The pleasures of being 27 and 2001 Dr. Frank Merlot

I’m enjoying the delicious pleasure this evening of a 2001 Dr. Frank merlot from an old favorite from my Finger Lakes days, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars. Recent statistics showing that the majority of wine bought in the US is drunk on the same day it is purchased is a little frightening, given the implications that data have for the wine market. Most folks buy wine to drink young; to them, wine that doesn’t fit that bill is bad, even if it becomes really, really good two or five or ten or twenty years from now. The “Barolo wars” that began in the 1970’s and 80’s are a good example: in response to consumers wanting wine to drink young, producers changed over from traditional ways of vinifying Nebbiolo — ways that made wines often better for paint stripper than dinner until they’d sat around for 10-20 years — to make “fresh(er) and fruity(er)” Barolo…if you can still call it Barolo, which is where the “war” part of the equation manifested.

Then again, Italians are still making traditional Barolo, and there will always be that subset of the wine-loving populous that keeps a wine cellar or, for the Francophone, vin de garde. The fact that nearly none of us can purchase Screaming Eagle doesn’t mean that the California cult boys are destined for bankruptcy.

Back to the merlot. My memories of this wine when I first bought it are clouded by six years, sixteen days distance; it was part of a case my parents let me choose on the first wine tasting excursion we made after I turned 21. Aside from how the wine has changed over that time, how much has my palate changed? I can look at my tasting notes from 2004 — yes, I still have them — but I can’t really judge how the wine has changed?

What I can do is say that I am at this moment enjoying flavors very different from what I enjoy upon opening a fresh, lithe, youthful red. The first pour on the first day it was opened defined my mental picture of “closed.” The tail-end of that “glass” (I tend to pour my nightly one-glass alotment as two mini-glass pours) was a darn sight better: rounder, fruitier, and less roughly tannic. Pouring the second libation via a Vinturi aerator made a substantial difference, perhaps the first time that I can say the Vinturi improved my initial impressions of the wine to the extent that I would consistently use it to maximize enjoyment of the rest of the bottle. (An aside: I’ve been experimenting with the aerator over the past month or so with a few different styles of wine. Look for the tie-in of my observations with a bit of chemistry soon.) Letting the wine rest in the glass for thirty minutes — without having used the aerator — produced a similar, but distinct effect, bringing the fruit upwards without as much effect on my perception of acidity.

Dr. Frank 2001 Merlot (Finger Lakes, NY)

– garnet red, just beginning to go tawny amber at the margins; limpid and glowing.

Initial tasting from just-opened bottle, no aeration: Rich, deeply textured nose: dusty dried cherry with lots of tingly acidity, fresh pine needles. Light-medium bodied (especially compared to the WA state reds I’ve been tasting of late.) First flavors are of blackberry leaf, herbaciousness overlaying subdued sour cherry underpinnings, with more acidity than tannins on the finish. Moderately long finish is dominantly acidic, but in an invitingly fresh rather than a mouth-puckering way.

+ Vinturi aeration: Substantially more aromatic, noticable immediately upon raising the glass and especially accentuating black currant and cherry notes. Previously mellow fruit is now bright. Acidity seems less sharp up-front, with a rounder and smoother mouthfeel overall. Finish not noticeably altered by aeration.

Microorganism of the day: Schizosaccharomyces pombe

Schizosaccharomyces pombe

 WHAT: a yeast that divides by fission (division in half, rather than budding like most yeast, hence “Schizo”), ferments sugars (hence “saccharomyces” or “sugar-loving”), and was first identified in African millet beer (hence “pombe” meaning “beer” in Swahili.)

Relevance to wine: S. pombe has traditionally been grouped among the spoilage organisms by the wine industry. Unlike its friendly, helpful cousin Saccharomyces cerivisiae (the major player in wine fermentation and bread making), S. pombe tends to throw off a lot of icky-tasting or -smelling byproducts as it turns sugar into alcohol. Sulfur is not a desirable aroma in wine!

S. pombe has one truly nifty feature, however, that is earning it a useful place in winemaking. It can ferment malic acid into alcohol. Malic acid is one of the three major acids in grape juice that carries over into wine (along with tartaric acid and citric acid.) Its fresh, fruity acidity is a boon in fresh, fruity wines, but too much and you’ll find yourself puckering.

The usual savior of malic acid overload is malolactic fermentation — conversion of malic acid into lactic acid by lactic acid bacteria after alcoholic fermentation yeasts have worked their magic. Great for rich, buttery wines — lots of unctuous flavors come along with the malic-to-lactic conversion — but not so great if you were going for a fresh and fruity style in the first place.

Could S. pombe help? What about the sulfur aromas and other issues?

A fair bit of research has investigated ways of using S. pombe in wine: to permit the inclusion of rotten grapes in Sherry and the potential of using genetic engineering to create a Schizoid-Schizosaccharomyces that keeps the good and does away with the bad, for example.

 Lallemande, a major yeast comapny, has recently released ProMalic® “for naturally lowering juice acidity,” based on S. pombe. The yeast is submerged in the wine in something like a big yeast tea-bag, allowed to steep until your pH is up (and your malic acid down) to where you want it, and then pulled out before the yeast gets carried away with making other less-desireable stuff.

Some super-enthusiastic yeast folk from the Forsberg lab at the University of Southern California say that they have tried fermenting beer with their pombe with results that suggest skunk cabbage more than the local brewpub. With a respectful nod to classic eastern African beverages, however, they note that their attempts involved neither millet nor traditional methods. Anyone tasted any African millet beer?

Some home-brewers out there are apparently giving it a try: 

For the truly curious yeast fiends out there, see the Forsberg lab Pombe pages at for a truly excellent discussion of pombe in all its glory.

Peynaud on Scientific Advances

“The faster the scientific advances, the greater the risk of widening the gap between what we know and what we do.”

– Emile Peynaud, 1984

Emile Peynaud was one of the winemaking and winetasting and winethinking geniuses of modern times and is my own wine guru. His books, translated from the French, on The Taste of Wine and Knowing and Making Wine were a major factor in my realizing that wine was far more than just a pleasant evening beverage.

As science advances, practice lags behind. If this was true in Peynaud’s day, how much more true is it today? But is it a problem? Science takes time to be communicated — a sort of “trickle-down” effect from the scientists to the practitioners — and more time to be accepted. Along the way, the science is sometimes resolved, refuted, refined, or even revoked. Should we really jump onto yesterday’s new finding before it has had time to sit around and age a bit?