Saturday, December 15, 2012

How Sweet is Your Riesling? (part 2)

Many people avoid Rieslings because they don’t drink sweet wine.  However, Rieslings can be completely dry, extremely sweet, and everything in between.  The trouble is that it’s often difficult to tell how sweet any given bottle will be.  I've written before about the German system that can help with this, but now there's an even easier way!

The International Riesling Foundation has come to the rescue!  It has developed a sweetness scale that winemakers can include on their labels.  This scale is designed to “make it easier for consumers to predict the taste they can expect from a particular bottle of Riesling,” help consumers find wines they’ll enjoy, and thus help producers sell more wine.  The scale is entirely voluntary, but hopefully many producers will decide to participate.  (The scale was first available for the 2008 vintage.)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Wine Infographics

Edit:  Since my collection of wine cheat sheets is growing, I've added a label for them.  See them all here.
I've been working on a follow-up to the article I recently posted about German Riesling, but between prepping for a new class I'll be teaching next year and deciding to hand-make some of my Christmas presents, that hasn't been finished yet!  In the meantime, I thought I'd point out a few helpful wine infographics.

I love everything from De Long.  (They have good Christmas gifts too.)  Their Wine Grape Varietal Table is a great way to get familiar with the many grape varieties available, and does an excellent job of explaining each grape's flavor characteristics, acid and tannin levels, and in which wines and regions it's usually found.  (I may hang this on the wall above my desk at home.)

I've recently discovered their Metro Wine Maps of California and France.  These provide a great way to learn about the appellations of those regions, and the maps include info on the grapes as well as local landmarks.  (The main thing keeping me from hanging the varietal table over my desk at home is that I can't decide if I'd rather have the French wine map.)

De Long also offers a handy vintage chart as a free pdf download in color or black and white.  This one is small enough to fold up in your pocket and take with you to the wine shop.  It covers all the years back to 1990.

Robert Parker offers a free vintage chart as well, but it's less visually appealing.  However it does go all the way back to 1970.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Little Chemistry Explains a Lot

I’ve mentioned before that the French Wine Society has great on-demand webinars for members.  I watched one this past week on the subject of wine aromas, and it was fascinating.  The most interesting thing I learned was a very simple fact about wine chemistry which explains a lot about aging and storing wine.

Acid + Alcohol = Esters

Wine contains molecules of acid and alcohol.  I’m no chemist, but basically those molecules are moving around and bumping into each to each other inside the wine bottle.  Eventually, they’ll start hooking up (wine can have that effect) and forming new, larger molecules.  These new molecules are called esters.  (I’ve mentioned them before.)

What Older Wines Have That Younger Ones Don’t

Esters give wine its aroma.  The longer the wine sits in the bottle and ages, the more esters (and aromas) are formed, and the more complex they get.  This is why older wines are so highly prized!  (Keep in mind that not all wines are capable of aging.  Only certain wines will continue to improve for more than a few years.)

Why Vibration Matters During Storage

While the wine is aging, in order for all these esters to be formed, the wine has to be kept still.  When it’s moved around or shaken, those esters fall apart and the complex aromas can be lost.  This is why limiting vibration is important.  So if you’re storing wine for an extended period of time, you need a cooler designed for wine, and not just a refrigerator.  And try to avoid moving the bottles around if you can.

The term bottle shock (there’s even a movie about it) refers to the effect that being jostled and moved around has on the wine.  For example, if a wine is opened immediately after being shipped on an airplane, it will not show its best.  It needs a little time to rest in order for those esters which were broken apart to reform.  And if it’s really shaken up, it may never be quite as good as it was.  This is because some esters are formed after the wine is in the bottle, but others can only form during fermentation.   So if you lose those, you can’t get them back.

It’s nice to learn that older wines have great aromas or that vibration is bad for wine, but I always want to know why those things are true.  I guess I just need to start studying chemistry.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Unusual Use for an Award-Winning Texas Wine

The 2013 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wine awards have just been announced.  TX Wine Lover has 2 good posts on the awards won by Texas wineries, here and here.  I'm excited to find that I have 4 or 5 of the medal winners in my stash at home, and I'm looking forward to drinking them!  But there's one medal winner that I have other plans for...

