Sunday, November 24, 2013

Back on the Horse

There comes a time in all of our lives that we are forced to reassess who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Leaving wine retail and entering wholesale has created one of those paradigm shift moments bringing me face to face with what wine, the business and drinking of, means to me. What helped me refocus a little was listening to interviews on where host, and pro sommelier, Levi Dalton interviews people in the wine world. Each conversation he has with an importer, a winemaker, authors, etc. illustrates the knowledge, passion, and tenacity necessary for each of their fields. So this forced me to think: why wine?
What is it about wine that has captivated my attention and that of so many others? I spent time thinking about this after listening to the interview with Peter Weygandt while I was running on some length of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System. I decided that, in a Kantian sort of way, I believe in wine because I think it can improve the quality of one’s life. I choose it for myself and thus I choose a world in which I think it should be important to others. Obviously wine is also an intoxicant that, if misused, has the ability to ruin the quality of one’s life as well. Anything taken to excess can be problematic, though. I respect the decisions of those who don’t drink wine, but the person who abstains from wine and instead consumes an equal amount of Mountain Dew, or mindlessly consumes case after case of Coors are not better for their substitutions. So what is it that I believe makes wine superior?
The maxim that wine is food is not a novel one, but it does illustrate a relevant point about what makes wine worthy of our attention. The amount of farmer’s markets, ethnic, artisan, and specialty shops that can be found with relative ease I take as evidence that there are people who are interested about where their food is coming from and put thought into what they consume.
Further examination into a food culture or, for the purposes of this essay, a bottle of wine forces inspection into just that: culture. Wine does not exist within a vacuum, but it instead exists because of where and when it is from. Examining wine forces the examination of geography, history, philosophy, language, literature, art, politics, science, agriculture, and an unnamed litany of other specific fields of interest.
Not to belabor a point, but this is why I believe wine has the potential to improve quality of life. It can help teach about the world around us and open our minds to all sorts of opportunities and experiences we might not expect. It may not be a new theme in this blog of mine, but I will continue to promote the idea that we should all learn a little more about the wine we’re drinking and to seek out the new and novel and learn about that as well.

… an Obligatory Aside About Thanksgiving Wine

What should you drink for Thanksgiving? Whatever you damn well please! If you want to try new and novel, do it. If you want to stick to the old tried and true, that’s fine too. The holiday is about enjoying yourself and trying not to let family or travel drive you too crazy. So even though I think we should always seek out new wine, I’ll leave that up to you this week as time is spent with loved ones.

What I’m having though will be something along the lines of:

  • Domaine de la Pepiere 2010 Clos des Briords Muscadet, never a bad idea in my opinion
  • Who wants Vouvray?.
  • If I’m in a Greek sort of mood, maybe DioFili 2009 Xinomavro.
  • Perhaps some grignolino or ruche from northern Italy?
  • Dominique Piron’s Cru Beaujolais (I haven’t decided on the cru or the vintage yet.)
  • A late bottle vintage port will appear somewhere during the meal.
  • Maybe some hard cider if I see anything interesting.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

You are not Allergic to Sulfites

Have you ever experienced a headache, or another type of odd negative reaction, soon after wine consumption or the morning after? I have. This happens when I am either dehydrated or, as a an error in judgement, over consume. It doesn't happen frequently, but it does happen. Those are the two reasons I have found that most commonly lead to a feeling of physical unpleasantness. Another causal theory I have caught wind of indicates the sulfites found in wine. If someone suggests this as the cause to your wine related unpleasantness you should, in my professional opinion, tell whomever made the suggestion to stop talking. Stop talking immediately unless they happen to be your allergist or your doctor.

There is a great amount of misunderstanding regarding sulfur dioxide, or sulfites, in wine and I am not exactly positive where this idea first began. I do have inklings, rumblings, and guesses as to where it began, but I hesitate to say with certainty what event caused sulfite aversion. The myth that sulfites are deleterious is out there in the half informed cultural consciousness. One indication to a lack in understanding is 24 seconds into the video on the main page of a sulfite free brand called Our Daily Red where one of the discussions leaders begins by issuing this caveat: “I don’t condone wine drinking as something healthy to do, period.”

