Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Assyrtiko seminar presented by Wines from Santorini

Santorini's wines and winemakers were effectively showcased at a March 22nd seminar and walk-around tasting arranged by Wines from Santorini and held at the Gansevoort Park Avenue Hotel in New York City.  I have previously written a post on the Santorini wine region in preparation for this event. This post focuses on the seminar that preceded the more broadly targeted walk-around tasting.

The seminar was scheduled for 11:30 am.  I arrived in the hotel lobby shortly before that time and, after a few missteps, found my way to the side elevator that would take me up to the floor on which the seminar was being held.  The elevator opened onto a narrow hallway with the seminar sign-up desk in that hallway to the left of the elevator door.  Further down the hallway, the white tablecloths and glasses signaled the room in which the seminar would be held.  After signing in I was told that preparations were still underway and was directed to the right to wait in the hotel's rooftop bar.  We were finally summoned to the seminar room at 11:45 am.

The room ran east to west and was furnished with 10 to 12 rows of long tables, each set with places for six tasters.  On the eastern side of the room, there was a raised platform which faced out to the room and on which were six name tags and a number of bottles of wines.  This was clearly the seating for the seminar panelists.  I estimate that between 40 and 45 non-panelists attended the seminar.

In its invitation email, Wines from Santorini had indicated that Jordan MacKay would be the panel leader.  The panel members, and a few salient points about each, are presented in the table below.

Sofia Perpera provided opening remarks from her position on the podium.  This event, according to Sofia, was part of a 3-year program to (i) increase the public's awareness of PDO wines from Santorini; (ii) establish Assyrtiko as one of the top wines in the world; and, ultimately, (iii) to encourage the grape growers in Santorini to farm this grape given all the challenges (wind, encroachment of the tourist industry, etc.) that they face.  Sofia illustrated the plight of the farmer with the following statistic: in the 1800s, Santorini had 4000 ha under vine; that number had slipped to 2500 ha in the 1980s and stands at 1200 ha today.  Rather than viewing tourism solely as a threat to the farmer, Sofia believes that it can be a savior for the vineyards by the tourists spreading the word of the culture after returning to their homelands.  At the conclusion of her remarks Sofia introduced the panelists and the winemakers present in the room and then turned the microphone over to panel leader Jordan MacKay.

Jordan MacKay, in his opening bit, said that he finds the wines from Santorini striking  and then proceeded with a presentation on the history of the islands, the location of the wine-growing areas, soil characteristics, climate, and viticulture.  He closed by doubling down on his opening statement: Assyrtiko was now characterized as one of the most singular and distinctive wines in the world.  And with that he proceeded to the tasting phase of the seminar.

The tasting design called for three flights of four wines each with the first two flights being dry whites and the final flight focused on Vinsanto.  The dry white flights had been poured prior to our entry in the room.  In an attempt to display the food-friendliness of the wines, a plate of small bites was provided for the taster to sample along with the wine if he/she so desired.  The entire flight was tasted and then the panel and audience members debated the merits.

Flight 1

The wines in this flight were tasted in the following order:
2011 Gavalas Santorini
2011 Hatzidakis Santorini
2010 Karamolegos Santorini
2009 Sigalas Kavaliero

All of the above wines are 100% Assyrtiko and had alcohol levels that fell between 13% and 14%.  The 2011 Gavalas Santorini had citrus, steel, zest, florality, beer and minerality  on the nose and searing acidity, florality, and metal on the palate.  This wine had a long, searing finish.  The 2011 Hatzidakis Santorini exhibited minerality, hints of florality, and citrus on the nose.  On the palate, razor-edged acidity, coating minerality, and a white pepper spiciness.  The 2010 Karamolegos Santorini was more expansive on the nose than the preceding two wines with notes of burnt citrus skin.  Broader on the palate with lower acidity and fuller body.  Citrus zest, salinity, spiciness, and a hint of bramble.  Long finish.  The 2009 Sigalas Kavaliero was the only single-vineyard wine in the tasting.  Salinity and citrus. Full mouthfeel with a long finish.

Paul Grieco, in remarking on this flight, noted the searing acidity and lack of sameness.  He initially thought that the Karamolegos had seen oak but saw that that was not the the case.

Sofia noted that 2011 had been a great vintage in Santorini because of the frequency of winds during the summer and that was good for the vines because these winds are their only source of moisture.  She felt that 2011 was a year with added dimension.  For example, it was one of the most aromatic vintages ever.  One of the other panelists noted that the minerality of these wines was like brimstone; it was intense but the wines still had great balance.

Michael Madrigale found the Sigalas to be rich and expressed a preference for having these wines with food.  Grieco thought that the wines would be a great match for salads.  Jordan thought that they would match well with olives, sharp feta cheese, onions, and capers.  The wines could be aperitifs but they scream out for food.  Someone from the audience suggested lamb with lemons.

Tom Pastuszak remarked on the intense saline minerality of the wines while Madrigale commented on the complex aromas of wines 2 and 3.  Wine 2 had bitter herb and mustard grain aromas while wine 3 had asphalt and exhaust aromas.  Sofia commented that this, the modern style of Santorini wines, came into being after the 1980s.  Prior to that time, the style had been more oxidative.

