Celebrate the New Year with Sparkling Wine service

When you think of New Years Eve, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Okay, besides Times Square and Auld Langs Syne....think wine, think sparkling, think popping corks! Champagne. But we need to be a little less specific because I know most of you aren't springing for true Champagne. Remember "all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne". For this discussion, we'll simply focus on sparkling wine, and leave the technical differences for a later post. For the article on Sparkling wine, click here.

While I'm sure we have all had sparkling wine, are you sure you are serving it properly? Let's take a look at the "art" of serving sparkling wine.

Temperature. Storing and serving sparkling wine at a temperature of 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended. Why? The cooler the temperature, the more carbon dioxide remains trapped in the wine. This will also enhance the crispness of the wine. If you open a bottle at room temperature, you might as well just drink it out of a Dixie cup. A mistake a lot of people make is in keeping their sparkling wine chilled. Most just throw it in a bucket of ice. Remember to add water to your bucket, so the ice water can envelope the entire bottle.

Opening a bottle of sparkling wine seems daunting to some, but it is really very simple. Just remember that that bottle is under considerable pressure (from 5 to 6 atmospheres). At this pressure it can be dangerous, so make sure you aren't pointing it towards anyone. First, cut and remove the foil. Keeping your thumb on the top of the cage, untwist and remove the cage, while alternating your thumbs to keep the pressure on the cork, remove the cage. Cover the cork and top of bottle with a cloth, and hold the cork firmly. Do not twist the cork, but turn the bottle. The goal is to slowly remove the cork. The goal is to actually open the bottle without popping. As it was described by my Sommelier instructor, "the sound of opening a bottle of sparkling wine, should be the sound of a proper woman passing gas"...gotta love the visual there!

Last is pouring the sparkling wine. Make sure you are using the right glasses. Those flat, wide glasses that grandma gave you are not the best choice, as the bubbles will dissipate quickly. Champagne Flutes are the preferred serving choice. These tall thin glasses will preserve the bubbles. Make sure they are never washed with soap, as this smooths out the little rough spots that will enhance the bubbles. Your older, scratched-up glasses will produce more bubbles than your newer glasses. Next is pouring the wine. As a Sommelier, I have been taught to pour right down the center of the flute in a slow and steady stream, but I'm rethinking that. A new study by French researchers, and published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, suggests that less carbon dioxide is released when gently poured down the side of the glass. Since you typically don't swirl glasses of sparkling wine, you can fill to a higher level than still wine.

Now that you have the basics of sparkling wine service, enjoy the New Years celebration (or any other time of year), with your favorite Champagne, Cremant, Cava, Sekt, Spumante, or Sparkling wine.

Happy New Year everyone!

Wine Pairing (Part Four - Challenges)

In our previous three updates, we looked at the basics of food and wine pairing: regionality, weight, and balance. Even if you tried to follow all these ideas, there are still foods that present challenges. In todays' post, we'll look at some of the more unusual pairings.

When I think of challenging foods, my first thought turns to artichokes, asparagus, eggs, chocolate and cheese. But why should artichokes and asparagus create such challenges? Artichokes have two molecules, known as cholorgenic acid and cynarin, which make wine taste bitter, or even sweet. Because it makes wine sweeter, look for more acidic and crisp wines. The vegetal profile of a young Sauvignon Blanc should work well. But, if we review our first pairing post, and find out that artichokes originated in the Mediterranean, or to be more specific, Greece, then a nice acidic Greek wine might be worth a try. We often think of Greek wines as being dry and hard to drink, so they might just be the perfect choice for a food that will make them taste sweeter.

Asparagus, on the other hand, contains some very strong flavors that often clash with wine (and some noticeable affects to some after consumption...if you know what I mean). Again, match the vegetal components with a vegetal wine (Sauvignon Blanc). For both artichokes and asparagus, can be made more "wine friendly" by adding lemon (acid).

