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South Florida, Uncorked

South Florida is home to world-class restaurants, and with such great cuisine comes great wine, curated by some of the nation’s best sommeliers. As vast, complex and ever-evolving as the wine industry is, we always find ourselves wanting to know more. So, we consulted local experts to create the ultimate guide to selecting, tasting and pairing the best red, white and bubbly.

Sipping with a Sommelier

It’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday night, and more than a dozen wine enthusiasts are sitting in a sectioned-off classroom inside the Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy. Any minute now the rudimentary class on wine will begin. But before it does, whispers about the instructor are exchanged.

“She’s not just any sommelier, she’s Virginia Philip,” one man says. “She’s like, the first woman to ever get her master sommelier accreditation,” another says.

Actually, Virginia Philip is the 10th woman in the United States and 11th in the world to receive that prestigious title. But it goes to show that her name far exceeds her reputation.

The rumor mill dials down as Philip herself walks into the room.

“It’s impossible to like every single wine that’s out there, but the better you are about being able to describe what you do or do not like about a wine, the more likely you’ll find wines you’ll enjoy drinking,” she says immediately.

As the head sommelier at The Breakers, the owner of her own eponymous wine store, and one of more than 200 individuals in the world who have passed their master sommelier exam, it is safe to assume Philip knows what she’s talking about.

For an hour, Philip explains how wine is produced, where it’s produced, the characteristics to look for and how to taste it. Similar to an uncorked wine barrel, Philip’s information pours out of her. As thorough as she is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what she knows. In fact, to be sommelier in an evolving industry, Philip needs to be a human library cataloging everything she possibly can on wine.

“There are so many new emerging wine regions and emerging wine laws, that it’s important you always stay up-to-date,” Philip says, who has to know which grapes are allowed to grow where, aging requirements and climatic conditions.

Their expertise is so precise that sommeliers can take the same grape varietal that comes from two different climates – for instance a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand versus Sancerre in the Loire Valley of France – and narrow down their key descriptors and differences. “Both of these wines have grapefruit notes, but the one in Sancerre has more minerality and shyer fruits, while the one in New Zealand has really tropical notes,” Philip says.

According to Philip, sommeliers need to be committed to their craft, financially savvy, and have a thorough understanding of geographic regions. And they must be prepared to work very hard. “When you get to my level it becomes a little easier, but what you see on TV with all the chefs running around – it’s very similar with sommeliers too,” she says. “It’s not going to happen for everyone, so be prepared to work nights, holidays and weekends in the beginning.”

Back to Basics: Wine Explained

The Grape

No wine list by the glass is complete without its regular headliners: pinot grigio, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, to name a few. Even though these wines all inherently compete with each other for the spotlight, they share one binding denominator: They all come from the same species of grapes known as vinifera.

A European root stock, vinifera grapes are responsible for most of the wine varietals you’ve come to know so well. Wines like albariño – the medium-bodied white wine from Spain; zinfandel – the spicy red wine from California; gewürztraminer – the floral white wine from Germany and Alsace, France; and malbec – the smoky red wine from France.

Character

Usually characterized as light, medium or heavy, wine is either dry, off-dry or sweet when it comes to the taste. Riesling and pinot grigio are both considered light wine, but Riesling is technically off-dry while pinot grigio is more of a dry wine. The names can be a little misleading, but try to remember off-dry tastes sweet while a wine categorized as sweet refers to dessert wines like port.

Tannins and acidity

Tannins are found in red wines and are known to preserve the wine. And while the tannins give you that pucker sensation, the acid in the wine causes that tingly sensation on the palate. If the wine tastes tart, tangy and crisp, it means the acidity level is higher. But if the wine has lush, jammy and ripe notes to it, then it’s low in acid.

Alcohol

You can also determine the alcohol levels by taking a sip of wine and asking yourself, “Where do I feel the alcohol and where does it stop?” If the alcohol level is high it will hit right in your chest, like tequila or cognac.

The influx of information can be daunting, but when in doubt ask a wine professional. As Mariya Kovacheva, Cafe Boulud’s sommelier, likes to say, “Exchanging information between guest and sommelier is so important – that’s how we [sommeliers] build the best food and wine experience possible.”

How to Taste Wine the Right Way

Drinking wine seems like a simple enough process – pour, sniff and sip. But what if you could magnify that experience? What if you could learn to differentiate grape varietals, detect the climatic regions where the wine is produced, or even better, decipher what exactly you like or dislike about a wine? Mariya Kovacheva, Cafe Boulud’s sommelier, shares six tips to properly taste wine:

1. Neutralize tasting conditions. Don’t brush your teeth, don’t drink coffee, and don’t eat foods that have strong flavors, or that are high in fats and oils, right before a tasting. According to Kovacheva, wine needs to stand alone without influencing variables.

2. Hold the glass by its stem. Hands release heat, and you don’t want to change the temperature of the wine, which will affect taste, or get fingerprints on the glass, which will affect color analysis.

3. Visually assess the wine. Tilt the glass to its side, so it looks as though you’re on the verge of spilling it. Put a white background, a watch or ring behind the glass to assist in the examination of the wine’s clarity. By looking at the color of the wine, Kovacheva says, a taster can deduce the grape varietal, how the wine has been treated, if it is youthful or if it has aged. White wines that have aged have a darker hue than younger white wines, while an aged red will be have lost its color.

4. Swirl and smell. The nose is an instrumental tool in the sensory analysis of wine tasting. Don’t be afraid to create a mini whirlpool in your glass – this will raise the aromatic compounds and unleash the bouquet. Place your nose into the glass and deeply inhale. When breathing in white wines ask, “Do I smell apple, citrus or pear flavors? What about floral or oaky notes?” For red wines see if you detect red or blackberries, floral notes, or an oaky taste, which elicits that vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon component. If it’s a wine produced in an Old World country, which primarily means somewhere in Europe, chances are it’ll have an earthy, mineral component to it.

5. Finally, for the best part: taste. At this stage you can now compare the wine with what you saw and smelled. Your palate will confirm the type of fruit; whether the wine is light, medium or full-bodied; whether it’s tart, tangy and crisp or if it’s jammy, lush and ripe, thereby determining its acidity; you’ll detect the tannins or the astringent level in the wine, the alcohol and many other components.

6. Then there’s the finish. Does the taste linger in your mouth or dissipate quickly? A great wine will be complex, have a perfect balance of flavors and have a long finish.

The Art of the Wine Pairing

Jenny Benzie remembers a time when a Shake ’N Bake pork chop, a potato and a green bean were the types of dinner items that graced her plate. Times have changed.

“That’s not how we eat anymore,” Benzie, sommelier and owner of Pour Sip Savor, says. “People eat a green bean that has balsamic vinegar with pancetta and crushed nuts. So those old rules don’t work so well now because our food is changing.”

The old rules Benzie is referring to are the age-old practices of pairing only red meats with red wines, and conversely pairing white wines with seafood or chicken.

Benzie says that it’s not so much the varietal itself, but the components of the wine that typically pair better with the components in food.

“We [sommeliers] like to talk about the acidity in wine. Acidity is what makes your mouth water, so wine that is higher in acid typically pairs better with food.”

Take oysters, for instance. Sauvignon blanc pairs well with oysters because it has a good amount of acidity to match the brininess of the oysters. Then again, some prefer to do the opposite and pair oysters with a low-acid wine to match the meaty texture versus the liquid in the oyster.

Of course, there are some classic pairings. Most red wines do pair well with red meat because the tannin in red wine matches how the steak is marbled – the fattiness of the steak tones down the tannins.

But there’s no reason you can’t get creative.

“People nowadays look outside of the box,” Benzie says. “If you have a steak you’ve lathered in an herb butter, you can find a beefy style chardonnay that has that buttery, oaky content to it.”

For most seafood pairings, Benzie recommends a chardonnay from Burgundy, France, which is not as heavy and rich as a California chardonnay that will overpower the fish you’re eating. For lamb chops, she suggests syrah, but if you’re cooking a lot of herbs with the lamb try a cabernet franc from the Loire Valley because it can be a little bit more herbaceous. And for spicy Asian food, a flamboyant off-dry wine that produces a sweetness like gewürztraminer or Riesling will do the trick.

Bottom line is you have to look at all the components of the dish to see what works with what wine. So don’t be afraid to experiment. “Our food has become so much more adventurous that our wine pairings should be, too,” she says.

A Pour to Remember

We searched local wine vaults to find their most special, rare bottle.

The Breakers

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti “Romanee-Conti,” Burgundy, France, 2005

Price: $19,000

Produced in Romanee-Conti, an estate in Burgundy, where the demand for this wine far exceeds the supply. The vineyard grows some of the most expensive wines in the world.

Cafe Chardonnay

Alvaro Palacios, L’Ermita, Priorat, Spain, 2010

Price: $1,300

Allocation of this wine is one bottle a year.

La Sirena

Il Caberlot, Il Carnasciale, Toscana, Italy, 2009

Price: $575

Considered in wine circles as one of Italy’s hardest-to-find cult wines due to its natural, hybrid genetic cross between cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon

Cafe Boulud

Remoissenet Pere et Fils, Gevrey-Chambertin, ‘Clos de Beze,’ grand cru magnum, 1978

Price: $1,800

The grapes come from one of the best grand cru vineyards in Burgundy, Clos de Beze.

Exploring Wine Regions

Why does it matter where that bottle came from? We explain.

If you haven’t already noticed, wine is regionally driven. Climate conditions contribute a great deal to a varietal’s characteristics.

Cooler climates like Germany, and Chablis and Champagne in the Burgundy region of France, typically create wines with lower alcohol and possibly a lighter style, while warmer climates such as South Australia, Napa Valley and Southern Rome Valley produce full-bodied wines that are higher in alcohol.

Climates also contribute to the acidity of a wine. If the acidity level is higher in wine it’s safe to assume it’s produced in a cool climate, and if it’s low in acid it was likely produced in a warmer one.

Generally speaking, grapes are grown between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit on either side of the equator. California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Canada, Chile, Argentina, Europe, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and China all find themselves in this geographical location.

But just because wine makers in these locations find themselves in fertile conditions doesn’t mean they can grow whatever they deem fit.

Countries like France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany and Portugal are a part of the European Union, so they have to abide by certain laws that dictate which grape varietals can grow where. And countries like Italy and Spain even have to abide by other rules that say their wines have to age for a certain amount of years in a certain wood before releasing them. But since the Unites States is not part of the European Union, wine makers here will try to grow everything they can.

The following countries will put the grape varietal right on the labels: New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, Canada, Chile, Germany, Australia, and Alsace, France. But Spain, Portugal, Italy, and other parts of France like Bordeaux and Burgundy, will typically not put the grape varietal on the label because these regions are known for the grapes they grow. So, Master Sommelier Virginia Philip says, it is up to you to learn which grape varietals are allowed to grow where. For example, Burgundy, France, can only produce chardonnay, pinot noir and gamay.

10 Must-Try Budget Wines

Master Sommelier Virginia Philip and her team at the wine academy divulge.

1. Geografico “Le Mire,” Toscana Rosso, Tuscany, Italy, 2011; $10

2. Carta Vieja, Carmenere, Loncomilla Valley, Chile, 2011; $10

3. Franc Beausejour, Bordeaux Blanc, Bordeaux, France, 2012; $10

4. Perlita de DiamAndes, Malbec/Syrah, Mendoza, Argentina, 2011; $14.99

5. Michael Pozzan Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Calif., 2012; $15.99

6. Vini Artico Pinot Grigio, Veneto, Italy, 2012; $10

7. Trevisiol Brut Rose, Prosecco, Veneto, Italy, N.V.; $14.99

8. Rue St. Tropez, Rose de Provence, France, 2012; $11.99

9. Powers Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Wash., 2011; $13.99

10. Mandolin Pinot Noir, Monterey, Calif., 2012; $16.99

Wine: Fact vs. Fiction

Sommelier Mariya Kovacheva debunks five myths.

1. Drink only red wines with red meat and white wines with light meats and/or seafooD.

This notion is a thing of the past. Food is so much more exciting these days; it’s not just meat and potatoes or fish and rice. People are experimenting with a variety of sauces when making a meal, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same with wine.

2. Screw tops mean low-quality wine.

For years, alternative corks have been associated with cheap wines. But according to Kovacheva, screw tops are becoming more and more popular. It’s safe to assume that a wine with a screw top is ready to drink, whereas some corked wines could have possibly gone bad.

3. Men should be the ones to order and taste the wine at dinner.

For years men have traditionally been the ones to order and taste wine, but Kovacheva says she sees more and more women taking on that role.

4. Stick to known varietals.

Yes, the popular varietals always sell themselves, but consumers are exploring far and beyond the usual suspects like chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons.

5. Champagne as an Aperitif.

Champagne can be enjoyed throughout the whole meal, not just before. Since it ranges from bone-dry to super-sweet, Champagne can complement almost any entree. A rose Champagne, for instance, pairs well with duck or steak.

Wine Storage 101

According to Drew Feinberg, director of marketing and sommelier at STORE Self Storage & Wine Storage, there’s an ideal environment for storing wine. His guidelines:

1. Temperature: cool and unchanging – ideal temperature is between 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s below 46 degrees Fahrenheit the wine will not improve. If it’s above 68 degrees Fahrenheit the wine will deteriorate, lose its color and fresh flavors. Sudden changes in temperature should also be avoided.

2. Do not expose wine to light. Light damages wine, especially white and sparkling, to which it eventually gives a rotten egg character. Install low power light sources (25 watts), and avoid fluorescent and halogen lamps.

3. High humidity: 70 to 80 percent is ideal. Too much and mold will grow on the corks; too little moisture and the cork will dry out.

4. Good ventilation is essential. You don’t want stale air.

5. A quiet environment: avoid vibrations, or risk that wines will age more quickly.