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After spending 12 years in Minneapolis, I recently moved to Boston, a wonderful city in its own right, but I’m going to do some serious city bashing here.  The restaurant scene in Boston has historically been given a hard time by fervent New Yorkers because…Sports?  I don’t really know and I haven’t been to NYC in my adult life so I really can’t tell if anything a New Yorker says is justified or not, but I can tell you that so far I now have a lot more trepidation in venturing out to a new restaurant in Boston than I ever did in Minneapolis.

Where I used to live in Minneapolis, I was within a 1-10 minute walk from the Grand Cafe, Victor’s 1959 Cafe, Rincón 38, Blackbird, Nighthawks, Kyatchi, Pat’s Tap, and Hola Arepa.  Each of these restaurants are highly acclaimed in their own right and have not only local, but regional and national recognition for either the restaurant or the chef’s that work there.  Now, I’m not listing my favorite 9 restaurants out of the 100 in this walking distance here. Minneapolis isn’t a dense city. I just listed 9 out of the 10 restaurants within that radius.  Most entrees at these restaurants are between $12-$18.   One of these has a menu with both sushi and hotdogs on it and they made it work well.

Outside of this hot spot for superb dining, let’s not forget the places within a short drive like Heyday, Revival, Spoon and Stable, The Bachelor Farmer, Borough and Parlour (Which has the best damn cheeseburger in the world. I will cut you if you say otherwise!), not to mention those tasting menus from the simple, yet perfectly executed at Tenant to the mind-blowing extravaganza that is Travail (Technically in Robbinsdale, I know). Even now, I’m leaving out dozens of restaurants that I have wandered into and left, not just sated, but impressed.

There are two primary factors that go into me being impressed with a restaurant.  The first is Quality, the second is Value.  Quality is an assessment of how well the food is prepared: freshness of the ingredients, how tender the meat is, the crispiness of things that are supposed to be crispy, appropriate temperatures, etc.  All of these are objective measurements that most food critics seem to breeze over in order to get to extolling their preferences about how food should be.  The other factor of Value is admittedly a subjective measurement, but to put simply: was the meal worth the price I paid?  The Minneapolis restaurant scene shines on these factors by setting a high bar for average quality and simultaneously being an amazing value.  I can say with statistical probability that if you walked into a random restaurant in Minneapolis, the quality would most likely be well above average if compared to a magical national restaurant quality index (Sadly, this doesn’t exist) and you would most likely feel the meal was of good value assuming you are normal fine dining restaurant goer.  And on these two levels, other cities like Boston fail to compete.

This is not to say that all restaurants in Boston suck or that all restaurants in Minneapolis are better than they are in Boston.  I’ve had wonderful experiences at places like Ten Tables, Juliet (Technically Romeo’s at Juliet, their “weekly reinvention”), Legal Harborside (floor 2), Coppa, and Marliave, but there is no way I’m going to take a chance anymore at walking into a random restaurant and it’s difficult to trust rave reviews.  I need more trustworthy restaurant recommendation sources that are able to evaluate quality. It’s really about not being able to trust the restaurant to deliver what is promised.  Why is your slow-cooked lamb or pork tough? Why does what you label as a “smashed burger” not appear to actually be smashed? Why is the light and crispy breading on this veal piccata water logged and soft? On the whole, Boston restaurants are delivering lower quality food on average for a higher price.  There are more slightly elevated versions of Applebee’s here, if you will.  The shining exception to this is pizza.  I can walk into just about any hole in the wall, buy a slice for $2 and be in heaven.  Minneapolis can’t do cheap pizza by the slice like Boston.

The price factor can be attributed to higher rent.  While this is an assumption, it’s clear that real estate in Boston is quite a bit more costly than other parts of the nation and therefore, higher costs on most items can be expected simply because of this and honestly, this was my expectation going in.  However, there are quite a few more restaurants in the Boston area on average that list entrees in the $30+ category simply because they consider themselves to be a fancy restaurant (i.e. they put white table cloths on their tables).  I tend to shy away from $30+ entrees in general because A) I’m not super rich and B) I’d rather buy better ingredients and make that dish myself.  That’s not a boast about my cooking skills by the way, it’s just a reflection on restaurant economics.

The difference in the quality factor is what I can’t figure out though.  Perhaps the expectations of Boston restaurant goers and food critics is lower?  Perhaps there is less intermingling of chefs and restaurant staff in the Boston restaurant scene? Perhaps there is an oligopoly of food suppliers that give restaurants little choice. Or perhaps, it’s because they are focused on entirely different factors here than the base quality of food and how much they are charging for it.  I have noticed that restaurants in Boston tend to have items on their menus or entire menus that are a bit more complex than what they probably should be. They try to sell you on how unique their menu item is (even though, yes,  the restaurant down the street also has a wild boar tagliatelle too) instead of how good it is.  Instead of making a street taco with 8 different toppings on it, just make a high quality basic street taco.  Instead of having 20 hamburgers, just make 2 high quality hamburgers.  Instead of having a huge menu of disparate foods, pick a theme or a cohesive element to tie a shorter list of menu items together.  There needs to be more focus on making things well than focusing on how interesting the menu sounds. At this point I certainly haven’t gotten to a majority of the restaurants in Boston yet and this assessment may change at some point because there’s always a chance that I’ve just magically chosen all the wrong restaurants to base this assessment on.  Until then, I fear I’ll sound like a New Yorker when talking about the Boston food scene.

 

Side Dish Rants

Coffee:  I spend a lot of time in coffee shops because I work from home so it was a surprise when all of the Americanos I was ordering seemed to be…off when ordering them from Boston coffee shops close to home.  It turns out that for whatever reason, the local coffee shops in Minneapolis generally add the espresso or ristretto shots to the hot water and not the other way around.  After some serious internet research, I found that this is technically called a Long Black and I prefer it because the crema of the espresso sits on top making the first few sips extra special. I’ll probably be making myself a lot more Americanos in the future, but until then I have a few coffee shops in the Boston area identified as potentially favoring the Long Black method which I will be seeking out.  I tried asking my usual coffee shop this morning to do it, but they topped it off with more hot water before I could intervene to fill up the cup which defeated the purpose of me having them reverse their usual order.

Cocktails:  When the Bradstreet in Minneapolis first began serving up amazing cocktails at a then unheard of high price of $10, I was quickly on board.  They were beautifully and simply crafted with ingredients that well justified the new higher price point.  Then Marvel Bar came along and added a show of chopping ice in a dark basement with hipster wall paper and the price went up to $12.  Then everyone began delivering cocktails as a sideshow, many of course were much less interesting and with lower quality ingredients, but the price became a range of $12-$15 and at that point I somewhat stopped looking at the cocktail menus and stuck to wine.  I’d still go to the relocated Bradstreet if I was yearning for a cocktail.  I don’t know if Boston ever had a true cocktail renaissance, but they are very much in the $12-$15 range with cocktails of debatable value so I haven’t had much success here.  The last experience included a good rye and Fernet that had potential from the menu reading, but came out shaken instead of built or stirred which I was expecting since it didn’t contain any egg white or citrus.  I hesitate to call this the “wrong” way to make this cocktail, because the proportions of the ingredients, which is really the only hard and fast cocktail rule, were right, but it just seemed…off.

Local wine: Slight deviation from the restaurant scene, but since I spent a lot of time working with local grape growers and winemakers in Minnesota, I have been looking for ways to get involved in Massachusetts.  Oddly, in Massachusetts, you can import grapes from anywhere, ferment it within the state and still put Massachusetts on the label as the source of origin of the wine.  In Minnesota, laws dictate that 85% of the finished product must be from Minnesota grapes to call it Minnesota wine.  Out of state grapes seem to be favored by Massachusetts winemakers which to me seems like they have little interest in making parts of Massachusetts wine country or improving the quality of locally grown grapes.

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A ragú based around Tony’s sausage from his market down the street comprised of onions, parsnips, green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, a bit of beef broth, dash of pasta water, oregano, and bay leaf.  Served along with the house-made tagliolini that is obviously comprised of flour and eggs, and I add a dash of salt and olive oil.  Oregano and pecorino to top.

Wine: G.D. Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo 2015

IMG_8975Notes:  Now that I live in Boston, I’m taking advantage of the major cultural staple of being able to walk into some market owned by an elderly Italian person and wish that they were your grandparent.  For me, Tony’s Market, appropriately owned by a guy named Tony who is between 80 and 150 years old and is still making the sausages, is just down the street.  Anyway, I wanted nothing more than to cook and drink some wine after being up since 3:30am that morning for a major system update for work and this really hit the spot.  A comfort meal at it’s finest with a beautiful wine to boot.  I originally planned to add a little heat in the form of red pepper flakes and either some clove or nutmeg, but I was on a severe lack of sleep so those accidentally got left out.  Next time…

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More food porn.

 

Until there is definitive evidence that the unique matrix or “chemical soup” of wine, by itself, leads to healthier outcomes for individuals, we need to stop with this “wine is healthy” talk.  The only thing we can say for sure at this point of the scientific path is that a healthy individual probably won’t suffer any negative outcomes by moderately drinking, preferably with food, and not as an attempt to alleviate stress.  Admittedly, I’m the one pushing last point, but I have good evidence and following that advice definitely will not hurt you.  Having said that…

Are people saying wine is good or bad for you today?  I can never keep up. According to some Google searches, on May 21, 2017 all of the “news” sources that I’ve never heard of viewed wine as health savior, but on May 22, 2017, that all changed.  The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs published two articles the day before looking at the potential associations between moderate drinking and long-term cardiovascular health.  Both of these articles were critical of how numerous studies conducted previously that suggested (not proved) there is a link between light to moderate drinking and reduced rates of cardiovascular disease may have made a common error in research by assuming that the results seen in the groups of individuals studied were widely applicable to everyone in the general population.  And then this happened:

 

Search

First, neither of the papers were about wine specifically so let’s tone it down “Starts at 60” (Tag line: “Australia and New Zealand’s, and increasingly, the worlds largest digital media platform for over 60s.”).  Second, neither of these papers proved or even attempted to prove that there is no association between wine and long-term cardiovascular health.  The edition of the journal these articles were published in even opens with the following text (red text mine):

This issue of the journal contains two articles with three associated commentaries on the yet-unanswered question of the association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health as well as general mortality.

Third, the idea that a single food or drink item should be deemed “Healthy” or “Not healthy” is beyond ludicrous because that’s just not how health works.

In general, this see-sawing you see in the news about whether something is healthy or not is a result of misinterpretations of what the results of a single study or small number of studies say.  Most journalists aren’t great at interpreting scientific literature unless they also have a science background; wine and food writers are especially bad.  As a general rule of understanding scientific research: the more studies that are conducted on a particular question, the less likely any single study is going to contradict all of the research performed before it.  For example, let’s take a look possible outcomes of the question: Is there an association (relationship) between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health?

  • Yes, there is a positive association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means moderate drinking could make you heart-healthy)
  • Yes, there is a negative association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means moderate drinking could make you heart-unhealthy)
  • No, there is no association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means being a moderate drinker in itself won’t determine your heart health)

The results of every study conducted on this question will add evidence to one of these possible outcomes. I generally visualize this as each study producing a single cube of evidence of roughly the same size/weight/volume as any other study that gets filed into one of the outcome columns.  Why the same size/weight/volume? Because an important aspect of the scientific process is that an experiment is repeatable.  The process is highly democratic in this respect which means that a single study cannot overturn the bulk of work done through previous studies.  A single study can influence future studies to be done to repeat the results however, which could lead to a turning of the tide, so to speak, but this process takes time.

Evidence

*Not actually representative of the current body of evidence no matter how much we want it to be true.

It is also important to note that in the scientific method there is no point where testing is stopped which is why declarative statements that an ultimate truth have been found are foolhardy.  Yet, there are times when the body of evidence is so large and convincing that it paints a picture of an inevitable outcome.  In other words, the pile of evidence is so vast in one column that the chances of that changing are slim to none.  Human-caused climate change, no association between vaccines and autism, an association between tobacco use and cancer, the theory of evolution, Aaron Berdofe being a pretty cool guy…these are all areas where the evidence paints a clear picture of the inevitable outcome.

But, as the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs pointed out, we just don’t have a clear picture yet on if there is an association between moderate alcohol consumption and cardiovascular health and general mortality.  Same goes for most health related questions about alcohol.  The only certain thing we know about our relationship with alcohol is that if we drink too much we can permanently damage ourselves and perhaps die.  How we define “too much” varies by individual, but that’s why we have population health recommendations about how much is too much.  To a somewhat lesser degree of certainty, we also know that there seem to be few negative consequences to drinking lightly or moderately.  Again, thresholds and circumstances affecting that may vary.

None of this changes the the fact that wine drinkers just want to believe that wine will ultimately make them healthier people.  It’s perfectly natural to hope that our potential problems in the future can be alleviated by either doing nothing or continuing to do the things we currently enjoy.  I do believe that it is within this shared hope amongst wine drinkers that we write articles extolling the health benefits of wine, sell wine by incorporating it in the idea of being part of a healthy meal, or lecture beer drinkers on why wine is better.  I don’t think wine professionals or yes, even health/wellness professionals are being sinister when repeating incorrect or perhaps misleading statements regarding the relationship between wine and health*, but I do wish we’d all start being a little more thoughtful when talking about the topic.

If you are a wine professional, I would recommend you stop using binary descriptors when discussing wine and health like good/bad and healthy/unhealthy.  Adding or subtracting wine to a person’s diet, as we understand it today, does not make that person’s diet healthier or unhealthier.  Are there some interesting interactions that happen when we drink wine that have what we consider to be positive effects on our bodies? Yes, certainly.  There are also some effects we consider to be negative as well, but it’s very complex and research is underway to figure out in exactly what conditions those effects will take place.

It’s also good to remember that what the research says and what the headlines say are not always in alignment.  For example, the studies I first referenced about 1,000 words don’t conclude as the headlines purport that wine is “NOT good for the heart”.  They do suggest that some of the cubes of evidence presented to the “Good for your heart” column (Yes +) maybe need more work done before they can officially be put there.  I would at least recommend reading the parts of the study referenced in an article labeled “Abstract” and “Results” if you can.  Frustratingly though, most writers fail to provide a reference link to the original study they are basing their article off of.  Another frustrating road block you may run into is that the study is behind some journal’s paywall and I doubt you’ll want to pay the $25 to read it.  For that, all I can do is apologize for the world and let you know we’re working on it.

Therefore, until the number of studies performed and the results of those studies give a definitive picture to the question of how wine may affect our long-term health the best answer to give someone asking is a good shrug and tell someone that unless their doctor says otherwise, moderate drinking isn’t going to negatively affect you and too much will obviously kill you.  Of course, if you want to put a twinkle in your eye along with a sly grin and whisper “Maybe there’s something to it…” before taking a thoughtful sip of a particularly enchanting glass of wine, I won’t stop you.  Gourmand’s are willing to take the risk for pleasure, but do they do know there is a risk.

 

 

 

*There are a few companies these days claiming they can prevent headaches or hangovers from wine and there is simply no scientific evidence to back up their claims.  This is somewhat sinister and potentially in violation of Truth In Advertising laws.

As one does, I was having a conversation about spicy peppers the other day and someone referenced the Scoville scale when comparing two peppers to show that the difference in hotness between them was exponential.  After that though, knowing a little about how capsaicin causes us to perceive heat,  I started wondering how exactly does one measure a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU)?  So I looked it up and it turns out the Scoville scale is a subjective measure that relies on how diluted with water a pepper needs to be in order to not find it spicy anymore and not how much capsaicin is actually in the pepper.  In other words, it’s a subjective measurement, not an objective one.  There is an objective test for measuring capsaicinoid concentration now though; it’s called high-performance liquid chromatography and it was developed well after Wilbur Scovile was dead.

It turns out that Wilbur’s subjective test does a decent enough job of matching up with the objective one which is probably why it persists as the defacto industry scale today (or at least amongst people discussing peppers).  That got me thinking about the number of of “measurements” used in wine tasting there are and just how subjective most of them really are.  Some of them do a decent enough job of helping to answer questions like what’s different between these two wines or perhaps which wine you should bring to a party hosted by someone who reads too many wine magazines, but there are a lot of wine-related questions that can’t be answered by these methods…not that this has stopped people from trying.  Which ones help and which ones don’t? Settle in and read on to find out.

Aroma Wheels

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The science of wine aroma is beautifully (or frustratingly) complicated.  Let’s take a quick trip down the process flow of how wine aromas come to be:

1.) Each grape variety has its own genotype that determines the spectrum of possible aromatic compounds the grape can develop and will have when crushed and squeezed into juice.

2.) The environment the grapes develop in which includes the climate, the weather, how the vine was trained, the soil composition, pest and disease exposure, and a whole host of other environmental factors reduce that genetic spectrum of possible aromatic compounds into what is known as the phenotype, or how the grape’s genes express themselves given the environment they develop in.

3.) How the wine is then made from the resulting grape variety or blend of varieties will not only modify the aromatic compounds in pre-fermentation grape juice, but also add in new aromas from the yeast and fermentation process as well how the wine is aged, especially if oak is used.  To make things more complicated, various wine making techniques used to refine the appearance or change tactile sensations of the wine can also modify those aromatic compounds or even strip some out.  Those compounds can then again be modified over time as the wine ages through slow exposure to oxygen.  This is all what is desired to happen so it’s not even taking into account flaws in the process that can also modify the aromatic compounds; usually for the worse in terms of our preferences.

4.) Which aromatic compounds in the wine actually get to the olfactory receptors in our noses and throats is determined by the weights of the compounds, the temperature of the wine, the shape of the glass, the amount of oxygen that’s been infused into it through either swirling the glass, decanting, or just letting the wine sit for awhile.  Compounding the complexity of these aromatic compounds are the other potential aromas coming from the food in front of you or the food you’ve already consumed wafting up from your stomach.  And that’s just taking into account the olfactory receptors scattered throughout your nose, mouth, and throat.  Various organs like our livers also contain olfactory receptors.  Oh, and sperm does too.

5.) The receptors triggered by what we smell send signals up to olfactory bulb in our brains creating an “image” of what is being detected which may or may not change slightly based on our current state of mind or environmental cues like the color of the wine itself.  Then we compare that picture with other smell “images” we have sitting in our memory banks of things we’ve smelled before to see if we can find a match.

Simple, right? [Eye-roll]

Wine professionals and amateurs alike spend a lot of time describing what a wine smells like.  Back in 1984, Ann C. Noble, who is an actual sensory chemist with a PhD and who has done actual research on techniques and applications of wine tasting, developed what has become a homogenizing tool in the wine world: The Wine Aroma Wheel.  The wheel contains three levels of aroma characterizations that increase with specificity as you move outward.  For example, the specific aroma of “Pineapple”, which is in the third or outer-most tier, falls under the more encompassing term “Tropical Fruit” in the second-tier category, which itself falls under the general category of “Fruity” in the first-tier.  This structuring of a defined set of terms was modeled on what was already being utilized for whiskey evaluations at the time.  To use the wheel as it was intended as a smell-assist guide you classify what you are smelling to a category in the central or first-tier, then reclassify it into one of the possible subcategories in the middle or second-tier, and then finally reclassify it again into the outer or third-tier.

The purpose of this tool was so that people could elucidate the differences between certain wines they were in the process of discussing with someone and in that respect, it is an extremely helpful tool.  But where did this list of aromas come from?  Keeping in mind the process flow of how aromas get from grape to your brain, the development of this particular tool is limited primarily to the last step, #5.  Dr. Noble sifted through numerous tasting notes which in all actuality are people’s subjective interpretations of what aromas are being observed as well as some actual sensory research that identified various aromatic compounds and created a refined list based on the most common descriptors used.

Now humans are pretty good sniffers, despite what some people say, and we can train ourselves to be better at identifying particular aromas.  For blind tastings of wine, experts use clues, including aromas, to discern where the wine comes from.  A Chardonnay from a warmer region will generally have more tropical fruit aromas if we are using the aroma wheel, and those from cooler regions tend to have more stone fruit aromas.  However, this isn’t necessarily true 100% of the time, especially as wine making techniques advance and our brain/nose combo is an imperfect instrument for sussing out the actual aromatic compounds.

A more perfect instrument is a spectrophotometer.  Spectrophotometry is one method for figuring out the chemical composition of a substance and it works be measuring the amount of light absorbed by a substance at different frequencies.  Chemical compounds all have unique signatures that can be identified by this method without the “noise” that our human instruments can experience.  While there is a massive library of these spectrophotometry signatures built, we still haven’t fully connected the presence of a cocktail of aromatic compounds (cocktails themselves in some cases) with how we will interpret them.  For instance we know that Methoxypyrazines (sometimes green pepper aromas, sometimes mint, sometimes…) can be detected by humans as an aroma at 2 parts per trillion in a substance whereas Diacetyl (Buttery aromas) can be detected at 0.1 parts per million.  That’s about a factorial difference and that’s not even taking into account how other aromatic compounds shape our interpretation of those aromas.

While the scientific understanding of wine isn’t there yet, some day we may be able to list out the all the aromas you could possibly smell in a wine based on the genetic code, how that grape develops, the wine making process, etc.  We may even discover that there are possible aromas for a wine which no one has gotten out of a particular set of grapes thus far and we’ll develop new wine making techniques to achieve them.  Until then, we’ll discuss the differences between various wines using the Wine Aroma Wheel or the number of emulators it has inspired.  Just know that its only slightly more scientific than talking about what a passing cloud looks like so you should by no means restrict yourself to it or assume that someone who already knows the words on the wheel is somehow a better smell detective than you are.

Age-ability

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How long should you wait to drink that bottle of wine?  The question is based in the adages of “Wine gets better with age” and tales of astounding vintages.  The truth is that no one really knows exactly when the best time to drink a bottle of wine is.  Partly, because it’s a matter of preference, but mostly because what happens when wine ages in the bottle is still somewhat of a mystery.  The little we do know about wine aging is humorously depicted on the chart on the back wine label above that probably was meant to be dead serious.

The desire to age wine hasn’t actually been a big thing for wine drinkers for the bulk of the time humans have been making wine and consuming it.  When humans first started making wine, it was consumed as soon as possible since we hadn’t come up with good methods to store and transport wine in.  Even when we did figure out how to make heavy amphoras or light leather pouches we either didn’t stray far from the amphora or couldn’t carry much wine in our leather canteens so we consumed as much as we could until it “went bad”. It wasn’t until wine makers began adding sulfur in addition to the sulfur that occurs naturally via fermentation that we were able to keep wines for any significant period of time.

And what does it mean anyway when wine “goes bad” anyway?  In general, it means one of two things: 1.) It no longer smells like healthy wine or doesn’t have much of any smell or 2.) It is in the process of turning into vinegar.  The second undesirable occurrence happens when acetic acid bacteria gets into the wine.  Sometimes this happens by accident or neglect and other times it happens on purpose when someone actually wants to make vinegar.  The first issue though is a result of either contamination or willful oxygen exposure that has taken the wine past what I call the Point of Diminishing Maturity.  In other words, the bulk of the volatile chemicals known as aromatics have been persuaded by oxygen to leave. winearomaticsexperiencechart-0012

There are 4 factors that generally determine how long a wine can age before getting to the Point of Diminishing Maturity: Sugar, Tannins, Acid, and Alcohol which all act as preservatives in addition to the sulfur added.  The simple explanation is that these factors help slow the oxidation of the wine and oxygen is what promotes the aging.  The balance of those items (excluding sulfur since it shouldn’t be added at human perceivable levels) are a determination of the wine’s quality, which is separate to the question of “How long should I age this wine?”  In general, the more preserving factors there are in the wine, the longer it will be able to sit in your cellar before it reaches the point of diminishing maturity.  Ergo, oaked/tannic red wines will be able to age longer than most white wines, and dessert wines with lots of sugar or fortified wines will be able to age longer than anything else.

But answering the specific question of how long to age a particular wine gets a bit tricky.  For red wines aged in oak, because that’s generally what people are referring to when they talk about letting a bottle sit in a cellar, the main consideration is the state of the tannins in the wine.  Wine professionals usually refer to the tannins of a newly bottled red wine that was aged in oak as harsh.  For older wines, they generally refer to the tannins as being soft.  Those observations are unfortunately about the extent of where the scientific knowledge of what’s happening when a wine ages (and I just checked the Third Edition of the Wine Science Principles and Applications text book on that one).

There are a variety of different types of tannins and depending on the types and sizes of them in the wine they will feel differently in your mouth.  Just in terms of oak aging, a professional taster can usually tell the difference between a wine aged in American oak and one aged in French oak.  Acid, proteins, and a whole host of other chemicals can have an effect on tannins over time.  To what extent and what types of effects are largely unknown at this point, but we do know that some tannins do in fact breakdown over time which could be one of the causes of why the tannins in an aged wine appear “soft”.

The other aspect of an aged wine is that it tends to lose it’s brighter fruit (or lighter weight) characteristics over time because of oxygen exposure.  Eventually, the heavier fruit characteristics and earthy tones will go by way of oxygen exposure too, but how long that will take is highly variable and it’s something you find out after the fact.  Right now, answering the question of “When will this wine taste best?” can only be answered retrospectively, despite the number of wine professionals that attempt to make predictions.  However, wine professional estimates based on their collective experiences of tasting wines of different vintages is the best information we have to go on to answer the more general question that we should be asking: “What’s the maximum amount of time I should let this wine sit before I uncork it?”

To answer that, I would tell you to drink the wine within a few years of buying it off the shelf.  The vast majority of wines made, and I do mean vast, especially if you’re spending under $30, are intended to be consumed immediately upon purchase.  If the wine maker thinks the wine would be best if it sat for 5-10 years first because of the amount of oak aging, it’s good to listen to them.  They’ve been tasting their own wines for years, including the ones that have been aging and they want you to taste their wine as they intended so even if they put it in a stupid chart like above, they are a trustworthy source.  But aging wines after 10 years is where things get even trickier.  Some wines aged beyond 10 years will still be lively and fruity, some will be boring, some will be contaminated with bacteria, some will be complex and mesmerizing, but the fact is, no one can accurately predict how an aged wine will fare.  It can be an intellectual treat to drink older wines to see how they turned out, but don’t for one second expect them all to match up with your preferences as to what you think is good.

Tannin Scale

The Tannin Scale, or more accurately, the Total Polyphenol Index (TPI) is an actual scientific measurement that a wine lab can provide for a wine producer.  Some wine producers are including it in their vintage statistics and from that perspective, it’s actually interesting to take a look at over time alongside other harvest information like Brix and Total Acidity (TA).  In fact, these numbers are much of the basis behind those Vintage Charts that have been losing relevancy in modern times, but more on those later. Why the Tannin Scale has made this list, despite it being actually based in science, is that some professional wine tasters are now using the TPI score in their assessments as if it has some relevancy as to how someone will perceive the tannins in a wine.

Let’s get one thing clear: All tannins are polyphenols, but not all polyphenols are tannins. Scroll through this to see an incomplete list of polyphenols in wine (there will be a lot of scrolling). Generally, when actively tasting wines (as opposed to just drinking them) the amount of tannins will be rated on a Low-Medium-High scale.  There aren’t actual measurements to this scale, it’s just a subjective assessment based on the range of wines you’ve already had.  In other words, it takes experience to assess how much tannin is in the particular wine being tasted in relation to other wines.  The range of the scale is based on what the individual has tasted in the past.  The tricky thing about tannin perception (the “cotton-mouth” feeling you get caused by tannins binding to saliva molecules) is that it changes based on the types of tannins and their state in a wine and other factors such as acidity and sweetness…or if you’re eating, the salt or acid on your food.

Given that the total volume of tannins is only a fraction of the TPI and given that the perception of tannins in a wine is dependent on a variety of factors besides the total volume, knowing the TPI is essentially worthless.

 

Wine (100-pt) Scores

I’m going to be upfront here and just let you know that I don’t know what goes into calculating the ratings given out by wine quality “authorities” like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator.  Their methodologies are proprietary so only those who do the calculating know how they are totaled up.  They may have developed some top secret techniques, heavily based in scientific reasoning, to objectively calculate their scores.  They may also just be throwing darts at a board with numbers on it.  However, there is certainly evidence that throwing darts may be a more accurate assessment than an objective assessment.

For instance, the same wines generally have different ratings based on who is rating them.  Scroll through these Riojas and check out the scores listed.  Usually the variations aren’t wildly different: a one or two point difference on a 100-pt scale doesn’t seem too significant.  However, once you factor in that no one has really heard of a wine being rated below a 60 and no one really publishes a score below an 80, a point or two is more statistically significant on a 40- or even 20-point scale than the supposed 100-pt scale.  Additionally, there’s some heavy speculation that certain raters have certain preferences which means the ratings are most likely better thought of as assessments of how the rater feels a wine stacks up against what they deem as “perfect” instead of an actual assessment of quality or how much you will enjoy the wine.

Vintage Chart

Vintage Charts have historically been the wine aficionado’s go-to guides when deciding what to pull out of their cellars and drink.  They’ve also been deemed essential to the process of selecting a wine from a restaurant’s wine list and the memorization of them was crucial to cementing one’s status as The Highlander the one true wine lover amongst one’s friends. Now they are predominately used to help set prices for wine auctions.  Vintages are always talked about in terms of what the weather was like that year and while weather is definitely a factor in how a wine will turn out it is becoming less and less relevant as wine making techniques improve.

VintageChartFull vintage chart here.

The sacrosanct irony of the wine vintage chart is that it takes all of the things I’ve listed in this post as not being overly scientific and puts them in a handy chart for you!  Vintage charts are not compilations of grape quality, lab quality metrics, and tasting evaluations, they are purely the last one: tasting evaluations, and not properly samples ones.  What usually happens is that a producer of a wine vintage chart will ask a few wineries in a particular region how they feel their wines are that year and then compare that to what their tasting staff is saying about what they’ve tasted and come up with their best guess as to how a wine from a particular region will be in terms of “Quality” that year.  The method hardly provides what a statistician would call a good sample.  Since access to previous vintage wines may prove to be difficult, it’s even more of a stretch to find a good sample of aging wines that you could accurately assess a region by.  This leaves you with a chart that may be fun to look at, but it’s a bit like listening to a bunch of gossipy rumors in a high school cafeteria.

WineLabel

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the wine world as to whether or not wines should have similar ingredient labeling like other food products are required to.  A lot of this discussion seems to generated by people who don’t actually make wine as is evident by the fact that they keep using the word Ingredient, defined as a component part of a mixture…but that’s not how wine works.  Therefore, here’s a little primer for any lawmakers or regular ol’ wine drinkin’ citizens that want to be more informed.

Wine making is conceptually similar to sculpting: you start with a single source material and remove the parts you don’t want.  This is the opposite of making beer or, to carry on with art metaphors, painting, where you start with a single source material (beer: water, painting: canvas) and then add to that material to create your final product.  In beer making or painting, it is wholly appropriate to use the word Ingredients when talking about the final product.  In wine making or sculpting, the word Ingredients is not applicable due to the very nature of how the product is created.

At this point, some of you may be wondering why the government keeps a list of legally allowed materials that can be used during the wine making process.  Aren’t these things being added to the wine?  Yes and no.  These materials are being added to the process of making the wine, but they aren’t present in the final product that you consume, at least not in noticeable amounts.  There are some very minor, yet notable exceptions to this, which I’ll point out as I give an overall explanation as to what types of materials and what happens to those materials get added in to the wine making process.

Yeast: When yeast is added to grape juice it converts the sugars into alcohol and CO2.   You can drink the resulting product and get drunk off of it so this is technically all it takes to “make wine”.  The amount and types of yeast can determine what percentage of the sugars get converted into alcohol and some of the aromas that will show up in the wine, but when the yeast has done its job, it sinks to the bottom of the fermentation tank and then is physically separated from the juice that is now arguably wine.  Technically, Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is also a byproduct of fermentation, but more on that later.

Fining, clarifying, and stabilizing agents:  These are all the things that most people drop their jaws to in surprise to find out they are used in wine making:  Fish scales (Isinglass), egg whites, milk casein, Polyvinyl-polypyr-rolidone (PVPP), clay (Bentonite), and a host of other hard-to-pronounce substances that most people would never be interested in consuming by themselves.  When these materials are mixed in to wine they slowly fall down to the bottom.  Along the way though, they do some work at the molecular level of which the result is to make the wine look more aesthetically pleasing.  Some materials are used to break apart stubborn compounds that are causing the wine to look hazy while others are binding to oppositely charged particles and dragging them down to the bottom as they fall.  At the end of this process there is a layer of solids at the bottom of the tanks which are then physically separated from the liquid.

Acid modifying agents: Tartaric acid, malic acid, citric acid, and lactic acid are the predominant organic acids found in grape juice.  These are also there in the finished wine product most noticeably in the amount of saliva that rushes into your mouth after you swallow.  However, a winemaker may change minor changes to the amounts of each during the wine making process.  Can this mean actually adding acid into the wine?  Yes, it can and here is one of those notable exceptions I mentioned before.  Technically, a winemaker can add as much as they want, but it has been found that anything above a minor adjustment will make the wine less acceptable to consumers.  Minor adjustments also go for taking acid out of a wine which is done with various Calcium compounds.  These calcium compounds work similarly to the fining agents in which they are mixed in, fall to the bottom and take something with them along the way.  They are physically separated out before the wine is bottled.  Perhaps the largest change that can be made is what happens when Malo-Lactic bacteria is added to the wine.  As the name implies, this changes the harsher malic acids into softer lactic acids.  The total amount of acid isn’t changed in this process, the percentages of each are modified.

Preservatives: There has been a segment of the “Health and Wellness” movement that have labeled preservatives as the devil so let’s clarify this up front.  The preservatives used in wine are not the same as those used in industrial food manufacturing.  In fact, there is effectively only one used in wine: Sulfur Dioxide (SO2).  This is the same preservative used on dried fruit.  Additionally, this is also one of those notable exceptions I mentioned before. The acidic nature of wine and the amount of alcohol in it are doing the the heavy-lifting when it comes to protecting the wine from unwanted bacteria, but nevertheless, spoilage can still happen which is where SO2 comes in as a supporting player.  As I mentioned above when talking about yeast, SO2 naturally occurs as a byproduct of fermentation and usually only at levels of 50-100 ppm.  The legally allowed limit of Total SO2 in wine in the US is 350 ppm.  In Europe, it is 160 ppm for red wines, and 210 ppm for whites and rosés.  Why the difference between red and white?  The reason is because SO2’s other job is to protect the wine from oxidation.  Here, the degree to which SO2 plays a supporting role is determined by the amount of Tannin in the wine which are natural protectors against oxidation.. Tannins, which come from the skins and solids of the grape are therefore inherently found in red wines at much higher levels than whites or rosés. Despite the legal regulation differences, all good winemakers follow the “natural law” that whites and rosés require a little more SO2 than reds.   For a more detailed explanation on SO2 in wine, check this out.

Ageing: It’s debatable to say that anything is added to the wine during the ageing process.  Traditionally, you put wine into a steel tank or oak barrel to age it.  Alternatives include: concrete or a clay vessel known as an amphora if you’re feeling ancient. When you age wine (or any other alcoholic beverage), oxygen is being slowly allowed to interact with the wine, but it’s not like oxygen is being added in to the wine.  Compounds from the oak, which is usually toasted with a flame, are technically added into the wine, but this isn’t much different than when some aroma compounds are imparted into the wine from yeast.  These include things like eugenol (think clove aromas) and vanillin (you can probably guess on this one).  Technically, if a wine maker uses oak chips or oak powder instead of a barrel, they are “adding” these into the wine, but like everything else added in, those get taken out before the wine is bottled too.

As you can see, anything that gets added during the wine making process, doesn’t actually stay in the final product that we drink.  Even the exceptions that do stay in the final product (SO2, acids) are only things that already naturally existed in the wine before. Therefore, the idea of labeling a wine with its “ingredients” is ridiculous because in actuality, there is only one: grapes.  The real question is whether you want to list the treatments the wine has gone through on a label.

In general, I am very much for transparency in food labeling as it provides the customer with actionable information.  This is especially true for those customers with food sensitivities or allergies.  Even though when you treat a wine with a material, effectively 100% of that material is removed from the wine, technically a tiny little bit could remain;  as in <1 ppm.  Food labeling laws in general don’t require items be listed on a label unless they hit a certain threshold.  That’s why you don’t see “Parts of rats and bugs” listed on a food label as an ingredient because food product producers are legally required to keep the ppm of rats and bugs in their products to a minimum.  The exception to this is known allergens.  When a producer cannot guarantee a known food allergen like nuts, dairy, or soy was kept out of the product due to the product being made in the same location as other products, they put the “This product may contain trace amounts of…” verbiage on the label.  In wine, we already have that.  This is why you see a notice about the wine containing sulfites on the label because we know sulfites are an allergen to approximately 0.4% of the population.

Personally, I would be very happy if wines were required to list all the ways they processed their wines on their labels, but that’s me as a wine professional, not me as a wine consumer.  Big Data analyses on various wine treatment methods? Yes, please.  But, a regulation like this, while not particularly burdensome to the wine producer since they already write that information down for their internal quality processes, is just not helpful to the consumer.  One could argue there’s a reason to add calorie and sugar levels to alcohol labels in addition to the ABV%, but at the same time, it’s difficult to mindlessly consume alcohol without very negative short-term effects, unlike snack food products. Food labeling, which was developed primarily as a public health information awareness mechanism so the population would think about their long-term health probably wouldn’t have the same impact with alcohol.   Having consumers be able to choose a wine based on its caloric content given that the range for dry-ish wines is generally between 70-120 calories per serving (5oz), probably won’t have much of an impact, if any on their weight-loss or other health-related goals.  Residual sugar could be useful in determining how sweet the wine will taste, but then you’d also have to add in the Total Acidity level to to really figure that out and then somehow explain to the consumer how those two measures interact to define how sweet the wine appears to be.

Now if someone could interpret those German wine labels for the average American consumer, that would be something…

 

 

 

Short ribs browned after sprinkling with salt and clove then slow cooked in a red wine/beef broth reduction with yellow onions, red pepper, mushroom stems, a dash of soy sauce, thyme, and bay leaves.  Served over a puree of golden potatoes and golden radishes blended with a touch of milk and butter.

Wine: Domaine du Gros ‘Noré Bandol Rouge 2011

FullSizeRenderNotes:  Look, I understand that my wine and food pairings have now been classified as cruel and unusual punishment due to the fact that you are not able to enjoy them, but I really don’t think that’s my fault.  You can have these too.  I believe in you.

The red wines from Bandol are made predominantly from the Mourvédre grape or Monastrell if you’ve been drinking Spanish wines.  Depth, structure, complexity; this particular Bandol is a ponderous wine which I spent at least 15 minutes sniffing to suss out the particularities of its vanilla notes.  I eventually decided on vanilla extract if anyone cares.  This wine enhanced the savoriness of the dish and the light clove buoyed the oak the wine was aged in which all created a heady experience during which I had to exhale a number of satisfactory sighs to keep from exploding with euphoria.

If I were to repeat this, I would have slow cooked the short ribs for around 8 hours instead of the 5 that I did so they’d be “melt-worthy”, but in my defense I only envisioned the dish at lunch time that day.

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P.S. That’s Jamie Goode’s latest book: I Taste Red that the bottle is sitting on.

cheers.jpg

Welcome to 2017! This is the year that all of your wine dreams come true* so please look forward to it.  Amidst all the noise of the wine trends, predictions and recommendations that will be starting up today I would like to offer one small gift to help you get through the onslaught: Permission.  Permission to not have a favorite wine this year, or ever really.  Permission to respond with a shrug, or “I actually like quite a few wines, it’s hard to find a favorite” to the predictable question while hobnobbing with a new fellow wine drinker of “What’s your favorite wine?”

With this comes the freedom to not feel defined by a single wine and the responsibility to not turn your nose up at a wine that you feel doesn’t define you.  You are more than one varietal, one blend, one producer.  You are allowed to change; to ebb and flow.  You are allowed to mature, because really, it’s kids that have favorites isn’t it?  Favorite color, favorite super hero, favorite toy?  You’re an adult now.  You set a bar of acceptable quality and you’ll enjoy anything that meets that expectation. That’s not to say you won’t still be a discerning individual, but you’ll take pleasure not worrying if there’s something better.  Way to go you. Nice work.

While we’re at it, you don’t even need to seek out what someone else decides is the best wine.  Why? Because it’s a subjective measure based largely on preferences that you may not hold.  If you ask for the best at a restaurant/wine shop/winery, those in the industry will immediately identify you as their favorite type of customer in the world known as the sucker.  Let’s not be suckers in 2017.

Cheers to a new year.

 

*Disclaimer: Author’s definition of what your dreams are may differ from your own and may not be based in reality.