Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wine balance: Napa's Phoenix

In the early 1970s, Napa wines exhibited characteristics that were close enough to wines from France that a group of leading French experts famously (Judgement of Paris) could not differentiate between the wines from the two regions and awarded top honors, in both the red and white flights, to the wines from Napa.  Somewhere along the way the paths of these two regions diverged (some would say that Napa lost its way) and Napa wines became known as fruit, alcohol, and oaken bombs that were too extracted and dangerous to food.  A sense abounds, however, that the tide is beginning to turn and that a vanguard of the winemakers who jumped off the deep end are beginning the long swim back to join those who had the courage and foresight to mann the shore batteries against the onslaught of sweet.  We examine the forcing factors in this post.


According to Greg Byrne (Wine surges in popularity ..., Santa Fe New Mexican, 7/15/09), in the 1970s and 1980s, many Napa wineries picked too early in an attempt to emulate the wines of Bordeaux.  The standard practice was to harvest grapes based on sugar ripeness -- pick at 23.6 degrees Brix in order to yield 12.6% alcohol in the fermented wine.  After many years of pursuing this path -- a path, according to Byrne,  littered with overly tannic, underripe, harsh wines -- Joe Heitz (Heitz Cellars) began to agitate for producing wines based on what the climate allowed rather than what Bordeaux was producing.  In the early 1990s, then, hang time became the buzzword as winemakers pursued riper fruit and the wine style changed for the better.

Writing about this same period, John Gilman (California Classicism, The World of Fine Wine (TWoFW), Issue 35, 2012) saw two waves of winemaking which, by the end of the 1970s, had placed California winemaking squarely on the map:

1960s                                          1970s
Heitz                                           Joseph Swan
Ridge                                          Sterling
Mayacamas                                Chateau Montelena
Mondavi                                      Clos du Val
Chalone                                      Joseph Phelps
Schramberg                                Stag's Leap Wine Cellar

The two men agree that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall but disagree as to the forces that dislodged him.  According to Byrne, the lack of rain in Napa in September and October allowed for much longer  hang time and phenolicly ripe fruit.  It also brought along, however, higher sugar levels, lower acidity, darker color, and richer flavors.  By marrying this style of wine with young oak, the Napa winemaker was now promoting power and exuberance over elegance and finesse.  Byrne feels that too many winemakers went too far down this path.

While Bryant saw viticultural practices, as it related to phenolic ripeness, as the Napa problem, Gilman sees the problem as the industry's pursuit of cellar-based technology solutions aimed at closing the "Bordeaux gap" (and the creation of winemaking superstars who, from time to time, read their own reviews).  In addition, phylloxera had caused widespread replantings in the 1990s and cellar manipulation was used to paper over resulting problems such as young juice in the mix, improperly sited vines, and the pursuit of high yields by the growers in order to meet high demand.

Adding fire to the flame was Robert Parker assigning high scores to these wines and an indolent, self-centered, unquestioning public snapping up the wines at every turn, based exclusively on these scores.  This created a vicious cycle with existing wineries adjusting their wines in pursuit of points and new entrants applying the formula from day one.

Regardless of the proportions, these factors had combined to push the industry to a "bad place" by the end of the 1990s.  Gilman has characterized that place: high-alcohol wines made from late-picked fruit, vinified with residual sugar, sprinkled with winemaking additives, and matured in expensive new oak.  "Phenolic ripeness became the mantra behind which this was all concealed."  Alcohol levels had gotten so high that a number of post-fermentation mechanisms were created for mitigation purposes; likewise, technical solutions were employed to address acid deficiency.

A number of factors point to a sea change but, before we address those, let us take a look at the winemakers who did not respond to the siren song of imbalance.  The figure below is a compilation of wineries who continued to make wines the old-fashioned way, with words like balance, elegance, finesse, and food being their north stars.  The winemakers on this list, plus some others he refers to as "neo-classicists" (James Johnson Vineyards, Philip Togni, for example), remain today, according to Gilman, "at the top of their games and are currently fashioning some of the greatest wines in their illustrious histories."

A number of writers have been making the case that California winemakers are beginning to see the light and are moving to more balanced wines.  The writers mentioned in this article definitely fall into this camp.  Byrne sees the pendulum as swinging back to finesse, acidity, and varietal character.  Gilman views the wines being crafted by the old-liners and the neo-classicists as "classic, old-school wines crafted for the cellar and destined to evolve gracefully."  You can also add Alice Feiring to the mix.  In a June 2012 article in the Daily Beast (Big? Jammy? Not Anymore! California ...) she cites examples of winemakers who have, for one reason or the other, made the switch from powerful to more food-friendly wines.  She makes the point that grass roots organizational activity is also forcing the industry to re-examine its position.  Case in point, the In Pursuit of Balance initiative spearheaded by Rajat Par (celebrity sommelier and winemaker) and Jasmine Hirsch, Director of Marketing for Hirsch Vineyard.  Hirsch is quoted in the article as saying that one of the drivers of the move to balanced wines is a maturing of the American wine palate and an associated quest for greater subtlety and complexity.

The perceived waning influence of Robert Parker is cited as another reason for this shifting wine style.  Parker preferred the style of wine which came to be characteristic of Napa and winemakers and customers heeded his cry.  With the financial crash, collectors who pursued this type of wine were wiped out and began looking for less expensive alternatives.  They even started looking in places like Chile and Argentina, for crying out loud.  Paralleling the fall of Parker's traditional base was the rise of the Millenial's as serious players.  In contrast to Parker's traditional base (i) their tastes' were eclectic and (ii) they did their own research , drawing on friends, acquaintances, blogs, and critics who had been laboring in the shadows.  Parker's pronouncements still move product but the echo chamber is becoming smaller with the passage of time.

How does a winemaker get on this train?  According to Gilman: (i) steer clear of high alcohol; (ii) keep ripeness in check; (iii) keep new oak in check; and (iv) produce structured wines with balance and complexity.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Abruzzo (Italy) wine region

I will be attending a Emidio Pepe tasting on Thursday of this week and plan to file a report of the event on the blog.  For contextual purposes, I herein present an overview of Abruzzo, the wine region within which the Emidio Pepe estate operates.

Abruzzo has long been known for wines made from Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (a grape variety which should not be confused with the medieval hill town of Montepulciano in the south of Tuscany) but its reputation, unfortunately, had been forged on the anvils of (i) bulk wine for blending in northern Italy and France and (ii) low-quality producers.  In more recent times the world has begun to take notice of the wines of a few high-quality producers (Emidio Pepe, for example) and the region's reputation as a producer of age-worthy wines has begun to take hold.

Abruzzo lies along the Adriatic coast of Italy with three of its four provinces fronting on the sea.  The landscape consists of rugged mountains covering 2/3 of the region and rolling hills and river valleys to the south comprising the remainder.  While the sea bounds the region to the west, the Apennine and Marella mountain ranges play the same role in the east.


The Abruzzo climate is warm and dry on the coast and continental-like inland.  The region is blessed with healthy doses of sunshine and rainfall with most of the rainfall occurring in November post-harvest.  The waters of the Adriatic, and cool air blowing down from the mountains, serve as moderating influences on the climate.


The majority of the region's 30, 000 hectares (ha) of vineyards are located in hilly areas with 75% in Chieti, 10% in Pescara, 10% in Teramo, and 4% in L'Aquila.  Viticulture in the region continues to be based on the traditional pergola method (85%) but new plantings are almost exclusively row-based.

Over 25 domestic and international grape varieties are cultivated in Abruzzo but the ones with commercial relevance are Montepulciano -- the source of the region's red wines -- and Trebbiano, the contributor to its whites.  The Montepulciano variety is characterized by: medium-large pentagon-shaped leaves; thick triangular clusters; and oval-shaped, thick-skinned berries which yield bountiful amounts of deep purple/ruby juice.  Trebbiano ( known also as St. Emilion, Ugni Blanc, Clairette Ronde, Thalia, and White Hermitage) is the most planted white grape in Italy and is known for high yields and neutral flavors.  The juice is used primarily for brandy in France and as a blending component in Italy but, when used as the primary element, produces a crisp, high-acid wine that is ready for immediate drinking.

The map and table below illustrate the DOCG/DOC level wines that are produced in Abruzzo and the geographic area from which each is drawn. The map shows two "under-denominations" of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo: Terre dei Vestini and Casauria o Terre di Causaria.

 - Montepulciano e Trebbiano d'Abruzzo DOC
 - Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC "Terre dei Vestini"
 - Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC "Casauria o Terre di Casauria"
 - Controguerra
 - Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC "Colline Teramane" DOCG

The former is 1000 ha in size and is production-limited to 10,000 kilo/ha while the latter is 250 ha and is limited to 9500 kilos/ha.  Wines from these two areas must be aged for a minimum of 18 months, of which at least 9 months must be in wood.  Riservas must be aged for at least 30 months of which at least 9 months must be in wood.

The production-breakdown of protected wines is as follows:

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo -- 800,000 hl
Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane -- 4000 hl
Controguera -- 4000 hl

Trebbiano -- 192,000 hl

There are a total of 160 entities producing wines in Abruzzo, 40 of which are cooperative wineries, operating mostly in Chieti, that are responsible for 75% of the region's production.  The remaining 25% of the production is bottled by 120 companies under their own labels.  Standout producers among this lot are Emidio Pepe, Edoardo Valentini, Masciarelli, Illuminati, and Cataldi Madonna.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, July 23, 2012

Diurnal temperature shifts and wine quality

Diurnal temperature range (DTR) refers to the difference between the highest daytime temperature and the lowest nighttime temperature.


As it relates to wine, many estates/regional promoters tout the fact that their estates are located in areas of high diurnal variation because of, as they see it, the benefits conferred on grapes grown in the region.  For example, states "One of the greatest natural phenomena for growing grapes which end up balanced between ripe sugars (which will equate to alcohol in the wine) and crisp acidity is a difference between day time and night time temperatures ..."  The site goes on to say that Washington State has some of the most dramatic fluctuations in the world with differences of as much as 40℉ between the high day and low night temperatures.  The organization sees the cool evenings as preserving malic acid in the grape which "translates through fermentation to wine and adds freshness and balance."  It should be noted here that the organization sees wine balance as a mediation between sweetness and acidity, a position that runs counter to the definition that has been established on this blog.

Concha y Toro, one of the leading Chilean producers, sources grapes for its Don Melchor label from the Puente Alto vineyard in Maipo Valley.  According to the winery's website (, "It is the sharp diurnal temperature differences that assist tannin ripening and the development of aromas as well as fixing exceptionally high quantities of polyphenol compounds in the grape."  In their discourse on the benefits of high diurnal variation, Concha y Toro focuses exclusively on its perceived benefits for the secondary metabolites versus the primary metabolite arguments of but, in both cases, the argument is "high DTR is beneficial for the grape and its end product, the wine."  That is not a universally held position.

There is a second school of thought which decries significant DTRs and views balanced wines as a product of balanced temperatures.  The principal of this school is John Gladstone (Wine, Terroir, and Climate Change) but philosophical adherents are sprinkled throughout the industry (see, for example, Climate and the ripening process, wine, August 2007; What makes LI wines "cool", Suffolk Times, March 31, 2011).  The basic tenet of this school is that a low temperature range during the growing season creates wines of the best quality and that sites with this characteristic tend to be in maritime or high-latitude locations.

According to adherents, the factory that is the vine operates on all cylinders during the daytime with the presence of light allowing for photosynthesis and the accumulation of sugars into the berry.  Photosynthesis ceases with the onset of darkness, but, according to this school, if the nighttime temperature does not fall below a certain level, respiration and flavor and tannin synthesis will continue, resulting in more rapid and complete phenolic ripening of the fruit at lower sugar levels.  Diurnal variation in arid regions, according to this school, allows production of high levels of sugar during the daylight hours and the cool nights take the vines out of the effective metabolic range.  This slows the phenolic ripening process thus allowing the accumulation of higher sugar levels over the longer ripening period and an unbalanced wine.

At this moment let us take a step back and look at what is known regarding temperature effects on berry development:

Higher temperatures
  • increased rate of sugar accumulation
  • increased rate of organic acid degradation
  • inhibition of anthocyanin development
Lower temperatures
  • reduction in the rate of sugar accumulation 
  • reduction in the rate of organic acid degradation.

We also know that phenolic ripeness is highly temperature dependent (Mark Greenspan, wine and that phenolic ripening processes will operate sub-optimally or shut down as you move further away from the optimal (Mark Greenspan; Louisa Hargrove, Suffolk Times).

Based on the foregoing, the following Greenspan adages still hold true:

  • In arid regions, cool nights are essential for the prevention of rapid acid metabolism
  • Different wine styles are produced in high-DTR versus narrow-DTR areas
  • Areas with narrow-DTRs generally gain phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels than do their high-DTR counterparts

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The 2011 Charlottesville (VA) Wine Bloggers Conference: A study in effective marketing promotion

One of the key areas of focus of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office (VWBMO) is increasing regional and national awareness of Virginia wines and one of its most significant actions to date in that regard was co-sponsoring (along with Virginia Tourism) the 4th annual Wine Bloggers' Conference (WBC4) held in Charlottesville (VA) from July 21 to 24, 2011.  I discussed this promotional effort, its implementation, and the realized benefits, with Ms. Annette Ringwood Boyd, Director of VWBMO,  as part of our larger conversation on marketing and the VA wine industry.

According to Ms. Boyd, the intent in co-sponsoring WBC4 was to (i) raise awareness of VA wine and (ii) to increase the awareness of the VA wine region as a whole as a tourist destination.  The sponsors saw wine bloggers as influencers and perceived the conference as providing a vehicle within which to influence these influencers.

There had been three WBCs held prior to the Charlottesville edition (Sonoma 2008, Napa & Sonoma 2009, and Walla Walla 2010) and 80% of the attendees at those conferences hailed from California.  Virginia wine country was one of three wine regions asked to submit proposals to host the fourth installment of the conference and VWBMO partnered with Virginia Tourism to prepare and submit what turned out to be the winning proposal.  The location of the next year's conference is normally made on the last day of the current conference and when the announcement was made at the Walla Walla conference that Charlottesville had been selected to host in 2011, the predominantly west-coast-based bloggers were not enamored at the prospect of traveling "all the way to the east coast."  It was at this time, according to Ms. Boyd, that many of the east coast bloggers -- who had not thought twice about traveling out to the west coast to support past conferences -- came to the defense of the selection.  Ms. Boyd specifically mentioned the VA wine blogging community and Lenn Thompson of New York Cork Report (the first time that I have heard anyone publicly admitting to knowing that guy) as being very supportive of the selection and making that fact known loudly.

The VWBMO took a comprehensive approach to exploiting the opportunity presented by the conference.  Rather than waiting for the bloggers to arrive in the Commonwealth and then inundating them with literature and wines at the conference, VWBMO arranged a series of pre-conference Twitter tastings which would serve as on-ramps to both the conference and VA wines for "high-value" wine bloggers.  These pre-conference tastings were kicked-off with a tasting of wines from the Monticello AVA in the October prior to the conference and was then followed by a December tasting of Loudon AVA wines, a May tasting of VA whites, and, two weeks prior to the conference, a VA Viognier tasting.  The organization of the tasting called for 12-18 bloggers on Twitter (or in a central location in VA), the presence of one or more winemakers to assist in responding to questions raised from the ether, and a VA wine blogger as the moderator.  Information packages and wines were sent to the participants in advance of the tastings.

Results from these tastings showed increasing engagement of participants when the beginning and ending stats are compared.  The first tasting generated 521 tweets, 31,000 followers, and 1.2 million potential impressions.  By the time the Viognier tasting was completed, its numbers were 1200 tweets, 86,000 followers, and 2.8 million potential impressions.

The conference itself had a few challenges but, overall, it was a huge success and a win-win for Virginia and the conference organizers.  First, the biggest challenge.  It was hot and humid in Charlottesville and this negatively impacted attendee comfort levels, especially at the signature tent affair on the Monticello grounds.

The wins for the conference organizers were (i) the conference sold out and (ii) they uncovered a huge new audience for the conference.  Remember that the conference was 80% west-coast-resident attendees prior to the Charlottesville conference?  Well, the attendees at the Charlottesville conference were more broadly distributed: 23% from VA; 35% west coast, 9% MD, 2% Canada, 2% Oregon, 17% NY, and 9% from other southern states.

For VA wine the win was that all of these attendees were exposed to VA wines and that VA wines gained broader exposure than the wines at previous WBC conferences thanks to the attendee makeup.  Some of the conference-related statistics collected by VWBMO follow:

  • 335 conference participants from 4 countries and 21 states
  • 47 VA wineries featured
  • 78 VA wineries represented
  • 7 bus loads of bloggers visited 17 wineries
  • 15, 206 tweets using the conference hashtag
  • 43.5 million potential impressions
  • 125 blog posts written by the October following the conference with the reviews being overwhelmingly positive.

Additional benefits that have accrued as a result of co-sponsoring the conference include: (i) increases in relevant web and twitter traffic and (ii) articles in the national press to include Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.  The awareness, on a national level, of VA wines, and VA as a tourist destination, is much higher now than it was prior to the conference.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Marketer's perspective on the Virginia wine industry

Having previously reported on the technical aspects of the Virgina wine industry, I turned to Ms. Annette Ringwood Boyd, Director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office (VWBMO), to gain insight into the marketing issues that the industry confronts at the macro level and the types of initiatives and assistance available to aid in advancement of the cause.  I report on my discussion with Ms. Boyd in this post.

The Virginia Wine Board, founded in 1984, is the facility within the Commonwealth's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that is tasked with "promoting the interests of the vineyards and wineries in the Commonwealth through research, education, and marketing."  The  members of the Board -- to include nine voting members (three growers, six wineries) and one non-voting member (the Secretary of the Deprtment of Agriculture and Consumer Services) -- are appointed by the Governor and serve four-year terms.  According to Ms. Boyd, one-third of the Board's budget is allocated to research targeted at the viabilty and sustainability of the wine industry and the remaining two-thirds is targeted at marketing and promotion.

The VWBMO assists the Board in meeting the marketing aspect of its mandate through its focus on four key areas: (i) driving individuals to Virginia wine; (ii) increasing regional and national awareness of Virginia wines; (iii) trade promotion; and (iv) expanding the footprint of Virginia wine.
As it relates to driving people to Virgina wine, Ms. Boyd points to and the VA Wine Guide as important arrows in the quiver. has the tagline "your guide to everything Virginia Wine" and does a pretty good job of meeting that requirement.  It is a one-stop shop for information on wineries, wine-related events, wine regions and AVAs, wine news, and other relevant topics.  The Virginia Winery Guide seeks to facilitate winery visits by providing "a detailed map and listing of each winery, with tour hours, amenities and directions."  In addition, VWBMO works with Virginia Tourism to target national media for promotion of the benfits of touring the Virginia wine region, set as it is in beautiful countryside with rolling hills dotted with  horse farms, grape vines, and lush meadows.  Their efforts have been rewarded by Harper Travel recently ranking Virginia as one of the top 10 wine destinations in the country and it being ranked as one of the five up-and-coming wine regions by Travel and Leisure Magazine.

There are two significant trade-related VA-wine events that occur during the course of the year.  The first of the two is the week-long celebration of Virginia Wine that is called Love by the Glass.  This event is held in April and features VA wine by the glass at participating restaurants and wine shops.  The second is an October-long celebration of VA wines with restaurants, wine shops, wineries and events all serving the wines by the glass.

VWBMO is working with an agency to expand the footprint of VA wines in a systematic manner beginning with neighboring states and the District of Columbia, and then expanding outwards to more distant locales.  The team recently conducted consumer and trade tastings in Raleigh, NC, and is attempting to get DC excited about the wine industry that is thriving in its backyard.

In terms of success of the VWBMO promotional programs these will be measured by increases in VA wine sales growth over the long haul.  In the short term, success will be measured by media-attention garnered and requests for sales support.

In response to a question about the market for VA wines, Ms Boyd posited a number of markets, rather than a single market, with a message for each.  There is a market which encompasses VA, DC, and contiguous states and the message for this market comes in two parts: (i) the quality is here and (ii) we are the local option.  The wine has been shown in London and the message for that market is "We are the US wine region with the climate and soil to produce old-world-style wines."  New York is a very attractive market -- given its, size, proximity, and sophistication -- but the message there has to be carefully tailored because, unlike other regional states, it has a viable local option.  For that state the message is "VA has up-and-coming, interesting wines that are worthy."

It is hard to get a truly accurate handle on the amount of VA wine that is sold because VWBMO only has access to figures on VA wine sold within the state.  Last year 463,00 cases of VA wine were sold in the Commonwealth (4.6% of all wines sold in the state) and, at an average cost of $200 per case, this amounts to total sales of $92.6 million.  If a further assumption is made that the VA wine sold outside the Commonwealth is 5% of the in-"state" sales, that figure would increase to $97.23 million.

The industry has experienced three years of double-digit growth and, while these rates will not be achieved this year, Ms. Boyd sees sustained, steady growth tied to increasing acreage.  The Governor has provided tax credits for individuals willing to invest in vineyards and that has had a positive impact on the acreage but Virginia is an older "state" and does not have much available land or, more specifically, enough land that is suitable for wine-grape growing (Even when the land is suitable, grape vines have to compete with other agricultural options for its use.).  The average farm is 25 acres in size and the average production is between 2500 and 5000 cases.  Fo the most part, the industry makeup will continue to be the small, niche farm; the wineries like it that way and so does the Commonwealth.

With respect to the state's wineries, Ms. Boyd sees each one of them as a client to be represented.  Each winery has its own business plan and objectives so VWBMO seeks to develop and implement programs that will have the greatest benefit for the large majority.

In our opening discussions I queried Ms. Boyd about the role that the Governor has played in the ascendancy of the Virginia wine industry.  Ms. Boyd was emphatic in asserting that Governor Bob McDonnell has had an inordinately positive impact on the trajectory of the Commonwealth's wine industry.  Accorrding to Ms. Boyd, then candidate McDonnell spoke to the potential of the industry and how a McDonnell administration would seek to improve its profile.  Once in power, he worked with the General Assembly to ensure that 100% of the excise tax paid by the wineries went back to the Wine Promotion Fund and, as a result, the Wine Board budget went from $580,000 to $1.6 million.  The Governor has, by his personal actions, increased the visibility of VA wines.  For example, on his trade missions -- to locales inclusive of Beijing, Shangai, Tokyo, Stockholm, among others -- the Governor only serves VA wines.  For events where visitors come into the Commonwealth, the Governor promotes and serves VA wines.

Overall, Ms. Boyd is very pleased with the direction of the industry and is especially pleased with the support that the industry continues to receive from the Governor and the General Assembly.  For the future she will continue to focus on expanding the footprint of VA wines.  Most of the internal hurdles have been addressed and the message has been getting out locally (aided in large part by a loyal band of citizen bloggers); the next hurdle to be surmounted is to drive the recognition of the wines beyond Commonwealth boundaries.  It is a big wine world out there with a lot of wine sources with a lot more resources than we have today.

I engaged Ms. Boyd on the Wine Bloggers Conference held in Charlottesville one year ago and got her thoughts as to the benefits that accrued to VA wine as a result.  I will report on that aspect of our conversation in a subsequent post.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, July 13, 2012

The intersection of Champagne and oak: Then and now

I have previously written about Champagne production and oak's contribution to wine quality.  This post covers the intersection of the two issues -- then and now.

Prior to the 1950s, Champagne producers vinified their wines in 228-liter oak vats (Tom Stevenson, Oak in Champagne,; World of Fine Wine (WoFW), Issue 36, 2012; SFGate, Oak and Champagne, 12/13/09).  These vats were neutral (in terms of oak influence) and were used for 25 or more years.  They were expensive, however, so, beginning in the 1950s, Champagne Houses began substituting vats made from other materials for these oaken incumbents.  An example of this is the story of Veuve Clicquot as told by Stevenson.  In 1946 Veuve Clicquot began a 12-year program to switch from oak vats to glass-lined concrete tanks.  Shortly after the conclusion of that program, the company was on the march once again, this time moving from concrete to stainless steel vinification tanks.

According to SFGate, stainless steel tanks afforded a number of benefits to Champagne producers: precise temperature control; an anaerobic environment; and a streamlined, high tech look in the cellar.  Another benefit associated with the stainless steel tank, according to Stevenson, was Champagne-producer access to a malolactic-like creaminess.  Stevenson holds that the most noticeable loss that occurs when a producer moves away from oak is "a certain ampleness of mouthfeel."   Micro-oxygenation produces a textural enhancement that is akin to malolactic and, with the introduction of temperature-controlled stainless-steel vats, producers could now employ that technique to close the "ampleness" gap created by the move away from oak.

By the 1990s then, only three top Houses (Krug, Bollinger, and Alfred Gratien) and two top growers (René Collard and Anselme Selosse) were still fermenting entirely in oak.

But the winds of change are in the air.  According to SFGate, there is a "marked increase in the number of Champagne producers experimenting with wood for fermentation as well as aging."  Michael Edwards (The Finest Wines of Champagne) notes that over 100 Houses and growers are using wood in one or more of the following applications: fermenting in differing barrel/cask sizes; maturing the wines in tonneau; or creating the vin de dosage.

While the Independent (Champagne, 10/22/09) sees this return to oak as a move to further penetrate the British market (the largest Champagne market) by taking advantage of consumers' desire for the delicate hints of vanilla and coconut that accompany the judicious use of wood, both Edwards and SFGate see this move to wood as a pursuit of the benefits of barrel-driven micro-oxygenation.  These benefits, as they see them, are: flavor complexity, added strength, suppleness, depth, and oxidation resistance.  A cautionary note, however; the target wine has to have the character and structure to cope with the oak or it will end up being dominated and the resulting Champagne will be "heavy and clumsy."

