I recently returned home from a 4 day backpacking trip with my husband and our dog in the spectacular Weminuche Wilderness. It was just enough time to get into our groove and become accustomed to hiking with heavy packs and dial in our daily camp tasks.
As we filtered water one last time from a fresh mountain stream, I had the urge to keep going on an extended backpacking trip. When all you have to do is hike all day and find a place to camp for the night, everything becomes so simple. Worries are swept away and you are left with an acute awareness of your surroundings; listening to the trickle of water, birds chirping, or the sound of your footsteps on twigs and pine needles. At times there is complete stillness and you have to stop to listen. Your eyes are wide open and taking in new surroundings and the natural beauty that abounds. The taste of everything is magnified; the fresh water so pure and refreshing, the apple you’ve been saving so crisp and sweet…
My husband could sense my longing to continue our trek as I gazed up stream. In an effort to entice me for our return home, he asked what I would like for our first dinner back at a real table (as opposed to our last 4 days of eating on the ground at dog-level).
“A bottle of wine!” I proclaimed, imagining swirling and sipping a deep red wine in one of our big Bordeaux glasses.
“Well of course a bottle of wine!” (he knows me so well). “How about a juicy steak to go with it? Maybe a ribeye?”
Just then I spotted another mushroom growing out of the ground. We must have spotted at least a dozen different varieties on our hike, convincing me to bring a mushroom identification guide on our next trip.
“Yes, and how about some funghi (mushrooms) to go with it!”
Having a plan for a nice dinner and bottle of wine gave us motivation to finish our hike and look forward to getting back home.
After getting unpacked and cleaned up our stomachs were ready for a big meal. We sliced up some bread and Manchego cheese and went out to the garden to harvest zucchini. The squash blossoms were in full bloom and calling at us to pick them too. We filled the delicate blossoms with whipped ricotta and mint and lightly fried them in olive oil. Mmmm…heaven! (Check out our recipe below).
Then Jarrod pulled out a bottle of wine that was wrapped in a brown paper bag. He does this from time to time so that I can blind taste a wine and try to guess what it is. I love this, because it forces me to be present and focus on all aspects of the wine. I suppose blind tasting is like backpacking, in that it persuades you to surrender to your senses and observe what is in front of you. In this case, it is the complex and compelling liquid in your glass.
I sat down with my tasting notebook and let myself fully concentrate on the mystery wine. I first noted the color, a deep purple with a clear ring around the outer edge. This gave me a clue to the grape variety and age of the wine. Next I gave it a swirl and took several sniffs, imagining all of the things it reminded me of:
“Blackberries, vanilla extract, black plums…”
“Dried herbs, balsamic, clove, pencil shavings”
Next I took a couple sips and thought about the weight, alcohol, acidity, tannins and flavor.
“Medium bodied, high alcohol, moderate to high acidity, medium tannins. Lively with bright flavors of cherry and cranberry and minerals…”
I scribbled down all of these notes and then went back and looked over them.
“Lets see, there is some fruit but also quite a bit of acidity and minerality. That tells me that it is most likely an old world wine (European), from a moderate climate. The color of the wine and the clear rim tells me that it is fairly young and from a deep purple-hued grape, such as merlot, dolcetto, valpolicella or tempranillo. The hint of vanilla tells me that it may have spent some time in American oak, and Spain is known for using American oak in some of their wines. I’m going to guess that it is a Rioja, which is a Tempranillo, from Rioja, Spain.
I ripped the bag open to reveal the wine…
Not a Rioja.
It was from Spain though: Priorat, the tiny, albeit prestigious wine appellation high up in the mountains just south of Barcelona. This particular wine was a blend of Garnacha and Mazuelo (also known as Carignan or Cariñena). I poured myself a bit more and took another sip to think about the wine again now that I knew its origin. Oh yes, the minerality and high alcohol! Priorat’s are characterized by their gun flint, minerality and high acidity, with moderate to high alcohol. The reason is because grapes in Priorat are grown on black slate rocks. They are practically baked by the hot sun during the day and retain their heat even though the temperature drops significantly at night. The daytime heat ripens the grapes to a plump sweetness, and the cool nights preserve the grape’s acidity. The result of these unique grapes is a dense and high alcohol wine that also has a refreshing acidity.
I had forgotten all about backpacking. Or anything else, for that matter. I was completely engulfed in the taste, texture and aroma of the wine. This is the beauty of blind tasting.
Anyone can do this. The last part, where I try to guess what it is comes with practice (ahem, tasting LOTS of wine). And as you can see I don’t often guess correctly. The main point is to let your senses take over and pay attention to what they are telling you. Just like with backpacking, you can become hyper-aware of your surroundings. I like the practice of writing down notes, that way you have a structure to assist you. It also serves as a diary of the wines you have tasted and can help jog your memory about the different flavor profiles of wine. My favorite is the the De Long Wine Tasting Notebook. It has a nice “circle the best description” structure and comes with a laminated flavor profile chart to help you describe the wine.
Another tool that I like to use is the deductive tasting grid offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. They have both red and white wine tasting grids and they are structured specifically for blind tasting. (These are also the same grids that are used with the blind tasting segment of the Certified Sommelier Exam).
After finishing up my final observations on the wine, I set the table and joined Jarrod in the kitchen to sear up our ribeye and make a maitake mushroom & wine gravy to accompany the steak, mashed potatoes and sautéed zucchini. The final step with wine tasting is to taste it with food, which can enhance or blunt out a wine. The verdict? It paired very nicely with the ribeye! The tannins and acidity cut through the fat of the steak and brought together all the flavors of the mushrooms and wine with the meat.
The home-run surprise, however, were the ricotta and mint stuffed squash blossoms! We didn’t imagine that the delicate squash blossoms would hold up to a big red wine, but the minerality and acidity of the wine mixed with the hint of mint and creaminess of the ricotta brought together a fun and refreshing blend of flavors that were amazing together.
Below is our recipe for stuffed squash blossoms, a common appetizer in Tuscany in the late summer months. I think it would also pair well with a full bodied white wine, such as Chardonnay or Albariño. A sparkling wine such as Cava, Champagne or Prosecco would also be delightful. If you’re more in the mood for red, it may also pair well with a lighter style of California Cabernet Sauvignon (such as Alexander Valley), which is known to have hints of mint and Eucalyptus. Whichever wine you choose, you may want to take a few moments to first sit down with your glass and let your senses take in how it looks, smells, tastes and feels.
By the way, the wine that I opened was a 2014 La Cartuja, known to be an approachable and affordable Priorat that is meant to be enjoyed young.
- 6 to 8 fresh squash blossoms
- 1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
- 2 Tbs freshly grated Parmesan
- 1 Tbs fresh chopped mint
- pinch of salt
- 3 Tbs flour
- 4-5 Tbs sparkling water
- pinch of salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup olive oil for frying
- Wash and dry squash blossoms.
- Whip ricotta, mint, Parmesan and salt together with a fork to make the filling.
- Fill squash blossoms: For easiest, least messy way of filling, use a pastry bag. If you don't have a pastry bag you can put the filling in a zip lock baggie and cut a corner with scissors. Gently open and fill squash blossoms with ricotta filling, then twist the tops to hold the contents inside.
- Whisk together flour, sparkling water and salt and pepper to make the batter.
- Heat olive oil in a skillet to medium (don't let it get too hot or it will start to smoke).
- Dip the stuffed squash blossoms in the batter and then gently place in hot oil. Fry on each side for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden and then remove from oil with tongs and lay out on a paper towel to drain.
- Let these babies sit a couple minutes and then serve!