Great Wines to Drink This Spring & Summer
Last week my wife and I attended a wine tasting at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The event was hosted by The Starr Catering Group who handle many of the Museum’s dining operations. They also provided the food that was specially selected to show off the wines we tasted.
The sommelier for this evenings was Joshua Wesson, best known for his New York wine store called Best Cellars. Mr. Wesson has been in the food and wine business for a while.
He was named best Sommelier in French Wines & Spirits in the United States back in 1984. Two years later he was named one of the top five sommeliers in the world at an international competition by Sopexa, Food and Wines in France.
His list of accomplishments goes on and on but I found him to be extremely knowledgeable and quite witty. He had the ability to take complicated wine concepts and make them easy to understand and fun to learn.
For example, we were talking about a wine’s acidity and he made it abundantly clear there is no opposite to acidity when discussing wine, just lack of it.
Spring into Summer Wines
The theme of this testing was Spring into Summer and included 8 wines from 8 different countries. It was an international extravaganza.
All the wines were meant to be lighter than might be served during the fall or winter months with bigger, heavier meals. These were wines that could be consumed with Spring and Summer foods or they could be drunk on their own while one is sitting in the yard enjoying the weather.
Mr. Wesson described these wines as “value” wines and most of them were great buys for how good they were. Priced from $16 to $32 with most of them right around $22, I’m not sure we would all call these a value.
I typically think of a $10 to $15 that tastes like a $20 to $30 wine as being a great value but two of the wines were Sparkling wines, which can be expensive.
I started out taking copious notes on much of what Mr. Wesson said to the group. He gave us a lot of extremely good tips for tasting wines, finding and picking value wines and wine nomenclature, but after the 3rd or 4th wine (there was no spitting) my notes were not only fewer, they were harder to read.
I will try to interject some of Mr. Wesson’s tips in with my tasting notes for each wine just as Mr. Wesson did during the tasting. I’ll also give you the price that Mr. Wesson gave us based on purchasing it here in the Philadelphia area, but I’m sure the prices and availability will vary based on where you live.
I’ll also give you the alcohol levels as given to us and what the wine smelled and tasted like to my wife and me. These last two are completely subjective and I say that because when Mr. Wesson polled the group, the adjectives being thrown around were all over the place.
Kuentz-Bas Cremant d”Alsace NV
We started out with this sparkling wine from France that was made in the traditional méthode champenoise (champagne method) but not in the Champagne region of France so it cannot be called champagne. In fact, that’s the meaning of the word “cremant” in the name of the wine.
To make champagne or sparkling wine like the one we tasted involves a secondary fermentation right in the bottle. A wine, usually white, is produced using primary fermentation methods and then sugar and yeast are added to it to create the secondary fermentation.
There is a lot more to know about the production of French champagne and sparkling wines that I will address at a future date, but for now let’s just say it’s complicated but makes for very good wine that goes with just about anything you serve.
In fact, Mr. Wesson said if he were on a desert island with only one type of wine, it would be sparkling.
The Kuentz-Bas is made from two grapes, one white and one red (pinot noir). If you’re thinking “how can they make sparkling white wine with red grapes?” all you have to do is peel the grape to see both white and red grapes look the same when peeled. It is the red skin that gives red wine its color.
We also learned this sparkling wine is NV or non-vintage, which means it can be from different vintages, a blend of two or more years. This one was from 2013 & 2014.
It had a strong nose of green apples and was clean tasting, very refreshing. So Mr. Wesson suggested that when you see NV you think “multi-vintage” instead of “non-vintage” – a good thing for labels that want to achieve consistent taste year after year.
Low in alcohol and great when served with homemade potato chips, Mr. Wesson said the bubbles cut through the oil and fats of the chips. He also like drinking this with popcorn when watching a movie at home. The cost in Pennsylvania is around $22 but I’ve seen it in other states as low as $17.
Wienenger Weiner Gemischter Satz 2013 Austria
Our second wine of the night was Gemischter Satz, is a particular specialty local to Vienna that is a white wine blended from several varieties grown in a single vineyard. This particular wine was a blend of 13 grapes, yes, that’s right, I said 13 different grapes. I have no idea what those grapes are or based on the name of this wine, how I would pronounce them.
Mr. Wesson joked that in Austria the police check for sobriety by asking the driver to pronounce the name of this wine. If they can, they are on their way. I can’t see myself ever asking for this wine in our State liquor store; I think I’ll order it online.
When smelling this wine, it had hints of grass. I can’t remember or see in my notes what I thought it tasted like. It has 12.5% alcohol and also costs around $22 in Pennsylvania.
They served this wine with smoked salmon and the wine cut right through the fat from the salmon and made it taste better. Like this wine.
Mr. Wesson explained to the group why we swirl wine at tastings, at home or any time we want to learn more about the wine. He had us stick our nose in this glass of wine and asked us to take a whiff and describe what we smelled.
I did smell some hints of grass but they were very faint. Then he asked us to swirl the glass and “shotgun the molecules into our nose”.
I need to research this more but I have always believed by swirling the wine in the glass, you incorporate air into the wine making it easier for the smell to get into your nose. Not sure where I learned that but I’m sticking with that story.
He also had us put our hand over the top of the glass when swirling and then remove it just before we stick our nose into the glass. It made a difference. You definitely noticed a stronger hint of grass.
Lastly, he said to take short sniffs, not one big long sniff like most of the group was doing. He tried to make some analogy to how dogs sniff but it must of went over my head. I had no idea what he was talking about, but my wife said that, given what dogs are usually sniffing, it’s no surprise they keep the sniffs short.
Cederberg Chenin Blanc 2015, South Africa
This next wine, the Chenin Blanc from South Africa, was most enjoyable. At 13% alcohol, the grapes for this wine are grown next to citrus on the slope of a near-coastal mountain range, a cooler region that results in the lower alcohol level.
Plenty of acidity and flavors of citrus, this wine can be used in place of a lemon or lime when serving fish. We tried it with the smoked salmon and he was absolutely right. The acidity cut right through the salmon.
Mr. Wesson told us this wine was “Free from the Yoke of Oak” as most of the wines we sampled this night were. I got the idea he was not a big fan of big oaky wines in the summer. Did you know that a typical oak barrel holds about 59 gallons of wine and can lose 5 to 6 ½ gallons a year in evaporation?
Chenin Blanc is the grape in Vouvray wines of the Loire Valley in France where they are famous for serving with oysters. Mr. Wesson described chenin blanc/vouvray as “the love child between chardonnay and Riesling.”
He also talked about Dry Creek Vineyard’s Chenin Blanc as a great buy that gets rave reviews every year. I’ll be looking for it.
How To Taste Wine
There are books written on how to taste wine. I’m just describing how we did it at this wine tasting. Your tongue, cheeks, soft palate of the upper esophagus are filled with taste receptors that let you distinguish between salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami (a strong meaty taste imparted by glutamate and certain other amino acids: often considered to be one of the basic taste sensations along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty -- think savory).
It was once believed that different areas of your tongue were responsible for different taste buds of a particular taste sensation. This is no longer accepted and any of the taste buds in your mouth can detect all these flavors.
The best way to get the wine to all these receptors is to swirl the wine around in your mouth a little bit like swirling the wine in a glass. Because your mouth is closed, you’re not going to get any air in like when swirling a glass so Mr. Wesson had us put some wine in our mouths, first let the wine sit on our tongue, then swish it around and then suck in air through pursed lips. You should have heard the sounds we made.
He explained the three stages of wine tasting:
1. The Attack - the first impression you get after swirling the wine in your mouth. Here you are looking for acidity, tannin (think sucking on a toothpick), alcohol level and residual sugar. Ideally you want these to be balanced with no single characteristic overwhelming the others.
We were looking for characteristics here like sweet or dry, light or heavy, soft or firm, not flavors like fruity or smoky.
2. The Rollover – taste: here’s where wine experts show off their wine acumen by suggesting the wine tastes of apple or pear or figs or pepper, floral or woody but not just any wood - oak, cedar. One of my favorite descriptors is barnyard or how about "busy but never precocious."
3. The Finish - how long the wine holds its flavor after you’ve swallowed the wine. I’ve enjoyed some wines that tasted great on the Attack and Rollover but lost it on the finish. You like it when a wine ends with a long Finish as long as that finish is enjoyable.
Mr. Wesson suggested at this point to be a good wine taster we need to take notes about the wines we drink. Color, smell, taste, how well did it go with the different foods we ate? Great idea but nobody was taking any notes on this tip.
Argyros Estate Santorini 2014 Greece
Didn’t like this one and from looking at other glasses in the room, neither did many of the other quaffers. My wife suggested it smelled like Windex and I had to agree. I thought it tasted like fish but when Mr. Wesson asked the room how they liked it, a lot of hands went up including his.
It was his favorite wine of the night. Go figure.
This wine has an alcohol level of 13% and was the most expensive at $32. The wine is made from 100% Assyrtiko grapes that are from 50 - 60 year old vines. Let’s move on.
Mt. Beautiful Pinot Gris 2014 New Zealand
Really liked this one. In fact, I’ll be looking for this one at my local State store. Mr. Wesson told us it came from a warm part of New Zealand and thus was high in alcohol (14%) but low in acidity.
On the nose, it smelled of flowers and when I looked it up on the Internet they said jammy and lilac. Our instructor described it as “unctuous.” On the palate, the class expressed melons with a green apple finish.
In Pennsylvania, you can purchase a bottle of this “beautiful” pinot gris for around $22 via special order.
Wollfer Estate Rose 2015 New York
This one comes from Eastern Long Island, New York, in the heart of the Hamptons. The vines are grown on 55 acres of what used to be a potato farm and produce chardonnay, rose, sauvignon blanc, Trebbiano, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, merlot, pinot noir and a bunch of blends.
The 2015 Rose is a blend of six varieties including merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, riesling, pinot noir and vignoles. The wine had a light pink color, smelled to us like pineapple, and was crisp and acidic, another wine that can be used like lemon to cut the fattiness of smoked salmon, shellfish or soft cheeses.
With 12% alcohol, relatively high acidity, this rose was not overly sweet at all. Interestingly, this wine gets it color NOT from contact with the skin of red grapes but from the pressure of the grapes above that are creating the juice.
I liked it and if I get up to the Hamptons this summer to visit one of my buddies, I’ll be looking for it at around $19 per bottle.
Castello di Nieve Grignolino 2015 Italy
This wine is made from 100% Grignolino grapes and is aged in stainless steel for 3 months and then aged in the bottle for 3 months. It was the only red wine of the night but a very light red wine.
The Grignolino grapes are red but thin skinned. Mr. Wesson called it “a rose on steroids.”
My wife and I agreed the aroma reminded us of the candy red-hots. I liked it. Not my favorite but a nice light red for fried foods, pork or veal dishes.
Very little alcohol at just 12.5% and a price of around $17 in Pennsylvania.
Juve y Camps Sweet Reserva Sparkling NV Spain
We ended the night with another sparkling wine, this one from a small town near Barcelona called San Sadurni d’Anova. The winery was founded in 1921 and has been producing some top quality Cava (sparkling wine) for three generations.
This wine is made from 3 grapes. I’m going to list them but I don’t think many of you have ever heard of these grapes, I know I didn’t. They are Macabeo, Xarel·lo, and Parellada grapes.
Low alcohol of 12%, this wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks for 7 to 10 days and then aged in the bottle for 24 - 30 months. The wine was golden yellow in color and smelled of white flowers and mangos.
Very sweet on the palate with a creamy texture, we tasted this Cava with a selection of cheeses, grapes and nuts. I would purchase this sparkling Cava at $16 per bottle.
My wife and I have been to our share of wine tastings and agreed that this was among the top in terms of providing a broad but coherent sampling of seasonal value wines and imparting a fair amount of new information for both of us.
If you have a chance to do a summer wine tasting, you should take advantage of the opportunity. Or have your own tasting, just go to your local wine shop and ask for these wines or ones like them. Salud!