Friday, November 21, 2014

Wines for Thanksgiving

I've been drinking more Texas wine lately, so this year I'm serving Texas wine at Thanksgiving.  I like to offer guests a red and a white, so I've chosen McPherson Viognier and Becker Claret.

Here are some previous posts that can help you decide what to drink with your Thanksgiving meal this year:

-- Riesling, whether sweet or dry, is a classic choice.  If you go this route, you might want to consult the Riesling Cheat Sheet or "My continuing quest for cheap, dry Riesling."

-- Reds or rosés from the Southern Rhone Valley in France would also be a good choice.

-- If you're interested in serving sparkling wine, check out "The 2-Minute Guide to Bubbles."

-- See last year's recommendations for reds, whites, and sparkling wines at "Ideas for Thanksgiving."

-- I recently posted the Botrytis Cheat Sheet, a primer on the fungus that contributes to many amazing dessert wines. Any of these botrytis-affected wines would pair well with your pumpkin pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How to Host a Chianti Tasting Party

Recently I received 3 Chiantis to try (full disclosure: these were sent to me as samples), so I set up a tasting party with some friends who are Chianti fans. We paired all 3 wines with a variety of appetizers and snacks – the kind you might serve at an informal party. If you're hosting a holiday party this year, make it a wine tasting! Chianti pairs well with Fall weather!


It's always a good idea to start with a little background information about the wines. We used the Chianti Cheat Sheet to familiarize ourselves with what we were drinking.  I find this extremely helpful for answering the basic questions that everyone has at the start of a tasting, like where the wines are from, what the names mean, which grapes are involved, etc.  All my Wine Cheat Sheets are designed for easy printing on standard 8.5 x 11 paper, so you can easily print a few to have on hand.


We also used wine aroma wheels to help us figure out what we were smelling and tasting in the wine. It’s a good idea to provide pen and paper too, in case people want to record their impressions.

Offering a separate glass for each wine is a great idea, if you have enough glassware, and if it’s a sit-down event. (More on choosing glassware here. I use these.) It really helps to be able to compare the wines next to each other. For a walk-around party, one glass per person would work. To help everyone keep track of which wine is in which glass, I find a numbered tasting placemat helpful (though not essential). I made these myself using PowerPoint, then printed and laminated them at a local office supply store. 


To make your own tasting placemats, view the picture below in full size, then print.


A new addition to my table was the chalkboard table runner. It did quadruple duty by numbering the wine bottles to match the placemats, showing basic information about the wine, letting people share their impressions creatively by writing (or drawing?) them on the runner, and protecting the table from spills. I am officially in love with it. (Items made from chalkboard fabric have been appearing online and in craft stores a lot lately. Buy chalkboard markers to write on them, and then you can erase using a damp paper towel.)



We tasted 3 Chiantis:  1 basic Chianti DOCG, 1 Chianti Classico, and 1 Chianti Classico Riserva. A combination like this is a good choice for a tasting, because you’ll get three fairly similar wines, but they’ll also have noticeable differences, due to slightly different requirements (see below). The ability to compare and contrast creates the most interesting tasting (for more about that, see "Building a Better Wine Tasting").

Wines from the Chianti region of Italy have to meet different requirements based on how they are labeled:
  • Chianti requires 75% Sangiovese grapes and 3 months of aging.
  • Chianti Classico requires 80% Sangiovese grapes and 10 months of aging.
  • Chianti Classico Riserva requires 80% of Sangiovese grapes and 24 months of aging.
Here's what we tasted:

1) Bolla Chianti

Bolla Chianti has bright, tart cherry flavors with a bit of blackberry mixed in. Medium acid and tannin levels make it easy to drink and easy to like. It's 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo (remember that Chiantis must be at least 75% Sangiovese, but many exceed that minimum). 12.5% abv

It paired especially well with spicy salami (more about the food in a minute).

2) Banfi Chianti Classico

Banfi Chianti Classico is a bit deeper in color and flavor than Bolla, with black cherry and tobacco aromas. The acids and tannins are both a bit more intense, but the alcohol is the same at 12.5% abv. Chianti Classico is typically a bit more rich and intense than Chianti. As required, Banfi Chianti Classico is predominately Sangiovese, but is mixed with small amounts of Canaiolo Nero and Cabernet Sauvignon.

This Classico paired especially well with sheep's milk cheese, raspberries, and apricot jam.

3) Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva

The main difference between Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva is additional aging, which imparts more vanilla and smoke aromas. This wine is heavier, richer, higher in acid, higher in tannin, and higher in alcohol (at 13% abv) than the previous two. Riservas are built for aging, and I think this one, which was already the favorite of the night, would be even better after a few more years in the bottle.

The Riserva paired especially well with strong cheeses and the saltier foods.

True to style and as expected, tasting the 3 Chiantis in this order revealed a progression from lighter and fruitier to heavier and richer. Our group, comprised mostly of lovers of big red wines, preferred the wines in that order with the Riserva being the overall favorite. The general sentiment went from “this is good” (Bolla Chianti) to “this is even better” (Banfi Chianti Classico) to “this is REALLY good!” (Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva).

Because these wines are all reasonably priced, you could drink them as an everyday red to go with dinner, or serve them for a group at a tasting party without breaking the bank.

On this particular week night, when most of us had to get up early for work the next day, 3 bottles were more than enough for 4 people. Of course, on a weekend that could vary. Keep in mind that each bottle holds 4 full glasses, so for larger groups you may need more than 1 bottle of each wine you want to taste.


Here are some recommendations for foods to serve at wine tasting parties, and with Chianti in particular.

Herb bread:  Herb bread is always yummy, but it goes particularly well with Chianti, which tends to have a more herbal, savory quality than many other reds.

Sliced Meats:  For Chianti, I recommend things like salami, pastrami, or prosciutto.  You’ll find that some wines will hold up better against a spicy sausage, and some not as well, but the experimentation is half the fun.  Foie gras (or any another type of paté) is another good option, which provides a rich, mellow contrast to Chianti’s strong favors.  (These days you can even find tasty vegetarian styles!)

Selection of cheeses:  Go for a mix of styles – sharp, creamy, soft, hard/aged.  Not only will you have something for every person’s taste, but you’ll discover that they pair differently with the different wines.

Fresh fruit:  We had raspberries, which went very well with the Chianti.  Cherries and blackberries would have been great too.  Try to pick fruits that will match some of the fruit flavors you expect to find in the wine.

Raw veggies:  Baby tomatoes and sliced red and yellow bell peppers went well with the Chiantis.  I tried raw jicama for the first time and learned it’s a fantastic palate cleanser between wines, as well as being delicious on its own – sort of the texture of an apple, but with much less sweetness and tartness. Of course, carrots are always crowd-pleasers.

Olives:  These are just a great addition to any appetizer plate, but sometimes they play nicely with wine and sometimes not.  Chiantis have a good chance of standing up to the strong flavors of olives.

Jams/preserves/honey:  A bite of something sweet is always welcome when you’re serving so many strong, savory flavors.  Again, try to pick a flavor that will fit with the flavors of the wine.  In our case, we had apricot-rosemary preserves.  The rosemary echoed the herbal flavors in the bread and the wines and kept the preserves from seeming too sweet.

Dessert:  Speaking of dessert, chocolate and red wine are a match made in heaven.  We happened to have dark chocolate ice cream, but anything dark chocolate would do nicely – brownies, a good quality chocolate bar, etc.  (If you’re making brownies and happen to have some Port handy, use it as part of the liquid ingredient in the recipe!)

If you throw a Chianti tasting party, or any kind of wine tasting party, I’d love to know how it went. Did these ideas work for you? Did you think of better ones? Send pictures!


Friday, November 7, 2014

Wine + ale + fungus = something surprisingly good.

Last week I posted the Botrytis (Noble Rot) Wine Cheat Sheet, about the fungus that impacts many of the world's great dessert wines. This week I'm drinking a beer that's infused with grape must from "nobly rotten" grapes.

Dogfish Head, a brewery known for unique and historical beers, has created this unusual ale. It's a saison (a light, fruity, refreshing style of ale), brewed with the juice from Viognier grapes which were infected with botrytis. According to the Dogfish Head website:  "This is the absolute closest to equal meshing of the wine world and the beer world that's ever been done commercially." And sure enough, the result tastes like equal parts of white wine and ale.

Nose:  Peach, floral, citrus, apple, and honey.
Palate:  Dry, with a refreshing citrus quality.  9% abv

The peach and floral aromas are typical of wine made from Viognier grapes, and the honey is typical of botrytis-affected wines. The biggest surprise of Noble Rot is that it isn't sweet, since botrytis is usually only involved in making dessert wines. The second biggest surprise is that this ale is light and refreshing. While still flavorful and complex, it isn't the rich, heavy, or sweet beer that I expected.  Great stuff.

You might also be interested in...
The Ultimate Guide to 24 - now 28! - Pumpkin Ales in Houston
Ancient Ale on Tap in Houston!
Ancient wine, ancient beer, and how you can try some today!
A Great Beer Infographic

Friday, October 31, 2014

Wine Infographic: Botrytis (Noble Rot) Cheat Sheet

Botrytis cinerea, often called Noble Rot, is a fungus that is essential to some of the most famous, expensive, and delicious dessert wines in the world.  Any of these wines would be great with your pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving!

Here's your cheat sheet for what botrytis is, how it happens, and where to find the wines it has shaped.  (See the full collection of Wine Cheat Sheets here.)

To see the Cheat Sheet in full size…
…in Internet Explorer, right click on it and select “open link.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open image in new tab.”
…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”

Wikipedia commons has some great pictures of botrytis at work:

Friday, October 24, 2014

Texas Two-Step from the Dancing Bee Winery

About a year ago I visited the Dancing Bee Winery and Meadery.  It's roughly 80 miles north-east of Austin and part of the San Gabriel Wine Trail.  (See Mead 101 and the Dancing Bee Winery).  I bought a bottle of what I considered their most interesting wine, and I'm drinking it tonight in honor of Texas Wine Month.  This wine-mead combo is technically called a Pyment, which means it's made from honey (like mead) as well as grapes -- in this case 60% honey and 40% Merlot.  (This bottle lists Merlot as the grape, but my notes from the winery say Tempranillo.  Either I wrote it down wrong initially, or they were in the process of changing the blend.)  Let's see how this bottle fared over the last year...

Appearance:  Deep brick red.  More brownish in color than most red wines (at least young ones), due to the honey.

Nose:  Aromas of cherry, plum, honey, and toffee.

Palate:  Dry, with barely a hint of sweetness, but not enough to be called off-dry. Flavors of ripe red fruits, honey, and a nice earthy quality. Moderate acid and surprisingly strong tannin.  13.8% abv

On one hand, Texas Two-Step is a unique experience.  On the other hand, it might not taste as unusual as you'd expect, given the ingredients.  Despite being made from 60% honey, it still tastes mostly like red wine, and is well balanced.  The honey in the mix accomplishes 3 main things: adds flavor, adds a touch of sweetness, and makes the red wine ultra smooth.  I think the combination is pretty successful and easy to drink.  Make sure you chill it for a few minutes. 

Mead is an occasional thing for me, so I can't see myself drinking this on a regular basis.  However, I think it's a must-try for wine geeks.  And anyone who finds many red wines too harsh and wants one that is super, ultra smooth, could fall in love with this.

As far as I know, the only place in Houston to buy this at the moment is at the downtown Spec's, where it costs about $16.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Ultimate Guide to 24 - now 28! - Pumpkin Ales in Houston

(As I try more pumpkin ales, I'm continuing to add to the list...)

About this time every year, I become obsessed with all things pumpkin, especially pumpkin ales. So I decided to try all the ones I could find, rate them, and create my own definitive guide. All of these pumpkin ales were purchased in the last month or so in the Houston area. Is it just me, or are there a lot more pumpkin ales than there used to be?

These pumpkin ales range from almost pale, to amber, to stout.  I included pictures for most, so you can see the color.  Although I'm not a cider drinker, there are several pumpkin ciders available, and I picked the one I found most interesting to throw into the mix.

I should confess my personal prejudices about pumpkin ales:  I prefer them to be rich and smooth, malty more than hoppy, and with lots of pumpkin and spice flavor, so my ratings reflect that.

The list is grouped by my personal star rating. In my house we use the Ebert Scale of 0-4 stars, which, when applied to beer, looks like this:

0 stars - Is this even beer?
* - awful
** - kinda bad
** 1/2 - almost good, but has some flaws (probably wouldn't buy it again)
*** - good (would buy it again)
*** 1/2 - very good
**** - outstanding

4 stars

**** Kasteel Ingelmunster Pumpkin:  A lovely golden color, with aromas and flavors of butterscotch, apples, pumpkin, and almonds.  This is unique, and I suspect one would either love it or hate it - clearly I love it.  There isn't much spice to it, which is usually a negative thing for me, but I don't even care.  This stuff is delicious.  8.5% abv

**** Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin - Very rich, heavily spiced, complex.  Strong but smooth.  Pure amazing pumpkin nectar of the gods. But sip it slowly, because it's 9% abv.

**** St. Arnold Bishop's Barrel (BB) No. 6:  Imperial Pumpkin Stout Aged in Rum Barrels (aka "Rumpkinator") - It's a little unfair to include this on the list, since it's so hard to get, but I tasted it at the Untapped beer and music festival at Discovery Green and thought I might as well record my thoughts.  This pumpkin stout is very dark and strong, with lots of spice flavors.  The rum barrel aging compliments the pumpkin stout beautifully, and it acquires quite a bit of rum flavor during aging.  Incredibly good.  (I have previously drunk the non-barrel aged Pumpkinator from which this BB is created, and it is excellent.)  10.4% abv before barrel aging / 13% afterwards

3 1/2 stars

***1/2 BJ's Brewery Pumpkin Ale - Highly spiced and well balanced.  (Only available at the brewery/restaurant on draft, not in bottles.)  4.7% abv

***1/2 Harpoon Imperial Pumpkin Stout - Dark and thick, with lots of coffee and chocolate flavors.  The spice flavors are present, but not screaming out, while the pumpkin is more subtle.  10.5% abv

***1/2 Harpoon's UFO (UnFiltered Offering) Pumpkin Ale - Plenty of pumpkin and spice on the nose and the palate.  Smooth and rich, but with a pleasane brightness and tartness - maybe even a little citrusy.  Great balance of flavors.  The internet tells me this is 5.9% abv, but so help me I could not find it listed anywhere on the bottle or 6-pack.

***1/2 Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale - Aged in oak bourbon barrels, this has a honeyed aroma and definite bourbon flavor on the finish.  The pumpkin and spice flavors are present, but not strong.  Good balance of rich, smooth, and strong.  10% abv

***1/2 Magic Hat "Wilhelm Scream" Pumpkin Ale - Well balanced, with moderate pumpkin and spice flavors, notes of vanilla and caramel, rich and smooth, yet with a bit of hop bitterness on the finish to keep it from being too sweet.  5.4% abv  (For those who aren't familiar with the "Wilhelm Scream," here you go.)

***1/2 Rahr and Sons Pumpkin Ale - A brown ale with lots of spice and caramel.  8.7% abv

***1/2 Shipyard Pumpkinhead - Lots of spice, especially cinnamon.  Crisp and great for a lighter style of pumpkin ale, that's not too rich, too heavy, or too hoppy.  Aftertaste of cinnamon applesauce.  4.5% abv

***1/2 Southern Tier Pumking - Has the advantage of smelling and tasting of graham crackers, going for the full pumpkin pie experience.  Comparable to Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin, but ultimately not as rich or flavorful, though still very good.  12% abv

***1/2 Southern Tier Warlock - This is an Imperial Stout and, like the Pumking, it has a distinct aroma and flavor of graham crackers, which is a good thing.  A fair amount of pumpkin on the nose and a lot of ginger on the palate.  I read a comment on another website that this tastes like someone injected a pumpkin with Guinness, and that's not far off.  8.6% abv

***1/2 Timmermans Pumpkin Lambicus - Lambics are made from wild yeasts and are often called "sours" due to their distinctive sour taste.  Flavored lambics are frequently sweetened (peach, cherry, and raspberry flavors are common), but this pumpkin lambic tastes dry.  It is tart, with a fairly strong sour component, a lot of pumpkin spice flavor, and leaves a tart apple impression on the finish.  I love sours, and I think this is a great one, but they aren't for everyone.  4% abv

3 stars

*** Alaskan Pumpkin Porter - Great porter, very dark.  Tastes like spiced coffee, but not a lot of pumpkin flavor.  (This is the beer version of my usual Starbucks drink in the fall - tall black coffee with 1 pump of pumpkin spice - which I hear actually contains no pumpkin.)  7% abv

*** Brooklyn Brewery Post Road Pumpkin Ale - Moderate pumpkin and spice flavors, nicely rounded and balanced.  I tasted this at the Untapped beer and music festival, but it is also available for retail purchase in the Houston area.  5% abv

*** Buffalo Bill's Brewery, America's Original Pumpkin Ale - Beautiful amber color (the picture doesn't do it justice).  Some pumpkin flavor, but lots of spice.  A good compromise between rich and sweet vs. crisp and hoppy.  6% abv

*** Crown Valley Brewing Imperial Pumpkin Smash (Stout) - Aromas and flavors of vanilla, molasses, chocolate, coffee, a hint of cigar, a bit of pumpkin, but not much spice.  This is rich and thick and strong, with a lingering taste of black coffee and bittersweet chocolate.  While I love it as a stout and would have given it 3 1/2 stars, I took away 1/2 a star for lack of pumpkin and spice.  Great stout though.  48 IBUs and 10.6% abv  (It's packaged uniquely in 4 bottles to a box.)


*** Karbach Krunkin' Pumpkin - Moderate pumpkin and spice flavors/aromas.  Nice, rich caramel-toast taste.  A little hot on the finish for me, but an overall good beer.  7.9% abv

*** Nebraska Brewing Co. Wick for Brains - Plenty of pumpkin and spice flavors.  A good balance of richness and hoppiness (the can says 18 IBUs).  It also has an interesting pop top on the can.  6.1% abv

*** New Belgium Pumpkick - Plenty of spice, but not a lot of pumpkin.  The label tells me they've added a touch of cranberry.  This imparts a pleasant tartness (the "kick"), and the cranberry flavor is very subtle.  A bit sweet up front with some hop flavor at the end.  6% abv

*** Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin - Dark, with definite pumpkin and spice flavors.  Somewhat smoky from the smoked malt, and a touch of hop bitterness at the end.   I liked this one, but I'm not sure the smokiness is right with the pumpkin and spice.  Though the alcohol is not as high as some others on this list, and it did add a nice viscosity and mouthfeel, I think the beer would have been better balanced with a slightly lower abv.  8.5% abv

*** Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale -  Light and refreshing, with lots of floral, citrus (especially grapefruit), and hoppy characteristics.  5.84% abv

*** Wasatch Pumpkin - Heavy on the pumpkin, light on the spice.  This actually tastes like pureed pumpkin, and wins the prize for most pumpkin flavor on this list.  Balanced, easy to drink.  4% abv

*** Wasatch Black O'Lantern Pumpkin Stout - Lots of coffee and cocoa flavors.  Great stout, but little pumpkin flavor.  If I hadn't seen the bottle, I might not have known it's a pumpkin ale.  I'd give the stout 3 1/2 stars, but as a pumpkin ale, I'd demote it to 2 1/2 stars for lack of pumpkiny-ness, so I averaged it to 3 stars.  6.5% abv

2 1/2 stars

**1/2 Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin/Harvest Moon - This is fine, but sort of the least common denominator of pumpkin ales.  Not too light, not too dark, not too pumpkiny, not too much spice, not too strong.  It is inoffensive, but boring.  Maybe a good place to start if you've never had a pumpkin ale or are not sure you like them.  5.7% abv

**1/2 Dogfish Head Punkin Ale - It kills me to give this only 2 1/2 stars, because I love DFH - both their beers and their devotion to reviving ancient beverages - but this just didn't do it for my tastes.  Sweet up front, followed by some hoppy flavors, as opposed to the smooth richness that many pumpkin ales offer.  Less pumpkin flavor and less spice than many.  If you think pumpkin ales usually don't have enough hops, try this one.  7% abv

**1/2 Tieton Cider Works Smoked Pumpkin Cider - I mentioned that I'm not a cider person, so this is awfully sweet to me, although it seems in line with the sweetness level of most ciders.  It definitely smells of pumpkin and apples, which is a great combo.  However, the addition of the smoked apple wood is where this cider loses me.  I appreciate the idea, and I usually like smoked things, but I'm not a fan of the smoky aftertaste on a sweet cider.  My husband disagreed with me and liked the smoke effect, so your mileage may vary.

**1/2 Uinta Punk'n Harvest Pumpkin Ale - Plenty of spice, but not much pumpkin.  Not bad, but a little thin, and the flavors drops off suddenly on the finish.  5% abv

I was surprised to find so many pumpkin ales available in Houston, and yet I'm sure there are some I missed. If you've tried one I haven't, please leave me a note in the comments, because I'd love to know how it tasted!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tasting Llano Estacado's Texas Tempranillo

Since it's Texas wine month, let's taste a Texas wine.  Llano Estacado was established in 1976 near Lubbock, Texas.  In 1993 the Texas High Plans AVA, surrounding the Lubbock area, was designated as an official wine region.  (See the Texas Wine Cheat Sheet for more about Texas wine regions.)

I recently tasted Llano Estacado's Tempranillo.  Tempranillo is a Spanish grape which grows well in the Texas High Plains AVA and is increasing in importance to the Texas wine industry.  The climate of west Texas and the panhandle bear some resemblance to the climate of Spain, so it makes sense that Tempranillo would do well in Texas.

Llano Estacado 2012 Cellar Reserve Tempranillo
Appearance:  Medium ruby-garnet.
Nose:  Aromas of cherry, plum, cinnamon, black pepper, and cedar.
Palate:  Medium+ acid, moderate tannin, and medium body.  12.5% abv

I'm a fan of Tempranillo in general, and I really like this wine.  The flavor and structure are nicely balanced. It's easy to drink on its own, but food friendly as well.  Just an all-around great Texas wine! 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Visiting Tara in East Texas and Tasting Stagecoach Red

Tara Winery is part of the Piney Woods Wine Trail in northeast Texas.  I visited the winery a few years ago and really enjoyed the wines, but only recently drank the bottle I purchased when I was there.  As you may have guessed from the picture, Tara is named after and built to resemble Scarlett O'Hara's house from Gone with the Wind.

Tara grows the Lenoir grape (aka Black Spanish) onsite and buys other grape varieties from other places. This estate-grown Lenoir figures prominently in my favorite of their wines, Stagecoach Red.  It's made from 50% Lenoir, 30% Merlot, and 20% Syrah (from California). This bottle was not vintage dated, but I purchased it in 2012.
  • Color:  Medium ruby-garnet
  • Aroma:  Red and black fruits, toffee, sweet baking spice, cedar, plum, plus a hint of tobacco and vegetal aromas. 
  • Palate:  The flavors on the palate generally matched the aromas, with a hint of smokiness on the finish. Medium acid and strong tannin.  12.5% abv
  • Price:  $18 at the winery (in 2012)
I love this stuff.  My notes from tasting it at the winery were positive, but the wine improved as it aged. (I stored it in a wine fridge for most of the 2 1/2 years before I drank it.)  It might have improved for another year or so, perhaps, but I think I got lucky and ended up drinking this bottle at or near its peak.  It really did taste great.


I drank Stagecoach Red with what we happened to have for dinner that night:  spaghetti squash topped with a rich, meaty tomato sauce, which I made in the slow-cooker with herbs, capers, and chicken thighs.  It was a big wine for this food, but still paired reasonably well.  The earthy sweetness of the squash paired with the fruity/earthy/sweet-spice qualities in the wine, and the wine was acidic enough to stand up to the tomato sauce.  This pairing worked because of the rich sauce, but Stagecoach Red would really shine with grilled meat or a steak.

I believe Tara's wines are currently available only in east Texas and the DFW area, or directly from the winery when you order online or join the wine club.  I'm hoping they'll appear in the Houston area soon.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Wine Infographic: Texas Wine Cheat Sheet

October is Texas Wine Month, so use this to brush up on your Texas wine knowledge and try something new!

To see the full collection of wine cheat sheets, click here.

To see the Cheat Sheet in full size…
…in Internet Explorer, right click on it and select “open link.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open image in new tab.”
…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”

You may also be interested in:
Returning to Messina Hof for my 1st harvest and grape stomp!
Comparing 2 Texas Viogniers
Texas Kneecaps (with Bonus Lesson on Semi-Generic Labeling!)
Visiting Los Pinos in the Piney Woods
Texas Saké (a surprise addition to your 4th of July?)
Texas Wineries: The Bluebonnet Trail

Friday, September 19, 2014

Top 6 Things to Know About Wine Vintages

The concept of vintages is fundamental to understanding wine, yet confuses many people.  Here are the most important things to know.

What is a vintage?
Vintage means year.  The vintage on a wine label refers to the year in which the grapes were grown.  For the vintage to be listed on the label, most wine regions require that at least 85% to 95% of the grapes be from that year, so a small portion from other years may be included.

Why do vintages matter?
In a word:  weather.  Weather conditions have a huge impact on the grapes in any given year.  A warmer year might yield grapes with higher sugar content, which would translate to a more alcoholic wine.  A cooler year might yield slightly underripe grapes with more vegetal characteristics.  Rain near harvest time is a notorious vintage spoiler, because it causes the grapes to absorb extra water which dilutes the juices.

Do vintages matter everywhere?
Some climates are more prone to vintage variation than others.  Maritime climates, such as Bordeaux and Oregon, tend to experience more weather fluctuations from year to year, so vintages matter more in those regions.  Also, a year that produced a great vintage in one wine region, might have produced a terrible one in another region.

Can I use this information to find wine bargains?
Yes!  If you know which vintages were outstanding in a certain region, you can expect all the wines from that region, even the less expensive ones, to be better that year.  Therefore, you can spend less money to get a great bottle of wine.  For example, if you normally spend $25 for a good Bordeaux, and you know that 2009 was a great year, you might spend less on a bottle from that vintage, knowing that the cheaper wine got a quality boost from the weather that year.  (Conversely, you also might decide to spend more on a bottle from that vintage, because you have confidence in its quality and want to buy a really amazing bottle.)

Do vintages affect aging?
Yes.  Even within a region that makes great wine, which is capable of aging for many years (like Bordeaux), a wine from a great vintage might have a significantly longer lifespan than a wine from a lesser vintage.  (More on wine lifespans here.)  In the vintage charts below, you'll see recommendations for when to drink a wine based on its vintage, such as "early maturing and accessible," "still tannic, youthful, or slow to mature," and "ready to drink."

Is there a handy reference for good and bad vintages?
Yes.  Various organizations produce vintage charts.

I recommend Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate's vintage chart (preview below).  This is a one-page quick-reference vintage guide which goes back to 1970 and includes "drink vs. hold" suggestions.  You can view it on a web page at this link, or download a pdf version here.  (I downloaded the pdf to my phone for easy reference.)

In the rare event that you need vintage data older than 1970, you can look to Decanter's vintage guide, which goes back to 1960 for some wine regions.  Decanter's guide offers good vintage information, similar to the Wine Advocate/Robert Parker chart, but is only updated through the 2008 vintage, whereas Robert Parker's goes up to 2013.

Happy hunting!

You might also be interested in:
Is your wine over the hill?
Burgundy, Bottle Aging, and Tertiary Aromas
Building a Better Wine Tasting