Archive for the 'winespeak' Category

Summer of trashing wine

Sorry for the radio (er, blog) silence of late. It’s been a busy few weeks for me with non-blog things–but I am now back in the proverbial saddle.

What with the heat, humidity and storms here in the northeast, and fireworks on the horizon, pardon me for thinking that we were in summer. Instead, it seems to be open season once again for trashing wine critics. A resurgence in interest in Bob Hodgson’s studies seems to have sparked the boom in articles deriding wine tasting and criticism. But these articles have also reached into the annals of the subfield to pull out other studies pointing to the fact that wine consumers are perhaps more influenced by price or labels than what’s in the glass in front of them.

Don’t throw the l’enfant jesus out with the bathwater. While it might be hilarious to see a wine snob get his comeuppance, people in America (and around the world) are increasingly into wine and crave more knowledge about wine. In fact, I taught an intensive wine class at the New School last week and about half the participants admitted they wanted to be “that guy” at parties, who can talk about wine with confidence and order from a wine list with aplomb. Blind tasting is a bit of a parlor game and there are a million facts to learn that someone could be tripped up on. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that wine goes with food, fuels socializing, and is easy to uncork and enjoy.

So even if there is a lack of rigor in a lot of blind tasting and more than a whiff of pseudoscience, learning more about wine is still something meaty that people want and value. Or am I wrong–what do you think?

What to call English sparkling wine? [poll]

The mere thought of “English wine” may sound like an oxymoron. But 400 vineyards now produce grapes for wine, much of it sparkling.

Should British bubbly be called anything other than “English sparkling wine”? Christian Seely, a partner in Coates & Seely, a producer of sparkling wine in Hampshire, recently told that calling it simply “English sparkling wine” is “like calling a Jaguar a Smart British Motor Car.” (Presumably, he doesn’t mean to imply that English sparkling wine has foreign ownership the way Jaguar is now owned by Tata Motors.)

Seely proposes the name “Britagne” and has emblazoned the term on the neck of Coates & Seely bottles. The preferred pronunciation, however, is not “Brit-ane” to rhyme with Champagne, but rather “brit-an-yuh,” as in Rule Britannia. It turns out that there’s not consensus on the term as another has been floated: Merret. Apparently Mr. Merret was a pioneer in the nascent industry. But the bookmakers are giving this term long odds despite the fact that it rhymes with claret.

What do you think? Since the use of the term Champagne is prohibited for bubblies made outside the Champagne region, other terms such as cava or Sekt have been popularized. Come to think of it, California sparkling wine doesn’t have a category name. Given our love of acronyms, such as driving your SUV in the HOV to the ATM, I’m surprised it hasn’t it hasn’t come to be abbreviated CSW. But anyway, back to Britagne–what do you think? I am pessimistic that any one term will work.

English sparkling wine as a category should be called...

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Vinofreakism: shepherd vignerons, sommeliers, acid & tooth enamel

Robert Parker had some comments about a BYOB restaurant in Philadelphia that were picked up on Here’s an excerpt:

I loved everything about this place…Add the BYO and no corkage….and better yet…no precious sommelier trying to sell us some teeth enamel removing wine with acid levels close to toxic, made by some sheep farmer on the north side of his 4,000-foot foot elevation vineyard picked two months before ripeness, and made from a grape better fed to wild boar than the human species….we all know the type-saving the world from drinking good wine in the name of vinofreakism…

Your carmenere ran over my dogma [natural wine]

I’ve wanted to sell the above line to Wines of Chile for some time. But I found another use for it: this article on natural wine by Mike Steinberger on It really advances the discussion. An excerpt:

Yet when you strip away all the rhetoric and dogma about “natural wines,” what are you left with is essentially just a slogan, used by a group of people to champion some wines that happen to please their taste buds and/or sensibilities…I think “natural” advocates ought to ditch the “natural” label, which is hopelessly tendentious and polarizing, and should instead put the focus where it really belongs, on individual wines and winemakers…Call them good wines, call them distinctive, soulful, or funky wines—just don’t call them natural wines.

The geometry of wine and multidimensional Riesling

The best wines of any grape are multidimensional. But with Riesling, people often get caught up only on sweetness. In fact, there’s other stuff going on, such as acidity and sometimes minerality.

This fact came up in Monday’s panel discussion at the “Riesling Fellowship” In New York City. Held for only the third time ever, the event switched to the US, the largest market by value for Riesling, after two sessions in the UK, the largest market for Riesling by volume. Many top Riesling producers from Germany, Austria, Australia, France, Canada and the US poured their wares at this Riesling-palooza.

In the panel on how Riesling ages, Kirk Willie of Weingut Dr. Loosen mentioned how he thinks of Riesling as a tetrahedron, a three-dimensional geometrical shape akin to a pyramid, with four triangular sides. Afterward, he elaborated that the sides correspond roughly to acidity, sweetness, alcohol, and intensity.

Nik Weis, of Weingut St. Urbans-Hof in the Mosel thinks of Riesling more as a parallelogram with the four sides being acidity, sweetness, alcohol and minerality. Ideally, they are in balance but if one predominated, then the parallelogram became contorted. He had another way for mapping the flavors of Riesling on overlapping axes of length (body, viscosity, alcohol, sugar), width (flavor spectrum), and depth (minerality and acidity).

Although it’s probably easy to overthink this, it is helpful to break down the Riesling into multiple aspects and get away from simply thinking sweet. What works the best of me is to think of it as a part of hanging mobile made up of a of shapes–tetrahedrons and parallelograms if you want!–representing sugar, acidity, alcohol, intensity, minerality and terroir.

Which shape is a Riesling for you? And which shapes would you associate with other grapes? I’m going with a big ol’ cylinder for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Winespeak: scores, music and Brazilians

Eric Asimov had a thoughtful column on Wednesday. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, he interviews a leading violinist and discusses, among other things, the difficulty of describing both wine and music in words. “A great piece of music, and a great wine, holds your attention and has more than you can say in words,” says the musician, David Chan. And somehow “sluicing a mouthful of pebbles” doesn’t quite capture the whole grandeur of a fifteen year old Puligny Montrachet either, Eric says. Indeed.

But one point that Eric does not bring up so I will: if words can’t even cut it, then how on earth can scores even pretend to be satisfactory in evaluating a wine?

I met with a Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger yesterday who is not wild about the thought of reducing a wine to a score. He wondered, how can you say which is better, Brigitte Bardot or Marilyn Monroe? Rembrandt or Renoir? Indeed. He made the point that, in an evening, wine is a part of the whole with his ratio running at 10 percent food, 10 percent wine, and 80 percent company. Three cheers for context!

Over the course of the tasting of four of his excellent tetes de cuvee, the superlative blanc de blanc Comtes de Champagne, he offered his tasting notes for the wines. Usually vintners offer cautious notes, if any, but Pierre-Emmanuel’s ebullient side shone through in his notes, which were:

1998: A young Brazilian woman running on the beach (find this wine)
1993: A monk who has led a pure life and suddenly the fruit comes alive and he is running on a beach in Brazil too (find this wine)
1989: Like a beautiful, elegant 55 year-old Italian woman with no “lifting” (find this wine)
1988: Sunlight streaming in a stained glass window, spirits mixed with light, a lot of transparency in the wine mixed with a gentle breeze (find this wine)

Come on, would you really prefer to see those wines with scores?

Winespeak: The opposite of sweet is dry

It’s pretty easy to call a wine sweet: it has a perceptible level of residual sugar in it (five grams of residual sugar is often considered the threshold of perception). Sweet wines generally start at about 45 grams of residual sugar (RS). Some wines, such as Tokay, have require a minimum level 60 grams of RS and rate wines by sweetness with six puttonyos being instant diabetes.

What’s the opposite of sweet? Dry. All the discernible sugar has been converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. Tricky since you might think the opposite of dry is wet and, well, all wine is wet. Dry doesn’t have to do with high tannins, which might make you go “chomp, chomp” and think “OMG, my mouth is drying out! I need water!” It’s just close to zero grams of residual sugar.

And there’s a middle ground of “off-dry,” or slightly sweet. Silly term, I agree (what is it, moist?). Slightly sweeter than that can be called medium dry. If you want to get all wonky geeky, off-dry might be five to fifteen grams of RS and medium dry, from fifteen to forty. Some countries and/or regions are so wonky geeky that they have specific terms and laws for these levels.

Oddly enough, a wine with a lower amount of residual sugar can sometimes taste sweeter than one with a slightly higher amount; it’s often a question of balance with acidity and one category that can be hard to discern in this regard is Champagne, which also as carbon dioxide zooming at your palate as well.

I bring this up because it came up in the comments of this recent posting about “light” as a wine style. And it comes up regularly in my NYU class. If you want to see sweet and dry in action, try tasting these two Leitz wines or a Northern Rhone syrah against a ripe, sweet version of the same grape from somewhere in the New World (but not all are ripe and sweet).

You say oinos, I say oenos

A reader recently posed this question:

At 10:08 PM, Trailady said…
You seem to be an expert on wine, so I must ask…. Was the wine in the wedding miracle of Jesus (in the Bible) fermented wine or unfermented grape juice? This has been a long raging debate in some circles. Just thought I’d ask.

Thanks Trailady but it seems more like a Bible question than a wine question. That being the case, I asked José Gonzalez, a classics scholar formerly at Harvard and now at the University of Oregon who reads the New Testament in its original Greek (and is a wine zealot), for a reply. He said that the question of fermented/non-fermented is one that is only confronted in American religious circles and offered this reply. –Dr. Vino


For what it is worth: the Greek word, “oinos”, is used for fermented drinks, generally from the grape, but also from barley, palms, lotus plants, etc. That it can be used to refer to fermented drinks not of the vine follows precisely from its being the common word for “fermented must”.

As to the passage itself: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when the guests have drunk freely, then that which is worse. You have kept the good wine until now.” You need not be a Greek scholar to realize that “to drink freely” (“methuomai” or “methuskomai”) must mean “to get drunk” or “to drink excessively” (as in fact it does). What other rationale would there be for the host to bring out the “worse” wine later, except to make sure that by then the guests are intoxicated enough not to be able to tell the difference between the good and the bad? Once you grasp the logic of the headwaiter’s comment it necessarily follows that the “good” wine served first (and, consequently, the one Christ created) must be fermented: it would be a miracle indeed to find the guests intoxicated with grape juice!


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