Aging Wine

Over the last week, I have had the opportunity to open up some old bottles of wine with friends and family. The 30 year old Burgundy was still holding up, but the 1969 St. Emilion was over the hill. I had made a comment on Facebook, that a wine was past it’s prime, which generated a question…”Aren’t all wines better as they get older, and what do you mean by past its’ prime?”. I wrote about drinking or holding a wine about two years ago, but maybe it's  time to take another look.

First, not all wine benefits from aging. Matter of fact, most wines are meant to be consumed within a year of release. I've heard that the average wine consumer holds on to a bottle of wine for about 40 minutes (the time of purchase to the drive home and consumption). Wine is a perishable product, and due to chemical reactions within the bottle, and oxygen exchange through the cork, the wine will change, and eventually deteriorate. There are a number of factors that affect a wines “ageability”. These include the grape variety, the vintage, the vineyard practices, and the winemaking process, as well as the bottle closure (screwcaps versus corks).

The grape variety will determine the sugar (and ultimately the alcohol) levels, the tannins, and the acids. The vintage is all the affects of climate/weather on the vineyards, which can also influence the final wine product.

The key factors that influence the ageability of  a wine are: acidity, residual sugar, alcohol levels, tannins, and ultimately the flavor and aroma of the wine.

Acidity is what preserves a wine. Acidity determines the pH level of the wine. But, too much acidity can be a flaw. Acidity does not change as a wine ages, it is constant. So, if it has too much or too little to begin with, the wine will only show more of the flaw over time. Wines with high residual sugar will age if they have balanced acidity. Without acids, the residual sugar will make for an odd wine after aging.

Alcohol levels in wine must also be balanced. When I taste a wine, I feel the burn in the back of my throat, if the alcohol is not balanced. Alcohol does not change in wine over time either, so just like acid, it must be in balance.

Tannin is that astringent feeling you get on your gums, after swirling the wine in your mouth. Tannins come from the skins, seeds and even oak aging. We don’t associate white wines with tannins (except from extensive oak aging), but for red wines, it is one of the components that allows the wine to age well. Some tannins are “green” or even gritty. Unfortunately, these types of tannins rarely age well, and actually only get more concentrated. I look for ripe tannins, that will mellow over time, and contribute to a smooth mouthfeel.

 In general, red wines with high acidity (such as Pinot noir and Sangiovese) have a greater capability of aging. Additionally, red wines, a high level tannins (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah), will usually be wines will stand the test of time. The white wines with the best aging potential tend to be those with a high amount of acidity (Chenin Blanc, Riesling). The acidity in white wines plays a similar role that tannins have with red wines in acting as a preservative.

As red wine ages, the red color will eventually fade to a light brick red, and ultimately brown. White wines will also move towards golden, then brown. These changes occur due to the chemical and oxygen reactions of the phenolic compounds in the wine.

When I taste a wine, I am looking for concentration of flavors and aroma. If it’s not there in the beginning, it will probably never improve. As a wine begins to age,  the aromas will change to a bouquet. Where we tasted fruit in the young wine, now we might taste something more complex, with notes of dried fruit, and earth. The finish will be long and pleasant. However, there will come a point when the wine has reached is “prime” or “peak”, and will not improve any further. It will actually decay, and die in the bottle. The challenge is to try to hold a wine until it’s peak, and no further. There is no set formula for figuring this out, and for that reason, I purchase numerous bottles, and start tasting when I have guessed the optimum aging time (also you can check sites like, and read the notes of other tasters).

In the end, balance is the key. An unbalanced wine won’t age well. When you find a wine that is balanced with great intensity of all the key factors, that is the wine you want to age. The timing, though, is at best guess, and comes with a lot of trial and error. And, of course, it should go without saying....make sure you store the wine properly.

Christmas in the Air

Smells can bring back memories. To this day, I can go to Disneyland and smell the water on the jungle ride, and immediately flash back to being a kid. The same with Christmas. There are certain spices and smells that I always associate with Christmas. These aromas of Christmas go back to some European traditions. The smells of  a fresh cut Christmas trees, Gingerbread cookies, Stollen, fruitcake. The smells that remind me of Christmas are cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice and ginger.

Spices have a historic connection with the holiday. What did the three wise men bring to the baby Jesus on that first Christmas, besides gold? Frankincense and Myrrh....both spices.

And where does wine come into the conversation? For over 2000 years, wine has been associated with the followers of Christ, as a metaphor for blood. What could be more traditional than wine with Christmas. But, if you want to add the spices of Christmas, then you might be interested in a traditional winter drink made of warm wine and spices. The most recognized is known as Mulled wine (British), Glögg (Nordic), Gluhwein (German), or even Vin chaud (France).

Whatever you want to call it, this mulled wine is a drink that is slowly heated along with sugar, spices, fruit, and sometimes, brandy. Originally this was done to mask the poor quality of old wine (prior to proper storage containers). The wine had been sitting around since harvest, and started to oxidize, so the only natural thing to do was to add spices, sugar, and other ingredients, to help improve the flavor.

While recipes show up as early as 1390, there are so many variations, that not one recipe can be called traditional. The most common ingredients are:

One bottle of red wine (Beaujolais, Zinfandel, or Merlot)
One peeled and sliced orange and or lemon (if you use the peel, remove the white pith, unless you like bitter wine)
1/4 cup of brandy
8-10 cloves
1/4 cup honey or sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp fresh  ginger
Other potential ingredients: allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, anise, raisins, cranberries

For best results, you want to slow cook the wine. Boiling will accelerate alcohol evaporation, so slow cooking is best. A crockpot is the best way to assure slow cooking, and filling your home with the smells of Christmas.

 So, this Christmas, either recreate the smells of Christmas past, or create new memories for your family and friends, but most of all, have a Merry Christmas!

Tokaji Aszú - an "aha" moment

One of the joys of being a wine educator is when you get to introduce students to regions and wines that they might otherwise never try. This week we were studying Austria and Hungary, focusing on the main regions, and their historical wines. When we got to Hungary, the focus was on Egri Bikaver (Bull's Blood) and Tokaji Aszú.

As you might imagine, the Egri Bikaver garnered interest due to it's name and history. There is no bull's blood in the wine, but the Kekfrankos grapes does make an interesting wine that would be great with pizza. Where the "aha" moment occurred was with our last wine of the day, Oremus Tokaji Aszú 3 Putt. At the moment of tasting, I could literally see the students faces light up, and the conversation increased. This was a wine, unlike any others they had tried.

So, what is "Tokaji Aszú"? What is a "putt"? And, why is this an important historic wine?

Tokaji Aszú is a sweet wine from the Tokaji Hegyalja wine region of Hungary. This region is located in the north east corner of the country, next to the border of Slovakia. The main growing region is located on a plateau of south-facing slopes close to the Tisza and Bodrog river. The weather conditions are perfect of the development of Botrytis Cinerea, or "noble rot". There are a number of grapes grown in the region, but the two most important are Furmint and Hárslevelü, which will account for about 90% of the blend in the wine. The remaining grapes are: Sárga Muskotály (also known as Yellow Muscat), Zéta, Kövérszőlő, and Kabar

Noble Rot affected Furmint Grapes
No one is sure how long sweet wine has been made in the region, but written records show that it predates French Sauternes, and could possibly be the first "noble rot" wine produced. It gained worldwide recognition in the 18th century when King Louis XIV, of France, crowned it as "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" or "the king of wines and the wine of kings".

Gönc at Royal Tokaji
The production of Tokaji Aszú is also interesting. The botrytis affected grapes are individually picked in 20 to 25kg containers, known as Puttonyos,  The grapes are pressed gently under their own weight and the first run juice is referred to as eszencia.  This juice can be set aside to make the Eszencia wine.  The aszú berries are then very gently pressed and blended with a base wine made from ripe, but non-botrytised grapes, then fermented in large, 136 liter casks, known as "Gönc". The sweetness of the final product is defined by the number of puttonyos of paste added to a Gönc. This can range from 3 "putts" to 6 "putts". Above 6 "putts" the wine is called,  Aszú-Eszencia. The Gönc are traditionally not topped off, and the wine is left to slowly oxidize with the yeasts and bacteria. Alcohol content of aszú typically runs higher than 14%. The challenges of fermenting due to the heavy amount of sugar (500 g/l to700 g/l) in the Aszú-Eszencia, the alcohol content remains much lower. The Aszú-Eszencia wines are some of the most expensive wines in the world, often exceeding $1,500/bottle, but they are also able to age hundreds of years.Aszú-Eszencia is not really a wine in the conventional sense, but rather an elixir

Aszú is filled into Tokaj’s unmistakable trademark half-liter (500ml) colorless bottles that have remained unchanged for centuries. The wines are medium deep amber colored wines, with bouquet and the taste of coffee, honey, apricot, sun-dried fruits and a long finish.

Tokaji Aszú wines are traditionally served at the end of the evening or as an aperitif. They also pair well with white meat in sauce, game, blue cheeses, and desserts. Once opened, these wines can be kept for several weeks in the refrigerator. The wine should ideally be served between 50 and 54°F.


During one of my wine classes this week, we were discussing the wines of Italy. A question came up about Balsamic Vinegar. Now, I know my wine stuff, and I am pretty good with food, but I never really explored the world of vinegar. I do know (and have tasted many wines) that have turned to vinegar. So, I thought this might be a good subject to explore.

Vinegar [ˈvɪnɪgə]n  -  (Cookery) a sour-tasting liquid consisting of impure dilute acetic acid, made by oxidation of the ethyl alcohol in beer, wine, or cider. It is used as a condiment or preservative

There is a big difference between wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar (not to mention cider vinegar, and rice vinegar, etc). And, they are actually two different products.

Vinegar can be made from any fermentable liquid. The presence of the acetic acid bacteria (acetobacter) during the fermentation process of sugars to ethanol creates vinegar. In general, traditional vinegars, are fermented slowly over a period of weeks or months. The longer fermentation period allows for the accumulation of a nontoxic slime composed of acetic acid bacteria. Quicker, more commercial methods are made with a "mother of vinegar" that is added to the fermenting must. This process can quicken the production time to under 3 days, and usually used in more commercial type vinegars.

