A collection of wine suggestions and tips to enhance your drinking experience.
Remember, the fun is exploring new wines and regions.
SPANISH WINE – PART TWO – Spain produces many enjoyable white wines. One of my favorites is Albarino. An excellent, and largely unknown, area to look to is Galicia.
The cooler climate of Galicia makes it difficult to ripen grape enough to produce red wine but this factor makes it more hospitable for white grapes. Albarino is the most important grape type and is a dry white wine.
Generally, Albariños are light-to-medium bodied, high in acidity, and fragrant, with notes of peach, lemon, and apple blossom. On the palate, Albariño tends to be mineral-driven with more of a lemon-lime flavor. If you like Pinot Grigio, this is a wine you must try.
These wines are widely available and quality can be had for 15- 25.- a bottle.
SPANISH WINE – PART ONE – Spain has more acres of vineyards than any other nation. It is also second, behind Italy, in terms of the amount of wine it produces (even more than France!).
Since there is so much ‘ground’ to cover, we’ll limit this piece to red wines and a couple of geographic areas.
Spain has 82 different wine regions! We’ll focus on just a couple areas to seek wines from. As with the regions, even though Spain produces wines from hundreds of different grape varietals, we’ll focus on the main grape types.
Spain’s most well known regions are Rioja and Ribera del Duero, which are known for wines made from Tempranillo. Less well known but interesting are the wines from Priorat and the nearby region called Monsant.
While is Spain, we drank some fabulous Riojas but though, in many cases, less expensive than comparable quality wines from Italy, France or America, they are not bargains.
Ribera del Duero. I’ve stressed the importance of looking for wines others don’t know, as it translates into better values.
The wines of Ribera del Duero are primarily made from Tempranillo (as is Rioja) As with Rioja, labels from Ribera del Duero tell you how long the wine has been aged with the terms Crianza (1 year in Oak barrels, 1 year in bottle), Reserva (1 year barrel, 2 in bottle) and Gran Reserva (2 years in barrel and 3 in bottle)
Of course, the longer a wine is aged, the more expensive it is. Older wines also tend to be, and I hate this term, smoother. The aging in bottle softens the tannins, taking the edge off. More time in oak barrels also imparts more flavor into the wine adding complexity.
In traditional Rioja bottlings they use American Oak, while winemakers in Ribera del Duero opt for French oak, making it likely you’ll taste vanilla, cinnamon & clove. As a generalization, Ribera del Duero is more opulent and polished than the rustic, earthy Rioja.
Priorat is among my favorite regions as it is primarily made with grenache or as the Spaniards say Garnacha. These wines are blends. Prices have gone up and so has the quality of the wine from Priorat.
But don’t fret –
You can find similar wines from Monsant, an area that essentially encircles Priorat. The wines of Monsant are full bodied, providing both black and red fruit tastes along with hints of tobacco, earth and leather.
SPAIN – A recent trip to Spain, naturally involved drinking wine. I’d like to share some interesting observations;
Happily, the prices of wines, even in upscale restaurants were well below the cost in similar eateries in the USA.
Wines by the glass were the biggest surprise. Good wines were priced around 4 to 5 Euros. ($4-5.-)
It became a game to see what the pricing would be in places we stopped in. The winner; getting an afternoon coffee, I asked about the wines and was told 2 Euro per glass.
I said which particular wines, as that was low and he replied, “the good stuff is 2.50!
About 80 percent of the wine sold in Spain is sold in supermarkets. Prices in these retailers are around 10. Euro a bottle.
What was disappointing was the level of knowledge servers had. This is a generalization but when asking for a glass of wine, they’d assume it would be red and would walk away without presenting options.
I’d ask for a list and try to engage the server but they often defaulted to a Ribera. Though Spain has 82 different wine producing regions, they don’t recommend ‘local’ wines.
This is a stark difference as in Italy or France you’ll get eyes rolling if in Piedmont, Italy asking for a Sicilian wine. Or in the South France and ordering a Bordeaux.
The culture of drinking the local wines with the cuisine of that particular region seems not to have developed in Spain.
My observations are generalizations. If you visit a good wine shop, you’ll encounter high levels of wine knowledge.
I plan to do an overview of the wine produced in Spain’s main regions in November.
SUPER TUSCAN – A Super Tuscan wine is a premium Italian wine originating from the region of Tuscany. These wines emerged as a rebellious response to the strict, traditional rules governing Italian wine production, particularly in regions like Chianti.
Those rules enforced uncompromising guidelines on grape varietals, blending proportions, and production methods. While aimed to preserve regional authenticity, it limited the creativity and innovation of winemakers, preventing them from exploring the potential for creating exceptional, world-class wines.
Visionary winemakers began experimenting with grape varieties that were not part of traditional Tuscan blends, including international favorites like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. They also embraced modern techniques banned under the existing regulations, such as utilizing small French oak barrels for aging, a practice that added complexity and depth to the wines, as well as other advancements in viticulture and vinification.
The high quality wines being made led to an Italian classification dilemma. They did not conform to the established regional classifications, earning them the designation of “Vino da Tavola,” the lowest category for table wine. Despite this labeling, their quality and popularity soared.
Realizing the significance and potential of these wines, Italian wine authorities eventually responded with a new classification known as “Indicazione Geografica Tipica” (IGT) in the 1990’s.
The top Super Tuscans can be expensive ($100 – 400) but there are many ‘second labels’ to explore that are budget friendly. Here are a couple examples – Castello Banfi Centine Toscana, Podere Brancaia Tre Rosso Toscana, Tenuta Sette Ponti Crognolo Toscana.
ABRUZZO, ITALY – This region lies along Italy’s east coast, hugging the Adriatic Sea. The area is known as “Europe’s Green Lung”, as a third of the region is comprised of parks and preserves. There is a long tradition of wine making in Abruzzo, dating back to 6 BC.
It’s signature wines are the white Trebbiano, a Cerasulo Rose and the red, Montepulciano. Note – A wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is made in Tuscany with the Sangiovese grape. Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is made in the Abruzzo region from Montepulciano but many believe it and Sangiovese are the same grape.
A two-hour drive from Rome, Abruzzo wines have always been thought to be great values. This still holds true, though a movement is underway to change their low-priced positioning to one that is more premium in nature. This move up is backed up by wonderful winemakers producing world-class wines..
What to expect? Montepulciano D’Abruzzo – prices vary widely but you can find pleasurable wines in the 20 dollar range, featuring blackberry jam and plum overtones. Trebbiano – This straw colored white, has a bouquet of floral and flowers and offers almond and fruit notes on the palette.
Here are a couple of values producers to look for – La Vallentina, Masceriarelli, Cantina Tollo, Valle Reale.
Explore the wines of Abruzzo. You will not be disappointed and your wallet will thank you.
PUGLIA, ITALY – This large region on southern Italy’s Adriatic Coast is growing in popularity. Two main crops are grown, Olives and grapes. (About half of Italy’s olive oil production comes from Puglia.)
Approximately, 80% of the grapes grown are red. Puglia is best known for Primitivo (which we know as Zinfandel) they also focus on Negroamaro, Sangiovesi, as well as Montepulciano and Uva de Trioa. For whites the predominate types are Fiano and Trebbiano.
The wines are considered values as price points are well below Italy’s famous regions such as Tuscany and Piedmonte. They are not as widely distributed in America but are making inroads. I suspect they’ll shortly be prominent in American stores. (Salice Salento, a red wine made from the Negroamara grape, is widely available and can be had for 12-20 dollars (see below))
Having recently visited, I have some personal thoughts:
Anxious to explore these wines, I was disappointed. While the wines were quaffable, for me, they were too simplistic. The wines we sampled were uncomplicated, lacking the depth I craved. *Their Primitivo wines were of a higher quality but I personally don’t enjoy Zins.
Personal preferences aside, these are wines to check out as the values are compelling. *A white I liked was Puglian Fiano.
*One winery we visited, Cantina Coppola in Gallipoli (no relation the iconic Francis Ford Coppola), started making wines in 1489! Yes, 3 years before Columbus set sail for America. The same family has been making vino for 18 generations!
*A note on olive production, the South of Italy has been hit hard by a virus, which kills olive trees. We drove past hundreds of acres of dead trees. The depressing sight was slightly off-set by many acres of newly planted saplings. (it takes around 2 years to start yielding olives)
Grenache – Admittedly, wines made from this grape are my favorites. My personal preference being the ones originating in the Southern Rhone.
These easy drinking wines, made with grenache or blends with it, are produced in many places, notably, France, Spain (Garnacha), California and the Italian island of Sardinia (Cannonau).
Grenache is one of the most widely planted varietals in the world. And for good reason; they’re pleasurable to drink and reasonably priced, if not cheap for the value they provide.
I recommend starting to explore the grenache based wines from the Southern Rhone. At the entry level, Cote Du Rhones are spectacular values. These predominately Grenache based wines are made from grapes grown on the sun-drenched hillsides of the Rhone Valley.
For 15-20 dollars you can buy an easy drinking, medium to full bodied wine boasting a flavor profile of black fruits (plums, black currant, blackberries) and spices. These wonderful wines are also food friendly.
Give these a try, you won’t be disappointed.
WHITE BURGUNDY – The white wines of Burgundy, France are some of the most expensive wines in the world. But there are options…
Admittedly, I have very limited knowledge of the prestigious region. Filled with scores of small vineyards and producers, Burgundy is a complicated to understand. The wines from this eastern area of France are predominately Chardonnay based and highly prized by drinkers and collectors.
Burgundy is comprised of five major zones: Chablis, Côte Chalonnaise, Côte de Beaune, Côte de Nuits and the Mâconnais. White Burgundy from Chablis is simply known as Chablis. Côte de Beaune is known for it’s prestigious white Burgundies.
The Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais offer some of the most budget-friendly white Burgundy options.
In addition to looking into these two lower priced areas, you can search for white Burgundies made from or with, the Aligote grape. Burgundies other white grape, produces wine that are light and citrusy.
Aligote is not as widely planted but offers great value for those looking to explore the white wines of Burgundy.
Restaurant Wine Prices – Inflation is rampant and the cost to eat and drink outside the home has risen dramatically. The prices charged by many eateries for a bottle of wine borders on the outlandish. Being aware of what many wines cost makes it easy to calculate mark-ups of nearly four (4) times the retail cost! (and they buy below retail!)
Another annoying trend is the price for wines by the glass; at too many establishments, it borders on insulting diners. Often, the cost for a glass is more they pay for the entire bottle.
The only defense we have is bring a bottle with us. It’s a touchy subject in many locales and the corkage fee charged by some, makes it clear they don’t want to encourage this strategy.
However, I’ve discovered that restaurant proprietors who appreciate wine generally price their offerings with about a doubling of the retail price. Support these wine friendly places and those that charge a reasonable corkage fee.
Nebbiolo – the legendary grape of Barolo and Barbaresco. These wines can be magical but they’re expensive.
If you enjoy flavorful, full bodied wines, keep reading because you don’t have to spend a lot to have the same experience.
Focus on ‘lesser-known’ beauties from the Langhe area of Piedmont. It’s another wine ninety-five percent of drinkers don’t know about and thus there is less demand. Take advantage of this in-balance.
A suggestion is to seek out Langhe Nebbiolo wines. They may not be as stunning as the best Barolos or Barbaresco but are still enjoyable and can be had for 20-30 a bottle.
They’re generally made with grapes from the same areas as the expensive wines are. The same producers are behind these delicious wines and they are widely available.
Chenin Blanc – An affordable, food friendly white wine to consider.
Though it’s roots are originally from France’s Loire Valley, good Chenin Blanc is also coming from South Africa, Australia and California.
Generally speaking, wines made from chenin blanc, feature a taste profile including apple, pear, quince and honey.
Because of its high acid and fruit-forwardness, chenin blanc is one of the most versatile grapes for pairing with food.
They are also wallet friendly. Try one tonight!
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – Here’s another Italian wine, from the Siena region of Tuscany, that is off the radar. It’s difficult to pronounce and most people are unfamiliar with it. That keeps demand & prices low.
Seek these wines out. They are widely available and appear on many restaurant wine lists. They are aged from 24 – 36 months (with a min of 12 months in oak) With a deep maroon color and dark cherry and plum aromas, these wines have a flavor profile including strawberry and cherry flavors with a touch of tea.
Just 20 – 30 dollars, give them a try. You’ll enjoy them.
CHIANTI – The image many Americans had of Chianti in a straw covered bottle full of low grade juice took a long time to recover from. For too long a period, most of the Chianti in the United States was cheap and barely drinkable.
Changes in wine making technique and stricter control of what is classified as Chianti have dramatically improved the wines of this important region.
Chianti, especially the higher quality designations known as Classico or Superiore, is something every wine lover should revisit.
Chianti is in the heart of Tuscany and its wine sub-zones were created back in 1716. The primary grape of the region is Sangiovese and to be called a Chianti, a wine must contain at least 80% of it.
The wines of Chianti are aged for different periods before release. Six months for simpler wines, a year for Classico and Superiore, 2 years for Riserva and 2 1/2 for a relatively new designation known as Gran Selezione.
Focus on Classico, as quality is high and the wines are readily available. There are a wide range of prices but excellent wines can be had in the neighborhood of $25.- Many of these wines are age worthy and its an inexpensive way to build a little collection on the cheap.
The time is now. Recent vintages are outstanding and provide a wonderful time to explore these important, tasty wines.
Factoid – The Black Rooster that appears on many Chianti Classico bottles is a symbol of the peace between Florence and Siena, who had been bitter rivals for centuries.
Wine Ruts – I’m a big proponent of trying new wines. However, we’re all prone to routine and ‘sticking with what we know.
It’s comfortable defaulting to a wine style or producer we like. But that’s limiting and you’ll be spending more than you should for a pleasurable drinking experience.
What is surprising is how wide-spread drinking the same wine is, even amongst professionals in the wine business. Lettie Teague writes a wine column in the Wall Street Journal and recently wrote an article on this subject. She interviewed several sommeliers who admitted to drinking the same wine over and over.
I’m not going to allow you to fall into the same ‘trap’. How do you know you found your favorite wine if you haven’t explored the bounty of wines produced around the globe? If you find a restaurant or wine bar with a varied selection of wines by glass, your ‘investment’ is just a glass deep.
Stretch, it’s fun and will probably end up saving you a lot of money.
Languedoc-Roussillon, France – I know it’s a mouthful but the very fact it looks tough to pronounce makes it a place for values.) Anything you can’t easily ask for without feeling silly, is likely to be in far less demand.)
Languedoc – (Laang daak), Roussillon (Roo see own) (see that was easy) – are in the southern part of France, bordering the Mediterranean coastline. Despite being relatively unknown, the region is responsible for one third of France’s formidable wine production.
Most of the wines from this region are blends. Red wines are usually full-bodied and fruit driven. The grapes are generally Rhone varietals – Grenache, Syrah, Carignan & Mourvedre.
Whites are generally zesty and oak is rarely deployed. Grenache Blanc and Picpoul are prominently used. They are great summer wines.
There are many appellations (and sub-appellations) but don’t concern yourself about them at this point. Browse your retailer’s offerings. You’re sure to find a lot of offerings below $20.- in both the red, rose and white categories.
Maremma, Tuscany, Italia – Bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea, this region is producing some wonderful wines and they are generally price friendly.
Interestingly, the area was mainly marshlands which were drained under a plan pushed by the Medici family. Now, onto the wines…
Widely available are Maremma Toscana Rossos – These are red wine blends using varietals such as Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauivignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot and an up and coming Italian grape called Ciligiolo. The ruby colored wines have good fruit flavors (dark cherries) and soft tannins.
These Rossos offer plenty of pleasure in the 18 – 30 dollar range.
Maremma is also know for it’s white wine, particularly, Vermentino. Though they also have a Maremma Toscana Bianco (primarily a blend of Vermentino and Trebbiano). The whites of the region are a good switch from Sauvignon Blanc and have a flavor profile of pear, vanilla and minerals.
*Sangiovese – translates to – The blood of Jupiter
Restaurant Wine Lists – Who hasn’t sat at a table where the wine list is passed around like a hot potato? Navigating a wine list is a skill everyone can use to find a good value.
Some truths –
Many restaurants have gone crazy, marking up wines, 3 and 4 times, the retail prices. I consider that gouging.
The highest mark-ups are on the wine regions and styles everyone knows – Bordeaux, Super Tuscans. Napa Valley Cabernets.
Restaurateurs who are passionate about wine, not only offer a great selection of wines but usually price them with lower mark-ups.
If a wine list is weighted toward a particular region or country, it’s a sign whoever built the list is knowledgeable about those wines and enjoys them. You should make your selection from it, even if obscure (dined at restaurant with several wines from the Canary Islands. (I have limited knowledge of the wines, but choose one, enjoyed it and banked the info.)
Avoid the cheapest and second cheapest wines on the list. (they’re generally the worst values)
If a list fails to mention the vintage (year), it’s a sign they’re not serious about wine. Be careful.
Building a awareness of a small base of solid producers, will go a long way towards finding drinkable values.
More Coming – I’ll add to this with widely available producers to consider as well as varietals (grape types) to look for and to void.
Values can be found around the globe but let’s start with Italy, which has 355 different grape varietals. How about a white as a summer sipper, that’s not a Pinot Grigio?
The whites from Orvieto, Italy (Umbria region) are usually, a blend of the Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes. They pair well with seafood, chicken and white pizza. Best of all, they’re inexpensive around $10 – 20 a bottle.
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The key in Italy, as in most producing countries, is not to focus on the ‘big boys’; In Italy’s case – Barolo, or Super Tuscans as examples. They’re good but expensive. Instead, explore wines from lesser known regions like Basilicata or Veneto.
Try a Dolcetto or Barbera, which come from the same region as Barolo. Or if you enjoy Tuscan wines, instead of a Super-Tuscan, try a Montepulciano. It’s what Luca would do!
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Barbera – An Italian red grape type, is the 3rd most widely planted in Italy.
Traditionally, it is grown in Northern Italy, in particularly in Piedmont (home of Barolo) If you enjoy wine made with the Nebbiolo grape (Barolo, Barberesco) or Chianti, you’ll love a Barbera. They can be bought from just $20 – 35 a bottle.
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Gigondas- (gi·gaan·duhz) is a wine region in France’s Southern Rhone. Just 10 miles away from the legendary area of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it is also made from the Grenache grape. One difference is Gigondas vineyards are planted at higher elevations than C D Pape.
Most people don’t know these rich and complex wines or even how to pronounce the name. The unfamiliarity usually translates into a good value. Seek them out.
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Tasting and Assessing Wine
First and foremost, drinking wine should be pleasurable and uncomplicated. At the end of the day, it’s a beverage and you should never feel intimidated or pressured to explain what you think about it.
If you want to go further than just filling a wine glass and chugging it down, here are some suggestions to evaluate a wine.
What does the wine look like?
Tilt a glass at a 45-degree angle and look at the wine against something white, like a napkin. Is the wine clear or cloudy? Examine the color. Bright or subdued? Look at the rim of the wine. Is there a brownish tinge, indicating an older wine that may be in decline?
Smell the Wine
Swirl a glass of wine to agitate its aromas. Stick your nose in the glass and take a couple of sniffs.
Is the aroma strong or weak? What do you smell? Common scents in white wines are yellow, white and orange fruits. In reds, they can be red, purple, black and blue fruits. Irrespective of the color of wine, many give off floral, herbal or spice scents. Oak aromas such as vanilla, cedar or oak may also be detectable, if oak was used in making the wine.
Some wines have a funky aroma to them. Often it is described as a barnyard smell. It does not necessarily mean the wine is bad, though it may be. Give it some time to ‘blow off’ then take a sip. Tasting the Wine
Now comes the fun part! Some people are incredible tasters; able to detect and describe flavors many of us cannot. Don’t let that deter you from having fun with it.
The temperature of the wine is critical to its taste. Assuming the guidelines laid out in an earlier article were followed, take a sip of wine and move it around in your mouth. Make sure it hits every part of your mouth, as there are sensors everywhere. In fact, much of your ‘taste’ comes through your nasal passages.
Is the wine light bodied or full?
Are the flavors bold or weak? What flavors? Do they mirror what you got from the aroma?
Are the wine’s flavors balanced? Or does something stick out?
Is the wine ‘hot’? Meaning too high in alcohol.
How are the tannins? Gripping, astringent? Silky or smooth?
Take another sip. This time concentrate on the finish of the wine. How long do the flavors last?
This doesn’t have to be a serious endeavor. These steps should enhance your wine drinking experience. It is a lot of fun to do this with other people and bounce your discoveries off each other.