How to Taste Wine Like a Pro

030110Sommelier 1.jpgIf you’ve resolved to make 2014 the year you become more educated about wine, I welcome you to what promises to be a most pleasurable activity. A great way to discover which wines are your favorites is by tasting a wide variety of them! Start with your basic senses of look, smell and taste and you’ll be appreciating wine in no time.

These tips from the Pennsylvania Winery Association and will guide you on your way:

Pour. Pour some wine into a glass, allowing enough room for swirling. If you only plan to sample the wine before moving on to another, pour just enough for a few sips.

See. Tilt the glass away from you against a white background. Note the color of the wine from the rim edges to the middle of the glass. Different wines will vary in their color intensity (white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose their intensity and may turn brownish or brick red). Wine color is affected the most by the age of the wine, the grape variety, and the amount of time spent in oak.

Next, notice the wine’s clarity; is it clear and brilliant or cloudy and dull? Can you see sediment? Also observe the body of the wine by the way it coats the sides of the glass. If the “legs” trickle down slowly, it has more body; if it falls down in sheets, it has less body.

Swirl. Swirling wine in the glass exposes it to a larger surface area, allowing oxygen in and bringing out its natural aromas. On a flat surface, grasp the stem and move the glass in a tight circle for a few seconds. Or swirl gently by moving your wrist or hand.

Smell. The smell of wine is referred to as its nose, bouquet or aroma. Sniff the wine, first with your nose a few inches from the glass, then lower your nose into the glass and breathe deeply. Repeat if desired, resting your sense of smell in between. A wine with great complexity will offer different aromas each time, as well as several scents at one time. Common aromas include different fruits, spices, herbs and flowers. These will give you an indication of what to expect when you taste it.

The sniff test can also detect a spoiled wine before you taste it. “Off” smells include sherry (the wine has oxidized from age or improper storage), vinegar (the wine contains excessive acetic acid), cork/mustiness (a defective or inferior cork has affected the wine), or sulphur (the wine contains excessive sulfur dioxide).

Sip. “Chew” the wine or roll it over your tongue to cover your taste buds. Different parts of your tongue are designed to taste different things: sweetness (tip of tongue); sour/acid (inner sides); saltiness (outer sides); and bitter/alcohol (back of tongue). A balance of the following characteristics is ideal: body fullness or thinness; acidity; tannin; sweetness; and fruitiness. Because smell and taste are inextricably linked, feel free to breathe lightly through your nose while tasting the wine.

Swallow or Spit. Swallow the wine—or not. While most people choose to swallow the wine, some (especially those tasting many different wines) will spit the wine into a receptacle or paper cup, which is later dumped into the receptacle. If you do swallow, notice the aftertaste, or finish. The better the wine, the more defined the finish. Good finish will linger on your palate for quite some time and will reflect the flavors of the wine or have flavors on its own.

Happy sipping and cheers to your exploration!

Wine shops proliferate downtown

wine_shop_2This article by Amber Nimocks appeared in the Sun., November 17 edition of The News & Observer. It’s a great overview of the independent wine shop culture that is permeating the downtown Raleigh area. Enjoy!

If a rising wine tide lifts all oenophile boats, then downtown Raleighites will soon be living in an age of top-shelf juice bliss.

In the next few months the number of locally owned wine shops within two miles of my house in downtown Raleigh will jump from three to five. That’s pretty remarkable, considering that nine short years ago when I moved here, there was just one – Seaboard Wine Warehouse – within walking distance.

A look around at the single-home construction and apartment buildings going up in and around downtown bears witness to the area’s booming population. But can we really support five wine shops?

“The more the merrier,” said Craig Heffley, who is preparing to open a downtown Raleigh version of his popular Durham Wine Authorities. “If this becomes the wine district of Raleigh, I’d love it. … The thing about it is we all have different products and we all have different focuses.”

When Seaboard Wine Warehouse started selling its carefully selected inventory 17 years ago, its focus was on being downtown’s only wine shop. This was long before Tyler’s Tap Room, 18 Seaboard or Phydeaux moved into the Shops at Seaboard Station and helped it become the anchor of downtown’s north end.

Seaboard was the first wine shop I knew of that kept a record of what you buy, so that when you come in and say “I want that wine I got last time …” they know what you’re talking about. This month, Seaboard announced a new feature, a Le Verre de Vin dual preservation system, which uses vacuum technology to keep opened bottles of still and sparkling wine fresh. It’s similar to the preservation systems The Raleigh Wine Shop and Wine Authorities use to serve by-the-glass tastes of their inventory.

A Bit of the Bubbly

champagne1_0_0I found this post by Megan Myers on the Whole Foods Market blog and thought I’d share it with my readers since it is very informative and most relevant to the season.  Enjoy!

No matter the occasion, sparkling cocktails add an extra touch of excitement. When it comes to the New Year’s Eve countdown, something bubbly is a must! But for some, the champagne and sparkling wine section can be one of the most daunting areas of the wine department.

With that in mind, here’s a champagne primer to help get your bubbly supply sorted out in time to celebrate!

Champagne or Sparkling Wine?

Just as some wines and cheeses are only produced in a specific geographic area, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be officially labeled “Champagne.” Other European countries use other names for the sparkling wine they produce: Cava in Spain; Prosecco, Asti or Spumante in Italy; and Sekt in Germany.

Bubblies from California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the several wine-producing countries of South America are generally referred to as sparkling wine or sparklers. Many sparkling wines rival true champagne in taste and complexity and can be a better value.

How Do I Choose? Here are a few basic terms that are used on both champagnes and sparkling wines. These should help narrow your search to match your taste preferences.

  • Brut: The driest one, but not to be confused with “Extra Dry,” which, ironically, is not as dry as Brut. Brut is the most food-friendly of champagnes. The smoky, salty nature of caviar makes for a classic match. For everyday occasions, try potato latkes and sour cream or any number of salty tidbits.
  • Extra Dry: A touch of fruity sweetness but finishes on a dry note. These are quite versatile and can be served as an apertif or after dinner. They’re more or less in the middle of the spectrum.
  • Sec: Next in line for dryness, but you don’t see it very often.
  • Demi-sec: The most residual sugar of the bunch (outside of Doux, which is rare). This is the ultimate dessert wine and, perhaps, the most romantic of the bunch. Never sweet in a cloying way, these have a caramelized quality that is absolutely delicious. Avoid pairing these with fare that is sweeter than the wine, as the bubbly will come off harsh and dry. Fresh fruit works best.
  • Blanc de Blanc: This bubbly is made from 100% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape lends sparkling wine its toasty, nutty and rich quality.
  • Blanc de Noir: This bubbly is made from mostly Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape gives it the refreshing, fruit driven, citrus quality.

Bubbly Add-Ins

Once you’ve chosen your bottle, try a few of these add-ins for customized cocktails. Consider offering the entire selection at your party so guests can choose their favorite flavors.

  •     Candied ginger
  •     Currants soaked in bitters
  •     Pomegranate juice and seeds
  •     Berries, muddled with mint
  •     Pear juice and a rosemary sprig, like in Whole Foods’ Rosemary Pear Bellini
  •     Orange or grapefruit juice with a twist
  •     Sugared cranberries with a sugar- and black-pepper rimmed glass
  •     Fresh pineapple and rosemary for Whole Foods’ Pineapple Rosemary Crush Cocktail

Whatever you’re toasting with, here’s to a happy new year!

Not Your Parents’ Boxed Wine

BotaBoxedWineIt wasn’t that long ago that boxed wines were pooh-poohed as being inferior to bottled wines. Well, not anymore. These wines have recently come into their own—not only because they taste great, but they’re also budget- and eco-friendly.

According to the, more boxed wine can be transported with less fuel because cardboard boxes (often recyclable) are lighter than glass bottles, and more square boxes can be stacked with less wasted space in the same truck. Boxed wine packaging amounts to just 4% of its total weight, compared to 70% for traditional bottles. That all adds up to a smaller carbon footprint. These wines keep fresh longer than traditional bottled wine and you typically get more wine for your money.

I’m still new to the boxed wine arena so I’m taking my cues on which ones to try from two sources I hold in high regard on the subject: April Schlanger, owner of Sip…A Wine Store (, an eco-friendly wine store in Cary that sells organic, biodynamic, sustainable and carbon neutral wine; and Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor at Food & Wine Magazine.

If you’re ready to venture down this path, too, here are their picks (prices shown are approximate for three liters, unless otherwise indicated):

Yellow+Blue Winery (April). Each carton of Yellow+Blue has a carbon footprint half that of the average bottle. Creator Matthew Cain sources high-quality, certified organic wine from around the world and ships it in bulk in Tetra Pak containers. The wines are delicious and are bound to change the image of boxed wine. Spanish Rosé, Argentina Malbec and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. $10.50 for a liter.

