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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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In the first draft of this piece I began with a 1,000 word treatise on the history, sociology, and science behind why people care about a wine’s vintage.  It was really great and all but A). You probably don’t care and B). I’d rather tell you about this vertical tasting I did the other day instead of trying to convince you that I know a lot about trivial matters.  But if you want to drink wine and talk about it sometime, let me know.

Here’s the abbreviated version. You’re welcome.

Let’s face it, worrying about the vintage (The year the grapes are grown and harvested) of a wine is, to the average consumer, so 2009.  It’s passé. It’s behind the times. It’s outmoded, outdated, obsolete.  It’s antiquated. It’s…vintage?  There are some really good reasons as to why the year the grapes are grown matters to how the wine will taste:

  • Acid, tannins, sugars, and phenolics levels (all the things that affect the flavor of the wine) are in flux until the grapes are picked.  Weather, the microbiome, and the grape overlords (humans), which are commonly known as Terroir, can all affect these levels.
  • The resulting wine from these ever-changing grapes will therefore be different assuming winemaking practices are the same.

The fact that there are differences has led small groups of humans to declare that some vintages are better than others based primarily on subjective reasoning.  However, there are reasons why this is somewhat nonsense:

  • Winemakers have always tried to produce consistent wines from year to year.  It’s only been in the past 50 years or so that they are actually getting good at it.  Wineries are a business.  They want to have consistent product and generally try to avoid a “New Coke” situation.
  • Wine is constantly changing.  Therefore, when someone declares that one vintage is superior to another, they may think differently if they tried the two next year.  Therefore it’s impossible to constantly compare the latest vintage with all of the vintages that have ever been.  Additionally, you’re comparing vintages against how they are now, not how they have been or will be.
  • People have different preferences (As will be shown below).

I offer this background purely to color my hesitation in putting on what is known as a vertical tasting where you taste and compare the same wine from the same producer made in different years.  With this particular vertical tasting I wanted to bring up all of the topics that come up in the snobby versions: weather, geography, bullshit, stories about the winery, but give them appropriate context as to why certain things matter and others don’t.

Through a serious act of self-restraint I had 6 years of Yoakim Bridge’s Zinfandel sitting in my cellar.  Yoakim Bridge is a Sonoma, CA winery located on Dry Creek Valley road between Lake Sonoma and Healdsburg.  Because I was only able to find 3 other people to partake in this venture I only brought out 4 years: 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 for the tasting.  All the bottles were opened about an hour ahead of time as an attempt at providing some sort of even playing ground.  Since we were having Zinfandel, I made some Strawberry/blackberry/ginger barbecue sauce and slow cooked some beef in it, served along side  cornbread and collard greens because sometimes I like to remind people that I was born in the south.

Everyone had 2 glasses (same size and shape) so I poured the 2008 and 2009 first before we moved on to the 2010 and 2011 all the while discussing the historical weather patterns and the growth cycle of a grape.  Correction:  I lectured on those topics and they politely asked some questions and then we discussed a variety of non-wine related subjects while we ate and drank.  I even had a map and a couple of graphs comparing the weather year to year…I thought that was kind of cool.

Yoakim Bridge produces what I would call a typical Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel.  If you were able to taste all of the Zinfandels that were grown and produced in Dry Creek Valley you would find that they all have relatively similar characteristics which is now starting to be defined as Typicity in the wine world.  When doing a vertical tasting, you’re really learning about the Typicity of that particular winery.  But of course, as with statistics, you’re really only discovering what is typical about your particular sample (In our case the 2008-2011 Zinfandels as they tasted on that day).

Dry Creek Zinfandel will have a number of common Zinfandel flavor characteristics if you were selecting them from a flavor wheel: a mix of red and dark berries followed by a collection of baking spices for those that have spent some time in oak.  It differs slightly from the typical Zin in that the big, bold jammy and stewed fruit flavors don’t usually appear.  The Yoakim Bridge 2008 and 2009 were fairly similar in flavor profile; more prominence of the darker berries than red, a dash of baking spices, prime for drinking…which, by the way, what does that mean?

