Why Wine Ages in Oak Barrels

Some time ago, we got invited to a lunch and wine tasting featuring wines from Rioja, Spain. The lunch not only featured some amazing wines, the winemaker attended. He led us through a flight of the same red wine aged in different types of oak barrels.

Now, normally, Anne scoffs at tastings like this. Tasting wine based on what oak it was aged in is the sort of thing that wine snobs turn into exercises in precious without breathing hard. And they suck all the joy out of it in the process, too.

The other reason Anne scoffs is that the potential for groupthink in these situations is so high that whatever results you get are darned near pointless. What is groupthink? It’s what happens when people are in a group and someone says A, someone else agrees and the next thing you know, everyone goes along with it, us being the social critters that we are.

It’s how Riedel sells their variety-specific glasses. We don’t doubt their reps honestly believe that a type of wine actually tastes better in a specific glass. But we’ll bet they won’t let you do a tasting blind and/or by yourself, which we did. The wine works better in a specific glass because they keep telling you it will, and someone agrees and next thing you know, the whole room says the same.

But what made this Rioja tasting different is that the winemaker didn’t try to sell us on any one wine. He was merely trying to explain why he used different types of oak barrels to age his wine in.

Stainless steel versus oak

Once upon a time, all wine aged in oak barrels. Or wood barrels, but since oakwood, specifically, was good for making barrels, that’s what folks used. And with steel being insanely expensive and difficult to manipulate, it was put to better use as swords and other stuff. Even after the Industrial Revolution made big-ass metal containers easier to make and cheaper to sell, oak kind of hung on in the winery. Old habits die hard and using big-ass metal containers didn’t have any clear benefit. At least, not right away. That the wine picked up flavors from the wood, well, that was part of the flavor of wine.

Eventually, however, winemakers realized they could make white wines, in particular, taste really good without all that woody flavor. So, stainless steel tanks started showing up in wineries. But the stainless steel didn’t do so much for the reds, and they continue to age red wine in oak barrels.

What oak barrels do

Oak barrels add a certain creaminess (lactic acid) to wine. In addition, because they are not completely air tight, a tiny bit of the wine evaporates. The wine left inside gets left with more intense flavor.

The interesting thing about oak is that because it’s a plant, it’s affected by the same things that grape vines are. So oak from different places in the world adds slightly different flavors to the wine that’s aged in it.

It’s not a huge difference. It’s pretty subtle, in fact. You’re not going to taste a wine blind and know that it was aged in Hungarian rather than French oak. That’s the precious nonsense that makes Anne so crazy. But if you taste a wine that was aged in American barrels side by side with the same wine aged in French and/or Hungarian barrels, you can taste a slight difference. That’s kind of fun.

Grape Harvest 2022 Continues

Michael is writing this one solo, since he’s the one who makes the wine at the old homestead. And it’s part two of Grape Harvest 2022.

Last month I looked at the start of harvest. And after all the prep for the upcoming harvest, planning for every possible contingency, every detail in needed supplies and flexibility in scheduling… Here it comes: Harvest 2022: Agrape-ocolypse NOW!

Harvest 2022 with all the kegs and fermenters in the small winery space

The NOW! is the urgency which is always part of the harvest scenario whether it’s cabbage or Cabernet – when the fruit is ready, you pick. It won’t wait for you. It’s always been that way – long before climate change. But the current reality has changed the dynamics and rhythm of a process that doesn’t respond to human rationalizations.

So when Harvest 2022 got compressed, we ended up with 10 grape varieties harvested in 4 weeks instead of 8 weeks. That meant trying to find floor space and storage in the home winery (aka garage) that also serves as the file room and warehouse. Adequate floor space? NEVER! Adequate storage for fermenting wines? NEVER! Any thoughts of reducing production to deal with realities? NEVER!!! I bought more fermenters to hold grapes and supplies to feed the yeast and measure the chemistry of acid, sugar and alcohol.

Harvest 2022 with the fermenters in the small space

Only when I press the newly fermented wine will there be a real hint as to how much wine will be going into keg and storage for the season. There are ways to calculate yields, but I don’t bother with them. After all, I don’t depend on this hobby to make my living. It’s my Passion Project, and it’s not about saving money (I don’t). But I do get to express and share an expression of craft and dare I say it, “ART”? At any rate, that’s Harvest 2022 in a nutshell.

Wine Headaches and Scout & Cellar Wines

Please note that we don’t get wine headaches, so we can’t comment on whether the wines will prevent them. Also, we were sent two bottles of Scout & Cellar wine after the interview happened. We did not request them, but we did not pay for them, either.

With all the green-washing out there these days, it’s certainly reasonable to question just about anything labeled “clean” or “green.” Neither term has any official meaning with anyone. But it’s a term that has meaning for Sarah Shadonix.

“I’m super passionate and geeky about wine,” she said.

Passionate enough to give up a career as a litigator, then go to work for an ecommerce site, curating their wines.

“I was going out to Sonoma [County, California] once a week, refining my skills,” she said.

Getting wine headaches

That led to an advanced certificate from the Wines & Spirit Education Trust, (the WSET thing you hear sommeliers claim fairly often). But then she started to develop headaches when she drank wine. Like many wine-drinkers facing this problem, not all wines gave her headaches. But not like many wine-drinkers, Shadonix dove “deep into the rabbit hole.”

Label report from Scout & Cellar wines which helped Sarah Shadonix with her wine headaches

What she found was a problem with the labeling on a lot of wines.

“There wasn’t a clear package on the market,” she said.

Which sounds a little odd when you consider just how stringent the rules are when it comes to wine labels.

Creating the winery

Shadonix decided to create her own wine company, one with a mission to create clean wine. What this means in her case, according to the Scout & Cellar website, is wine that’s been grown “without toxic pesticides” (well, not toxic to humans), “artificial processing aids or ingredients,” and wine that is low in sulfites.

Shadonix said that it was probably residue from commonly used pesticides in some of the wines she was drinking that caused her wine headaches, and also the amount of sulfites in the wine. All wine has sulfites in it. It’s a natural by-product of the fermenting process. But Scout & Cellar wines are made to have 100 parts per million of sulfites. It’s on the company’s FAQ page.

As noted above, we don’t get wine headaches so we can’t comment on whether or not you will when drinking a Scout & Cellar wine. As for the two wines we were sent, they weren’t bad.

We tasted a 2021 Conte de la Terre Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Based on the very light color and lack of florals in the nose, it was probably a cool climate Pinot Gris. The nose did have melon and a hint of minerality. The medium body could have been a combination of steel and neutral oak. A hint of richness in the mouthfeel and a bit of acidity also supports the mix of wood and metal. A bit short in the finish but very dry which can be a challenge in some “native” ferments that tend to poop out before the sugars give out. Savory snacks like spicy nuts, hard and creamy cheeses, olives and charcuterie made this wine easy to enjoy without regard to its creation. It is good wine regardless of the yeast and/or chemical inputs.

One other interesting note, Shadonix obviously understands that designating a wine as clean has no official standing. Instead, the website touts the wine company’s Clean-Crafted Commitment – which is their proprietary designation and a trademark.

Battered and Late Harvest Zin

How do you pair wine with a book set in an urban café? Well, you do and you don’t. G. P. Gottlieb is the author of the Whipped and Sipped series of cozy mysteries, and her main character, Alene Baron, is a nice woman trying to take care of her ailing father, raise her three kids, and run the corner café featuring delicious and healthful snacks as well as great coffee.

Set in Chicago, the series brings that city delightfully to life as Alene and her best friend try to work around the neighboring bodies that turn up. Well, it is a mystery. Oh, and Alene falls in love with the local homicide cop, which is fun. Both Battered and the sequel Smothered are tremendous fun.

But, but, but…

What wine do you pair with delicious vegan baked goods? Seriously, the recipes in the book sound so good that even we want to try them, and we are not vegans. Not by a long shot. Then there’s the problem of sweet flavors and dry wines, and Anne really can’t stand that combination.

Michael brought up the idea that how you like your coffee will offer a clue to what kind of wine you like. If you like strong, black coffee, then you’ll probably like something robust and red in a wine. Want cream and sugar in your coffee, then you’ll want a lighter, fruitier wine.

But there’s also the emphasis on vegan, healthful snacks in the books. As it happens, we know the perfect winery – Angeleno Wine Company. They make wines that are natively fermented and vegan. They’re also damn good, and their Late Harvest Zinfandel is fruity without being jammy, with nice hints of pepper.

You can buy Gottlieb’s books directly from her website here, and the Zin from Angeleno Wine here.

GRAPE HARVEST Time (or Armageddon by another name)

Michael is writing this one, since he’s the one doing the grape harvest.

If you had but one word to describe the simultaneous occurrence of the entire baseball post-season plus the entire football season and post-season and let’s throw in the Stanley Cup and the NBA Finals – coming down to a single do-or-die event played out with no cheering section and no audience support but also no second-guessing commentary – it’s Grape Harvest Time, 2022 Edition.

grape harvest photo

Always a tricky proposition because you can’t bet on weather or growing conditions, unlike being able to predict the fall of the SF Giants and SD Padres against our mighty LA Dodgers – yes I’m in LA, deal with it – because if you make travel or vacation plans in September, you’ll taunting the vineyard gods into throwing you a curve ball.

The curve ball this year is an early harvest from areas not known for August harvests.

The Antelope Valley in the northern Los Angeles County had been a predictable bellweather for the rest of the season. The month of August was typically a few days of harvest spent in triple digit temperatures picking grapes. For the record, Barbera was and is the best grapes to come out of the AV in my opinion. But the loss of several vineyard properties due to generational changes helped create an illusion of a harvest-free August until…

This year’s challenges

grape harvest photos of the work in the winery
Grapes ready for the crusher de-stemmer

Tempranillo (a red grape grown in the warmer climates of Spain and quite a tasty wine) from Ramona Valley came in a couple weeks ago. Albariño, a white Spanish grape known for pairing with seafood) arrived from Lodi last week, and Italian varietals from Murrieta such as nebbiolo, sagratino (look it up – it’s hard to find) are on their way. Last year, these all came in early September, but not this year. This August will end with chardonnay and pinot gris from the Paso Robles Eastern section with yields down by as much as 40% from last year.

Why is this happening? In a single sentence, it’s drought and climate change.
Drought reduces the ability to water the grape vines to their potential. Reduced watering can lead to an instinct bent on surviving until the next winter and its promise of abundant rainfall. This year’s grape harvest will be recorded as a short vintage, meaning fewer grapes and possibly a shortened or compressed harvest cycle. Add to that a labor shortage no less challenging in agriculture than it is in construction or any other industry you can mention, and an increased use of harvesting machines (which means more stuff like leaves and branches from the vineyard that need to be removed before the grapes get processed into wine).

Pondering grape harvest

So why do I do this? I usually have a moment during the annual ritual of turning blood and sweat into wine where I consider whether I need to do this. Can’t I be content with $7 wines from Trader Joe’s or Grocery Outlet (an LA wine drinker’s prayer answered).?

Our friend Gregg Orgozelec pressing whole clusters (something that is normally not done at this point in the process)

But I also have a ready answer to that existential crisis. What would a writer say? An actor? An artist of any other classification? Can they do anything besides what they do for a living? I have the option of following a passion that I don’t need to do to survive. I can back off on the winemaking if the thrill is gone. But so far it isn’t, even though the effect of certain longer days wears off a bit slower at the age of 61 than it did at a youthful 41.

Every year is different and I only really get to do the craziness of grape harvest once a year. Do I have another 20 years left? I hope so.

Deep Dark Secrets and Syrah

Deep Dark Secrets, by Joy Ann Ribar, takes place in the dead of winter in Wisconsin. This first in the series of cozy mysteries featuring winemaker and baker Francine (Frankie) Champagne, involves our heroine trying to find out who killed a local pastor and left him in an ice-fishing shanty.

the cover of Deep Dark Secrets by Joy Ann Ribar

Yes, there are wineries in Wisconsin, and author Ribar assures us that the wine is quite tasty. Anne also asked her what wine she would pair with Deep Dark Secrets, and she suggested something with some sass or peppery notes.

We agree. This is a cozy mystery, in that it’s not overly violent and more about the solving of a puzzle than it is about heart-pounding action. Which is fine with us. Heart-pounding action is not the most restful thing to read during the evenings.

Michael suggested a cool-climate syrah, in particular. We featured winemaker Sabrine Rodems with a lesson on syrah a number of years ago. We also like Camins2Dreams Zotovich Syrah, as well. Syrah is one of those wines that can be in your face, but a good one is smooth and lush and relaxing, with just a bit of sass.

So, until you can curl up with a nice glass of syrah and Deep Dark Secrets, you can find out more about Joy Ann Ribar by clicking here and scrolling down to find the book, itself, on the page and some places you can buy the book.

Pétillant naturel from Natalie Albertson

We first met Natalie Albertson at the Women Winemakers Celebration earlier this spring. She makes an amazing pétillant naturel, or pét nat, under her Wildflower Winery label, a very small production winery in Ventura County.

Natalie Albertson, of Wildflower Winery, explains pétillant naturel.
Natalie Albertson

The fun thing is Albertson and Michael both buy albariño grapes from Riverbench Vineyards and Winery, in the Santa Ynez Valley. Albertson also buys chardonnay from Riverbench, which becomes her pétillant naturel. So, when we met up with Albertson again at a winemaker dinner put on by the Riverbench folks for the people who buy their grapes, we couldn’t resist asking her about pét nat.

“It means a wine that was bottled before fermentation completely finished,” Albertson explained. “We did at about one point eight brix or one point five, six and it put a crown cap on it and it finished fermenting inside the bottle and creates those lovely bubbles that we all love.”

Brix being the unit that measures how much sugar there is in a liquid. Zero brix means there is no sugar present. Most grape juice starts fermenting at 20-24 brix, depending on the variety and the planned end result. One point five brix means that fermentation has almost completely finished. Most still wines are aged a little bit in vats or barrels before being bottled so that you don’t get bubbles.

Pét nat is a different process than the famed Methode Champenoise, in which wines that have been completely fermented and somewhat aged get a second bit of sugar and yeast, then are fermented again with caps, which create the bubbles.

What to expect inside the bottle

So, when you see pétillant naturel on a label, Albertson said that you can expect to see some yeast, or lees, the remains of the fermenting process.

“Some fine lees, you know, not not too much. That’s why we decided to disgorge our chardonnay this year. There was just too much, it wouldn’t be enjoyable,” she said. “Sometimes they can be a little little active, a little excited. So carefully, open them in your backyard. There are some that you… have to open in your backyard or your shower because they’re just going everywhere.”

In fact, she has opened, or disgorged, some of her pét nats to release some of the pressure so that when people open them, they don’t lose half the bottle.

She chose to make pétillant naturel for one simple reason.

“I love bubbles. Yeah, it’s just so fun. My first wine was bubbles. It was a champagne or sparkling wine at Christmas,” she said. “You know that it’s for celebration. It’s celebrating a new job. It’s for holiday. It’s gathering with people. It’s lively, you know?”

And that’s pétillant naturel.

July in the Home Winery – Time to Label the Bottles

July in the home winery is normally the month when winemakers prepare for the next harvest, which is typically late August to early September typically, but can differ if you’re making sparkling wine or live near the High Desert AVA in Southern California. That’s when we do our last-minute orders of chemicals, cleaners, supplies. We inspect and clean our tools, and sharpen the one we use in the vineyard. We get the equipment out of storage, cleaned and tested. You notice the pattern that involves cleanliness, I assume? Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

Labeling equipment for labeling the bottles

Last month, we showed you bottling. But once the botting is finished, labeling is an optional step. This can happen at any time, not just in July. We know winemakers who use a variety of media for identifying their wines: green painter’s tape; blue painter’s tape, duct tape, metallic markers or just little stickers that may only say “99 PN”. Some of our winemaker friends specialize in a few varieties where this works.

Michael’s labels

Michael’s labels tend to be full-blown to satisfy his own ego, he says. He has no natural skill in graphics but does believe in “faking it until you make it.” So all labeling of wine is purely decorative unless you are a professional and then all the fun is taken away. Yet another reason to avoid the urge to go pro.

Finished labeled bottle

The outsides of the reused bottles sometimes have some glue residue from the previous commercial label. A spray of Goo Gone and a paint scraper takes care of that. A glue stick applied to the back of the regular paper label and applying it as straight as possible. Being hand crafted, variation is always possible and two bottles are rarely side by side anyway.

So labels really only serve the winemaker’s ego and sense of craftsmanship. No wrong answers in this exercise. And that’s July in the winery.

Riedel’s Variety-Specific Glasses? Busted, Baby!

We love Riedel glassware. The stuff is gorgeous. It’s light and beautifully crafted. It just feels elegant sipping wine from it.

2013-04-27 21.49.12
The Riedel Burgundy glass (standing) and malbec glass. (The cabernet glass broke before we could get a picture of it.) Yep, busted.

However, we’ve always been rather skeptical about their claim that their variety-specific glasses actually make a significant difference in the flavor of each different wine. So we decided to test the glassware and found out one rather interesting thing, but overall? To quote one of our fave TV shows, Myth busted.

The tasting came about because we were generously included in a special unveiling of the Malbec glass, put on by Argentinian winery Graffigna. Both of the malbecs they served, the Centenario Reserve and the Grand Reserve, were amazing, dry and lush. We couldn’t help but lust after a good steak from the Pampas while drinking them. The wine was served in the new glass, alongside a Burgundy glass and a cabernet sauvignon glass.

The idea, we were told by Riedel’s Regional Sales Manager Melissa Hawkins, is that the shape of the bowl and the opening of the glass direct the wine to the part of your tongue that tastes the wine’s best attributes. In fact, we started with water, and while Anne didn’t think the water tasted all that different or was that much more refreshing out of the Burgundy glass, there were others who did.

Then, of course, we had the tasting with the wine, itself, and sure enough, everyone began remarking on how the malbec really did taste better in the malbec glass. Hmmmm. Well, we wanted to see if we could replicate the results at home, and one of the publicists (whose name we do not want to drop so she doesn’t get into trouble) kindly gave us a Burgundy and a cabernet glass to take with the malbec glasses they’d already given us.

Why were we so skeptical in the first place? Truth be told, we had tried a similar test a few years ago when we found some variety-specific glasses (not Riedel) on sale at World Market. After all, some of our friends had raved about how the wine really did taste different. But something just wasn’t adding up. We certainly didn’t notice any great difference in the wine we tasted in the different glasses we had.

Now, we suspect there may be someone out there reading this and thinking, “Well, obviously, they don’t have very sophisticated palates.” And we say, go put some clothes on, Mr. or Ms. Emperor. Let’s start with the basic mechanics of the bowl shape and opening directing the wine to your tongue. We checked in with Anne’s cousin, Jim Mason, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, and while fluid dynamics aren’t his specialty, he knows and understands them. His thought? The whole bowl shape and opening thing doesn’t make sense simply because you can’t control the opening of your mouth each time you drink. In addition, Anne can’t figure out how something is going to direct a fluid to the perfect place on your tongue when everyone’s tongue is a different size – can you say Gene Simmons?

But what the heck, we tested it with the actual Riedel crystal. We used the three wines the glasses were made for. Okay, we used California pinot noirs for the Burgundy glass, but that’s what was available. Michael did the tasting and they were all blind. He could see which glass was which – kind of hard to not notice that. But we did two of the tests in a darkened room so that the lighter color of the pinot noir wouldn’t give it away. We used several different brands of wine, including the Graffigna Centenaro, all of which are widely available.

