Wine for Normal People

Every so often I get a question about the difference between cheap wine and better wine: “What’s the real difference? Why spend $25 when I can spend $2.50? Seriously, it’s just fermented grapes. Isn’t it all the same?”

No. And despite the articles and taste tests of experts where the $2 wine wins a blind tasting, there is a difference between crap wine and good stuff. Let’s remember that those tests are in pressured environments, with artificial conditions (peer pressure, no food around so European wines lose every time).

I’m telling you, even if you don’t know how expensive a wine is, when you taste something that is well made, there’s a big difference between that and plonk.

I’m totally willing to buy that, like everything in wine, tasting quality is something you figure out as you learn more about wine. You may be at a place now where you can’t taste the difference. It will come with time and more tasting. 

Regardless of what you can or can’t taste, there are some serious, concrete differences between mass produced wine and wine that may be of interest. These are farming, winemaking, and flavor factors that distinguish wines from each other in both quality and price. So even if you can’t taste the difference today, maybe this will at least provide an explanation of the price difference between good wine and cheap wine and give you an appreciation of why some wineries charge more for their wine.

There are three main factors:

  1. Since all great wine starts in the vineyard, the best vineyard sites are prized, limited and the grapes from there cost more.

Let’s take wine out of the equation for a second. Let’s bring this to tomatoes.

Ever been to a local farmer’s market? There are usually multiple people selling tomatoes. One week you buy tomatoes from a farmer whose wares look awesome and whose tomatoes are half the price of the vendor next to her. But when you slice the tomatoes open and taste them, they are acidic and too earthy for your liking. They lack sweetness and aren’t so juicy. So when you go back you spring for the more expensive ones. It ticked you off a little to have to pay double for a tomato, but you decide to do it anyway. When you cut open that tomato and taste it, the heavens open and angels sing. This is the best tomato you’ve ever eaten. You would pay 4 times the price of the other tomato for this experience.

What’s going on here? It’s the effect of terrior and the brilliance of the farmer in picking the right fruit for the right place on her farm. Growing on the right spot, the tomatoes are heavenly. Growing on a less good spot, they suck. Grapes are the same way. So expect higher quality, better fruit to go into expensive wine.

If someone grows grapes on crappy sites where grapes don’t gain maximum flavor and structure, the resulting wine is going to suck. If they grow it in a place with the right sun exposure, soil type, drainage, and slope, you get unbelievable grapes. And you can’t have great wine without great grapes. Period. So some of the expense of better wine is from the cost of growing on coveted, often hard to farm sites that make kick ass grapes.

 

2. Winemaking has another huge effect. If you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t use the right equipment (the right kind of barrels, the right type of maceration, fermentation) the wine isn’t going to be as good.

Never is this more clear than when you’re touring around a wine region trying the wines. The wines of the area are from similar vineyards and sometimes from the exact same ones, but in the hands of different winemakers they taste completely different. The winemaker’s decisions can make or break a wine.

So even if you’ve done a great job in the vineyard and you have beautiful grapes that have outstanding potential, you’re by no means done — it can still all go to pot. Trust me, I’ve seen this happen. In the hands of an overzealous, tech-loving winemaker, beautiful grapes can transform into a wine that tastes like a mouthful of vanilla and butter with no hint of the natural goodness that came from the land.

Top wines have balance between acid, tannin, alcohol, and sugar (or lack thereof) and they are either reminiscent of fruit or of the land in which they grew. They aren’t oak bombs. They don’t taste like butter (although they can have the texture of velvet). They aren’t high alcohol without a balance of tannin or acid. A skilled winemaker understands the grapes s/he has to work with and uses techniques to highlight the deliciousness of the grapes, not to transform the wine into something completely different from the grapes they worked so hard to grow.

Are barrels expensive? Good ones are. Is storing wine and allowing it to mature expensive? HELL YES! I’m a business dork, so I always think about inventory holding costs — not cheap. Do you sometimes have to painstakingly make a bunch of different lots form different areas of the vineyard and then blend them? If you want good wine, you may.

When you pay for good wine, you’re paying for the great judgement of the winemaker.

 

3. Ultimately the taste, aroma, and texture of the wine are dead giveaways that you have something special.

If you read the blog or listen to the podcast, you know that I’m quick to call BS on stuff in the wine industry that I think is ridiculous. But I promise you that as you have the opportunity to taste better wine, you will taste the differences between cheap and expensive glasses. The velvety feeling of high quality Pinot Noir, with just the right balance of fruit, acid, and light tannin. The ripe fruit flavors combined with a spicy earth and bright acidity of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The bacon, black pepper, and black plum notes against the bright acid and noticeable but not too rough tannin of a Northern Rhône Syrah.  These experiences stand apart from the less expensive wines that are just fine, but not memorable.

The more you drink the more you realize that there is a taste difference. I’ve watched the faces of friends light up when they taste a truly great wine versus the stuff they usually drink and it’s a different animal — they get it. I remember my own experiences of tasting fine wines for the first time and knowing that there was a big difference between what’s possible and what I normally drink on a nightly basis.

You have to know what to look for, but when you do, drinking great wine (on special occasions, because what normal person can afford to every night?) is so rewarding and such a wonderful treat.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree that there’s a difference? Write a comment and let me know!!!

Direct download: Audio_blog_5__The_Difference_Between_Cheap_and_Expensive_Wine.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:25pm EDT

The list of wines that are underrated, overlooked, and great values! Some are mainstream, some less so but all fabulous. From Syrah to Chenin Blanc to Sherry and many in between, this should give you some great ideas of what to buy! 

 

And here's the list!

 

 

  1. Dessert wines of any type:
    • Vintage Port, Ruby or Tawny Port, Muscat de Rivesaltes, Banyuls (red), stickies from Australia, sweet Riesling from Germany, Tokaji from Hungary -- all enormous values!
  1. Chenin Blanc: Aromatic, complex, high in acid, great off dry or dry.
    • Vouvray, Saviennieres, and some South African Chenins are outstanding. Napa's Chappellet and Long Island's Paumaunok make great US versions.
  1. Blaüfrankisch (Austria)/Lemberger (Germany): Spicy with black pepper and cinnamon, it makes your mouth feel alive. Medium bodied, cherry-like, interesting, not the same old same old.
  1. GERMAN and ALSACE Riesling and all Alsace whites: Well priced versions for under $20 - $25. Thierry Thiese is always a winning importer in the US.
    • German Riesling: Range of wines for range of cuisines – off dry, dry, semi-sweet – great with spice, great with cheese, great with fish (fuller styles). Dimension, -- floral to citrusy, peachy to minerally, petrol (gasoline) to fruit-bowl like always balanced with acidity
    • ALSACE whites: No secret that I love them. Soft, full, flavorful, great with food. Riesling, Gewurz, Pinot Gris, Muscat – all have an unctuous quality.
  1. Portuguese reds
    • Reds from Douro or Dão: Touriga Nacional is the main grape, they contain the grapes of Port but are dry. Complex, dark and red fruit, earthy, range from medium to full. Versatile and usually CHEAP!
    • Bairrada (Baga):  is amazing when made well and becoming more available.

An honorable mention for the Mencía grape from Bierzo, which is amazing and usually underpriced

  1. White Bordeaux
    • Best are Semillon majority with Sauv Blanc and Muscadelle. Look for top wines from Graves or Pessac-Leognan.
  1. Loire Cabernet Franc
    1. Medium bodied, earthy, tea-like, with red and black fruit. Acidic. Lots of dimension and real depth – even though it’s lighter in style.
    2. Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Touraine are top areas (not mentioned but also one to check out: Saumur-Champigny. It can be overpriced but good versions are pleasant)

Another honorable mention: Loire Muscadet, from a single vineyard or great producer is less than $20 and can be floral with a bready quality (when the bottle says sur lie) and when from a great producer.

 

  1. Syrah: Full, spicy, rich, peppery, perfumed, herbal, lavender, savory
    • Northern Rhône, South Africa, Central Coast, Washington State, Australia (Shiraz)
  1. Langhe Nebbiolo: Earthy, tar and roses, can be acidic and tannic, lots of gravitas in the right hands and great with food. 
    • No one knows WTF it is but it can be like a baby Barbaresco or Barolo. Its unpopular because people are unaware of it. Very well priced.
  1. Sherry: A perfect aperitif, underpriced for what it is. Another one to surprise guests with – the nutty factor of an Amontillado will win friends and influence people 
    1. The range is incredible (this is just a sample of the types available -- there are many more!)
      1. Fino: dry and like olives and almonds
      2. Manzanilla: Nutty and salty -- like a richer Fino
      3. Amontillado: Aged 8+ years, almond and walnut character. Rich, dry
      4. Oloroso: Oxidized, richer, complex, like alcohol infused walnuts, dry.
      5. PX/Pedro Ximenez: sweet, raisined, nutty, full, and amazing on top of vanilla ice cream.

 

What do you think? Do you like the list? Have you had any of these? Will you try any? Drop a comment and let us know!

Direct download: 166_Ep_166__Our_List_of_Underrated_Wines.mp3
Category:wine -- posted at: 11:13am EDT

Txakolina, also called Txakoli (CHOCK-oh-lee) is an acidic, saline, and floral white from the autonomous Basque region between Spain and France. It's a delicious summer wine that you need to get your hands on and I tell you why.

 

For the transcript and details, go to http://winefornormalpeople.com/blog

 

 

Direct download: 04_Audio_blog_4__Txakolina_A_Basque_Wine_You_Should_Know_About.mp3
Category:wine -- posted at: 9:24pm EDT

Greece has a long, long history of winemaking, but it's not as popular as some other regions. I explain my theory of why and then talk about grapes to explore.

 

For the transcript and details, go to http://winefornormalpeople.com/blog

Direct download: 03_Audio_blog_3__Geekin_on_Greece.mp3
Category:wine -- posted at: 12:51pm EDT

Jane Anson, brilliant contributing editor and Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter Magazine (and nominee for Louis Roederer's 2016 Feature's writer and online communicator of the year) returns! She and I take on geopolitics and wine!  If you're confused about why Brexit is such a big deal for Europe and the UK,  listen to this podcast.

We explain the politics of this unprecedented move and how it could affect the global landscape for wine. A must listen if you want to get up to speed on this important issue! 

Here are the notes. We discuss...

1. What exactly IS Brexit?
 
2. What do we know so far about how it is affecting the market for wine? 
 
3. Why this matters for European wine now and in the future in UK, in the US and in other New World places
 
4. What are likely outcomes for the UK and the global wine market?
 
5. Jane's personal perspective and what she thinks is going to happen
 
 
The link to her piece from Decanter that prompted this podcast: http://www.decanter.com/wine-news/anson-brexit-bordeaux-wine-307599/
Direct download: 165_Ep_165__What_Brexit_Means_for_Wine_with_Jane_Anson.mp3
Category:wine -- posted at: 11:44pm EDT

This time I take up the issue of wine shipping and U.S. wine law in all its convoluted messiness. For the full transcript and details on Free the Grapes, go to http://winefornormalpeople.com/audio-blog-2-the-problem-with-u-s-shipping-law/

 

 

Direct download: 02_Audio_blog_2__The_Problem_with_US_Shipping_Law.mp3
Category:wine -- posted at: 1:44am EDT

Introducing Simone Madden-Grey, our new "down under" correspondent, who will be helping us explore the world of wines from Australia and New Zealand. After meeting her and learning of her fascinating background we discuss the Yarra Valley, an excellent cool climate region of Australia. 

Simone's Web site, Happy Wine Woman: https://happywinewoman.com 

And a link to her blog, where she discusses her favorites from Yarra:  http://wp.me/p3fxzw-Jt

What did we discuss in this episode?:

1. An introduction: Who is Simone? Our new correspondent for Australia and New Zealand and founder of Happy Wine Woman services/writing

 

2. What is going on in Australia at large? An overview and discussion

 

3. What is the Yarra Valley and why did we choose to do the first podcast on it?

  • We discuss the high wine quality, its differentiation from traditional Australian styles, and the importance of it in the revival of Australia’s global image

4. What is Yarra? Overview

  • 1 hour from Melbourne
  • Some historical details
  • The reputation as a large, diverse area with many wine styles, although known mostly for restrained Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, along w sparkling 
  • 37˚ S latitude -- same as Mendoza in Argentina, southern Bio Bio in Chile. 37˚N -- Santa Cruz, CA, Virginia, Sicily, Peloponnese
  • Coolest part of mainland Australia  
  • Diversity: Valley Floor v Upper Yarra, Mediterranean v continental climate, rainfall levels


5. Grapes/Wine:

  • Chard and Pinot 60% of production, but Cabernet and Shiraz big players too.
  • Simone tells us what to expect from these wines from a flavor perspective. 

 

Here's Simone's full list of Yarra Valley wineries:

Yeringberg http://www.yeringberg.com/

Yering Station http://www.yering.com/

Yarra Yering http://www.yarrayering.com/

Giant Steps http://www.giantstepswine.com.au/

Innocent Bystander http://www.innocentbystander.com.au/

Domaine Chandon http://www.chandon.com.au/

Out of Step http://www.outofstepwineco.com/

Salo http://www.salowines.com.au/

Arfion http://www.arfion.com.au/

Payten and Jones https://paytenandjoneswine.com.au/

Jamsheed http://jamsheed.com.au/

Warramate Wines http://warramatewines.com.au/

De Bortoli http://debortoliyarra.com.au/de-bortoli-yarra-valley.html

Direct download: 164_Ep_164__Yarra_Valley_of_Australia_with_Simone_Madden-Grey.mp3
Category:wine -- posted at: 7:36am EDT

This is the first of our new weekly audio blog series: short, informative readings of blog posts from winefornormalpeople.com/blog.

 

To kick it off, Carmenère, a grape with the most dramatic backstory in the wine world! 

 

Find the full transcript here: http://winefornormalpeople.com/audio-blog-1-car…-story-ever-told/

Direct download: 01_Audio_blog_1__Carmenere_The_Greatest_Grape_Story_Ever_Told.mp3
Category:wine -- posted at: 11:35am EDT

White wines often get dismissed as being less complex than reds but that's hardly the case. In this episode we review aromatic v non aromatic whites and how to navigate whites to find styles & grapes that will give you a new appreciation for these wines.

Specifically we talk about:

  • Aromatic wines -- what aromas they exhibit, regions you'll most likely find them and how they are made. 
  • We talk about the merits of aromatic v non aromatic wines
  • We discuss aromatic grapes: Albariño, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Torrontés, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Fiano and more

A good primer on whites and their breadth and depth! 

Direct download: Ep_163__Getting_to_Know_White_Wines.mp3
Category:wine, white wine -- posted at: 12:31am EDT

Jason Haas was the 2015 Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year. As the GM and a partner in the Tablas Creek joint venture with the Perrin family of Rhône fame (Château de Beaucastel is one of the most famed properties in Châteauneuf du Pape and the family own several other ventures through out Rhône and Provence), Jason has had an enormous impact on the Paso Robles region and the wine style there. In addition, he is one of the most talented writers in the industry  – his Tablas Creek blog has won multiple Wine Blog Awards and is up for another one in 2016.

 

This conversation was a culmination of years of admiration from afar -- I am a huge fan of the Tablas Creek wines and style. Here are some notes from the show:  

  • First we talk about the history of Tablas Creek and how the partnership between the Haas and Perrin families happened.

 

  • We talk about the factors involved in finding a perfect site for the project – soil types, microclimates, altitudes, etc. and the process they went through to find it.

 

  • We discuss the process Tablas Creek went through to import the vines from Beaucastel.  

 

  • We cover how and when Jason got involved with Tablas Creek and his hand in carving up Paso Robles into 11 appellations which happened in 2015. 

 

  • We answer the questions: what did and does make Tablas Creek’s vineyards so unique? and... It is possible anywhere with the right people and the right winemaking and growing, or is this a characteristic unique to certain sites that not all people are cognizant of in CA winemaking?

 

  • We discuss farming: organics, biodynamics, and dry farming and why Tablas Creek uses all three.

 

  • We talk about blends, and about the various tiers of Tablas Creek wine and how Jason and his team benchmark his brands against California and Rhône wines, and how they usually stack up.

 

A great conversation with a California legend in the making! This is a fascinating look at an up-and-coming area of California, and it's star player. 

 

Direct download: EEp_162__Jason_Haas_of_Tablas_Creek_in_Paso_Robles_CA_RM.mp3
Category:wine -- posted at: 4:20pm EDT