Eggs can also be a little challenging due to the mouth coating affect they have. Think how eggs over-easy, or the texture of a hard boiled egg yolk, coat your mouth. In this case, you'll want to cut (or contrast) the coating affect with some acid. The bubbles of a sparkling wine can also cleanse the palate. Your ultimate decision on which wine to pair will be determined by the preparation and the accompanying ingredients in the dish.

Chocolate, a tough pairing with wine? Yeah, I know wine and chocolate are supposed to be natural partners, just like wine and cheese (which we'll talk about next). While a lot of red wines have chocolate aromas, they tend to be dry, tannic wines. Remember one of our pairing "rules"...make sure your wine is sweeter than your dessert, or else the wine will taste flat. For this reason, bittersweet chocolate works best with wine. I find that Ports and Muscats work nicely with chocolate, but my favorite pairing is Brechetto d'Acqui from Italy (a frizzante style red wine).

Lastly, a quick look a cheese. There are so many cheeses, there is no way to cover them all, but let's consider the types of cheeses. There are fresh, soft, semi-soft, hard, and blue cheeses. On top of that, cheese can be made from cow's, goat's, or sheep's milk - each imparting different flavor profiles. In general, when pairing cheese with wine, think the lighter/ fresher the cheese go with crisp, fruitier wine. Semi soft cheeses move up in weight, as well as mouth coating creaminess, so think acid, but with weight and fruit (this can range from a fruity Sauvignon Blanc to a full bodied Pinot Noir, and everything in between). Hard cheeses tend to be aged longer, and have more distinct flavors. A "rule" to follow here would be, "the stronger the flavor, the bigger the wine" (Merlot to Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon). Blue Cheese can range from mild to strong. Remember to match salt with sweet, so the salter the cheese, the sweeter the wine. Classic pairings are Port with Stilton, and Sauterne with Roquefort

So, what are your food and wine pairing challenges? Add your comments, and we'll walk through some possibilities, and why they should work. As mentioned in the first post in this series...drink what you like, "rules" are made to be broken and in this case are only guidelines to help you out.

Wine Pairing (Part Three - Balance)

In our previous two posts, we talked about two of the easier ways to determine what wines might be the best choices for pairing with a meal: Regionality, and Weight. This third concept is a little bit more difficult, as it will require some knowledge of the food components and as well as the profile of potential wines. In this post we will be looking at Balance. To be more specific, we'll look at matching or contrasting with the flavor profile of the meal.

To start, let's review the the taste components our tongue can recognize: salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. The first four should be pretty familiar to you, but the fifth one, umami, is a bit foreign to most of us. It has to do with being savory. All five of these sensory components are found in food, and the idea is to find wines that match or contrast with those components. Salt and Umami are not found in the flavor profile of wines, but they are things to take into consideration when pairing a wine.

Let's look at the basic components, and see how the idea of matching and contrasting work for each.

Salt - We sense saltiness on the upper back of our tongue. Since wine doesn't (or at least shouldn't) have a salty component to it (okay, okay, unless it's a Manzanilla Sherry), we're typically not going to be matching flavors. With salty foods, we will be looking for wines that contrast, or counteract the saltiness: sweet, acidic, or sparkling wines. This is why a Sauterne (sweet) works with Roquefort (salty), or Port works with Stilton. This also explains the traditional pairing of Champagne (sparkling; acidic) with oysters (salty). Now back to that Manzanilla Sherry, and its' taste of the sea...try that one with green olives or seafood.

Sweet - We taste sweetness on the tip of our tongue (here's a tip...if you can't determine the difference between sweet or fruity wines - stick just the tip of your tongue in the glass of wine, and see what you taste). With sweet foods, we are looking to match or compare the sweetness. You will always want your wine to be sweeter than the food. Mildly sweet foods work well with mildly sweet wines. When pairing with a dessert, we want to make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert. If the food is sweeter than the wine, your wine will tend to taste tart and thin. A classic pairing here would be apple pie with Sauterne, or Madiera (Bual or Malmsey)

Sour - With sour, think acidity (lemons, vinegar). We taste acidity on the sides of our tongue, and the amount of mouth watering we experience. We need to match acid with acid, or else your wine will taste flat and dull. Think of how you might add a squeeze of lemon juice to food to intensify flavors...matching with an acidic wine can do the same thing. Remember that acid levels are typically higher in white wines than red, and also cooler region wines will be more acidic than warm region wines (having to do with grape ripeness and sugar levels). An example of a classic pairing would be goat cheese or chevre with Sauvignon Blanc, particularly Sancerre (from the cool Loire region).

