Posts Tagged Red Wines

Must-Know Bordeaux

Theme

Bordeaux is considered by many to be the most important fine wine region in the world.  This tasting is designed to introduce your guests to some of the great wines of Bordeaux: the “Super Seconds.” These wineries of the Left Bank of Bordeaux are known year-in and year-out as some of the best quality, most complex and age-worthy wines in the region, and whose super wines are perceived second only in relation to the five famous “First Growths” that are too expensive for most of us to enjoy regularly (if ever!).  We consider the Super Seconds to be the “must-know” wines of Bordeaux for any wine lover who wants to become seriously familiar with this great region.

Angle

The angle of this event is to introduce and familiarize your guests with each of these wines.  Prices for these wines vary enormously by vintage; your goal here is to find good lower-priced versions from years that were fine but not spectacular (and priced accordingly).  We would recommend you display the wines clearly as you serve them, but we would not hide the wines in a “blind” format.  You want your guests to see the labels as they taste each wine, so they can begin to associate each bottle with its unique character, and perhaps pick a personal favorite or two as the styles do differ from wine to wine.  There is, however, a price range here; we’d recommend withholding the prices of each until the end, and then seeing if the less expensive wines rate as highly among your group as the pricier chateaux!

The Lineup: Bordeaux’s “Super Seconds”

  1. Chateau Montrose 2004, St.-Estephe ($59)
  2. Chateau Leoville-Barton 2001, St.-Julien ($79)
  3. Chateau Pichon-Baron 1999, Pauillac ($89)
  4. Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou 1998, St.-Julien ($90)
  5. Chateau Pichon-Lalande 2001, Pauillac ($99)
  6. Chateau Cos d’Estournel 1999, St.-Estephe ($99)
  7. Chateau Palmer 2003, Margaux ($139)
  8. Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1991, St.-Julien ($159)

Note: the prices above were found on the web recently from one or more of the following retailers: K&L Wine Merchants (San Francisco Bay Area), Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits (New York City), Wally’s Wine & Spirits (Los Angeles).  We chose vintages/years deliberately to keep prices down.  These same wines from years like 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000 or 2005 are significantly more expensive.

The Wines

This is a spectacular wine tasting.  We first hosted this one for 30-40 friends in 2005 and a number of them still talk about it.  This event, for many of us, was the wine tasting party that opened our eyes to the world of Bordeaux and familiarized us with some wines that are now among our favorites.  They set a benchmark for quality; for those trying to understand what all the fuss is about, these are a good place to start.  These are also great wines for aging, so they make a very thoughtful wedding or first-child gift that you can open up years later.  With that said, it is also an ambitious tasting – finding the wines for this event will take a little legwork.  Trust us, it will be worth it.

 

Depending on where you live, you will likely need to shop online to replicate this event and find all the wines above (or similar vintages that are also good prices).  Check out our “Buying Guide” page for some helpful hints on finding good merchants and good deals on wine in your area.  For most of the tastings on this website, the theme is more important than finding the specific wines we recommend in our sample lineup.   For this tasting, the wines we are recommending are the theme.

In 1855, Napoleon III called upon the Bordeaux wine industry to rate the various wines from best to worst in preparation for the Paris Exhibition.  The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce ultimately grouped the various chateaux into five categories (based on selling price!) led by the Premiers Crus, or “First Growths.”  There are today five “First Growths” in Bordeaux – Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.  They occupy some of the best terroir in Bordeaux and every year make wines that are among the most sought-after in the world.  They are priced accordingly – First Growths rarely sell for less then $300/bottle.

The wines presented in this tasting are often collectively referred to as the “Super Seconds” – the wines from Bordeaux’s Left Bank that are perennial superstars of outstanding quality, but that do not command the lofty prices of the “First Growths.”  Many wine connoisseurs today agree that the 1855 classification is largely outdated, and in particular the quality level of some wines ranked lower then has improved significantly over the years.  On any given year, each of the wineries in this tasting has the potential to produce a wine considered perfect by the all-powerful wine critics.  They very rarely disappoint.

Though there is no formal definition of the exact list of wines that rate as “Super Seconds,” these wines are usually named:

  • Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases
  • Chateau Pichon-Lalande
  • Chateau Pichon-Baron
  • Chateau Cos d’Estournel
  • Chateau Palmer
  • Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou
  • Chateau Montrose
  • Chateau Leoville-Barton

Music

This is an epic, classy event featuring some of the world’s biggest, most renowned wines that are benchmarks for quality, tradition & power.  We’d play music that is suitably heightened, rich, powerful, and name-worthy: The Three Tenors.  Of course, you’re tasting French wines, so we’d choose to play the 1998 Paris concert that Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti sang to ring in the World Cup.  The big, lush, soaring operatic music should set the perfect backdrop for your tasting.  You can always choose something different if opera’s not your thing – classic jazz would work as well – but we’ll bet your guests get into your choice of the Three Tenors in Paris, and it matches your “Bordeaux Super Seconds” theme perfectly.

Pairings

The purpose of whatever food you serve at this event should be to blend in and stay out of the way!  When you’re serving serious wines like this and introducing your guests to the nuances of how Pichon Lalande differs from Pichon Baron, you don’t want hummus or ranch dip getting in the way of your palate.   We’d recommend serving a few cheeses with relatively mild but complex flavors, served with sliced baguette (preferably) or mild crackers like Carr’s water biscuits.   French Cantal cheese is a great pairing with Bordeaux that we’d highly recommend, if you can find it.  Havarti is easier to find and also pairs nicely with Bordeaux.  Manchego pairs well with Cabernet and Merlot (the dominant grapes in these blended wines) and is always a crowd-pleaser.  A selection of mixed olives is a nice accompaniment as well to any wine tasting, and goes particularly well with the Cabernet in these wines.

Tasting Notes

For those new to Bordeaux, the key concept to know about the wines is that red Bordeaux is almost always a blend of several different grapes.  The two major grapes used in the blends are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; the Cabernet provides great structure and flavor, while Merlot provides a round, supple texture.   Cabernet Franc is the next most important and prevalent grape in these blends, typically used in smaller quantities to provide aromas of violet and spice to the wine.  The other two grapes found in red Bordeaux blends are Malbec and Petit Verdot, which tend to be used in smaller amounts, if at all.

Bordeaux is widely considered the most important wine region in the world.  As Karen MacNeil points out her excellent book The Wine Bible, “No other wine region is more powerful, more commercially clever, or more important as a source of profoundly complex, ageworthy wines.  The challenge is to comprehend it all, for Bordeaux is the largest fine wine vineyard on the globe.  This single region covers more territory than all of the vineyard areas of Germany put together and is ten times larger than the vineyard acreage of New Zealand…[Bordeaux wineries] produce a daunting 700 million bottles of wine every year, including many of the priciest wines in the world.”

We’d recommend printing out a map of Bordeaux for your guests so they can see the geography from which these famous wines hail.  Bordeaux lies alongside three rivers – the Gironde, the Dordogne and the Garonne – and all the “Super Seconds” are on the “Left Bank,” the term for the Haut-Medoc region that sits on the West (Left) Bank of the Girdone River.  This area includes villages that are home to some of the world’s most famous wines.  The town of  Pauillac is probably Bordeaux’s most famous village, where you’ll find 1st growths Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild as well as Super Seconds Pichon-Lalande and Pichon-Baron.  Its southern neighbor Saint Julien features several wineries classified as 2nd growths in 1855, including Gruaud Larose, Leoville Poyferre, and our “Super Seconds” Leoville-Las-Cases, Leoville-Barton and Ducru Beaucaillou.  To the north of Pauillac is Saint Estephe, home to Super Seconds Montrose and Cos d’Estournel, as well as many up-and-coming wineries known for offering excellent value given the quality.  The southernmost of the Haut-Medoc appellations is Margaux, where more of the “classified” wines from 1855 reside than any other.  These include first-growth Chateau Margaux, a number of second-growths, and Chateau Palmer which was originally ranked as a third-growth but is widely regarded as a “Super Second.”

This tasting is just an introduction to Bordeaux, one that focuses on some of the most famous villages of the region and on wines that have long been classified as some of France’s very best.  Bordeaux, however, doesn’t end with the 1855 classification.  Many of Bordeaux’s most celebrated wines were never classified in the first place, notably those on the “Right Bank” villages of Pomerol and St.-Emilion.

Whereas “Left Bank” wines like those in our tasting tend to include a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, the “Right Bank” stars are often Merlot-dominated, or even 50/50 Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  St.-Emilion has two wines that received the highest ranking in its own 1954 classification: Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone.  These wines, too, command worldwide admiration and lofty price points.  Fans of the 2004 movie Sideways will note that the main character Miles was saving a 1961 Cheval Blanc for a special occasion.  Pomerol, meanwhile, never bothered to classify its wines, which include the most expensive Bordeaux wine in the world:  Chateau Petrus.   Made in small quantities to great acclaim, Chateau Petrus typically costs several thousand dollars a bottle!

Once you’ve introduced yourself and your guests to Bordeaux with this tasting, use the Super Second wines as a springboard to learn more.  If you found you liked wines from a specific village (for example, all the St.-Julien wines), head out to your local wine merchant and pick out some more affordable wines from that village that could become everyday favorites.  If you loved the wines and are anxious to explore Bordeaux further, put together a tasting of Right Bank wines – possibly comparing the bounty of St. Emilion and Pomerol to their Left Bank neighbors in a blind tasting format.  Also – a number of the “Super Seconds” above also produce a second wine from the chateau based on grapes not used in the “Grand Vin.”  These wines can be delicious in their own right, obviously come from great terroir, and are far more affordable. Examples include Clos du Marquis (from Leoville Las Cases), La Dame de Montrose, and Alter Ego de Palmer.  Finally, we think you’d have a blast putting together a blind tasting of red Bordeaux blends against Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from California.  See if your guests can tell the difference or have a clear favorite.

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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 Reds

  Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

 

The Wines

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

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

Music

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

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

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

Pairings

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

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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