Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Get a bit exotic...

Sometimes, it's good to go off the beaten track with a wine; most people have a list of "safe" wines, the familiar.  For example, most wine drinkers know the major white grapes (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, perhaps even Viognier and Chenin Blanc).  So when was the last time you tried something new?

Enter Torrontés.  It's a grape grown primarily in South America, mainly Argentina, although I've seen Uruguayan examples of it as well.  It's a grape that gives you a surprise when you drink it; it smells very riesling-like, showing peach and crisp pear, with mineral undertones, while tasting pretty much wholly unlike that.  It's generally vinified dry, and the major flavor component tends to be crisp, under-ripe pear, with good acidity and some mineral.

Great wine for sipping during the summer, especially here in the warmer climes of the Gulf Coast of Florida.  Chill, pop, and pour.  Yum.

The best part?  I've never seen a Torrontés that cost more than $14.  At my local wine store, they range from $6 to about $12.  So, they squarely occupy the region that Suavignon Blanc used to, before everyone began drinking New Zealand.

Photo from Wikipedia, used under copyleft.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tasting blind

If you've never done so, a blind tasting is a fun, easy way to try out a bunch of wines and not get overly-influenced by the marketing or over-awed by the label.  Take your wines, put them into brown bags -- ask at the wine store for some extras if you need, they should be glad to give you some -- and completely remove the foil and pop the cork.

Have someone else label the wines, ABCD etc, in no particular order.  You do these two things (removing the foils and having someone else label the wines) in order to keep yourself from associating a particular bag (or particular foil neck) with a particular wine; trust me, the first couple times you do a blind tasting, you'll be hunting for clues as to what it is you're tasting.

Taste wine A.  Make some notes.  Rate it.  Chew it over a bit.  Repeat with B, and so on, until you're done.  Share your notes with other people tasting the wines; compare and contrast ("Oh, so I'm not the only one who thought that wine A smelled like maple-cured bacon!")

And... reveal.  Sometimes, it's a complete surprise (once, at a blind tasting, my dead-on favorite, and the hit of the night was a $14 cabernet; everything else was $20 and from Big Name Regions).  Sometimes, not.  But, it's always fun.

Even better -- make a party of it.  Have everyone bring a bottle in a bag (and don't worry about repeats; sometimes, it'll keep you honest!), and you, as the host, do the foil and cork removal.  Just specify a grape type or region ("this weekend, we'll be tasting merlot," or "Let's find wines from Rioja," would work as a theme), and a price point (to keep it fair on all attendees, and to eliminate the fear of "what if we're the only ones bringing a $10, unusually-named Argentine wine?").  Let your guests discover each other's wines... and perhaps you should be the one throwing a ringer into the mix.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Finding values: going off the beaten path

One of the common complaints in wine shops across the country is, "Oh, [insert_wine_here] has gotten so expensive, I remember when it cost half as much!"  This often refers to American wines, and generally some Big Name Winery from California.  Think Heitz, Cakebread, Turnbull, Ferrari-Carano etcetra.  There's also a refrain of "Oh, [insert_wine_here] was so much better back before they were popular!"

And, strangely enough, most of that is correct.

The solution, of course, is go off-list.  Just because a winery isn't a Big Name, doesn't mean it's any less good.  In fact, often, the smaller guys can be better.  When a winery is starting out, there's little to no brand identity, so there's less demand.  Correspondingly, the winery can be much more selective with their sources for fruit (be it estate-grown or negociant fruit), as they don't need as much to meet demand.  Price can be lower, as demand drives price significantly in the wine business.  So you've got (often) higher-quality wine at a lower cost.

Then, enter a critic.  Someone in a magazine puts a score on the wine, a 93.  It gets featured as a "best buy," or "critic's choice," or some such.  Demand goes up.  The first thing that happens is the retail price will go up -- the exact thing that happened to Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma 2007 when it was featured on Wine Spectator's Top 100 list (the wine jumped from $20 to $25 overnight) -- and it disappears from shelves as people get convinced they must buy this wine.

Which is weird; I've never known anyone to go to a $8 movie because Leonard Maltin or Gene Shalit say they must, but I do know people who buy $80 wine because Robert Parker or James Laube say they should.

So, now our hypothetical winery now has a brand identity, and some loyal customers following them.  At this point, they've got to do one of two things (or even both) -- make more wine than in previous vintages, to meet their higher demand, or raise prices.  The former will allow the winery to keep up with demand and keep prices steady, but it means that they've got to be just a little less selective with their fruit (premium grapes are a finite resource, after all).  The latter will tend to discourage new customers from purchasing the wine, but truly brand-loyal customers will still pay the premium.

And, now, "oh, it was so much better before it got recognized," and "wow, it's so expensive now!"

So you find value by looking beyond the Big Names... both in appellation and branding.  Just because a Pinot Noir doesn't come from Oregon, doesn't mean it's not potentially worthwhile (in fact, in my humble opinion, Oregon is overpriced right now -- the top-level wines from Oregon are more expensive than the corresponding top-level wines from any premium region save Burgundy... but Burgundy has a tradition of great wine stretching back longer than Oregon has been a state, while Oregon has only been making high-quality wine for a couple of decades.).  Cabernet from Napa carries a premium, while correspondingly good wine from Paso Robles does not.

The same goes for branding.  If you want to buy, say, Cakebread chardonnay... well, if you can find it (Cakebread is allocated in most retail markets, so the supply is artificially limited)... expect to pay a premium for it.

How do you find good wines in oddball places?  Simple.  Ask.  If your wine shop doesn't have a knowledgeable staff, don't shop there.  Taste.  Most places have tastings for free, or at least a minimal fee.  Keep an eye on websites like localwineevents.com, which lists (you guessed it!) local wine events, where you can try new stuff, generally less expensively.

By way of example, within an easy drive from where I live, there are 3 sites of one chain wine and liquor store that holds tastings on a quarterly basis that cost $10, and have around 50 wines to try.  There's another chain that has a single site, where tastings are monthly and $10.  There's two sites of another chain that has free tastings every weekend, occasionally has some during the week when a producer or importer comes by, and has in-depth classes for $25 about once a month.  There's three wine bars with enomatic machines (one with about 15 selections that rotate weekly, another with about 40 changed biweekly, and the final one has about 30 changing weekly), and another by-the pour bar.  Oh, and a grocery store that has a great wine selection (and cheese shop, but that's another matter), that does weekly tastings for free.

Yeah, I'm lucky like that.  But, the odds are, there's more going on near you than you know.  So find out!

With all that wine to taste -- comparatively inexpensively! -- there's bound to be something new, something off the map, and something great.

And then, we can all complain in five or ten years, "Oh, [insert_formerly_obscure_wine_here] was so much better and inexpensive before everyone knew about it!"

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The care and feeding of Cellartracker, part 2, working with wines.

Yesterday, I explained how to add wines to Cellartracker.  Today, we'll learn how to consume wines (out of the database, I mean), make notes both of consumed wines and tastings of wines not in your cellar, and how to add an entirely new wine.

Drinking a wine out of your database.  It's Friday night, you're having steaks... mmm, perfect pairing for a bottle of cab.  After you pop the cork and take the first sip (because, if you're like me, the wine will almost assuredly be tasted before the meal is done... or even started!), pop over to your "My Cellar," and click on the wine you've tasted.  Under the "My inventory" heading (below the basic wine information), there should be a number -- the number of bottles you have -- and a little "D."  Click the D.  That brings you to the "Drink a bottle" page, where you can consume your wine.  You can add a private note ("Had with Dad for Father's day steaks"), rate the wine, and add tasting notes.  When you're done, click the "consume this bottle," button, and voila.  Your Cellartracker cellar is one bottle lighter, and (if you felt like making notes or a rating), the wine you just had now has a review for others to see.

Making notes on a wine not in your database.  Say you went to the local wine store and there was a tasting (gee, I hate it when that happens!).  Lo and behold, you loved (or hated) a specific wine or wines.  You can let the world know!  Find the wine (both name and vintage) using the search, and under "personal and community tasting history (public)," click on the "add a new public tasting note."  Make the note as you would with a consumed bottle, and now the world knows that this wine rules, and that wine sucks.  At least in your opinion, that is...

Adding an entirely new wine.  So, you got a bottle of artesinal wine from the vineyard where you vacationed.   Amazingly, Cellartracker doesn't have that wine in it's database!  First thing to do, make sure you're searching for the right terms; I've found that it's best to look for the varietal and appellation, then display the results by wine, and then sort alphebetically.  Display all, and scroll through to find your wine; it may be in there.