Flight 2

The wines in this flight were tasted as follows:

2009 Estate Argyros
2010 Santowines Nykteri
2011 Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment
2007 Boutari Kallisti Reserve

All of the wines of this flight are 100% Assyrtiko and all have seen oak.  The 2009 Estate Argyros has been 20% fermented in new French oak.  On the nose, oak and toasted wood.  On the palate searing acidity flattened out by the oak, minerality, salinity, creme brûlée with burnt sugar.  Alcohol on this wine is 13%.  The 2010 Santowines Nykteri was aged for 3 months in new French oak.  On the nose oak, baking spices, vanilla.  Weighty on the palate with burnt orange, smoke, and a creamy richness.  The 2011 Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment was fermented using wild yeast with 50% of the fermentation carried out in stainless steel tanks.  Aged in barrel for 5 months.  On the nose: smoke, dill, baking spices, and burnt citrus.  Searing acidity.  Saline and some oak tannins.  The most floral of the wines in this flight.  A slight vegetal note. Spicy.  The 2007 Boutari Kallisti Reserve was fermented in oak and then aged for 7 months in French oak.  Evidence of oxidation.  Sherry-like.  Burnt orange peel and peppery.  Hotter than the other wines in this flight.

Paul Grieco opened up the panel comments by saying that he saw no uniqueness in these wines and, further, that he would prefer to speak to a winemaker than a lumber merchant (That was truly funny and quite characteristic of Grieco's acerbic wit.).  Madrigale jumped to the flight's defense with the comment that oak can help Assyrtiko to work with food by softening its sharp edges and by broadening the types of food with which it could be paired.

Flight 3

The wines in this flight were tasted as follows:

2006 Roussos Vinsanto
2004 Santowines Vinsanto
2000 Koutsoyiannopoulos Vinsanto
1989 Argyros Vinsanto

The 2006 Roussos Vinsanto is a blend of 65% Assyrtiko, 15% Aidani, and 15% Athiri.  It has 180 g/l of residual sugar and 11.5% abv.  On the nose honey, figs, molasses, oxidation, and burnt citrus.  On the palate great balance between acidity and sugar.  The 2004 Santowines Vinsanto is a blend of 80% Assyrtiko and 20% Aidani with 238 g/l of residual sugar and 10.9% abv.  Piney oak note.  Phenolic. Honey.  On the palate weighty, thick, rich. Long, balanced finish.  The 2000 Koutsoyiannopoulos Vinsanto is 60% Assyrtiko and 40% Aidani with residual sugar of 280 g/l and 13% abv.  This wine had the deepest color of all the wines in this flight.  Heavy and thick with figs, dates, cough syrup and almonds on the nose. Unbalanced.  The final wine of the flight and of the seminar was the 1989 Argyros Vinsanto.  This wine is a blend of 80% Assyrtiko, 10% Aidani, and 10% Athiri and has residual sugar of 240 g/l and 10% abv.  On the nose green bark, pine, dill, syrupy, honey, and creme caramel.  On the palate thick, rich and smooth with a smooth, long finish.


At this time the seminar was brought to a close so that the walk-around tasting could begin on time.  The tasting phase of the seminar had been somewhat unbalanced with the first flight getting significantly more discussion time than did the final flight but that might have been predicted given human nature. All in all it was a very revealing and informative seminar which accomplished the task of showcasing the wines and educating the attendees about the region.  I think that the organizers did a great job of panel selection by building a panel of young, hip sommeliers with out-of-the-box perspectives balanced by significant wine-related accomplishments.

Paul Grieco made a comment that people who really appreciate wine are at heart acid hounds.  And I agree with him.  For an acid hound, Assyrtiko hits a sweet spot.  For me it aligns with a Margaret River Chardonnay, a Chablis, or a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc.  It does not have similar characteristics to those wines -- they are each unique in their own way -- but it possesses the aura of greatness that surrounds them all.  I am not similarly disposed to the Nykteri style of Assyrtiko, but that is a personal choice. To me the oak alters the trajectory of the natural acidity and softens up the wine.

The Vinsanto is sublime.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Visit to Seavey Vineyard, St Helena, CA

Getting to Seavey Vineyards requires traveling up the winding Howell Mountain Road from its origin point of Silverado Trail in St. Helena and continuing on Conn Valley Road where the two intersect before finally arriving at an unobtrusive sign on the left side of the road heralding your arrival at the estate.  On the day of my visit it was pouring incessantly so the drive had been challenging.  But I was undeterred.  I dashed out of my car, dodging raindrops, and scurried into one of the small stone buildings that stood in a group to my left.  I was here and excited to hear the story of one of my favorite California Cabernets.

Seavey Vineyards (Source:
My meeting started out with Alex Kajani, Director of Sales and Marketing and we were joined along the way by Arthur Seavey, General Manager, and Jim Duane, Winemaker.

Seavey Vineyards is a 200-acre estate, 38 acres of which is planted to vine.  The land was initially part of  a 143-acre parcel bought by Charles Volper, a Swiss immigrant, who planted vines on the hillsides and grazed dairy cattle on the lower elevations.  In 1881 Volper entered into a partnership with a Frenchman named Georges Crochet.  The venture -- the Franco-Swiss Farming Company -- controlled 300 acres which were dedicated to dairy and vines.  Both partners died in 1892 and the Volper estate sold his land to a horse and cattle ranching concern.  William and Mary Seavey purchased the Volper parcel in 1979, almost 100 years after Volper's initial purchase.

The Seavey's had purchased the land as a country estate and, towards that end, had razed the structure (retaining only the wall displayed on the wine label today) and built a new one in 1980.  After learning a little more about its history, William Seavey had soil tests conducted at various locations around the property to determine whether it retained any vineyard viability.  The test results were positive and the Seaveys contracted Roy Raymond Jr., to plant and manage the planned vineyards with an associated agreement to sell the grape production to Raymond Vineyards.  Seavey became a bonded winery in 1981, the same year in which the first Chardonnay vines were planted.  Cabernet Sauvignon was first planted in 1983, followed shortly after by Merlot and Petit Verdot.

At the end of the 1980s the Seaveys terminated their contract with Raymond Vineyards and began producing for their own book.  The first Seavey wines were a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon released in 1990.  The first Merlot wine was released in 1994.  The estate eventually decided to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and tore out most of the Chardonnay vines, replacing them with Cabernet Sauvignon.  The estate has gone from 15 acres of Chardonnay to 1 acre whch: is the coolest part of the property; is an area that is surrounded by trees; yields high-acid, high-mineral, high-fruit-character berries.

The soil is comprised of rock, clay, and sandy loam and is very shallow. Vines grow slowly in this environment and produce small berries with concentrated flavors and structured tannins.  For example, it could take as much as 7 years to get usable grapes from newly planted vines.  Some of the vineyard blocks planted in 2000 are now beginning to produce Seavey-quality grapes.  The estate has retained the boulders on the property and, in some places, this results in what the winemaker calls "vines in rocks."

Seavey Vineyards is cooler than is St. Helena when it is cold and is warm during the heat of the day.  There is a 35-degree temperature differential between daytime and nighttime temperatures, a situation that promotes ripening with acid retention. 

Vines are planted on south- and west-facing slopes in 19 blocks, three of which are Petit Verdot, four Merlot, two Chardonnay, and 10 Cabernet Sauvignon.  In the cases where vines are being replaced, the estate is striving for greater density (2100 vines/acre).  Replantings are done with commercial cuttings from familiar clones certified to be virus-free.

The winemaking team is comprised of Jim Duane as Winemaker and Philippe Melka as Consultant Winemaker.  The goal, according to Jim, is to make the best Cabernet that they can.  The wine should be distinctly Cabernet; it should be out of the green character and should display some ripe fruit.  To attain this goal grapes are picked on phenolic ripeness as exhibited in grape texture.  Seavey's key quality drivers are, according to Jim:
  • The number of buds left on each spur (balancing between vigor and fruit)
  • Irrigating in July
  • Opening up the canopy (allow light and air to the fruit)
  • Green drop when necessary.
Blocks are harvested, based on a priority schema, by teams consisting of 50% Seavey staffers and 50% contractors.  The teams begin picking at 4:00 am and grapes are at the winery by 8:00 am.  First-level selection is performed by the pickers in the field.

A second level of selection is employed with the use of a vibrating table in the winery.  The berries that fall into the hopper are placed into the top of the fermenter by fork lift for whole-berry, lot-specific fermentation.  In order to "tame the tannins," the berries are subjected to a 3- or 4-day cold soak at 50 degrees.  Anthocyanins and some skin tannin are harvested during the cold soak and some native yeast fermentation takes place.  At the conclusion of the cold soak the contents of the tank are innoculated with commercial yeasts and alcoholic fermentation occurs over the next 7 to 14 days.  Skin contact is ensured through a mix of punching down and pumping over.  There is a 14 to 35 day post-fermentation maceration.

Seavey wines are not filtered or fined.  Malolactic fermentation occurs in barrels (thin-staved, 50% new French oak) where the wines spend a total of 18 months.  The wines are racked (up to four times in year 1, one to two times in year 2) for clarification.

The company produces 900 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon (475 in 2008, a low-crop vintage in Napa), 500 cases of Caravina, and 200 cases of Merlot annually and sells 65% to 75% of its production direct.  Fifteen to 30% of the annual production is assigned to the winery's library program and 50% of that total is normally sold from the library within three years of production.  Winery policy calls for library availability of a vintage over its viable life.

During this visit I tasted the 2008 vintage of the Seavey red wines.  The estate wine is a blend of 90.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9.5% Petit Verdot.  According to the winemaker, they have always done well with Petit Verdot. They normally add between 2% to 15% (average 9%) to the wine for spice, florality, and red fruit.  It is unique and special to their blend of Cabernet Sauvignon.  This wine exhibited black fruits and cassis, concentration, and good acidity.  The Merlot was layered with a soft creaminess, soft tannins, and with just a little drying on the finish.  The Caravina, first released in 1999, is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and is designed to be an earlier-drinking wine. This wine exhibited a blue florality, a duskiness, a good round mouthfeel with a hint of metal, sturdy acidity, and a good, long finish.

I have number of vintages of the Seavey Estate Cab in my cellar and this visit only leads me to question myself as to why I have so few.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Monday, March 26, 2012

Flavornet: A comprehensive source of wine aroma descriptors

Flavornet is a data base of aroma compounds documented as being detectable by humans.  In an Introduction to Flavornet, Terry Acree and Heinrich Ahn state that approximately 1000 odorants (any substance capable of stimulating the sense of smell -- Medical Dictionary) are responsible for the "seemingly infinite number of perceptions" that result from these aroma compounds binding to olfactory receptor neurons.  This binding results in the creation of a profile in the brain -- if a first time encounter -- or a recognition profile -- if a repeat sensation.

To be included in Flavornet, "an odorant must have been detected in a natural product or real environment." The data base currently contains 738 entries.

The data base is entered by clicking on the Enter Flavornet button at the top right-hand corner of the home page.  A total of six options are presented at the top of the page yielded by the click, the most relevant to the wine taster, in my opinion, being Odors and Odor Classes.  The Odors view of the data base is an alphabetic listing of the odors along with their associated scientific names.  The Odor-Classes view provides a selectable, alphabetical list of Odor Classes where a selected class yields, in turn, all of the odors in that class plus the scientific name associated with each odor.  So, for example, the Odor Class "Animal" is an umbrella for 14 odors including cat, rancid, roast, etc.

