Ever feel like you’re caught in a wine rut? Are you ordering similar wines at every restaurant? When it comes to wines, I’ve tasted many, so I think I know what I like, but it’s important to get out and try something different every now and then.
With more than 10,000 different wine grape varieties in the world — each terroir creating different flavors, vintages presenting different flavor profiles each year, and individual winemakers influencing their own products — there are endless opportunities for trying something new and unfamiliar.
I always force myself to try everything that’s offered at each tasting I attend. Sometimes it’s just to confirm that I don’t like a particular wine or variety. For example, nero d’Avola is the most popular variety of wine exported from Sicily, yet I can’t seem to enjoy any example of it that I’ve tasted … but I keep trying. I’ve even tried a “chocolate wine” that looked like chocolate milk. It tasted like it, too. The bottle said “wine,” and it didn’t taste bad, but … it wasn’t wine.
When professionals evaluate wines, their descriptions contain references to the various flavor nuances that they detect. Critics may describe a white wine as having buttery, grassy, tropical fruit or peach flavors. Red wine may be described as having the flavors of cherries, strawberries, blackberries or dried fruit. More unusual descriptions include words such as leather, tobacco, cat urine, wet asphalt or rubber. The combination of the soil, the level of fruit ripening, and the techniques a winemaker employs have chemical effects on the wine that the most sensitive palates can detect. None of these items are ever used in the processing of wine, and their flavors are subtle. Few, if any, additives are typically found in fine wine. In fact, adding flavoring to wines is generally frowned upon.
I attended a tasting at one of my favorite shops, Lucia’s Bodega in Windham, N.H., one recent evening. The owner, Chuck Palazzolo, is very engaging and almost never steers me wrong. This time he wanted me to try two flavored wines, one with habanero and jalapeño peppers, and the other with coffee and jalapeño peppers. “Really, Chuck? I came in to taste wine, not some flavored grape juice,” I said.
He insisted, so I figured it would be yet another example of confirming wines I didn’t like. To my surprise, however, these wines were very unusual and delicious.
Rob McDonald, winemaker at Art+Farm Wine in Napa, Calif., was sipping a coffee-flavored craft-brewed beer when the idea of flavoring wine with coffee came to him. During the barrel-aging process, McDonald adds coffee and jalapeño peppers to his merlot, and habanero and jalapeños to his sauvignon blanc. He also adds peaches and ground, dried ginger root to his chardonnay. These surprisingly tasty wines are marketed under the label St. Mayhem — certainly not a Catholic saint and unlikely to be used for Holy Communion wine.
Art+Farm’s 2014 Lake County sauvignon blanc is outright devilish. It starts off smooth, but sneaks up on the back of your tongue with a complex bite of sharpness and heat. It made me want to reach for the nachos and salsa. It still hosted the typical tropical fruit flavors I would expect from sauvignon blanc, but with a nice added kick that wasn’t overpowering.
Once fermented, their 2013 Mendocino merlot is passed through ground “El Angel” Costa Rican coffee. Without heating it, of course, they basically brew coffee with merlot instead of water. Fresh-cut jalapeño peppers are added during the barrel-aging process. The result is a nice merlot with the essence of plums and blackberries, plus a coffee flavor that is an incredibly smooth addition. It reminded me of an end-of-dining experience when coffee is being served before I’ve finished my wine. There is a detectable hint of jalapeño flavor, but not nearly as strong as in the sauvignon blanc.
I know there are some wine snobs out there who are reading this and thinking I’m a little nuts to be suggesting any flavored wine. All I can say is try it, you’ll like it. Take a step out of your comfort zone and experience something new. Everyone’s wine journey should include provocative flavors, and an open mind will increase your enjoyment.
Lucia’s Bodega: Windham, N.H. / (603) 421-9463 / LuciasBodega.com