Rieslings from Germany and Alsace, France

 The Theme

Riesling is an unheralded, delicious wine that makes a total hit as a wine tasting party.  Many novice wine drinkers prefer sweeter-tasting wines, and with great Riesling you can be sweet and sophisticated at the same time!  Riesling is a great wine to become familiar with because it pairs amazingly well with food or as a flavorful white on its own.  Many delicious and easy-to-find Rieslings can be had for less then $25/bottle.  Wunderbar!

The Angle 

Focus on Rieslings from Germany and the Alsace region of France, the two areas of Europe known for elevating this grape to greatness.  German Rieslings can be complicated to learn about at first glance, so use this tasting as a way to break it down & demystify this wonderful wine. 
Meanwhile, introduce your guests to popular and widely-distributed German & Alsace winemakers at a variety of price points. 

Do this tasting in two parts.  First, German wine labels are crazy complicated – so turn this to your advantage by having your guests taste three German wines side-by-side: a Kabinett, a Spatlese and an Auslese (in that order).  Let them see the labels of these 3 so they can learn.  Second, explore the differences in style: German Rieslings tend to be a bit sweeter while Alsace Rieslings tend to be a bit drier.  So do a “blind” tasting (disguise the bottles) of 4-5 other Rieslings from Germany & Alsace to let guests learn what style they prefer and to find a favorite which they can look for in the store later.

Sample Lineup

Part One (in order, one at a time, with labels displayed):

  1. Joh. Jos. Prum, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, 2007 ($40)
  2. Joh. Jos. Prum, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese, 2007 ($40)
  3. Joh. Jos. Prum, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese, 2007 ($40)

Part Two (blind tasting):

  1. “Dr. L” Riesling, Kabinett, Dr. Loosen, Germany, 2008 ($10)
  2. Hugel Riesling, Alsace, 2008 ($16)
  3. Trimbach Riesling, Alsace, 2008 ($22)
  4. Selbach-Oster, Zeltinger Schlossberg, Riesling Spatlese, Germany ($25)
  5. Domaine Weinbach, “Cuvee St. Catherine,” Alsace, 2007 ($50-60)

 

The Wines

We like to start this tasting by teaching your guests how to read those crazy-sounding German wine labels.  German winemakers often make several different Riesling wines from the very same vineyard, just by harvesting some grapes earlier, some a bit later, and others much later, and making completely separate wines from each batch!  The longer they stay on the vine, the more concentrated and intense the flavors.  So the first picked are labeled “Kabinett,” and these are lighter & refreshing.  The next harvested are more fuller-flavored “Spatlese,” and later still they pick wines for a more intense, concentrated “Auslese.”  An easy way for you to illustrate this is to start your tasting with three wines from the same winemaker, vineyard, and year – we recommend Joh. Jos. Prum as a winemaker and their Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard, which is excellent.  Let your guests try them one at a time and notice that the only difference on the label is the word “Kabinett,” “Spatlese” or “Auslese.” 

The first part of your tasting may feel a bit formal – though remember, guests enjoy wine tastings where they feel they’ve learned something – so next open it up for a fun “blind” tasting of the remaining wines.  We think you should pick one bottle from each of these four popular winemakers: Dr. Loosen (Germany), Hugel (Alsace), Trimbach (Alsace), and Selbach-Oster (Germany).  These wines are relatively easy to find, and great “brands” to know.  We like Dr. Loosen’s “Dr. L” as a $10 winner, although Dr. Loosen is also one of the most respected makers of German Riesling and makes delicious wines at higher price points.  In blind tastings it’s always fun to throw in one that’s expensive; we like the high-end “Cuvee St. Catherine” from Domaine Weinbach, a fantastic winery run by three talented women in Alsace. 

The wines in the blind tasting above range from $10-25/bottle except for the splurge wine from Domaine Weinbach.  We started the tasting with a very nice horizontal flight of German Rieslings from Joh. Jos. Prum that cost about $40/bottle, but you can certainly find a less expensive trio of wines for the starter portion if you like. 

Music

Play up the German angle when you pick the tunes for your event, and let hilarity ensue.  When all your guests have arrived, put on Nina’s “99 Luftballoons,” an ‘80s one-hit wonder and a fun blast from the past.  Joke that it’s the only #1 German song you could think of.  You could even put this on repeat for a while.  Follow with Devo’s “Whip It” which sounds German, even if it’s not.  Then segue into a few hits by the Scorpions –a legit German rock band! – like “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” “Winds of Change,” and “Send Me an Angel.”  All of this will be jovial background music for the first part of your tasting and it’ll put your guests in a relaxed and fun mood for what otherwise could seem a very serious academic review of Germany’s complicated wine labels!

Once you head into the “blind” tasting portion of your party – and we’re not kidding here – download and play David Hasselhoff’s Greatest Hits from iTunes.  Make a very big production of this music change – a couple glasses of wine into the event, your guests should find it utterly hilarious that they’re drinking German wines while listening to songs that made the former “Baywatch” and “Knight Rider” star into an improbable pop music icon in Germany.  Don’t miss his cover of “Try a Little Tenderness!”

If our recommendation for a tongue-in-cheek romp through Germany’s contribution to ‘80s pop and rock doesn’t suit you or your guests, you could opt instead for a Polka theme for the whole event.  It’ll provide jovial German-sounding background music for the entirety of your tasting, and again should be mildly hilarious.  If after tasting 5-6 wines a few guests actually break into a polka, all the better.  In any case the music is just a sideshow anyway for the great wines and the great company.  

Pairings

For your cheese pairing, we recommend aged Gouda, which we cubed ahead of time and set out with crackers.  Riesling is a great food wine but interestingly isn’t one that you think of pairing with a variety of cheeses.  Gouda is a great cheese in its own right, comes in many varieties and does complement the flavors of Riesling very nicely.  Comte, Edam, Tomme Fermiere d’Alsace or Swiss mountain cheeses would work well too if you wanted to put a cheeseboard together.

Also, use this as an opportunity to educate your guests on how versatile Riesling is as a food-pairing wine.  Because of its acidity and relatively high sugar content, Riesling pairs great with Asian dishes, from Chinese takeout to Indian or Thai food.  Not all wines are good pairings with spicy food, so this is great to know!

So if you wanted to serve heavy apps with your tasting, play up this angle!  You could serve some steamed dumplings from your local Chinese place, order up some beef or chicken satay skewers from your favorite Thai restaurant, and/or put out some samosas from a local Indian restaurant.  Of course, German wines will complement German foods as well, so sliced bratwurst or kielbasa with toothpicks would make a great theme-appropriate finger food for this event. 

 

Tasting Notes

This is a tasting where we strongly recommend going with the well-known, well-distributed winemakers.  Frankly, not every wine store has a huge German or Alsace Riesling selection.  Hugel, Trimbach, Dr. Loosen, Selbach-Oster et.al. are all widely available, reliably well-made, and are often at very affordable prices.  Your guests will thank you later for picking wines that are easy for them to find! 

As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you pour them.  If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too.   Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“tangy,” “too sweet,” “too dry,” “delicious – my favorite!” or “tastes like apples”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale.  When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores.  Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!).  The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner.  If you pick the $10 wine, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can easily afford to stock up on your favorite wine!  If you preferred the most expensive wine, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob! 

Germany is a nation known more for beer than wine, but no other nation achieves such greatness with Riesling.  In the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, German Rieslings benefit from the slate in the soil, whcih helps ripen the Riesling grape, which might otherwise struggle to ripen in a region this far north that gets relatively little sunshine.   

Alsace is in the northwest corner of France, not far from the German border and seemingly a world away from the great regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire Valley and the Rhone Valley.  Alsace is known for white wines and is worth a separate tasting all its own – we’ve had some delicious Pinot Blanc, Gewurtztraminer and white blends from Alsace, in addition to their great Rieslings. 

Last fun fact – if you’re looking for a perfect white wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner, look no further than Riesling!  The acidity of Riesling makes it food-friendly, but its fruity sweetness makes it robust enough to pair with the creamy but otherwise mild flavors on most Americans’ Thanksgiving Day table.  Chardonnay, by contrast, isn’t usually a good Turkey Day choice as the buttery creamy flavors get overwhelmed by your mashed potatoes and gravy.  And if you feel (understandably!) that you should serve an American wine on Thanksgiving, Dr. Loosen has a joint venture in Washington that produces a very good and affordable Riesling called “Eroica” that is worth checking out.

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California Cabernet Sauvignon

The Theme

When you think of California wine country, you think of Napa Valley.  And no wine is more synonymous with Napa than Cabernet Sauvignon, those big, fruity, chocolaty reds that pair perfectly with your steak.  “Napa Cabs” rival the best wines in the world, and a tasting of a variety of these big American wines is sure to be a hit with your guests.

The Angle

This is a great “blind” tasting.  Napa Cabs are so popular that many good ones come with whopping prices.  But sometimes our palate tells us the money’s not worth it – there’s nothing more fun than discovering the $15-20 wine you like better than the expensive stuff in a blind taste test.  Line up about seven Cabs ranging from less than $10 a bottle to a few big-name wines in the $50 range, disguise the bottles, and let your guests’ taste buds decide.  May the best wine win!

Sample Lineup

  1. Charles Shaw, “Two Buck Chuck” Cabernet Sauvignon ($1.99)
  2. 2008 McManis California Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.99)
  3. 2007 Twenty Bench Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15.99)
  4. 2006 Franciscan Oakville Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.99)
  5. 2006 Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon ($34.99)
  6. 2006 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Artemis” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($44.99)
  7. 2005 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($59.99)

 

The Wines

We’ve done this tasting several times and it’s always a blast.  In theory, all you need are a selection of wines at all price points, and your local wine merchant can help you assemble a selection that looks nothing like the one above.  However, the wines in our sample lineup above were chosen for a reason – we’ve had many of these wines before and they work really well for this event.  The higher-priced ones represent some big names in Napa that are good to know, while a few of the lower-priced wines have serious potential to be the spoilers that emerge as favorites in your tasting despite the modest price points!

On the low-priced side, if you can find it, you almost have to include “Two Buck Chuck” in this tasting.  It became a sort of California legend when Fred Franzia began distributing it at a $1.99 price point through merchants like Trader Joe’s, and many customers discovered that it wasn’t half bad – particularly for the price!  McManis is another fantastic wine for the money; for less than $10, we know many friends & family who love that wine.  Our friends at K&L Wine Merchants in California alerted us to Twenty Bench a few years ago, believing you wouldn’t find a better Cab for $15.  And Franciscan Oakville…well, suffice it to say that in two consecutive years of hosting this event, Franciscan emerged as the winner, beating out wines three times the price.  It’s one of our favorite cabernets, and a great wine to know about as it’s widely distributed.

The three wines at the higher-end of the sample lineup above represent a trio of big names.  Robert Mondavi is the undisputed grandfather of the California wine industry, a mentor to dozens if not hundreds of winemakers and one of the great marketers of the 20th century.  His winery in Napa is a veritable tourist attraction and though he makes wines at all price points, his higher-end wines are of excellent quality.  Stag’s Leap and Silver Oak (discussed further below) are renowned producers indelibly associated with producing great California cabernet.  They’re on wine lists everywhere and are great “brands” to introduce to your guests.

 

Music

A blind tasting like this one is a real party – it’s effortless, requires no formal academic discussion of the wines, and as such deserves some fun background party music.  Given that we’re focused on an American classic in California Cabs in an unpretentious setting, we’d suggest classic laid-back American rock.  We’d put together an iTunes mix here that picks unpretentious American classics but focuses on their more upbeat hits.  We’d go with Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and The Eagles.

Bruce is a perfect choice: ideal songs for your mix would include “Born in the USA,” “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Hungry Heart,” “Brilliant Disguise,” and “Better Days”  You also can’t go wrong with The Eagles, the fathers of California rock – go with “Take It Easy,” “Get Over It,” “Hotel California,” “In the City,” “Life in the Fast Lane” and of course “Desperado.”  If you throw in Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” and “The Heart of the Matter,” well that’s totally fair since he was The Eagles’ frontman.  And for John Cougar Mellencamp, any of “Pink Houses,” “Jack and Diane,” “Authority Song,” “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” “Hurts so Good,” “Cherry Bomb,” or “Small Town” would suit your theme. 

 

Pairings

This is a fun, no-frills wine party, not a fancy wine-and-cheese.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t put some mean cheeses out and put some thought into what goes well with Cabernet.  Our friends at Wine Spectator did a great wine-and-cheese pairing issue a few years ago that we enjoyed reading so much we kept; we still use it as a reference.  They picked four cheeses to go with Cabernet: a nice slightly crumbly Dry Jack, a Spanish Manchego, Carr Valley Marisa (an American sheep’s milk cheese), and a cool cheese called “Roomano” which resembles an aged Dutch Gouda. 

Mixed olives would also go nicely as a finger food on the side that will blend nicely with your Cabs (olives don’t go great with every wine, but they are a good accompaniment to big red wines).  If you want to put out some heavy apps as well, we’re not going to discourage you.  Play on the “Cabernet and Steak” idea since that’s one of the great pairings.  We have a friend who slices up grilled sirloin onto bite-size portions of slized baguette with a horseradish cream sauce – that would be perfect for this tasting.  Similar variations on the same theme would be bratwurst, meatballs, or “slider” mini-burgers.  You want your guests to think “Cabernet and Beef” – they’ll thank you later!

 

Tasting Notes

As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you display them.  If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too.   Number them in some way and then place them around the room to create a flow of traffic for your party.  Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“chocolaty,” “lots of red fruit flavor,” “I think this must be Two Buck Chuck!”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale.  When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores.  Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!).  The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner.  If you pick the Two Buck Chuck, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can buy a case or two of your favorite wine for what it takes to buy a bottle of the others at the tasting!  If you preferred the Stag’s Leap or the Silver Oak, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob! 

Charles Shaw wines are sold exclusively in Trader Joe’s grocery stores.  From their website: “Lovingly nicknamed “Two Buck Chuck” by a member of the wine press, these California wines have become something of a phenomenon in the wine world, and in our stores. Contrary to many an urban legend, these super-value wines began as the result of an oversupply of wine and a great relationship with a valued supplier. They’ve become the nation’s best-selling wines, not surprising when you consider the combination of low price ($1.99 – $3.49 per bottle, depending on the region) and great taste Charles Shaw wines offer. Depending on the season and the quality of wine available, our selection of Charles Shaw varietals will vary, but the quality never will.”  Decide for yourself!

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is one of the great producers of cabernet in Napa Valley.  In fact, winemaker Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Vineyard cabernet shocked the wine world by winning the “Judgment of Paris” 1976 tasting against some of the great Bordeaux houses.  Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars makes a variety of cabernets; the “Artemis” above sells for about $45, the “Fay” sells for nearer $70, the “SLV” for $120 and the super-premium “Cask 123” for upwards of $200.  We like to include the Artemis to inject a little star power into the tasting.

To that end, Silver Oak is another “star” wine in California.  They make only cabernet sauvignon, and they do it very well.  Silver Oak makes two cabernets, actually – their Alexander Valley cabernet (above) is slightly less expensive at $60-70 while their Napa Valley cabernet sells for nearer $90/bottle.  We like to include both Silver Oak and Stag’s Leap in this tasting because if your guests love them, they’re easy to find and you’re likely to see them show up on restaurant wine lists for years to come.  And if you’re paying with a company expense account, even better!  Either way, we think it’s fun to get to know some of the “reference point” wines from Napa Valley, and a blind tasting is a great way to do just that.

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California Red Zinfandel

Theme

Many consider red Zinfandel the only truly native California grape – it’s an American original!  Zinfandel flourishes in California but not in any other world wine region.  And Zins are as American as can be in style – big, bold, spicy, jammy, mouth-filling red wines that some would say are over the top.  If you hear Zinfandel and think sweet pink blush wine, think again – red Zinfandel is a great wine to get to know.

Angle

This is another great “blind” tasting.  Zins are a bold, flavorful red, and so you get a variety of styles – some winemakers try to show restraint & produce a bold but elegant wine, while others just go nuts and make a hedonistic, alcoholic fruit bomb.  A “blind” tasting is a great way to determine which style you like!  And as always, “blind” tastings give you the opportunity to display a variety of price points, which adds to the fun.

Sample Lineup

  1. Ravenswood 2006 Sonoma Zinfandel ($13)
  2. St. Francis 2006 “Old Vines” Sonoma County Zinfandel ($13)
  3. Alexander Valley Vineyards 2007 “Sin Zin” Zinfandel ($15)
  4. Seghesio 2008 Sonoma Zinfandel ($20)
  5. Cosentino Lodi “CigarZin” Zinfandel ($20)
  6. Storybook Mountain “Mayacamas Range” 2007 Zinfandel ($30)
  7. Ridge 2007 “Lytton Springs” Zinfandel Blend ($30)

The Wines

You can go a lot of directions with this tasting.  A number of very serious winemakers work hard every year to make an earnest, elegant Zinfandel that truly expresses the grape but maintains some restraint.  Others go over the top and create a unique monster.  Still others have adopted for branding – “Sin Zin,” “The Seven Deadly Zins,” and these definitely show up frequently at your local merchant.  We’ve gone for a range in the tasting above, including “reference point” Zins like Ravenswood and Ridge as well as some artisanal producers and easy-to-find standbys.  Talk to your local wine merchant who will be happy to help you put a good selection together.

Music

Given this All-American grape, you could opt for contemporary Jazz or country music – both of which are quintessentially American music styles.  But for us – and forgive us for saying it – we’d recommend 80’s hair band anthem rock for this party.  Hey, the genre is having a cultural resurgence; the musical Rock of Ages has brought glam-rock to Broadway, while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” punctuated the premiere of Fox’s “Glee” and the finale of The Sopranos.   And stylistically, it’s the perfect music for this wine – big, brash, bold, outrageous…and irresistible.

This calls out for an iTunes playlist.  Don’t leave out Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer,” Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” Poison’s “Nothing But a Good Time,” Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise,” Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night,” White Lion’s “Wait,” and of course Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Note, if you’re reading this appalled, hoping to host a far classier affair…feel free to go any direction you want with music.  Our point is that given the style of the wine, and the fun of the “blind” tasting format, we’d save Mozart and Sinatra for another day.

Pairings

Red zinfandel pairs well with hard cheeses – we’d put together a cheese board that includes Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dry Jack, Gruyere and Cheddar.  As with most “blind” tastings, the best format is to spread the wines around your party space to encourage a flow of traffic.  We like to cube the cheeses ahead of time to make easy “bites” for your guests, and you can display the various cubes around the room.

If you want to include some heavy apps, BBQ is a great choice, perhaps some spicy wings.  Sliders / mini-burgers, meatballs with toothpicks, or grilled steak sliced up and served on sliced baguette would all be fantastic choices for this wine.

Tasting Notes

As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you display them.  If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too.   Number them in some way and then place them around the room to create a flow of traffic for your party.  Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“jammy,” “spicy,” “too syrupy”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale.  When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores.  Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!).  The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner.  If you pick the $10 wine, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can buy a case or two of your favorite wine for what it takes to buy a bottle of the others at the tasting!  If you preferred the $30 bottle of Ridge Lytton Springs, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob!

We always like working “reference point wines” into your tastings, to introduce your guests to some of the most well-known, well-liked & well-respected producers whose wines are widely distributed and easy to find.  Ravenswood is just about everywhere and is widely regarded as the only big-name winery to make its name (and most of its fortune) from Zinfandel.  We think you’ve got to work them into your tasting.  On the other end of the spectrum, Ridge is one of Napa’s most hallowed winemakers and has an extensive range of Zinfandels, from single-vineyard beauties to elegant blends.  They too are easy to find, and a great winery to get to know.

We picked the others to incorporate a nice variety.  Storybook Mountain is a fantastic artisanal producer in Napa Valley whose winery looks like something out of a Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale.  Cosentino’s CigarZin is a bomb of a wine and will definitely stick out in your tasting.  St. Francis’ Old Vine Zin is widely available and attractively priced.  And Seghesio is a wonderful Sonoma Valley winemaker that focuses largely on Italian varietals but who has always made a mean Zin at a pretty affordable price.  A good one to know – it won a blind tasting we held a few years back.

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Oregon Pinot Noir

The Theme

Oregon Pinot Noir has been getting a lot of attention in recent years – the climate in Oregon is a lot like Burgundy, so maybe it’s not surprising that both American and French winemakers have come to Oregon’s Willamette Valley to try their hand at making great Pinot Noir.  The results speak for themselves – this is a region and a wine worth exploring!

The Angle

This should absolutely be a “blind” tasting!  One of the beauties of Oregon Pinot is that it’s still fairly new to the world wine scene, and hasn’t been swept away by the price points of “cult” brands from California or France.  So if all the wines are new, let your palate decide what’s best.  Serve Oregon Pinots that range in price – may the best wine win!

Sample Lineup

  1. Castle Rock Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($11)
  2. A to Z Oregon Pinot Noir ($16)
  3. O’Reilly’s Oregon Pinot Noir ($17)
  4. Elk Cove Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($22)
  5. Evening Land Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir ($25)
  6. Argyle Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($30)
  7. Domaine Drouhin Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($40)

 

The Wines

Chances are your guests can’t name a single winery in Oregon, so don’t worry if your local wine merchant has a different selection than the wines we mention above.  Pull together a selection of Oregon Pinot Noir ranging from $10-15 on the low end all the way up to one “big-ticket” wine costing $40 or more (just to see if it’s worth it). 

We tried to pick wines, however, that have a talking point or two.  Castle Rock is a widely available brand at a value price point.  A to Z is well-priced and a Top Pick from our favorite West Coast wine merchant, who also considers O’Reilly’s to be one of Oregon’s great values.  Elk Cove has been featured in wine critic Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, while Evening Land was voted one of Wine and Spirits’ top 100 wineries of 2009.  Argyle is a big name producer (if there is such a thing!) in Oregon, and Domaine Drouhin is the Oregon outpost of a famous (and fantastic) producer in Burgundy, Joseph Drouhin. 

Music

So what music do you pick for a tasting of classic, elegant wines from a hip, up and coming region?  We’d go with Michael Buble, the young crooner reinventing the standards of the Sinatra era in a classic style for a new generation.  Start with is self-titled album “Michael Buble” and then let the music keep going with his followup album “It’s Time.”

For a follow-up album along the same lines, go with Eva Cassidy’s “Live from Blues Alley.”  It’s along the same lines, a modern but faithful reinterpretation of songbook standards, and one of her more upbeat albums.  Finish off with the soundtrack from “The Commitments.”

 

Pairings

There are a number of cheeses that go very well with Pinot Noir, but also a few that you should avoid.  Oregonwines.com suggests pairing Pinot Noir with Camembert, Cheddar, Gouda and Colby Jack, among others.  Those are also relatively easy to find.  But be careful with blue cheese or goat’s cheese – the acids in those cheeses will not blend well with your Pinot. 

If you want to make heavy apps, there may be no better wine than Pinot Noir to match up with just about any food.  Smoked salmon, seared tuna loin, chicken or beef skewers, turkey meatballs… the sky’s the limit.  The only type of food not ideally suited to Pinot would be sweeter foods like desserts.

 

Tasting Notes

As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you display them.  If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too.   Number them in some way and then place them around the room to create a flow of traffic for your party.  Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“cranberry flavors,” “smoky and smooth,” “thin and watery,” “tastes expensive!”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale.  When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores.  Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!).  The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner.  If you pick the $10 wine, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can buy a case or two of your favorite wine for what it takes to buy a bottle of the others at the tasting!  If you preferred the $40 Domaine Drouhin, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob! 

Oregon’s Willamette Valley is located at the same latitude as France’s Burgundy region, which is known for producing the best (amd most expensive!) Pinot Noir in the world.  Pinot Noir reportedly made its first appearance in Oregon when David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards planted the grape there in 1965.  He was followed by a number of other growers in the 1970s but burst onto the world wine scene when his wines placed in the top three in wine competitions held in France in 1979 and 1980.  The second of these had been arranged by Burgundian stalwart Robert Drouhin, who was sufficiently impressed with the clear potential of Oregon Pinot that he ultimately bought land in the Willamette Valley and opened Domaine Drouhin in 1989.  Drouhin wines have been highly praised and respected for years in Burgundy, so the launch of Domaine Drouhin was a serious endorsement of the quality of Oregon Pinot.

Oregon now makes more Pinot Noir than any other U.S. state except California.  There has been a resurgence in the popularity of Pinot Noir in the last decade, fueled in part by the popularity of the movie Sideways, the 2004 tale of two buddies who escape to California wine country before one of them walks down the aisle.  The main character Miles is a Pinot Noir lover, and his hilarious exclamation “I am NOT drinking any [bleeping] Merlot!” sent shockwaves through the wine world.  Suddenly wine novices everywhere were leaving their old standby Merlot on the shelf at the wine store and discovering what all the fuss was about with Pinot Noir.  While Sideways proved a huge boon for The Santa Ynez wine region where the movie was filmed, Oregon too has been a huge beneficiary of the public’s newfound curiosity for Pinot Noir.

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Sauvignon Blanc Paired With Goat’s Cheese

The Theme

Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine everyone should know.  It is the perfect white for an aperitif or cocktail party, is one of the most food-friendly wines on the planet, and is usually quite affordable.  Different regions make the wine in a slightly different style, which you can explore with this tasting!  Sauvignon Blanc and goat’s cheese is also one of the greatest food-wine pairings there is, as you can demonstrate to your guests!

The Angle

Do a “blind” tasting of 5-6 sauvignon blancs from around the world.  Great sauvignon blanc is made in the Sancerre region of France’s Loire Valley, in California, and elsewhere.  Pick a range of price points, though all will most likely cost less than $30.  Meanwhile, instead of doing a cheese board, pick 4-5 different varieties of goat’s cheese from around the world.  That way your guests can discover a favorite cheese to pair with a new favorite wine, and it takes the tasting party to a whole new level!

Sample Lineup

  1. Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand, Marlborough), $10
  2. Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc (Chile, Casablanca Valley), $10
  3. Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc (South Africa), $17
  4. Groth Sauvignon Blanc (California, Napa Valley), $18
  5. Pascal Jolivet Sancerre (France, Loire Valley), $20
  6. Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand, Marlborough), $25
  7. Grgich Hills Fume Blanc (California, Napa Valley), $30

 

The Wines

Sauvignon Blanc is pretty wonderfully uncomplicated, and it’s delicious.  This tasting allows you to show off wines from all over the world while hitting all of the real hot spots of this wonderful wine.  You may have heard buzz about New Zealand wines – the sauvignon blancs from the Kiwis’ Marlborough region are unbelievable and becoming one of the most popular wines around.  Villa Maria is an amazing value and Cloudy Bay is a delicious higher-end sauvignon blanc that put New Zealand on the map.  Mulderbosch is also a very well-known and well-respected winemaker from South Africa known for a great (and affordable) sauvignon blanc. 

If you’ve heard of a wine called “Sancerre,” we’re not surprised – it’s a specific region of France’s Loire Valley known for producing fantastic sauvignon blanc.  Californian winemakers have also adopted this versatile grape – and your guests may notice a creamier edge to California sauvignon blanc because the winemakers often blend a little Semillon grape into the wine.  Note that “Fume Blanc” is just another way to describe Sauvignon Blanc.  The phrase was coined by Robert Mondavi based on the “fumes” of fog emerging from his vineyard, as he thought it might sell better than a wine called Sauvignon Blanc!  Finally, throw in a $10 Chilean for fun and you’ve got an around-the-world wine tasting!

We recommend this as a “blind” tasting – disguise the bottles in advance and let your guests determine which they like best.  It should be fascinating to see if they can tell a difference between a $10 and $30 wine, and if they have a preference for the more tangy citrusy wines made overseas or the creamier versions from California. 

Music

What music would you play for an outdoor picnic?  This is the perfect wine for such an occasion, so choose the music accordingly.  Pick something fun that evokes carefree spring and summer gatherings with friends outdoors.  We’d pick Counting Crows’ greatest hits album “Films About Ghosts,” Dave Matthews’ Band’s “Under the Table & Dreaming” album, Sheryl Crow’s “The Very Best of Sheryl Crow,” Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection,” and John Mayer’s “Room for Squares.”

Pairings

Sauvignon Blanc and Goat’s Cheese are one of the best food and wine pairings there is.  Just as you’re showing off wines from around the world, do the same with the cheeses!  Pick four very different goat’s cheeses that show off different styles, and place them around the room so that as your guests move from wine to wine, they discover different cheeses as well.  Serve with table water crackers and whole wheat crackers.   We’d recommend the following five cheeses, but your local cheese store or grocery can help you pick a nice variety.

  1. Humboldt Fog, California
  2. Crottin, Les Chevrots, France (presented as small firm “discs”)
  3. Chevre, France (presented as a soft “log”)
  4. Manchester, England
  5. Valencay, France

Humboldt Fog is rapidly becoming famous in its own right, one of the emerging cheese “brands” that people specifically ask for from California’s Cowgirl Creamery.  It’s noticeable for its grey ash-colored line down the center.  Valencay makes a striking presentation and you can mention it was Napoleon’s favorite cheese!  And of course France makes a variety of goat’s cheese worth exploring.

This is such a specific wine-and-cheese event that we wouldn’t recommend much else in the way of food pairings (certainly not heavy apps).  Add some grapes, maybe some dried apricots, and you’re all set.

 

Tasting Notes

In our view, the most important thing in selecting wines for this tasting is picking a variety of wines from around the world – making sure not to miss the Marlborough region of New Zealand.  We love Villa Maria and Cloudy Bay, and they happen to present a nice “less expensive / more expensive” pair for your “blind” tasting.  But really, we’ve rarely had a bad New Zealand sauvignon blanc from this region.  We do think it’s worth introducing your guests to Cloudy Bay as arguably the most famous sauvignon blanc in the world, but the success of your event doesn’t depend on it. 

When choosing California wines, feel free to choose other producers but we’d recommend keeping two things in mind.  First, choose at least one “Fume Blanc” if you can find it, just to highlight to your guests that this is just another way of describing the same wine, and a testimony to Robert Mondavi’s marketing genius.  Second, try to find at least one if not two California wines that blend in some Semillon for a creamy edge.  It’ll make your “blind” tasting more interesting if there’s a noticeable difference in style amongst the wines you select.

For Sancerre, we picked Pascal Jolivet because their wines are widely distributed, but just about any Sancerre will do – it’s always a crowd pleaser.  Mulderbosch is one of the few famous South African makers of this grape, so on the margin try to find that one if you can – it’s a worthwhile brand for your guests to know (if you’re only going to know one South African wine, this is a good one).  We added in Chile on a lark, but again the specific producer there is less important that introducing another region known for value-priced wines. 

Make sure to emphasize to your guests how food-friendly Sauvignon Blanc is.  It’s a great white wine to serve with just about any meal (with the exception of spicy foods, for which Riesling is a better choice).   Not everyone likes Chardonnay, and for that reason Sauvignon Blanc is also our choice for a white to serve at a cocktail party or as an aperitif before a meal.

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Exploring Spanish Wines

The Theme

“Spanish Wines” is a great theme – serve a variety of different wines from Spain, along with some Spanish cheeses and tapas-style side dishes, and introduce your guests to a wine region known for delicious value-priced wines as well as bold, flavorful reds. 

The Angle

A tour of Spain via the grape.  The angle of your tasting is to show off the range of Spain’s wine bounty – starting with bubbly, moving to some whites, and finishing with a variety of different reds.  Spain uses different grapes than you’ll find in other parts of the world and you want to teach your guests about this.  Highlight some well-known and widely distributed producers that your guests can remember for future reference.

Sample Lineup 

  1. Mont-Ferrant, Rose Cava Brut
  2. Do Ferreiro, Albarino 2007
  3. Bodegas Ostatu, Rioja Blanco 2008
  4. Marques de Caceres, Rioja Crianza 2005
  5. La Rioja Alta, S.A., “Vina Ardanza” Reserva 2000
  6. Pesquera, Tinto (Ribera del Duero), 2006
  7. Parmi, “L’Infant” (Priorat), 2006

 

 

The Wines

Start with cava, Spain’s bubbly answer to champagne.  You can pre-pour this into flutes to make a festive welcome by greeting your guests with a glass of bubbly.  Then with new wine glasses, move to a Spanish white or two – definitely an Albarino and maybe a white Rioja.  Then move to reds and focus first on the tempranillo grape and the region that made it famous: Rioja.  Start with a crianza (a younger Rioja) and then display a “reserva” to show off the same grape/region but to explore what carefully selected vines, a few more years of age, and a few more dollars gets you.  Finish with two other reds – first a Ribera del Duero (also tempranillo, but different region/style) and finally a Priorat, which is Spain’s answer to the full-bodied red blends of France’s Rhone Valley. 

 

Music

When the first guest rings the doorbell, get the music rolling with “The Best of the Gipsy Kings,” a fantastic party background music album that is perfect for the Spanish wines event.  Then transition into Shakira’s Spanish language album “Fijacion Oral – Vol. 1.”  Your party just got cooler. 

From here you’ve got two options.  If you want the party to get out of hand, go straight to Shakira’s English-language hits (Hips Don’t Lie and Wherever, Whenever) and from there you can transition to your favorite dance party mix.  Or, for tunes that keep the music fun but in the background, go from Fijacion Oral to Santana’s “Ultimate Santana” collection before winding the party down with Los Lonely Boys’ self-titled album.

Pairings

Spanish cheeses are great – a cheese plate with Manchego, Drunken Goat, Iberico and Zamorano will complement your red wines beautifully.  Manchego might also just become your favorite cheese.  Set out some olives too, preferably spicy green olives or mixed Mediterranean olives.

If you want heavy apps, serve some Spanish-style tapas.  If you have a good Spanish restaurant near you that delivers, order up some Spanish meatballs (albondigas), chicken croquettes, and gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), and put some toothpicks out to turn them into finger foods.  All will pair really well with your wines and reinforce your Spanish theme, without breaking the bank.

 

 

Tasting Notes

This is a tasting where, in our view, the actual winemakers / wineries you pick are less important than making sure you find good examples of the varietals & regions.  Work with whatever your local wine store or favorite online merchant has & recommends at your price point.  The more important takeaway from this tasting for you and your guests – besides what a great time you’ll all have! – will be learning what Spanish wines taste like whether you like them.  If you like cava, it’s often a less expensive way to uncork some bubbly.  If you like Albarino – ditto to that, an inexpensive and delicious white wine for a spring/summer picnic.  And if (like me) you find you’re a huge fan of the tempranillo grape, you can spend all the time you want discovering a favorite winemaker from Rioja and the Ribera del Duero. 

Spain is a serious wine-drinking nation, with more acreage of land planted with grapes than any other country.  The country’s wine is most closely associated with Rioja, an area spanning more than 120,000 acres across a 75 mile stretch on the banks of the Ebro River.  The Rioja region is best known for reds based on the Tempranillo grape that are supple, earthy, spicy and have notes of vanilla as a result of long aging in oak barrels.  Rioja wines are classified into “crianza” (youngest), “reserva” (made from the best grapes & vineyards in very good years, and aged at least three years before release) and “gran reserva” (even better, only made in the best years, and aged at least five years before release).  Flavors associated with rioja include: vanilla, saddle leather, tobacco, chocolate, plums & prunes, currants, spiced tea…

Interestingly, though, Spain’s most famous (and most expensive) wine isn’t from Rioja, but from the Ribera del Duero region.  Vega Sicilia makes a wine called “Unico” that is considered Spain’s greatest wine and which costs just shy of $500/bottle.  (Their second wine, “Valbuena,” is less pricey but still retails for more than $100/bottle…)  The Unico alone makes Ribera del Duero a region worth knowing for the wine-lover getting acquainted with Spanish wines.  Ribera del Duero wines are made from a grape varietal called “Tinto” which is a more rustic variation on tempranillo.  Pesquera (mentioned above) is the second most famous wine made in Ribera del Duero and their relatively affordable basic Tinto and Crianza are a great way to get introduced to the region’s propensity for amazing wine.

We recommended starting the tasting with Cava, because really, how can you go wrong starting a party with a flute of bubbly?  There are some interesting talking points when you’re introducing your guests to Spain’s answer to champagne.  First, Cava uses different grapes than the French and Americans use in their champagne and sparkling wine (respectively).  Traditionally bubbly is made from chardonnay (white) and pinot noir (red), together with some pinot meunier.  Spanish cava instead blends the white grapes Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada, along with Chardonnay on occasion.  Rose cavas (like the one we recommend above) are less than 1% of all cava and can be made from Garnacha and Monastrell.  Despite using different grapes, however, cava is made virtually identically to the “methode Champagnoise” that governs whether a French bubbly can officially be called “Champagne.”  The Spaniards are just as rigorous, and not every Spanish bubbly earns the “Cava” designation.

Spain is a nation rich in history and culture, and you can help add to the life of your Spanish wine tasting party by weaving in some of these references.  Ernest Hemingway loved Spain, its wines and its bullfights.  Definitely mention to your guests how he specifically references Rioja in “The Sun Also Rises.”  Ribera del Duero is the region in Spain where Miguel de Cervantes first started writing the epic masterpiece “Don Quijote.”  Spain is also a land of intense heat, and the intensity of flavor of Spanish wines can be attributed in part to vines gaining strength & character from the mighty struggle to find water underneath the parched landscape.  And the Spanish people apparently all long to retire some day and open a Bodega (winery) – it’s a very intrinsic part of the Spanish culture.

Last fun fact – Rioja is a delicious wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner!  It’s light enough not to overwhelm the turkey (as, for example, a cabernet might) but it has enough richness, spice and depth to stand up the creamy flavors in most Americans’ traditional Thanksgiving feast.  The classic pairing for Turkey Day is pinot noir, but if you’re not a fan of pinot then definitely keep Rioja in mind.

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