Are you looking for that perfect bottle for a romantic evening? Or maybe you’re hosting a dinner party and need some guidance on what to buy? Or maybe you’d like to expand your wine palette and are looking for expert advice? At Beverage SuperStore we have you covered. Our staff is up to date on the latest trends, and our selection is the best around.
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Wine has been a source of pleasure to mankind since the beginning of civilization. No one knows who made the first wines or enjoyed their effects, but wines are woven through the tapestry of human history like few other products. Few regions of the world remain untouched by its many virtues.
Wine has played many roles. It is used in religious ceremonies. It is used as medicine, an antiseptic and a water purifier. It can transform meals into feasts. Wine can comfort and give you courage. What is wine? Simply put, wine is the naturally fermented juice of fresh fruit or berries. Wine is primarily an agricultural product. With little assistance from humans, nature converts grapes by a chemical process, into an alcoholic beverage. Using a few skilled techniques, wines of immense variety are bottled and transported around the world.
Today, we know more about wines than ever before. We have learned how to cultivate the highest quality grapes to produce the finest wines, and how to pair them with foods to show both at their very best. Over time, we have learned or perhaps rediscovered, wine as a principle source of nourishment and the benefits it can bring when consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet. In enjoying wine, we connect with history and with those before us who have participated in one of mankind’s earliest and simplest pleasures. Educating ourselves about wine and its proper use can only help us to enjoy it to the fullest, and to make it part of a gracious way of life.
Different Wine Grape Varieties
Most wine is grape wine. The wine grape variety numbers in the thousands, but there is one simple fact that all wine experts agree upon: grape variety (or blend of varieties), is, by far, the most influential factor determining the flavor and character of a wine. It is important to understand the characteristics of the grapes. Wine characteristics vary greatly depending on the grape. Although Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel are all red grapes, individually their personalities are quite diverse. Even when grown in different appellations and vinified using different techniques, a varietal wine always displays certain qualities, which are inherent in the grape’s personality. Muscat is probably the only grape that produces wine with the aroma of the grape itself. Sweet Muscats should always be spicy with flavors of raisins and oranges. Sauvignon Blanc a touch herbal. Sharp, tangy, gooseberry is the predominant flavor with undertones of grass, nettles, elderflower and asparagus. Zinfandel is zesty, with pepper and raspberry flavor. Cabernet Sauvignon is marked by plum, currant and black cherry flavors and with a hint of mint and cedar. Understanding what a grape should be as a wine is fundamental, and knowing what a grape can achieve at its greatest is the real meaning of fine-wine appreciation.
Here are a few descriptions of the most well known and widely produced grape varieties.
Chardonnay was introduced to California in the 1930s but didn’t become popular until the 1970s. Areas such as Carneros, Monterey, Russian River, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria Valley, all closer to cooler maritime influences, are now producing wines far superior to those made a decade ago.
Though there is a Maconnais village called Chardonnay, no one agrees on the grape’s origin–it may even be Middle Eastern.
Chardonnay takes oak well, and many higher priced Chardonnays are typically fermented and/or aged in oak barrels. When Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, it may pick up vanilla overtones in its aromas and flavor. When well made, Chardonnay offers bold, ripe, rich and intense fruit flavors of apple, fig, melon, pear, peach, pineapple, lemon and grapefruit, along with spice, honey, butter, butterscotch and hazelnut flavors.
Winemakers build more complexity into this easy-to-manipulate wine using common vinification techniques: barrel fermentation, sur lie aging during which the wine is left on its natural sediment, and malolactic fermentation which reduces crispness and brings out a rich, buttery taste. This usually shortens the life of the wine as far as aging is concerned. No other white table wine benefits as much from oak aging or barrel fermentation. Chardonnay also ages well in the bottle, though it will not age as long as many red wines.
Because Chardonnay is also an inexhaustible producer that can easily yield 4 to 5 tons of high-quality grapes per acre, it is a cash cow for producers in every country where it’s grown. Many North and South American Chardonnays are very showy, well oaked and pleasing on release, but they fall short of the richness, depth and concentration needed to age. It evolves rather quickly, often losing intensity and concentration within a year or two. Many vintners who recognize this flaw, are now sharply reducing crop yields, holding tonnage down to 2 to 3 tons per acre to achieve greater concentration. The disadvantage to this approach is that the smaller crop will lead to significantly less wine to sell, resulting in higher prices as well.
It can yield a pleasant enough wine, with subtle melon, peach, spice and citrus notes. The great Loire whites vary from dry and fresh to sweet, depending on the vintage and the producer. The lively fruit and mouth-watering acidity make this the perfect oyster wine .
