Saturday, October 27, 2012

Acid 101

Acid is probably the most important component of wine that the casual drinker doesn’t know about.  It’s crucial to the wine’s balance and flavor profile throughout the life of the wine, from the time the grapes are ripening on the vine to when you’re picking which wine to go with dinner.  (It also impacts how long the wine can age, but that’s another discussion.)  You may love the taste of it (like me), or you may prefer less of it.  Here’s some basic information that should help you to discover your own wine preferences and match them with food successfully! 

Where does it come from?

All grapes naturally contain some amount of acid.  As the grapes ripen, sugar levels increase and acid levels decrease.  Ideally, the grapes will be harvested at the precise moment when this acid/sugar balance is perfect for winemaking.  (Remember that some or all of the sugar will convert to alcohol during fermentation.)  In top quality winemaking, nothing is done to change the acid and sugar levels after the harvest.  Everywhere else, sugar or acid may be added to correct an imbalance.

The primary acid in grapes is malic acid, which is the same acid found in green apples.  Most red wines and some whites go through a process called malolactic fermentation, during which the malic acid is converted to lactic acid.  The lactic acid is smoother and less harsh.

How does it impact the wine?

When you taste wine, the acid creates a mouthwatering sensation.  If you take a sip of a crisp white wine, swish it around in your mouth, then swallow completely, you will probably notice a sudden rush of saliva in your mouth, particularly under your tongue.  This is caused by high acid levels.  The more your mouth waters, the more acid is in the wine.  Super high acid levels can even make your tongue feel prickly, like you’re drinking soda.

The acid/sugar balance is so important at harvest because it is also key to the final product.  Sweetness reduces the perception of acid, and acid reduces the perception of sweetness.  In other words, a sweet wine needs strong acidity to balance the sweetness.  A highly acidic wine will often benefit from a little extra sugar.  The amazing part is that if you compare 2 wines with the same level of sugar, but different acid levels, the 1 with more acid will taste less sweet, while the one with less acid will taste sweeter (maybe even cloying). 

 Where can I find it (or avoid it)?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Great Bottle Closure Debate

The debate over bottle closures will likely be reinvigorated this week, as Italian authorities have recently approved the use of synthetic corks and screw caps on DOC and DOCG wines (the top 2 quality levels).  Here’s the article from Decanter:  “Italy approves synthetic closures for DOC, DOCG.

I thought I’d provide a brief overview of some pros and cons of different bottle closures.  Personally, I prefer natural cork or screw cap, but I certainly wouldn’t refuse to buy or drink a wine just because of the closure it uses.  A screw cap doesn’t necessarily indicate a bad wine, and a natural cork doesn’t necessarily indicate a good wine.  The biggest issues with using an alternative closure on a DOCG wine, like a fine Chianti, will be oxygen and aging potential.

Natural Cork

The pros are that natural cork is a renewable resource (it comes from the bark of the cork tree and can be removed without killing the tree) and is biodegradable.  It also allows wine to age slowly over time, because its porous nature lets a small amount of oxygen circulate through.  This is key for fine wine that is meant to be aged.

The primary con is cork taint (TCA).  Depending on which study you believe, cork taint affects between 1% and 7% of all wines that use natural cork.  Cork taint creates musty, moldy, or damp cardboard smells in the wine and diminishes the fruit character.

Synthetic Cork

The main reason to use synthetic cork is that the possibility of cork taint is greatly reduced or eliminated.  Some also argue that these corks don’t dry out like natural cork, but I’ve read differing opinions on that question. 

Oxygen exchange presents a significant issue with synthetic corks.  Some types seem to let in more oxygen than natural corks, and others much less.  Too much oxygen will age or spoil the wine quickly.  Too little, and the wine could suffer from reduction, which is a wine fault that occurs when there’s not enough oxygen present.  I usually assume a wine with a synthetic cork is not meant to be held for very long before drinking.  The aging issue highlights why the above article is so important, since fine Chiantis are often cellared for a number of years.  At the least, the winemakers would need a good understanding of exactly how porous the synthetics are before using them.

Screw Cap

Screw caps used to be an indication of a cheap, poor quality wine, but that is changing.  Many quality wine producers in Australia and New Zealand are now using these closures on their wines.

The screw cap offers the same protection against cork taint as a synthetic cork, combined with easy opening.  Oxygen exchange is an issue here too though.  Screw capped wines can become reductive, and of course, a screw cap would not work for a fine wine that’s meant to age.

Further Reading

I’ve only hit the high points on these issues.  If you want to get into more detail, here are some resources:

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Houston Wine Blogger Dinner

I was very fortunate last week to be invited to have dinner with some fellow Houston wine bloggers!  Thanks so much to everyone who helped organize this wonderful evening, and thanks Jeremy of Do Bianchi for mentioning us in the Houston Press.  I hope we can do this again soon!

Links to all their blogs will be added to the list on the right shortly.

Texas Wineries: The Bluebonnet Trail

October is Texas Wine Month, so it’s appropriate that I do my first post about Texas wineries this month.  The Go Texan Wine web site is a great place to start planning a trip to some wineries, and if you’re in Houston, the Bluebonnet Trail is an easy overnight getaway.  Check out their handy map.

We traveled this trail last year, but didn’t follow the official trail order.  Instead, we drove north on I-45 to Conroe, and then headed west on 105 for the first day.  We spent the night in Brenham, then drove back east toward Houston on 290.  Below I’ve listed the wineries in the order we visited them, with some notes on each, as well as where we stayed in Brenham.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tannin 101

If you drink red wine, you need to know about tannin!

What is it?

Tannin is a compound that naturally occurs in many plants, including grapes.  It is found in the skins, and makes its way into red wine while the skins are in contact with the fermenting juice.  White wines have no tannin, because they are not fermented in contact with the grape skins.

When you taste red wine, tannin is the drying sensation that you feel on your gums and the sides of your mouth.  It can also taste bitter.

Where is it found?

Many foods and drinks have tannin:  tea, beer (from the hops), many fruit juices, berries, pecans, walnuts, and chocolate, to name a few.

In wine, it is only found in reds, but some reds have more than others.  This can be due to the characteristics of the grapes themselves (thin-skinned grapes have less tannin than thick-skinned ones), the climate, or the length of time the skins are in contact with the wine.

Here’s a handy guide with average levels of tannin:

How does it pair with food?

When pairing a red wine with food, tannin is an important consideration.  Because tannin is mouth-drying and bitter, it is best to avoid high-tannin wines with bitter or tannic foods.  The combination will likely be too bitter and astringent.  Also, tannin will make spicy food seem spicier.  What tannin does best is pair with protein, especially red meat.  This is where the classic pairing of Cabernet Sauvignon and steak comes from!  The juicy, fatty meat coats your mouth, then a sip of the tannic red wine dries it out – the perfect balance.

Some people enjoy tannic wines, and some don’t.  The key is to discover what you like, and know where to find it!

Copyright © 2012 by Joanna Opaskar
All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Service Temperatures

A wine should be served at the proper temperature in order to taste its best.  The wrong temperature can make a wine taste out of balance, even though it isn’t.  This is because too-warm temperatures emphasize tannins and alcohol and reduce the perception of acid.  Too-cold temperatures reduce the number of aromas and flavors we smell/taste.

Most people chill white wines and serve them pretty close to the correct temperature.  Red wines on the other hand, are usually way off, even in restaurants!  You may have heard that red wines should be served at room temperature.  This is true, except that the room temperature in question is actually room (or cellar) temperature in Europe, which is vastly different than most room temperatures here in Houston! 

Check out the correct service temperatures in the chart below, and then read on for tips on how to achieve these temperatures easily at home.

Getting your wine to the correct service temperature (or pretty close) can be as easy as you want it to be.  Here are some ways to do it:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Texas Wine Law & Ordering Wine Online

Yesterday, Eating Our Words, the Houston Press food and wine blog, posted a good article about Texas wine law:
That article links to others which can give you a good primer on the subject.

In short, Texas wine law is crazy.  And it's one reason why you may read wine reviews online and not be able to find those wines locally.  I plan to start posting some tasting notes soon, and when I do, all the wines I review will be easily available in the Houston/Clear Lake area.

As far as buying wine online, it can be a wonderful resource, but use caution!  High temperatures are the enemy of wine, so for most of the year in Houston, you don't want your wine carted around in the back of a non-air-conditioned UPS truck.  Make sure the shipper has vehicles with a/c, or confine your orders to the months of November through February!

Update:  Here's a follow-up from Eating Our Words and Jeremy Parzen on how to ship wine legally: