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Mar 19, 201410:07 AM
Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

Geeking Out About Grapes

Thinking about the grapes behind the wines

smrcoun, stock.xchng, 2008

The irony of wine drinking is that we very seldom think about the grapes. Strange, huh? Yes, there is that moment of “Oh, this is a Chardonnay, and a good one at that,” but the reference to the grape is incidental only to identifying the wine.

After that first sniff and then the sip, the geek-factor comes out, almost immediately, and the discussion centers on flavors like butter or oak; on past experiences like being at a movie theater or in Grandma’s kitchen; on other fruits and vegetables like beets or papaya; or on other times like the great wine of 1995.

But to discuss the grapes themselves is not usually done. Sometimes the grapes come into discussion with the comment on some wines that the wine tastes “grape-y.” That, my friends, in the wine world is definitely not a compliment. Odd, but true.

The grapes that are used for wine are completely different from those used for munching on as snacks. The Sultana, what we call Thompson Seedless, is grown be eaten as fresh as possible, and is lower in sugar than grapes harvested for wine. Those dedicated to wine production are heartier on the vine, usually thicker skinned, and the seeds are robust.

Most wine drinkers have never had the pleasure of tasting a ripe wine grape in order to fully appreciate what the winemaker is working with, and to anticipate what will be the end result at the end of the journey, which is in your glass.

If you are curious, let’s stroll through the vineyards.

Chardonnay – Without a doubt the most dissed wine by reviewers and loved by consumers. Also the most purchased. One out of every three bottles of wine sold in the United States is Chardonnay. This green-skinned grape likely is not related to any other varietal, although for years it was thought to be a cousin of pinot blanc. The chardonnay grape likely was brought to France from Syria, in the long-gone Persian Empire, by returning soldiers from the Crusades. The grape is quite neutral in color as well as aromas. A great deal of what we enjoy in Chardonnay is the result of harvest timing and oak aging.

Sauvignon Blanc – Another green-skinned grape, this is a derivative of a red grape from the western area of France. The red grape is likely carmenere or cabernet franc. It was not unusual in France for red grape plantings in the vineyards to be interspersed with white grape plantings. That is still done in blends at the winery all the time, particularly in the Rhone region. The grape prospered in Bordeaux, but its greatest result is from the Loire Valley. Sancerres are absolute sauvignon blanc perfection. California is doing a good job with this grape, and New Zealand is capable but has for years been guilty of overplanting their vineyards.

Pinot Grigio – likely originated in Burgundy where the grape morphed into a light-skinned style from pinot noir. The grape was taken to Hungary by Emperor Charles V who loved the wines from this grape and gave cuttings to Cistercian monks. It drifted south around the Alps and the Dolomites and really found a home in the northeastern area of Italy where it is called pinot gris. Like pinot noir, the grape is sort of fickle and its low yields and uncertain ripening in cooler climates caused winemakers in Burgundy and Germany to rip it out in the 1700s.

Pinot Noir - As long as we are on the pinot subject, we might as well discuss this frontrunner. The origins of pinot noir are not clear, pre-dating the first century where it was described in Burgundy. It is one of only two or three domesticated grapes of the genus vitis vinifera that began as wild vines. For a grape that is so demanding of its environment, it is surprisingly widespread in plantings, growing in just about every grape growing region of the world. The name is derived because the tight clusters on the vines during growing season resemble a pine cone. The tightness contributes to its fickle nature in that water from late-season rains can become trapped in the cluster with no opportunity to dissipate, causing rot and mildew.

Merlot – Likely an offshoot of the cabernet franc grape with influences from carmenere and cabernet sauvignon, this grape was first noted around 1750 in the Bordeaux area of Libourne. The blue-black grape skin led to the name merle, French for blackbird. Merlot means little blackbird. The grape is lighter in color and less tannic than cabernet sauvignon, which leads to the character most often associated with the wines, velvet. Merlot wines are almost always blended with other grapes since merlot can, without a bit of a supporting cast, become flabby and unfocused. If you doubt that, check out the 2004 movie Sideways. ‘Nuff said.

Cabernet Sauvignon – A recent discovery in 1996 proved that cabernet sauvignon is a relatively new grape variety, probably the result of an “accident” combining carmenere and sauvignon blanc which took place in Bordeaux, possibly even at Chateau Mouton in the Medoc, in the latter part of the 18th century. Are you surprised to learn that this “king” of red grapes started as a white grape? Or that it is “modern.” So were a lot scientists and vineyard owners. DNA research shot down all the beliefs that this grape, or its predecessors, was the preferred beverage of Pliny the Elder in ancient Rome, or that the grape emanated from the Rhone region of France. Those stories were more romantic than the simple truth of having a couple of grape vines “do the deed” out in some quiet and remote vineyard.

Obviously we have just scratched the surface here. And have not even covered a small percentage of the world’s wine grapes. For instance, have you been able to work into conversation lately that the Alicante Bouschet grape does not have white meat like most all other red grapes. Rather, it has pink meat which, with the grape’s very dark skin, can impart an incredibly deep black hue to any wine blend. Or have you seen and tasted a seed from wine grapes both during maturation and then when the fruit is ready for harvest? I won’t give away the answer about what to look for.

There has to be some mystery left in the relationship. 

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Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans


In New Orleans, when the subject is wine and spirits, it is very difficult to leave Tim McNally out of the discussion. He is considered one of the “go to” resources in the Crescent City for counsel and information about adult beverages and their place in the fabric of life in this great city.


Tim is the Wine and Spirits Editor, columnist and feature writer for New Orleans Magazine; the Wine and Spirits Editor and weekly columnist, Happy Hour, for www.MyNewOrleans.com; creator and editor of his own website, www.winetalknola.com; all in addition to his daily hosting duties on the radio program, The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, on the air at WGSO – 990AM, every weekday, 3- 5 p.m, and streamed live on www.wgso.com.


Over the years, Tim has proved to be an informed interviewer, putting his guests at ease, and covering tactile and technical information so that even a novice can understand difficult agricultural and production concepts. Tim speaks with winemakers, wine and spirit ambassadors, distillers, authors, people who stage events and festivals, and takes questions from listeners and readers, all seamlessly blended together in a program that is unique in America.


Tim’s love of wine actually came about many years ago from his then wife-to-be, Brenda Maitland, a noted journalist in her own right, and together they have traveled to the major wine producing areas in the US and Europe, seeking first-hand information about beverages that give us all so much pleasure.


They were instrumental in the founding of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, a major national and international well-regarded festival of its type. They both continue to be involved with the planning and staging of this multi-venue, five-day event now over twenty years old.


Tim is also considered one of the foremost professional wine judges in the US, being invited to judge more than 11 wine competitions each year, including the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (the largest competition of American wines in the world, with more than 6,000 entries), the Riverside, CA International Wine Competition, San Francisco International Wine Competition, Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, Indiana International Wine Competition, Sandestin, Florida Wine Festival Competition, the State of Michigan Wine Competition, the U.S. National Wine Competition, and the National Wine Competition of Portugal.


Tim is a guest lecturer to many local wine and dine organizations, and speaks each year to the senior class in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.


Staying abreast of the news of the wine and spirits world is a passion for Tim, and he is committed to sharing what he knows with his listeners and readers. “Doing something I love, with products that I truly enjoy, created by interesting people, coupling the experience with culinary excellence, and doing it all in the greatest city in America,” are the words Tim lives by.


It’s a good gig. 




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