The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test*

A lot of the students in my introductory wine classes have a hard time coming to terms with acidity in wine.  It’s like the word “acidity” reminds them of battery acid, stomach acid, or Jerry Garcia’s long strange trip.

LemonsWhile its easy to understand how acidity does not sound appealing, its a very important flavor component in wine; perhaps even the most important. I can usually bring the class over to “my way of thinking” by comparing acidity in wine to acidity in food.  Everyone understands that a boring burger can benefit from a few slices of pickle or tomato, both of which add a wallop of acid.  Even the ketchup on that burger is highly acidic, although our tongues are much too interested in its sweetness to notice the zing.

Chemically speaking, acid is present in minute quantities in wine; it generally makes up only about 0.5% to 0.7% of the overall volume of a wine. However, its presence is one of the main flavor differences between fine wine and unfermented grape juice.  Acidity gives a wine “liveliness” or “bite”.  Without sufficient acidity, a wine would taste flat, neutral, boring, and bland. Who needs that?

When leading my students through their very first tasting, I have them direct their attention to the sides of their tongues where (despite the frequent bashings of the puedo-science of the “tongue map”) we have a unique set almost gill-like taste buds that are highly sensitive to acidity.

Directing them to pay attention to the “level of zing” and not any associated aromas or flavors, we try to agree on one of the following non-scientific descriptors to apply to the level of acidity in our wine:

Cream of Tomato soupFlat:  If the wine has no noticable “zing,” we call it flat.  I tell the students to compare the level of zing in the wine to the taste of butter.  Of course, butter has almost no acid; it tastes flat. That’s the point. Also, I would never serve my students a flat wine, but at this point in the class they don’t know that yet! A wine that is flat lacks acidity has no depth or complexity.  A “flat” wine is missing one of the basic building blocks of flavor.

Soft: I ask my students if the wine has just a touch of acidity…like cream of tomato soup or blackberries. A soft wine has low acidity compared to many wines, but is still well-balanced, mellow, fruity, and pleasant.  A wine with soft acidity is generally easy to drink.  You may sense just a touch of acidity, and have a slight physiological reaction to a soft wine. (Fyi, both cream of tomato soup and blackberries clock in at about 3.9 pH….just about where the softest wines should land.)

Fresh or Refreshing:   A fresh, or refreshing, wine has enough acidity to balance the fruitiness and make the wine interesting and your mouth feel clean.  The main impression a fresh or refreshing wine leaves on your palate is one of refreshing the palate.  The term is used for a pleasant white wine that is perhaps not too complex – think Moscato d’Asti, Australian Viognier or warm-weather Chardonnay.  This term is also well-used for many red wines such as ripe Zinfandel or Mendoza Malbec, although beginning tasters generally don’t understand the difference between acidity and bitterness.  That’s a lesson for another day.

green applesCrisp:  Imagine biting into a ripe green apple.  The sides of your mouth pucker up, and yet it tastes great…good flavor accompanied by balanced acidity and fruit.  But maybe a bit too tart for those who would prefer a red apple or a nectarine.  A crisp wine’s acidity is easily recognizable but does not overwhelm the flavor of the wine.  You will feel a slight prickly sensation on the sides of your tongue.  You can taste the acidity, but the other flavors come shining through as well. Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Chablis, White Bordeaux, many Italian White Wines, and other warm-weather white wines have a good chance of being well-described as “crisp.”

Lively:  Think of the vibrant acidity accompanied by a whoosh of flavor that you experience from a green apple Jolly Rancher candy. A lively wine that has a perfect balance of acidity, and is bursting with flavor.  This term is used for wines that have fuller flavor than wines described as “crisp,” such as many sparkling wines (the bubbles emphasize the acidity), California Sauvignon Blanc, or any other white wine that has avoided malo-lactic fermentation or was the result of a cool climate or year.

grapefruitTart:  Four words:  New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  One more word:  grapefruit. A tart wine is noticeably acidic.  If you are a ceviche-loving type of person who would rather have a dill pickle than a cookie for a snack, this might be your favorite type of wine. (It is mine, but then my mother once had to explain to me that peeled lemons were not an appropriate snack.) This is a high-acid wine that leaves sharp, almost hard impression on your tongue.  This wine will cause a physiological reaction in your salivary glands, but is not overwhelmingly acidic and not yet sour.

Sour:  If the wine reminds you just a bit too much of biting down on a freshly sliced lemon (or, worse yet, lime wedge), you have a wine that is out of balance with too much harsh acidity.  This is generally a negative term a might represent a defect in the wine (as would a “flat” wine).  A sour wine will remind you more of vinegar and may imply that the wine has spoiled. If you were served this wine in a restaurant, return it.  If you were served this wine at someone’s house, you might just have to sit there and cry.

Other terms I have used to describe acidity include:  sharp, vibrant, snappy, snap-crackle-pop, electric, intense, bright, precise, daggar-like, zing, tongue-curling, acidic spark, or a flavor such as “cherry-like acidity” or “a squirt of lemon”. Or my personal favorite…scandalous.

What’s your favorite?

