Sommelier 101 – The First Test

17 Nov

            This week we took our Fundamentals of Wine I test.  As I prepared for it, I was a little surprised by the amount of content.  Our book is 128 pages, which doesn’t seem like a lot.  And it’s not physics or calculus where the concepts are difficult to understand.  The focus of Fundamentals I is grapes, and we covered 18 of them.  What surprised me was how much rote memorization was required.    We only need a 60% to advance to Fundamentals II, but I made the decision that I really do need to go ahead and master the material if I’m serious about my goal to become a “wine expert”.

            The test was sixty multiple choice questions, followed by a blind tasting of one wine.  The tasting was for bonus points only.  Our instructor made sure that we were well prepared for the exam.  We had a helpful review session.  After it was over, I knew that I had done very well, but that I had probably missed a question or two.  Our instructor told us which wine we had tasted for the bonus and I felt proud that even though it was an easy one, that I’ve learned some things and got it right.  Everyone in our class passed.  Let the Fundamentals II party begin!

Pairing Perfection: Bacon Truffle Macaroni and Cheese and a 2005 Crozes-Hermitage

15 Nov

            There are few things in life more satisfying than reaping the rewards of persistence.  I’ve been putting a lot of effort into my sommelier class and was discouraged last week when I applied some things I had learned about food and wine pairing and achieved disappointing results.  This week, the tide turned and I couldn’t be more pleased.

The "Maj Girls" in Rome

            I play mah jonng every Wednesday.  My mah jongg group is a foursome of longtime friends.  We each have 21 year old daughters and have shared both the joys and heartbreaks that go along with the experience of raising kids. We’ve played mah jongg over lunch for the last 10 years, travelled together and shared a passion for good wine.  Corny as it sounds, these are the kind of shared experiences that create bonds of steel.  I love my “maj” friends.  Last week was my turn to host our maj lunch, so I decided summon my courage, cast aside the mantle of food/wine pairing defeat and try again.  A nip of fall was in the air and my wounded ego needed comfort.  I decided to try a new recipe for Bacon Truffle Macaroni and Cheese.  I wanted to add some tartness and textural contrast to the creamy savory flavors of the mac and cheese, so I decided to complete the menu with an arugula, apple, fennel and walnut salad.

            Then came the time to choose a wine.  The flavors that came to mind when I started thinking were truffles, cheese and bacon.  The bacon set off a bell in my mind because I learned in my class this week that bacon is an aroma marker for Syrah based wines from the Northern Rhone region of France.  But I was concerned about the truffles as I got into trouble with them in my previous effort.  So I decided to research the Northern Rhone to find out if truffles grow there on the premise that regional foods often pair well with regional wine.  When I discovered that the Northern Rhone Valley is, indeed, truffle territory, I chose a 1995 Crozes-Hermitage.

2005 Crozes-Hermitage

            The meal was a tremendous success.  The food was delicious, even if far from fat free.  As a funny aside, in my note to the maj girls, I invited them to lunch so that we could all have heart attacks before we moved our enlarged back-sides to the game room to play mah jongg.  And the wine paired beautifully with both the mac and cheese and the salad.  Its weight was perfect and the flavors complemented both the earthy, savory main course and the lighter acidic tastes and nutty flavors of the salad.

            Nothing inspires me more than success.  I can’t wait to try another new dish and pair it with a new favorite wine.

Champagne is Heart Song in a Glass

14 Nov

            This week I was lucky enough to study and taste an array of sparkling wines.  I’ve loved Champagne since I enjoyed my first sip from a favorite aunt’s glass.  I simply love the bubbles and its delicately toasty aroma.  To me, opening a bottle of Champagne can chase storms clouds away and make any day a time of celebration.  And while I am not skilled enough to identify it blindly, I have an even stronger affinity for pink Champagne.  I love the color and I have flashbacks to Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember every time I  pick up a glass.  To me, Champagne is a fairy tale, a promise to live happily ever after.  The rational side of my brain knows I’m daft, but I can still revel in the feelings invoked by the illusion.  In the big scheme of things, the momentary escape from reality that I experience when I sip Champagne is a true bargain vacation.  Champagne is heart song in a glass.

            At the risk of tainting the magic, I learned a lot about what makes Champagne so special in my ISG sommelier class this week.

  • Champagne is made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes.
  • While to be Champagne, the wine must be produced in the French wine region of Champagne, it is available in several styles: Non-vintage Brut, Vintage, Blanc de blancs (all Chardonnay), Blanc de noirs (all black grapes), Rose (usually produced by blending red and white wine bases), Brut (dry), Demi-Sec (sweet) and Cuvee de Prestige (the elite wine of a Champagne house such as Louis Roederer Cristal).
  • Champagne is fermented twice.  The second fermentation is in the bottle, infusing the wine with carbon dioxide.
  • Following the second fermentation, the wine ages on the yeast cells, or lees, in the bottle.  This gives Champagne its “toasty” aroma.
  • After ageing, bottles must be individually manipulated, over a period of days or weeks, depending on the method, to draw the lees into the neck so they can be ejected from the bottle.

It’s an involved process, capturing starlight in a bottle, so cheers to the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon for a wine that’s like “tasting stars”.  Tchin-tchin!

Wine and Weather Pairing

11 Nov

            Call me what you will – and words like uneducated, nonconformist and even heathen may come to mind.  But even though I’ve tasted thousands of wines and live for innovative, well prepared food, one of the first questions I ask myself when pairing a wine with food is: “what’s the weather”.  Educated or not, I have serious tactile preferences.  In our hot balmy Houston summers, I drink rose by the case.  Even with meat or heavy pastas, I find it difficult to enjoy red wine, even cool from the cellar.  In the sticky heat of our summers, it just feels heavy and sends my hot flashes into overdrive.  If a special meal calls for an equally special red, fine…..but crank down that ac……

            Similarly, while our winters aren’t by global standards cold, I must have what my great-aunt called “thin blood”.  I’m always cold once the outside temperature drops below 70.  And even if our temperatures aren’t that cold, our winters feel damp and damp cold seems to soak into my bones and linger.  As a producer of red wine, I am thrilled when October arrives and my palate warms to reds.  But Houston is a coastal town.  Seafood is fresh and plentiful and I love it.  In fall and winter, I prefer a light red to a white, even with fish.

            My preferences are my own and while I’m open to education, somehow I don’t think they’re going to change.  And to me, one of the joys of aging is that we gain the courage to accept who we are and what we enjoy, even if the world looks at us like crazy fools.  And to me, food and wine are all about enhancing the complete experience of a meal, an experience that involves exploration, appreciation, sensory pleasure and most of all, sharing with family and friends.  With that equation, I vote for preference over education every time.

The Romance of Tawny Port

10 Nov

            One of the points of study in this week’s ISG Fundamentals of wine course was fortified wines, how they are made and their aroma and taste characteristics.  As a history buff, I find it so intriguing that many of the things I routinely enjoy today were originally created as solutions to historical challenges.  Fortified wines were created to increase, through the addition of additional alcohol, wine’s stability and longevity in a time when vinification and sterilization techniques were still evolving.  In past centuries, travel took time.  If wine was to be shipped, it needed to last.  Port and Sherry were the inspired answer to the limited preservation options of the time.

Mr. Pickwick's Tawny Port

          Tawny Port is a particular favorite of mine.  As newlyweds, Jay and I made a trip to the Barossa Valley in Australia.  We met an Aussie on the plane who told us about a port that we had to try: Mr. Pickwick’s NV Tawny Port.  We really didn’t know much about Port, but on our new friend’s recommendation, we visited the Saltram Wine Estate and had a lovely morning in the cellar with their winemaker.  He loved his product and seemed thrilled to share the ins and out of the process with us.  It’s funny the details of certain conversations that stick with you even twenty plus years later, but I still recall that in making Mr. Pickwick’s, he blended from a library of ports, some as old as 100 years.  Here is a tasting note  from Southern Cross Wines that beautifully reflects my impressions from 25 years ago:

Mr Pickwick’s Port is widely regarded as Australia’s definitive tawny port. Its average age of over 21 years makes it unique amongst fortified wines consistently available on a commercial basis. Mr Pickwick’s Port has the softness and mellow spirit that can only come from great age, premium base material and the very best in fortifying spirit – in this case, old brandy. The colour is pale amber brown, suggesting great age and complexity, while on the nose there are complex fruit and rancio qualities. The concentrated, mature nose has a freshness and lift belying an average of more than 25 years. On the palate the wine is intense and concentrated and quite luscious, with a great richness, texture and mouth filling flavour. Its excellent and mature spirit add to the depth and intrigue presented by such old, rare port. 19.0% alcohol volume.

             With the inescapable vestiges of modernity , I have an image of Port and Sherry as links to a slower, more noble world.  In my experience, these wines are sipped slowly, often by firelight, and urge us to both introspection and meaningful conversation.  There’s a romance to them, and in a world of reality TV and global economic meltdown, I find romance, in measured quantity, a premium commodity.

Surprises from the Study of Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc

9 Nov

            Week 3 of my ISG Fundamentals of wine class brought us to a second assortment of black grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel and Gamay.  I’ve tasted and enjoyed wine made from these grapes many times through the years, but I found it interesting to discover a couple of different points.  First, I was a little surprised to learn that my taste memory of these wines was not as strong as I would have expected it to be.  These wines are not strangers to our cellar.   I expected to recognize most of these wines almost as easily as I recognize Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.  But in spite of expectations, I found the distinctions between these grapes to be a bit more subtle and identification more elusive.  I found myself going through a mental list of the details typical of each variety to narrow down the possibilities: scent and flavor markers, and the relative levels of acid, tannin and alcohol.  The exercise left me with simultaneous feelings of excitement and trepidation.  It’s been years since I was in the classroom and it’s been a lot of work for me to commit what seems like a million details about each grape to memory.  It felt fulfilling to reap the rewards and to use the data analytically with some modicum of success.  On the other hand, I gained some insight into both how vast this cavern of information really is, and the depth of the challenges ahead.  So far, the path to becoming (hopefully) a wine expert is both exhilarating and a little scary.

            Second, I was surprised to discover that I have been a “wine bigot”.  I’ve never been a fan of Zinfandel.  I’ve tasted many through the years and concluded that I don’t really enjoy the peppery finish that I have associated with all Zinfandel.  This week, I learned that not all Zinfandel is the same.  The grapes have a tendency to ripen unevenly.  Zinfandel grown in warmer climates is more likely to show that peppery finish. I tasted a bold, fruity, “pepper-less” Zin on Monday and loved it.  Similarly, most of my experience with Gamay, to date, has been with Beaujolais Nouveau, which generally, to me, tastes a bit like candied apples.  I learned that the candied taste comes from a technique called carbonic maceration.  The good news for me is that, again, not all Gamay is the same.  Many Beaujolais are produced without carbonic maceration and I tasted one this week that made me want to try more.  Bigotry is never a good thing and I’m happy to set my grape prejudices aside and to approach learning with a clean slate.

            Third, I was excited to learn more about, and especially to taste Cabernet Franc.  I’ve really only tasted Cab Franc in blends, so I really didn’t know what it tastes like.  We tore 2/3 of our Sangiovese vines out in Italy three years ago.  We replanted, on the advice of our wine making team and their consultants, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  I’m happy to now know a bit more about one of “my” grapes.  I was excited to read this week in Wine Spectator about the 98 point Le Macchiole 2007 Paleo Cabernet Franc (Toscana), which they recommend as a top cellar choice for 2011.  I’m eager to try it.  And when our new vines are mature, hopefully next year, I wonder if we should consider a producing a barrel of Cab Franc?

Moscato D’Asti, a Lovely Introduction to the Study of “Aromatic” Grapes

8 Nov

            The focus of ISG’s Fundamentals of Wine I class is grapes.  In week one, we studied and tasted Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  In week two, we shifted our attention to Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and the “aromatic” white grapes: Riesling, Gewurtraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Chenin Blanc.  I found the study of the aromatics to be more challenging than their predecessors.  For the most part, my experience with these grapes to date has been, on a relative basis, small and I found their distinctions more subtle.

            The one exception was an old favorite, Muscat.  I first tasted Moscato d’Asti at one of my favorite restaurants in Italy, Badia a Coltobuono.  “Badia” is the Italian word for abbey and Badia a Coltobuono (abbey of the good harvest) makes both a wonderful Chianti Classico and some of my favorite olive oil.  The facilities are beautiful, so much so that that we recreated their outdoor dining Pavillion at our Texas ranch (along with a wood burning pizza oven that we imported from, of all places, Australia, but that’s another story…..).  While the extraordinary vistas and ambiance at Coltobuono might influence one’s assessment of their fare, I’ve eaten there a number of times and have found the food consistently exceptional – fresh, artistically prepared innovations on Italian classics.

Badia a Coltobuono

Italian Inspired Dining Pavillion at Our Texas Ranch

           The Moscato D’Asti that I enjoyed was not a Coltobuono product.  Asti is in Piemonte, in northeast Italy.  I’ve always had a penchant for sparkling wine, which, to me, makes any day a celebration.  I loved the sweet, lightly fizzy Moscato d’Asti that I was served at Coltobuono as a substitute for dessert and have enjoyed many a glass in the intervening years, despite the fact that my wine aficionado friends tend to lovingly chide me when I do so.  While I don’t generally view myself as overly sensitive, I did feel a moment of personal redemption this week.  Writing for the Wine Enthusiast, Deborah Grossman stated that “Like bees to honey, wine lovers are flocking to Moscato, the sweet wine known for white peach flavors and a silky mouthfeel. The growth of Moscato is phenomenal.  A.C. Nielsen data reveals a 153.6% increase in volume during 2010.”  My next glass will be filled not only with bubbly sweetness, but with the sweetness of vindication.

Food and Wine Pairing – an Experiment with Grilled Steak with White Truffle Butter and Chanterelle- Gruyere Bread Pudding

7 Nov

Chanterell Gruyere Bread Pudding

          I’m not completely sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, or more precisely my love of chicken or my love of chardonnay (and sangiovese and cabernet and pinot, et. al.)  Actually, I was born and raised in Houston, Texas and spent many of my childhood weekends in a dry county – remnants of Prohibition are alive and well in Texas, so I guess I have to admit I loved the chicken first.

            Still, while I love both good food and good wine, there is something truly magical about the way certain wines interact with, complement and even enhance certain foods, and vice versa.  So when week 2 of my ISG sommelier course introduced the concept of food and wine pairing, my heart almost skipped a beat.  As I read our materials, I found both affirmation of personal experience and much new “food” for thought:

  • Both contrasts and similarities in the relative strength of the 4 basic tastes [sweetness, acidity (sourness), bitterness (tannin) and saltiness] should be considered when pairing food with wine.
  • The relative complexities of the food and wine should complement rather than detract from one another.

            A few nights ago, I decided to experiment and apply some of my increased understanding of food/wine pairing.  I grilled some steaks and served them with white truffle butter, a chanterelle and gruyere bread pudding[i] and roasted asparagus.  When I started thinking about the wine that I would serve, I thought about the both the bitterness and the fat of the char grilled steak and decided I wanted something with some strong tannins to balance the bitterness.  When I thought of the earthy elements of the truffles and the chanterelle mushrooms, I wanted something that would reflect that earthiness, so I decided to try something that had been in the bottle for a while.  When I thought about the other side of those flavors, their complexity, I wanted a wine with some subtlety and finesse that wouldn’t compete with those flavors.

            We have been collecting wine, a lot of wine, for a very long time.  I’m ashamed to admit that we haven’t been the best stewards…..We use good cellaring technique, but we’re lax about both our record keeping and our research.  Also we have a frugal bent and tend to save those “special” bottles for “special” occasions.  To complicate the issue, it’s a sad but true fact that we have far more “special” bottles than we could drink, even if every day was special.  I am working on changing both my habits and my mindset.  I need to know what we have, keep a journal of what we drink and when, along with my impressions, and research what both experts and other consumers recommend about how to best enjoy what we have.  I also need to be willing to sell what we will not or cannot drink.  The bottom line, as it relates to this story, is that I was willing to dive into the cellar, but I needed to start slow and ease myself into my new mindset about wine consumption.[ii]

1995 Stag's Leap Fay Vineyard

         So……I chose a 1995 Stag’s Leap Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.  I thought the well aged California Cabernet would complement both the grilled meat and the complex flavors of the truffles and chanterelles well.  It was special, but not as special as some of the Bordeaux and Barolo that I was first drawn to but couldn’t bring myself to open on a random Friday night in my jeans and t-shirt. (I know….I have to work on that).  When I opened the bottle, I found the wine as I would expect, not the vibrant deep purple of youth, but lighter, more garnet, with brownish hues.  The bouquet was lovely, if not intense, of dried fruit and subtle spice.

            On the palate, with the food, it was disappointing.  It wasn’t bad, but nor was it remarkable – and with all my effort I had high expectations.  I love Stag’s Leap’s wines, and collect them actively, but this particular one, at this particular time failed to impress with the food.  I actually enjoyed the wine much more as I sipped it slowly on its own after dinner than I did with the meal. I’m not sure exactly what went wrong.  I researched the bottle and discovered that while it was originally an 89 point wine, that we actually drank it 2 years past the outside of Wine Spectator’s published prime.  But I think it was more than that.  Somehow, I just don’t think it worked perfectly with the truffles.  I think that’s why I enjoyed it more after we finished our meal.  I did some research on truffle pairing, specifically, and old Burgundy and old Barolo seem to be the dominant suggestions.  As I think about it, truffles are pungent and their flavor is a dominant characteristic when they’re used in cooking.  I think that I would have been more successful in my pairing effort if I had focused on the truffle in a more specific way than merely seeking “earthiness” in age.  One of the Barolos that I passed because I wouldn’t open it on a random night might have been just perfect.

            Now I just wish that I had become more focused in my learning sooner.  It’s disheartening to realize that in the hectic pace of life that time slipped away and we missed the chance to try this lovingly cellared wine at its peak.  I’m also sad that it was not paired to its best advantage.  But as always, my wine glass is half full, not half empty.  Lesson learned, my eyes are open and I’m committed to both learning more and to becoming far more intentional about managing our cellar.  And I’m giddy about the food and experiences that lay ahead.

[ii] With this thought in mind, I’ve hired my son over the Christmas break to input our collection on  I think it will be an easy and very successful way to be a more informed, satisfied and responsible collector.

Wine Flights Add Dimension to Tasting

4 Nov

            Week 2 of my ISG Sommelier class provided a great opportunity to taste and thoughtfully compare examples of two of my favorite grapes: cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.  As these grapes are among my favorites, we drink a lot of these wines.  We’ve sought out major cab and pinot producing areas  to learn, tour and taste: the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the Barossa Valley in Australia, the Central Otago area of New Zealand, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  France is not my husband’s favorite place, but I’m scheming to make it to Bordeaux and Burgundy sometime soon.  I’m a travel nut to begin with.  But I really love integrating my love of wine with my travel experiences.  I find that seeing a place, absorbing its landscapes and smells, and meeting the people that live there and make wine adds a layer of understanding and appreciation that I find hard to glean any other way.  I simply wouldn’t trade the opportunity to visit wineries and talk to winemakers.

            But I learned this week that visiting wineries and enjoying wines doesn’t present the entire picture.  When I taste wines in isolation, I focus on that wine, its appearance, smells and tastes.  I assess if I like it and whether I would enjoy experiencing it again.  At least subconsciously, that involves comparing it to my memories of other wines – which, if I am honest, is not a very accurate process given that I have not kept a wine journal and memory is fallible.

            A crop of wine tasting bars have emerged in Houston in the last few years, introducing the concept of “flights” to mainstream consumers.  Wine flights are a great way to experience new wines because they provide an opportunity for side by side comparison, which takes a potentially faulty memory out of the equation.  A limitation to this approach, in my experience, however, is that in the absence of a special tasting event, the goal of bars and restaurants is for customers to enjoy consuming rather than learning from their experience.   The wines are typically served in order of their relative power on the palate, and only passing mention is made of regional origin or maker.   The variety presented may or may not invite a meaningful opportunity to experience different methods of vinification, differences in style or climate or varying regional characteristics.

            I really enjoyed the experience of tasting, evaluating and sharing flights of 6 cabs and 6 pinots in my class this week.  I’ve known for a long time that the average Bordeaux is more subtle, earthier and elegant than the average California cab and that the average New World pinot is more fruit forward and less earthy than the average red Burgundy.  But tasting them blindly, side by side…..dissecting each detail with the help of a tasting sheet and discussing my experience with an expert really helped me begin to understand the concepts of terroir and regional styles of vinification in a whole new way.  I still want to travel and visit wineries, and I will continue enjoying Houston’s tasting bars.  But now I also want to include the practice of actively comparing regional examples of grape varieties to my repertoire of regular tasting practices.

Reaping the Rewards of Patience: The Joys of Long Cellared Wine.

3 Nov


            Last night, Jay and I were alone for the evening in our home for the first time in years.  Two of our kids have left the nest and the third was celebrating his first homecoming dance and was out for the entire evening.  We opted to stay in and celebrate this glimpse of the life, senza kids, by opening a bottle from our cellar.  As Jay was really the one who initiated what is now our mutual passion, he has always been the “cellar master” and directs our consumption choices.  Last night, he offered me a choice of a “big” California Cab, or a Bordeaux.  Somehow, with the first hint of fall in the air, “big” sounded perfect.  A few minutes later, I found Jay happily decanting a bottle of 1980 Opus One.

            There were a few issues removing the cork, which had grown quite soft.  And the label was mildewed, a challenge with our high Houston humidity.   But the wine was lovely, even if 1980 was a bad year for California wine.  It was beautifully soft and mellow, with little fruit and a bit of lingering tannin.  Drinking it felt a little like pulling on my favorite sweatshirt on a chilly morning – oh so easy and comfortable.  Was it complex and interesting, no.  But did I enjoy it – oh yes.

            The experience has given me some things to think about.  We started collecting bottles with long-term cellar potential in the mid 1980’s – right after we graduated from college.  Our early income stream wasn’t sufficient to put many higher end bottles away, but every year we selected a half case or so.  The 1980 Opus One was one of our first.

            We’re remiss in the way we handle our cellar.  To date, we haven’t inventoried what we have and our collection habits have grown considerably.  We aren’t knowledgeable about what we should drink when to maximize our enjoyment or investment.  I honestly don’t know if our Opus might have been better a decade ago, or if it might have continued to improve.  It seemed to me that the fruit had all but disappeared, but yet some tannins remained.  I’m still learning about the “life cycle”of wine, but I’m guessing that we missed the wine’s prime. I am excited that my class will provide an opportunity for me to learn more about the aging process and how to optimize our cellar.  And I’m even more excited to have the confidence to pull the cork on more of our older bottles and experience, with greater frequency, the treasure inside.

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