In case you missed them in print, here are some articles from our own John Kerr that were featured in Capital at Play Magazine! The first is about versatile wines for the holidays, but they will work with just about any meal that you find yourself asking, "what in the world should I pair with that?", and the second is about bold wines for the cold winter months. Stay warm and stay informed!
In The Classroom
So tomorrow is the one night of the year that most of us drink sparkling wine (ok, also on your anniversary), so it's no surprise that most of us don't know much about how to enjoy a bottle of Bubbly, or even open one! Well fear not! I am here with some advice to de-mystify the suds and how to get the most enjoyment out of it as well!
Step 1: Open the bottle like a Pro!
Opening your sparkling wine isn't really that difficult once you get the hang of it. Just remember that this isn't a NASCAR event, and the goal isn't to see how far you can shoot the cork, or how much of the wine you can spray over your guests! The tip to professional Champagne service is twisting the cork out gently.
Start off by removing the foil from the cork and cage. Feel free to use the plastic tab to rip it off, or use the foil cutter on your wine tool. Either is fine.
Start by holding your thumb on top of the cork. Safety first people! Nothing will end your party quicker than blasting one of your guests in the eye with a cork, and sometimes it can go off unexpectedly. Especially if it has been jostled around prior to opening. Point the bottle away from anyone that you care about before opening.
With your thumb on the cork, twist the wire that secures the cage until it is free (it should probably take you 6 turns by hand).
You may remove the wire cage now, but I don't recommend it. You will have to take your thumb off of the cork to do that, and it might decide to blast off! Whenever I am opening a bottle of bubbly, I leave the cage on and just twist the whole cork, cage and all!
Top the cage and cork with a dishrag or towel and gently twist the cork to ease it out. Your thumb should still be on top of the cork now! Gently twist it until it pops free. This should produce a whisper of a sound, not bring in all of your guests from the other room thinking that they heard a gunshot!
That's all there is to it! Now find something to serve it in and have fun! Speaking of which...
Step 2: Don't serve your Champagne in a flute!
The flute came about in the 1500's to make it easier to avoid the yeasty sediment that wasin every bottle back then, but that isn't really a problem any more. Yes I know that it looks nice and it makes you feel like you are on Downton Abbey when you clink them together, but in terms of really enjoying the wine, it isn't really the ideal shape. It is too narrow to really allow for all of the complex flavors to emerge properly. The ideal glass would be wide at the base, but tapered at the top. Although if you don't have something like that, just serve it in a white wine glass. This will allow the aromas to better reach your nose and you will enjoy it a lot more!
Step 3: Don't over-chill your bubbly!
If you keep your sparkling wine in your fridge and then serve it ice cold, it won't taste like much of anything. Give it about 10-15 minutes on the counter or so that it can warm up a bit and I promise you will notice a difference in flavor! Unless, of course, you are serving a wine that tastes bad. Chill that bad boy down!
Step 4: Pay attention to the flavor.
Good Champagne is incredibly complex and beautiful, and many other sparkling wines are as well. Treat it like the amazing wine that it is and savor it! Swirl it in your glass for a bit and admire the many flavors that emanate. I feel like we get caught in a celebration mode with sparkling wine and almost forget to taste it. We just clink and then glug it down without paying attention to what we are drinking. Take a little moment to appreciate the amazing wine that is in your glass. Then celebrate away!
Step 5: Pair
Don't forget that Champagne is wine and wine goes with food. Don't be afraid to serve your favorite sparkler with a meal! In fact, it is quite versatile as a food pairing wine. It goes especially well with shellfish and salads, but also pairs well with poultry and pork, mushrooms and cream based sauces.
Follow these tips and have a great New Year's celebration! And remember, that sparkling wine isn't just for New Year's eve and your anniversary. Enjoy them all year!
So you've survived the onsalught of family during your holiday celebration this week, and now it's already time to start thinking about picking the perfect bubbly for your New Years Eve party. With all of the Champagnes, Cavas and Proseccos vying for your attention, picking out the right sparkling wine can be a truly exhausting experience! So before we get into my picks for the best bubbly for your New Years celebration, let's start with a short explanation of some of the famous sparkling wines of the world.
Sparkling wine regions.
