KNOWING YOUR WINE
How red is it anyway?
The colour of a wine can tell you much about it, but sometimes all is not what it seems.
Decades ago it was quite normal for a Burgundy producer to add a good slug of wine from a warmer part of the world to make up for any deficiency in their product. In theory this shouldn’t happen any more, and better vineyard practices and winemaking skills have improved the wines. There are rumours of this sort of practice still happening in some regions; and in some parts of the world the geographic boundaries are so large that blending is normal practice.
What gives a wine its colour?
The colour comes mainly from the grape skins. A classic example of this is the Pinot Noir grape variety. It normally makes red wine, but the pulp in the centre of the grape is white, so, if you gently press the grapes, and ferment the juice you get a white wine, as in Blanc de Noir Champagnes.
I’ll exclude fortified wines.
- White – wine made by pressing grapes, and fermenting the juice without skin contact.
- Orange – wine made from white grapes, but where the skin is in contact with the juice during fermentation. This was very unusual, but is becoming more popular.
- Rosé – wine made from red grapes, where the grape skins are left in contact with the juice for a short period to impart some colour.
- Red – where the grape skins are left in contact with the juice throughout fermentation. The colour can vary from a pale garnet to an inky impenetrable purple.
Which other factors influence the colour?
- Acidity. Usually expressed as the pH. The acidity decreases as a wine ages.
- Sulphites. These are added as an anti-oxidation and to kill off bacteria, but they also change the colour of a wine.
- Ageing. The chemical reactions in a wine cause white wines to become darker in colour as they age, and red wines to become paler. They all tend towards brown in the end.
- Oak barrels. Some air reaches the wine whilst it is an oak barrel, and this can affect the colour, as can some chemicals leached from the oak.
Wine additives which influence colour
- In addition, or instead of, blending wine from outside the region, some winemakers will add food colouring. The most honest of these are at least grape-derived, an example being ‘Mega Purple’. They are concentrates where a little goes a long way, and some change the taste as well as the colour.
- It is also possible to remove colour by using activated charcoal.
There are two ways of looking at the manipulation of wine:-
- The wine reflects the area that it comes from, often referred to as terroir, and also the winemaker’s skill. The addition of wine from outside the area, or wine concentrate, masks the individuality of the wine and so detracts from it.
- The winemaker aims to produce a consistent product every year, and that additives which achieve that are entirely justified. Cynics might suggest that they simply make up for poor winemaking. It should be said that the blending techniques used in Champagne to achieve a standard non-vintage wine are an honest way to achieve a consistent product.
SUGAR IN WINE
Sugar plays a vital role in the wine in your glass, even if you can’t taste it directly.
What is sugar?
Sugar is the name given to a wide range of carbohydrates, but only the simpler ones are sweet.
- Glucose – one of the main products of photosynthesis in a plant, making up about 50% of sugars in ripe grapes. It is one of the three simplest types of sugar, known as monosaccharides. This is absorbed straight into the bloodstream during digestion.
- Fructose – another monosaccharide, making up the other 50% of sugars in ripe grapes. It too is absorbed straight into the bloodstream during digestion.
- Sucrose – the type of sugar you put in your tea, is typically produced from sugar cane or sugar beet, and very little is found in ripe wine grapes. Sucrose is in fact a combination of glucose and fructose.
Production of sugar in wine grapes
There is very little sugar in a grape until véraison, when the grape starts to change colour and ripen. Acidity decreases, and sugar contents rise,The trick is to get the correct balance between the two. Sugar concentrations in ripe grapes can easily achieve 20%.
Adding sugar manually
- Before fermentation – sugar in grapes is converted to alcohol during fermentation, but if the grapes aren’t ripe enough, sugar may be added to artificially increase the alcohol content. A process known as chaptalisation. If this is done carelessly, there isn’t enough fruit in the wine to balance the relatively high alcohol. This practice is banned in many wine regions.
- Adding two lots of sugar – Champagne manufacture involves adding sugar and yeast to produce bubbles in the bottle, and then sugar at the end to take the edge off the acidity.
Yeasts turn the simpler sugars into alcohol plus carbon dioxide, but many other reactions also happen, and some of the complex sugars remain.
Effect of residual sugar in wine
- Tasting threshold – for most people this is around 1% sugar content, but those who are particularly sensitive can detect 0.2%. A dry wine which is fully fermented out will have a sugar content of < 1.5 gm/litre, which is not detectable.
