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