Exploring

Exploring Sonoma: One Winery at a Time

Last month, we took a weekend to escape from cloudy Walla Walla for a trip to 65-degrees-and-sunny Sonoma! I’m going to be honest- I’ve never actually been tasting in California before, and the astonishing amount of wineries and AVAs in the state kind of boggle my mind.  I like to keep my eye on what’s going on in California wineries through blogs and Wine Spectator, but the idea of narrowing our options down to just three wineries to visit made me realize how much I don’t know about California wineries! Luckily, I had a few tasters come into the winery in the weeks leading up to the trip, and I managed to wrangle some recommendations out of them. And by “some”, I mean a whole page full of winery names, so I had to do some digging to figure out which wineries would be the most exciting for us.

MacLaren Winery was the first winery we went to, and I think it ended up being our favorite of the trip. Cool-climate Syrahs, several single-vineyard offerings, and really elegant food wines. Steve Law, the owner and winemaker, is from Scotland, but spent 10 years in France learning to love wine before moving to Sonoma to make it himself. He doesn’t make much, 1000 cases at most, and it’s almost all Syrah. I love how different these Syrahs are from hot weather Walla Walla; it’s amazing how much climate impacts the taste of wine.

Next, we went to Loxton Winesrecommended to us by some Sonoma wine folks who we ran into in Walla Walla. Also a small winery, Chris Loxton focuses on Syrahs and Zinfandels; we liked the Zin the best (partly because we almost never see it here in Walla Walla). After MacLaren’s wines, these seemed really fruity and almost unbalanced compared to the high acidity of his Syrahs.

Our last stop of the day was Kunde Family Estate, a much larger winery than the first two we stopped at. The tasting room was crowded, and it was harder to get the attention of the tasting room staff, but eventually we got settled at the bar. Kunde owns a lot of vineyard, and their wine was very pleasant- maybe not special occasion wines, but very drinkable.

We also had lunch at The Girl and the Figwhich was super busy (a good sign, right?). I had their Moules-Frites (delicious!), and everyone else’s food looked great, too.

We’re headed back to Sonoma in two weeks; what is the one winery we should definitely not skip? 

vouvray jpg

The Sexiest-Sounding Region is Vouvray: Some Facts

I really like the way the name Vouvray sounds. I feel like if you walked into a restaurant and said “I’ll have a glass of Vouvray, please,” you would sound like the sexiest and classiest person at the restaurant, which is why I’ll be ordering Vouvray at all the restaurants from now on.

Some notes from our Vouvray tasting group meeting earlier this week: “It smells like a lawnmower. It’s like someone mowing the lawn and smoking a cigarette.” “It smells like someone mowing the lawn and smoking a cigarette and drinking lemonade at the same time. On a hot day.” What we concluded was that Vouvray has a distinct diesel/gasoline smell to it, and often a citrusy and slightly grassy or herbal smell as well. It wasn’t bad, it was just very distinctive.

Vouvray is a wine region in the Loire Valley. In the upper-middle part of France, southwest of Paris, Vouvray is a well-known regions for white wines. Almost all the wines that come from this region are Chenin Blanc, and they’re often off-dry and sometimes sparkling. Chenin Blanc is pretty acidic, which balances out any sweetness to the wines, and makes a great pairing with spicy foods or seafood. The soil of the region brings out very minerally notes in the wines, which we noticed in our tasting. The cooler climate in the Loire produces wines with higher acidity, and cooler years tend to produce drier Vouvrays while warmer years produce sweeter ones.

We tasted five different Vouvrays (okay, four Vouvrays and one Walla Walla Chenin Blanc for comparison), and they were a wide range of sugar levels. The favorite seemed to be the off-dry Vouvray with lots of acidity and lemon notes, while many people liked the completely dry Chenin Blanc from Walla Walla. Sometime, we’ll have to do a tasting of Savennièreswhich is a regions that specializes in dry Chenin Blancs.

Drink Vouvray with dishes with rich, flavorful sauces, seafood fettucine alfredo, crab cakes, coconut curry, salty cheeses, or duck. I voted for the crab cakes, but no one brought me any.

Does anyone have Vouvray stories? If not, just start saying the word frequently, and stories will happen. 

