. Vite Vinifera De Vino's Blog: April 2010

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Instruction Manual

Understanding wine is not limited to being able to provide a description of it. Understanding a wine also means knowing how to drink it. And no, knowing how to put the glass to your lips is not enough.

In my previous post I talked about trade tastings, where a taster can try many different wines; today, I'd like to focus specifically on studying a single bottle. It's very important, I believe, to continue learning about the things you care for. With wine, going deeper and learning more means profoundly understanding a particular juice, which requires a lot of time, drinking many different bottles of the same stuff. Now, let's say you're getting a bottle (probably from your trusted store!) that you've never had before, and you walk out without any instruction on how to drink it. What would happen? Often, people don't know what to do - sometimes even I don't know, if it's a bottle I've never had before. That is when I sit back and I let the wine talk to me; I literally let it "open up" to me.

For example: there is a winery in California called Coturri. They are certified organic, and their wines have the lowest allowable concentration of sulfates. Every time you open a bottle of theirs, it's a journey, and I love to try them time and again. After several different tastes, I have come to believe that the Coturris work with oxidation: sulfates are antioxidants, so a low sulfate content will not protect a wine from oxidizing. That said, a winemaker might as well use that process in his or her favor. This can have some interesting results. When you open a bottle, sometimes it will smell... you might even think it's bad. Obviously, I had this very experience. So the first thing I did was try to understand if the wine was dead or alive - I poured half a finger in a crystal glass and smelled it, set a benchmark and waited few minutes. Then, I smelled it again and noticed that the wine was losing its initial, unpleasant funk and was coming together. It was alive!!!

After that, I periodically tried it in small sips from fresh pours until it seemed ready. And when it was, I poured myself a glass and sipped, and began my analysis of the juice. Oxygen interacts with wine, developing it until it reaches a peak, and then through its subsequent decay. At the beginning, I poured only a small quantity because I wanted to have more air in contact with less wine. This technique accelerates the process of oxidation, like decanting. When I felt the wine was ready, I wanted to slow that process, so I could have time to understand what was happening in the bottle itself. By the end of that experience, I had learned that this particular wine was not a wine to drink immediately; it needs time and patience, so I refrain from recommending it for any occasion where time is short. I also make sure to mention that it can age in the bottle for at least another decade or more. After few hours that wine had lost all of its oxidation flavors and it was simply delicious.

I purposely didn't mention which of the Coturri wines was the star of that story. Here's why: I have found that a winery's style is reflected in different degrees, depending on the bottle. To some extent, all of the Coturri wines will act like the one I had (I confirmed that intuition later, by opening all of their wines). But some may not take so long - others may take even longer. I don't want to tell you that you'll have the exact same experience that I had, because you may not; the specifics vary from bottle to bottle. The goal in fact is not just to detect and expose flavors to your friends, or to know a wine dead-on before you open it. The goal is to develop the ability to choose the right wine for the right occasion and to know what to do with it. That skill will dramatically change the emotions you'll feel and improve the overall experience of your meals, or whatever situation in which you've chosen to enjoy your wine. Then, you can transfer your knowledge to your wine friends, and they can do the same for you. You'll save time and money in the process of becoming informed winos.

One bottle is never enough. If you find a wine you love, you should try it over and over, especially at the beginning of the journey. After years of experience, you'll have enough know-how to understand or at least have an idea of what to do even before opening a bottle. Your brain will be trained to remember better and to categorize the wine so that you'll be able to choose more deftly. Knowing more also make you more confident. You'll believe in your intuitions and surprise your friends and yourself by choosing wines you've never had before, but already having an idea of what they will be like. In this process, learning one bottle of wine will provide you with a knowledge base for countless other bottles - an invaluable category of information.

I'll finish today with a short anecdote about wine confidence, and how it can truly guide you to new and exciting choices. I trust my wine intuitions often when I'm out with my girlfriend Susan; she is very passionate about food and wine, her palate is refined and challenging and even though she could easily pick a wine, she often asks me to do it. She made me think about being more specific in the way I choose wine from a list in a restaurant; several times after I'd made my selection, she would ask if I knew the wine. If I answered "no," she would ask what made me choose that particular bottle. I've always had to think about the answer, and at least at the beginning I wasn't able to put it into words... I was following a system but I didn't really know I had one. Having been coerced to think about it, I was inspired to write this post, through which I am finally able to provide an answer. I look at the list with confidence: if I see the selection is well thought-out, then I trust the palate behind the list, and my confidence increases. Then, if I know the wines from that region are good, and I am curious to try a new producer who I know to be very capable, again, my level of confidence rises, and ultimately, using my own intuition and shared information, I choose a wine I've never had before, and am often pleased with the results, and the subsequent journey.

I hope that in the future, sharing this kind of information will be the main focus of wine publication as well. I also think it would be very useful if wineries themselves wrote suggestions for how to enjoy their wines on their back labels. Until that happens, the helm of the ship on your wine journey belongs solely to you - navigate well, and the journey will be unforgettable.

Buona Bevuta a Tutti

Friday, April 09, 2010

Quick Sips

If you read my previous post and found some truth in it, you may be looking for a new approach to the wine world. This particular world is not made of absolutes, there is no mathematical certainty. Even if you are able to retain untold volumes of wine statistics, the numbers and figures are bound to change every single year.

So - how can we value a wine? A good start, I feel, is to create a sort of template that will put 'apples with apples and oranges with oranges,' so to speak. There are many different ways to taste and drink wine; in trade tastings or blind tastings, with food or without it, vertically or horizontally (no, that has nothing to do with body orientation... verticals are when you taste different vintages of the same wine from the same producer, and horizontals involve only one vintage), all these different ways will allow you to see and appreciate wine from different angles and prospective. Today, I'm going to stick to an analysis of trade tasting.

When I'm tasting professionally, I'll have maybe two sips of each individual wine, and often I don't actually drink it - I spit it. All professionals have their own specific objectives at trade tastings. My goals are few and simple: I'm either trying new wines, or new vintages of wines I already know. In both cases, my limited tasting time forces me to taste the wine without context (trade tastings are often packed with people, and it is common to feel rushed). Instead, I make a summary judgment either on the differences from previous vintages, or the basic objective value of the wines (if I haven't tried them before).

When I attend these tastings, my sole objective is to find wine that eventually I will buy for De-Vino. That action is comparable to being a critic, with one main difference: I do not primarily use my own personal taste. I buy based on more objective parameters; overall quality, observable elements of the bouquet, palate and finish (regardless of the style), balance, and acidity. Independent of my individual taste, I believe those criteria to be sturdy and thorough in the general assessment of a wine. There are, of course, more detailed parameters applied for specific kinds of wines; for instance, reds require a judgment regarding tannins, and in champagne, the finesse of the "perlage" must be taken into account. Provenance, the size of the winery and price are also key factors. A wine can be spectacular, but horribly outpriced for the market.

These points will work for any style of wine, and I think they are just about as objective as they can be, especially in a field where personal taste is so highly prized. In this particular kind of tasting, whether or not I like a wine isn't as important as whether or not I believe my customers will like that same wine, keeping in mind, we may not have similar tastes. Sometimes I feel as though trade tasting is like speed dating; but, instead of meeting women, I meet wines.

I don't mean to make it seem as though professional tasting is impersonal and menial. It's not. Going to big tastings lets you asses a flavor and style profile; modern, traditional, fruity, dry, full, light, floral, astringent, velvety... you can develop a vocabulary to match the sensations you get from the wines. It is also a good way for non-professional palates to create flavor memories. Part of my own education consisted of going to trade tastings with wine experts. Often, the producer himself (or herself!) will be pouring the wines, so just listening to the conversations between producers and experts can be a great resource. You'll learn about tannins, acidity, wood, mold, yeast, sugar, flavors and countless other elements of the winemaking and tasting process. That said, listening should always be a big part of the process. It certainly has been for me, from listening to my parents talking about wine at dinner as a kid, up to now, listening to the wine itself. If you're just starting out, don't worry if most of what is said doesn't mean anything to you. Consider, perhaps, that you are accumulating dots that only time and experience can connect. With patience, every piece of the puzzle will come together.

Trade tastings are a great resource. It's like scratching the tip of the iceberg - it's a great way to broadly taste numerous wines and help you increase your flavor data base, learn terminology and vinification techniques from the people of the trade. But! It will not give you the value of emotion, because you are tasting wine without context, and thereby without the mechanism required appreciate the more subtle complexities it may have to offer.

In the next few posts I will keep on analyze different ways to taste and appreciate wine, hopefully giving you more dots that than we can try to connect together. So for now and until next time...

...Buona Bevuta a Tutti