Thursday, December 18, 2014

Meet Ferrari (not the car, the sparkling wine!)

Lately, I've been interested in learning about wines from higher altitudes (as you may have noticed from the Wine Altitude Cheat Sheet and the article on wines from San Juan, Argentina), and an invitation I received to taste the wonderful sparkling wines of Ferrari fit perfectly with that theme.

Giulio Ferrari founded the company in 1902, and in 1952 handed it over to the Lunelli family, which still runs it. Fun fact:  by law the name Ferrari may be used in Italy only by the car maker and the wine maker - no one else. 

Ferrari is famous for its sparkling wines made in the traditional method (though it also makes mineral water, Prosecco, grappa, and non-sparkling wines). Only 10% of sparkling Italian wines are made using this method, and Ferrari is the most well known producer. The traditional method is the same as the method used in Champagne and is called Metodo Classico in Italy. (See the details of this process here. Most Italian sparkling wines, like Prosecco and Moscato d'Asti, are made using the tank or Charmat method.)

The sparkling wines of Ferrari have several things in common with Champagne, in addition to using the same process. A second similarity is the grapes, as the wines are made primarily from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A third is the soil:  Ferrari's grapes grow mainly on limestone, while Champagne is famous for its chalk, which is a type of limestone.

Ferrari's vineyards are located in the Trento DOC area, within the larger winemaking region of Trentino-Alto Adige in far northern Italy. Altitudes range from 985-2300 feet (300-700 meters). You can read about the potential effects of higher altitude winemaking here, but in this case the most important effects are that it helps the Chardonnay grapes to maintain their acidity, slows the grapes' ripening so the flavors can become more complex, and creates very gentle tannins in the Pinot Noir. Some say the altitude also helps the resulting wine stay younger and fresher longer.

Ferrari's grapes are both estate grown and supplied by local growers in close partnership. No herbicides or pesticides are used, and all the growers are either already organic or transitioning to organic.

Ferrari's sparkling wines come in 3 categories:
  • The Classic Range, including Ferrari Brut and Ferrari Rosé
  • The Perlé Range, including the regular Perlé, the Perlé Rosé, and the Perlé Nero, with about 5-6 years of aging
  • The Riserva Range, including the Lunelli and Giulio Ferrari wines, with 8-10+ years of aging
Despite the similarities with Champagne, these wines do come across quite differently. They give a younger, fresher impression, with less of the richness, heaviness, or breadiness that some people don't like about Champagne. But they maintain the great flavor and complexity that you want from a good sparkling wine. The prices are attractive, with the Classic Range starting at below $30 per bottle. The upper level ranges are also competitive with the prices of top quality Champagne.

I tasted Ferrari's delicious wines at Houston favorite Tony's restaurant, paired with wonderful food, and I've included some of my notes below. I hope you'll try Ferrari for yourself this holiday season. I love these wines, and I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Ferrari Perlé 2007, 100% Chardonnay, $35

Aromas of brioche, apple, peach, floral. Tastes crisp, young, and fresh, despite being 7 years old. This was served with a salmon tower with cucumber, granny smith apple, avocado, and mango. Try it with any seafood or poultry that's light, fresh, and not too strongly flavored.

Ferrari Perlé Rosé 2006, 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, $59

The wine is a beautiful pink-salmon color, with most of the aromas mentioned above, plus ripe strawberry (and maybe candied orange?). It was served with lobster risotto with mushrooms and lobster roe. This is for your seafood or poultry that's rich and a bit more flavorful.

Ferrari Perlé Nero 2006, 100% Pinot Noir, $78

This is similar to the rosé described above, but richer and heavier. Accordingly, it should be paired with food that's one step heavier and richer as well. We drank it with heirloom beet and foie gras soup. The soup was possibly the most surprising dish of the meal, rich and delicious. I like beets, but I had no idea they could taste like this. I ate it all before I even thought about taking a picture...

Moving on to the Riserva Range...

