Posts Tagged Whites and Reds

Dessert Wines

Theme

Sweets for the sweet!  This tasting caters both to the wine lover and the sweet tooth, and is a real crowd-pleaser.  Many of the main wine regions of the world are known for at least one “dessert wine” that is sweeter and works perfectly as an after-dinner treat or as an accompaniment to your dessert course.  You’ll go through all the most famous dessert wines in the world, learning a ton while enjoying some serious and sweet wine!

Angle

This is a “getting to know you” style tasting where you want your guests to focus on one wine at a time.  It’s done best as a horizontal tasting where each guest gets a class and you pour a taste of each wine to everyone in the room and discuss it before moving on.  We’d go from lightest to richest, roughly according to the order we’ve laid out below.

Sample Lineup

  1. Saracco, Moscato d’Asti ($15)
  2. Selbach, Eiswein, Germany, 375ml ($55)
  3. Royal Tokaji, Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos, 500ml ($35)
  4. Chateau d’Yquem 1996, Sauternes, 375 ml ($140)
    or
    Chateau de Farques 2005, Sauternes, 375 ml ($60)
  5. Rocca di Montegrossi 2001, Vin Santo, Tuscany, 375ml ($80)
  6. Inniskillin, Cabernet Franc Ice Wine, Canada, ($85)
  7. Allegrini, Recioto della Valpolicella “Giovanni Allegrini,” 500ml ($70)
  8. Graham’s Vintage Port 2007 ($80)
  9. Osborne, Pedro Ximenez 1837, Sherry ($18)

The Wines

This tasting presents a wide range of dessert wines from around the world.  What’s important here is to find examples of the varietals, not necessarily the specific wines we recommend above.  The fun of this tasting is to compare just how different the wines are from one another stylistically, given that they’re all dessert wines with relatively high levels of residual sugar that will probably all be popular with your guests who happen to have a sweet tooth.  We included nine wines above – five white and four red – though you certainly don’t need that many.

Start out with a range of white dessert wines.  Kick your party off with a Moscato from Italy, which is slightly sparkling and really refreshing – a perfect palate-cleanser with notes of peach and pear.  From there, move to a Riesling Eiswein (German for “ice wine”) if you can find it, made from Riesling grapes left on the vine in Germany until they are literally harvested frozen, in the snow.  Eiswein can be very expensive; the Selbach we recommend represents excellent value, relatively speaking, with great apple notes.  Then move to the sensational Sauternes.  You can pay as little as $15 or as much as $125+ for a half-bottle of Sauternes, depending on whether you want a value-priced offering or the celebrated “First-Growth” Chateau d’Yquem.  From there, move to Sauternes’ Hungarian counterpart; we think you should definitely try to find a Tokaji Aszu if you can (spelled and pronounced “Tokay” in English).  Tokaji is a rich, honeyed nectar that was revered by kings in the 17th century and is making a comeback after nearly disappearing to disease and Communist ownership of the vines in the 20th century.  Finally, as the wines you’re tasting are getting progressively richer, finish with Vin Santo, the traditional after-dinner, after-espresso dessert wine in Tuscany, which is traditionally served with biscotti cookies that you dip in the sweet wine.

From there, include a few reds in your tasting.  Among fine-wine lovers, Canada is known principally for their Ice Wine, made in the same style as the German Eiswein above.  Canada’s biggest producer, Inniskillin, produces a fascinating and delicious copper-colored Ice Wine from Cabernet Franc that would introduce something completely different to your tasting.  Another red dessert wine option, if you can find it, would be a Recioto della Valpolicella from Italy, a thick red that looks like a dry wine but tastes surprisingly rich & sweet.  From there, move to Port, the ubiquitous after-dinner drink loved by the British and made in Portugal’s Douro region.   Vintage Port is a serious wine, made only from the best vineyards in the best years (and priced accordingly).   We’d finish with a Pedro Ximenez, a particularly rich, sweet sherry from Jerez, Spain.

Music

We held this tasting recently and decided on a “sweet” iTunes mix.  I mean, a dessert wines tasting should be fun and light-hearted, not pretentious.  But to make it theme-appropriate…well, we compiled an admittedly ridiculous mix of songs that had the word “sweet,” the word “sugar” and/or the word “candy” in the title.  This seems lame until you realize how many great songs fit this description.  We kicked off the event with “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve, before hitting golden oldies “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies.  From there we segued into the contemporary with Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams are Made of This,” Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams,” Guns n Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” Sara Bareilles’ “One Sweet Love,” Amos Lee’s “Sweet Pea,” and Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape.”  And why stop there, when you can move to classics like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”  This mix is admittedly cheesy but your guests will be having fun by the end of this set, and will appreciate your effort to pick theme-appropriate music.  Trust us.  We tried it.

