Rotundone: Is there anything new to learn?

Having a spare two days in Auckland last week, I paid an all-too-short visit to Waiheke island which — thankfully, if you’re like me and are always looking for an excuse to get out of a big, crowded city — is only a pleasant 40-minute ferry ride from downtown. While the island is still best known for Bordeaux-style blends, syrah has of late become the island’s new darling. So, as it will when wine science geek meets winemakers in a spicy red zone, rotundone came up.

Rotundone is, quite fairly, one of the better known contributors to wine aroma. Unlike so many other more or less mysterious molecules, rotundone produces a specific, distinct, and very characteristic aroma: the black peppery note we associate strongly with Syrah (or Shiraz, if you’re speaking Aussie). We’ve only had specific evidence of that rotundone-pepper-syrah correlation since 2008, when an Australian group identified the compound, showed it to be the heretofore most powerful wine aroma compound (i.e. the one with the strongest impact at the lowest concentration), and demonstrated that 20% of their experimental syrah-drinkers couldn’t smell it at all even while the other 80% were being overwhelmed. In 2008, it was “an obscure sesquiterpene.” Six years later, I had a winemaker ask me whether there was really anything more to learn about rotundone.

Two articles have been published on how rotundone develops in the vineyard in 2014, both from Australia (including researchers involved in the original rotundone research), both confirming that viticultural practices and vineyard conditions generally can affect rotundone concentrations. One, working from a precision viticulture stance, gave evidence that rotundone concentrations vary across a vineyard in ways that might be related to how soil differences and topography affect temperature. The other showed that rotundone concentrations decreased with leaf pulling (which increases grape sunlight exposure and therefore temperature) and increased with irrigation; dropping unripe clusters (as growers do to control yields and even out ripening) didn’t have an effect.

The winemaker’s point was: “Um, duh? We knew that already.” Whether or not he could, in fact, have predicted all of the details of these experimental results matters less, I think, than that he perceived the research as useless. Vineyards on Waiheke aren’t irrigated. The estate vineyards with which he deals are small enough and local enough for him to walk and taste regularly, observe when and where the peppery flavors he wants (or doesn’t) are happening, and give picking orders accordingly. None of this rotundone research changes what he’s going to do in his vineyard so, to him, it’s pointless.

His comment highlighted a question increasingly on my mind of late. Who is wine research for? It’s obviously for scientists, and there’s nothing wrong with that: knowing about the world is a worthwhile goal on its own merit apart from any specific practical outcomes that knowledge might have, and long live basic research. Scientists and the community at large say that it’s for the benefit of “the wine industry” and, in part, that’s true. For a large operation manufacturing a specific wine style calling for a “dialed in” level of pepperiness and relying on fruit from many vineyards, that rotundone research might change things. Maybe they think about calling for a different leaf plucking regime on some of their syrah vineyards that aren’t quite meeting quality targets. But is the research for small producers, like this skeptical Waiheke winemaker? Call him provincial or even selfish for thinking that research doesn’t continue to help “us” understand more about rotundone, but he still knows what he needs to do to make a syrah that, by all indications, sells like roses on Valentine’s Day, out his cellar door, at prices that folks without the million-dollar views find hard to justify.

The syrahs I tried, at Mudbrick and Obsidian, were pretty convincing. Both relied more on freshness than power to make their case and certainly didn’t lack for rotundone, even minus irrigation and with leaf plucking common across the island. Obsidian’s 2013, carrying enough fruit and tannin for its lightness and brightness to be delightful and refreshing (and a pleasant alternative to the overpowered, clumsy or pretentious syrahs too easy to find in many New World climes), would accompany a sweaty Waiheke summer afternoon as nicely as a grilled lamb chop.

Is there anything more to learn about rotundone? Unquestionably. But, maybe, the more pertinent question for a Waiheke winemaker is whether there’s anything more to be learned about making well-balanced, pleasantly but not overpoweringly peppery syrah. Realizing that those two questions are in fact different is key, I think, to furthering both goals.

