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Wineries of El Dorado County

QUICK WINE TASTING COURSE

What's the point in tasting wine? This is a reasonable question, if wine evokes for you the image of a wine snob, pinky extended, mouthing fancy talk. Certainly no similar mystique surrounds Pepsi-Cola, iced tea or milk. But wine is different.

It's the only beverage I know that appeals to the senses and the intellect.

If you take the time to look for it, every glass contains a lesson in history, geography, agriculture, botany; sometimes anthropology, religion, psychology and more. There's no reason to be snobbish about wine, and none to fear it. But it's well worth talking about and sharing with friends. Avoid taking wine too seriously. This stuff is supposed to be fun. You don't have to pass a test to enjoy it, and you needn't learn a new language.

The idea behind wine tasting is as simple as this: Slow down. Relax and take the time to think about what you're drinking and to enjoy it with all your senses. (Well, all except hearing. Nobody listens to wine.)

Examine its color. Is it clear or hazy, transparent or opaque?
Take a deep sniff. Does it smell like fruit? Flowers? Road tar or sweat sox?
Got it? Take a drink. Take two. Swish it around your mouth, sensing not only its taste but its texture and weight. Don't worry about looks; you're enjoying yourself.
Put it all together in your head. Think about where it came from. Sip again and enjoy. You won't get all this out of a Pepsi!

Getting Your Nose Into Wine.

Wine doesn't have eyes, ears or teeth, but some say it has a "nose."

I won't say the term is snobbish, but I'd feel uneasy about standing around, glass in hand, chatting about a wine's nose. This one's aquiline, that one's pug, the one over there's had an operation?

For that matter, I'm not too comfortable with the distinction some tasters make between a wine's "aroma," referring to the natural smell it takes from the fruit, and its "bouquet," the complex overtones it may develop with age in the bottle.

Three terms to refer to one sense? It reminds me of the Eskimos, who reportedly have scores of words to define subtleties in snow, from snowball-packing quality to bricks for igloos.

 

So let's strike a blow for clarity in wine language by agreeing to use plain English here. I'll talk about how a wine "smells," and if I feel the need for synonyms, I might refer to its

aroma or scent. I'll warn you if I find one that stinks. One thing makes common scents: Smell is important to the wine taster. Much of what we think is taste really comes through our noses. If you don't believe it, try to enjoy a wine -- or a meal --the next time you have a bad head cold.

When it comes to smelling, we take a distant second place to dogs and cats. Still, we humans can train our sense of smell, and you don't have to be an expert wine taster to learn to sniff out the differences among wines.


The aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon and the closely related Merlot grape, for example, often reminds me of cedar wood and pine needles mingled with a good fruit smell reminiscent of currants.

Some add hints that wine tasters call "vegetal:" green olives, green peppers, tobacco leaves or grass.


Aging the wine in oak may add touches of vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and almonds. Extended bottle aging may lend a toasty quality and impart earthy scents as variable as mushrooms, old leather, roses and wildflowers.

Other grapes have their own trademark aromas: Zinfandel often evokes berries. Pinot Noir, the fine grape of Burgundy, may recall violets and spice. The pungently floral quality of freshly ground black pepper signals Syrah, the French Rhone grape.

Among whites, Chardonnay recalls crisp, ripe apples and may add notes of butter, coconut, figs and other tropical fruits, particularly if it's aged in oak.

Riesling, the queen of German grapes, may evoke apples, too, and sometimes citrus fruit, canteloupe and pine.


Sauvignon Blanc often shows a grassy smell and sometimes grapefruit. Chenin Blanc reminds me of melons and, occasionally, orange blossoms. A smell of peaches identifies Muscat and Gewurztraminer; the latter may add elusive spice.

Taste: More Than Just Swallowing

"Taste" doesn't mean only what we sense with our mouths.

The words also describes the quality of critical discernment, judgment and appreciation that separates most of us from animals at a trough.

We taste the joy of victory and the bitterness of defeat. We savor life and we sample the flavor of an experience.


Scientists tell us that our taste buds can discern only four basic flavors: Sweet, sour, bitter and salty.

What we think of as taste, however, is a much more complex sensory experience that combines what our taste buds tell us with the senses of smell and touch.

Yes, I said touch. The feel of the wine in your mouth, its sense of lightness or weight, a quality that may range from watery-thin to viscous and oily is very much a part of the experience of tasting wine.


Sourness is a fault in wine if it reeks of vinegar, the sign of a spoiled beverage (fortunately, you'll rarely find it nowadays). In the form of crisp, sharp acidity, however, a sour sensation is a desirable trait, offering a brisk, acidic taste that's as amiable a companion to fish as a squirt of fresh lemon. A wine with too little acid, on the other hand, may seem mellow at first, but it's bland and uninspiring, lacking the verve to stand up to food.

Sour and sweet tastes are mixed in many California Chardonnays, which at their best are crisp, almost dry, with just enough fresh-fruit sweetness to soften the cutting acidic edge.


Finally, sweet dominates the sour in "late harvest" and other dessert- type wines, in which a penetrating sweetness identifies the style, but the sugar is balanced against sharp acid that keeps the wine from cloying.

Wine Vocabulary - All Those Funny Words.

A friendly copy editor came by the other day, as copy editors sometimes do, with a logical question that wasn't easy to answer.

"I don't know that much about wine," she said. "But I have a little trouble relating to something that you say tastes like 'old leather' or 'melting road tar' -- and you seem to like it."
She's got a point.

One of the most challenging things about judging wine -- and telling other people about it -- is that so much of its appeal is to our senses of smell and taste.
Since we humans don't use smell or taste nearly as much, or as effectively, as we do sight, hearing and even touch, we lack a well-defined, precise vocabulary to describe aromas and flavors in terms that mean the same thing to everyone.

It isn't easy to do that accurately, vividly and effectively without drifting into intolerable vagueness, dropping into incomprehensible jargon or using the kind of precious language that makes people think you're a wine snob.

Furthermore, a lot of the terms that most accurately describe frequently occurring scents in wine are not words that we usually associate with edible things. Oak, cedar and pine, for instance. Moss, leaves and grass. Yes, even tar and leather.

(Carrying this to its logical extreme, in 18th century France the aroma of fine Burgundy was more than once likened to raw sewage, to put it relatively delicately. This was intended as a compliment, something that might be difficult to comprehend unless we consider the way the French love strong cheese.)

It's also important to understand that these scents and tastes rarely dominate the wine. Typically they add a small but significant element to a larger pattern, as a colored thread might highlight woven cloth or a French horn's theme add texture to an orchestral chorus.

In other words, the hints of chocolate and coffee in some California red wines and the nuances of coconut, figs and dates in oak-aged Chardonnay don't make the wine taste like a milkshake or fruit salad; they are subtle, often elusive parts of a larger whole.

 

That "tarry" quality in a California Merlot that puzzled my friend, the editor, is not an unpleasant scent to me but one of great nostalgia, evoking memories of youthful hikes along the edge of country roads on hot summer days.

The French even have a name for it -- gout de goudron -- according to Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine, which notes that the smell, "far from disagreeable ... is usually one of the characteristics of a fine red wine made from very ripe grapes."

The smell of old leather comes up often in well-aged red wine. I find it pleasant, too, more like fine old books in leather bindings than well-used shoes.

The scents of wine come from several sources. The fruity smell of young wines comes directly from the grapes, with woody and other organic aromas added if the wine was aged in oak.

Fine, aged wines add the most complex (and sometimes un-winelike) scents, which some wine tasterscall "bouquet," as the result of gradual chemical reactions in the wine. Less pleasant changes inodor and taste occur if the wine is poorly or carelessly made or spoils with excess age.

Just for fun, I scanned back over years of my tasting notes and several good wine books to get anidea of the breadth of vocabulary wine tasters have used.


Emile Peynaud's "Le Gout de Vin" ("The Taste of Wine," quoted in Robert M. Parker Jr.'s "Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence") divided wine aromas into nine principal categories:


Animal odors, smells of game, beef and venison; balsamic odors, smells of pine trees, resin and vanilla; woody odors, smells of new wood of oak barrels; chemical odors, smells of acetone,mercaptan (skunks or natural gas), yeasts, hydrogen sulfide (rotten eggs), lactic and fermentation odor; spicy odors, smells of pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, truffles, anise and mint; empyreumatic (creosotes and oils) odors, smells of creme brulee, smoke, toast, leather and coffee; floral odors, smells of flowers, violets, roses, lilacs, jasmine; fruity odors, smells of blackcurrants, raspberries, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, figs; and vegetal odors, smells of herbs, tea, mushrooms and vegetables.

Other frequently occurring scents include apples (a characteristic of Chardonnay and Riesling grapes); green olives, green peppers, even asparagus (typical of inexpensive red wines from some cool regions); walnuts and pecans (desirable in Sherry, a flaw in wines oxidized with age); vinegar (a breath is common in Beaujolais, more than a breath is a fatal flaw in any wine); andchalk or steel (reminiscent of licking a clean pebble or knife blade, the trademark of French Chablis and some other acidic Chardonnays).

Young wines are usually simple and straightforward, offering uncomplicated smells of grapes and fresh fruit.


It's bottle age that brings about the chemical changes that provide unusual and (one hopes)

delicious nuances that cry out for descriptive terms.

 

Learning to Taste by Closing Our Eyes.

It was Monday morning, and the managing editor approached my desk with a gleam in his eye and what I hope was a smile on his face.

He wasn't waving my Sunday column around, but he might have memorized it.

"I will give you $1,000 if you can really smell and taste all those things you said you found in that wine," he said.

"I hope the check's in the mail," I shot back. "I could use the money."

"Apples and grapes," he harrumphed, ignoring me. "Figs. Coconut. Probably old shoes and wood chips."


About that time his boss strolled by, gave us a look and shook his head.

I think my boss was just kidding. He knows wine himself.


He's got a point, though. The complex aromas and flavors that distinguish fine wine are usually subtle and sometimes almost -- but not quite -- as elusive as the emperor's legendary new clothes.

It's not hard to learn to recognize these subtleties, but it takes practice, which makes perfect in wine appreciation as it does with just about anything else worth appreciating.

Bordeaux wine maker Alexis Lichine once said the best way to learn wine is by opening bottles.

I'd add that the best way to learn wine quickly and well is by frequently tasting wines "blind," judging comparatively without knowing what's in the glasses until you've made your notes and announced your conclusions.

Nothing concentrates the wine taster's attention quite as intensely as having someone waiting to rib you mercilessly if you can't tell a Chardonnay from a Chenin Blanc.


Gaze under such circumstances at two near-identical glasses of golden Chardonnay, and it won't take long to discern the nuances of gold, bronze and brass, apples, chestnuts, figs and yes, even coconut in the wine.

I rate the wines for this column blind for another reason: Even the most objective judge will be influenced to some degree by knowing what's in the glass. When you're comparing a $20 nectar against a $3 jug wine, it's a lot easier to be honest if you don't know which is which.

 

Postgraduate Blind Tasting

So you think it's easy to tell red wine from white?

Try doing it blindfolded sometime.


Some white-wine drinkers who rarely touch red are convinced that the differences between the types are deep and fundamental.

Consider the stereotypes: White wine is light, fruity and refreshing, an anonymous tipple for casual sipping. Red wine is strong, complicated and (although fine for connoisseurs, perhaps) hard to get to know.

Are the stereotypes valid?


Or are the differences overshadowed by the similarities between what are, after all, beverages made from fruit as closely related as red (or blue or purple) and white (or green or golden) grapes?

Prompted by a recent discussion on the subject among several friends communicating with personal computers on the CompuServe Information Service's Wine Forum, I decided to find out by taking the practice of "blind" tasting to its logical extreme.

I usually rate the wines for this column "blind," sampling the week's wine selection from plain,

unmarked glasses poured out of my sight.


The point is to ensure that my objectivity is unmarred by prejudice or preconceived ideas. It's easier to be objective if I don't know know which glass contains the $20 boutique wine and which holds the $2.99 jug variety.

It's easy enough to arrange this kind of tasting: All you need is someone to pour the wine. It doesn't matter if you see what's in the glass.


It's a bit more complicated to compare red and white without looking, as a real (if temporary) loss of vision is required. I achieved the effect by asking my wife to wrap a red bandanna around my head.

I used four moderately priced wines -- two white and two red -- for the test.

I chose two California wines -- a red 1981 Inglenook Vineyards Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($5.49)

and a white 1985 Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma County (Rhinefarm Vineyards) Gewurztraminer ($6.49) --

anticipating that these two wines would display marked characteristics that should be easy to

choose.

To mix things up, I added a white 1985 Collavini Grave del Friuli Pinot Grigio from Italy ($5.79)

and a red 1983 Premiat Dealul Mare Cabernet Sauvignon from Romania ($2.99), expecting them to be

simple, fruity wines that might be more difficult to distinguish without benefit of sight.

The results?

Differences do exist, but they're more subtle than you might expect. I found it fairly easy to tell the red from the white, but it would have been much more challenging without the benefit of quite a few years' tasting experience. As it was, it wasn't easy pegging all four wines to their specific labels.

Here's a summary of the notes I dictated to a tape recorder during the blind tasting.

 

Glass No. 1 (the Petite Sirah) was easy. Scents of green olives and black pepper and the mouth-filling, fruity and acidic flavor gave away the grape variety in this gutsy, full-flavoredwine, the best wine of the four at a bargain price.


Dry acidity and a hint of oak were the tell-tale signs that Glass No. 3 (the Romanian Cabernet) held the other red wine.


I picked the two remaining glasses as white but misidentified their contents.

 

Glass No. 2 was obviously white. It could have passed for an inexpensive Rhine wine with a soft, faintly sweet taste. Its musky aroma, reminiscent of overripe canteloupe, wouldn't have been surprising in a Gewurztraminer, but the wine proved to be the Pinot Grigio.

A citrus quality with a faintly bitter aftertaste made clear that Glass No. 4 was white, but, misled by the Italian wine's muskiness, I failed to recognize this wine as "Gewurz;" it lacked the exuberantly spicy quality typical of this flavorful grape in Europe. It was a useful lesson, and at least I salvaged my ego by correctly identifying all the reds and whites.

Our Vinous Debt to France.

France, once once the world's leading wine-producing nation, lost claim to that title when Italy increased its annual production to 2 billion gallons some years ago.

 

It's not the oldest wine-producing nation, for wine was made around the eastern Mediterranean basin millenia before Caesar divided Gaul into three parts.

 

Indeed, the French can't even claim undisputed bragging rights as producers of the world's best wines. Vinous competitors around the world, from Italy to California to Australia, would have something to say about that.

None of which takes away from this: Without the contributions France has made, wine as we know it today wouldn't be wine.

Back in the 12th Century, when the English held Bordeaux, they learned to love the local wine, a beverage they called "claret."


Ever since that time, around the civilized world, the standard for fine wine -- the dry, acidic type that marries well with food -- has been based on the French model.

So simple respect for wine history demands that I begin the second part of my brief refresher course in wine tasting -- a country-by-country review of wines from around the world -- with a look at France.


France, which remains second-largest wine producer in the world, produces tiny quantities of some of the greatest and most expensive wines. It also produces huge quantities of vin ordinaire (everyday drinking wine) that's rarely exported.

In the middle there's a good selection of decent, fairly priced table wine that gives a good idea of the debt wine lovers owe to France.


For this week's column I sampled a trio representing three French wine regions: A 1983 Trimbach Gewurztraminer from Alsace ($7.69); a 1982 Jean-Pierre Mouiex Saint-Emilion from Bordeaux ($8.89);and a 1985 Jaboulet-Vercherre "Chassy" Cotes-du-Rhone from the Rhone region ($4.99).


The Gewurztraminer was a typically robust wine of Alsace, a region along the Rhine across from Germany, where the wines must stand up against the sausages and sauerkraut that highlight the region's hearty cuisine.


The Saint-Emilion is a "shipper's" wine, a relatively inexpensive product compared with the more expensive "chateau-bottled" wines made of grapes grown on the wine maker's own property. However, Moueix is one of the best shippers of France, and even his cheap wines are good. This one, from the widely hailed 1982 vintage, was a bargain; I can't imagine a better way to learn for less than $10 what Bordeaux is all about.

If you've ever ordered a pitcher of red wine in a Parisian bistro, you've likely tasted Cotes-du-Rhone. It's an intensely fruity, sharply acidic red wine that goes well with red meat, but it's no mellow sipper. If your tastes run to sweetish White Zinfandel, this one might take some getting used to.

Wine and Fun From Italy


If the wines of France are serious, the wines of Italy are fun.


Italy produces more wine, and makes it in greater variety, than any other nation.


From top to toe of the Italian Postgraduate Blind Tasting (Nov. 29, 1987)

So you think it's easy to tell red wine from white?


Try doing it blindfolded sometime.


Some white-wine drinkers who rarely touch red are convinced that the differences between the types are deep and fundamental.

Consider the stereotypes: White wine is light, fruity and refreshing, an anonymous tipple for casual sipping. Red wine is strong, complicated and (although fine for connoisseurs, perhaps) hard to get to know.


Are the stereotypes valid?


Or are the differences overshadowed by the similarities between what are, after all, beverages made from fruit as closely related as red (or blue or purple) and white (or green or golden) grapes?

Prompted by a recent discussion on the subject among several friends communicating with personal computers on the CompuServe Information Service's Wine Forum, I decided to find out by taking the practice of "blind" tasting to its logical extreme.


I usually rate the wines for this column "blind," sampling the week's wine selection from plain, unmarked glasses poured out of my sight.


The point is to ensure that my objectivity is unmarred by prejudice or preconceived ideas. It's easier to be objective if I don't know know which glass contains the $20 boutique wine and which holds the $2.99 jug variety.


It's easy enough to arrange this kind of tasting: All you need is someone to pour the wine. It doesn't matter if you see what's in the glass.


It's a bit more complicated to compare red and white without looking, as a real (if temporary) loss of vision is required. I achieved the effect by asking my wife to wrap a red bandanna around my head.

I used four moderately priced wines -- two white and two red -- for the test.

I chose two California wines -- a red 1981 Inglenook Vineyards Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($5.49)

and a white 1985 Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma County (Rhinefarm Vineyards) Gewurztraminer ($6.49) -- anticipating that these two wines would display marked characteristics that should be easy to choose.


To mix things up, I added a white 1985 Collavini Grave del Friuli Pinot Grigio from Italy ($5.79) and a red 1983 Premiat Dealul Mare Cabernet Sauvignon from Romania ($2.99), expecting them to be simple, fruity wines that might be more difficult to distinguish without benefit of sight.


The results?


Differences do exist, but they're more subtle than you might expect.


I found it fairly easy to tell the red from the white, but it would have been much more challenging without the benefit of quite a few years' tasting experience. As it was, it wasn't easy pegging all four wines to their specific labels.

Here's a summary of the notes I dictated to a tape recorder during the blind tasting

Glass No. 1 (the Petite Sirah) was easy. Scents of green olives and black pepper and the mouth-filling, fruity and acidic flavor gave away the grape variety in this gutsy, full-flavored wine, the best wine of the four at a bargain price.

Dry acidity and a hint of oak were the tell-tale signs that Glass No. 3 (the Romanian Cabernet) held the other red wine.


I picked the two remaining glasses as white but misidentified their contents.

Glass No. 2 was obviously white. It could have passed for an inexpensive Rhine wine with a soft, faintly sweet taste. Its musky aroma, reminiscent of overripe canteloupe, wouldn't have been surprising in a Gewurztraminer, but the wine proved to be the Pinot Grigio.

A citrus quality with a faintly bitter aftertaste made clear that Glass No. 4 was white, but, misled by the Italian wine's muskiness, I failed to recognize this wine as "Gewurz;" it lacked the exuberantly spicy quality typical of this flavorful grape in Europe.

It was a useful lesson, and at least I salvaged my ego by correctly identifying all the reds and whites.

 

Germany: Hard Words, Easy Wine.


Nothing in the world of wine is much more daunting than the German label.

The language is polysyllabic and agglutinative, and not only that, it uses jaw-breaking words that are hard to read even if they aren't printed in old-fashioned Gothic type.

But it would be a shame to let a few big words keep us from discovering German wine.

Because it almost invariably has an edge of sweetness and its alcoholic content is typically low, German wine can be an attractive change of pace from dry, acidic table wines. Don't expect a wine that tastes like Kool-Aid, though. At its best, German wine balances natural sweetness with tart acidity that keeps the taste from cloying.


Because Germany's Rhine and Mosel valleys are among the world's most northerly wine-producing regions, growers run a constant race against the weather. Long but cool summers allow an extended growing season, with the harvest sometimes coming as late as November. Grapes ripen slowly in this climate, acquiring subtle qualities from the soil.

In a good year, such as 1983 or 1985, fully ripened grapes produce lush, succulent wine with exceptional complexity and finesse

In poorer vintages, though, the grapes don't ripen well and wine makers must add sugar to the green, acidic juice. It's not a formula for excellent wine.

Most German wines are submitted to a government panel for tasting and laboratory tests to verify their origin and sugar content.

Wines that pass the examination receive the designation "Qualitatswein eines bestimmten Anbaugebietes," often shortened to "Qualitatswein" or "QbA."

The finest, made from grapes so ripe that no additional sugar is needed, receive the designation "Qualitatswein mit Pradikat" or "QmP." These wines are further categorized, in order of increasing sugar content and (usually) price, as "Kabinett," "Spatlese," "Auslese," "Beerenauslese" or"Trockenbeerenauslese."

German wine seems like it ought to be a natural for Americans with its light, sweet flavor and low alcohol content. Don't let the label scare you. Give it a try!

 

Spain: A Delicious Secret


Spain makes nearly as much wine as Italy and France, but the natives drink it right up and export little, so we don't see much Spanish wine in this country.

This is a shame, because the wines of Spain can be startlingly good, combining the finesse and character of France's finest with a sunny, Mediterranean quality like that of Italy.

On the other hand, it's a delicious secret for wine tasters in the know, because the laws of supply and demand have kept most Spanish wines in the bargain range.

Spanish sparkling wines from Freixenet (particularly its Cordon Negro in a Darth Vader-black bottle) and Codorniu (whose "English Cuvee Brut Clasico" is my favorite Spanish sparkler) are gaining deserved popularity while remaining in the modest $6 range.

Sherry, a British mispronunciation of "Jeres," the town near Seville from which it's shipped, has been popular with Anglo-Saxons for centuries but still remains cheaper than currently-chic Port from Portugal.

I like Spanish red wines best. Good ones, drunk young, are as bright and refreshing as grape juice. Aged in wood and then in the bottle, they add a spicy savor that's hard to match at any price.

Rioja, in north-central Spain, above Madrid, became home to emigrant French wine makers more than 100 years ago; they applied their traditional skills to their new country's native grapes to create a new wine with a familiar accent.


Among Rioja labels usually available in this area are the products of Marques de Caceres, Marques de Riscal, Domecq and Olarra. Olarra, a relatively new and very large bodega (winery), has made a considerable effort to capture an American market. Its wines, if rarely outstanding, are consistently good and have beenavailable here at remarkably low prices.

 

The USA: Fine Wine from the Melting Pot



Like our nation itself, the wines of the United States are the bold and lusty product of an international melting pot.

We have France to thank for the dry acidic style of table wine that places a premium on subtle complexity. Our finest grapes, too, are French: The Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and more.

Italy taught us the joy of wine as an ideal companion with food. Germany contributed the Riesling grape and a taste for sweeter wines. The story of American wine is told in a babel of accents and bears a United Nations of names.


From Count Agostin Haraszthy, who got the California wine industry on its feet a century ago, to Andre Tchelistcheff, who did as much as any man to professionalize U.S. wine making since World War II, the list goes on:


Paul Masson and Charles LeFranc were early luminaries. Later came Martini, Parducci, Sebastiani and more, all names we recognize on labels today.

Robert Mondavi convinced his peers that California could make wine to compete with the best of France. Mondavi's Napa Valley neighbors, Joe Heitz and Joseph Phelps, Bill Hill and Bernard Portet, among dozens of others, made great wines to prove the point.

Ernest and Julio Gallo taught the world how to sell good wine. Along the way, with much of the activity in California but also bursting out across most of the 50 states, the old ways have gradually blended into a new, all-American style. Rich fruit, ripe grapes, deep, powerful aromas and flavors: These qualities characterize American wine at its best.

 

Sparkling Wine: The Spirit of Festivity.


The French have been arguing for decades, without perceptible success, to persuade Americans to stop calling our sparkling wine "Champagne."


That honored name, they say, should be reserved for the fine, sparkling wines first made in the French region of the same name, the neighborhood around Rheims, not far east of Paris.


According to legend, a blind French monk named Dom Pierre Perignon had the first taste of Champagne, sometime around 1700, when he stumbled upon a cask in which an accidental fermentation had occurred, tasted the bubbly product and exclaimed, "I am drinking stars!"


It's a harmless tale, even if it probably isn't true (although the original Dom Perignon, whose name now adorns a pricey French product, probably did play a key role in the development of Champagne as we know it today).


Not only that, but it's a far more poetic turn of phrase than the epigram attributed to Cole Porter, who allegedly sipped Champagne and observed, "It tastes as though my foot's asleep."

Champagne (like other sparkling wines) tends to inspire flights of fancy. I've never been quite sure whether this effect is purely psychological -- it is, after all, a festive drink that invokes a celebratory mood -- or perhaps comes about because they carbon dioxide bubbles somehow speed alcohol to the user's brain.

Be that as it may, sparkling wine is a popular drink, one of the few wine categories that showed increased sales in the United States amid a general decline in wine and spirits sales last year.


In one of the most interesting developments of recent years, a number of French Champagne makers -- without for a minute relenting in their campaign to reserve the name for themselves -- have opened wineries in California and started making sparkling wine.


Moet et Chandon (makers of the aforementioned Dom Perignon) came first, early in the 1970s, with a sleek, modern winery in Napa County near Yountville. The wine, Domaine Chandon, is one of the best California sparklers, and the winery -- with its associated four-star restaurant -- has become a must stop for Northern California wine-country tourists.


Piper-Heidsieck of France owns Piper Sonoma Cellars, makers of another excellent California sparkler.

Deutz, another French firm, now makes Maison Deutz in Santa Barbara County, Calif., another wine with excellent credentials; ditto for Domaine Mumm Cuvee Napa, wholly owned by a famous French house. The French aren't the only ones making sparkling wine, of course.

If your experience is limited to the $3 domestic brands that somebody picks up at the drugstore when there's call for an impromptu celebration, I'd suggest widening your horizons.

Although French Champagne can be expensive -- most basic lines start below $20 and can run up to $100 for a couple of chic cuvees -- quality California sparklers abound in the $10-to-$15 neighborhood.


Spanish sparkling wine is generally less and can be quite good, and the Italian Asti Spumantes, fizzy wines made from Muscat grapes, are refreshing if your taste runs to sweeter wine.

 

Tasting on the Wheel.


We actually smell most of the things that we think we taste, or so the scientists say.

Our poor taste buds can discern only four flavors -- sweet, sour, salt and bitter -- while our noses are capable of distinguishing thousands of subtle variations.
There's nothing like a summer cold or allergy attack -- with its attendant loss of the sense of smell -- to bring this theory out of the laboratory into the real world.

If you like wine and catch a cold, you're well advised to switch to soft drinks, pure spring water or something equally undemanding until the sniffles have passed and you can again enjoy the olfactory nuances that make wine something special.

The wines of the world offer thousands of scents in their almost infinite variety. I must have smelled a few hundred things in wine myself, ranging from the commonplace (grapes and fruit) to the off-the-wall (sawdust and asparagus) and the disgusting (dirty socks and wet dog fur).

As an aid to novice wine tasters -- and experts too -- the wine scientists at the University of California at Davis, one of the nation's leading wine-making and grape-growing schools, came up years ago with something called the "aroma wheel." The oenologists at Davis consulted with scores of wine lovers and wine tasters to list all thedescriptive terms they could imagine for the smells of wine. Then they organized them, categorizedthem, eliminated all that seemed ambiguous or less than clear, and ended up with a list of 12major categories of wine smells, subdivided into 29 subcategories and in 94 specific terms.


The original "wheel" was so called because it was displayed as a circular table, with relatively similar smells placed close together around its circumference. (Colored plastic laminated copies of the wine aroma wheel may be obtained from A.C. Noble, Dept. Vit. & Enology, Univ. California, Davis, Calif 95616 [email ]. The wheel can be viewed on the UCDavis Website.)

You don't need a wheel to get rolling, however: The information is just as useful in the form of a list, starting at noon and moving around the clock from "fruity" through "nutty" and "earthy" around to "floral," "spicy" and back to fruity again.

If you want to get more out of your wine, try your next tasting session with the list at hand, scanning the categories in search of the exact word to describe what you're smelling.

I think you'll be surprised to see how a glance at the "wheel" helps your thoughts snap into focus. I've edited the following list somewhat to save space, leaving out some of the more obscure and technical terms, but you'll find all the usual aromas rounded up here:

FRUITY: Citrus -- grapefruit, lemon; berry -- blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, black currant (cassis); tree fruit -- cherry, apricot, peach, apple; tropical fruit -- pineapple, melon, banana; dried fruit -- strawberry jam, raisins, prune, fig.

VEGETATIVE: fresh -- stemmy, cut green grass, bell pepper, eucalyptus, mint; canned-cooked --green beans, asparagus, green olive, black olive, artichoke; dried -- haw-straw, tea, tobacco.

NUTTY: walnut, hazelnut, almond.

CARAMELIZED: honey, butterscotch, butter, soy sauce, chocolate, molasses.

WOODY: vanilla, cedar, oak, smoky, burnt toast, charred, coffee.

EARTHY: dusty, mushroom, musty (mildew), moldy cork.

CHEMICAL: petroleum -- tar, plastic, kerosene, diesel; sulfur -- rubbery, garlic, skunk, cabbage, burnt match, wet wool, wet dog; papery -- wet cardboard; pungent -- acetic acid (vinegar); other-- soapy, fishy.

PUNGENT: hot -- alcohol; cool -- menthol.

MICROBIOLOGICAL: yeast, sauerkraut, sweaty, horsey, "mousey."

FLORAL: orange blossom, rose, violet, geranium.

SPICY: cloves, black pepper, licorice, anise.

Use the "wheel" as a guide when you're tasting wine for fun, and I think you'll be surprised to see how well this list of descriptive terms will help you recognize those elusive characteristics.

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remember two simple rules -- (1) think about wine, and (2) keep opening bottles -- you'll soon be

on your way to expertise and a lifetime of enjoyment. Good luck, and good wine!