Most wines are of a medium body. Our reflections today, however, deal with opposite ends of the spectrum: lean, dancing-on-the-tongue, light-bodied wines verses rich, full-bodied examples. One is a ballet star, the other, a sumo wrestler. Do you have a favorite? In the world of light- verses full-bodied wines, one is not better than the other. They simply offer different experiences. Many of the world’s greatest wines, such as high-quality Bordeaux examples, are full-bodied personalities that deliver nuanced, complex flavors and a long finish.
You think of these full-bodied wines, many of them primarily composed of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as having the stuffing needed for aging gracefully (medium to high alcohol, tannins, fruit concentration, etc.). Northeast of Bordeaux are the great reds of Burgundy, focused on Pinot Noir. These wines show off a completely different body type: lithe, light, and just as nuanced and complex as their Bordelaise counterparts.
To understand the difference between full-bodied and light-bodied wines, think about the difference between whole milk and skim milk. It is a matter of viscosity. A full-bodied wine has weight and texture in the mouth. We tend to drink full-bodied wines more slowly, possibly because the mouthfeel captures our attention or the mechanics of drinking a full-bodied wine are more complex than those of light-bodied quaffs. Rich, full-bodied wines are especially attractive in the winter and with heartier meals, such as roast beef, while lean, delicate wines are just the ticket for lighter fare, such as red snapper with lemon slices and herbs baked in parchment packets, served in the heat of summer on a deck overlooking the ocean. Not surprisingly, there are exceptions to these commonly accepted pairing guidelines. For instance, some crisp and lean whites, such as dry Rieslings from Australia, with their dancing acidity, can work well to cut through the fats of heavy meals, even steak. That type of match is unconventional, but if it pleases your palate, who’s to say it is wrong?
As a winemaker, I have found that it takes more skill to make a top-quality light-bodied wine than a full-bodied one. Grapes used for full-bodied wines are typically bursting with concentrated fruit flavors, with the reds often sporting a dash of spice from time in oak as well as firm tannins. These bold, beefy wines interact with your palate at full volume, with the possibility of masking flaws such as smoke taint, Brettanomyces or volatile acidity. Makers of light-bodied wines have no place to hide such flaws. A lean wine can also have concentrated fruit flavors, spice, and tannins, but because it lacks the “clothing” of a much richer wine, you can more easily unveil its secrets. Light wines are naked to your observation, broadcasting the quality of the grapes, vintage vagaries, mistakes made in the cellar by the winemaker, or poor storage issues. Winemakers can increase the body of any wine, red or white, through oak aging, fortification, back-sweetening and other production techniques. Conversely, a wine’s body can be lightened through fermentation practices, adding water or other liquids, and blending.
A lean wine can also have concentrated fruit flavors, spice, and tannins, but because it lacks the “clothing” of a much richer wine, you can more easily unveil its secrets.
When you are in the mood for a full-bodied wine, you might first think of reaching for a red. Inky reds set the tone for a brooding drink as you cozy up to the fireplace to discuss your world domination plans with a respected mentor. However, you might be selling yourself short if you neglect to consider a full-bodied white. Certain white varieties, such as Viognier and Marsanne, have characteristics that lend themselves to the production of rich and lush wines that are ideal for heavier meals and conversations. When the winemaker has the budget and time, a white can achieve further richness through techniques in the cellar that might include letting the wine rest on lees (spent yeast), barrel fermentation, oak aging, malolactic fermentation, and skin contact (the making of a white wine usually involves separating the skins from the grape immediately after harvesting; leaving the skins on for some degree of time adds texture).
Malolactic fermentation (malo) is a process where a wine’s tart malic acid is converted to softer, creamier lactic acid, resulting in a more rounded, full and mellow texture in the mouth. Malo occurs in most reds, taming the astringency of the tannins, and in some whites. White wines that have gone through malo often emit dairy aromas such as butter or cream, with an iconic example being a classic Napa Valley Chardonnay. Winemakers who want a leaner, crisper style of white, such as a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, block malo by using sulfur dioxide or by cooling down the wine to around fifty degrees. The bottom line: malo fills out and mellows a wine, and this certainly affects our perception of body type.
My personal selection of a wine, light- or heavy-bodied (or anywhere in-between), depends on the situation at hand. The selection of a wine can involve creativity, practicality, and strategy. Select the best bottle to convey the mood and scenario, much like a lighting director might use her creative talents to help a film director tell a compelling story. Recently a good friend called to tell me she had lost her beloved family dog and was hoping for some company. Which bottle would you have under arm for this delicate situation?
Please allow me to escort you at this very moment to my cellar and we will make our selection. Oh, are you surprised to see that my “cellar” is actually an under-the-counter wine fridge in the kitchen that is always crammed full? Do we choose that Vino Rosato by Andrea Scovero on the top shelf? No . . . too light for the occasion. Let’s reach instead to the lower shelf for the 2019 Provins “Chandra Kurt” Cornalin from Valais, Switzerland. This is a rich, aromatic, fruity and juicy red with a kiss of bitterness at the finish. See that bottle right next to the Cornalin? Grab it also, please. This is a 2019 Ciro Picariello Fiano di Avellino. It should be just right if my friend prefers a white.
Some people only drink white wine during the day; it conforms with their vision of propriety. Perhaps my friend fits into that category, now that I think back to our past wine adventures, and I like to be ready for anything. Many people drink exclusively reds or whites, passing up the opportunity to enjoy the full spectrum of what wine has to offer. What a shame. People often ask me to name my favorite type of wine, to which I answer, “They are all my children, I love them equally.” In any case, we are fully prepared with these beautiful specimens.
What causes a full or light body? The amount of alcohol in the wine is one key indicator of a wine’s body. Wines with up to twelve-and-a-half percent alcohol by volume are generally considered to be light-bodied. Medium-bodied wines, which are not covered in this list, are generally between twelve-and-a-half to thirteen-and-a-half percent alcohol. Wines with high alcohol levels, those at fourteen percent and above, are full-bodied, and that would be another reason why we tend to drink these wines more slowly than their lighter counterparts.
The amount of alcohol in a wine does not, in all cases, indicate the body type. A sweet wine such as a Canadian Icewine or a German Beerenauslese can be low in alcohol (as low as seven percent) yet full-bodied because fermentation was halted by the winemaker before the yeast could eat all the sugars. In that case, the yeast did not convert all of the sugars into alcohol, leaving the wine sweet with residual (leftover, unfermented) sugars to produce a wine that is rich and full-bodied. In our Canadian and German examples, the body type is trickier to identify strictly by the alcohol level; we rely more on a wine’s texture in the mouth rather than the alcohol to give a precise assessment of the body. Sugar adds to our impression of body while acidity lightens up our feel.
There is yet another naturally occurring chemical that affects our perception of a wine’s texture, mouthfeel and body: glycerol, also known as glycerine. When the yeast goes to work during fermentation, mostly producing ethanol and carbon dioxide, glycerol is next in line in terms of output. It is colorless and odorless but enhances a wine’s quality and sensory properties by contributing elements of sweetness and fullness. The amount of glycerol produced depends upon the yeast strain, the amount of sugar in the must (unfermented grapes), the grape varietal, and the ripeness of the grapes, among other things. If you would like to experience higher than normal glycerol levels in a wine, try Amarone, produced in Italy’s Veneto region, where glycerol contributes a splendid perception of sweetness and fullness even if the wine finishes dry.
A region’s climate can provide you with possible indicators of a wine’s body. Grapes need warmth and sunlight in the vineyard, among other factors, to convert their sugars into alcohol. Grapes grown in a more northerly latitude (or at a higher altitude) struggle to obtain ripeness as they must deal with cooler weather, overcast days and weaker sunlight. Examples of cool weather regions include Champagne, France; Wachau, Austria and Valais, Switzerland. When grapes skirt the edge of ripeness, they reach lower sugar levels which translates to less alcohol and a corresponding leaner body. In some cases, grape varieties structure themselves to adapt to cool climates by developing thinner skins to soak up as much sun as possible inside the grape to advance ripening. These grapes typically have lower alcohol levels, lighter tannins, and more acidity, all hallmarks of light-bodied wines. Tannins contribute to our perception of body, and in cool climates, grapes struggle to fully develop tannins. (Underripe tannins can make a wine taste green, sour or astringent.)
Grapes grown in areas blessed with sunlight and warmth have no problem ripening. They easily convert the grape’s sugars to high alcohol levels and therefore lower acidity. Tannins will develop fully, paving the way for the production of wines with a full and generous body. Wine regions with Mediterranean climates such as France’s Languedoc, Sardinia’s Gallura, and California’s Napa Valley come to mind. In such climates, grapes need protection from the heat of the sun to avoid over-ripening and shriveling on the vine. Grapes that get too ripe usually produce wines that are very high in alcohol with overly jammy flavors and possibly a flabby mouthfeel. Some varieties adapt to the heat by growing thicker skins to prevent sunburn, and thicker skins contribute to a sensation of body in the mouth in the form of robust tannins.
Several grape varieties are elastic in personality, such as Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Riesling, and lend themselves to production in multiple body classes. What’s more, a winemaker can elect to use a grape variety that is typically made in a lean style and go the opposite direction, pushing for a fuller style, or the other way around. An example of this is Picpoul de Pinet, which is usually produced in a light, zippy style. As this grape varietal grows in popularity, winemakers in France, California and Texas are employing production methods such as barrel fermentation to broaden the flavor profile and body.
Garganega (Soave and Gambellara)
Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet)
Picpoul de Pinet
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
Chardonnay (Napa Valley)
Coda di Volpe
Refosco (Colli Orientali)
This is one in a series of Grape Detective blogs featuring the attributes of wine and how your love for a specific wine grape may lead you to discover new grapes with similar characteristics. The focus of the list is grape variety and does not include blends, wine regions, or styles.
Would you say weather plays an important role in setting the tone for your choice of an earthy or fruity wine? For instance, here in San Francisco, we are experiencing twenty-five-mile-an-hour winds and, for some, subsequent power outages. I can tell you that my run at forty-three degrees Fahrenheit this morning in Golden Gate Park was nothing short of invigorating. Peter called out “good luck” as I leapt forth into the wild outside. I had a psychological advantage, though: friends had sent photos of themselves enjoying time with their families in several feet of snow. That’s why today’s run was totally in my wheelhouse.
Tonight the wine will be a nice earthy red, maybe a Nero d’Avola, to keep a late winter’s brisk weather at bay. A quick look into the wine fridge reveals the perfect candidate: a 2017 Cerasuolo di Vittoria by Donnafugata, a spicy blend of Nero d’Avola and Frapatto out of Sicily. As we are having this conversation, I have been deciding whether to cook tonight’s Halloumi cheese over vegetables in the pizza oven outside as planned or pay my due respects to the gusty winds and cook a traditional red-sauce pasta indoors. While I am leaning toward the pasta dinner as a matter of practicality (pizza ovens are not keen on inhaling blustery winds), if we lose electricity like some of our San Francisco sisters and brothers, the decision will be made for me. Cooking outside with fire is my favorite, wind be damned. Either scenario bodes well for the Cerasuolo and the dinner. On a different day, one where I have been in the backyard laying in the warm sun reading a good detective story, I might pick a different Italian offering: a fruity Schiava, perhaps. The light-bodied 2019 by Manincor from Italy’s Alto Adige, also in the wine fridge, would be a perfect pairing for a warm easygoing day.
Choosing an earthy or fruity wine can also depend on the course of your dinner and what you are serving. With a Caesar salad, will you opt for the floral, white peach and lemon zest aromas of a Torrentés from Argentina to marry with the zing of the salad’s Dijon mustard and anchovy? Or do you favor the more earthy, grassy experience offered by a Sauvignon Blanc from the Nelson region of New Zealand to complement the crunchy freshness of romaine lettuce?
For a steaming bowl of tomato soup, do you go with an earthy Merlot from the Walla Walla Valley wine region to make the most of the tomatoes’ savory dirt elements? If the tomato soup is, in fact, a chilled gazpacho, would you instead reach for a fruity Godello to play nicely with the acidic elements of the soup? When grilling lamb chops for your main course, you could reach for the dark plum and fig fruit flavors of a Bobal from the Utiel-Requena wine region of Valencia in Spain to offset the lamb’s gamey, ashy flavors. For a more earthy, brooding wine to accompany the grilled lamb, drink a Sagrantino di Montefalco for the black fruit, licorice and pine tar that it brings to the table. For a cheese course, do you want a fruity and versatile Chenin Blanc or a more savory yet equally versatile Roussanne? As the captain of your drinking ship, you can have fun alternating between fruity and earthy wines, even within the same course, and explore the differences.
Earthy wines have aromas and flavors evocative of the earth and often have savory characteristics. You might get mushrooms, vegetation, soil, wet leaves, rocks, game, minerals, leather, or tobacco from these wines. Time in oak, wine aged sur lie (kept in contact with spent yeast cells), bottle aging, oxidation, fermentation practices and environments, and other factors affect the perceived earthiness of a wine. The vineyard’s terroir has a tremendous impact on a wine’s earthiness. For instance, red wines produced from iron-rich clay soils sometimes deliver a mild yet surprisingly pleasant bloody note. If you pick up smokey or ashy elements from a wine, you might be right to suspect that the grapes were grown in volcanic soils.
The use of wild yeast, commercial yeast, or a combination of both during fermentation also inform a wine’s earthy qualities. Biodynamic, organic and natural winemakers promote a minimalist approach to winemaking, and many opt to use the wild yeast that naturally occurs in the vineyard and cellar environments rather than rely on a commercial laboratory to supply yeast that has been propagated to produce a reliable outcome.
Natural winemakers, as well as traditional winemakers who use natural yeast, claim that their use of indigenous (wild) yeast promotes a more complex flavor profile. These winemakers know they are taking a chance that the environment will also provide unwanted spoilage bacteria, so sanitation becomes even more important than usual. Winemakers who rely entirely on natural yeast can choose to mitigate their risk by adding a small amount of sulfites to kill harmful bacteria and to stabilize the wine.
If you are a winemaker who elects to use commercial yeast, you are in the composer’s seat, choosing from a library of offerings with qualities that go well beyond earthy or fruity. Several of my friends allow the natural yeast to do their work for a day or two, then add commercial yeast to clean up any possible undesirable bad actors that could ruin the beverage. Yeast is highly complex and fascinating and scientists admit they do not fully understand everything that is happening during the fermentation process. As a homebrewer, I enjoy playing with various approaches, whether it is going completely natural, mixing a combination of commercial yeasts, or starting wild then tempering the fermentation with commercial yeast. If I had shareholders to please, my choices would be much more restricted.
Additional factors affect a wine’s earthiness. Grapes grown in cooler climates such as Burgundy, France and Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige do not achieve the sugar levels enjoyed in warm climates with intense sunshine such as California’s Sacramento Valley and Argentina’s Mendoza Province. Cool-region wines tend to be less fruity, revealing more earthy notes in their flavor profiles. A grape’s ripeness level has a tremendous influence on earthy vs. fruity aromas and flavors. Fully ripe grapes are prone to display fruity characteristics while under-ripe grapes are inclined to offer herbal or vegetal attributes.
A quality wine can be fruity or savory, and many wines share elements of both. For instance, a Grüner Veltliner from the Wachau region of Austria has citrus and/or stone fruit characteristics that are typically accompanied by the earthy and savory notes of white pepper (and perhaps toast, in those that are aged). Sometimes a wine is aged beyond its prime and displays little to no fruit characteristics. This is considered a flaw because what remains is a mere flavor shadow compared to the wine at its peak.
Fruity wines showcase fruit aromas and flavors over and above other aspects. A lot of people associate a fruit-forward wine with sweetness, but many fruity wines actually finish dry. The next time you perceive what you think is sweetness, ask yourself if you are in fact detecting fruit flavors rather than sugar. To distinguish one from the other, pay close attention to the finish of the wine. A wine that finishes dry, even if you experience delightfully bright red fruit such as raspberries and cherries, is considered to be a dry wine.
Some winemakers go to great lengths to preserve the fresh fruit purity of their wine by fermenting and aging the wine in stainless steel, concrete or other air-tight vessels instead of oak. This is because oak allows in small amounts of oxygen to change the nature of the finished wine to include non-fruity elements.
A lot of people associate a fruit-forward wine with sweetness, but many fruity wines actually finish dry. The next time you perceive what you think is sweetness, ask yourself if you are in fact detecting fruit flavors rather than sugar. To distinguish one from the other, pay close attention to the finish of the wine.
Fruitiness is often associated with New World wines (North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, etc.). Earthiness is more associated with Old World wines (France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, etc.). There are many exceptions to this line of thinking, especially as winemakers travel the world to experience wine in other countries and share ideas and technical information.
The drinking public also helps shape how wines are made. Styles go in and out of popularity and many winemakers accommodate what is fashionable or risk losing sales. For instance, the majority of buyers today ask for a dry rosé, so producers all around the world create offerings typical of the crisp, pale-colored, light-bodied, dry style of the Côtes de Provence rosés of Southern France. In the past, sweet rosés were all the rage. Drinkers who are new to wine often prefer fruity styles. As their palates mature, these drinkers begin to appreciate the complexity and intrigue of savory elements in the beverage.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, rain is suddenly coming down hard. What, is that hail pounding on my skylight? I guess the pasta dinner will be made tonight. Can’t say I’m sorry about that, because now I can rummage through my farmers market finds to create a meal for Peter that will be just right for that Cerasuolo. Soon I will put away the “pen” and enjoy the warmth of a hot stove. I will create a meal that will be the perfect finish to a day that engaged my body with a good run, my mind with this conversation, and my senses with excellent wine. Here’s a toast to being flexible without giving up on what matters in life: good food, good wine, good health and, especially, good company.
Garganega (Soave and Gambellara)
Sangiovese (Chianti Classico)
This is one in a series of Grape Detective blogs featuring the attributes of wine and how your love for a specific wine grape may lead you to discover new grapes with similar characteristics. The focus of the list is grape variety and does not include blends, wine regions, or styles.
The determination of whether to produce a wine that is dry, sweet, or somewhere in-between is made when the winemaker designs the wine and determines the process. When I get the urge to make wine, I think about the possibilities, including grape variety, the attributes of the vineyard, yeast selection (shall I go with commercial yeast or wild?), fermentation approach, equipment to be used, and, of course, sweetness level. I typically elect to make a dry wine, but even then, it is not just a matter of reading sweetness levels on a refractometer to determine when the wine has completed fermentation.
When it comes to determining sweetness, I have a broad idea in mind. For instance, when I have determined that I want to make a dry wine, I check the wine throughout the fermentation process, not only using tools to monitor the wine’s progress but also by tasting the wine. By sampling the wine as it develops, I can identify the sweet spot, or perfect moment, to halt fermentation. If I halt it too soon, the wine will be sweeter than I intended. If I halt fermentation too late, the wine, while dry, will seem thin and lacking in character. There are no hard-and-fast rules that dictate fermentation timeframes. Each batch is unique, so I mother my fermentations, carefully overseeing each and every aspect of the development of the wine. And, that my friend, is only one of many reasons why making wine is such a hands-on, personal experience.
Some winemakers, when preparing to make wine, have no choice in the matter of sweetness level. An example of this would be if the winemaker is told to work within an established brand or house style so that he can ensure the consistency that his shareholders and consumers have come to expect. Even when a sweetness level has been decided upon, there is a range of the amount of sugar that you will find in the wine. Generally, a dry wine will have less than ten grams per liter of wine. That means you could find nine grams per liter in one dry wine and three grams in another, even though both fall within the dry wine parameter. Sweet wines, the type you would consider dessert wines, often have over thirty grams per liter. There are many wines that fall somewhere between the dry and sweet levels.
Most winemakers do not include nutritional information on their labels, though some do. This puts us all in the position of either tasting the wine for ourselves to assess sweetness or relying on a guide, such as a sommelier or retailer, to give us a feel for the level of sweetness. Also, certain regions, grapes and wine styles are typically expected to be dry or sweet. For instance, if you are buying a Moscato, you are shopping for a sweet wine. If you buy a Barolo, you would be very surprised if it was sweet unless you were buying it in spirits form such as a Chinato.
I was having a conversation with a French winemaker recently and he described the American palate as being drawn to bigger, sweeter Bordeaux style blends rather than the dryer, more austere wines that the French are known to cherish. I had to concede that wines from the Napa Valley and other warm regions in the States tend to be made with riper fruit and therefore have more perceived sweetness, higher alcohol levels and a bigger body than several French wines. Many American winemakers, however, are following a trend toward less sweet, lower alcohol wines by selecting cooler grape growing sites, canopy management, picking grapes before they get overripe, and steering fermentations precisely. This trend has also been going on in recent years in other countries, such as Spain and Argentina, who have a past reputation for big, oaky, alcoholic wines that tend to be sweeter than those of the French.
The sweetness level refers to the amount of residual sugar that remains in the wine after fermentation. A wine’s sweetness level starts in the vineyard, where every vintage has something different to offer in terms of the amount of rainfall and wind, sunshine and heat, and other variables. One of the most important decisions made by the winemaker is when to pick the grapes. If too soon, the wine may taste undeveloped or a bit green. Too late and the wine may be overly rich and alcoholic and sweet. Each vintage has something very different to offer, especially in regions with continental climates, and that is why serious wine buyers pay especially close attention to not only the producer and type of wine but the year of the harvest as well.
Once the grapes are brought into the cellar, the winemaker with the intent of producing a dry wine establishes ideal conditions for the yeast to actively feast on grape sugars. During fermentation, a happy, healthy yeast colony converts the sugars into, mostly, alcohol and carbon dioxide. This typically leaves very little residual sugar in the wine. To produce a sweet wine, the winemaker halts fermentation before the yeast can convert all of the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
The winemaker has several choices for halting the fermentation, and this basically means that her intent is to kill the yeast colony so it is no longer productive. She can chill the wine, add sulfites or other additives such as grape spirits, or filter the wine, or a combination of techniques. Wine can also be made sweet by adding a sweetener, such as unfermented grape juice, after fermentation and stabilization. This process is known as backsweetening.
When I was explaining the process of driving the sweetness level in a wine to a crowd, someone asked, “If you want to make a sweet wine, why add yeast at all? Then you won’t have to kill the yeast to stop them from eating the sugars.” My answer: grapes, apples, and other fruit have naturally occurring yeast on their skins and other parts, so one way or another, you will have yeast present. When you add commercial yeast to grape juice, it overtakes the wild yeast during fermentation to produce wine that is more stable and offers more predictable outcomes. If you were on a planet where no yeast naturally occurred on fruit and you added no commercial yeast, you would not have alcohol, you would simply have grape juice, because the work of the yeast would not take place. The grape juice you see on the shelf at the grocery store has been stabilized so it does not allow fermentation, and therefore alcohol, to occur.
Sweet wine production starts in the vineyard, where producers grow grapes that are naturally high in sugar and farm them in a way that will concentrate the sugars. Some sweet wine grapes are purposely allowed to become “infected” in the vineyard by a fungus known as Botrytis cinerea or noble rot. Some of the world’s finest sweet wines, such as those produced in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, capitalize on the help of noble rot to concentrate the finished wine’s acids, flavors and sweetness. While the idea of allowing something to rot may seem off-putting in the world of wine and food, consider that the art of cheesemaking is a process of controlled spoilage. Do you think twice about eating cheese, or yogurt for that matter?
