It recently occurred to me that some might wonder what I enjoy at home, being a wine professional and all that. Which wines are most pleasurable? Are certain qualities more attractive than others? And, inevitably, “What’s your favorite wine,” a query that many sommeliers like me receive. Here are some answers.
(1) Which wines are most pleasurable? I prefer when a storyteller to a wallflower. Most flavorful wines will express place, varietal, or aging. A recent sip of Konu Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand showed more than gooseberry, lime, and grapefruit peel, while a dram of Chateau Poyenne was filled with leathery notes that interrupted the fruit. Which was “better?” I preferred Konu, but found the sharp whip of leather unforgettable, too.
(2) Are certain qualities more attractive than others? This a matter of legume versus eggplant, or, for meat eaters, chicken versus steak. It is what is most pleasurable for you and your guest. If fruit is preferable, decide which – and go from there! Apple? Think Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. Tropical? Head to Greece for Assyrtiko or to New Zealand for a handful of gooseberry. For red? First, consider red or black fruit. If raspberry, try Pinot Noir or Zinfandel – and Bull’s Blood of Eger or Dornfelder, if you have a sweet tooth. Craving plum, blackberry, or dried fruit? Then, ask for a Merlot, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, or, naturally, Cabernet Sauvignon. Or go retro and try an Argentine Malbec or Australian Shiraz. The matter is simple, believe it or not.
(3) What’s your favorite wine? Wine is attached to memory. Some remember sharing inexpensive European offerings while atop a mountain with a loved one. For me, it was a triumphant splash of Champagne enjoyed while propped against a heater in my new apartment, post break-up. I still have the bottle. Keep corks to commemorate time with friends. Once labeled and dated, they will provide an unexpected timeline of those with whom you have passed time.
When addressing potential beginnings for the blending of specific varietals to make better wine, it seems best to consider the tradition of blending in France that started decades and decades ago. For thought are:
- Bordeaux blending, utilizing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and occasionally Carmenere to create fine red wine. For white (or dessert-style) wine, a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
- Rhône blending, with use of up to seventeen varietals to create favorite Chateauneuf de Pape; archetypal reliance on Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, or GSM; plus dependence on a good harvest of Marsanne and Roussanne to provide drinkable white wine.
Beyond lay other countries. Port is notable for including mixtures of native varietals like Touriga Nacionel, Tinta Francesca, Tinta Caõ, and others in Port Wine. Italian province Veneto can boast of Amarone, thanks to calculated portioning of Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara, and other vinified offerings.
Tonight, the spotlight fell on California, where crops of grapes inspire creation of blended wine. First sampled was Cryptic. Zinfandel-driven, the beverage’s surprisingly tannic edges were softened by Wood-Fired Fresh Mozzarella Pizza. Next poured was Hess Collection 19 Block Mountain Cuvee. Meant to sit aside duck or lamb, its fruit, depth, and spice made it friendly, drinkable, and accessible to anyone in search of fine, yet blended wine.
Tonight’s samplings were of Pacific Rim’s Vin de Glacier and Framboise, both products of Washington state fruit.
Rhône Ranger Randall Graham of Bonny Doon fame created Pacific Rim Winery once he realized the attractive qualities of Washington state wine. Beginning with Riesling, then, he found enough success to transfer two Bonny Doon winemakers to the northern state to continue winery growth. And it did grow! Currently the Pacific Rim Winery offers fifteen different wines, all derived from Riesling.
First tried this evening was Vin de Glacier, a dessert wine produced using the Eiswein method. Here, grapes are frozen and then pressed, their juice much sweeter and concentrated than normal. The wine itself is honey-like in texture, with apricot, honeysuckle, and apple. Pairings include desserts with tropical or stone fruit. Mango sorbet would be good too.
Next, Framboise. Not made from grapes but locally farmed raspberries, it’s extremely jammy and raspberry-like. As its compliment, consider vanilla gelato or chocolate desserts, especially those with added red berries.
Garganega is the primary varietal used in production of Soave and Gambellara, two DOCGs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in the Italian province of Veneto. A stalk of loosely hanging grapes, Garganega allows for a bright tasting beverage suggesting peach, honeydew, and orange zest in addition to spicier notes of marjoram and even saline. Because winemakers prefer their interpretations to have a stronger backbone of flavors, too, it is often blended with trace amounts of either Chardonnay or Trebbiano di Soave, also known as Verdicchio.
Tonight’s sample was of Pieropan’s Soave Classico. As mentioned, its winemaker blends in 15% Trebbiano di Soave, with the remainder being Garganega. Flinty, it expresses apple, pear, and lemon along with the varietal’s salty quality.
Two varietals were discussed today, Barbera and Sangiovese.
First was easy-drinking Barbera, a Piedmontese grape that contributes much of the state’s everyday table wine. Born in Monferrato, this productive “workhorse grape” – a pet name for this preferred quaffer – allows a light, semi-tart wine that expresses red fruits like sour cherry and licorice. Interestingly, the Camparo intoned a pleasant sour cherry finish, too, yet with enough upfront red-berry flavor to distinguish it and keep it attractive to a Pinot Noir lover.
Next poured was Campogiovanni’s Brunello di Montalcino, made from a superior Sangiovese clone that finds expression in the limestone and sand of Montalcino. The varietal – naturally thin-skinned and used widely for Chianti and Chianto Classico – excels in this environment, creating rich, diverse wines expressing highly prized soy, dark red fruit, and spice. Campogiovanni drinkers will discover these intricacies, the likes of which continue to develop as the wine aerates. Decanting is highly recommended.
This week, class focus fell on two Italian varietals, Corvina and Nebbiolo, varieties that play plum roles in production of Amarone and Barolo respectively.
The first explored was Veneto-native Corvina. Capable of creating fruity table wines when simply vinified, it also has an essential role in wines like Valpolicella and Amarone, beverages which evolve from a specific winemaking technique that has passed through centuries. This method is appassimento, which, as defined by Wine Spectator magazine, is an “Italian term for drying harvested grapes, traditionally on bamboo racks or straw mats, for a few weeks up to several months to concentrate the sugars and flavors.” When sugars ripen to a likeable level, the winemaker presses them, adds yeast to incite fermentation, and ultimately racks the wine into oak barrels to begin the aging process. The Allegrini family has adapted this recipe to create Palazzo della Torre, a softly-textured, fruity red table wine with suggestions of black berries and dried fruit. Inspired by wines that are borne of ripasso winemaking techniques, the family winemaker permits a portion of dried fruit to be pressed and included in its offering. It pairs well with tuna.
Nebbiolo was on the table next. The king of Piedmontese wine, it is put through years of rigorous aging before its release as Barolo, a tannic, nuanced red wine. Lawful requirements for simple Barolo requires at least three years of aging while Riservas need four to five years of aging, majority in oak.
While natural to believe that red wines achieve color because all are made with red grapes, the process to urge color along is a method in itself. Called maceration, it involves the soaking of grape skins, seeds, and stems in fermenting grape juice in order to extract tonal elements and tannic quality – and could take hours, depending on a winemaker’s desired level of extraction.
To begin, one should consider the anatomy of the grape itself. It is basically illustrated here:
As noted, actual grape juice has no pigment. Rather, it is to be found in grape skins that can be thicker in certain genera than others. For example, think of delicately colored Pinot Noir, paler than a Bordeaux counterpart because of a thin, finicky skin. (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are more thickly skinned).
Different wines produced from varietals with varied skin structure were sampled today. First was Attica’s Garnacha, made from the rather thin-skinned Spanish grape. As predicted, it was lighter in tone but held plenty of flavors like red licorice, plum, baking spice, and sour cherry. Milbrandt Merlot was its comparison. A hair darker as it is made from a thicker skinned varietal, it was earthier in flavor, with suggestion of plum and black cherry jam.