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

With the base knowledge you have learned in the past 3 editions of Lusting for Wine, you are now ready to venture out into the world, fair reader, and fall in love with wine all over again. It seems fairly obvious, but the only way to truly learn more about wine is to drink wineIn the same way you can’t perfect an athletic skill without rigorous practice, you cannot truly appreciate wine or become wine-smart without spending time wine tasting at a winery. Very few people are born with a palate strong enough to fully appreciate the subtlety in great wine. This has to be developed over time with multiple wine tasting experiences. So with that in mind, here are some simple rules (guidelines) for getting the most out of your wine tasting experience.

Part 4: Rules for wine tasting

Rule #1: You do not talk about wine tasting.

Just kidding. Couldn’t resist.

Rule #1: There are no rules. Don’t buy into the hoity toity crap reputation that surrounds wine tasting. Yeah, I said it. Wine tasting is fun. You know why? Because you get to drink. Wine. A lot of it. Whatever snobby reputation wine tasting used to have is going out the window. Wine tasting isn’t for wine snobs. Screw those guys. Wine tasting is for everyone. It’s like a fun and inexpensive treasure hunt where instead of finding gold at the end, you find delicious wine. And then drink it. When you are out wine tasting remember that the goal is to have fun and discover new experiences. There are no rules.

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Rule #2: Make wine tasting a complete experience. Millennials get it. Millennials don’t buy products, they buy experiences. Wine tasting isn’t just about the wine. It’s about the adventure. Pack a picnic, load up your friends, and head out to wine country. Chances are, the wineries you will experience will be in some very beautiful locations in quiet tucked away corners. Take in the views. Wineries and vineyards are some of the only agricultural businesses where you can explore the property at-will and make yourself right at home. Most wineries play up this aspect. They feel like quiet little cottages. This is why so many people get married at wineries. Some even have bocci ball or volleyball courts for anyone to use. Taste some new wine, buy a bottle you like, then spread out your picnic and relax the day away with friends.

winery-sign

Rule #3: Plan ahead and stay safe. There are ways to do wine tasting right. When you are in wine country, find a map of the local wineries either in your hotel or online. Take suggestions from locals (the best way is to go out to a nice dinner  your first night in town and ask your server or bartender for winery recommendations). Once you have planned the wineries you want to taste, literally map them out, as in find them on a map and plot your route. You do this for two reasons: one, many wineries are tiny little cottages in the middle of nowhere and are often difficult to find. Some will require you to look for an extremely tiny sign pointing to a dirt road that you have to travel on for 2 miles before you get the goods. This is where the treasure hunt aspect comes in. Finding hidden wineries is one of the most exciting aspects of wine tasting. Second, if you are driving yourselves ALWAYS designate a sober driver. If you must all participate in tasting, start with the winery furthest away from your lodging and then work your way back, so you are closest to home at the end of your day; however, Lust for Cooking always recommends designating a sober driver or getting a cab. Wine country will also often feature wine tasting tours or drivers for hire.

winery-truck

Rule #4: Learn the proper way to taste. Not for snobbery, but because if you follow the correct sequence you will get the most out of each wine you taste and will make a more informed decision on which bottle to purchase. Don’t worry, it’s not complicated. When you arrive in the tasting room the staff will hand you a menu listing everything they have available to taste. Typically you will pay around $10 for 5 tastes although this will vary. Most wineries will comp your tasting if you buy a bottle after, but don’t demand this. Tastings will come in flights which just means the group of wines the tasting room has paired together in a certain order. Flights will always go in order from white to red and light bodied to full bodied. Some will end with a fortified wine like port. This is because when you are tasting multiple different wines together you run the risk of destroying your palate by tasting a heavy wine first. They will also likely have bland crackers out for this reason. Take a bite of cracker after each taste to restore your palate. Tastes will be 2 oz.

