Wine-tastings offer novice a chance to learn

Wine-tasting seems to be the latest buzzword. Americans, more than anyone, love to combine the practice with other activities. “Following the meeting, there will be a wine-tasting in the ballroom.” “Join us for a cheese- and wine-tasting.” “Thursdays are wine-tasting days in our retail store.”

What, exactly, is tasting? British author Matthew Jukes said it perfectly: Tasting is “slow drinking with your brain switched on.” But of course those tasting for their pleasure versus those who taste professionally approach the tasting experience much differently. Professionals use their nose rather than their palate as a judge of a wine’s qualities. Professionals have a lot of pressure during this process. They may be tasting a young wine to determine when it should be bottled, judging the crucial blending of a vintage or assessing wines for faults. So, those who are not tasting professionally should taste for the joy of exploring.

It’s interesting to hear people say: “I would love to drink wine if I just knew more about it.” This reflects the confusion that surrounds the wine industry. By contrast, it’s not often that the same person says: “I would love to eat more broccoli if I new more about it.”

The idea behind tasting events should be about getting to know wines, finding ways to describe them, and most importantly, letting go of the insecurities so many have about wine. No degree of knowledge is necessary to appreciate wine, so use “tasting” occasions as just that – to enjoy and explore.

The following are wines available for “tasting” opportunities at some local retail stores.

THE VALUE

  • 2006 Meridian Pinot Grigio, California (about $9, retail)
  • 2005 Bonterra Mendocino Zinfandel, California (about $13, retail)
  • 2005 Bell Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $14, retail)
  • 2005 Ninth Island Pinot Noir, Tasmania (about $12, retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2005 Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma County Chardonnay, California (about $27, retail)
  • 2003 Gemtree Vineyards Cinnibar, Australia (about $29, retail)
  • 2005 Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay, California (about $17, retail)
  • 2006 Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $17, retail)
  • 2006 King Estate Pinot Noir, California (about $28, retail)

Wine myths are something to sniff at

A lot of contradictory advice surges around the wine world – some handed down from experts, but also some woven in by pseudo-experts. Because wine sometimes carries with it a sense of snobbery, many people are too intimidated to question some of the conventional wisdom. Here are a few of the most common.

Myth: You must remove the cork an hour before serving to allow the wine to “breathe.”

Fact: Opinions differ on this statement, but testing has shown little or no change in a wine by simply pulling the cork before dinner. This is because the wine is being exposed to only a small amount of air. Decant the wine or give it few extra swirls in the glass if you are looking to change the taste of the wine.

Myth: New World wines taste different than Old World Wines.

Fact: There was a time this was true, because you could taste the distinct differences of wines being produced throughout the world – for instance, the ultra-rich fruit of Australian wines compared to France’s more restrained and elegant or rough and rustic style. It was easy to detect because most New World winemakers were producing squeaky-clean wines with the most advanced techniques, while most Old World producers stood strong in a wine’s distinct expression of terroir. Today the lines are much more blurred, with many different styles being sought by Old and New World winemakers.

Myth: You must always smell the cork when the waiter hands it to you.

Fact: The purpose of the waiter offering the cork is so the consumer can check to see whether the cork is broken or moldy. The smell of the cork does not indicate the quality of the wine or whether it has been tainted from the cork.

Myth: The “legs” or “tears” can judge the quality of a wine.

Fact: The “legs” or “tears” are the viscous streams that run down the inside of the glass. If you swirl the glass, the “legs” are more noticeable. More pronounced legs do not indicate quality, only a higher amount of alcohol.

Myth: Old wines are the only excellent wines.

Fact: By no means does every wine improve with age; as much as 98 percent of still wines (those excluding sparkling and fortified) is produced to be consumed within a few years. Confusion around this myth is why many people are sadly disappointed when they open saved bottles only to find that the wine has turned to vinegar.

To explore the truth of the myths, consider these two wines when thinking about Old and New World comparisons.

THE VALUE

  • 2006 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon, Chile (about $11, retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2005 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $76, retail)

Hint of oak not always the barrel

Many wine lovers imagine that wines embellished with the characteristics of wood are nestled in dark, musty cellars, slowly maturing inside expensive oak barrels.

This image, while nostalgic, is most likely a reality only to those who cross over into the more expensive price range. However, because of winemaking innovations, it’s possible to find wood characteristics in lower-priced wines.

Australia is a leader in revolutionary winemaking techniques, and Australians tend to take a pragmatic approach to their craft. For instance, using mechanical harvesters instead of hand-picking grapes allows vineyards to grow and harvest more grapes. Or if you want to soften, add texture and stabilize the tannin in wines, take a shortcut and simply throw a few oak chips into the vat. Many of Australia’s thrifty, down-to-earth solutions trickle down to the consumer by offering the flavor and characteristics of wood at a fraction of the price.

Other options that bring the influence of wood to the wine is the use of oak staves dipped into the vat or large bags filled with oak chips that steep in the vat much like a tea bag. Another alternative, which few winemakers use or admit to using, is pouring a liquid with oak flavor into the vat.

So is this modernized technique a benefit to the wine consumer or another process making the romance of winemaking a thing of the past? Well, I love buttery, $30 Chardonnays that have fermented in expensive wood barrels, but I certainly enjoy the simple yet clean $7 bottles that just had a few oak “tea bags” dipped in the vat.

THE VALUE

  • 2006 Penfolds Rawson Retreat Chardonnay, Australia (about $8, retail)
  • 2006 Toasted Head Chardonnay, California (about $14, retail)
  • 2007 Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay, Australia (about $9, retail)
  • 2007 Yalumba Y Series Chardonnay, Australia (about $12, retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2005 Gary Farrell Chardonnay, California (about $44, retail)
  • 2005 Cambria Katherine’s Chardonnay, California (about $32, retail)
  • 2006 Ferrari Carano Chardonnay, California (about $22, retail)
  • 2005 Kistler Carneros Chardonnay, California (about $52, retail)

Vintners’ debate: Put a cork in it?

Who would have thought a tiny, 2-inch cork could cause such debate. It really does make sense that we give it our attention if you consider that the best wines of the world will spoil and be worthless if a cork goes bad.

It is estimated that 5 percent to 10 percent of wines are “corked,” and the wine industry has seen a lot of them go bad in recent years. The culprit is a substance called trichloroanisole, also known as TCA, that reacts with the wine. TCA is created when the chlorine, used to sanitize the cork, reacts with a mold that grows in some cork. It produces a strong odor that can be detected in minuscule amounts. The best way to describe this aroma is that it smells similar to damp moldy cardboard.

The obvious problem with most “corked” wines is the monetary loss not only to consumers but also to the entire industry. Most likely little fuss occurs when a $7 bottle of corked wine is spoiled, but when it is your $500 bottle of Chateau Margaux it becomes more personal. But, the main issue is the loss to individual collectors, restaurants and retailers who may have paid hundreds of dollars for a wine, cellared it and then more than a decade later discover the taint. It is too late to return it for restitution.

So, what is the wine world to do? For now, just understand that the debate will go on. With several other options for closures, such as synthetic corks and screw caps, we will begin to see other good seals for our wines that obviously are excellent choices to ensure that wines are free of the destructive TCA.

What keeps the debate heated is the argument that these other stoppers will let fine wines age as a natural cork does. Because it takes 5 to 50 years for some wines to age, the vote is still out on which is best – commit to the new screw caps or synthetic corks or cling to the romantic creak of the natural cork.

VALUES

  • 2006 Pasqua Pinot Grigio, Italy (about $10, retail)
  • 2006 d’ Arenberg Stump Jump, Australia (about $11, retail)
  • 2006 Pillar Box Red, Australia (about $12, retail)
  • 2006 Bonny Doon Big House White, California (about $11, retail)

SPLURGES

  • 2007 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $18, retail)
  • 2006 Gemtree Vineyards Shiraz, Australia (about $26, retail)
  • 2005 Turkey Flat Grenache, Australia (about $26, retail)
  • 2007 Mudhouse Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $17, retail)