Friday, August 31, 2007

The Acid in My Alcohol

Or is it the alcohol in my acid, or the pH of my…. Oh hell, it’s just wine!

I think most folks know that I’m not a fan of the anti-high alcohol league. I’m not completely sure why but for some reason the league stirs in me images of The League of Gentlemen. No, not The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The League of Gentlemen. There is something about this cadre of criers of “nothing above 14.5%” that casts a grim shadow over my world. It’s akin to the foreboding behind the 'Welcome to Royston Vasey. You'll Never Leave!' sign. I picture myself being locked into a little corner of the wine world with people that, well, just don’t sound like a lot of fun. But I digress.

Dan Berger is one of the biggest critics of big wines and Big Wine lovers. I give Berger credit; he knows he’s in the minority. Still I’m not so naïve as to believe that all wines with alcohol above 14.5% are great wines, or even representative of their style or variety. However I’m also not convinced that delicacy, harmony, and balance is found only below the magical number of 14.5% alcohol. But this is the thesis of folks like Dan Berger, Darrell Corti, Randy Dunn and others. It's just unfortunate that they don’t test their hypotheses. But I’m always willing to help, if I can! One of Berger’s most recent discussions on high alcohol wines made a point that I thought worthy of follow-up.

“Look at it this way: The bigger the wine, the more alcohol it typically contains. And the more alcohol a wine has, the less acidity it usually has. High-alcohol wines need more, not less, acid and a lower pH to balance the “sweet” taste of the alcohol. But with high-alcohol wines, we almost always get a higher pH, not a lower one.”

It seemed just a little limiting to me, given the complexity that goes to generate balance, that Berger should focus on the relationship between alcohol and acidity. Does he know something the rest of us don’t? One way to find out is to look at the alcohol and acidity in several wines. It’s a little difficult to do this with a large number of wines simply because alcohol, pH and total acidity (TA) numbers are hard to find for most wines. But I was able to get some data on three wines: Penfolds Grange (Shiraz) from 1955 to 2002; Penfolds St Henri Shiraz from 1993 to 2003; and Carlisle Dry Creek Zinfandel from 1998 to 2005. Grange and St Henri have yet to pass 14.5% alcohol, while the Carlisle Zinfandel has not been below 15.4%.

Graphing alcohol and TA reveals significant positive correlation for both Grange and the Carlisle. St Henri shows a non-significant correlation, although higher alcohol tends to indicate lower TA values. Graphing alcohol and pH reveals a significant negative correlation for Grange; that is the higher the alcohol the more acidity (lower pH), a positive correlation for St Henri (alcohol and pH values both increase) and no significant correlation for the Carlisle although the acidity tends to increase with increasing alcohol.

So if Dan Berger is correct then poor old St Henri, my favorite wine and one of Australia’s most refined, harmonious and balanced Shiraz wines does not fit his thesis. Or could it be that balance (delicacy and harmony) in a wine is just a little more complex than pH and alcohol?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What Does the Future Hold for Seppeltsfield Fortified Wines?

“Like the ’51 Grange, like a Streeton painting, a Melba recording, a Bradman bat, or a Lawson short story, its part of the Australian ethos. A true icon”. - Huon Hooke, Sydney Morning Herald September 24, 2002.

The purchase of Seppeltsfield and its stocks of fortified wines by Kilikanoon, or more correctly the The Seppeltsfield Estate Trust of which Killikanoon is a principal, is either pure folly or a marriage that will secure the essence that is both the Barossa Valley and Australian fortified wine. Yes, it is that simple.

One of the major concerns for the new owners has to be the marketability of Australian fortified wines, and particularly the Seppelts range. While there are plans for the Seppeltsfield infrastructure including “sympathetic redevelopment and adaptive re-use of many of the Heritage Buildings in line with the Seppelt family’s original wide-ranging food and beverage interests”, the fate of the range of wines that is Australia’s most diverse and most acclaimed is also of “para”mount concern. Oh, you think using para is just a little play on words? Well its much more serious than that because the 100 Year Old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny which dates back to 1878 is a wine that is more than a national icon. It is unique in the world of fortified wine. The Seppeltsfield Trust appreciates this as evidenced by the recent statement from Nathan Waks that “Until last week it was in fact possible to buy nearly all vintages from 1879 to 1907- the current 100 year old, directly from the cellar door, as they are only hand bottled. We have agreed with Foster's to put a hold on sets being sold, whilst we evaluate the remaining stocks of each vintage, to ensure that we treat this [as] a very special resource and not simply sell it out quickly.” Even though it’s the flagship of the range, the 100 Year Old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny is only part of this remarkable collection of wine.

As a lover of Seppelts fortified wines I wanted to find out how The Trust plans to market the wines especially overseas as the Seppelt fortifieds have not been for sale in the USA for a number of years. Following the original post by Shiraz on the sale of Seppeltsfield Nathan Waks emailed to say that he would be “Happy to answer any questions about the Seppeltsfield sale, and particularly the future.” I emailed back 10 questions.

1) First, how will the wines be labeled? Kilikanoon has been granted an exclusive license for the Seppeltsfield brand so will they carry the Seppeltsfield name or will they be under the Kilikanoon label?

Nathan Waks (NW): Our agreement with Foster's means that Seppeltsfield will be the fortified brand for all the current Seppelt Fortifieds. It will not make still or sparkling table wines under the Seppeltsfield label, and Seppelt will not make fortified wines. Kilikanoon will continue its business as usual. It may make a fortified wine or two at some point in the future but they would not be duplicates of the Seppeltsfield wines.

2) What countries do you see as potential international markets?

NW: Kilikanoon exports (small volumes mainly) to 25 countries. We would see them all as potential markets.

3) Roberts Parker has graced many Aussie fortifieds (Campbells, RL Buller, Chambers, Yalumba, Stanton and Killeen) with impressive scores. These are the sort of scores that drive consumer interest and yet it seems that Aussie fortifieds have lagged behind dry wines in terms of appeal here in the US. Why do you think that is and any ideas on how to create interest?

NW: I was under the impression that at least some of those you mentioned are doing quite well in the US, but overall the question is one of education. Once people realise that our "ports" are not copies of Port from Portugal etc, and that they are all distinctive, as are our table wines, then I think interest may rise. I doubt that many US consumers would know that wines like our Seppeltsfield Para Liqueur Tawny (Port) are made principally from Shiraz and Grenache, the grapes they love in our table wines...

4) Will the Trust continue to be part of The Muscat of Rutherglen group? Will you be contributing to, or learning from the project that The Muscat of Rutherglen group has initiated to study consumer attitudes to fortified wines and strategies to develop knowledge and interest in the wines in both domestic and international markets?

NW: Absolutely and enthusiastically.

5) At a recent tasting run by Classical Wines here in the USA I was amazed at how inexpensive Spanish dessert wines can be. For example the excellent Don PX Pedro Ximénez Gran Reserva 1971 from Bodegas Toro Albalá runs about $25USD for a 375 ml bottle. That is excellent value for any wine region. Which country do you see providing the greatest competition for the Seppeltsfield fortifieds?

NW: I look at this not so much in competitive terms with Spain or Portugal (the obvious ones), but rather hoping to get more people to try the many and varied delights of fortifieds drunk in moderation, and often with food.

6) With Fosters still taking some grapes from the Seppeltsfield vineyards can Kilikanoon/Seppeltsfield source enough grapes from the vineyards purchased in the assets sale, or will fruit be acquired from new vineyards for the wines?

NW: The agreement allows for us to source as many grapes from the Seppeltsfield vineyard as required for fortified production, and additionally Foster's is working to have their principal Rutherglen grape contracts assigned to us. We will of course be talking directly to these growers in due course.

7) Will there be any changes in sourcing fruit from Rutherglen?

NW: See above.

8) Earlier in the year Glug gave some information on the sales of some of the Seppelts fortifieds. The numbers were surprising. For example sales of the GR113 Rare Muscat were less than 3 bottles a day and the DP117 Fino had sales of about 20 bottles a day. I don’t know if those numbers are correct, but do you see poor sales numbers as reasons for concern about the viability of specific wines?

