Definitely Strawberries

I love wine.... I don't care if it has hints of passion fruit or terra firma. I've never had a passion fruit, and, as far as I know, terra firma means dirt. But I do love rush of pleasure when you taste something unexpected and extraordinary. This blog is dedicated to understanding and tracking down that feeling through weekly experiments in wine tasting and tipsiness.

"Mmm... a little citrus... maybe some strawberry, passionfruit... and, oh, there's just the faintest soupcon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a nutty Edam cheese."

"Wow. Strawberries, yeah! Definitely Strawberries. Not the cheese..."

Battle of the Bubbles

I get it.  Champagne is a region in France.  Your bubbly is not “Champagne” unless it was grown and bottled in the relatively tiny region of northeast France.  As a result of this technicality, I find myself grimacing at least once every Christmas as my brother refuses to pass the delicious drink until I correctly call it “sparkling wine.” 

“There isn’t any Champagne,” he says.

To which I reply:

“In that case, I’m sorry, but we don’t have any Kleenex in the house, just lots of tissue paper.  There’s some in the bathroom right next to the cotton swabs for ear fiddling.  And we don't have any Diet Coke, only Rite Aid brand Diet Soda.” And so on and so forth.

As you know, my brother is correct. Champagne comes from Champagne, France.  Legend has it that the famous Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, invented it; however most wine historians agree that Masseur Perignon spent much of his life trying to figure our how to eradicate the then-accidental bubbles.  The first sparkling wines to come from Champagne were intended to be still wines.   It was the Brits who, as early as 1662, first started introducing sugars to their finished wine for the intended effect of creating additional carbon dioxide bubbles.

Champagne proper is generally made from a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.  Blanc de noirs – which we sample tonight - are made from all or predominately Pinot Noir grapes.  Blanc de blancs come from entirely Chardonnay grapes.   The most common classificaiton of sparkling wine, available anywhere from your local Rite Aid to Europe’s most prestigious cellars, is the Brut label.  The differing Brut designations refer to the amount in sugar in the bubbly which dictates its sweetness level:

  •  Brut Natural or Brut Zéro (less than 3 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Brut (less than 12 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Demi sec (highest level of sugar)

Onto the Test
Tonight we test two “relatively similar” sparkling wines: a Mailly Grand Cru Blanc De Noir and a Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir.  Both are nonvintage, meaning they were not harvested in a single year, and both are blanc de noirs.   The Mailly hails from Champagne.  The Domaine Chandon, from California.  

There was no discernable difference in the nose of either.  In fact, I found it hard to pin down any real characteristics of their aromas.   Their colors were similar as well: a black cherry and golden hue.  The Chandon was slightly darker, I suspect in part due to the fact that it includes a small amount of the darker Pinot Meunier grapes while the Mailly was 100% Pinot Noir. 

Unlike the nose, the difference in taste between these two was certain.  This particular Champagne was much better than this particular California sparkling wine.  While the Mailly was smooth and earthy, the Chandon was harsh in comparison. It tasted sharp and steely following the Mailly.  

Another common point of comparison for sparking wines is the quantity and quality of the bubbles. A large number of fine bubbles can be the hallmark of a great sparkling wine.  The more your wine has big bubbles like a lemon-lime soda (don’t call it Sprite), the less likely it is to be noteworthy.  In this case, there was a slightly discernable difference in the bubble comparison.  As you can see from the photo below, the Champagne (on the left) was superior in the amount, although perhaps not the size of, the bubbles. 

Conclusion: Champagne won this battle of the regions.

Full disclosure on this comparison:  the Mailly Champagne retails for more than twice as much as the Chandon.  Their price points are not even close. Moreover, the Mailly comes from the acclaimed Champagne region.  It is, in fact, a grand cru.  The French word cru meaning “growth place,”  a grand cru comes from a patch of land within a region that is known to be spectacular. So, even within the world-renowned Champagne region, the Mailley Grand Cru has a special reputation and designation.  

The Chandon, on the other hand, is simply from “California.”

That being said,  the Chandon Blanc De Noir is no slouch.  In fact, it’s the sparkling wine of choice at White House receptions and also my wedding.  It’s also my wife’s favorite for the price.  But, in the end of the day,  both my wife and I were easily won over by this Champagne.  It was a special treat, and well worth the cost.

Pass the California Champagne
The French had their priorities straight at Versailles.
Use of the word “Champagne” is heavily regulated.  Most laws reserve the term exclusively for sparkling wines from the Champagne region that are made in accordance with Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne regulations.  The name has been protected in Europe since 1891, and France's rights to the term were reaffirmed in Treaty of Versailles.  

While many other countries including Canada and Australia limit the use of the name "Champagne" to those products produced in the French region,  the United States is slightly more liberal.  While the term is banned on new US produced wines, those companies that had approval to use the name before 2006 can continue to call their sparkling wines Champagne so long as the term is followed by the wine’s true locality.  Hence, the $6 Korbel I purchased from Safeway last New Year’s Eve is, according to law, actual Champagne.  

Take that Frenchies!   

1 Wine, 3 Cups

New York Magazine says to try this experiment with a ten-dollar bottle of wine:

Pour some into any old goblet and some into a proper tulip-shaped crystal Bordeaux glass. Taste. I guarantee you'll think you're drinking two different wines.
The glass you choose has a tremendous impact on your enjoyment of wine. Even unremarkable wines taste more elegant and refined when served in suitable stemware. And the finest wines are all but wasted if you drink them out of coffee mugs. The acquisition of excellent stemware is the first step towards improving your in-home wine experience.
 Tonight, we see if that's the case.  With a basic $10 Cabernet Sauvignon from my local grocery store, I sampled the inexpensive Cab in three very different glasses. 
#1:  A Take Out Coffee Cup
#2:  Riedel "O" Collection - Pinot Noir / Nebbiolo Tumbler
#3:  Riedel "Vitis" Cabernet Glass

Theoretically, your wine glass can change the entire experience of drinking wine.  This is mostly true because of how the glass effects the ways in which the odors emanate and escape from the glass.  That smell factor inevitably effects taste.  Because the olfactory bulb in our brain is exponentially more discerning than our taste buds, we're told "90 percent of what we call taste, is actually smell."

Hence, the delicate flavors of pinot noir or red Burgandy are served in the widest stemware available (see a stemless version in #2) above.  The thin and less perceptible aromas of these subtle wines need more surface area to react with the air and gather aromas.  The bouquet collects on the bottom of the glass and is funneled to your nose at the narrow rim which is designed to leave little space for the aroma to escape.  The shape is also said to direct the wine to the tip of your tongue.

Bordeaux style wines (Cabs, Merlots & bigger, richer reds) don't require the same level of interaction with the air.  The tall, broad bowl of a Cabernet glass (see #3) directs the wine to the back of your mouth, which is better for fuller-bodied wines.

The other big factor to consider is heat and the warming of the wine.  White wine glasses are usually small in order to prevent rapid warming in the glass. Technically, tumblers (like #2) are only supposed to be used for brandy because all other wines are not intended to be warmed by the holder's hand. I bought the tumbler style partly because they are inexpensive but mostly because there's less danger of it tipping over and shattering, a major concern if we're talking $50+ wine glasses.

On to the experiment:

I poured a small taste into to each glass and let it breath a bit.  I then went through each glass, one by one, and took sips.  After that, I made a little bit larger pour into each and went through them all all again.  Pretty basic.  I didn't bother doing a blind test as I would have been able to tell which glass was what when I picked it up and put it to my lips.

The coffee cup wine lost almost all its odor which definitely had an effect on the taste.  It smelled like styrofoam only, and by the time it hit my lips it was almost devoid of taste.  The pinot tumbler smell was entirely ruined by the fact that I put it through the dishwasher once several weeks earlier. It still reeked of dishwasher detergent. (fail.)  The overall best experience was definitely with the tall, clean, Vitis glass designed for this type of wine.

When I disconnected the smell from the sip, however, I didn't notice much difference between the pinot tumbler and Vitis Cabernet glass.  This leads me to believe that when we are casually drinking wine or in public and not making the effort to smell before each sip, the shape probably does not make all that much difference.  I certainly did not notice a discernible difference in terms of where the wine landed on my tongue.   When we're taking the time to stick our nose in the glass, smell, sip, and thoroughly enjoy the wine, however, the shape likely makes a more dramatic difference because of its impact on the smell. 

Conclusion 1: Don't wash your wine glass in the dishwasher.  Doh!

Conclusion 2: Shape can make a difference for two reasons.  The first is all of the science of stemware described above - the shape, the heat transference, the effect on the odor, etc.  But the second and probably more important reason is the effect that having a tall, impressive crystal glass in your hand has on your approach toward the wine. If you have a respectable, expensive glass, you pay more attention to the wine, and are more likely to smell and allow your olfactory glands to fire up.  Because the smell-related neurons in your brain are far more powerful and complex than your rudimentary taste buds, it heightens the experience and makes the wine taste better.   I have to believe that this adds to that "rush of pleasure" I look for in wine drinking. 

Bonus Cup! - The Secret of Bad Church Wine
The day after running this little experiment, I went to a friend's house for a BBQ and brought with me a bottle of 2006 Chasing Lions Bordeaux style blend as a gift.  We eventually opened the bottle and the host served it in the goblet pictured here.  Strangely enough, this thick glass stemware altered the taste and experience of the wine even more than the styrofoam coffee cup or detergent-soaked tumbler of the night before. Knowing I would be writing this post, I was, of course, intrigued as to why.

When I first took a sip out of this glass, the wine was remarkably similar to the wine served at communionin Catholic Church.  I am sure Father Vestbit, my childhood priest, did not serve Napa Valley Bordeaux-style blends at St. Stephen's every Sunday.  Moreover, I had a bottle of this same wine, same vintage just a month earlier in my apartment, and it tasted great.  

It turns out the lifeless feel of church wine and the altered and much degraded taste of this glass have everything to do with the shape and structure of the glass.  As New York Magazine points out:

A thin, properly shaped lip directs the flow of the wine into your mouth in such a way that the smooth stream touches the most sensitive areas of the tongue. A thick-rimmed glass, on the other hand, accentuates a wine's flaws, particularly harsh acidity and bitterness. Crystal has a rougher surface, on a microscopic level, than regular glass and therefore helps wine release its aromas as you drink.

The glass goblet from the BBQ was remarkably similar to the Communion glasses from church.  Both were extremely thick with a large, awkward lip folding over the rim.  This shape causes the drinker to wrap his or her lips over a large, folded edge of cold glass.  It tastes and feels awkward and numbs the mouth a bit by the time the wine reaches your lips.  On top of that, on a microscopic level, the wine glides over the smooth glass with less friction, releasing less aroma than in a crystal glass. 

Interesting, and I thought that crystal was just for the "ping!" when you toast.

Free Wine!!!

Free Wine is part of the reason why I started this blog.   Don't hold it against me.

I have a friend who works for the beverage distributor Diageo - importer of Sterling, Rosenblum, Dom Perignon, and Moet & Chandon.  Sadly, we did not get free wine from her.  What we did get was an invitation to the employee wine sale every year.  When that event came around each Fall, my wife and I took advantage and stockpiled our shelves with an amazing bargain case.  

But when those cases came and went I found myself looking for some equally great wine for equally good prices.   That's how I eventually came across the popular Good Wine Under $20 Blog.  A fellow blogspot site, goodwineunder20 has short informal reviews of one fellow's take on on assorted inexpensive wines.  After checking out the site a couple times, I started noticing disclaimers on nearly every other review.  The fine print read: "Full Disclosure: I received these wines as samples."

Wait, what? 

This blogger gets wine delivered to his door for free? Just for writing a few paragraphs about a bottle here and there? That sounds like something I can get board with.   I initially thought, "If they're giving away wine to bloggers, I'm going to make a Best Wine Over $500 blog." After one look at our monthly budget, I abandoned that idea.  To all my fellow winos out there, you should know: I've got you're interests at heart - free wine, as simple as that. 

But of course, it's not all about free stuff.  I'm not only a wino, I'm also a wine lover.  I was married on June 12, 2010 in Napa Valley.  I love it in wine country.  Below is a shot from our reception at Christian Brothers, Mont La Salle on Mount Vedeer, one of the oldest vineyards in the valley.  When not used for sacramental wine, their grapes are sold to Hess.  

In the end, I hope you'll detect my joy and passion.  I also hope I'll get some free wine.