Category Archives: Wine Science

Let It Be

The glorification of native yeasts. Can you hear it? “We only use natural yeasts. We let the terroir of this place speak by allowing the yeast from the vineyard to transform the wine.” Those who spend time in wine country chatting with winemakers or tasting room staff have heard this line once or tw. . . enty seven times. I would like to buy into the raw, back-to-nature ideal presented by these well-intentioned enthusiasts. Inoculating wine with cultured, laboratory yeast represents our modern desire to control and manipulate that which needs no help. Right? Let the wine speak of its place.

Unfortunately, relatively recent science* has demonstrated that the reality may fall short of the ideal. Cultured yeast strains, present in wineries from yesteryear or boots or guests, take over fermentation after the alcohol level reaches about 3-4%. The native yeast strains get beaten out by the strains refined in labs. Some natural yeast advocates, however, still contend that this initial, short-term fermentation with native yeast adds complexity to the wine not found in cultured fermentations.*

We certainly have more to learn.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

A recent exchange added a significant, suggestive layer to my understanding. I entered a conversation with Jeff Weissler of Pairings Portland and Alex Fullerton, winemaker at Fullerton Wines. Jeff is a self-described natural wine nut, and spends his energy proselytizing for biodynamic and organic wine and vineyard management. At one point, Jeff declared that all truly sustainable winemakers use native yeast fermentations. A bit taken back by this, I continued to listen, but with questions percolating and brow furrowed. Upon leaving, I cornered Alex. “I thought native yeast fermentation was rhetoric?” Alex effectively laid out the argument. Resident yeast fermentation fails miserably when attempted by large-scale wineries with pesticide and herbicide-laced vineyards. Not only is their scale often too large to tend the more fickle fermentation process of resident yeasts*, but the gallons of synthetic pest controls have stripped away the resident yeast’s ability to thrive or even live. The musts* of industrial fermentations require gobs of cultured yeast to withstand the barren, sickly environment created by chemical-laden agriculture.

2015-11-08 12.37.37

Evidence of another “natural” affect of eastern Washington viticulture—vine damage due to frost. This is a biodynamic vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA.

We now have significant insight into the winemaking process, knowledge our predecessors could never imagine. Despite the progress, wine science has miles to go before most viticulturists and oenologists will sleep. At this moment, though, we can use native yeast fermentation as a measuring stick,  a stamp of approval verifying a wineries respect for the land and process.

 

*http://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticleSignIn&dataId=119835

*https://winemakermag.com/758-wild-yeast-the-pros-and-cons-of-spontaneous-fermentation

*Resident yeast: A term for yeast that ferments wine without intentional additions of cultured yeasts. Typically native yeasts begin the fermentation followed by strains of cultured yeasts. Perhaps the most apt description of what most call “native” yeast.

*Must: the pressed juice, skins, seeds, and sometimes stems of red wines prior to and during fermentation.

Breathe

The holidays are coming. Breathe in, breathe out. We benefit from a few deep breaths, and so do most wines we consume today.

This past winter I brought a 2012 Owen Roe DuBrul Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon to Minnesota to share with dear friends. We intended to open and enjoy the bottle prior to heading out to a larger gathering. I had tasted this Cabernet multiple times, and had always deeply appreciated the duality of density and litheness omnipresent in the wine, as well as the layered aromatics. Once gathered, we corked the bottle with pomp, poured, swirled, and tasted. We sipped away over the course of twenty minutes while catching up. To my disappointment, I realized I made an amateur mistake by not opening and decanting this beauty an hour or two prior.

The Eye

Today, we almost universally consume wine young. Roughly 95% of my cellar, for instance, contains wines from 2012 to the present.* I certainly dream of a well stocked cellar filled with the vintages of yore, but the winds of our time blow persistently against these aspirations. First, most of the great age-worthy wines of the world cost more than $30 a bottle. While winemakers produce hundreds of thousands of cases in this upper-tier price range every year, only a tiny percentage of the wine drinking public buys these wines. Beyond the price tag, most of us don’t store wine long-term. We simply don’t own root cellars like our ancestors did. Wine needs cool, consistent temperatures, and ideally consistent humidity, to age gracefully.

Thankfully, winemaking has evolved. Aging is no longer a requirement for red wine, because winemakers can now extract flavor compounds and color while simultaneously minimizing harsh, astringent tannins. These techniques allow fresh fruit characteristics to shine along with some level of intriguing secondary aromas and smooth tannins. Aging wine naturally softens abrasive tannins (not uncommon in great wine when young), but the market has managed to speed up time. How we love control.

Our technological advances leave us with a plethora of young wines that need time to “breathe” in order to show their best traits. Technically speaking, the wines need to oxidize. Oxidation results in a multitude of tiny, chemical reactions that often make young wines more enjoyable. Through oxygen exposure, youthful wines release their aromatics. In youth, wines are like tight rose buds. Aeration encourages the opening of the flowers and aromas, revealing the rose’s full potential. The Owen Roe DuBrul Cabernet, for example, can go from “yum” to eyes-wide, knock-you-back-in-your-chair “whoa” thanks to aeration. The aromas broaden and deepen, while also providing more nuance and intrigue. These qualities seduce most wine drinkers.

So what to do. The best options involve a decanter or aerator. A decanter is any vessel that can contain a bottle of wine. Most decanters are made of glass with a broad base. Decanters achieve the goal of aerating the wine, however, the majority of the aeration takes place when you pour the wine into the decanter. More recently, aerators have taken hold in the market place. They come in many forms, but all introduce moderate to substantial amounts of oxygen into the wine. Some attach directly to bottles, allowing the wine to pour through the aerator into the glass. The third and simplest option requires you to open a bottle 4-24 hours in advance. If you open it 1-2 hours prior to serving, pour the wine into stemware as early as possible, and encourage guests to swirl their glasses.

Aerating red wines may well be the best strategy to improve your enjoyment of wine, as well as your guests’ pleasure. Take the time to reap the benefits of oxidation.

Closing note: Decanting old wines can kill them. If a wine has slowly oxidized through the cork over ten or twenty years, further oxidation can suck the remaining life out of the wine. Like a rose at the end of its blossom, the wine holds a fragile, crisp-edge beauty at this age. Do not disturb the moment by over aerating the wine.

*If you drink whites alone, no worries. Drink them young, and all shall be well. Nearly all whites present themselves best in youth.

Spare Parts Needed: Wine in the Finger Lakes

I step off the flatbed of the vineyard truck and on to the soil I have come to explore. As I brush straw from my pant leg, winemakers and viticulturists John and Mark Wagner, Cameron and Tim Hosmer,  and Tom Macinski guide my group of wine writers through one of Wagner’s estate riesling vineyards. This is boutique wine country. Soils and climates vary too drastically from acre to acre to plant more than 3 acres here, and 5 acres there. A rare site lies ahead of us; 30 acres planted on one slope. The vineyard sits on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. At over 600 feet deep, Seneca serves as a cooler during the summer and a heater come winter. -10°F can kill vines, and therefore Seneca provides insurance. During a recent winter, Wagner Vineyards maintained a steady -6°F while neighboring vineyards on adjacent lakes witnessed -12°F and worse, killing many vines to the ground. As a consequence of location and dutiful viticulture practices, Wagner Vineyards owns 250 acres of vines, many of them 20 to 30 years old, making them a powerhouse in the still fledgling Finger Lakes region. I stand on hallowed ground.


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John Wagner, owner of Wagner Vineyards, discussing “spare parts viticulture.”

John Wagner steps forward and introduces us to “spare parts viticulture,” a necessity in the Finger Lakes. Most vines here have two or three trunks splitting from the root stock, an anomaly in most of the New World. A single trunk is the norm. Here the excess acts as a back up. One trunk may freeze and die, but the other can, if lucky, survive. Between the extreme cold and bedazzling array of soil types (the site specific, color-coded maps may induce a seizure), the Finger Lakes AVA proves a challenging “friend.”


Finger Lakes Satellite Winter

Seneca and Cayuga lakes remain unfrozen in the midst of a deep cold snap in 2014, evidence of the warming effect they provide the vineyards hugging their shores. (Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service)


While the Finger Lakes has garnered world-wide attention for 20+ years, the local industry still maintains some youthful awkwardness. The tension between vinifera, hybrids, and native grape varietals* exemplify the point. Those seeking to lift the Finger Lakes global reputation prefer to rip out native and hybrid varietals and replant vinifera, particularly riesling and cabernet franc. The majority of the 100+ wineries in the region have not reached a global audience and produce low volumes of wine. Within the local market, however, wineries have little problem selling hybrid and native varietal wines. The tension is palpable. The debate, like most, presents itself as a duality, perhaps unnecessarily so. Both worlds can exist—world-class vinifera and localized hybrid and native distribution. The global market will only see vinifera coming from the Finger Lakes.

For those seeking to peruse Finger Lakes wines, take advantage of the  2008, 2012, and 2014 vintages, which all resulted in excellent wines. Stick with riesling and cabernet franc to begin. As I tasted my way through wine after wine, producer after producer, the price point on many excellent bottles caught my attention. Most wines fall between $17–$26 range, a great value if you seek small to medium-sized producers working honestly with their wines.


Dinner amongst the vines at Wagner Vineyards hosted for the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference

Dinner amongst the vines at Wagner Vineyards hosted for the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference


Recommended producers:

Thank you sponsors for the privilege of exploring the Finger Lakes wine region during the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference. The Finger Lakes can hold its head high.

*Vinifera grapes are recognizable worldwide and originate in Europe. Native grapes, think concord, existed in the United States before European settlers arrived. Hybrids have been created more recently to carry traits from both vinifera and native varietals. Ideally, hybrids exhibit the aromas and flavors of vinifera, but maintain the cold-hardiness of native varietals so that winemakers need not worry about winter kill. Most serious producers acknowledge that hybrids produce inferior wine.

Wine Literature Must Haves

In my previous post, Buying Wine, I mentioned the anxiety many feel when purchasing wine. The plethora of options at most wine retailers leads people to often reach for the comfortable–old trusty–or pick a varietal, price point, and label that aligns with their mood, and then speed out of that daunting environment. The following list of wine literature essentials will help move you from uncomfortable, to curious, to confident.

Wagon Wine’s must haves

Wine: A Tasting Course by Marnie Old

Marie Old, a sommelier based out of Philadelphia, has written the wine primer–the ideal introduction to wine. Covering varietals, winemaking, tasting, purchasing, and wine regions, this book is all encompassing without overwhelming. In fact, it can lead a wine newbie into the mysterious depths of the wine world, while still keeping the reader engaged, intrigued, and light on the toes. Tasteful graphics benefit and deepen the reader’s understanding. I recommend this book for anybody interested in learning more–anyone tugged by curiosity thanks to the experience with a delightful bottle, a first winery tour, or a life long enjoyment of wine without the accompanying awareness.

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil

Does the original tug now have you bound infinitely to the glowing light, the mystery that is wine? Karen MacNeil has written my preferred reference book. I, however, fully encourage the passionate wine drinker to dive head first into this book and climb out at the last page. Many would recommend other books for this purpose and level of knowledge (Zraly comes to mind, and I do recommend Window’s on the World Complete Wine Course); however, I find MacNeil’s style and tone inviting, smile inducing, and profoundly insightful. I especially appreciate her writing in first segment, which covers varietals, winemaking, pairing, tasting, storage, vintage variation, serving…it is thorough. This is all covered in the first 110 pages before exploring the world of wine, the countries and regions any wine lover should explore. At 860 pages, this deserves the daunting title, though when you start reading your shoulders will relax, and your glass will swirl and tip back effortlessly.

Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Paul Gregutt

Does Washington have your attention? Do you wonder what all the hype over Washington wine is about–the high scores? Are you part of the industry, but need to deepen your knowledge of Washington wine specifically? Paul Gregutt, wine writer and now winemaker, wrote this thorough book which covers the history of wine in Washington, the AVAs, varietals, noteworthy vineyards, reputable and up-and-coming wineries. The second edition was released in 2010, and I would imagine a 3rd edition isn’t too far off (though I have no knowledge of this). Some of the up-and-comers of 2010 have arrived! The world of Washington wine is evolving rapidly. This book fills an important niche in the world of wine literature.

The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode

This book explores the science behind most aspects of wine, including the vineyards (soil, pests, pruning, trellis systems, etc.), winemaking (oxygen, barrels, alcohol reduction techniques, sulfur dioxide, brett, closures, etc.), and our interaction with wine (tasting, psychology, saliva, flavor chemistry, etc.). While not written for the novice, Goode writes accessibly for those readers passionate about the content. A scientific background will benefit your understanding, but wade in to the depths even if you lack this expertise. This book deepened my understanding of the manifold factors influencing my experience with the wines I uncork.

Concluding Remarks

Remember, an excellent wine steward at a trusted shop will always prove invaluable, even to most wine fanatics. Wine stewards at any reputable store understand their inventory well, and familiarize themselves with the wines both academically and through tastings. No wine expert can taste every wine, and so wine stewards who passionately know and appreciate their bottles serve a needed niche. Take advantage of their knowledge.

Increasing your knowledge can reduce your stress and deepen your pleasure when both buying and enjoying wine. Cheers to the seductive allure of wine!