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Have you ever wondered why white wines and red wines seem to have completely different aromatic descriptions?  White wines are all about citrus and tropical fruits and maybe hints of butter and vanilla and red wines focus on red and black fruits with maybe earthy things like leather, tobacco, oak, and just straight up meat.  But what do they have in common?  I mean, regardless of whether it’s a red grape or a white grape, it’s still a grape, right?

If you rely on the aroma descriptors that you get from the back of the bottle, or a “wine expert” (like me!), or even the winemaker themselves, you will rarely find any that overlap in the Venn-Diagram-Of-Red-And-White-Wine-Aroma-Descriptors…pretty sure that’s a thing…it’s not a thing on the internet, so let’s make it:

WineAromaVenn

…so no overlapping there…NOT. A. SIN. GLE. ONE.

(all of these flavor descriptors were taken from Wine Enthusiast articles and a little Editor’s note here, I took out “Watermelon” as a descriptor for Merlot because only WE lists watermelon as a descriptor for Merlot). 

Why is this? Why do we not describe red wines and white wines as having any overlapping characteristics?…I’ll hold you in suspense a little longer.  Perhaps a more peculiar case first:

img_2184

What inspired this investigation was drinking the Blanc de Cabernet Franc from Leah Jorgensen Cellars.  This is a white wine made from the Cabernet Franc grape which is usually made into a red wine.  She also makes the red version and yes, they are both fantastic.  But what piqued my curiosity was how each wine was being marketed.  This is the same grape, from approximately the same location (She buys her grapes from a few different vineyards it looks like, so it’s tough to say the exact grapes used for the red version came from the same place that the white version grapes came from), made by the same winemaker; the only apparent difference is that in one version, the skins of the grapes were left on, and the other, they were left off*.  Yet, here are how the two wines are described:

White – The world’s original white Cabernet Franc – this medium-bodied wine typically has delicate nuances of “early blush” apricot, golden raspberries, Meyer lemon, blood orange, white tea leaf, tarragon, and hazelnut – making up a pretty, complex white wine from red grapes. This vintage, the wine also offers subtle botanical notes of elderflower, jasmine, lime blossom, sweet pea shoot, even a hint of ground cinnamon, with flavors of clementine, lemon meringue, light honey leading into a creamy and nutty mid-palate that finishes with refreshing salinity. Drink now for freshness, but this wine will age in the bottle for a minimum of five years, due to the phenolic content from the red skins. Pair with white fish or shellfish, especially oysters and scallops; pasta with simple cream sauce; pork chops with apple compote; roasted chicken; crab stuffed poblano peppers with cream sauce; polenta and beans; a young, creamy, nutty Gruyère.

Red – This wine expresses fresh, bright, vibrant aromatics lifting and floating above the glass, brimming with intense floral notes, perfume, and sweet fruit. This wine was like a bouquet of flowers saved from a precious occasion, hung carefully upside to dry and preserve the natural oils – rose petals, hibiscus, violets, carnations. It reminded me of a delicate floral fragrance I wore when I was a young woman – “Petite Cherie” by Annick Goutal – not for the individual scents of pear, peach, musky rose, freshly cut grass, and vanilla (those descriptors really sound more like a portrait of white wine, anyway), but, for the sum of its parts, the alchemy of these scents that, when coalesced, create something that smells nothing like the individual oils, but, something of a magical emanation created by some ethereal woodland fairy queen. Then, another swirl of the glass sparked cinnamon bark, cigar, sweet birch bark, the distinctive spicy-citrus aroma of black walnut leaves, brambles, and ripe cherries.

Notice in the description of the red wine it’s even mentioned that some characteristics seem like they should be describing a white wine…just not the white wine made from the same grapes by the same wine maker.  Since a good portion of wine aromatics are determined by the grapes themselves, it would stand to reason that these two wines should at least have something in common aromatically speaking, shouldn’t they?

Now let’s look at the reasons as to why there appear to be zero similarities between how red and white wines smell and taste.  I would contend that most of this disparity is a result of how we interpret the aromas coming out of the wine we are drinking and less to do with actual chemical differences between red and white wines.  In the world of research, this very much appears to be a undecided question, but here is my reasoning:

  1. Our sense of smell is influenced by a whole host of things that aren’t just aroma molecules hitting our smell receptors: memory/training, mood, and the remaining 4 senses, with emphasis on sight.  When we see a food of a certain color our brains, in an effort to be as efficient as possible put all of the memories of similarly colored foods in the fronts of our minds to compare the current item with.  You could call it laziness, but we seem to stop with whatever the brain serves up first instead of consciously digging deeper.
  2. Aromatic descriptions used in wine, beer, whiskey, tea, coffee, etc. are developed for the primary purpose of comparing and contrasting when having a live discussion.  However, we already have categorized a wine into whether it is red, white, or rose before we get to smelling it so if someone goes about comparing and contrasting wines in different color categories, there’s already an assumption that everything will be different.  Aromatic descriptions are actually not a great way to categorize wine from a global perspective.
  3. Aromas, chemically speaking, can either be fairly simple (butter = diacytel) or complex (coriander = pinene, 3,7-dimethylocta-2,6-dienal [citral], linalool, and camphor)…and even with the “simple” aromas, it really is a mix of chemicals that exist, but one just tends to dominate.  Then, to make this even more complicated, there is an incredibly wide range as to the potency of these aromatic compounds.  Just looking at the variants of methoxy-pyrazines, which are responsible for those vegetal aromas, our noses can detect them at 0.000002 ppm in water or white wines or 0.00001 ppm in red wine.  In normal speak, these are tiny, tiny amounts; fractions of a drop. For diacytel, the detection threshold can range from 0.2 ppm in white wines to 2.8 ppm in red wines.  This means that you need 100,000+ times the amount of diacytel to be present than a methoxy-pyrazine in order for us to smell it!  Not only does these threshold levels vary between white and red wines, but they can also vary between white wines and between red wines.  These variations are the best evidence to say that there actually could be distinct and disjointed aromatic differences between white and red wines, BUT (and I like big ‘buts’ (I cannot lie)) the thresholds appear to work on a spectrum, meaning there is bound to be some overlap somewhere.  The research on this topic is nowhere near where it needs to be to make any definitive statements.

 

Therefore, the next time you are sitting around intellectually comparing and contrasting a curated selection of wines (Pretty much a Tuesday, right?), try stretching your mind a little and asking yourself what a white wine and red wine could have in common.  For example, take a food like fennel or the spice anise and see which white wines it brings out those attributes in and which red wines it brings out those attributes in.  I don’t say this lightly, but you may just blow your own mind.

 

 

*Chances are different yeasts were used and some oak in the red, but the wines were most likely fermented in the same tanks, at similar times, with the same bacteria roaming around, by the same hands.  Additionally, it looks like the the white wine also underwent a bit of Malolactic Fermentation (which most reds go through), so the differences between how the two wines were made are slight.

 

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WineFoodPairing

“What’s the best wine to pair with this dish?” is a question every wine expert gets asked a little too often.  I have some issues with this question (Of course Aaron has issues with something), but it’s not the fault of the curious wine drinker; the issue lies with how wine experts, so-called wine experts, and wine publications insist that this is an important question to ask.  The problem I have with the question is that it relies on a couple of false assumptions:

1.) That there is a “best/perfect/ideal” pairing for every plate of food and it will be nearly universally agreed upon despite people having that interesting human trait called Preference.  I have debunked this myth before.  In this respect, the curious wine drinker may be better served by asking a wine expert what an interesting or unexpected wine pairing to a dish may be as the result may be much more rewarding.

2.) That wine and food pairing can only go a single direction; as in a wine can only be paired to a food and a food cannot be paired to a wine.  If you are sitting at a table in a restaurant with a discreet list of food items and set wine list, it makes sense to ask the Sommelier or waiter (if you trust they’ve actually tried all the wines) which wine might be enjoyable with the dish you’ve ordered as you are somewhat limited in your options.  But what if you’re cooking at home and you can make whatever you want, how you want it?  Well, that’s when things get interesting.

In previous posts I have explored what wine and food pairing really is about instead of the romantic notions of “classic” pairings that aren’t really based on anything except tradition (Cab Sauv w/ Steak, Syrah w/ Lamb).  When people give recommendations outside of these traditional pairings they usually focus on flavor matching, meaning if you have a dish with red fruits in it, they’ll pick a wine that has red fruit flavors.  Most of these recommendations don’t get down to the molecular level where things really get interesting, but at least the wine drinker starts to connect why they are enjoying something and developing the skill to be able to find new pairings themselves.

The other aspect of wine and food pairing which is so very slowly being utilized by experts is flavor balancing, but an aspect of it has been the sole focus of wine and cheese pairing for decades.  If the wine is a bit bitter or astringent, balance it in the food with acid and/or salt.  And cheese pairings! If it’s a creamy, fatty cheese, pair it with a wine that has higher acidity.  But again, a person’s preference plays into this as well so it’s better to explain what happens when you mix and match as a pairing that tackles the harsh tannins of a particular wine may be thoroughly enjoyed by someone not fond of the cotton-mouth feel, but frowned upon by someone who does.  In this respect, “Balance” is somewhat subjective, but helping someone discover how salt and sour tastes fit on one side of the metaphorical scale and sweet, bitter, and umami are on the other will assist them in figuring out what sort of balance they are looking for.

Taking these things to account, it’s important to remember that wine and food pairing needn’t be a unidirectional exercise.  If you have a wine that has notes of lime in it, why not add some lime zest to the dish you are preparing?  If the wine is a bit flat and lacking some acid, why not add a bit more acid to the dish you are preparing to give the wine some life? Wine and food pairing is, to use a math/programming term, recursive which creates an infinite loop of enjoyability.  This is why gastronomes don’t necessarily care whether they take a bite or sip first, they just know that it needs to be followed by the other to find true satisfaction.

So if you are a curious wine drinker, the next time you feel compelled to ask a wine expert which wine you should pair with a dish, instead ask one of the following questions:

  1. What would be an interesting or unexpected wine pairing with this dish?
  2. I really like the [your favorite part of the dish] in this.  What wine would highlight that aspect of it?
  3. I have this wine [indicate in a grand gesture ala a magician revealing a trick] and this dish [twirl a fake mustachio or real one if you have it].  What could I do to the dish to really tie the wine to it?

And if you are a wine expert, do your best to keep your preferences in check and turn the “best wine pairing” question into one of the above.

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ParodyWine

WIRED recently wrote an engaging article detailing the exploits of a company called Integrated Beverage Group which is doctoring up cheap bulk wine and making them taste like popular ones.  The general idea of what they are doing isn’t new and quite frankly, I don’t even think this is a break-through moment in the world of wine manipulation, but it does provide a good opportunity to talk about what wine is, philosophically speaking, how producers toe that line in the real world, and when does what’s being done cross into something that is…not wine.

What Is Wine?

Wine is an alcoholic beverage that has been fermented from fruit.  That’s it.  That’s the technical definition.  Sure, most of us tend to think of grape wines when we think of wine, but people will make wine out of any sugary fruit.  Philosophically speaking though, wine is a reductive creation like sculpting as opposed to beer, which is an additive creation like painting.

Wine can exist without human intervention.  In fact, some might say that wine was discovered and not invented which is why the more romantic of wine makers consider what they do to be guiding the wine to what it should be instead of creating it.  If fallen grapes are left in a pile, they may very well ferment when the grape skins burst and the yeast of the local environment gets to eating the sugar in the juice.  It may not taste like your favorite Bordeaux, but it is most certainly wine.

What it takes to make the wine is to simply take away all of the parts that you don’t want.  This is why debates on whether to force wine makers to label their bottles with an ingredients list is silly because if you get down to what exists in the final bottle, there should really only be one: grapes.  At each stage of making wine, you are removing something that you don’t want in the final product.  Even the “additives” that get inserted into the wine making process (yeast because natural yeast is finicky and doesn’t always ferment to the wine maker’s liking, fining/clarifying agents to reduce cloudiness or to improve the wine’s clarity, or stabilizing chemicals to make sure the yeast won’t die before finishing fermentation) don’t end up in the final product that you’re drinking.  If you ever go on a winery tour, you’ll hear the term “Racking”, which refers to removing the remaining juice from the solids that have settled to the bottom of the tank, just like a sculptor chips away the stone and brushes away the dust to reveal the form beneath.

How Producers Toe The Line In The Real World

As with anything in life, there are always exceptions.  Wine making is no different.  Depending on where the wine is being made determines the amount and degree to which those exceptions can be made.  For instance, some places allow for chapitalization which means adding a small amount of sugar to the juice prior to fermentation in order to have a higher alcohol content, some do not.  This is technically an addition to wine, however it is not done to produce wines with an alcohol content beyond what any “natural” wine could produce, it is done to bring the wine within the realm of what the wine consumer is expecting.  The same goes for liquid tannin, various acid additions, glycerol, etc., they are all added because the wine through error on the wine maker’s part or just the roll of the dice in this year’s harvest, didn’t meet expectations.  This would be akin to patching a chip on the sculpture.  There are laws preventing additions to wine that would change their very nature.

When Is A Wine No Longer A Wine?

In the WIRED article, the cheap base wines were being manipulated in order to mimic certain popular wines.  Sometimes it is simple blending of a bulk wine with a boutique wine, but other times it comes from severe manipulation in adding esters, acid, etc. where the result product is unrecognizable from the bulk wine it started from.  A point that many wine experts have pointed out is that the company doesn’t actually replicate the popular wines, but instead they are just able to recreate a few notable features of the wines.  Therefore, they probably should be called “Parody Wines” instead.

Are they any good? Can they be enjoyable? I’m sure they can be a tasty treat and I see nothing wrong with their existence in this world, but philosophically speaking, they aren’t wine.  Maybe you could call them fruit beers or wine cocktails, but when you get to a certain level of adding esters, acids, or even color, no longer are they the product of reduction.  They are now the products of addition.  They also will never stand out by themselves because they are dependent upon the original wine existing in the first place.

This is where labeling laws should step in.  Advertising these creations as wine is deceptive to the consumer.  They started as wine, but now they’ve become something else. Again, we currently allow this to some degree in the wine world and a good reason for that is to round out the differences between vintages and produce consistent wines year after year within limitations.  We would benefit from tightening these limitations just a little than what they already are and then labeling these new creations for what they are.  A good reason why this may be important is that there does seem to be mild evidence indicating a correlation between the more ill-effects from drinking wine and the consumption of wines that are generally at the cheapest end of the price spectrum.  The reasoning behind this could be that certain congeners (things other than the alcohol) are removed from quality wines that are not from these bulk-produced wines.  So these parody wines, while certainly not eliminating the existing “bad” congeners in the bulk wine, could in fact be adding more of them in as well.

 

Most consumers are somewhat aghast when they find out what passes through their wine before they get to drink it, but the same could probably said for any food product that has a modern production life cycle.  The mere fact that some additives are added isn’t so much an issue. However, when those additives change the very nature of the final product, we need to be alerted of this transformation.  Again, there’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying what is produced, and the work that is going into identifying what exactly gives a wine its uniqueness is a worthy intellectual exercise that I personally find fascinating.  From a truth-in-advertising perspective though, there will come a point where someone tries to pass off one of these parody wines as the original thing and we should all have the right to know whether they are paying for an original sculpture, chiseled out of marble, or merely a faithful recreation made out of Papier-mâché.

 

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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.

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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

AromaWheel

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.

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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…

 

 

 

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Let’s be honest, you are probably the social nexus and best entertainment source of all of your friends and acquaintances. Given this, it is inevitable that this holiday season you will most likely be hosting one, if not all of the the premier holiday parties in your neighborhood/city/region/world.  As a result of this, and the fact that your social network inevitably includes some thoughtful people, you will undoubtedly receive a number of bottles of wine brought by these guests as gifts.  Naturally, you, as a gracious host will follow the standard lines of polite society:

  • Say ‘Thank you’.
  • Add the bottle to the “Open bar” amongst the ones you’ve provided.
  • If you have prepared wine pairings with a specific meal, ask if you can hold on to the bottle for Tuesday Taco night.

But what if someone brings a bottle of wine that is truly undrinkable? I’m not talking about someone bringing a bottle of California Pinot Noir to a Francophile’s house, because that host just needs to get over themselves.  I’m talking about the bottom of the bargain bin, of dubious origin, might not actually be wine, bottle of wine.  These wines aren’t accidentally acquired.  One has to purposefully wander into the specifically set up section of the store that other shoppers are avoiding like the plague and then select a wine solely based on its lowest price status. Yet, it’s still my general assumption that no one brings these wines as gifts on purpose, but then again, I don’t know your friends.  The question then becomes what to do with these wines.  The answer of course depends on whether you’re good or evil.

The Good Way:

First, let Jeff Goldblum teach you how to act:

Then you have to figure out what to do with the wine short of pouring it out in front of the person.  Your best option is to tell them you’d like to save it for Tuesday Taco night (This is a thing people do, right?) and then toss it out the next day.  Do this discreetly if they are neighbors.  Now, some so called experts will tell you to add this wine to a festive holiday punch or cocktail, but if you’re adding bad wine to these things, you’re not making a good punch or cocktail are you?  At a minimum you have to add the other ingredients at a quantity that masks that bad wine taste which is kind of like throwing good money after bad.

The problem doesn’t stop there either.  What happens when you see the person again?  Yes, you can hope the topic never comes up again, but what if they ask you how you liked it?  Like a lost puppy, bad wine follows you.  You have to come up with a back story. Sure, you could just tell the truth and say it wasn’t the type of wine you prefer, because after all, you’re a good person, but you also don’t want to hurt their feelings because you’re a good person. So what else can you do?

  • Use the bottle for a candle holder or art project.  You’ll probably want to remove the label first because no one wants that in their house.
  • Use the wine to catch fruit flies.  It works.  The whole “Catch flies better with honey instead of vinegar” thing is a complete lie.  The opposite works.
  • If it’s a red wine, use it to dye some fabric.  Get crazy.  I don’t know, I’m not crafty.

The Evil Way:

  • Give the person a sympathetic smile and say “I’m so sorry, you’re uninvited to this party now” and then hand them back the bottle of wine.  Close the door slowly.  Lock the door.
  • Graciously accept the bottle of wine (see above Jeff Goldblum tips on acting) and then secretly serve it back to them and only them throughout the party.
  • Ask guests when offering them wine whether they’d like the good stuff or whatever “wine” (air quotes acceptable) [insert guest name here] brought.
  • Re-gift the wine on the next event those who gave you the bottle host.
  • Tell them your Elf on a Shelf drank it…and then died.

 

Whichever path you decide to take remember that wine is there to help you celebrate so share it with those you hold dear and be grateful they’re willing to put up with you.

 

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