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Environments of Wine

November 27, 2017 4 comments

We all love to wax-poetic about the wine – about the magic in the glass, about the liquid which can transport us through time, bring back memories, change our mood, brighten up any happy moments in our life and put smiles on our collective oenophile faces in the myriad of mysterious ways.

With all that magic, it is easy to forget that first and foremost, the wine is an agricultural product. The grapes are grown in exactly same way as tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, wheat, apples, and potatoes. Same as with any agricultural product, the success of growing the grapes depends on many conditions which we collectively call “the environment” – condition of the soil, conditions of the plants, climate/weather conditions, availability and quality of the water, avoidance of diseases and pests, ability to protect plants and fruits from animals and birds and many other factors.

 

Fall in the Vineyards

Once the grapes are successfully grown and harvested, this is where similarities with most (not all) of the rest of the agricultural products end, and grapes start their transformation to become that magic in your glass. But let’s leave that aside for now, and let’s get back to the grape growing environment.

Every year, the same process starts anew – with the first warm weather, the dormant plants come alive. The branches which looked completely dead just a day ago, are breaking with the tiny green leaves, and then at some point, a tiny clusters of future goodness show up, taking all the nutrients from the soil and the air, getting bigger and changing color from young green to golden and purple, until the time comes to collect them all and start creating the magic.

Every year, to get from the naked branches to the beautiful, sun-filled clusters, the vines have to be taken care of. They need enough water, they need enough sun, they need enough nutrients in the soil, they need to be protected from frost, excessive sun, mildew, and rabbits. The grape grower has to decide how to provide all of this. You can water the plants when you think you need to. You can bring in synthetic fertilizers. You can spray your vines with pesticides which will kill bugs and mildew. For many years, this is how the grapes were often produced, especially when they were produced in the large commercial quantities.

Little by little, grower by grower, winemaker by winemaker, the realization started that this might not be the right way to go. The chemicals and pesticides often bred resistance. Overfertilized and overwatered grapes simply lack the flavor and can never become the magnificent wines. With this realization, wine industry started changing its ways – the wines became “organic”, “biodynamic”, “sustainable” and even “natural”. All of these terms relate to the environment where the grapes are grown, but they are not interchangeable – organic is not always sustainable, and sustainable doesn’t equate organic. Let’s take a deeper look.

Sustainable might be my favorite term. There are many wine regions which define their own so-called “sustainable practices” – Australia, New Zealand, California, Oregon, Canada – all have their own sustainable practices defined, and for all I know, all those practices might be slightly different, but I’m sure they are all pursue the long-term relationship with the Mother Nature. Sustainability means that whatever we do to grow grapes successfully today, should ensure that the future generations will be able to continue to do the same with equal success. While we tend to the vines, we shouldn’t harm that environment, that habitat – use natural deterrents for the pests, use only natural fertilizers, ideally, generate our own power (think solar, for instance), be very cognizant about discarding the waste, or maybe have no waste at all, allowing land to rest and recuperate – the list can go on and on and on. At the same time, sustainable doesn’t mean organic – for instance, if you believe that one time use of the pesticide is warranted as the best way to deal with the problem (before it spreads or worsens), the sustainable rules will generally allow for it – but not the organic. All in all, the goal of sustainability is to leave the environment a little bit better than it was before – and I definitely like this approach.

We all know what “organic” means – only all natural elements are allowed in the whole entire process of getting from the first leaf to the harvested grapes – all organic fertilizers, all organic pesticides and so on. Do organic means better grapes? Yes, but only in the sense of absence of any harmful, bad elements. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean you would maximize grapes’ potential by utilizing dry farming. Organic doesn’t mean you will discard the waste in the ways least harmful to the environment. Organic doesn’t mean your power was generated in the sustainable ways. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for organic, but… I guess you understand where my preferences are.

Biodynamic? First, taking about biodynamic winemaking can be an endless endeavor – if we are talking about the magic of the glass of wine, biodynamic principles might be the most in tune with the subject of magic. Are the biodynamic methods sustainable? I believe they are to the largest degree as the end goal here is to create harmonious habitat, the best possible environment for the grapes and all other living beings to grow happily and successfully. Is biodynamic the same as sustainable? Probably not, as sustainable methods still cover more elements, such as power which we mentioned. But all the kudos to the biodynamic practitioners and their perseverance with magic.

Colors of Fall - grape leaves

And now, let’s touch on the most controversial “environmental affiliation” of them all – natural wines. It is interesting to see the first reaction of many people when they hear the term for the first time – “natural wines”???? “All wines are made from the grapes, aren’t they all natural”? The idea behind natural wines is low intervention. During the grape growing part of winemaking, the process is somewhat similar to the sustained/biodynamic principals with the exception that some of the rules are made absolute, like no irrigation under any circumstances – but unlike all other methods, where there are external bodies which certify and enforce the rules, the natural wines are the truth in the eye of the beholder – the winemaker, in this case – whatever the winemaker believe “natural” means, that is what she will be practicing.

The wine was first made about 8,000 years ago. Nobody would ever tell if it was sustainable, organic, biodynamic or natural – we can only guess that it was made from grapes. But if we want the wines to be made for the next 8,000 years, we need to take care of the environment. Sustainable, organic, biodynamic – let’s leave this place a little bit better than we found it, for all of those who will come after us.

This post is an entry for the 36th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC36), with the theme of “Environment”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude, Bubbles, Smile, Winestory, Obscure, Faith, Translation, Once Upon A Time, Memory, Eclipse

And if you really like this post, please vote for it here: #MWWC36

Memories of the Oenophile

August 1, 2017 7 comments

If you search the Internet, you will find plenty of references to the medical benefits of the moderate wine consumption – for your heart, blood pressure, cholesterol level, and among other things, memory. It seems that jury is still out on the wine and memory – some say it helps, some say it works the opposite way – I guess it depends on who pays for the research and researcher’s personal view on alcohol – oops, let’s avoid the rant trap, and so let’s leave all the medical stuff aside.

Wine and memory are connected on many different levels. In the most direct terms, mastering the world of wine will greatly tax your memory. Yes, anything humans do connects to memory. But think about thousands and thousands of producers in each and every wine region – the more names you remember, the easier it is for you to make a choice at a restaurant or in the wine store. And this is a simple scenario, as we build this memory step by step when we drink different wines, one producer at a time.

And then there are those (very few) who have to know the names of about 6,000 German villages in order to pass the Master Sommelier exam – and this is something you simply have to memorize as there is no way for you to try the wines from all those villages to create some sort of mental connections.

Think about next level of connection between wine and memory – when you smell and taste the wine. Have you ever smelled the wine, looking for all those blueberries, baking spices and Chinese Cinnamon, so exquisitely described on the back label of the wine? In this case, you need to memorize smells, not the words and there is such a fine line between blueberries and wild blueberries, for instance – it is definitely not an easy task to recall all the aromas (a perception of?) which exist only in our heads, and no wonder most of us struggle so much trying to dissect those escaping flavors – excelling at the blind tasting is so much more difficult compared to memorizing wine regions and producers.

Beyond all the scientific and direct relationships between wine and memory lays something which is far more important than all the technical knowledge and abilities – our experiences. Wine is an ultimate connector and facilitator. It helps us to create memories which stay with us forever. It helps to retain those little moments which comprise life, and bring them back, one by one. Some of those little moments are very personable, often relating to the personal discoveries, especially as we are learning our ways in that vast world of wine. Some of them connect us with our friends and families.

I don’t have that “pivotal bottle experience” which was a starting point of journey for many oenophiles. Instead, I can relate to the singular learning experiences.

Growing up, the wine was never “a thing” in my family. We had some of the home made sweet plum wine, which I developed the taste for at the age of 14 or 15, taking random sips of the sweet liquid from time to time – but this was, of course, for the love of sugar and had nothing to do with learning about wine. In 1989, I was visiting the Czech Republic for work, and I brought back a bottle of white wine, Tokaji – we had it with friends and I thought that it was delicious (I don’t remember any details, but I think it was dry). Next year I visited Bulgaria and brought back the bottle of wine which had the same “Tokaji” written on the label. I still remember my grand disappointment after tasting that wine and finding it to be totally different (in a bad way) from the previous wine under seemingly the same name. The big question in my head was “how is that possible – same name, Tokaji, and such a different taste – what is wrong here???” Of course, I had no idea about regions, producers, vintages – wine was one monolithic “thing” – and that feeling of total surprise became an everlasting memory.

The absolute majority of my wine memories are happy memories – I guess this is how humans are wired, we don’t like to keep bad stuff around for too long. One of the worst memories for the oenophile probably connects to the faulty, spoiled bottles – corked, cooked, oxidized. I had my share of the spoiled wines, however – knock on wood, of course – not anywhere near some statistical averages, to the best of my knowledge. However, the majority of my corked wine experiences would involve a heated exchange with the service staff at the restaurant at the most, but no memories of high-end spoiled bottles (lucky, right?!).

But when it comes to the happy wine memories, the sky is the limit. The discovery of Amarone, tasting of magnificent 1964 Rioja for the first time. First encounter with Krug Vintage, Chateau Margaux, Vega Sicilia Unico and the wines of Lopez de Heredia. The list can go on and on, and on.

And then there are people experiences. Tasting freshly fermented Chenin Blanc at Paumanok winery with Ursula Massoud, right from the fermentation tank. Experiencing 1970 white port in the cellar at Quevedo Port house with Oscar Quevedo, poured directly from the barrel – the wine which most likely will never be bottled. Tasting magnificent Franciacorta sparkling wines right in the cellar, listening to Stefano Camilucci explaining the effect of music on the aging of the sparkling wines, talking to the passionate producers and seeing sparkling wine hitting the ceiling to demonstrate the effect of 6 atm of pressure in the bottle. Such experiences will stay forever with us, conveniently available at any time happy memory is desired.

I really had fun with this trip down the memory lane. How about you? What are you happiest wine moments?

Ahhh Long Island Wine Country

This post is an entry for the 34th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC34), with the theme of “Memory”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude, Bubbles, Smile, Winestory, Obscure, Faith, Translation, Once Upon A Time

And if you really like this post, please vote for it here: #MWWC34

Translation – Implicit Virtue and Pain of Oenophile

April 25, 2017 5 comments

When you hear the word “translation”, what is the first thought which comes to the mind? Make no mistake – we will be talking about the wine here, but let’s leave that aside for now – we will connect the dots a bit later. So, how about that translation?

I would bet that your immediate thought was of a foreign language. This is where “translation” is typically invoked. Maybe you remember your French class in the high school; may be you have a vivid picture of your last trip to Italy – in either case, we see or hear the word (at least, we assume whatever we hear to be a word), and then we make an effort to understand what that word mean in our own language, and not just by itself, but also taking it in the context of conversation or a text we are reading.

When we speak and read in our mother tongue, the words typically create immediate associations. If you hear the word “door”, you have an instant mental image of the door – whatever the style is, but you know it is a door. If you will see or hear the word “porte”, unless you speak French and expect to see a French word, that word will cause no mental images to show up, despite the fact that “porte” simply means “door” in French.

You don’t have to travel or try to read Swiss newspaper in the morning to have a need to translate something. There are plenty of interesting words we encounter all the time, which need translation in order to achieve that comfortable mental image. Some of those words came from foreign languages, some are specific technical terms, some are just an urban jargon – either way we need to translate those word one way or the other in order to “get” them. Need examples? Let’s look at something as straightforward as steak. I’m sure the word “steak” generates an instant mental image (apologies to the vegetarian readers), of juicy, crusted goodness. But, without the help of Google, how many people do you think will be puzzled if asked if they would like to order steak Diane, chateaubriand or tournedos (okay, you can use Google now)? Steak is complicated, you say? No problems, let’s go even simpler here – how about some pasta? Easy, right? Okay, please describe to me croxetti, rachette or gigli. No? Yeah, sure, go ask Google.

You know what is important here? Rachette or gigli, but we know that it is pasta, and it is comfortable enough for us, so we can skip the translation. Our experience can replace the translation itself – not always, but often. Take a couple of trips to France, and you will not be reaching for the dictionary to understand “merci” or “bonjour”. We don’t even think about what those words mean, but we know where and how to use them, and that works. We do learn, and as we learn, we get comfortable. But we have to still remember that translation is all about little details.

You must be thirsty by now, so let’s talk wine. How often do we have to use translation skills around wine? If you said “all the time”, you are right. I’m not even talking about dealing with professional winemakers’ language (debourbage, remouage, Oechsle, anyone?). I’m not talking about translating from the crazy winespeak of some of the tasting notes (references to various exotic fruits are my “favorite” – how many people know how bilberry, jostaberry or a tayberry taste like? I’m sure we all can identify Satsuma plum and Castlebrite apricots, right?). Leaving all that aside, getting comfortable with wines requires a lot of learning – and translation.

Yes, we can skip translation and just learn by drinking the wines, it is easy – I like this wine, and I don’t like that wine. But this approach doesn’t scale – there are millions of wines in the world, it is not given that the exact wine we like will be available anywhere, any time we want it. So we need to start translating the “winespeak”, which is typically right in front of us on the wine label, into the “mental images” we can bring on at any time. When we start drinking wine, we probably start from the grape. We try one Cabernet Sauvignon, and we like it. Then the next, and the next, and then we know – we like Cabernet Sauvignon. But one day we try Cabernet Sauvignon and it might be nothing like the wine we like. What happened? Time to learn about the regions. We start stating “I like Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. Until it is time to learn again – the label says “Cabernet Sauvignon”, the label says “Napa Valley”, but the wine is not that great – and this is when we might start learning about producers.

Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Becjksrtoffer Dr Crane VineyardThere is not much translation in what I just described above – depending on where you live and what language you speak. Let’s not forget that Europe is still the most influential “wine region”, and so most of the wine drinkers will have to translate what they see, and pay attention to the “fine print”.

Okay, it is a wine label, not a legal document, but we still need to learn to translate, as the language we assumed to be our native is not universal. Remember we started our love of wine from the Cabernet Sauvignon? Unlike California, French wines typically list only the region and not the grapes the wine is made out of. It is now our job as oenophiles to translate Pomerol and Saint-Émilion into “predominantly Merlot-based wines”, and Pauillac and Margaux into “predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines”. Many French winemakers understand this Achilles hill and they put the name of the main grape directly on the label. This becomes a great thing for some wine drinkers, while some of us are getting on the offensive – “ahh, this French wine list the grape – it must be a cheap plonk made specifically for the export”. Nothing is perfect, right?

And then that fine print… As we keep translating, we learn that every little word is important, very important – but depending on the context. If you see the word “Reserve” on the bottle of California wine, it doesn’t translate into anything of any significance, as the use of the word “reserve” is not regulated in California. The word “Reserva” on the bottle of Chianti or Rioja, however,  can mean the world of difference in the taste of the wine, as the use of this word is tightly regulated and it also translates into the significant difference in taste.

Funny thing that when you think you have achieved your level of proficiency and can “translate” anything with the word “wine” in it, this is when there is a good chance you are going to make a mistake. Here is one of my favorite illustrations to this statement. A few years back, I was in Portugal with a group of colleagues. We stopped by a restaurant, and I ordered the bottle of wine which was absolutely delicious. I actually loved it so much that I bought two extra bottles at the restaurant to take home. A few days later, we visited the same restaurant again, and I ordered exact same wine. When the wine arrived at the table, I couldn’t believe that I liked that wine so much before. The wine was not spoiled, but it definitely lacked the depth and layers of flavor. For a while, I couldn’t understand what have happened – until I found the tiny difference – the second wine was lacking the word “Reserva” on the label…

I hope I didn’t lose you in translation, my friends. When translating, and we always do, we, oenophiles, should always pay attention – and enjoy the ride. Cheers!

This post is an entry for the 32nd Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC32), with the theme of “Translation”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude, Bubbles, Smile, Winestory, Obscure, Faith

What Is A Good Wine?

April 19, 2016 11 comments

wine_in_a_glassLet’s say you are given a glass of wine. Can you tell if this is a good wine or not? Before you will jump on the obvious, let me clarify this question a bit – the wine is in the perfect condition – it is not corked, it is not cooked, it is not oxidized – there are no common faults of any kind, this is just a well made bottle of wine. So, is it good or not?

Is this question even makes sense? Can such a question be answered? Let’s talk about something more common first – food. Imagine you are in a restaurant for dinner, with friends and family. The dishes start arriving, and here is a side of french fries. There is a very good chance that if the fries are executed properly – good color, nice consistent cut, crispy and not soggy, with the right amount of salt, tasting fresh – everybody at the table would universally agree that “the fries are good”, and you can only hope that there were enough fries ordered for everybody to share. What  also important here is that nobody would be shy to slam these very french fries if something is not up to snuff – too much salt, fried in the old oil etc – everybody is confident in their ability to judge french fries to be universally good and tasty, or not.