 

Pairings with pinots and the futility of looking to science for answers

I have a horrible (given my current location) admission to make: Central Otago pinot noir is, to date and as far as I can tell, not my favorite thing in the world. That said, Otago pinot noir is lovely and fulfills a completely different function at table. One of the best meals I’ve ever had with an Oregon pinot was the whole salmon I roasted with a bunch of herbs and various alliums for my last Thanksgiving in the States. A guest serendipitously brought a Lange pinot, and it was memorable. On the other hand, Grasshopper Rock’s example – grown on the Clutha River in Alexandra, Otago — didn’t really grab me on its own, but was just lovely when I tried it alongside some smoked hoki that I’d brought home from the Auckland fish market (yes, in my backpack, on the airplane). Those rather robust smokey flavors emphasized the wine’s structural and savory notes and took the focus off cherry flavors that were a bit more candied than I prefer.

What I just offered you is a lay theory. To make it more than that, I’d need an empirical study or three to examine the interaction of smoky foods with various potential sensory qualities found in pinot noir. The problem with that idea, apart from it having nothing to do with my current main priority, i.e. the PhD, is that food and wine pairing research is obnoxious. .

Food and wine pairing articles (I’m quoting this one) are full of statements like this: “This research found that eating cheddar cheese before drinking Shiraz reduced some of the negative characteristics of the wine and enhanced the preference for the wine. This indicates that consuming food and wine together can minimize some of the less desirable flavors of both.” And hypotheses like this one: “Certain food and wine combinations will be perceived as significantly better than others.” The latter of which, I suppose, points out that food-wine preferences could be completely personal, like favorite colors (except that favorite color preference isn’t random, either).

Perhaps this sort of research really interests sommeliers who could think about the benefits of a shiraz and cheddar pairing in a tasting menu, though I doubt they need reassurance that their choices will work for someone other than just themselves. The question still arises: is science, in all its reductionist glory, really the best way to attack food and wine pairings?

First, let’s get a methodology point out of the way. Apparently, the best way to evaluate food and wine pairings is to ask people to eat and drink at the same time rather than, say, munching a bit of cheese, swallowing, and waiting thirty seconds before taking a sip of wine or vice-versa. Because that’s the way people usually eat.

Moving on. Research to date says that wine sweetness and astringency, but not its acidity, are significant in determining ideal food pairings. The most recent food-wine pairing article I’ve encountered tried to suss out whether acidity was in fact important, and the role of wine expertise in food-wine preferences, along with moving beyond many previous studies by pairing wine with foods other than cheese. The chosen foods? Chevre, brie, salami, and milk chocolate, paired with an Ontario chardonnay, an Ontario sauvignon blanc, an Argentinian cabernet sauvignon, and an inexpensive LBV Port. Needless to say, this study isn’t going to give me any insight into my pinot noir pairing theories. Or, for that matter, any insight into any real food and wine pairing conundrum anyone ever faces anywhere.

I’m poking fun, but I’m not being wholly fair. The authors of this article have more expertise in what they’re doing than I do. It’s obvious to any wine or food nerd which of the above pairings will and won’t work, but that evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, and maybe those assumptions are worth testing. But when the authors begin asserting that this study provides evidence that acidity, sweetness, and tannins are all important in pairings, just from showing that milk chocolate works better with port than with chardonnay? No. Four examples aren’t enough to allow for that conclusion, not near enough to weed through and rule out all of the other things (confounding factors) going on in both the wines and the food.

So we’re back to where we started with pairing food and wine. What says our weight of accumulated, non-scientific wisdom? And does it taste good? The reductionism of sensory science may have useful ways to tackle the hyper-complexity of food + wine (don’t ask me whether that’s more or less complex than, say, the human immune system, which science seems to tackle with at least some success), but I’m not sure they’ve figured them out yet. And when I’m trying to decide what to serve with my next glass of pinot noir — Oregon, Otago, or otherwise — the only research I expect I’ll do will be on my favorite cooking blogs.

**All sorts of other fascinating alternate-scientific approaches have been taken to food and wine pairing, Chartier’s fascinating Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor being perhaps the most interesting example. What I’m talking about here is the mainstream pairing science found in peer-reviewed journals.

Rippon’s Gewürztraminer and the quandry of white wine fermentation temperatures

I opened a bottle of Rippon’s lovely 2011 Gewürztraminer a few nights ago in a small act of celebration upon having an academic manuscript accepted for publication (hooray!) As I bathed my nose in pretty peach and lime and rose notes, to my surprise, my very non-oenophile husband commented that he didn’t find it very aromatic. (I blame the tahini-miso oca, or New Zealand yams if you prefer, that he’d just noshed). Conversation ensued about white wine aromas. Conversation turned technical, as it’s inclined to do around our table (he may not be an oenophile, but my partner is unmistakably an academic and a knowledge-hound), and an interesting conundrum turned up.

Modern winemaking dogma says that white wines should be fermented at fairly cool temperatures to maximize their aromaticity. Aromatic molecules are, by definition, volatile — they can leave the liquid and travel into the air, where we can sniff them into our nostrils and bring them into contact with aroma receptors. Fewer of those volatile molecules will leave the liquid at cool temperatures than at warm ones because (to simplify), warmer molecules have more energy, are moving faster, and consequently have a better chance of flying off the liquid’s surface. Fermenting at cool temperatures, then, keeps more aromatics in the wine for you to enjoy on a later occasion rather than liberating them into the atmosphere of the winery.

Fermentation creates heat, sometimes even enough to kill off the yeast and stop fermentation in mid-stride. To keep that from happening, winemakers have a few different options. Smaller containers have higher surface area to volume ratios than large ones, release more heat into the surrounding air, and generally stay cooler. The old-fashioned solution, moving small tanks or barrels outside to take advantage of cool night-time temperatures, can work for small operations in cool places. Keeping the room where fermentation is happening cool helps, though that’s a pretty inefficient and energy-expensive option. Far and away the standard contemporary solution, the jacketed stainless steel tank, lets cellar staff dial in specific temperature programs and is near-ubiquitous in modernized operations of decent size. Near-ubiquitous, but not entirely so. Two of my favorite wineries near my old home and my new one, Eyrie in the Willamette Valley (an Eyrie pinot blanc would have been on my celebratory table if I’d had any) and Rippon in Central Otago, both do without. They’re expensive, and they also don’t fit with the low-manipulation philosophy both espouse.

So here’s the quandry. Both Eyrie and Rippon turn out deliciously aromatic whites. Neither uses sophisticated temperature control during fermentation. Both McMinnville, OR and Wanaka, NZ are coming on cool roundabouts harvest time and both operations use small tanks, but it’s still safe to say that those ferments are exceeding the UC Davis-endorsed temperatures.

Why don’t they (and every lovely white wine made before the advent of modern refrigeration) seem vapid, empty, and unappealingly burnt out? I can’t be certain. When I asked Jason Lett, winemaker at Eyrie, this question, he suggested that I do an experiment to try to find out. Having left my lab days behind me, I’m not in a position to do so (it would be a big project in any case) so I’m left to speculate.

The situation is too complex with too many variables for me to evaluate with any chance of accuracy. Yeasts produce different arrays of aromatic compounds at different temperatures, for example. But I also speculate that these wines would, in fact, be more aromatic if they were kept cooler. They don’t seem to be lacking anything, I suspect, because spontaneous fermentations, excellent grapes, and attentive winemaking are already contributing plenty of aroma in any case. A recent study (that actually concerns itself with the possibility of using non-Saccharomyces yeasts to alleviate some of the potentially harmful side-effects of fermenting at low temperatures) suggests that the microbial diversity that comes with spontaneous ferments is probably helping hold up aromatic diversity, and it’s not the only one (this excellent article on sauvignon blanc aromas points to advantages from yeast diversity, too).

In other words, I can’t help but wonder if fermenting at artificially-controlled cool temperatures is something we’re told we need to do because modern industrial practices strip aromas in other ways; that is, if we’re not compensating for less-than-ideal winemaking. Cooler fermentation might (or might not) make that gewürztraminer I enjoyed more aromatic, but it wasn’t wanting. The $15 mass-market version, on the other hand, probably needs all the help it can get.

Those oca, incidentally, threatened to steal the show from the wine. (I think the wine won, though: a bit off-dry, but well-balanced, with the sort of creamy richness I look for in a gewürztraminer and, of course, plenty of peach-lime zest aroma.) Should you catch some of these unusual almost-potato tubers in the market — or, like me, should the house you’ve rented have a patch of them resident in the back garden — here’s a suggestion. North American yams take well to the same treatment.

Tahini-miso oca for four (or two plus leftovers)

1 lb (450 gm) oca, washed and cut into approximately 1″ pieces if large

2 tbsp tahini

3 tbsp white or barley miso

2 tsp butter

~ 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, if available (or substitute 1 tsp dried thyme)

Heat about an inch of water in a medium-sized saucepan over moderate heat until steaming, then add the oca, cover, and steam over moderate heat for about 10-15 minutes or until tender all the way through when prodded with a fork. While they’re cooking, combine the miso and tahini in a small bowl. (The purpose of doing this, rather than just adding both to the pot individually, is to help the miso mix more easily into the oca. If you’re really interested in saving dishes you can just do the former, but you may end up with miso-lumps.) Drain any remaining cooking water from the pan. Add the tahini-miso mixture, the butter, and the thyme and toss gently until all of the tubers are coated in the sauce. Serve immediately.

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, thank you. 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?

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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 what 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.

 

 

Felton Road’s low-tech precision winemaking

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Gareth King at Felton Road

“Precision viticulture” refers to a technology-laden mission to optimize and equalize grape quality at a local level, decreasing variability plot-by-plot, potentially even plant-by-plant. By collecting data on water use, vine vigor, temperature, soil conditions, and other parameters at multiple points across a vineyard, vignerons can understand how different areas of the vineyard are differing in their performance and, consequently, irrigate or fertilize or prune or harvest or what-have-you differently to suit. Affordable GPS systems, high-tech mapping with geographic information systems (GIS), and lots of spiffy little wireless sensors have made all of this possible and even reasonably practical for vineyards within the past several years (Australia’s national Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been notably pushing PV adoption in that country). Oddly enough, though, I hadn’t really thought about what an equivalent “precision winemaking” strategy might look like before a week or two ago.

A week or two ago I paid my first visit (of many, I expect) to Central Otago, New Zealand’s most southerly wine region, famous for pinot noir, Wild West-style scenery, and hordes of international backpackers. When I made arrangements to stop by Felton Road, I was warned that I wouldn’t be able to meet Blair Walter, the winemaker, because he planned to rack that day. (Rack = remove wine from one container to another, most often for the purpose of separating it from the lees, the dead yeast cells and other particles that collect at the bottom of the barrel or tank.)  When I learned how he was racking — he found a few minutes to come out and talk in between barrels — the first thing that came to mind was, “gosh, this sounds like precision winemaking.” If precision viticulture is approaching the vineyard on a vine-by-vine basis, then precision winemaking seems as though it should be approaching wine on a barrel-by-barrel basis. Far from technology-laden, though, Walter’s method is simple, elegant, and light on gadgetry.

Their pinot noir is made like this:

1. Crush grapes into stainless steel fermenter tanks. Ferment.

2. Press and transfer wine to barrel. Let wine sit in barrel until February (in Otago, that’s about ten months after harvest).

3. Rack wine off lees, out of barrel and into tanks.

4. Bottle.

Racking happens only once. Walter says that everything that comes out of the barrel during that single racking goes into the bottle. With that single control point before bottling, he sounds fairly obsessive about ensuring sure that he sees everything that comes out of those barrels. Unsurprisingly, he uses a Bulldog Pup, a clever little racking wand that  moves wine by positive displacement instead of active pumping. Positive displacement functionally pushes — “displaces” — the wine out of the barrel by filling the barrel with gas. The barrel is sealed save for a tube pushing the gas in and the tube letting the wine out so that pumping in gas increases the pressure inside the barrel; the wine has nowhere to go but out the exit tube. Bulldog Pups are far more gentle than any pump. They can also virtually eliminate oxygen exposure during racking when nitrogen or argon is used to do the pushing.

Neither of those is Walters’ main reason for using the Pup. He even uses plain-old forced atmospheric air, replete with oxygen, to push. After ten months undisturbed in barrel, the wine can use the oxygen exposure. His reason for racking this way is so that he can watch the wine as it comes up the tube (through a conveniently placed sight glass) and decide on a barrel-by-barrel basis what to leave behind. Bulldog Pups have a foot that will automatically shut off flow at a pre-set level: a winemaker can decide to leave four inches of lees in each barrel, set the foot appropriately, and then leave the cane to mind itself while his attention is elsewhere. Walters doesn’t automate, and the only person who racks is him.

Walters’ approach reminded me of what his colleague Gareth King, Felton Road’s viticulturist, said about how he practices precision viticulture. The man doesn’t seem to want for much, but when we encountered the harvest crew coming in from a morning vineyard walk, he said, “You know my best technology? They just walked past us.”

I can’t say what difference GPS sensors versus summer interns might make, but I can say that Felton Road’s pinots were among the best I tasted. Central Otago pinots can be a bit clunky, but Felton Road’s are texturally lighter and more elegant, with plenty of clean raspberry and strawberry aromas up front backed up with enough earthiness and tannins to keep things interesting. The 2012 Bannockburn and 2012 Cornish Point bottlings seemed to walk that balance of lightness and structure particularly well.

Precision viticulture is veritably new. It’s downright revolutionary, really, in terms of how it changes the way vignerons can think about vineyard management. But technology isn’t the only way to pay attention to details. The old-fashioned strategy of carefully and consistently observing what’s happening with individual vines isn’t an exact substitute for GPS-enabled water uptake meters: the technology is more precise and lets the vineyard manager put his eyes in a lot of different places at the same time — and collect data in his sleep or during family meals, which has to be a real boon. And I can imagine monitoring individual barrels with some kind of wireless oxygen sensor that can track and measure differences between how each barrel transmits oxygen — since every barrel is unique in this respect — and lets winemakers make corresponding individualized adjustments. No amount of careful personal attention could do that.

But Walters’ version of precision winemaking and King’s version of precision viticulture will serve as a good reminder for me every time I read a journal article or press release about some nifty new precision gadget. Some of the best technology comes on two legs.

A Humanist Rationale for Wine Science

Wine writers have all manner of reasons for writing about wine: the people, the moments of beauty, deciphering complexity for the hapless consumer, a passion for free samples. Why I write about wine is a question I perennially reconsider – the answer seems to keep changing – but I can always take the easy (and true, if not exclusively true) cop-out: wine is a fantastic vehicle for helping people learn about science.

Still, that answer begs the question: why is it good or valuable or worthwhile to help people learn about science? I’m currently studying in a department called the Centre for Science Communication, a magical place where everyone cares about bringing Science to the Everyman in accessible and entertaining ways. Some reasons for teaching people about science are pragmatic: better-educated people should make better decisions. Show people the beauty of the penguin or the wild orchid and empower them to care more about how their lives affect the natural world. It’s the democratic argument for why we have compulsory education: educate everyone enough to make them good (enough) citizens. Educate them more and make them better citizens. Or, if you prefer, the capitalist argument: people who know more science can do jobs that involve more science and generate more revenue than the ignorant. All good.

But I chose a small liberal arts college for my undergrad years, where I studied music and philosophy along with my molecular biology. I’m not all pragmatist; I believe in my heart of hearts in a liberal education. Learning makes us better people because it increases our appreciation and enjoyment of the world, because men were made to live and living is more than mere work and production. Moreover, learning makes us able to see. We only see what we can conceptualize, things for which we’ve created mental boxes. The Inuit can see twenty different kinds of snow; the educated oenophile can see twenty different kinds of pinot noir. The more we see, the more we are able to observe and to strive to understand, the more able we are to seek truth in all of its forms, and this is the highest calling of man. I don’t really write about wine science because it helps people learn about science. I write about wine science because I want to help people see and seek to understand.

I’ve been sipping on the taMt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noiril-end of a bottle of Mt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noir as I’ve been writing this. The wine is pretty (see below). The website gives me more than the usual information about how the wine was made, and that makes me happy. Can I taste the seven days of cold soaking or smell the twice-daily punch downs? Heck no. By knowing these details, am I thereby prompted to see and seek to understand more about the wine? Yes.  

Mt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noir (NZ $29.90) – smells like flowers and raspberries; very fresh, very nice. Fruity, but enough acidity and astringency to save it from being just fruity, with helpful if unexpected tannins on the finish. If not wildly complex, a pleasant iteration of a light, cool-climate style Pinot Noir. 

Lovely whites from Santorini and why Minerality is like “I’m Good”

This morning, the New Yorker ran an amusing online parody of a usage guide for “I’m good” – something I’d have expected to see on McSweeney’s more than in the New Yorker – demonstrating how “I’m good” can be used to mean darn well anything you please. “Minerality” might be much the same, though whether everyone has a different but individually consistent definition of minerality, or whether we all tend to use it to describe a whole host of different generally desirable perceptions is still up in the air.

I was recently sent two expressions of Santorini Assyrtiko and a sweet Vinsanto. Two were perfectly delightful, and none were boring. The two dry whites shared a common freshness despite being made in very different styles. The Thalassitis 2011 Santorini dry white blend was very aromatic, light on its feet, bright with acidity and citrus-pear flavors, and with plenty of what I intuitively call minerality. The 2009 Nikteri Nyxtepi from Hatzidakis was badly over-oaked with too much butter and heat for my taste (not surprising at 15% etOH) and little more than oak on the nose, but still managed enough mid-palate salty herbal notes to keep it drinkable. I didn’t realize until after doing a bit more reading that my using “minerality” to describe the first wine and “salty” to describe the second was telling. Am I thinking of minerality as a set of flavors of which salty is one? Or am I drawing a clear distinction between minerality and saltiness? I’m not sure that I’m prepared to answer that question with any conviction.

The Vinsanto was exquisite – not a word I apply lightly to wine – with a different character than other similarly-syrupy dessert wines I’ve had: resinous, in a pleasant way, and without being bitter; raisiny, but without being cloying; oddly sippable for something so sweet. My response to this and the Thalassitis was to curse the combined effects of living in a small town and on a small budget, since I’m unlikely to get any more of these delights any time soon. A shame.

A lot has been written about minerality of late, mostly to the tune of “everything we’ve been led to think is true about minerality is wrong.” Clark Smith probably said it best way back in 2010 – “No topic has wrought more confusion and ruffled more feathers among dedicated enophiles than the incessant bandying about of the lofty sounding “M” word.” – but the debate continues because while some, like Smith, take minerality as a given, others are still concerned by what seems a nebulously ill-defined area of wine description. What to do when wine enthusiasts can’t agree? More research, obviously.

“Expert” wine tasters (winemakers, researchers, and teachers) recruited by a recent French study tended to characterize minerality as something perceived by both nose and palate, though with no great consensus: about 20% defined minerality as strictly an aroma characteristic and about 20% as strictly an in-the-mouth sensation. The same experts, when asked to define wine minerality, called on a bewildering array of aromas, flavors, and textural sensations from “algae” and “honey” to “tension,” “flavorless,” “dynamic,” and “optimal terroir.” Some associated minerality with saltiness, some with bitterness, some with acidity, some with lack of aroma, some with gunflint aromas…the list goes on.

I don’t feel comfortable taking these findings too far – ideas about minerality could be and probably are very different amongst, say, Oregon winemakers or Chinese sommeliers compared with these French experts specifically acclimated to Burgundy – but I think that it’s still fair to put this study in the pile of evidence weighing against a clear-cut definition of minerality. Asking whether minerality is well-defined is a very different question than asking whether it exists, and there are some cross-language and cross-culture issues to be examined here. Still, defining what we mean by minerality is an obvious and key step toward answering the much more interesting question of where minerality comes from. After all, without defining her starting terms, how’s a scientist to proceed?

And here I’m forced to return to my initial thoughts about minerality being like “I’m good.” How’s a scientist to proceed? Maybe by acting like a linguist, listing all of the different situations in which “minerality” is found, and focusing our search for meaning on context instead of the word itself. But I’m still not convinced that that strategy will help us figure out what viticultural or enological practices contribute to “minerality” in any of its forms.

**Samples courtesy of the North American Greek Wine Bureau**

Approaching the Future with an Open, but not an Empty Mind

I just returned tonight from The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers hosted at the Meadowood Napa Valley in St. Helena. A beautiful, educational, astonishing, vibrant, vista-opening week in multiple different ways, and I suspect that I may feel compelled to share something more of the experience over the next few days. Tonight, I am reflecting on the possibility of possibilities. I love “wine science” (an awkward name to which I often resort in the face of the even more awkward list of sciences involved in wine growing, making, and appreciation) and I adore trying to find ways to share wine science with non-scientists, but…well, I like to write, too. From time to time I even like to write things that have no relationship to science whatsoever.

In one ten-minute writing exercise at the end of a session (given in part by Eric Asimov of the NY Times, no less), we were all challenged to write something in the “voice” of one of the masters (Kermit Lynch, Hemingway, and Hugh Johnson, among others.) I knew that I wasn’t going to write about harvesting indigenous yeast strains or genetically modified lactic acid bacteria, so I let the right side of my brain out to play. This is what happened (completely unedited from that ten minute exercise, I’ll warn you):

 

I drunk the wine like a late-19th century romanticist. The brilliantly aged-carnelian liquor in my glass was brilliant, yes, but it was first and most importantly a vehicle for what I wanted it to be. I saw my companion – an older man with a younger heart – through the rose-colored glasses of that liquid. I saw the present moment through that liquid – an otherwise-ordinary Monday night with an utterly extra-ordinary bottle of 1964 Les Forts de Latour – and the liquid reflected back at me a life that was at once enchanting and purely ordinary in the most human way possible. I saw thousands of people living this experience before me, speaking different languages but expounding upon the same universal truths, feeling the same emotions in the same unique and powerful way, and all of these visions of my former selves only magnified the present moment, made the present moment more momentous.

My companion drunk the wine like a realist; the Henry James to my Hawthorne. He had lived this experience before, not just through the inherited memories of the men who preceded him, but last week in his tiny apartment behind his violin-making shop. And yet he had not lost hold of the sense of mystery in what he swirled, but he swirled his glass as a man runs his hand over the hood of an antique car or caresses a beloved canine. As the glass was for me my lens and mirror, so to him the glass was his flame. I could see him basking in its glow, his warm, round face soothing and shining in its garnet light.

And it was fun. I might even do it again sometime.

Attempting to drink Norton in Virginia

Norton is not a hybrid. Maybe you knew that, but it’s easy to forget/not realize/assume that it is. Very understandable: Norton obviously isn’t among the top European vinifera varietals – and its name makes it an unlikely candidate for one of those little-known and newly-discovered vinifera esotericals – so that means it must be a hybrid, right? Well, wrong. Norton is a Vitis aestivalis or “summer grape” (aestivalis refers to summertime) and a totally different species from V. vinifera and V. labrusca. In the United States, we usually refer to European varietals as “viniferas, V. labrusca grapes like Concord and Catawba as “natives” for being indigenous to this continent, and intentional “man-made” crosses between European vinifera and American native varietals as “hybrids.” Vitis aestivalis, then, is none of the above.

Or at least that’s the best consensus at this point. Some folks seem to think that Norton might be a very old hybrid between a labrusca called (of all things) Bland and the vinifera Pinot Meunier. I’ve not read genetic data on the subject, but every paper in American Society of Enology and Viticulture as well as the several Norton-related papers indexed on PubMed agreed in identifying Norton as V. aestivalis. Like native labruscas, Vitis aestivalis is also native to eastern North America. state of Missouri markets Norton as “America’s True Grape.”

So, Norton is not a hybrid and, therefore, I was interested in tasting a few over my weekend at the 2011 North American Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hybrids and I don’t get along well for one really quite simple reason: anthranilates. Methyl and ethyl anthranilates are the chemical compounds responsible for the distinctive “foxy” aroma that characterize wines made from hybrid grapes (or pure-bred V. labrusca.) V. aestivalis, however, isn’t known for having a high level of these compounds or the associated “foxy” flavors.

I learned today that Norton is associated with Missouri – Norton is Missouri’s state grape – but I had heard more about Virginia’s iterations of the varietal. Norton is popular in these areas in large part because of its strong mildew resistance, a real boon in often-humid climates. With 100°-ish temperatures and humidity over 50% all weekend, even I was beginning to mildew by the end of my three-day stay in Virginia.  

I somehow managed to miss the several Nortons at the Virginia-only tasting over and around the Friday-evening dinner at Monticello, but there were plenty Missouri versions at the post-prandial “The Other 46 Tasting” (referring to the states other than CA, WA, OR, and NY.) Scientific evidence aside, I’m now more willing to accept the son-of-Bland hypothesis. I wouldn’t exactly call these wines bland, but flavorful they were not. Keeping in-mind that this wasn’t an event designed for in-depth tasting, here are my very brief notes on three Missouri Nortons from that evening:

“Lots of burnt-out fruit up front, nothing to back it up, a bit sour. YUCK.”

“Skunky, smoky, and sweet. Double YUCK.”

“Richer, jammier, a little sweetness, but no tannins, short finish, flat mouthfeel, just not much going on.”

I don’t want to dismiss an entire varietal/region/style based on a handful of examples, so I’ll make an effort to try more Norton wines in the future. HOWEVER, reading a little more about the basic characteristics of the Norton grape makes it sound unlikely as a great winemaking grape. From a 2011 paper in BMC plant biology by a group of viticulturists in Missouri:

-          Norton retains high malic acid at time of ripening → high acidity for a red and, after malolactic fermentation, potentially lots of buttery flavors. I’m just not sure if butter complements the basic Norton flavor.

-          Norton retains high phenols at time of ripening → phenols are such a tremendously large and varied group of compounds that it’s hard to say more about the impact of “high phenols” on the finished wine without more information on the specific phenols involved.

-          The skin of Norton grapes has a higher anthocyanin content than that of Cabernet Sauvignon → deep pigmentation. Usually a good thing, but a bit misleading in this case because it doesn’t match up with intensity of flavor.

 

Interestingly, several of the articles I found that were theoretically in support of Norton angled heavily towards negative comments about Norton’s flavor profile (this profile at Appellation America is a good example.) Ergo, un-foxyness may be the best thing that can be said about Norton. Still, I’ll do my best to keep an open mind. If anyone has anything to contribute about growing V. aestivalis and/or making or drinking wine derived thereof, I’d welcome the education.

Does Chardonnay smell?

I’ve recently begun sharing evening meals – and, therefore, wine – with someone with a self-described smell impairment. He isn’t quite anosmic – he can pick out eau du dead skunk in the middle of the road – but the dense aroma of caramelizing onions that suffused my apartment the other evening totally escaped him.

Understanding that the vast majority of his wine-related sensory experience involves his tongue, not his nose, makes his impressions fascinating. Much of what we commonly experience as “taste” is actually smell. This is especially transparent in wine tasting: just try tasting the same wine out of a Dixie cup with your nose pinched and then out of an expansive glass that allows for lots of swirling and focuses volatiles towards your nose.

Often, in tasting a wine, I haven’t an axe-murderer’s chance in heaven of teasing out what is smell and what is pure taste. But now my smell-impaired friend and I can play “do you taste what I taste?” If my friend’s answer is yes, I’ll put my bets on it being a true flavor. If no, my perception is most likely my nose’s doing.

He picked up on the sour, dirty socky-ness of TCA in a “corked” wine. He tasted the bright cherries and raspberries in a well-aged Finger Lakes Merlot, though the overlay of thyme and bay that delighted me escaped him. Tobacco in a Walla Walla (Washington) Syrah is usually a no. Chocolate in the same Syrah is a toss-up. He gets the spice of Hungarian oak and the red bell pepper of pyrazines. In general, fruit comes across more than herbs or vegetation or flowers and, in general, reds are easier than whites. 

The Chardonnay that accompanied this evening’s roast chicken (with Meyer lemon, caramelized onions, and parsley) over spaghetti squash (with Parmesan and feta cheeses), steam-sautéed crucifers (with currants and Aleppo pepper), and a bit of mango-radish salad is an excellent case-in-point. To me, the Folie à Deux 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay was exemplary of its type. Melon, oak, and vanilla on the nose. Lemon, butter, and vanilla on the palate. Sharp acidity up front on the tongue balanced by some perceptible residual sugar (the main point at which this wine deviates from the classic California oaky Chard profile.) Long finish dominated by butter and oak. Yummy, if a little on the sweet-tart side for my taste. 

His redux: acidity and sugar, yes; lemon, yes; vanilla, no; melon, no. Oak and butter, sort of, if you allow his amalgamating those flavors into “rum.”

I’m now hypothesizing that some wines – like Chardonnay – owe a higher proportion of their character to aroma than others – like, say, Carménère (which my companion tends to enjoy a lot.) Hypotheses require testing to be bolstered up or smashed down, and post-hoc analysis just won’t do since I haven’t heretofore paid attention to the right factors in the right way. Awwww, shucks. We’ll just need to drink – and talk about – more wine.

Folie à Deux 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay – $18 (media sample)