Saturday, December 30, 2017

Spanish Burgundy - A Historical Fiction

Jose Lopez Bertran came from generations of winemakers, who had borne much hardship for the love of their craft. His grandfather, Joseph Bertran, was a winemaker from Beaune.

In the 1870's when vineyards all over France were plagued with phylloxera, French wine became a scarce commodity. Consumers started looking to Spain to make up for the shortfall. Many French winemakers moved south and brought their craft to Spain. Joseph Bertran was one such winemaker, and he moved to Catalonia.

In Catalonia, Joseph fell in love with and married Maria Lopez, daughter of a Spanish vineyard worker. They settled in Tarragona, a region known for fortified sweet red wines, similar to port. However, Joseph continued to make dry red wine as a nod to his Burgundian roots.

European vines on American rootstock
While delayed, phylloxera did finally arrive in Spain in the late 1890's, and Tarragonian vineyards were not spared. Thankfully, the remedy for phylloxera by grafting American rootstock to the Europeans vines was already discovered. Despite severe damages to the vineyards, phylloxera was soon under control.

Jose was born in 1920. He was raised a cellar rat and learned winemaking from his grandfather. Up till the mid 1930's, the Spanish wine industry recovered from phylloxera and saw a brief uneventful period of stability. That too was short-lived as the political climate in Spain grew tense with the struggle between leftist revolution and rightist counter-revolution.

1936 saw the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and the entire country and Spanish territories went through a time of political unrest. By 1939, with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, General Francisco Franco led his nationalist movement into victory and started to rule the country as a military dictator. Catalonia was one of the last regions to come under Franco's control. The vineyards fell into disarray, and Jose and his family escaped to southern France.

That same year, Adolf Hitler led Nazi Germany into World War II and started invading France and various parts of Europe. Jose and many of his counterparts decided to join the French Resistance. He was assigned to work with Burgundian winemakers, such as Maurice Drouhin. Jose was key to coordinating the Resistance activities in 1941 and 1942, especially during the period when Maurice was arrested by the Germans. That was also the time when the Allied Powers started to garner support from various affiliate countries to counter the aggression of the Axis Powers, that comprised of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

In 1943, the Allied Powers, led by United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union, conducted the first bombing raid in German cities. By 1944, Normandy was recaptured by the Allied Powers in Operation Overlord, D-Day. The Axis Powers started to decline, but it wasn't till Hitler's death in 1945 that Nazi Germany truly surrendered to the Allied Powers.

Spanish Burgundy
In 1947, Jose and his family moved back to Tarragona. During World War II, Spain had remained neutral despite its proximity to France. Franco was trying to balance his gratitude to Germany and Italy for their help in winning the Civil War, without making an enemy out of the United Kingdom. In the meantime, domestic unrest within Spain continued.

The Bertrans tried to restore their vineyards in Tarragona. World War II had so adversely impacted wine trade in Europe. It was not until 1950's that political stability both within Spain and in Europe allowed for a revival of the wine industry. It was also at this time that large co-operative wineries were founded producing generic bulk wines, such as Spanish sauternes and Spanish chablis. Jose started producing his own Spanish burgundy. 1951 was his first vintage post-war.

Fast forward to 2017, a paralegal in Seattle named Matt was helping an old client with his will. Both love a good bottle of wine. The old man gave Matt a few bottles from his personal collection of old European wines. There was no telling if any of them was any good. Among them was a 1951 Spanish red, Delavin Burgundy by Jose Lopez Bertran. We opened the bottle this past summer. It was delicious, very much alive, and paired quite well with the paella we had that evening. We were puzzled by a burgundy made in Spain, but the story behind the wine and the winemaker was richer than we could imagine.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Feeding the Beast

I am fascinated by yeast, especially the species known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. S. cerevisiae is responsible for alcoholic fermentation and baking. These single-celled microorganisms convert carbohydrates into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The happy outcome of the process is wine or beer or a delicious slice of sourdough.

Wine yeast
Experienced and skilled winemakers in established wine countries often use native yeasts for alcoholic fermentation because the right type of yeasts have been cultivated over centuries and thrive in the environment. Hobby winemakers, like myself, who purchase grapes from fairly young vineyards, are better off using commercially produced wine yeast. This is sold dry in packets the same way you get bread yeast or in bricks for larger quantities.

But before we add wine yeast to crushed grapes (also known as the must), we have to first kill off any existing wild yeasts and microorganisms by adding sulfite. If not, these can contribute to off flavors and spoilage during the fermentation process. Two days after adding sulfite, wine yeast is then introduced to the must.

A key job of the winemaker then is to nourish the yeast so that it can complete alcoholic fermentation. Here are two things I've learned in making the 2017 vintage.

