Two iconic South African wines are this year celebrating their first decade of existence. Both were ahead of their time and have over these ten years produced the goods, without exception. And both are still some of the most sought after and pricy wines available.
The Sadie Family Vineyards Columella and Forrester Meinert Chenin, better known as FMC, also have another significant common denominator: neither of these wines are ever analysed before being bottled.
Winemaking talent and skill triumphed over modern technology, producing wines that eventually weren’t always analytically similar, but retained the intended style and more importantly, quality.
Eben Sadie is first to admit that his career started in an environment that was hyper analytic and technology-based, after which he gradually refrained from relying on figures to trusting his senses and pure gut feel. And as one of the most admired and respected winemakers, it obviously worked for him.
In the case of FMC, as the vintages varied, the picking dates, ripeness and amount of Botrytis – a very significant component of this wine – also varied accordingly. Since 2000 the alcohol levels in this wine ranged from 13.5% (in 2002) to 14.5%. Similarly the highest residual sugar was a whopping 14g/l in 2002, while the most recent vintage (2009) has a RS of 6.1g/l – the lowest of all 10 wines.
Yet, despite substantial differences in analyses and the expected vintage variation on taste and smell, the defying character of all the wines in essence remains similar: full, rich and complex.
Many top winemakers have suggested that red grapes in particular ripened at a lower sugar level in 2011 than most South Africans are accustomed to. It’s surely going to be interesting to see who picked on the optimal sweet spot, and who succumbed to forcing their standard recipe – resulting in jammy, overripe wines.
I’m not suggesting that chemical analysis should be omitted completely. Not at all! Many cooperative cellars even pay their producers according to these analyses and possibly rightly so. Chemical analysis is, however, just a tool and should be seen as such.
To say that something tastes “goaty,” in common parlance, is to say that it tastes like goat milk or cheese. I suppose that English-speakers are, in general, more familiar with goat-derived dairy products than they are with goat meat. Too, goat milk is so distinctively flavored that its presence screams through anything to which it is added. Regardless, wine isn’t usually goaty. Usually.
Goaty flavors are apparently related to three fatty acids, the “goaty acids,” C6 (caproic acid), C8, (caprylic acid), and C10 (capric acid.) [NB: incidentally, the Latin name for “goat” is Capra.] These acids collectively comprise 15% of the fats in goat milk (thank you, Wikipedia.) All three have been found in wine. A wine that smells and/or tastes like goat, therefore, probably contains unusually high amounts of these acids.
Why do I mention all of this? By now, you may have guessed – correctly – that I have recently encountered a goaty wine.
The goaty acids are found in grapes and can be produced by both wine-related yeast and bacteria. What I’ve been trying for the past week to learn is what affects the amount of these acids produced by each source. Medium-chained fatty acids (MCFAs), including the goaty C6, C8, and C10, are antimicrobial, inhibit the growth and reduce the rate of growth of both yeast and malolactic bacteria, and are related to stuck fermentations.
MCFAs can slide into the phospholipid bilayer that ordinarily seals the interior of the cell off from its environment. When this happens, the permeability of the membrane increases; in other words, the cell springs a leak (or, rather, many tiny leaks.) This is, needless to say, dangerous.
The research published on wine microorganisms and MCFAs is vast. Synthesizing all of the primary data is more like the subject of a solid literature review for the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, not a blog post. Still, I’ve read enough to fairly conclude that the matrix of MCFA production by and influence on microbes and grape vines remains something of a mystery.
None of this helps me understand why a particular Finger Lakes wine tastes like goat. Or, more particularly, why several wines from a particular Finger Lakes winery taste like goat. Sheldrake Point was new ground for me on my most recent visit to my old wine-tasting grounds in upstate New York. Though I now live within easy driving distance of the wine-rich pastures of eastern Washington, my parents are still close enough to the Finger Lakes to be practical. A Christmas visit afforded an excellent chance to get up to the lakes, revisit several old favorites, and explore a new winery or two. We detoured from the eastern border of Seneca lake to the western side of Cayuga lake and Sheldrake Point on the advice of a Seneca winery tasting room manager. I’m glad we did. None of the wines was remarkable – consistently okay, but not great – but either the terroir of Cayuga lake is dramatically different than Seneca or else Sheldrake Point has a style all its own. “Goat cheese” was a common thread not only through the whites but also into the pinot noir, as was a lightness that stood out even among the typically light-bodied wines of upstate New York.
A few interesting notes about Sheldrake. First, it seems that they do enjoy an unusual mesoclimate. Like the rest of the Finger Lakes, they enjoy the temperature- and humidity-buffering effects of a deep neighboring body of water. Unlike most of the regions’ wineries, however, their vineyards come down nearly to waters’ edge. Their grapes also bed down on the remains of an old cattle ranch. Could that have something to do with those unusual flavors? Finally, I should point out that my impressions were far from normal: Sheldrake Point’s 2008 Late Harvest Riesling took “Best Sweet Riesling in the World” and “Best American Riesling” at Australia’s 2010 Canberra International Riesling Festival and the winery has been named “Winery of the Year” for two years running by Wine and Spirits Magazine and the New York Wine and Food Classic. Heck, maybe I’m weird.
Erika Szymanski is an independent contributor to this blog. She is in no way affiliated with the sponsoring company. This blog was originally posted on her blog: The Wine-o-scope.
The SurePure system is a brilliant South African invention that sterilizes liquid by means of UV-lights. By exposing the liquid (albeit wine, milk or fruit juice) to the UV-lights, harmful bacteria and other micro-organisms are destroyed without heating the product, as would be the case with pasteurization and similar processes.
The revolutionary technology has proven a great success in the dairy and fruit juice industries, while large beer producers are doing trials with great expectations.
Theoretically this technology could be extremely useful for wine sterilization as well. However, when the company approached the wine industry, its marketing strategy focused on producing “sulphur-free” wines, with catchy phrases claiming that this is the end of hangovers.
Prominent wineries did trials with varying success, with one of the first winemakers that used the machine (and prefers to remain anonymous), stating that lower sulphur levels could be achieved through SurePure, especially in reds.
“Red wine contains a multitude of natural preservatives like tannins, which can protect it against oxidation. We did fairly successful trials with Merlot, but Sauvignon Blanc was a completely different story.”
Because Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t have the same buffering systems than in the case of red wines, it is a lot more vulnerable. Reductive winemaking has become a norm for Sauvignon Blanc and this is impossible without the use of sulphur. Consequently the South African Wine and Spirits Board has rejected certification for Sauvignon blancs produced using the SurePure technology; claiming that the flavour of the wine is not true to the variety.
And what about claims about the end of hangovers? Didn’t the presence of alcohol occur to them? Although this would obviously have escalated SurePure sales if there was conclusive truth to these claims, but I find this pretty silly.
The SurePure system does however have a role to play in the wine industry, as an option for wine sterilisation and stabilisation – just like cross-flow filters and sulphur have roles to play.
Is Brett a bad thing? Mmmm….How long is a piece of string? But as a winemaker you should probably have a decent, well informed opinion about Brettanomyces and what it does in wine. I remember as a student going to classes at the Cape Wine Academy in South Africa. We always decided to sit right in the back of the class, because we believed our vocabulary, especially with regards to adjectives, were not sufficient enough to explain why we loved or hated a wine. (And apart from that, we felt quite intimidated by the glares of our fellow classmates should we not agree with some of them…). Luckily I soon realised that it is okay to have a different opinion, because as for the perception of tannin, consumers differ widely in their sensitivity to aromatic substances. Hence, the reason why people differ in opinion when it comes to their perception of a wine and its quality is because of their genetics and not their vocabulary.
Anyway – we’re on Brett. What is it? Apparently also a “probiotic culture”, which will probably make Nicolas Joly shrivel with anguish. I tasted a very highly recommended fruit infused tea the other day. It smelled like the cow shed (the typical old, wet ones) where I learned how to milk cows when I was little. I reflexively read the back label. It contained five different probiotic cultures of which Dekkera anomalaus was one. And I am sure you probably know this, but Dekkera is the anamorph of Brettanomyces. This would be an example of Brett gone badly. Way too much of the pencil shaving, spicy, wet cow yard, funny farmyard, funky, damp hamster cage nuances that can be absorbed and smiled upon by this wine addict.
Five species of Brett are associated with wine, of which B. Bruxellensis is most common. The reason for growth in wine mediums include poor SO2 management (and molecular SO2 influenced directly negatively by a high pH), riper grapes and residual sugars. Too high nitrogen levels in musts (mostly as a function of winemakers who do not regard nitrogen management important) also fuels the action of Brett. What does the spoiled wine taste and smell like? Well, it depends on the aromatic culprit. Three common molecules are responsible for much frustration – 4-ethyl phenol (smells like horse stables, sweatiness, cow yard/barnyard, burnt beans) is the main culprit, IVA or 3-methylbutiric acid (smells rancid, horsy) which is a volatile fatty acid and last, but not least, 4-ethylguiacol (smoky, spicy aromas).
And then, the million dollar question: Can it add to complexity in a wine? I believe yes, particularly if the spicy, smoky 4-EP is present. There is however, opposing opinions amongst scientists and winemakers. Some icon wines have been associated with Bretty nuances. Beaucastel, Henschke, Jaboulet’s La Chapelle and even Penfold’s Grange come to mind and interestingly enough, it is postulated that cultivars such as Shiraz and Mourvedre have more phenolic precursors, thus making it more likely to show Bretty characteristics.
I guess in the end, you should probably ask yourself what you get from Brett, how much of it and how, and whether it contribute to the wine’s typicity and quality.
And ultimately measure your sales, just to make sure you got it right…