Tag Archives: Varietal

Lusting for Wine: A Dude’s (Or Lady’s) Guide to Wine-Smarts Part II

So last time on Lusting for Wine, we discussed how to read a label when picking out a wine (here). And you’re like, “Well that’s all well and good: vintages, wineries, appellations, alcohol…varietal? How the hell are you supposed to read the label and pick out a great wine if you don’t know anything about the grape you are drinking?”

Part 2: Varietals

We discussed in the last post how American wineries most often bottle wine by a single varietal instead of by region, which is the European tradition. Here are the characteristics of some of the most popular varietals that you will see being sold in American grocery stores and restaurants. Remember, to put a single varietal on the label, that bottle must contain at least 75% of the juice of that varietal. Anything less than 75% of single varietal and the bottle is considered a “blend” of different varietals.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Arguably the world’s most popular grape, “Cabs” are prolific. A hybrid offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon can grow in just about any climate. Sauvignon is French for savage, at that is pretty appropriate for this powerful varietal. Cabs are full bodied, dry, tanic, and almost always good no matter where they come from. Cabs are also one of the best aging grapes. Pairs best with grilled meat.

Pinot NoirAlmost nobody but serious wine enthusiasts gave a rat’s ass about Pinot Noir until the release of the movie Sideways. The movie created so much demand for Pinot Noir, wineries actually started selling too much, diluting the market with bottles that weren’t ready and almost destroying the integrity of this beautiful grape. Pinot is the opposite of Cab: delicate and extremely hard to grow. Pinot Noir is medium bodied and SUBTLE. It can only grow in climates with hot days and very cool, foggy nights, making it ideal for coastal vineyards in California (Santa Barbara, Monterey, Paso Robles). If cultivated correctly, Pinot can deliver a life-changing wine drinking experience. If the winemaker or vintner isn’t careful, Pinot can be mediocre. Pinot is also the primary varietal used to make sparkling wine. Pairs well with classic french dishes like beef bourgogne.

white-grapes

Chardonnay: The most popular white wine, Chardonnay is a close relative of the Pinot family. In fact, Pinot Blanc is so similar to Chardonnay it took DNA testing to reveal they were actually different grapes. As such, choose Chardonnays that grow in Pinot regions (hot days, cool nights). Chardonnay is one of the only white wines that traditionally goes through secondary malolactic fermentation during production, a process that can cause a “buttery” flavor. Chardonnay is dry and crisp, and can be very fruity and refreshing. Also, because Chardonnay is still typically aged in oak barrels like red wine, it can have an “oaky” flavor that other white wines which are aged in stainless steel barrels (a current trend) will not have. Also used in sparkling wine. Pairs best with poultry.

MerlotMerlot gets a bad rap from hipster wine tasters, many of whom are persuaded again by the movie Sideways (after the movie Pinot sales skyrocketed and Merlot sales tanked), because it is accessible for new and inexperienced wine drinkers. Merlot is medium bodied and easy to drink with subtle floral flavors. The truth is: a Merlot in the hands of a great winemaker can be an unbelievably beautiful and satisfying experience. Don’t be a snob about it. From the same region in France as Cabernet. Pairs well with pasta with a red sauce.

Zinfandel: Another wine that hipsters decry because it is popular with new wine drinkers due to accessibility (spawning several awful pun-based labels like “Seven Deadly Zins”). Zinfandel is actually one of the world’s great grapes. Called Primitivo in Italy, Zinfandel grows best in very hot climates. Check out Zinfandels from Lodi in California. It comes in two types: dry and spicy, or fruity to the point of being jammy. Like Merlot, a great Zin will surprise and blow you away. One of the few varietals that does best without much aging. Drink Zin with a grilled burger or fried chicken.

SyrahCalled Shiraz in Australia, Syrah is another French grape that spans the world. Syrah is full bodied and does well in intense heat. Don’t confuse Syrah with Petite Sirah, which is a completely different grape. Syrah ages extremely well and won’t disappoint a wine drinker looking for bold, intense flavor. Pairs well with grilled red meat and pork.

Sauvignon BlancI heard an experienced wine drinker once say the world has two types of people: Chardonnay drinkers, and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers. The other white wine, “Sav Blanc” is a parent of Cabernet Savignon, and can grow all over the world. Soft and citrus-y, Sav Blanc typically finishes very clean, which contrasts it to the buttery or oaky finish of Chardonnay. Pairs well with shellfish and cheese.

MalbecMalbec means “bad break” in French. Once the principal grape to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec was replaced by Merlot. Shunned by proper French society, Malbec found a new home in South America. Malbec from the Mendoza region in Argentina is now one of the world’s most exciting varietals. Apart from rooting for the underdog, Malbec enthusiasts love its velvety blackberry notes, and the fact that it is now the mascot of South American wines which are continually gaining more and more respect around the world. Pair Malbec with Mexican food or any spicy chili dish. 

purple-grapes

Carmenere: Speaking of South America. Carmenere is the legendary “lost grape.” Pliny the Elder wrote about Carmenere in the first century A.D. It was once a proud and ancient French varietal, until it was hit by a grape destroying plague called phylloxera in the nineteenth century and was wiped out. French vintners assumed Carmenere was extinct, and it disappeared for the next century. And then out of nowhere, Carmenere was discovered growing in Chile in 1994. DNA testing revealed that a group of European immigrants had planted Carmenere in Chili in the late nineteenth century thinking it was Merlot. It was fruitful and multiplied in its new South American home. The flagship grape of Chile, Carmenere is medium bodied and earthy, and pairs well with steak or empañadas.

Sangiovese: If you want to delve into the complex world of Italian wines with your friends, invariably you will spend the vast majority of your time talking about Sangiovese. The flagship grape of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the primary varietal used in Chianti. Sangiovese is the quintessential Italian wine drinking experience. It tastes like your grand mother’s spaghetti and meatball dinner put into a blender and made into wine. If you are out wine tasting and hear the winemaker mention a “Super Tuscan,” don’t expect to see a mustachio’d Italian superhero swoop in and swoon your girlfriend. It’s actually a Sangiovese blended with certain French grapes. More on that later. Drink Sangiovese with a pizza right out of the oven, or with any tomato-based pasta.

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: Yet another variety of Pinot, Pinot Gris originated in France but hit world fame in Italy known as Pinot Grigio. Rich and tart with a smooth finish, Grigio can easily hold its own against other more popular white varietals. Chill a bottle of Grigio and head to the beach on a hot day; you won’t be disappointed. Pairs best with risotto and white-sauced pasta dishes.

Riesling: The prince of German wines, Riesling is a white wine commonly drank with dessert due to its high potential for sweetness. Riesling is gaining in popularity in the United States, and American Riesling drinkers are discovering how complex it can actually be. Also, holy aging, Batman. Riesling can succeed for multiple decades. Pairs best with after-dinner sweets, but also try it with oysters or cold shrimp.

Tempranillo: What Sangiovese is to Italian wine, Tempranillo is to Spanish wine. The principal grape in “Rioja” blends, Tempranillo is the ever present native Spaniard. Tempranillo ages well and can range from medium to full bodied. Tempranillo means “early” in Spanish, and was so named because it is harvested before Garnacha. Pairs well with tapas, olives, and lamb.

Garnacha/Grenache: One of the most underrated varietals in the world, Garnacha originated in Spain and found a home in the Rhone region of France with its blending partner Syrah, where it became known as Grenache. On its own, Grenache is incredibly complex, sporting great spice and seemingly impossible layers of flavor. Blended with Syrah in “Rhone” blends, Grenache becomes a powerhouse. Buy a Rhone whenever you see one and try for yourself. It is also sometimes called a “GSM” in America, due to the blend of Grenache, Syrah, and the third Rhone child, Mourvedre. Try pairing Grenache with ribs.

This only scratches the surface of the world’s vast variety of varietals. You could write an essay about each of these. But, as I said from the beginning, I don’t intend to make you an expert, only to make you know what the hell you are talking about. Don’t ever let anyone tell you one varietal is superior to another. Every varietal has the potential for greatness. As wine is a living thing: imperfect, tempestuous, stubborn, beautiful, complex, sensual… it is also impacted by the living imperfect human beings that produce it. Every wine has the potential to excel, or fall short. Find a varietal that speaks to you and stay loyal to it. Then switch and try something else. The world is made better by diversity. This is also true in wine.

