Wine-lovers in these parts know that when the tulips begin to bloom, it means lots of the best wineries in the world are packing up their products and heading to Heinz Field for the Pittsburgh Wine Festival.
Now in its seventh year, our festival is recognized as one of the 10 best in America. In addition to providing an invaluable service to wine consumers, the festival has earned more than $6 million for Children's Hospital, the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and other Pittsburgh medical research institutions.
Attendees will be presented with 500 wines from 140 wineries in Europe, North and South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Where else does one have the opportunity to taste such a broad and diverse selection of wines? And the chance to speak directly with the winery representatives is another valuable learning experience.
Because I am essentially a wine educator, I see the festival as a big classroom for those of us who always want to broaden our wine experience and knowledge. Understanding and enjoying wine revolves around tasting.
This is a chance for you to experience some new grape varieties.
A guide to the wine festival
Did you know that there are literally hundreds of varieties of grapes used in wine making around the world? Most of us are stuck on the 15 major varieties. At the Pittsburgh Wine Festival, you can double or triple the number of varieties you have tasted and perhaps in the process find a new favorite. At the very least you will have a pretty impressive start to becoming a member of "The Century Club," a free society of wine-lovers who have tasted 100 grape varieties.
I've mapped out an itinerary that will take you to the tables with some grape varieties that will be unfamiliar to many of you.
Table 53: Montevina Terra D'Oro Moscato 2006. This grape (muscat blanc a petits grains) grows all over Europe and the New World, producing wines that are lightly sweet, aromatic and low in alcohol.
Table 65: L'Ecole Semillon Columbia Valley 2007. Semillon probably originated in Sauternes, where it is an essential component in sweet Sauternes wines as well as in dry white Bordeaux. It is a fussy grape and is rarely found outside Bordeaux for that reason. This Walla Walla, Wash., winery is known for handcrafting a particularly fine dry semillon. This example has 10 percent sauvignon blanc blended as do the dry whites of Bordeaux.
Table 68:Crios Torrontes 2008, from Susana Balbo in Mendoza, Argentina. Torrontes is the grape variety. Rarely found outside Argentina, it makes a wine that is reminiscent of gewurztraminer, floral and spicy, light and refreshing. While at this table, you might want to try another Argentine specialty, the malbec grape. Ben Marco Malbec 2007 is made by Ms. Balbo's husband, Pedro Machevsky.
Table 80: Glatzer Gruner Velltliner 2007. This grape, which could be considered the national grape of Austria, also is found in Hungary and the Czech Republic. It is fresh and peppery with a lot of citrus aromas and crisp acidity. At this table are other Austrian wines. You might want to sample the Sattler St. Laurent, which is made from a red grape (St. Laurent) that is related to pinot noir.
Table 81: Miolo Quinto do Seival Castas Portuguesas 2004. From Brazil, a country with a long history of winemaking but a very short one in exporting wine. This is a blend of three Portuguese grapes: Touriga national (the grape used in port wine and similar to cabernet), tinta roriz (tempranillo in Spain) and alfrocheiero. Another unusual wine at this table is ETKO St. Nicholas Commandaria NV. From Cyprus, it is made from xynisteri and mavro grapes that have been raisined.
Table 86: Trivento Amado Sur 2006. From Argentina, this is a blend of bonarda, syrah and malbec grapes. If you are not familiar with the carmenere grape, you should try the Concoa Y Toro Terrunyo Carmenere 2006 or go to Table 87 and try the Errazuriz Single Vineyard Carmenere 2006.
Table 92: Baumard Quarts des Chaumes 2006. Chenin blanc is an important grape in the Loire Valley. This is a wine made from botrytised berries, making it rich, sweet and complex. For a totally dry Loire Valley chenin blanc, try the Baurmard Savenierres 2005.
Table 94: Jean-Luc Colombo Condrieu Amour de Dieu 2005. The viognier grape's spiritual home is Condrieu in the Rhone Valley and so even if you know viognier, you should taste this wine.
Table 97: Portier Quincy 2007. Few people have tasted sauvignon blanc from the Quincy appellation in the Loire Valley, making this an unusual opportunity.
Table 98: Zind Humbrecht Clos Hauserer Riesling 2006. Because riesling from Alsace is frequently unlike other rieslings, you should taste this fine example of the grape and the terroir. Also at this table, Domaine Dujac Vosne Romanee Malconsorts 2006. I would never pass up an opportunity to taste a pinot noir from the Cote de Nuits in Burgundy and suggest you do the same.
Table 104: Sartori Ferdi Blanco 2006. Made from 100-percent garganega grapes grown in the Verona region of Italy. Garganega is the grape of soave and other white wines of the Veneto.
Table 108: Feudi di San Gregorio. This winery is pouring several interesting wines made from ancient indigenous varietals such as fiano, greco, aglianico and primitivo, some from vines as much as 100 years old.
Table 109: Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco 2003 and Antonelli Sagantino di Montefalco Pasito 2004. These two wines are 100-percent sagrantino grapes. This grape produces strongly fruity and tannic wines. For the pasito version, the grapes are air dried after picking.
Table 111: Vilvada Massimiliano Il Clumbe Barbera D'Asti 2004. About half of the vineyards of Piedmont are planted with barbera (the rest is nebbiolo, the most noble grape in that region and the grape of barolo wines). Paolini Gurgo Nero d'Avola 2006 is made from another Italian grape, this one from Sicily. Nero d'Avola produces a dark and robust wine that is soft yet ages well.
Table 116: Pio Cesare Arneis 2006. Made from the arneis grape, an indigenous white variety native to the Langhe region of Piedmont. It was traditionally used as a blending grape for red wines made from nebbiolo. Typically the grape has powerful aromas of almonds and peaches. Pio Cesare Dolcetto d'Alba 2007. Dolcetto means "little sweet one" in Italian but in the case of this red grape, sweetness is rare.
Table 117: Planeta Segreta Blanco 2007. Although this is a blended wine with five grape varieties, the majority is grecanico, a native Sicilian white grape with somewhat grassy aromas. Here it is blended with small amounts of chardonnay, fiano, cabernet sauvignon and viognier.
Table 118: Santa Sofia Amarone 2004 and Santa Sofia Recioto 2003. Both of these wines are made from traditional grapes of the Valpolicella region: corvina, rondinella and molinara. The grapes are dried for four months, losing 30 percent of their weight but gaining intensity.
Table 125: Dow's Vale do Bomfin Douro Red Table Wine 2006. Portuguese wines tend to be great values. This red is a blend of touriga franca, tinto roriz and tinto barocca, native grapes used in making fortified port wines and here made into table wine. While at the booth, don't miss the opportunity to taste an assortment of ports from late- bottled vintage to tawny.
Table 126: Warwick Pinotage 2006. The pinotage grape is found in South Africa where it was created in 1925. It's a cross between pinot noir and cinsault.
Table 133: Ondalan 100 Abades 2005.Made in the Rioja region of graciano grapes, which are spicy, aromatic and intensely flavored.
Table 136: Alana Takaj Furmint 2008. Furmint is the basis of many Hungarian wines. Picked before botrytis, it makes a dry white and when left on the vine and shriveled by the noble rot, it becomes the famous sweet takaj.
Table 140: Dragani Selva de Canonici Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2004. Montepulciano is a grape variety and not to be confused with vino nobile di Montepulciano, which is made from the sangiovese grape in the town of Montepulciano. The Montepulciano grape variety makes a simpler wine, which is ripe and round with good acidity.
Table 145: Domaine Drouhin from Oregon and Maison Joseph Drouhin from Beaune will be pouring their pinot noirs and chardonnay from both estates. This is the perfect way to compare the two grapes from similar but nonetheless totally different terroirs on two continents.
To make it through this lineup and still drive home, you might consider tasting as the professionals do, which means spitting the wine rather than swallowing it. All of the aromas and the pleasure comes through smelling it and rolling it around in the mouth. Swallowing it doesn't add anything but alcohol into the blood stream. Each table provides a bucket for spitting and it is advisable to use it.
Elizabeth Downer can be reached at email@example.com .