When you make a red wine and especially if you throw it in some oak afterwords, it’s going to have some very noticeable tannins (the cotton-mouth feeling you get in your mouth after consuming red wines, coffee, teas, etc.) and hopefully a sufficient amount of acid (Saliva rushing into your mouth after you swallow).  Over time, both the harshness of acid and tannin will degrade.  When tannins degrade of “soften”, your saliva still binds to them causing that rough feeling, but it’s like someone changed the sandpaper grit from 40 to 180 (That’s moving from a coarser grain to a finer grain for non-sandpapering people).  Concurrently, while the Total Acidity (TA) doesn’t lessen significantly, the composition of acids in the wine does change.  The harsher acids transform through processes like esterification and the overall perception of acid is that it’s softer.  The resulting effect is that a wine that starts off being bright and exuberant will mellow over time.

So could the tannins of the 2008 have been a little softer than the 2009? Sure.  Could the acid have felt a little tamer in the 2008 than the 2009? Sure.  But the differences were fairly negligible and what what most wine connoisseurs are looking for really is balance anyway.  Have the tannins softened an appropriate amount that matches how the acid has softened or is one of those items still sticking out?  Both of these wines were well-balanced and well into their mellow period, which I assume is like an artist’s blue period,  in this respect and that’s  why I would call them prime for drinking.  How long a wine will age depends on how much and how well balanced the levels of tannin, acid, alcohol, and sugar are when the wine is made.  It should also be noted that while numbers about how long a wine can age are thrown about with alarming degrees of authority and confidence, I would estimate that the margin of error to these guesses is probably somewhere between (+/-) 5-10 years.  Fact is, the science of aging wine just isn’t at the point where anyone can state emphatically what is going on and what the exact timeline will be for the aging process.

The atypical wine of the bunch was the 2010.  It was brighter (think acid) and the fruit flavors were slightly more skewed to the red berry spectrum.  While the typical flavor profile returned in the 2011, it was noticeably younger than the 2008 and 2009 in that it also carried stronger acid and tannins.  Why the difference between the 2010 though?  The official conclusion is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Looking at the weather charts I put together, you can see a slight dip in average temperatures in 2010 along with less temperature fluctuation during the growing period which could theoretically mean a higher level of acid, but the winemaker could very well have done an acid treatment slightly differently that year, or perhaps a wine used for topping off was slightly different, fertilizer regiments could have been different, or…well there are a myriad of variables that could have changed.  I did send a last minute message to the winery to see if I could get the pH and brix (sugar levels) from each of the harvest years, but they hadn’t responded yet at the time of the tasting.

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In terms of preferences, there were 4 of us tasting and 3 different answers to that.  Two people thought it was a toss up between the 2009 and 2011, one person preferred the atypical 2010 probably because they’re a bit contrarian, and I preferred the 2008 most likely because I subconsciously have been programmed to think that the older a wine is the better it will be even though I consciously know that’s not necessarily true.  By volume, in a bottle line up after the initial tasting had been completed, the 2008 had the least, the 2009 was the second most drained, followed by the 2011, and the 2010 still retained the most.  So I win.

What does one really learn when they do a vertical tasting?  You learn that wine changes over time and that those changes will either be negligible or stark depending on where that chemical cocktail is in its journey.  It moves in terms of spectrums, not definite steps.  In this vertical tasting it was fortunate that none of these wines had passed their “Point of Diminishing Maturity” as I call it where all the components go from being balanced to falling apart.  I’ve been in tastings with wines that have been 30-40 years old and while most were certainly interesting, I wouldn’t want to drink more than a glass.  I’m sure there’s a 50 year old wine out there somewhere that tastes divine, but honestly I doubt I’ll ever get to experience it due to access issues.

