For the Love of Beer

By Bennett Porter, Certified Cicerone®

The fourteenth day of February each year is naturally polarizing, often celebrated and often feared. Many of us call it Valentine’s Day, some call it Singles Awareness Day, an offbeat few probably actually celebrate the Feast of Saint Valentine. Whether you are reveling in love or independence, you should have a beer in hand. With a vast sea of beers from which to choose, you can assuredly find the perfect brew. I have selected some thematic and especially delightful beers that will suit the occasion.

For the Inseparable Pair: Evil Twin ‘The Perfect Matcha’ Berliner Weisse – $9.49/22ozEvil Twin The Perfect Matcha Pineapple Tea Sour

Matcha tea – nutritious and delicious! This powerful powdered tea is jam-packed with antioxidants and is thought to enliven the spirit. This Berliner Weisse style beer is brewed with matcha and pineapple, adding a sweet, caramelized herbal layer on top of the tart, salty, and crisp base. Drink it as an aperitif before the romantic dinner!

Boulevard Love Child #7 Barrel-Aged Sour Ale 750mlFor the Happy Parents: Boulevard Love Child No. 7 Barrel-Aged Sour Ale – $17.99/750ml

A beer so good, well-behaved, and intelligent that it could be your new favorite child. Other siblings watch out! Better do extra dishes and shoveling to keep up. Love Child No. 7 is a complex blend of a Flanders-style sour red and a Quadrupel Ale aged in both red wine and bourbon barrels. Aging on lactobacillus and brettanomyces has added elements of refreshing acidity and funk. Red fruit aromas hint at a flavor profile of juicy berries, apple cider vinegar, plum, brown sugar, acidity and funk. Despite all the complexity, it retains excellent balance. Pairs well with funky blue cheeses, fruity desserts, and vinegar-based salads.

For the Dazzling Date: BauHaus Über Düber Sparkling Ale – $10.99/750ml

Good on ya’, mate! Über Düber takes inspiration from the Australian sparkling ale and turns it up a few notches. Boisterous Aussie hop varieties lend a sweet, fruity white grape and banana aromas. Grainy, sweet malty feels are elevated by a brisk carbonation, leading to a warming alcoholic finish. The perfect finish to a night on the town.

Image result for kiss lipsFor the Sweetest Smoocher: Ducato Baciami Lipsia (‘Kiss my Lips’) Gose Ale – $10.99/11.2oz

Literally means “Kiss my Lips” in Italian, could it be any easier? Baciami Lipsia is a blend of 9 month oak-aged sour ale with a young ale brewed with Himalayan pink sea salt. The beer is then aged for a short time longer prior to bottling. Super crisp and citric with a soft saltiness. This harmonious interplay tastes quite unique!

For a Trip for Two: Indeed LSD Honey Ale – $10.99/4pk

This is indeed a mind-altering beer experience. Lavender, Sunflower honey, and Dates combine to craft a uniquely delectable brew. Take a whiff: lavender, rose petal, fig, and limey citrus aromas will transport you to another plane. Flavors reminiscent of biscuits, dates, honeycomb, and spicy botanicals bring you back to earth. Feel the flower power! … Are you experienced?

Left Foot Charley Cinnamon Girl Hard Cider 500ml

For your Spicy Cider Connoisseur: Left Foot Charley Cinnamon Girl Hard Cider – $7.99/500ml

Is your bae not that in to beer? Possibly cider is more their flava’. Cinnamon girl brings together the classic combo of apples and cinnamon. Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, and Ida Red apples from Michigan are allowed to age off the tree prior to pressing, concentrating sugars and softening starches. Fermentation is halted early, retaining some residual sugar to balance the spicy cinnamon. Of course, this drinking experience can only be completed by pulling out your trusty axe from high school and strumming out some Neil Young to your love. “A dreamer of pictures I run the night, you see us together chasing the moonlight, my cinnamon girl.”

Image result for broken heartFor the Final Goodbye: Badger Hill Traitor IPA – $10.49/6pkBadger Hill Traitor IPA 6pk Cans

Maybe things have turned south in your relationship. You need something bitter and honest to take the pain away. It is time to move on to new beginnings, and a new tasty India Pale Ale in your rotation. Badger Hill Traitor IPA will ease your pain, there are more fish in the sea. Betray your traditional IPA, try one that defies convention. Punchy hop aromas from the C’s and Galaxy hop varieties. Tropical mango, papaya, orange, and caramel flavors segue into a minty, piney hop resolution. It’s time to turn over a new (hop) leaf!

Image result for hello my name isFor a Name-Specific Gift: Your special someone possibly shares a name with a quaffable brew. Following are some options on hand.

Deconstructing Wine: Sauvignon Blanc

Grapefruit rind. Gunflint. Cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush.

Sign me up?

These are the oft-used descriptors for one of the world’s most popular grapes: Sauvignon Blanc. Bold, ostentatious, and never one to hide in the shadows, this wine is the life of the party. But think about it for a second: what do you feel when you indulge in a glass of Sauvignon Blanc? Refreshed. Energized. Awake. The aromas are in-your-face, the flavors are bold and zesty. The etymology of ‘sauvignon’ comes from the French word ‘sauvage,’ meaning “wild.” (Sometimes the French aren’t so confusing after all!) But like all of the other grapes we’ve deconstructed so far, Sauvignon Blanc reflects the soil and climate it’s grown in, which makes complete sense when you taste a Sancerre next to a Marlborough. That being the case, this Deconstruction is going to be set up a little differently, so as to highlight why it tastes different in various locales. Suit up for France, California, and New Zealand!

