Monday, February 4, 2013

The Dry Wine Dilemma: Clearing up Confusion

Some wine terms sound completely ridiculous. Just the other day, I caught myself describing a 1985 Bordeaux as being "not so much fruitier as it is brighter" than the '95 we had tasted a day earlier. I realized as soon as the words came out of my mouth that I sounded like Paul Giamatti's character in the movie 'Sideways.' Even worse was that my tasting companions, both seasoned wine drinkers like myself, nodded in agreement. I was appalled--I would have preferred if they had made fun of me for sounding like a snob!

But the fact of the matter is that certain 'ridiculous'-sounding terms can be very useful and important in describing wine--but perhaps not in the way that you might think. Sure, we winos enjoy sniffing and swirling together and comparing notes, in the way that sports fans might enjoy talking about a great football play that they just watched or fashion-lovers may discuss the latest Zac Posen runway show. 

People often tell me apologetically that they are not very good at describing wine. In such instances, I share with them my belief that it is not their duty to excel in this activity; that's my job (and my hobby--we wine people are nerds). You'll certainly never find me apologizing to a surgeon for not being able to perform a heart transplant, or to an accountant for not being able to fill out complicated tax forms. I do believe, however, that there is one important exception to this rule. I think that anyone who enjoys drinking wine and does so on at least a semi-regular basis should know a few basic terms to describe what they like to drink. That way, the person whose job it actually is to understand the terminology and apply it to the wine list in question can be of optimal assistance in finding a glass or bottle of wine that the customer will enjoy.

Unfortunately, there is a big problem with one of the most important of these terms: 'dry.' It seems so straightforward, doesn't it? If you take it literally (and without proper instruction, why wouldn't you?), it seems to imply that drying feeling you get in your mouth after taking a sip of an intense red wine, like a Nebbiolo from Piedmont or a young Bordeaux. But no--that feeling has its own, far less obvious term: 'tannic.' Tannin, existing in the skins of red wine grapes, is what gives you the sensation that you just licked a flannel shirt. In more extreme cases, it may temporarily deprive you of the ability to separate your gums from the inside of your lip. Many people understandably mistake tannin for dryness when describing wine. 

Unless you're a wine geek like me, you very well may now be wondering, "well then what is a dry wine?" The answer is definitely not intuitive, but it is simple. In the world of wine, dry is merely the opposite of sweet. Of course, we could get complicated and talk about wines that are 'off-dry' or 'semi-dry,' but that just means that they are a little bit sweet. The problem lies in the divide in understanding between the experienced winos of the world and the casual wine drinker who has never taken a formal course in wine tasting. This breakdown in communication can lead to disastrous wine selection results!

A recent visitor to The Barrel Room who was unfamiliar with many of the selections available on our list asked us to help guide her in choosing a glass. We asked her what she liked to drink and she confidently answered that she enjoyed red wines that were both dry and earthy. "Easy enough," we thought. Most of our earthy wines are extremely dry (as in, little or no residual sugar is left after fermentation) so we assumed it would not be difficult to help her pick out her ideal beverage. We poured her a few tastes, waiting expectantly as she sipped. We were surprised when she asked if we had anything drier--it doesn't get any drier than this! 

A lightbulb went off over my head and I asked her, cautiously, "what is it exactly that you mean when you say the word 'dry'?" Quickly, she answered, "you know, that feeling you get in your mouth after you take a sip when it feels really dry!" We instantly realized she was referring to tannin, and explained the confusion of the two terms. She then wrote down in her notebook for future reference that she likes "earthy, tannic wines." She ended up being quite happy with a 2004 Nebbiolo that scored high marks for her in both categories. 

So why would such a simple and important word have such a counterintuitive definition? The answer is not quite clear. A search for the term's etymology leads simply to speculation and dead ends. Charles Hodgson's book History of Wine Words skips the subject altogether, leaving a gaping, confusing hole between 'drink' and 'Dry Creek Valley.' A prevailing theory is that the idea that sugar was once thought to 'evaporate' like water during fermentation, until it could be presumed 'dry;' another one relates to wine storage technology (or lack thereof) during medieval times, which led to a tradeoff between sweetness and astringency, so that non-sweet wines would have been more astringent (as in 'tannic' or 'dry') on the palate, and sweet wines less so. 

Unfortunately, it's difficult to imagine a solution to this semantic mix-up. We can only continue the crusade to educate wine drinkers on this peculiarity for which we can probably blame the French, who first used the term vin sec (dry wine) in print around the year 1200 (although it's hard to stay mad at them when they make such delicious wine!) On the other side of the coin, I believe it is very important for bartenders, sommeliers, and restaurant servers to be cognizant and understanding of this issue. When you deal with wine day in and day out and are constantly surrounded by people who do the same, it is easy to forget that not everyone has the same knowledge of the subject. We can do our part by always remembering to ask, "what exactly is it that you mean when you say the word 'dry'?"


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Delicious Wines of... Long Island!

As a sommelier, I try to turn every vacation I take into a wine trip. Trips to Europe easily fit the bill. A recent excursion to Vancouver Island unveiled for me the shockingly delicious German-style wines produced in the region. Countless journeys down into Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley have introduced me to the generally underwhelming but, in my opinion, very promising burgeoning Baja wine industry. However, I was a bit hesitant to transform my most recent trip into a wine tasting expedition… I was venturing into the world of Long Island wines.

Sure, I’ve read the articles claiming Long Island is an AVA not to be overlooked. Lettie Teague’s pieces on have intrigued me no less than the next adventurous sommelier. But regardless I had biases and low expectations, which I was positive would not be exceeded in the course of my Long Island winery visits. So I packed my bag (making sure I could muster up plenty of room for at least 12 bottles, just in case) and made my way to The Hamptons.

Here’s a little Long Island history. Wild grapevines were always a part of the flora on the island. In the mid-1600’s, settlers trained the wild vines up arbors, introducing viticulture quite early to the region. In the late 1700’s V. vinifera vines were brought over from Europe to the Prince Nursery Company on the Western tip of the island. Mr. Prince was a pioneer of American viticulture, producing one of the first texts on the subject entitled “Treatise on the Vine.” He studied the soils of Long Island and determined them to be prime grape-growing turf.

A member of the fourth generation of a family of Long Island nurserymen,
William Robert Prince (1795—1869) made a special study of the grape and
published the first comprehensive book on the subject in this country, A
Treatise on the Vine  (1830). Prince introduced one of the most successful
of the early hybrids, the Isabella grape.

Viticulture didn’t begin in earnest until the 1970’s. Since then many wineries have sprung up producing the typical Bordeaux varietals, more due to potential to sell these varietals than to their appropriateness for the climate and soil. Over time Merlot and Cabernet Franc were singled out as ideal for the region, as well as a little Syrah. Other more obscure grapes such as Lagrein, Blaufrankish, and Zweigelt are making their presence known but will need a bit more time to show their true colors in the Long Island terroir. As for whites, the ubiquitous Chardonnay is of course omnipresent, but some Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris among others can be found here and there.

Neatly trained vines at Channing Daughters in The Hamptons AVA

The Long Island viticultural area today consists of three AVA’s: the all-encompassing Long Island AVA, The North Fork of Long Island AVA, and The Hamptons, Long Island AVA. The North Fork versus The Hamptons AVAs exhibits a slightly warmer climate; but in general, the climate for both regions is maritime with long warm summers coupled with cooling breezes off of the Atlantic and the Long Island Sound. These breezes keep the fall season temperate and protect the vines from icy winters. Soils here are very complex due to their glacial origin. Variations of loam and sand permeate most of the vineyard land, offering good drainage and nutrient levels.

So how are the wines? I visited a number of wineries and partook of quite a few bottles on my own. These wines are almost old-world in style, with excellent acidity, moderate alcohol, and piquant aromatics. They far surpassed my meager expectations. And I was very happy that I had left room in my bag for bringing back some samples… I returned to San Francisco with 11 bottles. 

I have listed below a few wines that really stood out to me. If you can’t make it to Long Island but would like to taste these wines, come to our tasting this Friday from 5-7pm. Some of the wines below along with a few others will be available. You won’t want to miss it…

2010 Wölffer Estate Chardonnay - From The Hamptons AVA, this crisp and clean Chardonnay surprised me with its precision. I had expected a flabby, uninspiring version for some reason, but this wine got my attention from the start. Delicate aromas of stone fruits with only a hint of rich butter were followed on the palate by a refreshing zing of acidity with mouthwatering lemon and peach accents. 

2010 Channing Daughters ‘L’enfant Sauvage’ Chardonnay – A natural ferment from The Hamptons. This Chardonnay is a perfect contrast to the Wölffer Estate example. More bold usage of oak here translates into a bigger, more upfront style. For those who enjoy good white Burgundies, this is the American wine for you.

2010 Wölffer Estate Cabernet Franc – A beautiful Cab Franc from The Hamptons. Dark berries, a touch of herbal intonations, and the once again refreshing acidity that seems to be characteristic of the region. 

2008 Channing Daughters ‘Sculpture Garden’ – A Bordeaux-style blend consisting of mostly Merlot. This wine is complex, structured, and delicious. Anyone claiming not to like Merlot should taste this wine blind…

2009 Shinn Estate Vineyards ‘Wild Boar Doe’ – 40% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec, 15% Petit Verdot, and 5% Cabernet Franc, from the North Fork AVA. Cutesy name aside, the Wild Boar Doe is a serious, earthy, spicy Bordeaux-style red. One of my favorite reds I tasted on the island.

- Sarah

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Australia's Best Kept Secret: It's Not All Yellowtail and Foster's!

At The Barrel Room, we frequently have guests visiting from Australia. As they scan our wine list, they always ask the same question: "where are all of your Aussie wines?" After a recent visit to Melbourne and nearby wine region the Mornington Peninsula, I have come to realize that the answer is not what I previously thought it was. 

For years, I have believed that Australian wines just didn't quite jive with my palate. Those I had tasted (mostly Shiraz) were generally over-extracted fruit bombs with too much oak and more residual sugar than I felt my beloved Syrah grape deserved to be laden with. But after having sampled a diverse array of Australian wines over the last few weeks, I now know the truth: there are fantastic wines being made in Australia, but those clever Aussies are keeping the good stuff for themselves!

Before heading to my first true Australian barbecue, I stopped at a nice little wine shop near my hotel to grab a bottle of something refreshing to help cool us off on a hot Melbourne summer day. Taking my time walking around the store, I observed a few things of note. One was that apart from a smattering of Italian and French wines, the vast majority of the selections were Australian, a stark contrast to most wine shops stateside. Very few of them were wines that I recognized, apart from the obligatory Penfolds, d'Arenberg, and yes, Yellowtail. Most of the bottlings had names and labels unfamiliar to me as an American. These were the boutique wines of Australia, the ones made in quantities too small for exporting. Another thing I noticed was that this particular wine shop only carried one American wine: Gallo White Zinfandel. That explains why the Aussies are about as excited about our wines as I had been about theirs! After a quick chat with the affable store manager, I left with a cold bottle of 2012 Pewsey Vale Riesling from the Eden Valley region. 

At the barbecue, the wine turned out to be a huge hit--with me. After first tasting its bone-dry, mineral rich character with bright lemon-lime citrus exploding on the palate, I surrepititiously tucked the bottle behind a few others in the ice bucket, making sure never to stray so far as to let it out of my line of vision. No one else seemed to notice its presence, so I poured myself another glass, and then another. Soon, I had finished the entire bottle. The wine reminded me of some of my favorite Finger Lakes Rieslings, (I'm looking at you, Sheldrake Point 2007 Reserve Riesling!) and I was truly impressed. At that point, I became very excited to see what else this underrated wine-producing country had to offer. 

The next day, on my way to another barbecue (it's true, the Aussies really do barbecue every day!), I picked up a bottle of 2012 Dominique Portet Fontaine Rosé, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz from the Yarra Valley, recommended by the same gentleman. I was skeptical of the blend, but the reliable pale salmon color told me this wine would not betray my taste buds--and it didn't. Crisp, clean and dry, its juicy red berry flavors with hints of fresh herbs made this wine the perfect quaffing beverage to cool off after a rousing family cricket match. Again, I may as well have just stuck a straw in the bottle, because I was fairly unwilling to share this extremely tasty wine.   

After discovering my natural talent for cricket, a nice, cold glass of rosé was necessary.
At restaurants and bars, there were more delightful surprises to be found. At the Builders Arms Hotel, a glass of NV Bress sparkling wine (a mineral-rich blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) from Macedon, Victoria made for a perfect midday refreshment while taking a break from exploring the city's eclectic Fitzroy neighborhood. 

A block away, the Gertrude Street Enoteca, a combination bottle shop and wine bar, was a haven for those looking to explore Australia's diverse vinous offerings. I salivated for a while over the bottle selection, including a Lagrein from Macedon that I'll have to try on my next visit, and then sat down to taste a few of their by-the-glass offerings. The 2012 Cherubino 'Laissez Faire' Fiano, Western Australia's take on the classic white wine of Campania, Fiano di Avellino, paid a pleasing tribute to its southern Italian mentor, fresh and lively now, but sure to develop lovely honeyed and spicy notes with age. But the true star of the show was the 2009 Avani Syrah. Yes, you read that correctly. A burgeoning trend among Australian winemakers is to eschew the nation's famous 'Shiraz' nickname in favor of lighter-handed, minimal-intervention, lower-alcohol, northern-Rhône-style wines labeled with the grape's French name: Syrah (the two grapes are one and the same!).  This Mornington Peninsula wine, which clocks in at just under 13.5% alcohol (the 2011 vintage is under 12%!) is the first vintage produced by Shashi Singh, an Indian-born chemist-turned-restaurateur-turned-oenologist who moved to Melbourne with her chef husband thirty years ago. She applies biodynamic processes in the vineyard with the result of a beautiful, aromatic wine with notes of pepper, brooding black fruit, earth, and a hint of violet.

At the Enoteca, I met second-generation winemaker Andrew Marks, who has made wine all over the world but calls the Yarra Valley home. He spoke with me about the aforementioned Syrah trend, as well as the movement of many winemakers toward lower-alcohol, terroir-expressive wines like Shashi's. I told him of my plans to go wine tasting the following day, and if the Avani Syrah hadn't already convinced me to head to the Mornington Peninsula, Andrew sealed the deal.
Any day that starts with a paddle of beer is bound to be a good day.

Hops grown on site
The next morning, the adventure a brewery. Red Hill Brewery, to be exact. If the Mornington Peninsula didn't remind me enough of driving through Mendocino's Anderson Valley, the taco truck parked right outside the brewery made me feel right at home. A paddle of beer was deemed the most appropriate way to start the day, which included samples of Red Hill's Golden Ale, Wheat Beer, Black Rye IPA, and Irish Red Ale. All were thoroughly enjoyable, and I learned that Australia is a true contender on the microbrewery scene. It should be noted that I did not see a single bottle of Foster's the entire time I was in the country, and am now thoroughly convinced that "Foster's" is Australian for "gullible Americans." 
Red Hill Brewery

After getting a nice base of beer in our stomachs to begin our day of wine tasting, we moved on to scenic Tuck's Ridge, where the quality of the wine matched the friendliness of the tasting room staff. It was here that I realized that the Mornington Peninsula resembles the Anderson Valley in more than just aesthetics. A coastal influence and significant diurnal swing (warm days followed by cool nights) help to produce crisp, acidic whites and light, earthy reds. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Rosé, and Pinot Noir were the standouts, but the bottle I chose to bring home was a 2012 Savignin, a grape most commonly grown in the Jura region of France, which I learned had until as recently as 2008 been mistaken in Australia for the Spanish grape Albariño. 

The line-up at Tuck's Ridge

This wine was not available for tasting due to its extremely limited production, but it promises to excite my salivary glands with white peach, citrus pith, and apricots on the nose and palate--an experience I am quite looking forward to.  

Tuck's Ridge vineyards

The next stop was Main Ridge Estate, where the specialties were Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The group favorite, however, turned out to be a 2010 Merlot, whose soft tannins and dark fruit aromas enticed me in a way Merlot often fails to achieve. Flipping through a guide to Victoria's wineries that I found at Main Ridge, I perked up when I noticed that a few wineries were producing wines from one of my favorite underrated grapes, Gamay. 

Eldridge Estate

I asked where to find the best Gamay and was instructed to visit Eldridge Estate. I quickly found that I had not been led astray. This intensely aromatic wine had all of the best qualities of a Cru Beaujolais, and the winery's other offerings, particularly their two Pinot Noirs, were excellent as well. 
Eldridge Estate uses the ancient French tradition of
planting roses at the end of each row of vines. Roses
and grape vines are prone to the same diseases, so the
roses would serve as early warning signs for disease. In
modern times, the color of the roses usually indicates the
type of grape. At Eldridge, red roses = Pinot Noir, white
roses = Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, and pink
roses = Gamay.

All good things must come to an end, and our little group decided to finish the day the same way we started--at a brewery (this is what happens when you go wine tasting with beer drinkers). We found ourselves at Mornington Brewery, washing down more entire pizzas than I'd like to admit with delicious English-
style Brown Ale.

Needless to say, I was very pleasantly surprised by both the wine and the beer in the land down under. I boarded my plane home with a mixture of melancholy and excitement--sad that I had to leave this wonderful country and all of the delicious things it had to offer, but looking forward to coming back to The Barrel Room and sharing my discovery with my colleagues and our guests. Luckily, soon after my return I had the opportunity to attend a trade tasting of Australian wines, where I was able to sample some fantastic bottlings that actually are available in California. I was thrilled to taste such wines as BK Wines Cult Syrah from McLaren Vale, South Australia, Dandelion Wines Eden Valley Riesling, and the entire lineup from Fowles Wine--run by lovely husband-and-wife team Matt and Lu Fowles, who assure me that their 'Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch' Shiraz would pair fantastically with 'roo, my new favorite meat.

My first bite of 'roo. Once you go marsupial, you never go back.
We look forward to bringing some of the aforementioned wines on board at The Barrel Room in the not-too-distant future, but in the meantime we will soon be inviting you to join us in tasting some of the wines (including the mysterious Savignin!) that made the journey home with me--all of which are either unavailable or hard to find in the US. If you haven't joined our mailing list yet, be sure to do so or check our events page so you don't miss this exciting tasting! 


Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Instructional Guide to Sabrage

Nothing embodies the New Year’s Eve spirit better than the obligatory Champagne toast at midnight. And if you’d like to be particularly festive this year, why not add some drama to popping open that bottle of bubbly by doing a little expert sabrage? It’s not too difficult… you don’t even need the ceremonial Champagne sword to do it. Any kitchen knife will do. Read on for a quick lesson in sabering and impress everyone with your technique!

The history of sabrage is debatable, but it most likely traces back to the French Revolution. The most popular legend has it that Napoleon’s troops, arriving home on horseback after victories, would be greeted by cheering locals and handed bottles of Champagne in appreciation. Since the cavalry didn’t have the ability to open the bottles while riding, they improvised and used their swords to pop off the tops of the bottles instead. This became a ritual, and gave rise to the “Noble Art of Sabrage.” 

How does this work? The saber does not slice off the top of the bottle. Instead, a firm tap at the meeting point of the glass lip at the top of the bottle just below the cork with a seam on the bottle, a result of manufacturing, pops the top off entirely. This meeting point is a weak point where two stress concentrations come together (the seam and the lip). When sabrage is performed on a suitably chilled bottle of Champagne, the cork and glass lip fly away, spilling little of the precious Champagne. The pressure inside a bottle of Champagne (100psi) ensures that no glass falls back into the bottle making it safe to drink the spoils.

So how does one perform sabrage like an expert? Follow these basic steps, practice on a few bottles, and voila! You will amaze friends and family with your skills. And remember, this technique works with any bottle of sparkling wine, not just Champagne…

1. Choose the right bottle. The most suitable is a young vintage or non-vintage, which typically have more pressure on the cork than older vintages. That being said, you can, with practice, saber an older vintage bottle as well.

2. Choose your weapon. You don’t actually need a “champagne sword” (which has a thin handle and a long, slightly curved blade). In fact, the blunt edge of a knife works much better. According to Sebastian Allano of the three-star Michelin restaurant Caprice in Hong Kong, “It is not the sharpness of the blade that cuts the glass, it’s the force of something hitting the rim of the bottleneck and the pressure from the bubbles inside.” Substitutes for the saber can range from a chef’s kitchen knife down even to a butter knife; in fact, experts can saber with a spoon!

3. Chill the bottle. This is important to prevent the bottle from bursting open before you get to saber it.

4. Locate the seam. Look for a seam in the glass that runs from top to bottom. Every bottle has two seams; either will do.

5. Remove the foil and cage. Don’t do this until you’re ready to go: Once the cage is off, you need to act quickly. Keep your thumb on the cork until you begin step 6.

6. Scrape the seam. Holding the knife in one hand and the bottle (pointing upward at a 45-degree angle) in the other, scrape the blunt edge of the knife vigorously along the seam of the bottle from the middle to just below the rim. This will increase the internal pressure.

7. Strike! Hit the blunt edge of the knife against the rim of the bottleneck firmly in one swift, straight movement… but a knock more than a full-force blow. You may need to do this a few times, depending on the bottle. Scrape the knife along the seam before each swing.

8. Keep a souvenir.
Once the cork pops off, there should be a ring of glass — the “lip” of the bottle — still wrapped around it. It’s proof that you pulled off a perfect sabrage.

Good luck, and Happy New Year!

- Sarah