December 22, 2012

Some Thoughts on Natalie Maclean’s “Predicament”

Poor Natalie. Just when you think you have the world by the by the tail, you end up with a hand full of… uh... disappointment.
First off, no one has cited Natalie for plagiarism. The main charge is copyright infringement. That means she reproduced material that belonged to someone else with neither attribution nor permission, and she did it to help earn a profit. Plagiarism is putting your name on someone else’s material. But how is this so different from taking someone else’s work and displaying it in such a way that it will likely be construed as your own? The material that was appropriated was taken from an LCBO publication. Did the LCBO give permission to ‘borrow’ the reviews? Did the authors? One of the first things they teach you in journalism school is attribution. If you didn’t write it, then putting the author’s name there is NOT OPTIONAL. More importantly, the LCBO always attributes material to the authors, so Natalie purposely removed or neglected to add names to the reviews.
As wine writers, we are journalists. And we are consumer advocates. There really is only one currency in this business: our credibility. We gain credibility by sticking to the rules, by not taking ‘pay-offs’ and by avoiding ANY suspicion of bias. Some purists suggested that accepting free wine, food, trips, etc. is improper. For some reason this standard is freely levied at wine writers but not at others. Do you expect car writers to buy the cars they review? Do restaurant critics pick up their own bill after every meal? (Good example here: Many restaurant critics go out of their way to be anonymous to eliminate any possibility of bias or favourable treatment and their publishers pay the tab.) Reviewers have a simple mandate: I may write about your product -- for better or worse -- and if you choose to make your products available for that purpose, thank you; I will do my utmost to be fair. It’s the cost of doing business on both sides. It’s in the winery’s best interest to get us to favourably review their products. Sending a bottle or two to my doorstep is a calculated investment for them, and they’re glad to do it. It can mean some very cheap publicity. They also understand that I might pan the product -- it’s a two way street.
Now since, I/we accept ‘freebies’, how do we distance ourselves from bias and conflict of interest, etc.? We simply do. That too is not optional. However, if I put a restriction in place, or ask for ‘more’ in order to do a review, I’d better be very careful. There’s no doubt that having a high profile writer review a product can be ‘worth your while’, as one commenter put it. Natalie’s mistake in this case was to demand a subscription fee to produce a review. That is very different from saying up front “I have a tasting fee of $xx per bottle, no guarantees.” That is fair and it’s transparent. To say, “I won’t review your wines unless you buy a copy of my book” is usury.
So Natalie, I know you’re not a trained journalist. I know you have to have some means of ‘gate keeping’ to keep the flood of wines to your door at a reasonable ebb. But what you’ve done by appropriating reviews is unethical. Allowing readers to believe that the content is yours is unethical. Charging people a fee to read those reviews is unethical. Demanding that wineries, agents, etc. subscribe to your newsletter to qualify for a review is unethical. Suggesting that your reviews could have a favourable result is in a gray area, but it smacks of something unethical.
The “world’s best drinks writer”, perhaps, but at my college – a writing school -- Ms Maclean would get an “F”.
Here’s a good, seemingly fair minded write-up:

April 24, 2012

I’ve Got It Covered

I have to confess to being a bit of a philistine when it comes to art. And that is equally true for graphics, so I knew it would not be a good idea for me to attempt a book cover design. I further reasoned that someone who could design a cover might also be able to help with printing and binding, so I started making calls. Before long I located a small graphics shop in Oakville that shared space with a printer -- a relationship that worked very well for both of them. I ran my problem past Imilia, the designer, and it turned out she and her shop mate were quite accustomed to this sort of job. A quick trip to her office to see her work and I was certain I'd found the right person.

Just for fun (and because I really can be particularly frugal) I asked Imilia if she would consider an exchange of services: cover design for a wine tasting. She would, and we struck a bargain – my fee for a wine tasting was almost identical to her fee for a cover design. She and her friends had a marvellous party with my expert guidance, and I got a cover plus a few book sales. The cover was great and Imilia was a great help throughout the process.

Aside from a cover design, I also got the support of a professional designer, who cleaned up my fairly good lay-up job and translated it into top-rate content. I will have to admit that an important part of the process was to be cut off from revisions. No sooner had I handed over the manuscript than I began to discover material that simply HAD to be added. I think I got away with four additions, after which Imilia said ‘no more’. That’s an important point: It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fine-tuning to the point that you forget – or are unwilling – to let the project go. A good editor or other professional can help you recognize that it’s time to let your child cross the street alone.

One final addition and we were good to go: an ISBN number (which is, of course, redundant). There are some who would have you believe that getting an International Standard Book Number is a big deal. No, it’s not. Anyone can register with The Canadian ISBN Service System and get a number. Once you’ve applied and received your number, there are lots of agencies around that will take your ISBN and put it into a bar code for you for just a few dollars. I’ve heard of people paying $100 or more for ISBN and bar code. The ISBN is free and I believe I paid $12 for a ‘camera ready’ bar code. That brings up an important point to keep in mind at every stage of the publishing process: do your research. There are lots of folks out there who will be glad to take your money and give you not very much in return.

March 22, 2012

Getting into Shape

Getting into Shape

Now things were getting serious. I had a large word processing file full of words that somewhat resembled a dictionary. My goal was to produce a presentable book. So how do I get from here to there? Fortunately, I spent some time doing desktop publishing in previous jobs and had a recent copy of PageMaker on my computer, so I figured I could do the layup myself and save a lot of money. But what should a book actually look like?

I pulled a few handfuls of wine books off my shelves and looked at how they were set up. Not terribly complicated: cover, title page, ‘front matter’, introduction, and then straight into it. Seemed easy enough. And my handy self-publishing reference came to the rescue once again, giving me detailed instructions on how to set up the front matter. One piece of advice it gave -- which I think may not be relevant today -- was to create an ‘imprint’. That would be the name of your publishing company (we chose “Chester Press”; it’s a long story). The idea is to throw people off the scent and make them think you aren’t self published. Today it doesn’t seem to be such a big deal, as self publishing is coming on strong.

So with a few simple guidelines, I put together the first few pages and was ready to tackle the content. I threw together an introduction (which I still think is a bit lame) and added it to my lay-up. I then came up with something in the way of a layout style for the content: a term on one line with its definition below and indented. I did something radical here; I didn’t put periods at the end of the definitions. I have no idea why, and I still like the look of it. I imported it all into PageMaker and I was, essentially, done. There was only one more very important step before heading off to my printer.

Through another writers group I belonged to at the time, I’d met a proof-reader who was as ruthless at proofing as I was at editing. We negotiated a ‘good friend’ price and I handed her my manuscript. I’m pleased to say it came back with only a modicum of criticism. Now, despite the fact that I have a lot of training in English, grammar, writing, etc., and years of experience as an editor, I still gave my manuscript to a professional for one final check. And I paid for the privilege. It was money well spent. Although we didn’t find any major errors (mind you, there were errors), I had the peace of mind knowing that the manuscript had passed the acid test, that I wouldn’t be alienating any readers who were touchy about grammar and typos or embarrassing myself.

Next step: a cover design
- rb

March 7, 2012

Price Conscience

I've always been intrigued by those little books that they display at the checkout at grocery stores: “How To Train Your Pug”, “101 Things To Do With A Shoelace”. They fill a very special niche and they do it beautifully. They typically cover a single, well-focussed topic and they cover it well enough to give you what you need without any extra baggage. They're priced ridiculously low, and they fit in your pocket. So what about a wine book that fit this model?

