A little goat cheese with your wine?

To say that something tastes “goaty,” in common parlance, is to say that it tastes like goat milk or cheese. I suppose that English-speakers are, in general, more familiar with goat-derived dairy products than they are with goat meat. Too, goat milk is so distinctively flavored that its presence screams through anything to which it is added. Regardless, wine isn’t usually goaty. Usually.

Goaty flavors are apparently related to three fatty acids, the “goaty acids,” C6 (caproic acid), C8, (caprylic acid), and C10 (capric acid.) [NB: incidentally, the Latin name for “goat” is Capra.] These acids collectively comprise 15% of the fats in goat milk (thank you, Wikipedia.) All three have been found in wine. A wine that smells and/or tastes like goat, therefore, probably contains unusually high amounts of these acids.

Why do I mention all of this? By now, you may have guessed – correctly – that I have recently encountered a goaty wine.

The goaty acids are found in grapes and can be produced by both wine-related yeast and bacteria. What I’ve been trying for the past week to learn is what affects the amount of these acids produced by each source. Medium-chained fatty acids (MCFAs), including the goaty C6, C8, and C10, are antimicrobial, inhibit the growth and reduce the rate of growth of both yeast and malolactic bacteria, and are related to stuck fermentations.

MCFAs can slide into the phospholipid bilayer that ordinarily seals the interior of the cell off from its environment. When this happens, the permeability of the membrane increases; in other words, the cell springs a leak (or, rather, many tiny leaks.) This is, needless to say, dangerous.

The research published on wine microorganisms and MCFAs is vast. Synthesizing all of the primary data is more like the subject of a solid literature review for the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, not a blog post. Still, I’ve read enough to fairly conclude that the matrix of MCFA production by and influence on microbes and grape vines remains something of a mystery.

None of this helps me understand why a particular Finger Lakes wine tastes like goat. Or, more particularly, why several wines from a particular Finger Lakes winery taste like goat. Sheldrake Point was new ground for me on my most recent visit to my old wine-tasting grounds in upstate New York. Though I now live within easy driving distance of the wine-rich pastures of eastern Washington, my parents are still close enough to the Finger Lakes to be practical. A Christmas visit afforded an excellent chance to get up to the lakes, revisit several old favorites, and explore a new winery or two. We detoured from the eastern border of Seneca lake to the western side of Cayuga lake and Sheldrake Point on the advice of a Seneca winery tasting room manager. I’m glad we did. None of the wines was remarkable – consistently okay, but not great – but either the terroir of Cayuga lake is dramatically different than Seneca or else Sheldrake Point has a style all its own. “Goat cheese” was a common thread not only through the whites but also into the pinot noir, as was a lightness that stood out even among the typically light-bodied wines of upstate New York.

A few interesting notes about Sheldrake. First, it seems that they do enjoy an unusual mesoclimate. Like the rest of the Finger Lakes, they enjoy the temperature- and humidity-buffering effects of a deep neighboring body of water. Unlike most of the regions’ wineries, however, their vineyards come down nearly to waters’ edge. Their grapes also bed down on the remains of an old cattle ranch. Could that have something to do with those unusual flavors? Finally, I should point out that my impressions were far from normal: Sheldrake Point’s 2008 Late Harvest Riesling took “Best Sweet Riesling in the World” and “Best American Riesling” at Australia’s 2010 Canberra International Riesling Festival and the winery has been named “Winery of the Year” for two years running by Wine and Spirits Magazine and the New York Wine and Food Classic. Heck, maybe I’m weird.

2008 Waterfall Chardonnay ($12) – All stainless. Strong aroma of goat cheese, along with lemon and cherimoya. Flavor is very light and crisp, dominated again by goat cheese and lemon flavors, and surprisingly creamy. Tidy, longish finish.

 2008 Barrel Reserve Chardonnay ($18) – Prominent, yet not intense barrel-colored aroma: lemon, vanilla, and oak, plus the same goat cheese note as in the Waterfall. A bit thin on the palate, a bit too much lemon-juice acidity in the mid-section, and a bit oak-heavy on the finish. Not bad, but not balanced.

2008 Gamay noir ($16) – Light, bright strawberry aroma, backed up by a mouthful of strawberry-lemon Jello. Virtually a rose and styled like an old-fashioned pink picnic wine with a bit of sweetness on the finish. If I hadn’t been told otherwise, I would have guessed at carbonic maceration.

2008 Pinot Noir ($16) – Pale tawny peach color, very unusual for a pinot, and suggesting oxidation. Smells strongly of goat cheese and tastes strongly of dried sweet cherries. Very acidic finish with essentially imperceptible tannins.

2007 Pinot Noir Reserve ($25) – Very different in style from the 2008 Pinot, with perceptible oak in the nose and on the palate. Exploding raspberries in the mouth, but with an oaky/smoky rather than acidic/fruity finish. Much less goat cheese.

Carbonic Maceration

Carbonic maceration: sure, I know what that is…

Carbonic maceration has been part of my wine vocabulary for years now. I have been able to tell you that it’s commonly used for Beaujolais, lends to fresh and fruity red wines, and involves fermenting whole grapes. I thought that I had a reasonable grasp of the concept. I wasn’t afraid to choose it as my variable in the experimental red wine making we’re doing in class this fall.

Last Thursday evening, I came home from a grape harvesting trip, looking forward to a Friday spent processing the merlot we had just unloaded into the student winery.  I thought it would be interesting to do a little internet research on the carbonic maceration (CM) technique. Anticipating a simple afternoon of gently tossing whole grape clusters into our fermenting tanks, I hoped to find a tip or two to differentiate our group’s wine from the rest.

Within about ten minutes, the scales fell off my eyes and I realized that I had blithely tossed “carbonic maceration” into conversations for years while remaining almost totally ignorant of its implications. And what might those be? That depends.

The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson:

” Carbonic maceration is a red wine-making process which transforms a small amount of sugar in grapes which are uncrushed into ethanol, without the intervention of yeasts. It is used typically to produce light-bodied, brightly coloured, fruity red wines for early consumption, most famously but by no means exclusively in the Beaujolais region of France.”

Concepts in Wine Chemistry, Yair Margalit (2nd ed):

“This is a special kind of fermentation which utilizes the ability of enzymes present naturally in grapes, to transform some small amount of sugar into ethanol. The process is eventually stopped by the accumulating alcohol which poisons the berry cells at about 2% ethanol.”

Some references make no mention of adding CO2, some insist that some of the grapes involved must be crushed by the weight of the grapes above, and some make a point of grapes remaining attached to the stems in whole clusters. Some say that, following some period (1-2 weeks) of CM, the juice is pressed off and final fermentation occurs without the skins, but not all make this point, either. Wikipedia seems to think that any wine that undergoes conventional yeast-driven fermentation following CM is properly only “semi-carbonic maceration.” Technically true, perhaps, but I don’t find the semantic distinction helpful.

In terms of practical commercial winemaking, removing grapes from the stems inevitably involves some degree of crushing, and any tank is big enough that grapes at the bottom will be crushed by grapes at the top. Then, of course, there is our little experimental wine making lab, the peculiar conditions of which may be the source of some of my confusion. Our “carbonic maceration”  ferments are entirely whole berry — even the grapes at the bottom — and perhaps only 50% remain attached to the stems. Then again, I doubt you will ever see a commercial winemaker spend three hours carefully shoving whole Merlot grapes into a 5-gallon glass carboy on a Friday afternoon.

Why bother?

Tannins: Ignoring the references for a moment, I can infer some likely consequences of CM on tannins. Tannins are found principally in grape skins, and different tannins are found in different layers of the skin. It is common, if mostly empirical and anecdotal knowledge, that tearing up red grape skins results in harsher tannins. This is a major motivating factor for gentler processing via gravity-flow rather than mechanical pump transfer, punch-downs versus pump-overs, and gentle crushing to release juice without pulverizing skins. If fermentation begins inside a whole grape, therefore:

1. Less total tannin will be transferred from the skin to the juice contained inside the grape per unit time. On the other hand, CM usually allows for a longer total contact time betwixt juice and skin. Since the kinetics of tannin-transfer are different, the type and feel of tannins should be different, too.

2. The tannins present in the inner layers of the grape skin will preferentially migrate into the fermenting grape interior, while minimal tannins will be extracted from the outer skin layers.

Aromatics:  Chemical analyses have shown that the “characteristic bouquet” of CM wines is related to higher levels of volatiles like vinylbenzene, benzaldehyde, ethyl cinnamate, and ethyl phenylacetate, to name just a few. A paper published in 1992 in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture showed that a whole slew of free and bound monoterpenes increased in grapes treated to carbonic maceration for nine days. In this case, “carbonic maceration” meant storing whole grapes (Muscat canelli) in CO2 gas at 32°C (about 90°F.) Monoterpenes are a class of hydrocarbons related to floral-fruity aromas in grapes (and other fruits.) An overall higher concentration of monoterpenes, and a higher ratio of monoterpenes to other aromatic compounds, explains the “fresh and fruity” nose of wines processed by CM.

Acid: Simultaneous with fermentation of glucose, grape enzymes ferment malic acid — as much as 50% of the total concentration — to ethanol. Malic acid, a sharp-tasting acid found at high concentrations in grapes, is converted to lactic acid by bacteria during malolactic fermentation in most red wines. This “maloalcoholic fermentation” means that CM wines can forgo malolactic fermentation, avoid buttery-soft lactic flavors while decreasing sharp malic flavors, and maintain the perception of high acidity with lower actual acidity.

Start looking, and it seems as though CM is much more widespread than the classic Beaujolais example would lead one to believe. In Rioja (particularly the Alavesa sub-region), Spanish winemakers use CM to foster fruitier flavors in temperanillo wines intended for blending. A similar concept to Beajoulais nouveau; “temperanillo” literally means “young red wine” in Spanish. New world winemakers from California to Australia making “Nouveau”-style wines have taken up the technique with Gamay as well as other varietals.

Unanswered questions

1. Fermentation — the conversion of sugar into alcohol with release of CO2 — is usually catalyzed by microorganisms like the yeast Saccharomyces cerivisiae in winemaking. In CM, fermentation is catalyzed by native grape enzymes. (Side note: because the grapes retain active enzymatic activity, some folks classify the grapes involved in CM as still alive. “Help! I’m being fermented alive!”) There must be a difference in the products of non-microbial versus microbial fermentation. Yeast (and fermenting bacteria) produce all sorts of other, often flavorful and/or aromatic compounds as part of fermentative metabolism. Are the non-microbial enzymes so specific that they yield nothing but ethanol and CO2? Or do these enzymes yield their own unique set of fermentative byproducts? “An overview” of CM from 1989  says that succinic acid, shikimic acid, and glycerol are also formed, but methinks this is a gross oversimplification.

2. Wikipedia, amongst other sources, says that CM ferments “most of the juice while it is still inside the grape.” My handy wine chemistry textbook suggests that grape-derived fermentative enzymes are inhibited by ethanol concentrations above 2%. Does this mean that the inevitable juice spontanously released in a tank of whole grapes, in collusion with the virtually inevitable native yeasts that will find and ferment such juice, can and do raise CM ethanol levels substantially higher?  

And what about those 5-gallon carboys shoved full of whole merlot grapes and topped off with nitrogen gas (since I couldn’t find a CO2 tank but had N2 readily at hand)? Two days later, no visible change. I’ll take pictures and keep you posted.

Masi Masianco 2009: verduzzo off the vine?

A less-than-famous grape and a less-than-obvious winemaking technique collaborate in a change-of-pace light white.

Verduzzo is a thin-skinned white grape used in five of the Northern Italian wine regions, including Friuli from which this wine hails. It is vinified to both sweet and dry forms, often used to contribute acid and fruit to dry white wines. Masi’s spec sheet for the Masianco notes that the pinot grigio and verduzzo were vinified separately with very different processing techniques for each. The verduzzo was, according to Masi’s translators, “ripened on racks” for three weeks after picking before crush, a five-day cold soak, and fermentation. I’m picturing off-season grocery store peaches and tomatoes, picked green and gassed to a semi-sweet, oddly textured “ripe,” though the Masianco thankfully bears no resemblance to those off-putting flavors.

According to Hugh Johnson’s 1971 Atlas of Wine, “North-Eastern Italy [including Friuli] owes less to tradition and more to modern development than the rest of the country. Whether it is the realism of th Venetians, the pressure of Austrian influence, the moderate climate, or all these and more, more wine is exported from the north-east than from elsewhere, more different grapes are grown and experimented with, and a more prosperous and professional air pervades the vineyards.”

Whether this “post-harvest ripening” is traditional or not, it has to take an experimental spirit to try such a thing in the first place. Or perhaps it just takes a full, nearly ripe vineyard and impending doomsday storms lurking on the horizon? Be it product of invention or product of necessity, the product was clearly good enough to keep.

Masi Masianco 2009

Composition: 75% pinot grigio, 25% verduzzo (13% ethanol)

Consumed with grilled veggies, fresh melon and apples, hazelnuts, and hard-boiled quail eggs

Pale green-gold color; very pretty. Nose seems relatively absent. What does emerge, if muted, is slightly creamy with a touch of acetone.  Loud creamy notes announce the wine on the palate before a balanced, if poorly integrated dose of musk melon and apricot fruit slides qietly across the tongue. Finish is fairly thin, but pleasantly fresh and surprisingly long with a faint, lasting nutmeggyness. Increasingly lemony and balanced as it warms up from refrigerator temperature, I would suggest serving this at cool room temperature, not solidly chilled. Overall, a pleasingly different light white for veggies, fruit, or chevre, more complex than some, but too disjointed to be elegant.

Sample provided.

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.

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?

Can Occam’s razor slice through a Scorpion?

Occam’s Razor: use the simplest means possible to accomplish your goal.

Scorpion: 1) An arachnid; 2) a genetic method, patented by ETS Labs, for detecting bacteria and yeasts in wine (or grape juice, or beer) samples based on real-time fluorescence PCR (poymerase chain reaction.)

Can Occam’s Razor slice through a Scorpion?

“Plurality should not be posited without necessity” or, in the words of William of Ockham, “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.” According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, the eponym was awarded to the monk from Ockham because he used the argument so often, even though it was already a common tenent of Medieval logic. Philosophers refer to the Razor in arguing over the existence of God, but most of us translate the phrase as “Don’t make it more complicated than necessary (stupid.)”

If Ockham’s monastery pew became a time machine one day and he was transported to 2010, the philosopher might be curious about the many incredible scientific advances we’ve made in the past 800 years.

In addition to being a cousin of the tarantula, Scorpion is ETS Labs’ patented name for a genetic method to detect common spoilage yeast and bacteria in wine samples. Send ETS Labs 60 mL of your wine and they will send back a report listing which, if any organisms are swimming around in your tank or barrel or bottle. Scorpion analysis relies on differences between the genomes of different organisms. Probes designed to bind to DNA sequences that uniquely identify a species are labeled (“tagged”) with fluorescent markers. Toss probes specific to many different organisms into a wine sample, and the tags show which probes are bound and, therefore, which organisms are in the sample. (This is a gross oversimplification, but I’m trying to avoid a detailed discussion of RT-PCR here. For a little more detail, see ETS Labs’ website.)

The first assignment for my wine microbiology lab this semester is to identify the bacteria and/or yeast contaminating an unidentified wine sample. The professor will give each group two wines — one spiked with nasties — and ask us to give him a report on what we found in the wine and how we found it. The first part of the assignment is to propose a method for attacking the problem: when we have the wine, how will we analyze it?

Oooohhh…There are lots of ways to analyze wine, and I could show my prof that I know about them by including all sorts of nifty things in my report. Scorpion analysis is outside my budget, but I could always run my own genetic tests if I can find out where to buy the right genetic probes.

Or I could smell it. “The nose knows” may be cheesy (why cheesy? Why not yogurty, or cucumbery? There’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish…) but such aphorisms arise because they are true. Looking at my lab manual and the list of microorganisms that could be the unknown contaminant, each has a peculiar smell. Brettanomyces bruxellensis is probably the most famous — many wine lovers can identify “Brett” — but Pediococcus parvulus, Acetobacter, and Lactobacillus species have distinctive aromas, too, as I know from culturing them in the lab.

Oenococcus oeni, a bacteria very often responsible for malolactic fermentation, is a little trickier to identify based on smell alone, so I might need to move up to the next level of complexity (by the way, we aren’t allowed to use taste as part of our analysis; some of my classmates are underage.) If my nose isn’t quite sure, I can drip a few milliliters of wine onto a Petri dish and see what grows. We make Petri dishes full of growth media for yeast and bacteria by combining sugar, some protein and a few other basic nutrients, and adding agar — a gelatin-like substance from seaweed — to make it solidify. Culture media in a dish is essentially Jello (mmmm….yeast extract-flavored Jello!) Any bacteria and yeast in my wine will grown and reproduce on this media and, after a few days in a nice warm incubator, each little microbe will have grown into a colony of identical offspring microbes that I can see with my naked eye. Different bacteria and different yeasts have different colony morphologies; they look different; even within the same species, different strains can have different morphologies. One of my favorite strains of Brettanomyces bruxellensis looks like this.

Between smell and colony morphology, I expect excellent odds of correctly identifying the bugs my professor has hidden in my wine. My nose, and Jello in a Petri dish. In terms of levels of complexity, I think that I’m ranking far below genetic testing even if I do need to use the Jello. I could spend several hundred dollars to use the fancier technology, but why bother when the good, old-fashioned, simple method will do? Now, I’m not at all knocking ETS Labs; Scorpion is a potent analysis when you need to know “how much” as well as “what,” for complex microbial problems, and for busy wineries amongst other things. Scorpion analysis definitely has its place, but this isn’t it.

Occam’s razor: 1

Scorpion: 0

Violet wine

“Although there are almost innumerable shade of differences in the colour of wine, they are all variety of two, the reddish and the yellowish color. I say reddish, for we know no kind of wine that is actually red or yellow. What we call red in wine is violet, mixture of red and blue. We do not in chemistry speak of the reddish wine as red, but designate its hue by the term wine-colour.”

- from G.J. Mulder’s Chemistry of Wine, 1857, London. p198

Sometimes, generalization for the sake of simplicity is worthwhile. Inaccuracies on the scale of generalizations can make communication so much easier. Can you imagine how Mulder might have asked one of his chemist friends what sort of wine he would like with his roast chicken?

If I don’t have words for a flavor, do I still taste it?

Language shapes reality. The words that we use to describe physical things and abstract ideas help shape how we see them. The way we express our thoughts clarify what we are thinking. The words that we use to describe flavors change what and how we taste.

Case in point: how many times have I been to a wine tasting or shared a bottle with company, listened to someone else say that they taste mushroom flavors, and suddenly find myself recognizing mushrooms in the wine, too? Partly power of suggestion, perhaps, but not entirely so; if myself come up with a descriptor to which I can put a name, I find myself coming back to that flavor over and over again. Even if other, unspecified flavors are equally (or more) prominent, my brain has a handle — a specific word — to draw it back to the flavor I recognize. 

What if I had  (gasp!) never eaten mushrooms? I would never come up with the notion that a wine tasted like mushrooms, and I wouldn’t be able to recognize what someone else meant if they called a wine “mushroomy.” Drawing on different sensory experiences, I might call the same mushroom-like flavor “earthy” or “meaty.” But if I define a given sensation as “earthy” instead of “mushroomy,” does that change the way I sense that flavor? Will my brain use its repertoire of stored sensory experiences to make its perception of the flavor in my mouth more like the sensory memory with which I have associated it?

So, a teenaged girl from the Languedoc, a civil engineer from Kansas City, a physical education teacher from Brussels, a Nepalese farmer, and an Egyptian nurse walk into a bottle of Australian Shiraz. Do they all taste the same thing?

Other musings from Freakonomics at the NY Times.