A short while back I was asked by my dear friend Marcia if she could interview me with some wine questions for her blog…cookingandthecareergirl.blogspot.com. Of course I was excited, so I want to present it to you. I think it gives folks a good insight on how I approach wine.
For me, a meal is just not complete without a good glass of wine. However, pairing various wines with meals is truly an art form. I’ve been told that the old rules no longer apply now, that anything goes. I have my preferences for sure, but not everyone has the same tastes. For smaller, intimate dinners, I’m more likely to try something different; but for larger gatherings, I look to my good friend Charles Bissell, Owner of Charles Fine Wine in Glastonbury, CT, to help me with selections. Passionate about both wine and food, Charles knows his craft, yet knows not to take himself too seriously. He loves to help people understand the nuances of this ancient and mystical drink, and always greets his customers with a larger than life smile. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to interview him and share his insights with my readers.
First, tell us a little about yourself and what draws you to this unique profession?
I have been in the wine business since 1980 when I moved to France after college so I could start learning about wine, winemaking, wine tasting, and vineyard work. I landed in the Burgundy region and spent a year working for 7 different families, negociants (wine shippers), and cooperatives. Whatever work was required, I helped. At a certain time of day, usually the morning, I would be educated in actual tasting and wine evaluation. The mornings were chosen because the palate is most acute at that time.Once back home I worked for a fine wine wholesale company and sold to restaurants and wine shops in Westchester New York. Not having much fun with that, I was then hired to manage a fine wine shop in West Hartford, CT. I found I really enjoyed the retail side of this business. After 2-3 years, I managed another fine wine shop in Hartford, CT. By 1988 I realized that the only way I could continue was to open my own fine wine shop, and Charles Fine Wine was introduced to the State of Connecticut.
What I enjoy the most is the interaction with a whole spectrum of folks and teaching them about wine. My customers include folks with large cellars to those who are not familiar with wine at all. I love to educate folks in a very comfortable and relaxing way, as many can be intimidated by its complexities. My goal is to customize the wine selection to the person’s needs and budget. Learning people’s palates is very important, as I can veer them into new directions still with wine styles they like.
What should we know about understanding the basics of wine types?
The types and styles of wine are infinite. Every single person on the planet has different tastes…and even those tastes will change with time. Understanding wine types allows each individual to direct their efforts toward wines that are particularly delicious to themselves. Frequently this is done with the help of books, videos, but most importantly a good wine merchant.
|Charles and me enjoying my favorite Pinot NoirAs someone unfamiliar with wine walks into a wine shop, all they can see are bottles with different labels. It is the job of the merchant to find out what style of wine the person enjoys and guide them to a selection that they would enjoy. I make sure to describe the wine so the customer knows exactly what they are going to get. No one likes surprises. I use the example of buying diamonds. Personally, I know nothing about diamonds. A good jeweler would guide me through the complexities of diamonds so I am able to make an educated decision. The same thing goes with wine. Once someone is familiar with some of the different wine styles, then they can veer off their usual path and try new things that are similar but also different.
I’m sure you’re asked this all the time- What are some things to consider when selecting a good wine at a reasonable price point?
Value is the one thing I feel is most important when I select the wines for my shop. There are thousands and thousands of wines out there and I try to find ones that express their varietal grape, and regional qualities the best.
For example, when a sales rep comes into the shop with a new wine to try, I will first look at the label and see what it is telling me. If it says “Cabernet Sauvignon” on the label and it is from California, I am already expecting certain things from this bottle. I will look at the color to see that it is deep and ruby. I’ll swirl the glass and put my nose in the glass. The aromas can speak volumes. Is it Cabernet Sauvignon I am smelling? Are the aromas rich and filling my nose with lovely black fruit smells? Are the aromas appropriate for a Cabernet Sauvignon? If “yes” I’ll move on, if “no” I pass. If I move on, I will want the flavors to match what I am smelling. Does the wine have a good richness? Does it coat the palate with ripe full flavors? Are the flavors in my mouth clean and fresh once I swallow? What feeling is left in my mouth?
After all this I decide on how much I would pay for this wine. If the price is less than my estimate, it will be a good value. If the price is more, I’d say “It’s a nice wine, but just too expensive.”
Personally, I stay away from the highly advertised brands of wine. Since they are so advertised, who pays for all the advertising? The customer, of course. I’d rather pay for what’s IN the bottle than a fancy package or advertising. It’s the wine that counts.
That said, what would you would recommend, particularly now for BBQ’s and moving on to the colder months?
Rather than specifying specific wines, I’ll speak of wine regions and grapes where some of the best values are coming from.
When it’s hot out and the grills are aflame, red wines can start to act funny. In the heat on the deck, reds will start to fall apart in the glass, making them less attractive. In the heat, one of my favorite wines is the dry rosÈs from Southern France. Yes, you heard me right folks…rosÈ. Bone dry, bright and crisp, these are one of the least snobby wines on the planet. Served icy cold in small cafÈ glasses, it’s amazing how fast a bottle will vaporize. And I particularly love the bright pink color.
Other areas of interest are Spain, where white wines made with the Verdejo grape make for some of the best summertime pleasure. The Loire Valley in Central France makes some of the most refreshing, crisp, and clean Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Also New Zealand, where Sauvignon Blanc frequently possesses notes of grapefruit in these bright and zesty whites.
As the weather starts to turn colder, here are some fun ideas… South America (Chile and Argentina) is one of the superstar regions for amazing values in both reds and whites. Malbec (a red grape from Argentina) can make wines comparable to California reds almost double the price. Carmenere (a red grape from Chile) can taste like Merlot on steroids, at half the price of a California Merlot. France’s Southern Rhone Valley is the home to the famous Cote du Rhone reds. Rich and spicy with notes of earth and dark fruit, these wines are great for cool weather and even those of us who like to grill year ‘round. And don’t forget Spain. The Tempranillo and “Old Vine” Grenache can be world class and inexpensive.
When it comes to flavors and aromas like hints of cherry, earth and chocolate, etc., where do they come from? And what is important to know about recognizing them?
Being able to recognize and identify specific aromas and flavors is something that comes quickly to some folks and longer to others. These characteristics come from a combination of the grape variety, soil, and climate. When identifying them, it is a very personal matter. As I can say “I smell cherries in this wine.”…you may say “No, I smell raspberries.” Neither of us are wrong, as we smell what we smell. A great part of enjoying wine is in the identifying of what we actually taste. Recognizing specific aromas and flavors in a certain wine makes us understand the wine more, and personalizes the wine to each of us.
IMPORTANT NOTE…Trust and have faith in your palate. It amazes me how many times a person would ask me if the wine they were tasting was good or not.
When I give a wine class, I tell everyone to open up their minds to every aroma and flavor they have ever experienced. The good ones and the bad ones. Easier said than done. I also tell them that somewhere in the world, there is a wine that will possess that specific flavor or aroma.
Here are some interesting examples…good and bad.
Red fruits (cherry, strawberry, raspberry, currant, cranberry)
Black fruits (blackberry, black raspberry, black plum, cassis)
White fruits (Peach, pear, pineapple, apple, kiwi)
Citrus (lemon, lime, grapefruit)
Herbs (what’s in your spice cabinet?)
Earth, soil, leaves (dry and wet), mushrooms, tea, leather (even well used leather)
Woods (oak, cedar, smokey or not)
Minerals & Stones
Fabrics (cotton, wool, even wet wool)
Barnyard…yes, a barnyard on a hot day.
Wet dog (from different breeds, as they do smell different.)
Old lobster water
Wet musty basement floor
You get my drift?
We could go crazy about discussing wine parings. On the extreme: white with fish/chicken and red with meat, to anything goes. Although this is no longer the rule, what is your approach to paring wine with food?
I approach food/wine pairings a couple different ways. First, I will look at the style of wine I want to drink, or the style of food I want to cook. As I know one side of the pairing, I will need to match it with a similarly styled mate. If you had a delicate white fish, you wouldn’t want to clobber it with a dark heavy red, as the red wine will hide all the delicacy of the fish. Likewise, if I had a delicate fresh white wine, I wouldn’t want to slap down some super spicy ribs on the grill as that would murder the wine’s flavors.
|Charles Bissell, Owner of Charles Fine Wine
Food/wine pairings need a balance.
Let’s say you were going to have a creamy chicken dish or buttery lobster. A comparable wine would be a buttery rich California Chardonnay. Makes sense. BUT…how about pairing with an opposite style? Instead of having a creamy buttery Chardonnay, you decided on a zesty Sauvignon Blanc? Think about it. You take a bite of rich food that coats the palate with buttery creamy goodness. By taking a sip of a wine of an opposite style would allow the wine to cleanse the palate with its brightness and zest leaving the palate ready for another bite of richness.
If you are planning on BBQ ribs, pulled pork, or smoked brisket, generally a hearty spicy red would work. A Rhone red, Syrah, Grenache from Spain, or Australian Shiraz would all work well. While white meat/white wine, red meat/red wine would still more or less work…those days are over.
What would you consider a ‘safe bet’ when bringing wine to a friend’s house for dinner?
When I recommend wines that will be given as hostess gifts or simply to be opened that evening with friends, I select wines that are ready to drink with no fuss, no muss. What I mean by this is that the wine has to have the ability to be opened without the need for additional age, and can be enjoyed with no breathing. Simply open and pour. The wine also has to have some decent character to it. A light white or thin red will not make the cut. Generally these “gift” wines fall in the $10-$30 range. For whites, a French Chardonnay, California Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio (or any other Italian white), Spanish Verdejo or Viura. For reds, Pinot Noir (not a thin one), Merlot, Shiraz, Zinfandel, Malbec, French Cotes du Rhone, Italian Chianti, Barbera or Dolcetto.
CT wineries are more prevalent now than ever. What are some things to consider at one of the tastings?
It almost seems like several new wineries open up in CT every year. The climate in CT (New England) is quite a bit different than that of California, Europe, or South America. One of the largest differences is simply “sun hours”. Each variety of grape requires a certain amount of sun and rain each year to form quality wine grapes. While we may see Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc for reds, and Chardonnay and Riesling for whites being grown in CT, other commonly known grapes are not. These grapes come from the vitis vinifera family. There are also a selection of French hybrid grape varieties such as Seyval Blanc, Vidal, and Marechal Foch. These grapes are less fragile to mildew and can ripen in the New England climate. I encourage folks to take day trips to the various CT wineries as they are pretty to see, educational, and visits will let folks learn of new wines not commonly found.
What tips for storage can you give for those who do not have a wine cellar?
When storing wine, its worst enemies are temperature, light and vibration. Many folks want to store their wine at 55 degrees and 60% humidity, which is optimum. However, the need for a “wine cellar” is not always necessary.
My first question to a customer would be…”Are you buying wine to enjoy in the next 6 months?” If yes, then storage is less important. If you want to store wine for 6 months and on, then more focus on the storage would be recommended. If you are buying wine for more immediate enjoyment, then a storage closet or shelf in the basement would work just fine. (Note that wine should never be stored near a heat source.) Lay the bottles on their sides, so the corks stay moist, and you are all set.
If you want to start a collection and save some more special bottles for the future, then a particularly cool area in the basement (or even an under-counter self contained wine storage unit) may be required.
Some folks have come to me and proudly announced that they make sure that they rotate the bottles on a regular basis in their cellars. This is the darned silliest thing, as vibration is one of wines’ enemies…so simply leave your bottles at peace.
Many wines are now being bottled with screw-tops (which I love) or plastic corks. These prevent the wine from being spoiled by bad natural corks. Wine in screw-tops need not be laid on their sides.
Since we’re in the midst of vacation season, any advice for traveling with wine?
As with storing wine, managing the temperature is key. Insulated wine carriers are the best for picnics, the beach, concerts, etc… When outdoors on a hot day, red wines should try to be in the 65-70 degree range. Whites can be in the 45 degree range.
When travelling a long distance and you want to bring 6-12 bottles or more (my kind of vacation), then a styro-foam wine shipper would work the best. They coddle the bottles safely and keep them insulated for a long time. Beware about leaving bottles of wine in a hot car, as it can harm the wine.
To decant, or not decant? When, why and for which wines?
There are those who debate the benefits of breathing and decanting wine, but I am a believer in it. Not all wines need decanting. Decanting the right wine offers 2 advantages to its enjoyment. First, it separates the clear wine from any sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Second, it allows the wine to breathe and aerate. Wines that are normally decanted are mature and have a deposit at the bottom of the bottle. To decant wines for breathing purposes encompasses a larger audience. Breathing wine is actually oxidizing it. Wine is cooped up in a bottle void of any oxygen. When opened it can be “closed” (not showing much aroma or flavor). By breathing the wine, oxygen starts to bring out the wine’s inner characteristics. Generally this is most effective with heavy red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, hearty Pinot Noirs, and big Italian reds such as Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello.
As you know, I’m a huge Reidel glass fan… How important is the type/shape of the wine glass?
Wine glass technology has exploded over the past 15-20 years. Riedel was (and is) the leader in creating wine specific wine glasses. I am a believer that certain glasses will show off certain wines more effectively than others. BUT, I am not necessarily a believer that the “Cabernet Sauvignon” glass cannot show off an amazing Pinot Noir, Zinfandel or Syrah. Red wines generally need a larger vessel to swirl around in so that their aromatics and character can develop. White wines generally don’t need the volume in the glass that reds do, but I’ve certainly had white wine in a “red” glass, and it was superb.
Certain wines may have a slightly higher alcohol content, so a proper glass can show it off well, and another may pronounce the alcohol too much and detract from the wine. The days of cheap Libby glasses are long gone.
With this explosion of designer wine glasses on the market, many can be found at very reasonable prices and safe in the dishwasher.
What are some key take always for you regarding Do’s and Don’ts?
DO have fun with wine and all it has to offer.
DO respect it as an alcoholic beverage.
DON’T be a wine snob.
DON’T be swayed by price. More expensive doesn’t always mean “better”.
(Note…Isn’t Marcia a babe???)