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.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Tale of Two Wine Programs

I noticed an emerging wine trend in some of the snazzy new restaurants. I am talking about the kind of restaurants that will more likely snag a James Beard than a Wine Spectator Award. You will probably not find Bordeaux First Growths, big Champagne houses, or Napa’s Screaming Eagle on their wine lists. But that is the point. Their wine offerings are meant to pair with their food and not with Robert Parker’s scores. Let’s explore further.

Food and wine by Lee Myungseong on Unsplash

Two Restaurants, Two Wine Programs

If you live in Seattle, you have heard of Canlis. Perched on the edge of Queen Anne Hill with a spectacular view of Lake Union, Canlis has been awarded multiple James Beard and Wine Spectator Awards. In fact, it has won Wine Spectator’s highest level Grand Awards consecutively for over 20 years.

Iconic Seattle restaurant, Canlis from

Canlis’s line of wine directors hailed from the International Sommelier Guild and/or the Court of Master Sommeliers. Two years ago, the restaurant welcomed its first woman wine director. Linda Milagros Violago carries comparable credentials as her predecessors. The wine list is a book of over 100 pages with 2,600 wine selections, ranging from sparkling to still wines of red, white, and pink.

In 2019, Brady Ishiwata Williams at Canlis cinched the James Beard Award for the Best Chef in the Northwest. Two years later, Williams left Canlis to start his own restaurant, Tomo. Located next to an adult video store in a lower- to middle-income, admittedly grungy White Center, Tomo serves well-executed innovative upscale fare, which is a  juxtaposition to its neighborhood.

Tomo next to Taboo Video by Google Maps

At almost 20 pages, Tomo’s wine list is a fraction of Canlis’s. Nonetheless, it boasts of over 900 wines, curated from small production wineries to complement their dishes. Tomo’s current wine director, Rebar Niemi, came from a background of technology and education. Rebar may not share the credentials of his Canlis counterparts. However, in my few interactions with him, Rebar is very much a wine geek with a pulse on the palate of the Millennials and Zoomers. It is hardly surprising that Tomo was a semi-finalist for the James Beard’s Outstanding Wine Program in 2022.

Let’s delve into their wine lists.

The Sparkling

Both Canlis and Tomo have separate lists for Champagnes and other sparklers. Canlis showcases about 100 Champagnes, neatly catalogued by growers versus négociants, subregions, and vintages or non-vintages. In addition, there are 35 other bubblies from six countries with a good mix of French crémants, Spanish cavas, and mostly sparklers made in the Champagne style or traditional method. There are also a handful of Italian Moscato d’Astis and European Pet-Nats.

Dom Pérignon in Canlis but not in Tomo

Tomo’s Champagne list is not too shabby with about 30 selections, favoring grower Champagnes. You will not find the big négociants such as Billecart-Salmon, Dom Pérignon, and such. More interesting though is the list of 50 non-Champagne sparklers. There is one crémant and a Pet-Nat, intermixed with sparkling ciders and other non-classified sparkling wines.

The Still

Canlis’s impressive list of 2,000 reds and whites come from almost 20 countries. They are methodically organized by country, sub-region, winery, grape variety, and vintage. Canlis also has about 25 rosés. Each producer is respectable, and each wine is of a high quality. With a multi-year award-winning cellar, Canlis caters to a knowledgeable wine clientele who expect to find almost any special bottle to mark an occasion.

Tomo’s Seasonal Wine Selections, May 2023

Tomo holds its own with 400 selections from about 15 countries. You will be hard pressed to find a bottle of Bordeaux (compared to nearly 100 offered at Canlis). What you will find in Tomo, but not at Canlis, are the occasional Japanese wines as well as close to 80 orange wines. Listed under “Skin Contact” with 50 pink wines, that is the most orange wines I have seen in any restaurant wine list. Unlike Canlis, Tomo is catering to a younger and more adventurous wine clientele, who are willing to go off the beaten Robert Parker path to try something different.

About Skin Contact

While I love the incredible list of orange wines at Tomo, I am perplexed by the use of Skin Contact as a category. For those new to orange wine, it is made using white wine grapes with extended skin contact. White wine is typically made by separating the juice from the skin prior to fermentation. When making orange wine, these white wine grapes are fermented in the skin which leads to the orange hue in the wine; hence the term “skin contact.”

Orange wine at Tomo

Skin contact is, however, not an accurate descriptor for pink wine. Pink wine is technically the opposite of orange wine. Rosé, in essence, is made the same way as a white wine except that it uses red grapes. There are different ways to make rosé; separating the juice from the skin immediately after harvest or siphoning a portion of the juice from the red grape must into a different vat for fermentation. Regardless of the method, the goal is to minimize skin contact, not prolong it. Otherwise you will be making a red wine. 

