Category:Wine advice

Dessert wine basics

dessert wine basicsDessert wine is the great mystery of the wine business, usually associated with “dotty old ladies or rich men with English accents,” as I wrote in the current issue of Bottom Line Personal (which has bought quite a bit of freelance from me lately). Give that I have done very little with dessert wine over the blog’s history, this piece gives me an opportunity to correct that oversight.

Highlights from the piece (click the link to the story for recommendations):

? The most common dessert wines are ports from Portugal and sherries from Spain, but dessert wines are made wherever wine is produced, from Australia to Canada to Hungary. Port and sherry are made with wine grapes, though port uses red grapes and sherry white. There are dry sherries, such as fino, but all port is sweet.

? International law doesn ?t allow most ports or sherries made anywhere else in the world to be called by those names, so non-Portuguese ports and non- Spanish sherries will be labeled as ?dessert wine, ? ?port-style, ? ?sherry-style ? or something similar.

? The production techniques for port and sherry are much more complicated than those for table wine and involve long aging (often years) and the addition of brandy or other alcohol to fortify them. That ?s why they ?re also called fortified wines.

? Dessert wines aren’t cheap, and some, like Sauternes, can cost hundreds of dollars (which may explain their absence here). But since a dessert wine serving is less than a table wine serving, one or two small glasses of port or sherry or whatever are more than sufficient. That means a $20 half-bottle can be the equivalent of a $10 or $15 full bottle of table wine.

Chateau Bonnet Blanc and why scores are useless

Chateau Bonnet BlancChateau Bonnet is the $10 French wine that is one of the world’s great values and has been in the Hall of Fame since the first ranking in 2007. As such, it has always been varietally correct, impeccably made, an outstanding value, and cheap and delicious. The 2012 Bonnet blanc, which I had with dinner the other night, made me shake my head in amazement. How could a cheap white wine that old still be so enjoyable?

What more could a wine drinker want?

A lot, apparently, if a couple of the scores for the 2012 on CellarTracker (the blog’s unofficial wine inventory app) are to be believed. The Chateau Bonnet blanc scored 80 points from someone who said the label was ugly and 83 points from a Norwegian, and that a Norwegian was using points shows how insidious scores have become.

The irony is that the tasting notes for the low scores were quite complimentary. The 80-point mentioned “crisp dry tones and pleasant blend of melon flavours” while the 83 described herbs, minerals, and citrus, and neither noted any off flavors or flaws. Yet, given those scores, the Bonnet blanc was barely an average wine, hardly better than the grocery store plonk I regularly complain about on the blog.

Which it’s not. Those two wine drinkers are allowed to score the wine as low as they like, and they’re allowed to dislike it. That’s not the problem. The problem is consistency; someone else gave the Bonnet blanc a 90, citing minerality and lime zest — mostly the same description as the low scores. Yet a 90 signifies an outstanding wine. How can a wine that three people describe the same way get such different scores?

Because scores are inherently flawed, depending as they do on the subjective judgment of the people giving the scores. If I believed scores and I saw the 80 or the 83, I’d never try the Chateau Bonnet blanc, even if I liked melon flavors or minerals and citrus. Which is the opposite of what scores are supposed to do. And that they now do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do means it’s time — past time, in fact — to find a better way.

For more on wine scores:
? Wine scores, and why they don’t work (still)
? Wine competitions and wine scores
? Great quotes in wine history: Humphrey Bogart

Four things college students taught me about wine

wine educationFour things college students, including my El Centro viticulture and enology class and two University of North Texas classes, taught me about wine this semester. Call it Wine Education for Curmudgeons 101:

? Regional wine matters to people who didn’t help start a regional wine group. I don’t know why this always surprises me, but it does. Maybe because when I mention it to too many adults, they look at me as if I want them to drink castor oil? But when I talk about regional and Texas wine to students, they understand the idea of local wine and its relationship to local food, and they’re more than happy to try it. Enjoy it and buy it, even.

