It’s time for the next installment of the Noble Grape Challenge. Last time around we began the second half of the challenge by getting to know Pinot Grigio. Now it’s time to move on to one of my favourite white varietals – Riesling!
About the Noble Grape Challenge
Let’s refresh ourselves on what’s going on here – Wine Folly created the Noble Grape Challenge as a way to learn the spectrum of flavours and characteristics found in red and white wines. Taking nine reds and nine whites and going through them from lightest to darkest, we’ll learn about the key characteristics and flavours of each.
This past June I took a trip to California with my aunt and cousin. It was my first trip there (though hopefully not my last) and took us to San Francisco, Napa Valley, Half Moon Bay, Carmel, through Big Sur, and then on to Hearst Castle, Morro Bay, Santa Barbara, Malibu and Hollywood. Whirlwind and whistle-stop would be accurate descriptors for this trip! We drove through the state at such a clip that, unfortunately, pit stops to wineries wasn’t an option.
While I did manage to hit up one winery, my wine experiences during the trip mostly revolved around wines enjoyed at meals, except for the two bottles I brought home – sadly, the maximum allowment by Canadian standards.
I picked up a white wine at a Trader Joe’s in LA and a red wine at an adorable little grocery stop in Yountville in the Napa area. I wanted to bring home the two varietals that California is most known for – Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. These two varietals are what the California wine industry pretty much made their name on, which is why I decided to spend my money on them.
This wine was just what I hoped I’d find in a California Cab. It was sturdy and solid, with some vanilla going on (probably from being aged in oak) and a bit of a punch on the finish. I ended up having it over two evenings, and loved at how soft and mellow it got after being opened for a day.
These wines were both so enjoyable. It’s clear by how much is going on in the glass that California has had the benefit of years of growing grapes and making wine. I’m looking forward to exploring more California wines – if only they weren’t so expensive here in Ontario!
Do you have a favourite California wine? Let me know!
Canadian Thanksgiving was last weekend and, as I usually do on long weekends, I went home to Kingston to visit my family and yes, to drink a lot of wine.
Either because I come with all these food and wine ideas, or because my parents take my visits as an opportunity to indulge, it ended up being a multi-day food and wine affair. Either way, I’m happy!
This year especially I had a lot to be thankful for. It’s been an eventful year, both for my family and for me personally. I’ve struggled to find direction in my career and to feel like I’m making a positive impact on the world around me, which is partially why I started this blog. This year my family has been faced with illness and adversity in a much larger amount than we all wanted or are used to. It’s been a year of struggle but also one of gratitude. Suffice it to say, I now have a fuller appreciation for the good things in life.
My own ongoing personal struggles make it all the more sweeter when I visit home, and the holidays are the epitome of that. For three days I cooked, relaxed, vegged out to real estate shows on tv and enjoyed the company of my family. It was a wonderful respite from regular life.
Of course, wine was also involved – why else would I be talking about it here? Below is a brief recap of some (just some!) of the delicious wines we sampled over the weekend. In addition to all the other things I have to be thankful for this time around, I am also grateful for my stepdad’s generosity in sharing these wines – they all came from his cellar.
Double the pleasure, double the fun!
Graham Beck’s sparkling wine is my stepdad’s favourite, and is quickly becoming mine too. It’s from South Africa, which is really not a place that comes to mind when I think of ‘places that make good sparkling wine’, but I’ve had and loved other wines there so it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility. The wine itself is light and dry, with tiny little bubbles that make the wine float around in your mouth. The flavour is subtle and goes with just about any food you can throw at it. We had it with cheese, baguette and (as if that weren’t indulgent enough) some foie gras mousse made with black truffle. Thanksgiving got off to a great start, you guys.
This label is so Old World.
We had this little gem at the beginning of dinner, with a parsnip, apple and leek soup I made the day before. My stepdad asked me what I thought would go well with the soup and I suggested something that had depth and body, that would stand up to the fullness of the parsnip flavour. He chose this Chardonnay and I think our efforts worked out wonderfully. It’s solid creaminess was a great counterpoint to the earthy sweetness of the soup.
