Wine education is a vast and complex subject matter, encompassing centuries of history, hundreds of growing regions, and thousands of documented grape varieties. In an effort to make learning about wine easier, we offer weekly wine tastings, featuring wines from the most common regions and grape varieties, to unique, terroir-driven wines from all over the globe.
We believe the best way to learn about wine is to dive in- taste, read, talk about, and enjoy.
The history of Austrian winemaking dates back to antiquity; evidence of grape seeds found in urns were carbon dated to 700 B.C. Today, Austria ranks 17th among wine producing countries (by volume), but it’s the quality, and not the quantity produced, that makes it stand-out in the vast world of wine.
The most important wine of Austria is made from Gruner Veltliner, a white grape that accounts for about 33% of the vines planted there. Some of the other important grapes include Zweigelt (red, cross of St. Laurent and Blaufrankisch), Blaufrankisch (red, same as Lemberger), St. Laurent (red, thought to be the same as Pinot Noir) and Riesling; we will try examples of each of these at the tasting this week.
The various styles of Gruner Veltliner can include bone-dry wines from the regular harvest, sweet late harvest wines, and sparkling wines. Many wines made from Gruner are incredibly long-lived; most are bright and acidic with flavors of peach, citrus, and mineral, spicy notes of pepper and tobacco, and sometimes herbal or “vegetal” flavors (in a good way!).
The important regions of Austria include Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, Weinviertel, and Neusiedlersee, although there are about 16 total regions altogether (we have a beautiful map of Austria in the store; please check it out sometime).
Austria is also the home of Riedel, the most expensive and well-known stemware producer in the world.
Because of its long history of continuous wine production and its geographic location, the wines of Italy are complicated and intricate, with distinctive grape varieties from twenty regions. From these regions come an astonishing number of wines made with more than a thousand documented grape varieties. Although the amount of wine made in Italy is incredible, many of them are simple quaffing wines consumed almost entirely in or near the villages where they are made.
One confusing aspect of Italian wine is how to determine the grape variety by reading the label on the bottle; sometimes the wines made are named after the grape variety used to make them (Barbara and Prosecco), sometimes the wines are named after the place where the grapes grew (Barbaresco and Chianti), and sometimes the name is a combination of both the grape variety and the place (Moscato d’Asti and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo).
The wines for this week’s tasting are from the following regions:
The grape variety Nebbiolo is used to produce the region’s two most prominent red wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. These are massive, tannic wines with lots of structure and aging potential. These wines command some of the highest prices in the world.
The most famous, high-quality red wines in Tuscany all contain, in some proportion, the Sangiovese variety. Sangiovese is the primary grape in all Chiantis, as well as in Brunello di Montalcino, the most expensive and rare Tuscan wine. A relatively new wine in Italy, called Super-Tuscan, is a blend that typically contains Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese, and sometimes Syrah.
A lesser-known region in central-Eastern Italy, due East of Rome, that borders the Adriatic Sea is Abruzzo. The most important grapes of the region are Montepulciano (red) and Trebbiano (white).
Two of Italy’s most widely exported wines come from this region; Soave (white) and Valpolicella (red). The sub-region of Valpolicella is famous for Amarone, a rich and robust blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara that’s made from dried grapes. Prosecco and Pinot Grigio are also widely planted in the Veneto.
The pink wines that fall into the category of rosé are made from red-skinned grapes; after maceration (the pressing of the grapes) the juice remains in contact with the skins for a very short period, just long enough to extract the right amount of color, which may vary from very pale orange to almost florescent pink.
Rosés are refreshing wines that are meant to be consumed young and chilled. They vary from bone-dry to medium-sweet and usually display flavors and aromas of summer berry fruits including strawberries, cherries and raspberries, intermingled with spice notes and varying degrees of acidity.
Some food pairings that work well with rosés are: salads, hors d’oeuvres, cold meats, egg dishes, cheeses that are not too pungent, and some meats, such as veal, ham and pork, that are more delicate in flavor than beef.
The history of Spanish Wine dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, although it wasn’t until quite recently (within the last 30 years or so) that Spain was recognized internationally as a serious Old World region that could compete globally with other European countries.
Today Spain has over 2.9 million acres planted, more land under the vine than any other, and is the third largest wine producing country in the world, following France and Italy. This is partially due to the very low yields (dry, infertile soil) and wide spacing of the old vines. There are about 400 varieties of native Spanish grapes, twenty of which count for about 80% of production; these include Albarino, Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvedre), and Carinena (Carignan), among others.
There are numerous regions in Spain, but the most well-known are Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Jerez (where Sherry comes from), Rias Baixas, and Catalonia (which includes the sub-regions Penedes (where Cavasparkling wine is produced) and Priorat). There are several more important regions, as well as newly-emerging ones; some of these are La Mancha, Reuda, Ribera del Guadiana, Jumilla, and Madrid, to name a few.
Historically, Spain’s wines were aged longer than any others in the world prior to their release. This is especially true in Rioja, where the wines could spend two decades (or more!) in barrel before they were bottled (then sometimes aged longer in the bottle before being released). Today, this is not so much the case anymore, although these wines do still exist!
Boxed Wine, also called Bag-in-Box, consists of a strong “bladder” (bag) inside of a box complete with a tap for easy serving. Although perhaps historically considered to be used for “cheap” wine, these days wine enthusiasts are changing their views of boxed wine, especially due to the numerous advantages of such packaging.
The primary benefit of boxed wine is that the air-tight bag prevents oxidation and spoilage, meaning that it can stay fresh for weeks after it is opened. Other important benefits include:
It is less expensive, easier to handle and transport, and far more environmentally friendly than bottled wine.
A bag of wine (removed from the box) will float on water, allowing quick cooling of white wine if immersed in an ice bath.
Boxed wine is not subject to cork taint.
On the other hand, the main disadvantage of boxed wine is that the wines are intended to be drunk young, and do not have a long shelf life. They are not intended for cellaring.
Torrontes is the most important white grape variety in Argentina and the only grape that is indigenous to the country. It is quite probable that Torrontes is a cross of the Spanish grapes Muscat of Alexandria and the small Criolla grape. Torrontes is a vigorous, productive vine that ripens early. The grapes thrive in cold, windy environments; some of the best examples come from the Salta region of northwest Argentina.
Torrontes wines are aromatic, fresh and textured, commonly with aromas of flowers, citrus, melon, peach, honey, and clove. Generally the wines taste drier than they smell and possess moderate to high levels of acidity. They are best when young and fresh; most should be consumed within 2-3 years of the vintage.
A food-friendly variety, Torrontes pairs nicely with spicy, seasoned food such as Thai, Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. It’s especially great with the traditional foods of Northern Argentina such as empanadas (savory stuffed pastry that is baked or fried) and locro (a hearty thick stew popular along the Andes mountain range).
The Argentine wine industry was established by immigrants from three very important and significant wine cultures; Spain, France, and Italy. The Spanish colonized the country in the 1500’s and planted the first vines there; later the French planted Malbec, which today makes Argentina’s best known wines; the Italians brought with them Bonarda, which is thought to be the same as the Piedmont grape Dolcetto (Bonarda is also the same as the American grape Charbono).
Malbec is the most important grape variety in Argentina, brought to the country as cuttings from the region of Cahors in Southwest France. It is the most widely planted red grape in the country and makes unique wines of quality with deep color, intense fruity flavors, and a velvety texture. The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec differ from its French cousins; the berries are smaller and hang in smaller, tighter clusters, suggesting that the cuttings brought to Argentina is a unique clone that may have gone extinct in France due to frost and phylloxera.
Mendoza is the most important region in Argentina; there are two high altitude areas within the region that produce some of the finest examples of Malbec in the world- Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. These districts are located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains between 2800 and 5000 feet elevation.
One of the newest “New World” countries to become a major wine producer, Australia has recently become the third major exporter of wine to the United States (after France and Italy). The first Australian vineyards were planted in the late eighteenth century, more than a century after the first vineyards appeared in Colonial Virginia in the United States and Cape Town in South Africa. The majority of Australian wine is produced in the south-eastern part of the country (South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales) although some is also produced in Western Australia and a very small amount in the North.
The winemaking techniques and equipment used there are very state-of-the-art. Australian wines are renowned for their concentrated flavor and easy approachability. The wines are of every major style from aromatic, dry white table wine to wines fashioned in the style of vintage port. The most typical styles are soft, creamy whites and juicy-jammy reds packed with fruit.
There are more than 1,000 wineries in Australia; however 80% of the annual crush (juice produced per year) comes from the four, very large and influential companies that own multiple wine brands as well as several Australian wineries.
The wines produced in Australia are made by a process of selecting and blending the lots of wine. The goal of selecting and blending is to make brands of wine that have fairly consistent flavors year after year. White wine makes up about 65% of the wine produced; about 35% is red. The leading white variety is Chardonnay, followed by Riesling and Semillon; the leading reds are Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Red & White Wine
Chardonnay– The most popular white wine variety due to its appealing, big flavors and versatility. The wines can be light and dry or full-bodied and buttery, depending on the fermentation techniques. Chardonnay responds well to oak fermentation and aging; this gives the wine rich flavors, a creamier body, and a longer finish. Chardonnay is grown and made all over the world. It is a major grape used in Champagne and other sparkling wines.
Pinot Noir– One of the most temperamental grapes to grow, Pinot Noir makes elegant and delicate wines that are typically more expensive than other varieties. This grape produces pale-colored, light- to medium-bodied reds that are usually high in acidity with berry and earthy flavors and a silky texture. Also a major grape used in Champagne and other sparkling wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon– The best known black grape variety in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon, more than any other grape has vast ranges of quality, structure and maturity. Typically a full-bodied wine with rich flavors, Cabernet Sauvignon, if fermented properly, will age for several years. The effects of barrel-aging make it mellow, smooth, and rich.
Pinot Noir is considered one of the most important of the Vitis vinifera family of grapes. The name is derived from the French words for “pine” and “black” (the grapes grow in a cluster that is shaped similarly to a pine cone). Pinot Noir preforms best in cool climates. The best-known and most highly regarded examples come from Burgundy in France, although the Willamette Valley is considered the prime “New World” Pinot Noir appellation.
There are several similarities between Burgundy and the Willamette Valley; they sit at approximately the same latitude (45th Parallel) and have similar weather patterns, although there are many differences as well, such as time of harvest and when and how much it rains per year. Regardless, both regions are known for producing world-class Pinot Noirs of elegance, intrigue, and finesse.
Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Pinot Grigio) is a white grape variety that is thought to be a mutant of Pinot Noir. It is part of the Vitis vinifera famliy of grapes and has grey-blue (sometimes dark pink) colored grapes (grismeans grey in French). David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards planted the first Pinot Gris in Oregon in 1966; however, it wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that the sales of Oregon Pinot Gris escalated nationally. Today Oregon is the leading producer of Pinot Gris and farm more than 300 acres of organic Pinot Gris grapes.
Pinot Blanc is a white wine grape that is a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. It is generally a little-known grape variety that is most commonly grown in the Alsace region of France as well as Italy and Hungary; today beautiful examples are being produced in Oregon. Typical aromas and flavors include melon, tropical, floral, mineral and nutty nuances within a textured, full-bodied, high-acid framework.
The Loire Valley is an often overlooked region in France. Of course they are best-known for their Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, although there are numerous other regions within the valley, such as Muscadet, Touraine, Chinon, Vouvray, Savennieres, Bourgueil, Saumur, Menetou-Salon, and Quincy (to name a few) that produce food-friendly wines of vibrancy, ageworthiness, quality and value.
The important grapes of the Loire are Sauvignon Blanc, Chinon Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne, and Cabernet Franc, followed by Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. They are known for wines of all styles- sparkling, still, and rose, from bone dry to incredibly sweet, that are highlighted with crisp, vibrant acidity.
The wines from the Loire that we will sample this week are from Touraine and Muscadet. Touraine is located in the central-eastern part of the valley. The white grapes Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc dominate, but reds such as Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Gamay (among others) produce rustic, light and juicy wines, and delicious dry roses. Muscadet is located in the western Loire Valley, near the city of Nantes. More Muscadet is made than any other Loire Valley white from a grape called Melon de Bourgogne, or Melon. Generally these wines offer balanced fruit flavors, acidity and texture.
Muscadet-Sevre et Maine Sur Lie (the area within Muscadet where this week’s example comes from) is of the only appellations to require aging on the lees (sur lie) and to include the term in the name of the appellation. These wines come from the best parcels of the region and must follow strict guidelines, such as- the wine must spend the entire winter in contact with the lees and not be bottled until the third week of March following the harvest; the wines must also be bottled without fining or filtration. Aging on the lees adds incredible texture and depth of flavor, as well as creaminess, complexity, and lasting finishes.
Negociant Wine Merchants
Negociant wine merchants (a French term for a wine producer who purchases some or all of the grapes/juice that they use to make their wine) such as Joseph Drouhin, are somewhat common in Burgundy, although not as dominant as they were 25+ years ago. Historically Burgundy was (practically) an isolated wine region; the family owned-and-operated producers were so small, many of them lacking proper winemaking and bottling equipment, that it was virtually impossible for them to market their wines outside of their local area. The easiest and most profitable solution for these small growers was to sell their juice to larger production houses, or negociants.
Many negociants are vineyard owners as well. Joseph Drouhin, for instance, owns 73 hectares (182.5 acres) of vineyards throughout the region of Burgundy. Maison Joseph Drouhin was founded in 1880 and today is owned and operated by the great-grandchildren of Joseph Drouhin. They possess vineyards in Chablis, Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, and Cote Chalonnaise, as well as in the Willamette Valley, Oregon (Domaine Drouhin). They make wines from almost 90 different appellations throughout Burgundy and are considered one of the most important negociants in the region, with more than two-thirds of their vineyards classified as Premier and Grand Crus.
The most well-known negociants in Burgundy today are Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, Vincent Girardin, Bouchard Pere et Fils, and Georges Dubeouf.
California wine constitutes approximately 90% of the wine produced in America. Wine grapes (vitis vinifera) were first planted there in the 18th century by the Spanish settlers, however the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century was when the wine industry in Northern California (around Sonoma and Napa) took hold. In 1976 at the Judgement of Paris wine competition, California wine achieved international acclaim when their wines beat French wines in both white and red wine categories.
Today California has over 427,000 acres under the vine, more than 107 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), and approximately 3,364 wineries in the state as of 2010. The best-known AVAs are Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Valley although numerous others come to mind! Over 100 different grape varieties are planted there, the most important of which are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Zinfandel. Many producers are also known for making outstanding sparkling wine (that’s made in a Champagne method or methode Champenoise).
Napa Valley is the most important and most renowned region of California, although it is only responsible for about 4% of the wine produced in the state. By the end of the 19th century there were more than 140 wineries there; of those several still exist today including Chateau Montelena, Charles Krug, Far Niente, and Schramsberg. In 1965 Robert Mondavi broke away from his family estate, Charles Krug, to start his own production in Oakville. It was the first new, large scale winery (since prohibition) and was instrumental in the growth and repuatation of the region.
The Languedoc (aka Languedoc-Roussillon) in southern France, is a historic wine region that spans the Mediterranean coastline from the border with Spain to the region of Provence. It is the single-biggest wine producing region in the world and is responsible for more than a third of France’s total wine production. The region has a long history of winemaking that dates back to the 4th century! Its favorable Mediterranean climate means that the area is conducive to growing a wide variety of grapes; the most important red ones are Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, while the important whites include Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul, Marsanne, and Roussanne. There are 15 main wine regions (plus several sub-appellations) in the Languedoc- the most well-known include Faugeres, Minervois, Corbieres, and Fitou.
Languedoc wines are very food-friendly. The Mediterranean cuisine of fresh seafood, olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and aromatic herbs, as well as pate, sausages, salami, and cheeses makes ideal pairings with local Languedoc wines.
The Willamette Valley (as they say in Oregon, “it’s Willamette dammit”) is home to more than 300 wineries. It is a “V” shaped valley that is about 150-miles long and 60-miles wide. Because it is a cool growing region with moderate rainfall, the Willamette Valley’s climate is suited to grow a narrower range of grape variates than most American appellations. Pinot Noir, a fickle, early-ripening grape, is perfectly at home in the Willamette Valley; there are also several white grapes that are well-suited to its climate, such as Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, and various others (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Muller Thurgau, even Gruner Veltliner!).
David Lett (founder of The Eyrie Vineyards) planted the first Pinot Noir vines near Dundee (central Willamette Valley) in 1965. The Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) was first authorized in 1984; however, this included some 3.3 million acres! The area was divided into six major AVA’s in 2005 and 2006, these include: Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton, Dundee Hills, McMinnville, and Eola-Amity Hills. These six sub-regions better describe the micro-climates, or terroir, of each intricate area of the valley.
Bordeaux is a classic wine region in France that produces an array of wine, white, red, and dessert, from inexpensive table wine to some of the most expensive, collectible wines in the world. The red wines are made from any combination of five principal grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec (and rarely Carmenere). There are numerous wines made in a “Bordeaux-style.” Some terms used to indicate this are “Claret” and “Meritage.”
Claret is the more generic term of the two. For over 300 years the British have referred to Bordeaux as Claret. In America, the term Claret generally means that a wine is made using the traditional Bordeaux varietals.
Meritage (rhymes with heritage) is a trademarked term that is used to denote red and white Bordeaux-style wines without infringing on the region’s protected “designation of origin.” For this term to appear on a label, the wine must meet specific criteria regarding grape varieties, blending, and suggested production limits.