Tag Archives: red wine

What’s the Difference Between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot?

Checking the most common searches, lots of you seem to be wondering what the difference is between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Let’s take a quick look:

Which do you reach for most often? Do you have a favorite brand?

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Grape of the Week: Syrah/Shiraz

Syrah_ucd

Syrah, UC Davis

Since we made a virtual visit to the Rhône last week, with Viognier, we may as well stay in the neighborhood and check out the most important red grape in the region, Syrah, AKA Shiraz.

What to expect
How about a little intensity?  Expect deep, rich, concentrated flavors – nearly black in color – with spice and tannin to spare! The best will still show beautifully 20 years down the road.

Where Pinot Noir is the seductive “gateway” red, Syrah is for the convicted red-wine lover. The exception is the high production/low-end fruity, somewhat sweet versions that come from Australia. But just as White Zin isn’t representative of the best of California’s Zinfandel, these big-box store bargains don’t tell the whole story for Australia. They also produce some magnificent examples! Penfold’s Grange, for instance.

Of course, Shiraz is the name they use for Syrah in Australia. And, don’t let them hear you say “Shih-RAHZ!” They’re quite definite that it’s pronounced “Shih-RAZZ.” Continue reading

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Grape of the Week: Zinfandel

Zin_ucd

With the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) Festival only about a week away, let’s talk Zin!

For a long time we called Zinfandel “The California grape.” In fact, I still see references to Zin as a uniquely American or Californian wine. That, in spite of the fact that it doesn’t look like, taste like or have the growing habits of native-American varieties. Everything about it screams vinifera (vines of European origin) but no one could find its European counterpart. And, foolishly, because it didn’t appear to have the European pedigree, added on to the fact that its generosity of yield made it a staple for “jug reds”, it didn’t get much respect until recently.

Does it deserve respect? You betcha! If it isn’t truly a California grape, it’s certainly our heritage grape. This was the most popular wine variety in California in the late 1800s up until prohibition. Thank heavens for the industrious home winemakers and bootleggers during those thirteen years. Without them, most of the Zin would have been planted over to prunes or walnuts and we wouldn’t be able to enjoy all the wonderful old-vine Zins we take for granted today. And, thanks go to the White Zinfandel producers beginning in the 1970s, too. Same story. Without White Zin, most of those old vines would have been bulldozed decades ago, when red Zin fell out of favor. Today, Zinfandel is #4 on the list of top varieties planted in California, behind Merlot (#3), Cabernet (#2) and Chardonnay.

TIP! When you buy a California “field blend” Zinfandel is usually a major player, if not the lead player.

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Grape of the Week: Merlot

Merlot_ucd

Since we started out with the King of Grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems only proper to follow up with Cab’s good buddy, Merlot.

The Biggest Question
One of the most common questions I hear at seminars and classes is “What’s the difference between Cabernet and Merlot?” It’s a good question, too, because even winemakers often mix up the two in blind tastings. Perhaps that’s the reason they blend so well – they’re similar.

The most important difference is that Merlot is thin skinned, compared to Cabernet, and slightly plumper, so it can be lighter in color and body (the grape skins are the source of all the color and most of the flavor, texture and tannin in red wine.) And, it’s less tannic, which translates to early drinking enjoyment, right? Merlot often shows red fruit intermingled with black, where Cab is firmly in black territory. And, it’s a bit more herbaceous and leaves a fleshy impression where Cabernet comes off as more structured (tannic) and austere. I love Jancis Robinson’s characterization of Merlot as “Cabernet without the pain.”

The Impact of Sideways: Many blame this comedy (if you have ever toured wine country this movie is a must – my summary is “Two men behaving badly.”) for transforming Merlot from being the “it” red to a fifth wheel. But, what the lead character, Miles, forgot is that Merlot has been making great wine for centuries! In fact, Chateau Pétrus, a great Bordeaux that is consistently one of the world’s most expensive wines, is – you guessed it – Merlot. It runs around $1000.00/bottle these days.

TRIVIA! The most expensive wine ever sold is a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite – a first growth from the Medoc). It went for $160,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1985. Thomas Jefferson’s initials, etched on the glass, added immeasurably to its value.   Continue reading

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White Wine Food, When You Feel Like Red

Redwine

photo from dharmabumx on Flickr

Does that ever happen to you? Happens to me all the time. My protein of choice seems to call for white, but I really want a glass of deep, satisfying red wine. Well, most often I say “The heck with it.” and have what I want. As I’ve said, ad nauseum, most wines and foods taste pretty good together and it’s silly to worry about pairing.

But, the fact is, if you haven’t actually cooked the protein yet, there are bridge builders you can use to make a better match.

You could use a pork chop as an example – or chicken breast – or even a piece of sword fish or halibut.

My favorite bridge builders?  

Grill it! Those blackened, crusty grill marks can pull the dish into the red wine column. The grilled flavor loves tannin and makes the oak pop. Still not quite right? Add salt and lemon juice (thank you Tim Hanni.) Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Extractive

Cap

Question from Jess: You used the word extractive in a recent post. What do you mean?

Reply: Hi, Jess. Thanks for writing! And shame on me for using wine jargon without taking the time to explain it.

As you know, all of the color and most of the flavor, texture and tannin in red wine comes from the grape skins. The juice of most any dark grape is clear. So, depending upon how long the juice and skins are in contact you can make white, rose or red wine!

TRIVIA! This great versatility served our wine pioneers well. In the early days of California’s wine history there was only one variety, the Mission grape, available. From the 1500s until the 1800s every style of wine – white, red, brandy and a dessert wine known as Angelica – was made from this one, dark variety.

Anyhoo, when a red wine is described as extractive it means that it’s extremely dense, probably nearly black in color and extremely concentrated in flavor. Often these extractive reds are also accompanied by high alcohol (alcohol is a solvent) and, in recent years, some can seem almost syrupy.

Depending upon who you’re talking to, “extractive” as a descriptor may be interpreted as a compliment or a slam. 

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How to Taste: Color and Clarity

I always place aroma and flavor waaay ahead of appearance as a priority, but the color can communicate quite a lot to you the second the wine goes into the glass.

The first thing to know is that wine isn’t like a bottle of Scotch. It continues to change in the bottle and the color is a good indicator of where it is in its evolution. Some wines improve with bottle age, but most don’t. It’s always smart to ask questions when you buy wine because each wine ages at its own rate.

To get a good look at what’s going on it helps to have a white background like a white tablecloth or a white piece of paper (I use legal-sized copy paper for place mats when I host a tasting at home).

Hold the glass at a 45-degree angle against the white background and take a look. The wine should be brilliantly clear, and free of UFOs (unidentified floating objects – a little cork won’t hurt you!). Ideally, the wine should be physically beautiful! If it’s cloudy, it’s possible that the wine is past its prime or spoiled, but never let this put you off of tasting it to make sure. If it’s spoiled it can’t hurt you – just offend you! So, if it tastes okay, it is okay, and down the hatch! But, clarity is the ideal. Continue reading

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