I don’t believe in modern medicine or anesthesia, period. My name is Dr. Dingleberry and I’ll be performing your appendectomy.

While I was employed in retail, a young lady who had recently finished reading a book titled “Skinny Bitch” approached me looking for wine without sulfites because apparently drinking wine without sulfites won’t make you fat; this at least was what she gathered from it.

I haven’t read it and would hate to misrepresent a self-help book titled “Skinny Bitch.”

In responding to her query, I made the mistake of trying to explain calorie intake versus calorie output as a way to avoid becoming overweight. She quickly lost interest and decided to buy flavored Bacardi instead - I doubt she bought it for its ayurvedic qualities. If you are also interested in becoming a Skinny Bitch, I recommend following the advice on their website. And I quote, “Stop being a moron and start getting skinny.”

What are sulfites you might wonder by this point? Sulfur dioxide is an anti oxidant and disinfectant used for sanitation of facilities and preservation of wine for storage and shipping. Before its complete properties were fully understood sulfur wicks were burnt and used to keep mold from growing inside of soon to be filled wine barrels. The important word above is preservation. Wholesale representatives for companies that distribute two of the larger no-sulfite-added wines said the winery guarantee was three months to two years without sulfites. Some of the best wines I’ve ever had used sulfites and also happened to be anywhere from two to twenty years old.

Sulfite use is not restricted to fermented beverage, either. Sulfites can be found, often in greater quantity than found in wine, in the following products:


The following foods and drugs MAY contain sulfites, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Remember to check the product label.

Food Category
Type of Food
Alcoholic Beverages
Beer, cocktail mixes, wine, and wine coolers
Baked Goods
Cookies, crackers, mixes with dried fruits or vegetables, pie crust, pizza crust, quiche crust, and flour tortillas
Beverage Bases
Dried citrus fruit beverage mixes
Condiments and Relishes
Horseradish, onion and pickle relishes, pickles, olives, salad dressing mixes, and wine vinegar
Confections and Frostings
Brown, raw, powdered or white sugar derived from sugar beets
Modified Dairy Products
Filled milk (a specially prepared skim milk in which vegetable oils, rather than animal fats, are added to increase its fat content)
Antiemetics (taken to prevent nausea), cardiovascular drugs, antibiotics, tranquilizers, intravenous muscle relaxants, analgesics (painkillers), anesthetics, steroids and nebulized bronchodilator solutions (used for treatment of asthma)
Fish and Shellfish
Canned clams; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried shrimp; frozen lobster; scallops; dried cod
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
Sulfite use banned (except for fresh potatoes)
Gelatins, Puddings, and Fillings
Fruit fillings, flavored and unflavored gelatin, and pectin jelling agents
Grain Products and Pastas
Cornstarch, modified food starch, spinach pasta, gravies, hominy, breadings, batters, noodle/rice mixes
Jams and Jellies
Jams and jellies
Nuts and Nut Products
Shredded coconut
Plant Protein Products
Canned, bottled, or frozen fruit juices (including lemon, lime, grape, and apple); dried fruit; canned, bottled, or frozen dietetic fruit or fruit juices; maraschino cherries and glazed fruit
Processed Vegetables
Vegetable juice, canned vegetables (including potatoes), pickled vegetables (including sauerkraut), dried vegetables, instant mashed potatoes, frozen potatoes, potato salad
Snack Foods
Dried fruit snacks, trail mixes, filled crackers
Soups and Soup Mixes
Canned seafood soups, dried soup mixes
Sweet Sauces, Toppings
Corn syrup, maple syrup, fruit toppings, and high-fructose syrups such as corn syrup and pancake syrup
Instant tea, liquid tea concentrates

 That helpful list came from the FDA via a study at the University of Florida where they found that sulfite allergies afflict a rough number of the US population:

Although literature lists a range of figures as to what percent of the population is affected, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that one out of a hundred people is sulfite-sensitive, and of that group 5% have asthma. Another source states that 5% of asthmatics are sulfite sensitive, compared to only 1% of the nonasthmatic population (Knodel, 1997), while another source estimates that up to 500,000 (or less than .05% of the population) sulfite-sensitive individuals live in the United States (Lester, 1995).”