? The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, and he doesn’t look too good naked. We did a Napa and Sonoma tasting in my El Centro class, five wines that cost at least $40 (that I brought from samples in the wine closet). The students were not impressed, noting how commercial they tasted, how overpriced they were, and how they expected a lot more for what the wines cost. Even more surprising: They came to these conclusions on their own, without any help from me. All I do in a tasting is pour the wines, talk about who made them, and ask the students what the wines taste like. We don’t even discuss price until the end.

? The world does not revolve around cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and merlot. As someone who never met a grape, no matter how odd, that he didn’t want to try, this always makes me feel better about the future of wine in the U.S. People my age, faced with a grape they don’t recognize, tend to glaze over. The North Texas students, on the other hand, were fascinated with a dry riesling.

? People like wine I don’t like. I know this is true, but it always helps to see it in action. We did a Washington state grocery store merlot, full of fake oak, gobs of sweet fruit, and winemaking sleight of hand at North Texas. When I asked who liked it, as I always do, almost everyone did. Which reinforces the most important (and only) rule about wine: If you like it, it’s a good wine, and it doesn’t matter what wine writers, even the one teaching the class, think. Just be willing to try different kinds of wine to see if there is something else you might like.

Slider photo courtesy of Leta Durrett

How to buy wine at the grocery store

grocery store wine tips

The supermarket Great Wall of Wine is the Rubik’s Cube of wine buying, with hundreds and hundreds of bottles to choose from, confusing pricing, and no one to ask for help. But it is possible to buy quality wine at the grocery store, and you don’t even need to know much about varietal or region. Just keep these grocery store wine tips in mind:

? The cuter the label, the more simple the wine. This means there is little balance or interest. Instead, they’re what producers call easy to drink — red wine with lots of sweet fruit and almost no tannins, and white wine with almost honeyed fruit and the minimal amount of acidity necessary to make it palatable. Whether these wines are good or bad isn’t the point; rather, is this the kind of wine you want to buy (or avoid)? If it is, then these labels are a clue.

? Who makes the wine? This is almost impossible to tell, since most of the wine in the grocery store usually comes from a dozen or so producers — our friends at Big Wine — and they would prefer you don’t know. So look for something like ?Produced and bottled. , ?Vinted and bottled. , or ?Imported and bottled. The location that follows usually identifies the parent company, so that many Gallo-owned brands say Modesto, Calif. The ?imported ? line may have a company name similar to the name of the multi-national that owns the brand, so that CWUS is part of Constellation Brands. A more complete list is in this post.

? Decipher the back label. Pay attention to the choice of words, and not what they mean. Simple, less interesting wines rarely describe themselves as fresh, clean, or earthy. Rather, they use terms like rich, plush, luscious, and even roasted. Also, chocolate and caramel show up more often than not, especially in very ordinary red wine, along with badly written homages to oak — vanilla bean is one of my favorites.

? Beware older vintages with steep discounts, especially if the wine wasn’t made in the U.S. This is often a sign the wine has been sitting in a warehouse, sometimes for years, and is more likely to have gone off. The supermarket, which may have bought the wine for pennies on the dollar, doesn’t care if it’s spoiled; who returns bad wine to the grocery store? One rule of thumb: Be wary of white wine older than two years and red wine older than three.

Nine silly wine facts

wine factsNine silly wine facts you probably didn’t know — or didn’t know you needed to know:

1. Two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk has as many calories as one glass of wine, around 125. Knowing this, I expect the federal Centers for Disease Control to propose higher taxes and more regulation for sweetened condensed milk, as well as strategies to wean us off the stuff.

2. The Romans, the world’s second great wine culture, had wine writers (which no doubt hastened the collapse of the empire). Pliny the Elder, one of the most famous, wrote that second-rate wines “cannot properly be termed wines.” It’s a good thing he didn’t know about scores.

3. That no one but the super-rich can afford the best French wine is nothing new. In 1845, Fraser’s Magazine quoted a Bordeaux wine merchant, who complained that the leading French wines were not only too expensive, but that he wasn’t able find any to buy.

4. The French, whose wine industry was almost destroyed by the phylloxera pest at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, probably discovered phylloxera — though they didn’t know it. French colonists in 16th century Florida were never able to grow grapes; the vines always died, and the descriptions of what happened seem to have indicated phylloxera.