But, what if the vintage isn't there, or it's a new release from an existing producer?  You can add a wine based on an existing wine -- for vintage changes (the easiest), you click the "new vintage" under the "Vintages" header in the left-hand column.  Input the proper vintage in the text box, and make sure all the other information is correct (sometimes, appellations change as vintages change, and producers source their grapes from different places).  Similarly, if you need to add a new wine -- say, a Cab producer makes a Merlot this year, you'd go into the new vintage screen, and edit the varietal.

If the wine is completely new, you'll have to add an entirely new wine -- click on "add wine to my cellar" under "common tasks" in the left hand bar.  Type the wine name in.  When it doesn't return any existing wines, click "CLICK HERE to create an ENTIRELY NEW WINE."  You'll have to specify all the information (heck, you can even specify the UPC if you like), but it'll get put in as it would with a modified wine.

So, this covers most of what you might want to do with Cellartracker; there's more to discover on it, but hopefully this'll help you get the basics down.  Tomorrow... more wine, I promise!  There's a couple of good bottles of Chardonnay in my fridge, just aching to be tasted.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The care and feeding of Cellartracker, part 1, managing your collection.

Cellartracker.com is an online wine database; it allows you to track your wine collection, make reviews on wines you've tasted, see what other people think of wines before you buy... basically, it's a wine-and-computer-geek's paradise.

So how do you use it?

Well, after setting up an account, you might want to start adding the wines you've already got on hand into your cellar.  It's easiest to do so by searching for the wine in the search box; make sure that the dropdown menu is on "wine (all data)," and that the "only show mine" checkbox is unchecked.  So, for example, if you have a bottle of Château Pontet-Canet 2005, that should be your search term (and, don't worry about any circumflexes, accents, or umlauts -- you can type the letter in as normal, without the mark).  In the case of Pontet-Canet 2005, the search will return three wines -- Hauts de Pontet-Canet, Pontet Canet, and Pontet-Canet Kosher.  

Click on the name of the correct wine, and Cellartracker will bring you to the specific wine's page.  Here, you can see other user reviews of the wine, add copyrighted reviews (from, say, Wine Spectator, or Wine Enthusiast), make notes, and generally work with your database .

To add a bottle (or more) of wine to your cellar, either click under "My Inventory," or "add a new purchase."  I prefer to record purchases, as that allows me to track the cost/value of my wines, so we'll treat this hypothetical addition as a purchase; if you prefer to simply add inventory, the process is similar.

On the purchase page, there are options for number of bottles, size (the default is 750 ml, but if you've got a magnum or half-bottle, or some other size, find it in the dropdown), cost per bottle, store (this should be initially empty, but there's a text-entry box to add a new store; you can set a store as a default under "my account" on the "display options" tab), purchase date, delivery date (useful for wine bought online, or a futures purchase), any order notes, a storage location box (default is "cellar," but if you store wine in another place -- for example, keeping Champagne in the fridge -- enter that location in the text box, and you can choose it later in the dropdown.  You can set a default the same place as a default store -- "my account," in the "display options" tab), and bin (if you've got a large cellar that is subdivided by bins...).

So, enter the appropriate information, click "add new purchase," and lather, rinse, and repeat with the next wine.  If you've got a large collection, this could be a weekend-long project (ahh, but think of the fun you can have, ferreting out bottles, remembering where you were and what you were doing when you got them....).

Now, that's what you do when everything goes right.  What if you can't find a wine you own?  Well, that's when it's time to add a new wine... which we'll get to tomorrow.

When you're done adding wines (and making notes on wines that aren't in the cellartracker database -- and, yes, you may well find some, even as complete as the database is), you should be able to see a long list of your wines when you click "my cellar."  Some of them will have drinking windows (right now, that'll be the average of what other cellartracker users thing the drinking window of the wine is), some will have a rating denoted as something like "CT88.4," which would mean the average user rating of that wine is an 88.4 -- and that there may well be reviews that describe the wine (some folks only add numerical ratings, so not all wines with a CT score will have full reviews).  From this main cellar page, you can do a number of things; sort your wines by varietal, vintage, producer, and appellation in the "summarize by," dropdown.  You can even print a wine list!

Tomorrow:  Adding new wines to the database, and consuming wine... from the database, I mean -- I'd hope that you know how to consume wine, in general!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What in the world is this doing here?

