The wine label translator is here

supermarket-732281_640Walking down the aisles at your local wine seller is a lot like a trip to a foreign land: It’s full of pretty sights and the lure of the exotic — all covered with an indecipherable language.

But your guide to understanding words and phrases on the outside of wine bottles is on the way to downtown Seguin. “Translating the Wine Label” will be in session at You’re So Crafty, 208 S. Austin St., from 3-4:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 21.

Registration is $30 per person and is available at YoureSoCrafty.net.

We’ll be looking at wine labels from across the globe and then opening the bottles to see if what’s inside holds up to the hype on the label.

In addition to finding out what all the legal stuff is about and why it’s there, we’ll also look at clues every label reveals:

  • Who made the wine and how you can communicate your pleasure (or displeasure) with them
  • What’s in the bottle, or at least a good idea
  • When a wine was made, and why that matters
  • Where the wine was made, and why that matters even more
  • Why so much information is on every label
  • How to know what to believe and what to ignore

As always, you also can depend on your Field Correspondent to come up with wines both exotic and affordable. It’s what we do.

Winery U goes upper division

Just to be clear, the wine will be blindfolded Saturday, not the tasters. And the wine will be red.

Just to be clear, the wine will be blindfolded Saturday, not the tasters. And the wine will be red, not white. Hey, you get what you pay for with free stock photos.

This Saturday’s Winery U class, Bring Your Own Wine, is as close to an upper division class as we get.

Everyone who signs up will bring a bottle of red wine, and I will collect it, add it to a list and then wrap it in a very fancy brown paper bag.

The class will taste the wines blind — without knowing what’s in the bottle —  and seek to match them with the list of wines, using the principles they have learned in either previous Winery U sessions or elsewhere. (Just to be clear, there are no prerequisites, except you have to be old enough to buy a bottle to bring along.)

We’ll go through the sensory evaluation checklist first:

  • Clarity and color, with an emphasis on the intensity of the color
  • Swirl and sniff, to identify basic aromas
  • Taste, to gauge weight, character and refine

Then we’ll talk about characteristics of various red wines, using principles taken from classes about varietals, growing regions and wine history.

Everyone will have the complete list of wines, and then it will just be a matter of matching.

Will there be a winner? Maybe. But really, everybody will win, if last year’s class was any indication. We had a huge range of wines, including some personal favorites, and exposed people to wines they might not have tried otherwise.

There’s still time to sign up online. Click here to register.

 

A baker’s dozen tips for wine cheapskates

wine 4-10-16Let’s face it: For most of us, $20 is a lot of money for a bottle of wine. We may love the stuff, but we also have to do things like pay the electric bill and put gas in the car.

Honestly, a lot of wine in that “budget” price range isn’t good for anything but staining your teeth or cooking a tough old chicken. But with a few tips, there are ways to drink like a king on a cheapskate’s wine budget. And the best thing about it: Most of the great “cheapskate” wines are available just about anywhere you can buy wines, including convenience and drug stores.

1. The Island’s Specialty

One wine you can find just about anywhere, and at a reasonable price, is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. And much of it isn’t from just anywhere in New Zealand, but from what may be the best Sauvignon Blanc region in the world, Marlborough, on the northern tip of the country’s south island.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is what California Sauvs wish they could be. They are laden with tropical fruit character, with that herbal backbone and that edge of acidity that makes them so absolutely perfect with a variety of foods. And you can get a very, very good one for less than $15, and often it’s closer to $10.

2. The Portuguese Secret

Another regional specialty that isn’t nearly as famous as Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is Vinho Verde from Portugal. Vinho Verde, which means “green wine” in Portuguese, isn’t really green, unless you think of “green” as young and fresh. It’s made to be fruity, light, slightly fizzy and slightly sweet – a thoroughly refreshing white and sometimes even pink wine. The grapes they can grow in northern Portugal are ideal for it, and there’s lots of it – for $8 a bottle or less, in most cases.

3. Not Your Mother’s Liebfraumilch

A lot of people make a face about German wines, but it usually can be attributed to truly awful blended wines like Liebfraumilch (literally, “Milk of Our Lady”), a generic and sinfully sweet white. You won’t find a fine German wine in a bargain hunt, but you can use a couple of clues to snatch one that’s much more drinkable than its predecessors. Most importantly, find one that specifically says “Riesling” on the label, since that ensures it was made from that noble grape and not some generic blend. Also look on the label for the word “Qualitatswein.” Qualitatswein is a step up in the country’s strict labeling system from the cheap stuff, which is labeled as Tafelwein. Well-chilled, even a cheap German Riesling can be a delight, busting out of the bottle with fruit flavors and an edge of acidity that sets it apart from the sweet junk out there. How much will it put you back? About $8.

4. A Different Kind of Fizz

During the 19th century, some rather nasty plant epidemics put a lot of French winemakers out of work. A big chunk of the ones from the Champagne region wound up in northeastern Spain, and they brought their knowledge and skills for making bubbly with them. One thing they left behind, though – the high prices. A Spanish Cava, made using the same methods as French Champagne, with much of the same character, can go for $12-$15.

5. Tapas, Anyone?

Another specialty of Spain is Rioja, a lovely middle-weight red wine. It goes particularly well with a lot of Spanish tapas, the finger-food that seems to be everywhere on the Iberian Peninsula. Don’t expect it to be big and Cabernet-like, because it isn’t – especially the lower-priced versions. But buy an inexpensive one and then use your savings on some Manchego cheese, which is made from sheep’s milk around the same parts of Spain as Rioja. Spend $10 on the wine and $5 on the cheese and have a feast.

6. It’s Not Just for Candles Anymore

Our friends in Italy used to export oceans of cheap wines to this country, with much of it not fit to throw in the ocean, much less drink. But the Italians are now the No. 1 wine producers and exporters in the world, and they don’t want you doing a spit-take when you sip the most-famous Italian wine, Chianti. Once again, remember it’s not supposed to be Cabernet. But having a simple Chianti with Tuscan-style Italian food is another cheap-food-and-wine experience that will make your eyes roll back in your head.

7. Oceans of Chardonnay

The oaked Chardonnay fad seems to be fading, but if you still love your Chard with that touch of oak character, you’re in luck – the biggest-selling imported Chardonnay in this country is available just about everywhere liquor is sold. Look for Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay – it’s Australian – the next time you’re buying gasoline, Fritos or Twinkies at the local convenience store, ice house or stop-and-rob. It’s lightly oaky and fruity like a typical Chardonnay, and just ridiculously cheap, sometimes less than $5 a bottle.

8. Chile, Anyone?

In grape-growing circles, Chile is known as one of the places on earth that has never been affected by phylloxera, the root-chewing louse that nearly wiped out world wine production during the 1900s. To drinkers, it’s known as the home of very good – and often well-priced – red wines. Just about any Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Carmenere is going to be drinkable, but if there’s a choice, look for regionally labeled wines, from the Maipo Valley or the Central Valley.

9. Just over the Andes

Across the high mountains from Chile is Argentina, where an orphaned grape from Bordeaux known as Malbec apparently loves the high, dry climate of Argentina’s winegrowing regions. If there’s a choice, the most-notable Argentine Malbecs are from the Mendoza growing region. They’re not as cheap as they used to be, but there still are big, bold, drinakable ones for $12.

10. One Word: France

You have to work pretty hard to find a bad French wine for less than $15. Why? First of all, they know what they’re doing when it comes to wines in France. There’s plenty of expertise, as well as plenty of grapes, to go around. And the French aren’t all that keen on losing any more of their share of the world wine market, so they’re especially dedicated to making really good value-priced wines in gigantic quantities. They may be from the second line of a famous producer, or they may be from the country’s biggest production regions, in the south of the country. But they’ll more than likely be good.