If you are constantly on the lookout for descriptors to use in your tasting notes, Flavornet could prove to be a very useful resource.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ribera del Duero wine region

Ribera del Duero is one of nine PDOs and three GIs located in the nine provinces that constitute the the autonomous community of Castilla y Leon in noth central Spain.  About 90 minutes north of Madrid, the region runs along the banks of the Duero for 150 km (and to a width of 35 km) enmeshing 100 villages and four provinces in its web.

Source: Consejo Regulador Ribera del Duero

The Ribera del Duero's climate is distinctly continental with bitter winters and hot summers the order of the day. Rainfall, at an annual average of 450mm, is low.  There is significant diurnal temperature variation given the high elevation (700-1000 m) at which the region lies.
The soil consists of layers of silt, sand, and clay alternating with layers of chalky limestone.  According to the Consejo Regulador, most of the soils near the river are a mix of sandy sediment, marl, and alluvial rocks (Campiñas) while vineyards at higher elevations experience a much higher content of chalky limestone and clay (Laderas).  The soils above the Laderas (Cuestas) are harder to work while the soils above them (Páramos) are too exposed to be worked.  The soils distribution is graphically illustrated in the figure below.

Approximately 20,000 ha of vineyards are planted by 270 farmers.

Ribera del Duero was awarded Denominacion de Origen designation in 1982 (now a PDO) and is noted for its reds made mainly from Tinto Fino (also called Tinto del Pais locally), a Tempranillo clone, with varying levels of contribution from Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha, Merlot, and Malbec.  The wines, which must be at least 75% Tinto Fino, are characterized by "... a soft 'summer-fruit' characteristic and crisp, green tannins" and has been described as "concentrated, intense, bright with color and fruit, and high in alcohol." The red wines must have a minimum alcohol level of 11.5%.

In addition to the reds, some rosé and white wines are produced in the region.  The rosé is fermented without the skin and has a pink strawberry tone, fruity aromas, freshness, and pleasing acidity.  The rosé wines must have a minimum alcohol level of 11%.  The white wine is consumed locally.

The regulatory body oversees all elements of wine production in Ribera del Duero in order to ensure that the quality of the region is upheld.  For example: (i) the DO conducts instrument tests in order to make a determination and communicate to the growers as to when harvest can begin; (ii) samples from each lot grown on a farm is subjected to instrumentation, chemical, and biological analysis; and (iii) an estate's wines have to pass muster with a sanctioned tasting panel in order to be certified DO for that vintage.

Ribera del Duero wines are classified as follows:
  • Joven -- these wines spend less than 12 months in cask (could be zero)
  • Crianza -- these wines spend a minimum of 12 months in oak casks and cannot be sold until 2 years following the harvest date
  • Reserva -- these wines must spend 36 months in a combination of cask and bottle of which at least 12 months must be in cask.  Cannot be sold until 3 years following the harvest
  • Gran Reserva -- these are wines of exceptional quality which have spent a minimum of 60 months aging of which a minimum 24 must be in cask and 36 in bottle.  This wine cannot be sold until 5 years after the harvest date.
A more recent unofficial addition to the classification scheme is the Barric/Roble wine which spends a minimum of 4 months in oak barrel giving sweet tannins to an early drinking wine.

The traditional style of Ribera del Duero, as indicated by the wines of Vega Sicilia, called for lengthy aging in neutral oak prior to release.  This style was contravened with the introduction of Pesquera in the 1980s and, moreso, Pingus in the 1990s.  These new-style wines are aged in newer oak barrels, have higher alcohol levels and bolder flavors, and are released upon bottling.  The quintessential traditional producer in Ribera del Duero is Vega Sicilia but it has responded to the modern style by producing its own version called Alion.  Other modernist producers include the aforementioned Pingus and Tinto Pesquera as well as Bodegas Aalto, Emilio Moro, and Condado de Haza.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Santorini Wine Region

Wines from Santorini, the organization tasked with promoting the region's wines, is hosting an associated seminar and trade tasting at the Gansevoort Park Avenue Hotel in New York on March 22 (2012).  I will be in attendance at both elements of the program and will be reporting my findings on this blog at sometime in the near future.  In the meantime, following is an overview of the Santorini wine region.

Santorini is a 73-square-kilometer archipelago of islands which are the remnants of an ancient volcanic eruption that blew apart their common progenitor, leaving the behind the imposing caldera (Thira) and a number of smaller islands.  The islands, the southernmost landmass in the Cyclades chain,  lies 113 km to the north of Crete, the largest and most populous of the Greek isles and itself famed for its ancient Minoan society.

Greek Wine Regions. Source:

Santorini is one of the European Union's protected designation of origin (PDO; a geographic area used to define a specific quality wine; a European-wide designation that replaced national AOC-type designations in the most recent revision of the European Wine Law) regions with PDOs for dry and sweet white wines.  The Santorini viticultural region is 1400 ha in size and runs from sea level up to elevations ranging between 150 and 250 meters.

Santorini has a temperate Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and mild winters.  Rain is in short supply except for a few short, sharp downpours during the winter months.  During the summer months, humidity falls to the ground in a rain-like fashion, a phenomenon that the locals call "pous" which loosely translates to "mist from the sea."  During the summer months a hot wind -- Livas -- dominates while north and northwest winds are the order of the day during fall and winter.

