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.
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