These Aren’t Beach Reads (Unless You Want Them To Be)

It’s the time of year for ubiquitous lists of books that are deemed appropriate to be read “on the beach.” 

I have never quite understood what qualifies one book over another to be read on the sand. Length? Seasonal content? The ability of the pages to withstand sunscreen smudges? 

However, I’m also the kind of person that lugs giant tomes to the beach. I read War & Peace on a beach in Jamaica. In Bermuda I sat under an umbrella and read about the Iraq War. I finished Whittaker Chambers’ book, Witness, at a resort in Antigua. Yes, I like nice beaches, and yes, I’m obviously a really good time at parties. (And I also don’t get in the water much, because the ocean is the shark’s house, people.)

Anyway, all of that to introduce the list below. We’ve listed five of our favorite stories about wine, ones that you can read anywhere you want. Just like a good bottle of bubbly, these books don’t need a reason or a season to be enjoyed. 

(And what makes this list better than any other is that we also suggest wine to drink along with your book. You're welcome.)

Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France by Kermit Lynch

Without hesitation, I will tell you that this is my favorite wine book. Kermit Lynch is now a wine merchant of international renown, but back in the late 1980s and 1990s, he was a lowly wine merchant driving around France in a rental car and climbing from one mildewy cellar to the next to bring back the wines that made him famous. There’s no uppity commentary or elitist wine musings in this book; just a focus on how the purity of the place and its people translates into wine. (One of my favorite passages discusses how a male vintner’s wine often reflects the demeanor and temperament of his wife.) Each chapter focuses on a different growing region: Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, the Languedoc, Provence, and the Rhône. The book is a love story to wine, an ode to the individuals who produce it, and a pleasure to read.

Pairing: Pick up a bottle of red or rosé from Domaine Tempier (Provence) – probably the wine most associated with the history of Kermit Lynch. Lynch started importing Domaine Tempier in the mid-1970s and Tempier has now become one of his most important producers, and one of the most esteemed names in the word. (You can afford a bottle if you’re willing to spend in the neighborhood of $40-$50!)

The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo

“Veuve” means “widow,” in French and this is the story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the young widow who led the Clicquot wine house into prominence, revolutionized the Traditional Method of making champagne, and did all this while smashing the glass ceiling before anyone even knew what a glass ceiling represented. The story is told from the perspective of the author, and contains digestible tid bits about the invention of and process for making the world’s favorite sparkling beverage. A quick, easy and interesting (and inspiring!) read. 

Pairing: Champagne, of course!  If you want to be authentic about it, a bottle of yellow-label Clicquot will run you between $45-50. (The Grande Dame, the good stuff, is a little more pricey at $150-200.) If you don’t want to splurge, find a sparkling wine that’s made in the Traditional Method and sip away.

Napa: The Story of an American Eden by James Conaway

Ever wondered how Napa got its start? It was a dusty old farming town before the likes of Jack and Jamie Davies, Robert Mondavi, John Daniel and André Tchelistcheff made it into a world-class wine-producing region. But it wasn’t easy, and like any great American story, there was a whole lot of drama – family feuds, lawsuits, bankruptcies, divorces, you name it, and Conaway has probably written about it. This story is a social history as much as anything else, and will give you the cultural and historical context to help you appreciate your next visit to the Cali vineyards.

Pairing: A Cabernet Sauvignon from BV (short for Beaulieu Vineyards), a bottle of Schramsberg sparkling wine, or anything from Howell Mountain – the first Napa sub-region to be officially recognized as an American Viticultural Area.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace

This is one of my favorite wine books to re-visit, because it’s got everything – history, world-class vintages, fraud, mystery, criminals, Thomas Jefferson, and a Koch brother. Not only did I learn a ton about the great Houses of Bordeaux, I got a taste for how the other half lives and have decided to aspire to it! This book also discusses wine fraud in detail – an issue that continues to deeply impact and resonate throughout the wine world. It’s a fast-paced, interesting and informative read, with enough real-life drama that a movie is in the works. 

Pairing: The wines referenced in this book are wildly out of my price range, but grab yourself a Bordeaux from the Haut-Médoc (home of all of the Bordeaux first-growths but one) and sip aspirationally!

Wine & War: The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure, by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup

I was gifted this book for Christmas, and in true vacation mode, sat in my pajamas and read it all in a single day. Not many of us think about how the ancient vineyards of France survived two World Wars, but it’s a legitimate question, and the answer is far more interesting than I would have imagined. It turns out that the love of good wine – and the appreciation for its history – spans political and ideological differences, even in wartime. It also turns out that there are a number of interesting ways to build wine into a wall. A fast and entertaining read.

     

 

 

Pairing: Grab a bottle of white or red Burgundy (Pinot Noir or Chardonnay) and sip appreciatively while you read just how close these vines came to disappearing forever.

Kicking Off 2015 - Good Wine & Good Food

Hello, internet. We are back.

We were on an extended break due to a confluence of events that included holidays, travel, wine exams, and the general business of being an adult which always appears relatively simple on the outside, but actually taxes me to a greater degree than I probably should admit. Some days I’m not quite sure how I made it to, and continue to persist in, successful adulthood.

ANYWAY. With that little disclaimer/over-share, let’s return to the vino, shall we?

We kicked off the year with an amazing wine dinner with friends, and the highlights are worth sharing. I am fortunately blessed with friends who cook SO MUCH BETTER (and so much more frequently) than I do.

But!

I can pair wine. So, that’s how I get out of having to assist with the meal, which is better for everyone, because I usually end up a) cutting myself or b) setting something on fire.

Anyway, onto the menu, with pairings:

Appetizer: Crostini two ways, with homemade bruschetta and prosciutto, ricotta and honey.

