Requisite New Year’s Resolution Post

These are my Wine Resolutions for 2018, ones I actually expect to keep. 

So, every year I make a list and the list has two categories- resolutions I want to keep and resolutions I actually expect to keep. In the first category you have things like “go to the gym 4x/week”; “drink less wine”; “de-clutter the closet”; “learn to salsa”… On the other hand, you have resolutions you’re actually interested in putting in the work for: “read 100 books; post at least one blog entry/week”; “spend more time with my dogs”; “don’t wear PJ pants outside of the house” … see the difference?

I’m not going to bore everyone with my personal life here (although it’s seriously fascinating and you’d probably love it… well, maybe not, it’s hard to tell; however it’s not at all the point of Somm Bitch).  But, in terms of things I think people would like to hear about, here we go. These are my Wine Resolutions for 2018, ones I actually expect to keep.

In 2018 I will:

  1. Explore more. Look, part of my SommBitch personality may mean that I’m a little bit of a bitch about wine. Historically, I suppose, I know what I like and I’m drinking within those parameters. However, that’s somewhat limiting- I want to drink just about anything- I mean wines from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria… occasionally sweet wines; top New Zealand Sauv Blancs and Pinot Noirs; dessert wines… If it’s out there and it’s interesting, I’m going to endeavor to not only drink it, but to evaluate as objectively as possible- (yes, I know this means it could be the year of Riesling for me, please don’t mock or hate, this is a serious endeavor that I’m not genuinely expecting to love- just to come to a better understanding).
  2. Keep up with this blog at least once a week. I know a lot of people probably wonder why that’s at all difficult to do- I mean, you drink the wine, you write about the wine, what’s sou tough? Well, to make this blog actually interesting and provide the right amount of education, snark and useful information- that isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Obviously I sample wines regularly and rate on social media (oh, hey, follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for mini reviews but all the snark,  pretty, pretty please!) But the work for one blog post is actually a lot of planning and hours in the making- and since this is my very NON-cash generating business, I have to fit it in with my day job, my family, my performing and my political activism… not to mention all the studying it takes to become a true Somm!
  3. Stop using a bottle of wine to try and cope with the way the world is outside. Look, 2017 was not a great one for some of us in America, and it was a lot of nights after spending the day reading the news and watching documentaries, reading books… there were too many nights I came home, angry or heartbroken about what is going on around me. I would open a bottle and take to angry tweeting on Twitter at politicians, trolls, commentators… and you know what? It didn’t usually change anyone’s mind, it frequently only made me more angry, and it was expensive as hell! (Note, never agree to a Trump speech drinking game- if you drink every time he says “I did…” or “Crooked Hilary” or “yuge”, you will end up with alcohol poisoning. Do not do it.) So, this year, I’m going to try to turn the noise off more, to drink for pleasure or education, not out of a growing sense of despair over this ridiculous hellscape.
  4. Stop worrying quite so much about cost. Seriously, I make almost 2x what I did when I first started to drink, about 8 years ago, but I need to stop making my default $12 and under, maybe start to splurge to the occasional $15-20 bottle? Don’t get me wrong, especially in places like Spain, Portugal, South America, South Africa, these price points aren’t even remotely difficult to find incredible bottles within. I’ve spent my entire life looking for the bargain bottles (and honestly will always be too thrifty to entirely move on from this mentality), but I will begin to treat myself a bit more often with the occasional truly special bottle of wine. In fact, and I know how 1st World Problem this is, I even resolve to–
  5. 6 times this year I will buy a bottle worth more than $40. Seriously, as a wine pro, the shade I get over my obsessive hunt for everyday, super-affordable wines, bargain wines. I use WTSO and Last Bottle for most of my best bottles at affordable prices, so I’m drinking damn good wine, but every once in a while, if I’m to truly get down deep into Barolo, Bordeaux, Champagne, California Cabs, etc, well, I’m going to need to open the pocket book a little wider.
  6. Complete my Level 3 WSET, my Cicerone Beer Server certification and hopefully be at least signed up for the first DipWSET course (you have to start with a specific one that’s only offered two times/year, so I’m mot sure that’s going to be possible to finish in 2018).

So that’s it- I’ll drink more from interesting places, crazy styles and occasionally splurge on myself. I’ll continue my education through WSET, Cicerone and personal study. And, I’ll keep you all updated on these as I go!

Happy New Year to everyone of you- let’s do this 2018!

Lessons In Blind Tasting

When I first started to learn how to cook, someone gave me the advice to go through my spice cupboard and just taste everything in it: the herbs, the spices, the various oils, vinegars, pastes, etc… Let me tell you, the first time you taste things like Turmeric or Cream of Tartar or oyster sauce on their own… well, it’s interesting. But it really helped me figure out how this flavor and that flavor may work together in a dish. It was one of the smartest (and grossest) things I’ve ever done.

It’s possible to do some of that with wine- I can taste chocolate, berries, stone fruit; I can smell/taste roses, violets, honeysuckle, orange blossoms; I can smell my leather coat, cigars, pencil shavings; I can even go outside and lick limestone paving stones on my patio, chalk, gravel in the driveway… But there are something like 400 “essential” flavors/scents we are likely to identify in a wine. I’m not totally sure my brain can store and instantly recall that many profiles- any chance Apple is working on some kind of smart wearable for that, an iTongue maybe?

So, while I do a pretty good job with a wine tasting- I can usually narrow a wine down to 2-3 options and while I frequently still pick the wrong one, it’s usually the one I didn’t pick that was right… I don’t know if that makes it any better, but I’ll stand by it with only my Level 1 WSET at this point. Oh, and I can pick out a Sauv Blanc in my sleep, while I have a sinus infection- no question. But that’s probably not that special, I should stop bragging about that, huh?

Anyways, so you might know that over the birthday weekend, Bestie and I decided to do a kind of weird blind tasting. When given four bottles of American sparkling, in the $20-30 range, can we pick out which is which? Oh, and we had to make it even harder on ourselves, we had to stick to Methode Champenoise styles, all blends of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. So what? We’re going to be able to pick out from a few online tasting notes which is Carneros vs which is Oregon vs which is Anderson Valley? Did we REALLY think we could ID the one that grew in the foggy CA Mendocino County vs Carneros?

Well, yeah. We did think we could.

So at my suggestion, we tasted first, talking them ourselves- not wanting to be influenced by the winery’s/critics’ opinions. Turns out, I’m a genius for that suggestion. Well, genius-ish. But we’ll get to any fault in my mental processes later.  Don’t worry- I’ll make sure I point out the part that indicates my deficits; well, “ish”. 😉

Alright, velvet-covered bottle at the ready. Bestie made sure that we couldn’t even tell if the bottle was green (one of them was, I couldn’t tell in the velvet sleeve), and I was in charge of pouring- Bestie was really worried about compromising the integrity of our test- he had to trim the foil around the bottles’ necks to make sure he couldn’t pick out a silver vs gold. Seriously, for the two people who used to spend hours talking on the phone while watching Mary Poppins on Disney Channel instead of doing homework, our anal-retentiveness occasionally comes through in some truly surprising ways.

Ok, so as a reminder, the four sparklings we tasted:

  • Argyle Brut Willamette Valley, NV ($25.99)
  • Roederer Estate Brut NV ($26.99)
  • Schramsburg Mirabelle Brut MV ($27.99)
  • Tattinger Domaine Carneros 2013 ($28.99)

So, I poured the first sparkling. It was a lovely, but relatively pale gold- elegant beading. There was a smell of something baked- a battered bread like raisin-nut or spiced? But not a ton of yeast, especially not after the yeastbomb that was the Tattinger we had just enjoyed to help us remember a “benchmark” of fine sparkling. But for me, it was caramel-coated Granny Smith apple that was hitting me hard- toasted, caramel and rich but with some tart, crisp green apple as an almost unexpected backbone. Oh, and let’s not forget the toasted almond involved- it could have bitter or overly acidic, but it was complex and sophisticated, had a long finish and never felt like too much of any one thing.

So, what was it? It felt like the multivintage (MV) from Schramsburg- where they blend in a little bit from the BEST vintages to the lesser vintages to create a steady-to-superior quality. It was balanced and complex, but lacked some of the hedonism and absurd perfection of a true vintage champagne. Put a pin in it, a probable first guess?

Wine two has me asking Bestie,

Me: “Wait, I didn’t think any of these are Prosecco…”

Bestie: “Umm, you think I’d serve you  fucking Prosecco for this tasting? Please.”

(Don’t worry, Fans, dramatic reenactments of this scene will be available on YouTube ASAP).

So, if you haven’t figured it out yet, bottle #2 was exceptionally light, ALMOST more frothy than bubbly, it had a strong nose of blossom, lemon curd, Bosc pear but a relatively light taste. This one was nothing if not ethereal- it seemed to live in the upper registers of our sinuses, it felt like it was floating- like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they’re just ingesting bubbles and floating on them. You could almost taste the flavor evaporating on your tongue as it soared to the top of your mouth. Obviously, given the flavor, nose and pale straw color, it’s NON vintage.

Bottle #3 was a different beast entirely. This one reminded me of true Champagne. It wasn’t dead on, but the nose had briney qualities- not exactly a day at the beach, but serious maritime/sucking down oysters memories were evoked. There was some sourdough bread rising both on the palate and the nose, some toasty, nuttiness (I’m going with Hazelnut) while still having plenty of baked red apple and baking spice. I started to wonder if there was some anise, but that started to feel like a bridge too far. Oh, but at the very end? Definitely reminded me of the smell of wet limestone on my parent’s patio when I was growing up- smell, taste… it all came together in an awfully visceral way. Given the flavor, the legs, the color, etc- I was pretty positive this was from Oregon (Argyle).