The first test was several flights, with a different wine in each glass, randomly assigned. The idea was that Michael should have been able to tell the variety each time he got a glass with its matching variety in it. Essentially, did the right glassware make the wine pop? There was only one flight out of six where he was able to guess each variety correctly, and none of them were in the correct glass.

We tried again, this time, making sure that at least one of the glasses held the correct variety, and we invited some friends of ours, Dale LaCasella and Jim Vitale, to try it with us. Again, the theory was if the “right” glass made a difference, they’d be able to find the wine that was in the correct glass because it would taste the best. Not even close. Michael, Dale and Jim did get a taste of each wine in its correct glass as a test flight, so they’d know what they were looking for. Didn’t help. They could neither guess the variety and the wine they liked the best was seldom in the correct glass.

Finally, as Anne’s wonderful daughter pointed out, there should be a test with all the same wine in each flight, making the glass the only variable. Here is where it got interesting. There was one glass that did stand out, but interestingly, it didn’t matter what wine was in it. And when we went over our notes, time and time again (not every time, but at least 75 percent of the time), the wine tasted best in this glass – no matter which wine it was. It was the Burgundy glass, which features a wide, round bowl and a relatively narrow opening.

We think we know why. It’s because smell is such an important part of taste. The round, wide bowl creates a larger surface area of wine exposed to oxygen, which then picks up the aromatic elements in the wine. But because the opening is comparatively small, the aromatics are more or less trapped in the bowl as opposed to being dispersed through the air, and you can get more of them into your nose, which then enhances what your tongue receives.

So why did everyone at the tasting, including Michael, all get so excited and swear that the malbec tasted best in the malbec glass? Simple crowd dynamics. First, we were told it would. Then as the tasting went on, someone agreed out loud, then someone else, and so forth and so on, so eventually even Anne was buying into it. No one was lying or faking it. They’d just bought into what everyone else was saying because that’s what we humans do when we’re in a group.

As for buying Riedel, as we said, we love the stuff, but there are some serious downsides to it. First up, it is insanely fragile. You look at these glasses wrong and they break. In fact, the cabernet glass that we used in our tasting broke before we could get a picture of it. Secondly, it is very expensive. We did find a pair of the stemless glasses for almost $30 at Target – that’s $15 a glass. For something that breaks very easily. Burgundy glasses on the site run as much as $125 a glass. Not in our budget. But if it’s in yours, there’s no reason not to buy it. It is lovely stuff. You just don’t need a different glass for each variety of wine.

Virna Borgogno on the Wines of Barolo

One of several blessings from the COVID pandemic slowing down is that we’ve been able to get back to tasting events (such as this one in 2013). We attended one in March of this year, and in April, went to a tasting of wines from the Barolo region in Northern Italy, and talked to Virna Borgogno, who has her own label.

Virna Borgogno, who makes wine in the Barolo region
Virna Borgogno

“I studied enology,” she said when we asked her how common women winemakers are in her area. “I am the first woman with a degree in enology in Italy.”

She started making wines with her father, first, then eventually took over the family operation, making wine under the Virna label.

“Today, I work with my sister in the winery,” she said. “We are two females. We have 12 hectares and we produce 70,000 bottles.”

Understanding Barolo wines

While the wine she produces are all Barolos, a deep red wine, not every one is the same style. She has a classic style, and two single vineyard wines.

“A classic Barolo is a blend of different vineyards,” Borgogno explained. “We make a separate vinification from different areas, aging in a big casket, and after the two years in evolution, we make our blend between the different terroir… to make Barolo with the balance between the power of the region of the north and the elegance of the other region.”

But while blending from different regions can make some lovely wines, Borgogno said that making a wine from a single vineyard has its virtues, too.

“It’s the character of the terroir of this particluar location,” she said. “In general, we have a few different terroir in the same area.”

It was a theme that was repeated several times throughout the day, but we will be sharing as we feature some of the other women we spoke with.