I love to cook, and I'm especially interested in the history of food culture and what we eat.  I even wrote a master's thesis on food in Shakespeare's works.  A few years ago my very cool, chef sister-in-law gave me a book of Roman recipes - Cooking Apicius.  The Roman recipes call for a host of unusual ingredients, including passum, a sweet raisined wine (made from semi-dried grapes).  The Romans drank and cooked with passum, and the earliest recipe for it comes from the 2nd century BC.

It turns out that Bruno and George's "Other Than Standard" Raisin Wine from Sour Lake, TX (near Beaumont) is a great substitute for passum, and it just won a bronze medal in the raisin wine category.  I bought it last year at Spec's for about $12, but I don't see it on the Spec's website today.  I hope they haven't stopped carrying it.

As for how it tastes, the Bruno and George website compares it to a tawny port, and I would agree, although I don't believe it's fortified like a port.  It's very sweet, with aromas and flavors of raisins, dried cherries, toasted nuts, and caramel.  At 16.2% alcohol, it's strong, but not as strong as port.  I prefer it chilled, and it would be tasty with anything you'd pair a tawny port with - sipped with a not-too-sweet dessert, with dark chocolate, poured over vanilla ice cream, or enjoyed in a more European style with an appetizer of foie gras or cured meats.

If you've never had a raisin wine, give it a try!  It's a wine experience both new and very, very old.

Great Educational Resource: The French Wine Society

I've been brushing up my French wine knowledge lately, because I may have the opportunity to teach a class on French wine soon.  If you're interested in learning about French wine, the French Wine Society website is a great resource.  Here's an overview of what is offered free and what is offered to members.  (Membership is $100/year, which is a bargain if you're serious about your French wine education.)

The site offers:

  • Self study programs (with or without certification exams)
  • Online study programs (with or without certification exams)
  • A listing of in-person local classes by approved providers (with or without certification exams) -- in our area these are provided by the Texas Wine School
  • Study trips to French wine regions

If you are a member, you also have access to:

  • Live 1-hour webinars, offered monthly and taught by French wine experts, with the opportunity to ask questions
  • Archive of all past webinars to view on demand (currently there are 49 available)
  • A Pronunciation Guide for each wine region (Ecoute et répète!)
  • A Knowledge Database with over 60 downloadable maps and other educational resources
  • 10% off anything you purchase on the website (study materials, online courses, exams, even membership renewal)

I love having all this information at my fingertips whenever I want it, so I can learn as it's convenient for me.  Spend a few minutes exploring the French Wine Society website, and get inspired to study French wine!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Southern Rhone Valley and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a difficult meal to pair wine with.  Turkey calls for a white or a light red.  Heavier stuffings or dressings that involve bacon or sausage might do better with a medium-bodied red.  Sweet cranberry sauce needs something with lots of fruit character or some residual sugar.  And what if you don’t know what your relatives are bringing? 

The classic advice (and it is good advice) is to get a couple of wines that go pretty well with everything.  Pinot Noir and Riesling usually fit the bill.  They have a good amount of acidity.  They have a light- to medium-body.  And Rieslings usually have some residual sugar to balance the cranberry sauce and candied yams.

But today I was thinking that wines from the southern Rhone would be good at Thanksgiving.  Probably because I had just been to a master class on 2 southern Rhone appellations, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel, led by James King of The Texas Wine School.

It’s a shame the southern Rhone Valley is unfamiliar to so many American wine drinkers.  If you like medium- to full-bodied reds, with lots of red fruit, moderate tannin, and often a hint of herbs and spice, the southern Rhone should be on your radar. 

The most common appellation you see from this region is Cotes du Rhone.  The primary grape here is Grenache (Garnacha in Spain), but others are blended in as well (Syrah and Mourvedre are the usual suspects).   Cotes du Rhones are fruity, and usually not too heavy on the tannin.  They could work at Thanksgiving, especially if your turkey is roasted with lots of herbs, or smoked, or fried.

Grenache is also the main grape in Tavel.  Tavel is the only French appellation which produces rosé wine exclusively.  These wines are dry, usually fruity, with some mineral characteristics, and plenty of acidity.  A few years ago I enjoyed a 2008 Brotte Tavel Les Eglantiers, purchased at Spec’s for around $14.  The current vintage for sale is 2010 or 2011.  The 2008 had lots of fruit and some floral aromas, plenty of acidity, and should give you an idea if you like the style of Tavel or not (although, as I learned today, there can be significant differences between one vineyard and another, and one producer and another!).   Tavels are food-friendly and strike the balance between red and white when you’re not sure which you’ll need. 

So if you’re feeling brave, try out a new wine at Thanksgiving this year.  Pick up a Cotes du Rhone or a Tavel, and see how you like it!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to Tell if German Wine is Sweet or Dry

German wine, which is primarily made from the Riesling grape, has a reputation for being sweet, but in reality it ranges from fully dry to fully sweet.  But if the bottles don’t tell you how sweet they are (and they usually don’t), how do you find the one you want?  A little background knowledge of the German quality system, the fermentation process, and some simple math.

Sweetness Levels
Wine sweetness levels in general are usually classified on the following scale:
  • Dry – not sweet at all (most wine falls here)
  • Off-dry – just a little sweet (a lot of Rieslings are here)
  • Medium-sweet – pretty darn sweet (Moscato d’Asti is usually classified here)
  • Sweet (or fully sweet) – very sweet, like dessert (non-sparkling Moscato is often here, along with Port and Ice Wine)

Germany and Wine
Germany is the coldest wine region on Earth.  It is so cold that grapes sometimes have difficulty ripening.  Consequently, the Germans label their wines by how ripe the grapes get.  Ripeness is measured by “must weight,” which is just a fancy way of saying how much sugar the grapes have in them at harvest time. 

When the wine is fermented, it’s the sugar in the grapes that turns into alcohol.  So “must weight” can easily be translated to potential alcohol.  We say “potential” alcohol, because here winemakers have a decision to make.  They can let ALL the sugar in the grapes ferment into alcohol and create a dry wine.  Or they can stop the fermentation at any point, leaving the remaining sugar unfermented (called “residual sugar”), and creating a wine with some degree of sweetness (and less alcohol). 

Sugar/Alcohol Levels
Below are some of the names you’ll see on the labels, listed with their potential alcohol levels.  Not every bottle will be labeled with one of these names, but most of them will.  (Note:  These numbers are approximate, since each German wine region has its own unique requirements.
  • Kabinett – 9.5% alcohol
  • Spatlese – 11% alcohol
  • Auslese – 13% alcohol
  • Beerenauslese – don’t worry about potential alcohol – this one will always be sweet
  • Eiswein – always very sweet
  • Trokenbeerenauslese – always very sweet

The Formula!

(  % Potential Alcohol   -   % Alcohol by Volume  )  x 2     =   % Residual Sugar

You know potential alcohol from the list above.  The winemaker is not required to tell you whether his wine is sweet or not, but he IS required to tell you how much alcohol is in it!  You can find the alcohol by volume (ABV) on the bottle.  By subtracting the numbers, you can tell whether the winemaker has fermented all the sugar out of his grapes, or has left some in the wine. 

Sometimes the winemaker will label the wine as sweet or dry, “troken” (dry) or “halbtroken” (off-dry) in German.  Then you don’t have to calculate; you know about how much sugar the wine will have:
  • Troken – dry, with a maximum of 1.8% residual sugar
  • Half-Troken – off-dry, with a maximum of 3.6% residual sugar

But how much sugar does it take to taste sweet?

Perception of Sweetness by Percent
Here is a chart to show you about how sweet a certain percentage of sugar will taste.  I’ve posted it before, but it’ll be useful here.  (Keep in mind that individual perceptions vary.)

Let’s take this formula for a test drive.  You see a Spatlese that says it has 8% ABV.  You know that if this wine is classified as a Spatlese, the grapes had a potential alcohol level of around 11%.  Therefore:  11% minus 8% equals 3%.  3% times 2 is 6%.  6% sugar puts this wine just into the medium-sweet range. 

Pick up a bottle of German Riesling this week and let me know if this helped!  Try it with spicy Asian food! 

Some Riesling producers around the world are starting to put a sweetness scale on their labels to help with this issue, and I’m planning a post on that next week.  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Saving Your Leftovers (or, how Bear Dalton convinced me I'd been preserving my wine wrong for years!)

This week in the Rice continuing education class, Bear Dalton discussed wine preservation issues.  If having leftover wine seems strange and confusing to you, consider Bear’s approach:  “If you have leftover wine, I’m assuming you opened more than 1 bottle.”  I like that. 

Having taken a lot of other classes, I was familiar with the usual wine spoilage concepts and storage options for leftovers, but Bear took things a step further with some new information that convinced me I’ve been preserving my wine wrong for years!

Most wine drinkers know that if you don’t finish the bottle the night you open it, you need to do something to keep it fresh.  But why does wine spoil anyway, and what’s the best way to preserve it?  Let’s review why the wine spoils, some options for saving it, and then pick the best approach, with Bear’s help.   

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Acid 101

Acid is probably the most important component of wine that the casual drinker doesn’t know about.  It’s crucial to the wine’s balance and flavor profile throughout the life of the wine, from the time the grapes are ripening on the vine to when you’re picking which wine to go with dinner.  (It also impacts how long the wine can age, but that’s another discussion.)  You may love the taste of it (like me), or you may prefer less of it.  Here’s some basic information that should help you to discover your own wine preferences and match them with food successfully! 

Where does it come from?

All grapes naturally contain some amount of acid.  As the grapes ripen, sugar levels increase and acid levels decrease.  Ideally, the grapes will be harvested at the precise moment when this acid/sugar balance is perfect for winemaking.  (Remember that some or all of the sugar will convert to alcohol during fermentation.)  In top quality winemaking, nothing is done to change the acid and sugar levels after the harvest.  Everywhere else, sugar or acid may be added to correct an imbalance.

The primary acid in grapes is malic acid, which is the same acid found in green apples.  Most red wines and some whites go through a process called malolactic fermentation, during which the malic acid is converted to lactic acid.  The lactic acid is smoother and less harsh.

How does it impact the wine?

When you taste wine, the acid creates a mouthwatering sensation.  If you take a sip of a crisp white wine, swish it around in your mouth, then swallow completely, you will probably notice a sudden rush of saliva in your mouth, particularly under your tongue.  This is caused by high acid levels.  The more your mouth waters, the more acid is in the wine.  Super high acid levels can even make your tongue feel prickly, like you’re drinking soda.

The acid/sugar balance is so important at harvest because it is also key to the final product.  Sweetness reduces the perception of acid, and acid reduces the perception of sweetness.  In other words, a sweet wine needs strong acidity to balance the sweetness.  A highly acidic wine will often benefit from a little extra sugar.  The amazing part is that if you compare 2 wines with the same level of sugar, but different acid levels, the 1 with more acid will taste less sweet, while the one with less acid will taste sweeter (maybe even cloying). 

 Where can I find it (or avoid it)?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Great Bottle Closure Debate

The debate over bottle closures will likely be reinvigorated this week, as Italian authorities have recently approved the use of synthetic corks and screw caps on DOC and DOCG wines (the top 2 quality levels).  Here’s the article from Decanter:  “Italy approves synthetic closures for DOC, DOCG.

I thought I’d provide a brief overview of some pros and cons of different bottle closures.  Personally, I prefer natural cork or screw cap, but I certainly wouldn’t refuse to buy or drink a wine just because of the closure it uses.  A screw cap doesn’t necessarily indicate a bad wine, and a natural cork doesn’t necessarily indicate a good wine.  The biggest issues with using an alternative closure on a DOCG wine, like a fine Chianti, will be oxygen and aging potential.

Natural Cork

The pros are that natural cork is a renewable resource (it comes from the bark of the cork tree and can be removed without killing the tree) and is biodegradable.  It also allows wine to age slowly over time, because its porous nature lets a small amount of oxygen circulate through.  This is key for fine wine that is meant to be aged.

The primary con is cork taint (TCA).  Depending on which study you believe, cork taint affects between 1% and 7% of all wines that use natural cork.  Cork taint creates musty, moldy, or damp cardboard smells in the wine and diminishes the fruit character.

Synthetic Cork

The main reason to use synthetic cork is that the possibility of cork taint is greatly reduced or eliminated.  Some also argue that these corks don’t dry out like natural cork, but I’ve read differing opinions on that question. 

Oxygen exchange presents a significant issue with synthetic corks.  Some types seem to let in more oxygen than natural corks, and others much less.  Too much oxygen will age or spoil the wine quickly.  Too little, and the wine could suffer from reduction, which is a wine fault that occurs when there’s not enough oxygen present.  I usually assume a wine with a synthetic cork is not meant to be held for very long before drinking.  The aging issue highlights why the above article is so important, since fine Chiantis are often cellared for a number of years.  At the least, the winemakers would need a good understanding of exactly how porous the synthetics are before using them.

Screw Cap

Screw caps used to be an indication of a cheap, poor quality wine, but that is changing.  Many quality wine producers in Australia and New Zealand are now using these closures on their wines.

The screw cap offers the same protection against cork taint as a synthetic cork, combined with easy opening.  Oxygen exchange is an issue here too though.  Screw capped wines can become reductive, and of course, a screw cap would not work for a fine wine that’s meant to age.

Further Reading

I’ve only hit the high points on these issues.  If you want to get into more detail, here are some resources:

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Houston Wine Blogger Dinner

I was very fortunate last week to be invited to have dinner with some fellow Houston wine bloggers!  Thanks so much to everyone who helped organize this wonderful evening, and thanks Jeremy of Do Bianchi for mentioning us in the Houston Press.  I hope we can do this again soon!

Links to all their blogs will be added to the list on the right shortly.

Texas Wineries: The Bluebonnet Trail

October is Texas Wine Month, so it’s appropriate that I do my first post about Texas wineries this month.  The Go Texan Wine web site is a great place to start planning a trip to some wineries, and if you’re in Houston, the Bluebonnet Trail is an easy overnight getaway.  Check out their handy map.

We traveled this trail last year, but didn’t follow the official trail order.  Instead, we drove north on I-45 to Conroe, and then headed west on 105 for the first day.  We spent the night in Brenham, then drove back east toward Houston on 290.  Below I’ve listed the wineries in the order we visited them, with some notes on each, as well as where we stayed in Brenham.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tannin 101

If you drink red wine, you need to know about tannin!

What is it?

Tannin is a compound that naturally occurs in many plants, including grapes.  It is found in the skins, and makes its way into red wine while the skins are in contact with the fermenting juice.  White wines have no tannin, because they are not fermented in contact with the grape skins.

When you taste red wine, tannin is the drying sensation that you feel on your gums and the sides of your mouth.  It can also taste bitter.

Where is it found?

Many foods and drinks have tannin:  tea, beer (from the hops), many fruit juices, berries, pecans, walnuts, and chocolate, to name a few.

In wine, it is only found in reds, but some reds have more than others.  This can be due to the characteristics of the grapes themselves (thin-skinned grapes have less tannin than thick-skinned ones), the climate, or the length of time the skins are in contact with the wine.

Here’s a handy guide with average levels of tannin:

How does it pair with food?

When pairing a red wine with food, tannin is an important consideration.  Because tannin is mouth-drying and bitter, it is best to avoid high-tannin wines with bitter or tannic foods.  The combination will likely be too bitter and astringent.  Also, tannin will make spicy food seem spicier.  What tannin does best is pair with protein, especially red meat.  This is where the classic pairing of Cabernet Sauvignon and steak comes from!  The juicy, fatty meat coats your mouth, then a sip of the tannic red wine dries it out – the perfect balance.

Some people enjoy tannic wines, and some don’t.  The key is to discover what you like, and know where to find it!

Copyright © 2012 by Joanna Opaskar
All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Service Temperatures

A wine should be served at the proper temperature in order to taste its best.  The wrong temperature can make a wine taste out of balance, even though it isn’t.  This is because too-warm temperatures emphasize tannins and alcohol and reduce the perception of acid.  Too-cold temperatures reduce the number of aromas and flavors we smell/taste.

Most people chill white wines and serve them pretty close to the correct temperature.  Red wines on the other hand, are usually way off, even in restaurants!  You may have heard that red wines should be served at room temperature.  This is true, except that the room temperature in question is actually room (or cellar) temperature in Europe, which is vastly different than most room temperatures here in Houston! 

Check out the correct service temperatures in the chart below, and then read on for tips on how to achieve these temperatures easily at home.

Getting your wine to the correct service temperature (or pretty close) can be as easy as you want it to be.  Here are some ways to do it:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Texas Wine Law & Ordering Wine Online

Yesterday, Eating Our Words, the Houston Press food and wine blog, posted a good article about Texas wine law:
That article links to others which can give you a good primer on the subject.

In short, Texas wine law is crazy.  And it's one reason why you may read wine reviews online and not be able to find those wines locally.  I plan to start posting some tasting notes soon, and when I do, all the wines I review will be easily available in the Houston/Clear Lake area.

As far as buying wine online, it can be a wonderful resource, but use caution!  High temperatures are the enemy of wine, so for most of the year in Houston, you don't want your wine carted around in the back of a non-air-conditioned UPS truck.  Make sure the shipper has vehicles with a/c, or confine your orders to the months of November through February!

Update:  Here's a follow-up from Eating Our Words and Jeremy Parzen on how to ship wine legally:

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Smelling, Swirling, and Training Your Nose

What’s with smelling the wine?

Smelling is an important part of tasting because aromas and flavors are so closely linked.  We’ve all experienced this, when we’ve had stuffy noses and can’t taste food very well.  The food tastes bland because we are using only our sense of taste to perceive it, and we’re missing the aromatic component of the experience.  For more details on the relationship between taste and smell, check out this article.

Another reason to smell or “nose” the wine is that our sense of smell is actually stronger and more sensitive than our sense of taste.  We can only taste 4 different flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter (5 if you count umami) – but we have the potential to smell between 5,000 and 10,000 distinct aromas, if we develop that ability.  For more on how our sense of smell works, read this.

What’s with all the swirling?

Aromas in wine come from chemical compounds that are present in the grapes and/or created during the fermentation process.  When the wine is swirled, more of these compounds are exposed to oxygen and “volatilize,” which just means they evaporate into the air and directly up your nose, if you've positioned it at the top of the glass!  The swirling makes the wine aromas stronger, so we can smell them better.  For more detail on this subject, the Wikipedia page on wine aromas is a good resource.  And here’s a list of some of the chemical compounds, called esters, and what they smell like.

How to Train Your Nose

While some of us will naturally have a more or less acute sense of smell, we can all train our noses to work better!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Facebook Page

Clear Lake Wine Tasting now has its own Facebook page!  We're converting from a personal page to a business page, so hopefully there won't be too many kinks to work out.  Please head over there and like us, if you participate in that sort of thing.  :)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tasting for Sweetness: Sweet or Fruity?

Wine beginners are often confused by the concept of a “sweet” wine versus a “fruity” wine.  Dry wines (meaning non-sweet wines) are fruity without being sweet.  The confusion comes because all wines are “fruity” to some degree, since wine is made from grapes.  We are used to fruit being sweet, so we sometimes assume that a fruity taste indicates a sweet wine.  However, this is not the case.

As wine is being made, the fermentation process converts sugar that occurs naturally in the grapes into alcohol.  If all the sugars are converted to alcohol, the wine is dry.  If the fermentation process is stopped before all the sugars are converted to alcohol, some sugar remains in the wine, giving it a degree of sweetness.  This is called “residual sugar.”

Further complicating this issue is that all of us have different palates and perceive sweetness to different degrees.  If you drink black coffee and unsweetened tea, you’re probably sensitive to sweet flavors, and perceive a wine with very little sugar in it as “sweet.”  If you drink sodas regularly, you’re used to drinks tasting sweet, so it might take a lot of sugar in a wine for you to perceive it as a sweet wine.

The sweetness of wine is usually described as dry, off-dry, medium-sweet, or sweet.  The chart below provides general guidelines for how much residual sugar (by percent) is present at each level, as well as some comparisons to non-alcoholic beverages.

If you’re still confused, just remember – most wine is dry!

Copyright © 2012 by Joanna Opaskar
All rights reserved.

The Big 6 and Where They're Hiding

Remember how I said the #1 factor that makes wines taste different from each other is which grape was used to make them?  And remember how I said that the majority of wines in the world are made from only 6 grapes?  Well here they are again, along with some notes on how they’re likely to taste:

With only 6 grapes to think about (for now), it’s pretty easy to determine which ones you like and which you don’t.  You may have already tasted most of these at some time or another.  Whether you want to taste them all to see which you like, or whether you know what you like already, you have to know where to find your preferred grapes – that is, in which bottles!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Overview of Professional Wine Certifications

It's amazing how many wine certifications exist in the world.  Here's a listing of the principal ones available in the US, that I know of.  Please let me know if I've missed any.  This is why, when you ask a wine nerd "what certifications do you have?" you may be in for a lengthy answer!   (Note that I'm not reviewing local classes here - I'll do that in a future post.)

If you are interested in obtaining professional wine credentials, be sure to investigate which certifications will be most useful to your interest level or career path, as some are more education-focused and others are more service-focused.  Also, some of these certifications are offered in combination with a prep course, while some are only an exam, where applicants are expected to have prepared on their own.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Local Class: Wine Education at Rice

The Rice Glasscock School of Continuing Studies is offering a class called "Tasting and Enjoying Wine," taught by Houston wine expert Bear Dalton, who has been the head wine buyer for Spec's for over 16 years.  The class is open to the public and will be held on 5 Monday nights, from October 15 through November 12, from 7 - 9pm.  The cost is $295.

Here's the course description from the Rice School of Continuing Studies website:

Friday, September 14, 2012

What Makes One Wine Different from Another?

In my Wine Tasting and Food Pairing 101 class, I’m often asked this question, and it’s a good one.  It gets to the very heart of what wine is all about, and why it’s so amazing.  How is it possible that simple fermented grape juice can produce so many wildly different tastes and styles?

There are 3 main factors:

1)     Type of Grape

Each type of grape has unique physical characteristics (such as thickness of skin, acid content), growing requirements (amount of heat, sun, water, and time needed to full ripen), and aromas/flavors (strawberries? black current?  lemons?).

Most of the wines in the world are made from what are known as the international varieties.  These grapes have proven over hundreds of years that not only do they make excellent wine, but they can grow in a variety of regions all around the world, and retain certain signature qualities no matter where they are grown.  International varieties include 3 reds (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon) and 3 whites (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay).  Sometimes other grapes are included as well, but these are the big 6.

Though each of these grape varieties will express somewhat different characteristics when grown in different places (as we’ll see in #2), they will also retain key elements of their identity.  For example, a Sauvignon Blanc, whether it’s grown in France or New Zealand, will have its signature acidity and herbaceous or vegetal quality.  (Each of these 6 grapes will be profiled in detail in future posts.)

2)     Climate/Region

Wine growing regions around the world are extremely diverse.  Some are chilly and rainy, like the Bordeaux region of France or the state of Oregon.  Some are hot and dry, like most of Australia, or eastern Washington State.  Some have high altitude, like Mendoza in Argentina.  Some are hilly with steep slopes, like the Rhone Valley in France.  Some are flat, like central Spain.

These international varieties of grapes have proven they can grow in all kinds of places (though they each have their preferred conditions in which they perform their best), but these different climates alter the final product.  Wine made from grapes grown in a cooler climate tends to be lighter in body, higher in acid, lower in alcohol, and more earthy than fruity in flavor.  Wine made from grapes grown in a warmer climate tends to be the opposite – heavier in body, lower in acid, higher in alcohol, and richer in fruit flavor. 

To continue the Sauvignon Blanc example, if it comes from a cooler region (such as Bordeaux), it will express more of its vegetal qualities and high acid.  If it comes from a warmer region, such as California, it will express fewer vegetal aromas, its signature gooseberry flavor will be more apparent, and it will be lower in acid.

3)     Winemaker Choices

During the fermentation process, the winemaker has many choices to make which will determine the final character of the wine.  Should it be sweet or dry?  Still or sparkling?  Oaked or unoaked?  These decisions may be driven by the quality of the grapes when they reach the winery, the preferences of the winery’s customer base, or the winemaker’s own preferences. 

Additionally, some winemaking regions allow the winemaker to alter the sugar (or potential alcohol) levels and acid levels of the grapes, though this is not done in the best regions or to the best wines.

Keep in mind that decisions made in the vineyard before harvest time have already had a significant impact on the characteristics of the grapes, before they even reach the winery.  We’ll talk about those in a future post.

Here’s a handy reference chart:

Copyright © 2012 by Joanna Opaskar
All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why Another Wine Blog?

There are lots of wine blogs in the world, so why start another one?

When I teach Wine Tasting and Food Pairing 101, I find the same questions come up again and again.  What's the difference between one wine and another?  Does it matter where the wine comes from?  What's the best wine with different foods?  How to serve it?  How to store it?  Does price matter?  What are all these crazy regional names?!

I want to provide some basic information that will help you navigate the world of wine more easily, learn what makes one wine different from another, determine what qualities you like in a wine and what you don't, and how to describe those qualities to a clerk in a wine store or a waiter or sommelier.  And in the end, hopefully you'll have a lot more confidence in selecting wine, and end up with exactly what you want a lot more often.

I'll be focusing on 3 main areas:

1)  General wine education.

2)  Tasting notes on wines that are available in the Houston/Clear Lake area.  (Have you ever noticed how lots of wines reviewed online can't be found where you live?)

3)  Summing up information using nifty infographics, because I love big-picture overviews and quick reference.

My goal is help you discover how to find and select wines you'll like, every time.  Because if you don't like what you're drinking, what's the point of wine anyway?

Please feel free to email me your questions, and I'll do my best to answer them in future posts!