Sauvignon Blanc finds its home in one of France’s white wine heartlands: the Loire Valley. Like Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc is as old as the hills. But it didn’t really find its foothold in wine drinkers’ hearts until well into the 20th century. The wines of the world-renowned region of Sancerre were heralded from the 12th century onward (Legend has it that King Henry IV, upon sampling the local libations while his army camped in the nearby hills, proclaimed, “By God, this wine is the best I have ever tasted! If all in the kingdom were to drink it, there would be no more wars of religion!”), but they were red wines. Pinot Noir was king for centuries in Sancerre, until the dreaded Phylloxera wiped out every single vineyard in the late 19th century. This gave vintners a chance to experiment with other grapes, and Sauvignon Blanc came out the winner.

The absolutely-most-important thing about why Sauvignon Blanc tastes the way it does in Sancerre is because of… oysters. Seriously! Sancerre started out submerged under the ocean just a few (hundred million) years ago. You can still find oyster shells, beach cobbles, and maybe even some plesiosaur fossils littered throughout various parts of Sancerre. The two major soils to remember are Oxfordian limestone and Kimmeridgean clay. Throw those terms around (along with methoxypyrazines) at your next dinner party and watch your guests’ eyebrows dance. The oyster shells, the limestone, the clay, and the flint (the 3rd important soil type) all add to the smoky, stony aromas and flavors Sancerre has become so known for. Take a dip into our first wine:

Domaine Paul Cherrier Sancerre—Sancerre, Loire Valley, France

SIGHT: To be completely honest, these wines are all going to look ridiculously similar: clear and watery. We’ll see a little variation as we get on to the New World styles, but if you hold this wine up to a bright light, you could fool yourself into thinking that it’s vodka.

SMELL: This Frenchie has a surprisingly muted nose. Delicate scents of lemon peel and fresh lime peek out from behind the strong presence of chalky minerality. If you have some of your kids’ sidewalk chalk handy, rub some between your fingers and see if the aromas have any resemblance of what’s in your glass.

TASTE: If the nose was less than exciting, the flavors of this wine definitely make up for it! That mouth-puckering, gum-clenching sensation you might be feeling is the full force of the acidity present in this Sauvignon Blanc. The midpalate and finish soften out with nuances of fresh white flowers and acacia.

Domaine Cherrier’s estate lies mainly on rocky Kimmeridgean clay, which produces wines with a little more body and texture and a pronounced floral note. Limestone typically produces wines with a fresher, fruitier character. Like most Sancerre producers, Cherrier blends Sauvignon Blanc from different vineyards together, in order to create a well-balanced, layered Sancerre that has characteristics from all soil types.

While the wines of Sancerre have always been well-respected in France, there wasn’t much to be shared beyond French borders. It was grown in small plots in various winemaking countries, but no one else had latched onto it. But there was one enterprising individual in California who thought it was a shame to let such a firecracker grape like Sauvignon Blanc lay by the wayside. His name? Robert Mondavi. You may have heard of him.

Robert Mondavi knew how easy it was to grow Sauvignon Blanc. It grew almost too well in a warm, temperate climate like Napa, and needed a little extra attention so it didn’t become Jack’s California Beanstalk. But it gave great yields and bold flavors, and Mondavi knew that the wine drinking public would go nuts over this wine—they just didn’t know it yet. In fact, they’d convinced themselves that they “hated Sauvignon Blanc!” It was too green, too vegetal, and tasted too much like green bell peppers and watery asparagus. But with proper vineyard management and a touch of oak barrel aging, Mondavi crafted a style of Sauvignon Blanc that stole the hearts of everyone who drank it. He only had to get people past the notion that it was a grape they said they hated, so he simply renamed it: Fume Blanc, a completely made-up term that sounded just sophisticated enough to trick people into drinking his glorious new creation!

Honig Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Honig Sauvignon Blanc—Napa Valley, California, USA

SIGHT: If you hold this wine side by side with the Sancerre, you’ll see a tiny glimmer of lime green around the edges. Otherwise, this Napa Sauvignon Blanc is clean, clear, and sunshiny-bright. Sauvignon Blanc is nearly always meant to be drunk young and fresh. It can occasionally see some extended oak aging, but this is fairly rare. Even with some extra barrel aging, it rarely lasts beyond 5-6 years—it just doesn’t have the stuffing to last much beyond that. So if you come across a Sauvignon Blanc that looks yellowed or even brown around the rim, send it back!

SMELL: The aromas here should be a little more familiar if you’re an avid Sauvignon Blanc fan. It has a bolder nose than the Sancerre, with more tropical fruit than citrus. Chop open a honeydew melon if you have one handy (and then eat it later with some prosciutto and balsamic). Any similarities? There’s also a faint aroma of gooseberry and kiwi. That “gooseberry” aroma (such an esoteric term! Who eats gooseberries anymore? They’re delicious, BTW) is sharp, pungent, and is the euphemistic name for the unfortunate “cat pee” descriptor.

TASTE: Flavors of juicy, ripe tropical fruits explode on the palate. The astringency of the Sancerre is nowhere to be found here—instead, we get lemon/lime flavors and ripe kiwi. The texture is different, too: perhaps this wine is a little rounder than, and not quite as thin as the Sancerre. (Think skim milk vs. 1%.)

True to Mondavi’s original form, Honig’s Sauvignon Blanc sees 8 months aging in neutral oak. This method rounds out the acidity and calms those harsh edges down. Napa’s temperate climate and warm-to-hot August harvest temperatures give the grapes a plump, ripe quality that seems a far cry from what we tasted in the first wine.

About the same time that Mondavi was having grand thoughts about Sauvignon Blanc in California, a few forward-thinking Kiwis began conniving in a similar fashion. Sauvignon Blanc was not the natural choice, though: vintners first experimented with Riesling and Muller-Thurgau before they happened upon Sauvignon Blanc. The first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Marlborough on New Zealand’s South Island in 1973, and before those poor Kiwis knew it, the nearly-tee totaling country became a world player in wine production and the sheep population cried out in protest.

New Zealand has a lot going for it in terms of growing wine grapes: it gets a lot of sunshine but not much heat, keeping the sugar and potential alcohol levels in check but allowing the grapes to become fully phenolically ripe. The phenols in a grape are what give those potent aromas and deep flavors, and the more time a grape has to develop them, the bolder the wine is.

Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc—Marlborough, New Zealand

SIGHT: This wine definitely has a green hue to it! Lively and vibrant, it seems to shimmer with what’s going to come on the nose and palate.

SMELL: I’ll bet you smelled the wine before you even looked at it, right? You can’t help but get a huge whiff of those gnarly methoxypyrazines (scientifically speaking, a class of chemical compounds that produce odors of green, herbaceous notes). Bring your cat’s litter box over. That’s right, set it right down next to your fancy Riedel glasses. Better yet, bring your cat over too and see if he’ll provide a fresh sample.

TASTE: Don’t worry—you don’t need to taste the cat pee. There’s a ton of fruit on the palate here instead: grapefruit juice, candied lime and sharp citrus oils burst on your tongue with just a tiny hint of fruity sweetness hanging out on the finish.

Sauvignon Blanc grows too well in New Zealand. Winemakers went through some long, hard years of wines that were diluted, leafy and thin because the vines never had to work hard at producing fruit. But with careful canopy management, vine training and selective thinning, winemakers learned how to make the vines concentrate their energy to the grapes, instead of to the leaves which end up shading the fruit too much. And from sheep to Sauvignon, the rest is history for New Zealand!

Whether you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc or not, it’s a great grape to practice on for wine identification and blind tasting. Not every party girl is going to be liked by everyone, but she sure gets noticed in a hurry! Sauvignon Blanc will never disappoint in terms of audacious flavors and assertive aromas, and the world seems to agree that this is one grape that will always be welcome at any affair.

Deconstructing Wine: Pinot Noir, part 2

A textbook Pinot noir will have a medium body (think skim or 1% milk), medium-low tannins, medium-high acidity, and medium alcohol (usually around 13% ABV). Pay close attention to any mouthwatering sensations in order to gauge the acidity levels in each wine. Also note what the textures of the wines feel like—especially compared to what you thought of Cabernet in one of our previous Deconstructions.

Wine #1: Domaine du Prieure “Moutier Amet” Savigny-les-Beaune 2013—Burgundy, France
SIGHT: We’re starting off with a classic! This wine was grown in the heart of Burgundy—the motherland of Pinot. Note how clear and bright the color of this wine is: brilliant ruby with a soft pink rim. A swirl of your glass will show little to no staining—a great sign that this wine was made from grapes with rather thin skins (a telltale sign for most Pinots), and clocks in at a pretty moderate alcohol level.
SMELL: Give this wine about 10 minutes to air out, and it will reward you with delectable candied cherry, red licorice, and strawberry aromas. Give it 5 minutes more, and you may start to notice some non-fruit aromas: there’s a gentle mineral element here, along with a soft hint of rosemary or sage, a fresh red floral smell, and delicate suggestions of sautéed mushrooms, new leather, and forest floor.
TASTE: Let’s talk structure first: This wine isn’t thick or heavy, but it’s not watery either; we’ll say it has a medium body. Now swallow a sip, and note how quickly your mouth starts to water immediately after. When a wine has that sort of impact on the finish, we can be sure it has dominant acidity. But what about those tannins? They’re barely there—maybe just dancing along your cheeks before disappearing. The wine also doesn’t burn on the way down, and is more refreshing than it is weighty. This is further confirmation that the wine has moderate alcohol, and therefore comes from a moderately cool climate. The flavors seem to match what we got on the nose, with perhaps some additions of rhubarb and a hint of fresh parsley or tomato leaf on the very end.

This is a perfect example of a young, vibrant red Burgundy. The fruit is pure, the acidity is fresh, and the mineral element in the wine isn’t shy. Be sure to pick up a second bottle of this wine or one similar to it so you can squirrel it away for a few years, because soon it will start to develop a whole new set of aromas and flavors: the fruit will fade gently into the background, while tertiary aromas of earth, mushroom, leather, and herbs will start to peek out. It takes patience (we’re awful at that), but it’s worth it!

Wine #2: Arterberry Maresh Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2013—Oregon
: This wine is from the same vintage as the Savigny-les-Beaune, but it’s seemed to age a little quicker. Note the more delicate color in this one as compared to the Burgundy, and take a look at the rim: it fades to a gentle garnet color with a little hint of orange. That’s evidence of a slightly aged wine. You’re in for an olfactory trip!
SMELL: You know what? You have a few bottles of wine open… you may as well open up that sour cherry lambic beer that’s in your fridge, too. Take a whiff of that, and then go back to this funky little Oregon Pinot. Same? Same. Hibiscus tea, ground sage, perhaps some dried cilantro and basil, freshly dug mushrooms with the mud still caked on, rose petals… this wine is rife with crazy smells. Oregon Pinots are known for having a deeper, darker, earthier smell than a lot of Californians, and this one is no exception. There’s definitely some red fruit in there, but it’s hiding behind that note of fresh blueberry skin.
TASTE: The acid is screaming in this wine! Do you feel it in your cheeks? The tannins are barely there, and the alcohol seems to be just above a whisper. Flavors of tart cherry, under-ripe blueberry, and tea leaves come through on the palate. This small-production Dundee Hills wine is lithe and ethereal with a “wispiness” on the finish.

It’s hard to characterize Oregon Pinot in one sentence, but they will generally be lighter in body and higher in acidity than most California Pinots. A lot of wine drinkers will peg Oregon Pinot as a good “middle ground” style, taking notes from both France and California. Arterberry Maresh is a pretty small producer, and they don’t fine or filter their wines. This leaves you with a pretty unique, characterful expression of Pinot, yet still falls firmly within the Oregonian style.

Wine #3: Cultivate Pinot Noir 2014—California
: Hold this wine next to the first two—there should be a markedly deeper hue to the Cultivate. You might see a touch of staining and some noticeable tears falling down the side of your glass, too. This tells us, of course, that this wine will probably have a higher alcohol content, and most likely saw a little more extraction during the winemaking process than the first two. This also tells us that the climate this wine is from is quite a bit warmer than Oregon or France!
SMELL: Whereas you turned to your savory herbs and spices with the Oregon Pinot, here you should be opening your sweet baking spices. Beyond the fresh, juicy red fruit notes of cherry and strawberry, see if you can pick out clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and even garam masala if you have that available. Finally, a very common aroma in California Pinots is that of cola. Crack open a Cherry Coke—any similarities?
TASTE: The intensity of flavors in this wine make the other two seem flighty and delicate. The body is fuller (think 2% milk here), but still with decent acidity and tannins. Does the back of your throat feel nice and warm as you swallow? The alcohol level here beats out the first wines by a long shot! Ripe black cherry, raspberry, cherry cola and a hint of strawberry jam do cartwheels around each other, and the wine finishes with a hint of fruity sweetness.

This Pinot is a spot-on representation of what to expect out of a good California Pinot. Rich and ripe with red fruit notes, it has that nuance of cola and a whole spread of baking spices. The alcohol level is over 14%, which accounts for that hint of sweetness on the finish, as well as the fuller body.

We’ve explored some fairly youthful, fruit-driven expressions of Pinot noir in this Deconstruction. They represent the style so many people are familiar with, and it explains why the grape is so dang popular. It’s important to understand this young stage of Pinot, because you have to know how a wine starts off in order to understand where it’s going. The Arterberry Maresh from Oregon led us to see how Pinot can progress with age—sometimes it takes up to 10 years, sometimes it only takes 3-4. To many Pinot lovers, this is the “real Pinot”—when it starts to morph into layers of humus, flowers, fungi, and savory dried herbs. When I get these things in an aged Pinot, there’s a sort of sweet melancholy that seems to surround the wine. It’s at the same time both comfortably familiar and wondrously complex.

If you ever fall in love with a particular Pinot, be it from Oregon, California, Burgundy, or elsewhere, be prepared to embark on a lifelong journey of pain, regret, and heartache. But you won’t care, because you know there’s always a slim chance that you’ll come across another bottle that will bring you back into that ethereal, otherworldly state that only Pinot can do. It’s unlikely, but somehow it’s always worth another shot.

Cheers to Pinot, the most maddening grape in the world!

Deconstructing Wine: Chardonnay, part 2


Wine #1: William Fevre “Champs Royaux” Chablis

SIGHT: This sprightly young wine is Chardonnay at its most straightforward. The color is a barely-there, watery-hued lemon color with the faintest tinge of green. This is a great indication of little to no oak or age, and the lack of thick tears going down the side of the glass tells us this is probably not a wine with high alcohol content—therefore coming from a cool region, like Chablis!

SMELL: Cut open a fresh lemon, peach, and green apple to see if you get similar notes in this wine. Any other citrus or orchard fruits come to mind? After digging beneath those initial fruit aromas, see if you can detect any mineral or smoky elements—maybe wet stone, a little matchstick, or a touch of paraffin wax?

TASTE: This wine has a medium-light body, medium-high acidity (feel the tartness in your cheeks?) and medium alcohol. These structural components are what make this style of Chardonnay one of the most reliable and flexible food pairing wines. Hints of sweet lemon, green apple skin, pear, and maybe a little green Jolly Rancher dance around on your tongue before disappearing with a fresh burst of acidity. The area of Chablis in France is famous for its chalky, limestone and special clay soil. The soil type and the cool climate are the major factors in the character of this zippy, linear style of Chardonnay.

Notice how “green-fruited” or fresh this Chardonnay smelled and tasted! The wine was not aged in oak, and it didn’t go through malolactic fermentation (“malo”), which is the conversion of harsh, lip-puckering malic acid to softer, rounder lactic acid (this process is how Chardonnay can seem “buttery” sometimes). Therefore it’s crisp, clean, and pretty lightweight. Also, notice the alcohol level: a very modest 12.5%. This will be important to note as we get to know the next two wines. So, now that we know what a “bare bones” Chardonnay is like, we can start adding some layers to it! Onto the next wine…


Wine #2: Leeuwin Estate “Prelude Vineyard” Chardonnay

SIGHT: The color of this wine is fairly similar to the Chablis, with maybe just a touch more intensity at the core. This is a pretty good clue that we’re sticking with a moderate to cool climate.

SMELL: Throw a piece of bread in the toaster and take out your bottle of vanilla extract and see if there are similar aromas in this wine. The first bunch of smells you’ll probably get is secondary aromas, which are (if you remember from the previous Deconstruction) basically anything other than fruit. These aromas come out when the winemaker has manipulated the wine in some way—in this case, by using wood aging and malo. Oak, vanilla, various baking spices, crème brulee, or maybe even mineral or plastic notes could come through.

TASTE: Due to the oak and malo used on this wine, the body here is slightly fuller than the Chablis; the texture has a plush softness to it, and the fruit has a riper quality to it. Flavors reminiscent of Red Delicious apple—maybe even spiced apple cider—along with a faint bitter lemon peel quality on the finish keep this Chardonnay zesty and fresh, even though the oak dominates. We can say this wine has a medium-full body, medium to medium-plus acidity, medium alcohol (13.5%–a full point more than the Chablis) and a finish that is medium-plus in length.

Leeuwin Estate is one of the most important estates for Chardonnay in Australia. Leading the way in the 1970s and 80s, they were responsible for showing the rest of the world that quality Chardonnay could be made even in an upside-down country like Australia. Margaret River in southwestern Australia, where Leeuwin is located, is many times referred to as “the Bordeaux of Australia” because of its similar climate and rocky, alluvial soils that provide wonderful drainage for the grapevines. And although we might think of Australia as a hot, desolate, arid country, Margaret River is one of the most temperate climates in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a great example of a wine with decently high acidity but also with a significant amount of oak.


Wine #3: Paro Chardonnay

SIGHT: Pure gold! The intensity of this deep, rich Chardonnay makes the first two wines look like water. Just by looking at this popcorn-butter-yellow hue, we know we’re in for a massive wine.

SMELL: I don’t know about you, but I get all the food groups in this wine: butterscotch, mushy yellow apple, lemon meringue pie, pear skin, buttered popcorn, and definitely melting vanilla ice cream. (That covers the whole pyramid, right?) This Chardonnay is luscious to the core. The fruit aromas aren’t crisp and fresh—they’re overripe, baked, and sautéed. Again, this is a great example of how much effect climate has on a singular varietal. Go back to the Chablis for a second: can you believe these two wines are the same grape?!

TASTE: There’s no end in sight to this wine! Full-bodied with medium-plus alcohol (this guy is a whopping 14.5%–more than a lot of red wines!), it has medium to (maybe) medium-plus acidity but definitely a long finish. Silky, luscious and rich on the tongue, this wine has potential notes of butterscotch, applesauce, vanilla, and honey graham cracker. Remember, the name of the game is to connect elements of your wine with tangible things in everyday life: dig through your fridge, pantry and cupboards to find familiar smells and tastes so you can further connect to what’s in your glass.

The Russian River Valley of Sonoma in California is one of the best-known places for its cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Early morning coastal fog blankets vineyards, providing cool temperatures throughout most of the day and night except for a few hours of essential sunshine during the warm afternoons. This vital phenomenon is called the diurnal shift: the range of the high temperature of the day to the low. The greater the range, the more complex, balanced, and ripe the grapes become. That being said, there are clearly still parts of the inland Russian River Valley warm enough to produce wines of high alcohol content, like this Chardonnay from Paro. This element, combined with New World wine producers’ infatuation with new oak and full-on malo, result in this wine—the furthest thing from our initial French Chardonnay introduction.

Clearly, New World Chardonnay is pretty far removed from the Old World style. Even when oak is used in French Chardonnay, it’s usually much more subtle and isn’t meant to be used as a flavor. California winemakers have latched on to American wine drinkers’ obsession for those luxurious butterscotchy, oaky, toasty, vanilla-y notes in their Chardonnay, and they’ve perfected their signature style. And once again, climate is one of the most important factors!

But really, why stop with just still Chardonnay? As we’ve already discussed, Chardonnay is incredibly versatile in the jobs it can accomplish around the globe. It’s high time we discovered the other different forms this world-class grape can take! Tune in soon for a dive into the effervescent side of Chardonnay, and learn about the bizarre way it came into being. Cheers!

Deconstructing Wine: Chardonnay, part 1

Chardonnay is the lady who’s seen it all. She’s been dressed up and stripped down, revered and reviled, but at her core she’s pretty simple and just wants to be loved.

From the “cougar juice” crowd to the “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay) mob, Chardonnay has been stretched and twisted to the limits of—and sometimes beyond—what it can take. And to be fair, Chardonnay is one of the hardiest white grapes out there: it can take on massive amounts of new oak, a special extra fermentation usually reserved only for red grapes, a thousand different soil types and climates, and in rare circumstances when all the right factors come together, it can last a lifetime. But what’s really at the heart of this ubiquitous grape?

There was a time in our not-so-distant past when “Chardonnay” was synonymous with “white wine.” If you were a white wine drinker, there was hardly any other choice! (Thanks, Australia.) Most people didn’t associate the word with the particular grape variety or a place or style—they just knew they liked it. Starting in the 1970s and catapulting its way through the millennium, Chardonnay became not just a popular wine, but also a brand. But with time, changing fashions, and a growing awareness of what was in people’s glasses, Chardonnay’s lofty pedestal slowly began to crumble. Sometimes pop culture was the culprit—remember Bridget Jones’ Diary? That movie had the same effect on Chardonnay in Britain that Sideways had on Merlot in the U.S. Other times it was just that Chardonnay had grown too big for its britches, and the masses simply began to grow tired of its big, boozy, buttery, and rather one-noted nature.

Image result for bridget jones chardonnay

In all reality, Chardonnay has a thousand different faces. Do you like white Burgundy? Can’t get enough of Champagne? Enjoy the eye-popping acidity of fresh, crispy Chablis? Then give it up for Chardonnay—the grape that looks good in anything.

Structurally, Chardonnay is pretty ordinary all the way through. It has medium acidity, medium alcohol, a medium body… it’s just so basic, as the kids say. But that is exactly what makes it so unique! It’s one of the most malleable, flexible, and easiest-to-grow grapes that winemakers have to work with. It very easily takes on the characteristics of where it’s grown, as well as the winemaking choices the vintner puts on it. If soil, climate, elevation, malolactic fermentation, wood aging, and lees stirring are the colors to use (just to name a few important components and techniques for making wine), then Chardonnay is the canvas itself. It’s a blank page, ready to take on the whims and fancies of whoever works with it. This is exactly the reason why some people hate it, some love it, and some have their mouths hanging wide open as they ask, “This is Chardonnay?!” As the illustrious English wine writer Jancis Robinson stated, Chardonnay is “equally capable of extreme mediocrity and regal splendour.”

So grab your glasses, your fruit bowl, and a group of your most stubborn friends. We’re going to peel off the layers of this grape and really get to know the “real Chardonnay.” This is the perfect grape to deconstruct! Read on to dig into the three stars of this show.

Deconstructing Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon

By all rights, Cabernet Sauvignon probably shouldn’t exist. Every time cross-pollination happens (in this particular case it was Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc), the DNA gets twisted around in a plethora of different sequences. Basically, a Cabernet Franc vine happened to be planted near a Sauvignon Blanc vine. The wind carried pollen from one vine onto the budding flowers of the other, and the result was a vine full of berries, each with its own particular genetic structure showing dominant or recessive characteristics of each parent. Of course, we need our hero, Cabernet Sauvignon, to survive so we can go on singing its praises today, so what happened? Most likely, a bird flew by and from the hundreds of grapes available, chose to eat the magic Cabernet Sauvignon berry. He pooped out the seeds, a brand new vine grew, a farmer made wine from those grapes and thought it was tasty… and the rest is history! (Makes you wonder what other genetic sequences were possible, doesn’t it?) Fate? Coincidence? Blessing from the gods? Yep.

Climate is one of the biggest factors in how any wine tastes. If you’re drinking Cabernet from a warm climate like Napa or Australia, you’re going to get oodles of juicy, ripe fruit on the nose and palate. If you’re drinking one from a cooler climate like Chile or maybe Bordeaux, you’ll notice many other things that aren’t fruit—things like graphite, pencil shavings, or green bell pepper. The truth is that Cab is a thick-skinned son of a gun who likes to take its sweet time ripening. The shorter the growing season is and the less warmth and sun it gets, the less time it has to develop those luscious fruit flavors and aromas we’ve come to expect out of a lot of New World Cabs. Using the following three wines, you’ll get an idea of how the climate factor plays into how the wine tastes. Let the games begin!

img_3885Wine #1: Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon—Napa Valley, California

SIGHT: This New World classic has a vibrant, deep ruby color; and if you look closely, the rim will have a youthful purplish hue to it. If you compare the color here to your other two wines, wines 2 and 3 seem almost dull in comparison. A swirl of the glass will show a few thick, stained legs dripping down the side of your glass.

SMELL: Get out your spice rack and fruit basket! This juicy Cab is packed to the max with candied cherry, plum, black cherry, and a slightly raisinated grapey aroma. Check your spices to see if you find notes of allspice, fennel, tarragon leaf, clove, or caraway seed as well. And is it just me, or does anyone else get a familiar whiff of Perkins’ blueberry pancake syrup…?

TASTE: Flavors of sweet red and black fruits dominate here, along with a hint of tart cranberry concentrate.  The structure of a wine is divided up into the following components: body (how thick or thin a wine feels on your tongue), tannin (the drying feeling present on your tongue, cheeks and gums), acidity (presents itself as tartness, a mouthwatering sensation, or sometimes a grippiness in your gums), and alcohol (usually a warming sensation in the back of your throat after you swallow). In this wine, we find a medium-full body, medium acidity, medium full alcohol, and probably only medium/medium-full tannins that seem to melt away pretty quickly.

Owing to the huge presence of ripe fruit notes and a nice big, round mouthfeel, we can safely say this Cabernet is a perfect example of a New World style coming from a warm climate. Old Man Mondavi would be proud!

img_3887Wine #2: Boschkloof Cabernet Sauvignon—Stellenbosch, South Africa

SIGHT: As noted before, this wine’s color is a bit more muted and red-toned than our Mondavi was. This could be classified as having a deep ruby color with more of a garnet tinge at the rim. There’s still a fair bit of staining on the glass when you swirl it, but not quite as pronounced as the Mondavi.

SMELL: This is a great wine to contrast against our first one! There are definitely still notes of black cherry and cassis, but see if you can pick out those non-fruit aromas of smoked meat, charcoal, old cracked leather, tar, black pepper, nutmeg, and eucalyptus. I even checked my dirtiest pair of socks in my laundry basket, and yep—smells familiar! (In the best way possible, of course…)

TASTE: Many of our aromas carry through to the palate, including that beautiful charred meat quality and some dark berry hints—maybe blackberry or bramble. A smoky note in the background adds further complexity, with a gentle mineral element providing lift on the finish. We’ll say that this wine has a medium body—a little lighter than the Mondavi—but firmer, stronger tannins and higher acidity. Whereas the Mondavi sits heavy on your tongue after you swallow, the Boschkloof clears out pretty quickly. The fruit quality is still ripe, but it’s definitely less sweet than the Mondavi. A sharp baking spice note comes through on the finish.

Stellenbosch is the Bordeaux of South Africa. This highly revered mountainous region just off of False Bay gets cooling breezes and plenty of sunshine to grow ripe yet balanced Cabernet. Although still hefty at 14.5% alcohol, the higher acidity present in this Cab makes it a little more balanced than the Mondavi. South Africa is also known for a particular shrubby, scraggly bush called fynbos, which, some may say, adds a peculiar herbal quality that only South African wines seem to have.

img_3884Wine #3: Chateau La Croix St Estephe—Bordeaux, France

SIGHT: This wine has a deep ruby color to it—almost black—but the rim fades to that same soft garnet shade that we saw in the last wine. The legs carry much less staining with them compared to the first two wines—a huge hint to where this wine comes from!

SMELL: If the first thing you smell is fruit in this wine, you’ve most likely switched it up with the Mondavi! This is a perfect wine to explain what secondary aromas are: basically, they’re everything you smell other than fruit. Savory elements of cured meat, cedar and maybe some tarragon and fennel peek shyly out of the glass: this is a pretty closed-up wine that doesn’t announce its presence like the others do. You could also catch some floral notes floating around; perhaps some dried violet or rose petals.

TASTE: We’ve found the fruit! It’s there on the palate, hiding behind all those secondary aromas. Just-barely-ripe notes of blackberry and black cherry come through on your tongue, framed by a slight savory meatiness and a delicate herbal quality. This wine has firm tannins that linger through to the finish and a slightly fuller-than-normal body, probably due to some significant barrel aging. It has medium acidity and medium alcohol, ringing in at only 13% ABV. The absence of staining on the glass is a clue to the fact that this wine came from a cooler climate than Napa or South Africa. This hinders the grape skins from developing deeper flavor and color compounds than they would in warmer climates.

This wine is built for the long haul! If you’re willing to wait another 3-5 years (or more), those baby-fat tannins will soften and more secondary and even tertiary aromas (“aged” aromas) will blossom. This is a fantastic example of well-made Bordeaux that won’t leave a gaping hole in your pocketbook. It’s also the only one of our group that isn’t a straight Cabernet: the complete blend is 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, and 17% Cabernet Franc. Seeing as all three grapes come from the same genetic family (the “Carmenet” ampelographic group), it’s pretty natural that they fit so well together in blends.

If you’ve made it all the way through, you definitely deserve (another) glass of wine—or maybe a beer, at this point. We’ll keep discussing the structural components of wine, which is one of the most important things to be able to talk about when describing what you like (or don’t like) in wine. At the very least, hopefully you’ve discovered how variable even a world-famous grape like Cabernet can be. Three cheers for The Grape That Shouldn’t Have Been: Cabernet Sauvignon!

Deconstructing Wine, Vol. 2

Rule #1: There are no rules.

By this I mean, there are absolutely no set standards for what you “should” be smelling or tasting in a wine. If you smell rose petals but your friend thinks you’re crazy because clearly it’s tomato leaf, you’re both right. Is it cherry or strawberry in that Pinot Noir? The answer is: yes.

Sure, there’s a lot of science behind what goes into wine, but part of what makes wine so fun is that it allows for a very subjective, personal experience. Because none of us have the same set of smell and taste memories, none of us will come at a wine in exactly the same way. If you have a group of people you taste wine regularly with, it’s natural that your palates will calibrate and you’ll be able to use similar descriptors. But nothing can take away from your personal experience with the wine. You’ve got one perspective to work with, and it’s a valuable one.

The easiest way to get into describing wine is to connect what’s in your glass to tangible things in your world: the things you eat and cook with, the smells you encounter everyday, and all those little sensory details you normally don’t give much thought to are all essential parts of your personal memory bank. If you go into describing your Cabernet saying, “It smells like wine,” well… you’re not wrong, but now it’s time to go beyond that initial impression and see how many layers you can uncover. See if you can get any of the vanillin aromas that come when you bake cookies. Is there any smokiness that’s reminiscent of the bonfire you had last weekend? Is that lemony scent closer to the fresh lemon you sliced up for your ice water, or to the Mr. Clean dish soap you use? These are the questions that will heighten your sensory awareness, and make your normal glass of wine much more interesting than you ever gave it credit for.

That being said, we need to train your schnozz! This is where your spice rack will come in handy—you’ll definitely need that available for every wine you deconstruct. When you’re first starting out, you’ll literally have to methodically go through each spice you have (even the ones that don’t make any sense), giving each one a sniff and then going to your wine to see if that smell is also in your glass. Sounds tedious, but it won’t take long for your brain to recognize the aromas outright instead of having to be reminded by the real thing.

And since there are more than just spices in a wine, you’ll also benefit from having a few fresh fruits and veggies on hand. Blueberries, blackberries, cherries, apples, pears, citrus fruits, as well as any kind of jams, preserves or fruit juices will be very helpful in getting to know your wine. (And as I type this, I’m realizing that I can knock out two potential New Years’ Resolutions with one stone: eat healthier, and learn wine! Hmmm…)

But why stop there? Everything in your personal environment, from your dirty laundry to your wet dog to your old baseball glove, is important sensory information. If something in your wine reminds you of a specific smell or flavor, go dig it out and see if you’re right!

Finally, there are many of us that have particular affinities or aversions towards certain fruits, spices, aromas or flavors that are completely unrelated to the wine in front of you. For the sake of education and expanding your horizons, it’s best if you can forget the fact that you loathe blueberries or detest the smell of fennel for the time being. Go in with a blank slate, and take the wine as it is. After you’ve learned all about it, then you can decide whether you like it or not.

On to the star of this particular show: Cabernet Sauvignon is the first grape that we’ll dig into. By the end of this session, you’ll know the grape inside out, understand its unique qualities, and realize that it’s more than just a big, boozy red (which, don’t get me wrong, it very often is). But did you know that Cab Sauv is actually a fairly new grape in the history of winemaking? Most accounts say that winemakers in Bordeaux only started planting it regularly by the late 18th century… only a few decades before it made its debut in California! So what’s the real story behind this rock star grape? Read on, and use your nose and tongue to find out for yourself.


Deconstructing Wine, Vol. 1

“I don’t know anything about wine—I just know what I like.”

Anyone that hasn’t been frustrated, intimidated, or confused by the world of wine at some point… probably only drinks beer.

When I first got into wine, I had no idea what it was that I enjoyed about it. The only words in my vocabulary were “red” and “dry.” In fact, the only reason I got my first wine job was that my answer to the interview question, “What’s your favorite wine?” was “Malbec.” (As opposed to the more common answer, “Moscato.”)

The first few weeks of that job went fine… until I learned from Wine For Dummies that Malbec was a specific kind of grape—not a “style” of wine that anyone could make from generic red grapes picked up at Cub Foods.

It was at that moment that I knew I’d gotten in way over my head.

Times have changed and I know a few more grape names now, but a few questions have stuck with me from the very beginning: Why do I like certain wines and not others? What makes a certain variety of wine taste like it does? And most importantly, how do I talk about wine?

Do those hoity-toity wine critics seriously detect notes of “delicately spiced orange blossom” or “medium-rare steak over a charcoal flame” in their glass? And I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want to discover “sweaty saddle leather” in my glass of Syrah. Every person has their own personal memory bank of aromas and flavors stored up, but translating those memories to a glass of wine can be tough.

It takes time, patience, practice, and effort, but it gets easier. How deep you get into your glass of wine is totally up to you, but being able to understand a little about what you’re drinking and why you like/dislike it takes a lot of anxiety out of wine buying, whether you’re faced with 30 glass pours on a restaurant wine list, or 3,000 bottles at your local wine shop.

Wine isn’t meant to be stressful. A little knowledge can go a long way. With the right set of vocabulary and a solid framework in which to better understand major types of wine, it all becomes insanely fun.

This series of “Deconstructing Wine” will give you tools, language, and practical advice to help you take the mystery and the awkward guesswork out of wine. We’ll cover major types of wine, including what makes them unique and why they’re important. Hopefully, you’ll be able to discover how your personal palate works and make sense of what you like and why. And the best part? The homework requires popping bottles.

Stay tuned for the first edition of “Deconstructing Wine,” featuring one of the world’s most noble and revered grapes!