5 Summer Whites to Beat The Heat

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 Image result for botanicalsdepth 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 Image result for petillance wineroses 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 Grüner Veltliner (Green Veltliner) (white) | Aromas of green apple, lemon, blossom, cantaloupe, herbs, black & white pepper, mint | Austria, Slovakia & Hungary (Zöld Veltelini)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.
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My WSET Diploma Level 4 Exam Experience

Wine has been a passion of mine for just about as long as I have been allowed to drink it. From the bottles of straw bottomed Chianti and Pere Patriarche Rouge on my grandparent’s dinner table, to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin that my pops selected one night at Spark’s Steak house (my ‘epiphany wine’), it has always been a part of my life. The more I sipped,  the more curious I became about everything that went into wine and what made it so damn tasty. Once I started working in the biz, IImage result for Pere Patriarche Rouge decided I needed to step up my ‘wine geek’ status a notch or two which was when I decided to enroll in the WSET.  The Wine and Spirits Education trust is based in England with satellite schools throughout the globe and is one of the most recognized and respected wine education organizations in the world. They offer a variety of programs starting with a basic Level 1 Award in Wines all the way up the wine education ladder to one of the most grueling and intense programs out there, the notorious Level 4 Diploma in Wine and Spirits.

I entered the program through the International Wine Center in NYC 7 years ago at the Level 3 Advanced Level. While the Diploma Level gets most of the attention and accolades, the Advanced Exam is not to be discounted as it is a serious test of wine knowledge and blind tasting skill. It consists of a written theory section containing both multiple choice and short essay questions followed by a blind tasting of two wines under stringent time limitations. So after successfully passing the exam, the fateful decision had to be made…. To Diploma or Not To Diploma.

With a full time job at Wine Enthusiast and at the time having a 3 and 1 year old at home, I probably should have had my head examined. But having completed a Masters in Elementary Education program in my younger years, and more importantly having this deep rooted passion for wine, I was infinitely intrigued to see what all the hype was behind the Level 4 Diploma. There are 6 units to the program, each with its own exam. In order to complete the program you must pass all 6 within a 3 year time frame, and every one of the tests at this level makes the Advanced test seem like taking an eye Image result for wine eye chartexam with a magnifying glass. There are separate Units for Sparkling Wine, Fortified Wine, Spirits, Wine Production, The Business of Wine and the Granddaddy of them all… Unit 3 – Light Wine. ‘Light’ is a complete oxymoron here as this makes up half of the program and is the heaviest of all in terms of information, tasting and time expended. The WSET uses the term Light Wine, but it is synonymous with ‘still wine’, so this section covers every region in the wine producing world and every wine that comes out of those regions…literally.

I won’t go into the gory details of what is entailed in terms of studying… but let’s just say that my alarm was set for 4:30 every morning and my home, car and office were all decorated with homemade wine flash cards. Not to mention the inordinate amount of blind tastings (not drinking mind you) that my poor wife had to administer late into the night to train all the senses. So after passing a majority of the other units and heading into my third year of the program, it was time to take on Goliath. Who would have thought there was so much to know about wine?!? How many hectares of vineyards are planted in Valais? What grapes are used in the Nagy Somlo region of Hungary? At what time did they pick the grapes for the 1973 Chateau Montelena award winning Chard? What was the name of the third child of the Chateau Margaux winemaker in 1982? That sort of thing.

The Unit 3 exam is a 12 wine blind tasting followed by an extensive written section.  The WSET’s goal is to see if you are able to identify specific characteristics in wine, connecting them to particular grapes and regions, judging quality and ageability while defining the wine using the their ‘tasting grid’. A major benefit of the WSET model is the credit awarded by properly describing the wine characteristics. So even if you are incorrect in identifying the grape and/or region, if your description grooves with the majority of WSET examiners grading your exam you still have a shot at earning enough marks to pass.

After months and months of blind tasting and sleeping with the Oxford Companion to Wine under my pillow praying for some form of osmosis, the day had finally arrived. The first flight was to examine 3 wines all produced from the same grape variety. In front of me sat 3 lemon colored wines with varying intensity, so I started going through the tasting grid trying not to jump to any conclusions (which is easier said than done). I detected grapefruit and some grassyImage result for grapefruit and lemongrass notes on the first wine, so I ignored the grid as clearly these were all Sauvignon Blanc. Luckily, my snap judgement was correct as all 3 wines were indeed produced from Sauvignon Blanc. Of course, you do not find out results until about 3 months after the fact, leaving around 90 days to crucify myself for falling into the most obvious blind tasting pitfall. But the grapefruit don’t lie… most of the time.

