There's a lot to consider when picking out wine, and with the holiday season coming up and wine being one of the top holiday gifts for parties and dinners, it's important to know what you're buying. After all, what you bring to the table leaves a lasting impression. The good news is that there is time to spare before the party circuit begins, and what better place to learn about wines than in Northern California.
I caught up with Ian Cauble, sommelier at Ritz-Carlton's Half Moon Bay, to get some tips on choosing wines for the season. Cauble recently gained a notch in his wine cellar when he was awarded the Top Young Sommelier in the World by the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, the world’s oldest gastronomic society based in Paris, France.
"The only way to learn about wine is to start tasting," said Cauble. "You can break down the wine on certain aspects - sight, taste, touch, smell. The most important thing is to analyze the wine's color: darker colors come from thicker skin grapes; staining of the tears signifies warm climate and heavier taste. The legs falling isn't how good or bad the wine is - it's about sugar and alcohol. The higher the sugar, the slower the legs or higher alcohol content."
When he's not analyzing grape skins or looking at legs on the side of a crystal wine glass, Cauble plays host to the hotel's ENO-versity wine education program. Each Saturday in the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay's wine tasting room, guests can participate in ENO-veristy, where they'll learn about a specific wine region from around the world.
Choosing wine for your table
While your style, tastes and temptations will change year-over-year, so will the wine you drink. Take a trip around the world by tasting different wines at your next dinner party. For this fall, Cauble advises the following:
"Rose is one of the best things to keep in your cellar," said Cauble, who recommends roses from 2010 or newer, and have a salmon-pink color. Most decent roses will cost you around $30. "You get what you pay for with roses."
Red wine drinkers who enjoy Pinot Noir might like something a little different, like wines from Sicilian producer Occhipinti Frappato. "If you like Pinot Noir, it's like Pinot in texture, but has more richness and volcanic spiciness." Pair these room-temperature reds with salmon, fresh vegetables, or with a hearty piece of lamb or meat.
Since fall is very much a transitional season, Cauble cautions wine buyers to keep it simple with reds. In France's Northern Rhone Valley, Syrah is the top grape of wine-makers, and a favorite for those who want the spiciness that's synonymous with fall, without the heaviness that comes along with red wines that pair well with winter weather.
"With fall, you don't want over the top wines, you want fruit friendly that takes you from summer to fall," said Cauble. If you're looking for a Syrah with earthier undertones, Cauble says to choose those produced in 2002 and 2008 and "only if they're highly recommended." His picks: the 2007 and 2009 years, which produced much more full-bodied Syrahs.
A little closer to home, the Sonoma Coast produces some of the more famous wines from Northern California, including award-winning Pinot Noirs. The trick to picking out the best Pinot, said Cauble, is to watch the weather.
"The true 'Sonoma Coast' [wines] are the grapes that are within a few miles from the coast and extending not too far inland," he explained. "If the weather is 70 degrees at the ocean, 10 miles away it will be about 80 degrees. But you don't want a Pinot to get too hot." The ocean is imperative to producing good wines, according to Cauble, who gives a nod to Peay Vineyard, which sits about 4 miles from the coast. "Well made Pinots from the new world, that's not overripe, are the best. Too much alcohol looses the beauty of the grape." Look for Sonoma Pinots from 2009, which Cauble sites as one of the years for this young grape.
Forget the wine rules
While various wines will pair better with certain foods, the time of year will also dictate what you're pouring. There are a few staples to always have around your house.
"Pinot goes with just about everything, from salad with strawberries to braised lamb shank." Cauble suggests Pinot Noirs from Russian River Valley, Santa Rita Hills, or Willamette Valley, which retail for around $30.
"There are the classics, but they are just there for purpose," said Cauble. The typical Cabernet with lamb, Pinot noir with game or meats, and white wine with fish are only guidelines, but aren't necessarily the best pairings. "General rule of thumb: the dish should never be sweeter than the wine you're drinking."
Bottom line with wines: pay attention to your taste buds. Whether you're traveling to vineyards around world, taking part in wine tasting programs or just choosing based on region and grape, your palate will pick your perfect wine.
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