Champagne is basically a brand name for sparkling wines that are produced in the Champagne region of France. It can't be called Champagne if it wasn't made within that area, which means that the bottle of "Champagne" from California in the grocery store is ignoring some international copyright laws! If a sparkling wine is made in France, but lies outside the boundary for Champagne, then you have to call it Crement instead. They can only be made from a blend of any or all of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Champagne is synonymous with high quality bubby and celebrating, and because of this, it tends to be very expensive. It is very cold in Champagne, and frequently the grapes don't even get fully ripe, leading to beautifully crisp and incredibly tart wine that truly is amazing to drink.
Prosecco is the most famous sparkling wine of Italy made from the Glera grape. It had a reputation for being very inexpensive and frequently a little sweet, but recently the Italian government added many new requirements for Prosecco production, which has resulted in only the better wines being called Prosecco and the lesser ones just being called Spumante. These can range in style from slightly sweet and fruity to dry and somewhat minerally, but I usually think of them as being a little fruitier than Champagnes, but not as earthy as Cavas.
Cava is the main sparkling wine of Spain. It has a reputation for being very affordable and relatively mild, with some yeasty, sometimes nutty flavors. These were traditionally made from Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo (weren't these the names of Superman's parents on Krypton?), but recently they have been blending more popular French grapes in such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They range from very affordable and mild styles to big, rich, robust and earthy styles. These will usually lack the acidity of Champagne but are usually very good values!
The bottom line.
So with all of these fantastic sparkling wines to choose from, which one is the best for my party this year? A very good question, and I have a few different answers, depending on the style of wine that you like as well as how much you like to spend on a bottle of wine.
If you are the sort who likes to have the best of everything or have ever wanted to own something very rare, then we have the bubbly for you! We have the good fortune of having a bottle of Bollinger RD 2002 vintage Champagne. Only 6 came into North Carolina this year and I would imagine that this is the only one in Asheville! It starts off as a bottle of Bollinger Grande Annee, but instead of the usaual amount of aging, they allow it to mature for another 8 to 20 years before deciding that it's ready. The result is a wine that tastes like it sat in your cellar for a few decades, without the worry about whether or not it is still good. This wine is ready to be consumed now, but could also be aged for a few more years if you like. Complex flavors of mineral, citrus and quince, $374.
For those of us that don't want to spend that much on a single bottle of wine, I have some middle of the road suggestions. The Pol Roger Brut is a great way to feel like the royal family in England at only $48 a bottle. That's right, this was what was in the glasses as people toasted Prince William and Cate Middleton at the royal wedding recently, at least that's what I hear as I wasn't invited. It was also known to be the favorite Champagne of Winston Churchill, so it's a great choice if you happen to have any heads of state or foreign dignitaries coming to your party! Crisp and clean on the palatte, with a rich, yeasty, floral and citrusy flavor.
If that still sounds a bit pricey, try out the Jean-Luc Joillot crements from Burgundy! As you recall, crement is just French bubbly that wasn't made in Champagne. The Cuvee Agnes is a steal at $41, as it just came in fourth in a French blind tasting of the sparkling wines of France, beating out some very expensive and prestigious competition! At $29, the regular Jean-Luc joillot is also very impressive. More rich and creamy than most of the wines from Champagne and considerably less expensive. Both are sure to make a big impression on your guests, without putting a big dent in your checking account!
If fruit is more your style, try out the La Jara Prosecco. It is a Brut (which is the driest style), so it isn't sweet, but you will definitely experience more expressive fruit flavors than a Champagne, with just a touch of minerality to round it out. La Jara means "gravel" which refers to the type of soil it was grown in. This wine is also made organically as well as biodynamically, so it's a great choice if you enjoy wines that are environmentally responsible and made without pesticides. A great wine for $18.49! Expect tart apple and citrus, some floral notes with a hint of chalk on the finish.
If your wallet more closely resembles my own, and the thought of spending even $20 is really a splurge, but you still want to celebrate like a member of a royal family, I have the wine for you! We head from Champagne to Spain for this one. Juve Y Camps Cava is a Grand Reserva, which is the highest level of Spanish wine. In Spain, instead of just aging a wine for a few extra years, to be awarded a Grand Reserva designation, you have to be taste tested by the government. That's right, a representative of the government has to come out and drink your wine and decide if it is good enough to be a Grand Reserva! This wine was served at the new Spanish king's coronation this year, and is apparently tremendously expensive in Spain. I was really excited to have a 2010 vintage Cava that only costs $14.99. The age has really brought out some interesting flavors in this wine. Expect to experience some yeasty, nutty aromas, and a rich, spicy almond flavor on the palatte. This is not your classic, clean, crisp Champagne, but for me, it was a welcome change!
