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Archive for the ‘Zinfandel’ Category

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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 It’s outmoded, outdated, obsolete.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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Pictured: Rebellious youth. His mother is ashamed.

Recently, I was feeling particularly rebellious after listening to a somewhat inaccurate lecture on wine and food pairing.  In the wine world, there are a lot of traditions that just aren’t based on actual facts.  Most of them center around pairing wine with food and most of them attempt to tell you whether you’ll enjoy the experience or not.  This is like someone telling you that if you go to a NASCAR race you will enjoy it without checking to see if that is your particular cup of tea or not.  And if a tea metaphor is being used, NASCAR probably isn’t your thing, but I digress.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, when I’m feeling particularly rebellious, I do what anyone would do:  Sit down and set about proving whomever it is wrong, preferably while listening to some particularly loud music while wearing particularly unruly clothing and using a particularly #@!$ing uncouth vocabulary.  In other words, I sat down and paired a blended (Zin and Cab Sauv) red wine from Sonoma with a bunch of things that the “experts” tell you not to, just to see what really happens.  Admittedly, I’ve tried each of these combinations before which is why I was feeling rebellious, but never at the same time and never with writing utensil in hand.

The pairings were chosen based on the amount of times I’ve been told to never pair a red wine with them.  Citrus fruit (I only had a lime, but a lemon works too), Soy Sauce, Vinegar, and Salt.  For the vinegar and salt, I even selected two different types of each, just to cover all the bases.  Then I compared six aspects of wine between the control (just tasting the wine by its lonesome) and each pairing.  In this case, I’m using the terms “Fruit” to describe, well, the fruity flavors of a wine and “Bouquet” to describe the earthy, meaty, and generally not fruity characteristics.   And yes, of course I put it into a table:

Conclusions:

Each one of these lowers the perception of tannin or astringency (that cotton ball feeling in your mouth).  This is the main reason why the wine world rejects the pairing of red wine with any of these components.  If you don’t mind the reduction in tannin though, or perhaps if you didn’t want it there in the first place, this practice makes perfect sense!  However, the trade-off with most of these is that they also reduce the perception of the fruit characteristics.  The two notable exceptions to this are the lime and the Kosher salt, which do a fine job of maintaining the fruit.

Other observations:

  • Soy sauce is the only pairing that will enhance the non-fruit characteristics, mainly due to umami (savoriness) matching with the umami in the wine.
  • Vinegar will increase the acid, no matter what kind it is.
  • Iodized table salt sucks.  It blows.  It’s the pits.

Side Rant:

Salt should take bitterness out of things; that is its role in food.  In this case though, it actually increased my perception of bitterness.  Now, it didn’t increase the amount of bitter compounds, but it didn’t mitigate bitterness in the amounts that I had it (finger-tip’s worth) while slightly reducing everything else, thus increasing the perception of bitterness.  I see why people feel the need to douse all of their meals with this stuff.  It doesn’t work in small quantities.  Hypertensive Americans should revolt against iodized salt…or just use Kosher salt instead.

P.S. The science world has actually proven that pairing a big Cabernet Sauvignon with a steak works because of the salt the seasons the steak and not because the tannins are latching on to the fat.  Read Molecular Gastronomy if you’re into geeky food science happenings.

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-Norman Rockwell

Every year there are countless recommendations given out as to what wine you should be pairing with your Thanksgiving meal. These recommendations are always made with the utmost confidence that this exact wine will be the perfect match to whatever meal you have and no other wine would do. Everyone eats the exact same thing at Thanksgiving, right? The turkey, the gravy, the cranberry sauce, the stuffing; yours will taste the same as your neighbors, right? Except the pumpkin pie! Your mother makes the best pumpkin pie and everyone else’s tastes exactly the same, which is to say…not as good.  You know the scenario:

 You write down the the recommendations you found in the magazine, on-line, on the radio or on TV, while wondering if you’re spelling it right and whether that word is the producer, the type of wine or where it’s from.  Such joy you have knowing you will be bringing the perfect wines for Thanksgiving! The hunt is on! But once you get to the liquor store, the hunt proves fruitless. The store doesn’t carry those wines (assuming you wrote down the correct thing to begin with) because you live in such a small town that they don’t carry every wine in existence. Fooled again, world of wine!  You got me!  What to do? Panic? You start reaching for the boxed wine….

