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.