Monthly Archives: July 2011

Wine Making 101

Well, I seem to have covered sparkling wine 101 without ever explaining how wine is made in the first place! Mea culpa! So, here we go with wine making 101: 

The short course: The most important thing to know is that making wine is so simple it was discovered by accident thousands and thousands of years ago. I like to think of it as the world’s second oldest profession.

Someone, yea long ago, was saving a batch of grape juice. A few days later, he noticed it was getting foamy, and then a few days more and he had a different beverage altogether! Grape juice with a kick!

All you need to make wine is grape juice and yeast. And, yeast is everywhere, like bacteria. So I guess what I’m saying is that grape juice wants to be wine – that’s the good news. The bad news is that wine wants to be vinegar so professional winemaking requires a little intervention.

For red wine:  As you’d guess, red wine is made of dark skinned grapes. All the color and most of the flavor and texture come from the skins – the juice is clear. That makes these dark grapes quite versatile. They can make red, white or pink wine depending upon how long the juice and skins are in contact.

1. On harvest day (preferably), the grape clusters are run through a machine that de-stems them and breaks the berries open. The crushed grapes go into a fermentation tank skins, seeds and all. 

2. These days, most winemakers add reliable, cultured yeast rather than waiting for nature to take its course. 

What is fermentation? It’s a natural chemical reaction. The yeast consumes the sugar in the juice and converts it into alcohol and carbon-dioxide gas. When the sugar’s used up, usually about a week later, for reds, the fermentation ends naturally, resulting in a dry red wine. A little over half of the sugar will convert to alcohol, so if the winemaker wants to make wine that’s around 13% alcohol, he should harvest grapes that are about 24% sugar (although he also needs to monitor the acid, pH and, most importantly, flavor). 

3. The winemaker separates the wine from the skins in a press, which is like a giant strainer with a squeezing mechanism. 

4. Most reds need some barrel age, but it’s optional.

For white wine: The vast majority of white wine is made from white varieties. 

1. For the sake of delicacy, the grapes are crushed and pressed immediately after harvest, leaving only the juice to ferment. 

2. Once the yeast is added, fermentation can take several weeks because the juice is often kept cool to retain fruitiness. 

3. It’s quite common to bottle white wine, even some of the very best, without any barrel aging at all. It’s a question of style.

See how simple that is? Of course there are seemingly endless variables involved each step of the way, but there you have it – bare bones wine 101! 

For those who want to dig a little deeper: 

The harvest: Most winemakers would agree that the harvest decision is the single-most important decision they make in the whole year. Like the best chefs, the winemaker can’t excel unless he uses top quality fruit picked at just the right time. Continue reading

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Wine Quote du Jour

“A mind of the calibre of mine cannot derive its nutriment from cows.”  George Bernard Shaw, On Wine

Cheers to that! 

 

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Barrel Derived Aromas and Flavors

Question from Paul: Someone told me that if wine smells like vanilla it comes from the barrel. Is that right? It doesn’t make sense to me.

Reply: Hi, Paul. Thanks for writing! Yup, it’s likely that it comes from the barrel although we can never be absolutely certain. Vanilla is a plant and grapes are plants so there’s always the chance that they share some flavor compounds but vanilla is very high up on the hit parade of barrel derived characteristics – There’s vanillin in oak.

The barrel is second, only, to the fresh grapes when it comes to flavor impact on the wine. It has three important impacts:

1. The slow aeration that occurs matures the wine away from simple, primary fruit characteristics adding complexity as it softens the wine and marries fractious components into something more cohesive.

2. Evaporation concentrates the wine a bit, adding to its weight.

3. If the barrel is relatively new, it imparts lots for different aromas and flavors such as vanilla, coconut, baking spices (especially nutmeg) smoke, coffee… the list goes on and on.  Barrels are like tea bags in that they give up their flavor with age. Some winemakers prefer older barrels that don’t impart flavor to the wine.

The most important factors are:

  • The species
  • Tightness of the grain (influences how quickly flavor and tannins are imparted)
  • Location of the forest
  • How long it’s seasoned (air dried)
  • The toasting level – how hot the fire and how long it stays on the fire.
  • The size! The larger the container, the slower the oxidation and the less wine-to-wood contact. That can offer an advantage when aging white wine in particular.
  • Whether or not its been used before.

That’s a lot of variables!  Let’s take on some of the most important ones.  Continue reading

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Which Wines are Less Acidic?

Question from Donnie: I was trying to find information on which wines are less acidic, as I have a problem with acid reflux. I read that grapes grown in warmer climates are less acidic, is this true?  And can you please give me a list of some less acidic wines?  Thank you in advance for your help.  

Reply: Hi, Donnie. Thanks for writing! 

I think the most important thing for you to do is check in with your doctor about wine, in general, because even wines that are relatively low in acid are still quite tart when you look at the big picture.

If you’re familiar with the pH scale then you know 0 is acid, 14 is alkali and 7 is neutral. Purified water is neutral.

Wine is usually between 3 and 4 on the pH scale and is more acidic than just about any food you might eat unless you like to eat fresh lemons.  

You’re absolutely correct that warm climate wines tend to be on the higher end of the pH scale, so lower in acid. 

But, you asked me for a list of low acid wines. I should mention that reds are usually lower in acid than whites. Generally speaking, avoid regions that are famous for Pinot Noir, sparkling wine, Riesling or Gewürztraminer. 

Well-known warm climates by region: 
  • Most of California: Avoid Sonoma Coast, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills
  • Most of Australia: Avoid Western Australia and most of Victoria
  • Walla Walla Washington
  • Mendoza Valley, Argentina 
Unfortunately, most of Europe falls into the cool-climate category, especially the most famous regions. You might look at southernmost Italy and Greece for lower acidity. Also reds from Portugal and parts of Spain may fill the bill.

Wines that are likely to be tart: Sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer… 

I hope that helps and that you can find a wine that works for you. Cheers! Nancy

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Sparkling Wine 101

As promised, a short course on the difference between wine and sparkling wine.

The amazing thing about sparkling wine is that it still exists because in terms of production, it’s a royal pain! Every time I visit a sparkling wine house I come away amazed that the wines don’t cost more than they do! The thing is that the winemaker has to do virtually everything that’s necessary to make still wine and then add on several steps more. Here’s how it goes:

The short course: 

1. Very tart, low alcohol wine is made, blended and bottled.

2. Yeast and sugar are added to the bottle of wine before it’s sealed, which sets off a second fermentation right there in the bottle. Since the carbon dioxide gas can’t escape, it’s absorbed into the wine, later to be released as bubbles.

3. The best bubblies are aged on the spent yeast cells, which impart a toasty, yeasty character that enthusiasts adore. As the wine ages the bubbles become finer and finer.

4. Finally, the yeast is worked up into the neck of the bottle and removed.

5. Removing the yeast leaves a bit of a deficit, so the wine is topped up with more wine, usually mixed with sugar syrup to balance the high acid. The sweetness of the syrup creates the difference between Brut (dry), Extra Dry (off-dry) and so forth.

6. Final corking. Additional aging, especially for vintage dated Champagne is an option.

For those who want the whole story: Continue reading

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What’s the Best Cooking Wine?

“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” W.C. Fields

Question from Marla: What kind of wine makes good cooking wine?

Reply: Hi, Marla. Thanks for writing!

I think I’ll start with what not to use: “Cooking Wine” that you buy at the grocery store. It’s usually very cheap wine with added salt. 

I don’t know who was first with this advice, but it’s right on: “Never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink.” I’ve never actually tasted cooking wine, but a quick search revealed that anyone of any age can buy cooking wine because it’s considered unpalatable.

Think of the wine as an ingredient, just like any other. If you’ve gone to the trouble of buying lovely fresh herbs, vegetables and meat shouldn’t you also use a good-quality wine? You don’t need to spend big bucks, since the wine will be cooked down and mingled with other flavors, but it should be clean and pleasant and the flavor should enhance your creation.

Using the wine you plan to serve with the dish is a great way to go. It’s a time-honored way of creating a happy pairing. 

Using left over wine is a great idea. The problem there is that wine doesn’t keep well once it’s open, so be sure to taste it before you use it.

When the recipe calls for white wine, I usually reach for an un-oaked Sauvignon Blanc. It’s crisp, lively and brightens the dish. I avoid heavily oaked wine in general because the reduction accentuates it. Continue reading

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Is My 1990 Cristal Too Old?

Question from Victor: Today I was going to open my 1990 Cristal Champagne and noticed it was really cloudy. Has it gone bad? Its over 20 years aged.

Reply: Hello, Victor. Thank you for writing! Cloudiness isn’t a good sign but, if it’s been stored properly your Cristal is, theoretically, near the end of its viability but not necessarily beyond. 

These prestige Champagnes are delicious upon release but can also age for a surprisingly long time. There are those who think they don’t really come into their own until ten years from the vintage. Total aging time? Up to fifteen or twenty years from the vintage. Some would say even longer, depending upon the producer and the vintage. 

Of course, deliciousness is subjective and personal. Young Champagne is lively and vibrant with peaches and apples, the citrusy tartness rounded by toasty, brioche-like richness. With time those characteristics gradually morph into increased toastiness, dried fruit, nutty character, mineral character often ramps up as may earthy truffle character, and the acidity seems to have softened. It all depends upon the wine. The thing to know about Cristal is that it usually spends five to six years aging on the yeast and is then given additional bottle time before release. The youngest Cristal now available is the 2004. The yeast contact actually helps keep the wine fresh.  

I did a quick search for tasting notes and found these comments on the 1990 Cristal from a 2010 tasting from erobertparker.com :  “The 1990 Cristal is a dramatic, sweeping wine endowed with masses of apricots, peaches, flowers and minerals. A large-scaled Cristal, the 1990 combines size with clarity and focus in a remarkably complete style that recalls the 1982. The wine remains generous on the palate, with stunning length and a finish that lasts forever.”  Continue reading

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