Ferrari Riserva Lunelli 2006, 100% Chardonnay, $59

This wine goes back to Chardonnay, but has more tartness and minerality than the Perlé made from Chardonnay. It's quite rich, with vanilla aromas that come from the 1st fermentation in oak.

Giulio Ferrari 2001, 100% Chardonnay, $100

Due to the age, this wine was a dark yellow color, almost gold, and smelled of roasted pineapple, brioche, honey, pastry, and almond. Amazing.

With the previous 2 wines we ate halibut with caviar, raisins, and kale.

Giulio Ferrari 1995, 100% Chardonnay, $100

I felt so lucky to get to try this one. It was still amazing after 19 years, with aromas of almonds, honey, vanilla, floral, a maybe a little raisin?

For dessert we had a pineapple and white chocolate "candy bar," which was even more decadent than it looks.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Wines of San Juan, Argentina

When we think of wine from Argentina, we usually think of the Malbec grape and the region of Mendoza. In fact, there are many other wine regions and grape varieties in Argentina. Some of these wines are not yet exported to the U.S., but they are gradually becoming more available. Recently I attended an event showcasing the wines of San Juan, a province of Argentina just north of the more famous Mendoza.

Altitude is essential to the character of wines from San Juan (as well as Mendoza). San Juan spans the 29°S to 32°S latitudes, with vineyard altitudes between 570 meters (1870 feet) and 1550 meters (5085 feet). These qualify as moderate-to-high altitudes for grape growing. In general, higher altitudes can produce grapes with higher sugar levels, better sugar/acid balance, smoother tannins, and more concentrated aromas. For more on the effect of altitude on climate, grapes, and wine, check out the Wine Altitude Cheat Sheet I posted last week.

San Juan produces wine from several grape varieties, such as Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda (red), Tannat (red), and Torrontes (white). The Syrahs I tasted had the characteristic aromas/flavors of Syrah, but were lighter and leaner than the Australian style many of us are used to. Torrontes is not familiar to many consumers, but these examples had floral and melon aromas, and were rich and smooth with good acidity. Tannat is a grape historically grown in southern France (in the Madiran AOC) that is now very popular in Uruguay (it's posed to become Uruguay's Malbec). I tasted some good Tannats at this event. The grape can be harsh and tannic, but these Tannats had the flavors of rich, black fruits and well-rounded tannins.

I was fortunate enough to go home with a bottle of Syrah from producer Finca Sierras Azules.  The wine has a deep, purplish-ruby color, aromas of fresh red and black fruits (a bit of blueberry?), herbs, and sweet spice. The flavors on the palate generally match the aromas, with the addition of Syrah's characteristic savory taste. It's somewhat tart, with higher-than-average acidity.  The tannins are definitely present, but not aggressive. Overall, it's well balanced. Sometimes I like to try to guess the alcohol level before reading it on the label. This time I guessed 13 - 13.5%, but it's actually 14.3% abv. I often find wines over 14% to be harsh and imbalanced, but this one is not at all. I enjoyed how it developed as it breathed in the glass.


Here is the full list of producers from San Juan who offered their wines at the tasting. Hopefully some of these wines will appear in your local wine shop soon, so keep an eye out for them and give them a try!

Alta Bonanza de los Andes
Bodegas Borbore
Bodegas & Vinedos Casa Montes S.A.
Cavas S.R.L.
Bodega Merced del Estero
Finca del Enlace
Fincas Sierras Azules
La Guarda
San Juan de la Frontera S.A.
San Juan Juice and Wine S.R.L.
Tierra del Huarpe S.A
Viticola Cuyo S.A.
Jose A. Yanzon AICISA

Friday, December 5, 2014

Wine Infographic: Wine Altitude Cheat Sheet

Altitude is an important factor affecting grapes and wine. Here's your cheat sheet for what it does, why it matters, and which wine regions are impacted by it.

