Wines of Napa Valley

Theme

California’s Napa Valley is the heart of America’s wine country.  Visitors who enter Napa Valley drive past a sign that reads “And the Wine is Bottled Poetry,” and it’s true.  Napa’s rolling hills, miles of beautiful vineyards and friendly locals make the Valley heaven on Earth for many first-time visitors.  This tasting introduces you and your guests to some value-priced wines from some well-known Napa producers, and it features the grapes that have made California famous.  If it’s your first trip to Napa, we bet it won’t be your last.

Angle

This is a relaxed, “horizontal” tasting of a broad variety of white and red wines from Napa Valley.  We’ve selected a few of Napa’s better-known producers and concentrated on the grapes that put Napa Valley – and indeed, California wines – on the map.   By the end your guests will have tried a nice variety of wines and acquainted themselves with some well-known winemakers that could become staples in their wine rack.

  Sample Lineup

  1. Frog’s Leap Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($15)
  2. Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Chardonnay ($17)
  3. Merryvale ‘Starmont’ Napa Valley Chardonnay ($15)
  4. Trefethen Estate Napa Valley Dry Riesling ($17)
  5. Rutherford Hill Napa Valley Merlot ($17)
  6. Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
  7. Twenty Bench Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($16)
  8. Wall Cellars Napa Valley Zinfandel ($14)

The Wines

Start with a Sauvignon Blanc – racy, zesty, great with food.  Frog’s Leap is a whimsical winery – note the “Ribbit” on the cork – but they make serious wine, including one of the best Napa Sauvignon Blancs for the money.  But Napa is more known for Chardonnay.  We’d try two – one (like the Heitz) made in a more fruit-forward, Burgundian style, and one (like the Merryvale) that undergoes secondary malolactic fermentation to achieve a more buttery taste.  Riesling occasionally pops up in Napa Valley, and one of the best is the one we recommend from Trefethen, one of Napa’s stalwart winemakers.

Onto the reds – start with a Merlot, which for decades was the most popular red wine in America, renowned for its smooth, rich style.  Rutherford Hill makes a great one for the money, and if you’re ever in Napa Valley you should drive up there just for the view alone.  But Napa Valley made its name with great Cabernet Sauvignon, so we’d try two in this tasting.  The Avalon is a new one recommended for great value-for-money by our friends at K&L Wine Merchants.  The Twenty Bench has been around a little longer and again, is a fantastic value for a wine that can be quite expensive.  Finish with a red Zinfandel, a uniquely American grape with a big, jammy, spicy style.

Music

This will be an elegant, yet relaxed and fun event.  We’d recommend you play the kind of music that you’re likely to hear in the tasting rooms of Napa Valley’s wineries – crossover jazz pianist/vocalist Diana Krall.  The compilation album “The Very Best of Diana Krall” will transport you to California wine country, led by standards such as “S’Wonderful,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”  And of course, don’t miss her song from that album that was made to be enjoyed over a glass of wine: “Peel Me a Grape.”

From there, segue into an American classic with a similar sound: Tony Bennett.  “The Ultimate Tony Bennett” is a perfect album for your tasting, with twenty great songs including “Rags to Riches,” “Smile,” “The Best is Yet to Come” and of course “I Left My Heart from San Francisco.”  The city by the bay is just an hour or so by car from California wine country…frankly, we left our heart in Napa Valley, so we know how Tony feels.

Pairings

For your cheese board, pick a nice array of American cheeses that will complement your California wines.  We recommend Humboldt Fog, Mt. Tam, Dry Jack and Cheddar.  You’ll want a goat’s cheese to pair with your Sauvignon Blanc, and our favorite is “Humboldt Fog,” the crumbly, cake-like goat’s cheese with the signature middle line of gray ash from Cypress Grove in California.  If you can find it, another great American cheese from artisanal cheese maker Cowgirl Creamery is “Mt. Tam,” named after a small mountain between San Francisco and Napa Valley.  It’s a triple cream cheese like Brie (except not French!) and it will go perfectly with your Chardonnay.  We feel obliged to recommend two more American cheeses for your reds, just to keep it in the family – Dry Jack and Cheddar.  But we have to admit we’re torn, because a nice aged Parmigiano-Reggiano pairs so well with both Chardonnay and Cabernet that your guests would forgive you for picking one Italian cheese!

We’d probably keep this as a wine-and-cheese rather than introducing too many heavy appetizers to your party.  An assortment of tapenades will go great – perhaps olive, eggplant and artichoke dips, along with crackers and/or baguette slices.  Put out some grapes, strawberries and dried apricots as well.  Also, whole roasted almonds make a great accompaniment to your Chardonnay, while whole or pitted olives go great with Cabernet.  If you want to do something heavier, Chardonnay actually isn’t so food-friendly, but all of your red wines will gladly stand up to meat dishes like meatballs, sliced bratwurst, or grilled steak sliced into bite-size portions and served on sliced baguette.  But while it’s tempting given the California angle, we’d stay away from guacamole and chips (and would definitely avoid salsa).

Tasting Notes

Napa wines can be expensive, so we’ve focused here on big-name producers’ less expensive white wines, as well as value-priced reds from lesser-known producers.  In recent years, prices for top Chardonnays and Cabernets have soared; you can literally spend as much as you want on a Napa Valley wine.  We’ve focused on wines in the $15 range to introduce you to the region.

Frog’s Leap is a really fun winery to visit, but if you can’t make a trip to California, the wines are a worthy consolation prize.  The winery has gone totally organic, including running its own electric company for sustainable power (a friend of ours has a “Frog’s Leap Electric Company” T-shirt).  They make a range of great wines from a setting featuring a beautiful old-fashioned red farmhouse, and most of their wines still have corks that say “Ribbit” on them.  We picked their Sauvignon Blanc, but a close second would have been Robert Mondavi Winery’s Fume Blanc.  After all, Robert Mondavi decided to rename Sauvignon Blanc as “Fume Blanc” in a stroke of marketing genius several decades ago, and the wine’s popularity soared.

Napa Valley was put on the map in 1976, in the “Judgment of Paris” winetasting immortalized by George Taber’s excellent book of the same name.  A British wine shop owner named Steven Spurrier living in Paris at the time thought it would be interesting to commemorate the American bicentennial with a blind tasting of France’s great white and red wines against then-unknown, upstart new wines from California.  It was a bad day for France; Napa’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won the white wine tasting against the best Burgundies, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon beat out some top Bordeaux to capture the prize for best red wine.  As they say, the rest is history.  Napa Valley’s wine reputation still rests on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon today, though many other wonderful wines are made there today.

California Chardonnay is often known by its buttery, creamy quality.  This effect comes from a process called malolactic fermentation, the chemical reaction during winemaking by which the mallic (fruity) acids in the grapes are converted to lactic (milky) acids in the end-product wine.  This is part of the natural evolution of any Chardonnay; however, many California winemakers then have their wines undergo a secondary, artificial malolactic fermentation that further accentuates this buttery character.  Winemakers often discuss the flavor contrast between a “Burgundian” style Chardonnay – one with clean, crisp fruit flavors – and the “California” style that tastes more buttery.  It’s worth mentioning to your guests that while many wine drinkers in the U.S. love this buttery Chardonnay character, many do not like it.  In fact, there are more and more California winemakers proudly making their Chardonnays these days in the more traditional, fruit-forward Burgundian style that does not feature secondary malolactic fermentation.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape that forms the backbone of many of the great (and wildly expensive) red wines of Bordeaux, France.  It’s known for its structure, richness, depth and “tannins” (the mild dry-mouth effect you notice when drinking it standalone), and it’s known as a wine that can age well.  The grape thrives on its own in Napa, both in 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines as well as Bordeaux-style blends that are based largely on Cabernet.  The better “Napa Cabs” start in the $25 range with wines like Clos du Val (which we recommend) and can cost as much as several thousand (!) dollars a bottle for “cult wines” like Screaming Eagle.