Wine vinegar is made from red or white wine, and is the most commonly used vinegar in Europe and the United States. There is a considerable range in quality, just as with wine. The highest quality wine vinegars are matured in wood for up to two years, and exhibit a complex, mellow flavor. The most expensive wine vinegars are made from individual varieties of wine, such as Champagne or Sherry.

Where things get interesting, and where the original classroom question came up, was with Balsamic Vinegars. Traditional Balsamic vinegar is a product from Italy, produced in the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy. The names "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia" (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia) are protected names, under the DOC laws of Italy, and the new PDO laws of the European union.

Balsamic Vinegar in cask
True balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grape must. The must is boiled, and reduced to about 30% of its' original volume. The resulting thick syrup, called mosto cotto, in Italian, is aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of successively smaller sized wooden casks. The casks can be made of different woods like oak, chestnut, mulberry, ash, and cherry. The juice slowly ferments, and concentrates over the years, producing a final product that is rich, deep brown in color with complex flavors which balance the natural sweet and sour elements of the cooked grape juice.

Reggio Emilia designates the different ages of their balsamic vinegar by label color. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label has aged for at least 18 years and the gold label has aged for 25 years or more.

Modena uses a slightly different system to indicate the age. A cream-coloured cap means the vinegar has aged for at least 12 years; the magenta cap bearing the designation "extravecchio" (extra old) is for vinegar that has aged for at least 25 years.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is very expensive (somewhere between $50 to $130 per ounce). Obviously, there are other Balsamic Vinegars out there, that are less expensive, but they are not the traditional product. These commercial grade products imitate the traditional product. They are made of wine vinegar with the addition of coloring, caramel and sometimes thickeners to artificially simulate the sweetness and thickness of the aged traditional product. Or, some of the better "copies" of traditional Balsamic are made using traditional methods, but are not aged as long, or start out using the traditional methods, and simply add "mosto cotto" to the vinegar, to thicken, and produce an imitation product in a shorter time period. Since there is no official standard or labeling system to designate the different styles of balsamic vinegar, it can be hard to tell their quality based on the packaging alone..unless of course is says, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia.

Is it Vodka?

Thursday was Thanksgiving here in the United States. A time for families to gather together, and give thanks for all our blessings, as well as a time to celebrate the coming holiday season. This year, we had the normal family gathering. I brought a couple bottles of wine for the dinner (a California Rose, and a French Regnie) My brother-in-law brought a bottle of Cîroc Vodka, that was a hit with all the "twenty-somethings" in the family.

Ugni Blanc
I wasn't familiar with Ciroc (not a big spirits drinker to begin with), so I started reading the label. This was a berry flavored vodka, but it was made from grapes. In particular, the grapes were Ugni Blanc and Mauzac Blanc. I am very familiar with Ugni Blanc, as the main grape in Cognac production, and it just so happens that last week, I was discussing wine production in Gaillac, France, and one of their grapes is the Mauzac Blanc.

The question arose..."How can this be a vodka, if it is made from grapes? Aren't vodkas made from potatoes?". The other thought was, why isn't this a brandy, since it is made from distilled grapes. So let's take a look at what the definition of vodka is.

Alembic Still
Vodka is a beverage made from water and ethanol alcohol. The alcohol is the result of distillation of fermented grain, fruit, potatoes, or basically, anything that has sugar, or starch that can be converted to sugar. The standard process is distillation, and possibly filtration to produce as clean and flavorless a product as possible. The repeated distillation will continue to increase the amount of alcohol, to as high a level as 96% abv (alcohol by volume). The final distillation is then cut with water, to produce a lower alcohol level (usually around 40%), and any potential flavors are added to the final product. In Europe, the minimum alcohol level is 37.5% for vodka (65 proof). In the United States, the minimum is 30% abv (or 60 proof). Since the goal of vodka is to produce a clean, clear product, it is not aged.

Compare that to Cognac (see my blog on Cognac). Cognac can only be produced in the Cognac region of France. It is strictly regulated. it is distilled twice, then aged for a minimum of 30 months in oak barrels.

The Cîroc brand of Vodka is actually distilled 5 times, so you end up with a purer product, and again, no oak aging. So, Cîroc does pass the test, for the current definition of a vodka, but not the definition of a Cognac, or even a brandy. However, the European Union has begun talks concerning the definition of vodka The traditional vodka producing countries are insisting that only spirits produced from grains, potato and sugar beets be allowed to be labeled as "vodka", and must follow the traditional methods of production.

So, as of today, Cîroc is a vodka, but we'll have to see if that stands.

Cîroc is available in four flavors: Snap Frost, Berry, Coconut and Peach. It is marketed as an "ultra-premium" vodka, and distributed by Diageo, the worlds largest spirits producer.

Carbonic Maceration = Beaujolais Nouveau

Today is the third Thursday of November, and you know what that means? The first release of the 2012 vintage is on the shelves. Every year, on the third Thursday of November, the French release the Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine that is fermented, bottled, shipped, and on the shelves in less than nine weeks. Due to French laws, the wine cannot be served or sold until this day.