Now, I knew I wouldn't be able to produce a book that sold for $3.99, but perhaps $10 was possible. So that became my target. It didn’t take many phone calls to find out that this was going to be a challenge. To have a book printed economically by off-set printing required a run of 3000 to 5000 copies. “Print On Demand” was just beginning to appear then, and prices hovered around the $15 mark. Ouch. So what other options were available?

Here’s my analysis: When I was in retail, our selling price was roughly twice the wholesale price. We needed to double our money to make a living. So if I were to sell at wholesale, I also should expect to double my money. Pricing the book at $10 meant I’d have to be able to print it for no more than $2.50. I could print it myself on my laser printer, maybe have the cover done a Staples. But what about folding and stapling. Not very elegant and quite a bit of fussy handling. But the idea had some merit. After few more phone calls, I discovered a local graphic designer who frequently did just the type of job I needed. Moreover, she had partnered with a printer and could do the entire job for me. And the price would come in under my $2.50 ceiling. Nor would I have to order a ton of books to get that price. Good news. It seemed like the best way to get my project off the ground at a price I could afford, which at the time was pretty close to nothing.

So now I was ready to get my manuscript polished and ready for printing.
- rb

February 27, 2012

Sizing Up the Competition

Having semi-committed to publishing my collection of wine terms, I thought it prudent to check out the competition. My self-publishing reference (see below) confirmed that this was indeed the best way to start. I’d already been through the library’s collection and found it wanting. The largest glossary I’d come across had just over 200 words in it. On-line, I found only one glossary that had more than about 300 words, and all were riddled with grape, geography and chateau names and lots of what I considered to be non-tasting terms.

Next step: I’m off to Chapters.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is to visit a large bookstore and thoroughly study the section that might one day house your book. How big is the section? How current are the books? Do any of the books already cover your topic? Do they do it better? More completely? You’re also looking for what’s currently available: What sort of books are being produced that the bookstores are stocking and, presumably, that people are buying. What is the price range? What is the price range of books similar in size and length to yours?

Do an honest inventory here. The last thing you want to do is produce your book only to find out that a nearly identical one exists, and even worse, that it’s written by a famous author. You also don’t want to see a book that is similarly positioned that might cast a shadow on your book. For example, my 648 terms would likely result in a book of about 120 pages. On the shelves I saw a wine lover’s guide that boasted 1800 terms and cost $17.95. Yes, it contained all manner of non-tasting terms, but even so that’s nearly three times the size of my proposed book. If I priced my book at $14.95 for example, who would buy it if the book beside it had three times the info for a few dollars more? I decided that even $12.95 wouldn’t work if placed anywhere near that particular book.

So what I discovered in my research was this:

• There were no wine language books whatsoever. That means an opportunity.
• Those that claimed to be wine dictionaries or encyclopaedias were collections of wine reviews, all manner of wine terms, or hard-core academic encyclopaedias. Another opportunity for me.
• Prices ranged from around $16 to over $40. I had to think seriously about pricing.
• Everybody and his or her aunt, uncle and second cousin has written a wine book. This is a very cluttered and competitive category. That’s a big problem.

So if I were to go ahead and produce my book, it would likely have to sell in the $10 range and it would have to position itself as unique in its single-mindedness against hundreds of more glamorous tomes. If I could do that, then I might have a shot.
And so I began.

My main source:

How To Publish Yourself by Peter Finch
Alison & Busby Ltd., London, 1997
ISBN: 0-74900-301-4

February 20, 2012

Getting the Publishing Bug

It all began innocently enough. I was collecting unknown wine terms as I came across them in wine books and articles, and I would then set about looking for definitions. Sometimes it was hard finding definitions. I remember on more than one occasion going through every glossary in every wine book at the local library and not finding a particular word. My collection of words didn’t actually become an obsession, but I was pretty dedicated to it. Eventually my list grew to 150 words and their definitions.

My wife had been following my progress and shared my frustration with the general lack of linguistic resources for wine lovers. When I studied philosophy I was able to buy a dictionary of philosophical terms. Same with psychology, computers and even accounting … every discipline had its own lexicon. But I could find no dictionary of wine terms. And yet it never occurred to me that I was actually compiling one. But my wife didn’t miss it, and one day said to me, “You should consider publishing that. I bet a lot of people have the same problem with wine language.”

Well of course then I was off and running. I spent the next three months scouring libraries and the internet looking for wine terms and definitions. I eventually put together a list of more than 600 tasting terms, although I had to omit a few from the final list because I couldn’t find definitions, or at least consistent definitions.
Then it was time to go to press. Omigod! I’d never thought of publishing before and really had no idea where to start. I was fairly sure that no traditional publisher would be interested in the book as it was a modest effort and a small market niche. So I went to the local Chapters and looked at a few books on self publishing. I bought the one that looked the most useful and pored through it. It laid out a very sensible course of action and I followed it to the letter.
And that has led me to this point, having just launched my third wine book and with one best seller under my belt.

So, what I’d like to do here is chronicle my journey, my successes, my mistakes, and what I have learned about being a self-published author, or as I like to call it, a micro-publisher. I hope you find it useful.

Richard Best, T.F.O.

November 14, 2011

Hybrid, French

    A grape variety that is the product of crossing European vinifera vines with North American vines (e.g. Marechal Foch, Baco Noir, Vidal, Seyval Blanc). Tend to be winter-hardy and resistant to disease and phylloxera, usually without a "foxy" taste or aroma. Sometimes incorrectly called American Hybrid, they have unfortunately fallen into disfavour in some circles.

No doubt from the earliest days of agriculture (c. 10,000 BCE) growers have used nature's proclivities to improve upon plant varieties. The produce we see on store shelves today rarely resembles the plants or fruits that existed millennia ago. (The modern carrot, for example, at one time more resembled a dandelion root.) The main tool that growers use is crossbreeding: using the pollen from one plant to fertilise another of the same or a similar species. 

When Europeans "discovered" North America, they were impressed with the vigour of American grapevines. On the downside, the wines they produced were not up to the standard that existed in Europe. Attempts to grow European vines in North America failed due to the many pests and diseases against which the vines had no defences. When North American vines were planted in Europe, the wines they produced were no better than what the native soil produced.(*) So breeders began experimenting by crossing North American grapes with European grapes.

Breeding grapes is a long, painstaking and mostly disappointing process. Many breeders create hundreds of new hybrid varieties, but only see a handful that produced a decent wine. Francois Baco is a perfect example.  He created more than 2000 new varieties, but only Baco Blanc and Baco Noir gained any popularity, and now Baco Blanc has all but disappeared from vineyards.

French hybrid grapes have many advantages. They are mostly immune to North American diseases, which makes them ideal for regions where diseases and phyloxerra are a problem. They tend to be cold hardy, making them ideal in marginal regions -- some parts of Canada, the middle states of the US and Great Britain, among others. They require fewer chemicals in the vineyard, making them more economical and more environmentally friendly. Their rootstocks are also valuable and are used in almost every wine region where vinifera scions are grafted onto the more rugged Americanized roots. To add insult to injury, many winemakers and even wine authorities are banning hybrid grapes from vineyards, which is unfortunate. While the taste profiles of some hybrid grapes are not exactly mainstream, some of them create better wine and at a lower cost than many highly touted vinifera vines. And as our various climates continue to change, the lowly hybrid grape could make a comeback!

