Recently, I had the pleasure of sampling a current vintage 100-point super Tuscan with a group of colleagues to celebrate a special occasion. While this iconic wine was extremely complex, focused and intense, it wasn’t really “drinking well.” Granted, it needed time to open up and perhaps a side of beef to pair with, but the consensus was that it wasn’t the earth-shattering experience the group had anticipated.
The following Sunday, I dug deep in my cellar to find a 1989 Clos des Jacobins Saint-Émilion Grand Cru that received a 90-point score in 1999. It had been stored properly for the last two decades, so I figured this was a perfect time to open it up.
I seemed to have caught it in its peak stage when it wasn’t just drinking well, it was drinking perfectly.
It was slightly muted at first, but when it came to life, it displayed intense dried red fruit, fig, raisin, smoked chestnuts, tobacco leaf and forest floor on the nose and palate. The acidity was still kicking, and the tannins were supple and polished. Luckily enough, my pops and I seemed to have caught it in its peak stage when it wasn’t just drinking well, it was drinking perfectly.
As I sipped, I reminisced about that vintage of 1989, my sophomore year in high school. Visions of shredding away on my Gibson Les Paul came to mind, as well as the early stages of my high school golf career, summers working at camp and figuring out how to attract the opposite sex without making a complete fool of myself. My pops and I agreed that spending a quiet afternoon over a perfectly aged bottle of Bordeaux was exactly what we needed.
It wasn’t that the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru was necessarily a better wine than the young super Tuscan. In that moment, however, it was drinking better in its life cycle. But also, with its sophistication and wisdom, it opened a gateway for a little nostalgia and a walk down memory lane as only a perfectly aged bottle of wine can do.
Don’t be intimidated by all of those fancy wine descriptors or the swishing and swooshing sounds that the pros make while they taste. To evaluate wine, it all comes down to the “five S’s.”
Illustration by Ryan McAmis
See. Similar to a psychic who gazes into a crystal ball, inspecting wine in the glass can help predict much of what’s to come on the nose and palate. The color, depth and intensity of a wine can offer a glimpse into its age, concentration, body and overall style.
Hint: white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose color.
Swirl. Swirling is integral to aerate the wine and allow oxygen to “open it up.” This seductive art reveals a wine’s complexities, and it will raise intensity in most young, opulent bottlings as well as those aged beauties. Better yet, when done properly, it will wow and potentially hypnotize those around you.
Sniff/Smell. Don’t be afraid to shove your entire nose right into the glass. Wines with medium to pronounced intensity shouldn’t need such a deep dive, but others may be a little bashful at first. In these cases, revert back to Step No. 2 and swirl some more. Aroma is usually where you hear all those cool, eccentric wine termslike “cat pee,” “wet dog” and “grilled watermelon.”
Sip. It takes a while to actually taste a wine during the examination process, but it’s often well worth the wait. Plus, all the prior steps should impart a pretty good idea of how the wine should come across on the palate.
When pros taste wine, you may notice some pretty off-putting and downright disgusting sounds, but there are reasons for it. The swishing, swooshing and gulping ensures that the wine hits all parts of the tongue and mouth. Thus, the taster can gauge sweetness, acidity, bitterness, tannins and identify the overall mouthfeel. Sucking in air allows for further aeration on the palate, and it helps volatile components be sensed by the olfactory system to tap in to all the characteristics of the wine.
Here, you look for primary characteristics (fruit, floral and spice), secondary characteristics (oak and fermentation-related flavors) and tertiary character (those that result from bottle aging, like mushroom, tobacco and nuttiness), depending on the age of the wine.
Savor. Here’s where the finish comes into play. You want to savor the final essence of a wine. Here, you not only look for length, but balance of fruit, acidity, tannin and texture. When a wine leaves you with an overwhelming desire for another sip, you know you’ve found a winner.
If a young wine has a far superior finish than its taste on the palate, it probably needs a bit of aeration or even a little more time in the cellar.
From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.
Malbec has to be one of the most misunderstood grapes out there. Most of the modern wine drinking world associates it with the wines of Argentina… and with good reason. Argentina, and Mendoza in particular, produces the highest quantity of Malbec wine in the world. While there are some extremely well made wines from this region, the majority of Argentinian Malbec is more value driven than anything else. The wines from this end of the earth are usually super dark and inky with plum and black fruit character and can be quite big and bold. However that is not the way all Malbec wines are crafted.
Wines produced in the motherland of Malbec (France) tend to be less fruit forward and the cooler climate imparts higher acidity and polished tannins with more floral notes, however the fruit character remains similar. While it is one of the five grapes allowed in the red wines of Bordeaux, it is Cahors where Malbec flourishes and leads to some of the finest and most ageable red wines in all of France. And no one produces a better lineup of Malbec driven wines than the folks at Chateau Lagrezette.
Of course with the dynamic duo of Alain Dominique Perrin and Michel Rolland, the most accomplished flying wine maker in the world, this should be no surprise to anyone. This year they celebrated 30 years of winemaking together at Chateau Lagrezette with a world tour featuring their wines at some of the finest restaurants throughout the world. I was lucky enough to attend this historic even at Le Bernardin in NYC, and got to chat with Mr. Rolland about a few things while we all tasted through his Chateau Lagrezzete lineup.
The night started with Le Pigeonnier Blanc, which is produced from Viogner sourced from a single vineyard within their Rocamadour vineyard. According to Michel, originally both Vigoner and Chardonnay were both planted here. But as he explains, as time went on the Chardonnay wines were just not up to snuff, while Viogner excelled. So, they let common sense do the work for them and went with all Viogner for this vineyard, as well as this particular wine. This is a stunning white wine exuding intense apricot, peach and nectarine fruit along with pretty floral notes and searing acidity from start to finish.
Next up was the 2015 Mon Vin, a 100% Malbec that was simply stunning. Production is tiny for this elegant and classy red which spends 30 months in 225 liter new French oak barrels. Smoke, leather and rose petals balance beautifully with the well developed black fruit and spice. What’s most tantalizing on just about all of their Malbec wines are the tannins. That cool climate and terroir allow them to be firm and gripping, but without crossing over to the gritty and aggressive side. They stay polished, pleasant and prolong the finish on just about every one of their reds.
While the Paragon 2012 was being served, I was able to sit next to the man himself and discuss some of the wines and what his days are like now. While he has had a hand in helping to produce hundreds to thousands of wines, these days he limits himself to only working with a small amount of his favorites… including Lagrezette of course. His pleasure derives as much from producing as it does mentoring these days, as he truly enjoys watching and teaching the younger generation of vintners in their early stages of wine making. Oh, and the Paragon is STELLAR! This is a big wine with loads of blackberry, black cherry, black pepper, lavender and smokey oak. It’s opulent and plush now, but this is one that could use another decade in the cellar to truly evolve.
As you might expect, they saved the best Malbec for last…. and it was a real treat! Alain and Michel broke out the 1998 Le Pigeonnier Malbec after 20 years of aging. Also receiving 30 months of new oak treatment, this wine has aged gracefully boasting complex aromas of roasted almonds, dried fig and cherry, leather and tobacco. Staying true to the Lagrezette style the acidity is still kicking and the tannins are simply gorgeous. While it could probably go another few years, this wine was truly drinking at its peak.
While it wasn’t served at this event, I always enjoy their entry level Purple Malbec as well. Lots of vibrant berry fruit with baking spice and lavendar, and again that wonderful combo of great acidity and supple tannins make it a wonderful everyday wine. Like all of the Malbecs from Lagrezette, it is a simply a genuine expression of what the wines of Cahors have to offer.
Ever feel like the pros at wine tastings are speaking their own secret language? In a way, they are. Learn the ins and outs of “tasting grids,” which set the standard for how we evaluate wines and the words we use to talk about them.