My Verdict: I am excited about the new wine trend I see in hip innovative restaurants, like Tomo. It introduces a myriad of wines that are not constrained by traditional winemaking methods or Old World classification systems. This may just be up the Millennials’ and Zoomers’ alley. That said, I also don’t want to lose the tried and true wine styles - the Bordeaux, the Barolos, and similar styles in the New World. So let’s encourage innovation but continue to celebrate tradition - in wine.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Fourteen Wine Hacks or a Wack? Part Two

This is Part Two of my review of the 14 Practical Wine Hacks that Are Here to Save the Day, published by CNN. As mentioned in my last post, I only counted thirteen hacks in the article so I will cover the remaining six. Unlike last month, I am happy to report that many of these are truly hacks or at least semi-hacks, focused on what to do with leftover wine. There is one that feels like a Martha Stewart wannabe moment gone complicated. Check them out!

8. Whip Up a Slushy

SEMI-HACK. This is technically a frosé hack. Frosé is a wine cocktail that originated from Bar Primi in New York City. Since its inception less than a decade ago, frosé has grown in popularity. Today, you can find frosé in many restaurants and even ballparks during summertime. The original recipe calls for freezing rosé, some vermouth, and muddled strawberries. Because of the alcohol content in rosé, it may take up to six hours to freeze. Several shortcuts have since emerged, which skip the step of freezing rosé. Instead, you freeze the berries and blend them with the rosé.

Frosé by John Rodriguez on Unsplash

9. Make a Wine Cocktail

HACK. Not a particularly new idea, but yes, you can make sangria from leftover wine. Sangria is a wine cocktail that came from Spain and Portugal. The standard sangria recipe calls for wine with chopped or sliced fruit, some sweetener, and a liquor. The author’s shortcut recipe skips the liquor and uses a splash of soda water.

10. Make 2-Ingredient Red Wine Vinegar

SEMI-HACK. I once tried making my own vinegar from a batch of homemade wine that had gone acetic. As it turned out, it is harder to make good vinegar than good wine. My vinegar got moldy. Maybe it is because I haven’t mastered the science behind vinegar making the way I have with winemaking. So yes, theoretically, you can make vinegar out of oxidized wine. But it is harder than you think!

Acetic acid by CA Creative on Unsplash
11. Make Wine Syrup

HACK. This is really a wine reduction with sugar in a 3:1 wine to sugar ratio. I haven’t tried this since we don’t do much dessert at home. But it is worth a shot if you’d like some wine syrup over ice cream, fruit slices, or pancakes.

12. Reduce Oxygen Contact to Make Wine Last Longer

HACK. While minimizing air contact by putting leftover wine in a smaller container is a wine hack, the explanation offered by the author is kind of wack. The suggestion that screwcap wines taste fresh for longer than bottles with cork closures is only true so long as the bottle has not been opened. Even then, the difference is minuscule given that oxygen ingress via natural cork is only about 1 mg a year. Wine experts would also argue that micro oxygenation offered by a cork, as opposed to an anaerobic environment from a screwcap, helps the wine develop its complexity.

Opened bottles by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash
Once the bottle is opened, it is no longer about the closures nor the surface area. It is all about the headspace or the amount of oxygen in the bottle. When you transfer leftover wine into a smaller jar, depending on the width of the jar, you are not necessarily reducing the surface area of the wine that will be in contact with oxygen. But you will be reducing the headspace. 

13. Chill Wine with DIY Frozen Wine Holder

SEMI-WACK. I confess that I am no Martha Stewart. The instructions to create this frozen wine holder may be for someone with more time, DIY flair, and freezer space than I do. The steps include freezing a see-through container with some water and an empty wine bottle, taping the bottle in place, filling the container with more water and whatever floral and fruit combo, refreezing them all, and finally transferring wine into the bottle.

Ice mold wine chiller from C&B
This DIY idea is likely inspired by Crate and Barrel’s Ice Mold Wine Bottle Chiller. My friend owns one of these, and I thought it was really cool. Plus, the use of the store bought version requires a fifth of the DIY steps and half the freezer space. For $45 a pop, I’d rather get the Crate and Barrel chiller or order a knock-off from Amazon for a few bucks less.

This completes my review of the wine hacks published by CNN. Do you know of any other cool wine hacks to share? Or maybe a wack?

Friday, June 30, 2023

Fourteen Wine Hacks or a Wack? Part One

Every now and then, I come across new wine hacks. Some are great ideas that I’ve added to my wine bag of tricks. Others may raise an eyebrow or even inspire a groan. Recently, CNN published an article about 14 Practical Wine Hacks that Are Here to Save the Day. (I counted only thirteen by the way.) Apparently, these hacks were tested to work. Here is my review on the first seven “hacks,” and I will cover the rest in my next post.

1. Chill a bottle on the fly by wrapping it in wet paper towel and popping it in the freezer for 10 minutes

SEMI-HACK. Sticking a bottle of wine in the freezer for a quick chill is nothing new. Wrapping the bottle with a wet paper towel before popping it in the freezer? That seemed like an easy experiment so I decided to give it a try. The outcome? It chilled, but not any better than without the wet paper towel.

Freezer chilled with wet paper towel
With or without the wet paper towel, the more important note is that white wine and red wine are best served at different temperatures. The general rule of thumb is to serve whites at 45-50°F and reds at 55-65°F. For a fast chill, I would pop the whites in the freezer for about 15 minutes and the reds for about 5. Also, do not forget to take the wine out of the freezer. Water content in the wine will expand when it freezes and can cause breakage to the unopened bottle.

2. DIY a wine opener using a long screw, a screwdriver, and a hammer

WACK. I don’t know in what situation you will have a long screw, a screwdriver, and a hammer, but not a corkscrew. Enough said.
Not a Cockscrew by Julie Molliver on Unsplash

3. Save leftover wine for weeks by freezing it into iced wine cubes

HACK. According to the article, you can pop out an iced wine cube for cooking or making a chilled wine cocktail. I do keep leftover wine in the fridge for cooking, but I never freeze it. To make a chilled wine cocktail, it may be fun to use an iced wine cube. However, if I have an open bottle of good wine and need to leave town for a period of time, I would freeze the leftover bottle (forget the cubes) and thaw it to enjoy when I return. It will be as good as when you left it. 

4. Use frozen grapes instead of ice cubes to chill a glass of wine

SEMI-WACK. This hack comes with a plea to sommeliers to cover their ears so that says a lot. I would not use frozen grapes or ice cubes to chill a glass of good wine. Sticking the bottle in the freezer for 5-15 minutes is plenty good. But if you like the aesthetics of frozen grapes in your Two Buck Chuck, then sure, whatever floats in your wine.

Frozen grapes by Chris Reyem on Unsplash
5. Press salt generously into wine stain for two hours and pour boiling water over it

SEMI-WACK. I haven’t tried this method, but Good Housekeeping seems to think that salt and hot water will set the stain permanently so try this at your own risk. My go-to is Wine Away Stain Remover and cold water. Check out this Good Housekeeping article on How to Remove Red Wine Stains.

6. Use a blender to aerate wine

SEMI-WACK. Made popular (again) by the HBO series Succession, this extreme way of aerating wine is known as hyper decanting. The term was coined in 2011 by Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine. Myhrvold claimed that hyper decanting works even for a 1982 Château Margaux. I wonder if anyone would experiment with the said wine or something equivalent.

Succession’s Connor Roy hyper-decanting wine
Aerating or introducing oxygen to wine brings out its aromatics and softens its tannins. This benefits young wine that tends to be tightly wound. Wine that has been aged for several years in the bottle is likely to have interacted with a very small amount of oxygen in the cork or through the cork. Over time, this micro-oxygenation allows the wine to develop complexity and elegance. For such older vintages, a sudden influx of oxygen will tip the balance of the wine chemistry and destroy the wine. Most sommeliers will not even use a Vinturi aerator for old wines, let alone a blender. Check out the experiment of hyper decanting by The Chicago Wine School before trying this on your own.

7. Use a coffee filter to catch bits from a broken cork

HACK. Broken corks happen when the stoppers become dried out and brittle. This is not uncommon with older bottles of wine or when wine bottles are stored upright in a dry condition. While I often use a fine mesh strainer to catch bits from a broken cork, a coffee filter will work as well, albeit more slowly. However, prevention is better than cure. To avoid broken corks, store wine bottles on the side or even upside down in a case. That way, the cork is in constant contact with the wine and will not dry out.

A note on corked wine - Be assured that corked wine is not caused by bits of cork floating in your wine. A screwcapped wine may be corked too. Corked wine is also not the same as oxidized wine. (The latter is wine that has been over-exposed to oxygen and is on the way to becoming vinegar.) Cork taint, which smells like wet cardboard, is caused by a compound called TCA. If you’d like to learn more, check out my blog post on Cork Taint in a Screwcap?

Join me next month for my review on the rest of the hacks!

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Vintage, Non-Vintage, and Solera

When I first got interested in wine, one of the terms I learned was “vintage.” I realized quickly that a vintage wine was nothing like a vintage car. For one, almost every still (vs. sparkling) wine you see in a regular grocery store is a vintage wine. Not true about cars in a regular car dealership.

Vintage Car by Cayton Heath on Unsplash

Vintage refers to the year grapes were harvested to make a wine. Let’s delve into why vintage matters and also explore two other terms: non-vintage and solera.


Most traditional wine regions are located between the latitudes of 30° to 50°, both north and south of the equator. The climate is generally classified as temperate, with sub-categories of continental, maritime, and Mediterranean. These vineyards go through a one-year cycle from bud break, flowering, fruit set, veraison or ripening, and finally harvest before returning to winter dormancy. Because grapes are only harvested once a year, identifying wine by its vintage makes sense. It gives you an idea of the age of the wine. Some wines are meant to be enjoyed young, and others require cellaring.

Harvest by Andrea Cairone on Unsplash

Each wine vintage reflects a culmination of factors during the growing season. The weather pattern for a particular year may affect the flavor, acidity, and sugar of the grapes. Unseasonably hot or cold weather may cause grapes to ripen prematurely without developing full flavors, or not ripen at all. A dry or rainy harvest season may concentrate or dilute the grape juice. Other numerous factors include an untimely windstorm or proximity to forest fires; all of which affect the quality of the finished wine.

The bottom line is that grapes are an agricultural product. As such, they are grown at the mercy of their environment. While modern science and technology has allowed wineries to do vineyard damage control due to force majeure, good wine still starts with good grapes. When the stars are aligned in the vineyards to produce high quality grapes in a particular year, that year is then considered a good vintage.


Non-vintage wines are made with grapes that are not harvested in the same year. The most common non-vintage wine is house-style Champagne, often indicated by “NV” on the label. Champagne houses generally make two types of sparklers - vintage and non-vintage. Vintage Champagnes are only made if the growing condition for that year produces outstanding grapes. Over 90% of the Champagnes produced are non-vintage.

Moët & Chandon NV Champagne

NV Champagnes usually consist of a blend of 50-80% base vintage with reserves from other vintages. They are often less expensive than their vintage counterparts and provide a consistent style that you may expect from a particular house. It is important to note that NV Champagnes do not taste identical from year to year. House style simply refers to consistent characteristics such as yeastiness vs. fruit forwardness or crisper vs. rounder mouthfeel.

Grapes are harvested up to 3 times a year in Bali

More recently, a different flavor of non-vintage has emerged from non-conventional wine regions, such as Tahiti and Indonesia. In these tropical wine regions, vineyards do not experience winter dormancy, and harvests can take place two to three times a year. This new phenomenon challenges the traditional concept of “vintage.” You will find that the wine labels from these regions do not indicate a vintage.


Solera is a method of aging wines or spirits that originated with aging sherry over multiple vintages. To institute a solera system, you start with the oldest vintage at the bottommost row of barrels, known as the solera (see diagram below). The row of barrels above the solera is called the first criadera, and it contains the next oldest vintage. The next row up is called second criadera, and it contains the third oldest vintage, and so forth. The topmost row of barrels are always filled with the newest vintage.

Solera Method by Denkhenk via Wikimedia Commons
As a fraction of the wine in the solera is extracted to be bottled, the headspace left will be replenished by a fraction of the wine from the first criadera. The new headspace in the first criadera will also be replenished by a fraction of the wine from the second criadera and so forth. Over time, the solera method results in consistent aroma, taste, and quality in the final bottles.

Paul Prieur et Fils Sancerre Rosé Perpétuel

Solera is one of the ways used to produce NV Champagnes. More recently, I came across an NV Sancerre rosé that was made using the solera method. Sancerre is mostly known for its white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc. I also have had Sancerre Rouge that is made with Pinot Noir. Blanc or Rouge, I had only had vintage Sancerre until then. This Paul Prieur et Fils Rosé Perpétuel was a triple first for me (Sancerre rosé, non-vintage, made using solera method), and it was delicious.

Final Thoughts: Vintage wine makes up most of the still wine volume. Non-vintage wine makes up most of the sparkling wine volume, and some of these are made in the solera method. I wonder if the ratios will change in the coming years - perhaps due to climate change or maybe a new generation of more experimental winemakers. Here’s to toasting to a future of surprises.