The Bubbly Professor is…”Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas….missjane@prodigy.net

 *Kudos to any readers who caught the reference to Tom Wolfe’s famous book about Ken Kesey, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” If you got the reference, you are probably my age (congrats on making it past your 40’s).  If you didn’t, you might recognize the brillant, white-suit wearing Mr. Wolfe as the author of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff.”

Old World, New World – The “Secret Weapon” of Blind Tasting

Beaujolais...Totally Old World

Beaujolais…Totally Old World

Whew!!  Preparing this CWE Preview is really taking over my life…but it has led to some interesting blog posts as well (or so I’d like to believe…)

Today while starting to write my study tips and design my presentation about the Varietal/Appellation Identification portion (aka the “Blind Tasting,” which is actually a semi-blind tasting) of the CWE Exam, I began to consolidate all of my notes about what constitutes the “Old World” style as opposed to the “New World” style.

While it almost pains me to make sure generalities about wine (really, what in what other field could we get away with spouting such obvious prejudice?), I thought I’d share my notes with you, in the hopes that either you can benefit from it – or, if you totally disagree – could enjoy letting me know why I’m wrong! Here goes:

Old World, New World – The “Secret Weapon” of Blind Tasting

This technique helps you identifty a wine’s place of origin – or at least narrow it down – based on some basic style parameters.

In a nutshell:  the prevailing style of “Old World” wines is subtle, while the prevailing style of “New World” wines is bold. The root causes of these stylistic differences include vine growing conditions, including climate and soil quality; old world tradition vs. new world innovation; the styles of the local cuisines; and the concept of old world terrior-driven wines vs. new world fruit-driven wines.

In an even smaller nutshell, the “Old World” of wine is Europe and includes France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Bulgaria, and Romania.  The “New World” of wine includes The United States, Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Old World Wines:

  • Are subtle, elegant, and refined.
  • Are earthy, and terrior-driven, and crafted to reflect the character of the vineyard.
  • Are so expressive of the character of the “place” that they are frequently named after the area of origin, as opposed to the grape variety.
  • Are crafted to support and complement the local cuisine.
  • Are accepted as a part of daily life to be enjoyed with every meal, and therefore tend to be lighter in body and alcohol.
  • Are protected and regulated by Europe’s vast system of wine regulations.
  • Are based on the trial-and-error experience of countless generations that developed the ideal combination of grapes, viticultural practices, and wine making techniques that yield a particular wine style.
  • Have established reputations and market recognition.

 

Artesa Winery - Totally Gorgeous

Artesa Winery – Totally Gorgeous

New World Wines:

  • Are bold, lush, and opulent.
  • Are fruit-driven, fruit-forward, and often named after the grape variety.
  • Are crafted to complement the bold flavors of New World Cuisines.
  • Are driven by research, experimentation, and innovation.
  • Have very little regulatory limitations compared to the Old World (we’re the wild wild west…)
  • Have little in the way of tradition to dictate styles.
  • Are still struggling with the concept of what grapes grow best in which areas.
  • Often make the choice of grape variety based on market-driven as opposed to terrior-driven forces.
  • Are often expressions of the winemaker’s unique style.
  • Have been accused of being  “splashy” in order to garner market attention (how else can you explain “Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush?”)

When it comes to Asia, while grape-based winemaking is certainly a new industry in many part of Asia, the roots, while rather obscure, go back a long way. The wine world can’t really decide how to label this up-and-coming wine powerhouse. Some are calling Asia the “New New World,” some are calling it the “Third Wine World,” and some think we should just stick to  calling it “Asia.”

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Sémillon

35-Semillon-grapesThe Soundbyte:  Sémillon is a golden-skinned white wine grape known primarily for its close association with Sauvignon Blanc, as in the Sauvignon/Sémillon blends of White Bordeaux and its many imitators worldwide.  Sémillon is increasingly seen as a stand-alone varietal, particularly in the Hunter Valley Region of Australia, where it seems to have found its “second home.”  Sémillon has a well-documented susceptibility to Botrytis, and is often made into dessert wines.  It is the most widely planted white wine grape in Bordeaux, particularly in Sauternes.  Fans of Sémillon like to brag that the most famous dessert wine of all, Château d’Yquem, is 80% Sémillon.

Typical Attributes of a Sémillon Based Wine:

  • The grapes are hardy in the vineyard and relatively easy to culitivate.  They are fairly resistant to disease, but as luck would have it, are quite susceptible to Botrytis.
  • Sémillon tends to have moderate acidity, which is most likely why it became the world’s best blending partner for Sauvignon Blanc, which tends to scream with acidity.
  • Sémillon tends to have good extract, and a rich, “oily” texture or weight,  sometimes referred to as  “waxy”.
  • Varietal wines tend to have medium to high levels of alcohol.
  • Sémillon tends to be low on aromatics when made into a varietal, which is another reason why it does so well with the intensely aromatic Sauvignon Blanc. 
  • It has been described as rather “bland” in its youth, but is one of the rare white wines that can transform with age.  Older versions can take on a hazelnut, toasty richness. Oak aging also helps create a more complex wine, and, along with  malolactic fermentation can encourage aromas of butter, cream, vanilla and smoke.
  • An interesting wine-tasting term that is often used to describe Sémillon is “lanolin,” which is actually a substance found in wool and used in cosmetics (!).  In “WineSpeak” the term refers to a smooth, creamy impression that might be considered to opposite of “tart” or “sharp”. 

semillon bottlesTypical Aromas of a Semillon Based Wine:

Fruity:  Apple, Pear,  Lemon, Nectarine, Grapefruit, Melon, Fig, Date  

Spicy:  Saffron, Vanilla, Dried Herb

Vegetal:  Green Grass, Asparagus, Bell Pepper 

Botrytis Affected Versions:  Apricot, Dried Apricot, Quince, Peach, Honey, Pineapple, Vanilla, Butterscotch, Curry

Oaked Versions:  Vanilla, Sweet Wood, Toast, Smoke, Oak, Coconut

Where The Best Sémillon is Grown:

  • The Southwest of France, particularly Bordeaux, where it most likley has its native home.  Sémillon is the most widely planted white grape in Bordeaux, particularly in Sauternes where it may claim up to 80% of the vineyard property.  Of course, it shares the white Bordeaux blend with Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes a dash of Muscadelle, so it has remained somewhat out of the spotlight. But be sure…Sémillon rules the white Bordeaux world.
  • Australia’s Hunter Valley, which has become Sémillon’s adopted home in much the same way that Malbec has taken to Mendoza. Hunter Valley is well-known for being a leading producer of 100% varietal Sémillon.
  • In other parts of Australia, Sémillon is used as a blending partner for Chardonnay as well as in Bordeaux-inspired Sémillon-Sauvignon Blends.
  • The Côtes de Gascogne, a Vin de Pays produced in the Armagnac region, is heavily planted to Sémillon.
  • The Loire Valley has a smattering of Sémillon, as does Portugal, Israel, Argentina, Chile, California, Washington State, New Zealand, and South Africa.

semillonFood Affinities – Base Ingredients:

  • Roast Chicken with Herbs!
  • Seafood of all kinds…try Classic French Steamed Mussels
  • Poultry, Duck, Veal, Pork…

Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Corn, Pumpkin, Squash, Polenta
  • Coconut, Apples, Pears, Pineapple
  • Nutmeg, Saffron
  • Hazelnuts, Cashews, Walnuts, Pecans
  • Bacon, Mushrooms, Sweet Onions, Garlic
  • Lemon and Grapefruit make excellent flavor bridges, but try not to overdo it on the acidity (remember, this is a low-acid wine)
  • Tarragon, Basil, Thyme, Lemongrass, Basil, Rosemary, Fresh herbs of all kinds 
  • Butter, Brown Butter, Cream, Sour Cream, Olive Oil

If your Sémillon-based wine is more “Sauvignon” than “Sémillon” – check out the food pairing advice on the Cheat Sheet for Sauvignon Blanc.

If your Sémillon is botrytis-affected, it will go well with sweet dishes made with honey, cream, apricots, apples, and pears—in addition to pairing beautifully with savory dishes such as blue cheese and foie gras! 

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” of Austin, Texas

missjane@prodigy.net

 

 

Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Sangiovese

Sangiovese ChiantiThe Soundbyte:  It is widely accepted that Sangiovese was well-known to the winemakers of Ancient Rome, and it is suspected that the grape was known in Tuscany as far back as the time of the Etruscans. The grape is still is widely grown throughout Central Italy, from Romagna to Lazio, and throughout Italy down to Campania and Sicily.

Outside of Italy Sangiovese is mainly known as the main grape of Chianti, in all its forms, but Italian wine lovers know that it also stars in Carmignano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano, Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, and Sangiovese di Romagna, among many others.

While often used in a blend, Sangiovese is increasingly seen as a stand-along varietal.  In addition, it is now being used in blends with “international varieties” such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.  You may know these wines as “Super Tuscans”, whose style is now being imitated in other parts of the world.

In a country growing hundreds (if not thousands) of different grapes, Sangiovese reigns as the number one grape varietal in Italy, where it accounts for 10% of the entire wine grape crop.

Sangiovese Grapes Typical Attributes of a Sangiovese Based Wine:

  • The flavor profile is complex, with earthy aromas often overtaking the aromas of fruit, spice, flowers, and oak.
  • Sangiovese has a moderate to high level of natural acidity.
  • Medium to full-bodied, with descriptors ranging from supple and elegant to assertive and robust.
  • The finish tends towards bitterness.  I often describe it as “bitter cherry”.
  • Medium tannin due to the grape’s natural “thin skin.”  This is often assuaged with oak contact.
  • This “thin skin” and natural low-level of anthocyanins can make Sangiovese-based wines seem light in color.  It tends to show an orange meniscus, even in younger wines.
  • Sangiovese is often used to produce a “lighter” style red wine, and this approachability has made it a consumer favorite.  Sangiovese makes a wonderful, spicy rosé, and stars in many an Italian rosato.