Riesling is considered on of the ‘noble’ grape varieties for wine making. It is best known for producing the wines of Germany’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Pfalz, Rheinhessen and Rheingau wines, but it also achieves brilliance in Alsace and Austria.
Riesling has the ability to produce wines that range from bone dry to very sweet but are usually made in medium dry to semi-sweet styles. Its high acidity and distinctive floral, citrus, peach, honeysuckle and mineral accents have won dry Riesling many fans. The wines from Germany’s Mosel region are perhaps the most genuine expression of the grape, offering lime, pie crust, apple, slate and honeysuckle characteristics on a light-bodied and racy frame.
In other regions, Riesling struggles to maintain its share of vineyard plantings, but it can be found (often under synonyms such as White Riesling, Rhine Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling) in California, Oregon, Washington, New York’s Finger Lakes region, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Riesling deserves another try. Look for the resurgence of this fine varietal, especially out of Canada.
Sauvignon Blanc has been used for many years in France. In the United States, Robert Mondavi rescued the varietal in the 1970s by labeling it Fume Blanc, and he and others have enjoyed success with it. The key to success seems to be in taming its overt varietal intensity, which at its extreme leads to pungent grassy, vegetal and herbaceous flavors. A popular alternative to Chardonnay, it rarely sees the barrel fermentation, sur lie aging and malolactic fermentation. It is also a popular wine to produce because it is an exceptional producer and a highly lucrative wine to make.
It can be crisp and refreshing, matches well with all types of foods. It costs less to produce and grow than Chardonnay and it sells for less too. It also gets less respect from vintners than perhaps it should. Its popularity rises then diminishes, at times appearing to challenge Chardonnay and at other times appearing to be a cash-flow afterthought. Even at its very best, it does not achieve the richness, depth or complexity Chardonnay does and in the end that may be the essential difference.
It is usually best drunk young, as it does not particularly benefit from ageing. The one exception is sweet white Bordeaux, typically made with Sauvignon Blanc as a major component.
Semillon is relatively disease resistant, however it is susceptible to Botrytis cinerea (bunch rot). Botrytis infects the grape during autumn causing it to shrivel and dry up. By harvest time the juice is extremely concentrated and honey sweet.
Australia’s Hunter Valley uses it alone to make a full-bodied white that has so far produced its greatest expression. In South Africa it was once so prevalent that it was just called “wine grape,” but it has declined drastically in importance there.
In the United States, Semillon enjoys only humble success as a varietal wine in California and Washington state, but it continues to become less prevalent. It can make a wonderful late-harvest wine, and those wineries that make it the center of their attention can make well balanced wines with complex fig, pear, tobacco and honey notes. When blended into Sauvignon Blanc, it adds body, flavor and texture and tempers the grassy herbal notes. It can also be found blended with Chardonnay, more to increase the volume of wine than to add anything to the package.
The main appeal of Viognier is its powerful, rich, and complex floral and spicy character like overripe apricots mixed with orange blossoms or acacia. It has a distinctive and sweet aroma, but Viognier is almost exclusively made in a dry style and develops a higher alcohol content than most whites – often from 14 to 15%. It is used in the Condrieu’s rare whites, white Chateauneuf du Pape, and sometimes blended with powerful syrah in the Northern Rhone and Australia. There are a number of California wineries finding success, especially in the Central Coast.
Long thought to be an ancient variety, recent genetic studies at U.C. Davis have determined that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually the hybrid offspring of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.This sometimes causes confusion for the beginner. In the US, people refer to a wine as a Cabernet or a Pinot Noir, since Cabernet Sauvignon is the variety of grape, or varietal. InEurope, wine drinkers refer to a nice Bordeaux, meaning a wine which is usually composed mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, but is grown in the region called Bordeaux.
The berries of Cabernet Sauvignon are small, spherical with black, thick and very tough skin. They are fairly resistant to disease and spoilage and able to withstand some autumn rains with little damage. It ripens in mid to late season. These growth traits, along with its flavor appeal help to make Cabernet Sauvignon one of the most popular red wine varieties worldwide.
Found almost everywhere in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon is just as likely to be bottled on its own as it is blended. But because Cabernet Sauvignon is fairly tannic, the wine is often blended with other grapes; usually Merlot – being less tannic – is considered an ideal partner. At its best, unblended Cabernet produces wines of great intensity and depth and range of flavors. Its classic profile is made up of currant, plum, black cherry, cigars, green peppers, chocolate and spice. It can also be marked by herb, olive, mint, tobacco, cedar and anise. It takes well to oak barrel ageing, lending a frame of vanilla and a wisp of smoke to its own tastes. The best Cabernets start out dark purple-ruby in color, with firm acidity, a full body, great intensity, concentrated flavors and firm tannins.
Cabernet Franc is being used in the U.S. to make some very interesting wines, increasingly popular as both a stand-alone varietal and blending grape. In Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc is used traditionally for blending, although it can rise to great heights in quality, as seen in the grand wine Cheval-Blanc. In France’s Loire Valley it’s also made into a lighter wine called Chinon. California has grown it for over 30 years, and Argentina, Long Island, Washington state and New Zealand are picking it up.
As a varietal wine, it usually benefits from small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and can be as intense and full-bodied as either of those wines. But it often drifts away from currant and berry notes into stalky green flavors that become more pronounced with age. Given its newness in the United States, Cabernet Franc may just need time to get more attention and rise in quality. Depending a great deal on vineyard practices, the flavor profile of Cabernet Franc may be both fruitier and sometimes more herbal or vegetative than Cabernet Sauvignon, although lighter in both color and tannins.
Just like Cabernet, there is an advantage to blending Merlot. Cabernet can give it backbone, color and tannic strength. It also marries well with oak. Merlot is relatively new in California, only dating to the early 1970s, and it is a more temperamental grape to grow, as it sets and ripens unevenly. It is becoming more clear that Washington State has a quality edge with thisgrape.
Several styles of Merlot have become known. One is a Cabernet-style Merlot, which includes a high percentage (up to 25 percent) of Cabernet, comparable currant and cherry flavors and firm tannins. The primary style is less reliant on Cabernet and is softer, more supple, medium-weight, less tannic and features more plum, black cherry and chocolate flavors. A third style is a very light and simple wine stimulating Merlot’s overall growth. Ironically, this also contributed to the decline in Merlot’s popularity following the denigration it recieved at the hands of the movie Sideways protagonist, Miles. The drop off was felt marketwide, but actually led to the overall improvement of Merlot quality, since many acres of marginal fruit were soon replanted to more successful varieties.
Argentina is markedly successful with this varietal. It grows very well in the high altitude vineyards of the Andes. Its style ranges between Cabernet and Merlot. Normally softer and more approachable than Cabernet, but brighter and more crisp than Merlot, it also presents an arid, smokey/gamey taste that fits like a pair of well-worn jeans. Don’t think it’s limited to the everyday category, as producers like Nicolas Catena make a tiny amount of reserves that rival the best of Bordeaux and Napa Valley.
In fact, Pinot Noir is the most fussy of all grapes to grow. It responds strongly to environmental changes such as heat and cold spells, and is notoriously difficult to work with once picked, since its skins are thin and easily bruised and broken, allowing the juice the freely flow. The vine itself is very slow to mature with low yields and early-ripening fruit. Even after fermentation, Pinot Noir can hide its weaknesses and strengths, making it a most difficult wine to evaluate out of barrel. In the bottle, too, it is often changes color, showing poorly one day, brilliantly the next.
There are many different clones grown, developed to suit the different climatic and soil conditions as the variety generally benefits from a cool climate rather than a hot, dry one. Today there is also a greater understanding and appreciation for varying approaches to Pinot Noir wine, even if there is less agreement about those styles–should it be rich, concentrated and loaded with flavor, or a wine of elegance, finesse and delicacy? Or can it, as in the traditional Pinot Noir, be both? Even varietal character remains under discussion. Pinot Noir can certainly be tannic, especially when it is fermented with some of its stems, a practice that many vintners around the world believe contributes to the wine’s backbone and prolonged existence. Pinot Noir can also be long-lived, but predicting with any accuracy which wines or vintages will age is often the decisive test in forecasting.
It is also of great importance in the Champagne region of North Eastern France where it is pressed immediately after picking in order to yield white juice and blended with Chardonnay to produce the famous sparkling wine of the region. In California, it excelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is on the brink of further progress as growers find well-suited vineyards in such diverse AVA’s as Russian River, Monterey, Carneros, and Sonoma Coast. Propelled into a period of double digit growth in 2004 from Sideways, the movie, California and Oregon have certainly benifitted and are producing world-class Pinot Noir, as is the tiny region of Central Otago, New Zealand.
It is a bit surprising that Sangiovese wasn’t more accepted in California given the strong role Italian settlers played in the state’s winemaking heritage, but now the grape appears to have a bright future in the state, both as a stand-alone varietal wine and for use in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and maybe even Zinfandel. Expect sweeping stylistic changes as winemakers learn more about how the grape performs in different locales as well as how it marries with different grapes. It is definitely worth watching.
The word ‘Tempanillo’ in Spanish quite literally means “early”. But don’t be fooled. This black grape still has enough time on the vine to produce deeply colored purple and intense wines. Tempanillo is Spain ‘s major contribution to red wine. It is indigenous to the country and is seldom grown anywhere else. It is the principal grape in the red wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, which are two of Spain’s most important wine regions.
In Rioja, Tempranillo it is often blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo and a few other minor grapes. When made in a traditional style, Tempranillo can be garnet-hued, with flavors of tea, brown sugar and vanilla. When made in a more modern style, it can display aromas and flavors of strawberries, blackberries, red and black stone fruit like plums and prunes, minerals, licorice, tobacco and leather with velvety spice accents and hints of vanilla and chocolate. An easy drinking wine! Riojas tend to be medium-bodied wines, offering more acidity than tannin. In Ribera del Duero, wines are also divided along traditional and modern styles, and show similarities to Rioja. The more modern styled Riberas, however, can be quite powerful, offering a density and tannic structure similar to that of Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo is known throughout Spain under different names such as Cencibel, Tinto del Pais, Tinto Fino, Ull de Llebre and Ojo.
In Spain, it is especially noteworthy in Priorato, Ribero del Duero, and Campo de Borja. It is believed to be the genetic equal to the Cannonau di Sardinia – recently touted by Dr. Oz and others to be the most beneficial grape to your health. Grenache used to be popular in Australia, but has now been surpassed by Syrah; a few vineyards in the Barossa Valley in southern Australia as well as California are making wines similar to Chateauneuf-du-Pape with Syrah and Mourvedre – GSM. It may make a comeback as a single varietal as devotees of the Rhone seek out small, older vineyards in cooler areas.
Just to make things more confusing, in France, growers refer to different variants of Syrah as Petite and Grosse, which has to do with the yield of the vines.
In the United States., Syrah’s rise in quality is remarkable. It appears to have the early-drinking appeal of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel and few of the peculiarities of Merlot, and may well prove must less difficult to grow and vinify than any other red wines aside from Cabernet.
If you happen to come across a bottle of Petite Sirah, it is not related to the Syrah/Shiraz grape at all. See our description for Petite Sirah.
It was a popular variety with home winemakers during the American prohibition era because its thick skins allowed the grapes to ship without damage. It later (late 1970’s and early 1980’s) became popular for the wines produced from it with forward fruit flavors and spicy overtones. Zinfandel declined in popularity in the mid 1980’s and became unprofitable to grow until “White Zinfandel” was introduced. White Zinfandel is a blush-colored, slightly sweet wine that became a cash cow [and rescued many a struggling winery] due to it’s inexpensive production and rapid vine-to-table journey.
Real Zinfandel, the red wine, is the quintessential California wine. It’s easy-going and flexible with abundant charm. It has been used for blending with other grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. It has been made in a claret style, with berry and spicy flavors, mild tannins and pretty oak shadings. It has been made into a full-bodied, ultra-ripe, intensely flavored, lively, complex and age worthy wine. Sometimes it is made into late-harvest and Port-style wines that feature very ripe, raisin-like flavors, alcohol above 15 percent and chewy tannins.
Zinfandel’s popularity among consumers fluctuates. In the 1990s Zinfandel is enjoying a miniature revolution of popularity, as winemakers took renewed interest, focusing on higher-quality vineyards in areas well suited to Zinfandel. Styles emphasizing the grape’s zesty, spicy pepper, raspberry, cherry, wild berry and plum flavors, and its complex range of tar, earth and leather notes. In the 2000s many growers fell back to soft, simple, everyday versions while alsoproducing super premium bottlings from vineyards dating back to 80 to 100 + years of age.Closer attention to viticulture and an appreciation for these older vines, which tend to produce smaller crops of uniformly higher quality, account for better balanced wines.
Its vine is vigorous and productive, ripening in early to mid-October in New York. The suitability of Concord fruit for multiple purposes gives it a large market potential. It is the most important variety for sweet juice, jelly, and preserves, and it is also used in quantity for wine production and fresh market sales. However, the Concord and its hybrids, seldom contain the elevated amount of natural sugar that pure Vinifera varieties contain. Therefore, their juice is always reinforced with added sugar, nearly always thinned with water to balance the acid.The wine made from Concord grapes makes a sweet after dinner dessert wine with a fresh fruit flavor.