Bottle #4 was pretty Champagne-esque… but didn’t hit the tasting notes for me. It lacked any kind of yeast/nut flavor- but it was gorgeous. There was stone fruit, a more pronounced minerality, it was Champagne-adjacent, it was classic and stunning and gorgeous… but didn’t evoke feelings of Versailles, or velvet, of oysters and caviar.

Ok, so we finally picked.

But in the back of my head I was like… yikes- I feel like based on the various descriptions, #3 is the Argyle… but no- it’s an Oregon sparkling that tastes like Champagne? IMPOSSIBLE! That was the most classic, the truest version, that HAS to be the Tattinger. So, we decided:

  1. Mirabelle
  2. Domaine Carneros
  3. Roederer
  4. Argyle

Guess what? We were SO wrong!!!! We correctly identified number one of them. And the thing that kills me is that in my head I KNEW, I absolutely had identified them correctly in my head- I just didn’t listen to myself.

So, as Shakespeare would say, “Know thyself” and “To thine own self be true.” Because you know how to taste, you know what you’re experiencing, don’t give into that inner bully who is trying to overthink it Let’s face it, if I know how to do anything, it’s drink, taste and understand what is currently in my mouth (I know, I know, dirty)… and I didn’t. Lesson, hopefully learned, from now on, it’s what my tongue says it is… Wait, is there any way to say that and not sound weird?

Tricky Holiday Scenarios and Their Pairings

Roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, more pies than the people around the table can possibly eat in one meal (but isn’t it delightful to try?)

Thanksgiving is, after Halloween, my favorite holiday of the year. I have amazing memories of my giant family (8 siblings) gathered around the table, eating green bean casserole, Boston Brown bread- baked inside aluminum cans, and spending the day playing board games, watching movies and our family Turkey Bowl. (Note: If the opposing team forms a line in front of the End Zone to block your touchdown, there is NOTHING in the rules to keep the team from handing off the football to a particularly light and perky (not to mention overly adventurous red head girl who knows NOTHING about football) and launching her over the defensive wall, into the End Zone. It’s surprising to me that this strategy isn’t more widely used.)

Thanksgiving for everyone across the country is a day of family, whether it’s the family you were born to or the one you chose for yourself, it’s a day of love and happiness and gluttony unlike any other in the US.

Of course, with family comes conflict- it’s inevitable. But never fear, I have compiled a list of possible holiday scenarios and ways to cope. (Responsible Adult Note: I’m not saying drinking is the only way to survive a big holiday meal, but in my experience it seriously helps. Also, call an Uber, don’t drive.)

Scenario 1: Everyone in your family (besides you) attended a specific university (I’m not saying BYU- Go Cougars?) The football team somehow made it to a Thanksgiving day game and they’re getting the crap kicked out of them. This game is in overtime which means dinner is being pushed back by five “football minutes” (very different from real-time minutes). The turkey is drying out, the cranberry relish is warming, the gravy is forming a skin on top… oh, and you haven’t eaten in three days to prep your appetite. You’re hungry, they’re cranky and the pies smell amazing.

Pairing: You don’t know how long you’re going to need to drink, so keep it LOW alcohol, low in intensity. This is DEFINITELY the job for a beer (not a heavy craft brew) or maybe a Moscato d’Asti (around 5-6%) or an Alsatian Riesling at about 8%. Make sure it’s light and refreshing and keeping your palate clean enough to sneak tastes between now and the time dinner actually starts.

Scenario 2: Cousin Gary brought his new boyfriend- no one knew he was looking for a BOYfriend- his mom, Aunt Carol, included.

Pairing: So here’s the thing, THIS could be the gift that keeps on giving- the snark, the passive-aggressive comments, the “subtle” bible verses… This is a long game, a marathon, NOT a sprint- Aunt Carol can actually be pretty funny when in passive-aggressive mode. HOWEVER, on the flip side, a lot of what’s going to be said is possibly offensive to you, so being too drunk just isn’t going to work if you’re going to keep your mouth mostly shut. I’d suggest a light-bodied red, maybe a Cru Beaujolais (NOT Nouveau- just spike Welch’s with vodka at that point) or a Pinot Noir from France. You’ll be able to drink it all night, it won’t have too much alcohol for you, but they have the structure and “guzzle factor” that means you’ll feel a bit of a buzz as you hear Carol wailing about never getting to plan a “real” wedding or have grandbabies.

Scenario 3: “So… how’s that acting/music/English/art degree working out for you?”