Edwards sees three schools of oak in Champagne: old school; traditionalists; and innovators.

The "old schoolers" have always used oak and own barrels that are between 5 and 30 years old.  Bollinger, Krug, Alfred Gratien, and Selosse fall within this camp.  Bollinger vinifies in oak, a practice, it says, which "aids harmonious development of the wine" and guarantees stability in its later life.  Bollinger decides whether to use oak or steel tanks depending on "the character of each year, the grape variety, and the different crus."  The Reserve magnums and La Grande Année are always vinified in oak.  Krug uses small Aragon oak barrels that are 10-15% new and that are covered by a layer of wax to prevent oxidation (Juhlin).  The wine is matured for three months after fermentation and is then transferred between up to 10 barrels in order to gain different "taste shades."  After the desired complexity is obtained, the wine is poured into metal containers to await assemblage.  Alfred Gratien has 800 5-year-old, 228-liter barrels in which the wines are fermented and then matured for 6 months.  According to Juhlin, Nicolas Jaeger, the winemaker, feels that this method results in wines with richer taste, longer-lasting aftertaste, and more interesting properties.  Jaeger in the SFgate article: "The idea is not to make the wines taste oaky, but to give them more structure and finesse and greater length."  Selosse buys 228-, 400-, and 600-liter tanks from Burgundy for its vinification activities.

The traditionalists have "returned to oak for its subtleties of aroma and flavors" and utilize new oak combined with stainless steel or enamel vats.  An example of this type of producer is the aforementioned Veuve Clicquot.  In 2011 the company announced the it was purchasing 30 oak Foudres to add to its vinification repertoire.  The intent with this oak is not to impart oak character to the wine but instead to "broaden the choices of blending components for the vintage cuvée" (Stevenson, WoFW).  Stevenson points out that while this is the stated goal, to the extent that only three vintages will be declared each decade, the yellow label will be the beneficiary of this oak-enriched infusion in the remaining seven years of the decade.  Taitinger also falls into this camp using, as it does, < 5% of oak-aged wine to add complexity (toast and vanilla notes) to its Comtes de Champagne label.

Innovators see oak as an essential element of their winemaking and it is in this camp that Edwards sees some "overtly woody Champagne."

This "phoenix-like" experience for oak is not welcomed in all corners.  According to Stevenson ( and Juhlin (champagne Tony Stevenson, the Australian Champagne expert, wanted to reject all Champagnes in a Decanter tasting that had even a hint of oak.  Juhlin sees the elegance of Champagne as being the key to its appeal the world over and worries that the weight introduced by wood might harm its "tenderness and subtlety."  According to Stevenson, "The mellowing aromatic properties of new or relatively new oak conflict with the effervescence and flavor profile of a fully sparkling wine like Champagne, especially when youthful."  He advocates the blending of between 5% and 15% of wooded wine into a cuvée to add complexity without evidence of oak.

It is clear that this trend to use oak in Champagne will only increase with time.  The traditionalists will stay the course (they always have ) but the innovators are the ones to watch.  The challenge for them will be to improve their craft such that the marriage of oak and champagne looks less like the marriage of oak and American Chardonnay and more like the marriage of oak and white Burgundy.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Oak: Its contribution to wine aroma and overall quality

Wine odor is one of the key markers of wine quality and, as a part of my series on wine quality, I have set myself the task of identifying and characterizing the sources of wine odor and showing how the interactions of these odor components aid in the perception of wine quality.

Wine is aged in wooden barrels to: (i) enhance its flavor, aroma, and complexity through transfer of substances from the wood to the wine; and (ii) allow gradual oxidation to occur.  As a result of its "strength, resilience, workability, and lack of undesirable flavor," oak is the wood of choice for most wine cooperage applications.

The oak used in the maturation of alcoholic beverages fall into one of three species: Quercus alba, Quercus robur, and Quercus sessilis.  Q. robur and Q. sessilis, and their respective subspecies, are European white oaks while Q. alba is the source of 45% of the white oak lumber produced in the US.  American oak used in barrel production is sourced from Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and Michigan but there is no apparent regional distinction.  European oak, on the other hand, may have designations which reach all the way to the forest from which the oak originated.  For example, French oak from the department of Alliers may be sourced from a forest named Tronçais.

Sources:; Dr. Murli Dharmadikari; Principles and Applications in Wine Science

Oak wood used in the production of wine barrels must possess the following characteristics (Ronald S. Jackson, Principles and Applications in Wine Science): straight-grained; strong; resilient; fault -free; and free of undesirable odors that could taint the wine.  Once the tree is harvested, the resulting log is first cut into tubular sections and they are, in turn, split into halves, quarters, eighths, and then the final stave size.

The rough-hewn staves are now ready to be seasoned.  The cut staves are stacked in the open air in alternating east-west, north-south rows for a period of about three years.  Open-air drying exposes the staves to wind, rain and UV rays.  The stacks are dismantled and randomly re-assembled annually in order to ensure that a single barrel does not gain an inordinate number of staves from a single tree.  Some producers choose to kiln-dry the staves but, while attainment of the desired humidity levels occurs earlier, it can result in the loss of as much as 70% of desirable compounds.

The oak staves undergo a number of chemical changes as a result of seasoning: (i) ellagitannins are polymerized and become less soluble; (ii) there is an increase/decrease of lignin degradation products (such as eugenol, vanillin, syringaldehyde) in the outer portion of the staves; and (iii) the leaching and degradation of phenolic compounds (such as tannin) by oxygen, rain, and UV radiation.

After seasoning is completed, the staves are cut to their final sizes and then assembled into a shape approximating that of the final product except that one end is open and there are spaces between the staves (these spaces widen as one travels closer to the open end of the assembly).  A heat source is introduced into each proto-barrel through the open end and heat is applied to the inner surface for a duration, and at an intensity, consistent with the level of toast desired for the finished barrel.  The table below shows the chemical changes to the oak that result from varying toast levels.

As stated previously, wine is aged in wooden barrels to: (i) enhance its flavor, aroma, and complexity through transfer of substances from the wood to the wine; and (ii) allow gradual oxidation of the wine. In the first instance, many of the wood's native aromatic compounds, as well as the aromatic compounds created during seasoning and toasting, are absorbed, and integrated, into the wine, thus contributing to wine richness and aromatic complexity.  For example, hemicellulose will hydrolyze upon exposure to wine, creating, as a result, sugars and acetyl groups.  The sugars are further converted to furanaldehydes and ketones while the acetyl groups are converted to acetic acid during maturation.  A small proportion of lignin will dissolve in wine (these are called native lignins) while some undergo ethanolysis and are oxidized to aromatic compounds.  These compounds have low olfactory thresholds and will, therefore, impact the wine's aromatic profile. As noted by Dr. Murli Dharmadikari, common descriptors of oak-aged wines are oaky, vanilla, smoky, toasty, spicy, and coconut.

In terms of gradual oxidation, wine loss from barrels amount to approximately 2% per year, resulting from the fact that water and ethanol are smaller molecules and will diffuse into the wood and, ultimately, escape as vapor.  If the air in the cellar is dry, more water is lost and the wine is more concentrated in terms of alcohol.  If the environment is too humid then more alcohol is lost, reducing the ethanol content in the remaining wine.  This loss of liquid opens up a space between the wine surface and the barrel which the winemaker generally "tops up" in order to prevent oxidation and acetic spoilage.  During this "topping-up" process, small amounts of oxygen are dissolved in the wine.  Oxygen is also introduced into the wine during winery operations such as filtering and racking.

The oxygen which is now in the wine reacts with resident phenolic compounds (pigments and tannin) in a manner such that: (i) the red color in wine is stabilized and enhanced (monomeric anthocyanins combine with tannins to form stable polymeric pigments); (ii) tannins are softened (polymerization and precipitation as well as tannin-polysaccharide combinations); (iii) complex aromas develop; and (iv) there is improvement in the wine's body and mouthfeel.  It should be noted here that the tannin resident in the wine at this time is a combination of grape tannin plus the oak tannin absorbed from the barrel (30% from the innermost four millimeters of wood).

While the discussion above has been limited to oak cooperage, winemakers have been seeking similar benefits -- at significantly reduced cost  -- by using cooperage substitutes.  Using substitutes such as oak chips and staves allow for the transfer of oak flavors to the wine while supplemental techniques such as micro-oxygenation and the use of neutral barrels will facilitate controlled oxidation, the other significant benefit of oak barrels.

For wines with the appropriate phenolic structure, oak maturation can be especially beneficial to the quality of the finished product.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme