WINES OF THUNDER FROM DOWN UNDER

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri

Australian wine makers have done wonders with the Syrah grape, locally known as Shiraz. The grape seems to thrive in the Australian soil and climate, and it produces one of the most robust and flavourful red wines in the world. The signature characteristic of wines made from the Shiraz grape is a kind of black pepper spiciness, which usually is embroidered with layers of black currants, plum, black cherry, cedar, and vanilla-scented oak.

The hallmark wine that I believe really brought Australian wines to the world’s attention probably is Rosemount Shiraz, which is considered by most to be a “reference wine” for Australian Shiraz. It is consistently well balanced and rich with ripe, intense fruit flavours, but its power and grace are equally proportioned. And, best of all, you can still buy it for under Australian $ 30.

Australia is not a one-grape wonder by any means. It also does well with most of the other familiar grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Australian wine makers are fond of blending Shiraz and other well-known grapes varieties in just about every possible combination to achieve a wide range of styles. For example, you can find blends of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and so on. An Australian peculiarity is to blend two grapes and name the wine after both, the dominant variety first, for example: Shiraz / Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz.

As for white wines, they produce big, buttery Chardonnays that have lots of oak. They like to blend it with Semillion to make a leaner, less rich wine. They have also invented several completely original formulas; Riesling blended with Traminer grapes to give the wine a nice spicy snap. For example, Rosemount makes a Traminer-Riesling blend that is one of the best cocktail wines available, and I highly recommend it.

There are lots of other Australian producers who make great wines that are widely available in Sri Lanka. Look for wines from Lindemans, Hardys, Leeuwin Estate, Wolf Blass, Petaluma, Katnook Estate, Tyrrell’s, Xanadu and Penfolds, to name just a few.

Penfolds has a staggering array of wines available that range from cheap, basic cask or bag –in- box wines to the legendary “Grange,” which has an international following among wine collectors and was named Wine of the Year by the influential Wine Spectator magazine. It is one of the greatest wines in the world that rivals the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy in price and mystique.

For most wine drinkers outside Australia, the whole discussion of Australian wine regions is academic. Even Grange, for example carries the broad South Australian appellation, which covers wines produced anywhere in the state of South Australia. Commercial wines such as Jacob’s Creek have even more all-encompassing appellation in the shape of “South – Eastern Australia, which could be used for grapes grown in South Australia, Victoria or New South Wales – three states that, between them, produce over 90% of the annual harvest.

Almost all Australian wineries use the “Bin” labelling system on at least a portion of their wines; for example, Bin 2, Bin 389, Bin 707. I think this a quaint throwback to older times when the term “bin” referred to what is called a “lot.” Therefore, Bin 2 would refer to a specific blend or lot of Shiraz and Mourvedre, and Bin 389 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

You might also run into another designation called Show Reserve. In Australia the term usually does mean better quality wine. In wine shows it is often stipulated that any entrant must come from a batch of so many thousands of bottles, and this is kept in reserve by the various wineries. They are usually released following the wine’s show career and winning medals. So some of the Show Reserves can be very handsome, not to mention expensive.

Generally, however the Australian labels are easy to understand and are informative. Wines are labelled with the name of the grape variety stating the grape or combination of grapes used which must constitute at least 85% of the wine. It is the taste that you drink, not the place mate.

Australian wines epitomize user-friendliness and are pleasant to drink from an early age. So, if you get bored with what you are currently drinking, take a look at what is coming out from down under. You are sure to find something interesting.

 

 

WHAT COLOUR IS YOUR TASTE?

-by Ranjith Chandrasiri-

There is an important step between knowing how to taste wine and finding the wines that you like. That step is putting taste into words. There are two hurdles here; coming up with the words to describe what you like or don’t like, and then getting the other person to understand what you mean. Naturally, it helps if we all speak the same language.

Unless you want to drink the same wine for the rest of your life, you are going to have to decide what it is that you like or dislike in a wine and communicate that to another person who can steer you in the right direction. Appearance and aroma are not critical in finding a wine you like. If you prefer white, red or pink, it’s because of the way the wine tastes, not because of the colour.

When you first begin to taste wine, you are usually faced with two opposite problems. The wine was so simple that you really couldn’t find anything to say about it or the flavours were so complex that you couldn’t sort them out. Learning to describe the taste of a wine in wine language is the secret.

Wines have flavours, but wines don’t come in a specific flavour- strawberry, chocolate or plain vanilla. While you might enjoy the suggestion of chocolate in a red wine, you wouldn’t want to go to a wine shop and ask for a chocolaty wine. Instead you would refer to “families of flavours” in wine.

Fruity wines – the ones that make you think of fruit when you hold the wine in your mouth.

Earthy wines – These make you think of mushrooms, walks in the forest, dry leaves and so on.

Spicy wines – Cinnamon, cloves black pepper for example.

Herbal wines – Mint, grass, hay, rosemary and so on.

And there are so many other flavours in wine that you could go on and on.

 Sweetness

Beginners sometimes describe dry wines as sweet because they confuse fruitiness with sweetness. A wine is fruity when it has distinct aromas and flavour of fruit. You smell the fruitiness with your nose and in your mouth you “smell” it through your retro- nasal passage. Sweetness on the other hand, is perceived on the surface of your tongue. When in doubt, try holding your nose when you taste the wine. If the wine is sweet, you will be able to taste the sweetness despite the fact that you can’t smell the fruitiness.

 Acidity

All wines have acidity for both its flavour and its preservative quality. Acidity is more of a taste factor in white wines than in reds. For white wines acidity is the backbone of the wine’s taste. White wines with good amount of acidity taste crisp, and those lack acidity taste fat and flabby. The sides of the tongue trigger your perception of acidity. You can also sense the consequences of acidity (or lack of it) in the overall style of the wine – whether it’s a tart little number or a soft and generous sort for example. Classify the wine you are tasting as tart, crisp or soft.

Tannin

Tannin is the substance that exists naturally in grape skins. Because red wines are fermented with the grape skins, tannin levels are far higher in red wines than in white wines. Just as acidity to a white wine, tannin is the backbone that gives the structure to a red wine. Because tannin sometimes taste bitter, you sense tannin near the back of your tongue. Wood tannin contributes a warm sensation on the insides of the cheeks. The cumulative effect of both is a puckering drying sensation. Depending on the amount of tannin, a red wine can be called astringent, firm or soft.

Red wines have acid as well as tannin, and distinguishing between the two as you taste a wine can be a challenge. When you are not sure whether it’s mainly tannin or acid, pay attention to how your mouth feels after you have swallowed the wine. Both tannin and acid will make your mouth feel dry, but acid makes you salivate in response to the dry feeing (saliva is alkaline, so it neutralizes the acid). Tannin just leaves your mouth dry.

Body

A wine’s body is an impression you get from the whole of the wine. It is the impression of the weight, which is usually attributed to alcohol in a wine. Think about the wine’s fullness and weight as you taste it and classify the wine as light, medium or full-bodied.

Good wine should have texture; it shouldn’t be thin like water. It can be subtle or thick and ropey like oil on canvas. It should also have what is called a long finish, which is the lingering sensation in the mouth. The balance of a wine – critical to its quality – depends on having all these factors present in the right amount.

When the wine is in your mouth, the multiple taste sensations – flavours, sweetness or dryness, acidity, tannin, balance, length, body and texture – occur practically all at once and the experience is so sensational that the best you can do is to try to describe it.

 

 

 

 

JUDGING A WINE BY ITS LABEL

(Photo: with Opus One’s Director of viticulture & enology and chief winemaker, Michael Silacci)

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

More people choose wines by their labels than anyone would like to admitting it. Novices reach for colourful eye-catching labels, snobs demand famous names. In fact, a wine label reveals a great deal about the flavours in the bottle. You can begin your tasting even before you’ve pulled the cork.

Although each country has its own laws regarding wine labels, basically there are three kinds of labels: varietal-based, terroir-based and sheer fantasy. The information they offer, much of it required by law, overlaps to a large extent, each one reflects a different approach to winemaking.

Have you ever bought a Chardonnay? Then you’re already familiar with the varietal approach; wines named for the grape variety that makes up all (or some legally defined minimum) of the juice in the bottle. California pioneered this method and most of the New World producers have adopted it. However, some European wine regions such as Alsace in France, Friuli in Italy, for example have traditionally followed this approach.

Most European wines, however, use terroir-based labelling. Terroir is a French word that explains all the physical factors – its soil, exposure, microclimate, etc that distinguish a given vineyard or a wine region. These wines may be made from a single grape variety (such as Pinot Noir for red wines in Burgundy) or a blend that may vary by vintage (such as Bordeaux’s judicious mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc).

Some winemakers have found themselves so frustrated by local wine regulations which may dictate certain grape blends or vinification techniques as prerequisites to obtaining labels, whether based on varietal or terroir, they abandon traditional approaches and use labels based simply on fantasy. In Tuscany, producers determined to make new-style wines abandoned the terroir-based Chianti labels for the humble designation vino da tavola (table wine). In California, winemakers working with the grapes and flexible blending approach of Bordeaux have given up some varietal-based labels to bottle “Meritage” wines.

Each kind of label gives different clues to the wine inside the bottle, but all labels include a few basics. For example, the producer’s name is always prominent. Most wineries develop consistent signatures, based on their location, winemaking skills and marketing goals; once you’re familiar with a winery’s profile, the producer’s name is perhaps the most reliable indicator of wine style and quality.

The wine’s vintage is almost always shown, too. If you’re familiar with the vintages of a given region, this can be a telling indicator–red Bordeaux were mostly light and diluted in 1992, but rich and concentrated in 1990. However, even if you don’t know whether a specific vintage was good or bad, knowing how old a wine indicates something about its current state: young, fresh and fruity, or older, smoother and more complex. Most whites, and many reds, are best within three years of the vintage; wines that age well increase in price over time. But beware of old, inexpensive wines that don’t improve with age.

Most labels indicate the region where the grapes were grown and the wine made. On terroir-based labels, this factor is particularly emphasized: The Burgundian appellations of Nuits-St.-Georges and Vosne-Romanée, for example, are more or less homogenous and distinctive vineyard areas that at least in theory, impart recognizable character to their wines, especially since appellation laws generally regulate many aspects of grape growing and wine making. Varietal-based labels also generally indicate appellations (though often in small type), sometimes right down to the name of the vineyard. But in these production areas regulation tends to be much looser so wines from the same appellation tend to have less in common. Fantasy labels often avoid any mention of the origin at all (sometimes the laws won’t permit their indication). Since these wines deliberately break with the traditions of their regions, origin doesn’t mean that much anyway.

What about the descriptions on labels? You will never read one like this: “Due to poor weather conditions this vintage was difficult and the resultant wine is not recommended for cellaring”.

No, you get: “This delicate table wine shows outstanding fruit balanced by natural acid. It may be enjoyed now”. That is not to criticize all descriptions, many producers are reputable and their descriptions are authentic and useful reference especially for the beginners.

Wineries put a lot of effort into dressing up their labels. Savvy wine lovers can decipher what the law says they must say, what the producers want to say and sometimes more than they intend to say. Spend some time studying labels before you buy and you’ll increase your chances of finding a quality wine for your money.

Finally, don’t forget the price tag, stuck right there next to the label. Yes, there may be wide disparities between a wine’s cost and its quality.

If you are spending under Rs 1500 per bottle, the wine is likely to be simple, offering alcohol as its principal virtue. From Rs 1500 to Rs 4000, most wines offer fresh fruit, enough structure to marry well with food and some individual personality. You should be prepared to pay at least over Rs 4000 if you expect complex flavours of ripe fruit and new oak, enough concentration to develop with aging and a distinctive character stamped with the wine’s creator and origin but unfortunately there are no sought-after “collectors” wines available in wine shops in Sri Lanka at the moment.

 

 

ENTERTAINING WITH WINE

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

An evening of entertainment at your home should involve good food, good wine, good people, good music and stimulating interaction among your guests. You, the host have a responsibility to ensure that all of the requisite ingredients are present and that one ingredient does not overshadow the others.

I have attended many social gatherings at elegant homes and have been hosted by the best. I understand that some people are simply not into wine and have no knowledge about wine. After all wine is not part of our culture and it is not traditionally consumed with Sri Lankan food. But of course it is becoming trendy to entertain with wine. Just as a host who knows he is not a good cook decides to have the party catered for and serves delicious food, he could also “cater” the wine selections if this is not within his sphere of knowledge and ability.

Many non-drinkers face the intimidating challenge of entertaining guests who do drink and enjoy wine. Questions of what wine to serve with what food, how much wine is enough and whether you should offer guests choices of wine are but a few of the challenges.

Even if you have a fair knowledge of wine, no harm done seeking expert advice on what wines to serve with a particular array of food and desserts. If you don’t know- it is best to ask somebody!

Let me to share few thoughts and ideas on entertaining with wine…..

When entertaining guests for dinner, it is customary to offer a pre-dinner wine – an aperitif. Typically, this is a simple white wine (can and should be inexpensive but tasty and pleasant) as you don’t want this wine to be your best offering. Whether you serve hors d’oeuvres or not, you should offer your guests a drink when they arrive and white wine is the usual choice. This is not the wine with which you want to impress your guests or dazzle them with the quality since you want them to mingle, talk and focus on the people – not the wine.

Some prefer to serve Champagne at this time instead of white wine. Opening of a bottle of Champagne is a “ceremony” that brings together everyone in the group and honour your guests. A glass of Champagne is compelling enough and guests typically know that a glass of Champagne is too special to ignore. Unlike many white wines, Champagne stands alone without food.

Now to the dinner table; which wines should be served? The most important considerations here are; whether the wine you serve is ready to drink and whether the wine is compatible with the food. There are no hard and fast rules regarding pairing wines with food. Personal tastes vary significantly here. However, one should know what has customarily worked over the years, as there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Tried and true pairings are handy to have at your disposal. Here are a few:

  • Oysters and Chablis
  • Lamb and red Bordeaux ( or Chianti)
  • Port with blue cheese
  • Salmon with Pinot Noir
  • Braised beef with Barolo (Italian red)
  • Beef or steak with red Burgundy or Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Lobster with Chardonnay
  • Grilled chicken with Beaujolais
  • Chocolate with Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Spicy food such as Sri Lankan and Indian dishes with Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Champagne or Sparkling Wines or red wines such as Gamey, Dolcetto, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Shiraz.

Again, these are suggestions at best and represent what others have found likeable. You should begin to learn what you and your friends like and expand upon your own personal experience.

A safe alternative is always to offer two choices with your meals. This allows those who have very strong likes and dislikes to avoid their dislikes.

How much wine should you buy? If you plan to serve several different bottles with different courses, you will need to buy fewer bottles of each type. Each 750ml bottle of wine provides 5 servings at 150ml each or 6 servings at 125ml each. If you are pairing wine with a meal, plan 1-1.5 serving(s) per course/person. When serving two wines only, plan one bottle of each wine per couple. A simple rule of thumb is that you should have one full bottle of wine per guest (total consumption). While this may sound like it is too much, if you are serving a lot of food spread over several hours, it won’t be too much. It is far better to have too much than too little.

If you’re concerned that your guests may overindulge, be sure that their water glasses are always full so they have an alternative to automatically reaching for the wine.

As a final note, be sure that you have different glasses for each different type of wine. It is not good to expect your guests to drink Cabernet Sauvignon out of the same glass from which they drank Chardonnay – if nothing else, be sure that the glass is rinsed and the traces of the first wine are gone before you pour the next one.

Integrating wine experiences into an event is a great way to create delicious memories and add fun to your party, whether it is a casual get-together with friends or a special occasion!

 

ORDERING WINE IN A ROMANTIC RESTAURANT

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

Ok, with the Valentine’s Day around the corner, you’ve finally decided to take the special woman in your life to a fancy restaurant and have made a dinner reservation ahead of time for Valentine’s night. You know she likes wine and you want to impress her but you know absolutely nothing about wine. Wine books are always available in book stores in the food sections but if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your desk, there’s always the net. You surf the net, explore and find out as much as you can.

So now that you’ve done some homework, here’s what you do once you’ve made it to the restaurant, and you’ve just been seated:

If your dining partner is truly important to you, it is definitely to your advantage to whisper the magic words: “Let’s have some wine.” And this I can say after 25+ years in the restaurant business: women prefer wine! And women prefer men who drink wine!!

So what’s next?

A waiter will approach to ask if you would like to start with a cocktail or glass of wine. Remember that you are there to please your lady, not the server. If you can afford it, why not start off with a glass of champagne? Ask your waiter for either two glasses, or two splits (the miniature airplane sized bottles), of sparkling wine. In the nicest restaurants, they will usually serve you some kind of French Champagne. In middle range restaurants, it’s usually a California or Australian sparkler. Don’t worry about the quality, since both are usually quite good and make perfect ice breakers — and you’re on your way!

Do take a good look at the wine list, whether you know what you’re looking at or not. The important thing is to look good doing it — this is romance, after all. You should also remember this: no matter where you are, do not order the cheapest wine because if she should happen to find out, you are just not going to look good. I suggest a bottle for around Rs 4000- 6000, which is the most sensible price range even among connoisseurs. Oh, you can bump it up an extra Rs 2000 – 3000 if you want something special.

After all it doesn’t hurt to ask for help, that’s what the sommeliers are for. Most women are impressed by that anyhow – like asking for directions on the road. Again, the idea is to look good doing it. Call over your waiter – or in the finest places, the sommelier, also known as a wine steward – and ask for a recommendation.

Now, you should be looking at your dinner menus. Perhaps you’re worried about remembering what goes with what. Ever heard the old saying, “red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat”? Forget you ever heard it. Just remember few guidelines.

Common sense is first. Don’t ever try to match food and wine that you don’t like with the hopes of creating something that you do like. Always start with a wine that you like all by itself – most of the wine will be consumed without the benefit of the food. Think about it – do you really think that you’re going to have a sip of wine with every single bite? No! Chances are that you’d still have some wine left after the food is gone. Even if the match is not perfect, at least you’ve got a wine that you enjoy.

A better approach would be to try to match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine. To show their best, heavy food needs big wine. Medium food needs medium wine. Light, delicate food needs – you can figure it out from here. Another idea is to match the wine with the sauce or the predominant flavor of the food.

Another bit of good old common sense comes from the old saying, “what grows together goes together.” If you’re eating some sort of regional cuisine, try a regional wine. For example, French cheese and French wine, pasta and an Italian red, steak and Cabernet, barbecue and Zinfandel (what’s more American than that?). This may be a reach, but I bet nothing would go better with a kangaroo patty than a nice Aussie Shiraz!

Don’t panic. Just follow this fool-proof method: select one of the two most food-flexible wines in the world, one of which is a white, and the other a red. So you ask her, “Would you prefer a white or a red?”

Plan to order a full bottle of wine. Why? Bottles are so much more romantic and the opening and poring ritual call for the special occasion. Don’t worry about whether you can finish the bottle. But do not, under any circumstance, ask for a doggy bag for any leftover wine; since it is not a thing for a cultivated man to do. Bottom line: drink slowly, and only as much as you safely can.

Now that you have ordered the bottle you like, the waiter or sommelier will then wish to perform the serving ritual; which is when he shows you the bottle, opens it, and asks you to taste and approve it.

Relax! It’s really all based on common-sense traditions, and the simple fact is that you have absolutely no obligation to do anything in particular but sit and wait for the wine to be poured.

The server will bring out the bottle and show you the label. This is simply to ensure that you’re getting the exact wine you ordered. Should it be a different wine, different vintage, or in any way not what you ordered, simply say so, and it should be replaced with the correct bottle. (Or at least the waiter will explain why he brought a substitute – but he should really have asked you first.)

Then the waiter will pull the cork. The bottle should never be brought to the table already opened. The tradition of opening the bottle in your sight was established as a way to prove that no one substituted “lesser” wine for the contents of your bottle when it was out of your sight.

Once he’s removed the cork, he’ll offer it to you for inspection. This worries a lot of people, who fear that they’re expected to perform in some way. All you really have to do is put it down, out of the way. If you want to pick it up, sniff it, look at it knowingly, put it in your pocket as a souvenir, feel free. In theory, you might be able to get a hint of the wine’s condition if the cork is soft, crumbly, wet or smells funny, but you’ll learn nothing here that won’t become evident in the glass.

The waiter then pours a small taste into your glass. Swirl it, sniff it, taste it and give a nod approval. He’ll then pour the lady first and return to fill your glass.

In the unlikely event that you feel something is wrong with the wine — particularly if it has that dank, musty, “wet cardboard” or “damp basement” aroma that indicates it was afflicted by a bad cork — you have the right to send the wine back and request a replacement. In practice, however, this is rarely a problem in modern times.

That’s all there is to it! It takes longer to explain than it takes to endure at the table. Most important, bear in mind that the purpose of the “ritual” isn’t to embarrass you or show you up as a non-expert; it’s really all just tradition, based on giving you, the diner, the wine you ordered in good condition. And of course the ritual adds romance to a special occasion.

 

WINE WORLD UNCORKED

(Photo: with legendary Winemaker, Professor Denis Dubourdieu)

–By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

Not long ago, one of the first things they taught you at wine school was that, if you wanted to evaluate the quality of the wine in front of you, first of all you must check its provenance. In other words, before making a judgment on the condition of the wine, you needed to examine where it had come from. Wine was an intimidating, jargon-riddled subject studied by only a privileged few. Make no mistake; fermented grape juice has come a long way since then.

Until relatively recently, entry into “Club du Vin” required a geological qualification and the elite club was off limits for New World lads. To put it bluntly, wine was elitist, snobbish and over-complicated.

Today, that situation no longer exists. Who would have thought that we would see California wine being sold for hundreds of Dollars a bottle? Who would have expected tiny, obscure Pomerol properties would sell their wines for thousands of Dollars or we would see a $100+ California wine with a screw cap rather than a cork?

You can now ask for a glass of wine in a pub and be fairly sure it won’t require a soda-squirt life-saver. You can now pick up a decent bottle of wine from places like Chile and Argentina, which were unheard of in the past and people won’t laugh at you if you lay down a cellar of New World wines.

Today, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you earn or what you know; the door is now wide open for all and there is no dress code required. You can know zilch about wine, but still be able to choose a good bottle off the shelves of a supermarket. You can be earning an average salary, but be able to buy something that tastes good. You can be in the middle of nowhere, but still find a bottle of Chardonnay. The wine snobs haven’t all gone away, but the new democracy of the bottle shop has left them an increasingly irrelevant and powerless bunch.

I am excited about the wine world today. Thanks to new technology and better-managed vineyards, the overall standard of wine we drink today is much higher than the stuff drunk two decades ago.

I must admit, part of me is getting a bit disillusioned though. There is an increase in the number of very poor wines made and a depressing trend towards marketing-led wines. Producers seem to be spending more time in “brand-storming” meetings coming up with daft names and silly packaging than improving the quality of the products.

While on the subject of brands, too many once-reliable names have begun slipping off the “value-for-money” rails, pushing brand loyalty to its limits with over-priced, over-stretched wines. Too often it’s a case of “great packaging, shame about the contents”.

On the outside, you get the sexy, slim, tall bottle with a designer, minimalist label and on the inside, you find inky dark colour(in the red corner, that is), super-concentrated fruit, velvety soft tannins -too good to be real and, of course, the obligatory dose of sweet oak.

At the same time as they’ve been perfecting the international critic-pleasing styles of premium wine, producers particularly in the New World have cynically been creating new levels of premium-ness to satisfy their thirst for higher margins. I haven’t still been able to figure out the difference between a super-premium and an ultra-premium wine.

Increasingly, the portfolio of blue chip wines is becoming beyond the reach of most. Unless the First Growth producers release the wine version of those miniature selections, the taste of Mouton, Lafite, Latour and the like will remain a sensory experience reserved for the rich and the famous.

With the exciting notion of using wine as an investment medium, most of the fine wines languish in cellars around the world usually with little prospect of being opened. It is an interesting point to debate whether wine should be appreciated as a drink or as an investment asset.

Wine is one of the most fascinating, life-affirming, soul warming drinks in the world although it is not traditionally consumed in Sri Lanka. We still have a “complicated attitude” towards drinking wine. But it is worth noticing that drinking wine is fast becoming a new lifestyle trend as a healthy alternative to consumption of whisky and Arrack among young professionals to corporate world, women and more.

Finally, I share my frustration that Sri Lanka is becoming the dumping ground for cheap, poor quality wine for which we are obliged to pay ridiculously high prices much more than the rest of the world as a consequence of high taxes, complicated wine import policies and restrictions on alcoholic advertising which holds back the opportunity of enjoying a good glass of wine for many Sri Lankans.

 

FAQ ABOUT WINE

( Photo: with Tim Mondavi)

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

Learning about wine is as much about gaining experience as it is about gaining knowledge. It is about sensation, feeling, the occasion, the food as well as about memory. Wine appreciation is the experience of all these things. For the appreciation of wine, there are some skills and knowledge to be mastered that provide you with a framework to which you can relate your existing and future experience of wine. More often than not, wine experts gain their expertise through informal study or experience gained as amateurs. Journey through the world of wine is a fascinating experience. Sometimes you might stumble and sometimes the experience will be exquisite. As you explore new territories, you will come across things that you might (or might not) want to know about wine but too afraid to ask. Often I receive questions on wine from my readers. Following are some of the frequently asked questions that I like to share with you all.

Q: Do the glasses one uses for sampling/drinking wine influence the drinking experience?

 A: Absolutely the glasses make a difference. They don’t have to be expensive, but the basic wine-glass should be tulip-shaped; the wider bowl lets you swirl the wine without spilling and the narrower rim helps concentrate aromas.

To see what a difference a glass makes, try the same wine out of a tulip-shaped glass, a water glass and a plastic cup. See if the wine doesn’t taste markedly different from the three different glasses.

Q: How long will a dessert wine or Port stay fresh after the bottle is opened?

A: Sweet dessert wines generally hold up better than dry wines once opened. Two or three days shouldn’t affect the quality too much, even up to a week, depending on the wine.

Other dessert wines, like Sherry, Tawny Port or Madeira, maintain their integrity for a longer period of time because they have been exposed to oxygen during the winemaking process and the alcohol, which acts as a preservative, is higher. A week, maybe two, should be no problem once they are open.

To help maintain freshness, opened wines should always be kept in the refrigerator.

Q: Why are single vineyard wines significant? Are they always better than blends from multiple vineyards?

A: Like the lead singer in a Broadway musical, a single-vineyard wine tends to have its own unique character and charm. When assessing character, “better” comes down to personal taste; the character might appeal to you, or it might not. Quality is a separate issue and, for the most part, only exceptional vineyards are used to produce single-vineyard wines. These wines usually reflect the quality of the vineyard, but may occasionally have an off-vintage (or an off-night, to continue the analogy). On the other hand, wines blended from multiple vineyards are more like the musical’s chorus. The character may be less exciting, but if one of the singers is having an off-night, the rest make up for it. Finally, when it comes to compensation, both single-vineyard wines and true stars are rare and both command higher prices than the chorus.

That is a simplified explanation, but if I went any further I’d be talking about terroir. That’s another topic.

Q: What are the sparkling crystals you sometimes find floating in wine?

 A: Those are tartrate crystals, which are natural and not at all harmful. They sometimes form in wine in the bottle, particularly in wines that have had minimal manipulation in the winery.

Q: I have been amazed at the different tastes and nuances that I have been able to pick up in red wines. What causes a red wine to taste like tea, mint, or especially, chocolate?

A: Wine is an incredibly complex beverage which can contain scores of different volatile elements — the aldehydes, esters and miscellaneous compounds which make up the elements we interpret as flavours. Some of them share exactly the same molecular structure as elements present in other foods, such as cinnamon, vanilla, and butter, so you might say we are actually tasting “vanilla” in the wine. Other elements, either alone or in combination, simply resemble aromas that we associate with other objects, from gum drops to sweaty gym socks. The “chocolate” flavour probably results from a combination of these effects. What’s amazing to me is how often different tasters independently discover the same complex taste associations in a wine.

Q: Is there an easy way to remove wine labels for storage with my tasting notes?

A: One simple way is to soak the bottle in hot water with a dash of ammonia. Make sure the bottle is full of hot water also. Another method is to apply wide Scotch tape across the label, rub thoroughly with a solid, flat object , then pull the tape off & trim the edges.

Some labels just will not come off, no matter what you do!!

Q: What’s the difference between a double magnum and a jeroboam?

A: Although bottle sizes are standardized in many countries, there is some regional variation in the names associated with bottles of different capacities. In Bordeaux, a double magnum is traditionally considered to be 3 liters, while a Jeroboam is 4.5 liters. In Champagne and Burgundy, however, the Jeroboam is generally understood to be 3 liters , and the term “double magnum” is not often used.

Q: I keep reading about soft tannins, or pleasant tannins, or lots of tannin. My question is simple: What are tannins?

A: Tannins are substances that get into the wine from the grape skins and seeds. They can be bitter and can add rough texture to a wine–think of over-brewed tea, which has lots of tannin in it–but they benefit wine, too, by preserving it from early oxidation. Good winegrowers know how to manage the tannins in the vineyard and the winery to strike the right balance, so that a wine has a pleasant velvety, soft texture, instead of being too rough. As wine ages in the bottle, some but not all of the tannin will drop out of solution and form sediment.

Q: My question is, don’t you need to swallow the wine in order to judge the length and complexity of the finish?

A: As far as analytical tasting goes, swallowing is not essential. By breathing out through mouth and nose after spitting, virtually all of the flavours and aromas can be experienced and judged. And the gain in concentration makes up for whatever small loss there is. But as far as pleasure is concerned, swallowing is highly recommended!

Q: Why is Sauvignon Blanc usually so much cheaper than Chardonnay?

A: Prices for wines have as much to do with image and demand as they do with production costs. However, Sauvignon Blanc grapes cost less than Chardonnay grapes–partly because of higher yields–and the wines require less investment in new oak barrels. Also, Sauvignon Blancs are ready to drink after four to eight months; Chardonnays generally take one to two years before release. Time is money, too. But mostly, it’s the perception of SB as less aristocratic than Chardonnay.

Q: What exactly is claret?

A: “Claret” is a conventional term that traditionally refers to red wine from the Bordeaux region of France, but it has no official, legal definition and is often used as a generic term to refer to dry red wines. It derives from “clairet,” the name for a certain type of light red wine that was exported from Bordeaux in the Middle Ages and became quite popular in England. The wine, because of its light color, was known as “vinum clarum,” “bin clar” or “clairet.” It bore little resemblance to the wines that are characteristic of Bordeaux today–but the name endures.

Q: What is noble rot?

A: Noble rot–known in France as “pourriture noble” and in Germany as “Edelfaule”–is the common name for Botrytis cinerea, a beneficial mould that grows on ripe white wine grapes in the vineyard under specific climatic conditions. The mould attacks the grapes and dehydrates them, leaving them shrivelled and raisinlike, and concentrates the sugar content in the berries. The wines from these berries have a rich, complex, honeyed character and are often high in residual sugar. The botrytis mould contributes to the unique flavours of wines such as Sauternes from Bordeaux, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling from Germany, and an array of late-harvest wines from other regions.

PERFECT MATCH – MARRYING FOOD & WINE

(Photo: with Celebrity Chef Ken Hom OBE)

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

As a matter of fact, food – with –wine is about as simple an issue as boy- meets-girl. Fortunately, what happens between food and wine is not haphazard. Certain elements of food react in predictable ways with certain elements of wine, giving us a winning chance at making a successful match. The major components of wine (alcohol, sweetness, acid and tannins) relate to the basic tastes of food (sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness). Some of the elements exaggerate each other and some compensate for each other.

“White wine with fish, red wine with meat” That is the commonly accepted “law” for matching wine with food. Based on centuries of experience and tradition, it makes a lot of common sense: the subtle flavour of plainly grilled fish would be over-powered by a strong red wine, whereas it might be difficult to appreciate the finer points of a delicate white wine against the flavours of a rich beef stew. The reason we worry so much about choosing a wine to go with a particular meal is that without doubt the right food and wine combination can double the enjoyment of both.

The problem is that the simple “white-with-fish, red-with-meat” law doesn’t take account of many other factors such as different styles of cooking, flavoursome sauces and accompaniments, or the influence of ethnic cuisine. More importantly, of course, it doesn’t take account of personal tastes and preferences.

Matchmaking

The only sensible “rule” is to decide for yourself what suits your tastes – it might not be conventional, but your own, personal taste is far more important than convention. As we gain experience and learn more about wine, we think of it not just in terms of flavour, but also in other terms such as weight, power, aroma and length. One of the keys to choosing a wine to suit a particular dish is to take a moment to consider these qualities in relation to the food and then try to find a style of wine with qualities to match or to contrast.

For example, imagine a fillet of poached salmon with a rich, buttery sauce. The flesh of salmon is firmer, heavier and richer than some other fish and the sauce is rich and creamy. We could choose a full-bodied, big, buttery, oaked chardonnay to match the weight and character of the dish or we could choose a tart, fresh sauvignon blanc to contrast and cut through the heavy sauce. This all comes down to personal preferences, but either combination would probably work well. Alternatively, although it’s hard to imagine the flavours of this dish being helped by the tannins of a firm red wine, would the light body and fresh, fruity flavours of a young, delicate Beaujolais prove quite acceptable?

Many dishes need a full-bodied wine with an oak overlay and would suffer in tandem with a light, fruity wine. Smoked or wood grilled meats perk up with an oaky, California Chardonnay, the big, rich, vanilla-laden wines match perfectly with roasted chicken that drips with naturally buttery, fatty juices and are just wonderful with a holiday turkey that’s been cooked in a charcoal or wood roaster. And they do just fine with a rich lobster; on the other hand they totally lose out in pairing with crisp, acidic oysters, where a Chablis, a non-oaked Chardonnay, a Fume Blanc, or a Muscadet would make a wonderful match.

Are lighter style wines inferior? Hardly. They are light and easy on the palate, and palate fatigue is seldom a factor. They’re not burdened by the oak and high-octane strength linked with so-called serious wines. But obviously, the lighter reds would be lost in pairing with a beef steak that demands the muscle of the wine. Do high acid wines make better food matches? I like Sancerres and Sauvignon Blancs and crisp Chablis with simply cooked fish. Those slightly acidic wines add sparkle to a fish dish, much like a squeeze of lemon and can counterbalance oiliness or fattiness in food. They won’t however do well and will, in fact, taste thin and troubling when you’ve dressed up the fish with a rich buttery sauce. Fatty fish or well-sauced fish demands a creamier Chardonnay.

I’ve always been told to avoid wines with salads. Is that right? Partially. Lettuce and other greens coated with a strong, acidic vinaigrette can destroy a wine. But make your vinaigrette with a softer, rounder vinegar, a fine balsamic or a wine vinegar and you’ve got a different situation where the vinaigrette enhances the taste of the wine Spike the salad with sweet onions or rich tomatoes or Roquefort cheese and match it with a fine, dry Riesling or a chilled Rose’ and you’ve got a match made in food heaven. You’ve just got to think a bit harder when selecting wine for a salad.

Is there a wine for chocolate? You can bet a case of port or a batch fortified red wines on this match. Try a Ruby or Tawny port with rich chocolate and you’d wish you started the meal with the dessert. Try chocolate with other sweet fortified reds, Madeira or new-world ports made from non-traditional wines from Australia and California.
Guidelines – conventional combinations

Fish – (plain grilled or fried) dry or medium whites which shouldn’t overwhelm the fish and should help to cleanse the palate between mouthfuls.

Shellfish – crisp, dry white like Chablis, dry Riesling, sauvignon blanc or Champagne.

Poultry – pinot noir and mature cabernet sauvignon are delicious with roast chicken or turkey. If choosing a white, try something medium bodied chardonnay or medium-dry German wine. The richness of duck needs a rich wine (red or white) with full favour.

Game & red meat– the classic combination is with full, mature, red wines of high quality – Burgundy, Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a new-world equivalent.

Lamb– a fairly firm, robust red with some acidity, like Chianti, Rioja or zinfandel.

Chinese food – spicy whites such as gewürztraminer or off-dry Riesling.

Indian or other spicy food – very cold, semi-sweet whites can be lovely pairings.

Cheese – there are many good cheese and wine matches – mature cheddar and mature red wine, port with stilton, goats’ cheese with sauvignon blanc, sweet wine with creamy cheeses are all classic pairings. Avoid reds that are very tannic and whites that are heavily oaked.

Dessert – the best sweet white wines are perfect partners for most desserts.

Some foods are regarded as “problem” foods for wine matching: eggs, tomatoes, vinegar, salad dressings and lemon are some examples that spring to mind, but again it’s all down to personal taste.

Now that you’ve been exposed to a whole new set of rules, just remember the basic one. It’s your taste that matters. If you like a wine, drink it with the food you enjoy and you ‘re bound to be satisfied.

WINE TASTING ETIQUETTES

(Photo: with Baroness Philippine de Rothschild)

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

Wine tasting events are popular because they override the limitations of sampling wine alone, at home. How many wines can you taste on your own unless you don’t mind throwing away nine tenth of every bottle? How many wines are you willing to buy on your own? And how much can you learn tasting wine on your own or with few friends whose expertise is no greater than yours?

Wine tastings organized by wine clubs, merchants and wine societies are events designed to give wine enthusiasts the opportunity to sample a range of wines. These events can be seminar like events (seated) or they can be more like parties (tasters milling around informally). Compared to a wine appreciation class, the participants at a wine tasting event are more likely to have various levels of knowledge. Tastings don’t come in beginner, intermediate and advanced levels – just one size fits all.

At a wine tasting, you can learn from the professionals who organize the event as well as from your fellow tasters. You have the added advantage of making new friends who share your interest in wine. Most importantly, you can taste wine in the company of some individuals whose palates are more likely to be experienced than yours, which is a real boon in training your palate. I have led and attended literally hundreds of wine tastings and I can honestly say that I have learned something about wine at almost all of them.

If you have never been to a wine tasting, don’t feel intimidated. Familiarizing yourself with few wine tasting etiquettes will help you feel more at ease. Otherwise you are likely to be appalled when you see people slurping and spiting in public.

Why are those people behaving like that?

Do you have to make loud slurping or gurgling noise that you hear “serious” wine tasters make at tastings? Of course, you don’t. But the drawing of air into your mouth does enhance your ability to taste the wine. With a little practice, you can gurgle without making loud, attention-grabbing noises.

To spit or not to spit?

If you swallow every sip of wine you taste, by the time you reach wine number nine or ten, you will be far less sober to make a judgment about the wine. So spitting is acceptable. In wineries, professional tasters sometime spit right onto the floor or into the drains. In more elegant surroundings, you spit into a spittoon, usually a simple container like a large bowl (one per taster) or an ice bucket that two or three tasters share.

At first, naturally, some tasters are reluctant to spit out wine. Not only have they been brought up to believe that spitting is uncivilized, but they have also paid good money for the opportunity to taste the wine. Why waste them?

Well, you can drink all of your wine at a wine-tasting if you wish – and some people do. But I don’t advise that you do, for the simple reason that evaluating the later wines will be difficult if you swallow the earlier ones, as the alcohol you consume will cloud your judgment.

More finer points on tasting etiquettes

Smoking is a complete no-no at any wine tasting and using strong scents – perfume, aftershave and scented hair spray are undesirable as these smells can interfere with your ability to detect the aromas of the wine.

Courteous wine tasters also do not volunteer their opinion about a wine until other tasters have had a chance to taste the wine. Serious tasters like to form their opinion independently and are sure to throw dirty looks at anyone who interrupts their concentration prematurely.

COOL WINES FOR FIERY ASIAN FOOD

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

Fortunately, what happens between food and wine is not haphazard. Certain elements of food react in predictable ways with certain elements of wine, giving us a fighting chance at making successful matches. With Asian food though,

wine is not a traditional match but it is not an impossible one. What it takes is a little more imagination.

Asian style cooking, after all, is classic and traditional in its own right, in a different way from European cuisines. There are differences in ingredients and cooking style and in the sense of balance and harmony. Whereas, say, classic Italian cooking relies on a certain purity and freshness of ingredients, and French cooking on depth of flavour in sauces and natural stocks, in Asia the emphasis is on the constant balancing and contrasting of tastes and textures.

Take for instance Thai beef salad where each bite brings a dozen different tastes, and one needs to pause between mouthfuls to fully enjoy its taste. Green Papaya, cucumber, seeded chilli julienne, mint, coriander and onion is just the start of individual tastes of extreme complexity. Add acid, cooling coldness, heat, mild bitterness, light refreshment, and then the sauce that is chilli hot, pungent with black vinegar, tempered with the sweetness of palm sugar and mutated with the saltiness of soy. About 50 more things to consider than with most European food, and that is before one even starts to consider the textural differences, of crunch, soft, slimy and more.

The basic (Southeast Asian) palate is hot, sour, salty, sweet, and sometimes bitter. If you order a green papaya salad from a street vendor in Bangkok, the last thing the vendor will do before serving the salad is to give you a small spoonful of the salad, asking for your opinion. If you’d like it hotter, more chillies will be added; if you want it saltier, more fish sauce; more sour, lime juice will be added; sweeter, more palm sugar… And while this balancing act takes place in an individual dish like a green papaya salad, it also shapes a meal, determining what dishes should be served alongside others.

The strong and authentic flavours of say Sri Lankan, Indian, Thai and Malaysian food are quite a contrast from China, where the diversity of flavours ranges from incredibly delicate dishes of the coastal regions where fresh seafood abounds, to uncomplicated almost bland flavours of everyday Chinese cooking. Then you have the court cooking of Peking and the exotic and sophisticated nuances of the Cantonese kitchen, to the incredible pungent flavours and chilli heat of the Sechuan region.

It is a total myth, however, that spicy Asian influenced styles of cooking – such as Sri Lankan and Thai food are not compatible with wine. The fact is that sweet, sour, spicy Asian influenced food goes wonderfully with light, fragrant, off-dry or even dry Rieslings from Germany, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and places as far flung as South Africa and the Finger Lakes of New York. It also goes great with Gewurztraminer, Spanish Albariño, Grüner Veltliner from Austria, and often with sparkling wines of all sorts from around the world.

But no, Asian spicy cooking does not do too well with red Bordeaux, white Burgundy, Napa Valley Chardonnay or worse yet, Cabernet. But just because it does not go with everything, it is not necessarily a “beer” cuisine.

The trick to matching wine with Asian style cooking is to start with the premise that we need wines that emphasize a balance, as opposed to sheer power of taste sensations. This is why the classic “power” wines – made from grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – are not an easy match for Asian foods. Although there is nothing wrong with intensity, the difficulty with these types of wines is that they tend to be high in alcohol, low in acid, and (in the case of Cabernet) excessively hard in tannin. The best wines for Asian foods are those with moderate levels of alcohol, softer tannin, crisper acidity, and sometimes (not always) a judicious amount of residual sugar. Not surprisingly, many of today’s food and wine experts strongly recommend German Rieslings with Southeast Asian and Chinese foods. The natural sugar and acid balance of Rieslings is quite compatible with the hot, sour, salty, sweet elements of Asian food. It’s a question of harmony and balance and it certainly works in Asian food settings.