This page is simply set up to answer some of the everyday wine questions that come up frequently like … What do the names of wine signify? What do they taste like? What tastes good with it? Or … How much should I expect to pay for a decent bottle? Price often signifies quality, but that is not always the case. Wine is a very subjective commodity; what tastes great to one person may not taste so great to another. Once you determine what your palate likes, it’s easier to choose a wine that best fits your needs and your budget. Hopefully this information proves helpful, so please read on for more info on “Wine for Novices”.
Chardonnay takes on a number of different flavor profiles depending upon its terrior (geography, geology, climate) and winemaker preferences. The four most common flavors are creamy or buttery, traditional of the Napa Valley region, New World style, which gets flavor from oak barrels, common to the Santa Maria Valley, a tropical fruit profile comes from all steel fermentation and lastly the traditional lean mineral style typical of Chablis, France. The winemaker can influence each of these tastes making them off-dry (sweeter), or can add malolactic acid giving it a creamy or buttery flavor and can even ad carbonation to make a champagne or sparkling wine. The Chardonnay grape is the second largest white grape planted world wide by acres, second only to the Spanish varietal Airen. I prefer the buttery style Chardonnay so BUTTER of Napa Valley is my favorite at only $14.99, but of the local wineries, Riverbench Santa Maria Valley is hard to beat at only $19.99!
Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most popular varietal in the world second only to Merlot. Born of the Bordeaux Region of France, this tannic red wine has a very hardy flavor from its thick skinned grape. Cabernet Sauvignon is an accidental crossing of red Cabernet Franc and white Sauvignon Blanc. It can be grown nearly anywhere but ideally prefers a hot climate to mature into a pleasant flavor. Paso Robles produces some nice Cabs, but to get the best California selections travel north to Napa Valley. Premium Cabs can sell into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars and can hold and improve with aging, often from ten to twenty years. My local favorite is Justin Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles which sells for $26.99, but dig a little deeper in your wallet for Stag’s Leap 2008 Fay from Napa Valley which is on sale for $59.99.
Malbec is another of the traditional Bordeaux wines of France, but Argentina and Chile actually produce the largest quantity and I think best quality of this varietal, where the wine is a little milder and less tannic. In California, Malbec is usually used as a primary blending grape in Meritage, which is a California creation we will talk about later. The flavor of the straight varietal is medium bodied which I place between a Merlot and Syrah. My personal favorite is Swinto Old vine Malbec from Argentina which sells for $34.99, but locally it’s got to be Rancho Sisquoc at $19.99. Malbec is a nice alternative to the more traditional Merlot varietal and affords many food pairing opportunities such as meat pies, lamb chops tapas.
Merlot is the most popular wine varietal in the world but took a huge hit in popularity when actor Paul Giamatti dogged the wine in the 2004 hit movie Sideways. It is known as one of the primary Bordeaux (France) wines which also includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. This medium bodied wine has a wide appeal because it is easy to drink with soft flavors of ripe plums. The wine is successfully grown the world over, but primarily in France, Italy, United States and South America. Price tags for the wine are generally very affordable because the varietal is easy to grow with large production per acre. Merlot can be enjoyed with many foods such as chicken, lamb, pork and beef, especially as a spicy dish. My local favorite is Rancho Sisquoc Estate Merlot which sells for $16.99, but you can even find a tasty Merlot on our bargain shelves for as low as seven bucks from Meridian, Smoking Loon or Mirassou.
Meritage was created in 1988 by a group of Napa Valley vintners that were frustrated with wine labeling laws regarding blending. They believed that California could introduce a product worthy of worldly distinction while being self governed. For a wine to be labeled Meritage it must meet many criteria, first in joining The Meritage Alliance (basically a $500 per vintage fee), the red blend must contain at least two of the varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot and Carmenere at no more than 90% for any one varietal and a gentleman’s agreement that the juice used is the wineries’ best. Over 250 wineries belong to the Meritage Alliance with the majority from California. There is often confusion with pronunciation, but just remember that it rhymes with heritage. My all time favorite is Symetry by Rodney Strong (on sale for $39.99), but for the price it’s hard to beat Rancho Sisquoc at only $19.99.
Syrah is a varietal rapidly increasing in popularity, and a grape that also grows well in local regions like the Santa Ynez Valley and Foxen Canyon. Syrah is a dark skinned grape that produces a powerful red wine, perfect for our very own Santa Maria Style Barbecue. Local examples will have scents of chocolate and coffee with flavors of black berries and pepper. Australia has adopted this varietal as their favorite where they affectionately call it Shiraz, but Rhone is the region in France where the wine gets its birth, historically in Hermitage. Syrah can be used as a single varietal or is often blended with other Rhone wines such as Mourvedre, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsaut. My favorite Syrah is a small local wine by Margerum called Uber, which in German means “over the top”. This wine certainly is but it carries a price tag of $42.99. For a more affordable local Syrah try Consilience Santa Barabara County for $18.99.
Tempranillo … When thinking about the history of viticulture, one often thinks of France and Italy being the pioneers of wine making, but don’t forget about Spain. Tempranillo is Spanish in origin and often referred to as the Noble Grape of Spain. The varietal prefers cooler climates and higher elevation where the flavor will exhibit tastes of berry, plum, tobacco and vanilla. It is considered one of the milder of the red wines and pairs well with an array of foods especially spicy foods. California has begun to grow Tempranillo well only until recently, having tried in the early 1900’s unsuccessfully in the Central Valley, where the climate is just too hot. For my taste, two local favorites quickly come to mind: Force of Nature Tempranillo out of Paso Robles which sells for $19.99 and Kenneth Volk San Benito County Tempranillo which also sells for $19.99.
Zinfandel … Up until a few short years ago, Zinfandel was thought to be a native to California but upon further study it was determined that it is the same grape as the Italian Primitivo. Zinfandel is still, however, the pride of California where the best grapes come from gnarled old vines that are literally starved of water. This gives the vine low yields but intense fruit, hence a big Zin is often called “jammy” because of it’s intense fruit flavor. Lodi, Sonoma and Paso Robles AVA’s are the best regions for this grape varietal, which thrive in climates with intense heat during maturation. Flavors of Blackberries are predominant from these regions which boast a huge following of Zin lovers. Paso Robles even hosts an annual Zin-Fest every March which attracts thousands of visitors into the area. My personal favorite Zin’s are Opolo Mountain Zinfandel for $24.99 and Haraszthy Amador County Zinfandel which sells here for only $12.99.
Last but not least … the most popular of the Central Coast!
Pinot Noir is a rather small and finicky grape which has the allure of many master winemakers because it requires a great deal of work to achieve a desirable final product. Many vineyards will stay away from this varietal because it is difficult to both grow and vint. The Pinot Noir grape matures early so it requires low temperatures in late summer/early autumn and foggy mornings/evenings to ripen fully. Our very own Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills are among the best Pinot Noir growing regions in the world, which also includes the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Williamette Valley in Oregon, which is the same latitude as Burgundy, France. The movie “Sideways” really put Pinot Noir on the map in 2004, especially as it relates to our local economy. By nature, the grape is light in both color and flavor, with scents of black currant and flavors of bing cherries. Pinot Noir is considered by many the most Romantic of wine varietals, even being described as “sex in a glass”. The final product can often be very expensive (Sea Smoke Southing sells for about $80) but if patient, you can find drinkable wines from $15 to $20. There are so many fine local examples that it is difficult to recommend just one, but for the money, I enjoy Native 9 2009 SMV Rancho Ontiveros for $54.99, while on the economy side, it’s a toss up between Golden Bear ’07 SMV for $14.99 and Byron SBC 2010 Pinot for $18.99