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).

Friday, February 23, 2007

Why Is Red Wine Red?

An odd question you might be thinking, but it’s surprising how many people believe the answer is because the juice from red grapes is red. The truth is the juice from red grapes is the same color as the juice from white grapes, which is how there can be White Zinfandel or why blanc de noir Champagne appears indistinguishable from blanc de blanc. So where does the color come from?

It comes from grape skins, and herein lies a major key to understanding a number of useful things about red wine.

The fermentation process, which turns grape sugar into alcohol, begins with the grapes being smashed. In the old days this was done by getting into a vat and stomping on them. The stompers often got a bit smashed themselves, and great fun was generally had by all. Today the crushing is less romantic but more efficient. Still, the end product remains the same -- a slushy mush called the “must,” in which grape juice, grape flesh, grape skins, grape seeds, and vine stalks are all mixed together.

Yeast is needed to set the fermentation process in motion. Most grapes come with their own yeast attached, so they can in fact begin fermenting without any help. However experience has shown that natural yeasts can yield less than desirable results, therefore special strains have been developed to meet the needs of winemakers. The natural yeasts are killed off using sulfur dioxide gas and a preferred yeast is added. This is not the only thing for which sulfur dioxide is used and its use is a matter of debate and controversy. If you’ve smelled a rotten egg or burnt match, you know what sulfur smells like and can imagine what it can do to a wine if misused.

Once the action gets going the fermentation vat quickly takes on the semblance of a bubbling witch’s cauldron. As the yeast bacteria digest the grape sugar they produce three by-products: alcohol, carbon dioxide gas, and heat. The heat can become so extreme it “cooks” the wine, and this will appear as a defect in the final product. The wine will have a burnt taste. Today heat can be controlled by means of water-cooled stainless steel vats. The combination of heat and alcohol “macerate” the grape must, leeching from it the ingredients that will eventually account not only for a wine’s taste and smell, but its overall quality and survival potential as well. Think of the fermentation vat as stew pot. Just as with a good stew, the longer the contents “simmer” the richer and more complex the result will be.

The release of carbon dioxide gas churns the must, but it also floats the grape skins, seeds, and stalks to the top of the vat where they form a crust called the “cap.” In order to ensure the maximum extraction of ingredients, this cap is periodically broken up and “punched down” into the must. Pumps are also used to draw wine from the bottom of the vat and spray it continuously over the cap. Again the goal is to exact as much as possible from the must by way of taste, smell, and color.

Grape skins are the source of two essential red wine elements, tannin and pigmentation, and the longer their contact with the grape juice the darker and more astringent it will be. If you have ever eaten grape skin by itself, or bitten into a grape seed, or tasted over-steeped tea, then you know what tannin is like. It’s bitter and gives your mouth a dry and puckered feeling. While tannin does not taste good, it plays a vital role in a wine’s evolution. It acts as a preservative, an anti-oxidant that helps keep the wine from spoiling.

Pigmentation is just that, color. And here finally we find the answer to our question What makes red wine red? Or a blush wine blush for that matter. As we noted, the longer the gape juice is in contact with the skins the darker it will be. The French call rose wines vins de nuits (night wines) because their encounter with the grape skins is, so to speak, a one night stand, or quickly encounter. Is it any wonder blush wines blush?

The length of time the skins remain with the juice is first determined by the amount of time it takes for the yeast to do its job. The more sugar present the longer it takes. The other factor is heat. If the must gets too hot or too cold the fermentation process will stop, or become “stuck” as winemakers say. There is a well defined temperature range in which yeast will work. Yeast will also go on strike if the alcohol content gets too high. These limitations can be overcome or controlled through the use of designer yeasts or by employing special fermentation vats that allow water to circulate around their outside through channels and cool things down.

However, once the fermentation process is over, the winemaker may elect to leave the skins with the juice for days or even weeks. Again, as you can imagine, the resulting wine will be that much darker and tannic. In fact such “supersaturated” wines can contain so much tannin they will be virtually undrinkable when young. I’m sure you’ve had such wines, ones that taste harsh and astringent and cause you mouth to feel dry and puckered. Is this a fault?

Not at all, or certainly not necessarily. Most of the truly great red wines do not taste good when young, which is why quality red wines need to be aged, sometimes for years and years, before they reach their full potential. I have said elsewhere that the maturation process is a race between a wine’s tannin and its fruit. Recall the relationship between fruit ripeness, sugar, and alcohol. Really good fruit is ripe fruit and its elevated sugar content means not only that wines made from it will be high in alcohol, but it also means they must remain in contact with the skins and seeds longer, because it takes longer to convert all that sugar to alcohol.

So the “fruitiest” wines can end up with the most tannin as well. When they are young the harshness of the tannin can overpower the more delicate fruit taste, so the wine will not “drink well.” As time passes the influences of the tannin are ameliorated through oxidation and it settles out of the wine in the form of that sludge-like deposit you find at the bottom of older bottles of wine. Then result is a softer, rounder tasting wine.

But just as tannin diminishes over time so too does fruitiness. And this is the race I was talking about. With every passing year the effect of the tannin is lowered a notch or two, but so too is the freshness and strength of the fruit taste. The two, however, do not subside at the same rate and this is what gives we wine lovers hope. Tannins tend to soften faster than fruit dies; so, if there is enough fruit to begin with, and if manages to hang on long enough, there will come a point at which the fruit and tannin will come into balance. It’s at this point of harmonization that a wine is said to be fully mature. It’s at this moment it will taste it’s most glorious, and that can be truly wonderful. This balance can last for years, but eventually the fruit diminishes to a point where the wine turns bad or insipid. The good news is this can take a hundred years or more with some wines.

It should also be evident that if enough fruit is not present from the beginning, or if there is so much tannin it outlasts the fruit, you will end up with a wine that tastes dead, harsh, and alcoholic. In fact, if at any time, or for any reason, the tannin is more assertive than the fruit, you will have a wine that tastes of tannin. In some young wines, or in some matches of food and wine, this can produce pleasant or desirable results. In fact there are those who like the taste of tannin in their red wine and, in moderation, I agree it can add an interesting dimension.

So, why red wine is red? Because of the skins. And the redder it is the more tannin it has absorbed. This information should assist you in your selection of wines or in anticipating how they might taste. If you encounter a wine from a recent vintage that is an inky-dark purple and high in alcohol, the chances are excellent you are faced with a big, powerful young wine that is very liable to taste of tannin. If the wine is light red and limpid, then you are no doubt dealing with one that is less harsh, especially if the alcohol level is respectable (over 12.5%).

A Note on Color and Transparency: These are good indicators of age. Wines become more “limpid” or translucent the older they get, so if you can’t see through the bottle or glass when you hold it up to light, then the wine is probably big and young. When young, red wines are a deep purple. Over time they become crimson, then red, then brick red, then reddish brown. In advanced age, the wine will turn tawny, or orange-brown. So, if you tip your glass and see brown at the wines edges, it’s old.

Color is also a clue to grape variety. This because both the thickness of the skins and the pigment itself differs from variety to variety and this influences hue and depth of color. Gamay, for example, which is responsible for Beaujolais, is cherry red. Pinot Noir is brick-red. Zinfandel a dark but bright purple, while Nebbiolo is almost black.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Ever wonder why champagne is expensive, or how it gets its bubbles? It’s costly because it is the most complicated wine in the world to make, and the bubbles get into it by way of those complications.

What turns “still” wines into festive bubbly is called the methode champenoise, a labor-intensive, multi-step process that takes years to complete. And this does not include the effort of first making out of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier the three separate dry wines that go into it. When a normal wine makers job is done, the champagne maker’s is just beginning.

Step 1: The assemblage, or mixing of the cuvee. Each “house,” as producers are called in Champagne, tries to achieve a distinctive style or taste. In order to achieve consistency year-in and year-out, they blend up to a dozen wines made from the three permitted grape varieties. The grapes are harvested from multiple vineyards and the wines made from them are often from different years, having been held in reserve for blending purposes. This “house blend” is referred to as its cuvee. (This
is true for standard, non-vintage Champagne; for vintage Champagne the steps remain the same, but all the separate wines must be made from grapes harvested in the specified year.)

Step 2: Dosage d’tirage. Once the winemaker finishes adding a bit of this and a bit of that to produce the desired cuvee, the wine is then put in to bottles (the tirage) and a carefully calibrated dose of a syrupy mixture of cane sugar, wine, and sometimes brandy, together with special strains of yeast, is added. This is the dosage. Crown caps, like the ones on beer or Coke bottles, are then fitted onto the bottles and they are placed in underground caves.

Step 3: Fermentation. The yeast that was added begins to digest the sugar, causing a second fermentation. This produces a small amount of alcohol and a good bit of carbon dioxide gas. However, in this case the gas has nowhere to go -- it is trapped and can’t fizz away as it does in open vats -- so it is absorbed into the wine. This in-bottle fermentation is the essence of the methode champenoise, the magic that turns “still" wine into a “sparkling” one.

Step 4: The remuage, or riddling. During bottle fermentation yeast cells slowly die off and fall out of the wine, forming a fine sediment that must somehow be removed. Not an easy trick. The first step in this process is to get the sediment into position where it can be extracted. But how?

Enter the remuer, or riddler. When the bottles are stored in the cellar they are put neck-first into pupitres, special “A” frame wooden racks with holes in them (see left-hand picture above). The bottles are placed at a slight angle, with their crown caps facing down. Then every 4 or 5 days the remuer come along and puts his thumbs in the cup-like depressions in the bottom of the bottles (called the “punt’), lifts them slightly, taps them gently on the pupitre, and then gives them a quarter-turn before setting them back in place (see right-hand picture above). As the days pass, the remuer increases the angle of the bottle in the rack and the sediment slowly slides down the glass. The process is complete when the bottles are standing upright and all the sediment is resting on the cap. A skilled remuer can riddle over 30,000 bottles a day.

Step 5: The degorgement, or disgorging. Now for the fun part. Once the sediment is in place, the bottles are plunged cap-first into a super cold bath that freezes a bit of wine and the wad of sediment at the neck. The bottles are then turned right-side-up and the crown caps quickly popped off. What happens next is just what you would expect to happen -- the pressure inside the bottle blows the frozen wad of wine and sediment out of the bottle. If you happen to be visiting, or near, a Champagne house during degorgement, it sounds like either a raging battle or the biggest party you’ve every known.

Historical Note: The processes of riddling and disgorging were invented by Madame Clicquot, a young, intelligent, and energetic widow (veuve in French) who took over the running of her husband’s Champagne house when he died in 1805. Today that house is one of the most famous and prestigious, Veuve Clicquot, and is a personal favorite.

Step 6: Dosage d’expedition, or shipping dosage. The little bit of wine that is blasted out of the bottle must be replaced, and it’s here that the winemaker produces Champagnes of the varying degrees of sweetness, from dry (brut or sec), to medium dry (demi-sec), to medium sweet (demi-doux), to sweet (doux). He or she does this by again adding a syrupy liquor of cane sugar mixed with wine from the cuvee that was held aside expressly for this purpose. For a brut Champagne, virtually no sugar is added to the dosage, while for a doux a very sweet mix is used.

Step 7: Final corking: Here the bottles receive their cork and the wire “basket” is put over it to help hold it in place. A great deal of force is needed to jam a Champagne cork in place. I’m sure you’ve noticed how they” mushroom out” when you remove them. All that has to be squeezed into the neck of the bottle. At one time it was done by hand, but now there are corking machines that make quick work of it.

Step 8: Aging. The bottles are ready to be put back in the cellar for more aging. Some of the great house will hold their premium cuvees for five years or more before releasing them. Mo√ęt et Chandon, for example does this with their Dom Perignon.

Step 9: Labeling and placement of the foil. Once they are ready to leave home, the bottles receive their final dressing-up. The house label is now applied and the metal wrapping, called the foil, is placed over the cork and around the neck. The bottles are ready to go forth and bring joy, and a touch of class, to everything from weddings to NASCAR victory celebrations.

A note on basic types. Champagne made by blending wines from different years is called non-vintage Champagne, and this makes up the majority of what is produced. If it is made exclusively from grapes harvested in a specific year, it can be labeled as Vintage Champagne. If only wine made from Chardonnay grapes is used, it is called blanc-de-blanc. If only Pinot Noir of Pinot Meunier is used, it is called a blanc-de-noir. If neither is stated on the label, then the Champagne is a blend of both white and red grapes. Blanc-de-blanc is normally drier, lighter, and more elegant, and has greater acidity, than blanc-de-noir. Rose Champagnes are also produced, and they offer extra taste and fragrance. Because of the range of types and degrees of sweetness, Champagne is one of the few wines that can accompany a meal from appetizers right through dessert.

So, this is how the bubbles get into the bottle. Is Champagne worth the price? I would say it is. There are, however, excellent sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region and outside of France. If you want real value, a top-flight wine at a very reasonable price, try the sparkling wines made by Gruet. You will be amazed by their quality and cost (around $15 for the non-vintage regular cuvee) and rather astounded by where they come from: Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Friday, February 9, 2007

About cork removers

Believe it or not, there was a time when cork removers came in a limited number of flavors. It use to be you just screwed the thing into the cork and pulled with all your might, hoping, often against hope, that nothing broke. This is why they were called corkscrews.

Given the flights of fancy to which “designers” are prey, it should not come as any surprise that a number of encumbrances crept into this simple approach. But in most cases you could count on being rewarded with a satisfying "pop" as the cork came out. Problems crept in when folks tried to make of a utilitarian implement a clever device, an elegant tool, or, god forbid, a work of art. I'm sure you've seen them. They look like some of the ones pictured in the photograph above or variations on inspired but counter-productive fancies. (Click on picture to enlarge.)

So, what are the problems? They boil down to two: the opener’s grip on the cork and your grip on the opener.

The curly-cue part of the opener that screws into the cork is called the “worm,” and as the worm turns so goes your chances of success. The worm needs to be fat and the threads not too close together. Otherwise the worm is as likely to pull out of the cork as pull the cork out of the bottle. So, if it’s going to work at all, an opener must first get a good purchase on the cork, just as you need to be able to get a good grip on the opener itself. If the opener is too small for your hand, or has sharp edges, bumps, nobs, or other protrusions that interfere with your grip, then chances are you’ll have a devil of a time producing that satisfying pop you want to hear.

Of the “old fashion” type openers, I think the most efficient are those that work on the double-action principle. What is the double-action principle? Well, in this case it refers to a combination of pushing and pulling at the same time. Sound impossible? It’s not. It’s really simple. The opener made of a boar’s tusk capped with silver pictured above is an example of a double-action opener.

As with all double-action types what happens is that, as you screw the worm into the cork, a collar piece fits itself around the top of the bottle and begins pressing against it. As you continue screwing the worm into the cork it is slowly extracted by the pulling force of the worm working against the pressing force of the collar. It’s as simple and elegant as that, a mini-confirmation of one of Archimedes several principles.

The next most reliable opener is called “the waiter’s friend.” It’s the one you’ve seen a thousand times and probably had difficulty using more than once. It applies another of Archimedes’ principals, that of the lever. I’m sure you recall from your school days his famous declaration, or boast, regarding the power of his discovery -- “Give me a place to
stand,” he is claimed to have said, “and I shall move the earth.”

Well, that’s all well and good, but why do some of us have such a hard time removing a cork with the lever-action “waiter’s friend.” There are two basic problems: centering the worm in the cork and positioning the boot lever (the hinged metal piece) on the lip of the bottle. I’ve found the best way to center the worm is to begin with it almost perpendicular to the bottle and with its end point down. Now place the point in the middle of the cork and bring the opener up while pressing and screwing
the worm into it. It may take a few practice runs to get the movements coordinated, but in the end I predict you’ll find it quite simple.

Once it’s centered, the next question is: “How far do I screw it in before engaging the lever?” Some “waiter’s friends” have a long boot lever, so long that if you screw the worm all the way in you can’t get the lever to catch on the bottle’s lip. So do is do what waiters do. Learn how many turns of the screw you can make and still have the boot lever fit. Place the boot lever on the bottle lip and lever the cork out as far as you can. Then screw the worm the rest of the way into the cork and make the
final extraction.

To help overcome this problem, a Spaniard came up with the idea of a double-hinged, double-flanged boot lever. (It’s the opener below the boar’s tusk in the picture.) What you do is first screw the worm in just enough to use the first flange, pull the cork out a bit using it, and then screw the worm all the way home and use the second flange to pull the cork out of the bottle. This works very well.

Unfortunately, in the last few years I’ve noted a problem that could spell the end for the “waiter’s friend.” It seems bottle makers have started giving the bottle a more rounded lip. As a result the boot lever tends to slip off of it. This frustrating.

There are other types of cork removers -- the Rabbit, the Screwpull, the gas injector, the Ah-So (perhaps the trickiest of all to use) -- but for me these extractors (I refuse to call them corkscrews) take the tradition and ceremony out of opening a bottle of wine. These devices are efficient, no doubt about it, and for the most part easy to use, but when it comes to enjoying wine, efficiency is not everything. If you are having a party and need to open dozens or hundreds of bottles, then one of these style openers may be just the thing. But if the gathering is more intimate, if you want to experience the full range of wine’s enchantment, then opt for the old fashion way – get a firm grip on your favorite corkscrew, screw it in, and then pull or lever your way to happiness.

Three unique and special openers

Here are three very special wine openers created by the famous Laguiole knife makers. The artisans of this small village situated in the Aveyron region of southwest France have been producing superbly hand-crafted cutlery for over 170 years. They have traditionally used bone, horn, or exotic types of wood in the production of their knives and wine openers, and the symbol they have adopted for their handiwork is the bee, said to be the result of a royal patent granted to them by Napoleon himself. The quality of their workmanship has to be seen and held in your hand to be fully appreciated. They are true masterworks. (Click on picture to enlarge.)

The opener pictured in the middle of the above group of three (the knife at the bottom is there so you can see the bee and workmanship) appears to be a simple waiter’s friend opener with a rather plain-looking wooden handle. But the wood is not just any wood. It came from the historic “Marie-Antoinette oak” that stood on the grounds of Chateau Versailles for some 324 years. The tree was planted in 1679 by Andre Le Notre and in her time Marie-Antoinette would sit under it to escape the sun while she read in the magnificent gardens. Ironically, and sadly, the tree succumbed during the record heat wave that scorched Europe in 2003. The wood was put to several uses, one of which was a series of openers designed by Guy Vialis, the creator of the Chateau Laguiole wine opener.

The handle of opener on the right is also from a tree that once stood in the gardens of the Chateau Versailles. This time it’s a 221-year old Thuya that was up-rooted during the terrible wind storms that struck Europe in 1999. Thuya is an aromatic wood that has been in use since the biblical days of Solomon and David, when it was called Thyine. The Greeks named it Thuya, or sacrificial wood, because they used an oil distilled from it as incense in their religious ceremonies. It is still used in some church ceremonies and its sandarac oil is valued for medicinal uses.

The handle of opener on the left is made from mammoth ivory that is said to be between 10,000 and 50,000 years old. The ivory is legal and comes from Alaska. Aside from the natural brown coloration, there are streaks and flecks of blue and other colors resulting from minerals the ivory has absorbed over the course of time.

These openers are not only historic and attractive, they are also highly functional. The worm is wide, so it grips the cork and will not pull free, while the boot lever is just the right length, allowing you to screw the worm all the way in and still engage the lever on the bottle’s lip. I’ve also found that the flange on the lever is deep enough, and so angled, that it does not slip off a rounded edge. These openers are perfectly balanced and a pleasure to use.

If tempted, you can visit Custom Curling at or call them at 1-860-705-6172. The very helpful and knowledgeable owner, Fred Camboulives, is from Laguiole and will give you friendly and expert advice. He offers both Laguiole wine openers and knives in an assortment of exotic woods, horn, and bone. I can’t think of a better combination of history, beauty, and functionality than one of these special openers. Or a Laguiole knife for that matter.

Important note: Because of their status and popularity, be very careful when purchasing Laguiole wine openers or knives. As with other luxury goods, there are many knock-offs out there. The bee symbol is not a registered trademark, nor is it protected, so others can put a bee on a cheap imitation product and call it a “genuine” Laguiole. It is important you deal with a reputable merchant, and Custom Curling is just such a merchant.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Pure Chardonnay

Regarding my posts on oak, if you’d like to taste unadulterated fruit, I highly recommend the 2005 Napa Valley Unoaked Chardonnay by Hendry. Not only was it fermented in stainless steel vats and not barrel-aged, thus ensuring no wood influences, it also did not undergoing malo-lactic fermentation.

What is that, you may ask, and what difference does it make?

Newly fermented wine contains several kinds of acidity, one of which is owing to malic acid. “Malic” is derived from the Latin word for apple. Malic acid imparts to wine the same kind of tart crispness you find in a green apples. During malo-lactic fermentation, also called secondary fermentation, bacteria convert the malic acid into lactic acid, a milder acidity similar to that found in milk products such as yogurt. In the process carbon dioxide is produced, but no alcohol. The main component this secondary fermentation adds is diacetyl, the smell of which resembles that of heated butter.

Whether or not to induce or encourage malo-lactic fermentation is for a winemaker a major decision. Malo-lactic fermentation lowers overall acidity and makes a wine smoother, rounder, and “buttery,” as well as adding complexity. Most winemakers want their red wines to undergo malo-lactic fermentation, but not all their white ones. If they are aiming for a rich, buttery, Burundian style Chardonnay, then they want to see secondary fermentation take place. If, however, they are out to produce the crisp, apple-clean taste of a German Riesling, they don’t.

On the negative side, malo-lactic fermentation diminishes fruitiness and can add off-odors, and these are clearly potential drawbacks winemakers must keep in mind. He or she must decide if it’s worth trading a crisp fruitiness, a brightness of taste, for a round, buttery-textured complexity while at the same time running the risk of extraneous smells. At the extremes, for example a classic white Burgundy versus a German Riesling, the decision is pretty easy to make (yes in the first case, no in the second), but there are lots of gray areas in between.

Now, back to the 2005 Hendry Chardonnay. By foregoing malo-lactic fermentation the winemaker has further ensured a maximum of fresh fruit taste. Combined with stainless steel vats and no barrel aging, what Hendry offers is the crisp, green apple taste and smell of unadulterated Chardonnay. This is a “benchmark” wine. If you get its characteristics fixed in your mind you will not only know what the Chardonnay grape tastes like, but you will be able to better appreciate the deviations that
winemakers make, some of which produce outstanding results, some of which do not.

This should help you decide for yourself what style of wine you prefer, or give you a way to make choices when purchasing wine or matching it with food. As I keep stressing, there are few if any right or wrong answers. It’s a matter of what you like, what you are having the wine with, and how much you want to spend. But it pays to know what to expect based on grape variety, alcohol content, place of origin, and other information winemakers often provide on the back label, like whether or not secondary, malo-lactic fermentation took place.

The 2005 Hendry Chardonnay runs around $18 a bottle. For those of us on a budget, think of it as an investment in learning.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Of Oak and Wine (Part II)

As I wrote in my last post, this is a touchy subject with winemakers and wine drinkers alike, especially when it comes to white wines. Oak is almost impossible to avoid, so one needs to know what potentially it is that oak can do to or for a wine. At the end of this post I offer a tasting experiment that I hope will help you form your own opinions about oak.

The two main influences of oak on wine are its wood tannins and the traces of the compound vanillin it releases into the wine. What these and the other elements in oak do is add or enhance aroma, flavor, body, and color. Together they act as what one writer calls “the winemaker’s spice rack.” Depending on your personal tastes, the results can be eitherdivine, a disaster, or something in between.

Oak, as a source of tannin, ranks in influence right after grape skins and
grape seeds. Tannin imparts an astringent, bitter taste, like that of over-
steeped tea. It turns your mouth dry and puckered. It is what makes
young red wines taste harsh, hard, biting, and at times undrinkable.
Over time tannin settles out of a wine. It mellows through oxidation
and the wine turns smooth and (one hopes) beautiful. The deposit you
find at the bottom of older red wines is mostly composed of precipitated

Unpleasant as it is, tannin is extremely important for the preservation
and development of a red wine; so it is needed. The trick is to keep it
from dominating a wine for the wine’s entire life. Think of a wine’s
maturation process as a race between its fruit taste and its harsh tasting
tannins to see which will one outlast the other. In a great red wine the
two are so suitably matched the race turns out a tie, even if it takes 15 or
20 years to run, and the results are a richly smooth and glorious wine.

By the way, to partially overcome the effects of tannin in red wine open
the bottle an hour or more in advance and splash it into a pitcher, carafe,
or decanter. The contact with air will oxidize the tannins and soften the
wine’s taste. Just pulling the cork and letting the bottle “breath” is not
enough, because too little air reaches the wine through the narrow
opening. The wine has to be seriously aerated. How long in advance
you decant it depends on the heftiness of the wine, how much tannin it
contains, and personal tastes. Some wines, like a young Italian Barolo
or French Hermitage, can taste even better the next day or two or three
days later. Obviously this is something you need to experiment with, so
I suggest you decant a bottle of young, substantial Cabernet Sauvignon
and then sample it throughout the course of an afternoon or evening. I
assure you it will make as marked a difference as serving temperature

During fermentation white wine does not remain in contact with the
grape skins and seeds for nearly as long as red wine does, so it absorbs
virtually no tannin in the process. The main source for its tannins is the
oak barrels in which it is aged. The tannin in oak is different from that
of grape skins and seeds. For one thing it oxidizes more easily and so
its influence mellows more quickly. But in young or over-oaked white
wines you can often detect a bitterness, astringency, or wood taste that
signals its presence.

Vanillin, the other main element contributed to wine by oak, adds, as its
name suggests, a vanilla taste and smell to wine. As the wine ages, or if
a lot of vanillin is present, the taste can shade towards butterscotch and
caramel. Vanillin gives white wine a butter-cream texture and color. If a
young, healthy white wine has a bright golden-yellowish hue to it that is
a sure sign it has been exposed to oak. As a white wine ages it takes on
a deeper, burnished-gold cast owing to oxidation. If the process goes to
far, or if too much air is allowed to get to either a red or white wine, it
will “oxidize.” The result is it will lose its fruitiness and begin to taste
and smell like dry sherry. White wines turn a dark yellow and red wines
take on brown tinges at their edges. If you are ever served a wine in a
restaurant that tastes or smells of dry sherry and has a suspicious color,
send it back. It’s a bad bottle. (Because oxidation is the most common
cause of “bad bottles,” I suggest that those of you who have not smelled
or tasted dry sherry do so. In sherry oxidation is quite pleasant, but not
in a table wine. Memorize its smell and taste and look out for it.)

Another discernible effect of oak on wine is sweetness, but not that of
refined sugar. How can something be sweet but not sugary? Think of
caramelized onions. Vanilla itself gives the impression of sweetness,
but again without sugar. There are other examples of things that smell
sweet but are not really, for example spices like cinnamon or cloves,
which are fragrances some people find present in oaky wines.

Most often when people say a wine tastes sweet they are reacting to the
affects of oak. Unless we are talking about dessert wines, wines with
actual fruit sugar remaining in them, the vast majority of wines are dry,
meaning all of their available sugar has been converted to alcohol so
there is none left to taste. I realize this is a technical distinction, but it’s
one you should be aware of, especially when discussing wine with a
wine merchant or waiter. If you ask for a “sweet” wine you are liable to
be given something you didn’t bargain for.

Okay, I can imagine there may be some doubt in your minds. So, if you
want to experience for yourself the effects of oak, conduct the following
tasting with some friends. Buy a bottle of Louis Jadot’s Macon-Village,
or Pouilly-Fuisse, or an Ardeche Chardonnay by Louis LaTour. These
are examples of unoaked Chardonnay. For an example of a wine under
the influence of oak, get a bottle of Gallo of Sonoma or Lindemans Bin
65 Chardonnay. Now taste the two bottles you’ve selected side-by-side,
starting with the no-oak wine first. Note the differences in color, smell,
and taste. I’ll not further prejudice the results by suggesting what you
are likely to taste and smell in these specific wines, but I will remind
you there are no “right” answers or responses. Further, you may find
you prefer one style over the other, or you may find you like them both
but realize one or the other might work best in a given situation.

If you want to go one step further and experience the effects of barrel
toasting, then get a bottle of Toasted Head Chardonnay (you’ll love the
label) and sample it against your oaked Chardonnay after you have
finished the non-oaked versus oaked part of the experiment. Remember,
“toasting” refers to the effects of heating barrel staves over a fire in order
to bend them. It can result in flavors that run from toast to dark caramel.
Here you will find the flavors of oak at perhaps their most pronounced.
If you like Toasted Head, then there’s little doubt you’re an “oaky.”

Health note: it is the tannin from grape skins and seeds, called condensed
or procyanidin tannin, that studies have shown to be beneficial to your
heart and circulatory system. So think of red wine as a kind of medicine
and enjoy a glass or two every night without guilt.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Of Oak and Wine (Part I)

This is one of the more important and hotly debated topics in the world of wine: how does oak influence taste and is that influence for the better or worse? Knowing about the affects of oak on wine is one of those fascinating details to which I alluded at the end of “All You Need To Know.” It can go a long way towards helping you appreciate what you are tasting and why. It’s such an involved topic I’m going to approach it in two installments: Part I, Where does the oak influence come from? and Part II, What does it do to a wine? Here is the first installment. I’ll post the second next Friday.

Some winemakers, particularly when it comes to white wines, believe
oak is a “fruit killer” and should never be allowed to touch them. But
they are in somewhat of a minority, albeit an influential and vocal one.
Most are from Europe, especially from Germany and France. Most
German wines, and many white wines from Burgundy or the Loire
Valley, have very little contact with oak. Most other winemakers argue
over how much oak is a good thing and how much oak is too much oak.
This ultimately involves questions as to just how, when, and for what
length of time a wine ought to be exposed to it. Meanwhile, a strong
consensus has developed amongst quality wine consumers that there is
too much of an oak influence in many wines, especially in California
Chardonnay. I tend to agree with this.

There are two stages in the wine making process where oak can come
into play: during fermentation and during aging.

Fermentation, the process of turning grape sugar into alcohol, can take
place in either stainless steel or oak vats. If stainless steel is used the
wine is subject to no “outside” influences. The only thing determining
taste is the flavor of the grapes. If oak vats are used, then depending on
their size and age, they can to varying degrees influence a wine’s taste
and character. But in general this vat influence, while similar to that of
aging wines in oak barrels, is much less pronounced. An exception is
what is called “barrel fermentation,” which means fermentation itself
takes place in small barrels. This is a more costly and labor-intensive
process than vat fermentation and is relatively rare. In the case of barrel
fermentation the effects of the oak on the wine can be very pronounced.
But again, these influences are of the same kind and nature as those that
occur during barrel aging, so barrel aging is what I will concentrate on.

It is during the aging process that oak traditionally exercises its most
consequential influences. I’m sure most of us have either visited a
winery, or seen pictures like the one above, and marveled at the view of
row after row of neatly aligned barrels. Usually these barrels are of a
standard size, what the French call a barrique or piece. They hold about
60 gallons, or around 300 bottles, in case you’re wondering. Wine can
remain in them for as short a time as a few months or for as long as five
years. The norm, I’d say, is from twelve to twenty-four months. Thus
the influence of barrel aging can range from minor to profound.

The five factors that determine the affects barrel aging has on a wine are
1) the size of the barrel, 2) the age of the barrel, 3) the wood from which
the barrel is made, 4) the “toast” of the barrel, and finally, 5) the length
of time the wine remains in the barrel. We’ll take them in order.

1.) The effects of barrel size is the inverse of what many people assume.
They think a bigger barrel means more influence, but the truth is it’s the
opposite. The smaller the barrel the more impact it has. This is because
the ratio of wine to wood is smaller, which means proportionately more
wine is in direct contact with the barrel and so the more influences it
will draw from the wood. (For the mathematically challenged, trust me
on this one.) The influence of oak comes about as the result of leaching,
meaning the wine slowly draws elements out of the wood and into itself.

2.) Barrels are hard to make and so expensive to buy. For this reason
most wineries can not afford new barrels every year, although all the
good wineries try to purchase a certain percentage of new ones every
year. So barrels are used more than once (the upper limit is 5 times) and
each time a barrel is used it has fewer and fewer additives remaining to
leach into the wine. It’s a bit like a tea bag, the more you use it the
weaker the results.

3.) The kinds of wood from which the barrel is made is by far the most
influential variable. Just about every species of hard wood in the world
has been used to make barrels, and many of the softer woods as well.
However we will concentrate on oak, because through hundreds of years
of trial and error it has shown itself to be the best by far when it comes
to enhancing the flavor of wine.

But what variety of oak? And from where? There is American oak,
French oak, Spanish oak, and other oaks from which a winemaker can
choose. French oak is considered by many the best, but here again the
question becomes: Oak from which forest? -- that of Limousin, Allier,
Nevers, Vosges, or Troncas? It’s enough to give one a headache.

So, does it really make a difference which forest the oak comes from? I
use to think it couldn’t possibly until a winemaker had me taste from
barrels the absolutely identical wine, the only difference being one
barrel was Nevers oak and the other Allier. It was astounding how
different they tasted. The winemaker went on to explain the obvious,
i.e., that trees, like grape vines, are living things and the character of
their wood is determined by the conditions in which they grow. From a
winemaker’s perspective, the most consequential difference between
oaks is the size and compactness of their wood grain. Large-grained, or
less dense wood, imparts more flavor more quickly than small, tight-
grained wood. Think of a paper towel as compared to the page of a
magazine -- the larger, looser weave (or grain) of the first allows it to
absorb more of a liquid more quickly. In the same way, a larger, more
porous grained wood allows more wine to seep into it and so its leeching
affect is increased. So the type of oak involved has a marked influence
on what it does to the wine that comes into contact with it.

4.) The individual wood slats that form a barrel are called staves and
they must be bent into shape before they are assembled. To do this the
barrel maker (called a cooper) heats the staves over an open fire. This is
referred to as toasting, and obviously the longer the wood is exposed to
the flame the more toasted it becomes. Because it is the toasted surface
of the wood that comes into contact with the wine, and because toasting
influences the flavors imparted to the wine, the degree of barrel toasting
is a significant factor. At the extremes, heavy barrel toasting can impart
a caramelized taste to wine, while a light toast might impart a subtle hint
of vanilla, smoke, or yes, even toast.

5.) Common sense tells us the longer a wine is kept in contact with
wood the more pronounced the results. There are a number of factors
that influence a winemaker’s decision as to how long to leave the wine
in barrels, but in general the “bigger” the wine the longer it will need to
stay in wood in order for the affects to register. If the final product is to
be one featuring a blend of grape varieties, like a Bordeaux or Chianti,
the winemaker must decided if he or she wants to mix the individual
wines together before or after putting them into barrels to age. If they
are aged separately, the winemaker must decide how long to leave each
individual wine in wood to achieve the desired taste or style once they
are finally blended together. Clearly a complex series of decisions and,
needless to say, a winemaker must monitor developments very carefully

So, now you have a little background concerning those neatly stacked
barrels. More thought has gone into their making, selection and use
than might first appear. They do not simply make a pretty picture, but
play a decisive role in how a wine will taste and age. It is in the use of
oak that a winemaker can exert his or her biggest stylistic influence. So,
in terms of taste and character, just what are these influences? We’ll
address that in Part II.