Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ameliorating alcohol-induced wine imbalance

In my post on the role of alcohol in wine balance I indicated that, in addition to unbalancing the wine, an excess of alcohol: makes the wine appear hot; will lead to a reduced perception of wine aroma; and can impart a sense of intoxication to the taster.  The winemaker may address the issue of excess alcohol by reducing the level of alcohol and has three approaches available if that path is chosen: (i) reverse osmosis, (ii) the spinning cone, and (iii) adding water to the wine. Reverse osmosis and the spinning cone are authorized in the U.S by wine regulation 27 CFR 24.248 Processes Authorized for the Treatment of Wine, Juice, and Distilling Materials.  Under this regulation the processes must be conducted at a Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) or at a bonded winery that is authorized to alternate between a DSP and a bonded winery.

According to howstuffworks.com, reverse osmosis takes place when pressure applied to a highly concentrated solution causes the solvent to pass through a membrane to the lower concentrated solution, leaving a higher concentration of solute on one side, and only solvent on the other.  In the case of high-alcohol wine, the wine is filtered to separate alcohol, water, and volatile compounds from the color and flavor components. The filtered material (permeate in the figure below) is then subjected to a distillation process wherein some portion of the alcohol is removed.  At the completion of this process the remaining permeate material is re-combined with the flavor and color particles that had been filtered out previously and the end result is a lower-alcohol wine than at the beginning.

Reverse osmosis (Source: memstar.com.au)

The spinning cone is comprised of two sets of inverted cones, one fixed against the wall of the steel container, the other set on a rotating rod and parallel to the fixed cones. The wine is fed into the assembly from the top and flows from fixed cone to parallel rotating cone where the centrifugal force spins it out towards the center as a thin film which then falls on to the next lower fixed cone.  This pattern is repeated until the liquid reaches the bottom.  Simultaneously, a low temperature vapor is introduced into the assembly from the bottom and flows up the core stripping volatiles from the thin film on its way up.  This volatile-impregnated vapor flows out of the top of the assemblage and into a condensing system where the volatiles are captured in a condensed liquid form. The cones provide a large surface area for evaporation of the volatiles into the vapor.

In most cases, the wine is run through the system a number of times in order to obtain the required alcohol levels.  On the first pass the vapor may extract the volatilized aromas and flavors and the remaining liquid is run through the cone again at higher temperatures to remove some portion of the alcohol. The aromas and flavors are then added back into the liquid at the end of the process to produce a lower alcohol wine.  Producers will use this method to reduce the alcohol by 1 to 2%.

The third option is hydration of the grape must using water acidulated with tartaric acid.  By using acidulated water, the sugar can be diluted without a concurrent dilution of the acids.  In California wineries, according to Brehm Vineyards, the practice is to use 7 gallons (26.5 liters) of water per ton of grapes in order to lower Brix by one degree.

The best-case situation for a winemaker is that growing conditions yield grapes that produce a balanced wine.  In the event, however, that the wine is unbalanced due to high levels of alcohol, vis a vis acid levels, the winemaker has the above tools available to assist in amelioration of the problem.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Monday, February 27, 2012

The role of alcohol in wine balance

Wine balance is one of the important measures of wine quality and attainment of said balance, according to Dr. Bruce Zoecklein (Virginia Tech oenologist), requires the harmonic functioning of each element in the Palate Balance Equation reproduced below. The arrow on the figure following the equation illustrates where balance and alcohol fall within the wine quality assessment framework.

              Sweet ⇄ Acid + Phenolics (Astringency and Bitterness).

Fortunately for wine drinkers, the structure that grape vine plants have evolved for the protection and nourishment of their genetic-material-carrying seeds, also serves as the raw material for the drink of their choice.  At harvest, the vitis vinifera berry has the following composition (Murli Dharmadhikari, Director and Enologist, Iowa State University Extension):
  • Water (70 - 80%)
  • Dissolved solids
    • Sugar (primarily glucose and fructose; 150 - 200 g/L if ripe)
    • Organic acids
    • Phenolic compounds
    • Nitrogenous compounds
    • Aroma compounds
    • Minerals
    • Pectic substances (primary role is cementing plant cells together).
The dissolved solid of interest herein is sugar so we will focus exclusively on that topic for the remainder of this post.

Sugars exist in the grape vine as sucrose (a one-to-one bond of the single-molecule sugars glucose and fructose) and are transported to the berry from the vine where it is metabolized.  As the berry develops (see figure below), the vine-sourced sucrose decreases in volume and is replaced by carbohydrates from surrounding leaves.  Once in the berry, sucrose is separated into its constituent parts by the enzyme invertase.

As the figure below shows, xylem flow (water and nutrients from the roots) to the berry stops shortly after veraison but the flow of nutrients from surrounding leaves (via the phloem) continues through the bulk of the ripening phase.  As the figure shows, the sugar, measured in °Brix (the sugar-content metric used in the US; % sugar by weight), begins to accumulate in the berry post-veraison as sugar consumption declines.  The sugar content at berry maturity can range between 12 and 28% with the optimal level for harvest falling between 19 and 25 Brix.