Yeast Gets Hungry  

Very much like baking sourdough, you first make a starter by activating the dry yeast in warm water that is supplemented with some nutrients. (I used Go-Ferm.) Then you feed it with sugar; in this case, a 1:1 ratio of must and water. Temperature control is important as the yeast is quite thermosensitive.
Activating yeast
Several hours later, the yeast would feast on the sugar and start to multiply. A healthy starter expands in size and bubbles happily. However, if the yeast is starving, it tells you in the most dramatic pitiful way, which was what happened to me.

Healthy starter
Starving yeast
Thankfully the fix was simple enough. I just had to add more juice to the starter, and within a half-hour, the starter came back to life. But just in case, it is good to have spare yeast and nutrients around.  

Slowly acclimatize the starter by putting the bowl on the must in the primary fermentor for a few hours before pouring it in. Soon, the primary fermentor should feel really warm, and the must should be bubbling away. If you are really quiet, you could almost hear your yeast having a blast with all the sugars in the juice. 

Sugar Alone Ain't Enough

While sugar may be delicious, it alone can't keep the yeast healthy. Other nutrients are also needed, and an important one is nitrogen. Unfortunately, Washington grapes are notorious for having a very low nitrogen level, which could inhibit yeast activity and cause a stuck fermentation. 

We did an additional measurement on the must this year, known as the Yeast Assimilable Nitrogen (YAN). True enough, our YAN reading was at 33.7 mg N/l, a far cry from the targeted 250 mg N/l. Under the guidance of more experienced winemakers, I measured the amount of nutrients that I needed to add to the must. 

Hydrometer records 0 Brix
I went with Fermaid K, which consists of a complex formulation of nitrogen, vitamins, and minerals. In addition, I threw in a small dose of diammonium phosphate (DAP) for extra nitrogen. The nutrients and supplements gave the yeast such a nice boost in the fermentation process that I reduced the second dose and didn't even bother with a third dose.

By the tenth day after harvest, the juice was fermented to dryness. Alcoholic fermentation was completed. The must was no more, and I officially had wine. 

The next step was to start malolactic fermentation on the wine, and then it was time to press. More to come on that!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Mighty Midnight Crushers

It was dark, but thankfully the rain had stopped. Over a dozen hobby winemakers were waiting in the cold for the grapes. This year, it was particularly late because of a shortage of pickers, and we were several hours behind schedule.

Around 8pm, the truck rolled into the processing site. We cheered! Let the crush begin.

The Crush

The gang got to work immediately, trying to make up for lost time. We unloaded the grapes and carefully allocated about 4,000 lbs of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc into 50-lb totes. Organizing the allotment of grapes was challenging as lighting was inadequate and patience ran thin.

Then we ran into our first glitch - 150 lbs of Cab Sauv were missing.

Stephanie shoveling grapes
Chaos ensued. Not being able to account for the missing Cab Sauv, we decided that we could make up for the difference if we each gave up 4% of our grapes. Crisis averted. No one was going home without grapes.

An hour later, 100 lbs of grapes were found in a dark corner. A few of us tasted the grapes - definitely Cab Franc. How? Too tired to solve the mystery, we decided to re-distribute the grapes to those who were previously "taxed" 4% of the Cab Sauv. All's well that ends well.

Next, the second glitch at around 10pm - power outage.

With both crusher-destemmers running simultaneously, we must have tripped the circuit. We were crushing at a storage facility and had no access to the circuit breaker during these late hours. Our options were not looking good, and they probably included fighting raccoons over the grapes.

Thankfully, one of the winemakers lived close enough and was able to drag out his generator. Within an hour, we were back in business, crushing and de-stemming with all our might. The team remained in good spirits and were grateful that we were able to overcome each challenge. By the time we were done with the crush and clean-up, it was close to midnight.

Now, let me introduce you to our little co-op: The Mighty Midnight Crushers

The Genesis

We started planning in February. Four new hobby winemakers decided to join me to make our 2017 vintage. With only one vintage under my belt, I am hardly experienced. But thankfully, we have resources in the form of books, classes, more experienced winemakers, and access to really good grapes in Washington. More importantly, we are a group with the best attitude and eagerness to work together.

Grapes on staked vines
A month later, we placed an order for Red Mountain Cab Sauv from Artz Vineyards.

The Grapes

The first vintage I made was Yakima Valley Syrah, a forgiving varietal that is lovely even without oak. The Syrah was transformed with minimal intervention into a tasty fruit-forward wine within a year.

Cab Sauv however is a very different variety. Known for its small berry size and thick skin, Cab Sauv is favored for its tannins, which will need to be softened with oak. So I bought the smallest new French oak barrel I could find.

By end of August, the vineyards started sending out reports on the grapes. Forecasted harvest dates for different grape varieties were provided with varying degrees of accuracy, starting with white grapes followed by black and finishing with Cab Sauv and Cab Franc. The forecasted date for our Cab Sauv then was September 21.

The following month, the vineyards started running sugar (Brix) and acidity (pH and TA) tests on grape samples to determine ripeness. Still it was impossible to predict and plan our lives around the harvest date. September came and left, and Mother Nature continued to keep us guessing.

The Harvest

Our harvest date was finally set on Oct 17. We had less than a week to get ready. Two of our Mighty Midnight Crushers, Frank and Cindie, volunteered to drive to the Red Mountain AVA to collect our grapes as well as those ordered by other hobby winemakers.

Red Mountain AVA
How long the harvest may take typically depends on the weather and the availability of the pickers. Although the weather was lovely, there was a shortage of migrant workers this year. The vineyards owner herself joined her four workers to pick about 4,000 lbs of grapes that day.

It was late in the afternoon when the grapes were finally loaded onto the truck. Frank and Cindie had already been at the vineyards since that morning. They were glad to be on their way back to Western Washington. It was getting dark, and the winds were picking up. With a heavy load behind them, the drive navigating through the pass would take over three hours. They knew that they would be welcomed by over a dozen grateful winemakers waiting for the grapes in the cold. It would be dark, but hopefully the rain would have stopped.

Friday, September 29, 2017

A Sicilian Woman and Her Wine

It is the first weekend of fall, a season to begin drinking red wine again.

Looking through my cellar, I picked the 2013 Occhipinti Nero d'Avola Sicilia Siccagno, a lively wine made by a bold young Sicilian lady, Arianna Occhipinti. What a great way to pay tribute to Sicily and female winemakers!

Sicily and Nero d'Avola

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, located in the south of the Italian boot-shaped peninsula, as if it is being kicked like a triangular soccer ball. For many years, Sicily's claim to fame, for me, consisted of mafia and Rachael Ray's maternal grandfather.

Although known for Marsala, Sicilian dry wines have more recently made inroads into Italian restaurants and grocery stores in the United States partly because of the friendlier price point. The most famous grape in Sicily is Nero d'Avola, dark-skinned (hence nero) and high in acidity. It is also the main grape in the only DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in Sicily, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. DOCG is the highest classification of Italian wines, ensuring that the winemaking process follows stringent rules and meets the quality for that classification.

Arianna Occhipinti

Arianna is the niece of Giusto Occhipinti, co-founder of the famed winery, COS. Since her teens, she has been working in a winery. In 2004, at the age of 21, Arianna ventured out to make her first commercial vintage with a single cask. Today, she has thirteen vintages, six wines, and a grappa under her belt. She even produced a Cerasuolo di Vittoria named Grotte Alte, which is 50% Nero d'Avola and 50% Frappato, a fruit-forward blending grape.

Arianna takes a minimalist approach to winemaking, preferring native yeasts and letting the grapes themselves guide the vinification process. While striving to keep her wines as natural as possible, Arianna has also become more comfortable with incorporating sulphite in the fermentation process. This reduces the problem of volatile acids and off flavors that challenged her earlier vintages.

2013 Occhipinti Nero d'Avola Sicilia Siccagno
2013 Occhipinti Nero d'Avola Sicilia Siccagno is classified as an IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), loosely translated as the wine that is typical of the particular geographical region. IGT is the second level of the four-level classification of Italian wines. (DOCG being the top.) IGT wines are great for everyday drinking and are a level higher than table wine (VdT or Vino da Tavola). Here are my observations:

Day 1
Deep purple, the wine was jammy with lively acidity. It seemed to be medium-bodied, but the high acidity might have affected that perception. It was reminiscent of a very young Burgundy, not quite ready to enjoy fully and does not yet exhibit much complexity.

Day 2 
Transformation seemed to have taken place. Acidity seemed to have mellowed out and was more integrated with the wine. The wine was more balanced and opulent with flavors of plum. It was much more enjoyable!

My Verdict: I don't usually like high acidity in my red wine, and I need more dimensions (like tannins, structure) to balance it out. Thankfully, the wine evolved in that direction by the second day. However, I can see this as a great companion to rich dishes, like beef stew. Like many old world wines, the Siccagno is better as a food wine rather than a sipping wine.

Price: ~$40

Thursday, August 31, 2017

My Wine is Too Oaky!

Oak in wine is like salt in food. It may enhance the flavor. But if you can taste it, you probably have too much of it. - A paraphrased but insightful observation of my wine class instructor.

My Oak and I
Oak in wine is indeed a controversial topic. When wine is in contact with oak, aromatic compounds from the oak are introduced to the wine. While there is no accounting for taste, wine geeks often argue about whether a wine is overoaked. That said, many of us are glad that the days of oaky California Chardonnay are behind us.

While there are different types of oak used for barrels (and in fact different types of wood), the two best known are French oak and American oak. Generally speaking, French oak tends to add subtle spiciness and silkiness to the wine while American oak tends to impart a stronger and sweeter flavor that is reminiscent of vanilla.