The tasting grid provides a guide for an objective description of a wine’s character and quality. While there are differences between various grids, they allow the taster to gauge a wine based on appearance, nose and palate, which leads to an unbiased conclusion of quality, age and development.
So how do wine tasting grids work, and what should you do when you approach a new pour?
The first step is to look at the wine against a white backdrop, like a blank piece of paper. This ensures that wines are not distorted by external colors.
In addition to the color, there are various levels of intensity to gauge. White wines gain color as they age, ranging from lemon and gold to dark caramel. By contrast, reds lose color and intensity with age, as they progress from purple to ruby to deep tawny. So while a typical aged Barolo might be described as pale or medium garnet (a hue between ruby and tawny), a young Australian Shiraz may lean toward deep purple or ruby.
Approaching the nose
Here’s where it starts to get fun. First, you swirl. Swirling allows for increased oxygenation, which can bring out more complex secondary aromas.
The first assessment is to determine if the wine is clean or faulty. Faults can include excess levels of brettanomyces, cork taint, volatile acidity or oxidization. Once you’ve determined a wine is free of faults, the next step is to gauge intensity.
Intensity is usually measured on a scale of low, medium or high. If you can smell a wine from a few inches away, it’s generally regarded as high intensity. If you must put your nose slightly inside the glass, that would equate to a medium intensity. Medium-minus and medium-plus cover the ranges in-between. If you can detect the wine’s aroma with the glass just below your nose, it might be considered medium-plus.
Aroma characteristics are where much obscure wine-geek jargon originates. Aromas of pencil shavings, cat pee, rubber hose or wet dog? The tasting grid tries to eliminate these subjective and eccentric descriptors with specific, standardized terms for each aroma cluster.
Evaluating the palate
The description of the palate, or what you taste, is by far the most in-depth category. A complete tasting note would include levels of sweetness, acid, tannin, alcohol, body and intensity. Once again, these are all graded at low, medium and high levels, with plus or minus used as modifiers for the medium range. Flavor characteristics and finish are factored in as well.
With flavor, the wine is to be described in terms of primary attributes like fruit, floral, herbal or spice. Secondary characteristics include oak, earth, and flavors that result from production techniques like malolactic fermentation and lees contact. Tertiary factors can be bottle age, oxidation and long-term fruit development. Just as with the aroma descriptions, fruit should be organized in clusters.
For example, a young Napa Cab could boast black fruit flavors (black cherry, blackcurrant), where a Sonoma Coast Pinot would more likely exude red fruit character (red cherry, strawberry and raspberry).
Once you’ve nailed down the flavor profile, determining the length of the finish and the wine’s overall complexity is the final step.
For the Court of Master Sommeliers’ grid, there are two conclusions to be drawn. The initial conclusion is to deem a wine as Old World or New World, examining the type of climate, possible grape varieties and country of origin. This gives way to a final assessment of vintage, grape, country, region and designation.
The WSET conclusion starts with an assessment of quality and readiness to drink. That leads to a similar final assessment of grape variety and origin, but also includes style and method of production.
While some variance exists between programs, the premise remains the same for any tasting grid. Dissecting a wine using a formal system based on sight, smell, taste and feel can be equal parts art and science, but the first time you’re able to guess a vintage or variety at a blind tasting accurately, the payoff is worth it.
You may want to sit down for this: Thanksgiving is a mere week away! How crazy is that?! But ready or not, here it comes. Which means that both your menu and wine lineup need to start rapidly coming together. Even if you are not hosting (which makes life that much easier) you can still have a huge impact on the meal by bringing the right wines for your family and friends to enjoy. I mean, who doesn’t love the guy who rolls in with a few bottles of great juice?! Which then begs the question… what are the right wines to pair with a traditional Thanksgiving meal?
The great thing about a roasted turkey and all the trimmins is that there are a ton of wines that will pair well with the meal. It just depends on what style of wine you crew prefer. The one possible wine component you may want to try and avoid are very high tannins. Turkey doesn’t have the fat content of red meat, which typically will bind with those tannins. Instead, the tannins can take center stage rendering the turkey and stuffing as bland as opposed to full of flavor. So while just about any wine will work, here are some options that may complement your meal better than others.
