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Cliffhouse Blog

Wine Flights of Fancy

With a wine list that exceeds 800 selections, multiple “Best of..." Awards of Excellence from Wine Spectator, and the prestigious Award of Unique Distinction from Robert Parker's Wine Enthusiast, the Cliff House is sure to have the perfect wine to compliment your dining experience. To guide you through our vast collection, we currently have multiple certified sommeliers, 2 of which are certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

‘Viva Italia’

Friday, June 15, 2012

Long live Italy, especially when it comes to wine. With a brief history of Italian wine making, this article hopes to provide an introduction to the complex world of Italian wine and an homage to early winemakers.

The Roots of Winemaking

The roots (sorry) of grape cultivation in Italy began in ancient Mesopotamia, where evidence of fermented grape juice dates to 6,000 B.C. Beginning more than 4,000 years ago on the island of Sicily, ancient Greeks (or Etruscans) encouraged wine production and cherished it as a drink of the elite. It was with the Romans, however, that wine truly hit its stride. Credited with many vinification improvements, such as trellising, barrel aging and micro climate identification, the Roman Empire was responsible for making wine the ubiquitous drink of Italy that it is today.

Too Much of a Good Thing

With 20 dissimilar regions, 110 provinces, and over 3,000 different registered grapes (some estimates place the number closer to 15,000); Italy can be a confusing country when buying wine. To help with identifying quality wines, Italy instituted the Denominazione di Origine (D.O.) in 1963. The D.O. is a regulation system with three tiers of quality: Denominazione di Origin (designation of origin), Denominazione di Origin Controlata or D.O.C. (controlled designation of origin), and Denominazione di Origin Controlata Garantita or D.O.C.G. (controlled designation of origin, guaranteed). Look for these designations on the label with an ascending level of anticipation. Another designation to look for is Indicazione Geografica Tipica or I.G.T. These are wines considered to be of high quality and typical to the region, yet not conforming to the stringent D.O. wine laws. (You will often see Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, blended with traditional, indigenous Italian grapes.)

Dependable Quality

Here are a few classic regions and grape varietals to look for in Italy (though we’re barely scratching the surface.) In the North West of Italy is Piedmont, home of the famous Barolos made from Niebiollo. Full bodied and powerful, Barolos are long-lived and iconic. Other common grapes in Piedmont are Barbera, Dolcetto, and Moscato (of Moscato d’Asti fame). South of Piedmont lies Tuscany. Crafted primarily from the indigenous Sangiovese grape, Tuscany is famous for the Chianti D.O.C.G., as well as their ‘Super Tuscans’ (I.G.T.’s of renown). The greatest volume of wine production hails from the Veneto in East-Central Italy. Famous for Amarone, Valpolicella, and their white Soaves, the Vento produces some of the most distinct wines in Italy. Be sure to try Franciacorta from Lombardy (a Champagne style sparkler), and also the white wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Pinot Grigio among them).

A Life Long Joy

With its many grape varietals, numerous regions, and a multitude of wine styles, Italy is often considered the final frontier in wine. Don’t let it intimidate you. With some of the most iconic wines in the world and indeed, being the very home of modern wine making, Italian wines must be tried by the aficionado. Start slow, dip you toe in the Mediterranean, but be prepared for a life-long swim.

“It’s Not White Zinfandel”

Thursday, May 10, 2012

For the month of May, let’s talk rosé. As the title implies, there are some misconceptions regarding this under appreciated and often maligned style of wine. Let’s start here – Rosé is not necessarily sweet. In fact, the most highly acclaimed Rosés in the world are bone dry examples of incredibly versatile and highly expressive wines.
In keeping with the burgeoning warmth of spring, many wines we choose will be light and refreshing, better served with a game of volleyball than a seven course meal. That stated, sometimes we actually are serving seven courses, and with a touch of guidance and a bit of knowledge, our springtime wine choices go from good, to appropriate, to sublime.


One of the hallmarks of rosé wine is versatility. With a wide spectrum of flavor, aroma, and weight, rosés can accompany anything from the lightest seafood dish to all but the most robustly prepared red meats. Rosés’ other major attribute, to my mind, is its refreshing, unobtrusive nature. Uniquely able to complement most occasions, this style of wine begs less meditation upon the glass, and more upon the moment.