Stepping up from the side dish, let’s take a look at the main dishes ordered around the table. Someone got steak, someone got lobster, someone is enjoying vegetarian lasagna. Now, it would be much harder to build taste consensus around the table for all these dishes. One person likes steak rare, and the other one only eats it well done – it will be very hard for these two to agree what is good and what is not. Someone might be allergic to a shellfish – there is no way they can even touch the sauce from that lobster dish to attest to your “this is sooo good” claim. So yes, it is hard to build a consensus here, but people are confident in their own right about the dishes they ordered to be able to judge good or not. If steak doesn’t have the right level of doneness, it will be sent back. If lobster is not seasoned right – well, not sure about “sent back”, but I’m sure the problem with the dish will be stated and discussed at the table.  And of course if one states that their dish is delicious, then the whole table must try at least a tiny bit to experience “the goodness” (at least this is how it works in our family).

Now, arriving at a wine, the situation is different, and often dramatically. Unlike french fries, the wine still has an aura of mystery, of a special knowledge required to be able to understand and appreciate it, and to claim if it is good or not. The same people who are very confident to send underdone or overly salty (to their personal taste!) steak back to the kitchen, will be very shy and even afraid to say anything if the wine is obviously corked – they will take it as their own inability to properly understand the wine, and therefore will not say anything. Of course the situation is not as consistently dramatic as I present it here – wine today is very popular, and increasing number of people feeling confident enough around it to state what they like and not; however, step out of the oenophile circle, and go dine with people who drink wine occasionally, and I guarantee you will hear “ahh, I don’t know anything about wine” as an answer to the question if they like the wine or not.

In reality, making a personal “good/not good” decision about the wine is as easy as in the case of french fries. I took the “Windows on the World” wine school back in the day, which was taught by Kevin Zraly – Kevin is single-handedly responsible for teaching tens of thousands of people to understand and appreciate the wine. Of course, the question “is this a good wine or not” was one of the most important questions people wanted to get an answer for in such a course. Kevin’s explanation was very simple: “Take a sip of this wine. If this wine gives you pleasure, it is a good wine”. You can look at it as overly simplistic, as there are many factors affecting the perceived taste of wine – where we are, who we are with, the label, the story behind the label, the temperature, the mood, yada, yada, yada. Of course this all matters. But still, for majority of the cases, we are looking for pleasure out of drinking the glass of wine – the way it smells, the way it tastes, with all the little discoveries we make as we let the wine open up and change in the glass (“ahh, I taste blueberries and chocolate now”) – all those little pleasant moments we experience with every sip, it gives us a pleasure of enjoying a glass of wine; if we are getting the pleasure, this is a good wine. Yep, I said it was simple.

Very often pleasure is simplistically associated with erotic and sex, or at least that would be the very first thing which will come to the mind of many once they hear the word “pleasure” – oh no, I see your condemning look, of course I’m not talking about you, you are wired differently. Meanwhile, we derive pleasure from everything which surrounds us, and from everything we do – and if we don’t, we work hard to fix it. Every waking moment of our day is a perfect illustration to this. If we start our day from a walk or maybe a meditation – it is a pleasure of being one on one with yourself, deep in your own thoughts. Think about the pleasure of hugging that morning cup of coffee or tea and smelling the aroma. We look at the watch on our hand – it doesn’t have to be the Rolex or Philippe Patek to be admired and to create a feeling of pleasure. We put on a shirt or a blouse, look in the mirror – and we are pleased with the way we look (okay, fine, we might not be – but again, then we get to work hard to fix it). After the day at work, we come home to be welcomed by a wagging tail and a scream “mommy is home” followed by a huge smile and a hug – tell me that this is not what defines pleasure. No, not everything we do gives us pleasure – but those little bits and pieces of pleasure are what we seek, every time, every day.

Wine is simply a complementing part of our lives. Today we are in the mood for the white shirt, tomorrow – for the blue with yellow stripes; similarly, today you might want the glass of Pinot Noir, tomorrow it can be Tempranillo. We are constantly changing, and so do the things which we will get the pleasure from. People go from carnivores to vegetarians to vegans and back to carnivores – as long as we find pleasure in the way we are at the moment, that is all that matters. No matter what is in your glass, if it gives you pleasure, it is a good wine. It really doesn’t matter what the experts said about the wine you are drinking. It really doesn’t matter what your friends say. If this is White Zinfandel in your glass, and it gives you pleasure, it is a good wine. If this is massive, brooding Barolo, and it gives you pleasure, it is a good wine. If this is big, oaky, buttery California Chardonnay, and it gives you pleasure, this is a good wine – don’t let anyone who says that Chardonnay should be unoaked and acidic to persuade you otherwise. It is okay to have your own, individual taste – we do it with everything else, and wine shouldn’t be any different.

If the wine gives you pleasure, it is a good wine.

This post is an entry for the 24th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC24), with the theme of “Pleasure”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New.

 

New Versus Old – Is Wine World Upside Down?

March 4, 2016 12 comments

This post is an entry for the 23rd Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC23), with the theme of “New”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance.

New. We all crave, adore and worship new in our lives. New experience. New restaurant. New baby. New job. New car. New iPhone. New house. New puppy. Add “new” to practically any object, and it instantly becomes something exciting.

The “new” is not limited to the things and objects. New ways constantly appear, and we embrace them wholeheartedly. New technologies and new processes are born every day. Self-driving cars. 3D printers. We store our pictures in the cloud. It’s all new, new, new around us.

We love new so much that “old” becomes almost en expletive. We might attach “old” to the experiences, but not to the objects! Think about it. When you are looking for the used car, the dealer will refer to such a car exactly like that – used. She might even say “almost new” or “gently used”. But you will never hear from the dealer that they want to offer you this old car – unless you are in the market for antiques  – but even then “old” descriptor will be avoided. Or let’s say you are looking for a house. Ever heard agent saying “let me show you this old house“? We learn to be afraid of the world “old”, as we don’t want to get old ourselves.

Ridge Vineyards 60 years old vineTalking about wine world, the word “new” is exciting as in any other aspect of our lives. In essence, the whole wine world is built on the concept of new – ever year  there is a new harvest, and a new wine will be produced from the grapes of that new harvest. New labels are made for the wines. New wineries are founded. New tasting rooms are built. New vineyards are planted. New processes are invented to press the grapes, to ferment them, to preserve wines, to bottle. New packaging (wine in a can, anyone? wine on tap?). New is a most prominent concept in the wine world.

But the concept of “old” is ohh so different when it comes to wines. “Old” in the wine world commands such a respect that we might not find in any other areas of human life. Let’s start in the vineyard. So you planted a new vineyard? Great. Now you need to wait until it will become old, as for the most of vineyards you need to wait at least 3-4 years before they will produce fruit suitable for winemaking. And that vineyard has to become old in the natural way, just by letting the time pass – there is no magic bullet.

To top it off, the older vineyard gets, the better it is. Ever seen the words “old vines” on the bottle? May be viñas viejas? Or how about vieilles vignes? These words mean exactly what they say – that this wine was made from the grapes harvested from the vineyards which had been around for a long time – 20 years, 30 years, 60 years, 100 years. The term “old vines” is typically not regulated, so there is no way of knowing exactly how old the vines are – but often the back label will give you that information. Very often that “age” is also reflected in the price – the older the car, the less it costs – but it is exactly opposite in the wines – the older the vines are, more expensive wine becomes (older vines yield less grapes with higher flavor concentration  = tastier wine).

“Old” doesn’t stop in the vineyard. Lots and lots of wines are aged before they are released – both by law and by the desire of the winery. By law, non-vintage Champagne have to age for a minimum of 15 month, and vintage Champagne for at least 3 years – in reality, most of NV is aged for 2-3 years, and vintage is typically 4-10. By law, Rioja Gran Reserva requires at least 5 years of aging before the release. By law, Brunello Rieserva can be sold not earlier than 6 years after the harvest. Many of the wineries in California offer so called “library releases”, when the wines are aged for you in the winery’s cellar in the ideal conditions. Some wineries in Bordeaux sell their wines only 10 years after the harvest, including First Growth Chateau Latour, which recently declared that “vintages will be released when the chateau believes they are ready to drink”. Let’s go down all the way – how about some 100 year old Para Vintage Tawny from Seppeltsfield in Australia, which is released … yes, 100 years after the vintage date.

It is not that “old” is unquestionable winner in the world of wines. More often than not, “new” and “old” are clashing  – sometimes in amicable ways, sometimes – not so much. One of the simplest “conflicts” – new oak versus used oak. This, of course, is what making winemakinng an art, as there is no hard and fast rule to when to age wine in old oak barrels versus new oak – each has its own benefits. Another form of the simple “conflict” is an internal fight which oenophile endures trying to decide when the wine from her cellar is ready to drink – there is also lots of good bad advice coming from all the wine professionals and the media – and we still are trying to figure that magical moment when the wine is perfectly “old“, or rather “aged” as we like to say, to maximize our pleasure. And then you got all those violent clashes between old and new – think about “traditional Barolo” versus “new style Barolo”. Think about fight for the Super Tuscans, attempts to introduce the new grapes in Brunello, or just any winemaker trying to do something new against the rules of the appellation.

Now, what do you think? Is wine world upside down for the new and old? Is there anything else which humans do where old commands equal or greater respect than new? Cheers!


 

Does the Wine Deserves Second Chance?

January 18, 2016 23 comments

MWWC_logoThis post is an entry for the 22nd Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC22), with the theme of “Second Chance”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing.

Let me describe to you I’m sure a very familiar situation: the bottle of wine is opened, wine is poured in a glass, you take a sip and … you don’t like it. Too sweet, too acidic, too sharp, too tannic, too “biting” – it is not always that you follow a sip with “wow” or “ahh”. What do you do next? Of course I understand that this question doesn’t have a single answer, as everything depends on the context. And as a side note, it is also implied that the wine is not spoiled – not corked, not cooked, not oxidized – it is simply not to your liking.

Let’s assume that you opened the wine in the comfort of your home. You can simply put the glass aside and decide to wait and see if the wine will change (you of course hope for the better). If this happened in the restaurant, your choices are limited – if you just ordered this bottle out of your own will, in most of the cases you can’t send it back (remember, we said it is not spoiled) – you can ask for the wine to be chilled or decanted, but that is about all you can do. If you are at a friend’s house, you probably have only one choice – to smile and to say that this is delicious, unless you grew tired of that friendship long time ago, so then it might be a good opportunity to end it on a high note.

No matter what setting it was, let’s assume you didn’t get to the point of liking the wine, and now it is in your memory as the wine-I-never-want-to-touch-again. Would you ever think of giving this wine another chance?

Yes, I know. There is such an abundance of wine around us that if we don’t like something, why bother with any “second chances”? It is humanely impossible to taste all the wines produced in the world, so why bother with something which you were done and over with? Yes, by all means you have a point. But is there a tiny little voice inside your head, which says “may be that wine needed more time to open up”, or “may be I was just in the wrong mood”, or “may be my food overpowered the wine”? Do you ever get any of those “may be”s, so you would actually go and try the wine again, just because you are curious?

Lamborghini wineI understand that this is matter of personality and an outlook on life in general, but more often than not, I find myself in the “may be?”, a “what if?” group. This is especially true when it comes to the wines which I open at home. If I take a sip of wine and don’t like it, I often put it aside, to try it on the next day. Or may be the day after next. Or may be even after that. One of my favorite examples is the bottle of 2002 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, which opened up only on the 5th day (the wine was 11 years old when it was opened). When I took a first sip after just opening a bottle, the wine was tannic and literally devoid of fruit – there was no pleasure in that wine. Pumped the air out, put it aside for a day. Next day – literally no changes. And so was the story on the next day, and the next day. But I was not not ready to declare the wine a failure and just pour it out – kept giving it second chances. And the reward came on the day number 5, with layered fruit and delicious, powerful wine.

I have another example from literally 2 weeks ago, when we opened a bottle of 1980 Lamborghini Colli del Trasimeno Rosso (I can tell you that I bought the wine strictly on the basis of the fun name – Lamborghini – a car which I’m sure anyone would be happy to drive at least once). The wine was opened, went into a decanter – and for the whole evening nobody liked to drink it, as it tasted more as brine than the wine. I can’t tell you if I was giving the wine a conscious second chance, or was simply lazy to pour it out. Next day before clearing the decanter I decided to take a little sip – why not? And it appeared that the wine actually developed into delicious, mature wine, with the nose of tertiary aromas and palate full of sweet plums. Not the most amazing wine I ever had in my life, but perfectly delicious, mature wine which delivered lots of pleasure.

I could go on and on with similar examples, but I’m sure you got my point – the wine could’ve been discarded as “bad” and the great pleasure would be missed, if it wouldn’t be for the second chances.

So, what do you think? Do you have any “second chance” wine stories of your own, maybe with the happy ending? Do you think wines deserve their second chances? Cheers!

 

Wine’s Oops Moments

October 22, 2013 14 comments

MWWC_logoThe Monthly Wine Writing Challenge started about four month ago with the goal to take the wine bloggers to the “next level” – one single word sets the theme, and all the willing wine bloggers create their best interpretation of the theme and its connection with the world of wine. In those four month the challenge themes went from “Transportation” to “Trouble”, then to “Possession”, and now to the current theme “Oops“, as set by the winner of the previous round, The Wine Kat.

Opps. What is the first thing which comes to mind when you here that short, but extremely universal expression? I don’t know about you, but somehow the first association for me was the song. I know I can’t compete with Food and Wine Hedonist when it comes to the hedonistic references to the popular culture, but in any case, Britney Spears “Oops, I did it again” was the very first thing which came to mind when I read the new theme, so here it is:

Yep, this video has nothing to do with wine, so let’s try to find our track here.

Life is generally filled with “oops” moments. Some can be funny, some can be sad. Some can be innocent, and some can be deadly, like missing the stop sign at a busy four-way intersection. The worst part of the oops moments is that they keep happening over and over, as we forget to learn from the previous ones. Technically, you are not supposed to step on the same rake twice, nevertheless, we like doing it over and over again.

Wine world is particularly prone to the oops moments. Problem is that you try one wine, and you think that you know them all. While there are so many factors affecting the taste of wine at a given moment – you mood, food, surroundings, company, price, label, your friend’s opinion, how long the bottle was open, is it at the optimal temperature… had enough? Nevertheless, it is enough to have one Chardonnay from Napa Valley not to our liking, where we will immediately generalize and come to the conclusion – okay, I’m not drinking Napa Chardonnay, just period – I had one, I know them all. That alone is a great source of the oops moments. But that is not all. Additionally, we are often not shy at all to state our opinion, as people think they have to have an opinion about wine, and it should be expressed, loud and clear – “yes, of course, they only make cheap wine in Australia”, “yes, I already had the Bordeaux once – it is a complete crap”.  Often, it seems that wine simply breeds arrogance and snobbery – which leads to the multiple embarrassing oops moments.

Overcoming this tendency is actually a hard work, and we really need to keep the focus to stay humble and thoughtful around wine – for our own good.

Let me give you an example of couple of my own profound, embarrassing oops moments. About 6 years ago, I visited Ridge winery in California in Santa Cruz region. Ridge had being making wines since 1962, and has somewhat of the cult following, especially for their Monte Bello Cab. I visited the winery with the friend, and we were also on the mission to find a good bottle (at the reasonable price) to bring it that same evening for dinner at another friend’s house. So we tasted through the full line of wines, and we didn’t like a single one of them. I don’t know what could’ve caused that – may be it was a Root day for me, may be I was just in the wrong mood for the tasting, may be something else. But the important thing is that based on that tasting, I made a strong conclusion for myself – Ridge doesn’t make good wines, it is all marketing fluff. Then about 3 years ago, I saw a tweet from Jancis Robinson, where she mentioned that she is working on the line of classic wineries for a big tasting, and she is including Ridge as one of the exemplary wineries in US. Here comes me, who already tasted Ridge once, and therefore I’m an expert on the subject, with the comment that I don’t understand why is she even mentioning it, as I was at the winery and didn’t like any of their wines. Jancis responds to my comment that she disagrees, and Ridge shows perfect sense of place. Next thing someone sees my comment and gets very upset as it is impossible not to like Ridge, and if I don’t like it, I have to be blocked (I even wrote the post about it). Well, no, we didn’t get to the oops moment yet.

Then, about 8 month later, I was again in the close proximity of Ridge, and decided to give it another try. I don’t know what was different that time – may be a cheerful girl who was pouring the wine, a different weather, a flower or fruit day – don’t know, but… I not only liked the wine, I loved each and every wine I tasted (here is my post about the experience). Now, here you have a classic oops moment. I wish I could’ve kept quite in that twitter dialog with Jancis, I really wish I would’ve kept my opinion to myself – but no, I had to show my expertise – and eat my embarrassment thereafter.

In the spirit of “oops, I did it again”, I need to give you another example, this one is a very recent one. You see, I like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – fresh grapefruit, lemongrass, vivid acidity – very nice wine in general. I know that you can buy the majority of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the range of $10 to $16, and they will be very good wines for the most of the cases. And then there is Cloudy Bay – a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc which typically costs $26 or more. In my mind, the picture is clear – what can be so different about Cloudy Bay compare to any SB which is $10 to $16 cheaper – I had the others, I’m sure it can’t taste any differently (smart and not arrogant at all, right?). Then I see a blog post by Stefano, where he speaks very highly about Cloudy Bay, and the little genius inside gets me to make a comment that Cloudy Bay can’t be so much better and different to warrant paying that much more money for the bottle.

And then I come to the trade tasting, and see the Cloudy Bay being poured. I take the first sip, and it becomes my instant “oops” and “oh sh!t” moment, as the wine is stunningly beautiful, and of course I will be glad to pay more money for it – as it is really different from the mainstream.

There you have it my friends. The oops moments are unpleasant, and they will hunt you down – it really worth an effort to avoid at least the repetitions. Stay open, stay humble and keep learning – the wine world is yours to enjoy. Cheers!

P.S. If you got your own glorious “oops” moment and you are willing to share – this is what the comments section is for…

Wine … It Will Get You In Trouble

August 5, 2013 35 comments

In June 2013, Jeff a.k.a.The Drunken Cyclist, started the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge, where the new theme is announced on about the monthly basis by the winner of the previous round. This month’s theme, as announced by The Armchair Sommelier, is “Trouble”.

To be entirely honest with you, I was about to give up on this challenge, as I couldn’t associate “wine” with “trouble”. Before I would “officially” give up, I did what would [probably] most of the married men do – ask the wife’s advice. So the first thing she said, “what do you mean you don’t know what to write about? How about the time when you quietly drunk most of the home-made plum wine when you were a kid”? Yeah, but I really never got into trouble for that, don’t think it was even noticed. “Okay, fine”, she said, “so what about that girl in the wine store…”? Aha – you could probably hear my brain clicking – now we are onto something…

Mouton Rothschild

Mouton Rothschild

When you look at the bottle of wine, do you see a trouble lurking around ? No? Well, let me help you.

Think about bottle shapes. Probably 80% of all the wine bottles made worldwide will fall into one of two shape categories – Bordeaux or Burgundy. Yes, there are some shape variations even in those big classes, but they are nominal. Which means that if you will put next to each other a bottle of Bordeaux which retails for $6.99 and the one which will command $699, they will look very, very similar. What differentiates them? Yes, of course the content, but this is not something you know just by looking the bottle. So the only things which will differentiate those two bottles will be labels. See the trouble yet? Let’s continue.

In the wine store, one is guided by the visual cues – namely, the price tags. Take the cues out – and then even labels look identical. Yes, yes, before you call me an unintelligent low life and stop reading, give me a few more minutes and you will see where am I going. Of course, for the small group of crazy devoted wine geeks, every little word on the label is cherished and carefully assessed. 1982 vintage? Bordeaux? That’s nearly a heart attack. Tiny letters RM on the bottle of Champagne. La Turque, Qunitarelli, Alban, 1961, Pingus, Latour, 2000, To Kalon, Colgin, Riserva… I can go on and on and on with all those cherished words. We see any of those words on the label of the wine bottle, and the brain immediately sends out command for awe and appreciation.

Now, step outside of this crazy devoted circle. Outside of the wine store, does the bottle of 2009 Chateau Latour Bordeaux (about $1,600 per bottle, if you can find it) looks all that different from 2009 Chateau Moulin de Beausejour Bordeaux ($6.99, readily available at your Trader Joe‘s)? No, not really. Bottles look very similar in shape, both say “Bordeaux”, both have the same vintage listed – 2009, both have the word “Chateau” on them. Do you see it now? The trouble is not lurking anymore, it is looming, as a huge stormy cloud, full of wind and water.

Let me give two examples. Here are two real life stories of my friend Zak, the owner of the wine store in Stamford. The first one I only heard from Zak, and second one I witnessed myself.

2006 Ornellaia - sorry, Zak was out of Sassicaia

2006 Ornellaia – sorry, Zak was out of Sassicaia

The lady comes into the store and asks for help. “I’m looking for the bottle of the Italian wine. I don’t remember the exact name, but I think it starts with “S”. If you will show me what you have, I will be able to recognize it”. Zak takes her to the Italian wines section. The lady looks around and says excitedly “this one!”, pointing at the bottle of Sassicaia. Then she looks at the price tag ($179 or so), looks at Zak, back at the price tag and says with the hope in her voice: “this is the case price, right?”. “No, madam, this is the bottle price”, answers Zak, and lady’s face becomes all overwhelmed with he emotions and she mutters “ahh, no wonder my husband got so upset when I used this wine for the pasta sauce…”. Turns out the husband was not at home, and the lady was looking for the bottle of red wine to add to the pasta sauce, and the bottle of Sassicaia looked not any different than any other bottle of the Italian wine… Trouble!

I’m standing in the store talking to Zak. The girl comes in with the bag of empty bottles and starts putting them one by one on the counter and then tells Zak: “I need to get this exact wines”. I’m, of course, curious, and I’m picking over Zak’s shoulder as he is looking at them one by one. Some kind of Spanish wine. Something else I don’t recognize. 1995 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. 1999 Riesling. Something … Wait, what? Mouton Rothschild 1995, one of the First Grows Bordeaux? That will be interesting. Zak points at that exact bottle and says: “I don’t have this wine, miss, and it will be hard to get it as this is an old vintage”. The girl asks if he can get the current vintage. Zak looks in the catalog and says “well, I’m not sure if it will be available, as this is highly allocated wine, but if it will be, it will be about $900… Yes, for a bottle”. You should have seen despair and horror on the girl’s face. Turns out her uncle left on a long trip, and left the girl to be house-sitting. Of course having the house party with the full access to the cellar was not what her uncle planned for, and now that he was coming back soon, the girl was on the recovery mission. Is that a trouble? One look at that girl’s face would tell you – yep, big time trouble!

There you have it, my friends. Wine is a dangerous thing, with the “trouble” spelled all over it… Or not. While there can be multiple personal “troubles” around the wine, which will seem serious to the person experiencing them (think about that girl), in a big schema things, we need to remember that at the most, all those troubles will become great (and funny, for the most part) stories to tell later on. Wine is just a beverage, and there always will be another bottle to drink. I can only wish to all of us, that the wine troubles would be the biggest troubles of our lives. You can pour another glass now. Cheers!

Wednesday’s Meritage – Wine Quiz Answer, Wine Blogging Wednesday Returns, New Wine Writing Challenge Announced, And more

July 24, 2013 13 comments

ChardonnaysMeritage time!

Let’s start with the answer for the wine quiz #66, Grape Trivia – Chardonnay. In that quiz you were supposed to answer 5 questions about probably most popular white grape in the world – Chardonnay.

Here are the questions, now with the answers.

Q1: Name the producer of the most expensive Chardonnay wine in the world. As an added bonus, please also provide the name of the wine.

A1: Domaine Romanee-Conti (DRC), which is probably the most famous in the world producer of red Burgundy wines also makes a tiny quantity of the white Burgundy in Montrachet. This wine is impossible to find, but if you will, it will set you back by at least $3,000.

Q2: Chablis used to be the bustling Chardonnay producer in France, supplying most of the wine in Paris and beyond, until it came to the severe decline during the beginning to the middle of the 20th century. Do you know what was one of the biggest factors which led to that decline?

A2: The time periods in this question should be slightly adjusted – it should be really late 19th century, not beginning to middle of the 20th. Nevertheless, the quick answer here is … railroad. Until the railroad was built in France in 1850s, Chablis held near monopoly on Parisian wine market, being able to easily supply the wine by the river. Railroads allowed easy access for much cheaper wines of South of France to the lucrative market, which shook Chablis’ dominance. Then there were other factors, such a philloxera, but it all started from the railroad…

Q3: Name 3 main flavor descriptors of the *big* California Chardonnay

A3: Vanilla, butter and oak – read the description of any “big” California chard, and most likely you will find all these words.

Q4: Judgement of Paris of 1976 was instrumental in bringing California Chardonnay onto the world-class wine map. Do you know which California winery we need to thank for that?

A4: Chateau Montelena was the one!

Q5: As with many other grapes, various clones had being developed for Chardonnay, to adapt better for the particular region and/or resulting wine style – for example, there is a number of so called Dijon clones of Chardonnay, which can be used by anyone wishing to produce a classic Burgundy style wine. One of the clones was developed in California in the middle of 20th century, and it is still a very popular choice among many California Chardonnay producers to the date. Can you name that clone?

A5: Wente clone. It took about 40 years to create the Wente Chardonnay clone, which became a popular choice among winegrowers in California in the 1940s – 1950s. You can read this article for more details.

Looking at the results of this quiz, I have to tell you that I actually anticipated higher success rate – but it seems that outside of the question 4, which was answered correctly by all, the rest of the questions came up to be rather difficult. We don’t have a winner today, bu the honorable mention goes to Asueba, who correctly answered questions 1 and 4, and was quite close with the answers for the questions 2 and 3.

Now, to the interesting stuff around vine and web!

Well, I don’t even know where to start – lots of interesting things are happening!

First, the newly minted queen of the Wine Writing Challenge, Kirsten, a.k.a. The Armchair Sommelier, announced the new trouble theme for the 2nd Monthly Wine Writing Challenge. Why “trouble theme” you ask? That’s just the name of the theme – Trouble. You can read all the details here, and start getting in trouble. Oh yes, and if you are a creative type, we are also looking for the cool loge for this Monthly Wine Writing Challenge exercise – get your creative juices flowing! The submission deadline is August 17th – summer days are flying fast, don’t get in trouble and don’t miss your chance to steal the crown…

Wine-Bloggin-Wednesday-Glass-200x300Now, I have to tell you that Wine Blogging Wednesday is back!!! For those of you who missed it ( which will probably be quite a few people), this was a popular monthly wine blogging exercise. Every month a new theme was announced, like Cabernet Sauvignon, or Viognier, or Single Vineyards and so on, with various bloggers playing role of the host. This was not a competition, but rather a thematic submission with the host producing a summary blog post after the wine blogging Wednesday, or #WBW, would take place. These #WBW events stopped for almost a year – and I’m glad to see them come back. The theme for the Wine Blogging Wednesday #80 (#WBW80) is Dry Rosé, and the #WBW80 event will take place on August 14th. For all the details on the #WBW80 and previous 79 #WBW events, please visit Wine Blogging Wednesday web site.

It is hot. It is the summer. But – 31 days of Riesling event is in full swing! Nothing cools you off better than nice and refreshing glass of Riesling. The 31 Days of Riesling event is going on until the end of July – check the event web site for the participating restaurants, stores and tons of interesting stuff about Riesling.

When was the last time you tasted Chenin Blanc wines? Lettie Teague, the wine writer for the Wall Street Journal, calls Chenin Blanc a “delicious underdog” in her recent article. You might want to read it, and then may be even grab a bottle or two based on her recommendations – you might be in for a delicious surprise, as I was with Field Recordings Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc.

Last but not least, I want to bring to your attention a rant by Duff Wines about the way we taste the wines and live our lives. It will worth your time, so I highly recommend it.

That’s all I have for you, folks. The glass is empty – but refill is on the way! Until the next time – Cheers!