All posts by Stacy Slinkard

Six White Wine Grapes that Welcome Summer!

While the summer season doesn’t “officially” kick off until June 21, the lively white wines of summer have been ready to welcome patio pours for months. It’s easy to find your favorite grape, region or producer and keep drinking from the same well all season long, but when it’s time to shake it up and sip “out of bounds,” making new vinous acquaintances with less familiar grapes or regions, we are thrilled to help make those tasty introductions. From the sassy citrus vibe of Spanish Albarino to the herbal tang of Vermentino, there’s a summer white wine adventure just waiting to happen.

Spanish Whites: Albarino and Verdejo

Albarino – Delivering a zesty squeeze of citrus and a dash of salinity in virtually every bottle, Albarino, Spain’s white wine diva, is like sunshine in a glass. Albarino is picture perfect for patio sipping and even better when partnered up with the wine’s hometown culinary heroes like the fresh Galician Country seafood themes of oysters, clams, crab, hake and sea bass or octopus served with white potatoes olive oil and smoked paprika.  These versatile, dry white wines deliver incredibly fresh aromatics, with unmistakable acidity and equally friendly price points. Albarino hails from Spain’s northwest corner known as the region of Rias Baixas (pronounced “Ree-yahs By-Shuss”) where the maritime climate exerts a remarkable influence on the wines and the vines. Most Albarino vines are planted within miles of the coast earning the regional wines the enticing nickname of the “wine of the sea.” Ranging from steely, mineral driven bottles to wines with creamy textures, fuller-bodies, and a bit of butter on the finish (thanks for extended lees aging), Albarino showcases a wide range of palate appeal.

Must Try Albarino Producers:  Burgans, Martin Codax, Pazo Cilleiro, Pazo de BarrantesTerras GaudaLa Cana 

Verdejo – While Albarino comes from Spain’s northwest coastal corner just above Portugal, Verdejo hails from the continental climate, gravelly-soil and higher elevations of Rueda a well-known wine growing region situated about 100 miles northwest of Madrid. Though historically speaking, the grape can be traced back to the 11th century with deep roots in North Africa. In terms of style and structure, Verdejo is traditionally made in a clean, crisp palate style, though plenty of exceptions and experimentation occurs with both barrel aging and extended lees contact resulting in richer, more complex options as well.  These fuller-bodied bottles tend to lean heavily into the exotic flavor profiles of melon and citrus, with a noticeable minerality and almost always a touch of earthy, herbal nuances in the mix.

Must Try Verdejo Producers: Finca Montepedroso, Garciarevalo, Jose Pariente, Martinsancho, Protos

Torrontes

Argentina’s incredibly aromatic white wine wonder, Torrontes offers top notch value (generally in the $10-15 range), prides itself on being remarkably food-friendly and generally carries a medium to full body. Expect a decent dose of mouth-watering acidity (thanks in part to high elevation vineyards), a bone-dry palate style and a heady mix of floral (often rose petal) nuances mixed with rambunctious stone, citrus and apple fruit character. Best bets for food pairings are shellfish, grilled poultry, all sorts of Asian themes with Thai dishes being a personal favorite and even a bit of Tex-Mex with guacamole. Torrontes’ aromas offer up some of the wine world’s best perfumes – sweet, floral and incredibly fresh!

Must Try Torrontes Producers:  Amalaya, Alamos, Alta Vista, Kaiken, Crios de Susana Balbo, Zuccardi

Gruner Veltliner 

Gruner Veltliner (“Groo-ner Felt-lean-er”), Austria’s vinous claim to snappy white wine fame, and as such the region’s cooler growing conditions promise a crisp, high acid, exceptionally food-friendly wine experience. Easily enjoyed as an aperitif and welcoming all sorts of tricky-to-pair foods (think asparagus, artichokes, onions, olives and such), most of Austria’s Gruner Veltliner hails from the regions of Wachau, Kampstal and Kremstal with considerable influence from the Danube River.

Similar to Albarino, Gruner Veltliner tends to see little oak influence overall, but relies on stainless steel tanks to retain the bright fruit character (mainly citrus, apple, melon and apricot or peach and sometimes a funky green bean flare) alongside a zippy acid profile.

 Must Try Gruner Veltliner Producers:  Domaine WachauGroonerLoimer, Markus Huber

Sauvignon Blanc

While admittedly not an “out of the ordinary” summer grape variety, no summer white wine list should be without the ultra versatile, equally able to thrive in Old World and New World regions and extraordinarily affectionate towards food wine, known and loved as Sauvignon Blanc. This highly versatile grape manifests itself in a variety of styles under the umbrella of white Bordeaux, from light, crisp and fruity to rich, complex and creamy, its expressive aromas rely largely on the Sauvignon Blanc grape, but keep in mind Bordeaux Blanc often marries the complementary low acid, full-bodied textures of Semillon as part of the region’s savvy blend. Looking for a loud, lively and happily extroverted version of Sauvignon Blanc?  Discover it in the exuberant, citrus-infused smile found in the snappy acidity of New Zealand’s favorite white wine grape, Sauvignon Blanc is your “go to” girl when it comes to the smells and tastes of summer. Enjoying a range of styles and growing regions, Sauvignon Blanc’s adaptability, reasonable pricing structure, and overall pairing versatility make it an easy stop on the summer wine train.

Must Try Sauvignon Blanc Producers: Chateau Malartic-LagraviereChateau Marjosse, Clos des Lunes, Craggy Range, Dog Point, Ferrari-Carano, NobiloRobert Mondavi

Vermentino

The clear majority of Italy’s Vermentino hails from the large Mediterranean Island of Sardinia, with the best quality coming from the rugged, granite soils of the northeast quadrant of the island called “Vermentino di Gallura DOCG,” which requires a minimum of 95% Vermentino in the bottle. These high acid wines are fermented to a completely dry style and carry a medium to fuller body in general. In terms of flavors and aromas, earthy, herbal undertones set a distinguishing backdrop for subtler citrus, green apple, and pear fruit character. The herbal influences make Vermentino a top pick for pairing with fresh pesto, vegan dishes, seafood and a number of summer salads.

Must Try Vermentino Producers: JankaraPoggio al Tesoro, SantadiSella & Mosca

 

Best Bets for Mini-Champagne and Sparkling Wine Bottles

Fun and festive, with lively bubbles and adorable sizing, the trend of popping off mini bottles of bubbly as bridal shower favors and wedding guest gifts continues with great gusto. Though not limited to wedding wonders, mini bottles of sparkling wine and Champagne are also debuting at baby showers, birth announcements and New Year’s Eve shindigs along with serving as convenient happy hour finds when opening a whole bottle for a single glass just won’t do.

Many customers stop by Wine.com scouting for “mini Champagne” or sparkling wine bottles, which are 187 ml bottles, referred to as “splits” in the wine industry. Essentially, a split is one-fourth of a full sized, standard 750 ml bottle of wine. These bottles are remarkably trendy and carry all kinds of grapes from just as many regions; however, keep in mind that only the bottles bottled in Champagne, France are considered “mini Champagne” – everything else is sparkling wine.

Serving Tips & Tricks:

  • Serving temperatures: with most sparkling wines, shoot for 40-45 °F; however, the Brachetto should be a little warmer at 50-55 °F
  • Serving sizes are 187 ml or approximately 6 ounces. Most Champagne flutes hold about 6 ounces of bubbly, so most pours run closer to 4 ounces. Keep this in mind, if serving the wine in glassware instead of from the mini bottles with a straw.
  • Minis are easy to decorate with ribbons, custom name labels or served with brightly colored paper straws to match themes or festive color schemes.
©2016 LA MARCA USA

La Marca Prosecco – these snappy little blue bottles of bubbly bliss offer up a lively layer of fresh citrus and green apple with a splash of white honey blossom in the mix. Based on the Glera grape out of the Veneto region, Prosecco is Italy’s easy answer to the best of budget bubbly. Intended to be consumed while young and fresh, and in its hometown of Veneto, Prosecco is typically served in a white wine glass instead of a sparkling wine flute.  Incredibly food-friendly, give these bubbles a go with all sorts of appetizers including plates of antipasto, the classic prosciutto and melon, chips and dips, salads, shellfish and much more.

Courtesy of Freixenet USA

Freixenet Cava – Fun and feisty, Spanish Cava is made in the same method as Champagne (with the second fermentation taking place in the bottle), but built with the local grapes of Macabeao, Parellada, Xarel-lo and more recently Chardonnay. With an aromatic offering of apples and almonds this decidedly dry, medium-bodied Spanish sparkler is dressed to impress with the formal black and gold labeling at an exceptional price point.  Perfect for pairing with Cava’s hometown ham, aka Jamón Serrano, Spanish almonds, a variety of tapas, smoked salmon appetizers and sushi.

Courtesy of Le Grand Courtage

Le Grand Courtage, Rose Brut – Just plain pretty. This may be the quintessential bridal shower bottle. Elegant, feminine and packing some serious French flare, these bubbles are based on a heady mix of Chardonnay for depth and texture, Ugni Blanc to bring vibrant acidity, and the Gamay grape to showcase red fruit character and a dash of color. Like many French sparklers, this brut rose presents almost unlimited pairing potential. Sip with everything from pizza to pasta and sushi to barbecue along with chicken salad, baked brie or fig and ricotta spreads.

Courtesy of Banfi Wines

Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto – Looking for something red, sweet and bubbly? Italy’s low tannin, light-bodied, low alcohol, sweet styled red sparkling wine, dubbed “Brachetto,” has got you covered. Hailing from Italy’s Piedmont region, the black-skinned Brachetto grape delivers exceptional aromatics. Expect ripe red fruit like strawberry, raspberry and currants wrapped in roses to swoop out of the bottle. Brachetto also enjoys a bit of lover’s legend, as stories swirl that both Marc Antony and Julius Caesar gave Brachetto to Cleopatra in savvy attempts to win her heart. In terms of pairing potential, Brachetto is a top pick for dessert pairings. Consider giving it a pour with chocolate mousse, German chocolate cake, seasonal fruit and berry dishes, chocolate sundaes, cheesecake, bread pudding and more.

Courtesy of Moet & Chandon USA

Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut Reserve – Technically, this is our only “true” Champagne in this feature. While we are often asked about our “mini-Champagne” bottles for weddings and party favors, many customers are truly asking for bubbles in a bottle, not necessarily Champagne. Keep in mind that Champagne is only Champagne when it’s made in Champagne, France. Enter Moet & Chandon, the world’s biggest selling Champagne brand with 30 million bottles sold annually. This bottle of mini bubbly is a top pick wine for those that would like to toast with a classic, dry style of Champagne carrying zesty citrus and Granny Smith apple, with remarkable acidity and an ethereal mix of smoke, brioche and hazelnuts. Classic pairing partners include shellfish, caviar, poultry, smoked salmon and many fried food finds that marry well with the exceptional acidity and bright bubbles.

Riveting Reds from Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero – The Place
Image by José I. Berdón

Sitting high on a chalky plateau at 2,500 feet, tucked into northwest Spain, the sultry Spanish wine growing region of Ribera del Duero DO enjoys a heady mix of cool nights and sizzling hot days, showcasing the perfect climate for bringing out the best in the region’s dominant grape variety, Tempranillo.  Ribera del Duero, literally the “bank of the Duero” river, finds firm footing in the extremes of the land. From scorching summers, shielded by rain from two dominant mountain ranges (the Sierra del Guadarrama and Sierra de la Demanda), to harsh, cold continental winters and annual temperature extremes swinging from 0° to 100+°F, Ribera del Duero faces significant threats from both spring and winter frosts. Yet it’s this climate of extremes that also sets the stage for significant temperature shifts during the growing season (often to the tune of 25 degrees or more) between day and night. This diurnal range, or wide temperature variation, allows the grapes to retain high levels of acidity, along with elevated levels of pigmentation in the grape skins while simultaneously preserving the innate fruit-themed aromas and phenolics during the grape’s ripening phase.

Ribera del Duero – The Grape
Copyright: José I. Berdón

Ribera del Duero is red wine country, with a splash of rosé thrown in to lighten things up. Hands-down the region’s shining star is the Tempranillo grape, known locally as Tinto Fino. In fact, Ribera del Duero must contain at least 75% Tempranillo to fulfill the DO requirements in every bottle. Garnacha is a key component of the regional rosé, while Malbec and the international superstars of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also find their way into many of the regional blends. Not surprisingly, the clone of Tempranillo that thrives in this rugged region typically sports a thicker skin which expresses itself in wines that often carry more color pigmentation and higher-powered tannin profiles than their nearby Rioja-based cousins. The wines of Ribera del Duero show an alluring mix of supple intensity, ready to rumble with an impressive array of foodie favorites and quite capable of standing solo.

Ribera del Duero – The Reputation
Courtesy of Tempos Vega Sicilia

Established in 1860, the outstanding Spanish producer Vega Sicilia single-handedly catapulted the region of Ribera del Duero and the Spanish the wine industry at large onto the international wine stage. Unico, Vega Sicilia’s ultra age-worthy and highly collectible cuvee is built on Tempranillo with enthusiastic support from a handful of Bordeaux varieties, adding to the mystique is its decade long aging prior to release. Happily, Unico’s sister label, Valbuena, carries a somewhat lower price point and enjoys considerable accessibility. For decades Ribera del Duero has maintained a sturdy reputation for powerfully built wines with extensive aging potential.

Today, the region offers buyers a full spectrum of wines. From youthful, fresh, fruit-forward delights that spotlight more elegance and enduring finesse to the full-throttle, high tannin, high acid wines that beg for a bit of cellar time, the variety of styles, palate profiles and price points coming out of Ribera del Duero welcomes a broad range of wine enthusiasts from seasoned collectors to curious consumers. Food-friendly, rich and distinct, the most affordable styles represent excellent quality to price ratios, while higher-end bottles are built to get better with time and are intended to showcase specific aspects of regional terroir, often estate grown fruit and an impressive aging structure.

Ribera del Duero – The Wines
CRDO RIbera del Duero

With such a dramatic range of styles and pricing available in today’s Ribera del Duero market, this is a tremendous time to get to know the regional red wine offerings from one of Spain’s most distinguished wine producing regions. Expect dark fruit namely blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, and sometimes a swirl of strawberry laced with a dash of espresso, dark chocolate and earth-driven components. In terms of texture and mouthfeel, Ribera del Duero reds range from round and silky to quite soft and velvety with a fuller-bodied profile and exceptional pairing potential with a variety of red meat options, aged cheese, pork and lamb chops.

Ribera del Duero Wines to Try: 
  • Finca Villacreces Pruno 2014  – An easy entry-point into the world of Ribera del Duero, this bottle shows exceptional quality at a budget-friendly price. Ripe blackberry and juicy raspberry fruit mingles with black licorice and a decent dose of earth.
  • Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero 2014 – Fresh, lively and filled with a snappy balance of well-formed tannins and zesty acidity, this bottle shows some serious cherry and black plum aromas on the nose with the warm tones of vanilla and a dash of mocha singing backup.
  • Hacienda Monasterio Ribera del Duero 2012  – A high-octane wine that is versatile and well-managed, ready to roll now or just as happy cellaring for another 5-7 years. Expect a feisty balance between earth, fruit and sleek, malleable tannins ending with enduring concentration and clarity.
  • Bodegas Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2009 For those that want to live the legend, but don’t necessarily want to spend the extra cash, you might opt to sip the sister label of Unico, Valbuena. Accessible and sophisticated, Valbuena carries a consistent mix of Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon giving it a bold, age-worthy profile wrapped up in oak-induced spice and rich, black fettered fruit.
  • Dominio de Pingus Psi 2014The pet project of Danish winemaker Peter Sisseck, Pingus Psi is cultivated using biodynamic techniques to give greater voice to the 70-year-old vines. Distinctly dominated by Tempranillo with 10% Garnacha in the blend, this bottle delivers an unexpected “fresh factor” that wows with bright cherry and end-of-summer raspberry in an ongoing, elegant medley of fruit meets oak.
Photos courtesy of CRDO Ribera del Duero and Tempos Vega Sicilia

When Does Vintage Matter Most?

What is Vintage Anyway?

A wine’s vintage is simply the calendar year that the grapes were grown and harvested. Neatly tagged on bottle labels, the vintage year represents one clue, among many, as to what’s going on inside of a particular bottle. Think of a wine’s vintage year as its birth year, and while we may associate certain events from a given year personally, producers tend to recall tricky weather patterns from a demanding year first and foremost. A wine’s vintage is a collective mirror of the weather patterns, vineyard management and state of the vine in each growing season, with climate conditions typically playing the biggest role in determining what kind of crop rolls through the cellar doors at harvest.

Location, Location, Location – Where Geography and Climate Collides

If vintage reflects a region’s weather patterns in a given year, then what makes a vintage good or bad? It often boils down to sunshine. Similar to “good” or “bad” vacation weather, the best vintages have plenty of dry, warm, sunny days with cooler, sweater-themed evenings. It’s these sunny, happy weather days that give grapes the best chance of reaching full maturity and optimum ripeness levels. These cheery growing seasons carrying sunny days and cool nights are the vintage years that typically garner the best ratings. If a region is bogged down by constant clouds and rain in a growing season, then the grapes are less likely to fully ripen, may be more prone to rot and disease, and tend to deliver skewed sugar and acidity levels if soggy conditions persist through harvest. These are the years where winemakers must work their magic in the cellar to keep the final wines intact. Keep in mind, certain grape varieties crave specific climates. Riesling prefers the cooler climes of Germany’s more northerly latitudes where acidity levels remain quite high. While, Cabernet Sauvignon’s roots dig deep in sunny, warm soils, and these thick-skinned grapes tend to thrive in California’s long, historically warm growing season.

Goldilocks and the Three Grapes:

  • Under-ripe grapes – Typically coming from cooler climates, these under ripened grapes lean towards lighter styles of wine and vinify into lower levels of alcohol while carrying less pronounced fruit character.
  • Over-ripe grapes – It’s possible that a vine may suffer from too much sun, too much heat and the dire result is a cluster of grapes that become raisined in color, character and taste. Excessive summer heat can stunt growth and development significantly reducing quality levels and yields
  • Well-ripened, mature grapes – These grapes are perfectly poised to produce wines that show balance in terms of sugar, acid, tannins and carry their fruit and aromatic character particularly well.

When Vintage Matters Most

  1. Crazy Climates: Vintage matters most in winegrowing regions with the least consistent weather patterns. In general, many of Europe’s more northerly winegrowing regions (France, Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, Northwest Spain) are subject to more meteorology madness than the New World’s sun-drenched surroundings. From late spring frost, where entire vineyards can be taken out before bud break begins to severe hail knocking buds off the vine before they have a chance to set fruit, to excessive rainfall near harvest, which dilutes innate sugar and acidity levels, wicked weather can quickly take its toll on the vine. Ironically, France the iconic birthplace of modern wine is home to some of the least predictable runs of weather. Bordeaux, located 30 miles southeast from the harried Atlantic coastline, is notorious for battling all sorts of weather-induced mayhem, especially as the fall harvest draws near. Likewise, Burgundy’s bud break is often the target of regional spring hailstorms that wipe out flowers before the fruit ever has a chance to set.
  1. Collecting Wine: Vintage matters most when collectors are buying wine to age. The best vintages create wines that carry high levels of tannin and acidity, both are must-have preservatives when considering the age-worthiness of a wine. That’s why high-end reds from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont, Rioja, the Douro and New World regions like California, Washington, Australia, Argentina and Chile from the best vintage years have the greatest aging potential. In the case of white wines, Germany’s high end Rieslings, Champagne’s vintage bubbly, along with premium white wines from the likes of the Loire Valley, Alsace, Alto Adige and Burgundy all pin their aging potential on the quality of the vintage.

When Vintage Matters Least

  1. Consistent Climate Zones – International winegrowing regions with calm, consistent, warm weather packed with plenty of sunshine tend to produce wines that are also consistent themselves, with little vintage variation from year to year.
  2. Budget Bottles – High volume, commercial wines shoot for consistency year in and year out. Vintage variation is significantly reduced by the careful management of a wine’s key structural components like pH levels, alcohol, total acidity, and levels of residual sugar.

A Word on Non-vintage Wines

Non-vintage (N.V.) wines are essentially a blend of various vintages and won’t carry a specific vintage year on the bottle label. Examples include many sparkling wine and Champagne bottles, several fortified wines like non-vintage Port, Sherry and Madeira along with some inexpensive high volume still wines.

Current Vintages to Know (and love): The last several years have produced high quality fruit for many New World regions. Australia and New Zealand carried out 2015 with smaller yields and exceptional quality, and the Old World icons of Bordeaux and Burgundy packed a strong regional run for the last six years.

Australia 2012-2015

Beaujolais 2014

Bordeaux 2009-2015

Burgundy 2009-2015

California 2012-2015

Oregon 2012-2015

Rhone 2012; 2015

Sicily and Sardinia 2014

Tuscany 2007-2013; 2015

Washington 2012-2014

For current vintage ratings check out:

The Wine Enthusiast Vintage Chart

Robert Parker’s Vintage Chart

The Bottom Line

Keep in mind, vintage years serve as an initial indicator, a happy, helpful guideline when scouting for wines. There are very few vintages that could qualify as so poor as in it’s worth avoiding the year as a whole. In fact, producer reputation, vineyard vigilance, and winemaker interventions can often balance and carefully redeem rough weather conditions.

 

 

 

Pairing Wine and Chocolate – Tips and Tricks

Wine and chocolate pairings can be tricky when you factor in the sheer variety in today’s chocolate confections alongside the diversity in personal palate preferences.  Whether it’s chocolate themed desserts, artisan 80% dark chocolate bars or chocolate creations dotted with nuts, sea salt crystals, mint infusions, dried berries or simply caramel, there are versatile wine and chocolate pairings that can accommodate even the pickiest of palates. Continue reading Pairing Wine and Chocolate – Tips and Tricks