Wine Pairing: Vecchia Modena Premium Lambrusco

Can we talk about how under-loved (and under utilized) Lambrusco is? Lambrusco is a sparkling red wine out of Italy. It’s light-bodied, frizzante, and meant to be drunk young. This is pure picnic wine, people. It also pairs really well with prosciutto, and stands up the acid in raw tomatoes, hence why I paired it here. It is also a suitable accompaniment to pizza, and is basically THE perfect wine for sunny, summer afternoons in the park. Also for as an aperitif.

First Course: Frisee Salad with Poached Egg and Lardon

Wine Pairing: Homage to Heritage White Burgundy, Pouilly-Fuissé

So, I went with a White Burgundy for this course. To be honest, as I served it I was wondering if I should have gone for a more high acid white; maybe a Chablis or even a Sauvignon Blanc. The pairing turned out to surprise me, though, and I think it may have been my favorite pairing of the meal. This Chardonnay had notes of ripe fruit – melon, apple and pear – and just a touch of neutral oak aging which gave it a little bit of creaminess and weight. The fruit matched the crispness of the frisee, and the weight and creaminess basically had a mind meld with the poached egg and lardon. I could eat this salad and drink this wine together for the rest of my life and be pretty happy about it.

Second Course: Cacio e Pepe with squid ink pasta

Wine Pairing: 2013 Roio Orvieto Classico

Cacio e Pepe is a light pasta dish consisting of Parmigiana cheese, pepper and…pasta. It’s simple and elegant, as most of the best meals are. And because of this, I struggled mightily with the wine pairing. Complex meals with multiple components are generally easier to pair – there are more handholds, if you will. More elements for the wine to link onto, more nuances to bring out subtleties in the wine. In simple dishes, there is nowhere to hide – the wine either works, or it doesn’t.

I played around with red wine possibilities for a while, contemplated a high acid white… In the end, I reverted back to my basic rule for all pairings: when stumped, go local.

Cacio e Pepe, it turns out, is native to the Umbria region of Italy. There’s also a lovely little white wine native to Umbria called Orvieto, which ended up being a perfect match for this dish. Orvieto is mostly Trebbiano (kind of like Chardonnay), a grape that has neutral qualities so as not to overwhelm this simple dish, and just enough acid to cut through the creaminess of the cheese and stand up to the pepper.

Third Course: Braised beef short rib over polenta

Wine Pairing: Donnachiara 2007 Taurasi Aglianico

Aglianico is a grape that has been around forever. It was a major export in ancient Greece, consumed by the Romans, and even protected by Popes. Like a lot of Italian wine, it’s had its ups and downs in quality. But this Taurasi (referring to the region where Aglianico is grown) is on point. Taurasi is in southern Italy, in the region of Campania, where it grows on volcanic soils. The soil lends the wine its most notable characteristics – black fruit flavors followed by smoke, ash, tobacco and black olives.

So often hearty beef dishes are paired with rich, fruit forward wines like a big Napa Cab or juicy Merlot. (Indeed – these short ribs had even been braised in Merlot…). But this Aglianico had just the right amount of grip and smoke to bring out the earthy elements of the meat and highlight the silkiness of the polenta. This was really a case where each element of the meal was beautiful on its own, and together they made an incomparable pair.

Desert: Chocolate soufflé

Wine Pairing: Blandy’s 5 year old Malmsey Madeira

Can I first say how lucky I am to have friends who can effortlessly craft perfect chocolate soufflés? Especially when these are the same friends with whom I did a lot of stupid things in college? From beer bongs to soufflés. The evolution of adulthood.

Anyway, this pairing was almost reflexive for me – I heard chocolate, and I paired Madeira.

Madeira is a fortified (sweet) wine from Portugal. I love it beyond all reason. Emma hates it and thinks it is gross.

To each their own, I suppose.

The flavors of Madeira pair so well with chocolate. Unlike more fruit forward fortified wines (think, Port), the most notable flavors in Madeira are fig, coffee, caramel and nuts. It’s the perfect offset to the sweetness of the chocolate.

The other great thing about Madeira is, frankly, how weird it is. (I love odd stories and weird wines….Madeira fits the bill in this regard). I’ve written here before about how heat is the enemy of wine. That is and remains true, except when the wine is Madeira.

Back during the Age of Exploration (Columbus! Pilgrims! East India Company!), Madeira was the standard beverage consumed on ships heading to the New World or the East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, a neutral grape spirit was added (usually brandy) just before the wine was stashed into the hull of the ship. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat, oxygen and movement, which transformed the flavor of the wine. The wine would be, essentially, cooked.

The modern method of making Madeira is intended to mimic the elements the wine was exposed to during long sea voyages. The modern process is called “estufagem (es-too-fuh-jem). It works like this: the best Madeira houses harvest their grapes, ferment them in steel or in oak and then….put them in the attic. Yup. They just stick them up in the attic (presumably not with all their winter clothes, family photos and Christmas ornaments...)where the wine is exposed to the boiling heat of Portugal summers. (Lower quality Madeira is put over stove generated heat, but the best stuff is attic-aged.)

Exposure to the elements that destroy most wines – oxygen and heat – are what make Madeira what it is. The added benefit of making it this way (besides the fact that it’s delicious) is that it makes Madeira virtually indestructible. You could open a bottle, put it on a shelf for a couple of months, expose it to summer heat, and then serve it, and it would still taste fine. Madeira lasts forever. 100-year old Madeiras are not infrequently sold. Vintages dating back to 1780 are known to exist in great condition. Old bottles come to market (usually at auction) and are still drinkable. (To compare, still, dry wine doesn’t usually last that long. Vintages from the 1800s are more likely to oxidize or spoil due to cork breakdown or bottle damage).

All of that to say, Madeira was a lovely way to finish off the meal.

