Category Archives: Wine Education

WINE (noun): the alcoholic fermented juice of fresh grapes used as a beverage

Source: Merriam-Webster

Sicily: A food and wine paradise

At the mention of Sicily, hopefully some of the first things to pop into your mind are sunny beaches, Mediterranean air, fresh seafood, and possibly even delicious wine. Two of the coolest things about Sicilian wines are that they are approachable both in style and price. They offer some of the best—and diverse—options for introducing yourself to Old World wines. But unless you actually go there, it can be hard to realize how large, and unlike an island, this island really is. Its surface area is actually three times the size of New Zealand! They produce between 100 and 130 million gallons of wine per year. That is equivalent to about 2 million oak barrels! The region is also number one in Italy for organic wines, boasting 38% of Italy’s total organic wine production.

The first record of wine on the island dates back roughly to 700 BC when the Greeks occupied the island. Wine appears again in Sicily in the volume “Natural History,” when Pliny the Elder mentions the Mamertino wines produced around Messina. From about 831 to 1072 AD vines risked extinction altogether when the Arabs dominated the island.

The reign of Frederick III of Aragon in the early 1300’s finally unchained the wine trade in Sicily, but their industry didn’t start to pick up until the 1500’s. Nearly four hundred years later, in the early 1990s, Sicilian wines started to make a mark on the international market. This was a thanks in part to the blending of international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot noir Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, and some might say Riesling) with indigenous grape varieties. The result was a group of wines that were more understandable to consumers in the global market. Currently about a third of the wine production in Sicily comes from international varieties and two thirds from indigenous grape varieties.

With so many types of Sicilian wine out there, experimenting on your own and finding new wines to like is easy, especially with some fun food pairings.

If you like light and crisp wines like Sauvignon blanc, a good Sicilian wine to try is the Planeta Eurazione, which is made of 90% Carricante, an indigenous grape to Sicily, and 10% Riesling. It has aromas of apple, mango, and white flowers. It is light and crisp on the palate and offers a bright finish with flavors of lemon curd. Pairing it with a dish like grilled prawns tossed in lemon juice and garlic works splendidly. Or if you can make it or find it, the Sicilians also like to have this wine with octopus salad. Any seafood salad will work!

Another fun white is the Insolia by Cusumano. This indigenous grape makes a full bodied and aromatic wine. It offers aromas and flavors of lemon and herbs, is smooth and rich on the palate and finishes with a hint of toasted almond. It is delicious with any pesto dish.

sicilian-pizzaThe Donnafugata Sedara, which is predominantly Nero d’Avola, one of the most important red grapes of Sicily, is the perfect everyday red wine. Full of wild blackberry and raspberry fruit, it is juicy and quaffable and excellent with pizza or a quick tomato-based pasta dish.



If you want to get a little more serious, another delicious Nero d’Avola is the Feudi del Pisciotto Versace Nero d’Avola. It has a deep bouquet of rose and ripe red cherry, is full on the palate and has a long, complex, and spicy finish. It is works beautifully alongside roasts or game. Plus, a serious meal will need a conversation piece and the label on this bottle is a good one. In the vain of creating wines that truly express the “Made in Italy” theme, the head of Feudi del Pisciotto decided to call on famous Italian artists and designers to create the labels for his wines. And what’s even better, a small portion of the winery’s revenue goes to reconstructing ancient works of art in Sicily. Donatella Versace, a lover of Nero d’Avola, chose the original Medusa head Versace logo for this wine, which for the Versace family symbolizes their desire to catch the eyes of audiences with astonishing and stylish designs.

planeta-etna-rossoThe Planeta Etna Rosso, made from the grape indigenous to Mount Etna called Nerello Mascalese, is an engaging wine with complex aromas of rose buds and stems, forest floor, sour cherry, strawberry, and rhubarb. On the palate it is full and smooth with a long spicy finish and suede-like tannins. This is a fun red too because it even works with fish! Try it with some pepper and herb encrusted grilled cod or seabass with a side of Caponata.