Picking out the right wines for the holidays can be stressful. Your brother who vacations in Provence will be there and he really knows (or thinks he knows) his wine, you will be serving a half dozen different kinds of food and what in the world pairs with honey ham and devilled eggs anyway? Well, we get to taste a lot of wine here at the School and we have narrowed them all down to three good, affordable wines that will leave your family asking you how in the world you got to be so classy!
First Course: The Sparkling Wine
The holidays are a time of celebration, and nothing says celebration like some good Champage. But for those of us who don't want to dish out $75 for their cousins to slurp down in one gulp, only to reach their grubby mitts over to refill their glass while we stare on in horror, we have your bubbly!
About 400 miles south of Champagne we come to Burgundy, where they happen to make some pretty fantastic sparkling wine as well! Don't let the scary sounding "Cremant de Bourgogne" frighten you off, it just means "Sparkling wine from Burgundy". These are fantastic alternatives to the spendy wines of Champagne for the price-savvy consumer.
Domaine Jean-Luc Joillot is one sparkling wine producer in Burgundy who just made headlines at a major wine tasting in France. His wine, the "Cuvee Agnes" was voted the fourth best sparkling wine in France by a team of professional tasters who were tasting blind. "Agnes" beat out some of the biggest Champagne producers, including Veuve Cliquot's high end wine, the "Grand Dame" vintage 1998, which retails for around $130! This is like a minor league baseball team beating the Yankees!
"Agnes", which retails at $41, is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and is rich, creamy and sure to impress even your snobbiest family members! If $41 sounds a bit too rich, you can get Agnes' little sister, the Jean-Luc Joillot Crement, which retails at $29.
Second Course: The White
The holiday season is where I usually find myself dropping my favorite Gruner Veltliner in favor of something richer and fuller. Something that sticks to your ribs and makes you feel warm as you sit by the fire eating christmas cookies! While a Chardonnay certainly fits that bill, they have gotten a bit pricy as well. And also, can we all agree that we are a little bored by Chardonnay by now?
A great way to spice up your winter evenings is with the Truchard Roussanne! Roussanne is one of the major white grapes of the southern Rhone Valley in France, but this one is made in the style of a California Chardonnay. Instead of Chardonnay's apple and pear flavor topped with spice and cream, start off with more of a spicy apricot flavor, and then add on the California treatment. Rich and complex, with exotic spices and a heavier texture. At $24, this wine is a steal! I enjoyed it more than many Chardonnays in the $30-$40 range.
Third Course: The Red
For a great red that will pair well with a Christmas roast but isn't tannic enough to overpower a turkey or ham, try out the "Caliza" from Marques de Grignon. It is a blend of the French grapes, Syrah and Petite Verdot, grown in Spain.
Caliza means "Limestone", paying homage to the type of soil the grapes are grown on, very unique for Spain! The soil in this vineyard is so unique that the Spanish government awarded the Marques de Grignon winery its own DO, the same category as Rioja or Priorat or Ribero del Duero. That's kind of like, say, Cakebread cellars being granted an AVA in California, and then being listed along with Napa Valley, Sonoma, Paso Robles, and the other AVA's. That's a pretty big deal!
Caliza is big and rich, full of spice and dried figs, black cherry with a hint of coffee and enough acidity to keep things interesting, but not enough to make it too tart. At $20.75, Caliza is a real crowd pleaser and it won't hurt your wallet either! This wine makes me want to pour a big glass of it and then sit by a fireplace. I might even share some of it with my family!
Hey there Francophiles, the next round of French Language classes it set to begin in January 2015!
Learn about the language, culture and wines of France as you take a virtual tour led by our resident professor, Dr. Allison Weems. As always, I will be there with wine, so that you can taste and learn about the wines of France, region by region.
Register by 12/30/14 and save 20%!
For more info or to sign up, head over to www.ashevillefrenchschool.com/classes/
Mackensy Lunsford's article in today's Asheville Citizen-Times (http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2014/11/22/low-wages-keep-restaurant-workers-cycle-poverty/19425759/) shows the kind of lifestyle that many of us in the restauraunt industry, and in other careers as well, face on a daily basis.