Pairings

Dessert wines pair best with dessert – why fight the theme?  Make some sweets!  You have enough styles of wine at this tasting to pair with light desserts as well as rich desserts, so serve a variety.  We’d definitely include some Italian biscotti cookies, if for no other reason than that your Vin Santo is designed to be served alongside biscotti for dipping.  You also can’t go wrong with brownies – they’re bite-sized and go well with many of your wines (particularly the reds).  Maybe make some chocolate chip cookies, which should work nicely alongside the white dessert wines.  And maybe round out the solution with a fruit-based dessert, like angel food cake with berries, or a fruit tart.  If you want to include a cheese, we’d go with English Stilton, which is a perfect match for Port.  Your guests will have a great time trying different wines with the different sweets.

Tasting Notes

Dessert wines are sweet because of their residual sugar content; while dry wines have residual sugar of 3% or less, dessert wines can have from 5-30% residual sugar.  The best dessert wines don’t taste overly syrupy because the wines have enough acidity to balance out the sugar.  In many cases, the wines achieve this higher sugar content because the winemakers leave the grapes on the vine longer, which makes the wines ripen more and become sweeter.

We’d recommend printing out some tasting notes that give a little background on each of the wine varietals you’ll be serving.  Each of the wines has an interesting back story.  Sauternes, for example, is made when the benevolent fungus Botrytis cinerea (also known as “noble rot”) takes hold of the grapes and concentrates the sugars.  Tokaji Aszu is made sweet in the same way, in fact “Aszu” is Hungarian for “rot.”  Ice wine, meanwhile (both the Canadian version and German Eiswein) are made by letting the grapes stay on the vine so long they actually freeze on the vine with the arrival of winter.  Vin Santo is made by letting the Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes partially dry out for three to six months, during which time half the liquid in the grapes (the water) evaporates, concentrating the sugar.  Moscato is traditionally enjoyed at Christmas in Piedmont, Italy, whereas Port is a classic Christmas drink in Britain (paired with Stilton cheese).  And Pedro Ximenez is a particularly sweet, rich variety of sherry often used as a blending wine to add sweetness to lighter sherries, or used as a dessert treat on its own.  Rumor has it that Spanish men in Jerez pour it over ice cream and enjoy it after dinner with a cigar.

The most famous and celebrated dessert wine in the world is Chateau d’Yquem, the only Sauternes rated as ”Premier Cru Superieur” (Great First Growth) in the original 1855 classification of Bordeaux chateaux.  Wines from Château d’Yquem are characterised by their complexity, concentration and sweetness.  In addition, the wine is famously age-worthy; in a good year, a bottle will only begin to show its true qualities after a decade or two of cellaring.  Several vintages of Chateau d’Yquem have rated perfect scores from critics like Robert Parker.  Not surprisingly, this pedigree comes with a high price point; half-bottles of Chateau d’Yquem typically start at $130, and can cost significantly more in a particularly good vintage.  It would be great fun to include Yquem in your tasting, but if your budget doesn’t permit it, worry not; a bottle of Sauternes can be enjoyed for less than $20.  The other Sauternes we recommend for your event, Chateau de Farques, is a bit pricier, and was named one of Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines in 2008.

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Wines of Napa Valley

Theme

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

Angle

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

  Sample Lineup

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

The Wines

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

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

Music

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

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

Pairings

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

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

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Intro to Australia & New Zealand Wines

Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

 

The Wines

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

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

Music

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

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

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

 

 

Pairings

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

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

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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Intro to French Wines

Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

Pairings

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

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

 

 

 

 

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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Intro to Italian Wines

Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

The Wines

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

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

 

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

Music

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

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

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

Pairings

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

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

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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

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Burgundy: Bold & Beautiful

The Theme

Burgundy is one of the great wine regions of the world, and a fantastic theme for a wine tasting party.  Many wine drinkers like chardonnay and pinot noir but feel intimidated by Burgundy.  This wine tasting party will open up the bold and beautiful wines of Burgundy to your guests and give them the confidence to discover these great wines!