Typical Aromas of a Sangiovese Based Wine:

  • Fruity:  Plum, Cherry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Strawberry, Blueberry, Mulberry, Orange Peel
  • Spicy:  Tea, Clove,  Cinnamon, Thyme, Anise
  • Floral:  Violet, Dried Flowers
  • Wood-derived:  Cedar, Oak, Vanilla, Sweet Wood, Smoke, Toast, Tar
  • Earthy:  Wet Leaves, Wet Dirt, Forest, Tobacco, Tea, “Dusty”, Herbal

Where The Best Sangiovese is Grown:

  • Italy, its native home, where it is the most widely-grown red grape variety.
  • Sangiovese BrunelloIt especially thrives in Tuscany, where it forms the base of the wines of Chianti and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino as well as many other wines. It is sometimes part of the blend—often alongside Cabernet Sauvignon—in the wines known as the Super Tuscans.
  • Beyond Tuscany, it is found throughout Italy and is a main grape in Umbria, Marche, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and as far south as Campania and Sicily.
  • Italian immigrants brought Sangiovese to California.  The earliest recorded Sangiovese vineyard in California is the Seghesio Family’s Chianti Station Vineyard, planted near Geyserville in 1910.
  • Sangiovese never really took off in California until the Super Tuscan movement of the 1980’s.  Since then, Sangiovese has been gaining popularity in the United States and is now grown in Napa, Sonoma, and The Sierra Foothills.
  • Flat Creek Estate in Marble Falls, Texas created a Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend they call a “Super Texan” in 2005. The wine immediately commanded world wine attention when it won the coveted Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition that year.  The “Super Texan” style of wine seems a natural fit for Texas terrior and has now been duplicated by adventurous winemakers all over Texas.
  • Oregon, Washington State, Virginia, and The Niagara Peninsula now have Sangiovese plantings, as do Australia, Argentina, Romania, Corsica, South Africa, and Chile.

 Food Affinities – Base Ingredients:

Beef, Lamb, Pork, Chicken, Turkey, Duck, Hard Cheeses
sangiovese steakFood Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

Simple, rustic dishes, Grilled Foods, Fresh Herbs

Tomatoes, Sun-dried Tomatoes, Tomato Sauces

Onions, Garlic, Mushrooms, Eggplant, Fennel, Roasted Bell Peppers

Green Olives, Black Olives, Capers

Pecans, Walnuts

Pasta Dishes, Risotto Dishes

Proscuitto, Pancetta, Bacon

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas….

 

Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Gewürztraminer

The Soundbyte:  Simply stated, Gewürztraminer is an enigma.  It is the one wine you either love or hate.  The wine has a tendency to have a flavor quite different than what is expected from its rather forward floral, fruit, and spicy aromas; and your first sip can be quite a “shock” to the palate, to say the least! This is not to say its not a delightful wine; it can be a delicious wine indeed, and in my opinion a fantastic partner for many otherwise hard-to-pair foods. 

The French region of Alsace has seen the most success with Gewürtraminer, and the name is obviously German, but the grape’s history began in Italy, somewhere in the Tyrollean Alps, near the village of Tramin in Alto Adige.  Like many grapes, Gewürztraminer tends to mutate based in its surroundings, so the grapes themselves may be golden yellow, light pink, or even pinkish-brown and spotted.  It also tends to be a difficult vine in the vineyard, being quite susceptible to poor fruit set, frost damage,and certain viral diseases.  However, the grapes, with their thick skins and blotchy colors, can attain very high sugar concentrations and those amazing aromas, which can lead to some pretty interesting wines!

Typical Attributes of a Gewürztraminer Based Wine:

  • The one thing that cannot be denied about Gewürtraminer is its spectacular fragrance.  Be prepared for a waft of rose petals, exotic fruits, and spicy perfume aromas that seem to leap out of the glass. 
  • Gewürztraminer’s Lychee aroma is legendary. It has even been reported that Gewürztramier and Lychee share a common chemical structure responsible for the aroma. If you’ve never sniffed a lychee, go grab a can from your neighborhood grocer’s Asian Foods section and prepare to be amazed!
  • Gewürztraminer is made in many styles, from bone dry to very sweet.
  • Guard your palate, and brace yourself.  Even in dry styles of the wine, Gewürztraminer’s aromas smell sweet, but the flavor can hit the palate with a bombshell of dry spice and perfume.  I’ve often compared it to eating pure ground cinnamon.  Not entirely bad, but kind of weird if you were expecting cinnamon cookies.
  • Gewürtraminer tends to be low-acid, which can be problematic in some of the sweeter wines.  However, at the same time the wine tends to have a bit of bitterness to it.  This can lend a needed balance to a low-acid wine, especially those of the off-dry or sweet styles. However, when pairing the wine with food, remember that acidity and bitterness react to food pairings in very different ways.
  • The amazing ability of Gewürztraminer to attain high sugar levels means that dry versions of the wine can be misleadingly high in alcohol…this is a wine to watch out for!
  • Sweet versions of Gewürtraminer are made from late harvest grapes and botrytis-affected grapes.  In Alsace, these wines might be called “VendagesTardives”or “Sélection de Grains Nobles.” 
  • Gewurz also makes a very nice ice wine is made as well.

 Typical Aromas of a Gewürztraminer Based Wine:

Fruity:  Pear, Lychee, Peach, Apricot, Guava, Pineapple, Passion Fruit, Mango, Grapefruit, Sultana (Golden Raisin)

Floral:  Roses, Rose Petal, Gardenia, Carnation, Jasmine, Honeysuckle, Honey, Perfume

Spicy:  Ginger, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, White Pepper, Allspice, Clove

Strange but True:  Coconut, Pond’s Cold Cream, Cheap Rose Perfume, Nivea Cream, “Cosmetics,” “Old Lady Perfume” (don’t try to deny it), Church Incense, Petroleum, Turpentine, Diesel, Gasoline.

Where The Best Gewürztraminer is Grown:

  • The Alsace region of France, which  many people consider to be the place where Gewurztraminer finds its “perfect expression”.  (By the way, in the French language there is no “ü” in Gewurz, so don’t let anybody tell you it is spelled wrong!)  In Alsace, Gewurztraminer accounts for about 20% of the vineyards, making it the second-most planted grape of the region.  Riesling, the number one grape, accounts for 23% of the vineyards.
  • Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Luxembourg and many of the smaller wine producers of Eastern Europe also grow Gewürztraminer, but it may be going by any one of the following aliases:  Roter Traminer, Drumin, Pinat Cervena, Livora, Tramini, Mala Dinka, among others.
  • True to its history, the grape is still grown in the Trentino/Alto Adige areas in Italy. 
  • Areas of Canada, such as Vancouver Island, The Okanagan Valley, and Ontario, as well as New York’s Finger Lakes and Long Island Wine Country. 
  • The Cooler regions of Australia and New Zealand  
  • California grew Gewurztraminer back in the 1870’s; a well-regarded version was produced by Charles Krug in Napa and Jacob Gundlach in Sonoma.  These days, the cooler regions of California, including Mendocino County, Monterey County and Sonoma, also do quite well with small plantings of the grape.

 Food Affinities – Base Ingredients:

Crab, Mussels, Shrimp, Salmon, Smoked Salmon, Sushi, Tuna, Sturdier Fish

Smoked Food  

Pungent Cheeses, Smoked Cheeses (Roquefort, Muenster, and Gouda among the favorites)

Chicken, Turkey, Duck

Liver, Chicken Liver, Foie Gras

Just about anything made with Pork

Salami, Paté, Bacon, Pancetta, just about any type of Charcuterie

 Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Tropical Fruits, Orange, Lychee
  • Ginger, Fennel Seed, Cinnamon, Clove
  • Onions, Garlic
  • Smoked Gouda, Smoked Mozzarella
  • Asian Flavors, Curry, Spicy foods
  • It seems that the pungency of many foods actually cuts the pungency of Gewurz, which does not always happen in the food-and-wine world but this is a great example of a “flavor bridge” being a good thing!
  • French Onion Soup and Gewurz is one of the best food pairings on earth! Click here for My Favorite French Onion Soup Recipe.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” of Austin, Texas

missjane@prodigy.net

 

 

Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Syrah

Syrah – The Soundbyte:

The Syrah grape, also known as Shiraz, is   believed to be native to southeastern France. There’s a lovely legend that tells of the grape as a native to the city of Shiraz in Iran, transported from its Middle Eastern home to the south of France by a knight returning from the crusades—but, alas, it has been proven untrue and will remain with us as “just a good story.”

Today, the grape is widely grown in the South of France, where it stars as the main red grape in the Northern Rhône and a blending partner to a whole gaggle of grapes—including Grenache and Mourvèdre—in the south. It has become somewhat of an icon of Australian Wine.  In order to give the wine its own “down-under” identity apart from other producers, Australian winemakers often choose to call the grape Shiraz.  Syrah is also widely grown in many other new world regions, where it is made into dry reds of both the single-variety and blended-variety.  While it is often made into bubbly, rosé and dessert wine, Syrah is mainly known as a powerhouse red.

 Typical Attributes of a Syrah-based Wine:

  • European-style, Old-World Syrah-based wines tend to be medium-dark in color and concentrated in flavor. Old world Syrah is often blended with softer grapes to minimize or balance tannin and alcohol levels. These wines are often earthy, dense, smoky, herbal and even “gamey” wines.
  • New World Syrah/Shiraz-based wines tend to be dark purple, opaque, and inky in appearance.  Other attributes of New World Syah include high alchohol, fruit-forwardness, and intense tannins. These tannins are sometimes considered “soft”  or “velvety” because they are drinkable when the wines are still young (often a result of winemaking techniques).
  • Australian Shiraz is sometimes described as plush ripey. Who can resist that?
  • The Australians produce sparkling Shiraz.
  • Syrah also makes a lovely, dry rosé.

Typical Aromas of a Syrah-based Wine:

Fruity:  Blackberry, Plum, Ripe Cherry, Currant, Prune, Blueberry, Orange Peel

Spicy:  Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Clove, Vanilla, Chocolate, Coffee, Espresso, “Burnt Coffee”

Chemical:  Leather, Burnt, Tar, Smoke, Burnt Rubber, Asphalt, Graphite

Earthy:  Gamey, Smoky, Minty, Barnyard, Garrigue

Floral:  Lavender, Wild Flowers, Dried Flowers, Violets

Where The Best Syrah is Grown:

  • Australia.
  • The South of France.  Syrah stars in the wines of the Rhône, as the dominant variety in the North (such as the famous wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie), and as part of a blend in the South (as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône).
  • Syrah also does well in the Southern French regions of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon.
  • South Africa, especially the warmer regions such as Paarl and Franscheok.  For a real treat, try a bottle of “The Chocolate Block” from Boekenhoutskloof Winery (extra credit if you can pronounce it).
  • California, especially Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, and Santa Barbara.
  • Washington State, the new “hot” growing region for Syrah.

 Food Affinities – Base Ingredients:

  • Beef, Lamb, Veal, Venison, Pork, Hard Cheeses

Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

Garlic, Onions, Mushrooms, Walnuts, Pecans, Rosemary, Thyme, Bay Leaf, Sage, Tomatoes, Eggplant, Fennel

Blackberries, Currants, Prunes (but go easy on the sweetness)

Green Peppercorns, Black Pepper, Coarse Grained Mustard, Chili Spices, Barbeque Flavors

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texasmissjane@prodigy.net .

Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Zinfandel

Zinfandel – The Soundbyte:

Zinfandel used to be known as “California’s Mystery Grape,” as an old-timey legend says that Zinfandel vines of the vitis vinifera species were growing happily in California before European settlement of the New World.

This was fun to believe for a while, but today we know better,  and it is believed that today’s Zinfandel traveled from Croatia to Vienna during the Habsburg Monarchy’s rule over Croatia.  Some cuttings ended up in the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, and from there were sent to a horticulturist in Long Island, who sent some vines out to California, where Italian immigrants working the gold rush appreciated the grape’s sturdy, robust style and planted them with enthusiasm, only to abandon their vineyards when the gold rush fizzled out.  These vineyards, and their mystery grapes, were then rediscovered years later with the post-prohibition wave of California winemakers. Quite a story, right?

DNA fingerprinting has revealed that today’s Zinfandel is genetically equivalent to the Crljenak Kaštelanski grape of Croatia  and either identical to or very-very-very closely related to the well-known Croatian grape known as Plavac Mali. Zinfandel is also either identical to—or very closely related to—Primitivo, as grown in Puglia.

Wherever it came from and whatever you call it, Zinfandel has proved itself as a hardworking, heat-seeking, robust grape.

 Typical Attributes of a Zinfandel-based Wine:

    • Fruit-forward,  intense fruit flavors…the aromas and flavors of blackberry, cherry and plum are quite recognizable.
    • In my wine tastings I generally introduce Zin as “Blackberry/Black Pepper/Black Licorice.”  It’s a pretty good Zin cliché.
    • Medium to high alcohol…sometimes 15% or more.
    • Medium to full  body; more likley towards the full.
    • Medium to high tannin combined with lively acidity.  Warm weather growing areas can mellow the tannins to the velvety type, but they remain quite high.
    • Red Zinfandel’s spice, fruit, and acidity make it a very food friendly wine.
    • Yes….the  Zinfandel grape can be made in the “White Zinfandel” style.  To make white zinfandel, the wine is allowed to ferment on the intensely colored red grape skins for a day or  two, just until the juice turns a light pink color.  At this time, the juice is pressed off  the grape skins while the fermentation process finishes.  While it is true that your Mama’s White Zinfandel most likely had a touch of residual sugar and this style remains popular today, Zinfandel is also made into crisp, dry, serious rosé.
    • Late harvest Zinfandel is often made into a luscious, complex dessert wine; one of my favorites is “Zinnie de Potelle” by Chateau Potelle.
    • Some winemakers freeze their late harvest (or regular harvest) Zinfandel grapes to make to make “ice wine-style” dessert wines, often with cute-cute-cute names such as “Fro-Zin”.

Typical Aromas of a Zinfandel-based Wine:

  • Fruity
    • Blackberry, Blackberry  Jam, Boysenberry, Boysenberry Jam, Raspberry, Raspberry Jam, Plum, Ripe Cherry, Pomegranate, Raisin, Prune
  • Spicy
    • Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Clove, Nutmeg, Allspice, Anise, Licorice, Chocolate
  • Wood-derived:
    • Oak, Vanilla
  • Sometimes:
    • Maple, Mushroom, Mint, Mineral

Where The Best Zinfandel is Grown:

  • California, especially Sonoma Valley, Amador County, the Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles, and Lodi
  • The south of Italy—as Primitivo
  • Croatia, where it is sometimes called “plavac—as Plavac Mali or Crljenak Kaštelanski
  • Texas – including the Texas High Plains AVA
  • While California remains  Zinfandel’s favorite adopted home, it is having some success in South Africa,  South America, and Australia

Food Affinities – Base Ingredients:

  • Beef, Lamb, Venison, Pork, Chicken, Turkey, Duck, Sausage

Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Spicy Foods
  • Spicy, Slightly Sweet Foods like Barbeque Sauce or Hoisin Sauce.
  • Tex-Mex Flavors
  • Grilled Flavors, Smoky Flavors
  • Blue Cheese Bacon Cheeseburgers
  • Burgers with Caramelized Onions
  • Any type of burgers (even turkey burgers)
  • Sausage and Peppers
  • Eggplant, Mushrooms, Black Beans
  • Tomatoes, Sun-dried Tomatoes
  • Mint, Rosemary, Oregano
  • Thyme, Cumin, Blackening Spices
  • Onions, Shallots
  • Walnuts, Pecans, Hazelnuts
  • Chocolate – which many people love, but most folks will recommend that you stick to the sweet versions of Zin for dessert.

