Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lees aging of sparkling wines: The story behind the headline

In my series comparing Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava, I touched on the topic of yeast autolysis and its positive impact on wines that gain their bubbles through a second, in-bottle fermentation. In this post I provide additional details on the autolysis process, its by-products, and the benefit they confer on the hosting wine.

Murli Dharmadhikan (Yeast Autolysis, defines yeast autolysis as "... self-destruction of the cellular constituents of a cell by its own enzymes" following its death. Figure 1 below shows the component parts of a healthy yeast cell while Figure 2 shows an overview of the process  -- autolysis -- that occurs once that yeast cell has consumed all of the available nutrients and dies. At a high level, autolysis encompasses (i) the degradation of intracellular materials and (ii) degradation of the cell wall.

The detailed autolysis process is shown in Figure 3 below. The yeast extract, product of the degradation of intra-cellular material, is confined to the cell until such time as the cell wall becomes porous enough to allow the material to seep out. It should be noted that degradation and compound creation continues outside the degraded cell walls.

Figure 3. Details of yeast autolysis
The lees-aged wine is enriched by the compounds released during the constituent-degradation process. Compounds released during autolysis include (Thierry Binder, Cremant d'Alsace, TONG #13; Dharmadhikan):
  • Nitrogenous compounds
    • Amino acids -- known to enrich mouthfeel; aroma precursors of acacia honey notes
    • Polypeptides -- sweet and bitter taste; precursors of the autolytic aromas of brioche and toast
    • Peptides
    • Nucleic acid components
  • Polysaccharides -- originates from breakdown of cell wall components
    • Degradation products are glucose and mannose
    • Mannoproteins increase mouthfeel and foam stability as well as contributing to fineness and persistence of bubbles
  • Fatty acids -- important for foam stability, mouthfeel, and flavor. Can be involved in the formation of esters, aldehydes, and other volatile compounds
  • Volatile components
    • Heavy esters
    • Terpene components
    • Higher alcohols
    • Other volatile components.
The factors that influence the quality of the autolysate include temperature, wine pH, ethanol content of the wine, and the duration of yeast contact. Autolysis is generally conducted at temperatures between 15 and 18 degrees centigrade and with wine pH held between 3 and 4. This ensures a slower rate of autolysis, allowing the winemaker to benefit from longer lees contact.

The in-bottle fermentation process, with its associated autolysis, strips out aspects of the varietal flavors and replaces them with signature yeasty, sourdough flavors.  The longer the wine remains on the lees, the more pronounced these flavors become. Also, the longer the residence on the lees, the richer the wine.

Champagne is legally required to remain on the lees for at least 16 months, if a non-vintage, and at least 3 years if designated as vintage.  Quality houses normally age their non-vintage wines for 3 to 4 years and their vintage wines for 7 to 8 years.

Non-vintage Franciacorta wines are aged for a minimum of 25 months with 18 of those months being on the lees in the bottle.  Vintage wines are aged for a minimum of 37 months with 30 of those months being in the bottle on the lees.  Riserva wines are aged for 5 years on the lees.

In order to be called Cava, the sparkling wine made in the region has to be aged a minimum of 9 months before being taken to market.  Many producers age their wines for 2 to 4 years in order to provide wines with more character.  To be classified as Gran Reserva, a Cava has to be aged for at least 30 months.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Wine Loft, Naples (FL): Not your father's wine bar

I spent last weekend in Naples -- Florida, that is. I know I should have my head examined for going there at this time of the year but I live in Florida; and it is hot everywhere. An already stellar weekend was capped by the discovery of two "do-over" spots: a French restaurant named Bleu Provence and an ultra-high-end wine bar named The Wine Loft. I will report on the restaurant in a future post.

The Wine Loft is located in Mercato Plaza, a mixed-use development located at the corner of Vanderbilt Beach Road and Tamiami Trail North. My wife and I had gone for a morning walk and, on our way back, made a detour into Mercato to buy juices from the Whole Foods located therein. On our way down Main Street, I espied the external portion of The Wine Loft but it was not yet open. After our return to the hotel, and brunch with our friends, we doubled back to check it out.

It was exquisite. Visually, it was everything that a wine bar should be; and more. The colors, the lighting, the fixtures, the design, the positioning of seating areas, the melding of inside and outside spaces, all combined to provide an extremely appealing and welcoming landscape. Its 3700 sq ft are divided between 3030 sq ft on the main floor and 750 sq ft in a mezzanine set aside for private events.

The Loft (

The establishment offers a full service bar as well as 33 red, 7 sparkling, and 25 white wines by the glass. A total of 300 wines are available, with Napa Valley wines dominant on the list. Lunch and dinner is available with offerings to include finger foods, soups and sandwiches, flatbreads, small plates, and desserts.

The Wine Loft's tag line is "Experience wine, food and friends in a Relaxing ... Upscale ... Atmosphere.

Nuff said.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: Inventing Wine

In the Introduction to his book (Inventing Wine: A New History of one of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures, Norton, 2012), Paul Lukacs contends that all previous histories have depicted the wine story as a continuum but that "... while wine is old, wine as we know it is new." As he sees it, "Far from being the end point in an unbroken series of vintages stretching back to antiquity, today's wines are the product of a set of radical, even revolutionary changes involving both how wine was produced and why it was drunk."

Lukacs makes his case in this comprehensive, multi-layered, multi-faceted treatise which organizes the history of wine into seven chapter-specific periods, all of which are connected by underlying themes of class, quality, taste, wine styles, and terroir, with today's wine as a constant reference point.

One of the devices utilized by Lukacs to illustrate the lack of continuity in wine history is to highlight the dominant conception of wine by contemporary drinkers through the ages. Using this approach he identifies the shifting utility of wine over time: a religious drink restricted to the elite from the early years through the Fall of Rome; "secularization of wine" during the Middle Ages and its use as a calorie supplement; scientific and technological modernization during the Rennaisance driving a "first European golden age of wine" in the 19th century; the second European golden age of wine; and stylistic and qualitative globalization in more recent times. In the first two periods mentioned, wine was characterized largely by poor quality and taste, situations that held until the Rennaisance and the invention of corks and hardy bottles and a better understanding of the science of fermentation. It was during this period that consumers began to store wines and appreciate qualities such as balance, depth, and length. This was truly the invention of modern wine.

The scope of this undertaking is truly breathtaking. Beginning with wine's discovery in the Neolithic period, Lukacs follows its trail through the ancient kingdoms into Egypt, Greece, and Rome, all the while painting a picture of its utility and utilization. And that trail continues to today's globalized wines and the arguments and discussions surrounding them. But it is not a purely longitudinal effort. Lukacs writes eloquently about the scientific and technological breakthroughs that brought wine to its current state but also delves into the lives and motivations of the leading oenological scientists. He not only writes about the wine regions that come to the fore over the course of history but also writes about the pioneering vineyardists and the writers who wrote about their vineyards. He writes about wine but also writes about the origin and strengths of competing beverages and spirits and the forces that propelled wine above the fray. He writes about the development of the middle class and the role that they played in the development and democratization of wine.

One of the ongoing discussions in todays wine press is the role of terroir in the production of fine wines (As a matter of fact, in some cases the discussion is much baser with the definition of terroir differing from author to author.). Lukacs weaves a history of terroir into this undertaking going back to the times when place was not a consideration and working his way up to the Cistercian monks and their seminal work on terroir to include, not only the growing environment, but also the grapes that were best suited to their operating environment in Burgundy. Lukacs goes to great lengths to explain that the Cistercians did not wall off vineyards in Burgundy to show which wines were better; they actually sought to identify differences in characteristics of the wines grown on separate plots. But he also shows that perception of quality can be pushed beyond the limiting factor of terroir. Lukacs points out that while a cru in Burgundy is a single plot, a cru in Bordeaux is a single proprietor. The concept of quality being extended to tradition was first mentioned in Jullien's 1816 publication Topographie and was fully embraced by Bordeaux proprietors in the 1850s where quality came to be defined as quality = cru (estate) + grapes (blend) + tradition. The success of Bordeaux vintners in getting customers to buy into the concept that demonstrated long-term quality production would most likely be repeated in present and future vintages led a number of visionary producers in other regions - Barolo, Gattinara, Asti, Montalcino, Rioja -- to invent traditions of their own and gain market acceptance of their wines in relatively short timeframes.

Lukacs sees this invention and re-invention of wine as continuing to the current day. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage is seen as an inflection point with more powerful wines gaining the attention of influential critics and, as result, the customer base. This move to power is accentuated by (i) producers vying for the attention of the critics and manipulating their wines in order to improve their scores and (ii) more intensely flavored wines being made from international grape varieties grown in environments where they ripen fully.

As good as it is, Inventing Wine suffers from a few shortcomings, the most obvious of which is limited copy editing prior to its finalization. Disconcertingly, the word "because" appears in numerous sentences throughout the book for no apparent reason. It does not fit into the sentences, has no correlation with the words preceding or succeeding, and basically renders the sentences indecipherable. It would appear that someone made a global change to the final version with unintended consequences; consequences that were not caught. Another shortcoming, from my perspective, was the paucity of statistics on vineyards, wine consumers, etc., so that one could get a sense of growth/engagement through the ages.

The foregoing notwithstanding, this book makes a clear and detailed case that modern wine is the result of a series of inventions that were made along the way and continue to this day. Some of these inventions were substantive while others were perceptive; some were wine-specific while others were tangential (the rise of restaurants, for example, helped to link the consumption of wine and food). Inventing Wine will increase your appreciation of modern wines and the wine industry but will require a significant time investment in order to reap its full benefit. It is best read with a pen and accompanying notepad.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme