Tag: bordeaux

Top 10 Ways To Show Off At Wine Tasting

Wine tasting trips can be fun and exciting, especially if the destination is a superior winery located in a renowned wine region such as Napa Valley, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Rioja or any of the New World regions (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina).  These trips can also be intimidating given the massive amount of science that gets shared at a wine tasting – chemistry, botany, enology, viticulture, meteorology, soil science, and so much more.  Like all disciplines, grape growing and winemaking have their own lexicons and the jargon of the business can be overwhelming to say the least.  Next time you go wine tasting with your friends, we want you to stand out from the rest, but in a good way.  Go forth armed with these 10 suggestions and leave your friends stunned with your knowledge, sophistication and charm …

  1. Follow the Five S’s.  Yes we know that when you and your friends were in college you gulped the $5 chardonnay down like it was water.  You must leave that in the past and from now on you must learn to savor the wine and faithfully follow the Five S’s of wine tasting:  See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor.  Yes, you’re eager to taste the wine, that’s natural. But wine tasting requires a bit of foreplay and you’re just going to have to wait before you get the wine in your mouth.
  2. Have something interesting to say about the wine.  The whole point of the Five S’s is to make observations about the wine.  So when you’re in the “See” mode, tell your group what you see, and try to be more descriptive than “it’s white” or  “it’s red.”  At most wineries you’ll taste both white and red wines and you should pay attention to the different levels of clarity, viscosity, brightness and color.  If you’re tasting a Sauvignon Blanc, for example, you’ll be sure to impress if you use “pale straw” as a descriptor.  For extra points, you might identify the appearance of green as a secondary color.  When you have moved on to the red wines use words like “garnet” and, if you are tasting a very dark wine, “inky.”  Okay, once you’ve seen and swirled, it’s time to sniff, the step considered by many sommeliers and wine experts to be the most important part of the wine tasting experience.  So stick your nose in that glass and come up with something better than “it smells like alcohol” or “it smells like grape juice.”  Yes, there is fruit juice in your glass, but come on, you can do better than that.  When tasting white wines, there are some basic flavor profiles that you can build your comments around:  citrus, tree fruit, stone fruit, and tropical.  Try these phrases on for size:  “I’m definitely getting citrus on the nose.”  If you want to push it a bit more, get more specific:  maybe you’re picking up hints of lemon.  The truly ambitious show-off might be so bold as to identify grapefruit …or even pink grapefruit!  At a wine tasting for Chardonnay (especially one made in the “French” style) or a Pinot Grigio, identifying citrus is a safe bet.  For other whites, the predominant aroma might be apple, pear or one of the stone fruits (peach, apricot, nectarine).   Some white wines, including those that have been aged in 100% new oak, will present tropical fruit aromas (pineapple, mango, papaya, banana).   In truth, it is not uncommon for a white wine to have aromas of several flavor profiles. You might throw out to the group something like “I’m definitely getting citrus but is anyone getting stone fruit as well?”  You can then debate whether it’s more like peach or nectarine, and whether it’s ripe or unripe.

When you move to the red wine part of the tasting you’ll have two basic profiles to choose between:  dark fruits (blackberry, plum, blueberry, dark cherry, black raisins, fig) and red fruits (red cherry, raspberry, strawberry, currant, cranberry, pomegranate).  When tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec or Tempranillo, stick with the dark fruits:  “Lots of blackberry and blueberry on the nose.”  Red fruit aromas should be expected with Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo:  “I’m picking up a strong cherry aroma.”  Of course, fruit is just one of the aroma profiles that a dedicated show-off will need to be able to share with his friends.  Red wines have so many secondary aromas that need to be identified; it’s simply not good enough to focus on the fruit.  When tasting a wine from the old world, “earth” is always a good bet, or more specific descriptors such as “mushroom” or “forest floor” or “dirt.”  There are too many secondary aromas to list here but a brilliant professor from U.C. Davis invented a wine aroma wheel that the dedicated tasting show-off will want to buy or at least study online before going out with friends.  Here’s the wheel:

wine flavor wheel


One of the keys to showing off is to not appear to be showing off.  This is tricky, we know.  Most people fail at this because they act and sound like they are giving a lecture on wine.  That’s an amateur move. The professional show-off has a more nonchalant style:  all comments and observations will be offered as if talking to himself or herself.  “Hmmm, I think I’m getting vanilla and tobacco on the nose.”

3.  Oak.  When your wine tasting guide tells you that the wine was aged in oak, you must ask “was it new oak or neutral oak?”

4.  Fermentation.  For white wines, ask if the wine was fermented in stainless steel or oak.  When this question has been answered, ask whether the wine went through malolactic fermentation.  If the wine guide beat you to it and already told the group that the wine did in fact go through malolactic fermentation, ask “do you know that percent?”  Many wines go through the entire malolactic fermentation process (100% malo) but wine makers can and often do mix wine that went through malo with wine that did not to yield a 50% malolactic fermented wine (or higher or lower percentages).

5.  Rosè.  When tasting this wine, ask your server how long the grapes were “on the skins.”

6.  Harvest conditions.  Sound very interested in the conditions that existed for the vintage you tasted.  Was it a cold or warm year?  Lots of rain vs. drought.  Did they pick early or late?

7.  Terroir.  If you get to ask about terroir you’re sure to impress – after all, it’s a French word, and who isn’t impressed with a bit of French? Terroir refers to the place the grapes are grown – the weather, soil, microclimate, elevation, sun exposure, etc.  A beginner show-off could start off with a question about soil.  Intermediate and advanced show-offs will delve deeper and ask questions about, for example, which way the vineyard faces or what impact the local topography or geography (e.g., mountains, rivers, valleys) has on the vineyards.

8.  Farming practices.  The discriminating show-off will definitely want to know more about how the grapes are grown and how the vineyards are tended.  Does the winery irrigate or are the vineyards dry-farmed?  Are the vineyards organic or managed biodynamically?  What kind of canopy management system is employed in the vineyard (yes, “canopy management” really is a thing).

9.  Brix.  As you progress to PhD-level of showing off, you will want to start asking some very technical questions about the wine-making process.  You might consider asking your tasting guide:  “At what Brix level were the grapes picked?”  He or she likely won’t know but you’ll look like quite the stud with this question.

10.  Food pairing.  Now you’re ready to mix your knowledge of wine with your knowledge of food.  “This Sauvignon Blanc would go beautifully with Italian Sea Bass.”  “This Cabernet needs a thick, juicy steak to stand up to it.”  The more you taste the more specific you’ll be comfortable getting:  “This Moscato would go great with cheese – blue cheese that is.”

Okay you’re ready now to go out and impress your friends.  To avoid being overly annoying or coming across as a complete and utter snob, do not ask all 10 questions at every winery you go to. Spread them around over a few days of wine tasting. Pick your spots and use as much subtlety as you possess.  Good luck!


John & Irene Ingersoll

July 5, 2017


Identity Crisis? An Aussie Making French Wines in California.

Enjoying a paired tasting at Williamson Wines in Healdsburg, California

Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County boasts some of the finest vineyards in the region, if not the entire state.  Home to over 9,000 acres of planted vines, Dry Creek Valley is 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, with both valley floor and hillside locations.  In this sub-appellation of Sonoma County, there have been grape vines planted going back over 140 years.  Zinfandel is a varietal that has been grown in Dry Creek for more than a century, and more recently winemakers have been growing Bordeaux varietals and making classic Left Bank and Right Bank red blends.

Last week we had the opportunity to visit with one of Dry Creek’s great winemakers, Bill Williamson, founder of Williamson Wines.  Over 200 years ago, Bill’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland to Australia; we assume they went not as part of any penal colony, but rather for the promise of a better life.  After growing up in Australia and having a successful career there, Bill and his wife moved to Silicon Valley to take part in the technology revolution. After a stint there, the Williamson’s decided to buy a piece of land in Sonoma County and grow some grapes.

“Some grapes” has turned into a thriving winery operation, with 15,000 cases produced each year. Remarkably, none of this wine is distributed to retail locations or restaurants; 100% of Williamson wines are sold direct to consumer.  Certainly, this is good for Williamson, as they do not give away their margin unnecessarily to brokers or retail stores.  What is really impressive to us, though, is that Williamson Wines has been able to build up such a strong customer base that they are able to distribute 15,000 cases – 180,000 bottles of wine – one customer at a time.

Based on our tasting with Bill Williamson last week, we have a pretty good idea how he has been able to pull this off:  a combination of great wines, a great tasting experience, and Bill’s personal story and engaging nature.

Bill Williamson sharing his wine philosophy with us

All of these were on display in our sit-down paired tasting in their Healdsburg tasting room.  One of Williamson’s tenets is that wine should be enjoyed with food.  Many wineries share this belief and paired tastings have become fairly commonplace in both Napa and Sonoma. However, Bill Williamson and his team actually explained each pairing and identified the predominant flavors in the foods.  They had us take a bite of the food without wine first.  Next, they had us take a bite of the food and then take a taste of the wine.  If the paired item was salty, the wine brought out that flavor; if it was spicy, the wine reinforced that flavor.

Pears with blue cheese, honey and Marcona almonds
Savory taste – olive, prosciutto, pepper
Sweet pairing – dark chocolate and berries

Although we have been to many tastings, no one had actually taken us through the before-and-after this way.  Now at home we are doing this whenever we open a bottle of wine for dinner.

There are many tastings to choose from at the Williamson tasting room; we chose the Noble and Bordeaux Style Wine Tasting at $75.00 per person. This price tag is certainly higher than the typical tasting, but then again this is no typical tasting.  We enjoyed a number of the Williamson Bordeaux blends –  a Meritage, a Cuvee, and something Bill calls, simply, Vin Rouge (Federal law requires the words “red wine” on the label).  In addition, we tried a number of single Bordeaux-style varietals, including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

After nearly an hour and a half of small bites, wine and conversation, we were captivated with the Williamson portfolio of wines.  Beyond what was on the tasting menu, Bill also made us aware that he produces traditional Burgundy varietals (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – naturals for a Sonoma winemaker) as well as a number of Rhone wines:  Roussane, Semillon, Grenache, and a true Chateauneuf de Pape-style blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.  There are very few winemakers in this part of California making such a broad range of high quality French-style wines inspired by such distinct regions as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone.

As captivated as we were by the wine, the overall experience was enhanced by Bill Williamson himself.  Like most Aussie’s, he has a gregarious and open personality and a curious balance of bombast and modesty.  He came across as a genuinely nice person, which seems mandatory for a wine business built on 1:1 customer sales.  We are rooting for his continued success and looking forward to our next visit to Williamson.

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 15, 2016

A very tasty Merlot
Williamson Wines’ extensive offering of wines