The FDA estimates that 1 out of 100 people is sulfite sensitive. 1% of the population. It’s not a very large percent.

So let’s run down a quick checklist:

1. Have you had an adverse reaction to the items in the above table: 
Yes____ No____
2. Have you had a sulfite allergy tested by an allergist: Yes____ No____

If you answered yes to these questions you are allergic to sulfites. If you answered no to these questions, you are probably not allergic to sulfites. There are, however, a number of other contributing chemical factors to wine that come from grapes, vines, yeast, bugs, critters, soil, bacteria, and etc., that could in theory cause some sort of negative reaction. And let us not forget hydration and over consumption.

Chances are, though, that it is not the sulfites.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Stop Once a Year Champagne Buying!

 Picture yourself on New Year’s eve at three in the afternoon, I know it’s early for such thinking, but bear with me. You will be heading to a party in about four hours and are obliged to pick up a bottle of Champagne and you know your host/hostess loves the Champagne with the yellow label, or perhaps the one with ornate flowers on the bottle. You may be doing this alongside a dozen other people looking for a Champagne with a yellow label, or perhaps they are looking for the one with the ornate flowers on the bottle.

Now go forward and ask one of the clerks where the Champagne is, suffer through while they wearily inquire as to if you want true Champagne from France or sparkling wine. They will be wearily asking this because they have spent the previous six hours providing "Sutter House / Barefeet California Moscato" to people asking for Champagne. Now if you specify true French Champagne, your eager salesperson’s eyes will light up, and then you may watch this brief moment of elation fade from said clerk’s face as you say, “I think it has a yellow label.” They will point you to the wine you seek, try and suggest a few other things you’ve never heard of on the way, and then slink back to the warehouse dejectedly when you depart with the same Champagne the last six customers that hour have left with. You’ll be out $50 and there’s a very good chance you’ll see at least one or two other bottles of the same wine at your party. But when midnight rolls around you get your 5oz of a fifty dollar bottle wine, you can continue to wonder what the fuss is about Champagne.

Don’t let this happen to you, for the love of god, don’t let it happen.

So why bring up this scenario in the dead heat of summer right around the beginning of August? Because this will give you plenty of time to try a handful of sparkling wines before December 31st, save some money in the long run, and enjoy a whole host of new wines.

The most interesting sparkling wine I’ve had recently is the one pictured above, Les Granges Paquenesses. It was a Brut Chardonnay cremant du Jura retailing for $20 and, in my opinion, vastly more delicious and interesting than the last Moet I had. This is not to say the Moet I had was bad, however, economically speaking, I would have been much happier with two bottles of Les Granges rather than one bottle of Moet. Like other main stream wine producers, big Champagne houses consistently make generally good quality wine from year to year and that is fine, although it also creates a problem. Consistency and the luxury image of each brand become more important than creating an interesting product at a reasonable price... hey, Aunt Jemima always tastes the same too.

Now since it is only the beginning of August, here’s your chance to find a really good sparkling wine that may not be immediately recognized at your New Year’s party. However, if you are more concerned with how you look walking in the door with a recognizable label, you needn't read further.

Step 1: Don’t think of sparkling wines as only a celebratory beverage, treat them like you would any other wine. Instead of waiting for a special occasion or meal, open your bottle of bubbly with a few friends on a weekend afternoon over grilled cheese. Try it with anything battered and fried, seriously, fried chicken and Cava for example; bubbles are a great way to lighten up fat in food. Open a bottle of drier style Lambrusco with grill pizza after mowing the lawn, it’s damn refreshing. (Although she enjoys Lambrusco, Beth says she is happy not to have to mow the lawn now that we live in an apartment.)

Step 2: Try a few different price points, places, and styles. When sparkling wine comes from parts of France that aren’t Champagne you will often see them labeled as Cremant du Jura, Cremant d’Alsace, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de... you get the idea. There are lightly sparkling wines from Italy labeled frizzante that don’t have the full carbonation of regular bubblies; one example is Garofoli’s Guelfo Verde which is topped with a beer bottle top and blends local verdicchio with better-known chardonnay. Or stick with Champagne, but ask whoever you trust locally for wine selection about “Grower Champagnes.”

Step 3: Keep an open mind. Try sparkling wines from places you’ve never heard of, perhaps grapes you’ve never heard of as well. Try them in colors you’ve never tasted before, they come in white, red, and rose with each of these colors having both dry and sweet versions. And don’t write off all the dry ones or all the sweet ones because you think you don’t like dry or sweet wine.

In this world of craft beer, farm to table restaurants, and local farmer’s markets maybe it couldn't hurt to approach bubbly with a similar approach. After all, Francois Chidaine’s Sparkling wine from Montlouis is produced in quantities of fewer than 8000 cases a year and many of Theirry Theise’s Grower Champagnes don’t make more than 5,000 - 6,000 per year. With the big Champagne houses making quantities of wine in the range of 500,000 - 2,000,000 cases of wine a year, they won’t go hungry if you try some smaller producers or lesser known sparkling wines.

Now go forth and explore!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Taste What's in the Glass

Perception is a curiously influencing factor in the wide world of fermented beverage. Last weekend I was pouring wine for a few hours in a not unbiased way, that is to say, as a sales representative for LVDH Vignobles at Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits, hoping to make a few sales. Though I was there in a sales capacity (man’s gotta eat) I wanted to make sure that those people who were tasting enjoyed these new wines or were, at the very least, able to glean a little knowledge. It was fun conversing with people about what I was pouring and other wines they enjoyed - although hearing one customer talk about his experience with southern French reds and 8 hour lamb was sufficient to cause great hunger. The wine was an everyday, easy drinking sort of fare for those looking for a casual Saturday afternoon tasting.  Stylistically each bottle was straightforward and relatively mainstream; Chateau du Barail Bordeaux Blanc, Piqnique sauvignon blanc from California, Estacion cabernet sauvignon of Chile, and Lionel Osmin’s Cahors malbec were the culprits there to lubricate conversation and relax the afternoon.

What gave me second thoughts before even pulling any of the corks was the malbec. Malbec is most popularly from Argentina and at best falls into one of two categories: cheap, fruity, and easy or full bodied and well structured. Although frequently the focus is lost between the two and the wine is done in a heavy handed, over-oaked and rather coarse sort of way; the most egregious southern hemisphere example of the wine that I have found was improved by the addition of Pabst Blue Ribbon in roughly equal proportions to ameliorate the quality of the wine. Now, that is not to say Argentina lacks the ability to produce great wine, it is only to suggest that the ever ambiguous notion of ‘terroir’ seems to have yet be realized.

Though I think it would be a wise idea to return to my original thought.

The malbec I was pouring was from the town of Cahors in the Lot department of France, a town where malbec has played a role for most likely hundreds of years, but has served as a verifiable base grape for the region from at least the early 1970’s. So in trying to inform, I mentioned to the customers that Cahors, and more specifically France, was home to the malbec that was now so famously from Argentina. In doing so I began to wonder if I was enhancing their wine drinking experience or detracting from it.

By saying the wine is malbec I am drawing on their experience with malbec, both positive and negative, and creating a bias. By then telling them it is French it creates another bias. Does this person already have a firmly formed opinion about the wines of France? Do they already think they hate all malbec? Do they hate malbec, but love French wine thus creating a confusing prejudice? Even as a professional I am not above bias. If there are two chardonnays placed in front of me and I find that one is Californian and one is Burgundian I already have an inclination away from the Californian bottle based on the inexhaustible number of experiences I’ve had with terrible chardonnay from California, but I will do my best to keep an open mind. This also means I will be a little more lenient with the Burgundian bottle as far as quality to price goes.

Is this preconception fair? No. But acknowledging it is a step in the right direction to allowing myself potentially more enjoyment of the wine before me. Retailers, sommeliers, and serious wine fans everywhere hear all too frequently preconceptions (and misconceptions) like, “All riesling (or rose) is sweet,” or “All French wine is expensive,” or “They don’t have any laws in ::insert any foreign country here:: and they can put anything into their wine.”

So I return to the best advice I have ever heard, “Taste what’s in the glass, not in your head.” Step back for a moment and don’t think about what you already think you know, think about what you are trying right then and there. I’ll try to do the same.

Credit might be owed to Paul Grieco on that quote, I can’t quite remember, either way it is good advice.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Keep a sharp eye on that sale bin...

 The closeout, or sale, bin one finds at some liquor stores is something that should be approached with cautious reservation but with a peppering of eager curiousity. In my retail days the items that would make our closeout bin fell into one of a few categories.

1. It starts cheap at wholesale cost, stays cheap in the bin, you can turn a case over in, a few days and for $6 a bottle it’s passable wine. So as long as it keeps selling, we keep buying, and ‘closing it out.’

2. We have 10 spots on the shelf for wine from, let’s say, Savoie. We had eight bottles, we just bought four new wines from the region, two have to go to make room. C’est la vie.

3. A wholesaler/importer is closing something out (sometimes it is interesting that they couldn’t  sell at full wholesale cost) so we’re happy to take advantage of the situation.

4. The product is old, it needs to move.

Category 3 is my favorite category because this is the one that would often end up for personal consumption. My most recent purchase was a case of ribolla gialla from a producer that shall go unnamed at $7 a bottle that was being closed out probably because few people know what ribolla gialla is.  

So now that I’m not in retail anymore I do miss those excellent close out lists we would receive on occasion, but I do keep an eye out whenever I’m in stores for something that might be worth trying. Thus we have the above picture - Benito Santos 2009 Igrexario de Saiar Albarino.

This is another darling from the Jose Pastor Selections; Senor Pastor is an importer with a selection that usually connotes low sulphur, natural yeasts, sustainable farming done by a family, and so on and so forth. All of which I am actually quite enthusiastic about, but must be careful while discussing since it’s easy to start sounding a little crunchy.

But with an ever keen eye for interesting white wine, what I immediately saw while looking at this label were a few keys that betray what is bound to be an interesting wine. First, that it is a Jose Pastor wine. Not always great wine, but almost always worthy of further thought and contemplation. Second, the use of the letter “X” in Igrexario; without being much of a linguist, I can only guess that it is from northwestern Spain or possibly Greece. And third, that it is a three-going-on-four year old albarino (which brings me back to Spain.) Albarino as a grape can be very zippy and fresh in youth, but the more serious bottlings make this a great Spanish wine for serious drinkers of... let us say Chablis for a fine French comparison. High acid, interesting wooly or cheese rind characteristics, and frequently marked minerality.

For some those may not be keys of interest, but they are for me. Figure out what keys you might look for in a close out wine (Napa, Montalcino, Chile, malbec, Roter Veltliner...)

At less than $15 a bottle picked up in a closeout bin at a DC liquor store, this was worth every penny I paid for it. Slightly oxidized in a positive way, with a whisper of nuttiness and red apple at the edges that reminds me of wine from Jura in France. High toned acidity and interesting development until it was all gone, which was sooner than I was hoping for. Now I don’t know that it would be worth it to cellar the wine for any longer, but right now as a closeout bin pickup it works for me and I would happily try out older or younger vintages of this wine if I came across it.

Also kind of cool that it is one of three single vineyards that take their names from nearby churches and is named Benito Santos after an early proponent of albarino. Just a little extra trivia.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Purple Prose and Vinous Literature

The amount of words put to paper, so to speak in this digital age, about wine is absolutely mind boggling. If one were to search the book section of Amazon for ‘wine’ there would be over 90,000 options from which to make a decision. That number doesn’t even take into consideration regular magazines, newsletters, columns or articles in newspapers, and the absurd amount of output (some well thought out, some not so) from the blogosphere.

I find it somewhat curious that a number of the books have a subtitle alluding to one upping your friends or gaming the sommelier. Apparently there is often a combative nature to wine know-how.

So how does one go about seeking knowledge on wine? One route I have found to successful wine literature is seeking out that which was read before me. If there are friends, co-workers, or superiors whose palates and opinion I respect I will often seek advice on what they have read. In the early stages of learning about wine the amount of information to take in can be overwhelming, but one thought to keep in mind that makes wine learning more manageable is the fact that you can’t possibly learn it all.

Accepting the fact that there is just simply too much to know, and every vintage in every region brings more to learn, takes a lot of pressure off.

The first thing to do would be to buy a map. If you’re reading about a winery or a region, knowing where it is and what surrounds it adds another layer of depth to the knowledge. Did the region gain prominence due to an advantageous location along a navigable river like Rheingau? Is a mountain range the reason to grape growing success like Alsace? Just a little extra geography goes a long way and the map I would recommend is The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson; there’s a concise one too if you want to save a few bucks. This book geographically covers the wine world very well indeed, and both of the editors are well established and very knowledgeable.

If you happen to be of the analytic and historical mindset, Paul Lukacs’ book Inventing Wine: A History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures does a very good job of explaining the evolution of wine and it’s role in human culture for the last few thousand years.

If you prefer something a little more casual, then I would recommend Educating Peter by Lettie Teague, frequent columnist for the Wallstreet Journal. In this book Ms. Teague embarks on a goal to educate Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers on the world of wine. She challenges herself to create an expert out of a man whose favorite wine is ‘fatty chardonnay.’

And for the book that best put into words my fledgling philosophy of wine, I would refer you to Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route. Kermit Lynch is a wine importer who started importing natural wine before there was need for a phrase like “natural wine.” As his friend Alice Waters was to food with her restaurant Chez Panisse, he has been to wine for the last thirty plus years.  

The wine books that line my shelves seem to be taking up an ever increasing amount of space, so I could go on, but I think these books are a good place to start. And as a final piece of advice, I curiously find myself thirsty while reading these vinuous tomes, so have a glass of wine handy before you begin.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Wine takes a break.

Wine takes a hiatus on this blog entry as this weekend those in the know bid an enthusiastic good luck to one Vasya Vorotnikov. A friend and local climber, Vasya is competing in the Sport Climbing Series (SCS) national championships this weekend, defending his first place title from last year. So go forth, and crush, sir! And for the rest of us, here’s last year’s highlights to put everyone in a sending mood.

2012 SCS National Championships from USA Climbing on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

1,356 grapes you've probably never heard of.

While flipping through a recently purchased book titled, “Wine Grapes” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, & Jose Vouillamoz, my resolution to introduce consumers to new grapes and wine regions was strengthened. I would guess that the average American wine drinker is consuming wines made from one of ten, possibly twelve, grape varietals. This book covers 1,368 grape varietals produced on any sort of commercial level.

1,368 grape varietals.

It is staggering how many grapes are being used to make anything from common to extraordinary wines. To attempt drinking wine made from all of the grapes on this list would be an effort in pedantic check-listing. A fun bit of trivia maybe, but not necessary. That being said though, there is so much that the consumer misses by not branching out to available options.

The importance of tasting whatever one can, within reason, occurred to me while I was considering the role of wine professionals (writer’s, critics, judges, those in sales, etc.) and other people who rely on a subjective sensory input for their professional or personal betterment. Take the aspiring baker. If someone aspires to be a world class baker, but the only baked good they have tasted is Irish soda bread, to what extent would they be able to judge a well made croissant or a gateaux de bordeaux?

Of course they can tell you what they think is good or bad, but the reason professionals in their respective fields are professionals is due to (or at least should be) their wider range of flavor experience to draw from; I would consider the same argument applicable to the arts as well. But even if you are not one vying for a professional life judging beers or rating wines, drawing from a great range of experience and flavors makes each successive experience that much more enjoyable.

Because I do sell wine in one specific shop, I can’t say that impartiality, on my part, exists. What I will say though, is that if you can find a decent wine shop anywhere with a staff that is enthusiastic about seeking out new wines, you should be able to find a good deal on wines made from grapes you may never have heard of. But here’s a list of wines that I find to be of good values that are below $20, with the name of the grape in each underlined.

$12.99 - Ermita de Nieve Verdejo - Spain
$8.99 - Flavium Dona Blanca - Spain
$15.99 - Francois Cazin Cour Cheverny - Romorantin - France
$9.99 - Le Haut Vignot Anjou Blanc - Chenin Blanc - France
$12.99 - Strauss Samling 88 - Sheurebe - Austria
$15.99 - Cantina del Taburno - Falanghina - Italy

$15.99 - Dio Fili Xinomavro - Greece
$10.99 - Red on Black Agiorgitiko - Greece
$9.99 - Flavium Crianza - Mencia - Spain
$11.99 - Librandi Rosso - Gaglioppo - Italy
$15.99 - Monte Schiavo - Lacrima di Morro d’Alba - Italy
$15.99 - Santa Lucia Vigna del Melograno - Uva di Troia - Italy

Not to detract from them, but there is so much more than cabernet, merlot, pinot grigio, and chardonnay. (Like chenin blanc! - note from editor Beth)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An Admission Most Egregious

I like sweet wine.

This may quickest way I have found to make a surprising number of wine shoppers run for the hills. Allow the word ‘sweet’ to enter the description of a wine (obviously excluding of course those who come in search of sweet wine) and before even being allowed to qualify such a statement, “I only like dry wine, ick, nothing sweet.” When conversations outside of work turn to wine, often casual drinkers will tell me they only like chardonnay, nothing sweet or perhaps a good dry red.

Just once I want someone to tell me they like bad dry reds.

I find this curious. In a land of disgusting soda container sizes, caramel macchiatos, and restaurants that have ‘Cheesecake’ in the title, why are so many people so averse to sweetness in wine? I think there are a few issues going on here. One would be the preconceived notions of a grape or wine making region, the second problem is the conflation of fruit flavors and sweetness, and finally the memory of the first sweet wine a drinker may have had (Boone’s Farm or Lancer’s any one?) and the ensuing hangover because it was probably an exceedingly cheap wine.

The third issue is easy enough to tackle. Many cheap sweet wines made to appeal to, not to be pejorative, non-serious wine drinkers are frequently lacking any notion of balance. If it is a 1.5L bottle of moscato for $7.99, it’s not going to be balanced or a fair example to, say, good riesling from the Mosel. Probably won’t taste very good either. But just like letting curious imbibers taste dry rose when they are under the perception that all rose is sweet, letting someone taste a balanced sweet wine can change a few minds. Side note for another time, not all rose is sweet.

The issues of confusing fruit flavors in wine and sweetness are intertwined with wine prejudice. Some drinkers will swear up and down that all German wines are sweet and all wines from Alsace are sweet. I could pour a completely dry German riesling and receive the response of, “That wine’s too sweet.” While people I often find looking for “dry” wines are seeking out, for example, Kendall-Jackson chardonnay. Prime example of a wine which is reputed to leave an unknown amount of residual sugar to make it more appealing to a wider range of consumers. I’m also casting a sideways glance at cheap high alcohol zinfandel. The perception is that chardonnay is dry, so that’s often how it will be perceived, no matter how it actually tastes.

The wine that appears above is Max Ferdinand Richter’s 2011 Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese. To break all that business down, the wine is made from riesling grown in the town of Brauneberg along the middle Mosel in the reputedly superior Juffer-Sonnenuhr vineyard. Spatlese refers to a later harvest of riesling (later than kabinett, earlier than auslese) which has a high sugar content, but is balanced with higher acidity as well. Sometimes the acidity can grow to “bone-crunching” levels to quote Paul Grieco.

Riesling from good Mosel producers like Richter are perfect examples of how sweetness and acid can balance each other to create harmonious age worthy wines of exceptional beauty. The above wine was enjoyed with a salty ham, and it was fantastic. The wine itself was all flowers and peaches with an underlying minerality caused by perilously steep vineyards riddled with slate. Off-dry riesling and salty ham may be one of my favorite food pairings and should not be passed up just because one is afraid of looking like an amateur for liking wines with sweetness. The other useful quality to good riesling is that because the natural acidity and sugar is higher than your average white wine, they are some of the best aging wines in the world. Something to keep in mind if you’re considering any long term wine aging.

So next time someone proposes a wine that may perhaps be a little sweet, keep an open mind.