Fall is upon us. Soon the summer will come to a close and the leaves will start to change color. Though bittersweet for us all to pack away our bikinis
Fall is upon us. Soon the summer will come to a close and the leaves will start to change color. Though bittersweet for us all to pack away our bikinis and boardies, for the wine world, this is a very exhilarating time.
Harvest is upon us. It’s the busiest time of the year for winemakers and grape growers, and the upcoming months bring sleepless nights and lots of labor. With the season looming over us, we can’t help but wonder, what will this year’s harvest be like? Will this be one of the best vintages we’ve seen? Above all, when will the fruit be ready?
The decision of when to pick a certain lot of grapes bears much weight. Picking too early or picking too late both bring consequences, and can be detrimental to the finished wine in regard to aroma, flavor, and structure. It’s not easy to taste a grape in the vineyard and be able to tell where that particularly grape’s life is going to go, but a number of factors must be taken into account.
A grape isn’t just ripe if it is sweet and not tart. In fact, some tartness is key! The goal is to find the right balance between the sweetness and the acidity. Grape sampling happens frequently to determine the current sugars, pH, and acidity of the grapes, and close monitoring is necessary in the last weeks before harvest. A few too many days on the vine and a little too much sun can make the numbers skyrocket all too quickly.
(For the wine geeks out there): Sugar levels in grapes are measured in degrees BRIX. Target BRIX levels depend upon the type of wine, but generally Brix levels are between 21 and 25 at harvest. Whites and bubblies can range from 18 and up, while Reds can stretch into the late 20’s. Nowadays, new world winemakers often let the fruit hang out a bit longer to taste more fruit ripe, which means that sugars will be much higher and there will be less natural acid left in the grapes.
The way the grapes look and taste is vital, too. While sugars are accumulating in the grapes during the growing season, the tannins and phenolic compounds are also ripening. These types of ripeness relate largely to the skins, seeds and stalks. The ultimate and ideal, holy grail of readiness for picking is when all of these different things happen synchronously. For this to occur, the vines need just the right amount of sunlight, water, available nutrients and vineyard management.
“À la Vôtre!” is the french way to say “Cheers!” So, let’s raise a glass and toast to the upcoming harvest. May it be a good year for all, and provide a wealth of booze for the years to come.
YEAST is a vital component in wine fermentation. It is the job of the yeast to eat up all of the naturally occurring sugars in the grapes and turn them into alcohol. Without those hungry little yeasties, all we’d have is grape juice, and the world would never be the same.
What you may not know is, winemakers have options when it comes to yeast. The biggest decision of all is whether to use commercial yeast or indigenous yeast. Here’s a little crash course on the two:
- Commercial yeast is just as it sounds. The winemaker can choose which commercial yeast strain is desired for any given batch of wine (they all perform a little bit differently), purchase it, and add it to the juice when it is time to jumpstart fermentation.
- Indigenous yeast (also known as native or wild yeast) originates in the vineyard and will naturally start fermentation without human interference. This is attractive to many because it is a more “hands-off” and “natural” approach to making wine, but it is more unconventional because it involves a higher level of risk, and more careful monitoring of fermentation.
So what are the implications of using native yeast strains vs. using commercial yeast?
Commercial yeast is (in most cases) reliable for producing a predictable and timely fermentation. The recommended amount of commercial yeast to be added to juice is such that the fermentation will start with a large yeast population and charge on from beginning to end. It is intended to be rather consistent and produce clean wines with desirable characters, but can also make a fermentation run too hot.
On the flip side, native yeast fermentations start with a much lower yeast population, and this often makes for more lag time before the process actually gets going. Likewise, the fermentation is generally slower and longer. While this can be beneficial to wines by adding texture and complexity, it can also be detrimental to a wine if the grapes were of lower quality, or had any kind of disease or bacterial growth on them. Using native yeast is intended to add complexity to a wine, and let it “do its thing.” It is intended to produce wines that are genuinely reflective of the vineyards from which they were born.
So, while the two methods may be different, one is not superior to another. Different styles of wine and different winemaking environments call for different measures, and yeast selection only plays a part in the finished wine.
Wine can be intimidating. Sometimes, even with your nose buried deep in that glass and your olfactory nerve working hard, it’s hard to say what you mean when it comes to wine. For that matter, (especially after a glass or two), sometimes it’s hard to muster up any words at all.
On the other hand, if you do know a thing or two about that delectable juice in your glass, no one wants to fall into that dreaded wine snob category. Don’t even think about sticking your nose up in the air . . . we’re all learning together, right?
Here are a few helpful tips to get you by:
1. As with anything, honesty is the best way. If you’re unsure of what you want, or how to describe what you like, just say so. No one expects you to use the right adjectives; usually the clerk or sommelier is just trying to find out what’s right for you.
2. Remember that wine is totally subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure! So before you complain that the wine is gross, or just plain not good, remember that it might just be your particular palate preference. It is more constructive and less offensive to use a phrase like “not my preferred style.”
3. Try not to make that squishy face….you know, that same face you make after taking a tequila shot. Again, this can come across as offensive. Perhaps leave out the “ick” and “ugh” sound effects, too. . .
4. Don’t forget to share. There’s nothing more awkward then filling the first three guests’ glasses to the brim and then realizing you’ve got none left for the others. Think about how wine is poured at a restaurant: glasses are about half full, and the sommelier keeps all guests at the table topped up to about the same amount.
4. If you’re unsure, taste it first. If a restaurant is serving a wine by the glass, there is most likely at least one bottle of that wine already open. If you know you’re going out on a limb with your order and there’s a good chance you might want to send the wine back, ask for a taste instead. It’s much easier to send back a splash than an entire glass!
5. And on that note, don’t take advantage. It’s a restaurant, not a tasting room. Surely, it is appropriate to taste a wine you’re thinking about ordering. But 2. . .3. . .7? Now you’re just being greedy.
6. If you’re bringing your own wine to a restaurant, do your homework beforehand. It’s not cool to bring a wine that is already on the wine list, and if you’re going to bring a bottle, the classy thing to do is buy one off the list, too.
Winemaking is both an art and a science. While there are many fundamental processes that need to be followed when making a wine of any kind, there is also an opportunity for expression by the winemaker, and there are many decisions that he or she can make to mold and shape the wine into a certain style.
Different methods within the winemaking process affect the way the wine will turn out.
For example, if said winemaker would like to make a fresh, clean, easy-drinking Sauvignon Blanc, he might choose to: pick the grapes when they’ve achieved fruit ripeness, immediately press the grapes and separate the juice, put the wine through a cold fermentation in stainless steel, and bottle early. He’s not likely to use native yeast, or age in oak, and a lot of oxygen exposure will be avoided.
One of the most important decisions that a winemaker needs to make is what type of vessel the wine should live in. These days, the three most popular fermentation vessels are made up of oak, concrete, and stainless steel. These types of vessels affect the makeup of the wine differently, not only because they are made of different materials but also because they allow varying amounts of oxygen to be exposed to the wine within. Let’s take a look at how they differ:
Oak: Oak allows for the gradual influx of oxygen, which will result in softened tannins and acid, and a rounder wine. French oak tends to give more subtle nuances like clove and spice to a wine and create a silkier texture, while American oak imparts more overt aromas of vanilla and coconut. Lastly, a barrel with a medium toast will impart less charry and smoky characters than a barrel with a heavy toast.
Stainless Steel: Wines fermented in stainless steel vessels are usually made in a more reductive (or rather, non-oxidative) fashion. The tank remains closed up when not being used, and inert gas is used to fill any headspace in the tank and displace oxygen. This makes for cleaner, fresher wines that are great for early drinking. The stainless steel material imparts no distinct flavor characteristics on the wine. Stainless steel tanks are very ideal for ferments that need to say bone-chilling cold, because they offer optimal refrigeration capabilities.
Concrete: Concrete tanks have been used to ferment wine for as long as wine has been made. People stopped talking about them for a while, when the stainless steel hype arrived. Now, they’re quite cool again, and some winemakers have taken it to another level with egg-shaped concrete fermenters that promote the flow and movement of fermentation. Sometimes concrete tanks are large, square or rectangular shaped and open, while other times they are locked up just like stainless steel to avoid oxygen. The concrete itself is quite neutral, though it can leave a mineral-like aspect to the wine’s sensory profile.
Creativity is key. Some producers will put half of a batch in oak and throw the other in an egg, or ferment in stainless steel and age in oak. Regardless, these vessels are responsible for nurturing our wines in their early stages, and in the case of oak… keeping them cozy for a while until they’re ready to make their debut!
One of the most innately interesting things about wine is its ability to age. That being said, for a wine novice it can be very perplexing to try and figure out which bottles are in for the long haul and which are ready to drink straight off the shelf. And then there’s the really hard part, where you have to find the patience to let that bottle lie there on its side, staring at you, just pleading to be opened. But it’s all worth it, right?
The truth is that as the wine ages it develops different aroma and flavor characteristics. Some people absolutely love this, and just like anything, some don’t. Often, people will splurge on a nice bottled of aged wine in a restaurant and when they have the chance to taste it they give it the stink face. Some might even go so far as to say the wine is spoiled or flat. In most cases, the wine is neither of those things, but instead is reflecting the evolution of the wine in bottle over time.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING AGING?
- Tannins soften. So while a full-bodied red might have big, chewy, lip-smacking tannins in its youth, after ten or fifteen years the same wine might seemingly have less, and less aggressive tannins.
- Red wines lose color, as white wines gain color. Red wines tend to become more transparent, and can gain hints of orange and brown hues. Whites develop more color, over time turning more golden, and then later developing brown hues.
- Primary fruit aromas develop into, and mix with, secondary aromas. Ideally, some fruit aromas will remain, while more complex aromas develop to accompany them.
YOUNG WINE VS. AGED WINE
Every bottle of wine ages differently, and sometimes the color, smell, or taste can be misleading. However, generally speaking, there are a number of descriptors that are often associated with young and aged wines. Let’s take a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, for example:
YOUNG WINE: full-bodied, fresh, fruity, cassis, ripe, jammy, juicy, clean, spicy, high tannins, grippy tannins, high acid, tight
AGED WINE: full-bodied, dark fruits, earthy, tobacco, cigar box, toasty, charcoal, complex, dense, refined, elegant, drying tannins, soft tannins, smooth, barnyard
See the difference? The first set of descriptors are more fruit oriented, while the second set has more complex aromas, which reflect non-fruit aromas that have developed from age, and/or time in oak.
Trends come and go in wine. One day Chardonnay is ruling the market and the next New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc! In the past couple of years there has been a lot of talk about the rising alcohol levels in wine, and there is no denying that many wine producers are pushing the envelope in this category. The question is: how much is too much?
The truth is, there have always been classic wines in the world in which alcohol levels creep into the high 15-17% range. Think about Chateauneuf du Pape reds. Think about Amarone! These wines consistently hit the 16% abv (alcohol-by-volume) mark, and it’s nothing new. New world winemaking styles, however, (especially in the USA and Australia) have advocated leaving the grapes on the vine as long as possible to achieve the highest amount of flavor ripeness. As those grapes linger on the vine and eventually start to become more like raisins, sugars continue to accumulate, and all of those sugars then turn to alcohol during fermentation.
There are a few major problems with this scenario, the most important of them all being that this style of winemaking can produce wines of little balance. As sugar levels increase in the grapes, acid levels decrease. Likewise, the point of flavor ripeness can sometimes be far past the point of tannin ripeness. Balance is arguably the most important aspect of a wine. While acid, tannins, sugar and alcohol are all indeed important, if these components don’t fit together seamlessly a wine can fall apart and taste awkward.
You may be thinking, “so what are typical levels of alcohol in wine?” Well, they differ based on style. Here is a basic outline:
- Champagnes and sparkling wines tend to be around 11% alcohol.
- In a general sense, dry white wines tend to lie in the 12-13% range.
- Lighter reds like Pinot Noir: 13-14%
- Most medium to full reds: 13.5-14.5%
- And then there are reds like Zinfandel, Grenache, and Shiraz: 14-15.5%
- Port, madeira, fortifieds and dessert wines: 17-21%
If you start to take notice of the percentage of ABV on wine labels, you might be surprised to see that many don’t fall into these ranges at all. A Verdelho from Molly Dooker will contain a whopping 16% alcohol. Even many new world Pinot Noir wines now sit comfortably in the 14-15% range. Many examples of California Zinfandel or Australian Grenache will creep up to 17%, and since fortified wines like Port start at 17% alcohol, this is rather interesting, to say the least. If you notice a heat on the back of your palate when tasting a wine, or if the wine has a spirit-like aroma, these sensory characteristics are coming from the alcohol in the wine.
Time will tell whether or not this trend of grand ripeness and high alcohol will prevail. There are many wine producers standing strong against this issue, refusing to make wines with more than 13.5-14% alcohol. In the meantime, you can form your own opinions on this topic through continued wine consumption. This type of homework isn’t so bad, is it?
The calendar tells us that summertime officially starts on June 21st, but let’s face the facts. If last week’s heat wave, flip flops and short shorts taught us one thing, it’s that summer (the season we’ve all been craving) is already upon us!
Just like the weather influences how we dress, it also influences what we like to drink. I don’t know about you. . .but when I think of sunshine my mind drifts off to dreams of bubbly, crisp whites, and even more so, to rosé.
Often, when people hear about rosé wine they think of four things: sweet, fruity, pink, and women. There are so many unfortunate misconceptions about rosé that have kept consumers from reaching for that perfect and beautifully blush bottle on the top shelf. I’m here to tell you that there is much more to rosé than its tutti-frutti reputation alludes to, and most importantly, it’s NOT just for girls. (Gentlemen, you can thank me later.)
Here’s a few things you might not know about rosé:
It doesn’t have to be sweet. In fact, much of it is bone dry! From the renowned Provence region in the South of France, rosé is always dry, and styles range from easy-drinking and light, to fuller, more serious wines. The french stick up their noses to the many myths that Americans have grown to believe about rosé, and you should too.
There’s nothing “girly” about it. Hey there, hipster misters! Don’t tell me that you can’t try some blush colored wine. We all know you have at least one item of clothing in your closet that is bright pink (or “salmon” as you call it). Which leads me to a very interesting and masculine fact about rosé…
You can pair it with meat. While some styles of rosé are light and are better accompaniments to lighter dishes, the fuller, more textured styles of rosé (like those that have undergone a second fermentation, the malolactic fermentation) can be great pairings for dishes like lamb, beef, chicken, and even barbecue food!
It can be made from almost any red grape, and is made around the world. Cabernet. . .Grenache. . .Syrah. . .Pinot Noir. . .you name it! Rosé wine is not made from a particular grape, but instead is a product of how it is made. The color in wine is extracted from the grape skins. So, for a wine to be lighter in color, the juice will spend less time with its skins. In the most general sense, rosé is made more like a white wine than a red wine.
Pouring some red into your white does not make it rosé. (It might, however, ruin the flavor of both wines.) The process of making rosé can be just as meticulous as the process of making an elegant white or a premium red. The main difference is that it’s usually released right after it is made instead of being aged, and this makes it ideal for immediate consumption and outright freshness.
Do yourself a solid this summer and pick up a bottle of rosé to share. Notice how refreshing it can be on a warm day. Notice how well it goes with that chicken you threw on the barbie, or how it totally made that salmon dish you prepared last week. It’s versatile, underrated, and most often pleasantly affordable!
Last night I tasted a wine that was so interesting that I immediately knew I would not be able to get through today without writing about it.
Pago Florentino was it’s name. . .and bacon was it’s game.
The wine had been open for 2 days, but I was experiencing it for the first time. I popped the cork and lifted the bottle beneath my nose. A lightbulb flickered on in my brain and I said enthusiastically to my boyfriend. . .”it’s bacon!”
The nose wreaked of the sweatiness, saltiness, and savoriness of bacon, and the palate did not waver from the aroma profile. Rich and slightly viscous, it’s meatiness and bacon-like quality was so overwhelming that it was almost off-putting. Even my bacon-loving boyfriend didn’t want to touch it. So, I put my glass down and returned to it ten minutes later.
Lightbulb. Espresso! Suddenly, notes of espresso started to show themselves. “Breakfast,” I thought to myself; “this wine is like breakfast!”
That being said, my conclusion was premature and over the next half hour the wine continued to evolve into an amalgamation of dark chocolate, coffee, earth, and umami. All of these qualities painted a picture of just how earthy, dirty, funky and awesome Tempranillo can be. With 5 years of age behind it, and both french and american oak influence, this wine was dropping a big, fat savory bomb on the palate and I liked it.
The Pago Florentino is from Malagon, in the Castile-La Mancha province of Spain. It’s made from estate-grown vineyards, and is fully and completely Tempranillo. It is designated as one of thirteen DO de Pagos…with the DO de Pago being the highest designation of quailty for spanish wine. You can purchase this wine at Hi-Time Cellars for just over $20.
Think of your mouth as a happy little world of taste buds.
These sensory taste receptors populate your tongue, mouth and throat. When chemicals from food and drink are dissolved into your saliva, your taste buds let your brain know what they’re tasting and feeling. Pretty awesome, right? Without these receptors, tasting wine wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
There are five different continents on your tongue that represent four of the five different taste sensations. While all five taste sensations can be detected by all of your taste buds, buds that live in certain parts of your mouth have lower thresholds for certain sensations. Here is a little geography lesson:
- On the mid-back palate is where you sense bitterness. If you’re not sure what this sensation is like, drink some tonic water and focus on that part of your tongue. Bitterness in wine is usually considered undesirable, and at very high thresholds can render a wine undrinkable.
- On the sides of your tongue, right in the middle on each side, is where sourness is perceived. In wine, this comes from acidity, and this sensation can cause you to pucker the sides of your mouth. It can also cause a natural mouth-watering sensation.
- On the front of your palate is where sweetness becomes apparent. Taste a dessert wine or off-dry Riesling, and see if you can feel the sensation that occurs at the front of your mouth. (It is triggered by carbohydrates like Fructose, but can also be triggered by artificial sweeteners, too.)
- Lastly, saltiness can also be perceived at the front palate, but this sensation stretches a little farther the sides of your front palate. In wine this is described with the term salinity, and can be relative to minerality and/or a vineyard’s proximity to the ocean.
I know what you’re thinking. The palate map above only displays four tastes. So how about the fifth? Well, let me start by saying that the fifth taste is called Umami, which is Japanese for “yummy.” Among all of this scientific mumbo-jumbo, one word that we can all understand and relate to is “yummy.”
- I guess you could say that Umami is more of a flavor than a sensation. The combined smell and taste of Umami is best described as a savory flavor, and while it’s reminiscent of MSG, it is actually L-Glutamate. Something with Umami is often described as yummy –without being boldly sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. To better understand the true wonder of Umami, think about mushrooms, soy, or why it is that you’re hopelessly addicted to bacon. Or, you could just bite into an anchovy.
Two of the most important components in tasting wine are: 1) the ability of our tastebuds and olfactory nerves to taste and smell, and 2) the ability of our brains to remember the aromas and flavors we perceive. By becoming more aware of what we experience on our palates, we simultaneously train our minds to recognize the many flavors, aromas, and tactile sensations that exist in the world of food and wine. Practice makes perfect, so get out there and enjoy something yummy!
TANNIN: it’s a commonly used term in wine-speak, but what does it really refer to?
For just a second, put on your lab coat and let’s geek out:
Tannins are naturally occurring plant polyphenols. They bind and precipitate proteins. Not only are they found in fruits like grapes, but also in tea and chocolate, too. In fact, many wine aficionados agree that the best way to understand how tannins feel in the mouth is to taste some oversteeped tea. You will experience a drying effect, as well as astringency, which is the most common perception associated with tannins, and makes your mouth pucker up.
Tannins are naturally found in the skins, stems, and seeds of wine grapes. While red wines generally have more tannins than white wines, white wines do have tannins, too. In the winemaking process, we often try to enhance tannins in red wines and subdue them in white wines. In terms of sensory analysis, tannins affect the mouthfeel and texture of a wine.
Especially in new world winemaking, tannins (in powder form) are sometimes added to finished wine to enhance mouthfeel and body. However, this type of tannin addition can make wines seem disjointed and unbalanced. Like many things, natural = better.
There are many different types of tannins and many descriptors to accompany their textures. Today, let’s touch upon four of the common terms used to describe the way tannins feel on your palate.
Now, don’t think you need to feel these different types of textures physically on your palate in order for your brain to remember them. You can memorize these tactile sensations just as well by touching them with your hands. Imagine rubbing chalk among your fingertips. While it is powdery and dusty, it’s also thicker, and slightly rougher than powder.
Velvety vs. Silky
While it might sound silly, dig into your closet and find fabrics of velvet and silk. Notice the difference in touch between the two and think about these sensations in regard to wine. A wine that floats across the palate softly and effortlessly might have silky tannins, while velvet is slightly thicker and heavier, and sinks into your fingers (or palate).
To say that a wine has harsh tannins can allude to excessive tannins, but it can also just mean that the tannins present feel abrasive to the palate. The most common terms that come to mind with harsh tannins are sandpaper, prickly, or rough.
Now, let’s break it down with a few key points:
- Words like drying, grippy, or chewy usually refer to wines with more or heavier tannins.
- Words like soft, fine, and powdery refer to those of less or lighter tannins.
- Bitter tannins (from grape seeds) can be viewed as negative or offensive to a wine, and winemakers often try to avoid extracting too much of these. So, before you jump to using the word bitter, think back on some of these descriptors and see if any of them are a better fit.