You know the food was great when all the preparation fogs up the windows.

You know the wine was even better when your 30ish year-old friends feel compelled to finger-write their feelings on the window.

A Blizzard, A Bottle and; No Corkscrew

Sounds like a nightmare, right?

Buffalo, New York, is currently blanketed by approximately 5 feet of snow. No one is getting in or out or anywhere.

The first rule of emergency weather preparation (besides generators, first aid, fresh water, etc) is to STOCKPILE THE WINE to ensure that you never find yourself trapped in the house for several days without easy access to your best coping mechanism libations.

The second rule is to have a corkscrew on hand.

BUT FEAR YE NOT - if you don't have a corkscrew, there are creative ways to get into your bottle.

My sister and brother-in-law live in Buffalo, are currently snowed in and yesterday found themselves with a bottle of wine, but no way to access it. Thankfully they are both handy and know that the best way to solve a problem is to google it immediately. And then also to video tape yourselves attempting to do something where safety is not guaranteed and which might result in disaster. And send said video to your sister who has a blog, so she can put it on the Internet.

A video of these two trying to get into a wine bottle with a screw, a hammer, and sheer force of will is below. I'll summarize the process here:

1. Put screw into cork.

2. Attempt to lever out the cork using the tail of the hammer.

3. Realize you may break it/you're not strong enough/you don't want to be the one who spills the wine.

4. Make your husband do it.

5. He breaks the cork.

6. Cry dramatically in despair.

7. Husband tries again.

8. Remainder of cork is removed with screw and hammer.

9. Epic celebrating.

 

Wine Review: 2011 De Morgenzon DMZ Syrah

Weeks when Rachel teaches a class at DCanter (which you should all attend if you are in DC,) are good weeks for me. I get to watch a preview of the class, maybe taste some of the wine and learn a bunch about regions/grapes that I didn’t know about. This week was one of those weeks, the class was on Syrah vs Shiraz, and the truly shocking thing was that they are one in the same! Both wines come from the same grape; the different name comes from where they were grown, and how the wine was made. Usually, Syrahs come from the Northern Rhone area of France, where the vines grow on incredible slopes and the wines have tastes and aromas of cracked black pepper, earth and leather. Shiraz tends to come from the New World, especially Australia, where the vines have an easier time, and the wines are more aromatic and fruit forward. Anyway, after class this week, we had a tough choice of which wine to have to accompany our dinner.

In the end we went with the De Morgenzon DMZ Syrah 2011. This wine comes from South Africa, where is spends 11 months in French oak giving it hints of vanilla and smoke on the nose and on the palate.

When you first smell the wine, you get dark fruit, blueberry and boysenberry with a little dark chocolate and a fair amount of leather. It smells earthy but with a little smoke and some cherry. On the palate you find stewed fruit, overripe plum, and bramble. The wine finishes with some pleasant tannins. This is definitely a food wine, we ate it with steak, but you also can’t go too far wrong with chili either and since it is winter, both of those are pretty good options.

Rating: Weeknight Wine Place of Purchase: DCanter, Washington DC Retail Price: $20 If you like this you will like California Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz

To Cork or To Screw Top

Among the perennial questions about wine, one has been developing consistently over the last twenty years: to cork, or not to cork?

Corks have previously been the mainstay of wine closures. We wouldn’t recognize wine without them.  We sniff them upon being presented with one by the waiter, like we know what we’re doing. We keep them to commemorate events, to remember the occasion upon which we drank that 1994 Bodegas Vega Sicilia Gran Reserva (I wish). And plus, they make that very satisfying pop when they’re open, a sound we associate with something good about to happen.

Sidenote: in true wine and champagne service, the cork should never make a sound when it exits the bottle. Even when opening a bottle of bubbly, a good server or sommelier will ease the cork out with just the slightest whisper. The French say that the cork should come out in such a way that it “sounds like the sigh of a contented woman.”

Anyway. Corks. We know them, we love them, they are perhaps the top thing we associate with wine.

As of the last two decades or so, more ways to seal up wine bottles have emerged, primarily the synthetic cork, and the screw top. And, with change, inevitably comes controversy. (Literally, entire books have been written on the topic of wine closures. It’s a very, um, exciting topic.)

The primary use of a wine closure, be it a cork or otherwise, is to protect the wine from oxygen. Oxygen is bad for wine - it’s what makes the wine end up tasting like vinegar when you leave it out too long.

But because everything in life is tinged with irony and paradox, oxygen can also be good for wine, but only in controlled amounts. Some in the wine trade argue that this is the reason natural corks are the best closure - the natural cork allows tiny amounts of oxygen to interact with the wine in the bottle, helping it to age and develop complexity.

But natural corks also suffer from two key flaws. First, they can fail in their job to protect the wine from oxygen, and in doing so, cause the wine to age abnormally or to oxidize. Second, and more concerning, is their ability to develop “cork taint,” or TCA (which stands for trichloroanisole). TCA is a bacteria that’s present in some corks, and it basically makes your wine smell moldy and gross, like wet cardboard. Up to 5% of the wines in the trade are lost to TCA - an incredible amount, when you think about it. No other industry would consistently allow for a 5% loss without raising a fit. But, such is the power of tradition.

Hence the development of new ways to seal wine. The synthetic cork is just a cork made from plastic. It’s mostly impermeable when initially applied, and used mostly for wines that will be consumed within a couple of months of purchase. They don’t hold up well in the long term, so you won’t want to age a wine with a synthetic cork. For the wines you buy at Costco, however, a synthetic cork will do you just fine.

