March 11, 2015

Wine Club

(Don't worry, I've had this post in draft form for over nine months...just catching up.)

We went to a wine dinner once at the home of one of my husband's coworkers. The meal was nice but the wine was the star. He was really into wine and served us so many different amazing wines. This was someone who actually cellars wine, and has a wine fridge, and had multiple years of pricey Opus One, and even opened some on an impulse later in the evening for us to try. He was so generous and it was a lot of fun. Throughout the dinner he and his brother talked about the wine club they used to be a part of when they lived in Europe. I thought the idea of a wine club sounded like so much fun. What a fun topic to study and the idea of getting together in a room with people who also really enjoy drinking wine to try it and talk about it seemed like a great way to learn. 

So after that evening, I was inspired to start our own wine club. I thought, this is a hobby we can fit into our lives. This is something we can do after Willem goes to bed at night. Anyone  who is around is in our "club," but my sister and brother-in-law and my mom and our friends Meg and Matt are the ones we often taste with. We have wine club at least a few times a year, after dinner. At each wine club, we usually pick the theme for the next one. Sometimes our themes are really broad, like the time pictured above where we just chose Malbec, since we just thought it would be nice to learn more about this varietal. And sometimes we try to be more specific, like when we did Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. The possibilities for themes are endless of course. 

Everybody coming usually procures and brings a bottle that fits the theme. As we tasted, I used to sometimes open up a wine textbook (these exist if you have family who attended culinary school) or Wine for Dummies and read some facts about the variety of wine we were tasting. One thing I learned this way is that Cotes du Rhone means the banks of the Rhone, which is where the grapes that make that wine grow, though anyone who knows any French would have known that. But even though I enjoyed being nerdy in the name of our edification, it's hard to learn anything about wine that sticks just by reading about it. Now we pretty much just focus on tasting itself to provide the wine knowledge. We open them all up, and we choose one to start with and pour everybody a taste. The order might be intentional if we're moving from wines that are lighter to fuller, or just random as it was with the Malbec tasting. We pour everybody a taste and everybody swirls and sniffs and talks about what they smell.
Sometimes we get out the tasting wheel to give us ideas of what to notice in the wine. It goes from general categories of what you might smell in a wine at the center of the wheel, like fruity, woody, spicy, and then outward into more specific descriptors like citrus, berry, and dried fruit, and then to one more level with possibilities like blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, black currant. It can help to pinpoint exactly what you smell in a wine and get you going when you are short on descriptors. Of course, the wheel has just some suggestions and it doesn't include everything, but it's a kind of a dummy's guide to your senses. Some of us need no help at all in this department. My mom is soooo not a wine snob, but she has a ridiculously good sense of smell, so she's always incredibly quick and on target when sticking her nose in a glass. My sister, who went to culinary school and took wine tasting classes, will sometimes get frustrated with how immediately and confidently my mom will state what she "gets" from a wine. Because she's always right on. Or at least once she's named some descriptors, it is really hard to come up with anything else. But I find it helpful. And entertaining. A favorite time was when she sniffed a Sauvignon Blanc (I think) and said, "Stone. Wet stone. Like, right after it rains. With moss on it." Seriously, she said that. And because of it, I still remember the minerally, clean, fresh taste of that wine, even though I can't remember what it's called. 

Which brings me to...we usually keep some sort of notes when we do Wine Club. It's nice to have a record of what you liked and what you've tried. (I thought it would be cool at one point to have a really clear and coherent record of what we've tasted and how much we liked it or not since it can be hard to remember, so at one point I got an iPad app specifically for wine tasting, but it's not great and I find a notebook to still be the best for documenting and referring back to tasting notes.) 
My brother-in-law copied for us the above wine rating system and note-taking form which I think were developed by a couple of NECI professors. We think about these general categories when tasting, taking notes on, and sometimes giving a number rating (my engineer husband always uses number ratings and usually no words in his tasting notes, while my notes look the exact opposite with exclamations like "Blueberry pie!" but rarely include any numbers). The categories are Appearance, Nose, Palate, and Exceptional Qualities. We all are in general agreement that we don't care about appearance, unless a wine looks appalling somehow. And I find I really have nothing to say about the appearance. (Red. Dark red. Ruby red. Opaque red.) Since I don't use numbers in my notes, I just skip that category altogether. Gordie's solution is to just give everything a 2 for appearance so it doesn't mess up his rating system but keeps them all equal unless something stands out. The exceptional qualities category is for if something about the wine really catches you off guard and stands out in a good way. The descriptors on the rubric are a little ridiculous (Elegant, Noble, Distinguished). So that leaves the two categories that matter: smell and taste, or Nose and Palate. It is nice that the chart reminds you that Palate consists of not just taste, but also body (how it feels in your mouth, thin or full, tannic or not), balance, and finish (aftertaste, what you're left with after a sip). It is nice to think of this framework when evaluating wine, even if you can't focus on each category individually.   

Tips for wine tasting:
  • Nice to have a glass for each person for each wine to be able to sip back and forth with them all in front of you, but not necessary.
  • Have a simple snack like plain crackers, and water for everyone. You can wine taste with a meal, but it's easier to just focus on the wine. Trying out pairings is a whole other thing that can be fun. 
  • Pick a theme or a type that you want to learn about.
  • Every person, or every couple, brings a bottle that fits the theme. If you're worried about opening tons of wine and having it leftover, have everybody take a bottle home with them.
  • Be aware that it can be hard to keep track of how much wine you've had if you keep sipping a little of this and a little of that after your initial tasting of each.
Possible Themes:
Cotes du Rhone
Sauvignon Blanc
Napa Valley Cabernet
Napa Valley Chardonnay
White Bourdeaux
Red Bourdeaux
White Burgundy (French Chardonnay)
Italian wines

So, here are the notes from our Malbec tasting some time ago... we did a wide-open Malbec theme. Every one of the five wines we brought was from Mendoza, Argentina, which helped us to learn that a lot of Malbec comes from that region.
My sister using the Vinturi
Acidic, not great: Esencias de la Tierra, 2011
Leather, smoke, dried fruit
"Spring bark" -- my mom
Vinturi opened up taste a lot-- deeper level 
The vinturi is this gadget that feels foolish, because it's one of those things that no one really needs. Yet, it is pretty fascinating how much it opens up the nose on a wine compared to a glass poured straight from the bottle. It aerates the wine as you pour it and really works well. It can be less than elegant, between the gurgling sound as you pour and the little bit of wine that drips out after you've poured through it. So it's helpful to have a glass ready to set it in after using it. But we pulled it out for this wine and it made a big difference. 

Okay: Tiasta Bodega Cruz de Piedra, 2012
Floral, fruity, smoky nose at once, none overpowering the others
Seemed more refined than the first, subtler nose
More complex taste, silkier body

Very nice: La Posta Pizzella Family Vineyard, 2010
Plummy and smoky, the smoke more forward which I liked (I also tend to like leathery and spicy)
Rounder than the Tiasta which was the only keeper up to this point.

My favorite: Mountain Door Bodegas y Vinedos, 2011
A nice gentle, round, barnyardy-ness to it
Barnyardy seems like a weird descriptor and maybe some people wouldn't like it, but I really do. I like Pinot Noirs and Cab Francs that have that kind of earthiness to them, too. 

Gone bad: Reserva Nieto Senetiner, 2010
I wrote intense, musty, and was working my way to the word chemically, and my mom said "witch hazel." We decided this one was "corked"/had turned. This actually does happen occasionally. People talk about wine being "drinkable." This one really wasn't drinkable, which was sad because it may have been pleasant at some point but had gone bad.
So then we sat and sipped some more while we chatted, making a good dent in La Posta and the Mountain Door and going back and forth on which of the two was the winner for each of our tastes, letting the others just sit.

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