Saturday, February 14, 2009

Wine 101 at Lush Wine and Spirits

Jane on the left and Kristin on your right, hosted Wine 101 at Lush Wine and Spirits in Roscoe Village (cute hat, Kristin!)

Once or twice a year, I like returning to the basics of wine. I enjoy hearing stories about its history or how its made, and how to differentiate varietals; it helps me better educate customers at The Night Thing, along with reinforcing my own wine knowledge.

Lush Wine and Spirits offers unique wine classes throughout the year; their Roscoe Village team of Jane and Kristin gave seven of us a thorough overview of six common varietals along with tips on best experience the whole tasting ritual (sniffing, swirling, sipping and spitting).

Our hostesses were friendly and casual; reminding us that the wine appreciation can seem complex and overbearing but really comes down to a few basics that anyone can master. Their mantra is keep experimenting, learn what your palate likes/dislikes, and try as best you can to put wine's flavors and textures into words you can understand.

My favorite of the white varietals was our Riesling, a 2007 Richter Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett, from Mosel, Germany. That's a long name! But the most important word in that name is Kabinett, the semi-sweet ranking in the German classification. One misconception many wine drinkers have is that all Riesling wines are sweet. Au contraire! (OK, that's French, but I don't know the similar phrase in German!) Some Rieslings are sweet, and some have the pleasant aroma of the unleaded you feed your gas tank (BTW, are all filling stations self-serve now?)

This Riesling had more of the spiky, tart "7-Up" texture I enjoy in Riesling. It really cried out for some Chinese or Thai food.

From the Chardonnay grape, we tasted an unoaked from West Cape Howe of Western Austrailia, and an oaked version (much more common) from South Africa, the 2007 Vins d"Orracne. Unoaked Chardonnays provide a different completely different approach to nurturing this grape, and you really need to treat yourself to both styles. Most wineries, will note on their bottle label if their Chardonnay has not been treated in oak (they will age the juice in stainless steel, instead).

I have a particular preference in Chardonnay; namely, the more rocks the better! I love the feeling of minerality on my palate; neither of the wines came near that taste profile, but I enjoyed exploring these different styles.

From the red wine group, I fell in love with a Merlot costing just $9.50 from the Languedoc (2006 Delas); it featured a unique combination of rasberry with strong tannins. I also enjoyed (sigh) the most expensive wine of the tasting; a Paso Robles from Tablas Creek (the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel); strongly based on the Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah combination found often in the Rhone region of France (it also included some Counoise - that's pronounced Coon-wa). This just felt like an electric shock of sensations in my mouth; spice, smoke and a lingering finish.

Please check out the Lush web site for their frequently updated blog and information on their future classes.

Pairing Food and Jazz with Wine

One special by-product of the blog is that it's enabled me to reconnect with friends from my past. One family friend, Jeffrey Siegel, has his own blog, not about wine, but on the subject of jazz. You can read Straight No Chaser here. Jeffrey is much more of an expert on jazz than I am on wine!

He invited me to contribute to his latest blog post, with a Valentine's Day theme. If you experiment with our food/wine/music suggestions, please let both of us know how the combinations worked for you. Thanks!

Be My Valentine (and Bring the Wine!)

With Valentine's Day today, I thought it would be fun to query some Chicago wine experts, the following question:
"What's the most romantic bottle of wine you have ever drank?"

Kyle McHugh of Drinks Over Dearborn:

"On my first visit to Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida, I shared a bottle of 2002 Van Duzer Dijon Blocks Pinot Noir with my girlfriend Kelli. If you’re a fan of great food and wine, Bern’s is like Willy Wonka’s factory – I spent an hour just reading the menu and perusing the encyclopedia-esque wine list. Over this great bottle of Pinot from my homeland (I grew up about 30 minutes north of the Willamette Valley), I asked Kelli to live with me. We are now engaged and getting married in October of ’09. I don’t know if it was me or the wine that sealed the deal, but I’ll let the Van Duzer take a lot of the credit!"

From Rachel Driver, of Lush Wine and Spirits:

2004 SAXUM 'Heart Stone Vineyard', Paso Robles, California. This wine is all out sexy. Although I gravitate toward fairly eclectic, dry, dusty and austere Italian reds by default, I didn't want to think about my wine this particular evening. I wanted something lovely, delicious, and very accessible. Hence, the Saxum. Purchased from Lush in 2007, our very first 3 bottle allocation of Saxum, I drank the 'Heart Stone' by candlelight paired with a homemade, handcrafted Valentine's Day meal. Saxum is the 'estate' project of Justin Smith, meant to showcase the terroir of the James Berry Vineyard and the Templeton Gap...rocky calcareous soils, steep hillsides, and cooling ocean breezes speak through these wines. Yields are kept extremely low, fruit is handpicked at the peak of ripeness, and a minimalist approach is utilized in the cellar. Justin produces beautiful, structured, textured 'big' wines.

