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California Zinfandel – No Wimpy Wine

When I think of Zinfandel I think of big, juicy, high-octane red wines from producers like Seghesio, Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. My mind drifts off to the rolling hills of Sonoma, especially the Dry Creek area, where you find some of the best wines. Amongst the mustard flowers you see these thick gnarly old vines. Some are over 100 years old. Zinfandel, the signature variety of California, is definitely rated “Buy”.

A number of countries are blessed with having their own signature grape variety. Argentina has Malbec, Chile has Carmenere, there’s Pinotage from South Africa, and the list goes on. But I reckon that California has one of the best grape varieties to call its own. Zinfandel can produce some excellent wines at the very top end.

Ravenswood’s slogan “no wimpy wines” pretty much sums up the style of the big wines, which are amongst the most powerful and concentrated of any red. A classic high quality Zinfandel is always very dark in color, with plenty of viscosity when you swirl it in the glass. Because of the warm climate in most of California the nose is typically jam-packed with ultra ripe fruits, which can include strawberry, sweet black cherry, and there is often a spicy note too.

The palate is very full bodied, usually clocking 14.5%+ alcohol, and the tannins tend to be fairly smooth and supple. In the big wines you can often find raisin and jam notes, along with cloves and licorice, vanilla and coconut. It’s hedonistic pleasure in a glass.

But there are various styles of Zinfandel, principally distinguished by their weight in the mouth, the ripeness of the fruit, and their alcohol degree. Some producers, the more extreme ones, flaunt wines at 17%+ alcohol, which is amongst the highest in the world for regular wines. They delight in calling them “fruit bombs” or “blockbusters”. These styles of Zin pair well with loud Hawaiian shirts, a plate of ribs, and a romantic conversation with someone who doesn’t challenge the intellect.

But there are also some Zinfandel producers who prefer a lighter and more elegant style, which wouldn’t be too far off a very ripe and full bodied Pinot Noir. The trick to recognizing these is often by looking at the alcohol degree on the label, and if it is 13.5% or less then chances are it will be a lighter style.

But Zinfandel is versatile enough to produce another style of wine, known as white Zinfandel. Astonishingly, white Zin became the best selling wine in the United States for two decades. Granted, classic producers of red Zinfandel typically roll their eyes when you mention white Zin, as if an ugly duckling was ruining their brand image. And to a degree they are right, although they’re probably jealous of all the money the white Zin producers are racking in.

The pioneer of white Zinfandel is Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home. He had the great misfortune to have a stuck fermentation in one of his tanks back in the 1970’s. Instead of making a dry red Zin he ended up making a slightly sweet pink wine that charmed the pants off Americans for decades. His winery now sells over 4 million cases a year of it, and Bob is a very happy man.

He explained that for most people the jump from drinking sodas/pops to dry tannic red wine is too much of a stretch. So the best way to ease into wine is with something chilled, a touch sweet, and with candied strawberry notes. In the winery the maturation time for a white Zin is short. You can skip the oak barrels, and have it shipped in a flash. So it actually pays wine producer’s bills too.

When it comes to viticultural origins, you can bank on Zinfandel to spark wine lovers into a demonstration of superior knowledge. The first person usually remarks that Zinfandel is actually the Primitivo grape of southern Italy. The second connoisseur usually then jumps in to mention that the grape has it’s origins in Croatia and is in fact a grape called Crljenak Kastelanski. If the pronunciation can be pulled off then the conversation usually ends there, and the other guests roll their eyes at the wine snob that won.

But whatever the origin, Zinfandel’s home is in California where it is the workhorse grape, planted throughout the State. If you had a glass of red wine back in the 1850’s then chances are it was Zinfandel.

It’s generally agreed that Sonoma produces some of the finest examples. The Dry Creek AVA is particularly well regarded, but the Alexander valley isn’t to be forgotten either. There are some famous wines from the Russian River as well and it’s quite common to see “Old Vines” proudly mentioned on the label of many Sonoma wines. Some of the plantings date back over 100 years. Seghesio is a favorite of mine.

But there are also some excellent Zinfandels in Napa too, particularly from vineyards “up valley” around St Helena and Calistoga where the temperatures are warmer. Caymus, Storybrook Mountain, and Ch Montelena all produce sought-after wines. I find these wines to be very polished, particularly plump and soft, with an explosion of sweet ripe fruit covering the palate. Caymus is impressive every time.

Another area to look for, particularly for value priced wines, is Lodi in the Central valley.

This area is where the bulk of California’s wine comes from, but that’s not to say that low yielding vineyards don’t produce high quality wines. Ravenswood do well in this sector, with their distinctive logo and fun slogan.

There are certainly other parts of California, like Mendocino and Monterey that produce good Zinfandel too, but these aren’t the best known areas. So in almost every corner of California you’ll find people making Zinfandel. And lots of them are small producers, usually with an artistic bent. Yes, there can be a certain hippy style to these farmers living on ranches in the beautiful valleys that line the California coast.

A key criteria for ripening Zinfandel is a high level of heat units. In wine speak, that means it should be pretty war, even hot, where you plant it. And whilst some of the coastal regions see a thick marine fog roll in during the summer months, these same valleys can also get nice and toasty from noon onwards.

And then, as harvest approaches, winemakers need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to picking. The sugars in Zinfandel can rocket up in a few days and all of a sudden you have grapes that might create a 17% alcohol wine. The good news is that nobody will accuse it of being thin and weedy – the ultimate insult for Ravenswood… So you have to be fast when you decide to pick.

Speaking of price, one of the attractive things about Zinfandel is that even for the most famous producers, including their single vineyard wines, you rarely pay more than $60 per bottle on the shelf in Canada. And when you compare that to the top Pinots, Cabernets and Syrahs, then Zinfandel starts to look like a bargain. In my tastings I’ve been impressed with wines costing less than $30 a bottle.

In terms of food pairings, a steak is a sure bet, and so are burgers and ribs. The more refined the wine, the more refined the food should be. Because they are usually very big and powerful you can go with a rich dish. But some of the slightly lighter styles can drink well by themselves because the tannins aren’t too aggressive.

So what’s the future for Zinfandel? With people making rude jokes about varieties like Merlot and other classics, and a cycle of boredom amongst consumers, surely Zinfandel is set to occupy a growing niche for many years to come. They’ll be detractors who say they lack ageability, can be short on complexity, and often a tab sweet. But personally, I like them.

If you want to learn more about the signature grape of California and join it’s legions of devotees then visit www.zinfandel.org. ZAP, which stands for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers is the HQ of all matters relating to the grape, and has information on their tastings, which have a cult-like following.

Wine and Food Pairing

Bonterra, Mendocino – All by itself

Ravenswood, Lodi – Burgers

Caymus, Napa – Roast beef

Seghesio Rockpile, Dry Creek – BBQ steaks

Ridge, Lytton Springs – Leg of lamb

Major International Award for Fine Vintage Ltd.

Jancis Robinson giving the WSET 2012 Riedel Trophy for Educator of the Year to Lynn Coulthard of Fine Vintage Ltd.

The Riedel Trophy for WSET Educator of the Year

On January 23rd, at a ceremony in London, Fine Vintage was awarded the most sought-after trophy amongst wine schools around the world – The Riedel Trophy for WSET Educator of the Year 2011. Jancis Robinson presented the award at a packed ceremony at Guild Hall.
There are over 400 WSET approved program providers, or schools, in over 50 countries around the world. Each year over 40,000 people take a WSET course in one of 16 languages.

For the award we compete with major Universities, multinational institutes, as well as huge drinks companies. Our performance is judged by an independent panel in England, who considers the volume of courses we run, our student’s exam results, our growth, and our administrative efficiency.

For the last two years we have been nominated for the award, on a short list of four other schools around the world. This year, helped by the successful expansion of our operations to the Middle East and Toronto, we were awarded a beautiful trophy created by George Riedel.
We wanted to take this opportunity to thank you, our supporters, for being the main reason why we won. You put your trust in us, and we hope we delivered a first class wine education experience. Thank you for coming to our courses and for sharing your experience with friends, family and coworkers.

For us, it means we know that our formula of expert instruction, outstanding quality tastings, very competitive pricing, and efficient administration must be working. We look forward to announcing major expansion plans in the coming weeks.

For our family owned and operated company, Sondra and I would like to thank the team. In particular, Lynn Coulthard and Marnie Harfield have done a superb job running courses in a variety of cities and far-flung places. We are also very grateful to Rudy Lovsin, who makes everything run smoothly, and all of the other people who contributed their efforts over the years towards this result.

Thank you again for coming to our courses. For more information on courses, and for photos of Lynn accepting the trophy from Jancis, please visit www.FineVintageLtd.com or read about us in the next issue of Drinks International magazine.

Cabernet Sauvignon – The Emperor of Red Wines

If I had to pick a favorite grape, which is like picking a favorite child, then it would have to be Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the final analysis Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. I can hear the mutterings of dissent. So I’ll present my case.

If price is a gauge of quality, then Cabernet Sauvignon holds the world record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. When the hammer came down at the Napa Valley Auction, the cult Cabernet from Screaming Eagle went for a whopping $500,000 for a single large format bottle. People will pay more for Cabernet than any other varietal.

