In transition

This isn’t really the Wineoscope, at least not as it was or as it will be. This is an awkward in-between creature that exists only while I’m getting my act together around a new site. So, please accept my apologies for this pimply adolescent phase, and look forward with me toward something a little less, well, awkward.

The perfect Thanksgiving pairing (has everything and nothing to do with the wine)

My favorite Thanksgiving pairings are pinot noir with Burgundian leanings and sparkling brut rosé. (I’m not aiming for points on originality here). Since I’m a member of the drink-American-on-Thanksgiving club, the pinot noir is likely to lean Burgundy without actually being so in the form of an Oregon pinot noir that remembers that Oregon isn’t California. The sparkling is likely to be Schramsberg if I can get it and Ch. Ste. Michelle if I have to share. That being out of the way, my favorite Thanksgiving pairings have everything and nothing to do with what’s in the bottle.

Growing up, dinner came in two general forms. “Dinner” was eating. I was sometimes allowed to bring a book to the table (don’t judge), my parents talked about business or watched the evening news, and we didn’t have wine. “Nice dinner” was dining. We lit candles. We had wine. The conversations were longer, more thoughtful and, silly or serious, involved more stories. “Dinner” could be over in 45 minutes. “Nice dinners” sometimes took three hours. I blame the wine.

Thanksgiving (and Christmas) was the paragon “nice dinner:” just the three of us, the nice plates, and a meal that took most of the day and a spreadsheet to prepare — because what is Thanksgiving but an excuse for excessively social cooking for a family that doesn’t watch football and does own three mortar-and-pestle sets? And definitely wine. We sometimes thought about a movie afterwards, but as often as not we just talked and listened to music until everyone was warm and sleepy and full of pumpkin pie and single malt and ready for bed. Again, I blame the wine. And the single malt, but mostly the wine.

Thanksgiving and nice dinners have everything to do with science and science communication. I remember the evening when my father first explained color spaces (a fundamental element of color theory) to me. I was somewhere in the second half of my teens and I’m pretty sure the bottle on the table was a Dr. Frank merlot from New York’s Finger Lakes, because that was our house red at the time. We talked about F-stops or the zone system, how sub-woofers work, the finer points of gardening or birdwatching. Later, we talked about my research and I practiced science communication on my father, for whom “cell” was more likely to refer to a battery than a bacterium. Sometimes we were mundane and just rehashed old stories. We always talked about the wine at least a little.

I’m sure that I would have been interested in science and communication and maybe even in wine without those dinners. But “nice dinners,” and holidays especially, were the crystalline form of the stuff that taught me to be inquisitive, to value good conversation (and to hold up my end), and to understand why wine isn’t just about flavor and definitely doesn’t need to be about prestige. Good wine meant good conversation, and good conversation means everything.

I’m all in favor of thoughtful wine and food pairings that reveal exquisite and otherwise-unseen elements of each, or even simply pairings that taste good. But the absolute best pairing with Thanksgiving is just wine, whatever wine makes space for conversation, whether at a quiet table for three or a potluck affair for thirty. Because that, not an exquisite flavor experience, is the wine’s real job.

Why thinking of wine as food solves the natural wine debate

Wine is a food. A surprising number of people are surprised when I say this. It seems obvious: wine is nourishment. Nourishment with specific effects, yes, but all foods have some kind of effect on us, if some more profound than others.

Saying that wine is food isn’t the same as saying that wine is harmless. Nearly every food will cause you some sort of harm if eaten in inappropriate quantity, and any amount of some foods are bad for some people. Jack Sprat and his wife are really caricatures of all of us: some people are happiest and healthiest as vegetarians and some really live best with meat, some feel their best eating dairy-free and some can’t digest soy, some thrive on lots of carbs and some on more protein, some need to avoid salt and some don’t. Guidelines apply, sure, but setting down universal rules about what’s healthy for everyone just doesn’t work. Alcoholic beverages are food, dangerous for nearly everyone in large quantities (allowing that what qualifies as large varies from person to person), not tolerated by some, and healthy and useful for many.

Remembering that wine is food fundamentally solves the debate about whether or not wine must be “natural” in order to be valid. The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is still no, but with some elaboration.

The reality about food in our post-Wonder Bread, post-Michael Pollan, post-Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall world is that we* near-universally know that locally-grown, minimally-produced, food with clearly identifiable ingredients that came out of the ground, off a tree, or from a recognizable piece of a pastured or wild animal represent “real food” and the ideal of what we should be eating. On the other hand, anonymous food processed out of recognition in large factories, wrapped in plastic and trucked about the country feeds most people most days. This is not ideal, but it’s the situation we have. Wine is the same. Boutique, caringly-crafted, often minimally messed-with wines are the ideals much lauded by our leaders. Still, Gallo and Yellow Tail and their ilk are still responsible for most bottles (and boxes, and jugs) on most tables most of the time. This is also not ideal.

The conundrum: while real food — including wine, and meaning ingredient-focused, sustainably grown, minimally processed, and preferably local — is ideal, it’s usually more expensive and sometimes unavailable. Especially in economically impoverished urban areas (and even very rural ones sometimes, perversely), wholesome fresh food sometimes is simply unavailable. Some people don’t have the know-how or time to prepare fresh food well. Even if just about everyone knows that eating mostly out of packages is bad, many still do so for a variety of reasons that may or may not be their “fault.” My husband once said that if the United States wanted to create an effective and complete anti-hunger program, the government should contract McDonalds to administer it. Neither of us voluntarily chooses to eat fast food. But you can’t deny McDonald’s expertise in delivering enormous quantities of consistently edible food to essentially every corner of the nation. When it comes to hunger, food is better than no food, even if the food is a mass-produced hamburger. Even though wine isn’t a basic necessity, mass production of what the natural folk would call fake wine makes wine accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to afford or access it at all. And much as I spurn the capitalist-driven food production system, I have to give credit where it’s due. We have industrialization to thank for safer food supplies and clean, well-made (as in not overtly faulty) wine. Understanding the benefits science and technology can bring, our task now is to undo the additive-filled and soulless damage we did to what nourishes us in figuring all of that out.

We can and should put community gardens into empty city lots, teach children how to grow their own radishes and encourage them to tear up the grass in the yard to do it, support fresh food markets in food deserts, make food production and cooking classes part of the school curriculum, and design economic policies to support local and organic food production. How to do this stuff is complicated. People specialize in economics and food policy. I’m not one of them. I’m not going to pretend that I know how to make these changes happen. I don’t believe that we need GMOs and factory food to provide enough food to feed the world, but I recognize that as a belief based on gut feeling and emotion and philosophy because I haven’t worked through all of the data. I’m consistent, though, in believing that the entire world could and should have access to real, honest, well-crafted wine if we changed the infrastructure surrounding how wine is produced and distributed. And we should.

So, the obvious conclusion. Appreciate mass-produced wine for providing volume and access while actively working toward making real wine — defined the same way we define real food — available to as many people as possible. Those of us with the money and education to buy real wine should, something we pretty much do already for cultural reasons, but perhaps without seeing the connection to the local and real food movements. Realizing this connection is important: it brings into focus the privilege inherent in preferring real wine and, in tandem, should help motivate us to work for change in both spheres. Think of real wine as part of real food, prefer both if you have the resources to do so, and think about what you can do to support its production and improve access. The Michael Pollans and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls of wine have yet to step up in terms of consumer education at least in the United States, hardly surprising considering our short history and present state of wine education, but something toward which to look forward nevertheless.

Now, what we define as “natural wine,” as in where we set the line between wine that’s allowed to carry that distinction or to show up at The Real Wine Fair — that’s a different question, and a semantic and philosophic more than a practical one. So is what we call “authentic wine,” and the issue of drinking local versus global is an entirely different discussion. More on those another day.

Incidentally, if we’re post Michael Pollan, I’d say that fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz (upon whom I’m inclined to wax poetic) is the prophet of our future food revival. Does that mean that I love quirky “natural” wines? You bet.

 

*I may be defining “we” rather narrowly as reasonably well-educated Westerners, but I doubt it. I haven’t surveyed people shopping for packaged foodstuffs with food stamps, but I know that my friends who fall into that category know what healthy food looks like and aren’t choosing it for a variety of reasons. Less well-educated folk may not know who Michael Pollan is, but the collective media we has achieved pretty high penetration if not on his message, than on the message of fruit and veg and whole grains good, processed foods and added sugar and salt and fats bad.

Waiheke Island and why I’ll probably never be an entrepreneur

Before I arrived in Auckland on Saturday evening, I’d planned to spend Sunday at the art museum and wandering around town. I was there for a two-day “PhD Research Innovation and Commercialization Course” hosted by the University of Auckland Business School on Monday and Tuesday and flying in on Saturday proved the least expensive and most reasonable option. Having never been to Auckland before, I figured that I’d enjoy the extra day in the city to explore. I was wrong. Walking from the bus stop to my hostel was more than enough of crowds, air pollution, and garish shops. Fortunately, I was also wrong about how easy it was to get out to Waiheke Island, as I discovered upon realizing that the ferry terminal was a five-minute walk from the hostel with ferries leaving nearly every hour. So, on Sunday I discovered that my favorite view of the city is from a boat headed away from it.

Waiheke Island is about 40 minutes by ferry from Auckland and home to something along the lines of 12 wineries, additional vineyards, and the inevitable mix of eccentric artists and rich people one finds on beautiful little islands. Being a completely spur-of-the-moment decision, I unfortunately didn’t have time to call in advance and arrange for proper winery visits. Also unfortunately, it was Mother’s Day and I was on foot. Not an ideal visit, and I’ll have to remedy its deficiencies with a better-planned future one (and one that includes visiting some of the island’s olive oil producers, I hope). But I did learn something interesting that, as it turned out, helped me think about what we were doing at the business school’s course.

Vines at Te Moto, Waiheke Island

Vines at Te Moto, Waiheke Island

I walked into Te Moto at the same time as a trio of Oregonian girls who’d just finished working harvest in Marlborough, and the tasting room host kindly offered to show the lot of us around their itty bitty production facility. As the girls cooed over the adorable little tanks, she explained that winemakers didn’t come to Waiheke unless they were interested in staying small and hands-on. An expanding business model just isn’t going to work on a 36 square mile island with astronomical land prices: at the most basic level, you can’t afford business here unless you can afford small, expensive, and precious. But you’re also not likely to plant roots (or rootstock) in this place unless you want a lifestyle that’s a little bit precious. Te Moto was founded in 1989 by the Dunleavy family, notable because patriarch Terry Dunleavy was the first CEO of the Wine Institute of New Zealand (one of two parent organizations to the present-day New Zealand Winegrowers), and though they’re clearly doing well, their crush pad-cum-open-air fermentation space is barely bigger than my office. And they’re doing something that’s the envy of many winemakers: holding on to their vintages until they think they’re ready to drink. The tasting room is currently pouring the 2006, 2007, and 2008. Even with their second label, Dunleavy, for more immediate cash flow, holding onto their flagship wine is an expensive proposition and an interesting choice.

A day later, I was sitting in the Owen G. Glenn building on the University of Auckland’s campus (a structure that could have been dropped into Starfleet Academy without anyone thinking twice about it) listening to a business professor tell me that my chances of becoming a successful entrepreneur increased with the size of the city I called home. Per capita, more start-ups are born in Sydney and Melbourne than in Auckland. Auckland fosters more than Wellington or Christchurch (the second- and third-largest cities in New Zealand, respectively), and Christchurch more than Dunedin, the seventh-largest city (and less than a tenth the size of Auckland) that I currently call home. The moral of the story was three-fold: first, aspiring innovators should live in densely-populated places; second, New Zealand innovation is hamstrung by its relative lack of large-scale urbanity; third, connections between people lead to innovation, and connections are easier in big cities. The prof was trying to convince us that making connections was easier in big cities than in smaller ones, simply because more “talent” was readily available, and that connectivity is important for business growth. Sure. But he ignored an important complicating factor: what kind of people choose to live in big cities versus small towns? Moreover, what kind of place would New Zealand be if we had six Aucklands and a Melbourne?

DSCF1468

Te Moto’s tiny winery/restaurant/tasting room complex

I can’t but wonder if part of why big cities grow small businesses is because the kind of people energized rather than irritated by the bustle, people who value or will tolerate constant motion, people willing to give up quiet porches for dirty pavement, are the kind of people willing to trade freedom of information and generosity of spirit for fatter wallets. I work hard, but being the person I want to be and living a good life is more important to me that climbing ladders, closing deals, and building an investment portfolio. I wouldn’t have come to New Zealand — and I dare say neither would most of my American friends here — if more of the country looked like Auckland.

And so I think about Waiheke. Te Moto’s definition of success involves a couple of compact car-sized fermenters with no plans to expand. You’re not going to start a winery on Waiheke unless you have money, but you’re still making a deliberate choice in favor of a particular kind of lifestyle. And so the community develops a particular flavor because the place attracts people with similar values.

My experience with Kiwis, at least outside of Auckland, is that they take time to enjoy the outdoors, sit with friends to drink their coffee, and spend money on experiences more than on fancy houses. Most folk I know in Dunedin wouldn’t live in Auckland because it wouldn’t afford them the lifestyle they treasure. Start-ups and entrepreneurs can do great things, and Villa Maria and Kim Crawford and Cloudy Bay are tremendously important for the New Zealand wine industry. But as for me, I’ll be watching the bell birds splashing around in the bird bath on the porch of my quiet little cottage on the bay, hopefully sipping something from a winemaker who’s decided to find the space to do her own thing.

 

 

Lactose, Lactic acid, Lactase, or the Lac(k) Thereof (and why wine is still okay)

 Some time ago, an inquisitive mind inquired of me as to whether being lactose intolerant could affect the sufferer’s tolerance of wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation. Fair question. “Lactose” and “lactic” are obviously related, and thinking about an intolerance to the “lactic” in wine is a sensible leap with everyone and their brother speculating over what causes wine headaches and the like (derivatory of the overarching food intolerance fad, I expect.)

 The good and the bad news is that lactose intolerance has no bearing whatsoever on the ability to digest malolactically-fermented wine. Good news, as the lactose-intolerant among us can drink wine without reservation. Bad news, as the lactose-intolerant among us are equally as enlightened as everyone else as far as identifying a cause of the wily wine headache, i.e. still in the dark.

 Short answer: lactose intolerance is unrelated to the ability to tolerate wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation.

Longer answer: Most people who react poorly to lactose suffer from an intolerance, not an allergy. Allergies are inappropriate immune responses to specific epitopes, which can be thought of as molecular shapes. An intolerance, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily an immune response. Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency in the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose in the small intestine. Since we can only absorb lactose after it has been broken down into its component parts – glucose and galactose – a lactase deficiency means that undigested lactose builds up in the intestines to cause bloating, diarrhea, gas, and other discomforts. Unlike lactose, lactic acid can be absorbed without first being acted upon by the lactase enzyme.

Incidentally, even if lactic acid absorption was somehow related to lactose absorption, quantity would be a pertinent consideration. Milk contains 2-8% lactose, i.e. relatively a whole lot, while wine contains much less than 1% lactic acid.

In conclusion, then, the lactic acid in wine should be of no concern to most people who need to avoid lactose. A glass of wine makes a far friendlier companion to a good dinner than a glass of milk, don’t you think?

Word of the Day: Delestage (and 2008 Folie a Deux Napa Valley Merlot)

Délestage – (‘dehl-luh-STAJ’) aka “rack and return” (though the French sounds much more refined and romantic, as usual.) Refers to the practice of repeatedly draining fermenting red wine off of its skins through a screen that traps some portion of the seeds, then returning the drained-off juice to continue fermenting on the skins, but minus the seeds entrapped in the draining process. Fewer seeds = lower seed-to-juice ratio = less extraction of seed tannins into juice = less tannic wine.

You know that it can’t really be that simple. There are two reasons why just describing the mechanics of the operation is inadequate. First, the “rack and return” process does more than just remove seeds. Like other methods of cap management*, the process also douses the floating grape skins. Unlike some other methods of cap management, délestage generally incorporates a lot of air into the must when the juice is pumped back over the skins.

Besides stimulating their growth, oxygen discourages fermentation yeasts from producing unsavory cooked cabbage and onion-like sulfides. Oxygen also has far-reaching and often poorly-understood effects on myriad elements of wine chemistry. Tannin polymerization, for example, is influenced by oxygen in complex ways that seem, in general, to lead to softer and rounder wines In fact, the role of oxygen in winemaking is so very complex that I’m going to refrain from saying any more about it here for fear of perjuring myself. In any case, the influence of délestage on a wine can’t just be attributed to removing seeds; oxygen must play a part, too.

The second reason why délestage is more complex than its mechanical description comes from our understanding – or, rather, our lack of understanding – of tannins themselves. We once separated tannins into the two broad categories of seed tannins and skin tannins. Seed tannins were bad: harsh, bitter, and green. Skin tannins were better: softer and malleable. In this context, délestage makes a lot of sense. Decreased exposure to bitter seeds during fermentation should reduce harsh, bitter flavors.

For better or for worse, tannin chemists, led by Dr. Jim Harbertson at WSU, have shattered this simplistic understanding. Tannins are polymers of flavon-3-ols. According to Harbertson’s work, longer tannins are usually perceived as more astringent, yet seed tannins are about a third of the length of skin tannins, averaging ten instead of thirty units. On the other hand, seed tannins take longer to extract than skin tannins; even though seed tannins outweigh skin tannins in magnitude, they release more slowly. To add yet another layer of complexity, the make-up of each tannin polymer influences its sensory characteristics in addition to its sheer length. And even then tannin experts haven’t yet deciphered what happens to tannins over time to make well-aged wine seem softer and less harsh than its youthful counterpart. For more on this topic without delving into the scientific literature, try this palatable Wines and Vines article.

The upshot of how to use délestage in the face of all of this complex chemistry? Taste, taste, taste. I’m no winemaker, but isn’t this self-evident? Superb winemakers have been making superb wine for centuries before anyone ever named or knew of a flavon-3-ol. Intuitively, it makes sense that removing seeds will reduce seed-y flavors. If that makes your wine taste better, go for it. As for oxygen, even if it remains the great unknown variable, scientific uncertainty doesn’t invalidate your taste buds.

*Cap management – grape skins are pushed, parachute-like, to the top of the must by CO2 bubbles created by the fermentation process, creating a “cap” of skins that can literally float above the surface of the must. Free from the protective effects of alcohol and acid and exposed to air, this cap will rapidly submit to spoilage microorganisms if not frequently reincorporated into the must. Hence, in making red wines, the “cap” must be “managed.” 

The fact sheets for these wines state that it they were “fermented using the Délestage method.” Without tasting the délestage and non-délestage samples side-by-side, I can’t help but think part of the benefit of using “rack and return” is being able to incorporate the word “délestage” into promotional materials.

 2008 Folie à Deux Napa Valley Merlot ($18 on the winery website) – Purple-tinged garnet red. Fairly monochrome but very pleasant sweet cherry nose, releasing a bit of cinnamon and clove heat over a few sniffs. Assertive Maraschino cherry hit up front – warm, round, and sweet – made less cloying by overtones of baking spices. A bit alcoholic on the finish with very spare tannins. Pleasant fruit flavors overall, but just a bit too much heat and alcohol for its own shoes.

Folie à Deux Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($24 on the winery website) – Looks like cranberry juice and smells a bit like cranberry juice, too: bright, astringent, simultaneously fruity and herbaceous. Full, sweet, black raspberry and cherry jam fruit is satisfyingly mouth-filling and sweet before disappearing into an acidic, refreshing finish (again, not unlike cranberry juice.) More tannin in the nose than on the palate with a smooth and fairly light aspect overall. Definitely not a big, chewy, rich, cabernet, but very tasty for a light-weight.

Phenols in train-ing?

I recently received a fascinating email that occasioned my learning a few new and interesting things about phenols.

To excerpt from the intial email:

“…(the taster) commented on the consistent style of the wines as having big but very soft tannins. I told him (as I have told so many others but kind of tongue in cheek) that the softness of the tannins was a result “train settling, ” Because our barrel room is located under a railroad overpass, the barrels are gently vibrated with each pasing train and that this gentle vibration helps create longer phenolic chains. The wines are gently “shaken not stirred” 21,000 times/year (that’s how many trains pass overhead each year. [The taster]was quite intrigued by this explanation and suggested that I should see if, in fact, there might be something to that theory. And so… I am asking you, do you think there could be any merit in thinking that the gentle vibration of our barrels some 21,000 times/year could contribute to the softness of the tannins in our wine?”

And from my response:

“…Though I really don’t know much about tannin chemistry, curiously enough, I work and am friends with two experienced grad students who research that very topic. One of these gentlemen has made wine in Argentina for ten or so years, consistently with an interest in polyphenol chemistry, and can probably rightly be considered an expert on the topic. I consulted them on your question and will do my best to summarize what they had to say. Please keep in mind that this is a very complicated question dealing with a very complicated and not fully understood topic on which active research is underway.
 
First, your assumption that longer phenol chains (i.e. a higher degree of phenol polymerization) are directly associated with “softer” or less-astringent tannins is not true. You are certainly not the only one to anecdotally think that longer tannins are softer tannins, but several published studies conducted over the last ten years have disproven the theory. Longer chains, appear to be more astringent, if slightly less bitter than shorter ones, with the relationship being non-linear and of relatively small magnitude. Stephane Vidal at the INRA Montpellier (an eminent French agricultural and sensory research institution) has done much of this work, along with Ann Noble’s group at UC Davis.
 
Second, there is no reason to think that vibrations will increase the degree of polymerization of your wine’s phenols. Sorry! To the best of our (my friends’ and my) collective knowledge, there is no data bearing on this question. From simple chemistry and common sense, however, vibration should increase polymerization only if addition of mechanical energy was important in increasing the number of collisions between phenol molecules. Since phenols are already in high concentration in wine, this may not be the case. Moreover, as already mentioned, the “old winemakers’ wisdom” that increased association between phenols and of phenols and acetaldehyde is responsible for the softening of red wines with age has been debunked by combining chemical and sensory analysis.
 
I’ll admit that the first reaction of my friends to your train-vibration hypothesis was “typical winemaker B-S, looking for a way to distinguish his wines.” Depending on your point of view, I tend to be either a bit more gullible or a bit more creative. Regardless, a bit of musing led us to think of one potential way of relating astringency to your locamotive proximity. As I’m sure you know, yeast lees can have a softening effect on wine. Yeast autolysis, a particular kind of cell death, causes release of polysaccharides and, in particular, mannoproteins into the surrounding wine. Stirring up the lees encourages cell-wall breakdown and the release of these compounds. Yeast-derived polysaccharides associate with phenols (the particulars depend very specifically on the types of polysaccharides involved, but this is a fair generalization) and stabilize the folded molecules, hindering denaturation and the exposure of hydrophobic regions that aggregate to form large and insoluble polymers. Thus, yeast autolysis reduces phenol precipitation. Since the perception of astringency occurs when tannins precipitate, yeast autolysis generally reduces astringency. Returning to your train vibrations, it is possible that the vibrations gently but frequently agitate the lees in your barrels, stirring up dead yeast components, and keeping more of your phenols in solution. This is purely hypothetical, but it’s a thought.
 
Finally, and perhaps needless to say, all of this depends a great deal on the varieties with which you are concerned, your particular vinification practices, and exactly what Paul (and you, and other tasters) mean by “big but soft tannins.” I can see from the Barrister website that you deal with a lot of varieties and your email implies that Paul saw this softness of tannins throughout the reds which, naturally, suggests association with your winemaking techniques and style. With respect to the yeast-stirring hypothesis, how often you rack and the strain of yeast you use and such will be relevant. “
 

Now, if I could only induce this winemaking gent — or another with access to a busy bit of railway — to store identical batches of wine under “trained” and “untrained” conditions and perform liquid chromatography analyses for phenols and sensory comparisons between the two conditions. Not precisely a widely-applicable study, but unquestionably interesting. And who knows? If the good-vibrations wines performed significantly better than their restive counterparts, there might be a market niche for gently vibrating wine aging platforms!

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: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f12/pombe-brew-138520/ 

For the truly curious yeast fiends out there, see the Forsberg lab Pombe pages at http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~forsburg/main.html#what for a truly excellent discussion of pombe in all its glory.

Of Barbera and Basil

I may right now be eating the best meal I’ve enjoyed on my own since arriving in Pullman (the qualifier “on my own” serves to exclude the several lovely dinners I’ve made for and/or shared with friends here.) A great big bowl of brothy Swiss chard, soup-steamed (my term for steaming greens until the liquid evaporates and they begin to brown, then adding extra liquid, turning the heat down, and cooking briefly until the greens are very tender and a small amount of richly-flavored broth has formed), seasoned with crushed white peppercorns and crushed nutmeg, with a big double-handful of chopped fresh large-leaf basil added just before turning the heat off. After removing the skillet from the hot burner, I broke a very farm-fresh egg on top, disturbed the yolk with my cooking chopsticks, and covered the pan while lighting my candles, putting on the dinner music, and laying out my tea tray. The egg was just barely set, cooked by the heat of the greens, by the time I was ready to carefully slide the whole thing into an oversized soup plate (carefully, so that the egg remains on top.) With a bowl of tiny farmers’ market apricots (Goldstrike and Rivals and something with a “Prince” in the name, if I recollect aright) and a glass of Barbera, The whole thing is made especially special by virtue of its origin: the chard, basil, and egg all came from a nearby homestead/farm where I spent all Saturday afternoon chopping veggies and harvesting basil and whatnot. I feel perfectly decadent.

What makes this worth mentioning is the Barbera. This glass is the end of a bottle of Columbia Winery’s 2008 Small Lot Series that a winemaker friend opened up with me this past week. Neither of us was tremendously impressed with the wine that evening. It showed solid Barbera varietal character – black pepper and white cardamom on the nose, bright red cherry fruit overlaid with more pepper and piney spice notes – but suffered from announcing its alcohol content to the nose and pharynx. The overall impression was young, hot, and simple. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing spectacularly right, either.

We tasted the wine without food and perhaps at a slightly higher temperature than would have ideally flattered it. Now next to my basil-laden egg in a green nest, my impressions have changed. The basil, in its herbaceous spicy glory, has worked surprising magic to draw black pepper spiciness out of the wine. The cherry fruit has simultaneously become just a bit richer and darker such that the pepper doesn’t dominate so much as accentuate. Even though it hasn’t suddenly developed great complexity, this Barbera has become much, much more pleasant to drink. Hmmm…Barbera and basil? Or even just Barbera and food? I may be showing my unfamiliarity with Italian cuisine by not having thought of this before accidentally discovering it.

No; not just Barbera and food. Next to the sweet-tart apricots, the Barbera becomes bitingly thin and acidic, with metallic graphite minerals emerging that were before barely apparent. I wonder if apricots baked in basil cream, or apricots stuffed with an herbed ricotta would be a better combination?

This, then, is the great joy of tasting wine with food. Every combination won’t be wonderful, but the whole experience will be enjoyably interesting.