Tasting Notes:
This Central Coast blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre pours a deep, plush purple. Immediately, the nose is an intense array of black pepper and black fruit, a touch of toasty vanilla oak, and just a hint of dusty dark chocolate. The palate mirrors the aromas and builds with white pepper, weathered leather, blackberry and silky dark chocolate. This wine definitely tastes of West Side Paso...deep, rich, and full of spicy tannins. Definitely a sensuous, racy number...not shy, but flashy and rather elegant all at once. Yum!

From Anne Markovich-Girard of Robert Kacher Selections:

A bottle of Mas de Guiot Rose, on the deck, with grilled salmon, with my husband on a perfect July evening.

From Brian Wiig of Flow Wine Group:

Definitely when Meg and I enjoyed Ceretto Barolo 1997 with pizza in the moonlight on the Amulfi coast. It was a "life" experience!

From Michael Bottigliero of Eno and Windy City Wine Guy:

The most romantic bottle of wine I have ever drunk? I would normally like to say it was a red, but due to the story behind it, I would have to say Principessa Gavia Gavi. A young Italian Princess named Gavia ran away with a handsome soldier, against the wishes of her father. When news of their romance spread though the countryside, the father forgave them and threw a huge wedding. He gave them the town they were hiding in and named it Gavi along with the wine which the town produced.

Gavi is made from the Cortese varietal in Piedmonte. This particular wine is light and floral, with crisp acidity, lime and baked lemon flavor. It also has a hint of sparkle and white wine spice. A great value under $15 as well.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Burgundy 101 with Martin Sinkoff

The Chablis of Domaine Christian Moreau Pere & Fils were among the Chardonnays featured at Frederick Wildman & Sons recent Chicago tasting (father Christian and son Fabien are pictured here).

Last week, I received an invitation to a special wine tasting here in Chicago. On February 5, New York City based importer Frederick Wildman and Sons, conducted a private tasting of 2007 Burgundy. This was my favorite kind of tasting because it focused on just a couple of varietals (in Burgundy that means Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), and it wasn't too crowded. Often, when an importer or distributor hosts a tasting, you get an opportunity to talk with the actual winemakers. This kind of event really brings out the wine brainiacs; I overheard many conversations about climate and oak and harvest challenges.

While taking in all of the delicious wine and food, I knew I needed a basic primer about this particular region, whose wines are usually priced outside my budget. Martin Sinkoff, Director of Marketing for Frederick Wildman and Sons, emailed me answers to several questions I had about Burgundy and the 2007 vintage.

1.) For those drinkers familiar (maybe overly familiar) with American Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, what style and taste differences will they notice when they first taste Burgundy?

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as grown and made in Burgundy are to California versions as ready-to-wear clothes are to haute couture. You can wear both but they don't feel the same. The first is serviceable; the second, ethereal. Burgundy in its white and red expressions is at once refined, elegant, powerful, deep in flavor and utterly memorable. It is an experience not just a drink. As young wine lovers grow in their taste, the will come to discover Burgundy just the way young music lovers who grow up on rock music come to appreciate jazz, classical music or opera.

2.) Do you have some suggestions on how to assemble a mixed case of Burgundy that will reflect all the different nuances of the region?

I suggest

1 bottle each of:

Jean Jacques Vincent Pouilly Fuisse "Marie Antoinette" 2007

Potel-Aviron Fleurie 2006 or 2007

Chateau de Chamirey White 2006 or 2007 (Mercurey)

Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc "Les Setilles" 2007

Olivier Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 2006

Domaine Darviot-Perrin Chassagne Montrachet RED 2006

Domaine Jacques Prieur Meursault "Mazery" 2006

Nicolas Potel Savigny-les-Beaune 2006

Nicolas Potel Volnay "Vieilles Vignes" 2006

Domaine Humbert Bourgogne Rouge 2006

Domaine Damoy Gevrey Chambertin 2006

Domaine Christian Moreau Chablis "Vaillons" 2007

This mixed case will take the wine lover from south to north, from red to white, from Beaujolais to the Cotes de Nuits and on to Chablis and will allow the first experience of Burgundy in its depth and breadth.

3.) At today's tasting, two phrases I heard a great deal were "single vineyard" and "old vines". Can you explain why these terms are important and what they contribute to great Burgundy?

"Single Vineyard" is important because it means that the wine is expressing itself very specifically from one vineyard. Burgundy is all about the expression of place and time and the more specific that is, the more valuable. It is like listening to a single violin rather than the orchestra.

"Old Vines" is important because the older the vines, the greater the expression. Old vines draw their "voice" from a deep root system that can express the full minerality of its vineyard.

4.) What were some of the climate (and other) challenges to growing and harvesting in Burgundy in 2007?

2007 was a "backward" vintage: hot spring and cool summer. Finding optimum ripeness for maximum expression was the challenge in this and in all vintages. Ultimately the wines of 2007 are very precise, very fine, small boned, elegant and delicious. It is a lovely vintage in white and in red.

5.) The winemakers present also discussed which oak (and how long) they used for aging their wines. Some winemakers didn't use oak at all. What are the flavors different types of oak can impart?

Oak is used to age wines and is like adding salt or pepper to a sauce. When done well you can't taste those ingredients but you know the dish is delicious. Different wines take to oak differently. Very unruly tannic wines need oak ageing more than delicate reds or whites. Some wines cannot tolerate oak or new oak at all (such as Chablis). Excessive oak makes wines taste simple; like vanilla ice cream.

6.) When will we start receiving these wines in the Chicago market, and what are some of the stores and restaurants you have supplied in the past?

The 2007 wines will start arriving now and continue to arrive through the year. The Moreau Chablis are already here. All good stores and restaurants in Chicago-land can find these through our distributor, Signature Wine Merchants (Southern Wine and Spirits).

7.) Would you say there is any kind of "sibling rivalry" between Burgundy and the other major wine regions of France?

No. Burgundy shares with the other great wine producing regions of France a secure sense of deep identity and pride in its extraordinary qualities. If there is a rivalry it would be between Burgundy growers and growers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the new world who pretend to equal Burgundy in quality or style.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Interview with Jessica Bell of the Midwest Wine School

Your teacher, Jessica Bell, and her husband, among the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

If you're starting to read Chicago Pinot, and other wine blogs, or deciding you want to finally learn how to dissect that wine list, maybe taking a wine class should go on your to-do list. Chicago wine stores often feature one night classes that provide a basic overview. But if you are looking for a more thorough treatment, or researching a career in food and wine service, consider the Midwest Wine School and the classes taught by Jessica Bell.

Jessica began her wine school in Milwaukee, in 2006, and will visit Chicago on Sundays to teach her intermediate and advanced classes. Her curriculum is based on the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which was created in Great Britain, and is taught in over forty countries and has been translated into thirteen languages.

Jessica is WSET certified, and has passed all the diploma exams. She has also passed challenging examinations sponsored by the American Sommelier Association and the Spanish Union of Winetasters based in Madrid. After leaving the fast-paced world of investment banking in the early 1990's, she worked at a Spanish winery, as a sommelier for The Modern, an acclaimed New York City restaurant, ("many eighteen hour days!") and has contributed wine and lifestyle features for the Milwaukee ABC station WISN.

She described to me the differences between her Intermediate and Advanced classes: "The intermediate class (nine weeks) is more grape oriented, I focus on about ten of the most common grape varietals and their main characteristics. It's designed for students who already have a strong interest in wine, OR those already working in the retail or service industries. This class concludes with a fifty question multiple choice test which is very manageable if you read and study the book and class materials."

The advanced class (sixteen weeks) requires much more self discipline: "It's recommended that you study four hours for every two spent in class. We focus more on individual regions instead of grapes. Also, we spend time focusing on current market trends, because the wine world is always changing. The final exam combines multiple choice, short answers to analytical questions (example: If your restaurant is out of a customer's first choice for a bottle, what would you recommend and why?) and a fifteen minute blind tasting."

Jessica's graduates have come from a variety of industries. "I have seen a number of career switchers; one is a former professor who is now the Online Marketing Manager for Terlato Vineyards. A nurse who took my course is now working for a distributor. Several others have opened wine stores, and I have heard from several servers who express more confidence in handling difficult customers."

The Midwest Wine School begins February 8 at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute at 361 West Chestnut. Please email Jessica at or call 414-326-7736 for more information.