Friday, September 26, 2014

Drink More Wine: Of wood and wine

Barrel-aging can produce a variety of results.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 26, 2014 at 8:14 AM

OVER A BARREL: Oak flavors in wine can run from subtle to overpowering. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • OVER A BARREL: Oak flavors in wine can run from subtle to overpowering.

It’s been said that oak in wine is like catnip for humans. And there is something positively alluring about the butteriness that time in a toasted barrel imparts. However, some winemakers hide behind barrel-aging, and distinct varietal fruit flavors (which is what wine is really about) are masked. No one, after all, wants to drink a glass of wood.

And it seems that lower-priced California chardonnays, in particular, tend to be the culprits. They may be fine for everyday sipping to unwind after work, but they’re notoriously bad when it comes to pairing. Unless you’ve got a rich, buttery cream sauce, the oak buries the fruit and the wine tastes harsh and flat with food. Good cooks, however, understand how bridge ingredients help pull a dish toward those flavors that make the match compatible; think caramelization, brown butter, sesame oil or toasted nuts.

The wood barrel, in addition, is a source of tannin (which also comes from juice-stem contact during fermentation). It’s a natural preservative and one of the components that gives wine, particularly reds, longevity.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Winevasion in store for the region this weekend

The weekend's bill of wine festivals makes it good to be a vino lover.

Posted By on Tue, Sep 9, 2014 at 6:17 PM

A slew of food pairings by area eateries will also be showcased at the galas. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • A slew of food pairings by area eateries will also be showcased at the galas.

Those who prefer sipping wines over craft beers have the weekend to look forward to.

Three fine wine gatherings, all in Tampa, plan to please festivalgoers' palates through a variety of wine tastings, local grub and other festivities.

Tampa Theatre's 13th annual film-themed wine festival, which kicks off Friday with a two-tiered sampling, is called Monty Python and the Holy Grape. According to a press release, the theme incorporates some of event chair John Wolfe's favorite things, "namely Game of Thrones, shrubbery and swallow."

Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria, Anise Global Gastrobar, Bern's Steak House and more will serve food samplings, and guests may also participate in a silent auction.

Tickets for the fest's Premium Tasting and Wine Pairing, which is Saturday, are sold out. However, Friday's Grand Tasting from 8 to 10 p.m. is still accepting guests. Tickets are $50 in advance.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sipping soirée: Ybor City gets its first wine festival

The inaugural Ybor City Wine Fest will feature more than 100 wines, local food pairings and more.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 21, 2014 at 6:00 PM

“It’s unique in a sense that it’s showcasing the flavor of Ybor,” says Kosar of Ybor’s first wine festival. - YBOR CITY WINE BAR
  • Ybor City Wine Bar
  • “It’s unique in a sense that it’s showcasing the flavor of Ybor,” says Kosar of Ybor’s first wine festival.

Ybor might be many folks’ destination of choice for nightlife merriment, but Jayme Kosar, owner of Ybor City Wine Bar, says she wants to show off another side of the historic neighborhood through an inaugural wine festival.

Featuring a broad selection of wines, eats from Ybor restaurants and live music, the Ybor City Wine Fest, hosted by Kosar’s wine bar, will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, at the Centro Ybor complex along Eighth Avenue.

“I want to expand the culture of wine to Ybor,” Kosar says.

Check in will begin at the Ybor City Wine Bar on the complex’s ground floor, and from there, guests will be escorted upstairs to the wine festival, where nearby eateries, including Carne ChopHouse, Hamburger Mary’s and Tampa Bay Brewing Company, will offer grub throughout the day.

More than 100 wines from major distributors will be served alongside the food pairings, and the event’s wine assortment for VIP ticketholders will include brands like Nickel & Nickel, Duckhorn and Faust. Kosar says the wine fest will be an upscale event, and that she expects around 400 guests.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Drink More Wine: Kings of riesling

Winemakers in Germany and Washington are redefining the varietal.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 7:19 AM

GRAPE ROYALTY: Ernst Loosen and Bob Bertheau. - JON PALMER CLARIDGE
  • Jon Palmer Claridge
  • GRAPE ROYALTY: Ernst Loosen and Bob Bertheau.
Ernst “Erni” Loosen is a regal guy. I first met the renowned winemaker and charismatic front man for some of the German Mosel region’s best wines at the NY Wine Experience in 1995. It’s an opportunity for wine buffs and trade professionals to taste great wines from across the globe. I didn’t know much about riesling then, but his Dr. Loosen wines (and friendly demeanor) blew me away.

Fast forward to 2014. Earlier this month, on one of those arduous sojourns that food critics take so you don’t have to, I went to Germany to taste along the Rhine and Mosel, and the first appointment I made was for Dr. Loosen, Erni’s “weingut” at the charming, historic family home on the banks of the Mosel just north of the picturesque town of Bernkastel.

A few days before my appointment, in between stuffing my face with every kind of wurst and potato variation known to man, I took a side trip to one of Europe’s most famous and distinctive castles, Burg Eltz. As I waited in the courtyard for the English-language tour to begin, I turned and there they were. Two honest-to-god wine monarchs. Right in front of me, surrounded by cobblestones and ancient turrets in all their royal glory, the “Kings of Riesling”: Erni Loosen and his U.S. partner, Bob Bertheau, winemaker of Chateau Ste. Michelle, the flagship Washington state winery based just outside Seattle.

I’ve long been a fan of Ch. Ste. Michelle’s wine portfolio and visited in 2012. Not only do they produce an amazing 1 million cases of their perennial, off-dry “best buy” Columbia Valley riesling (widely available under $10), but they produce a dry version at the same price point.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Annata to open on Beach Drive near end of August

The wine bar hangout by Kurt Cuccaro of Mazzaro’s will feature rotating wines and small plates.

Posted By on Tue, Aug 5, 2014 at 1:59 PM

Similar to the offerings at Mazzaro's, Annata plans to rotate its wines regularly. - MAZZARO'S ITALIAN MARKET VIA FACEBOOK
  • Mazzaro's Italian Market via Facebook
  • Similar to the offerings at Mazzaro's, Annata plans to rotate its wines regularly.

Annata, the Beach Drive wine bar that Mazzaro’s Italian Market co-owner Kurt Cuccaro is opening, will launch around the end of August, as reported Tuesday by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

According to the publication, there will be 45 seats inside, and 30 outside along the sidewalk.

The wine bar is nestled next to The Hooker Tea Company at 300 Beach Drive NE, where AnnaStella Cajun Bistro used to be. Justin Chamoun, former owner of another St. Pete stalwart, St. Pete Brasserie, will join Cuccaro in the venture as general manager.

In an interview with CL at the beginning of the year, back when Cuccaro hadn’t settled on Annata’s name, he said the wine bar will showcase charcuterie plates, a rare selection of cheeses and rotating wines by the glass.

“I've been talking about doing some type of restaurant thing for a while,” Cuccaro said.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Glorious grapes

Twenty-seven Bay area eateries receive coveted accolades from Wine Spectator magazine.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 10, 2014 at 5:31 PM

This year, the magazine recognized 3,748 restaurants' wine selections. - KATIE MACHOL SIMON
  • Katie Machol Simon
  • This year, the magazine recognized 3,748 restaurants' wine selections.

The winners of Wine Spectator's annual Restaurant Wine List Awards were revealed yesterday, and 27 restaurants throughout the Bay area made the cut.

From all 50 states and more than 80 countries, 3,748 eateries took home one of three awards for their lust-worthy wine lists, which needed to contain interesting offerings, mesh well with the cuisine being served and tantalize a variety of wine enthusiasts' taste buds.

The Grand Award (the magazine's highest honor) had 74 winners, the Best of Award of Excellence had 883 and the Award of Excellence (its third highest honor) had 2,791.

Seventeen Tampa Bay restaurants, including Donatello, Caretta On The Gulf and Tapping The Vine, walked away with the Award of Excellence, while Rococo Steak and Massimo's were among the nine nosheries that won the Best of Award of Excellence.

Providing diners with more than 6,800 wines to choose from, Bern's Steak House was the region's only restaurant to receive the Grand Award.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Drink More Wine: Boozy grapes

Alcohol, when in balance, lends a good wine its body.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 27, 2014 at 8:54 AM

Wines like California Cabernet Sauvignon often have a greater alcohol content. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Wines like California Cabernet Sauvignon often have a greater alcohol content.

For the past three months, I’ve encouraged you to use your mind as you sip wine. By now, active tasting should give you a basic understanding of the forwardness of fruit, tannins’ pucker-factor, and the palate-cleansing action of acidity. Now, let’s discuss alcohol. The percentage is listed right on the bottle and it’s an important hint about what’s inside.

Ever since influential wine critic Robert Parker lauded the ripe, full-bodied, high-alcohol 1982 Bordeaux vintage, there has been pressure on winemakers to delay harvests and aim for intense flavors. With longer hang time comes more sugar, and more sugar equals higher alcohol in the process of fermentation. This style of wine has been grabbing higher scores from wine writers; high scores mean better sales. Luckily, advances in technology have made this less risky, but many winemakers feel that the traditional style of their wines has been compelled to change by market forces.

Warmer climates also play a role, so a “new world” riesling from California is likely to be much more potent than a traditional one from a cooler “old world” climate, like Germany. These technological advances mean less bad wine, but often wine that lacks a sense of place, or “terroir.” No one wants a homogenized wine world where every bottle made from a particular grape tastes alike.

Let’s look at the typical alcohol content of some familiar wines:

Low (under 12.5 percent): Italian prosecco, German riesling, Portuguese rosé.

Moderate (12.5 to 13.5 percent): French Champagne, Spanish cava, New Zealand sauvignon blanc, French Burgundy & Bordeaux, Italian Chianti, Oregon pinot noir, Spanish Rioja.

High (13.5 to 14.5 percent): California chardonnay & cabernet sauvignon, French Sauternes, Argentine malbec, Australian shiraz, Chilean merlot, French Rhône reds, Italian Barolo.

Extreme (more than 14.5 percent): California Zinfandel, Italian Amarone, Portuguese Porto.

The growing sales of intense wines has forced maximum alcohol content up from about 13 percent to “fruit bombs” exceeding 17 percent alcohol. More alcohol also dampens wine’s characteristic bouquet. When you swirl the vino in proper stemware, the wine releases “flavor messages” through evaporation on the “nose.” The transition from liquid to air in higher-alcohol wine is suppressed, so the aromas are subdued.

If I’m just going to drink a glass of wine, I like balanced, high-alcohol wines because of the mouth feel. So often I’ll have a glass of new world chardonnay to sip, but won’t order it with food because it doesn’t go with much except perhaps butter-poached lobster, especially if it’s been aged in new oak (more on that next month). Intense wines often overwhelm the more delicate dishes we see in modern restaurants. Most sommeliers, however, direct diners to more moderate-alcohol wines with higher acidity, which regular readers know makes for a food-friendly match.

So how do you identify too much alcohol in your glass? Give the wine a swirl and sniff; if you smell a sweetness reminiscent of rubbing alcohol or you feel a slight tickle in your nose, the wine is out of balance. If the winemaker has done it right, the alcohol doesn’t make its presence known. The same is true on the palate. Do you notice that your mouth just feels pleasantly warmer or does the alcohol announce itself? If it’s the latter, the wine is too “hot.”

Alcohol, in balance, gives the wine “body.” A varietal that’s meant to be robust in style feels disappointingly thin on the palate if the alcohol is too low. High levels of alcohol act as a preservative, which is why port can last in the bottle far longer than table wine once it’s opened.

Understanding alcohol is an essential part of wine education, and one of the factors to consider when choosing a wine pairing. The exciting part of matching wine with food is that it’s a moving target. But the more you know, and the more experience you have in active tasting, the better your chances for success.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Drink More Wine: Acid test

Acidity is all-important in well-balanced wines.

Posted By on Fri, May 30, 2014 at 9:30 AM

PALATE CLEANSER: A brut rosè Champagne matches well with a wide variety of foods. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • PALATE CLEANSER: A brut rosè Champagne matches well with a wide variety of foods.

In my ongoing quest to get you all to drink more wine, I’ve been encouraging active, thoughtful tasting. This month we complete the final leg of the proverbial three-legged stool of wine components with acidity, the most important element for matching wine with food. If you missed the others over the last two months, check CL’s handy web archive.

The secret to great wine, as with great food, is in the quest for balance. The fruit (leg 1) should be full-bodied but not overpoweringly jammy; tannin (leg 2) creates structure but must stop short of an astringency level that tastes bitter; and acidity (leg 3) on the palate should be lively and fresh rather than sharp. Winemakers work very hard to balance these elements, and great wines juggle that equilibrium much like the Flying Karamazov Brothers toss around weird objects with aplomb.

Acidity turbocharges flavor in wine the same way a squeeze of lemon makes seafood pop, or tomato sauce gives dimension to pizza or pasta. Chefs often add a touch of vinegar to enhance and lengthen flavors as they’re tweaking food to balance dishes. In wine, the presence of acidity refreshes your palate.

Luckily for those of us working to find great pairings, winemakers are becoming more food-conscious and using all the tools at their disposal in the vineyard and the winery to lower alcohol levels and increase mouthwatering acidity so their wines will go better with food.

So you may ask: short of using litmus paper or a pH dip strip from my pool, how do I determine acidity? Well, generally, the lighter the color of the wine, the greater the perception of acidity. But more importantly, just ask yourself how much your mouth waters after a sip. You sense acid under your tongue, just behind your lower lip. More acidity, more saliva. If you taste a high-acid wine, such as Champagne or Albariño, next to a low-acid style like Gewürztraminer, the difference will be crystal clear.

Acidity cleanses your palate and prepares you for the next bite. That’s why Champagne or sparkling wine is a good choice if you’re having a hard-to-match menu of diverse foods. When I was lucky enough to return with a friend to Alinea, one of the world’s great restaurants in Chicago, I skipped the wine pairings, which I found disappointing (and expensive) on my first visit. Instead, we shared a brut rosè Champagne, which served us well through a quirky, wide-ranging menu of 24 mini “modernist cuisine” courses. Acidity was the key. Our palates were ready for anything the kitchen could throw at us from their amazingly complicated bag of tricks.

Most Old World winemakers understand acidity and get the balance right, especially with Riesling, which is a great food wine — and it’s not all sweet. Although, like Gewürztraminer, those versions that are off-dry (winespeak for having residual sugar) are wonderful matches for spicy food like Indian, Thai or Moroccan cuisines.

Food and wine matching is more art than science. You can “compare” by matching a high-acid wine with an acidic dish featuring vinaigrette or tomato sauce. Or “contrast” and counterbalance the acidity with fatty, oily foods (pâté, smoked salmon) or salty dishes (caviar, oysters). Comparing is a safer strategy, but contrast offers the chance of breathless discovery.

Next month, we’ll take the tools that I trust you’ve mastered by tasting obsessively over the past year and look more closely at strategies for ferreting out mind-blowing pairings. In the interim, taste expansively. Try something new. And, most importantly, use as many senses as possible with your brain in gear. Joy will surely follow. 

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Drink More Wine: Pucker up

Learn to discern how tannins help great wine achieve balance.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 24, 2014 at 12:05 PM

YOUNG AND BOLD: A Cabernet Sauvignon’s tannins will mellow with age.
  • YOUNG AND BOLD: A Cabernet Sauvignon’s tannins will mellow with age.

If you’ve been following my lead (and recent columns), you’re now getting more enjoyment from wine by using your eyes and nose before you taste. And you now understand how the path of taste changes from your tongue, across your mid-palate and back to the finish as you swallow.

Actively thinking as you see, swirl, sniff and sip changes your appreciation of wine in profound ways. As these steps become habit, each new glass becomes a playground. Or, even better, a puzzle with multiple solutions. The harder you play, the greater the reward. (Just don’t confuse “play” with excessive consumption!)

We began our discussion with the easy component: fruit. That is, of course, what we’re drinking — fruit juice. However, as you’ve learned, in the hands of a great winemaker the range of taste challenges even the most sophisticated palates. But what else is there in the glass that makes up the complexity of this most wonderful of beverages?

The next step in our analysis is recognizing tannin. And once we become aware, we then ask if the tannin is in balance with the wine’s other components. Regular readers of my restaurant column have heard me rant on many occasions about balance and, often, the lack thereof. For when all is in balance, chefs and winemakers treat us to the most intense combinations of flavor.

Tannin is a tactile sensation in wine. It is most prominent in red wines, especially when the juice has extended exposure to the skin, seeds and stems of the grape. It is also noticeable in white wines that have prolonged contact with wood barrels, which are often part of the winemaking process. Tannin is what I call the “pucker factor” in wine. After you’ve experienced the wine’s fruit on the forward part of your tongue, tannin becomes apparent in the middle. It’s why we describe wines as “dry.”

Tannins are most notable when the wine is young, and soften with age. Young wines often display the tannins in such a way that they seem to block the fruit — that’s why we age great wines. The trick is to catch the wine when the fruit is still bright, the tannins soften to reach perfect balance, and the vino is at its most complex. It’s then that wine displays layers of flavor as I described last month, and the wine drinking experience is at its peak.

If you’re having trouble understanding this concept, try drinking some unsweetened black tea. The dry, even astringent, feeling in the mid-palate is caused by tannin. When wines have too much tannin, they taste bitter. As they soften, bitter turns to “rough” in winespeak; rough turns to slightly tannic, and when the wine reaches a sense of equilibrium, it’s then described as “well structured.”

To help you understand this from a more practical point of view, let’s think of grape varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon has more tannin than Merlot. That’s why winemakers choose to combine these two grapes often — to take advantage of the particular characteristics of each grape and create a more pleasing wine. Most Bordeaux wines are combinations of these two grapes. Wines made from 100 percent Merlot are often described as “soft” because the level of tannin is discernibly low. Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines are popularly paired with steak because the fat from the beef helps to coat the tongue and counterbalance the astringency of the tannin, especially when the wine is young.

As you can see, there are many moving parts, and the components of the wine are constantly changing. But this is no reason to allow yourself to be intimidated by wine. We all learn incrementally with every glass we drink. But by understanding as much as we can about grapes, terminology and how wines are put together, our appreciation of wine will grow. Keep tasting as many different wines as you can, use your senses and “think as you drink.” The more you are an active taster, the more fun wine becomes. Just wait 'til next month when we add “acidity” to your wine vocabulary. Can true oenophilic enlightenment be far behind? 

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Drink More Wine: Sip, sniff, chew, spit

Finding layers of flavor by being an active, attentive drinker.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 1:58 PM


If you really want to understand wine, please start thinking when you take a sip.

A first impression comes from the tip of your tongue and you get a sense of the fruit. If the wine is say, a big Napa Cabernet, this will be an overwhelming sensation. The fruit is powerful and in winespeak referred to as “fruit forward.”

As the wine moves to the middle of your mouth, your palate will start to discern flavor combinations. If it’s a great wine, it will fill your mouth and you’ll feel it expanding from the roof back to your soft palate. Your initial taste sensations will evolve and secondary flavors will appear. If you’re lucky, there will even be a layer of tertiary taste and you might possibly even be able to “smell” with your mouth. Because our mouth and our nose are connected and our olfactory senses are so strong, if you pay close attention you’ll notice smells coming from inside. I know this sounds odd, but if you’re drinking a mouth-filling wine, you’ll eventually recognize the sensation.

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