Yes, wine gets better with age, but at some point they just get senile and crotchety.  Depending on the wine, that point can be 1 year all the way up to who knows.   Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a point at which the wine is “perfect”.  Some people prefer the young and bright wines, while others prefer the more mellow experience.  Also like people, a balanced wine will generally stay balanced throughout its lifespan until it turns into a balanced vinegar…except that people don’t turn into vinegar.  Oh dear, my metaphors have reached their Point of Diminishing Maturity.

 

Weather data attained from the National Centers for Environmental Information

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Of all the protuberances extending from our bodies, it is our noses that are held in highest esteem when it comes to enjoying wine.  The Schnoz of a trained wine professional is thought to harbor more natural capabilities than those of normal people.  However, it hasn’t been until relatively recently that the world of science has begun to figure out just how is it we detect and identify odors.

A good reasoning behind this progress is that it hasn’t been until relatively recently that we have been able to begin to understand how our brains work.  It turns out that the nose of a Sommelier is nothing special.  In terms of hardware, we all have approximately the same level of sensitivity.  Therefore, the only real major difference between the nose of an amateur and that of a professional is, like everything else in the world, the amount of practice and training.  That and bravado.  Professionals know that sometimes emphatically stating that something is the way they say it is, regardless of the truth, can be taken seriously. Because really, who’s to argue?

All that practice and training of course, does little to “tone” our sniffers, but more to educate the olfactory memories of our brains.  That’s right, we learn how to pick out smells in the same manner we learn how to play a song.  We memorize the pattern.  This of course means we can mistake one smell for another in moments of error.  Our memories are imperfect beasts.

Speaking of beasts, how many times have you been told that dogs or other animals are far superior smellers that we humans are?  Let me please disabuse you of that notion.  There are two ways to smell.  One is called Orthonasal Smell which happens when suck air in through our nostrils.  There is no doubt that animals with larger and longer snouts than us are superior at this kind of sniffing.  More space for sensors to pick up all of those molecules.  However, there is another type of smelling called Retronasal Smell which happens when we breathe out through our nose.  As far as we can tell ape descendants are the only animals that have a sizeable retronasal passageway to make this kind of function useable.  Therefore, we smell things before we put them in our mouths, and we also smell things (hopefully food) after they have been put into our mouths.  Two smells for the price of one.

He doesn't even care if the steak is cooked well, does he?

He doesn’t even care if the steak is cooked well, does he?

One could say we have a much more developed second dimension of smell.  It is this secondary smell combined with the enhanced processing powers of our brains that actually make us far superior smellers that most of the animal kingdom.  Interestingly, we are the only animals that appear to be concerned with the quality of the calories being put into our mouths for ingestion.  It turns out that even if you have lost your sense of orthonasal smell, that doesn’t necessarily mean your retronasal smell capabilities will be affected.

So what are smells exactly?  It depends upon which part we are referring to.  In wine, a number of different smells that can be found in wines are handily put onto what we call aroma wheels or in lists for our reference.  However, the aromas listed are actually collections of a number of different aromatic compounds which themselves are combinations of various different individual molecules.

Let’s take rosemary for example.  If you were to smell the plant you would say, “This smells like rosemary.” But a more trained sniffer would say, “I smell a combination of woody and floral notes as well as some conifer, clove, and eucalyptus”.  And beyond that, each of those individual aromas are either single molecular compounds or a combination of a few of them.   So an aroma must be thought of as a complex object and not a single entity much like a picture.  A picture after all is a collection of shapes and colors and that analogy is quite a bit more appropriate as will soon be realized. The term bouquet is perhaps more appropriate when discussing the collections or aromas in wines, but we tend to use those terms differently (if not incorrectly) in the world of wine so I will forgo its use here.

Before we recognize aromas though, they must first pass through our snouts to be captured.  Again, once on the way in (orthonasal), and once on the way out (retronasal). How that happens is really still up for debate.  The previous theory was that we had receptors that would accept a single odor molecule much like a key fitting into a lock.  That has been modified over the years with the allowance that perhaps more than one odor molecule may fit onto a receptor.  After all, we might not even have space to put a specific receptor for every single scent we can sniff.  An additional theory is that the odors vibrate the receptors instead of locking into them; much like sound vibrates our ear drums.  Gas Chromatography analysis of smelly things is somewhat based on this vibrational theory as it is used to identify the individual molecular compounds which it visualizes in the form of a plot of different frequencies.  This looks a bit like the sound waves of an erratic melody or the EKG print out of a failing heart.

Regardless of what the actual entry method is and how much is detected, each odor received sends a unique set of signals to a portion of our frontal lobes in the brain that is formed in the shape of a light bulb aptly called the Olfactory Bulb. Because our odor sensing receptors are tuned to multiple odors, the signals flowing up will tend to have overlaps as they hit the Olfactory Bulb.  The outer layer of this section called the Glomeruli is composed of individual cells, much like an LED screen which is “lit up” neurologically speaking with the pattern of the smell.  fMRI studies have actually been able to watch this happen and produce visual images of smell.  Yes, that’s right; when you smell a strawberry, it creates a different image in your brain, than when you smell a banana.

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However, our noses have different thresholds of detectability for different aromas.  For instance, TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole), the odor we speak of when a wine is “Corked” can be detected when it is merely a few parts of a trillion.  Diacetyl, on the other hand, which is the basis for all of the buttery and creamy aromas takes a few parts per thousand to be detected.  And while there is some variation between individuals on what these thresholds are, there is perhaps more variation found depending on what kind of wine the aroma is in.

To complicate our perception of what we are smelling even further, the aromatic image that appears when we sniff can also be shaped by how we are mentally framed and primed beforehand.  In other words, we can be influenced by what have smelled previously, what we are currently craving, or even what we have been told about what we are going to smell.  For instance, it has been shown that even professional wine tasters have insisted that aromas exist in a given wine even though they do not just because the color of the wine they were smelling had been changed unbeknownst to them.  Perhaps, no one has sneakily changed the color of your wine, but how many of us can recall a time where a particular odor, good or bad, just would not leave us and we insisted we smelled it everywhere.  The nestling of our olfactory processing center so closely to our memory center helps us emotionally connect to aromas, but can also lead to confusion when too much information is presented during a sniff.

Traditionally, when it comes to wine we rely on seasoned experts to assist us in how we should perceive a wine’s aromas. While we assume that the conclusion of a practiced professional will be more consistently correct than an amateur, they are still dealing with a measurement where the human nose is more precise than any other means of measure that we have.  That is to say, you can never be completely sure if the overly poetic description of a wine’s aroma is what is actually emanating from the wine or even if it is the same as what you will sense.  Helpful for the general gist of what we can expect, but should be taken with a grain of salt.  Therefore, when it comes to flavor matching in wine and food pairings, it is best to speak in generalities instead of specifics.  The red fruits in the wine will probably bring out the red fruits in the food even if they aren’t the overripe and slightly confectioned cherries you were told to expect.

Our sense of smell, once relegated to our least powerful sense, has actually been shown to perhaps be our most affecting sense.  Its connection to our memories creates emotional responses when triggered and as we uncover more about how the sense works, it is taking on a new level of dimensionality.  However, the typical wine drinker should rejoice in knowing that even if we marvel at the skill a professional demonstrates when they can identify a wine at first sniff, we all smell things a little better after we have taken the first sip.

Additional sources for reading:

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

Taste Buds and Molecules: The art and science of food, wine, and flavor – Francois Chartier

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photo (1)My home of Minneapolis is full of people who are rather enamored with beer.  I’m not talking about bros grabbing a cold one as they scan for ladies between rounds of Buck Hunter* (as apparently all of us do according to a now infamous NY Times article).  What I’m referring to is the insurgence of Craft Beer that has gained a strong foothold bolstered by people passionate about not just drinking beer, but how it’s made, how it works, and most importantly, how to infuse unique and artistic flair into something that has long been a mass-produced product.  Admittedly, I can in no way be classified as a “Beer Drinker”, but I still watch the movement as well as sample their progress along the way because it’s cool.

As the movement has been progressing it has been looking to the world of wine for a little guidance.  Some of it has been general instruction on how be called “Fancy” at dinner parties, but there has also been a push to pair beer with food á la food and wine pairing (the greatest experience known to humans).   Honestly, most of it I have seen thus far has been, to put it very nicely, a bit of a stretch.  Food science is generally ignored with this effort and it seems mostly to be an exercise in filling content for media to gain the Craft Beer lovers as a readership demographic.  So it was with that mentality that I quickly read a few lines of an article entitled: “Beer Vs. Wine” in our local beer rag, The Growler.  I skimmed over the first few lines of a portion someone had pointed me to about pairing beer with food and promptly walked away with disgust.  The author had sought guidance from a sommelier who gave him a list of Dos and Don’ts and I thought to myself “There is no hope for these people!”

After having a brief conversation immediately following that about why I thought pairing food with beer was worthless (Yes, it was mostly me talking), I began to question whether that was an accurate statement.  This was after of course actually pairing a seasonal lager with a dish of andouille sausage and walnut/spinach pesto over a bed of spaghetti squash as seen above and struggling mercilessly to define whether it actually paired well or not.  The next day I actually read the full article and you should too.  It’s a pretty good article.  The author’s conclusion is actually that beer and food pairing is just beginning so people are still feeling their way around the whole concept which I would say is a good summary.

Yet over the past 24 hours my mind has begun to ponder possible interactions between beer and food and I’ve decided that what the beer community really needs is a good framework in order to begin to hash out their own guidelines (not rules) about beer and food pairing.  With that, I humbly offer some points from the evidence-based wine world to get them started.  I honestly look forward to future progress and I think there will be some surprisingly wonderful results.

Work with good chefs.

The craft of wine making developed alongside the craft of cuisine.  Why it was wine instead of beer or another beverage, I have no idea, but regardless, this means that wine and food already have a partnership.  Wine makers have generally assumed that their product was to be consumed alongside food and chefs traditionally assume a fine meal will be accompanied by some wine.  In other words, sometimes they are literally made for each other.  However, if a chef designs a meal with a specific beer in mind, the results will be much better than just trying to pair a beer to a dish already thought up.  Keep in mind though, that I don’t think any beers are made with the specific thought that they should be consumed alongside a meal.  So once the chefs are willing to give a little taste of what they can do, it would be best to return the favor.

Map out the relationships between the components of food to the components of beer.

This is something the wine world is just starting to do, but the fact that knowledge exists on this topic, it should be incorporated.  Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t find where things like acidity or alcohol are being evaluated on standard beer evaluation methodologies.  Maybe they don’t matter when judging the quality of a beer, but they sure do matter when pairing with food.  What happens when you mix the varying acidity levels of beers with spicy foods? Why do parts of beer (i.e. carbonation) go well with salty foods? Ask questions and try stuff out.  This is an area I can certainly help with.  From this experimentation, guidelines can be developed and referenced.

Avoid Dos and Don’ts.  Especially Don’ts. Focus on explaining the experience.

We have plenty of fallacies in the wine world that have manifested themselves into rules about what we should or shouldn’t do instead of just stating why something we are experiencing is happening.  There are plenty of sommeliers that will tell you never to pair a big tannic red with a light fish.  However, if you cook up that fish in a creamy or butter sauce, make sure there is enough salt or citrus acid to reduce the astringency from the tannins, and then force the pairing down someone’s throat, they’d probably think it was pretty good.  Therefore, once you have guidelines based on what is actually being experienced in a pairing, let the chef planning the menu or the person consuming the meal decide whether or not they want to experience a certain aspect of the pairing or not.

Encourage the consumption of beer with a meal. Not necessarily by itself.

This is something America as a whole needs to do a better job of.  There are a whole host of reasons as to why drinking with a meal and not consuming alcohol by itself leads to a healthier lifestyle.  Having the Craft Beer movement be part of this push though would also help establish itself as a beverage that can add to the dinning experience.

Consider alcohol levels.