I have written about Beaujolais Nouveau in the past, but every year is a new vintage. This year, the European wine growers have had a challenging year. Faced with severe frost in February, and hailstorms in April and August, the amount of available grapes was half the normal crop.

Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be a celebratory wine, to welcome the latest harvest. If you haven't tried a Nouveau style wine, you might be in for a surprise. It has a different taste to it, due to the fermentation process that the grapes go through. Instead of the normal crushed grapes, sitting in open vats, with the active yeast and sugars working together, these Gamay grapes go through a process known as Carbonic Maceration.

Carbonic Maceration is a simple way of making fruit forward wines, with less tannin. The grapes are put into large, covered tanks, un-crushed. The weight of the grapes in the tank, does crush the lower grapes, and those begin to ferment as normal. Since the tank is covered, the carbon dioxide that is given off by the ferementing grapes, is captured in the tank, creating an anaerobic atmosphere. In the absence of oxygen, the uncrushed grape berries begin to go through an enzymatic, intracellular process. They basically begin to breakdown from the inside out. The sugars, and harsh malic acids also breakdown. The polyphenols (in the grape skins) are absorbed into the grape pulp, turning the pulp pink (remember that most grapes have clear juice and pulp). Once the alcohol level reaches about 2%, and before the grapes actually die, the must is pressed, and the juice continues to ferment in the normal way.

The resulting wine typically produces strawberry, cherry and raspberry notes, but leaning more towards the candied variety. Notes of banana are often present. This is a light, fruity wine, with no, or little tannins. When serving, remember to chill the wine, as it is meant to be around 55 degrees. Also, don't hold on to the wine. This is not a wine to store, and probably won't make it to New Years.

As I have mentioned in two previous blogs, this is the perfect wine for Thanksgiving, as it can pair with a number of different types of food. And, what is Thanksgiving?...a mix of all types of foods (and people with different wine preferences). Since it is so light, this red can work with both light and dark meats, as well as salads, pasta, and cheese. On top of that, your wine budget won't go through the roof, as Beaujolais Nouveau is pretty inexpensive.

The most visible producer is George Deboeuf, but most visible, doesn't always mean the best. I find that Joseph Drouhin, and Louis Jadot make a better wine, and a slightly higher price. Of course, that is my opinion, and encourage you to try them and make your own decisions.

Have fun! Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be celebrated, and the first sip of the 2012 vintage.

Quality Wine in the Old World

Have you noticed a change on the label of your favorite French wine? It might be subtle, and it may not even be there at all.

A few years ago, the European Union (EU) determined that something had to be done to tame the growing wine surplus. Indications are that many of the wines that were being produced didn't have much market potential, due to a poor end product. Many of these wines were so poor, that they were used for distillation. The ultimate goal of the EU was to  modernise the European wine trade, and improve its' quality and competitiveness with the new world producers. One of the significant reforms is the ability to mention grape variety on the label, making the wines more accessible to those who prefer New World market practices.

In the simplest terms, the EU wines will fall into two general categories: Table Wine (TW), and Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR). Table wines are the basic cheap blends that are sourced locally, and rarely seen on the import market. What we are used to seeing is the QWPSR wines. These are wines of a higher quality, and must pass minimum standards of production, and come from a protected geographic area.

Within the QWPSR, there are two levels of quality wines: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographic Indication (PGI). These are the English translations for the two levels.

Designation of Origin is defined in article 34 of the regulations as “the name of a region, a specific place or, in exceptional cases, a country …that complies with the following requirements;
-its quality and characteristics are essentially or exclusively due to a particular geographical environment with its inherent natural and human factors
-the grapes from which it is produced come exclusively from this geographical area
-its production takes place in this geographical area
-it is obtained from vine varieties belonging to Vitis vinifera”

Geographic Indication is defined as “referring to a region, a specific place or, in exceptional cases, a country …which complies with the following requirements;
-it possesses a specific quality, reputation or other characteristics attributable to that geographical origin
-at least 85 % of the grapes used for its production come exclusively from this geographical area
-its production takes place in this geographical area
-it is obtained from vine varieties belonging to Vitis vinifera or a cross between Vitis vinifera species and other species of the genus Vitis.”

Each European country has its' own name for PDO. In France, this level is known as Appellation d'Origin Protogee (AOP). This is equivalent to the current AOC level most of us are familiar with (think Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cotes du Rhone - all are AOC's). The AOP will not entirely replace the AOC on the labels, rather the producers will have a choice of using one or the other. In the case of the PGI, this is equivalent to the Vin de Pays level. Table wine in France is now known as Vin de France.

Italy, Spain and Portugal all have similar designations. Where it gets a bit confusing is with Germany. Since the wines are labelled based on ripeness levels, there is currently no system similar to the EU designations. In Germany, the PDO level is known as geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung (gU) and the IGP level is known as

geschützte Geografischa Angabe (gGA). I have yet to see how this will affect German wines.

So, if you have stayed with me on this, you are wondering..."how does this affect me?" Well, it may or may not. Many producers of higher quality wines, don't like the idea of putting the grape variety on the label. For example, if you are lover of wines from Jura, does it matter to you if it just says Jura, or will it change your opinion if it says the grape variety is Savagnin (yes that is spelled correctly - it is a different grape than Sauvignon). Many winemakers are stuck in tradition.

