The Influence of “Terroir” in Bourbon Production

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bourbon barrelsI’ve been doing some research on bourbon recently for a writing project I was hired to do. One question I wanted to answer was whether the idea of terroir (or some similar concept related to the “taste” of a place) plays a role in quality differences. My conclusion is that location does play an important role although it differs significantly from the role terroir plays in wine.

Basically there are five factors that influence the flavor of bourbon: water, the grain recipe, fermentation, distillation, and maturation in oak.

By law bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn and typically includes some rye, barley or wheat as well. The precise ratio of grains (called the mashbill) matters a great deal but I doubt it matters where the grain was grown as long as the plants were healthy. This is the main difference between wine and whiskey with regard to terroir. For bourbon, the main ingredient could be grown anywhere.

Water however is often mentioned in Bourbon lore. Kentucky distillers insist water resting on the limestone soils of Eastern Kentucky are ideal for making Bourbon. But as far as I can tell, they are inflating its importance. What matters is that the water used to make the mash be mineral rich, alkaline (i.e. high PH) and low in iron. There are countless places around the world that would satisfy those criteria. In any case you could add calcium carbonate to the water to elevate the PH. Water is important but I doubt it is water from a specific location that matters. Famed Kentucky producer Brown-Foreman uses treated municipal water for their celebrated Old Forester bourbon.

The strain of yeast used influences the flavor of bourbon. Although many producers use commercial yeast, some cultivate their own strains and take great pains to make sure it is consistent from year to year. But that is not quite the same as using whatever ambient yeast happens to be around in the environment as  some natural winemakers do. As it is with wine, this is an under-explored dimension of terroir. But again it isn’t obvious that location is the variable here.

The distillation process differs from distillery to distillery and differences in equipment can make a substantial difference. But this has nothing to do with location.

That brings us to the most important dimension of bourbon-making—the aging process. Depending on who you ask, 50-80 percent of the flavor of Bourbon comes from the barrel. By law, Bourbon must be aged in 100% charred, new oak barrels. The minimum aging requirement is two years for a spirit to be called straight bourbon.  In addition to the degree of char, the type and quality of the wood matters a great deal and bourbon producers are careful about where they source their wood. Thus, I suppose you could argue the terroir of the wood is a factor in bourbon quality.

But the source of the wood is not the most important factor in the aging process. The most important differentiator among styles of Bourbon has to do with the location of the warehouse as well as the location of the barrels inside the warehouse. Bourbon is almost always aged in warehouses without much temperature control. Thus, the ambient temperature influences how the bourbon ages. Barrels subject to more heat will have more oak character because heat advances the chemical reactions going on in the barrel. Whiskey aged in cooler areas will age more slowly and can be aged for a longer time. Hot, dry conditions will increase evaporation thus increasing the proof of the alcohol, cool or humid conditions will inhibit evaporation keeping the alcohol levels more moderate. This applies not only to the region of the country where the aging takes place but the location in the warehouse as well. The top floors are typically warmer than the bottom floors. Many producers have a “favorite floor” where they expect to get their best whiskeys. Of course, most bourbons are blends of many barrels, a process that would diminish the influence of warehouse location. (Perhaps that is an argument for more single barrel bottlings.)

This is a clear case where location matters, not because of soil characteristics but because of ambient temperatures during aging.

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Why Drinking the Icons Only is a Bad Strategy

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marisa merz 2I know people who insist on drinking only the best wines from any category, the wines with pedigree and reputation. After all, there is a reason why “the best” have earned their reputation. Although reputation isn’t a guarantee of quality and surely no guarantee that the wine will fit your personal taste, more often than not wines that have impressed critics over many vintages will have something to offer most wine lovers.  But that is nevertheless a bad strategy for choosing what to drink.

marisa merzEarlier this week we were in Philadelphia strolling through the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They have an extensive collection but we had only a few hours before heading out to dinner and couldn’t see it all. The visitors guide has a helpful list of highlights—the most famous works in the collection—and maps you to them so you can skip the lesser lights and visit the stars.

agnostic symbolBut we never take that option because you lose out on the thrill of making new discoveries. I would rather just stroll through the rooms without a plan looking for something that catches my eye. Instead of another bowl of fruit from Cezanne or sparkling, dappled lilies from Monet, I discovered the contemporary, Italian artist Marisa Merz who manages to be  simultaneously charming and menacing. Had I toured the stars, I would have missed  lesser works by famous figures like this peculiar work by Dali called Agnostic Symbol that I never knew existed.

Similarly, if you drink only signature wines from well-known producers you won’t discover the seemingly infinite variety of equally compelling wines that fly under the radar. These lesser known wines will likely show far more originality and distinctiveness than what you find among the stars since it’s the stars that define what conventionality and orthodoxy mean at any point in time.