The idea that there are one or two wines that are a “superior” match to everyone’s Thanksgiving dinner is quite frankly ridiculous.  The problem with specific wine recommendations is that they only work for specific meals.  The specific interactions you get between the wine and food with the environment you’re in comprise the experience.  Thus, the whole point of my musings on this web log.  You have to keep in mind though that a good experience is comprised of a range of factors.  Can you have a good day when it’s raining? Yes.  Can you have a good day when it’s 67 degrees instead of 65? Yes.  Can you have a great Thanksgiving meal with a wide range of wines? Yes.

So instead of worrying yourself over whether or not you’ll be able to find the specific wines that were recommended to you, let’s give you a variety of options, shall we?  Just remember to look for the bottles that have a specific region listed on them.  First, let’s think of the flavor components of traditional Thanksgiving meals: savory, herbs, spices of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, creamy, buttery, jams, tart cranberries, the gamey-ness of the foul.  Now what wines can work well with that?

Whites:

  • Pinot Grigio
  • Chardonnay
  • Viognier
  • Tokaji
  • or some Bubbly!
I generally lean towards the medium to heavier bodied whites so they don’t get lost in all the heavy foods.  A little acid is nice and can provide some zip through the heaviness if you want to lighten it up.  The idea is to match up wines with more stone fruit components (pears, apples, apricots, etc.) which generally happen in cooler climates than ones that have more tropical flavors (mango, pineapple, kiwi) that generally happen in warmer climates.  So could you get a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley?  Yes, but I’d go with that more specifically if I were making a more herbaceous meal with lemon tones.  If you like your buttery chardonnay, it’ll go great with those buttery biscuits and mashed potatoes.  If you generally like buttery chardonnays, but feel like they are at the top of your butteriness threshold, go with a viognier.

Reds:

  • First pickings from the newly released Beaujolais Nouveaus (Gamay)
  • Grenache or  Grenache/Syrah blends
  • Pinot Noir
  • Zinfandel
  • Cabernet Franc

With the reds, the idea is not to get too far into the heavy body realm or too far into the big tannin realm.  The amounts of vinegar and salt in most Thanksgiving meals can typically match the bitterness in the tannins of the above varietals and blends.  The idea with the reds is to match up the red-fruit-jammy and herbaceous flavors while keeping an eye on the tannins.  For some, lots of tannins aren’t a big deal and they kind of like it.  But if you’re having a large number of people over, there are high chances that not everyone is like this.  So if you do want to try a more tannic red, just make sure those who don’t enjoy that sort of thing have a chance to get more vinegar, citric acid or salt in their mouths before they take a quaff.  If your fruits are swaying more to the darker end (blackberries, plums) then you can switch over to the medium-bodied dark fruit wines like Merlot, Syrah, Monastrell, etc.

Just remember, if you really like a couple wines, chances are that those can work for the “perfect” Thanksgiving meal.  You might have to make some small adjustments to your menu, but everything should work out fine.  Those of us who enjoy wine have an expectation bar at some level and as long as it meets that or surpasses it, we’re good.  We don’t fret over prefect pairings, especially if we aren’t doing the cooking or bringing the wine.  If you do have someone who you know has the highest expectation bar, go ahead and tell them to bring the wine.

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Rating: 5/5

Roasted venison loin (medium-rare) marinated in red wine, pepper, sage and gin (which apparently makes a nice Juniper Berry substitute).  On the side: Minnesota wild rice with cranberries and sauteed green beans in lemon and garlic.

Wines: Château de Ségriès Cuvée Réservée 2008, Domaine de la Ville Julienne 2007, Yoakim Bridge Zinfandel 2006

Notes: No, I didn’t drink all three bottles by myself.  If you know a hunter, which you inevitably will if you live in Minnesota and you have some venison lying around in the freezer, you have to cook it for them.  I think it’s a rule or perhaps just a good idea.  Marinating the roast made this venison extremely delectable.  To boot, the wines were mind-blowingly delicious mixed with this meal.  I think I’m still speechless from how enjoyable this all was.

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