 * These experiments also introduced phyloxerra to Europe.

October 19, 2011

Green Cropping

    Removal of unripe grape clusters from vines to encourage better development of the remaining clusters. Some of the best growers remove up to half the crop.

An important determinant of wine quality is vineyard yield: the total amount of grapes or juice produced by the vines. Yield is normally measured in tons per acre or hectolitres per hectare. Let’s stick with tons/acre for now.

A grapevine can deliver only so much nutrients through its trunk and branches (canes). This nutrient mix is then distributed to all the grapes in all the clusters of the vine. Each  cluster will be treated equally and receive a portion of the nutrients. And the more clusters and grapes there are, the less there is to go around. We can improve this distribution by cutting down on the number of clusters, giving the remaining grape more of the available nourishment.

The optimal yield for a vineyard depends on the type of grape and the eventual wine quality. Factory wines or jug wines may come from vineyards that produce 10 tons/acre and even more. But with a quality wine, we want to cut down the yield, and the simplest way to do that is to remove grapes. This is done about the time the grapes begin to change colour and texture, from rock hard green marbles to something more resembling a grape.

Ask a vineyard manager or winemaker about yield and they’ll often proudly state a low yield figure such as 2 ½ tons/acre and even less  – again, depending on the  type of grape. It’s not uncommon for highly desirable wines to come from vineyards that were green-cropped down to 1 ½ or even 1 ton/acre.

September 12, 2011

Fighting Varietal

    A varietal wine that is thought to be a step up from jug wine. May be vintage dated or not.  
We wine writers have two driving forces. First, we are consumer advocates. We strive to clear away the chaff and steer our readers toward better quality and better value wines. Secondly, and this is perhaps the more meaningful issue, we are fans. So when the industry decides to mislead the wine-buying public, we take it rather seriously. It's actually a pretty easy thing to do. For example, you can revive a dying brand by relabeling it as something else. You can even sell the same wine under several different labels or draw the public toward a mediocre wine by giving it a popular sounding name or trendy look.

Years ago, store shelves were littered with bottles labelled as chablis, "sauterne", champagne, burgundy, bordeaux, chianti, and many others -- bottles filled with low-end wines that might have come from anywhere on the planet and rarely bore even a superficial resemblance to the great European wines that rightfully owned those names.

When consumers became a little more sophisticated -- when they discovered that chablis from Grimsby was not of the same standard as chablis from Chablis  -- they simply put up with it or opted for the original. As the wine market continued to change and to become somewhat more consumer friendly, we saw a surge of varietally labelled wine. This happened originally at the higher end. Varietal naming was basically a good move. A fan of Sancerre who knew that Sancerre was sauvignon blanc could now seek out other sauvignon blancs to expand their appreciation of a favourite grape.

This did not go unnoticed by the jug wine makers. Many quickly switched their marketing strategy away from "generic" Old World names and instead emblazoned their bottle, jug and bag-in-box wines with grape names. Now here's the kicker: all chardonnay is not created equal. A barely acceptable wine that had perhaps been labelled “Canadian Chablis” might actually have contained some low-end chardonnay, so why not beef up the chardonnay component to the legal minimum (perhaps add the max of allowed water as well) and then top it up with any nondescript white wine? It's then perfectly legal to call that wine chardonnay, even though it might be as little as 75% chardonnay and perhaps even less.
Varietal labelling is no guarantee whatsoever of a quality wine, but it's not surprising to see low-end wines trying to carve out some respectability by latching on to varietal names. I'm less generous than your average wine consumer, and when I see a bottle of varietally labelled wine from a producer of low-end wines, I'm inclined to pass it by. Fighting varietal or not, my assumption (and I'm almost always right on this) is that it is old wine in new bottles, or boxes, and only the name has changed. 

While I'm on the topic of new labels, new names and general consumer mis-direction, I must say the latest crop of Canadian & International Blended wines coming  on offer at the LCBO are a particularly bad lot. Look for brand new company names that hide the fact that the wines come from just a handful of Canada’s largest wineries. Look also for new and enticing labels and wine names, expertly designed to hide the wine's origin: it could be from anywhere. Don't let the words "Product of Canada" fool you. And here's the worst part: these wines are often made from cheap imported wine that can cost as little as 25 cents a litre! Now please explain to me how you can "cellar" such a wine to the point that it merits a $12.95 price tag? I see authentic domestic (VQA) wines at $12 and even less, and imported "classed" wines in the same price range: always better wine and better value.

So when you're looking through the much-abused Ontario section, have a look at those prices. If you're looking for quality, typicity and, indeed, fairness, you're far better off with a VQA wine from Ontario. Almost any wine from Portugal or Spain or France or Italy is also a better choice. Many New World countries do not yet have the authenticity guarantees of appellation systems, but you will find gobs of quality coming out of Chile, Argentina and South Africa. Australia and New Zealand you probably already know about.

So buyer be warry. Check the fine print and always err on the side of authenticy … just my opinion.

August 18, 2011

Estate Bottled/Estate Wine

    A wine that is grown, vinted and bottled on a single estate and usually bearing the name of the estate. A sign of quality. (A.k.a. Chateau bottled, Domaine bottled)  
There is an incredibly broad range to wine quality, from mass-produced jug wines of unknown origin all the way to microclimate-based, small batch cult wines. When you look closely at what makes for a quality wine, the word terroir crops up quite a lot. Simply put, terroir means location, and where the wine was grown is one of the most important factors to consider. So knowing the origin of the wine -- of the grapes -- can tell you a lot about the wine. Another popular concept is "Wine is made in the vineyard". So a critical question would be:  Whose vineyard?

The best wines are made by people who are intimately acquainted with the grapes and the vineyard. If you buy wine on the open market, you have no control and have to make the best of what's on offer. A better idea would be to contract with a grower with an assurance that the grapes would be cared for according to the winemaker's goals. Best of all is to own the vineyard (and have control of the vineyard manager's salary). Invariably, the best wines -- the coveted and raved about wines -- were raised from their infancy by the vineyard's parents, and yes, I know this analogy is a stretch. That way the winemaker and the vineyard manager form a team with a single-minded vision: to produce the best grapes possible that will beget the best wine possible.

When the chateau has total control over the vines and the winemaking, it makes sense to keep it all in-house. Age the wine, finish it, bottle it on the premises, and then give it any extra bottle ageing deemed appropriate. And if you're going to go to all that trouble, why not brag about it on the label?

One minor exception to this scenario is the very small winery that perhaps doesn't own the vineyard or a bottling line. It's not uncommon for a smaller winery to rent a vineyard over which they exert total control, and then hire a bottling rig when needed, often in the form of a truck-mounted unit. These wines, too, can be considered estate bottled, which puts them on the same plain as the better-funded wineries.
So if you see the words "Estate Bottled" on a label, remember that it's a mark of both authenticity and quality, and it's a difference that makes some wines special.

July 25, 2011

Dégourgement (Fr.)

    The process of removing (disgorging) sediment from traditional method sparkling wines. Results in a slight loss of volume that needs to be topped up with a dosage before final corking.
For such a simple product, wine sure can get complicated. Take, for example, the exquisite sparkling wines of Champagne and elsewhere. The two main by-products of fermentation are alcohol and carbon dioxide. Under normal circumstances, we want to keep the alcohol and get rid of the CO2, except in the case of sparkling wines. Then we want to preserve the CO2. It is, after all, the quality that makes sparkling wines both special and expensive.

