A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What is a "Dry" Wine, Anyway?

One of my main goals in writing this column is to help readers develop their wine knowledge and, in doing so, increase their enjoyment of wine. An important part of this development is learning to use wine-specific terminology in the same ways that wine pros do. Without a common language, after all, we have no reliable way to communicate about—and learn from—our wine drinking experiences. This is especially true when two people are using the same word to mean different things, virtually guaranteeing miscommunication.

Such is often the case with the descriptor “dry.” For most novices, dryness seems to equate to a combination of astringency and bitterness. Astringency in wine is caused primarily by tannins, and it is that puckery feeling you get from over-steeped tea or accidentally chewing up a grape seed (or, if you’re a cartoon cat, accidentally sucking a pile of alum through a straw). Bitterness can be caused by a number of different factors (the presence of various phenols, certain kinds of oak, specific grape varieties and winemaking techniques), and it is—well, anybody who’s had a cheap cup of coffee knows what bitterness is.

The fact is, however, that a dry wine is simply a wine with very little residual sugar in it relative to its acidity. (Acidity mitigates sweetness; that’s why we add vinegar to a too-sweet salad dressing to make it more savory, and that’s why dessert wines with high levels of acidity taste vibrant rather than sticky and cloying.) Dryness, in short, is essentially a quantitative measurement. In the European Union, for example, wines with 4 grams of sugar or less per liter of wine (assuming a relatively low level of acidity) are considered dry.

I note this fact because I frequently hear people saying, “I don’t like dry wines,” when what they really mean is, “I don’t like bitter or astringent wines.” Many ripe, full-bodied wines can be, technically, bone-dry but still please most people’s palates with their round, easy-drinking, fruit-forward flavors. And many slightly sweet wines can still have off, bitter flavors or be astringently tannic. Being able to make this distinction when talking to a wine salesperson can help you zero in on that perfect wine. It at least reduces your risk of going home with a sweet, sticky red that tastes like it should be poured into a club soda rather than a wine glass.

So next time you go into a wine shop, instead of looking for a wine that’s not too dry, try asking for something that’s “round,” “fruit-forward,” and not too tannic or oaky (tannins and oak being major contributors to astringency and bitterness respectively). Chances are you’ll find just what you’re looking for.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Don't Judge a Wine by Its Label

When I was growing up, most Americans thought there were only three kinds of wine to choose from—red, white, and white zinfandel, depending on whether one was having meat, fish, or an insulin reaction.

In the last decade and a half, though, the U.S. wine market has exploded, and now even casual wine drinkers may, over the course of a year, experiment with ten or fifteen different grape varieties from countries as diverse as the U.S., Italy, France, Spain, Australia, Chile, and Argentina.

This fact has been both a boon and a burden to the growing world wine industry. For established producers, it has meant greater sales potential but also greater competition. For those just trying to break into the market, it means unprecedented opportunity but also struggling to get consumers’ attention as they scan an ever-swelling sea of bottles on the shelf.

The result? Flashy labels designed to amuse, shock, or even titillate. There is an entire line of wines whose labels look like 50’s horror movie posters, while another bottle boasts a seductive image of Marilyn Monroe. There are in-your-face names like “Fat Bastard,” “Cleavage Creek,” and “The Bitch.” There is even a wine called “Mommy’s Time Out,” whose label depicts a single chair facing a forlorn-looking corner, suggesting, I surmise, that if the burdens of contemporary parenthood become too great, then you can always turn to closet alcoholism for help. How uplifting.

To be sure, I'm not entirely critical of this phenomenon. I know it’s hard to break into a competitive market. But there’s also a cynicism to it, namely, that most consumers will drink just about anything as long as you can get it into their hands. More often than not, then, the wines inside of these clever bottles just aren’t very good.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Australian Shiraz “Boarding Pass,” whose label looks like a plane ticket, can boast a lovely combination of intense, dark berry fruit and spicy complexity. And the impishly-titled Zinfandel “7 Deadly Zins” recently earned a coveted 90 point score from a well-known and influential wine publication.

But most good wines, from old and new producers alike, have traditional, relatively unassuming labels. After all, the bottle is just a vessel in the end. If you really want to find the best wine for whatever occasion you happen to be celebrating—whether an all-out Christmas dinner or just Spaghetti on Tuesday—then buy it from a shop where the staff know what they’re doing and can steer you in the right direction.

They may indeed point you to a fancy bottle that will also look nice on your bookshelves after you drink it. But chances are just as good that you’ll take home an off-white label with black letters. Oh, and also a delicious wine. Let’s not forget that.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Merlot Post

Another wine post (with co-author Bill Stimmel, though, as always, this is one I drafted):

It’s time we put our money where our mouth is (when we write this column, we write with one voice, and, so, one mouth): in more than one column, we’ve defended Merlot against the hordes who, in a backlash against the Merlot glut of the 1990’s (and spurred on by the wildly influential film Sideways), have so abused and denigrated this once proud, noble grape that it has become a second-class citizen in the popular wine world.

It has not always been this way. Merlot actually is one of the three so-called “noble” red grapes (the others being Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, with some people adding Syrah as a fourth), and it is of fundamental importance to the world renowned red blends of Bordeaux, second only to Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, on the “right bank” of the Gironde river, which cuts through the heart of Bordeaux, Merlot often dominates blends, constituting 50% or more of many Chateaus’ wines. Indeed, one of the world’s most famous wines, made principally from Merlot, comes from the St. Emilion region on the “right bank:” Chateau Petrus is universally lauded as one of the best wines in the world, and individual bottles of it can sell for more than $5,000.

Outside of France, Merlot has thrived in many locations, though Chile and the west coast of the U.S. are particularly noteworthy here. Merlots from Chile can take on earthy flavors of smoke and roasted chili peppers, while California and Washington Merlots can seem to be made of pure satin, dripping with rich flavors of baked plums, red currants, chocolate, cinnamon, and other warming spices.

Indeed, it’s largely due to the success of Merlot in the “New World” that it is now so widely scoffed at: in the 1990’s, a veritable flood of Merlot swamped the U.S. market with hundreds of new bottlings, most of which were made from cheap juice that was heavily oaked to mask imperfections so that growers could capitalize on a growing trend.

Wine drinkers became justifiably suspicious, but the fact is that there have always been good Merlots out there at all price points. One of the beauties of the grape is that, while it can certainly be made into world-class, age-worthy wines with bold tannins and firm structure, it also grows well in less-than-perfect sites and can yield, with a little care, an easy-drinking, fruit-forward wine that still has some personality—some earthy notes, perhaps, or a hint of cocoa.

In short, we think Miles, of Sideways fame, was just being snobby when, in a full-on tantrum, he exclaimed (rather infamously), “I am not drinking any (expletive) Merlot!” He may have had a great palate, but we can have more class—and a good glass of Merlot to boot.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Why I Think the Tea Party Movement is Racist

For once, I'm not posting about wine. This is a response to a Facebook post from the politicially-oriented, very conservative "Johnny's Blog Thingy!!!" that links to a video of a tea party rally in which non-ranting, patriotic people are stirred by a retired Marine's spontaneous singing of the last verse of the Star-Spangled Banner. The upshot of the post is that tea partyers are not ranting, raving, racist lunatics but are, rather, concerned patriots who are acting together to make their nation a better place.

I am certain that, despite what seems to me to be a just-barely-concealed current of real, and fierce, anger running throughout the tea party movement, most of the movement’s adherents are just like this guy and the people cheering him—honest patriots who want their country to be the greatest nation on earth and a beacon of freedom to all people.

But what most of them don’t realize is that the very idea that there is a left that is systematically waging a war on Judeo-Christian values has an insidious kind of racism built into it, even if that racism is not something consciously promulgated by the people whose actions nevertheless have this ill effect. (But I also think it's time for Americans to acknowledge that the kind of vicious racism many of us thought died with the last generation and the success of civil rights has not gone away and is still frighteningly, distressingly common.) What seems like an onslaught from the left is, far more often than not (and with full acknowledgement that the left has its share of nut cases, too) an attempt to make the U.S. a place that is open and welcoming to people who can’t trace their roots back to Thomas Jefferson, or William Penn, or one of the people on the Mayflower. It’s an effort to acknowledge that the history of the U.S. is more than just the chopped down apple tree, Davy Crockett, the shores of Tripoli, and the Saturday Evening Post. But it’s precisely this opening up of culture—this acknowledgement that we are, and always have been, a deeply, profoundly, multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-religion society—that feels like an attack to most conservatives and especially tea-party folks (who, despite the color of the man in the video, are an overwhelmingly white group), for whom the privilege that comes with being white and Christian in this country has never felt like privilege—only like basic fairness. This sense that some better, apple-pie-eating, God-fearing America has been lost and needs to be regained is, by and large, a reaction to the increasingly officially acknowledged, if also to many people unsettling, reality that U.S. history, and the U.S. itself, is far more complex and multi-colored than most of us Christian white folks ever knew, or ever could have known.

Put simply, it boils down to this: we’ve had the luxury of having our stories about the history and identity and character of the U.S. be the stories about the history and identity and character of the country. But there are lots of stories that can be told, and lots of ways to tell them. When it’s done right—as it most often is—righting that wrong is what the so-called PC revolution has been about.

I know we all have equal rights under the law. But the U.S. has always been a place that favors white Christians in terms of actual opportunity and actual justice. So even the recourse to such standards as “the law of the land” or, in educational settings, “basics,” “merit,” or “achievement” is in effect racist, because they assume that theoretical equality is the same as actual equality, when in fact legal rights and educational opportunities have always been distributed very much in favor of “us” and against “them.” My hope is that this point, articulated as I just have, resonates with the right wing of this country, who have always been distrustful of theory and its potential to be utterly disconnected from reality.

So when I think of, and portray in my own work, the far right in this country as racist, I do so with the understanding that racist effects can emanate from actions based on motives that feel pure, and even altruistic, to the people committing those actions. It’s time for all of us to acknowledge that fact and work together to build a truly, and fully democratic America, both in theory and in practice.

For other writings of mine along these lines, see this facebook exchange and this previous post on this blog.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What, Exactly, are Tannins?

Another wine column from Bill Stimmel and me (though I only post here the columns that I'm wholly or primarily responsible for drafting):

It’s the question everybody wants to ask but is too intimidated to: What are tannins? The technical answer is that tannins are bitter-tasting polyphenols that, in grapes, are present in largest quantities in the seeds, skins, and stems. Tannins’ astringent flavors are responsible for the sensation you sometimes get from red wines, or from over-steeped tea—the one where your gums stick to your teeth and you feel like Tom after Jerry tricks him into sucking up a pile of alum.

So why don’t winemakers try to keep tannins out of their wines? Because tannins only make you feel as if your mouth was sandblasted with sidewalk chalk when they are either too “green” or when their levels are so high they overwhelm other elements of the wine. When they are fully “ripe” (which is not the same thing as ripeness of fruit—getting these two levels in sync is one of the signature challenges of great winemaking), tannins provide “structure;” by virtue of the tactile sensation they cause in the mouth, tannins work with a wine’s acidity to keep big, high-alcohol wines from tasting flat and lifeless. Tannins are also preservatives: when a young wine is overpowered by tannins, if they are ripe enough, that same wine ten, even twenty years later will have had time to develop a sensual, earthy depth, while at the same time the tannins will have softened and faded into the supporting role they were meant to play. Finally, tannins can also help red wines stand up to aggressively flavored foods. A tannic wine that is off-putting on its own may sing like the Vienna Boys’ Choir with a char-grilled steak.

One of the most famously tannic grapes is Cabernet Sauvignon, and winemakers often accentuate a truly great Cabernet’s tannins by leaving it in contact with the skins, seeds, and stems for longer than they would if they were going for a fruitier style meant to be drunk young. In fact, world class Cabernets often need ten or more years of aging before their tannins mellow, allowing the grape’s naturally earthy flavors and aromas to emerge in ways that less tannic, fruit-driven Cabernets just can’t match. Think of an aged wine as a stew: you can get good flavor in one or two hours (mostly from showy aromatics, herbs, and spices—things that yield big flavor quickly), but for a stew to achieve true depth and complexity, it needs long, slow simmering. Another grape almost infamous for its tannins is Nebbiolo, the grape responsible for the legendary Italian wines Barolo and Barbaresco.

Not all red wines are tannic beasts, nor do they need to be. We love easy-drinking, fruit-forward reds. But the next time you throw a porterhouse on a blazing grill, try pairing it with a five-to-ten-year-old California Cabernet Sauvignon, or another good-quality tannic wine. You won’t regret it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Tips for Teaching Yourself about Wine

I'm not yet ready to turn this blog into a wine-only blog, though that's what it's been in principle for quite a while now. I may still have other things, even rhetoric- and writing-related things, to say in the future. For now, though, here's a recently-run column from Bill Stimmel and me (it ran in the Bowling Green [OH] Sentinel-Tribune):

People always ask us how we learned so much about wine. And while we admit that we have much more to learn, the simple answer is that we read about, taste, and talk about wine as often as we can. In this column, we want to elaborate on these simple strategies, which can help you build your experience and knowledge and which in turn will offer you heightened satisfaction from your wine drinking experiences.

When learning about wine, reading is vital, and there are many different sources of good information. For general information, books are indispensable resources. Sources like our favorite, Karen MacNiel’s Wine Bible, are full of information and tips about winemaking, world wine regions, wine purchasing and storing, major and lesser-known grapes, tasting techniques, and pairing wine with food that are a must for building basic knowledge. There are also a number of wine books devoted to more in-depth information, focusing on specific subjects like wines from a single grape or region, though we recommend these as supplements to the required general reading. And, for more time-sensitive and topical information, a periodic publication like Wine Spectator would be a perfect choice. Even the internet is full of information that is only a Google search away (though you need to make sure you wind up on a site run by a person or people who know what they’re talking about).

Tasting, of course, is a key counterpart to reading, and any tasting is better than none. But there is a way to maximize your learning from tasting: taste systematically. While it’s ok to go to a tasting with whites and reds from all over the world, it’s also important to seek out—or engineer for yourself—opportunities to taste together (or over a short period of time) many wines from the same grape and region. Doing so helps you develop a sense of a grape’s and a region’s signature qualities (body, color, aroma, flavor, etc.). You’ll be surprised at how proud you feel the first time you’re able to note that a California Sauvignon Blanc has New Zealand-like tropical fruit, or that a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon has Bordeaux-like earthiness. And, with focused tasting, it doesn’t take all that long to learn to do so.

Finally, it is vital to talk about wine with fellow wine lovers. Sharing your wine experiences and interests with others, and listening as they share theirs with you, can stimulate curiosity, broaden your knowledge, and create a sense of community that can only make drinking wine more fun and more satisfying. After all, wine, like food, is a way of bringing people together to celebrate, to build friendships, and to cement social and cultural bonds. It is, in short, a way of making us more human.

So take our advice. After all, the world needs a little more humanity.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Riesling Column

Coming this Thursday in the Bowling Green (OH) Sentinel-Tribune:

Let’s just admit it: nobody does Riesling better than Germany. German Rieslings can be so utterly pure, so clean, that drinking them is like “drinking the tears of angels,” as one of our cheekier friends recently put it.

And that’s exactly what German winemakers want. While Rieslings from a region like France’s Alsace might tend toward richness and full body, German winemakers revel in the mouthwatering crispness, sleek minerality, and tart green apple and pear flavors that they see as the grape’s most compelling expression.

Though tart, however, many German Rieslings also have a touch of sweetness, which explains their reputation as cloying, saccharine wines better suited for pouring on pancakes than drinking. But this reputation is undeserved, for two reasons. First, many German Rieslings are quite dry, though these can admittedly be hard to find in grocery stores. Second, great sweet German Rieslings inevitably boast such precise, lightning-tinged acidity that their sweetness, far from being overwrought, is all that keeps them from bolting out of the glass, resulting in a wine so perfectly suspended between sweet and tart, rich and gossamer, that it almost levitates in your mouth.

Finding a good German Riesling, moreover, isn’t terribly difficult. You need only follow some simple guidelines (assuming, of course, you’re not near a computer with which you can find all you need to know online). First, look for wines with “QmP” on the label. This stands for “Qualitätswein mit Prädikat,” or “quality wine with special attributes,” and this group of wines marks Germany’s highest classification. (QbA wines—“Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet,” or “quality wine from a specific region”—can also be good, though they will tend to be more hit-or-miss.) Second, look at the alcohol level printed on the label. Lower alcohol (8-10%) generally means sweeter wine, since less sugar was metabolized into alcohol during fermentation. (Knowing a wine’s level of sweetness may not tell you much about its quality, but it can tell you how it will match up with your palate.) You can also look to a further set of terms for guidance: QmP wines are subdivided, from least to most ripe, into the categories Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese. Just be careful here, since, until you get to the Beerenauslese level, wine from very ripe grapes can still taste dry if all the sugar is allowed to be converted during fermentation, which is why alcohol levels can be helpful guides. And, finally, if you’re at a real wine shop, never be afraid to ask for help.

While we could say more about German Riesling, we hope we’ve at least piqued your curiosity enough to convince you to try a few. Not every bottle will taste like angels’ tears, but if one even comes close, you will never look at Riesling the same way again. Hallelujah.