Friday, January 13, 2012

Travel though Taste and Tannins (Wine 101)

Published by The Tribune for my TravelOkcity travel column.

Paseo Grill: So I had Pinot Gris with my wagyu; is that such a crime?

One of the things that I look forward to at Christmas day is the coming home after an exhausting night of family get-togethers. After all the frenetic festivities, nothing beats just sitting in front of the fire with a glass of Chianti. I like to kick off my shoes and reminisce on the year that is about to close while relishing the light cherry notes in my mouth. The tree lights reflect on the deep red liquid, sparkling this way and that as I swirl the glass around to release the bouquet and enjoy the subtle floral aromas.

Rusty Nails Winery: Sometimes we'd go on a road trip in search of wineries or vineyards.

I am by no means a wine connoisseur or a sommelier. I am far from it. In fact, I can’t tell a cheap domestic “Chianti” from the real thing bottled in Tuscany. I merely love the giddy effect and the rich flavors that play with my tongue. My husband on the other hand is quite the wine snob, searching the city’s liquor shops and wineries for the bottle of Orvieto he had when he visited that Italian wine region. I couldn’t care less whether it came from the liquor store next door or in Umbria, but just so we could talk the same language, I recently decided to take the art of wining and dining more seriously. Journey with me as I travel trough the taste buds and demystify this thing they call “wine”.

Education for the Palate

Image by Gerard Villanueva

I have been to a few wine tasting seminars, wine degustations, and wine tours here and abroad and I’d like to share the few things that I’ve picked up along the way. If I make some erroneous statements I hope that the sommeliers and oenophilists won’t crucify me and understand that it is probably the bubbly talking and that it’s hard to take notes in the company of a good Pinot Noir.

In the Philippines, I’ve had the privilege of dining with Chef Gene Gonzalez, one of the country’s top culinary authorities and wine expert. The chef conducts basic wine appreciation lectures over a carefully prepared degustation or gourmet dinner. 

Happiness at Tapella, Greenbelt, Manila.
Although a conseiller culinaire of the National board of the Chaine des Rotisseurs and also a member of the London based International Wine and Food Society, Chef Gonzalez does not consider himself a sommelier. His humble attitude extends to his wining and dining principles. His teachings are not snobbish but practical, and most of all he subscribes to the philosophy of eat or drink what makes you happy. It is that same philosophy that I brought with me when I traced the path of the Connecticut Wine Trail or when I sampled the different varieties in the wineries in Broken Bow and Watonga to learn more about wine care and pairings.

Care and storage

Connecticut Wine Trail

Air is wine’s greatest enemy. I’ve learned that prolonged exposure to air can magically transform my sweet elixir to bitter vinegar. “Wine is often described as being ‘alive’ to explain why it continues to evolve and ‘grow’ with further bottle age (for those wines that do),” explains chef Gonzalez. 

Wine Depot in Manila, Philippines (Photo by Ray Soberano)

Exposure to heat, light and even vibrations can also be harmful to wine. Sommeliers suggest storing wines in cellars to protect your wine from the  harsh climate and to keep it from direct sunlight. For those without a cellar, a good alternative is a wine cabinet that simulates the dark, humid, and vibration-free environment of the wine cellar. Some wine storage cabinets have temperature and humidity controls. If you’re like me who’s not willing to cough up serious cash to simply enjoy a good Cabernet Sauvignon, the old Frigidaire should do. Keep in mind however that a refrigerator may get too cold. A fridge is also not damp enough to keep the cork from drying up. Opened wine stored in the ref should be consumed within 6 months, but it is always best to consume the whole bottle soon as it is opened.

The Old Bastard Shiraz does not come cheap at $145 (shown here with a cork lever pull)

Outside the ref, opt for racks that allow them to lie on their sides to keep the cork moist. A moist cork usually remains expanded thus providing an airtight plug.

The practical alternative to corks are the twist caps. Although it doesn’t sound romantic, some wineries have shifted to twist caps because they preserve quality more effectively. Corks on the other hand can produce bacteria.  

