The best way to learn about wine is to taste wine. It’s no fun tasting alone, so why not start a wine tasting group this fall? You’ll learn more by tasting with a group and I I’m willing to bet you’ll have a lot of fun along the way. My own wine tasting group was a big step on the road to my appreciation of and passion for wine.
Here are some tips for starting your own group:
Think about who you’ll want to invite to join your tasting group. Consider friends with more or less your degree of wine knowledge that are interested in learning in an informal setting.
Make the group manageable. Practically speaking, one bottle of wine provides enough tasting portions for up to twelve people. Depending on your living situation, six to ten may be more manageable in New York.
Settle on how many times the group will meet. Is it going to be once a month, once every two months? You’ll want to pick a schedule that works for everyone and stick to it. Allow about two hours for each gathering.
Establish who will pick the theme and coordinate the group for each meeting. Some tasting groups rotate the host and the host is responsible for the theme and the food assignments. Other groups hire a wine professional to lead the group and then he or she determines the direction of the tasting and maybe even the food pairings.
The Food & Wine
Decide whether or not food will be integral to your tasting group experience. Some groups go as light as crackers, while others plan a full-fledged meal with different member’s assigned responsibility for the various courses. Serving food inspired by the same region as the wines you taste will greatly enhance the experience.
Discuss with the group how much you’re going to spend on wine. Setting a budget range or a spending limit will help level the playing field, both with your members and the wines.
Do some research. If you don’t hire a wine professional to lead the group, have each person look into the wine they’re bringing. It doesn’t have to feel like a homework assignment, but knowing the basic facts about where and how the wine was made and a little color commentary about the producer will increase your understanding and encourage conversation.
It may help to have the wines listed on a sheet where you can take notes about the aromas and flavors you experience and, most importantly, if you like the wine and would buy it again. That said many people take photos and notes on their smart phones today so this may not be necessary.
You may want to come up with a rating system just for kicks and to help you remember which wines you liked. For example, use a 5-star system and have members discuss their favorites, least favorites, and star ratings at the end of the tasting.
Have enough ─ and appropriate ─ glassware on hand. Your wine glasses don’t need to be fancy but thin, clear glass or crystal with a long stem and a large enough bowl to swirl the wine will make a difference. Some names to look for are Spiegelau and Riedel but even Crate & Barrel or Williams Sonoma will have suitable glassware options. Offer at least two glasses per person. Make sure to provide a bucket or other vessel to pour any unfinished wine in when you’re moving on to the next bottle. If possible, have even more glasses so that you can keep the wines and re-taste.
Most importantly, have fun and learn a little along the way. Explore wine regions, grapes, the same grape varietals from different regions, vintages, price points and just plain be adventurous. Cheers.
There’s been a lot of talk in the wine press lately about how traditional grape varieties compare to some of the lesser known ones. Some of us ‘wine people’ are willing to admit that what gets our attention is not always what appeals to popular tastes. However, if you ditch your usual Chardonnay for a day and try something a little different, it just might be the start of a great wine adventure, or wine-venture. Here are some guidelines based on what you may already know and like:
- If you like Sauvignon Blanc, try Vermentino. Vermentino is an Italian white grape that is also popular in Sardinia, Corsica and Southern France and is being experimented within Australia and California. Wines made from the Vermentino grape are typically light, bright, citrusy and aromatic. The grape grows well close to water, be it the ocean or the bay, so look for examples from Liguria and Sardinia in Italy, Corsica in France and Carneros in California. Ideal food pairings include fried foods, pesto pasta and salads.
- If you like Chardonnay, try Grenache Blanc. Originally from Spain, Grenache Blanc is also cultivated in France and California. The wines are rich and full but have balanced acidity and clear minerality akin to Chablis from France or a lightly oaked Chardonnay from California. Apple, melon, peach and pear are common descriptors and the relatively high alcohol level delivers substantial body. Look for wines from the Rhone region of France, the Priorat region of Spain and the Central Coast and Sierra Foothills regions of California. Scallops, lobster rolls and pork chops all make great matches.
- If you like Pinot Grigio, try Ribolla Gialla. Widely planted in Italy, the grape is also grown in Slovenia, Greece and California. Ribolla has crisp, fresh acidity and nutty, lemony flavors and can range from light to intense much like Pinot Grigio. Try a bottle from Friuli, Italy, Slovenia or from the handful of Napa, California producers. Grilled fish, charcuterie and risotto make great companions to Ribolla.
- If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, try Tannat. Originally from the Basque Country and Southwestern France, Tannat produces powerfully fruity, full-bodied, tannic wines that benefit from some air or some age. Although grown in various other countries, the grape may just put Uruguay on the wine map. Sample a bottle from Uruguay, Madiran, France or the U.S. and be sure to match it up with something hearty, such as a rib eye steak, cassoulet or sharp, aged cheeses.
- If you like Syrah, try Mourvedre. Most well known in the Provence and Rhone regions of France and in Spain, where it is called Monastrell, the wines tend towards blackberry and blueberry flavors with savory, peppery notes and a gamey character that mellows with age. Many Mourvedre wines are blended with other grapes but there are 100% varietal wines too. Look to Jumilla in Spain, Bandol in France, Australia and California for good examples. Game meats pair nicely, as do grilled lamb and earthy mushroom dishes.
- If you like Pinot Noir, try Zweigelt, a grape produced from the crossing of two other grapes: St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch. Developed in Austria, the grape is also planted in Germany, Hungary and Canada. Red fruit flavors, including cherry and raspberry, are common in Zweigelt along with spicy and earthy notes and a silky texture. The ample acidity makes it a versatile food wine that goes well with everything from pork tenderloin and duck breast to Mexican food. Stick to Austria for the most authentic tasting experience.
Wine and cheese go together like, well, wine and cheese. In fact, the
two are such a natural pair that very few people put any more thought in to it
than that. We get a lot of people asking us to choose a wine that will go well
with cheese. Alas, the question runs a
little deeper when you‘re looking for the perfect union of textures and tastes.
It‘s a commonly held notion that, in general, red wines pair best with
cheese. However ask wine and cheese experts for the most cheese friendly wines
and the vast majority will rattle off a list of white grapes. Among the reasons
for this is that red wines have more tannin ─ the compounds that give wine structure but
can also come across as bitter tasting or harsh feeling in your mouth. This sharpness
is difficult to offset unless you are serving hard cheese with lots of
As with most things relating to wine, tasting and experimentation are
the best ways to identify what works for you and what doesn’t. Here are some general
strategies to follow to start you on your way to wine and cheese bliss:
- If you’re cheese assortment is particularly
varied, look for un-oaked white wines with fresh acidity such as Sauvignon
Blanc, Albarino and lighter style Riesling. If you’d rather have red, look for
lighter reds with low tannins such as Beaujolais, Barbera and Grenache.
- Consider countries and regions when pairing; French
Chavignol Goat Cheese pairs well with Sancerre, a Sauvignon Blanc from France’s
Loire Valley. Italian Gorgonzola matches
nicely with Barolo, a red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape grown in the
northern region of Piedmont in Italy.
- Use body as a guide. Lighter, younger cheeses
such as fresh goat cheese or burrata pair best with lighter bodied wines for
example Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris. Heavier cheeses such as cheddar
or Gouda work better with a rich, full bodied Chardonnay or even a bold Cabernet
Sauvignon with sharper cheddars.
- Flavor intensity can also be a cue. Stinky cheeses generally pair nicely with fragrant,
earthy wines such as Red Burgundy or the less fruit forward examples of
California or Oregon Pinot Noir. For
whites, intensely aromatic Gewurztraminer is a good bet. Cheeses with less
intense flavors such as Ricotta or Mozzarella are a better match with more
subtle wines including Pinot Grigio, Vin Gris Rose and Dolcetto.
- Salty and sweet is not just for chocolate
covered pretzels. Salty blue cheeses are a heavenly match with sweet wines such
as Port or Sauternes. If you’d rather pair blue cheeses with dry wine go for
reds with a lot of forward fruit such as California Merlot or Zinfandel or
“grapey white wines like Muscat or Pinot Blanc.
There are so many combinations that these guidelines only begin to
cover the options. So pour yourself a glass of Champagne, spread some triple
cream cheese on a water cracker and ponder the possibilities.
We’re in the midst of a relentlessly hot summer and most of
our wine store customers are looking for bright white wines that both satisfy
and refresh. If you’ve never heard of ─ or tried ─ Albarino, now
is the perfect time to introduce yourself to this vibrant, flavorful grape.
Albarino (al-baa-ree-nyo) is originally from Spain but it
also goes by the name Alvarinho (al-va-reen-yo) in Portugal and is
becoming increasingly popular in California. The grape variety is naturally
very aromatic; the typical aromas are enough to make you want to dive right in
the glass. Citrus, peaches, almonds, flowers and grass are some common aromas
wafting from a glass of Albarino. The wines are vibrant on the palate as well with
bright acidity and distinctive flavors including white peaches, tangerines,
grapefruits and limes. If that’s not enough to convince you that Albarino is
the perfect summer wine, some examples also exude a minerality that evokes
seashells and the ocean. If you know what
it’s like to breathe in fresh, salty sea air, then you know what it means to
drink a mineral driven Albarino.
Rias Baixas (ree-ahs buy-shuss) in Spain’s Galicia region is
Albarino’s homeland. Many Spanish wine labels will list both the region and the
grape but it helps to know that most white wines you’ll find from Rias Baixas
are made from the Albarino grape. Galicia
is situated on the Atlantic Coast which may explain the suggestion of the sea
in the wine’s flavor profile. As you
might expect, Spanish Albarino is delicious paired with foods from the sea,
particularly shellfish. The spices
common in Spanish cuisine will only serve to heighten the enjoyment of Albarino.
Add an element of heat such as paprika or cayenne to your grilled fish or
shellfish dishes and you’ll have yourself an ideal food and wine match.
Also on the Atlantic Coast, the Vinho Verde region in
northern Portugal has become synonymous with the white wines of the same
name. The wines are typically a blend of
several local white varieties but Alvarinho is the most distinguished grape
used to make Vinho Verde (VEE-nyoh VEHR-deh).
The wines are light, sometimes even slightly sparkling, and are
generally great values. Alvarinho also makes single varietal wines in the
northern Vinho Verde region and these tend to be richer and more tropical than
the blended wines. Grilled sardines ─
a Portuguese specialty ─
are a great food pairing but if sardines are not your thing, fried clams,
calamari, and even assorted cheeses work well with Alvarinho based wines.
In the 1990s California began to take notice of the Albarino
grape and it has adjusted well in many regions across the state. We have only just recently started to see some
really authentic examples, most from the Central Coast near the Pacific Ocean. California Albarinos tend to have slightly
more body than their European counterparts but the trademark liveliness is
there. The wines will complement summer
fare such as oysters and lobster rolls amazingly well.
Wines made from the Albarino grape are meant to be drunk
young so look for current vintages such as 2010 or 2011. Cheers.
Welcome to the new and super improved website! Keep an eye on this blog for tons of news and articles from the California Wine Merchants crew.
As you peruse the website you may find a couple advanced features are have not been implemented fully. No worries though because you can still buy wine and spirits and all of our products are on online and up to date. We are working furiously (okay more like leisurely) to get these advanced sorting systems online as soon as possible.
Welcome back and enjoy!
P.S. See anything wacky, out of place, or just darn broke? Please let us know at info (at) cawinemerchants.com and we'll take a look.