NW: We start with a clean slate. I note all the sales information which has been provided to us as part of the sale process, and which is of course confidential, but we are quite comfortable with our initial sales projections which are conservative. We will look at all the current SKU's and may make changes over time in line with market demand and supply, as does any normal wine business.

9) Did Kilikanoon make a NV Kilikanoon Reserve Muscat Wine? Parker reviewed this wine in the Wine Advocate # 161 (Oct 2005.) but I can’t find any other information about it.

NW: This is a wine made for cellar door sales only, and is sourced from Rutherglen. We will consider the future of Kilikanoon fortified in the context of our overall portfolio.

10) And last. When will the first Seppeltsfield Festival be held? Just as an FYI my wife and I make it over to Oz during the first 3 weeks of December!!

NW: That I can't say! We will of course be very focussed on the wine business initially, but we will be discussing this at our first Board meeting no doubt!

No, I’m not naïve enough to think that the Seppeltsfield Festival will be scheduled according to my travel arrangements. I’m also not naïve enough to believe that Seppeltsfield and its wines are now on a secure path for the future. The wine game is simply not that straightforward. However it is becoming obvious that the new owners are passionate, knowledgeable, and caring of the traditions of the past. And they have a vision for the future. The passage of time will tell. Benno Seppelt could not have predicted what he was laying the foundation for when he set aside that barrel in 1878, but he did it. We can feel fortunate that individuals like Janet Holmes à Court, Greg Paramor, Bruce Baudinet and Nathan Waks have the courage to lay down their barrel for the future.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Who Buys Australia’s Fortified Wines?

The recent sale of Seppeltsfield and its stocks of fortified wines to Kilikanoon got me wondering about who buys these extraordinary but amazingly inexpensive wines.

As recently as 1966 fortified wines accounted for some 62 percent of wine sales in Australia but by 1984 it was only 16 percent. Sales fell even further to around 7% by 1993, and have continued to fall to the present day. In the 1993-94 financial year fortified wines were 8.4% of domestic wine volume and 2.3% of export volume. By 2005-06 domestic volume was 4.2 % and export volume accounted for 0.35%. Much of this drop in market share has been the result of enormous growth in sales of table and sparkling wines, although the volume of fortified wine sold in Australia has fallen steadily from 27 million liters in 1993-94 to 18.5 million liters in 2005-06.

Eighteen and half million liters seems like a large volume but with a population of 20,434,176 (July 2007 est.) that is less than a liter per person. That 18.5 million liters looks even more insignificant when its broken down by wine styles (Sherry, Port, Other) and wine containers (glass less than2 liters, soft packs, other). For 2005-06 fortified wine in glass (of less than 2 liters) made up 1.36% of domestic sales by volume with Sherry at 0.4%, Port at 0.87% and Other accounting for 0.085%. I’m assuming that "Other" includes Muscat and Tokay which (in glass of less than 2 liters) sold 366, 000 liters in 2005-06. Divided amongst 20 million people that is less than 20 milliliters/person. That is not even a fluid ounce!

With numbers like that its no wonder that the Chairman of the Muscat of Rutherglen group, Colin Campbell recently announced a $1.4 million (Aust) dollar project to transform all sectors of the Australian fortified wine industry. Campbell stated “We expect the outcome of the project will be a totally new approach to presenting our wines – in bottle shops, restaurants and cellar doors. The renewed focus on fortified wines will permeate all sections of the wine industry – distributors, retailers, restaurants, wine producers, and vocational and tertiary training institutions. We believe consumers will also embrace the changes.”

Part of the funding for the project includes a grant of $500.000 (AUD) from the Australian Government to aid the Australian fortified wine industry re-brand its products and increase access to European markets. But how much fortified wine is exported? Unfortunately not a lot but in contrast to the steady fall in domestic sales the volume of exported fortified wines has remained remarkably constant between 2 and 3 million liters; 2.873 in 1993-94 and 2.587 in 2005-06.

Where is Australia exporting these wines today?