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 in new tab.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open link in new tab.”
…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”   

You may also be interested in:
Wine Infographic: Botrytis (Noble Rot) Cheat Sheet
Wine Infographic: Texas Wine Cheat Sheet
Acid 101
Tannin 101

Monday, November 24, 2014

Wine Gifts to Buy Online

I do most of my Christmas shopping online, because I don't have time to hunt through stores. If you have friends or family interested in wine, here are some suggestions to make your shopping easier. I have owned or used most of these items and have been impressed with them. Everything is listed according to category:  books, glassware/serving/entertaining, movies, etc. Enjoy!


For the novice wine enthusiast...  This is a cute, fun, and engaging book that also gets a lot of information across. It has good visuals, plus the scratch-n-sniff wine aromas. It would be great to keep on your coffee table as a conversation starter. I wrote a full review of it here.

For the beginning to intermediate wine enthusiast...  I just came across this book in past few weeks, and I love it. It covers lots of topics related to wine (how to taste, how to describe what you like, how wine is made, how to read labels, storing, serving, important wine regions, etc.) and answers all the "why" questions that I always want to know about. Even better, it's packed with infographics on nearly every page to illustrate the information. Look at the cute little yeasts! Later in the book, when the yeasts have died, they have Xs over their eyes.  It's awesome.

Also for the beginning to intermediate wine enthusiast...  Great Wine Made Simple is one of my favorite books for learning about wine on your own at home. It explains all the basics of wine in a clear and straightforward way, with a focus on learning to identify and describe the wine characteristics you like. To this end, it gives very specific instructions on how to set up your own wine tastings to learn about each characteristic. It lacks the fantastic infographics of Wine: A Tasting Course, but it recommends more tastings and goes into more detail about setting them up. For this reason, it's also a great resource for planning wine parties.

For the serious wine student...  This really covers all your bases.  There's not much you can't look up in this gigantic tome.

For the ultra-serious wine snob geek...  I haven't yet purchased a copy of this, but it's on my list.  If you know someone who always has to order the wine made from grapes you've never heard of, and you like her enough to spend over $100, this is what you need.

If you can't spend $100+ on your favorite wine geek, this poster is a great, less expensive choice.  A giant periodic table of wine grapes, organized according to detailed information about each of their characteristics?  Be still my infographic-loving heart!  Makes a great addition to any wine geek's office, kitchen, or preferred tasting area.


These are the glasses I use at home.  Because I plan wine tastings for groups, I need lots of glasses that conform to the standard tasting shape and don't cost much per stem.  These fit the bill, and I buy them by the case.  For more on choosing glassware, check out "Wine Glasses: What Kind, Why, and Where to Get Them."


I first saw this tequila tasting set for sale in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston gift shop.  I'm not sure what it had to do with the art on display, but I fell in love with it.  Except I don't drink much tequila... And then some great friends got it for me as a birthday present, and I've had fun experimenting with ways to use it.  My favorite way is to serve Port in the glasses and put chocolates or brownies on the tray.  Or you could serve Sauternes with foie gras or cheese as either an appetizer or dessert, and feel very European.  Not only does this serving set look great, but the glasses and tray come off the stand and can go through the dishwasher.  Hooray for easy clean-up!

**The price of the 6-shot set seems to fluctuate between $100 and $300.  If the price above looks high, check here.

I've never tried these before, but they look cool.  I've written before about why wine glasses should have a stem, but these are designed to travel, so I'm giving them a pass on that feature.  If you (or your intended gift recipient) like to take wine to any of the wonderful, outdoor Houston venues where glass is not allowed (like Miller Outdoor Theater or a Galveston beach), these would be a great way to upgrade your wine experience from that red plastic cup.

I own one of these and have been very pleased with it. The price has even come down quite a bit from when it was first released. Some people never decant or aerate their wines, others always do.  I fall into the "occasional" category. (For more on that topic, check out "Should you let the wine breathe?") But if you want to aerate, I think this is the best choice of the many options on the market. Some people like the Vinturi, but it takes 2 hands to use and spills if your aim is slightly off. This Nuance model fits into the neck of the wine bottle and provides a perfect non-drop spout.