Many people are predisposed to preferring either dry or sweet wines, but both hold a special place at the dinner table. Just the other night Peter and I were at a lovely restaurant in La Jolla, California, and when it was time for dessert, I opted for a sweet wine from vineyards in the Montilla-Moriles wine region in Southern Spain in lieu of the pastry offerings. The Alvear Pedro Ximénez Solera 1927 was my dessert, and I was as happy as a cat jawing a fresh-caught mouse. The Alvear winery was founded in 1729, and the family specializes in fortified wines featuring the Pedro Ximénez grape, also known as PX when it is offered as a single varietal.
The Solera 1927 is one of the world’s best PX wines. It is made using a solera system that was built in 1927, and hence the name of the wine. Solera is a system for blending and aging wine, beer, brandy, vinegar or other liquids so that the finished product integrates the various ages. The moment I laid my eyes on the dessert wine menu and found this offering, I knew it was going to be something special. And it was, with a full body and rich, complex flavors. Honeyed figs, maple, crushed nuts, and caramel come pleasantly to my memory.
If you taste a sweet wine of high quality for the first time, you may be surprised by how fresh and alive it is because the sugar is beautifully balanced by concentrated acidity, flavor and possibly tannins. Any grape variety can be made in either a dry or sweet style, but some varieties are especially versatile and will shine on both ends of the spectrum, such as Chenin Blanc, Sémillon and Riesling. Many sweet white and red wines are blends, such as Tokaji, Port, Sauternes, and Vin Santo Rosso; blends are not included in this list.
If you taste a sweet wine of high quality for the first time, you may be surprised by how fresh and alive it is because the sugar is beautifully balanced by concentrated acidity, flavor and possibly tannins.
You can develop your ability to determine the sweetness of wine by tasting wines at all sweetness levels and categorizing them in line with what trusted resources say about them. Developing your ability to determine sweetness levels is a fine excuse to spend an afternoon with a knowledgeable friend or mentor, tasting through various wines and labelling them as dry, off-dry or sweet. I love setting my palate to one of the driest wines available, and that is a Fino Sherry which is made using the Palomino Fino grape. Fino Sherries have a number of yeast strains to create “flor” involved in their production. The flor creates a thick layer on the surface of the wine in the barrel. You also have flor making its way through the body of the wine and providing lees (dead yeast) at the bottom of the barrel. All this chewing and eating by the flor as it lives and dies gives us a unique and ultra-dry wine with a very distinct character. Most wines enjoyed after a glass of Fino Sherry quickly reveal their level of sweetness.
When determining the sweetness level, keep in mind that residual sugar is only one component of the wine. Perceived sweetness is what we are talking about, with factors such as acidity, tannins, fruit concentration and other aspects influencing the final taste. Specific categories exist for the dry to sweet spectrum, such as dry, off-dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, sweet, and luscious. You do not have to get that fancy or specific, but giving thought to the sweetness level of a wine helps you select wines that are in line with your particular palate. Thoughtful assessment also increases your knowledge and appreciation of wine.
Wines that are described as “off-dry” or “semi-dry” fall somewhere in the middle of dry and sweet, finishing with a mild and pleasing sweetness. Since our list does not focus on attributes that fall somewhere in the middle of any spectrum, off-dry/semi-dry wines are not included. Sometimes a wine is not technically sweet but gives you an impression of sweetness because the grapes were picked when they were very ripe. This is common in wine regions with hot climates. Oak barrels can also give the impression of sweetness when you pick up the aromas of vanilla or caramel, for example. While our minds link flavors like ripe fruit and vanilla to sweetness, the finish of the wine in your mouth is the best indicator of the sweetness level. If you are working toward a certification and need to identify the sweetness level in a blind tasting exam, consider what one of my teachers advised the class: most wines are considered to be dry.
Chenin Blanc (dry)
Garganega (Soave and Gambellara)
Palomino Fino/Listán Blanco
Cabernet Sauvignon (cool climate)
Chenin Blanc (sweet)
Muscat Blanc/Moscato (sweet)
Petit Manseng (Jurançon, Pacherenc)
Liatiko (sweet version)
This is one in a series of Grape Detective blogs featuring the attributes of wine and how your love for a specific wine grape may lead you to discover new grapes with similar characteristics. The focus of the list is grape variety and does not include blends, wine regions, or styles.
Peter and I have been watching a lot of crime dramas lately, the type of detective series you find on HBO and Netflix any night of the week. The main characters pound down Jack Daniel’s before, during and after work while looking for patterns and connections to pull together their thinking regarding a crime. Maybe if the detectives drank wine instead of whiskey, they would solve the case in half the time. But then the series would only last a couple of weeks and we would get less entertainment. So strike that idea.
When I am trying to solve the mysteries of wine, I rely on things I have noticed — patterns — to make the connections I need to understand what is in the glass and to find new wines that will delight my palate. Like my colleagues, friends, advisors, and clients who are obsessed with wine, I know that one way to increase my chances of picking a winning bottle is to personally experience and understand the personality and traits of each grape variety. Then I ask myself how each grape’s attributes are similar to or different from other varieties.
Clients often ask me to suggest exciting new wines for their consideration. In response, I sometimes introduce grape types that have similar qualities to what they are accustomed to drinking. The conversation goes something like this: “If you like this grape variety, you may also like this wine that is made from a different grape. While the grape is different, it produces a wine that has similar characteristics to what you like.” For instance, if my client likes a full-bodied, creamy Napa Valley Chardonnay, I could introduce a Viognier, which is also full-bodied and typically oak aged with creamy goodness. The Viognier offers intriguing new aromas and flavors for a novel experience yet lives within the comfort zone and preferences of the taster. If a client is excited by Cabernet Sauvignon’s bold tannins, I might pull out a bottle of Nebbiolo which also has a lion's share of tannins.
Many times, the grape variety I am introducing is more obscure than the usual Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir or Syrah. Less well known varieties sometimes cost less than famous grapes at the same quality level and this pleases my clients to no end. The aromas, flavors and mouthfeel of an obscure grape can provide an exotic experience while not breaking the bank. Who can say no to that? As the palates of my clients evolve, we continuously identify the key aspects of the wines they love in order to explore new grape varieties, wine regions, vintages, producers and production techniques. Tasting by grape variety is one of many ways to continuously hone your knowledge of the wines of the world.
If you are interested in searching out new wines, determine the characteristics that please you, then find other wines with similar qualities. In other words, find what you like and Switch It Up. Maybe you like spicy red wines so you frequently purchase a Shiraz from Australia’s Barossa Valley wine region or a Syrah from the Northern Rhone. Using this approach, you might swap your usual choice for a Garnacha from Spain’s Priorat region to tap into Garnacha’s spicy aromas and flavors.
Perhaps you like your white wines light-bodied, with acidity that practically slaps you in the face, such as you might get with a Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough wine region of New Zealand. In that case, you could swap it for a dry, fresh and fruity Chenin Blanc from the Stellenbosch district of South Africa. Chenin Blanc has exceptionally high acidity no matter what the sweetness level. In fact, the longer Chenin stays in your mouth, the more your awareness of its acidity grows until you feel you absolutely must swallow the wine. Now that’s drama! You might be a more low-key type, one who favors wines that are subtle and nuanced, those that do not make a loud statement but have plenty to say. In this case, you might have Pinot Noir in mind, maybe a nice number from Burgundy. A Beaujolais Villages or Cru, made with the Gamay grape, might be your new thrill. Both wines are typically light-bodied and fruity with low tannins, though there are exceptions.
If you go in for full-bodied wines that you can practically chew, complete with oak influences, you might be scanning the wine list at your local steak house for a Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Napa Valley wine region. Ask your server for a Malbec from Argentina’s Uco Valley in lieu of the Cab as they share the qualities you love. The Malbec will have grainier, more rustic tannins than the Cab’s tight tightly woven tannins, providing your mouth with a new thrill of texture. Maybe earlier in the day you were charged with the shopping and your spouse asked you to bring home a sweet Riesling. Keep the marriage exciting by picking up a Moscato from Italy’s Piedmont area to deliver the sweetness. If your partner gets angry that you did not follow directions on the choice of grape, no problem! Just Switch It Up: find a mate with attributes that are more in line with your own preferences. Perhaps you are the type who wants to be as fully in control of your faculties as possible, even when relaxing, so you always drink Pinot Grigio because it is typically low in alcohol. Break out of your rut with a Grüner Veltliner from the Wachau wine region of Austria. You will enjoy a low-alcohol drink with a dash of white pepper stimulus.
The Switch It Up approach gives you more confidence and pleasure in buying an unfamiliar wine. It minimizes the number of bottles you wish you had never bought. This method provides a framework for thinking about what you like in sweetness levels, acidity, tannins, and other elements of wine, helping you communicate with sommeliers and others tasked with serving you. If someone hands you a glass of wine and you do not know the variety, you may be able to taste specific qualities, such as acidity or spice, to take a stab at identifying what is in the glass. By comparing and contrasting the aspects of various grape varieties, you elevate your level of wine tasting knowledge. This type of detective work helps you gain a deeper understanding of how a variety’s traits (skin thickness, sugar level, early or late ripening, loose or tight clusters on the vine, proclivity to oxidation, vigor of growth, etc.) affect the wine that is ultimately bottled.
Switch It Up will not work in every situation, however. Many wines are produced with a blend of grapes . . . or with no grapes whatsoever. While we are examining the core fruit ingredient in wine, the grape, let us not ignore the fact that wine can be made by fermenting virtually any fruit, including apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, pears, peaches, pineapples, plums, raspberries, rhubarb and strawberries, to name a few. Wine can also be made from honey and is known as mead or honey wine. Mead is thought to be the oldest fermented beverage. During medieval times, it was part of the wedding ritual and the celebrations that took place during the honeymoon.
Mead holds a special place in my heart and I make this ancient drink throughout the year. Friends have told me they are shocked by the taste of my mead because they were expecting a syrupy sweet, cloying drink. Just this morning, a friend of mine with years of experience making beer was nervous about making his first five-gallon batch of mead because it would be “too heavy and alcoholic.” While I have made full-bodied, semi-sweet meads, most that I make are dry, refreshing and carbonated, just like the beers my friend craves. You see, as the winemaker, I control the sweetness level, body and other elements of the mead. And so can my friend.
I like to include the addition of natural flavors like dried berries, hibiscus and other botanicals while creating meads with an alcohol level of around six or seven percent. However, these additions are optional. I use a light hand on flavoring, aiming for elegance and balance, with a tip of the hat to the character of the orange blossom or other honey varieties in the wine. At the heart of the recipe design and fermentation practices, I am aiming for a joyous experience for the drinker.
Every autumn, when I lived in Southern California, I joined my San Diego Craft Cider homebrew club to wash, grind, and press apples, then we took home the juice and fermented it to make tasty alcoholic cider. Sometimes I rely on the wild yeast from the apples to ferment the juice. Other times I use commercial yeast from a laboratory, or I opt for a combination of natural and commercial yeasts. Usually the cider is so delicious and nuanced that I do not bother adding flavor ingredients. I just keg the fermented cider, carbonate it and place it in the kegerator for pouring and sharing with friends and family. Join a homebrew club to get in on this type of fun.
Homebrew is the best gift I can offer friends while encouraging them to get involved with the fermentation of beverages. It is comforting to have bottles and kegs of mead, wine, cider and beer at home should there be a surprise. You never know when friends or family will drop by for a good chat and a meal. Talking about surprises, we all know that disasters happen. Did you know that you can survive on beer for months if food sources dry up? Of course, without vitamin C, scientists say that scurvy would set in at the two- or three-month mark and we would die in about six months. That is why I also stock up on water and food. Also, scurvy is a rather off-putting look, so dating would be a bit of a challenge, don’t you think?
