This is another new venture for us at OddBallGrape.com – video!
We went to the 2014 Garagiste Festival in Pasa Robles and caught up with some amazing women in wine, not least of all was Amy Butler. We first ran across her at an Hospice du Rhone, back when she was working at Edward Sellars. Now, she’s the consulting winemaker at LXV (a post that will be coming soon) and has her own label, Ranchero Cellars.
Amy’s big thing is the carignan grape (also spelled carignane). We’ll let you look at the video to tell you why. We’ve tasted the wine and it was awesome!
Today’s lesson is about the much-abused merlot grape and it’s coming from a winemaker who makes some of the most glorious merlot wine we’ve tasted in a very long time.
We met Marisa Taylor, winemaker for Rutherford Hill, at a tasting event for a local TV station. She’s one of the three winemakers featured in Vintage: Napa Valley 2012, a six-part documentary on winemaking. We met her again at the Wine Bloggers Conference in July, where she led a tasting on Napa merlots with P.J. Alviso, Director of Estate Viticulture for Duckhorn Vineyards. It was one of those rare tastings that gives conspicuous consumption a good name. Taylor does not make cheap wine, let us tell you. But it is worth it. So was the chat we had with her after the tasting.
“You can expect a luciousness… juicy,” Tayler said about what to expect when you open a good bottle of merlot. “I think merlot tends to be more of a red fruit flavor.”
That’s tasting more like cherries or strawberries, rather than dark, heavy blackberries. In short, it tends to be a somewhat lighter wine than its blending pal cabernet sauvignon.
“You’ll know it when you taste it,” Taylor said about the red flavor profile. “Is it just darker or, hey, no. It makes me feel happy and it’s nice and rosy and red. In general, I think that merlot is a nice complement, companion with food. And I think that it’s something that will fill your mouth and be full-bodied. And it’s not like a hard… Cabernets can be tannic and tough and just dry your mouth out. And merlot doesn’t generally do that.”
The merlot grape is one of the five traditional components of Bordeaux wine, where it is grown and blended in varying strengths with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. Outside of France and Europe, it’s frequently made as a stand-alone variety.
The wine, alas, got a really bad rep in the late 1990s when it got really popular and everyone started growing and making merlot. And a lot of it was really bad wine. Then, in 2004, the film Sideways came out, about two guys dealing with their issues while wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley. And in one memorable scene, Miles (Paul Giamatti), the so-called expert of the two, trashes merlot.
But Taylor thinks that the bad old days are gone when it comes to merlot.
“I think bad merlots have been weeded out from that Sideways effect,” she said. “And I think that we are seeing better and better merlots on the market.”
Taylor’s tips for finding a good one? She suggested looking for the appellation, or where the grapes are grown, such as the Napa region Or…
“Look for Rutherford Hill on the label,” she joked.
Which is not entirely bad advice. We tasted their Napa Valley Merlot, 2010, which is at least 75 percent merlot, but this one also has a little bit of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah blended in. Mike noted its dark color – pretty typical of merlot wine – a caramel chocolate nose, with good acids with smooth, abundant tannins, and a nice finish. Plus it’s got great aging potential. It was Mike’s favorite.
Anne, however, preferred the Atlas Peak Merlot, 2010, which was 100 percent merlot. Mike noted a bit of anise and tar (it’s actually a good thing) on the nose, with good fruity, earthy flavor. The tannins were still there. And while Mike thought this had a shorter finish (the taste didn’t linger as long on the tongue), he also thought this one had even better potential for aging.
Now, the Napa Valley Merlot retails at $28, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the Atlas Peak was second least expensive, at a mere $50 for wine club members. Yipes! The rest of the bottles in the tasting all retailed at $95 and up. Oddly enough, the two above wines were our favorites – and that’s before we knew what they cost.
This one begins with a shout out to our friends at the Pasadena Enterprise Car Rental office, mostly because it was Tanya whose question suggested this post.
You see, Tanya and Anne were chatting about wine tasting. Tanya had recently been up to Malibu and we’d just gotten back from a weekend in Santa Barbara and Lompoc. And Tanya was a little surprised when Anne said she’d been spitting a good part of the weekend.
Okay, spitting your wine out after you’ve just tasted it does sound really gross. It’s not that bad, especially if you remember to bring a small cup to spit into (like we forgot, oops). Or you can just taste some of the wine and pour the rest out into the spit or dump bucket that should be on the tasting room counter, which relieved Tanya no end. She was thinking it was rude to not drink what you were poured.
The thing it’s not at all rude to pour or spit your wine out. Because the bottom line is that while wine tastes really good, it can also get you plenty drunk, or if you have Anne’s tummy, really sick. And if you’re having a good time with friends, it’s easier than you might think to get a snootful. If you pour or spit, no one is going to think you don’t like the wine (even if, perhaps, you don’t). Folks are just going to think you don’t want to get drunk, and the folks behind the counter in the tasting room are seriously down with that.
Drunks are no fun to deal with – one of the reasons we prefer to avoid party weekends or wineries with multiple limos parked outside. In fact, on of the rudest things you can do in a tasting room is let yourself get polluted. So pour or spit. You’ll be fine and able to taste that much more wine, too.
We tasted Breathless Sparkling Wines a couple years ago at the Family Winemakers tasting event and loved them. Turns out there was a good reason why – they’re made by a friend of ours, Penny Gadd-Coster. Not only does Penny have her own label, Coral Mustang, since 2007 she’s been Executive Director of Winemaking at Rack & Riddle, a winery and custom crush facility in Hopland, California. (A custom crush facility is a place where people with grapes can go to make wine commercially without buying and/or building a whole winery.)
Breathless is owned by Rebecca Faust, co-owner of Rack & Riddle, and her two sisters Sharon Cohn and Cynthia Faust.
So when we wanted to find out how to pick a good bubbly for Valentine’s Day, it only made sense to talk to Penny about Breathless, and other sparklers.
Sparkling wine, of course, is the generic term for wine that has bubbles in it – or intentionally made with bubbles in it. You can sometimes get bubbles in wine that’s not supposed to have them, but that’s a different issue. Champagne is the stuff from the Champagne region of France and you really shouldn’t call wine Champagne unless it’s actually from there. Never mind that darned near everybody does, including us.
Penny explained that there are some differences between Champagne and California sparklers.
“Probably from a California or a Western U.S. standpoint, the difference is fruit,” she said. “You don’t get that out of most French Champagnes, so that makes them a little bit unique. We can ripen the grapes a little bit more and bring out those flavors.”
Like most French wines, Champagne has a little more acid and will often taste a little chalky, unlike sparkling wines from California.
“You compare these to a French Champagne and they’re a lot more fruit forward,” Penny said. “They can have the acidity, but you actually know that there’s chardonnay in there, that there’s pinot noir in there.”
Oh, yeah, French Champagne and most California sparkling wine are made from either chardonnay – called blanc de blanc, or white from white (grapes), or pinot noir – called blanc de noir, or white from black (or red grapes). All grape juice is white, red and pink wines get their color from soaking the juice in the skins before fermenting them.
For that special night out, if you’re not getting an actual Champagne, Penny recommends looking for the words “méthode champanoise” on the label. This means it was made like they make Champagne in Champagne, France. The wine is fermented and bottled, then goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. Other bubblies are made by the charmat process, which means they shot the fermented wine through with carbon dioxide, basically, like they do with sodas.
“The made in the bottle wine is going to be a lot more elegant,” Penny said. “You’re going to have nicer, smaller bubbles. You’re going to feel more elegant.”
She did point out that méthode champenoise tends to be more expensive because it’s a lot more labor intensive. Nor are charmat-style bubblies that bad. They can be perfectly nice. But we are talking special occasion here.
As for what to serve with your bubbly, well, anything your fuzzy little heart desires. That’s the great thing about sparkling wine, it literally goes with just about everything. Penny suggested having a sparkling rosé if you’re serving a heavy meat dinner, such as a standing rib or steak. If you’re doing something a little on the spicy side, then you might want the slightly sweet bubbly labeled “extra dry.” No, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
In any case, bubbles make it special and that’s what you want for Valentine’s Day – or any other special occasion. Even if it’s just surviving another week.
So you’ve decided to take the plunge and have a real New Year’s Eve party. Or you’ve invited the family over for Christmas Dinner. Or you just want to have a party because it’s the end of the year and it would be fun.
Or at least you thought it would be fun when you sent the invites out. Now that said event is staring you in the face, you’re feeling that cold rock in your tummy and wondering what the heck were you thinking? You want to serve wine, but have no clue what to buy or how much. And what if you get the wrong one? What if everyone thinks you’re a total dweeb, newb, dope?
Stop. Right now. Take a deep breath. Take another. You know, it’s that kind of judgmentalism that we are fighting here at OddBallGrape.com. If we had a sharp stick to poke in the eye of each condescending jerk who smiled in that oh-so-superior way and made some snarky comment, we’d have a freaking forest. Trust us, unless one of those folks happens to be a close, personal friend or a relative, you won’t be dealing with somebody like that. And if you are, make said close personal friend or relative buy the freaking wine. With his or her money.
We’re going to assume you’ve already figured out your budget. If you’re doing a dinner for, say, five to 10 people, you can afford slightly more expensive wines (say, around $10-$15 a bottle) and you’ll match your wines to what you’re serving – red wines with red meat and heartier fare, whites with seafood and lighter tasting fare. If you’re doing something decidedly spicy, such as Indian, Thai or Mexican food, then a slightly sweet wine like a gewurztraminer or riesling does wonders. You don’t need a different wine for each course unless you want to do it that way. You don’t even have to serve courses, but you might since it is a big holiday dinner. In which case, serve a nice light white with the soup and salad courses, and then match your dinner wine to your main course.
And don’t stress over the matching. Cabernet sauvignons, syrahs, and tempranillos all tend to be heavier reds that go well with food. Merlot is one of those reds that tends to be in the middle, while pinot noirs are generally a lighter red. Chardonnays are your basic white, which goes with most lighter fare, such as white fish and sauces, while sauvignon blancs tend to have more and crisper acid, which goes better with cheese. If you really want to cover your backside, forget all of the above and find a nice sparkling wine you like and serve that with the whole meal. Almost everybody loves bubbly and it goes with everything. As for how much, see below for the formula.
Don’t stress about spending $15 a bottle for a larger party. You won’t have to and no one will expect you to. There are plenty of drinkable brands for less – just be sure you’re serving something you like. They won’t be transcendent, but you’re not looking for transcendent here. You’re looking for something fun that goes down easily with or without food.
So get a few different bottles in your price range and do a quick tasting. The ones you like the best are the ones to buy. That wasn’t so hard now, was it?
But how much? How much? You can generally get four to five glasses from each bottle of still wine, five to six glasses from each bottle of sparkling wine. No, you don’t need champagne flutes, but figure you’ll get only four to five glasses per bottle then. For parties, we usually do our math based on the whole guest list, even though we know not everyone is going to show up. That way, we’re less likely to run out. We assume two glasses per person, then buy two bottles of white to one bottle of red for the whole group. Or, for example, we’ve got 30 people invited. Probably only 20 will show, but just in case, we figure each person will drink two glasses of wine (they won’t, some will drink more, some won’t drink wine at all). So we need 60 servings. Each bottle will give us five servings, so we need 12 bottles, comprised of eight bottles of white to four bottles of red. Add a case of beer for those who like it. A couple bottles each of cola, diet cola, and lemon-lime soda, and maybe a pot of coffee and a pitcher or two of de-caf iced tea, and you’re golden.
There is nothing worse than taking a big gulp of orange juice after a big bite of maple syrupy pancakes. All you can taste is sour, sour, sour. Blech!
Well, that, dear friends, is exactly what makes pairing wines with your Thanksgiving Dinner such a challenge. You’ve got your savory turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy – flavors that scream for a good, rich red with good, solid acidity. And then as soon as you dive into the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce – yeesh! All you can taste is the sourness of the acids in the wine. Kind of kills the whole experience.
Our friends Susan and Jan were puzzling this out for Susan’s brother, one of the principals of Flying Leap Vineyards in Tucson, Arizona. He’d sent her a case of the winery’s different wines and asked for her input. So time being an issue, Susan invited us and a whole bunch of other people to a potluck, where we all brought different elements of holiday meals (not just Thanksgiving) and tried everything with everything. Or tried to.
In any case, there really wasn’t one wine that did the trick across the board. Their tempranillo did the best job, but even it was no match for the sweet potatoes – and these didn’t even have marshmallows. However, we weren’t terribly surprised that the tempranillo did the best out of all of the wines we tried. Tempranillo is a Spanish grape that often makes a pretty in-your-face red wine. But when made well – as this one was – it’s an amazing food wine. That’s because it’s got enough acid and fruit flavors to stand up to stronger-tasting foods, but it’s not so acidic it can’t deal with something a tetch sweeter.
So how do you pick a wine for Thanksgiving or another holiday meal? You want a wine that’s actually fairly light and fruity. You need the fruit to stand up to the stronger flavor of the turkey meat. Or ham. Or pork roast. Or beef. But something that’s got just enough acid to give the wine some structure and to blend well with the savory elements, but not so much acid it’s going to taste wonky with the sweet stuff.
Yeah but, you’re asking, how do I find the right one for my meal? Well, you could buy a bunch of different wines and call your friends in for a potluck, like Susan and Jan did, but that may be a bit much, especially if said friends are also coming to dinner Thanksgiving Day (or for Hannukah this year). You can ask your favorite wine shop person – which usually works. Or if this year, your soon-to-be mother-in-law is coming or there’s some other reason you really, really need things to be as perfect as possible, you can do a mini-tasting yourself.
Buy three to four bottles of different wines that you think might go well, buy some turkey in gravy, maybe a potpie or similar. It doesn’t have to be a great version of one, it just needs to taste enough like a turkey and gravy to mimic that part of the meal, Roast a sweet potato. You can either try the wines blind by putting them in different numbered paper bags, or not. But have your little plate of turkey and gravy and sweet potatoes and take a sip of each wine after eating each of those two elements. Take notes on how each wine tasted with the food, which might help if you get a really close match. But usually, the best one makes itself present pretty quickly.
Just avoid really big, brawny reds (tempranillo being the one exception). Think light and fruity. And you should be good. If you want your big, meaty cabernet sauvignon, go ahead. Just don’t eat the sweet potatoes or cranberry relish at the same time.
When Anne chatted with wine critic Alice Feiring last fall, the conversation kind of went all over the place – as it is wont to do when wine people get talking about their favorite subject. Feiring, who had just launched her newsletter, The Feiring Line, has been writing about wine since 1990. She said it was something she fell into, as she had been writing about a host of other topics as a freelance journalist.
“I fell into this area of wine technology,” she said, adding that she already had a passion for wine. “It was just inescapable.”
Feiring believes that the role of the wine critic is to help, not judge.
“I think the role of the wine critic is to be somebody you really like in a wine store,” she said.
And, as we have often noted, it doesn’t hurt to find a critic who shares your personal sympathies. Feiring, for her part, has become a strong advocate for Natural or Naked Wine. It’s a small, but growing, trend in the winemaking world, where winemakers are attempting to make wine by doing less and less to it, including even adding yeast to get the fermentations started.
Side note – it is also an area of minor disagreement between us. Anne leans toward the less is more approach, Michael favors more intervention.
Feiring said that she simply prefers the flavors of natural wine, describing wines that have been made with added acid and occasional bits of sulfur (like, part per million bits) as having a heavier, fruitier taste that just doesn’t appeal to her.
“What I find about natural wines is that they are more accessible,” she said. “And they’re not that expensive.”
In fact, she added that there is absolutely no correlation between cost and quality, although some natural wines will cost a bit more because it is a riskier way to make wine – one of the reasons winemakers add those parts per million of sulfur is to kill bugs that can ruin an entire year’s worth of grapes or wine.
But risks aside, native ferments (letting the grapes ferment on their own without adding yeast) and wines made with less and less chemical intervention are getting more popular and more common, which mean Feiring has a lot more tasting to do. Something which will disappoint her mightily. Uh, not.
Let’s be real – most of the time, wine pairing isn’t that tough. You have your basic rule of thumb: white wines with white meat/protein, red wines with red meats/sauces. The idea is that you (generally) want to match the more delicate flavors of a white wine with the more delicate flavors of chicken or fish, while you want a heartier red wine to go with the heartier flavors of a beef roast or steak. And while that is a pretty basic assessment, it will get you through 80 to 90 percent of the time.
Thanksgiving Dinner, however, is one of those 10 to 20 percent times when the old rule of thumb gets a little tricky. Turkey has a much stronger flavor than chicken, but it’s not quite as strong as steak, so a light white wine will be overwhelmed by the turkey and the turkey will be overwhelmed by the heavier red wine. Then there are all the sweet dishes that can throw even the best wine off.
Why? Well, think about what an orange tastes like after you’ve just brushed your teeth or taken a big bite of maple-syrup drenched pancake. Even the sweetest orange or orange juice will taste sour and icky. That’s the citric acid in the orange taking over on your tongue after matching out all the sweet flavors. The same thing happens with wine. Any good wine has several different acids playing out against the fruit flavors and the alcohol. So Aunt Mabel’s sweet potatoes and marshmallows are going to match out those fruit flavors in the expensive, perfectly balanced pinot noir that you bought to go with the turkey, and leave the wine tasting sour and yucky. Not the effect you want when you’ve coughed up $40 for a bottle. And let’s not even get into what the cranberries are going to do.
Which is why our favorite Thanksgiving Dinner wine is the annual Beaujolais Nouveau. The Nouveau is the brand new wine out of the Beaujolais region of France. Basically, all the winemakers who made Beaujolais Villages would hold a little grape juice back from the newly-picked grapes and make a new wine with it to celebrate the end of the harvest. Well, a man named Georges DuBoeuf realized that this was pretty tasty stuff and that if he bought up a bunch of the new wines, mixed them together, then created this big party in Paris, he could sell a boatload of it and make everyone happy.
So nowadays, the wine is released every year on the second Thursday of November to great fanfare and some sniping by the wine snobs, who love looking down their long, bony noses at it. It’s wine that was grapes, like, three months ago, and it’s very light and fruity with good acids, and it can stand up to the turkey and gravy and is fruity enough not to get too sour with the sweet potatoes. Plus, if you have any wine novices at your table who are terrified of red wines, it’s a great introduction to red wines, in general. The best part? Beaujolais Nouveaus rarely cost more that $15 a bottle. Just one thing to be aware of – the vintage year should be the current year. As in, if you find a Nouveau on the shelf from 2011 or later, walk the other way. This wine does not age well and gets rather blah or tart even as soon as Christmas.
This year’s George DuBoeuf seemed a trifle tart to Anne, but Mike thought it was just fine. But there are other labels that then DuBoeuf, so don’t be afraid to give them a try.
And if you have a Thanksgiving wine that is your annual go-to, let us know. Lots of people like a delicate pinot noir. Others defend merlot as the perfect wine. We’re open.
Welcome to a new feature on OddBallGrape.com: Wine Class. These are posts dedicated to all those who want to learn more about wine, or even refresh what they already know. Feel free to comment and ask questions.
People ask us all the time what’s the big deal with wine? Why are people so obsessed with this nose or that flavor or this grape or who makes the best and 100-point scores and all that stuff?
So the first thing we want to point out is that you do not have to be “into” wine to enjoy it. If you can’t tell a cabernet sauvignon from a pinot noir, you can still appreciate that this glass of red tastes good.
But there are some very good reasons to learn about wine, not the least being that when that glass of red really tastes good, it’s nice to know why so that you can find other glasses of red that also taste good. Or to be specific, that taste good to you, because we are all different and what tastes great to us might taste rather blah to you and vice versa.
Also, it’s fun to learn about wine.
“It’s one of the great pleasures of life,” said Lisa Rigisich, one of the co-founders of the Pinot Days festivals around the country. “It’s one of the only drinks that takes you somewhere.”
Rigisich went on to point out that learning about wine is one the ultimate mash-ups of intellectual and sensory stimulation. You use at least three of your senses when appreciating wine: Sight for the color, smell for the nose, and of course, taste. We suppose you could add touch, in that you do get some mouth feel. And there are audio components – the sound of the cork leaving the bottle, the sound of the liquid pouring and the clinking of glasses.
Knowing about wine makes it a lot easier to deal with the rows of bottles on shelves when you go into the supermarket to pick up something on the fly for a last minute invitation. Or when you’re at a restaurant and presented with a book the size of War and Peace listing a bazillion wines you’ve never heard of and the sommelier (wine waiter) hasn’t either. These things happen and add to the stress many of us feel about something that really should be pretty low stress.
It’s just fermented grapes, for cripes sakes! Granted fermented grapes that can be pretty freaking transcendent, but you shouldn’t feel like you need a degree in enology just to choose a decent bottle for dinner.
But then you might want to learn more, because wine is a lovely thing to have on a dinner table, because it does slow you down after another insane day at work, because it just plain tastes good. And, again, it can be fun.
There are also a couple reasons why you might not want to learn more about wine, chief among them because you’ve got something to prove. Anne had a colleague once who made a big deal about how much he knew about wine, and framed everything in terms of what “my friend Larry” said. If you’re only interested in how much a bottle cost, or how many points some wine critic gave it, then there’s really not much to learn and if you really need to, you can look that label up on some snooty site and real off what the writer there thought.
Wine is not a label. If you drink labels, you’ll discover that they all taste like the glue on the back of a postage stamp back in the day when postage stamps had to licked. We know. We’ve had to lick a few labels to get them on our bottles.