Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meet Sauvignon Blanc - The Rebel

When I think about Sauvignon Blanc, I remember that guy who went against every imaginable grain. He didn’t play sports or join clubs because it was too normal – he was an individual. If everyone was wearing red that year, he wore blue or black. Instead of a letter jacket, he rocked a
tough leather and perhaps some chains. When all his friends were listening to pop and hip hop, he preferred grunge and painted his fingernails black. A true rebel. Not the boy next door.

When I put my nose into a great glass of Sauvignon Blanc, my reaction is usually “What the funk???” Because it gives you what you wouldn’t expect from a wine – freshly cut grass, green bell pepper, scallions, etc on the nose, and if it isn’t a lower end Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, or something similarly new world, you will be shocked and appalled by the austerity on the palate! And that’s the way he wants you to react when he enters a room. Just like he wasn’t interested in team sports or clubs in school, he’s not for corporate – he owns his own Harley Davidson shop so he can dress however the funk he wants and talk bikes all day. Sancerre, located at the inland end of the Loire Valley in France, is the official homeland of Sauvignon Blanc. It is also grown in Bordeaux, and when blended with Semillon and sometimes Muscadelle (not related to Muscat, Muscadet or Muscadine) it is Graves (pronounced Grahv) the official white wine of the region. Sancerre set the standard for grassy Sauvignon Blanc, that beloved “cat’s pee” swag that true Sauvignon fans look for in their glass. From these wines you can experience citrus flavors, particularly lemon or lemon zest and grapefruit, and they’re invariably bone dry.

On a different vein, Sauvignon Blanc proliferates in the Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island, brand new world. More audacity – of all the random places to take root! Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc can be grassy with that cat’s pee vibe as well, but on the palate they take on a distinct passion fruit flavor, with less austerity than their French contemporaries. They’re much more user friendly, in their own rebellious way.

In general, because of characteristically high acidity, Sauvignon Blanc is a great food wine. I like it with fried foods, anything salty or creamy like baked macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, fried clams, fried fish, French fries, eggs benedict – yes, why not have a glass of wine with breakfast, it’s a wonderful way to start a day! Also I love Sauvignon Blanc with dried sausage or cured meats, and semi-soft cheeses (avoid blues, the acidity in those cheeses will clash with the high acidity in the wine).

Your homework for this week and weekend is to drink six Sauvignon Blanc. You are excused from this assignment on Thursday, as September 1 is #CabernetDay, but then you must dive back into your devoirs! Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé (the other Loire Valley Sauvignon benchmark) are highly recommended. Quincy is a less expensive alternative to these, not quite like the authentic article but at least you will be drinking from
the same region at about half the price. Marlborough is also a must. These are ubiquitous and plentiful – shop in the US$13-$18 range, you can almost pick blind because they are so consistent! If you can get a Graves or another white Bordeaux called Entre-Deux-Mers, grab one for a unique experience. Then see what is produced near you. Sauvignon Blanc can pack up and move anywhere to thrive, so you’ll find wines from various US States, Austria, South Africa, Italy, Chile and various other locals in your store or on your fave wine website.

Then just for kicks, treat yourself to a Sauternes. This is the celebrated dessert wine of Bordeaux, the only place in the world famous for making sweet Sauvignon Blanc (blended also with Semillon and Muscadelle). You deserve dessert! Do Tweet your notes to @wineLIFE_ #SauvBlancHW. Tell us which one was your favorite (please include the wine’s name, vintage and region), how much you paid for it and its best qualities. You can also post notes on the wineLIFE Facebook wall. Bottoms up!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Meet Cabernet Franc - The Exchange Student

When I think about Cabernet Franc, I recall the first glimpse of that new, foreign countenance I had never noticed before. As soon as his name is discovered (It’s pronounced Frahnk), it is whispered on the lips of many others around him. He’s handsome in a unique way – lean and taut with a slender face, a prominent nose and an uncommon haircut that all suit him quite well. His style of dress is unusual but cool nonetheless, and if he does play a sport, he plays soccer and calls it football.

His speech is accented, and this works like a charm on anyone whom he encounters. Sometimes he is a little difficult to understand. Nonetheless, people who know he’s in the building want to know more about him. They approach him with a measure of awe, and they endeavor to partake in a cultural exchange that will enrich their lives in ways they haven’t even thought of yet. And when they do dig in and find out what he’s about, they become his newest fans.

There is a specific type of wine drinker who enjoys Cabernet Franc. That palate is stimulated by something rather unexpected – a red wine with the acidity and herbaceousness of a Sauvignon Blanc (they are from the same family) that is lean with hints of fruit but overall quite austere even when it is grown in warmer climates. This variety is not as widely grown as some others, by the way, but that’s what fascinates me and other Cab Franc-ophiles. Those who decide to grow and make wine from it are instant specialists who lay a keen eye on making sure it is true-to-type, because Cabernet Franc drinkers know exactly what they’re looking for and they never want to see him lose his accent and adapt.

His homeland is in the Loire Valley in France, specifically the village of Chinon in the Touraine subregion. The climate here is on the cooler side, being a northern location that is too far inland from the Atlantic coast to benefit from the maritime influence. As an interesting side note, it’s relatively dry in this region, so organic and biodynamic viticulture are easy choices and more prevalent than elsewhere. As far as food is concerned, think paté (goose or pork rillettes) and Andouille sausage, or you can use some Chinon wine to make Coq-au-Vin and then you have a perfect pairing at your table!

Its hard to say what comfort foods remind me of Cabernet Franc, because as a wine, its outside of many peoples’ comfort zones. If you grew up eating and loving lots of green vegetables you could dig Franc, especially if you grew up in Europe where traditional cooking does not exhibit very bold flavors in general. Or if sushi was always one of your favorite things, then you’ll appreciate the purity of this wine like you enjoy the purity of a piece of salmon sashimi without the help of soy sauce or wasabi.

Your homework for this week and weekend is to try 3 Cabernet Francs. Start with one from the Loire – look for Chinon or Bourgueil on the label. Then get your hands on a bottle of Schneider Vineyards Cabernet Franc from the North Fork of Long Island, NYS (look online). Bruce Schneider is one of the best Cab Franc specialists in the New World, and while I’m on the subject, I think the North Fork is the PERFECT home for Cabernet Franc and should produce much more of it than it does Merlot! For your third one look elsewhere in the New World wine sections (Old World is Europe in winespeak). California has a fair amount of Cab Franc for you to try.

And please avoid blends. Although it is one of the grapes blended in Bordeaux and is used in other parts of the world as a blending grape for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, give yourself a chance to cut through his accent and cultural differences and get to know him. Do Tweet your notes to @wineLIFE_ #CabFrancHW. Tell us which one was your favorite (please include the wine’s name, vintage and region), how much you paid for it and its best qualities. You can also post notes on the wineLIFE Facebook wall. This is going to be fun for YOU!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Meet Chardonnay - The Intellectual

When I think about Chardonnay, I’m reminded of the wallflower, the girl who preferred to fade into the background lest she be singled out and ridiculed for some made up reason. Nonetheless, if you need a tutor or a study partner, sitting at a table with her is your fastest way to an A.

The truth is, just like in the movies, she cleans up very nicely – with some nice clothes (Malolactic) and perhaps a little makeup (aging in oak), she can be rather attractive. But just as she is, in her everyday wardrobe with her hair pulled back and poorly chosen spectacle frames, she doesn’t really shine except in the classroom or boardroom.

That’s the thing about Chardonnay. While there is a goodly amount of unoaked Chardonnay on the wine market, much of it has little character and sort of reminds one of a less exciting version of some other varietal white wine. But after fermentation in oak with a dose of beloved lactic bacteria that turns the malic acid into something soft and buttery, and then aging in some more oak to give that round mouth feel and add a layer of flavor complexity, she can really be a bombshell! She lends herself well to these techniques, so to me, Chardonnay as a wine is a study in style, a winemaker’s opportunity to demonstrate artistic talent and intellectual vinification.

The benchmarks for Chardonnay come out of Burgundy’s Chablis and Côtes de Beaune sub regions in France and from the Napa and Russian River Valleys in California. The former homeland can offer a range of styles from the very crisp, mineral, linear wines to the curvaceous, rich and complex, all with precise balance and minimal fruit character. The latter is known for wines that are consistently described as “oaky-buttery”. They often weight in heavy in alcohol and are either beloved or detestable to a wine drinker – the wallflower that has come out of her shell and will never look back!

Think basic with Chardonnay: if you grew up on meat and potatoes, chicken for dinner most nights, Chinese take out or pizza once a week, then it’s an easy wine for you to wrap your head around. Unoaked Chardonnay and ones that have had just a light handed dose of oak lend themselves to almost anything that isn’t spicy or elaborately seasoned or sauced, including poultry, fish, beef and lamb. It’s a comfort wine for comfort food – I love it with baked macaroni and cheese or beans and rice.

Your homework for this week and weekend is to try 5 Chardonnays. Start with a Chablis (the real stuff from France, none of that Franzia 5L Bag-in-Box or Carlo Rossi please!). Shop also for a Napa Valley Chardonnay in the $15 range and an Unoaked Chardonnay from Australia or New Zealand (many specifically say Unoaked on the label). Since Chardonnay is made just about everywhere, have a local one. Chardonnay doesn’t need to be served too cold, so perhaps an hour in the fridge to just cool it down a little if your bottle spent an 30 minutes in a hot subway car or walking down the street in the heat with you. Do Tweet your notes to @wineLIFE_ #ChardonnayHW. Tell us which one was your favorite (please include the wine’s name, vintage and region), how much you paid for it and its best qualities. You can also post notes on the wineLIFE Facebook wall. Also feel free to post questions. We would love to talk wine with YOU more!!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Meet Riesling - The Cheerleader

When I think about Riesling, I’m reminded of a cheerleader. She’s amicable and pretty and lovable. People like having her around because she makes everyone happy. She’s a cutey with an easy smile and great posture. Usually she’s sweet and agreeable but in her serious, austere self, Riesling is the picture of balance and finesse.

As a member of the cheering squad and as the proprietor of her own bakery today, her bright, vivacious, congenial character gets her everywhere! She can light up a room all by herself. Even when dry, she’s racy and fun. But most know her sweet self, whether its just a spot of residual sugar that brings out all that tropical sunshine in her personality, or the nectary dream of a decadent dessert that makes your mouth go mmmmm!

When buying Riesling, you will definitely need a bit of guidance to determine how sweet your selection is. If the wine is sold in a slender 375ml bottle with straight sides and you spot any of the following words on the label: Ice Wine, Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauselese (Or any portion of this word), Auslese or Spätlese, you have a sweetie on your hands. The best of these should not be syrupy per se. They should be just short of unctuous with flavors of ripe tropical fruit and (this is key) enough acidity to help you clean some of that sugar up off your palate so you can enjoy another glass or a bite of pie.

The rest of the Rieslings are usually found in 750ml bottles that are tapered from bottom to top, and they can vary from very dry and minerally to medium sweet. In general, there is no simple way to know what you’re getting unless you know the style of the producer who made it. Although trocken is the German word for “dry” and halb-trocken means “half dry”, those terms are relative to each producer’s concepts of dry and sweet. Your best bet is to seek further guidance, either by reading a description of the wine if you’re shopping online or, if you are shopping in a physical store, read the back label and ask your retailer. Truth is if its riesling you want, and you get something that is sweeter or dryer than what you expected, you’re probably not going to be that disappointed - It’s Riesling, after all!

Germany is variety’s best known homeland – in fact, pretty much all of the German wine we have access to in the US is indeed Riesling. She is also a favorite for producers in the Alsace region of Eastern France (which is right by the German border and was once actually a part of Germany), as well as upstate New York’s Finger Lakes wine region and Canada’s Niagara Peninsula.

If you grew up in the tropics, like in the Caribbean, Hawai’i or South East Asia for example, and you were accustomed to eating pineapple, citrus fruits, lychee, mangoes and other tropical delights, you will LOVE Riesling. You will especially love Riesling with spicy foods. This wine acts as a wonderful counterpoint to curry, jerk and other peppery dishes – she can make the palate punishment of hot spices a much more enjoyable experience. She’s also a perfect partner for pork - think pernil, chops, tenderloin or hot sausage.

Your homework for this week and weekend is to try 5 Rieslings. You should definitely have a German Riesling, and since Riesling is made just about everywhere, have a local one too - New Yorkers and Canadians, you are in so much luck!. Also make sure you find a dry one to try, don’t just drink sweet all week. They’re lovely with a nice chill on them in general, so if you’re in the northern hemisphere, you will enjoy this summer wine research immensely. Do Tweet your notes to @wineLIFE_ #RieslingHW. Tell us which one was your favorite (please include the wine’s name, vintage and region), how much you paid for it and its best qualities. You can also post notes on the wineLIFE Facebook wall. We would love to keep up with what you are drinking!!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Meet Cabernet Sauvignon - Team Captain

When I think about Cabernet Sauvignon, I think about the jock. The guy who played three sports and was six feet tall with a great body and a handsome face with chiseled features. He probably rocked the gridiron, as well as either baseball or soccer, and he was on the wrestling team. He was captain of all of them. He is grown up now but he still has that winning smile that captured the attention of almost every girl in school (and some boys).

As a member of those teams, and as a top sales manager in his firm today, he relies heavily upon his teammates for success – Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot are usually his MVPs. But he can definitely hold his own with little or no help. He’s a strong character, but he gets along with everyone – he is well liked. Nonetheless, he doesn’t bend to anyone’s whim. He is who he is no matter what playing field (wine region), or what combination of teammates (blend), or what coaching (winemaking) style. Cabernet is always reliably Cabernet.

When buying Cabernet Sauvignon you can start with these two benchmarks:
Bordeaux from the Left Bank that are blends in which Cabernet is usually the main ingredient and the strongest character
California (particularly Napa Valley) varietally labeled Cabernet

If you are intrigued by wines and foods that have great balance and acidity and are not overtly fruity, Bordeaux is a good way to go. You can find pretty decent Left Bank Bordeaux, particularly Bordeaux Superieur, between US$10-$20 that will suit your taste. If you’re feeling special, look for wines labeled Première Côtes de Bordeaux, Pomerol, Haut-Medoc, Grand Cru and Grand Cru Classé. You will spend more money but in most cases, you do get more for your dollar out of those bottles. They are usually a bit fuller bodied with more layers of interesting flavors.

If you prefer wines and foods that are very flavorful and rich, especially if you are an unabashed lover of meat, then Napa Valley Cabernet should make you happy. You can find good Napa Cab starting around $15. Below that, you may see Cabernet simply labeled as “California” which means the grapes came from various unspecified regions in that great big state. I can’t vouch for these as suitable substitutes. Go for Napa. In general the more expensive the Napa Cab, the bigger a wine it will be on your palate. A couple of C-notes will score you a linebacker!

Nonetheless, there is Cabernet Sauvignon coming out of every corner of this great wine world! And the truth is most of it, even if it is labeled Cabernet Sauvignon, is blended. Cabernet tends to have trouble filling your palate by itself, so he usually teams up with Merlot to fill out the center for you with yummy berry fruit. (in the US a wine can be labeled varietally as long as it contains at least 75% of that grape variety, so Napa Cabernet can contain up to 25% Merlot or other varieties) But he is usually the backbone of a blend, the go-to guy.

Your homework for this week is to try 5 Cabernet Sauvignons. You should have one Napa Cabernet, one Bordeaux from the Left Bank, and three others from totally different places - South Africa, Argentina, New York, Italy, Texas, New Zealand - and tweet your notes to @wineLIFE_ #CabSauvHW. Tell us which one was ur fave (please include the wine’s name, vintage and region), how much u paid for it and its best qualities. You can also post notes on the wineLIFE Facebook wall. We would love to keep up with what you are drinking!!