Friday, February 27, 2009

Try Something Different for a Change

One of the greatest joys of appreciating wine is trying something new and different.
Maybe you love Chardonnay and really enjoy trying the big oak-flavored Chards of California and then comparing them to the lighter stainless steel-aged wines of France.

Or maybe you like the bigger red wines and like to compare the fruit-forward Syrahs versus the peppery finish of a big Zinfandel.

Here’s a challenge to be more adventurous. There are more than 10,000 documented varieties of wine grapes. Most fine wines come from about 230 grape varietals. There are hundreds more pressed and aged into wines in all corners of the world.
So instead of trying the same wine from another country, how about trying a grape you’ve only heard of or, better yet, one you’ve never heard of at all?

Let’s start with some red wines for your consideration. If quizzed on the mostly widely planted grape in the world many would probably guess it’s Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s widely believed that Grenache is the most planted varietal of wine grapes. The heart of Grenache (or Garnacha in Spain) is the Spanish countryside and lower France, though it is grown around the world.

Grenache is often used in blends and is the key grape in many of the fabulous Southern France wines such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Those wines are usually more expensive juice, starting at around $40 a bottle and going up. But I’d suggest buying a bottle of Spanish Garnacha in order to try something different. There are many great Spanish Garnacha wines in the $12-$20 range.

Grenache will often have something of an herbal nose with raspberry and peppery notes. The wines can range from super smooth to big robust wines. It’s a very easy-to-drink wine you’ll enjoy by itself or with food.

How could you not like a wine when the grapes are known as “little sweet ones?” Dolcetto D’ Alba is an Italian grape and wine from the Piedmont region of Italy meant to be consumed when young. If you buy much red Italian wine the odds are you’re buying Sangiovese. The Dolcetto grape makes a wine which is dry with some acidity. You’ll taste the fruit and it will go down smooth. Try it with your next plate of pasta instead of Chianti.

You’ll have an easier time finding Grenache than you will the Dolcetto, but both are worthy of your palate. And both are usually quite affordable.

Other reds worth your effort which are relatively smooth, easy to drink and affordable: Malbecs and Bonarda from Argentina, Carmenere from Chile, and wonderfully affordable Tempranillo or Mencia from Spain. (I’ll be writing about these wines in future columns as well!)

Let’s switch gears for the white wine fans and offer a couple I think you’ll really enjoy.

First up is an ancient grape that dates back to Roman times. The wine is quite easy to find and even easier to enjoy. Viognier started in France but can be found extensively in the United States, Australia and other parts of the world.

One of the great things about this wine is the nose. I think one of the most under-appreciated aspect of all wines is the sensual pleasure of getting your nose into the glass and really appreciate what you’re about to drink.

Viognier will give you hints of peaches, apricots and sometimes musk. The California Viognier is usually very affordable. If you want to go to the grape’s origins pick up a Condrieu from the Northern Rhone region of France.

Some of the best white wines you will ever drink come from wineries and grapes you’ve never heard of out of Italy and Spain. One of the easiest to find is Soave, a dry white wine from Italy’s Veneto region. Soave wines will sometimes include more than one but always includes the Garganega grape.

The wine will be crisp and at least slightly acidic but pair it with seafood and you have a great wine-food experience. The wine will have a bright and fruity nose and perhaps a touch of mineral to the taste.

Other whites to consider include: Gew├╝rztraminer, an aromatic and spicy wine that is awesome on a summer evening. Gewurtz’s hybrid brother Traminette is grown and made into great wine by many Indiana wineries, great Pinot Gris from Oregon, and a great French or American Chenin Blanc are all good choices.

Howard’s Picks:

2006 Vega del Castillo Garnacha – A nice representation of the wine, a bit acidic but pairs well with food. Give it an hour open before pouring. Under $15.

2004 Tamellini Soave – A beautiful wine that would pair nicely with white fish. It has a bit of apricot on the palate and a surprisingly smooth finish. I paid $13 for this Italian beauty.

A reminder that any wine I recommend in these columns was purchased in an Indiana wine shop. To read more about the wines and what I’m drinking, go to my wine blog at

Friday, February 13, 2009

Wine and Cheese/Chocolate Make Great Date

Wine and cheese.

We’ve grown up with the pairing as an established clich├ę in American culture. But with Valentine’s Day approaching, and really any other time, try something healthier and even more sensual. How about wine and chocolate?

At first glance the pairing seems most unlikely. I found myself in that camp for some time until I put a Zinfandel to a dark chocolate cake about five years ago. Wow! Now I regularly nibble a little bit of chocolate after dinner to finish off a glass of wine.

Pairing chocolate to wine is much like pairing your dinner entre’ to the right wine. You want to balance and complement the flavors of each treat.

There are some general guidelines that work in trying to find the perfect match. First, the wine should be at least a bit sweeter than the chocolate. During your experimentation, you will find some duos are great on the first bite or sip but then go sour. It takes experimentation.

Another tip is to let each totally dissipate in your mouth before going back and forth. You’ll find early on that each taste of chocolate and each sip of wine is like your first taste of the evening.

Now, some common sense advice: If you enjoy lighter and sweeter chocolates then you’re going to be looking at lighter-bodied wines. For example, if you enjoy white chocolate you might want to try a Sherry or a Muscat or perhaps even a sparkling wine.