Santorini's soil is a testament to its violent past.  It is a combination of chalk and shale beneath volcanic deposits of ash, lava, and pumice littered with magnesium and ferrous rocks of varying size.  These rocks enrich the phylloxera-free soil with calcium, magnesium, and ferrous iron, the source of the minerality for which the region's wines are known.

In addition to the lack of moisture, another significant challenge to Santorini viticulturists is the stiff wind that buffets the island during the growing season and could damage the berries if they were exposed to the elements.  The solution that has been employed for eons is to (i) eschew vine density and (ii) train the vines such that they can afford protection to the otherwise vulnerable berries.  Vine canes are intertwined and trained into a circle and the berries grow within this protective cordon.  The circular structure can be positioned above ground or in a below-ground hollow where the top of the vine is parallel to the surface.


Santorini vines are, for the most part, in excess of 50 years old.  Vines are retained until the yield is almost zero or when the vine dies.  When the vine is no longer productive, it is replaced by a branch from a nearby vine which is buried to a depth of 30 cm into the soil.  After that branch has developed its own roots and has begun producing berries (a period of between 3-5 years) it is cut away from the tethering parent.

The table below shows the varieties that are currently used in Santorini wines.  Assyrtiko plantings account for 90% of the region's white wine varieties while Mandilaria accounts for 70% of the red varieties.

There are three PDO appellations in Santorini today: Santorini, Vinsanto, and Nykteri.  Santorini is a dry white wine blended from Assyrtiko (minimum 75%) with Aidani and Atheri added to round out Assyrtiko's lack of fruit and aroma.  This wine is bone dry with citrus and mineral notes.  Vinsanto is  sweet white made from Assyrtiko (minimum 50%), Aidani, and other indigenous varieties.  The grapes are sun-dried for between one and two weeks after harvesting before they are subjected to a long. slow fermentation followed by several years of bottle aging.  Nykteri is a dry white wine made from Assyrtiko (75%) Aidani, and Atheri.  The wine gets its name from the tradition of the grapes being picked at night in order to retain the delicate aromas.  Today the grapes are picked early in the morning and are preseed and fermented before nightfall.  The fermented wine must spend a minimum of three months in barrel. The final product has a semi-yellow color and notes of jasmine, citrus, pear, and vanilla.

A number of non-appellation wines are produced in Santorini:
  • Mezzo -- a Vinsanto variant with lower sugar levels
  • A dry red made from the Mandilaria grape
  • Brouska -- the grapes are aged for a number of days before being pressed and fermented on the skins.  This wine is barrel-aged.
Notable Santorini producers are Antoniou, Argiros, Hatzidakis, Sigalas, and Heliopoulos.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Monday, March 19, 2012

Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920

Andrew P. Haley's Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) is a tightly integrated, culturo-historical look at the late 19th century-early 20th century war of prominence between a previously non-existent middle class dining culture and the dominant elite dining culture of the day.  The book, which is based on the author's Ph.D thesis, assiduously covers the forces that led to the birth and evolution of the middle class dining culture - and the impact on its aristocratic counterpart -- from a historical perspective but is equally thorough in enumerating and analyzing the cultural issues (power, class, gender, agency, and cultural change, among others) that arose during the course of this confrontation.  As the author sees it, "... modern restaurant culture was the product of a clash between the upper and middle classes."

At the highest level, this is a simple and straightforward story, especially when viewed from the perspective of the book's Table of Contents: (i) The aristocrats possess and hold the high ground of culinary standard-setting; (ii) the fledgling middle class seeks to emulate, but fails miserably; (iii) the middle class counters by creating their own battlefield and, because of their numbers, they change the dynamics such that the middle ground they occupy now becomes the strategic locus; and (iv) the aristocrats, and their support structure, are isolated on their now rocky outcropping.  But it is the numerous threads within this overall narrative that the author plumbs so magnificently that makes this book as interesting and rewarding as it ultimately is.

According to the author, in the mid-19th century, the aristocratic class in the US began to assert its dominance through the establishment of dining norms (cuisine, rituals, consumption locale) and consumed conspicuously according to those norms.  The American aristocracy had begun traveling to Europe and sought to copy the culinary habits and practices of their European counterparts.  In order to gain the patronage of these aristocrats, US restaurants began catering exclusively to their needs to the exclusion of all other groups.  The cuisine demanded by the elite was French; the chefs were French; the food was expensive and dispensed in courses; there was a set order in which utensils were used; the head waiter determined the seating arrangements; women could not eat alone; and tipping was required to ensure a good seat and meal.

On the other side of the fence, so to speak, stood the "nascent" urban middle class: managers, bureaucrats, small-scale entrepreuners, and professionals who lived in the suburbs and commuted in to the city daily.  The members of this group sought to imitate the practices of the elite but found themselves unable to do so.  According to the author, "... the middle class rejected the elite restaurant not only because the ... restaurant was expensive and inaccessible but also because they found that the values they were coming to see as their own ... were manifestly not the values enshrined by the elite restaurant."  This state of affairs led the middle class to avoid the elite restaurants -- where they were not welcome anyway -- and to colonize available non-elite eating places and associated (in many cases ethnic) cuisines and, through group dynamics, forced those restaurants to develop a style of cuisine, service, and environment that was suited to their tastes.  The author refers to this as the "democratization of dining" and the creation of a "cosmopolitan" cuisine.

This democratization of dining had significant implications for the restaurant industry as ownership of middle-class-type restaurants increased from 13,000 in 1880 to 165,000 in 1930 while:
  • The bastions of elite cuisine (Delmonico's in NY, for example) fell by the wayside
  • There was a movement from the elite meal courses to the middle-class plate dinners
  • English-language menus replaced French-language menus in elite restaurants
  • Menus were broadly simplified
  • Middle class women won the right to dine unaccompanied in a restaurant
  • French cuisine went from a position of dominance to being just another ethnic cuisine
  • The elites lost their positon as cuisine standard setters and the middle class donned that mantle.
The author drew on period newspaper articles, restaurant menus, restaurant journals, and culinary magazines as source material for his thesis and this book. 

The battle for culinary prominence was fought on many fronts and the author chose to treat these topically, rather than temporally, resulting in a slightly disconcerting duplication of assertions and hypotheses from chapter to chapter.  At the end of the day, however, this may have been the only way to do justice to this expansive subject and it only minimally detracts from the excellence of the tome.

The battle for culinary prominence was not an end in and of itself, according to the author.  By acting as cultural change agents in the culinary sphere, the middle class gained the confidence to make consumer choices and launched the consumerism that came to be the hallmark of middle classdom.  If this is truly the case, then the culinary batlle was more than a seminal event; it would have been the gateway to an era.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Friday, March 16, 2012

Pairing Corned Beef and Cabbage with Wine

We are at the time of the year when it is Irish rising.  Everything is green and corned beef and cabbage and Guinness Stout rule the roost.  What do you do if you are a wine drinker and would like to enjoy a traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage but would like to pair it with your favorite beverage -- wine? You have ascended from the cultural backwater of beer swilling and you will not be dragged back to that arena -- even if beer/ale/stout is the best pairing for corned beef and cabbage.

Corned beef and cabbage provide a pairing nightmare for the wine lover in that (i) the corned beef is salty; (ii) the corned beef is fatty; (iii) vinegar and a number of spices are added to the boil; (iv) cabbage is added towards the end of the boil; and (v) cabbage adds sweetness from the vegetable but also adds some sulfurous properties.  Bill Garlough, owner of My Chef Catering, sees a solution as requiring sweetness to counter the saltiness in the beef and acidity to cut through the fat.

For white wine lovers, Bill recommends a Gewurtztraminer because it has hints of clove on the palate and meets the requirements of sweetness and acidity. He also sees a place for Pinot Gris which is drunk with sauerkraut in France and so should pair well with the cabbage. In addition to this traditional affinity with cabbage, Pinot Gris has adequate levels of sweetness and acidity. Joe Power ( bypasses these recommendations in favor of Sauvignon Blanc.  According to Joe, Sauvignon Blanc has the acidity to cut through the salt and fattiness of the corned beef and the flavor profile to pair well with cabbage.

Red wines provide even more of a pairing challenge.  Traditional reds like Cabernet Sauvignon have too much tannin while Pinot Noirs, while possessing the acidiy and sweetness, are too delicate for this robust meal. Joe recommends a French Cote du Rhone or Beaujolais, both of which posses adequate amounts of fruit, sweetness and acidity to meet the challenge.

I was very surprised that none of the publications that I researched for this article mentioned champagne as an option.  I have always been taught that champagne is the "universal solvent"  and that its hints of lemon, apple, hazelnut, and yeastiness allow it to go well with salty foods.

I went to a traditional Irish dinner at Tom D's house this afternoon and decided to take a sparkling wine along to test my theory. The sparkling was a NV Segura Viudas Cava Aria Brut .

"Its flavor is dominated by fresh pineapple, almonds, honey and straw, with hints of pears and fresh bread." This Spanish sparkling, listed on at $12, has done duty for me before and I have been very pleased with its feel and taste, especially when properly chilled. 

Tom had a full complement of boiled-to-perfection corned beef, late-addition cabbage, and boiled whole red potatoes.  I had opened the Cava previously and, after heaping my plate with the aforementioned goodies, I proceeded to spoon food into my mouth and follow with a healthy swig of wine.  A lot of the fat had been stripped from the corned beef before and during the cooking process so I did not have to contend with major fattiness.  The sparkling worked well in neutralizing the saltiness of the corned beef and enhancing its flavor but I am not sure that the cabbage and sparkling had a healthy interaction.  The texture of the cabbage did not allow thesparkling to integrate with the food in the mouth. It was like pouring water onto a duck's back.  The sparkling slid along the surface of the cabbage before making a beeline for the esophagus.

If you are a white wine drinker, stick to Gewurtz or Pinot Gris for your cabbage and corned beef dinner.  If you love red wines, go with a Cote du Rhone.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Available mechanisms for ameliorating tannin-associated wine imbalance

In a previous post on tannins and wine balance, I noted that too much tannin results in a wine that is heavy and rough on the palate and lacks finesse.  Further, if combined with high acidity, the wine will be astringent.  While low levels of tannin may result in an early drinking wine, it may compromise color stability, mouthfeel, and the aging potential of the wine.  This post looks at the tools available to the winemaker to increase/decrease tannin levels as desired.

Increasing Tannin Levels

Tannin levels can be elevated by manipulating aspects of the winemaking process to extract more tannin from a given batch or by adding exogenous tannin during the winemaking process.

The primary integral process for elevated tannin extraction is maceration.  The length of the maceration, and the controlling temperature, are two very important variables in determining tannin extraction levels.  The longer the duration, the higher the levels of tannin and anthocyanin extracted. The higher the temperature (within limits), the higher the tannin extraction rate.  With the higher levels of phenolic compounds that result from post-fermentation maceration, the greater the potential for phenolic polymerization and wines with a softer mouthfeel.