Full disclosure:  this wine was given to me as a sample at work.

Sometimes, one finds an unusual wine hiding in the "wrong" place -- talk to me sometime about the first time I tried a Monica di Sardignia (blind, I thought it was a Côtes du Rhône.  Wrong country, wrong grape).  Such was the case last night, when I tried Sonoma Cuvee's 2006 Russian River chardonnay.  I had expected typical Russian River wine -- really ripe fruit, lots of oak and malolactic.  In other words, a manipulated-to-hell-and-back wine.  This is such an unusual wine; it is completely atypical of the region.

By all rights, the wine didn't even belong in the Russian River; it was much more like a white Burgundy -- one of the white Burgundies that sees oak, like a Montrachet, but a white Burgundy nonetheless.  It was most emphatically not a California oakbomb of a chardonnay.  Admittedly, this might turn off some, as it's... well, unexpected.  There's little malolactic fermentation evident, so there's no creamy texture, just crisp tree fruit.

The wine is clear yellow in the glass, almost straw-colored.  The nose shows the style immediately, with tree fruit dominating, apples and pears, very crisp.  A hint of limestone/slate is also in evidence.  A taste reveals more of the same, with a bit of new oak coming through on the finish.  The wine appears light on it's feet, despite being reasonably full-bodied, mainly due to the high acidity.  It's balance is quite good, and the finish remains in the mouth for some time.  89 points.

Sonoma Cuvee is a biodynamic producer; while I don't agree with the entirety of the biodynamic philosophy (especially the "preparations," which seem like voodoo to me), the end result in this case is tasty, and organic. Taking care of the estate that grows the grapes seems to me to be, ultimately, a sensible approach to farming. 

All in all, a good $20 bottle.  Sonoma Cuvee also makes Pinot Noir, and has (more expensive) single-vineyard versions of both varietals.

Taking the bull by the horns

Full disclosure: This wine was tasted at a free tasting with the importer, and I chose to purchase the bottle shown in the picture for later consumption at home.

Toro is a relatively new region in Spanish wine; the DO (Denominacion de Origin) was created in 1987 with only a handful of wineries.  In the last 20 years, though, a number of producers have moved into the area, increasing the number to about 40.  The primary grape here is Tinto de Toro, which is the local name for Tempranillo.  Stylistically, the wines tend to be more New World in style than their brethren from other Spanish DO's, such as Rioja.

An example would be T Toro, of which I've just recently tried the 2006.  According to the importer, the wine comes from 50+ year old Tempranillo vines grown in a sandy soil.  Interestingly enough, the vines are all ungrafted vinefera, as the sandy soil helps to prevent phylloxera.  The wine is bottled under Stelvin, rather than cork, another indication of the progressiveness of the Toro winemakers.

The wine is an opaque purple, with a thin ruby rim.  A swirl and sniff shows the New World character of the wine immediately; there's a ton of fruit to smell, mainly blackberry and cherry.  Some spice notes, kind of like baking cinnamon.  Sipping shows lots of explosive, jammy fruit.  Lots of flavor here, with the spice moderated -- indeed, almost completely covered -- by the berries.  The wine feels a bit top heavy, with too much going on in the forepalate and not much at the end.  That being said, the finish is rather long, about 45 seconds of blackberry jam.  89 points.

Good example of an everyday wine -- it cost me $9 to buy a bottle -- that would pair off quite well with a number of meals.  Off the top of my head, I can think of gourmet burgers (especially with sauteed sweet onions), pork chops with apple sauce, and my father's pork tenderloin in honey Jack Daniels marinade all as being good pairings.

Beginning at the beginning

When I drink a wine, I love to find value -- as it's often said, "anyone can find a good $60 bottle.  Finding a good $15 bottle, that's the trick."

That's what drives me in wine; finding the $15-$20 bottle that tastes like a $30-$40 bottle.  And, that's what I'll share here; good affordable wine that tastes like it costs more.  Not to say that I won't talk about expensive stuff... especially given my love of Champagne.  But, for every great Champagne, there should be a great Cremant de Bourgogne or Cava.  For the most part, the idea will be talking about things that can be found for under $20.

And, a note on rating; yes, I will rate wines, including a score out of 100.  No, I don't expect you to agree with me; indeed, everyone's palate is different, something a lot of people seem not to understand.  This should be a jumping-off point, but trust your own palate!