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There is one glaring difference between America and the “old world” (those wines of France, Spain, Italy…etc.) with grape growing and that is the heat. In some of our top producing AVAs—American viticultural areas—the grapes bask in the sun’s rays. When this happens more sugars are produced in the grapes by the time of harvest (when they are picked) and that ripeness produces higher alcohol during fermentation. If the winemaker is not careful his end product may become unbalanced and tiresome. The heavy wines have the propensity to exhaust the palate; the alcohol can obliterate and desensitize the receptors on your tongue making it tough to pick out flavors.

“Hot”—a pejorative, bandied around by experts when they experience this kind of wine that is too heavy in alcohol, is generally not associated with “old world” wines.

Lately, people have been inclined to rebuke Robert Parker (the legendary wine critic) for his inclination to favor and award great scores for big (high alcohol) wines. Critics assume that Parker’s influence on winemakers has created a huge demand for this style of wine-making.

Wednesday (4/21) I headed out to the LA Sports Club to attend “California vs. The World”—another informative class created by Wally’s Wineto see just how warm our wines were.

The class was divided into four separate rounds, blind tasting in each; the onus was on the class to see if we could locate the origin of the wine. Our instructor selected the wines carefully to exhibit the nuances of California and battle the stereotypes. Nine were sampled; the first round showcased the Rieslings, second were Chardonnays, then Sangiovese and finally ending with a mystery varietal.

The first round was the most intense, the alcohol in the California Riesling soared, nearly double that of it’s German counterpart. Reinforcing the stereotype. Another surprise came when I tried Malibu Vineyard’s Sangiovese, which was mildly astringent but otherwise possessed a lot of bright fruit. The “old world” Sangiovese was a rosso di Montalcino that left my mouth devoid of moisture, a typical expression of the Italian varietal.

As the rounds continued, my tongue became savvier, quickly sourcing the grapes until the final round; we would have to determine what we were being given. The class was poured a ruby-hued liquid that was burned around the edge (indicative of age). Notes of spice, leather and meat were present on the bouquet—these intense fragrances made the wine more enigmatic. After an anxious bout of guessing the mysterious grape was classified—Mourvedre also dubbed Monastrell in its native Spain. A dark grape with thick skin that is often used as a blending varietal in Rhone or straight like the 100% Mourvedre we were served from Spain.

“California vs. The World” allowed me to try producers and varietals of which I knew little. It was an interesting approach too, allowing all of the attendees to rely strictly on their senses. “Hot” or not, California winemakers can successfully recreate the “old world” varietals while still retaining the higher alcohol and maintaining the balance.

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