If you have an open bottle you aren't going to finish, Private Preserve (or a similar system) is the best way to keep the wine fresh until you're ready to drink it. The can sprays inert, harmless gasses into the partially empty wine bottle, and the gasses, which are heavier than air, create a protective blanket on top of the wine, so it won't oxidize as quickly. Then you just stick the cork back in the top. For me, just one of these cans will last more than a year. For more on how to preserve wine, check out "Saving Your Leftovers (or, how Bear Dalton convinced me I'd been preserving my wine wrong for years!)."

Chalkboard table runners are fun to use at dinner parties or wine tastings. Write information about the wine, or which foods to pair with which wines, or let your guests write (or draw?) their impressions. As a bonus, the runner also protects the table from wine or food drips and spills. You need chalkboard markers to write on them. The markers go on wet (kind of like a paint pen, if you remember those), and need a few seconds to dry. Then the writing won't smudge. At the end of the night, wipe the chalkboard runner down with a damp paper towel (you may need to wipe a few times), and use it again and again. (You  can also see the aforementioned glasses in the pictures below.)


A fun and useful addition to any wine tasting party is the Wine Aroma Wheel.  It helps people identify what they're smelling in the wine.  It's fun at parties, but also for the serious wine student who wants to improve his ability to identify aromas.  An all-around great tool.


I enjoyed watching this film when it first came out, back when I was interested in wine but knew almost nothing about it.  I enjoyed it even more a few years later, after I had taken lots of wine classes.  It's entertaining, educational, and engages with one of the central issues of winemaking as the wine business becomes ever more globalized.

This film is also entertaining and interesting whether or not you know much about wine.  I wrote a full review of it here.

Happy shopping!

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 in new tab.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open link 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 62 Pumpkin Ales in Houston

(I update this list every time I taste a new pumpkin ale...Last updated January 12, 2018.)

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 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 and sorted alphabetically within each 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

**** Avery Rumpkin:  This pumpkin-spice ale is aged in rum barrels, so the aromas of rum and pumpkin dominate. On the palate it is thick, rich, smooth, and boozy, with a definite taste of spiced rum. The flavors are malty and slightly sweet, with honey and caramel, but without the cloying impression that some smoother, sweeter, high-alcohol beers have. Did I mention the high alcohol? Oh yeah, it's 18%. I almost docked it 1/2 a star because the finish is HOT, but then I realized this shouldn't be approached as beer. This should be approached like the Port or brandy you sip after dinner. It deserves that kind of time and attention.

**** Buffalo Bayou Pumpkin Spice Latte:  Solid aromas and flavors of pumpkin, spice, and creamy coffee.  A rich, thick stout that balances the sweet impression of the spice with just the right amount of hops and coffee-like bitterness.  The high alcohol content is also well balanced and integrated, so that it doesn't seem overly strong.  9% abv


**** 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 Pumpkinator (Imperial Pumpkin Stout) - This pumpkin stout is thick, dark, and strong, with lots of pumpkin and spice flavors.  It's ultra smooth with very little bitterness.  Absolutely delicious and disturbingly easy to drink.  Manages to be well balanced even though it's 10% 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 not widely available, but I tasted it at the Untapped beer and music festival at Discovery Green in 2014 and thought I might as well record my thoughts.  This is Pumpkinator aged in rum barrels, which complements the pumpkin stout beautifully, and it acquires quite a bit of rum flavor.  Incredibly good.  10% 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 Boulevard Funkier Pumpkin Spiced Sour Ale - This is the bottled conditioned version of "Funky Pumpkin" (reviewed below at ***). Aromas of pumpkin, spice, tart apples, with a yeasty/earthy impression from the bottle conditioning (which involves aging the beer on the dead yeast cells after fermentation). Pumpkin and spice flavors are present, but not strong, which works in this case because those flavors might otherwise fight with all the other things already going on in this beer. Some fruity/flavored sours are sweet, but this is dry. Overall complex, well-balanced, and darn yummy.  8.5% 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 pleasant 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 flavors.  8.7% abv