The alcohol content of wine has slowly been inching upwards so now wines are more commonly reaching the 15-16% ABV levels.  It is generally agreed that these higher levels may perhaps be too alcoholic to blend with a dish because they start to overpower them.  We are also seeing fewer wines being sold in the 11-13% range which is unfortunate, because this is a generally appreciated area for alcohol to be when being paired with food.  So while beer generally sits below the 5% range, some of the more crafty ones are being delivered at higher levels with good results.  Now, I think this will vary with the type of beer being made, but my personal opinion is that the most sublime opportunities for beer and wine pairing will be with beer around 9% ABV.  The point is that the wine world is leaving the bottom level open for you if you’d like to come in out of the rain.

*As an aside, I played Buck Hunter for the first time down in Iowa a couple of weekends ago…I still don’t get it.  

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Rating: 5/5

Brined cornish game hens, rubbed with clove and paprika and put on the grill. Risotto made from arborio, onions, broth, white wine, golden beets, and spiced with thyme, paprika, and clove. Ligonberries deglazed in white wine, spiced with clove, cinnamon, and thyme; spiked with some honey. Also with green beans sauteed in some olive oil.

Wine: Camino de Navaherreros 2010

IMG_1239Notes: I take delight in exploring the extreme perimeters of what my 4-year-old nephew will even consider eating. Apparently this risotto “Tastes like potatoes,” so I’ll go ahead and consider this to be a win for me on this one given my high number of failures in this game.

Anyway…

Lately I’ve been devouring François Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules which highlights his research in matching the volatile compounds (aromas/tastes) of wines to those found in food. While limited to flavor matching, it’s an interesting approach because wine science is just getting to the point where enough information has been cataloged to start doing this. I’ll probably post on topics around this at a later point, but for this experience, just know that the components of clove are chemically the same as those found in a number of red wines and grilled meats always have an affinity for wines put into some oak.

The results were of course spectacular. The theme of clove in varying potency levels in each of the parts of the meal were all brought out by the wine and vice-versa. The red fruit in the wine also made good friends with the ligonberries. Retronasally-speaking (breathing out through your nose after you swallow) all this flavor matching creates this heightened immersion into the food and wine which if done in overabundance could be overwhelming.

By the way, yes that is a guy riding a bear on the label which I think is now one of my favorite wine labels. “Herreros” translated means blacksmiths I believe or a skilled tradesmen, but I have no idea what the “Nava” part would be. So it’s the Path of the something-something blacksmiths that carry spears and ride on bears. I definitely want to take that journey.

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The NYT's Book of Wine: A ReviewThis may come as a surprise, but I generally don’t read wine-related books aimed at wine drinkers.  I find most of these are filled with irrelevant wine trivia (which may or may not be accurate), current wine trends, descriptions of lavish/unattainable experiences in exotic locations, and occasionally a collection of “rules” that are based upon the author’s wine preferences and not those of the reader.  So it was with some hesitation that I picked up the New York Times’ Book of Wine, which released earlier this year, on a whim.

I don’t think I have to tell you that this blog is not mainstream by any means, and if you asked me what wines are “hot” right now I most certainly would not be able to give you an answer.  Looking at one of my bookshelves right now I have two wine sciences books, one of which is an actual text book and a how-to guide on setting up your own vineyard.  Not exactly the readings of a guy who knows what’s hip and cool with the kids these days. And that’s why I picked up the book; It’s a collection of the NYT’s wine articles over the past 3 decades. What better way to see what the wine trends have been for the last 30 years and to actually figure out what’s been “hot” in the trendy wine world?

Burgundy. So hot right now. Burgundy.

Burgundy. So hot right now. Burgundy.

At around 550 pages, this behemoth of a collection was a heavy companion as I took it on my hectic travel schedule through the end of fall.  In my mission to extract the flow of wine trends over the past 30 years, it did not fail.  Unfortunately though, the majority of articles were focused on the very topics I listed above which have driven me to avoid reading wine magazines and op-eds.  So despite having to sift through descriptions of obscene opulence during dinner parties in mansions only accessible by boat and pronunciations that  this bottle of wine that has only been tasted by 10 people is the best one ever (Because really, who are you to say it’s not? You’ll never be able to try it.), I did in fact glean some interesting tidbits from the collection.

  1. The NYTimes has not so much been trying to shape and guide the conversation about wine in America over the past few decades. Instead, it had the conversation, it’s telling you about it, and you shouldn’t question their conclusions because you’ll never have the money to experience what they did. Fortunately, I believe Eric Asimov, their newest head wine writer is changing that.
  2. The idea of drinking Wine as a “cocktail” (without food they are meaning, not that it is a mixed drink), is a concept uniquely American.  And even though they just barely hinted at it in the articles, perhaps this is why Americans are generally accepting of wines with more and more alcohol in them which we don’t usually consider to be food-friendly.
  3. Locally grown and made New York state wine would probably be as little known nationally as Minnesota wine is if it weren’t for having the New York Times nearby.
  4. In wine writing, high price has always trumped any other factor in determining whether one will enjoy an experience with food and wine or not.
  5. It’s good to be a wine writer for the NYT.
  6. Wine vintages used to matter a whole darn lot, but have been slowly leaking out of the conversation about wine.
  7. The wine world will lambaste anything new, but is really quite accepting of new techniques and methods after they produce good wine.
  8. France, France, France, Italy, Spain, France…Napa! France apparently maintains the gold, silver, and bronze standards of wine culture according to wine writers who constantly ask themselves WWFD?
  9. Robert M. Parker Jr. sets prices with his 100-point scale for the wine industry.  Little is known what will happen when he’s no longer around which may be soon as current rumblings suggest.
  10. The American wine drinker has evolved from the subset of rich Franco-philes  (which believe me, still exist; I’ve had dinner with them) to a large swath of the upper-middle-class.  While wine in Europe may be enjoyed by the working class and nobility alike, there is still a class division in beverage choices in America.
  11. Eric Asimov has been the only wine writer for the NYT to actually ask questions at the industry.  This is a much welcome change from a reader perspective and something I try to do in my own writing.  Whether it is to confirm traditions or to usurp prejudices, questions should always be asked.  Not only does this shake up the stodgy feeling of wine writing and bring it “to the masses” if you will, but Eric’s article entitled “Can Sips at Home Prevent Binges?” is a fantastic jumping point to a conversation about wine’s effect on our society.  In the article he debated whether or not to give his kids sips of wine at dinner in hopes to not only instill in them a love of wine, but show them how it is properly used (to enhance a meal) and to teach them that it shouldn’t be abused or used as a crutch to relieve stress.  What a wonderful conversation to have in a society where underage binge-drinking and alcoholism are a problem!

So despite me having to grumble through some more-than-poetic descriptors of wines and events 99.9% of people in this world will never experience, I have hope in wine writing.  It’s moving from descriptions of high society to a conversation about wine’s role in society, albeit with some resistance.  So while I generally focus on how you, the individual are interacting with and experiencing wine, I might start to look more at how groups interact with and experience it.  But after it all, your guess is as good as  mine as to what’s hot right now in the wine world.  According to Google Trends the most common search term accompanying the word “wine” is “red”  so….there you go.  Red wine is where its at right now.  Use that insider tip to impress your friends and don’t forget to tell ’em where you got it!

[Insert glass of red wine here to be trendy]

[Insert glass of red wine here to be trendy]

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There’s a common adage that floats around when people discuss viticulture that the vines must be stressed during the season to produce wonderful grapes for the harvest.  Those of us that know little about horticulture, take a sip of wine so we don’t have to talk, nod politely and associate this with the romanticism or mysticism surrounding wine.  I’ve come to discover that most of the people who state this adage emphatically, have no idea what they are actually talking about.  When you press these people for more on the topic, they mumble things about poor soil quality, restricting water and maybe add the word terroir randomly before quickly changing the subject (worked for me!).  To relieve the suspense up front, it isn’t that this old saying is wrong, it is very right.  But I try not to go around saying things when I don’t know what they mean.

While the title of this post may seem a bit cheeky, I promise I’m not misleading you (too much anyway).  Without further delay to your knowledge gratification, let’s get down to the dirty business of stressing the vines.  I’ll try not to let too much hot vine on vine action get in the way of what I’m trying to say.

Bow Bow Chicka Wow Wow. Oh baby! Too late!

Plants generally reproduce in two ways: one is called vegetative reproduction which can be thought of as plant growth or self-replication and the other is good ol’ sexual reproduction.  Concerning our beloved grape vines, vegetative reproduction is when the vine puts the energy it is generating into growing the vine and its roots.  Sexual reproduction is where the vine puts the energy into making seeds so it can further its genetic line elsewhere.  Jamie Goode puts is wonderfully in his Science of Wine book:

Generally (and simplistically) speaking, if conditions are good and a plant is doing well, then, if it can, it opts for vegetative reproduction or just grows larger – after all, there’s clearly a good match between the plant genes and the environment and it wants to keep things that way.  On the other hand, if conditions are bad, plants will more often choose to reproduce sexually (the “I’m outta here” option), which requires fruit production.

Let’s talk about the Birds and the Bees, shall we?  A vine may reach a certain point in its life where it gets that “funny feeling”.  Of course, in this instance, the feeling is the realization that the vine’s current home, terroir if you will, just isn’t working out and it needs to sow its seeds elsewhere (literally speaking) to continue the genetic line.  Through the course of evolution, the vine has developed symbiotic relationships with certain insects (i.e. bees) as well as animals (mostly birds).  Never one to go it alone (seriously, they’re so dependent), when the vine decides it needs to reproduce, it grows flowers which signal the bees to do their thing on itself or with other vines.  Come to think of it though, domestic vines are mostly hermaphrodites so I guess there is really just a lot of “self-pollination” going on.

Don't come in! I'm...um...changing.

After the bees do their part and the grapes start to grow, the vine cues the birds.  [Birds enter, stage right and all aflutter]  The “cue” in this case is when the grapes turn from small and hard grapes, to fat and juicy ones.  In the viticulture world, they call this point veraison.  Now, grape growers wait a bit after this to pick the grapes because they develop a little more after this point, but this is the dinner bell for the birds to swoop down and eat the calorie-filled tasty treats while swallowing the seeds whole.   As one would assume, birds and farmers generally do not get a long very well.  I don’t need to describe the seed extraction process from the bird in detail, but the hope is that the bird does that elsewhere and in a lovely new home for a future vine.

Thank you, internet.

Which brings us back to stressing the vines.  For the best possible grapes, we need a good strong vine that puts a lot of energy into producing fruit.  If everything is dandy in the vine’s world, it won’t feel the need to spread its seeds which means little or no fruit.  On the other hand, if things are absolutely horrible, the vine won’t spend anytime doing personal development, it will just be in eject mode which means a weak vine.  Therefore, you have to give your vine everything it wants (adequate amounts of water and sunlight and maybe some supplemental minerals) to get it nice and strong and then “stress” it or deny it some of its needs just enough to get it to feel the need to produce fruit.

Various examples of a commonly used vine "stressing" apparatus.

How you do that is both an art and a science, depends a lot on the terroir (geography, climate, weather, etc.) and what grapes you are growing.  Because the weather changes every year, there is a level of unpredictability in what the vine will need each year to get to that balance of ideal vine and fruit growth.  A great season weather-wise will do most of the work, but this doesn’t always happen.  This is why there is much ado about vintages, but that is a subject for another post.

OK, so this post really should have been titled: “Stressing the Vines” Is All About Sex(ual Reproduction)!  But hopefully I threw in enough hot vine on vine action to keep you satisfied.  Whatever you do with this information, please, please, pleeeeaaase do not tell those vines that we are stealing their children and using them to make a heady beverage.  Let them think their seeds are settling in greener pastures and leading a better life than they ever could have had.  Perhaps, it is best to keep them in the dark about this one. For our sake’s anyway.  They may end up coming after ours.

 

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