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January 24, 2020

Wine-Pairing Myths

If you find it useful when someone suggests a specific food to pair with a specific wine, you aren't alone.  I appreciate the advice and often make my own suggestions. 

Fresh crab with Chablis; oysters with Muscadet; and Champagne with lox are specific pairings I enjoy and sometimes pass along.  The problem with suggested pairings, however, is that sometimes they are seen as etched in stone, which inhibits exploration that could well prove enlightening.

There are a couple of myths I would like to tackle.  The first is the oft-repeated wisdom that red wine can't be served with fish unless it's Pinot Noir with salmon.  I beg to differ.

There are certainly parts of the world where fish is plentiful and white wine isn't, Bordeaux, France, being the best example.  So what's a serious foodie to do in such a situation?  One chef I know, while preparing a multi-course dinner for a crowd of Bordeaux collectors, cooked up a Mediterranean sea bass surrounded with earthy root vegetables and mushrooms.  The crowd ate it up, literally. There was nary a complaint.

The takeaway from that experience was that pairing often has more to do with the preparation, seasoning and sauce than the protein on the plate.

The other oft-repeated myth I want to explode is the imperative of serving Merlot with lamb.  Yes, Merlot with lamb is a beautiful combination.  But so is Syrah with lamb, Cabernet Sauvignon with lamb, or a savory Barolo with lamb.
  It's all good. The object should be to tackle the strong flavor of lamb with a bold, savory red that has power and depth.

The takeaway is simple:  The rules of wine and food pairing were made to be broken — or, at the very least, tweaked to your own liking.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:52 AM

January 7, 2020

Resolve to Drink Swiss!

Henri Badoux (Chablais AOC, Vaud, Switzerland) Aigle les Murailles 2017 ($28, Dreyfus Ashby & Co.):  Have you made your New Year’s resolution?  Consider trying a something different from your usual wine selection, like this Chasselas from Switzerland. 

It is quite a charming wine with flinty, floral, apple aromas and flavors of ripe Fuji apple, lemon peel, and chalky mineral notes.  It is light-bodied and round in the mouth with subtle, citrusy acidity adding brightness to the finish.  Enjoy it as an aperitif, with white fish, or go all-Swiss with raclette or cheese fondue. 

Chasselas is considered native to Switzerland where it seems to have hundreds of synonyms.  It is admired for its ability to reflect its terroir since its wine is delicate, subtle, not highly aromatic, a neutral palate to express the soil and climate where is born. 

It is the main grape of the Vaud, Switzerland’s second largest wine region and the Chablais appellation, not to be confused with Chablis of Burgundy, is thought to be one of the best places for Chasselas to shine. 

The grapes come from a famous vineyard, Aigle les Murailles, which is so steeply terraced the grapes are delivered from the vineyard to the winery by helicopter.

Swiss wines are very high in quality overall, and though this one is fairly widely distributed, finding them in the USA is a challenge.  But hey, what’s a resolution without a challenge?

89 Points
Posted by Rebecca Murphy at 1:29 PM

January 1, 2020

The Sparkling Wine Hierarchy

Champagne is the pinnacle of sparkling wine, thus the very real urge to piggyback its history and prestige.  In fact, Champagne is a legally defined region about an hour northeast of Paris, and its vignerons don't take kindly to the adoption of Champagne as a generic term to describe Cava or Prosecco or any of the myriad other sparkling wines from throughout the world.

I will be the first to concede that Champagne deserves its lofty perch atop the world of sparkling wine.  A number of factors contribute to this.  First, the chalky soils of the region impart a structure and vital minerality found in Champagne that is difficult to replicate anywhere else on the planet.  A carefully cultivated hierarchy of vineyards (grand cru, premier cru, etc.) is another factor.

In the cellar, "reserve" wines from exceptional vintages are culled out and saved for multi-vintage blends that ensure a top Champagne house can maintain quality even through less-than-stellar vintages.  And the top wines of Champagne are aged extensively on the lees, building complexity with each passing year.  The lengthy aging contributes mightily to the high cost of special cuvée Champagnes.

Is the added expense of serving Champagne as opposed to another sparkling wine worth it?  That's up to the individual.  The important thing to remember is this: If someone offers you a glass of Dom Perignon or Roederer Cristal, don't turn it down.  It will surely be a unique and memorable experience. I can't even imagine another adult beverage more appropriate for a celebratory toast.

The list of Champagnes worthy of the higher prices is long, so I will contain myself with a handful of personal favorites: Bruno Paillard, Laurent-Perrier, Möet & Chandon, Dom Perignon, Roederer, Taittinger, A.R. Lenoble, Charles Heidsieck, Piper-Heidsieck, Henriot and Delamotte.  I could go on, but these Champagnes should set you up nicely for any and all special occasions.

Beyond Champagne, there are notable sparkling wines that have made tremendous strides over the past few decades and enjoy favorable comparisons with Champagne, specifically north central Italy, and the Napa and Sonoma regions of California.  The top wines from these areas are still quite expensive, but prices pale next to the finest Champagnes.

Italy's Franciacorta and Trento regions produce remarkable sparkling wine using the tried and true methods of Champagne, i.e. a second fermentation in the bottle and extensive aging on the lees.  Ca' del Bosco, Bellavista and Ferrari all produce world-class bubbly that could fool a Champagne aficionado in a blind tasting.

Ditto the likes of Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Roederer Estate, Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg Vineyards, Mumm Napa Valley, J Vineyards and Iron Horse from California.  The primary differences to my palate are a more intense aroma of toasty brioche and a stronger thread of minerality that I find in Champagne.  That said, the finest sparkling wines from California and northern Italy are stunning in their own right.

Another rung down the price ladder you will find Cava, Prosecco and the various Cremant expressions of France, such as Crémant d'Alsace, Crémant de Loire and Crémant de Bourgogne.  These wines, with some exceptions, are not as complex or profound as Champagne and the top northern Italian and California sparklers, but they are delicious and easy on the budget, and so, not to be easily dismissed.

Many of these wines are made using the Charmat Method, where the wine undergoes fermentation in large stainless steel tanks, rather than individual bottles.  This more economical production method results in lower prices, which may better fit your party budget.

The one complaint I hear frequently about Prosecco is that it is sweet, and there is some truth to that.  A huge percentage of Prosecco production is in the extra-dry category, which can be noticeably sweeter than a brut sparkler. These wines can be very tasty, but if you prefer a drier style, it is best to seek out Prosecco specifically labeled as brut.

Of course, sparkling wines are also made in such far-flung places as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa, and quality in general is very high, making these quite enjoyable options for experimentation.  

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:22 AM