Merlot is also a big Bordeaux grape, but is smoother than Cabernet, if perhaps lacking in some of the flavor depth & intensity.  Merlot remains a wildly popular wine, though the 2004 movie Sideways single-handedly branded Merlot as the uncool cousin to Pinot Noir, a wine its protagonist believed was more worthy of admiration.  Overnight, Merlot sales plummeted, Pinot Noir sales (and prices) soared, and many wine snobs decided Merlot was uncool.  This is perhaps unfair; many great Bordeaux wines are made largely from Merlot, and the top Napa winemakers produce delicious, flavorful Merlots that are lush, rich and smooth.

Red Zinfandel is a quintessentially American wine (the grape does not grow outside the U.S., though some trace it to Italy’s little-known primitivo grape).  It’s a big, bold, spicy, jammy wine that goes great with red meat or – inside tip – with your Thanksgiving dinner, since it can stand up to the creamy flavors & foods most Americans include in their Turkey Day feast.  We think it’s a fun one to include in your tasting.

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Intro to Australia & New Zealand Wines

Theme

Kangaroo & Kiwi Wines!  These wines come from the lands down under, and are a ton of fun.  There are a lot of reasons to get to know Aussie wines and their Kiwi neighbors from New Zealand – they’re fun, they’re often great values, they represent a wide range of grape varietals, and many of the wines are fantastic.  This tasting will introduce your guests to some of the wines that have made Australia & New Zealand serious places for wine lovers to hunt for great bargains!

Angle

This is a “horizontal” tasting that covers a wide range of wines and styles that are totally different from one another.  The wines are totally different from one another, and they’re all at affordable price points, so there’s no reason to do the event as a blind taste test.  Present the wines from order – the lightest wines to the biggest reds.  If you’re inspired, fire up some shrimp and steaks on the “barbie,” but above all, relax and enjoy this tasting.

Sample Lineup

  1. Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($12)
  2. Cape Mentelle, Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon, New Zealand ($15)
  3. Lindeman’s, “Bin 65” Chardonnay, Australia ($9)
  4. Mana, Pinot Noir, New Zealand ($13)
  5. Te Awa, Merlot, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand ($13)
  6. Rosemount, “Diamond” Label Shiraz, Australia ($10)
  7. Marquis Philips, Shiraz, Australia ($15)
  8. Penfolds, “Koonunga Hill” Shiraz-Cabernet, Australia ($11)

 

The Wines

Your tasting starts with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region, a wine that has burst onto the world wine scene in recent years.   Villa Maria offers fantastic quality for the money, but you can’t go wrong with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  We recommend trying two, including one that blends a little Semillon for some creaminess.  Then move over to an Aussie Chardonnay – they tend to offer a lot of big flavor for better prices than you can find in California. 

For the reds, start with a Pinot Noir from New Zealand.  The Kiwis are known principally for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, so their signature red deserves a place in your tasting.  From there, move to Australia’s best-loved wine export – its jammy, spicy Shiraz (the Aussie term for Syrah).  Again, we’d try two – a value-priced, widely-available Shiraz like the Rosemount Diamond Label, and a slightly higher-end, more complex wine like Marquis Philips.  Finish with an Australian red blend, which are notable for hyphenating the grapes included (e.g. “Shiraz-Cabernet”).  Penfolds is Australia’s best-known, largest producer, but don’t think that means they don’t make quality wines; the Penfold’s Grange is Australia’s most famous, most expensive red wine!

Music

This is a tasting with an emphasis on fun, so pick some Australian pop music to set the tone.  We’d start with a mix of Australian one-hit wonders off iTunes.  When all your guests arrive, fire up Men at Work’s “Down Under” to get the tasting rolling.  Make sure your mix includes Aussie imports like Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning,” Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” Olivia Newton John’s “(Let’s Get) Physical,” Alan Parson’s cover of the Aussie hit “You’re the Voice,”Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” and absolutely, positively don’t exclude Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.”  That’s right, they’re all from Australia.

From there, work in some classic fun AC/DC (yup, they’re Australian!).  Don’t miss “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Back in Black,” and “Thunderstruck.”  From there, pivot to Australian rock banc INXS; their “Best of INXS” greatest hits album includes the 80s pop/rock smashes “Devil Inside,” “Mediate,” “Need You Tonight,” “New Sensation” and “Suicide Blonde.”

At this point, your guests are probably all but dancing, so move to Kylie Minogue.  Her music is an instant party; her “Fever” album has great dance floor tunes like “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” “Love at First Sight,” “Come Into My World” and “In Your Eyes.”  For fun, download her 1980s remake of “The Locomotion” as well. 

 

 

Pairings

You have a ton of flexibility for your cheeseboard here – there’s no need to try to pick Aussie or Kiwi cheeses, just pick widely available crowd-pleasers: Chevre, Brie, Manchego and sharp Cheddar.  You absolutely have to have a goat’s cheese like Chevre though – it’s a famous pairing with Sauvignon Blanc, which you’re showcasing here from New Zealand.  Brie will be a good choice that will pair perfectly with your Chardonnay.  Manchego is maybe our favorite cheese – it’s great with everything.  And Cheddar will stand up to your spicy Shiraz.

For appetizers, really the sky’s the limit for this tasting.  For fun, we’d recommend that you sauté or grill some shrimp skewers for a “shrimp on the Barbie” touch that will go great with your whites and your Shiraz.  Along those lines, grilled chicken or beef skewers (like Thai satay, but without the spicy sauce) would work great.  Maybe also get some fresh kiwi fruit (in a nod to your New Zealand wines) & slice it up on a platter with some strawberries. 

Tasting Notes

When it comes to wine, Australians think BIG.  They’ve planted a ton of grapes over the past few decades with the ambition to dominate the wine world (!) by 2025.  This ambition is relatively recent, and those vines are fairly young – in the year 2000, fully 20% of Australia’s 370,000 acres of vineyards were too young to be bearing fruit!  And the wines taste BIG – huge, fruity, mouth-filling flavors for both whites and reds.  The other thing that’s BIG about the wines is the value they represent; Australian wines are known worldwide for offering great quality for a good price. 

To get big, Australian winemakers have taken a user-friendly approach not just in the taste of their wines, but in their marketing: Australian wines are named according to the grapes from which they’re made, not for some far-off region you’ve never heard of before.  Australia also produces many unique wine blends that combine grapes in unusual combinations.  No other major wine region so readily combines Syrah/Shiraz and Cabernet, for example, or blends whites like Semillon or Viognier together with red wines.  And they make the blends easy to understand; Australian blends hyphenate the component grapes, e.g. “Shiraz-Cabernet.”

New Zealand, by contrast is SMALL – according to Hugh Johnson & Jancis’ Robinson’s “World Atlas of Wine,” New Zealand’s total wine acreage contains roughly the same amount of grapes as the tiny nation of Cyprus, just one-tenth of the production of the saucy Aussies next door.  But New Zealand’s reputation for high-quality wine belies its tiny size.  New Zealand’s wines are loved for their crisp, sharp flavors and food-friendly acidity.  By far, New Zealand’s best-loved wine export is its Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region, which many consider the finest expression of the Sauvignon Blanc grape in the entire world.  Luckily, you can get that quality for a low price – the most famous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, from Cloudy Bay Winery, sells for just $20-30 in major metropolitan markets (and it’s fantastic). 

We’ve included some of our favorite Australia and New Zealand winemakers in this tasting, though the good value these countries’ wines offer means you have a lot of choice with your tasting.  Work with your local wine merchant to pick a good range that spans the varietals we include above.  And feel free to be creative; if you can find a good Australian Viognier or Riesling, feel free to include them in your event in lieu of a second Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc as we suggest.

With that said, we think you should absolutely include Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc if you can.  It’s one of our very favorite wines, renowned for consistent quality for just $10/bottle; or pick a reserve wine from Villa Maria for just $5 more.  Similarly, we think you have to include a Penfolds wine in your event simply because it’s the most famous winemaker in Australia.  The Penfolds Grange is considered by many wine-lovers (most of whom are Australian, but still…) to be the best red wine in the world.  It’s 100% Shiraz from Penfolds’ select reserve vineyards in Australia.  It’s an age-worthy, complex mouth-filling dream of a wine, and it sells for several hundred dollars a bottle.  We included a Penfolds Shiraz-Cabernet because Penfolds is known for making some excellent Cabernet, in addition to their prowess with the Aussie’s beloved Shiraz.

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Discovering French Whites

Theme 

No other country makes so many varieties of wonderful white wines as France.  We also think French whites are fantastic on their own – as picnic wines, cocktail party whites, a pre-dinner aperitif…  They’re flavorful, nuanced and light, rarely overpowering.  If you love white wines and want to learn about some new ones, this is a wonderful tasting that also evokes the romance of France.  

 

Angle

We’d do this as a “blind” tasting, where you disguise the bottles, start everyone on the same wine, and then move through the lineup collectively as a group.  This will encourage conversation and get your guests talking about what they notice and like (or dislike) about each wine.  It also lets you control the order – we’d recommend you start with the lightest & driest wines and gradually progress to the richest and sweetest.  Have your guests take notes as they go, and then match their notes to each wine in the end as you reveal the lineup. 

Sample Lineup 

  1. Domaine La Haute Fevrie, Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie ($12)
  2. Sauvion, Touraine “Les Genets” ($10)
  3. Mouton Cadet, Blanc (Bordeaux) ($9)
  4. Chateau de Maligny, Chablis ($15)
  5. Macon-Lugny, “Les Charmes” ($12)
  6. Domaine de Triennes, Viognier “Sainte-Fleur” ($16)
  7. Chateau de Montfort, Vouvray ($14)
  8. Willm, Alsace Riesling ($10)

  

The Wines 

With this tasting, the range of varietals is more important than the specific winemakers.  The lineup above includes recommended versions of each from some of our favorite merchants, and all in the $10-15 range.  Work with your local wine merchant and find a version of each varietal that they carry regularly and recommend.  The eight white wines above hail from regions throughout France, and providing your guests this sense of geographic diversity is half the fun of the tasting.  

You’ll start with two wines from the Loire Valley – Muscadet and a Sauvignon Blanc like the Touraine above.  Muscadet is a light, dry wine famous for pairing with seafood, while Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc (the most famous is “Sancerre”) will be a bit more fruity & tangy.  The Bordeaux white should be a nice contrast to the first two – smooth, fruity blend based on the Semillon grape.  Then we recommend including two Burgundies (white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay) – a minerally Chablis and a creamy, fruity Macon.  If you can find one at a good price, work in a floral, perfumed Viognier.  Finish with two sweeter wines – Vouvray (made from the Chenin Blanc grape) and Riesling from the Alsace region – and note the contrasts between the two. 

Music 

This is a relaxed, fun tasting of French wines that wouldn’t be out of place at a summer picnic.  Norah Jones would be a great choice among American performers; her music has an easy, dreamlike quality while her voice has a smoky, sultry character that wouldn’t be out of place in a Parisian wine bar.  Her debut album “Come Away With Me” and her followup album “Feels Like Home” would make perfect background music for this classy tasting. 

If you want something more authentically French, we’d recommend Edith Piaf – France’s mid-20th century counterpart to American songbirds like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, both cocktail party standards.  Check out the soundtrack to La Vie en Rose, the 2007 movie about Edith Piaf that starred Marion Cotillard, as well as the compilation album “The Complete Edith Piaf.”  

Pairings 

Your French theme with the wines gives you an opportunity to introduce your guests to some nice French cheeses.  You should absolutely start your cheeseboard off with a goat’s cheese like Chevre, which is a classic pairing with Loire whites like Sauvignon Blanc.  A nice French Brie, which is always popular at a party in any event, will provide a great pairing with your Burgundian chardonnays.  Then why not pick some French cheeses that will be new to many of your guests.  Raclette de Savoie, for example, will pair beautifully with your Vouvray, while a Tomme Fermiere d’Alsace will complement (you guessed it) your Alsace Riesling.  You could always go with crackers, but sliced fresh baguette will complement your French theme even better. 

If you want some passed appetizers, halve some fresh figs, and top with a fresh basil leaf and a small dab of goat’s cheese (Chevre).  It’s a fresh, flavorful bite-sized passed finger-food perfect for these picnic-friendly whites.  Another winner would be stuffed mushroom caps, which you can stuff with crab meat as a perfect accompaniment to your two Burgundies.  Other than that, perhaps serve some light spreads that your guests can serve with their baguette, like artichoke dip or eggplant dip.  Grapes and strawberries will finish your table off.  We’d avoid tomato flavors or anything overwhelming in flavor (like hummus, guacamole or salsa).  

Tasting Notes 

This tasting explores the subtle differences among a variety of fresh, delicious French white wines.  Whereas some “blind” tastings focus on comparing the same type of wine at a variety of price points, all of the wines presented here can be found for $10-15/bottle.  It’s great fun to discover wines that are a little bit different – the sheer variety of wonderful wines out there makes for a sense of ongoing adventure, discovery, and virtual world travel as you explore new grapes and bottles for the first time.  We recommend printing out a map of France (or finding a map in a book) where you can highlight for your guests the regions from which the various wines hail.  

French wines can be tough to get to know at first because the wines are named for regions & villages, almost never for the grape itself.  Muscadet is a grape, but Loire Sauvignon Blancs are usually named for the region (Touraine, or Sancerre).  White Bordeaux is a blend of Semillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc.  White Burgundy – surprise! – is 100% chardonnay.  Viognier is a grape that thrives in the Rhone Valley.  Vouvray is a Loire Valley wine made from the Chenin Blanc grape.  Perhaps Alsace is the one French region likely to include the wine name (Riesling, in this case) on the bottle. 

Muscadet is a great Loire Valley wine to get to know because it is the quintessential French white to pair with seafood – a light, dry wine usually available at a good value.  The “Sevre et Maine” appelation of the Loire Valley produces zingy white wines, while those marked “Sur Lie” have extra body & complexity.  The Loire Valley is also known for great sauvignon blanc; “Sancerre” is the best known, but a bit pricier than the Touraine we recommend above.  Sauvignon  Blanc will be a bit fruitier & tangier than the Muscadet and is a great food pairing wine for just about everything else (not just seafood!). 

Bordeaux is best known for red wine but also makes interesting dry white wine blends that should provide an interesting contrast to the Loire Valley whites.  Bordeaux white wines blend three grapes and are typically at least 80% Semillon, along with smaller percentages of the grapes Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc.  Mouton Cadet is an affordable, widely available value-priced white Bordeaux – rich, smooth and with tropical fruit notes.  

From Bordeaux, move to Burgundy, where the white wines are 100% chardonnay.  There are five different sub-regions within Burgundy, and we would suggest including two in your tasting.  Start with a Chablis, a well-known source of chardonnay that is notably chalky and minerally, almost mouth-puckeringly so.  Follow up with a Burgundy from the Maconnais region like the one we recommend, which will likely be notably rounder, with clean, creamy fruit flavor.  The contrast should be informative and fun for your guests. 

If you can find a Viognier, definitely try to work it into the tasting.  It’s a unique, somewhat unheralded grape, though one’s that often considered fashionable purely because it’s not widely known.  Viognier has a fascinating and unique flavor – very floral, almost perfumed.  If you can’t find one for $15 or less, look for Guigal’s Cote du Rhone Blanc, which is a blend that’s usually at least 50% Viognier that can be found for $13 or so.  

Finish with two different whites – Vouvray and Riesling.  Vouvray is a crowd-pleasing, sweeter white made from the Chenin Blanc grape in the Loire Valley.  Riesling is also sweeter, but with a different taste entirely; the Rieslings made in France’s Alsace region are somewhat drier than those made in Germany or in California.

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Intro to French Wines

Theme

Viva la France!  Whether it’s chardonnay or pinot noir (Burgundy), cabernet sauvignon and merlot (Bordeaux), syrah (Rhone Valley), sauvignon blanc (the Loire Valley) or sparkling wine (Champagne), French wines set the standard against which all other winemakers worldwide are judged.  This will be a great tasting to introduce you and your guests to the most important and popular wines – and winemaking regions – in France.

Angle

The thing that can be confusing at first about French wines is that the wines are named for the region they’re produced, not for the grape from which the wines are made.   You’ll want this to be a “horizontal tasting” where you taste the wines one by one and educate your guests on the basics of each.  The wines in this tasting are totally different from one another, so frankly this tasting is a de facto “Wine 101” on its own that shows off nearly every major wine grape in the world!

Sample Lineup

  1. Charles Lafitte, Brut Prestige, Vins de Sables ($16)
  2. Sauvion, Touraine “Les Genets” ($10)
  3. Joseph Drouhin, Laforet Bourgogne Chardonnay ($10)
  4. Chateau de Montfort, Vouvray ($14)
  5. Willm, Alsace Riesling ($10)
  6. Louis Latour, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy ($13)
  7. Guigal, Cotes du Rhone Rouge ($14)
  8. Chateau Greysac, Medoc, Bordeaux ($15)

The Wines

With this tasting, it’s less important to pick the exact wines we recommend above (though you can certainly do that!) and more important to get one wine from each region.  Work with your local wine merchant on finding good examples of each of the following: a Loire Valley sauvignon blanc (like the Touraine above), an affordable chardonnay from Burgundy, a Vouvray, an Alsace Riesling, a good, inexpensive red Burgundy (pinot noir), a Cotes du Rhone, and a value-priced Bordeaux.

Ideally, you’d start with a glass of bubbly – what’s more festive than that! – but Champagne normally starts at $30/bottle.  We recommended a sparkling wine made by a famous champagne house (Charles Lafitte) but from grapes located outside the champagne region.  Frankly, we think the exception can prove the rule – you can start the event by teaching your guests about Champagne, and in particular how only sparkling wines made in a certain method (the “methode Champenoise”) from grapes in the Champagne region are allowed to be called “Champagne.” 

We recommend starting with four French whites.  Sauvignon Blanc is a tangy, zesty popular white wine great on its own or with food; the ones from the Loire Valley are world-renowned.  The most famous are called “Sancerre” (sauvignon blanc grapes from the Sancerre region of the Loire Valley) though these typically cost more than $20/bottle.  From there, move to chardonnay – which in France means white Burgundy.  Even though they don’t say “chardonnay” anywhere on the label, virtually all white Burgundy wines are 100% chardonnay.  Vouvray is a region where delicious and “semi-sec” (meaning part dry, part sweet) wines are made from the chenin blanc grape.  It’s a crowd-pleaser.  Finally, try a Riesling from Alsace.  Rieslings are zesty, somewhat sweet whites great with food, though the ones from Alsace are drier than those made in other regions.

For the reds it’s simple: you want a Burgundy, a Rhone, and a Bordeaux.  Just as all white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay, all red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir.  If the wine says “Bourgogne” on it, it’s a basic pinot noir from grapes grown around the Burgundy region.  In the Rhone Valley, more full-bodied, spicy rich wines are made from blends of syrah, Grenache and the mourvedre (often abbreviated “GSM”).  Cotes du Rhone are a popular version of these wines and a good place to start.  Finally, finish with Bordeaux – possibly the world’s most famous wine region.  Bordeaux wines are blends of up to five grapes, almost always dominated by cabernet sauvignon and merlot, along with cabernet franc.  They’re big, complex, rich wines; they can also be expensive.  Look for a “Bordeaux Superieur” which are lower-priced versions, or a “Cru Bourgeois” like Chateau Greysac that are high-quality but offer good value.

Music

This is a classy tasting – you want some elegant party music that, if possible, evokes the romance of a vacation to France.  A great album to play, if you can find it, is the soundtrack to “French Kiss,” the Kevin Kline – Meg Ryan romantic comedy that ends up with the couple living happily ever after in French wine country.  It’s got tunes like Ella Fitzgerald’s “I Love Paris,” a Kevin Kline French-language cover of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” (called “La Mer”), a great tune called “Via con Me” by Paolo Conte, and other tunes that blend French and English. 

The album’s hard to find however (last we checked, it wasn’t on iTunes), so a good substitution is the iTunes Essentials playlist “French Dinner Party.” Alternatively, for this tasting you can’t go wrong with  Edith Piaf, the French counterpart to American songstresses like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday.  Edith Piaf would make great background music for your party; check out the soundtrack to the movie La Vie en Rose, the 2007 movie about Piaf starring Marion Cotillard, and/or the compilation album “The Complete Edith Piaf.”

Pairings

French wine calls for French cheese, but of course!  Your tasting has a range of different wine styles, so your cheeses should vary in style.  Definitely pick a nice chevre or similar French goat’s cheese (it’ll go great with your Loire Valley whites and your red Burgundy).  Also, you can’t go wrong with a brie, which will be great with your white Burgundy and is generally a favorite.   Cantal is a great choice to pair with your Bordeaux, while St. Nectaire will round out your cheese selection and go very well with the Cotes du Rhone.  While simple water biscuit crackers can’t miss at any winetasting, a sliced French baguette will accentuate your theme even better.

Alternatively, if you want to include some hors d’ouerves with your event, we would suggest lighter appetizers rather than heavier dishes, given the range of wines you’re serving.  We recommend olive tapenade, which will complement your baguette & cheese and taste great with the French reds.  Similarly, eggplant and/or artichoke spreads would work perfectly – a selection of all three makes a great presentation.  For something a little more substantial, we love serving stuffed mushroom caps at a wine tasting party.  You can stuff your mushroom caps with crab meat, bread crumbs, or (for the adventurous) escargot (snails)! 

 

 

 

 

Tasting Notes

In their “World Atlas of Wine,” wine authorities Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson describe how “wine producers in the rest of the world love to hate the French.  They have so many indisputable advantages in France and can regard them with an infuriating mixture of arrogance and insouciance.  But what makes France the undisputed mistress of the vine; the originator and producer of more, and more varied, great wines than all the rest of the world?  It is not just the national character and its preoccupation with matters of the heart, palate and liver.  It is also a matter of geography.  France, washed by the Atlantic and lapped by the Mediterranean, is uniquely well situated…she has no shortage of wine regions at the limit of grape-ripening potential where growing seasons are at their longest.”

Because this is such a diverse tour of the great wine grapes of the world, we would recommend printing out tasting notes for your guests with white space to allow them to take notes on how the wines differ in flavor and style.  We also recommend printing out a map of France (or finding a map in a book) where you can highlight for your guests the regions from which the various wines hail.  Wine tasting is a form of world travel in between vacations, and we’ve always found guests enjoy connecting the various wines they’re trying to the far-off and (particularly in the case of France) romantic places the wines were made.  It’s also helpful to see that Burgundy is farther north (it’s cooler, which suits Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), while the Rhone is located farther south (suiting warmer-weather varietals like Syrah) and Alsace is near Germany (which is known for similar varietals to Alsace, including Riesling). 

French wines are almost always named for the region they’re produced (as well as the chateau which makes the wine), rather than for the grape(s) from which the wine is made.  Luckily, the different regions tend to specialize in different wines, so once you start learning about French wine, you realize it’s not as complicated as it seems.  For that reason, a tasting like this can be very helpful in giving you and your guests the “lay of the land” you’ll need to start exploring French wines with confidence.

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Intro to Italian Wines

Theme

Everyone loves Italy, and Italy loves wine.  This tasting is entirely dedicated to Italian wines and is designed to introduce your guests to the range of grapes & flavors bottled with amore in Italy.  This party will take your guests on a tour of Italy and may just reveal to them a new wine to accompany their favorite pasta.  You’ll all soon be confidently asking for the wine list at your favorite Italian restaurant and raising a glass to toast la dolce vita!

Angle

This tasting is a “horizontal” tasting of many of the basic wine varietals of Italy.  A “horizontal” wine tasting means you taste very different wines one after the other and learn how to tell one apart from the next.  You don’t hide the bottles (as in a “blind” tasting) because you want your guests to see what they taste and learn as they go.  The angle of the event is to educate your guests on the major types of wine from Italy and to help them learn which they prefer.  You’ll also learn what region of Italy each wine is most associated with, and what foods make the perfect pairing!

Sample Lineup

  1. Tocai Friulano, Ermacora ($15)
  2. Pinot Grigio, Alois Legeder ($15)
  3. Soave, Allegrini ($12)
  4. Valpolicella, Masi “Bonacosta” ($9)
  5. Barbera, Fontanafredda Piemonte “Briccotondo” ($11)
  6. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Bosco, Riserva ($12)
  7. Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena ($12)
  8. Nebbiolo, Renato Ratti, Nebbiola d’Alba “Ochetti” ($20)

The Wines

With this tasting, the range of varietals is more important than the specific winemakers.  The lineup above includes recommended versions of each from some of our favorite merchants, and all in the $10-15 range (with the exception of nebbiolo, which is worth including if you can find one just a bit pricier than $15).  Work with your local wine merchant and find a version of each varietal that they carry regularly and recommend.. 

Starting with the whites, Tocai, Pinot Grigio and Soave are probably the best Italian whites to introduce to your guests.  Tocai is a bold, flavorful, tangy white from Friuli that will go great with prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe.  Soave is a light, fresh and smooth (literally, “suave”) white from a town located just west of Verona (of Romeo & Juliet fame).  Pinot Grigio is a versatile white that at its best can be tangy & minerally.  Some of the best come from the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps, just south of Austria. 

 

For the reds, Valpolicella is a lighter, easy-drinking wine from the Veneto region (around Venice, as the name suggests!).  Barbera and Montepulciano are more full-bodied but still smooth and drinkable.  Chianti Classico and Nebbiolo are more complex (and often more expensive), with bracing acidity & tannins and more structure and depth.  Chianti is made from the sangiovese grape – Italy’s most recognizable and popular – while Nebbiolo is a grape that produces some of the most revered and sought-after reds in the world from the Barolo region of Piemonte.

Music

For this party, you want fun background music with a decidedly Italian flavor.  Make an Italian mix of songs on iTunes.  Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” can certainly make an appearance.  But to actually go in that restaurant, search for an album called “Ciao Amore” where you’ll find tunes like “Amado Mio,” “La Dolce Vita Suite,” “Via Con Me,” “Alle Prese con Una Verde Milonga,” and “Titoli.”  There’s also an album called “La musica della mafia, vol. 3” where we’d go for “Era na sira i Maggiu,” “E lu processu,” and “Ammazzaru lu generali.”  Other albums to check out with great Italian tunes for this mix are “Gira L’Italia,” “The Italian Collection (vols 1 and 2)” and “Legends of the Italian Lounge.”

With that base of authenticity in your mix, add in some familiar tunes from classic Italian crooners.  Dean Martin’s “Volare,” “On an Evening in Roma,” and “That’s Amore” are perfect choices.  Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” will fit right in, as will Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” and Tony Bennett’s “The Best is Yet to Come.”  Then, toss in some upbeat classic Italian folk tunes & arias from the greatest Italian tenor of them all, Luciano Pavarotti. We’d pick “Ti adoro,” “Funiculi, Funicula,” “La Donne e Mobile” and “M’appari,” among others.  And finally, don’t forget Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano.” 

Mix all these tunes up – plus any others you discover in the process of searching for these – and let iTunes shuffle it into a veritable ragu of great Italian background music for your tasting.  All this might sound cheesy, but trust us – we have actually thrown an Italian party with this mix and it the music set a perfect mood for a classy yet boisterous party. 

Pairings

Italian cheeses are delicious – we’d recommend putting a cheeseboard together with some soft, lighter cheeses (for the whites) as well as some hard, full-flavored Italian cheeses to pair with the reds.  Taleggio and fontina are delicious cheeses for your whites.  Parmigiano reggiano and asiago are crowd-pleasers that will go wonderfully with the Italian reds you’re serving. 

For passed hors d’ouerves, you can prepare a variety of lighter and heavier apps with an Italian flair.  Prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe is one of our favorites and will pair very nicely with whites like Tocai or Pinot Grigio.  We’d cube the cantaloupe in advance, wrap each bite-size piece with a bit of prosciutto and serve with toothpicks.  Another fun finger-food appetizer you can make in advance would be mini-Caprese skewers, using a toothpick to skewer a halved grape tomato, a fresh basil leaf and a small mozzarella ball.  Along the same lines, halved fresh figs topped with a fresh basil leaf and a dab of goat’s cheese make a great summer-time finger food that would complement your theme and your wines perfectly.  Of course, to pair with your reds you can’t go wrong with chopped tomato bruschetta, and Italian meatballs served with toothpicks are sure to be a hit.

Tasting Notes

Italy produces more wine than any other country – vino is an integral part of the Italian meal and Italian culture.  There are over 900,000 registered vineyards in Italy (!) across twenty distinct wine regions.  Italians drink an average of nearly 15 gallons of wine per person, per year.  Italian whites are light, versatile crowd-pleasers, but arguably lack the stage presence of other white wines that are perhaps more popular when tasted in the absence of food (e.g. chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Riesling).  Similarly, the acidity and “kick” of Italian reds means they can be daunting when tasted on their own.  The fact is, all Italian wines are designed to be enjoyed with food, when their acidity springs to life alongside cured meats, tomato dishes, and rich Italian sauces. 

We recommend printing out a map of Italy (or finding a map in a book) where you can highlight for your guests the regions from which the various wines hail.  Wine tasting is a form of world travel in between vacations, and we’ve always found guests enjoy connecting the various wines they’re trying to the far-off and (particularly in the case of Italy) romantic places the wines were made.  Tuscany, the Italian Riviera, Verona, the Italian Alps… In the same vein, highlight the types of foods unique to each region, as Italians tend to eat primarily local meats and produce and to pair them with local wines. 

Italian wines can be daunting to get to know because the wines can be named either for the region/village where the wine is made, or for the grape itself (which in most cases you probably aren’t familiar with).  Soave, for example, is made primarily from the trebbiano and “garganega grapes.  Tocai and Pinot Grigio, meanwhile, are the names of grapes, the former native to the Friuli region, the latter known as “Pinot Gris” elsewhere in the world.   Valpolicella is made from the corvina grape, while Chianti is made from the sangiovese grape.  Chianti Classico is a distinct region known for producing the richest and most full-bodied of these wines, known for their cherry and plum flavors.  But if the sangiovese grape is Italy’s best-known red, the nebbiolo grape makes Italy’s most profound red wines – those found in the Barolo and Barbaresco regions of Piemonte. 

We can recommend two great books that revel in the glories of Italian wine, food and culture.  Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun is a great read that is now well-known thanks to the 2004 movie starring Diane Lane.  But whereas the movie focused on the main character’s love life and personal journey, the book is more about the food, wine and culture of Tuscany – complete with recipes and food/wine pairings.  Also, we recently read and loved Sergio Esposito’s memoir Passion on the Vine, a great story about the author’s life, work and travel in pursuit of discovering and glorifying Italian wine and the food, culture and personalities that accompany the grape in Italia.  Esposito is the founder and proprietor of Italian Wine Merchants, a fantastic all-Italy wine store in New York City with a great website – check it out!

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Discovering Italian Whites

Theme

Ask many people to name an Italian white wine and the conversation starts and ends with “Pinot Grigio.”  In fact, the various regions of Italy produce a wide variety of delicious whites that vary quite a bit in style and taste.  If you and your guests prefer white wines and want to do an Italian-themed event – or if you love Italian food and white wine but want to move beyond Pinot Grigio – then this is the tasting for you!

Angle

We’d recommend doing this as a “blind” tasting of a range of different Italian white varietals.  Disguise the wines and let your guests see how the various wines taste and which ones they prefer, using only their nose and their palate to tell them apart.  When everyone’s tried all the wines once and noted their preferences, unveil the wines and distribute some “tasting notes” describing each wine and the region it comes from.  It should be a fun, laid back tasting that introduces your guests to some new summer whites!  Bellissimo!

Sample Lineup

  1. Vermentino, Mancini, Vermentino di Gallura ($15)
  2. Tocai Friulano, Ermacora ($15)
  3. Soave, Allegrini ($12)
  4. Pinot Grigio, Alois Legeder ($15)
  5. Gavi, Broglia “La Meirana” Gavi di Gavi ($15)
  6. Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Le Rote ($13)
  7. Orvieto Classico, Ruffino ($9)

 

 The Wines

With this tasting, the range of varietals is more important than the specific winemakers.  The lineup above includes recommended versions of each from some of our favorite merchants, and all in the $10-15 range.  Work with your local wine merchant and find a version of each varietal that they carry regularly and recommend.  The eight white wines above hail from regions throughout Italy, and providing your guests this sense of geographic diversity is half the fun of the tasting. 

 

Vermentino is a dry, floral white that hails from two seaside areas: Liguria (the Italian Riviera) and the isle of Sardinia.  Not surprisingly, it pairs really well with seafood.  Tocai is a bold, flavorful, tangy white from Friuli that will go great with prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe.  Soave is a light, fresh and smooth (literally, “suave”) white from a town located just west of Verona (of Romeo & Juliet fame).  Pinot Grigio is a versatile white that at its best can be tangy & minerally.  Some of the best come from the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps, just south of Austria. 

Gavi is a dry, crisp wine with notes of citrus & minerals that hails from the Piemonte region in the shadow of the Alps.  Though Piemonte is better known as a land of serious reds (notably Barolo and Barbaresco), Gavi was considered several decades ago to be one of the great wines of Italy.  Vernaccia is the great white wine of Tuscany, hailing from a town called San Gimignano referred to as “the Manhattan of Tuscany” because of its tall medieval towers.  Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a lively, flavorful dry white and the best ones can be mouth-puckering beauties.  Orvieto is the best-known white wine from Umbria, the region in central Italy that was the home of St. Francis of Assisi.  Orvieto is light, crisp and peachy and is often made into a higher-end version called Orvieto Classico.

Music

This is a relaxed tasting of light white wines that would accompany a summer picnic perfectly, while the fact they’re all from Italy imbues the event with a sense of romance and la dolce vita.  We’d pick easygoing music that wouldn’t be out of place at a romantic summer picnic for two. 

Start with Norah Jones’ debut album “Come Away With Me.” From there transition into Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits album, which picks up the energy a bit just as your guests are getting a spring in their step from the wine and the atmosphere!  By the time “Cecilia” plays as the final track, everyone should be having a blast.  From there you could go anywhere; Sting’s “Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994” might be a nice bridge to something more contemporary, with a good collection of recognizable easy-listening pop tunes that still wouldn’t be out of place at a picnic.

Pairings

Italian wines deserve Italian cheeses, though we’d stick primarily with softer cheeses.  The crispness and acidity of the wines help cleanse the mouth in a way that works very nicely with cheese like Taleggio, fresh Ricotta, or Fontina.  Throw in some Asiago as a nice contrast, and you’ve got a beautiful light Italian cheese board to complement your tasting.

A perfect appetizer for this event would be prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe.  Many crisp Italian whites (like Tocai) complement prosciutto perfectly, and prosciutto and cantaloupe make a fantastic combination for a summer picnic-type event.  We’d cube the cantaloupe in advance, wrap each bite-size piece with a bit of prosciutto and serve with toothpicks.  Another fun finger-food appetizer you can make in advance would be mini-Caprese skewers, using a toothpick to skewer a halved grape tomato, a fresh basil leaf and a small mozzarella ball.  Along the same lines, halved fresh figs topped with a fresh basil leaf and a dab of goat’s cheese make a great summer-time finger food that would complement your theme and your wines perfectly.

Tasting Notes

This tasting explores the subtle differences among a variety of light, refreshing Italian white wines.  Whereas some “blind” tastings focus on comparing the same type of wine at a variety of price points, all of the wines presented here can be found for $10-15/bottle.  It’s fun to discover wines that are a little bit different.  I still remember the first time I ever ordered a bottle of Soave; it was on a date, we loved it, and we felt as though we were the only people in the world who had discovered the secret of this wonderful wine’s existence.  Wine tasting can be like that – the sheer variety of wonderful wines out there makes for a sense of ongoing adventure, discovery, and virtual world travel as you explore new grapes and bottles for the first time.

We recommend printing out a map of Italy (or finding a map in a book) where you can highlight for your guests the regions from which the various wines hail.  Wine tasting is a form of world travel in between vacations, and we’ve always found guests enjoy connecting the various wines they’re trying to the far-off and (particularly in the case of Italy) romantic places the wines were made.  Tuscany, the Italian Riviera, Verona, the Italian Alps… In the same vein, highlight the types of foods unique to each region, as Italians tend to eat primarily local meats and produce and to pair them with local wines. 

Italian wines can be daunting to get to know because the wines can be named either for the region/village where the wine is made, or for the grape itself (which in most cases you probably aren’t familiar with).  Orvieto, for example, is made primarily from the “trebbiano” grape.  Soave blends trebbiano with the “garganega” grape.  Gavi is made from the “cortese” grape native to Piemonte (Gavi itself is a village).  By contrast, Vernaccia is a grape; the town San Gimignano in Tuscany is the only place in the world where it’s produced with fanfare.  Tocai too is a grape, one native to the Friuli region.  Vermentino is also the name of a grape, while Pinot Grigio is the grape known as “Pinot Gris” elsewhere in the world.    

And when it comes to Pinot Grigio…we recommend you try to find a bottle of the Alois Lageder if you can.  They make consistently great versions of Pinot Grigio, a wine that can be mediocre if not made with care, at a price that won’t break the bank.  Alois Lageder is a fantastic producer in the Alto Adige region of Italy, and you may find you want to explore some of their other delicious wines as well.

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Discovering Italian Reds

  Theme

Italian red wines are like no other wines in the world.  They’re made from grapes that don’t flourish anywhere else in the world, and they’re made to be enjoyed with food.  If you’re sitting down to a meal of pasta, pizza or more sophisticated Italian cuisine, it would be almost unimaginable not to pick an Italian vino rosso as the wine to pair with your meal.  This tasting introduces you and your guests to the wide variety of Italian reds out there and is sure to bring you back for more exploration of Italy’s fabulous red wines.

Angle

This is a horizontal tasting of red wines from a variety of different Italian grapes and wine regions.  You’ve heard the names before – Chianti, Valpolicella, Montepulciano – but we’re willing to bet you may not be exactly sure how these wines differ from one another.  This tasting will compare them side by side.  Display the wine bottles & labels and give your guests tasting notes so they can begin to get better acquainted with the ways a Dolcetto differs from a Barbera from a Rosso.  Serve them from lightest to most full-bodied.  Enjoy!

Sample Lineup

  1. Valpolicella, Masi “Bonacosta” ($9)
  2. Dolcetto d’Alba, Marchesi di Barolo “Madonna di Como” ($12)
  3. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Bosco, Riserva ($12)
  4. Barbera, Fontanafredda Piemonte “Briccotondo” ($11)
  5. Cannonau, Sella & Mosca, Riserva ($14)
  6. Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena ($12)
  7. Rosso di Montalcino, Ferrero ($16)
  8. Nebbiolo, Renato Ratti, Nebbiola d’Alba “Ochetti” ($20)

 

The Wines

This is a tasting where you’re trying to show off a range of wines made from different grapes in different parts of Italy.  We tried to pick wines at affordable price points (most are less than $15/bottle) that were recommended by some of our favorite merchants and that have won plaudits from some of the more prominent wine critics.  If you can’t find these, though, don’t worry; the varietals are more important than the specific winemakers you choose.  Your local wine merchant can provide some recommendations for wines they know and like, and that they keep in stock regularly.

Valpolicella and Dolcetto are lighter, easy-drinking wines.  Barbera, Montepulciano and Cannonau are more full-bodied but still smooth and gluggable.  Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino and Nebbiolo are more complex (and often more expensive), with bracing acidity & tannins and more structure and depth.  The first two are made from the sangiovese grape – Italy’s most recognizable and popular – while Nebbiolo is a grape that produces some of the most revered and sought-after reds in the world from the Barolo region of Piemonte.

Music

For this party, you want fun background music with a decidedly Italian flavor.  Make an Italian mix of songs on iTunes.  Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” can certainly make an appearance.  But to actually go in that restaurant, search for an album called “Ciao Amore” where you’ll find tunes like “Amado Mio,” “La Dolce Vita Suite,” “Via Con Me,” “Alle Prese con Una Verde Milonga,” and “Titoli.”  There’s also an album called “La musica della mafia, vol. 3” where we’d go for “Era na sira i Maggiu,” “E lu processu,” and “Ammazzaru lu generali.”  Other albums to check out with great Italian tunes for this mix are “Gira L’Italia,” “The Italian Collection (vols 1 and 2)” and “Legends of the Italian Lounge.”

With that base of authenticity in your mix, add in some familiar tunes from classic Italian crooners.  Dean Martin’s “Volare,” “On an Evening in Roma,” and “That’s Amore” are perfect choices.  Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” will fit right in, as will Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” and Tony Bennett’s “The Best is Yet to Come.”  Then, toss in some upbeat classic Italian folk tunes & arias from the greatest Italian tenor of them all, Luciano Pavarotti. We’d pick “Ti adoro,” “Funiculi, Funicula,” “La Donne e Mobile” and “M’appari,” among others.  And finally, don’t forget Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano.” 

Mix all these tunes up – plus any others you discover in the process of searching for these – and let iTunes shuffle it into a veritable ragu of great Italian background music for your tasting.  All this might sound cheesy, but trust us – we have actually thrown an Italian party with this mix and it the music set a perfect mood for a classy yet boisterous party. 

Pairings

You’re serving wines that were made go with Italian cheeses, pasta and pizza, as well as anything and everything tomato.  So we’d go with hard, full-flavored Italian cheeses like parmigiano reggiano, aged Tuscan pecorino, and asiago.  For passed hors d’ouerves, chopped tomato bruschetta would be perfect, as would Italian meatballs served with toothpicks.  And frankly, another option that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser is pizza!  Order up a few simple thin-crust cheese pizzas – preferably with fresh tomato, mozzarella & basil – and slice them into bite-size pieces rather than traditional-sized slices.  You might order the pizzas to arrive towards the end of your event so that when everyone’s identified their favorite Italian red, they can pour a 2nd helping to enjoy with a small slice of pie.  Mangia bene! 

Tasting Notes

Italy produces more wine than any other country – vino is an integral part of the Italian meal and Italian culture.  There are over 900,000 registered vineyards in Italy (!) across twenty distinct wine regions.  Italians drink an average of nearly 15 gallons of wine per person, per year.  Interestingly, however, the acidity and “kick” of Italian reds means they can be daunting when tasted on their own.  They’re designed to be drank with food, when that bracing, rustic acidity springs to life alongside tomato flavors, grilled meats and rich Italian sauces.  Wine writer and authority Karen MacNeil quotes an Italian friend who once told her: “If someone drinks a little too much wine, the Italians don’t say he has drunk too much; they say he hasn’t eaten enough food yet.”

Valpolicella is a light-bodied red made from blends that include the corvina grape, a wine known for some richer, dried cherry flavors.  Dolcetto is a grape from the Piemonte region which makes an easy-drinking light red wine with hints of spice and bitter chocolate.   Barbera, like Dolcetto, is a grape in Piemonte – but the similarities end there.  Barbera is a tangy, mouth-filling wine known for richer fruit & chocolate flavors.  Montepulciano is also a fuller-bodied but drinkable soft red, this one hailing from the Abruzzi region west of Rome.  All four of these wines are known as straightforward, enjoyable food-friendly reds.

