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Our Annual Wine Party

Cork collection

It has become a tradition in our house that every year for Nina’s birthday we throw a wine party. It used to be that it was a wine and cheese party, where we provided the cheeses and opened Nina’s huge treasure chest of mustards and fruit mustards, and everyone invited was asked to bring a bottle of wine they liked or always wanted to try or thought we just had to try. The tradition started back in Germany, where naturally almost everyone brought Rieslings…over the last couple of years we have also been able to open Rieslings from Nina’s birth year which has been fun and educational.

These days, the party has evolved to just a wine party. Nina still gives some guidance regarding what folks should contemplate bringing, and it is usually respected. One cool thing is that a number of friends that come are not really into wine, but are willing to explore and try things out. I always love that. The other cool thing is that it gives me an opportunity to see what others consider when they look at wines and try to bring something to a specifically wine party. Here are some of my impressions from this year’s party:

1) Pinot noir seems to be gaining ground like crazy. I’d guess that half the wines that were brought to the party were made from that grape. Pretty much all of them from the US or other New World locations, mainly because we tend to limit money spent to grad student salaries. I enjoyed seeing that not so into wine folks are embracing that grape more and more, yet some of the wines were clearly underwhelming…it’s just hard at that price range.

2) A Portuguese friend of ours brought a bottle of Alvarinho, a white,  called Deu La Deu from the Portuguese sub-region of Monção e Melgaço. Our friend introduced it by saying it was a vinho verde, and she knew we like vinho verde, but that it was a “next level” vinho verde. I was naturally intrigued, given how much I enjoy vinho verde. When I tried it, I was quite impressed: It has all the citrus and refreshment that I love about vinho verde, the sazziness, the fun. But it also has a more serious air about it: It carries more weight, is a bit creamier, a bit more mature, I guess I would say. At 12.5% ABV it is great to drink, and made for a wonderful surprise! More about the wine here.

A next level Vinho Verde

A next level Vinho Verde

3) Our newly found blogger friend Hannah (of Next Stop TBD) and her fiance Mark brought a bottle from a winery visit in California last year: A 2011 Ferrari-Carano Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley. They wanted to retry the wine, because memories of it were a bit hazy, and so we were happy to oblige. You know how I usually see Cabernet Sauvignons with trepidation, but it was a really tasty wine: bold, juicy, chewy, with enough depth. Nina was shocked I liked it, which was probably the other reason I liked it even more. Nothing like surprising your spouse once they think they have you figured out.

4) The amazement that has been Vouvray whites is continuing: Our great tasting buddies and real life friends, coffee roaster Jay and his baking-wine nut wife Sarah brought another bottle: Noel Bourgier 2012 Vouvray, this one retailing for a mere $11! It was just what I described as a winter white in my post about Vouvray a while back: creamy and full, round and enticing. Uncomplicated and quaffable. Go find a Vouvray and let me know what you think!

A nice Vouvray at a bargain price

A nice Vouvray at a bargain price

5) As the highlight of the night, we opened yet another 1987 Vereinigte Hospitien Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese (we have had this wine before, last year we had a Karl Erbes Erdener Treppchen, and we have had Vereinigte Hospitien’s ’87 Erdener Treppchen before). We are now 27 years in, so I begin to worry a bit about how these Spätlesen are going to hold up, especially from a not ideal vintage. I have been telling Nina numerous times that we need to start stocking up on Auslesen and even BAs from that year, if there were even any produced. The cork was moldy on top, but came out seemlessly, and the wine presented itself in fantastic condition: I had gotten the decanter ready, to potentially breathe some life into it, but the tiny sip I tried made me push aside the decanter and go straight for glasses: The wine was firm and structured. There was very bright acidity which held the wine together and led to citrus aromas dominating the wine. The finish was holding up, and so all in all a very solid expression of what an aged Spätlese can taste like. I thought it was very tasty and definitely has a couple more years ahead of it, which I find astonishing….and reason enough to buy a couple more of this when we are in Germany next…

Stunningly fresh

Stunningly fresh

So, when are you throwing your next wine party and encourage friends to bring what they want you to try or share with you?

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2011 Be Bright Pinot Grigio (by Beringer)

Be Bright Pinot Grigio by Beringer

I think I mentioned it before, I am not the biggest fan of the white pinots, be it pinot gris/grigio/Grauburgunder or pinot blanc/bianco/Weissburgunder. Both often fail to impress me when I try the wines by themselves. I think they can be decent food companions in that they can complement certain types of food. For me, one of these foods is risotto. I usually use a pinot grigio or soave or orvieto for the risottos I cook, and the pairing for dinner works.

So, when I decided to make risotto for friends, it seemed natural to give this bottle a try. Nina had picked it up a couple of weeks back when Kroger had marked it down from an astonishing $18 to $8 in a special sale. She bought it to take to a party, but then that never happened, so we figured why not for the risotto dinner. A rather expensive pinot grigio could be nice with the risotto…

When I first saw the bottle I was skeptical. A California pinot grigio made by Beringer. Hmmm. Also, the label is way too fancy for my taste. And then, I saw the back label and it has this ingenuity printed on it:

Be. Bright.

Be sunny. Be Breezy. Be Bright!

This effortless Pinot Grigio keeps things light, with sun-ripened citrus flavors and a crisp, fresh finish. An instant taste of optimism, perfect for setting a carefree mood at any occasion. Serve chilled for total deliciousness.

I can’t tell you how much I dislike this marketing agency kind of talk on labels. This is all gibberish meant to entice the unsure to spend loads of money on this “oh so cool” product. Ugh. An “effortless” pinot grigio? Did you not put any effort into making it, Mr Beringer or whoever runs the shop? An “instant taste of optimism”? How so? From the citrus flavors? Or because you know it can only get better once you tried the wine? This is all just so pathetic …

Well, we tried the wine and here is what I think. It was light in color. The nose was dominated by very prominent bosc pear aromas, which made it hard for me to detect other aromas. On the palate, pear dominated again with some hints of peach coming in later. I did not get any of the claimed citrus flavors that could actually have helped this wine a lot. The finish was short, which is okay for a pinot grigio. However, there were also slight bitter notes which I did not fancy.

All in all, I guess this is an okay wine. It just did not do much for me, because it felt too heavy and lacked interesting notes. It also did not pair too well with the risotto I had made, a mushroom-porcini risotto, probably because of the strong pear flavor. However, I always have that risotto with white wine and never really had a problem. I don’t know. I will definitely not go and buy another bottle, it was just not my taste.

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Thoughts on tasting wines at home

About a week ago, I was asked for ideas for blind tastings. As in what motto could work. I had a couple of ideas, and I figured why not share them, and some more general thoughts on tasting wine at home with friends.

I have great memories of tasting wines with friends at our or their home. There is something inherently communicative in wine. First of all, wine is a sensory experience: We look at the wine, then we smell it, and then we taste it. If the bottle has a cork, we even get to hear the “plopp” when it comes out. Second, wine is also an emotional experience. We taste a wine that we picked out, that we have some sort of connection with. That is even true for supermarket wines, because there was some reason in the first place why we bought that bottle. Maybe we have tried the wine before and are curious about how it will taste like now. Maybe it is a first, and we are not quite sure. Maybe it is a vintage that has some importance to us, and maybe we have been at the winery…there are so many emotions connected with opening a bottle. Wine brings all these emotions back to us.

So, we have a sensory experience and we have an emotional experience. I don’t know about you, but moments are usually enhanced by having a friend and loved ones around me because I need to share them. Sometimes it might be nice to have a bottle alone, but I definitely prefer sharing the experience under most circumstances. Besides, I also am curious what my friends think, how they see the experience while at the same time it is also a great way to find out what your friends drink and like.

In order for the tasting to work, I want to make sure that the people sharing the experience care about wine. In my view that is a crucial point. You can have a great evening with friends drinking wine when the wine is not supposed to be the star. But when you are tasting wines, when this is what you want to do with your friends that particular evening, then the ones joining you should be at least interested in wine.

So, apart from that, what am I suggesting?

First I’d narrow the field down a bit by picking a theme for the tasting: It can be grape varietal; or just the color of the grape; it can be a certain vintage; or a region; or even just wines from one specific vineyard that everyone cares about; your favorite summer wine or everyone brings a bottle of a wine they have never heard before….the topics really are endless and depend on your group. If my friends care as passionately as me about Mosel riesling, then we can do just a Mosel riesling tasting. If you don’t quite know, pick a broader topic.

I fell in love with this wine Yutaka brought for a white tasting at our place in July 2011: a 2000 Van Volxem Scharzhofberger…incredible.

My rule of thumb is to have around 6-7 people tasting, and every person is supposed to provide one wine each (you can up that number, too). With that number of people you need about one bottle per wine tasted and have some marginal leftovers. Also, I think 6-7 wines is a good number to start with…

After that, you have to make a decision on whether you want to do a blind tasting or an open tasting. In a blind tasting, everyone brings the bottle without disclosing what it is. Someone (usually the host or someone with some wine experience) should be designated to bring the wines in a tasting order (dry to sweet, light to heavy). That takes some experience, so don’t shy away from stepping up if you are the one with the most experience or relinquishing that position if you don’t feel up for it. The wine is then served covered (in a brown bag for example) and sampled without knowing what it is.

In my experience, a blind tasting is fun if people are willing and ready to share their thoughts on the wines without being afraid or hesitant, without fearing they might say something wrong (which is usually the case once everybody knows each other, feels comfortable with everyone). We did a lot of these blind tastings with my friends ManSoo and Yutaka, and what I learned from them is this: Nothing is wrong in the description of wine. If it tastes like soapy water or sweaty socks to you, then it does. So don’t be afraid to say it as you taste it. Nothing is wrong. But the exchange of ideas on what we smell or taste can help all of us identify traits in the wine that we otherwise might not have noticed.

For starters, especially if the group has not done a tasting together before, I suggest doing an open tasting. Everyone brings a bottle, as I said, and then you group them in the same way as for the blind tasting (light to heavy, dry to sweet). I suggest having everyone introduce the wines they brought before you try them. Let us know the story behind the wine, why did you bring it, what made you choose it, are there memories or anecdotes connected to it? I always want to know these stories…

Between wines, it is good to clean your palate with bread or water. I find bread the better cleaner, but that might just be me. If you’re not going for drunk, you might also hydrate once in a while…

One thing that we have begun to incorporate, is to provide everyone with tasting sheets by De Long Wine Discoveries, which are a great way to get you focused on what you have in the glass. It is by no means necessary, but definitely has helped me quite a bit.

As the evening progresses, the talk leads from wine to other subjects, and as the wines keep flowing the conversation flows, too. Don’t focus too much on the wines, but let them have their place at your table, like friends or acquaintances that came to the party. I suggest taking some notes, it always helps me to remember afterwards. But it is just as fine to free-float. The main thing is enjoying the company and the moment. As pretty much always.

I also suggest starting with some food before the tasting, a pasta dish or just a cheese platter or something. It is better to have something in your stomach before you start.

We’re having a tasting with a group of friends tonight. I’ll let you know how it went…

PS: As the host, you want to make sure to have some back up bottles ready (something sparkling or desserty), to serve before the tasting or after, in case there is some need…which there often is.

The line up at a red wine tasting in January 2011 (started with a sparkling wine, finished with a port)

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