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Thinking about tasting on a Friday morning

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I taste every wine the same procedural way, but I can’t say my excitement level is the same. Some wines are boring, boring, boring; nonetheless they must be formally reviewed. With boring wines, it’s hard to find 40 or 50 words to say, without adding gratuitous verbiage just for the heck of it. Sometimes I just want to say something like, “This wine would be okay in a paper cup at a barbecue” but that’s snarky. But in general when I use the word “barbecue” it means a wine you don’t have to think about. It’s not an insult, just a fact.

But some wines are interesting. These wines make me think. They make everything above my neck come alive, including my mind. This past week has been a good one for good wines. Among the best have been Viader 2010, Au Bon Climat 2010 Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Pinot Noir, Iron Horse 2004 Brut LD, Terra Valentine 2010 Yverdon Cabernet Sauvignon, Blackbird 2011 illustration, Clendenen 3008 Le Bon Climat Chardonnay, Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay, Gary Farrell 2011 Lancel Creek Pinot Noir, Isabel Mondavi 2010 Pinot Noir and a 2003 LD Brut from J. These wines get my pulse racing. They’re why I fell in love in with the stuff in the first place.

More and more do I find myself seeking ethereal structural elements rather than more immediate and accessible taste sensations. You’d think that after all these years wine would be demystified for me, but exactly the opposite is true. It is a greater mystery than ever what makes one wine special when everything else is merely adequate. One struggles to put this sense of specialness into English. The numerical rating is the easiest way to signify specialness: A score of 97 or above instantly telegraphs it. But a written review accompanies the score; and while I (and many other critics) lament the fact that few people apparently read the review (we know this from anecdotal evidence), I still spend quite a bit of time crafting it. It may not matter to Joe Blow or Susie from Kokomo what I say, but it matters to me.

My greatest struggle–let’s get this out of the way–is with very good Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some will disagree with the following statement, but I’ll make it anyway: At the top levels, these wines in California tend to be more alike than not. For better or for worse, we’ve reached a stage where everyone is basically growing their grapes and vinifying the wines the same way. Oh, someone may put 30% stems into the fermentation whereas someone else puts in 60% and a third winemaker destems everything, but really, that does not result in fundamentally, dramatically different wines. The parent material–the grapes themselves–determines everything: all else is simply tinkering around the edges.

The best way–the only way I know of to discern minor differences between wines made of the same variety is to let the wines breathe for as long as possible. Fresh out of the bottle all oaky Chards, Cabs and Pinots converge along the same horizon lines. There is, however, a limit to how long the critic can allow a wine to breathe before practical logistics set in. In my case, it’s longer than for many others: tasting at home, at my leisure, means I can take my time. It is only after time in the glass that Au Bon Climat’s Los Alamos Pinot Noir seriously begins to diverge from the winery’s Bien Nacido bottling, referred to above, the latter being considerably more powerful and superior (even though it costs only $5 more). This is why I would never want to taste in the wham-bam style some of my critic friends employ: 30 seconds or so per taste. How are you supposed to get to nuance, subtlety, the hidden stuff that emerges only with time? You can’t.

Have a great weekend!

  1. Steve,

    Here’s the “science” behind “aerating” a bottle of wine (courtesy of W. Blake Gray’s reporting): to “blow off” sulfur compounds that mask a wine’s intrinsic aroma components.

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (May 6, 2009, Page E1ff):

    “Call It Aroma Therapy for Wine” [Decanting]

    [Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-wineair6-2009may06,0,7134457,full.story

    By W. Blake Gray
    Special to The Times

    Air is one of the most talked about but most misunderstood elements in wine.

    We say a wine needs to “breathe” . . . In fact, most wines have been waiting years just to cast off a little gas.

    . . . To be appreciated, a wine needs . . . more air, faster, than you might think — but not for the reasons you might have heard.

    People talk about a wine being “closed,” . . . But . . . to wine researchers, “closed” means nothing. It’s just another metaphor, . . .

    “The word ‘closed’ does not have a physical meaning for sensory testing,” says Andrew Waterhouse, chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis.

    Further, Waterhouse says the implication that a “closed” wine is missing something is a misdiagnosis. In fact, rather than withholding scents, the wine is actually giving you something extra: sulfur compounds that are potent enough even in tiny amounts to cover up the fresh fruit aromas you want to smell.

    Sulfur occurs naturally in both grapes and the yeasts that turn grapes into wine. Sulfur forms more than 100 compounds called mercaptans. These sulfuric compounds form differently and unpredictably in every bottle of wine.

    When exposed to air, they eventually re-form into something less annoying, but they need a few minutes to do so. We call it “breathing,” but it’s really a seething sea of recombining elements.

    “I think of wine as a tier of about 100 different compounds that are either taking on oxygen or passing it on to something else,” says Kenneth Fugelsang, associate professor of enology at Cal State Fresno. “When that process is finished, the wine is ready to drink.”

    . . .

    “These reductive compounds are excellent masking agents,” Fugelsang says. “They can hide the positive characteristics of any wine.”

    So what should you do to make your wine smell and taste better?

    . . .

    Pulling the cork doesn’t aerate a wine much because so little of the surface area of the wine is exposed to air. However, pouring out half the bottle will do the trick.

    “Almost every wine in the world does benefit from aeration,” [says Karen MacNeil, faculty chair of the wine department at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus.] . . . “The only exceptions are wines we rarely drink — older, expensive Burgundies that could collapse with too much air.”

    . . .

    ~~ Bob

  2. Steve,

    On how much oxygen you can “infuse” into a glass of wine by vigorously swirling it . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal
    (April 27, 1998, Section and Page Unknown):

    “Breakthrough! Pulmonary Doctor Discovers
    Key to Wine Breathing”

    By Ron Winslow
    Staff Reporter

    At his day job, Nirmal B. Charan is a pulmonologist in Boise, Idaho, who treats patients with such chronic lung ailments as emphysema. But a recent dinner with a cardiologist colleague from Milan led to an international experiment to investigate breathing problems of a different sort.

    When Dr. Charan suggested a bottle of Idaho wine, his guest, Pier Giuseppe Agostoni, who has wine makers in his family, advised him to uncork the wine well before serving it to let it breathe and enhance its flavor. Dr. Charan replied that wine sitting in a bottle can’t breathe.

    To settle the argument, the two physicians purchased five bottles of inexpensive cabernet sauvignon the next day and took them to Dr. Charan’s lab at the VA Medical Center in Boise, where he’s chief of pulmonary and critical-care medicine. Piercing the corks of each bottle with a needle, the doctors withdrew small samples of each and measured the oxygen pressure in an instrument known as an arterial blood gas analyzer. The pressure in the corked bottle measured 30 millimeters of mercury, Dr. Charan says. That compares with 90 millimeters in well-oxygenated blood.

    The men then opened the bottles and repeated the tests at two-, four-, six- and 24-hour intervals. “It doubled to 61, but it took 24 hours, as opposed to when we just swirled the wine in a glass,” Dr. Charan says. For that part of the experiment, the pressure leaped to 150 as the doctors swirled the wine for just two minutes. “We became pretty good at swirling,” says Dr. Charan, who is presenting the findings Monday at a meeting of the American Lung Association/American Thoracic Society in Chicago.

    Meantime, Dr. Agostoni, with proof that the bottleneck hindered good breathing, carried the experiment one step further. After returning to Milan, he invited 35 wine drinkers to a party to determine whether they could tell the difference between wine that breathed and wine that didn’t. Dr. Agostoni first asked his guests to taste wines fully aware of which had been swirled and which hadn’t. Only two were so palate-challenged that they couldn’t tell the difference.

    When the remaining 33 guests were then blinded as to whether their samples had breathed or not, 32 correctly identified the samples that had higher oxygen levels and found swirled wine tasted much better than wine drunk immediately after it was corked and poured. Says Dr. Charan: “Just like blood, oxygenated wine is better than nonoxygenated wine.”

    ~~ Bob

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