Sunday, October 26, 2008

A SavvyTaste Guide to Rose Wines and Dessert Wines ('Stickies') [Mac McCarthy]

There's more to the world of wines than just whites and reds! Let's take a brief look ROSE'S

If you want to impress -- or baffle -- your friends, start experimenting with Rose (pronounced "rose-aye' with an accent over the 'e' that I can't reproduce on my computer; it's French, what can I say?).

Rose's are made by crushing a red-skinned grape and leaving the skin in contact with the juice for just a little while; a few hours to a day or two, depending on how rosie you want it, and also depending on the grape -- some stain more than others. (There are also some red-fleshed grapes but I don't know much about them, yet.)

Red wines, you see, are made by leaving the skin with the juice for longer, so that it gets redder, and also the tannins and other flavors get into the juices even more.

White wines are made from red-skinned grapes by crushing the grapes and removing the skins from contact with the juice immediately, so none of the skin stuff gets to it.

That's why white wines are simple and elegant (if well made); reds are deeper and more intense -- and Roses are in between: The elegance of whites, with a touch of the body and tannin of the reds.

We're not about the notorious White Zinfandel here. White Zin is made the same way all Rose's are made, but the style is simple, sweet, and bland. Which is why beginners like it -- it's easy to drink, no harsh notes, and a little sweet. And it's why beginning wine drinkers find they often get tired of White Zin after a few years, as their tastes become more sophisticated the White Zins seem too simple, too sweet for no reason, too bland.

Well, move on up to other Roses, baby! One of its many charms is that there are more types of Rose than any other kind of wine, because you can make Rose out of *any red-skinned grape!* Styles range from taut, dry, French Rose made from Pinot Noir, to wild salmon- and coral-colored Roses in California from everything under the sun: Grenache, Cab, Merlot, even Zin. The tastes vary all over the map, from sophisticated and dry, to light, breezy, sweet, but with enough acid to balance the sweetness and make you realize that you really didn't mean it when you said you didn't like sweet wines -- you just hadn't had any *good* ones!

Many wineries make Rose, but they hardly sell any because of the destructive reputation of White Zinfandel that has fooled inexperienced wine drinkers into thinking Rose is some cheap junk wine. But the winemakers love to make it, for themselves! They can't sell much of it, so they make it to their own individual tastes, which is why Roses vary in style and flavor more than anything you'll ever try -- which makes it the *most fun wine* to experiment with tasting!
Prices vary -- they're not as cheap as you'd expect given that nobody but the winemakers drink the stuff - but they are well worth trying out. And keep tasting--you won't really know Roses until you've tasted several dozen brands and flavors! (They make a great wine-tasting party theme--if you can browbeat your friends into realizing that Roses are only drunk by two groups: The ignorant beginner winedrinkers with their White Zin; and the most advanced, sophisticated, worldly-wise wine aficionados who truly know their wines!

Dessert wines are another of those wine types that everybody thinks they don't like. "Oh, I don't like sweet wines," they say -- because they either started with White Zin, or with Mogan David (like my Mom did).

Darling! That's not what dessert wines taste like! That's like saying you don't like red wine because you once tried Thunderbird! Give yourself a break!

Ports and sherries I don't like as much because they are made with added brandy, which I don't care much for. But a lot of people do; a port or sherry tasting is worth taking time out for, see if it's your thing.

Me, I like so-called "late-harvest" wines -- which are left on the vines until the last possible moment, usually November in California, and February in the case of Canada's (absolutely dee-licious but expensive) 'Ice Wines'.

For me, Late-Harvest Zinfandel is God's gift to the sweet tooth -- ahhhh! There are also late-harvest Cabs and Merlots and, for real intensity, Syrahs!

Or you can try white dessert wines: Besides Canadian Ice Wine, France makes some breathtakingly expensive white stickies from the Sauterne grape -- Chateau d'Yquem is the queen of this world, with little thin half-sized bottles costing hundreds and hundreds of dollars each! But there are plenty of relatively inexpensive ($20 for a half) Sauterne dessert wines that aren't bad at all! Hungary has its own white grape that it turns into stunning Tokay stickies -- yum! Pricey!

