Tasting Vitality (2): Structure

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wine structureIn a previous post I described the motivation behind a revised wine tasting model that elevates a wine’s rhythm and motion on the palate, giving them equal billing with aromas.

In this current post I give a rough summary of what I mean by “rhythm”.

A tasting regime that focuses on movement and rhythm must begin with structure. Structure refers to the interplay of the basic foundational components of a wine. It is that interplay that sets the wine in motion and gives us the perception of movement. “Structure” refers to four primary components of a wine: fruit power including residual sugar when present, acidity, tannins, and alcohol.

These structural components create the body of the wine. However, the interplay between these components does not occur all at once. We sense this interplay as unfolding in time. The relationships between acidity, tannins, fruit power, and alcohol shift as the wine unfolds. How they do so contributes to the personality that each wine has. Most tasting notes include reference to a cumulative, quantitative assessment of structural elements—a wine might be described as “full bodied”, with high acidity and firm tannins. Textural descriptors such as “soft”, “textured”, or “angular” are also typical. But these descriptions do not tell us much about how the wine will be experienced unless we view them as part of an unfolding process. The quality and personality of a wine depend on how these components come together in relationships of mutual support or antagonism. It is this interplay and the intensities we experience from it that I refer to as rhythm.

It’s important to point out that, although we taste a wine as a whole, each structural component is contributing a distinct quality to the wine and they form a series of contrasts or polarities. Fruit power gives the wine weight and roundness. Alcohol can contribute to the softness of the texture. Acidity contributes sharpness, angularity, and can make the wine feel hard while also causing the mouth to water. Tannins contribute roughness and astringency. These are sharply contrasting tactile sensations that must become integrated and work together if the wine is to be pleasing. However, that integration does not happen all at once. Most reasonably complex wines have moments of tension where the components seem to resist each other and moments of relaxation in which harmony ensues. The key point is that as we track this dynamic movement on the palate the wine is setting up polarities. The relative prominence of the fruit, acidity or tannins, exhibit high points and low points with the acid straining to be noticed against the swelling graininess of the tannins, or the fruit power trying to hold on to its prominence as the other components emerge.

Wines differ in how much tension is exhibited through this dynamic movement. In some wines the contrast between the sweetness of the fruit or the softness of the alcohol seems in tension with searing acidity or the grain of the tannins. In other wines, the struggle for attention between structural components is reserved and full of finesse. But in any case, in a wine of high quality the various elements are constraining each other, working together at key moments to reign each other in, each providing an anchor that the others play off of. As we taste a wine, the wine is at work resolving these tensions. How it accomplishes that resolution is an important dimension of wine quality.

Tasting vitality is about mapping these polarities and then experiencing their resolution.

In a future post I will introduce some categories to help grasp this motion on the palate.

Wine Review: Treves Nebbiolo Canavese DOC 2016

trevesA different expression of Nebbiolo than what we are accustomed to.

The Treves features pretty, well delineated aromas–dusty cherry, hints of anise and rose, with a bit of mushroom in the background. But this is a spare and slender wine with a wan smile and dry, sardonic wit.

The entry on the palate is thin with a compressed fruit layer. There is some top note thrust with a stony climax at midpalate but little depth or roundness to rein it in. The finish is lengthy with sandy tannins that don’t grip. But the lack of persistent fruit power yields sour and bitter threads giving the wine a rustic feel.

By no means a brutal wine, it’s civilized as Nebbiolo goes. A pairing with Cat Power’s “The Greatest” makes the bitter seem sweet.

Notes: The Canavese DOC is a Piemonte appellation north of Turin which produces a variety or red and white wines. This wine is 95% Nebbiolo with Barbera and Freisa making up the other 5%. The wine is aged in barrels for 3 months.

Score: 88

Price: $18 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 13%

Prosecco? Really? And What’s Up with the Riesling Hater?

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crazyI sympathize with anyone trying to come up with a list of the best 100 wines of the year, in part because the idea of “best” is not and cannot be precisely defined when it comes to wine. But such lists by Wine Spectator and others are popular and drive wine sales despite the incoherence of the idea.

But that doesn’t excuse Wine Enthusiast’s decision to make a Prosecco the best wine of the year. I don’t recall tasting the Nino Franco NV Rustico Brut Prosecco so I remain open to being persuaded. But how good would it have to be to outrank the best that Bordeaux, Barolo, Burgundy, and Napa produced, let alone Champagne? Even if the sourced grapes and base wine happen to be wonderful, the charmat method of producing sparkling wine is inherently inferior to the traditional method of making sparkling wine. And Nino Franco produces over 100,000 cases  of the stuff per year so we’re not talking about a small lot with distinctive terroir. But I’m sure the Wine Enthusiast made Terlato (the owner of Nino Franco) happy with this first place showing.

Granted, Wine Enthusiast sells affordable wine to consumers most of whom cannot afford the best that Bordeaux, Napa or Burgundy produce. Perhaps their top 100 list is guided by affordability considerations. If so their list should be entitled the 100 Best affordable wines. That would be an interesting list and would have the additional virtue of being honest.

I have nothing against Prosecco and the critics at Wine Enthusiast know what they’re doing so I’m sure this is a lovely wine. But the best wine of 2019? I’m skeptical.

And  another odd piece caught my attention this week. In Meininger’s Wine Business International Roger Morris proclaims the emperor has no clothes. The almost universal acclaim among wine professionals for Riesling as a good food match is treated as a form of mass hypnosis:

For my palate, and I expect many if not most wine drinkers, Riesling is too often the precocious child whose parents think he is darling while the rest of us are edging toward the door. Its flavours and aromas, we doubters believe, clash with food. Trade people who love Riesling may not agree with this analysis, but the sales figures don’t lie. Even among people who drink Riesling, I suspect they buy it by the bottle and not the case.

This is a bit nuts. Granted, if you’re eating pasta and red sauce or a simple fish filet dressed with lemon there are better pairings than Riesling. A peachy Riesling won’t work with red sauce and, with fish, a light-bodied mineral wine is preferable. But with spicy or sweet dishes—Mexican, Asian, Cajun or Caribbean dishes—you want a wine with some sweetness. Not a dessert wine but a wine with 1%-3% residual sugar. Among the main varietals widely available at a wine shop, only Riesling is routinely made in a style with sufficient residual sugar to work with spicy or sweet foods. (Yes, you can get an over-ripe, over oaked new world Chardonnay, but don’t go there.)

There are many factors to consider in pairing food and wine but the most important is that the food should not be sweeter than the wine. Sweet food makes dry wine tastes thin and sour. Nothing will kill your expensive bottle of Pinot faster than a sweet and sour tamarind sauce.

Morris’s objection to Riesling and Asian food seems to be that Riesling is indigenous to Germany, not Asia, so the pairing with Asian food is unnatural. But there is nothing sacred about indigenous pairings. Maine lobster didn’t grow up with buttery Chardonnay but the pairing is delicious.

I have no idea why the general, non-expert wine-drinking public is resistant to Riesling. In fact they’re resistant to just about everything except Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Riesling isn’t uniquely unpopular. But the reason surely isn’t that Riesling is a bad food wine.

Food Trends 2019

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vegan cauliflower pizzaThe inevitable stories about trends in 2019 have started to appear. Two caught my eye today.

According to HuffPo, among The 10 Biggest Trends We Saw in 2019 were improvements to internal restaurant culture:

The #MeToo movement hugely defined restaurant culture in 2018, and intolerance for sexist, harassing and abusive behaviors happily continued to hold a position of top priority in 2019. In fact, 2019 saw restaurant owners, chefs and management reevaluating many of the prevalent industry practices that adversely affected employees.

It’s about time. After reading dearly departed Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential years ago (and witnessing a chef throw a knife at a waitress in my days as a dishwasher—he missed) I wondered why anyone would want to make a career working in restaurants.

And this article about GrubHub’s top food trends in 2019 articulates one reason why the wine business is struggling with younger people:

Vegetarian- or vegan-friendly options made up the majority of the food delivery service’s top 10 foods of the year.

  1. Cauliflower pizza: 650%
  2. Spicy Brussels sprouts: 622%
  3. Portobello empanada: 601%
  4. Black bean and sweet potato taco: 513%
  5. Miso pork ramen: 413%
  6. Chicken burger: 318%
  7. Bone broth: 298%
  8. Brown sugar milk [bubble] tea: 281%
  9. Vegan pad thai: 280%
  10. Impossible burger: 203%

Healthy-ish seems to have captured the imagination of millennials which some speculate means less or no alcohol. What happened to the heath benefits of red wine?

