Students taste wine — and notice the difference

Cordon Bleu wine class

My introductory wine students at the Cordon Bleu in Dallas did their in-class tasting on Friday. This is not only an important part of the class, but a big deal for the students. Many of them had never drunk wine before, let alone tasted it in a serious, professional manner.

And, apparently, they learned something.

At some point during the class, maybe around the third red wine, I started to get the sense that the past two weeks were sinking in. Teachers with more experience can probably describe this sensation better — the light bulb going on over the head moment, when everything I had lectured, cajoled, threatened, and discussed with them in class was finally making an impression.

They realized that the tannins in the merlot were bigger than the tannins in the pinot noir, and that the tannins in the cabernet were bigger than those in the merlot. They tasted — and could explain — the fruit difference between the shiraz, merlot and the two pinots. They even seemed to understand the difference between the two cabernets, a youngish one from Sonoma and an older one from Napa.

Most importantly, when we talked about food pairings for each wine, most didn’t have the blank look that had been on their faces since the first day of class. White zinfandel, which had been their stock answer for any pairing, never came up. Someone suggested pot roast for the Oregon pinot; someone else said absolutely not. The wine wasn’t big enough. I was almost giddy.

I even got a compliment. I had warned them that this wasn’t going to be an afternoon at the beach, where everyone would get a pleasant glow. I told them this was a serious, professional tasting, doing 10 wines in a little less than two hours. It was swirling, smelling, discussing, and then tasting, spitting, and more discussing. What did the wine smell like? What did it taste like? How was it different from the others? What do you think it costs? Is it a value? What would you pair it with? Of course, they didn’t believe me. No one ever does when I tell them tasting wine is hard work.

Anyway, about three-quarters of the way through, one of the students (whose test grades reflect how much attention he pays in class) said: “Mr. Siegel, you’re right. This is work. I couldn’t do what you do. I wouldn’t want to do it.”

It’s the small victories in teaching, right?

The wines we tasted:

1. Pikes Riesling 2006. A dry Australian — OK, but nothing spectacular.

2. Husch Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2006. Good example of the California style, with some grapefruit mixed with tropical fruit.

3. Joullian Chardonnay 2006. Not as oaky as some from California, but oaky enough so that the students got the point.

4. Lange Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2006. A good wine, but not as good as I have had from Oregon.

5. X Winery Pinot Noir Los Carneros Truchard Vineyard 2006. To my mind, one of the two best wines we had, with wonderful fruit and soft yet sturdy tannins.

6. Dusted Valley Stomp Merlot 2004. Very ordinary New World style merlot. The least favorite of most of the class.

7. Teira Zinfandel 2005. A stunner — low alcohol, with spice and blueberry. I was ready to go buy a case and make a pot of red sauce for spaghetti and meatballs for the class.

8. Wishing Tree Shiraz 2005. The students who had tasted lesser shirazes, like Yellow Tail and Rosemount, were excited they could tell the difference between those and this one.

9. Liparita Enlace Cabernet Sauvignon 2002. A nice Napa cabernet, with the requisite zingy tannins and dark fruit.

10. Mantra Revelations Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. This Sonoma cabernet was, as the class noted, younger and easier to drink, though not as complex, than the Enlace.

Wine of the week: Archetype Vineyards Shiraz 2005

The Wine Curmudgeon, as a general rule, does not like shiraz. (It’s one of the two main differences between Robert Parker and myself.) I find the wines to be exaggerations of what they should taste like — too much fruit, too much tannin, and too much alcohol.

So why am I writing about the Archetype? Because it manages to offer shiraz character without tasting like a parody of the grape. It’s not nearly as big and as rich as a shiraz, but much fruiter than a California or French syrah. Look for Wonderful bright berry fruit, with balance between the fruit, acid and alcohol.And, at $15, it offers exceptional value.

Direct shipping gets closer

A federal court judge threw out Texas’ ban on Internet direct shipping yesterday, which means the state’s wine drinkers are one step closer to buying product from out-of-state retailers.

The ruling said Texas may not prohibit out-of-state wine merchants from shipping to Texas, since the state allows the shipment of wine from in-state Texas wine merchants. In other words, if I can buy wine from a Houston retailer, I should be able to buy it from a New York City-based retailer. The judge cited the 2005 Supreme Court decision that legalized direct shipping from wineries to consumers, even if the latter lived in another state.

This is a big deal. Theoretically, it would allow any consumer in the U.S. to buy wine from any retailer, something that has been illegal since the end of Prohibition. In this respect, subject to minimum age requirements, it would make wine as simple to buy on the Internet as tennis shoes, books or a computer.

The catch, of course, is whether the decision will stand up on appeal. It’s probably too soon to tell. The Supreme Court’s 2005 decision did not address retailers, and an appeals court may consider that sufficient reason for voiding it. My guess is that a federal appeals court will overturn it, which will put the issue back in front of the Supreme Court.

Tuesday wine tidbits

? The 24th annual Dallas Morning News Wine Competition will be held Feb. 9-10. This is notable because it’s the largest U.S. commercial wine competition outside California, and the fourth largest in the United States. It gets more than 3,000 national and international entries. I haven’t judged it yet, but I have my hopes. It is known for very competitive non-vinifera categories, which the Wine Curmudgeon really enjoys.

? We’re all wine snobs, apparently. A California study found that if people think wine costs more, then they think it tastes better. The subjects’ brains showed more pleasure when they were drinking wine they were told cost more — even though they were drinking the same wines throughout the study. The researcher who ran the study was befuddled, saying: “We were shocked. I think it was because the flavor was stronger and our subjects were not very experienced.” He thought wine professionals might deliver different results, but I’m not too sure.

? One of the most interesting people in the Texas wine business, grape grower Alphonse Dotson is included in Saveur’s 10th annual list of 100 favorites in the world of food and wine. Dotson, who is also president of the Texas wine trade group, is instantly recognizable thanks to his trademark cowboy hat. He cuts quite a figure at formal events.

A few thoughts on sauvignon blanc

sauvignon blancThe Wine Curmudgeon loves sauvignon blanc. It ?s usually inexpensive, and you can buy great wines for about $15. It ?s food-friendly as well as refreshing on its own, something that can ?t be said for a lot of chardonnays. Finally, it pairs with a variety of white wine foods, and especially with seafood — oysters, mussels and even grilled shrimp. And it pairs with almost anything with garlic and parsley. In fact, just writing about sauvignon blanc, garlic and parsley makes me want to reach for a glass.

What causes the differences between the wines? A combination of weather, soil, and the winemakers ? preferences. The geography of New Zealand – ? an island in the south Pacific — is entirely different from that of Bordeaux, off the Atlantic coast of France. And California is completely different from both of them. Throw in winemaking differences ?- the French do things differently from the Chileans – ? and you have a wine with as many differences as similarities.

Here ?s a guide to the most important regions, what makes that region different, and some representative wines:

? France: The best sauvignon blanc in the world used to come from Sancerre, about 150 miles west of Paris. But prices have gone up, and quality has not improved. At its best, Sancerre is less fruity than the New World wines, with wonderful flinty qualities (look for wine from an area called Chavignol). But good luck finding anything for less than $20. A better bet are the $10 sauvignon blanc/semillion blends from Bordeaux, like Chateaus Ducla and Bonnet, which have the mineral character that Sancerre is getting away from.

? New Zealand: Sauvignon blanc doesn ?t get better than this, both in quality and price. The best wines ? Kim Crawford, Whitehaven, Villa Maria, Nobilio, and Spy Valley ? have the region ?s distinctive grapefruit flavor, but in balance. I especially like the $16 Spy Valley and the $12 wines from Villa Maria and Nobilio.

? California: California shouldn ?t be cold enough to make great sauvignon blanc, but there are dozens of excellent producers, including Benziger, Kenwood, Geyser Peak, and Jewel at around $10 and Cakebread, Duckhorn, St. Supery and Chalk Hill up to $30. California sauvignon blancs have more tropical fruit, like lime and pineapple, and what is described as grassiness (difficult to explain, but recognizable when you smell it).

? Chile: Not always for the faint of heart ? can be like New Zealand without the balance. That said, there ?s nothing wrong with the wine, and most of the labels we see, like Veramonte and Los Vascos, are $10.

? South Africa: People who are supposed to know about these things say this will be the next great sauvignon blanc producer. I ?ve had decent wines, more French in style, from Robertson ($10) and Republic of Sauvignon Blanc ($16).

One week in a wine classroom

I finish my first week teaching the introductory wine class at the Dallas branch of the Cordon Bleu today, and I have enjoyed it. A couple of observations:

? Most of the students, who are younger than 30, don’t seem to drink wine. They know it’s out there; it just doesn’t much interest them. This contradicts any number of studies that say that the students’ generation (the Millenials) is becoming more interested in wine.

? Many of them know about Two Buck Chuck, the inexpensive wine sold only at the Trader Joe’s grocery store chain. This is especially interesting, since there are no Trader Joe’s in Texas.

? The idea that the government, as in some European countries, can regulate what grapes are grown where and which grapes can be used to make specific wine strikes many of them as silly. I mention this because — especially in Texas — so many people are worried that the schools don’t do a good job of teaching the values of free enterprise.

? The 1855 Bordeaux wine classification is  even more confusing than I thought, and I thought it was pretty confusing already. It’s one thing to know; it’s something else entirely to explain it to 30-some odd students. How do you come up for a good answer to: “Why did the French do it that way?”

Wine of the week: Freixenet Cava Brut Rosé NV

image Freixenet, once one of the best cheap Spanish cavas, has been more or less a grocery store wine in the past several years. Brands like Cristalino, Perfect and Extra offer more bang for the same or even less bucks.

So when I saw this during my New Year’s bubbly expedition, I picked it up. It was $8 — certainly worth a try. I’m glad I did. This was dry and bubbly, but with a subtle red berry fruitiness that comes out the longer the bottle is open. It’s not as rough as the Freixenet Brut, but it still has that distinctive cava tightness. Highly recommended, either for sipping on its own or with salads and even seafood.

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