Are you a wine snob?
Cork Dorks and Grape Geeks
One day, countless thousands of years ago, somebody put a bunch of grapes into some kind of bowl. The fruit got crushed and the yeast on the skins acted on the juice, which spoiled in the most delightful way. Thanks to the accident of fermentation, a lot of people got happy.
The making of wine is an incredibly ancient pursuit. It’s a sacrament to some of the world’s major religions, and, in the last thousand years or so, has become part of what we usually call the finer things in life. Wine is a cultural artifact, and it communicates something about where the grapes were grown and about the people who made it.
Since winemaking has been practiced for well over three thousand years (almost certainly more), the world of wine has become a very big place. The topic fascinates many of us, but there’s always a danger that fascination can become obsession, and then…snobbery. People become cork dorks. It’s not a good thing.
It’s a well-recognized danger of the wine life: a practically inevitable propensity to become a grape geek. A cork dork. Any hobby, passion, or obsession we pursue takes up a chunk of our lives, and when we get jacked about something, we want to share. Those who succumb to and pursue an interest in wine can sooner or later become the same way. Only worse.
But on the other hand, a bit of wine knowledge and understanding can be rewarding. It brings to us what we bring to it, so why not bring as much as we can?
Problem is, cork dorks who discourse over dinner about the 500-year history of what’s in the bottle can become boring at best. And if you ever hear somebody say “it’s a naïve little Burgundy without much breeding, but I’m sure you’ll be amused by its presumption,” well, no jury in the world will convict you if you shoot him.
There are hundreds of grape varietals, and hundreds of places – some well-known and some quite obscure – where wine is made. You don’t need to be able to name the ten wine districts of Beaujolais, or the five wines allowed in the Bordeaux blend, to increase your understanding and appreciation, but a little effort – and a little knowledge — can go a long way.
We’re all faced with the problem of looking at restaurant wine list, or gazing upon the selection in a wine store, and trying to figure out what to try next. Fact is, no consumer product in the world gives us less information than the label on a wine bottle. About all producers are required to list is their name, the place where it’s made, how much is in the bottle, and the alcohol content. Not even the name of the grape. This causes a lot of aspiring wine lovers to throw up their hands in disgust and go back to beer.
The solution? Sample widely. Read a bit. Go to tastings and wine dinners where people speak about the wines being poured. My favorite introductory book is The Wine Bible by Karen Macneil. Great place to start.
What’s happening in the wine world
Like most pursuits and professions, the wine world is ever-changing. Wines go in and out of style (consider the recent craze for rosés, and the popularity of Prosecco), and new winegrowing regions catch the attention (and the dollars) of wine buyers. A few years back, most California Chardonnays were subjected to heavy oak treatment. Then the fashion tilted back the other way, and people developed a taste for purer, more fruit-forward flavor profiles. Now, we’re back to the more buttery styles.
So it might be a good idea to look ahead a bit, especially considering the recent global situation, and try to divine what might be in store for wine lovers in the coming months.
First, industry professionals have noted a trend toward wines from Oregon and Washington State. Of course, Oregon is best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and maybe consumers have become a bit tired of the “typical” California style of these varietals. Example: a few years ago at the New York Wine Experience, Wine Spectator Senior Editor Bruce Sanderson and I sampled down a whole row of California Pinot Noirs. There must have been ten or twelve tables, and they all tasted remarkably similar, with upfront aromas and flavors of strawberry…one after the other.
In Oregon, they tend to make their wines in a more Old World style, perhaps because several winery owners from Burgundy have bought vineyards there. A bit more complexity, more layers of flavor, more earth, spice, cedar, smoke, and leather.
There has been a swing toward wines from Washington State, as well. The winegrowing region is in the dry land east of the Cascade Mountains, and quite a hike from the cities on the west coast. But since it’s colder and drier there, the big reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, are more reserved and austere than those same varietals grown in California. A distance of around a thousand miles makes for a completely different climate down south, where the grapes ripen more fully, resulting in wines that are more dense, more plush, and a lot more fruity. Maybe the trend is going toward a more reserved, classic flavor profile. Plus, the prices of Washington State wines tend to be a bit more consumer friendly. That’s a biggie.
Another trend that will certainly have long-term effects on the wine we drink is climate change. Many experts maintain that vineyards will be affected not so much by increasing warmth, but by volatility in the weather patterns. While it’s true that French grape growers are thinking about moving their vineyards farther north because of increasing temperatures, events like heat spikes or unexpected frost, drought, hail, and flooding are really keeping vineyard managers up at night.
And then there are wine prices. While we haven’t yet seen the full effect of projected tariffs, the industry predicts that volume of production will slightly decrease (because of weather patterns?) and prices could rise just a bit. Might be a good idea to stock up now, and fill all those empty slots in your collection. Hope you enjoy some new recommendations.
Ask the Wine Whisperer
Why is French oak so widely preferred for making wine barrels? David L., Port St. Lucie
Winemakers use French oak because the grain of the wood is very tight, and the barrels impart more subtle flavors and characteristics to the wine. The average age of a French oak tree used for wine barrels is 170 years.
Lions Head Panthera Chardonnay Russian River 2017 ($35) – The extended aging in new French oak gives this sumptuous Chardonnay deep notes of candied lemon, smoke, and crème brulée. A distinctive style. WW 89
Lions Head Lion Tamer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2017 ($60) – Mostly Cabernet, with touches of Petite Sirah and Malbec, this mouthfilling red hits all the right notes. There are black fruits, cherries, coffee, oak, and chocolate all over the place, and it’s all nicely integrated on the palate. A winner. WW 97
Gva’ot Dances in White Blend Israel 2016 ($27) – A blend of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Gewürztraminer, this wine clearly demonstrates that the Israeli wine industry is making its mark on the international scene. The palate is a mélange of spice and tropical fruit that will go nicely with Thai or other Asian cuisines. WW 88
New Book Coming Soon!
The Great Cork Controversy
The debate rages on, and now it’s starting to swing in an unexpected direction. The ferocious argument has to do with the venerable cork, used for centuries as a wine bottle stopper, and its opponent, the newer-technology screw cap. (By the way, winemakers would prefer that we call them “twist-offs.”)
Why, after all this time, has the industry started to drift away from cork? We’ve been using them in wine bottles for over 700 years. Well, there’s a reason, and it’s all because of a fungus.
It’s called TCA, and I won’t clobber you with the polysyllabic technical name. (Stephen Burch and I did talk about this during our seminar in New Orleans). TCA is a fungus that infects cork, which is, after all, just the bark of a certain kind of oak tree. This practically-indestructible organism lives in the wooden pallets in wine cellars and on other unlikely surfaces.
TCA, or cork taint, as its most commonly called, spoils wine. At worst, it makes the precious liquid in the bottle taste like wet cardboard or newspapers. At its mildest, it robs the wine of flavor components and makes it taste…well, blah.
In fact, winemakers estimate that between 5% and 7% of all wine bottled under corks gets spoiled. People open the bottle, taste the wine, and pour it down the sink. Imagine if you had a factory and five percent of your product turned out to be defective. You wouldn’t stay in business very long.
Hence the move toward more neutral, non-reactive stoppers, such as screw caps. The charge has been led over the past ten or fifteen years by New World wineries, especially in Australia and New Zealand. The advantage: no TCA, and the closure is supposedly perfect for wines that are going to be consumed within a couple of years.
But what about other wines? Cork, being slightly porous, allows small amounts of air into the bottle, which helps break down tannins and makes the flavor components come together and harmonize. And it’s true that bottles sitting around for 20-30 years will be slightly less full than newer bottles. The wine disappears – it goes somewhere — so air must be getting in or out. However, cork does break down over time, and collectors who have bottles that are 30-40-50 years old often get them recorked every couple of years. The really expensive high-end wineries provide such a service.
My advice? Don’t worry about it. The mistaken perception that only lower-quality wines have screw caps is left over from the old jug wine days. In fact, many top-quality wines are being bottled with screw caps. Example: Mollydooker “Carnival of Love,” a blockbuster Shiraz from Australia, was Wine Spectator’s #2 Wine of the Year last year. It costs over $65 a bottle and guess what… Screw cap. The closure is ideal for wines that are meant to be enjoyed in just a few years…or tonight…which is most of them.
So if you have even one opposable thumb, that’s all you need to open and enjoy great wines.
Wine in Whiskey Barrels? Huh?
Rolling Out the (Whiskey) Barrels
Right around 2014, a new trend in winemaking emerged, and it’s started to gain a lot of traction…and attention. Some winemakers have begun to age their wines in used Bourbon whiskey barrels. They call it “cross-aging.”
The venerable oak barrel plays a critical role in the way wine ages and tastes. There are dozens of ways winemakers can use oak to flavor and “season” wine, but until now they’ve mainly stored and aged their wines in new or used French or American oak barrels. But apparently, this new trend of putting red wine in used whiskey barrels opens a new world of flavors and textures. And this is no “underground” phenomenon. Even major wineries like Mondavi and the Australian Jacob’s Creek are doing it.
White wines are also getting the treatment, being aged in barrels that formerly contained tequila or other clear spirits. And the situation gets more interesting from there.
Jeff Kasavan, Cellarmaster at Cooper & Thief in Lodi, California, has over 30 years of experience as a winemaker, and says that “cross-aging” is a relatively new trend because “Bourbon barrels present a new array of aromas and richness that you can’t extract from traditional new oak barrel aging.” He also ages his white Sauvignon Blanc in used tequila barrels. “Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorite varietals,” he says, “so I experimented with how the barrels could enhance the wine’s flavor experience. The acidity and citrus notes of Sauvignon Blanc are complemented by the subtle heat and toasty vanilla flavors imparted by the former tequila barrels.”
However, this technique may not work with all wines. The reds that Kasavan chooses to age in Bourbon barrels need significant tannin structure and flavor intensity. “For my red blend,” he says, “I use predominantly Merlot and Syrah complemented by Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. They stand up the best to the big bold aromas and flavors imparted by the whiskey barrel aging process.”
All cross-aged wines start out in traditional oak barrels, but then winemakers like Jeff Kasavan and 1000 Stories winemaker Bob Blue put their wines in used whiskey barrels for an additional two or three months.
Blue agrees that richly-flavored wines are the ones to use for this technique. “Big, bold wines are best for the intensity of Bourbon barrel-aging,” says Blue, “which is why Zinfandel is our flagship varietal.” He continues, “Bourbon barrels are intense. Most wines can’t tolerate that kind of barrel intensity, but Zinfandel seems to fit the bill just right.”
He also sees a bright future for wines made this way. “At first, we thought 1000 Stories would be more appealing to men, but women have become very enthusiastic. And the wine also cuts across various age groups, which shows that the category really has universal appeal.”
Discover the appeal for yourself with these new recommendations…
1000 Stories Gold Rush Red California 2016 ($20) – Deep rich garnet in the glass with toasty oak and vanilla aromas. Charred vanilla and smoke flavors with blackberry, blueberry and 15% alcohol. WW 89-90
1000 Stories Zinfandel California 2014 ($20) – Contains about 19% Petite Sirah, so it’s big, bold, and concentrated. Some minerality on the nose, fresh black cherry that lingers on the finish. Smoke and vanilla. Aged in old and new Bourbon barrels. WW 90
Cooper & Thief Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016 ($33) – With a whopping 16.5% alcohol, this is not a typical example of the varietal. Vanilla and smoke, with almond notes and a creamy texture. Long finish of oak, vanilla, and crème brulee. Blended with Colombard, Semillon, and “other whites.” WW 86-87
Cooper & Thief Red Blend California 2014 ($33) — Almost a Port, with 17% alcohol, this blend of Cabernet, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah is all about smoke, vanilla, and deep black fruit. Nothing subtle about it, and lots more smoke and vanilla on the finish. WW 89