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Welcome to the second installment about starting a wine library! For the first half, click on over to the beginning of the conversation here. As a quick recap, I’m looking to start a wine library, but I have no idea where to begin! Söntés on-the-floor wine steward, Barbara Pitcher, has kindly agreed to give me some advice. What follows is our conversation; my questions are marked AV and Barbara’s responses are marked BP. Hope this is as helpful to you as it has been to me! Let’s check in a few years from now to find out how successful I’ve been…

Barbara Pitcher

BP: So Amanda, we’ve established that you like earthy reds and whites with good minerality, and we know you like French wines in particular, as well as those from the Pacific Northwest. You’d also like to budget about $15 per bottle. Now, French wines are hard NOT to love, and in addition to being delicious, they teach us to recognize the fundamentals of a well-crafted wine and a wealth of wine history. So let’s start there. Every wine library should have at a minimum two red wines from each of these regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone. In addition, you’ll need a white from each of these regions: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Loire, and Rhone. Who knew these 15 bottles could offer the building block varietals and top blending grapes of most of the World’s best wines? In these bottles, you will taste either individually or a blend of:

  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Carignan 
  • Carmenere
  • Chardonnay
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Cinsault
  • Gamay
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Grenache
  • Malbec
  • Merlot
  • Mourvèdre
  • Muscat
  • Petit Verdot
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Meunier
  • Pinot Noir
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Sémillion
  • Syrah/Shiraz

The point of starting with France is learning the varietals and the amazing variations that happen with the addition of miniscule amounts of other grapes to create a blend. In general French wines are available for every palate and budget. Here are a few to start you off:

  • Domaine Michel Thomas Sancerre (Loire; Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Chateau Simard (Bordeaux; Merlot, Cab Franc)
  • Guigal Croze Hermitage (Rhone; Rhones are “Kitchen Sink Blends” there are about 20 wines that are traditionally known as Rhone grapes and blended make amazing wines. Some of the most frequently used are Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Cinsault &/or Carignan)
  • Domaine Droughin Pouilly-Fuisse (Burgundy; Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Nicolas Feuillatte (Champagne; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier)

Amanda Vail

AV: That definitely gives me a good place to start!

BP: One last tip for French wine! Get to know the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, as it offers great value wines made from typical regional blends. If you are looking for a bargain as you are learning about French wines, these are an easy start because most are deliberately labeled for the American market—meaning that beyond giving you region and appellation, they state what grapes went into the wine. It’s helpful to know not only what wine your palate prefers, but what grapes create that nose and taste.

AV: Now, are there any clues that will help me when I’m browsing in the wine store? How do I know if that attractive bottle of wine on the shelf is a good candidate for aging?

BP: In general, there are 5 things to look for on a label. They are:

  1. Grape Variety (New World Bottle) or Appellation (Old World Bottle)
  2. Region, which gives an idea of style, intensity & flavor. For instance, wines from Bordeaux are more tannic, which allows them to age better given the terroir.
  3. Producer/Vineyard tells you most about the quality and anticipated consistency of wine from vintage to vintage.
  4. Alcohol level, which gives you hints about the body and sweetness of the wine. For example, wines above 13.5% are likely more tannic and full-bodied; those below 11% are sweeter, lighter-bodied wines.
  5. Vintage, which gives an idea of best time to drink the wine and/or its ability to age well.

AV: How old should the wine be when I buy the bottle? Some have already been aged for a number of years.

BP: This depends greatly on whether it is an Old World or New World wine. For instance most California white wines are released 9 – 18 months after harvest; red wines 18 – 36 months after harvest. However, many Old World wines are released 36 – 48 months after harvest. So if you are looking to build a cellar to enjoy regularly now, New World red wine purchases should be vintages from 1 – 5 years prior and Old World in the 3 – 8 years prior. For white wines from New World producers, purchase something 9 – 24 months old; Old World, 18 – 26 months old.

AV: What’s your number one recommendation for a newbie who is starting a wine library?

BP: One of most important tips is to go to all kinds of tastings, both the casual ones at vineyards and those in a class setting like the series coming to Söntés in July. Learn to taste deliberately so flavors rise to a conscious level. Then you will begin to know what you really like, as well as what foods you really like with your favorites (because the more you taste, the more favorites you will find!). And my number one recommendation for a new wine library? Fill it with wine you like!