The Noble Grape Challenge: Pinot Noir and Grenache

Hey there wine nerds! I can't believe it it took me this long to post about my next challenge, but Philadelphia Wine Week really got the best of me. It was a great event and I hope to see it expand next year! Stay tuned for a full post on the topic! But for this post, something a litte different...

Recently, I discussed the fermentation process and the important role it plays in determining the flavor of a wine. But, most wine writers will agree that the majority of a wine's character is determined in the vineyard, specifically with the grapes. Learning about all the grapes used in winemaking is a tedious mission - there are thousands of grape varietals! However, if you are buying wine in a store in the United States, you will see certain varietals more often than others. These are known as the noble grapes.

What makes a grape noble?

I wish I had some intricate story about on ancient nobles in France only drank these certain grapes and blah, blah, blah. But, it is really as simple as - these 18 varietals are most widely grown and also know as the international varietals. Check out the full list below:

Pinot Noir, Grenache, Merlot, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Temperanillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec
— Red Varietals, (light to full bodied)
Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Moscato, Gewurztraminer, Semillion, Viognier, Chardonnay
— White Varietals (light to full bodied)

Pinot Noir.

The purpose of this series is to provide an overview on these noble grapes and what makes them so special. To start, I wanted to discuss two red grapes known for producing light-bodied wines. First, the notoriously difficult to cultivate - Pinot Noir! I have discussed Pinot Noir on the blog previously in a few posts. I introduced the grape in a Grape Tales feature and posted an interesting comparison of Pinot Grigio vs. Pinot Noir. But being the noble (and delicious) grape that it is, Pinot Noir definitely deserves some additional discussion here!

Pinot Noir performs best in cool climates (think Oregon). The traditional home of Pinot Noir is Burgundy, France. Fun fact to remember, Red Burgundy is almost always made with Pinot Noir. So if you are looking for a Pinot Noir from France, start with Red Burgundy. It is also grown in Champagne, France. Wine made from Pinot Noir is known for bright red fruit flavors, like cherry, raspberry and strawberry. The level of earth and other savory flavors will depend on where the wine is from. Plus, it usually has medium-high acidity but low tannin.




While Pinot Noir is well-known and deliciously complex, Grenache is a wonderful grape that is sometimes underappreciated in the United States. Grenache is known for ripening later in the growing season and actually loves hot and dry climates. Therefore, you will most likely see it in wines from Spain, Southern France, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Want to hear one of the most hilarious, yet wildly accurate descriptions of Grenache ever, it's an "old world wine with California cleavage." (I swear, hilariously accurate). For more awesome commentary like this, check out books by Jay McInerney or Mark Oldman. But seriously, when it comes to flavor, Grenache for its subtle berry flavors and high alcohol content. While these wines are high in alcohol, the commonly lack acid and tanning, which makes Grenache a highly preferable blending grape. In fact, it plays a major role in one of my favorite red blends... ever! The Grenache-Syrah-Mouvedre blend of course! (GSM for short) This blend is traditionally associated with the Rhone Valley, but you can also find this blend in Australia.

Not a bad start for two awesome noble red grapes. Looking forward to your comments on your favorite Pinot Noir or Grenache based wines!



Winter Wine Project: A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir

Get excited for the first wine review for 2014 - a Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley, produced by A to Z Wineworks!


I love January! It's a fresh start, everyone has new goals and is excited for the new year. And if you celebrate Christmas, then you may have some extra pep in your step after receiving a perfect gift or two. One of my favorite gifts of the season was a wine tasting journal given to me by my sister. Lately, I have been keeping track of my wine tastings through various wine apps, but  I would argue serious wine tasters should invest in a journal. Writing down your thoughts forces you to slow down and think about the wine in greater detail. The drawback? - it's yet another thing to carry and you will likely look like the biggest nerd at the dinner table. My advice, carry a big bag. (As for looking like a nerd, I'll get back to you on that one).

Another outstanding value from the great state of Oregon. And the people at A to Z Wineworks are winemakers after my own heart, offering "Aristocratic Wines are Democratic Prices." (I love a good political pun, even more so when its paired with wine). A to Z Wineworks is located in Willamette Valley, along with approximately 200 other wineries. The region is known for its cool climate and increasingly popular Pinot Noirs.

Let's nerd out about weather for a second. The weather during the growing season is extremely important to wine quality. The 2011 vintage for Willamette Valley was full of surprises. Early on it seemed that the vintage was going to be disastrous, with large grape production and a concern that it would never get warm enough for the grapes to ripen. Eventually, some late fall weather saved the vintage and the results have been comparable to other quality years. Overall, I think it affect of weather on wine would better explained through a vertical tasting (the same wine across different vintages) - a hopeful goal for 2014! Now, let's get to the specifics...

A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir 2011.

Grapes: 100% Pinot Noir.

Where it's From: Willamette Valley, Oregon. The grapes for this wine are sourced from multiple vineyards across Willamette Valley.

Alcohol: 13%

Professional Notes: Apricot, bing cherry, white pepper, sweet tobacco. 

My Thoughts: Initially, I felt this wine was off balanced. It was a beautiful garnet color and a mild cherry aroma, but the taste seemed to be dominated by the alcohol. It wasn't undrinkable, it just seemed to be on mute. However, after 20 minutes the wine really softened and tasted delicious. The initial tastes were complimented by the subtle yet spicy finish.

Generally, this is the first wine from the Winter Wine Project that didn't wow me immediately, but did grow on me over time. Pinot Noir is a tough grape, especially when selling at bargain prices, and 2011 was a tough vintage. So in light of those factors, I would still recommend this wine to a friend, but would recommend decanting it before drinking. Stay tuned for the next wine - Red Knot Shiraz from Australia.



Grape Tales: Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is sometimes referred to as the "chef's wine." This is because Pinot Noir is light bodied enough to pair with a large variety of foods. Plus it's bright berry flavors are typically enjoyed by red and white wine drinkers alike.

Pinot Noir grapes are considered wine making royalty. But these grapes are definitely the black sheep of the royal family - high maintenance and a pain in the butt to grow. Pinot Noir grows best in cool climates. In such climates, the grapes are better situated to develop crisp acidity - a reason Pinot Noir is so frequently used when making sparkling wines. As if things weren't confusing enough, Pinot Noir also goes by different names in some countries. You will most likely see Spätburgunder, used in Germany.

Finally, Pinot Noir is the most widely planted grape and genetically unstable. This genetic instability means that Pinot Noir is prone to mutations, including Pinot Grigio/Gris and Pinot Blanc.

Pinot Noir Growing Profile.

Where it's grown.  Burgundy, France; California, specifically Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, and Carneros; and Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Common characteristics.  At a young age, Pinot Noir may have aromas of cherry, raspberry, or strawberry. With age, Pinot Noir develops more complex aromas including earth, mushroom, violet or sandalwood.

Acidity.  Medium to high.

Tannin.  Low, Pinot Noir is noted for it's silky smooth texture.



Wine 101: Benchmark Wines

Now that the gifts have been opened, the in-laws are heading out of town and we have rung in 2014 - its time to get back to business. This post is geared towards those wine drinkers who are aiming to move on from beginner status. So if you want to get serious about wine - the key is to inform yourself on the classics. These classic style wines have long served as benchmarks for the traditional regions or styles of wine.

So what do I mean by benchmark wine? Check out these suggestions organized by old world vs. new world styles:

Old World Classics:

Generally, when looking for a wine standard most sommeliers suggest you turn to France. It make sense, France is the global wine powerhouse. They have been making wine for centuries and have implemented strict rules regarding winemaking. If you are looking for a benchmark regarding Pinot Noir, start with Burgundy. If you want to try a classic Merlot, look to Pomerol (technically within the Bordeaux region). If you would pass on red wines from Bordeaux and prefer the style of white wine, look to Loire Valley, for  the best examples of classic Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc. Other regions to note include Rhone, Savoie, or Jura. And finally, Champagne is the classic benchmark for sparkling wine.

For the benchmark on Rieslings, you must go to Germany. There are many styles of Rieslings, but the classics come from Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz, Rheinhessen. The Rieslings produced in Austria are also considered within the classic style, look there for classic Grüner Veltliner. 

So you love reds but prefer to look to Italy, the classic regions include Piedmont, Tuscany, and Veneto. For more details on the specifics of these regions, check out our earlier post on Italian wine here. Similarly, the best Spanish include Rioja, Sherry and Albariño (Spanish white grape). Additionally, some sommeliers are on the fence about Bierzo or Priorat as representative of classic Spanish grapes.

New World Classics:

"New World" wines include wines made from countries outside the classic European winemaking countries. This includes the United States, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and others. Look to New Zealand for classic Sauvignon Blancs with green pepper, grassy or spicy notes. As for reds, look to Australia for classic Shiraz, California's Napa Valley for classic Cabernet Sauvignon and Oregon for Pinot Noir.

Look forward to more features on these regions specifically in upcoming posts - Happy 2014!



Break out the Bubbles: NYE 2014

It's the final countdown for 2013! Whether you are ringing in the new year with friends and family at home or dressing up and dancing the night away, there is one thing you will definitely need - sparkling wine!

I will be giving some brief thoughts here, but for those looking for more details - the blog has covered sparkling wine in detail before here. 

My philosophy on sparkling wine is straight forward - find a fresh, fun bottle at an affordable price. Sometimes it's a bit challenging, bargain prices for sparkling wine made in the traditional champagne style rarely go below $12-16 (most likely because the secondary fermentation process). But my go to wine will always be Cava. Cava is sparkling wine made in Spain. Another great option is Prosecco, a sparkler from Italy. Both of these styles are light and affordable.

Champagne (sparkling wine made in Champagne, France), on the other hand is more complex and expensive. Given the region's northern location, the grapes are picked with higher acidity producing the distinct taste. Champagne is made from a blend of three grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The traditional production method, or méthode champenoise, is highly regulated. Basically, it allows only two pressings of the grapes, a primary fermentation, blending, a secondary fermentation and finalization. Most champagnes are fermented in steel tanks. It's common characteristics include flavors or apple, citrus, hazelnnuts, toast or bread dough.

Whichever option you choose, one thing I hope you take away is that sparkling wine can be used for more than special occasions. Its high acidity pairs well with food. Many wine professionals even argue that it is the best option to pair with you - but I will leave that decision up to you!


Happy New Year's Eve and Cheers!

French Wine 101

Dear Wine-Nerds & Friends! Get excited because two big things are happening in this post. First, I am happy to announce that the tradition of (co)hosting a holiday wine tasting party after Christmas lives on! So stand by for reviews of wine from that tasting. And second, we are finally providing an overview of the wines of France! (Please excuse my lack of proper punctuation on many of the French words, I was eager to get this post live!)

This year's holiday wine tasting is French themed, so I have provided a general (and I mean general) overview of French wine below:

History of Wine-Making in France.  I think it goes without saying that the French are passionate about wine. But, as with most things in Europe, grapes were mostly likely introduced to the French by the Romans. However, the vast expansion of wine across the country can be attributed to Christian monasteries because they made wine for the sacrament (and for profit). Vineyards were even donated by rich patrons "seeking divine favor." But those monks definitely contributed to the history of French wine-making. For example, many wine-making break-throughs can be traced back to monasteries, such as the second fermentation process required for sparkling wine...  created by monk Dom Perignon. Since then, French winemakers have continued to develop their technique and produced much of the world's best wines - despite wars, down economies and politics generally.

Popular French Varietals.  To understand French wine, it is important to under the players. (aka grape varietals). 

  • The major white grapes include: Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano, and used primarily in brandy production), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne (aka Muscadet), Semillon, Muscat and Chenin Blanc. 
  • The major red grapes include: Merlot, Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Cinsault, Pinot Meunier (frequently blended in Champagne) and Mourvedre.

Tips for Reading a French Wine Label.  France was the first country to devise a system for protecting the use of place names for wine regions and having a basic understanding of this system will definitely help you when facing the wall of wine in your local wine store. The system is administered by the INAO and mandates or prohibits certain wine-making procedures for any winery that plans to use the protected "appellation" or place name on it's label. There are four French wine appellations:

  1. Vin de Table, the entry level appellation for general table wine. (Only about an 1/8 of French wine uses this designation).
  2. Vin de Pays, typically reserved for wine with a geographical indication. (1/3 of French wine uses this designation).
  3. VDQS or "delimited wine of superior quality," generally seen as temporary status for wines with potential to move up.
  4. Appellation d'origine controlee (AOC) or "name of controlled origin," this appellation carries the high quality wines and most restrictive wine-making rules. 
    • Regional > District > Communal or Vineyard.

Take note that the established AOC regions (like Bordeaux or Burgundy) will have regional or even communal AOC regions within them. So when reading a French wine label you will frequently see two or even three terms that describe where the wine was made. Check out the graphic above.

French Wine Regions in Detail.  

(1) Bordeaux.  The classic red wine from Bordeaux is a blend of at least 2 grapes from the following list: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The classic white is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Go hear for expensive, yet quality wines. 

SUMMARY: Look here for high quality red blends, but expect to pay for it.

