Monday, December 7, 2015

Wine information you can use

"Thanks to your guidance, I have the confidence to choose gift wines that are both affordable and impressive"

The Wine Market is Changing.

"This is the most revolutionary time in wine retailing since the end of prohibition.  The combination of the rise of internet sales and the US Supreme Court's decision striking down some laws concerning direct- to-consumer winery shipping has helped to create more of a free-for-all in wine retailing than ever."

-The Wall Street Journal

We focus on tasty, affordable wines

Most wine publications focus on bottles that are $20, $40, or more, with the token "best buy" feature for those of us in the real world. Yes, there are sublime wines at lofty prices, but  expensive does not necessarily mean "better". If you know what to look for, wines less than $20, less than $15, and sometimes less than $10 can be delicious, unusual, and engaging.

Let experience be your guide

In spite of all the information on big wine sites, few give even passing reference to how to feel confident buying wine.  “Buying Guides”, give ratings, but depending on ratings is risky.  You might not agree with a particular rating, or not be able to find that wine at all.  So here we not only tell you what we like, but suggest how you can find similar wines.

Our mission is to enable you to find terrific wines that fit your taste, and your budget.    We do this in two steps.  First, we recommend our favorites in the Wine Hotlist newsletters and on the  Wine Minute blog.  Then,  as a part of our recommendations, we suggest how to find similar wines wherever you buy wine. 

Read about our knowledge-based approach in the Boston Globe.
Wine lovers  are intelligent consumers, accustomed to being decision-makers in other parts of their lives.  I'd  like to help you be similarly confident when it comes to choosing wine, and less reliant on lists, ads, or pretty labels   (Yes, I sometimes buy wines based on pretty labels, too, and it's usually a mistake!)

TastingTimes is devoted to "wine intelligence for the budget enthusiast". Wines we review are usually under $15, and we look for ways to provide just enough background information to add to the romance, enjoyment, and learning related to the wine at hand. Er, in your hand.

Our Grades

In the Wine Hotlist, we grade wines by the familiar "A, B, C" grade school system.  Usually, we focus on those we recommend ("B" or higher).  When we find a food - wine match, we write about that, too. We usually don't conduct blind tastings,  because we want to enjoy wine like you do; over the dinner table with friends and family. We're more likely to get energized over something that tastes great at $9 bucks than one that tastes great at $25.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reliable Restaurant Wines

Restaurant Wines - A Short Story

(Cheat Sheet Below!)

Once upon a time, Rachel received a big promotion.  She took her staff to a popular new waterfront restaurant. The group gathered around the table, and the waiter presented Rachel with a long wine list.  She took the list, and realized she did not recognize a single wine.  She glanced around the table.  In the past she had asked others for advice, but she had become more confident in her choices, and she knew what to do.    Among the white wines, she found a good selection of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and for reds a list of Shiraz from Australia.  She knew both of the regions to be reliable for these wines, and between the two there would be something to accompany all types of food.  She chose a moderately priced wine from each section, and sat back to see the reaction.  Her picks were instant winners.

For Rachel, as for many people, ordering wine at restaurants used to cause anxiety.  After all, prices are far higher than at wine shops, and guests are hostages to that list.  The table is watching as you choose.  No pressure! 

But choosing wine needn’t be stressful.  

What if I don’t recognize anything on the wine list? 

Buying wines at a restaurant is the perfect opportunity to use your experience as a shortcut.  Don’t recognize specific wines?  Think of your personal favorites.  Look for wines from:
  • the same winemaker
  • the same or nearby regions
  • that same varietal (grape) - or even other varietals or blends with similar flavor profile.
  • the importer (it's on the back of the bottle)

Reliable Labels and Producers

A number of subscribers have asked for not just specific recommendations (which is what we do in each issue of the Wine Hotlist and the Wine Minute), but general guidance on reliable producers. These producers offer tasty, high quality wines for less than $15, and often less than $10 retail. Restaurant markups are often 200%, or even 300%, so a wine that costs $10 in a wine shop may well cost $20 (or more) in a restaurant. To give you a decent shot at a sure winner, here's our current "favorite" list of dependable sources. Print this page for your next trip to your local wine shop, or even better, to your favorite restaurant. You'll have a secret weapon for choosing wines (it will be our secret).
Bogle (US)
Chateau St. Michelle (US)
Columbia Crest (US)
Coppola (US)
DuBoeuf (France)
Four Sisters (Australia)
Hogue (US)
Lindemans (Australia) Louis Jadot (France)
Penfolds (Australia)
Rabbit Ridge (US)
Renwood (US)
Rosemount (Australia)
Ruffino (Italy)

Pizza for White Wine

Crisp crust, melted cheese, and smoky spice all combine in this delicious, fun variation on the Alsatian “Tarte Flambée”, cooked right in your own fireplace!  For similar flavor but less risk, you can grill it.  Or even use the oven (zzzz).

The wine?  Try a Trimbach Reisling.

Wine and Dine

It's about the food...

Start with the right foundation, and you can build anything.  Use these pantry and fresh "cheat sheet lists" as shopping lists, and you'll be amazed what can come out of your own kitchen.
  1. Cheat Sheet 1:  The Basic Pantry (pdf)
  2. Cheat Sheet 2:  Basic Fresh Ingredients (pdf)
  3. A Few Favorite Recipes

And the wine...

To us, wine is meant to be enjoyed with food.  A glass of good chianti, with tart cherry and earth flavors, raises our family dinner to the level of a small celebration around the table, even if it's the middle of the week.
Some wine and food matches are terrific, others indifferent, a few downright unpleasant.  This page gives a practical tour of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to wine and food.  You’ll also find a selection of simple yet elegant recipes appropriate for different wines.   It’s all about the art, science, and fun of pairing wine with food.
    • Food and Wine Pairing
    • Wine-Friendly Recipes
    • Host a Tasting!
    • Reliable Restaurant Wines
These recipes have mostly been adapted from my books. Additional recipes and information are regularly included in the Wine Minute.

Define a "Rich" Red Wine

A rich red with intense flavors earth, black cherry and cracked pepper, and maybe a hint of licorice or blueberry.  A full-bodied, sinewy red with dark fruits; blackcurrants, blackberries, superripe cherry, plum, chocolate and mint flavors.

“Rich” is subjective.  To me these wines have intense fruit flavors, often with generous helpings of earth and spice.  While these flavors might be found in lighter wines, they are found in much greater concentration here.   And concentration is a key word here.  Ripeness of the grape and intensity of flavor are directly related, so grapes grown in warm climates with lots of sun (think Australia) are more likely to produce rich reds than, say, grapes grown in Canada.  Tannin (one of the acids found in wine that leads to that great "puckery" reaction) is more likely in richer wines, and alcohol levels are also often higher here.

Two varietals produce wines that are almost always called rich:  Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Average tasting notes for Cabernet are loaded with fruity adjectives like black berry, black cherries, raspberries, and plums.  Interesting Cabernet adds chocolate, coffee, mint, and even bell pepper, all bound together with a firm seam of tannin.  My Zinfandel notes are filled with words like black cherry, coffee liqueur, licorice, and herbs. But if you like rich reds, don’t stop here…

Many reds from Southern France fill the bill.  Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, and others offer charcoal, pepper, earth, black cherry and herb flavors. "Rhone Style" blends with Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault fall into this category.  But don’t stop here…

Shiraz (Syrah) brings flavors of blackberries, black currants, an intense purple color, and hints of black pepper, creosote and spice.  But don’t stop here either…

Malbec, the French grape adopted with enthusiasm in Argentina, is often a gorgeous combination of quality and affordability, and offers what many people consider to be the epitome of rich flavors, Chocolate, Coffee, cherry, and earth.

Petite Sirah
is one of my favorite varietals. Most wine stores only have a few in stock, but pick one up and see what you think (This is not to be mistaken for Syrah, which is a different grape).  At its best, Petite Sirah has opulent, jammy cherry and plum fruit flavors, along with cloves and other spices.   But keep going… 

Nebbiolo is the backbone of the famous Barolo wine of Northern Italy, a wine famous for its dark color and rich flavors of berries, spice and violets; and it's ability to improve for years in the cellar.  Sadly these wines tend to be expensive, and rarely fall into the Tasting Times price limits.  Nebbiolo is also grown outside of Italy.   But keep going…  Cabernet Franc from warm climates bring flavors of violets, raspberries, and blackcurrants.  But wait, there’s more…

Rich flavor characteristics can also be found in warm climate Pinot Noir from California. Some of these Pinots will be a better value than the Cab grown in the next vineyard.  And Merlot from warm climates (think California, Australia, and Chile) is rich by any definition.

Define a "Medium Bodied" Red Wine

"A medium-bodied red with notes of sweet cherry and dried fruits, maybe some earth, and more pronounced spice than in lighter reds"

We're still firmly in fruit territory here, but these wines will have a bit more concentration, heft, and alcohol than lighter reds.  Tannin (one of the acids found in wine that leads to that great "puckery" reaction) is more likely in richer wines than lighter ones.

Imagine a fruit bowl of red cherries, cranberries, and strawberries, maybe with a dusting of cinnamon on top.
These are the classic adjectives for Pinot Noir, but don’t stop there…

Sangiovese, the varietal in Chianti and other Italian wines, typically offers bright fruit flavors and a scent of flowers.  Keep going...

Merlot from cooler climates (parts of Washington, and Chile) bring delicious flavors of plums, cherry, and vanilla in a lighter body than warm climate wines based on the same grape. Cabernet Franc often has a similar flavor profile, too.

"Rich" grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and even Zinfandel can, because of climate, winemaking style, and ripeness of the grapes themselves, produce wines that are medium-bodied.

Define a "Light" Red Wine

Caveat attack!  These categories are broad generalizations (note the caveats and provisos).  But if we can’t generalize then we’ll never get anywhere.

"A fruit bowl red wine with subtle flavors of bright red fruits:  red currants, cherries and cranberries, and if I'm lucky a hint of cinnamon..."

Red wines that are often relatively light and refreshing include reds made in cool climates, such as Beaujolais, made from the Gamay grape in the North of France, with fresh, tart fruits.  You might find Gamay-based wines elsewhere, and they are likely to offer similar characteristics.  But don't stop there...

Valpolicella in the North of Italy (made from Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes – say those three times fast) - is often a bright, tart, fruity wine.  But keep going...

Even wines associated with heft, like Merlot and Pinot Noir, can also be found in a light, juicy style.

Define a "Floral, Spicy" White Wine

"A floral, spicy white that would go well with hot or aggressively spiced foods."

Spicy Whites, or conversely whites that stand up to spice, are in a category by themselves.  Imagine a richly seasoned curry, red-hot wings, barbecued ribs, or your favorite three-pepper Thai menu item.  Your average Chardonnay or Semillon would turn into lemon water next to that dish, as would most reds.  What the food needs is something with the heft to balance it - and that's where wines like Riesling, with rich, clean flavors and “zingy” acidity, and Gewurztraminer, with its floral scents and its spicy, even musky tropical fruits come in. Wines from these grapes are often slightly “demi sec” (This translates as half dry, or “with a hint of sweetness”).  That sugar balances the spice, while the zing of acidity keeps it fresh.

Define a "Rich" White Wine

"A rich, fruity white with flavors of toast, oak, butter, coconut, cream and a whiff of citrus."

These varietals also feature in the page covering "Light" whites.  That's because -as much as we want wine to be simple - there are many variables that make one wine richer than the next.  The grapes here were generally grown in warm climates, which allow for ripe, high sugar fruit and correspondingly more intense flavors. 

Chardonnay from California the quintessential rich white wine, especially Chardonnay from warm vineyards in California and Australia that have spent time in oak barrels (or have been otherwise exposed to oak).  This is where we get flavors of butter, toast, citrus, and cream.  Mmm.  But don't stop with Chardonnay...

My tasting notes for Chenin Blanc are full of descriptions of tropical fruits, pineapple, gardenia, apricot, nutmeg and honey.  I even said kumquat, but that might have been a stretch.  One of our reviews included "Gulpably Delicious."  Have to go find that one again.  Yum.  But don't stop here...

Semillon can be found with a rich, buttery chardonnay-like texture and mouthfeel.  Viognier, a varietal originally from the Rhone Valley but now produced across the United States, also serves up  mineral, melon and tropical fruit flavors.  But keep going...
Sauvignon Blanc, yes, is the stereotypical light white.  But from the warm vineyards of California, Chile, and Australia it's  loaded with a scent of tropical flowers, and flavors of cream and citrus.   SB is a true chameleon.

Define a "Light" White Wine

"A clean, refreshing white wine with a hint of citrus, from lemon and grapefruit to key lime pie.  A seam of mineral, grass and green apple would be nice.  A wine that would go perfectly with appetizers and lighter fare, especially seafood."

For many people, the first stop on the Clean & Refreshing Express is Sauvignon Blanc, one of the most famous white wine varietals.  Try Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and from Northern France (Loire and Pouilly-Fumé) if you like crisp, refreshing flavors of green apple and grass.  Many California Sauvignons are called “Fume Blanc”, but it’s the same grape.  But don't stop with here...

Many people think of Chardonnay as a rich, buttery white, but those adjectives describe warm-climate, California versions of the grape, often with a lot of oak.  For another take on Clean & Refreshing, check out Chardonnay from Northern France – Chablis, Burgundy and Pouilly-Fuissé, or from New Zealand.  But don't stop here either...

Pinot Grigio (AKA Pinot Gris) often offers characteristically refreshing, tart flavors of grapefruit and green apple.  Pinot Grigio is often a better deal than the better-known Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Other white wine grapes that occasionally hitch a ride on the Clean & Refreshing Express include Riesling  (clean, lemon and mineral flavors), and dry Semillon.

Caveats, provisos & blatant excuses:  Wine styles differ hugely.  Sauvignon Blanc can be made in styles that range from dry to off-dry, to unctuously sweet as a dessert wine.  The typical wines made from these grapes, in our experience, ride the Clean & Refreshing express, but there are cousins that... don't.

So while we're thinking about exceptions, here's another general category that's often clean and refreshing with mineral, citrus and bright fruit.  I'm talking, of course, about Rosé .  Forget sweetish White Zinfandel.  I'm talking about dry rose, a little-known pure pleasure that's produced everywhere, but is unfairly neglected.  One of my favorites is Rosé made from Grenache in the Rhone, with clean mineral and cherry flavors and a whiff of herbs that transport the unprepared to a café table in Aix-en-Provence.  Not bad for $10-15.

These are great wines for light foods and a hot summer day. 

Or any food on a cold, miserable March day that you wish was a hot summer day.