5. The U.S. attitude toward regional wine — “I don’t need to drink it to know it isn’t any good” — may have its roots in 19th century English wine. Wrote Punch, a popular humor magazine: English wine needed four people to drink it: One victim, two to hold him down, and one other to pour the wine down his throat.

6. It sounds like an urban myth, but there does seem to be something called oenophobia — a fear of wine. Symptoms include anxiety, nervousness, embarrassment, or slight perspiration. In other words, everyone who drinks wine has probably suffered from it at one time or another.

7. The Code of Hammurabi, generally acknowledged as the first written set of civil law (around 1800 BC), included penalties for shady wine retailers: they were to be drowned. Maybe the three-tier system isn’t so bad after all.

8. The Greek philosopher Plato seems to have had the Wine Curmudgeon in mind: He said wine in moderation was important until 40; after that, you can drink as much as you want to cure the ?crabbiness of old age ? and “soften the hard cast of mind.”

9. The most important fruit crop in Napa Valley after World War II was prunes, and its cash value was higher than grapes as late as 1960. You may make of that what you will, given Napa’s standing as the epicenter of U.S. wine snobbery.

Do-it-yourself New Year’s wine resolutions for 2015

New Year's wine resolutionsWhat better post for the day after New Year’s than the Wine Curmudgeon’s second annual Do-it-yourself wine resolutions? Just click on the drop-down menus and select your wine resolutions for 2015. Those who get the blog via email or RSS may have to go the website to use the menus. The 2015 $10 Hall of Fame will post on Monday.

In 2015, I’m going to drink:

In 2015, wine scores will:

In 2015, I’m going to buy wine:

In 2015, the most important wine trend will be:

New Year’s resolution image from Mayor Gia, using a Creative Commons license

Ask the WC 6: Box wine, wine closeouts, open wine

wine questionsBecause the customers always have wine questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. Ask me a wine-related question .

Wine Curmudgeon:
Are there any box wines that you would find acceptable for someone who can’t afford $15 or $20 for wine every night ? I have been buying several of the Almaden wines and find them quite good. Are they, or is it just my unsophisticated taste buds? Could I be getting a better taste for my buck?
Bottles aren’t necessary

Dear Bottles:
Box wine comes in varying degrees of quality, just like wine in bottles. Many are of higher quality than the Alamaden, though they won’t be as sweet. You can try Bota Box, Black Box, Bandit/Three Thieves, and Big House, for example. But realize you don’t have to spend $15 or $20 for a bottle; check out the $10 Hall of Fame or the $10 wine link at the top of the page.

?

Curmudgeonly one:
How do wineries get rid of excess inventory, if they make too much and have to sell it off? Can you find good deals on wine this way?
Looking for a bargain

Dear Looking:
It’s difficult to do thanks to our friend, three-tier. Can’t have a warehouse sale, since it’s illegal, and it’s rare to find a wine retailer that specializes in closeouts and discontinued items like Big Lots because the process is so difficult. Some retailers buy excess wine and discount it, but there isn’t much rhyme or reason to how they do it. You need to find a good retailer and ask them to let you know when they have that kind of sale. In fact, most excess wine sits in a distributor warehouse until it is sold, returned, or destroyed (which is what multi-national Treasury did in 2013).

?

Wine Curmudgeon:
How long will an open bottle of wine stay good? Is there anything I can do to make it last longer?
Can’t drink a bottle in one sitting

Dear Can’t drink:
The answer to this used to be simple — if you didn’t finish an open bottle within 24 hours, it oxidized and tasted like bad brandy. Hence, closures like the VacuVin. But improvements in winemaking have complicated the issue, and I’ve had wine, including cheap wine, that stayed drinkable for a couple of days after it had been opened. My suggestion? Put it in the refrigerator and hope for the best if it’s there longer than 36 hours.

More Ask the Wine Curmudgeon:
? Ask the WC 4: Green wine, screwcaps, mold
? Ask the WC 3: Availability, prices, headaches
? Ask the WC 2: Health, food pairings, weddings