Week One, Day One: The Introduction to Wine Class

Next week starts a brand new semester and among the classes I’ll be teaching this block is my sentimental favorite – The Introduction to Wine Class.  I offer Professional Wine Studies, Wines and the Culinary Arts, and Wine and Food Pairing as well as semester-long looks at both Old World Wines and New World Wines, but the introductory class remains my favorite.

It’s great to see wine newbies go from “What is Wine” to “The Legend of Sassicaia” in just over 12 weeks.  I always like to start Week One/Day One simply enough with “Wine, Defined.”  I am sure that every wine educator out there has their preferred version of the answer to the question, “what is wine”?   My is quite simply, “Wine is a beverage produced by the fermentation of fruit, mainly grapes”.  Of course this answer leads to many questions and further disucssions…what is fermentation, why grapes, and “can you make wine from Welch’s Grape Juice”?  Of course, the answer is yes…it just won’t taste very good!

And it never fails, within the first ten minutes of class someone will mention the following subjects:  Boone’s Farm, Four Loko, Sangria, Hellow Kitty Wines, Prison Wine, Mad Dog 20/20, Saké, Arbor Mist Blackberry Merlot, Thunderbird, Mimosas, Cristal, and Ace of Spades.  Fellow wine educators, I bet you have your own list, I would love to hear about what your students ask on day one!

And somehow, we get through it all.  I like to have a basic “learn how to taste” session on Week One/Day One as well, both to get the class off to an engaging start and also to lay the ground work for the more detailed, directed tastings we will have as the class progresses.

My introduction to sensory evaluation class is admittedly quite technical.  I tell the students what the wines are, but I ask them not to focus on that one particular wine but rather to use the wine at hand to learn about the sensory evaluation of  “every wine or any wine.” 

I use just three wines; an unoaked, crisp Chardonnay (A Macon-Villages is ideal), followed by a simple yet sweet white wine (I’ve been using Flat Creek Estate Muscato D’Arancia), and finish with Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The basics of sensory evaluation class that I teach on Week One/Day One does not follow the basic steps of wine tasting.  We will get to all the expected steps (sight, swirl, sniff, snort, whatever…) in the course of the session, but not exactly in that order.  I tell the students that we are going to do approach the wines in the proper order (dry before sweet, white before red, light before heavy) and that we will let each wine “reveal” its secrets to us – in other words, each wine has something special to teach us. I choose my flight of three to include a wine that perfectly shows acidity, one that has sweetness, one with bitterness and tannin, and make sure that within the set of three, each of the major aroma families is there in an easy-to-recognize manner.  I want the class to be chock-full of “a-ha moments.”

Then I launch right in, teaching what I call “The Nine Elements of Wine Flavor.”  The nine elements are: Acidity, Sweetness, Bitterness, Tannin, Umami, Aroma, Body, Balance, and Alcohol.  I told you it was technical!  It does start off quite scientific, with discussions of pH, IBU’s, R.S. and ABV, but by the time we add aroma to the mix I make sure the step off the path of “paralysis by analysis” and let the students just relax and enjoy the flavor of the wine.  And somehow, it all comes together in the end.

If you’d like a copy of my handout about “The Nine Elements of Wine Flavor” just send me an email request to”  missjane@prodigy.net .

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” of Austin, Texas.

Flower Power

One of the most rewarding (and labor-intensive) classes I have ever taught is called “Flower Power”.  I came up with the concept for my college-based wine club, “The Grapeheads,” after leading monthly wine events for basically the same group of people for four years…in other words, I was running out of ideas!

This was one of those times when I just wasn’t sure how it would go; it could either be a brilliant success or a dismal failure. The day before the event I almost gave up on the idea and was about to swap it out for a generic white wine class disguised as a  tasting of obscure grape varieties.  I even had a name…”Let your mind go blanc!”  In retrospect, it’s a good thing I didn’t go with the alternative, and whether through pure dumb luck or lots of effort in the preparation phase (I’ll never know), the Flower Power class turned out to be of my all-time best classes in both attendance and execution.

The point of the class is that floral descriptors are among the most misunderstood of all wine aromas. Not too many people, beyond the modest appeal of edible flowers, fancy drinking something that smells like a flower.  Plus, while floral aromas are exotic and pleasant, in the day and age of the concrete city most people’s closest interaction with floral aromas is shampoos, dish detergents, and perfumes.

Another issue with floral aromas is people just don’t recognize them beyond the basic “floral, wildflower, garden after the rain, or perfume” descriptors.  My opinion is most people just don’t interact with the real thing very often, and when they do it is far from an academic affair.  In other words, most people have not had the opportunity to really sniff the actual flowers and make a real effort learn to identify the aromas.  Most people I know wouldn’t know even be able to tell a gardenia from an orchid in any situation!

To introduce the session, I began with a brief lecture accompanied by some beautiful pictures of flowers via Power Point. I discussed the different floral aromas found in wines, described what wines are likely to show floral aromas, and introduced the “WineSpeak” often used to describe floral aromas in wine.

Next, (this was the labor-intensive part), we had a flower-sniffing session.  I had 12 different types of flowers, labeled and arranged ever-so-cutely in wine glasses for a walk-around sniffing.  I also had some essential oils, perfumes, and aromatic lotions to fill out the bill.  These were presented via a cute little cotton ball in an even-cuter wine glass.  I also used – I must admit – some candles (yeah Yankee Candle Store). All told we had 25 different floral aromas represented.

Finally, to round out the day, we did a blind tasting of some exotically scented wines that exhibited floral aromas.  Taking a chance on this oddball of a class turned out to be worth it, and I was amazed at the ability of my students to recognize and identify those floral aromas! Of course, the wine was delicious as well.

Here’s a copy of the handout I presented that day:

Flower Power:  Wines and Floral Aromas

Don’t worry or leave:  Using a floral descriptor for a wine does not mean that you wine is about to taste like flowers, perfume or shampoo. Floral is style descriptor that applies mainly to a wine’s scent.  That being said, many wines have an intoxicating floral aroma.

It”s normal if find this hard to grasp:  since most floral aromas are somewhat exotic, you are not likely to come into contact with such scents everyday.  Keep an open mind and practice! You can experience floral aromas at the flower shop, a candle store, an herb shop (as in dried flowers or essential oils)…and you may find that you develop an appreciation for floral characteristics in wine.

Common floral aromas that reveal themselves in wine:

  • Acacia
  • Gardenia
  • Hibiscus
  • Honeysuckle
  • Hyacinth
  • Jasmine
  • Lavender
  • Lily
  • Orange Blossom
  • Rose
  • Violet

Other terminology  you may use to recognize or describe floral aromas are:

  • Wildflowers, Dried flowers, Dried roses
  • Rose perfume, Perfume
  • Old lady perfume (my personal favorite, and one that everyone understood)
  • Wedding bouquet
  • Walking through the Garden (as if WineSpeak wasn’t wacky enough)
  • Nivea Cream (this one you have to experience to believe)
  • Linalool, Honey

Grapes (and Wines) that Lend Themselves to Floral Aromas Include:

  • Albariño
  • Beaujolais
  • Bordeaux
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Gamay
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Malbec
  • Merlot
  • Muscat/Moscato
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Noir
  • Riesling
  • Syrah/Shiraz
  • Torrontes
  • Viognier

The Bubbly Professor is:  “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas – missjane@prodigy.net

Mad Libs for Wine!

It never fails…the first time I stand in front of a new wine class and describe a white wine as having aromas of “lemon, lime, green apple, and apricot” I get either a sea of blank stares or an uncomfortable laugh track.  A few weeks into the class, however, my students are begging me to teach them how to “impress their friends and annoy their enemies” by crafting an impressive sounding wine description.

My response:  “You mean one like this?”

“Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc 2010 is a dry, medium-bodied white wine.  The nose reveals the fruity, floral, and  mineral aromas of lemon, lime, green apple, gooseberry, orange blossom and wet stones.  This wine is herbal and fruity on the palate, with lively acidity; followed by a refreshing, slightly bitter lemon-peel finish.”

And then, in the course of an hour, I teach them to use “Mad Libs for Wine” – in other words, a fill-in-the blank template that allows even beginners to create an accurate (and yes, impressive sounding, if you’re into that) description of any wine.  We just take ten simple facts about the wine and string them together into a few sentences.

Try it for yourself!

The WineSpeak 101 Description Template:

To write your own wine description, use the WineSpeak 101 descriptor crib to fill in the blanks on this template.  Your completed description will characterize the wine using the following basic facts:

  • Name of the Wine 
  • Level of Sweetness
  • Mouthfeel – aka “Body”
  • Type of wine (the easiest, but your customer needs to know!)
  • Aroma   Categories
  • Specific  Aromas
  • Flavor  
  • Acidity for white wines, tannin level for reds 
  • Finish  – length 
  • Finish  – description 

 ___________________________________ (Name of the wine) is a _______________ (Sweetness),

 __________________________________ (Mouthfeel) ,   _______________________ (Type of) wine. 

 The Nose reveals the ____________________________________________ (Aroma Categories) aromas 

 of ____________________________________________________________ (Specific Aromas) .

This wine is ___________________________________________________________ (Flavors) and 

____________________________________________ (Acidity or Tannin, or both) on the palate, followed by a  

_____________________ (Finish – Length) , __________________________ (Finish – Description)  finish.

As you can see, it’s not exactly a party trick, but if you know your way around the typical wine vocabulary, it’s easy to put together a meaningful wine description.  My students are amazed at how well they can discuss their impressions of a wine after just a few practice sessions.  This technique works so well that I wrote an entire textbook on “WineSpeak 101” a few years ago, and still use it today in my teaching.

Please…try it for yourself and enjoy your studies!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…missjane@prodigy.net