***1/2 Red Hook "Out of Your Gourd" Pumpkin Porter - The bottle describes it as "a dark ale brewed with pumpkin, spices, and maple syrup."  It's a great porter, with aromas and flavors of mostly coffee and maple syrup.  It's a 3.5-star beer overall, but I dropped it to 3 due to very slight pumpkin and spice flavors, but then bumped it back up to 3.5 for the maple flavor, which is a delicious addition. On a list of 50+ pumpkin ales, it's the only one to use maple syrup (that I know of), which is kind of amazing. 5.8% abv

***1/2 Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale - Very malty, light on the hops, with moderate pumpkin and spice flavors.  Good balance of strong and smooth and easy to drink.  Very nice, long finish.  Tastes a little stronger than the 6.1% abv listed on the bottle.  I love that they've listed every single ingredient on the label.

***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

***1/2 Whole Foods Market Brewing's Sweet Potato Pie Weizenbock - I'm cheating here, since this isn't a pumpkin ale, but sweet potato pie seemed close enough, and this stuff is seriously yummy. Tastes like sweet potatoes and spice.  Nice balance of malt and hops, a bit tangy, really well balanced, and dangerously easy to drink at 8.1% abv.

3 stars

*** Alaskan Pumpkin Ale - Easy on the pumpkin flavor, but a great balance of spices.  Smooth, malty, not too hoppy. It's not as rich or flavorful as some pumpkin ales, but it makes up for that by being extremely easy to drink. Not every pumpkin ale has to have a gimmick.  6% abv

*** 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

*** Anderson Valley "Fall Hornin'" Pumpkin Ale - Aromas of sweet spice dominate, but the palate is not too sweet. It's dark and malty, but also crisp, with detectable hops which stay on the right side of bitterness.  The pumpkin spice flavors are moderate, with more spice than pumpkin, and a definite impression of black coffee.  Nicely balanced.  6% abv

*** Anderson Valley "Pinchy Jeek Barl" Bourbon Barrel Pumpkin Ale - Aromas of caramel, vanilla, bourbon, and spice.  The flavor is smooth, malty, and boozy, but with a nice crispness, and not much hops.  The pumpkin and spice flavors are very subtle (mostly nutmeg), and the overall impression is like a brown ale, with a little smokiness on the finish due to the bourbon barrel aging. Nicely balanced. I probably would have given it another 1/2 a star if it had had more noticeable pumpkin or spice flavor.  8.5% abv

*** Avery "Gored" Pumpkin Ale - Aromas of pumpkin and apple, fruity on the nose and the palate, light on the spice, a bit of an earthy taste, malty but not sweet, with just enough hops for balance. Manages to give the smooth and thick impression that often comes from high alcohol, though the abv is only 5.3%.

*** Boulevard Funky Pumpkin Spiced Sour Ale - Aromas of tart sour apple, pumpkin, and a little spice.  On the palate it tastes like tart apple, citrus, a little pumpkin, and a lot of nutmeg.  It's crisp and refreshing, well balanced, and not very hoppy.  5.8% 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

*** Central City Beer's Patrick O'Pumpkin - Moderate pumpkin flavor and mild spice.  Malty more than hoppy, with hints of maple and smokiness and a great bourbon flavor that isn't too over powering or boozy.  Well balanced.  This is a 3 1/2-star beer overall, but I demoted it to 3 stars on this list because the pumpkin and spice flavors are so mild.  8% abv and 27 IBUs

*** 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.)


*** Cycler's Brewing Bonked Pumpkin - Light and refreshing with moderate pumpkin flavors, a lot of spice, and a little bit of vanilla. It has a great malty/hoppy balance, and everything works in harmony so that I wouldn't have guessed the abv is actually 9.5%.

*** Epic "Fermentation without Representation" Imperial Pumpkin Porter - Moderate pumpkin and spice flavors, with lots of coffee flavors. Good, but a little hoppy for my tastes.  8% abv

*** 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

*** Martin House Cuvee Pumpkin Latte - Aromas and flavors of pumpkin, vanilla, and lots of spice. Crisp and light, while also quite sweet and malty, almost maple-flavored. Easy on the hops. 5.2% abv

*** McAuslan Brewing's St. Ambroise Pumpkin - Aromas are sweet and malty, with pumpkin, spice, and molasses. Vanilla comes through strongly on the palate, along with the pumpkin and spice flavors and a hint of apple-like tartness. Smooth and not hoppy. I find it slightly over-carbonated, but then I'm more sensitive to carbonation than most. 5% 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

*** No Label Nightmare on 1st Street Imperial Pumpkin Ale (Off Label series) - Moderate pumpkin aromas and flavors, easy on the spice, hint of vanilla. Very smooth, toasty, and malty. The spice profile leans more toward ginger and nutmeg than cinnamon. Pretty well balanced, but still a little hot at 9.27% 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.  6.5% abv, 45 IBU

*** Stevens Point Brewery's Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale - Lots of pumpkin and spice, especially cinnamon, and heavy on the vanilla. Malty, but not too sweet, not very hoppy, well balanced. My only complaint is that while the spice flavor lasts a long time on the finish, the other flavors fall off somewhat suddenly, giving it a slightly thin impression.  But overall this is a good beer.  The alcohol is less noticeable than I expected at 7.5%.  10 IBUs


*** Strange Land Brewery "Headless Gentleman" Imperial Bourbon Pumpkin Porter - Aromas of coffee, chocolate, pumpkin, bourbon, and mild spice. Tastes spicier than it smells, like a strong, bourbon barrel aged porter, thick and boozy.  The spices lean more toward the strong and sharp (like ginger) than the sweet (like cinnamon).  The alcohol is a little more apparent than I'd prefer, but it's a good beer.  Bottle conditioning gives it some thick sediment. 8.9% abv and 41 IBUs.

*** Uinta's Crooked Line Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin - Moderate aromas of pumpkin and spice, with lots of malt, caramel, and vanilla.  This is malty without being sweet, but the oak impression and the high alcohol nearly take over the pumpkin and spice flavors.  It's very strong, but pretty well balanced for 10.3% abv.

*** Upslope Pumpkin Ale - Gives a stronger impression of pumpkin and vanilla than spice. The spice component is more ginger than cinnamon. This is hoppier than many, but overall very well balanced.  7.7% 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  Ballast Point Pumpkin Down - This is their "Piper Down" Scottish ale plus pumpkin.  The pumpkin flavor is present, along with lots of spice - especially ginger.  It's malty up front and hoppy on the finish.  I almost gave it 3 stars, but for the aftertaste, which is a combination of spicy ginger and bitter hops which I don't think works.  5.8%

**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 Breckenridge Brewery Pumpkin Spice Latte (Nitro) - This one was almost great: lovely coffee aroma, not too heavy, not too light, strongly flavored but easy to drink, nice lingering pumpkin/coffee finish. But it has two issues. First, the nitro effect leaves the beer too flat. I like less carbonated beers, but even I think it needs a few more bubbles. Second and less important, the spice flavor is very faint.  5.5% 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 Infamous Brewing Pumpkin Massacre - This dark ale has aromas of coffee, a hint of molasses and nuts, but not much pumpkin or spice. It's more lean and hoppy and less sweet than I expected.  I found it too bitter on the finish and slightly burnt tasting.  7.5% abv

**1/2 Jolly Pumpkin's La Parcela-#1 Pumpkin Ale - Ironically, the Jolly Pumpkin brewery (known for wild ales and sours) came a little late to the pumpkin ale party, but now it has arrived with this pumpkin sour. The good news: this is a great sour, with aromas/flavors of tart apple, orange peel, and grapefruit. It’s sour but not overly so, and hoppy without being too bitter. The disappointing news: the pumpkin flavor is very subtle, and the spice and cacao mentioned on the label are extremely faint. More pumpkin and spice would have been nice. The addition of cacao sounds fascinating, and though I’m not sure if a stronger cacao flavor would have worked, I wish they had given it a shot.  It's a 3-star beer overall, but since we're talking pumpkin ales, I docked it 1/2 a star for not being very pumpkiny.  5.9% abv