The Process

Rosé wine is generally created through one of three processes - skin contact, Saignée, or blending. Skin contact is simply allowing red grape skins prolonged exposure to the must or grape juice, allowing for more extract and color. Saignée (French for bleeding), is a process by which some juice is pulled from a red wine early on, with the intention of concentrating the red. The juice that is removed from the red wine can then be vinified into a Saignée style of rosé. Finally, there is blending wherein a red wine is mixed with a white wine to create the desired body, color and complexity in the finished product.

The "Rosé Specialists"

Perhaps the most celebrated, and certainly the only major region in the world specializing in rosé wine, is Provence in Southern France. Made from various red grapes (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, and more), Provence is deservedly acclaimed for their production of pale pink rosés. Showcasing fresh (and some times exotic) fruit flavors with floral and spicy notes, Provence is a go-to region for interesting, summertime wines. Look for Côtes de Provence or Aix-en-Provence on the label for some of the very best examples.
Spain, in particular North Central Spain, is also well known for its Rosado wines. Often made from Garnacha (although other grapes, including the popular Tempranillo play a role), the rosés of Spain tend towards darker color and more body, even as they maintain the refreshing profile we search for. Rioja is a good place to start when trying Spanish Rosados for the first time.
Having only scratched the surface, allow me to present a few more names to remember: Anjou from the Loire Valley, France; Bandol from Provence, France; Tavel from the Rhone Valley, France; Rosatos from Northern Piedmont to Southern Sicily, Italy; certainly the great rosé sparkling wines of Champagne, France; and of course, try the many and varied domestic offerings available.

The Sublime Summer Wine

With a wide range of options, styles and flavors, rosé wine can complement most any occasion. Ranging from sweet to bone dry, from light to nearly full-bodied, and from simple to compelling, rosé wine offers intriguing food pairing options, while refreshing the palate and spirit in the summer time. And, although it is a little difficult for me to say, yes – even White Zinfandel has its place. Enjoy your summer!

Let’s Get Ready For Summer - The Lighter Side of Spring Wines

Monday, April 02, 2012

Colorado’s "comfortable season" is upon us.

Bright, promising mornings, long, sunny days, and lingering, gentle evenings beg a bit of reflection on the past year, even as we enjoy the rewards of winter’s effort. How better to meditate upon the bounty of Spring than with a thoughtful glass of wine? With this article I hope to present wines appropriate to the moment, with a focus on quality, value, and interest.

First and foremost - refreshment is king. When the weather is warm it is important to drink and serve wines that slake your thirst, cool your brow, and restore your spirit. This type of profile often means wines with lower alcohol, lighter tannins, and higher acidity. While many rosés and lighter reds play a definite role in the warmer months (both of which will be discussed in our next two study groups and blogs) this article will focus on lighter-bodied, white wines.

In general, wines from the ‘Old World’ (Eastern and Western Europe) commonly exemplify the qualities we might look for in a "Summertime wine". Bright and fresh wines, with an emphasis on balance and terroir, these whites often deliver with restraint and finesse, leaving you and your guests longing for another pour.

Loire Valley Wines

Try the whites from the Loire Valley of France. With such famed wines as crisp Sancerre (made from Sauvignon Blanc) and the light but creamy Muscadet (Melon De Bourgogne), the Loire offers delicate - though certainly not lacking for interest - wines of balance and pedigree.

Austrian Wines

Austria also offers beautiful, typically dry, white wines sure to please in the warmer months. Most notably, look for Grüner-Veltliner or Riesling from the regions of Wachau, Kamptal, or Kremstal.

German Wines

For a touch of sweetness in the ‘Old World’, look no further than Germany. I believe that inarguably, Germany produces the finest Riesling in the world. Bracing acidity, levels upon levels of seductive sweetness and pure minerality are nurtured within compelling aromas of white flowers and mouth-watering flavors of ripe, orchard fruit.

"New World" Wines

The “New World” also offers many thirst-quenching, refreshing white wines. Considered the very model of powerful fruit and firm structure, whites of the “New World” still manage to craft juice of balance and poise.
New Zealand has become well-known, world wide, for their Sauvignon Blanc. With an elevated yet balanced profile (when compared to the Loire Valley of France), New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc cavorts in lush tropical fruit, piercing citrus flavor, and tangy, tangy, acidity.
For a white wine with a touch more reserve – let’s call it a delicate scent of white flowers, leading to generous, ripe tree fruit and candied lime flavors – try a Torrontés from Argentina. With the best wines hailing from the high-altitude regions of Salta and Catamarca, Argentina provides a gentle, yet well-balanced white wine that can even seem a little sweet in its approachable style.

'Tis better to taste than to read!

Looking back over these recommendations, I’ve left out a lot of incredible wine. For a little more depth of information I highly recommend attending the Cliff House’s April wine study entitled “Let’s Get Ready for Summer” (information available on our website at www.thecliffhouse.com). Most importantly, remember – serve a refreshing wine in the summertime. Enjoy!

The First Steps to Becoming A Self-Taught Wine Connoisseur

Friday, August 12, 2011

How Did You Learn About Wine?

Certainly one of the most frequently asked questions on The Cliff House Restaurant’s dining room floor, the purpose of this article is to help those who want to learn a little bit (or a lot) more about wine.

My personal journey involved 24 years in the food and beverage industry with 15 years devoted to fine dining and wine service – with a generous amount of sampling – purely in the interest of perfecting my trade, of course. Happily, there are far shorter paths that lead to a useful and pleasurable knowledge of wine.

First and foremost, obviously, drink some wine. One of the beautiful aspects of our endeavor is that a good bottle of wine can be enjoyed without any knowledge of what it is, where it’s from, or why it’s good!

Start with inexpensive bottles, and if you’re serious, keep some notes regarding your impressions. Don’t worry! With practice, you will refine your technique of communicating - to yourself and others - the emotional and visceral experience that is wine.

To achieve a better understanding of what is happening inside a particular bottle, some basic reference material can be invaluable. A little information will certainly deepen your appreciation and enjoyment of specific wines, and also aid you in making consistently good choices.

Start with Andrea Immer Robinson’s Great Wine Made Simple. This reference book demystifies traditional wine terminology, yielding immediately useful information in down-to-earth, everyday terms. Other good introductions are Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly (my first book) and Wine All-In-One For Dummies by Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, and Maryann Egan.

For the truly passionate, the wine-geeks, and anyone interested in wine certifications (that means an exam is on the way), I strongly recommend the following publications: How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine by Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson, Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson, and The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by (once again, and remember this name) Jancis Robinson. These books are not inexpensive, and even though some of the information will be out dated by the time it’s printed - the world of wine is a moving target - the information they convey is essential to a higher wine education.

Another extremely helpful resource for advanced studies in wine is web sites and periodicals. I highly recommend the Sommelier Journal and its included web site. This magazine is geared towards professionals, offering timely and current information with out any filler or fluff. The Wine Spectator is also a useful magazine, although it generally has more advertising directed at the consumer. This site has up-to-the-minute information and a wealth of study guides and maps to focus and assist your studies.

Remember, you don’t need any advanced knowledge or information to enjoy wine, just a good bottle. Some references will help you make good choices, some will help you understand those choices, and some will help you communicate them, but most important, go get a bottle – taste it – share it – enjoy it, and maybe write down a thought or two. Here’s to the start of your wine journey – and may you polish less silverware upon your path than I.

A Second Look at Wine and Cheese Pairing

Monday, April 04, 2011

A Classic Experience

As classic as anything, wine and cheese pairings are an integral part of our collective gastronomic heritage.To enjoy this legendary combination offers a glimpse of the thoughts, desires, and needs of our ancient ancestors; connecting tomorrow’s lunch with yesterday’s distant forefathers.

In an effort to provide continuity with our past - and to facilitate a heightened daily experience - I offer some classic pairings that expand not only our dining pleasure, but also our sense of belonging.

Before We Embark...

First, let’s address some basic rules you can follow if unsure of a particular pairing:

  • Younger, softer cheese often pairs well with a light bodied, off dry-to-dry style of white wine.
  • On the other hand, older, harder cheese is typically best with a dry white wine that shows a little more body.
  • Sweetness in a cheese pairs well with sweetness in a wine, and a salty cheese is usually best served with a tart wine of high acidity.
  • Red wines, it turns out, are a little trickier to pair. A good (albeit general) rule: lighter cheese is best with a red wine of high acidity and soft tannins, while a robust cheese works nicely with a tannic red wine of light acidity.

Now, Down to Business...

Lets get to some pairings:

  • Gruyere is a hard, yellow cheese from Switzerland made from unpasteurized cows milk. In its youth, Gruyere has a delicate, salty-sweet flavor that is best complimented by semi-sweet, light-bodied white wines – think domestic Muscat or Argentine Torrontés. As Gruyere ages, it develops a bolder, earthy quality best complimented by a dry, full-bodied white wine. Un-oaked Chardonnay works well, with Chablis being a perfect match.
  • From Mexico we get Cotija, a hard, cow's milk cheese with salty, grassy flavors in youth that develop into savory, parmesan-like flavors with age. To compliment the salty nature of this cheese look for a light to medium bodied white wine, with high acidity and low sugar. Rieslings from Austria or from the Alsace region of France work great here, as well as – and this should be almost intuitive – Corona with a good squeeze of lime.
  • Now let's talk Spain. From La Mancha, the heartland of Spain, hails Manchego. Made from ewe’s milk, Manchego is aged at least two months, and often for two years or more. This firm, buttery cheese develops a pronounced earthy and nutty flavor with time, as well as - dare I say it - the subtle bouquet of vaquero saddle. While many indigenous Spanish red wines will complement Manchego, I recommend a nice Rioja or Ribera del Duero for an expressive, local example of the Tempranillo and Garnache varietals. With lower acidity, supple tannins, and aromas of sweet tobacco and leather, these wines will complement Manchego’s earthy, nutty, and yes, slightly sweaty flavors.
  • On to our "just desserts", and this, you really must try: from the tiny King Island, off the coast of Tasmania, comes Roaring Forties Blue. This pasteurized, cows milk cheese is aged a mere four to five weeks before being dipped in thick, black wax. The seal created causes an anaerobic environment that halts further aging of the cheese. For this reason, Roaring Forties Blue is a sweet, creamy, and delicate blue cheese with a gentle, nutty flavor. Two words – Tawny Port. With their respective sweet and nutty qualities, this wine and cheese create a haunting echo of one another - while the smooth and creamy Roaring Forties Blue gentles the sting of Tawny Ports’ high alcohol content.

Let the Adventures Begin!

I hope you have the opportunity to try these combinations, and to enjoy a little of piece of where we’re from. Be sure to keep in mind, however, that taste is subjective and your own palate should always be the final authority. Enjoy.

How-to Build a Budget Wine Cellar

Friday, September 17, 2010

Let's be real...

Granted, it’s difficult to hollow out the side of a mountain, erect a classically styled chateau, and host wine dinners for the who’s who of wine in your personal tasting room for five hundred dollars.  It is, however, possible to bring consistent pleasure to yourself and your friends affordably through wine.  What follows are some easy ways to store wine, and some recommendations of high quality, high value bottles from around the world.

Cool and constant.

These are the prime requisites for wine storage.  While temperature and humidity controlled cellars with cedar racks and torch sconces on the wall are nice, all that’s truly required is a cool, dark cupboard, infrequently opened.
            The accepted ideal temperature for storing wine is 55 degrees Farinheight (13 degrees Celsius).  This parameter becomes more important the longer you plan to store a particular wine.  As storage temperatures are increased, chemical reactions occurring within the bottle become accelerated. This can often lead to undesirable aromas, “off” flavors, and a decreased or non-existent bouquet.  Storing a wine at less than 55 degrees will prolong the time required to mature the wine, but typically has no other adverse effects.

Dark is important.  Ultraviolet light damages wine by causing otherwise stable organic compounds to degrade.  As these compounds are the building blocks of aroma, taste, and body in a wine; allowing them to deteriorate can rob the bottle of its very soul.  

Humidity only becomes a factor with traditional cork sealed wines.  As a cork dries, its ability to seal a bottle decreases.  This contributes to evaporation from within the bottle, “the angels share”, as well as accelerated oxidation of the wine itself.  Storing the bottle on its side, allowing the wine to saturate and swell the cork, can solve this problem.

What Wine to Choose?

