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.

Dry Muscat

I was recently asked about the availability of dry Muscat. The Muscat is surely the most seductive grape variety in the whole wide world of wine. It is best known for the dozens of lip-smackingly delicious dessert wines that are made from it. The most wonderful being (in my estimation at least) Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, the perfect partner for your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, or brown-sugar spice cake or cookies. But almost any sweet Muscat will be a treat.

But dry Muscats are also produced. They may be a bit more difficult to appreciate, or fall in love with, but your efforts will be rewarded. They share with sweet Muscat a host of floral, fruit, and perfume-like smells. Dry Muscat makes an intriguing aperitif wine, but goes especially well with spargle, or the white asparagus the Germans love with a passion. It will work with green asparagus as well, so don’t despair if you can’t find the white variety. The main source for dry Muscats is Alsace, and one of the finest I’ve had was made by Ostertag. But try whatever you can find.

Recently I came across two very different but equally enjoyable dry
Muscats, one from Spain and the other from Greece. The one from
Spain is called “Vina Esmeralda” and is produced by the Torres family.
It is a blend of 85% Muscat and 15% Gewurztraminer, a remarkable
combination if ever there was one. It presents a wine drinker with a
potent and provocative range of exotic smells and tastes, from lychee,
mango, honey, and jasmine, to ginger, clove, and allspice. In short, it’s
a voluptuous wine, one that is rich and complex. It is excellent on its
own, but makes a good match with spicy foods, like curried vegetables,
fish, or almost any cheese. At around $14 a bottle, it’s more than worth
the price.

The Greek wine is by the well-known producer Boutari and is called
Moschofilero after the grape from which it is made. As the name
implies, Moschofilero is a close kin of Muscat. In this case the grapes
were grown at high altitude in the Peloponnesus and the result is a very
crisp, clean, and refreshing wine. The colorful art work pictured above
on the label is the perfect comment on the wine: “Dionysus in Spring.”
It is lighter in color and body when compared to the Vina Esmeralda,
and contains no other grape, just the Moschofilero. Its smells run to
honeysuckle, melon, and hints of apricot, with a little bite of citrus zest
in mix. It’s a perfect summer wine, but you will not be able to restrict
drinking it to warm weather only. Given its more delicate flavors, it
should be paired with simple, clean tasting fare, such as sole, a salad, or
some similarly light dish. Again, at around $15 a bottle you can’t go

I predict these wine will become permanent members of your stable of
great tasting, intriguing, and fun wines.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bears Keeping in Mind

Couldn't resist this. I believe there are a few hunters and fisherman out there, so pay attention. Anyone want to guess what kind or red and white wines they have in mind?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Matching Wine with Cheese

So, when it comes to cheese, which is it: red wine or white? I think many folks would be surprised (shocked?) to discover that in almost every case white wine is the better choice. A white wine can be found to go with virtually any cheese, but the same can not be said for red wine. In fact a recent controlled experiment conducted by a graduate student at the University of California at Davis concluded that cheese actually dulled the taste of red wine, acting as a kind of “mute button” on the senses.

Why is that so? As with any attempt to match food with wine it pays to pause for a moment and consider the taste elements involved.

Cheese comes in three basic types: those made from cow’s milk, those
made from sheep’s milk, and those made from goat’s milk. Each has
distinctive characteristics, but they all share this in common: milk or butter fat.
Milk fat, especially that in rich, creamy cheeses, coats the palate and
interferes with our taste receptors. This influences the taste of any wine,
but it works against red wines more than white ones because of the
tannin and lower acidity of red wine. Except in rare cases, this does not
mean that pairing a red wine with creamy cheeses will necessarily result
in an unpleasant taste, but that the characteristics of the red wine will be
diminished rather than enhanced by the match. You may find you like
the muted effect, but in general the goal of matching food and wine
should be an amplification of flavors not a numbing of them.

