The Riedels Rock

It’s All in the Glass

I confess that I don’t need a lesson in how the type of glass affects the taste of wine.  Debi and I have been to enough tastings, and sipped from dozens of different glasses.  Plus, at the Wine Experience a few years ago, Georg and Maximilian Riedel demonstrated the difference to about 1500 of us.  We tasted a wine out of a plastic cup, then out of several differently-shaped Riedel glasses, and the variation in the aromas and flavors was obvious to everyone in the room.

So the glass makes a difference – and quite often a major one.

The Riedel name has been synonymous with fine wine glasses since the 1750s.  (By the way, it rhymes with “needle.”)  In 1973, Claus Riedel (the 9th generation of the glassmaking family) introduced the “Sommelier Series,” the first mouth-blown glasses made to pair wines with a specific bowl shape.  He was also the first designer to discover that the bouquet and flavors of a wine were affected by the shape of the bowl.

The company conducts extensive research to determine what shapes are best for different wines.  Company President Georg Riedel told me that the process involves “a series of trial and error tastings,” something I’d very much like to participate in.  “Working with winemakers and sommeliers, we tweak the bowl shape and rim diameter to deliver wine in a fashion that best accentuates the properties of the given varietal on the taster’s palate,” he says.  “Within each glassware series, there are shapes for the world’s major wine varietals, including bowl shapes for new world and old world wines.”

Georg (L) and Maximilian Riedel

Anyone who buys and uses Riedel glasses soon discovers one thing about this company’s glassware – it’s hilariously fragile.  My mother-in-law once dropped an ice cube into one of them, and it went all the way through and out the bottom.  I told that to Georg.

“Riedel is known for creating some of the thinnest glasses on the market,” he responded.  “But we make numerous glassware lines that stand up to everyday wear and tear, both for home enjoyment and professional hospitality use.”

Another breakthrough that Riedel is known for is the “O” series of glasses.  These have the correct bowl shape for wine, but are stemless.  We’ve found them to be excellent for traveling, and they’re dishwasher safe.

Mr. Riedel also explained to me the process behind finding the perfect glass shape for different wine varietals.  “My son Maximilian and I conduct extensive workshops before a varietal-specific shape can make it to market.  We follow the Bauhaus principle:  form follows function.”

But surely, differences in the way individuals experience a certain wine must play a part?  “Yes,” says Georg Riedel.  “There is a degree of individuality to each person’s interpretation of a wine, but most sensory responses are directly affected by the vessel.  This doesn’t erase personal preference; there are those who simply prefer Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon. But we firmly believe that each varietal will taste its absolute best when served in a Riedel glass.”

At our house, we conduct numerous side-by-side tastings.  Every night, in fact.  It’s hard to disagree with Georg.

For this week’s recommendations, we sampled the following wines out of Riedel glasses.

Marina Cvetic Merlot Terre Aquilane 2010 ($40) – We’re big fans of Italian Merlot, because they generally make it in a richer, more concentrated style – like this one.  Dark ruby color, smoke, leather, dark cherry and chocolate on the nose, and rich currant and leather notes on the midpalate.  Soft mouthfeel with round, pleasant tannins  Great with or without food.  WS 91-92

Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Rosé 2014 ($13) – This Italian rose is great for summer sipping, with flavors of black cherry, violets, and lilac.  Light and easy-drinking.  WW 89

Pairing Food and Wine–Mystery Solved

If it Grows Together, it Goes Together

In many parts of the world, wine isn’t considered a beverage.  It’s food…part of the meal.  That’s because people in places like France, Italy, and Spain enjoy food and wine matching traditions that go back hundreds of years.  But why do tomato sauce and Chianti go so well together?  Or beef stew with red Burgundy?

It’s been a while since we visited this topic, so I hope to offer a few new insights.  If we want to get the most out of the experience of wine, aside from just slugging it from a glass, it helps to apply some basic principles to pairing with food.  In restaurants, some people decide what they want to eat, then choose a wine to go with.  Others (including us) pick the wine first, then look at the food side of the menu.  Either way, keeping in mind a few fundamentals will go a long way to assuring that the wine enhances the food, and vice versa.

First, whites before reds, light-bodied wines before full, and dry before sweet.  It helps if the wine and food have similar levels of intensity, which is the richness and concentration of aromas and flavors. For example, a light white such as Sauvignon Blanc would be overwhelmed by a grilled New York strip steak.

Then, consider how the food is cooked.  A fish that’s steamed or poached needs a lighter wine accompaniment than a filet of fried grouper.  Broiled, grilled or smoked foods, such as steaks and ribs, need a wine with a smoky flavor, like a Sangiovese, Zinfandel, or Syrah.  Sautéeing puts fat in direct contact with the food, so we’d choose either a wine with an oily texture, or a wine that cuts the fat, such as a full-bodied Cabernet or Syrah.

Next comes what chefs like to call “bridge” flavors: these connect the food with wines that have the same flavor profiles.  A simple example would be Chardonnay that has a buttery, creamy flavor paired with (wait for it) buttered popcorn.  Silly, but it works surprisingly well.  On a more serious note, taste components like the acid in tomato sauce work with acidic wines, such as Chianti or Barbera.

In red wines, tannin is a big factor in pairing with food.  Tannin is a mouthfeel that gives us the dry, “fuzzy” sensation on the palate, and it comes from the seeds, stems, and skins of red grapes.  Mostly, we want to diminish the effects of tannin, and we can do that by pairing reds with fatty foods, such as steaks and chops.  Another technique is to pair tannic wines with saltier foods, because the salt counteracts the tannin as well.

A word about Champagne, and sparkling whites made in the Champagne style:  in general, they go with almost any food.  The high acidity pairs with Asian and Latin dishes, with smoky and spicy foods, and with egg dishes at Sunday brunch.

We’ll visit this topic again, because there are lots of wines, and lots of foods.  Watch for information about the “lemon law” in wine and food pairing in upcoming issues.  Meanwhile, here are a few of our latest value discoveries.

Masi Masicano Pinot Grigio & Verduzzo della Venezie 2014 ($10) – Not serious, but fun.  Refreshing oak, green apple and pear flavors, slightly sweet on the palate.  A nice, simple sipper.  WW 87

Smoke Tree Pinot Noir Sonoma 2014 ($17) – Bright garnet in the glass with aromas of anise and smoke.  A Burgundian style, offering flavors of forest floor and raspberry.  Needs some time.  WW 86

Renieri Rosso di Montalcino Toscana 2012 ($15) – Gorgeous ruby color, aromas of fresh plum and bright fruit on the palate with hints of warm earth.  Really interesting.  Needs a bit of time.  WW 90

Il Bastardo Sangiovese Toscana 2015 ($7) – Nothing complicated here, but some big cherry flavors in the glass, and plenty of structure to stand up to the strong flavors of Italian cuisine.  Great with pizza and pasta.  WW 88

What year is it, anyway?

What Year Is It, Anyway?

For many people, one of the most confusing things about wine appreciation is all that business about vintages.  Good years, bad years, even mediocre years – it’s tough to keep all that information straight in your head.  Besides, does it really matter?

I’ve found 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 to several years, each new vintage comes through the pipeline, bringing its own surprises and teaching us its particular lessons through tasting.  It’s a good opportunity to make a few points about vintage and its place in wine appreciation.  Live through a few vintages, learn them in your glass, and before long you realize that you do have a lot of that info in your head.

But first, let’s tick off a few random “bullet points” about some ways that wine lovers use — and abuse — information about vintages.

●  Vintage, the year shown on the bottle of most fine wines, reflects the year in which the grapes were picked.  Since wine grapes are an agricultural product, weather conditions can have a significant effect on the wine.  For example, a summer of extreme heat in Europe can result in very ripe fruit, which may not necessarily be a blessing, as over-ripe grapes tend to make fat, lower-acid wines.

●  All weather, like all politics, is local.  One region’s terrible vintage may be decent in another and excellent in a third.  A lackluster year in Napa may be very good in Bordeaux, or vice versa.  Indeed, when we mention intense summer heat in Europe, remember that we’re talking only about a certain region.  Maybe that same growing season was excellent in South Africa, and “difficult” in much of California and Down Under.  We need to be specific.

●  Vintage quality works only as a broad generalization.  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 village may have missed its neighbor.  It’s rare to have a vintage so poor that consumers have to write it off entirely.  The 1997 vintage in Bordeaux comes close to this mark, when even the prestigious First Growth wines were very disappointing.  But now and then we can find value by cherry-picking better wines from vintages that conventional wisdom says to avoid.

●  Trust your own taste buds more than vintage charts.  Famous wine professionals like Robert Parker may highly rate a vintage that produced big, strong and ripe wines in France, which drives up prices.  But what if you don’t share his affection for bold, concentrated wines?  There are only two kinds of wines:  the ones you like and the ones you don’t.

Here are some we recently liked very much.

Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Réserve Blanc NV ($11) – This unique blend of traditional white grapes from the Rhone Valley offers typical Viognier floral aromas, with a palate of white flowers, medium body, and refreshing acidity.  WW 89

Domaine Bousquet Rose 2015 ($9) – French name, Argentine wine.  A delicate blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s raspberry and cherry flavors with an interesting hint of earthiness, unusual in a rosé wine.  WW 89

Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Merlot 2013 ($26) – Deeply colored with a very pleasant mineral nose and deep black fruit flavors show the resunt of 17 months aging in mostly French oak.  WW 91-92

Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel ($17) – Black earth, red fruit, and a bit of pepper.  The bold fruit and full body make this a Zinfandel that’s very true to type.  WW 90

Ask the Wine Whisperer – I’ve seen professional wine critics put their noses all the way down inside a glass and take some sniffs.  Why do wine tasters smell wine?

The aromas of a wine can give you a good hint about how it will taste – even where it was made and how old it might be.  Besides, 85% of your sense of taste is actually smell.  Most often, a wine’s aromas (or “bouquet” or “nose”) indicate what we’re going to taste, but sometimes the taste will be very different.

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.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina

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.

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.

Grand Tastings on Thursday and Friday nights

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

© Copyright 2021 - The Wine Whisperer