Given a stable storage environment, we are left with the task of choosing our wine.  To build a cellar on a budget:

  • Seek out up and coming wine regions,
  • Seek lesser-known wineries.
  • Try the “second labels” of well-known vineyards. 

Fortunately, wine-making techniques have improved dramatically in recent years and the ease of modern communication has elevated overall wine quality worldwide.

Spain is one great option for high value wines:

  • Rias-Baxias, in the north west of Spain, produces some very affordable, high quality white wines made primarily from the Albarino grape.  These wines are pleasingly New World in style, with fresh, fruity flavors and crisp acidity. 
  • The Bierzo region, just east of Rias-Baxias, is known for a medium bodied, food friendly wine made from the Mencia grape, accounted by some as the “Burgundy of Spain.”
  • Toro, further to the northeast, is crafting full-bodied wines from an indigenous variety of Tempranillo, similar in style to the wines of  Ribera del Deuro, but with a more affordable price tag.
  • Catalunya is Spain’s inexpensive answer to Champagne with Cava, a consistent and refreshing sparkler.

France certainly produces some of the most expensive wines in the world.  First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy are an option for few but the elite.  That said, France abounds with affordable, beautiful wines. 

  • Look to the Loire Valley for white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc or Melon de Bourgogne. 
  • Chardonnay can be an inexpensive delight when sourced from the Macconais region of Burgundy. 
  • For both red and white wines, the Vin de Pays D’Oc, from the Langeudoc, shows the potential of French expertise when paired with a little less restrictive French regulation.  Look for such varietals as Syrah, Grenache, or Carignan for reds or Marsanne, Rousanne, or Sauvignon Blanc for whites.  Some notable (and still relatively affordable) regions in the Langeudoc are Minervois, Corbieres, and St Chinian.

Chile is a fantastic option for high value, New World wines.  Big, ripe, fruity red wines, with a notable herbaceous note dominate the region.  Look to Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah for concentrated, pure fruit, and an affordable price tag.

Just across the Andes Mountains from Chile are the prolific vineyards of Argentina.  Producing more wine than their neighbor, Argentina has developed a reputation for ripe, juicy, red wines, priced for the frugal budget.  Malbec has found a second home in the region and, with Syrah, is responsible for some delicious, spicy reds.  For white wine in Argentina, check out Torrontes, a simple, fruity wine with pleasant aromas ranging from apples, peaches and pears to lemon blossoms and fresh citrus fruit; often with mouth-watering acidity.

Another region of the New World providing high value wine is South Africa.  With the end of apartheid many individual producers have taken the stage, advancing the quality of South African wine, while maintaining an inexpensive price point.  For reds, the quality of Cabernet, Merlot, and Shiraz are well established with their robust, dark berry fruit. Even Pinotage, a notoriously gamey wine, has benefited from modern vinification techniques.  For white wine, South Africa produces some very nice oaked Chardonnays, tangy Sauvignon Blancs, and, most notably, delicious Chenin Blancs.

The pleasure of a great meal, fine wine, and good company should be attainable by all. The goal of this article is to help you more easily select and store high quality, affordable, pleasing wines. Please look to future articles for a selection of itemized, suggested buying lists. Remember: every single time you raise a glass or a fork, you are in the midst of a singular, once in a lifetime experience, of which we all have a limited number.  Enjoy yourself, enjoy your friends, and enjoy your wine.


How to Order Wine in a Restaurant

Friday, September 03, 2010

 Ask the Pros for Help

Ordering wine in a restaurant can, and should be, a painless experience.  There are only a few ideas to consider when undertaking this often-uncomfortable situation.  A little knowledge of the do’s and don’ts will go a long way towards alleviating any anxiety with the ritual of wine service.  As with any dining experience, a sense of confidence in the service and food provided is necessary for a truly relaxed, enjoyable occasion.  You should feel assured that your dietary needs, personal tastes, health, and financial security are at the forefront of the establishments’ considerations.
Let’s say you are in a given restaurant for the first time, and are familiar with many of the wines offered.  Having chosen your entree, you select a nice wine to accompany your meal.  Now is the time to start ascertaining the level of service you are about to receive: 

  • The wine should be served timely.
  • The wine should be served with the proper glassware.
  • The wine should be served at the correct temperature.
  • The wine should be served in an appropriate manner. 