Cannonau is a wine unique to the Italian isle of Sardinia and is a pleasant but strong, full-bodied red wine with licorice and strawberry hints.  Chianti is Italy’s best-known red wine, made in Tuscany from the sangiovese grape that pairs so perfectly with tomato-based dishes.  Chianti Classico is a distinct region known for producing the richest and most full-bodied of these wines, known for their cherry and plum flavors.  Rosso di Montalcino is the little brother of Tuscany’s famed Brunello di Montalcino, another big Tuscan red made from a clone of sangiovese called “prugnolo.”  Wines from Montalcino are known for dark red fruits, but while Brunello is big, rich and expensive, Rosso’s are lighter and more approachable. 

But if the sangiovese grape is Italy’s best-known red, the nebbiolo grape makes Italy’s most profound red wines – those found in the Barolo and Barbaresco regions of Piemonte.  Nebbiolo is actually considered by many wine elites to be one of the four most important red wines in the world, alongside Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah; yet it thrives almost exclusively in northern Italy.  Nebbiolo is a dark-colored, wine known for flavors of tar, leather, chocolate, figs and prunes, and many of the best Barolos need to age for years (even decades!) before reaching their full flavor potential.  If you can find one at an approachable price point, we would definitely include it in your tasting due its stature as one of (if not the) most important of Italy’s red wines.

We can recommend two great books that revel in the glories of Italian wine, food and culture.  Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun is a great read that is now well-known thanks to the 2004 movie starring Diane Lane.  But whereas the movie focused on the main character’s love life and personal journey, the book is more about the food, wine and culture of Tuscany – complete with recipes and food/wine pairings.  Also, we recently read and loved Sergio Esposito’s memoir Passion on the Vine, a great story about the author’s life, work and travel in pursuit of discovering and glorifying Italian wine and the food, culture and personalities that accompany the grape in Italia.  Esposito is the founder and proprietor of Italian Wine Merchants, a fantastic all-Italy wine store in New York City with a great website – check it out!

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Wine Tasting 101

Theme

This is the perfect wine tasting for beginners!  This will be very classy and elegant, yet a fun and easy way to learn a lot about wine in a single tasting.  By the end of this event you’ll be familiar with all the “major” white and red wines of the world, you’ll know how to tell them apart, and you’ll have discovered several great and affordable wines that we bet will soon become staples in your home!

Angle

This tasting is a “horizontal” tasting of the basic, classic wine varietals.  A “horizontal” wine tasting means you taste very different wines one after the other and learn how to tell one apart from the next.  You don’t hide the bottles (as in a “blind” tasting) because you want your guests to see what they taste and learn as they go.  The angle of the event is to educate your guests on the “must-know” types of wine and to help them learn which they prefer.  You’ll also learn what part of the world each wine is most associated with!

Sample Lineup

  1. Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($10)
  2. Chalone, Monterey Chardonnay, California ($9)
  3. Dr. Loosen, Riesling, “Dr. L,” Germany ($10)
  4. Louis Latour, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France ($13)
  5. Antinori, Santa Cristina, Tuscany, Italy ($10)
  6. Marques de Caceres, Rioja Crianza, Spain ($12)
  7. Joel Gott, Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($15)
  8. Rosemount, “Diamond Label” Shiraz, Australia ($10)

The Wines

What’s important in this tasting is the varietals, not the specific wines.  With that said, we tried to assemble a lineup above of winemakers we know and like, at price points that are perfect for an introductory tasting.  These are good wines for the money that are widely available. 

The three most important white wines to know about in the world are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling.  Serve them in order.  Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and citrusy, a great aperitif and fantastic with food.  Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white – creamy, fruity and rich.  Riesling is a sweeter but still zesty crisp white, perfect as a food pairing or on its own.  We’ve picked wines above that show off a region of the world known for producing great versions of each: New Zealand sauvignon blanc, California chardonnay and German Riesling.

We picked a lineup of the five red wine grapes that represent a complete world tour of the “basics” of red wine – pinot noir, sangiovese, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and syrah (known as “shiraz” in Australia).  But if you had to pick just two of these, you’d take pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, which we’d argue are the most important red wines in the world.  Pinot Noir, with its light, elegant tart berry flavors, is a great wine on its own or with food and is made to greatest acclaim in Burgundy, France.  Cabernet Sauvignon, by contrast, is a more full-bodied, mouth-filling wine in which rich red fruit flavors mingle with lush chocolaty tones.  Cabernet is the main grape used in the famous red blends of Bordeaux, France, but it reaches greatness on its own in Napa Valley, California. 

Depending on how many wines you want to serve, we’d round out your tasting with one or more of the following: tempranillo from Spain; sangiovese from Italy; and syrah/shiraz from down under in Australia.  Most great Spanish reds are made from tempranillo, a light-to-medium bodied, spicy and earthy wine that is the primary grape used in Spanish Rioja.  No country makes more wine than Italy, and the great reds of Tuscany (including Chianti) are based on the sangiovese grape that pairs so well with tomato-based pasta sauces.  And syrah – a full-bodied, spicy red wine, thrives in the Rhone Valley of France as well as in the big jammy reds of Australia.

Music

This is a fun, classy tasting and a wonderful way to introduce your guests to la dolce vita – wine for us has always symbolized the good life.  So we’d choose music that evokes an era of class, sophistication, romance and fun.  Start with the classic stylings of Ella Fitzgerald.  Just about every album of hers is a perfect backdrop for a wine tasting party.  Her renditions of standards like “Something’s Gotta Give,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “S’Wonderful,” “Hooray for Love,” “From This Moment On,” and “Love You Madly” are fantastic, upbeat songs to set the mood for your party.

From there, pivot to Frank Sinatra.  You know all his songs; again, we’d recommend passing by his slow ballads and emphasizing the likes of  “Come Fly With Me,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Chicago,” “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “My Kind of Town,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”… and of course, “New York, New York” would be a great sendoff to your event.

Pairings

You’re serving as wide a variety of wines as possible, so pick cheeses that are versatile crowd-pleasers.  We’d go with Chevre, Camembert, Manchego, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Chevre (or any goat’s cheese) is a wonderful pairing with your first wine of the night, Sauvignon Blanc.  Camembert goes well with creamy chardonnay or with pinot noir.  Manchego pairs beautifully with Tempranillo like Rioja, or with richer reds like Cabernet and Shiraz.  Another perfect pick for the big reds is Parmigiano-Reggiano, which of course will be great with the Italian sangiovese as well.  Serve with simple crackers like Carr’s Water Table crackers, or simple whole wheat digestive crackers, or with sliced baguette.

For a wine tasting party like this, we’d choose other foods that complement the wines but stay in the background; avoid big flavors that might overwhelm the lighter wines being served  We’d stay away from classic party foods like ranch dip, hummus, guacamole, or salsa.  Go instead for fruit: strawberries, grapes and dried apricots will work well and also add color to your table.  A selection of unsalted almonds and mixed olives makes a nice accompaniment to your wine and cheese party as well. 

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Tasting Notes

For your event, add to the class by printing out a tasting notes sheet with the names of the wines and space for your guests to write notes on each.  You don’t have to be a wine snob to be able to notice what a wine smells & tastes like to you, and it’s fun to write down both so you can remember later and also to notice & record differences in the wines.  Do a little research and maybe write up a little summary of each type of wine – the flavors it’s known for, the primary grape used, and the regions of the world most known for producing that varietal. 

You don’t have to spend a lot on the wines for this to be a fun and educational tasting – the wines are different enough from one another that you’ll be able to learn the basics with wines that are $10-15/bottle.  If you want to spend more, you certainly can – and if you do, work with your local wine merchant to pick versions of each wine that are well-regarded, best sellers that are widely available.

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