Chateau Malescot St. Exupéry. 25 years old, no big deal.
It’s just a little dusty – it’s still good, it’s still good.
The baby of the red bunch.
After the soup it was on to the main event! We had a veritable feast of turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, mashed turnip with carrot, roasted brussels sprouts, and of course, stuffing and gravy. It doesn’t seem like much now that I’m writing it out but believe me, my belly was FULL.
The two French wines were amazing. They both came from sub regions of Bordeaux (Margaux and Médoc, to be specific) and, as you can see from the labels, had been resting in the cellar for quite some time. I always get a kick out of thinking of how old I was when an older bottle was created. I was still in single digits when these wines came into the world!
Both wines were just lovely. The Potensac had a beautiful ruby colour, a bit of pepper and fruit on the nose and a smooth, slightly peppery and medium-bodied flavour. The Malescot was similarly medium-bodied and so, so smooth, but I tasted a bit of smoke on the finish with this one. Both were a bit mellow (on account of their age) but had retained much of their vim and vigor. It was a huge treat to taste them.
The Chateau Malescot St. Exupéry cork. Good thing we opened it! That wine was slowly but surely making its escape.
The third wine came to us from Napa Valley. It was a Meritage, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a blend of Bordeaux-style wines but isn’t actually from Bordeaux. Long story short, Bordeaux (well, most of France, really) is incredibly protective of their wines and winemaking processes and have barred other regions from making the same kinds of wine and calling it ‘Bordeaux’. This is why you’ll see wines made in North America being called ‘Meritage’.
The Stonehedge was also delicious, but I admit that by that point in the evening the wine and tryptophan had gotten to me – I have no notes from this wine. I do remember that it’s body and flavour was in keeping with the other two reds we’d been drinking, which further proves that my stepdad is no slouch when it comes to wine choices.
In the immortal words of Julia Child, ‘bon appetit!’
A Thanksgiving for the books, I think. How was yours?
I’ve talked in the past about how to taste wine in general, but it recently occurred to me that I haven’t talked about how I, specifically, go about tasting a new wine.
I should preface this by saying that this isn’t how I taste wine every time I open a bottle. There are definitely some days where I come home from work, pour myself a glass, and turn my brain off as I laze back on the couch, happy that the day is over. In those instances the wine is merely there as a delicious cherry on top of a relaxing, television-filled evening. I mean cake. Or something.
But when I am being intentional about my wine, when I really want to get to know it, this is how I taste.
How I Taste
I don’t usually pair food with the wine. Some might think this is an error, but when I’m meeting a wine for the first time I want to meet just the wine, not how the wine affects or is affected by food. It’s like meeting a blind date – I want to know how they act around me before getting to know how they act at a party.
I’m usually alone. Sad, I know! There are many people in my life who share my love of wine, but I can’t always find someone to sample a new bottle with me on a random Tuesday night.
I usually do it at home, on the couch, in front of the tv, with my macbook in front of me, jotting down anything that comes to mind as I sip, sniff and swirl.
I start by looking at the colour. I love wines that are so dark they become opaque, and ones that take on a purpleish tone – Malbecs and Carménères from Chile and Argentina often look like this.
Then I give the wine a good sniff. Often when I’m tasting I’ve just opened a bottle so getting something off the nose is a challenge for me. I often feel like I should pour the glass and let it sit for a bit, but in all honesty I’m an incredibly impatient person and can’t usually resist starting the process once the wine is poured and sitting next to me.
Next, and FINALLY, I get to taste it! I alternate between taking quick sips and long ones because the flavour can change depending on the two. While sipping I think about and try to discern the differences in flavour depending on where on my tongue the wine is hitting. I also pay attention to the flavour I’m left with as I swallow (the finish) and how lingering the wine is once it’s gone. I love when a wine stays with you!
Let’s be real. Some days I can’t get past ‘yep, tastes like wine’. And actually, I read an article recently that mentioned a study where they concluded that you can’t really taste more than three or four things in one go. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel MUCH better about times when I’m able to get much off a wine.
That being said, I do love the endless possibilities of flavour and enjoyment that come with each bottle. It’s a game I like to play. What am I actually tasting here? What’s going on on my tongue right now? And when I get stuck (because I do get stuck – OFTEN!) I do as Jancis Robinson says and try to pay attention to the dimensions of the wine, asking myself “how tough/tart/powerful/sweet/ready is it?”
I try to be methodical about tasting, mostly because I get a kick out of that process and am genuinely interested in the world of wine, with all its complications and vagaries.
I’m nowhere near these guys though, they take tasting to a whole other level. Underripe green mango? Crushed hillside?? FRESHLY OPENED CAN OF TENNIS BALLS?! COME ON!!
No, I fully acknowledge that the only real question worth asking is – do I like it? The rest is simply learning ways of learning whether you do/don’t or will/won’t like a wine.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I only made it to one winery during my Californian adventure. But! I made up for it by going to a pretty special one.
We stayed two days in Napa for a wedding and on our way out of town my aunt and I stopped in at Grgich Hills Estate Winery. Don’t know about Grgich? Don’t worry, besides vaguely recognizing the labels I didn’t either. My only frame of reference was having it once or twice with my parents and feeling like it was a fancy (read: expensive) California wine.
I soon learned when I got there is that Mike Grgich, the man who started Grgich winery, is pretty much California wine royalty.
Oh, hey Mike, nice to meet you!
Let me take you back. The year is 1976, and this guy named Steven Spurrier decides that even though California is taking it on the chin in terms of wine discrimination, he doesn’t think the wine is all that bad. In fact, he thinks it might give French wines a run for their money. So, to test that thought, he decides to hold a blind tasting of French and California wines and has fancy-pants wine experts (all French, no less) come and taste. The whole thing becomes known as the Judgement of Paris and causes quite the upset since American wines took the top spot for both red and white wines. While the competition put a lot of French noses out of joint, it was also a big confidence boost for Californian wine-makers, and (in my opinion) was a watershed moment for the California wine industry.
What does this have to do with Grgich Winery, you might ask? Well! It turns out that the person who made the winning white wine, a Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, was none other than Mike Grgich.
Clearly this guy knows how to make good wine.
So! Back to the tasting at hand. I tried their Napa Valley Flight, which consisted of six wines – three white and three red.
Yep, looks like a wine list.
Pretty setup, now let’s get to tasting!
The Chard was solid, and tasted just like a classic California Chardonnay – full bodied, grassy, buttery, delicious.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the Fumé Blanc until my wine-pouring friend told me that it’s mostly composed of Sauvignon Blanc, and that Fumé Blanc is just what California wine-makers have decided to call it. Sneaky! It was crisp and citrus-y and I loved it, which was exactly what I expected once I learned it was really a Sauv Blanc in disguise.
The Plavac Mali is where things got interesting. Mike Grgich was born and raised in Croatia and has done a lot of work in the wine industry there, even while living and working in the US. This wine is actually from a winery he owns out there, and my wine-pouring friend told me that they like to include it in this tasting flight to educate people about Croatian wine and to give some history about their own winery. This wine was sharp and tangy, and had a chemical kind of flavour that I hadn’t really tasted before. If you’ve ever had Retsina, it had a similar quality. It grew on me as I drank it, but it took time to get used to because the flavour was so different from what I normally drink.
Of course they have their own branded spitting bucket – what kind of shabby place do you think this is?
The Zinfandel was light and smooth and confident and friendly. That might make me sound like a weirdo, but it’s true! It was really approachable, easy to sip. A great transition as I moved from the whites to the reds.
The Merlot was heavenly. Medium-bodied, smooth, inviting, velvety – like easing into a hot bath after a long day. I could drink this wine every day and be happy.
The Cab Sauv was the biggie of the bunch, which isn’t surprising considering Cabs are big boy grapes, and one of the jewels in the crown that is California wine. It was fuller bodied but well balanced, meaning no one flavour overpowered my taste buds. You know those people who just have effortless confidence, who can walk into a room and be well-liked by everyone? That’s what this wine was like.
Thanks for the tasting, Mike! Yes yes, your barrels look lovely.
Sadly, after meeting these six wonderful wines we had to leave Napa to get on the road (to drive the coast to LA – it’s a hard life, isn’t it?) but I did take a moment to enjoy the scenery as we left.
Kind of a humdrum view, don’t you think?
All in all, a good first visit to Napa. The only thing left to do is plan another trip.
A few weeks ago I returned home from a trip to California. Like the best trips, it was life-changing and left me with a different perspective on the world around me. Since coming home I’ve been savouring the memories of driving the Golden Gate Bridge, seeing Napa Valley first-hand, driving the gorgeously windy and rugged roads through Big Sur, being swept away by the grandeur of Hearst Castle, and daydreaming of a glamourous life in LA. If it sounds like I saw most of the state it’s because I did – all while sampling what wine the area has to offer, of course!
Here’s a quick round-up of some of the wonderful Californian wines I had the pleasure of meeting on my trip.
This wine was a gracious gift from our hotel in Napa (That place was swanky with a capital S). This wine was definitely characteristic of a Chard – full-bodied, grassy, smooth. It wasn’t very cold when I had it, which wasn’t ideal, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed it. From the colour to the flavour to the design of the label, I really liked everything about this wine.
A little French-style California in Santa Barbara.
A Santa Barbara wine! This winery specializes in making wine with varietals from the Rhone region in France. I’m biased because I love a good Syrah, but I thought this wine was lush and delicious and went very well with my dinner – pappardelle pasta with lamb ragout.
This is the wine that really proved to me just how much great wine there is all over this state. Seriously, there are great wines being made in every little nook and cranny. I know that might be common knowledge to some of you, but to me the vastness of the wine industry there is a revelation.
This was a very different kind of Chard. There were vanilla notes (no surprise there) but the nose was totally different. I got butterscotch on both the nose and the flavour, and more and more as the wine opened up and warmed in my glass. Delicious!
Such cool artwork on the label. Click the pic for more info on this winery’s labels.
This wine was so fun. That label alone! It had a gorgeous ruby colour and gave up some smoke on the nose and in the flavour. I also got some red berries from this medium-bodied wonder. Definitely a Grenache and a great sipper as I sat with my fellow drinkers on an idyllic rooftop deck in the LA heat.
Wow, is California wine ever diverse! I mean, I’d had wine from CA before, but this trip was like boot camp for this region. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, red, white, sparkling – you can rest assured that I worked hard on this trip!
Possibly the most surprising revelation coming out of this adventure was my impression of Chardonnays. I pride myself on being able to appreciate all types of wine, but true appreciation for the biggest and most lush white wine out there had eluded me until now. I think I like Chards now! After years of not enjoying the lush buttery notes and oaky solidity, after tasting some of these California Chardonnays, something finally clicked. That’s right: I’m coming out of the closet as a Chardonnay lover.
What I knew going into this trip
California is a solid wine region, and has been making award-winning wine since the 1970’s at least.
Napa is only one of a bunch of different wine regions in the state – there’s also Sonoma, the Russian River Valley, and Paso Robles, to name a few.
What I learned coming out of this trip
Everyone involved in the wine industry in this state is incredibly kind and friendly, and many people travel huge distances to work there! Case in point: one woman I met had moved to California from Minnesota just to work in the wine industry.
It’s not just certain regions in the state that grow wine – it’s EVERYWHERE. From big names to family hobby wineries, every single town you go to will boast their local wine industry. Case in point: while staying in Carmel Valley Village our host told us that there were no fewer than 17 tasting rooms in town – and the town is only four city blocks big!
It’s aaaaaaaaall good. I didn’t have a bad sip, glass, or bottle. Even knowing the high calibre of wine going in, I was surprised by how much I loved everything I tasted – even the Chards!
I don’t love blends. If you’ve been here before you know that, but I never really took the time to explain why – until now.
Let’s be honest here: blends aren’t all bad. Places like France and Italy blend so much they don’t even tell you the varietal on the label, and they must be doing something right. Right!?
Wines from these two countries tend to label their wines by region or appellation, and drinkers are expected to know the grapes common to that region and even the blends commonly used there. Wine is such big business that I wouldn’t be surprised if each winery’s blend information was locked away in a vault somewhere, only to be shared with the head wine-makers.
Let’s take the Bordeaux region in France as an example. Red wine from the Bordeaux is almost always made with some kind of blend of the same five grapes – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere. Each grape brings something different to the wine and there’s more leeway than you’d think in terms of bouquet, flavour, and even aging potential.
Thanks to Pierre LANNES on flickr for this photo.
But! I only learned this after doing some research. I have never seen a bottle of Bordeaux that identified the varietals used, much less the percentages.
I don’t like blends because they make it difficult to learn wine simply by tasting. How is my novice palate ever going to know the characteristics of a grape (much less what I like and what I don’t) with so many varietals at play in my glass?
Drinking blends means you have to trust the wine-maker, and when you’re a casual a drinker or a new one that can be a big gamble. Who do you trust when you don’t have the knowledge to know when they’re talking smack?
This is why I tend to shy away from blends. It’s only in the last few months, as I’ve gotten to know more French wine, that I’ve learned more about blending – which regions of the world regularly do it, what grapes they use, and so on. My ultimate goal is to know each varietal well enough to easily understand what each brings to a blend, which will probably mean doing a lot more homework both on single-varietal wines and then on blends.
See what I mean? Blends are complicated! Deliciously, wonderfully, complicated.
I have a somewhat unpopular confession to make – I like cheap wine. I love it, in fact, and let me tell you why.
All wine tasting and buying is a game. There are some circumstances – occasion, season, personal preference, amount available to spend – and an objective – buy a great bottle of wine. The game would be too easy if the sky was the limit in terms of price. Sure, If money allowed I’d drink lots of Veuve Clicquot, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and big California reds, but something tells me it would get a little too deliciously simple after a while. Where’s the experimentation? Where’s the intrigue? How can you know you’ve truly hit the mark on a good bottle if you’ve never missed it?
Full disclosure: In addition to being a big wine-lover, I am also a huge bargain-hunter. I relish spending the least possible amount on the largest possible return.
Everything you see in any given store is offering you something, and wine is no different. Each bottle offers its own version of value, but not every bottle’s offer will match the value you expect from buying it and tasting the sweet nectar it holds. On top of that, some wines will want you to pay more because of the name on the bottle, or the specific adorable little hillside its grapes were grown on. Francis Ford Coppola really wants you to think his wine is valuable, and so does the Champagne region in France, for example. Are you going to agree or disagree with what they’ve offering you?
Each bottle is a decision, and a gamble. How much do I think I’ll like this wine? Would I bet $10 to find out? $20? $50? More? For me, the more I invest in a wine the more I expect to love it. But it doesn’t always work like that, which is why I keep my gambles low. If wine was Vegas, I would be at the $1 buy-in tables, turning up my nose at the high-roller tables and private back rooms.
Palate Practice is a wine blog written by me, Meg. I've been enjoying wine since the days of childhood Sunday dinners and my Nan's dining table. When I was older I realized that, for me, wine is more than something to sip on when I'm heading to a dinner party.
Palate Practice is a place for me to share what I've learned (and am still learning) as well as stories of wine in my daily life. For me, sharing wine with someone is often the beginning of a really special experience.