Four Wine-Tasting Mistakes to Avoid

To get the most out of your upcoming wine-tasting, avoid these four mistakes:

1. Don’t focus on the winemaker’s tasting notes. You might review them to determine which wines you’d like to try if you have a choice. But once you have the wine in front of you, focus on what aromas and flavors you detect in the wine. And more importantly, if you enjoy it. After you’ve made that determination, then you might consider reviewing the winemaker’s notes to see if you experienced the same nuances they did. If you didn’t, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or that you don’t know what you’re doing. What it means is that you and the winemaker have different palates and flavor experiences, which is completely valid.

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2. Don’t wear white. Spills happen.

3. Don’t throw your taste buds and nose out of whack before tasting. Biggest culprits in this category are tobacco and beer. Indulging in one of these right before you start tasting wine is going to really change your perception and your experience of everything you try.

4. Don’t over-do it. If you want to enjoy your entire day and get the most fun for the longest time, pace yourself. If you don’t know your limits, or you try to squeeze in as much drinking as you can right from the get-go, there’s a very good chance you’ll get to the third winery and appear intoxicated, which means you’ll be cut-off for the rest of the trip. It’s happened to a lot of people. Better to still be having fun by the end of the day, then to be feeling sick and miss out on half of your tastings.

How to Start Drinking Red Wine

When we’re young, our culinary tastes are pretty simple: we like fat, and we like sugar. Candy, chocolate, cake, and brownies are all the stuff of desire. As we age, our palates mature, and we come to discover the pleasures of sour, bitter, and savory foods. This is true of wine-drinking, too. Typically, we start our exploration of wine by discovering sweeter wines that are more pleasant and easier to drink. With experience, many people discover that some dry wines, with more complex flavors, including bitterness, are equally enjoyable.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everybody. Everyone’s tastes, preferences, and palates are unique. I know plenty of senior citizens who have never enjoyed a wine unless it was very sweet. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I have also encountered people who are looking to expand their horizons beyond sweet white wine and don’t know where to start. Or perhaps, they dove right into the deep end of the pool, beginning with the heaviest, fullest-bodied, most alcoholic, bitter wine, and that may have turned them off to the idea of red wine entirely.

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The single differentiating factor between red and white wines is the color that comes from fermenting juice with the grape skins.  Regardless of the color of the grape skins, all white wine is made from just the grape juice. When the skins, and sometimes the seeds, of red grapes, are allowed to remain in contact with the juice as it begins to ferment, red wine results. This adds not only color, but also flavor, body, and texture to the final product.

Be assured, there is most likely a red wine out there for you. Knowing which options are the best first steps into the world of reds will be immensely helpful to discovering new experiences in the wine world.

Start with red wines that have many of the characteristics of white wines: light bodied, simpler collections of aromas and flavors, without a bitter aftertaste.

Beaujolais is a great place to start. Beaujolais (bo-zhu-LAY) is a wine-making region of France, just north of Lyon. The red wines produced there are made with a thin-skinned, low-tannin grape called Gamay. The grapes are not pressed, they’re simply piled on top of one another and crush under their own weight. The grapes at the bottom start to ferment and release carbon dioxide, which starts to break down the grapes at the top. This means that whatever tannins and other harsher compounds that are in the skins do not get expelled into the juice, making a very light, fruity product. This is a process called carbonic maceration.

Every year, on the 3rd Thursday of November, the first Beaujolais of the year’s vintage, the Beaujolais Nouveau is released. This is the youngest, lightest, fruitiest of the year’s wine, and is meant to be consumed immediately. I strongly suggest starting your red wine exploration with Beaujolais, especially the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Since this wine only comes from one region in France, there are no Texas versions of a Gamay-based wine. However, Texas produces some excellent wines from Cinsault (sin-SOH) or Carignan (carry-nyan) grapes, which is as close as you can get to this style of wine here. Start at Lost Draw Vineyards to find a Cinsault or Carignan.

The next step is pinot noir. This is a type of grape that was originally grown in the Burgundy region of France and is an essential grape in Burgundy wines, which are blends of multiple grape types. The grape is notoriously difficult to grow; it’s finicky, prone to disease, and reacts dramatically to changes in weather. In America, pinot noir is grown on the north coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. The warmer the climate, the riper the grape becomes, developing more complex flavors. For your exploration, you should try to find a pinot noir wine made from the coolest climate you can; this usually means Washington, Oregon, or New York. You can get Oregon pinot noir at the recently-opened Signor Vineyards on the Highway 290 Wine Trail.

The important characteristic of pinot noir wines, particularly the cool-climate versions, is its acidity. In the cooler temperatures, the grapes build up acids that lend a refreshing bite or tartness, like a crisp cool apple or an iced lemonade, which makes it appealing to white wine drinkers.

Now, pinot noir does not grow consistently well in Texas, because of the warmer climate. However, the Lahey Vineyards in Brownfield, located in the Texas High Plains, is growing pinot noir grapes, and you can find wine made from this vineyard at Messina Hof Winery. This wine has been aged in oak barrels, and this smooths out the acidity of the wine and balances it with some mild tannins. This is not a European- or Oregon-style pinot noir, but you might consider trying it if you’re not too afraid of complexity and structure in your wine.

A good alternative to pinot noir that grows well in Texas is a Spanish grape known as Garnacha. You will also see the French name, Grenache. This grape has the same acidity characteristics of pinot noir but does better in warmer climates. It is a common grape that is blended together with other varieties to make Spanish wines, and in France is a component of Burgundy and Côte du Rhône wines. In the Texas Hill Country, a good place to start is the Grenache made by Ron Yates Winery. Because of its refreshing acidity, you will find multiple wineries with a rosé wine made from Grenache. The wineries that have produced such a rosé change from year to year, based on the quality of the Grenache they get from their vineyards, so you’ll have to search around to see who has one this year. It’s an excellent choice for spring, and for hot summer days. And, if you end up deciding that true red wines are not for you, there’s no shame in settling for a beautiful grenache rosé.

Your next step might be to try an Italian varietal: Sangiovese (san-jee-o-VES-ay). This is a grape from the Tuscany region that is the principal variety blended with others to make Chianti. It grows very well in Texas, even in the Hill Country, and has a good balance between its acidity, body, and very mild tannins. It’s an excellent choice to pair with some light marinara sauce or pizza. You can find some excellent examples, priced competitively, at Texas Hills Vineyard and Messina Hof. An exceptional Sangiovese, with a little bit more complexity and body to it, is the one produced by William Chris Vineyards, which was named one of the 30 Best Texas Wines for Spring 2018 by Texas Monthly magazine.

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Finally, if you’ve gotten this far, you’re ready to graduate to Mourvèdre (more-VED). This is a grape from the southern regions of France, such as the Rhône River Valley. It has a little more heft and complexity than pinot noir and is much better suited to warm climates. It has become increasingly more popular among Texas grape growers in the last eight years. In France, it is blended with Grenache and Syrah to make Burgundy and Cote du Rhône wines; in Texas, these blends are known as GSM. But as a single-varietal wine, Mourvèdre can be made in a range of styles from light and fruity to medium-bodied with some complexity that will stand up to pairing with grilled meat or fruity desserts. The champion of Texas Mourvèdres is William Chris Vineyards, and you might be able to find a good one from Lewis Wines or Lost Draw Vineyards as well.

Whatever you try, keep an open mind, and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t like something. The only person you have to please is yourself.

Why You Don’t Have to Avoid Tannins

Often, you may come across a wine that has a harsh taste in the back of your mouth, and leaves you with a dry feeling like all your saliva was sucked up by cotton balls, or that suction tube the dentist uses. “Ugh, why would I drink this?” you might say. Well, let’s find out what’s causing that, and why it’s there in the first place. You may find yourself seeking out these wines for the right occasion in the future.

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The culprit here is a type of acid called tannin. It commonly occurs in different plants: tannic acid is what tea leaves release into hot water to make tea. It also can be found in coffee beans. The tannins found naturally in oak wood are extracted and used to harden animal hides into leather. This process is called tanning and is where tannin gets its name.

Tannins are one of the three acids commonly found in grapes, along with citric acid and malic acid. The tannins are concentrated in the grape skins, as well as the seeds and stems. If the winemaker leaves the skins, seeds, and stems in contact with the grape juice as it ferments, you’ll get a red wine. And the longer they sit in the juice, the darker and more tannic the wine becomes.

Tannins are also absorbed by wine that’s aging in oak barrels, directly from the wood. But this is a much smaller, less significant, source of tannins, and they tend to be smoother and mellower than the ones in the grape skins.

When the tannins come into contact with the salivary glands in the back of your mouth, they dry up the saliva, creating that puckery, bitter feeling. This is because tannin is an astringent; it has a drying effect. Some people think that this is what’s meant by “dry” wine, but that word only means that there’s no sugar in the wine. The effect created by tannin is simply called “tannic.”

So, why in the world do winemakers make wine with tannin? They could avoid it by using grapes with less tannin in the skin, and by reducing the time that the skins are left in the juice. Many wines, including red wines, are made this way. But quite a few wines are made intentionally with a tannic component. There are three principal reasons:

First, the tannins give the wine “structure.” If a wine has a lot of acid, sugar, and/or alcohol, without the tannins the wine may seem unbalanced or flabby. With the addition of tannins, all of these components are balanced out, and none of them sticks out in an unpleasant way. As time goes on, and the wine remains in the bottle, all of these different parts of the wine blend together more completely. A young wine with pronounced tannins, along with healthy acids and alcohol, will mellow out over the years; the tannins will blend with the acid and alcohol, making a mature wine very different from when it was bottled. These wines are meant to sit for one to two years, sometimes up to ten years or more, before being enjoyed, to allow the components to blend together for maximum balance.

Second, some people like tannins. Yes, they are bitter, but plenty of people enjoy the bitterness that tannins lend to tea, coffee, beer, and bourbon. It is an acquired taste, not that different from a fine cigar.

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Finally, tannins neutralize, and are neutralized by, fat. Many wines are produced with the intention that they will not be consumed by themselves; rather, they’re meant to be enjoyed with food. A full-bodied, tannic wine will pair exceptionally well with foods that have a significant fat component. Take a creamy cheese, a well-marbled steak, or an alfredo sauce; and get that wonderful, fatty consistency to fully infuse your mouth. Then take a sip of your previously-intolerable tannic wine. You’ll find that the tannins have mysteriously mellowed out and become quite pleasant. That’s the magic of food & wine pairing.

If you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy the acquired taste of tannins in your wine, then you can: avoid those wines; determine if there are enough of the other balancing components of wine present to set aside this wine for a couple of years; or make sure you’re not drinking this wine without a cheese plate or a Texas ribeye steak alongside it.

Happy experimenting!

10 Facts About American Viticultural Areas

1) American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are distinct grape-growing regions that have unique geographical characteristics. Because of climate, soil, and growing conditions, the grapes grown in one AVA will have qualities, aromas, and flavors different from grapes grown in another region. These differences can be detected in the wine made from those grapes.

 At least 80% of the grapes in this wine were grown in the Texas High Plains.

At least 80% of the grapes in this wine were grown in the Texas High Plains.

2) If a wine is made of 80% grapes from a particular AVA, then the wine can be labeled with that AVA.

 The grapes in this wine made by Texas Hills Vineyard were all grown in the Texas High Plains, and more specifically, at Newsom Vineyards.

The grapes in this wine made by Texas Hills Vineyard were all grown in the Texas High Plains, and more specifically, at Newsom Vineyards.

3) If all of the grapes in a wine come from a single county or vineyard, then the bottle can be labeled more specifically. Many wines are made of grapes from different vineyards in the same AVA, and so only bear the name of that region on the label.

 The grapes for this Pinot Noir were grown in different vineyards all in Monterey County.

The grapes for this Pinot Noir were grown in different vineyards all in Monterey County.

4) Grapes can be grown outside of an AVA. Wines made from those grapes can’t be labeled as coming from a particular region, however.

5) AVAs are officially designated by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The first AVA designation was made in 1980. There are now 238 AVAs in thirty-three states.

6) There are eight AVAs in Texas. Some are located inside other ones.

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7) The Texas High Plains AVA is responsible for producing 80-90% of the grapes in Texas. There are about 3,000 acres of grapes planted within the 8,000,000 acres of the Texas High Plains. This is by far the best place in Texas to grow grapes.

8) The Texas Hill Country AVA was designated in 1991. It is the second largest in the country, covering 9,000,000 acres. But only 700 acres within that area are planted in grapes.

9) The Texas Hill Country AVA is also the southernmost AVA that has been designated. That means that grape growers here must be very careful about the types of grapes they plant; they must be well-suited to relatively warm and humid growing conditions.

10) There are fifty-three wineries in the Texas Hill Country, but most of the grapes they use are supplied from the Texas High Plains, or from out of state.

3 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Wine Tasting

If you’ve been wanting to take a wine tour, but were concerned that you don’t know enough about wine, worry no more. You can enjoy and learn about wine without any prior knowledge or experience, but keep reading for a few tips that will give you confidence and help you get the most out of your first (or fifth!) wine tour experience.

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While you could spend hours learning the techniques professionals use to see, smell, taste, and evaluate the components and qualities of different wines, it’s absolutely not necessary to do that if you want a great wine tour. A few simple techniques will help you to compare different wines and make sure you get the most from your tasting experience. You will be able to discover great wines that you love. After all, that’s the bottom line: if you like a wine, then it’s a good wine; if you don’t like it, well, then there are plenty of other choices out there for you to try.

A note about price: the price of a wine is not based on its inherent quality; like everything else, it’s supply and demand. If a winery produces a small quantity of a particular wine, it’s likely to be more expensive. And if one particular type is highly sought-after, that will raise the price. What this means is that a wine you enjoy may be inexpensive, but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor-quality wine. One of my favorite bottles is a Sangiovese from Texas Hills Vineyard that runs $10-14.

3 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Wine Tasting

1. First and foremost, always taste the wines in the order they are listed on the tasting menu. Almost always, they will be listed from lightest body to heaviest body. “Body” refers to the heaviness, or viscosity, of the wine. Fuller-bodied wines will have more alcohol, more flavor, and more glycerol, which is a fatty acid that contributes to the intensity of the wine, and makes it seem sweeter, even if there’s no sugar present.  

If you swirl the wine around the glass, you will see it cascade down off the side of the glass. When it does this quickly and thinly, like water, it is a lighter-bodied wine. If it adheres more to the glass and forms thick “teardrops,” or “legs,” then it is heavier-bodied. Ultimately, the way the wine coats the side of the wine glass is the way it will coat the inside of your mouth, and the top of your tongue. A full-bodied wine will more completely coat your palate and tongue and inhibit your ability to taste lighter-bodied wine afterward. Therefore, you should always start with the lightest wines and proceed to the heaviest.

2. Secondly, try not to rinse out your glass with water. It is best to rinse the glass with the next wine you’ll be tasting. Water changes the intended experience of the wine. If you’re dehydrated, ask for a separate glass for water, so that it doesn’t dilute and alter the next wine you’ll be tasting. The pourer assisting you will be happy to provide one.

Should you reverse direction, and end up tasting a lighter-bodied wine after you’ve already had a heavier wine, that is a good time to use a palate-cleanser to reset your palate and mouth for the light wine. The most common palate cleansers available at Hill Country wineries are oyster crackers and Goldfish crackers. Saltines and popcorn also make excellent palate cleansers.

3.Lastly, some wineries may present a little accompaniment for particular wines. In this scenario, the paired food will complement, but also alter, the way you perceive the wine. So, the best procedure is to try the wine by itself first, to see how it stands alone. Then take the food and chew it so it coats the top of your tongue and the inside of your mouth as much as possible. Then try another sip of the wine; you’ll notice that your perception of the wine is quite different. For example, drinking an orange Moscato wine by itself may make you think that it’s too sweet. But then having a piece of dark chocolate, or fine blue cheese, with the wine will balance the sweetness and bring out the other flavor qualities of the wine beside the sweetness. In other words, sip-chew-sip, which is good advice for both wine tasting, and life.

Now, you are ready to get tasting on your wine tour. Grab some friends and book a tour with us so one of our tour guides can introduce you to some of the best Hill Country wineries.  You’ll be able to impress your friends as you discover your new favorite bottle of wine. Enjoy!