Store the bottles lying down to prevent the cork from drying up and shrinking (Image by Ray Soberano).
The most elaborate and expensive alternative to keeping wine fresh is the preservation system. The preservation system pumps in argon gas to a newly opened bottle to prevent oxidation and to ensure its freshness for at least a week.

Serving and enjoying 

There are a variety of corkscrews out in the market. Many prefer the screw pull, because it automatically pulls out the cork with one easy movement. There is also the air propelled opener that pumps air and pushes the cork out. 

The butterfly corkscrew makes pulling out the cork easy with one quick movement (Photo by Ray Soberano).

The quick pull corkscrew pulls out the cork with a self centering spiral action that avoids improper cork penetration. You can easily remove the cork by simply turning the handle continuously. The wing corkscrew on the other hand works by pulling on the “wings.” The butterfly corkscrew is an updated version of the wing corkscrew. Instead of lifting the wings, you simply lower its ergonomically sculpted side arms.

Once the bottle is opened, wipe the mouth with a damp cloth before pouring. For champagne, use the tall narrow fluted glasses. White wine is best in a tulip-shaped glass and red wine in large bowl-shaped glasses. The right shaped glass best delivers the unique characteristics of each type of wine.  For a more full bodied flavor, try port sippers.

Wining and dining with friends at Purple Feet in Manila, a gourmet resto within Wine Depot where the chef can cook up whatever you are in the mood for and suggest a wine pairing.

Wine is an experience not for the taste buds alone. Always pour the wine halfway in the glass so that you can fully appreciate the aroma of the wine. Before the first sip, give the glass a good swirl to release the bouquet. A good wine glass must taper at the end because it will deliver a more concentrated aroma to the nostrils. Also, remember to hold the glass by the stem and not by the bowl because your hand temperature can affect the temperature of the liquid.

We’ve heard it numerous times: reds should be served in room temperature. But then the references of this golden rule are to temperate countries. If you served it here in the summer time, your tongue will be treated to a sharp burnt flavor. Serve red wine slightly cold but not chilled.

Chateau 1771, /Greenbelt, Manila with my Gustatory Group by Oliver Zamora

What should be chilled are champagne and white wines. Serve them in an ice bucket but make sure you don’t let them get too cold, or they lose their flavors and bouquets. The most convenient way to keep wines at room temperature on the table is to put them in an “iceless chiller”, a clear plastic wine bucket with thermal properties. Cool or chill the wine before serving then place it in the bucket. The wine is guaranteed to stay cool or chilled without ice for a few hours.

Discriminating eye

Look at how the wine is stored and always consider the bottle’s condition. Start with the neck of the bottle. Check the space between the cork and the wine itself. Gonzalez says that the gap should not be more than half an inch for varieties not more than four years old. Also make sure that there are no stains running down the neck’s side. Stains are warning signs that mean the bottle has been exposed to excessive heat. Another tell tale sign is the cork protruding abnormally out of the rim. On the other hand, cork sunk into the neck usually indicates that the wine has been left standing upright. 

Chocolate and wine don't really mix but it's my birthday!

Finally, examine the wine through the bottle by holding it upright against the light. Look for a vibrant hue. It shouldn’t appear muddy. Never shake the bottle. Gonzalez claims that reds, especially those that age properly, throw off some sediment. However, it should not have sediment floating at the top. On the other hand, flakes of sugar crystals are normal for sweet desert wines of some age.

Wine pairing

Once you’ve got all the technicalities pinned down, its time to enjoy your wine with a slice of roasted pork loin or a few ounces of grilled salmon. But what type of wine would best bring out the flavors of your salmon? Consider the cardinal principles as summarized by Gonzalez. “White wines with seafood or white meat dishes, red wines with meat or dark-skinned poultry, simple wines with complex dishes, complex wines with simple dishes, white wines before red, young before old, and dry before sweet.”

Perfect wine pair at Girls Gone Wine by Beaver's Bend during one of our road trips.

Still too complicated? Let’s play with the specifics. Lighter-styled sparkling wines are often enjoyed as aperitifs. Champagne is also used as palate cleansers. A few sips before a rich meal guarantees you’ll enjoy the full flavors of your dishes. White fuller-bodied wines are paired with food. Dry whites like Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse and Sauvignon Blanc go best with simple seafood dishes like grilled fish and prawns. Your salmon and other fatty seafood dishes like lobster, seafood paella and fish courses with sauces should be complimented by buttery, fruity or oak flavored whites like an Australian Chardonnay. 

Wine and whining children is not a good pairing (Rusty Nails Winery)

Enjoy steaks and lamb with red wine, particularly those with a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon like St. Estephe and Margaux.

Pinot Noir based wines and wines with higher percentage of merlot or Cabernet Franc go best with roast beef, poultry, duck or venison. For lighter meat dishes, chicken and cold cuts, try a bottle of young, fruity Beaujolais. Pepper steak, cassoulets and meat stews go best with Syrah-based reds. The rich flavors of tomato-sauced dishes are best brought out by a glass of Chianti.

At the Rusty Nail, they name their varieties after shoes. This dry white is called Cinderella's slipper.

Gewurtztraminer, Auslese, Riesling or oak-aged Chardonnay are light fruity white varieties that are a perfect match for oriental and spicy foods. Steer clear of soy sauce, fish sauces, wasabe and most importantly, vinegar. These spices destroy the flavors of wine. For this reason, salad is hardly served with wine. Vinegar based dressings will block out the delicate qualities of wine.

Finishing it off

Asparagus, eggs, artichokes and chocolate cake are difficult to match with wine. When hard pressed, a Pinot Blanc would work with some asparagus dishes. Light dessert wines should be served by themselves although Barsac and Sauternes, slightly heavier, would go well with fresh fruit and light pastries. And who doesn’t know that strawberries and champagne is always a classic match?

My first sweet sip after I gave birth at the Sandy Hill Winery.

A cheese platter goes right before dessert except when it’s an antipasto style party platter. Wine is best enjoyed with mild cheeses. The strong pungent ones would only overwhelm the flavors of your wine. Keep a bottle of dry Sauvignon Blanc in handy for your goat cheese. For blue cheese, gorgonzola, and stilton, dry port or fruity red wines like Beaujolais Cru. Mild cheddar and cream cheeses like Brie, Camembert, Edam and Bel Paese go best with Port, Bordeaux or Burgundy. If you’re having Roquefort cheese, pair it with Sauternes or Barsac. Finally parmesan, gruyere, emmenthal, gouda and hard cheeses are best enjoyed with a full-bodied, fruity and buttery Chardonnay.  

If you do not have the patience to note the pairings, consider a simpler technique while preparing your dishes. Serve wine that would bring out the best in a dish and vice versa. The best way to go about this is to familiarize yourself with the character of the wine and to season the food with the said wine.

Part of the Connecticut Wine Trail

Chardonnay for example, with its apple notes, will go well with a roast pork loin in applesauce dish. But what if you’ve never gone near a stove and simply want to enjoy your meal with a good glass of wine? The simple but expensive solution: Champagne. Champagne goes best with almost anything.

Cheers! (Photo taken at the Haunted House, OKC)

Don’t be afraid to experiment and break rules. After all, it’s your wine, and it’s your dish; you get to decide how best to enjoy it. Go with whatever makes you giddy and lightheaded. If you feel like taking your reds with grilled fish, then go ahead. As Chef Gonzalez would put it, “No one can ever tell you what is good and what is bad. Wine is a personal experience; it is subjective.”  Let’s drink to that!


Interesting! A perfect guide for me when it comes to wine drinking. Although I am not so fond of dry red wines. They taste so bitter once I have tasted my food. Maybe the combination is not good or maybe my tongue has to acquire that certain taste first. I often choose white or "Rose" (pink) wine. Champagne and dessert wines are my favorites. Cheers to your coming articles!

Thanks Aileen! I'm a white winer and whiner too haha. Although Tim is pretty good at choosing the smooth red ones so am learning to enjoy it more and more. A toast to wonderful readers like you!!!!

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This has been very helpful. hic!

another great article to toast to. the chianti is my favorite. cheers!

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