Friday, October 25, 2019

Understanding “Buttery” Wines

                         Luscious, unctuous & buttery whites are magic caused by chemistry 

Ever wonder what’s the reason you smell or taste certain flavors in wine?   How do things such as “coffee,” “green apples” or “grass” appear in wine?  This is the first in a series of blogs on the science behind how these and other aromas and flavors develop.  Let’s start with “buttery,” a term often used to describe a certain style of California Chardonnay (although other white wines such as Marsanne or Roussane can also exhibit buttery characteristics).

The butter profile is caused by a common chemical reaction in wine-making called malo-lactic fermentation (ML).  During ML, bacteria converts harsh malic acid to the much softer lactic acid.  In this chemical reaction a compound by the name of diacetyl is produced.  Diacetyl is also found in dairy products like butter (diacetyl is even added to artificial butter to make it taste more like the real-deal product).
Butter nuances can be created, as well as manipulated, by certain interventions of the winemaker.   For example, winemakers can actually control the amount of butter-like character in a wine.  Different strains of ML bacteria produce different amounts of diacetyl so winemakers can pick and choose depending on what style of wine they want to create.  Winemakers can also control ML fermentation by raising and lowering the fermenting wine's temperature:  warmer temperatures activate ML, while cooler temps stop ML fermentation and arrest the production of the butter-like compound diacetyl.

The term buttery is used not only to describe flavor and aromas of wine,  but it is also used to describe the almost oily, unctuous texture of a wine.  Think creamy like cream...a smoother, rounder mouth feel.  This velvety texture is also a result of ML, and the diacetyl produced changes the feeling to that of a more dairy-like substance.  Buttery California Chars have this hallmark velvet-like texture.

There’s another factor that can create the buttery profile.  Aging in newer oak barrels imparts flavors and aromas but can also add to the creamy texture beyond that of ML.  The newer the barrel and the longer the wine is in contact with the oak, the more intense the butter and creaminess.  Stirring of the lees (batonnage), can also enhance buttery flavors.

Whatever the science, buttery preference is in the eyes of the beholder.  Some like it, others don’t.  Personally, I can swing both ways.  Some of my fave big fat buttery Chars are Dehlinger (Sonoma) and Cakebread (Napa).   

Friday, October 18, 2019

New Zealand---Benchmark for Quality/Price

                      Some of the world's best white wine values wine are in New Zealand

Outstanding quality and value wines can be found around the globe.   New Zealand, however, consistently knocks it out of the park for quality-to-price ratio.  For example, nearly 130 Kiwi wines recently reviewed by the Wine Spectator earned scores between 90-100 points, and the average price rang in at only 37 US bucks per bottle. Conversely, California Cabernets with the same Wine Spectator scores were $145 per bottle, while Cali Pinots were $63.  Similarly, high scoring South African wines (which are a huge value at the moment) were an average of $53 on Wine Spectator. 

Currently, Wine.Com (the world’s largest online store), lists a dozen New Zealand wines with Robert Parker scores of above 90 points for < $30---the majority are less than $20 and are Sauv Blancs., another behemoth of the internet wine world, also gives New Zealand major props for their high quality/low price wines.  In their recent World’s Top 50 Wine Bargains, several of them were from New Zealand.  Wine Enthusiast Magazine, lists three New Zealand Sauv Blancs in their Top 100 Best Buys which featured bargains from around the globe.  Forbe’s Magazine named New Zealand in 2017 as one of the most underrated wine regions. 

If you are coming with Wine-Knows to New Zealand for their harvest in February 2020, you’ll note that while the country has many pricey wines >$100 US, it also abounds with delightful values of superbly crafted wines.  Below are some of my fave quality/price Kiwi wines, all of which are available in the US.  Two are reds, but the remainder are whites.

  • Ata Rangi Sauv Blanc   
  • Greywacke Sauv Blanc
  • Greywacke Pinot Gris
  • Loveblock Sauv Blanc
  • Whitehaven Sauv Blanc 
  • Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauv Blanc

  • Cloudy Bay Sauv Blanc
  • Quartz Reef Sparkling Brut
  • Te Mata Cape Crest Sauv Blanc
  • Trinity Hill Gimlett Gravels Syrah

  • Greywacke Pinot Noir
  • Te Mata Elston Chardonnay


Friday, October 11, 2019

Buried Treasure---Truffles

                     Truffles grow underground & specially trained dogs are required to find them

October is the beginning of the season for the world’s most expensive culinary treasure, the white truffle.  Only grown in a small area near the Italian Alps called Piedmont, the white truffle (tartufo bianco) is the most fragrant and most intensely flavored of all of the many varieties of truffles.  For this reason it is often called the “King of truffles.”  Its step-sister, the not-as-fragrant-black truffle, is grown in several parts of the world, but it is the highly prized white truffle which gourmands around the world not only covet, but pay mega Euros to feast on this buried edible masterpiece.

                             The tartufo bianco is the most aromatic & flavorful of all truffles

All truffles are a type of an exotic fungus that grows underneath the ground near the roots of certain trees.  In Piedmont, Italy the white truffle variety grows commonly near the roots of hazelnut, oak, pine or beech trees.  Truffles, a kind of distant cousin of wild mushrooms, are found by special dogs who have been trained to smell these highly fragrant edibles which are concealed several inches under the forest’s floor.

Piedmont in October is one big love-fest with the white truffle.  The charming medieval town of Alba is home to the Truffle Festival, a decadent food gala celebrating the area’s famous white culinary diamonds.  Weekends are grid-lock with aficionados from around the world descending on Alba for a smell and taste of the intoxicating white truffle.   There is pageantry with parades, music, and dance---all to honor the illustrious tartufo bianco.  

                                     Alba's Truffle Festival is a do not miss event for foodies

 If you can’t make it to Piedmont for the Truffle Festival, the next best thing may be dining at a Michelin star restaurant somewhere in the world during the months of October or November.    Be prepared, however, to spend almost $100 more per dish for the addition of the white truffle.  This means a $50 pasta will become $150 with the tartufo bianco.

Buon appetito!

Friday, October 4, 2019

The World’s Most Widely Planted Grape?

There are over 10,000 grapes on the earth, but not all of them are used in making wine. While numbers vary, most would agree that at least 1,000 of them are currently used to make wine.  Now, make a guess as to what wine grape is the most planted varietal.   If you guessed Merlot, you’re close…. it’s second.  If you guessed Cabernet Sauvignon you are right!  Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for >5% of the grapes for wine production around the globe.  There are more than Cabernet vines than both Pinot Noir and Syrah and plantings combined.

You may have been lucky on choosing Cabernet, however, for the most planted white wine grape varietal, what’s your guess?   Chances are >99% of you guessed incorrectly.  For white wine grapes, the world’s most widely planted variety is Airen.  That’s right…Airen.    This grape ranks 4th among both red and white wine grapes.  It is surpassed only by Cab, Merlot, and Tempranillo.  Airen vines account for more than both Pinot Noir and Sauv Blanc combined.

Airen is grown almost exclusively in Spain.  Up until a few years ago it was the world’s most widely planted grape.  If you’ve never heard of it, it’s because Airen is often used for Spain’s unpretentious wines.   The last five years, however, many of the Airen vines have been ripped out and replaced with Tempranillo, another grape native to Spain.    That being said, Airen and Tempranillo combined currently account for 45% of all of Spain’s wine grapes.

Below is a list of the Top Ten wine grape varietals across the globe:

1.     Cabernet Sauvignon
2.     Merlot
3.     Tempranillo
4.     Airen
5.     Chardonnay
6.     Syrah
7.     Grenache
8.     Sauvignon Blanc
9.     Pinot Noir
10.  Trebbiano (also called Ugni Blanc)