Bota Box (April and Ray). Bota Box sources their juice from some sustainable vineyards in California and then boxes it. The boxes are printed directly on 100% recycled kraft paper (containing 100% post-consumer fiber), and paper layers are bonded together with cornstarch instead of glue. The inks are soy-based instead of petroleum-based and the bag inside doesn’t contain phthalate plasticizers or BPA. The box is 100% recyclable. The juice is yummy, too. Ray says the 2009 California Chardonnay is an easy-to-drink, appley Chardonnay. $15. April suggests trying the Pinot Grigio or Shiraz. $21.50. (That’s equal to 4 bottles at $5.38 each.)

NV Pepperwood Grove Big Green Box Chardonnay (Ray). In your face Chardonnay, in an old-school California way: It’s big, ripe, oaky and luscious. If you like that style, this one’s for you. $19.

2008 Banrock Station Shiraz (Ray). Classic Aussie “good juice.” A lot of blackberry flavor, not much in the way of tannins, a nip of pepper on the end. This one’s ideal for cookouts. $17.

2009 VJ Riesling Q.b.A. trocken, Pfalz, Germany (April). Farmed sustainable. A well-balanced dry and harmonious white, with an abundance of mineral, pear and honeydew notes. A great food wine that will pair well with spicy cuisine, shellfish and port. $36.

2008 Würtz Riesling (Ray). This is a trocken Riesling, a German term meaning steely, dry, and not-the-icky-sweet-stuff. It’s flinty and crisp, and packaged in an all-black box. $30.

2009 Montirius, “Le Cadet” VDP de Vaucluse, France (April). Certified biodynamic and vegan. A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, this blend is velvety and rich. Aromas of red and black berries with some spicy pepper, leather and earthy characteristics on the palate. A perfect complement for grilled meats, salmon and grilled vegetables. $40.

2008 Powers Cabernet Sauvignon (Ray). Proof, yet again, that Washington State’s Columbia Valley is a great source for inexpensive but surprisingly impressive Cabernets. A jolt of Syrah (about 12 percent) adds some oomph and spice. $20.


Support Your Local Independent Wine Merchant

wine_shop_2Whether you’re a seasoned wine aficionado or a novice who’s just beginning to explore the pleasures of the glorious grape, the vast world of wine can sometimes seem a bit daunting. That’s why I’m a strong proponent of local independent wine merchants. Their expert advice will help you find the perfect bottle for your budget and occasion.

Here are a few reasons I suggest going independent for your wine purchasing:

Service. Visiting the wine aisle of your grocery store or big-box retailer can be overwhelming with the extensive selection to choose from. It’s not always easy to find an employee who is familiar enough with the inventory to help you make an informed decision. Because an independent shop is typically smaller, you’ll get personalized service from someone who is knowledgeable and shares your interest in wine.

Relationship. By frequenting the same independent wine merchant, you’ll get to know the staff and they’ll become a great resource for you. They will also become familiar with your likes and dislikes, and make recommendations accordingly.

Selection. Independent merchants offer an interesting choice of wines. While you won’t find the huge mainstream selection that you would at most supermarkets, you’ll delight in discovering some off-the-beaten path wines or overlooked regions that you might never have previously considered.

Quality. Because they’re not buying in enormous quantities, independents have established relationships with boutique and low-volume producers, giving you access to some of the best quality wines that won’t make it into larger stores. Indies specialize in stocking high-end wines as well as very drinkable budget-friendly wines.

Education. Independent wine shops hold regular educational events such as tastings and wine-appreciation classes. These are a fun and relaxed way to expand your knowledge while meeting some fellow wine enthusiasts.

When you buy from local wine merchants, you’re also supporting the economy, the community and the environment. Here’s how:

Protect Local Character and Prosperity. Our region boasts its own uniqueness. By choosing to support locally owned businesses, you help maintain its diversity and distinctive flavor.

Community Well-Being. Locally owned businesses build strong neighborhoods by sustaining communities, linking neighbors, and by contributing more to local causes.

Local Decision Making. Local ownership means that important decisions are made locally by people who live in the community and who will feel the impacts of those decisions.

Keeping Dollars in the Local Economy. Your dollars spent in locally-owned businesses have three times the impact on your community as dollars spent at national chains. When shopping locally, you simultaneously create jobs, fund more services through sales tax, invest in neighborhood improvement and promote community development.

Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship fuels America’s economic innovation and prosperity, and serves as a key means for families to move out of low-wage jobs and into the middle class.

Public Benefits and Costs. Local stores in town centers require comparatively little infrastructure and make more efficient use of public services relative to big box stores and strip shopping malls.

Environmental Sustainability. Local stores help to sustain vibrant, compact, walkable town centers-which in turn are essential to reducing sprawl, automobile use, habitat loss, and air and water pollution.

Competition. A marketplace of tens of thousands of small businesses is the best way to ensure innovation and low prices over the long-term.

Product Diversity. A multitude of small businesses, each selecting products based, not on a national sales plan, but on their own interests and the needs of their local customers, guarantees a much broader range of product choices.

Adapted and reprinted with permission of The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (, a national nonprofit organization working to strengthen independent businesses and local economies.

Wines That Entertain for the Holidays

turkey-dinner-with-wineReady or not, the holidays will soon be upon us again—bringing with them all the joy and anxiety that the season is known for. When it comes to entertaining, however, you needn’t stress over what wines to serve. From my years of research on the topic, I share with you the following suggestions that I hope will make your holiday gatherings fun and hassle-free.

Informal entertaining: There was a time when Chardonnay seemed to be the universal white wine, but since I’m not much of a Chardonnay fan, some other pleasing alternatives are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Two of my favorite budget-friendly options are Rex Goliath Pinot Grigio—bright citrus and lemon-lime aromas with layers of fresh stone fruit, sprinkled with intense floral and lavender notes—and Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc, bursting with flavors of Meyer lemons and Key limes with hints of grapefruit, gooseberry and citrus. Both are under $10 and versatile enough to serve with a variety of hors d’oeuvres and entrées.

I have found Castle Rock’s Pinot Noir, offering aromas of cherry, tea and herbal spice, to be consistently good no matter what the vintage. It ranges in price from $9 – $11. The folks at Triangle Wine Company have also introduced me to some superb Spanish reds. One such pick is Borsao Tres Picos, about $12 on sale. It’s 100% Grenache with concentrated flavors of blackberries, strawberries and nuances of leather, vanilla and plums.

Kicking off the festivities: Nothing exudes merriment like a bottle of bubbly. Champagnes and sparkling wines are a fine companion to salty appetizers (think caviar or oysters). Of course I love Champagne –my splurge is Perrier-Jouët Fleur De Champagne— but I have a few other effervescent choices that are gentler on my wallet: Mionetto Prosecco Brut DOC-Treviso, with aromas of golden apples and a hint of white peach, costs about $11; and under-$10-a-bottle Freixenet Cordon Negro, a medium-bodied Spanish Cava, has a palate of apple, pear and bright citrus flavors with a crisp touch of ginger.

Main course whites: If you’re drinking white wine with your main course at this time of the year, chances are you’re eating turkey. I typically pair my holiday bird with Gewürztraminer, but to shake things up a bit why not try a spicy/peppery Grüner Veltliner from Austria? One that I’m looking forward to trying is Loimer’s Kamptal DAC Grüner Veltliner. Flavors of wood smoke and white pepper, with touches of apple and citrus, make this full-bodied and satisfying. Sells for about $17.

Main course reds: Beaujolais Nouveau arrives from France each year just in time for Thanksgiving but personally, I’d opt instead for a bottle of 2009 Beaujolais. This is the vintage that 77-year-old Georges Duboeuf called “the vintage of a lifetime.” Deboeuf’s 2009 Morgon Descombes displays layers of black cherry, raspberry ganache and tea rose flavors, with a spicy thread running through the wine. At $20 a bottle, it’s an excellent value.

Luscious dessert wines: One of the most harmonious wine and food pairings I ever had was an orange muscat with pumpkin pie. Sobon’s Orange Muscat Rezerve ($15) is an exquisite dessert wine with flavors of lush, tropical orange-vanilla and rich cream. Another of my preferred sweet whites is St. Supery’s Moscato ($16 – $20), with flavors of kiwi and mango, a hint of honey dew, stone fruit and a zippy orange rind finish. For red wine drinkers, Banfi’s Rosa Regale ($17) is a classic sparkling red wine whose bright fresh berry flavors complement chocolate-based desserts, fresh fruit and pecan pie. Any of these would make a splendid finale to your holiday celebration.