- Balancing other tastes – sweetness balances acid and bitter tastes, making them less harsh.
- Provides food for microbes – residual sugar in wine encourages bacterial growth unless it is properly protected.
In most wines, sugar just has a fleeting presence for a short while before the grapes are picked. It is created by photosynthesis, and consumed by fermentation.
THE MAGIC IN YEAST
Yeasts are fungi, which play a vital role in wine production. The number of different species runs into tens or even hundreds of thousands, no one is quite sure. More than one may be used in fermenting the grapes, and this has a big influence on the wine produced. Yeasts produce aromatic compounds as well as alcohol and carbon dioxide.
What yeasts need to make them work
Yeasts need the right conditions to work their magic during wine fermentation:-
- Temperature. They operate in a temperature range. Too low, and yeasts don’t function, too high and they are killed off. The grape juice may be actively heated or cooled to achieve this.
- Nutrients. Sugar is the main one, but you need a source of nitrogen, which is provided by amino acids. Winemakers may add selected nutrients.
- Alcohol level. Different yeasts work in different ranges of alcohol content.
Winemakers split yeasts into two main categories
- ‘Natural’ or ‘wild’ yeasts. These are the yeasts which are present in the vineyard, and stick to the grape skins. They are also on the wine equipment. These indigenous yeasts give the wine a local character, a sense of place. The term ‘terroir’ is often used to express this.
- Cultured yeasts. These are developed to introduce particular characteristics to the wine, or to make fermentation more reliable. Usually, the indigenous bugs will be killed off with sulphur dioxide, and then the grape must/juice will be inoculated with the cultured yeast.
What can go wrong with a ‘wild yeast fermentation’
- Problems with starting the fermentation. The grape must/juice will contain a range of bacteria as well as yeasts, and these compete for the nutrients. You may end up with acetic acid (vinegar) rather than alcohol.
- Inconsistency. A number of different yeasts may be involved during a fermentation, with some dying off at quite low alcohol levels, and others taking over. If a different yeast takes over, you can end up with a different wine than you anticipated.
There is no right or wrong answer about the use of wild yeasts, it rather depends on the market you are aiming at. Cultured yeasts will help to produce a consistent product, which is going to appeal to the big brands. Small producers may well enjoy the variability.
SCREWCAPS AND AGINGS
Screwcap closures have had some bad press, but in my opinion, any wine destined to be drunk within a year of production should be sold in a screwcap bottle.
What is good about screwcap bottles
- The closure does not contaminate the wine. The wine may still be corked because of contamination during wine production, but at least the screwcap won’t have caused it.
- Every bottle will be the same as the next. There are some caveats, and you should. Every natural cork is different, whereas every screwcap closure is identical.
What is bad about screwcap bottles
- Removing a screwcap just doesn’t have the same theatre as removing a cork. Sadly, I can’t think of any solution to this problem.
- Production of ‘reductive’ chemicals in the wine because air is excluded. These are sulphur compounds which may be produced in the bottle because of the absence of air. These compounds disappear quickly after a bottle is opened, but can be excluded by modifying the winemaking process.
- A little bit of oxygen appears to be necessary for a wine to age gracefully. Original screwcaps allowed almost no air to reach the wine.
- Screwcaps were associated with cheap wine, so producers of quality wine tended to shy away.
- The seal in a screwcap is provided by padding at the top. Different materials are being used for this padding, which allow different amounts of oxygen to pass through. This means that they can potentially be used for ageing fine wine.
- The obvious thing is to try long term tests, and some tests were initiated in the 1980s in Australia. However, the prestigious Château Margaux in Bordeaux has started their own long term trials. Endorsement by one of the great old names in the wine business would make all the difference in the acceptance of screwcaps. Time will tell.
By choosing the correct seal, there will be screwcap closure for every wine, but it may take a while to prove the point.
The wines of Rioja are a particular favourite of mine. The best wines show what the Tempranillo grape variety can achieve. Some wines are made to drink soon after they are made, and others just last for decades.
Vineyards and mountains of Rioja
The Rioja region has a beautiful setting in central northern Spain. It is sheltered from the north, south and west by mountain ranges. The river Ebro, which is at the heart of Rioja, drains East into the Mediterranean, rather than the Atlantic which is much closer.
- Soils near the river are alluvial deposits of sand, gravel and limestone.
- Elsewhere, soils are a mixture of iron-rich clay, limestone and sandstone.
- Geological activity over the years has turned this into a complex mix of soils, which can vary over short distances.
The mountains surrounding the Rioja region protect it from weather extremes. But it is influenced by three weather regimes.
- Atlantic – mainly cool and wet.
- Continental – searing hot in the Summer, and very cold in the Winter.
- Mediterranean – a warmer influence from the East.
During the growing season, the weather is often hot and dry during the day, and much cooler at night. Ideal for growing grapes.
Rioja Wine Regions
There are three designated regions:-
- Rioja Alta and Alavese to the West. The vineyards are at higher altitude and cooler than those to the East. The climate and soil are particularly suitable for high quality Tempranillo grapes.
- Rioja Baja to the East. It is warmer and drier than it is to the West, and the conditions suit the Garnacha grape variety.
Rioja was the first wine region in Spain to be awarded DOCa status, the highest level in Spain. Within this there are four classifications based on the amount of barrel and bottle age that a wine has been given. However, this is only part of the story, as there can be a large variation in quality and price between wines within a given category.
- Joven, or ‘young’ wines. These have no wood ageing, and are not for keeping.
- Crianza – not released before their third year, with a minimum of 1 year in oak barrels.
- Reserva – minimum of three years total ageing, of which at least 1 year is in barrel.
- Gran Reserva – minimum of 2 years in barrel, and 3 years in bottle. Most producers will only make these wines in top years, when prime quality grapes are grown.
There are slightly different rules for white wine, but very few bodegas make wood-aged white Rioja any more.
New styles of wine
Red – some producers are trying to differentiate themselves from the rest by not using the above designations. They make a more powerful style of wine.
White – the old style of oaked white wines is a minority interest, even though the best are excellent. The new style is crisp and dry, and fairly aromatic. Made for the international market.
Rioja makes many really good wines, and apart from a few cult wines represents excellent value for money.
Wine and Food Matching
Matching wine and food is not an exact science, and everyone’s taste is different. It is a value judgement. But there are some basic guidelines which help to avoid unpleasant clashes.
artichokes – a challenge to match with wine
The more acidic a wine, the easier it is to match with foods. Think of how a dash of lemon juice enhances some dishes.
- Acidic wines deal very well with salty foods such as oysters, or oily fish like mackerel.
- The wine should be more acidic than the food. In fact food can temper a wine which would otherwise be too acidic for most.
Alcohol in wine affects the texture in the mouth, and if it is too high causes a bitterness and burning at the back of the throat.
- Match the weight of the wine with that of the dish. Most foods are fairly light-weight, so it is easier to match lower alcohol, more elegant wines.
- Avoid drinking high alcohol wines with chilli or very salty dishes – it just reinforces the burning.
Tannins come mainly from the skin and pips in grapes, so are most often found in red wines. They react with the saliva in your mouth to cause a puckering sensation. Tannin levels decrease as a wine ages, so young wines are more tannic than older ones.
- Tannic wines clash badly with many fish dishes, leaving a metallic taste in the mouth.
- Tannic wines go very well with fat and protein – grilled steak for example.
Both red and white wines can be oaked, but it is much more common in reds. Oak treatment is expensive, so it is done with better wines. The resulting wine has more body and tannin than lighter-styled wines.
- Avoid delicate dishes, as the wine will overwhelm it.
- Pick dishes with rich sauces, or where the food has been grilled rather than poached.
Are those with residual sugar. Note that they should also have a balancing acidity, or else they are just cloying and will hardly match any food at all.
- The sweet wine should be sweeter than the pudding you are eating.
- Semi-sweet wines go well with spicy hot food.
There is no point drinking a wine which you don’t like, just because someone on TV has declared it a perfect match with the food you are eating. In the end, you should drink what you enjoy, but perhaps use the above guidelines to avoid the worst clashes. If a wine really does clash, you can always finish it off after you’ve finished the food.
To decant or not to decant, that is the question. Most wines are drunk within days of being bought, and some of these may benefit from decanting, but it is some older ones which really need it.
sediment – leave it in the bottle, not the glass
What is decanting?
Decanting involves pouring wine from the bottle into another container. Any sediment should remain in the bottle. You might choose to decant into an attractive decanter for serving.