The next 3 wines all were produced in the same country. As I sniffed the first white wine, a hint of honey emerged over the apple and pear fruit core…obviously Chenin. Having already hastily predetermined the grape variety I moved down the line to the light red wine which emitted pretty aromas of red cherry, strawberry and a black pepper spice, so this had to be Pinot. My brain was racing trying to connect the dots. Chenin runs rampant in the Loire valley and the Pinot had Burgundy written all over it…France it is. The last sample was a sweet style dessert wine with quite a distinctive honeysuckle aroma, but it didn’t have that Sauternes-like character. It must be a late harvest Chenin from Bonnezeaux or somewhere in the Loire. Or could this be one of those trick tasting flights? South Africa produces plenty of Chenin and some Pinot, but this Pinot didn’t have those classic South African earthy undertones, and it felt like a cooler climate style of Chenin… so it simply HAD to be from the Loire.

Related imageOr, not so much… the first wine wasn’t even Chenin. It was a Kabinett Riesling from GERMANY! Both wines can have apple and pear fruit with a slight honey note as well, which is exactly why you don’t jump to conclusions. The red wine was in fact Pinot, but Spätburgunder would have been more appropriate in this case. And of course, the final wine was not an obscure late harvest Chenin, but an obvious Auslese Riesling.

In a word…FAIL!

The next flight of 3 needed to be placed in a ‘good, better, best’ order with specific reasons as to why. Moments after the wines were poured the entire room filled up with black fruit, smoke and spice… blatantly Syrah. However there was some clear evidence to back up my impulsive guess as all the wines had dark berry fruit with either sweet spices, smoked meat or olive tapenade. I had them all pegged as Northern Rhone wines, and while they turned out to be fairly high quality Australian Shiraz with some age on them, I felt like I nailed that section which provided a much needed boost of confidence going into the final flight.

The final 3 wines for the exam were a random sampling of any wine from anywhere. In front of me stood a white, rosé and red wine looking like Mariano Rivera at the bottom of the 9th ready to take me down. Image result for white rose and red wineThe white had a lovely nose of green apple, white flowers with just a touch of lemon peel.  WIth its high, crisp acidity, this one really felt like a dry Riesling.  It ended up being a dry, delicate Torrontes (which can carry Riesling character) but I was positive on my call so I was feeling strong heading into the Rosé. Fresh strawberry and cherry fruit, a little rose petal note and wonderfully bright acidity. I remember thinking to myself: ‘If this isn’t a Cotes de Provence Rosé than I simply have no idea what the hell I am doing’. Luckily, that is exactly what it was.

Having believed I was 2 for 2 so far, I was feeling like Bacchus himself going into wine number 3. I got within about 3 inches of the glass and that was all I needed. I tried to fight off those jump to conclusion demons, but how could it be anything else?! It was deep ruby in color exuding intense aromas of black cherry, cassis, vanilla and hints of eucalyptus with opulent fruit on the palate, high tannins and a long, dry finish. I figured the WSET took pity on us and finished things off with a lay-up… a high quality Napa Cab. But of course, the conclusion-jump once again landed me in the muck. This dead ringer for a Napa Cab was in fact a new world style Gran Reserva Rioja. But, I must have nailed just about every note in this section as I miraculously Passed with Merit on the final 3 wines.

Image result for blind wine tasting

With the morning 2.5 hour tasting exam in the books, it was time for the written theory section for the final 3 hours after a much needed lunch break. I would have preferred the order reversed, as all of that tasting (even though you’re spitting) does take a toll on the mind and body. But nonetheless, it was game time.  5 of the possible 7 essay questions had to be answered with a certain amount of marks to earn a pass. I won’t bore you with the details of this section, but let’s just say I am thankful that I committed just about the entire Oxford Companion to Wine to memory, as there were some ridiculously obscure questions on regions, grapes, events and wine styles for sure. And trying to beat the clock for this part of the exam was even more challenging than for the blind tasting.

Turns out Tom Petty was right… the only thing more stressful than taking the exam is the three month waiting period to find out the results. After months and months of nail biting, self-crucifying and continued wine tasting in anticipation (without spitting this time), the irrevocable results had finally arrived. I braced myself for the worst and prayed that I passed just one of the two sections. I hesitantly opened up the envelope with my heart racing in full panic mode. I peaked just barely enough to see the results and was elated to learn that I passed BOTH the tasting and written parts of the exam. With a giant fist pump and a roar of ‘Hells Yeah!!’ that could be heard all around my block, it was over. Mission… accomplished.

