When I first started visiting wineries back in the 1990’s, although I knew very little about wine I had a strategy to train my brain to learn the various types of wine and how they reflected the land from which they came.
First, I only tasted wines that were 100% of a particular varietal (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah etc.). In order to learn about the particular grapes I needed to catalog the distinctives of the various varietals so I didn’t want to confuse my brain by tasting a lot of blends.
Second, I would only taste wines that came from the location where I was sampling the wine. I wanted to learn how the particular grape reflected the terroir of the vineyard and develop an association of the wine with the land. In other words, I didn’t want to taste a Napa Valley Cabernet made at a winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Once I had a fairly decent catalog of wines and California regions in my brain I began to sample blends (particularly Bordeaux-style blends) as well as the varietals that went into them so I searched for wineries that bottled 100% Cab Franc, 100% Petite Verdot, 100% Merlot, 100% Malbec etc. While it is becoming more common today to find such bottlings it wasn’t the case when I first began exploring the wine country. By tasting these wines by themselves I then tried to figure out what they contributed to blends as I asked myself, “What would 5% of this Petite Verdot contribute to a Meritage blend?”
I also paid attention to the various styles that winemakers used such as the types of oak, the various types of yeasts, the various clones that were planted, whether or not they used stainless steel tanks, and whether or not the wine went through malolatic fermentation.
As I sampled wines I asked myself, and often times the winemaker or at least a knowledgeable server at a winery, a series of questions such as:
What makes this varietal and region distinguishable from others? If I were tasting this wine blind, what is it about this wine that would tell me, “I’m a Pinot Noir from Carneros!” (and not a Pinot from the Russian River) or “I’m a barrel fermented Chardonnay from Santa Barbara!” (and not a stainless steel fermented, barrel aged Chardonnay from Sonoma)?
It was my study of winemaking in college in combination with my travels in the wine countries around California that gave me the background into understanding how wine was made which then enabled me to retro-engineer a wine in a blind tasting. I had to learn to to figure out from all of its characteristics (fruit, floral, spice, earth, and vegetal qualities as well as weight, tannin, acidity etc.) what type of grape(s) were used, what type of climate they were grown in and the process that was used to make the wine.
Needless to say it has taken a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of traveling.
So, now that I am focusing on non-California wines in this blog I am beginning the process again without the advantage of actually traveling to the place where the wines are from or being able to actually interact with the winemaker. All I have are books, videos and other resources from the Internet as well as classes that I’ll soon be taking in the Sommelier training. And my only sources for wine will be wine shops, grocery stores and a number of wine bars around the San Francisco Bay Area that have really good by-the-glass programs and pour international wines.
I also want to focus my attention on varietals that are not as common in California or may not be grown here at all. So, my first wine is one that is seldom discussed and it is from a land that is not well known – a Grüner Veltliner from Hungary.
While Grüner Veltliner (GV) represents approximately one-third of all wine grapes grown in Austria there are only about 5 wineries in California that produce it and I haven’t been to any of them. I have only sampled this varietal a couple times and it was probably in the “World of Wines” class in college and one of the WSET classes so I don’t have a large catalog of GVs in my brain.
Also, Hungary is primarily known for a red wine called Egri Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood”), which I have only tasted once, and a sweet white wine called Tokaji, which I have had a few times - they’re sweet like Sauternes but have a distinct musty character to them. So, I have never had a GV from Hungary.
The other day I was shopping at Trader Joes and (as I usually do) I glance at the wine section to see if there is any new or interesting when a tall slender green bottle catches my eye and the price tag says $5.
“What-the-heck, couldn’t hurt…” I thought, so I grabbed a bottle.
It is a 2011 Grüner Veltliner from the Floriana winery, distributed by Latitude Wines, Inc. It is a dry, light bodied white wine with medium+ acidity with medium intense notes of lemon-lime, melon and green apple.
But those characteristics could describe a number of different wines, so what makes this distinguishable from other white wine varieties?
After the fruit qualities pass through the senses it delivers very distinct aromas of spicy white pepper and subtle licorice root notes. After taking a sip these are picked up not on the entry nor on the mid-palate but in the finish, particularly if I take a deep breath after I swallow or spit the wine out.
So, in the future if I am ever tasting a white wine blind and it has citrus aromas with apples and I am listing in my brain all the various possible wines, if I can pick up white pepper in the back ground then I know I can eliminate wines such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Reisling or Sauvignon Blanc and consider the pssibility of spicer white wines such as Gewürztraminer (which also tend to have lychee notes) or Grüner Veltliner.
However, while this wine is tasty I can’t really assess the quality of the wine as I don’t have enough GVs in my brain to form a basis for comparison. But, the wine does seem rather simple, the finish is short to medium in length and there is nothing about it that excites me. That being said, it was a good learning experience and for only $5 I think it beats countless other bargain priced wines on the market.
My next few posts will be on imported wines sampled at a wine bar in Danville and another in Palo Alto California, so stay tuned!