Friday, April 6, 2007

Old Vine Wines

You’ll sometimes see on a label the term “old vines,” or vieilles vignes as the French has it. But what’s an “old vine” wine?

A wine made from grapes grown on an old vine, of course. But what does that signify?

First some background and history. Today establishing a grape vine is a two-part process -- selecting a root stock and grafting a particular grape variety onto it -- and this is because in the mid 19th century virtually all the vineyards of Europe were wiped out when they were attacked by a root-eating aphid called phylloxera. The results were devastating and came close to ending forever European wine making. Phylloxera was introduced into Europe through the importation of infected plants from the United States, mostly by well-to-do amateur horticulturists for their gardens and greenhouses.

At first no one understood what was behind the devastation, but once they identified the root system as the root of the problem, they began searching for ways to solve it. What they discovered was that grape varieties native to the United States, species such as vitis labrusca (which produces the Concord grape, for example) and vitis rotundifolia (the Scuppernong being the best known example) had over the centuries built up a resistence to phylloxera. So they brought American root stock to Europe and grafted European varieties of vitis vinifera (Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay, etc.) onto it. This practice continues today, although now there are designer root stocks that are not only phylloxera-resistant, but also offer other selected advantages, such as doing well in an arid environment, in dense soils, or more northern latitudes. The selection of a root stock is a very major consideration in the planning of a vineyard.

Once the root stock is selected and a variety of vitis vinifera grafted on to it, it takes from three to six years before a vine can produce worthy fruit. In the very early years, any grapes produced are discarded. In the next few years, before full maturation, the grapes may be used for table wines or distilled into cheap brandy. During this development process, the vine is slowly trained on to a trellis and is shaped in such a way as to best catch the sun’s rays while at the same time shading the developing grapes from overexposure. “Canopy management” is very important because it is through the magic of photosynthesis that sunlight, water, and soil are slowly transformed into sugar, acid, and the several hundred trace elements found in wine.

Once a vine is mature it is never allowed to produce all the grapes it can, at least not if the goal is to make superior wine. Rather, it is subjected yearly to at least two prunings, one in the early Spring, when a portion of the freshly-set green fruit is removed, and later when the berries are close to being mature. In many cases more than half of the potential grapes will be removed before they can develop. The purpose of this is to increase the quality of the remaining grapes, i.e., their sugar content, by directing the available nutrients to fewer bunches.

The decision as to when and how severely to prune is another of those major decisions a winemaker must make. He or she is forever balancing quantity against quality. If too many grapes are allowed to mature, or if too many vines are crowded into the available space, then the wine will be thin and watery. If too many grapes are cut away, or vine density is too sparse, there is a chance not enough wine can be made to recover costs.

This combination of plant density and pruning determines “crop yield,” expressed as so many tons-per-acre. You will sometimes see this figure quoted on a back label. What a winemaker is trying to tell you is “I was not overly greedy. I’ve chosen to produce a smaller amount of a better wine rather than a larger amount of an inferior one.”

Vines can live and produce for fifty to seventy-five years, in some cases even longer. In general, however, they top out at about twenty years of age and their productive capability begins to decline. As they get older they self-regulate, so to speak, by limiting the amount of grapes they produce. Their root systems, however, have penetrated deep into the ground and spread out extensively in all directions. This combination of fewer grapes and a massive root system that can still efficiently extract nutrients from the soil is what makes grapes from old vines special. Wines made from old vine grapes tend to have a more concentrated flavor and a more complex character. Thus, as is true with a lot of older things (including we humans), old-vine wine can be more interesting.

Unfortunately there is no agreed upon age at which a vine becomes an "old vine," nor is there any guarantee an old vine will produce particularly good grapes, or that a particular winemaker will produce an exceptional or even good wine from them. But the potential is definitely there, and this makes it worthwhile to take note of wines said to be made from old vines.

So, if you encounter the term, look on the back label to see if the age of the vines is given, along with their yield-per-acre. While the actual affects of vine age and yield on a given wine is impossible to tell in advance, if a winemaker is willing to give specifics this is an indication of his or her honesty and seriousness. Because there is no established standard as to what constitutes an “old vine,” there’s room for misappropriation, which is to say unscrupulous winemakers can put it on their labels purely as a marketing ploy.

Friday, March 30, 2007

About Winemakers and Dirt

 I would guess (and hope) that by now it’s somewhat obvious I greatly admire and respect winemakers -- their intelligence, their dedication, and their endurance in the face of what can be a host of daunting challenges. Producing a fine bottle of wine is a complex tasks that calls for the mastery of a wide range of skills and knowledge, from agronomy and chemistry, to what might be called the “arts” of tasting, smelling, and blending.

A good bottle of wine is also the result of an act of imagination, or creative interpretation. Thus it is at once a work of skill, inspiration, and wonder. The winemaker begins with a raw material (grapes), as a sculpture does with stone or clay. He or she first envisions a result, sees the wine within the grape as some sculptures claim to see a figure within a block of marble, and then sets about releasing it from the confines of its skin.

The act of crafting a wine draws upon the three key classes of human understanding -- that based on the rational or scientific, that based on years of experience or tradition, and that which is intuitive or spiritual. In the end, and in its own way, it’s an act of transubstantiation. There was a time when all this was surrounded by the deeply mysterious, and filled us with wonder. Wine was the libation of the gods. There remain today those who still think it is a sacred undertaking.

One such group is the Vigneron independant, an association of small French winemakers dedicated to using tried-and-true methods in the production of their wines. Moreover, they are fully responsible for both growing the grapes and making the wine. They are thus farmers as well as winemakers; or, in fancier terms, both viticulturists and viniculturists. In most every case they are family-run operations, with everyone, from the mouse-catching cat to the rabbit-chasing dog, pitching in to do his or her part. They all take great pride in what they do.

Although they favor traditional methods, they are not by any means backwards or rustic. Many are young and graduates from prestigious universities with degrees in oenology or agrarian science. Others are men and women whose families have been making wine for generations and whose sense of how to do so was absorbed along with their mother’s milk. What they share is a belief that one should use the least intrusive methods available. They’re therefore committed to interjecting themselves as little as possible into the process, a somewhat paradoxical stance for a winemaker to take. It also makes the wine making more difficult and challenging.

At the very heart of their approach is the concept, or to them inviolate reality, of terroir, a term that is next to impossible to translate but which has been taken up by other winemakers around the world. At its most basic in simply means “dirt” or “soil,” but in its fuller sense it includes every conceivable geological, agricultural, and environmental factor that gives a piece of land its character and uniqueness. These factors impart to grapes grown on a given plot of land a distinctiveness, a specialness, that must be preserved in, and expressed by, the wine made from them.

Thus everything originates with the land. The very kind of grapes you plant is determined by the nature of the land: its chemical composition (limestone, shale, granite, chalk, or clay); its texture (gravelly, sandy, or dense); its altitude, its orientation to the sun, exposure to the elements, and capacity to retain or drain water. That it might be on the side of a steep hill and almost impossible to work is not a consideration; if land will grow good grapes, it will be cultivated at whatever cost of back-breaking labor.

I have been with winemakers who have actually had me taste their dirt, and the similarity between it and their wine is subtle but nonetheless remarkable. And this congruence, this harmony, constitutes the whole of their belief and commitment: Wine should taste of the land from which it comes.

But achieving this is no easy task and, as I said above, it requires that the winemaker find ways to nurture the process but not interfere with with the grapes natural expression of the terroir through themselves. This takes a great deal of knowledge, experience, patience, and restraint. It also requires that little element of luck without which no farmer or winemaker could survive. Knowing the soil, even having tasted it, the winemaker knows the end towards which he or she is aiming, and their artistry lies in gently guiding things along to their natural conclusion. As with the sculptor, they sense the figure within the marble, the wine within the grape, and all they have to do is help it emerge.

The result is that wines made by such winemakers are not cookie-cutter wines. They are individual and full of character. While you may like or dislike them, you will be left with no doubt you have tasted something special, a unique expression of grape and land.

So, if you’d like to sample some interesting wines made by dedicated craftsmen, look for the symbol of the winemaker toting a barrel on his shoulder, the message being that the full weight of responsibility for the wine inside that barrel rests on his or her back. The symbol (pictured above) is imprinted on the capsule, that metal or plastic covering around the top and neck of the bottle.

As I indicated, other winemakers around the world have embraced the concept of terroir. When it is formalized, as has been done in Europe, the result is designated growing areas, or place names, that can appear on labels as an indication of geographic pedigree, style, and quality. In most cases these world-wide efforts are patterned after the French AOC system (Appellation d’origine controlee).

In the United States there are now a number of appellations of origin based on what are designated American Viticultural Areas, or AVA’s. The largest AVA, at 26,000 square miles, is the Ohio River Valley, while the best known are perhaps those in California, like the Napa Valley or Russian River AVA’s. The smallest AVA, at about a half- mile square, is Cole Ranch in Mendocino County.

Use of these AVA place names on a wine label are controlled by strict regulation. They do not guarantee quality, but rather place of origin. But the hope is that over time consumers will come to recognize the implications of these AVA’s in the same way informed wine drinkers know what the terms Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti, or Rioja imply. They will know that what they are getting is an expression of a special bit of soil, of the earth itself, speaking to them by means of grapes and the hard work and dedication of the men and women who oversee their transformation.

Friday, March 23, 2007

A Note to Roscoe

Dear Roscoe,

As you’ve no doubt noticed, you’re one of the very few who has chosen to offer comments on what I have to say about wine. I’m very grateful for your interest and kind words.

Unfortunately you’ve never given me your email address, so I’ve been unable to contact you directly to thank you or reply to your questions. If you’d like to give me your address, just click on my “complete profile” to the left and then on Contact/email.

Now, with regards to your most recent question: nothing, absolutely nothing, better sets the stage, particularly with a beautiful lady who knows wine, then Champagne. The more timid and less imaginative would begin with a glass or two each. I, on the other hand, would opt for a full bottle right from the git-go, confident that, under the influence of my personal charm and the magic of the bubbly, whatever else might follow would be a piece of cake.

No one I know is quite sure what it is about sparkling wine, but it does the trick – if you catch my drift – so, by time you get around to ordering the meal, if you’re the smooth fellow I think you are, you can not make a mistake. The ground work having been well laid, whatever wine you select will work as if by magic with whatever it is she orders.

The wonderful thing about wine is this wizardry it works. It can make fools seem wise, the ugly beautiful, and the challenged whole. So trust me, Roscoe, more often than not it’s not what wine you select, but that you’re having wine at all that’s important.

In the end, in a variation on Shakespear’s “To thine own self be true,” I’d say order what makes you happy and bet that, as night follows day, your date will be happy as well. If for some reason she’s not, a least you, who is footing the bill, will be.

Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

Nothing brings on an anxiety attack quite like taking someone we’d like to impress -- significant other, family, friend, in-laws, business client, or boss -- out to dine and being presented with an inch-thick wine list by a snooty wine steward (called in French a sommelier). As all eyes turn to you, and an expectant silence settles over the table, it can be enough to induce indigestion before the meal even starts. But it doesn’t have to be such a gut-wrenching experience. In what follows I’ll try to offer some
suggestions I hope will help you deal with the situation smoothly, if not avoid anxiety altogether.

Rule 1: Above all else keep firmly in mind that you are the customer. You are the boss. You are in charge. Don’t ever allow yourself to be intimidated or railroaded into something with which you’re not comfortable. Because wine prices in a restaurant are in general two to three times higher than in a retail wine shop, you can never expect to find the same kind of bargains and this makes it all the more important to select wisely. For most of us price is in fact an object, and plays a role in our overall enjoyment. It’s hard to enjoy a meal if you just spent next month’s rent on a bottle of wine you’re not sure about.

Rule 2: Ask questions, lots and lots of questions if necessary; and, in line with our first rule, make sure to ask them in a firm and decisive way. If you are being served by a professional wine steward, he or she should have answers to all your queries. If you’re dealing with an inexperienced wait-person, ask to see in advance any bottles you might be considering. Look at both the front and back labels, as these will often tell you all you need to know.

So, what do you need to know? What questions should you ask?

The first thing you’ll want to know is something the wine steward can’t answer: what are your guests planning to order -- fish, red meat, the vegetarian plate -- and in general what kind of wines do they like? Never order the wine until you have some answers to these questions. If you’re with a large group, it’s likely the range of foods and methods of preparation will be so large it will be impossible to select a single wine to go with everything. You’ll be forced into choosing a bland, middle- of-the-road style of wine or else ordering several types. If the restaurant offers wine by the glass, this could solve your problem. If the boss is part of the group, and you really need that raise, then you might what to select what will go best with what he or she is having. Fortunately you always have the option of ordering something for yourself that goes well with whatever wine you pick. If others in the group are savvy, they can do the same thing.

