Wine Adventures

Sicily--The Wines You Can't Refuse

Since practically the beginning of time, the Romans (then the Italians) have been toying with the idea of building a bridge over the Straits of Messina to link the island of Sicily with the mainland.  Hasn’t happened yet.  Maybe never will.

This makes a visit to Sicily a bit of a hike, but one that’s well worth taking.  The scenery is spectacular, there are more Greek temples in Sicily than in Greece itself, and the wines are stunning – especially the varietals you never heard of.

For practically ever, Sicilian grapes were used for raisins, while certain varietals were grown to make Marsala, a sweet wine that most people associate with Sicily, if they think about it at all.  But over the last 30 years or so, the Sicilians have realized that they can make great wine…and they’ve become very hip to international grape varietals.  In fact, Sicily is one of the two largest wine producing areas in Italy, which is saying quite a bit.  Producers such as Planeta, Regaleali and Donnafugata make Chardonnays, Syrahs, and other wines that hold their own against anything that comes from the mainland.  But if you really want to pick up some great bargains, look for the wines made from grapes that are indigenous to the island.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina

Nero d’Avola, as the name indicates, is native to Avola in the extreme southeast corner of the island, near Siracusa.  However, the grape is now grown everywhere, and just about every Sicilian producer makes it.  The good news is, no matter which kind you buy, it’s probably going to be good.  Since I sample so widely (ahem…) I’ve tasted Neros from many of the major producers, and never met one I didn’t like.  The wine has an intense ruby color and flavors of dark fruit, earth, and aromatic herbs.  It’s a big, satisfying wine, and great with grilled meats.  The two major producers are Planeta and Regaleali, but other brands are well worth trying.

Mt. Etna is still active

At the eastern end of the island, the still-active volcano of Mt. Etna broods over the landscape.  It’s 10,000 feet high, snow-capped all year round, and emits a steady column of white steam into the deep blue sky, just to let us know it’s not dead yet.  But on the eastern slope the Nerello Mascalese grapes grow, and while we might never think to walk into a wine store and ask for a bottle, maybe we should.

Often blended with other wines, Nerello Mascalese makes a great quaff in its pure form.  Medium bodied, spicy, and with strong notes of deep fruit, violets, earth, and forest floor, it’s a bit like Cabernet Sauvignon, supports relatively high levels of alcohol, and pairs well with steaks, chops, and other hearty meats.

The point:  don’t be afraid to try unfamiliar wine varietals.  There’s a discovery in every bottle.  

Surviving the Wine Experience

This October marked our 16th year attending the Wine Spectator Wine Experience.  For those who don’t know, it’s an almost-three-day even when wine lovers from all corners of the globe gather to taste samples of wines that almost nobody can get their hands on.

Some are produced in microscopic quantities, while others are so expensive that you’d have to hock your BMW to buy them. 

First comes the Thursday night Grand Tasting.  At the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, there is a fifth-floor ballroom and another on the sixth floor.  We always start on five, where over 125 tables are set up and where winemakers dole out small splashes of wines such as Salon Champagne ($400 a bottle) and Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux ($900 a bottle).  There is a prodigious amount of swirling, sniffing, and sipping, but also an equal amount of spitting.  If you taste your way through a hundred or so wines and don’t spit, you’ll never make it back to your hotel room.

Grand Tastings on Thursday and Friday nights

Friday morning tastings start at around 9, where we sit at long tables and encounter 16 empty glasses that will soon be filled with Grand Cru Burgundies, California Pinot Noirs, First Growth Bordeaux, and other delicacies.  This goes on until noon, when we’re ushered into a vast dining room for lunch, where each table holds 10 or 12 bottles of Argentinian wine.

Debi Greenfield charms Wine Spectator Editor Jim Laube (L) and Angelo Gaja

Then it’s back to the seminars for the afternoon session, followed by a nap and the Friday night Grand Tasting.  We’re on the 6th floor for this one, visiting winemaker friends like Sparky Marquis from Mollydooker in Australia, and Andrew Vigniello from AP Vin in San Francisco.

Saturday starts early with more conducted tastings by Bill Harlan, Angelo Gaja, and a sample of Wine Spectator’s top 10 wines of the year.  Lunch brings us a table full of wines from Washington State, like Milbrandt’s delicious Merlot.  And again, we return to the seminar room for vertical samplings of Penfold’s Grange and Mouton Rothschild.