My first "real" job waiting tables, (my actual first was a 2 month stint in a Mexican Restaurant in Boone) was in a "fine dining" restaurant in Banner Elk, North Carolina. I was very fortunate to make good money during the summertime, but our clientele was very seasonal, and most of them went back home to Florida during the winter months. In the winter, there would usually be 2-3 servers on the floor and you would hope that you got the chance to wait on a table that night, so that you could at least go home with a little cash in your pocket. But you didn't every night. I remember surviving on an apple dipped in peanut butter most nights for dinner, and I would splurge once a week on a drive through cheeseburger in Boone. I lost weight, my family got upset, and I moved to Charleston in search of more steady cash. That, fortunately, was the end of my time in extreme poverty, but there are many who are still in the same position that I was.
While we can't do anything about raising the minimum wage or getting restaurant workers paid more, we do offer a class to help you make better tips. The Sales and Service Class that we teach for restaurant professionals is a distillation af everything that I have learned in my time as a sommelier and also as a server in a 5 star resort. While I can't teach personality, I can at least offer you the steps of service to set you or your staff apart in the Asheville restaurant scene. We teach this on the second tuesday of every month, at 12:00 noon and also at 6:00pm.
We at the Asheville School of Wine were honored to be part of the Gan Shan Station preview dinner at Metro Wines on Friday night. It was a small sample of what Chef Patrick O'Cain plans for his new restaurant in the old gas station on Charlotte Street, which he plans to open by the end of the year. There was room for fifty people that night, and the reservations sold out within a week.
I was excitied to be able to pair wines the incredible food with the new front of the house manager, Certified Sommelier Joe Minnich. We tried to avoid the "obvious" pairings that typically go with asian cuisine, no off-dry Rieslings or Gewurtztraminers here!
As guests arrived, they were greeted with beef tartare on house made rice crisps, and rose sparkling sake! Just slightly off dry, with a nice, round mouthfeel to it.
The first plated course was a smoked trout salad. We selected a dry cab franc rose from the Loire Valley, crisp enough to cut through the intense flavors, with a steely, flinty flavor to match the smoke of the trout.
Next we enjoyed pork pate with house pickled vegetables. The flavors were exotic and intoxicating! We paired that with one of my favorite Gruner Veltliners from Weingut Muller-Thurgau; crisp, with incredibly high acid and a fresh, clean flavor. It worked perfectly if I say so myself!
Following that, a delicious charred octopus in a miso-turnip puree came out of the kitchen. We paired this with the only red of the night; the Valle Del'Acate Frappato, from Sicily. It was light and fruity, with a slight floral flavor. Think Pinot Noir covered in flowers!
The last course was my favorite, a black rice congee, topped with an egg and chile oil. Szechuan spices give this dish some kick, so we decided a big, rich white would pair perfectly. We selected the Truchard Roussane out of Carneros, California. The big weight of this wine provided a cushion to the spicy flavors in the congee. It ended up being one of the most popular pairings of the night.
As a final gift, patrick brought out asian ginger candies, which we paired with the Manuel Acha Vino Vermouth Blanco. We chilled it down and served it Port style in a short glass. This Vermouth is sweet, but it is aged on the peels of bitter orange, which gives it a slight fruity bitterness. It was the perfect end to the night.
For those of you who were unable to attend Friday's event, rumor has it that there may be a follow up dinner some time in November. Get your reservations now at www.metrowinesasheville.com or call 828 575-9525. Tickets will likely sell out fast.
Join us in November and see why there is so much hype about this incredible restaurant!
Well, another week has come and gone and every one is parlez vous-ing a little bit more Francaise! The French classes, led by our resident Professor, Dr. Allison Weems, are continuing to take all of us on a virtual tour of France, region by region. As always, I have been along for the ride, and I brought a lot of wine with me!
This week we took you to Alsace, a wonderful wine region that frequently gets over looked when talking about famous French wine regions. Alsace is different from most French wine regions, because of its turbulent history and mixed cultural heritage. This region is located on the far eastern border of France next to Germany. As everyone knows, France and Germany have ALWAYS been best friends, and have NEVER gotten into any fights whatesoever! Not exactly. This border land has changed hands between Germany and France a dozen or so times over the centuries, leadin to a hybrid culture. Think French people wearing Lederhosen. Most people speak French, German, and a local dialect that is a combination of the two.