For now, you may or may not see a change on the label. The wine producers are given a choice. We are slowly seeing some changes on the shelf now, but only time will tell if it helps Old World wine sales, or confuses the buying public even more.

A Brief History of Wine

Two years ago, I started our writing these blogs, with a small following of friends. Looking back at the history of this blog, I was lucky to get about 100 people checking out the site. Now people from all over the world are checking in, adding their comments, and e-mailing me with questions. I appreciate all of you who continue to read my blog articles, and who continue to vote my for my site by clicking the button on the upper right side of this page.

Most of you know that I teach wine classes to all types of wine students. From beginner to professional Sommeliers. This week, I was preparing my class presentation for a review of the history of wine. While I learned this for my Sommelier certification, it is not something that I spend a lot of time reviewing, or even discussing. So, I thought I'd give you my abbreviated version of the history of how wine made it to California (no, wine grapes are not native to our continent).

Vitis Vinifera Sylvestris
The wild grapevine (Vitis Vinifera Sylvestris) is thought to have been first cultivated (Vitis Vinifera Sativa) around 7,000 to 5,000 BC in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains of modern day Georgia and Armenia.

These first wines found their way south into the Mesopotamian cultures, and is even mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story from the Sumerian culture dating to around 4,000 to 3,000 BC.

The wine and vines traveled down the Nile, and settled in the Egyptian culture. Here, the Egyptians began to keep records of vintages, and began to store and experiment with wine. After the Egyptians, the Phoenicians began to spread wine around the Mediterranean, where the Greeks became avid growers and traders of grapes.

The Greeks expanded their trade to the southern reaches of Oenotria (now Italy), by colonizing Sicily, Cyrpus, and continental Italy. It is with the Greeks that we are introduced to Dionysus (the Greek god of wine) and also Hippocrates (the father of medicine), who "prescribed" the consumption of wine to cure all sorts of conditions.

After the decline of Greece, the Romans stepped into the scene around 150 BC. The Roman Empire spread into what is now Spain and France, as well as the Etruscan regions of Italy. The Romans were the first to publish books on growing, and the importance of matching the grape variety with the proper soil and climate. At this point in history, the prized wines were typically sweet, or flavored to mask the spoilage issues. The influence of Roman doctors led a shift to drier styles. White wines were for the rich, and reds left for the poor. We also meet Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.

Christianity was the next step in the evolution of wine, as it became a key ritual representing the blood of Christ. Unlike Bacchus and Dionysus, the Christian approach to wine was in moderation.
 The monastic movement grew dramatically after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, but its' largest expansion was led by Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, around 800 AD. His interests in the vine were focused on the Rhone and Burgundy regions of Gaul (France). The two most influential orders were the Benedictine and Cistercian monks. They kept meticulous records, and their viticultural studies and advances were extensive. Under the monks, the vine moved all over Europe.

Junipero Serra
The next big jump took place during the "Age of Discovery". The exploration of trade routes, and new sources for gold, oil, wine, and spices began with Portuguese discovery of Madiera in 1419, followed by the Spanish (Columbus, and later Cortez), the French, English, and Dutch (South Africa).

Cultivation in Mexico began around 1520, with plantings of the Criolla Grape (also known as the Mission Grape). Mostly used for religious services of the Catholic Church. This spread into California through the advance of a series of missions, by Father Junipero Serra.

Buena Vista Winery
California's first documented imported European wine vines were planted in Los Angeles (at that time some of largest expanses of vineyards in the world) in 1833 by Jean-Louis Vignes. By the 1850's, Agoston Haraszthy, made several trips to import cuttings from 165 of the greatest European vineyards to California. Haraszthy opened the first commercial winery in California, Buena Vista, in 1857.

There is so much more to the story of wine. Volumes of books have been written on the subject. Hopefully, this very short review with wet your appetite to learn more. Maybe even join one of my classes, where we get more in-depth. If not my class, find a local wine shop that offers instruction, and have fun!

Restaurant Wine Lists

This week, I've had a number of discussions about restaurant wine lists: their pricing, their menu layout, and the expansiveness (or lack there of) of some.

Let me first get a little "pet peeve" out of the way...I am tired of theme restaurants (particularly Italian and Chinese) that have a full menu of regional items, but their wine list doesn't match the cuisine. Even further, their decor and music doesn't follow the theme. When I go to an Italian restaurant, I want the establishment to take me to another place. I want to feel like I am visiting Tuscany. The food, the decor and even the background music. Nothing like walking in, and hearing rap music blazing in the background to prep me for the Floretine Steak and a bottle of Chianti (sarcasm intended).

And, while I'm on Italian restaurants, why is it that a lot of them don't store their wine properly? I don't mean to pick on Italian restaurants, but in my experience they are the biggest culprits. Serving warm wine, that has been stored in the kitchen, is just wrong. More than a few times, I have had to ask for an ice bucket, to chill down my red wine to "room temperature". The cabinet next to the stove is not the proper place for a wine rack.

When it comes to restaurants, there are a number of things that the owner (or Sommelier) needs to pay attention to: 1) the wine list; 2) proper storage; 3) service; and 4) a trained staff.

Whether the wine list is large or small, the restaurant really needs to carry a variety of wines that pair well with the food on the menu. Now, I am one that likes to explore, so I look beyond a wine list that just carries Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. While I have no problems with these wines, I want an experience. I want to try something new. Some restaurants stock their cellars (if they have one) with wines that will wine them awards (check out the Wine Spectators Awards of Excellence List), some will only carry wines that get 90+ points on the latest wine review. Sometimes, these approaches lead to awkward wine lists, that are clumsily organized, with not much thought to the chefs' creations.

My favorite wine lists give me a range of options. I can flip through their wine list by country, or by grape variety. Their pricing is reasonable, and they have the wine in stock (read about some wine experiences - both good and bad, we recently had in Monterey). The wines are also served by a trained staff member, or the Sommelier, and arrive at the correct service temperature. Also, if your wine list is an encyclopedia, give me some time to look it over. It will take me more than a couple minutes to sift through the volumes of wine on the list. Yeah, you know I am a "wine geek" when I look for a wine first, then figure out what food item I am going to order to best pair with my wine choice.

More on pricing. When I mention "reasonable pricing", I don't mean that the restaurant has to give away the wine. I realize everyone is in the business to make a profit. But, with today's tech saavy world, it is very easy to whip out the smart phone, and check the latest retail price of that $42 bottle of Pinot Grigio on the menu, and find that it is selling on for $15. I think restaurants need to be conscience of their consumer's knowledge, and price accordingly. I also realize that if I bring my own bottle into a restaurant, I will be paying some sort of corkage fee (legal here in California, but no so in many other states). This corkage fee covers the cost of glassware and service, as well as compensates the establishment for the wine that was not ordered. Where I have a problem is if the lowest priced wine on the menu is $20, then the corkage fee should not be $35. Charge what your lowest priced wine on the menu is.

As a Sommelier, the wine list, the food, and ambiance should all lead to a pleasurable experience. I want the customer to walk away talking positively about the restaurant. I want them to come back, and bring their friends. As a customer, I want to be taken away to another place, and escape from everyday life for a couple hours. I want to eat tapas in Barcelona, and sip a nice glass of Rioja, all while sitting here in California. Is that too much to ask for? I don't think so!

Mouth Watering Wine

This week, I had two wine experiences that were related, but on opposite sides of the spectrum. Both experiences had to do with the acidity of the wine, and the affect on my palate.

 To set the stage, I think it is important to understand what acids are present in wine, and their role in the enjoyment of the wine in your glass. All wines contain acid. When we taste wine, we experience acid on the sides of our tongues, and the mouth watering affect it creates. Acid is one of the components that a wine taster will be evaluating while sampling wine. Acid refreshes and cleanses the palate.

While still on the vine, the grapes are high in malic acid (think green apples), until veraison takes affect. As the grapes develop into more palatable fruit, the malic acid declines, and is replaced by tartaric acid. At the time of harvest, the grapes contain mostly tartaric acid, malic acid, plus small amounts of citric acid and ascetic acid (too much is a problem and leads to vinegar). During fermentation other acids are formed: Lactic acid (see my blog on MLF), succinic acid and carbonic acid. Also, after fermentation, the winemaker may make adjustments to the wine, by adding asorbic acid, sorbic acid or even sulfur dioxide (known as sulfurous acid).

It is these final adjustments that lead me to this weeks' experience....About five years ago, I had visited a very popular winery in Paso Robles (name to remain anonymous - if you want to know, contact me directly). I began tasting their white wines (no problems), then progressed to their red wines. My mouth immediately began to burn. My tongue and the roof of my mouth reacted with the sensation of an acid burn. For the last five years, I have avoided their wines...until this week. I went to a tasting of their wines in a local wine shop. First, their sparkling wine. No issues (as I found out later, their sparkling is made for them by another winery). No problems with their Rousanne, and then came the red wines. Merlot was okay, but as I moved on in the tasting, that same sensation returned. No one else was experiencing the same issues I had with the wine, so I questioned the winery rep about their winemaking additives. He was going to talk with the winemaker to help me determine what they are doing different than anyone else. I am not expecting a call or e-mail back, but if I do, I will share the findings. My first thoughts is that the ph or acid levels are not balanced in their wines. Maybe I am overly sensitive to this imbalance.

My second experience of the week was during one of my wine classes for the International Sommelier Guild. During class, we sampled a bottle of Arneis from the Piedmont region of Italy. This white grape has traditionally been added to Nebbiolo to soften the acids and tannins. Arneis is a perfumed white wine, that is very low in acid. Because of this low acidity, the wine tastes somewhat flabby. That refreshing, palate cleansing acid is absent. It didn't spring out of the bottle, and left me disappointed with the wine in the glass.

Acid can make or break a good wine. In cooler regions, acid is not an issue (sugar is). It is in the warmer regions, where acids are diminished. The warmer weather means higher sugar levels (more alcohol) and less acid. A wine low in acid may be unbalanced, so acidification might be done. The challenge is that by adding acid, the ph is lowered, and it is difficult to calculate how much acid to add to retain the desired final ph level. As mentioned above, it is perfectly legal (at least in the United States) to add acid to wine.  There are three types of acid in powder form. Tartaric acid is the primary acid in grapes. Citric acid is the main acid that comes from oranges and lemons, and Malic acid is the leading acid in apples and pears. Winemakers use an acid blend that’s a combination of these three acids, normally blended in equal portions. But if everyone (or some) are using it, then this one particular winery is doing something different, or it's not the acid at could be one of the many additives that are allowed to be used in California. The puzzle of the burning palate continues....

Pinot Noir - The "heartbreak grape"

Over the years, I written about a number of different grape varieties, but it just occurred to me, that I have only discussed one of the most complex and mysterious wines in passing. Sure, I've mentioned some that I have tasted. I've made some recommendations, and I briefly described it in my article about "noble grapes". So, let's take a look at Pinot Noir.

I don't think there is any other grape that has reached the level of mystery, awe, or mythology than the Pinot Noir grape. The grape can make red wine that is silky, sexy, fruity, bold and complex. Or, it can be a main component of sparkling wine. And don't forget rose. Volumes of books have been written about Pinot Noir. I'll keep this to the basics, to hopefully give you a better understanding of the grape.

Clos Vougeot
The undisputed "home" of Pinot Noir is France, in particular, the regions of Burgundy and Champagne. Of those two, the grandest expression of the grape comes from some of the small villages in the Cote d'Or. So why is the Cote d'Or such a great place for Pinot Noir? Pinot Noir is a grape that produces poor wines in warm regions, but thrives on the edge. For those that believe in terrior, Pinot Noir is the perfect grape, that reflects the climate, soil, topography, and cultural nuances. Pinot Noir has a tendency to mutate easily, and is considered a difficult  ("heartbreak") grape to grow (probably a semi-myth perpetrated by the local growers in Burgundy). Realistically, it took hundreds of years for the Catholic Monks to determine the best growing areas (mid-slope and limestone soil), and cultivate the best clones. Pinot Noir is an old variety, and it mutates easily. If it doesn't get enough sun to ripen, the grape may produce white grapes (think Pinot Blanc, or the gray version: Pinot Gris).

Pinot Noir is grown throughout the world. Some of the more notable regions are California (Santa Rita Hills, Santa Lucia Highlands, Sonoma, Russian River). Oregon (Williamette Valley), Chile, New Zealand (Central Otago), Australia (Tasmania), France (Alsace, Loire), Germany (where it is known as Spatburgunder). Experimentation is going on in South Africa, Canada and southern regions of South America.

For me, Pinot Noir has a certain "funkiness", or earthiness to it. Aromas can be described as cherry, strawberry, plum, raspberry, violets, gameiness, leather, mushrooms. On the palate there is usually high acid (typical of cooler region grapes), moderate tannins, bright red fruit character, and a silky texture. However, I have had some unfiltered, un-fined Pinot Noirs that surprised me with their weight (check out Whitcraft). The best Pinot Noirs can age for years, and develop wonderful and complex bouquet.

There are so many styles of Pinot Noir. I am partial to Burgundy, but I just can't handle the prices they demand. There are certain California Pinot Noirs that I enjoy, but I find the majority too fruity. For something in between, Oregon is the place to look for Pinot Noir.

My recommendation is to experiment. Do a Pinot Party. Taste some California (mine are: Dragonette Cellars, Ampelos, Windward, Calera - I'm obviously partial to Central Coast), Oregon (mine are: Drouhin, Erath, Lange), and Burgundy (Louis Jadot, and Drouhin have good examples in all price ranges).

Since Pinot Noir is a lighter red, it pairs with many types of food. It is one of the few reds that works with fish (Salmon and Pinot Noir work really well together). A classic pairing would be with mushroom or truffle dishes (that earthiness just works!), or boeuf bourguignonne, coq au vin and duck. For cheese, stick with Brie or Camembert.

Wine Tasting in Monterey - Part 2

Pietra Santa Winery
Last week, I shared our group wine tasting adventure in the Salinas Valley, and the Santa Lucia Highlands, with Wine Tasting in Monterey Part 1. Our large group of 23, whittled down to ten, that decided to make it a 4-day weekend. I had one winery that I really wanted to visit while we were in the area, and that was Calera. I had read the book, The Heartbreak Grape, as well as tried numerous Calera Pinot Noirs, so I had to finally visit the winery. I called to inform them that a small group of us would be there when they opened, and since the winery was about one hour away, I researched other wineries in the area, and planned our day.

We headed out of the fog in Monterey, and drove up Hwy 101 past the Salinas Valley, and into the Gabilan Mountains in San Benito County. When we reached Cienega Road, we wound our way back in on the narrow roads, lined with oak trees, and rolling hills of brown grass. Just a couple miles short of Mt Harlan (the location of the limestone soil and vineyards for Calera), we came upon the winery and tasting room for Calera. I held out hope that Josh Jensen would be there to greet us, but no luck.

Start of the wine cave at Calera
We tasted our way through each of the 2009 Pinot Noir vineyards, and noted the differences between each. I had settled in on the Ryans Vineyard, as my favorite one to hold on to, and store for a few years (a double magnum is now sitting in my cellar). Then, who should walk in the door, but Jim Ryan, the longtime vineyard manager for Calera. For me, this was a highlight of the trip. I should note that Calera is in the process of digging a cave for storage of their wine inventory. The work has just begun at the end of the parking lot. I'm not sure if this will be open to the public once completed.

Next, we drove back down the road, and turned at a group of large warehouse (which I'll talk about soon), and headed up the road. The road was lined by vineyards, and olive trees, and we ended at what can best be described as a Mission Style building. The temperature was already getting up into the 80's, and there was little shade, so after adjusting our previous wine purchases, to protect them from the heat, we headed into Pietra Santa (Italian for "Sacred Stone").

Olive Press at Pietra Santa
The tasting at Pietra Santa included a large mix of varieties. We tasted whites, rosato and red. From single variety, to blends. The tasting room also had a variety of gifts, as well as olive oil and basalmic tastings. I found their old vine Zinfandel (planted in 1905) to have a lot of depth in flavor, but my favorite was their "super Tuscan" blend, known as Sassolino. The rose of Dolcetto (called Rosato) was also very refreshing, and a nice change of pace from the Grenache based you find all over the central coast. While the rest of the group was tasting, I headed down to the winery, and stumbled upon the large stone olive oil press, imported from Italy. Pietra Santa produces olive oil exclusively from five different olive varieties, grown on the estate.

Tasting at DeRose Wineyards
Our next stop was the surprise of the day, DeRose Vineyards. This winery was on my list to visit, just because of it's historic significance. This is the oldest continually operating winery in California (producing wine since 1851). Eventually the winery was purchased by Almaden, and now owned by the DeRose family. When we pulled up to the large dilapidated looking warehouses, the people in my group were questioning my decision to stop. We walked into the warehouse, and were greeted by Al DeRose, who was ready to pour whatever we wanted to taste. The tastings included wine from Chile (where Al has some vineyards), old vine Zinfandel, and the buy of the weekend....a Claret, made of 75% Cabernet Franc, and the remainder of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Price? $9 per bottle!

By now we were getting hungry, and we had planned ahead with coolers full of cheese, meats and chocolate (we knew this area was a bit remote, and finding food might be a challenge). Al DeRose offered us two bottles of wine for lunch, and in return, we gave him most of our leftover food.

Lunch outside DeRose
Next stop was back in the town of Hollister. We drove to Leal Vineyards. The grounds were beautifully maintained, and I can see where they probably get a lot of wedding events. The tasting room was a shock to the system, versus the friendly one-on-one we had at the previous three tasting rooms. The women behind the counter looked like they had just come from a Robert Palmer video shoot ("Addicted to Love" came to mind). All the tastings came from a wine dispensing machine built into the wall behind the tasting counter. This felt very commercial and impersonal. None of us connected with the winery or the wines.

As we drove back to Monterey, I diverted into the town of Salinas, to seek out Star Market. I was looking for a specific wine, and was told that this grocery store not only had the best selection of wines in the region, but also the best prices. Both were correct. Unfortunately, the Lucia Pinot Noir (from the Pisoni Family) was sold out. I'll have to keep searching.

Casanova Wine Cellar
To end the weekend, I had made a group reservation at Casanova in Carmel. This was by far the best dining experience of the weekend. The staff served our large group of 14 people with a great attendance to detail. The wine list was huge, and every bottle was in stock. The spinach gnocchi appetizer was great, and just melted in your mouth. This is a "can't miss" appetizer.  The main course and desserts were excellent, and I must say, the pricing was very reasonable for the quality and quantity.

After dinner, the Maitre d' invited us to visit the 30,000 bottle wine cellar. The collection of wines is extensive, and covers all wine regions and all price points. A real treat for a group of wine enthusiasts.

As it always seems to happen, we had to head back home. We drove back the "long way" by driving up Carmel Valley, We had hoped to stop at a few wineries on the way back, but as we found out, most are not open on Monday, and don't open until 11:00. So, no stops, but we did find that most are located closer to the ocean, and once you get back in the valley, not a whole lot else is there.

Lastly, we made two quick stops in Paso Robles. The first was at Castoro Cellars to meet up with some friends who were staying in Cambria, and then a quick stop at Tobin James. I must add an observation that most in Paso Robles are tired of hearing...but its' true. The alcohol levels in the hotter Paso Robles region were a shock to the taste buds, after coming from the cooler Monterey region, where alcohol stays around 13 to 15% (versus the 16 to 17% we had with most of the Tobin James Zinfandels).

While the wineries are a bit harder to find,  and more spread out, I encourage you to visit the Monterey wine region. Within a one hour drive of Cannery Row, or Fisherman's Wharf, you can find a lot of tastings rooms at both the winery and in-town tasting rooms. The variety of restaurants, plus the scenic beauty of Monterey and Carmel will keep you coming back. Next time up, we'll have to check out the wineries of Santa Cruz!