Bitter -We taste bitterness on the back of our tongue. Bitterness can come from the cooking technique (grilling or barbeque) or from the foods themselves, like walnuts. We can match that bitterness with tannic wines (see note below), or we can contrast that bitterness with fruitiness. This is why Zinfandels work so well. They can have fruitiness to them, or they can be made full bodied and spicy.

Umami- Savory is more of a mouth feel, than a taste. but it can be paired with wines that express certain levels of sweetness.

Tannins - While this is not a taste sensation, it is still something that we experience with wine. When you swirl a wine in your mouth, you will pick up an astringency, or drying affect on your palate and gums. Since tannins are a component of skins and stems of grapes, this is really only noticeable in red wines.

In our next post, we'll take a look at some of the tougher foods to pair, and the tricks of pairing wine and cheese.

Wine Pairing Basics (part two - Weight)

In the last post, we discussed the easy way to pair foods and wine...regionality. In this post we'll look at how the weight, helps to determine what wine might work best. The old thought was "white with white meat" and "red with red meat". As we'll see, that may not always be true.

First, what do we mean by weight? Weight is just what it sounds like: Is the meal light, medium or heavy? Examples of a light meal might be something like poached sole, versus a heavy meal would be beef stew. Take into consideration the cooking method used. From lightest to heaviest, cooking methods to consider would be steam, poach, boil, saute, broil, grill, roast, braise, stew. The food itself, can also be categorized as light to heavy. Consider these items: Sole (a light, delicate low fat fish); Chicken (light to medium, low in fat); Salmon (medium, high fat fish); Beef (heavy, low to high fat). Now combine those with cooking method, and you should have an idea of what I am referring to as the weight of the food. Grilled Salmon is going to be a heavier dish than a poached salmon, so you might consider two different wines for each of these salmon dishes. But let's step back for a moment. What is a light or heavy wine? Usually we think of whites as being lighter than reds, and rose somewhere in between. But, a Pinot Noir (red) can be lighter than buttery/oaky Chardonnay (white) or full bodied Marsanne (white). As mentioned in part one of this post, knowing the profile of different wines certainly helps. The best way to know the weight of different wines is to taste, taste, taste (while tasting, think "non fat milk", "lowfat milk", "whole milk", and "cream" - what is the mouth feel remind you of?). Another way is to read reviews. If a review refers to a "full bodied", or "big" wine...well there is a clue. What they are usually referring to is alcohol. The higher the alcohol level of the wine, the "bigger" it will taste. Personally, I find that higher alcohol wines are harder to pair with food. Keeping the alcohol level between 11% to 14% works best with most foods. I find that higher alcohol and higher tannin wines increase the heat/spice levels in food, and clash with salty dishes (particularly with fish, which turns metallic in flavor, when paired).

As mentioned above, the weight of the food is affected by the cooking method. What we are really talking about here is intensity of flavor. Think of this way, steaming food, doesn't add much flavor to food, but grilling on the barbecue can add smoky flavors that might have some bitterness. Obviously, the grilled food will be more intense than the steamed, no matter what the food is. In addition, any added sauce will have an affect on the total weight/intensity of the meal.

When determining what wine to pair with your meal, not only is it important to know your grape varieties, but also the style. Consider this, 100% stainless steel fermentation is going to be much lighter, and fruitier, than a wine that has gone through 100% barrel fermentation with a long aging period. It would be safe to say that 100% stainless steel fermented Chardonnay would be lighter than an oak aged Chardonnay (not to mention a Chardonnay that has gone through Malolactic Fermentation MLF - a discussion for a later post).

Keep these ideas in mind next time you are looking for a wine with your meal, and you'll be well on your way to an enjoyable experience. Remember to experiment. Try pairing food and wines that don't work too (scallops with Cabernet Sauvignon), so you can taste the results and understand how they affect each other. I look forward to hearing about your pairing successes

In our next post, we'll look at balance, or rather comparing and contrasting flavors.

Wine Pairing Basics (part one - Regional)

As we gathered for our Thanksgiving dinner, I was asked, "how do you determine what wine is best to pair with the meal?"...The easy answer is that is takes a lot of trial and error, but in reality, there are certain things I take into consideration when trying to find the best wine for the meal. Let me first say that food and wine pairing should not be something that you agonize over. Everyone's tastes and preferences are different.

To start, I think it is very important to know the common flavor/aroma profiles for at least the most common wine grapes.  For example, Sauvignon Blanc is known for its' high acidity. It is light to medium in body. When I taste Sauvignon Blanc, I always get a bit of vegetal character, similar to green grass, green beans or asparagus. I find this character stronger in wines that come from cooler regions, where the grapes may not have had time to ripen completely. The riper (or warmer region) Sauvignon Blancs pick up more tropical aromas (grapefruit, honeydew, passion fruit), but still have that tell-tale vegetal streak. Knowing this will help you to pair, as you will see later in this blog series.

The first thing I look at, is what type of food am I pairing? Is this a regional food? For example, if I'm eating Italian food, my first focus will be on Italian wines. Okay, next step, is it Northern Italian, Southern Italian? What wines are produced in that region? I figure that over time, the local cuisine and the local wine have determined what works best. Let's look at some classic regional pairings:
  • Champagne - caviar or oysters
  • Bordeaux - roast lamb
  • Riesling (particularly German) - goose/duck
  • Beaujolais - charcuterie
  • Sauterne - Roquefort cheese or foie gras
  • Port - Stilton cheese (wait, Stilton is English, and port is from Portugal....yes, but the English were responsible for the sweet ports we drink today)
  • Burgundy - Coq Au Vin, duck or salmon
  • Sherry - green olives or almonds
  • Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot - steak
  • Chianti - pasta with meat and/or tomato sauce
Knowing the common flavor profiles of the wines listed above, will help you to find similar wines from different regions that might also be fun to try. So, next time you are looking for a wine to pair with you meal, start with the regionality of the dish.

In the next blog, we'll look at weight of the meal, balancing the meal with the wine, and some of the "tricky" foods to pair.

Feel free to share some of your favorite "classic" pairings.

Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Ideas

With Thanksgiving only a couple days away, I have been getting a lot of questions about what wines to pair with the Thanksgiving dinner. I've got to say that this is one of the most difficult meals to pair, as everyone does something different and there are so many things going on. I would venture to guess that most people have the traditional Turkey, but beyond that, it is a virtual cornucopia of different side dishes, and desserts. So how do you pair with them all?

The approach I take is to look at the whole meal. What are your predominant flavors, and weight of the meal. Are you going heavy on the spice, sweet, or vegetables? Here are my thoughts....You can never go wrong with a sparkling wine. I like the acidity and refreshing sparkle to cleanse the palate. I find that a Blanc de Noir (white of reds) has a little more flavor profile.

If you are a white wine drinker, I like Viognier with Thanksgiving dinner. It has some nice acidity to it, and adds some floral aromas that seem to pair well with many of the side dishes that accompany the typical dinner. If you are not familiar with Viognier...this is a classic grape from the Rhone region of France, but you can find many wineries in California that are producing wonderful versions. If you are a bit more daring, try an Italian Falanghina, or a Spanish Albarino, or even a dry Riesling from Alsace (the only dry Rieslings that I have found in California are Clairborne and Churchill, out of the Edna Valley - very nice, but a bit hard to find).
For the Red Wine drinkers. Stay away from the high tannin, heavy wines, and go a bit lighter and fruitier. I like a nice Pinot Noir (particularly from Oregon, which I find have a bit more earthy character, which works well with food), or a fruity/spicy Zinfandel. Even the odd Beaujolais Nouveau works with Thanksgiving dinner, but it is a taste you will need to get used to.

If you can't decide between red or white (you should probably have both anyway), why not a nice rose? I find that when I mention rose, most people immediately think of White Zinfandel. There really are some very nice roses on the market. If you can find Tavel or Bandol (from France) give them a try. They are are little hard to find this time of year, but are worth the search. I have also found some nice roses coming out of the California central coast (try Dragonette Cellars).

Lastly...Dessert. Always remember to have a dessert wine that is sweeter than the dessert you are serving. Tawny Port, Madiera, PX Sherry...all make nice additions. Try the PX with apple pie...YUM!

Hopefully this will give you a few ideas. Pairing sometimes gets too darn serious....so have fun, and experiment. Please share your pairing experiments here, and we can all add some ideas to our list!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Jim Newcomb
Certified Sommelier/President Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts

Beaujolais Nouveau

Today is the third Thursday in November, and for those of you who follow wine, you know that this is the day Beaujolais Nouveau is released. So it begs the question...what is this Nouveau stuff?

Let's start with where it comes from...France. But more specifically, the Burgundy Region. "But Jim, Burgundy makes super expensive, wonderful Pinot Noir based wines (and Chardonnays), but this doesn't taste anything like those." There is another red grape in Burgundy, and that is Gamay (grown only in the southern section of the  Burgundy region, in, of all places Beaujolais). The Beaujolais region is made up of  ten main villages: St Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly, and Cote de Brouilly.

So what is so special about Beaujolais Nouveau? Well, it is the first wine released from the most recent vintage. That is, the wine is only about six to nine weeks off the vine. It doesn't go through the "normal" fermentation, but goes through a process known as carbonic maceration. This is a process in which the grapes are not crushed, but are kept in whole bunches, in an anaerobic atmosphere. The weight of the grapes crush the lower grapes, and natural fermentation begins, creating carbon dioxide. This permeates the uncrushed grapes, and causes them to ferment from within. This process leads to simple, vibrant, fruity/grapey wines. they are meant to be drunk young, as a celebration of the harvest.

I find that these types of wines work well with cheese (particularly goat cheese) meat, stews, charcuterie, salmon, turkey (Thanksgiving idea).

I went looking for the new releases today, and was disappointed to find that only one label was in all three wine stores I went to (and probably in your local grocery store)...George Debouf. When I tried this label last year, I found it overly "cherry cola and bananas" tasting, so decided to stay away this year. I'm holding out for the Drouhin release. I've always liked their wines.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on Beaujolais Nouveau...

Sommelier Updates

Now that we have moved our website to http://www.arrowheadwineclub.com/, it was suggested that I use this site to start an actual wine blog. Bear with me, as I am new to this entire process.
The Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts, grew out of the need for a new approach to learning about wine in a fun social manner. The original club started out at the Lake Gregory Wine Club, well before I moved up to Lake Arrowhead. At that time, Joe Herpin was the president of the club, and was also a distributor with Young's Market. All the wines were from his portfolio. When Joe stepped down as President, I took over that original club. Wine had been a hobby for me, and I loved learning about new wines, and how they paired with food. My approach was to keep the club open for new members and try new and different wines. As the club grew, it became apparent that there were differences of opinion on how the club should move forward. Some wanted to keep it a small club and taste wines that they could easily buy in the grocery store, and others wanted to keep it open to anyone that would like to attend, and try different wines/varietals from around the world. I think it was around 2006, that we decided to split the club in two, and the Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts (AWE) was formed.

As someone who liked to learn about wine I decided it would be a good idea for me to learn more, and then I could share that information with the rest of our club. In 2008, I explored all the different educational options to learn about wine, and chose what I thought was the most extensive program: The International Sommelier Guild (ISG). I completed level I and Level II with the ISG in the Spring of 2009. I loved what I could share with the rest of our club, and took many of my classroom experiences to the club. The next step was a big one...going for full certification as a Sommelier, and completing the Level III diploma course. The course consisted of 26 weeks of instruction, 9 hours each course, and that didn't include the 3 hour drive (each way) to attend the course, or the 2 - 3 hours of reading, and homework projects every night. Needless to say, this was a lot of information to absorb. During the course, I was given a project, to develop a restaurant. I had to develop a beverage training program, inventory management system, inventory of beverages, menu, pairing menu, and full concept for the restaurant. This project was used for one of my final exams: service exam, where we served a customer, and made recommendations based on our menu, and wine list. We were required to use proper technique to serve a sparkling wine and a decanted wine.