Scurvy is a rather off-putting look, so dating would be a bit of a challenge, don’t you think?
When discussing and buying wine, though, most people think about the alcoholic beverage made from grapes. Wine made from grapes is not so exotic that you cannot make it yourself. My first was a Cabernet Franc from the Templeton Gap District of Paso Robles. My next was a Syrah from Valley View Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley. I make wine from grapes every year at harvest. You can make white wine, red wine, sparkling wine, rosé . . . pretty much whatever tickles your fancy. Pick out the attributes you like in wine, identify a grape variety, and get started in your search for grapes.
Most of the homebrewers I know have homebrew club memberships where, by sharing information and resources, they gain access to any raw materials and equipment needed. These homebrewers start small and learn as they go, increasing their volume and portfolio as they build confidence. Some become professionals, entering a business that is fraught with risk and competition. Others produce their beverages at a very high level, better than most commercial producers, and choose to simply share with friends and family. In most cases, the homebrewer is constantly striving to better understand and improve the many elements involved in making a delicious beverage. Even highly skilled brewers run into problems from time to time, and they call upon the collective braintrust of their homebrew club and other professional brewers to find solutions.
When I lived in Los Angeles, I got to know a homebrewer, Mel, who was kind enough to act as a mule for those of us who lived on the west side of Los Angeles. Our homebrew club, the Maltose Falcons, conducts virtual beer tastings on a regular basis. To prepare for the tastings, a few members pick up beers from local breweries, then other members help distribute the beer to members in their neighborhoods. I have picked up beer from Mel twice now, and during that time we have connected on social media. One day he mentioned on a post that he is planning to make wine from grapes because he has seen my process and feels he can do it too. There is a vast community of homebrewers, near and far, physical and virtual, who are generous with information, support, inspiration . . . and drinks.
What follows in my new series is not a blind tasting grid. These are the attributes that my clients and I usually address when we are looking to Switch It Up to a new grape variety. I start by asking the taster what he or she likes in a wine beyond the obvious specifications of red, white, rosé, still, sparkling or fortified. The conversation often unfolds in roughly the sequence you will see in the series. This is not a technical list or even a complete list. In this context, you could call it a wine detective’s list. These are questions I routinely run through with clients as we search for the right bottle of wine. Also included are key descriptors voiced by clients, including those who are looking for “earthy” or “silky” or “oaky” wines.
The wine varieties in this series are top-of-mind grapes that typically fall under what is described. Add your own varieties to the list as you experience them in your tastings. I have also added less well known grapes that may be intriguing alternatives to what you are drinking currently. Now let’s talk about what is not on the list. Blends are not included. Varieties that fall in the middle of the spectrum for the characteristic being described (such as acidity level) are not listed. Those two exclusions alone eliminate a large number of delicious wines including many Bordeaux reds and whites, Sherry, Port, Champagne and Cava, and much more.
The list is by grape variety, such as Riesling, and not necessarily by style, such as sparkling wines or fortified wines. Wines that are described by region are not included, such as Burgundy; rather, the description is by grape. Clearly, finding a new wine depends on much more than grape identification and investigation. Think of these as general guidelines and be aware that each wine varies according to the vineyard, location, vintage, producer and other factors. Acidity, tannins, flavor concentration and other wine attributes differ from region to region or even vineyard to vineyard, for that matter, and there will always be exceptions and surprises.
Wine can be made in opposite styles using the same grape, so that’s a curveball you want to be aware of. For example, the Sémillon grape is generally linked with the production of the rich-bodied, low-acid, almost oily wines produced in Bordeaux. However, just a couple of days ago, I drank a Sémillon from the Hunter Valley wine region of Australia. It had a zesty acidity and a light body that made it a perfect summer sipper, much like a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Based on the Hunter Valley example, I can deduce that the Sémillon grapes were picked young in the vineyard to preserve the acidity and that no oak or malolactic fermentation was involved in the making of the wine, leaving the body lean. These differences in character from the same grape reflect not only the decisions of the vineyard manager and winemaker but also climate and other terroir considerations.
Vermentino and Godello grapes are also popularly presented in either a full-bodied, lush and creamy style or a light-bodied, easy drinking style. Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc grapes are so versatile that they are made in the whole spectrum of dry to sweet wines with alcohol levels that go from low to high. Paradoxically, Pinot Noir and Gamay can be categorized as either earthy or fruity. These grapes are naturally fruity, but if they are fermented with stems/whole cluster, they gravitate towards a savory, herbaceous earthiness. An appreciation of wine grapes is so complex as to defy black-and-white comparisons. And yet I cannot resist.
So you see, the upcoming series is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants compilation couched in a tight scope. Wine is so nuanced that there is room for a range of perceptions and interpretations. If you research the varieties in this series, it is not unusual to find contradictory information from one expert source to another. Not every wine professional will agree with the grapes listed in this series because there are so many exceptions and possible additions, but you may find it helpful in finding patterns to reduce the mysteries associated with your next wine purchasing adventure. Good hunting!
This is the first in a series of Grape Detective blogs featuring the attributes of wine and how your love for a specific wine grape may lead you to discover new ones with similar characteristics.
Have you ever met someone who causes you to lose all forms of self-control? For me, lusty Garnacha is the one I would pour all over my face, in the town square, under the spotlight of the sun. It would be reckless. Certainly illegal. It would be humiliating. And I would love every drop of that ruby red wine streaming out of the bottle and into my mouth. Onlooker shock would turn to bemusement at this shameless display of public affection. Intense relationships start hot, igniting the pleasure center in our brains, and Garnacha had me at hello.
The origin of my intrigue with Garnacha lands squarely on the shoulders of Monica M., a key educator in my formal wine training and subsequent certifications. When wine classes are taught by a Spaniard, you quickly become curious about the wines of Spain and their many incarnations. I rummaged through the aisles of The Wine House in Los Angeles and picked up a bottle from Priorat, a hotbed of winemaking creativity and excellence in northeastern Spain.
The bottle was a 2014 Mas Doix Les Crestes Priorat with a distinctive label featuring a rooster sporting a large red cockscomb. The wine was eighty percent Garnacha from twenty-year-old grapevines blended with ten percent old vine Carignan grapes and ten percent Syrah. Once home, I uncorked the bottle and just like that naughty Garnacha stole my heart. Red cherry, cranberry, strawberry, licorice and cinnamon aromas clouded my vision. I thanked my lucky stars for the pleasure that Garnacha gave me without reserve. But my conscience does not allow me to end the sweet memoir here. You, my friend, deserve more than a steamy love story.
As with many affairs, there is a cautionary tale involved. While flooding your nose and mouth with spicy, red fruit flavors and aromas, Garnacha hides a dagger behind her back in the form of high alcohol. Garnacha’s alcohol by volume ranges from thirteen point five to sixteen percent; fifteen percent is very common. So you see, you will never be able to love her with the complete abandon she accords you. Tragically, Garnacha will always be the superior lover in this relationship, so keep your dignity, if you can, by girding your loins against the mischievous alcohol that is skillfully concealed by the best makers. The Mas Doix I drank that day, for example, was fourteen-point-five percent ABV. It is this very attribute of high alcohol, along with a full body, that attracted Burgundian winemakers in the seventeenth century to add her to their Pinot Noirs to make them more interesting.
Experienced lovers have mysterious pasts, and Garnacha is no exception. There has been a tug-of-war among wine lovers about the origin of this grape. Some feel that Garnacha originated in Aragon in northern Spain. Others insist she was born in Sardinia. Like many, I am inclined to believe that she is of Aragon because this area has the widest range of Garnacha varieties (red, white, grey, Peluda). More importantly, Garnacha’s clonal diversity in Aragon eclipses that of Sardinia. Garnacha’s parents are unknown. She holds tight to her secrets.
The only way to know enigmatic Garnacha is to experience her attributes in the here and now. Garnacha has many hot spots of production, literally, as she prefers a warm or hot climate. She is an avid sunbather, even though she is thin-skinned, and she tolerates drought conditions with aplomb. In no hurry to impress, Garnacha is a late ripening grape; she takes her time. Pick her grapes too early and she cannot reach her peak of perfection. Her generous body is there strictly for your pleasure. Most famously, she is the key grape in the Southern Rhône’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, where she is known fondly by her friends as Grenache.
Châteauneuf wines showcase delicious Grenache, often with the blending partners of Syrah and Mourvèdre, to create full-bodied wines of spicy, concentrated red and black fruit. In vintages with hotter climates, Grenache can get overly jammy, so her blending partners help balance the final wine with tannins, color, acidity, and layered flavors. In some cases, such as Château Rayas, the very finest Châteauneuf is composed of one-hundred percent Grenache in lieu of using any of the thirteen permitted grape varieties for producing red Châteauneuf. An older vintage from Rayas can put you back two-thousand dollars for a single bottle.
How does Château Rayas manage to produce what may be the Southern Rhône’s finest wines without the help of blending partners to correct her soft tannins and low acidity? For one thing, Rayas, located in the northeastern area of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, enjoys the coolest microclimate in the Southern Rhône, so the grapes are unlikely to be over-baked and flabby. Trees and forests exert a cooling influence on the soil. These advantages result in naturally lower yields and longer hang time for the grapes, turning up the dial on flavor intensity.
With less heat, the grapes at Rayas preserve their precious acidity. Grapevines, under these conditions, grow at a pace conducive to tannin concentration. The terroir at Château Rayas makes it possible to harvest the grapes later in the season, at their perfect level of ripeness, without driving up the sugar level. The result: fresh, pure, silky wines that are lower in alcohol than those of many counterparts. In short, this wine is the very essence of elegance. The Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer would have watered at the mouth to paint this Grenache beauty, a real pearl of a wine.
Grenache is the most planted variety in the Southern Rhône. About half of the Southern Rhône’s wine production is labeled simply as Côtes du Rhône, and these are fruity, simple, medium-bodied red, white or rosé wines meant for casual consumption. If you thirst to investigate wines of a more serious nature, you can trade up to offerings that fall under the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation. These wines have strict laws that address alcohol levels, permitted yields, and wine grape composition, along with other aspects of winemaking.
The very best wines are cru wines, such as the Château Rayas from Châteauneuf that we discussed. A cru is a legally distinct region that is recognized for its quality and unique terroir. In Châteauneuf, many growers claim their vines are over one hundred years old. This age on Grenache contributes greatly to building a wine with deep flavors. Southern Rhône crus include Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the original cru of the Southern Rhône), Tavel and Lirac (best known for their Grenache-based rosés), Gigondas, Rasteau, Beaumes de Venise, Vacqueyras, Cairanne, and Vinsobres. By the way, Gigondas, located just ten miles away from Châteauneuf, provides a similar style of wine at a much lower price point. The wine there is getting so good that even experts may not be able to distinguish it from a Châteauneuf wine, but you will know the difference, expert or not, at the cash register.
If you were standing in the middle of a typical vineyard in the Southern Rhône, you would find Grenache’s vines to be bush-trained, clinging low to the ground. This helps her withstand the area’s powerful north winds, known as the mistral. As you stood in the vineyard taking in the songs of the birds and thinking that life is good, you would marvel at the bounty of large stones covering the vineyard’s soil. The stones, known as galets, evoke a moon-like appearance. Why are they there? They absorb the sun’s rays during the day and warm the vineyards through the night. Go ahead . . . crouch down . . . touch the stones . . . and feel the warmth. This is old-school technology at its best, creating ripening conditions for our lovely growing girl. Grenache is also found in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon wine region, where she courts several blending partners such as Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault.
Grenache is one of the dominant varietals used in making the Provence rosé blends that are so hot right now. Her thin skin produces less color than, for example, a thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon grape that is rich in coloring matter. Lack of color makes Grenache an ideal blending grape for the production of the pale rosés that consumers fancy. I recognize Grenache anytime I taste her in a blend, especially in a rosé. As waves of wine roll around my tongue, it is as though Grenache’s blending partners evaporate, leaving her completely exposed, and (guess what?!) she doesn’t care. Grenache flaunts her flavors like nobody’s business.
Back in Spain’s increasingly acclaimed Priorat wine region, classic blends are composed of old vine Garnacha and Carignan (known as Cariñena in Spain). The very best examples from this region are full-bodied and minerally, with flavors that might include a complex weave of brandied cherries, tar and licorice. These wines command some of the highest prices in the world. Priorat’s vineyards are hot and dry, much to Garnacha’s delight. Old grapevines struggle in nutrient-poor soils to produce very low yields and mouth-watering flavors. In the Rioja wine region of Spain, Garnacha contributes body, alcohol, and heady flavors and aromas to Tempranillo, the dominant variety there. While the neighboring Rioja and Navarra regions focus on Tempranillo-based wines, the Calatayud and Cariñena wine regions of Spain claim Garnacha as their most favored grape.
Sardinia is a real player in the world of Garnacha, and on this island she is known as Cannonau. The Cannonau di Sardegna appellation covers the entire island. Many feel that the best examples are found on the eastern side. Italian scientists have unearthed information suggesting that Cannonau originated in Sardinia, not Aragon, so the ongoing tug-of-war over Garnacha’s birthplace will continue until indisputable proof surfaces.
From time to time, my clients ask me to recommend a wine for medicinal or health purposes. Personally, I love this because it makes me feel like Doctor Lyne, though it is beyond my pay grade. In these cases, I sometimes call upon Cannonau’s restorative powers. Buyers get excited when they learn that Sardinian locals have extraordinarily long lifespans. We are talking about people who live into their nineties or to over one hundred years old. Some attribute this longevity to the Sardinian diet, including the wine.
Cannonau is high in anthocyanins and polyphenols, antioxidant compounds that are thought to contribute to heart health. Who am I to challenge this thinking? The Sardinians are doing something right. You will also find Garnacha south of Sardinia on the island of Sicily, where the locals call it Alicante. Garnacha is a jet-setter, growing well in Australia’s Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, and you will spot her on California’s Central Coast as well as South Africa and Israel.
Garnacha expresses herself in varieties beyond the ruby red, known in Spain as Garnacha Tinta and in France as Grenache Noir. Garnacha Blanca, the white wine grape, is being produced as a one hundred percent varietal with a golden hue and a full body in Priorat and other Garnacha-centric Spanish wine regions. Look for characteristics that include floral notes, citrus, and ripe stone fruit accented with pinches of rosemary and thyme.
Throughout the south of France, Grenache Blanc is produced as an easy drinker with low acidity and high alcohol, often presented with its traditional blending partner, Maccabéo. Châteauneuf-du-Pape produces white offerings, Grenache Blanc among them, that are weighty and intensely aromatic. You will also find Grenache Blanc on California’s Central Coast, especially San Luis Obispo.
Garnacha comes in classic gray as well but it has limited worldwide production. Look for it in the south of France, where it goes by the name of Grenache Gris. This wine exudes apricot and stone fruit aromas and some examples have a satisfying, oily mouthfeel. It is a bit of an obscure wine but that in itself is interesting for those of us who are always on the lookout for something new. There is some production of this grape in Spain, South Africa and California. Grenache Gris is genetically one and the same as Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc but simply has a pinkish-gray skin. Even though this grape is relatively rare, many feel that she is blessed with a more profound flavor than her white sister.
Now we get to the hairy proposition of Garnacha Peluda. This is a variant of red Garnacha with the underside of the leaves displaying a peculiar hairy appearance, almost as though she forgot to shave her armpits. Clearly, this is the more earthy side of Garnacha. Peluda is planted throughout Spain and in southern France and has a lower alcohol content than traditional Garnacha. It is not unusual to find red Garnacha and Peluda in the same vineyards and they are often mixed together in fermentation and/or blending.
What should you eat while drinking red Garnacha? The good news is that Garnacha is one of the world’s most versatile wines for pairing with food, mostly due to her pure red fruitiness, hint of citrus and other refreshing qualities. Her wide range of depths and textures, along with a kick of spice, are ideal with braised, grilled or stewed meats such as chicken, veal, lamb, beef, game and pork.
Garnacha also pairs nicely with salmon and trout, especially when grilled. Match Garnacha’s spiciness with Indian food, though I would steer clear of very highly spiced food of any kind as wines that are high in alcohol make hot, spicy food taste even hotter. If you are not in the mood for meat, call on Garnacha for pairing with a mac and cheese dinner or a lentil- or bean-based dish. For white or gray Garnacha, as well as rosés, seafood is a natural. Think about fish tacos, crab cakes and garlic prawns. If you have read my blog post on food and wine pairings, you know that choosing wines that match the origin of the food is one way to start getting creative with your dinner planning. It is no surprise, then, that all colors of Garnacha pair well with the quintessential Spanish dishes of charcuterie and paella.
Some winemakers harness Garnacha’s naturally high levels of alcohol and sugar to produce a fortified dessert wine known as Vin Doux Naturel. Drink this style on its own or pair it with dark chocolate, caramels, brownies, and cookies. These desserts also pair well with most other styles of Garnacha. If you are planning a cheese course with Vin Doux Naturel wine, you can reach for Brie, blue cheese, Cheddar, Gouda, Gruyère, and Manchego.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: Spanish wines are among the best values available on the market. Many of the wines you already enjoy share some of the same characteristics found in red Garnacha and you may be able to pay less for the same quality by switching. If you get weak at the knees for Syrah, Amarone, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, or even Merlot, consider a tryst with Garnacha.
There, I’ve gone and done it again. This story is longer than most because I have, once more, lost all control when it comes to Garnacha. If you find yourself falling in love with her, it hurts me to tell you that you will be one of a long line of lovers. The awful truth may bruise your ego, but you will, in time, learn to accept Garnacha as she is and without complaint. In fact, the only way to upset her is to ignore her on the third of September, International Grenache Day. But you won’t do that because you want to have her around all the time.
A bad day with Garnacha is better than a good day with anyone else, even if she leaves you crying on the street and making a public spectacle of yourself, yet again. Take my advice and resolve yourself to the fact that Garnacha is a woman you can’t forget . . . and that you will never leave.
Garnacha: General Characteristics
Flavors: cherry, raspberry, blackberry, candied fruit roll-up, cinnamon, white pepper, citrus skin, licorice, tobacco, oregano, lavender
Acidity: low to medium
Tannins: low to medium
Texture: soft tannins
Body: medium- to full-bodied
Key regions: Spain: Priorat, Rioja, Calatayud, Cariñena, Navarra, Montsant; Italy: Sardinia, Sicily; France: Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Languedoc-Roussillon, Gigondas; Australia: Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale; United States: California’s Central Coast
Origin: most likely Aragon in Northern Spain; possibly Sardinia
Also known as: Grenache, Grenache Noir, Garnacha Tinta, Garnatxa, Cannonau, Cannonau di Sardegna, Lledoner, Tinto Aragones, Alicante, Granaccio
Choosing the right wine to go with your dinner is easy when you use these tips. However, food and wine pairing is more than just following tried-and-true rules created by chefs and sommeliers. Pairings provide you with an opportunity to get creative and treat your guests to a special evening, even if it is just a casual get-together.
Think about it: as you plan the dinner, are you more concerned with orchestrating a great experience or with making technically correct wine choices? For most people, connecting with friends is at the top of the list. So relax when choosing your wines, this is not a contest. You can always open a different bottle if your initial choice does not hit the spot. The master plan is to pair your wine not only with the cuisine but with the ebb and flow of social interaction.
Tell me, what usually happens when you have a couple over for dinner? When they knock on the door, do you invite them in and start with small talk? Maybe you ask about their day or you compare notes on how your favorite sports teams are performing. How might that equate with the wine you are serving? Perhaps you will pour a sparkling wine, such as a Prosecco, something low in alcohol and light and frothy, like the conversation. When you sit down to dinner, after you and your guests have loosened up a bit, you move on to a first course, such as a summer soup or a salad, and serve a white wine or rosé.
As the courses progress, you find yourselves in conversation that has graduated to deeper, more meaningful topics. Your food and wines, too, can gain in body and strength in lockstep with the meal and dialogue. The idea is to pour your wine in progression with the overall experience of the diners. Start with light-bodied wines and graduate to heavier wines. Pour low-alcohol wines first, then amp up the experience with higher alcohol wines to match the heavier courses. Now that we are armed with the big picture, let’s get to the food and wine pairing tips, as promised.
Choose wines that match the origin of the food. When I am asked to recommend a wine to go with a particular dish, my first inclination is to consider the origin of what is on the plate. In other words, is the dish associated with the cuisine of a particular country or region? If so, I take a mental trip to that location and consider the local wines on offer. For instance, if you plan to serve a pasta with red sauce, go right to Italy for the wine, perhaps selecting a Chianti Classico or a Brunello di Montalcino. When serving old-school American hamburgers from the grill, why not reach for a Zinfandel from California’s Sierra Foothills. You might instead elect to put some bratwurst on the grill and couch the sausages in soft buttery buns. In that case, you could go for a semi-sweet Riesling from the Pfalz, Germany’s second-largest wine region. You get the idea: eat and drink like a local.
Match the intensity of the wine with that of the food. You probably have a pretty good feel for the intensity of the dish you plan to serve. For instance, you know that salads and seafood are generally less intense than barbecue ribs and ribeye steaks. When we talk about the intensity of a dish, we are usually thinking about the amount of fat and/or the boldness of the flavor. Salads and seafood are typically light in fat and delicate in flavor. These types of dishes call for wines with a light body and subtle flavors. Light bodied wines typically are low in alcohol, less than thirteen percent alcohol by volume. Wines to consider with light fare include Pinot Grigio, Prosecco and Vinho Verde.
The ribs, with their bold barbecue sauce, and the ribeye steaks, with their juicy fat, call for wines that are equally bold in flavor and body. While proteins abound in main meals, it is often the sauce you put on them that will be the pointer to selecting wines with complementary flavors and intensity. For your ribs, the highly intense barbecue sauce will point you to a bold Zinfandel, Syrah/Shiraz, or Malbec as all these wines have strong flavor profiles and are full-bodied. Full-bodied wines present at around fourteen percent ABV or higher. The fats in your ribeye steak are responsible for delivering the juicy tenderness you crave. These same fats soften the tannins in wine and elevate tastiness, so look for red wines with medium to high tannins to go with those fatty red meat dishes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.
Match the key flavors of the food and the wine. We were talking about a red pasta sauce a moment ago. Some wines, such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère can exude the herbaceous aromas of tomato leaf, so you would be spot on to call on these wines to unlock the flavors of the tomato sauce in your mouth. Salads and other foods with citrus dressings or sauces offer a clear invitation to match wines with aromas and tastes of lemons or limes such as Sauvignon Blanc or a Vermentino or an Albariño. If you are serving cranberry sauce on your Thanksgiving turkey, Pinot Noir from Oregon, with its vibrant acidity and cranberry aromas, is a classic match. For a dessert that is dotted with kiwi fruit, a Chenin Blanc from Saumur in the Loire Valley of France might offer up a similar aroma. If you cook up a beef stroganoff with mushrooms, your nose may catch mushroom aromas from mature Pinot Noirs, Nebbiolo wines, or Spanish Rioja wines.
Layer the experience with contrasting flavors. Contrasting but complementary flavors in your food and wine create entirely new taste sensations. An example of this is to pair fish and chips with a fresh and lively white wine. In this case, I might reach for a Verdicchio from Italy’s Marche region. Not only is this wine considered one of Italy’s best whites, it has the lively acidity to cut through the grease of what’s on the plate, refreshing your mouth for the next bite.
If you are serving a salty Stilton cheese, a classic and satisfying contrast is a weighty, sweet Port wine. The Port’s body will envelop the semi-soft Stilton in a luxurious bath of blackberry and chocolate flavors. The two together are a perfect marriage of sweet and salty flavors. Is your mouth watering yet? Another sweet and salty pairing would start with crispy udon noodles with nori salt on the plate. The answer: Champagne’s sparkling wine to complement the salty fare with its light kiss of sweetness.
Take the acidity of the food into account. Meals that sing with bright acidity are a natural companion to light, refreshing wines that are also high in acidity or tartness. Examples of foods with zesty acidity go beyond salads or whitefish topped with a squeeze of lemon. Balsamic chicken, any meal with pickled veggies, potato salads, balsamic glazed lamb, and food topped with chutney are all acidic in nature. When we talk about a wine’s acidity, we are describing that tart, sour taste you get in your mouth, like you would get from adding a twist of lime to your Mezcal or to a taco before you pop it into your mouth. Your first thought might be light-bodied, tart white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino or Albariño. However, exciting acidity can also be found in rosés from the Provence wine region of France, Pinot Noirs, Champagne and other sparkling wines, Beaujolais wines, and many others.
Take a special approach to pairing wine with spicy foods. There are a couple of ways to deal with spicy food when it comes to wine: either choose wines that complement the flavors of your spicy dish, or tame the heat with some sweetness and/or fruitiness. If you have a peppery dish, you can count on a juicy Shiraz blend from Australia to provide pepper notes while washing over the spices with jammy goodness. In this pairing, you are both complementing the peppery flavors and taming the heat with fruitiness. Another wine that could offer a fruity blanket over the spices in your dish would be a Beaujolais from just south of the Burgundy region of France.
In general, you want light-bodied, fresh and crisp red or white wines to tame the spice. We are talking Pinot Grigio, Albariño, Riesling, a New Zealand Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. Slightly sweet wines, such as off-dry Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, offer a pleasing contrast and provide a balance to the spice. Avoid wines that are high in alcohol or risk making your hot, spicy food taste even hotter. When cooking up a spicy dinner, I typically reach for a bottle with about twelve percent alcohol by volume.
Pair desserts with sweet wines. Asti is a sweet sparkling wine from Italy that dances beautifully on the tongue with custards and other creamy desserts, scrubbing away the buttery fat with refreshing bubbles while going toe-to-toe on sweetness. A late-harvest Gewürztraminer is delicious with cinnamon-infused apple pies, both sharing not only the element of sweetness but also spiciness. For rich dark chocolate desserts, Port wine is a classic match. But you don’t have to stop there. Zinfandel, Syrah/Shiraz, and Sherry are willing mates for chocolate.
Milk chocolate lovers might reach for Merlot or a Pinot Noir. A Cream Sherry might be just the ticket for a white chocolate dessert. Most high quality dessert wines are balanced by high acidity and taste quite fresh. These are not wines that will tire your palate with cloying sweetness. A quality sweet wine, such as an Icewine from Canada’s Niagara Peninsula or a Sauternes from France’s Bordeaux region, can be your dessert course, with or without food. In general, sweet wines are a natural match for spicy, salty, and sweet dishes.
Remember, this is not rocket science. Don’t get too wrapped up in getting your pairings just right. We all make mistakes until we’ve practiced a bit. Like learning to ride a bicycle, matching the right wine with a plate of food feels a bit clumsy at first until you get the hang of it. Most of all, let your palate weigh in when you experience the food and wine together.
Pairing food with wine boils down to matching the mood of the situation, the cuisine on offer, the company, the location, practical circumstances, budget, personal preferences, and so much more. You can paint your pairing situation with broad strokes, going with tried-and-true rules. You can go granular, matching your wine with the food’s country, wine region, cultural mores, and the mood of the get-together. Or you can fly high, with all your chips on the table, and experiment with food and wine combinations that nobody told you about. It is all good, and it is all part of your development as an aficionado of food and wine.
This article is partially excerpted from my new book, Your Love Affair with Wine: How to Meet and Fall in Love with a Bottle of Wine, available on Amazon
On the morning my mother passed away in my arms, I drove from Vista in San Diego County to Los Angeles. The two hours of driving north gave me time to reflect on how lucky I had been to hold my mother during her last twenty-four hours, massaging her head and arms as she took her personal journey.
Instead of driving straight home, I made two stops: Santa Monica Seafood, where I purchased some plump scallops, and The Wine House, where I procured a bottle of white wine from Sardinia. This night, August 6, 2019, I would make a fine meal of pasta with scallops and sun-dried tomatoes accompanied by a white wine worthy of celebrating my mother’s life: a 2018 Vermentino by Antonella Corda.
When you spot a glass of Vermentino on a wine list or reach for a bottle at your local shop, the producer is most often located on the island of Sardinia, an ancient land mass that is one of over four-hundred-and-fifty islands under the Italian flag. Sardinia, second in size only to Sicily, is known by locals as Sardegna, and you will often see this place name on the wine label. Sardinia is responsible for the production of about half of all Vermentino worldwide. Vermentino Di Gallura is Sardinia’s only DOCG (Italy’s highest designation of quality), and it is located in the northeast area of the island. Gallura is prized for its breathtaking beauty, granite soils, and famous Emerald Coast. While Sardinia was once regarded as Italy’s wild west, today it is the darling of nearly ten million tourists who visit annually.
If you are an ambitious swimmer with a penchant for chasing Vermentino, you can make your way seven miles north from Sardinia to French Corsica. There, Vermentino goes by the name of Vermentinu in accordance with local naming traditions. In fact, this grape goes by several names, depending on where you are drinking at the moment. On Italy’s mainland, Vermentino is prominent in Liguria, home of the ritzy Italian Riviera. Here, the wine known as Pigato, a name that means “spotted,” because the grapes have freckles on their skin. In northwest Italy’s Piedmont region, the grape is called Favorita. A quick flight over to Southern France’s Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon wine regions will further acquaint you with this popular variety, which they call Rolle. The French there use Rolle in their production of rosé to lighten the color and to provide intriguing aromas and mouthfeel.
Come to think of it, I hope that this thin-skinned grape won’t be offended as I notice that it runs with a monied, sun-seeking Mediterranean crowd. Vermentino shines at its best when planted close to the sea and you know that real estate isn’t cheap. You can also find Vermentino produced in California’s Paso Robles, Sierra Foothills, and Lodi regions, where it is appreciated for its resistance to drought and disease. There has always been confusion as to the origin of the grape, but DNA testing has most people convinced that Vermentino is native to Italy.
When a server approaches you on a hot summer day with a glass of Vermentino, the aromas from the pale gold nectar will reach your nose before the wineglass, wet with condensation, hits the table. Vermentino discharges a heady mix of that may include grapefruit, lemon peel, lime, pineapple, green apple, white peach, pear, and white flowers. These fragrances are couched in savory accents of sage or scrub-brush, depending upon the vineyard location and the hand of the winemaker. Don’t be surprised by the presence of almond on the nose: this is a defining aroma of the wine.
Vermentino is known for having an almost salty minerality redolent of the vineyards located along the western Mediterranean. The grapevines located on beachfront properties are natural recipients of the saltwater elements that shower their soils, grape skins and leaves. Gusty winds along the coast cool the grapes and dry them out, helping them retain their medium- to medium-high acidity. A medium alcohol level of eleven point five to thirteen point five ABV contributes to Vermentino’s refreshing quality.
Vermentino is the Gemini of wine grapes, presenting you with two vastly different style possibilities. Light-bodied, easy-drinking Vermentino wines are an inviting alternative to a Sauvignon Blanc or a bone-dry Muscadet. Producers of this light style seldom use oak, instead favoring stainless steel and other neutral vessels to preserve this variety’s mix of aromas. The moment you meet the rich, opulent and sometimes creamy expression of Vermentino, you will know why I chose this style for a night of importance and reflection. This weightier style might greet you with bruised pear, sage, wet earth, brioche and almonds with a nice hit of acidity keeping everything on balance.
A 2018 bottle of Vermentino Di Gallura by Piero Mancini that I am enjoying at the moment hits all of these notes, along with a generous, oily texture in the mouth. This round mouthfeel often indicates time on lees (resting time in the vessel with the yeast that fermented the wine). Creamy or dairy aromas and flavors might be introduced by the winemaker, who employs the malolactic fermentation technique to convert tart malic acid into creamy lactic acid. This bottle by Mancini, a one-hundred percent Vermentino, has a satisfying aromatic intensity and is typical of Vermentino’s medium level of alcohol at twelve point five ABV.
In Tuscany’s Bolgheri village (home of Super Tuscans), Vermentino sees some of its very richest expressions, where producers rely on the interplay of skin contact, time on lees, and barrel aging to create wines of weight and extraordinary complexity. If you enjoy a rich Viognier or a Napa Valley Chardonnay, this form of Vermentino may just hit the spot. While some Vermentino wines can be aged, most should be enjoyed within three to seven years following the vintage.
The Vermentino tasting experience holds yet another twist: a slightly bitter finish that reminds you of the sensation you get in the mouth from a grapefruit pith or a young almond. This counterpoint to the citrus and flower notes refreshes your palate in preparation for the next sip. Think about this sensation like you would the tannins in a red wine — a balancing component to fruity and juicy elements. What causes this unusual aftereffect? The Vermentino grape has a high level of phenolic compounds that produce a sophisticated, bitter finale. (Phenolic compounds naturally occur in plants and are valued for their antioxidant properties which are thought to reduce the risk of disease.) Considering that Italy is fond of including bitter elements in its cuisine, such as radicchio, it is fitting that this wine is not shy about rewarding us with a light kiss of bitterness.
Which foods pair well with Vermentino? My first thought for pairing food with a particular wine is to take a look at where the wine comes from and match it with foods from the same area. Ergo, why not cook up some Mediterranean food to go with your Vermentino? Your first course could be a tip of the hat to Vermentino’s citrusy character featuring an arugula salad bathed in olive oil, lemon and parmesan cheese. The arugula’s herbaceous and somewhat bitter elements are also a nifty match to the wine’s characteristics. Celebrate Vermentino’s oily mouthfeel by grilling up some sea bass, red snapper, octopus, squid, or sardines.
And you don’t have to stop there while at the grill. Vermentino is a great dancing partner for grilled chicken or even lean red meats such as pork and lamb. Play on Vermentino’s savory notes by roasting artichokes, onions, peppers, sweet potatoes or eggplant. If you are in the mood for pasta, bathe it in pesto sauce to boost Vermentino’s herbal aspects. The next time you visit a local bistro for lunch, order up a spinach quiche to go with your Vermentino. The rich, creamy mouthfeel of the quiche, along with the bitter green flavors of the spinach make this meal an ideal fit for your wine.
Don’t hesitate to pair Vermentino with chicken or fish tacos on a Taco Tuesday. Vermentino is a wine with personality plus, and a lot of nuance, so have fun matching and contrasting the aromas and flavors that she has to offer. I look for Mediterranean offerings along the lines of bitter salads, nuts, citrus, fish, stone fruit, oils, and cheeses with a creamy mouthfeel like Mozzarella. For additional food and wine pairing ideas, see my new book, Your Love Affair with Wine, available on Amazon.
I saved the best news for last: your awareness of Vermentino as a white-wine option is good for the pocketbook. Many wine drinkers are unaware of the existence of this grape, so you may find yourself paying less than you might for a Sauvignon Blanc (light style) or a Chardonnay (rich style) of similar quality. While we’re thinking about it, let’s look at wines with similar profiles to Vermentino. When you run into these wines at the bottle shop, consider whether Vermentino is a better value.
If you are shopping for fresh, light-bodied whites, you might be looking at a Sauvignon Blanc with its green apple, citrus and white peach aromas like Vermentino. How do the two wines differ? For one thing, the Sauv Blanc is likely to have higher acidity. Perhaps you could tell these wines apart in a blind tasting on that one feature alone. Or, you could be looking to pick up a bottle of Muscadet. This wine, produced in France’s Loire Valley, is dry and saline with citrus characteristics like a Vermentino. However, Muscadet wines are generally dryer and more acidic. If I was blind tasting between the two, I would identify the wine that is bone dry (Muscadet) and sniff like a bloodhound for almonds (Vermentino). Like Vermentino, Muscadet thrives near the water, but it lives in a cool climate whereas the Vermentino longs to bask like a sunbather in a warm or hot climate.
Let’s say you want to pick up a Manzanilla Sherry. Like a Vermentino, you would anticipate almond aromas, salinity and a slightly bitter aftertaste. Yes, both wines share these refreshing attributes, but with Manzanilla’s ABV of fifteen to seventeen percent, you would immediately know the difference. Manzanilla has low acidity whereas a Vermentino has medium to medium-high acidity.
If you are shopping for a rich, opulent white, you might be looking at a warm-climate Chardonnay, such as one from Napa Valley. This wine can offer Vermentino’s round mouthfeel and creaminess, along with nuttiness and tropical fruit notes. Chardonnay can be made in a variety of styles, like Vermentino, and may also undergo malolactic fermentation. However, an oaky, warm-climate Chardonnay is predisposed to having a lower acidity level than Vermentino.
A Viognier might be on your shopping list, with its almond, citrus and peach aromas as well as an oily mouthfeel. How would you possibly tell it apart from a Vermentino? Viognier is usually lower in acidity and higher in alcohol. Or, you might be reaching for a golden Semillon wine from South Australia, with its tropical, nutty qualities balanced by a chalky minerality and an oily mouthfeel. The way to identify which is which in a blind tasting: Semillon customarily has a higher alcohol level.
Our memory of a wine is brought into focus when we pair it with life events, connection with family and friends, and meaningful experiences. For me, the Vermentino grape will be inextricably tied to my mother and her loving and nurturing role in my life. When I drink Vermentino, I will think of her. When I think about my mother, I will remember the pasta dinner, the Vermentino and the conversation with my husband.
Peter and I had a quiet dinner at home that night of August sixth. We discussed everything that had happened with my mother over the past several days and hours. At eighty-six, my mother had lived a generous time on earth, but it was still difficult to say goodbye. The next day, I called my daughter, Nicolette, and asked her to make the same meal and to pair it with Vermentino should she find herself in the position of celebrating my life. Ever the chef, Nicolette reminded me that scallops may not be in season at the end of my days. We struck a deal, however: a glass of Vermentino from Sardinia would be raised in my honor, as I had done for my mother. The seafood: Chef’s choice.
Vermentino: General Characteristics
Flavors: citrus, green apple, pineapple, white flowers, almond
Acidity: medium to medium-high
Phenolics: attractive bitterness on the finish
Texture: fresh and light to lush and oily
Body: light to full
Key regions: Italy: Sardinia, Liguria, Tuscany, Piedmont; France: Corsica, Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon; US: Paso Robles, Sierra Foothills, Lodi.
Origin: Likely Italy
Also known as: Rolle, Favorita, Favorita Bianca, Favorita d’Alba, Pigato, Vermentini, Vermentinu, and Malvoisie de Corse.
Does the thought of ordering wine at a restaurant make you nervous? The bigger the wine list, the easier it is to feel intimidated by the number of choices, the staggering prices and the embarrassment of “getting it wrong.” For this reason, many people pass the list over to the person at the table who is the most willing to take on the daunting challenge or perceived to be a wine connoisseur. Should a list the size of a bible drop into your hands, don’t break into a cold sweat.
At best, this is your opportunity to explore beautiful choices from wine regions around the world. Your pulse will be racing not from the fear blooming in your chest but from the excitement of choosing from a tasty lineup of Pinot Grigios or Merlots, for instance. Taking command of the situation also saves you from enduring someone else’s dull choice of an overpriced label available at the supermarket around the corner. After all, dinner out should present you with new culinary and beverage experiences, not the same old safe choices.
While ordering wine at a restaurant may seem fraught with obstacles and wrong turns, it is also an opportunity to personally grow in your understanding of wine and have fun doing it. No, do not fret, dear wine lover. Instead, embrace these tips to order wine like a boss and up your game with increasingly savvy selections at any restaurant, anywhere.
Take your time. As you look through a restaurant’s wine list, it is all too common to feel pressured into making a quick choice as the server taps her foot expectantly, waiting for your order and your thirsty dinner companions look on with anticipation. The more you know about wine, the more your companions will expect you to dazzle them with something unique and first rate. If you pick too quickly, however, you may miss finding a bottle that would be the night’s star. At worst, you may be told that the bottle you selected is unavailable and find yourself paying twice the price for a poor substitute, much to the chagrin of those also paying.
So here’s how we are going to get started. On your next date night, keep in mind that making the wine selection is not a race. In fact, take all the time you want. You’re in charge here. You own the room. Breathe in and relax as though you are in your own living room, but please be sure to wear your pants and not just underwear. Don’t forget your shoes.
Don’t worry about the size of the list. For sure, a small wine list is comfortable, especially if the labels have been thoughtfully selected. In the case of a small list, I look for unusual offerings and place my order posthaste. Maybe it is a wine grape I have never heard of or a producer that piques my interest. Some people just look for the second least expensive glass or bottle on the list and place an order. A large wine list can be initially alarming, but it also means you are likely to find gems at a price point that suits your budget.
Start with a bubbly. If you fear you will crack under the pressure of having to make a timely decision, order a fun, inexpensive sparkling wine by the glass for you and your drinking partner right away. Something like a Cava from Spain or a Prosecco from Italy. Sparkling wine is a merry way to start a meal and it lends an air of celebration. Life is good when you can celebrate, even if it is on a Monday night. While drinking the bubbly, ask your partner about what he would like to drink so you can factor in his preferences.
Approach a huge list like you would a coffee table book. Don’t you just love coffee table books? Instead of big pictures, you are looking at big countries. Big deal. You’re a citizen of the world. If you need reading glasses, put them on now. Please don’t be that person who uses a phone flashlight to read the list; it is distracting to others. If the room is too dark for reading, ask the server to put a candle on the table or leave the room to find better lighting. Review the wine list and see what’s on offer as you sip your bubbly. So far as everybody in the restaurant knows, you do this every night of the week.
Pair your wine selections with the food. Traditional food and wine pairing guidelines will help you get some ideas going. Highlights of pairing include selecting food and wines from the same geographic area. A Chianti Classico is a good match for pasta dishes with red sauce from central Italy. You can also match key flavors in your food and wine. Salads with citrus dressings offer a clear invitation to match wines with aromas of lemons or limes such as a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
Bring together contrasting but complementary flavors. Carne asada tacos can be paired with a light-bodied, crisp German Riesling to create an entirely new taste sensation. Pair acidic or spicy food with light-bodied, fresh and crisp whites or reds. Match the intensity of the dish and the beverage. When we talk about the intensity of a dish, we are usually thinking about the amount of fat and/or boldness of flavor. For instance, ribeye steaks, with their juicy fat, can be paired with a Nebbiolo or a Cabernet Sauvignon. If you are unsure about how to pair your wine with the food, do a quick internet search on your phone such as “wine pairings for salad with balsamic vinegar dressing or wine pairings for steak au poivre."
Consider a few candidates. Do you want a red, a white or a rosé? Another sparkling wine? The list will likely be organized by region, grape variety or by wine characteristics. Take a mental trip through the list, noting prices. After you have calmed down and spotted two or three choices that look promising, do one of two things: pick one and place your order, or ask for a second opinion from the server. My vote: second opinion, unless you come to realize during the conversation that you know more about wine than he does.
When speaking with the sommelier or server, point to two or three wines that have caught your attention. This helps the somm understand your desired flavor profile and, just as importantly, the price range that is in your comfort zone. A good somm will know about the hidden treasures on the list. Go for what is suggested, unless the price is above the price range you have indicated. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Nobody knows everything about wine and you will learn much more quickly if you ask questions and keep an open mind. Even wine “experts” tend to specialize in certain wine regions because it is impossible to know it all. That’s the charm of wine: it is a lifelong learning experience.
Should you go by the glass or invest in a bottle? That is up to you. Generally, you will pay more by the glass if you have more than two or three glasses. However, it can be a lot of fun to have a new glass of wine with each course and this approach allows for more exploration. When ordering by the glass, some restaurants allow you to select small, medium or large pours, usually described in ounces. I love this option because I can order the smallest pours of multiple wines to experience a number of varieties, makers, wine regions, and winemaking techniques. One downside of ordering by the glass: once a bottle is opened, the wine begins to spoil. Some opened bottles sit for several days before being poured out. If your wine tastes off, ask the server for a second opinion. She will likely open a fresh bottle for your pour.
Stay alert: not all advice is good advice. As you know, there are good advisors and there are bad advisors, in life and in wine. Most of the advisors you will encounter are good to great. A bad advisor will suggest wines that are well above the price point you have indicated. In that case, go with one of your original choices. Watch out too for the bait-and-switch. “Oh, we don’t have the wine in stock, can I bring you out a blah-blah-blah?” In answer, ask to see the substitute on the wine list so you can furtively review the price before you agree.
Bad advisors thrive in venues that count on tourists. I had a server in such a place tell me that there was a bug in my glass of Chenin Blanc; he offered to help. “How nice is that?” I said to my guest as we enjoyed our seafood dishes on the patio. The server brought out an empty glass, then picked up the bottle from the table and poured. He then added wine to the original glass with the bug in it and took it away for his own consumption, much to our surprise. I suppose that was a bug and switch. The location was New Orleans, a town that I treasure and visit each year.
But you never know. The same server had earlier suggested an eighty dollar wine bottle when the original forty dollar bottle I requested was out of stock. I had told him to offer something more in line with my original price selection. Luckily, such experiences are unusual, but it does not hurt to be aware and in charge of your dealings in wine. The more you get over your fear of wine lists and build your confidence and experience, the more skillfully you will react in any situation. Places that count on locals for repeat business can be more of a sure thing, especially if you make an effort to frequent their establishments. Even in touristy areas I do my research to find the best restaurants and wine bars and visit them repeatedly if they meet my expectations. Most restaurants and bars live or die on repeat business and they want to build a longstanding relationship with their customers.
Consider this final tip. If you plan to invite an important person or crowd to a restaurant soon, why not get a leg up on your wine selection? In other words, do your homework. Here is what I did recently: a few days before an important evening of guiding a wine tasting, I sat down at the restaurant’s bar and asked the server to take me through a few wines by the glass that I thought were good candidates for the tasting. I was excited to try a Mencía from the Bierzo region of Spain because I had enjoyed that variety in the past and not many people know about it.
The server suggested I try a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir from Anthill Farms Winery. I had initially missed seeing this offering. The Pinot Noir was by far more exciting than the Mencía and I offered it with excitement on the night of the wine tasting. While it can be stimulating to introduce a new variety to wine lovers, my pre-tasting brought home the fact that a well made wine of any variety can win the day.
Pair these tips with a fearless attitude and you can look forward to meeting the challenge of the very largest and most elaborate wine list any restauranteur places into your hands. And remember, it’s just wine, not an exam that will affect your future earnings. I would further postulate that being willing to experiment in your wine selection makes you a more attractive date. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of spice and adventure in a relationship? Have fun with selecting wine and forgive yourself for the occasional misstep . . . as does every seasoned wine lover.
This article is partially excerpted from my new book, Your Love Affair with Wine: How to Meet and Fall in Love with a Bottle of Wine, available on Amazon.
The Gamay grape has suffered terrible indignities through the ages. Can you imagine being being labeled “evil and disloyal,” then banished from your homeland? Yes, this happens to people and to grapes. In 1395, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, declared that wines made from the Gamay grape had a “great and terrible bitterness” and were “injurious to the human creature.” Which is really funny since bitterness is often equated to tannins in wine. Gamay has next to no tannins in comparison with a showboat like Cabernet Sauvignon. In any case, the Duke demanded that the offensive Gamay grapevines be “destroyed and reduced to nothing” throughout Burgundy. As a result, almost all red wine in Burgundy’s most prestigious region, the Côte d’Or, is made from Pinot Noir and not Gamay.
Now, some would say that the Duke wasn’t really a bad guy. He just wanted to protect his star, the Pinot Noir, from being upstaged by the rough-and-ready-to-please Gamay. In Philip’s mind, it was an issue of quality control. Others see the Duke as a demon, hellbent on ripping out the vigorous Gamay vines in favor of the more lucrative though hard-to-grow Pinot Noir. Armed with these facts, maybe you want to begin thinking about where you sit on the issue, if you have nothing better to do than debate such quandaries with the drinking buddies in your parlor.
Luckily for the persecuted and humble Gamay grape variety, there was a region in the very south of the Duke’s purview that escaped his notice: Beaujolais. This region, compared to Burgundy’s celebrated Côte d’Or, was primitive, a boondocks in which wine was made for local consumption. Gamay had been grown in the nearby Lyon area since the rule of the Caesars and became increasingly popular throughout Beaujolais. The region’s granite soils and hilly terroir were ideally suited to the Gamay variety, which has thrived there since. Gamay’s legitimacy was sealed in 1937 when Beaujolais was awarded an AOC designation (as part of France’s wine classification system). The grape’s official name is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, but nobody calls it that unless they want to show off. Some people like to call it Gamay Noir. I think we’ll let them get away with that, don’t you?
The Beaujolais region has always been upstaged by Burgundy’s showy and expensive Côte d’Or, and in fact, by all of Burgundy. This means, to you and me, that there are many lovely examples of Gamay-based wines, some of which share the characteristics of a Pinot Noir, available at a price we are happy to pay. The Gamay grape is known for its fruity red, tart flavors of cherries and raspberries. At its best, the grape is additionally capable of producing a well-structured wine with mushroom, smoke, wet earth, tea and other exotic aromas typical of a well-made Pinot Noir. Gamay wines are usually light in body and in color with almost no perceptible tannins and refreshing acidity, traits that can also be found in Pinot Noir wines. Both Gamay and Pinot Noir wines pair well with meat and cheese plates, salads, fish, and roasted chicken. Lighter fare is ideal for these light-bodied wines that can take on multiple personalities.
Gamay is, in fact, a relation of Pinot Noir. Gamay’s parents are Pinot Noir and the less well known grape, Gouais Blanc. These are the same parents of Chardonnay, a grape that has enjoyed much more fame and prestige than Gamay. The ancient Pinot Noir grape is highly prone to mutation, so it is not beyond the stretch of the imagination that it can father both red-skinned (Gamay) and white-skinned (Chardonnay) grapes with the same mate. Rather versatile, don’t you think?
You may have enjoyed the quaffable wines known as Beaujolais Nouveau. These are fruity, easy-drinking reds that are released on the third Thursday in November immediately following the harvest. Beaujolais Nouveau Day was launched by wine merchant Georges Duboeuf, also known as the “Pope of Beaujolais.” Throughout the eighties, Duboeuf held Beaujolais Nouveau festivals and the tradition was soon celebrated by vintners and wine lovers around the globe.
These young rustic wines did little to boost Gamay’s reputation as a serious wine grape, however. Nouveau wines are made quickly and in abundance. When I initially learned about these wines, which are available from several producers, they were described to me as the “Kool-aid of wines.” Critics are quick to disparage Beaujolais Nouveau wines, once again humiliating and shaming the unlucky Gamay grape. The world of wine lost a tremendous showman when Duboeuf died in January of this year at the age of eighty-six.
Today, Nouveau wines have lost much of their attraction to the buying public. You are likely better off enjoying a more ambitious example of the Gamay grape unless you are looking for a simple, fruity tart wine to drink without giving it a second thought. Chill your Nouveau for about thirty minutes in the fridge before consuming it to accentuate its fresh and lively nature. Drink your Nouveau as soon as possible as it is meant to be drunk within a few months of release.
Gamay’s most exciting expression is generally found in the ten named Crus in Beaujolais, each one exhibiting a distinct flavor profile of this terroir-expressive grape. The most famous Crus are Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Morgon. The Cru labels indicate the named region rather than the grape, and all are located in northern Beaujolais. The other Crus are Juliénas, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Régnié, Chénas, Chiroubles and Saint-Amour. Crus are forbidden from producing Nouveau wines. Some Crus are delicious upon release, but most need a few years in the bottle to develop fully.
I opened a 2018 Morgon by Jean-Marc Burgaud recently that was not as good as other Morgons I had experienced in the past. Of course the wine was rather young to be drunk, but lately I can’t help myself from reaching for wines made from the Gamay grape. I capped the unfinished bottle and threw it in the refrigerator feeling rather disappointed, then I left for a quick trip to Coronado Island with Peter. I sampled the Morgon upon my return a week later and it tasted better than I remembered. Ten days into its “incubation” in the fridge it tasted great. This tightly wound wine needed the help of oxygen to tame it, apparently. Most wines taste worse, once opened, being stored in the fridge. This Morgon was the exception. Ten days of “relaxation” made this wine absolutely generous in its flavor and nuance. Clearly, I should have taken the time to decant this Morgon in the first place. Just when I think I understand wine, a bottle surprises and rewards me. This makes me want to give everyone I meet a second chance!
In France’s wine classification system, the next desirable level below Cru is Beaujolais-Villages, and these villages are located on lands surrounding the Crus. There are many tasty bottles to be had at the village level, especially in vintages that are known to be good. Examples include 2006, 2010 and 2014, but there are many more good vintages, each offering something that reflects that year’s growing and harvest conditions. The easy way to identify a good vintage is with an internet search on your phone as you shop or by observing price differences between bottles. A higher price by the same maker for a different year can be an indication of a better vintage.
The last and largest appellation is known simply as Beaujolais. This region produces fruity, easy-drinking reds mostly in the villages of the south. You may run across a Beaujolais labeled “Supérior.” This indicates a wine with a higher concentration of flavors, darker in color and with a higher level of alcohol, so it may be worth the few extra bucks. If you are looking to find yet another expression of the Gamay grape, keep an eye out for the growing number of rosés from the Beaujolais region.
Most Beaujolais undergo a winemaking process that differs from traditional methods. This widely accepted approach is known as semi-carbonic maceration, a technique that accelerates fermentation and gives freshness and energy to the wine. Most interestingly, aromas such as bubblegum, bananas and candy develop right along with Gamay’s traditional red fruit flavors. The banana, bubblegum and candy aromas are so unique that, once you identify them in your Beaujolais, you will be able to find them in any wine made using this process. Some producers of Pinot Noir also use this method, especially those known for producing “natural” wines. Winemakers occasionally experiment with semi-carbonic maceration to bring out entirely new expressions of fresh fruit character from other types of grapes as well.
The winemaker starts by throwing whole bunches of grapes into a vat, which is then sealed. The grapes on the top crush the ones below, causing the grapes on the bottom to release their juice. The ambient yeast on the grapes feast on the juice and kickstart the process of fermentation, producing not only alcohol but carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide works its way up to the grapes on top and fills the vat. Meanwhile, berries toward the middle and top of the vat stay intact, where fermentation happens at the intracellular level. Most Beaujolais producers employ the semi-carbonic maceration technique, though the Crus either abstain from it all together (such as Moulin-à-Vent) or use some variation of this method along with traditional winemaking techniques.
Beaujolais is the first wine region that comes to mind when discussing Gamay, but in France’s Loire Valley, Gamay is the region’s second most planted grape, producing pleasingly fruity wines meant to drink now. You will also find plenty of Gamay plantings in France’s Mâconnais wine region, located directly above Beaujolais. Gamay is a robust grower and early to ripen on the vine. It is certainly a picnic to cultivate and vinify compared to the finicky yet intriguing Pinot Noir. Both grapes reveal their finest expressions in France’s cool Burgundy region, so look for other delicious examples in the cooler wine regions of the world.
For example, Gamay is fashionable in the western, French-speaking area of Switzerland, where it is often blended with Pinot Noir. Oregon hosts and annual I Love Gamay festival, where some in the industry insist the wines rival those of the French Crus. Look for examples from California in the Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara County. You can also find Gamay in New York State, Italy, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Croatia, and beyond. Gamay is a performer with a big heart, but it needs the right director to stay focused.
When people ask, “What’s the most surprising thing you have learned about wine?” I like to pull from the quote at the beginning of my book, Your Love Affair with Wine: How to Meet and Fall in Love with a Bottle of Wine:
“Each wine grape (or person), when treated with kindness, flourishes.”
Yes, this happens to people and to grapes, including the humble and sometimes surprising Gamay. The next time you reach for a bottle of Pinot Noir, why not also pick up a Gamay for a fun compare-and-contrast tasting? Then you can decide whether the Duke of Burgundy was completely crazy or a shrewd businessman prone to theatrics.
The Gamay Grape: General Characteristics
Flavors: red cherries, raspberries, violets, wet earth, candy, bananas
Acidity: medium high
Tannins: medium low
Alcohol: medium low
Body: medium low
Key regions: Beaujolais, Loire Valley, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, California
Parents: Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc
The crunch of breadcrumbs atop your pasta, along with a wave of flavors delivered by anchovies, piñon nuts, white wine and golden raisins, will have you cooking like a Southern Italian any night of the week. Pair this dish, which takes about 30-40 minutes to make, with a white wine from Italy's Campania region, such as Fiano di Avellino or Greco di Tufo. Serves four.
1/3 cup raw piñon (pine) nuts (buy them toasted if you want a shortcut)
Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs (if you need a substitute, panko breadcrumbs work)
8 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained, plus 8-10 additional for topping the pasta
2 large shallots, minced
1 small fennel bulb, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup white wine, such as Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo or Chardonnay
1 pound linguini
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed by hand
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1) Warm a large skillet to medium heat and add the raw pine nuts. Constantly stir the nuts until they turn golden, about two minutes, then set them aside on a paper towel to cool.
2) Using the same skillet, warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, then add the breadcrumbs. Toast the breadcrumbs, stirring constantly, until they are golden brown, about three minutes, then set them aside in a bowl to cool.
3) Meanwhile, set a large pot of salted water to boil in preparation for cooking the pasta.
4) Returning to your skillet, warm 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add 8 anchovy fillets, crushing them with your spoon as you stir, until the fillets dissolve, about two minutes. Add the shallots and fennel and stir until they are lightly caramelized, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds.
5) Turn up the heat on the skillet to high, then add the white wine, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine has reduced by half. Lower the heat to medium.
6) Add the linguini to your pot of boiling water and cook until al dente, about 7-8 minutes.
7) Meanwhile, return to your skillet and add the golden raisins; crush the saffron threads into the mixture and stir.
8) Once the linguini is cooked, use a pair of tongs to carefully remove the pasta from the pot and add it directly into the mixture in the skillet, stirring as you go. It's fine to allow some of the pasta water into the skillet as you make the transfer.
9) Remove the skillet from the heat, then add the fresh dill, continuing to stir. Add salt to taste.
10 ) Place the pasta mixture into bowls. Top each bowl with 2-3 anchovy fillets, toasted pine nuts and parsley. Drizzle with olive oil. Enjoy with your favorite dry white wine.