kind of connection). Can you pick out any flavors in particular? Fruity, floral and vegetative flavors are usually grape derived. Coffee, coconut, grilled bread, vanilla and butter are just a few examples of barrel-derived flavors. 

Mouthfeel: Does the wine seem to coat your palate or refresh it (cream vs. lemonade) Is it soft or astringent?  Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Canopy Management

The growing season has begun in earnest and now’s the time for vineyard managers in the northern hemisphere to focus on canopy management. 

Actually, there’s always canopy management to do, since winter pruning is also a form of it. 

Canopy = the green shoots that emerge from the dormant vines every spring. 

Winter pruning is done with the theory that for each bud, or growing point, that remains after pruning there will be one shoot. And for each shoot, an average of two grape clusters. But, as a good friend and wine consultant once said to me: “The vines don’t read the textbook!” So, it’s up to the vineyard manager to check out what’s actually happened and decide what, if anything, to do about it – canopy management. Continue reading

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How To Taste: Smelling the Wine

Maybe you’ve laughed when you’ve seen someone in a tasting a room walking around with his nose stuck in the glass. OK – fair enough – it looks pretty silly. But, sometimes a wine is so good that smelling it is almost enough. I said almost

Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. Since smell is taste, nosing the wine (checking out the way it smells) can be ever so pleasurable and it also gives you an idea of what to expect from the flavors. 

So, we’ve already gone over why you want to swirl the wine. And we’ve talked about the benefit of using a wine aroma wheel or something like it. 


OK, give the wine a good, vigorous swirl for several seconds and pop your nose in the glass (no long-distance sniffing). First and foremost, does it smell good? Every other consideration pales in importance to this! What do you smell? Is it a fresh smell or a rich smell? Have you smelled a wine with a stronger fragrance before? Or less fragrant? You’re beginning to gage aromatic intensity.  Continue reading

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How To Taste: Wine Aroma Wheel

Onward with the tasting tips: 

You know that frustrating moment when you smell something and you KNOW what it is, but you can’t quite come up with the name? There’s a really helpful tool for that called the Wine Aroma Wheel. It was developed at University of California at Davis, one of the best wine schools in the world, to help us use common language to describe wine. 

Instead of saying something esoteric, like “The wine reminds me of a warm day on the ChampsÉlysées…” you describe something that others can relate to. Everyone know what raspberry smells/tastes like. Everybody knows licorice…

The center of the wheel has the broadest descriptors and becomes more specific as you work your way out. For instance, if you have a generally fruity impression, as you work your way outward, it asks questions: “Does is remind you of citrus fruit? Or berries? Maybe a little of each?” And then becomes more specific, yet: “You say citrus fruit. Is it more like grapefruit or orange?” Continue reading

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Another Wine Word: Frost Protection!


Springtime visitors to Napa Valley have been known to call the cops in the middle of the night to complain about low-flying aircraft near their hotel. I wonder how many calls the county gets per season… 

I’ll bet it happened several times over this past weekend because both Friday and Saturday nights I heard the unmistakable hum (unmistakable once you know what it is) of wind machines.  

What this means is that some poor vineyard manager had to get up in the wee hours (I heard the hum starting at around 2:00 both nights) and drive around the vineyard with his thermos of coffee checking temperatures and deciding if/when they should turn on the wind machine(s) to protect the new growth from frost damage.  Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Budbreak


Better late than never! As you drive through Napa Valley, you’ll notice little bits of fragile, lovely green growth on the tough, woody vines – a sure sign of spring. 

The vines are like rose bushes – they drop all their leaves and go dormant after harvest. All you see in the winter months is the vine skeleton – they really look like their dead. But to me, even dormant vines have a special, craggy beauty. Just by looking, it’s hard to imagine they’d ever grow again, but low and behold, just like every year the buds of the dormant vines have swollen up and pushed out the first, tender new growth of the season. 

Normally, we look for bud break in mid March. But after a very wet, cold (by our standards!) winter the vines chose to sleep in this year and the first bits of pink and green growth appeared in early April.

So, the 2011 vintage is off to a late start. And, that’s neither good nor bad – it all depends upon what happens, weather-wise, between now and harvest, in the fall. A late beginning can mean a late harvest, which increases the chance of rain damage. But, a few weeks of really warm weather, and the vines catch right up!

So, what I’m saying is, it’s way too soon to have the slightest inkling about the 2011 vintage. Stay tuned…

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