The objective when making sparkling wine is to retain as much of the CO2 as possible while producing a delectable and distinctive wine. The problem is that, when sparkling wine goes through its second fermentation, everything is trapped in the bottle. As the yeast works to produce additional alcohol and carbon dioxide bubbles, it also produces sediment. Now, there’s nothing wrong with letting the sediment stay in the bottle, but it can be rather unappetizing. Better to get rid of it. But that’s not so simple a task.

Traditional or champagne method sparkling wines go through a number of interesting processes. First, a second fermentation is induced in the bottle by adding yeast and sugar to a base wine. That brew is allowed for work for up to several years. Lying peacefully on their sides, the bottles go through an almost magical transformation, with the spent yeast – the lees – giving the wine unique toasty, biscuity qualities. Finally, steps are taken to remove the lees from the bottles. The process is call riddling, and it can be performed by hand or by a machine called a gyro-palette.

The Widow Cliquot perfected the technique of preparing a champagne bottle for dégourgement by placing the bottles in an A-frame rack. Riddlers spend their day shaking and rotating the bottles in the rack, gradually working the sediment into the neck of the bottle over several months. Eventually the bottles are standing vertically in the rack, with the neck pointing downward, ready to have the sediment removed. The bottle neck is set in a bath of iced brine. This freezes a small amount of the wine along with a plug of sediment. It’s then a small job to lift the bottle from the brine solution, pop the cap, and expel the plug. All that remains is to top up the bottle to replace the lost liquid, and then cork it. (By the way, this is the process that begat the rather large foil that is found atop champagne and sparkling wine bottles. Its original purpose was  to disguised the fill line so the buyer is not aware that there could be a bit of variation here.)

July 11, 2011

Chaptalized/Chaptalization *

    The addition of sugar at the start of fermentation to correct for lack of ripeness/sugar in the fruit, to soften tannins and to increase alcohol. Sometimes perceived as a candy-like quality or sugary sweetness in the finish. Acceptable in some regions but not generally talked about.

When in the early 1800s French chemist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal advised wineries to add sugar to the juice before making wine, he was not suggesting anything new or unique. Winemakers have been adding extra fermentable sugar to grape must for hundreds if not thousands of years. Nor was Chaptal advocating shortcuts to put one over on the public. He was in fact advocating quality, which was sometimes elusive in those years when grapes did not ripen fully. There is a certain sugar content that is required to make decent wine, and Chaptal merely wanted to recommend and standardize the well-established practice.

The main goal of chaptalization is to give the wine better balance by reaching a certain degree of alcohol. Most wine regulators will specify this minimum, any wine that doesn’t meet it would be demoted. So it’s easy to see why winemakers would occasionally want to goose the sugar content a bit. The problem arises when ‘a bit’ becomes ‘a lot’. It’s possible to turn not-very-promising juice into a sellable wine by adding what’s missing, in this case enough sugar to produce sufficient alcohol.

In regions that allow chaptalization, the amounts and circumstances are very specific. For example, European Union regulations allow chaptalization, but not more than is needed to increase the ‘potential alcohol’ by 2 or 3%. This is a good solution as it allows the winemaker to make a minor adjustment that will improve the wine without compromising its overall quality. In fact it could be argued that the quality is higher because of chaptalization.

In regions that do not allow chaptalization, the practice has mostly gone underground. A juice in need of some extra sugar will quite possibly get it, provided no one is watching. Again we can argue that this would improve the wine rather than adulterate it, although there are many advocates who condemn the practice. (There are even a few ‘super palates’ who claim to able to taste chaptalization in a wine.) But in a world where additives are the norm, it seems to me that adding a modest amount of sugar to produce a better product may not be such a bad thing.

July 4, 2011

Bottle Age/Bottle Ageing *

    Wine continues to develop after bottling. Some ageing, about 3 months, is needed to overcome bottle shock. After a certain point, most wines will begin to deteriorate. Varies by wine type, quality and storage conditions. Can range from 3 months to 20 years or more, although 1 to 4 years is more typical. Wines that benefit from prolonged ageing are rare.  
Quite possibly the most common question I hear is “How long should you age a wine?” The answer is simple: That depends. In truth, the majority of wines are ‘ready’ when you see them on the store shelf. The exceptions to this are few – and usually expensive. Still, there are a number of things to keep in mind as you contemplate whether to open any bottle.

Bottle ageing occurs in stages. At the winery, once the wine has been bulk aged sufficiently, it is bottled and either prepared for shipping or ‘binned’ in the cellar for further ageing. Some wines are shipped immediately: light whites, early drinking reds, rosés. Others require more time to integrate. Some of the bigger, classic red wines will spend years in the cellar before release. (Have a look at the vintage dates in the Spanish wine section next time you’re shopping.) Port and Champagne also spend a lot of time in the cellar – again, a matter of years.

Another factor to consider is ‘bottle shock’.Wine doesn’t take well to being forcibly slammed into a bottle and then shut off from the world. And with good reason. These days most wineries will ‘sparge’ the bottle with nitrogen before filling, which forces out all of the air. This establishes the chemistry inside the bottle and, once corked, the wine must come to terms with its new situation. Simply put, the wine must deal with disolved oxygen and sulphur. This is a complicated chemical process (and I never did have much of a head for chemistry), but suffice it to say, through a process called ‘redox’, the wine will integrate and  reintegrate these two chemicals until it reaches a point of stasis. How long does this take? Research suggests it should be accomplished in about three months. So if possible, check the bottling date and make sure that at least three months have passed. Since you likely won’t find a bottling date, or be able to decipher the code, it’s not a bad practice to lay in a wine for a couple of months before opening it. This, by the way, also gives the wine a chance to settle down after the trauma of transportation.

What about those wines that do age? Almost any red wine will show some benefit from additional cellar time. But how do you determine how much time? Just ask Clive Coates. According to this Master of Wine, a wine will remain at its optimal drinking point for the same period of time that it took to get there. Thus a wine that took three years to mature should drink nicely for the next three years. A wine that took ten years to reach drinkability will keep for another ten years. And a wine that was release one year after vintage probably should be opened by its second birthday.

The main thing to keep in mind that all wine has a limited life span, and a wine that is over the hill is a waste of money as well as a disappointment. Far better to say “I really shouldn’t be drinking this yet” while you enjoy that 8-year old barolo than to say “I really shouldn’t have opened this  –  it’s dead”. So always err on the side of youth.

June 27, 2011

Aroma Wheel  *

A useful tool developed by the University of California at Davis that helps wine tasters identify aromas in wine. Get one!

It’s tempting to think that Dr. Ann C. Noble invented the Aroma Wheel. In fact, she did develop the wheel that’s now standard for coaxing aroma identities out of the wine and from your memory, but the wheel concept is a well established teaching tool for sensory evaluation. You’ll find flavour, aroma and ‘structure’ wheels for all kinds of food products, from olive oil to maple syrup. There is even a pinotage wheel!

The idea behind the sensory wheel is simple. When evaluating a food or beverage, you’re goal is to identify the characteristics inherent in the product. In wine, you look for recognizable aromas, both good and bad. Take faults, for an obvious example. You stick your nose into a glass of much anticipated wine and the first thing that hits you is a vague sherry-like smell. OMG – as the kids say these days – what is that? A quick trip to a wine wheel shows the word ‘Sherry’ on the outside circle, and the inside circle says ‘Oxydized’. So, this wine is oxydized. Thanks aromas wheel. (In this case we’ve worked from the outside toward the middle. Normally you start at the innermost wheel and work your way toward the outside.)

It gets a bit trickier when you have a quality wine that shows a lot of complexity on the nose. A riot of aromas can be hard to sort out. Aroma wheel to the rescue. Is that an herbal aroma? Could be, but which one? The wheel gives you Herbaceous/Vegetal as a starting option, followed by Fresh, Canned or Dried. Follow the path to the outer ring and you find Cut Grass, which is much desired in sauvignon blanc but not wanted at all in cabernet.

The key to the aroma wheel, or any other such tool, is to use it to develop your skills. Then, when you are reliably pulling aromas out of wine and confidently naming names, you can leave the wheel behind.

* There lots of wheels to choose from, but my own “Wine Style Trios Wheel” is the only one that can guide you toward wines you’re more likely to enjoy. Check it out at

June 13, 2011

Weight *

    Strength of alcohol, and sometimes tannin, that gives an impression of weight and volume in the mouth

When I'm teaching a group of newcomers about wine, one of the most troublesome concepts to get across is weight. Wine is complicated, and sorting out its many sensory factors takes a bit of work. One way I handle the weight issue is to present a range of wines -- from the very light to quite heavy -- so that the differences in weight are more obvious. An analogy that people often find helpful is to look at the weight of different types of milk. Whole milk is rather heavy because of its cream content, whereas 2% is noticeably lighter, 1% milk is lighter still, and skim milk is the lightest of all.

The same idea can be applied to wines, between different wines as well as beetween wines of similar style. Chardonnay is typically heavier than Sauvignon Blanc; Cabernet is heavier than Dolcetto. Then within a given style of wine, or even an individual class of wine, there are also weight differences. Cabernet is noticeable heavier than Merlot (both are what I call ‘Bold & Aristocratic’ reds), just as Chardonnay is usually heavier than Auxerrois -- a grape that was long mistaken for Chardonnay. Then within the same type of wines there are weight differences. Burgundy gives us a good comparison with its various interpretations of Chardonnay. Chablis is the lightest Chardonnay that Burgundy has to offer. Next step up the weight scale would be Burgundy proper, or Beaujolais Blanc. At the top of the ladder are the great and legendary Chardonnays: Pouilly-Fuissé, Montrachet and the like. Of course if you really want to lay it on, you have to turn to New World Chardonnay, with its extra helping of oak and butter.

Weight is actually a more important concept than you might realize. If you think of wine as a food as much as a beverage, then getting a grip on weight is required. We often think in terms of matching food and wine by flavour and/or aroma, but it's far more important to match weight. Light foods and heavy wines do not mix; nor do light wines and heavy foods. So when pairing wine and food, always look for a wine that is at least as heavy as the food, if not somewhat fuller. That way your wine will never be overpowered at the table.

May 24, 2011

Unfined *

    A wine that has not been subjected to clarification by the addition of fining materials (e.g. egg whites, gelatine, diatomaceous earth, dry clay powder, and many others).  
Nobody likes cloudy wine, so winemakers sometimes go to great lengths to make their wine crystal clear. During the last stages of production, a wine will “fall bright”, when the majority of grape matter and dead yeast cells drop to the bottom of the tank or barrel. For some wines, this is sufficient to make a crystal clear wine, ready for bottling; others need some help. There are also times when a little problem arises that must be taken care of. Fining is a very old technique that helps rid wine of various unwanted conditions, whether visible, olfactory or tasteable.

Fining materials do their work by attaching to unwanted matter and forcing it to drop out of the wine. The fining materials themselves do not remain in the wine but join the sludge left behind. Fining can be light or aggressive, depending on the material used and the result the winemaker is looking for. A light fining, perhaps with beaten egg whites, is rather standard with red wines. At the other extreme is a wine that went in the wrong direction and then requires a great deal of intervention to salvage it, and there is a long list of options. In either case, fining removes something from the wine, and there are those who believe the wine is the lesser for it -- that fining removes character as easily as it removes other things.

A wine that is unfined has had no extra elements introduced to it. This is reassuring to the vegetarian or vegan who doesn’t want a wine that has had egg, milk, blood, bone, or gelatine in it. Unfined also means that the wine was at its peak without this intervention. The final bonus is that an unfined wine has all the goodness it was born to have – nothing has been removed through fining – and in that case, you are likely to see the word “Unfined” proudly displayed on the bottle label.

May 11, 2011

Table Wine

    1. Wine with no geographic designation, often considered to be the lowest quality available. (Fr: vin du table, It: vino da tavola); 2. An exceptional wine that does not conform to local wine regulations (e.g.“Super Tuscans”); 3. A non-fortified wine *

If it’s not sparkling or syrupy sweet or fortified, then it’s a table wine, according to most wine jurisdictions. In countries that have no appellation systems - the laws that govern the use of place names and set standards for growing and making wine - table wine is a broad category that includes just about everything (with the above noted exceptions). In more formal regions, France being perhaps the best example, a basic table wine is the entry point for decent wine (below that we find ‘vin ordinaire’). These can incorporate any sort of blend and can include bulk wine from other countries. In to order proclaim that a wine is a better quality, it would come entirely from a designated region using approved grapes and vinification techniques. In France, that includes vin de pays (‘wine of the country’), appellation controllée wines, cru and village wines, and the now somewhat rare VDQS. Now, all of these are technically table wines, but they’ve been lifted above the mare table wine category by reason of their pedigree.

Now, there are those who believe the local rules, while fundamentally well intentioned, are too limiting. Chianti, for example, is a great wine in all its incarnations. But the classic chianti formula calls for five different grapes. The dominant grape is sangiovese, which is a star in its own right. But the traditional chianti formula required a minimum of 15% other grapes, including, at one time, white grapes that contribute little to the mix. One could quietly forget to add the less desirable grapes, but that would invite scandal if discovered. And what if you have a goal that the local laws do not permit? Cabernet is a great grape to add to sangiovese. But if a chianti producer adds cabernet, then the wine can be disqualified as chianti. In that case, the wine would be demoted to mere table wine. For the producer, it’s a gamble and quite a big one. Chianti is a very marketable name, and having that word on the label, along with its guarantee of authenticity, is pretty helpful. But a wine that has flouted both laws and traditions must go it alone.

On the other hand, a wine trades on its uniqueness and demonstrated quality can’t be a bad thing.

