Saturday, September 08, 2007

Talk Like an Expert

The key to impressing your friends when it comes to wine isn't buying a $130 bottle of Opus One, or even a $1300 bottle of 1985 Guigal La Landonne Cote Rotie, because, let's face it, they can't tell the difference between that and a bottle of 2006 Red Truck.

The real key to impressing your friends (and readers of your wine column) is tossing out wine tasting jargon left and right like you were born doing it. Being able to expertly handle your wine tasting terminology is the key to getting people to believe that you really do know what the hell you are talking about.

Now, you could make up a bunch of terms (like I'm about to), and likely no one would be the wiser. But it's probably better to use an “approved list”, like the one that follows.

Use these terms liberally when in the presence of friends and acquaintances.

Austere – Refers to a wine that is unforthcoming with its flavors, especially fruit flavors, due to youth, excessive tannins or acidity, or just because it's a crappy wine. Young French wines tend to be austere and may need years to open up. “Boy, that cheap French wine was so austere I think it was just tannin and alcohol.”

Backbone – The structure given to a wine by its tannins and/or acidity. A wine with fruit but little tannin or acidity is often seen as shapeless or flabby. “The tannins gave the wine a firm, but not overpowering, backbone upon which to hang loads of succulent fruit flavors.”

Balance – The taste of wine is made up of fruit, sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol. Balance refers to the way in which these components blend and harmonize. “The waves of overpowering alcohol in this wine really throws it off balance.”

Complexity – Definitely different than balance, complexity refers to presence of, interplay between, and evolution of flavors from the moment the wine first touches your tongue until the end of the finish after you swallow. “That Sutter Home merlot had about as much complexity as a rock.”

Crisp – Refers to a good level of acidity in white wines that makes them taste clean and refreshing. “The stunning crispness of this sauvignon blanc contributes to its excellent backbone and fine structure… or some such BS as that.”

Finish – The final, lingering taste of a wine after you swallow it. Can be short or long, harsh or smooth, complex or simple, fruity, earthy, tannic, tart or bitter. A longer finish is typical of better wines. “The finish on that merlot vanished faster than a politician when the lights are turned on.”

Flabby - Used in reference to white wines lacking sufficient acidity to give them good structure. The opposite of crisp. "That Riesling was the flabbiest glass of plonk I've had in a long time.”

Forward – The opposite of austere, a wine whose flavors are big, obvious, and readily apparent. California and Australian wines tend to be more forward than European wines. “This is a typically fruit-forward, Australian shiraz.”

Hollow – Lacking flavor, particularly fruit flavor, on the midpalate (see, below). “Nice acidity, but the fruit was so hollow that I could barely taste it.”

Hot – Refers to wines with an objectionably high level of alcohol on the nose or palate. There is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship to the percentage of alcohol in a wine and it's perceived “hotness”. “The finish was extremely hot on this wine, with overpowering waves of alcohol.”

Integrated – Refers to how well certain components of a wine (oak, acidity, and particularly tannins) have toned down with age and merged with the other flavors and characteristics of the wine. “This cabernet has loads of unctuous fruit and finely integrated tannins.”

Jammy – Refers to wines with slightly cooked or overripe fruit flavors, often present as hints of raisin or prune flavors. Typical of cheap wines grown in hot regions like the Central Valley. “That Lodi Zinfandel was as jammy as my grandma's blackberry preserves.”

Midpalate – The process of tasting a wine is broken into three parts, the beginning (sometimes referred to as the ‘attack'), the midpalate, and the finish. The midpalate is the period of time after your first taste of a wine, but before you swallow it. It is when you are most likely to taste the wine's fruit flavors and complexity. “Wonderfully complex fruit flavors on the midpalate, but with a disappointingly brief finish.”

Supple – Refers to wines with well-balanced tannins and/or acidity. Young red wines often have aggressive tannins that become more supple as they age. “The '47 Chateau Latour has amazingly supple, well-integrated tannins.”

Structure – Essentially the same as “backbone”. Refers to how well the acidity and/or tannins in a wine support its other components. “This syrah had a fine and balanced structure and plump fruit.”

Tannin - A component of the skins and seeds of grapes that give red wines an astringent, dry feeling on the finish. They can be overpowering, particularly in young wines. “The tannins in this swill are fierce enough to take on a wolverine."

Practice these terms in combination with each other until your own gibberish begins to make sense to you…

“Though not austere, this wine lacks backbone, structure and balance on the midpalate, exhibiting fruit-forward, jammy flavors lacking in complexity. Very hot and alcoholic on the finish, with aggressive, poorly integrated tannins. 77 points.”

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Cheap French Wine: Oxymoron or Just Moronic?

French wine is expensive. (Right about here, my editor is thinking, "Christ, here he goes again, whining about how much this column sets him back every week.")

The 2005 Chateau Latour is currently selling for $900-1300 a bottle. That's about $40 an ounce or $240 for a nice six ounce glass. Ouch! You gotta think at those prices, maybe we should be dabbing it behind our ears, instead of drinking it.

And guess what? You can't drink it. It hasn't even been released yet. Those prices are for "futures". You buy it now, and you pay for it now, but you won't actually get your hands on it until they release the wine next spring. And of course, you'd be a fool to drink it before 2020.

So yeah, French wine is expensive...or at least some French wine is expensive. You might be surprised to learn that there is actually such a thing as cheap French wine. Cheap like $5-6 a bottle cheap.

But is it drinkable? That, as I hope you've learned by reading this sorry excuse for a wine column, is the $4.99 question. And as always, I'm hot on the trail of the cheap French wine bargain. You didn't actually think that I could resist?

Probably the best region of France from which to score a decent wine in the "value priced" range is the Cote du Rhone, but that's not what I'm going to talk about in this column. Why? Because what people REALLY want is Bordeaux. There are very few wines in the world that command the prices, respect or reputation of Bordeaux. And it seems vaguely logical that if the best wines of Bordeaux are $1000 a bottle, then the $5 a bottle stuff must be pretty good too.

In order to demonstrate that logic like that only serves to prove that you are a complete and irredeemable idiot, I bravely purchased several cheap Bordeaux from Trader Joe's for my tasting pleasure.

Chateau Coucy 2001 Montagne Saint Emilion
One of the crappy things about Bordeaux are the wannabe wine regions near the top-notch wine regions that have similar names. It's just like if Lodi were called "Not quite in, but a just a tiny bit east of NAPA VALLEY" (but in indecipherable French instead of English). "Montagne Saint Emilion" is to Saint Emilion what Lodi is to Napa Valley. And unless you know your French wine regions really well, it would be easy to think that you're scoring a wine from a primo region.

This wine was medium bodied with bright red fruit aromas. On the tongue it was acidic and tart, but lacking any identifiable fruit, and possessing really aggressive tannins on the finish. Kind of a hollow, nothing wine. 2.0 stars. Not worth $10.99 in anybody's book.

Chateau Mayne Guyon 2003 Premiere Cote du Blaye
This wine was a step up. Light aroma with hints of dusty attics and strawberries. Not particularly Bordeaux, but not unpleasant. On the palate, moderate red fruits that developed in body, character and complexity as the wine breathed. Again, this wine had pretty strong tannins. Definitely more complex and enjoyable than the first wine, but honestly, no great shakes. 2.5 stars. Not too bad for $6.99.

Chateau Briot 2004
Another light wine with simple aromas, negligible fruit, and big, dry tannins. Really, no fruit flavors to speak of in this wine, making it really hollow. Like the others, this wasn't a "bad" wine; it just wasn't much of anything. 2.25 stars. I've had worse for $4.99, but I ain't bragging about it.

Chateau Franc-Maillet 2000 Pomeral
Okay, enough of the cheap crap. I had to taste at least one real Bordeaux. This wasn't a First Growth, but not swill either, with rich, dark aromas of spice, mocha, coffee and blackberry bramble. Yum! Smelled like a cabernet-based wine with all that dark fruit. Incredibly smoky and complex on the tongue, with hints of tobacco, cedar and spice. Nice. Firm, but not overpowering tannins on the finish. Finally something decent and worth drinking! 3.75 stars. $29.99 at

Sadly, I'm finally learning the truth here, and it's not that "you get what you pay for", because you're lucky if you pay $30 and get a decent bottle of wine. The real truth is that there's no free - or cheap - lunch. An expensive wine might suck, but a cheap wine virtually always sucks.

So let's be honest here, the major selling point for cheap French wine is that none of your friends and none of the waiters in Chico can tell the difference. A bottle of French wine with a bunch of fancy script, the word "Chateau" in bold letters, and an image of some old French mansion on the label is enough to make everyone you know go "ooh-la-la", even if it's "Chateau Toilette". Show up to a party with anything French and you'll be an instant wine snob. Guaranteed.

Sometimes looking like you know your stuff is more important than actually knowing your stuff. I'm living proof of that.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

OK, after like four consecutive columns appealing to the “low-end” wine drinker I'm starting to get some flak that maybe I need to bring things up a notch. Of course, I'm also getting comments to the effect that my problem is that I just don't know how to pick the good wines at Big Lots. I can't even imagine arguing with that.

But I'm tired of tasting cheap, bad wine, so this week, I'm not going to taste a thing – I'm just going to pontificate. I mean, what's the point of being a highly trained wine connoisseur if you can't randomly pontificate about obscure wines that no one has ever heard of?

Well, you're lucky, because I'm not in the mood to expound on the virtues of 1996 Montrachet, even though it really was a fantastic vintage.

Last week's burger and fries tasting got me thinking about wine and food pairings. Pairing wine and food used to be simple: red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat. In a way, that hasn't really changed, but today it's a lot more nuanced – to the point where there is no way I can do justice to the subject in one measly column.

The main thing to remember is to try to match the weight of the wine with the food. Just as Ali vs. Twiggy wouldn't be a good match, neither would steak and sauvignon blanc. Like Ali, the steak would overwhelm such a light wine, crushing it under the assault of big juicy flavors.

We might as well start at the top. A good steak has big flavors and a lot of juicy fat in it, so you need a big wine to stand up to it. The classic pairing of cabernet sauvignon with a steak is still the best. Why? A good, balanced cabernet is going to have a lot of dark fruit flavors that will stand up to the big flavors of a juicy steak. And the fat in a good steak will tame the astringent tannins typical in cabernets. It's a match made in heaven.

Lamb isn't all that dissimilar from a steak, so of course a cab should go well, but personally I prefer syrah/shiraz-based wines with lamb. Why? Syrah-based wines tend to have smoother, less noticeable tannins than cabernet, while often having even greater richness in flavor. To me, this makes a better match with lamb dishes.

As you might expect, chicken is something of a chameleon when it comes to wine. Lemon-herb chicken might pair well with a nice sauvignon blanc. Chicken parmesan would go well with a Chianti or maybe a merlot. Chicken (particularly with some sort of cream sauce) is one of the few dishes that chardonnay actually goes well with.

Pasta (Red Sauce)

Pasta (and Italian food in general) was made for wine. Red pasta sauce has a lot of strong flavors. There's probably oregano and garlic, not to mention acidic tomatoes and olive oil. Pasta sauce needs a pretty big wine to stand up to it and shout over all those loud Italian flavors. The classic match, of course, is Chianti, but cheap Chianti tends to be weak and flabby and not near up to the task. I prefer something with a bit more backbone like a Barolo or a Barbaresco. These wines can be virtually undrinkable on their own, but a good pasta sauce can transform their fierce tannins into a heavenly match. In a pinch, a good cabernet will do the job as well.

The classic wine match for pizza is a cheap California zinfandel. And as much as I dislike most zins, I have to admit that this is a nearly perfect match.

Asian Food
The conventional wisdom is that wine and Asian food don't match, but nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is that the dark fruit and tannins in red wine don't go with the typically lighter flavors of Asian food. So pick a light white wine with good acidity instead. With curry (and Indian or Thai food in general), nothing beats a good Riesling or Gew├╝rztraminer. Chinese food is a bit more complicated, but again Riesling and Gew├╝rztraminer are good bets. With Japanese food, go with sake (duh). Lacking any of those, a light sauvignon blanc or even Champagne would be good backup players. Avoid heavily oaked chardonnays like the plague.

Most fish, like Asian food, can't handle the heaviness of red wine, though a few heavier fish (particularly salmon) can. In fact, my personal favorite with salmon is a good pinot noir. Lighter fish demand a more delicate wine. You almost can't go wrong with a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, but you might want to try a white burgundy (a '96 Montrachet would be good) or Riesling for a change of pace.

Mexican Food
I love Mexican food. I crave it. I lust for it. But let's face it, despite what anyone may tell you, wine and Mexican food just don't match. It breaks my heart to say that, but it's true. I think it's the cilantro, but honestly, I'm not sure. So what does go with Mexican food? Can you say “cervesa”?