Still not convinced? The Grands Crus of the Medoc and Pessac in Bordeaux are the most classic wines in the world and dominate the fine wine market. In B.C. wine enthusiast’s line up all night outside Liquor Stores just to get their hands on a few bottles of Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Haut Brion, Margaux and others. You can’t say the same for any other variety, not even Burgundy.

In terms of ageability, the prize goes to Cabernet. Wine critics devote pages of poetic prose to describing the nuances of the 1947 vintage, comparing it to the 1929, or perhaps the 1900. There are not too many Pinots, Syrahs or Merlots that can age for 100 years.

But the argument is that Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. Aside from Bordeaux and Napa, it’s easy to rattle off famous names like Coonawarra and Margaret river in Australia, some of the great Super-Tuscans, the icon wines of Chile, and you could even make a case for Washington State, pockets of Spain, Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, parts of Sonoma, and, wait for it…., Lebanon. The same can’t be said for the other classic red varietals.

Granted, many of these wines are blends of Cabernet with Merlot, and perhaps some Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, or even Shiraz and Sangiovese. But at their core, it’s Cabernet that dominates the blend.

So what is it about this grape that makes such outstanding quality wines? In their youth they are intensely colored, with a very deep ruby that can have shades of blue, black and purple. The nose typically shows intense aromas of fresh blackcurrant, cedar, chocolate, coffee and sometimes mint. The palate is always dry, rich and full bodied, with structured tannins providing backbone. The greatest wines show superb length, with an after-taste lingering for hours. The whole experience can be breathtaking

But it’s with age that Cabernet really shows its breed. The bouquet develops and become more nuanced, with notes of forest floor, wet earth, and sometimes a beautiful spice. On the palate the tannins soften, becoming smoother and more velvety, yet the wines can remain powerful and concentrated for decades.

It’s a cliché, but quality does start in the vineyard. Whilst Cabernet is fairly mobile, being planted in dozens of countries and regions, it prefers warmer climates. If I owned a vineyard in England, northern France or Germany then Cabernet wouldn’t be on the list of possibilities. My Cabernet vines would opt for Napa Valley, where they could bask in the sunshine. The cool nights are important too, helping to retain acidity and freshness.

Cabernet can be planted on a variety of soil types, but for top quality wines the key is to find sites that have low fertility. The Medoc has a high proportion of gravel. Coonawarra is famous for their red clay soils, known as terra rossa. And you can even see good results on the sandy soil of the Black Sage Bench in the Okanagan.

The berry size is small, and the skins are relatively thick. This contributes depth of color and the tannic backbone. When cropped at low levels, such as two tons per acre, there can be immense concentration of flavor. Some of the hillside vineyards in Napa, like Howell Mountain, have such poor soils that the yields are a fraction of the sites on the valley floor.

The grape also ripens late, usually a few weeks after Merlot, which can be a challenge in areas prone to rain during the harvest. But when the weather stays warm and sunny, this extra ripening time allows for additional flavor development.

In the winery, the great wines usually see extended maceration. The grape juice is pumped over the skins for 3 weeks or more, extracting all the goodies from the berries. One of the great arts of making Cabernet, and all red wines for that matter, is knowing when to stop the maceration because excessive extraction can potentially lead to harsh tannins.

And then come the French oak barrels, although wineries like Silver Oak in Napa have proven that American oak can produce top notch wines too. In Bordeaux the barrel ageing time is usually between 18 to 20 months, although it can go longer. This is a winemaker’s personal preference, and Heitz Cellars in Napa shows that spectacular wines can result from 36 months aging. Some wineries go for 100% new French oak, and others prefer far less. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just a stylistic preference.

So what should you buy when searching for these classic Cabernets?

The so-called Left Bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux is the benchmark for collectors. In great vintages like 2000, 2005 and 2009 it’s hard to go wrong. Obviously the 1st Growths are spectacular but expect to pay over one thousand dollars per bottle. But you can buy wines that are much less expensive and arguably just as good quality. My favorites are Ducru Beaucaillou in St Julien, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, and Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac.

Napa Valley has stolen my heart. It’s not just the wines, but it’s also the wonderful hospitality and beautiful weather from May until September. It’s so difficult to pick out favorites without listing 50 wineries, but Heitz Cellars, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Shafer and Chateau Montelena are on my short list. And if you go to Napa, make sure you visit Spring Mountain Vineyard. It’s like a journey into the Garden of Eden.

Wine critics love to compare Bordeaux and Napa, but frankly they are quite different in style. Napa is more about richness, ripeness, power and concentration, with softer, plushier tannins, and fresher fruit aromas. By contrast, Bordeaux is typically drier, more tannic, not quite as full bodied, and has a more earthy character.

In Coonawarra in South Australia, it’s the fun-loving Ian Hollick whose wines stand out as my favorites. Coonawarra makes some of the finest Cabernet in the New World. The wines can have very perfumed cassis aromas and minty flavors. They are typically much less expensive than both Bordeaux and Napa, and so they score additional points for their value for money.

In Chile, it’s the classic Cabernet from Don Melchor, owned by Concha y Toro, which never fails to impress. If you think that only great Bordeaux can age for 10-20 years then think again. This wine proves that Chilean wines can have style, grace, and individuality. You just have to get over the fact that Chile is mainly in the cheap and cheerful category.

In Tuscany, Sassicaia is one of the benchmark Super-Tuscans. These are wines that contain a blend of varieties, typically including Sangiovese to one degree or another. Sassicaia was the winery that started the whole super-Tuscan movement, when they made a wine that did not conform to Tuscan wine regulations because it was based on Cabernet Sauvignon. The Italian authorities refused to give it the more prestigious DOCG designation, and relegated it to Vino da Tavola status, making it the world’s most expensive “table wine”.

And then there’s Torres in Spain, whose Mas La Plana can give anyone’s Cabernet a run for their money. Bob Betz in Washington State makes Cabernets that will blow your socks off, and merit the very high ratings his winery consistently receives.

The list could go on. But you’ve probably got enough recommendations to keep you from becoming dehydrated anytime soon. You could call Cabernet the King of wines, and the wine of Kings. But there are others who make this claim, namely the superb sweet wines of Tokaji in Hungary. So perhaps Cabernet is more like The Emperor of wines because at the very pinnacle of quality, there’s nothing else like fine Cabernet.

WINE & FOOD SUGGESTION

Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, Bordeaux
Leg of Lamb

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux
Filet Mignon with frites

Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Hollick, Coonawarra, Australia
Aged Cheddar Cheese

What to bring to dinner?

The safest bet is to go with white wine, mainly because most whites can be drunk without food and they often tend to complement starters. Just make sure it’s chilled when you show up.

Another option could be to take over a bottle of sparkling wine. You can buy Spanish Cava for under $20, or step up to a California sparkler made by a Champagne house for around $25. Then you’ll be the hero who brought over “the champagne”! Of course yiou could always bring the real thing, like a bottle of Krug. Another wine to consider buying would be a bottle of LBV Port, which cost between $20 and $35. A bottle of Port, some chocolate or Stilton cheese, and you just brought over dessert.

Sulphites in wine

Unless you suffer from severe asthma, or have a rare sensitivity to sulfur, then don’t worry about sulfur. Besides, there is more sulfur in foods like a Starbucks fruit salad than in wine. Sulfur only seemed to become an issue when legislation forced producers to state it on the label, at which time a surprising number of consumers suddenly developed a physical reaction to it.

Sulfur has been used as a preservative in winemaking since antiquity. Today, in the form of sulfur dioxide, it is used in virtually all wines as a preservative and a disinfectant. It can help prevent wines from oxidizing and can kill bacteria and yeast. The amount used is controlled by law and producers of finer wines strive to limit the addition of sulfur to a minimum.

There are barely any wines produced in the world without adding sulfur. It is actually impossible to produce a wine entirely free of sulfur because a small amount of it is a by-product of fermentation. Wine is a very natural drink and I personally never worry about sulphur, and I suffer from asthma.

Riesling – a model of purity

Riesling produces some of the most spectacular white wines in the world. If you want to see a wine lover get really excited then open up an old vintage Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace or a fine Mosel from Germany. In my opinion, drinking a top quality Riesling is one of the greatest experiences in wine. It’s heavenly.

Outstanding quality Riesling is a model of purity. The taste reflects the nature of vineyard where the grapes were grown. The fact that they are never aged in new oak enables the character of the grapes to shine and often in a fine Mosel you can taste some of the minerally nuances that come from the blue slate soils.

Very few other grapes show the complexity that you can find in Riesling and the depth and layers can be astonishing as they unfold in your mouth. I’ve constantly got my nose hovering over the glass because there are so many lovely nuances to enjoy with each sniff.

Riesling also produces wines with incredible longevity, more than almost every other grape. In some of the cellars in Germany you’ll find stocks of wines going back over 100 years.

It’s with age that the wines really start to shine because it takes time for the complex nuances to evolve. With a few decades of maturity you can find a combination of elegance and power, delicacy and intensity, and a vast spectrum of flavors and nuances. And to cap it all off, Riesling refreshes the parts that other wines don’t reach.

So, where are the classic regions and what should you buy? If you like dry white wines then Alsace is the classic area for outstanding Riesling. It’s situated in north eastern France, just across the Rhine River from Germany. I love it here because there are so many small family owned wineries that have been making stunning wines for hundreds of years. In fact, it’s my favorite region in the world for white wines, which include the fabulous Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers.

The towns and villages can resemble something out of Hansel and Gretel. Think thatched roofs, cobble stone streets, small cozy restaurants, and everyone seems to know each other so there’s much kissing and a constant exchange of “bonjour” as the locals go about their business.

Alsace produces wines that are much fuller in body and higher in alcohol compared to the Mosel in Germany. This is largely thanks to the dry and sunny climate that is the result of the rain shadow effect of the Vosges Mountains, which are high enough to ski on. So most of the Rieslings are in the 12-14% alcohol range, are typically medium in body, dry, and have crisp acidity. The aromas and flavors can include a beautiful citrus and green apple note, with a hint of ripe peach, and a touch of the classic petrol aroma that develops with age. The top wines inevitably have a streak of minerality that’s to die for, and the length that can last for hours.

My favorite producers are Domaine Weinbach, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht and Ostertag. But there are so many other excellent producers like the reasonably priced wines from the co-op Pfaffenheim. One of the tricks to buying good Riesling is to buy Grand Cru, which can retail for around $30 per bottle all the way up to $100+. And if you’re keen on specific recommendations then you can’t do much better than the Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile, the Weinbach Grand Cru Schlossberg, and if you are looking for rich, fat and powerful wines then Olivier Zind Humbrecht is your man.

Alsace also produces a late harvest style of Riesling called Vendange Tardive and, in exceptional years, a sweet botrytis effected wine called SGN, standing for Selection de Grains Nobles. One of the greatest bottles I ever had was from Domaine Ostertag, whose sweet wine showed sublime flavors of honey, pineapple and apricot with just the perfect amount of acidity to counter-balance the sweetness. That’s the art of achieving balance in sweet wines.

Another classic Riesling producer is, of course, Germany, albeit in a totally different style. Most of the wines are sweeter, to one degree or another, and have less body, lower alcohol and more delicacy. They can age for decades, and once upon a time they were the most expensive white wines in the world.

My favorite region is the Mosel where the wines can be as low as 7.5% in alcohol, which means you get to enjoy more of them whilst still remaining coherent. What never ceases to amaze me is the steepness of the slopes in the Mosel, which are not far off being precipitous cliffs. The angle and aspect of the slopes is all important because you are so far north that ripening grapes can be a challenge. Exposure to the sun is critical here.

Buying wine from Germany can be a challenge because the labels have so much complex terminology on them. The key words that I always look for relate to the level of sweetness you will likely find in the wine, and that is determined by the so called Pradikat level. You see, German wines are classified according to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest time.

If a producer picks some grapes earlier in the season, at lower sugar levels, the wine could be classed as a Kabinett, which is typically the driest of the Pradikat levels. If you leave the grapes on the vine for longer and pick later, when there is more sugar, the wine could be classified as a Spatlese which are usually a touch sweeter. Then comes Auslese which is generally a pretty sweet wine.

But there is a trend in Germany to produce drier wines and so you need to watch out for the word “trocken” on the label, which means dry. You see it is feasible to find some Auslese trocken wines, which means that the winemaker has picked the grapes at Auslese sweetness but then fermented it into a dry style. German wine labeling can be so complicated that you’ll need a glass or two just to recover from the brain strain.

And yes, there are other categories too, including an even sweeter Beerenauslese and then Trockenbeerenauslese, which are botrytis effected sweet wines. Icewine is also made in vintages when it gets colder than -8 degrees Celsius.

My favorite wineries are Dr. Loosen, Fritz Haag, JJ Prum, Dr Thanisch, Selbach Oster and Egon Muller. For a life altering experience try to get your hands on a Spatlese or Auslese with a few decades of age and feel the acidity dance across your tongue as the ripe stone fruit and honey flavors seduce you.

You can’t talk about Germany without mentioning the Rheingau, which is the other classic region for Riesling, and lies just outside Frankfurt. The Rheingau is home to some of the oldest and most famous wine growing estates in the world. Because it is a little warmer here the wines tend to have a touch more body and alcohol compared to the Mosel. One of my favorite places to visit is Schloss Johannisberg. They have a lovely restaurant where you can sit on the terrace and feast on asparagus, a specialty in Germany, and drink copious amounts of divine low alcohol Riesling.

Australia is another major player on the Riesling scene. The Clare and Eden valleys are the classic areas for high quality Rieslings. They are certainly in a very different style to the German wines in that they are very dry and often so sharply acidic that they can taste austere. But they can be excellent quality, with flavors of lime juice, a petrolly character, and a piercing acidity that certainly refreshes under the hot sun. Grosset, Yalumba, and Heggies all produce good wines.

Speaking of Canada, we do make some fantastic Riesling, especially in Ontario. Although it’s the preferred grape for icewine production, there are many versions in a dry to off dry style. I have always admired Cave Spring winery because they have this beautiful delicacy in their wines, and are often leaning closer to a Germanic style.

Closer to home, I’m a huge fan of Tantalus winery out in the Okanagan. The vineyard is on the outskirts of Kelowna and was planted back in 1978. The only problem is that it seems to evaporate in the glass. I love the almost dry style, the racy acidity, and the combination of lime juice and stone fruit flavors. The label design is perfect for British Columbia, with depictions of the masks worn by the original native settlers.

So when it comes to Riesling I would buy the dry wines from Alsace and the sweeter wines from Germany. I would definitely try to find some older vintages and be on the look out for Grand Cru designations on the labels. As an alternative, I might venture off to Australia or stay closer to home in Canada, just for a change of scene.

In terms of food and wine pairing the dry or off-dry wines can be delicious all by themselves, but usually pair well with seafood like scallops, prawns, crab cakes and white fish. When you find wines with a touch more sweetness then start thinking about spicy dishes such as many Asian foods, especially Thai dishes, because you need intensely flavored wines to stand up to the strong flavors of the food. All this is making me very hungry and thirsty. Where’s a bottle of old Riesling and a plate of fresh seafood when you need it?

SUGGESTED FOOD AND WINE PAIRING

Dry Riesling – Tantalus Old Vines, Okanagan
Paired with prawns, scallops, goat cheese

Off-dry Riesling – Selbach Oster Kabinett
Paired with sushi, German sausages

Medium sweet – Dr Loosen Spatlese
Paired with spicy Thai chicken curry

Sweet – Fritz Haag Auslese
Paired with a fresh fruit plate

Dry Riesling – Domaine Weinbach, Alsace
Paired with Munster cheese

To be a Mediterranean Vine…

If I was a vine I would want to be planted along the Mediterranean coastline. My ideal vineyard would be perched on a hillside, where I could bask in the sunshine whilst looking out to sea.

After all, the Mediterranean is a more inviting climate compared to being planted in the frigid parts of northern Europe. In cold climates vines can struggle to ripen the grapes and sometimes people would criticize me for producing acidic and astringent wines. And the blistering heat of fiercely hot climates isn’t that appealing either. The grapes might get over-ripe, resulting in raisin and cooked flavors. What’s worse, the French would tease me about making confiture (jam) rather than wine.

But in a pleasant Mediterranean climate, where the winters are mild and the summers are long, I would thrive. Plus I’d get to take 2 hour lunches and have a siesta in the afternoons.

And so it is. The wine regions that sit along the Mediterranean coastline are responsible for a huge percentage of the world’s wine production. In short, the climate is well suited to viticulture and can produce very good quality wines that are well balanced.

A huge reason for the way a wine tastes relates to the composition of the grape at harvest, namely, the balance between sugar and acidity. If the climate is too hot then wines can sometimes lack acidity and taste soupy. If the climate is too cold then the grapes can lack sugar and flavor, and taste thin and astringent. It’s rare that you see these excesses or deficiencies in wines from around the Mediterranean.

What I like the most about wines from this area is that they are usually made from indigenous grape varieties. This means that they deliver flavors that differ from the usual repertoire of international grape varieties, such as Chardonnay and Shiraz. There is also an abundance of choice. The wine regions of the Mediterranean produce a prolific number of different wines.

Let’s start with sparkling wine. Spanish sparkling wines, known as Cava, come from an area called Catalunya. Barcelona is the major city here, and responsible for guzzling huge volumes of the local bubbly. The main grapes are indigenous Spanish varieties such as Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. Try letting those roll off the tongue at your next dinner party. Intriguingly, Spanish Cava is made in the same method as Champagne, with the second fermentation taking place in bottle. They are excellent value for money and the perfect way to kick off a party.

But Spain is not the only country producing sparkling wine. In north western Italy, within striking distance of the Mediterranean, is the small DOCG of Franciacorta. This region lays claim to making the finest dry sparkling wines in Italy. The varietal mix and the methods are closely modeled on Champagne, with excellent results. I recently tasted the range from Ca’ del Bosco, arguably the leader in the region, whose wines are considered amongst the best sparkling wines in the world. Sublime.

In dry white wine, the Mediterranean also produces a plethora of choices. The most unique has got to be Retsina from Greece. This white wine is flavored with pine resin. Yes, that’s right, pine resin. The reasons for this date back centuries to a time when resin was used to help preserve wines. Over time people became accustomed to the taste of resinated wines and so it became its own style of wine. Retsina certainly has its followers. Be aware that the wines can actually smell of pinesol cleaner so shall we say “it’s an acquired taste”.

More my bag would be a Viognier from the south of France. This varietal has beautiful aromatics of honeysuckle, peaches and floral notes. If you like Gewürztraminer then Viognier might hit the mark. The wines are dry, usually with a touch of residual sugar, quite full in body, with a pleasant richness in the best ones. Try a Vin de Pays D’Oc Viognier with roast chicken or a white fish.

In Rose, the beautiful wines from Provence rank amongst the very best roses in the world. They typically show vibrant pink colors, aromas of spice mingled with fresh strawberries, dry and crisp, and bang-on in the rose stakes. These are perfect for sipping on the deck; they pair well with a fresh seafood salad, and are liquid romance whilst watching the sunset. Take me to Saint Tropez.

In red wines, there is such a huge choice that making a handful of recommendations is no easy task. If you are looking for a classic wine, something big and burly but with depth and concentration, then look no further than Priorat in Spain. Many of the very best are made from Garnacha and Carinena (Grenache and Carignan in France). This is classic stuff, and 100 points from Robert Parker is not unusual.

Then you have a huge number of high quality wines from appellations in southern France like Corbieres and Minervois. Here, you can expect Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre to feature in the lead roles. These are the best value red wines in France and would go well with a steak frites.

It would be unfair not to make mention of the wines from Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Now we start getting into the really unusual grape varieties. How about a glass of red from the Nielluccio grape in Corsica? Grapes such as Nero D’Avola from Italy are gaining a following as some wine lovers tire of the world of Chardonnay and Shiraz. Most are such good value that it’s not a fatal experiment if you don’t like the flavors.

Lastly, fortified wines are also alive and well in the Mediterranean wine regions. My favorite is Banyuls. This exceptional wine comes from the steep terraced vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where France meets Spain. Grenache is king in this fortified wine, known as a vins doux naturel. The winemakers suggest that these Port-like wines are paired with chocolate. A bottle of Banyuls, a chocolate mousse, and you’ll ascend into heaven.

So the wine regions bordering the Mediterranean offer an abundance of unique and exciting wines. The indigenous grape varieties offer the wine lover new flavors to discover. So give them a try. Besides, as you sip your way through the bottle you can dream of those gorgeous vineyards perched on a hillside, overlooking the Med.

 

What is Port?

Ports are one of the longest lived wines because they are fortified, they have the support of tannin, a degree of acidity, and massive concentration of fruit. Those are the key criteria for longevity. In fact, other than Madeira, they are the longest lived of all wines. But there are a number of different styles of Port and so I have to answer your question according to each style.

Vintage Ports, the greatest wines from a single year, are designed for long term cellaring. The general guideline is that they should not be opened for at least a decade after the vintage, and most will be showing their pedigree at 15-25 years of age. Of course, it depends on the quality and style of the vintage, but a really great Port could easily mature for 40-50 years, and some of them for much longer.

With Vintage Port you must drink the whole bottle within 1-2 days of opening. These wines are bottled after just a few years in the cellar, so they oxidize faster because they haven’t been exposed to a lot of air. So beware of ordering Vintage Port in a restaurant. Often they have been sitting there for, well, more than 2 days.

Late Bottled Vintage Ports (LBV), which is the best value for money, are aged by the producer and only shipped when ready to drink. Whilst you certainly can age a top LBV for a few years, and you may even see some improvement, this is not the intention of the producer. I’d be concerned if someone aged an LBV for 10 years after buying it. The producers are hoping that you’ll pull the cork the day you buy them, given that they already matured them for over 6 years themselves.

Ruby Port is the entry level category, and these are intended for immediate consumption. They are deep red, full bodied, with heady black fruits, sweet spices and a fiery kick on the palate. If you age them for more than a few years they risk losing their freshness. So don’t cellar these.

Finally, Tawny Ports, which are my favourites, can be kept in bottle for a few years, depending on the quality and style of the wine. But the intention with these beauties is that you buy them and drink them without further cellaring because they can actually deteriorate in bottle. In production, they have been exposed to air for many years before bottling, sometimes 40+ years in the top age category. So they are more stable, and you can keep the bottle open for a few weeks, if you can resist the temptation.

Cook with the Good Stuff?

In my opinion, the quality of a wine that you cook with can make a difference to the taste of food. Quite simply, wine is an ingredient and can add aroma and flavor to dishes.

Wine can play an important role in marinades, sauces, stocks, and even desserts. In some dishes it is a key ingredient. What would Chef Ramsay say if you forgot the wine in a coq au vin? So it is logical that if wine is a key ingredient in a dish then it can affect the flavor.

Although the perception of “quality” in a wine can differ widely amongst consumers, my advice is that you should be able to drink your cooking wine. If a wine tastes unpleasant then it will not lose that flavor in the kitchen.

That said, don’t go overboard and use a very expensive wine when cooking. The delicate and complex bouquet of a very fine wine will not add all of its subtle nuances after being subjected to high heat. Save the 1961 Latour for yourself…

The style of a wine is also important. Many chefs avoid using a wine that is very sweet or highly acidic in reductions because heat can emphasize these characteristics. Sauces that are over-reduced can be too acidic and have a caramelized taste.

In terms of reducing wastage of a wine you buy just for cooking, you could always pour the remnants into an empty ½ bottle. If it is filled to the brim and sealed tight then it should stay fresh for longer. But I prefer the idea of throwing a bit of the good stuff into a dish when cooking at home. It’s more fun!

Starting a Wine Club at Home

If you love wine then you should belong to a wine club. They’re both social and educational and you’ll have a ton of fun tasting lots of different wines with new and old friends.

But joining an existing wine club may not always be practical. Maybe there isn’t one in your area or your schedule doesn’t work with theirs. But don’t despair because there is a solution. You can start your very own wine club at home.

So how do you start a wine club? About one year ago I started a club and here’s what I learnt along the way.

The first step is to decide who to invite. Probably the most important criteria are an interest in wine, rather than only people who are already knowledgeable about it. After all, you can’t learn more about wine if someone doesn’t share their passion with you. At our club we have some members who are winemakers and others who started drinking wine less than a year ago.

In terms of the number of members, it’s more a function of the space where you’ll be meeting. If you have a small condo then maybe a handful of people will work best. If you happen to own a conference centre then the sky is the limit.

Once you’ve assembled your group, the next step is to set a schedule. Obviously you want to find something that works well for everyone but at the end of the day someone has to make the final decision. I find Thursday nights work best because e-mail traffic in British Columbia slows down significantly on Fridays anyway.

The key with scheduling is to map out the dates for a number of months so everyone can block that off in their diary. Having an event on the last Thursday night of every month is great because it avoids members playing phone tag to organize the next tasting.

So the people are invited and the schedule is set. The next step is to create some themes for your wine tasting to make it a bit more educational. There are plenty of options here but I would suggest starting off by having a certain grape variety as the theme. So you could simply ask everyone to bring a bottle of Pinot Noir from anywhere in the world. Or maybe you ask people to bring a bottle of sparkling wine.

Obviously you can make the themes very precise, such as Medoc wines from a certain vintage. But keep in mind that most people will be scrambling to buy their bottle five minutes before the event and so you don’t want to make it too complicated.

Another suggestion is to set a price limit on the wines people bring. If you don’t then you can expect some people to show up with expensive bottles and this can make others feel uncomfortable. So if you set a price limit then it eliminates all that nonsense. My recommendation would be a maximum of $40 per bottle because you can buy some fantastic wines for that amount, but you can certainly have a fun club where the ceiling is set at $20 per bottle.

You’ll also need a few materials for the club. Tasting glasses are a must. The ideal situation is for people to have about 4-6 glasses each, so that each wine can be poured at the same time and comparatively tasted. I’m a fan of the ISO glasses which can be purchased from Puddifoot in Vancouver. But Riedel makes beautiful glasses too, and then there’s always IKEA. Just make sure everyone has the same type of glass and you have lots of them on-hand.

Other materials could include a few decanters, which often come in handy. A table cloth with some white paper on top allows for color to be accurately analyzed, and pens and paper are helpful if people want to take notes. You may also want to put out some spittoons, although these don’t seem to get used too much at most wine clubs. Otherwise, some bread and cheese is always welcome and there should be lots of water on the table too.

The actual tasting can take a variety of different formats. It can be as simple as everyone chatting casually about the different wines, or the tasting can be led by one person with an eye to making it more educational and formal. The key is that the format should suit the crowd and you don’t want the atmosphere to be too stuffy and pretentious.

As the host, one option could be to print off some information about the grape variety from the internet or a book, and have that handy if people want to know more. Obviously, some tastings are extremely formal and then there are others, equally enjoyable, where the topic of conversation barely includes the wines.

I always enjoy blind tasting games. As the host, you could buy a bottle from a different grape variety and at the end of the night everyone can try and guess what it is. This is educational in itself because it forces a moment of concentration on the wine.

Above all, if a wine club is to have longevity then it should be fun. Having good wines and a group of like-minded people are the keys to success. But if you do live somewhere where there are existing wine clubs then you should seriously consider joining them because you’ll get to taste even more wines, meet more people, and all the organizational work is done for you.