* from The Frugal Oenophile's Lexicon of Wine Tasting Terms

April 25, 2011

Skin Contact

    Time that grape must spends on skins and solids during maceration. For red wines, ranges from several days to several weeks. Rosé wines spend a day or two on the skins. White wines do not normally spend time on the skins, although some winemakers will allow limited skin contact. *
To produce wine is a fairly simple thing:  toss together some fruit juice and some yeast and wait. Grapes are a very good way to start because their juice contains all the right ingredients, and their skins even have a layer of ready-to-use yeast. OK, that gets us wine, but how do you create a quality wine, a distinctive wine, a wine for the ages?
A cluster of grapes consists of stems, pulp, juice, skins, and seeds. White wines are made from just the juice. But red wines need more stuff than pulp and juice alone can deliver. Red wines need, first of all, colour, and that comes from the skins. Red wines also need tannin, and that too comes from the skins (some tannin also comes from the stems and seeds). So, to make a suitable red wine, we need to leave the juice  –  the must  –  in contact with the skins. And since nothing is simple when it comes to wine (itself a simple beverage) the decisions surrounding skin contact are many.
A white wine may have some skin contact, usually measured in hours. This can give the wine a subtle boost in terms of colour and aromatics. Too much skin contact, though, can extract skin tannin and that’s something we don’t want in a white wine, so the winemaker will press the juice immediately or after brief skin contact.
Red wines can macerate in contact with the skins for hours, days and even weeks, depending on the goals of the winemaker. One way to produce rosé wines, for example, is to allow a day or so of skin contact. Sometimes enough colour can be extracted simply by pressing the grapes very slowly for hours of controlled skin contact  for a wee bit  of colour and not much tannin.
Now let’s follow a batch of red wine. When we say skins we’re also talking about stems and seeds … it’s a package deal. We can use a mechanical destemmer to remove as much wood as possible, but most winemakers will leave in some of the stems. Stem tannin can improve a wine’s structure, and will also enhance its ageing ability. Seeds will quickly drop to the bottom of the fermentation tank where they don’t have much effect. The rest of the mass – the skin, stems and remaining pulp – has to be controlled.  Fermentation produces a lot of carbon dioxide that rises to the surface, carrying the mass of stems and skins – the ‘cap’ – with it. To keep the wine in contact with the skins, and to prevent decay setting in, the cap must be pushed back down, up to several times a day.
The winemaker will assess the wine’s progress daily, and eventually gives the order to ‘rack’ the wine off of the skins. That order can come after a few days, when a lighter, less tannic wine is the objective, or maceration can continue. After about 10 days, most of the goodness has been extracted, and this is when most wines will be racked. Some winemakers will allow the process to continue well past that mark. Wine can stay on the skins for as long as a month. An interesting thing happens in that case. Instead of extracting more and more tannin from the skins and stems, the tannins can, in fact, soften. But this is ‘white knuckle’ winemaking, and is usually attempted only by the most intrepid winemakers.

April 19, 2011

Reserve *
    An unregulated New World term that suggests a higher quality wine that has been “reserved” from the rest of that year’s harvest, but can just as easily be meaningless.

Not much in the way of Q words to choose from, so let’s move right to the R's. The notion of a ‘reserve’ wine is that it has been set aside as being the best of that year’s batch. Occasionally the reserve wine is created by design, with the winemaker taking extra care every step of the way on that wine, whereas the remainder of the lot is handled in a more everyday fashion.

After the wine has aged in barrels for the allotted time, it will all be blended together in one large vat to create the cuvée. While in the course of sampling the barrels, the winemaker will also be looking for exceptional barrels. These would then be set aside to go into the reserve wine. In Old World wine regions, the practice is common-place, and the terms Reserve, Reserva, and Riserva are all regulated. You cannot use these terms on the labels if your wines don’t make the grade. Nor can you call ALL your wine reserve. It must have been reserved from something.

Not so in the New World. Most of these wine regions have yet to put in place any kind of appellation systems, let alone quality tiers. With little in the way of labelling regulations, anyone can put practically anything on a wine bottle. It’s not unusual to see bottles labelled “barrel reserve” or “cellar reserve” that have seen neither a barrel nor an actual cellar. There are even wineries that label all of their wines as reserve. Makes you wonder what the non-reserve stuff must have been like.

April 11, 2011

The bug that ate its way through Europe

Phylloxera Vastatrix

    A microscopic North American aphid that feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines. Responsible for destroying most of Europe’s vineyards from about 1860-1900. North American vines and hybrids are mostly immune and are used as rootstock for virtually all grapevines today.  
Before the days of quarantines and importation standards, humans trafficked freely in plants and animals, thereby transplanting a lot of invasive species that wrought destruction instead of the hoped for boon. When explorers touched down in the New World, they notice the grapes right away. Soon after came wine made from North America grapes. And what retched wine it was. So why not plant a bunch of European grapevines in Canada and the US. The foreign grapes flourished in this hospitable climate, but after a few years they all sickened and died, and for no known reason. Well, if that experiment wouldn’t work, maybe taking the prolific native vines back to Europe would bestow some of the classic European flavour to the wines. Worse than not a very good idea, the North American vines that were planted in France in the late 1850s and early 1860s carried an alien -- an alien that loved these defenseless grapevines. It took barely 20 years for the phylloxera aphid to destroy some 6 million acres of vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. 

North American vines had managed to co-exist semi-peacefully with the bug (it infects mainly the leaves), but the European vinifera grapevines had no such resistance. Many treatments were tried -- some of them irrational and even shocking -- with no success. Because North American vines were holding their own, vinticulturalist began to experiment with cross breeding. That resulted in a large number of “French hybrid” grapes, many of which are still in production in marginal wine-growing areas. But too often the hybrids fall short in terms of the wines they produce. Sometimes they're just rejected out of hand even when superior to comparable vinifera varieties. So the other, and final, solution was to graph European vines onto North American or hybrid rootstocks. That is how it’s now done in virtually all wine regions where phylloxera is an issue. There are some exceptions; Chile, for example, has very strict importation laws and has managed to keep the bug out. These days, research into rootstocks is as important as research in grape growing and winemaking.

April 4, 2011

More is not always better


    Allowing vines to produce too many grapes, resulting in wines that are hollow, watery and characterless. *

Grapevines are fussy things. Normally they just want to take over a small region of the planet and be left alone. But grape growers have other plans. They want grapes. An orderly vineyard might be nice too. So they plant in rows and prune the vines to keep down their prolific growth. Interestingly, when challenged this way, grapevines tend to produce more grapes – and that’s good for the grower. But at a certain point, the vine produces too many grapes, or at least too many to produce a quality wine.

For the grape farmer there is a trade off. Increase the yield and there will be more grapes to sell. But that lowers the grapes’ quality. In an environment where grape prices are fixed, that can be bad for the wineries that purchase grapes. If grapes are priced the same, then a ton of grapes costs the same regardless of quality. There is no incentive for the grower to increase quality since quality costs a lot to produce but would not result in a better price for the grapes. For the lowest quality of wine, this may be OK (it is far from actually a good thing) but it is impossible to make great wine from over-cropped grapes.

In an over-cropped situation, the vine has to parcel out nutrients equally. Whether the vineyard is targeting 2 tons per acre of 10 tons per acre, the vine can only deliver the same amount of nutrients. In general, you’ll find quality wine made from low yield vineyards – the 2 tons-per-acre is typical – and cheap bulk wines from the 10-tons-per-acre crops and some times more.

What constitutes low or high yield depends on a number of factors, and principally the grape variety. Some grapes can produce top quality at higher yields while others must be severely restricted. The corollary is that over-cropping is also relative, as far as the actual tonnage per acre goes, and varies from grape to grape. But whatever the ideal yield is for a given grape and terroir, over-cropping is over-cropping and the result is almost always a wine that is “character challenged”.

March 28, 2011

Like a fine non-vintage?

Non-vintage / NV

    A wine that is blended from more than one harvest year and therefore cannot be given a vintage date. Meant to be consumed “immediately”.
The term Vintage comes from the harvesting of grapes and the making of wine. The notion of dating the vintage – the harvest year – has been around since Roman times, and perhaps before. In general, we look upon a vintage date as a sign of quality in a wine. But it’s just one of many factors that determine quality. Plus there are wines that do not carry a vintage date, and that throws our concept of a “vintage product” into a tizzy.
To begin with, most champagne is non-vintage, as is port. And these are among the most revered wines available. The wines achieve their unique style by being a blend of different vintages, different harvests. The convention is to omit any meeting of vintage date in this case. Even if the vintage years that went into the blend were known, who would by a bottle labelled “1995/’97/’98/’99/2001”? So we content ourselves that the product’s quality speaks for itself, and that a vintage dated port or champagne is a bit of a bonus. By the way, these wines almost always age quite well.
A second type of non-vintage wine is a quality blend that spans more than one harvest. I’ve often seen non-vintage wines from respected producers where the specifics of the harvests were declared on the label. What the winemaker is saying is that the blending decision needed to span multiple vintages to achieve the desired quality. This really is standard procedure for all wines: if something will improve the wine, then it perhaps should be added. But if it’s from a different harvest year, you have to forgo the vintage date. It’s a bit of a risk, but if the producer has a strong reputation, then these wines can rival the vintage dated ones. They may even age well; just be sure to record the purchase date, which is as close to a vintage date as you’ll get.
The final category is wines that don’t deserve a vintage date. In most cases, these are factory wines that are cobbled together from cheap bulk wine from different sources, and likely from different vintages. Given a wine that has no known origin, it’s entirely appropriate that a vintage date be withheld. How would you go about declaring the pedigree of a wine blended from Chilean, Californian and ‘other’ wines? The date(s) would be meaningless. But likely it’s not the lack of a vintage date that makes most of us steer clear of these products.

March 22, 2011

Somewhereness, up close


    Often incorrectly used to refer to the climate of a sub-region or vineyard, microclimate refers more accurately to a single row or a few vines.

The best examples I’ve seen of true microclimates abound during late August. The next time you pass a growing cornfield, look for a small area that hasn’t kept up with the rest of the crop. You can often see an area of stunted corn near a tree or in a small indent or gully. This is a microclimate ... at most perhaps 200 - 300 square feet total. On the other hand, an area the size of a vineyard is a mesoclimate.

Many of the subtle and not so subtle differences we see between the same style of wine from different regions can be attributed to location or terroir. That’s why sauvignon blanc from New Zealand is so different from sauv blanc from Ontario  or South Africa. And even within a region, you can also find significant differences between different vineyards.

Some wineries have gone as far as to analyse their vineyards to identify both meso- and microclimates. We can compare this to the Cru system in place in Burgundy and Bordeaux. If you look at an elevation diagram of an appellation, you’ll see the simple AOC vineyards are mainly the low-lying plains. The higher quality vineyards lie further up the slope. And in a small section near the top of the slope you’ll see a tiny portion designated as Grand Cru.

So whether it’s a mesoclimate or a microclimate, it’s invariably the piece of land that gives birth to the wine. And if you are buying by location, always look for the most precise name possible. Single vineyard wines are more expensive than regional wines for some very good reasons.

March 14, 2011

Sedimentary Journey

Lees *
    Grape solids and dead yeast cells that have precipitated to the bottom of the tank or barrel during ageing. Can contribute to complexity, and facilitates malolactic fermentation.
During the first few days of fermentation, the new wine will throw off quite a bit of grape material as well as spent yeast cells – the gross lees. After racking, the wine will contain very few grape solids, and the fermentation will then produce mainly yeast cells. Lees contact is an important component to the wine’s character and in some cases is absolutely essential. For example, a ‘sur lie’ chardonnay may have spent months in the barrel, with the cellar master frequently stirring the lees into the wine (see Battonage, Jan 10/11). This gives the wine a unique biscuity character that only comes about through careful ageing on the lees. Champagne also gets much of its character from lees. The wine ferments in a closed bottle for months and perhaps years in close contact with the lees. If a wine has a creamy, yeasty or toasty character, it’s likely attributable to the lees.

Properly managed, lees add unique and desirable character, but if the winemaker is not careful, the yeast cells can begin to deteriorate, a condition called autolysis. An autolytic wine can show a number of undesirable odours including ‘beery’, ‘bready’, hydrogen sulphide, and a group of nasties called mercaptans.

You may come across a bottle that says ‘bottled on lees’. This means that the wine was transferred   directly from the barrel to the bottle, without filtering. The wine may even show a trace of cloudiness, which in this case is a bonus.

March 7, 2011

It's all in the tastebuds


    Ripe, heavy, concentrated red wine flavours that take on the character of jam. Sweetish, possibly cloying. Good if not over-done.
I was recently challenged to explain ‘jammy’ and was at a loss to go much beyond what you find in my . Truth be told, I haven’t come across that many truly jammy wines. I do remember one occasion, at a small wine fair, when a respected sommelier came up to me and excitedly told me I HAD to try this wine – a robust Portuguese red. I found the wine a bit too jammy for my tastes. But before I could say anything, the sommelier blurted out “and it’s not the least bit jammy!” Hmmm…

So I decided to do a bit of research to see if anyone else was confused by this term. Here’s what I found, gleaned from about a dozen different sources:

Opinion A, Jammy is good: “sweetish”, “concentrated”, “superb extract”, “forward”, “approachable”, “fruity, tasty and pleasing”, “jumps out of the glass”, “open”;


Opinion B, Jammy is not so good: “cooked”, “flavors of jam rather than fresh fruit”, “hot climate”, “overripe fruit”, “low in acid”, “not necessarily complex”, “overripe character”, “high alcohol”, “negative tasting term”, “baked, cooked or stewed fruit”, “unappealing”, “lacking in tannins.”

For a time, big juicy wines were the rage – Aussie shiraz in particular. And if a little is good, then a lot should be better, so some of these wines just got bigger and bigger, evolving into   “sweetish”, in-your-face fruit bombs with port-like alcohol. Thankfully the wines became as tiresome to the consumer as they were to the palate, and many of us began to look for a bit of subtlety and finesse instead.

You can still find overly jammy wines, but the market is definitely shifting away from them.

Best Bets in Fruit Bombs

Argentina: Malbec
Australia: Shiraz, “GSM” (grenache, syrah, mourvedre)
California: Zinfandel (not the pink stuff), Petite Sirah
Chile: Carmenere, Mourvedre
Eastern Europe: Plavac Mali
France: Cahors (Malbec)
Italy: Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola, Primitivo

February 28, 2011

The Proof is in the Glass

ISO Tasting Glass
    The International Organization for Standardization has designed and recommended a smallish (7-1/2 oz., 220 mL) tulip-shaped glass to be used for international taste testing. An excellent all-around wineglass, often sold at wineries.
I have a small tasting exercise* that I put together for a wine course I was teaching, and I try to force-fit it into tastings I’m leading. It involves pouring a sample into an ISO glass, tasting it, and then pouring the sample into other styles of wineglass. (I’m a devotee of quality wineglasses and firmly believe that the glass is an important factor.) This little comparative test proves – in a highly dramatic manner – that wineglass shape is critical.

Size, shape and material are all important in wineglass design. All three factors have to work. It’s possible for seemingly identical glasses to perform quite differently because of a small difference in any one of these element. Crystal is nice but not necessary, mostly because it tends to have thinner walls than plain glass. Size is strongly influenced by the type of wine: bigger wines tend to work better in larger glasses. However, the most important factor appears to be shape, and the tulip shape is the one to look for.

