Back to Basics: Premium Blends Around The World

You may have noticed that a lot of my posts have been of the exotic variety of late. Aside from recapping vacation adventures, I have gone into great detail on cocktails, plenty of spirits, and unusual grape varieties. So today, it's time to ease up on the gas a little and get back to basics with some good straight-up wine discussion. In this edition of Flight School, I share with you some classic and interesting red and white blends of which I have really received a high level of enjoyment from.

Franciscan Estate Winery does a blending class on-site, but we were fortunate to get one of their blending kits for our classroom. Image credit:  Franciscan Estate

Franciscan Estate Winery does a blending class on-site, but we were fortunate to get one of their blending kits for our classroom. Image credit: Franciscan Estate

At the store, we once ran a blending session using Franciscan Estate's "Magnificat" as our reference point, a kit that is sold by the winery. It is a lot of fun to take the five grapes from the Magnificat (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) and create your own wine in the proportions you see fit. Tasting your own "Franken-wine" alongside the Magnificat is a great practical exercise in how the different grape varieties play off of one another.

When it comes to wine blends, remember that there is always a method to the madness. While it used to be that some producers would just throw disorganized grapes into the fermentation vats and make a wine from them, individual grape varieties are bringing something to the party. The goal is for the grapes to work in harmony to achieve a desired style. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, for example, have long been partners in Bordeaux wines; Cabernet's "structure" (acid, tannin, and aromatics) have often been a foil for Merlot's plush texture and ripe fruit flavor. However, one can also amplify a specific characteristic in a blend. In an example like this, A Merlot-Malbec blend in Argentina will feel ultra-soft on your palate with very ripe fruit flavors since the two grapes have some marked similarities.

I have three whites and three reds for you to try that have been recent favorites of mine. None of these break the bank and provide you with casual, yet interesting wines to enjoy.

The White Wine Flight

Wieninger Wiener Gemischter Satz ($20): You may remember me mentioning "Gentil" blends as a way to get introduced to the grapes of Alsace, France. Gemischter Satz is a similar concept in Austria. This particular blend is mostly Grüner Veltliner, Weissburgunder, Welschriesling, and Chardonnay, but there are smaller proportions of many local varieties like Riesling, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Sylvaner, Traminer, Neuberger. The producer refers to this as "All of Vienna in One Wine." This is aromatic and fresh with delicate citrus and stone fruits, along with some minerally/earthy notes. Perfect with lighter seafood dishes or as a counter to Wiener Schnitzel!

Domaine Lafage Côtes Catalanes "Côté Est" ($14): The Côtes Catalanes region of France near the Spanish border is delivering great value with these unique blends of native and international varieties. Côté Est uses Grenache Blanc (popular for its body, alcohol, and tropical fruit), Roussanne (a high-acid aromatic white grape of the Rhône Valley) and the well-known Chardonnay. The end result is a vibrant, yet creamy white wine with pineapple, apricot, and wild herbs.

Castellargo Friuli Grave "Albus" ($16): Friuli is tucked away in the far northeast of Italy, touching the Austrian and Slovenian borders. Native grape Friulano is blended in near equal proportions with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to create a pungent citrus, herbaceous, earthy wine with some texture on the palate and a slightly floral nose. Delicious with a pasta of fresh herbs and green veggies.

The Red Wine Flight

Viberti Langhe "Dolbà" Rosso ($16): The "Dolbà" refers to the blend of Dolcetto (40%) and Barbera (60%). Dolcetto (translates to "the little sweet one") when fully ripened gives you wines with dark berry, almost jammy fruit that has some tannin and strong aromatics. Barbera is the workhorse grape of the Piedmont area, and in this case provides plenty of acid and fresh red cherry fruit to counter the Dolcetto. A wonderful pizza wine!

Domaine de la Solitude Côtes du Rhône ($18): Solitude is a well-regarded producer of the ageworthy Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In some ways, this is the "baby version" of their flagship wine. 50% Grenache (for body and berry fruit flavor), 30% Syrah (for dark, earthy fruit, acid, and tannin), 15% Cinsault (for juicy red raspberry fruit and acid), and 5% Carignan (for additional "structure" such as acid and tannin). What you get is a well-balanced, versatile red blend that goes great with anything from a burger in summertime to a hearty stew in winter.

Graffigna Centenario Elevation San Juan Red Blend ($14): This is a blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec (both well-suited for many Argentine wines), Syrah, Tannat (an old Southwestern French grape that actually thrives in neighboring Uruguay!) and Bonarda (a fruity red grape that gets lost in the shuffle at times). Tannat's structural and dark fruit content are very high, and Bonarda's fruitiness and full body help counter the aggressiveness of Tannat (which takes its name from "tannin"). The Syrah actually adds a touch of smokiness to the finished wine, too. Sear a cut of red meat, pour a glass of the Elevation, and be happy!

Sangria: "The Only Acceptable Use Of Spanish Wine"

Whoa, whoa, whoa...what are you doing, Mr. Wine Expert?? Haven't you been telling us all along to explore and have an open mind about wines and spirits of the world?

Sangria: a refreshing "patio pounder" of a drink that you need this summer. Image credit: Food Network

Sangria: a refreshing "patio pounder" of a drink that you need this summer. Image credit: Food Network

Yes, I know the title of this post looks like some scorching hot take on wine, but please take note of something very important. These are not my words. This is a proclamation I have heard from some people who might be close to me say on more than one occasion. It's a pretty strong statement that reflects how some of us feel about certain types of wine that might not be our favorites. Some may not like the floral notes of Riesling. Others might be in the "ABC" (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd. Perhaps Australian Shiraz is too high in alcohol for one, while Beaujolais Nouveau is too light and candy-like for another.

Is it a fair stance to take on a wine? To those in agreement, yes. To those who love wines despised by others, of course not. But that's the beauty of the seemingly infinite styles of wine available to us today; the United States has more choices of sophisticated wines than ever. You are going to have wines that agree with your tastes and preferences, and some that you just don't care for. It applies to food, music, movies, art...whatever ignites a great sensation for you falls flat for someone else.

All of this is OK, by the way. We can go into more depth about this topic, but that's for another day. Instead, let's revisit the original statement above. What is it about some of the wines from Spain that can offend someone who would otherwise enjoy them in Sangria?

See this map? It is impossible to lump Spain into a uniform style of wine. All of the nooks and crannies throughout the country lead to a wide array of styles. Image credit:  Foods & Wines From Spain

See this map? It is impossible to lump Spain into a uniform style of wine. All of the nooks and crannies throughout the country lead to a wide array of styles. Image credit: Foods & Wines From Spain

First, let's start with "Spanish wine". I have spent a lot of time helping people delineate Spain into regions rather than lump them all into a uniform style. Rioja is the wine that comes to mind for many in the U.S. as it is easily the top-selling Spanish region, with Tempranillo and Garnacha being the two main grape varieties used to make the red wines. Tempranillo can be berry-scented with some tobacco notes in its youth; with age, the tobacco gets amplified along with evolving into more leathery, meaty flavors. Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache) is full-bodied, high in alcohol, low in acid and very fruity. When handled haphazardly in the winery or not cared for in the vineyards, wines made from Garnacha can oxidize easily, turning into flavors caramel and road tar.

So yeah...if your first experience with Spain is a poorly-made Rioja, I can see why someone might be turned off. However, those qualities that Tempranillo and Garnacha show in their youth in a soundly-produced inexpensive wine, perhaps even coming from a region outside of Rioja, are ideal for a Sangria.

Now for what Sangria is...traditionally, it's going to be a red wine with brandy and fruit added to it to make a sort of "wine punch." Easy to knock back while sitting outside on a warm summer day, the brandy and fresh fruit (strawberries, peaches, plums, oranges, and more) provide some liveliness and refreshment. White sangria can be made, too (perhaps with apples, white peaches, and a vanilla bean) using a white wine from the Rueda region of Spain; Rueda's wines are made from Verdejo, though Sauvignon Blanc is gaining more credibility here, too. There are many permutations of recipes for Sangria out there; some might include lemon juice or other fruit liqueurs. If you like bubbles, use Cava as the base wine, or use some club soda to add fizz. The possibilities are seemingly endless. Beyond that, you can also buy ready-made Sangria, but as I professed in previous cocktail posts, you will find mixing your own to be more rewarding.

So when life gives you "Spanish wine", make Sangria...even if you don't necessarily care for it. Its youthful fruitiness is a perfect base for the refreshing qualities of a good Sangria. There is no need to spend a lot of money; anything more expensive will have its subtle nuances blended away. Here are some great choices...both for drinking on their own for a casual weeknight, or for turning into Sangria.

Bodegas Breca Garnacha de Fuego ($9): Hailing from the Aragon region of Spain, this is full-bodied and packed with straightforward cherry and plum flavors. With a touch of baking spice, this is easy base material for your Sangria. If you are grilling a some red meat, this is a fine accompaniment on its own.

Bodegas Atalaya "Laya" Red Blend ($10): A blend of Garnacha and Monastrell (an intense, high-alcohol, fruity/smoky grape variety), this wine comes from the Almansa region in southeastern Spain. This has dark cherry and blackberry flavor that adds a different dimension to your Sangria. Also a good partner with smoked red meat or grilled game meat.

Bodegas Menade "Creta" Rueda Old Vines ($12): Looking for a white wine? This Verdejo-dominant wine gives you citrus and peach fruit flavor that is perfect for Sangria.

Need a way to make Sangria without a recipe? Here is a great guide for you to assemble your own. Experiment as much as possible...whether you are making Sangria, or enjoying a glass of Spanish wine on its own! If you want to explore what Spain has to offer, Wines From Spain is a great starting point.

Ask Tony: What's The Deal With Asparagus And Wine?

In my best Jerry Seinfeld voice, "What's the deal with asparagus?"

In my best Jerry Seinfeld voice, "What's the deal with asparagus?"

Welcome to my newest segment: Ask Tony! You have questions, I (maybe) have answers.

Spring's arrival means the first bounty of green vegetables. While these don't make it to the forefront of a meal for some, certainly this is an important time for the vegetarian and vegan diners out there. should be having greens on the side with your meat dishes! Listen to your parents for once!

Asparagus: rough stuff if it comes in contact with the wrong wine. Proceed with caution!

Asparagus: rough stuff if it comes in contact with the wrong wine. Proceed with caution!

So among the leafy harvest of kale, Swiss chard, collards, and salad greens also comes the distinct, stalky vegetable called asparagus. It's chemical composition is unique; there are things called "asparagusic acid," "asparagosides," "asparagine," and "asparenyol" involved. These are group of building blocks that make asparagus so asparagus-y. To boot, 60-80% of the asparagus-consuming American population notices quite the "aroma" that emerges when you need to use the potty. All of these asparagus-y chemical components become the bane of many a wine pairing enthusiast. One has to be careful when marrying wines to these spears of green goodness. The wrong choice leads to overly tart, metallic, and astringent flavors on your palate. It's a beyond unpleasant chemical reaction for your senses.

I doesn't sound like there is a lot of upside to getting wine into the equation when asparagus is being served. However, there is always a way. It's not impossible to enjoy both. A really simple guideline is to go for fresh, fruity, unoaked white wines. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Finger Lakes or Alsace Riesling immediately come to mind. You can even go with a Grüner Veltliner, which has always been an equalizer when it comes to greens.

A Grenache-based rosé wine, such as those coming from Navarra (Spain) or from the Côtes du Rhône in France will give you fruitiness if you are not a fan of white wine. If you must have a red, it can be a tougher pairing; any tannins will create chaos. Mild, unoaked, low-tannin reds such as the Gamay-based wines of Beaujolais would be useful in this spot, but go simple. If you spend for the "cru" wines, some (such as those from Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Côte de Brouilly, and Brouilly) have tannin in there; you might want to search for cru regions like Fleurie, which are lighter and gentler.

If all else fails, wrap a piece of prosciutto around a bundle of asparagus or cover asparagus with cheese. That will make life easy and you can just drink whatever you want!

Here are a few specific options for you. Try them for yourself and let me know what you think!

If you have questions you want answered, get in touch with me and maybe I will feature your question in another segment!

Silver Thread Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($18)

Vibrant and peachy, this dry example from New York finishes clean and should help tame the green monster.

Dog Point Vineyard Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc ($20)

Bursting with passionfruit, herbs and a hint of stony earthiness, the ripeness will work wonders with asparagus.

Vega Sindoa Navarra Garnacha Rosado ($11)

Not having any part of white wine? This simple pink wine gives you lots of strawberry and spiced flavors at a terrific bargain.

Chateau de Pizay Beaujolais ($15)

A producer who has been a longtime favorite at the store, this is straightforward raspberry and baking spice that will satisfy the red wine fan.