- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
In the early 1940s the American publisher and sustainable-farming pioneer, J.I. Rodale coined the term “Organic,” but some 20 years earlier, an Austrian anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner, had already developed the philosophical, theoretical, and practical underpinnings of yet another holistic approach to sustainable agriculture: Biodynamics.
Biodynamics views farms or vineyards as self-sustaining organisms that thrive within the larger surrounding ecosystem. Moving the concept of organics to the next level, Biodynamics demands the best holistic farming practices, but coupled with a strong focus on the vibrant seasonal rhythms of the earth and cosmos. All synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are prohibited, replaced with homeopathic concoctions that feature cow and horse manure, hay and vegetable compost, and seasonally specific mixtures of medicinal herbs, roots, and tree bark (including yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, valerian, and horsetail, among many others). The idea is that such an approach to agriculture will result in healthy plants and animals while enhancing soil fertility.
While most practitioners of Biodynamics are found on farms and vineyards in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, there is growing interest in this approach in the United States, particularly in the American wine industry. Biodynamic farms and vineyard sites are certified by the Demeter Association, founded in Europe in 1928, and whose domestic outpost is in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Demeter is the name of the Greek goddess of agriculture, derived from “Da Meter,” meaning The Mother. The first Biodynamic farm in the US was certified in 1982. Biodynamic certification standards are stricter than organic certification, especially when it comes to soil additives and treatments. Unique aspects of Demeter certification include:
• maintenance of a healthy, diverse ecosystem on the farm or vineyard site;
• use of Biodynamic preparations to build soil health;
• integration of livestock into the farming system, with a requirement that at least 80% of livestock feed be produced from farm soils;
• prohibition of genetically engineered plant materials and organisms.
THE FATHER OF BIODYNAMIC VITICULTURE in the United States is an energetic, enthusiastic and successful 60 year old wine producer, practicing what he preaches in his vineyards. An indefatigable and true believer, he has written books and articles, lectured to groups large and small, and is considered the authority on theory and practice for the growing number of Biodynamic grape growers and winemakers in California and Oregon. His name is Nicolas Joly, and he is not from the Napa Valley, but from the Loire Valley. That’s in France.
How is it that the man who is so inspiring to eco-conscious winemakers in the US comes from the fabled and recently much-maligned land of Gauloises smokers, foie gras lovers, cheese eaters, and white wine drinkers? Nicolas Joly and his family own one of the truly great white wine vineyards in the entire world, Coulée de Serrant, in the Loire Valley village of Savennières, planted exclusively in Chenin Blanc grapes. First planted by Cistercian monks in 1130, and with the ancient monastery still on the grounds of the estate, Coulée de Serrant is a perfect prototype for biodynamic viticulture.
In the mid 1970s French agricultural agents told Nicolas Joly, who wanted to improve the wines of Coulée de Serrant, that his family’s approach to viticulture was archaic, and that they he should adopt the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides. Joly, a former banker who felt that his family must join the modern age, embraced this high-tech approach to growing grapes, a decision that he soon regretted.
Joly noticed that the color of the soils changed, and that the birds, animals, and beneficial insects abandoned Coulée de Serrant. The vineyard had lost its life, and Nicolas Joly began his search for alternatives to compacting the soil with chemicals. In 1984, after much research and vineyard trials, he found what he was looking for in Biodynamics. After just five years of growing vines on his 30 acre estate using a Biodynamic regimen of crop rotation, pruning, composting, and preparing site and season-specific soil and photosynthesis-enriching herbal infusions, Joly “began to see nature reborn.”
In 1999 Nicolas Joly published Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wine (Acres USA), which describes his personal journey with biodynamic viticulture. It is an inspiring and honest book that has become the bible for the biodynamic wine movement (Joly’s current essays can be found at www.coulee-de-serrant.com).
In the United States the most visible and activist certified Biodynamic winery is the Sonoma-based Benziger Family Winery, whose president, Mike Benziger is a tireless and passionate spokesperson for the Biodynamic movement in the vineyards of California’s North Coast appellations. Other Demeter-certified vineyards in California are the Frey vineyards and the McNab Ranch in Mendocino County, as well as Ceago vineyards in Lake County. The McNab and Ceago properties are owned by members of the Fetzer family, early advocates of organic viticulture. Bonterra, the large wine producer that grows certified organic grapes, acquired an earlier certified Ceago/Fetzer project in Mendocino and plans to continue to grow the grapes biodynamically. The relatively new Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast is a serious biodynamic project, though not yet Demeter-certified. In the Pacific Northwest, Cooper Mountain Vineyards and Winery is leading the way as Oregon’s only certified Biodynamic growers and producers. Several other growers and producers are taking a serious look at Biodynamics and have begun to utilize Biodynamic practices in their vineyards, and some have begun the three year mandatory transition period that precedes Demeter certification.
On June 14th in New York City I attended the first-ever tasting of Biodynamic wines from all over the world. More than 70 wineries were represented, and many of the principals were there, including Nicolas Joly and Mike Benziger. I had been awaiting this tasting with great anticipation, and can report that the tasting exceeded even my highest expectations.
What did I expect from these wines, made from grapes that were grown in balance with Cosmic Forces? Would I see God, or should I bring someone to talk me down from my levitating lotus? Would I experience Syrah Satori, taste Mindbending Merlot, or meet the Shaman of Chardonnay?
Of course not, but I did expect the wines to be delicious. I was not looking for the world’s greatest wine, because I never look for that and probably wouldn’t know it if I tasted it. What I was hoping to discover in a glass of Biodynamic wine is what I always look for in every fine wine: passion.
I found passion aplenty at the Biodynamic tasting; one wine more exquisite than the next. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised, as these growers and producers started at a very high level, none of them thinking of wine as a commodity, and all of them wishing to express the fragile sense of place in their wines.
Some of the standouts:
from the United States: Mike Benziger premiered his family’s first Demeter-certified Biodynamic wine: Tribute, Sonoma Mountain Estate, 2001. A Cabernet-based blend, Tribute is a deliciously complex and age-worthy wine, with a deep and earthy soul. Araujo Estate showed two lovely wines from its Eisele Vineyard located in the Napa Valley just east of Calistoga: Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 and Sauvignon Blanc 2002. Cooper Mountain Vineyards offered wines from the North Willamette Valley. I liked the Reserve Pinot Gris 2003 and the Five Elements Series Doctors Reserve Pinot Noir 2000. Jim Fetzer’s Ceago Estate was represented by a fine “Camp Masut” Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 and a juicy, lively “Kathleen’s Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc 2003.
France: With 45 selections at the tasting, France dominated this event, offering some outstanding wines. Some of the gems included:
from Champagne: Fleury Millésime 1996, Rosé Brut NV, and Cuvée Robert Fleury NV; Larmandier Bernier Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru NV and Extra Brut Vielle Vignes Grand Cru Cramant 1999.
from Alsace: Domaine Pierre Frick Pinot Blanc “Cuvée Précieuse” 2000; Domaine Marcel Deiss Riesling Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim 2001 and a Riesling/Gewürztraminer/Pinot Gris blend Grand Cru Schoenenbourg 2001; Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling Rangen Clos Saint-Urbain 2001 and Pinot Gris Heimbourg 2001; Martin Schaetzel Gewürztraminer Kaefferhopf Cuvée Catherine 2001; Marc Tempé Pinot Blanc Zellenberg 2001 and Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles Grand Cru Mambourg 1998; Domaine Kreydenweiss Pinot Gris Moenchberg 2002; Domaine Ostertag Gewürztraminer Vendange Tardive Fronholz 2001.
from the Loire Valley: Château de Sourande Quarts du Chaume 2001; Château Tour Grise Saumur Blanc Amandiers 2002; La Coulée de Serrant 2002 and Savennieres 2002; Domaine de l’Ecu Bossard Muscadet de Sevre et Maine Sur Lie 2003; Domaine Saint Nicholas Fiefs Vendéens Cuvée Les Clous 2002.
from Burgundy: Domaine d’Auvenay et Domaine Leroy Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux-Monts Premier Cru 2001 and Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2001; Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru 2001 and Puligny-Montrachet Pucelles Premier Cru 2001; Domaine Pierre Morey Meursault Perriéres Premier Cru 2002; Domaine Trapet Père et Fils Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru 2001 and Chambertin Grand Cru 2001.
from Bordeaux: Château Falfas Le Chevalier Côtes de Bourg 2000; Château Gombaude-Guillot Pomerol 1998; Château Haut-Nouchet Pessac-Léognan Rouge 2000; Château Lagarette Cuvée Renaissance Premières Côtes de Bordeaux 2001; Château La Tour-Figeac Saint Émilion Grand Cru 2000.
from the Rhône Valley: Domaine de Villeneuve Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2001; Domaine Montirius Gigondas 2001; Domaine Viret Cosmic Côte du Rhone-Village St.Maurice 2000; Maison M. Chapoutier Ermitage Rouge Pavillion 2001 and Châteauneuf-du-Pape Croix de Bois 2001.
Germany and Austria: Exquisite Riesling wines in just about every style from the driest trocken to the sweetest botrytis-laden Trockenbeerenauslese. Notable German producers included: Freiherr, Weingut Wittmann, and Weingut Sander (Rheinhessen), and Weingut Hahnmüle (Nahe), and two Austrian producers from the Wachau district, Weingut Geyerhof and Nikolaihof Wachau.
Spain: The winemaking genius of Alvaro Palacios was represented well by his new Biodynamic project, Descendientes de J. Palacios, in the reawakened Bierzo denominacion (Villa de Corullón 2001, San Martin 2001, Moncerbal 2001). All three wines are made from the Mencia grape. Telmo Rodriguez, who made his reputation as proprietor of Remelluri in Rioja offered two fine wines: Altos de Lanzaga 2001 (Rioja) and Matallana 2001 (Ribera del Duero).
Australia and New Zealand: Castagna Vineyard in Victoria, Australia showed lovely 2001 and 2002 versions of their “Genesis” Syrah; Millton Vineyards from New Zealand’s Gisborne district offered attendees distinctive 2002 “Clos de Ste. Anne” Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Chile: Alvaro Espinoza is a great winemaker and grape grower, and has long believed in the Biodynamic and organic movements in viticulture. His family wine, Antiyal 2002 is a terroir-driven blend of Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, made in small amounts. Alvaro, now one of the leading wine consultants in Chile, also represented Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana, whose red blend, Sincerity (2001 and 2002) was delicious, and was also the “best buy” of the Biodynamic tasting at $15/bottle.
Just about everyone loves to dine out for special occasions – celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, job promotions, a juicy book contract, whatever – and on these occasions we might be in the mood to splurge. We choose a fine and expensive restaurant, and expect to blow a small fortune on dinner. For these rare and expensive nights, it’s kind of exciting to throw caution to the winds and order that rare and expensive wine: a beautiful Burgundy, a killer Cab, a cool Cuvée de Prestige Champagne, a sexy Syrah. Enough alliteration; you know what I mean. A night of exotic fun, at least until the credit card statement arrives.
Special occasion dining, complete with special and expensive wines is a rare, hopefully memorable treat. But most of us also like to go out to get a bite to eat with friends and/or family at a favorite Hudson Valley restaurant, not to celebrate anything special, but simply to reaffirm friendship, to catch up on the latest news, or just to hang out and let someone else do the cooking and do the dishes. On days or nights like these, you’re looking to relax, and you’re certainly not interested in blowing a wad of cash or credit on wine. So, how do you drink good wine without spending a lot of money? It’s actually pretty easy.
First, don’t pick a fancy, expensive restaurant. Meet your friends at a place where the food and wine are good, the service is bright and friendly, and the price is reasonable. Ask to see the wine list as soon as you sit down, to give you some time to peruse the list. Don’t hesitate to ask for a couple of copies of the list if more than one person at the table is interested in choosing wine. I really like informal restaurants where the wine list is appended to the menu, so that everybody gets a chance to look at the list.
Don’t be afraid to settle on a per-bottle price range for the wines you plan to order. Choosing wine is not an exercise in impressing people with how much money you spend (or think you have to spend). It’s about ordering an enjoyable wine to accompany an enjoyable meal. If the wine list seems out of whack - too expensive for the place, or just plain too expensive for you, make a note of this, and carefully consider if you want to come back next time. One solution to this problem: order your wine by the glass, and stay within your budget.
Thankfully, the above scenario happens less and less these days, as restaurateurs know that their customers want to enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner, and if those customers are unhappy, they don’t come back. Most good restaurants have “good” wine lists: a choice of enjoyable wines at various price points. There are low-priced wines, moderately-priced wines, expensive wines, and ultra-expensive wines to choose from, but what really constitutes good value in a bottle of wine?
“Value” is a relative term; relative to how much money you have to spend on a bottle of wine. Ironically, if money is no object, the most expensive wine on the list might be the best “value,” because that 1990 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is selling for just about the same price as in a good wine shop, with almost a zero percent markup. Unfortunately, the price is $325. So, if you have the money, this is a great value. But let’s stop dreaming, and get back to reality.
Most of the time “value wine” is represented by a moderately-priced wine that delivers contentment. It under-promises (price) and over-delivers (pleasure). The good news is that there are lots of “value wines” appearing on wine lists, if you just know where to look.
Just as it’s unlikely that you are going to choose that $325 Brunello as your “value” wine, I would also would warn you away from choosing the least expensive wines on the list, especially if they are from well-known New World regions, like California, Chile and Australia. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these wines, but they might not represent great value. I’ve seen Chardonnay from California, Cabs from Chile, and Shiraz wines from Australia that retail in wine shops for less than $10 selling for more than $30 on many wine lists. Although $30 is usually a reasonable price to pay for a bottle of wine in a restaurant, the markup on these wines can sometimes be as high as 500%(!). If the restaurant buys the wine for the wholesale price of $6 and charges $30 for the wine, there’s your 500% markup. This does not represent good – or even mediocre – value. Plus, wines in these categories can usually be found easily in wine shops, where at $10 to $12 retail they are good values. So, drink these wines at home, not in restaurants.
If you want to find the best values on a wine list, go off the beaten path; wines that aren’t as well-known as they should be from regions that are just beginning to gain notoriety for the quality of their wines. Take a serious look at these wines; they often represent good value, and certainly deliver the goods: the pleasure of a good wine at a good price.
Over time, I’ve found that certain wines deliver excellent value on most wine lists. While not all of these may be represented on every restaurant’s list, some of them will be. This list is not complete by any means, because by the time you read it I’m sure that other value-driven but delicious wines will pop up on lists all over the country. But for now, here are some consistently outstanding wine values.
If you love bubbles, there are great alternatives to Champagne, which is consistently the most expensive sparkling wine on any wine list. Good alternatives include: Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy, Cremant d’Alsace for France, American bubbly from California, Washington State, Oregon, the Finger Lakes of New York State, and New Mexico.
For good value from New World wine regions, stay away from most California Chardonnay and instead consider Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris from the Golden State. You don’t have to pass up all Chardonnay, however. Good values can be found from Oregon (Pinot Gris, too), and Washington State (also great values in Riesling and Gewürztraminer). New York State’s Finger Lakes produce excellent dry Riesling and Chardonnay, but the best values can be found in our own Hudson Valley (especially Chardonnay and Tocai Friulano from Millbrook and Chardonnay from Whitecliff).
Canadian Riesling and Chardonnay represents good value, but may be a bit hard to find on most lists. Easier to find is one of the best current values in white wine: Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. And don’t forget fragrant, floral, but dry Torrontes from Argentina.
Australian Riesling, usually semi-dry, is a great value, as are Aussie Sauvignon Blanc, Verdelho, and “Rhone” varietals such as Viognier, Marsanne, or Roussanne, sometimes blended together. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is very popular and is still an excellent value, as is New Zealand Chardonnay. South Africa shines with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and especially Chenin Blanc.
The Old World is a treasure trove for value wines if you know where to look. The Alsace region of France produces under-valued dry Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc. Light-to-medium-bodied Sauvignon Blanc-based wines can be found at good prices from Bordeaux’s Entre-Deux-Mers and Graves districts. And fine white Burgundy can be quite affordable if you stay away from the more expensive districts and focus on the white wines of Chablis, Rully, Montagny, and Macon-Villages. If you like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley (both mineral-laden Sauvignon Blanc wines), look to Quincy and Menetou-Salon. Also from Loire try Muscadet Sevre et Maine (perfect with oysters or lighter fish dishes), as well as dry Saumur and off-dry Vouvray, both made from Chenin Blanc.
Spanish whites are eminently affordable, and include wines from Rueda, Penèdes, and Rioja, and especially Albariño from the Rías Baixas region, and Godello from Ribeiro.
Italy is best-known for its red wines, which makes its white wines economically seductive. From Piedmont, look for Gavi and Arneis; from Tuscany, Vermentino and Vernaccia di San Gimignano; from Umbria, Orvieto Classico; Soave Classico and Pinot Grigio from Veneto; Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Müller-Thurgau from the Alpine regions of Friuli and Alto Adige. One of the little-known and affordable pleasures in white wine is medium-full bdied Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico from Marche. Southern Italy and islands are great places to find affordable wines: Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo from Campania; Vermentino di Gallura from Sardinia; Chardonnay and blends of native varietals from Sicily.
Portugal’s Vinho Verde is remarkably light and remarkably inexpensive. Also look to dry Muscat from Terras do Sado and the white wines of Dão and Bucelas. Greek whites are still little-known and still excellent bargains. Look for whites made from Moschofilero, Malagousia, Robola, and Assyrtiko grapes, as well as international varietals and blends, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Don’t forget Germany and Austria: Riesling from the Rhine and Mosel River valleys of Germany and Grüner Veltliner from various Austrian regions.
RED AND ROSÉ WINES:
Dry rosé wines, so versatile with so many dishes, are almost always the best value on any wine list, and good to great rosés are produced all over the wine world. Pay special attention to wines from Spain, France, Italy, and Greece, as well as crisp rosés from California.
When it comes to red wines, it’s a big, wide, wonderful wine world. California Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, and blends of some or all of these grapes are affordable, as is Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendocino County and the Sierra Foothills. Washington State produces value-driven Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the rare Lemberger*. From New York, consider Long Island Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (and blends of these), and fine Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cabernet Franc from the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes. Look for the same varietals from Canada.
Chile’s single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines are great values, as are Argentine Malbec and Bonarda. South Australian Shiraz from the Barossa Valley and Grenache from McLaren Vale can be delicious. New Zealand and South Africa produce interesting and affordable Cabernet Sauvignon.
France has some real and surprising bargains, such as Pinot Noir from Alsace. Speaking of Pinot Noir, look for reds from Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits-Villages, Cote de Beaune-Villages, Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-les-Beaunes, Mercurey, Rully, Givry, and the blanket appellation, Bourgogne. True value is found in Beaujolais-Villages and the “Cru” Beaujolais wines, such as Moulin-A-Vent, Morgon, Brouilly, and Fleurie, all produced from Gamay grapes. The Loire Valley is best-known for its whites, so look for its reds: Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny made from Cabernet Franc, and Sancerre made from Pinot Noir. The Rhône Valley is packed with value: Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Rasteau, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Vacqueyras, and Gigondas. From the south of France – Midi and Provence - look for hearty reds such as Minervois, Fitou, Faugeres, Corbieres, Aix en Provence, and Côtes du Roussillon. Even Bordeaux produces some elegant but affordable reds from the St. Emilion, Lalande de Pomerol, Fronsac, and the Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg regions.
Spanish reds are becoming ever more popular, but are still reasonably priced. Wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, and especially the regions of Montsant, Bierzo, Cigales, Navarra, Toro, Jumilla, and Campo de Borja are worthy of your attention and your dollars. Portugal makes great reds that are literally underpriced. Look for wines from the Douro Valley, Bairrada, Beiras, Alentejo, Ribatejo, and Dão regions. Greece: excellent reds made from the Xynomavro grape, such as Naoussa, and the Agiorghitiko grape, such as Nemea, as well as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvigon, and blends.
Italy still makes great wine at great prices, you just have to know where to look on the list. From the Piedmont region seek out Nebbiolo d’Alba, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Grignolino. Tuscany: Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino, and Morellino di Scansano; Umbria: Lungarotti “Rubesco” and Caprai’s Rosso di Montefalco; Abruzzo: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo; Veneto: Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella “Ripasso,” Bardolino Classico Superiore, and Merlot; Friuli and Alto Adige: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Lagrein, and Teroldego Rotliano. From the south and islands of Italy look for Salice Salentino and Primitivo (it’s Zinfandel!) from Puglia; Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata; Cannonau di Sardegna from Sardinia, and Nero d’Avola from Sicily.
