Saturday, February 13, 2010

Master Sommelier Seminar - White Burgundy

On Tuesday, I ventured to Chicago for a few hours to taste some white Burgundies with some of the most respected sommeliers in the Midwest.  A professional organization that I am a member of, The Guild of Sommeliers, had organized a series of tasting seminars across the U.S. and one just happened to be a short drive (well, thanks to the snow that day, it was a trainride) away from me.  It was a small fee to register for and I probably would have willingly paid more just for the networking and educational opportunity this provided.

I arrived to the seminar about 2 minutes late thanks to the train supposedly having engine problems and having to stop for nearly 20 minutes.  Luckily, I discovered some of my fellow Wisconsinite sommeliers were on the train, so we all showed up late together.  The three Master Sommeliers that were moderating the seminar (Master Spellman, Master Kruth, and Master Alvarado) greeted us at the door with a handshake and we quickly took our seats at a table covered with glasses filled with a spectrum of gold and yellow liquids.

Immediately, I started sizing them all up.  That one's oldest (it was the most golden in color).  That one is youngest or maybe not even Chardonnay (it was watery-white and almost green in color).  I stuck my nose in one. Hmm, smells like Chablis.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves.  The room was filled with sommeliers from Chicago, California, and Wisconsin; plus a dentist that specialized in root canals who just wanted to know more about wine to better enjoy it. How random, but cool.  When it got to me, I kind of froze and spit out something about being a Certified Sommelier studying for my Advanced and also a wine writer.  No mention of my day job (which I'm sure my Wisconsinite colleagues thought odd) and no mention of my WSET studies. Oh well.  Let's taste.

We had 15 minutes to smell, sip and ponder the seven wines in front of us.  I went through the Court of Master Sommeliers' process of deductive tasting where you jot down notes about everything: color, alcohol, viscosity, acid, brightness, rim variation, concentration, aromas... you get the picture. You then make a few educated guesses about the wine's age, region, and quality level.  I got through five and a half of the wines before they decided to start going through them.

The main thing I was hoping to get out of this seminar was clues about how to identify specific sup-appellations and quality levels.  Sure, I could smell a Chardonnay and tell you that it is Chardonnay and probably that it is Burgundian, but I would be blindly guessing if I told you it was specifically from Chablis or Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet (all villages within the larger 'Burgundy' region).

After the first two, I thought I had it down.  I nailed the vintages and was doing fairly well with the quality levels.  The Masters started talking about various aromas that could clue you into a certain sub-appellation.  Things like "baby-diaper" for Puligny-Montrachet, "hazelnut" for Chassagne-Montrachet, and "baked brie" for Meursault all made perfect sense once they said it.

When we got to the fifth wine, I was stumped.  It didn't even smell like Chardonnay.  It was full of these weird saline/metallic aromas that I had never smelled before.  It ended up being an Aligote which is permitted in certain areas of Burgundy, like Gamay is. I had never had an Aligote before, so that made the trip all worth it right there.  When we got to the wine I had only made it halfway through, I opened my mouth at the wrong time and got volunteered to talk about the observations I made.  I nervously stumbled through my notes and then abruptly stopped where my notes ended.  Luckily, someone was able to pick it up and finish the observation portion.  It came back to me for the conclusion, though.  Not cool.  I had no clue what village it was from at all.  It was the oldest one of the lot, though, so I was able to hone in on the vintage and even got the quality level.  It ended up being a 1998 Bienvenue-Batard Grand Cru. Something else I had never tasted.

Some of the pointers the Masters gave for exams:
  • Don't feel like you need to guess the exact oak type (French vs. American) unless you are positive
  • Don't be afraid to say a wine is "unclean" if it is a little oxidized. 
  • Chardonnay always has some sort of apple aroma - whether it be red apple, baked apple, dried apple, or green apple. 
  • Alcohol doesn't lie, but acid can.  When trying to determine a region or vintage based on the alcohol levels, if the wine tastes 'hot' (high in alcohol), the vintage was either warm or the region is. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wine-ding Around The US #2 - Indiana

Thanks to my husband, I have a new title for my American wine-adventure blogs.  (Though you should have heard some of the rejected titles he through out along with this...maybe I'll save those for a blooper-reel like blog entry)

Chateau Thomas Winery

Indianapolis, IN
Date Visited: 11.21.09
American Viticultural Area (AVA): None, since no grapes grown
Grapes Grown: None - All are imported

Sometimes it is fun to just get in the car and drive.  I had to meet with a friend/colleague for dinner at a restaurant (that sadly is no longer in business - another victim claimed by the recession) in Chicago that I featured in my upcoming book to pick up some wine samples and talk a little business.  After an evening of decadence, the hubby and I decided to mix things up a bit and not stay the night in Chicago as we had initially planned.  Instead, we hopped in the car and just started driving south.

We had talked about exploring Indiana 'just for fun' since it was a short road trip away and because I have distant family ties there.  So as we were driving, I called and arranged for two nights at the Nestle Inn B&B in Indianapolis (thanks iPhone for making that a cinch!) and stopped at a cheapo motel along the way (hey, it was nearly 3am! Told you it was a decadent evening!).  After a night of sleeping off the foie gras, Champagne, and gold-leafed cocoa cubes; we were ready to venture to the Hoosier state.

First stop, Traders Point Creamery - Where there is cheese, there must be wine!  This family-owned & operated creamery is all organic and the cows are truly happy (and adorable). We enjoyed brunch at their cafe, The Loft, where we indulged in the richest mac'n'cheese I've ever had and a salad to help keep things somewhat healthy.  I was planning on having a glass of wine with it all (their well-designed list was comprised solely of organic wines), but the hum of the milkshake mixer was calling me - Best milkshake-EVER.

After we again stuffed ourselves to the brim, we continued our drive toward Indianapolis, which is where I found my winery. Indiana is part of the Ohio River Valley AVA and has over 40 registered wineries.  The one that kept popping up in all the guidebooks and web-searches was Chateau Thomas, a winery smack-dab in the middle of metropolitan Indianapolis owned by a wine-loving OB/GYN.  The winery was founded in 1984, but in 1997 Dr. Thomas moved the winery to its new location - right between a Checkers fast food restaurant and a Holiday Inn Express.  Not the surroundings I expected for an award-winning winery.

The winery is divided into three parts: a HUGE gift shop, a small tasting bar, and a large state-of-the-art winery in back. This was definitely set up to catch tourists. I made my way through the kitschy corkscrews and bedazzled t-shirts to the tasting bar.  I opted for the 'premium' tasting option which allowed me to choose 5 wines from their reserve line.  Chateau Thomas imports all of their grapes from California, Washington, Oregon, and Canada to make their wines, which is a common practice in Indiana.

Thomas' 2003 Reserve Cabernet Franc was the highlight of the tasting. Rich and complex with a finish that outlasted the long, yet delightful, stories told by the woman behind the bar. Their ice wines were also delicious and a nice note to end on.  And while Chateau Thomas' wines exceeded my expectations, I just couldn't bring myself to spend $35 on a bottle of Indiana-made California wine with a really outdated label.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to visit any of the other wineries in Indiana, but we did find an awesome brew-pub that made fantastic beer in-house and some darn-good comfort food.  Next time we make it to the Hoosier state, though, I need to find some local-grown wine.  But for that, it looks like I'll have to venture down to southern Indiana.  And then I might as well cross the border to check out a Kentucky winery or two... more on that to come...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Is all wine vegan? How about gluten-free?

If bottles of wine came with an ingredients list, like all of our other foodstuffs, shouldn't it just read something like "INGREDIENTS: grapes"? These days with ingredients labels as long as term papers, we've been trained to expect that there is more to it. Wine grapes get mixed with a lot of things before they enter the bottle, but just what kind of dietary effects will that have on the wine?

If you are vegan, be on the alert. Oddly enough, not all wines are free from animal products. Many winemakers use isinglass (fish-bladder), gelatin, or egg whites in a clarification process called fining. These ingredients are added to the top of a vat of wine and slowly percolate through the wine, catching suspended particles and foreign bodies. They are then drained off from the bottom and the wine is bottled. There is a good chance that only trace elements of any of these fining agents would be left behind in the wine, but just the fact that it was processed with non-vegan item technically makes it non-vegan. So if you're vegan or are buying a bottle of wine as a gift for a vegan friend, look for "un-fined" wines or wines fined with bentonite (clay).

Now for those with Celiac's Disease, you know beer is off the menu (unless you've found a sorghum beer you like), but what about wine? I had a friend ask me this yesterday and while my instinct was to say "sure, wine is safe!", my previous lesson with thinking all wine was vegan made me think twice. I went through all of the possible winemaking additives and couldn't come up with any way any sort of gluten would make it into the wine. Then I Googled. One site I found claimed that some oak barrels were held together using a putty made from flour. Every barrel I've ever seen fabricated was made with just wood staves and metal rings. No slurry or putty of any sort. More Googling confirmed this. So those that can't have gluten, rejoice! Wine is still safe!