Pointed questions regarding your selection can help determine the experience level of your server.  To my mind, a great pleasure of dining out is resting some decisions upon the expertise of the professionals who handle their particular dining elements day in and day out. 

  • Feel free to ask for help.  
  • Describe what characteristics you enjoy in a wine rather than selecting by region, vineyard or variety. 

With a given level of confidence in the staff, you will be able to experience new tastes with the assurance of a great dining experience.

Ready to Order?

It is rarely a good idea to order wine without looking at the list or asking the price.  Many are the times a guest has said, “I love Mouton-Rothschild, do you have a bottle?” only to choke when they see an eight hundred dollar price tag.  Know what you are getting into, and, while affordability should never be your only consideration, don’t be afraid to ask the price of anything.
Should you ask your server or sommelier: “What is your favorite wine?”  You may get this response: “Well, what am I eating?  What time of year is it?  The occasion?   Who am I with?”  Most experienced wine connoisseurs will have many personal favorites.   Instead, ask what they may suggest with the meal you have selected, given the tastes you prefer. 

Wine Presentation and Service

Wine service should proceed in a similar manner every time you order:

The Right Wine?

First, the wine bottle will be presented to you un-opened. At this point you are checking to make sure the wine is what you selected: 

  • Correct grape,
  • Correct vineyard,
  • Correct vintage. 

The Cork Check

Next, the bottle will be opened and the cork presented to whomever chose the wine.  There is no need to smell the cork.  With the cork you are looking for one thing: integrity.  The following signs are not conclusive, but would beg a little closer scrutiny of the wine:

  • The cork is soft and spongy
  • The cork crumbles upon removal
  • There is a pronounced stripe running longitudinally along the cork

If any of these signs are present, there is a higher probability the wine will be faulted.

The Discernment

Next, a small portion of wine will be poured for the person who ordered it (for our purposes, the host.)  This wine is not poured as a taste test, but rather, as an opportunity for the guest to discern any faults in the wine:  You should look at:

  • See the color – is it what you expected? 
  • Smell it – Anything moldy? – Vinegary? – Does the wine smell bruised or rotten? 
  • Taste it – Does it taste the way it smells? 

An experienced diner never languishes over the discernment of wine – a connoisseur will take seconds to determine if a particular bottle is good. 

Given that the host chose the wine and the wine is un-faulted, the bottle should not be rejected.  All sommeliers have entertained a guest who is intent upon opening six bottles of wine only to decide which they like best - not the purpose of the tasting.  An exception to this rule:  If a guest states the characteristics of the wines he or she enjoys, and the server makes a recommendation, and the wine does not fit the preferred wine profile, then it is okay to send the wine back, even if it is sound.

The Service

Given a positive response to the initial inspection, the server will start to pour your wine. 

  • Wine service starts with the lady to the left of the host.
  • Service proceeds clockwise to the rest of the women.
  • Lastly, service continues clockwise for the men, serving the host – male or female – last.

An exception to this rule:  If the table has more than eight guests, wine service proceeds clockwise, from the hosts left, not differentiating for male or female, serving the host last.


Most important – dining in general, and wine specifically - should be enjoyed.  These are singular moments of your life’s experience and are irreplaceable.  Anything detracting from your pleasure should not be repeated, and every great meal accorded the respect of a once in a lifetime experience.  Salute!  

The Essentials of Wine Storage

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wine is stored in a variety of ways - from the initial picking of grapes to when the bottle is tipped above your glass.  The ephemeral beauty of wine is delicate and temperamental, thus, an understanding of how best to coddle this fleeting art form is of benefit to those who would enjoy a perfect glass.

In The Beginning...

grapes on a vine in a vineyardIn the vineyard grapes are picked and transported to the winery in a variety of ways.  Some are mechanically harvested into large trucks and delivered in bulk to the winery.  Some are hand picked into small tubs and attended to immediately upon arrival.  There are even grapes picked in the cool of night, placed in small tubs, and processed with dawns first light.  All of these choices have an impact on the final product.  Once the grapes are delivered, more decisions are made.  Should the wine be fermented in stainless steel, concrete vats, aged oak vats, or in small new oak barrels?  How long should the wine be held before releasing it?  Should the wine be aged in oak, stainless steel, on the lees, in the bottle?  These decisions have a dramatic effect on the wine produced, and should give some indication of what to expect.

Off to Live the Life of Wine

Okay, the bottle has left the winery.  It’s on the shelf in a liquor store.  What now?  The cardinal rule - heat and light are the enemies of wine.  Some wines are compromised before we have the opportunity to screw them up ourselves. Typically, an inexpensive wine, made to be drank young, is not a risk that merits much investigation.  However, if you are investing in an expensive wine - crafted to age for years - some knowledge of who imported or shipped the wine and how it may have been handled should be requisite prior to purchase.  It’s always a good idea to speak with the wine store manager, who can give you the distributors’ contact information, or to research the wine on-line.  If you plan to cellar a bottle, it’s important to know the wine has been handled well.  Did it get too hot on a long ocean voyage?  Has it sat in the sun on a shelf for a couple of months?  Was it stored upright for an extended period of time?  When investing in wine it’s best to know the answers to these questions.
With regard to personal storage, every wine wants to return to its’ roots.  A cool, dark cabinet performs well, and, if possible, a controlled humidity of sixty-five or seventy percent is ideal.  Wine bottles should be stored on their sides to ensure the cork is well saturated and swollen - creating a tight fit with the neck of the bottle.  Wine should be stored under stable conditions, without tempeture, light, or humidity variation.  Essentially, the closer you get to recreating the conditions of a grape vines’ roots - under ground, dark, moist, constant - the more cellaring will reward you.

Wine bottling and corking techniques also have a role to play.  True with many things; judge the product, not the package.  A fancy bottle can hide a bourgeois juice and countless great wine comes with inauspicious wraps.  Yes, even boxed wine can be a good option.  When boxing wine, less capital is diverted toward packaging and more funds (possibly) allocated toward crafting a better juice.  Additionally the foil bladder inside the box collapses around any remaining wine, reducing oxidation, and increasing the wines’ overall longevity.  Follow your own tastes, but for an everyday option, don’t rule out the box.

Put a Cork in It? Or Screw it Up?

Wine bottles with corksTo cork or not to cork?  This remains the question.  There are passionate experts on both sides of this issue.  Certainly with some cork trees nearing endangered status, it behooves us to consider sustainability.  Additionally, somewhere between five and ten percent of wine is faulted due to bacteria in the cork itself, not only a significant waste, but also a rude surprise when your last bottle of a rare vintage is undrinkable.  To mitigate this many wines are now capped with a screw top or Stelvin closer.  This reduces the likelihood of a tainted wine, costs less than cork, and eases some of the burden on cork trees.  Stelvin closers do, however, seem a little less graceful when opened, and for many, have connotations of plonk (a wine of poor quality.)  This may have been the case in the past; it is not today.  Many great wines are capped with the Stelvin closer.  Another new stopper is the glass lock, simply - a glass cork with a rubber seal.  Perhaps a touch more classy, the glass lock does allow for a little more opening ritual.  When a wine is designed to age in bottle, the cork issue becomes more complicated.  Prevailing thought has always held some transfer of oxygen, through the cork, was necessary for the wine to mature and develop its’ bouquet.  While the jury is out - it is likely to be some time before you see Chambertin with a screw top.

The Final Solution: Drink it!

When storing an opened bottle of wine you have a few options.  The goal is to slow the rate of oxidation.  Try a wine pump - designed to remove oxygen from the bottle, creating a partial vacuum, or try a wine preservative - essentially inert gas that will blanket the juice and seal out oxygen.  Failing either of these, put the opened wine in the refrigerator, and yes, even your reds.  Lowering a wines’ temperature also slows oxidation, just be sure to pull your red wine out an hour or so before serving.
Given a little information, wine storage is intuitive and straightforward, requiring little more than a cool cupboard, rarely opened.  Box, cork, Stelvin and glass lock closers all have their place in today’s market, though they may tell less about the quality of the wine than they have in the past.  Having passed through many loving hands, the bottle you hold is entrusted to your care.  A gentle touch is usually rewarded.  Remember – all wines long for their roots.  Cheers.

The Mystery of Wine Pairings

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What wine will go well with my meal…or maybe, what meal will go well with my wine? In any case, there are many components to what we eat and what we drink: textures, flavors, weights, and chemical compositions, let alone the relationships created when we combine their various elements! It is also true you can spend a lifetime honing your ability to craft memorable pairings of greater depth, interest, and cohesion.

There is No “Wrong” Answer

Given wine and food’s potential complexity, making good pairing decisions are well within the ability of almost everyone, and many of the choices you make will be based upon personal preference.

Lets say that once more in a different way: First and foremost – drink what you like. Wine is truly and completely subjective, with great latitude for personal preference, and while some wines are better suited to some foods, don’t make the mistake of drinking a wine you simply won’t enjoy because some wine expert says it’s a great wine. That said; most of us don’t know everything we like, so be adventurous, try new things, and take a risk from time to time. The reward of that surprising discovery when you stumble upon something extraordinary is absolutely priceless.

Harmony or Contrast?

When I choose wine to pair with a meal, I start with a simple question: Do I want the wine to work in harmony with the food, or do I want to offer some contrast? Certainly, when your meal and your wine are in perfect harmony, you can loose track of when you are eating and when you are drinking, the two merging into a seamless whole, more than the sum of their components. On the other hand, contrast yields the brightest experience, with each element showcasing the other for what it is not. Even so, in contrast, most pairings will have some echo, or complimentary aspects. All pairings should showcase your meal to its’ best advantage.

Here’s an example: Our entrée is Salmon Oscar. The salmon has a medium to full flavor, it is pan seared imparting a little smoky, caramelized aspect, and topped with crab, asparagus and béarnaise. To work in harmony with this dish we might choose a lush, oaky Napa Valley Chardonnay, hoping to pair the creaminess of the wine; buttery, ripe, soft, full; with the richness of the béarnaise sauce and the sweetness of the crab. We might also pair this entrée with a rich Oregon Pinot Noir, again in harmony, looking to accentuate the earthiness of the salmon while maintaining a creamy texture. To contrast the Oscar, we might try crisp Muscadet from the western Loire Valley of France. The wine’s light, briny quality begs for seafood, while its high acidity cleanses the palate of heavy sauces, making each bite taste like the first. If you prefer a red wine to provide contrast with the Oscar you might try a nice Italian Chianti Classico, with its characteristic tangy, cleansing acidity, woody backbone and focused minerality.

Here’s another example: Our entrée is grilled Filet Mignon topped with a light Danish Blue Cheese. To work in harmony with this dish we might try a big Australian Shiraz, the smokiness of the wine complimenting the filet’s grilled preparation and the cheese serves to soften the tannins of the wine. We could also try a youthful, vibrant, red Bordeaux, whose body is up to the challenge of grilled meat and whose terroir driven earthiness showcases the blue cheese. If we wanted to provide contrast to this dish, we might try an aged, German Auslese Riesling, whose high acid and high sugar can handle the weight of the entrée while cleansing the palate and making the Danish Blue Cheese sing.

Pairing 101

Here are some basic pairings you can use to take some of the guesswork out of wine selection.

Most importantly, the over-all weight of your wine should mirror the weight of your meal. A heavier meal does better with a heavier wine (and a lighter meal with a lighter wine) because both can assert their attributes without overpowering each-others qualities. You certainly would not want to spend one hundred dollars on Grand Cru Chablis, and be unable to taste it through your barbecue ribs! Likewise, the delicate flavors of abalone or lobster are almost sure to be lost in the robust Malbecs from Argentina.

Typically, white wine goes best with seafood, light poultry, and pork; and works well with sauté, poaching, steaming, and frying.

Some white wines you may consider, arranged light (top) to heavy (bottom):

  • Pinot Grigio
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Riesling
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Viognier
  • Chardonnay

Red wine pairs nicely with beef, lamb, wild game, and darker poultry; and compliments roasting, grilling, brazing, searing and smoking.

Some red wines arranged light to heavy:

  • Pinot Noir
  • Grenache
  • Merlot
  • Zinfandel
  • Sangiovesse
  • Syrah
  • Malbec
  • Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine and food pairings can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. Everyday choices made with a little knowledge, common sense, and personal tastes will serve you well. And, when you decide to create a little beauty, delve into the myriad and complex nuances of food and wine and craft something memorable.