Sunday, February 26, 2012

BRAMBLES: Mid-Winter Faults

Warm temps locally force blooming cover crops
Out of Balance. Typically, wines that are 'out of balance' have at least one compositional fault, sometimes more. With the upcoming Society of Wine Educators Wine Educator exam around the corner, I know that part of the test will be on the blind identification of numerous wine faults. Outside here there is bright sunshine, unseasonably warm temperatures, and an extended forecast that's mostly sunny.  This being mid-winter in the mid-upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere, the purposely tainted wines that I practice with are not the only thing seemingly out of balance.

Extended forecasts here in wine country predict day time temperatures above 60 degrees and little if any rain on the horizon.  Sonoma County will see about 30" of rainfall in an average year, most of it irrigating our vineyards in the December thru February months.  Season(July 1 to June 30) to date rainfall this year has been just barely around 11 inches, with most of it falling in a five(5) day period mid-January. Here at home, the last three sunny days have not been below 75 degrees, setting historical records. Most seasons we get about 5" of rain fall in February, but not this season.  We will be fortunate here to do better than 1.0 inch total rainfall for this entire month.  Because this is the dormant season for grapevines when they absorb most of the sustainable water they need, local vineyards have been tapping local water supplies and irrigating. And with the arrival of Spring, and its welcomed bud-break weeks away, there are sure to be watchful growers and even more water local river/reservoir usage misting potential frost damage.
Northern Latitude mid-winter pruning of vines

Out of Balance, too, are wines that have one or more faults, or a problem with their composition.  These maladies can appear as off aromas or unappealing taste(s) in the tasters glass. Because wine is a result of chemical changes in grape juice, the precise control of these changing element levels can keep a wine in balance. However, cooked wines(lifeless or stewed) which often have been overheated or TCA 'corked' wines(aromas of wet cardboard) can be unknowingly served to the willing consumer. Of the many challenges to making good wine, there are a number chemical in-balances that remain prominent.

  • Acetaldehyde is the result of oxidized ethanol(alcohol), and creates a straw-like, almost acrid character that may increase a wines complexity while keeping it unbalanced.
  • Brettanomyces(Brett) which produces unpleasant aromas of barnyard or wet dog is the result of yeast spoilage.
  • Mercaptans(Ethyl Mercaptan), is sulphur related, producing the malodorous scent of rotting onions, stewed cabbage or skunk.
  • Fruitless and worn-out, Oxidized wines have interacted with too much air, becoming madeirised or sherry-like.
  • Sulphur(SO2), the wine-making preservative, can be guilty of producing volatile aromas & flavors of burnt rubber or burnt matches. Another sulphur compound, Hydrogen Sulfide(H2S) has the odor of rotten eggs. A small amount of sulfites are produced during the natural course of fermentation.
    Brett can smell like wet dog in the wine glass
  • Volatile Acidity(VA) is vinegar-like at its worst, but mostly displayed as the result of the overproduction(higher levels) of acetic acid or ethyl acetate(a common ester), reminding most of us of nail polish remover.
Wines that are too alcoholic, or hot to the palate, can also be out of balance. Some hot growing varieties, like Grenache, or uneven ripening grapes like Zinfandel can be prone to this trait, but may not result in a wine that is out of balance. Herbaceous aromas rising from a wine glass can often evoke a scent of green veggies or herbs like oregano. Not altogether unpleasant, these olfactory impressions such as those of asparagus or green grass aromas in Sauvignon Blanc, may not necessarily push a wine out of its natural balance. But, when present in compositional excess these elements could be considered a fault.
Over sulfured wines are a common fault
Tannins are a natural and necessary part of a wines structure, but when presented in excess can produce a perceived fault in the wine.This compound offers complexity and a fuller body to most wines, and that is a good thing. Alcohol, too, is a needed part of any wine, as it is a byproduct of yeasts feeding on grape sugars. But this basic element can be offered in excess.  When it is perceived as such, the wine will be considered out of balance. Other undesirable traits may be unsightly compounds such as sediment or tartaric crystals suspended in the wine.  As these are a natural by-product of winemaking and generally benign; they may be unsightly but are usually not considered a fault that causes a wine to go out of balance.

Fermentation odors that result from wines biochemical process are obviously quite natural, however, when they are poured out of the bottle they are undesirable. Likewise, CO2, or carbon dioxide, the naturally occurring chemical compound that is a byproduct of fermentation is necessary.  When it remains in the bottle of a non-sparkling wine it is described as effervescence or carbonation and may be a non-intended fault in the wine.  There are some traditional 'intended' examples of this trait, such as the Vinho Verde wines of Portugal.
It is true that we do not all taste things the same, in fact it has been estimated that about 10% of the population are super-tasters. But across the range of our unique olfactory perceptions we can individually find characteristics that are unpleasant or do not seem to be appealing. Next week during the Societies exam, seven(7) glasses of the same wine will be displayed to each applicant. One of those wines will match the control sample, but the other six(6) will have a wine fault and need to be identified correctly.  With the extended forecast here predicting rain on the test day, perhaps this aspiring wine educator in wine country will be seeing a positive return from being just a little out of balance!


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

WINE STUDY: Grape Characteristics (3)

Appearance, aromatics and flavor characteristics of any wine are assessed by each candidate of the upcoming Wine Educators Certification exam. By virtue of this process, tasters will be challenged to identify the dominant grape varietal of the wine, and in a separate exam, any of its potentially numerous faults that cause a wine to be out of balance.  As our exploration of global grape varieties continues, we arrive at a place where the grape names are not as familiar, but remain a principally important commodity not only to their individual international localities, but also to any aspiring wine educator. Fortunately for domestic consumers, these varieties can represent some of the greatest quality to price values on the broad, sometimes obscure, wine planet. Let's raise our glasses to some of the role players.

Pinot Blanc(Pinot Bianco, Weissburgunder) offers fruity aromas of apple, citrus and flowers while being typically medium to full bodied.  It's character is not unlike Chardonnay, which is understandable as they are both have history in Burgundy and may be genetic mutations of the same variety: Pinot Noir. Full bodied examples can be found most notably in Alsace and northern Italy, whereas in Germany or Austria the grape is shown as a medium bodied varietal where it can be found in stylings that are either dry or slightly sweet.
Semillon, easily cultivated and of prolific yields,  is a white grape distinguished by being modestly low in acid for such an early ripening variety.  Although easily sunburned, this thin skinned grape of almost oily texture is typically susceptible to Bortrytis cineria or noble rot fungus, and thus a principal partner in some of the world's greatest sweet wines. It can't be a Sauternes or a Barsac without Semillion in the blend. When grown as representative, this rich grape variety can show mineral elements, with rich and complex flavor notes of citrus, stone fruits and apples. Today, there are some terrific examples of the unique character of this grape in balance with Australia's Chardonnay.
Noble Rot fungus

Torrantes is an aromatic grape variety that typically is floral-citrus in its aroma, and is the principal white wine grape of long-isolated Argentina. On the palate it tends to be bright and crisp with good acid, flavor notes of flowers, stone fruit(like peach, apricot) and citrus. This perfumed variety can offer tropical fruit and distinctive kumquat flavors, and is a good foil for the regions staple chimichurri sauces. Today, most quality Torrantes wines are value priced and becoming more widely available throughout our marketplace 
Trebbiano(Ugni Blanc) is among the most widely planted wine grapes in the world! This high yield grape is generally undistinguished, but offers usually high acid to carry its fresh fruit flavors. Such 'fresh' characteristics allow Trebbiano to be very popular in its native Italy where it is broadly planted, and is principally important in the production of French distilled Cognac, Armagnac and even industrial alcohols. With its tough skins, it is easy to grow, and can offer subtle citrus and apple aromas/flavors, and finds itself typically blended with other white grape varieties.
Serralunga de Alba, Piedmont, Italy

Barbera is widely planted in its native Piedmont region of hilly northern Italy, where it grows vigorously, offering opaque skinned grapes of relatively low acidity. In its youth, it can be intensely aromatic, offering a nose of red and black berries. As it matures losing its freshness, the flavor notes become more of stewed or pruned vine fruits with the oak spice of its barreling becoming increasingly prominent.As the most widely planted and consumed grape of its native region, it is a terrific food wine for regional cuisine.
Gamay, an old cultivar in its native eastern France, is a purplish low tannin grape with naturally high acidity and typically high yields. Grown in the right soils, it can become very Pinot-like in the best growing years. Outlawed in Burgundy in 1395, it continued to prosper to the south in Beaujolais, as well as in the Loire Valley prior to becoming a world traveler. As an early ripen-er, the best of it today produces lighter, fruity wines with bright aromas of sour cherries, strawberry and even banana. On the palate, flavors of raspberry, dried berry and orange peel can be balanced with a hint of chalk, and rarely a dominant trace of oak.
Post-veraison Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo, may take its name for the Piedmont term for fog, 'nebbia'. In its youth, this high extract dark variety can produce light wines that are heavily tannic.  In fact this aromatic and structured native, with its aromas of tar, truffles and violets, is among the most tannic of all grape varieties.  It necessitates years of aging to expose its charms; offering herbal and woodsy notes of high acid red raspberry, ripe prunes and bitter chocolate. Generally producing wines of higher alcohol, this is one of the few of the world's noble varieties that has not successfully gone international.
Tempranillo (Cencibel, Tinta Roriz) has the distinction of being the Spanish 'noble' grape, getting its name from 'temprano', as in early to ripen. Here too, is another important grape that has not traveled auspiciously with any of the achievements it earns in its native vineyards. Across northern Spain it produces early ripening, thick skinned dark clusters that offer a woodsy and dusty character.  It can be 'fruit challenged' in the bottle, offering lean aromas of cherries, strawberries, leather, and road dust. Typically bush trained, it is a moderately tannic high pigment grape variety that also happens to be low in acid. As a result, its best examples tend to be blended with brighter varieties, producing more faint berry notes as well as increasingly earthy with advancing age.

Any of these or other grape varieties will stand ceremoniously in front of the aspiring wine educator on a placemat field of white paper. The best of these applicants will successfully identify principal grape varieties and major production regions using deductive reasoning from all the wine grape knowledge they have accumulated. They will ask themselves why that wine sample is not a Barolo from the Nebbiolo grape, but rather a Syrah. Or perhaps they will deduce that the white wine sample is a Sauvignon Blanc and not a Torrantes from the Salta region. In a separate testing, altered faults and imbalances of the same wine must be identified from the eight(8) similar wines that are displayed in front of them. An ability to recognize concentrated traits of sulfur dioxide or excessive tannin will serve the aspiring wine educator well in this portion of the faults exam. Only one sample in this field, however, will match the control sample, but which one?  For the successful student such questions will have the foundations of their answers in dedicated wine study. It probably doesn't hurt to also know as many grape variety characteristics as possible.

"Best while you have it to use your breath,
  for there is no drinking after death"