A Sommelier's wine secrets
Just a few decades ago, if you asked any wine expert to name the preeminent winemaking regions of Tuscany, they would place Chianti Classico and the surrounding sub-zone of Chianti at the top of the list. This latter expanse includes the prestigious hilltop towns of Montalcino, birthplace of the Brunello grape and Montepulciano, producer of the renowned Vino Nobile. Along the Tuscan Coastline, a mere 60 miles away, lies the remote winemaking area of Maremma.
There’s no doubt in my mind that wine fermented in oak barrels has a very different and distinct flavor than wine fermented in stainless steel. The phenolic material from an oak barrel ultimately imparts a variety of flavors depending on the growing region of the trees, tightness or width of the wood grain and toasting levels (light, medium or strong) of the barrels. The flavors that the wine barrels impart into the wine are technically called organoleptic characteristics.
The French oak used in making barrels comes from three particular growing regions in northern, eastern and central France. In general, French oak possesses organoleptic characteristics of butter, smoke and clove. Each region imparts additional, unique flavors in the wine. For example, oak from the north-central region possesses flavors of spice, while the south-central regions impart vanilla. Eastern France produces oak barrels that taste greenish or like spicy pears or apples. Milky, cinnamon spices are found in oak from the central regions of France. American Oak imparts organoleptic flavors of dill, cucumber, coconut, baking spices and vanilla.
If the winemaker wants, he or she can request additional oak related flavors via toasting level such as almonds, tobacco, aniseed, bacon, coffee, pepper, walnut and chocolate. So the next time you have wine that has flavors of creamy vanilla and peppery bacon you’ll know it was from the barrel and not the grapes or terroir.
I recently participated in a barrel tasting and noted something that was quite interesting. All of the barrels contained wine made from Pinot noir grapes grown at the same vineyard site, cared for in the same manner and produced by the same winemaker, yet they had strikingly different characteristics. The only difference was the type of Pinot noir vine that produced the grapes. Pinot noir has a tendency to mutate easily, and over the years, subtle deviations from the original have demonstrated qualities that winemakers wanted to capture. The specific mutations have been duplicated by grafting, resulting in vines that are identical to each other (clones), yet subtly different from other Pinot noir vines, just the same as a violin, cello and viola are related and similar, yet not exactly the same. Winemakers and vineyards use these differences to their advantage and select specific clones to suit their tastes and environment. So when you get a bottle of Pinot noir, the wine may be produced from one single clone or a combination of several clones depending on the intention of the winemaker.
Syrah is one of my favorite wines to make and drink. Shiraz, on the other hand, is not one of the wines on my list of favorites. I find this amazing since the wine is made from the same grape. It’s just the climate and winemaker that creates the vast differences in the style, aroma and flavors of the wine. Rhône style Syrah wine possesses a certain elegance, along with an earthiness and notes of black current, white pepper, violet and olive. On the other end of the spectrum, Shiraz wine possesses a denser, fruit forward and tannic characteristic with notes of blackberry, plum, jam, violet and licorice. One grape, two totally different wines.
The Secret Sommelier
Sometimes Sommeliers just want to drink and not think, so letting someone else pair wine for you is the best treat ever. On a recent lunch trip to Spago Beverly Hills, I decided not act like a knowledgeable wine professional, but to sit in the passenger seat and let someone else drive for a little while. Well, I was so impressed by the outstanding experience that I decided it warranted writing a blog about it. In fact, this little episode has blossomed into a new road show for me that I’m going to call The Secret Sommelier. Every once in a while, when I’m dining out, I’m going to keep my wine knowledge to myself, be a careful observer and later blog about my wine pairing experience.
To give you a little background, Spago was the first restaurant that famous Chef Wolfgang Puck opened in 1982 and has remained an LA dining destination ever since. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Spago wine list is the most extensive and comprehensive in Los Angeles. This 65-page book of wines is daunting even for the most hard-core wine professional, so it made sense for this to be my first stop.
There’s just something inviting about a Bordeaux blend. Maybe it’s the rich, full-bodied, hefty sensation of blackberry and black cherry flavors with notes of spices, chocolate and vanilla. It might be the way they complement dishes that contain game, venison or pheasant. There’s no doubt that a Bordeaux blend is the classic example of a great wine. A true French Bordeaux blend requires the combination of two or more specific grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Gros Verdot, Petite Verdot and St. Macaire. There is also such a thing as a white Bordeaux blend which contains Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes.
Here in the United States, we have historically referred to such Bordeaux blends as “Meritage,” providing they meet certain varietal requirements. In the late 1980’s, a few American (Californian) vintners coined the “Meritage” name to circumvent varietal labeling requirements and increase market share. The name itself was actually a blend of two words, Merit and Heritage. Meritage quickly became associated with an exceptional, high quality blended wine and not your generic, everyday, red table wine.
So, if you’re shuffling through the wine store seeking out a deep, rich wine, the odds are pretty good that a Meritage, or even better, a French Bordeaux will not only meet, but
When I lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, I was astounded by the numerous uses of wine for “medicinal purposes.” It seemed every household had its secret stash of wine for the occasional medical emergency. Interestingly enough, these emergencies occurred precisely around the end of the day, in close proximity to dinner. I don’t know why this was such a surprise, for I knew that wine had been used for therapeutic remedies for thousands of years. Specifically, in 3000 B.C., the Sumerians consumed wine and used medications made with wine for medicinal purposes. Homer’s Iliad refers to wine being administered to wounded soldiers for wound dressings, as a cooling agent for fevers, and imbibed for use as a purgative and diuretic (JAMA, 1977). In seventeenth-century England, wine was used as a tonic for preventing illness and as an important component of therapeutic remedies to provoke vomiting, sneezing and to clear imbalances in the upper body (Tree, 27). In colonial America, wine was used to cure colic, worms and green sickness (A. Johns, 1947). My personal favorite is for wine infused with sage as a cure for married women suffering from “melancholy.” Did they prescribe 750 mls taken before your husband gets home for that malady? I’ll have to remember wine for its purgative properties the next time I hear about the newly found wonders of Resveratrol.
So you’ve fallen in love with that new find, a trendy Pink Moscato wine that you found on the grocery store shelf with a sticker that says it’s only $5.99. You’d be surprised to know that Moscato is actually one of the oldest domesticated grapes in the world with a long, luscious history. Moscato, Moscatel and Moscadello grapes are all derived from the same geographically diverse, easy growing ancient grape varietal, Muscat. The Egyptians and Persians were onto the fact that Muscat was a fabulous, quaffable deck wine as far back as 3,000 – 1,000 BC. There are four principal varieties of Muscat, in differing berry hues and intensities, which include Muscat Hamburg, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Blanc A Petits Grains (literally means small berries) and Muscat Ottonel. To make this simple fact more confusing the name of the growing region is added to the grape name, while others, the name is altered slightly based on the location. For example Moscato di Asti (Italy) Muscat d’ Alsace (Austria), Moscatel (Spain), Muskateller (Germany) Tamaioasa Alba (Romania) Tokaji (Hungary), Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (Loire), Muscat du Cap Corse (Corsica) and many, many more. The Muscat grape lends itself to various wine-making styles and techniques unique to each wine region, so some Muscat wines can be mass produced (Pink Moscato of California), light and fizzy (Moscato di Asti - Italy), dry still wines (Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise - Loire) and also viscous, decadently sweet wine (Tokaji - Hungary). Despite the numerous sobriquets and variety of styles, it doesn’t seem to matter where the grapes is grown or how the wine is made, but there is a universal love for Muscat.
Dom Perignon didn’t do it, Madam Clicquot didn’t do it, it was the British that did it. I know it hurts, but the British should actually get credit for creating Champagne. For decades people have assumed that the French were the inventors of Champagne. However, the first ever-documented mention of champagne in any language was from an English text in 1676, which claims the English used to import French wines in casks and then add sugar and molasses to create champagne (The Champagne Shop, 2002). Even worse, the British produced stronger, more durable glass bottles to withstand the pressure which is created by the champagne. And, the final straw, the British rediscovered the use of cork in Champagne bottles before the French, since cork had been used in England since Roman times.
So, where was Monsieur Perignon when all of this was happening? It appears while Britain was advancing their champagne production techniques, Dom Pérignon. was busy trying to remove the bubbles from his wine, thinking that they were a flaw. And Madame Clicquot was desperately trying to remove the yucky stuff that settled to the bottom of the champagne bottle.
The next time you’re enjoying a great glass of Champagne you can blame the British.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the ancient Greeks were both thinkers and drinkers. It wasn’t until a near trademark infringement situation that I realized the Greeks had a plethora of vessels for wine. The Athena (mother) of all wine carrying vessels was the amphora, a large two handled carboy used in shipping large quantities of wine. Next, and slightly smaller, was the crater, a large bowl used to mix the wine with water before drinking. What’s up with that? The kylix, a gallon size wine jug, was used for transporting wine from the crater to the oinochoe, a one handed pitcher. Finally, the smallest of all wine vessels was the cantharos, a two handled cup for drinking the wine.
This leads me to think that there was a vast amount of wine being made, transferred and consumed by the Greeks during this particular era in history. However, I also think that the Greeks were more concerned about quantity than quality, which may say something about Greek wine today. My feeling is that if the ancient Greeks even thought about quality, it was probably only after drinking it in quantity.