Tag: rioja

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

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A winery my mother would have loved

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Vineyards at Marimar Estate

My wife and I have been visiting Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery in the Sonoma County town of Graton for quite a few years now.  Founded by Marimar Torres, a member of the prominent Torres winemaking family in Spain, Marimar Estate produces very high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as Spanish varietals such as Albariño and Tempranillo.  Although she hated all California wines, I’m certain my mother would have loved Marimar Estate wines, Marimar Torres herself, and the great food-based events that they hold throughout the year.

My mother was born and raised in Spain and lived there until she was over thirty years old.  By the time she passed away, she had lived more than half of her life outside of her native country, most of those years in the United States.  Nevertheless, throughout her life she maintained a strong identify as a Spaniard and loved the food and wine that she grew up with.  My brothers and I all have memories of Mom’s food – Spanish tortilla, croquetas, bacalao, the giant blocks of Manchego cheese she would bring when she visited.  Without question, though, Mom had a signature dish – paella.  Every time she visited she would make many of her delicacies but alway would make at least one paella.  Coupled with the paella?  Red wine of course.  What kind of red wine?  Red wine from Rioja, Spain.

Over the course of my adult life I tried to impress my mother by taking her to fancy restaurants that purported to make good Spanish food.  All of these efforts ended in failure and, occasionally, disaster. As soon as the paella was placed on the table my mother would begin her meticulous inspection and quickly find something wrong with it:  it was too watery (“this is soup, not paella”); or had the wrong ingredients (“you don’t put this in paella”); it lacked the saffron necessary to turn the rice yellow; or it was seasoned improperly.  On one occasion in a Spanish restaurant in Hollywood my mother even called for the chef to come out and asked him a single question: “Does this paella have cilantro?”  “Yes!” the chef replied enthusiastically.  “This isn’t paella, then,” she answered, and proceeded to explain to him how paella should be made.  He attempted to defend himself by saying the paella was “his take” on the classic dish and, admittedly, had some more Mexican and South American influences.  “It’s just rice, then,” she concluded, and did not take a second bite.  This scene repeated itself in different forms, but equally embarrassing (for me) moments, many times.

We have visited Marimar Estate many times for regular tastings as well as their “big events” such as their library tastings and their paella dinners.

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Marimar knows how to throw a party

I can say confidently that Mom would have loved both the wines and the food and would have seen a lot of herself in Marimar.  No, my mother did not make wine, but she had an energy and spirit that I see in Marimar Torres each time we visit the winery.  Growing up in Spain during the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, both my mother and Marimar experienced a Spain where women were not equal to men and certainly not encouraged to pursue their own careers.  Certainly when Marimar was a young woman in Spain the notion of a female winemaker or winery CEO would have been almost unimaginable.  Despite the expectations that society and family had for her, Marimar had big plans.  For starters, she obtained a degree at the University of Barcelona – in economics and business!  After graduating she was able to convince her father to permit her to sell their wines abroad, including in the United States.  It was during her time in California that she fell in love with Sonoma and found the parcel that would become the estate property for her vineyards and winery.

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Marimar Torres toasting her guests

The Marimar Estate is located close to the town of Sebastopol on the top of a hill with amazing views of the Sonoma Valley (facing east).  On the estate property there are 60 acres planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes; this property is called Don Miguel Vineyard, an homage to Marimar’s father.  About four miles west, closer to the Pacific Ocean, is Doña Margarita Vineyard named after Marimar’s mother.

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All of the grapes on the Don Miguel estate are farmed organically and Marimar powers her winery with solar power.  We really appreciate this commitment to the environment and the results are evident in the wines:  whenever we share them with friends they tell us how “clean” the wines taste.  Our favorite Marimar wines include the several Pinot Noir offerings as well as the Tempranillo.  Although my mother mostly refused to drink anything other than Tempranillo from Rioja, I know she would have enjoyed Marimar’s Pinot for its full-bodied flavor, balance and sophistication.  She would also have enjoyed the paella.

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The sign of a real paella? A real paella pan.
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Marimar’s paella being prepared

We assure you that this paella was 100% authentic and did not contain cilantro!  On this visit our 19-year old daughter came and ended up serving as designated driver so that we could enjoy all of the fantastic wines. She did, naturally, enjoy multiple servings of the paella.  If anyone was counting, they would have noticed that after finishing the first plate I went back for seconds.  And thirds.

