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Wine Tasting with Marnie Old


Life & Style

Even seasoned wine connoisseurs come face-to-face with this great paradox: the more you know about wine, the less you know.

Any grandiose illusions that you have about being your social circle’s token wine expert are crushed within mere minutes of talking to Marnie Old. The Philadelphia-based sommelier is one of the country’s leading wine authors and a walking encyclopedia for the industry that some view as elite and inaccessible. (“The key to unlocking the wine kingdom is understanding the power of ripeness,” she reveals. Simple advice in theory, but like with anything related to wine, you know there are layers of complexity lying just below its surface.)

We were fortunate enough to catch up with Old before she headed off for the Aspen Food & Wine Classic (June 19–21, 2015), where she led several educational seminars on wine.

Previews Inside Out You’re covering great discoveries from Spain at the festival this year. If you were taking a trip to Spain, where would you go and what wines would you taste?

Getariako txakolina rosado

Marnie Old Yes, in fact, I just got back from Spain! I’ve traveled there a number of times, usually hitting the major regions, like Rioja and Galicia. This year my seminar goes way off the beaten path, though, to explore rare Spanish grapes, many from regions I’ve never visited. If I was headed back tomorrow, I’d probably put some of these on the itinerary. The only one of the six regions I’m highlighting at Aspen this year that I have visited before was the coastal Basque town of Getaria, which makes an uncommon rosé wine called Getariako txakolina rosado (txakolí, pronounced “chac-o-lee,” means “wine made from a village”). It’s not far from San Sebastian on the Atlantic—so close you could literally throw stones in the water from the vineyards! The winemakers harvest the grapes before they ripen fully, so they are high in acid and low in alcohol content with a little spritz of carbonation—perfect for summer weather. We will also sample obscure wines from oddball grapes like white garnacha, bobal and prieto picudo from lesser-known appellations in Cataluña, Castilla y León and Valencia.

Previews Inside Out You’re making us want to book our next flight to Spain!

Marnie Old Oh, it’s wonderful. Remember, though, you’re not hitting big cities on a wine-tasting trip. Most of Spain’s wine regions are rural and have thousands of years of winemaking history, but many have only recently begun making high-end wines. It is very interesting to see what happens when premium winemaking techniques are applied to Spain’s humble native grapes—many of them have amazing quality potential, but no one has taken them seriously enough to coax out their best attributes. One real standout from the seminar is an unusual white grape called malvar from just outside of Madrid. This obscure white grape was almost lost—but I’m glad it’s experiencing a revival. Malvar is fragrant and exotic, with a citrusy zing and lovely floral aromatics.

Previews Inside Out How does malvar compare to Spain’s more famous white albariño?

Marnie Old Albariño pulls off a high-wire act, managing to be both aromatic and understated—which is why it makes such a great food wine. It shines a spotlight on food. Malvar doesn’t have that same finesse or long resonance on the palate. It’s a little more in your face, flavor-wise. If you drew a line between Spanish albariño and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, malvar would fall somewhere in between.

Previews Inside Out Which other wine regions are you dreaming of visiting next?

Marnie Old Well, since I’ve visited so many wine regions, I’m always looking to those I haven’t seen yet! I would like to visit New Zealand, and not just for its striking landscape and unusual geology. New Zealand’s cool-climate “New World” wines are extraordinarily flexible and food oriented. To me, it’s the last frontier, since it’s so far away. I’m also dying to go to Greece, which has grape varieties we don’t often see. France, Italy and Spain are well known in wine circles for the natural diversity in their grapes. Greece has been cultivating its own varieties for millennia as well, but is often overlooked. People tend to associate red wines with Greece because of the country’s image as a warm-climate vacation destination. But in Greece, there is so much coastline between its islands and peninsulas and so many mountainous regions that create cooler microclimates suitable for whites. Greece is probably the next great winemaking region to make a splash in the American market, and I can’t wait to get there.

Previews Inside Out Which grape varieties from Greece really intrigue you?


Marnie Old A few days ago, I was chasing down a brilliant moschofilero, a white wine from Mantinia. It features some of those hyperfloral aromatics that you find in moscato and gewurztraminer, a perfumey quality so potent it’s hard to ignore. But moschofilero has just a touch, enough to add flavor interest to its classic apple-pear flavor base, but not enough to overwhelm. It’s very interesting. Another favorite white wine of mine, assyrtiko, is much more sleek and linea, more similar to albariño. They’re both light-to-midweight white wines; they are not aged in oak, so they do not pick up the woody tastes. They are both dry and high in acidity, and are designed to flatter food. On the red wine side, I like agiorgitiko. It’s very intense and rustic and great fun.

Previews Inside Out Ok, we’re dying to know: what’s the “unknown secret to great wine”?

