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.