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New World Wine Maker Blog - wine

Lovely whites from Santorini and why Minerality is like “I’m Good”


The New Yorker ran an amusing online parody of a usage guide for “I’m good” – something I’d have expected to see on McSweeney’s more than in the New Yorker – demonstrating how “I’m good” can be used to mean darn well anything you please. “Minerality” might be much the same, though whether everyone has a different but individually consistent definition of minerality, or whether we all tend to use it to describe a whole host of different generally desirable perceptions is still up in the air.

I was recently sent two expressions of Santorini Assyrtiko and a sweet Vinsanto. Two were perfectly delightful, and none were boring. The two dry whites shared a common freshness despite being made in very different styles. The Thalassitis 2011 Santorini dry white blend was very aromatic, light on its feet, bright with acidity and citrus-pear flavors, and with plenty of what I intuitively call minerality. The 2009 Nikteri Nyxtepi from Hatzidakis was badly over-oaked with too much butter and heat for my taste (not surprising at 15% etOH) and little more than oak on the nose, but still managed enough mid-palate salty herbal notes to keep it drinkable. I didn’t realize until after doing a bit more reading that my using “minerality” to describe the first wine and “salty” to describe the second was telling. Am I thinking of minerality as a set of flavors of which salty is one? Or am I drawing a clear distinction between minerality and saltiness? I’m not sure that I’m prepared to answer that question with any conviction.

The Vinsanto was exquisite – not a word I apply lightly to wine – with a different character than other similarly-syrupy dessert wines I’ve had: resinous, in a pleasant way, and without being bitter; raisiny, but without being cloying; oddly sippable for something so sweet. My response to this and the Thalassitis was to curse the combined effects of living in a small town and on a small budget, since I’m unlikely to get any more of these delights any time soon. A shame.

A lot has been written about minerality of late, mostly to the tune of “everything we’ve been led to think is true about minerality is wrong.” Clark Smith probably said it best way back in 2010 – “No topic has wrought more confusion and ruffled more feathers among dedicated enophiles than the incessant bandying about of the lofty sounding “M” word.” – but the debate continues because while some, like Smith, take minerality as a given, others are still concerned by what seems a nebulously ill-defined area of wine description. What to do when wine enthusiasts can’t agree? More research, obviously.

“Expert” wine tasters (winemakers, researchers, and teachers) recruited by a recent French study tended to characterize minerality as something perceived by both nose and palate, though with no great consensus: about 20% defined minerality as strictly an aroma characteristic and about 20% as strictly an in-the-mouth sensation. The same experts, when asked to define wine minerality, called on a bewildering array of aromas, flavors, and textural sensations from “algae” and “honey” to “tension,” “flavorless,” “dynamic,” and “optimal terroir.” Some associated minerality with saltiness, some with bitterness, some with acidity, some with lack of aroma, some with gunflint aromas…the list goes on.

I don’t feel comfortable taking these findings too far – ideas about minerality could be and probably are very different amongst, say, Oregon winemakers or Chinese sommeliers compared with these French experts specifically acclimated to Burgundy – but I think that it’s still fair to put this study in the pile of evidence weighing against a clear-cut definition of minerality. Asking whether minerality is well-defined is a very different question than asking whether it exists, and there are some cross-language and cross-culture issues to be examined here. Still, defining what we mean by minerality is an obvious and key step toward answering the much more interesting question of where minerality comes from. After all, without defining her starting terms, how’s a scientist to proceed?

And here I’m forced to return to my initial thoughts about minerality being like “I’m good.” How’s a scientist to proceed? Maybe by acting like a linguist, listing all of the different situations in which “minerality” is found, and focusing our search for meaning on context instead of the word itself. But I’m still not convinced that that strategy will help us figure out what viticultural or enological practices contribute to “minerality” in any of its forms.

**Samples courtesy of the North American Greek Wine Bureau**


Erika Szymanski is an independent contributor to this blog. She is in no way affiliated with the sponsoring company. This blog was originally posted on her blog: The Wine-o-Scope.

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The Trouble with Blind Tasting


If you’re an American in the wine industry and are within my age range (mid-twenties to early thirties, not to put too fine a point on it), you have, or are somewhere on the path toward, a Master Sommelier diploma. That is barely an exaggeration. (Some folks pursue a Wine & Spirits Education Trust diploma, or go on to a Master of Wine, instead.) For a generation that purports to care little about what the so-called experts have to say about wine, it seems we all want to become one anyway.

