Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Big Red Wine's Best Friend: Dark Chocolate

The world is awash in boutique wine, craft beers, herbs and spices galore. Some call it the Food Network effect. One of wine’s best friends, chocolate, has evolved with a similar Renaissance.

“I think over the past 15 years there has been an evolution of foods, in general, and specialty foods,” said Indianapolis chocolatier Elizabeth Garber. “It has happened to cheese, with craft beer, and even wine. Chocolate has done that too. 

“Chocolate has been around for ever and ever, but then you started getting people specializing in the craft of chocolate and the higher quality and the artistic side of chocolate. People started creating it more visually and it became more about the palate. Now it’s what flavor profile is in the chocolate and what works well with chocolate. Today you can find spices and things like that in chocolate products.”

Wine and chocolate have been a natural pairing for a long, long time but it’s not as simple as grabbing a bottle or wine and a chocolate bar. There are far too many options not to explore the possibilities.

“There are levels and strengths in terms of sweetness,” Garber said. “A white chocolate is going to be sweeter because it has a lot more sugar in it.  There are some grades of milk chocolate that sweetness depends on the amount of sugar, milk and cacao in the chocolate. Then you get in to darks which are going to get more bittersweet, though you can have really sweet dark chocolate too. 

The higher the percentage of cacao you have on a bar means more cacao and less sugar. Garber explains the 80 percent you see on a chocolate bar means 80 percent cacao and 20 percent sugar, cacao butter and other stuff.”

And simply enough the more bold the chocolate, the bigger red wine you’re going to want to pair with the sweet treat. Chocolate ranging from 60-75 percent cacao pairs great with big red wines. Any bold red wine will do but experimenting will help you find your favorites.

But chocolate today is more than a plain chocolate bar. “We do a cinnamon basil and it might go well with one thing versus another,” Garber said. “A milk chocolate could be paired with a Chardonnay or whites. Sometime that sweet white wine with a honey/lavender truffle is a great pairing. A sweet floral chocolate might pair better with white than just a red. So many people just think red wine with chocolate but you can mix it up.”

Garber has been a chocolatier since 1994. She started in her home and then opened a business just south of Indianapolis. She now has a sizable shop in Indianapolis’ trendy Mass Ave district called “The Best Chocolate in Town.”

She mixes all sorts of spices, fruit, and even beer in her truffles to challenge her customer’s base palate. “There has been this slow evolution going on,” she said. “It’s sort of like jams and jelly; it used to be just grape and strawberry. Now you have pepper jellies and all sorts of combinations. So now chocolate has evolved and continues to expand in new directions.

Flavored truffles give wine fans a chance to really experiment. Boutique chocolate shops have popped up in cities of all size. Chocolate and wine is a very seductive treat for Valentine’s Day!

Howard’s Pick: Try a 70 percent Cacao Truffle with hints of coffee with a big fruity Zinfandel Delightful!

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes every other week for 22 newspapers in three states. Reach him at:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Improve Wine Knowledge by Tasting More

Wine tasting sounds like something for wine snobs. Consumers who buy wine at groceries and liquor stores should do a little more wine tasting to expand their palate and knowledge.

Often novice wine drinkers shy away from tastings and wine events because of lack of knowledge. Still, human nature suggests learning more on a topic increases the enjoyment.

There's nothing wrong with buying your wine in the aforementioned retail outlets. But to increase knowledge and expand the palate a wine shop is the best 'next step' for wine beginners or those who want to learn more.

"Go to a wine store where they have a person to help you," said Dean Wilson, an Indiana distributor and former retailer. "A real wine person will educate you. Somebody in the retail market, who learns your palate, will guide you into other things to try.

"It is like Education 101, don't be afraid to taste new things. Trust your wine professional and go to as many tastings as you can."

Wilson suggested American consumers are actually hungry for wine knowledge. Sales figures over the past 15 years show significant increases in American wine consumption. And, there has never been a better time to try more and different wines.

"Consumers want a good deal," Wilson said. "Consumers realize they don't have to spend a lot of money on a bottle of wine. If they try something new and like it, then they can start trying different (price) levels of that wine."

As a distributor, Wilson knows the wine market. He said the bulk of wine sales rests in the $9-$15 price range. The market "sweet spot" was just under $10 in the 1990s and then increased. The 2008 economic collapse dropped the sales point back below $10. Today, consumers are willing to pay $14-$15 a bottle.

You can expland your palate and education with a wine professional or a group of friends who enjoy wine. How many people do you wish to invite? Do you want wine education or enjoyment? Do you want to do specific wines or just have everyone bring a bottle?

You can make any wine event more fun by trying to pair wines with just the right food. Or have everyone bring 100 percent varietal wines in a brown bag and then try to guess the varietal. You could come up with geographical clues from the wine region to make the game even more fun.

If you have a friend who really knows wine or maybe you know a wine professional, give them a call. Most wine retailers, wholesalers, and wine journalists really enjoy sharing what they've learned from their experiences. 

Drink wines at your normal price point. But maybe throw in one bottle of something special, and a little higher priced, near the end of your gathering.

"It's like we tell our kids, 'How do you know you won't like it, if you don't try it?" Wilson suggested. "That's also true on wine."

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes about wine every other week for 21 Midwestern newspapers. You can ask him questions at:

Friday, December 28, 2012

Grape Sense's Top Wines of 2012

Each year the lists of top events, products, and moments dominate the media around New Year's. Grape Sense has celebrated 10 top wines each year since 2009.

The list isn't necessarily the 10 best wines tasted; it's 10 of the best wines sampled at a value price point (under $25) in the past 12 months.

In no particular order, here are 10 of the most enjoyable and easy to find value wines of 2012.

Clayhouse Adobe White - The Clayhouse line of wines always deliver well above the $14 suggested retail price point. The white is 49 percent Viognier, 26 percent Sauv Blanc, 19 percent Grenache Blanc, and 6 percent Princess. The wine has floral, identifiable orange, peach, and honey flavors. It's an awesome summer sipper.

Costieres de Nimes Nostre Pais White - I love Grenache Blanc.  Two wines make this year's list featuring the grape. It is a smooth and light on the palate wine with hints of lime. It gets big scores from critics.

Gauthier Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir - Finding under $20 Pinot Noir is a bit of a needle in a haystack. An aside, this wine normally retails at $30 but I've seen it on numerous occasions under $20. It has great strawberry, smoke and spice!

Sineann Red Table Wine - The words "Pinot Noir blend" normally should scare the heck out of you but this wine works. A noted Oregon Pinot producers dumps Pinot, Cab, Zin, with bits of Cab Franc and Merlot into this wine. It's crazy good. No, make that - CRAZY good for $17,99.

Santa Barbara Sauvignon Blanc - Nothing beats a nice crisp Sauv Blanc with seafood. If you can pick this one up for $11.99 like I did you have an outstanding value. California still makes some the world's most interesting whites.

Mondavi Private Selection Meritage - It's one of the best 'supermarket' lines available and the Meritage might be the best of the bunch. It's a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot from Monterey County. At $11, or cheaper, it's great wine.

Ca de Rocchi Montere Ripasso - Ripasso has been hot in the wine world. It's a Valpolicella region in northern Italy. Serve this Italian with pasta and your guests will think you spent much more. It's big, rich wine for $18.

Obra Prima Reserva Malbec - I mentioned this wine in my last column but it needs to be on this list for great value. It's a big wine with huge dark fruit, chocolate, and a balanced finsih. At $17, it's good as Malbec gets in the price range.

Oliver 2010 Shiraz Reserve  - An Indiana wine makes the list again this year with an asterisk. I like this wine so much I'm breaking a rule. The wines here all retail under $25, except for this one at $26. You think you know Oliver wines? Taste the Shiraz blind with friends and see how many are surprised.

Domaine Joly Blanc - I stopped putting the wines in order a couple of years ago, but if there was going to be a No. 1 on this year's list it might be this $12 white from France's Languedoc region. This is goregous Grenache Blanc at a value price.

So there is the list for another year. I could review my blog posts and probably come up with an entirely different 10 on another day. But these are wines I'm confident would not disappoing any wine drinker!

Here are links to my previous Top 10 picks:




Monday, December 17, 2012

How About Splurging for the Holidays

If there is ever a time to splurge on something special, it’s the holidays for most of us. For five years now Grape Sense has focused on value wine under $20. That’s not going to change. But for one column, here are some suggestions that will range $10-$20 higher than the wines normally mentioned here.

One of the great adventures in a wine education is discovering price point differences relative to quality. There are many differences of opinion. My experience is that when you break about $15, there is a jump in quality.

Here are some wines for a special occasion that should deliver a real bang on the palate for just a 10 or 20 spot more than the usual $12-$15 bottle. It may take a wine shop to find them, but all should be available in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. 

Lange Willamette Valley Pinot Noir – The Lange Pinot at about $22 is one of the best ‘entry level’ Oregon Pinot Noirs on the market. Jesse and Don Lange deliver better fruit than most at this price. The wine remains light bodied and well balanced the key characteristics of great Oregon Pinot Noir.

Klinker Brick Zinfandel – There are plenty of under $15 Zins on the market but few under $20 that provide the bang for the buck that Klinker Brick delivers. This is on my all-time list for great wines under 20 bucks. This is old vine Zin which delivers big fruit that balances the higher-than-usual alcohol. It’s dynamite red wine for winter meals.

Tamarack Cellars Merlot – The oft-maligned red grape is making a comeback of sorts. Washington state producers have been leading the pack in developing interesting Merlot wines with dark fruit, spice, and chocolate flavors. This wine has been a 90-point-plus entry from most of the critics. It can be found at $20-$25.

Ca’ De’ Rocchi Ripasso Montere – This is the best value Italian red wine I’ve ever tasted. Ripasso style wines from the Valpolicella district have been hot. It’s made from the Corvina, Rondinella, and Moliara grapes. The combination creates a fruit wine with some real depth. It’s perfect for food and friends who may not always be big wine drinkers. Look for it at $20-$24. The wine is an incredible value buy.

Obra Prima Reserva Malbec – As much as the Ripasso above is good for wine novices, the Obra Prima isn’t for newcomers. For the wine drinker who likes big dark fruit, dark chocolate, wonderfully balanced acid and tannin, here is a pick for you. The 2007 vintage in current release sells for $17.

Fleur Cardinale Grand Cru Saint Emilion – If you want to go all out for a special night or impress your friends, reach for Bordeaux. Wines from the world’s greatest regions are famously wonderful and expensive. This Merlot driven blend is a great way to see what the wine world swoons over when it comes to the iconic French region. Robert Parker rates it at 90 points, and I think it’s even a tad bit better than that. It really does taste well above the not-so-cheap price point of $45.

Billaud-Simon Premier Cru Montee de Tonnerre – Taste the terroir of Burgundy with this great bottle of Chablis (Chardonnay) from one of the region’s greatest producers. This wine is stunning with poultry or smoke salmon. Chablis has long suffered from poor imitators. It’s rare you can enjoy a bottle of some of the world’s very best wine for the average price of $25.

NEXT COLUMN: Check out the annual list of Top 10 Value Wines of the Year!

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes about wine every other week for 21 Midwestern newspapers. Reach him at:

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ideal Gift for Winelove on Your Shopping List

Buying wine for the wine lover on your Christmas shopping list is fraught with peril. Do you know their tastes? Do you know their favorite varietals? Can you afford their favorites?

A gift certificates for a nearby wine shop is a nice gift. But unless you are certain of the person’s wine tastes, stick with wine accessories. Glassware makes an outstanding gift. For wine drinkers, you can never have enough wine glasses or a good decanter.

There are lots of gizmos on the wine market. You can buy all sorts of devices to remove the cork, to chill wine, and more. There is one gadget though which can be a nice addition to any vino lover’s wine accessories. 

Consider buying an aerator. While the gadget isn’t new to the wine world, it hasn’t been around all that long. And now there are several types, models, and price points. Aerators can be found at better wine and liquor stores and some household stores that carry wine glasses and decanters.
For years wine drinkers would pour their wines into a decanter to soften the bite of the tannins on the finish of the wine. But in our ‘no patience, no time, and can’t wait’ society sometimes that’s not good enough.

Enter Vinturi  the manufacturer of the original wine aerator. Essentially, you pour wine through an aerator and oxygen is infused into the wine as it enters the glass and softens the taste.
Vinturi offers a base model and a Vinturi Tower model (which holds the aerator), a white wine aerator, and a travel model. The base aerator is usually priced around $35-$40. The aerator with the tower holder will cost from $50-$60.

The success of aerators has resulted in more entries into the market. 

The newer in-bottle aerators have an advantage that it’s less messy. Both of the samples I tried have a rubber-sealed neck which goes right into the wine bottle.

Soiree has a number of party and wine home supply gadgets. The Soiree is a bubble with a spout. When you turn a wine bottle completely upside down the wine swirls over the bubble and into your glass. The Soiree offers a less expensive alternative at $20-$25.

The third aerator was an in-bottle type with a sleek spout for pouring. VinOair from CorkPops would be great for travel or taking to a party. The VinOair is the least expensive of the three at $16.

But do these things really work? Ask any regular wine drinker with aerator experience, and the answer may vary.

For me, they do a nice job of making a big red wine ready to drink. And I’ve been surprised an aerator  actually helps on some white wines that have a real acidic finish.

I received samples of all three aerators and tested them with wine drinking friends. All three worked just fine and definitely softened the wine. The Vinturi is elegant; the VinOair is the most convenient, while the Soiree was the pick of my wine buddies on taste. 

An aerator is a gift a wine friend might not have in their collection yet. All three companies have good websites where you can find local retailers.

More gifts: Check Howard’s blog ( for a video with more wine gift-giving ideas.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Something Old, Something New for Holiday Turkey

The Golden Rule of wine and food pairing is a simple one – if you like it, drink it!

But when the family gathers for the turkey feast next week or at Christmas time something more is often expected. How about something different? Or maybe it’s time to serve up something a bit more extravagant!

An occupational hazard for wine writers is the expected column of wine recommendations for the holidays so who am I to disappoint?

The first rule of picking wines for a big meal is do not overly focus not the main protein. Think about all of those side dishes and the different flavors. That makes almost any wine a good pick. But with the Turkey and main course there are some certain winners and perhaps a few you’ve never tried worth picking up.

A good domestic Chardonnay will work every time. You can buy palatable bottles at the grocery or most liquor stores. I recommend value labels Robert Mondavi, Mirrasou, and flip flop as very palatable wines if you want to keep you’re price point under $10 a bottle.

Dry Riesling is another outstanding choice. Frankly, there is so much good Riesling made in the U.S., you don’t need to think foreign to find a great bottle. New York and Michigan are areas really emerging with their Riesling wines. Washington state winemakers are producing great Riesling. Several Midwestern wineries are doing Riesling as well.

If there is a decent wine shop nearby there are several other great choices. 

If you like drier wines but want a big nose of autumn in your glass try a Gewurztraminer or Viognier.  Gewurzt is one of the most aromatic wines in the world. It can be fairly sweet to off-dry. Viognier, my choice of the two, is a drier white wine with hints of apple, pear, and spice. For an even better pairing go drier with a Pinot Gris or Chenin Blanc.

For the extravagant dinner gathering, splurge for the world’s best white wine – Chablis. Better wine shops will have a few labels to choose from. Chablis is Chardonnay made in a dry, crisp style with tremendous minerality and acidity. Real Chablis comes from Chablis, France and nowhere else. 

Frankly, don’t buy the other stuff. Chablis would be awesome with any poultry. You can find great bottles starting in the $20 price range and up. Domaine William Fevre, Billaud-Simon, and Drouhin are just three labels which consistently make outstanding French white wine. 

Here is an option many people just won’t think about or consider, but Rose’ wines make a great pairing with poultry. Rose is that nice middle point between white and red wines and the quality continues to skyrocket vintage to vintage. Find a French Provence Rose or an Oregon Pinot Noir Rose for your Turkey.  Midwestern wineries make pretty good to outstanding Rose’ wines. Just go for the dry Rose wines regardless of region to match well with your dinner.

The red of choice has long been Pinot Noir for Thanksgiving. And again, if you are sticking with value look for the labels mentioned above.  But if it’s off to the wine shop, consider a French Beaujolais – and not that Nouveau stuff. Find a Beaujolais Cru wine from Julienas, Morgon, or Fleurie. The Gamay-based wines are very affordable at $12-$18 and great with food.

If you want to impress pick up any bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir above the $30 price point. It is sure to be a huge hit with your guests.

Next Column: Gadgets for the wine lover on your Christmas list!

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes about wine for 21 Midwestern newspapers. Reach him at: Read his blog at: