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Total Wine

Unrelated image

I had an unfortunate experience a couple of months back and I’ve finally gotten up the courage to write my thoughts down about this horrific event.  Therefore, be warned, you may cry as I relate this to you.

It was a normal winter day in Minneapolis which means I was going about my innocent business of getting work done, deciding if it was too cold or not to go for a run around the lake, and determining what delicious dish I wanted to grace my kitchen with for the evening.  Naturally, my mind will wander to wine when food is involved and it is a wonderful coincidence that my go-to wine shop is directly across the street from one of the grocery stores I go to.  As an aside, yes it’s the plural “grocery stores”, because a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do.  Anyway, in a rare occurrence, I had my heart set on a particular Shiraz/Viognier blend and as I approached the door, I had already mentally mapped my path through the wine store as to where this particular bottle would be procured.  I would head to the back left corner where Australian wines could be found and find it located on the middle shelf which roughly denotes its price point.  As I opened the door, I was greeted by the familiarity of Italian wines directly in front of me, but something was amiss.  Between steps two and three into the store, which also include a slight pivot so I wouldn’t blast through Barolo, it hit me deep in the gut:  The shop was in mid-transition from a layout organization that made sense to some degree to one that now, quite frankly, I’m not sure if I can get over.  Disaster.  You can cry now.

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For those of the unimpassioned variety, let me explain:  There are two general philosophies when it comes to how wines, primarily focused on still wines here, are organized and displayed in a wine shop.  The first is by varietal which means you’d see signs for “Chardonnay”, “Cabernet Sauvignon”, etc. smattered across the store.  One big flaw in this philosophy is when you get to wines that are blended from multiple varietals.  The other major flaw is that there are thousands of grape varietals that are used to make wine.  Hopefully, they are listed alphabetically…

The opposing philosophy then is to organize by wine regions.  Italian wines, French wines, Chilean (or “Chilian” as I saw in a wine shop once) wines all get their section of the store and then their respective wine regions and appellations are gathered together within.  The flaw in this philosophy generally comes from American wine.

Unlike, what we term “Old World” wine regions, aka European countries, American wines can go ahead and put the wine region on a bottle (e.g. Napa) regardless of what kind of grapes go into that wine as long as those grapes were grown in the region*.  However, in a wine region such as Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti, they legally cannot put the name of the region on the bottle unless it is only made from certain grape varietals which all had to be grown within that region.  Therefore, if your wine store is laid out by region, the pristine organization kind of falls apart when you hit America.

Obviously, the correct answer, or at least the answer to appease the most number of people is somewhere in between those extreme philosophies.  Even then though, sides are chosen.  Some wine shops opt for a primarily regional-based layout and then elect for varietal labeling for domestic wines and generally also include a miscellaneous reds and whites section for the odd-balls.  Others go for varietal labeling as the primary, then sprinkle some regions haphazardly in between and top everything off with a poorly named red blends and white blends section. I say poorly, because if they have specific regional sections, those are going to be blends too. Additionally, the flavor profile of wines in the blends sections are all over the place so it’s kind of like a random grab bag.  Personally, I am biased towards the former instead of the latter, but that is most likely because I have a general sense of what kinds of grapes are in a bottle that is only labelled with the region it is from.  But imagine my dismay upon walking into a wine shop that is switching from a primarily region-based layout, to one that is primarily varietal-based.  It’s horrible.

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Interestingly, smaller wine shops are generally regionally focused while the big, discount wine shops are going to be varietal focused.  This generally has to do with the kinds of people that the wine shop attracts.  Ironically though, the typical shopper going to the smaller wine shop is probably going to be purchasing a wider variety of wines over time than the typical shopper going to the big store.  The larger stores just attract a barrel-load (wine term) more people who are generally more concerned about the price of the bottle and less interested in going on a virtual world tour.

Back to why my preferences are better.  When I walk into a wine shop in search of something interesting, which can be defined as:

  • a varietal of grape not usually found in a particular region
  • a unique blend
  • a wine from a lesser-known wine region

…I’m generally not going to find it in a store that has a primarily varietal layout.  Let’s say I’m looking for, or even want the possibility of coming across, a dry wine from Hungary.  Which section would you search for it in each type of wine shop?  In the wine shop that is primarily region-focused, they might have a Hungarian, or perhaps eastern European section if they want to throw in places like Croatia too.  Probably not, but I can dream, can’t I?!  More likely, they would throw it in to the Miscellaneous White section, because dry, regional wines from Hungary are made from single varietals of grapes like Tokaji Furmint and Tokaji Hárslevelű.  How about in the varietal heavy layout?  First, we can guarantee that they don’t have a Furmint or Hárslevelű section, because it would only be stocked with 1 or 2 wines.  Second, it probably wouldn’t be under its own region header because those are reserved for the most popular wine regions.  Third, it’s not a blend of different grapes, so it doesn’t really fall under that White Blends category either.  Therefore, you could probably wander around the shop for hours and not find it before you finally give up and choose whatever is on-sale near the door (which is what they really want you to do anyway).

This isn’t entirely a random example, by the way.  After my wine shop reorganized, I later was looking for some Tokaji Furmint, which I knew they had previously, but couldn’t find anymore.  The employees didn’t know where it was either until we finally tracked it down as being found tucked in between the Sauvignon Blanc and the Chenin Blanc, because when you switch to a varietal-focused organization and still have interesting wines, you’re forced to throw them in random places.

So is there an ideal layout?  For me there is.  I want the region-focused layout where domestic wine is somewhat broken down by varietal and if they really want to get me, they’ll have a section in the middle with a handmade sign that says, “Cool and interesting shit here.” and then there would be an arrow pointing to a curated collection of obscure wines.

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If you use a wine pun in the sign I will cut you.

I get that most wine is purchased by people who don’t know or don’t care what grapes are grown where and I’m not saying everyone needs to only enjoy regional-specific wine.  I do think a region-based approach creates the most certainty for wine consumers though.  If you know which grapes you like, you can buy a wine from a region that uses those grapes with some degree of confidence that you’ll like it in addition to only buying wines with those grapes on the label.  How tough would it be for a wine shop to throw up a small map of a country and its major wine regions listing the major grapes found in those wines?  Sure you could, you know, talk to people, but I’m an introvert and generally avoid talking to strangers, so maps would be better.  Whatever the map situation, just tell my wine shop to switch things back please.

 

 

*“New World” wine countries like America, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and all the other non-European countries don’t have laws that dictate what grape varietals can or cannot be included in a region-specific wine.  The only relevant law in place is that if the wine is claiming to be a varietal, like Cabernet Sauvignon, it needs to mostly be Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.  Percentages defining “mostly” vary by country, but most are >= 80%.  Why you generally don’t see a plethora of varieties from “New World” countries in your wine shop is primarily due to the filtering process of condensing a whole country of wine down to a 5ft expanse in the wine shop.  Yes, more than Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir is grown and made into wine in Marlborough, New Zealand, but chances are, you’ll only see those two.  If you walked into a supermarket or wine shop in a different country, you might think that only Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in Napa and only Pinot Noir is grown in Willamette Valley.  Of course, if you find yourself in a Chilean supermarket, you won’t find any foreign wines at all…

P.S. There is a 3rd “Philosophy” that some wine shops are trying and that is to organize the wines by flavor profile.  You’ll see signs that say stupid things like “Big and Saucy” or “Light and Airy”.  The idea is to attract people who know nothing about wine, but know what sounds tasty to them.  It’s not inherently a bad idea, but in practice it doesn’t work in a shop that has more than say, 50 wines to sell.

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HappyHour

I feel like I should put up a big disclaimer on this post.  So before you rush to the comments to start calling me Mr. Judgey McJudgerson, you should hear me out.  It’s been my experience that there is a significant portion of the American population that doesn’t have a healthy relationship with the toxin known as alcohol.  I’m not necessarily referring to the college aged binge-drinkers and early 20-something over-indulgers who are just out to have a good time, man.  I think most of that can be chalked up to youthful exuberance.  Instead, I’m referring to full-grown adults who after a stressful day/moment/milliseconds of life turn to their friends and say something to the effect of: “Phew! I need a drink!” which is silently suffixed by a look that you would hashtag as #amiright?.  And before you can get both legs of your Offended Pants on, you should know that I’ve been and occasionally still am one of those people.  However, I’ve been doing some reading over the years…

In my other life, I travel around working with electronic health records for various healthcare organizations and I tend to meet a large number of healthcare professionals, both those of the clinical focus as well as those of the operational or financial focus.  To date, my clients have spanned from the Big Island of Hawaii all the way to the coast of Maine so I don’t think my experiences have been regionally focused.  As an aside, since I know you’re curious, yes, there have been a few that have taken advantage of my wine education sessions while I was with them as well.  But I’ve come to find that this Half-Joking-But-Definitely-Doing-It culture about using alcohol to combat stress is pervasive across the country.  Actually, let me put one caveat to that:  there’s a contingent that don’t actually drink, but they’ll make the jokes anyway and quickly follow them up with “But I don’t really drink.” and then look at you in a worried fashion in case you still believe that they would ever ingest alcohol.

You can see this cultural mentality just about everywhere.  There are the “Mom Blogs” that justify why their glass of wine at the end of the day is necessary, there are the constant references to drinking alcohol as a cure for stress in movies and television (Mad Men, anyone?), and the whole concept of Happy Hour revolves around needing a drink after a stressful day of work.  Here’s the thing though, from the medical research readings and hours of experimentation and observation I have done on this subject, I don’t think it actually works.  I may not be an expert on the subject, but I am a reasonably intelligent person with the internet at my disposal (Plus a Health Informaticist who synthesizes a lot of public health recommendations)  and one time I took that Stress Management class in college so I can at least have a reasonably and somewhat informed opinion on the topic.  Let me tell you how I arrived at this conclusion.

This isn't whiskey...it's creative juice.

This isn’t whiskey…it’s creative juice.

First, let’s define the major components of what happens when we get stressed.  Almost immediately after encountering a stressor, whether it be rush-hour traffic, a casual meeting invitation from your boss to review your performance lately, a tiger, or a tiger driving next to you in rush-hour traffic, your adrenal glands begin to produce two hormones: Adrenaline and Norepinephrine.  These two hormones get your body prepped for what is commonly referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response.  Your heart starts beating faster, your blood pressure rises, your muscles tense up and your brain starts calculating whether you should get those fists ready or sprint as fast as you can away from the situation.  Around the same time your Hypothalamus begins producing Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH) and your Pituitary Glands start producing Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH).  Neither of these have much of an external effect, but the combination of them eventually produces the hormone called Cortisol.  Cortisol is the breaks to Adrenaline and Norepinephrine’s accelerator and it’s main purpose is to help regulate fluid levels in the body and control blood pressure so your body doesn’t spin wildly out of control.  In other words it is there so you don’t die.  However, Cortisol is also what we associate with the feelings of stress and in fact we can directly correlate our feelings of stress with the amount of Cortisol flowing through our bloodstream.

Meow.

Meow.

Once the stressor is no longer an issue, the body self-regulates and the levels of all three hormones begin to reduce.  These hormones aren’t unique to the stress cycle.  You may have heard of them in terms of other bodily functions.  For instance, the norepinephrine pathway is manipulated by a drug to maybe-but-most-likely-not-because-we-have-no-idea-what-it-is-actually-doing* treat depression.  Cortisol, is the hormone that helps us wake up in the morning.  And so on and so forth. So when thinking about managing stress, it is not a matter of eliminating these hormones from appearing in the first place, but allowing them to effectively balance themselves.  Acute stress, or stress that is endured for a short period of time and dealt with generally will not have any negative effects on the body.  Chronic stress, or constantly dealing with stressors and not managing them effectively is what leads to negative health consequences.

Now let’s put alcohol into the mix.  The amount of research on stress and alcohol is fairly limited, but there is at least enough to contradict one big assumption.  The general working theory that your average Happy Hour patron has is that alcohol can be used as a tonic to relieve stress.  Basically, the thinking is that alcohol applied to stress is like aloe applied to a mild sunburn:  Apply liberally and eventually the irritant will go away.  Unfortunately, it appears that mixing alcohol with stress is more like a two-way street than a topical application.  Not only does alcohol affect the stress hormones, but the stress hormones appear to have effects on the body’s reaction to alcohol as well.

When you are stressed and you take those first couple of gulps of your apple-tini, I think most people would report that you do feel better.  And why not?  Alcohol, in small doses, has a relaxing effect through stimulating the release of Dopamine and Serotonin.  Serotonin, consequently helps to mitigate Cortisol.  These two hormones don’t necessarily get rid of the stress hormones, but they make us forget about them for a bit.  However, at some point, that same alcohol begins to turn into another source of stress on the body itself.  What point is this?  The jury appears to still be out and I’m sure there are a myriad of variables that can affect this, but the threshold is probably lower than we all think.  Regardless, this means that upon reaching this point, the “medication” quickly becomes an additional source of stress piled on top of the stress that has built up in your body.  This is pure conjecture here, but perhaps “Angry Drunks” are just those who are really stressed out people who make themselves more stressed out by consuming copious amounts of alcohol.

From the opposite side of things, the stress hormones have a general effect on how our body responds to the alcohol consumed.  This is mostly seen in a dampening effect of our intoxication level.  Therefore, people tend to consume more alcohol when they are stressed out because that point where you feel intoxicated arrives later than it typically does.  How this happens is still not clear, but you could probably see this in your own drinking habits if you kept a journal of your stress levels while drinking (Doesn’t that sound like fun?!?!).  Consequently, if you are continually drinking while stressed out, your alcohol tolerance level will probably keep going up as well which could lead to chronic alcohol abuse/dependency, poor sleep, prohibition, and of course, more stress.  In other words, the very thing you are using to reduce your stress becomes the source of it.

Now who needs a drink after reading all of that? Just kidding! Don’t do that.  I think the lesson that can be pulled from all of this is that before we drink we should be aware of our stress levels and the reasons why we are reaching for a drink to begin with.  If you’re stressed, and you have a glass of wine or two with dinner, it is probably unlikely that you will suffer any consequences.  In fact, you’ll probably just enjoy it.  However, if your habit is to binge on a few drinks after a stressful day of work or child-rearing, that habit could be detrimental to your long-term health.  In fact, it might even be a good public health campaign to encourage people not to drink if they are feeling stressed and save the drinking for the happy or at least mood-neutral times.  I think there is some evidence to state that stress or just being in college could be a major contributing factor in the over-consumption of alcohol.  Stress can be better addressed through other activities like exercise or meditation which there is plenty of positive evidence to support.  Therefore, next time you get the invitation or inclination to indulge in some alcohol application to your stress problem, take a second to think about it, and then politely decline. Save the drinks for when you can enjoy them since that’s what they are there for anyway.

*This isn’t a joke, the drug commercial is legally obligated to state that they have no idea how the drug actually works.

Some additional links for more fun reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=emma+childs+alcohol+stress

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html

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Washington State Wine

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Chances are that if you’ve come across a wine from Washington State it was one that was owned by the Altria Group.  Their wine holdings include Chateau Ste Michelle, Snoqualmie, Erath, Hawk Crest, Fourteen Hands, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, Villa Maria, Esk Valley, Seven Falls, O Wines, and Domaine Ste Michelle.  I say it’s statistically probable because they account for something like 80% of all wine exports out of Washington and that’s really a shame.  No, it’s not a shame because they produce poor quality wine.  In fact, they’re producing pretty good wines for each of their respective price points.  Even the fact that the Altria Group changed their name a few years ago from Phillip Morris Companies which leaves many that know that in a moral dilemma anytime they consider buying one of the wines isn’t the entire reason.  It’s a shame that the Washington wine you’ve probably had comes from the Altria group because there are so many other talented people growing grapes and making wine in that state that you really need to start drinking their stuff.

I’ve been going to a Washinton State trade and media tasting in Minneapolis off and on every March for the past 5 or so years and I think what is most remarkable about the event is that the wineries that show up are still wanting to prove that their wine is just as good as California or even Oregon which is now just starting to fade out of their brief shine in the international spotlight.  It’s a combination of optimistic enthusiasm and a serious chip on the shoulder; the plucky boxer that is hell bent on reaching the top and won’t stop to even acknowledge what they’ve accomplished so far.  Ironically, in my work with the Minnesota wine, I look to Washington to learn lessons about how to market and grow the industry.  To me, they’ve been nothing but a success story and are still climbing.

Sometimes it's ok to pick a wine based on its label.  Gorgeous labels. Tasty wine.

Sometimes it’s ok to pick a wine based on its label. Gorgeous labels. Tasty wine.

The winemaking culture in Washington borrows heavily from France; Bordeaux and Rhone in particular.  While you certainly see a number of single varietals, it seems everyone has a flagship blend of either the Merlot/Cabernet Sauvingon/Cabernet Franc or Grenache/Syrah/Mouvedre variety.  Reds are certainly heavily favored, but their Chardonnays and Rieslings are certainly attractive options.  What is nice is that most of the wineries tend to shy away from the “Fruit Bomb” style that’s so popular with Robert Parker and California wines and instead opt for a touch of grace.  I believe we call that restraint.

Next time you’re out at the wine shop or a restaurant, do yourself a favor and search out a Washington wine and give it a try if you’re unfamiliar.  Walla Wall and Columbia Vallery are perhaps the two most established wine regions, but new ones are popping up regularly now.  However, it’s always difficult to find wine from these newer regions unless you drive the 4 hours + from Seattle to get to the regions themselves.  If you can manage it, try to avoid the Altria Group wines as well.  Again, not because they’re making bad wine, but to give the other winemakers a chance.  I’d say in most cases you’re not going to be disappointed and everyone wins if they start shipping more wine out of Washington.

Washington State AVA Map_Page_1

More maps and winery listings can be found here.

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BittersInfusing

Recently I was invited to a holiday party that included the traditional gift swap.  However, being that I live in Minneapolis and Hipster-itis is an epidemic here, all gifts were highly encouraged to be homemade.  Being that my latest batch of wine, a Syrah, is months from being ready, I opted to make some bitters, because when one doesn’t have wine, cocktails are a nice alternative.

First off, what are bitters exactly?  Bitters is an umbrella term for any alcohol infused with botanicals which leave the end result tasting rather…bitter; bittersweet on occasion.  At your local trendy cocktail establishment, you’ll see a lot of them are making their own bitters in a variety of flavors and a few dashes of any particular one will show up on a high number of drinks on the cocktail menu.  However, if you want to appear cool (Like, really cool) when you’re out to eat at a fancy establishment, forgo the post-meal coffee and ask for a bitters to settle the stomach.  On multiple occasions, I’ve had waiters thank me for ordering a bitters because, and I quote: “[they] don’t see that much anymore.”  Even if you don’t like it, you’ll at least get some street cred with the waitstaff, so that’s something.

The homemade bitters that I made were more geared towards cocktails and here’s how you can make your own.  First, you’ll need a spirit as your base.  For starters, use a neutral grain alcohol.  If you have no idea what that is, just grab a high proof vodka or Everclear.  This will be the only time it is socially acceptable to buy Everclear.

Next you’ll need to decide what flavors of bitters you want to make.  You can scour the internet for some or use the ingredients that I did for the 3 types I made as follows.  Ingredients are listed in descending order of their presence in the blend:

Orange Bitters:  Orange peel, chicory root, cardamom, coriander, clove, allspice

Lavender Bitters:  Lavender, orange peel, coriander, vanilla, ginger

Caraway Bitters: Caraway seeds, orange peel, coriander, celery salt, vanilla

There was approximately 2-3 tablespoons of total ingredients in the 6oz of spirit I infused.

BittersIngredients

 

After that you just let them sit while giving them a shake once a day for at least a week.  The longer you let them sit, the stronger the flavor will be (up to a point).  Once the intensity is to your liking, strain the infusing agents out of the bitters and bottle them up.  I used eye dropper bottles because I’m fancy.

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And of course I would be remise if I didn’t include cocktail recipes for the bitters you just made.

The Old Fashioned

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 6 drops orange bitters
  • Splash of club soda
  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • Orange peel for spritz and garnish

The Old Fashioned is a drink you build, meaning you just throw it all in a glass.  First place the sugar cube in and put 6 drops of bitters on it.  Once it softens a bit, muddle it up and spread it around the glass.  Toss a large ice cube in (or ice sphere for extra points) the glass.  Then dump in your whiskey followed by the splash of club soda.  Spritz that orange peel and/or rub it around the rim and toss it in the glass as well.

The Very Fine Italian Greyhound

  • 3oz grapefruit juice
  • 2oz vodka
  • 8 drops caraway bitters
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup (or just an equivalent dash of sugar)
  • pinch of salt

The Very Fine Italian Greyhound is a stirred drink which requires a glass full of ice purely for stirring.  Throw all of the ingredients into the stirring glass and stir for at least 10 seconds.  Strain the contents into your drinking glass which will preferably be a coupe, but a copper mug is fine if you’re into that sort of thing.

The Wisp

  • 2 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz white vermouth
  • 3 drops lavender bitters

The Wisp is a shaken drink which means you’re required to exert some physical effort.  Throw some ice into your shaker along with all of the ingredients.  Close up the shaker and shake it like you mean it for 10 seconds.  Strain into a coupe or martini glass.

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Every year as the holidays start to roll in, it seems that every wine and/or food related outlet is ready to let you know which wines you should buy in order to have the perfect experience.  I always am particularly amused by the interviews with wine “experts” bemoaning how difficult it is to pair wines with a traditional Thanksgiving meal (Revelation: It’s not).  It is also interesting to note how the “perfect” wine pairings for various holiday meals changes from year to year.  Apparently perfection is now something that can be outdone, which makes me want to start a hyperbolic series listing the More-Perfect wine and food pairings so I won’t be outdone by the likes of everyone else!  However, the idea of the perfect wine pairing extends beyond the holidays and into general food and wine snob culture.  The question I have for these people purporting perfect pairings is this: Can you define what a perfect pairing is?

Take this infographic for instance by someone at Vinepair.com.  I won’t show the image here, because it’s ridiculous, but I could probably switch every single wine/beer/liquor pairing around on their chart and no one would complain.  It’s clearly not based on anything except someone’s [unique] preferences.  Fortunately, they posted another article shortly thereafter, giving some good advice even though it was supposedly only for “Geeks”.  So, sorry casual wine drinkers, you’re going to have to stick to imperfection again this year.  (However, here’s another good article that doesn’t appear to be for geeks that may help.)

Whenever someone (expert status or not) claims a match is a perfect pairing and you really press them on why they think it’s perfect, the answer always boils down to: “Well, I liked it.”  There isn’t a metric being used that will be universally true for everyone and that’s really the crux of the issue here.  Not only do people have their own individual preferences, but the variety of what is being served at various holiday meals should negate the relevenace of any broad holiday wine and food pairing advice.  Yes, even Thanksgiving.  But I do understand the point of giving this advice; it’s to make it easier for the casual drinker to pick out some wines at the store that they can bring to dinner.  However, this is why I find it puzzling that many of these articles list specific wines down to the producer and vintage.

There are a stunning amount of wine producers in the world; so stunning that there is not a single person in the world who has tasted the offerings from them all.  If you were to pop in to a different wine store in each state and make a Venn Diagram listing all of the wines each store had, the amount of overlap would actually be quite small.  On the severely cheap end is where you find the most commonalities, because the business model of producers like Yellow Tail, Franzia, and Charles Shaw is to mass produce their product.  Region-specific wine producers though, by their very nature, can’t produce enough wine to make it available in the majority of wine shops across America (let alone the rest of the world).  So while it is great advertising for a wine producer when a wine writer from Napa or New York City annoints them as a perfect pairing for whatever holiday meal, it actually provides little to no value to a reader in Fly-Over Country (Where, surprisingly, most Americans still live) that won’t be able to pick up a bottle of that wine because their wine shop doesn’t carry it.

Therefore, if you’re a wine writer, let’s go ahead and stop the “Perfect Pairing” nonsense.  I bet I could find at least 50 other wines that would be just as good to various people.  If you’re the wine drinker though and you’re wondering what to bring to dinner this Thursday though, I will offer this:

Buy some wines you like of varying colors, bubbles, and sweetness.  The more specific they are on the label about where it comes from, generally the safer the bet.  As long as no one shows up halfway through the meal with a selection of wines that everyone unanimously prefers over the ones you brought, yours really will be perfect pairings.

Cheers.  And for those still looking for meal ideas, you can just have what I had last year.

 

 

 

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This afternoon I was sifting through one of my favorite blogs: ilovecharts (because I really do) and came upon this crafty radar plot for a beer review:

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Now, the use of a radar plot isn’t exactly new in wine or beer evaluation.  It was originally used for alcohol reviews in scientific research and plenty of examples can be found in the Wine Science text book that sits on my bookshelf in my dining room (because I need easy access when I’m drinking).  This one though was created by the guy at beeritual.com and you should certainly head over there if you’re into craft beer reviews or at least for the fact that he does a great job with his photography (much prettier and a whole lot more consistent than mine) and he created his own rating system, which you see an example of above.  However, for those of you that followed my sensory series on how we experience wine (start here), you may also have questions like I did.  And so, I’ve put them together below:

QuestionsFromAWineGuyDespite these questions, I think the approach is a good one, meaning it is helpful/entertaining for craft beer consumers.  The thing about radar plots is that they look kinda cool regardless of what data points are on them or if those data points actually go together.  They are very good for comparing the plot points of one sample to another though which is kind of the whole point.  It’d be nice if some wine reviewers got a little more visual with their reviews.  As much as I enjoy prose, hyperbolic poetry does get a little old, which is probably why I write things like this.  Cheers!  Here’s to drinking nerdy.

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Call me strange, but I’m not one of those people who seeks out history lessons when I travel to interesting places.  I don’t mean to admonish those who do; in fact I enjoy a good literary romp through history in book form or lecture, but I try to keep those sorts of things before or after a visit because I’m much too busy trying to not look too much like a tourist*.  Perhaps the notion of not sticking out is somewhat vain, but I do prefer to linger in a spot, watch people, and perhaps find a good story.  One particular story, which I picked up in Lyon, France just recently I will share with you as it is rather short.  If it helps your imagination, you can picture a grizzled old Frenchman orating over a bottle of wine as he tells you the story of the Pot Lyonnais.

For reference, it will help to know that a standard wine bottle is 750ml or 75cl.

As we all know, wine has been part of French culture for some time.  France has also historically declared that the other two pillars of civilization in conjunction with wine are silk and olives (mostly for oil).  So while many Americans think France just wasn’t up to snuff to being the kings of the new world, the French might contend that since America failed to reliably produce any of these three items in the century following initial European settlement, they really didn’t want it anyway.  The Pot Lyonnais came about because of two of these luxury goods: wine and silk.

The Pot Lyonnais

The Pot Lyonnais

Much before the 19th century, Lyon had established itself as the dominant silk producer of the world, but our story is more concerned with the 19th century.  While the French would later cede production of silk cocoon harvesting to China and Inda, they were and perhaps still are the undisputed masters of making fine silk fabrics.  As with every prosperous industry there was a need for a lot of skilled labor to create these fabrics since robots had not yet been invented.  In a fashion that can perhaps only be described as French, the “Canuts” or weavers as the workers were called were entitled to receive 50cl of wine every week paid for by their employer.  The workers received their 50cl of wine in a glass bottle which was poured from a 1 liter bulk container and became known as the Pot Lyonnais.  However, as we have all experienced with airlines, all “free” things must slowly be taken away from you.

Heavily bottomed to prevent drunk people from knocking them over.

Heavily bottomed to prevent drunk people from knocking them over.

The employers, perhaps a bit miffed at not being able to write off their own personal wine comsumption as a business expense, decided to trim that 50cl of wine down to 46cl.  [Looking at the pot, you’ll see the thick glass at the bottom taking up 4cl of volume.]  Therefore, they’d be able to keep 16cl or just over 5oz (which is what we consider a normal glass of wine today) for every 4 Pots they poured out.  Of course, their glasses were about half the size of ours today so really a glass for the boss came every 2 pots.

And that is why you will find your wine being served in the Pot Lyonnais at most of the Bouchons (cafe/restaurants) in Lyon.

 

*There are exceptions as always.  The silk museum/tour in Lyon was especially fascinating.

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EyeWine

 

Fifth and final part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell, Part 2: How We Taste, Part 3: How We Touch, and Part 4: The Flavor of Wine.

The sense of sight is completely unnecessary to enjoy wine.  This isn’t even a debatable point.  One could claim that they derive extraordinary pleasure from looking at the color of the wine and would be at a complete loss without it, but I think we would all just pat them on the shoulder and pity them for their stupid opinions.  Perhaps the most important part of sight, when it comes to wine, is locating where your glass is, and how much wine you have left in that glass.  The only sense less important to enjoying wine than sight is our sense of hearing.  With all the slurping that most wine lovers do, it may in fact be more enjoyable if we could simply turn our ears off and only turn them on for the ensuing conversation.  Regardless, wine does have a distinctive color.  As I mentioned before, the color of wine can affect our perception of what the flavor of the wine is because we are hard-wired to recognize patterns.  Therefore, when conniving researchers intentionally change the color of a wine as a ruse, it can be effective.  I have personally found that this is generally more effective when done with those more knowledgeable in wine (Up to a point) than with wine novices.

It is certainly true that we can derive information from what the color attributes are of a wine.  We can asses how far along the path of maturity (Not necessarily age) a wine is by how much the color pools to the middle.  We can assume some oxidization of a white wine if it is tinged brown.  This doesn’t mean that we will enjoy a wine more or less based on visual cues, but perhaps we will pick up some indicators about what our mouths and noses will confirm.

The most interesting thing about how we see the color of wine is the number of parallels that exist between the sense of sight and how we also smell, taste, and touch.  All of these senses are in stereoscope, meaning that while our receptors for a particular sense may be specialized, they are by no means limited to their specialty.  In sight, we have 3 receiving cones for red, blue, and green for the light entering them.  As will be shown, the wavelengths of light that they receive, actually overlap.

It has been since the times of Isaac Newton that we have known that color is not contained within objects, but the objects cleverly reflect only certain light wavelengths.  We perceive these electromagnetic waves as color.  Perhaps it was to distinguish when berries were ripe or to more easily spot prey or predators, but the Why is not so much important to this article as the How.  While I would love to lay around stoned with you and discuss whether the blues I see are really the same blues you see (perhaps while singing the blues), the answer amongst normally functioning humans is that our hardware is generally the same and how our brain interprets these is pretty much identical between us.  There are those that have different hardware, and their world of sight is different, but more on that later.

The basics of the hardware contained in our eyes that are at the core of color are our cones and rods.  We have three type of cones composed of light-sensitive cells that each are specialized to a different range of the light spectrum.  The 6-7 million cones we have are what allow us to differentiate hues. The estimated percentage of each type of cone and the ranges are as so:

2% “Blue” cone: ~400-500nm |  32% “Green” cone: ~450-630nm  |  64% “Red” cone: ~500-700nm

The cones are commonly identified by the range of color that they are best at perceiving, but you’ll note that they overlap which means that they are somewhat sensitive to other hues as well.  There are a number of interesting things that can be said about the distribution of our cone types and where they actually are positioned in our eyes which are detailed here, but an important thing to note that is despite the inequality of the distribution in types of cones, our ability to see the different hues remains relatively the same.  This means that much like how there is a high order of brain processing going on to give us flavor, there is also a high level of processing going on to help us identify color.

When there is fault in the development of one or more types of the cones, this results in color-blindness.  Tetrachromacy, on the other hand, is a condition where one develops an extra cone which is commonly sensitive to more of the UV spectrum range of light.  This is how a number of the animal kingdom sees the world, including butterflies, and there is speculation that Van Gogh was a Tetrachromat given the colors used in his paintings of blue flowers.  Regardless, whether you can see color normally or not, it probably will not affect your enjoyment of a wine.

Additionally, we also have ~120 million rods that detect the level of intensity of the wavelengths hitting them. This intensity can be thought of as the saturation of a particular hue.  The seemingly infinite combination of these gives us all of the colors that we see.  The colors of wine though are not infinite.  In fact, we generally only speak of whether one is Red, White, or occasionally the blushy mid-point between the two colors called Roses.  What we are really referring to is a range of colors that range from golds to clear or almost greens for Whites, Pink hues for the Roses, and light Reds to Purples (Although sometimes Oranges and Browns) for Reds.

This color comes from two sources: The first being the juice of the grapes, which is almost always clear with a yellowy tinge.  The second being the skins of the grapes which traditionally are only used for “Red” wines and for a brief period for the “Roses”.  The range of colors in the grapes grown to produce wines are generally as such:

GrapeColorSpectrum

*Adopted from content in Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and Jose Vouillamoz

And the wines we produce from those grapes generally have a color range like this:

WineColorSpectrum

As you may have now figured out, it generally stands that the darker the color of grape, the darker the color of wine will be.  The pigments that create the colors that we see work by absorbing certain wavelengths.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the more pigment there is in something, the more intensely colored it will be.  In other words, the hue is determined by the make-up of the pigment, and the saturation is determined by how much pigment there actually is.    In wine, most evaluations value the correct hue for a wine varietal, meaning the grower of the grape allowed the grapes to ripen until they were just the right color, and the also value the saturation of that color meaning the wine maker was able to extract an appropriate amount of color from the skins of the grapes for Reds and Roses.  In judging the color of a wine, it’s not so much verifying that the wine is of a color it should be, a general range is fine.  The hue of a wine is inherent in the wine making process unless something really gets screwed up.  However, when it comes to the color intensity of the wine, the wine elite seem to generally prefer hues with a higher saturation.  This is generally referred to as the brilliance of a wine.  A wine that has less pigment extracted from the skins or inherent within the juice may be considered dull.

Clarity is a simple matter of how much opaque material is still left in the wine.  Winemaking is a reductive process at its most primitive form.  After the alcohol is created through fermentation, the winemaker begins the process of slowly stripping out everything from the wine but the water, alcohol, and molecules relating to flavor and color.  The remaining solids will just create cloudiness.

While it is certainly true that the visual appearance of wine in a glass can give clues to the quality of how the wine was made or perhaps what flavors we are about to experience, there hasn’t been any evidence that shows that it actually affects our enjoyment of the wine. Therefore, as you sip languidly on your next glass, go ahead and close your eyes and let your mind conjure up images based upon the flavor you are experiencing instead.

Additional sources for reading:

Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters – Gordon Shepherd

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Flavor

Fourth part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell, Part 2: How We Taste, and Part 3: How We Touch.

The past 3 posts of this sensory series have been about how we smell, taste, and touch.  Each of these factors in to what we commonly refer to as the flavor of wine.  A lot of this has to do with proximity.  Each of these items are being processed next to each other in the brain (especially, smell and taste).  In fact, they happen so close to each other that sometimes we even get confused that things we are smelling are actually what we are tasting.  Something cannot smell sweet.  It can only taste sweet.    When the confusion between senses happens consistently, it is known as the condition Synesthisia. Jimi Hendrix could see color when he heard music (Listen to his song Bold As Love to hear about it).  He was a Synesthete.  I don’t believe there is any research on how LSD effects this condition.

Regardless of which wine evaluation methodology you are utilizing: The Court, International Sommelier Guild, or rating system like Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, etc. the majority of what is being evaluated can be encapsulated into flavor.  How We See (The Color of Wine) is next up in the series which is the other (minor) part of wine evaluation.  Yet, there is so much about flavor as we have seen where we have room to personally conclude whether we have preference for something or not.  The subjectiveness of flavor, whether consciously or not, is always somehow factored in to an evaluation of wine.  Therefore, there is an extra layer of complication for the casual wine drinker in finding a wine that they like.  They can’t simply just go to the experts to see what was rated the highest, they have to factor in whether those experts like the same wines they do or not.

This is particularly telling in the US rating systems which were created by people who generally don’t like sweeter wines even though most of the American public secretly does.  This is also mostly why I never rate wines on my blog and try not to use subjective descriptors.  I don’t know you.  Therefore, I could not accurately judge whether a wine is likable to all of you or not, nor could I trust myself to not subconsciously press my preferences on you.  I do however try and list the objective qualities of the wines I am pairing and then let you conclude whether that’s something you’re interested in trying or not.  The other part to this is that because our perception of flavor is so tightly entwined with our emotion and memories (Remember, you are comparing the aroma “image” to your memory stockpile of images to figure out what it is) that something as simple as you having a bad day when you have the wine, could affect your ongoing perception of it.  Tannat is my go-to brooding wine for instance.  Another example is how I have not drank a glass of wine from Bandol since I had it while breaking up with a girlfriend one time.  Is it any wonder that we have both a taste and feeling called ‘Bitter’?

I’m not saying that if we have a bad experience with a wine that we will continue to have a bad experience with it though.  I will drink a Bandol again, and one day you may actually enjoy that wine you thought you’d never like as long as the circumstances are right.  This is due to what is known as the plasticity of the brain.  We change.  What those circumstances are though is what wine and food pairing is all about at a fundamental level.  Previously in the series I mentioned how mental framing and priming can be used to brainwash you and shape how you experience a wine and food pairing.  OK, maybe brainwash is too strong of a word, but part of what I do during Wine and Food Experience events is to shape how people approach the tasting.  The idea behind matching the aromas of a wine to the aromas in a dish are a way to prime the mind to enhance that particular item.  The new wave of molecular wine and food matching is built entirely upon this concept.

photo-5

Found within this is the secret to wine and food pairing.  To create a good wine and food pairing, you don’t need to memorize the ingredients of thousands of dishes and understand the differences between wines of hundreds of different regions.  All you need to do is meet the [reasonable] expectation of the person who will be consuming the pairing.  The good news is that this is much easier than people think.  Most people have a pretty vague expectation:  They want to enjoy the wine they are drinking and enjoy the food they are having. They aren’t expecting to have their minds blown or taste something they have never tasted before.  The want agreeable flavor.  I know this sounds unapproachable by average home chefs and their non-existant wine cellars, but trust me.  If you can cook (Or buy, I won’t tell anyone) something you like to eat, and you know of a wine you like to drink, you can make it happen.

Here’s how you do it when you know what you want to cook.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Imagine yourself eating a pretty good meal if you want.  Then, figure out the main components of the dish.  This can be as simple as looking at the recipe you are using or just perhaps recognizing what items your hands are putting in to your cooking apparatus.  The easy part about this is that you don’t have to be specific.  Fruit for instance, can be categorized as to whether it is red, dark, tropical, or stone (apples, pears, etc.).  Then you go to the wine shop and ask for a wine in your price range that has one of those main components in it.  This is called flavor matching.  Lastly, you sit down with someone and enjoy the meal you made with the wine you bought and you actively notice the component of the wine that matches with the food.  Huzzah! You are a pseudo-professional at this now.  What if the wine tastes thin?  Garnish the food with some lemon or another acid.  What if the astringency of the tannins are too much for your liking in the wine?  Back to the lemon/acid, or add some large grained salt.  Problems solved!

Here’s how you do it when you know what wine you want to have.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Then look at the back label for some wine descriptors or Google the wine to find some.  Next, search for some recipes that have one of those components from the wine in it.  Now make your meal and sit and enjoy it with someone.  Huzzah again! You are a gastronomical hero.  Follow the troubleshooting tips in the previous paragraph if you run in to any of them.

The whole concept of flavor matching and very importantly, noticing it, is a big part to enjoying wine with food.  All you are is adding two similar aromas together and by their nature, they enhance each other.  Aroma after all is the main component of flavor.  The tastes mostly follow this additive quality as well.  Bitter + bitter = more bitter.  However, tastes can also be used as fill-ins when you think something is missing from a dish.  Keep in mind that good flavor is all about balancing all of them.  Ayurvedic cooking even makes a point of incorporating all of the tastes into ever dish.  Interestingly, they came up with and still maintain 6 different tastes: Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.  You’ll note two of those overlap with items discussed in How We Touch.  Modern research is studying how the lack of flavor balance in meals may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

If the dish would taste perfect with just a touch of sweetness, but you didn’t add any in, have a wine that is a little sweet.  Of course, a lot of times you don’t know this until you’re in the middle of consumption so you’d probably just get a dash of sugar, honey, maple syrup, or that HFCS you have in your cabinet.  The point is, you have to go in expecting that you might change one minor thing, but with the goal of balancing.  Speaking of which, as far as touch goes, as long as you stick with the salt and the lemon, you’ll be fine there too.

Then what are professionals for? You might now assume that since you can deliver wonderful wine and food pairings now and impress your friends and the ever-growing multitude of lovers that a Sommelier or other wine professional is now obsolete in your life.  Being one of those experts, I will brazenly tell you that in a lot of respects you are correct.  However, if you haven’t bothered to memorize all the general wine descriptors of wines and how they vary between regions, you’ll need someone at the wine shop to point you to the right direction.  Also, did you know that the eugenol in the wine that comes from aging it in toasted oak is also found in clove?  No?  Well you’ll probably want an expert to point out some of the more obscure matches that occur.  Professionals can also help you understand some of the general relationships between acid, fat, salt, and such so you can expand your repertoire and not be limited to the same wine and food pairing every Friday night.

The more you learn about how wine and food work, the more you may seek out the novel and expand your experimentation.  Honestly though, if you can match some aromas and know when to use lemon or salt, you’ll have a great time and get be able to have an enjoyable experience 80% of the time.  The other 20% of the time you can give me a call.  Wine, and by extension, wine and food pairing is much like fashion: It’s more important that you wear something that fits than you stay up with the latest trends or try to make a statement.  Those that can pull off the bold statements either know a whole heck of a lot, or they’ve convinced the world that they do.  Also much like fashion, your preferences may change over time.  And that’s OK too.

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Yeah, it's a Tempranillo...I can feel it.

Yeah, it’s a Tempranillo…I can feel it.

Third part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell and Part 2: How We Taste.

For the most part, we do not touch wine in the traditional sense of dipping our fingers into the liquid or luxuriously lounging in a heady bath.  However, once it enters the mouth, our sense of touch is activated in what are termed trigeminal responses.  Touch is the final component that factors into what we commonly refer to as flavor.  While we usually give the starring credit to smell and somewhat lesser extent to taste, touch also plays a vital supporting role in helping us distinguish between one flavor and another.

We touch wine in a few different ways; there are first the obvious mechanistic ways that come to mind when we come into physical contact with something.  This is how we can tell that we have a delightful liquid in our mouths instead of a crispy potato chip.  Additionally though, we also experience the temperature of food and drink as well as the chemical reactions that can occur similar to how taste is received.  In the explanation of How We Taste, it was shown that some of the new contenders for tastes probably have more to do with touch than taste which we will explore here.  When it comes to enjoying wine with food, we notice touch in a variety of ways: Piquance, Coolness, Mouthfeel/Body, Acidity, CO2, and Astringency.

With regards to temperature, we actually have thermoreceptors in our mouths that help us pull away the pizza that is too hot (Unfortunately this is usually after it burns the top of our mouths and leaves that annoying hanging piece of skin), but those aren’t what we necessarily are factoring into the flavor.  Chemesthetic reactions are what happen when receptors in our mouths that are associated with pain, thermal sensation, or touch are activated by chemicals within the food.  The capsaicin of a spicy chili activates our pain and thermal pathways regardless of the actual thermal temperature of the food.  The menthol in mint also trick those same pathways into thinking a cool breeze is moving across our tongues.

You burn me right 'round, baby, right 'round...

You burn me right ’round, baby, right ’round…

In a slightly different manner, when Carbon Dioxide bubbles dance across our tongues, creating that prickly sensation, the CO2 is actually binding to some of the receptors on our taste buds creating the Chemesthetic reaction that feels a bit like you are getting poked.  This is found with much welcome in sparkling wines and other fizzy beverages.  While there are those who think they can discern something about the quality of the wine from the size and the frequency of the pokes, most of us just take a sip and the only thing that comes to mind is: “Bubbles!”  Unlike taste though, there does not seem to be much discernable range in the sensitivity between individuals concerning what we touch inside our mouths.  Yet, despite this uniformity, that does not mean that we cannot become accustomed or more tolerant to certain sensations such as those that continually seek out spiciness.  That has more to do with the centers of our brains that create addiction.

In wine, there is no capsacin or menthol, so it would be unusual for you to perceive chemically activated temperature fluctuations due to those, but we do commonly find these in the foods we are eating with our wines.  Alcohol, on the other hand we can perceive as a burning sensation depending on the other components of the wine, notably acid.  Our individual preference to the amounts of these we can handle varies greatly between individuals, especially when it comes to piquance so it is important to understand the two factors that can enhance or dilute this sensation.  For those who shy away from spicy things, it would also be best to stay away from pairing spicier foods with wines containing high or very noticeable alcohol.  Alcohol will enhance that burning sensation since for those that already don’t like the burn from capsacin, they probably also tend to feel a noticeable burn from alcohol as well.  However, for those tolerant of both sensations, they may perceive this to be more of a sweet taste.  This seems to be in line with where people fall on the taste spectrum that I discussed in my previous post as well.

On the other end, acid does a fine job of diluting the effects of capsacin.  When you notice the rate of saliva flooding into your mouth as you drink a wine, you are experiencing the effects of the acid in that wine.  Wines from cooler climates, such as a German Riesling will have the most notable and prominent effects compared to wines from warmer climates.

Additionally, there are a few physical reactions that happen inside our mouths when we take a sip of wine.  Most notably, when taking a sip from a wine derived from a cooler climate like a German Riesling, is the saliva inducing effects of acidity.  The more acidic a wine is, the more saliva comes rushing into our mouths and the range is anywhere from “Enamel-stripping” to what we call “Flabby”, or such low acid that the wine has no zip.  The levels of acidity are measured in terms of pH, which is actually measuring how active ions are in a solution.  Why does this matter?  If we recall back to Taste, the taste of sour comes from ions entering our taste buds.  More acid = more sour.

Mouthfeel and body are two somewhat ambiguous terms that are used commonly in wine descriptors.  As we saw in How To Taste, Mouthfeel is undergoing an attempt at hijacking (Bloody pirates!!) by the same Japanese company that brought us Umami.  However, for the time being, my personal assessment is that what is being referred to is the viscosity of the wine as well as the wine’s “shape” as it passes through the mouth back to the throat.  Imagine the shape of the interior of your mouth for a moment.  When closed for consumption, it has a narrow opening, balloons into a somewhat orb-shaped cave in the middle and then recedes back to the narrow opening in the rear.  How well the wine coats and conforms to this interior shape is what is being evaluated.   Wines can be thin and seem to just splash around playfully in our mouths like water or wines can be thick and full, almost requiring effort to push to the back of our throats.  Of course, we also have every variation in between.  This is also what is being referenced when people speak of a wine’s Finish which I will discuss in the next post on Flavor.

Soundwavecut

What actually causes our assessment of Mouthfeel and Body is a combination of alcohol or more likely its by-product of glycerol, the level of acid, sugar content, and in the case of red wines and some whites, tannin.  Glycerol, the same stuff you see sliding down your glass in the form of “Legs” or “Tears” when the alcohol of your wine is evaporating faster than the water, and residual sugar in the wine will increase the wine’s viscosity the more they are found in the wine.  This is why dessert wines and fortified wines have a bigger body that your table wines.  An increase in “fullness” of the wine’s body is credited largely to how many proteins from the wine are binding to either receptors or saliva in your mouth.  If you’ll recall, the higher the acid in the wine, the more saliva will come rushing into your mouth.  Thus, there are more things to bind to providing that the wine is bringing the goods.

The last part that factors into Mouthfeel which is also evaluated by itself by professional wine tasters, is Astringency.  In wine, astringency is found in the form of tannins which bind to our saliva and create that cotton-mouth feeling around your tongue and/or gums that some people (Mostly Super Tasters) can’t stand mostly because in addition to the sensation, tannins have a bitter taste to them.  The tannins come from the solid parts of the grapes (Seeds, skins, stems, etc.) and from any oak that has touched the wine while it is being made.  Tannins are also found in coffee, tea, and a wide variety of other foods that have bitterness in them.

Of course, each one of these sensations is not acting in isolation.  As was already mentioned with the effects of acidity on piquance, it is the balance of each of these interactions that affect our overall perception and create what I will nerdily refer to as the wine’s matrix.  For those that skipped through this article looking for a cheat sheet, here are a list of balancing interactions that you may experience within the wine itself, or when mixing wine with food.

First let’s look at the tastes from the last post.  Remember how we taste Sweet, Bitter, and Umami when molecules bind to your taste buds and we taste Sour and Salty when ions flow through the taste bud channels?  This means that when you have a combination of Sweet, Bitter, and/or Umami tastes, those will all enhance each other.  Same goes for mixing the Sour and the Salty.

TasteBalance

One of the best pieces of wine and food advice I’ve ever received was from Tim Hanni, MW and that was to always have a lemon wedge and salt nearby.  If you are ever noticing that your wine seems a little off or flat when you are having it with a meal, give the food a little spritz of lemon and you will notice a bit of lift in the wine and it will instantly improve.  This is the same thing you do when your soup seems a bit bland.  You add a dash of vinegar or citric acid to give it lift.  Salt can also have a similar effect, but only up to a point.  We salt to taste the food, otherwise it just tastes salty.  However, salt plays an important role regarding tannin.  If a wine is too tannic for you, try adding a bit of sea salt or kosher salt (Not iodized salt.  Iodine is bitter.) and then notice the tannins start to disappear.  This also works with a spritz of the lemon as well. Historically people have paired a big, tannic red wine with a piece of red meat because they thought the tannins were being softened by the fat in the meat.  Good outcome, incorrect reasoning.  The tannins are noticeably reduced due to the salt put on the piece of meat and nothing really to do with the meat itself.  Red wine with salty/lemony white fish? Don’t mind if I do!

Salt and Lemon. Wine and Food's BFFs.

Salt and Lemon. Wine and Food’s BFFs.

Here is a quick reference list for the tactile interactions that can happen and you should certainly experiment with:

  • Alcohol increases piquance
  • Acidity decreases piquance
  • Astringency increases piquance
  • Sugar decreases piquance
  • Acidity lifts fat
  • Acidity decreases astringency
  • CO2 in my opinion causes a certain level of confusion amongst your taste buds and tactile sensors.  This usually has somewhat of a masking effect on pretty much anything that could be considered an irritant (Piquance and astringency).

Of course, if you want to get really experimental, you can repeat the experience I had when I paired wine with all the things I wasn’t supposed to.  Bon apetit!

Additional sources for reading:

Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters – Gordon Shepherd

Why You Like The Wines You Like – Tim Hanni

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