Marnie Old I had to tease people with the title of my class [at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic]! [laughing] Seriously, though: if you want to know the key to unlocking the wine kingdom, it is understanding the power of grape ripeness and its direct relationship to wine flavor. Here is an analogy I often use: picture that you are growing cherry tomatoes in your backyard. If you pick them early when they’re still green, you can eat them, of course. They’re not very sweet. You’ll get a celery taste. You’re tasting high levels of acidity, low levels of sugar and mostly leafy green flavor compounds. But if you wait and let those tomatoes ripen, they get sweeter and juicier, and turn red. If you wait longer to pick them later, you’ll get sweeter, richer flavor—as they make their way toward becoming sun-dried tomatoes.

Wine is made from grapes that ripen in much the same way, and they are not all picked at the exact same degree of ripeness. If you pick chardonnay grapes before they’re fully ripe, the wine will taste light, tart and slightly herbal, like the green tomato. If you harvest chardonnay closer to over-ripeness, the wine will feel richer and heavier, and taste more of baked fruits and desserts. This seminar at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic is going to explore what wine drinkers can learn from the concept of ripeness, demonstrating how you can figure out what kinds of sensory traits to expect from a wine based simply on one little clue right on the wine bottle. Once you understand the connection between a wine’s alcohol content and grape ripeness, you’d be amazed at the range of tastes, smells and texture characteristics you’ll be able to predict. For example, think of 13.5% as middle ground. The lower the alcohol below this norm, the more likely it is that you’ll encounter green fruit characteristics—understated flavors, herbal aromatics, texture, refreshing acidity—and such wines are more likely to be carbonated and less likely to be oaky. On the flip side, the higher the alcohol above 14%, the more you’re moving in the other direction toward sun-dried fruit characteristics. The wine will be bolder and more fruit-forward in flavor, spicier and more dessert-like in aromatics, richer in texture, lower in acidity. It won’t have bubbles, but is far more likely to be aged in oak barrels.

Previews Inside Out What is the most common misconception about wine that even the most experienced wine connoisseurs have?

Marnie Old There is an assumption that you have to pay through the nose for good wine, and that is incorrect. You can find delicious wines at $15 to $20.

Previews Inside Out You’re in Aspen…in the presence of amazing gastronomy and natural beauty. What are you drinking?

Marnie Old I’m drinking the lowest-alcohol wines possible! As a presenter, it takes a lot of preparation, and it takes me a while to acclimate to the altitude. So, ironically, I am usually taking it easy on the wine at this wine-centric event. Let’s just say I’ll be drinking a lot of German riesling and Portuguese vinho verde.

Previews Inside Out What wineries impressed you this year?

Marnie Old I’ve been to a couple of wineries in recent months that really impressed me. In Napa Valley, it was Raymond. Of course, they have delicious wine offerings—but what I really loved was the way they paid attention to the guest experience. In the wine industry, we tend to focus on what’s important to winemakers, but not spend enough time thinking about what’s important to the wine drinkers. Raymond’s tasting room experience was a revelation, like a wine amusement park—a total immersion experience featuring half a dozen different ways to have fun with wine. For example, I have never walked into a tank room decked out like a nightclub with mirrors, showgirls and Baccarat crystal chandeliers! It was unbelievable! They also have different spaces that serve different purposes for different types of customers. There is an outdoor botanical garden, demonstrating organic and biodynamic farming—so you can learn about how wine is made as you drink the wine. In one space, visitors can create their own bottles; and in another room, they focus on vintage dating to show visitors how the same verticals evolve over time. They also have a bottle service lounge for their wine club members called the “Red Room.” It’s the most over-the-top wine room I’ve ever seen! There are billiards, arcades and an unbelievable collection of coffee table books, all in red velvet. It’s just smart design. And of course, their wines were beautiful, too. They have a little touch of European sensibility (understated and restrained) to their wines, which is flattering with food and very appealing to me.

Photo courtesy of Raymond Vineyards.

Photo courtesy of Raymond Vineyards.

On the other end of the winery experience spectrum, I recently visited a tiny little wine farm and winery in Spain’s Priorat region, not far from Barcelona, called Morlanda. They do not do large-scale production, so the afternoon we spent there was like visiting my grandmother’s farm. A long drive on back roads, a strikingly beautiful landscape and the most amazing family-style lunch with an earnest, down-to-earth female winemaker. Morlanda’s wines offer a much more subtle and understated take compared to the typical powerhouse Priorat style. Many of their vines are planted on high ridges of calcium-rich sedimentary soil, so the flavor of the wines is wildly different from the iconic slate-grown wines of the area. Their white Priorat was wholly unexpected and heartbreakingly beautiful—it had the texture of chardonnay, yet with a different flavor profile. It was so memorable, but unfortunately is made in tiny quantities and not exported to the United States. You’ll have to look for it in Barcelona.

Previews Inside Out Last year, it seemed like riesling made a comeback. What grapes are enjoying resurgence this year?

Marnie Old You can’t find a bigger fan of riesling than me. I drink it more often than any other grape variety in my own time, on my own dime. I’m seeing a lot of restaurants championing it now. It’s a food-flattering wine. If Riesling has a super power, it is its freakish ability to make delicious, balanced wines at shockingly low degrees of ripeness. It is often misunderstood, though; there is a perception that it is always a sweet wine. Often that is true, but it is not always the case. Dry riesling is an especially surprising wine for wine snobs. I’ll show them a spectacular dry riesling, and it turns their heads. It has inherent nobility. With its high acidity and citrusy finish, it is meant to be paired with food. When you think about it, acidity naturally counteracts salt, the world’s most universal seasoning. The higher the salt content in food, the more acidity you need in the wine to find harmony. When you take a sip of anything tart or tangy, it makes you both hungrier and thirstier. Wines like riesling make food taste better, in part because they make your mouth water and pique the appetite.

Previews Inside Out If you were hosting a summer wine-tasting event at your house, which wines would be on your tasting menu, from whites to reds?

Marnie Old Riesling and albariño are certainly on my list. I like to serve a lighter, off-dry riesling and a dryer albariño. I also like to put chenin blanc in my summer lineup. Like riesling, it’s another underrated grape, and it’s a real crime. The reason why we often don’t see it in stores is because it is difficult to sell, and it’s difficult to sell because it comes in wildly different styles. There is nothing it can’t do well! It can make gorgeous wines across the board, from bone dry to sticky sweet, from still to sparkling and from unoaked to barrel-aged. It’s a chameleon, and that can be confusing in the marketplace. Retailers don’t know how to build a following for it, but the wine is amazing. People are just beginning to realize the potential it has. For reds, I have a few on my list. I like Gamay from the Beaujolais region of France, which usually gets no attention. Now, we are finally seeing smaller artisanal producers of Gamay exporting to the United States—a departure from all the years we got the mass-produced corporate varieties. I also enjoy temperanillo, which is Spain’s No. 1 red grape. As a variety, it combines the best of many different grapes. It is resistant to oxidation, so ages as well as cabernet, yet still has a lighter body and food flexibility, more like pinot noir that way. It’s a mid-palate dark fruit, covering the flavor bases, and I’m a huge fan. The other grape I would include for a summer menu is syrah, but perhaps from a cooler climate. I love the peppery qualities to it when it doesn’t get overly jammy-ripe. More and more producers of syrah worldwide are making lighter and brighter versions of it, inspired by the classics of the Northern Rhône. 

Previews Inside Out If you were building a 5,000-bottle wine cellar in your house, what are the top three vintages and regions that you’d make certain were represented?

Marnie Old I have a sentimental place for Bordeaux 1989. The 1989 vintage got short shrift simply because of its proximity to the blockbuster 1990s, but 1989s are just hitting their stride now and the 1990s are not aging as gracefully as collectors may have hoped. The 1989s were a little less ripe and a little hard to drink in their earlier years. But gosh, are they beautiful now!


In Burgundy, I would be looking at 1996 white Burgundy and 1999 red Burgundy, if you want to drink them now. However, the 2005 bottles have a long and beautiful future in front of them if you’re looking ahead. In terms of vintage port, I’d stock up on 2000 and 2009. Closer to my heart, I’m a fool for German rieslings made in 2007. They make me cry. They’re so pretty. And they will taste spectacular if you have the patience to age them 20 or 30 years. The 2009 Spanish reds are also really terrific, more or less across the board, from Ribera del Duero and Rioja to Priorat. In California, I’d look at 2012. And 2007 was certainly Italy’s year for the classics, like Brunellos and Barolos.

Previews Inside Out In all your years as a sommelier, have you ever seen a personal wine collection that seriously blew you away?

Marnie Old I shouldn’t speak to collections, but the most jaw-dropping wine cellar I have ever seen had a freestanding, glassed-in tasting lounge in the center of it, featuring its own spectacular fireplace! The owner could pull down his perfectly chilled wine and enjoy it with friends right in front of the toasty fire, as if they were in the great room at a ski resort.

Previews Inside Out That’s just the way wine should be enjoyed.

Marnie Old’s latest book, the award-winning “Wine: A Tasting Course,” is a fully illustrated introduction to wine that uses the power of images to explain complex wine concepts. Marnie’s previous titles include “Wine Secrets,” and the popular “He Said Beer, She Said Wine.” Based in Philadelphia, Marnie formerly served as the director of wine studies at Manhattan’s renowned French Culinary Institute and as founding education chair for the American Sommelier Association.


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Wine Tasting with Marnie Old

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