(2) Loire Valley.  There are four key regional AOCs located in the Loire Valley: (1) Pays Nantais, (2) Anjou, (3) Touraine, and (4) the Central Vineyards (Pouilly-sur-Loire and Sancerre).  If you like Sauvignon Blanc, look for wines from Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume. Generally, Touraine isn't known for high quality wines, with the exception of Vouvray - a region that features whites made with Chenin Blanc. If you are interested in trying wine made with Muscadet, look for something from Pays Nantais.

SUMMARY: Look here for fun whites, try anything with Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre or Vouvray on the label.

(3)  Champagne.  This region supplies 15% of the world's sparkling wine (or 25 million cases a year). Champagne is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Here are some fast facts about Champagne:

  • Blanc de Blanc, means the wine was produced only from Chardonnay.
  • Blanc de noirs, means the wine was produced only with red grapes, most likely Pinot Noir.
  • You will only see a Vintage for spectacular harvests from a single year (non-vintage is more common).

SUMMARY: Look here for expensive yet quality sparkling wine. However, look for "Cremant" on the label of sparklers from any other French region, this means the wine was made in the same style as Champagne, but made in another region. (Think store brand knock-offs, same formula without the brand name).

(4) Alsace.  This is a French region with strong German roots, known for growing mostly Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, and Pinot Gris. The region has a bad reputation for making only sweet wines - but ask your local wine store rep to point you in the direction of dryer styles, because they do exist! Most wines from this region pair well with spicy food.

(5) Burgundy (in French "Bourgogne").  The secret to Burgundy is easy, red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir and white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. But in Burgundy, much like the Loire Valley, it is important to learn the popular regional AOCs. The two most famous are: (1) Cote de Nuits and (2) Cote de Beaune. However, Chardonnay produced in Chablis is known for exhibiting greater minerality than the rest of Burgundy. The wines of Maconnais are known for their lighter style (you may see some Gamay based wines here as well).

SUMMARY: Look here for Pinot Noir or Chardonnay with French style. Note that to get quality you will have to spend a bit more than usual, but there are great bottles out there!

(6) Beaujolais.  Frequently considered part of Burgundy, Beaujolais is quickly becoming a region of notable wines. Be sure to remember Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Nouveau are different, the latter is a quickly bottled style of the Gamay grape meant to be consumed young. 

SUMMARY: Look here for the best versions of the fruity Gamay grape.

(7) The Rhone Valley.  Generally, this region is known for its red wine. Yet, it is best to discuss the Rhone in two regions: (1) The Northern Rhone and (2) The Southern Rhone. In the Northern Rhone, red wines are primarily made from Syrah and white wines are primarily made from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane. While, in the Southern Rhone, red blends are the most popular, featuring Grenache (a personal favorite), Syrah, Carignan, Mouvedre and Cinsault. 

SUMMARY: Look here for interesting red blends featuring Grenache. The best regions are Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. (Pricey but totally worth it).


PHEW!  So, that brings us to the end of my overview of French wine. As you can see, I barely scratched the surface and this post is already double the length of most others. Feel free to post questions in the comments below and I will happily answer them! 

Happy Holidays and Cheers!







The Best Wine for Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving (well almost)!! Thanksgiving is less than a week away. If you are reading this now you are probably running around, booking travel, planning menus and stocking up on cranberry sauce. No matter where you are heading, one thing you shouldn't forget is the wine!

So what is the best wine for Thanksgiving? The answer is... WE DON'T REALLY KNOW. (Seriously, any other blog post that tries to fool you otherwise is LYING). The problem with Thanksgiving is that there are so many dishes to pair with, it is too tough to pick just one wine. Most families serve sweet potatoes, cranberry, stuffing, squash, gravy, etc. all in addition to the turkey. 

My recommendation - go with an affordable Pinot Noir from a reliable producer. November is a colder month so red goes with the season and Pinot Noir is light enough that it won't overwhelm most of the food. Just remember this is not the time to break out the expensive bottles. But, if you don't like Pinot Noir, choose whatever is your favorite, you can't go wrong with that at Thanksgiving.

On another note, Happy Thanksgivukkah! For the first time in many, many, many years. Thanksgiving and the first night Hannukah fall on the same day! In honor of this rare coincidence, I draw your attention to the existence of Thanksgiving themed donuts. Believe or not, Zucker Bakery in NYC is serving Thanksgiving themed donuts (including a turkey and gravy stuffed donut). Check theme out here.