Enjoying wines at enjoyable prices often requires us to try something new, something unusual. More often than not, our sense of adventure is amply rewarded. So, the next time you dine out, take a walk on the wild side and choose a wine that appeals to your taste and to your wallet. Blaufrankisch from Austria, anyone? (red, delicious, and affordable, and it’s the same grape as that rare Lemberger* from Washington State).
Some Hudson Valley Restaurant Value Comparisons:
Brunello di Montalcino, La Togata 2000: $90
Rosso di Montalcino, Marchesato Degli Aleramici 2005: $36
(Both 100% Sangiovese from the same wine region in Tuscany, Italy)
Barolo, “Marcenasco,” Ratti 2003:$80
Nebbiolo d’Alba, “Sontuoso,” Valdinera 2005: $45
(Both 100% Nebbiolo from the Langhe region of Piedmont, Italy)
Freelance Café and Wine Bar
Cornas, “Granit 30,” Vincent Paris 2005: $77
Crozes-Hermitage, Guigal 2004: $39
(Both 100% Syrah from the northern Rhône Valley, France)
Chardonnay, Grable Vineyard, Napa Valley 2005: $77
Chardonnay, Millbrook, Hudson River Region 2006: $29
The Red Onion
Cava, “Brut Reserva,” Dibon, Spain NV: $24
Brut, Veuve Clicquot, Champagne NV: $80
Meursault, “Le Meix Sous Le Château,” Jean-Phillippe Fichet 2000: $96
Rully Blanc, “La Chaume,” Jacques Dury 2005: $41
(Both oak-fermented Chardonnay from Burgundy, France)
Recently, members of a “professional” wine tasting panel for a major wine magazine were unanimous in their opinion: they all preferred one Chardonnay over another. The wine they rejected as inferior retails for $65. The wine they embraced sells for $1.99-$2.99 at selected Trader Joe’s. This kind of thing happens more than you might imagine, and far more often than “professional tasters” want to admit to, talk about, acknowledge, and last, but surely not least, make public.
When I told a friend about the results of this tasting, she: 1) gave me a withering glance, as if to lump me with this group of “frauds and phonies”; 2) got close up to my face and laughed really loud; 3) she said, “I can do that,” referring to the total lack of acumen on part of the poseur tasters. She was in heaven. I had to turn away, and reflexively started doing the “perp walk” made famous on the evening news by dope dealers, crooked politicians, and disgraced corporate executives.
As if the majority of the American public did not already think that “wine professional” was another term for “can’t get a real job,” I have a dirty little secret about professional tasting that I want to share. When we taste, it is not for pleasure. The job of the professional wine taster is to find the faults with the wine. Professional wine tasting is a bit like finding all the reasons not to award your son, a cub scout, his Webelos badge (he forgot to kiss grandma), or not to let your daughter play outside with the other kids (she didn’t clean her room). In case of a tie between wines, taste again, and look for the one that metaphorically didn’t practice her clarinet for an hour each day, or didn’t do his homework right after supper.
It doesn’t have to be like this, People!
The real fun of tasting wine is tasting for pleasure, not for punishment. And the best place to do this is at home, with friends, in a relaxed atmosphere of conviviality and generosity. Tasting wine at home is fun, coupled with a bit of self-guided “education.” Ouch. Don’t worry, in this case “education” mimics the learning curve that began with the awkward pleasures of your first kiss and grew exponentially into sensual subtlety: the confident strut, the irresistible smile.
How to begin? What wines? How many wines? How expensive are the wines? What glassware? What room? Outside or inside?
Wait! The most important question is “What people?” You can taste some of the most glorious wines in the world, but if you taste them with miserable people, guess what? The wines will taste miserable, too. You want to invite friends who enjoy the company of other people, have a sense of humor, don’t judge others harshly, don’t want to be the “expert” but have something to say. Finally, invite friends who are moderate drinkers. Wine tastings are not for lushes, who can diminish or even ruin the experience for everyone else. “Tasting” is the operative word.
Once you’ve put together your guest list, then start to think about the wine. Some basics:
• use wine glasses, not clear plastic cups that make the wine taste like clear plastic cups. Most people don’t have enough glasses, so here’s a hint: Rather than burdening your guests with bringing glasses from home, check out the local party rental folks. You’ll be surprised how inexpensive it is to rent two or three racks of glasses – not necessarily great glasses – but all of them the same size and shape, and racked together for convenience and to avoid breakage.
• provide spit cups and napkins: tasting involves four steps. In order: looking - judging the color of the wine; smelling - the “nose” of the wine; tasting – sampling a small amount of wine and swishing it around in the mouth; spitting – that’s right, part of tasting is spitting the wine into a spittoon or spit cup. While you’re at the party place renting glasses, pick up a sleeve of 16 oz. paper cups, and place one at every setting. You may not be able to enforce spitting at a home wine tasting, but especially if your friends are driving away from the tasting, you can certainly encourage it. A couple of good-quality paper napkins should be placed at each setting, too.
• bread and water: bottled water – with and without bubbles, or pitchers of cold tap water, should be plentiful and available. A few bread baskets filled with crisp sliced baguettes, or individual plates with water crackers, should be available for cleansing the palate between wines. Make sure the bread or crackers are as neutral tasting as possible; no brioche, croissants, or flavored crackers because these will have a dramatic impact on the wine’s taste.
• tasting mats/tasting sheets: On your home computer you can make a simple or an elaborate and creative tasting mat. If you are tasting the wines “blind,” obviously the wines will be identified by number only. If you know what wines you are tasting, list them by name. It helps your guests to be consistent in how you list the wine. I recommend listing this way:
Product, Special Attribute*, Producer, Sub-Region*, Region*, State or Country, Vintage*.
(*if any: if non-vintage (like most sparkling wines), write “NV”)
Pinot Noir, Reserve, Robert Sinskey, Carneros, Napa, California 1999
Chianti Classico, Reserva, Banfi, Tuscany, Italy, 1997
Shiraz, Peter Lehmann, Barossa Valley, South Australia, 1995
On the tasting mat, or if you are tasting more than five or six wines, probably on a separate sheet, allow each taster to make notes on each wine based on these criteria: color, nose, flavor, body, length of finish on the palate. You might ask “Did you like it?” and/or “What would be a good dish to pair with this wine?”
The tasting can be done indoors or outdoors – the more light the better to see the true color of the wine – in the afternoon or evening, as a prelude to dinner, or as its own little party. You should pour between one and two ounces per person per wine. Very important: make sure your guests stay for at least an hour or so after the tasting, and never let a friend drive drunk. If everybody is on the same page with the concept of the tasting, this should not be an issue.
As to what wines to serve, think thematically: New World Reds under $10; White Wines from the Loire Valley; Sparkling Wines of the World; American Wines Not from California; Zigging and Zagging with Zinfandel. Of course, if money is no object, then feel free to host a tasting of: Opus One: 1989-1999; the Premier Grand Crus of the Médoc: ’95,’96,’97; Barolo vs. Barbaresco; the ’97 Vintage, and so on.
At home, I prefer a tasting of accessible, affordable wines that my friends can appreciate and enjoy, and we can have some fun with, followed by a simple dinner or barbecue at home with the “partials,” the leftover wines. For an exotic and unexpected twist, have a tasting followed by a dinner at home of good Chinese takeout, the best Pizza in town, or takeout from the new Lebanese restaurant in town. You get the picture.
As for me, I’m busy planning my next blind tasting:
$1.99 Chardonnays: World Class, Kick Ass, or I’ll Pass. See you there.
A few weeks ago, I made one of my favorite cold dishes, scallops ceviche, for myself and a friend. Redolent of fresh lime juice, cucumbers, jalapeños, and scallions, I decided to serve the ceviche with one of my favorite white wines, Muscadet. Muscadet, an appellation d’origine contrôlée white wine from the Loire Valley in France, is wonderfully light and refreshing, with enough acidity to stand up to the lime juice in the ceviche, and with just a touch of brininess to complement the sea scallops. Really a delicious match.
My friend and I really enjoyed the food and the wine, and when she asked for some more of the cold Muscadet, I happily complied. I took a short walk to the fridge, where the wine was chilling, and I filled her glass with the sublime liquid. When she asked to see the bottle so she could remember the name of the wine and the producer, I started to chuckle and motioned to her to join me at the refrigerator door. We both peered at the collection of white wine bottles on the first shelf of the fridge, but something seemed amiss, something was not quite right. Something was there that didn’t seem to belong.
Muscadet in a box.
My friend viewed me with a look of shock and utter disbelief, but tempered by a smile that said, “Cool!” And indeed the wine was cool and fresh and delicious, in spite of – or maybe because of – the fact that it was ensconced in a three-liter box (the equivalent of four bottles of wine), holding a collapsible plastic liner and featuring an easy push spout. French wine in a box. Who’d a thunk it?
I’m not a wine snob, and I believe there is a special place in Hell for those who are. But wine in a box? Yup. Today, you can find vintage-dated wines of good quality in boxes with air-resistant liners or in Tetra-Paks (basically fancy milk cartons), and folks are enjoying the wine and they are really enjoying the price. You can buy a perfectly drinkable 3 liter box of wine – from California, Australia, or France – for under $20; that’s less than $5 per bottle. Some are a bit more expensive, some a bit less, but the savings-per-bottle are astounding.
And there are other advantages. Because of its packaging, box wines stay fresh for close to a month once opened, so if you just want one six ounce glass of wine with your dinner, the box will last for about 16 dinners, and the last glass will be as fresh as the first. On the other hand, if you’re going to a picnic with half a dozen friends and you bring along a box of white and a box of red, that’s 32 glasses of wine available to enjoy in the sunshine.
Box wines are largely eco-friendly, with most of the components bio-degradable or recyclable, and they certainly eclipse the bottle/cork/ label/foil model in this arena. But I think what I like most about high-quality box wines is the same thing I like about wine bottles with screw caps: no corkscrew!
Except in restaurants, where the ritual of a server or sommelier removing the cork from a wine bottle still thrives, the corkscrew has become a quaint relic. I mean, it’s so 20th century. Add to this that it is now an indisputable fact that corks are responsible for quite a bit of spoiled wine, at least 5% of every bottle opened with a corkscrew. When a wine is “corked,” TCA – short for 2,4,6-trichloroanisole - produces cork taint in the wine due to the use of chlorine to bleach the corks. What other consumer product would accept a 5% rate of failure, especially when using alternative closures and containers – screw caps and boxes, among several others – are readily available?
By the way, my experience with corked wines is closer to 10%, and I’m not alone. Often, my wine students ask me to intentionally expose them to a corked wine so they can find out what it smells like (for the record, corked wine smells wet cardboard and old socks, along with other appealing aromas). I tell them to “just wait. I won’t have to do a thing, but I guarantee you before this course is over we will open at least one corked wine.” I have yet to disappoint those who crave the experience, but class members never ask to smell another corked wine. Unfortunately, they usually get at least one more.
The old image of box wines is that of cheap and crummy swill with generic labels (“Chablis,” “Burgundy,” “Rhine Wine,” all of it from the industrial vineyards of California’s San Joaquin Valley). These are 5 liter boxes, not 3 liters, and you should avoid them, unless for some reason you enjoy them; taste is, after all, subjective. Today, however, you can find perfectly drinkable box wines made from popular varietals, including Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and even Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. The “new” box wines have caught on in the marketplace, and are the fastest-growing segment of wine sales in the United States, where they currently account for about 25% of all wine sales. Incidentally, in Australia nearly 40% of wine is sold in boxes, and in Denmark it’s more than 50%.
I must say that although box wines are represented in retail shops in the Hudson Valley, it is not the ideal place for box wines to flourish. In New York State, wine cannot be sold in supermarkets or convenience stores, and these are the natural homes for box wines. Pick up the groceries; pick up a box or two of wine. Buy some gas and a six-pack; grab that box of Pinot Grigio. In conversations with wine retailers in the Hudson Valley I found that box wine is not all that popular…yet. But I also noticed that almost every store I went into carried at least two or three different brands. Don’t be shy to ask your local wine retailer to order a particular box wine for you; a wide variety are available to them through their distributors.
So, box wine has come of age. It’s time to Drink Inside the Box. Or, to (mis)quote the Grateful Dead, “It’s Just a Box of Wine.”
Here are some popular box wines that you might enjoy:
Delicato produces California Shiraz, Merlot, and Chardonnay ($18/3l).
Trove produces California Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio ($23/3l)
Black Box produces wines with a pedigree of place, at about $20/3l: Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles; Chardonnay from either Napa Valley or Monterey; Sonoma County Merlot; and Shiraz from Australia’s Barossa Valley.
Three Thieves approaches box wines a little differently. Esteemed winemaker Joel Gott produces one liter Tetra Packs of White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Three Thieves also markets its wines in 250ml 4-packs. Either way, it’s $10 per liter. Three Thieves recently announced that they will be producing a line of box wines produced from organically-grown grapes, too.
Corbett Canyon: If you’re on a tight budget, and you’ve got a big party, big picnic, or just a big thirst, Corbett Canyon produces decent wine at a true bargain price. White Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Merlot are available in 3 liter boxes for $10 each.
Hardy’s Stamp of Australia is available in Chardonnay, Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a Shiraz-Grenache blend ($16/3l)
Banrock Station produces Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon ($16/3l)
From South Africa:
Rain Dance produces a very good Shiraz from the South Cape region for $15.
French Rabbit presents their wines in flashy one liter Tetra Paks. They are all Vin de Pays varietal-labeled wines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The cost is $10/liter.
Free Range is the company that produces the Muscadet I mentioned in this article. They also produce white and red Bordeaux wines, as well as Vin de Pays Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. Price is $30/3l.
"It should feel like liquid fire in the stomach; should have the tint of ink; it should be like the sugar of Brazil in sweetness and the spices of India in aromatic flavour."
-Association of Port Wine Shippers, 1754
Port is a largely misunderstood and undervalued pleasure. Few of us drink it with any regularity, but when we do we wonder why we usually don't. Port is the perfect example of a mystery; a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Port is hard to figure out, and when we do comprehend it, the facts are just as surprising and just as confusing as blissful ignorance.
Port is not one wine; it is many, and yet each port is singular. Port is not made from one grape; it can be made from 48 different legal varietals, and yet only six find their way into the finest wines. True Port must come from the Douro valley of Portugal, and yet the wine is not made in the namesake town, Oporto; it is shipped from there, but not all of it. In addition, "port" is produced in California (pretty awful, except for Quady and Ficklin ports) and Australia (pretty good export versions, especially Yalumba and Peter Lehmann).
We often think of Vintage Port as the only Port that matters, but less than two per cent of the port produced in the Douro is Vintage. Most Port ages in wood (Ruby, Tawny, Vintage Character, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Colheita, and Crusted Ports), one Port ages in the bottle (Vintage) and some age in both cask and bottle (the finest LBV). White Port does not age at all.
Port is a flavorful, sweet fortified wine, but it is not really fortified with flavorful high-quality brandy; it is fortified with aguardiente, a clear, flavorless grape distillate that is 77% alcohol -- brandy is usually only 40 to 45% alcohol.
The perfect time to drink a fine Port during the course of a meal is after dessert and before coffee, but it is most often served with blue-veined Stilton and Cheddar cheeses before dessert. Port can be a wonderful, warming, luxurious, sensual and expensive drink on its own in the winter in front of a fireplace, but suffers from an image of cheap White Port cut with lemon juice as a warm-weather "street" wine. "ripple" is exactly that: California-made Gallo generic white port cut with lemon juice.
So, the purpose of this column is to debunk Port, and depending on how fast you read, make you a 1, 2, 3, or 4 minute Port expert. You need only taste a fine Port during or after reading to make the experience complete.
The six best grapes for port are all red, and five are native to the Douro: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Francesa, and Tinta Amarela. The sixth, Tinta Roriz, is actually the finest red grape of Spain, Tempranillo, transplanted to the warmer Douro vineyards.
The Douro valley is planted with 82,000 acres of grapes, and there are 80,000 individual vineyards - quintas - owned by close to 30,000 growers. Each quinta is classified according to a complex system of points given or subtracted for vineyard location; grape varieties; microclimate; slope, altitude, and aspect; soil types, age of the vines; vine density; vineyard maintenance. A is the highest classification, F is the lowest, and indicates the level of benificio -- the official price the vineyard receives for its grapes, and the yield per acre (hectare in Europe) permitted at each vineyard.
The fermentation of the base wine stops at a low six to eight per cent alcohol, because the most important reading in the wine is not really the amount of alcohol produced, but the amount of residual sugar in the grape must. The winemaker can always get more alcohol from the aguardiente, but once the sugar turns to alcohol, it cannot be retrieved. Since all ports are sweet, residual sugar is the key to the base wine.
For every 97 gallons of base wine produced, approximately 24 gallons of aguardiente is added, and the blend measures about 18%-19% alcohol. 121 gallons (or 550 liters) is the size of a Port pipe -- the size of the barrel traditionally used for shipping Port.
The producer then decides if and how much white, ruby, or tawny port to make. White Port, made from inferior white grapes, is a largely disposable drink. If you can find this style from Niepoort or Ferreira, they are worth investigating, but otherwise take a pass on White Port.
All red Port starts as either Ruby or Tawny Port. Depending on how the Ruby Port is aged, it may become:
• Basic Ruby: The least expensive of all Ports are the Rubies with less than one year of age in wood. They should be consumed immediately, and do not improve in the bottle. The best Ruby Port is made from various vintages and aged fro up to four years in casks. This style, though still fruity and fresh, has better balance than the cheapest Ruby. Some of the best Ruby Ports: Cock burn's Special Reserve, Fonseca Bin 27, Graham's Six Grapes and Warre's Warrior.
• Vintage Character: These are older Ruby Ports from different vintages that are blended together, but really bear no resemblance to true Vintage Port, except that the color is blacker than most Rubies. Avoid most of these, except for Cálem, Churchill's, Ferreira, and Sandeman's Signature.
• Crusted Port: The best styles are made from the best multi-vintage Rubies, aged for about four years in the cask, and then three more in the bottle before release. This Port needs to be decanted and really does through a crusty sediment throughout the bottle, most especially in the neck. It should be open with Port tongs, which have been heated over a fire. The tongs neatly crack the neck of the bottle, so that the wine need not be poured over the neck sediment while decanting. Good Crusted Port will improve for up to about eight years in the bottle. Best examples: Churchill's and Smith Woodhouse.
• Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): These are wines made from a single year's harvest, but not a great, or "Vintage" year. These are pretty light wines which have been aged for up to six years in the cask. Most of the wines are then filtered, and so have nothing left to work with to further mature in the bottle. The best are unfiltered, and will improve in the bottle, but not more than five years. "Invented" for restaurants who want to sell a vintage-dated product, but doesn't have the clientele for the much more expensive true Vintage Port. My least favorite style of Port, I would avoid any that do not have a driven cork, rather than a wood or plastic-topped stopper. Some of the best LBVs: Niepoort, Ramos-Pinto, Graham's, and Warre's.
• Single Quinta: This is wine from a single vineyard, and often among the most interesting Port styles. Single Quinta can be a classic Vintage Port, but most are non-vintage, and aged in cask until ready for release. They are almost never filtered, and need decanting. Increasingly popular as a boutique wine, because of its exclusive nature; some of these quintas are quite small. Single Quinta wines age for at least seven years, and the finest will improve in the bottle for up to 20 years. Often more expensive than classic Vintage Port. Look for Cálem Quinta de Foz, Ferreira Quinta do Seixo, Fonseca Quinto do Panascal, Ramos-Pinto Quinto da Urriga, Taylor-Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas, Niepoort Quinta do Noval, and Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha.
•Vintage Port: Each Port producer decides if it is a "vintage" year, and they don't always agree. By law, the producer must declare the harvest year a vintage between the first and second year following the harvest, and the wine must be bottled between the second and third year from the date of harvest. This means that Vintage Port spends very little time in the barrel, and the overwhelming majority of its life in the bottle. It is not unusual for a Vintage Port, depending on the quality of the vintage, to take 20 to 30 years to mature (the 1970 is just now ready to drink, but the 1977 was ready more than five years ago). Decanting is essential, and Port tongs are a great help in the decanting process. If you drink this wine young, it is harsh, tannic, and sweet. As it matures, and the tannins turn to sediment, the harshness fades, and the wine is warming, spicy, fruity, and balanced. A favorite in Great Britain; the Brits have controlled a large piece of the Port trade since battling the Spanish Armada, and granting the equivalent of most-favored-nation status to Portugal. Best vintages: 1994 (almost impossible to find and really expensive; about $100 per bottle), 1985, 1983, 1977, 1970, 1966, 1963, 1955, 1948, 1945, 1935, 1931, 1927. Even the oldest wines will bring great pleasure to the Vintage Port lover.
Depending on how Tawny Port is aged, it may become:
• Basic Tawny Port: The cheapest Tawny styles are blends of White and Ruby ports, and although the blenders do a pretty good job, this style suffers by comparison to a true Tawny, which is aged for seven years, and released in it eighth. These wines are very good values. True Tawnies include: Dow's Boardroom and Warre's Nimrod.
• Designated-Age Tawny Port: I love the aged Tawny Ports, because they are so mellow, nutty, smooth and silky. The labels read 10, 20, 30, or 40 Year-Old Tawny. Theoretically, the youngest wine in the barrel should be no younger than the age designated on the label, but in practice, the Port Wine Institute tastes the product and says, "OK, That's what a 20 year old Tawny should taste like," and allows its release. The best producers release only those wines that are close to the designated age, but sometimes the tasters can be fooled by good blending of younger wines. This wine is ready to drink; it's been aged for you, so it won't improve in the bottle. Some of the best producers: Cock burn's, Croft, Dow's, Fonseca, Graham's, Niepoort, Offley, Ramos-Pinto, Smith-Woodhouse, Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate, Warre's.
Some single-quinta designated-age Tawny Ports are also produced, as well as a very small amount of vintage dated Tawny Port, which may have spent as much as 50 years in the barrel; these are often called Colheita Ports.
Fine Port is a meditation on sweetness, richness, opulence, even decadence. Whether or not we know anything about the Port is not really germane to a discussion of its pleasures, but is always nice to know a bit about why and how such rare treasures come to life.
Wine snobbery, thankfully, is beginning to disappear in the United States, as Americans continue to enthusiastically embrace wine. By the end of next year, the US is slated to become the #1 wine consuming-nation in the world, a notion many might have considered laughable only ten years ago.
But there is a good wine’s worth of difference between snobbery and respect. I would never tell anyone what wine to enjoy, and certainly would never tell anyone why he or she should not enjoy a particular wine, mostly because everyone hates a wine snob, me included. However, I am not above gently recommending how to enhance enjoyment of wine, and one path to enhancement is by drinking the right wine in the right glass.
I can hear the groans now, as many readers think I’m going to steer them to unbelievably expensive, hand-blown crystal wine glasses, and that those glasses you purchased at Target just aren’t good enough for me and my snobby nose and palate. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m just going to write about why a good, affordable wine glass makes such a difference in the enjoyment of wine. You can thank me later.
Recently, I went to dinner at a good Hudson Valley restaurant with several friends. We received a warm welcome, were seated at a comfortable table, and the food and service were terrific. The wine glasses were not.
With the owner’s permission, I brought from home several very special wines to the restaurant, which the service staff took care of in a highly professional manner. My friends and I looked forward to a wonderful dinner complete with extraordinary wines.
And then the wine glasses were brought to the table.
The glasses, both white and red, were crap - thick glass balloons that I knew would make each white wine taste sour and each red wine taste bitter. All the wines would suffer from a short “finish,” the potentially lovely aftertaste that helps to define a great wine. I asked our waiter if he might be hiding some good wine glasses somewhere in the restaurant, and he courteously replied that the glasses on the table were the only wine glasses available. I was bummed. These fine wines, served in crap glasses, tasted like crap. And crap wines do nothing to enhance the flavors of the carefully-prepared food provided by the restaurant. Those damned glasses truly created a lose/lose proposition for the folks at our table and just as important, for the hard working folks at the restaurant.
On the ride home and for a few days afterward, I thought how could I make this negative experience positive. So, I put together some wines and some wine glasses, and invited Janet Crawshaw, publisher of The Valley Table, and Jerry Novesky, its editor, to join me at my house in a blind tasting of three wines – one white, two reds – served in several different glasses. Jerry and Janet love wine and seemed intrigued (if a bit dubious) about the idea of matching a good wine to a good glass, and so they agreed to show up, and taste, taste, taste (Welcome to the rigors of wine and food journalism). I intentionally chose really good wines for the tasting, hoping to demonstrate that a great wine can taste like crap in a crap glass, and that the right glass will do that same wine organoleptic justice.
The two basic glasses for each wine were a) a jelly glass that sells for about $1 (more about this choice of glass later), and b) a glass that is known as a “universal taster,” a small, five ounce wine glass, resembling a style you might use for Port or Sherry, and used widely in large wine tastings; I use this glass for the tastings I conduct daily in the wine classes I teach at The Culinary Institute of America. I use hundreds of these glasses every day (about $3 each).
The other glasses were all produced by one wine glass company, Riedel. The Riedel family has been making glassware for 11 generations, and it was Georg Riedel (10th generation), who realized that he could produce ideal glasses – both hand-blown and machine-made – for various wines, by shaping the glasses in such a way that the appearance, aromatics, and taste of the wine are optimized. So the shape of a glass meant for Cabernet Sauvignon looks completely different from a glass meant for Pinot Noir, which looks completely different from a glass made for Riesling; you get the idea. Riedel, based in Austria, also produces machine-made Spiegelau wine glasses in Germany.
Not that long ago, Riedel glasses were only found at upscale specialty stores, and the glasses were aimed solely at wealthy and/or aspiring wine connoisseurs. As wine-drinking in the United States (at least 40% of Riedel’s worldwide market) has spread to the great unwashed, Riedel has made their glasses far more accessible. Remember me mentioning “those glasses you purchased at Target” earlier? Well, Riedel now creates a special line of wine glasses just for Target (the “Vivant” series; the glasses sell for about $10-$12 each). Riedel glasses, in all their forms, from the least to the most expensive, can be found at amazon.com, as well as locally, from Wine Enthusiast or winenthusiast.com, which is located in Elmsford in Westchester county. Sold in sets, Riedel or Spiegelau glasses start at less than $10 per stem.
By the time Jerry and Janet arrived, I had already poured the reds, and when I saw them pull up in my driveway, I started to pour the white wines. We got down to business pretty quickly, and these are the results of our experiment in finding the right glasses for the right wines:
Ist Flight: Chardonnay, Cakebread, Napa Valley, California 2005 (about $50/bottle)
•Appearance: Cloudy, dull.
•Nose: grapey, undefined other fruits, one dimensional.
•Taste/Finish: Hot, full-bodied, bitter, alcoholic; short finish
•Appearance: Pale yellow/almost white peach.
•Nose: closed, some oak, some fruit.
•Taste/Finish: Hot, full-bodied, alcoholic; short finish.
•Opinion: Doesn’t taste like an expensive wine.
Riedel “Ouverture” White Wine Glass: $10-$12; machine blown, lead free; 10 oz.
•Appearance: Pale gold, rim begins to show more depth, and possible ageability.
•Nose: More apricot, a bit of oak/not much, balance as the flavors come together.
•Taste/Finish: Smooth, rich, slightly toasty, almost oily, elegant, long finish.
•Opinion: Pretty good.
Riedel “Flow” Viognier/Chardonnay Glass: $12-$15; machine blown, lead free; 22.5 oz.
•Appearance: Very pale. Shimmering, reflecting gold.
•Nose: Oak emerges, but in balance with fruits.
•Taste/Finish: Emphasis on complexity and acidity, with oak tannins in the finish, a bit of pleasant bitterness; extremely long and complex finish.
•Opinion: Excellent wine.
2nd Flight: Pinot Noir, Iron Horse, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, California 2004 (about $35/bottle)
•Appearance: Brownish, dull, brackish and muddy, no difference between rim of the wine and the center of the bowl.
•Nose: Smells like Manischewitz, nothing but grape and alcohol.
•Taste/Finish: Alcohol and tannin, with bitter fruits; blessedly short finish.
•Appearance: Medium black cherry, rim much darker than the center of the bowl.
•Nose: Earthy, mature red and black fruits, touch of leather.
•Taste/Finish: Red fruits ascendant, nice balance of tannin and acid, long finish.
•Opinion: The wine is beginning to strut its stuff.
Riedel “Vinum” Pinot Noir/Burgundy Glass: $30; machine made, 24% lead crystal; 25 oz.
•Appearance: Beautiful red-to-black cherry, with dark, almost black rim •Nose: New and old oak, restrained wood aromatics; near-perfect balance of aromatics; red cherries, red and black currants, spice, a touch of black pepper.
•Taste/Finish: high but balanced acidity, red fruits, no harsh tannins; a truly fine example of the Pinot Noir varietal.
•Opinion: Really nice wine.
Riedel “Sommeliers” Burgundy Grand Cru Glass: $95-$120. 37 oz.; handmade, mouthblown; full lead crystal
•Appearance: Glass seems to disappear; rim of the wine goes to the sides of the glass, when looking down, you see the wine is still opaque; the wine can age quite a while.
•Nose: Overwhelmingly fragrant; roses, black currants, black cherries; as if the wine has been decanted for hours
•Taste/Finish: Extremely soft; balanced, voluptuous, silky.
•Opinion (from Janet): “I want to dive in and swim in this wine.”
3rd Flight: Rubicon, Rubicon Estate, Rutherford, Napa Valley, California 2004 (about $125)
•Appearance: Cloudy, opaque.
•Nose: Smells like grape jelly and alcohol.
•Taste/Finish: Horrible – all tannin and alcohol.
•Opinion: the worst.
•Appearance: Almost black in color, totally opaque / looks quite young.
•Nose: Alcohol and leathery tannins.
•Taste/Finish: Blackberry – very full-bodied – moderate acidity - really hot alcohol.
•Opinion: I expect more - a lot more - from this wine.
Riedel “Ouverture” Red Wine Wine Glass: $10-$12; machine blown; lead free; 12.5 oz
•Appearance: Still dark in the center, but rim is much darker and “legs” (glycerol) dripping down the side of the glass are quite prominent.
•Nose: Black currant, oak, and vanilla.
•Taste/Finish: High acids. Sweet tannins, black fruits, very complex flavors; needs more time.
•Opinion: A fine example of a wine that, over time, should become extraordinary.
Riedel “Flow” Cabernet Glass: $12-$15; machine made; lead free crystal; 22.5 oz.
•Appearance: Ink black in the center with an even darker rim.
•Nose: Black fruits, olives, earthy, mint and eucalyptus.
•Taste/Finish: Mint, menthol, black fruits; balanced sweeter tannins; incredibly long finish.
•Opinion: Wow! What a difference. The wine seems to have achieved balance and tastes far more mature, and closer to ready to drink.
Riedel “Vinum” Bordeaux Glass: $24-30; machine made; 24% lead crystal; 21.5 oz.
•Appearance: Similar to above; even more opaque; glass seems to disappear.
•Nose: Much more black currant and mint.
•Taste/Finish: Beautifully balanced. Fruit acids jump out of the glass; tastes like fresh blackberries.
•Opinion: Tried this to see if there was much difference between Riedel “Flow” and Riedel “Vinum” (twice as expensive, but the same shape and size). Noticed the most difference in the appearance of the wine, as the “Vinum” is thinner, and the wine seems to “float” in mid-air.
So, that’s it. The glasses made an incredible difference in the sensory evaluation of the wines. Jerry was blown away by the differences, but raised an interesting question. Can the right glass, properly engineered to maximize certain characteristics and minimize others, make a lousy wine taste good? I’ve wondered about this myself, and have to come to the conclusion that while I don’t think that matching the right glass to the right wine falls under the definition of “party trick,” I do think that a good glass will always make any wine - from the relatively humble to the Obama-level elite, taste better. Anything wrong with that?
So, why did I bother with the jelly glass, knowing it would make a good wine taste like swill? I did it to honor the memory of Robert Mondavi, who probably did more for wine in the United States than any other person in history. Robert died at the age of 94 last May, and I dedicate this article to his memory.
About 20 or so years ago, I had the honor of helping to coordinate a wine tasting conducted by Robert Mondavi at The Culinary Institute of America. Robert taught me a few things that day, First, at age 73 (at the time), he didn’t participate in the tasting, because he told me his taste buds were shot, and he “didn’t want to fake it.” He wanted to hear from the crowd of tasters, to listen to their opinions.
The second thing I learned from Robert Mondavi on that day has everything to do with why I chose a jelly glass to lead off each wine in this tasting. Robert was well-known for shipping hundreds, sometimes thousands of Riedel glasses in advance of any wine tasting he conducted. He explained to me that it was important to show Robert Mondavi wines in the best possible light, including the best possible glass. I nodded and smiled, probably not fully realizing at the time just how correct, how smart he was in his thinking.
But then Robert Mondavi turned to me and added something to the conversation that I’ll never forget. He said, “Just remember, Steven, that great wines need great glasses, but if someone offers you a great wine, even if it’s in a jelly glass, never say ‘no.’” And I never have.
Until recently, the outstanding quality and the amazing value of Spanish wines has been a well-kept secret in the United States. Certainly, Sherry - especially fino and manzanilla styles - has always had a small cadre of fortified aficionados, and some adventurous red wine lovers swear by the reserva and gran reserva wines of Rioja, but even the most wine-stained wretches among us have had little if any experience with Spain’s finest wines.
Well, now the secret is out, and the American wine market has been flooded with great Spanish wines. Consumers are beginning to pay attention, as wine merchants and sommeliers can hardly contain their infectious enthusiasm for the sparklers, whites, rosés, and reds of Spain. For anyone who is bored by the trying trinity of Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot, and who seeks a new sensory experience, the days of a wine world awash in predictable and over-priced plonk are – happily - coming to an end. And Spain is perfectly positioned to inhabit this exciting new world with wines that are compelling, delicious, food-friendly, and that deliver excellent value.
Currently, Spain has 63 regulated wine regions (each a denominación de origen (DO), the equivalent of a French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Two superior regions – Rioja and Priorato – are entitled to the denominacion de origen calificada (DOC) designation. Five to ten years ago, perhaps a half-dozen denominacines were represented in the American wine market – Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Penedès, Rías Baixas, Cava (for sparkling wines), and Jerez (Sherry). Today, these wine regions have even stronger representation in the US, but are joined by wines produced in Alicante, Bierzo, Jumilla, Montsant, Navarra, Priorat, and Rueda, Toro, and Valdeorras, among many others.
Spain is, after Italy and France, the world’s third-largest wine producer, and has more acres planted with vines than any other country. The vines are stressed, due to poor soils and a rain-starved climate coupled with no widespread use of drip irrigation technology. Vines must dig deep to find the water and other nutrients they need to survive. This is all good news for making good wines. Vineyard grape yields are naturally low, and the vines, especially the thousands of acres of old vines, produce berries with complex flavors and good sugar-to-acid balance.
While Spain is best known for Sherry and red wines, part of its “secret” has always been that dry Spanish rosados, especially those produced in the Navarra DO and made from the Garnacha (Grenache) grape are among the finest rosé wines in the world. And Spain is the largest producer of sparkling wine in the world. Cava is produced almost entirely in Catalonia, the Spanish province anchored by Barcelona, and is 100% méthode champenoise. Cava is wonderful as an aperitif or with food, and is one of the single greatest values in sparkling wine – or any wine, for that matter. It is easy to find fine Brut or Rosé Cava for under ten dollars (with vintage wines and special bottlings just a few dollars more). The largest producers are Freixenet and Cordoníu, but also seek out Segura Viudas (especially its elegant Reserva Heredad and Aria Estate bottlings) and Cristalino, Marqués de Monistrol, Paul Cheneau, and Sumarroca.
Spanish whites can be a revelation. The Rías Baixas DO, located in the cooler Atlantic province of Galicia, produces the dry, medium-to-full-bodied varietal-labeled Albariño. A perfect match with intense fish stews – cioppino, zarzuela, bouillabaisse, zuppa di pesce – Albariño is a singular wine, only somewhat reminiscent of a bone-dry Riesling from Alsace. Look for Morgadio, Vonta, Martin Codax, Nora, Condes de Albarei, and Santiago Ruíz, among others ($14 – 25).
The Rueda DO focuses on the Verdejo grape and produces lovely aromatic dry whites. Sauvignon Blanc is the new grape on the block here, and Rueda does it justice, with varietal labels and 100% of the grape in the bottle. Look for the delicious Verdejo-based Naia, as well as selections from Marques de Riscal and Valle de la Vega ($8 -15).
Penedès, a region that has found great commercial success largely due to a considerable part of the Cava DO resting inside its borders, also produces fine white wines from Spanish as well as French vinifera, and blends of both. White wines run the gamut from the familiar - Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Muscat, and even Gewürztraminer – to the previously unknown – Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo (the three basic grapes of sparkling Cava, but also used for still whites). Look for Miguel Torres, Can Feixes, Parès Baltá, Segura Viudas, René Barbier, and Cavas Hill ($6 - $20).
Sherry may be an acquired taste, but once bitten by the Sherry bug, it becomes an itch that must be scratched. There is just nothing better with tapas and other “small bites” consisting of fish or veggies, or cheese, or pequillo peppers, or whatever – than dry Sherry. The three basic types – fino, amontillado, oloroso – are elaborated by individual artisans making proprietary Sherries in a wide variety of styles. Just try a chilled fino with a plate of olives and a young Manchego cheese, and from that day forth you’ll always have a bottle in the fridge. Popular producers: Tío Pepe, Osborne, Lustau, Domecq, Sandeman, Barbadillo, Hidalgo, and many more ($8 and up).
The red wines of Spain. Where to begin? Classic reds come from Rioja (DOC) and Ribera del Duero (DO), and are based on the noble Tempranillo grape. Tempranillo is as important to Spain as Cabernet Sauvignon is to Bordeaux or the Napa Valley, as Syrah/Shiraz is to the northern Rhône/Australia, as Pinot Noir is to Burgundy, as Malbec is to Argentina. The beauty of Tempranillo is that when the grape is made into a fine wine, it oxidizes (ages) slowly, due to healthy doses of skin tannins, alcohol, and juicy acidity.
Rioja is in many ways the perfect choice for serious red wine lovers. Three basic styles – Crianza (aged at least two years after vintage, released in the third), Reserva (aged at least three years, released in the fourth), and Gran Reserva (aged at least five years, released in the sixth), reflect the respective powers bestowed upon the wine by vintage selection and age. Because all Riojas wines must be tasted and approved before release by the provincial consejo regulador (Rioja’s regulating council), the savvy wine lover gets a wine that is always close to ready-to-drink, and in the case of Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, can improve a bit with a few more years of bottle aging. Fine Rioja marries well with hearty dishes – lamb, beef, stews; the lighter Crianza bottlings make a comfortable match with white meats and grilled fishes. Rioja, whose prices are on the rise, is still one of the great values in classic red wines, with bottles starting at about $8 for Crianza, $12 for Reserva, and under $20 for Gran Reserva wines. Some labels to look for: Montecillo, Martinez Bujanda “Conde de Valdemar,” Faustino Martinez, Campo Viejo, Cune, Contino, Marqués de Arienzo, Marqués de Cáceres, Marqués de Murrietta, Marqués de Riscal, Muga, and La Rioja Alta, among many other estimable producers.
Ribera del Duero, where Tempranillo is known as Tinto Fino, is thought by many to produce the finest red wines in all of Spain. Certainly, the wines can be great. The most famous wine made here is Vega Sicilia (founded in 1864), whose “Unico” bottling – a blend of Tinto Fino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec - is aged for 12 years before release, and sells for about $300. per bottle. The 1970 Unico is drinking perfectly right now, but Ribera de Duero also produces a myriad of fine reds at much more reasonable prices. Led by Alejandro Fernandez, who established his Pesquera winery in 1972, the wine growers of the region have proven that they can make incredible wines and gain a foothold in the ultra-premium world wine market. Look for the Crianza and Reserva bottlings from Alejandro Fernandez/”Pesquera,” Valdubón, Antonio Barceló/”Viña Mayor,” Teòfilo Reyes, and Condado de Haza. Prices start in the low teens, and can rise steadily, until you get to the stratosphere for Vega Sicilia and the very new, very pricey, very hard-to-find Dominio de Pingus, which is made by a young, Danish-born winemaker, Peter Sisseck.
I mentioned the whites of Penedès, but this DO produces great reds as well, again made from both Spanish and French vinifera vines. The various microclimates of Penedès allow wine producers to grow pretty much any grape they like, and make good wines from those grapes. Tempranillo is a very important grape here, but so is Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvèdre), and Cariñena (Carignan). In the US market, Miguel Torres represents Penedès with great aplomb, with a wide variety of reds. Coronas (85% Tempranillo/15% Cabernet Sauvignon) is a tasty red for white and red meats at under $10. Gran Coronas flips the blend (85% Cabernet Sauvignon/15% Tempranillo) for about $20. Mas la Plana - single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – is an extraordinary expression of the grape and the terroir of Penedès, for about $48. Also, look for the value-driven wines of René Barbier, and the exquisite Cabernet Sauvignon from Jean León.
The truly “New Spain” speaks to denominaciones with which few of us are familiar. Bierzo (DO), led by the innovative artisan, Alvaro Palacios, produces extraordinary reds from the Mencia grape. The red wines of Jumilla (DO) focus on the Monastrell grape (the Mourvèdre of the southern Rhône Valley), and are great values. Priorato (DOC) has become the home to some of the most sought-after Spanish wines ever produced. The group known as the “Gratallops Pioneers,” again led by the peripatetic Alvaro Palacios have focused on judicious blends of Garnacha, Cariñena, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Palacios’ biodynamic Clos l’Ermita, at $350 per bottle, is thought by many to be the best wine ever produced in Spain. His Las Terasses and Clos Dofi are somewhat less steep in price, but still extraordinary. While you can find fine wines from Priorat for under $20, the best can be quite expensive. Look for Clos Magador ($90), Morlanda Crianca ($48) and its “Prior Terrae” bottling at $200. Prices come back down to earth with Scala Dei “Negre” at $15., and its “Cartoixa” bottling at $27, as well as Acapella from Cellars Gratallops for $25. And here’s a hint: look for reds from Priorato’s neighboring tiny DO, Montsant, still undiscovered. I have fallen in love with the 2001 Fra Guerau from Viñas del Montsant, a full-bodied blend of seven grapes, dominated by Syrah and Garnacha. An amazing wine at an amazing price: $12. Also look for Isis ($20) and Laurona ($28).
No discussion of Spanish wines would be complete without at least a mention of a “secret” that has been hiding in plain sight for centuries – Brandy de Jerez. Once you have tasted the best of these fine spirits, Armagnac and especially over-priced Cognac will seem almost wimpy by comparison. Rappers and hip-hoppers may never sing the praises of Brandy de Jerez, but you will. For $30 to $50 you can have the great Gran Reservas, including Cardinal Mendoza, Carlos I, Conde de Osborne, Gran Duque de Alba, and Lepanto.
Right now you can find Spanish wines from at least 25 denominaciones in the US, and it is hard to go wrong with any of these wines. Every style of wine is represented at every price point, and in almost every wine you choose, you will get both extraordinary quality and extraordinary value.
Spanish wines: the secret is out…spread the word.
Wine is about enjoying and enhancing the pleasures of a wonderful meal with friends and family, about good conversation, about getting to know each other better. A glass of wine with dinner is a small and quiet reward at the end of the workday, or it can be an integral part of a well planned -- or better yet-- spontaneous romantic evening. While it is true that there is a lot to learn about the fascinating subject of wine, there is no direct correlation between your level of knowledge and your level of organoleptic enjoyment.
As with so many subjects that appeal both to the instinct and the intellect, to the mind and the soul, wine has its myths. One of the major myths about wine is that older wine is better than young wine, and that fine wine must be “cellared” and aged until ready to drink. If you believe this myth then it follows that you can’t possibly be passionate about wine unless you own (or desire to own) a bunch of bottles collecting dust in a well-organized subterranean netherworld. You must also pay attention to “wine experts” who periodically announce how long you should “hold” your wine before drinking.
Hear the sound of that cork popping? That’s another myth exploding.
Let’s examine the facts:
• Better than 93% of all the wine produced in the world is consumed within one year of its vintage (the year in which the grapes were harvested); more than 96% within two years, and a whopping 99% of the world’s wine is consumed within three years of its vintage.
• In the United States, 87% of all wine purchased is consumed within 24 hours of purchase (this, of course, includes restaurant wine purchases), and 97% of all wine purchased is consumed within two weeks of the purchase date.
Bearing these facts in mind, a question arises: Do homeowners who love wine really need a wine cellar in their home? Building a wine cellar or other elaborate wine storage system seems like such an elitist thing to do when we realize that for much of the world, wine is a daily beverage that accompanies food, and when consumed in moderation gives a healthy dose of pleasure to the people of many nations -- rich and poor.
So, if you are among the many who enjoy wine with dinner and maybe have a few special bottles that you are saving for a special occasion laying down in the cupboard, do you need a wine cellar?
Frankly, there are ideal conditions for storing wine (55ºF temperature / 75% humidity, and in relative darkness), but we rarely store our wines ideally. White, sparkling and rosé wines are usually kept in the fridge, and reds are often shunted off to a too-warm corner or closet. And yet, the overwhelming majority of wines survive to please another day.
If we don’t have ideal storage conditions for our wine (and most of us, including me, don't) there are a few simple guidelines that we can follow to ensure that our wines will be in good shape to enjoy with a good meal.
• Once you put your wines in the fridge, leave them there until you are ready to enjoy them. Moving wines from a cool area to a warmer area, and then back again can play havoc with the cork, due to expansion and contraction. Once the seal between cork and bottle loosens, your wine is headed towards premature oxidation, which will ruin the taste of the wine.
•The cooler, darker, and quieter the place, the safer the wine. The enemies of wine in the bottle are heat, light, and vibration. The cooler and darker the storage area, the longer it will take the wine to mature. Also, make sure there is not a lot of vibration in the storage space; vibration, too, is rough on corks, and when the cork moves, you've got the problem of quick oxidation. Oxygen, which in controlled amounts is the agent for aging wine, becomes the enemy of wine when the cork slips. Again, once you find a safe place for your wines, don't move them until they are ready to sit on your table.
•Lay the bottles on their sides. With the possible exception of sparkling wines, whenever possible lay bottles down, especially if you plan to keep the wine in storage for more than a few weeks. Angled in this way, the cork is kept moist and expanded, and is less likely to crumble, which if unchecked will allow too much air in the bottle, leading to more oxidation and a fouled wine.
• If you have a cellar in your house, use it. The temperature underground fluctuates less than 15 degrees Fahrenheit all year round and the changes are usually subtle. As long as your cellar is in the 50ºF-65ºF range you've got a natural wine storage area in your home. If you use a small area of your cellar for wine storage feel free to employ an inexpensive humidifier or dehumidifier to adjust moisture in the cellar, but it certainly is not essential for the casual wine collection.
• Don’t kill spiders in your wine storage area. Spiders are our friends because they love to eat mildew, a widespread fungus in damp cellars. Mildew attacks and degrades labels and once again, corks, leaving an unattractive, smelly, and destructive residue. If you are arachnophobic, don’t use your cellar for wine storage, or just learn to love spiders.
Have you noticed in the above guidelines how susceptible wine corks are to multiple problems? Is it any wonder that there is a certifiable trend away from corks towards plastic-lined metal screw caps, cellulose “corks,” or rubber stoppers, even for premium wines? Cork may make the ritual of opening the bottle more romantic, but as a stopper for fine wines it has many problems, not the least of which is the increasingly serious problem of “corked” wines; the wine is ruined by the presence of 2,4,6-trichloranisole (TCA), a chemical compound that is probably connected to the chlorine used to bleach corks. The wine smells like a moldy old book and tastes even worse. Cork taint is a problem in as many as 8% to 12% of wines produced all over the world (Portugal produces about 85% of the world’s supply of wine corks), and it as likely to appear in a $40 bottle as it is in a $4 bottle -- or a $400 bottle.
The reason I bring up TCA and “corked"” wines is to illustrate that you can store your wines in absolutely pristine conditions, and still encounter problems beyond your control. It goes without saying that we are fooling ourselves if we believe that our wines were stored in perfect conditions prior to purchasing them. Retailers have become much better at storing wines, but it is still a common sight to see wine for sale sitting in the window of a wine shop, literally cooking in the blazing hot sun. Before the wines reach the retail shop they may have has spent time in a steel shipping container whose interior temperature is easily 100ºF, only to be transferred to a distributor's warehouse that is nearly as warm in the summer and dreadfully cold in the winter, and then roughly handled as the wines are placed in the cargo area of a delivery truck, which may or may not be air-conditioned.
With all that can go wrong -- and sometimes does -- it is amazing how hearty a product wine really is. Because most wines are reasonably shelf-stable, anyone can start a wine collection utilizing a minimum of care and just a little bit of money. Of course, if you want your wine collection to make a pan-aesthetic statement of architectural, sculptural, and environmental integrity, you can easily spend as much on your wine cellar as you do on your wines. Again, I maintain that the inner and profound beauty of wine is in the bottle enjoyed at the table, not the bottle itself laying in the dark, but I certainly respect anyone who employs the same grammar and principles of beautiful yet functional design for their wine cellar as they do for their home.
A custom-designed formal wine cellar can be a sizeable investment, and will bring joy to the wine collector or connoisseur. But is it a good investment? Does an aesthetically pleasing wine storage area add to the resale value of the Upstate House?
Brenda Graf, a realtor at Westwood Metes & Bounds in Ulster County remembered that “I sold a house with a temperature-controlled wine cellar to a French couple who liked wine and liked the cellar, but it was hardly a major focus of the sale. They were much more interested in the beautiful grounds, the stream, etc. I don’t believe that the wine cellar added any real value to the sale."
Shawn Jackson is a realtor for Caldwell Banker/Currier Lazier in Orange County. Jackson talked about a “$1.5 million house with a wine cellar and small in-home winery. The room impressed me and it created a quality in the home that could only help the sale, make the sale a little easier. A contributing factor, yes, and depending on the buyer I suppose it might have added $10,000 to the sale, but probably not.”
Shari Jones sells real estate for Irving Kalish Real Estate in Woodstock, NY and also believes that while a formal wine cellar can be a nice part of the house, it adds no real dollars-and cents value.
Jones summed up her position tidily when asked which home addition would add more resale value to a home, a wine cellar or a half-bath.
"Absolutely the half bath. No contest. No question."
Clearly, storing wine at home is no big deal if you use common sense. So, why do some people insist on formal wine cellars in their homes? It may sound funny to those of us naïfs who believe that wine is for enjoying and sharing with friends, but some homeowners consider wine storage --be it a cellar or a series of attractive shelves – an important decorative element in their homes.
According to Michael Babcock, president of www.wineracks.com, located in High Falls, NY, “Anyone with more than 12 bottles of wine should have some type of racking just for the ease of it. The larger the collection, the more a formal space is required, for both proper storage and organization of the wines. Many customers like to showcase their collection in their homes, so for them the decorative element is a must.”
Babcock asks his clients some basic questions when they approach him for a custom-designed wine cellar or for any of the numerous prefab storage configurations offered on-line by his company.
“We start by asking the customer some basic questions: How large is the available space? How many bottles are they interested in racking? Is the cellar to be a showplace for entertaining or purely functional? Are environmental controls – for temperature and humidity – required? What species of wood for the racks? What are the budget constraints? Are there any specific or special requirements for racking or bottle display required?”
Then, the staff of www.wineracks.com gets busy fulfilling the needs of the customer, installing the wine racks. It appears that customer need is healthy and growing. According to Babcock, “We do a high volume business in our prefabricated racking lines. We offer storage systems for just about any situation, from a counter top in a small apartment, to racks under the staircase, to systems that can handle thousands of bottles. We do see a movement for more custom racking as Americans are becoming more interested in wine & food, and seem to be spending more time entertaining at home.”
When it comes to his own wine storage needs, Babcock walks the walk. “I live in a town house with space constraints, so I have a 400 bottle free-standing self-contained wine cellar.”
Earlier this year, I was asked to be a judge of the 4th Annual Hudson Valley Commercial Wine Competition, conducted under the auspices of the Hudson Valley Wine & Grape Association (HVWGA). I looked forward to participating, as the competition provided an opportunity for me to taste some of the best wines produced in the Hudson Valley.
On April 26th, the competition was held in a model house at Brook in Waterland, located on the 200 acre Bentley Farm in the town of Stanford. Brook in Waterland is a project conceived by Dutch investors to sell 25 homes, inspired by 17th century Dutch architecture, clustered on the farm, leaving 140 acres of the farm preserved as agricultural land and open space. The view from the kitchen of the home is a six acre vineyard, which will be planted to Cabernet Franc. The model home where the tasting was held was 4,650 square feet and had a price tag of about $3 million. Good luck, Brook.
I arrived bright and early, along with my fellow judges: Bob Brink, Fine Wines Manager for Arlington Wine and Spirits in Poughkeepsie; Chris Gerling, Cornell University Agricultural Extension Associate for Enology in New York State; Harriet and Bill Lembeck: Harriet is a highly respected wine educator in New York City and author of the 6th and 7th editions of “Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers, and Spirits.” Bill loves wine and is an excellent taster; Bill Rattner, Wine Director for the Xaviar’s Restaurant Group; Jennifer Redmond, manager of Enthusiastic Spirits and Wines in Gardiner; and Brian Smith, a professor at The Culinary Institute of America, and the co-author (along with Michael Weiss and myself) of “Exploring Wine” and the upcoming book, “WineWise.”
The tasting and competition revealed that Hudson Valley wines and wine producers have come a long way, but still have a long way to go. I tasted a small number of superb wines, a larger number of drinkable wines, and several forgettable-to-undrinkable wines. My tasting notes, provided by the HVWGA as a perceived benefit to the winemakers, range from “Excellent wine, beautifully balanced, good acidity and complex tannins” to “Please stop making this wine,” and “Good job! A lovely wine,” to “Tastes like a science project gone bad.”
Indeed, the tasting was uneven. It was an excellent day for Millbrook Winery and its winemaker, John Graziano, as it racked up many gold medals and first-place accolades. It was, surprisingly, a very bad day for Riesling, my favorite white grape on the planet. Personally, I thought it was a good day for hard apple ciders, but what were they doing in this wine tasting?
It was a mixed day for hybrid-based wines. Hybrids are grapes that are a biological cross of the species vitis vinifera – grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, along with the other usual suspects – and native grapes, which belong to such species as vitis labrusca or vitis riparia, such as Concord or Niagara. Well-known hybrids in the Hudson valley include Seyval, Vignoles, Baco Noir, and Chancellor. Hybrids are popular here because they are disease-resistant and can survive extreme weather conitions. I admit to not being a big fan of most hybrid-based wines I’ve tasted, although I find myself becoming a sucker for a simple, fruity white, Traminette, whose vinifera parent is Gewürztraminer.
At the tasting, I also found out about Hudson Heritage™ wines. To be a Hudson Heritage white, all grapes must be grown in the Hudson River Region American Viticultural Area (AVA), and must be 70%-85% Seyval, with the remainder of the blend made from any or all of the following: Vidal, Vignoles, Cauyuga, and Traminette. The wine may be up to 2% residual sugar, cannot undergo malolactic fermentation (which changes fresh, fruity, high-acid flavors to rich, creamy flavors), cannot be exposed to oak, and must be bottled in a Hock style bottle (thin, tapered bottle, closely identified with German white wines).
Red Hudson Heritage wines must be made from Hudson River Region grapes, and may include Noiret (35%-55%), DeChaunac (35%-55%), and other hybrid grapes (from 20% to 30%). Oak aging is allowed, residual sugar must be less than 1%, malolactic fermentation is allowed (common for virtually all red wines), and must be bottled in a Burgundy style bottle (closely identified with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bottles).
I will repeat here what I said at the competition: I love the idea of Hudson Heritage™, but I strongly disagree with the idea that only hybrid grapes represent the “heritage” of Hudson Valley wines. There are wonderful Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc wines produced in the Hudson Valley, but they cannot claim the mantle of Hudson Heritage, according to the HVWGA. I think it is a mistake to encourage growing hybrids in the Hudson Valley by saying in effect that these hybrid grapes – grapes made from genetic crosses of vinifera and native grapes or by crossing multiple hybrids to produce yet another hybrid – are the grapes that matter in the Hudson Valley. Some of my fellow judges agreed with me, some strongly disagreed. I think that Hudson Heritage, as currently defined, is a step backward for Hudson Valley wines, and discourages new plantings of grapes that may give the Valley a place at the table with fine wines from other regions of the world. Hybrids are not going to do that.
On with the tasting. We tasted flights of wines grouped by varietal and/or style for about three hours. The groupings included: Hybrid White, Hybrid Red, Sparkling (including hard ciders), Vinifera White, Vinifera Red, Off-Dry Whites (some of these were quite sweet), Fruit Wines (other than grapes, including apple, peach, pear, blueberry, raspberry, and strawberry wines), Dessert wines, and Ports.
Here are the winners of the 4th Annual Hudson Valley Wine Competition by class and variety, along with some notes on my personal preferences:
Brotherhood Winery NV Blanc de Blancs
Silver Medal, Best Sparkling Wine
(I preferred the Applewood Winery Stonefence 2006 Hard Cider, which won a Bronze Medal)
Benmarl Winery 2006 Seyval
Gold Medal, Best in Class and Best White Hybrid
(I agree; a fine example of Seyval)
Best Hudson Heritage:
Whitecliff Vineyards 2007 Awosting White (Seyval/Vignoles)
(An off-dry wine, very pleasant, very easy to drink; good for spicy food)
Millbrook Vineyards 2007 Tocai Fruilano
Gold Medal, Best in Class, Best White Vinifera
Millbrook Vineyards 2006 Chardonnay
(This is how I voted, so I must have liked these wines. Very fine. The Tocai Friulano is singular and exceptional, the Chardonnay is one of the best made in New York State)
Labrusca (Native) Grape:
Hudson-Chatham Lindenwald White Niagara/Diamond
Silver Medal, Best in Class
(Fruity, semi-sweet sipper)
Benmarl Winery 2006 Baco Noir Gold Medal, Best Red Hybrid
(Baco Noir has been growing at Benmarl for a long time, and the winery produces one of the best Baco Noir wines in the country. I really enjoyed this wine.)
Millbrook Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Franc
Gold Medal, Best in Class, Best in Show, Best HV Wine
Millbrook Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Franc Block 3
Oak Summit Vineyards 2006 Pinot Noir
Silver Medal, Best in Category
(In general, I agree with my fellow judges, although I gave the edge to Block 3 Cabernet Franc; both wines were excellent. The Oak Summit Pinot Noir was also very fine; ironically, John Bruno’s Oak Summit Vineyard is located in Millbrook, and the wine is made by Millbrook winemaker John Graziano for Oak Summit. A blowout for Millbrook.)
Bashakill Winery 2007 Osprey (Vignoles)
Silver Medal, Best in Class
(The wine was light and sweet, with a short finish)
Brookview Station 2007 Pomona (Apple/Pear)
Gold Medal, Best in Category, Best in Class
(interesting wine; semi-sweet with a nice balance of flavors)
Brotherhood Winery NV Ruby Port
Gold Medal, Best in Class
(Not my style, but several other judges enjoyed it).
Clinton Vineyards NV Cassis
Gold Medal, Best in Category, Best in Class
(Clinton has rescued black currants from obscurity in the Hudson Valley, and made a truly exceptional fortified wine, fruit-driven, off-dry to semi-sweet; a showstopper)
Warwick Valley Winery NV Pear Liqueur
Gold Medal, Best in Category
(Actually a liqueur, not a wine; a fruit-based spirit infused with Hudson Valley pears and pear brandy. Delicious)
The competition was followed by a lovely lunch at a new Hudson Valley Restaurant, Red Devon, in nearby Bangall, where we were able to pair Hudson Valley wine winners with the winning food of chef Jim Jennings. Red Devon, named for the cow bred on the restaurant owners’ farm in Millbrook, is committed to local food and farmers, and a “green” dining experience. Red Devon also has a take-out/eat-in market, with prepared local foods and wonderful breads baked on the premises. We enjoyed an extraordinarily fresh pea soup and excellent lamb chops “from the farm down the road,” according to restaurant manager Kelley Jefferson.
It was a wonderful experience to taste the great food from the farm down the road with the great wines from the vineyards down the road.