Grape berry development (Source:www.extension.org)

In a 1966 study, W. Mark Kliewer of UCDavis concluded that the following sugars resided in a mature grape berry: Stachyose, Manninotriose, Raffinose, Melibiose, Maltose, Sucrose, Galactose, Glucose, and Fructose.  With the exception of glucose and fructose, all of the sugars are found in minute amounts and do not contribute in any way to the sensory characteristics of fermented wine. 

Glucose is a 6-carbon-atom sugar resulting from the breakdown of sucrose by the berry and is the first sugar to be broken down by the yeasts during the fermentation process.  There is 5 times more glucose than fructose in the berry at the beginning of the ripening stage but the levels are about equal at the time of harvest due to rapid fructose accumulation in the later stages of berry development.  Through its participation in the development of glycosides, glucose plays a role in the flavors of wine based on the interaction of those glycosides with phenolic compounds such as anthocyanins and terpenoids.  Fructose is twice as sweet as glucose and is a key component in the sweet sensation of wine.  Depending on the time of harvest, the ratio of glucose to fructose in the berry will vary: In an unripe berry, glucose will be dominant; at the ripening stage, the levels will be even; if the grape is over-ripe, fructose will dominate; and if the grape is ripe, the levels will vary depending on whether the variety is high-fructose (e.g., Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc) or high-glucose (e.g., Chenin Blanc and Zinfandel).

Wine is a result of using yeasts (Saccharomyces) in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment to convert the sugars from the pressed grape juice into ethanol in the two-step process illustrated in the figure below.  The first step -- glycolysis -- results in the 6-carbon glucose being split into two 3-carbon pyruvate molecules.  In the next step --- alcoholic fermentation - four atoms of oxygen and two atoms of carbon leave the pyruvate, resulting in acetaldehyde which is converted into ethanol.

Alcoholic fermentation (Source: http://alcoholicfermentation.net/

Wine is never fermented completely dry as sugars such as xylose and arabinose survive the fermentation process unscathed.  The amount of alcohol produced as a result of fermentation is directly related to the amount of sugar present in the juice initially.  The conversion ratio is ºBrix x 0.55 = alcohol in wine (Dr. Dharmadhikari).  Residual sugar is the measure of sugar solids remaining after alcoholic fermentation and is stated in g/L.  For dry wines the residual sugar ranges between 0.2 and 0.3 g/L while the measure for sweet dessert wines ranges between 5 and 15 g/L.

In wine, the sweetness of sugar balances out the bitterness of phenols.  Sweetness is perceptible by humans at around 1% of volume but that perception is dependent on the size of the sugar molecule. Both fructose and glucose are single sugar molecules and are perceived as sweet by humans because they fit neatly into the receptors on the tongue.  Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are long chains of sugars, do not fit neatly into the receptors on our tongues, and are not perceived as sweet.

As stated previously, wine balance is viewed as a key indicator of wine quality.  If a wine has insufficient sugar in relation to its acids and phenols, it will present as harsh and acidic and will retard the evolution of flavors in the mouth.  In such a case the winemaker may choose to add sugar (chaptalize) in the form of cane sugar (sucrose in cane sugar is inverted by the enzymes present in the wine and converted into glucose and fructose) or corn sugar (dextrose which will be fermented quickly by the yeasts).

Alcohol adds to the sensation of sweetness in a wine. It also adds a thickness. Too much alcohol and the wine can present as hot, lead to a reduced perception of wine aroma, and can impart a sense of intoxication.  For a winemaker doing business in the US, there is an approximately $.50 difference in the taxes paid per gallon of produced wine if the alcohol level goes beyond 14.001%.  If the winemaker believes that the wine would benefit from de-alcoholization, there are three methods available to him/her: reverse osmosis, spinning cone, and adding water.  These methods will be discussed in greater detail in a subsequent post.

Hopefully the normal grape-growing and alcoholic fermentation process would have produced a balanced wine but if an imbalance were brought about by an insufficiency or excess of alcohol, the winemaker has tools available to address the problem.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Friday, February 24, 2012

The role of acidity in wine balance

Now that I have provided a contextual framework for wine balance, I can return to the promised discussion of acidity, one of its constituent elements.  As a refresher on acid's relationship to balance, Dr. Bruce Zoecklein's (Virginia Tech oenologist) Palate Balance Equation is reproduced below. The arrow on the figure following the equation illustrates where balance and acidity fall within the wine quality assessment framework.

              Sweet ⇄ Acid + Phenolics (Astringency and Bitterness).

Acids play an important role in the cellular and metabolic functions of the grape berry and in the color and texture of the fermented wine.  The precursors of acid are formed in the leaves of the grape plant and are transported to the berries where they are synthesized to acids.  Acid accumulation begins at the start of berry development and continues unabated until the beginning of the ripening process.  Acid levels tend to vary acording to the controlling temperatures of the growing region; in warmer regions acid is used up during respiration, resulting in lower acidity levels in the fruit at harvest.  Conversely, acid levels are higher and sugar levels lower in cooler-climate growing regions.

The primary acids found in grapes and fermented wine are tartaric, malic, and citric acids as well as the tartaric and malic derivatives potassium hydrogen tartrate (cream of tartar) and potassium hydrogen malate.  Tartaric acid -- which occurs in nature in fruits such as grapes, bananas, and tamarinds -- represents between 50% and 66% of the acid content in a ripe berry and, as such, controls the acid content in the finished wine.  The tartaric acid level falls off as the grape ripens but not as much as in the case of malic acid.  Crystallized tartaric acid precipitates out of the wine during fermentation and can form crystals on the underside of the wine bottle cork if the wine is stored below 50ºF.  Tartaric acid is resistant to attack by wine microbes (and thus lends ageability with lower spoilage risk to the finished product) and is the winemaker's material of choice if/when a decision is made to add acid to a wine.

Malic acid is the second most important contributor to grape acid levels with amounts ranging between 23% and 40% of the total acid content.  The grape utilizes malic acid during respiration at a rate higher than for tartaric acid, leading to a higher ratio of tartaric-to-malic acid at harvest than at the earlier stages of fruiting.  Unlike tartaric acid, malic acid can be metabolized by a number of organisms and winemakers take advantage of this fact to to reduce wine acidity through malolactic fermentation, a process wherein the bacteria convert the hard malic acid to the softer lactic acid and carbon dioxide.  Malolactic fermentation increases the wines aging potential as the bacteria that metabolize the malic acid also scavenge remaining nutrients and, in so doing, reduce the potential for future microbial spoilage.  Malolactic fermentation occurs post-alcoholic-fermentation and is automatic for most red wines and selected whites.

Acetic acid is produced during fermentation by the conversion of ethanol to acetic acid by a species of  Acetobacter or from the actions on glucose by selected anaerobic bacteria.  The acid is present in most wines at levels of approximately 0.5 g/L and is detectable by humans as a pungent odor at levels of 1.0 g/L and above.  The legal limit for acetic acid in wine is 1.2 g/L in California and 1.4 g/L elsewhere in the U.S.  Acetic acid boils off when heated and as such is referred to as volatile acidity.

The winemaker needs to know the acid content of the grape and must in order to: decide when to harvest; determine pre-fermentation must treatment; monitor wine stability; and comply with TTB requirements of 0.5% minimum acid levels.  Total acidity is the sum of the hydrogen ions of both fixed and volatile acids that are present in the wine and, as such, is the most accurate representation of acid concentration.  Total acidity is difficult to measure accurately, however, and so the more easily measurable titratable acidity (TA) is used as its proxy.  Acids and bases neutralize each other to water so the acidity of a liquid can be approximated by determining the amount of an alkaline solution that is required to neutralize it to water.  The acidity level revealed in this manner is called the substance's titratable acidity.  Red table wines generally range between 0.6% and 0.7% TA as levels below 0.4% render the wine susceptible to infection and spoilage.

A second method for measuring the acidity of a wine is through observation of its pH (potential of hydrogen) level.  The higher the number of hydrogen ions (H+) in a liquid, the more acidic it is while the higher the number of hydroxide ions (formed when an oxygen ion bonds to a hydrogen ion and represented as OH-) in the liquid, the higher its alkalinity. The pH scale (illustrated below) runs from 0-14 with acidic solutions falling below 7,

Source: epa.gov

7 as a point of neutrality, and alkaline solutions falling between 7 and 14.  A change of 1 unit on the scale represents a 10-fold change in pH.

The pH level of a wine affects the way it is perceived by the wine drinker as well as its reaction to micro-organisms.  Low-pH wines are generally viewed as sour and render tannins more astringent but they also  limit micro-organism growth.  Higher pH provides a more favorable environment for micro-organism growth and reduces the functionality of sulfur application.  White wine pH ranges between 3.0 and 3.3 while red wine pH falls between 3.3 and 3.5.  Low pH values are often correlated with high TAs and vice versa.

To summarize, acid gives wine a tartness and freshness while countering the effect of sweetness and magnifying the astringency of tannins.  If a wine has too much acid it will be puckery and sour; too little and it will be flat, flabby, and dull.  As stated previously, wine balance is viewed as a key indicator of wine quality.  If a wine has insufficient sugar in relation to its acids and phenols, it will present as harsh and acidic and will retard the evolution of flavors in the mouth.  In such a case the winemaker may choose to de-acidify using potassium bicarbonate or calcium carbonate or dilute the wine with water or a low-acid wine.  If the wine has too much sugar, it will be flabby and cloying and will not refresh the palate.  In such a case the winemaker may choose to acidify the wine by adding tartaric, malic, or citric acid.

Whether naturally obtained or engineered, appropriate acidity is a key element of wine balance.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Development of A Framework for the Assessment of Wine Quality

My current objective is to develop of a framework for assessing wine quality and that effort was launched with yesterday's post on the definition and high-level scope of wine quality.  I herein examine three efforts which seek to define the elements of wine quality and then use the learnings resulting from these explorations to construct a broad-based framework for the assessment of wine quality.

The first study considered was Stephen Charters study titled The Intrinsic Dimensions of Wine Quality: An Exploratory Investigation.  In this study the author conducted interviews and focus groups with 105 participants and, as a result of that effort, developed the quality dimensions contained in the figure below.

The Dimensions of Wine Quality (Source: Figure 1 of The Intrinsic Dimensions of Wine Quality)

The study did uncover some extrinsic wine quality factors (appellation systems, classification systems) but the focus was on development of intrinsic factors -- those identified in the glass when the wine is consumed.  It should be noted that this study was conducted in Australia using Australian participants and Australian wines.