With this the case, it makes sense that the best cheeses to have with red
wine are the less fatty, drier, semi-hard cheeses, especially ones with a
nutty or smoky flavor. True Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana, or Pecorino
Toscano from Italy work, as does an aged Gouda, Edam, Manchego, or
Asiago. What you are looking for is a cheese that does not coat your
mouth with butter fat, yet has a lot of taste to it. When selecting the red
wine to go with cheese, you can go one of two routes. You can select a
very muscular wine, like an Amarone, that can power its way past the
obstacles milk fat presents, or you can select a lighter, fruitier wine with
enough acidity to cut through the milk fat coating. A Beaujolais from one of
the named Crus (e.g., Flurie, Morgon, Julienas, Moulin-a Vent) would be good, as would a lighter style Pinot Noir, or a Spanish Tempranillo.

One of the classic and altogether wonderful pairings of red wine with cheese is Tawny or Vintage Port and blue cheese, especially Stilton or Gorgonzola. Older Port has a rancio flavor that imparts to it a rich, slightly oxidized quality that allows it to hold its own in this match, plus its sweetness is a perfect foil for the saltiness of the cheese. I have no doubt you’ll find it a brilliant match, one perhaps made in heaven.

But back to white wines. The best choices are again those with good
acidity and compelling flavors. The two best prospects are Sauvignon
Blanc and Gewürztraminer. Riesling also works very well, especially
with the lighter, more delicately flavored or creamer cheeses. Almost
everyone knows Sauvignon Blanc, with its sharp citrus and green grass
flavors, but very few are familiar with the rich, full-bodied spiciness of
Gewürztraminer. It’s the only white wine I know that can hold its own
with beef. A friend who owned a restaurant in the Alsatian town of
Colmar once suggested I try a dry late harvest Gewürztraminer with
Charolais beef he had topped with Muenster cheese sauce. I was at first
doubtful, but it turned out to be one of the best matches I’ve ever had.
Gewürztraminer can go with almost any cheese, but it goes particularly
well with strong cheeses, like Munster or Limburger. Sauvignon Blanc
comes in so many styles it can be made to go with almost any cheese,
but it goes particularly well with goat’s mike cheeses, a.k.a., chevres.

And let’s not forget Champagne, or sparking wines from other areas of
France, Italy, and California. They work marvelously well, what with
their high acidity and bubbliness that tends to cut through the milk fat of
cheese. Again there is a range of styles, from very dry to semi-sweet, so
you can find a sparking wine that will match well with just about any

A style of Champagne I particularly like is blanc de noir. Champagne is
normally a blend of wines made from the Pinot Noir (or Meunier) and
the Chardonnay grapes. However, if it is made using just Chardonnay,
it is designated a blanc de blanc, or a white Champagne made from
white grapes. Most everyone has heard of blanc de blanc, but not of
blanc de noir, which is a white Champagne made exclusively from the
black, or dark Pinot Noir grape. These wines tend to have more flavor
and character, and so stand up well to stronger foods. They display a
slight gray cast to their color, which is the result of their more extended
or concentrated contact with the dark skins of the Pinot grape. They are
well worth searching for.

If you want to experience heaven on earth, try a good French Sauternes
with Roquefort. Sauternes tends to be pricey, but fortunately you can
normally find half-bottles without much trouble. The main grape is the
Semillion. The grapes have not only been left on the vine longer than
usual, but they have been attacked by a fungus called botrytis that has
caused them to shrivel down to concentrated, raisin-like berries. The
result is very little juice can be squeezed from them, and that that is has
so much sugar it can not all be converted to alcohol. This makes for a
lusciously sweet wine that is one of the truly great experiences a wine
lover can have. So, before you die, try at least one good Sauternes. It is
also a classic match for fois gras, another to-die-for experience.

If you want something completely different, but wine related, try brandy
or a good eau-de-vie at the end of the meal with a strong cheese, such as
Epoisse, Muenster, or L’Ami du Chambertin. The classic match with
the latter is marc de bourgogne, marc being the French version of the
Italy’s grappa. Here the alcohol and fiery flavors of Cognac, brandy,
marc, or grappa are a potent match for the almost overpowering flavors
of the cheese. Calvados, the famous apple brandy, goes exceptionally
well with Camembert and cheeses from its native Normandy.

So, to end this post, when matching wine with cheese take a moment to
mediate on the texture and flavor of the cheese or cheeses you plan to
serve. Think about milk fat content and what it is likely to do to your
tastes buds. Then think of wines that might cut through or harmonize
with the fatty sensation of the cheese. In most cases you will want a
wine with pronounced flavor, and in all cases one with good acidity. If
you want to drink red wine with cheese, look for the drier, semi-hard,
less fatty cheeses and pick either light, refreshing red wines, i.e., ones
that in their way mimic white wines, or else get something so big and
strong its flavors will not be easily muted. Above all else use your
imagination and experiment. While there’s no “right” answer or perfect
wine/cheese match that will work best for everyone, I have tried to point
to some taste realities that should be taken into account. So, just close
your eyes, imagine the tastes of your favorite cheese in your mouth, and
then conjure up the qualities and flavors of the wine you think would
enhance your enjoyment. If you have a good wine merchant, the rest
should be easy.

If you want my thoughts concerning a particular wine/cheese match,
email me and I’ll be happy to make some suggestions.

Friday, January 12, 2007

All You Need To Know

What follows is my attempt to put down what I think are the most basic things one needs to know about wine. My belief is that if you understand these things then you pretty much understand wine, not it all its glorious complexities or unfortunate pretensions, but in a way that not only will help you enjoy it more but will enable you to make informed decisions concerning it. What follows should help you when confronted with a restaurant wine list or when standing in a wine shop in front of row after row of bottles. My faith is that once you master these basic things your love of wine will carry you on to further explore these and other aspects of how it is made, where it comes from, and why it is what it is.

1. Wine is made from fruit, in this case grapes. As with any fruit, each
variety of grape has distinctive flavors and characteristics. These flavors
and characteristics are influenced by the conditions surrounding the
growth of the grapes, in particular the soil from which the vines feed
and the weather conditions that foster or impede their development.

2. Fruits that please us contain sugar, and the riper the fruit the more
sugar it contains and the more it display those characteristic flavors that
make it what it is. All unripe fruit tends to taste similar – green and sour
– but once it ripens it manifests those qualities that allow us to
distinguish, let’s say, a plum from an apricot.

3. Turning fruit into wine involves transforming its sugar into alcohol.
The more sugar available for conversion, the higher the alcohol level of
the resulting wine.

4. From these first three points follow some useful conclusions: if you
have two wines made from the same grape, the one with the higher
alcohol level will display more fruit flavor. In wine terms it will be a
richer, more full-bodied, more intense example of the grape variety
from which it is made. A Cabernet Sauvignon with an alcohol level of
14% will register differently on you palate than one of 12% . Try it.

5. Alcohol content alone does not make a wine. From a taste point of
view a wine’s acid level is of equal if not greater importance. Acid in
wine does two essential things: it provides structure and it enhances
flavor. Acid is said to form the “backbone” of a wine around which the
other elements are organized. Without it a wine lacks definition and is
said to be flaccid, dull, monochromatic, and uninteresting. Acid is what
is responsible for that crisp, clean, well-knit taste we experience in good
wines. Finally, the effect of acid on wine has been likened to that of salt
on food – it brings out flavors. Just as food without salt is bland, wine
without acid is insipid. Acidity is also the most important element when
it comes to matching wine with a meal.