Keep your eyes open for dessert wines; you're bound to find one, among their widely varying flavors, that knocks your taste buds out of the park!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A SavvyTaste Guide: All About Lighter Red Wines [Mac McCarthy]

Not all red wines are intense, heavily tannic, highly acidic, oaked to death, or require five years of training to work your way up to. Many styles of red wine are light, even delicate. Many are what I call "beverage wines," as opposed to the big-red "cocktail wines." (See my blog on beverage vs. cocktail wines.)

--MERLOT was for years ruined by excessive popularity. Back in the late 70s and early 1980s, Merlot, because it's so easy to drink and tasty, became "the girl's red wine" that sold well by the glass in bars. So exploitive winemakers started growing Merlot grapes on every piece of land they could find -- Merlot grapes will grow anywhere, but the problem is, if you grow them just anywhere, they won't taste very good.

It got to the point where most merlots are, at best, merely drinkable. There are indeed many good, even very very good, merlots--but now they cost a lot because only the In Crowd knows about the good Merlots. Rule of thumb: It's really hard to find a tasty merlot for under thirty bucks. (Except some Trader Joe and BevMo Merlots!)

--SHIRAZ, made from Syrah grapes, but from Australia (there are some California Shirazes these days too) -- *this* is what Merlot *used* to taste like back in the 80s, before they become overly popular and every cheap vintner jumped on it: Fruity, easy to drink, fun, tasty, yummy, and varied wildly from maker to maker. Rosemount makes terrific Shiraz, though I prefer their straight Shiraz to their blends with Merlot and Cab and other grapes. Yellowtail is another popular, inexpensive, and delicious Australian Shiraz that manages to stay yummy despite booming production. Affordable Shirazes from Australia (we find them at under $10 in California) should be on your 'everyday table wine' list.

--BORDEAUX from France can be shockingly expensive. So much so that you can pay $50 and $75 a bottle and find them not nearly as wonderful as you'd think they should be at that price. It is possible to get third-tier Bordeaux for $20 or less that are entirely drinkable. It's a crap shoot, however. This is one of those wines that is simply too easy to make a mistake with -- and it's always an expensive mistake. So let your friends experiment with and invite you along to help.
When Bordeaux are bad, they are thin and uninteresting, not simply light. When they are good, they can be light yet with enormous depth and "finish," meaning when you take a taste, the flavor lasts and lasts long after you've swallowed. Some Bordeaux can be big, though never as big as a California Zin or California Syrah.

Burgundy -- made in France from Pinot Noir grapes--can be wonderful. These are light wines, easy to drink, bland when not at their best, but very pleasant and especially good as a wine to accompany a meal, rather than drink by itself.

California Pinots vary a lot from the French style due to the different climate, and Pinot is a hard grape to control, so tastes are all over the map. Decent California and West Coast Pinots can be pricey -- $30 gets you something quite good.

A good Pinot -- say, from Lost Canyon Winery of Oakland, California, one of the best among many -- squares what you would think an impossible circle: The wine is very light, approachable, easy to drink, low in tannin -- yet at the same time, it is filled with flavor! The finish is long, and you sometimes find yourself sighing at the pleasure of it.

There are very tasty Burgundies in the same price range. However, Burgundies go up to hundreds of dollars for the very finest ones -- which I've never tasted, so I have no idea what the shouting is about up there.

French Rhones (and California "Rhone-style" wines) are blends, usually with Syrah and a delightful grape called Granache as the main ingredients, plus blending grapes you rarely hear about and can hardly pronounce, such as Carignan and Cinsault. Rhones are lighter-style wines that can be very easy to like -- light and full of flavor, like Pinots, though the flavors are very different from a Pinot. Most notable about Rhones is their aroma, or "nose," which is very distinctive and wonderful -- probably the most noticeable nose among all red wines.

