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Hey Winos,

For those that missed last night’s “Wines from Asia” event, the final opinions on Asia’s wines were very mixed, to say the least! The one thing we had consensus on is that we wouldn’t mind waiting a while for the next time we feature Asian wines.

Looking forward, let’s keep the theme of new themes. I threw out a couple new ideas below. Please share yours!

1. Classic Cocktails – Steve will take us on this interesting tangent sometime in March or April. More details to come from Steve…

2. Viognier – I don’t think we’ve explored this unique white varietal in depth and I think it’s among the most interesting yet least-hyped whites. I recently had a French Condrieu and a Napa Viongier and, as expected, they were vastly different. Let’s check out how they differ around the globe and hopefully convert some into Viongnier freaks like me.

3. Wino-lympics – Let’s have wines from around the world represent their home countries and compete in brackets based on our collective ratings on areas like taste, nose, structure and complexity. We’ll do a few things to keep the playing field level: keep it under $15/bottle, seperate out red from white and keep the judging blind (good idea, Zhen).

As a side idea to (3), Peishan’s back in the States in March/April and wants to enjoy a DGS while in town. She’s missed the variety of great American wines we take for granted here. In major league baseball form, we could have a “World Series” of American wines in the same format as the Wino-lympics.

Cheers,
Aaron

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Here is the skinny on what we ate and drank. Please leave comments in terms of food and wine. My take on the whole event was a little skewed since I was knee deep in cheese and tomatoes for most of it. Comments on the wine would be much appreciated! Thanks to everyone who came. I hope you enjoyed it.

Our Menu

Nosh

Bruschettas

ricotta with sundried tomatoes

roasted garlic, basil, fresh tomatoes

roasted red pepper spread

Main

Assortment of Pizzas and Sausage

fresh mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, ricotta, roasted garlic, basil

sausage, yellow and red peppers, feta cheese

mozzarella, feta cheese, ricotta, parmesan

sausage, sundried tomatoes, basil, fresh mozarella, roasted garlic

(one other combo I forgot…I made these up as I went)

Dessert

Pound cake two ways

with nutella and roasted bananas

with marsala wine soaked cherries and lemon curd

THE WINES!

Whites:
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2006 $24
- Damn Good
This Kerner is made in the northernmost part of Italy where the Italians speak mainly Austrian and the scenery is more reminiscent of Heidi than Under the Tuscan Sun. Light floral with a touch of minerality and a killer nose, this was definitely a good start to the evening for me.

De Falco Fiano di Avellino 2005- $22
- Pretty Good

This bottle had more minerality and was less fruity than the previous. Having a little bit of savoriness to it with citrus, it definitely paired well with the pizza. Light and refreshing I wouldn’t be opposed to cracking open another bottle for some seafood or sushi.

Santi Amarone dello Valpolicella 2003- $38
Damn Good
Mmmmmm….I liked this one. More old world in style, Amarone has a rich raisinyness (definitely not a word) and a velvety texture. The grapes are dried in the sun to intensify flavors in the processing. There were hints of spice and boldness to it that would please both old world and new world parties. (ie both peishan (new world) and I (old world) enjoyed it) I would love to eat this with lamb, or anything else meaty/gamey.

Prunotto Barbaresco 2004- $37 Not Bad
This Barbaresco did not wow me, but was good. It was the prototypical barbaresco with good fruit and depth, but for the price tag I feel I could get more bang for my buck elsewhere. Perhaps we opened it too early as it is just getting into its prime according the THE internet.

Bibbiano Chianti Classico 2005- $18
Pretty god

Light and fruity, this chianti actually started us off with reds. It had a delicate sweetness and was not too tanniny. With hints of berries, savory notes, this went well with the pizza. It definitely seemed to be one of the most versatile at pleasing people’s palates, but did not wow anyone.

Forteto della Luja Moscato d’ Asti 2007- $20 Orgasmic
Holy crap the nose was AWESOME on this one, like whiffing a bottle of sweet honeyed perfume. The taste was there to match. Good thing I bought two bottles of this which went as fast as lightening. I caught some peach flavors, apple, and a lot of floral. So very drinkable, bubbly, and sweet. I wish I had gotten more.

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Food for thought from NYTimes

May 7, 2008
The Pour
Wine’s Pleasures: Are They All in Your Head?
By ERIC ASIMOV
THE mind of the wine consumer is a woolly place, packed with odd and arcane information fascinating to few. Like the pants pocket of a 7-year-old boy, it’s full of bits of string, bottle caps and shiny rocks collected while making the daily rounds of wine shops, restaurants, periodicals and the wine-soaked back alleys of the Internet. It’s harmless stuff, really, except to those within earshot when a wine lover finds it necessary to elaborate on the nose, legs and body of a new infatuation.

Yet in recent months American wine drinkers have taken their turn as pop culture’s punching bags. In press accounts of two studies on wine psychology, consumers have been portrayed as dupes and twits, subject to the manipulations of marketers, critics and charlatan producers who have cloaked wine in mystique and sham sophistication in hopes of better separating the public from its money.

One of the studies was devised by Robin Goldstein, a food writer, to try to isolate consumers from outside influence so they could simply judge wine by what’s in the glass. He had 500 volunteers sample and rate 540 unidentified wines priced from $1.50 to $150 a bottle. The results are described in a new book, “The Wine Trials,” to be published this month by Fearless Critic Media.

The book wraps the results in a discussion of marketing manipulations and statistical validity, but a brief article in the April 7 issue of Newsweek magazine, naturally, seized on the book’s populist triumphs: a $10 bottle of bubbly from Washington state outscored Dom Pérignon, which sells for $150 a bottle, while Two-Buck Chuck, the cheap Charles Shaw California cabernet sauvignon, topped a $55 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet.

“Their results might rattle a few wine snobs, but the average oenophile can rejoice: 100 wines under $15 consistently outperformed their upscale cousins,” the article exulted.

Two caveats are in order here. First, it turns out that the results of the tastings are more nuanced than the Newsweek article let on. In fact, the book shows that what appeals to novice wine drinkers is significantly different from what appeals to wine experts, which the book defines as those who have had some sort of training or professional experience with wine. The experts, by the way, preferred the Dom Pérignon.

Second, there is, of course, no such thing as the “average oenophile,” as Newsweek put it. Most people in the wine trade understand that consumers have any number of reasons for their buying decisions, whatever their psychological and financial state. Some are reassured by easy-to-understand labels with friendly animals. Others want only naturally produced wines or bottles with a modest carbon footprint. Some are status-seekers and score-chasers, while others are contrarians, or only drink red wine.

But assuming for the moment that it’s true that most drinkers prefer the cheap stuff, why does anyone bother buying $55 cabernet? One answer is provided by a second experiment, in which presumably sober researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the Stanford Business School demonstrated that the more expensive consumers think a wine is, the more pleasure they are apt to take in it.

The researchers scanned the brains of 21 volunteer wine novices as they administered tiny tastes of wine, measuring sensations in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain where flavor responses apparently register. The subjects were told only the price of the wines. Without their knowledge, they tasted one wine twice, and were given two different prices for that wine. Invariably they preferred the one they thought was more expensive.

“Forget those blurbs about bouquets, body and berries,” one newspaper account crowed. “A meticulous new study found that the more people think a wine cost, the more they like it. And the less they think it cost, the less they like it.”

Big surprise. Sommeliers all over know that the hardest wine to sell in a restaurant is the cheapest bottle on the list. “Yeah, clients don’t want to be embarrassed in front of a date, so they don’t order the cheapest wines,” said Fred Dexheimer, the wine director of the BLT restaurant group. The fact is, the correlation between price and quality is so powerful that it affects not just our perception of wine but of all consumer goods.

“It’s not just about wine, it’s about everything!” said Prof. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” (HarperCollins, $25.95), which examines how people make all sorts of real life decisions. Regardless of the situation, Professor Ariely found, suggestion has a powerful effect on perception and belief.

In one experiment, volunteers who received mild electric shocks were given placebo pills to relieve the pain. They were told that the pills cost either 10 cents or $2.50. The participants believed that both kinds of pills helped relieve pain, but the seemingly more expensive pills had a much greater effect.

“If you expect not to get something as good, lo and behold, it’s not as good,” Professor Ariely said. “We think of it as an objective reality. We don’t see how much is created by our mind.”

Even so, wine drinkers tend to be the punch line. People are unlikely to be ridiculed for buying $300 jeans that are washed, bleached and beaten over rocks instead of $60 jeans that will last a decade. But wine buyers who prefer the $20 bottle over a $10 bottle? All that stuff about aromas and complexity? Forget it!

Are wine consumers really easily manipulated victims, the flip side of the stereotype of wine drinkers as pretentious snobs? What have they done to be singled out from other consumers who might equally be portrayed as knuckling under to hype and salesmanship, like connoisseurs of clothes, handbags or shoes, car aficionados or golf fanatics, food or film lovers?

The answer rests, I think, both in the insecure and uncomfortable attitudes that Americans hold toward wine and in the difficulty of bringing some sort of objective and universal criteria to the fleeting and obscure realms of aroma, taste and texture.

The consumption of wine has been growing steadily in the United States rising to 283 million cases in 2006 from almost 189 million cases in 1993, according to the Adams Wine Handbook, which tracks consumption.

Yet drinking more hasn’t made Americans more comfortable with wine. People with little interest in wine tend to see it as somehow foreign and threatening. Even among the curious, fears abound, of being embarrassed or appearing unsophisticated, of choosing the wrong wine, or of liking the wrong one. Every year books come out purporting to help the winephobic avoid embarrassment, impress their bosses or learn shortcuts to wine knowledge. But I sense no decrease in the number of people whose questions to me are prefaced by a sheepish, “I don’t know anything about wine, though I really should.”

Meanwhile, consumers face an impenetrable swamp of winespeak: Wine Spectator recently evaluated one Argentine red as, “Dark and rich, with lots of fig bread, mocha, ganache, prune and loam notes. Stays fine-grained on the finish, with lingering sage and toast hints.”

To hack through it all, consumers embrace scores, an easy shorthand that unfortunately requires that every wine be judged on the same seemingly objective scale, regardless of the subjective nature of taste. Anybody can understand that a wine rated 90 beats an 89, right?

Yet the rating system has bred an attitude toward wine that ignores context, which is perhaps more important a consideration to the enjoyment of wine than anything else. The proverbial little red wine, so delicious in a Tuscan village with your sweetie, never tastes the same back home in New Jersey. Meanwhile, the big California cabernet, which you enjoyed so much with your work buddies at a steakhouse, ties tucked between buttons, doesn’t have that triumphant lift with a bowl of spaghetti.

This is one problem with trying to judge wine in the sort of clinical vacuum sought by studies like the one in “The Wine Trials.” In the end, I don’t think you can ever eliminate context. The trick is to distinguish between the harmful or disingenuous — the marketing come-ons, the point chasing, what the guy next to you thinks — from the beneficial: the food, the company, the environment. Even in a blind tasting situation, wine is evaluated in the company of other wines, which is a different sort of context but a context nonetheless. Perhaps they’ve chosen the best wines to be sipped and spat out, but not the best wines for dinner.

Ultimately, context may be the most underrated aspect of enjoying wine. Tyler Colman, a wine writer and blogger (drvino.com), whose first book, “Wine Politics,” will shortly be published by the University of California Press, has a second book coming out this fall, “A Year of Wine” (Simon & Schuster), that focuses on context.

“The mood and the food and the context really matters,” he said. “It’s the neglected pairing.”

Just as understanding when to dress up and when to dress down is intuitive for many people, so, too, does it become instinctive over time for wine lovers to know which is the proper bottle to open. But that requires experience of many different wines. Eventually the novelty of great wines, or expensive wines, can wear off.

“Sometimes a great Beaujolais is a better choice than La Tâche,” said Nathan Vandergrift, a statistical researcher at the University of California at Irvine, who has seen the wine business as a retailer, an importer and distributor, and most recently as a blogger at the Vulgar Little Monkey Translucency Report. Mr. Vandergrift has had plenty of Beaujolais, and a fair amount of La Tâche, one of the most highly sought wines in the world.

Would that we all could achieve that sense of freedom and zen-like serenity, where we’ve had our fill of all else and can simply choose the right wine because it’s the right wine.

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Last night, DGS veered away from our usual format of a long tasting at someone’s place in favor of a short and semi-formal tasting at WineStyles, a new wine store in the neighborhood. It was a delightful and stress-free night, since the folks at WineStyles were in charge of selecting the wines and the hosting, research and clean up – all we had to do was to choose a theme and show up to drink. For the night, we decided on Italian wines:

1. Sergio Spumante – This prosecco was a great hit with everyone present. Nice tight bubbles with a bit of a sweet fizz, but not overwhelmingly so. The finish was just a little tart, leaving one wanting more – a lot more.

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2. Rocca Pinot Grigio - others liked the crisp and refreshingly light palate, but I like my wines with more oomph. I likened the Pinot Grigio to drinking Bud Light/Tiger Beer instead of Wee Heavy. Nonetheless, it’s a delightfully simple and light wine to knock back, especially on a hot summer’s day.

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3. Castello delle Regine, Bianco (literally, Castle of the Queen) – Now, this blend (Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc)from Umbria was quite a bit more interesting, with quite a bit more weight. Evidently, this is a really young winery (first vintage in 2000).

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4. Carpineto Dogajolo – This “Super Tuscan” had a strong, pleasant smell of wood, and little wonder because it has been aged in small wooden casks. Made of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvingnon, the wine is bottled between the last week of March and the first week of April of the year following harvest. Should be a wine that would age well, with its strong tannins.

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5. Il Cuore, Barbera 2005 – Literally translates into “The Heart” in Italian, I found the Barbera fascinating, not least because one doesn’t usually find the grape outside of Piedmont. According to the folks at WineStyles though, they are also going to bring in a Barbera from Argentina, which I’m really keen to try, just to see the different styles. The Il Cuore is made from grapes grown in Mendocino County, California, and is only the winery’s third release. It’s a blend of 89% Barbera with 11% Old Vine Zinfandel for the plum and spice notes.

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6. Catello delle Regine, Rosso - Some blackberry notes, a little bit of chocolate, and quite tannic on the mouth.

Here’s some information on the wine from Wine Legacy:

A young winery to watch. In 1994, Paolo Nodari, a lawyer from Milan, decided to purchase Castello delle Regine, a historical piece of property nestled between the towns of Narni and Amelia in the hilly region of Umbria.

Castello delle Regine covers around 1000 acres, located midway between Rome and Orvieto. It has a long (and often disputed history) as part of a fiefdom that has been held by various aristocratic families over the centuries.

Paolo’s dream was to restore and modernize the estate without compromising its charm, rich heritage, and respect for the surrounding natural environment.

Today, the estate includes a wild game preserve, and a breeding facility for rare Chianina cattle. Under the direction of Livia Colantonio, the ancient farmhouse was carefully restored and a restaurant and guesthouses were developed to welcome visitors.

With the help of Fabio Busetti and after years of careful study, 150 acres of vineyards were planted on the best south-facing hillsides where the sandy clay soil is ideal for Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. These vineyards complement the plots of old vines that have been growing on the estate for generations.

Consulting oenologist Franco Bernabei was brought in to direct the transformation of the barrel aging cellar and the construction of a state-of-the-art vinification cellar. The estate produces highly acclaimed wines, olive oil, and beef.

Rosso delle Regine is the newest addition to the Castello delle Regine line. This blend of equal parts of Sangiovese and Merlot are fermented in stainless steel and aged for six months in French Allier barriques.

This wine is enjoyable to drink now, and can be aged for another few years. Serve with Osso Bucco and grilled, marinated, olive oil drizzled vegetables.

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DGS went wild last night, with a tasting of wines from all over the world, in what we’d dubbed Dead Grapes Society Adventurous Wines. We had ~25 people and 16 bottles of wines (some doubled up).

1. Taberno Brut Champagne Style Charmat Method (Peru) $10

We kicked the tasting off with two bottles of Taberno, a Peruvian sparkling. It was a hit, everyone expressed surprise at how well done it was, nice and dry on the palate, with tight concentrated bubbles.

2. Lambrusco Cantine Ceci La Luna 2006 (Italy) $14

Most people haven’t had Lambrusco before, but since Wendy discovered the wine (Lambrusco Reggiano, slightly different from the one we had last night, this being a sweeter version) at Trader Joe’s a few years ago, this has been my favorite pairing with spicy food, especially curry. With a sandalwood perfume and big cherries mouthfeel, there was just the slightest fizz at the finish, as if the wine didn’t want to go without a fight. Really fun and delicious wine.

3. Chateau Bela Riesling Sturovo Region, Muzca 2003 (Slovakia) $14

This was a dry riesling from Slovakia, which doesn’t really produce much wine, especially not since it split from the Czech Rebpulic in the early 1990s. To be honest, I don’t remember much of this wine, except for the fact that it was drinkable, though not memorable. We started to play some wine trivia at this point. Did you know, for instance, that Prohibition lasted from 1920 through 1933? And that it only ended because of the Great Depression? The government, after thirteen long years, finally realized that the mobs were getting out of control running the speakeasies and smuggling operations, and that the population condoned the mobs because they needed their drink. Of course, they might have chosen to stubbornly – and pig-headedly – stick their stand if not for the fact that they were losing millions and millions of dollars from alcohol tax. Anyway.

4. Dragon’s Hallow Unoaked Chardonnay 2005 (China) $10

Did you know that China has actually the world’s fifth largest vineyard area and is the seventh largest wine producer??? Even so, I think the Chinese should stick to making rice wine. The chardonnay we had could be likened to a thick-headed fellow, stout and completely insipid and stupid. I gulped it straight down; some others (notably the Chinese people in the room) tossed it out. However, some people professed to liking the unoaked style, so perhaps there’s hope for the Chinese wine makers after all. Oh, in case you were wondering, Jesuit missionaries are believed to have been the first to encourage the planting of vines in China in the mid 19th century.

5. Kerner Slifskeleni Neustift Abbazia di Novacella 2006 (Italy) $17

This was one of the favorites of the night. Sihao said it had all the characteristics of a Gewurztraminer, and I have to agree – a little spicy, with strong notes of lychee and roses. Interestingly, the two bottles I picked up were from Italy (at the enthusiastic recommendation of the Sam’s wine expert), although this is a grape most commonly found in Germany. It’s a cross breed from a red grape Trollinger and Riesling. Speaking of cross breeds, another trivia question: what is Cabernet Sauvignon crossed from? Answer: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

6. Tinta da Anfora Vinho Regional Alentejano 2005 (Portugal) $12

Mm, quite a few people said they really liked this wine, which was quite tannic, but otherwise full bodied with lots of fruit and spices. It’s a blend of Portuguese grapes, including Trincadeira, Aragonez, and a little Cabernet Sauvignon. Oh, and did you know that Portugal is the largest producer of corks in the world?

7. Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato 2006 (Italy) $16

Another favorite of the night – those Italian wines really are something! Given the huge popularity of the wines Barolo, Barbera, and Moscato in Piedmont, it’s little wonder that Ruche does not get in the spotlight too much. I really enjoyed this smooth, and light-bodied wine.

8. Bull’s Blood Egi Bikarer 2003 (Hungary) $8

There’s a story behind the label, “Bull’s Blood” (don’t you love stories??). Anyway, as the story goes, in 1552, when the Eger fortress was under attack and looked to be giving way, the defenders, in a last desperate bid, downed copious amounts of red wine for liquid courage. Their hands must have been shaking from terror, for they spilled the red wine all over their chests. When the attackers saw these men running towards them with red chests, they thought the defenders had been drinking bull’s blood, and their courage faltered and they fled. And so the Eger fortress stood for another day. I think I’d have to bring this bottle to parties – it makes for a great conversation opener (I think anyway), and is really fun to drink.

Wine Spectator writes:

“Bull’s Blood must be made from at least three approved red varieties. Most producers use a fair amount of Kékfrankos, because its sturdy character and acidity provide backbone. Also used are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

The wine’s hallmark, though, is the indigenous, spicy Kadarka grape. During the Communist era, Kadarka nearly disappeared from Hungary because its sensitivity to rot and its tendency to grow close to the ground made it very labor-intensive.

But today, Kadarka — which can produce balanced tannins and complex flavors, such as black pepper, cherry jam and cloves — is viewed as essential for a quality Bikavér, and producers are scrambling to return Kadarka to the vineyards.”

9. Skouras Red Saint George 2004 (Greece) $7

I’ve had this light bodied wine on a few occasions already, and really enjoyed it – it is a great pairing with meatballs and pasta, and I might even stock up on more as my house wine. After all, at $7, it’s really a bargain, especially when you consider that Yellow Tail costs the same amount.

10. Garnacha Marco Real Navarra 2005 (Spain) $10

I think our palates were tiring by this point for I still have half a bottle of this sitting at my desk right this moment. Anyway, Garnacha is the Spanish name for the grape Grenache. Flavors of dark berries, it is juicy and great to drink on its own and with food.

11. Chateau Henye Tokaji Dry 2006 (Hungary) $13

I first came across Tokay in Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and had been lusting after it. Tokay is normally a dessert wine, but this version we got was off dry, and so wasn’t cloyingly sweet.

12. Four Seasons Collection, Muscat Red Dessert Wine, Dionysos Mereni (Moldova) $6

I had to look Moldova up on the internet to see where it was… – somewhere in Eastern Europe. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Moldova may be one of the geographically smallest states of the former Soviet Union but it has more vineyard, 108,000 ha/267,000 acres in 2002 according to the OIV, than any other apart from Ukraine and the table grape producer Uzbekistan. It has the greatest potential for wine quality and range, thanks to its extnesive vineywards, temperate continental climeate, and gently undulating landscape sandwiched between eastern Romania and Ukraine.” We rounded off the evening with a bottle of Muscat, which was surprisingly palatable. Sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.

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You get what you pay for

Illuminating article from CNN:

January 14, 2008 10:55 AM PST
Study: $90 wine tastes better than the same wine at $10
Posted by Stephen Shankland

In a study that could make marketing managers and salespeople rub their hands with glee, scientists have used brain-scanning technology to shed new light on the old adage, “You get what you pay for.”

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford’s business school have directly seen that the sensation of pleasantness that people experience when tasting wine is linked directly to its price. And that’s true even when, unbeknownst to the test subjects, it’s exactly the same Cabernet Sauvignon with a dramatically different price tag.

Specifically, the researchers found that with the higher priced wines, more blood and oxygen is sent to a part of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, whose activity reflects pleasure. Brain scanning using a method called functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) showed evidence for the researchers’ hypothesis that “changes in the price of a product can influence neural computations associated with experienced pleasantness,” they said.

The study, by Hilke Plassmann, John O’Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel, was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research, along with other studies the authors allude to, are putting a serious dent in economists’ notions that experienced pleasantness of a product is based on its intrinsic qualities.

“Contrary to the basic assumptions of economics, several studies have provided behavioral evidence that marketing actions can successfully affect experienced pleasantness by manipulating nonintrinsic attributes of goods. For example, knowledge of a beer’s ingredients and brand can affect reported taste quality, and the reported enjoyment of a film is influenced by expectations about its quality,” the researchers said. “Even more intriguingly, changing the price at which an energy drink is purchased can influence the ability to solve puzzles.”

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From the WSJ:

The Top Wine Bargains of 2007
December 21, 2007; Page W1

Just because something is inexpensive doesn’t make it a good deal. In our real lives, we all know that. That beef on sale might be fatty, that cheap golf ball might not fly well and that bargain-priced toy might be full of lead. It’s the same thing with wine. Many of the low-priced wines on shelves these days aren’t good values at any price because they aren’t pleasing. They’re made in industrial quantities from watery grapes and taste more like some sugar-alcohol concoction than wine. This is especially true of the most-popular varietals, the hot sellers such as Merlot and Chardonnay. In a tasting early this year of American Chardonnay under $20, for instance, only six of almost 70 wines rated Good or better. That’s nuts.

At the same time, though, there have never been as many genuinely good wines available at low prices. The trick, in most cases, is to look beyond the usual suspects. The world right now is awash in wine as country after country, from Austria to Uruguay, improves its winemaking and seeks to compete in the international marketplace.

We went back over our blind tastings for 2007 to see how many wines that cost $10.99 or less rated Very Good or better. There were nine. As we looked them over, we were reminded again how important it is to search for bargains in unexpected places in the wine store. Here are those nine wines.

It would not be a good idea to look for these specific labels at this point because we wrote about them some time ago, some really early in the year. What we’ve tried to do is use them as examples to point you to larger categories that might be useful to keep in mind as you look for bargains in the coming year. In one case, as you’ll see, the point is that, regardless of what we think, there are always exceptions. Also, because this list is based on our blind tastings during 2007, some of today’s great bargains — Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, which we wrote about in 2006, for instance — aren’t included. In addition, we found in a tasting that Malbec from Argentina continues to be a great deal overall; three of our eight favorites cost less than $10, though none rated Very Good or higher, so they don’t appear on this list. Having already concluded a couple of tastings for January columns, we can assure you this list will be different next year.

Powers Winery Muscat Canelli (Columbia Valley) 2006 ($10.33) and Maddalena Vineyards Muscat Canelli (Paso Robles) 2004 ($10.50). In general, sweet wines tend to be underpriced because they’re not very popular. Muscat Canelli is a lovely, fresh, light, sweet wine that’s perfect for guests after a big meal. In our tasting, we generally found the wines beautifully made and as charming as a smile. Especially considering the low prices, you really should think about taking a gamble on a Muscat Canelli even if you’re sure you don’t like sweet wines.

Torres de Anguix “Barrica” Ribera Del Duero 2003 ($9.99). If you are looking for bargains — well-made, interesting wines at good prices — you need to spend some time in the Spain aisle of your wine store, and this is just one example. This was one of the most outrageous bargains of the year. We wrote that it was “earthy and soulful, with fine structure and medium weight. Highly drinkable and interesting and just about bursting with blueberry-like fruit.” Ribera Del Duero is available at all price points, but we found that it was a good value up and down the ladder and is definitely a wine to look for.

Bodegas Muga Rosé (Rioja) 2006 ($10.99), Toad Hollow Cellars “Eye of the Toad” Dry Pinot Noir Rosé (Sonoma County) 2006 ($10.99), Château d’Oupia Rosé (Minervois) 2006 ($10.95). Rosé is suddenly very popular, which is both good news and bad news. The bad news, we found in a tasting, is that some wineries are trying to take advantage of its popularity by selling sweet, simple and cynical rosé — exactly the kind of stuff that turned people off to rosé in the first place and could kill this nascent trend. The good news is that there are still quite a few excellent, tasty, dry rosés on shelves from all over the world. These three are from Spain, France and the U.S. American vintners have come a very long way in rosé in a short time and Spain’s rosés have impressed us for some time, but our blind tasting showed that the French still have a very special touch with rosé and, in a hurry or a jam, that’s where we’d look for a lively, dry rosé.

Geyser Peak Winery Sauvignon Blanc (California) 2006 ($7.99). This is a golden age for Sauvignon Blanc, with excellent examples coming from just about everywhere, from New Zealand to Chile to South Africa. With all of the competition, it’s no surprise that there are some bargains to be had. We think American Sauvignon Blanc has found a great middle ground, with some of the weight of Sancerre and some of the mouth-popping liveliness of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. As we wrote about the Geyser Peak, one of our long-time favorites, it “tastes true” — and that is high praise for any wine.

Georges Duboeuf Juliénas 2005 ($10.99). Whenever we talk about bargain wines, we always note that there are some classics, and our best examples are always Beaujolais and Muscadet from France. We didn’t conduct a tasting of Muscadet this year, but we did try a large sampling of 2005 Beaujolais from the 10 villages. We found the wines delightful and excellent bargains, but none more so than this Juliénas from Duboeuf, which we described as a “big, earthy wine that could stand up to a steak. Chewy and complete. Dignified and serious, yet with lively fruit at the core.” Not bad for $10.99. In the coming year, we would urge you to look for 2006 Beaujolais from the 10 villages: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Regnié and Saint-Amour. These are consistently some of the most effortlessly charming wines on shelves.

Penfolds Wines “Koonunga Hill” Shiraz (South Eastern Australia) 2004 ($9.99). This is the exception. Over the past several years, we have been disappointed with Australian Shiraz under $20. In our tasting this year, we found that the vast majority of the wines continued to be simple, sweet and lacking charm. But, on the plus side, the best of the under-$20 wines were better than in past years, and this was the most notable example, a wine that we described as “dark and rich, with real depth. Serious wine, with good spices.” We certainly hope we find more Shiraz like this in the future.

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From the Wall Street Journal today: Climate change may benefit northerly wine growers…

Northern Vintage:
Canada’s Wines
Rise With Mercury
Growers Try Classy Grapes,
By DOUGLAS BELKIN
October 15, 2007; Page A1

TAPPEN, British Columbia — Two weeks ago, a brief storm left the mountains above Gary Kennedy’s fields ominously capped in snow. His Pinot Noir grapes needed another week — maybe two — in the sun. The race was on: harvest versus first frost.

“We’ve literally bet the farm that this is going to work,” said Mr. Kennedy, a slight, sinewy man of 65, who is trying to make a go of winemaking 1,100 miles north of Napa Valley. “We’re right on the edge.”

Such are the perils of winemaking Canadian style, as global warming encourages vintners to press ever-farther north. If all goes well for Mr. Kennedy, his four-year-old Granite Creek Estate Wines will hold onto its place as one of the most northerly winemakers in North America — at least for a while.

The borders of the world’s grape-growing regions are shifting away from the equator and toward the poles, redrawing the world wine map in the process. Traditional winemaking powerhouses such as Napa and parts of Australia are struggling with excessive heat. Formerly frosty climes like this verdant corner of British Columbia are beginning to produce first-rate wines.

“There is concern in some areas, and there is opportunity in others,” says Gregory V. Jones, a professor of climatology at Southern Oregon University, who is a leading researcher on the subject of viticulture and climate. “Canada will be one of the winners in the wine world.”

Grape varieties traditionally harvested in Europe, such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, produce some of the world’s best wine — and the most expensive. But they are extremely sensitive to temperature. The thermal niche in which these types of grapes thrive is narrow, and the conditions required to produce a good vintage are narrower still.

That’s one reason why generations of Kennedys had mostly raised cows on the rolling, cypress- and pine-studded hills here, halfway between Calgary and Vancouver.

When Mr. Kennedy’s children informed him they didn’t want to take over the dairy, he began looking for alternatives. With a thriving wine business taking root in the Okanagan Valley to his south, Mr. Kennedy spent two years studying the region’s climate data. His conclusion: Winters were getting warmer, summers hotter, and the growing season longer. Four years ago, after selling the cows, he and his family took out a hefty bank loan and started Granite Creek.
Mr. Kennedy’s winery sits 70 miles north of the Okanagan Valley, where British Columbia’s winemaking industry has taken hold. A broad, deep lake lies at the center of the valley, surrounded by jagged, 5,000-foot mountains. The deep, dry soil, the long, hot summer days and the limited precipitation are favorable for grape growing. But the cold winters have always set limits on what could be harvested.

When farmers here first tried their hands at growing grapes in the 1920s, they used a cross between the heartier American varieties and their European cousins. The harvest was pressed into jug wine and sold cheap.

“B.C. wine was the joke of the wine industry,” says Howard Soon, a winemaker who came to the Okanagan in 1980. “Nothing that came out of this area back then was particularly good.”
In 1989, as tariffs were removed, hybrid grapes grown in the U.S. flooded the Canadian market. Thinking that local grape growers would be unable to compete, the Canadian government paid vineyard owners to pull up their vines and plant different crops.

Most grape growers in British Columbia took the government’s money and moved on. But about a half dozen Okanagan Valley growers, noting the absence of a serious cold snap for several years, opted to forgo the payout and roll the dice: They planted the delicate European grape varieties that had never before survived.

“I thought they were crazy,” says Mr. Soon, who is today a senior winemaker at Sandhill, one of the biggest wineries in British Columbia. “I thought everybody was going to get frozen out, and we’d all be out of a job.”

The point at which cold becomes deadly for most plants that produce European varietals is about four degrees below zero Fahrenheit, says Mr. Soon. Between 1947 and 1956, the temperature in the Okanagan Valley dipped below that mark 28 times. Between 1967 and 1976, the number of deep freezes fell to 11. In the last 10 years, the coldest recorded temperature was a half degree above zero, says David Phillips, the Canadian government’s senior climatologist.
“The changes are slight, but they’ve been enough to make a big difference,” says Denise Neilsen, a research field scientist for the Canadian government who has studied the valley’s climate. “The milder winters opened the door. They are what made this industry possible.”
As the winters moderated, warming an average of five degrees over that 60-year span, the growing season increased by 11 days, giving some of the slower ripening varietals a chance to mature. At the same time, average summer temperatures rose nearly four degrees, increasing the speed at which the grapes ripened.

By the mid-1990s, Okanagan winemakers were entering their still-young wines in international competitions — and being derided. George Heiss, owner of Gray Monk Estate Winery, was among the first to try to cultivate European grapes in the Okanagan. He remembers setting up a table alongside winemakers from Australia and Spain at an international wine competition in London.
“People would walk by and do a double take,” Mr. Heiss says. “They’d say, ‘Canada? Where do you make your wines, in igloos?’ “

But as the vines matured, so did the grapes they produced. Okanagan wines began to earn a reputation for balanced, food-friendly vintages, and the wineries began to turn profits. By this year, the number of British Columbian wineries had shot up to 136, from 17 in 1990. The value of the wine produced has increased more than 20-fold.

In recent years Canadian wines have begun to consistently win gold medals at European wine competitions.

Wine and culinary tourism have taken off in the valley, and development has followed. Farmland has jumped to about $200,000 an acre, from $5,000 two decades ago. Albertan energy executives, flush with cash from the oil rush, have flooded the region, building vineyards and second homes.

Established winemaking regions are struggling to adapt to climate changes. In Spain, winemakers are planting vineyards at higher elevations to escape excessive heat. In France, they are altering centuries-old irrigation traditions to accommodate longer, hotter summers. Prof. Jones at Southern Oregon characterizes the anxiety in Napa as “worry, not panic.” In Australia, researchers say that up to 11% of the grape-growing land will be too hot to use by 2030.
As the Okanagan Valley has flourished, Mr. Kennedy is betting the good fortune will reach north to his spread.

“I’m not necessarily a proponent of global warming,” says Mr. Kennedy, whose grapes are now days away from harvest and have escaped frost so far. “But I do know the climate has changed here, and it’s having a pretty significant impact on the grape industry. How long it will last I can’t tell you. We’re pioneers up here.”

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Tomorrow, our wine group will be conducting a tasting of Champagne and other Sparkling wines - at brunch, no less. :) 

As part of my research, I’m looking into Spumantes, otherwise known as sparkling wines in Italy. Italian sparklers hold a place near and dear to my heart, since they were one of my early introduction to wine. I fondly remember one cool October morning, where I sat with three other friends in a piazza in Turin (one of the Piedmontese cities in northwestern Italy), sipping a tall glass of Moscato D’Asti. That, was life.  

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Spumante: Italian for sparkling
You can find most of Italy’s spumantes in the northern (and thus cooler) regions. Unlike champagne, most Italian sparkling wines are made using the Charmat method, where the second fermentation is done in tanks instead of in bottles. This technique produces young, crisp and low alcohol wines that should be consumed within a few years of purchase.

Asti:
Astis are made from Moscato grapes (white), from Asti in Piedmont, the northwestern region of Italy. The craggy, limestone soil in the areas excellent for growing grapes, and Piedmont is one of the powerhouse regions of Italian wine country – non-sparkling wonders like Barolo, Barbera, and Barbarescos are other examples of the region’s wide
repertoire of grapes. Asti is light, sweet, with hints of peaches. High acidity. It’s typically a non-vintage wine and should be drunk early.

Moscato D’ Asti:
This is the higher class version of Asti Spumanti, if you will. Comes from the same region – Asti, though there are plenty of good fizzy moscatos in other Piedmontese regions like Alba as well, but these are less well known, and not readily found in the US. It’s less fizzy, and is light and crisp with typically 5%-7% of alcohol. Delightful summer drink, and makes for an elagant apertif. Good Moscato D’Asti is not over poweringly sweet, unlike many of the cheap commercially made crap for American palates.

Bracchetto:
Another sparkling wine from Piedmont is the Bracchetto. I haven’t tried this personally, but it’s a red sparkling wine, made from Brachetto grapes. According to some of the tasting notes I’ve read online, the wine is light, with hints of strawberry and cherry; makes for an excellent pairing with fruit/cheese or a light dessert, but is also a good pairing with pizza.

Lambrusco:
Trader Joes sells a delightfully cheap and easy to sip Lambrusco. It’s simple, unpretentious: fizzy and slightly sweet red sparkling wine. Best served chilled, and is an excellent, excellent pairing with spicy food. Lambruscos are found in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy (central).

Prosecco:
Prosecco (derived from its grape) comes from the northeastern region of Italy, in Veneto (where Venice is). It’s the base for Bellinis (recipe: blend peaches into your prosecco). Light and refreshing, it has a lovely bouquet of melons, pears, and almonds. The wine is dry and crisp.

Franciacorta:
I’ve never tried this wine before either. Franciacorta is a name of a region in the Lombardy Lake District of Italy, and is made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco (or Blanc), and Pinot Noir. Unlike most other Italian spumantes, Franciacorta is made using the French champagne method – i.e. wine is fermented in bottles. This results in tighter, smaller bubbles. Tasting notes online say that it is a dry, somewhat complex wine, with hints of almond, vanilla, and yellow ripe fruit. According to Italian wine law, Franciacorta must be aged for at least 18 months, vintage Franciacorta for 30 months.

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Yesterday at Whole Foods, I picked up a box of organic box wine from Australia.  Since September, the organic-friendly supermarket has started offering the Green Path Shiraz and Chardonnay by Organic One Winery in New South Wales. I was intrigued by the fact that it was an organic wine, and that it was in a box.

While I won’t get into the discussion on the supposed merits of organic wines in this entry, I would like to state again for the record that I’m a strong proponent for box wines, even if their quality as it stands currently leaves much to be desired. But, if we can get over our snobbish inclination to keep to the tradition of using corks and convert to screw caps, we should over time be able to accept the still-alien notion of drinking quality wines from boxes. The advantages of box wines are many fold: (1) cheaper; (2) portable; (3) ability to keep for a longer period of time. And demand creates supply. So as wine lovers, we should demand the sale of more – and higher quality – box wines. To that end, suppliers have become increasingly amicable to the idea of box wines. In a recent WSJ article, first growth Bordeaux Château Lagrange cellar master said in response to the shift towards more exotic packaging, “Normally, I am a traditionalist. … But if it works, why not?”

According to Wine Lovers, box wines make up more than one-third of the wines stocked in any Italian supermarkets now. Some of these box wines are packaged in the by now familiar bag-in-box wine package popularized by Australians, but the newest wine receptacles to hit the market are the Tetra Paks. Tetra Paks are soft-sided, flexible cardboard boxes coated with a neutral plastic lining and sealed with a plastic screw cap.

The following is a description of the box design by Wine Lovers:

Lightweight (about 2 1/2 pounds per liter when full of wine, a half-pound less than a 750 ml glass wine bottle holding 25 percent less wine), unbreakable, easy to carry and dispose of, the concept seems made for picnics and travel (although it should be noted that current airline security rules ban liquids from carry-on baggage). The Tetra Pak is also billed as being recyclable, although some Canadian critics have questioned this as a practical matter, as the combination of cardboard and resin requires special handling; empty Tetra Paks can’t simply be recycled with newsprint and office waste and may end up in landfills.

For traditionalists and wine snobs still grappling with the notion of screwcaps and synthetic artificial corks, the notion of re-inventing a mass-market package customarily used for fruit juice, soup or milk may seem more like a nightmare than a dream.

Indeed, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing high-end, ageworthy wines in Tetra Pak in the foreseeable future if ever; this packaging isn’t designed for products with a very long shelf life, and its natural market for wine appears to be everyday quaffers, the basic “spaghetti reds” and “sipping whites” meant to be drunk up while they’re young and fresh.

But from an industry standpoint, that’s hardly a problem, as inexpensive, everyday wines make up the lion’s share of the market. In Italy, it’s reported that Tetra Pak wines already make up one-third of all supermarket wine sales, matching the volume of low-end bottled wines sold there. In Canada, the LCBO blew large quantities of low-cost wine in Tetra Pak off the shelves just about as quickly as it could be packaged.

And even in the U.S., which has been slower to embrace the technology, the amount of wine-shop shelf space devoted to Tetra Pak is growing fast. Among others, “Three Thieves,” a California firm that made a splash in recent years with its inexpensive wines in old-fashioned liter jugs (July 31, 2005 30 Second Wine Advisor), rushed to market a couple of years ago with a new Tetra Brik line of California varietal wines dubbed “Bandit.” The French negociant Boisset has joined the cute-animal-label brigade with colorful Tetra Pak containers labeled “French Rabbit.” And U.S. natural-foods leader Whole Foods got into the stampede last month with an organic Australian wine in Tetra Pak called “Green Path.”

Love the Tetra Pak or hate it, we had might as well get used to it. With the market clearly accepting the concept at least for lower-end wines, the industry has little incentive to turn back, particularly when we consider that a glass bottle and cork adds well over $1 to the cost of every bottle of wine, while Tetra Paks in quantity cost the producer less than 10 cents per unit.

But how about the wine in the package? Two obvious questions arise: Does the container alter the flavor? And just how good is the wine?

Based on a couple of preliminary tastings that I undertook to check whether more extensive “blind” comparative tastings would be justified, my initial response is a cautious, slight positive: The Tetra Pak doesn’t seem to impart bad or “off” flavors, at least assuming that the wine is fresh. Based on this limited sample, though, the wines – consistent with the mass-market standard for box wines and jug wines – are simple, clean but not memorable, barely rising to the level that would appeal to most “wine geeks” except perhaps for a picnic or casual party.

Green Path Shiraz from Organic One’s Billabong Vineyard in Jerilderie, New South Wales, Australia

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My thoughts: I first took a sip when I was still sautéing my bratwursts, and immediately grimaced. It was harsh, and sourish, and I felt quite disappointed. Had I just spent $10 on a liter of wine I was going to use as cooking wine? I still had a whole box of old wine I was using for that purpose right then. Later on though, after I was done cooking my pasta, I tentatively took a couple more sips. I don’t know whether it had been mellowed down by the air or the food, but this time the wine tasted much more palatable – jammy, plumy fruit with a pleasant sweet finish. Not much of a nose, but I was distracted by my pasta anyway.

Thoughts from Wine Lovers Page:

Made with organically grown grapes and packaged in Tetra Pak for Whole Foods markets, this is a clear, dark cherry-red. Plumy fruit and aromatic oak with overtones of caramel. Mouth-filling and ripe, forward red fruit and oaky vanilla, a hint of sweetness well balanced by appropriate fresh-fruit acidity. Simple, quaffable; similar to pop-style Australian Shiraz in traditional bottles at the same low-end price point. It might not be my favorite style of wine, but I can’t see any evidence that the Tetra Pak is any less effective a container than glass, and it certainly boasts the advantages of lightweight portability, with a small extra point for the possibility of squeezing out most of the air before closing the plastic screw cap. Decent quaff with the bold flavors of Cuban-style arroz con pollo. U.S. importer: The Country Vintner Inc., Oilville, Va. (Sept. 7, 2007)

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