There are of course other factors that contribute to the influence of oak to the wine. For instance:
  • Toast level - higher toast leads to stronger flavor
  • Coarseness of grain - open-grain barrel releases aromatics sooner, and tight-grain releases aromatics later
  • Barrel size - higher ratio of oak surface area to volume of wine results in more contact
  • Time in barrel - more time in the barrel leads to extended contact
  • New vs neutral barrels - newer barrels have more aromatic compounds
Wine aging in new French oak barrels in Burgundy
However, an often overlooked benefit of oak barrels is that they introduce a small amount of oxygen to the wine (known as micro-oxygenation) during maturation. Oxygen is critical for the polymerization of phenolic compounds to stabilize the color and improve the quality of the wine. Recent research even suggests that fermenting wine in oak barrels leads to a better quality wine, but that requires another level of maintenance for the wineries.

Now back to the question, when is a wine too oaky? It just depends on how much you like the taste of oak in your wine.

Personally, I find the sweet vanilla flavor imparted by American oak detracts from my enjoyment. I tend to like my red wine silky with nuanced spices and leather notes. I also like older well-made reds and would forgo fruitiness for complexity. In fact, my favorite red wines are often aged in Slavonian oak, known for its tight grain as well as lower aromatics and tannins level. Any guess as to the wine?

My Verdict: If you are like me, you probably prefer the silky soft tannins that result from barrel aging but could go light on the aromatics. Then, depending on the grape varietals, keep an eye out for wine made in French oak (or even Slavonian oak). However, if you like stronger flavors, particularly of vanilla, then maybe American oak is more to your liking. Check out the technical sheet of your favorite wine and see what oak is used and for how long. There's always much to learn!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Cork Taint in a Screwcap?

In my last post, I wrote about the difference between corks and screwcaps, about how the latter has significantly circumvented the problem of cork taint. Then the unexpected happened to me - I got a screwcapped wine that was corked!

One of these was corked
It was a gorgeous summer afternoon in Portland, and I was thrilled to find a new wine bar and bottle shop to try. We sat down at the patio, and I ordered a flight of three mid-range Oregon Pinot Noirs. I swirled the glass of the first wine, took a whiff, and immediately got that faint but unmistaken smell of wet cardboard. I took a sip, which confirmed that off-putting taste devoid of fruit and flavor. I tasted the other two glasses, and they were fine.

I took the corked wine back to the shop and waited patiently for the shopkeeper to finish his conversation with another customer. Then I told him discreetly that the wine was corked. He took it back and came out to the patio with a new bottle and a new glass. He twisted the screwcap off the bottle to pour me a new glass and said, "That wine was fine, but here's one from a newly opened bottle."

Now, I have up to now experienced only half a dozen corked bottles. While it was not a common occurrence to get a corked wine these days, the last three happened in the past year so I am unfortunately quite familiar with the smell and taste of a corked wine; the earlier two being a Brunello and a California Super Tuscan-style red. I have even tried the Saran wrap trick to remove the taint, which, I am sad to report, does not work.

I digress. Now how does a screwcapped wine get corked?

I mentioned in my last post that the main cause of cork taint is TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), a compound that leads to a musty fungal or wet cardboard aroma.  TCA belongs to a family of volatile compounds called haloanisoles, that cause moldy aroma. There are other compounds (TBA, TeCA, and PCA) that may be responsible for the taint.

Haloanisoles may be transferred to the wine from contaminated materials in the winemaking facility, such as tank coatings, hoses, barrels, and oak chips. It can also be transferred to the polyethylene film, which is commonly used as a liner for screwcaps. So while opting for a screwcap over cork will significantly reduce the chance of cork taint, it does not eliminate it. In my limited sample size, it is one to five.

Here's another interesting factoid - the sensory thresholds of different tasters for haloanisoles may vary as well. So one taster can be highly sensitive to it while another may not find it quite as objectionable. A well-known sommelier once discovered that a rare and expensive bottle ordered at his restaurant was corked. Despite his offer and attempt to replace it with a different bottle, the diners claimed that not only was the wine fine, but it was delicious. At which point, he had to back off against his professional judgement.

My Verdict: Regardless of the closure used, if you believe that your wine is corked, trust your taste and take the wine back. Even if the wine merchant disagrees with you, he or she will likely still replace your wine. It is better than to be stuck with an off-putting wine.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Corks or Screwcaps?

Since the sudden rise of cork taint in the 1960s, the wine industry has been exploded with alternative closures to seal bottled wine. The main cause of cork taint is the presence of a compound known as TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) that leads to a musty fungal or wet cardboard aroma in the wine. While it is not harmful to the consumers, it definitely takes away the pleasure of enjoying a nice glass of wine.