Decant wine into a jug, rather than a decanter. Use water to swill out the original bottle and remove any remaining sediment, and then return the wine to that bottle. Your guests get a pristine wine from the original bottle.
The process of decanting
Books usually tell you to decant over a lighted candle, so that it illuminates the bottle neck and shoulder. This allows you to stop pouring when the sediment reaches the neck. In fact, doing it over a bright surface works perfectly well.
Decanting wines with sediment
In my opinion, the one time when decanting is essential, is when a bottle has plenty of sediment. That is mature red wines. Sediment in a glass of wine is unattractive, but more importantly the sediment mops up dissolved oxygen, which makes the wine taste dull, and makes the aroma less attractive. Vintage port is the classic example.
Other reasons for decanting wines
There is considerable debate over this subject, for example the British being more likely to decant a wine than the French. So, other reasons why you might decant a wine:-
- To aerate a young red wine. Some grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon can be rather tannic and astringent when young. Decanting the wine introduces air, which softens the tannins.
- Wines bottled under screwcap can sometimes have a sulphurous smell when first opened. Decanting the wine helps this to dissipate rapidly.
- Disguising the wine. Pouring an average wine into an attractive decanter helps to fool your guests into thinking it is better than it is.
Wines not to decant
Old and delicate wines may die in the process of decanting, leaving little for you to taste or smell. Pour a little out, and if there is a hint of brown to the colour, then don’t decant it even if there is plenty of sediment.
There are no precise rules about whether or not to decant a wine. Often, opening a young wine early, and pouring some out to increase the surface area of the wine in contact with the air, does the job perfectly well. Some just like the theatre of it all.
Collecting wine is an unusual form of collecting, as the stock is both perishable and delicious. Collecting accessories is more traditional.
Ch.Lafite 1982 – a speculator’s wine
Collector vs investor
- My definition of a wine collector is someone who enjoys drinking wine, and who has a particular interest in certain types of wine, or wine region. A collector may, or may not, make money out of their hobby.
- An investor regards wine as a commodity, which they trade in the same way as stocks and shares. They may never set eyes on the stuff, or even like wine.
How to start a collection
- Identify which types of wine you enjoy drinking.
- Buy that wine, expanding to different producers within the region.
- Buy the best wine you can afford. If a wine region becomes fashionable, it is always the top wines which appreciate the most.
- If a wine increases in value, you have the option of selling it.
- If the wine decreases in value, you can still drink it; an advantage over other types of asset.
I particularly enjoy wine from two regions. Their contrasting investment performance shows the benefit of buying wine you enjoy:-
- Burgundy, particularly Red Burgundy, and the Pinot Noir grape variety. This is a complex and fragmented region, producing fabulous wines and awful wines, and everything in between. There was a time when just about all the wines were affordable, but the top wine has now broken through the £10,000 ($16,000) a bottle barrier. This has dragged up the value of many other wines.
- Rioja, is another region I have followed for many years. The best wines may not be as fine as a top Burgundy, but they represent very good value for money. There has only been a small appreciation in value with time, so I just drink and enjoy my Rioja.
The best sources of a wine are:-
- The vineyard itself.
- The main import agent in your country.
If you buy consistently from these sources, then you will continue to get an allocation, even if the wine becomes trendy and expensive. You can of course look out for deals from other sources, including the Internet and auctions.
Wine is a perishable commodity, and should be stored in suitable conditions – see a previous blog post. If you are going to keep a wine for several years, then you must do one of the following:-
- Have it stored professionally, where they can maintain perfect conditions.
- Store it at home in a specially designed wine storage device.
- If you live in a temperate climate, then there are other options. A deep cellar is perfect, but you can also improvise to provide adequate conditions.
Provenance – who has owned the wine and where it has been stored – has a significant bearing on a wine’s value. It ensures the wine is in good condition, and is genuine. Sadly, fraud is an issue these days.
Many types of accessory have been made over the years, and many of these are avidly collected.
- Corkscrews. This are probably the most popular item, with amazing patented mechanisms. There are also exotic designs, many of the most popular being erotic.
- Glass. Bottles, decanters, jugs, drinking glasses come in a vast array of designs, from beautiful Venetian glass to cruder items.
- Wine coolers, wine labels, bin labels, coasters – the list goes on and on.