Pairing: First of all, pro tip- DO NOT SHOOT BACK WITH “how’s your botched plastic surgery lawsuit going?” Believe me, it’s not going to go as well as you might think. But, what to drink when your family is picking at your life choices, your career immobility, your regrettable fashion choices now memorialized on social media? Well, I’d say go big- it’s tough being attacked on this level, something like a Chateauneuf du Pape would be the decadence you deserve. BUT, since you probably DID get that ridiculous acting/music/English/art degree, it seems unlikely you can afford it. So just try another Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre blend (the grapes in CNdP) from the Southern Rhone or even Australia; they easily run below $20/bottle, many under $15, and are just as decadent and amazing. Trust me, it won’t be too hard to forget about what Aunt Doris said- never mind the fact she didn’t even go to college and her precious William is more interested in playing D&D in her basement than studying for the SATs anyways.

Scenario 4: Your brother and sister-in-law just bought an AMAZING new McMansion- 4,000 sq ft, on two acres of land, a gourmet kitchen, it’s Suburban Paradise… so they’re hosting this year for the first time. Oh, and they don’t know how to cook. Turkey is dry, rolls didn’t rise, jello salad is melted and the gravy has enough lumps you’re slightly worried it has cancer.

Pairing: Embrace the fact that dinner is going to be terrible, but you still need a certain amount of calories in a day, so imbibe them via wine. But since red wines can feel kind of heavy on an empty stomach, I’m recommending keep it light with anything sparkling that isn’t too sweet- Prosecco, Cava, Cremant,Champagne- it’s all golden here. And don’t worry about glasses, feel free to chug it out of the bottle because you were promised dinner and this is fucking crap, so you’re entitled to get as drunk as you want. Not to mention, now you don’t have to pretend to help with the dishes- you didn’t use any!

Scenario 5: So, when are you two getting pregnant?

Pairing: Tequila. Unless you’re actually pregnant, (please don’t drink tequila if you’re pregnant). But you can say “none of your business”. You can try “I don’t know, we keep trying (insert disgusting and non-procreative sex act here) and it just hasn’t worked yet!” Generally speaking, in my not at all statistically relevant research, that bitch is going to ask that until you or her are dead.  She’s going to ask your gay Cousin Gary and his boyfriend named Sumner (don’t get me started on the name), and feel 100% entitled to know the answer. She won’t even care if this makes you break down and sob because you know you CAN’T have kids. This is a crappy question to ask people, they really should mind their own business, but in the meantime screw the wine, this is the job for our brother from across the border, Senor Tequila.

**Oh, quick side note: 3 tbsp pumpkin puree, 1 tbsp triple sec and a little bit of water, mixed with cinnamon and tequila make for an unbelievable Pumpkin Margarita- try rimming the glass with pumpkin pie spice and sugar if you’re really trying to impress. It isn’t common, it isn’t typical, but it’s delicious. Drink three of those babies and you’ll barely remember what ANYONE said around the dinner table on Thanksgiving!

Have a Happy Turkey Day! Remember, when in dout, Gewurtztraminer or an unoaked Chardonnay are my choice of whites with turkey dinners,  a French Pinot Noir (do not overlook red Burgundy- it’s like shooting fish in a barrel!) or maybe even a somewhat zestier but still less jammy Southern Rhone Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre (GSM) blend.

Happy Holidays!

Be Italian

Italy has 20 wine regions and 96 provinces which can make understanding Italian Wine incredibly difficult—but if you focus on four of the most famous grapes, it all becomes a bit easier to swallow.

“You may have the universe, if I may have Italy.” –Giuseppe Verdi

Italy vies with France every year for largest producer of wine in the world (they make about 20% of the world’s wine), along with greatest consumers of wine in the world- the average Italian drinking 45 bottles each year. Although it’s only about ¾ the size of the state of California, Italy has more native grapes than any other country in the world- somewhere in between 400 and 500 varietals, which makes for some of the most distinctive wines in the world.

Italy has 20 wine regions and 96 provinces which can make understanding Italian Wine incredibly difficult—but if you focus on four of the most famous grapes, it all becomes a bit easier to swallow.

Sangiovese from Tuscany is the primary grape in Chianti (Chianti must be at least 80% Sangiovese, but can be mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other grapes to round out the flavor profile). A good Chianti tastes of cherry, baked clay, sweet balsamic vinegar, espresso, tobacco and oregano. It pairs well with anything with tomato (spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant parmesan, pizza or even a caprese salad) as well as fruit and chocolate.

Nebbiolo from the Piedmont region is the major grape in Barolo and Barbaresco, each named from the specific regions they come form in Italy. Their flavor profiles are each full of cherry, leather, anise and roses and are high in tannins and alcohol. If Barolo is the older, larger more swarthy beast of a wine (almost intensely tannic and very rich) then Barbarescos are a younger, more demure but very elegant alternative with a lighter body and color, but still aromatic, complex and sophisticated. These wines age exceptionally well and have become new favorites of serious wine collectors looking for better bargains than classic California Cab or French Bordeaux.

Pinot Grigio, originally from France, grows well in Northeastern Italy: Lombardy. Veneto and Alto Adige especially. It is the most popular white grape in Italy (Italian wine production is focused on red wines which make up 60% of all wine produced in the country). Pinot Grigio is a dry, acidic wine with tons of fruit flavors packed in (think lemon, yellow apple, melons, peaches, nectarines) and is the perfect drink for a hot summer day by the pool- it also works extremely well as the base of white sangria as the fruit flavors are intensified without becoming too sweet.

Prosecco, while not the only sparkling wine from Italy, is the most famous- in fact, the original recipe for a Bellini at Henry’s Bar in Venice, was made with Prosecco and not the French cousin, Champagne. Prosecco is a sparkling wine made in the Veneto region of Italy from the Glera grape. Unlike champagne, it is made using the “charmat” method, which means that instead of having its second fermentation in the bottle (like classic champagne), the second fermentation happens in large steel tanks—this not only makes it an incredible value to the consumer, but it also allows for the highly aromatic grapes to really shine through in your glass. And while it’s delicious mixed with peach puree in a Bellini or served in your Sunday Brunch Mimosas, don’t feel like you have to hide it with mixers. Prosecco is a light, fruity wine full of green apple, honeydew melon, pears and honeysuckle that is a delight to sip on its own during your next Girl’s Night. It also makes an amazing budget-friendly pick for the toasts at a wedding!

Marry, Bang, Kill: Old World Wines

Oh Germany- we love you for your beer, your strudel… but unfortunately, your wine doesn’t quite make my heart sing- and that’s why I’m just going to have to kill you. Sorry, you have given us some truly delightful wines- I genuinely enjoy Blaufrankisch- (similar to Pinot Noir but with a bit more backbone, a bit more drama and spice). And your take on Pinot Noir (Spatburgunder) is almost as elegant as many Burgundies I’ve had. Silvaner sure as hell is an interesting grape (a finicky one, difficult to grow, but when done right has a passion fruit and peach flavor along with some herbaceous thyme and spice for something different)- it’s fun  one to casually toss around in conversation with wine lovers and look like a bona fide badass. I can even move past my personal vendetta against your ubiquitous Riesling and try to just respect that everyone has their own likes. (Before I start getting hate mail and pipe bombs mailed to me, look, I’ve honestly just never had one and thought, “yum, I would like to continue putting this flavor in my mouth.”)

But my dislike for Riesling isn’t really what killed you- no, I’ve spent weeks studying, reading, podcasting… and I still just can’t seem to figure out your wine laws. Seriously, I’m as baffled as ever. I mean, we’ve got pradikatswein, qualitatswein… you have 200 wineries that are “invited” to be VDPs, which seems to be like the Cru system in France, but with less history and definition. There’s Trocken, Halbtrocken, Feinherb that all tell you how ripe the grape was (how much residual sugar), and so far as I can tell, you can have up to five of these kinds of descriptors on the same label. So, basically, I’m confused- and I don’t like being confused. I’m a smart person, but you just don’t make me feel like it. And no, I’m not letting that deter me, one day I will master your weins and the 7000 laws you have to go with them, but in the meantime, I’m sorry, you’re dead to me. But hey, don’t take it too hard, it was a tough category and I think a lot of experts will disagree with me… but I’ve never minded being a rebel.

So now, who would I bang? Ummmm, easy- France. Oh France, so much temptation- we’re talking like Eliot Spitzer-level prostitute at $10k/night kind of temptation.  And where even to begin? Seriously, from the rich, intense, complex Rhone Valley GSM blends (think Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas… powerful but velvety hedonism in a bottle) to the irresistible, bubbly luxury of true, classic Champagne- is there a more beautiful sight than the perfect, tiny little bubbles beading up towards the surface? (Hint: nope, it’s definitively the most beautiful thing in the world).

And then, if I’m dabbling in the world of Sauvignon Blanc you can be damn sure I’m going with a perfectly-balanced Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume from the Loire Valley- bone dry, minerality and somewhat astringent without being too austere or overly tart. (BTW, New Zealand, you can keep your overpowering notes of “lawn trimmings” to yourself, no thank you). Then, if I’m being honest, I don’t think I can even get started on the ridiculously amazing things coming out of Bordeaux and Burgundy- I’m going to have to do an entire blog post on Medoc alone! So, yeah, France is going to be one of the best nights of your life- but not necessarily meant for the day-to-day: it’s a little too fancy, a little too perfect and exact and wonderful- even the most brilliant diamonds begin to lose their sparkle and shine after a time.

No, for longevity- for a true life partnership, for me it’s Spain. Spain is the country that never fails me; it meets every single one of my needs: food pairings, aperitifs; if I need something to sip by the pool in the summer I’ve got my slightly frizzante, tart and refreshing Verdejo from Rueda or an intensely aromatic and bracing, mouth-watering Albarino. Then, in the winter I can always count on my Priorat or Ribera del Duero blends- those spicy, tannic, fruit bombs made with the luscious, eponymous grape Tempranillo. These wines help keep me warm as I sit in the house, annoyed by the falling snow that’s going to make traffic into the office tomorrow a real bitch.

Oh, and it never hurts to remember that these wines are generally so reasonably priced- I can afford a lifetime of memories with these bottles while still managing to pay my almost crippling student loan debt, (aka another reason why I drink).

Spanish wines are something you can bring to your in-law’s Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations and they’ll please even the pickiest palates (oh, you know who I’m talking about Cramers). You can bring some to your high school reunion and impress the hell out of everyone by your refined tastes and out of the box thinking. In fact, your crush from back in the day is going to see what he missed out on when he took whats-her-face to Homecoming (but it’s cool, you’re over it). OH- and don’t forget, for any and all celebrations, bring on the Cava- it may be made with different grapes than its French cousin Champagne, but it’s made using the same method- fermenting a second time in the bottle for a rich, complex sparkling with notes of pear and melon, a hint of citrus zest- and, of course, the rich, nutty, toastiness that I just need in my life, always. There is a restaurant in London where you can hit a button for more Champagne to be dispensed- I would easily pay upwards of $5,000 to have that installed in my house but filled with Cava. And again, at $8-12/bottle for genuinely great bottles- I can, and have, counted on it on a daily basis. It’s always in my bar, in my fridge- just like sour dill pickles, tons of unsalted butter and half and half for my coffee, it’s a staple of my diet and my life.

Spanish wines got me through my divorce; the first bottle of wine I ever drank with my soon-to-be husband was a Rioja with my infamous lasagna on our third date. I have enjoyed a wide variety of Cavas over brunch with my girlfriends and toasted a dear friend at her memorial service with a particularly vibrant bottle- zesty and refreshing, just like her. And I’ll never forget the day that I turned in my thesis for my Master’s degree, instead of a fancy schmancy French, we popped open a bottle (or two or three… whatever, my Masters wasn’t in counting) to celebrate the milestone.

And that’s what I’m talking about. For all of the best and many of the toughest moments in my life, Spain was there for me- and if there is one thing I learned from my divorce, that’s what makes for the best marriages- consistency, loyalty, support. So, yeah, apologies to the future Mr. SommBitch, I do genuinely love you- but you need to know and respect that Spain will always be in my heart (and probably my stomach, liver and blood stream)-  eso es el amor de mi vida.

Chardonnay 201: Time to Taste

So I got chardonnay from Chile, New Zealand, Russian River Valley and then two from Burgundy- a Bourgogne (lowest end) and one from Macon, so close to both ends of the spectrum.

Most people I know who are serious about wine have told me that the best way to learn a grape is to try as many styles of that grape as possible- different regions, different price points, blended… whatever I could get my hands on- drink it, study it, befriend it. And obviously, education is very important to me. So important, in fact, that I went out and bought five chardonnays from different places around the world to taste and try to really hash out my feelings over this grape.

I mean, I’m a red wine girl- not that I don’t love my bubble or the occasional rose, but generally speaking, 90% of the time, I’m drinking a bold red. But chardonnay… well, depending on where it’s from, can be the white wine for red wine drinkers. Not to mention, in my swampy, DC summer where some days hit 115 degrees in the heat index- sometimes a crisp, cool, refreshing hit of green apples, pear, tropical fruit… sometimes it’s exactly what you need to survive the weekend.

And because of my outstanding dedication to my pursuit of knowledge, this weekend was spent with the grape- I wanted to personally nail down the fingerprint of the varietal, to taste for myself the difference between regions- especially old world vs new world as we wine snobs like to talk about all the time.

So I got chardonnay from Chile, New Zealand, Russian River Valley and then two from Burgundy- a Bourgogne (lowest end) and one from Macon, so close to both ends of the spectrum.

I started with the two French and the California wines- the Bourgogne was about $11, the Macon was $22, the Russian River Valley Chalk Hill was $35. To represent the warmer climate regions, I picked a favorite New Zealand bottle and decided to try a new to me Chilean- each bottle costing about $10. So, let’s get into it.

Tasting notes:

2014 Vincent Sauvestre Bourgogne: Honestly, this should have been a sparkling- a blanc de blanc cremant (sparkling wine made using the traditional champagne method but NOT in Champagne), it just, in my opinion, didn’t have the structure or body I want in a white wine- maybe some bubbles would have helped there? It was a pale straw color, which already had me nervous- it looked more like a pinot grigio than a chardonnay and that made me nervous. I got a slightly tropical fruit nose, but mostly I just got crisp pear, some green apple and a tiny bit of cream. For $11 it wasn’t terrible, but it was easily my least favorite of the line up. Mostly I just thought it was meh.

2014 Macon-Burgy: Ok, so, aside from Chablis, this is the kind of chardonnay that white Burgundy fans get so excited about. And I’m not going to lie, I was a fan- it wasn’t my favorite chardonnay ever, but for a Burgundian style chard, I thought it stood up to its reputation- I appreciated and understood what that term Burgundian meant. Remember, chardonnay grows best in clay and limestone soils- weirdly the BEST wines tend to come from grapes that grow on vines that have to struggle and fight to be able to grow. This wine spent 8-10 months in stainless steel- they never touched oak, they didn’t even walk past an oak tree. BUT, they did go through MLF so while this wine was complex (many layers, wow- more layers than a Victorian woman), there is still a healthy hit of cream that, to me, read like lemon curd and ripe baked apple. It was good- I can’t say it was great or the perfect Burgundy, but I genuinely enjoyed putting this in my mouth. (Yes, I know, that’s what she said).

2014 Chalk Hill- Russian River Valley: I’m not going to say this is the perfect example of a CA chardonnay, I think some others I’ve had in my life seem more ideal- Scribe winery’s chard (they even offer a limited release skin-on that I go crazy for) is probably one of the more perfect bottles I’ve had to represent a large state. However, this Russian River Valley bottle really hit my buttons. It was richer than a Rockefeller in its stunning deep gold color and the nose was nothing but baked apple and baking spices of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Seriously, I smelled this glass and was transported to fall ciders and family holidays wherein we would make more apple pies than even an 11 person family can comfortably eat in 2-3 days. The taste fulfilled the promise of spiced, baked apples more than I could have hoped for but had an acidity that really cut through the richness and allowed me to be able to taste my popcorn. I will say that the alcohol content of this wine, being a new world version and higher ABV, DID make my boardgame day infinitely more enjoyable- Kill Dr Lucky is always funnier when slightly tipsy.

2015 Il Nobilo from Marlborough, New Zealand: This is the chardonnay I’ve frequently turned to in my past- and not only when the board game my fiance wants to play is far too intricate and weird for it to be truly enjoyable. This is a bottle that really turned me around on Chardonnay- it’s proximity to the Equator means it’s going to have tons of tropical fruits on the nose and the taste. I personally thought it was like a pineapple/papaya creamsicle and I absolutely loved it for that. It had just enough acid that I barely noticed the fatty, creamy, unctuous quality of the wine. I can’t say it would have been the ideal food pairing- honestly, it was the tiniest bit flabby when I tried it with white pizza (a challenge every other chardonnay held up to remarkably well). I can say that with buttered popcorn I was a truly happy camper and was thrilled to drink it with no food at all- which sometimes is a bigger challenge- it being harder sometimes to find a wine worthy totally on it’s own rather than with food.

2015 Alta Delta from the Central Valley in Chile: This was another nice surprise for me. This region is a little over 100 miles south of Santiago, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains- so they go through the benefits of diurnal temperatures (wide swings between daytime and nighttime temperatures). This one was a bit of an enigma to me- I definitely got some flavors of melon, a tiny bit of apricot (stone fruit), a little lemon/lime zest… but I think I detected a bit of papaya too? I couldn’t find much information online about this wine so I’m guessing it spent a little time in oak, given it’s hints of baking spice, cream and a tiny little hint of vanilla. I also didn’t notice much minerality, a  little surprising from this kind of mountainous region, but not insane or unbelievable.

So there we are- 5 wines, 2 vintages, and the real constants in flavor were that each wine had at least a little pear or apple. After that common trait the big difference was between Old World perfectly fruit and mineral driven lushness, and the more oaked and tropical versions from CA, NZ and Chile- wines that were reminiscent of pineapple upside down cake in a mostly great way. I’m not sure this is the best expression of chardonnay I’ve ever had, but I genuinely enjoyed drinking it- and that’s still a good reason to drink it- even if it’s not “technically” correct based on the other bottles I tried- it was a definite outlier… but still one I’m likely to drink again because it was fucking delicious.


Chardonnay 101: Not Just for Real Housewives

Chardonnay rocks. There, I said it- red wine-obsessed Meg loves this grape. To me, it’s a white wine for people who like the structure and body of a red wine, as well as for foodies who want a lot of fruit and acid. It’s also a prime example of the versatility of a grape and the impact the winemaker, climate and the terroir can have on a wine.  

Chardonnay rocks. There, I said it- red wine-obsessed Meg loves this grape. To me, it’s a white wine for people who like the structure and body of a red wine, as well as for foodies who want a lot of fruit and acid. It’s also a prime example of the versatility of a grape and the impact the winemaker, climate and the terroir can have on a wine.  The difference between a chardonnay out of Burgundy in France vs New Zealand is massive- a white Burgundy is going to have flavors of lemon, pear, green apple, probably some minerality (think about licking a flagstone from your garden- that’s what I mean by minerality); it’s going to be complex, have tons of acid and a crisp finish. But go closer to the Equator, to New Zealand and you’re looking at a wine that’s going to burst with tropical fruit flavors like pineapple and melons. Plus, it’s probably spent some time aging in oak and that’s going to give it flavors of toasted nuts and cream.

Before I get into the wine tasting portion of this post, let me give you some more information on the grape.

Around 800 AD Emperor Charlemagne owned some vineyards in Burgundy. Apparently the Emperor also was a bit of a hot mess- just a total slob at the dinner table and his wife got sick of him having red wine stains all up in his beard, so she ordered white grapes to be planted in their Burgundy vineyards. And because chardonnay is a much heartier and easier to grow varietal than the area’s famous pinot noir, it really took off and became, until 1976 and the Judgement of Paris, the quintessential chardonnay.

Chardonnay grows just about everywhere, from temperate to fairly cool climates- but it does do best in soils full of limestone, clay and chalk. The vines start budding very early in the season so frosts are a concern, but it takes about an extra week to ripen over pinot noir letting it really develop the high sugar content into high acidity- which is what makes it such an incredible wine to pair food with.

A lot of people talk about the buttery and vanilla qualities of chardonnay- frequently that’s their reason for disliking it. Here’s the thing, the vanilla and butter qualities are coming from malolactic fermentation (MLF). MLF, or I’ve heard a bunch of experts call it just malo, is the process of taking the sour, pucker worthy acid of the juice and rounding it out into it’s more buttery/creamy tones. This happens when the acid in wine is introduced to certain bacteria that basically eat the malic acid in grapes and give off softer, rounder, more buttery lactic acids.

And when talking white wines, especially chardonnay, you gotta talk about oak. A lot of white wines don’t spend any time in oak, stainless steel being the most common while others actually use cement or clay- the idea being that most whites are just too delicate for oak- it overwhelms the gorgeous but light floral and fruity perfumes. But chardonnay- that’s a heartier grape and oak can really stiffen up that backbone.

Oak barrels have tiny, pretty much microscopic pores that allow oxygen in, slowly exposing the wine to oxygen. Add to that, American oak is more porous than French oak, and that begins to explain why Sonoma- especially the Russian River Valley- produce chardonnays with such distinctive flavors of vanilla, cream, baking spice and caramel- not only is that a characteristic of American oak barrel aging, but the more porous the barrel is, the more MLF the wine experiences.

Sips of Information on Chardonnay:

Flavor profile: Fruit up front (pear, green apple and lemon in cooler climates, pineapple, tangerine, melon in warm climates. Oaked: smoke, vanilla, cream, baking spices (nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon).

Most famous regions: Burgundy (check out Maiconnaise, Pouilly Fuisse), California’s Sonoma (Russian River Valley), New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Oregon, Washington

Best Food Pairings: Buttery popcorn. Seriously, you might be downing beers or something while sitting at home and watching your favorite movie, but I promise, next time you sit down for a favorite flick, just pour a chardonnay- any chardonnay will work. The acid in the wine is going to cut through the butter of the popcorn, the fruit is going to be refreshing and keep you awake, even if the movie is a little boring. If you’re really worried about the quality of the movie being more in line with Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, go with a new world Chardonnay- they tend to be higher in alcohol content, so maybe, just maybe, you won’t notice so much.

Unconventional Food Pairings: Steak- I promise, the full body rises to the occasion while the high acid helps to cut through the fat in the meat and some of the creaminess of the sauce. This is a great thing to take to a summer barbecue when you want to enjoy the crisp, refreshing qualities of chardonnay, but don’t want the wine to completely overpower your meal. Not to mention, it’s also going to be ridiculously good with the creamy potato salad and coleslaw you’re eating alongside the t-bone, and can handle the juxtaposition of sweet/salty/hot barbecue sauce you might want to dip your meat in.

Meg’s Picks: Il Nobilo from New Zealand was like a fruit-forward tropical creamsicle that made me feel like I was on a white sand beach in paradise… not on my couch in 100 degree weather feeling guilty that I didn’t go to the gym… and I loved it for that.

Next post- Chardonnay 201- it’s time to taste some of the wines from around the world and see if I figured out the grape at all.