I have a number of concerns with this study.  In my earlier post on defining the wine quality space, I indicated that customers with objective knowledge use objective cues to define quality.  In this study, the author used 105 individuals (60 consumers, with the remainder divided between wine producers and other wine industry players) with the consumer participants categorized as low-involvement (24), medium-involvement (25), and high-involvement (11).  With this obvious disparity in objective knowledge, the likelihood of getting solid input on intrinsic factors is low.  And the results bear this out.  As can be seen in the figure, a number of the components appear to me to be non-objective (drinkability and pleasure, for example) and most lack a sense of dimension (How do you measure drinkability?).  So, while the model is good for directionality, the questions raised render it unsuitable for our purposes.

The second model explored was Richard Leahy's Components of Wine Quality which appeared in a December 19, 2011 post on crushpadwine.com/blog.  Leahy divides wine quality factors into two camps: primary (sensory) parameters of wine quality and secondary elements of wine quality.  In that the scenario he describes entails judging a large group of wines, I will assume that these are intrinsic wine quality factors.  The components are, according to Leahy:

Primary Elements                  Secondary Elements
Visual                                    Balance
Aroma                                   Intensity
Taste                                     Length

My issues with this list is that: (i) it only considers intrinsic quality elements; (ii) it is presented at too high a level; and (iii) no potential values are presented for the identified elements.  Also, no material is presented which allows one to assess whether a wine is of low or high quality.

The final model evaluated was the WIne and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine.  A copy of the tasting sheet, showing the categories, and potential values associated with each category, is presented below.

A few points of note: (i) This mechanism is clearly targeted at the objective individual; (ii) it clearly identifies each of the categories that exists in its model and provides potential values for each; and (iii) it posits that an assessment of quality is a journey rather than a eureka moment.  In the case where a product is being assessed for quality, the metrics associated with each parameter is provided  so thatthe customer can assess that parameter against his or her requirements.  For example, in the case of a car, the parameter miles per gallon will come with a number, 26 let's say.  In the case of wine quality assessment using this tool, we know the parameter but the value or metric associated with that parameter has to be teased out through tasting; metrics cannot be assigned to flavors or flavor intensity until the wine is tasted. For someone who is appropriately trained in the method, a quality bottle of wine would have the following characteristics:
  • Appropriate quality
  • Intensity and color befitting its age and variety
  • Clean nose
  • Intensity, development, and aroma characteristics befitting its age and variety, as perceived by the taster
  • Sweetness level appropriate for the wine style
  • Balance between variety, tannin, and alcohol
  • Body appropriate for the varietal and wine style as perceived by the taster
  • Medium-to-pronounced flavor intensity
  • Flavor characteristics that are appropriate to the variety, style, and age of the wine.
Based on how well the taster feels that the wine addresses the above characteristics, it can be rated as having poor, acceptable, good, very good, or outstanding quality.

The WSET approach is comprehensive and allows an objective taster to arrive at a quality conclusion about a specific bottle of wine at a specific time.  It is conceivable that someone else tasting that same bottle may arrive at a different conclusion but that illustrates human differences (number of taste buds, for example) rather than being an inherent weakness in the approach.  The shortcoming of this approach is that it does not take account of the vast majority of consumers who will never use it.  That is to say, its lack of extrinsic quality components renders it unusable by the wine drinker who is equipped with subjective knowledge.

Let's stop at this point and take stock of the situation.  I have shown that the quality of a wine can be derived using the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine.  That tool is only suitable, however, for individuals with pertinent, objective knowledge, leaving the large mass of the wine drinking public to its own devices as it relates to assessing the quality of wine.  And assessing the quality of wine is not a parlor game; it is more often than not a precursor to a purchase decision.  A comprehensive wine quality assessment has to address the unaddressed issue in the WSET tool and provide a mechanism for the assessment of wine quality by those with a subjective bent.  We have identified a number of these subjective cues and have coalesced them with the WSET tool to create a comprehensive wine quality assessment framework.  The proposed framework is illustrated in the figure below.

The extrinsic cues can be used either singly or in combination by the customer in order to arrive at quality decisions.  For example, the customer may use the objective opinion of the wine critic as an indicator of quality and use that as a basis for a purchase decision.  Or, on the other hand, the customer may use pricing and vintage cues in order to make that decision.

In closing, I would like to note that quality in the world of wine differs from quality in most other products and services because of the variability in terroir, production methods, and, most importantly, the differences in perception that accrue to us a result of our human condition.  Wine quality, at the end of the day, is a truly personal assessment.

I will be reviewing the various elements of the wine quality assessment framework in future posts.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Framework for the Assessment of Wine Quality: Defining the Space

In my most recent post I wrote about balance as a measure of wine quality and promised to detail its constituent components in follow-up posts.  As I was mulling over my approach to fulfilling this promise, it occured to me that I had not provided a context for the quality discussion.  I will correct that oversight in this blog post by developing a wine-quality framework and will discuss the wine balance components in subsequent posts.

Before we begin depiction of the wine-quality framework, I will explore some definitions of the quality concept.  ISO, the Geneva-based, international standards-setting organization, famed for development of the ISO series of quality standards, avers that "The quality of something can be determined by comparing a set of inherent characteristics with a set of requirements.  If those inherent characteristics meet all requirements, high to excellent quality is achieved."  If the requirements are not met, ISO stipulates that the product or service provided is of low or poor quality.

According to what-is-quality.com, the formal definition of quality in the U.S. is "the characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs.  A product or service that is free of deficiencies."

The two definitions are congruent in that they both address quality levels (high and low quality in the case of ISO and quality/no quality in the case of the U.S.) but they appear to differ in the degree of rigor associated with requirements-identification.  ISO refers to a set of requirements while the U.S. standard refers to stated needs, which gives the impression of customer-driven requirements.  But the U.S. standard further refers to implied needs inferring, in my opinion, that by buying a product or service, a customer is admitting to a set of needs, regardless of whether those needs are formally stated or not.

According to Clodfelter and Fowler (Do Consumers' Perceptions of Product Quality Differ from Objective Measures of Product Quality?), "Quality is a multi-dimensional construct that cannot be equated with or measured by a single cue or attribute." In assessing quality, customers call on objective (accurate and current information on relevant measurable and verifiable standards) or subjective (their judgement about a product's/service excellence) knowledge.  Individuals with objective knowledge will respond to intrinsic -- cannot be changed without changing the nature of the product or service -- cues while the consumer with subjective knowledge will respond to extrinsic -- related to, but outside of, the offered product or service. In the wine world we can think of minimum alcohol level as an intrinsic cue and price as an extrinsic cue.

With quality defined in the foregoing, we should be pivoting to an identification of the elements of wine quality.  But it is not that easy.  The first level of difficulty is encountered when seeking a consensus on the elements that should be included in a wine quality framework; or whether quality should be broadly discussed at all.  The great French oenologist Emile Peynaud, for example, felt that quality was such a personal thing that it only existed in relation to an individual.  In the cases where components of quality are identified, no qualitative or quantitative values are associated with the components.  And, finally, no attempt is made to differentiate between the relative contribution of each component to the overall quality measure.

I will examine a number of wine quality schemas and propose a comprehensive framework in my next post.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Friday, February 17, 2012

Wine balance as a quality measure

According to Dr. Bruce Zoecklein, Head of the Enology/Wine Chemistry Group at Virginia Tech, wine can be broken down into the three sensory categories indicated in the table below.

                              Wine Sensory Components

Structure                                  Texture                               Flavor
Sweet                                       Light (delicate)                   Nutty
Acid                                         Rich (dense)                       Earthy
Astringency                                                                         Herbal
Bitterness                                                                            Smoky
                                                                                            Tropical Fruit
* Found mainly in white wines

Source: Derived from Figure 1 of Matching Food and Wine.

As regards the structural components, Dr. Zoecklein argues that a balanced relationship must exist between the tastes of sweetness, on the one hand, and acid, astringency and bitterness on the other, in order to yield the perception of a quality wine to the taster.  The preferred relationship is captured in his Palate Balance Equation (Zoecklein: Components of Red Wine Mouthfeel):

           Sweet ⇄ Acid + Phenolics (Astringency and Bitterness),


          Sweet = Carbohydrates + Polysaccharides + Ethanol,
          Acid = Population of organic acids, and
          Phenolics = Skin, seed, and stem phenols + barrel phenols + enological tannins +             volatile phenols.

Based on the foregoing equation, an increase in the sweetness element of the equation will lead to a reduction of the taster's perception of acidity and phenolics; and the reverse is also true.  Dr. Zoecklein sees this balance, or harmony, as a key indicator of wine quality and in that he is joined by Wines and Vines and Crushpad Blog among others.  According to Chris Stamp, writing in Wines and Vines, "... a balanced wine is a wine in which the various components work together to provide a pleasing taste."  According to Richard Leahy, writing in Crushpad Blog, wines that are in balance tend to stay that way while wines that are out of balance tend to grow moreso over time.

How does balance relate to quality?  If, for example, a wine has insufficient sugar in relation to its acids and phenols, it will present as harsh and acidic and will retard the evolution of flavors in the mouth of the taster.  A wine with too much sugar, on the other hand, will be flabby and cloying and will not refresh the palate.   Such wines will not be perceived as quality wines by the taster.

Over the course of future blog posts I will be examining the components of the balance equation in greater detail in order to provide the reader with an understanding of the factors that the winemaker has to consider in his/her quest for balance, one of the key measures of a quality wine.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bodegas R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia: A Rioja tradition

I will be hosting a vintage Rioja tasting at the Bull and Bear in Orlando's Waldorf Astoria in early March and will post a blog about the event shortly thereafter.  In the period leading up to the tasting, I will be publishing posts on the region and the estates (Marques de Riscal, R. Lopez de Heredia, La Rioja Alta, Faustino I, Vina Valoria, Bodegas Muga, Castillo Ygay, Marques de Caceres, Bodegas Montecilo, CVNE) whose wines will be included in the event.  Previous posts have covered the region and its grape varieties.  This post explores the Lopez de Heredia estate.