Additional course exams included: 200 Multiple Choice Questions (probably the most difficult test); 10 Essay questions; 2 Service, short answer questions; 22 Blind tastings; and 4 Pairing menus with recommendation of beverages for four to five courses on each menu, and rationale for those pairings. We were required to achieve a minimum of 70% on each of the exams. If any one of these was below 70%, then we would have to retake the exam at a later date.

The wait, for results, was painstaking, as it took three months to learn our results. Out of the 12 people that started the diploma course, only five of us passed the exams. Last night, we officially received our diplomas, and Sommelier pins.

Now I am continuing the education. As was pointed, out, wine has dramatic changes at least two times a year, when the new vintages from the northern and southern hemisphere are released. There is so much to learn, and the only way to do it is to continue to explore. I recently took the WSET (Wine & Spirits Educational Trust), level II exam, and passed that with no problems, Next year, I'll be taking the level III course/exam, when offered. I am also trying to get a small study group together for the Society of Wine Educators course. This is a self study group, that allows you to take the exam when you are ready.

Well that's it for my first wine blog for the Lake Arrowhead Wine club, better known as the Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts. Send me your ideas on what you'd like me to discuss, and I will do my best to contribute.

Jim Newcomb
Certified Sommelier/President AWE

Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts Tasting Notes -- November 2010

Our website has moved! Check out the bigger, better, and shinier site: ArrowheadWineClub.com

This blog will now be the archive for Jim's tasting notes from our meetings.

November 2010

(This is a summary/transcription of Jim's tasting notes from the meeting. Any errors in transcription are mine, and mine alone -- Annie)

What you tried tonight was a blind tasting of 6 wines, the first three white of the same grape varietal, and the last three red of the same grape varietal. The whites were all Sauvignon Blanc. How can we tell? First, we checked the body of the wine. It had a lighter body, so we could eliminate Chardonnay as an option. Second, we checked the acidity level. The was was high in acid, so it could be either Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, but the wine did not have the petrol/vinyl quality typically found in Riesling. That leaves Sauvignon Blanc. All three of these samples had a taste theme -- vegetal, which is traditional in this varietal. "Sauvignon" is French for "wild."

The three Sauvignon Blancs were, in order:
  1. Cloudy Bay from New Zealand, the most typical of the New Zealand SBs, with overtones of tropical fruit;
  2. Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc from California, which is a New World SB made in an Old World Style, copied on a Pouilly-Fume (Remember "Old World" means Europe, and "New World" means everywhere else);
  3. Touraine from the Loire Valley in France, lwhich is lower in alcohol, less fruity, and tasting more of minerals and the terroir where it grew.
Now we moved to the reds. Wines 4 through 6 were all the Syrah varietal. How can we tell? It's a dark, heavy wine, so we can eliminate Pinot Noir. But it's not very tannic, so we can eliminate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. That leaves us with Syrah and Zinfandel. The theme running through these wines is black pepper, leather, and meat, all of which is typical of Syrah.

The three Syrahs were, in order:

4. A Shiraz from the McLaren Vale in Australia. Prominent fruit taste characterizes this wine;
5. A Crozes-Hermitage from the Northern Rhone in France. Northern Rhone wines are 100% Syrah, while Southern Rhone wines are a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvedre. These wines are usually very expensive.
6. A Melville Syrah from Santa Barbara. Typically New World wines are higher in alcohol than Old World wines, while Old World wines are more food-friendly.

Thank you to the Bodtke family for hosting tonight's meeting. Next month is our planning meeting. We will meet at the home of Bruce and Kathleen Field. Please BYOB and a dish to eat.

The Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts logo is a registered Trademark with Jim Newcomb and used with permission.