“Legs” in a wine glass are the tears that stream down the side of the glass after you’ve swirled it. Some take special notice of these legs – are they fast or slow? Thick or thin? Whatever speed and shape they take, what does it even mean? The legs of a wine show you nothing of the wine’s quality, and studies have shown they don’t really show much about a wine’s viscosity, either. Legs are created in a glass by a number of different relationships between the liquid and the glass surface and between the water and alcohol components of the wine. The way the legs fall usually has to do with the level of alcohol in the wine and the speed at which it evaporates, and thicker and slower legs can indicate a higher alcohol level. In short, watching the legs flow down a glass may be pretty, but won’t give you much insight into the wine.
The Fourth of July weekend is upon us again, and as a history major, I love to ponder our founding fathers around this time. As a University of Virginia graduate, I am quite partial to all fun facts and notes about Thomas Jefferson. Though I don’t agree with everything he did as a politician or even a person, there is no denying his inventive mind and complex character. Plus the fact that he is what many like to call the first ‘wine connoisseur’ of our nation – or at least, the most well known.
But he’s not the only one who enjoyed wine – and other potent potables. During colonial times, alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine and spirits, were considered more healthy than drinking water. Water contained bacteria and could be more dangerous to one’s health than alcohol. So when that is the case, best to find a signature drink! Here are some favorite tipples of a few founding fathers.
George Washington: Madeira is said to be his favorite drink, and it was in fact one of the most available beverages in the colonies (and states), as it was hard to ship European wine overseas without spoilage. But Washington also ran a distillery on his property at Mount Vernon. In fact, it was the largest whiskey distillery in the country in the 18th century. Granted, it was constructed in 1797, but it was able to claim that title!
John Adams: Again, Madeira was a favorite for this second president, but he also enjoyed cider and beer. Hard cider, that is. As an ambassador to France, he also had is fair share of wine, but was not known to indulge quite as much as Benjamin Franklin when hew as in the position.
Thomas Jefferson: Wine, of course! Not only did he collect wine from the famous Bordeaux chateaux, he also tried planting European grapes on his Virginia estate. Though that experiment did not take off back then, it certainly is growing now and the VA wine industry is improving every year. A few of his favorite chateaux in Bordeaux included Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau d’Yquem. He was a man with expensive tastes…
I’d love to know what Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry liked to drink most, but can’t seem to find much research out there on it. What do you know about our other founding fathers and their drinks?
As you hold the wine glass in your hand, you read the tasting note: aromas of cassis, blackberry, plum sauce and cigar box. You dip your nose in for a whiff. All you get is the smell of wine. And so goes the disconnect between those writing the tasting note and the everyday drinker.
Thing is, the person writing the tasting note probably doesn’t have any better sense of smell than you, he or she simply has more practice. In other words, better sense memory. When an “expert” taster smells wine, they are using their sense memory bank to gather what they smell. If they write down strawberry, it’s because they have smelled a strawberry before and they are able to connect the aroma in the wine with the aroma they once associated with strawberry. You’ve probably had a strawberry before, but may not be able to immediately recognize it in a wine (unless someone suggests it), because you have not had the practice of having to do so many, many times. Learning to assess a wine and its components, like aromas and flavors, are just like learning a sport or a language or a new skill – you just have to practice.
So next time you bite into a strawberry, think about the flavor, the smell and everything about it. Same goes for all food and flavors – the more you remember, the more you can associate when you assess a wine. Some things you may never be able to taste – gooseberry is a common term for Sauvignon Blanc, particularly from New Zealand. But they are not frequently found state side, so you may not be able to stock that away in your sense memory. Some things you may never WANT to taste – Sancerre is sometimes referred to with an aroma of “pis du chat,” or “cat pis.” No need to have that in your sense memory. The gist of the message here, should you want to improve your ability to assess a wine’s aromas and flavors with a wide vocabulary, is to practice! Practice tasting food, remember smells, practice tasting wine and start putting the two together.
Faced again with the difficult task of opening a bottle of wine sealed with a synthetic cork, I truly would like to know the benefit of these closures. I can easily list what I don’t like about them. It is a hassle and huge effort to get the corkscrew into them. It takes a good amount of elbow grease to pull the “cork” out of the bottle (think holding the bottle between your knees while you pull on the corkscrew with all your might), and then, God forbid you do not finish the bottle (which I must admit is usually not an issue) and you want to put the “cork” back in, you are faced with a square peg/round hole situation.
Synthetic corks are not only a hassle to pull out, but also can allow oxidation as they do not mold themselves to the glass as it changes temperature. Yes, most wines are meant to be consumed young and you won’t find one of these closures in a wine meant to age. But even for those wines with an expected shelf life of less than a year, a good way to shorten that life even further is to finish the bottle with synthetic cork.
I understand why a winemaker may use them. First, to avoid TCA (cork taint). TCA, the taint that can affect wines closed in cork is something to be avoided – it gives the wine a musty moldy smell at its worst, and at its least, dulls the wine’s fruit, leading a consumer to think they just don’t like the wine. Second, because of cost. It is more expensive to use a natural cork rather than a synthetic cork, though not by much.
And what about the screw cap? They protect the wine from cork taint and are becoming more widely accepted as closures for quality wine. They preset a higher cost up front as a winery much change the bottling machinery and types of bottles used. I know some are still worried about consumer views of screw caps, but I think many wine consumers would prefer a screw cap wine to one closed with a synthetic cork. It preserves the wine much better and requires less energy to open. And sometimes we need to get to our wine fast!
Though I love screw caps, if a winemaker prefers a cork like closure, please just continue to use the cork. My corkscrew and I will thank you. What closure do you prefer?
Hot Spot: California, Southern Italy
Synonyms: Primitivo, Plavac Mali
Zinfandel is often touted as the ideal grape for 4th of July BBQs and even Thanksgiving dinner as it is the quintessential “California” grape. So how did a grape variety from Croatia come to be known as the “California Varietal?” Wine grape historians (not their technical name but we’ll call them that) traced the variety back to the 1820s, when it was imported from an Austrian nursery and found a home somewhere on the east coast of the US. About the time of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, Zinfandel found its way to the west coast. By the late 1800s was the “it” grape, partly due to its productivity and sturdy constitution. Even during prohibition, Zinfandel remained popular for home winemakers, which is one reason you see such very old Zinfandel vines.
In the 1960s, researchers recognized that Zinfandel and Primitivo contained the same “grape” DNA. Then in 2001, researchers did some “fingerprinting” on a few old vines in Croatia. Turns out that Zinfandel is a version of an ancient grape called “Crljenak Kaštelanski.” And yet, it is still known as the classic California grape. You may see some plantings in Australia and even Europe, but for the most part, Zinfandel has stayed true to its California base.
And what about White Zinfandel? Zinfandel is a red grape – always has been – but in the 1960s and 70s, Americans preferred white wine. So in 1972, Bob Trinchero launched what turned out to be one of the largest successes in the wine business. Using free run Zinfandel juice, with a little added sweetness and occasionally some more aromatic white varieties, White Zinfandel skyrocketed in popularity and sales. The craze for this slightly sweet, lightly pink wine brought awareness to Zinfandel, even the original red kind. Advocates of the grape began to protect the vineyards, particularly the old vines from before prohibition.
Defining Traits: Big, bold, jammy, spicy, brambly
Depending on where it is grown, the age of the vines, and the methods of the winemaker, Zinfandel can vary in its flavor profile. It’s a sturdy grape, so its rare to find a “light-bodied” Zinfandel, but you’ll find a range of styles, from elegant to spicy to brawny to jammy. Typical characteristics include spice, jam, all sort of wild berry flavors, pepper, leather and sometimes a bit of oak notes.
So we raise or glass to the American grape from Croatia – To Zinfandel!