**1/2 New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin - Voodoo Ranger is New Belgium's Golden IPA, and here it's combined with cinnamon, habanero peppers, and of course pumpkin. The aroma is all sweet cinnamon. The taste up front is lightly malty and highly spiced. The malty-beer flavor drops off pretty quickly to give way to spice, spice, some heat, and more spice. The original IPA is quite fruity, and that fruitiness comes through. Speaking of the IPA, I expected more hoppiness, and maybe it's there, but I have trouble differentiating it from the habanero heat. This is a cool idea, and I mostly like it, but I can't help feeling that there's a better way to do it...  6.4% abv

**1/2  Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat - This reminds me a lot of Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin. The pumpkin and spice flavors are very mild. It's simple, easy to drink, and generally inoffensive. Though I haven't tasted them side by side, this seems hoppier than "Harvest Moon." Maybe a good place to start if you're not really into beer, or not sure if you like pumpkin ales.  5.1% abv

**1/2 Texas Big Beer Pumpkin Pie - As the label promises, this is definitely big and malty, with lots of pumpkin, vanilla, graham cracker, and nutmeg flavors.  I nearly gave it 3 stars - I really liked the initial flavors - except the aftertaste was weird.  It had an apple-citrus effect on the finish which I didn't like.  7.8% 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 flavor drops off suddenly on the finish.  5% abv  [This is an older review.  See below for an update for 2016.]

**1/2 Uinta Punk'n Pumpkin Ale - Tons of vanilla flavor, with moderate pumpkin and spice.  This ale is very smooth, and I think it needs something to balance the smooth, malty, vanilla more hops, or spice, or tartness, or ... something ...  One cool innovation is the labeling on the can that tells you what the beer will taste like in terms of hops, malt, body, and color.  I LOVE this idea.  [This review is from 2016. This may be a reformulation of the beer reviewed above.]

2 stars

** Sam Adams "20 Pounds of Pumpkin" - This begins with a pleasant aroma of sweet spice and pumpkin. The flavors are moderately pumpkiny and spicy, with more malt flavor than hops. Unfortunately, it has an unpleasant bitterness on the finish and leaves a bad aftertaste.  5.7% abv  [This review is from 2016.  This may be a reformulation of the "Sam Adams Pumpkin Batch" reviewed below.]

** Sam Adams Pumpkin Batch - Aroma of pumpkin with a hint of wet dog. Very little spice. I nearly gave this 2 1/2 stars, but I also found it too hoppy for a pumpkin ale, and the impression of alcohol was stronger than it should have been for a beer with 5.6% abv.  [This review is from 2015. The review of "Sam Adams 20 Pounds of Pumpkin" from 2016 may be the reformulation of this beer.]

1 1/2 stars

*1/2  Leinenkugel's Harvest Patch Shandy and Traveler Pumpkin Shandy - I'm combining these because they're the only shandies on this list, and I disliked both of them. I'm not a shandy fan - I usually find them too sweet - but I have had shandies in the past that tasted good.  These don't. The Leinenkugel has a nice aroma of pumpkin, spice, and apple, and tastes like vanilla and cinnamon. This sounds promising, but the flavor is cloying instead of crisp, it's overly carbonated, and has a bad aftertaste.  (4.2% abv)  The Traveler shandy also has a nice aroma (pumpkin, cinnamon, hint of graham cracker) and a decent taste up front, but finishes like cream soda with a hint of citrus.  (4.4% abv)  Both shandies are only slightly sweet.  I couldn't drink more than a few sips of either one, but if forced to choose, I'd pick the Traveler as the lesser of two evils.


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!