Sunday, March 31, 2024

Where Did the Prohibitionists Go?

Spoiler alert: Not far.

If you have visited your doctor recently, you may have gotten a new advice about drinking; that is, no amount of alcohol is safe.

Wait, what?! What happened to doing all things in moderation or the Mediterranean diet?

Mediterranean diet by Kamil Kalbarczyk on Unsplash

But before that, let’s delve into the history of wine and prohibitionism.

When Wine Was Good

It is believed that wine has been a part of the human civilization since the Neolithic Period (Late Stone Age). There were evidence of winemaking and grape storage from the Caucasus to the Zagros Mountains as far back as 6000 BCE. By 3500 BCE, the first wine trade started in the Mesopotamia, and wine consumption expanded to Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

The Bible also records the partaking of wine, which was often associated with celebrations. Noah was notably the first winemaker in the Old Testament. After the great flood, he cultivated a vineyard, made wine, and even got drunk. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. In today’s church, Christians partake the sacraments of bread and wine during Eucharist, although some denominations have substituted wine with non-alcoholic grape juice.

Eucharist by James Coleman on Unsplash

The appeal of wine to early human civilizations is two-fold: First, it removed inhibition and alleviated the stress of day-to-day living in a world sans the safety and creature comforts that we enjoy today. Second, alcohol held medicinal value as a natural antiseptic for tending wounds and certain ailments. Moreover, the lack of proper sanitation in the old days made wine the safer beverage of choice than water.

From Moderation to Prohibition

Fast forward to the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution brought forth huge manufacturing facilities with heavy machinery. Sobriety in the workforce became important to ensure workplace safety. The distribution of wealth started to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. By the 19th Century, excessive alcohol consumption, especially among the working class, became a social problem. Alcohol abuse was also linked to disease and death. This led to the early temperance movement, that consisted mostly of middle class church goers, urging moderation in alcohol consumption.

 Spilled Wine by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

Over time, the temperance movement became more radical and political, advocating for legal prohibition of alcohol consumption. In 1838, Massachusetts set the precedent by banning certain sales of spirits. Over the next few decades, other states started enforcing prohibition as well. By 1920, the Prohibition Era began at the federal level with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the National Prohibition Act. The legislation banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors.

Unintended Consequences

Enforcing the Prohibition proved to be challenging. Following an initial decline in alcohol consumption, illegal production and sale of liquor began to rise as people sought alcohol in the black market. Speakeasies flourished and multiplied, fueled by the consumer culture and social revolution of the Roaring ’20s.

The high demand of bootleg alcohol also meant that quality access was limited to the upper and middle classes. The working class was left with cheap moonshine that, when tainted with toxins, took away thousands of lives every year. Gang violence and organized crime associated with illegal bootlegging skyrocketed, and the support for the Prohibition began to diminish.

Roaring ’20s by Phil Robson on Unsplash

In 1929, the stock market bubble started to burst, plunging the country into the Great Depression. The costs associated with enforcing the Prohibition could not be sustained. On the contrary, legalizing the liquor industry had an economic appeal of creating new jobs and sources of revenue. By 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified to end the Prohibition. While a handful of states continued to prohibit alcohol thereafter, these too removed the ban by 1966.

What About Now?

Since the end of the Prohibition Era, the temperance movement kept a relatively low profile. It generally focused its effort on communicating research findings on alcohol and health. While that might seem innocuous, the wine industry was taken by surprise when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared in 2023 that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. This is in contradiction to its prior claim that drinking in moderation has health benefits.

WHO’s published “Reporting about alcohol: guide for journalists” was heavily critiqued as half of its contributors came from temperance groups, such as Movendi International, NCD Alliance as well as the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance and its regional subsidiaries. In fact, these temperance groups have been partnering with WHO since the 2018 launch of the SAFER initiative, which seeks to reduce alcohol-related harms.

The most impactful research around alcohol and health to date is the one led by John Hopkins biologist Raymond Pearl in 1926. Pearl observed the famous J-curve, which suggested that alcohol has a protective effect on cardiovascular health when consumed in moderate amount. This amount translated to no more than one drink for women or two drinks for men per day. While subsequent studies mostly supported the J-curve and a few claimed to “debunk” it, no scientific consensus has been reached.