Attendees prepare for the first tasting -- 9AM Friday morning

Even though the Saturday night banquet includes a pre-dinner Champagne reception and wines matched with the meal, everyone in our group brings a special bottle to share.  There was 2000 Cos d’Estournel, 2003 Napa Reserve, and so many others that I lost track.  Next year I’m going to bring six of my own glasses and write the names of the wines on the tablecloth.

Debi gets ready to swirl and sip with cousins David Lazer and Caroline Levy

There were plenty of discoveries, and I’m sure we’ll be hunting them down to purchase over the next few weeks.  More reports and tasting notes to come.

The way we describe wine is a little out of whack

Mmmmm!  These Pencil Shavings are Delicious!

Every once in a while, a wine topic flares up in the consumer and trade press and our attention is attracted.  Recently, there’s been quite a bit written on the topic of how we talk about wine: how critics and others describe the flavors, aromas, and other sensations offered by this marvelous, mystical liquid.

Problem is, the terms they use, which are called “descriptors,” often give us very little real information and are, at times, completely off the charts.

                To put it bluntly, wine is nothing more than spoiled grape juice.  Apple juice tastes like apples and orange juice tastes like oranges.  Let either of them ferment, and the result is lousy-tasting juice that will probably kill you if you drink it.  But when grape juice becomes wine the final product often tastes like anything but the fruit it’s made of.  As the mysterious chemical rearrangements of fermentation occur, and winemakers apply their art, the juice gives up flavors that have no resemblance to the Welch’s we all grew up with.

When I first started drinking wine critically I was both shaken and stirred by the twisted tastes critics discovered as they swirled and sipped.  They detected flavors in wine that I didn’t even want to think about, let alone put in my mouth.  And the vocabulary they used to describe the flavors is a psycholinguistic study in itself, requiring readers to come at the English language from a perspective that’s more than a little out of plumb.

They talk about wine having “backbone,” and “stuffing.”  There are wines that are “muscular,” and others that are “shy” or “supple.”  Tannins can be “velvety.”  Wine can be “chunky,” and “chewy,” or even “jammy.”  It can “resonate,” it can be “round,” and certainly “seductive.”  Clearly, wine writers are especially adept at putting a little… well, English on the language.

But those words are nothing compared to the “descriptors.”  Here, the language soars skyward like an exultation of larks, but the flavors go in exactly the opposite direction.  Just to show that I’m not making any of this up, here’s a sample of actual reviews of some top-end wines that often sell for outer-spatial prices.

 “…scents of underbrush, smoke, saddle leather, soy, and other assorted Asian spices begin to emerge along with kirsch liqueur and black fruit notes.” 

“…cooked apple, lemon, and petrol.”  I think that means gasoline.

“Reticent but lively aromas of black raspberry and blackberry syrup...Very expressive, super ripe flavors of plum, nuts, game and animal fur.”  Animal fur?

Not having much of a life my own self, I started making lists of my favorite weird wine tastes and aromas as I encountered them in the critics’ reviews.  Here are some examples.

Forest floor.  Like wet leaves, moss, damp trees.  Wine with flavors like this are far from spoiled.  Au contraire, they cost a bundle.

Horse sweat.  Goes right along with the saddle leather, if you know what I mean.

Barnyard.  The bouquet of the chicken coop is unmistakable.  We’ve never experienced it firsthand, but recognized it a lot quicker than we care to admit.

Pencil shavings.  It takes you right to the second grade, and that gray crank machine screwed to the wall, full of wood and warm graphite smell.  That’s this.

Ask the Wine Whisperer
“What is ‘blanc de blanc’ Champagne?” – Eric S.  Miami

Sparkling white wine made according to the traditional Champagne method is generally a blend of three different varietals:  chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meuniere.  A blanc de blanc (‘white of whites”) is made from chardonnay only.

This week’s discovery is Liberated Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 2014.  Light in the glass, it offers a nose of apple and tangerine, but on the palate there are nutty flavors of cashew and almond, with good acid balance and a label with a design that’s completely unreadable.  WW 88-89

We also enjoyed Blair Estate Chardonnay 2013 with peach and white flowers on the nose, and apple, peach, and honey flavors with a medium-long finish.  WW 90.

Sample widely.  Send in your questions.

Thunder from Down Under

We’re at lunch in McLaren Vale...

sitting across from Sparky and Sarah Marquis, with several glasses of their legendary Carnival of Love Shiraz in front of us.  As I sip through the vintages, I’m blown away for several reasons.  First, their wines are consistently ranked in the world’s Top 100, and as a couple they’re practically legends or national treasures or something.  Second, the wine is arguably one of the purest expressions of what Australian winemaking is all about.

Americans like the Aussie approach so much that the country will soon be the second largest importer of wine to the US.  For a country that spent much of its winegrowing history making sweet wines, that’s quite an achievement.

With Sarah and Sparky Marquis at the New York Wine Experience

In this category, it’s the big fruity reds that capture our attention and interest most vividly.  In fact, the big Shirazes and blends can be so powerful they need to age for eons before you’d dare open the bottle.  (I attended a vertical tasting of Penfold’s Grange a few years ago, and we drank the 1971.  It could have used another 10 years in the cellar).

Unlike other countries, most Aussie wines, even the greatest ones, are blended from fruit that’s sourced from very extensive areas.  The designated winegrowing regions are enormous, and the grapes that wind up in the bottle may come from hundreds of miles in every direction.  It would be like Napa winemakers blending in grapes from as far away as Washington State.  They’d sooner slit their wrists.

Another thing that makes Australian wines so much fun is that they like to put puckish and whimsical names on their bottles.  The Monkey Spider.  The Dead Arm.  The Stump Jump.  Woop Woop.

My recommendations, in no particular order…

D’Arenberg The Dead Arm
Mollydooker Carnival of Love

Mollydooker Enchanted Path
Anything by Rosemount
Penfold’s Bin 707

Until next time….g’day, mate!  (They really do say that.)


Considering their winemaking success, the Australians have no native grapes.  Everything grown in the country originated at one time or another from cuttings brought from Europe and South Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ice Cubes in Wine

Ice Cubes in Wine

I once served as sommelier at an elaborate Christmas party given by a very wealthy couple.  They had retained me specifically to oversee the opening and decanting of an 18-liter bottle of Hermitage for which they had paid around $40,000.  We decanted and poured, and one of their guests threw about six ice cubes into his glass.  It was not my place to slap him silly, but I certainly had the urge.

To most of us wine lovers (if not all) the idea of putting ice in wine is a transgression punishable by excommunication or even death.  However, I owe the following insight to Letty Teague, who writes the wine column for the Wall Street Journal.  It is this.

To cool a wine down to drinkable temperature (especially a white straight off the shelf our out of the cellar), put about 4-5 ice cubes in the glass, pour the wine over, wait five seconds, and remove the cubes.  The wine will not be diluted in the slightest, and the temperature will be perfect.  Now I do that all the time.  Who’da thunk it?

Time to ask the Wine Whisperer

On another topic:  when I write my column for magazines and newspapers, I usually conclude by saying “Sample widely.  Write to me.”  While I have no way of knowing how widely my readers sample (hope you do…), some people actually do write.  Most of the queries pertain to wine appreciation or specific winegrowing regions, and they’re pretty interesting.  So we’ve decided that I’ll attempt to answer some of them in this public forum from time to time.  This is the first installment, but if you do have questions or puzzlements about wines, regions, labels, whatever, please do contact me and I’ll try to help.

How important is the vintage of a wine?
Barry C., Cape Coral
Vintage, the year shown on the bottle of most fine wines, reflects the year in which the grapes were picked.  This is important because wine grapes are an agricultural product, and weather conditions can have a significant effect on the wine.


The more expensive the wine, the more important the vintage.  Everyday wines (in the $10-$15 range) are made from grapes that come from several vineyards over a wide area.  (For example, if the label on a bottle says “California,” the grapes can come from anywhere in the state).  If the harvest is not so good in one place during a particular year, the producer will find better fruit somewhere else.  But if you’re buying wine from very specific regions or vineyards, it’s worth looking up the quality of that year’s harvest.

What is an “appellation?”
Sonia R., Estero
An appellation is a legally designated winegrowing region.  They are fairly large geographical areas divided into “subappellations” of various sizes  For example, if a bottle label says “Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley,” the grapes can come from anywhere in that area.  But Napa is divided into subregions such as Yountville, Rutherford, Diamond Mountain, etc.  And those may be further sectioned of into single vineyards or even blocks within vineyards.  A label might say, “Napa Valley Diamond Mountain Miss Lil’s Vineyard.”  Long story short, the more specific a wine is to a place, the finer – and more expensive – it’s likely to be.

Does the shape of a wine glass really make a difference?
Lou B., Bonita Springs
Absolutely.  Wine glasses are made in various shapes to accomplish certain purposes.  The deep broad bowl of a red wine glass, for instance, allows us to swirl the wine sufficiently to release the flavor and aroma components.  They narrow toward the top to channel those aromas to the nose.  And, since we taste flavors (sweet, salt, sour, and bitter) at different places on our tongues, different shapes direct what we drink to the right places.  A white wine glass may be a bit taller and narrower, because of the more delicate nature of the flavors and aromas. 

Why is wine stored in oak barrels?
Robert A., Fort Myers
Oak is to wine what spices and seasoning are to food.  When winemakers decide to ferment or store wine in oak barrels, they’re adding several important flavors and characteristics to the juice.  People write whole books on what oak does to wine, but basically the flavors that the juice soaks up from the barrel are determined by where the wood comes from (France and America supply most of the barrels used in winemaking), and how the barrels are toasted on the inside.  Wine barrels are made over flame, because heat makes the wood staves flexible so they can be bent into shape.  Winemakers order barrels with light to heavy toast, depending on the flavors they want to extract.  And then, of course, there’s the decision of how long to leave the wine in barrels.  Some Spanish wines stay in barrels for decades before they’re released.

How important is vintage info...really?

Before I grew up to become a wine "geek," I thought one of the most confusing things about wine appreciation was all that business about vintages.  Good years, bad years, even mediocre years... how can you keep all that information straight in your head, I used to wonder...and does it really matter anyway?  I’ve mused upon this topic once or twice before, but it won’t go away.

My conclusion is that there's no better way to learn vintages than simply letting nature take its course:  Every year, trailing the calendar by a few months (Beaujolais Nouveau) to several years (Bordeaux, Chianti Classico Riserva), each new vintage comes through the pipeline, bringing its own surprises and teaching us its particular lessons through tasting.  If you live through a few vintages, you realize that you do have a lot of that info in your head.  Fortunately, magazines like Wine Spectatorpublish vintage charts that let you know how various winegrowing regions stack up against one another in any particular year.

But the question remains:  what is the place of vintage in wine appreciation?

1]  Vintage, the year shown on the bottle of most fine wines, reflects the year in which the grapes were picked. This is important because wine grapes are an agricultural product, and weather conditions can have a significant effect on the wine, whether it's vine-killing winter freeze, bud-killing spring frost, summer storms and hail, or rains at harvest time.  A year of perfect weather may yield exceptional wine, but not always.  Lots of sunny days and heat cause the fruit to become very ripe, but over-ripe grapes tend to make fat, lower-acid wines that lack elegance and balance.

2]  Weather is local.  One region's terrible vintage may be decent in another and excellent in a third.  A year that’s just so-so in Napa could be sensational in Bordeaux.  Even more specifically, a year that’s great in Napa may be not so great in Sonoma, just the other side of the mountains.

3]  Vintage quality is a generalization, and individual producers are important.  Some producers make excellent wines in "poor" vintages, and a few make stinkers in "can't miss" years.  Moreover, the storm or frost that devastated vines in one valley or village may have missed its neighbor just over the hill.  Even though really bad vintages are extremely rare, they do occur, and often individual producers will simply not make wine that year.  It hurts, but it happens.

4]  The more expensive the wine, the more important the vintage.  Everyday wines (in the $10-$15 range) are usually made from grapes that come from several vineyards over a wide area.  If they’re not so good in one place, the producer will find better ones somewhere else.  But if you’re buying wine from very specific regions or vineyards, it’s worth looking up the quality of the harvest in that particular year.


5]  Trust your own taste buds more than vintage charts, and remember that even wine professionals don't always agree.  An influential critic like Robert Parker is known to be partial to big, bold, highly extracted wines.  If he downgrades a particular vintage or wine because it doesn’t please his palate, that doesn’t mean we won’t like it.

The disagreements about vintages will go on forever, but if we remember a few basics, we’ll be able to find wines that we enjoy and appreciate, every year, at every price point.  Just sample widely, and try wines from many producers and regions.  You’ll find that some winemakers’ styles are more to your taste than others, and you’ll stick with them.

Drink more wine.  Write to me with questions.