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Tag Archives: winemaking

The new truth about oxidized wine

winetrends

oxidized wineWine will oxidize — that is, become brandyish and taste funny — within 24 hours after you open the bottle. Oxygen gets into the bottle, and the same thing happens to the wine that happens to a cut apple. This has been true for decades, and the wine preserver industry, including Coravin, nitrogen systems, and vacuum pumps, has become a multi-million dollar business because of oxidized wine.

But what if post-modern winemaking technology has made oxidation less likely? What if the wine business has discovered how to keep wine from oxidizing with 24 hours, so that it will last days or even a week? In fact, this seems to have happened, and especially with bottles from Big Wine. That has been my experience over the past 18 months — bottles, red and white, left on the counter for several days and closed only with their cork or screwcap, tasted just as fresh as they did when I opened the bottle.

So I checked with a well-known and award-winning California winemaker, and he said I was right. He asked not to be named for this post, given that he was letting us behind, as he called it, the wizard’s curtain. “The science of wine has advanced immeasurably in the last 20 years,” he told me. “And, in part, that is why a $6 bottle of wine does not taste like crap anymore.”

There is lots of science in his explanation (“build stronger chains of anthocyanins and phenolic compounds”); more than we need here. But wine is oxidizing less quickly because:

• Grapes are riper than ever when they’re harvested. This has led to more stable phenolics, which is the compound in grapes that adds color, taste, and helps preserve it.

• Adding more tannins to the wine, either oak, grape-derived, or from other exotic hardwoods. I actually have a bottle of liquid tannins in a desk drawer that I got at a trade show. If your wine isn’t tannic enough, you can dump it in.

• These added tannins, combined with a technique called micro-oxidation, which adds oxygen to the wine at certain times during the winemaking process. This means, said the winemaker, better wines with improved color, richer flavors, and better shelf life. “This is a novel idea,” he said with a laugh, “since the industry has for so many years maligned oxygen and taught the exact opposite. But oxygen is good.”

Is this true with all wines? Probably not. But for the majority of wine that most of us drink, oxidized wine is apparently one less thing to worry about.

When cheap wine tastes cheap

wineadvice

cheap wine tastes cheapThe quality of cheap wine is better than ever, but that doesn’t mean that all cheap wine is worth drinking. Or, as the erudite Lew Perdue has noted: “Crappy wine holds back the wine market far more than any other factor.”

So how can you tell when cheap wine tastes cheap?

• Quality is not about style. Sweet wines should taste sweet; that’s their style, and whether they’re poorly made has nothing to do with whether they’re sweet. Dry wines that taste sweet are poorly made, no matter how many cases they sell. The Wine Curmudgeon doesn’t like alcoholic, over-the-top zinfandels, but that’s a style preference, not a reflection of quality.

• Bitterness, off-flavors, and green or unripe fruit, in both red and white wine. This is not nearly as common as it used to be, and is rarely seen in California anymore. But it still happens with imported wine.

• Missing tannins in red wine. The winemaker uses technology to remove tannins to make the wine “smooth,” because a focus group said smooth was a desirable quality without actually defining it. In this, tannins and tannic acid are perhaps the most misunderstood part of cheap wine. Quality red wine, at any price, needs tannic acid for structure and balance, and when the tannins are right you may not even notice them. But it’s usually too expensive or too much trouble to deal with tannins properly in $10 wine, which is why so much of it is astringent. So the winemaker takes the tannins out, and you get a flabby, boring wine.

• Fake oak. Again, this is not a style preference, but a winemaking decision, sometimes used to cover up poor quality grapes. If your chardonnay smells like Adams Best vanilla, then the oak is there because something else isn’t. Also, be wary of red wines that promise chocolate cherry flavors, also an oak trick. If producers could make $10 wine with those flavors, why would anyone need to buy $100 wine?

• Sweetness for sweetness’ sake. The best sweet wines have something to balance the sweetness, in the way that iced tea with lemon and sugar is balanced. They’re not supposed to taste like Coke. What made this $7 Sara Bee moscato so enjoyable was not that it was sweet, but that it had a little orange fruit and some bubbles to complement the sweetness. Sweet wine that is just sweet is as about as cynical as winemaking gets.

Image courtesy of Cheap Wine Records, using a Creative Commons license

Warren Winiarski returns to Colorado

Warren Winarski
Warren Winiarski

Yes, Warren Winiarski made wine in Colorado, and here is the label to prove it.

How incredible would it have been to talk writing with Ernest Hemingway? Or, for a painter, discuss technique with Michelangelo? Or, for a baseball player, pitching with Sandy Koufax?

I had a similar experience in Colorado this spring, when I spent a couple of days talking and judging wine with Warren Winiarski, one of the handful of people who helped transform the California wine business from its regional roots. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, California was not all that much different from what Virginia or Texas is today. Along the way, he produced the winning red at the 1976 Judgment of Paris, where California wine bested the French in a blind tasting that changed the way the world saw California wine.

That visit is the subject of a story I wrote for the on-line wine magazine Palate Press. Among the highlights:

• Winiarski made wine in Colorado for Ivancie Cellars in the late 1960s, shortly before starting Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Ivancie, founded to bring the idea of wine to the middle of the country, was 40 years ahead of its time. Says Winiarski — and echoing how many regional winemakers over the years?: “We underestimated how difficult making wine in Colorado was going to be. The wine was good, but the idea just never caught fire.”

• The winemakers who attended a seminar with Winiarski (and where I was lucky enough to sit on the panel with him) were almost wide-eyed listening to him dissect their wines. Most importantly, he was polite, enthusiastic, and constructive in his comments, something that doesn’t happen enough often in a business that can get very snarky (and especially when the subject is regional wine).

• How can you argue with this winemaking philosophy? “Are you making a dancing slipper or a boot? What’s in your head? How do you follow through on what’s in your head? What do you want the grapes to become?”

Seminar photo courtesy of Michelle Cleveland, using a Creative Commons license; Ivancie label courtesy of Colorado Wine Press, using a Creative Commons license.

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