The classic white wine pairing with turkey is Riesling. The low alcohol and high acid can be a refreshing complement to the inherent richness of the meal. I prefer to stick with the drier style (Kabinett) as opposed to those that have a sweeter profile (Spatlese). The Willim Alsace Riesling is one of my favorite options for around $15 and for a real value the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling is consistently solid and goes for under $10 at most retailers.
If you like your whites a little bigger and bolder then a buttery, oaky Chardonnay or Burgundy may be the way to go. Although be careful of the super oaked options, as those woody tannins can stifle the richness of the bird. My favorites from CA right now are from Gary Farrell and Stonestreet (both around $30-35), but I’ve been on a real Chablis kick these days. The searing acidity on those wines will certainly complement your properly roasted bird. On the value side try the Joel Gott Chard from CA or the Fox Run from the Finger Lakes. Both are unoaked clean, vibrant and delightfully refreshing options for around $15.
Traditionally the most commonly recommended red wines to pair with turkey are Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Rhone Blends. Pinot is arguably the best option as the higher acid levels, vibrant fruit and peppery spice really bring out the best in just about any poultry dish. The problem in my family is that no one drinks Pinot. Almost everyone at that table prefers their wines big and opulent and tend to reach for a massive Napa Cab over an elegant red Burgundy. But I plan to enjoy my deep fried turkey with a healthy glass or two of the Davis Bynum 2014 RRV Pinot, even if I’m the only one at the table that does.
So the pairing that usually works best for my crew is a hearty Cali Zinfandel or Red Blend. They tend to have loads of big, dark and spicy fruit but a little lighter body and softer tannins than Cab. Seghesio produces high quality Zins across their entire portfolio, and if you want to go for a mouth filling red blend than grab The Prisoner, as that is always a crowd pleaser. This year I’m going with the Method North Coast Proprietary Red. This hearty blend of Syrah, Zin and Petite Sirah is balanced and layered with flavors of red and black cherry, blueberry, vanilla, ground espresso and brown sugar… a perfect partner for your perfectly prepared Thanksgiving bird.
Wines from Southern Rhone typically consist of Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre with Grenache usually taking center stage. Grenache leans on the lighter side in terms of body with good acid, spicy berry fruit and plush tannins. Blend in some meaty Syrah and a dollup of dark Mouvedre and you have an ideal blend for your Thanksgiving table. Cotes du Rhone Villages wines offer a step up in quality (usually) over a standard Cotes du Rhone, and still can be found for less than $20. However they have a hard time standing up to those bigger and more complex Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas wines, which is why those are just about impossible to find for under $40. Some value producers include Barville, Santa Duc, Chapoutier and Louis Bernard. But if you are from the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ mentality then you can’t go wrong with any of the big dogs such as Domaine de Pegau, Vieux Telegraphe, Chateau de Beaucastel or Saint Cosme. Just be sure to give those bigger wines some oxygen before you start digging into them, or they may come off a little tight and inexpressive.
Let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to go out and spend $40 -$50 on a bottle of wine and feel confident that you are getting something that should be pretty damn tasty. I say ‘should be’ because believe it or not, there are plenty of disappointing wines at that price point. But more often than not, a wine of that price should possess some sort of quality in terms of region, grape selection, production and aging. But what is much harder is to find those $10-15 bottles that taste like something 2-3X the price… but they are out there my friends. Sometimes you have to stomach through a bunch of swill to find those great values, but like anything in life it takes a bit of determination and hard work to discover those hidden gems.
Check out this list of 15 wines, in no particular order, which have a tremendous QPR (Quality Price Ratio) and will run under $15. I am not including vintages as these wines are consistently solid just about every year and possess similar flavor profiles regardless of vintage (for the most part)… Cheers!
Belle Ambiance Pinot Grigio, CA – This is like the house white wine for my block. A PG with some body to match up to the acidity, with pretty floral notes surrounding the citrus fruit center.