Among the alternative closures with their corresponding pros and cons, the screwcaps in particular have gained quite a bit of traction in the new world, especially in Australia and New Zealand. While I am partial to natural corks for my cellar-worthy wines, summer calls for easy drinking. And who wants to fuss with a corkscrew at a picnic when you can twist the cap off a bottle of fresh Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and seal it shut again?
Rulo Winery in Walla Walla only use screwcaps 

While screwcaps remain a favored alternative, one common complaint is that it does too good a job
of keeping oxygen out and does not allow the wine in the bottle to breathe and mature. This can sometimes lead to "reductive taint" or the smell of rotten egg in the wine. However, winemakers are getting good at correcting the problem by adjusting the amount of sulphur dioxide added to the bottle prior to closure. (Yes, sulphur dioxide is often added during bottling to stabilize the wine, but that is a topic for another day.)

For cellar-worthy wines, a little oxygen over a period of time helps the wines develop and mature in the bottle. Contrary to popular belief, natural corks do not allow outside oxygen to enter sealed bottles. But because corks are made up of mostly hollow cells, oxygen from the corks themselves is gently and gradually released into the bottles to further age the wine.

As one might expect, the technology of screwcaps has progressed to offer a small amount of oxygen leakage from the cap into the wine, mimicking the same function in a cork. So we may see more and more cellar-worthy wines using screwcaps in the future. In fact, there are some wineries who have gone completely screwcaps for all their wines, including those that you can lay down to age. Rulo Winery from Walla Walla is one such winery.

With a steeper competition for closures, cork producers have also come up with more stringent procedures to reduce the incidences of TCA, like ensuring proper harvesting and treatment of cork. In addition, technical corks (which are essentially cork-based closures) are often treated to prevent TCA and available as less expensive options. In fact, I use technical corks for my homemade wine.

A mix of natural and technical corks
My Verdict: Just as there is a wine for every occasion, there is a closure that fits every type of wine. My rule of thumb is that if you drink your wine young, a screwcap is not necessarily a bad thing. But I would probably pause if I see a screwcapped bottle of Barolo or Burgundy. However, if you trust a particular winemaker, then it may be worthwhile to keep an open mind about his or her choice of closures.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Bonjour, Mon Rosé!

Rosé is a wine of celebration!

Provençal Rosé with fresh spring salad
After a long dreary winter, it is always a joy to welcome sunshine and warmth with a bottle of Rosé. I especially love a dry Provençal or Provence-style Rosé, slightly chilled and shared with friends on the patio, or on the beach. Being light and fruity in palate, Rosés go well with most summer fare - cantalope slices wrapped with prosciutto, spring mix salad with a light mustard vinaigrette, and cheeses. Or if you want to be totally Provençal, pair it with your favorite vegetables and shellfish dipped in rich garlicky aioli.

Rosé is a French term for pink wine, that is well beloved in the States. In Italy, it is called Rosato; and in Spain, it is called Rosado. In a London bistro, I would order a bottle of Blush.

Contrary to some belief, Rosé is not made by blending white and red wines, except in the case of a pink Champagne. But a still pink wine is made using black grapes (or grapes that typically produce red wine) with a much shorter skin contact than one would for making red wine. That way, it significantly reduces the extraction of anthocyanins, or color pigments from the skin, rendering it pink.

To be technical, there are different ways to make Rosés, and they are rather nuanced.
Provence-Style Rosé from Brady Cellars

  • Short Maceration - This is the way to make Rosés with the sole goal of making Rosés, instead of a by-product. In this case, the winemaker crushes the black grapes and macerates them for a period of time. When the desired level of color and flavor is achieved, the juice is drained off from the crushed grapes and continues to ferment.
  • Vin d'une Nuit - This is French for "wine of a night." A simple short maceration approach, it means the juice is drained from the crushed grapes after a night. 
  • Saignée - Derived from the French word that means "bled," this is method is used when the winemaker is trying to kill two birds with one stone. After a short maceration period, the pink juice will be drained out, leaving the remaining juice to continue macerating with a higher ratio of skin contact. The pink juice is then made into a Rosé. The remaining juice will have a deeper color and flavor by the time it is made into a still red wine. This is well-practiced in the States as the Rosé will be released early to bring cash flow to the winery while the remaining red wine continues to mature and age.
  • Doble Pasta - This yummy-sounding approach comes from Spain although it is hardly intuitive. This is similar to Saignée in that a red wine and a pink wine will be produced. The difference is that two vats are used in this case. One vat is used to make a pink wine, and the skins will be transferred to the vat that is used to make the red.
My Verdict: There are different types of pink wine in the market. Pick something and try it. I tend to like a dry Grenache-based Rosé, hence my preference for a Provençal or Provence-style Rosé. And if your favorite small winery for red wine makes a nice Rosé, know that you are helping it by buying a bottle of the pink as well. Santé!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

What Makes a High-End Wine?

In the wine world, there are the Two Buck Chucks, and then there are Château Latour or even Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (affectionately known as the DRC). There is a vast price difference between high-end and mass-produced wines, but is there a corresponding difference in taste and quality? Let's consider what goes into a good wine.

Wines of Pauillac
High-end wineries are very picky about their grapes. Many will only use grapes from their estate vineyards, where they have complete control on how to grow the best grapes possible. This includes the type of fertilizers used, pest and disease management, canopy management, irrigation (if even allowed), green harvesting, and actual harvesting practices. While controversial, there is the terroir factor - the secret something in the land that gives the grapes or the wine a distinct character. All the above can be costly.

Wineries of mass-produced wines are less fussy about their grapes. Many of them use excess or leftover grapes or juice from other wineries or vineyards. Or they may own inexpensive parcels of vineyards that are not known for quality grapes. These wineries have limited, if any, control or interest in vineyard management. The main goal is to get a large quantity of decent grapes or juice at a low price.

Estate vineyards

Wine Making Practices
Winemakers of high-end wineries are very particular about how they make their wine. Each may differ in his or her own style and philosophy. Some are almost esoteric and minimalist in their approaches. Lalou Bize-Leroy, a firm believer of biodynamic wine making, is almost mystical in the way she guides the evolution from juice to wine. Others apply scientific analysis and use the latest technology to rigorously and meticulously monitor and direct the wine making process. Christophe Perrot-Minot is one such winemaker, who is extremely comfortable with technology and leverages it to produce the best wine out of his grapes.

High-end wineries are also particular about cooperage. The type of oak, grain, toast, and even size of the casks adds flavor, complexity, and mouthfeel to the wine. Some of these wineries even have their own cooperage so that they can control the quality of the barrels.

Makers of mass-produced wine use technology and equipment extensively to produce huge quantities of wine. In fact, these wineries benefited most from the scientific understanding of the wine making process. With more tests and supplements available, the ability to augment lower-quality grapes to produce viable wine has grown exponentially in the last couple of decades.

Add or remove sugar to manage the alcohol level of the final product. Adjust the acid level to achieve the right level of brightness. Use big steel vats that are easily re-usable and less costly and then supplement with oak chips or beans or staves to mimic the wine maturation process that would otherwise happen in an oak barrel.

Consumer's Taste
Ultimately, the difference between high-end and mass-produced wines today is fairly nuanced. If it tastes good and is within your budget, then that is the right wine for you. If you can't really tell the difference but enjoy and are able to afford to drink high-end wines anyways, knock yourselves out and invite some good friends to join you. If you have a palate that appreciates the higher-end wines and your bank account is agreeable, savor an extraordinary bottle. You are blessed!

My Verdict: Personally, I am not a fan of most mass-produced wines. I like my wine to have some complexity in it. Since I also don't drink very much, a nice bottle will last me a few days to a week with my Sharper Image wine saver. Thankfully, the higher-end wines tend to hold up a little longer as well. And when a friend invites me to taste some Bordeaux First Growths, I am most grateful.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Wine Clubs and Member Lists

If you frequent wine country or enjoy winery tours, it is likely that you have been seduced into a wine club membership. The more you drink, the harder it is to resist the temptation.

Truth be told, there are many perks to joining a wine club. There is usually no upfront fee for joining, and you can often terminate membership at any time. You just pay for the wine purchased with membership discount, which is often in the area of 10-20%. The catch is that there is usually a commitment of a certain number of bottles per year and sometimes in multiple releases. Each wine club may vary in the flexibility to mix and match the wines for each allocation, so that is something to which you want to pay attention.

Crates of wine in storage
The other big draw of a wine club is the limited releases that are offered exclusively to club members. This may happen when the winemakers are experimenting with a new varietal, blend, or way of making wine in small production. In other cases, the winery may keep a library of cellar-worthy wines to be released only to its members in later years so as to showcase the aging potential. Finally, there are special events and release parties, when winemakers unveil new releases with amazing food pairings.

If you don't live close to a wine region, check out your local wine shop to see if it offers a wine club. Our local wine shop, West Seattle Wine Cellars, offers six different monthly clubs, ranging from  easy-drinking to region-specific, like Champagne, Washington, and Oregon. The collective buying power from wine clubs allows the shops to have access to certain wines that would otherwise be hard to come by. Additionally, there is a club member's discount for wine purchases.

Then there are member lists. These are often offered by high-end or boutique wineries to give members first dibs on their wines at membership price before they are released to the secondary market. There is no allocation commitment, but members stay on the list as long as they make purchases. A lapse in purchases within a predefined amount of time, typically two consecutive years, may cause you to be dropped from the list. These wineries are usually not open to the public although some offer tours to members by appointment.

Now the danger of wine club and member list memberships is that you can end up with more wine than you need. At which point, it is time to say goodbye to some of them. In the past decade, I have gone through close to a dozen club and list memberships. Today, I am down to two wine club memberships and one member list. Here's the scoop on what I have.

Brady Cellars vertical tasting
Brady Cellars Wine Club
Kim Brady is a friend and fellow West Seattleite, who started his first commercial release in 2010. I'm all for supporting friends and small wineries, and Brady makes it easy by producing excellent wine at an affordable price point. His club commitment is a minimum of 6 bottles a year. Members get 10% off retail price, and the release parties are a blast, not to mention often a stone's throw away from our house. Tyler Palagi of Radiator Whiskey is always whipping up delicious food pairings with Brady's wines.

West Seattle Wine Cellars Specialty Club
I have been a member of the Specialty Club offered by the West Seattle Wine Cellars for several years. It features a red and a white from literally anywhere in the world at a cap of $90 plus tax. But don't worry, Tom DiStefano, who carefully selects each bottle, has never let us down. You may get some interesting selections from Slovenia and South Africa as well as the classics from Barolo, Burgundy, and Rhone. I always recommend this club to anyone who is looking to expand his or her palate.

Quilceda Creek Release Party

Quilceda Creek Private Member List
Last but not least, the exclusive Quilceda Creek Private Member List. Quilceda Creek produces world-class Washington Cabernet Sauvignon and has a few 100-pointers from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate to its name. There is a wait to get onto the member list. It took me less than a year. Once on the list, you get to purchase three of the four wines initially: the Columbia Valley Red (or CVR, which is an excellent deal!), the Galitzine Vineyard, and the Pelanget Vineyard. After another year or so, I was finally invited to the release party and got to purchase the flagship wine. It is a game of patience, but it is definitely worth the while if you are very particular about your wine. All the wines are divine (particularly the flagship), and the membership price is unbeatable.

My Verdict: Depending on your taste and budget, there is likely a wine club or member list that works for you. Unless you have generous cellar space and/or bank accounts, you may need to break up with some club and list memberships that no longer work for you. You can always share wine club or list memberships with friends. It needs some coordination, but it can also be a win-win proposition.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

First Vintage

Last October I posted about my first winemaking experience; well at least from crush through the primary fermentation and press. That was probably the most involved part of winemaking, when twice to thrice-daily punchdowns took place with constant measuring of temperature and Brix. That was when the juice was transformed from 'must' to wine as sugar got fermented into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Secondary Fermentation

After the press, we moved into secondary fermentation of the wine in air-locked vessels. We used a 5-gallon glass carboy and three gallon jugs to use for top-up (I'll get into that later). This period was generally uneventful and less involved, but there were a few things that required attention.

Controlling the temperature. Malolactic (ML) bacteria, which was added to the juice the day before press, were quietly converting tart-tasting malic acids into fuller-bodied lactic acids. ML bacteria are sensitive to numerous factors (e.g. pH, SO2, and alcohol levels), but the one thing that worried me was my ability to keep the wine within the optimal temperature range (>70 degrees). The carboy and gallon jugs were wrapped in blankets, snugged in cardboard boxes, and gently warmed by a heating pad. My biggest fear was stuck fermentation since there were no easy tests to perform at home or measurements to track progress. I resorted mostly to prayers.

Lees left behind from racking
Racking, racking, racking. Even though most of the solid remains of the grapes and yeast (also known as pomace or marc) were removed during the press, there were still some remaining in the wine as it went through secondary fermentation. These are called the lees. Decomposing yeast in wine could cause off flavors. In order to remove the lees, we did multiple racking of the wine during secondary fermentation. Racking is the process of siphoning wine off of dead yeast into new containers.

We siphoned a total of four times; the first time was 24 hours after press, the next two were a week apart, and the final one was a month out.

Racking also has two other advantages:
  • It clarifies the wine. You could literally see that the juice got clearer after each racking. In many cases, clear wine is just a matter of aesthetic. If the wine tastes good, cloudiness may not indicate flaws.
  • When done correctly, racking can introduce controlled amount of oxygen into the wine. During the early part of secondary fermentation, oxygen has positive effects on unfinished wine by stabilizing the color and tannins. It allows the wine to mature gracefully and become more complex. In the later part of the secondary fermentation, caution is needed to minimize oxygen contact. If acetic bacteria is exposed to wine and oxygen, it will turn the juice into vinegar (acetic acid). 
It is important to note that you will lose wine during racking due to spills and as you avoid siphoning lees. The loss of wine during racking may increase the air space between your wine and the airlocks. You can top up the carboy with wine from the jugs or similar store-bought wine (preferably same varietal and AVA). Alternatively, you can add sterilized marbles into your containers to raise the wine level. I personally put some of my top-up wine into a sanitized plastic container, squeezed out as much air as possible, and capped it. It worked!

Final Testing

After more than three months of secondary fermentation, we performed the final testing of our wine to check on sugar, acidity, and ML fermentation. During the primary fermentation, which lasted less than two weeks, I was constantly monitoring and measuring progress. For the much longer secondary fermentation, I really had no idea what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
  • Residual sugar was at 0.3%. This was probably the least of my concern since we pressed the wine at a really low Brix. Residual sugar over 0.6% is a concern for still red wine as it may cause re-fermentation in the bottle.
Measuring residual sugar in the wine

  • pH was 3.78. This was slightly higher (or less acidic) since harvest, which was at 3.53. But it was still within the normal range.
  • Titratable acidity (TA) was 7.3125. TA measures the amount of total acids and was higher than our reading during harvest, which was 7.125. It was a bit higher than I like, but not bad.
  • ML fermentation appeared to have completed. While not the most accurate way to test the concentration of malic acid, the chromatography test is cost-effective. The solvent used for the chromatography is extremely toxic, and the test takes several hours. After putting dots of wine sample onto a piece of chromatography paper, it was left in a big glass jar with the solvent and the lid closed tight. 
With one exception, most of the wines appeared to have completed ML fermentation. Yellow patches indicated presence of acids. The top row of yellow revealed the presence of lactic acid, which is the goal of the ML fermentation. The bottom row of yellow revealed the presence of tartaric acid, which is also what we expected. Any yellow in the middle role revealed the presence of malic acid, which would indicate that ML fermentation has not completed. This would show that the wine has not stabilized and will need more time for ML fermentation to complete.

Chromatography test revealed that one of the wines still had malic acid

Once the wines had passed all the tests, they were ready to be bottled. We got the bottles that we have saved up, cleaned, and sanitized. (We recycled bottles. If you buy new bottles, you can skip the above steps.) Sulfites were added to the wine just before bottling. Sulfites are a preservative and will keep the wine fresh. They are also anti-oxidants and will protect the wine from oxidation.

Adding sulfites to wine
Siphoning wine into bottles
Corking wine bottles
Finally, five months after harvest and crush, our first vintage was bottled and proudly named Abscession - a joke, as my husband was recovering from an abscess the day of the harvest. Special kudos go to my partner-in-wine, Alisa. That's her work on the label, making an access look classy. The wine will officially be released in the summer, so check back later.

Abscession 2016 Syrah

My Verdict: I am having so much fun learning about winemaking. It gave me a greater appreciation for wine. I don't think going commercial is my calling, but I'm planning for my next vintage already! 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Wine and War

My husband celebrated his birthday in Europe last year. We split the time between Belgium and France so that we each got our fair share of beer (for him) and wine (for me). Aside from the festivities, we also visited World War I and II sites and museums. I learned more than I wish about both world wars, the rise of Hitler, and the Nazi regime. Even as we toured wineries in Champagne and Burgundy, the long intricate underground cellars whispered stories of wars and resistance.

Moet et Chandon's cellars span 17 miles underground
Drouhin caves were an escape route from the Gestapo
Recommended by one of the tour guides, I downloaded Wine and War: The Battle for France's Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup onto my Kindle. The book retells stories of wine families from five prominent wine regions during the Nazi occupation: Champagne in the north, Alsace that borders Germany (and was in the past part of Germany), Loire that is south of Paris, and the two grand regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Behind newly built walls were hidden wines 
The Nazi invasion of France would also mean taking over the country's prized possessions - the vineyards and the wines. Although Hitler was a teetotaler whose habit of adding sugar to his wine would annoy any serious wine drinker, it did not stop him from amassing the best of Bordeaux (Rothschilds, Lafites, Moutons, Latours) and major Champagne houses (Krug, Bollinger, Möet, Salon) to his mountain-top retreat, known as the Eagle's Nest. Needless to say, there were rare Burgundies like Romanee-Conti, Cognacs, and ports that were recovered after the fall of the Nazi regime.

The French survived and resisted the Nazis in ways that only the French knew how. They hid the best of their wines in secret caves and ponds and blatantly showed off the lesser wines to sell to the Germans. (One story involved children collecting spiderwebs to make a new wall look old! It worked as the Germans walked past the wines hidden behind that wall.) Several winemakers were actively part of the resistance, operating from their own cellars. Others negotiated charmingly and formed relationships with more sympathetic German officials. A few families risked their own lives to hide and protect their Jewish friends and American allies.

Whether they were trapped in war prisons or free in the vineyards examining the damage caused by artillery and lack of care, the health of their vines was constantly in the minds of the French winemakers. Many prisoners-of-war were kept strong by memory of their beloved wines. In fact, a gastronomic guidebook, Le Maître de Maison by Roger Ribaud, was conceived in one of the POW camps.

French vineyards now vibrant were in a state of disrepair during the war
History has a strange way of reminding us that if unguarded, humankind has a tendency to blame our misfortune on and target our discontent at those who are different from us. Thankfully, we are comforted by the fact that the human race also has the ability to correct the course, protect those in need, and resist tyranny.

The next time I open a bottle of Joseph Drouhin or Huet Vouvray, I will remember Maurice Drouhin who engaged in resistance activities from his cellar and Gaston Huet who survived five years as a prisoner of war. I will remember we can correct the course.

My Verdict: The book is a great read for wine geeks. The style unfortunately has a little awkwardness in the flow as the authors tried to weave in the various stories they collected. Still I enjoy being delighted by the history behind some of the wines I have tasted or cellared.