Examining the Evidence: Part III – The Palate & Terminology

UC Davis Aroma Wheel

UC Davis Aroma Wheel

We talked about nosing the wine in our last newsletter. Now, let’s move on to the palate and learn how to describe what we are tasting.

When we are evaluating a wine on the palate, we are examining the balance of certain components. This is what will differentiate a good wine from a great one. These include sweetness, the complexity of fruit, the acidity (mouthwatering feel), the alcohol, the tannins (dry mouthfeel), and the finish. When our senses tell us that these are in balance, we describe the wine as being harmonious. If one or more of these components dominate the others, then we have an imbalance. For example, if you experience a burning in your throat, then you are likely to say that the wine is alcoholic. If you are swirling a big luscious red, but the tannins are unusually firm and drying, the wine is out of balance because it is probably too early to drink it. However, with a little time and patience, the tannins will hopefully mellow and integrate with the other components.

Here are a few basic categories to get you started with describing what is in your glass:

1. Fruity – in whites consider citrus fruits like lemon, lime, grapefruit; red, yellow or green apple, pear, mango, pineapple, banana. In reds, red and black berries: cherry, strawberry, raspberry, cassis (black currant), blackberry, blueberry
2. Floral – white gardenia and acacia in Muscats and Rieslings, for example. More prominent as a white wine descriptor, but occasionally in red. Sometimes in reds a perfumed element is detected.
3. Spicy – these descriptors will most likely come from the use of oak: vanilla, coconut, tobacco, leather, black pepper, allspice, clove, cinnamon, white pepper, cigar, a toastiness.
4. Vegetal – this can be positive in small amounts such as asparagus or the smell of freshly cut grass in a Sauvignon Blanc, or herbs such as thyme, lavender, or mint in a Southern Rhône red or Chilean Cabernet. A little too much of this herbaceous character and it becomes unappealing.
It takes time and practice to develop a vocabulary when describing a wine; so, don’t be too hard on yourself when that perfect term doesn’t come to mind. There is only one way to improve and that is to taste, taste, taste…..it is not always an easy task, but you can do it!

Cheers,
Agi

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Examining the Evidence: Part II – On the Nose

In my last blog entry, we examined how to describe a wine’s appearance. Let’s now talk about how to evaluate wine with our sense of smell.Aroma Path

Once we have established the color of a wine, the next step is to smell, or “nose” it. In order to get the most out of each sniff, make sure to bring the glass all the way to your face. The more nose you have in the glass, the more aromas you will be able to discern. Some people prefer to nose head on while others, (myself included) find that one nostril is more sensitive than its neighbor and find themselves tilting the glass towards one side. In either case, the important thing is to introduce our nose to the wine.

In order to better match descriptive terms to the wine being tasted, let’s understand what we mean by aromas and why they are constantly changing. Aromas are all of the olfactory elements which pass upwards through our nasal channel until they are detected just below the brain. Aromas differ depending on the wine’s age. When wines are young there primary aromas define their character: grapey, fresh, bright, and fruity. Directly after fermentation, secondary or vinous aromas follow. The most dominant of these is a yeasty smell. If you have ever toured through a winery during harvest season surrounded by furiously bubbling vats, you know what I mean.

As wines begin to age their character begins to evolve. Whether in barrel or bottle, a quality wine will develop complex aromas and this is when we begin to use the term bouquet. A wine’s bouquet evolves away from the grapey to more of a dried fruit character. Oak is an important element that further adds depth and a whole new dimension imparting such smells as vanilla, tobacco, spices, licorice, etc. The hundreds of chemicals present in wine constantly interact with the acids to form new chain links which translate into more diverse, complex and interesting wines.

Have you ever sipped a wine with your friends over a couple of hours and found yourself veering the conversation back to the glass in front of you? It is probably because there was so much to say. You found yourselves comparing your experiences with each other, and liking the wine more as time went on. Over a two hour period, a wine’s bouquet can change tremendously because the sudden rush of oxygen combines with the elements in the wine. Generally speaking, the more you have to say about a wine, the higher the quality. The more persistent the finish on your palate, the greater the satisfaction experienced.

Next time we will explore useful descriptive terms that seem so elusive when we yearn to express the style of wine being tasted.

Until then, may you never run out of bubbles in your Champagne.
Cheers,
Agi

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Examining the Evidence: Part I – On Appearance

Many wine drinkers find themselves in a situation in which they have just tasted a fantastic wine but are at a loss as to how to express in words the attractive color, heavenly aromas and the beautiful complexity (sometimes cacophony) of tastes on their palates.

Let’s start with appearance. Some will say, “The wine is white”. While we establish that a white wine swirls in front of our eyes, a

Color can vary from Straw to deep Garnet

Color can vary from Straw to deep Garnet

wine’s appearance may offer important clues as to the wine’s method of production, its age and its élèvage (post-fermentation care).

Clarity, intensity, and color, better yet, its shade, offer us a few ways to describe a wine’s appearance and determine part of its character. I have broken down these categories and compiled a list of vocabulary to inspire the poet within you the next time you imbibe. See if you can use some of these descriptors when sharing your experience with your friends.

Clarity: is the wine clear?

-clear, clean, bright, shiny, lively, luminescent, brilliant, transparent, dull, hazy, cloudy, dense, dirty, foggy, opaque,  impenetrable

Intensity: how intense is the color?

-pale, light, medium, dark, deep

Color: what color(s) do you see?

White-water white, straw, greenish yellow, canary yellow, golden, tawny, caramel, copper, chestnut, amber, brown

Rosé – light salmon, (yellow) onion-skin, fuchsia, cherry, pink, orange rose, apricot

Red – Violet, ruby, garnet, mahogany, mauve, brick red, scarlet, vermilion, coffee, pomegranate, ochre

Additional impressions: do you see bubbles, legs, sediment, crystals?
Cheers,
Agi

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Karma Vista’s Award Winning NV Syrah Reserve

If you are looking for a deeply colored, spicy and full flavored wine, than you need look no further than your own back yard. Karma Vista Vineyards, located in Coloma, has produced an award-winning Syrah that is ready to drink now. Being a Syrah lover myself, I was delighted to discover the character of this Lake Michigan Shore wine. Syrah (also known as Shiraz), is a very old grape variety which first earned its status as one the world’s highest quality wines in the Rhône region of France, namely Hermitage. It re-discovered its potential in Australia where, due to the warm climate, wines are lush, robust, and very full-bodied. The Rhône Rangers brought Syrah from relative obscurity to fame in California. Today when you peruse the aisles of your favorite wine store, you will find not only one hundred percent Syrahs but blends, or cuvees, from winemakers as far away as South Africa and Washington State. Now Lake Michigan Shore can boast its own version.

Award-winning Syrah Reserve

Award-winning Syrah Reserve

According to Joe and Susan Herman, the owners of the winery, karma means the great things that happen from the little things you do. Well, they had karma on their side when they made the non-vintage Syrah Reserve! Known for making a range of wines, both dry and sweet, the Hermans saw gold when this red wine recently won a gold medal at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A rich ruby in color, spicy black pepper aromas jump right out to greet you along with ripe blackberry, smoky plum, and sweet vanilla from the French barrels that were used for aging. Smooth and pleasant on the palate with a persistent finish, pair with grilled meats (maybe add a little mushrooms) or your favorite barbecue.

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Around the Bend cont’d.

Also located in the Michigan Lake Shore appellation is Domaine Berrien Cellars. Owned by Wally and Katie Walsh, their love of Rhone wines inspired them to plant traditional Rhone varietals including Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and Syrah.

The 2011 Marsanne and 2011 Viognier were both fermented in stainless steel (no cask) thereby showcasing the fruit and terroir. The Marsanne was clean with crisp acidity, a predominance of green apple on the nose and palate.  Perfect with oysters on the half shell.  True to its aromatic character, the Viognier displayed floral notes as well as mango and pineapple.  Compared to its Rhone counterpart, I found the Michigan version to exhibit a higher level of acidity giving the wine a more steely character. All in all these white perfect pairings with seafood, chicken, salads or on their own.

Matt Moersch, Katie & Wally Berrien

Matt Moersch, Katie & Wally Berrien & Me

On the red side, the 2010 Syrah, Abigail’s Vineyard presented the lush, dark ruby-red hue that we expect from the grape that has more coloring matter than any other.  The winemaker shows to add complexity and structure by ageing the wine in French oak barrels (both new and old) followed by ageing in bottle for 16 months.  I immediately noticed evidence of oak ageing when nosing the wine: smoky cherry and vanilla unveiled their aromas along with red and black fruits including plum and blackberry.  Truly accessible on the palate.

Michigan is predominantly growing the vitis vinifera species of grapes from which so many of the world’s most revered wines originate.  It is impressive that so much care and attention is being invested by people who  vow to carry on the tradition of quality wine-making right here in the Midwest. The winemakers and vineyard owners I have talked with so far are not interested in copying the old World, but rather prefer to take what the old World has given them and  see what their terroir will bring to them.  They are visionaries looking to carve out their own niche and call it their own.

Go Michigan wines!

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Around the Bend in Michigan

Domain Berrien & Free Run Cellars (photo by Steve Salisbury)

Domain Berrien & Free Run Cellars                                 (photo by Steve Salisbury)

Just around the bend, skirting the tip of Lake Michigan, travelers winding their way north into the state of Michigan expect to see the famed fruit orchards lining the roads spreading out for miles on either side.  Imagine you are in a convertible on a Sunday afternoon with the warm sun on your face and shiny red apples, crimson cherries and juicy plums enthusiastically bobble in greeting as the breeze blows effortlessly through their tree branches. Take a few detours off of Highway 94, however, to Union Pier Road, Red Arrow Highway or Lake Street, and you will find  a number of micro climates beautifully suited to the production of grapes.  These are not the table grape varieties destined for jam; you know the one..it starts with a “W”…, but the kind every hopeful viticulturist and winemaker envision as flowing out of a bottle, a perfect accompaniment to food.

I confess that, until a few short months ago, I had not tasted any wines from Michigan. I have tasted wines from other parts of the Midwest, but  with mixed results.  Part of the challenge for a wine professional is the ability to stay open-minded when the opportunity to try something new presents itself.  Normally, trying something new translates to a wine from a producer, a region or a grape we already know. I am disappointed with some of my colleagues’ dismissive attitudes who automatically assume that outside California, Washington, or Oregon, quality wines are not to be found in the US.  I was determined not to be hailed as another wine snob; and so, a very enthusiastic Michigan native convinced me that I need not go far from Chicago to find wines that are indeed not only worth tasting myself, but that others just might enjoy as well.

For those of you unfamiliar with Michigan’s wines, here are a few facts from Michigan’s official wine industry website, http://www.michiganwines.com:

  • Michigan has 15,000 acres of vines, making Michigan the fourth largest grape producing state in the nation.
  • 2,650 acres are devoted to wine grapes, making Michigan the fifth state in wine grape production in the United States.
  • Vineyard area has doubled over the last 10 years.
  • Michigan’s 101 commercial wineries produce more than 1.3 million gallons of wine annually, making Michigan 13th in wine production.  The vast majority of production is from Michigan-grown grapes.
  • Wineries attract more than 2 million visitors annually

Recently, atop the Willis Tower at the Metropolitan Club, a group of fellow wine lovers spent an evening with Wally and Katie Maurer, owners of Domaine Berrien, and Matt Moersch, winemaker at Round Barn Winery.  Both of these wineries are located in the southwest appellation of Lake Michigan Shore.

The Round Barn label has developed several different brands (including a brewery and distillery) with Free Run Cellars representing the premier wine category.  First in the lineup, the 2012 Riesling, a 100% varietal wine. The first whiff of fragrant floral and citrus aromas assured me that I had indeed met with a Riesling true to its character. Bright, straw-colored with a tinge of green on the rim, the wine was very clean, dry (.5% residual sugar), a bit broader in style than its German counterparts.  The wine making techniques of whole cluster press and stainless steel fermentation at a cool temperature belie the winemaker’s vision of creating a fresh, aromatic style of Riesling with mouthwatering acidity.

The 2012 Gewürztraminer, Fox Hollow Vineyard followed.  The word “Gewürz” in German translates to “spice” in English, and, again, after assessing its brilliant appearance, my nose twitched in appreciation of the familiar lychee and rose wood aromas. More golden in hue than its Riesling counterpart, this medium-bodied dry wine certainly dispelled any doubts that Michigan is not capable of producing quality, complex wines.

Finally, the 2011 Cabernet Franc, rounded out the list.  The most widely planted red wine grape in Michigan, Cabernet Franc (one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon) manages to ripen in the cooler climate of Lake Michigan Shore and the sandy loam soil native to the area. Matt decided to add 5% Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend which added complexity and color to the finished product.  Lighter in color than your Napa Valley counterparts and more like its Loire counterpart, this Cabernet Franc was  medium ruby in appearance and was fermented and aged in oak for about 18 months.  Black cherry, vanilla and a soft, supple texture invites the imbiber to drink now and enjoy.

Lest I forget, in case you are hankering for a creamy delight, Round Barn makes a DiVine Black Walnut Creme “wine” from grape wine, walnuts and creme. Similar to a Baileys in style, add to a crème anglaise and you have a decadent dessert topping or substitute in your favorite cocktails for a new favorite.

Stay tuned, and I’ll introduce you to Domaine Berrien in my next blog post.

Cheers,

Agi

 

 

 

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Tasting On the Circuit

ImageWhenever I step into a room with wines stretching from one end to the other, I know good wines are waiting to be tasted. Not only will I enjoy seeing old familiar faces, but I always feel a real sense of gratification when I try something new, a yet undiscovered gem to add to my repertoire of terroir.

I was not to be disappointed.  Mr. Ramzi Goshn, one of the owners of Massaya Winery in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, introduced me to his family of wines.  The 2012 Massaya Blanc proved to be a conversation starter when he described the blend.  In addition to Clairette, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, Obeidi was a part of the blend.  Believed to be an ancestor to Chardonnay, it is also used in the very traditional and aromatic aniseed-flavored spirit, arak.

Ramzi GhosnOne cannot help but be in awe when drinking wine from an area that has a 5,000 year-old history of wine making.  We know that the Phoenicians made wine in this area possible because of the long dry sunny summers and mild winters.  Not as susceptible to rot and mildrew as our Burgundy counterparts, sunshine and dry heat offer a longer growing season providing riper grapes. Many of the grape varieties used in Lebanon and the Mediterranean region in general are familiar: Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Following a refreshing Rose, I delved into the three reds: the 2011 Classic, 2010 Silver Selection and 2008 Gold Reserve, all reds.  Overall , they expressed a lean, minerally style more in line with their French counterparts in the Rhone rather than Napa Valley or the coastal US. Whenever a winemaker offers a taste of an older vintage, one should not miss it.  As we know, a good quality wine almost always benefits from age, and the 2008 Gold Reserve was no exception.  Fuller-bodied than the Silver Selection, wonderful tertiary aromas of dried plum, cherry, leather, graphite enrobed in an exotic layer of smokiness.  After a meal with this wine, a hookah is in order….Cheers.

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