WINE SAVVY: Three Styles of Dry White Wine

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 7/5/2016:

Three Styles of Dry White Wine

Sometimes people crinkle their nose at the words “dry white wine” but they also roll their eyes at the thought of “sweet white wine.” On the other hand, some just say, “I only like red wine.” To me this is a huge mistake. The world of wine is vast and the flavors are nuanced and complex. If you are truly interested in experiencing the panoply of wines our world has to offer, you simply must drink both red and white wine. And you must learn to appreciate both dry and sweet styles. Well made examples of every type of wine have the ability to enhance any experience.

An easy thing to remember is that 95% of both red and white wine are made in a dry style. Dry means that the grape juice was fermented until all the sugars were consumed by the yeast. The opposite of dry is sweet.

Dry white wines fall into three major categories: light-bodied, herbaceous, and full-bodied. Understanding these terms and their related grape varietals will help you choose the right wine to cook with or pair with your meal.

Light-bodied white wines rely on high acidity to deliver their zesty, lip-smacking taste. Often these wines are packed with citrus flavors such as grapefruit, lemon and lime. They are intended to be consumed within 1-2 years of vintage and will not benefit from aging. Most are fermented in stainless steel tanks and bottled soon after harvest. These wines are often sealed with screw caps.

The grape varieties that make the best light-bodied whites are California and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, unoaked chardonnay, known as Chablis in France, and almost any white wine from Italy such as Soave, Gavi or any pinot grigio. These wines are perfect for deglazing a pan and are natural pairing partners with shellfish, fish, pesto, and salad.

Herbaceous white wines are full of aromas of fresh cut grass or thyme and often combine aromas of apricot, peach, and pear. A few good examples of herbaceous whites are French sauvignon blanc, known as Sancerre, Portuguese Vinho Verde, Austrian grüner veltliner, and Argentinian torrontés. These wines are sealed with either a screw cap or a cork. Either way, they won’t benefit from aging so drink them soon after purchase.

Pair herbaceous white wines with dishes that have fresh herbs as a featured ingredient. These wines would go great with herbed chicken, grilled fish, non-cream based pasta dishes, feta or goat cheese, and almost any form of zucchini.

Fully-bodied whites are made by aging the wine in oak barrels. This gives the wine a creamy, full-bodied texture. The aromas of peach, apple, almond, butter, toast, butterscotch, and vanilla are most prevalent in oaked chardonnay. This category of wine also extends to the grape varieties of viognier, chenin blanc, and sauvignon blanc-semillion blends. These wines are mostly sealed with a cork and in very fine examples of chardonnay from Burgundy, they can age decades. Aged white Burgundy changes from apples, lemons, and fresh butter when young, to vanilla, toast, and butterscotch when old.

Pairing choices for full bodied white wines are anything with a cream or butter based sauce. These are great wines to pair with creamy soup on a chilly day, buttery dipped shellfish such as crab or lobster or anything with mushrooms or truffles. These wines also make great cocktails and pair perfectly with many hard cheeses such as gouda and cheddar.

These three styles cover almost all of the types of white wine you are likely find in an average liquor store. I encourage you to pick your wine based on the food you intend to eat rather than your preferred color.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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WINE SAVVY: Spain’s Rioja wines taste of strawberry, leather

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 6/22/2016:

Spain’s Rioja Wines

Strawberry and leather make an odd flavor combination. Nobody eats strawberry leather pie. While we don’t eat leather, the aroma of a fine leather coat or supple leather bag can be quite pleasing and strawberries, with their slightly sweet smell and tart flavor are universally popular. So it should come as no surprise that Spain’s signature red wine, a Rioja, made from the tempranillo grape, is often described as strawberries with leather.

Tempranillo is grown throughout Spain but in Navarre, a province in the north central part of the country, it is the main ingredient in a red blend called Rioja. While some white wine is grown here, it is best known for its bold red wine from the tempranillo grape. With some certainty, owing to DNA profiling, we know that tempranillo is not a transplant to Navarre but an indigenous varietal. First written about in the 870s and planted and harvested continuously since then, recent archaeological evidence points to wine making in the region dating as far back as 2000 years.

Phoenicians, Romans, Celtiberians and finally the christian Dukes of Navarre all enjoyed these wines but they didn’t gain world wide regard until unemployed French winemakers from just across the border in Bordeaux taught the Spanish how to age their wine in oak barrels.

The struggle with tempranillo is that when it is young it can have very harsh tannins (this is that drying sensation some red wine makes in your mouth) and the fruit flavors of strawberry and cherry are overwhelmed, making the wine taste sour and bitter. This is ok if you are doing shots of bulk wine in anticipation of running with the bulls in the streets of Pamplona (Pamplona is the capital city of Navarre and home to the famous running of the bulls) but it isn’t ok if you are trying to enjoy the wine with dinner.

The magic ingredient to turn average, or maybe even less than average, tempranillo into stunningly delicious leather and strawberry wine is to age it in oak. The French winemakers in Bordeaux learned this long ago and in the 1850s they shared their secret with the Spanish. Now every Rioja is aged in an oak barrel and the amount of time is prescribed in a carefully followed law.

When you go to a liquor store and look at the Spanish section you’ll see some bottles labeled as: Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. These labels will also have the word Rioja on them. A Crianza is a wine from Rioja has been aged at least two years of which 12 months must be in an oak barrel. A Reserva has been aged for at least three years of which 12 months must be in oak. A Gran Reserva is aged at least five years with at least 18 months in oak.

All this aging mellows the wine. The tannins fall out of the wine and form sediment at the bottom of the bottle. The aged wines take on varying degrees of mature aromas like coffee, caramel, nuts and leather. The aging changes the wine from rough and tart to smooth and rich.

A good Rioja will have a combination of flavors such as strawberry, cherry, plum, tomato, leather, tobacco, vanilla and cloves. While not every flavor will be present in every wine, well made examples should exhibit some, and in my memory Rioja is often leather and strawberries.

A well made Crianza should cost $15 to $20. Gran Reservas command a price worthy of their age and start at around $50. Pair Rioja wines with roasted pork or beef or dishes that feature tomato based sauces such as lasagna.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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WINE SAVVY: Pair summer with Sauvignon blanc

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 6/8/2016:

Sauvignon Blanc

Few things compare to summer in Duluth. With sunlight extending from 5 a.m. to almost 10 p.m., the days hold so much promise. After winter, the warmth of the summer beckons us out of the house to enjoy the sunshine. Activities like sitting on the deck, swimming in the lake and dining outside are quintessential summer activities. If that nagging voice in your head says you should be working on this, or working on that, take a moment and remember, you survived winter. Relax.

If you want a summer wine to pair with your break, head to the liquor store for New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Once there, you should find at least a few bottles that all share the same location, Marlborough.

New Zealand is a country which is comprised of two main islands, the north island and the south island. Both of these are in the south Pacific and are about 1,000 miles east of Australia. The two islands are about the size of Colorado, the south island is slightly bigger. The north island is the most populated and is home to ¾ of New Zealand’s 4.6 million citizens. At the very northeastern tip of the south island is a rugged area with steep hillsides that plunge to the sea. It is known as the Marlborough Sounds.

It was here in the late 1990s that the New Zealand wine industry first burst into worldwide attention, and they did it with Marlborough sauvignon blanc. These wines are deliciously aromatic. The aromas of lime, grapefruit, ripe tropical fruit with a slight or in some cases pungently herbaceous undertone make drinking it like sipping fresh air. The wine is bright and crisp, making the mouth water just slightly.

The wines from the Marlborough region are so flavorful that they now have set the standard for new world sauvignon blanc, and their success came as a bit of a surprise. The south island is more rugged and colder than the north island and conventional wisdom for growing grapes is that you need some place that isn’t too rainy, cloudy or cold. In Marlborough, around the town of Blenheim, where the Wairau River flows to the sea and where the mountains to the west catch the rain, it can get quite warm. Sensing that this place might be good for grapes, enterprising winemakers started to plant vineyards in the 1970s.

The winemakers suspected that the gravelly soils of the river valley would be well-suited to sauvignon blanc and more importantly the days are warm and dry. These warm days helped ripen the grapes, but it is the nightly sea breezes off the cold Pacific Ocean that make this area so special. The temperature variation between day and night, about 15-20 degrees, allows the grapes to build up sugar levels during the day but retain high levels of fruit acids at night.

This is the perfect condition for wine because without sugars you can’t get fermentation but without acids a wine will taste flat and bland. A winemaker needs both to achieve a good balance. Once New Zealanders figured out that the Marlborough region could consistently produce these conditions, they never looked back. The wine industry now accounts for more than 20 percent of Marlborough’s GDP and continues to grow each year.

Marlborough sauvignon blanc is widely available. Good examples retail for about $15. I recently enjoyed a bottle of Matua Marlborough sauvignon blanc (available locally) at lunch on my deck with fresh mozzarella and basil, tomatoes, olives and balsamic vinegar. I paired this with a recent sunny day and my best friend.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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Organic Wine

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 5/25/2016:

Organic Wine

Wine is a man-made beverage that has been produced and consumed for more than 7,000 years. At its core, wine is simple and easy to make. The recipe is: grow grapes, harvest grapes, smash grapes in a container, leave to ferment, filter chunky bits and drink.

Grapes are vines that grow willingly in their preferred climate. Picking the grapes is easy, smashing can be done simply, and the dust that clings to each individual grape contains yeasts. If given a slightly warm place to work, the yeasts willingly convert the sugary juice into wine. For thousands of years, this is how wine was made, and we would consider it natural — some would call it “organic.”

But the word “organic” is much more nuanced. It doesn’t mean completely unadulterated, and it doesn’t mean the recipe above was followed exactly. “Organic” means the recipe was mostly followed or as closely followed as can be when winemakers are trying to make a consumer product.

This is an important distinction because it wasn’t until the Green Revolution — which was a set of 20th century agrarian technological improvements that increased crop yields and relied on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicide — that the word “organic” was made necessary as a food production qualifier. “Organic” is now generally used to relay the concept that this product was made in a fashion that does not rely on techniques of the Green Revolution, but rather techniques that are a return to the old recipe or original ways of producing the product.

For the consumer worried about the ingestion of pesticide or herbicide residues in their food, the labeling of organic has been an easy way to sort and source their purchases. This made me think that if wine was always made the same way for the past 6,950 years, shouldn’t all wines using modern, Green Revolution techniques be labeled as inorganic instead of the opposite? The truth is that all wines are made using some form of modern agrarian intervention. It is simplistic and naive to believe that any producer can follow the original recipe. For instance, all wines contain swome form of added sulfites as they have since people first learned that burning a candle in your wine’s storage container before filling helped preserve the wine.

Faced with the realization that winemakers employ a myriad of old and modern techniques, various governmental advisory bodies started to narrow what the word “organic” would mean.

In the United States, hundreds of chemicals can be and are used in nonorganic wine, not just added sulfites. Some winemakers add sugar, oak chips and flavor agents.

On the other hand, wine that is certified organic is allowed to have only about 70 chemicals added to it, including organic and naturally occurring acids, salts and enzymes. But unlike in conventionally produced wine, any chemical used in a certified-organic wine cannot have an adverse effect on the environment or on human health as defined by the Food and Drug Administration.

In Europe, there has been a system for qualifying foodstuffs for many years. In France, it’s called Appellation d’origine contrôlée or AOC. These rules helped solidify EU-wide rules for the use of the term “organic,” which went into effect in 2012. French AOC rules as well as the Italian, Spanish, German and Austrian national systems were deemed strict enough that if a wine qualified for an AOC designation, the producer could also use the term “organic” on their label. Consequently, many of the fine wines imported from Europe for many years have met or exceed the current organic labeling criteria.

Organic wines are certainly made from more carefully sourced fruit than conventional wine, and the term “organic” now has the weight of law behind it. But often winemakers have been employing organic concepts for years without the certification and just because a wine is organic doesn’t mean it will taste good or that the winemaker is competent in their task.

Consequently, the term “organic” when applied to wine has become to be seen by some established producers as a buzz word. The extra layers of bureaucracy required in obtaining the organic certification often make the pursuit cost prohibitive.

This leaves the consumer in a quandary. If one wine is certified-organic and another isn’t, does that mean the organic wine is inherently superior? Unfortunately, no. The only way to consistently purchase good quality, tasty wine is to read, taste, visit and do research on the maker. The one true mechanic that consumers can rely on when purchasing wine is price. Cheap wine will contain more unwanted inorganic additives than more expensive wine. The difference in price is reflected in the care and skill of the winemaker.

Cheap wines use inferior grapes and consequently the winemaker has to fix the wine with additives. More expensive wines will use grapes from a more carefully sourced supplier, and the winemaker will use time honored techniques to produce the wine. These techniques are often simple but labor-intensive and time-consuming such as hand-picking, hand-sorting and cellaring until mature.

A certified-organic wine may or may not be any better than the nonorganic wine at the same price. And while I applaud the move to understanding where our food comes from, you can’t simply attach an organic logo to a bottle and consider it better.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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WINE SAVVY: Wine planning for weddings

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 5/11/2016:

Wine planning for weddings

During the past few weeks, I’ve been asked about selecting wine for wedding receptions, and while I’d love to say: “Here are the perfect red, white and sparkling wines for your wedding,” the reality is, there are too many factors to consider to make a specific recommendation.

But I can talk about the economics of purchasing wine, how many bottles per guest you should plan for, and what’s the best wine for pairing with wedding cake.

AMOUNT

A single bottle of wine contains five 5-ounce servings. Five ounces is a typical pour at a restaurant when you order wine by the glass. If your guests have two or three glasses each, a bottle will supply 2.5 guests with wine.

If you want to account for nondrinkers and over-drinkers, divide the number of guests by 2.5 to come up with the number of bottles needed for the reception. For example, if you have 75 guests, divided by 2.5, which equals 30 bottles of wine. Keep in mind that a case of wine is 12 bottles, so round up to the nearest case. In this example you’d need 30 bottles which rounds up to three cases of wine. Also consider that if you’re supplying beer and mixed drinks, you might need to increase or decrease this number. You know your guests best, so plan accordingly. You can always take extra home, but if you run out, you’ll see your guests head for the door.

MIX

Once you’ve got the bottle count down, you need to pick your mix of red and white. If the reception is in the evening during winter or fall, you should select 1/3 more red wine than white. If the reception is during the spring or summer, and certainly if outside, have an equal amount of red and white and possibly add a rosé, if the reception is outside on a warm day.

BUDGET

Now that you know how much wine and what color, you’ll need to select a budget. Of course you can spend as much as you want, but there is no reason you can’t select a good, distinctive wine for about $10. Here’s how.

First, buy from a store that’ll give you a case discount, and you shouldn’t feel out of place in asking. Next, look for hearty red wines from Chile, Argentina or South Africa. If you have more than $15 to spend, then shop in the Californian, Washington, Spanish or Australian sections.

White wines from Italy, Chile, New Zealand, California, South Africa and France’s Loire Valley all offer good quality options for about $10. You can buy wine in the $5 range, and these wines often come in large 1.5-liter bottles, and they’ll hail from Australia and Chile. These wines will not leave a favorable impression on anyone. It’s not that they’re bad, they’re just bland and one-dimensional.

THE TOAST

Sparkling wine for the toast is often a source of much contention. Here’s how to navigate it successfully.

First, are you going to serve the toasting wine with the wedding cake? If so, buy a sweet, slightly sparkling wine from Italy called Moscato d’Asti. This wine will pair perfectly with the wedding cake, and people will be amazed at its deliciousness. They’ll remember the “champagne” if you serve this sparkling wine from Italy.

But if you are a stickler for tradition, the toasts aren’t being paired with wedding cake and you want a dry style of sparkling wine — but don’t have a Champagne budget — then Italian Prosecco or Spanish Cava are great substitutes. Prosecco and Cava are both made in a very similar style to Champagne, but they use different grapes and cost $8-$15 a bottle. A good rule of thumb is to divide your number of guests by seven to determine how many bottles of sparkling wine to buy. This should give everyone about half a glass to toast.

Finally, shop for wine well in advance and sample various options before making the selection. This will help you decide exactly what wine to buy, and having a wine-tasting for your wedding can be a fun part of the planning process.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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WINE SAVVY: Try rosé for your springtime wine

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 4/27/2016:

Try rosé for your springtime wine

All grape juice is white, which is confusing because white wine is actually shades of green and yellow, while red wine is shades of deep brick to dark purple or black. But generally most people know that the two colors of wine are red and white, but then there is also pink which we call rosé.

Since all grape juice is white, winemakers have to soak the juice with the grape skins to extract the color. This is a process that is called maceration, and it can happen before, during and even after fermentation. The longer the juice sits with the skins, the deeper the extraction of pigments resulting in a more intensely colored wine.

The amount of extraction time and deepness of color is determined by the grape variety and the thickness of the grape skin. Thicker skinned grapes, such as syrah and cabernet sauvignon, will give off more pigment than thinner skinned varieties such as pinot noir. The amount of extraction time is carefully considered because it isn’t just pigments that are extracted but also tannins and a group of complex flavor molecules know as phenolics. Maceration can last from a few days to a few weeks.

To make rosé (pink wine), winemakers can employ one of three different techniques. The first and most popular is to simply limit the time of maceration. In this method, during fermentation, the juice is removed from the skins and put into a new tank to finish fermenting. By limiting the time on skins, the wine is just slightly colored and comes out a lovely hue of pink.

The second method is called saignée (san-yay). This involves removing a small amount of juice from a fermenting vat. This new juice is pink and goes to a new vat to finish fermenting while the remaining juice finishes a complete maceration and is made into red wine. The benefit of making rosé in this style is that the flavors are often more intense, but it is more time-consuming and results in only a small amount of finished product.

The last method is blending. This is simply taking a small amount of red wine and adding it to white wine. It takes a very small amount of red wine to make white wine turn pink. This results in a rosé that has very little unique character or quality and is essentially dyed white wine.

Quality can be difficult to find in rosé wines. This is partially because they can be made cheaply but also because the American attitude toward rosé is often one of indifference or association with the well-marketed but often poorly produced white zinfandel. If the market isn’t demanding good rosé, the producers have little incentive to supply it.

Traditional rosé wines are made in a dry style and exhibit young red fruit flavors. Generally, they should be consumed very quickly after bottling and will not benefit from aging. Any red grape can be used to make a rosé, but often the producers don’t add the variety used to the label. This can make shopping for a rosé a hit-or-miss affair.

The most common rosés are from the south of France. These are made in a dry style using grenache, syrah and mourvedre grapes and have a pale pink color. The wine is crisp with aromas of strawberry, watermelon and rose.

White zinfandel is a rosé, but it is noticeably sweet. This can lead to a mouth-coating experience that is more similar to pop than wine.

Whichever rosé you choose, serve it well-chilled and serve it with a picnic lunch or an evening in the warmth of summer while chatting with friends as the barbecue happily sizzles. A bottle of decent rosé should cost about $10-$15.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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WINE SAVVY: A short guide to the most common terms on a bottle

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 4/13/2016:

A short guide to the most common terms on a bottle

If all wines or grape varieties tasted the same, selecting a chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon for dinner would be like buying a head of broccoli. But wine is the most nuanced beverage in the world. Each bottle is different based on everything from where the grapes are grown to how long the wine sat in the bottle before tasting.

So there you stand holding a grocery list with the words “red wine” scribbled at the bottom. In front of you is a wall of bottles filled with wine and nothing to help you choose except the price and a small label with an impossibly small font.

Get out your reading glasses because if you want to make an educated guess, you are going to have to understand the words and terms on the label. Here is a short guide to the most common terms displayed on a bottle of wine from the United States.

• The largest words are often the name of the producer. If you are familiar with a producer and you like their wine, then knowing their name will help buy that brand. But if you don’t know the producer, then their brand name is not indicative of quality, taste or value.

• The next largest word is usually the grape variety. By law, if the wine contains 75 percent or more of a single variety, then that variety can be listed on the label. Most wines are blends. While the label may say “cabernet sauvignon,” it is very rare to find a wine that is 100 percent cabernet. Often, merlot is used along with malbec, syrah and others to create the best tasting product. If the bottle reads “red blend,” the primary grape is less than 75 percent. “Meritage” and “claret” sound fancier, but they mean the same thing — red blend.

• Where the wine is from is the best indication of quality. I don’t mean California wines are better than Oregon wines. I mean if the label lists a specific location where the grapes were grown, then the flavors and nuances of that wine will be greatly increased. Grapes sourced from just one specific area will translate the flavor of that area much better than a blend from many different regions.

The U.S. is divided up into AVAs (American Viticultural Regions). When a wine label lists an AVA on the label, 75 percent of the wine must come from that region. If it lists only a state such as California, 100 percent must come from California. Confusingly, every state has a slightly different rule with the top wine producing states being the most strict and those that produce less being the most lenient. Minnesota requires 51 percent of the wine in a bottle to be from grapes produced in Minnesota.

• The vintage date is good to note because not all wines are intended to age. A wine in the sales basket might be a great deal because it’s old, and old isn’t always good. Generally, if you see it for sale, you can drink it right now. I’d steer clear of buying an old dusty bottle for full price that’s been displayed upright on the shelf in a warm store for 10 years. That wine is probably more vinegar than wine.

Other words on the bottle are “reserve” — which means it may be special but doesn’t have to be — and “estate bottled” — which is a legal term meaning 100 percent of the wine is from land the winery owns or controls. Having the same people grow, harvest, ferment, age, bottle and sell their own product often leads to a better wine.

Wine labels are works of art but also important tools for consumers. They contain information that can inform if you know how to interpret the words. Don’t buy a wine just because you like the label, buy it because you know what the label means.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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WINE SAVVY: A quick lesson on cognac

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 3/30/2016:

Cognac Tasting Class

A Quick Lesson on Cognac

The most planted grape in all of France is ugni blanc, and no one drinks its wine. This is because ugni blanc is the base wine for Cognac production, and while ungi blanc makes a fairly unpalatable wine, it makes a fantastic brandy.

In very simplistic terms, to make a hard alcohol spirit like vodka, whiskey or gin, distillers start with a base material that is either beer or wine. Some spirits are made from cane sugar (rum), some from a plant materials (tequila), but the majority are made from barley which is fermented into beer or grapes, which is fermented into wine. If a spirit is made from a fruit base — grapes, apples, pears — we call that spirit brandy. There are many different brandies worldwide, but if it comes from the French region of Cognac, we call it cognac.

While the exact date is lost to history, some time around the late-1600s, Dutch and English merchants started to transport spirits produced in Cognac to their local markets. The Dutch traders called this liquid brandewijn or “burnt wine.” The English called it brandy.

Drinkers worldwide owe a lot to the English because while the English can produce a fine warm beer they have a long history of seeking out stiffer drinks. French wine merchants have always benefited, as did the Spanish and Portuguese when English merchants purchased boatloads of their products. Upon return to London with the ship’s hold full of barrels of spirits, they needed a way to categorize it. For cognac, the terms merchants used were VS (very special), VSOP (very special old pale) and XO (extra old).

These terms are still applied to bottles of cognac and nowadays, they are even enshrined in French production laws. VS means that the brandy was aged for at least two years; VSOP is aged for four years; and XO means aged at least six years.