“It definitely helps to have it on the résumé when it comes to scoring a great job in the wine world,” said Dustin Wilson, wine director at Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Eleven Madison Park and MS class of ’11. “It’s a title that earns you some automatic respect.”

The numbers speak for themselves: 63 and 70 people have sat for each Master Sommelier exam this year, compared to 38 and 37 in the two 2009/2010 sessions. (Some people were returning; you can repeat a failed segment of the test twice more, then you have to retake the whole thing.) In 2012, a total of 95 people took the Advanced Sommelier test for the degree a step below, with 39 more this past April. Of the 133 total North American Master Sommeliers, 71 have earned their letters since 2005, and the first test was held stateside in 1987.

By most accounts of people in the program, the series of seminars and degrees leading up to one’s MS is a fantastic immersion in wine knowledge. At $2,870 for the four course levels required to get your MS—and thousands more often spent on tasting practice—it’s also a pricey test to fail, and around 90 percent do in the final stage of each session (this month’s sitting of 70 hopefuls only minted one new MS). There are three segments, two of them perfectly unobjectionable. Deep knowledge of wine and spirits, along with grace under fire on the restaurant floor, should absolutely be required of, well, ideally any sommelier, but certainly one who claims mastery.

But here’s the rub: You also have to blind-taste six wines in 25 minutes and “identify grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wines tasted” at a minimum of 75 percent accuracy. Even if you’re a wine ace, you’ve played this game and lost, perhaps embarrassingly. So as you might expect, the tasting sinks plenty of sad somms. The new film Somm includes scenes when the four documentary subjects/MS candidates (Wilson is one) guess off by a mile, both in their thousands of practice hours and on the big day.

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Mixed case: opinion and advicewith Ben O’Donnell of the Wine Spectator

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The Winemaker as Artist

I have often written that there are only two processes in winemaking:    Flavours are created in the vineyard and extracted during winemaking.    I should probably add a third.   Flavours are modified by fining.    Apart from the removal of gas bubbles from molten glass, no one but a wine or beer maker seems to use the term fining.    If I were a visual artist, I would compare fining to the touches given to a painting to emphasize or suppress an image; the strength of highlights or depth of shadows.   

A winemaker is a sensory artist.    His pigment is a drawn from the vineyard and his brush a stainless steel tank or oak barrel.   There are no two identical wines.    Each wine is unique if you search out the details.    The winemaker’s mental image shapes the sensory properties, and lab analyses give reassurance of the pathway to create the wine conceived in the mind.  

The fundamental structure of a wine is determined by the chosen variety, the climate and soil in which it is grown, vineyard management, and stage of maturity at which it is harvested.   The winemaker must then decide on the strategy to be used to extract flavours.    There are so many ways to extract a grape that this stage alone is sufficient to account for the variation between wines of the same variety from different wineries.     This is not to minimize the influence of other factors, but winemakers often develop an extraction style using favoured techniques.    Those who become familiar with a particular winemaker’s style can often recognize wines from that winery, even though they may be from a different grape variety.    No other memory is as persistent as that of smell.

In a perfect world, there would be little else required of the winemaker except to extract, ferment, stabilize the wine, and clarify it for bottling.    But nothing is that perfect.    Sometimes a wine doesn’t settle easily or there may be an off note on the palate.    Now is the time for a fining agent.

The most fundamental fining agents are those which are insoluble, but have a property which enables them to remove an undesired component from a wine.   The best known of these is bentonite clay which is used to remove undesired protein from white wines.    Soluble protein can return to undermine the winemaker’s vision of a near perfect white wine by creating a haze months or years after it has been bottled.    A grape-derived alternative to bentonite is tannin.    Most red wines have enough tannin that they require no bentonite.   Tannin and bentonite each have an opposite molecular charge to protein, thus soluble protein will be neutralized by tannin or bentonite and will precipitate.   Higher levels of tannin remain in the wine and contribute to mouth feel and astringency, but excess bentonite can be a serious problem because it can create a non filterable haze.

During the past few years we have learned a great deal about many traditional practices of winemaking  and have put a new spin on them.    Winemakers have used a process called bâttonage for centuries but in recent years an objective examination of the process revealed unrecognized benefits associated with the practice.   In addition to imparting savoury sensory notes, the practice increases body and imparts antioxidant properties to the wine.    It consists of allowing the wine to remain in contact with the lees for an extended time.   The lees are regularly stirred in order to resuspend them in the wine and assist the dead yeast cells to break down and release their contents.   In recent years, wine ingredient suppliers have recognized the risk of developing off flavours that accompanies bâttonage and have made autolyzed yeast available as a wine treatment.   It’s become a simpler, more consistent part of the winemaker’s palette (not to be confused with palate, pallet, or pellet). 

The use of a fining agent that also imparts sensory properties moves the concept of fining agent into the realm of wine ingredient.   There are a number of commonly used winemaking practices that are gradually moving through this transition.   A common example is the use of oak barrel alternatives such as toasted oak chips or oak extracts.    This controversial alternative treatment can develop the nose, flavour, and palate of wine at much lower cost than the extraction of oak components from an expensive barrel.   When the oak alternatives are coupled with the exact oxidation of a micro-oxidation system, the process becomes not only less expensive but more exactly controlled for flavour development than the barrel alternative.    Barrel to barrel variation is eliminated, but the process can go terribly wrong in inexperienced hands if the wine is inadvertently over oxidized.   The highlights and shadows can be masked by the bitter and nutty notes of oxidation.

Modern winemaking is a highly competitive business with quality moving steadily upward.   The most important role of the winemaker is to provide the vision of the best he can extract from the vineyard and to know that if the best is not good enough for the market, then how he must upgrade it.

Gary Strachan is an expert consultant and planner for the grape and wine industry since 1977

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Bacteria in winemaking – it’s all about timing


“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”
Willie Nelson

Being early is not always a guarantee of success, especially if you’re a mouse. Evidently, timing is critical. An example of this is gossiping about a colleague when he or she walks in (I never do this) or adding lysozyme to your must before co-inoculating with yeast and bacteria. As far as the latter example of bad timing is concerned, I know of a winemaker that did this. Suffice it to say, no MLF took place.

Timing is usually critically important in any winery, especially when it comes to the tiny microbes in your fermenting must and wine. The presence or absence of yeast and bacteria at certain stages of the winemaking process will ultimately determine the quality of your wine. For instance, a beer brewer phoned me a while ago and complained about bacterial spoilage of his artisan beers by lactic acid bacteria. I recommended Delvozyme® (a lysozyme preparation that Anchor sells locally) and have not heard from him since. No news is good news, right?

Another case comes to mind. A winemaker told me that he’s been involved in a long-standing feud with ubiquitous LAB that perennially invade his barrels of premium Chardonnay. The winemaker has since made a compromise, as a certain percentage of barrels are allowed to be annexed by the marauding LAB and the remainder of the barrels are treated with lysozyme. All the wine is eventually blended and the combination of wine with diacetyl notes versus more fruit driven wine has proven to be quite enchanting.

As a parting shot, I read about an Australian winemaker that was told by a consultant that he could use less sulphur in his wine if he used lysozyme during stabilisation. The end result; an oxidised, microbiologically stable wine and a well-timed kick to the consultant’s backside!

Bernard Mocke is a technical consultant for Oenobrands

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If Only the Grapes Were the Whole Story


Wine has been described as the perfect beverage because the grapes contain all the ingredients necessary to create their transformation. Put grapes in a vat, and over time the yeasts coating the skins set alchemy in motion, converting the sugar in the juice into alcohol.

It was just this sort of unbidden fermentation that inspired humans so long ago to spend the next few millenniums improving their methods of winemaking.

A few wines are still made in this way, or at least in approximation, with no other ingredients except the possible addition of sulfur dioxide, which has been used for eons as a stabilizer and preservative. Yet it’s no secret that many wines (most, in fact) include a lot more than grapes, yeast and sulfur. The list in some cases can be staggering.

Forget about the often poisonous chemicals used in the vineyards, which can leave residue on the grapes. In the winery alone, before fermentation even begins, enzymes may be added to speed up the removal of solid particles from the juice, to amplify desirable aromas while eliminating disagreeable ones, to intensify the color of red wines and to clarify the color of whites.