Source: lopezdeheredia.com
R. Lopez de Heredia was founded over 135 years ago by Don Rafael Lopéz de Heredia y Landeta who was known as "a knowledgeable and enthusiastic student in the art of winemaking."  The estate falls squarely into the "traditionalist" camp and has forged and maintained a reputation for high-quality wines through its focus on vineyard care, rigorous grape selection, and oak-barrel ageing.  It is the only estate to have been awarded a Diploma of Guarantee by the Rioja DOC regulatory authority as recognition for never having used non-estate grapes in its wines.

Grapes for the estate's wines are grown in four separate vineyards, each of which is dedicated to a specific label.  The particulars of the vineyards are presented in the table below.

Lopez de Heredia Vineyards

Grapes are hand-harvested by families of harvesters from Portugal and Spain and are taken to the winery in tractor-drawn trailers.  At the winery they are placed in de-stemming machines before moving to fermentation containers.  The red wines ferment on the skins while the white have no skin contact.  Rosés macerate but are removed from skin contact prior to fermentation.  The must is fermented in large oak vats: 60 hectoliters for whites and 240 hectoliters for the reds. 

Red wine fermentation at Lopez de Heredia is a two-step process.  The first phase lasts for seven days and includes pumping-over.  At the end of this phase the must is drained off the remaining solids.  The second fermentation (5-6 months) takes place in Bordeaux-type oak barrels and has as its goal the removal of residual sugar.

After fermentation the wines are aged in 225-liter oak barrels.  The wine is exposed to a slow oxygenation process, facilitated by the pores in the wood, and are racked once or twice a year during the ageing process.

The population of the Bodegas' wines are presented in the table below.   Data from the most recent vintage of each label is used to present a representative picture.  The table indicates that Lopez de Heredia is a producer os some significance and that the production of Viña Tondonia dwarfs that of all the other labels combined.

As Thomas Matthews stated in the Wine Spectator, "The wines of R. Lopez de Heredia define traditional Rioja and they set the standards by which the region's modern reds must be judged.  The white Gran Reservas have few parallels in the world of wine ... they are unique, complex and alluring."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

So you want to sell wine to a Sommelier, huh?

Last Friday night I was trolling around the GuildSomm website when I encountered a discussion topic titled "How to sell to a Somm."  By the time I encountered the discussion, there had been 42 posts containing, in my view, a wealth of information on key marketing success factors for account managers who sell to sommeliers.  The participants in the discussion were primarily working sommeliers with four or five appearing to be on the distribution side of the business. As an exercise I aggregated and categorized the responses and I will share my analysis with you in this post.

The steps in developing a classical account management strategy is to first do a needs assessment, then follow up with an assessment of your organization's skills and capabilities vis a vis those needs and, finally, to deliver a solution that meets the identified customer needs. In that classical schema, all of the information provided in the discussion on the GuildSomm site would fall into the customer needs category.

But even within the "user-needs" area, there are further subsets; as I found out while reviewing the data.  Based on what the data were telling me, I allocated the responses into the following user-need categories:

  • Know us (know me, know our business, know our market)
  • Know your product
  • Good business practices
In the Know Us category, the responses were as follows:
  1. Map offerings to our menu       18 mentions
  2. Read your customer                    3 mentions
  3. Track order history/trends           2 mentions
  4. No junk wine                              1 mentions
In this category the Sommeliers are asking that the salesperson demonstrate knowledge of the account, its business, and the Somm sitting across the table from them.  One respondent said that if she were to become a salesperson tomorrow, she would go to every one of her customers and take their menus and use them as guides for product presentation.  Further, do not bring a $10 bottle of wine if the establishment projects an exclusive image and do not bring a wine that the customer will encounter in a nearby supermarket.

In the Know your product category, the responses were as follows:
  1. Speak confidently about the wines that you are selling    14 mentions
  2. Communicate the story behind the wine                            6 mentions
  3. No scores or reviews                                                         4 mentions
  4. Do not wear fragrances                                                     1 mention
  5. Wines at proper temperature                                              1 mention
A consistent refrain was that a Somm on the floor is expected to know his/her wines and they expect a salesperson to be similarly equipped.  The salesperson should know whether the wine is a blend or not, the varieties in the blend, the region, and, especially, the story behind the wine.  The story is especially beneficial in aiding the Somm in his/her sell cycle with the end user.  A salesperson who knows the wine does not have to stoop to citing scores and expert reviews, a practice looked upon with disdain by the discussion participants.

In the Good business practice category, the responses were as follows:
  1. Show up on time for appointments          14 mentions
  2. Make an appointment                                6 mentions
  3. Service                                                       3 mentions
  4. Proper attire                                                2 mentions
  5. In and Out                                                  2 mentions
  6. Know how to open a wine bottle                1 mention
  7. No hard sell                                                1 mention
  8. Check product before tasting                      1 mention
  9. Honesty                                                      1 mention
All of the responses are self-explanatory with the exception of service.  The sommeliers want to know ahead of time when vintage changes are going to happen, when deals are in the offing -- especially for by-the-glass offers -- and product should be delivered when promised.

Looking over the three categories, it seems that sommeliers are most concerned that sales people: present wines that are relevant to their menus; speak confidently about the wines that they are presenting; show up on time for made appointments; and know and tell the stories behind the wines.

The needs, as expressed by the sommeliers, match up very well with the selling strategy of Liz Willette of Grand Cru Selections as described in her 12/16/2011 post on Crushpad.  Liz worked for many years as a Somm before getting into the distribution side of the business with her own firm, Willette Wines, which she eventually merged with Grand Cru Selections.  Liz exhorts the account manager to:

  • Bring great wines
  • Be passionate about the wines you are selling
  • Tell the story behind the wine
  • Bring wines that complement the food that the restaurant sells
  • Research the restaurant's menu and wine list before you solicit
  • Turn the sommeliers on to new things
  • Build relationships.

So you want to sell wine to a sommelier, huh?  Well the foregoing provides some tools.  If you are not currently calling on Somms, the material provided above could serve as the needs assessment input for your account management strategy.  If you are currently calling on Somms, the material could be used to fine tune your approach.

Happy selling.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Inside the Fredrick Wildman and Sons new Greek wine portfolio

Fredrick Wildman and Sons, an old-line New York fine wine importer, has worked with @elloinos, an Athens-based Greek wine promoter, to develop a portfolio of Greek wines for the US market.  Fredrick Wildman introduced these wines to the market in a tasting held at the Landmarc restaurant in New York City on February 1, 2012.  According to Wildman, the producers around whose wines the portfolio is built "... provide eight distinct new voices in the world of Greek wine: from organic boutique upstarts, venerated houses, and vin natural producers, these vintners share common goal(s) in the quality and care they put forth." I have summarized the offerings in the table below.

(i) CS = Cabernet Sauvignon; (ii) Floara di Munti Brut is the sparkling offering

As the list shows, the portfolio consists of 26 wines from nine producers (the Rossiu di Munte Collection is a label from Katogi Averoff).  There are no distinct patterns in the list in terms of the age of the wineries.  The oldest is Koutsoyiannopoulos which was founded in the late 19th century while two of the wineries (Zafeirakis and Nerantzi) were founded within the past decade.  Of the remaining, three were founded in the 1990s, one in the 1980s, and one in the 1950s.  The average size of the vineyards for which data are available is 10.6 hectares.  As can be seen in the figure below, the estates are fairly widely distributed across the Greek wine regions.

Katogi Averoff contributes the highest percentage (30.7%) of the wines to the portfolio while Koutsoyiannopoulos and Troupis both contribute a single wine (3.8%) each.  Seventy-three percent of the portfolio is red wine, 23% is white, and there is a single sparkling wine.  Of the 19 reds, five are blends and the most important varietal, blend or standalone, is Agiorgitiko.  The international varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are represented in the portfolio both as monovarietals and as components in a blend.  With the exception of one case, the white wines are monovarietal and disparate.

Overall, the quality of the portfolio is very high.  I was particularly impressed with the saline citrus minerality of the Assyrtiko, the story and storied wines of Domaine Economou, the surpringly balanced Syrah of Domaine Nerantzi, the complexity of the Katogi Averoff Red blend, and the expressiveness of the Christos Kokkalis wines.  I found the sparkling wine from the Rossiu di Munte Collection wanting (whack-a-mole bubbles, limited persistence) and cannot see a clear path to success in the US market for this offering.

With the exception of three of the offerings, the wines were all poured by the estate owners/winemakers and they were all pleased and excited to be representing their estates and Greek wine on this stage.  I had extended conversations with Yiannis Economou (Domaine Economou), the brother of Christos Zafeirakis (Domaine Zafeirakis), and Eva Nerantzi (Domaine Nerantzi) and they were all highly enthusiastic about their products as well as the opportunity.  Yiannis particularly impressed me with his dedication to his principles of production and the aging of his wines and his wines reflect those principles.  Eva has an Oenology degree from the University of Dijon in France but utilizes her learnings within the guiding principles of the estate that her father built.

Kudos to @elloinos for putting together a great portfolio and to Fredrick Wildman for choosing the right man for the job.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Genesis of the Fredrick Wildman and Sons Greek wine portfolio

Having arrived at the conclusion that @elloinos is one of the most passionate and informed of the Greek-wine-focused bloggers -- as well as being similarly interested in, and concerned about, the impacts of the current financial crisis on the broader Greece, and, more narrowly, its wine industry -- it was a no-brainer for me to respond affirmatively when he announced that he was going to be in the US in the January-February timeframe and would be interested in meeting some of his twitter friends at that time.  After some DMing and emailing, I came to understand that @elloinos had put together a portfolio of Greek wines for Fredrick Wildman and was coming to the US for the public introduction of same.  I was subsequently invited by @elloinos to attend the New York event.

@elloinos is the Twitter handle of Markus Stolz, a German native currently residing in Athens and working on connecting Greek wine producers with importers from other markets.  A key tool in his arsenal is elloinos.com "... a hub for producers, merchants, and consumers ..." which provides insight into Greek wines and Greek wine production.

@elloinos expounding on his favorite topic at the Landmarc

In a January 2012 post on his blog, Markus expressed his excitement at being chosen by Wildman to assist them in their Greek-wine-importing initiative (This project hits the sweet spot of the elloinos mission which is to get Greek wines into the hands of international consumers through linkups with importers.).

Fredrick Wildman and Sons had its beginning shortly after the end of Prohibition when the namesake owner bought a wine and fine food importer called Bellows and Company. Shortly after the purchase, Mr. Wildman travelled to Europe and signed up a number of leading wine estates to have their products distributed in the US through his company. The name Fredrick Wildman and Sons came into being in 1952 when Mr. Wildman formed a company of that name to fill the void created when National Distillers left the fine wine business.  Wildman became a subsidiary of Hiram Walker in 1989 but was sold in 1993 to an investment group comprised of the Wildman CEO (Richard Cacciato) and six of its leading suppliers.

In my conversation with him, Markus indicated that he had been approached by Wildman to assist them in assembling a new Greek wine portfolio.  He put together samples and shipped them off to New York and within two weeks of the samples' arrival in NY, Wildman staffers were in Greece to meet the winemakers, taste the wines in-country, and explore the opportunities for business relationships.  The tasting at the Landmarc signaled the end of the selection/portfolio-building stage and the launch of the marketing/selling phase of the initiative.

I will explore the portfolio in a subsequent post.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Elements of the blend: A key Rioja critical success factor

The wines from Rioja, known and respected by wine drinkers around the world, owe their prominence to three factors: the terroir (covered in a previous post on this blog); its affinity for, and interaction with, oak (covered by Andrew Jefford in the January 2012 issue of Decanter); and the grape varieties that are included in the -- mostly -- blended wines.  I will close the loop by reporting on the Rioja varietals in this post.  I will begin with the grapes used in red Rioja wines.

Source: vibrantrioja.com


The varieties approved for inclusion in Rioja wines are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano; of these, Tempranillo is by far the most important component of the blend.  Tempranillo is the primary red grape in Spain with significant plantings in Rioja and Ribera del Duero (where it is known as Tinto Fino and Tinto del Pais).  In other regions of Spain, Tempranillo is known as Aragon, Cencibel, Extramadura, Valdepenàs, Tinta del Toro, Jancivera, Ull de Llebre, or Ojo de Liebre.  In the Douro region of Portugal, Tempranillo, under the name Tinta Roriz, is used as a key varietal in Port blends.  Staying in Portugal, the varietal is called Aragonez in Alentejo.

Source: korbrandwineandspirits.com

Tempranillo -- the name translates to "little early one" -- is an early-ripening, cool-climate-craving varietal that exhibits high vigor and low resistance to vine diseases (Its high vigor necessitates pruning in order to ensure that adequate resources are devoted to high-quality fruit production.).  The grape is low in sugar and acidity, high in pH and tannins, and tends towards undesirable characteristics in warmer climes.  This varietal has traditionally been bush-vine trained but some of the more modernist winemakers have been placing the vines "on the rack."

Tempranillo is authorized in 28 Spanish apellations and is the principal varietal in 12.  In Rioja, 31,000 hectares (57% of the appellations' plantings) are devoted to Tempranillo.  The varietal contributes spicy red fruit flavors and aromas, along with an herbaceousness and good minerality, to the blend.


Garnacha (Grenache, Garnacha Tinta) is planted on 10,148 hectares in Rioja (21% of the grapes grown in the appellation) and is the most extensively grown red variety in the world: 330,000 hectares, 240,000 of which is in Spain.  This varietal's repute stems from its inclusion in stellar wines form Rioja, Priorat, Languedoc, and Southern Rhone.

Source: clinecellars.com

Grenache is a hardy, pest- and disease-resisitant varietal which generally is the backbone of red blends but, in some cases, old vines in Priorat, for example, is bottled asa varietal.  The grape yields full-bodied, high-alcohol, low-acid, low-tannin wines in warm climes but is well-balanced in colder regions.  The varietal needs a long season to ripen and the resultant wines are light in color with rich peppery red fruit and cinnamon notes.


Mazuelo (also known as Carignan, Cariñena, Tinto Mazuelo, Crujillon, and Samsó, among others) is the third most planted varietal in Spain and, at 1543 hectares, represents 3% of the plantings in the Rioja DOC.  Worldwide, the grape is planted on 22,000 hectares, 207,000 of which is in France, its country of origin.  The varietal is both tannic and acid and, thanks to late budding and ripening, requires a long growing season in order to ripen.  Mazuelo adds structure and longevity to Rioja reds as well as, according to lopezheredia.com, "... a fine, sparkling, ruby-red color, and a freshness, vigor, and personality which characterize the best table wines."


Graciano is planted to 198 hectares in Rioja, a paltry 0.4% of the DOCs plantings and a reflection of the varietal's contribution to the blend.  The varietal is called Morrastel in France, its country of origin. It is the most aromatic of the Rioja varieties and contributes tobacco and licorice notes, along with acidity, to the blend.  Graciano is very resistant to pests and vineyard diseases.


White Rioja wines are either a blend of Viura, Malvasia, and Garnacha Blanca or are 100% Viura.  Viura is best known for its floral aromas as is the Malvasia which adds structure and grapefruit flavor to the blend.  Garnacha Blanc adds aromas of sweet honeysuckle and apricot to the blend.  Rioja whites are fermented either in stainless steel or oak containers and are also subject to traditional and modernist interpretations.