While maceration can be used to extract tannin from both skin and seed, warm processing is a method wherein a quick, hot fermentation is applied to allow extraction of tannin from the skin while minimizing seed contact.

Exogenous tannin addition can be oak (or like products) or powdered.  In the case of oak, the wine is either placed into oak barrels or oak powder, chips, or planks are placed into the container in which the wine resides (The role of oak tannin was discussed in the preceding post.).  Powdered tannin is the end product of mechanical action on grape seeds or various types of wood.  A recent study by Washington State Enologist Jim Harbertson and Australian Wine Researcher Mark Downey called the efficacy of the latter approach into question.  Their key findings were: (i) most of these additives are 12%-48% tannin and (ii) had limited or negative impact on wine quality.  They concluded that the addition of powdered tannin was an unnecessary expense.

Retarding Tannin Levels

"Cold soak" is a method that is utilized in the winery to extract anthocyanins from the grape skin while restricting the level of tannin extraction.  Anthocyanins are more soluble in grape juice than in alcohol so soaking the solids in the juice at 45℉, or lower, will retard the initiation of fermentation while allowing the extraction of color from the skin and limiting the tannin extract.

Fining is a method of clarifying or chemically stabilizing wine using agents that are insoluble in the liquid, have the ability to bind with suspended particles, and are heavy enough to fall to the bottom while retaining the attracted material.  Tannins have an affinity for proteins and protein fining agents such as gelatin, egg white, and isinglass are used to remove tannin from the wine in this manner.  The fined wine is racked off the bottom-resident particles.  Care has to be taken that the wine is not over-fined as the result may be wines that lack complexity, depth, and viscosity and have diminished aging potential.


In addition to raising or lowering tannin levels, tannin-associated wine imbalance can be addressed by actions taken in relation to the other elements of the balance equation.  For example, reducing the acidity levels in high-tannin, high-acid wines will reduce the level of astringency in the wine.  In addition, increasing the level of alcohol in a wine will increase its bitterness but will also reduce the sensation of astringency.  Astringency is also decreased with increasing wine pH.

Hopefully the winemaker will be presented with grapes with the appropriate amount of tannins to ensure the production of balanced wines but if he/she is presented with an excess or surfeit of tannins, the above mechanisms are available for amelioration.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The role of tannins in wine balance

Wine quality, as perceived by the consumer, has a number of elements, an important one of which is wine balance.  I have defined wine balance in a previous post but will reproduce Dr. Bruce Zoecklein's (Virginia Tech Enologist) Palate Balance Equation here to highlight the included elements.

              SweetAcid + Phenolics (Astringency and Bitterness).

I have treated the sweet (alcohol) and acid elements of this equation in prior posts and will focus on the phenolics element in this post.  The placement of phenolics (tannin) and wine balance in the quality assessment framework is indicated by the arrow in the figure below.

So what are tannins?  According to the indefatigable Dr. Zoecklein (Enology Note #116), tannins are "a heterogeneous group of phenolic compounds" with properties to include: astringency (caused when the tannin binds with protein in saliva; evidenced by mouth pucker and a bitter aftertaste); bitterness; the ability to react with ferric chloride; and the ability to bind with proteins.  A key characteristic of phenols, according to Dr. Zoecklein, is the ability to associate with (polymerize, in scientific lingo) themselves and other compounds thus yielding larger molecules.  The degree of polymerization (an actual metric) tends to increase with the passage of time.

There are two main types of tannins: hydrolizable and condensed (more properly called proanthocyanidins).  Hydrolizable tannins are found in the bark of oak and other plants and are formed in the growing tree for the purpose of food storage. These tannins are called hydrolizable because they can be broken down into smaller components in the presence of an acid or water.  Condensed tannins are insoluble and are found in tea, pomegranates, and the seed, skins, and stems of grapes.

Grape tannins are a combination of compounds (cathecin, epicathecin, epigallocathecin) which link up in chains and of which at least two need to be present for the compound to be termed a tannin. Seed tannins weigh, on average, 3.5 - 5mg per berry while skin tannins weigh in between 0.5 and 0.9 mg.  Seed tannin polymers are shorter than skin tannin polymers (the longer the tannin chain the higher the astringency) yet seed tannins are perceived by winemakers to be harsher, greener, and more astringent than skin tannins and that is evidenced in the way that the berry is handled once it enters the winery.  Oak tannins are astringent in tree matter and need to be seasoned and toasted -- as a part of the barrel treatment -- in order to increase their usefulness.

Grape tannins accumulate during the first period of berry growth with skin tannin synthesis beginning earlier than seed tannin synthesis and then ending with the conclusion of the first phase of growth. Seed tannin synthesis continues into the early period of berry ripening before concluding.  Both skin and seed tannins continue to mature during the berry ripening phase.

Tannins release is a function of how the grapes are handled in the winery.  Tannins are not desirable in white wines so white wine grapes are pressed lightly and there is no contact between the juice and skin.  In the case of red wines, tannins are desirable for color, mouthfeel, and aging and there is extensive skin contact. The amount of tannins released are a function of skin thickness (Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, and Syrah are thick-skinned and thus release more tannins than do thin-skinned varieties like Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cabernet Franc), the length of maceration, and the number of cap punch-downs to which the must is subjected.  Skin tannins release early and easily (as they are water soluble) but then plateau.  Seed tannin release is slow, steady, and long and requires alcohol as a solvent.  Once grape tannins are in solution, 80% of them undergo one or the other of the structural changes listed below:
  • Tannin-tannin linkages
  • Oxidative change
  • Acid-catalyzed reactions
  • Bind with anthocyanins (color compounds) to form polymeric pigments that ensure long-term color stability
  • Formations that provide structure and mouthfeel to wines.
Grape tannins provide color, flavor, structure, and texture to the wine and serves a preservative function.  Oak tannins play an essential role in wine maturation in that they: (i) promote oxidation products (react with oxygen in the presence of a transitional metal to release activated oxygen which, in turn, oxidizes alcohol to acetaldehyde);  (ii) produce astringency; and (iii) aid in the removal of off-notes.  Tannin-anthocyanin complexes sediment out of wines as they age resulting in browner, less tannic wines.

Tannin affects wine balance in the following ways:
  • The lower the tannin levels, the greater the amount of acidity the wine can support; conversely, the higher the tannin levels, the lower should be the acidity
    • High-acid, high-tannin wines tend towards astringency
  • Too much tannin results in wines that are heavy on the palate, lacking in finesse, and possessing a rough finish
  • Increasing alcohol content increases the intensity of bitterness and decreases the sensation of astringency
  • Low alcohol levels will result in dominant acidity and astringency and harsh, thin wines
  • Lowering wine pH increases the astringency of the tannins.
The winemaker has a number of tools at his/her disposal to increase/reduce tannin levels as required and I will discuss those tools in a follow-up post.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Vintage Rioja wine tasting at the Bull and Bear: Selected years, 1925-2001

The wines of Spain's Rioja region -- known and respected around the world -- owe their prominence to three factors: terroir, an affinity for oak, and the included grape varieties.  Within the corpus of Rioja winemaking, there is an ongoing debate between "traditionalists" and "modernists" with the former favoring long aging in American oak barrels while the latter favor shorter aging periods in French oak.  In order to investigate the two schools in detail, I endeavored to hold tastings of vintage wines from both schools (keeping in mind that the roots of the traditional school go far deeper in time than do the roots of the modernist school).  This post reports on a vintage traditional tasting held at the Bull and Bear restaurant at Orlando's Waldorf Astoria on Friday, March 2nd, 2012.

The wines for the tasting were sourced from the cellars of @wineORL, Ron Siegel, and Steve Alcorn, the latter two being prominent Orlando-area collectors.  The wines included in the tasting are shown ordered alphabetically by winery in the table below.  Some points of note: (i) all of the wines were red; (ii) with two exceptions, all of the wines were from centenarian wineries (wineries plying their trade in the Rioja region for in excess of 100 years); (iii) a total of 20 wines were associated with the 10 wineries; and (iv) with five wines in the mix, the venerable house of Bodegas R. Lopez de Heredia is the source for 25% of the wines in the tasting.

The tasting was led by Andrew McNamara MS and was arranged in three flights from youngest to oldest.  The youngest wines were all opened prior to the start of the tasting and allowed to breathe in the bottle. To protect against degradation of a potentialy delicate wine, the 1925 Marques de Riscal was only opened when he was ready for it to be poured.

The first flight was comprised of the the wines from the '80s and '90s plus the Vina Ardanza.  The wines were tasted in the following order:

2001 Vina Ardanza
1999 CVNE Imperial
1997 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904
1991 R. Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Gran Reserrva
1985 Bodega Montecillo Vina Monty Gran Reserva
1982 Muga Gran Reserva Rioja
1981 Bodega Montecillo Vina Monty Gran Reserva

The first three wines in the flight exhibited primary fruit and oak with dill a common characteristic.  The Vina Ardanza was creamy and light with distinct red fruit character and was less than full-bodied while the La Rioja Alta exhibited vanilla, rhubarb, strawberry, and dill.  Things improved on the palate as we moved deeper into the flight (with the exception of the '85 Montecillo which was corked) with the Muga (graphite, iron, certain sweetness) and the Tondonia (strawberries) showing very well.  The Tondonia was elected wine of the flight.

The second flight was our '70s flight and the wines were tasted as follows:

1978 Marques de Caceres Rioja Gran Reserva
1978 Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay
1976 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia
1973 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva Cuvee Centenario
1976 Muga Gran Reserva
1970 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia
1970 Faustino I Gran Reserva

The excellence that began to take hold in the wines of the 1990s continued into and through this flight.  The dill and primary fruit evident in the early wines of flight 1 had resolved into raisins and coffee in this flight.  The wine of the flight was the 1973 Rioja Alta Gran Reserva.

The final flight was orderd as follows:

1968 Vina Valoria
1968 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia
1964 Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva
1964 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva
1961 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia
1925 Marques de Riscal Reserva

The wines in this flight were all superb and completed the seduction of the tasting panel that had been initiated by the wines in the second half of the opening flight.  The wines were mostly well balanced  with smoke, chocolate, and dustiness on the palate being a common characteristic.  The stunner was the 1925 Marques de Riscal which ended up as the wine of the flight and of the night.  This wine was opened just prior to pouring because we were afraid that it might be too delicate to survive extended exposure to the elements; but it got better with the passage of time and three hours later it was running at top speed.  Phenomenal.  I need more of this wine.

Andrew McNamara MS, Premier Beverages and Dhane Chesson, Vibrant Rioja

This was an excellent tasting which converted all of the participants from tepid to full-throated fans of vintage traditional Rioja wines.  Dhane Chesson, Vibrant Rioja Representative, participated in the tasting and was extremely pleased at the showing of  her charges. Please visit Steve Alcorn's blog for individual tasting notes as well as for a discussion of the post-tasting dinner and wines.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando