It must be great to know a ton about wine, to be able to peruse 50-page wine lists and instantly imagine what each bottle will taste like, how it will go with your food and your mood, and whether or not it's worth the hugely marked up price, but if you're anything like me and some others in the Serious Eaters in the office, then you're firmly in the "I know what I like and I can tell when it's absolute swill, but I probably couldn't pick a Chablis out of a lineup" crowd. That said, we're young, we're smart, and we're willing to learn. And of course, we'd like all of you Serious Eaters to learn right along with us.
Welcome to the Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-along, where every couple of weeks, myself or one of the other wi-curious editors (that'd be Erin and Carey) will do all the hard work for you, researching a couple of grape varietals or growing regions, planning tastings that make sense, and offering a few tips on how to run your own tastings at home.
Of course, the problem is that there are so many wines out there that we'll never get through 'em all. That's where you come in. We'd like you guys to taste wines right along with us and each week, chime in with your own comments and information on the wines you've tasted. We'll pick the themes and do the research, all you've got to do is get some wine, taste it, and report back. Deal?
We strongly believe that the purpose of wine should be just one thing: to give pleasure. Once wine talk starts getting too academic, esoteric—or worse—snobby, we quickly tune out. So none of that talk here, got it folks?
Tasting Tip: How To Plan A Successful Wine Tasting Party
The first step to getting a handle on wine is to plan tastings that make sense. There are so many grape varieties, growing regions, and styles that free-for-all style tastings where each guest just brings their favorite bottle often end up more confusing than enlightening. Here are a few steps to planning a good wine tasting.
- Find some friends, but not too many. More than anything, wine tasting and drinking is a social activity. Sure, you're learning a few things in the process, but the real goal is to have a good time while you're learning those things. I like to host wine tasting parties with groups between 5 and 10 people. Any fewer than that and you end up severely limiting the number of different bottles you can drink (unless you're spitting, which always seems like a waste to me), and more and it becomes a party with little chance of discussion.
- Plan a budget. You don't need to spend a lot of money to get great tasting wine. Taste tests and studies repeatedly show that there are as many good wines under $15 as there are for over $50. Figure out how much money you and your friends would each like to spend at the party, then figure out how many bottles you'd like to taste to give you a rough idea of how much each bottle should cost you. This knowledge will greatly focus your selection at the wine store.
- Plan a program. Wine tastings can be divided into a few broad categories:
- Vertical tastings are tastings in which all of the wines are from the same producer but bottled in different years. This can type of tasting can give you a good idea of the effects of weather on the flavor of wine, particularly if you know how hot/humid/rainy/sunny/etc. the weather was in the particular region for the years you are tasting.
- Horizontal tastings include wines from the same years, but from different producers. I find this kind of tasting to be a little bit less useful, since there are so many more variables involved from grape type to growing region to climate.
- Varietal tastings are my favorite way to taste wines, and probably the simplest for beginners. In this type of tasting, all of the wines you taste are made from the same type of grape. With this restriction in place, you can add others, such as tasting wines from one region but different years, or comparing wines from one part of the world to those from another made with the same grape.*
- Provide snacks and water. Simple snacks with no pungent flavors are best. I always have crackers available, a few mild fruits like grapes or slices of apple or pear, along with some toasted nuts. Even though pungent cheeses and cured meats can go great with wines, it's best to avoid them at tasting parties where their strong flavors can throw off your senses. Water is an absolute must for rinsing out your mouth and your glass between wines.
- Taste wines one at a time. Once you start focusing on it, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all the flavors and smells from a single bottle let alone four or five. I like to serve my wines one at a time, passing the bottle around and letting each guest give themself a little pour. After we've tasted all of them, then it's a free for all for the leftovers. Luckily, at most tastings I've had, we don't all agree on our favorite, so everybody gets something they like.
- Keep it fun! There's no greater way to turn people off to wine than for it to become a chore. Having trouble engaging your guests in discussion? Don't worry about it—just drink the wine and enjoy yourselves. You'll learn more from a happy crowd tasting casually than from a cranky crowed tasting seriously.
*One thing to bear in mind is that even though a wine may list a single grape on the bottle, sometimes they are blended with smaller percentages of other grapes. In the U.S., up to 25% of a bottle may consist of wine from another grape variety. Talk to your wine retailer if you get the chance.
Like I said, each week we'll give you more tips on how to fine-tune your game, but I'd like to leave you with one last super-successful strategy we use at pretty much every wine tasting in order to get those reluctant to speak their minds or who feel embarrassed for some reason or another to offer input on the wins. I call it the OwOw method: One Wine, One Word.
With the OwOw method, after everyone's had a chance to taste their wine, all of your guests take turns describing their thoughts on the wine using exactly one word. The word can be anything from "hot" or "comforting" or "leathery," to "sour" or "yuck" or "chocolate." Whatever the first word that comes to mind is. More often than not, you'll find that these words can lead to some interesting discussions and really open up people's minds and palates to the wines they are tasting.
And now on to this week's tasting:
Tasting: New and Old World Chardonnay
Even though you should go into tastings with an unbiased palate, it can be helpful to have a bit of a road map so you can know what to look out for and what to expect.
This week we're starting with one of the classic grapes: Chardonnay. One of the oldest, most widely grown, and celebrated grapes in the world, Chardonnay is a green-skinned variety of grape used in all of the white wines produced in the Burgundy region of France including the three most renowned areas, Chablis, Côte de Beaune, and Mâconnais. It's also one of the most important white wine grape for California wineries. For the tasting this week, we're going to taste Chablis, a chardonnay-based wine from Burgundy, alongside a chardonnay from California, which should give us a good idea of the versatility of the grape and the effect that climate and soil (or if you want to be fancypants terroir) and winemaking process can have on the finished product.
While it might be crazy for me to try and generalize Chablis or California chardonnays, I'm going to go ahead and do it—you oenophiles out there can stamp your feet all you want—I find it useful in order to paint some broad strokes. The major difference in the two styles comes down to one factor: oaking, and we're picking the wines for this tasting based mostly on that.
Wine 1: An Un-Oaked Chablis
Aging wine in oak barrels is a point of contention amongst producers of Chablis. With rare exception, Chablis is vinified (that's the process of converting grape juice to wine) in non-reactive stainless steel containers. From this point, a minority of Chablis producers choose to age their wines in oak barrels, while most turn down the idea, the idea being that with nothing to react with, you get the purest expression of the flavor of the grape. For this tasting, we're interested in un-oaked Chablis.
Chardonnays from Burgundy are universally dry (that's the opposite of sweet, by the way), and those from Chablis tend to have even more acidity and minerality than their counterparts. Some common words used to describe Chablis (though you might find that your own palate differs) are gun-flint, green apple, wet stone, and honey.
The wine we're tasting is the Louis Jadot 2009 Chablis, an unoaked Chablis that goes for around $23 per bottle.
Wine 2: An Oaked California Chardonnay
Unlike their French counterparts, most chardonnays in California are aged in charred oak barrels, or—as is the case with many cheaper chards—steeped with oak chips to impart flavor much like a tea. Oak can impart woody flavors along with scents of vanilla. In California, the grapes are also often picked at a greater degree of ripeness, and thus have more sugar in them, which leads to higher alcohol levels after fermentation. It's not uncommon for some California Chardonnays to push past 14% of their volume in alcohol (ABV), though many modern Chardonnays have some of their alcohol removed post-fermentation to bring the wines down to a more drinkable 13.5% or lower.
It's the oak and riper fruit along with malolactic fermentation—the process of converting tart malic acid to smoother lactic acid via bacterial cultures—that gives California chardonnays what people describe as bigger body and mouthfeel. Most likely, your California chard will taste heavier and rounder in your mouth than the Chablis. "Buttery" and "rich," are often used to describe California chardonnay. Depending on the specific region of California it's from, you might find yourself with a tropical fruit bomb, with flavors like mango, guava, or even pineapple, or the earthier flavors like the chalk and wet gravel you'd taste in a Chablis.
We're tasting two different California chardonnays in two completely different price ranges. The Robert Mondavi 2007 Chardonnay Reserve from Napa, which runs around $40 per bottle, and the Cupcake Vineyard 2009 Chardonnay from the Central Coast, which sells for only $12 per bottle.
Wine 3 (optional): Chilean Chardonnay
Chardonnay is becoming increasingly popular in the wine growing regions of South America (which themselves are becoming increasingly popular). These days, it's one of the most important grapes grown in Chile's Valle Central. Because of their youth and a lack of a strong growing precedent or tradition (the grapes have been in Chile for fewer than 20 years), styles can vary wildly, though for the most part, you'll probably find that like some California chardonnays, Chilean chardonnays tend to be massive on the tropical fruit flavors but lighter on oak.
From Chile's Central Valley, we're tasting the oak-free Cono Sur 2009 Chardonnay, which sells for a mere $10 a bottle. Another option to throw into the mix: Veramonte Reserva Chardonnay from the Casablanca Valley, which also runs about ten bucks.
We're tasting all of our wines this weekend with some friends and we'll be back here same time next week to let you know how it went. In the meantime, you should get tasting yourself so you can let us know about your own selections. You can taste the exact bottles we're tasting, or better yet, talk to the clerk at your wine store and have him pick out a few bottles for you.
And do let us know if you've ever got any questions about wine that you'd like answered—any question at all—and we'll do our best to find the right answers for you. See you back next week!