Once you have some idea of what folks will be eating and what kind of wine they like – white, red, sweet, dry – you can begin asking questions of the wine steward and working your way through the list. Keep in mind that in general you want to match the wine type to the food type, i.e., high-acid wines with acidic dishes, light wines with light fare, robust wines with heavy or meaty foods, and sweet wines with sweet ingredients. A good wine steward, knowing what has been ordered, can be of great help in steering you towards wines that will work with your meal, so listen to what he or she has to say and communicate to them any limits of price or style you might have in mind. Again, you are the customer, and the wine steward is there to meet your needs not the other way round. I’ve actually seen people select a wine to impress the wine steward, and that to me is foolish.

If you’ve been following earlier posts, you know what grape variety, geography, and alcohol content can tell you about a wine. These are the three essential things you need to know about a wine: what is it made from (grape variety), where was it made (climate conditions), and how was it made (degree of exposure to oak being perhaps most important). If you have not read earlier post, I encourage you to do so.

So ask about these. If you’re not sure what grape is involved in a wine, ask. If the wine is one made from a blend of grapes, like a Bordeaux, Chianti, or Rioja, ask what grapes were used and in what proportions. Ask about the gowning region and conditions, in particular if it is a cool or warm environment. Finally, ask the alcohol level, because, even with the same grapes from the same region, there is a world of difference between a wine of 11.5% and one of 13.5% alcohol.

If you want to take things to a more detailed level, ask if the wine was fermented in stainless steel vats or in wood barrels. Ask if it was aged in oak and, if so, for how long? From my post on what oak does to wine, you appreciate what a critical impact it can have on taste. You might also ask if the wine underwent secondary fermentation, as this will tell you what kind of acidity to expect and if the wine will have a “round” or sharp edge to it.

Now for some specific hints I hope will prove useful.

Hint 1: If the restaurant boasts a “house wine,” especially if it is a high- end establishment, or one in Europe, there is an excellent chance it will be both good and a good deal. In essence the restaurant is staking its name and reputation on their selections, so it’s a good bet they’ve put careful thought into whatever it is they are serving. If there is ever a chance of finding bargains in restaurant wine, the house wine, or house selection, is where you’ll discover them.

Hint 2: If you are dining in a particular region, or are having regional cuisine, select wines from that country or specific area. Food and wine from a given locale tend to go well together. Generations of experiment and experience result in natural harmonies of taste, ones that can be quite unique, surprising, and delightful. If a regional restaurant offers regional house wines, all the better.

Hint 3: Ask the wine steward if there’s a “little” Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cabernet, what-have-you, that is “drinking particularly well.” By using the word “little” you are signaling that you’re not interested in a high- end or expensive wine, but a moderately priced one that is mature and tastes good right now. A common mistake is to order a wine that’s too young. It might be great in several years, but right now it’s harsh and closed-in.

Hint 4: Don’t hesitate to ask the wine steward or wait-person what it is he or she drinks, or would select, to go with the meal. Usually they can not afford to have great wines regularly, so they have discovered good ones that will not break the bank. They are also, or should be, familiar with how a particular dish is prepared and tastes, so they have an idea of what would go best with it. You’d be surprised at how happy they are to share their discoveries.

Hint 5: These days many restaurants post their wine list online. This gives you an excellent opportunity to check out prices and do a little homework. You can come prepared with questions and with a general idea of what’s available and what you might do if your partner orders the grilled fish rather than the roasted lamb.

Finally, make sure the wine is served properly, meaning first and foremost, at the right temperature. In general red wines should not be served above 68 degrees or whites below 50 degrees. Unfortunately, most restaurant’s are not as careful as they should be when it comes to storing wine. They often keep it near the kitchen, or in a refrigerator, which means it will be either too warm or too cold. Don’t hesitate to ask that a red wine be placed in an ice bucket if it’s too warm, or take a white one out of the bucket if it’s too cold.