Lastly, and of great kerfuffle, is the screw top. Screw tops were initially championed by wine producers in New Zealand. First and foremost, these producers were far away from the center of cork production, which is Portugal. Getting natural corks was expensive. Second, these producers were losing a ton of their product to cork taint, and started looking for better options. The screwtop has been their savior, in this regard. The tops are largely impermeable to air, and don’t taint the wine. Trials have shown that they preserve the fruit flavor in the wine longer than natural corks do (which is great for the fresh and fruity New Zealand wines). There remains debate over how well wines under screwcap age. However, advances in screw top construction that allow limited oxygen transfer are currently on the market, so we’ll probably start seeing how well they work fairly soon.

A common misconception is that screwtops denote lesser quality wines. This is not true. In fact, they have nothing to do with quality. Yes, the fancy Burgundies and the expensive Bordeaux will most likely always be sealed with natural cork - but that has more to do with the French being French and Europeans being traditionalists than does a statement about the wine.

I’ve had some great German Rieslings, fresh Australian Sauvignon Blancs, and lovely New Zealand Pinot Noirs - all sealed by a screw top. In fact, while I write this, I am currently sipping a Chenin Blanc from Savennières in the Loire Valley. It’s sealed with a screw top. And it’s fantastic.

Do yourself a favor and remove any stereotypes you may have about the screw top. It’s good wine. Drink it.

So, let me sum this up:

Natural corks: Traditional choice and most widely used. Good for aging. Watch out for cork taint and cork fail.

Synthetic corks: Made of plastic. Solid choice for wines you’ll drink within the year. Don’t age a wine with a synthetic cork.

Screw tops: No relation to quality of the wine. Keeps the wine fresh with potential for aging.

Wines to Pair with Thanksgiving Dinner

So, when I woke up yesterday, it was April. And now, it’s nearly Halloween. Shortly Thanksgiving will be upon us. And there are only 61 shopping days until Christmas.

I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the holiday season.

Cue the frenzied masses of holiday shoppers, the chirpy Christmas music in every store, obnoxious light displays and every other sort of rampant consumerism holiday cheer.

And also, the food. THE FOOD. It’s really what we all live for around these times. Good food shared with friends and family. That, or we’re all stressed-out-disasters and just eating our feelings now that we have a legitimate excuse to binge. Whatever works.

With food also comes the wine, and invariably some stress about how to pair it with 15 different dishes and please 15 different palates, all owned by people who like wine, don’t like wine, thought wine came exclusively in jugs, and others who would prefer to just drink a lot of wine to cope with all the family time.

The first thing to remember when pairing wines around the holidays is that – well, it’s a holiday. You should drink what you want, and, most importantly, what keeps the peace. If Grandma wants to pair her cream sherry with asparagus, so be it. If your cousin brought a magnum of Yellow Tail but just can’t wait to try Auntie’s giant jug of Gallo (because, so fancy!), then maybe just buy a good bottle for yourself and keep it under the table, next to your chair. It’s really all about making sure everyone wins, right?

In the meantime, there are a few benchmark wines you can count on to pair well with traditional Thanksgiving fare – turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and so on.

I generally like to offer three styles of wine at Thanksgiving – a sparkling, a white and a red – both to give people options, and to accommodate the variety of foods present at the table. Below are some options.

Sparkling Aperitifs

I serve these before the meal, or as the meal is being served. It’s a refreshing way to open the palate, and will also pair well with the food. And bubbles are always a fun and easy way to start the meal (or break the ice!).

Riesling Sekt

Sekt is a German sparkling wine with a little more body than Cava or Prosecco. It has subtle flavors of fruit but can hold its own with food. This is my pick for my Thanksgiving table. Retails for around $20. Serve well chilled.

Prosecco or Cava

Prosecco (Italian sparkling) or a Cava (Spanish sparkling) also work for holiday pairing. They’ll be slightly lighter in body than the Sekt, but will still get the job done. You can find both of these in dry or sweeter styles. I prefer dry, which is light on the palate but still has a little bit of fruit to warm up your taste buds. Retails over a range of prices, $10-$30. Serve well chilled.

White Wines

In pairing white wines with Thanksgiving meals, I tend toward the medium to full bodied varietals – wines that will hold their own with a variety of foods. I wouldn’t recommend serving Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo, or any other light bodied, delicate white wines, as they are likely to be overshadowed by things like gravy or cranberry sauce. Instead, try one (or two, or three!) of the following:

Riesling 

Riesling is my go-to for Thanksgiving pairing. This wine comes in all sorts of styles to meet the needs of everyone’s palate, and the wine’s high acidity assures that it will pair well with food. My first pick would be a lush Alsatian Riesling by Trimbach or Humbrecht. Alsatian Rieslings are my favorite for their full and dry body, spicy fruit and lingering finish.

If you’re looking for something a little sweeter, try German Rieslings from the Mosel Valley or Pfalz (say like “Falls”). They are lighter bodied than wines from Alsace, and generally have a little more sweetness. When purchasing Riesling, be sure you’re getting the level of sweetness you want. For German wines, this should be indicated on the label by the following words:

Trocken means dry.

Halbtrocken means half dry.

Kabinett means light bodied and slightly fruity/sweet, but can also be dry

Spätlese (shpat-lace-ay) is fuller bodied than Kabinett and can be fruity/sweet

Auslese (owsh-lace-ay) means full bodied, and can be very sweet or dry

If they show up with Trocken anywhere on the label (like this: Kabinett-Trocken or Spätlese-Trocken) it means the wine is dry.

If there’s no identifier, the wine is likely dry or slightly off-dry.

Germany is fun, right?

(Side story: I was practicing my pronunciation of German wine terms recently, and it prompted Emma to ask me if I was choking.)

If you get confused or want to be sure you have the right bottle – ask! (That’s why wine boutiques – rather than grocery stores – are great places to buy wine. They have smart and wine-trained staff!)

If you prefer to drink a dry New World Riesling, try one from Eden Valley or Clare Valley in Australia. New York State is making some lovely, juicy Rieslings, as is Washington State. You can get a good Riesling from anywhere between $15-50 (or more). Serve them lightly chilled (30-35 minutes in the fridge should do the trick).

Gewürtztraminer (Geh-vertz-trah-meener)

Another of my Alsatian favorites! Gewürz is the German word for spice, and it aptly describes this wine. On the nose, Gewürztraminer gives you spicy notes of lychees, roses and baking spices. The wine itself is usually dry – although the presence of ripe fruit can make it taste a little sweet. Gewurtztraminer’s full body ensures it will stand up to all your Thanksgiving dishes. Retails for $15-30. Serve lightly chilled.

Albariño 

This Spanish white wine is a crowd pleaser. It’s perfect if you have any fish or seafood on your table, but will also stand up well to turkey, stuffing and the like. It’s slightly less full-bodied than a Riesling or a Gewurtztraminer, and will be a bit more tart to the tastebuds. Where the previous two have more lush, ripe fruit notes of mango, ripe pear and lychee, Albariño will have more tart apple and some lemon lime. Retails for $15-25. Serve lightly chilled.

White Burgundy 

White Burgundy is Chardonnay. I hesitate to put Chardonnay here because it can go very wrong with Thanksgiving. For instance, do not buy a big, buttery, oaked Napa Chardonnay for Thanksgiving. It just won’t work. And, conversely, don’t buy a super acidic French Chardonnay from Chablis. That will work better, but still won’t work well. If you want to buy a Chardonnay, stick with White Burgundy. It’s Chardonnay that isn’t given a tremendous amount of oak, so it allows the more aromatic elements of Chardonnay to come through, and it’s got a medium body to stand up to the food. I’d suggest getting White Burgundy from Pouilly-Fuissé (Poo-ee-Foo-say). Retails $20-40. Serve lightly chilled.

Red Wines

The primary focus in pairing white wines with Thanksgiving foods is to ensure that the wine can stand up to the meal. With red wine, the opposite is true – you want to ensure that the wine you serve doesn’t overwhelm some of the lighter dishes you have on the table. The wines I’ve chosen below should accomplish just that.

Rosé

Rosé is not red wine mixed with white wine. But, it can be a good compromise if you just want to serve one varietal. Rosés come in dry or sweet styles, but I’d recommend a dry style to serve with Thanksgiving. There are all kinds of good Rosés out there. Try to get one with a slightly bigger body – one based on Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, or Malbec. Retails between $15-25. Serve lightly chilled.

Pinot Noir

Oh, Pinot Noir. Jancis Robinson, a very famous Master of Wine, calls Pinot Noir “liquid chicken” because of its ability to pair well with a lot of things, and please most everyone’s palate. Pinot Noir is easy to pair because of its (usually) easy tannic structure and the depth and complexity of its flavors. New World Pinot Noirs (California, Oregon, etc) tend to show more fruit (cherry, strawberry), while Old World Pinot Noirs (primarily grown in Burgundy) show fruit with more earth and herbal qualities dominating. Depending on your palate and what you’re serving, you can pretty much go with either.

If you’re buying a French Pinot, look for wine that says “Red Burgundy” on the label – this is your most affordable style, anywhere from $15-25. You can spend a little more and go for Villages style Burgundy, which is a step up. Anywhere up from there will be a Premier Cru (also designated as 1er Cru) or a Grand Cru. The last two designations are where you can drop some dollars. For various reasons, Pinot Noir makes some of the most complex and nuanced wines in the world – and also some of the most expensive!

For younger, riper, fruiter Pinot, stick with Russian River Pinots from California, Oregon, or from Waipara or Central Otago in New Zealand. These are also great choices, and can be purchased for between $20-50. Serve at room temperature.

Beaujolais or Beaujolais Nouveau (Bow-joo-lay) 

Beaujolais is a fun little wine out of France that’s made of the Gamay grape. It’s light, fresh, fruit forward and easy to drink. It’s not complex – because it’s not supposed to be. You can get Beaujolais any time of year (and generally anywhere), but its sidekick, Beaujolais Nouveau, is only available at one point during the year – right around Thanksgiving. Under French law, Beaujolais Nouveau is released at 12:01am on the third Thursday in November (amidst much partying and eating of good food – this is France, after all). Beaujolais Nouveau is young, fresh and can be a little bit spritzy. It’s super fun to drink – and you should drink it young, at least by the following May.

If you’re getting Beaujolais, pay a little extra for Cru Beaujolais, it’s worth it. You can get standard Beaujolais for anywhere between $10-25. Beaujolais Nouveau won’t stretch you more than $15. Serve lightly chilled.

Valpolicella (Val-pole-ee-chella)

Valpolicella (named for the region it comes from in Italy) is my go-to wine for drinking in the fall, and for uncomplicated meal pairings. The wine is light bodied with floral and fruit notes, won’t overwhelm you with tannins like some of its Italian counterparts, and its high acidity makes it a lovely complement to whatever you’re eating. When you’re shopping for this, make sure you buy standard Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico, or Valpolicella Superiore. You should avoid Valpolicella Ripasso – that’s delicious, but heavier and not balanced for your meal. $15-25. Serve lightly chilled.

What's in a Vintage?

Most of us have heard a lot about “vintage wines.” They’re the sorts of wine that get served at dinners I don’t get invited to, and restaurants I can’t afford to eat at. We hear about them being purchased for embarrassingly large sums of money at auctions. We sip on our $10 bottle of 2012 Malbec from Safeway and wonder to ourselves if 2012 was a “good year” in…wait, where was this bottled, again?

So, what’s in a vintage? Does it matter? Does it make the wine better? Is the whole thing an over-commercialized farce?

All enduring (and reasonable) questions about wine.

Let’s start with the basics. A vintage represents a date. A single year, to be exact. It’s the year that’s printed on the bottle – so if someone asks you the vintage of that Malbec you picked up at Safeway this weekend, you’d tell them you’re sipping on a 2012 vintage. What does this mean, exactly? The vintage tells you the year in which the grapes are harvested. In the US, Canada and in Bordeaux, France, putting a vintage year on the bottle means that the wine must be made of at least 95% of grapes from that year. Other wine regions have different rules about this. Some require as little as 75% of a single year’s grapes to be present in order to constitute a vintage year.

What does it mean if you don’t see a vintage on a bottle? It simply means that the wine is made from a blend of harvests. (Most champagnes are NV - non-vintage. No, the NV does not stand for "made in Nevada." Only the best years in Champagne are given vintage years. Everything else is a blend.)

It’s a fair question to ask yourself why vintage matters. It’s even fairer to ask that after seeing what a vintage can do to the otherwise normal, collected and socially accepted behavior of adult professionals. Certain vintages of certain wines have a little bit of crazy attached to them. They drive wine collectors into a frenzy, open some very deep pockets among high-class diners, and create a hyperbolic, breathy flurry among wine writers.

So. Urm. Why?

Well, the basic reason is this: some vintages are better than others. And some vintages are really, really better than others.

A vintage can tell you a lot about a wine. One of the primary things it tells you is this: should you cellar this wine, or drink it immediately? That information comes from knowing about the particular climate in that particular region in that particular year.

Let’s consider that Malbec we’ve been sipping on. It’s a 2012 vintage, from Argentina. The 2012 vintage in Argentina was generally a cool, damp year. Frost and hail caused some damage, which reduced yields (the amount of grapes that were harvested). The lower yields produced wines of higher color, fruit intensity, and notable tannin. The presence of high tannin generally requires more aging, to allow the tannins to soften. 

So, the conclusion here is that the 2012 Malbecs aren’t that great to drink while young, and that bottle you’re consuming could probably benefit from some aging.

(Granted, the aging part only really applies when you’re drinking “premium” wine (usually $25 or higher). Less expensive wines won’t generally be complex enough to age beyond a year or two.)

It’s important to know your vintages because wine can vary drastically from year to year. A vintner (wine maker) might change techniques. It could have been a super cold year, which made the wine taste less fruit forward. Or there could have been inclement weather that damaged the vines - consider the hailstorms in Burgundy that are threatening the entire 2014 harvest.

Where do you find specific information about vintage years? Some great resources are here and here. You can also ask the staff at your local wine boutiques. They’ll generally be up to date about recent vintages, and can let you know if the wine should be aged or is ready to drink.

Finally, you don’t need to know a ton about vintages to let them help you choose a wine you like. If you pay attention to your vintages as you drink different wines, you may find that you really like Malbecs from 2010, but the Malbecs from 2011 make you a little less happy.

Like anything in wine, the goal is to arm yourself with a little bit of information to help you find a wine that tickles your palate. Because wine, above all, should be about creating happy experiences and drinking what you like!

Pairing Wine with Spicy Food

So you want to eat some kimchi. Or some spicy curry. Or some Thai concoction where the spice smell is already singeing your nose hairs, before you even put it in your mouth.

And you want to pair it with wine.

Conundrum, right?

Before you reach for the beer, consider that pairing wine and spicy food is indeed possible, as well as enjoyable! You just need to keep a few things in mind.

The spicier the dish, the more careful you want to be about pairing the wine. Think about it this way: spice + alcohol = hot, hot and more hot.

Alcohol increases the perception of spice in your mouth, while spice can make the alcohol burn seem even more intense. The combination of high alcohol and hot, spicy flavors also makes the dish taste bitter and acidic. So, picking a big Napa Cab to go with your extra spicy drunken noodles is not going to be pleasurable.

So what should you pair with spicy foods?

The best wines to pair with spicy foods are off-dry (slightly sweet) white wines, and low-tannin reds, both with low alcohol and minimal oak-aging. White wines like Gruner Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer (Geh-vertz-trah-meener), Riesling, Albariño, Muscadet, Viognier, Vinho Verde or Pinot Gris all work well. If you want to pair a red, try Beaujolais Nouveau or a fun little German/Serbian grape called a Portugieser. Both are light bodied reds with a little bit of fruit to offset the heat.

Another good standby for spicy dishes is sparkling wine. Try a Spanish Cava or an Italian Prosecco. Both will give you citrus fruit and a light taste to take some heat off your tongue! (You should be able to locate most of these wines in your local wine store, but for harder to locate varietals, come see me at DCanter! Or just come see me, anyway.)

The wines you want to avoid are oak-aged whites like California Chardonnay, and big, tannic, high alcohol reds like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, or Australian Shiraz.

Also, as my favorite Master Sommelier, Evan Goldstein notes, keep in mind that no wine is going to be able to stand up to your Texas five-pepper chili or those Thai, Indian and Korean dishes that light your mouth on fire while standing your hair on end. When you're faced with those dishes, try a yogurt based drink (if the restaurant offers it), or go ahead and stick with beer.

Wanna practice? Here are some real life wine-and-spicy-food-pairing options using some of the dishes I ate while in Korea.

Wine & spicy, grilled meats

What I'd pair here depends on the level of spice. If the meat was grilled with a little bit of sweet spice, (enough to heat your mouth, but not to make you sweat) I'd opt to pair it with a bottle of Vacqueryas. This is a French wine from the Southern Rhône. It has a little juiciness on the palate that will cut the heat, enough structure to handle the meat, and moderate alcohol that won't make turn the flame of the spice into a raging wildfire. If this was super spicy, I'd definitely stick with my Beaujolais Nouveau option - low alcohol, fruit notes, and a light body to tame the heat! For any spicy meat that's coated in a sweet sauce, off-dry Riesling it is!

Wine with spicy, fish soup

This dish was a soup of spicy, kimchi broth filled with leeks, potatoes, and a buttery white fish (I'm not sure what the fish actually was. Perk of not speaking the language). This dish screams for an off-dry white wine. Because it wasn't set-your-mouth-on-fire spicy, nor was it a heavy dish, I'd pair it with a Gruner Veltliner. The herbal edge to the Gruner would pair well with the leeks and potatoes, and the sweeter notes would bring out the sweetness in the fish. The lower alcohol would withstand the spicy broth.

Wine with kimchi and pork dumplings (mandu)

Mandu, Korean dumplings, are one of my most favorite things to eat in Korea. I love, love the juiciness of these dumplings with their melt-in-your-mouth quality. Pictured above are kimchi and pork mandu (two varieties). I'd pair these with a sparkling wine like Prosecco or Cava. Both of the wines have a little bit of citrus and fruit flavor that would pair well with the spicy sweetness of the mandu filling, and the bubbles would be a lovely offset to the starch in the mandu wrapper.

Wow, my mouth is watering.

Wine with kimchi

Yes, this can be done! Kimchi, like wine, is a fermented product. It's made out of all kinds of vegetables, but the most common kind is made out of cabbage. It's mixed with a strong, heady sauce of chili pepper flakes, garlic and ginger, and is then aged for just a few days, or as long as a few years.

So what what wine goes best with kimchi? An off-dry Gruner Veltliner, like the one I mentioned above, would pair beautifully. So would a Kabinett Riesling (Kabinett is a German identifier that means the wine has residual sugar). Last but not least, kimchi and Cava might do the trick as well. Combining cultures and countries - it's what we do here at Clos Wine.

Have other pairing questions? Are you scratching your head in the wine aisle of the super market?

Comportment at a Wine Tasting: A Totally Biased Guide

I’ve poured a lot of wine for people, both professionally and in all manner of personal pursuits. At DCanter, we offer tastings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and if I’m not there, I’m probably out tasting somewhere else. Either way, there’s a good chance I’m spending a decent chunk of my weekend in a tasting room.

There are certain things I’ve noticed about general comportment at a wine tasting. As someone who enjoys a good wine tasting and likes to make them enjoyable for others, allow me to share my completely biased, uncensored and totally subjective viewpoints.

Snark and opinions. I have both in abundance.

Don’t chew gum. People, please. Don’t come in to taste wine with gum in your mouth. Or mints. Or...whatever. You’re tasting wine. Emphasis on the “taste” part. You cannot taste or assess a wine with gum, mints, chocolate, or whatever else you might be chomping on that’s impacting your taste buds. It’s my opinion that I’m wasting the wine on you, since you can’t taste it, so a little part of my soul dies when I pour the wine for you anyway.

Wine tasting is not happy hour. I get it. Wine is fun. Wine should be fun. Wine is inherently a social experience. Tasting wine in a tasting room or at a winery, though, should actually be a little bit about the wine. It gets annoying for everyone - the people pouring wine, the other people trying to ask questions - when you come in with your three friends and nurse that 2-sip pour I’ve given you while you discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones or how that new girl in IT is soooo hawwwt. Plus, you’re gabbing over my decently-researched (and thoroughly entertaining!) schpiel on how this wine ended up in your glass. And you’re hogging the tasting table, which is annoying me, the tasters next to you, and those waiting behind you to taste. The time for dishing out the latest goss over some good wine is at the end of the tasting - when you buy a bottle to sit and sip at the winery, or to take home and pour for your friends.

Ask questions. Go out on a limb and learn a little something. Mention the flavors you’re tasting in the wine, ask how long it was aged, what food pairing would work best, etc. There are no dumb questions, and trust me, the people pouring the wine will love you for being interested. (It also might get you some extra pours, or a taste of something special! Genuine and polite curiosity goes a long way.)

Don’t chug. It’s not a shot of tequila, weirdos. Take a sip and actually taste the wine. Slow down a little and pay attention to your senses. That’s the point of wine - to be savored!

It’s ok to pour out wine you don’t like. The point of tasting is to help you define what you like in a wine. You won’t like every wine that’s poured for you, and that’s totally okay! Every tasting will have a “spit bucket” or a “dump bucket” or a place to pour out the wine you don’t like. If you encounter a wine that doesn’t mesh with your taste buds, pour it out. Don’t feel bad about it. There’s nothing I hate more than watching someone force down a wine they don’t enjoy.

Don’t be a creep. This should obviously go without saying. But for anyone who has ever worked in a field that involves engaging the public with frequency, you know exactly what I mean by this. I’m giving you that sympathetic, knowing look right now (and air high-fiving you in solidarity). The general rule of thumb here, people, is to avoid being That Guy (or girl).

I realize this post is laden with quite a bit of snark. (Sorry...not sorry?) At the end of the day, we all know wine tastings should be fun. Wine should never be a stressful experience. (Except when you’re assessing 3 wines blind in an exam setting or being quizzed on wine structure by a Master Sommelier in front of 150 other people who are all looking on and being Very Judgy. Then I find wine can induce high levels of anxiety and sheer blind panic because IT ALL STARTS TO SMELL THE SAME GAHHH). But in your haste to relax, try not to make it too stressful for others. Just, you know….keep it chill. And maybe appreciate the wine a little bit.

Yes, It's Okay to Buy Wine at Costco, Part 2

On Wednesday, we reviewed the "Weeknight Wines" you can buy at Costco for under $15. These are the wines that typically line the wine aisle at Costco, standing upright, many times still in the packaging.

But Costco does not only deal in bargain basement wine. They are also a vendor of premium selections, which are usually separated out into their own independent shelves, external to the aisles. And some of them are really, really good wines. Check out these First Growth Bordeaux (sorry for the glare):

And this bottle of vintage 2003 Dom Pérignon:

Let's face it, Costco has some good stuff. And recall that their maximum markup is 14 percent (as opposed to 30-50 percent in other retail stores), so you're getting expensive labels for less than you'd pay elsewhere. No one has to know that you got your first growth Chateau Latour from a big box store, right?

For those of us who can't spring for thousand dollar Burgundies but still appreciate nice wine, there are plenty of other options in the $15-$30 range (thankfully). Here are some of our favorites:

2013 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre $22

Oh, Sancerre. Emma and I have written extensively about our trip to the Loire Valley, and Sancerre, in particular. Sancerre, in France, is famous for Sauvignon Blanc, which makes white wines that are crisp and refreshing with flavors of lemon/lime, grapefruit and grassy notes. There really is nothing like a true French Sauv. They are among the world's best wines to pair with food, and there is no better way to round out a summer evening than by sipping a Sancerre as the sun goes down. If you like crisp whites, Sancerre should be one of your staples.

Louis Jadot Pouilly Fuisse $20

Pouilly-Fuisse is a French appellation located in southern Burgundy which grows exclusively Chardonnay. I love this wine in the fall and winter months. It's a rich, dry wine with good body and good weight, offset by the crisp flavors of Chardonnay - white flowers, grapefruit, ripe lemons and toasted almonds. The wines in Pouilly-Fuisse have an oak influence, so nice hazelnut and vanilla aromas also creep their way in. Louis Jadot is one of the most well-known houses in Burgundy, famous for the quality and regularity of their wines (the company is actually owned by Americans now, the Kopf family, who purchased Louis Jadot in 1985). Their wines at this price point won't be the ones you'll keep to age, but they are excellent quality for the money.

2012 Seghesio Zinfandel, Sonoma, CA, $19

Emma and I luuuuurve this wine. I'm not a big fan of the super jammy Zins out of Napa, but the Sonoma Coast (slightly cooler than Napa) has some gorgeous Zins that still show good fruit without slamming it in your face. I've been drinking this wine for years at the $23-24 price point, and was delighted to find it at Costco for $19. It's one of my permanent standby wines for it's dark fruit flavor with hints of cocoa, baking spices and cedar.

2012 Two Hands Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia, $23

Australian Shiraz is another staple of our collection, and this one is a solid choice. I love the big, bold and spicy flavors of Shiraz - it pairs well with food but is still quaffable on its own. Two Hands harvests their grapes from mature vines (which results in more concentrated flavors) and the black and blue fruit shows beautifully, rounding out in a nice long finish. For those of you that care about ratings (we don't, but know some of you do), Two Hands is a consistent pick for Wine Spectator's list of Top 100 wines. (Also, handy PSA for anyone who's wondering - yes, Shiraz is the same grape as Syrah. It's Shiraz when it grows in Australia.)

2011 Primus The Blend, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $16

I first tried this Primus Blend several years ago when I was unhealthily obsessed with interested in tasting South American wines. I'd seen it written up with stellar reviews, but I couldn't find it anywhere. No one was carrying it, none of the retailers could locate it for me, and everyone kept pointing me to cheap bottles of Camernere as if that would be a sufficient substitute. I finally managed to track down a bottle at the Ends of the Internet, and this wine knocked my socks off with it's complexity, body and power. Thankfully, the wine is now a lot easier to find, still awesome, and, in my estimation, is a fantastic wine for it's price. The Veramonte winery in the Colchagua (Kohl-CHA-gwa) Valley (called the "Napa Valley of Chile") has been producing the Primus label since the 1990s, but just recently started blending world class bottles. "The Blend" is a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Carmenere, aged in French oak. Chilean wine tends to give a little menthol and eucalyptus on the nose, and this wine is no exception. Blackcurrant, blueberry, cherry, chocolate and pepper follow on the palate. This is a full-bodied wine that packs a punch. For those of you who enjoy sipping big wines by themselves, you'll love this. Otherwise, pair it with lamb, steak, chile (not too spicy), venison, or even burgers.

And finally, one of my favorite sections of the wine aisle at Costco....

THE GOOD BUBBLY.

Veuve Clicquot Brut Champagne, $42 and Moet Chandon Imperial Champagne, $38

I cannot pass this part of the store without attempting to put one of these bottles into my massive cart (some random English trivia - Emma refers to "carts" as "trolleys." Slays me.). My favorite champagne in the world is Veuve Clicquot, and Moet comes in at a pretty close second. Costco has these bottles at GREAT prices. You generally won't be able to find a bottle of Veuve that retails for under $50, and you certainly won't find it under $70 at a restaurant. Treat yourself on your next trip and take home the good stuff.

So, this wraps up our Costco wine assessment. You can, in fact, get decent wine at Costco. But let's look big picture:

The Pros

  • 14 percent maximum markup means great deals
  • Good spectrum of low to medium to premium priced wines
  • Costco's own Kirkland Signature label gives huge bang for its buck
  • Constantly changing selection

The Cons

  • Constantly changing selection means you might fall in love with a wine one week, and find it gone the next
  • Purchasing a Costco membership to get access to the wine (and then dealing with the crowds)
  • No educated staff on hand. Really, no one at all on hand.

Overall, we rate the Costco wine experience a pretty good one. Once you're armed with a little bit of information, navigating the wine aisle is a breeze. We still prefer the boutique shopping experience - with educated staff that can recommend wines based on your palate, preferences and pairing needs - but we also never turn our noses down at a good bargain.

Happy shopping!