Recently, I was in a conversation with a Burgundy wine producer whose wines I admire very much. I teased him about how reluctant Burgundians are to acknowledge somewhere on a wine label that a Bourgogne rouge is Pinot Noir (and possibly Gamay) and that a Bourgogne blanc is Chardonnay.
”Would it kill you to add this information somewhere on the label?” I asked.
”Actually, it would,” he replied, in all seriousness. “It would be the death of French wine civilization.”
For once in my life I was speechless. I mean, here we are in the 21st century, where communication is paramount, and you’ve got the equivalent of an aboriginal wine tribe still sending smoke signals.
What is it about wine that makes so many otherwise intelligent, interesting and ambitious people cling to habits and patterns that simply no longer work? To paraphrase from the best-selling business book, here are “The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Wine People.”
Chinese checkers is a board game that can be played by two, three, four, or six people, playing individually or with partners. The objective is to be first to race one’s pieces across the hexagram-shaped gameboard into the “home” section, which is the corner of the star opposite one’s starting corner, using single-step moves or moves which jump over other pieces. Others keep playing to establish 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and last place finishers.
Now what on earth does a board game have to do with wine, or anything remotely associated with wine, except for the fact that in some cases the two might go hand in hand… wine and games that is… Well, nothing really, except for the fact that predicting the style and quality of a wine as a result of the fruit and oenological processes, remains one of the most important and difficult parts of a viticulturist and winemaker’s job and is sometimes more luck than wisdom (This was confirmed by a very interesting sensorial lecture by Professor Heyman of UC Davis a few days ago).
Imagine having a tool in the laboratory which helps you to assess the maturity kinetics of your vineyards and its fruit profile helps you to optimize the picking date according to the desired wine profile and finally, helps you to create more consistent wine profile results, year after year, with multiple vineyards or blocks of the same cultivar.
The technology, called the Dyostem system (Berry Maturity Analyses system), to measure berry skin colour has been developed by Vivelys Society (France) and Montpellier SupAgro (France) a while ago and is currently being assessed commercially in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. According to Professor Alain Deloire of the University of Stellenbosch, the method uses the evolution of the berry colour by applying optical techniques, as an indicator of berry ripening, which of course relate to the wine’s aromatic profile. In short: The average colour of the berries “predicts” the wine style as a result of the ripeness level of the fruit.
The term “optimal ripeness” is such an important, yet complex term that not even scientists can agree fully on a definition or all the complexities that it entails. Yet, the significance of “optimal ripeness” is reflected not only in the development of technologies like the Dyostem system and formal sensory techniques (BSA or Grape Berry Assessment), but also in the jargon used by winemakers when presenting wine tastings or trying to flog a few bottles to a restaurant.
Winemakers agree to the fact that “optimal ripeness” bares direct relation to the style of the required wine, which in turn is dictated by market or by the objective to produce a wine that reflect the expression of a typical terroir related profile. The classical indicators of “ripeness level” include sugar level or potential alcohol, natural acids (particularly malic and tartaric) and pH and of course various and diverse methods of spectral analyses to give us some insight into the colour ripeness and tannin or “mouth feel” ripeness. All these parameters strongly relate to the perception of the taste of the wine.
In lectures to students, when asked the question “but when exactly do you decide when to harvest?” of course I cannot give them a straight and simple answer. I do however think back to Christopher Walken’s answer to his daughter’s question “what should I do Dad?” in the movie the “Wedding Crashers”: “The best you can do is to use all information at hand to make the best possible decision.”
Dyostem I have never had the privilege to work with, but when it reaches the point where it does exactly what it was designed for, I am getting myself one of those…or like Orange winemaker Justin Jarrett said “I can walk down the rows of my vineyard and taste fruit and get it right, or hope I get it right… but I guess if I get it wrong, I’ll get it really wrong. This way you have some science to the process of determining picking times based on the flavours you want…”
Phenolic compounds affect several sensory components of wine, including red wine color, astringency, bitterness, and olfactory profile. Though present at low levels, their concentrations are a primary factor in the differences between wine types and styles. They are also important oxygen reservoirs and substrates for browning reactions.Their concentrations are largely due to processing considerations (for example, flavonoid content increases with increased skin contact time and temperature).
The basic phenol structure is carbolic acid (also known as hydroxybenzene; C6H5OH). Several hundred different phenolic compounds are naturally occurring in grapes, divided into two basic groups referred to as nonflavonoid and flavonoid phenols.
Nonflavonoid Phenols – The phenol content of grape juice is primarily nonflavonoid. For white varietals, nonflavonoids represent the overwhelming majority of finished wines’ phenol content as well. This is due to the fact that the majority of nonflavonoid phenols are sourced naturally from grape pulp: hydoxycinnamate derivatives present as free acids, ethyl esters, and tartrate-glucose esters. Nonflavonoid phenols levels are largely effected by fermentation; up to 20% of total nonflavonoids are absorbed by yeast, and many are hydrolized to free acid and ester forms including free cinnamic acids and ethyl phenols. Phenols arising from oak maturation are primarily hydrolizable nonflavonoids such as vanillin (oak influence on phenol content will be discussed in a following post).
Most nonflavonoids are present below their sensory threshold, though collectively they can have an impact on bitterness and astringency. Some nonflavonoids are also indicators of spoilage; for example, 4-ethyl phenol can be used as an indicator of Brettanomyces.
Flavonoid Phenols -Flavonoids have much more impact on a wine’s structure and color compared to nonflavonoids. They are found in skins, seeds, and stems of both white and red grapes; they represent 25% of total phenol content in white varietals made without skin contact, and represent 80-90% of total phenol content in red wines produced in a traditional manner. Flavonoids can exist in monomeric forms, or polymerized to other flavonoids, nonflavonoids, sugars, or a combination of these. Polymeric flavonoids make up the majority of total phenolics found in all stages of red winemaking; further polymerization yields flavenoid polyphenolic compounds (tannins and condensed tannins).
Catechins account for the majority of white wine flavonoid content (particularly those produced without skin contact), and up to 14% of total red wine phenol content. These are flavon-3-ols; catechins are negatively charged, while epicatechins are positively charged. Catechins and epicatechins are the precursors for browning and bitterness in both white and red wines. They polymerize to create procyanidins (condensed tannins).
Luecoanthocyanidins and luecoanthocyanins serve as precursors to larger polymeric forms (anthocyanins, which will be discussed in a following post). These compounds are very closely related to catechins; luecoanthocyanidins have an additional hydroxyl group, and luecoanythocyanins have an attached sugar molecule. These compounds have minimal effect on a wine’s bitterness, less than flavonols.
Flavonols are primarily found in grape skins, thus their concentrations in wines produced without skin contact are minimal or nonexistent. Quercitin commonly represents the majority of a wine’s flavonol content, though kaempforol and myricetin are also found in significant concentrations. These compounds have some effect on a wine’s bitterness.
There’s little need for me to rehash the back-and-forth in the wine media regarding alcohol levels: in short, the wheel has turned and we are back in the 1980s when it was fashionable to criticize California wine for having high alcohol.
Here we are again. The difference this time around is that there is a hard number on the lips of the critical: 14%. The narrative being pedaled suggests that wines over this level generally are problematic, inferior, out-of-balance, not true-to-type, lacking: terroir, focus, complexity precision, nuance, etc.
And I’ve commented here and elsewhere that I have noted zero interest in the topic among the visitors to our Tasting Salon. But the “over 14% sucks” meme has a life of its own, it’s out there, it won’t die; sort of like “the President is a foreign-born Muslim.”
Because of this persistent media attention, I figured that it was bound to happen—sooner or later—that one of my guests was going to comment on the “high” alcohol levels on the labels of my wines.
It happened like this. Three nice people came in and tasted through the five wines I had on offer: three Pinots, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style blend and last, a varietal Syrah. They seemed to be enjoying them. After the Syrah one of the guests asked “What’s the alcohol on these wines?” I answered “between 14.5% and 14.9%” and a couple of them started muttering “oh, that’s high—so-and-so won’t drink it.”
I politely asked them if they could have guessed that the wines had alcohols approaching 15% without being told, and each of them admitted “no” they couldn’t have. One commented that “…these wines don’t taste hot.” I explained that ethanol doesn’t really taste hot, but that other alcohols do—propanols, butanols, pentanols, etc. and their esters and oxidation products, collectively called congeners in the distillation biz.
These fermentation products are more likely to be produced by yeast under stress, and high initial sugar as well as high final ethanol concentrations are potent stressors, as are nutrient and co-factor deficiencies. In my winemaking I go out of my way to minimize the stresses on yeast (though not so far as to throw diammonium phosphate—DAP, a source of ammonia—at every ferment) and so the levels of these congeners are low in my finished wines. No “heat” on the palate.
I further explained that in fact few of my wines finish fermentation much over 13.5%-14% but they pick up as much as 1%-1.5% during barrel aging. This is because we have a dry barrel cellar. Inside the barrel there is 86% water and 14% alcohol, while outside there is an average of 30% water and 0% alcohol. To a first approximation, the thermodynamic drive for water to leave the barrel is over 3x what it is for alcohol, and so over the course of 2+ years aging in barrel the alcohol level of the wine inside actually goes up.
A wine made from grapes harvested at “optimal” ripeness and put to barrel at 13.5%, in our cellar may well end up near 15% when it is ready to go to bottle. This is not the same as harvesting the grapes over-ripe. Not only do these wines not taste hot, they don’t taste raisined.
Anyway, the offshoot was that these folks bought a case of wine, and intended to put some of in front of their “I won’t drink any wine over 14% because wine over 14% all tastes the same” friends and see what they think. Awesome.
John Kelly is the owner and winemaker of Westwood Wines, Sonoma California. This blog was originally published on his blog: “notes from the winemaker” on the 3rd of January 2012 at 14h52 to be precise.