If you aren’t familiar with it, Caponata could be described as a Sicilian interpretation of Ratatouille. It also works well as a bruschetta topping, or be super authentic and serve it atop an orange slice, like the Sicilians do. If you have a little spare time, it isn’t difficult to make on your own. It’s totally worth it!

2 eggplants, cut into 1 inch dice
2 Tbsp plus 1.5 c olive oil
1 cup diced celery
3 onions, chopped
1 cup tomato puree
3 Tbsp capers
12 black or green olives, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp sugar
chopped basil or parseley
salt and pepper

Saute celery briefly so it is still crisp. Set aside. In a wide saute pan over medium-high heat, warm 1 c of olive oil. Saute the eggplant, making sure to cook thoroughly. Transfer to a plate with paper towels to drain. In the same pan, warm the remaining 1/2 c of oilive oil, then add the onions and saute until translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Add the reserved celery and tomoato puree and simmer, stirring occassionally for 10 minutes. Add cooked eggplant, capers, olives, nuts, vinegar, sugar, and herbs. Stir well and simmer, uncovered over low heat for 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. It is best to reserve for the next day so flavors can meld but it is also possible to serve immediately.


Discover Rhone

Feeling a pull to step out of your comfort zone with the wines you normally drink? Well whatever those may be, a spectacular place to start a new voyage is in the southern part of the Rhone River Valley!

If you don’t have the resources to jump head first into the reigning region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, whose silky and alluring wines command a higher, though well-deserved price, the next best way to discover Rhone is to venture out into its satellite regions. Unlike many other wine growing regions of the world, the span of high quality vineyards of the Rhone extends far beyond its heart, in this case, the historical region of Chateauneuf. In the Rhone, the satellite regions are where you will find not just some of the very best values, but also quite a heap of hidden gems.


The general region of Côtes du Rhone, literally meaning “coast” or “shore” of Rhone, surrounds Chateauneuf. Within the Côtes du Rhone is a more specialized appellation called Côtes du Rhone Villages. Eighteen villages comprise the Côtes du Rhone Villages appellation. Since the 1970s (though a few established themselves before this) many of these villages have worked to distinguish themselves and have proven rights to their own appellations, gaining AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status just as Chateauneuf did in 1936. Besides the Côtes du Rhone and Côtes du Rhone Villages general appellations, these individual villages are where you’ll find some of the most mind-blowing wines.

If you take a general count over the entire region, Cotes du Rhone wines are 94% red, 4% rosé, and 2% white. Grenache is the king variety, claiming 40% of all wine produced, including when it appears in blends and rosés.

While many people would name Provence as the center of rosé production, there is a famous and historical rosé region in the southern Rhone. Tavel AOC, established in 1936, produces only rosé wine and is one of the most renowned rosé regions in the world. The wines are characterized by a salmon or bright pink hue, are full on the palate, exhibit fresh red berry fruit, and are highly perfumed, redolent of fresh herbs and spices.

dentelles-di-montmirail-2Gigondas, authorized as an AOC in 1971, lies at the foot of the Dentelles di Montmirail, a small but nonetheless dramatic chain of spiked and eroded mountains formed by a horizontal strata of Jurassic limestone that became folded and forced into an upright position. The soils are diverse and range from stony red and black clay to green granite and chlorite chalk. Its wines are some of the boldest, most concentrated, and mineral-laden in the southern Rhone, characterized by blackberry, red berry, earth, and garrigue.

Vacqueyras, established as an AOC in 1990, lies just south of Gigondas and is comprised of diverse soils like Gigondas but with more sand and pebbles giving the wines a slightly more delicate feel. Black licorice, black cherry, raspberhonevinesrry, dried fig, and smoke are common descriptors for Vacqueyras wines.

Costières de Nîmes is the farthest south of the established AOC regions, and one of the hottest areas of the southern Rhone. Its wines, ranging from wild and spicy to fruity and tame, offer a pleasant surprise, regardless of style.

Ventoux vineyards stretch higher in altitude than the others, and fittingly climb the base of Mount Ventoux. Diverse soils and cooler temperatures produce reds with red berry fruit, blackcurrant, and ephemeral aromas of herbs, violets, vanilla, and licorice.

Most reds from these regions won’t run you too far over $20 and usually they are under. The wines will charm you with their sultry mid-palate of fruit, brooding earth nuances, and sweet, aromatic bouquets of spice, violets, and black licorice.

Grab Some Garnacha for #GarnachaDay 2016

Meet Garnacha. Serving diligently as one of Spain’s signature red wine grape varieties, Garnacha enjoys extensive plantings worldwide. This hardy, thin-skinned, late ripening red grape is thought by many to have originated in the landlocked region of Aragon in northeastern Spain. Because it can handle the demands of crazy continental climates like a champ, with vines withstanding wind and drought conditions considerably well, Garnacha (aka Grenache in France), is a go-to grape for all sorts of winemaking endeavors. Just to keep things interesting, Garnacha also comes as a rich, full-bodied white wine variety, dubbed appropriately as “Garnacha Blanca.”

From world class rosés to concentrated collectibles and fortified favorites, and routinely bottled as a key contributor in synergistic blends or flying solo as a single variety, Garnacha brings plenty of vinous charm and outright versatility to the winemaker’s cellar. After all, what other grape variety can lay creative claim to red, white, and rosé, dry, off-dry, and sweet, fortified along with sparkling wine renditions?

Garnacha Flavor Profiles: In general, Spain’s warm, sun-baked growing season gives rise to well-ripened Garnacha grape clusters that may carry considerable sugar, which converts to elevated alcohol levels in the bottle. Ranging from medium to full-bodied, often hauling higher alcohol levels (15% is not uncommon), with lower levels of innate acidity, modest tannin, and engaging aromatics Garnacha’s red grape shines bright with delicious ripe fruit character. Expect a berry medley to take front and center stage with raspberry, strawberry, blackberry and cherry dominating initial impressions. Peppery influences along with cinnamon and cloves, earth and herbs, chocolate and coffee, savory spice and smoky notes may all make their way into the bottle as well.  Tapping into old vines that produce smaller yields,  allows many Garnacha vineyard managers to deliver assertive wines with remarkable flavor intensity carrying a rich, full-bodied, concentrated palate profile.

Pairing Picks for Garnacha: A natural for grilled meat, smoked baby back ribs, all sorts of barbecue, burgers, brats and brisket, chorizo and shrimp paella, slow roasted lamb, spicy tacos and burritos, hearty stews, and meat lover’s pizza, Garnacha promises serious pairing versatility and a remarkable food-friendly nature.

Popular Garnacha Bottles to Try (all under $20) – Care to toast the town on #Garnacha Day? We’ve got you covered, take a sip of Garnacha in all of its unblended glory with these single variety bottles to try with prices ranging from $8-20.

Growing Garnacha – A Regional Peek

Today, Garnacha finds firm footing throughout Spain; however, some of the most passionate producers and classic wines can be found from these five DO regions: Campo de Borja,  Terra Alta, Somontano, Cariñena and Calatayud.  Campo de Borja, the self-proclaimed “Empire of Garnacha,” was the first to embrace and develop the concept of modern varietal Garnacha wines. Its picturesque wine route is a haven for wine country tourists. Terra Alta, the white Garnacha specialist, delivers mineral-driven wines that highlight the grape’s versatility. Somontano approaches the grape with a New World spin, crafting luxury wines built to age. Cariñena is an up and coming region that combines altitude, wind, significant diurnal temperature swings with old vine concentration, but let’s face it Cariñena is not quite a household name (yet!) for Spanish wine growing regions, which means that the price to quality ratios are still stellar. Calatayud often delivers its Garnacha in a versatile light. From intense, hot pink rosés to full throttle, full-bodied high octane reds. The renowned Rioja region also grows its fair share of Garnacha; however, it tends to play second fiddle and is most often blended with Tempranillo here.

DIY Garnacha Tasting!

Want to dive deeper into the great big world of Garnacha? Then have fun checking out this side by side comparative tasting format of Spain’s Garnacha regions to celebrate the diversity and festive sips of #GarnachaDay. Compare and contrast these wines in terms of color, aromas, fruit character, the levels of acidity, tannin content.

1. Campo de Borja AmbassadorBodegas Santo Cristo Seleccion Garnacha 2014
Winemaker’s Notes – Made from old vine Grenache grown on the cool upland plateau of Campo de Borja, between Rioja and Catalonia, the ‘Seleccion’ is specially selected to emphasise bright, ripe fruit and cool, perfumed aromatics, without any oak influence. There is also a notable mineral complexity imbued by the red rocky soils of the region. Given the underlying old vine richness of this cuvee, pricing is a real steal.
2.Terra Alta Ambassador:  Clos Dalian Garnacha Blanca 2015
Winemaker’s Notes – Bright white wine with golden hue. Aroma of ripe white fruit and minerals. Creamy, fleshy, fresh and very seductive in the mouth. Its mid-palate is quite long and silky.
3. Somontano Vinas del Vero La Miranda de Secastilla Garnacha 2011
Winemaker’s Notes – Very attractive color with red hues complemented by elegant hints of violet. It is very distinctive on the nose, with fruity aromas and discreet notes of toastiness that combine well together. The strong fruit aromas come through again in the mouth, providing great flavors, and producing a pleasant effect and long finish.
beso4. Cariñena Garnacha Ambassador:  Beso de Vino Garnacha 2011
Winemaker’s Notes – Opaque purple. Intensely perfumed aromas of cherry and blackberry are brightened by zesty minerality and a subtle peppery quality. Lively red and dark fruits on the palate, with black pepper and licorice nuances emerging with air. Sappy and strikingly intense for the price, finishing with excellent persistence and gentle tannic grip.


lasrocas5. Calatayud Garnacha Ambassador: Las Rocas Garnacha 2013
Winemaker’s Notes – Las Rocas Garnacha offers vibrant aromas and flavors of dark cherry and blackberry. Well-integrated nuances of oak and round tannins underscore these decadent fruit flavors to create a rich, well-structured wine.

Nebbiolo Prima


A showcase of just-released Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero wines

Every BaroloBottlesBlindMay Albeisa, the Unione Produttori Vini Albesi (Union of Producers of wines from the Alba area), hosts journalists from all over the world for an event called, Nebbiolo Prima, one of the most important Italian wine summits of the year. This year over 250 wineries submitted a total of nearly 500 of their just-released Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero wines as part of this blind tasting and pre-marketing event.

Up for examination were the following wines: Barolo (2012 and 2010 Riserva), Barbaresco (2013 and 2011 Riserva), Roero (2013 and 2012 Riserva).

While the entire tasting is done blind (producer names are not given until the end of each tasting day), the village denominations are grouped and revealed to the journalists beforehand.

With over 100 wines to assess each morning, there isn’t time to deeply analyze each and every one. Having done the event many times, I focus on getting an overall impression of each vintage for each denomination and villages, while noting obvious standouts. I make brief tasting notes for each wine and score top wines with three stars down to 2.5, and so on to 0.5 stars. I don’t give any stars to wines that are acceptable, however not spectacular in any way.

The 2012 growing season started with a very wet winter and spring. Warm temperatures and continued precipitation in June contributed to vegetative growth but reduced berry set. Neither was a huge concern as less compact clusters help prevent disease and the soil’s water reserves helped the vines survive a very hot late summer. Though results for 2012 Barolo were mixed, some villages—and wines—clearly outshone their counterparts.

Barolo vineyards Sep 2012 fogWithin the 2012 vintage, I awarded the most points to wines in the Barolo “più communi” (many villages) category. These are often labeled as “Classico” or simply state “Barolo” on the label. They show big, sweet, dense, red cherry, cinnamon, marzipan, potpourri, chalky but ripe tannins, and are quite balanced overall with integrated floral notes. (39 wines; 18 total stars for the category)

Barolo from the village of La Morra scored highest of all of the single villages. The best 2012 La Morra Barolo reveal pretty mint and rose, sweet aromas of wild strawberry, and a polished texture; others are huge in structure with tannins that need to resolve. But even some of the more challenged samples retain enough fruit and non-fruit characters to support the power. One particularly striking example of the potential of this vintage was Renato Ratti’s Barolo from the Conca cru. Intense and gorgeous aromas of rose, licorice, and fresh herbs pop out of the glass. This complex young wine is already in balance, showing potential for a long life ahead. (57 wines; 32.5 stars)

Ripe red cherries, smoke, dark earth, and sweet tannins characterize the best Barolos from the Verduno village. One of my favorites was Alessandria Fratelli’s San Lorenzo Barolo. Its aromas of red cherry, cologne, spice and forest floor lead to a full, lush mouthfeel and that is still a bit tight but pleasant. (14 wines; 6 stars)

The Castiglione Barolos show a concentration of ripe unctuous black cherry; they have bold structure and sweet perfume. One of the most representative samples of the best from the village was Cascina Bongiovanni’s Pernanno Barolo, which is full of heightened black cherry, sweet rose, and fine-grained tannins. (18 wines; 7.5 stars)

The best 2012 Barolos from the Barolo village are identified by smoke, tar, earth, and rose with ripe red and blackberry, marked aromatics, a juicy mid-palate, and polished tannins. Two single vineyard Barolos from Borgogno, the Cannubi and Fossati, were among my favorites. The Cannubi shows lovely aromatics of mint and cherry whereas the Fossati, while also pretty on the nose, shows a bitter spice quality that isn’t unpleasant—both still prominently showing their youth. (41 wines; 16.5 stars)

The Serralunga Barolos are profoundly structured with distinct aromas of tobacco and fireplace. The best ones integrate rose petal, potpourri, and forest aromatics with ripe red cherry fruit and refined tannins; on the other hand, some are thwarted by oak. Standouts included GD Vajra’s Baudana, which is a gorgeous wine with mixed berry compote in the mid-palate, scents of perfume and ash, and a linear, powerful finish. Another extraordinary Barolo from the village was the Pio Cesare Ornato, which gives off the canonical tar and roses, with a hint of fireplace. It is clean, pure, on point, and balanced. (46 wines; 16.5 stars)

The Monforte wines in general had aromas of candied fruit and cocoa, were concentrated with super ripe blackberry, raspberry, and black plum on the palate, and the tannins were strong and rough in many cases. Sorì Ginestra from Conterno Fantino was an outstanding example of the best from the village in 2012; while fleshy and certainly in its adolescence, it isn’t coarse like some. The Pecchenino was the prettiest with currant, blackberry, eukalyptus, and silky tannins. (43 wines; 9.5 stars)

The 2013 growing season in Piemonte was a funny one in that everything was delayed by about two weeks. Low temperatues slowed the vegetative cycle in the spring and while cool weather can lead to good acidity levels in resultant wines, it also necessitated longer hang time in the fall, which led to a vintage with mixed results. While aromatics could be lovely, some wines were herbal and thin. Some examples seemed too advanced or were thick with bitter tannins. The best 2013 Barbarescos find a nice balance in range of aromas and flavors. The wines came in all over the board.

barbarescoAlbino Rocca’s single cru Angelo Barbaresco was my highest scoring 2013 Barbaresco from the Barbaresco village. Its engaging bouquet of ripe, red cherry, smoke, dried violets, and sweet rose surprised me and stood out among the other 100 wines that Tuesday; the palate is juicy and finish, long and fine-tuned. (33 wines; 16.5 stars)

Among the 2013s from Treiso, many were smoky, tight and rustic with some problems of over-oakiness. But some of the better ones showed elegance. (19 wines; 11stars)

One of the best examples among the 2013 Neive Barbarescos was Moccagatta’s Basarin. Scents of camp fire, cinnamon, black cherry, and fresh herbs reveal themselves, leading to a wine that is both delightful and supple on the palate. (39 wines; 19.5 stars)

The Barbaresco “più communi” (many villages) category didn’t show so well overall. Though the Produttori del Barbaresco’s 2013 Barbaresco comes forward a little too bold, it shows consistency and balance of ripe fruit through to the finish. (12 wines; 3 stars)

The 2013 vintage of Roero (23 wines; 19 stars) and 2012 Roero Riserva (24 wines; 16 stars), as a whole, were the best I’ve ever tasted! Normally as a category Roero can be a mixed bag but not in these vintages; overall they were some of the best wines of the week. The besbarolosheett 2013s did an amazing job showing off pretty Roero aromatics, redolent of orange peel, strawberry candy, and mint or sometimes a mix of dark fruit, forest and cocoa. Either way the wines are perfumed, lush and charming. One of the best examples of the latter style was Malvirà’s 2013 Roero Classico. Their 2012 Riservas showed amazingly well too; my favorite was the Vigna Trinità. Powerful aromas of violets and roses lead to a refined integration throughout the palate of bold and juicy fruit as well as cocoa-powdery tannins. Other notable bottlings from the 2012 Malvira Riservas were the Vigna Mombeltramo and Vigna Renesio.

There were 66 wines in the Barolo 2010 Riserva and Barbaresco 2011 Riserva categories, though overall I scored them low in stars. The same can be said for the Barolos from Novello (14 wines) and Barbarescos from Alba (4 wines).

Find more information about the event and the Albeisa organization at these links.





Drink Like a Founding Father this Independence Day

Back in the early days of  America, when water wasn’t always safe to drink due to lack of proper sanitation, our Founding Fathers needed to find some way to stay hydrated. Ingeniously, those clever men who brought us the Declaration of Independence also came up with a foolproof way to consume liquids without the risk of water-borne disease: alcohol. It was widely understood that alcohol killed bacterial contaminants, and while it came with its own set of risks, it was deemed much safer (and much more fun) to drink.

While distilled spirits and beer were popular choices, our Founding Fathers (especially noted connoisseur Thomas Jefferson) often turned to wine as their beverage of choice. Early attempts at planting grapes in the New World were unsuccessful, as the European grape varieties brought over by colonists were not suitable for surviving American pests and vine diseases. Therefore, imported wines were widely preferred. In honor of Independence Day, raise a glass of one of the following wines to our Founding Fathers:


While today we think of this sweet, fortified Portuguese wine as an after-dinner drink, our Founding Fathers would often consume Port alongside the meal itself. If you prefer bright, fresh red fruit flavors, try a Ruby Port. For more complex notes of caramel, nuts, and dried fruits, turn to a Tawny style.


Like Port, Sherry was also frequently drank with dinner. This fortified wine from Jerez, Spain comes in a wide variety of styles ranging from bone-dry to sticky-sweet, but the sweet-toothed  colonists tended to have a preference for the sugary stuff. Dry styles, like Fino, Amontillado, and Oloroso, can pair beautifully with a meal, while sweeter styles like Pedro Ximénez and Cream Sherry are perfect for dessert.


You won’t find Scuppernong in many wine shops today, but in colonial times this was one of the few Native American grape varieties to be planted successfully with appealing results. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was so fond of it that he planted it at his Monticello estate. It is still produced by some wineries in North Carolina, where it is the official state fruit.


This French import which is associated with class and quality today has maintained that stature since the days of our founders, when it was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams. Back then, Bordeaux was also known as “Claret” – named as such for the pale color it took on in the early days of its production (the word is derived from the latin for “clear”). By the Colonial Era, it had come to resemble the deep red hue we know today, but the name stuck, and is still commonly used in the British wine trade.


While Madeira’s heyday in America has long since passed, it was actually one of the most important alcoholic beverages in the days of our Founding Fathers. So important, in fact, that it was used to toast both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. George Washington is said to have drank a pint of Madeira every day with dinner. And with good reason—that stuff is delicious. Whether you prefer the searing acidity of the Sercial style or the candied sweetness of Malmsey, this intentionally oxidized and cooked fortified wine from the eponymous Portuguese island deserves to make a comeback. Why not give it a try this July 4th?