Sunday, March 24, 2013

New World vs. Old World

Have you ever heard wine described as “old world” or “new world”?  Knowing what those descriptions mean can really help your wine choices!

Old World

The “old world” of wine refers to the countries with the longest winemaking histories, or to be more specific, Europe.  France, Italy, Spain, and Germany are the most important regions here.  But the term “old world” is not only about history.  It implies a philosophy of winemaking as well as a stylistic influence.  The winemaking philosophy of the old world places the top priority on where the grapes are grown, and how they are (or should be) an expression of their microclimate.  The French call this terroir.  This is why most European wines are labeled by region rather than by grape (Germany being the exception).  Old world wines often have aromas/flavors which are more earthy and less fruity.

New World

The “new world” of wine refers to everything that isn’t part of the old world.  This includes North America, South America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, among others.  In the new world of wine the grape is the top priority, so most wines are labeled with the grape varieties they contain.

How This Can Impact Your Wine Selections

Twice this past week I was having dinner with a group of friends, and we opened 2 bottles of wine.  Coincidentally, both times we opened an old world red wine first, followed by a new world red.  Both times the old world wine tasted great, with some smoky, herbal, and spicy aromas in addition to the fruit characteristics.  Both times the new world reds were wines I had had before and liked.  But when we drank them after the old world wines, they were so much fruitier by comparison that they tasted like juice – almost cloyingly sweet, although the wines were dry. 

The lesson I learned is that if I’m planning to open more than 1 bottle of wine in an evening, I need to think carefully about how the wines will impact each other, and in which order to drink them.  Just as drinking the old world reds first made the new world reds taste like juice, I suspect starting with a new world red and then moving to the old world could make the old world wine taste sour, bitter, or musty.  Of course, there is so much variation within these “old world” and “new world” styles that it depends on the specific wines you’re drinking.  But I think from now on I will play it safe and stick with all old world or all new world wines in 1 evening.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

How do you judge a wine? Or, does every palate matter?

Lately a discussion has floated around the wine world as to whether “every palate matters.”  It’s a valid question, especially since the internet allows us all to express our opinions publically alongside the opinions of professional critics and folks in the wine business.  To me, it all comes down to how you’re judging the wine.

This question jogged a memory from grad school, so I dug out my notes on Immanuel Kant and David Hume’s theories of aesthetics from a literary theory class.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but here is my simplified (and somewhat extrapolated) version of things.  There are 2 ways to judge an aesthetic experience – like art, music, or wine – that is meant to bring pleasure or have some effect on the senses and/or emotions: 

1)  The purely intuitive approach.  This means you don’t think about or analyze the experience very much.  You just let your senses and feelings take over, and see what they tell you.  For wine, this would mean just drinking and going with a gut opinion (pun intended).  Either you like it or you don’t.  This approach is more subjective, based on your own tastes.

2)  The analytical/critical approach.  To do this, you must have knowledge of the thing you’re experiencing, like a music critic reviewing an opera.  You apply your knowledge and judge whether the aesthetic experience is working or not.  For wine, this means you would taste carefully, make notes on aromas, balance, structure, varietal characteristics, etc., and come to a carefully reasoned judgment.  This approach is more objective.

Both approaches are valid.  The intuitive approach to wine is where “every palate matters.”  You know what you like, and you should drink what you like, even if the critics say it isn’t good.  Wine is meant to be enjoyed.  The analytical/critical approach is where we can benefit from wine experts.  They have studied and trained in this area and can judge a wine based on objective criteria that we may not be able to perceive, such as nuances of balance, ripeness, and subtle faults.

Experts can also help us understand WHY we like what we like, direct us to new things that we may enjoy, and help us find the best value.  Roger Ebert once said his primary purpose in writing movie reviews isn’t just to tell you whether a movie is good or bad (although he does that), but to also describe the movie in a way that helps you figure out whether you would like it or not.  Wine critics can help us in the same way.

So does every palate matter?  My answer would be yes and no.  Yes, because your palate matters to you.  Wine should be enjoyable, so drink what you like, even if the experts disagree with you.  No, because education and experience matter.  Some people know more about wine and have learned to be better tasters than others.  I think the right answer is a balance between these two sides.

So learn about wine, improve your tasting skills, be open to trying new wines, and listen to those with greater knowledge and experience.  All these things will deepen your enjoyment of wine and lead you to new and exciting wine experiences.  But keep drinking what you like!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cooking with Leftover Wine

I’ve written before about how to save wine to drink later.  The best method is the combination of a gas spray (like Private Preserve) and refrigeration.  But what if you just want to cook with it?  For cooking, I have lower standards for what the wine tastes like, I want an easier way to preserve the wine, and I want to be able to keep it around for a longer time.  Here are some strategies for saving your wine and some ideas for how to cook with it.

How to Save It

Please don’t leave it on the counter!  The same chemical reactions that make wine unpleasant to drink will make it unpleasant to cook with.  To preserve wine for cooking, you don’t need to do as much as you would to preserve it for drinking, but you do need to do something to prevent oxidation and spoilage. 

Freezing is the best option.  It degrades the wine’s flavor somewhat, but keeps it from oxidizing.  A great technique for freezing wine is to pour it by the tablespoonful into an ice tray, as demonstrated in this video by America’s Test Kitchen:

A lazier method I’ve used is to remove the cork (because the wine will need room to expand) and just put the bottle straight into the freezer.  This works if you plan to use the wine all at once.  Otherwise you end up having to thaw it then refreeze it later, which is not as convenient.

You may notice after freezing white wine and defrosting it that there are small white crystals visible in the wine.  This can happen when tartaric acid precipitates out of white wine because it has been chilled and then warmed up to room temperature.  It’s nothing to worry about, and you can still cook with it.

How to Use It

Keep in mind that the flavors in wine will become more concentrated when it’s cooked.  This is why many people follow the rule that if you wouldn’t drink it, you shouldn’t cook with it.  Also consider that wines with heavy tannins and/or oak aromas could contribute too much bitterness or oakiness to your food.  (Find out more about tannin here.)

You can use wine in lots of things you cook.  Here are some ideas:

Monday, March 4, 2013

Local Event: League City Uncorked

League City is hosting an international wine/food/art/music festival at Walter Hall Park on Saturday, March 23rd (1pm - 10pm) and Sunday, March 24th (1pm - 7pm).  The festival will focus on Australia, South America, South Africa, and Europe.  (So basically, all the major wine producing regions in the world except the US.)  Over 40 wines will be featured and, I presume, available to taste.

Tickets are $20 per adult per day.

More information is at the festival web site:  League City Uncorked

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Infographic: The Shelf Life of Food

Here's an informative article and infographic from Life Hacker and, estimating the lifespan of different foods when stored either in the pantry, refrigerator, or freezer.

The Shelf Life of Food

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Infographic: How Wine is Made

Last week I posted an infographic on how Champagne is made.  Still (non-sparkling) wine is much simpler.  Here are the basic steps and some of the issues that arise at each point in the process.

Remember the basic formula for fermentation is:

sugar   +   yeast   à   alcohol   +   carbon dioxide

During fermentation the carbon dioxide is released.  (If fermentation takes place in a sealed tank where the carbon dioxide cannot escape, the wine will become sparkling.)  You'll notice that red and white wines follow a slightly different path for the pressing and fermentation steps.  This is because the juice of both red and white grapes is white.  The red grape juice is fermented in contact with the skins to give it flavor and color.

The process is simple.  However, there are decisions to make and problems that can arise at each step.  Here are a few of the issues involved…

Harvest and crushing:  If the grapes were not harvested at the right time, the acid/sugar balance may not be ideal, in which case acid or sugar must be added to the juice (unless doing this is prohibited by the wine laws of the region).  Another consideration is how the grapes will be harvested:  by hand or by machine.  Hand harvesting (or at least hand sorting) is generally used for higher quality wines, because it is better for removing leaves or stems and any bruised fruit.

Fermentation:  I was fascinated to learn that many winemakers do not add yeast to the juice to initiate fermentation.  The fermentation can begin spontaneously due to the yeasts already present in the air and/or on the grapes.  Relying on wild yeasts can be risky though, because different yeast strains behave differently and produce different flavors in the wine – some that are undesirable.  (Check out this article on brettanomyces yeast.)  Cultivated yeasts are a safer bet.

Maturation and bottling:  There are several decisions to be made here, including how long to age the wine, whether to do it in inert vessels (like stainless steel or concrete) or in oak, and what kind of oak.  Most producers release their wines for sale shortly after bottling, but others hold them back to let them age in the bottle before release. 

I’ve listed just a few of the issues and decisions to be made at each point in the winemaking process.  There are lots more, and each one can have a significant impact on the quality of the resulting wine.  But whether it’s a $5 bottle or a $500 bottle, the same basic steps apply.