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Entries in wine wednesdays (18)


I Loved It Before Sideways

Pinot Noir is without a doubt my favorite grape. If were forced to pick only one wine I could drink for the rest of my life, I would choose Pinot Noir without a moment’s hesitation. Our buying habits bear this out: Pinot actually makes up a little more than 25% percent of the bottles in our cellar.

For me, Pinot has the best balance of fruit flavor, weight, and mouth-feel of any red grape. It’s low in tannin but often high in acid when young, with bright red fruit flavors. Over time, the acid level comes down, the color turns more brick than bright red, and earthy — even mushroom-y — flavors come out. And as it ages it can develop a velvety texture that is simply… transcendent.

Now, I was spoiled on good Pinot in 2002, when Gwen and I went to the World of Pinot Noir, a wine industry event we happened to stumble upon, where we ended up having some world-class, aged Pinot Noirs. It’s been hard to live up to that. But I keep trying.

Pinot Noir’s home is the Burgundy region of France. When we visited there in 2006, we were told that “the wines here are nothing like the wines from California.” By and large, that’s true. Burgundian Pinots are much less fruit-forward, much more lean and austere than California Pinots. They’re also much better suited to aging. Reading the label on a bottle of Burgundy can tell you more about the wine inside the bottle than a label from almost any other region in world, but learning how to read them is a lesson in itself. Perhaps that’s a blog post for another time.

Outside Burgundy, the prime Pinot Noir spots are California (particularly Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and Santa Barbara County), Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and — increasingly — New Zealand. Unsurprisingly, most of our selection is made up of Santa Barbara County Pinots. I find it hard to go wrong with any Pinot Noir made with fruit from the Bien Nacido or Sanford & Benedict vineyards. (Sea Smoke is also highly regarded, but I’m not sure I see the value for the price.) Our favorite producers are Foxen, Alma Rosa, Fiddlehead, and Lane Tanner. We’re members of the first three’s wine clubs; Lane has sadly retired from winemaking, so we’ll have to make due with what we’ve got squirreled away. Outside of out local area, I look to Burgundy, which is, as I said, complex. I’ve learned just enough about it to know that I tend to like Pinots from the Côte de Nuits, particularly from the villages of Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny.

It’s hard to me to write about Pinot, actually, because so much of what I like about it is hard to verbalize. I guess I’ll just have to keep drinking it and working on that.


Fitness: None, still recovering from a cold

The Robin to Cab's Batman

Merlot is Cabernet Sauvignon’s frequent partner because they complement each other so well. Where Cab is high in tannin and late to ripen, Merlot is high in fruit flavor and early to ripen. It’s grown in most of the same regions as Cab, and it’s often blended with it to produce wines that are have both structure and flavor.

When it’s done well, Merlot can be fantastic, either in a blend or bottled separately. Unfortunately, it can also be made into banal, insipid wines that are all too often served for $6 in cheap plastic cups at convention centers and hotels. This, sadly, is most people’s impression of Merlot.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about Merlot. We don’t actually have a lot of it in our cellar; what we do have is almost all from Foxen. We did open a bottle of their Foothills Reserve (Santa Ynez Valley, 2001) which is a blend of 72% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Franc, and it was delicious. My tasting notes on it from April of 2005 said “dark and yummy.” That was still true.


Fitness: Ran 3 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 0 words, 296 seven-day average, 285 average, 53909 total, 1091 to go for the week

Big and Ubiquitous

Cabernet Sauvignon is not a grape that suffers from low self-esteem. It is the most widely planted red wine grape in the world, and it used in some of the most famous and expensive wines in the world. Four of the five Premier Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux — Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, and Château Mouton Rothschild — are made predominantly with Cabernet Sauvignon. As Chardonnay is to white wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is to red. And just as Chardonnay is often people’s first introduction to oakiness in wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is usually their first introduction to tannin.

What is tannin? Have you ever taken a sip of wine and felt afterward like your mouth had been swabbed with cotton? That’s the tannin at work. It’s an astrigent compound found in two important places in the winemaking process: grapeskins and oak barrels. (They’re also present in tea.) Cabernet Sauvignon — or “Cab” to its friends — is a particularly thick-skinned grape, and it develops a substantial amount of tannin, which is then extracted from the skins along with the color. If the wine is aged in new oak barrels, it picks up even more.

I’ll admit that so far I haven’t made tannic wines sound very appealing. You may be wondering why Cab-based wines are held in such high regard. There’s two things that tannins do for a wine. First, tannins are a natural preservative, and their presence is one of the things that makes a wine age-able. As wine ages in an oxygen-free environment, tannins combine with each other and with other compounds in the wine to soften and to fall out of suspension. In the process, the wine goes from being puckery and astringent to being rich and mouth-filling. Cabernet Sauvignon can be made in a low-tannin style so that it can be drunk young, but give those high-tannin wines some time and they can turn into something fantastic.

The second thing that tannins does for wine has to with how it interacts with food. In particular, tannins bind to fat molecules. When you drink it tannic wine, it pulls fat off the surface your tongue into suspension, washing them away, and leaving you better able to taste the next bite. It also means that you don’t get that cotton swab feeling. This is part of where the old saw about “red wine with meat” comes from; tannic wines help cleanse your palate between bites of fatty food. I rarely drink a glass of Cab by itself, but with a well-marbled steak, the wine and the food make each other taste better.

Cabernet Sauvignon has its home in the Bordeaux region of France. There it is often blended with handful of other grapes, most often Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot. Why is it blended? Because while Cab does bring some interesting flavors and aromas to the party — usually dark fruits like blackberry or dark cherry, often accompanied by vegetal notes like bell pepper and spice notes of green peppercorn — what it really contributes to these blends is tannin. Those other grapes I mentioned are lower in tannin but higher in flavor. By combining the them, a winemaker can make a flavorful, full-bodied wine.

Outside France, Cabernet Savignon is grown in nearly every major wine-producing region in the world. Napa Valley in California is particularly famous for it’s Cabs, but there are an increasing number of well-regarded Cabernets from Washington. Argentia and Chile also make them well, and if you ever hear about a “Super Tuscan,” the wine in question is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab is definitely the heavyweight of the red wine world, so you’d do well to figure out if you like it or not.

We don’t have a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon in our cellar, but what we do have are bottles we’ve held onto for a well, because it does benefits from extended cellaring. Among our collection are the Silver Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Barbara County), Foxen Vogelzang Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Ynez Valley), Viña Almaviva Almaviva (Puente Alto, Chile), and the Brander Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Ynex Valley). The youngest of these is from 2003, which tells you a little about we like our Cabs.


Fitness: Ran 3 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 330 words, 326 seven-day average, 285 average, 51508 total, 1162 to go for the week; 4-day streak

On The Way To Red: Rosé

Red wine, eh? Before I dig into red wine varietals, I want to answer an important question: What makes red wine red?

You see, all wine starts life as white wine. Grapes, when first crushed, produce clear juice. If you just squeeze the juice out of red grapes and ferment it, you won’t get red wine. That’s because the color compounds in red grapes — called anthocyanins — are in the skins. The way you get the red color into the wine is by leaving the juice in contact with the skins for a while, often for a week or more.

What if you don’t leave the juice together with the skins for that long? Congratulations, you’ve made a rosé. There are other ways to make pink wine, but by far the tastiest is to crush red grapes, leave the juice on the skins for one to three days, and then press it off. I’ve had a number of excellent dry rosés made this way, from red grapes like Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah. They’re wonderful summertime wines and they’re not at all sweet. Some of our favorites are the Fiddlehead Cellars Pink Fiddle (Santa Rita Hills), the Foxen Rosé of Mourvèdre (Santa Ynez Valley), the Alma Rosa “Vin Gris” Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills), and the Chateau L’Afrique Rosé (Cotes de Provence).

You can’t make red wine from just any grape, however. There’s not enough anthocyanins in Riesling, for example, to do it. But certain varietals do have enough, and we’ll start talking about those next week.


Fitness: Ran 3 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 449 words, 420 seven-day average, 283 average, 49555 total, 945 to go for the week; 15-day streak

The Other White Meat... I Mean Grapes

There are, of course, more than three wine wine grapes. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling do comprise the vast majority of the white wine bought and consumed in the United States (and probably the world). Before moving on to the major red grapes, however, I thought I’d give a few brief mentions of other white grapes you might encounter.

  • Pinot blanc/pinot bianco is a high-acid wine with almost no aromatic intensity of its own. This makes it even more malleable than chardonnay, though the relatively neutral flavor profile makes it easy to overpower the grape with the winemaking style. I don’t think I’ve ever really been impressed with a pinot blanc; the best can I say for it is that makes wines that no one would object to.
  • Pinot gris/pinot grigio is the major white wine grape of Italy; if you’ve had a bottle of white Italian wine, chances are it was pinot grigio. It’s similar to pinot blanc, though often with an even more pronounced acid profile. This is another white wine that rarely impresses me, though I do have several bottles of the Alma Rosa Pinot Gris, which I love. It’s one of my favorite bottles of wine to “open just because” with dinner.
  • Gewürztraminer has one of the most distinct smells of any grape varietal. The best adjective I can come up with to describe it is “perfumed.” It also tends to have a lychee nut flavor, and as such is one of my favor wines to pair with Thai or spicy Chinese food (especially if it is made with a hint of residual sugar to cut the heat). The best Gewürztraminers come from Alsace, where it is very widely planted.
  • Roussane and Marsanne are two of the major white grapes of the Rhône Valley in France. You will usually find them in blends, but every so often you’ll spot a bottle with one of these names on the label.
  • Viognier is, for me, like a cross between Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. It tends to have a very floral nose, but it can also be quite full-bodied. It’s the other major white grape of the Rhône, but you will see it bottled separately more often because its distinctive style. In the northern Rhône, in fact, it is often blended with red grapes to give the resulting red wine an aromatic boost.
There are still more white grapes out there that I love (Chenin Blanc! Semillion! Muscat!), but I think it’s time to move on. Next week, red grapes.


Fitness: Ran 3 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 357 words, 468 seven-day average, 277 average, 46612 total, 1388 to go for the week; 8-day streak