Lessons From A Chocolatier: Your Palate

As most folks who enjoy wine know, chocolate and wine can be an outstanding pairing.  What I didn’t realize is that learning about one can help you enjoy the other.

Very recently I was fortunate enough to be invited to a chocolate-making class.  Terry, a good friend with a good heart, had won this class as part of a fundraising auction.  There were eight of us budding chocolatiers there at Terry’s invitation to learn how to make chocolate truffles.  “There” was Cocova in Washington, DC conveniently located between the popular Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan neighborhoods.  Cocova is owned by master chocolatier Robert Cabeca who also has a bakery called Chocolate Crust in upper northwest DC.  For about two hours we all became students of the master.

What was most interesting to me about the class was Chef Cabeca’s lecture on tasting chocolate.  He literally spoke to us in the same terms that I would expect to hear at a wine tasting – it’s scent (bouquet), the flavors across the palate, etc.  He also indicated that not only the kind of cocoa bean (varietal) but where the beans are grown (terroir) can affect the flavors present.  Then he took it a step further and told us that if we didn’t really experience much flavor, there was still hope.

According to Chef Robert, the three major culprits in damaging a person’s palate (i.e. taste buds) are smoking, spicy foods, and too much alcohol.  Although I tried very hard as a tweenager to pick up the smoking habit, it didn’t stick.  And while I clearly do drink alcohol, it isn’t excessive and is almost exclusively wine.  Spicy food?  Well, I like spice, and sometimes go for the “hot” dishes at Mexican or Thai restaurants.  Suddenly, I was concerned that I’ve been destroying my palate because I like a little zip and zing in my food.  Oh, no!  But then we got the good news.

Evidently, your taste buds regenerate every two weeks.  Yup, if you stop doing things that will harm your palate for two weeks, you will have a brand new tongue in the end.  A couple of weeks, that’s all it takes.  I can do that!  It’s going to be interesting to see if my two weeks of spicy abstinence will increase my perception of subtle flavors in wine.

By the way, we all had a great time at Cocova.  We learned a lot about chocolate and about working with it.  Chef Cabeca is a good, patient teacher as well as an excellent chocolatier.  Every team – we worked in pairs – finished the class successfully with a batch of tasty chocolate truffles.  Ours were mocha.  Yum!

Wine Tasting In The NC Piedmont

Not long ago I was traveling through North Carolina.  Having stopped in at Iron Gate Vineyards a little over a year ago (where I had my first Chambourcin), I knew that the Piedmont region of NC is dotted with wineries.  Taking a look at my route and the online listings of wineries in the State, I found that Childress Vineyards was a short detour and open during my trip.  Yup.  No brainer!  Clearly, I was going to have to drop by to see what they are up to.

The facility at Childress is an attractive, impressive, full-service enterprise akin to many of the popular wineries in California – including a tasting bar, a gift shop, and a restaurant.  When I arrived I made straight for the tasting room/bar  where I learned that I had options.  I could taste one selection free – a Sauvignon Blanc that particular day; I could take advantage of a “Cellar Select Tasting” of 8 predominantly off-dry wines for $12; or I could go with their “Barrel Select Tasting” of 8 Barrel Select, Reserve or Signature wines for $15.  Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.  I went with the third option.

The eight wines they were pouring on my visit included a Reserve Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Reserve Cabernet Franc, a red blend called Pinnacle, their Signature Merlot, and a dessert wine called Starbound.  Below are my impressions in brief.  Please understand these aren’t complete tasting notes, just quickly scribbled thoughts.

1.  Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – plenty of lemon and grapefruit with a silky mouthfeel.

2.  Pinnacle – a non-vintage blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec – this was their 5th release of this wine (c. 2013).  I found it earthy with lots of buoyant fruit flavors.  13% alcohol.

3.  Merlot 2009 – with almost a brownish tinge to it’s color, this Merlot struck me as smokey and peppery.  13.4% alcohol.

4.  Cabernet Franc 2010 – copious berry flavors and nice medium tannins with a noticeable grip.

5.  Reserve Chardonnay 2010 – a bigger style Chardonnay with plentiful citrus flavor as well.

6.  Reserve Cabernet Franc 2010 – made from estate-grown grapes.  14.2% alcohol.  tannins are lighter than in the previous Cabernet Franc selection, and flavors were subtler with a little less focus on fruit.

7.  Signature Merlot 2009 – another nicely smokey Merlot but with a more complex flavor profile.

8.  Starbound – a non-vintage blueberry dessert wine in the port style.  this was the last selection tasted.  thought it was very blueberry and very sweet.  for me, could probably make an interesting drizzle over ice cream or pound cake.

The staffer who poured for me was very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.  I had a very good time sampling their wares and discussing the Childress wines with her.  She was even kind enough to include a bonus taste of their 2010 Reserve Petit Verdot.  This was a first for me, tasting a varietal wine made from Petit Verdot.  I found it lightly earthy with nice blueberry fruit flavor and pepper as well as some green herbals on the finish.

Having finished tasting all this vino, the question came as to what I might want to carry home with me.  Oh my!  Decisions, decisions!  But then I noticed they had a Sangiovese among their full list of selections.  They weren’t pouring it that day at the tasting bar, but it was available for purchase by the bottle.  Well, then, given my ongoing exploration of Sangiovese, you know what I drove away with.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable tasting experience.  It’s a nice facility in a pretty setting with helpful staff and plenty of wine selections to sample.  It’s just a tad off the beaten path, but not far.  What’s not to like?


Amtrak’s Coast Starlight – A Different Kind of Wine Train

I recently learned that Sleeping Car passengers on two Amtrak routes – the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder – are offered a complimentary wine and cheese tasting.  Maintaining a certain balance and harmony with the travel, the wine and cheese selections Amtrak serves are chosen from areas and locales along the respective routes.  The Coast Starlight is a route between Seattle and LA.  Washington and California?  Those are two of the best known and most productive wine regions in the United States.  Now you see what I mean about this being a different kind of wine train!  So … what can you get in a Sleeping Car on the Coast Starlight?  The wines available are Summerland Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Rabbit Ridge Zinfandel, J Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, Wente Riverbank Riesling, Firesteed Pinot Gris, Hogue Genesis Syrah, Milbrandt Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Traditions Series, and Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling.

As I live in the eastern U.S., I probably won’t have the chance to experience the Coast Starlight in the very near future.  I would love to, of course.  Can you imagine the scenery passengers are treated to?  [You won’t see it if you’re sleeping, though.  Ha!]  No, that experience will just have to go onto my bucket list.  Instead, for now I will have to content myself with grabbing one of the wines on their menu and doing a wine tasting of my own while I daydream about it all.  Well … it’s better than nothing!

Winemaker:  Chateau Ste. Michelle
Varietal:  Riesling
Vintage:  2011
Appellation:  Columbia Valley, Washington
Price:  $12.99

Notes:  The color of this Riesling was literally a barely-there wash of pale yellow.  I smelled pear and citrus in the bouquet.  This was a light-bodied wine, and the acidity was quite bright.  In fact, there was a very light effervescence to this wine as it first hit the tongue.  I like that in a Riesling.  Alcohol comes in at 11.5% on this Chateau Ste. Michelle selection which makes it a bit sweet.  Thus, you get a back-and-forth on the palate between the acidity and residual sugar – tart and sweet.  Flavors for me were pear and citrus with some hints of kiwi.  On the finish I got a nice zing of lemongrass.  At times – in particular as the wine warmed – the sweetness was very present.  I also tasted some peach as the wine lost it’s chill.  All in all, it was most definitely a pleasant wine.  I could certainly see this paired nicely with a young cheese or (because of the sweet component) with some spicy Asian food.  After all, there are several dishes at my favorite Thai restaurant that include lemongrass.

By the way, this post is a response to the first in a series of wine-blogger challenges.  The Drunken Cyclist threw down the gauntlet and called on us to write a wine blog post around the theme of transportation.  Finally, if you’re interested in taking a trip on the Coast Starlight, here is the Current Schedule.

Important: I am not a professional sommelier or wine connoisseur.  See “About” for the full disclaimer.

Vintage Virginia 2013 – Where Vintners Battled At Bull Run

This past weekend I went out into the Northern Virginia countryside (not so country anymore, really) to taste what the Virginia wineries had to offer at Vintage Virginia 2013.  Held at the Bull Run Special Events Center in Centerville, VA, this year’s wine festival hosted some 40 wineries along with an assortment of food and goods vendors.

First, let me say that my experience was a little different than most.  Why?  Well (he said sheepishly), because I decided to bike to the event.  Ha!!  Never having been out to the venue before, I placed my trust in an online maps program to get me there safely via bicycle.  Unfortunately, the maps aren’t quite complete for bikers.  By that I mean I discovered on my trek out that the directions I had were missing large chunks of the route.  So what was slated to take me 1.5 hours in one direction took 3 as I wended my way through the streets of Northern Virginia looking for bicycle-friendly passages to get me to my destination.


Once I got there, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the event.  It was well-planned.  As this was the 32nd iteration, I suppose they’ve had the chance to work out all the kinks.  For those who drove, there was ample parking with parking attendants helping people get to and from their spots in an organized fashion.  Check-in was a snap, in part because I had purchased my ticket online and printed it at home.  But the will-call and ticket purchase booths didn’t have extensive lines either.  The wineries and vendors were located in tents, stalls and trucks (food trucks!) thoughtfully arranged across a hillside that overlooked a big stage where music acts entertained while festival-goers tasted, sampled, drank, ate, learned, and bought.  They even had an awesome service allowing those who were buying in bulk (too much to carry around or through the festival grounds) to pick up their wine in a tent right in the parking area.

Of course, I didn’t get a chance to taste all the wines or even wines from all the wineries.  Still, I did my best to get to as many as I could reasonably sample.  It was great to see that the festival attracted a mix of old and new wineries – big and small.  Prince Michel of Leon, VA was there along with Williamsburg Winery (sharing a very yummy pre-release Merlot) and Horton Vineyards, too.  New to me were First Colony Winery (with two nice Chardonnays and a refreshing white blend called Zephry), Oak Crest Vineyards (using Symphony grapes to good effect in almost a Gewürtztraminer style and whose unexpectedly fun selection called  Hot Jazz is fortified with jalapeno peppers), Rosemont Vineyards (with a red blend of note called Kilravock), Trump Winery (their Blanc de Blanc was by far the best sparkling wine I tasted that day) and Lake Anna Winery (whose Cab Franc and Claret were both enjoyable wines and whose staff I found to be among the most knowledgeable at the tasting tables).

Since I was there at Vintage Virginia under one humanpower and no horsepower, I wasn’t in a position to take advantage of the bulk buying service.  Instead, I had to content myself with carrying away a mild sunburn along with  just a couple of select bottles and the wine glass I was issued for my day of tasting.  The glass was included in my entrance fee.  I promise to share my thoughts on those two wines when I have the chance to pop the cork on each.

Again, I had a very good time at the festival.  Kudos to everyone involved in putting Vintage Virginia 2013 together, and a special thanks to my fellow wine enthusiasts who kindly gave me plenty of clearance as they zipped past me on the road out of Bull Run Park.  One last note: I got completely soaked in a summer rain shower on the way home.  Well, it was a MEMORABLE day!!

Important: I am not a professional sommelier or wine connoisseur.  See “About” for the full disclaimer.

I’m Grateful For Grateful Red

I recently ran across a small wine merchant located next to a bike store across from a major chain grocery store.  I know that sounds sketchy, but it isn’t at all.  I really liked the clever name – Grateful Red – so I decided to venture in to see what it was all about.

Well, they’re primarily about wine along with some beer, too.  The offerings there are not the labels one finds in the typical wine and liquor stores in the area.  That’s good!  Of course, the prices are a bit higher than the usual bottle I blog about here on Oenophilogical.  I mean the ones that can be considered “budget-friendly,” aka cheap.  Even so, I like the variety of offerings Grateful Red has on the shelves.  So I plan on grabbing some of their selections now and then for tasting and blogging.

One of the best things about the Grateful Red store, though, is that they do a wine & beer tasting every Saturday from 1 – 4 p.m.  They open 3 wines and 2 beers for folks to sample.  When I was in they had a Riesling from Germany, a Blush wine from South America, and a French red (as well as two artisanal beers) available for tasting.  What a great discovery!

First Sips Toward A Love Affair

First, I have to admit that I came to wine fairly late.  I was well into my adulthood when I decided to investigate.

Early Impressions

I may have been reticent to give it a go because of experiences early in life.  You see, my parents weren’t really drinkers (maybe once or twice a year).  On the rare occasion they chose to drink, it was not so much for the flavor as for the experience (aka effect).  As a result, they usually bought pretty gosh awful wine.  Now and then, they would give me a taste.  And it was those first sips of bad wine that stuck with me for years.

Good Company Helps You Grow

But then (years later) I fell in with a crowd of folks – both at work and in my social circle – who were singing the praises of wine .  These folks were actually talking intelligently about the flavors in the wine.  In fact, I remember the first time I noticed the flavors in a wine.  A colleague from my office was quite the oenophile.  One evening he was sipping a Chardonnay and talking about how buttery it was.  He offered me a glass, and I didn’t want to be impolite.  I took a sip and — OMG — it had a pretty strong buttery flavor.  And that was that!  I wanted to know more.

Managed Expectations

Of course, there is so much to experience in the world of wine that just stepping into a wine store was initially daunting.  I was just a beginner, so I decided to start on the bunny slope.  What I mean is that I decided to start with only wines that were of a single varietal.  That way I could learn what the flavor profiles were for specific types of grapes and the wines produced from them.  And because that was still a very large number of wines, I decided to limit myself further to wines produced domestically in the U.S.  That way I could compare the differences among the wine houses as well as how changes to the many variables in winemaking made changes in the resulting wine.

Rome Wasn’t Built In One Tasting

According to The Wine Institute, the U.S. produced almost 700 million gallons of wine in 2011 (over 600 million in California alone).  Knowing what that might do to my liver, I took a few years  – yes, years – in my exploration of domestic single varietal wines.  Oh, I can’t say that I didn’t ever stray.  I’m only human.  I can still remember an amazing Gaja Barbaresco that had lovely blueberry flavors.  While that whetted my appetite for more, I did my best to focus because … my tongue was in training.

The World Is The Territoire

Now I have finally made the move to a deliberately broader wine experience.  Don’t get me wrong: I am no pro.  But I think I’m at a place where I won’t be confused and completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume and diversity of wines from across the globe.  Of course, I’ll be moving at a measured pace as I look, swirl, sniff and quaff my way along this journey.  And I’ll be posting my palatal travel experiences here at Oenophilogical.

I’m open to suggestions, by the way.  Big time!  So feel free to drop a comment here or in response to any of my posts with your recommendations on your favorite varietals and/or wines.

All Photos In This Post Are Credit WikiMedia