Tasting Dessert Wines

Back in the day, there was a pop song called, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”.  That singer wasn’t talking about an ultra-brut Champagne or a Chianti.  Today, most people who enjoy wine tasting are sipping table wines, not dessert wines.  Sweet wines have been around since Biblical times, but they aren’t the focus of winemaking in most parts of Wine Country.

Sauternes grapes, shriveled with botrytis.  Photo courtesy of Decanter.com.

Now there are some great sweet wines available.  The best known are from Sauternes in France and Portugal, with Château d’Yquem the best known in the former and a lot of great producers of the latter.  There is Passito from Sicily, or more properly from the tiny island of Pantelleria near Sicily.  In Valpolicella you can find Recioto, which is Amarone for which they stop fermentation while much of the sugars remain.  The Australians make some great ones and call them “stickies”.  And many Canadian and American wineries make fine dessert wines as well.  But with some notable exceptions, these sweet wines are the encore, not the main show.

Photo courtesy of Wine Enthusiast.

If you’re in most of Wine Country and you want to find out what the wineries have to offer for after-dinner sipping, there are some things you ought to do.

  • Find out if they have dessert wines. Few wineries list dessert wines on their tasting lists, but many have some below the bar.  When you’ve finished your allotted tastes, there’s nothing wrong with asking, “Do you make a sweet wine”.  Note that we don’t recommend asking if they have any available for tasting.  Many wineries only make dessert wines when conditions (weather, size of the crop, spread of a fungus) permit.  So they may make some but not have it for tasting.  By asking as we suggest, you stay on the right side of politeness.
  • Know what you’re tasting. Too many California wineries make what they call a Port, but really they’re just red dessert wines, never approaching what you can find in Portugal.  Whites include late harvest, ice wines (and fakes made by putting grapes in the freezer) and wines made from grapes affected by botrytis, a fungus also known as the Noble Rot.  These are listed in order of rarity and cost. They each have their own character, some but not all of which is apparent at a wine tasting.  The best ones change in color, sweetness, density and concentration as they age.  What you’re going to get in a tasting room are young wines, which may very well be your preference.  But remember that the ages of Ports and Madeiras are measured in decades.
  • Sip s-l-o-w-l-y. If a winery has a dessert wine available for tasting, you’re likely to get one or two thimblefuls, served in a tiny glass.  Take a small sip and let it spread in your mouth.  Think about the flavors: honey, peach, pear, citrus, honeysuckle and other delights.  Then, once your mouth has been primed, try another sip.  It may not seem the same, because you’ve passed the shock of the sugars on your tongue.  This is when the real character of a dessert wine becomes apparent.

Dessert wines are made from shriveled grapes, in which the juice is extremely concentrated.  Naturally, you don’t get a lot of wine from a bunch of scrawny grapes and that’s what makes dessert wines so expensive.  They are often sold in half-bottles, so maybe allow yourself a luxury purchase after you’ve tasted some that you liked.

How to Enjoy Wine Tasting in Napa Valley without Spending a Fortune

Wine tasting in Napa Valley has become quite expensive.  As reported elsewhere in this issue, it is common to spend $45 or more for tastings of the better wines in the better wineries.  For some people, this isn’t an issue, but there are many others who might be dissuaded from visiting America’s premier winemaking area because of the cost.  Here are some ideas for making a Napa Valley visit more affordable (although not cheap).

Photo courtesy of Vox.

  • There are still some top wineries that don’t charge an arm and a leg and there are still a few that are free (although who knows how much longer that will last). Foremost among these is Heitz Wine Cellars, a Napa Valley pioneer that has never charged for wine tasting.  Do a little homework before you go to find wineries within your budget.
  • Share a tasting. This is good advice on its own merits, since you can taste more wines without consuming more alcohol.  Of course, you need to travel with a fellow taster – your Significant Other is the best idea – and you may have to forego gulps in favor of sips.  But that’s what wine tasting is all about, anyway.
  • Join a wine club. All the wineries have clubs, which are a way for them to lock in customers.  In almost every instance, membership enables free wine tasting, often for a group, not just an individual.  Recently we have learned that some wineries allow you to communicate requests to welcome your friends as if they were members as well.  So if you have friends who are members of some clubs, ask them to call on your behalf.  If you are a member of some other wineries, you can make such requests reciprocal.
  • Buy a bottle. In many cases, wineries will waive tasting fees if you make a purchase.  This is a triple deal.  You get to taste for free, determine your favorite and take a bottle of that one home.
  • Taste wines on the less expensive menus. We do recommend tasting the reserve lists, but on occasion there are very nice wines to taste among the recent releases.  If you want to enjoy a particular winery for its architectural beauty, it might be just fine to taste the regular wines…like the ones you drink every day at home.
  • Splurge on just one special winery. There may be a Napa Valley wine that you particularly like.  Or one that is very famous and that you always wanted to try.  Yes, you’ll pay a lot to taste these wines but if you limit the number of such wineries, it will lower the economic pain.
  • Go somewhere else. There are great wines in Sonoma County, Santa Barbara and the Central Coast.  You don’t have to be in St. Helena or Rutherford to have a very pleasant tasting experience.  As for us, we’ll be back to Napa Valley for sure, just not as often.

Wine tasting in Napa Valley has become quite expensive.  As reported elsewhere in this issue, it is common to spend $45 or more for tastings of the better wines in the better wineries.  For some people, this isn’t an issue, but there are many others who might be dissuaded from visiting America’s premier winemaking area because of the cost.  Here are some ideas for making a Napa Valley visit more affordable (although not cheap).

Photo courtesy of Vox.

  • There are still some top wineries that don’t charge an arm and a leg and there are still a few that are free (although who knows how much longer that will last). Foremost among these is Heitz Wine Cellars, a Napa Valley pioneer that has never charged for wine tasting.  Do a little homework before you go to find wineries within your budget.
  • Share a tasting. This is good advice on its own merits, since you can taste more wines without consuming more alcohol.  Of course, you need to travel with a fellow taster – your Significant Other is the best idea – and you may have to forego gulps in favor of sips.  But that’s what wine tasting is all about, anyway.
  • Join a wine club. All the wineries have clubs, which are a way for them to lock in customers.  In almost every instance, membership enables free wine tasting, often for a group, not just an individual.  Recently we have learned that some wineries allow you to communicate requests to welcome your friends as if they were members as well.  So if you have friends who are members of some clubs, ask them to call on your behalf.  If you are a member of some other wineries, you can make such requests reciprocal.
  • Buy a bottle. In many cases, wineries will waive tasting fees if you make a purchase.  This is a triple deal.  You get to taste for free, determine your favorite and take a bottle of that one home.
  • Taste wines on the less expensive menus. We do recommend tasting the reserve lists, but on occasion there are very nice wines to taste among the recent releases.  If you want to enjoy a particular winery for its architectural beauty, it might be just fine to taste the regular wines…like the ones you drink every day at home.
  • Splurge on just one special winery. There may be a Napa Valley wine that you particularly like.  Or one that is very famous and that you always wanted to try.  Yes, you’ll pay a lot to taste these wines but if you limit the number of such wineries, it will lower the economic pain.
  • Go somewhere else. There are great wines in Sonoma County, Santa Barbara and the Central Coast.  You don’t have to be in St. Helena or Rutherford to have a very pleasant tasting experience.  As for us, we’ll be back to Napa Valley for sure, just not as often.

How NOT to Be a Wine Snob – Part 3: Questions and Answers

There really is no justification for being a wine snob, not even (maybe especially even) if you know a little bit about wine.  If you are a wine expert, it’s still not excusable to be a snob because the whole idea of snobbery is to make others around you feel small.  What you do in the privacy of your own home is your business;  snobbism should be avoided when visiting tasting rooms in Wine Country.

Let’s say you have entered a tasting room.  Who’s there?  Anyone accompanying you, a few servers and some other wine tasters.  Your significant other is unlikely to be impressed with your vast knowledge.  The servers already know a lot about their own wines.  And the other guests are strangers who you’ll probably not see ever again.  So who is there to be snobbish for?

Courtesy of the Mercury News.

Here are some simple tips for avoiding wine snobbery when you’re out tasting.

  • Only ask a question if you want to know the answer. That sounds basic enough, but a true snob is only asking in order to show off when the answer is given.  The snob may not even listen to the answer, so eager is he or she to preen.  By all means ask questions in order to increase your knowledge or just to add to your pleasure about the wines you’re sipping.  But if you already know the answer, don’t ask.
  • If you’re trying to confirm you’re understanding, say so. Sometimes you think you know something but you’re not sure.  In that case, it’s polite to say, “I think I know, but would you remind me about…”.  For example, you might ask, “I think I remember that this vintage softer/ more tannic/ more fruit forward than previous vintages. Is it?”  The wine snob would simply pronounce his or her opinion, not ask.  But if you’re polite about it the server might reach below the bar for an older vintage for you to compare.  Impolite wine snobs might not be invited to try.
  • Listen to the answer. Snobs aren’t eager to hear; they are primed to speak as soon as the response to a question begins.  Often the answer to a specific question might lead to another question followed by another answer and so on.  We call that a conversation.  If you are knowledgeable, most servers are happy to converse.  Being lectured at is not likely to increase their interest in serving you.
  • Talk to others like you talk with friends. A lot of wine snobbery is attitude rather than words or actions.  It’s hard to look down your nose and sip at the same time.  If you are in discussion with someone who really knows wine, keep your tone conversational, the same way you would with a loved one or a friend.  If another guest asks what you think of a wine, give simple answers in plain English until you have reason to believe that the other person knows enough wine lingo to start using it yourself.

Champagne – Wine Tasting

With thousands of Champagnes to choose from, wine tasting in that region may feel overwhelming.  Where do you start?  How many can you taste?  Should you stick with Champagnes that you know or be adventurous and try a few glasses from producers unknown to you?  Can you really tell one from another, especially by the end of the day?

Let’s start with the best news: there are better Champagnes but there are no bad ones.  To paraphrase Mae West, when Champagne is good it’s great and when it’s bad it’s still good.  There is so much to learn when wine tasting in Champagne, and we’d like to start you off with a few tips.

  • Don’t try to do too much at one time. Champagne is a pretty big place so don’t try to drive all over in an attempt to see it all.  You will fail and you’ll lose a lot of time driving around.  It’s best to focus on one place at a time.  So a day in Reims can include Taittinger, Mumms and Veuve Cliquot, plus time for lunch and the cathedral.  A day in Épernay (Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët and lots of less well-known houses) must include a stroll down the Avenue de Champagne.  And it’s a good idea to devote a day to visiting some Champagne houses out in the countryside.
  • Take a tour. Very few Champagne houses offer you the chance to watch their wines being made.  They do tour you around their cellars, where they store and age their wines.  There they will explain the wine making process that makes sparkling wines unique.  But quite honestly, if you’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen them all: long holes in the ground with a lot of bottles in them.  It’s a good experience to see a Champagne cellar.
  • Take advantage of the smaller Champagne houses. The big ones often aren’t open to the public at all and if they are, a tour plus tasting can be expensive.  And you rarely get to taste their top wines.  Especially in the larger towns, you can walk in, order a glass of Champagne (even their best) for 10 euros or less and sit in a pleasant courtyard enjoying it.  Out in the country, you can do the same thing but you’ll look at the vineyards while you sip.
  • Do some comparison tasting. There are many bars where you can order a variety of Champagnes.  In general, they tend to have the smaller producers although we have tasted Moët & Chandon and Pol Roger side by side.  There are so many comparisons to be made that you can, for instance hone your appreciation of Blanc de Noirs or contrast those with Blanc de Blancs.  And you don’t have to get behind a wheel to try several different Champagnes, you just walk around.
  • All the rules for managing alcohol apply in Champagne as much as anywhere else.  (However, the alcohol levels in Champagne tend to be lower, so you can have a bit more freedom.)  You need to put some food in your stomach.  In almost every restaurant, you can get champagne by the glass with your meal.

How NOT to Be a Wine Snob – Part 2: Italy and the Rest of Europe

The popular American view of European wine lovers is that they are all snobs.  Equally, many Europeans think that Americans, wine lovers or not, are hicks.  Of course, neither typification is true, but there are just enough people who fit either category to give life to the stereotypes.  It does no one any good to show a European that Americans can be wine snobs also.

In our experience, those Americans who try to show themselves as superior in their wine knowledge compared with their friends are a bit more restrained when they are in European sectors of Wine Country.  For one thing, many don’t speak the languages and so are somewhat intimidated themselves.  (English-speaking countries in Europe don’t have wine worth discussion.  Beer they do have and the folks there can be pretty snobbish about their bitters.)

Cartoon courtesy of the drinksbusiness.com

For another thing, most Americans probably don’t have the familiarity with the wines of Italy, France or Spain than they do with those of Napa Valley.  So there’s only so much lording it over others that they can get away with.  Nonetheless, you don’t want to be one of those people who gives Americans a bad name overseas.

  • Don’t try to speak like a local. Unless you are truly multi-lingual, don’t fake it.  Most of the servers speak English, as do a great many Europeans today.  It’s okay to use terms like bianco and rosso, or blanc (don’t pronounce the “c”) and rouge but full sentences aren’t required.
  • But do learn a little of the local language. Contrary to the previous tip, it’s still a good idea to be polite and ask if the server speaks English before launching into a request for a tasting.  It’s not that difficult to learn “Parla inglese?” or “Parlez-vous anglais?”  Imagine if a foreigner came up to you and started spouting away in Italian or French.  You would probably just walk away.  So if they reply that they don’t know English, you’ve at least established the ground rules for some pidgin communications abetted by hand signals.
  • Don’t compare what you’re tasting with American wines you’re familiar with. Even in France, where the grapes are the same as in California, Washington and New York they just don’t taste the same.  And in Italy, Spain or Germany you may be tasting wines from totally unfamiliar grapes.  You can’t win.  If you say that the wines you’re tasting aren’t as good as he ones back home, you will have instantly proven that you ARE a snob.  And if you say that the American wines are worse, they’ll wonder why you’re comparing at all.  After all, they had all those grapes first.
  • Be appreciative. In the States, if you don’t like a wine, you (should) pour it out quietly and move on.  In Italy, for example, you may be tasting very unfamiliar wine.  It might take you a little while to become accustomed enough to a wine to know if you like it or not.  So even if you don’t immediately like what’s you’re sipping, show that you appreciate the opportunity to taste it.

How NOT to Be a Wine Snob – Part 1: Acceptable Snobbery

This is the first in what will be an irregular series on wine snobbery and how to avoid it.

There is a difference between being a wine snob and being a wine lover.  Many people enjoy just a glass wine or two with dinner.  Some of them (and you are one if you are reading Power Tasting) get pleasure from reading about wine, travelling to Wine Country to taste wine and talk about wine with their friends.  Wine snobs do all those things too but the essence of their snobbery is that they want to be and be seen to be superior in their wine knowledge compared with their friends.  Worse yet, for those of us who appreciate wine tasting, is that they also like to lord it over total strangers standing next to them in winery’s tasting room.  You don’t want to be one of those people.

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Before we can talk about how NOT to be a wine snob, we ought to have an understanding of what typifies such a person.  This becomes problematic, because there are certain things that all wine lovers do that might be considered snobbery by those who only occasionally get involved with wine.  So it makes sense to consider the things that might be seen as snobbish by some people, but which we think are acceptable.

  • The way you handle your glass. It’s all right to hold your glass by the stem, not the bowl.  In fact it’s the correct way and you should do so.  Let’s go a few steps further: You should swirl the wine in your glass and you should smell before you sip.  If the uninitiated think you’re being snobbish by doing these things, they’ll just have to live with it.  Give them time; they’ll learn.
  • Showing tempered enthusiasm for wines you like. You can say, “Gee, I really liked that Pinot.  It’s powerful but not overwhelming”.  Going on and on is just rudeness.  Snobbery is to say, “Ah yes, it reminds me of the ’05 Pommard I tasted last season when I was in Burgundy”.
  • Pouring out wine. There are two reasons you might discard some wine.  The first and most obvious is that you don’t like it.  The other is that you’re being conscious of the alcohol you’re taking on.  Either way, if you’re discreet and just move on to the next, that’s acceptable.  Some folks who are new to wine tasting think it’s incumbent on them to finish every drop.  It’s not.  Snobs make a show of their displeasure.
  • Asking to compare two similar wines side by side. At a winery renowned, say, for their Cabernet Sauvignons, it’s not only acceptable but downright sensible to taste them in parallel rather than serially.  The server doesn’t care and you get a better sense of what that winery is doing.  Even – no, especially – a wine tasting beginner will benefit from tasting wine this way.  As long as the wine is sipped and not guzzled, it gives anyone a chance to become a knowledgeable taster, not a snob.