There is quite a variety of flavors among Rhones and Rhone blends. I find that I like certain styles very much, yet I very much don't like others. I have never liked, for example, any of the Chateauneuf du Papes, a classic type. On the other hand, I love ones from an area called Girondas, and I like the Languedoc-region Rhones too. I have no idea why.

This is a good category for experimenting with -- the expensive ones can be very expensive, but you should be able to find off-brand French Rhones for under $20 that are well worth tasting. American Rhone-style wines, so popular that there is a winemaker's club called 'The Rhone Rangers' (heh!), vary in price all over the map -- the more jokey the label, the more reasonably priced and -- hooray! -- the easier to drink! Isn't that great? 'Cote du Bone,' for example, is from Rosenblum, a play on "Beaune," the city that is at the center of French Burgundy/Rhone country (and on the Rosenblum winery owner's side job as a vet). It's pretty cheap (low teens) yet very tasty.

Here there is much too much variety to summarize well, and within any given type of Red there can be quite a variation -- most Italian wines are light, even thin if they aren't good, though a few can be pretty robust (like those Sicilian ones I mentioned earlier). Go online to find out about which 'Barberas' and 'Sangioveses', and especially 'Chiantis', are worth buying -- with Chianti in particular it's easy to buy something too thin to be really interesting. Better yet, check the Find Wines feature to match tasty Italian reds with your own personal taste profile.

--SOUTH AFRICA is making better and better reds these days, keep an eye on them. They are also known for some offbeat grapes, such as something called "Pinotage."

--SOUTH AMERICA, that is, CHILE and ARGENTINA offer familiar wines that are sometimes good and often cheap -- Malbec, especially, is noteworthy here. Malbec is a blending grape in France that got turned into a major grape in Argentina and Chile -- unfortunately, for many years the South American Malbecs are absolutely horrible -- more useful for cleaning your carbeurator than for drinking. Lately, though, thanks to UC Davis (California) teaching the world how to develop good grapes in record time, there are Argentinian Malbecs that will knock your socks off, and stand up to the best California Cabernets you've ever tasted. Unhappily, they know what they've got, and they charge high prices for it: My favorite, Bodega Catena Zapata's Catena Alta Malbec 2002, Mendoza, Estate wine -- a fat and ferocious wine so dark it's almost black, and with so much body it's probably bottled under pressure - costs $55 a bottle. Urk! There are more competitive but much more affordable Malbecs coming to market, so keep an eye on your SavvyTaste profiles.

A SavvyTaste Wine Guide: All About Big Red Wines [Mac McCarthy]

Here is some general guidance to the world of Big Reds. If you love big, intense red wines, read on!

Big Reds are dense, highly "extracted," meaning intensely flavored, often "jammy" to the point of seeming like liquid jam, with some deep sweet undertone--not like cheap sweet white zin, mind you, but a sweet note you'll never forget!

The main Big Red Wines are:


Zinfandel is the Original. Zins are capable of being very big, and Rosenblum makes some of the biggest. It has something to do with its being a grape that ripens late in the season, and by the time its ready to pick it's a lot riper and thus fuller of flavor and sugar than many other grape types. That much sugar results in a high-alcohol wine -- I don't notice it because my taste buds are shot at my age, but some find these style wines too "hot" or alcoholic for them.

Rosenblum is one of the leaders in the ZAP movement (Zinfandel Appreciators and Producers) that over the past fifteen years has rescued Zinfandel from its reputation ruined by White Zin. Rosenblum makes some of the very biggest Zins in the world.

Rockpile Road is an actual place, near Napa Valley, that produces some of the most amazingly dense, fruit-forward, jammy, sweet grapes in the world. I think it's Rosenblum's best Zin. Other winemakers get great zins from Rockpile too, and another winemaker produces a Syrah from Rockpile Road and it, too, is dense and sweet. It's my overall favorite.

Lyons is another big boy, and it never disappoints me. It's fullbodied and rounded. And Carla's is one of Rosenblum's wines with a woman grower's name on it (along with Annette's and Maggie's), leading to the rule: If it's a Rosenblum named after a woman, it's a great wine! Carla's is more approachable than Rockpile, so people who don't necessarily like really big wines can still drink it.

Other top-drawer, gigantic Rosenblum Zins include Cullinane, Monte Rosso, and Snow's Lake--which when I had a bottle recently made me wonder if it was not maybe even better than the Rockpile--which I would have thought impossible to achieve!

Other heavy-duty wineries making great Zins are JC Cellars, Dashe Cellars, D-Cubed of Calistoga, Five Vintners, R&B Cellars "Swingsville," Red Skye, Villa Toscano, and Wood Family.

Also generally good are Zins from winemakers Cline, Concannon, Franus, Galleron, Inspiration, and Makor.

Problem: Many of these wines are not widely available outside California. Partly this is because they don't make enough of them, partly it's because in the rest of the country there's still that weird idea that Zin means White Zin, so it's hard to make people understand that nothing could be more different from a white Zin than a red Zin! (There really are huge advantages living in California if you love wine.)

There are also a few Zins made in a lighter style, less intense, but also easier and more approachable for those who haven't gotten the hang of gigantic reds. Even Rosenblum makes one, its "Cuvee" Zinfandel. 7 Deadly Zins, despite its ripsnortin' name, is a nice mild-style wine that's easy to drink and easy to like. Some Zins from Napa Valley are made "Bordeaux" style, or less intense. Give them a try.

Oddly enough, a strange rule of thumb seems to have arisen in the Zin world, as the marketing people have latched onto its growing popularity: Knowing early-adopter Zin lovers are smitten with the big, brutal intensity of Zins, they'll take minor wineries with mild Zins and slap fierce-souding labels on them. So the rule becomes: The more ferocious the name of the Zin, the milder it actually tastes.

So the 7 Deadly Zins, above, which is a tasty wine, is not however a big fat Zin; it's an easy-drinking, quite tasty one though. Others include Earthquake Zin and Cardinal Zin (get it? great label, too!). These are not the big, chewy, aggressive Zins you might be lured into thinking by those nifty labels. Still, they are drinkable, usually. Just don't think you're buying Big Red.

Syrah is one of those grapes that can be made in any style, from very mild, to ferocious enough to go toe-to-toe with Zin. Personally I like the super-big California Syrahs; others like the mild French Syrahs made where the summers are too short to make a big one, so they blend it with several other grapes to make red Rhone wines (which are in the Light Reds category).

Good California makers of big Syrahs include Rosenblum (England Shaw, and Rockpile Syrah), JC Cellars (especially their Rockpile Road Syrah) and Lost Canyon Winery of Oakland, Wood Family of Livermore, Leal, Nickle & Nickle, Qupe (whose Syrahs are milder but quite tasty), R&B Cellars, and a Berkeley winery with the Japanese-sounding name San Sakana. The growing interest in Syrahs is producing more choices with every passing year; the variety of styles makes testing this grape a fun thing.

Petite Syrah, an entirely different grape unrelated to Syrah, comes in wildly varied taste styles, so it requires trial and error. Some of them are huge. I find a bitter note in many that puts me off, but others are terrific. Longevity makes a very drinkable Petit Syrah.

Cabernet is the original Big Red Wine--though there are certainly lots thin Cabs out there. Worse, the longstanding reputation of Cabs as The Serious Wine (from Napa and as the basic wine in certain Bordeaux) means you will find many Cabs are overpriced for what you taste, while the cheap ones just taste cheap. You can just let somebody else buy the Cabs for your tastings until you find one you like. Or you can use the SavvyTaste Find a Wine system to figure out which Cabs match your taste preferences (for big or for light).

Reds made in Sicily can be wonderfully brutal. They have a grape called, appropriately, Primitivo, that will remind you a lot of Zinfandel, for all the right reasons. Prices aren't as low as you'd expect, though. But if somebody is serving a Primitivo, your big-red-loving eyes should light up; make sure you're in the front of the line.