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Good enough for Mom

We toasted to Mom while we enjoyed the paella and wished that we had found Marimar earlier so we could have taken her to the winery and one of their paella dinners.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 17, 2017

Rioja, Oregon

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No, this is not Rioja. Yes, this is Southern Oregon.

The mother (and mother-in-law) of this blog-writing duo was born and raised in Spain and did not come to the United States until she was thirty years old.  She brought with her a fierce pride of her homeland; nowhere was this fierceness more evident than in her preferred beverage: red wine from Rioja.  She refused to drink white wine at all (“Why would I drink a white wine when I could be drinking Rioja?”).  In her later years, she also refused to drink any wine that was not from Rioja.  For many years, finding Rioja in the U.S. was no easy task as the volume of imported Spanish wine was relatively low.  “You know, there are some good California wines,” we would tell her.  She would screw up her face with outrage and say, “Oh please!”  We cannot even imagine what she would have said if we suggested she try Oregon wine; or, worse yet, an Oregon Tempranillo, which is the dominant grape varietal in red Rioja wines.

Over the past 10-15 years, the importation of Spanish wine has increased significantly, both from Rioja as well as other wine regions such as Ribera del Duero, Penedés and Rías Baixas.  Today, store shelves have many Spanish options, led by a number of labels from Rioja.  Similarly, wines from Spain appear on restaurant menus across the country.  Americans have become more familiar with and are embracing the unique aroma and flavor profile of Tempranillo.

Around the same time Mama was bemoaning the virtual absence of Rioja wines at her local liquor store and supermarket, Earl and Hilda Jones had a similar question:  why aren’t Rioja and Tempranillo part of the American premium wine scene?  Living on the East Coast at the time, the Joneses wondered why Tempranillo and other Spanish varietals were not being planted domestically.  Earl and Hilda dedicated several years to understanding the ideal growing conditions for Tempranillo and other Spanish grapes.  Ultimately, they identified the Umpqua Valley in Oregon as a suitable location; after more exploration they found the site where they would plant their vines and build their winery.  The climate in the Umpqua Valley is very similar to Spain, which may come as a surprise to those that have visited Oregon.  However, the Umpqua Valley is in the southern part of Oregon, about 3 1/2 hours driving distance from Portland, and has a decidedly different climate than the northern part of the state.

The Joneses planted their first vines in the Umpqua Valley in 1995 and made their first wine in 1996.  They named their winery Abacela, a derivation of an old Spanish and Portuguese word meaning “to plant a grapevine.”  Since then, Abacela has grown in reputation for its Spanish varietals, earning international acclaim both for its Tempranillo and its Albariño.

At the end of September we were driving from Willamette Valley back to our home in California, roughly a 7 1/2 hour drive.  We asked our B&B hosts if they had any recommendations for winery stops on the way home, and they enthusiastically recommended that we stop for a bit of wine and food at Abacela.  When we input the winery address into our GPS, it indicated that we would be driving by at exactly lunch time, which felt like fate!

We arrived at Abacela hungry and thirsty (for wine). They offered a number of food pairing and wine tasting options.  Because we wanted to have a “Rioja-type” experience, we opted not to try any of their international varietals (Merlot, Malbec, Syrah) and instead stick with the traditional red varietals from Spain. In our flight we had Graciano, Garnacha, and a couple different Tempranillos.  We paired the wine with a traditional platter of Spanish meats and cheeses.

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Queso and Jamon platter at Abacela

At the risk of Mama putting a spell on us from above, we have to say the wine was very tasty.  In Rioja, red wines are generally aged in American oak barrels, which tends to impart a sweeter flavor (vanilla) and a creamier texture.  At Abacela, the winemaker uses both French and American oak, including some new oak, which historically was not done in Rioja (older wineries often used the same barrels for decades).  We mention this not as a criticism, simply an observation for those that care about things like this.  The end result at Abacela, for all the wines we tasted, was a nice, balanced wine – nice fruit aromas and flavor with minerality and earthiness.  We took home several bottles of Abacela and look forward to doing a side-by-side tasting of their Tempranillo and some Spanish Rioja that we have at home.  In a future post we’ll share those results.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 14, 2016