As their culture is mixed, their winemaking styles are too. Essentially, you get classic French and German grapes growing side by side. You see famous German grapes, like Gewurtstraminer, Sylvaner and Riesling, being made in more of a dry, French style. This is also the only place in France where you can legally grow these German grapes. No, you wont get arrested and have your Riesling confiscated if you try to grow it in Burgundy, but you definitely can't call it Burgundy wine!
This week we poured the Dopf & Irion "Crustaces", a blend of 90% Sylvaner and 10% Pinot Blanc, as well as the Pierre Sparr dry Riesling. Both pair perfectly with seafood and charcouterie, and both were sold out by the end of our class! That's right, I served two whites this week! The only red that is grown in Alsace is Pinot Noir, and to try that, you will have to wait for Burgundy...
Join us next week where we will take you to Bordeaux! The beginning class is October 12th at 4:00 and the advanced class is on Thursday the 16th.
The day has finally come! Michele d'Aprix and her crew have been hard at work in the vineyard, and she has been sending us videos and pics all day! The following are shots from around her estate and a video of the "1901" merlot being loaded into tank #5. The "1901" refers to the date that the Merlot was planted. Yup, I guess that counts as "Old Vine", right?
Stop by tonight at 5:00 to Skype with Michele herself, live from her cellar! Ask her questions about winemaking, or just try her wine and tell her what you think of it.
The soil in the vineyard. Limestone and clay.
Beautifully preserved ancient seawater fossils in the limestone!
The Barrel Room.
Wine in a vat.
The "1901" Merlot landing at the winery.
Our good friend Michele d'Aprix, the only American Woman Winemaker in Bordeaux, will be Skyping with us tomorrow at 5:00 from her cellar in Bordeaux as she is making her famous "Pentimento" wine. It will be an incredibly rare opportunity to see exactly what goes into making world class wine, and I am seriously giddy in anticipation!
As the date has been approaching, Michele has been recording videos of the harvest and some of the winemaking steps that we won't be able to witness firsthand on Friday. She sent them to us to give us an idea of what is going on over in St. Emilion right now.
Yup, that was the harvest! I am seriously ready for a vacation to Bordeaux right now!
I always wondered how a destemmer actually works. I made some "wine" out of some Muscadines recently and had to pluck all of the stems off by hand, it took hours! I really need to invest in one of these!
Remontage is the French term for "Pumpover", which basically pushes the cap of grape skins, which float to the top, back into contact with the juice to allow more color and tannin to be extracted. I've read about this in my books, but I have never seen it first hand until now! Sorry, I told you I was giddy!
This has just been a sample of what we will see tomorrow, October 10th at 5:00pm, when we Skype with Michele and her crew. Come out and ask her about all of your wine making questions while you taste her incredible wines!
Kind of a weird combination, huh? On Tuesday, October 14th, we will be hosting Julie Lewin, former lobbyist and president of the National Institute for Animal Advocacy, who will be discussing her book about how to get legislation passed for Animal rights. Her passion is working for animal rights, but her methods will work for any cause.
Before that, I will be discussing my own personal pet legislation issue; Wine ingredient labeling! Currently, wineries do not have to disclose their list of ingredients on the label. But Andy, it should just be grapes, and maybe yeast if we are being really picky, right? Oh I wish it was that simple! Many commercial wineries doctor their wines with a myriad of chemical ingredients that you would really not want to put in your body! There are over 100 different chemicals that are legal to add to your wines in the US, and I'm not talking about sulfites here! As the owner of an organic wine company once told me, "The fact that there is no list of ingredients on the label of the wine that you are drinking should terrify you." Scary stuff!
So come out on Tuesday and hear about the chemicals you are putting in your body with commercial wines, and stay to hear what you can do about it from Julie. Be it animal rights or wine honesty, she is a pro and knows how to get changes made in Washington.
Sunday's introductory class was a huge success! The classroom was filled with eager Francophone hopefuls and the wine was flowing! We poured a great Cabernet Franc from Chinon and a lovely dry Chenin Blanc from Saumur, Asheville's very own sister city in France! We sipped wine, learned to speak like the locals, and learned about the terroir and grapes of the Loire Valley.
Thursday night's Advanced class was hopping as well! The entire room was abuzz with what I assume was sparkling conversation all in French. I only understood a bit but then I'm only getting started with French myself. Videos were shown, an assortment of cheese was eaten and wine was enjoyed. I am a firm believer that drinking French Wine helps one speak French more naturally. Well, it certainly doesn't hurt anyway! We substituted the slightly off-dry Vouvray for the Saumur this time, but the Chinon made and appearance again.
Join us next week for more French Language and more wine! Next week we head to Alsace: one of my favorite regions because of it's conflicted Germanic heritage. It's the only place in France where you can legally grow Riesling!
Well, not too much right now, but they do have a long history of winemaking in Iran. Apparently, they used to make a white wine with skin contact, one of those so called "orange wines" that you may have heard of, or maybe had a trendy wine server push one on you on your last trip to New York or Portland, or wherever. It was called Shirazi, and it was all the rage in 9th century Shiraz, Iran, apparently being dubbed the best wine in the middle east! This of course lead the conversation to Shiraz, the city in Iran, and what in the world does it have to do with Syrah, the grape?
Glad you asked! It has long been speculated that Syrah, the famous French grape of the Rhone Valley, may have been a bastardization (Frenchification?) of the name Shiraz, and that maybe the grapes that won peoples palates over in 9th century Iran, might be the same grapes that we enjoy in our Cote Rotie today. This actually gained enough traction that several countries, such as Australia and South Africa, have dropped the name Syrah etirely in favor of calling the grape Shiraz! You also may have seen some California Shiraz out there, and maybe even a few from some other countries. Is there any evidence to back this theory up? Good question again!
There are basically two legends about how grape vines from Iran could have ended up in the Loire Valley. The first is basically that ancient people from Persia may have brought the grape with them when they settled near Marseilles around 600BC. Of course this theory means that all of the grapes in Marseille have to disappear spontaneously at some point and then teleport over to the Rhone Valley without leaving a trace for some reason.
Option B is that a knight named Gaspard de Stérimberg (the Hermit of Hermitage himself!) brought grape vines back with him from Persia when he was returning home from the Crusades. This is unlikely, however, because Persia would have been way farther than he needed to go to fight for the Holy Land. He was either very lost or after being wounded in the Crusades, instead of going home to recuperate, he decided to go the opposite way and take a vacation to Iran! Not entirely convincing.
These are fun legends, and a great topic for discussion, but advances in DNA testing have shed some light on this mystery. Much like Maury Povich does on his show, scientists using DNA testing have shown who the parents of Syrah/Shiraz truly are. And they are...Mondeuse Blanc and Dureza, two indigenous grapes from the Rhone Valley in France! Sorry Iran, you are not the father.
So the grape really is Syrah and Shiraz is just a city in Iran that has nothing to do with it, right? Well, you're partly right. I like to think that using the name Shiraz still has some meaning and purpose. I, personally, like to look at whether the winemaker chooses to call her wine Syrah or Shiraz has a lot to do with what style of wine you are going to find inside the bottle. If they call their wine Syrah, I usually expect it to be tannic, with pepper, bacon, red cherry and smoke, in other words; more French styled, and if they call it Shiraz, I expect big jammy black fruit, soft, sweet tannins and gobs of plum and black cherry, in other words; Aussie styled. This won't work for you every time, though. An Australian winemaker calling his wine Syrah would be excommunicated, and a French winemaker calling her wine Shiraz would be tarred, feathered and then burned at the stake! But it's usually a pretty good indicator of style in my opinion. So maybe this whole Syrah/Shiraz thing has a purpose after all.
Our resident French Professor, Dr. Allison Weems, will take us on a virtual tour of France, region by region, starting with the Loire Valley. She will give us the basics of the French language, tailored specifically to travelers. Greetings, survival phrases, and basic wine phrases will all be covered.
While Dr. Weems is parlez-vous-ing français, I will go over some of the main wine areas and describe what you can expect to drink from town to town when you go over for real. I will talk about the unique terroir of the Valley and what that means for the wine in your glass. I'll cover the really famous towns that you really HAVE to visit on your Loire trip, and give you an idea of the flavor differences between them. What is the difference in style between Pouilly Fume and Sancerre anyway?
How to Blind Taste Wine Like a Sommelier
ONE OF THE MOST satisfying achievements of any oenophile is an ability to recognize a wine whose identity is concealed. Equal parts talent, training and luck, blind tasting is the elusive grail of the professional wine world. I've had some great blind-tasting successes—and many failures—but my favorite experience took place 15 years ago at the now-closed Montrachet, in New York.
