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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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Entries in wine (20)


Grapes, Grapes, Grapes

Last week I talked about the basics of how grapes get turned into wine. This week, let’s talk about grapes.

As I mentioned last time, almost all commercially produced wine is made from Vitis vinifera grapes. There are, however, a huge number of varieties within this species. The technical name of for these are cultivars, but you’ll usually heard these referred to as varieties or varietals. You’ve probably heard of some of them: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel. Figuring these out, having a sense of what flavors these tend to produce, is for me the first step to understanding wine.

So how to do you know what varietals are in a bottle of wine? That depends on where the wine is from. In most New World wine — wine from North and South America, or from Australia — the varietal will be listed right on the label, so that helps. In the US, labeling laws vary from state to state, but usually a wine must be composed of at least 75% of a varietal to be labeled that way. So if you get a bottle of Zinfandel from California, at least 75% of the wine in there comes from Zinfandel grapes.

Sometimes you’ll encounter what’s called a “proprietary blend” which has no single grape that makes up the minimum required percentage. For example, in my cellar I’ve got several bottles of the Foothils Reserve from Foxen Vineyard. This is a blend of Cabernet Franc (44%), Merlot (41%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (15%). The producer doesn’t have to disclose these percentages, but more and more are putting them on the back labels or in tasting notes as consumers become more savvy.

And then you get European wines, which often have no names of grape varietals at all on the bottle. That’s because most European wine labeling laws operate on the basis of geography. In order for a wine to be labeled with the name of a region, it has to be made with a certain grape or blend of grapes determined by what was historically grown there. Chianti, for example, is a region in Tuscany (Toscano). In order to be labeled Chianti, a wine must be made with grapes grown there, at least 80% of which are Sangiovese grapes. If the grapes are grown in the region but are not Sangiovese, you can’t call it Chianti. Most regions, however, are nested inside of other regions with less restrictive rules. So a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Chianti must be declassified and labeled as a Toscano. Depending on the region, the producer may or may not put the grape varietals on the label. In fact, until recently it was illegal for producers of Bourgogne Blanc — that is, white Burgundy — to put Chardonnay on the front label, even though these wines were 100% Chardonnay. You just had to know that white Burgundy was Chardonnay.

This gets further down the whole “how do I read a wine label” road than intended, but it’s a useful preview of a topic I’m going to come back to. Next time I’ll get into the major varietals and what seeing them on a label should tip you off to. But in the meantime: What are varietals are you drinking?


Fitness: Rest day (and waiting for new running shoes)
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 367 words, 268 seven-day average, 267 average, 33648 total, 352 to go for the week; 22-day streak

Portland, Day Two

We are no danger of starving in Portland.

When last we left our hero, he was waiting for his lovely bride so they could go get some dinner. We ended heading over to the Oregon Brewers Festival for a little while before finally heading to dinner at Veritable Quandry. Their wine list was impressive; we ended up enjoying a pair of rosés while we waited on the patio for our table, which were a perfect match for the summer evening. When we finally sat down, I had the good sense to order the roasted wild mushroom & baby spinach salad with buttermilk blue cheese & pancetta vinaigrette. We decided to share and devoured it as soon as it arrived. Gwen opted for the Wild Oregon King Salmon with orange vinaigrette served with bulgur, pistachios, mint, cucumber, radish, yogurt & cumin. I had the Oregon Black Cod wrapped in prosciutto with shaved fennel, Dungeness crab, fingerling potatoes & lemon aioli, the last of which was really the key to the dish. And despite the hour, we just couldn’t resist desert, so Gwen got the Warm Black Beauty Plum Tartlet, and I had the Peanut Brittle Banana Split, which was absolutely delicious with the glass of Pedro Ximenez sherry I ordered. Dinner ended up being both later and better than we usually eat, so by the time we stumbled back to our hotel around midnight, we were happy to get to bed.

Today Gwen was off to classes at Sock Summit, which left me on my own to find for myself. I had a very nice run along the riverfront before heading out in search of an early lunch. I ended up at Kenny and Zuke’s, a delicatessen recommended to us by at least three different people. It was transcendently good — the pickle platter taught me that I don’t dislike sweet pickles, I’ve just not had well-made ones. The Ken’s Special, a pastrami sandwich with chopped liver, coleslaw and Russian dressing, was amazing, especially when washed down with a Henry Weinhard’s Cream Soda, whose sweetness cut through the fat, salt, and vinegar of the rest of the meal. And I am now horribly tempted to find a way to incorporate the grumpy chef I watched for a good half-hour from my counter seat into a bit of fiction, because he was such a wonderful character. So overall, I survived my abandonment.

At noon I headed back to the Oregon Brewers Festival, which we had started sampling the night before. My new-found beer tasting knowledge was put to good use. I managed to taste at least a quarter of the 80+ beers on tap here, and I think I got through the ones I’m most interested in. It wasn’t as fun without a tasting companion — Gwen and I got stopped twice last night because “we looked like we knew what we were doing.” I ended up bailing before I got crazy busy, which was just about when Gwen got back from her classes.

We ended up going to Grüner, which was lovely. The weather was quite pleasant, so we decided to sit outside and ended up at a stylishly black-lacquered picnic bench. They had a flight of four German rieslings made in four different styles which we each decided to get and build the meal around. With the sparkling and the dry we split an appetizer and a salad — the charcuterie plate (speck, spicy coppa, soppressata, house-made mortadella, liverwurst canapés, country pâté, mustard, and pickles) and a salad of green beans, blackberries, goat cheese, hazelnuts, duck cracklings, black currant vinaigrette, and crispy shallots. With the Kabinett, I had the choucroute garnie — a plate of bratwurst, saucisson, cider braised pork belly, house-cured pork tenderloin, covered with sauerkraut and served with sweet mustard and yukon gold potatoes. It paired wonderfully with the wine. Gwen’s sweet & sour rabbit marinated in red wine and braised with spring onions, carrots, juniper, black pepper & rosemary, with chive-potato dumplings didn’t go as well, so we indulged our wine geekery and ordered a glass of Blaufränkish, which did go with it. For desert we split the cheese plate and the honey-walnut cake, accompanied by an Auslese riesling and something I’d never seen before: a Pinot Noir Trockenbeerenauslese. (This will either make sense to you or take too long to explain why it’s unusual.) It ended up being just as good as the dinner from last night, but both lighter and earlier. We took advantage of the not-yet-late hour to stroll along the riverfront before heading back to hotel.

So yes, I’d say were doing a pretty good job of eating and drinking our way across Portland.


Fitness: Ran 3 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 262 words, 333 seven-day average, 266 average, 32180 total, 320 to go for the week; 16-day streak

Wine Away

Several folks on Twitter asked me to start blogging about wine, so for the foreseeable Wednesday will be wine day on the blog. As with Reader Request Month, I think this will work best if you ask me questions.

So, what do you want to know about wine?

Fitness: Ran 2.25 miles + One Hundred Pushups, Week 1, Day 2 (6-8-6-6-13)
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 155 words, 402 seven-day average, 261 average, 29223 total, 777 to go for the week


Becoming Less (or More) Dangerous

I wrote yesterday that I’m in the process of trying to learn more about tasting beer. It is, as they say, a mileage sport. I used to teach a wine-tasting class, and I told my students that the best way to learn about wine was to drink it consciously. It’s that “consciously” part that’s important. When you try a wine and you like it, it’s important to ask, “What do I like about this wine?” Then you figure out what clues you get from the label that tells you those elements are there. So if you find that you like crisp, white wines with bracing acidity, you can start paying attention to what varieties and regions are most likely to give you wines like that.1 The goal is to make it easier to find wines that you like, so that you can spend more time drinking them and not wines you don’t.

I developed my knowledge about wine by doing two things early in my wine-tasting career: reading a lot and tasting a lot. Two books in particular were invaluable to me: Great Wine Made Simple and The Wine Bible. The former broke down the process of evaluating a wine into components I could start to wrap my head around. Until I knew what elements were be present in wine (in the flavor, for example, fruit, tannin, acidity, and alcohol) I not only couldn’t describe wine, I couldn’t actually make sense of what I was tasting. The latter equipped me with knowledge about what grapes are grown where and in what styles so I had a clue of which of those elements were likely to be present. When I combined the tasting techniques and the wine knowledge to all the wine-tasting I was doing, I knew what to taste for and had words to describe it. [2]

This is what’s been missing in my beer tasting. Fortunately, I’ve found something to help me, specifically, the Beer Judging Certification Program style guidelines. These break down different styles and sub-styles of beer and describe what competition judges should be looking for. Even better, they’re available as an iPhone app. And as it turns out, reading these while drinking beer suddenly improved my beer tasting ability.

So the other night when I was drinking a Dunkelweiss, I read over what a beer competition judge would be looking for. When I saw “Low to moderately strong banana and clove flavor” my brain said, “Ah, that’s what that is.” So I looked at the adjacent Weizen/Weissbier category, I realized those aromas and flavors are what this beer and the hefeweizens I’ve been enjoying have in common.

And just like that beer started to be like wine for me.


Fitness: None
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 87 words, 274 seven-day average, 258 average, 21667 total

1 Which means you probably want to be drinking Sauvignon Blancs that are fermented in stainless steel, like those from New Zealand, the Loire Valley in France, and certain California wineries.

2 This is the Kolb Learning Cycle in action.


Mostly a Danger to Myself

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then I’m slightly dangerous when it comes to beer.

A few weeks ago I picked up a bottle each of the Chimay Première (Red) and Grande Réserve (Blue) beers to taste side by side. I’ve become a fan of Belgian abbey-style beers over the last year or two (due in no small part to the influence of the Trappist) but I hadn’t done a lot of head-to-head comparison to refine my preferences. As we were tasting them, Gwen started asking enough questions that eventually made me realize that I don’t know that much about tasting beer. I couldn’t tell you, for example, what a Belgian abbey-style beer is supposed to taste like and why.

When it comes to tasting wine, I’m on pretty solid ground. Gwen has a more sensitive palate than I do, but I have a lot of background knowledge that helps me interpret that sensory data. For example, a few months ago we went to a blind tasting where were given six wines and two lists, one with five grape varieties and one with five wine growing regions. For each wine, we had to figure out what grape it was and what region it was from. The first thing I did was to take the list of twenty-five possible combinations and narrow it down to eight or so real possibilities, based on my knowledge of what grapes are grown where. Then I just had to taste the six wines and figure out what the most likely fits were, based on what I knew those eight or so possibilities should taste like. The result: I got five out of six.

The problem I’ve had with beer is that I don’t have that background knowledge. I don’t know what to taste for, and consequently, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe beer. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how I’ve started to fix that.


Fitness: Ran 5 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 266 words, 313 seven-day average, 260 average, 21580 total
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