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