Fox Run Dry Riesling, FLX – Keep it local with one of my favorite Finger Lakes value wines. A little like Sprite on the palate (lemon/lime with just a quick hit of pettilance) with fresh grapefruit and searing acidity, a home run pairing for any kind of chilled shellfish.
Louis Jadot Chardonnay Bourgogne Blanc – Classic Burgundy entry level Chardonnay with a concise balance of crisp apple and pear fruit, bright acidity and just a hint of that buttery character.
NV House Wine Rosé Can – Good wine is coming in all shapes and sizes these days, so don’t let the can scare you! This is a great summer sipper, porch pounder…whatever you want to call it. Fresh and bright strawberry fruit with an appealing rose petal note.
Vidal Fleury Cotes du Rhone – One of the biggest and most expressive CDRs at this price point. Concentrated red and black cherry fruit, peppery spice and mineral notes are all in balance as is the bright acidity and firm tannins. Easily could pass as a Gigondas for twice the price.
Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva– Made from 100% Negroamaro, the dominant grape in this area of Puglia, this has a fairly intense nose featuring dried fruit such as raisin, prune and fig. But the candied blackberry and cherry notes come through on the palate and flow through the dry, pleasing finish. Big yet balanced…
Purple Malbec Cahors – Chateau Lagrezette’s entry level red, this is simply a wonderful expression of Malbec from the motherland (France) with bright acidity, vibrant black fruits and just a dollop of black pepper.
Seaglass Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara – This is a perennial ‘best value’ Pinot for me as it stays light and lively on the palate but exudes true Pinot character, which most Pinots at this price point fail to do.
Underwood Pinot Noir, OR (Can) – Am I having this with a roasted duck? No… But for a light everyday wine this has enough fruit and depth to make it fully enjoyable. And do you know what doesn’t break and shatter all over the floor for your kids to step on and get little pieces of glass stuck in their feet?? Cans… that’s what.
Slow Press Cabernet, CA – This has to be the best CA Cab for the Price on the market. All that Paso Robles fruit gives this full bodied wine an opulent core of black cherry, cassis and plum with just a kiss of sweetness. Plush and supple, but with enough depth to enjoy with a grilled steak.
Rosso di Ca’Momi, CA – A fun blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Sirah. Medium to full bodied with a fairly intense nose of toasted vanilla, blackberry and clove. Super value at around $10.
Chateau Souverain Merlot, CA – Sorry Miles, but I am drinking THIS f&%king Merlot! It has some real umph to it with big dark fruit flavors, toasty oak laced with clove and spice aromas. Probably the best wine of the bunch here…
Lines of Wine
Columbia Crest Grand Estates, WA – While the Syrah is my favorite in the line, this value brand under Ste. Michelle Estates is continually awarded “Best Buy” accolades from top publications, and for good reason. Tough to find a bad one in the lineup.
Handcraft Wines, CA – The Delicato family produces this line of wines which offer tremendous value and drinkability across the board. Taste the Dark Red Blend and the Petite Sirah and you will understand exactly what I mean.
Bota Box – Boxed wine is not how you may remember it. This is no Franzia or Almaden, so get over the stigma already. Bota is producing really solid juice from all over the world (although mostly CA). And at $20 a 3L box (or $5 a bottle) there is no better value on the market, particular for the whites like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.
It’s hot… It’s like Africa hot… Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot. While the Biloxi Blues fans will get that reference, the rest of us can just agree that it is really starting to heat up around here. This is about the time where the shift to white wine from red starts to kick in.. But not just any white wine, as certain ones are far more thirst quenching and refreshing than others. Sure, I’ll still reach for a hearty Syrah or a spicy, juicy Zin when the grill is rocking with all kinds of meat. But for Summer sippin’ I tend to reach for those crisp, aromatic and tongue tickling whites…. like the ones listed below.