In 2005-06 over 70 percent of exported fortified wine went to four countries; USA 20.8%, UK 19.6%, Canada 16.7%, France 15.2%. However in the first three countries fortified wines do not constitute a large segment of total exports. Fortified wines only accounted for 0.26% of exports to the USA even though they consumed 28.4% of total exports. Its worse in the UK where 0.2% of wine imported from Australia was fortified and they received 36.2% of total exports. Canadians have a greater appreciation for Australian fortified wines with 0.89% of the wine being fortified; Canada receives 6.8% of exported Australia wine. Perhaps surprisingly France shows the greatest attraction for fortifieds. Even though France consumes only 1% of exported Australian wine, they accounted for 5.2% of the fortified wine exports.

I'm not even going to try to figure out the consumption per person in these countries, but if you want to do part of the exercise put these numbers in your calculator. 539,000 divided by 300 million. Yes that right its less than 0.0018 liters per person in the USA. But let's look on the bright side. It can only go up from there, can't it?

Note: The definition of fortified wine used to collect these numbers is: Wine to which grape spirit, brandy or both has been added, thereby adding alcoholic strength and precluding further fermentation. Fortified wine must contain at least 150 millilitres/litre and not more than 200 millilitres/litre of ethanol at 20° Centigrade.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Fortified Future for (Australian) Wine?

The Foster's Group, the Australia-based global multi-beverage company, agreed today (Aug. 27th) on the sale of the Seppeltsfield site in the Barossa Valley to Kilikanoon, a Clare Valley winery. The fate of Seppeltsfield has been haunting lovers of Australia’s most awarded fortified wines for months. The Seppeltsfield property was purchased by Joseph Seppelt in 1851. Today the 185 hectare property includes the National Trust listed historic homestead and approximately 100 hectares of surrounding vineyards and its blue stone cellars are home to 9 million litres of fortified wines including stocks of the 100 year old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny; begun in 1878 when Benno Seppelt placed a barrel of the finest wine from that vintage in the cellar and decreed that it would remain untouched for 100 years. In addition to the 100 Year Old Para, the other fortified wines make up Australia’s most diverse and most acclaimed range as the listing below proves.

The most awarded wine of any style is the DP 90 Rare Barossa Valley Tawny which has won 14 Trophies and 59 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

DP 59 Rare Rutherglen Tokay, recipient of 4 Trophies and 48 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

GR 113 Rare Rutherglen Muscat, recipient of 9 Trophies and 35 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

DP 63 Grand Rutherglen Muscat, recipient of 5 Trophies and 24 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

DP 57 Grand Rutherglen Tokay, recipient of 29 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

"Seppeltsfield houses the world's greatest collection of fortified wines dating back to 1878 in an unbroken tradition. We are proud to become the next custodians of this priceless national treasure", said Kilikanoon CEO, Nathan Waks. "We will work hard to ensure that Australia's already fine reputation in this area is enhanced and to rejuvenate the Seppeltsfield Village over time through sympathetic wine-related redevelopment" (see Press Release)

The sale includes the Seppeltsfield winery, Cellar Door, approximately 100 hectares of surrounding vineyards, the majority of Seppelt fortified wine stocks currently on site, fortified brands names including Para, Solero, Trafford, Old Trafford, Mt Rufus and an exclusive license for the Seppeltsfield brand for fortified wine.

I among others feel tremendous relief that Seppeltsfield and its fortified wines stocks have attracted the attention of a buyer and may now have a future. With interest in these rare but extraordinarily inexpensive wines having fallen into a slump, it was always on the cards that they could just fade from Australian wine culture. However the future is not assured. Foster’s will “continue to retain ownership of key fortified wine stocks on site which will form the basis of Foster's fortified wines.” These wines appear to include Penfolds Great Grandfather and Grandfather wines, but with Foster’s record of bowing to profitability one wonders about their future.

The other concern is more practical. Kilikanoon, although they have an enviable reputation as makers of dry wines like their Oracle Shiraz, they make no fortified wines. So there are unanswered questions. The most important being - Who will be responsible for maintaining the wines already stored at Seppeltsfield and for the production of future releases and future vintages of the 100 Year Old Para? Putting up the money to buy Seppeltsfield is one thing, having the experience to continue the tradition is an entirely different wine game.

EDIT: Killikanoon is the principal of the newly formed Seppeltsfield Estate Trust. The Seppeltsfield Estate Trust will buy the assets. The owners of the Trust include Kilikanoon Wines, Janet Holmes à Court, Greg Paramor and Kilikanoon’s major shareholders Nathan Waks and Bruce Baudinet. (see bottom of Kilikanoon Press Release).

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #12

For our twelfth wine we are finally headed to Bordeaux. Château Ducru-Beaucaillou is in the Saint-Julien appellation; one of the four major appellations of the Médoc region. On the left bank of the Garonne estuary, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou is one of the five second growth (Deuxièmes Crus) vineyards of St-Julien. The chief feature of the vineyard are the pebbles or "cailloux" which contribute to the greatness of many Medoc wines. This gravel, about 5 meters deep, is on a calcareous base of about the same thickness. The vineyards are planted in 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot.

Is this a wine that needs decanting? The Chateau recommends that a ten year old wine should be decanted two hours before serving, 20 year old decanted 1 hour and a 40 year old wine decant at the time of serving. Our wine is 5 years old so it will get at least 2 hours.

Wine #12: 2002 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou (St Julien) ($37.00USD, 375ml), 13% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degrees F. After two and a half hours the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: A little muted with notes of banana skin, violets and dusty coffee. Full bodied with clean acidity and firm tannins carrying a short finish. More aromatics on the palate.

Glass B: Has the most complex aromatic profile with oak, cedar, dusty coffee and banana skin. More acidity and obviously firmer tannins that carry a longer finish than glass A.

Glass C: Very muted. Faint violet under dusty banana skin. Again firm tannins but little length to the finish. Nicely balanced but with less vibrant acidity than in glass B.

My opinion: B is from the bottle, A and C from the decanter.
Reality: B is from the bottle, A and C from the decanter.

Conclusion: After smelling all three glasses I was ready to name glass C as the decanted wine but tasting revealed that the wine in glass B was more vibrant with the firmer tannins encouraging a longer finish than the wine in the other two glasses. Still it did take a while to reach a final conclusion, and calling A and B as the wine from the bottle was always the backup decision.

Common to many wines the act of swirling the wine in the glass over time did open this wine even further. That does seem like a contradiction if exposure to air actually lessened the appeal of the wine. But exposure to air in a decanter and coating the inside of a glass with a thin film of wine by swirling are not one in the same. That thin coating of wine is likely to release its volatile components more readily possibly due to effects of surface tension and exposure to warmer air within the bowl itself. If you don’t believe me take two glasses, pour several ounces of wine into one and just a few milliliters into the other. Now swirl for a few moments and smell. Notice any difference?

Score: Wines tested 12, Decanters 1, Non-decanters 4.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Lower Alcohol Wines – Oh, the irony of it all!

Those who favor lower alcohol in their wines point, not infrequently, to European wines as the saving grace against the onslaught of high alcohol wines from the New World. And in fairness the argument does have some merit as many white wines particularly those with residual sugar, including the sweeter Riesling styles, do have quite low alcohol. But even if a wine does have high alcohol the anti-high alcohol league has remedies. All you have to do is run it through reverse osmosis or a spinning cone and watch the alcohol drop off like the extra pounds on a dieting Oprah! The problem is that both practices "are not currently permitted in the production of wine for sale within the European Union", and that has the potential to create significant problems. In recent weeks wines have been banned from sale in the UK because their lower alcohol levels were achieved by these practices. Sovio, a semi-sparkling Spanish wine, bottled at 8% abv, had been subjected to spinning cone treatment, and the French Plume wine range sold by Tesco achieved its alcohol levels by reverse osmosis.

What to do, what to do? Well, wines from the USA and Australia (pending agreement) that have undergone alcohol reduction by either treatment can be sold in the UK due to bilateral agreements with the EU. But that subjects EU wines to unfair competition from both non-EU nations. To address the problem the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) in the UK is seeking a temporary derogation under the appropriate EC Council Regulation to allow lower alcohol wines made using these two practices to be marketed and sold in the UK.

Problem solved? Not really because the European Union will need to develop uniform legislation to address this problem as its member states appear to have different solutions to the dilemma. Both reverse osmosis (in France) and spinning-cone technology (in Spain) are under experimental use but the wines made using these processes can only be sold in their country of origin. However, according to French producers, wines made using reverse osmosis are being sold and marketed in the Netherlands, Austria and Germany.

Getting lower alcohol wines to consumers in Europe, especially lower alcohol European wines, looks like being a tricky process. Who would have thought that would be the case?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Erotic Wine Evenings Strike Educational Note

From (August 22, 2007)

At Babeland - which is owned exclusively by women - some 60 libidinous oenophiles sipped wines with names like Seduction Cabernet and Foreplay Chardonnay, listening to erotic poetry and bid for a goodie bag filled with wine paraphernalia, as well as vibrators and other adult toys.

'It's important to first titillate the senses with a little Foreplay - for your palate, that is,' the note accompanying the Chardonnay said.

I wonder what their Shiraz is called? And what its tasting note says?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #11

For our eleventh wine I’ve chosen a style that the pundits argue benefits from the aeration that accompanies decanting. It’s a wine made from the Nebbiolo grape and can be massively tannic in its youth. That’s right to test the idea that decanting can soften tannins I’m turning to a Barolo! The decanting times recommended for Barolo run the gambit. The wine before me, the 2001 Paolo Scavino Barolo, has been given anything from no decanting to “double-decanting 8 hours before dinner”. And it can still be unapproachable. As science shows that decanting does not soften tannins it will be interesting to see if a few hours have any effect on this wine. This Paola Scavino Barolo has another distinction; it is the first of the wines I have purchased from Halfwit Wines, so I stole their bottle image!

Wine #11: Paolo Scavino Barolo 2001($29.00USD, 375ml), 14.5% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degrees F. After 3 and a half hours the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: Rich ripe notes of dark fruits, anise, black coffee, smoke and oak. And a little tar. The palate is awash with BIG, drying tannins but also excellent depth and concentration. The finish is not lengthy but not overpowered by the astringency.

Glass B: Very muted with anise and the suggestion of alcohol. On the palate similar to glass A but with more juicy acidity that gives the wine some angularity. The finish is of charred, tarry notes.

Glass C: Muted; anise over sweet fruits. On the palate, the same as glass B with mouth drying astringency and angularity from the juicy acidity.

My opinion: A is from the bottle. B and C are from the decanter.
Reality: A is from the bottle. B and C are from the decanter.

Conclusion: My goodness, what is that sound? Oh, its OK. Its only the pundits shuffling in their ranks as they mill about hoping that someone will defend the decanting of Barolo; if only to get rid of that dry feeling they have in their mouths! In truth I was just a little apprehensive about this wine because if big, tannic wines do benefit from aeration then this is the style to show it. And it was very clear from the first whiff of each glass that there were two different flavor profiles. Tasting the wine revealed additional differences which, at least to my palate, argue that this Barolo should not be decanted. As to decanting softening the tannins? Barolo is so tannic that its really only aging that will soften these wines, a LOT of aging.

The wine that remained after the tasting was used to fill one of the 375 ml bottles and stored in the refrigerator overnight. It will be interesting to see what effect that produces!

Score: Wines tested 11, Decanters 1, Non-decanters 3.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #10

For our tenth wine we return to the Napa Valley and the other variety that has made this region famous, Cabernet Sauvignon. Paradigm Winery has been reputed to make one of the top 50 Cabernet based wines in Napa Valley. In the past it has been one wine that I have rated highly in blind tastings. This wine also has the distinction of having Heidi Peterson Barrett as its winemaker. Barrett has been the winemaker for Screaming Eagle, the pinnacle of cult Napa Cabernets. An impressive pedigree indeed!

Wine #10 2002 Paradigm Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa valley, California: ($24.99USD, 375ml), 14.8% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degree F. After 2 and a half hours the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: Dusty earth, charred, tarry notes over evident alcohol and black olives. Very soft entry with unexpected finesse on the palate, fine tannins but lacking a persistent finish.

Glass B: More richly flavored with stewed, charred flavors over coffee and black fruits. Softer tannins but otherwise as for glass A. More flavor carry than glass C.

Glass C: As for glass A with dusty earth, charred and tarry notes over black olives. Softer than glass B, but otherwise more like glass A. Not a lot of flavor carry, almost dead in the mouth.

Note: Dusty note blows off in the glass and is not evidence of a corked wine.

My opinion: Glass B is from the bottle, glasses A and C are from the decanter.
Reality: Glass B is from the decanter, glasses A and C contain wine from the bottle.

Conclusion: Well it only took 10 wines to find one that shows improvement with decanting. OK, you could argue that its less because some of the wines tested might never benefit from decanting, but as I have said before there will be no discrimination against any wine. What was questionable about this decanting test was the lack of varietal definition in the Paradigm even with aeration. Compared to a bottle of 2003 Whitehall Lane Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (14.2% alcohol) drunk a few days later, the Paradigm showed little of the freshness and fruit flavor that you might expect from a wine still in its youth. Still it will be interesting to source a few more splits (375 ml) of Napa Cabernet to see if any more benefit from decanting. My opinion? A simple no should suffice.

Score: Wines tested 10, Decanters 1, Non-decanters 2.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Alcohol Debate – Wine and Food

The current outcry against high alcohol wines has, at its center, the notion that these wines are simply not food friendly. Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards, has written “Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 -16 +% alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal. About the only dish that seems to put them in their place is a good hot, spicy dish.”

Eric Asimov of The Pour has noted “Many Californians argue that nothing is wrong with high-alcohol wines so long as they are balanced. Nonsense. I like to drink wine with my meal, not sip it, and the more alcohol in the wine, the less I can drink.”.

Dan Berger of Vintage Experiences has penned “Meanwhile, I keep trying the 15% wines and can’t get a single (small) glass down. Too hot. Too heavy. Not a wine to go with food.

And since I consume food with almost all red wines, and have no real desire to make a plate of mature cheeses my main course any time soon, I am left with only one choice: wines with balance.”

Who is responsible for all these food unfriendly, unbalanced monsters? Well according to Randy Dunn (and I’m sure many others) it seems to be critics and reviewers who taste and spit and fail to remember that wine is supposed to accompany food. (Randy Dunn: "Reviewers -please at least include the labeled alcohol percentage in all your reviews, and try to remember that not everyone is spitting.") This criticism is perhaps somewhat unfair given that the most influential wine critics taste thousands of wines each year and organizing appropriate meals to go with the wines would simply be an overwhelming task. Plus food can influence the flavor-profile and taste of wine and let’s face it its hard enough sorting through several wine critics perceptions of a wine without having to figure out how the different meals they paired with the wine influenced their assessment. Plus, when was the last time you visited a cellar door and tasted your way through their range of wines to the accompaniment of separate foods for each wine?

I guess we will all just have to learn to find the food friendly wines ourselves. Either that or bend the knee to the anti-high alcohol hoards and agree that high alcohol wines have to be banned. Not bloody likely! There are always options and alternatives and smart people out there willing to create what must be created. Enter The Sydney International Wine Competition where 2,000 wines are “assessed blind beside appropriate food, by a highly qualified international panel of wine professionals who offer you their personal opinions.”

The SIWC was founded in 1982 , although the archived results for the Top 100 wines only goes back to 1999. Since 2004 the entry numbers for the SIWC has been set at 2,000 wines divided into 13 style categories including lighter, medium or fuller bodied dry white or dry red table, dessert and sparkling wine. The award winning wines have won when tasted with appropriate food in the same style categories.

How do higher alcohol wines fair in this competition? In the 2007 Fuller Bodied Dry Red Wines category the alcohol levels range from 13 to 15%. The winning wine was the 2004 Neagles Rock One Black Dog Reserve Cabernet Shiraz. The Neagles won the trophy for its category plus trophies for “Best Red Table Wine of Competition” and “Best Wine of Competition”.Weighing in at 15% alcohol only one of the six reviewers found the wine “just a little bit hot” Others said “It showed especially well against the beef structurally”, “The palate has nice oak and fruit integration and quite a bit of finesse on the finish. Opening up further with the food.” and “A pleasure to drink. A great match. Well balanced. Delicious flavours. The beef was complemented very nicely with this wine.”

What food was paired with this style category? It was “Marinated “Beef Grand Veneur”, Herbed Crepes, Oyster Mushrooms & Green Peas Puree”, and one of the great attractions of the SIWC is that the recipes for all the meals are available on the site.

A 15.1% wine, the 2003 Bremerton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, did very well in the Medium Bodied Dry Red Wines category. Two of the seven judges thought it did not pair well with the matched meal of “Lamb & Eggplant Charlottes, Red Wine Reduction Sauce”, with one noting the high alcohol. But the other judges were much more complimentary “With the food, this is an excellent match.”, “A great food wine.”, “It goes very well with the food. It seems to increase its richness and persistence and the flavours go well.”, and “An excellent food match. Did everything you could ask for from a wine. A real work horse of a food wine.”

Now detractors will argue that there are not many wines above 14.5% listed as award winners in 2007, and that this is a competition for Australian wines, so what use is it? But do those concerns carry weight? What is important is that for 26 years there has been a competition that has paired wine with food that is open to all comers. But perhaps the most telling question has to be directed to those who say they have long lamented the rising levels of alcohol in wine and the loss of food friendly wines. To them I say why have you not established a competition like SIWC here in the United States? What holds you back?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Lower Alcohol Wines – A Better Approach

Alcohol levels in wine have been increasing for at least several decades, and there is good reason to believe that this has been driven by the consumer’s desire for fuller flavored wine. Put simply, to achieve riper flavors grapes have to be harvested later in the growing season and fermentation of the riper grapes with their increased sugar levels often leads to increased alcohol levels. The higher alcohol does not seem to have swayed the consumer against these wines, evidence the popularity of one of the major proponents of the style Australian Shiraz. Australian wines are, as Oz Clark said, “sunshine in a bottle” because many of the wine growing regions in Australia have local climatic conditions that have long, hot growing seasons that are conducive to ripening all manner of fruits.

Recently there has been considerable discontent over the increasing amount of alcohol in wine. As I have noted in previous posts I am not a fan of the attempts by individuals like Darrell Corti and Randell Dunn to foist their dislike of high alcohol (14.5% or greater) wines on the drinking public. I am however not adverse to wine makers or retailers giving the consumer the option of lower alcohol wines, or indeed of trying to educate the consumer on the virtues of such wine. Unfortunately, here in the USA the chest beating against higher alcohol wines appears to have no other purpose than to stop the production of high alcohol wines; Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards, made this more than obvious in his letter to the US media.

There is a better way! And its being led by the major supermarket chains in the UK, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. All three have introduced low alcohol wines in recent months. Last year Sainsbury introduced Early Harvest, a 9.5% alcohol white wine from sun drenched Australia. Early Harvest wine made news last year when introduced as wines that would appeal to women because of the reduced number of calories; the implied sexism created its own little furor. The Early Harvest wines, a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend and a Chardonnay, are both 9.5% alcohol and have 12 grams/L of sugar. This level of sugar equates to halbtrocken or medium dry in style and the sweetness would be hard to detect and even with that level of sugar the calories would be less than a bone dry Shiraz with higher alcohol.

But why are these wines being introduced? Is it because of a desire for food friendliness in wine, a facet that is argued to be lacking in high alcohol wines? No, in the UK its not food friendly wine that is being sought. The real goal is to reduce alcohol consumption and the introduction of low alcohol wine is seen as a socially responsible move on the part of the big supermarket chains.

Between 1991 and 2005 the number of alcohol related death has doubled in the UK. And a report by the government on alcohol misuse notes “two major, and largely distinct, problems: of crime and anti-social behaviour in town and city centres, and on the other harm to health as a result of binge- and chronic drinking.” The report also lists numerous additional problems that arise from excess consumption of alcohol.

I certainly have no complaints with consumers wishing to reduce their alcohol consumption and lead healthier lifestyles. And I applaud retailers in the UK for responding to this demand by offering their customers the option of wines with lower alcohol. It’s a far more reasoned approach than the shrill voices in the USA that call for the end of high alcohol wines simply because they don’t appreciate them.