  1. Examine the wine’s color and appearance. Young wines will look more watery especially around the edges. High quality wines will have vibrant colors, whereas wines past their prime will be dull and murky. If you tilt your glass a ways and then stand it back up straight you may notice clear streaks running down the sides. These are called legs. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t mean anything.
  2. Stick your nose in the glass. Go ahead, do it. Wine glasses tilt inwards at the top to control the release of gasses from the wine. You can’t really get a sense of the aroma from outside the glass, and tasting glasses will typically be large enough to accommodate your face. So stick your nose in and take a big whiff. Try to describe to yourself what the wine smells like. Swirl the wine around quickly in your glass to add more oxygen, then smell again. Notice if anything has changed.
  3. Taste the damn thing. Take a sip. Describe to yourself what it tastes like. Different flavors that pop up are called notes. Notes indicate the complexity of the wine and will vary person to person depending on what your brain experiences. Winemakers don’t manipulate tasting notes; they don’t add in strawberry juice to make the wine taste like strawberries, (or snozberries), etc. There are no right notes, but often multiple people will taste the same thing in a strong complex wine. Take another sip and swirl the wine to every corner of your mouth. See if the flavor expands.
  4. Swallow. Or don’t. There are no rules. I like the full experience so I almost always swallow each taste. But if you are the sober driver, or you are reaching your limit, go ahead and spit the wine out in the spittoons on the counter. Then dump out any excess wine in your glass that you don’t want in the spittoon.

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Rule #5: Learn some terminology. Each wine will have different characteristics on a scale that you can judge by tasting. There are four big ones to look out for:

Acidity: PH level of the wine. More acid will cause a pucker effect like sucking on a lemon.

Tannins: Red wine gets red from the winemaker leaving grape seeds and skins in the juice during fermentation. The chemicals released from this process are called tannins which make the wine a darker red the longer it sits. Highly tannic wine will make your mouth dry.

Body: Also called mouth-feel. This is the degree to which the wine feels like water or syrup in your mouth. Fuller bodied wines linger longer.

Sweetness: As mentioned earlier, wine is made by fermenting grape juice with yeast to turn sugar into alcohol. Wines with more alcohol will be dry (not sweet) because the yeast ate all the sugar. To make a sweet wine, the winemaker will chill the wine at the right moment to cut off fermentation before the yeast is finished. This will leave some sugar behind. Try not to confuse a fruity tasting wine with a sweet wine. Dry wines will often have a sweet fruity taste, but that doesn’t mean there is actual residual sugar. Experience will help you tell the difference.

Rule #6: Have a life changing moment. Always remember the point of wine tasting: to drink a wine you have never tasted before right from the source. Wine tasting is designed to expand your knowledge of a winery you are familiar with, or expose you to a winery and to wine you never thought possible. Every mind blowing experience I have ever had with wine has been at a winery. Always take a winemaker’s recommendation and don’t be shy about exploring wine through all your senses. The sensuality of wine is most perfected when you can talk to the person that made it, see where it is made, and drink it while enjoying a sunset holding hands with the person(s) you love. There may be nothing better in life.

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

 

Last time on Lusting for Wine we examined some key varietals from around the world and their characteristics. We talked about American wines and how they are primarily designated by a single varietal.

This time we are going to delve into the terrifying world of European wines (cue Exorcist theme). Don’t panic. The first thing you should know is that it is actually easier to determine the quality of a European wine than an American wine. How and why you may ask? Because Europeans love wine so much, they have actual government bureaucracies totally dedicated to regulating wine quality (who wouldn’t want that job?).

Part 3: A brief guide to European wine

While selecting an American wine for quality requires prior knowledge of varietals, vintages, regions, and wineries; Europeans have simplified the task. They just go right ahead and tell you on the bottle whether or not the wine is good. European countries have a ranking system for wine that distinguishes top quality bottles that are region specific and follow strict standards for traditional winemaking, all the way down to “table wine” which is a Euro way of saying: cheap wine from just about anywhere made in just about any manner.