Both in the art world and in wine, what gets famous has a lot to do with effective PR, cash, and the celebrity that comes with being a celebrity. The star system may sometimes stumble upon quality but it discovers only a small part of a larger universe of quality and seldom uncovers what is genuinely original.

Bernard Magrez Si Mon Père Savait Côtes du Roussillon 2012

bernard magrezSituated on the east side of the Pyrenees in southern France, this region is best known for their sweet wines. Côtes du Roussillon is a minimally selective appellation for their table wines.  These are blends of Rhone varietals. This one is made from Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan produced by the Bordeaux wine impresario Bernard Magrez, and lives up to the region’s reputation for rustic reds.

At seven years past its vintage date, the nose is showing some glorious complexity. Plum and fig, roasted coffee beans,  and a hint of emerging caramel are dominant. There is a bit of oxidation, a nut aroma, developing as well and you get hints of tarragon with aeration. In the mouth it’s broad shouldered with lots of fruit power and very firm tannins. The tannins are integrated and the wine is balanced but the mouthfeel is hard and unyielding, a linear evolution without much finesse. The midpalate brightens briefly with herbal notes but there some bitterness on the medium length finish.

A stoic, unperturbable personality, stolid and unsmiling except for the age-induced aromatic generosity. The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Can’t Stop seemed to add textural depth to this wine.

Technical Notes: Aged in 50% one-year old barrels and 50% stainless steel tanks, 15-25 days maceration

Score: 90

Price: $23

Alc: 14%

Wine Lovers Carry On

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raising a wine glassThose of us who are fascinated by wine live in a world where we looked upon by most people as at best peculiar and at worst a total wastrel. If get your thrills tracking wine quality through variations in soil, weather, climate  and production style you’re a geek. If you provide detailed, public analysis of those variations you’re pretentious. Spending hard earned dollars on  a distinctive bottling borders on immorality. And heaven forbid if you write about wine and try to capture its complexity you’re guilty logorrhea (i.e. excessive verbosity, too much jabber jabber).

So I found Lauren Mowery’s recent article in Wine Enthusiast  to be immensely inspirational. Entitled “Pliny the Elder, the First Wine Critic and Why He Still Matters” Mowery traces some of our current practices in wine appreciation back to the ancient Romans especially the great military officer and author, Pliny, who had an interest in all things fermented.

Pliny’s extensive writings on “first growths” encompassed Falernian, the legendary wine of ancient Rome. This grape from Campania came from the slopes of Mount Massico, today the Falerno del Massico DOC.

He recorded the best sites of modern-day Lombardy, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany. He detailed the finest vineyards south of Naples, along the Adriatic coast, where he acknowledged the high-quality estate of Mamertine from Messina, Sicily.

Pliny wrote of the healing properties of Prosecco. He recounted the rich, tannic wines of Pompeii, which was recreated recently using two ancient strains (Piedirosso and Olivella) in an experiment to taste wines of his times.

In other words, many of the preoccupations of wine lovers today have not only deep historical origins but continuity over two millennia.

The fact that a practice has such a tradition behind it does not in itself make it valuable. Some traditions are better left behind. But the fact that very different people in vastly different societies under utterly different historical conditions were serious and knowledgeable about wine appreciation shows that the allure of fine taste captures something deep in the human imagination.

Ridiculing wine tasting is a bit like ridiculing Shakespeare or great athleticism. You can do so but what you’re revealing about yourself isn’t pretty.

You Can’t Describe New Impressions by Using Old Expressions

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wine term cloudI have been arguing recently that complaints about the use of metaphor in describing wine are misguided. Most metaphors used in wine writing are no more subjective or ambiguous than metaphors used in any other field.

But the most important reason why metaphor is essential in wine writing is that there is no off-the-shelf vocabulary for describing holistic properties that also get at a wine’s individuality without employing metaphor.

Too often, wine writers use a divide and conquer strategy to describe a wine. A wine is broken down to its elements—individual aromas, flavors, textures and tactile impressions—from which we are supposed to gain an overall sense of the wine. But a list of individual elements will not reveal how these elements interact to form a whole. And of course it is the whole wine we taste, not individual elements only. When we get pleasure from a wine it is because the elements form complex relations that we taste as a unity. Thus, a review based on analytic tasting requires that the reader guess what overall impression the wine leaves, or more likely they simply rely on a numerical score as an indicator of quality. A proper review, by contrast, must describe that unity, that overall impression that explains one’s response. It is often a well-placed metaphor that pulls those elements together making the wine as a whole intelligible. Thus, describing a wine as boisterous and assertive, or voluptuous and sexy goes a long way in describing the kind of appeal a wine might have.