You might want to pair a Pinot Noir, Merlot or even a German Spatlese-style Riesling with milder to medium chocolates.

If you’re ready to pair the big boys, start with chocolate at the 60 percent cacao level. Then you can experiment to see what works for your palate. At the 60 percent mark, you might want to try a Zinfandel or Syrah. If you are a big mouthful-of-flavor wine person, buy some 65-70 cacao chocolate and break out the Cabernet or any other big red wine.

My personal favorite is chocolate and Zinfandel. I like the big powerful Zins which tend to be very fruit forward with a peppery finish. They will hold up to the 60 or 70 percent cacao products. Some Zins will pair better than others. Many value priced Zins will pair best with chocolate in the 60 percent range. If you jump up in price point to around $25-$30 for a huge Zinfandel, you might want the powerful 70 percent chocolate to hold its own.

It’s not difficult now days to find good chocolate. Even grocery stores carry Ghirardelli, Dove, and other products. But as a recommendation to get started I’d suggest Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate. It’s 60 percent cacao and a fine product. Every grocery has it and the large bar is usually in the $1.80 price range. Indiana Kroger stores often have it on sale for $1 a bar.

Wine Spectator, in an issue on wine and chocolate about a year ago, singled out Special Dark as surprisingly good. You can also, of course, buy expensive hand-made truffles and live it up! There are even specialty chocolate companies that make specific chocolates for specific wines. I haven’t tried Brix but it makes three chocolate bars for wine. They’re available in Indiana at World Market and other up-scale groceries.

Start slow with small bites. Let the flavors melt in your mouth. Wine and chocolate can be a very inexpensive luxury.

Remember to check out my wine blog ( for updates on lots of different wines I’m drinking and news from the wine world.

Howard’s pick:
Renwood Zinfandel – Renwood is one of California’s best known and widely available quality Zinfandel producers. Its 2005 Old Vine Zin is a real gem at $14-$20, depending on where you pick it up. Most often, you’ll find the wine for around $15-$16. It’s nicely balanced though relatively high in alcohol at 15 percent. It’s a perfect wine for 60 percent cacao chocolate.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Few Basic Suggestions for Newbies

When I talk to friends or acquaintances really into wine, more often than not they most frequently ask about wine tips more than recommendations on particular wines.
So today I’ve rounded up a list of suggestions, guidance, and ideas that may help you enjoy wine even more. You can find list after list available in wine books and the internet but I’ve selected some I think are most helpful.

Wine storage – Keep your wine in a dark, moderate temperature spot. Ever wonder why wine comes in dark glass bottles? Light will break down the chemical structure of the wine. Buy a simple wine rack that is easy to find in most any home store. Keep it away from heat and away from direct sunshine or bright light and you should be fine. Never store wine on top of a refrigerator or near a heat source.

Wine glasses – You can find wine glasses at Wal Mart or Target. You can also spend close to $100 apiece for Riedel crystal wine stems. But the best and least expensive advice is to buy two different kinds of glasses. Buy a big bowl wine glass for your red wines and a smaller glass for your white wines. It took me a long time but it makes a difference. If you have advanced to wines which are a little more complex and expensive, then you can look to different shapes and better stemware. If you are getting serious about your wine, Riedel (and other companies) offer crystal wine glasses at a number of price points. Riedel, the Austrian glassmaker, is the world’s leader in wine stemware.

Washing wine glasses – You might say, huh? It’s important to clean your wine glasses thoroughly immediately after using them. Use mild dish soap sparingly and dry immediately. The slightest residue can affect the taste of your next glass of wine.
Wine Ratings – Ratings are one of the most controversial topics in oenophile circles. They are meant to be a guideline. If you buy highly-rated wines and like them, then the ratings are useful to you. I’d recommend you take recommendations from your local wine shop owner. Then when you return, tell them what you like and didn’t like.

Value wine – You like wine and want to enjoy it more often but don’t like the price of better wines? Go abroad! There are good U.S. made value wines. But if you look at South American wines, Spanish wines, and Australian wines, you’ll find some great wines in the $9-$15 range.

Restaurant wine – Unless you’re fabulously wealthy, buying a bottle of wine in a restaurant is seldom a bargain. Restaurant wines are often marked up 100 percent or more. I will order a glass of wine in a nice restaurant, but just refuse to pay $50 for a bottle I know costs $22.

Chilling wine - There is more advice on wine temperature than you can sort out. Put a white wine in your refrigerator for 1-2 hours – no more. For a red wine, I’d open the bottle and chill about 10-15 minutes before serving. Try these methods then adjust the time to your taste.

Storing wine overnight – Frankly, I’ve found few things that work and have tried them all. What I use is a vacuum pump and rubber bottle stop. The small stopper goes in the bottle and has a small slit in the top. The pump removes some of the air to help preserve the wine. It works about as well as any of the other methods. Basically, find a way to limit your wine’s exposure to oxygen. White wine will often last a couple of days in the fridge. For me, red will only hold together about 24 hours.

It would take all of the pages of this newspaper for a comprehensive list. If you have a specific question, drop me a line at the email address below. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll find one for you.

Don’t forget to check the complementary blog ( I write for this column. I share wine news and thoughts about wines I’m drinking. In the blog I also share detail on price points and where I buy wine.