Friday, November 30, 2007

The guy named Brett, in the Barnyard with the loaf of Bread

When was the last time you played the game of Clue? You remember don't you? The one where one winner gets to shout, "It's Ms. Scarlet, in the dining room with the candlestick!" thereby declaring the suspect, location and weapon used in the "murder." Well, I present you with a new version of the classic game. This one is called: What is that Smell?

When I first began hanging around people who "know a lot about wine," I remember being told that this or that wine was "bready." I would then stick my nose in the glass and take a nice long whiff, hoping that I too would be able to smell that home-baked goodness. I certainly smelled a lot of something, but it wasn't bread, it was stink; a combination of horse manure and wet gym shoes. Where was the bread and how could my nose be so off? Maybe in passing by the south end of Central Park, I had inhaled just as a horse drawn carriage was passing, thereby allowing manure molecules to lodge themselves deep in my nasal passages. Alright, let's be honest; it had been weeks since I had last visited midtown or the park.

On another occasion I was sampling a particularly wild wine. The Olivier Cousin Anjou Pur Breton 2004 had actually been made from grapes that were grown on land that had been tilled by horses. The sommelier who happened to be sampling the wine with me said that it was too "bready" for his taste. I asked him to clarify and discovered that he was actually talking about that same funky horse poop meets dirty shoe smell that I had recognized in the previous wine. Well, apparently no one had told me that "bread" was both a delicious food item and an off-putting barnyard aroma.

I thought I had solved the puzzle until I mentioned the "bready" quality of Olivier Cousin's wine to another wine expert. He turned to me and said, do you mean "Brett?" Aha! I was given a very important piece of the puzzle. That soft "t" had sounded like a "d" to me.

Mystery solved: Brett stands for Brettanomyces, a unicellular fungus that can infect the wine. It causes that barnyard odor. It can also creates spicy and smoky smells. More often the "Bretty" quality can be found in old world wines. Brettanomyces is a problem, because if it is not controlled it can cause widespread contamination throughout a winery. However, many people actual enjoy and seek out bretty wines. Why would anyone want their wine to smell like horse manure you might ask? Well, think about it like cheese - where mold is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it makes you throw the cheese in the trash and sometimes it makes you pay $24 dollars a pound!

Tasting Notes:
2004 Olivier Cousin Anjou Pur Breton is a biodynamic wine made from Cabernet Franc. Its taste changes with each sip - one moment bursting fruit, the next horse manure, tabacco and tar. If you like rustic wine, you will like this one. It was a little too bretty for me. 17.99

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Phooey! I can't remember the Pouillys!

Let's say that you like white wine and you have discovered that Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are different but both quite appealing varities. After several trips to your local wine store, you've tried the California Chardonnays (Edna, Chalone)and Sauvignon Blancs (Geyser Peak, Frogs Leap). You even ventured into the Southern Hemisphere, sampling Argentina, Australia and New Zealand's selections. At this point, feeling ready to branch out a bit more, both in geography and price range, you decide to head to the French aisle. But when you arrive, you can't find a single bottle of trusty Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Instead you find yourself trying to pronounce (in your head of course) names like "Chassange-Montrachet" and "Gevrey-Chambertin."
Alright, at this point maybe you have remembered that French wines are labeled by their region, village or Chateau instead of their grape variety. So you think to yourself, "Pouilly-Fume is a white wine, but is it Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc?" Then there's Pouilly-Fuisse... now which one is that one? Two almost identical labels, neither of which you can properly pronounce... how can you tell them apart?

Here are 3 ways to help you remember how to match the grape with the name (One of these explanations was provided to me by a wine expert... can you tell which one?)

1. Let's look carefully at the words Fuisse and Fume. The middle consonants in each are ss and m. Take the "m" and go back one letter in the alphabet. Are you at L? Good! Now what's the first thing you think of that starts with L? Loire Valley of course! And what grape varietal is grown in the Loire? Yep, you guessed it... Sauvignon Blanc. Now you have a "quick and easy" way of remembering the difference between Pouilly-Fuisse and Pouilly-Fume.

2. Walk to the French section and find a bottle of Pouilly-Fume. Now you have two options. You can either tilt your head upside down or flip the bottle so that it's neck is pointing down. I vote for the first. What is the only letter that is right-side up in Fume? W! W stands for White and blanc means white in French, so clearly you have a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in your hands! Buy it immediately and enjoy its smoky flavor.

3. Alright, here is your last option. Let's eliminate the first word "Pouilly," (which is pronounced pooh-YEE by the way) because its in both names. Okay, now we have Fume and Fuisee. Fume which means smoke in France was taken by Robert Mondavi. He took that word and used it to replace the word "Sauvignon"and ended up with "Fume Blanc," his fancy sophisticated name that was meant to attract wine drinkers back in the 1968 in California. If you can remember that Sauvignon Blanc = Fume Blanc = Pouilly-Fume, then you'll be set (just remember that the other one that doesn't end in Fume is Chardonnay).

Tasting Notes:
Oh forget the Pouilly business.. just give me some good, inexpensive French white wine.
Moulin de Gassac
Le Mazet Blanc 2006. This is a crisp, very dry, tart white wine from a very good producer. It is a blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc and our favorite, Sauvignon Blanc! Not complicated but very appealing. $8.99

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Volatizing the Esters and Violating My Nose

The other night I was browsing through the low channels on DirectTV. I was in unfamiliar territory, far away from the HD channels in the 80's, the food network in the 200's, the premium movie channels in the 500's or the music stations in the 800's. I was surfing down in the single digits, the long forgotten local channels, when I discovered a program about wine. A woman with voluminous red hair was explaining how she taught her good friend Peter about wine (I later found out that her name was Lettie Teague and that she wrote a book about the experience). She said that Peter really got a kick out the term "volatilizing the esters." I'm with Peter on that one... volatizing the esters sounds like something mad scientists should be doing in their top secret chemistry labs. But it appears that those who know wine know this term. Bloggers, wine writers and especially wine-know-it-alls have decoded this phrase countless times before for those of us who still think of wine as more of a beverage than a science. So, for all my faithful readers, here is my attempt to explain the term:
Volatizing the esters = swirling the wine in the glass to get in contact with the air in order to help release the chemical compounds in the wine so that our nose can detect the aroma.

Volatizing the esters is actually a skill that requires a bit of practice. It's kind of like hula-hooping. Do you ever notice that really good hula-hoopers seem to be able to keep the hoop spinning without moving their hips very much at all? I suppose its all about getting in sync and finding the right rhythm. Wine pro's have the same ability. With a quick flick of their wrists they can send their wine spiraling around the glass bowl.

When I recently realized that I too had developed the habit of swirling my wine each time before inhaling, I knew that I had entered into a new phase of wine connoisseurship. I had begun swirling my wine, I mean, "volatilizing the esters," so much, that even a friend once commented on the tornado-like activity going on in my glass. I thought I had it down pat. I felt that I could walk into a tasting session and at least look like I knew what I was doing (the tasting, spitting and identifying part aside).

One day however, thankfully home alone, I opened a bottle of 2006 Michel Torino, Don David and poured a glass. I began the volatilizing process as I lifted the glass to my nose when suddenly I lost control of the liquid and it sloshed out of the glass just as I was inhaling. The wine burned my nose and shocked my system. I had to immediately run to the bathroom sink and splash water on, well let's be honest, UP my nose.

I'd like to blame the incident on the fact that I was using a different glass than I normally use. The Ikea glass had a smaller bowl and different shape than the Crate and Barrel glass that I usually drink from. But I suppose "real" wine pros could volatize esters in any kind of glass. Perhaps I'd better keep practicing.

Tasting Notes:
2006 Michel Torino, Don David. Cafayate Valley, Argentina. This wine is made from the Torrontes grape. Torrontes may be related to Malvasia. This wine is aromatic and floral. It is still rather dry and high in acid which makes it very drinkable. The finish was surprisingly long and rich. If you are not into aromatic wines, you may find this to be a bit soapy. But I would definitely get this one again. $14.99

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A-E-I-O-U and sometimes why?... Unpacking Beaujolais one vowel at a time

Do you ever look at a word and think, "wow there are a lot of vowels in that word." Well, okay maybe not. But I can tell you that from being a first grade teacher for 3 years, it's a habit I just can't seem to break. Teaching children about vowels is an endlessly frustrating and hilarious task. But somehow by the end of the year, all the students know about those magical letters: a-e-i-o-u and sometimes y; the glue that allows us to make all kinds of words both big and small.

A bottle of Beaujolais is usually made out of the Gamay grape;

Except if you get a bottle of Beaujolais Blanc, which is made from Chardonnay and Aligote.

If you want something special, go for a Cru Beaujolais (the 10 top villages get this region).

Or you can try Beaujolais-Villages, a step up from the regular variety.

Unfortunately Beaujolais can be easily overlooked as a "simple" wine.

Why you should NOT go out and buy a bottle of Beaujolais- Nouveau* - Resist the gimmick and go for the good stuff. Plus you will be doing your part to reduce carbon emissions.

*A quick lesson on Beaujolais Nouveau: After the harvest the the grapes become wine through a process called carbonic maceration. This means that the grapes were left hole during the fermentation process. The juice in each grape ferments inside the skin. Because the skins were not smashed up in the mixture, the wine that results is not as tannic. It has a light fruity style. This wine is then bottled and sent around the world for the Beaujolais Release Day (the 3rd Thursday in November). I love rituals and I love celebrations, especially ones that involve wine, but this is one ritual that may need to be re-evaluated due to its negative environmental impact.

Tasting Notes:
2002, Louis Jadot, Chateau des Jacques Moulin-A-Vent
This is a delicious Beaujolais that is both fruity and woody. It has some richness to it that makes it taste a little like a Pinot Noir. It also still has good acidity and is great chilled down a bit.

2006 Jean Paul Brun, Beaujolais Blanc
This is a Chardonnay that exhibits bright sharp fruit flavors of apples and lemons. It's not buttery it is fresh.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How do you take your tea?

I tend to think of wine as being a far more intimidating subject than tea. I would argue that many people think that wine is for the wealthy, the cultured (or snobbish) and the well-traveled while tea is for your grandmother, your upset stomach or your breakfast. Generally speaking (and without doing a true ounce for ounce comparison) wine is considered more costly than tea. A cup of tea from the corner cart vendor will only cost you a dollar while even the cheapest house wine averages 5-7 dollars at a restaurant. And when you do order that glass of wine you are faced with many choices. Whereas generally speaking people usually stick to the same type tea. It seems that people prefer their tea made a certain way.

During my first year as a teacher I always got my tea with milk and no sugar while my co-teacher ordered hers with lemon and four sugars - we were on complete opposite sides of the tea spectrum.
I have just made many many generalizations; some of which I believe and others which I don't think are true at all. Nonetheless I will continue to make generalizations in an attempt to demystify some of the choices about wine. I will use tea as my guide, so before you go any further, ask yourself, how do you take your tea?

You like that bitter astringency that comes from the tannins in the tea.  You may even enjoy that feeling of wetness being wicked away from your tongue and the squeekiness of your teeth
You will like dry red wines. Try one from France like a young Bordeaux (younger wines = more tannic) or a Chateaunuef-du-Pape.  Or if you are on a budget, a Cabernet from South America may do the trick. 
With milk only
You like the mellowness that the milk brings as it cuts down the tannins in the tea, but you still like a little bitter element.
You could be interested in a smoother red wine such as a Merlot. For a splurge try a Pomerol and experience its velvety texture and smooth tannins.  Or go for a Carmenere - doing well in Chile. 
With sugar only
You enjoy the bright, lightness of the tea, but without the bitterness. 
Try a Beaujolais, made from the light and fruity Gamay grape.  Or maybe even a rose.  If you're really feeling adventurous, go for a Sparkling Lambrusco - a red sparkler that will remind you of drinking grape juice as a child.
With lemon only
You love the crisp sour acidity that the lemon brings to the tea. In wine this is not a favorable combination
You will go for a white wine.  Try a Vernaccia from Italy for its crisp citrus notes and light body. 
With milk and sugar
You are using the tea as a vehicle for a sugary, creamy dessert.  You love sweet, mild flavors
You may like a rich Chardonnay, aged in oak for its buttery finish. Or try a Viognier - if you really want something unctuous go for a Condrieu. Or try an aged Semillon.
with sugar and lemon
You like the acidity of the lemon but you want it toned down a bit.
Try a Kabinett Riesling if you take one sugar, Spatlese if you like 2, Auslese if you like 3 and Trokenbeernauslese if you like 4 and can afford it
Green Tea
You enjoy the grassy flavors of the green. Perhaps you like the bitterness too.
You could either do a white or a red.  If you go with white try a Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand - they are especially grassy and zesty. 
You like herbal teas, maybe you like organic things too. 
Try an unfiltered white wine - one that has been oxidized.  You will get that chamomile taste as well as apple cider.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

What does wood do to wine?

Long ago wine was stored and transported in an amphora (a large ceramic container). Nowadays, with the exception of the rogue winemaker, the only places to find amphorae are museums. These days winemakers have many decisions about the vessel in which to ferment and store their wine. In fact, the choice of containers is actually an integral part of the art of making wine. And with increased technology, the choice has become far from simple. It's not just a question of whether to put the wine in metal or wood; there are many other factors to consider. As I set out to list the numerous decisions that face the winemaker, I started to hear a version of Dr. Seuss' One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue fish in my head... only instead of fish we are talking about wood. So here is my Ode to Dr. Seuss; an attempt to explain the ever so complicated relationship between wine and wood. Read the following poem to get a sense of... oh the places wine can go (read it out-loud, find your teacher voice and really get into that sweet sing-song rhythm that you can remember your first grade teacher using during read-aloud time)

Wood and Wine - An Ode to Dr. Seuss

New wood, old wood,
French wood, bold wood
cheap barrels, true barrels
used barrels, new barrels
Oh where should all my wine go?

Wine in big barrels
Wine in small barrels
Wine in tall round oak barrels
I just don't know!

Short time, long time
sometime, no time
wood at the beginning or wood at the end
wood wants to be my wine's best friend

Oak makes wine smell like vanilla and taste like spice
Some people hate it and some think it's awfully nice
Oak in chips or oak in powder,
We could make a wine chowder!

Would you ever know,
how wood could be
wine's friend or foe?

Fluent readers - for a full length explaination on the use of oak in wine making go to Oak(wine).

Tasting Notes:
2001 Vina Salceda Reserva, Rioja
This wine is restrained, classy and complex. Served at "cellar temperature" it was deliciously flavored with vanilla, wood and subtle red fruits. It is a dry wine, with sturdy tannins and without the hot, high alcohol content that is prevalent in many new young wines. We drank it with mushroom risotto served in a roasted carnival squash and simply sauteed chicken with a white wine sauce.
The back of the label...
Vina Salceda, "founded in 1969, is located in Elciego, an area of Rioja with a privilged microclimate and soil. Vina Slceda Reserva has been made with selected, handpicked traditional Rioja grape varieties Tempranillo (90%) Graciano (5%) and Mazuelo (5%) from our own vineyards. Aged for 18 months in American oak barrels. Store at cellar temperatures and conditions. 20.99