Tulip-shaped refers to the size and profile of the wineglass’s bowl. The bowl will be taller than it is wide, and the top will be narrower than the rest of the glass … picture a tulip that is just beginning to open. If you’re shopping for glasses spend a few dollars more and get a quality, name-brand glass -- preferably crystal --, that has a nice tulip shape. When dining out, also look for this shape, and if you have trouble finding a restaurant that provides decent glasses, consider taking along your own. Many people do.

* We pit the ISO glass against four of the most commonly used restaurant wineglasses. All the glasses fared poorly compared to the ISO glass.

February 21, 2011

Wine/Life Balance

    A wine with a well-balanced nose.
I was doing a book signing at a winery one afternoon when the owner came over to me to introduce me to a friend who had stopped by. Naturally we soon began to discuss the wines, and the guest asked me if I could recommend anything. I asked her if she liked riesling. She said yes, then turned to the owner and asked him what his riesling was like. He said it was “harmonious and well balanced”. I could see from the look on the woman’s face that this was not the sort of answer she was looking for. So I said “It’s really yummy.” With a broad smile she headed off to the tasting room with the winery owner in tow.

Harmonious is one of those wine words that gets used a lot but fails to convey any real information. As well, ‘harmonious and well balanced’ is redundant, since harmonious means well balanced! A wine can in fact be harmonious but not very good, or perhaps not even enjoyable. Balance and harmony are good, but are they a useful description of what we find in the bottle?

If we set the bar a bit higher, the situation worsens. According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, harmonious means “forming a pleasing or consistent whole.” Would anyone rush out to buy a wine that was described as ‘consistent’?

I prefer to write this one off as bafflegab and suggest instead that we look for more meaningful terms -- terms that will give people a sense of what the wine is actually like, words such as ‘yummy’ for example.

February 14, 2011

A Name Game

Generic Name

    A ‘jug wine’ bearing the name of one of the classic Old World wine regions.

For decades Canada and a few other new world wine regions have been producing and selling huge quantities of low-end wines that infringed on traditional and legally protected European wine names. In 2003 Canada and Europe signed an agreement that would see the end of generic wine names in Canada. What’s bothersome about this agreement is the 10-year horizon. Generic wines are made predominantly by huge wine conglomerates that regularly churn out new names and new labels for their low-end wines. So why do they need 10 years to switch the few names that are applied to some of the worst wines available?

You can still find these wines on store shelves, principally in Ontario, the US and Australia. Borrowed names include champagne, port, sherry, chablis, burgundy, ‘sauterne’, chianti, and a few others. Usually the only resemblance these wines have to their namesakes is colour. For example, California chablis is usually made from a very cheap grape whereas true chablis is 100% chardonnay. Canadian sauterne is an interesting interpretation. It’s a dry white wine whereas Bordeaux’s sauternes is a prized sweet wine. And aside from being low end, the wines are banged into shape using any winemaking technique that is legal -- including additives – and are the vinus equivalent of no-name bologna.

The one problem with phasing out the European wine names is that it leaves port- and sherry-style wines out in the cold. The name port, for example, is well understood and has been used to describe these wines for decades. Once it becomes illegal to use these names, fortified wine makers will have to get creative to find a new way to refer to these wines generally. (I know of a wine called ‘Starboard’ but that’s perhaps too esoteric.)

February 7, 2011

The Long & Short of It


    A complex sequence of flavours and aromas after swallowing or spitting. Wines are judged in part on the quality and duration of the finish. Sometimes called the farewell.

The full sensory impact of wine comes in three stages: attack, development and finish. We sip the wine and have our first impression. The wine then reveals more of its character on the ‘mid palate’, the development. Finally there is the finish -- those last few moments before the flavour and aroma impression fades completely.

The finish (close, farewell, etc.) is an important part of what a wine has to offer. A “short” wine has a finish that lasts a mere second or two. Beyond that, there’s nothing to savour. A great wine, on the other hand, can last for much longer: a minute or more. The French have a word for the length of the finish: caudalie, where one caudalie is equal to one second of length.

The finish consists of both length: how long it lasts, and after taste: the quality of the impression. Sometimes a wine’s character is only fully revealed in the aftertaste. Bitterness and ‘corkiness’, for example, can sometimes be sensed in the finish even though it was not evident in the mid-palate. But we much prefer the other scenario, when the aftertastes is as good or better than what came before. And if it lasts a long time, well that’s about as good as it gets. One caudalie, two caudalie, three caudalie...

January 31, 2011

A Fountain of Youth?

Égrappage *
Partial or complete removal of grape stalks prior to fermentation, usually by machine. Results in reduced tannins, making for softer, earlier maturing, fruitier red wines. Always done for white wines. Some stems may be left in to keep the ‘marc’ loose during pressing.
The long-held belief that all wine should be aged for long periods hearkens back to when winegrapes were pressed in whole bunches -- stems, seeds and all. The classic image of Oporto’s “black feet” stomping grapes doesn’t show that the stems are being stomped just as aggressively as the grapes. And the same with primitive pressing technology: the stems were included with the grape mash. Often the result was wines that had very high tannin content. In fact, many old style wines were so tannic that they were hard to tolerate until some of the tannins had softened from cellar ageing -- possibly for many years.

A fairly modern improvement in grape processing is the crusher/destemmer. This machine crushes the grape bunches to release the juice, and then strips away the stems, leaving fermentable juice that is relatively stem free. As a red wine macerates and ferments, it extracts tannin from the stems and skins, and from the pits to some degree (although these too are often removed). When the stems are removed before fermentation, the wines emerge less tannic, softer, and earlier maturing. A classic example is Brunello. Traditionally these wines took 10 to 20 years to soften to drinkability, but with more modern techniques -- including égrappage -- the wines can be ready to open well before their tenth birthday. (I have had Brunello as young as 5 years that was perfectly balanced and drinkable.)

Égrappage gives the winemaker another area of control over the wine: Remove all the stems for an early-drinking, fruit forward wine; leave in a small percentage of stems for added structure and longevity; or maximize stem content to create a traditional cellar monster. 

January 24, 2011

All That Sparkles

Diamonds/Gravel *

    Harmless tartrate crystals from tartaric acid that precipitate out of finished wine, especially when chilled. Can be a good sign, showing that the wine has not been over processed.

Acids are an important component of all wines. They provide structure (backbone), contribute to a wine’s impression of freshness, and help make wine food friendly. There are roughly a half dozen different acids to be found in wine, but tartaric acid is by far the most plentiful.

Winemakers put a lot of effort into managing acid, beginning in the vineyard where getting the sugar/acid balance just right is a primary goal. Depending on local rules, the winemaker may ‘adjust’ acid before starting fermentation. All through its stay at the winery, the wine’s acid will be monitored. One trick winemakers use to lower acidity is to ‘cold stabilize’ the wine prior to bottling. This entails refrigerating the wine to just above freezing for up to a week, which forces the tartaric acid to form crystals, softening the wine. (Incidentally, the crystals are later scraped from the tank and sold as a basic ingredient in baking powder.)

You may have seen these tartrate crystals in a bottle or glass, or on the cork. (These can look like bits of glass.) This actually is a good sign. It means the winemaker has not processed the dickens out of the wine and that it had ample acidity when bottled. Diamonds, like all sediment, is a good thing, although getting a mouthful of it is rather off-putting. If you see a lot of crystals in the bottle, pour very gently or -- better -- decant the wine off the sediment and enjoy!