The International Wine Center Announces the 22nd Graduating Class

Red, White and Blue Wines for the 4th!

Yeah, that’s right… blue wine. I know, I know…. I had the same reaction. But why? How? And, why? It seems some entrepreneurial producers in Spain thought it would be a clever idea to craft a blue colored wine targeted at the all encompassing market of the millennials. Apparently it is a blend of Spanish red and white grapes which gains its color from anthocyanin, a pigment found in grape skins, and iodine that is extracted from the Isatis tinctoria plant. It is reportedly a sweet, young refreshing style of wine meant to pair with sushi and nachos with guac. Having never tried this blue wine before I cannot offer any opinion on the quality or value… but I can say that my expectations are fairly low.

Now for the REAL 4th of July recommendations! Is it me, or did it get super hot super quick to start the summer? I feel like the Chardonnay season came and went and I am
already reaching for more refreshing white options. While Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are always popular, as an overly broad generalization, they tend to seem a little too simplistic (sorry Santa Margherita and Brancott fans). As of late I find myself reaching for that dry style of Riesling from a multitude of regions as well as Chenin Blancs from the Loire and South Africa. The nice part about all of these wines is that they typically offer a solid value.

The Fox Run Rie2015 Den Chenin Blancsling (Finger Lakes) is a staple in my house over the summer months, and the bone dry Willm Reserve Riesling (Alsace) is a tremendously food friendly wine to pair with all kinds of shellfish and chilled seafood starters. The Painted Wolf ‘The Den’ Chenin Blanc is crisp, tropical with just a hint of oaky notes, and their Pinotage from the same line is pretty stellar as well. The Sauvon Vouvray (Chenin Blanc grape) is a value superstar every vintage with its floral character and subtle honey notes, and can actually gain complexity with a few years of age. The best part… all of these wines are under $20.

 

Red wines that are suitable for the 4th, and the summer in general, need to be grill friendly that can pair up with anything from burgers and dogs to filet and lobster surf & turf. That means they have to be versatile, hearty and food friendly (which typically means they need a good dose of acidity). Let’s not forget that it’s hot out there… so some lighter, thirst quenching reds (which can even be served slightly chilled) are integral to any successful July 4th BBQ. I get made fun of all the time for my infatuation with the Seaglass Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, but it remains the best Pinot under $15 for my money. This is one of those lighter style wines that can benefit from a few minutes in the fridge before opening,  accentuating the lively acidity and bright cherry and berry fruit.

I find myself leaning towards the Northern Rhone wines during the grilling season. The smoky and meaty style of Crozes Hermitage and Saint Joseph wines (Syrah based) complement just about any sort of beef you decide to toss on the grill. The Jean Luc Colombo Crozes ‘Les Fees Brunes’ is a stellar under $25 option while the J.L. Chave Saint Joseph ‘Offerus’  is solid just about every vintage and can be found for just a few bucks more. Of course if you are feeling saucy and looking to splurge on something, how about a Cote Rotie for the 4th this year? E. Guigal, Vidal Fleury and St. Cosme are all quality producers and their wines come at a somewhat ‘value’ price under $80. Top tier Cote Rotie wines are easily $100 and up so yes, $50-75 is considered a value for this particular region.

But if you want to keep it simple and patriotic for the 4th, grab some California Zin and Petite Sirah. Both are as American as you can get when it comes to grape varieties, and are big enough to stand up to just about any of your standard BBQ fare. They can offer various spices and boast a firm tannic character to offset those fatty and saucy pork and beef dishes. Zichichi (Dry Creek Valley) is one of my perennial favorites for both varieties, but they are not the easiest to come by. On the Zin side, I always find the Terra d’Oro wines exude great complexity and character without breaking the bank both at their entry level as well as their old vine single vineyard higher end offerings.  Of course if you are from the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ camp, then seek out one of the many Zins from Turley. They range from the entry Juvenille level up to several single vineyard options, all opulent and killer! As far as Petite Sirah goes, Handcraft has a nice one out for under $15 that will certainly please the palate. But for about $40 you can find the Stag’s Leap Winery P.S. which slams you with dark berry, peppery spice and is flat out tasty juice. Talk about a wine that screams out for BBQ ribs and wings! But this is a big boy for sure, so give it a little time to show it’s true colors…none of which are blue 😉