Rainy Chardonnay Day

Tropical storm Beryl rolled in last Friday, leaving the streets of historic Old Town Lewisville grey and soggy with warm summer rain. Luckily, I wasn’t stuck outside in the deluge or the steam bath that followed it—I was tucked away, cozy and dry, inside my little wine bar with a friend and four bottles of Chardonnay.

No, we weren’t planning to drink until the rain stopped. This friend is a sommelier who, like me, is fairly new to the trade. Last Friday was one of our tasting and study group sessions, where we sip different wines to broaden our palates.

Tasting groups run by sommeliers are a little different than your average wine tasting. Everyone brings some wine, and we serve it in one of two ways. For practice with blind tasting, we wrap our offerings hobo-style in brown paper bags and have a trusted party serve them to us, then see who can identify the mystery wines. For comparative tastings, we taste wines made from the same varietal in different regions and discuss how the flavors differ. And yes, we spit rather than swallow these wines. It turns out that getting drunk affects your ability to differentiate flavors and verbally describe a wine.

My contribution to the tasting group.

This time, the subject of the day was Chardonnay. I admit, I’ve neglected this grape varietal in the past. I treat Chardonnays a bit like fairytale stepchildren—I lock them in a cellar to be forgotten and only trotted out grudgingly for the benefit of family and friends who actually enjoy them. I dismiss Chardonnay as an option in nearly every wine tasting opportunity, except for the rare occasions when I find one that manages to be truly amazing or if I feel like I have to taste one (for example, when I’m at work).

Since I don’t personally love Chardonnay, I went into the study session with a bit of a groan. “Ugh,” I thought, “I’m going to end up with half a dozen bottles of Chardonnay on my hands that I have to pawn off on someone.” But, since a somm can’t limit her knowledge to her favorites, I went into the tasting with a resigned determination. Here’s what happened.

We tasted five different wines, all a hauntingly similar shade of deep lemon yellow, all full-bodied with medium plus or higher acidity and alcohol content. But that’s where the similarities ended. All five wines tasted drastically different. Getting to really experience and identify these subtle differences is the best part of this type of wine tasting.

The full Chardonnay line up.

For our first Chardonnay, we sampled a wine from Meursault, a commune in the southern Côte d’Or subregion of Burgundy, France.

Wine #1: Patrick Javillier, “Cuvée des Forgets,” Chardonnay, Bourgogne 2016
This bright, refreshing wine was full of flavors of lemon curd, underripe peach and apricot, tart green pear, and juicy green and yellow apples. The texture was creamy and I detected new French oak in the subtle notes of crème brûlée and vanilla bean. The sharp taste of limestone dominated this wine’s finish.
Wine #1 was my personal favorite of the day. For those who find Chablis too austere (or too expensive), this is a great choice. It’s also the perfect pick for someone who’s new to French Chardonnay and wants to get their feet wet.

Buoyed by the delicious white Burgundy I had just enjoyed, I poured myself a glass of Wine #2, a Chilean Chardonnay, with a little more gusto.

Wine #2: Chateau Los Boldos, “Cuvée Tradition,” Chardonnay, Alto Cachapoal, Chile, 2014
After an initial aroma reminiscent to me of rubber or superheated tarmac, scents of ripe fruit—golden delicious apples, yellow peaches, and nectarines—filled my nose. On the palate, the fruit flavors continued, accompanied by something green that my friend and I decided to call asparagus. The mineral-driven finish left me with the poignant taste of graphite—yes, it tasted like pencil lead for a moment there.
Wine #2 was refreshing, with tart flavors deepening into ripe fruit, all leading to an elegant finish—a solid wine. I would love to try this paired with Chilean sea bass.

Our third wine hailed all the way from Padthaway, Australia, an area south of Adelaide known for its Mediterranean climate and pink granite-laden terroir, locally termed “jip jip rocks.”

Wine #3: Jip Jop Rocks Chardonnay, Padthaway, Australia, 2016
The characteristic scent of eucalyptus leaves invaded the nose, alongside lush tropical fruit aromas: lychee, banana peel, mango, and papaya. Aromas and flavors of what my friend thought tasted like flint provided a sturdy backbone. Considering what we know about the wine’s terroir, this must be the famous jip jip rocks.
Wine #3 was not my favorite, but my friend really loved this one. I’m glad I had the opportunity to taste it.

The next two wines came from the same regions and producer and were harvested one year apart. The main differentiating factor was the use of new oak.

Wine #4: River Road Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma 2017
This unoaked Chardonnay bursted with ripe, nearly jammy stone and tropical fruit flavors. Some of the individual tastes I identified were ripe Anjou pear, key lime, tangerine, lychee, passion fruit, and cantaloupe. Though I got hit with a dash of white pepper on the finish, this wine seemed to hold the same flavor note throughout. I remarked that the wine reminded me of juicy fruit bubblegum, and my friend agreed with my comparison.
Unlike the previous wines, wine #4 was off dry—I detected a hint of residual sugar on the tip of my tongue. Anyone who likes sweeter wines, or fruit-bombs, would love this.

Wine #5: River Road Reserve Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma 2016
Like its sister, this wine had a lot of tropical fruit action, accompanied by pear and citrusy notes. On the nose, those flavors were somewhat subdued in favor of crème brûlée, butter, and vanilla bean. On the palate, this wine was reminiscent of lightly spiced tropical fruit flambé. It had a creamy texture, with hints of vanilla and sweet spices from the oak, with no earth or mineral flavors that I could detect.
Overall, if you like oaky California Chardonnays, this is an affordable option that you should try.

I waved goodbye to my friend from the bar feeling like I’d made a discovery. Chardonnay is far more complex than the two drastically different incarnations we’re most familiar with. It’s not just about the buttery oak and ripe fruit flavors of Napa Valley, or the bright citrus and minerality of Chablis. Like all grapes, Chardonnay changes dramatically when planted in different soils, climates, and elevations. Finding a bottle you like is only a matter of time if you put your mind to it.

So, to all my diehard red wine drinkers who never thought they’d touch a bottle of Chardonnay, I challenge you to go out and try one of these five Chardonnays (all available at Total Wine) or one not listed here. You might surprise yourself and enjoy it!

Greek Wine At a Glance

As the oldest fermented beverage in the world (sorry, beer drinkers) wine has been a part of the human experience ever since the dawn of civilization. Since wine itself is older than recorded history, we can only marvel at ancient clay jugs and other archaeological finds and wonder when our ancestors first realized that, if allowed to ferment with the aid of native yeasts, the fruit of wild vitis vinifera would transform into a sacred elixir.

The pharaohs drank wine, and in some cases even kept stashes of it in their pyramids to quench their thirst in the afterlife. Sadly, we don’t know much about what the wine of ancient Egypt was like. Nothing stored in the desert for thousands of years is going to be particularly tasty, with the possible exception of honey. So for all intents and purposes, the wine we know and love today was born in Ancient Greece and Phoenicia.

The Greeks loved their wine. Greek poets, like many writers today, couldn’t get enough of it. City-dwellers played drinking games with their cups of wine after dinner. Did you know that the Greek word “symposium” originally referred to a conversation over wine? The Greeks turned winemaking into a bonafide industry as they colonized the Mediterranean. The rest is history.

Now, the “O.G.” of Greek wines doesn’t have a lot in common with what we drink today. Historical records suggest wine was commonly used as a mixer back then—a cocktail of herbs, spices, honey, and water was needed to make the stuff palatable. This raises the question: did Ancient Greece actually invent sangria?

Luckily for us, modern Greek wine does not need to be sweetened or flavored. It’s delicious in its pure form.

Now, unless you want to hop on a plane (and I’m not stopping you!) it’s probably going to be hard to find a wide variety of Greek wines. Local wine stores’ Greek sections are depressingly small—if they exist at all. Restaurants, unless they serve Mediterranean cuisine, are even less likely to have a healthy Greek wine list.

It’s long been on my to-do list to break down and special order some Greek wines straight from the source, but I had pretty much resigned myself to an absence of Greek wine in my life. Until, as if straight from the hand of Dionysus, chance dropped it into my glass.

”I’m hungry for Mediterranean food,” I remember saying as my husband and I discussed where to have lunch last Saturday. We let modern technology work its magic and arrived at our destination guided by GPS and Yelp a few short minutes later.

I walked into the lovely Greek cafe not expecting to get buzzed on my lunch break. Boy, was I wrong.

As the waitress deposited our menus, the words “Greek wine flights” shone like a beacon. Now that I think about it, I’m sure the presence of wine I haven’t tried before called me to the location, a psychic message no maenad can ignore.

Up until then, my only real experience tasting Greek wine had been about a year ago at TexSomm, a yearly wine convention held in the DFW area. A free pass to the tasting rooms got me 1-oz pours of several hundred wines from too many regions and producers to remember.

While proper somm protocol is to spit, I’m here to tell you that no matter what you do some of the alcohol is absorbed through your tongue. After several dozen tastings, you start to feel pretty good. Also, palate fatigue is a thing, and after awhile even the most sensitive taster can find herself lost in a muddle of unrecognizable fruits and new oak.

So by the time I found the Greek tasting room, I was a little fuzzy. I distinctly remember sampling a rose there that tasted, I kid you not, like a medley of unsweetened Big Red and Strawberry Fanta. It was wild. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, and that Greek rose has become my white whale—I will find it again.

I didn’t find it at Ziziki’s, but I did get a chance to taste six fantastic Greek wines.

Not the best picture—I didn’t realize I would be blogging about this experience!

Behold, my tasting notes. I’ve listed the three white wines I tried first.

My tasting notes follow this format:
Wine #: Producer’s Name, Wine Name, Year (or NV if non-vintage), Region of Origin
Grape: the grapes used in the wine.
My impressions of the wine.
Recommended for: would like this wine and what to pair it with.

Wine 1: Moraitis, Paros White 2017, Paros
Grape: Monemvassia
On the nose, I detected juicy aromas of pineapple, ripe yellow apple, and lemon. On the palate, this wine bursted with flavors of pineapple, Granny Smith apple, citrus, and a dash of white pepper. This wine actually tasted spicy.
Recommended for: Those who like Spanish wines (white Rioja, Verdejo). Try this wine with dolmas or seafood.

Wine 2: Wine Art Estate, Plano Malagousia 2017, Macedonia
This wine had a lovely floral nose full of citrus blossom and honeysuckle, with notes of ripe tropical fruits. On the palate I tasted lychee, banana, and ripe yellow peach with a hint of honeycomb and something mineral.
Recommended for: Those who like Torrontes. Try this wine with aged white cheddar or poultry.

Wine 3: Anemos White N.V., Peloponnesos
Moschofilero, Rhoditis
On the nose, ripe stone fruit (peach, pear, apricot) and banana ran the show, accompanied by floral notes of citrus blossom. On the palate, flavors of ripe banana, Anjou pear, and apricots continued. The wine had a creamy texture and I detected hints of vanilla and minerals.
Recommended for: Those who like Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay. Try this wine with poultry or pasta, I’m thinking chicken carbonara.

Now for the red wines!

Wine 4: Palivou Estate Nemea 2016, Nemea
Grapes: Agiorgitiko
On the nose, aromas of black cherry, cocoa, and exotic spices. On the palate, this wine tasted of ripe cherry, plum, and black olives with a hint of tobacco and cinnamon.
Recommended for: Those who like Chianti or Merlot. Try it with cured meats and cheeses.

Wine 5: Porto Carras LimNeon N.V., Meliton
Grape: Limnio (oldest red varietal in the world!)
This wine called Napa Valley Cabernet to mind in a big way for me. On the nose, ripe red and black fruit dominated. On the palate, I tasted black cherry, blackberry, black currant, with a hint of vanilla and sweet baking spices from the oak aging.
Recommended for: Those who like Napa Valley Cabernet. Try it with filet mignon.

Wine 6: Palivou Estate Anemos Red N.V., Peloponnesos
Grape: Agiorgitiko
Out of all the wines I tried, this was probably my favorite. This one possibly suffers from “sixth wine syndrome” but it is without a doubt an interesting red. Allow me to sing its praises. Though this wine is fruit-forward with aromas and flavors of overripe wild strawberries, raspberries, and gooseberries, it has intriguing floral notes that called to mind backyard fences overrun by climbing vines—orange trumpet flowers, honeysuckle, and Passion flowers. This wine is a bit funky (and yes, for me that’s a good thing). Something about its flavor recalls raw meat, composting leaves or forest floor, or even fruit in the earliest stages of rot. This is not to say the wine tastes rotten, quite the contrary! The nose in particular was wonderful—it had an intoxicating, almost primal scent I can’t quite define.
Recommended for: Maenads. It was excellent with my lamb souvlaki, pictured below.

In conclusion, Greek wines are interesting, fun, and you don’t need to be able to pronounce their names to enjoy them. All three whites I tried were floral, had a wonderfully zippy acidity, and refreshing. In other words, they are perfect for summer!

All three reds were fruit-forward but had enough complexity going on with floral and earthy notes to keep even the most seasoned wine tasters interested.

So whether you’re a beginner or a wine geek, I highly recommend grabbing a glass of any of these approachable and delicious wines. Opa!

Check out my ratings of these and other wines I’ve tried on Vivino, the free wine rating app.


Why A Maenad?

Or, specifically, what is a maenad? If you’re not familiar with the term, don’t fret. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, “maenad” is defined as:

1. Bacchante: a priestess or female follower of Bacchus.
2. An unnaturally excited or distraught woman.

Other sources define the term as a drunken reveler, or a female follower of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. Maenads were said to roam the wilderness and perform ecstatic dances while under the influence of their deity, and, less pleasantly, were known to whack men who offended them with a thyrsus, or pine cone staff. Maenads had two modes: jolly day drinking or enraged frenzy, and they had a thing for leopard print.

Don’t worry! I don’t own a thyrsus, nor do I dance semi-nude in the forest. I don’t feast on raw meat (with the exception of sushi). I usually don’t wear leopard print. So why do I call myself a maenad? I may not worship Dionysus or his Roman counterpart Bacchus, but a good portion of my professional and personal life revolves around wine. I am a woman who gets unnaturally excited about wine—studying regional maps, tasting new vintages, traveling to vineyards, and yes, occasionally getting tipsy and making merry mischief with my friends—so perhaps the name is fitting.

I wasn’t always this way. I wasn’t raised around wine or people who drank it. My zsia zsia (grandfather) drank vodka, my dad drank beer and whiskey, and my mom drank the occasional glass of Chardonnay but didn’t put too much thought into it. As a child I didn’t tiptoe through my parents’ wine cellar or frolic amongst the vines on a familial estate in California wine country.

I didn’t realize that the word “sommelier” could refer to someone other than a French butler or a royal attendant who taste-tested the king’s beverages for poison until a few years ago.

At university, I flip-flopped majors between Biology, Linguistics, Psychology, and Liberal Arts before finally settling on a degree in English Literature and History. Back then, Boone’s Farm or bargain bin White Zinfandel were more my style than Rioja Gran Reserva or Chateau Margaux. After graduating I became a teacher, but I eventually realized that my passion lay elsewhere. So how did a nice Texas girl like me get mixed up in the bacchanalia?

Three years ago I started attending wine tastings at a local Renaissance Faire. There, I met my first sommelier, Glenn Boswell, aka Flynn. (For those who don’t know, “sommelier” is a fancy word for a wine steward, someone who knows way too much about wine and makes a living because of it.) I didn’t know it at the time but he would become my friend and mentor. His wine tastings opened my eyes to the world of wine, and the multitude of career paths that branch off from it. Wine became my passion.

One night, while curled up with a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and The World Atlas of Wine, I had an epiphany. Language, culture, geography, history, biology, ecology—and yes, even psychology—all intersect in the study and service of wine. Sommeliers and other wine professionals inhabit a lovely interdisciplinary crossroads, and I longed to tread those paths. In other words, I wanted in on the party.

I embarked on an intense self-directed study course and registered with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I passed the introductory course with flying colors. Since then I’ve worked in various restaurants and bars, tried hundreds of wines, met wonderful people, and landed myself a job as beverage manager at a local wine bar.

I’m still new to this, but I’ve come a long way in the past few years, and I still have a long way to go. My journey is only just beginning, and there are so many paths to take. So, I invite you to come with me. I can’t promise an ecstatic frenzy of moonlit dancing or trysts with the gods of the vine, but it will be fun. We’ll try a lot of wines, explore the world of wine as an outsider-turned-insider, share real talk about the service industry, travel to places far and near, and we may even learn something in the process.

You don’t need to carry a thyrsus or wear leopard print. Unless you want to.