While the standard tasting model in use today includes references to non-metaphorical, holistic properties such as intensity, power, elegance, finesse, etc., these characterize most high-quality wines. Most premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Pessac Leognan or Napa Valley will have intensity and power. Most quality Pinot Noir will be elegant. Language that distinguishes between them will have to be more precise about what kind of power, intensity or elegance a particular wine exhibits. Metaphor is one way to accomplish this. To call a wine fleshy suggests one kind of intensity, broad-shouldered, another and sinewy, yet another.

But the metaphors that typically receive the most criticism from frustrated readers are novel metaphors, new ways of describing wine that will seem unfamiliar even to experienced wine enthusiasts.  To describe a wine as “anxious, kinetic, feverishly rebelling against its pretty face” or “praying for joy at the scene of decay” might indeed leave readers wondering what is being said about the wine. But such seemingly poetic language is not to be dismissed, for there is a good reason for it. Wine aesthetics is to a significant degree about variation and distinctiveness. We prize the unique character of a particular vineyard or style of winemaking and get enjoyment from tracking these variations across parcels, regions and vintages. Wine writing must therefore try to capture such variation and distinctiveness. This is a challenge because no conventional vocabulary will suffice in enabling wine writers to describe flavors that are not conventional. Linguistic innovation is as necessary corollary to flavor and texture distinctiveness. You cannot describe new impressions by using old expressions.

So while we might object to particular metaphors and find some of them difficult to understand, there is no obvious alternative linguistic strategy for making wine descriptions meaningful.

Drinking Habits

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wine drinking rut“Drink what you like” is a common refrain among wine professionals giving advice to budding wine enthusiasts. It is advice of questionable value. The problem is not that it’s wong. It would be strange to advise someone to drink what they don’t like.

The problem is it’s incomplete. The advice should always come with a codicil—“drink what you like after you’ve tasted enough to know what you like”. You can’t really know what your own personal tastes are until you’ve tasted widely and explored the world of wine to know what’s out there.

Otherwise you’re drinking what you’re familiar with—out of habit.

There is nothing wrong with habits. We couldn’t function without them. But it’s a meager existence that limits aesthetic experience to what is familiar.

Wine Review: Les Pensees de Pallus Cabernet Franc Chinon 2013

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les pensees de pallusWe tend to think of the Loire Valley as a white wine region, but the mid-valley, especially Chinon, produces noteworthy Cabernet Franc.

This is a small yet attractive, well-knit wine that manages to be both delicate and sinewy.

Black cherry and pomegranate dance with pretty floral notes, slight cinnamon and hints and feints of freshly turned earth play against a graphite core. Green aromas never make an appearance.

The palate is delicate up front, with modest juiciness resting on a stony midpalate layer. The tannins come on early so the midpalate shows some pleasant graininess, but they fade early leaving lots of high-toned mouthwatering freshness on the finish. A bit underweight but textured throughout, at 6 years past vintage date it’s quite integrated now

Certainly not overly generous and nothing showy, it’s charm is quiet but resolute, and nicely dialed in to the strong pulse and delicate vocals of Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony

Technical Notes: Extended maceration on this wine, up to 30 days, aged in mostly second use barrels. Pallus is a hillside plot on sand and limestone.

Score: 90

Price: $24 (imported by Rare Wine Company)

Alc: 12.5%

Stories and Social Media Time Wasters

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cote rotie vineyardsI’ve been banging on about wine stories a lot the last few months, wondering whether they can really be the key to sustaining interest in wine. As usual, Oliver Styles has an interesting take on this. He does uncover a story, but it’s really about whether there is a story here or not.

Many years ago Styles was invited on a press junket to the Northern Rhone where he hung out with wine impresario Alain-Dominique Perrin, at his stunning Chateau featuring a 14th Century dinner table and a vintage car collection, listened in on a conversation with renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland, and over a delicious meal,  tasted a line up of “La Las”, the top cuvees from Guigal. As a wine experience it doesn’t get any better assuming he’s sharing it with good company.

As Styles points out, if he were doing this today he’d be Instagramming the hell out it. But why?

But while of course we had pointed out that we couldn’t guarantee coverage, what was the story? What, in the words of my boss, was the top line? Wealthy bloke makes very good wine? Rich man has solid line in vintage Rhônes? When Perrin calls, Rolland answers? How to turn medieval martial architecture into a 21st-Century restroom feature? There wasn’t a story. I remember trying – I really tried – to run the angles past the editorial team but I knew it was hopeless.

Even if he were Instagramming with photos there is still no story:

But there wouldn’t be a story, would there? There would be a feed but nothing nourishing. I would have been passing of my experience as a lived event but it wasn’t my life – it was someone else’s.

He’s right. There isn’t anything here that anyone ought to be interested in. This is not to say there are no stories in the wine industry. But not every great experience is a story and not every great wine has a story behind it.

Is the rest of our time on social media going to be filled with anodyne summaries of classic French sub-regions written for neophytes and commented on by sycophants; unboxings and “reviews” of wines clearly compromised because they are freebies; and my pet peeve – the guess what this wine is/what I’m drinking/where I’m going/what I’m doing next? Does anyone comment positively on any of this without an ulterior motive?

He self-deprecatingly calls himself a “jaded ex-hack” and the headline of the article suggests this is a peculiarity of “one-percenter wine”. Granted there are more interesting stories among the hard-scrabble up and comers than among the well-heeled.

But the hard truth is wine is about the wine—when there is a good story that certainly enhances the wine but it’s more rare than we are led to believe by all the social media baloney.

Wine Metaphors and Interpretation

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wine pouredLast week I linked to several examples of what has become a favorite theme in wine media—complaints about wine language, especially the use of metaphors that make use of the features of a person to describe a wine. (See here here  and here for examples of the complaints)

The complaint is almost always that metaphorical attributions are too subjective and ambiguous and serve no purpose other than advertising the writer’s facility with words.

There are several things to say about these objections. One is that the problem is not unique to wine. Unless metaphors have become dead metaphors there will always be ambiguities about how to interpret them in any field. Poetic metaphors are obviously complex and difficult to parse, but even conversational metaphors such as “Bill is a bulldozer” or “Jane is a block of ice” may raise questions about which features of Bill or Jane the metaphor is highlighting. You would have to know something about Bill or Jane before being confident about what the metaphor means. All living metaphors require interpretation.

In interpreting metaphors, context is essential. To grasp what a “sinewy” wine might be, one must know something about the range of textural and tactile differences in wine and have tasted enough to sense the differences between them. To know what Robert Parker meant when he referred to the 2001 Batard-Montrachet as a “streetwalker”, you have to know that some wines are flamboyant and expressive, but unrefined, superficial and lacking substance. The complaint about ambiguity is often made from the perspective of a wine novice. But, of course, wine metaphors will be opaque to a novice. Understanding a metaphor will often require refined capacities to taste. It would be a peculiar writing practice if its most excellent examples were aimed only at novices. We don’t have such an expectation regarding the language used in art appreciation, baseball, or bird watching. Some of the vocabulary of any domain of expertise will be opaque to novices.

As to more experienced tasters, many metaphors have become so common they require only a bit of thought to figure out what they mean. Wines are routinely described as “generous”, “brooding” or “shy”. Surely, these pose no special interpretive difficulties for someone with some tasting experience and there is no reason to think these are more subjective than, for instance, aroma notes. Thus, it’s only new metaphors that have no established history of conventional use that might be troublesome. Which brings me to the most important reason why metaphor is essential. There is no off-the-shelf vocabulary for describing holistic properties that also get at a wine’s individuality without employing metaphor. Individual fruit and flower descriptors will only get you so far.

I will explain what I mean by this next week when I continue this series of posts on wine metaphors.

Vitality as a Marker of Wine Quality

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wine vitalityI think if there is one way of summarizing what wine quality comes to, I would say quality wines exhibit vitality. What do I mean by vitality? There are three elements to tasting vitality:

1. Tasting variation in the vineyard, glass, and bottle. Darwin showed that life is creative, a continuous process of novelty and natural selection in which living beings contract, select, and harmonize the conflicting forces that affect them. Living beings make a life for themselves by using matter and energy to resist degradation. Wine, in its life span beginning in the vineyard through its years on the shelf of a wine cellar and finally in the glass,  puts this process of difference, disparity, and integration on a pedestal, glamorizing it, showing the process itself to be captivating. Tracking these life-like variations and noting the ability of wine to escape the categorical boxes we put it in–tasting the tension between stability and change, degradation and maintenance, predictability and contingency–is in part what I mean by tasting vitality. Wine tasting, at least in the modern world, has always been about this and the best wines are transparent in how they express these living processes.

2. Tasting variation and movement on the palate. Increasingly, in tasting notes, wine tasters are making reference to perceived motion on the palate, referring to a wine’s energy as lively, slow-building, deliberate, swelling, tense, light on its feet, etc. Great wines have a distinctive rhythm as they unfold in the mouth revealing many ways of being lively and energetic. This is a dimension of wine tasting that doesn’t receive enough attention and is not well represented in formal tasting models.

3. Tasting for personality and character. Living things have dispositions, what we call personality in a person—a complexity that expresses a being’s way of unfolding in time and reacting to the world in a particular way. That is why living things attract our engagement and responsiveness. Wines too, at least those that are distinctive, have dispositions, a way of unfolding in time, that contribute to their complexity. This is why metaphors based on a human personality have been used to describe such wines. Thus the degree a wine has personality and character is a measure of its vitality.

Great wines exhibit distinctive variations from the vineyard, winery, or bottle, distinctive rhythms on the palate, and a distinctive personality—all summed up as the wines vitality.