Here are some key regions and their specialties in key wine producing nations in Europe along with each country’s ranking system. Remember, Euro wine is all about region. Varietals don’t matter as much as regional vintages and wineries. Bottles are named by region meaning the bottle contains a blend of grapes growing in that region.

french-wine

France

Key regions and their specialties:

Bordeaux (Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Carmenere)

Burgundy (Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Gamay)

Rhone (Grenache, Syrah)

Champagne (Sparkling Wine)

Ranking System:

Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC): The highest quality French wine. Bottles labeled with this distinction meet strict requirements for regional production, production methods, and grape quality. For example, a Bordeaux bottle may be labeled “Appellation Bordeaux Controllee”. This is certified Bordeaux wine that meets AOC standards.

Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure (VDQS): A step below AOC, this distinction denotes high quality, but perhaps a young winery, or wine that isn’t quite ready for top distinction.

Vin de Pays: Highest distinction of table wine. Vin de Pays means “country wine” and typically meets regional requirements but not production standards or grape quality. Often incorporates region into labeling: “Vin de Pays d’ (region) Controllee”.

Vin de Table: Table wine. Wine that can come from anywhere in France; made by any method.

Italy

Key regions and their specialties:

Tuscany (Sangiovese, Chianti)

Piedmont (Nebbiollo)

Veneto (Rossignola)

Ranking System:

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG): Highest quality Italian wine. Like AOC in France, but even more elite and harder to get. There are actual Italian government tasting panels that have to certify DOCG (again, sign me up). DOCG will appear on the label and the bottle neck will carry a DOCG seal.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC): Top quality Italian wine about the equivalent of AOC French wine.

Indicazione Geografica Tipica: Apart from being very fun to say out loud, Indicazione Geografica Tipica means medium quality wine equivalent to Vin de Pays.

Vino da Tavola: There it is again. Italian table wine.

chianti

Spain

Key regions and their specialties:

Rioja (Tempranillo, Garnacha)

Andalucia (Sherry)

Catalonia (Syrah, Sparkling Wine)

Ranking System:

Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa): Sensing a pattern yet? DOCa is Spain’s version of DOCG. Highest quality, typically reserved for the Rioja region.

Denominacion de Origen (DO): The equivalent of AOC wine. Applies to all of Spain.

Denominacion de Origen Pago (DO Pago): This is where Spain gets crazy and adds a THIRD high quality designation. This is to denote high quality single estate bottling, as opposed to high quality regional bottles. There are a limited number of estates which qualify for DO Pago.

Vino de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica (VCIG): Spain also adds a level between the medium Vin de Pays level and the higher quality levels. VCIG is a pat on the back for wines that are probably medium quality but are on their way up.

Vino de la Tierra: Medium Quality. Equivalent of Vin de Pays.

Vino de Mesa: Can you guess?

german-bottle

Germany

Key regions and their specialties:

Mosel (Riesling)

Rheinhessen (Mostly Riesling with some red wines)

Rheingau (Riesling and Spätburgunder)

Wurttemberg (Trollinger)

Ranking System:

German ranking is all about grape ripeness determined by the level of natural sweetness. Don’t even try to pronounce these names, just typing them was exhausting.

Qualitatswein mit Pradikat (QmP): Highest quality German wines due to best natural ripeness (no sugar added during fermentation). QmP is further divided into six ripeness levels that we absolutely will not delve into here.

Trockenbeerenaulese (TBA): A designation for rare high quality wines from grapes shriveled by a special fungus.

Qualitatswein bestimmerter Anbaugebiete (QbA): Second-tier wines that may have sugar added during fermentation.

Deutcher Tafelwein: German table wine.

 

For more wine knowledge and a map of the world’s wine regions, check out this Trivial Pursuit style game for winos: Wine Wars, A Trivia Game for Wine Geeks and Wannabees

https://www.amazon.com/Wine-Wars-Trivia-Geeks-Wannabes/dp/0811868346

 

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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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