Category:Wine terms

Wine I like

wine I like

The most common question people ask the Wine Curmudgeon is, not surprisingly, “What’s your favorite wine?” My answer, also not surprisingly, usually disappoints them. I am, after all, the Wine Curmudgeon.

That’s because I don’t have a favorite. One of the tenets of the Wine Curmudgeon’s faith is that wine should not be about playing favorites, but about looking for new wine to enjoy. What’s the point of drinking the same wine over and over when there is so much still left to try?

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain wines that I like. White Burgundy is my guilty (and expensive) pleasure. Sparkling wine always makes me smile. Well-made regional wine, preferably with obscure grapes, is a huge treat. And, of course, any of my $10 wines — whether I’ve had it before or I’m tasting it for the first time — is a reason to open a bottle.

Which raises an important question that I’ve never really addressed in the blog’s three-year history: How do I decide which wines I like? What are my criteria? What makes a well-made wine? This is especially relevant given Monday’s release of the 2011 $10 Hall of Fame. It is, as always, an eclectic mix — grocery store wines, wines made with odd grapes, lots of rose, wines from small producers, and even chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. What qualities do I find that sets them apart?

The first thing to understand is that wine is subjective. Everyone’s palate is different. What I taste in a wine may not be what you taste. The second thing to understand is that there are no bad wines. If you like a wine, it’s good, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

That’s why I don’t use the words “good” and “bad” to describe wine. They’re empty adjectives and much too subjective — my interpretation of what wine should taste look, as if I was the wine tasting god and everyone had to obey my decisions. I’m also not a fan of descriptions like smooth; I’m not quite sure what that means. Water tastes “smooth,” but it’s not very wine-like. Smooth, I think, is an adjective people who drink a lot of poorly-made wine use when they find a wine that isn’t too tannic or too acidic. Too often, it’s a backhanded compliment.

Instead, I look for several other criteria:

Is the wine flawed? It is corked or oxidized or dirty or out of balance, or any of the countless faults that can creep in?

• Is it varietally correct? If it’s chardonnay, does it taste like chardonnay? This is the most difficult criteria, oddly enough, since wine styles are ever changing. What was considered pinot noir 10 years ago is not necessarily considered pinot noir today, and I have to take that into account.

• Did the winemaker accomplish what he or she wanted to do? Does the wine taste like the winemaker wanted it to taste? This is not always as easy as it seems.

• Can I appreciate the wine even if I don’t like the style? I’ve noted many times how I feel about merlot, yet a merlot made the Hall of Fame in 2009 and 2010. I was able to put my prejudices aside and taste the wine for what it was, not what I thought it should be. (Note to wine snobs: Do this the next time you drink riesling.) This is the most difficult thing to do in wine, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been drinking wine as long as I have or if you’re just starting.

• Is the wine honest? Yes, this is probably subjective, but I think it’s crucial to determining quality. Think about how many $10 red wines, regardless of producer, taste more or less the same, full of fruit and without much acid or tannin, and the cabernet tastes like merlot and the merlot tastes like shiraz. In this, they’re made to appeal to a specific demographic, and the idea was not to make quality wine, but to make adequate wine. And who needs adequate wine? Adjectives like interesting or intriguing are hallmarks of honest wine, because honest wine offers some characteristic that adequate wine doesn’t.

Because, in the end, it’s about finding wine that I like — and, hopefully, that you will too.

Wine terms: Oak

Winespeak always includes references to oak (even the Wine Curmudgeon is guilty of this), and most of the references always seem to describe the wine as toasty and oaky. This can be quite confusing, since the relationship between wine and oak is not obvious.

How can something made with grapes be toasty and oaky?

That's because some wines are aged in oak barrels. Generally, but not always, these are more expensive wines, and they are more often red wines than white wines.

Oak aging helps temper the acid and tannins in red wine, making it more drinkable. The only white wine that gets much oak is chardonnay, and California has turned this into a unique style — rich, buttery, oaky, almost caramelly wine. I recently tasted a high-end chardonnay from a major California producer, and the wine was spot on for creme brulee. More, after the jump:

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Wine terms: Previous vintage

wine terms: previous vintageRegular visitors here have seen a lot of references to the term “previous vintage” over the past 18 months, particularly in regards to wines that are on sale. That’s because, thanks to the recession, store shelves are full of wines that aren’t the current vintage, but wines from previous vintages.

Typically, wineries release a new vintage every year, starting in the spring; the process is much the same as the one auto makers use when they introduce their new models every fall. In 2010, for example, most wineries released their 2009 whites and 2008 reds. That’s called the current vintage.

But what happens when retailers haven’t been able to sell all of the previous year’s current vintage? It becomes the previous vintage, and retailers cut prices to get rid of those wines to make room for the current vintage. In other words, every wine that isn’t the current vintage is the previous vintage. Note that this system doesn’t exactly apply to high end wines, which have limited distribution and are bought to age. But it is true for the other 90 percent of the wine in the world.

Again, the sales process is similar to what car dealers do. Most retailers don’t have the shelf space to carry the previous vintage and the current vintage at the same time, and most of them don’t want to anyway. Customers get confused if they see the same wine with two different years on the label.

The transition from previous to current vintage is normal, but it has been complicated by the recession and the slump in wine sales. Starting at the end of 2008, many retailers stopped buying new vintages altogether, and focused on getting rid of what they had. The wineries, figuring the good times would never end, had made too much wine, and retailers were stuck with wine they couldn’t sell.

Today, almost two years later, the situation has improved a bit, but talk to retailers and distributors, and they say it will be another couple of years before the excess of previous vintages works its way through the system. So expect to continue to see significant price reductions from retailers on previous vintages. Some retailers, in fact, have specialized in buying previous vintages and selling them at steep discounts over the past couple of years. I can’t tell you how many $15 and $20 wines I’ve seen marked down to $10 and $12 at these stores.

Wine terms: Porch wine

porch wine
The only thing missing on this porch? Wine, of course.

The term porch wine shows up in a lot in wine writing — not just mine, but in others as well. And it occurred to me that I may well be putting the wine before the glass when I write about porch wine. Just what is it?

This is a version of a story I wrote for the Star-Telegram newspaper in Fort Worth a couple of weeks ago. And, if you’ll allow me a bit of sentimentality, it’s the final article I wrote for the paper. I’ll miss doing it. I’ve been writing for newspapers since I was 16 years old (Highland Park Mail-Advertiser in suburban Chicago), and that’s a tough habit to break. But the blog and my work with DrinkLocalWine.com have taken my wine writing career in a decidedly non-newspaper direction.

What you need to know about porch wines:

Summer — and especially this part of summer — is time for porch wine. These are lighter wines, red and white, that can be served cool, or even colder, and offer relief from the heat. The idea with a porch wine is to drink something that won’t make the sweat bead on your forehead. A porch wine has these five characteristics:

Lower alcohol is better. Typically, red wines, and especially New World red wines from California and Australia, are 14 percent or more alcohol. There are many dry white wines, and especially from France and Italy, that are less than 13 percent alcohol. Those two points of difference on a hot day are the difference between a refreshing swallow and feeling the wine after just a glass and a half.

Crisp and fresh is more refreshing. Most red wines aren’t crisp or refreshing, because they’re not supposed to be. That’s why they traditionally pair with heavier, cold weather food. A porch wine, like sauvignon blanc or an unoaked chardonnay, is more summery, with lighter fruit flavors like pineapple, grapefruit, lime, and green apple instead of cherries and berries.

Red wines with white wine qualities. Not all red wines have 15 percent alcohol and sandpaper tannins. Many are made with softer, less harsh grapes with less dark fruit. These include Spanish and French wines made with grenache, a grape that likes hot weather and is made in warm winemaking regions.

Sweeter wines. No, not white zinfandel, but wines that are sweet yet balanced. In these wines, the sweetness is set against an acid flavor, like lemon, so that it’s not soft drink sweet. These wines include riesling and torrontes, a white grape from Argentina.

 Don’t be afraid to add an ice cube. These generally aren’t high-dollar French or California wines, so the wine police won’t arrest you if you want to take the edge off with a cube or two. The idea behind porch wines (behind most wine, in fact) is to enjoy yourself, and not to impress someone.

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Memorial Day wine and rose

Memorial Day traditionally marks the beginning of summer, so what better time to discourse on rose — one of the Wine Curmudgeon's favorites and a style of wine that is too often overlooked?

The quality of rose has improved dramatically over the last decade. I don ?t know that I have actually tasted a poorly made rose in the past couple of years. Some of them have been too expensive, but that ?s another story. Usually, you can buy quality rose for $10, and often less.

The most important thing to know about rose is that it isn ?t white zinfandel (or white merlot or whatever); roses are pink wines made with red grapes, and roses aren ?t sweet. Why are they pink? Because the red grape skins are left in the fermenting grape juice just long enough to color the wine. That's how all wine gets its color, in fact. White wine is white because the skins aren't used to color the wine.

More, after the jump:

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Green wine update, Part II

The market for organic products United States has grown more than 25-fold in the last two decades, so it's not surprising that wineries have joined the move toward more eco-friendly products. But there are two important things to understand in discussing eco-friendly wine.

First, it's not as easy to identify a green wine ? which can fall into one of four categories ? as it is an organic potato, which is either organic or it isn't. Second, no one has quite figured out whether eco-friendly wines taste better because they're environmentally sound or because better winemakers use those techniques.

I wrote a story for the Star-Telegram newspaper in Fort Worth last month discussing just those things. I'll post an edited version here in two parts: Thursday, what defines a green wine; today, some thoughts about green wine quality and some wines to try.

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