The Angle

The angle of this tasting is to unlock the mystery of this region’s wines so that your guests learn what they need to know to start exploring Burgundy’s wines for themselves.  It’s easier than it seems: white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay and red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir.  Serve four whites and four reds that span different towns, well-known winemakers, and all four of the Burgundy classifications.   Walk through them in order as a way to explain the subtleties of how Burgundy characterizes their wines.  You and your guests will learn a ton and enjoy some delicious wines along this way.

Sample Lineup

  1. Maison Champy, Bourgogne Blanc Signature, 2006 ($19)
  2. Louis Latour, Chassagne-Montrachet, 2006 ($33)
  3. Olivier Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet “Les Referts” 1er Cru ($60)
  4. Marc Rougeot, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, 2006 ($90)
  5. Louis Jadot, Cote de Beaune Villages (a Bourgogne blend), 2006 ($20)
  6. Louis Jadot, Nuits-St. Georges, 2004 ($35)
  7. Louis Jadot, Vosne-Romanee “Les Suchots” 1er Cru, 2004 ($62)
  8. Louis Jadot, Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, 2004 ($110)

The Wines

While they usually don’t say “chardonnay” or “pinot noir” anywhere on the labels, the most basic fact to know about Burgundy is that white Burgundy is 100% chardonnay and red Burgundy is 100% pinot noir, almost without exception.  Note: that’s unusual for France, a nation where wines are usually blends of several different grapes.  What makes each bottle of Burgundy unique has to do with which grapes are used to make the wine – and specifically, exactly where those grapes are grown.  As you walk your guests through the wines, you’ll be progressing from wines made from grapes blended throughout the region to wines made from very specific individual vineyards.

Start with an inexpensive basic “Bourgogne” white blend, which will be made from chardonnay grapes blended from various sites around the Burgundy region.  Next move up to a higher-quality “Villages” wine that is made entirely from chardonnay grapes located in a specific town (village), such as the town of Puligny-Montrachet.  This wine should be a little better, and will be a bit more expensive.  Third, serve a “Premier Cru” white Burgundy, which is made from one of over [500] specially-designated, high-quality vineyards throughout Burgundy.  Finish with a “Grand Cru” white Burgundy, made exclusively from chardonnay grapes grown in one of the [50] or so most prestigious vineyards in Burgundy.  Repeat this tour with your four Red Burgundies – from basic Bourgogne, to a Villages, to a Premier Cru and then finally to a Grand Cru.  It works the same way – as you work your way upward, the wines are made from pinot noir that is grown in more specific (and higher-quality) vineyards.

When it comes to price, Grand Cru Burgundies are expensive, both for whites and reds.  Even Premier (1er) Cru Burgundies are a splurge at $40-60/bottle.  If you want to ease up on the budget for your event, swap out the Grand Cru wine with another “Villages” wine, which in our view are where you’ll find the best quality for the money among Burgundy’s wines.  If you do this, choose two villages that are different in style, to emphasize the point about terroir – your local wine merchant can provide advice on this.

Music

This is a really nice tasting, and we would recommend your music choice complement the classy juice you’re serving!  While classical music wouldn’t be out of place, it’s still a party – we’d go with classic jazz.  Start with Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” and then progress to some Miles Davis.  Finish with something lively but less well-known, perhaps John Coltrane or Charlie Parker.

Pairings

We’d prepare two different cheese plates for this tasting – one showcasing cheeses to pair with your White Burgundy (chardonnay) and a second that highlights cheeses that pair well with Red Burgundy (pinot noir).  We’d recommend setting up your party space such that the whites are in one area, together with their cheeses, and the reds are in a second area (ditto).

Chardonnay pairs great with a number of cheeses.  Our friends at Wine Spectator recommend a cheese plate that shows off a diversityof mild-flavored cheeses, including Triple-Cream Brie, Valencay (a goat’s cheese loved by Napoleon), and a Gruyere.  Meanwhile, pinot noir goes very well with a variety of cheeses, but we would not recommend a blue cheese.  For your red Burgundy we’d add either a light Cheddar or the big full-flavored French Epoisses to round out your cheese board.   A sliced baguette would be an elegant (and French!) choice to accompany your cheese, though of course crackers always work fine.  We’d prefer mild crackers such as Carr’s water table crackers.

You can of course serve any type of food you like, but in our view this is a tasting where the wines should take center stage.  We wouldn’t go with heavy apps.  Some elegant and appropriate accompaniments to your cheese board would include nuts, dates, and maybe some dried apricots or dried cranberries.

Tasting Notes

Burgundy has a lot of small producers making great wine.  But for your tasting party, you’re hoping to introduce your guests to wines they’ll then go out looking to purchase for themselves.  For that reason, we believe you should use this opportunity to introduce your guests to some of the largest and most well-known makers / distributors of Burgundy (often known as negociants).  Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Olivier Leflaive, Maison Champy, and Bouchard Pere et Fils are great choices.  Fortunately, they all own some fantastic vineyard real estate and make delicious wines.  They’re a great starting point for your exploration of this wonderful region.

Cite a few statistics for your guests to put the whole “Bourgogne,” “Villages,” “Premier Cru” and “Grand Cru” discussion in context.  Roughly 52% of all wine made in Burgundy are regional “Bourgogne” red or white blends.  Another 35% of all Burgundy wines are “Village” wines where all the grapes are sourced from that specific village.  There are just over 560 Premier Cru vineyards, the wines from which make up 11% of Burgundy production.  Finally, the 30+ Grand Cru vineyards make up just 2% of all Burgundy wines.

Burgundy makes great chardonnay that is crisp and creamy, but not buttery in the way many Californian wineries produce chardonnay.  White Burgundy also can taste minerally as a result of the limestone in the land where the vines are planted.  Burgundians like to let the clean fruit flavors from the grape shine through, rather than to make a huge wine reminiscent of butterscotch pudding.  Similarly, Red Burgundy typically has more subtle fruit flavors than the pinot noir you and your guests might have tried from America.  Whereas the warmer weather in California produces many full-bodied, very fruit-forward pinot noir, it’s much cooler in Burgundy and so the fruit flavors are more refined and complex (some would say elegant).

Note also that Premier Cru (displayed as “1er Cru” on many labels) and Grand Cru wines always include the name of the vineyard itself on the label.  For a 1er Cru, it’s usually in quotes and/or listed after the name of the village.  For the two 1er Cru wines in our sample lineup above, the white is from the “Les Referts” vineyard in the village of Puligny-Montrachet, while the red is from the “Les Suchots” vineyard in the village of Vosne-Romanee.  You will also be able to find the phrase “1er Cru” or “Premier Cru” somewhere in tiny print on the label.

So how will you know a Grand Cru when you see it?  The smart-aleck answer is, “by its price tag.”  There are no undiscovered affordable gems among Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards; they’re usually more expensive than their 1er Cru neighbors.   But also, the Grand Cru Burgundy wines have the name of the vineyard itself on the label, and often omit the name of the town.  In our sample lineup above, “Corton-Charlemagne” and “Mazis-Chambertin” are vineyards, not towns.  Finally, in case this all gets too confusing, the words “grand cru” will most likely be on the label as well, for the avoidance of doubt.

We would also recommend printing out a list for your guests of the major Burgundy villages.  This may seem like extra trouble, but the villages are so prominently displayed on Burgundy wine labels that it’s helpful to know one when you see it.  Maps are helpful here too.  Let your guests know that most great Burgundy is made along a one-mile-wide by forty-five mile long stretch called the “Cote d’Or,” basically a long valley with hills on either side.  One half is known as the “Cote de Nuits” and includes well-known villages such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St.-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, and Vosnee-Romanee.  The adjacent half of this long/narrow stretch is called the “Cote de Beaune” and includes the villages of  Pommard, Volnay, Beaune, Savigny-les-Beaune, and Aloxe-Corton (among others).  So when you see these words on a label, it’s referring to the town the grapes are grown in.

While the Cote d’Or is the largest Burgundy region, the other three worth noting are Chablis, the Maconnais, and the Cote de Chalonnais.   Your guests will have heard of “Chablis” but may not realize it’s just a specific area of Burgundy that produces very minerally (and often unbelievably great) chardonnay.  Some of your guests may also have heard of “Pouilly-Fuisse” which is a brand, if you will, of white Burgundy made in the Maconnais region.  It too is simply a variety of Chardonnay made in a specific part of Burgundy.

There is plenty more to learn about Burgundy than this quick summary, and plenty of places on the Web to keep studying.  But in our experience, if you and your friends are really interested in learning about wine, this can be one of the most rewarding tastings you can do.

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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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Wine Tasting 101

Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

Pairings

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

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

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Tasting Notes

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

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

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