Slovenian Wine

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Like most of the Balkans, Slovenia has changed hands a fair number of times in its history.  The area that makes up modern Slovenia has at one point or another belonged to the Romans, Magyars, Ottomans, Habsburgs and Yugoslavia, the latter of which began its official disintegration after the Slovenes declared independence in 1991 (though rumblings of this had begun much earlier).  The only constant in this tumultuous history has been the region’s wines.  Slovenia’s position affords it an envious array of growing conditions that produce some incredibly unique wines, and although the emphasis has always been on white, its reds can be equally enticing.  That a great many Slovenian producers are today pursuing natural and non-interventionist methods in their cellars is not a sign of changing times, but rather an indication of how things were traditionally done in the region.  These are wines that are produced to reflect the place that they come from, not the tastes of where a marketing team wants them to be sold.

Slovenia is divided into three wine regions, split between the country’s Western and Eastern margins: Podravje, Posavje and Primorska, the latter of which is the most well known internationally.  This can be attributed to the quality of the wines, but also because the region shares a border with Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giula, and indeed the terroir of the two regions can be incredibly similar.  Within Primorska lie four sub-region, each of which warrants attention.

Primorska

Goriška Brda is an extension of Italy’s Collio region, a sea of rolling hills and small valleys with a climate that’s a bit cooler than the rest of Primorska thanks to the influence of the nearby Alps.  While red wine is produced here, like the rest of Slovenia the emphasis is on white (which accounts for nearly 70% of the country’s production).  Rebula (Ribolla Gialla just across the Italian border) and Tocai Friulano (also called Ravan) are the two main white grapes here, although Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris make appearances as well.  These wines are often capable of ageing quite well due to their extended exposure to grape skins after maceration (typically only done for red wine), which produces a golden hue that can be quite beautiful in the glass, and the wines themselves will often respond very well to some decanting.  Kabaj is an interesting producer that typifies this style of wine from Goriška Brda, with an array of vinification styles that include clay amfora, as well as the more traditional Slovenian oak.

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A bit further South lies Vipavska Dolina, a long valley stretching down from the hills of Brda known for its white wines and strong winds that rush down from Mt. Nano.  Immediately to the south lies Kras, bordering the Italian city of Trieste and well regarded for its red wines made with the native Teran grape, as well as Refošk (Refosco in Italy).  Both Vipavska Dolina and Kras are subjected to hot Mediterranean summers and colder, windy winters.

At the Southern edge of Primorska is Slovenska Istra, or Slovenian Istria, the very Northern tip of the peninsula that lies largely within neighboring Croatia.  The soil in this region produces Slovenia’s famous truffles, and the wines lean towards heavy reds from Refošk, Teran and Cabernet Sauvignon.  A few sublime whites can be found here as well, most of which seem to come from Malvizija (Malvasia in Italy and Spain).  The best of these are on the dryer side, with a sharp acidity that really calls for some fish from the nearby Adriatic.  When both wine and food are produced in close proximity to one another they tend to remind you of their counterpart, I’ve found.

Podravje

The largest of Slovenia’s wine regions is off to the East along the borders of Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and is known for its white grapes, including sparkling and dessert wines.  The native Laški Rizling is the grape of choice for many in Podravje, although a number of more familiar non-native grapes now make up a significant part of the production.

An interesting producer from this region is Silvo Črnko, who grows quite a variety of non-native grapes like Yellow Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, among others.  But these grapes, like any that are grown in soil treated with care and respect, take on the flavors of a region that has produced wine for over 2,000 years, and are quite distinct from their cousins further afield.  Getting one’s hands on wine from this region isn’t always terribly straightforward in the U.S., but they’re worth seeking out.

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Posavje

Slovenia’s smallest wine region is generally only mentioned in the context of a blended wine called Cviček, though they do produce a great number of other styles.  A dry and slightly sour wine made from a blend of both red and white grapes, it can nonetheless be a bit fruity depending on the grapes selected for use, and is generally not above 10% alcohol.  As a result it tends to be drunk rather liberally in the area, and since 2001 has been a Recognized Regional Denomination, or PTP if European Union acronyms excite you.  This means that only wines produced in the Posavje sub-region of Dolenjska can be labelled as Cviček.  So, there you have it.

Luckily for Californians with an interest in wines from off of the beaten wine path, these are no longer impossible to find outside of specialty food stores or Central European markets.  Most serious wine shops will have a bottle or two from Primorska, if nothing else, but a bit of digging may produce something wholly unknown.  If you find yourself in front of a bottle with a name that looks even vaguely like it may be in Slovenian, ask some questions of the proprietor.  The nice thing about people who like wine is that they tend not to shy away from discussing it, sometimes at length, and few things go better with conversation than wine.

An Introduction to Central European Wine

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Central Europe doesn’t spring to mind for many people when they think of wine, nor do these countries make frequent appearances on many wine lists that you encounter. Perhaps a sweet Hungarian Tokaji as the adventurous choice on a dessert list, but that’s generally the extent to which this part of the world appears on people’s wine radar. That’s a shame. Wine has been produced throughout the Balkans and the rest of Central Europe since the ancient Greeks, and has birthed some of the most well-known grapes that grow across Europe and the Americas (not to mention hundreds of local varietals that rarely appear outside of the hills and valleys to which they are native). After the disastrous effects of collective farming practices under communist rule, bookended by a decade of war in the 1990’s as Yugoslavia disintegrated, Western wine drinkers are finally turning their gaze towards this part of the world in earnest. Suddenly it’s not uncommon to find interesting bottles from Croatia and Slovenia in wine shops and on restaurant lists, although Hungary remains largely relegated to the dessert wine category, and things from some of the smaller countries are still something of a rarity.

Central European wines are victim to a single, yet daunting hurdle: an aggressive amount of consonants. While French and Italian wines allow one have a go at sounding out the names on bottles without butchering things too badly, trying to wrestle a pronunciation out of such unfamiliar words as Črnko (pronounced “churn-ko”) can be enough to turn you right back to something more familiar. This is compounded by the presence of other non-Slavic languages in the region that can seem equally impenetrable to English speakers, like Hungarian and Romanian.

The grapes themselves don’t help too much either in this regard. Have you ever enjoyed a Bosnian Žilavka, or a Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski? Probably not. But the old adage is correct, as looks can be deceiving. That Crljenak Kaštelanski you’re still trying to pronounce is actually what gave birth to the familiar Zinfandel, and a number of grapes that you’ll recognize make frequent appearances throughout a number of these countries.

So, where do you start? The only way to tackle such an enormous number of countries, grapes and terroirs is to choose a geographic point and then move in a constant direction. This is the first part in a series that will begin in Hungary and works its way through Slovenia, Croatia, and then focus on some of the smaller less well-known countries that are producing intensely interesting natural wines. You may not come across a lot of bottles from Montenegro or find people willing to entertain your observations about Bosnia’s wonderful biodynamic whites, but many of the wines are unique to their place of origin, and some of them are fantastic.

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Hungary

The sweet Hungarian wines from the Tokaj-Hegyalja region have long been sought after by European royalty, and was infact the first classified wine region in the world. It’s not hard to understand the reasoning behind this if you’ve been lucky enough to uncork one of the small rotund bottles that this golden hued nectar frequently arrives in. A good Tokaji can be like taking a sip from the sun, sweet without being cloying, and with a fragrance that can range from summer flowers to honey. The wines from Tokaj can actually fall anywhere along the scale from dry to heavy and sweet, but it’s the wines classified as Aszú that are so well known as a post-meal drink.

Six grapes are allowed to be grown in the Tokaj wine region, but Furmint accounts for the majority of production. This is closely followed by Hárslevelű, which along with Muscat is blended with Furmint to produce Aszú wines. The final ingredients are a long, slow ripening process in the strong sun and the late-on appearance of Botrytis cinerea, a fungus otherwise known as “noble rot” for the effects it has on certain wine grapes. Botrytis acts by sucking water from the grapes, leaving behind a higher concentration of sugars and other solids in the final juicing that helps to concentrate flavor. This is the same fungus at work in Bordeaux that produces the much lauded Sauternes.

Thankfully, Hungary is not all sweet white wine (nor is Tokaj, it should be mentioned). There are 22 recognized wine regions throughout the country, with Somló the best known outside of Tokaj. Perched around an extinct volcano and exclusively planted with white grapes, these wines are unsurprisingly mineral driven, with the aforementioned Furmint once again playing a major role alongside Hárslevelű, Olaszrizling and Juhfark (now take a moment to catch your breath).

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Now, to red. Hungary’s indigenous Kadarka grape is the dark and brooding cousin to the bright, mineraly whites from Somló, and is a key part of the country’s best known red, Egri Bikavér (bulls blood from Eger). Hailing from the Eger wine region in the North-East, this blend is required by law to include a mix of at least three of the 13 grapes permitted to grow in the region, which include a mix of local and international varietals. The name supposedly descends from the wine’s influence on a 16th century battle, in what you’ll find is surprisingly typical dark-romantic fashion for Central Europe, but we’ll leave this part to detectives of provenance.

So then, off to Slovenia. Until next time.

Wine 101: Sparkling Wine Terms

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As the fall & winter holidays approach, many wine consumers turn their sights away from rosé and towards sparkling wines. Champagne, crémant, pétillant naturel, frizzante, Cava, and Prosecco are all different types of sparkling wine, yet many people use the term “Champagne” to refer to any sparkling wine. This is a widely accepted, though incorrect use of the term. In this blog post, I will cover various types of bubbles and what the names actually mean.

Champagne: A variety of sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France. Only wines made according to the Champagne AOC rules may bear this term on the label (with a few exceptions). The grapes must be grown in Champagne, and the wine must be made using méthode champenoise (called méthode traditionnelle outside of Champagne). Champagne blends allow the use of chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier grapes. Pinot blanc is also sometimes allowed.
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Crémant: A term used to describe sparkling wines from France made outside of Champagne. For example: Crémant de Limoux, Crémant du Jura, Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne – you get the picture. Crémant is made utilizing méthode traditionnelle, and can be made from a number of different grapes (depending on AOC rules). Not all sparkling wines made outside of Champagne are called crémant.
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Cava: Sparkling wine from Catalonia (Spain) produced utilizing méthod traditionnelle. Cava blends typically contain the indigenous Spanish grape varieties macabeu, xarel-lo, and parellada.
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Prosecco: Italian sparkling wine from Veneto, produced using the charmat method. Prosecco must be made from the glera grape variety, though other varieties are sometimes blended in.

Frizzante: An Italian term for sparkling or semi-sparkling wine.
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Pétillant naturel: Also referred to as “pet-nat”, a French term used to describe wines produced utilizing méthode ancestrale. In this method, the wine is bottled before primary fermentation is complete. Primary fermentation completes in the bottle, adding a natural effervescence to the wine. Pétillant naturel wines are typically un-disgorged (meaning the lees is left in the bottle), though many commercial pet-nats are disgorged (lees removed) to be more appealing to a wider audience of wine consumers.
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Wine 101: Orange Wine

For the last few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of orange wines being produced in California, and the term “orange wine” is one that confuses people a great deal. People often think it’s wine made from oranges, others just dish out a blank stare when told they are drinking an “orange” wine. The truth is, orange wines have existed for as long as people have been making wine.

So what exactly is orange wine? Simply defined, orange wine is made from white wine grapes fermented while in contact with their skins, much like a red wine, whereas traditional white wines are made by pressing the juice from the grape right after harvest, separating the juice from the skins and fermenting the clear juice by itself. Some “white” wine grapes have a little color to their skin, like Pinot Gris/Grigio, which can be any color from blue/gray to copper in color. During fermentation, orange wines extract color, tannin, phenols, and texture from the skins, just like a red wine (most red grapes have clear juice, red wine gets it’s color from the skin contact during fermentation as well).

Here in California, orange wines are very trendy with modern winemakers. In Europe, orange wines have existed for ages, but there are a few mavericks making exceptional “modern” orange wines as well. Orange wines can be an acquired taste, as most people don’t expect a white wine to have tannins – the compound that leaves you with a “dry” feeling in your mouth – the same stuff that gives black tea it’s grippy texture. There aren’t a ton of orange wines on the market, in comparison to red, white, and rosé – but it’s safe to say that orange is the fourth color in the wine world.

Like all wines, there are many styles of orange wines being made. Some see “extended maceration”, where the wine is left in contact with the skins well after primary fermentation is finished. These wines can be rich, tannic, viscous, and very akin to red wine. Some are only in contact with the skins until primary fermentation is finished (which can take 2 weeks or longer), and then pressed off the skins to new vessels to finish malolactic fermentation, or to age. Some producers of orange wine use huge clay amphorae to ferment and age their wines, which can produce wines with a slightly oxidative character and mineral component. However the wine is produced, one thing is consistent across orange wine production – the juice is left in contact with the skins during fermentation.

You may also hear of orange wine being referred to as “skin-fermented white wine”. This is my preferred term for this type of wine, because not all orange wines are actually orange in color. Some may be yellow, golden, copper, or even slightly pink. However, not all white wine grapes have tinted skin. A great example of a white wine that is skin fermented and not totally orange is the Dirty & Rowdy Skin & Concrete Egg Fermented Sémillon. 75% of the juice is fermented on the skins, while 25% of it is pressed directly after harvest and fermented in concrete egg (another type of fermentation/aging vessel). The wine itself is not actually orange, though it does have a slight golden hue due to the golden skin of the grapes. This is why I prefer the term “skin-fermented white” – it’s a bit more politically correct.

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Orange/Skin-Fermented White wines are the ultimate food wine. They tend to have lots of acidity and pair well with a variety of dishes. I especially enjoy them with seafood, as they often have a slight brininess or salinity to them, which is an excellent match to salty, briny seafood. They are also great with cheeses, grilled vegetables, rice dishes, and grilled poultry.

Here at Winelandia, we enjoy orange wine so much, we have quite a few of them for sale in our online shop. Orange wines are best served with a slight chill, so order some today to enjoy this week during our epic heat wave!

Dirty & Rowdy 2013 Skin-Fermented & Concrete Egg Sémillon, Yountville (CA) – $33
A bright, fresh, mineral-and-herb driven skin-fermented white wine from an organic vineyard in Napa Valley.

Radikon 2010 S Pinot Grigio, Friuli (Italy) – $40
A deep and intense orange wine from the benchmark orange wine producer in Friuli. 2 weeks of skin contact gives this muscular and complex orange wine it’s beautiful copper hue and structure.

Jolie-Laide 2013 Trousseau Gris, Russian River Valley (CA) – $27
A beautiful Cali orange wine made from a very rare grape grown in the Russian River Valley. Two weeks of skin contact and a skilled hand make a gorgeous orange wine that’s full of summer fruit aromas and delicate texture.

Rafa Bernabé 2012 “Benimaquia” Moscatel, Alicante (Spain) – $23
Made from the highly floral and aromatic Muscat grape, this skin-fermented and amphora aged orange wine is intensely perfumed, electric on the palate, and beautifully structured.

Rafa Bernabé 2011 “Tinajas de la Mata” Moscatel/Merseguera, Alicante (Spain) – $23
A gorgeous wine made from moscatel & merseguera, it’s delicately structured with a cider-like bouquet and plenty of fresh acidity. A great wine for a person who enjoys tea.

Wine 101: Traveling with Wine

Wine often travels long distances before it makes it’s way into your home. Perhaps you purchased some wine on a weekend trip to wine country and drove it home in the trunk of your car. Maybe it was shipped to you from a wine club or online retailer, from many cities or states away. Imported wines also have to travel a long distance to get to the US, and they often make it onto a retailer’s shelves just a week or two after passing through customs.

Many wine professionals believe that you should let your wine “rest” after it spends any time on the road. A wine that has been exposed to the elements of long-distance travel often tastes different than the same wine that has not. There are a variety of mysterious reasons for this, but two factors are temperature fluctuations and vibration during travel. I’ve experienced “travel sickness” in wine many times first-hand, and it took me a few encounters to realize what was going on.

Travel sickness and heat damage are two different things. Travel sickness seems to resolve on it’s own with a little time, while there’s no cure for a wine that’s been overheated. You never want to let your wine get hot, or expose it to excessive temperature fluctuations. When wine gets warm, the liquid expands and pushes the air out of the bottle. When it cools back down, the liquid contracts, pulling oxygen into the bottle, and causing oxidation. This is one of the reasons wine collectors store their wine in climate-controlled warehouses with very specific, stable temperatures and humidity. Wine that was exposed to hot temperatures often tastes stewed, prune-y, high in alcohol, bitter, or astringent.

Wines that are simply “travel sick” often seem disjointed or out of balance. Perhaps the wine tastes more acidic than it usually does, or the oak is very pronounced. Maybe the nose is muted and closed, when the wine is typically very aromatic. Sometimes the tannin can seem abrasive and harsh, while under normal circumstances they are well-integrated and firm. Letting the wine sit in a cool, dark place for several days, weeks, or months, seems to cure it of this ailment.

Here are some basic guidelines for traveling with wine, or caring for wine that has traveled a long distance:

  • Don’t buy from retailers or wineries who ship during the hot summer months without taking extra precautions to ensure your wine won’t be exposed to extreme temperatures during shipping, or left on your porch on very hot or cold days.
  • If you do have wine shipped, let it sit in a cool, dark place for at least a week (preferably longer) before you drink it.
  • Never leave wine in your car on a warm day. Even a cool, sunny day can be enough to make your car inhospitable to wine. If you are planning on leaving wine in your car, bring a small cooler and some ice packs to keep it cool.
  • If you’re going on a far-away adventure on an airplane, remember that most airlines will allow you to check wine like luggage before the security checkpoint. Bring some of your favorite bottles to enjoy on your trip, or bring some discoveries back with you from your travels. Wine shipping boxes are a good idea for transport and can be purchased from most packaging supply stores. Check with your airline for specific policies for transporting wine.

It’s important to remember that wine is a living, breathing thing, as well as a food product. Care must be taken when moving it around if you want it to be as delicious as it was made to be. Do your yourself and your favorite winemakers a favor by following these simple guidelines.

Wine 101: Native Yeast Fermentation

An important topic of discussion regarding natural wine is “native”, “spontaneous”, or “indigenous” yeast fermentation. Perhaps you’ve heard these terms mentioned at your local wine shop, or seen them in marketing materials from a winery you like. Like most topics wine-related, it’s subject to lots of opinions and debate.

Yeasts are what ferment the sugar in grape juice into alcohol, transforming it into wine. Yeasts exist everywhere in our environment, and certain strains are indigenous to certain places. This is why San Francisco sourdough is so unique – we have our own strain of wild yeast that lives in the foggy San Francisco air, giving our bread it’s own unique flavor.

Many wineries use commercially-sold yeasts to ferment their wines. These yeasts are selectively bred or genetically altered by laboratories to enhance “favorable” flavor profiles in a wine (such as spiciness or fruit flavor), to tolerate heat extremes (cold and hot), to limit malodor in fermentations, and to produce wines with consistent flavor profiles year after year. These yeasts are also resistant to SO2, the chemical additive used in wine to prevent unfavorable microbal growth and oxidation. There are many labs out there making hundreds of yeast strains available in freeze-dried or liquid form for wineries, and each strain comes with it’s own name and marketing materials explaining it’s virtues. These commercially-sold yeasts are strong and hearty; pitch some into your grape must and they will quickly overpower any wild yeasts living in it.

Commercial yeast strains are a relatively new development in the business of winemaking. People have been making wine for thousands of years, where commercial yeasts have only existed in modern times. Grapes don’t always need help from commercial labs to turn into wine – the vineyard is full of flora that will happily do the job for free.

“Native” or “indigenous” yeast fermentations are started by wild yeasts occurring naturally on the grapes, in the winery, and in the vineyard. Pick the grapes, crush or press them, and the fermentation should just start on it’s own. These wild yeasts are usually capable of fully fermenting the wine, but at times the fermentation may seem to slow down or get “stuck”, requiring the winemaker to wait it out and see if it restarts later in the season, or to pitch a strong commercial yeast to finish the job quickly. The other issues with indigenous yeasts are that the wines may taste different from year to year, and they are more prone to producing malodor during fermentation. It’s a risk for any winemaker to choose a spontaneous fermentation over inoculating with commercial yeasts, but those who know how to do it well create (in my opinion) MUCH more interesting, complex, and soulful wines.

Some winemakers believe that there’s no such thing as a truly “native” or “indigenous” yeast fermentation, since many wineries have been using commercial yeasts for years. Those commercial yeasts get into the air and equipment in the winemaking facility, and can take up permanent residence. It’s possible that any future “spontaneous” yeast fermentation happening in that facility would be because of the commercial yeasts used in the past.

Who’s to say which yeast fermented a wine? You would have to be a scientist to figure it out. My belief is that “less is more”, and I would rather sell a wine fermented spontaneously, even if that means the fermentation started with a commercial yeast that just happens to be part of the landscape. So many new winemakers are making wine in shared “custom crush” facilities and co-ops, it’s hard to say anymore. Unless your wine came from a centuries-old chateau in France that has never seen a commercial yeast, it’s hard to say for sure whether or not your wine is truly “indigenous” or “native” yeast fermented.

It would be naïve for us to be dogmatic about this topic, insisting that we only sell “native yeast” wine, so instead we only offer wines that are fermented “spontaneously”, and never through direct inoculation with commercial yeasts. We simply feel that these wines are better – they are more interesting, delicious, and unique.

Common Wine Faults: A Brief Overview

Imagine you’re out having a date night with your significant other. You order a bottle of wine, and the sommelier returns to your table with the bottle, unopened. She whips out her wine key, opens the bottle with quickness and ease, pours you a small taste, and offers you the cork. What’s the purpose of this ritual?

The sommelier is offering you the chance to examine your wine and the cork for flaws, not to see whether or not you like the wine you ordered.

You pick up the glass and swirl the scanty bit of wine around. You stick your nose all the way into the glass and breathe in deeply. If the wine is perfectly aged and ready to drink, the bouquet should be intense and pleasant, without any “off” aromas. This is the ideal situation.

Sometimes you might experience an aroma that makes you wonder if there’s something wrong with your wine. Maybe the wine doesn’t smell like anything at all. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or insult the somm by suggesting the wine is flawed, so you tell her it’s acceptable. She pours two full glasses. You try to tell yourself the wine is fine, and go on with your dinner. You leave feeling bad because you just paid 3x retail for a bottle of wine that you didn’t enjoy.

My first bit of advice for the person who is questioning the wine he just ordered is to always trust your gut. If it smells bad, there is probably something wrong with it, and you should politely ask the somm to inspect it.

In this article I will go over some potential causes of off aromas in wine – what they are, how they manifest, and how they present themselves.

  1. TCA, or Cork Taint – This is the chemical compound that causes wine to become “corked” or “corky”. No, it has nothing to do with the bits of cork that might be floating around in your wine. How TCA gets into wine is a long, complicated topic, subject to much controversy and many opinions. Instead of boring you with the details, I’ll get right to the meat. TCA can cause a range of aromas in wine, most commonly described as “wet cardboard” or “damp basement”. TCA is believed to occur in 10% or more of commercial wines. If your wine smells like a pile of wet clothes forgotten in the wash for too long, it’s probably infected with TCA. Like most things, there is a range of TCA that can be present in your wine. In small quantities, it may simply rob your wine of fruit aromas and make it taste subdued. Sometimes the wine may seem “closed”, having no aroma at all, and will taste flat and insipid. There is no cure for TCA, so if you believe your wine is corked, politely ask the somm for his or her opinion.
  2. Reduced wine – Some winemakers make their wine utilizing methods that limit the wine’s exposure to oxygen, to preserve freshness and high-toned fruit aromas. They age the wine in steel or other non-air permeable vats instead of wood. They use inert gasses during racking to reduce the wine’s exposure to oxygen. This is called “reductive winemaking”. Reductive winemaking is gaining popularity, especially amongst natural winemakers because they don’t add as much SO2 (a chemical antioxidant) to their wines. Wines made in a reductive manner are called “reduced”.
    Reduced wines sometimes produce off aromas when they are first opened, but it doesn’t always mean the wine is bad. Reduced aromas are usually sulfurous in nature, and are often described as smelling like a struck match, cabbage, eggs, or smoke. If you open a young wine and initially it smells a bit sulfurous, give it a long and vigorous swirl or a light decanting, and it should sort itself out. In extreme cases, the sulfurous aromas don’t go away, and the wine is considered flawed.
  3. Oxidation – Most wine lovers know that high end Burgundy and Bordeaux can age for decades. The aging occurs because tiny amounts of oxygen are let into the wine through the air-permeable cork over time. Bottle aging softens the wine and gives it complexity when done in a slow, controlled manner. If the wine is stored in an environment without temperature or humidity control, the wine can oxidize because too much oxygen gets into the bottle as the wine inside expands and contracts with the temperature fluctuations, or because the cork has dried out.
    Oxidation is more apparent in white wines than red, and red wines are less sensitive to oxygen. If your bottle had seepage around the cork before you opened it, or if the cork was dry and crumbly, chances are the wine is damaged from improper storage and is flawed. You can confirm this by observing and tasting the wine – it will appear brownish in color and taste metallic.
    Some wines are produced in an “oxidative” style, and are not considered flawed or oxidized, such as sherry and vin jaune. This type of oxidation happens in a slow and controlled manner; it’s a stylistic choice. These wines will taste nutty and savory instead of harsh and metallic. They are some of the rarest, most delicious, and food-friendly wines in the world.
  4. Excessive SO2 – SO2/Sulfur Dioxide/Sulfite is a chemical compound that is often added to wine to protect it from microbal growth and oxidation. It may also occur in wine because of elemental sulfur sprayed in the vineyard to prevent the growth of mold on grapes during a particularly damp growing season, and as a byproduct of the yeast converting sugar to alcohol during fermentation. In small amounts, SO2 is undetectable to most people. In higher amounts, it becomes a sensory flaw. It causes the wine to smell of burnt matches or eggs, and can taste harsh or bitter. Well-made wines should not have excessive amounts of SO2. It’s usually the lower-quality commercial wines that suffer from this. We like to avoid wines high in SO2 as a general rule, as it’s implicated as a cause of hangovers and is generally nasty stuff.
  5. Volatile Acidity – Commonly referred to simply as “VA”, it’s caused by acetic acid, the compound that makes vinegar, well, vinegar-y. VA is sometimes a byproduct of fermentation, or caused by spoilage bacteria (such as acetobacter). A small amount of VA is not necessarily considered a flaw in wine, and is sometimes just part of the je ne sais quoi – it usually blows off with a bit of aeration. Too much VA causes a wine to smell irreversibly like vinegar, and is considered a flaw.
  6. Brettanomyces, or Brett – Brett is a genus of yeast that can create a range of aromas in wine. It’s sometimes, but not always, considered a spoilage yeast and creates sensory flaws. Brett can infect entire wineries, which is why some estates have brett in most, if not all, of their wines. It’s notoriously hard to get rid of, and some people think the only way to be sure is by burning the whole place down.
    Some of the aromas created by brettanomyces include cloves, spice, horse blanket, manure, barnyard, band-aids, and rancidity. In small amounts, brett can increase the complexity and character of a wine. Too much, and it’s almost always considered a flaw. Some people are very sensitive to brett and have a negative reaction, regardless of the amount. I have a friend that, at a Loire Valley tasting, thought all of the bretty wines smelled like “corpses”. She is one of those people.

There are many other flaws that one can find in a wine, but these are the most common and, in my opinion, the most offensive. Reading about these flaws is not necessarily going to teach you how to detect them; the only way to really learn is by drinking a lot of wine and paying close attention. I once thought a corked wine smelled like apple peels, and figured it was the way the wine was supposed to be – we drank the whole bottle. I had the same wine later on and realized that it was totally different. It took me years to recognize that what I experienced was TCA, and only after I’d smelled it about a dozen times.

Do you have any tips or tricks for detecting flawed wine? Let us know in the comments.

Wine 101: Pairing Wine with Spicy Food

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Food and wine pairing is a mysterious topic, subject to many opinions and theories. However, one thing that is pretty well-understood is how to pair wines with spicy foods. Certain wines work really well, while others are downright terrible. In this post, we will go over the various elements in spicy food & wine, and how to find a winning pair.

An important thing to consider when pairing spicy foods with wine is that tannins in wine amplify the spice and can make a spicy food uncomfortably hot. While spicy foods can pair well with red wine, you definitely want to avoid red wines with a lot of tannins. Tannins are the textural element in some red wines that create the feeling of “dryness” on your tongue. If you are enjoying a spicy meal, having a tannic red wine can make that experience unpleasant. Common wines that tend to be tannic include young Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Nebbiolo.

Red wines that are high in alcohol can also clash with spicy food. The spice can make a high alcohol wine seem even higher in alcohol, and not in a pleasant way. You also want to avoid red wines with a lot of oak, since the spice can make an oaky wine seem even oakier. A lot of American red wines on the market are tannic, high in alcohol, and oaky – so perhaps it’s best to avoid those altogether unless you’re familiar with the wine.

If you want to pair red wine with your spicy food, look for examples that have a lot of flavor without the tannins. Cool-climate Carignan is a great choice, since it’s rustic, spicy, juicy, and low in tannins. Look for Carignan from Mendocino County – there’s tons of it coming out of there. You could also try a Beaujolais (gamay) since they are low in tannin, fruity, and straightforward. Spicy foods will overpower more delicate, complex, or aged wines such as Pinot Noir, so those are best to avoid.

The best wine pairing for spicy foods are off-dry and fruity white wines. The sweetness in the wine tames the heat of the spice, making an ethereal pairing. Try a spicy asian noodle dish with an off-dry or sweet riesling – it’s a match made in heaven. If you’re having spicy, bitter greens such as arugula or dandelion, consider a dry white wine such as Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc to complement the herbal aspect and to contrast the spice.

Rosé is also a great pair with spicy foods such as chili, barbecue, and Mexican food. It’s usually super fresh, fruity, and low in alcohol, which tempers the spice. It’s also tasty and thirst-quenching, which totally helps put the fire out after you’ve had a few bites too many of Aunt Mary’s award-winning Texas chili. Another option is sparkling wine, which is a nice contrast to the spice with it’s effervescence and brightness. Beer is also a great option with spicy food for the same reasons that sparkling wine works.

Here’s a quick overview of some great spicy food & wine pairings:

Spicy barbecue: Rosé
Spicy asian noodles: Off-dry or sweet riesling
Indian curry: Off-dry gewurtztraminer
Chili: Rosé
Mexican food: Rosé or Carignan

Do you have a favorite spicy food wine pairing that’s tried and true? Let us know in the comments.

Wine 101: Rosé Wine

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Nothing marks the onset of spring like the release of the latest vintage’s delicate pink wines. These flamingo-hued libations are extremely popular with wine novices and experts alike – they are fresh, easy-drinking, packed with aromatics, inexpensive, low in alcohol, and utterly delicious. In Portugal, pink wines are called rosado. In Spain, they’re rosato. In France and the US, it’s called rosé.

Rosé wines are made in many countries around the world, but some of the most famous rosé wines are from Provence and Bandol. These wines exhibit great finesse and elegance, and are usually totally dry (no residual sugar). Rosé wines can be made with any red grape, such as mourvèdre, grenache, pinot noir, and syrah. Many mass-produced, cheap rosé wines are packed with sugar and taste like candy. These are the wines that give rosé a bad name. In general, you could expect to spend $15-$30 for a good or great rosé wine. I’ve seen them cost as much as $60, and those are typically very special. Domaine Tempier is well-known for their expensive and cult-status rosé from Bandol.

One interesting thing about rosé wine is that it’s seasonal, fragrant, pretty, and short-lived, much like a wildflower. It’s usually bottled in late winter or early spring following harvest, and makes it to market by April or May.  It provides the winery with a product they can get to the market much more quickly than a red wine, since rosé is ready to drink as little as 4 months after the grapes are picked. Red wines typically require at least a little age, and can take a year or longer to make it to market. Rosé generally doesn’t age very well, if at all, and should be consumed within the first year following it’s release. For example, you wouldn’t want to purchase a 2011 or 2012 rosé in 2014. You’d want to wait to see the 2013 rosé wines. There will, of course, always be exceptions to this rule – but it’s a good guideline to follow when purchasing rosé wine.

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Do you know how rosé is made? Sometimes it’s a byproduct of red winemaking, and other times the grapes are picked early and pressed specifically for rosé wine. There are a couple of methods, detailed below.

  1. The saignée method. In French, it means “bleed”. It starts with grapes picked with the intent of making red wine. The grapes are crushed and/or de-stemmed; all the sweet juice and grape skins hang out together in big vats in preparation of fermentation. The winemaker will bleed off some of the pink juice after it’s been briefly in contact with the skins. The amount of time this juice sits on the skins dictates how saturated in color the finished wine will be. This saignée is typically performed to make the red wine more concentrated, since the process increases the skin-to-juice ratio of the red wine by removing some of the juice. The saignée ends up being a byproduct of the red wine-making process – the pink juice that has been bled off is fermented separately and bottled as rosé.
  2. Vin gris. French for “grey wine”, which is a little misleading since the wine is not grey. In this method, the red grapes are picked specifically for making rosé, and they go directly to the press just like a white wine. The juice spends no time on the skins at all, which results in a wine that is a very pale pink or in rare cases even white in color. You will see French and sometimes American rosé labeled Vin Gris if it’s made with this method. These rosé wines tend to be lower in alcohol, since the grapes are usually picked at earlier ripeness levels. This is a stylistic choice, but seems to be the norm for vin gris.

There are other wines that qualify as rosé, but are made in various experimental methods. For example, Antica Terra of Oregon makes a rosé of pinot noir (shown below) that spends 6-8 days on the skins during fermentation. It’s then siphoned off the skins when some (but not all) of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, and is then racked into a neutral oak barrel. The wine finishes fermentation in the barrel, and stays there on the lees for several months while it ages (generally I avoid rosé wines fermented or aged in wood, but this is one exception – it’s unreal). Because it’s pinot noir, which doesn’t have a lot of color to begin with, and because it’s pressed early, the wine is not really red, but more of a rosé. Technically, it’s a red wine, but the TTB (the government agency that regulates wine label contents) requires the producer to label it as a rosé.

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During the vinification process, rosé wines are typically fermented in neutral vessels such as stainless steel or cement (as opposed to oak, which could impart flavor into the wine). Some rosé wines are fermented or aged in oak, and this is a stylistic choice – however, most of them (in my experience) are awful. The Antica Terra rosé of pinot noir, discussed above, is one exception I’ve come across.

You can also boost the aromatics in a rosé wine by fermenting it at cool temperatures (for example, below 60F). The cooler fermentation helps preserve fresh, high-toned fruit aromas. I’m not sure why – I’m sure someone out there knows the answer – but this is common practice with white and rosé winemaking to ensure a bright and luscious bouquet.

Rosé wine is frequently associated with aromas of watermelon, strawberries, and herbs. It’s not usually very complex, and the prices reflect that, but the lack of complexity does not take away from the joy you experience while enjoying a glass. Rosé is the ultimate food wine, pairing wonderfully with spicy foods such as Thai, Mexican, chili, and barbecue. It also pairs great with salads, salmon, charcuterie, winter squash, root vegetables, roasted peppers, and pretty much anything pink.

When you shop for rosé, look for fresh and young bottles from producers you trust – Arnot-Roberts, Matthiasson, Domaine Tempier, and Porter Creek all make rosé that we feel is exceptional. Don’t worry too much about it – if it’s well made and dry, chances are it’s going to be great. Is there a producer making rosé that you love? Let us know in the comments!

Wine 101: Beginner’s Guide to Wine

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Most new wine drinkers are completely overwhelmed by the numerous and mysterious options when they walk into a wine store. It’s completely justified – that feeling of being totally lost. It’s not your fault, either. While most domestic wines are labeled with the type of grape the wine is made from, many European wines are not. Instead they have the region, the country, the house that made the wine, or just a funky picture on the label. Moreover, the labels generally don’t say a word about what it tastes like, what food to pair with it, or any other indication of what’s in the bottle. How on earth will you know which wine to pick for dinner?

In this post we will go over some of the common types of wines you will see in a wine shop, what they are like, what foods they pair with, a general price range, what stemware to choose, and where they are grown.

Cabernet Sauvignon
This grape is originally from Bordeaux but has gained a solid foothold virtually every wine market in the world. It’s one of the most widely-recognized varietals due to it’s widespread availability, ease of cultivation, and easy-to-pronounce name. It generally produces a very robust wine which can be appealing to a new wine-drinker’s palate due to it’s richness of flavor and enticing aromas. It can be very expensive, collectible and age-worthy. Still, if you know nothing about wine, chances are you’ve still had a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Major Regions: Napa, Bordeaux, South America
Type of Wine: Red
Stemware: Large, tall-sided, tulip shaped Bordeaux glass
Flavors/Aromas: Currant, tobacco, blackberry, green pepper, spice, oak
Structure: Full-bodied, low acidity, medium to high tannin
Food Pairings: Beef, blue & aged cheeses, lamb, bittersweet chocolate
Price Range: $15-$80

Zinfandel
This fun, delicious, rustic wine is a staple in the New World, even though some believe it originated from Croatia. It counts for 10% of wine grapes planted in the US. While much of the Zinfandel vines grown are slated for “White Zinfandel” production, red Zinfandel is where it’s at. It can be made in many different styles and is a great wine to pair with food. It’s a wine that anybody can love, it was my gateway wine for sure. You can walk away with an exceptional bottle for around $25.

Major Regions: Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Italy
Aliases: Primitivo, Crljenak Kaštelanski
Type of Wine: Red, rosé
Stemware: Medium-sized, tulip-shaped Viognier glass
Flavors/Aromas: Plum, black/white pepper, spice, vanilla, blackberry
Structure: Medium to full bodied, low to medium acidity, medium tannin
Food Pairings: BBQ, burgers, pork, beef, lamb, pizza, grilled sausages, turkey, ribs
Price Range: $10-$30

Pinot Noir
Since the debut of the movie Sideways, Pinot Noir has experienced a renaissance in America. It’s seen greater plantings, higher prices, increased sales, and wider availability. Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to grow and make good wine from. It prefers a cooler climate and longer growing season to warmer climates. Pinot Noir is famously grown in the Burgundy region of France (it’s one of three grapes legally allowed in Champagne), California, New Zealand, and is even gaining popularity in Oregon state. It can be difficult to warm up to, but it’s seductive textures and earthy aromas are bound to pull you in.

Major Regions: Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Burgundy, Willamette Valley
Types of Wine: Red, rosé, sparkling, sparkling rosé
Stemware: Large, wide, tulip-shaped Burgundy glass
Flavors/Aromas: Cherry, mushroom, forest floor, resin, mineral, earth, herbs
Structure: Light to medium bodied, medium acidity, fine tannin
Food Pairings: Roasted chicken, duck, lamb, mushrooms, salmon, roasted pork
Price Range: $25-$60

Chardonnay
This oft-maligned grape variety has been a staple in the New World while quietly making world-class, highly collectible wine in the Old World. Chardonnay is considered a ‘neutral’ grape, which means the flavor profile is easily manipulated through farming and winemaking practices. More importantly, it showcases the vine’s terroir very well when grown in mineral soils. The style of wine can vary wildly from stony, acidic and mineral to viscous, buttery and rich. I recommend finding examples from Chablis or the Russian River Valley with neutral oak treatments if you are just getting started.

Major Regions: Burgundy, Sonoma, Napa
Types of Wine: Sparkling, white
Stemware: Large, wide, tulip-shaped Burgundy glass
Flavors/Aromas: Green apple, butter, mineral, citrus, toast, melon, lemon
Structure: Light to full bodied, low to high acidity, no tannin
Food pairings: Butter & cream sauce, chicken, crab, fish, lobster, pork, vegetable dishes, corn, cheese, herbs
Price Range: $15-$60

Sauvignon Blanc
There isn’t a grape variety more polarizing than Sauvignon Blanc, yet it’s prolific on the shelves at your local grocery store and wine shop. It’s often grassy, pungent or tropical aromas can be off-putting to some, but delectable to others. It’s originally a wild grape from South West France, but has earned a reputation in Bordeaux & Sancerre while gaining widespread popularity throughout the New World. It’s usually very crisp and good with food or just by itself. It’s also one of the few wines that can pair with brussel sprouts, artichokes, broccoli and asparagus.

Major Regions: Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Bordeaux, Napa, New Zealand
Types of Wine: White
Stemware: Medium-sized, tulip-shaped white wine glass
Flavors/Aromas: Gooseberry, grass, melon, tropical fruit, grapefruit, green pepper, citrus
Structure: Light bodied, medium to high acidity, no tannin
Food Pairings: Seafood, goat cheese, oysters, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, chicken, herbs, peppers, salad, tomatoes, vegetable dishes
Price Range: $10-$40

Pinot Gris
Also known as Pinot Grigio, this grape is the mutant cousin of Pinot Noir. It has white juice and rose-colored skin, which means it can make crisp white wines or copper-hued skin-fermented wines. This is one of the best-selling wines in the world due to it’s approachability, food-friendliness and wide availability. It grows well in cooler climates and makes excellent wines in Northern Italy, Alsace, Oregon and Germany. It’s best to drink Pinot Gris while it’s young as only Alsatian examples age well.

Major Regions: Alsace, Loire, Burgundy, Germany, Oregon, Northern Italy
Types of Wine: Dessert, white
Stemware: Medium-sized, tulip-shaped white wine glass
Flavors/Aromas: Spice, flowers, pear, apple, melon
Structure: Light to full bodied, medium to high acidity, no tannin (unless skin-fermented)
Food Pairings: Salmon, shellfish, antipasto, goat/sheep cheeses, fried chicken, roasted pork, prosciutto
Price Range: $10-$30

Cava
This sparkling wine is the hallmark of Catalonia, an independent nation in the North East corner of Spain. It’s all over the place in Barcelona as well as in the refrigerated section of your supermarket in the US. Don’t let the price fool you – Cava is one of the most delicious and inoffensive sparklers out there. It’s usually made from a blend of traditional Spanish grapes in the Methode Traditionelle (the same method used in Champagne). In Barcelona, it’s served by virtually every restaurant for 5-10 Euro per bottle and is the perfect accompaniment to tapas. If you are looking for an inexpensive, crowd friendly wine for a party or celebration, pick up some Cava. For about $15 you can get a pretty good one.

Major Regions: Catalonia
Types of Wine: Sparkling, sparkling rosé
Stemware: Champagne flute
Flavors/Aromas: Lemon, green apple, nuts, brioche, mineral
Structure: Light bodied, medium acidity, no tannin
Food Pairings: Serrano ham, olives, fried fish, cheese, sushi, BBQ, tapas
Price Range: $7-$20

Rosé
Pink wine isn’t just for girls! Contrary to common belief, rosé isn’t usually sweet. Lots of it being made these days is mostly or completely dry, and sugar is only used to balance out the bracing acidity of some wines. By no means am I talking about White Zinfandel, Blush wine or anything made by Franzia or Carlo Rossi (avoid those like the plague). Some of the finest rosé wines come from the Provence region of France, but excellent variations can be found all of the world. Although rosé can be made from any red wine grape, they mostly taste very similar. It’s not meant to be thought-provoking, but it’s delicious and affordable. This summertime gulper is best enjoyed ice cold, on a warm night, with some light fare.

Major Regions: Provence, Sonoma, Oregon, Loire, Champagne
Types of Wine: Rosé
Stemware: Medium-sized, tulip-shaped white wine glass
Flavors/Aromas: Strawberry, watermelon & watermelon rind, herbs
Structure: Light to medium bodied, medium to high acidity, no tannin.
Food Pairings: Salmon, charcuterie, cheeses, grilled fish, crab, pizza, BBQ, eggs, pork, salad, grilled shrimp, picnics
Price Range: $10-$25

Is there a type of wine that you’re curious about that you’d like us to cover? Let us know in the comments.