It doesn’t stop there. Other additives can be used to enhance a wine’s texture, to add or subtract tannins or simply to adjust quality. Winemakers can select specific yeasts and special nutrients to keep those yeasts working. They can add oak extracts for flavor and further tannin adjustment, and compounds derived from grape juice to fix color, texture and body. They can add sugar to lengthen the fermentation, increasing the alcohol content; add acid if it’s lacking; add water if the alcohol level is too high. Or they can send the wine through a reverse-osmosis machine or other heavy equipment to diminish the alcohol and eliminate other undesirable traits, like volatile acidity.

For all of its natural, pastoral connotations, wine can very much be a manufactured product, processed to achieve a preconceived notion of how it should feel, smell and taste, and then rolled off the assembly line, year after year, as consistent and denatured as a potato chip or fast-food burger.

Yet we pay little attention to wine’s added ingredients, even as we have become hyper-conscious about what we eat. Twenty years ago, many Americans may have enjoyed food indiscriminately, but now they weigh the nutritional, environmental, humanitarian, aesthetic and even political consequences of what they cook and consume. Isn’t it time to devote the same careful attention to the wine we drink?

It’s no simple task. Unlike processed foods, wine is not required to have its ingredients listed on the label. This contributes to the belief that any wine is elemental, like fruits, vegetables and meats, and can’t be broken down into constituent parts. That’s far from the truth.

“It is very surprising how many discerning foodies will drink mass-produced, highly processed wines without batting an eyelid,” Isabelle Legeron, an educator and consultant who holds the rare title master of wine, wrote in an e-mail. “They just haven’t engaged with wine in the same way, yet.”

For the last two years, Ms. Legeron has held RAW, a fair in London that brings together producers of artisanal and natural wines with others in the trade and the public. All producers who take part are required to list any additives and processing techniques they have used.

The first question might be: Why are wineries so reluctant to document what goes into their wines? Ingredient labeling is voluntary, and very few wineries have stepped up. Bonny Doon Vineyard, Shinn Estate Vineyards and Ridge Vineyards deserve applause as notable exceptions.

Many wineries try to explain away their reluctance by arguing that consumers will be confused by long lists of ingredients, or even a short list of traditional but unexpected substances that have been used in winemaking for centuries. For example, artisanal producers who disdain adding enzymes may still try to clarify their wines with egg whites or isinglass, which is derived from fish bladders. Certainly vegans might want to know that information.

The fact is, some consumers make conscious decisions not to buy products when they see what goes into making them. I don’t want added sweeteners pervading the groceries I buy, for example. I love peanut butter, but won’t buy it if it contains anything more than peanuts and salt. Don’t all consumers deserve the same opportunity to make informed, considered judgments about wine?

At the same time, other consumers — the vast majority — continue to buy processed foods regardless of mysterious ingredients. They are motivated by cost, convenience and sensory gratification, or maybe they just don’t care. No doubt the same will be true with wine.

It’s not apparent whether additives in wine pose public-health risks. Nonetheless, if we want foods that are minimally processed, authentic expressions of what they purport to be (like cheese rather than processed cheese), then we want to be able to distinguish between wines that are relatively unmanipulated and those that are industrial products.

Most wineries have no interest in full disclosure. Just as with food manufacturers, they will have to be dragged into some form of honest representation of their product. Sadly, the responsibility is left largely to consumers to monitor what they buy and drink.

As a first step, it helps to think of wine as food. Concerns about where food comes from and how it’s grown, processed or raised ought to be extended to wine. If we ourselves don’t set standards for quality and authenticity, who will?

The New York Times


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The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Wine People


Recently, I was in a conversation with a Burgundy wine producer whose wines I admire very much. I teased him about how reluctant Burgundians are to acknowledge somewhere on a wine label that a Bourgogne rouge is Pinot Noir (and possibly Gamay) and that a Bourgogne blanc is Chardonnay.

 ”Would it kill you to add this information somewhere on the label?” I asked.

 ”Actually, it would,” he replied, in all seriousness. “It would be the death of French wine civilization.”

 For once in my life I was speechless. I mean, here we are in the 21st century, where communication is paramount, and you’ve got the equivalent of an aboriginal wine tribe still sending smoke signals.

 What is it about wine that makes so many otherwise intelligent, interesting and ambitious people cling to habits and patterns that simply no longer work? To paraphrase from the best-selling business book, here are “The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Wine People.”

The full blog…
Exploring wine with Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator 



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