Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Academics to the Rescue

Regular readers will have noticed that I have challenged the anti-high alcohol league to address their concerns with more than just words. After all, members of the Australian wine industry have addressed this issue in a constructive manner, so why not here in the US.

Alcohol levels in wine are increasingly becoming a hot topic in the wine world. Here in the US there is significant use of reverse osmosis (RO) to reduce alcohol levels in wine. However wineries/winemakers are not keen to come out of the closet about their use of the technology. This makes it difficult to find wines that have undergone RO in order to identify any changes that the process may make to a wine beyond removal of alcohol (and apaprently volatile acidity (VA)).

I was therefore quite pleased to find this post on the West Coast Wine Net forum. The 3 year old post provides tasting notes on a Syrah (made by students at Fresno State University in California) that was made with differing levels of alcohol.

Fruit for the experiment was harvested at 31 Brix (the 0.55 multiplier doesn't account for the 18% alcohol) with a 2-day cold-soak, the fermentation ran for 17 days at 55-60 degreesF. Pressed at 1 Brix, the fermentation proceeded to 0.6% rs afore sticking.

..........the wine was sent to Vinovation for reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, from the original 18.0% to 12.8%,and everything in between in 0.1% increments. The four "sweet spots" at above alcohols were selected for aging 6 months in American oak. Each lot completed alcoholic fermentation except the original 18.0%, stopping at <0.2%>. Three of the four reduced alcohol lots finished M-L fermentation. Then given a 5 micron filteration and packaged in a slick redwood box.

The final wines were 13.35%, 13.75%, 14.35%, 15.0%, and 18.0% alcohol. And after the tasting the 17 participants rated the 13.35% the worst wine (14 votes) and the 15% the best (8 votes) followed by the 14.35% with 5 votes. One individual favored the 18% wine!

The comments on the tasting, from several individuals, are interesting and worth reading.

One point to note is a comment by Mike Officer (of Carlisle Winery & Vineyards) that it's virtually impossible to get syrah to taste pruney or raisiny. Our syrah last year was around 31 brix as well. Not a trace of overripe character. I'm not sure why syrah behaves like this but might have something to do with phloems cavitating around 22 brix. It's definitely a physiological issue unique to syrah.

I must admit that I don't recall finding overt prune character in Syrah/Shiraz except for the 2004 Massena The Eleventh Hour Shiraz (Barossa Valley).

Any more examples of approaches that have tested whether or not alcohol levels adversely affect wine appreciation?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A note to Dan Berger (and the rest of the anti-high alcohol league),

After several attempts to post a comment on Dan Berger's latest article on high alcohol wines, and getting the message of an error on the page, I've decided to post my thoughts here. Maybe they will take my comment later?

Appellation America is directed toward a very small segment of the wine drinking population, so I wonder how much thought you or any of the other writers on the “big wine” topic give to the average wine drinker. Is it in the interests of the majority of consumers that appreciate the riper style of wine that you pen these articles?

There are an additional few questions I would like some data for, and no I don’t want dogma or anecdotes. Let’s put some meat on these bones!

1) Where are the studies showing that there is a correlation with the popularity of high alcohol wines and cola drinkers? (Just pose that possibility to the average Australian wine drinker and see what answer you get).

2) How many wine drinkers buy wine so that they can determine the regional characteristics of a wine? (Do you really believe that Mr/Mrs Average Winedrinker is at all interested in regional character when they drop by their local wine shop to get a few bottles to serve at their dinner party?)

3) More to the point, how many wine drinkers can actually identify regional characteristics in a wine?

And finally,

When is the anti-high alcohol league (Corti, Dunn, Asimov, McCoy, yourself and others) going to attempt something constructive in terms of addressing alcohol levels in wines? No, the diatribes that have been written thus far are not constructive. They are destructive, divisive and elitist. When will any of you judge these wines blinded against food? Wine has been judged this way at The Sydney International Wine Competition for the last 26 years. (Just as an FYI, the 2007 winner was the 2004 Neagles Rock One Black Dog Reserve Cabernet Shiraz. At 15% alcohol it came away with best Fuller Bodied Dry Red Wine, Best Red Table Wine of Competition, and Best Wine of Competition.) When will any members of the wine press pull together both sides of the argument to discuss alcohol and balance in wine as the Wine Press Club of NSW attempted in July of this year? If winemakers believe that less ripeness and lower alcohol levels will be popular with the cognoscenti then why don’t they make limited releases of such wines? These wines would likely sell at a premium, albeit to very small market. But surely that is a more constructive approach than writing “The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop.” If the Australian wine community can approach this topic in a constructive manner then its about time that the US does the same.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Art of Decanting

As a prelude to a summary of the results of The Great Decanting Experiment I thought it might be prudent to review the only book I can find that, at least according to it’s title, is devoted to the decanting of wine.

Written by Sandra Jordan, of Jordan Vineyard and Winery, The Art of Decanting: Bringing wine to life is an extremely well presented volume. Chapters cover everything from the historical aspects of wine storage, to corkscrews, wine glasses, wine appreciation, and even a menu for a dinner to show off your ability to decant your favorite wines. The images, although a little too close to commercial photography, are nonetheless eye catching. I found myself impatiently reading the text just to get to the next page to see what other images of wine glasses, corkscrews and additional accoutrements of wine tasting might be found there. Its no coincidence that the title includes the word art, nor is it coincidence that a number of the photographs are less than subtle in their advertising of Jordan wines.

Yes, this is one of those books that you do read for the pictures! And that is a problem because there is precious little examination of why wines should be decanted and what happens when wines are decanted. There is simply no support provided for dogmatic statements such as “ In truth, the beneficial influence of air upon young reds may be the closest thing to certainty in the world of decanting. In all other matters – particularly in those pertaining to treasured library wines – the experts continue to engage in fierce debate and friendly disagreement.” Or “ For a young wine(a red one to five years old), however, consider decanting one to three hours before your dinner to allow more oxygen to reach the wine, unleash the flavors, and smooth out the texture. In short, some patience, and a good decanter can improve the flavor and bouquet of a rough young red immeasurably.”

But is all this exposure to air a good thing? The wonders that oxygen will bring to a young wine are seemingly fraught with danger for we are told that in decanting a wine it should not be allowed to splash into the decanter lest it “tire”. And please don’t “shake the decanter to more fully aerate the wine – a controversial move, to put it mildly” as Hugh Johnson, if he is present, is likely to faint.

No, this is not a book for those looking for knowledge on the benefits (or otherwise) that aeration will bring to wine. It is chock full of the art of decanting, thou.

The Art of Decanting: Bringing Wine to Life (Hardcover) by Sandra Jordan with Lindsey Lee Johnson. 132 pages, Publisher: Chronicle Books (Oct. 1, 2006). $12.71USD.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #13

For the last wine in this decanting series we head back to Burgundy and the Mercurey Appellation. And this time it’s a Faiveley. That’s right, the last wine will be the most severe test of the idea that aeration softens tannins because this wine, like all good Faiveleys, has astringency in spades. Oh, excuse me. Its more robust than most. Let’s see if a little air will bring it down to earth!

Wine #13: 2003 Faiveley Mercurey Clos des Myglands Premier Cru, Burgundy, France ($21.00USD, 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: Muted notes of strawberry and cherry over toasted oak and anise. Very soft and supple entry that is overrun by gripping tannins. Nicely structured with good clean acidity.

Glass B: Is there wine in this glass? Nothing except a faint whiff of toffee. Same palate as glass A ; soft and supple on entry but the astringency is overpowering.

Glass C: As for glass B, very, very closed. Just a little anise and oak. Again a palate overpowered by astringency.

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

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

Conclusion: My first assessment of the glasses was that A was from the bottle. Why didn’t I stick with that? Well, the aromas in this wine (like a lot of red Burgundy that I have tasted) are very subtle and I knew that I should spend time searching for them. In the end it was a somewhat futile exercise as the astringency of a young Faiveley batters the palate into resignation. But I will say one thing. Two hours of air seemed to make this wine more astringent, if that is possible!

Just to see what a long exposure to air might do I left one bottle about a quarter full of wine and the other was filled with the remaining wine and corked. After 24 hours the wine in the full bottle was still quite fresh and had developed a note of mushrooms while wine from the other bottle was quite oxidized and almost undrinkable.

Score: Wines tested 13, Decanters 1, Non-decanters 4.