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)

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.

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.

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.