Monthly Archives: April 2012

Wine Quote du Jour


“When it comes to wine, I tell people to throw away the vintage charts and invest in a corkscrew. The best way to learn about wine is the drinking.”

~Alexis Lichine, vintner/wine writer/wine scholar

Yup! Hit the wine bar! Order wine by the glass! Start a tasting group! Cheers!

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What’s the Correct Order for Serving Wine?

Question from Lily: I’m having a wine-tasting party and I wonder if there’s a correct order for serving wine.  

Reply: Hi, Lily. Thanks for asking! Assuming you’re serving some tidbits, they kind of cloud the issue – the food changes the wine and vice versa. Plus, if your friends are like mine, they’re total anarchists when it comes to eating and drinking…

However, there is a normal progression for wine tastings and when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. 

Here’s how it goes: Serve the wines from light to dark and dry to sweet. 

Why? The wines with deeper color usually are “bigger”, or heavier, than the lighter colored ones. If you taste the big wine first, the lighter wine seems almost flavorless. So, even within the white wine category, serve the lightest colored white first. 

TRIVIA! Color can be very communicative in terms of what to expect from the wine. Very light whites, those that are almost as clear as a glass of water, probably never saw the inside of a barrel and are still relatively young and fresh. Time in the barrel allows the wine to oxidize a bit, which deepens the color and concentrates the wine a bit so it’s a touch heavier. BTW, this continues in the bottle. So, if the wines are about the same age, it explains why your favorite New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has almost no color and a rich glass of Chardonnay looks kind of yellow. 

What’s the difference between dry and sweet? Dry is the opposite of sweet. For most of us the threshold is about 1/2 of 1%. Anything less than that is referred to as “dry” and the fermentation may take the wine all the way down to something in the neighborhood of .02% – That’s DRY!  If you taste a sweet wine, followed by a dry one, the dry wine will taste sour.

TIP!  The same principle holds with food and wine pairing. If you pair sweet food with dry wine the wine will taste sour.  The wine should be at least as sweet as the food.

Lily, I hope your party is a blast! Cheers!

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How to Read a Wine Label


Dontcha just love this label?!

So, what do all those designations on it really mean? For today, let’s just take a look at American wine labels. Fortunately, the regulations behind other new-world labels are extremely similar – how convenient! The old world is quite another matter.

The Brand
Of course, this is self explanatory, although don’t forget the “virtual” producer, which doesn’t have a brick and mortar winery. There are lots of them and these producers are usually so small that they can’t justify building an actual winery. They use a “custom crush” facility like Napa Wine Company (really fun tasting room, BTW!) or use another winery’s equipment. 

Also, restaurants and some stores may feature their own brand. In that case, most likely, they’ve contracted with a winery to produce their wine. I assume that’s true for most celebrity brands, too.  

The Appellation of Origin
When you see a place name such as Oregon or Alexander Valley it refers to where the grapes were grown, not the location of the winery. The government calls this the appellation of origin. To me, this is a make or break issue – some growing regions are a heck of a lot better than others.

If it’s a very general appellation, like the name of a state, this is just a geographical declaration and the minimum requirement is 75%. Individual states my upgrade, but not downgrade, the requirement. For instance, if the label says California, 100% of the grapes must be California grown.
Continue reading

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Are Screw Caps Better than Corks?


Question from Josh: I overheard a server in a wine bar say that screw caps are better than corks. Is that really true?

Reply: Hi, Josh. Thanks for writing. Things have changed so rapidly in the world of wine closures that it’s hard for anyone to keep up! It used to be so simple. Quality wines were finished with natural cork. Any other sort of seal was meant for the cheap stuff.

I’m afraid the best short answer to your question is “I’m not sure.” The thing is, it depends upon the situation.

For wines meant for early drinking, which is most of the world’s wine, I think it’s safe to say that the screw cap is the best choice. That is, in terms of function.

There’s no getting away from the emotional reaction. Surveys show that people are more accepting of screw caps than they used to be, but there are still a lot of folks who just don’t like them. I have to admit that the crack of the screwcap coming off can’t compete with the subtle “pop” of the cork coming out of the bottle when it comes to romance.  

But functionally, they keep the wine fresher longer that a traditional cork. And, that applies to almost all white and rosé wine and even a lot of reds.

That’s great news because with a screw cap there’s zero risk of cork taint – you know – that musty, moldy smell that reminds you of your grandmother’s basement.  They’re also great when you’re on a picnic and forgot you corkscrew!

For wines that are meant for bottle aging – and these are mainly high quality, full-bodied reds and high-end dessert wines – the jury is still out. We’re not sure what to expect over the long term. Continue reading


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What’s This Gunk in my Wine?


Question from Shelly: I have a bottle of port that someone gave me. It’s got gunky stuff just below the bottle neck. Is it okay to drink? 

Reply: Hi, Shelly. Thanks for writing! There’s nothing to worry about when you see that “crust” on the shoulder. It’s quite natural for full-bodied, intense Port wines to throw a significant amount of sediment as they age, particularly when they’re not filtered. In fact, sediment is so much expected and accepted that there’s actually a small category of Port wine called Crusted Port

What it tells me, is that the person who gave you the Port picked out a good one. 

Vintage Port is the top of the line and a tiny part of  the total production of Port. It’s released, unfiltered, after two or three years of barrel age and those lucky enough to own one should plan on aging it at home for at least a few more years before drinking it. There are many of the opinion that you shouldn’t even think of opening Vintage Port until it’s at least ten years old. During those years of bottle age, sediment forms and, assuming you’re storing the wine sideways, it settles there in the shoulder. 

It could also be a LBV (late-bottled vintage) that wasn’t filtered or a Single Quinta (a vintage-dated, single-estate Port but from a lesser year than normal Vintage Port). And, of course, it could be a Crusted Port. Continue reading

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Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc?


Question from Pete: I heard that Sauvignon Blanc and Fumé Blanc are the same grape. Is that true? What’s the difference?

Reply: This comes up all the time. The grape variety is called Sauvignon Blanc. The name Fumé Blanc was dreamed up by Robert Mondavi to help him sell Sauvignon Blanc at a time when it was unpopular.

You have to go back to the 1960s, the when the groundwork was being laid for the second wine boom in California – the first was in the 1880s. In the sixties, very little Sauvignon Blanc was made. And what there was, was usually sweet and mediocre at best.

Robert Mondavi spent significant time in Bordeaux, Burgundy and other famous winegrowing regions in France to observe growing and winemaking techniques. While there, he was quite taken by the dry Sauvignon Blanc wines made in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. He was sure he could sell a similar style at home if he wasn’t encumbered by the unpopular name, Sauvignon Blanc, and all the negative baggage that went with it.

In the Loire Valley, dry Sauvignon Blanc is sold under a variety of names such as Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé and Blanc Fumé. So, he took the name Blanc Fumé and flipped it around to come up with Fumé Blanc.

Sales took off. Never underestimate the power of marketing! He didn’t trademark the name and a number of other wineries adopted it. It’s not as commonly used these days, but you can still buy wine called Fumé Blanc from Grgich Hills, Chateau St. Jean, Ferrari-Carrano, Dry Creek, Hogue Cellars and others.

As it happens, most wineries that have adopted the name oak age their Fumé Blanc, just as Robert Mondavi Winery does. But there’s no regulation in that regard. The best thing to do if you’re shopping is to ask whether the wine is oaked or not so you know what you’re getting.

So, while Fumé Blanc isn’t a grape, it certainly is a wine – and a delicious one!

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French Oak vs. American Oak


Question from Michael: Why do wineries always brag about using French oak?

Reply: The major alternative is American oak. It seems that a lot of wine enthusiasts are aware that the cost of a French oak barrel is over twice that of American barrels. And this seems to build in the idea that no expense was spared and, therefore, a great deal of care must have been taken in making the wine.

Does is make it better? That’s a matter of taste.

There was a time, a few decades ago, that American production methods weren’t well suited to wine. The aroma would bring to mind a construction site and it often had a rough, crude mouthfeel. But that problem has virtually disappeared.

The difference is in the oak species.  American barrels are made from what’s known as White Oak, or Quercus Alba. The physical properties of the wood allow it to impart a good deal of flavor rather quickly so there’s a greater risk of “over-oaking” the wine. It’s also five times higher in a carbohydrate that contributes sweetness. As in France, the region of origin matters and winemakers and barrel builders are beginning to pay more attention to the source. Continue reading

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