Tag Archives: sommelier

A Horizontal Tasting of Eight 2008 French Pinot Noirs

StefanoIn January I was in Milan and I attended another wine tasting event organized by the local chapter of the Italian Sommelier Association: whenever I can, I participate in these events because they are very well organized and the association often signs up producers or interesting personalities in the wine world, which make these gatherings entertaining and always educational.

This time the event revolved around an international grape variety and a wine that is the bread and butter of fellow wine blogger Jeff, AKA the drunken cyclist: if you know Jeff and follow his excellent and entertaining wine blog (and if you do not, I think you should) you know that I refer to Pinot Noir, a wine/grape variety of which Jeff is definitely an expert. On the contrary, I am no expert of Pinot Noir, although I like good Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, the US and Italy (Alto Adige) and I particularly like the grape variety in the context of a good Champagne or Classic Method sparkling wine such as a good Franciacorta. If Jeff reads this post, he may weigh in and share his thoughts on the subject.

Anyway, the guest of the event was Prof. Moio, an Italian agronomy professor who spent a few years in Burgundy (admittedly the “purest” region in the world for growing Pinot Noir) to research Pinot Noir and particularly its varietal (or primary) aromas and its fermentation and aging (AKA secondary and tertiary) aromas as well as their perception by the human brain from a chemical standpoint. It goes without saying that, considering the area in which it was performed, no research would ever be complete without a fair share of practical testing in the field! 😉

Jokes aside, he presented the findings of his chemical research which, leaving aside some very technical stuff, were pretty interesting. I will pass on just a few points that I found noteworthy (you will notice a few technical wine terms – if in doubt, please check out our Wine Glossary):

  • As you may know, the main part in a grape berry where primary aromas reside is the skin (hence some white wine producers nowadays make their whites undergo a short maceration phase so as to maximize the extraction of terpenes, the molecules that are mainly responsible for the varietal aromas of wine)
  • The research conducted by Prof. Moio isolated four molecules that are present in the skins of Pinot Noir grape berries and are responsible for the main varietal aromas of Pinot Noir: these molecules release scents reminiscent of cherries and red berries
  • The release of the aromatic molecules of wine (a specific type of esters is one of the main carriers of aromas) is faster in wines with lesser structure and conversely slower in more structured wines that have a greater dry extract: this is the chemical reason why Grands Crus (which tend to be more structured and therefore release aromas at a slower pace) tend to have a longer finish than generally less concentrated Appellations Communales
  • The human brain categorizes those molecules that carry one single scent (for instance, pineapple) associating them with a sort of “image” to be able to recognize that same scent on future occasions; however, when different molecules carrying different scents (for instance, pineapple and peach) are present at the same time (as is often the case in wine) then one of two things may happen: either the brain tells the two different scents apart correctly and associates them to the correct “mental images” or it combines the two scents together generating a third and different “mental image” (say, apricot) – according to Prof. Moio, this is why different people who sniff the same glass of wine may have different perceptions of its aromas.

But enough chemistry now, and let’s move on to the best part of the event, that was obviously the wine tasting part! What we did was a horizontal tasting of eight different Pinot Noirs of the 2008 vintage, all of which came from the Cote d’Or (the best area in Burgundy for growing Pinot Noir) and specifically four of them came from Cote de Nuits (the northern part of Cote d’Or) and the other four from Cote de Beaune (the southern part of Cote d’Or).

Clearly, this tasting had no scientific meaning, especially because different winemaking styles (and therefore the secondary and tertiary aromas that derive from the winemakers’ choices) influenced the final bouquets of the wines that we got to sample. However, it was a nice way to introduce us to certain producers and appellations and to show us a sample of Pinot Noirs coming from the two subzones of the best area in France (and admittedly the world) for that kind of wine.

Jumping to the, like I said, non-scientific conclusions of our tasting experience, it was apparent from the limited sample we got to try that, among the eight wines that we tasted, Pinot Noirs made in Cote de Beaune tended to retain more distinctly the varietal aromas of Pinot Noir compared to the wines made in Cote de Nuits where secondary/tertiary aromas of fur tended to be more evident and sometimes to overwhelm the delicate red berry varietal aromas. My personal ratings of the eight wines I tasted that night seem to by and large confirm that conclusion as the Cote de Beaune wines generally fared a little better than the Cote de Nuits ones.

Just for clarity, I am by no means implying that therefore Cote de Beaune Pinot Noirs are better than Cote de Nuits Pinot Noirs (where 24 out of 25 of the Grands Crus can be found): all I am saying is that, among those 8 wines that I tasted, I happened to personally like the Cote de Beaune Pinot Noirs a little better than their Cote de Nuits counterparts (although, as you will see, I liked the Gevrey-Chambertin Pinot Noir of the Cote de Nuits quite a bit).

To finish up this long post, these are my favorite wines among the eight 2008 Pinot Noirs that we tasted (along with their approximate prices in the US):

1. Volnay, Domaine Marquis d’Angerville (Cote de Beaune) ~ $70

By far the best of the eight, at least to me, with aromas of blackcurrant, red berries, cherry, and hints of tobacco and fur. In the mouth it had good structure and it was smooth and tannic, perfectly balanced and with a long finish. Outstanding Outstanding

2. Aloxe-Corton, Domaine Tollot-Beaut “Les Vercots” Premier Cru (Cote de Beaune) ~$50

Nice bouquet of blackcurrant, red berries, licorice, hints of menthol. In the mouth it had good structure and concentration and it was noticeably tannic. Very Good Very Good

3. Gevrey-Chambertin, Domaine Trapet Pere et Fils (Cote de Nuits) ~$55

Nose of blackcurrant, redcurrant, fur, soil, tobacco, violet. Tannic and balanced in the mouth. Very Good Very Good

4. Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Bruno Clair “Les Veroilles” (Cote de Nuits) ~$90

In the nose this wine started very subdued and it took a while for it to open up nicely into a bouquet of blackcurrant, red berries, violet, slight hint of fur. In the mouth it had plenty of structure and concentration, along with tannins that still felt quite aggressive, suggesting that it would be best left aging a while longer. Good Good

5. Chassagne-Montrachet, Domaine Bruno Colin “La Maltroie” Premier Cru (Cote de Beaune) ~$75

The nose of this wine did not convince me completely, as tertiary aromas of oak and tobacco were predominant and tended to overwhelm the primary aromas of red berries. In the mouth, however, it proved to be a solid wine, smooth, tannic and with a long finish. Good Good

I will not mention the remaining three wines we tasted as honestly I was unimpressed and I would not recommend buying them.

Have you had a chance to try any of the Pinot Noirs mentioned above? If you did, what do you think about them?

An Overview of the ISA Wine Pairing Criteria

StefanoAs promised a while ago to Suzanne, the gracious author of food and cooking blog apuginthekitchen, in this post I will briefly go through the core foundations of food-wine pairing, providing an overview of the main criteria conceived and recommended by the Italian Sommelier Association (ISA). This should hopefully offer readers a few guidelines that they may consider trying out the next time they will need to pair a wine with food.

Our discussion about wine pairing will utilize certain of the concepts and terminology that we have gone through in the context of our overview of the ISA wine tasting protocol: if you are not familiar with it, consider reading that post before continuing on with this one.

The first step in the wine pairing process is to assess the food you intend to pair a wine with: in so doing, you should consider (and ideally write down) which of the following characteristics are present to a noticeable extent in your food:

  • Latent sweetness (this is that sweetish feel that you perceive eating such foods as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, carrots, certain seafood such as shrimps or prawns, most ham, bacon, etc. – note, this is NOT the full-blown sweetness of a dessert)
  • Fatness (this refers to the presence of solid greases, such as in most cheeses, salame, hard-boiled egg yolk, etc.)
  • Tastiness (it is given by the presence of salt in a food, such as for instance in most cured meats, salame or cheeses)
  • Latent bitterness (it can be found in such foods as artichokes, raw spinach, radicchio, liver, grilled food, etc.)
  • Latent sourness (it is generally found in tomatoes, seafood marinated in lemon juice, salads with vinegar-based dressings, etc.)
  • Sweetness (typical of a dessert, honey or most fruits)
  • Aftertaste (meaning, whenever the flavor of the food tends to linger in your mouth after swallowing it – for instance, venison meat generally has a longer afterstate than veal meat)
  • Spiciness (this merely indicates the moderate use of spices in the preparation of the food, it does NOT indicate a “hot” food – examples are the use of saffron, curry, pepper, vanilla, etc. in foods like cured meats, risotto, desserts…)
  • Flavor (this indicates a noticeable, distinct flavor that is typical of a certain food or ingredient, such as in the case of blue cheese or goat cheese, salame, foods complemented by herbs, such as pesto sauce or butter and sage ravioli, coffee, cocoa…)
  • Juiciness (there are three types: (i) inherent, which is that of foods that have noticeable quantities of liquids in them, such as a fresh buffalo mozzarella or a meat cut cooked rare; (ii) due to the addition of liquids, such as a beef stew to which some kind of gravy or sauce was added, a brasato, etc.; and (iii) induced, which is that of salty or relatively dry foods, which cause abundant production of saliva in the mouth, such as in the case of a bit of aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese)
  • Greasiness (caused by the presence of oil or other liquefied greases that is still noticeable in the mouth at the end of the preparation of the food, such as in a bruschetta, seafood salad, grilled sausage, etc.)
  • Structure (this depends on the complexity or the extent of elaboration of a food – for instance, a cracker with cheese or a bowl of white rice shall clearly be considered foods with little structure, while a dish of goulash or a Sacher torte shall be considered foods with significant structure)

Now, the core of the wine-food pairing criteria preached by the Italian Sommelier Association is that certain of the aforesaid qualities of a food (to the extent of course they are detectable to a noticeable extent in the food you want to identify a good wine pairing for) shall be paired by contrast with certain qualities of a wine (see below), while certain others of such food qualities shall instead be paired by association with the corresponding qualities in a wine.

Having said that, let’s now move on the second step and see specifically which qualities in a wine relate to the food qualities that we have listed above and how:

Food Quality   Wine Quality
(A) Pairings by Contrast
Latent sweetness ==> Acidity
     
Fatness ==> Effervescence or Minerality
     
Tastiness    
Latent bitterness ==> Smoothness
Latent sourness    
     
Juiciness / Greasiness ==> ABV or Tannicity (by contrast)
(B) Pairings by Association
Sweetness ==> Sweetness
     
Spiciness / Flavor ==> Intensity of nose/mouth flavor
     
Aftertaste ==> Aftertaste or Finish

Wherever per the above guidelines a food quality presents an alternative in the choice of the related wine quality, structure of the food can often dictate which of the alternative wine qualities should be picked. So, for instance, in the case of the greasiness of a delicate seafood salad whose dressing is olive oil-based, the choice in the related wine quality should fall on a white wine with good ABV over a red wine with noticeable tannins, which would have a structure that would overwhelm the much simpler, more delicate structure of the seafood salad dish.

A few side notes on some “special situations“:

  • Very spicy (as in “hot”) food is very difficult to successfully pair: the best thing one can do is to pick a wine with plenty of smoothness and intensity in an effort to compensate, but if the food is too spicy, it will always overwhelm the wine
  • Particularly sour dishes are another challenge, such as in the case of salads with significant vinegar- or lemon-based dressings
  • Ice cream, gelato and sorbet are also tough pairings, because their cold nature makes taste buds even more susceptible to wine acidity, tannins or minerality – sometimes, the best bet is to pair them with a spirit (such as in the case of Granny Smith apple sorbet with Calvados or lemon sorbet with Vodka)

One last comment: the above guidelines are just that, guidelines that should offer you some pointers as to “which way to go” in your choices of which wines to pair with a certain food, but they are certainly not carved in stone, nor are they not meant to be breached now and then if you think there is good reason for it: ultimately, the bottom line is that whatever wine pairing you choose ends up being a pleasant one for your and your guests’ mouths!

Now have fun and experiment!  🙂

An Overview of the ISA Wine Tasting Protocol

StefanoOne of the key building blocks of the sommelier certification course offered by the Italian Sommelier Association (ISA) is their standardized wine tasting protocol. This is a protocol that has been devised over the years by the association with a view to uniforming wine evaluations and reviews as much as possible among ISA-member sommeliers through the use of a common procedure and a common vocabulary.

A few years ago I went through all of the three levels of the ISA sommelier certification course at the Milan chapter of ISA and I thoroughly enjoyed the great learning experience that such a course offered, so I hope that many of you will find this quick overview of the ISA wine tasting protocol an interesting read. Besides, the main reason why I want to introduce these concepts is that I intend to utilize a simplified version of this evaluation process in wine reviews that I plan on publishing in future posts on this blog.

An ISA-protocol wine tasting is divided into three main phases, as follows:

  • Visual Analysis
  • Scent Analysis
  • Taste-Scent Analysis

Each phase is divided into multiple steps, each of which needs to be addressed by the taster using the ISA standardized vocabulary and the ISA wine tasting sheet. For our purposes, we will not focus on each of the 116 wine tasting terms in the ISA vocabulary or this post would grow out of proportion, but the following overview should anyhow give you a pretty good idea of what the process entails. If you have doubts as to the meanings of certain of the wine terms used below, you may want to refer to our Wine Glossary.

(A) Visual Analysis

  1. Clarity: this is an assessment whether the wine looks clear or instead presents debris or insoluble particles (as it may happen in old wines or unfiltered wines) – standard term for red wines is “clear”, standard for still white wines is “crystal clear” and standard for quality sparkling white wines is “brilliant”
  2. Color: self-explanatory, based on codified color terms for each type of wine (e.g., for white wines: greenish yellow; straw yellow; golden yellow; amber yellow). To properly assess color, one should hold the glass tilted forward (i.e., away from you) at a 45° angle against a white backdrop and assess color by looking in the middle of oval made by the surface of the wine in the glass. After assessing color, one should focus on the top part of the rim made by the wine in the glass (where the wine is shallower) to assess whether there are any perceptible color variations or “hints“: for instance, for a structured red wine with a few years of aging, the color analysis could be “ruby red with garnet hints” or vice versa a red wine that is still fairly young could be “ruby red with purple hints”
  3. Viscosity: this step entails swirling the wine in the glass and observing how fluidly or viscously it rotates and then observing the shape of the “arches” and the velocity of the “tears” that the wine leaves on the inside of the glass – two indicators of the wine’s alcohol by volume (ABV), glycerol content and structure or body (the faster the wine to stop swirling after you stop rotating the glass and the slower the tears to fall, the more ABV/structure the wine will have). Viscosity is only assessed in still wines
  4. Effervescence: as opposed to viscosity, this is a quality that is only assessed in sparkling wines. Here the taster should assess three characteristics of the perlage of the wine: the number of bubbles (the more, the better); the grain of the bubbles (the finer, the better); and the persistence of the bubble chains in the glass (the longer they last, the better)

(B) Scent Analysis

  1. Intensity: here the taster swirls the wine in the glass once again and then smells its bouquet. This first step of this phase assesses how clearly perceptible the wine aromas are in the nose of the taster
  2. Complexity: here the taster should assess how many different aromas he or she can pick up from the wine through successive inhalations: the more perceptible scents, the more complex the bouquet of the wine
  3. Description of the Aromas: here the taster indicates what kind of aromas he/she felt (or thinks that he/she felt!) in the nose, like aromas of flowers, fruit, herbs, spices, animal, soil, tobacco, minerals, etc.
  4. Quality: this is an overall evaluation of the quality of the bouquet of the wine, based on the three previous steps

(C) Taste-Scent Analysis

This phase of the ISA wine tasting protocol requires a premise: this is (finally!) the moment when the taster gets to actually taste the wine in his/her mouth.

Before getting to evaluating its quality, the taster classifies the wine in light of its essential characteristics, which are divided into two macro-categories called “softness” and “hardness“. The former category comprises sweetness, alcohol by volume and smoothness, while the latter encompasses acidity, tannins and tastiness (see more about these terms below). This analysis is important because, depending on its outcome, the taster will later decide whether the wine is balanced or not. But let’s now get to the various steps of this phase:

(i) Softness:

  1. Sweetness: here the taster classifies the wine based on its residual sugar level: dry, off-dry, medium-dry, sweet…
  2. Alcohol: here the wine is classified based on the perception in the mouth of its ABV: a wine for which a high ABV is clearly perceptible (but not disturbing) is called “warm” because of the feeling of apparent “heat” that alcohol conveys in the mouth
  3. Smoothness: this quality of the wine is that sense of “roundness” or “silkiness” in the mouth that is generally more common to red wines than whites, although there are exceptions. It is mainly given by the glycerol levels present in the wine, as a result of the alcoholic fermentation process or the action of Bortytis Cinerea in botrytized wines

(ii) Hardness:

  1. Acidity: here the wine gets classified based on the extent of perceptible acids present in the wine. A wine with crisp acidity is called “fresh”. Good acidity levels are generally desirable in white wines and particularly so in Brut sparkling wines. One of the key indicators of a wine with good acidity is increased salivation in the mouth
  2. Tannicity: this assessment is made only for red wines, because white wines have negligible amounts of tannins (because the white winemaking process lacks the maceration phase that in the red winemaking process permits the extraction of tannins). Depending on the grape variety/ies that are used to make a wine, this will be more or less tannic
  3. Sapidity: here the taster assesses the minerality of the wine, that is the extent to which mineral compounds are clearly discernible in the mouth, in the form of a vaguely salty taste

(iii) Structure:

Body: this is an assessment of the structure or body of the wine, which is given by its dry extract and alcohol by volume: wines with a higher dry extract and ABV are called full-bodied

(iv) Assessment:

  1. Balance: this is a very important call that the taster is required to make in light of the aforesaid classifications. Generally, a wine is deemed balanced when its “softness” and “hardness” components balance each other out, but this is not a rule that is carved in stone and there are important exceptions. For instance, when tasting a white wine, it is commonly considered desirable that its “hardness” side have an edge over its “softness” side, while the opposite is often the case for structured red wines
  2. Intensity: as in the Scent Analysis phase, this is an assessment of how clearly perceptible the flavors of the wine are in the mouth of the taster
  3. Persistence or Finish: here the taster is called to classify the wine based on how long its flavors linger in his/her mouth after having swallowed a sip of wine. The finish is deemed long if the wine flavors are still perceptible after 7-10 seconds of swallowing
  4. Quality: here the taster assesses the quality of the wine flavors that he/she felt in the mouth: a quality judgment of “fine” implies that the flavors are (or include those) typical for the grape variety/ies of the wine and are pleasant in the mouth
  5. Evolutionary State orLife Cycle: here the taster classifies the wine based on its aging potential. A wine that is classified as “ready” means that it can be pleasantly drunk today but it would benefit from a few years of additional aging in order to achieve its full potential. By contrast, a wine is deemed “mature” when it is already deemed at its top and additional aging would make its quality degrade
  6. Harmony: this is the final, overall judgment about a wine, that is defined as a coherent synthesis of the three phases of the ISA wine tasting protocol resulting in a outstanding quality level. A wine that did well but not outstanding would be deemed “not quite harmonious”.

One final word regarding the recommended type of glass to perform a wine tasting exercise: it needs to be made of clear glass (ideally, a crystal glass), it needs to have a stem (that’s how one is supposed to hold the glass, by the stem), and it needs to have a bowl that is larger at the bottom (to allow wine to deposit when the color analysis is performed and to permit smooth swirls in the assessments of fluidity and bouquet) and smaller at the top (to concentrate aromas in the nose, thus facilitating bouquet assessment).

This is all: I hope you enjoyed this overview – stay tuned for a few wine reviews to come!

Flora's Table Wine Glossary!

We are pretty excited to announce that one of our major projects is now online: an extensive wine glossary accessible through a newly added menu option!

A lot of work and energy went into compiling that resource, with a view to offering our readers a wine glossary that is as comprehensive as possible, with over 110 wine-related terms defined. This glossary is not intended to encompass each conceivable “wine word” nor is it meant to provide an exhaustive explanation of each defined term, but hopefully you will find it useful to get a grasp of the most important or common wine terminology and a whole bunch of French and Italian wine words or, if you are a wine expert already, to test your knowledge!

This glossary is based in the first place on the one and half years of study and hands-on experience that I immensely enjoyed going through to complete the entire sommelier certification course offered by the Milan chapter of the Italian Sommelier Association: we studied a lot, we learned a lot and… we drank (er… actually tasted!) a lot, making good friends in the process and meeting some remarkable people, among whom I would like to acknowledge the man who I think was the best teacher in the entire course, knowledgeable and entertaining Guido Invernizzi. Beside what I learned during the ISA course, this glossary also relies on extensive personal research and experience.

Please check it out and let us know what you think about it: given the effort that we put into it, it would mean a lot to us. Clearly, any comments are welcome, as are any suggestions, requests that a specific term be added or corrections of any inaccuracy. Oh, and by the way, you are welcome to link to our wine glossary page, but please refrain from copying or utilizing our work without first asking for our consent. Thank you!

Asparagus Baked Pasta: Recommended Wine Pairing – by Stefano

I say bubbles! Pair the asparagus baked pasta with a dry sparkling wine with good acidity and intensity, such as a fine Italian spumante Methode Champenoise, like a Berlucchi Franciacorta Brut ’61 DOCG (90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir; 18 months of aging on the yeast) or the simply delightful, although more expensive, Berlucchi Cellarius Brut DOCG (70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir; 30 months of aging on the yeast).

Other excellent alternatives are a Ferghettina Franciacorta Brut DOCG (95% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Noir; 24 months of aging on the yeast) or the magnificent and more expensive Ferghettina Franciacorta Pas Dosé Riserva 33 DOCG (100% Chardonnay; 80 months of aging on the yeast) or finally a Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Brut Cuvée Prestige DOCG (75% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Blanc; 28 months of aging on the yeast), just to name a few with a very good quality/price ratio, most of which can be found in the United States.

A few bits of “technical” information, if you are into wine: (1) “spumante” (pronounced “spoomantay”) is the Italian name for sparkling wine; (2) “Methode Champenoise” (AKA “Classic Method”) are French words indicating that a certain sparkling wine which is not Champagne has been produced using the same process as the king of all sparkling wines (i.e., Champagne); (3) Franciacorta is a region in the surroundings of the Italian city of Brescia, Lombardia, where the Italian Classic Method spumante that is probably most sought-after by wine connoisseurs is produced.

If you prefer to go USA, you may want to give a good New Mexico (yes, New Mexico!) Methode Champenoise sparkling wine a try: pick up a bottle of Gruet Blanc de Noirs (90 points, Wine Spectator) and enjoy its structure! Oh, in case you were wondering, Blanc de Noirs means a white sparkling wine that comes mostly, or exclusively, from the black grapes that are used to make Champagne or Classic Method sparkling wines (essentially, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier). This is the opposite of a Blanc de Blancs which, as in the case of the Ferghettina Franciacorta Pas Dosé Riserva 33 DOCG, is a white sparkling wine that comes mostly, or exclusively, from the white grapes that are used to make Champagne or Classic Method sparkling wines (essentially, Chardonnay).

If you really insist on pairing a red wine instead, an option would be to carefully pick a good quality bottle of sparkling dry Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna, such as a Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Enrico Cialdini DOC or a Cavicchioli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Col Sassoso DOC and enjoy them at about 14-16° C / 57-61° F.

If anyone wishes to share their views on any of the above wines or on any other wine they think would go well with a dish like the asparagus baked pasta, just leave a comment and let us all know.

Salute!  🙂