Saturday, October 28, 2006

How to Taste Wine Part III: Tasting the Wine

If you're one of the six people who regularly read this column (including my editor - though I'm not sure that he reads it either), then you know that for the past several weeks I've been dragging you through the excruciating ritual of tasting wine.

Today, we’re going finally to put an end to your suffering and get around to tasting the wine.

Interestingly enough, something like 80% of our sense of taste is actually smell. You’ve probably experienced this when you’ve had a really bad cold and everything you ate tasted like oatmeal. With our sense of smell cut off, our taste buds only provide us with five basic taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. Umami?? What’s that? Aren’t they those salty soybeans you get at a Japanese restaurant? No, that’s edamame, you chimp. Umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “savory”, and is an honest to God basic taste triggered by – of all things – glutamates like MSG.

The rest of the enjoyment we get from the flavor of food and wine comes from our sense of smell, and the “taste” of a wine is the interaction of the basic tastes that our taste buds pick up and the aromas traveling through our nasal passages.

There are a couple of approved techniques to tasting wine. Both of them are weird and potentially disgusting to some degree.

The first, and most technically correct, method of tasting the wine is to take a large sip of wine, slosh it around a bit and then – while the wine is still in your mouth – act like you’re taking a big hit off a huge spliff of ganja. I’m not kidding. The idea here is to draw air into your mouth across the wine in order to evaporate volatile compounds that will be drawn into your nasal passages and enhance the flavor of the wine.

This is a fun technique, both because it makes a really loud slurping sound and because there’s a high probability that you’ll end up spraying wine over everyone within six feet of you – or at least dribbling it all over your clothes. I’d suggest practicing this technique frequently before going out in public. But, cross my heart and hope to die, this is the technique that the pros use. If you want to look like a real wine snob, this is the way to go.

The other technique is what I call the Listerine approach. As it’s name implies, you take a large sip of wine and “chew” on it; slosh it around vigorously in your mouth as you would a fine French mouth wash. The point is to get the wine into contact with all the taste bud nooks and crannies in your mouth. The only difference is that you don’t gargle. Gargling is just crude.

So what are you looking for when you taste a wine? Pretty much the same things you did when smelling the wine: a balance of flavors. In addition, there are a couple of other sensations to look out for.

In white wines in particular, be on the lookout for a sense of tartness in the wine. This tartness – which can be pleasant or too strong – is caused by the level of acidity in the wine. Many good wines use acidity to give the wine a “crispness” that can be quite refreshing.

In red wines look for an astringent sensation after you swallow (or spit) the wine. This dry feeling in your mouth is caused by tannins – components of the seeds and skins. Tannins are what make red wines age well. However, young or poorly made wines can have strong, bitter tannins that make the wine unenjoyable.

So, now you’ve done it! You’ve officially tasted a wine using approved wine snob techniques! I sure hope you didn’t swallow that wine, though. Real snobs spit.

Wine of the Week

Creekside Cellars has really been hitting some home runs lately with their wine selections. We recently tasted the Amador Foothill Winery 2004 Katie's Cote at their weekly tasting. Located just a couple of hours from here, Amador County is turning into a serious wine producing region, and this wine shows it. A French Rhone-style blend of syrah and grenache grapes, this wine has earthly aromas, dense dark fruit flavors, with a touch of a milk and dark mocha on the finish. Great with lamb or pork. This wine will only improve over the next few years, if you want to hold on to it. A great bargain for $15.99 at Creekside Cellars. Four stars.

How to Taste Wine Part II: Smelling the Wine

Last week I discussed Step 1 of Proper Wine Tasting Technique: Looking at the Wine. If you’re reading this then you survived without becoming a juicy meal for the wine snobs waiting for the slightest faux pas in your technique to eat you alive. By now, I imagine they’re getting pretty hungry, so let’s waste no time getting on with Step II: Smelling the Wine (next week, we’ll actually taste the wine – I promise).

The first step in smelling wine is to swirl the wine in the glass. This allows air to mix with the wine and lets volatile components and alcohol evaporate and release aromas.

Swirling actually takes some skill to do without sloshing wine all over yourself and everyone within ten feet of you. There is, in fact, no easier way to end up on the wine snobs’ dinner menu than to have poor swirling technique.

The trick is to swirl with your shoulder, not your elbow or wrist. Hold the glass by the stem, flat on the table. Don’t hold the glass in the air. Move your shoulders so that the glass moves in circles on the table. Try not to use your elbow and wrist much. Practice this in the privacy of your home with a wine glass filled about halfway with water until you can swirl the wine smoothly and rapidly without sloshing. Practice, practice, practice. That’s the key to survival here. (I honestly can’t believe I spent an entire paragraph on swirling technique. I gotta get a real job.)

Once you’ve given the wine a good swirl, say 5 to 10 seconds worth, it’s time to smell the wine. Don’t do this dainty thing my partner does and put the glass about five inches from your nose and take a tentative sniff. No. Jam that glass up to your nose like it was full of 100% pure Columbian coke and snort like you were suffering serious withdrawal. Breathe deep and really suck those aromas in. I find that inhaling for two to four seconds gives the best take on the wine’s aromas. Closing your eyes while inhaling will make you look like you’re really concentrating on those aromas.

Now we reach the single most critical juncture in surviving wine tasting, and the one that petrifies all wine newbies: describing what the wine smells like. And what does it smell like? What rich and sensuous aromas do you detect? Come on… you can tell me. I won’t hurt you. Cross my heart. Tell me, it smells like wine, doesn’t it?

Ah ha! You worthless little wine cretin! It’s dinnertime!!

Of course wine smells like wine (duh), but most wines also carry overtones of other aromas. Identifying those aromas is the single greatest pleasure in the pathetic life of a wine snob, and that’s why they take it so seriously.

I wish I could tell you that’s it’s easy to detect and describe aromas in wine, but it really takes practice. The best way to start is to compare two wines side-by-side looking for basic types of aromas. The most common types include fruit, floral, spice, vegetal, wood, and earth aromas.

To make it easy on yourself, start with white wines, like a Riesling and a chardonnay. These are two very different kinds of wine and should smell very different. Use the aroma groups above and try to see if you can detect any fruit smells. Riesling often has a strong aroma of green apple and apricot. Chardonnay often has oak and citrus. Any flower-like smells? How about spices?

Don’t worry if you can’t put your finger on what you smell. Just keep smelling. It can take years to develop a finely tuned nose. And don’t worry that you come up with odd things like “pineapple with a dash of motor oil and tartar sauce”. Many of the hip young experts coming on the wine scene today are using exactly these types of weird terms to describe aromas.

Of course, in a wine tasting, surrounded by drooling wine snobs, you don’t have time to practice. You’ve got to get it right the first time. Fortunately, smell is a very personal experience, so as long as you don’t stray too far a field from typical aromas, you should be okay. Here are a few examples of common aromas to guide you.

Light white wines: pineapple, apple, peach, straw, mango
Chardonnay: butter, oak, citrus, vanilla, flint/mineral
Riesling: Green apple, pear, apricot, rose petal, mineral
Burgundy/Pinot Noir: Strawberry, raspberry, cherry, cinnamon, barnyard (swear to God)
Cabernet Sauvignon: Black current, blackberry, mocha, bell pepper, eucalyptus
Syrah: Blackberry, plum, black cherry, black pepper

Drop these terms liberally as you smell the wine using the following time-honored technique:

Swirl. Inhale. Look thoughtful for 4-8 seconds. “I’m getting a bit of blackberry, and…” Swirl again. Inhale again, deeply. Gaze at the ceiling for 6-11 seconds. “…Just a touch of earthiness. Very obvious black pepper.” Quick swirl. Inhale. “And a hint of plum…no make that black cherry.

Do this right, and you might actually live to taste the wine. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what exact aromas you can identify. The point of smelling is to get some idea of the character of the wine so that you can enjoy it more. And enjoyment is what it’s all about.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

How to Taste Wine and Live to Tell the Tale

So you want to be a wine snob (why else would you be reading this column?). There are a lot of things that go into being a wine snob. An insufferably superior attitude is essential. An arcane knowledge of obscure wines that nobody’s ever heard of is indispensable. But most importantly, you have to know how to taste wine. Can’t be that hard, right? Wrong.

The biggest mistake that wannabe wine snobs make is to go to a tasting or winery without proper knowledge of how to taste. Nothing exposes you as a knuckle-dragging wine Neanderthal quicker than improper tasting technique. Remember, everybody is watching everyone else taste. If they notice the slightest weakness in your tasting technique, they will eat you alive – preferably with a nice Oregon pinot noir.

There is an entire ritual to tasting wine, not all that different from a Japanese tea ceremony, and you have to follow it to the letter if you want to live.

The first step in tasting is to examine the color of the wine. This visual inspection will tell you if you are drinking a white wine or a red wine. The proper technique is to tip the glass at an angle and stare intently (preferably with one eye closed) at where the wine meets the glass. To look really knowledgeable, do this while holding a white sheet of paper behind the glass. This will give you an idea of the density and color of the wine. Denser wines tend to be more full-bodied.

For red wines, pinot noir (PEE-no NWAHR) tends to be one of the lightest. You should be able to easily see through the wine. Really dense varieties include syrah (sir-RAH) and especially petite sirah (which can be absolutely inky). Is the color more purple or more red? Older wines tend to take on a brick red color, while young wines tend to be purplish or dark ruby.

For white wines, chardonnays should have a nice golden color, not too different from your last drug test. Lighter wines like sauvignon blanc (so-veen-YON BLAHN) and pinot grigio (PEE-no GREE-geo) should be more straw colored, not too different from the last drug test that you tried to doctor with tap water.

If the wine is pink, you’re wasting your time on tasting technique. Just down that swill and get on with getting juiced.

Spend a good minute giving the wine “the eye” while making critical faces. Tilt the glass at different angles. Switch eyes. Make “hmmmm” sounds. The more eccentric you look, the more knowledgeable you’ll appear. If you’re surrounded by besotted ignoramuses and want to look like an expert, hold the glass up to the light and gaze thoughtfully through the wine. Be warned, though, that if you do this in the presence of real wine snobs, they may break out the pinot noir because they know that indoor lighting will affect your perception of the wine’s true color.

Now you’ve successfully examined the wine’s color without sacrificing your life. Good work! Time to toss it back, right? You wish. There’s plenty more ritual to go before you can get started on that buzz. Unfortunately, we’re out of space for this week.

Next week: Smelling the wine (Yeah, we won’t actually get to tasting the wine for three or four more weeks. Hey, you want to live or not?).

Wine of the Week

Louis Guntrum Penguin Eiswein
Eiswein (ICE-vine) is a very concentrated sweet white dessert wine made from grapes picked and pressed when the temperature is below freezing. The resulting juice is highly concentrated. Eiswein's are orignially from Germany, but Canada also makes notable eisweins. Well-made eiswein's are like pure nector: dense, sweet, and pure. Not everyone likes eiswein, but everyone should try it at least once. You might find it an experience close to heaven. The Louis Guntrum Penguin Eiswein is one that's pretty darn close to heaven. Amazingly smooth, sweet, nector-like - just like an eiswein should be. The only place I know that you can get this locally is by the glass at Monks Wine Bar, downtown. $12 a glass might seem expensive, but this stuff goes for $60 for a half bottle - and in my opinion, it's worth it. For a real slice of heaven, have it with the cheesecake. Four and a half stars.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The War Against Profiteering

OK, I know this is supposed to be the “humorous drunken wine guy column,” and I really, really want to be funny (yeah, I know, it’s some sort of weird unresolved childhood attention-getting thing), but the restaurants in Chico are preventing me from being funny. I just seem to keep having bad wine experiences in Chico restaurants. So it’s their fault I’m not funny, not mine.

You see, last week I visited one of Chico's finer dining establishments (which will remain nameless mostly because the Beat might want them to advertise). I was hungry for a juicy steak and a fine bottle of wine to wash it down with. Unfortunately, this fine restaurant's wine list was something less than fine. Half of the wines on the list were ones I saw in Costco the day before and the other half were "me too" California cult wines (remember: “cult” = insanely expensive) like Silver Oak, Caymus, Opus One, etc. These aren't necessarily bad wines, but they aren't inspired choices either.

But my eyes absolutely sprang from their sockets when I saw the astronomical prices they wanted for these wines. “Whoa!” I thought, “there’s some serious profiteering happening here!” Here's just a few examples:

Simi Alexander Valley Cab: $37 (Costco: $16.99)
BV Tapestry: $72 (Costco: $34.99)
BV George de Latour: $120 (Costco: $65.99)
Opus One: $225 (most places: about $135)

We're talking a 100% markup here! And for what exactly? Well?

These prices are simply wrong. I can go to Costco myself and spend half what they are charging for a bottle. Do they think nobody shops at Costco and won’t notice?

Any decent restaurant will allow you to bring a bottle of wine with you and will charge you a reasonable “corkage” fee to open the bottle (anything up to about $12 is considered “reasonable” these days). This restaurant’s corkage fee was $12. If I brought a bottle of the BV Tapestry with me I could have saved myself $25, even with the $12 corkage fee. Are they having difficulties with the complex math, is that the problem here?

This has got to change, and I’m going to start by putting all the restaurants in Chico on notice (as if my opinion carries any weight):

  1. Get better wine lists and stop trying to sell us big name cult wines that are expensive and uninteresting
  2. Stop charging outrageous, usurious markups for your mediocre wines
  3. Start charging reasonable corkage fees for the backbreaking and highly skilled task of opening a bottle of wine

There’s only one restaurant in town (that I know of) that is doing it right on all counts: Redwood Forest. Not only do they have the best wine list in town, but they charge retail plus $8 for bottles. That eight bucks is their corkage fee, probably the cheapest corkage fee in town.

My recommendation to you: Buy something good that you like, take it to the restaurant and pay the corkage fee. Not only will you pay less for the bottle, but it will be something that you know you will enjoy.

Look, I may not be funny, but I’m no more interested in paying outrageous prices for wine than you are. Next time I go to that restaurant, I’ll be packing a bottle of Two Buck Chuck. Maybe that will get the message across.

Wine of the Week

1998 Domaine Pontifical Chateauneuf du Pape

Chateau-what? A real mouthful, I know, but if you’re used to fruity $15 bottles of California or Australian wine and want to move on to a different level, this wine will do it. Chateauneuf du Pape (sha-toe-noof doo POP) is a wonderful wine from the Rhone Valley of France. Typically a blend of grenache, syrah, and a bunch of other grapes that aren’t cabernet sauvignon or merlot, Chateauneuf du Pape’s are powerful earthy wines. This is one of the best I’ve ever had, especially for the price (Chateauneuf’s typically go for twice what this bottle costs). Complex, earthy, and smooth, with notes of forest floor, mushroom, and soil. Incredibly well balanced fruit and acidity. Stunning with steak or lamb. A real bargain for $30 ($38 if consumed with a meal) at Redwood Forest.