Chenin Blanc is one of the most versatile white grape varieties in the world, as it leads to a wide variety of styles of wine. In warmer climates, or if picked later in the season, it can lead to an off dry or even sweeter wine leading to aromas and flavors of honeysuckle, almond and ginger snap. But in cooler climates, and when fermented to the fullest, Chenin wines are crisp, dry and mouthwatering with fresh green, apple, pear and just hints of that honey note. The most expressive examples come from South Africa (where it is also called Steen) and the Loire Valley in France. In fact, in Vouvray (region in the Loire) many producers will craft a sparkling version such as Domaine Pichot which is always one of my favorite ways to commence any Summer grillin’ session. If you’re not into the bubbles, their Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette is quite a stellar still wine.
Albarino is a white grape mostly grown in the Northwest of Spain and Portugal with some experimentation happening in California and other new world wine regions. Most of the Albarino labelled wine you find on the shelves at your favorite wine shop comes from the Riax Baixes DO in Galicia, prime real estate for Albarino. These wines tend to have a bit more depth than other citrus driven whites (like Sauvignon Blanc) with searing acidity, discerning botanical aromas as well as white flower and stone fruit flavors. This not only makes it an ideal white to enjoy on its own, but a wonderful food pairing wine particularly with all kinds of chilled shellfish. Martin Codax is a very popular producer, and makes a widely available and solid Albarino, however I prefer the Bodega Eidosela, Ethereo with its mineral and tangy character for about the same price.
Speaking of Albarino… Vinho Verde is a coastal wine region in Portugal just south of Rias Baixes where Alvarinho (same as the Albarino grape) also flourishes. While the literal translation is ‘green wine’, the more appropriate explanation of the name is ‘young wine’ as these are typically light and fruity with a touch petillance. Reds and roses are produced in the region as well, made mostly from indigenous varieties, but the majority of wine that comes from the area is the Alvarinho based white (with other indigenous grapes like Loureiro and Arinto possibly mixed in). They are typically light straw or yellow in color, fruity and floral on the nose with a clean, lean and mouthwatering feel on the palate. And because these wines are typically quite low in alcohol, feel free to enjoy that second glass virtually guilt free! Vinho Verde options tend to be rather affordable, such as the Casa Do Valle Grande Escolha Vinho Verde which you can find for under $15.
Gruner Veltliner may be one of the most misunderstood and underrated wines in the world, but that seems to be changing as some of the finest examples are receiving well deserved high accolades and ratings. Making up about 1/3 of all Austrian grape plantings, this spicy and aromatic wine comes in a variety of styles. Even though the bottle may look like a Riesling, GV does not have much in common with the popular German variety aside from the high acidity and some similar citrus notes. These wines typically feature more stone fruit than green fruit with white pepper, a lime or lemon note and a cool white pepper (or herbaceous) component. Some of the richer GV wines will age wonderfully where honey, almonds and a creamy texture prevail… which can come with a higher price tag. But for around $15 there is an ample amount of light and zippy Gruners to choose from, including this Domane Wachau Federspiel Terrassen Gruner Veltliner… thankfully it is much easier to drink than it is to pronounce. And keep an eye out for some FLX Gruner out there as the experimentation is starting to come to fruition.
Soave (pronounced like the iconic 80’s tune ‘Rico… Suave’) may be my favorite summer white wine of all. I’m not referring to the Bolla version (although for under $10 it’s a pretty good value play), but more so the wines from the Classico region of Soave. These tasty, undervalued wines that have the Classico designation are from the best soils in the area and are composed of at least 70% Gargenega with Trebbiano di Soave and Chardonnay possibly rounding out the blend. These light bodied, dry and refreshing wines commonly possess peach, orange zest and honeydew melon flavors with some almond notes in the better versions. If you are looking for something to pair with these wines think hearty seafood such as shrimp, scallops and even lobster as the acidity and fresh fruit balance perfectly with those meaty seafood dishes. Pieropan consistently makes a stellar Classico for around $20 and their Calvarino (produced from some of the best soil in the region) is well worth the extra $8-10, as it will age and improve over time.