Tasting Vitality: An Introduction

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drinking wine 2For the past two years, I’ve been working intermittently on developing a new wine tasting model to be included in the book I’m writing on the philosophy of wine. I’ve finally gotten around to working it up into something publishable at least on a blog. So I will be devoting some posts to it over the next several weeks.

Current tasting models used in tasting notes and in certification programs are focused largely on aromas and flavors, and we have a well-developed vocabulary for describing them. It is obvious why tasting models focus on aromas. Aromas are the signature of a wine—they provide important clues about the varietal, where the grapes were grown, and how the wine was made. Because the paradigm of wine assessment is blind tasting with a goal of inferring origins from a wine’s properties, the identification of aromas is important for that task.

As important as aromas and flavor notes are however they are not the whole wine. Blind tasting aside, our enjoyment of a wine depends crucially on mouthfeel but also on a dimension of wine that is seldom emphasized in our tasting models—the movement of the wine on the palate. In fact, I want to suggest that a wine’s perceived movement on the palate is not only one determinant of wine quality but is central to a wine’s personality. Distinctive wines have a distinctive manner in which their tactile qualities unfold. Yet, our way of describing these features is not nearly as well developed as our description of flavor notes.

Thus, my primary goal in developing a tasting model is to provide an analysis of this dimension of wine tasting. Essentially, I’m arguing that individual wines have a rhythm and I’m trying to describe the various rhythms that wines exhibit. I won’t be ignoring aromas or flavors but rhythm and mouthfeel will get equal billing.

So stay tuned.

Wine Review: Heinrich Zweigelt Burgenland Austria 2015

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heinrich zweigeltAs transparent as a freshly wiped pane of glass yet the funk gives it a quirky dimension. Great quality for the price.

Focused aromas of black cherry, cranberry and paprika swathed in eau de salami make a very intriguing nose.

In the mouth it’s on the light side of medium bodied and refreshingly crisp after a juicy introduction. It has a soft, calm midpalate but spicy, peppery notes punctuate a clean, limpid seam of fresh spring water on the long gentle finish.

The tannins are shy, the acidity bright but never sour. This is where cheerful and trippy meet—pair with some Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys.

Technical Notes: A biodynamic producer, and one of the first to commit to making red wine in Austria, Heinrich has been in operation since 1990. This wine is fermented with native yeasts, spent extended time on the lees, and was aged for 8 months in 500 liter used Slavonian and Austrian oak casks. Zweigelt is native to Austria and is their most popular red grape. It’s an offspring of Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent. We should drink more Zweigelt.

Score: 92

Price: $21     (Find this wine)

Alc: 12.5%

Minerality as Structure

structureTypically when we refer to a wine’s structure we mean those components of a wine that form its foundation, the way the wine is put together. Fruit power, acidity, tannins, alcohol conspire to form the body of the wine—it’s structure. The wine’s structure is primarily accessed via tactile impressions or mouthfeel.

This weekend I opened a wine that seemed to have an additional structural component—minerality.

Minerality has been a controversial concept over the past two decades. It was seldom mentioned in tasting notes prior to the early 2000’s. It then received some mention as a synonym for the “flinty” aroma of a Chablis or the aroma of petrichor—the scent of rain falling on dry stones often found in white wines. Today it is a common feature of tasting notes describing a wide range of additional non-fruit, non-spice aromas and flavors—crushed rock, salinity, gravel, slate, steel, or chalk.

It’s interesting that what we call minerality today is not always an aroma. Some wines have a texture akin to the sensation of licking a stone or the dry, gritty character of chalk. Minerality is a marriage of aroma and mouthfeel.

The wine I opened this weekend was a 2006 Syrah from David Girard, a very good producer in California’s Sierra Foothills. At 13 years after vintage date, there was still some juiciness to the fruit but it was beginning to fade.  There was no heat from exposed alcohol. The tannins had softened to a whisper. There was no hint of sourness and the sharp bite of acidity was just a nip. All of these structural components had receded behind a torrent of minerality—aromas of crushed rock, a wide seam of gravel on the palate, and lingering chalk on the finish.