The restaurant's then-wine director, Daniel Johnnes (now wine director of Dinex, the Daniel Boulud restaurant group) conducted a game called What's My Wine? The challenge was quite simple: Mr. Johnnes poured willing diners a glass and asked them to correctly identify the grape, appellation, region, vintage and producer. For each correct answer, Mr. Johnnes deducted 20% from the price of the bottle. Anyone who answered all five correctly got it free.
I answered four out of five questions correctly: Chenin Blanc, Savennières, the Loire Valley and 1995. I didn't name the producer, Nicolas Joly. I can't remember why. Perhaps it was too obvious. "Only about 2% of all the people who played the game got as far as you did," said Mr. Johnnes reassuringly when I recalled the competition during a recent phone call.
But when I recounted my almost-total triumph to a wine-savvy friend, he scoffed that people almost always guess wrong at blind tastings. "They only remember the one time they got it right," he said.
The practice purportedly evolved from a professional need to identify fraudulent wine (bottles didn't come with labels long ago). Today this type of tasting is considered the best way to assay the true quality of a wine. When a drink's identity is unknown, a taster can (theoretically) reach an objective conclusion as to its worth. Then there is the other type of blind tasting—practiced by professionals and amateurs alike—which is more of a parlor game meant to challenge and/or humiliate wine-drinking friends. Both kinds generally involve shrouding the bottles with brown papers bags, but anything all-concealing will do. I've even seen aluminum foil employed.
The reviewers at Wine Spectator certainly go through the exercise for the first reason, as executive editor Thomas Matthews noted in an email. It is important to avoid "the inevitable bias adduced by knowledge of price and producer," he said in an email. The magazine's critics review all new-release wines in independent blind tastings, he added.
Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes the Wine Company in White Plains, N.Y., blind tastes with his staff for fun. It can be "very humbling," he said. He also does so to assess the quality of wines wholesale sales reps present, as his shop is small and he must be selective about what ends up on the shelves.
These evaluations are generally "price blind." That is, Mr. Posner might know the wine's name but not the price. Mr. Posner offered an example of one such tasting. A salesman brought him an expensive ($50) Pinot Noir along with other, less-costly wines. The pricey Pinot was disappointing while the cheapest, the 2012 Ramsay Pinot Noir ($12), was a hit. If he hadn't blind-tasted the Ramsay Pinot, Mr. Posner said, he probably would not have stocked it.
“ One can follow specific steps to improve the odds of a correct guess. ”
Sommeliers must also be proficient in the skill. This is particularly true for those who aspire to be master somms. In fact, a variation on this theme is an important part of the exam conducted by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an accrediting professional organization. Candidates must correctly identify at least four of six grape varieties to pass the test—something fewer than 10% of the would-be masters manage on their first attempt, according to the court's Seattle-based examination director, Shayn Bjornholm.
Some sommeliers, such as Raj Vaidya, head sommelier at Daniel restaurant in New York, like to eliminate preconceived notions as a means of checking their palate. For example, he said, "You expect certain things in a wine like Chablis—minerality, high acidity." If it's oaky, you might incorrectly think it's flawed, he said, adding that without a label, he is responding only to "the wine in the glass."
Winemakers frequently taste blind as well—not just their own product but others' too. Aaron Pott, an acclaimed vintner and consultant in Napa (Blackbird Vineyards, Pott Wine) said he rarely tastes his own as it always stands out, but he employs the method elsewhere, in part to avoid "cellar palate," i.e., becoming overly fond of his own beverage.
Mr. Pott also uses the technique for fun. He doesn't take blind tasting—or himself—too seriously. He recounted an event attended by 100 or so wine professionals who were offered the opportunity to participate in a challenge. Mr. Pott was the only one who volunteered—and he got every bottle wrong. But a week later someone brought to his house two wines that he blind tasted, and he "nailed them," he said. They were a 2005 JJ Prüm Kabinett Riesling, from Germany, and a 2000 Troplong Mondot, from St.-Èmilion, Bordeaux. Luck does figure in success: Sometimes a taster is on, sometimes he's not.
Although sampling widely is one of the best ways to become a better blind taster, one can follow specific steps to improve the odds of a correct guess. The first step requires a visual examination (something casual drinkers often forget). Certain wines are much lighter than others. For example, a Pinot Noir will almost always be lighter than a Cabernet. Same with a Pinot Grigio versus a Chardonnay.
The second step requires tilting the glass to check the liquid's viscosity. A viscous wine will usually be higher in alcohol, and a higher-alcohol wine usually comes from a warm climate.
Smelling and tasting are the third and fourth, and most important, steps. The aromas will tell you almost everything you need to know, and the flavor should confirm it. Aromas of red cherries and spice? Pinot Noir. Earth and black pepper? Maybe Syrah. (Of course, you need to study and drink a great deal to have these reference points.)
How well does the average wine drinker perform in a blind tasting? I decided to conduct one of my own for three savvy friends. I chose single varietal wines (blends are too difficult) that are widely available and true to place and type. They were about the same price ($20), save for the California Cabernet, which was more than twice the average price. (It's hard to get a great California Cab for $20.)
The whites included the 2013 Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner, from Austria, the 2013 Domaine Pastou Sancerre, from the Loire Valley, and the 2013 Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio, of Alto Adige. The reds included the 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Hills Merlot, from Washington state, the 2010 Laurel Glen Cabernet, from Sonoma and the 2011 Yann Chave Le Rouvre Crozes-Hermitage, from the Rhône Valley.
The results were surprising—or not. The most knowledgeable oenophile took the longest to evaluate each sample and had the most articulate descriptions and rationale, but he also got every wine wrong. The least experienced correctly identified two (Grüner Veltliner and Sancerre), and it turned out that he drank those "all the time," while the third taster nailed every vintage—and nothing else. Sometimes the guesses were close (Cabernet Franc instead of Cabernet Sauvignon) and sometimes they were quite far (Pinot vs. Syrah).
What do blind tastings prove? The professional version can definitely deliver an unbiased opinion—and aid in the discovery of some very good deals (such as the inexpensive Pinot Noir that surprised Mr. Posner). And the parlor-game variety that I practiced on my friends?
They can help you remember and recognize wines in the future, potentially adding to your connoisseurship. But that doesn't guarantee you'll recognize those wines if they're served blind again. As my wine-savvy friend can attest, accurately identifying wines in a blind tasting isn't just about knowledge but a bit of luck too.
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The classic rule was:
White wines with white fish and white meats.
Light red wines with red and white meats.
Off dry or sweet wines with spicy food.
Strongly flavored reds with strongly flavored meat dishes.
Sweet still and sparkling wines with sweet foods.
I think this is a good place to start, but do not get stuck here! There is not a stone tablet somewhere with the hallowed words "Though shalt drink Cabernet Sauvignon when thy eatest steak" etched onto it. Not to say that Cabernet is a bad thing to drink alongside a delicious New York Strip, but there are many, many more wines that pair equally well with your beef (For instance, try an obscure Italian wine called Aglianico!). Don't feel like you must drink reds with beef and whites with seafood either. I find that lighter and more acid driven reds, such as Gamay Noir, Frappato, Zweigelt and a lighter bodied Pinot Noir work quite well with seafood and even shellfish. I almost feel that Salmon pairs better with a light red than a heavy white, but that's just my two cents! And then there are the so called "orange" wines; white wines with extended skin contact that pair well with everything from chicken to pork and even some beef dishes, due to their tannic nature. Also, don't forget about your dry roses! In my opinion there is not a better pairing for barbequed chicken and pork than a nice, meaty and fruity rose. Ask your sommelier or your wine shop guy and we will gladly help to suggest some pairings that you might not have thought of.
Also, I object to the thought that there is only one "correct" pairing for a food. And while I do feel that some pairings are "righter" than others, I feel that there is a huge gray area of wine pairings that might not be as good as some but will work just fine. In my opinion, there are very few wine pairings that just don't work at all. I guess the point I am trying to make is that a good wine pairing can really liven up and improve an already good meal, but it isn't something that one should ever stress or worry about. Drink what you like with food that you like. Don't take someone else's opinion over your own, you are the one who has to drink it after all! If you like drinking red Zinfandel with your pork chops, I'm sure it won't ruin the meal. But you should try it with a good Gruner Veltliner one day!
Come out tomorrow night at 6:00 for an entertaining tour through the very essentials of wine and learn more about the wines you love!