11. Buy Local

If you went to Europe and drank the table wine at a little bistro and came back raving about how good it was, it may be because you were at a scenic little bistro in Europe drinking wine on vacation. More likely, though, is the fact that the wine in that carafe, which probably came from a giant container in the back, was made nearby. Locally made wines, especially in the Old World, often match the local cuisine. They are crafted by people who know how to make wine in their local conditions. Sure, they might never put it in a bottle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

In the United States, that kind of winemaking is growing in popularity every day, albeit without 500 to 1,000 years of winemaking history or the bulk containers (we seem a little freaked out by wine in 100-gallon tanks). More and more often, local wines are matching local foods, and making them affordable, too. From New Mexico to New York, local wines abound, and they’re finding a place next to local foods.

12. Look for Strays

Any wine cheapskate needs to have a sense of adventure. Most big wine retailers will have closeout sections, prime for the hunt. It’s where they sell wines that maybe they bought a few too many cases of, or wines that for one reason or another didn’t sell elsewhere in the store, or wines they picked up from another retailer on closeout. Don’t dismiss it immediately just because it’s $1.99. But do be careful: If a white looks orange or brown, or it’s four years or more past the vintage date on the bottle, move along. Reds can be a little older, but don’t be impressed by a 10-year-old vintage on sale. Even red wine made in this country is designed to take home and drink right away, not be aged.

Also, if there are signs of leakage around the cork, or the bottle leaks when you pick it up, or the display has signs of leakage, put the bottle down and step away.

13. See the Signs

Don’t be afraid to browse, pick up bottles and read the labels. Most of what’s on the back is pure malarkey, but sometimes there’s pertinent info on the front. Wines from a designated region (smaller than a state) can be good values. Most of the less-expensive California wines will simply have “California” as a location of origin in the label, which means it could have come from anywhere in the state. If the bottle has the name of a growing region on it, known as an American Viticultural Area, it’s likely to be a step up from state-designated wines.

Welcome to the world, little leaves

Of all the holiday songs of my youth, a couple have glued themselves in my brain. One, particularly appropriate today for another reason, was crooned by the golden-voiced Andy Williams: “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

(You can hear it for yourself on YouTube, complete with the most amazingly random assortment of Christmas images you’ll ever see.)

And while the tune was in my head today, the images were decidedly different. If you grow grapes, this week is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s when the buds break — when this year’s growth begins. Here’s what it looks like:

Budbreak1

No matter if the winter here was wet or dry, frosty or wimpy, when it gets to be the middle of March, the buds break. By the end of the week, there will be tiny leaves where these buds are now.

For the backyard vineyardist, it’s fun, since it means you didn’t kill all your vines the previous summer. For people who grow grapes for a living, it’s when they get religion. At this point, a freeze would be a disaster, nipping off any growth and essentially wiping out the crop. (It happened around here, including in the backyard, two years ago — the second-latest freeze in Comal County history, the second week of April.)

Grapevines, which are genetically programmed to survive just about anything, will put out what’s known as secondary growth if the first growth freezes or is chewed by a passing varmint. There’s even a provision for a third growth.

Unfortunately, secondary and tertiary growth is there just to keep the plant alive — there aren’t any grapes. So let’s just stay positive and hope for a warm few weeks.

Budbreak2

The bud itself is pretty remarkable — it develops on the plant during the growing season, building up energy to burst onto the scene the next spring. Managing that bud development, along with leaves, tendrils, stems and grapes on an actively growing vine, is a great juggling act that goes on in the vineyard all season.

Budbreak3

The growth that comes out of the bud is gorgeous, tinged with pink and purple and bright green, as hinted in the photo. You just want to talk to them, to encourage them, to let them know you’ll do anything your (admittedly weak) power to protect them.

If there’s no frost or nibbling pests, the plants will take off on a crazy growth spurt, putting on up to six inches a day during the early part of the season. The blooms will arrive and set grapes. Green BBs will swell to berry sized, transform from green to purple in a week in July. And if there’s no hail, floods or plagues of locusts, there might be a crop.

So welcome to the real “most wonderful time of the year.” It’s all good hopes and cheer right now, anyway.

Budbreak4(Oh and yes, those are my too-soft “banker’s hands” in the background.)

The grape’s the thing: Why wine bottles are different shapes

One of the first things I wanted to know when I really got interested in wine was “Why are there different-shaped bottles?”

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who had  such a question. It comes up a lot in my wine classes, and I make a point to show people examples every chance I get. The more you know, that kind of thing.

So, wamphora-32706_640hen wine was first discovered thousands of years ago, it was stored in large earthen jars — great for fermentation, but not so handy for grabbing a glass or two for dinner. (They’re called amphorae, and they looked like the thingy to the right.)

Containers became more sophisticated, as well as easier to use, through the years. And when modern bottle-making was developed in the 17th century, the familiar glass container became the vessel of choice.

But how did bottles wind up in all those different shapes? Turns out, it often was the wine inside that dictated the container.

wine-438945_640Bordeaux bottles (at right), with high shoulders and a pronounced neck, were developed because Bordeaux wines tended to throw sediment. Decanting the wine was the best way to separate solid from liquid, and the high-shoulders bottle was developed to make the process simpler.

With a bright light behind the bottle, the pourer could see the sediment as it shifted in the bottle. When it reached the shoulders, the pourer stopped, and the sediment stayed inside.

Port bottles developed in a similar shape for the same reason, sometimes when even-larger shoulders.

Both typically come with a punt, an indentation in the bottom of the bottle that is a remnant of the times when bottles were hand-blown. A punt can help identify the presence of sediment inside the bottle. (You can see the punt in this bottle.)

wine-360291_640Rhone and Burgundy wines, on the other hand, were much less likely to develop sediment, so the shoulders of both have a long slope (see right). There are slight differences between a Burgundy and a Rhone bottle; the latter tends to have a coat of arms embossed in the glass near the shoulders.

The Champagne bottle is shaped the way it is for one major reason — safety. It has the sloping shoulders like a Burgundy bottle, but it is significantly heavier. It also has a deep and heavy punt and a sturdier neck.

The reason: The secondary fermentation that occurs in a Champagne bottle develops six atmospheres of pressure, which can blow either the top or the bottom off a standard-size bottle. (Before the advent of the Champagne bottle, exploding bottles were common in the cellars where the wines were made, to the point of even chain reactions of shattering dozens of bottles at once.)

wine-839514_640 (1)Alsatian bottles (also known as hock bottles) are tall and slender, with little or no punt. The function of a taller bottle goes to the nature of the wine inside — typically white, which can be chilled more easily in a bottle with more surface area.

The German winemaking region of Franconia traditionally has used the short, squat bocksbeutel instead of the tall, slender style used elsewhere in the country. It also is more readily chilled, thanks to its surface area.

And though it has fallen out of favor because of its bulk and difficulty to package, the classic bottle for Chianti, the squat, straw-wrapped fiasco, was a traditional way to offer wine at the Tuscan table.

Marketing has become more of a factor in wine bottles in recent years, with wines coming in bottles shaped like cylinders, rectangles and cats designed to catch the eye.

Of course, it’s still what’s inside the bottle that matters…unless you’re decorating an Italian restaurant or putting up a bottle tree.

By the way, here’s a link to this year’s classes at Dry Comal Creek Vineyards: http://www.drycomalcreek.com/winery-u.

 

Winery U for 2016

Logo for Winery U at Dry Comal Crek VineyardsWinery U, the first-of-its-kind wine education program in the Hill Country, will include classes for just about every kind of wine lover in 2016.

From the popular “Introduction to Wine” in January all the way through an intensive inspection of Cabernet Sauvignon in December, Winery U brings the world of wine to Dry Comal Creek Vineyards each month. The popular classes have attracted hundreds of wine lovers from across the state since their launch in 2008.

The new class for 2016 will be “Port and Cigars” in November, where the mysteries of two very traditional luxury items will be explored in depth.

Three classes that were not offered in 2015 will be available in the new year. The summer Food and Wine session returns in April, with an introduction to the basics of pairing food and wine, plus a long session of actual eating and drinking. Sparkling wines from France, Spain, Italy and beyond will be the focus in September. And the in-depth look at Cabernet Sauvignon from around the globe will top off the year in December.

Two of the most-popular sessions launched in 2015 will be back as well. February will mark the second year of the popular Wine and Cheese class, which features cheeses and wines from around the world, and May will be the Bring Your Own Bottle, where participants bring their favorite red wines and the class tries to identify them in a blind tasting.

August will be Wines on a Budget, a session that teaches participants how to pick out the best wine in a convenience store, corner grocery or pharmacy, while sticking to a budget.

All Winery U classes are taught by David King, a Certified Specialist of Wine, Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Dry Comal Creek Vineyards tasting room, just outside New Braunfels at 1741 Herbelin Road.

Registration is available online at drycomalcreek.com/winery-u. Sessions are $30 per person, or $25 each if bought for four different classes at once.

Here is the complete schedule:

  • Jan.  9: Introduction to Wine
  • Feb. 6: Wine and Cheese
  • March 5: Sensory Evaluation
  • April 2: Food and Wine
  • May 7: Bring Your Own Bottle
  • June 4: Wines of France
  • July 9: Growing Grapes and Making Wine
  • Aug. 20: Wine on a Budget
  • Sept 10: Sparkling Wines
  • Oct. 8: Texas Wines
  • Nov. 12: Port and Cigars
  • Dec 10: Cabernet Sauvignon

This blessed old house

Shallot bulbs

Shallot bulbs

When Patty and I bought our first home way back in 1983, we were blessed in many ways.

At the time, the house was 60 years old, which means it had been built by craftsmen, using hand tools and locally grown lumber. It was a solid if small place, one that held much potential for growth.

And grow it did. Through the years, we added a bathroom and a bedroom, expanded another bedroom, expanded the living space and remodeled the old one-car garage at least three times.

But it was much more than just a place to expand. It was the place where we were blessed with two sons, sons who grew up in that house, who grew up into the fine young men we miss every day.

We also were blessed with fine neighbors. There was a young couple next door who had moved their small house onto the lot a couple of years before. And we also had neighbors who had been in their homes almost from the day they had been built.

One of those homes was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Grosgebauer. That’s always how we referred to them, Mr. and Mrs. they were sweet people who had moved to New Braunfels many years before to work at what everyone simply referred to as The Mill, the cotton mill directly across the Guadalupe River from our neighborhood.

They had worked there and there only for 40-plus years, and they had been retired and on their mill pensions for 10 years or so.

Mr. Grosgebauer was exactly 50 years older than I was, a wiry man who always wore a hat outside, to protect  his head from the sun. He was not one of those people who gave you a big greeting every time he saw you, but there always was a wave, and more than a few talks over the back fence.

They had a huge garden that butted up against that back fence. It was tended immaculately, and they even had built a shield that kept their tiller from throwing dirt when they plowed. Mr. Grosgebauer’s only enemy in the world, best I could ever tell, was the “bermoody grass” always trying to sneak into his plot.

Patty and I had grown gardens before, but we were especially motivated at the sight of theirs. We built raised beds and compost bins and tilled and weeded, and some years were plentiful. The ones that weren’t, the Grosgebauers would offer some of their production.

What reminded me of our neighbors today was a trip to our current garden. Some plants are struggling after our weird year of weather. But I was thrilled to see that one thing we had planted this fall  was thriving — three little rows of shallots, which you can  treat kind of like a  perennial onion, clipping off the greens for cooking and leaving the bulbs in the ground.

I can’t remember the last time we tried to grow  shallots, if ever, but I do remember the inspiration. The Grosgebauers always had them in their garden. “Shalloten,” he called them, using a German word he had picked up while working at The Mill. Always a bushy green plot, closest to their back door.

So here’s to a winter of shalloten tops — and to the blessing of good neighbors.