In Part Two, we will look at the various types and classes of wines with tips on how to find the right wines for you! Miss Part One? Find it here!
The most important step in appreciating wine is to find those that you like. The best way to do that is to try a variety of widely available types AND keep notes on the wines (good and the not-so-good so you don’t repeat a bad learning experience).
If you have the opportunity, an excellent approach to this is to do a leisurely tour through the wine producing areas along the West Coast where wine tasting and advice are readily available at many of the vineyards and wine shops. A bonus is that most of these wine making areas, such as Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Willamette, Applegate, Columbia Gorge, are beautifully scenic destinations even without the wine. For many folks however the best way is to find when local wine shops are hosting tastings and sign up.
Once you narrow down the types of wine you enjoy, then you can focus on a range of vintners who make that type and explore further. One caveat however; do not put too much belief in the flowery, over-the-top descriptions you see on some wine labels. Often grandiose statements may exceed the actual quality and many very good wines have very understated label descriptions. That said, there are a couple of topics to touch on before we get into more detailed comments on specific wine types.
It used to be that blends were almost a total shot in the dark. The combined wines may have been difficult to market as varietals (individual grape types) or were the leftovers at the end of the season. Fortunately this has changed and blends now almost always represent combinations chosen by the winemaker for their ability to compliment each other and create a desired taste that isn’t accomplished by a single type of wine. In particular, the diversity of red wines results in many blends that are more balanced and drinkable than the individual wines that make it up.
An excellent example of this is the blend referred to as Super Tuscan. This blend is usually made of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon and is very pleasant when compared with the possibly over-bearing taste of either individual wine. There are some white wine blends and occasionally you can find a red & white blend (usually the white is in the minority and is there to “tone-down” a stronger red combination). Most blends will identify the wines on the label and some will provide the percentages of the specific wines. This is where having some experience with specific wine/grape types (varietals) comes in handy as you can look at the components of a blend and develop an idea of what sort of finished product is likely to come out of the bottle. Be aware that blends from a particular vintner are likely to change from one season to the next. That doesn’t mean that this year’s blend isn’t as good as last year’s but it is not a bad idea to stock up when you find a blend that you really like. Don’t let the usually lower price of blends convince you that they are not worth trying. There are some wonderful blended red ‘table wines’ that are a true pleasure.
The pale red/pink color usually associated with the group of wines referred to as Rose (Blush, Pink, Rosato, White Zinfandel are other terms) is mainly due to the limited time that the wine is exposed to the dark red skin of the grape. These wines come from a wide variety of grapes and accordingly there is a wide variety of tastes. Grenache and Muscat usually result in good rose wines for starters. Pinot Noir Rose is quite excellent and matches well with Asian foods but the supply seems to be limited. Some European rose wines obtain the light color via combinations of red and white wines but that is the exception to the rule. Rose wines can be quite dry or can be slightly sweet. They go best with lighter foods or appetizers and are overall quite easy to enjoy.
Items such as Port wines, Dessert wines, some aperitif etc. usually share some of the common wine types but require very specific steps in manufacture that go beyond this blog’s content.
Red wines are usually robust, come from warmer climates and often require concurrent food to balance the fullness of the wine. For instance, it would be difficult to drink a Chianti Classico without a nice plate of hearty pasta. There are some reds however that can be appreciated with little or no food. A little dark chocolate with a smooth Cabernet Sauvignon can be a wonderful experience. Overall reds have much more of a ‘nose’ than whites and should be served around 60 degrees to help the aromatics reach full bloom. There are truly a myriad of red grape types and wines. Most of them appear mainly as part of the mixture in red blends and in many cases it is rare to find a bottle containing just that one varietal. Below is brief compilation of those grapes/wines that are often marketed containing only (at least 75%) that one type of grape. Sampling these is a good way to develop an appreciation for the amazing variety that is easily available.
Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon—these are often considered the best of the reds however there is a lot of variation in specific flavors (cherry, light oak, plum—etc) so start slow with these because the paths and prices go in many directions, change from one year to the next and vary from one vintner to the one next door. Cabernet Franc is often used in blends and is a little difficult to find as a varietal but if you do find one consider giving it a try. Cab Franc routinely has a higher tannin content and a full-bodied flavor with some floral and coffee notes. Cabernet Sauvignon exhibits more taste variety often with cherry and herb being present. Usually a deep red/purple color with often a bold flavor, concurrent food is suggested to balance the wine. You will also see it used in red blends. California pretty consistently produces very good Cab Sauvignon but don’t overlook bottles from Chile. Pinot Noir has a reputation for being a difficult wine to successfully produce. However, when all the stars align, Pinot Noir is a wonderfully complex but delicate wine that is very easy on the palate. Over the past several years Oregon has become widely recognized as making being some of the best Pinot Noir to be found. This is a varietal truly worth trying.
Temparillo, Sangiovese, Grenache—most of these started in warm Mediterranean climates but are now produced in some West Coast areas also. These are usually dry (not sweet), pretty consistent in taste from one vintner to the next and complement many types of appetizers and main meals. Temparillo and Sangiovese go well with Spanish and Italian foods. Grenache, which usually has more fruit and spices, pairs well with many types of cheese and foods. There are blends of some of these that end up being wonderful, hearty wines (ex. Super Tuscan). Overall, these wines are easy to enjoy and usually inexpensive—always have a bottle or two.
Malbec, Syrah (Shiraz), Merlot, Zinfandel—overall these are considered more fruity that other reds and exhibit a fair amount of variety. Since Malbec in particular can be a little on the brutal side of elegant it does usually go well with red meat but is most often used in blends. Merlot (particularly from Washington) can be quite tasty and goes with just about everything but usually does not have the complexity or body of a good Cabernet Sauvignon. Fruit, berries and pepper are usually part of the full-bodied Syrah taste which is consistently enjoyable. Zinfandel has been produced in California for quite a while and certain pride is taken in ‘old vine’ Zin. Often the alcohol content is on the high side (above 15%) which in combination with the peppery raspberry taste results in a seriously bold but drinkable wine. In addition to West Coast producers of these, Argentina, Chile and Australia are also into the market with the wines from down-under usually being of good quality and an excellent value.
White wines are often easily consumed with cheese, a little food or solo. Many whites are sweet but do not qualify as Dessert wines because the sweetness is not quite that intense. These are more often found in cooler climates but some whites are produced in vineyards alongside reds. When you want to avoid the possibility of a red wine dominating a meal, consider a white. It is more likely that a bottle of white will be entirely consumed during a meal than a bottle of red simply because it is often very easy to drink. Look for a semi-dry white if you want less sweet in your glass. Also, some whites are made totally without exposure to oak which results in a wonderfully clean, refreshing wine.
Riesling, Gerwurztraminer, Moscato (Muscat)—these are the traditional light, sweet or slightly sweet whites with roots going back to Europe. The first 2 usually go well with just about anything short of red meat or pasta. Most of the West Coast Riesling now seems to come from Washington and Oregon—probably associated with the cooler climate compared to California. You can find Riesling that is dry (not sweet) but most will be on the sweet side. Expect brightness, peach undertones and a very clean taste as these are not usually oaked. Overall it is best to chill these to around 50-55 degrees before serving. It now seems very difficult to find a bad West Coast Riesling so this is a good category to trust. Gerwurztraminer is usually floral with a spicy crispness that goes well with foods that are spiced (ex. Asian dishes). Moscato is similar in many ways to Riesling but has gained positive comments only relatively recently. It is routinely very drinkable and goes down well on hot days and mixed with your favorite soda. There is an Italian version (Moscato D’Asti) that is slightly effervescent and excellent with pasta or salad. If we could have only one wine in our house the chances are it would be a Riesling or perhaps Italian Moscato. Even though a wine purist may tell you Alsace or Germany are the only sources, you can find expensive Riesling and Gerwurztraminer here but there is little reason to pay more than $10 or so for a highly satisfactory bottle from the Northwest.
Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay,Viognier, Pinot Gris (Grigio)—these are the non-sweet whites and can range from superb to cooking material, so if you find one you like hold onto it. Sauvignon Blanc in particular can be ho-hum or can be the wine of the angels. Sometimes a Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay will have a buttery smoothness that few other types of wine can achieve—that is a special taste but rare and likely to be a little expensive. Chardonnay is usually aged in oak while Sauvignon Blanc tends to have oak taste. Often these will have apple or lemon undertones and go well with fish or other light foods. Some very good Sauvignon Blancs are made in central France. For instance, Sancerre is named after the region where it is grown and is an excellent Sauvignon Blanc for a start. Viognier is often aromatic with floral notes and a peachy flavor. However, Vigonier seems to be a little difficult to produce and can end up with a bitter taste. Pinot Gris tends to be more fruity and dry but is usually less enjoyable than Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay . Both Vigonier and Pinot Gris are used in blends and can be used with light meals or snacks. They are becoming widely available and are not expensive.
But Wait…There’s More!
Charles O’Rear has a website at www.wineviews.com with some great photography and books from Napa Valley, California.
Southern Oregon has become a wine producer in its own right. Find out more at the website for the Southern Oregon Winery Association at www.sorwa.org
The Wine Enthusiast at wineenthusiast.com is an excellent information source with extensive wine reviews
Bottle Shock is a delightful 2008 film starring Alan Rickman covering the 1976 wine competition termed the “Judgment of Paris”, when California wine defeated French wine in a blind taste test. This resoundingly brought California wines to the attention of the world.
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