My Verdict: Obviously, one has to make one’s choice regarding alcohol consumption. For me, the long history of wine association with celebrations and medicinal value far outweighs the relatively brief and recent anti-alcohol sentiments of the temperance movement. While I don’t support alcohol abuse, I certainly believe that life is more than disease prevention. On that note, let me raise my glass to your good health. Santé!

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Surely, This Wine is Aged Sur Lie

Have you had a white wine or a sparkling wine and thought to yourself, This is a bread bomb!

It smells yeasty and lands on your palate like a liquified brioche - bready and nutty with a creamy mouth feel. If so, there is every chance that the wine you just had has been aged sur lie

Bread by Anton on Unsplash

The Lie in Sur Lie

Sur lie (pronounced sewr-h lee) is French for “on lees.” Lees are basically solid remnants from the winemaking process. There are generally two kinds of lees - gross lees and fine lees. Gross lees are mostly made up of grape debris. They are larger and tend to settle easily to the bottom of the wine. Fine lees refer to the sedimentary residue that consists primarily of dead yeast cells. They are smaller and can be easily stirred into a cloudy swirl before being drawn downwards by gravity.

Gross lees are often removed (or racked off) during the winemaking process. Prolonged contact with gross lees can contribute to off-flavors in wine. The funk may come from decomposing grapes, spoilage organisms, or excess sulfur found on the harvested grapes.

Lees left after racking

Fine lees, on the other hand, bring about desirable texture, flavors, and complexity to the wine. As yeast cells break down, they release mannoproteins, polysaccharides, fatty acids, and amino acids. Together these compounds contribute to the aromas and flavors of brioche, honey, and nut. They also create a buttery creamy mouthfeel while softening the tannins. As a bonus, fine lees are also reductive in nature and protect the wine from oxidation.

Bâtonnage, Stirring Up the Lie

There are two different methods for aging wine on lees: 1) keeping the lees at the bottom of the barrel, or 2) stirring the lees periodically to ensure homogenous and consistent contact with the wine. The latter approach is known as bâtonnage (pronounced bah-too-naj). It is believed that both processes give pretty much the same result with some stylistic differences. See the video on bâtonnage below.

When considering whether to practice bâtonnage, the winemaker has to determine how much lees contact is needed to bring out the desired characteristics in the wine. Major Burgundy house Maison Louis Latour uses little to no bâtonnage on their Chardonnay, believing that the lees-to-wine ratio in the barrel does not always require it. For wineries that choose to practice bâtonnage, they vary in how frequent and how long to stir the lees, walking the fine line between over and under-stirring.

Famous Sur Lie Wines

Sur lie wine aging is believed to date back to the Roman Republic era, as documented by Cato the Elder. In modern winemaking, the two regions famous for aging their wines on lees are Burgundy and Champagne. White grape varieties that benefit from aging on the lees are Chardonnay, Muscadet, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and other crisp white wines with high acidity.

White Burgundy - Made with 100% Chardonnay grapes, white Burgundy is often credited as the originator of sur lie aging in modern winemaking. After harvest, the grapes are pressed, and the juice goes into the barrels without solid grape debris. Alcoholic fermentation starts in the barrels, followed by malolactic fermentation. Since there are no gross lees, the wine does not need to be racked till the next spring. After racking, some amount of lees is retained in the wine for another 10 to 18 months of barrel aging. Bâtonnage is optional.

2022 Maison Castel Chablis, a white Burgundy
Champagne - There are three main grape varieties in a Champagne - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. With the exception of making a rosé Champagne, the harvested grapes are pressed and clarified to obtain a clear juice. The juice then goes into stainless steel vats to start alcoholic fermentation. The use of oak and malolactic fermentation is optional.
NV Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut
When fermentation is complete, the wine is bottled with the addition of liqueur de tirage, which consists of still wine, sugar, and yeast. This starts off a secondary fermentation to create carbonation. Thereafter, the wine goes through sur lie aging in the bottle for a minimum of one year for a non-vintage Champagne and three years for a vintage Champagne. Bâtonnage is non-existent.

Aging on Lees in Barrel vs. Bottle

Wine aged on lees in the barrel benefits from the aroma compounds that are extracted from the oak. These add notes of caramel, vanilla, and spice. Additionally, there is space to maneuver a baton or any long metal tool to stir up the lees if bâtonnage is so desired.

As for aging wine on lees in the bottle, bâtonnage is virtually impossible. Also, there is also the challenge of removing the lees when aging is complete. This is achieved through a process called riddling, where wine bottles with lees are first placed at 35° angle on a wooden rack. The bottles are then gradually shaken and rotated at an increasing angle, with gravity pulling the lees to the lowest part of the bottles. When the bottles are virtually upside down, the lees that have settled in the bottlenecks are then frozen and removed. Voila!

Riddling rack
Now you have learned about a few things about lees - gross versus fine lees, to stir or not to stir lees, to age on lees in a barrel or a bottle. The next time you encounter a yeasty, bready wine, you may proclaim with confidence, “Surely, this wine is aged sur lie!” 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Sparklers for Valentine’s Day and Super Bowl

Since the winter holidays, one doesn’t have to look far for a reason to pop open a bottle of sparkling wine. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, there is yet another occasion for a sparkler. Let’s also not forget that Super Bowl beer bros and Swifties may enjoy some bubblies too. With that, here’s a primer on the different types of sparkling wine and my take on what to drink for the occasion.

Sparkling Wine by Michelle McEwen on Unsplash

From the Rustic Pét-Nat

Let’s start with how sparkling wine came about. Wine is produced from the alcoholic fermentation of grapes or grape juice (called the must). During the process, yeast in the must converts sugar into alcohol and produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. When making a still (as opposed to a sparkling) wine, the yeast will consume virtually all the sugar and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When that happens, fermentation is considered complete. The wine is then racked to remove grape debris and remaining yeast (called the lees) and bottled.

If residual sugar is left in the wine and the lees are not thoroughly removed prior to bottling, then fermentation may continue in the bottle. Carbon dioxide that is released in the process is then trapped in the bottle, resulting in a bubbly. This was probably how sparkling wine was first discovered, and the process is known as the ancestral method or méthode ancestrale. This class of sparkling wine is called pétillant-naturel or pét-nat for short.

I have made pét-nat before, and it is a really fun wine. (My friend in the video was opening a bottle of my pét-nat.) While it may be the father of all sparkling wines, pét-nat has only returned into vogue in recent years. This, not surprisingly, coincides with the natural wine movement. Unconstrained by conventions and rules, the lightly fizzy wine may be made with any grape varieties and may be filtered or not. The main requirement is that the wine is made in a single fermentation that lasts through the bottle. Many pét-nats have playful labels and are sometimes enclosed with a crown cork, like a beer bottle.

Best for Super Bowl party or any casual get-together with pub grub. A little lower in alcohol content (around 10-12% ABV) and with a friendly price point (around $20/bottle), pét-nats may deliver a range of fun and funky flavors depending on the grape variety and the length of lees contact. In fact, many would compare a pét-nat with a craft beer. So drink up, Super Bowl beer bros.

To the Ritzy Champagne

If pét-nat is the wine of the people, then Champagne is the wine of royalty. Besides being made in the region of Champagne, the namesake wine is also highly regulated in terms of grape varieties (primarily Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier), viticulture practice, viniculture method, and the length of maturation on the lees; all of which run contrary to the making of a pét-nat.

Champagne tasting at Möet et Chandon
Unlike pét-nat, Champagne goes through an elaborate winemaking process to deliver a floral, bready, nutty wine with a creamy and full texture, crisp acidity, and a steady stream of bubbles. The steps in making a Champagne, known as méthode Champenoise or méthode traditionalle, include:
  • First alcoholic fermentation: A still wine is first made and bottled.
  • Second (or secondary depending on your perspective) alcoholic fermentation: Add more yeast, sugar, and wine (the mixture is called liqueur de triage) in bottles of still wine.
  • Aging: The bottles are then aged for at least 15 months on the remaining lees.
  • Riddling or remuage: The bottles are placed on special wooden racks called pupitres or the machinery-equivalent at 35° angle and then gradually shaken and rotated in the rack at an increasing angle.
  • Dégorgement: When the bottles are virtually upside down, the remaining lees that have now settled in the bottleneck will then be frozen and removed.
  • Final Touch: The bottles are then topped up with base wine, sucrose, and sulfur dioxide (the mixture is called liqueur d’expédition) to balance and stabilize the wine before being secured with a cork and a wire cage (muselet). The amount of sweetness added is also known as the dosage.
Best for Valentine’s Day or any special occasion. Champagne, the gold standard for sparkling wine, can be a splurge with a starting price of $50/bottle. However, the sparkler is super versatile and can pair with a wide range of cuisine from fried chicken to fresh oysters. But nothing says luxury better than Champagne and caviar.

And Everywhere in Between

Traditional Method, but not Champagne - Do you like a Champagne but not the price? Thankfully, there are many wallet-friendly bubblies available outside of Champagne that are made in the traditional method. These include French crémant, Spanish cava, and sparkling wines all over the world with Traditional or Champagne Method stated on the label.

There are eight French crémant regions, each with its own regulations around grape varieties and style. The same goes to Spanish cava. However, these regulations are less stringent than those in Champagne, allowing the producers to keep the cost down while delivering quality sparklers.

While New World bubbly producers are not restricted in how they make their wine, they tend to go beyond méthode Champenoise. This includes the use of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sometimes Pinot Meunier grapes. Many even follow the Champagne labelling of Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir clear juice) in their offerings.

Best for a Valentine’s Day celebration on a budget or casual brunch. The price range varies, but a bottle of Cava may start with $10/bottle. At that price, you can even use it to make mimosa or Champagne float guilt-free. (Side note - Please do not use real Champagne in your Champagne float.)

Charmat Method - If you remove the labor-intensive steps of second (or secondary) fermentation in the bottle as well as the subsequent riddling and dégorgement, you may end up with the Charmat method. In this method, the liquer de triage is added to still wine in a pressurized tank instead of a bottle. The wine then goes through second fermentation is in the tank for 1 to 6 weeks. After this, the wine is clarified, and dosage is added during bottling.

While commonly known by its French name, the Charmat Method was invented and patented in 1895 by Italian winemaker in Asti named Federico Martinotti. A couple of decades after that, French oenologist Eugène Charmat improved on the process and patented it. In Italy, this process is sometimes known as the Martinotti method.
Prosecco by Lisanne van Elsen on Unsplash
In terms of flavor profile, bubbly made in the Charmat method tends to be more aromatic (mostly due to the grape varieties used) but lacks the nutty, bready, multi-dimensional flavor found in Champagne. As one might expect given its origin, many Italian sparklers are made in the Charmat method; the most famous of which is Prosecco. This low-labor low-cost approach is also adopted around the world. If the label on a New World sparkling wine does not indicate the traditional method, it is probably made using the Charmat method.

Best for Super Bowl party, a casual get-together, or brunch. Starting at a price of less than $10/bottle, sparkling wine made in the Charmat method can be enjoyed as-is or be used to make fun sparkling cocktails. Peach Bellini, my Swiftie friends?

Now that you know about the different types of sparkling wine, what will be your pick for Valentine’s Day or Super Bowl party? I’d love to hear what you think.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Tokaji, a Sweet Finish

If sparkling wine is for ringing in the new year, then dessert wine is for wrapping up the current one. For 2023, my sweet finish of choice is Tokaji. Tokaji is made with grapes that are infected with noble rot. Noble rot is caused by a beneficial fungus, Botrytis cinerea. Famous dessert wines made from botrytized grapes include the French Sauternes and German Trockenbeerenauslese. However, Tokaji is a botrytized wine of another level and is known as the king of wines and the wine of kings. Here are a few things you want to know about Tokaji.

Tokaji by Takato Marui
How do you pronounce Tokaji?

No matter what Google tells you, Tokaji is not pronounced toe-kah-jee. The dragged out pronunciation is toe-kah-yee, but most wine connoisseurs simply shorten it toe-kai

Where is Tokaji from?

Tokaji comes from the Tokaj wine region that is actually shared by two countries; Hungary and Slovakia. In Hungary, the region is called Tokaji borvidék while in Slovakia, it is called Vinohradnícka oblast’ Tokaj.
Licencnazmluvac.87-11-3899/2015	© Igor Vizner 201
Tokaj Wine Region adapted from Igor Vizner’s map
The majority of the wine region, which consists of 28 communes and 5,500 hectares, resides within Hungary. The Slovakian side of the wine region is a fraction of its Hungarian counterpart with 7 communes and over 900 hectares of vineyards. Under the current EU legislation, the name Tokaj (and other variations of the spelling) has been given the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status and may be used by either country. As of March 2007, French and Italian producers who had previously used Tokay or Tocai on their wine labels are no longer allowed to do so.