Bringing Wine Home from Europe

Worldwide terrorism has changed our lives in many ways, none of them good.  There are many losses greater than the difficulty in bringing wine home with you from your European vacation.  It used to be easy: get a case that would fit in the overhead rack and tote it along with you on the plane.  Needless to say, that won’t work these days, especially if your destination is in the United States.  So what can you do if you want to bring back home some of the wines you tasted?

  • Ship them. This way works but is in general a bad idea.  It costs a lot to ship a case of wine across the Atlantic and it can’t be sent directly to your home.  It goes to the airport into customs.  You have to go deal with the functionaries there, pick it up and pay the duties.  This is a lot of money and a lot of work just to be able to say you bought it at the vineyard.
  • Put some in your luggage. This works but the technique is limited and risky.  Each person coming into the US is able to bring two bottles, so a couple can carry four.  If – some if – you have room in your valise for four bottles, you are trusting the gentle handlers out on the tarmac not to toss, drop or otherwise maul your bags.  Good luck.  If you are going to stash a few bottles this way, you can buy resealable padded plastic bags that protect your clothes but also take up more space.  We often pack some bubble wrap and enclose the bottles ourselves.  Place them between layers of soft clothing if you carry them this way.

Do you want your wine to be in this pile?

  • Buy a case and take it home as luggage. You can buy a case (meant for shipping with styrofoam or cardboard) in a store or at a winery and fill it up as you go.  Then, on your return trip, check them in.  You will definitely have to pay duty on the number of bottles over your limit when you get to the US, but that may not be onerous.  You still have to contend with the aforementioned baggage handlers, so definitely mark the case as fragile.  But you have to lug the case with you in your travels and then carry it through the airports on your trip.  And some airlines or airports won’t accept cases of wine, because of the fear of terrorists.
  • Buy it back home. If you’re at a winery and you particularly like a wine, ask the person serving you about the name of their American distributor(s).  The bigger and better known the winery, the more likely they are to have one.  You can call them on your return and find out where you can buy the wine in question in the States.  Unfortunately, that great little find you found in an unknown little village may not have an American representative.  Worse yet, if they do export, these wineries are more likely to sell only their higher volume, lower quality wines on the world market because they don’t press enough of their top wines to attract a distributor.  You won’t find that special gem at home.

There is one other alternative.  Appreciate the wines you taste in Europe while you’re there.  Savor the tastes and the aromas and the memories.  That’s one of the beauties of travelling through Wine Country in the first place.

Value Tasting in California

Wine tasting, at least in California’s prime winemaking regions, has become an expensive pastime.  What winemakers once – a long time ago – considered a form of marketing has become a profitable sideline for the wineries themselves.  We’ve heard that Napa Valley is America’s number one adult tourist destination (we can’t vouch for that) but we can say that the roads and tasting rooms in Napa Valley and Sonoma County are more crowded than ever.

Photo courtesy of Cal Alumni Association

Along with these trends, the cost of tasting wines at the wineries has risen dramatically.  For some of the more renowned wines, a charge of $40 or more is no longer unusual.  It is commonplace to find a $25 fee for tasting from a winery’s reserve list.  There are people who neither want nor can afford to pay those prices.  Perhaps they are just looking for a pleasant day in the country, with a picnic and a little wine tasting to add zest to the day.  For them, paying top dollar for a few sips just doesn’t make sense.

We have long advocated tasting the best wines when visiting Wine Country, because they provide the maximum pleasure.  But for those who would also like to have the maximum value without paying the maximum price, here are some ideas for attaining that double goal.

  • Look for wineries that offer free tastings. Yes, there are still some.  The most famous and by far the best is Heitz Cellars.  Joe Heitz, one of Napa Valley’s pioneers, never wavered from his goal of making great wine accessible and his winery still offers tastings without charge.  Don’t miss this one.  A few others, such as Buehler, Sutter Home and Vincent Arroyo are also still free of fees.
  • Do a little homework in advance. Figure out what sector you would like to visit, keeping thoughts of where you can picnic in mind.  For a variety of legal reasons, picnicking is much easier to do in Sonoma County than in Napa County.  Check web sites to learn if you can bring food.  And then check the cost of tastings.  There are still some bargains around.
  • Buy a bottle. In many cases, if you buy a bottle of wine, the winery will waive the tasting fee.  So a bottle of wine to accompany that picnic may make for a free tasting.  And of course, you can take a bottle home with you for another time.
  • Share your tastings. If your objective is tasting, not drinking, two people can share a single tasting, thereby bringing down the cost.  We do it all the time, not so much for money reasons as to manage our intake of alcohol.  That way you might be able to splurge a bit on a pricier winery.
  • Try the less costly list. There’s no rule that says you only have to try only the reserve list.  And in fact we have found that in some cases, there’s no particular advantage to a winery’s most expensive wines. You’ll find some pretty nice wines at places like Beaulieu Vineyards and Chateau St. Jean in their regular tasting rooms, as opposed to their reserve rooms.

Too Many Wines

There are some wineries that don’t offer you a lot of choice.  In Bordeaux, for example, custom, pride and winemaking laws mean that there are only one or two wines to try, the second label and the grand vin.  On the other hand, there are many (too many, in our opinion) vineyards that are raising all sorts of grapes, whether they are well accommodated to the terroir or not.  While there are some exceptions, wineries that grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc all on their 20 acres can’t possibly make them all into good wines.  And many wineries that are more restrained in the types of wine they make have two or more tasting lists at different levels of price and quality.

Photo courtesy of DrinkPreneur

The best idea is to restrict yourself to drinking the best wines available.  But maybe you don’t know what’s the best, or you don’t feel like spending a small fortune for a small pour, no matter how great the wine.  Here’s a few tips on dealing with overwhelming choices.

  • Don’t try to taste everything. For one thing, you’re almost guaranteed to get a lot of wine you don’t like.  For another, it’s not legal for a winery to pour you that much wine.  Especially if you’ve been elsewhere beforehand, no matter how much you think you can handle, you probably can’t.  And even if you can, you shouldn’t.  Have a nice day in the country, not in a police station or worse, a hospital.
  • Don’t ask what’s most popular. There are a lot of factors that determine popularity.  In many case it’s price without regard to quality.  Or you may be in Wine Country in hot summer weather and the most popular is an ice-cold quaff, which is no help to you if you are in the mood for a subtle Pinot Noir.
  • Look at the prices. There is often – but not always – a correlation between the highest priced bottles and the best wines.  If you don’t know much about the production of a particular winery, it’s not a bad idea to limit your tastes to the bottom of the list.  (The most expensive are always on the bottom.  ) But you might also find yourself with a highly alcoholic, over-the-top wine that the winemaker was just experimenting with.
  • Ask what’s the best on the list. In many cases, they server can’t or won’t answer directly.  If he or she is part of the ownership family, it may be like asking “which is your favorite child?”  But if your server is an educator, he or she will answer you by asking, “tell me about what kinds of wine you like”.  So if you say, for example, you like big, fruity wines with a long finish, the server may reach for the Cab and the Zin and leave the other wines below the bar.  Or you could do it the other way round.  Describe what you’d like to taste and let the server find it for you.
  • Build your own tasting list. Maybe you like the whites on the less expensive list and the reds on the reserve list.  Tell your server that.  If that person has any sense at all, he or she will seek to have a happy customer and give you what you want.  You may pay a little more than you would otherwise for the cheaper wines, but you’re more likely to go away happy.