Sparklingsmall

Bubbly 101

This post would probably have been better before Christmas and New Year’s, since sparkling wines have their peak sales then, but I’m on board the all-year-bubbly train, so I’m writing it now. There isn’t a whole lot of sparkling wine in Walla Walla, because most wineries don’t own the equipment needed to make sparkling wines. Castillo de Feliciana and Isenhower Cellars are the two local wineries that make a limited release sparkling wine, and Treveri Cellars in Yakima, WA is a well-known sparkling wine house in the state. Maybe I can blame it on the lack of local bubbly, but for the longest time, I was a part of the champagne-at-NYE-only crowd; champagne labels confused me (“sec”, “demi-sec”, “brut”- mystifying!), and most of the people I knew were drinking bottom-shelf Andre’s, which was clearly not quality sparkling material, even to my untrained palate. But slowly, I’ve been coming out of my still-wine shell and discovering lots of great and inexpensive bubbly wines!

The very first thing I want to clear up is all the terminology that comes along with sparkling wine. When I learned myself a little bit about the terms, I found it a lot easier to pick out a sparkling wine from the many choices. Here’s a little glossary of words I’m glad I know:

methode champenoise/methode traditionelle: If one of these phrases appears on the label, this wine was made in the style traditionally used in the Champagne region of France; the wine goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle, creating bubbles. This is the most expensive method of making sparkling wine. Champagne (sparkling wine made in the Champagne region) and Cava (sparkling wine made in Spain) are fermented with this method.

charmat: This is a different method of creating sparkling wine; the wine goes through secondary fermentation in a tank, creating bubbles, and is then transferred into bottles. This method is less expensive, but can produce some really great value sparkling wines. Many proseccos are done in this method, as well as a lot of the value priced sparkling wines all over the world.

Champagne: Sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France, typically out of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Cava: Sparkling wine made in Spain, typically out of Xarello, Macabeo, and Parellada.

Prosecco: Sparkling wine made from the prosecco grape in Italy.

Cremant: A sparkling wine from a specific region and specific grapes in France; for instance, “Cremant de Limoux”, which is made with Mauzac grapes in the Limoux region, or “Cremant de la Loire” , which is mainly Cab Franc or Chenin Blanc from the Loire region. These wines are highly regulated: only 7 Cremants are recognized in France.

The next most confusing thing about sparkling wine is, for me, the sweetness level. From driest to sweetest, it goes:

Extra Brut/Brut Nature

Brut

Sec/Dry

Demi-Sec/Off Dry

Doux

I personally prefer Brut sparkling wines; I like a little bit of sweetness to round it out, but not enough to be  a sweet wine. Many people will say they like only the driest, but I’m willing to bet that Extra Brut/Brut Nature, with no sugar at all, is a little too tart for many palates.

What to eat with sparkling wines? Depends on the sugar levels! The driest sparkling wines will be light and lean, with great acidity: perfect with spicy foods or creamy sauces. Seafood fettucine alfredo, coconut milk curry, or brie would be great with these sparklers. Brut or Sec would be great with some cheeses as an aperitif, or some light finger foods like crostini with an olive tapenade. The sweet sparkling wines go really well with dessert; sweet foods will make dry wines taste sour, so pour some demi-sec bubbly to go with cake or strawberries and cream!

Now we can all go peruse our local sparkling wine shelf at the grocery store and come back with a better idea of what we’re getting ourselves into!

frosty vines

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone’s holiday season has been great! In the past 10 days, I have driven across a mountain pass at night in the snow, drank more sparkling wine in one week than I have in the last few months, given a lot of gifts, gotten a lot of gifts, seen more of my relatives than I have in two years, lost a cocktail contest, been invited on a trip to Napa in 2014, gotten lost on the way to a tea shop thanks to my sister, and read two murder mysteries, and it’s not even New Year’s yet!

Wines I tried at least a sip of over Christmas:

2008 Owen Roe Pinot Noir

2010 Soos Creek Artist Series

NV Lini Lambrusco Rosso

2004 Canoe Ridge Merlot

2008 Rotie VdP

2009 Rotie Southern Blend

NV Torre Oria Cava

NV Domaine Collin Cremant de Limoux

NV German Gilbert Cava Rosat

2010 Fielding Hills Cab Franc

2009 Olsen Estates Edythe May Syrah

2009 (?) Columbia Crest H3 Chardonnay

and an unidentified Italian white wine that we found hiding in my mom’s cellar, after she claimed to have no white wines at all

And now I’m back in Walla Walla and waking up to the residue of freezing fog all over the trees and vines! Now, what’s everyone drinking for New Year’s?

hostess

The Art of the Hostess Gift: 5 Tips for Wine Gifts

The season of holiday parties is upon us, and that means the season of hostess gifts is also here! It wasn’t until after college that I started bringing hostess gifts on a regular basis (and no, bringing wine to a BYOB party doesn’t count!), but now I like to take a bottle of wine whenever I show up at someone’s house for any kind of event. Events that you might consider bringing a hostess gift to: dinner parties, housewarming parties, holiday parties, anytime you’re staying overnight at someone’s home, or if someone treats you to an especially nice dinner out. 

1. Stick to your budget. Don’t go all out bringing your hosts $30 or $40 bottles of wine if you’re on a $10 bottle of wine budget. There are plenty of decent $10 bottles out there. Try some inexpensive imported wines, like Spanish Riojas, Argentinean Malbecs, or Chilean Carmeneres. Something out of the ordinary will make an impression without costing a fortune.

2. The nicer the event, the nicer the hostess gift. If you’ve been invited for a weekend stay where your hosts are spending a lot of time and/or money to entertain you and show you around, think about cutting back on some other expenses and taking a nicer bottle of wine. If you’re on a budget, maybe spring for a $20 bottle, and if you’re a little less on a budget, think about putting down $30 for a hidden gem. Here in Walla Walla, you can get some great local wines for just about $30 a bottle, although you might have to search a little more if you’re not located in a prime wine region.

3. Bring a bottle they’ll enjoy. Bring wine that your hosts like, not wine that you like. If your hosts like sweet wines, now is not the time to push some excellent red wines on them. Take them a bottle of Moscato or a sweeter Riesling, and they’ll appreciate it a lot more than a pricey bottle they’ll never drink.

4. Don’t bring a chilled wine. This has been a pretty standard rule of hostess gifts for a long time. Bringing a chilled bottle indicates that you expect it to be served at the event, when it should be a gift for your hosts to enjoy later.

5. When you find a great hostess gift, stock up. If you find a wine that’s a good price, buy a whole case; many retailers and wineries will give a discount when you buy a case (12 bottles) or more of a single wine. The next time you have a party to go to, grab a bottle from the case, and you’re ready to go! I’ve been thinking lately about buying a case of inexpensive sparkling wine (like Blanquette de Limoux) so I’m ready to go whenever a holiday party comes up!

Have fun this holiday season, and be sure to thank your hosts, who are probably just as stressed out as you are!

Kicking off the Bubbly Season: Blanquette de Limoux

antech blanquette de limoux

Remember when I jumped on the bandwagon and paired sparkling wine with everything? I’m doing it again! I’ve been buying (and drinking) quite a bit of sparkling wine recently; during the holidays, every wine store and grocery store beefs up their sparkling wine section. Apparently, the holiday season is when the majority of sparkling wine sales happen; Champagne did such a good job convincing everyone that they were the go-to celebration wine that they forgot to market themselves year round! That’s changing now, with a little push from sparkling wine producers,  but clearly the stores expect everyone to buy their bubbly now.

One of my favorite inexpensive sparkling wines is Blanquette de Limoux, which is a sparkling wine made from the Mauzac grape in the Limoux region in southwest France. A fraction of the price of true Champagne, Blanquette de Limoux is tasty and festive, with a range of different producers to try out!

We went to a bubbly tasting recently, and picked up this nice little bottle of Antech Blanquette de Limoux “Nature” Brut, which was their driest style. It set us back about $13, and while it wasn’t quite as good as the $45 bottles of Champagne we tasted, we thought that it was a great bang for your buck. It went really well with our spaghetti squash dinner, for an easy, but festive meal. The lightness of this super dry bubbly really offset the garlicky, olive-oily spaghetti squash (delicious), and made this super-easy dinner feel kind of special!

 

Easy Spaghetti Squash Dinner

Cut your spaghetti Squash in half. Scoop out the layer of seeds.

Drizzle with olive oil and springle with chopped garlic

Roast the squash at 375 degrees for an hour or so, until soft and slightly browning

Use a fork to fluff out the spaghetti-like strands, scoop them into a bowl, drizzle with more olive oil, and add salt and pepper to taste

Pop the Blanquette!

Know Your Grapes: Tempranillo

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jabbarman/4053714843/
photo by bongo vongo via flikr

Tempranillo is one of those grapes that I know a little about, but that I rarely drink.  It’s not as common in Walla Walla, although I can think of four or five wineries off the top of my head that have one. It’s definitely not as ubiquitous as Syrah in this region. I think some people thought  it was going to be the next big thing in the US for wine varieties, but then Malbec kind of took over (probably because it’s easier to pronounce). In the spirit of learning, we themed our tasting group around Tempranillo this week! We ended up with three Washington Tempranillos and one Rioja. 

Tempranillo is a grape that’s mostly associated with the Rioja region in Spain; while Rioja grows other varieties as well, Tempranillo is the predominant grape. There is some Tempranillo in the US as well; as evidenced by the five or so wineries here in Walla Walla that produce it!

Mostly Tempranillo is considered to be a pretty tannic wine, although winemakers can make it more drinkable right away, depending on their winemaking method. I’ve been shopping around for Tempranillo on some online wine stores, and there are some older Rioja Tempranillos available for pretty decent prices; if you’re into mellower wines, these will probably be the Tempranillos to check out!

What does Tempranillo taste like? At the tasting, the common thread seemed to be a spicy kick to all the Tempranillos. Some of them were more baking spicy (like nutmeg) and some leaned more towards hot spicy (like chipotle and paprika). Tempranillos are often pretty fruity as well, and some of the Walla Walla bottles had some of the meatiness that characterizes a lot of Walla Walla wines. Mostly, they seemed to be medium-bodied with moderate acidity and fairly high tannin.

What to eat with Tempranillo: Because it’s so bold, Tempranillo can really stand up to some heartier dishes; a spicy nut mix or bean dip for appetizers, and maybe a spicy chili for a main dish or rice with chorizo!

What are your favorite Tempranillos? This is a grape I’d like to explore more!

Wine gets Sciencey: Oak Flavors

wine tastine 101

This morning, I attended a seminar called “Oak Aromas: Bridging Analysis and Sensory”, and it was really cool. I’ve known for a long time that wine, while obviously an art, is hugely about science (chemistry students, don’t overlook winemaking as your career!), but I’ve never delved much into the chemistry components of wine myself. Today, we talked a lot about the different aroma compounds in wine barrels that give oaked wines some very distinctive smells and how labs can isolate and measure how much of each compound is present in a particular wine.

So, remember when we talked about oak barrels and what flavors you might find in oaked wineIt turns out that scientifically, all those flavors are very much present. The compounds that give, say, vanilla and cloves their aromas are also present in the oak barrels, so those specific smells can be detected in wines that have been aged in oak long enough. French oak has a different composition than, say, American oak, so the wines will smell different depending on which type of oak a winemaker uses.

Different compounds are released at different temperatures, so toasting the inside of a barrel will release different flavors as well. If one cooper (barrel maker) toasts her barrels at a lower temperature, the barrels will have a different flavor than those of the cooper up the road who toasts his barrels at a higher temperature. 

I think it’s fascinating that there are chemical reasons why we smell or taste the flavors we do in wine; I’ve always thought that everyone tastes or smells something a little different in each wine. I’m not convinced this isn’t the case; people could have different thresholds at which they sense each compound, and wine is pretty complex, so there’s no saying how each component is mixing with the others. I also firmly believe that everyone has different associations with aromas; I might smell cherry while someone else associates that same smell with strawberries.

I love working in the wine industry because I learn so much all the time! Between all the varieties, wine regions, and wine science, I feel like I will never run out of things to learn!

Tasting Group: Syrahs from All Over

syrahs

I’ve recently started a tasting group with a few other wine industry folks interested in tasting and learning about all sorts of wine, and especially interested in expanding our palates beyond just Walla Walla wines: something I’ve been interested in for awhile now. We recently had our first real tasting, and we decided to theme it around Syrah; it’s a Walla Walla favorite, is grown in many very different wine regions around the world, and is extremely easy to get your hands on in Walla Walla. 

We ended up with three different Syrahs from three different regions. This tasting was awesome because each wine was so incredibly distinct (and also one of them was faintly corked and started smelling mustier and mustier the longer it was open).

We tasted:

2002 The Gate, McLaren Vale, Australia (very plummy, more dried fruit than fresh fruit, but definitely still drinkable. I thought for sure this would be way past its prime, but I very much enjoyed it. Less savory than the other two)

2011 Saint Cosmes, Cotes du Rhone, France (this was the corked one; it tasted pretty good for the first few minutes, and then it started smelling like musty basement. When it was first opened, it had some nice cherry and wet stone notes)

2011 Sleight of Hand “The Funkadelic”, Walla Walla Valley (funky, earthy, meaty; I love Syrahs like these that have some great savory notes to them. Definitely the boldest of the three)

I also really enjoyed getting to taste the difference between old and young Syrah; the 2002 was more dried cherry and plum, while the younger ones were brighter fruit and some really nice smoked meat and olive notes (particularly the Funkadelic, which is made from an area of vineyards known for being earthy and funky and was designed to be that way during the winemaking process). All in all, it was really fun to get to experience three completely different wines made from the same grape.

Our next varietal will be Temperanillo! Can anyone recommend a good Temperanillo for me to bring to the next tasting?

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