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

Champagne










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 www.customcurling.com 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
tannin.

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
does.

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.