Monthly Archives: March 2011

Wine Components: Alcohol

This excursion into the world of wine components was started by a question from an A Million Cooks listener. Jim said that, while his friends seem to pick out aromas like strawberry or vanilla, the wine just smells like wine to him!

Today: Alcohol – without it, it’s just grape juice!

During wine making, yeast cells consume the sugar in the grape juice and convert it to alcohol, carbon-dioxide gas and heat – it’s called fermentation.  When the yeast runs out of sugar it dies, or goes dormant, the fermentation ends naturally and the wine is dry (not sweet).  The higher the sugar content of the grape juice, the higher the alcohol in the wine (assuming it’s dry).  There are numerous ways to make sweet wine and, in most cases, it’s done by preventing the yeast from using up all of the sugar.  This means there’s natural sugar left over – the wine tastes sweet and the alcohol is a bit lower.

Alcohol accounts for most of the “body” or heft of the wine, along with the grape extracts. Full-bodied wines are usually at least 11.5%. That’s most of the world’s reds and a lot of the world’s Chardonnays. Light-bodied wines are, generally, less than 11%.  If you’ve never tasted a wine below 11%, they can be oh, so delightful!  Less body doesn’t necessarily translate to less flavorful wine. Continue reading


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Wine Components: Acid

An A Million Cooks listener started a conversation that’s led us to the most important wine components and why they’re important.


Acid always sounds so unpleasant – you think of battery acid or something awful like that! But, it’s an essential part of your enjoyment. As long as it’s balanced with the other components, it’s refreshing and a real palate cleanser.


It occurs naturally in wine, but is commonly added in warm climates and there are techniques for reducing it for cool climates. If you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you know that when they first appear on the vines they’re hard, green and tart (low sugar, high acid). Later on, as they begin to soften and change color, you notice that the sugar increases as the acid decreases. It’s just the same with wine grapes. The winemaker watches the progress in his vineyard very carefully because picking the grapes at the right time is as important to him as buying impeccable produce is to a chef. Continue reading

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Wine Components: Tannin

One question leads to another!

Question from Jim: Thanks for you reply. “Practicing” sounds like a lot of fun! You mentioned acid and tannin. What are they and why are they important?

Reply: Nice to hear back from you, Jim! Another good question. I’ll take one component at a time so this isn’t too long. Let’s start with tannin.

Winemakers love tannin because it’s an antioxidant – a natural preservative. It’s the thing that’s supposed to make red wine “heart smart”. It’s found in lots of fruits and vegetables, in tea and oak, among many other things.

The biggest source of tannin in wine is the grape skins. Other sources are the seeds, stems and oak (wine barrels contribute wood tannin if they’re relatively new). Red wines are almost always higher in tannin than white, because the winemaker must ferment the juice and skins together to get the purple color.  The juice of most wine grapes is clear, regardless of the skin color. Along with color, the skins contribute flavor, texture, heft and tannin. The extracts from the skins are responsible, to a great extent, for our perception that red wine is more like food than white wine. Continue reading

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The Wine Just Smells Like Wine To Me…

Question from Jim: How do you learn to pick out the different aromas in wine? My friends describe things like strawberry or vanilla, but it just smell like wine to me. 

Reply: You know, Jim, you have a lot of company! I’ve done countless tasting seminars in my career and when I start asking for descriptors folks tend to clam up. They’re afraid their perceptions are “wrong” (which is impossible – your perception is your perception). Or, the brave members of the group will look me straight in the eye and say “It smells like wine.” 

Bravo for them! That takes some courage. It seems we all think we’re supposed to shoot out of the womb as wine experts.

People like me get so caught up in fruity, floral and barrel-derived characteristics that we forget how overwhelming fermentation aromas are. And, fermentation is what makes wine smell like wine. How to get past them? Practice. 

Becoming a perceptive taster is just like developing a good golf swing. It comes with practice and gives you pleasure. Without the second half of that sentence, the first is pointless. Since wine’s only purpose is to give us pleasure, if it’s not fun for you, don’t bother.  Continue reading

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Are Wine Grapes the Same as the Ones we Eat?

Question from Sheila: Are the grapes they use to make wine the same as the ones we eat?

Reply: Hi, Sheila. Thanks for writing! The short answer is “not usually”. The problem is that most “table grapes” have been hybridised to be juicy and the juice is watery. It’s perfectly legal and, technically, just as easy to use Thompson Seedless or some other table grape to make wine. It would be a great money saver too (Thompson Seedless from Fresno is about $200.00/ton; Napa Valley Cabernet is around $5000.00) but, aesthetically, it’s the next best thing to adding water. 

You can find wine that’s made from Concord grapes, which are native to America and make a lot of our grape juice, but it has a tiny market niche, presumably because the flavor is too strong – no one likes it. We all seem to prefer wine made of old-fashioned grape varieties that have been used for centuries. And, that’s why you have to speak French, Italian or Spanish when you order your wine. In most of the new world, the wine is named for the grape that makes it.  Continue reading

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Wine Quote du Jour

Sound advice from Hannu Lehmusvuori:

If your heart is warm with happiness, you’ll need a glass – if sorrow chills your heart, have two!

I hope your heart is warm with happiness this weekend! Cheers!

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Buttery Chardonnay

Do you like your Chardonnay on the buttery side? Well, here’s a little trivia for you: The substance that makes microwave popcorn buttery is the same thing that makes your Chardonnay buttery. It’s called diacetyl.

But, while the popcorn factories need to add the diacetyl, winemakers can use a special technique called malolactic fermentation. Sometimes it’s called the second fermentation because normally the winemaker will hold off on this technique until the alcoholic fermentation is done.

Here’s how it goes:

It takes the winemaker 3 weeks or so to make a barrel of Chardonnay. Then he adds lactic acid bacteria to the wine, which sets off the malolactic fermentation. Actually, it’s a conversion and we call it ML for short. Continue reading

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What’s that Shiny Stuff on the Cork?

Question from Sarah: When I opened a bottle of white wine there was shiny stuff on the cork. Is that sugar or what? Does it mean there’s something wrong with the wine? Thanks for your help.

Reply: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for writing! Those crystals aren’t anything to worry about. White wine tends to be high in acid, especially tartaric acid. The crystals, which are usually called “tartrates”, sometimes form during production and also when the wine is cold for a period of time – for instance when you store it in your fridge. The tartaric acid binds with potassium to become potassium bitatrate or cream of tartar! Wineries can remove tartrates through a process call cold stabilization, but it doesn’t much matter one way or the other. When you visit a winery, sometimes you can see the tartrates shining inside an empty barrel. Next time it happens, you can look very knowledgeable by telling your friends “Oh, don’t worry about that – it’s just tartrates.”

Trivia: Lots of people like to call the tartrates “wine diamonds”!

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What is a Wine Clone?

Question from Georgia: Hi! I just bought a bottle of Cabernet and on the back of the bottle it says it was made of “clone 337”. What does that mean? It sounds wierd.

Reply: Hi, Georgia. Thanks for writing! I don’t get this question too often.

They’re trying to tell you that they used one of the most popular clones of Cabernet for the moment, at least.

A clone is kind of like a variety within a variety. Everything that lives mutates and scientists isolate and then propapagate clones of varieties with desirable characteristics like disease resistance or flavor attributes. The reason it’s considered a clone and not another variety is that the DNA is the same. So, on paper, it’s the same thing but in reality it may look different. 

Clone 337 of Cabernet is a Bordeaux clone that produces small grapes within the cluster. The increased skin to juice ratio ramps up flavor intensity. Many winemakers like to plant more than one clone of a single variety, like Cabernet, to give the wine added complexity.

I hope that helps! Please don’t hesitate to write in with more questions. Cheers!

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Did the Winery Actually Make the Wine?

Question from Scott: I just read your post on $5 vs. $50 wine. I’m appalled that a winery can buy someone else’s wine and put their label on it. Does the label tell me if the winery made its own wine or not?

Reply: One question leads to another! Thanks for writing! There are some key phrases to look for in the “fine print”.

Words that indicate authenticity:

  • Estate Bottled: The Estate Bottles designation requires that the winery crushed, fermented, finished and aged 100% of the wine on winery premises. Contrary to popular perception, it doesn’t require that the winery use only its own grapes. It’s rather vague in saying the vineyard must be controlled” by the winery, which can simpley mean the winery hasa 3-year contract with a grower and some input on the farming.
  • Produced or Made By: The winery fermented at least 75% of the wine on winery premises, but they may have finished, aged and bottled it off-site. In fairness, lots of wineries have separate aging and bottling facilities so that the land around the winery is put to its optimal use: grape growing. It matters a great deal where the grapes grow, but it doesn’t matter where the warehouse is. These designations don’t tell you anything about the grape source.

Words that make my antenna go up: Continue reading

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