Posts Tagged Blind Tastings

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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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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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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