California Red Zinfandel

Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

The Wines

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

Music

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

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

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

Pairings

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

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

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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Oregon Pinot Noir

The Theme

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

The Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

 

The Wines

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

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

Music

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

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

 

Pairings

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

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

 

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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Sauvignon Blanc Paired With Goat’s Cheese

The Theme

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

The Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

 

The Wines

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

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

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

Music

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

Pairings

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

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

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

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

 

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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

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Exploring Spanish Wines

The Theme

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

The Angle

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

Sample Lineup 

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

 

 

The Wines

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

 

Music

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

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

Pairings

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

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

 

 

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Discovering Italian Whites

Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

 

 The Wines

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

 

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

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

Music

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

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

Pairings

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

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

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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

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Discovering Italian Reds

  Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

 

The Wines

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

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

Music

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

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

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

Pairings

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

Tasting Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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Wine Tasting 101

Theme

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

Angle

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

Sample Lineup

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

Pairings

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

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

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Tasting Notes

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

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

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