6. From all this we can see the first challenge a winemaker faces. Acid
and sugar are natural elements of all fruit. That green and sour taste of
unripe fruit is the result of acid not yet balanced by sugar. Sugar takes
longer to develop, and is the product of photosynthesis, which in turn
requires sunlight. So the first big challenge facing a winemaker is when
to pick his or her grapes. If picked too early, or if the conditions do not
allow the fruit to fully ripen, it will be green and the wine made from it
will be acidic; if picked too late, the fruit will contain so much sugar it
can not be balanced by the available acid, so the wine will taste flabby
and unfocused. There are other risks to waiting too long to pick, such as
frost, hail storms, mildew, and rot. This is called farming.

7. It should now be apparent that a wine can be only as good as the fruit
from which it is made. Winemakers can do virtually nothing to improve
the quality of a wine produced from unripe grapes. Unfortunately, he or
she can easily spoil the potential of mature grapes. In short, one can not
make good wine from bad grapes, but one can indeed make bad wine
from good grapes. Hence the role of the winemaker is critical, and the
best of them follow what might be termed a conservative philosophy;
i.e., they try and intervene as little as possible in the process.

8. Knowing all this, plus a little geography (you should have paid better
attention in the 5th grade), can allow you to make some initial informed
judgements concerning what a wine will likely taste like just by looking
closely at its label. Let’s say you are looking for a Riesling in a wine
shop. One is from the steep hillside-vineyards of the Mittelrhein region
of Germany and has an alcohol level of 11.5%; a second is from the
Alsace region of France and shows an alcohol level of 13.5%; and the
third is from South Africa with an alcohol level of 14%. What should
we expect from each?

First the geography. The Mittelrhein area is located in central Germany,
up towards the far northern limit of where Riesling is grown. Alsace is
located at the middle of France on its eastern boarder, while South Africa is way
down south. What does this geography suggest regarding climate and
the ripening of fruit? Well, generally speaking, the further north one
travels the fewer days of sunshine and the shorter the summers one will
encounter. If sunlight determines ripeness, and if ripeness determines
sugar, and sugar determines alcohol and flavor, then one would expect a
wine from a cool area to be light of body, low in alcohol, but crisp with
acid. The label on the German Riesling confirms the low alcohol level
and your conclusion that it is a light-bodied, high-acid wine is what I’d
call an informed good guess.

Alsace is situated pretty much at the middle of the temperate zone where
wine grapes do their best, which means Alsace experiences few radical
extremes and often has the perfect combination of warm days and cool
nights that help fruit develop in a balanced way. A moderate climate
means a slow and steady growth period in which plants absorb sunlight
during the day and then get to rest and relax during the night. It also
means the fruit can be left on the vine longer, giving it time to absorb
nutrients from the soil and transform them in the complex flavors one
finds in exceptionally good tasting fruit. Both the sugar level and the
acid level have time to develop slowly and in harmony. Out of this, at
least in good growing years (vintage year is important, especially with
European wines), one would expect ripe, rich, well balanced fruit, fruit
that would produce a wine with a respectable alcohol level but with a
good acid component to match. At 13.5% the Alsatian Riesling does
indeed have a solid alcohol level (for most quality wines the range is
from 12% to 15%), and one would be justified in assuming it will be a
rounder, more mouth-filling, more delicious Riesling than the one from

What of South Africa? Well, we can certainly count on sunlight, and
lots of it. Maybe too much. In overly warm environments fruit can
come of age too quickly. It can develop so fast it outstrips the plant’s
ability to provide a balance of components. Like an overly developed
adolescent, it can prove somewhat shallow and awkward. It might look
beautiful, grown up, and ready to perform, but when challenged it hasn’t
had time to put it all together. It has lots of sugar, but normally lacks
adequately acidity. This produces a fruit-forward wine that is high in
alcohol, lush of taste, but lacking in character. It’s initial impression
may be seductive, but the more you’re around it the less interesting it
becomes. When you try to engage it at the dinner table you are often
disappointed. It’s assertive and hot-headed (overly alcoholic wines are
said to be “hot”), but alas has trouble holding it’s own in company and
in the end has little to add to the dialogue between the food and itself.

We would be right to suspect our South African Riesling is like this. It
has a higher than normal alcohol level and it comes from a background
where it probably developed quickly. It grew up in hot days and warm
nights. The fruit was not allowed to remain on the vine as long as in
Germany or Alsace because it ripened too quickly. As such it missed
out on developmental possibilities. It may be ripe, but it’s not mature.

So, which wine will you select? The answer to this question is not as
straightforward as it might appear. None of these wines is poorly made
and each has its place. What they represent are different styles made
from the same grape. Which one you pick will depend on your personal
tastes and the circumstances in which the wine will be consumed. If
you’re going to sit and sip it while watching the NFL on CBS then you
might pick the succulent number from South Africa, an uncomplicated,
good tasting companion for an afternoon. If you’re having it with a
meal, then the question becomes What are you having it with? If you’re
having a delicate fish in a lemon-butter sauce, then you might want the
light-bodied German wine. It’s subtle flavors will not overpower the
fish and it’s higher acidity will stand up to, and be off-set by, the lemon
taste. The result will be an enhancement of both the food and the wine.
If you are having a richer dish, foie gras let’s say, or roasted port with a
fruit glaze, then the Riesling from France might be just the ticket. It has
both good body and acidity and so should be able to hold it’s own in
such “meaty” company.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, with a little knowledge you can make
informed decisions about wines you have never tasted. You don’t need
to be a wine “expert.” You don’t need to be a Robert Parker who has
tasted half the wines in the known universe. You don’t need fancy
vocabularies or an in-depth knowledge of viticulture or viniculture, but
you do need to know the few basics I’ve tried to outline here. It goes
without saying you will also have to develop an appreciation for what,
in general, the basic fruits from which wine is made taste like. You’ll
need to know what Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like and how it differs
from Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Syrah. You’ll need to get a
handle on why a Chardonnay is not a Riesling, a Pinot Gris (Grigio), a
Sauvignon Blanc, or Gewurztraminer. In order to do this you’ll have to
drink a lot of wine and pay at least a little attention to what you’re
doing. There could be worse fates. But if you know how these various
fruits taste to you, which you prefer, any why, and if you know about
the relationships amongst geography, climate, ripeness, sugar, alcohol,
and acidity, then you will have moved a long way towards knowing
what wine is all about. These are the heart of the matter, almost all the
rest is just fascinating details.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007


I want to remind everyone of the email option. If you want to email me rather than leave a comment, just click on View My Complete Profile to the left. Then click on Email in the Contact box. Because I can not post answers to questions directly into the Comment section, using email is the best way to ensure I have your right address and that you will receive my response. I'll reply as quickly as I can.

Monday, January 8, 2007

On Screw-tops, corks, and half-bottles

I was asked about screw-tops and alternative corks, like plastic and composite, and whether or not they were a sign of cheap wine. Also if half-bottles meant better wine. Here's my reply:

"Both screw-tops and synthetic corks are perfectly fine from a technical standpoint -- both do an excellent job of keeping air away from the wine and keeping it from going bad. They are also less expensive than true cork, which comes from the bark of an oak tree grown mostly in Spain and Portugal. It takes 15 to 20 years for the trees to mature and then their bark can be stripped just once ever 6 years. As wine production increased, demand for cork increased. Add to this a disease that attacked cork trees, and you can imagine what happened to price. True cork can from time to time go "bad" and impart an "off" taste. It can also dry out and break off, both of which cause problems. All this led to research for a replacement. Hence screw-tops and synthetic materials. The main drawback to screw-tops is they do away with the ceremony of removing the cork. A lot of wine lovers (we old snobs?) miss that and so resist them. Also, if you have a nice corkscrew collection, it's rendered useless. The main drawback I've found with synthetic corks is they can be harder to remove. They fit tightly, and can adhere to the glass, so getting them out can be a struggle. Still, I get to use a corkscrew. Ironically, another drawback to both screw-tops and plastic corks is they do too good a job of keeping the air away from the wine. A bit of air is essential to a wine's maturation and natural cork allows some "breathing" to take place. So any wine maker who wants his or her wines to evolve in bottle will be unlikely to use screw tops or synthetic cork. Bottom line: these types of closures work very well, increase the likelihood the wine will remain healthy, and help keep prices down. I'd say overall they are a good thing. There are some $100 bottles that now come with screw-caps, but I don't think natural cork will ever be completely replaced. Don't avoid a wine simply because it has a screw top, that's for sure.

As for half-bottles, the wines are not better (virtually every wine maker puts part of his or her production in half-bottles), but they mature faster, about twice as fast, and so can taste better than the identical wine in a larger bottle. That's because the ratio of wine to oxygen is smaller and it's oxygen than accounts for much of the maturing process. So, if you like the aged taste of wine (which I do), then half-bottles are one way to speed up the process or get an idea of where it's headed. The downside to half-bottles has been the cork. With shorter necks to the bottles there is not as much surface for the cork to adhere to, so too much air can get in easier than with a regular bottle. As a result, half-bottles go bad faster and more often. This is one instance where screw tops can be very useful. On the flip side, if the wine is placed in a larger bottle, a magnum or double-magnum, it will be that much slower to mature and so survive that much longer. Collectors of fine wines like larger bottles for this reason. Bottom line: half-bottles are not better, but they they can taste better (more mature) than an identical wine in a regular bottle; they can go bad quicker and more easily, so you have to make sure you buy them from a dealer who handles them properly and then make sure to store them properly yourself. Where half bottles come in particularly handy is with dessert wines. It's hard to drink a full bottle of sweet wine at the end of a meal, but you might want a glass or two. But in general I'd steer clear of half-bottles unless you're sure they're in good condition and you plan to drink them soon.

In the picture above the cork on the left is a composite cork, meaning it's made of cork pieces pressed together. Like particle board. If you look closely you can see the flecks of cork of which it is composed. The cork on the right is plastic. It has a smooth, shinny surface. The cork on its side is a true cork. It has a grain to it, and small pits dot it's surface. If you click on the picture you can see it at full size. In case anyone is wondering, Banyuls is a fortified sweet wine, something like Port, from the south of France. It goes wonderfully well with chocolate, one of the few wines that does.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Some basics

The idea of this web site came about as the result of my trying to help Susan J. spend the Christmas gift her husband Brice had so kindly given her. He gave her a gift certificate from a local Birmingham wine shop, but with the stipulation that before she use it she had to ask for my recommendation on what to buy. I was flattered, but from past experience I knew it was a big responsibility. I also knew there was a lot more involved in getting the most out of Brice's gift than simply going out and buying a bottle of wine. With that as background, here is what I wrote back to Susan.

"In response to your asking for recommendations, I’ll first say a few
general things about enjoying wine. I’d hate to see you have a bad
experience or waste your money, so I’ll share a little of what I’ve
learned over the years about how you can increase the pleasures you
find in a good bottle of red or white. If you already know this stuff,
please forgive me for repeating it.

The most critical factor when it comes to serving wine is temperature.
Most red wines are served too warm, while most white wines are served
too cold. Keep in mind that alcohol is a volatile substance. As the
temperature rises it gets more “active,” so to speak, and the flavors of
the wine begin to fragment. The result is disharmony, with one or more
aspects of the wine warring against each other. On the other hand, if the
wine is too cold its flavors are diminished because your taste buds are
not able to differentiate flavors very well under cold conditions.

The solution is to purchase a cheap kitchen thermometer similar to the
one in the attached picture. This one is made by Taylor, sells for about
$10.00, and can be found at Bed, Bath and Beyond or other household
supply stores.

As a general rule no red wine should be served above 68 degrees and no
white one below 40 degrees. The lighter the red wine, the cooler it
should be; so that with a Beaujolais, for example, the temperature
should be somewhere between 50 and 55 degrees, while a big Bordeaux
needs to be up between 65 to 68 degrees. Conversely, the more robust
the white wine the warmer it should be, so that a top Burgundy should
likewise be served between 50 and 55 degrees. Sparkling wines, like
champagne, are served at the coldest temperatures, i.e., down around 40
to 45 degrees, although some exceptional examples need to be up
around 50 degrees.

The best thing is to experiment. Chill a bottle of red wine down to 55
degrees and then sample it over a period of time as it warms up. Use
your thermometer to note the temperature at which you find it most
appealing. There is no absolutely “right” temperature for all people,
although I’m sure you’ll notice a big difference in the way the wine
tastes over a range of temperatures. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll
know how long to leave a bottle in the refrigerator or when to take it out
if it’s been in there for a long time.

At cooler temperatures a red wine will be more “close knit,” meaning it
will display a sold, smooth continuum of flavors. As it gets warmer it
will begin to “come apart,” with the flavor of the alcohol beginning to
dominate. When a wine tastes too much of alcohol it is said to be “hot,”
and this is viewed as a defect.

Do the same experiment with a white wine, chilling it down to 40 degrees. Notice how it “opens up” as it warms up, showing both more taste and smell. Again, when it gets too warm it will begin to show signs of disharmony. The goal is to find thetemperature where, for your taste buds, the wine presents itself at its best.

When it comes to wines with cute names I would exercise caution.
Some of them are enjoyable and offer good value, but in general I’ve
found there is a better price/quality ratio to be found in other
inexpensive wines that don’t resort to this kind of marketing gimmick.

Keep in mind we live in the “golden age of wine.” Never in history has
there been so much good wine available at such reasonable prices. It’s
because of this glut of wine that some producers feel they have to catch
the public’s attention with snappy (or sappy) names like Fat Bastard or
Drunk Frog. These wines being generally inexpensive, my best advice
is to give them a try and see if you like them; but don’t stop with them.

Which leads me to my next bit of advice: develop a good, on-going
relationship with a reputable wine merchant. Don’t be shy about telling
him or her how much you want to spend and what you like and dislike.
Over time the merchant will get to know your preferences and will be
able to recommend new things. If they’re a really good merchant, they
might from time to time recommend a more expensive wine in the hopes
of helping you broaden your tastes. Their goal will be to help you
develop your appreciation. All the good merchants I know love wine
with a passion and are not into it only for the money. They would rather sell you a $10 bottle you truly love than force something more expensive on you.

So when you visit a merchant give him or her your honest reactions to
the last bottle or bottles you drank. Use whatever words you're
comfortable with, but let the merchant know if the wine pleased you or
not, and why. If it was too sour, or tasted like turpentine, then say that.
If it smelled just like grapefruit (New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs smell
this way), and you liked that smell and taste, then say so. All this will
help the merchant find wines you enjoy.

Also very, very important: never forget that wine is meant to accompany
food, and what it is served with will have an enormous impact on the
way you perceive it. Aside from serving wine at the wrong temperature,
more wine is ruined by being married to the wrong dish than anything
else. Therefore, if you’re buying a bottle to go with a particular meal,
make sure to tell the wine merchant what you plan to serve. They will
then be able to suggest wines that will either enhance the dish by having
similar flavors, or else complement it by offering contrasting qualities,
as for example when sweet is used to set off sour. Matching food and
wine is not difficult; all it takes is some imagination, an experience of
how wines taste, and a little knowledge about why they taste as they do.

There are many good books that discuss wine in general and pairing it
with food in particular. The two I would most highly recommend are by
the same woman, Andrea Immer. The first is titled Great Wine Made
and the other is Great Tastes Made Simple. These two books
together will expose you to everything your really need to know about
wine. I predict they will also encourage you to taste lots and lots of
stuff. And the only way to learn about wine is to drink a lot of it. Is
that terrible, or what?

By the way, the most comprehensive book on wine, The Oxford
Companion to Wine
, was compiled and edited by Jancis Robinson. One
of the most legendary California wine makers is Helen Turley, while the
famous Bordeaux vineyard, Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de
Lalande, is run by the highly energetic and accomplished Eliane de
Lencquesaing. All by way of saying that women more than hold their
own in the world of wine, whether it’s making it, marketing it, writing
about it, or just drinking it.

Finally a few words about storing your wine. You don’t need expensive
or special equipment or a cellar, but you do need to take a little care.
The big three enemies of wine are heat, light, and vibrations. When it
comes to temperature, the ideal storage temperature is 50 to 55 degrees,
or the proverbial “cool, dry place.” But more important than the number
of degrees is their consistency. You don’t want the wine heating up and
then cooling down over and over. The pushes air in and out around the
cork and leads to spoilage. So put the wine where the temperature will
remain relatively constant. Also put it where sunlight can not get to it.
Don’t put it on or in contact with something that vibrates, like the top of
the refrigerator, as vibrations can loosen the cork and allow air to get to
the wine, again spoiling it. Always store the bottles on their sides so the
wine can remain in contact with the cork and thereby keep it moist. If it
dries out it shrinks, and once again air can get to it.

There are other subjects we can discuss at another time if you want, like
the advantages of decanting, what kind of glasses enhance wine, which
cork screws work best, and how to preserve a wine if you don’t finish
the whole bottle (always a mistake in my opinion), but this will do for
now. I’ve run on a lot longer than I expected. I hope I haven’t bored
you too badly.

Now, and finally, my recommendations. You didn’t say how much
Brice gave you, or how many bottles you want to buy, or if you prefer
red or white, so I’ll give a range of possibilities and you can choose all
or none of them. My guess is you will find they run in price from $10
to $20 a bottle. I’ve listed the less expensive first.

White wines:

1. Ardeche Chardonnay by Louis LaTour

2. A Macon Village or Macon Lugny by Louis Jadot

3. A Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris from the Alsace region of France. If you
can find one by the maker Zind-Humbrecht, get it. It’s the best from
Alsace, and wonderful. Hugel is also a good producer.

Red Wines:

1. Wines from the Languedoc region of France, preferably a Minervois
or Corbiere by any producer you can find.

2. A Cote-du-Rhone, especially that produced by Guigal

3. A Cote-du-Rhone from either Gigondas, Vacqueyras,
Cairanne, or Chusclan. These are rich, powerful, robust wines.

If you find and try any of these, Marlow and I look forward to hearing
how you enjoyed them, if you did in fact enjoy them. Don’t be afraid to
say you didn’t like them. It’s an obvious thing to say, but too many
folks forget that wine is at heart a matter of taste. Drink what you enjoy
and never get suckered into thinking you ought to like something
because of its famous name or hefty price. Over the years Marlow and I have
been greatly disappointed by many a $50, or even $100, bottle of wine,
while some of the most enjoyable have cost us well under $10. You’re
the expert when it comes to what you like. Never forget that."

Opening Invitation

Hello folks. I want to invite you all to ask questions and begin contributing to this new blog I’ve started. Truth is, it's not really my blog but yours, or at least that's the way I hope it turns out. I will be more than happy to try and answer any questions you have, but I also want you to share your own experiences, observations, and knowledge with those who join us. This is not a forum for experts. It's a place for amateurs in the French sense of that word. An amateur is more than a dedicated hobbyist; he or she is a lover, often a passionate lover, of something dear to them. Here at Amateurs du Vin the interest, love, and passion we share is for wine. I also invite you to pass this blog address on to anyone you feel would like to join in. Those with questions or suggestions can either email them to me at or else use the Comment feature. This blog will only be as good as you all help me make it. So cheers: here’s to fun times ahead!