All aging is done in French oak barrels, and the final brandy is always a blend of different vintages with the average age being either equal to or greater than that noted on the bottle.

While VS, VSOP and XO are the most noticeable classifiers on the bottle, they also note their area of production and if they were blended from two different areas.

Think of the Cognac region as the container for all cognac. In that container, there are six different regions. Confusingly, the best quality regions in Cognac are called Grande and Petite Champagne. In this instance, it helps to know a little French. In French, champagne means countryside. So the best cognac-growing areas are “best countryside” and “little countryside.” The other four regions are Borderies (the edges); Fin Bois (edge of the woods); Bon Bois (good woods); and Bois Ordinaires (ordinary woods). And finally to complicate it just a little more, the word “fine” on the label means the spirit from two neighboring regions were blended together in the final product.

Put this all together and we can interpret a bottle of cognac labeled as a VSOP from Fine Grande Champagne as a brandy that was aged for at least four years and is a blend of mostly spirit from the best countryside.

Cognac is almost as strong as whisky, about 40 percent alcohol, but it is fruitier and slightly sweet. Younger cognacs will have citrus and floral aromas while older cognacs will smell and taste like caramel and toffee. They are traditionally consumed after a meal and served without ice in a brandy snifter.

Cognacs are not cheap, and quality VS will cost about $35, while an XO will start at about $70 and can go all the way to $2 million for a 100-year-old brandy in a crystal bottle that is dipped in 24k gold and platinum and covered with 6,500 diamonds.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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WINE SAVVY: Learn the Grape Malbec

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 3/16/2016:

Learn the Grape Malbec

In the 1980s, South American wine was dominated by Chilean products. Chile makes merlot, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon blends. They were and still are inexpensive and mostly one-dimensional, meaning the price might be their best quality. Back then, Argentina was best known for foolishly attacking the United Kingdom in the brief but bloody Falkland Islands war.

I used to travel to Chile quite often. My father was a mining executive, and I’d spend my summer and Christmas vacations in Santiago. During one trip south, my plane was diverted to Mendoza, Argentina, due to foul weather in Santiago. I remember thinking how drab and depressed the city in the mountain seemed. The airport had just one runway, and passengers were relieved when our Eastern Air Lines flight took back to the skies rather than the announced possibility of an overnight stay.

The wine industry in Argentina, back then, didn’t exist outside of its borders. That all changed in the early 2000s, and now you can’t go anywhere without seeing Argentinian Malbec on the shelf or on the wine list. Seemingly out of nowhere came a wine favored by everyone, and Mendoza is its cultural capital.

Malbec is known as “cot” in France, and it is indigenous to the southwestern region in an area known as Cahors. The wine from Cahors is deep dark purple, very tannic and can seem harsh on the palate. It is bold and has aromas of leather and cedar and has a high alcohol content. You’ve probably never had one or seen one for sale because a good Cahors is difficult to make. Because of this, cot was sent down the river to Bordeaux and mixed with merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Cot’s dark color was used to deepen the color of wines that had good flavor but were pale. According to “Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties Including Their Origins and Flavours” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz, the first Frenchman to plant cot in Bordeaux in 1782 was named Malbeck.

In 1868, the French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget, on a mission for the provincial governor of Argentina, brought cot from Bordeaux to Mendoza. When asked for the name of this new grape it was recorded as malbec, and here it languished for almost 150 years in obscurity. The Argentines carefully tended the grape formerly known as cot and malbeck and it started to change. The bunches of berries became tighter and smaller when compared to their cousins in France, and the acidity rose to a level never before attainable.

While no one knows for sure why these changes took place, most believe the grape changed due to the elevation. In France, the grape is grown at 500-700 feet above sea level. In Argentina, the grape is grown at 2,500 to as much as 9,000 feet above sea level. The cold nights, thinner air, shorter summers, hot days punctuated by windy periods are all effects of elevation, and these were enough to turn a simple, rough-on-the-edges, not-so-interesting wine called cot into international sensation malbec.

Argentinian malbec is unique, it has become the signature wine of Argentina, and it has far eclipsed Chilean wine in terms of quality. It has flavors of black cherry, plum, blackberry and blueberry as well as black pepper, leather, coffee, cocoa and tobacco. In well-made examples, the tannins can be very fine, and while it is high-alcohol — close to 15 percent — it is well-balanced.

This makes malbec the perfect wine to sip while sitting by the fire or to pair with dinner. It pairs well with beef, lamb, buffalo, venison or intense cheeses. Pairing spices would be parsley, thyme, rosemary, cumin, coriander, clove, garlic, shallot, green onion or barbecue sauce. I’d pair it with shepherd’s pie made with lamb and rosemary.

With success comes imitation, and most wine-producing regions are now trying to jump on the success of Argentinian malbec. While some of these wines are good, I suggest sticking with the real stuff and possibly paying a little more for a better bottle. Price really does matter here. Quality Argentinian malbec can retail for $10-$12 from Mendoza, and malbec can be had for $25-$30 a bottle.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

 

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WINE SAVVY: Anatomy of a wine bottle

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 3/2/2016:

Anatomy of a wine bottle.

You can judge a wine by its bottle and this is one of the easiest ways to determine how the wine was made. There are three basic wine bottle shapes: tall, skinny, brown or green German bottles; sloped-shouldered, fat-bottomed Burgundian bottles; and tall, high-shouldered Bordeaux bottles.

In Germany, bottles colored green or brown denote the growing region. Traditionally, brown bottles contain wine from the Rhine river and green bottles contain wine from the Mosel. Blue bottles became popular in the 1980’s and can be from any region. The color rule is only followed by traditionalists. If you are buying a riesling that is made from outside Germany, such as one from Washington state, and the bottle looks like a German bottle then you can assume the winemaker is trying to follow in the tradition of sweetish, high acid, German rieslings.

German bottles, because of their shape, contain less glass and are generally thought to be lighter when compared to French Burgundy or Bordeaux bottles. One explanation for this is that the Germans could put their wines directly onto a river where the voyage was more gentle rather than the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux which had to travel overland. This concept sounds logical but in truth the Burgundians and Bordelais had plenty of access to river, canal, and sea transport and I’m sure most of their wines traveled via France’s excellent network of canals.

The only logical explanation for why French bottles are thicker and sturdier is simply tradition. Wine was first bottled over three centuries ago and each region developed its own particular shape. One thing that did emerge was a consistent volume: 750ml / 25 ounces of wine. The exact reason why this size became the most prominent is lost to history. According to the Oxford Companion of Wine, the “standard” size was perhaps a lungful of air, harkening back to when bottles were manually blown by glassblowers rather than cast by machines as they are made today. Eventually EU rules in the 1970’s set this size as the standard.

Burgundy and Bordeaux bottles both have a reinforcing indentation on the bottom of the bottle. This is known as a punt. Again we see the influence of the glass blower. The indentation made the bottle stronger and created a spot for the blowing rod to be broken from the glass. This spot was rough and sharp and unless ground down, it could scar a table. By indenting the bottom, the bottle received a smooth bottom and tables worldwide went unmarred.

The Bordeaux blends of merlot and cabernet sauvignon can give off quite a bit of sediment and the bottle’s punt can help collect this when the wine is set upright prior to service. The tall high shoulders of a Bordeaux bottle also help keep the sediment in the bottle when the wine is carefully poured. Burgundian bottles with their sloped shoulders and fat bottoms were easier for glass blowers to make and wine made from chardonnay and pinot noir, Burgundy’s primary grapes, don’t cast sediments.

Wine bottles from different parts of the world are all slightly different. Some have raised lettering, some have clear glass, some have high shoulders that taper like the fine cut of a tuxedo, some have longer necks and fatter bottoms. But in the end, they are all variations of the three primary bottle shapes: German, Bordeaux and Burgundy.

For better or for worse, the shapes cannot tell us anything about the quality of what’s inside but they can tell us about the tradition that influenced winemakers when they filled their bottles.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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