If you’ve ordered a young red wine, or an old one with sediment, ask to have it decanted. The French have a saying that young wines demand it and old wines deserve it. In the case of a young wine, it will help soften its harsher aspects and open up its flavors and smells. Merely opening a bottle and letting it “breath” will not effectively aerate a wine or soften its tannin -- it must be decanted. Old wines deserve decanting because otherwise the deposit at the bottom a bottle can easily become mixed up with the wine as it is poured, turning it cloudy and giving it a bitter and gritty taste. It took years and years for the deposit to form as tannin and other unwanted elements settled out of the wine, so to mix it all back up again is a great disservice to the wine and a waste of your money.

My experience has been that in the general conviviality of a good meal with friends, family, or even business acquaintances, no one much notices how well or poorly the marriage of food and wine works. This is especially true if there has been several rounds of before-dinner drinks, and becomes progressively more true as the wine is consumed. So my advice is relax and enjoy yourself. Certainly it’s well worth doing your best to select a good wine that will comport well with the meal – after all, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t care – but don’t let the responsibility overwhelm you or detract from your own pleasure in the company and meal. If no one compliments your selection, don’t worry. If there is no wine remaining at the end of the evening, you’ll know you did well. If the boss gives you a wink and a nod, I’d order a round of after-dinner Cognac to celebrate.

Friday, March 16, 2007

On Wine Recommendations and Merchants

Unless you own a wine shop and know your stock and customers well, recommending a specific bottle of wine can be a perilous exercise. How many individual bottles of wine are out there? I would guess tens of millions, and every one of them is different; in some cases dramatically so, in others subtly so. The French have a saying to the effect that there are no great wines, only great bottles. What they are alluding to is what is called “bottle variance.” Were we to sample three bottles of 1990 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, one from a restaurant in Japan, another from a wine shop in San Francisco, and a third from a private cellar in Houston, Texas, we would discover they do not taste the same. This is because the quality of the wine within a given bottle depends to a large extent on the way in which that bottle has been handled, i.e., how it was transported, how it was stored, and how it is served.

Another variable is when exactly the wine was put in the bottle. Most winemakers do not bottle all their stock of a particular wine at once, so some of the wine can spend additional weeks or months in barrel before bottling. This can make for a discernible difference in taste. Moreover, although wine makers try to establish a consistency of taste with regards to a particular wine from a particular vintage, the fact is wine making is a “batch” process and not all batches come out tasting alike.

Achieving consistency of taste is especially challenging when it comes to blended wines, like Bordeaux, Chianti, or Rioja. Bordeaux is a blend of individual wines made from up to five different varieties of grapes -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec -- while Chianti is permitted by law to employ up to thirteen different types of grapes . Each of these separate wines is itself made in batches, put in barrels, and then blended together at some point. This blending process, what the French call the assemblage, is as much art as science. I have watched winemakers doing it, and it struck me that at this point in the wine-making process they were a lot like perfume makers, adding a bit of this for color, a bit of that for acidity, a touch of something else to heighten aroma. These multiple variables makes it very hard to ensure one batch of wine tastes exactly like another, or that the wine you taste today will be like the one you had last month.

So how does one master it all? You don’t. What you do is find yourself a good wine merchant and trust him or her to point you towards bottles of wine you might enjoy.

But this begs the question: just what makes for a good wine shop or merchant?

First, they must be familiar with their stock, having tasted most of it themselves. Just reading what Robert Parker or The Wine Enthusiast has to say, useful as it might be, is not enough. A good wine merchant will sample his or her goods on a regular basis.

Second, they should purchase their wines only from importers or vendors who use climate controlled shipping containers and storage facilities. Being subjected to temperature extremes or fluctuations is perhaps the single most damaging thing a wine can undergo. So ask your wine merchant how his or her suppliers receive and handle their wines.

Third, bottles of wine should be handled properly within the wine shop. They should be stored on their sides so wine remains in contact with the cork, keeping it for drying out. When a cork dries out it shrinks and air can get to the wine and spoil it. This “sideways” storage is particularly important in areas where air conditioning is common, because a/c dries out the air in the process of cooling it. Sideways storage is expensive and can result in a less efficient use of space, so many merchants don’t employ it. More than once I’ve been told the “turn over” of their wine inventory is such that sideways storage isn’t necessary. In most cases I don’t believe this is true, particularly when it comes to expensive bottles that do not sell that often. So look for a merchant who stores bottles on their sides.

Forth, a good merchant will be willing to take back bad bottles of wine, no questions asked. By “bad” I mean defective. The fact you don’t like the taste of a particular grape or style of wine is not sufficient reason to expect a refund or exchange. But if the bottle shows evidence of being bad, or if it tastes oxidized (like dry Sherry) or like vinegar, then either don’t open it, or re-cork it if you have, and return it. Don’t drink it all, or pour it down the sink, and then expect the merchant to honor your claim it was a bad bottle. The merchant can in most cases return the wine to his or her supplier and get credit.

So, how can you look at a bottle of wine before opening it and get some idea if it’s bad?

First, check the capsule, the metal band around the neck. If there is any evidence of leakage, tears of wine running out from it, or a bulge in the capsule caused by a small pool of wine, or a protrusion of the cork, then this is a sign the wine may be bad.

Next, look at what is called the “ullage,” that little air space between the wine inside the bottle and the cork. This can safely vary, but in general the smaller the space the more likely the wine has not suffered from bad handling or storage. If the ullage is more than an inch, or certainly if it extends down into the shoulder of the bottle, then I would pass on that particular bottle. If there are other bottles of the same wine available, look through them until you find one with an acceptable ullage.

Does all this guarantee the wine will be without defects, or that it will please you? No, unfortunately not. There are myriad things that can do harm to a bottle of wine and, as I’ve emphasized before, the pleasure you take in a wine is a matter of personal taste. The good news is that more dependable wine is made today than ever in history. This is the Golden Age of Wine. The chances of running into a bad bottle of wine, or a badly made wine, are quite low.

Of course we consumers have a responsibility as well. What we need to do is discover through experience what pleases us, analyze why that is, and then communicate our preferences to a good wine merchant. He or she will then be able to direct us towards wines we are likely to enjoy. If you don’t like the merchant’s recommendations, if the wines he or she touted were not what you expected, or wanted, be sure to tell them the next time you visit. But come prepared to try and explain, in whatever words you are comfortable with, why the wine did not please you. This will give the merchant a better idea of what you prefer and, over time, he or she will be better able to help you find what you like.

A good wine merchant will also try ever so gently to expand your taste for, and appreciation of, wines with which you are not familiar. If you are open-minded and adventurous, you can discover some great things. Some wines or styles of wine are definitely an acquired taste and you will not cotton to all of them (try a Vin Jaune from the Jura district of France someday, or a Greek Retsina, and see what you think). There is no sin involved in disliking a given wine, but there’s something sinful about never giving it a chance.

So, to wrap things up -- know what you like and why you like it, find a good wine merchant, communicate honestly with them over time, and chances are you will be consistently rewarded with wines that please you.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Sweet Wines (Part II)

To briefly recap Part I: in order to make a naturally sweet wine you must somehow keep the yeast for consuming all the available grape sugar, leaving a “residual” amount behind to give the wine a naturally sweet taste. One way to do this is to “fortify” the fermenting juice by adding enough alcohol to kill off the yeast before it can finish its job. This produces high-alcohol wines that are not true “table wines,” meaning they are not well suited for accompanying a meal but are better served as before-dinner aperitifs or after-dinner dessert drinks.

So, just how is a naturally sweet table wine, one low in alcohol yet still possessing residual sugar, made? The answer is to creatively control both yeast and grape sugar. In the case of the yeast, you pick a strain that is more sensitive to alcohol, meaning it is less tolerant and so dies off at lower alcohol levels. With regards to sugar, you somehow come up with grapes that have an exceptionally high sugar content, which in essence means a high ratio of sugar to water inside the grape. So, how do you achieve this?

There are basically four ways of going about it: 1) leave your grapes on the vine until the last possible minute so you can pick them at maximum ripeness; 2) have your grapes attacked by botrytis; 3) have your grapes freeze; or, 4) partially dry your grapes like raisins. The first three methods require that Mother Nature cooperate fully in your efforts, a thing She is not often prone to do, while the last method demands lots and lots of sunny days, which again are frequently hard to come by.

Method 1: This is the most common way to increase grape sugar, as winemakers anywhere in the world can choose to hold off picking until they feel their grapes are at there best. But it takes the right combination of grape variety, excellent weather, and plain old luck to pull it off. You have to have a breed of grape with super-ripeness potential. You also need perfect growing conditions. And you have to pray or hope no last minute thunderstorm, hailstorm, windstorm, freeze, bug or blight comes along and wipes out your crop. Obviously this method is not for the risk-averse, but then farming is not for the faint of heart. (We forget that winemakers are very often farmers.)

Wines produced using this method are called, naturally enough, “Late Harvest” wines. In French the term is vendange tardive, and in German Spaetlese. You will see these terms used on wine labels and in essence they promise concentrated flavor and complexity. However, not all Late Harvest wines are sweet. If a winemaker wishes, he or she can allow all the sugar to be converted to alcohol and so produce a dry wine. In such cases the alcohol level will be at or near the upper end of the scale for table wines, i.e., somewhere between 13% and 15%.

What determines if the wine will be sweet or dry is the variety of yeast the winemaker uses. For a dry wine he or she selects one that can go the full distance, one that will keep on doing its job even in a high-alcohol environment. For a sweet wine, a winemaker picks one that will give up the ghost before it has managed to consume all the available sugar.

Method 2: Botrytis cinerea, called in France “the noble rot,” is a mold fungus that under rare and ideal conditions attacks grapes. In order for this to happen botrytis spores must be present in the soil and air and the temperature and humidity have to be just right. This combination occurs in only a few places in the world, the most famous being the Sauternes region of France and parts of Germany. When attacked by botrytis, grapes turn moldy and shrivel up like raisins as the moisture and life are sucked out of them. They end up looking rotten and terrible (see picture above, left), not at all like grapes that produce stunningly delicious wines. But, by removing moisture, botrytis concentrates the sugar level and ensures the little juice that remains is very, very sweet.

Unfortunately botrytis does not do a neat, even job of it. Some berries are infected earlier or more severely than others, so the wine maker must pick the berries individually, rather than by the bunch, to ensure they are all at their peak of sugar content. To do this the pickers must make numerous passes through the vineyard over a protracted period of time. This is not only labor intensive, and thus expensive, but it increases the chances the vineyard will be hit by adverse weather or a disease that could destroy the crop. The Germans have a long but descriptive name for wines of this type. They are called Trokenbeerenauslese, or a dry-special-berry-selected wine. In the Alsace region of France they are known as Selection de Grains Nobles wines. By any name they are extraordinarily delicious.

The outcome of all this work and risk is very little juice from which to make wine. Imagine squeezing raisins. Wines made from this juice are nectar-like, intensely sweet, yet with enough acid to keep them from being cloying. These wines are also rare and expensive, costing as much as $100 or more a half-bottle at the time of release. These wines will live a very long time and over the years will take on the color and taste of honey.

Method 3. Another way to achieve a high ratio of sugar to water in the juice is to freeze the grapes (above picture, right) and then crush them while they are partially frozen. Wine made this way is called “Ice Wine” (Eiswein in German). Of course the berries must be fully ripe, and in order to ensure this the winemaker must leave them on the vine deep into the growing season, which means into the early days of winter. In addition to praying that wind, hail, or disease doesn’t ruin the crop, the winemaker must also pray that when the grapes reach their ripest point Mother Nature will proved a perfect spell of freezing weather. You can imagine the odds of this happening. Like botrytised wines, Ice Wines are rare and expensive.

At one time Ice Wine was pretty much restricted to Germany, a kind of national specialty, but Canada now produces more than Germany does. The United States, and even Australia, also make it.

Method 4. The final method involves laying the grapes out in the sun, or placing them in a cool, airy room for months, and letting them dry up. It’s virtually the same process as that used to produce raisins, only you don’t let the grapes get quite as dry. In Italy this process is known as recioto and the best known wine made by this method is Recioto della Valpolicella, a sweet wine that tastes of cherries and plums, but with a slightly “cooked” or raisiny cast to it.

Ironically, it is not the sweet version of Recioto della Valpolicella that is best known, but the dry version called Amerone. This is a huge and powerful wine, meaning it’s not only a big, concentrated, mouth-filling wine, but carries the highest alcohol level of any table wine, often over 16%. It takes a very special strain of yeast to produce a wine like this. It’s worth noting that amaro is Italian for bitter, and Amerone does have a certain harshness to it, especially when young. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you ever come across one, it’s worth trying. If you have the time and patience to let it mature for 20 or 30 years, it can be quite wonderful. Amarone is not cheap, again because of the labor involved and the little juice that results.

I have not covered absolutely every means used to produce sweet wines, but the ones I’ve discussed are the main ones, the ones responsible for the most famous and best naturally sweet wines. In essence it’s simple. All you have to do is stop the yeast from consuming all the grape sugar. In practice, however, it involves a lot of hard work and luck. So, if you find yourself with a glass of Trokenbeerenauslese, a vintage Port, Eiswein, or a Grand Cru Sauternes, pause for a moment to reflect on what it is you’re holding in your hand. What you are about to enjoy is the end result of Mother Nature conspiring with human dedication to produce a miracle of taste.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Sweet Wines (Part I)

How do sweet wines get their sweetness? Does a winemaker simply dump sugar into the vat and stir things up?

When it comes to cheap “soda pop” wines this unfortunately is how it’s often done, but in the case of premium wines, wines that come by their sweetness “naturally,” the story is more complex and interesting.

A “naturally” sweet wine is one that derives its sweetness solely from the sugar within the grapes from which it is made. Fermentation is the process in which yeast consumes sugar and produces both alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. If all the sugar is converted to alcohol, the wine is said to be a “dry” (non-sweet) wine. If for some reason a part of the sugar is not consumed by the yeast, then this leftover, or “residual,” sugar gives the wine a sweet taste. Because no sugar has been added, the wine is said to be “naturally” sweet.

But how do you stop the yeast from consuming all the available sugar? One way would be to raise or lower the temperature, but these methods have unacceptable side effects. If you get a fermenting wine hot enough to kill off the yeast the result will be a “cooked” or “burnt” taste, while cooling it does not kill the yeast but rather slows it down and eventually puts it to sleep. As soon as the temperature returns to normal the yeast awakens and goes back to work. The result will be either a dry wine or exploding bottles, or both.

Another way to destroy yeast is to inject sulfur dioxide gas into the fermenting juice. Unfortunately this is a very dicey operation, one that is very liable to leave you with a wine that smells and tastes of burnt match or rotten eggs. Although this would produce a naturally sweet wine, the results would be far from pleasant.

Fortunately there is another way to stop the yeast in its tracks, and that is to raise the alcohol level. Most strains of yeast will permanently call it quits once the alcohol level reaches 15 to 16 percent. So, how do you get to that level of alcohol? You can either add alcohol to the wine or else produce grapes with so much sugar the yeast quits working before all of it can be consumed. In this Sweet Wine (Part I) I will deal with the first case, while in Part II I will discuss the second.

Wines to which alcohol has been added are called “fortified” wines. The added alcohol is in the form of either neutral (tasteless) spirits or a brandy distilled from the same grapes from which the wine is made.

In the old days wines were fortified to help preserve them, although no one knew why it worked. We now know it works because a high alcohol environment retards the growth of the bacteria that turn wine into vinegar. However, in addition to preservation, a useful and very appealing secondary effect – the retention of unconverted sugar – was quickly noted by winemakers and wine drinkers. As wine makers soon discovered, the earlier the fermentation process was stopped, the sweeter the resulting wine.

The best known fortified wines today are Port and Sherry, but there is also Madeira, Marsala, and a bevy of delightful wines the French call vin doux naturel, almost all of which feature the Muscat grape. The alcohol level of fortified wines generally ranges from 17 to 21 percent, and this preserves them, at least to a certain extent. The result is they will “keep” longer, up to several weeks, once they are opened.

So, fortified wines are sweet because a sudden infusion of wine-based alcohol arrests the fermentation process before all the available grape sugar (a form of fructose) can be consumed by the yeast. The result is a high-alcohol wine that tastes good and keeps well. This makes them ideal candidates for use as an aperitif (dry Sherry is a well-known case) or to keep on hand if you want a glass of something sweet with cheese, dessert, or a handful of walnuts (Port works very well here). Left unopened, fortified wines can last for years and years. In the case of the vintage Ports, this can be well over a century.

As I mentioned earlier, another way to make a naturally sweet wine is to produce grapes that have an extraordinarily high level of sugar in them. This is not easy to accomplish. It’s an expensive and labor-intensive business, one that relies on good fortune as much as anything else. I’ll talk about this in Sweet Wine (Part II).