- 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.
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.