If structure is what gives firmness and stability to a wine, the structure of this wine consisted of minerality. It’s as if age had stripped it bare revealing bones of steel.

We don’t really know where minerality comes from, although we know it is not transferred from the soil. Whatever it is, it’s a product of fermentation and seems to result from a particular way the tannins, acidity, and fruit are woven together. This wine suggests it lurks in the shadows until the more familiar structural components are worn away by age.

Thanksgiving Wine Advice

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thanksgiving wineThanksgiving is a difficult meal for wine pairing. Too many diverse dishes and too many people with different tastes mean anything you chose will be a compromise. Of course if you’re entertaining a group of wine enthusiasts then you probably should make an effort to bring something interesting to the table. But for the vast majority of casual wine drinkers, the meal is not really going to be about the wine. So don’t become a nervous wreck worrying about which wine to serve. A modest sparkling wine is probably the best choice. Or just open several bottles of ordinary wine and let people drink what they want.

And for heaven’s sake don’t open a special bottle. It will be wasted. The Drunken Cyclist tells the story about the time he brought well-aged  Burgundy to Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t pretty. And his advice is spot on:

Don’t get me wrong, wine geeks are still expected to bring wine but no matter what they bring, their relatives will simply assume it’s “good.”

My advice? Don’t be a moron: bring some inexpensive wines since most of it will end up going down the drain. Still, it should be palatable since you are going to have to drink it too (the hiding the good bottle for yourself while serving up plonk to the rest does not work–trust me).

Check out his post for his recommendations about which supermarket wines are worthy.

Wine Review: Ktima Pavlidis Thema Red Blend PGI Drama, Macedonia 2014

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themaThe Thema red blend of 60% Agiorgitiko and 40% Syrah is warm, inviting and good natured but not entirely serious.

On the nose, black cherry flaunting a vaguely citrus note, a dash of nutmeg, and a dusting of pencil lead give the wine an exotic yet cheery demeanor.

In the mouth the wine is round and plush with a soft, velvet texture and a balanced dose of toasty oak. Persistent, powdery tannins are a docile accompaniment to the swollen seam of juicy, brotherly love fruit which occupies a substantial middle seam. The wine’s evolution is linear, the acidity only gradually emerging, but it becomes quite prominent on the finish as the fruit begins to fade.

This is a very nice wine although as the fruit fades on the finish the tannins don’t quite mask a hint of sourness. The distinctive personality—jovial, yet tender and sort of campy—is worth the price of admission. It pairs well with the cheeky, jazz-influenced stylings of Nellie McKay’s Won’t You Please Be Nice”.

Technical Notes: Aged for 12 months in 70% new French oak. Agiorgitiko is the most widely planted red grape in Greece. It is noteworthy for its aromatics which are on display in this wine. Drama is a wine region in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace with a climate that varies from Mediterranean in the flatlands to continental in the foothills.

Score: 91

Price: $28 (Find more info here)

Alc: 15%

What Is a Delicious Wine?

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drinking wineIn discussing his criteria for a good everyday wine, Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser writes:

But above all, a wine has to be delicious. And if I have to define the delicious-factor, it means a wine has a really good fruit-acid balance with emphasis on high natural acidity. Further, if it’s a red wine, the winemaking—as in tannin management and use of oak—also has to be good—and balanced.

I don’t disagree with this. Certainly fruit/acid/tannin balance is essential to wine quality. But is that all there is to “deliciousness”?

Many (certainly not all)  $10-$12 supermarket wines have fruit/acid balance in that they are neither flabby nor too tart. One might argue that the reds typically lack tannins since “smooth” seems to be what they aim for. But even with more backend structure I wouldn’t call most of these wines delicious.

So what more is required for a wine to be “delicious”?

To me delicious wines have vibrancy and energy. The fruit must be either juicy or rich and have clarity and precision. In the mouth, the wine should dance. It should leave an impression of movement executed with grace and have a finish that feels complete with no exposed acidity to turn the wine sour or harsh tannins to make the wine seem fragmented. These are qualities I only occasionally find for under $20. It’s almost always the finish that fails.

How would you define “delicious”?