Category Archives: Wine Education

Braving the Willamette Valley front: Oregon Wine Month

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There is a belief among wine cognoscenti that grape vines must suffer before they can produce great wines. In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, not only does that happen, but everyone in the wine business undergoes an annual pain called, “The Harvest.” Is Mother Nature going to be good to us, or will we be left to our own devices and suffer unruly weather? Unlike other regions in the world, such as Australia and the Napa Valley in California, the Willamette Valley proves unpredictable, and provides vintners with unhappy grapes from difficult vintages. While all wine growing regions suffer good and bad years, Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, just like the varietal in Burgundy, paints a picture of extreme variance.

Why do it? Just like writers, photographers and chefs, it is because of the challenge. Many of the greatest wine growers and winemakers aim their sights at the Holy Grail and pursue Pinot Noir with unrelenting faith because when Pinot Noir is great, there is nothing better. This is where the geekiest of wine folks live. It is an on-the-edge behavior that puts them in another realm. Two recent vintages in the Willamette Valley underscore this theme. 2011, which was a cool year, yielded many ungenerous wines that most “normal” wine drinkers may not enjoy. Yes, they may pretend to like it at a party, but it lacks the big, ripe fruit characteristic of say, a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012’s were a much different animal, and produced a wine that everyone would drink happily. For the most part, the 2012 wines are rich, rounded and juicy as can be. I already know a few purists who are scoffing at the wines for their uber-enticing style and seemingly early drinkability. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you, wine geeks often like wines that are crisp, high in acid, great with food and have potential to age over decade’s time. I am okay with both, I would just have to change my food pairing choices.

Pinot Noir is always a challenge. The wine is one of fussiest on the planet. The wine folks in the Willamette Valley are used to being on the outskirts of life and have come to love all their vintages for what they are. One fact is undeniable – unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel, it cannot hide. Vintners cannot use oak, sugar or other varietals to make it better. It is what makes us love it or hate it. Here are a pair of favorites from my notebook. The classic and red-fruited 2013 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills, the fine and complex 2012 WillaKenzie Aliette and the cool vintage 2011 WillaKenzie Pierre Leon. Give them a try and you too will discover how nifty the Willamette Valley vintners are!

 

Tartrates in Wine

The definition of a tartrate (according to dictionary.com) is, “a salt or ester of tartaric acid.” But in the wine world, we know tartrates as “those little pieces at the bottom of your bottle that look like glass shards.”

tartrates2For those not familiar with tartrate crystals, seeing them at the bottom of your wine bottle or wine glass could cause alarm. But not to fret, tartrate crystals are a natural occurring substance in some wines and are totally harmless.

How do tartrate crystals form?
When tartaric acid and potassium combine under very cold temperatures, they create a compound known as potassium bitartrate, which is basically a salt. Typically this happens during fermentation and the crystals attach themselves to the fermentation vessel walls, not in the wine.  But in some wines, more complex ones, the crystals may form at a later state, such as in the wine bottle.

Do all wines have tartrates?
Nope. There is a method called “cold stabilization” that can separates the tartrates from the wine and then the wine is filtered to remove them. Actually, higher end wines are more likely to have tartrates since many are not fined or filtered in order to preserve the nuances and complexity of the wine. Though they are found in both red and white wines, they are typically more noticeable  in white wines.

So what do I do with them? 
Most tartrates settle to the bottom of the bottle, so unless you have the last glass, you’re unlikely to get any. But you can certainly pour the wine through a fine mesh sieve to remove them should they be nuisance. Otherwise, put them to good use as salt on your meal :)

 

Why do we swirl wine?

Just Somme Stuff I Think About:  Why do we swirl wine?

Everyone does it – people at restaurants, wine bars, tasting rooms -even the Sommelier at that fancy restaurant does it.

We all know it makes you look like you know what you are doing, a clear cry of, “no newbie here!”

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But swirling wine is not just a way to look important; the action of swirling a wine in the glass does several things.

  • First off, the non-obvious: swirling the wine in the glass enables some evaporation to take place and the more volatile compounds will dissipate; these include sulfides (matchsticks), sulfites, (rotten eggs) or even some rubbing alcohol Why Do We Swirl?smells.
  • Second, it allows the wine to breathe. Swirling allows oxygen to attach itself to the compounds that make up tannins, and rounds them out, giving them a softer nature; this is also why a young wine should be decanted or run through an aerator: Oxygen helps it open up!
  • Third and most important, the swirling of the wine glass activates esters and aromatizes them, which allows you to smell more of the wine, and thus enjoy it more! This is why having a tulip shape glass helps – it concentrates those aromas up to your nose.

But of course, the most important thing to know when swirling wine is to look good while doing it. Make sure you practice at home and when you get to the restaurant you will look like the ultimate pro!


The 2 best ways to look like a pro:

professorThe Professor: Hold by stem with base firmly situated on a flat surface and give it a swift swirl for 4-5 seconds, then breathe intensely while using the phrase “that will do” repeatedly with a seriously academic look on your face. (bonus points for glasses near the bridge of your nose)

Wine visualThe Sommelier: Hold by base with thumb and forefinger lean ever so slightly so that the wine spreads out toward the rim; evaluate the color while making non-verbal low volume grunts of approval or consternation. Bring the wine up and in front of your face change grip to thumb and forefinger around the stem, and swirl counterclockwise for at least 10 seconds. Then breathe in audibly, and say the phrase, “ok, you can pour it,” but pretending that you are doing the server a favor by not sending it back.


All kidding aside, swirling is a good thing and helps you enjoy a great glass of wine!

Cheers!

 

 

How did wine bottles get their shape?

Just Somme Stuff I Think About:

How did wine bottles get their shape?

Take a deep breath in, and now blow it out. The total amount of air you just blew out is the amount that a glass blower needed to make one wine bottle!

A lungful of air from an experienced glassmaker could blow up a bottle to a volume between 700ml to 800ml depending on the person. And if this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s exactly why in 1979, the US standardized the bottle at 750ml.

Obviously, wine has been stored in various containers used for both storage and transportation, from the ancient amphorae found in shipwrecks to straw encased bottles from Chianti, called a Fiasco.

antiqueonionbottleThe coal furnace was first invented in the 1500s, and with better versions in the 1700s, glass blowers could affordably heat up silica to 1500 degrees and make the production of wine bottles, using forms, a standard practice. At the same time, wines were being stored for longer periods and needed a bottle to store on its side – something the traditional onion shape or tear drop shaped bottle (see below) would not allow.

Now the questions begging to be asked is since we have standardized the amount wine that goes into a bottle, and we have started to store them longer, why do we have so many different bottle shapes? Why not just use one standard bottle?
Bordeaux being the most expensive wine at the time had the greatest need. The Bordeaux bottle is tall with “shoulders” so it will lie down easily for ageing and when pouring the “shoulders” will hold the sediment inside the bottle.

Burgundy was at once thought to be cheaper than Bordeaux and of course wouldn’t require such an expensive bottle so the round fatter “soft shoulder” bottle was used because the glassblower could make it quicker and cheaper.

The Alsatian flute so ubiquitous with Rieslings was invented by the Germans so that it would fit into their packaging crates evenly, no other reason, and is now the only bottle permitted by law in Alsace!

Now it is a matter of tradition that Cabernet will come in a slender shouldered bottle and Chardonnay and Pinot comes in a burgundy shaped bottle. No law (outside of Alsace) is stated that demands it, but sometimes the old ways are comforting and old habits are hard to break!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Garnacha! An education

041 EL CIERZOGarnacha, also known as Grenache, is one of the world’s oldest and most widely planted wine grapes. Due to its long growing season and affinity for heat, it is the perfect Mediterranean grape. It has proliferated from its ancient homeland in Aragon to as far as Lebanon in the East, most of North Africa and throughout most of the new world. It’s luscious, fruity, intense and very diverse. Although most Garnacha is used to create blends – think Chateauneuf-du-Pape – it is starting to come into its own as a varietal wine, ready to take the worldstage with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

A grape for all occasions, Garnacha encompasses red, white, rosé, and sweet styles. The grape is very expressive with a wide range of aromas depending on its originating terroir. Red Garnacha wines are fruit forward, lush and soft on the palate, with a good balance between sweetness, acidity and tannins. Key aromas and flavors include red fruit and spices. Garnacha rosé delivers aromas of strawberries, rose flowers and a sweet berry finish; these wines are perfect for hot weather. White Garnacha produces white wines that can range in style from fresh and mineral-driven to rich and lush.

In Spain, as a result of great attention to terroir, major investment in quality, modern winemaking techniques, and old vineyards, a new generation of winemakers is producing Garnacha wines of exceptional character and concentration. We’re pretty excited about what they are doing! 

The 5 most important P.D.O. (Protected Designations of Origin) for Garnacha in Spain are Calatayud, Campo de Borja, Cariñena, Somontano, and the eponymous Terra Alta.

Calatayud is known for its high altitude, rugged terrain and a rich variety of soils. These impressive natural conditions produce a diversity of high quality Garnacha wines.

Campo de Borja is known as the self-proclaimed “The Empire of Garnacha.” It was the first to explore and fully develop the concept of modern varietal Garnacha wines, and produces some of the most renowned examples in the world.

Cariñena is the oldest P.D.O. in the region of Aragon. Known as “El Vino de las Piedras” (“The Wine of the Rocks”) for its rocky and compact soil that holds water exceptionally well, Cariñena is also the largest of the P.D.O.s, with 14,513 hectares of vineyards and 1,600 growers.

Somontano has positioned itself as a producer of “luxury” wines since it became one of Spain’s most modern P.D.O.s in 1984. It has been a pioneer in taking a New World, varietal approach to wine production. Although only about 5%
of the vineyards are currently planted with Garnacha, the region is committed to the varietal and expects to double plantings over the next few years.

Terra Alta is the white Garnacha specialist. It became a P.D.O. in 1982 and produces around 80% of all the white Garnacha in Spain.

It should noted that Garnacha can also be fortified (as it often is in Australia and in the vins doux naturels of Roussillon), for delicious Port-like wines.

Pick up some Garnacha today to see why this is a fantastic, and affordable, varietal wine!