Been awhile since I’ve written a wine homework post, and it’s not for lack of drinking.  More of a lack of focus, really; how appropriate, then, that tonight’s topic is expressiveness.  Here’s what Karen MacNeil has to say about it:

Expressiveness is the quality a wine possesses when its aromas and flavors are well-defined and clearly projected.  While some wines seem muddled and diffused, others beam out their character with almost unreal clarity and focus.  Imagine the image projected by an out-of-focus black-and-white television without a cable hook-up compared to the same image in high-density color.  An expressive wine is like the latter.  (The Wine Bible, 5)

To grasp the concept, she suggests the reader try a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.  In my initial forays into wine tasting and writing, I was more focused on France, Spain and Germany — figured I’d head to the southern hemisphere eventually, but intended to explore things methodically and in a certain order.

However, life happens, plans change, paths emerge, et cetera.  Now it’s January and my sister came down from Connecticut to visit us in our new place in Hoboken for the very first time.  Whereas my wine-o-meter is set to ‘fast, loose and easy,’ hers is set to ‘pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, preferably, and aged ONLY in steel, NO OAK.’  She’s a bit fussier than me.  But since I’m adaptable (and she’s so damned particular), I walked her to the local wine shop (Sparrow Wines) and had her pick out whatever she liked.  In her defense, although she has her go-to bottles, she’s adventurous to a degree and she loves New Zealand whites — particular those from the Marlborough region.  She found the NZ section of the store immediately and taught me a thing or two (for one thing, I hadn’t even found that aisle in almost two years of shopping there…).

My first taste of New Zealand.

My first taste of New Zealand.

We ended up buying two bottles, both sauvignon blanc: a 2013 Kono and a 2012 Mohua (click the links to see the beautiful vineyards that produce these wines!).  I picked the Kono, actually, for a reason completely unrelated to wine: the first sentence on the back read, “We are Maori, the first people of Aotearoa/New Zealand.”  Now, I’ve never been to NZ; in fact, the only Kiwis I’ve ever even gotten to talk to were three girls who were part of a Shamrocker Tour around Ireland I went on in my 20s (who taught me about drinking games that would make an American fratboy blush (The Pelican, anyone?), and who helped me to distinguish between Ozzie and Kiwi accents).  BUT, when I was about 12 years old (circa 1989), still many years before the internet was accessible everywhere, I paid five dollars to one of those pen-pal agencies that advertised in kids’ magazines, got 5-10 addresses for other kids all over the globe, wrote to them all, and the only one who wrote back was a Maori girl from New Zealand.  Her name escapes me now (Leslie, maybe?), but she was from Nelson on the South Island, which (I’ve learned) is pretty darn close to Marlborough.

Despite the fact that I’ve forgotten her name, I treasured her letters.  As a kid in southern Ohio, it was such a thrill to receive mail from the other side of the globe from someone whose life was so different…and yet so similar to mine.  The Kono bottle instantly brought her to mind, and with her the feeling of being a Midwestern kid who knew that world travel was in his future, but who didn’t know exactly how it would ever come about (poor as I was).

Anyway, the wine.

NZ sauvignon blancs are electric — if these two are to be trusted.  The Kono in particular has a tartness to it which I have not enjoyed in other whites I’ve had, but in this one I feel like….  Well, this is a reference you’ll probably only get if you were a child of the 80s, but it brings to mind a Lite Brite. Remember how the plastic peg could be completely dull, but the moment you pierced it through the black construction paper it lit up in vibrant color?  The Kono is like that.  It neither looked nor smelled remarkable, but the first sip lit my face up with a smile.  Lemon and grass and lemongrass…its flavors were pronounced and astounding.  Whatever I’d tried in the past that had led me to think poorly of sauvignon blanc, well — this was completely different.

The Mohua was nothing like the Kono.  Whereas the Kono seemed to concentrate all of its flavors up front, then explode like a firework, the Mohua was the opposite.  It was broad at first, not bland, but it took awhile for its flavors to settle.  Once they did, the flavor was…green beans.  Now that might not sound at all appealing, but that’s because you’re thinking of soggy beans that have been cooked with ham for hours and hours.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  To understand what I mean, you need to pick them fresh from your back yard in the summer in the late afternoon, call them haricots verts, steam them very lightly and serve them with a lemon butter.  The Mohua’s green bean finish was really very pleasant.  When I said as much, my sister gave her affirmation and then we read MacNeil’s section on NZ where she writes that the sauvignon blanc can evoke flavors of “green olives, green figs, green tea, green melons, plus a host of green vegetables from snow peas to green beans” (Wine Bible 810).  I, for one, was smugly pleased to have named the taste before reading it in the wine expert’s writing.

So what have I learned about expressiveness?  Well, I learned that these NZ whites really pop in a way I haven’t yet experienced with sauvignon blancs from other regions.  Their flavors, though different from one another, were mutually distinct.  And they’ve inspired me to mine the cave of my memories, free associate and write more than a thousand words about them, so I guess that counts for expressive.

From a practical standpoint, I highly recommend these two wines, and I’m looking forward to tasting even more from the region.

(And I’m going to remember my penpal’s name in the middle of the night, I just know it…)


On to my wine homework.

As stated in the previous post, the first quality that I want to explore is connectedness.  Admittedly, the post about Rioja already addressed this to a degree: its connection to Spain and Spanish culture is what led to my Aha! wine moment. But MacNeil‘s the expert, and if she says I should get to know this quality through a Mosel riesling, then I’m sure as heck gonna try.

Knight I bought in Salzburg guarding the Fritz Haag Riesling

Knight I bought in Salzburg guarding the Fritz Haag Riesling

The riesling I chose was a 2011 Fritz Haag, a wine I picked more or less at random in the store but was happy to find that it’s one of MacNeil’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer “wines to know.”  She writes, “The wines that Fritz Haag makes from the incredible sundial — Sonnenuhr — vineyard located above the village of Brauneberg are, year in and year out, classic examples of perfect Mosel riesling.”  Praise indeed.

Here is my impression.  The wine has a flirty blonde color that I’ve notice is common to rieslings I’ve tried — not yellow like some chardonnays, but flaxen.  It’s nose was harder to describe, and all I can really come up with is this: fresh air.  It’s getting humid here in the NYC tri-state area, but when I stuck my nose in a glass of this riesling, it was like a cool dry Spring day with highs in the 70s (or 20s in centigrade; this is a European wine, after all…).

If its fragrance was Spring, its taste was pure Winter — breathing in deeply on a day that’s below freezing.  And peaches.  Underripe, when the texture of the peach is hard and harsh, but the taste — what little there is — is crisp, clean and a little tart.  Finally, (and this is probably a bit of a sacrilege, but I’ll write it anyway), it tasted a bit like a Radler, a mixture of a lager and Sprite common to Germanic lands and perfect for a workday lunch.

So how does any of this bring to mind the Mosel region and the wine’s connection to it?

Well, to get there, I have to travel by way of autobiography.  I grew up in Cincinnati, a city whose seasonal extremes have led me to say frequently that it’s the hottest and the coldest place I have ever been.  All of my descriptors above are references to the seasons of Cincinnati, which, as it happens, sits along a river not unlike the Mosel.  In fact, whatever quirks and idiosyncratic delights that Cincinnati may boast are usually traceable to the people’s German heritage, from our breweries to our Schützenfesten to saying “please?” quizzically when we don’t understand what you’ve said (the German equivalent of “bitte?”).  You can still attend mass in German if you visit Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood whose hillside position overlooking the Ohio River reminded its settlers of home.  Most high schools in Cincinnati offered German until recently (which is why yours truly studied the language from 7th through 12th grades).

I’ve never been to the Mosel, but I’ve spent some time now reading about it and looking up pictures online.  It feels like home.  It came up in conversation recently: a friend is planning to ride his bike there, stopping occasionally at this vineyard and that, drinking riesling all week.  It never occurred to me to do that, but now that it has, it’s the top of my travel list.

Fritz Haag’s website revealed to me that their wines were beloved by Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon alike.  I spent a big chunk of the Fall reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton that featured Jefferson prominently (because they hated one another), and I’m currently writing a screenplay that is about Napoleon and what he means to the people of Sandusky, Ohio (kind of).  In fact, I have a few Napoleonic blogposts fomenting in my head as l’Empereur determines exactly what I should write.  I’ve also been commissioned this week to write a destination travel piece on Frankfurt, the largest city in Hesse and not far from the Mosel region….


Yes.  I know.

I still haven’t answered how this riesling is connected to the Mosel.

And I’m sorry, Karen MacNeil, but I can’t, not really.  Not without having been there to taste it where it was grown and produced.  Your book tells me it takes on the flavor of the minerals in the slate that it grows from, and I believe you, but I can’t pick those notes out yet.

The connectedness that I’m experiencing right now is my own connection — through the wine — to historical figures I admire, to my childhood and memories of playing outdoors in Summer, to Germany and my immigrant great-great-great grandparents I never knew, to a man named Fritz Haag and his son (grandson?) Oliver who currently runs the winery and wears similar glasses to my own.  These men have created a wine that’s set loose my fancy and let it fly; when I take that bike trip, I’m definitely going to look them up.

It’s not the kind of connectedness that I was aiming to experience, but it’s more than I got from drinking my daily Diet Coke at lunch — would it were a Radler!

The Wine Bible

The Wine BibleI recently purchased Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible and have been delighting in her meticulous research.  With the friendliest, most approachable tone she explains the history and culture of each wine region, all the intricacies of the climate and soil there, the types of grapes that thrive its environment, the major wineries to know, how to visit them, and on and on.  It’s fascinating.  And better than that, it’s useful.

In her intro she lists five qualities that a taster has to assess in order to determine if a wine is truly great.  Now, I know how snobby that seems — Heineken and Corona don’t make these demands! — but I’ve come to think of wine the way I think of literature.  I’ve read many a book that I did not enjoy, but whose greatness was clear and identifiable.  If you take Shakespeare, for example, I’m sure you couldn’t find anyone who would deny his greatness as a writer, but you can find plenty who don’t enjoy his work because it can be impenetrable.  For those who take the time to get past the difficulty of understanding his poetic language, however, the richness, beauty and brilliance of his words spill forth.  So, too, with wine.  If it is snobbish to take the time to develop an appreciation for the complexities of wine, it is the same of trying to understand high literature, in which case so be it: you can call me a snob.  I’ve been called a lot worse.

But I digress.  MacNeil’s five qualities are these: Varietal Character, Integration, Expressiveness, Complexity and Connectedness.  At the end of her first section on mastering wine she writes the following:

Admittedly, a wine’s integration, expressiveness, complexity and connectedness (or lack thereof) may not be immediately obvious.  But if you taste the wine slowly and think about these concepts, they’ll soon begin to make sense.  It’s also fun to get an even greater demand of these traits through some practice.  So here’s your wine homework: To discover what integration means, buy a white Burgundy, such as Meursault, and think about harmony.  For expressiveness, try a New Zealand sauvignon blanc and consider its intensity.  Go looking for complexity by drinking a mature (ten years old or more) top-notch Bordeaux or Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.  And connectedness, though hard to describe, is easy to find.  Try a Côte-Rôtie from the northern Rhône, with its almost savage peppery flavors, or a shimmeringly tart riesling from the Mosel region of Germany.  Neither of these wines could come from anywhere other than the place it did.  (6)

Wine homework?  Yes, please!

My next several wine posts will be reports on my homework, starting from the end of the list: a Mosel riesling.  I hope you’ll find them as much fun to read as I’m sure they will be to write! 

Wine Enthusiast seeks Friends

A few months ago I was sitting home alone on a Saturday night.  I decided to write about my summer’s travels, singing on a concert tour through Israel and Salzburg, Austria.  I bought a bottle of Rioja wine to sip through the evening and settled in to enjoy a Saturday of solitude.  It provided much more entertainment than I ever would have expected.

I must explain.

I’ve been a budding wine enthusiast for many years now, but I’ve only explored viticulture in a focused way for the past year. Whereas before I would have a glass when dining out, leaving myself to the whims of the wine list and prejudices handed to me by Sideways, now I buy a bottle or two to drink throughout the week.  I’ve downloaded a wine app (Wine Secretary) and started keeping a moleskine Passions wine journal to track my tastes.  More and more, I know what I like and why I like it, and I’m getting better at picking out distinct flavors.  Make no mistake: I’m still a total wine noob.  But I’m learning more and more, which brings me back to the Rioja.

The Rioja was not entertaining for the obvious reason: I didn’t sit home alone and get sloshed on a Saturday night, although that might have made Saturday Night Live a bit funnier (to be fair, it actually was pretty good).  No.  What happened was I kept reading the label until I asked myself, “What the hell is a Rioja?”  I only bought it because the wine shop recommended it, you see; I thought “Rioja” was maybe Portuguese for “red,” and since it was a red wine that made sense to me.  (Note: I don’t speak a lick of Portuguese, but I do know Spanish where red is roja.  Seemed a close enough cognate to me, hence my assumption.  Don’t judge me.)

No, no.  Rioja is the place where the wine is made, a region in Spain.  It is not a color, it is not a grape.  I’m an idiot.  But that’s where the entertainment came in because curiosity led me to Wikipedia where I learned about how integral the wine I was drinking was to the culture in the region.  In fact, every 29th of June, in celebration of the feast of San Pedro, the town of Haro explodes in a batalla de vino; folks turn up with supersoakers of local Rioja wine and proceed to hose each other down with red wine by the hundreds.  All the t-shirts that begin the day white end it dyed purple.

I read about the tempranillo grape and how it is grown, the borders of the region, etc.  I know from reading a wine book or two how important terroir is to the cultivation of grapes and the wines they make, but it wasn’t until that night that I began to taste just how Spanish the wine was; it was so unlike the nearby French and Italian reds I’ve had.  I realized how perfectly it would have gone with a paella and chorizos.  I wouldn’t say that it made the list of my favorite wines*, but it was so distinctive that it really left an impression on me, as well as an understanding of what this whole wine thing is about.  What I mean to say is that I realize why people have gone to such great lengths to learn about wine in its myriad varieties, why they fuss over how to pair it with the right food and the right moments.  I’ve tried many different wines here and there over the years, but this Rioja said, “Come here…” (well, okay, it said “Ven aquí…”) and it opened a door to a new realm of experience.

Many posts on this site will chronicle my burgeoning oenophilia.  I want a record of my experiences in the world of wine.  As with the Rioja, I want to find unique wines from regions I know little about, immerse myself in them, learn, and share.  Of course it will be more than just that; if I were to simply rattle off facts I’d read, it would be just as well to simply link you to the articles.  I’ll do that (attach links), but I also intend to use the wine as a starting point for other conversations….about Shakespeare, about classical music, about travel, about my experiences as a teacher, an uncle, a friend.  There’s no end to the possible tangents to explore as I enter into the tradition of writing about wine as metaphor and history and catalyst.

In the meantime, any recommendations?

[Update, November 2014: After many subsequent bottles of Rioja, it is one of my favorites…]