Saturday, December 8, 2012

Argentina, Part 2: More Than Malbec

It's an exciting time for Argentine winemaking. Despite long shadows cast by Malbec, the country's signature red grape, wines made from other grapes drew nods of approval at a recent tasting. In Part 2, we take a look at Argentine wines from Salta's dizzying high-altitude vineyards to cool, windswept Patagonia. 

Considered Argentina's signature white variety, this Muscat relative is usually unblended and unoaked. Floral aromatics and a flavor profile of tropical to citrus fruits underscored by minerality make Torrontés irresistible. The grape may excel in Salta, but versions from other regions don't disappoint. Sparkling versions pop with pure delight.

Colomé 2011 Torrontés
Lovely perfume, unoaked. From Calcaquí Valley. $16*

Finca La Linda 2012 Torrontés
From Salta. Floral and delicious. $10

Maipe 2011 Torrontés
From high-elevation Cafayate in Salta. Guava goodness rings in at a slightly higher alcohol (14.5%) than other versions. $10

Just behind Torrontés in white-grape acreage, Chardonnay is finding its place among Argentine whites.

Catena Alta 2010 Chardonnay
This 100% Chardonnay spent 12 to 16 months in mostly new oak. Elegant, with bright pineapple and citrus flavors. $33

Postales del Fin del Mundo 2010 Chardonnay
An excellent value and only lightly oaked, this 100% varietal from Patagonia shows crisp citrus and pear flavors. $12

Urraca 2009 Chardonnay
Shows nice complexity in a more Burgundian style. Aged six months in oak. $18


Chakana Sparkling
From Agrelo in the higher Lujan de Cuyo district of Mendoza. All stainless, half Chardonnay, half Pinot Noir. $19

Deseado 2012
A 100% Torrontés sparkler from Patagonia. A festive wine from Familia Schroeder that sees no oak with 9.5% alcohol and a touch of sweetness. $15

Toso Brut
100% Chardonnay, a Pascual Toso sparkler from Barrancas, Maipù district of Mendoza. Price not available.


No longer confined to blends, Syrah from Argentina's cooler districts shows minerality and heft with warmer regions yielding more fruit-forward versions.

Pascual Toso Alta Reserve 2007 Syrah
Chewy, 100% Syrah from Barrancas Vineyards in Mendoza's Maipù district. $60

Find value and uncompromising flavor in Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon.

Catena 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
Aged 12 to 14 months in oak, from Mendoza. Firm, with blackberry and cassis. $20

Pascual Toso 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Made from 100% Cabernet and oak-aged for 12 months. Savory notes with firm acidity. From Barrancas, in Mendoza's Maipù district. $20

Urraca 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon
Oak aged for 12 months; organic. $20

Other Argentine wines worth your wine dollar include Bonarda, usually made in an easy-drinking and fruity style and Pinot Noir, especially from cooler regions such as Rio Negro in the Patagonian south. 

With world-class winemakers, vast and diverse terroirs, and a strong wine culture rooted in European tradition, Argentina stands poised to enlarge its mark on the global wine scene. These wines provide a snapshot of Argentina's wine diversity, as mighty Malbec leads the charge.

* All prices estimated retail; expect retail outlet and regional variations.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Wines

Enough already with all the stressing over Thanksgiving wines. Truth is, the Thanksgiving meal is a mess. The chances of choosing a wine to match that cacophony of flavors are slim to middling. Sweet to ultra sweet sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. Bland meat to savory sausage-and-herb stuffing. Creamy dressing to green beans with almonds. What’s a host to do? 
One option is to go commando and serve what you and your guests will like, pairings be damned. Got a Zinfandel crowd? Go for it, serve Zin. Make it a 2009, a vintage whose cooler temperatures helped bring balance to this notorious heavyweight, plus lower alcohol levels. If your group sways Chard, try an unoaked or lighter-oaked version, perhaps from Oregon or a California no-brainer such as Monterey’s Morgan Metallico or Four Oaks Naked Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County.  

You can also challenge a white-wine crowd with an off-dry selection to complement the sweet spot in many Thanksgiving sides and sauces. German or Washington Riesling do the trick, as will a South African Chenin Blanc or an off-dry Loire Vouvray. Look for South Africa’s MAN Vintners or Ken Forrester; in the Loire, Guy Saget has got it down.

If that touch of sweetness doesn’t work for your gang, aim for Pinot Gris, which is about as food-friendly a white wine as you’re going to find. Oregon is the winner here, with great selections from King Estate, A to Z and others.

Not there yet? Don’t be blasé about rosé, a wine with enough pizazz to carry the Thanksgiving meal, from appetizers up to dessert. But if pink is not your deal, look to Pinot Noir to save the day. A fruitier version makes a more harmonious choice with turkey sides. Choose a warmer vintage or growing region, whether a 2009 from Oregon or a juicy California crowd-pleaser, as in the value-priced 2009 District 7 from not-so-warm Monterey. Plenty of 2010 beauties await too, from Sonoma on down the Central Coast. Flowers, Failla, Calera, Cambria, Byron, Sanford and Siduri are sure to deliver, California-style.

If you have a real party crowd on your hands, go bold with bubbles. A pretty Lambrusco from Italy will work its magic, while a perky and sweeter Shiraz sparkler like Jam Jar is ace to get your party started.

Finally, if your turkey wine doesn’t have to be born in the USA, look to France and cru Beaujolais. Skip the just-arrived nouveau stuff that can come up short in complexity and depth. Instead, seek out Beaujolais from designated cru regions, such as Côte de Brouilly, Morgon or Fleurie. The 2009 vintage produced a bevy of gorgeous wines – look for them, or take a shot at value-priced Beaujolais-Villages wines from producers such as Georges Duboeuf. To better enjoy their verve and fruity freshness, pop them in the frig for 20 minutes before serving time, just to give them a little chill.

So what’s this year’s pick for my Thanksgiving crowd? At the risk of being branded un-American, I’m going with the Château Thivin 2009 Côte de Brouilly. When first tasted earlier this year, it seemed to have Thanksgiving written all over it with enchanting aromatics and luscious, fresh fruit flavors wrapped around a core of earthy spice. Now that its exuberance has been tamed by a few more months in the bottle, I’m betting on this cru Beaujolais to pull our meal together with punch and intrigue. If it falls short or gets lost in the Thanksgiving flavor mosh pit, there won't be any stressing. Instead, we'll look ahead to the next wine-in-waiting, with someone eager to pop a cork and offer thanks for all that we have around the table, in each other, in life.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Remembering Serge Renaud

The wine world lost a force provocateur with the passing of Serge Renaud late last month. The Bordeaux-based scientist caused a disruptive moment with his 1991 appearance on the CBS program 60 Minutes, an episode credited with embedding the term French Paradox in the American lexicon. In the segment, Renaud described studies that linked lower rates of heart disease among the French to their consumption of healthy fats and custom of washing down fat- and cheese-laden meals with wine. When asked to explain why even the northern French, whose diet contains very little olive oil, had lower rates of heart disease than Americans, Renaud said, "My explanation is, of course, the consumption of alcohol."

By up-ending the prevailing view at the time that only considered alcohol's potential for harm, televised comments by Dr. Renaud and epidemiologist R. Curtis Ellison, MD created an ensuing buzz that helped propel funding and research activity to delve deeper into the paradox and, by extension, the nature and prevention of cardiovascular and other inflammatory diseases. The segment, which provided enough fodder to prompt 60 Minutes to revisit the story in 1995 and again in 2009, also caused Americans to rethink wine. What followed into the 1990s was a dramatic upswing in American wine consumption, and a new taste for reds. 

While not all of Dr. Renaud's theories gained traction, the University of Bordeaux professor offered the scientific community a new lens with which to study heart disease and diet. Specifically, Dr. Renaud's work shed light on alcohol's anti-clumping effects on platelets and how this action appeared to prevent the formation of blood clots that set the stage for heart attacks or strokes. His groundbreaking papers in the 1960s and 1970s challenged conventional wisdom regarding cholesterol and saturated fat through experiments that linked atherosclerosis and fatal clots with effects of dietary fats on platelet function and biochemical changes to blood vessel walls.

Perhaps his most far-reaching findings involved studies published during the 1980s and 1990s on effects of dietary change on health, specifically, the heart-protective Cretan or Mediterranean diet. A 1995 study by Renaud published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition criticized the so-called prudent diet, which the American Heart Association championed for heart patients at the time. Renaud's paper showed the prudent diet was clinically inferior to the Cretan Mediterranean diet of the 1960s, with more than a 70% reduction in cardiovascular events, heart attacks and overall death rates in heart patients who followed a Mediterreanean diet that gave less emphasis to meat and was richer in olive and canola oils, grains, fish, legumes – and red wine.

Cardiologist Tedd M. Goldfinger, Chairman of the Renaud Society, an association of medical professionals with an interest in the wine-health connection to which this author belongs, called the Society's patriarch "a champion of health through nutrition," whose many contributions included scientific insights into fatty acid metabolism and the range of benefits associated with a Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular health.
With Serge Renaud, Ph.D., (right) and R. Curtis Ellison, MD, Walla Walla, Wash. 2009

Looking back at his prolific career for an article in the Lancet published on the first day of the new millennium, Renaud reflected to author Bruno Simini, “If I hadn’t lived with my grandparents and great-grandparents on a vineyard near Bordeaux, perhaps this idea wouldn’t have occurred to me. When you see people reach the age of 80 or 90 years, who have been drinking small amounts of wine every day, you don’t believe wine in low doses is harmful.”

Renaud passed away within sight of his seaside home in Carcans Maubuisson in the Médoc, a few weeks shy of 85th birthday. We are grateful for his contributions, and thankful to have shared in his gentle presence.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Argentina, Part 1: The Rise of Malbec

Argentina is standing tall. As the fourth-largest source of wine imports to the United States, Argentina's value wine exports have surged ahead of those from neighboring Chile. That means some good drinking awaits Malbec lovers.  
The Orange County event, co-sponsored by Wines of Argentina, featured 32 wineries from famed producers Achaval Ferrer to Vinecol, a small, organic producer of value-priced Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Rather than the one-note samba that some believe Malbec to be, this focused tasting allowed trade members to sample the country's signature red made from grapes grown at different altitudes, a range of terroirs and as expressions of the country's diverse winemaking styles. Oak treatments were hardly uniform, from unoaked, stainless steel versions to the fully wooded. Some wines were outright floral, while others had an effusive plummy or berry-rich profile. Weight and texture also varied, although most wines were racy with balanced fruit and only moderately aggressive tannins.

Outstanding value Malbecs in the $10-$15 range* included Graffigna Centenario Reserve 2010 San Juan; Maipe Reserve 2011 Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo; Luigi Bosca – Familia Arizu Finca La Linda 2010 Mendoza; Postales Del Fin Del Mundo 2011 Patagonia; and Alamos 2011 Mendoza. 

Favorites among the fresh, lively Malbec versions with food-friendly acidity in the $20 price range included Pascual Toso's Reserve 2010 Mendoza; Alamos Selección 2010 Mendoza; Renacer Punto Final Reserva 2010 Luján de Cuyo; Luigi Bosca 2010 Mendoza and Chakana Estate Selection 2011 Agrelo-Luján de Cuyo; and Urraca 2008 Luján de Cuyo.

Malbec also makes a good blending partner. Argentine winemakers have found success pairing the grape with Petit Verdot, Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Tannat and yes, even Pinot Noir. Standout Malbec blends included Amalaya Tinto de Gran Altura 2010 Calchaquí Valley ($16); Colomé Malbec Estate 2010 Calchaquí Valley ($29); Renacer Enamore 2010 Luján de Cuyo ($25); Special Blend Del Fin del Mundo 2008 Patagonia ($45); Urraca Primera Reserva 2005 Luján de Cuyo ($25); Chakana Estate Selection Blend 2011 Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo ($25); and Familia Schroeder Pinot Noir – Malbec 2007 Patagonia ($60).

Although Malbec took center stage, producers offered excellent examples of wines made from other grapes that thrive in the vast country's diverse climates, altitudes and soils. In Part 2, we'll report on Argentina's sparkling, white and red wines that nearly stole the show.

* All prices are estimated retail and may vary depending on sales outlet and location.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Syrah Says, Don't Call Me Slutty

As October temperatures begin to drop, red wine lovers are reclaiming their love for big reds, which held about as much summertime appeal as a hot shower. Warm weather red rescue came in the form of Pinot Noir, Beaujolais and Barbera. Along with rosés and crisp whites, these three reds made cool company for fare that called out for juicy, low-tannins wines with good acid, lighter body and perky fruit.

Now that autumn is in the air, taste buds eager for heartier foods also begin to crave red wines with more animal – feral wines with bigger fruit and tongue-lashing tannins.

 Curtis 2007 Syrah, $12.95 at Dan's Wine Shop, Palm Desert

Syrah is a red that answers the call to fall. Rich in flavors of berry compote, Syrah has a meaty, leathery character that, depending on its style and origin, can also unfurl layers of smoke, herbs and peppery spice. Whether known as Syrah or by its Aussie moniker Shiraz, this red's flavors and girth play well against savory fall foods such as game meats, root vegetable dishes, stews and lamb.

So why all the Syrah dissing in the wine press? And why are sommeliers, whose job entails creating a comfort zone around wine, using the word slutty to describe certain Syrahs on their lists?

One way to answer such questions is to contrast classic Syrah from France's Northern Rhône region with the grape's behavior and vinification on New World soils. In the Northern Rhône, Syrah is a powerhouse, albeit without the head-banging fruit and high alcohol levels associated with some New World namesakes. The assertive flavors of Old World Syrah are woven with olive and smoked blackberry fruit, strung together on an undercurrent of bacon and tar. In short, a wine that's both sexy and sauvage – but slutty? No.

Many New World Syrahs that have entered the wine market in the past decade began their journey from grape to glass in climates warmer than the Northern Rhône valley. Such wines tend to be less earthy, with more new oak influence, plush fruit, softer tannin structure, an alcohol-driven richness and a peppery finish. While big on intensity, warm-climate Syrah can lack the complexity, balance, ageability and earth-driven nuance of classic Old World wines from Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage.

Spurred by the efforts of a group of Rhône-focused vintners that eventually came to be known as the Rhône Rangers, plantings of Syrah in California increased dramatically at the end of the last century, with harvested tonnage jumping nearly one-hundred-fold over the course of a decade, beginning in 1992. Though Syrah covers more California acreage than any other Rhône variety, the Syrah grape crush accounted for three percent of the state's total winegrape crush, according to 2010 figures from the Wine Institute.

New World vines have matured. Site selection continues to evolve. Outside of France, winemakers are climbing the steep slope of the wine-learning curve. Today, California Syrah shines in Edna Valley at Alban and at Kenneth Volk in Santa Maria Valley. Chuck Carlson, one of California's earliest Rhône champions, chose the Santa Ynez Valley as the site for Curtis' Rhône-styled wines. Beyond its varied expression along the Central Coast AVA, Syrah has also found a home in Washington State, where Christophe Baron of Cayuse makes thrilling Syrahs to rival those of his French homeland. These are gorgeous and sexy wines without a doubt, with no sluts in sight.

Syrah slammers may reject Syrahs that seem overripe or over-the-top. While that claim has some basis in reality, it is worth noting that five-alarm alcohol levels, heavy wood and intense fruitiness haven't turned American wine buyers off to Zinfandel or big Cabs, neither of which gets branded as slutty.  

Syrah's a hurting varietal right now. Seductive yet shunned, she languishes on store shelves, passed over for Pinot or some blend that's neither here nor there. Was the Australian wine glut to blame? Or was it that newer wine consumers, confused by Syrah-Shiraz or Syrah-Petite Sirah choose to simply skip it instead? Whatever the reason, cooler climate Syrahs are not only well worth your wine dollar, but will also land you better odds of picking a winner under $20 than a comparably priced Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

New World vintners are now finding their groove with this classic varietal, and the results shouldn't be missed. Get a piece of great value Syrah, as in the Curtis. If you're game to shell out a C-note or more, you can go home with a knockout such as Australia's Penfolds Grange, California's Alban and Justin, or Washington's Cayuse. Mid-range, look for Washington's Abeja and Reynvaan (Walla Walla), Charles Smith (Columbia Valley) and Betz (Red Mountain), among others. Go for a romp with Rhône Ranger Justin or Santa Barbara County's Jaffurs. Whether from a warm or cooler zone, Old World or New, take a little ride with the Syrah style that suits your palate.

Syrah's rich payoff will reward your efforts. Swirl, savor and begin to understand how sultry a wine can be. Just don't call her slutty.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

September is California Wine Month

Even though September is half gone, you still have time to celebrate California's wine industry at festivities up and down the Golden State. Use your keyboard to take this roadtrip or find an event or tasting near you.

Photo courtesy Wine Institute of California
Just how much do you know about California's wine industry? Find out by taking this quiz based on the latest (2011) statistics provided by The Wine Institute.

Check your answers below. For each incorrect answer, your assignment is to open and share a bottle of California wine from a producer or region new to you. For each correct answer, please do the same for any of your favorite California wines.

A perfect score of 100% gives you the go-ahead to purchase or open a California wine from your special-occasion or wish list.

Good luck and salute!

1) Who is the world's fourth-leading wine producer after France, Italy and Spain?

2) True or False: California accounts for 90% of all wine made in the United States.

3) How many tourists visit California's wine regions in a year?

            a) 1 million
            b) 5 million
            c) 15 million
            d) More than 20 million

4) True or False: Over the past 20 years, the number of bonded California wineries has grown by more than 100%.

5) True or False: Most of California's 3,540 bonded wineries are family owned.

6)  What is the economic impact of California's wine industry on the state?

            a) $557 million
            b) $12.3 billion
            c) $61.5 billion
            d) $121.8 billion

7) Compared to other agricultural crops, where do California wine grapes rank in terms of statewide importance by value?

            a) #1
            b) In the top three
            c) #5
            d) Not in the top ten

8) True or False: California grows more than 110 different varieties of grapes.

9) Of California's 58 counties, how many grow wine grapes?

            a) Less than 20
            b) About half, or 26
            c) Most of them, or 48
            d) All 58

10) California wine accounts for what percent of all wine sold in the United States?

            a) 90%
            b) 75%
            c) 60%
            d) 50%


1. California (also accepted: United States)
2. True
3.  d
4. True
5. True
6.  c (Note: Answer d is the national economic impact of California's wine industry.)
7.  b
8. True
9.  c
10. c (Note: All wine sold in the U.S. includes imported bottles.)

How did you do? Send this challenge to your wine friends by tweeting this.

Let us know what you're drinking as we raise our glasses to California wine, the pride of our Golden State.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In Wine Tasting, Undecided Voters Win

Eyebrows went up when I told friends I was heading to the Bay Area for a wine conference. A wine conference? Well, yeah, and it was pretty serious at that. Serious juice, serious wine tasting and serious talks by some very serious people. Drinking wine is big fun, but making it – and making a great one – takes serious effort.
The Society of Wine Educators brought out wines by the hundreds from all over the world for the nearly 350 attendees. The bulk of it ended up in spit buckets, but not before each wine and flight had made its point – whether about terroir, vintage, varietal, blending, ageing, history, winemaker, technique or whatever reason it was poured.

Eager as I was to soak up mouthfuls of new wine knowledge, each tasting session also drove home the importance of tasting with the palate, letting each wine speak for itself. In order to do that, I first needed to zap any wine prejudices lurking in my head.

Wine prejudice is an obstacle to wine enjoyment that wine educators and sommeliers try to overcome when we introduce new wines to diners and students. You've heard it too: I don't like Chardonnay. I'm a Cab guy. I don't drink pink. I only like Champagne. Italian wines are boring. Life's too short to drink cheap wine.

Preformed ideas about a wine or wine style are as varied as the reasons they exist in the first place. Some people swear they simply don't like wine of a certain color or from a certain country, county, producer or grape. Or, like that handsome stranger with twinkling eyes, a wine bottle might seduce with visual cues that can trip up your palate. Cute labels, fetching fonts and logos, sexed up or rugged wine art all aim to trigger a buy response – perhaps with enough power to trump a so-so palate experience.

Some wine notions are cemented by a connection to a person or place. Visit Tuscany and shun Sangiovese? Not happening. Perhaps you met the winemaker at a dinner, strolled the vineyards or visited the winery. Chances are you'll recall that wine with fondness. Sure, you might have actually liked the wine, but remember why politicians throw themselves into throngs at election time to shake thousands of hands. Touches convert the undecided into voters, if not ambassadors. With wine, tasting on location is a powerful ritual that can lock in a memory or allegiance. And with that comes the seed for a wine prejudice, albeit with a positive slant.

Cost and the status of a wine or region can also play tricks on your wine palate. The status-driven may turn up their noses at lower-priced wines, or fail to imagine inexpensive wines can possibly be very good, no less great. Their minds might be closed to all but expensive or prestige wines. At its extreme, point-chasers who encounter pricey wines they don't find particularly enjoyable may question their own wine palates, or write off disappointing wine experiences to deficiencies in their wine knowledge. And it's not just wine snobs who fall for the allure of a wine bearing a triple-digit price tag. Just knowing the price can prime the palate into the expectation of a glorious wine experience, even before the first sips roll from the glass.

Wine instructors and sommeliers are not immune to preconceived wine notions, although professionals work harder to set aside wine prejudices when a new wine presents itself. Novices and wine educators alike can assure a more rewarding tasting experience by greeting a glass with a clean palate and a mind mopped clear of preset ideas about what the wine will or should taste like. In other words, be an undecided voter until the sips are down.

So did I think I didn't like Zinfandel? And, when pressed to name a producer or two that I did like, would it be from Napa, Dry Creek Valley or the Central Coast? I thought I knew the answers – until I tasted my way through a flight and the blinders came off at the end. Try it yourself sometime, and be ready for a few surprises.

I plan to share more of what I learned and tasted at the Society of Wine Educators conference this season at our Cooking with Class Wine Essentials classes, Food & Wine Pairing Dinners and winemaker dinners. Join us for the fun, Chef Andie's remarkable food and a new season of thrilling wine surprises when we reopen in October.

Happy Birthday, Chef!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mad for Moscato

Moscato madness keeps bubbling across the country. U.S. sales of Moscato tallied 73% growth in 2011, following a year that saw Moscato sales double. Moscato mania is still going strong deep into 2012 with no sign of letting up. The peachy pleasure has reportedly nudged past Sauvignon Blanc to nail a top spot in the white wine triumvirate, alongside big daddies Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.
Millennials who have embraced Moscato may not know or care that Muscat, perhaps the world's original wine grape, has a long lifeline that tracks from ancient Greece to the far reaches of the Mediterranean, courtesy of the Romans. 

What they do know is that it's hip, fun, tasty – and affordable. It's also sweet, if you like it that way. Moscato can also be barely fizzy, frothy, or not. Muscat-teers can choose from pink, bubbly, still, dry or dessert versions. Also popular are blends that combine Muscat with other white wines, as in Conundrum from Caymus' Wagner family, or Big House White, a fun and summery blend available in a fancy yet cool-looking Octavin winebox that holds three liters.

Mixologists are also getting into the act with cocktails and sangrias that take Moscato beyond a hood beverage. With Moscato, what's not to like?

Whether you prefer a Moscato that's still or bubbly, dry or sweet, you get perfumed pleasure with medium-bodied bursts of peach, mango and tropical fruit flavors. Its distinctive aromas are grapey with scents of honeysuckle and white flowers. On the palate, Moscato cleanses and refreshes with enough acidity and punch to hold your attention beyond the first sips.

Bargain hunters have a choice among big brands such as Yellow Tail, Sutter Home and Barefoot Cellars by Gallo that have stormed the market and are easy to find. Spend a little more to sample the elegant offerings below in a range of Moscato styles.
Dry: Botani Moscatel Seco (Sierras de Málaga, Spain)
Off-dry: Elio Perrone Sourgal Moscato d'Asti, DOCG (Piedmont, Italy)
Semi-sweet: Bronis Moscato Frizzante (Oltrepò Pavese, Lombardy, Italy)
Sweet: Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (AOC, various producers, France); St. Supèry (Napa Valley)

Regardless of style, Moscato newbies and long-time fans can agree that it only takes a sip to be seduced by Moscato magic. 

If you're interested to taste and learn more about other hot wine categories, catch some summer madness with us at 5 PM on Sunday, July 29 at Cooking with Class in La Quinta when our monthly Wine Essentials tasting class will focus on wine trends from around the Americas and the world. Sign up today, and check the Cooking with Class calendar for new wine topics and more exciting wine-food events coming at the cooking school this fall.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Summer Wines

Summer doesn't officially arrive for another two weeks, have you heard? Here in the Coachella Valley, summer comes earlier and can blaze into October. As we head into our endless summer, what should wine drinkers know about choosing wines that offer refreshment, flavor and balance with warm-weather foods?
Crisp whites and rosés are sure-fire shortcuts for easy summer drinking. Not only are they reliable stand-alone sippers, but they also pair well with summer cuisine. Besides these standbys, here are tips for choosing wines that merit a place at your table during hotter months.

  • Choose fresh and fruity unoaked whites. Young unoaked whites with good acidity not only taste crisp and clean, but they also take well to a good chill. Chardonnay lovers may want to try an unoaked version. Another option is French Chablis, also made from Chardonnay. Other whites that are usually unoaked are Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, Rueda from Spain (made from the Verdejo grape, which produces a lustier white similar to Sauvignon Blanc) and Italian Pinot Grigio. Northern and Central Italian white grape varieties also make light-bodied sippers that go well with clean summer fare. Pick up a Soave or Verdicchio, or try Gavi, made from the Cortese grape.
  • Give off-dry wines a try. While not many people admit to liking wines with a bit of sweetness to them, there's a lot to like about slightly sweet wines in summertime. Off-dry wines are especially tasty with summer salads served with a honeyed dressing or tossed with ripe, fresh summer fruits. Wines high in acidity give balance to the sweetness, which helps give these wines lip-smacking freshness. Try an off-dry Riesling, Moscato or a white that includes Muscat Canelli, Semillon or both in the blend. 
  • Cool down with fizzies. Sparkling wines make a great summer treat. Many bubblies are lower in alcohol, and make a soft landing in your tummy on a hot summer day. Pink sparklers made from Pinot Noir or other red grapes often have fruitier sweetness that their paler cousins. Think pink Champagne or a pink sparkling wine such as Schramsberg's Mirabelle, always a beauty. Italian sparklers worth a sip are Brachetto, made from the red grape variety of the same name, and frizzante Moscato.
  • Rethink rosé. Even if you think you know rosé, pink wines come in many styles worth exploring all summer long. If your palate finds French rosé too light or dry, try a heftier rosé of Cabernet Franc from the Loire. Stay on the lookout for rosés made from other types of red wine grapes besides the Grenache-Mourvèdre-Cinsault combo that dominates many southern French rosés. For example, rosé of Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon are often hearty enough to satisfy a rosé-naysaying red wine lover. If you prefer a fruitier, floral rosé profile, look no further than rosé of Pinot Noir. Oregon is turning out some lovelies right now. Opt for younger vintages too, and stash away a few extra bottles from the 2011 vintage for the fall and winter. This stuff is too good to drink only in summer.
  • Tame the tannins. Red wine die-hards can still enjoy reds all summer long, as long as they're not Barolos or the big Napa cab that set you back a C-note. While the mouth-filling richness of alcoholic and high-tannin reds sing with winter short ribs or a juicy steak, those same wines can singe the palate in summer. Reach instead for softer, fruitier reds. Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, makes terrific wines – look for Cru or Villages on the label, or stay on the lookout for wines from the Brouilly or Fleurie appellations. Other lower-tannin reds include Pinot Noir, Sicily's Nero d'Avola, Barbera, Valpolicella, some Riojas and Merlot. Remember to check the alcohol concentration on the label. European wines are often a better bet for lower-alcohol levels. 
Thirsting to taste examples of these wine styles and to learn more about choosing warm-weather wines? Then join us Sunday, June 24 at 5 PM for our next Wine Essentials wine tasting class at Cooking with Class in La Quinta. Get a jump on landing wines to keep you cool all summer. It's gonna be a long one.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wine, Women & Health: Medicine or Myth?

Does wine help protect against heart disease? That, in a nutshell, was the focus of my presentation last week at Tasty Topics, the monthly educational series put on by the desert's Go Red For Women campaign of the American Heart Association.
Wine, Women and Health provided an update of recent developments and controversies linking wine with health. After a historical review of wine-health associations, the talk centered on the investigative flurry that followed the now-famous Mediterranean dietary studies begun in the late 1950s with Ancel Keys' Seven Countries Study.

But it wasn't white-coated scientists and medical reports that turned Americans' attention to wine. Rather, it was a 60 Minutes television broadcast in 1991 that caused red wine sales to soar. In its French Paradox segment, correspondent Morley Safer asked if the French proclivity for a glass of wine alongside rich, high-fat cuisine could explain that country's paradoxical lower rate of heart disease. Ten years later, the American Heart Association issued a science advisory that noted more than 60 published studies in support of a heart-protective role for alcohol. Groups who drank in moderation, that is, one to two alcohol-containing drinks a day, had significantly lower death rates and lower rates of cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.

In 2005, a state-of-the-science summary written specifically for heart patients was published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association. The paper cited a risk reduction of about 30%, or about one-third fewer deaths and heart attacks among men and women who drank alcohol in moderation a few times a week.

To answer the question of whether red wine is better than other forms of alcohol, the Circulation paper cited the Copenhagen Heart Study of more than 13,285 men and women who were followed for 12 years. That study found an even greater drop-off in deaths and cardiovascular events among moderate wine drinkers, who were half as likely to die of heart attacks or cardiovascular disease as people who did not drink at all. On another hand, the paper also cited studies in which red wine drinkers did not fare as well, without a clear heart-protective benefit over those who drank beer or spirits.

Studies in test tubes, animals and human studies have pointed to pathways and precise mechanisms that seem to account for the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health. For example, one or two drinks daily boost HDL, or good cholesterol. Alcohol also inhibits blood clotting, similar to the way aspirin is used in heart patients to decrease blood platelet stickiness, and thus their ability to clump together to form a blood clot. Compounds in red wine such as resveratrol also appear to help blood vessels relax and maintain healthy tone. These compounds also interfere with wayward processes that churn out protein molecules that damage blood vessel walls.  

Given the many known dangers of overindulgent alcohol use – or any use at all by at-risk populations such as pregnant women, youth and those with a family history of alcohol use disorders – no scientific society endorses alcohol use to reduce risk of heart disease. Instead, the AHA and other medical societies advise patients to discuss alcohol on a one-on-one basis with their doctor. With barely enough time to talk about active health problems, medications, tests, etc., some patients may be reluctant to bring up drinking, or ask about health risks and benefits associated with wine. Further, some doctor-patient discussions may be waylaid by physicians who are unaware, dismissive or who disagree with the AHA advisory.
What about recent reports that have linked drinking any amount of alcohol to an increased risk for cancer, specifically cancer of the breast? This is clearly a situation that warrants discussion between patient and physician, with the expectation that oncologists may be more likely to discourage taking on any perceived increase in cancer risk. It's worth remembering, however, that cardiovascular disease kills four of ten American women, more than all types of female cancers, and nearly more than the next five leading causes of female deaths combined. Look for more on this touchy subject in another post.  

If you missed the presentation at Bellatrix at The Classic Club, get on the mailing list for future Tasty Topics or send a gmail to arrange a presentation for your corporate or community. Meanwhile, give a toast to spreading awareness about women and heart disease. Get a read on your own lifestyle and risks here. Learn more about what we can all do every day to live healthier lives by getting involved with Go Red For Women. Salute!