What kind of grapes go into a Tokaji?

As mentioned, grapes used to make a Tokaji are infected with Botrytis cinerea. The grey fungus infects ripe grapes in misty mornings and punctures the skins. As the temperature rises in the afternoons, water evaporates through the ruptured skin. Over time, the loss of water concentrates the sugar content in the partially raisined grapes.

Noble rot by John Yesberg
As for grape varieties, whether in Hungary or Slovakia, the three main ones are Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Sárgamuskotály (or Yellow Muscat). Furmint is the most dominant grape. Other grapes allowed in a Tokaji are Zéta, Kövészőlő, and Kabar. This is not to be confused with grape varieties that are or were named Tokay or Tocai. In the EU, these grapes are now required to use different names. For instance, Tocai Friulano in Italy is renamed to Sauvignonasse, and Tokay d’Alsace has gone with its international name, Pinot gris.

Are there different types of Tokaji?

Yes, there are different types of Tokaji wine, but the two most famous ones are Aszú and Eszencia.
Aszú means dried in Hungarian. The grapes are individually picked, collected in large vats, and mashed into a paste or aszú dough. Must (unfermented grape juice) or wine is poured on the aszú dough and stirred periodically for 24-48 hours. The juice is then racked (or transferred without the solid debris) into wooden vats to complete fermentation and maturation. 

Tokaji Aszú by Naotake Murayama
What’s new with Aszú? Previously, the sugar content of an aszú was measured in puttonyos, ranging from 3 to 6 puttonyos (or 60 to 150 grams of sugar per liter). Puttonyos were based on the use of 22-23 kg basket of the botrytized grapes, known as a puttony. Since 2013, Hungarian wine law has declassified wines with 3 or 4 puttonyos from the Aszú designation. These are now labeled as Late Harvest. Aszús today are required to have at least 120 grams of sugar per liter, previously known as 5 and 6 puttonyos.

Eszencia, one of the most expensive dessert wines in the world, is made from the free run of aszú grapes after harvest. Free run refers to the juice that is extracted using gravity and the weight of the grapes alone. This juice may be added to aszú wine to ferment or just ferments on its own. Eszencia takes at least four years to ferment into a thick syrupy wine. Called the nectar, Eszencia is enjoyed in small sips using specially made glass spoons. Watch British wine journalist, Jamie Goode, taste different vintages of Eszencia in the YouTube below.

To be classified as an Eszencia, the wine needs to have over 450 grams of sugar per liter. In some years, Eszencia may even exceed 900 grams of sugar per liter. Because of the high sugar content, the alcohol level rarely rises above 5%. Eszencia is known to cellar for 200 years.

Why is Tokaji famous?

Tokaji gained popularity among European royalties since the 18th Century. In 1703, Prince Francis Rákóczi II of Transylvania gifted King Louis XIV of France Tokaji from his estate. During a feast in Versailles where Tokaji was served, the menu read, C’est le roi des vins, et le vin des rois (translated to “It is the king of wines, and the wine of kings). The list of Tokaji fans among monarchs included Louis XV, Napoleon III, Emperor Franz Josef, Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, and others. In fact, prior to the end of World War I, the best Eszencia was not sold but exclusively reserved for the Imperial cellars of the Habsburg monarchy.

King Louis XIV, a Tokaji fan
Tokaji wine was also the among first to be receive appellation classification. Vineyard classification started in 1730 based on soil, sun exposure, and the potential to develop noble rot. In 1757, a closed production district in Tokaj was established. The Tokaji classification predated that of port and even Bordeaux wine.

What is my take on Tokaji?

After enjoying Tokaji in restaurants on several occasions, my husband bought me a bottle of 2017 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú for Christmas. We coravin’ed a serving for each of us, and here are our tasting notes.

2017 Royal Tojaki 5 Puttonyos Aszú 

Remarkably pale amber in color, the Aszú smells of a blend of honeycomb and straw. On the palate, it is Meyer lemon-esque with a tinge of bread crust. It is sweet but not cloyingly so. It is rich, unctuous and well-balanced with high acidity. The finish goes on and on, coating the mouth and delighting the palate.

If there is a wine that provides a sweet finish to a year, this 2017 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú makes a fine choice. If you do see a Tokaji in a restaurant (and it doesn’t come by often), try it. It’s an exceptional sweet finish to a meal too.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Thanksgiving with Saint Joe

I thought I didn’t like Roussanne until I opened a bottle of white Saint-Joseph (pronounced “sahn joe-zef”) over Thanksgiving. Made with 100% Roussanne, the 2020 vintage from Domaine des Pierres-Sèches delighted my palate and changed my mind. It reminded me of the time when I thought I didn’t like Chardonnay, and then I tasted my first white Burgundy.

2020 Domaine des Pierres-Sèches Saint-Joseph Blanc

The same day, my neighbor surprised me with a 2012 red Saint-Joseph from Domaine de Blacieux. It was earthy, spicy, and quite vibrant for its age. As it turned out, both white and red Saint-Josephs made fine pairings for a turkey feast. It seems appropriate to give some love to this Northern Rhône Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) that has been dwarfed by its more famous siblings - Côte Rotie, Hermitage, and Cornas. 

2012 Domaine de Blacieux Saint-Joseph Rouge

So let's talk Saint-Joseph.


It is believed that vines were grown in the Saint-Joseph region during the Roman Empire, as early as 124 BC. By the Middle Ages, the wines were known as Vin de Mauves or Mauves wines. Vin de Mauves were enjoyed by royalties, such as Emperor Charlemagne and King Louis XII. French writer Victor Hugo even mentioned the wine in his masterpiece, Les Misérables.

And Now

Fast forward to 1956, Saint-Joseph received its AOC designation. Today, it is now among over 30 appellations in the Rhône Valley. Located on the west side of the Rhône River, Saint-Joseph is the longest appellation in Northern Rhône, stretching 50 km from north to south. To its north is Condrieu, famous for its exquisite Viognier. To its south is Cornas, known for its powerful age-worthy Syrah.

Northern Rhône Wine Map by DalGobboM at French Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons
Vines and Wines

Three grape varieties are grown in over 1,300 hectares of vineyards within Saint-Joseph. They are Syrah, Roussanne, and Marsanne. The vast majority of the wines produced (about 85%) are red. AOC regulations require that red Saint-Joseph be made with at least 90% Syrah and no more than 10% Roussanne and Marsanne. White Saint-Joseph can be made with any amount of Roussanne and/or Marsanne. 

The vines in Saint-Joseph are mostly grown on east-facing slopes, and the grapes are ripened by the morning sun. The terroirs range from rock formations to limestone and alluvial soils along the Rhône River. The resulting wines tend to be lively with varied expressions depending on the soil from which the grapes grew. Red Saint-Joseph tends to be meaty and spicy with more vibrancy than its more famous Rhône counterparts. White Saint-Joseph is rich and floral with lively acidity to balance it out. 

Here are my tasting notes from the two Saint-Josephs:

2020 Domaine des Pierres-Sèches Saint-Joseph Blanc
A lovely deep gold and almost amber hue, the wine was aromatic with honeysuckle and jasmine. The palate was rich, silky, and pleasing with honey and a tinge of herb, all balanced with a nice acidity. The finish was long and lingering. It was the first Roussanne that turned my head.

2012 Domaine de Blacieux Saint-Joseph Rouge
Deep brick red, the nose on the wine was earthy, funky, leathery, and reminiscent of an old Cornas that I once had. On the palate, it was tart cherry and spice. Its body was medium to light with high acidity and refined tannins. For a 2012 vintage, it was surprisingly vibrant. The finish was brief but pleasant.

Thanksgiving by Pro Church Media on Unsplash
My Verdict: There were a few firsts for me this Thanksgiving - my first Saint-Josephs, both white and red; and the first Roussanne that I loved. I was also pleasantly surprised by how well both wines paired with our Thanksgiving meal. Both have a nice acidity to cut the richness of the gravy galore as well as the herb and spice undertones to complement with the turkey and stuffing. It was a nice change of pace from the usual Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Riesling rotation. Try it some time and let me know what you think.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Talk Fermentation Like a Wine Pro

A few weekends ago, my girlfriends and I went wine tasting in a touristy town outside of Seattle. As I was going over the tech sheet, the description of a wine piqued my interest. According to the write-up, this wine was fermented with two different yeast strains. Curious, I asked the tasting room manager for more information.

Wine tasting

“Well, I am not a winemaker,” he prefaced and then proceeded to describe what essentially was a case of stuck fermentation.

If you get the sense that the term “stuck fermentation” sounds more dire than what is presented in the tech sheet, you are right! For this month’s post, we will go over some wine fermentation terms so that you can talk like a wine pro in a tasting room.

Alcoholic Fermentation

All wines go through alcoholic fermentation. This is often referred to as primary fermentation. Wine grapes are typically harvested at a sugar level of 20-25 Brix. During alcoholic fermentation, yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. To make a dry (as opposed to a sweet) wine, the fermentation will typically go for 2-3 weeks till the sugar level drops to 0 Brix. At which point, the yeast will run out of sugar to consume and become dormant. With a starting Brix of 20-25, the resulting wine will be at 11.5-15% of alcohol by volume (ABV).

Spontaneous vs. Inoculated Fermentation

Spontaneous fermentation is how wine and other fermented goodness were discovered. It refers to the fermentation caused by ambient or natural yeasts. However, not all yeast strains are capable of fermenting to dryness. Nor do they always produce the flavors you want in a wine. Except for very established wine regions where the natural yeast strains have proven success in fermenting and making good wine, one would be relying on chance to make wine using spontaneous fermentation.

Pitching yeast in inoculated fermentation
With modern winemaking, yeast strains have been commercially cultivated to reliably ferment and to produce certain characteristics in wine. In inoculated fermentation, wineries will first treat the must (fancy term for crushed grapes or juice to be fermented) with sulfite to prevent spoilage from wild yeasts and bacteria. After a couple of days, the selected yeast strain will then be pitched into the must to start the fermentation process. 

Stuck Fermentation

Sometimes alcoholic fermentation gets sluggish over time. A fermentation is considered stuck when Brix is stagnant for over 48 hours. Stuck fermentation is a symptom of stressed yeast and is a winemaker’s nightmare. Some of the stressors include:

  • Inadequate yeast nutrition - Beside sugar, yeast needs nutrients to properly propagate and complete the fermentation process. There are established nutrition protocols for different yeast strains to ensure successful fermentation.
  • Hostile must temperature - If the must is too cool, the yeast will become dormant, and fermentation will halt. On the converse, an excessively hot must may kill the yeast. Keeping the must at 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit is a safe guardrail.
  • High alcohol must - This is often the result of fermenting grapes with a high starting Brix. The must then reaches an alcohol level that is toxic to the yeast before all the sugars are fermented. Hence, the Brix level stays stagnant and does not fall to 0.
Measuring Brix using a hydrometer
The fix for stuck fermentation is to restart it. This can be tricky and often requires a different yeast strain that can tolerate the specific must environment presented by the stuck fermentation. The resulting wine is often of a lower quality or exhibits less desirable characteristics than intended.

Primary vs. Second vs. Secondary Fermentation

This is a surprisingly confusing topic, and I have seen the terms used differently. But this is how I understand the difference:

  • Primary fermentation refers to fermentation prior to racking. Racking is the process of transferring wine from one vessel to another to remove sediments and dead yeasts. Some winemakers rack in the middle of alcoholic fermentation while others do it after.
  • Second fermentation refers to a new alcoholic fermentation due to the presence of sugar. This may be accidental if there is sugar left from a prior fermentation. Or it may be intentional where more yeast and sugar are added to a still wine to trigger a second fermentation and subsequent carbonation. That is how a sparkling wine is made.
  • Secondary fermentation refers to fermentation after racking. If racking occurs in the middle of alcoholic fermentation, then secondary fermentation is the continuation of that. If racking occurs after alcoholic fermentation is complete, then secondary fermentation may refer to malolactic fermentation if used.
Racking from barrel to carboy
Malolactic Fermentation

Often known as malo or MLF, malolactic fermentation is the process of converting tart malic acid (think green apple) in wine to creamy lactic acid (think milk) using a bacteria called Oenococcus oeni. MLF is common in making red wine to create a velvety round texture. It is rarely used in making white wine except to create a buttery Chardonnay. MLF is sometimes known as secondary fermentation.

That concludes the primer on fermentation terms. Go forth into that tasting room and talk fermentation like a pro. Or at least spot a marketing spin. Now you know.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

When the Crush Gets Real

I remember my first crush day seven years ago. It was a gorgeous sunny fall day as we prepped the equipment at the crush site. Once the truckful of grapes arrived, we got busy distributing the loot into crates of 50 lbs, making sure that everyone got what they ordered. We then moved like clockwork, running the grapes through the crusher-destemmer. It was backbreaking but satisfying work.

Crush Day 2016 - grapes heading home

Looking back, I wish every crush was like that. Call it the beginner’s luck, but I have since learned that crush days often don’t go that smoothly. Without the resources of a commercial winery, a typical crush event for hobby winemakers can be challenging and chaotic. Let me quash any romantic notion and share some of my experience.

It’s Not Always Sunny in Snoqualmie

The crush site for my winemaking club is conveniently located in Snoqualmie, close to the gateway between eastern and western Washington and also between the vineyards and the winemakers. We process our grapes in the open area outside the storage unit that contains the club’s winemaking equipment. There is no roof or canopy to protect us, the grapes, or the equipment from the elements. Unlike the weather on my first crush day, the more typical Pacific Northwest fall weather ranges from light drizzle to straight downpour and even hail.

Crush Day 2023 - processing grapes in the rain

The club rules are based on the principle that we are in this together. It means all the winemakers involved will work together to prep the equipment, weigh and distribute the grapes, process the berries, and finally clean up the sticky grape-y mess. Regardless of whether you ordered 100 lbs or 1,000 lbs of grapes, you’d stay for the four to five hours needed to crush the grapes. Now, imagine doing this in the cold and wet fall weather.

Not American Pickers

Grapes, like many agricultural products, are best picked early in the morning. Harvest is a busy period as vineyards coordinate pick dates while keeping in balance the optimal grape ripeness, the forecasted weather, and the available vineyard crew. It is a wonder how the stars were ever aligned to pull that off, but they did for the most part. Still it is easy to tip the balance and in the area that we often take for granted - migrant vineyard workers.

Harvest by Vindemia Winery on Unsplash

In the past several years, vineyards have been grappling with labor shortage, initially due to immigration crackdown and more recently the pandemic. As a result, grapes were sometimes picked past the prime hours, impacting the grape quality. For the club, this also means hours of delay on the same-day crush, extending grape processing into nightfall. This leads to the next set of challenges.

Noise, Lights, Action!

Using the outside of a storage unit to crush grapes is ideal for numerous reasons. You can retrieve and set up the necessary equipment quickly. When the crush and cleanup are done, the equipment are returned to storage, just feet away. All is well till you have to crush in the dark. The storage unit has no power outlet. The only source of light comes from a low voltage bulb that is operated by an analog timer, similar to the one you use to run your bathroom fan. 

Crush Day 2017 - crushing in the dark

Where one generator is used to fuel the crusher-destemmer in the day, a second is needed to power the heavy-duty flood lights at night. Even then, head lamps are donned to illuminate areas that are missed by the lights. More generators also means more noise to compete with while coordinating crush activities. 2017 crush day was by far the most challenging for that reason. We finally completed the crush close to midnight, exhausted but relieved.

Crushing, but Not Crushed

The anticipation of crush day is a mix of excitement and anxiety for me. Oftentimes it is not till a few days prior that the harvest and crush date is confirmed. And you pray - for good (enough) weather, for manageable amount of grapes to process, and for no delay. 

Crush day is not exactly the image of Lucille Ball stomping grapes in a wooden vat or grape fighting with the Italian winemaker. You do what must be done till all the grapes are processed - crushing, but not crushed. Once the grapes are home with me, that is when the real fun begins - pitching the yeast, punching down the cap, and guiding the fermentation process. I love all of that! 

Soon it will be time to press the grapes. While not quite the mess that crush day is, it is a feat in itself and a topic of another post. In the meantime, I shall enjoy the buzzing of the yeast transforming grape juice into wine.