Thursday, September 26, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Italian Red, Tuscany - 2011 Il Pozzo Chianti Rùfina

We are having a little work done around our house (just replacing 90% of the flooring - from ugly tile and uglier carpet to awesome tile and hardwood floors).  On one of the nights we couldn't stand anymore take-out food, we moved our stove out of our living room, back to our kitchen with stripped bare floors.  Not having enough time to whip up a gourmet delight, I instead chose a delicacy referred to as Safeway brand frozen meat lasagne.  I had picked up a Chianti Rùfina earlier in the week to go along with our classic Italian feast!  When buying Chianti, it costs a bit more to buy something from a more specific part of Chianti within Italy's Tuscan region - such as a Chianti Classico or Chianti Rùfina, but they will give you a bigger bodied, tastier wine that can stand up better to more highly flavored dishes.  Also, going for a Chianti Riserva level should net you the same results.

Wine: 2011 Il Pozzo Chianti Rùfina
Region: Chianti Rùfina, Tuscany, Italy
Grape Varieties: Sangiovese
Obtained from: Purchased at Total Wine & More
Price: $18.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Natural Cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear (no cloudiness), with a dark red core (center) and a water white rim.
Aroma: Lots of red fruit - mostly cherries, along with a floral note and a bit of oak.
Taste: Full bodied enough to go nicely with our freezer to oven dinner. Nothing overly complex, but tasty and well balanced.

The Grade: I give this one a B+. Overall a good wine, but I expected a bit more - I am not sure how the 2011 vintage was for the Chianti region, but it may not have been the best due to a heat wave that showed up before harvest.  Still a good wine for $18, but I've found that for Chianti's you may need to get closer to $25 a bottle for something special.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

How to Decipher European Wine Series - Italian Wine Labels

Many European Union (EU) wines are labeled quite differently from wines in the US and other "New World" wine producing countries like Australia and South American.  In the EU, higher quality wines are governed under a system that determines how the wines are made, and how the wines must be labeled.  In most cases, the higher quality EU wines are label based upon their geographic region and the amount of aging (both barrel and bottle).  In my earlier post How to Decipher European Wine Series - The Three Levels of EU Wine, I explained the hierarchy of wine quality levels that EU countries use. At the highest level, the use of a region name is strictly controlled so that only winemakers who follow all the rules during grape growing, winemaking, and wine aging processes can legally put the protected wine region name on their label.

In this blog post, I will delve a bit deeper into what you will need to know to decipher labels of wines from Italy.  I will also list the major Italian wine regions and tell you what types of wines you will find from those regions.  Armed with this information, you should be able to be a more knowledgeable consumer and be able to further explore the vast world of Italian wines! 

Italian Wine Labels.  Wine labels in Italy will all contain the same basic information, which is strictly controlled by Italian and EU wine laws.  Some of the information may be on the back label - but all the information will be displayed. 

As an example, let's refer to this label for a Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva.


Our Example Italian Wine Label

Common Elements on the Italian Wine Label.

Estate Name.   Typically prominently displayed toward the top of the label in large letters. In this case Villa Antinori is the name of the estate - one of the line of wines produced by the Marchesi Antinori family of wines. 

Appellation Name and Status.  In what Appellation was this wine made? The easiest way to figure the name of the Appellation is to look for the Appellation Status which will always appear below the Appellation name. With Italian wine you will see one of two Appellation Status levels, either "Denominazione di Origine Controllata" (DOC) or "Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita" (DOCG).  With our example above, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita appears just below Chianti Classico, so we know that Chianti Classico is our Appellation name. Although not specified on Italian wine labels - Chianti Classico is an Appellation within Italy's Tuscany wine region. Many Italian wines are labeled in this manner - by identifying the Appellation that is part of a larger wine region. 

Vintage. When were the grapes for this wine harvested? By law 85% or more of the grapes must be from the vintage identified on the label. The other 15% can be from be from an earlier vintage allowing the winemaker some flexibility during wine blending.  In our example above, the vintage is not shown on this sample label, but there is a spot for vintage next to the word "Riserva."

Alcohol Content. The percentage of alcohol by volume. The percentage on our sample label is in the lower right hand corner - 12.5%.

Bottle Volume. The volume of the bottle, typically in milliliters (ml) or liters (L). A standard size wine bottle is 750 ml, a magnum is twice that size at 1.5 L, etc. In our example the volume is shown on the lower left corner of the label - 750 ml.

Producer and Bottling. Who produced the wine and where was it bottled. You will see the winery name, and the location of the winery - in our example Imbottigliato (bottled) in San Casciano da Marchesi Antinori, Firenze Italy

Other Information. The label may also contain other information about the wine, in this case Riserva denotes that this wine has aged longer than the non-Riserva wine.  In the case of Chianti Classico Riserva, the wine must be aged at least 27 months before being released.  Although the total time is dictated, the winemaker is free to choose the amount of time spent in aging oak cask vs. aging in the bottle.  Other Italian wine regions will have their own specific requirements for aging, such as Barolo Riserva requiring at least 5 years of aging before release.

Major Wine Regions in Italy. Below you will find a listing and the red and white wines you will find in some of the major Italian wine regions - within their respective Appellations. The Appellation name is what you will see on Italian wine labels in most cases - so you will see Chianti which is an Appellation within the Tuscany wine region.  These are not all the regions in Italy, but the ones you will most often see in your local wine shop or on a restaurant wine list.

Italy's Wine Regions

Wine Region Name: Tuscany. Tuscany is easily the best know of the Italian wine regions. There is much more going on here than straw wrapped bottles sitting on red and white checkered tablecloths.
  • Major Appellation: Chianti, Chianti Classico
  • Red Wines: You can't go too wrong pairing a good Italian dish with a good Chianti - made with the Sangiovese grape. I recommend Ruffina and Classico sub regions, and also recommend stepping up to Reserva whenever possible. The extra aging the Reserva's go through makes a big difference.
  • White Wines: Red wines are the focus here.
  • Appellation Notes: Probably the best know of the Italian wines - there are cheap and cheap tasting Chianti's - but take some time, talk to your wine shop guy (or gal) and have them point you to some quality examples.
Major Appellation: Brunello di Montalcino
  • Red Wines: Brunello red wines are made from the same Sangiovese grape used for Chianti, although sometimes referred to by its local name of Brunello.  These wines are typically much more powerful expressions of the grape, and tend to be more expensive.
  • White Wines: The only whites you may find will likely be sweet wines made from the Muscat grape.
  • Appellation Notes: Reds from this Appellation can show you how different the Sangiovese grape can be - while still remaining food friendly - like so many Italian wines!
  • Major Appellation: Bolgheri
  • Red Wines: This appellation was created mostly for Super Tuscan wines using the Bordeaux grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot)
  • White Wines: There are Bolgheri Bianco wines, but I have never seen or tried these. If they are as interesting and unique as the reds - they would be worth a go!
  • Appellation Notes: This appellation designation is very new - only in place since 1994. Before Bolgheri was established, "Super Tuscan" wines that used grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot had to be labeled as IGT wines - lower on the quality scale since they did not follow Tuscany's rules regarding grape varieties.  Now - OMG wines like Sassicaia - one of my all time favorite wines - have a DOC designation. Even more reasonably priced Super Tuscan wines provide an awesome alternative to Bordeaux or California Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based wines.
Wine Region Name: Piedmont. This region is home to epic reds, great whites, and even some varietal labeled wines!
  • Major Appellation: Barolo and Barbaresco
  • Red Wines: Home to the big, tannic, age-able red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape.   These wines can provide an interesting set of aromas that include tar, latex,  and flowers.
  • White Wines: Epic reds are the focus here.
  • Appellation Notes: Big, expensive, age-able. Take care not to open these wines too soon - the level of tannins can be oppressive. But when properly aged and then properly decanted - definitely epic wines!
  • Major Appellation: Asti, Alba. Unique in Italy and much of Europe, you will find some DOC level wines in Italy that are labeled by their grape varieties vs. the wine region.
  • Red Wines: Barbera d' Asti (or Alba) and Dolcetto d' Asti (or Alba) are wines made from those grapes. Barbera is very high in acid, and pairs nicely with pizza. Dolcetto is closer to Pinot Noir and Chianti in fruitiness and acidity, making it a nice wine to pair with many dishes and cheeses.
  • White Wines: Moscato is a fizzy or fully sparkling white made from Muscat. Typically a bit sweet and having less than 10% alcohol, this wine is a great pre-meal sipper, or something for an picnic or pool party.
  • Appellation Notes: Give Dolcetto a try as an alternative to Chianti - just to try something new!
  • Major Appellation: Gavi
  • Red Wines: All about the whites!
  • White Wines: Gavi is a crisp, floral wine that pairs great with seafood and oil or butter based pasta sauces. 
  • Appellation Notes: Gavi and Soave from the Veneto region (see below) are great white wines that sometimes get eclipsed by the more familiar Pinot Grigio - such a shame!
Wine Region Name: VenetoThis may not be the region you hear about most often, but there are very interesting reds and whites made here, and this region cranks out about 20% of Italy's total wine production. 
  • Major Appellation: Amarone della Valpolicella, Valpolicella
  • Red Wines: Amarone is made from sun dried grapes and is a delicious and quite unique wine.  Other reds from Valpolicella are blends based on the Corvina grape, and provide a great alternative to the better know Italian reds.
  • White Wines: For whites - you'll want to look to Soave (below).
  • Appellation Notes: Amarone can be expensive, but it is worth a try - the intensity of flavor from the sun dried grapes is pretty amazing.
  • Major Appellation: Soave
  • Red Wines: This region is all about the whites.
  • White Wines: Soave whites made mostly from the Garganega grape, usually very crisp with little or no oak aging. Fantastic with seafood.
  • Appellation Notes: Soave white wine had a time in the spotlight in the 70s and 80s in the US, but unfortunately the wine back then was boring and bland and didn't stay in the limelight for long. Now - the wine is on it's way back to popularity based on quality and being very food friendly.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Wine Tip of the Week: Don't Fear the Sediment!

Ever get more than you expected from your bottle of wine? Does your cork have crystals or does the wine leave some grit in the glass?  This sediment is a completely harmless byproduct of the wine making process.  Some winemakers prefer to bottle their wines without any filtering (some labels will identify wines as "Unfiltered") as filtering will impact a wines aroma and flavors. The crystals you may see on the bottom of the cork are called tartrates,
and are formed during the aging of a wine. 

If you (properly so) store your wine bottles on their side, leaving a bottle standing for a few hours before opening and serving will help make sure the sediments fall to the bottom.  Better yet, here is when a decanter and funnel with a screen would come in handy to both remove sediment and aerate your wine.  Although not pleasant to look at - the formation in sediment may mean that you will be enjoying a fuller bodied, tastier wine than if the winemaker had decided to treat the wine by filtering, fining, and adding other chemicals to inhibit the formation of tartrates.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Spanish Red - 2010 Bodegas y Vinedos Noe (BVN) Rioja

Most new wines I try I do at least some research, or I will seek out wines that I have read about that have intrigued me. Sometimes though - wine buying is about being impulsive.  For today's wine review - I purchased this wine just because it had a super cool metallic label.   My impulse buys have been more misses than hits - but there have been a few success along the way - let's see what this metallic monster has to offer!

Wine: 2010 Bodegas y Vinedos Noe (BVN) Rioja
Region: Rioja, Spain
Grape Varieties: Tempranillo & Garnacha
Obtained from: Purchased at Monipole Wine in Pasadena, California
Price: $15.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

This smells raw and minty, with an artificial candy note. It feels lean, with a green, weedy flavor of red fruit. It shows heat and scour on the finish. This is a blend of equal parts Tempranillo and Garnacha.
Cork Condition: Natural Cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear (no cloudiness), with a dark red center and a water white rim.
Aroma: Lots of red fruit - cherries and raspberries, along with a good bit of herbal aromas. Some other interesting aromas including vanilla make for a very aromatic Rioja.
Taste: Very nicely balanced, a good level of acidity and just a bit of tannins. Full bodied enough to be a good match with food.

The Grade: I give this one a B+.  I give it a solid B based on overall aroma and flavor, as the herbal character is fairly pronounced. It does get a bit of a bonus up to a B+ for having a super cool, super unique wine label. This bottle would make a great gift or a conversation starter to bring to a party or dinner.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Wine Tip of the Week - How About Something Home Made?

Long before I became interested in wine, I was a beer guy.  For a few years, I tinkered with brewing my own at home - and I really loved doing it. I would typically make 3 or 4 batches each year, and we would have a rockin' Homebrew Halloween Party.

My creations were labeled as Hardenbrew - here are labels from some of my favorite brews:

Chocolate Cherry Stout and Beavis and Butthead's Full Moon Ale 

Espresso Stout and Halloween Pumpkin Ale

I also took a couple of stabs at making my own wine at home. It is a fantastic way to learn a lot about (a home version facsimile) of the winemaking process.  It takes a little more work than beer making, with careful monitoring of the progress of the fermentation, and while the result was no Opus One, it was respectable for a wine make in plastic buckets! 

If you are interested in giving home wine making a try, you will need a starter kit, available at many places including Northern Brewer.

Starter Kits come in several variations, I went for the basic version to start:

Next you will need an Ingredient Kit based on the type of wine you want to make - many varieties are available - even White Zinfandel!

Just follow the directions - carefully and completely, and let us know about the masterful creations you are able to make at home!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Spanish Red - 2007 Castillo Clavijo Rioja Reserva

If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen that on a dark, rainy, and dreary day I headed off to my local Total Wine & More to pick up some wines for the weekend. I ended up buying three different wines - a Chianti, a Rioja, and a Malbec Blend from Argentia - but all with very similar, dreary black and grey labels. Just one of those days I guess! - Anyway, here is my review of the Rioja in the dark and gloomy gang of three!

Wine: 2007 Castillo Clavijo Rioja Reserva 
Region: Rioja, Spain
Grape Varieties: Tempranillo
Obtained from: Purchased at Total Wine & More
Price: $15.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Natural Cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear. Dark red at the center, with a pinkish white rim.
Aroma: Red fruit like raspberry and cherry. Also spice aromas with a bit of a dusty smell that Rioja often has.
Taste: Full bodied with wonderful ripe fruit flavor. Nicely balanced with a very nice, lengthy finish. Tastes to me like a much more expensive Rioja.

The Grade: I give this one an A. An awesome wine for $15, this one was definitely made to pair with Spanish cheeses and dry chorizos.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Wine Tip of the Week: Still Time to Grill!

Summer is almost gone for this year - but there is still time to grill (or if you are like us and live in a hot climate like Phoenix, AZ - grilling season hasn't started yet!).  
 For This Beauty I chose an Alto Moncayo Garnacha (Grenache)

When you grill meat, the char marks provide a hint of bitter taste to the meat, which pairs nicely with a fruity red wine. Be careful not to pair a wine with a lot of tannins, but a fruit forward Syrah, or a full bodied Spanish wine like Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Priorat will make you happy, happy, happy!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Chardonnay - 2010 Chateau Potelle VGS Chardonnay

Normally I strive to review wines that should be relatively easy to find, though I realize what wines I can get in Arizona may not be the same wines filling the shelves of your favorite wine shop.  Today is an exception, I am reviewing a wine that I received through our Chateau Potelle wine club membership, but the wine is sold in some retail outlets.  Fairly recently, the winery rebranded its wine a bit to focus on its "VGS" designation, which simply an acronym for "Very Good Shit". If you do see their Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon on the shelves - the price will be more in the splurge wine range, but I highly recommend you try.  As long time wine club members, we have been invited to a wine blending event where we will get to choose our own blend of Bordeaux varietals from Chateau Potelle and create five cases of our very own blend. Words cannot describe how stoked I am to be able to participate in something like this... I hope we end up with good stuff?

OK, so enough about me - let's drink some Napa Valley Chardonnay!!

Wine: 2010 Chateau Potelle VGS Chardonnay
Region: Napa Valley
Grape Varieties: Chardonnay
Obtained from: Purchased from Winery Wine Club, Last Years Shipment has been aging at home for 1 year.
Price: $36.00 member price, $45 retail.
Wino4Life Category: Weekend Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Natural Cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear, with a water white rim.
Aroma: Fresh green apple along with a hint of lemon and lemon rind.  This wine spends about 10 months in French oak barrels, and this provides some nice nutty and almost smokey aromas.
Taste: Nice level of acidity, quite complex with a great finish.  The apple and citrus aromas carry forward into the taste of the wine.  This wine would pair nicely with a heavier seafood dish or perhaps some buttery lobster.

The Grade: I give this one a A.  It is much easier for me to delve into the Weekend Wine or Splurge Wine cost categories with red wines, but I don't often do so with whites. Sometimes though, you can tell where the extra $$ goes - and you find a  white wine that is easily worth a few extra bucks. This wine is one of those - the complexity of the flavor, length of the finish, and the wonderful aromas - make it a wine that is worth the investment.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Get to Know your Grapes Series - Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is a quite popular white wine, but you may not realize how many different wines actually contain Sauvignon Blanc.  This grape is the signature white wine for New Zealand,  and they make some great stuff. You may also have tried Sauvignon Blancs from Napa, Sonoma, or even Central California. The New Zealand and US versions of the wine are typically very fruity, ripe, with a very high level of acidity, and are typically fermented and aged in stainless steel vats.

Sauvignon Blanc is also found elsewhere in the world as one of the key grapes in White Bordeaux wines (Bordeaux wine is not only red!), plus Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé from the Loire Valley in France.  These wines will not have Sauvignon Blanc mentioned on the label because as with many quality wines from Europe, the wines are labeled based on the wine region, not the grape.  In the case of Pouilly Fume, the wine is actually aged in oak barrels - so it will have a different aroma and flavor profile, plus will be able to age unlike those wines made purely in stainless steel.

Sauvignon Blanc has two main characteristics to consider when using it to pair with food. One is the typical herbaceous character which pairs very nicely with fresh herbs like basil, rosemary, mint, cilantro, and parsley.  Sauvignon Blanc also has a high level of acidity, and when dealing with acidity in a dish - you need to fight fire with fire and have a wine that is also high in acid. For acidic foods like salad dressings, or a lemony sauce for vegetables, chicken or fish - Sauvignon Blanc can hang right in there and make a great pairing.  Sauvignon Blanc wines even pair nicely with the notoriously difficult to match Asparagus.

Typical Aromas of Sauvignon Blanc.  Green fruits like apple, pear, and lime. Also green pepper, green grass, other herbs, minerals, flint, and yes folks - even cat pee!  Please don't shy away from trying Sauvignon Blanc because of any cat pee phobia - not all Sauvignon Blanc has this aroma - it is mostly found in examples of White Bordeaux from France, and even then not in every one.

Typical Styles of Sauvignon Blanc Wine. Fresh, fruity wines with bracing acidity are typical for Sauvignon Blanc.  Most of these wines are fermented in stainless steel to preserve the fruit character of the wine. In the Loire Valley of France, Pouilly Fume wines are aged in oak barrels, and elsewhere in the world wines labeled as Fumé Blanc will also have spent some time aging in oak.  Sauvignon also plays a part in providing freshness and acidity when blended with Sémillon in the world famous dessert wine of France's Bordeaux region - Sauternes. 

Who Makes Sauvignon Blanc Wines? Sauvignon Blanc is made throughout the world - here are just a few key examples: 
  • France. Sauvignon Blanc appears in White Bordeaux, Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé, and in the iconic dessert wine Sauternes (also from the Bordeaux region).
  • New Zealand. The signature grape of New Zealand, especially in the Marlborough region.
  • California, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Central California. California is home to some wonderful, fruity and acidic versions of Sauvignon Blanc. In Sonoma, Dry Creek Vineyards is one of the wineries that also bottles a Fumé Blanc - which has spent some time aging in oak barrels.
  • Chile. The Valparaíso region of Chile is also home to some Sauvignon Blanc wine, and as with much South America wine, you can find some fantastic values.
Words of Advice. Some things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your Sauvignon Blanc Purchase:
  • New Zealand is King. When in doubt, go with the king. Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand's signature white wine grape, and you should be able to find many different brands in your local wine shop.
  • Don't Forget France.  Even though the label won't say Sauvignon Blanc on the label, but branch out and try some French wines - especially from the Loire Valley.
  • Don't Fear the Oak. Aging in oak will produce some different aromas and flavors, 
  • Looking for some good brands to try? There are a lot of choices out there for Sauvignon Blanc - here are a few I think are worth trying.  I admit that I don't know much about French brands of white wine - but do talk with your local wine shop to get some recommendations:
    • New Zealand - Cloudy Bay. This brand can be a bit more expensive at around $20, but don't be afraid of the price (or the screw top) if you are looking for a great example of New Zealand's handy work with this grape.
    • New Zealand - Villa Santa Maria. I highly recommend this label's Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc and also their Riesling - very new world in style, but consistently awesome! 
    • Napa Valley California - Stag's Leap.  This winery makes great Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc. Visit their winery when you are in the Napa area. 
    • Sonoma Valley California - Dry Creek. If you want to try an oaked aged version of Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek has one for around $10 a bottle - Fumé Blanc.  Also a nice winery to visit in Sonoma, they make some other great wine too. If you have a friend or family member who likes sailing, all their labels are sail boat themed and would make a great gift.
    • Central California - Buttonwood Wines. This wine is not available in retail stores as far as I know, but if you see their Sauvignon Blanc on a restaurant list or are visiting Central California near Solvang - give them a try.  Especially if it is their wine named "Zingy". 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Wine Tip of the Week - They are Called Fortified Wines for a Reason!

You may have seen some dessert wines referred to as fortified.  The exact method may vary, but fortified wines are wines where a distilled spirit (typically brandy) is added to the wine. Wines that are fortified include:
  • Madeira
  • Marsala
  • Port
  • Sherry
  • Vermouth
These wines are delicious, and easy to enjoy at the end of a great meal by themselves or along with a great dessert. Take care though - as with the addition of the distilled spirits, the alcohol levels can climb to as high as 22% (a high alcohol regular wine is 15% or so).  The graphic below gives you an idea of how wine and fortified wines stack up to other drinks in terms of alcohol content... Enjoy responsibly!