A Note on Red vs. White: Inexperienced wine drinkers pick a wine color like they’re picking a team. “I’m a red wine drinker/I only drink white wine.” The more you wine taste the more you realize: red or white is the least important aspect. Red wines vary so drastically, one red is as distinct to another red as it is to white. White wines can be as complex and powerful as the best Pinot Noir. If you’re just sitting around drinking wine, drink whatever color you are in the mood for. If you’re having wine with dinner, then you do want to be specific because certain wines do pair better with certain foods. Here’s a very loose guide: White meat/White Sauce/White Wine. Red Meat/Red Sauce/Red Wine.

For more quick reads on these grapes and more, check out these awesome flashcards, Vinifera: The World’s Great Wine Grapes and Their Stories.

More delicious wine knowledge to come. Stay tuned to Lust for Cooking.

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Lusting for Wine: A Dude’s (or Lady’s) Guide to Wine Smarts – Part 1

There are certain things you need to know in life to be a successful and functioning adult human: how to change a tire, how to play poker, how to do laundry, how to handle your finances, basic cooking skills (lustforcooking.com!), AND, basic knowledge of liquor and wine. This blog series is about wine. You don’t have to be a sommelier (sommeli-what?) to appreciate amazing wine. Unlike distilled liquors and beer which are designed to taste exactly the same with every single bottle you buy, every wine bottle is distinct. Not just every different wine label or different vintage; every single bottle tastes, smells, looks, and feels different. This is because wine is a living thing. Millennials drink more wine than any other generation. They are changing the wine industry and how wine is sold. If you want to keep up, keep reading. 

So if you love wine but still buy bottles based on the picture on the label, then this is the blog for you. I’m not going to make you an expert or a snob, but I will make you wine-intelligent. In the next few posts I will give you enough wine knowledge to understand how to read a label, how to order, what makes a bottle good (or awful), which grapes are which and how they behave, how to taste wine, how wine is made, and provide just enough lingo to make sure you never sound like a jackass while out at a nice restaurant with your lady (or dude or whatever).

So you’re like, “Hey Dude, that’s all fancy and stuff, but I just want to know how to pick out a bottle to impress my date tonight.” Not. A. Problem.

Part 1: How to read a wine label.

Buying wine based on the pretty picture or clever name on the label is like buying a beer because the beer can turns blue when it’s cold.  Wine label scribblings may seem random, but they actually contain key info that wine-intelligent people will examine to determine whether the wine is worth purchasing. And that is key. Wine is investment. Some investments go bad. Think of the label as the stock portfolio. Don’t be afraid to examine it and make a calculated risk. Here’s a basic label:

aardvark-wine-label-1Please don’t sue me if you work for Aardvark. This is just an example. In this example, the label is giving you five (5) pieces of information:

Winery: Aardvark. This is the company that produces the wine. To be clear, wineries don’t necessarily grow or pick grapes. Many wineries don’t grow grapes. Wineries take grapes, most often grown by someone else, and produce wine with them. The best wineries are small and family owned, many going back multiple generations. “Bad” wineries are large corporate models that buy up small producers and sell cheap bottles en masse. Look up the winery you are buying from. It doesn’t take 1,000 employees to produce wine. The best wine typically comes from one lady (or dude) with her/his hands stained purple from playing with grapes all day.

Vintage: 2000. This is the year the grapes were harvested, meaning picked off the vine, not the year the wine was bottled or the year the bottle was released. Grapes typically grow from May to August of each year and they are generally harvested in September (with variations based on grape and location). The vintage is important, because weather greatly affects the process of growing grapes. Some years have better weather for grapes than others, and this will affect the quality of the wine. That’s what they mean by a “good year” or a “bad year.” In order to state the vintage, 95% of the juice used must be from that year’s harvest. Like scotch, wine gets better with age, but unlike scotch, wine peaks and eventually decays in the bottle. A rule of thumb is 2 to 10 years. You don’t really want a wine with a vintage less than 2 years ago. At 5-10 years you are almost guaranteed an amazing experience (depending on the grape), for an amazingly high price. After 10 years you are pushing your luck. More on how wines are aged in later posts. A trend as of this writing is un-aged, “natural”  wines that are bottled and sold the same year they are harvested. Some producers probably do this extremely well, basically making Welch’s grape juice with alcohol (please don’t sue me Welch’s). But if you sense my sarcasm, it is because I believe the best wines mature in flavor with aging. Don’t be afraid of dust on the bottle.

Varietal: Pinot Noir. In wine lingo, “varietal” is a type of grape that has been made into wine. “Variety” is a type of grape still on the vine. This label is telling you that this bottle contains the varietal Pinot Noir that was harvested in the year 2000. In order for the winery to put a single varietal on the label, the bottle must contain at least 75% of that varietal. This is important, taken with the vintage, because some varieties do better in certain years. More on characteristics of varietals later. Different varietals age differently, and most importantly, taste different. Speaking of characteristics, American wines are categorized by varietal. In fact, this is a uniquely American concept. European wines are always based on region with multiple varietals from that region blended in each bottle. More on that later.

Appellation: Carneros. Napa Valley. This is the location the variety was grown. There are actual laws that govern which regions can call themselves an appellation. Different appellations typically specialize in different varieties based on their climate. This label is telling you that this bottle contains Pinot Noir grapes, harvested in the year 2000, from the Carneros Appellation in Napa Valley, California. In order to put an appellation on the bottle, the bottle must contain at least 85% of its juice from varieties in that appellation (if it just says the state, then 100% must be from that state). Certain labels may get even more specific and state that the bottle contains varietals not just from a single appellation, but from a single vineyard. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. After all that vineyard may contain horrible soil and grow crappy grapes. But what the winery is trying to tell you is that all the grapes come from the same soil, good or bad. Wine-intelligent people are obsessed with terroir, a word that means the differing characteristics of varieties that come from the specific soil in which they are grown. More on terroir later.

Alcohol Content: 13.8% by volume. Now the fun stuff. American wineries are required by law to put the alcohol content on the bottle. Wines range from 10% to 15%. This isn’t just a measurement of fun you’ll have after drinking the wine. It’s actually a clue as to the wine’s flavor. Wine is made by breaking down sugars in grape juice with yeast to make alcohol. The more alcohol a bottle contains, the less sugar. This means that dry (not sweet) wines will have a higher alcohol content than sweet wines. There are exceptions to this. More on how wine is made later.

Let’s briefly look at another label:

caymus-wine-label-1

Apart from displaying a Caymus label as a not so subtle advertisement for an incredibly great winery (seriously) take a look at this label applying your new knowledge. Notice anything? No vintage right? That probably means that this bottle contains grape juice from multiple vintages. Not a bad thing. The label is telling you this bottle is Cabernet Sauvignon from multiple vintages produced by Caymus. Notice anything else? What the hell does “Estate Bottled” mean? In wine parlance, this means the winery (Caymus…delicious) grows its own grapes, and the wine in this bottle comes from grapes grown on the Caymus Estate.

A note on price: I’m deviating a bit here because the price won’t be on the label, but the heart of this post is how to pick out a bottle, and the price is crucial. Price of the bottle depends on many factors, including where you buy it. Wine is always cheapest in the grocery store. You can buy perfectly fine wine in the grocery store for as little as $10, but if you want to get serious, a good beginning price point is in the $15 to $30 range. An individual’s price point depends on experience (and, yes, funds). It’s true that the more you taste, the more expensive your taste will become. Not because you become a snob (hopefully), but because wine is subtle. Without a lot of experience to go on, anything over $30 is probably going to taste the same. And that’s OK! There are great inexpensive bottles out there. At a certain point wines hit a price cap and often get more expensive just based on the label. Don’t fall for it. I’ve had $30 bottles that were SO MUCH BETTER than a comparable $80 bottle. If buying at a grocery store or liquor store, decide your own personal price range and stick to it. 

But the first time a more expensive bottle blows your skirt up, you’ll remember. And that’s when you’ll know that your own personal price point just went up. I recommend you save those glorious moments for wine-tasting at a winery (not arbitrarily buying from the grocery store). The only time you really want to shell out for a bottle is for an old wine, or for “limited reserve” or “small lot” wines, which are bottles the winery has set aside based on their belief that they have achieved top quality, and can’t be mass produced. These bottles are almost always sold only at the winery. So if you are buying bottles at the winery, take the winemaker’s recommendation and don’t be afraid to splurge. But really the most important reason to buy any expensive bottle is always because you LOVE IT.

More delicious wine knowledge is coming. Stay tuned to Lust For Cooking.

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