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Wine has been an integral if not always necessary element of many of the world’s cuisines for a very long time now. Those intrepid proto-vintners of the Caucasus, the Georgians, assert that they’re working on their 8000th vintage (give or take a kveveri or two), a claim which places the origin of winemaking back to the early-neolithic.  

Evidence exists that the Chinese were in the game as far back as 3000 BCE, a millennium or so earlier than the first documented fermentations in the Nile Delta.  Wine was a ritual beverage at the courts of the great cereal empires of the ancient Near East for ages before being banished — or driven underground — by the Islamic conquest.

We know about the Greeks and Romans, of course, because they are the direct antecedents of modern Western wine culture, but it’s worth noting that classical-era wine practices differ markedly from our own. Then, wine was almost never drunk neat but always mixed with water and generally consumed after meals at male-only drinking parties called symposia.  The sterner sort of Roman husband thought it improper for his wife to drink wine at all.

If we define cuisine as a more or less durable socially-constructed schema for the preparing and consuming of food, then the places we assign to various consumables in the system will assume importance. Some examples of this (drawn from our own culture) might be (i) that the sweet course marks the end of the meal (we call it dessert); (ii) that a salad may be positioned as a first course and thereby function as an appetizer, or make its appearance after the main course as a kind of palate-cleanser; (iii) that a proper  main course requires a starch, a vegetable, and a protein source (or at least 2 out of 3).  

You might jump up a level and observe that behind these conventions are some more basic assumptions, namely that within the cuisine in question there are such things as appetizers, main courses, palate-cleansers, and desserts.**

Like a language, a cuisine has a grammar that may be fun to bend and even occasionally break, but which from day to day enjoys the status of a familiar and stable convention. It seems fair, then, to ask where wine fits into all this.  

I know at least one person - longtime director of beverage programs for a notable Boston restaurant group - who maintains that wine shouldn’t be considered a major component of a meal — its sole reason for being is to highlight or emphasize impressions made by foods.  He maintains that wine’s proper role is similar to that played by what we usually refer to as condiments.

There’s merit in this, I think, especially in the notion that it’s wine’s job to offer interludes of refreshment and sensory diversion to a meal. One of the reasons it’s possible to reduce wine to this subsidiary role may be that in the 21st century wine is no longer thought to make either significant contributions to nutrition or to aid in digestion, as had been believed since earliest times.  

Stripped of these employments wine may be a less formidable player in our cuisines than formerly.  But is it fair to demote it to the level of tartar sauce and wasabi paste?

My own view stops well short of this but has something important in common with it, too.  I prefer to think of the table as wine’s natural habitat but I’m inclined to treat it as just another kind of food.  Yes, wine offers counterpoint and I expect it to play nice with whatever else is on the plate,  but not in a way that’s essentially different from the way all the elements in a thoughtfully-prepared meal interact.  Wine feels more necessary to me than a condiment, even if it performs some of the same duty.

I haven’t polled anyone on this, but my sense is that this is the way most chefs see it. It may be that with the introduction of technology — the Coravin, for example — that makes it economically viable to offer diners small individual pours we may see chefs elbow the somm out of the picture.  In this scheme wine would take its place as one more element in each dish’s composition as engineered in the kitchen.  It makes perfect sense to me and I wonder we haven’t seen this practice get a foothold.

A third approach is taken by my old friend the Burgundy expert, and it’s both more radical and more conservative than either of the foregoing.  Radical because it tends to divorce wine from the table; conservative because it hearkens back to the post prandial symposia of the classical world.  His idea is that wine is a thing apart whose various features are best appreciated when considered on its own.

In this view, food is a kind of distraction that may be tolerated when the wine in question isn’t anything very special but not when something truly fine is in the glass.  In the latter case, wine deserves not to have to share the taster’s palate or his attention.

In the face of competing ideas about what wine is good for and how best to use it, it may be wise to recall that the many different faces of wine — white, red, pink, fizzy, still, dry, sweet, savory, young, old, gulpable, contemplative, New World, Old World, warm and cool-climate, mountain and valley, natural, technical, fortified, everyday, festive, traditional, visionary, peasant-cottage and palace-hall— means that there’s something for every one and every occasion and that it seems silly to pin yourself down to any single theory or practice that limits your ability to enjoy it all. 

-Stephen Meuse

** For more on cuisine as code see British sociologist Mary Douglas’s brilliant Deciphering a Meal.

I like wine that’s Italian and red.
"I shall have a Barolo," I said.
But I had to think twice
When they told me the price.
Now I favor barbera instead. 

The cute verse is from the site OEDILF.com where an editorial team and a host of contributors are compiling a complete English dictionary with each word defined within a Limerick. Hundreds, possibly thousands of words are already treated there in this way.  Start browsing and you’ll find it very hard to pull yourself away.  Some are awfully clever; some just ordinary. The effort is almost heroic — in a Quixotic sort of way.

Limericks earn their living by providing a form into which we pour words.  Like its low-rent sibling, the knock, knock joke, the scheme is nothing if not predictable. Once we hear the tuh tuh TUMP-itty TUMP-itty TUMP we  know what’s coming.  The expectation that the five lines of verse, once underway, will tumpitty-tump their way to a conclusion is part of the pleasure the Limerick provides.  Alter the familiar meter, add or subtract a line, fail to adhere to the rhyme scheme and you risk losing your audience.  ”Hey,” someone will say, “that’s no Limerick.”

I suppose if you were making an analogy to poetic forms, barbera would be something like a Limerick — a plebeian format that doesn’t rise to grand heights of expression or sentiment — while Barolo would be more like an epic poem, a serious theme expressed in a serious form like Longfellow’s dreamy dactylic hexameter (This is the forest primeval; the murmuring pines and the hemlocks) or Shakespeare’s march cadence blank verse (Yond Cassius hath a lean and hungry look).  But the idea is that each has a tumpitty-tump of its own to guide both those who write such things and those who read them.

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In the world of viticulture we have something variously called appellation d’origine protegée and denominazione di origine protetta  Briefly put, each is a collection of forms that wine can be poured into, the former being the French protocol, the latter Italy’s. Appellation law, wherever it exists, earns its living providing a set of familiar and approved patterns to which winemakers can tailor their wines.

The idea is that when a consumer hears Côtes du Rhone, for example, it’s like hearing “knock, knock.”  He knows what’s coming.  Should the winemaker disregard the traditional harvest dates, add an unauthorized grape variety, or fail to adhere to the minimum alcohol guidelines (all part of the prescribed pattern) he risks losing his audience.  ”Hey,” some one will say, “that’s no Côtes du Rhone” — and that someone would be right.

The system works smoothly for winemakers and wine drinkers alike until someone comes along for whom the accepted forms are more of a hindrance than a help.  The impulse to jump the fence and explore virgin territory is more likely to come from the vintner side of the equation than from consumers, although consumers become willing co-conspirators when they grow a bit weary of the expected and long for a fresh experience.

From the start, Central Bottle has had both a healthy respect for fine examples of traditional winemaking — let’s call it wine that rhymes — and a delight in the kind of fence-jumping and form-bending that results in bottles that either refuse to rhyme or, if they do, bump along at some idiosyncratic tump-itty tump we don’t yet recognize. There are any number ways for winemakers to go rogue in this way.  Let’s quickly look at five.

Natural wines.  The designation “natural” is a contentious one, so let’s just say that winemakers who work with a self-consciousness determination to intervene as little as possible as grape juice makes its way to a stable, palatable wine deserve to be thought of as working in a natural way. Natural wines have a rhyme scheme all their own, which is to say that, among other things, we see less consistency from one property to another even if they happen to be in the same appellation. Sometimes, wines made this way don’t show enough typicity (conformation to approved standards of taste) to be passed by appellation authority tasting panels, and thus be denied the designation they might otherwise qualify for.  Natural wines may also fall into any of the categories that follow …  or not.

Low to no sulfur wines.  Additions of sulfur at various stages of winemaking are made with a view to maintaining bright fruit flavors, aromas, and colors and suppressing unwanted bacterial activity. Without it, the pristine fruit and perfect clarity that characterizes modern, commercial white wine would be impossible. Eschew sulfur and you open the door to all manner of microflora that can subtly or dramatically alter the temperament of your wine.  Whether you call these elements faults or happy accidents largely determines whether you seek them out or avoid them as you would domestic Provolone.

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White wines made like reds. In conventional white wine-making fresh grapes are pressed and the juice fermented apart from any solid matter.  Red wines are made by crushing grapes so that fermentation takes place in the presence of all the solid matter (skins, pulp, seeds, sometimes stems).  

The tannins and pigments this process extracts are what make red wine what it is. Give white grapes the red grape treatment and what you get is  a white wine with flashes of the color, texture, and grip of a red. Tasting what are often called orange wines (for the amber hue they assume) can be a real paradigm shifter.

Wines in non-standard packaging.  At this point, there’s nothing terribly exciting to say about bag-in-box or TetraPaks  except this: we’re beginning to see the kind of wine we’re actually willing to drink appear in these formats. The disconnect for the consumer comes when long-established ideas about bottle and cork being the one true and unfailing guarantee of quality wine meets this new reality.  

But it isn’t just consumers who are flummoxed.  When Michael Schmelzer of the Tuscan wine estate Monte Bernardi turned to the TetraPak as a way to create a new line of value-priced Chianti made with purchased fruit, he was not allowed to label it with the designation he would otherwise have been entitled to (Chianti Classico).  Because it was not put in bottle and under cork as prescribed by the appellation rules, he is forbidden from calling it anything more important than “Tuscan Red Wine.”

Unchaptalized wines.  It’s not legal everywhere, but in most parts of northern Europe it’s perfectly normal and accepted procedure to add sugar to fermenting musts in years when nature doesn’t provide the ripeness required to raise alcohols to what are thought to be appropriate levels.  Although widespread, the technique (called chaptalization after the its early 19th century inventor) doesn’t add anything BUT alcohol to the finished wine and for this reason some few winemakers have forsworn the practice.  

Wine with lower alcohol can be charming and more drinkable; evidently this is the idea behind Loire Valley vintner Olivier Lemasson’s decision to forego it. Chapatalization isn’t required by any wine law I know of, but the tasting panel in Touraine rewarded Lemasson for his aesthetic decision by denying him the appellation status he would otherwise be entitled to.  Instead of labeling his wine Touraine, he markets it as Vin de France - and is thus barred from indicating either the source of the fruit or the vintage.

Wines that don’t rhyme can be demanding.  They require time and expertise to sell, and they ask consumers to still their impatience while old expectations are gradually displaced with new ones.  Not every wine shop or every consumer is willing to make the effort.  We do, because in the end we think that wine, like poetry or any other art form, has the obligation to progress even if that only means replacing one tumpitty-tump with another.

-Stephen Meuse

Got a wine question? Email me at stephen@centralbottle.com

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In the absence of a more profound understanding about why vine no. 1 planted just here will make wine subtly different from vine no. 2 of a like variety planted just there, we have decided that the answer is terroir, defined as the sum of those physical factors in play within a delimited geographic area that together make it unique as a production environment. 

Terroir is now firmly established as the wine buzzword of our time.  You simply cannot read anything written on wine subjects in the last 10 years that doesn’t dwell on it, nor are you likely to engage in a conversation with a wine retailer or sommelier who will fail in the very early going to resort to use of the term.  It’s on the tip of every tongue in the business.

This is not to say that terroir was an unknown concept before 2004. It has long existed in the French language and been borrowed by English to refer, quite simply, to the ground - more specifically, the terrain that hosts and nourishes a given vineyard.  But terroir has always meant more than a heap of dirt and stones arranged in a certain way and with such and such a composition. Or perhaps I should say it has always suggested something more.

In looking for the source of the idea of terroir I think you have to go all the way back to the Greek physician Hippocrates (at least this is far back as I’ve been able to trace the idea), who, seeking an explanation for differences in the bodies and dispositions of various tribes and races, found it in the character of the places they inhabited.  Here’s a typical passage from his 4th century B.C.E. treatise “Airs, Waters, Places:”

Such as inhabit a country which is mountainous, rugged, elevated, and well-watered, and where the changes of the seasons are very great, are likely to have a great variety of shapes among them, and to be naturally of an enterprising and warlike disposition; and such persons are apt to have no little of the savage and ferocious in their nature; but such as dwell in places which are low-lying, abounding in meadows and ill-ventilated, and who have a larger proportion of hot than of cold winds, and who make use of warm waters — these are not likely to be of large staure or well-proportioned, but are of a broad make, fleshy, and have black hair; and they are rather of a dark than of a light complexion  … courage and laborious enterprise are not in them.  

The idea that human personality is a product of a specific physical environment isn’t very popular psychology or sociology today, but if you’re a cheese or an olive or a wine it’s a different story — this is exactly what makes you what you are.  It’s the facts on (and in) the ground that give a “personality” distinct from others.  

Terroir acts upon and bends to its will things produced within its zone of influence, so it seems as though its fair to ask what this zone of influence is and how far it extends. For example, in Burgundy a terroir is typically associated with a single vineyard sites, climats as they are called.

But it’s also common to hear someone speak of the distinction that has long been noticed in pinot noir wines produced in the northern section of the main slope — the Côtes de Nuits - as opposed to the southern part, the Côtes de Beaune.  And these two largish prestige areas (the slope is about 30 miles in length running roughly north-south) are always distinguished from the section below this, the Côte Chalonnaise, which makes wine of distinctly different stripe and thus, we can assume, deserves to be thought of as a terroir in its own right.

You can just keep going up the scale.  Surely Burgundy and Alsace deserve to be thought of two different terroirs, as do Champagne and Touraine in the Loire Valley. But at some point we have to ask how large an area can be before its parts fail to have enough in common to share a single terroir identity, or, to put it another way, to share a personality.  If, as we noted at a recent tasting table experiment, the wines of Madiran, Gaillac, and Cahors are all representative of distinct terroirs, is it also true that they all emblematic of the terroir we call the French Southwest?

It seems problematic to me that when you’re talking about an area that stretches from the sea-level vineyards of Bordeaux in the west to the edge of Languedoc-Roussilon with its Mediterranean-influenced climate in the east that terroir is the most useful way to talk about the similarities we notice in the wines produced there. But the personality is there nonetheless, I think, especially in the region’s red wines. In the robustness of the fruit, the sturdy texture, the generally solid acidity, and the earthy bass notes there is a consonance that’s impossible not to notice.

Whether terroir is a powerful enough on regional scale to accomplish this kind of consonance, isn’t clear.  For a while at least the sources of personality in wine may well remain about as puzzling as in people. 

-Stephen Meuse 

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There are a handful of really hot topics in the world of wine right now and one of them concerns an approach to growing grapes that’s known as biodynamics. One way to describe it is as a set of farming practices that takes organic agriculture to another level and adds a metaphysical twist. Let’s consider what makes biodynamic methods distinctive, what it takes to make a biodynamic wine, and whether the practice of biodynamics in the vineyard results in measurably better wine.

A bit of history
Biodynamics are the brainchild of the Austrian-born philosopher, social theorist, and mystic Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner’s most enduring legacy until now has been the Waldorf School approach to education, but he also dabbled in alternative medicine before developing the principles of biodynamic agriculture (he coined the term). And while much of what Steiner had to say about planetary cycles, life forces, and reincarnation seems bizarre or at the very least unverifiable, these notions don’t seem to have limited his appeal to those who have found in biodynamics a practical alternative to conventional agriculture.

Isn’t biodynamics just old-fashioned farming?
Not really. While there are some aspects of biodynamics that have similarities with traditional, pre-industrial agriculture or are at least appear to be in sympathy with it, biodynamics are a 20th century invention by an urban intellectual who never spent any time on a farm and didn’t drink wine.

How does it actually work?
Biodynamic practice begins with the assumption that you are already farming organically and are committed to working without the aid of industrial fertilizers or chemical herbicides and pesticides. On top of this, biodynamics asks you to make use of a series of nine preparations, some of which are sprayed directly on plants or soil, but most of which are applied to compost. They include stinging nettle tea, flower heads of the yarrow plant fermented in a stag’s bladder, and oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal. These preparations needn’t be made on the farm but can be purchased. The timing of the applications is considered very important. Many farm activities are timed to coincide with phases of the moon.

If it sounds a little like voodoo to you, that’s exactly what many of its critics say. For me, the mystery is less what the sprays consist of than that they are applied in such dilute concentrations that they seem too weak to be effective.

Is there a scientific basis for biodynamics?
The short answer is no, but this may just because we haven’t yet done the research required to say one way or the other. There have been studies done that appear to show that vines are in better condition when maintained biodynamically, although yields may be a bit lower.

What any wine grower can see is that biodynamically farmed soils are generally in better condition than conventionally farmed soils, but whether this is attributable to biodynamics or just to the basic improvement brought about by organic farming and the very conscientious nature of persons who take biodynamics seriously is hard to say.

Clearly, no one trained in scientific method is going to be very happy with the more metaphysical aspects of biodynamics, which posit occult forces and cosmic influences that science just doesn’t recognize.

What does biodynamic wine taste like?
Since the preparations I’ve described aren’t put into wine,but only applied to vines or composts, there’s no reason for biodynamic wine to taste startlingly different from conventionally-farmed wine.  Although some winemakers who have conducted trials on their own properties claim that wine from their biodynamically farmed plots tastes somewhat different than wine from other plots, it’s not likely to be a dramatic difference unless the conventional plots were being very badly farmed to begin with. Our in-store tastings bear out this impression.

Why, then, do some biodynamic wines taste unusual?
Biodynamicsregulate practices in the vineyard, but don’t have much to say about how wine is processed in the cellar. However, since this approach is very popular with people who carry their interest in “natural” winemaking into the wine cellar, it’s often the case that biodynamic wine is also made with little to no sulfur. Low-sulfur wines tend to present rather differently from their conventionally sulfured counterparts—often as less brightly fruity. This is especially the case with white wines.

Is it only off-the-grid types who practice biodynamics?
Absolutely not. The number of biodynamic growers seems to be increasing annually and it has a number of devotees among very notable and successful wine properties in France, Germany, Austria, and the United States—including some corporate-owned properties.

How can I identify a biodynamic wine?
You can look for a wine that carries a certification indicator on the label. Demeter is the largest certifying organization by far, founded in 1928. It is international, with member organizations in many countries. A rival certifying group, called Biodyvin, was created in 1995.  As is the case with organic practice, many growers aren’t willing to pay for certification or choose not to conform fully to the requirements.

Of course the best way to get the low-down on any wine you’re wondering about is come into Central Bottle and ask us about it.

-Stephen Meuse

Got a question about wine?  Email me at stephen@centralbottle.com 

Stephen Meuse can be reached at tableintime@icloud.com

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Early in his career Robert Mondavi recognized that he could differentiate his California-made wine from those made in Europe by emphasizing the inherently fruity character of the former. In comparative tastings he habitually badgered guests into conceding that while European wine was often good California wines were “just a bit fruitier” and therefore just a bit better.  The reasoning followed this line: because it is made from fruit, wine’s most perfect expression one that most resembles fruit. In his winemaking Mondavi favored an approach that pushed fruit to the fore.

His reasoning and winemaking practice seemed sound enough at the time, so long as one didn’t examine the logic behind either too closely. Why exactly did something that started as fruit have to retain its fruity character in the finished product?  Aged Gouda starts out as fresh milk, but a slice of this hard, waxy, dark orange cheese bears so little resemblance to what was squeezed from the udder of a cow you’d never connect the two without being told they’re related.  Would we take seriously a person who claimed that cheese should only be made in ways that preserve the taste of fresh milk?  Should vodka taste like a potato?

Mondavism, if that’s what we should call it, hasn’t entirely passed from the scene, but it’s being gradually displaced by a new dogmatism that’s really an old dogmatism. It’s the notion that the most important thing in winemaking isn’t preserving a connection to the taste of fruit, but to the taste of the land where the wine originated. I call it an old idea because we know that from the days when the Pharoahs cultivated vines in the Nile delta individual wines were known to express character based on the vineyards they were sourced from, and that this individuated quality was prized.

In Burgundy, where religious orders began their survey of vineyard sites early in the Christian era, the tendency of certain plots to express distinctive character in wine was noted from the very outset and informed the whole approach to winemaking there. And though this way of looking at wine was mostly confined to the best vineyards and top properties in this prestige growing region, the last 20 years or so has seen a dramatic emigration of the idea to almost everywhere wine is made. Now that every vineyard site however humble has a character to express it’s become every vintners first responsibility to work in a way that throws this character into high relief.  

Wine drinkers, too, labor under a new mandate: to find their highest pleasure in detecting and appreciating the marginal differences that ensue from this kind of winemaking.

Of course, there’s still plenty of disagreement about what’s mainly responsible for the expression of individual character in wine, but right now, if you had to bet, you’d be wise to put your money on soils because that’s where the rhetoric is.

In the soil-as-primary-determinant-of-wine-character theory it’s the mineral content and the organization dirt and rock in vineyards that sets the tone for the wine that issues from it, and while science hasn’t yet blessed this hypothesis the notion that geology is destiny seems to have a powerful hold on us. Which begs the question: what is so enthralling about soils anyway, and why are we so ready to find in them a simple answer to what is by all accounts a very complicated problem?

Now that every vineyard site however humble has a character to express it’s become every vintners first responsibility to work in a way that throws this character into high relief.  

I can only speculate, but I would say first that a big part of the attractiveness of ground as the primary source of differentiation in wine can be attributed to its brute tangibility. Land has a physical solidity that makes other terroir factors (latitude, degree days, rainfall, day-night temperature differentials) seem ephemeral by contrast. From a purely practical point of view, when the time comes to identify the source of the character of the wine in your glass it helps for there to be some physical thing to point to. Rocks give you that.

But it’s not just crude mass that gives ground its evocative power. Terrain conveys an impression of both duration and durability.  Geological changes don’t occur on a time scale commensurate with a human life or even human evolution and as long as humans have been gazing at the landscape it has looked essentially the same.  As far as we can determine from our own experience, the fields, valleys, low hills, and lofty peaks that surround us have always been here and always will be.  

Our sense of the primordial permanence of terrain is memorialized in conversational riffs such as old as the hills and older than dirt. Eternity itself seems to be rooted in the soil, at least from a human perspective. Adam was made of the dust of the earth and to it we all return.

We like, too, to think of the character of a historic wine as a durable thing, as a taste that reaches back over centuries. It pleases us to imagine that if a Burgundian monk-vintner from the fifteenth century were to rise from the dead with his memory intact he could, given the chance, readily distinguish a modern-day Chambolle-Musigny from a contemporary Gevrey-Chambertin. And if he did, what more plausible justification for this persistence of expression could we find than the underlying geology of the Côte de Nuits, essentially unchanged in 600 years?  What besides the land has stood still over centuries?

Soils monopolize our attention for another less obvious reason: the rough consonance that exists between the number of distinguishable types of wine and the number of discrete kinds of geologies that are purported to nurture them.  If we’re going to assert that for every wine that exhibits a certain set of traits there is a soil type that corresponds to and accounts for it, we’re going to have to show that there is a rough correlation between the number of soils and the number of wine types.  

There’s no way to count them of course, but it seems to me that the number of existing soil profiles and the multiplicity of identities wine is able to assume are consonant, if only on an order of magnitude level.  If this weren’t the case, the idea of a one-to-one correspondence between them wouldn’t be the sort of idea a reasonable person could entertain.

Finally, soils are compelling because we find the flavors and aromas of the ground in our wine. Minerality, you might say, has become the new fruit; the way fine wine ought to express itself.  And while it has been demonstrated that those aspects of wine that are conventionally described as minerally or earthy are actually either sulfur compounds generated during fermentation or plant compounds attributable to vine biology, it doesn’t change the fact that for us these tastes and smells are more reminiscent of soils and stones than anything else we can compare them to.

One day we may know just how much of a contribution soils make in determining wine character and understand how they interact in their seemingly infinite variety with those other durable environmental factors — climate, exposition, latitude, etc — that we have reason to think have a role to play too.

Meanwhile, and until some more compelling theory comes along to displace it, dirt, rocks, soils, and stones seem destined for a good long run as Explainers-in-Chief, even if the confidence we place them is largely derived from appeals to own imaginations.

-Stephen Meuse

Got a wine question?  Email me at stephen@centralbottle.com

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The twentieth may have been the American century, but it was during the eighteenth that we made the transition from an ethnically uniform but marginally viable colony of the British Empire clinging tenaciously to the east coast of North America to a fully independent administration taking its place and its chances among  the nations of the world.

The Declaration of Independence is still a thrill to read 238 years after its composition by a youthful Thomas Jefferson under the watchful eyes of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

It’s not clear how or on what timetable the declaration was actually read or heard by citizens of the spanking new United States of America, but if you were a partisan of independence it must have rejoiced your heart to read such a stirring defense of your cause and driven you to raise a glass to its prospects.  But what would that glass have held?

Let’s survey the possibilities …

Cider.   Hard cider was a staple drink wherever the apple tree could be induced to fruit - and that was much of North America.  According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, fermented apple juice was colonial America’s “foremost beverage and remained so well into the nineteenth century.”  Without further elaboration apple cider could attain alcohols of no more than about 6%, but freezing or boiling the juice would concentrate the sugars and result in the more potent drink known as applejack. An infusion of rum could be added to achieve the same purpose. Cider was rural America’s daily drink.

Beer and Ale.  One reason the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 and not at “Hudson’s River” (the original destination) was because they were running low on stores of beer and there was fear that if they went further there wouldn’t be enough left for the ship’s crew to make the return voyage. With no barley at hand the pilgrim community struggled to make beer with whatever grain that could be had, including Indian corn (maize).   The first licensed brewery in Boston was established in Charleston in 1637.

By the 1660’s there was a sufficient number of breweries to require legislation establishing minimum quality standards. In the years leading up and during to the revolution taverns where beer and ale were served abounded and assumed importance as places where groups met to discuss grievances and strategy, in some cases serving as nurseries for what would become state government. In 1787, on the last day of deliberations by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, General Washington made this note in his diary: The business being closed, the members adjourned to the City Tavern.  Beer was, as it is today, the sociable drink of masses of Anglo-American males.

Whiskey.  Emigrants with Scottish or Irish roots arrived in the American colonies with a taste for this distilled spirit and a talent for making it (or maybe it’s the other way around). Scots-Irish immigration rose mightily in the 1730’s and so did the number of stills, but New England wasn’t the best place for growing wheat or rye.  Better soils for these grains (and corn) were found further west, in Pennsylvania and Virginia.  Washington maintained a distillery on his estate at Mt. Vernon where, in 1799, he produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey.

One powerful motivation for making whiskey in early America was provided by the bad condition of roads and consequent high costs of transport: distilling condensed many barrels of grain into a single barrel of fiery spirit.  

When the young republic attempted to raise cash to pay off its revolutionary war debt by taxing whiskey and bourbon in 1791,  it found itself with a full-scale rebellion of its own on its hands. From the beginning whiskey seems to have been a drink of the frontier rather than of the republic’s more well-established communities.

Rum.  Distilled directly from sugar or from molasses, a by-product of sugar refining, rum was for a while the most popular and widely available distilled spirit in the northeast colonies, though there would have been both a measure of poetic justice and no little irony involved in toasting independence with a cup of  it. Justice, since British taxing of rum’s raw materials in the Molasses Act of 1733 and the Sugar Act of 1764 was a continuing cause of colonial vexation.

From the beginning whiskey seems to have been a drink of the frontier rather than of the republic’s more well-established communities.

Irony, because rum production anchored one corner of the infamous triangle trade by which molasses shipped to New England from the Caribbean was processed into rum which was then exchanged on the West Coast of Africa for slaves.  The human cargo was in turn shipped to the Caribbean for sale to planters who needed workers for the notoriously labor-intensive work of sugar manufacture - completing the vicious commercial polygon.

One wonders how a citizen of Boston could so so obtuse as to celebrate the declaration’s daring assertionthat all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with a tot of rum. Not much yo ho ho in that.

Punches.  Early versions of what we would later refer to as cocktails were generally rum-based with fruit juice added. Punch was popular at mixed-sex gatherings where the drink was considered more genteel than beer or hard liquor.

Punches were inevitably social in nature. Men eager to establish a bond of solidarity passed the punch bowl around for all to drink from.  Grog, the traditional beverage mixed and served out twice-daily to ordinary seaman in the British and American navies consisted of rum, water, and lime juice (to fend off scurvy), was a kind of punch.  More menacing than a flogging, a threat to “stop your grog” was usually enough to return the surliest foretopman to his duty.

Wine.  The vision of Jefferson sipping claret in the dining room of  Monticello colors our view of wine in this period, but Jefferson was a wealthy man and had spent a significant time in France first as a diplomat and later as a tourist.  His deep knowledge of and experience with French wine was  atypical, however. For most of the eighteenth century, beginning with the war of the Spanish Secession in 1702 and carrying on until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 Britain and its colonies were at war with France and so its subjects were periodically either cut off from the sources of French wine or forced to pay very high duties on its importation.  As for local wines made from native U.S. grapes, that project had been a failure pretty much wherever it was tried.

The Methuen Treaty of 1704 brought the Portuguese into alliance with Britain against France with a promise that Portuguese wines would always be taxed at a rate lower than French wine. Reflecting on the event in 1824, Alexander Henderson wrote “By taxing any commodity excessively, the use of it will, no doubt, become confined to the wealthiest classes … and this may be said to have the case with the wines of France.”

The treaty gave a boost to the production of the powerful, fortified wines of the Douro known as Oporto or Port, which subsequently became a favorite of British drinkers. But British and British colonial consumers had long been keen on the sugary, high-alcohol wines produced in Spain in Portugal in part since they were more durable on long ocean voyages. The English delight in the wines of Jerez - sherry or sherris-sack) is documented as far back as  Shakespeare’s time.

The powerful, durable, partially oxydized wines that had their origins on the island of Madeira (Portugal), the Canary Islands (Spain), and in Malaga on the Andalusian coast were robust, affordable alternatives to the products of French vineyards and in every year from 1696 to1785 imports of these wines dwarfed those of France.*   In the colonies, European wine would have been a drink confined to the wealthy professional, merchant, or land-owning classes.

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In 1776 the neonatal nation as a whole had a wide variety of beverages to choose from in standing to offer a toast on what has become known as Independence Day, but any individual’s experience was likely to be severly circumscribed by any number of social, geographic, and economic factors.

So what should it be in 2014?  Considering the crucial help the French gave our fledgling republic in the years from 1778 to 1783, and the fact that they bankrupted themselves doing it, I’ll be raising a glass of the best claret in my cellar - and damn the duty.

-Stephen Meuse

Got a question about wine? Email me at stephen@centralbottle.com

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All New England knows that with June comes the one brief shining moment that’s known as Camelot - uh, strawberry season.  The flavors of our cool-climate berries have an intensity and complexity that the California version can’t equal. The heart-breaking shortness of the season only intensifies the maniacal delight we take in them.

I’ve long been persuaded that ripe, fresh strawberries and the lightly-sweet, lightly sparkling white wine from Italy’s Piedmont region known as Moscato d’Asti constitute one of the world’s most perfect food-wine pairings - on a par with grilled sardines and vinho verde or Kabinett-style riesling and lobster.  Every June presents another opportunity to demonstrate the sheer sex appeal of this luscious liaison, and we owe it all - or most of it anyway - to terpenes.

Yes, terpenes — a 400 strong group of organic compounds produced by a large number of plants and even some insects. Tree resin is rich in terpenes, for example, and when you inhale the scented air of a pine forest, most of what you’re smelling can be booked to these compounds.  Strawberries, it turns out, have an abundance of terpenes and so does the fruit of the moscato bianco vine - the sole grape from which Moscato d’Asti can be made. Is this the reason they seem so perfect for each other?

If you’ve ever wondered how it is that something as simple as a grape can produce the kaleidoscope of flavors we taste in wine, terpenes should interest you. They play key roles in some of the most flamboyantly aromatic white wines  known - including the ancient and many-branched muscat family, gewurztraminer, pinot gris, semillon, sauvignon blanc, and riesling.

Precisely how terpenes choose to make their presence known is still rather puzzling in the sense that while muscat grapes have many times the terpene content of riesling, the compound can be as pronounced in one as in the other. This suggests that many factors are at work in how these complex scents and flavors actually develop in finished wine.  Some terpenes keep mum (lie below the threshold of perception) while others shout from the rooftops.

If you’ve ever wondered how it is that something as simple as a grape can produce the kaleidoscope of flavors we taste in wine, terpenes should interest you.

These pungent chemicals have protean shape-shifting powers, presenting differently depending on which of about six different varieties is dominant.  The terpene Linalol (also found in lavender, bergamot, and clove) contributes floral, rose-like scents to wine. Nerol (orange blossom, mint, ginger) offer notes of citronella.  Geroniol (nutmeg, basil, rosemary) presents grapefruit and citrus rind elements.  It’s these three working in tandem that give muscat grapes their characteristically high-flying floral-spicy-citrussy aromatics.

Like most flavor and aroma builders, terpenes are found primarily in the skins of grapes and riper grapes contain higher levels. I’ve read (but haven’t been able to confirm) that Geraniol is so important for making Moscato d’Asti that’s true to type that grapes that test for high levels of it sell for more per ton.  

Isabella Oddero, whose exceptionally aromatic wine was the runaway favorite at our tasting explained in an email that “while the Consorzio di Tutela dell’Asti regularly controls the grapes in the vineyards and sometimes realizes some specific chemical analysis in order to test the aromatic level of the fruits (including of course terpene compound geroniol)” she has not heard that it actually affects the price of grapes. 

I’m not sure I’d be willing to go on record as that wine and foods that share an important and dominant flavor compound can always be counted on to find a soul mate in each other.  And it certainly is true that the extravagantly  perfumed moscato of Asti pairs beautifully with all manner of fresh summer fruit, fruit tarts, cobblers, grunts, and bettys - and not just strawberries. But if you’d like to know what happens when a food and a wine twirl around in tandem with a perfection that bears comparison to a dance routine by Rogers and Astaire, you’ve got about two more weeks to find out.

- Stephen Meuse

Got a wine question? Email me at stephen@centralbottle.com

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Andrew Bishop, 45, grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, toured in a rock band, had a stint in the 1990’s as bar manager at “Boston’s first real wine bar,” Les Zygomates, and in 2000 bought a container of wine in Western Australia, brought it into the U.S. and sold it all. Today he’s founder and owner of Oz Wine Company.  Bishop lives with his wife Chom and two sons in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Oz imports and distributes wine from 175 properties in 10 countries.  Among those that will be familiar to Central Bottle regulars are Domaine Richou, Mas de Libian, Vadiaperti, and Bodegas de Ameztoi.  I sat down with Andrew earlier this month in Cambridge. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat. 

The transition from wine bar manager to wine importer seems logical enough, but how did it happen?
I was getting tired of the restaurant life in 1999, five years at it seemed to be enough. I was single and had saved some money. I started traveling and visited my ex-stepfather and his friends in Hong Kong. They had some money to invest, were interested in the wine business and asked me to help. I traveled to California and Australia for them, looked at some vineyards, and put together a little bit of a business plan. I told them that they were looking at millions of dollars and that somebody would have to know how to grow grapes and make wine.

The sensible thing would be just to lend me some money. I told them, “Look, you guys give me $60K and I will put together a container of wine and go back to the States and sell it. You each get a few cases  of the wine and I’ll pay back your investment.”  This was in 2001.

I incorporated as Oz Pacific and initially focused on wine from Western Australia — cooler climate stuff from obscure appellations like Mount Barker and Swan Valley.  I brought in the container of wine and when it got here I had to figure out what to do with it.  I decided to go national and sold the wine to people in Chicago, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, and Texas.   I also placed some with Ideal Wine & Spirits in Massachusetts.

I got really lucky. I had nothing really set up. I visited each market and helped sell the wine. It took me about 9 months to get rid of all 1200 cases. I was having a really good time. Things started rolling pretty well.

How long before you made it a full-time job?
I was never doing it 100% until 2004.  Meanwhile, I was making furniture with my buddy.  I also worked briefly as a wine buyer at Leary’s in Natick.  Nothing really became serious until our first son was born. I decided to commit to wine, but I was bored with Australia.  My heart was really in Europe. The only way to start fresh was to get rid of the whole Australia thing.  

I started building a little portfolio of wines from national  importers and just operated as a Massachusetts distributor.   But after doing this for a while, I decided I wanted to get back to what I started out doing, which was finding my own wines and bringing them in.  I thought I could do just as good a job as anyone else. In 2006 I made a big push to do that.

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What do you think your portfoilio represents, and how did you arrive at the taste in wine you have?  How do you decide whether to take a grower on board?

My portfolio has changed quite a bit over the years and it’s always evolving. I’m adamant about finding terroir wines.  I know it sounds like a cliché but for me unless a wine has a sense of place it’s nothing special.  

I’ve always tried to put together a portfolio of winemakers who agree with that, whose wines taste like they come from that particular place.  We have a mix of wines made in a natural way and some that aren’t — lots of organic growers, some biodynamic, some sustainable.

If I taste a wine and have a positive reaction to it and really like the people I’m going to buy it from, then I’m in. I don’t follow trends because they always seem to come back around to where they started.

Sense of place seems like a vague concept.  If you’re in the French southwest, what is the place?  Is it the whole French southwest? Someplace as specific as Gaillac?  Some sub-section of Gaillac?
If I go to a place like Gaillac and I find something I like that is different and interesting, that’s the intial spark. After that I explore the neighborhood.  I want to know who are the people doing the best thing here and who are aren’t doing the best thing.  I’m loooking for the growers who do the best job of getting the typical flavors of that place into their wine.

So, if you find someone who’s doing a good job, but his wines are not typical, then you’re not interested?
Right. Wines that aren’t typical don’t interest me at all.

Well, let’s say you’re at a big wine fair and moving from table to table.  You don’t really know the people, so what do you have to taste to get interested?
I guess the best way to answer this is to say that it’s the initial taste, the initial vibe you get. The people can be nice or not, but if the wine speaks to me first, then i’m intrigued.

How does wine speak?
Its a personal thing.  When I taste I ask do I want to drink more of this or not?  Is there something different here that I haven’t gotten before?  Maybe I just think its plain deliciousness. That’s a very important thing.

Is there a set of features that you think indicates quality?
I really like earthy flavors and I think these flavors come more from winemakers who don’t manipulate the wine as much. I like wines that spend more time on the lees; I like wines that are unfiltered and unfined. These are all factors I think about.

How do you see the current state of wine?   What changes have you seen since you were behind the bar at Les Zyg?
I think that there have been a lot of changes. For one thing, there’s much better wine out there now than in the past. People seem to be paying more attention to fine wine, too. In our market, the old dinosaurs have their loyalties and haven’t changed their wine list for years, but a younger group are making inroads, trying to taste new stuff.  It’s an exciting time to be in the wine biz and i think its only going to get better. I’m really optimistic.

One of the things you have to notice is the growing number of companies that focus solely on naturally-made wines. It’s something that’s happened over the last 10 years or so that’s been interesting to watch.  Some of these wines I like, some I don’t really get. It makes people think about wine in a different way.  But I’m concerned that natural wine isn’t always about where the wine is from.

Really?  Some would say that the only way to have a true expression of place is to take a step back from winemaking and let it happen as naturally as possible.
I’m saying that a lot of these natural wines taste the same to me.  And in this sense they have something in common with industrial wine. You have something that’s made in a certain place, but it all tastes like it might have come from anywhere. You can make syrah in La Mancha so that it tastes exactly like shiraz from Australia or maybe Argentina. That’s a problem I have with natural wines. There are always exceptions, but I don’t really see the difference. 

What do you wish wine drinkers knew about wine that they don’t seem to?
I would start out with California pinot noir and tell everybody who is paying $20 for it to cut it out and stop telling me, when they taste my Burgundies, that my wine is too light.  Let me just say that in California you can blend 25% of whatever you want into that wine.  It drives me crazy because people are being duped. That’s number one.

Number two, be willing to taste more things. I love U.S. wine but i don’t love it nearly as much as European wine.  Part of it is that we don’t have that many appellations here and we’re only using about seven varietals.  Europe is where it’s at.  

Go to Italy and you’re going to be able to try 70 or 80 different kinds of wine, all with different flavor profiles, and you won’t spend an arm and leg on them. Basically, I would say get out of your comfort zone.  People who want to take wine seriously should try a lot of different things.

There seems to be progression in taste as you get more experienced - first something sweet, then something fruity, then something a little bit lighter, not as heavy.

Your desert island wine?
Beaujolais! I’m always happy with it, I can drink it any time of the year and it’s always fresh and fun.

-Stephen Meuse

Got a question about wine? Email me at stephen@centralbottle.com

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Glou-glou. Jaunty French slang for simple, fruity wine that’s so delightful to drink you scarcely give a thought to anything but the pleasure it gives.  I think of glou-glou (pronounce it gloo-gloo) as red wine, although the distinction is hardly an important one.  

The term is pretty well current in English-speaking wine circles now, in part thanks to the influence of the late Joe Dressner, whose delight in lighter-bodied, high-acid, naturally-made wine gave a distinct twist to the importer’s portfolio.

At a recent Central Bottle tasting devoted to the genre we sipped the a fizzy little rosé of pinot noir from Austria, a sprightly gamay from the Côte Roannaise, and a juicy Bardolino - all very glou-glou.  If you missed it, drop by and we’ll point you in the right direction.

Preparation 500.  Biodynamics seems to have made more headway in wine grape farming than in almost any other branch of agriculture, but very few wine enthusiasts can tell you what it involves in terms of actual process. At the heart of the program are nine prescribed “preparations,”  but the one that seems to be the starting point and most often spoken-of  is Preparation 500.

The recipe involves packing the horns of cows (not bulls, bro!) with manure and burying them in the ground at the time of the autumnal equinox.  In the spring, the horns are exhumed and the now thoroughly composted manure is mixed with water, stirred (first in one direction, then the other), strained and sprayed on the surface of the vineyard at the rate of one horn;s worth for each hectare (two and a half acres).

The idea is to give the microbial life of the soil a boost, foster the development of humus, and encourage roots to go deep.  It’s desirable for all the biodynamic preparations to be made on site, but Demeter, the largest organization certifying biodynamic practice permits it to be put up and purchased commercially.

For some, the proposition that such tiny amounts of organic matter could have a measurable effect on the health or fertility of soils casts doubt on the whole biodynamic premise.  Others find it intuitively valid.  The orthodox scientific community has yet to confirm any biodynamic claim.

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Volatile acidity. Volatility refers to the tendency of a given substance to vaporize at room temperature.  The main volatile acid in wine is acetic acid, which can occur in modest and inobtrusive amounts as a by-product of fermentation, but can be distracting and off-putting when generated in copious amounts by the bacteria known as acetobacters, the microbial agents intent on turning our wine into vinegar.

Wines with excessive volatile acidity (it’s often just called V.A.) can smell like something that belongs on the salad and not in your glass. In more extreme cases, like nail polish remover or even model airplane glue.

Long considered a wine fault, volatile acidity is encountered with enough frequency in wines made in a self-consciously natural style that it’s beginning to be thought of less as a mistake than as an added point of interest or ‘complexing agent.’

The degree to which it can be tolerated varies from person to person.  My toleration level ends when there’s enough V.A. present to become distracting - my new standard for deciding whether should be considered a fault.

Chaptalization. A method of raising the potential alcohol of wine grapes by adding cane, beet sugar, or concentrated, unfermented grape juice to the fermenting tank.

The process takes its name from chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal who invented the technique in the early 19th century and is widely practiced in Europe, especially in northern vineyards where adequate ripeness (and potential alcohol) has historically been more difficult to achieve.

EU rules permits “enrichment,” as it is generically called, in some designated geographic regions and forbids it in others. Italian wine law (which trumps the EU regulations on this point) bans the practice entirely.  The gradual warming of vineyards seems to be making it somewhat less necessary than in the past (potential alcohol levels are rising naturally).   Many winemakers in the naturalist camp avoid it on principle as an unwarranted manipulation.

Punching down/pumping over.  In a vat of fermenting red wine the carbon dioxide tends to lift solids (grapeskins, stems, pips) to the surface forming a floating cap of solids. To promote aeration and the extraction of tannins and pigments winemakers want to keep the solids submerged.

They achieve this either by pushing the cap back down into the tank with a tool designed for the purpose (punching down), or by drawing wine from the bottom of the tank and spraying it over the cap (pumping over).

These operations are typically performed several times a day.  You’ll frequently hear winemakers use the French terms for these practices: remontage forpumping over,  pigeage forpunching down.  

Like Tom and Jerry or flotsam and jetsam the two are often confused - but the Wine Vocabulist rests easier in the knowledge that you, reader, now apprehend the difference.

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-Stephen Meuse 

Got a wine question?  Email me at stephen@centralbottle.com

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At large-scale tasting events one very good indicator that I’ve sampled something quite fine is a reluctance to spit the wine out, as is customary.  I used to consider this a kind of professional failing until I realized that when a wine is still interesting after being aggressively swished and sloshed for long seconds it’s because it has something to give on its way down that I don’t want to miss.

It has always seemed to me that when it comes to wine that’s really worth drinking you just don’t get the whole experience until you swallow, although I couldn’t have explained why.  

Not until this week, looking back into my copy of Michael Schuster’s Essential Winetasting - was I reminded that a scattering of taste buds lurk in the farthest reaches of the back of mouth in something called the otolarynx.  They’re positioned at the top of the esophagus, the tube that leads to the stomach, too — the better to receive whatever parting gifts wine has to give.

Length is something experienced wine tasters can frequently be heard extolling.  But what does it consist of?  A wine that provides a continuous, sustained, sequence of pleasing sensations from the time the glass touches your lips until it slides down your throat is said to have length, so does one whose flavors, aromas, and texture seems to ring on the palate even after it has gone its way, via a swallow or a spit.

We prize wines that exhibit length for the most basic of reasons: our tasting apparatus is geared to enjoy them.  But it’s important to realize that in order to provide a satisfying sense of duration right to the end, wine has to have a beginning and a middle, too.  It’s the aggregation of parts that ultimately conveys a satisfying sense of length.

It all begins as wine enters that brilliantly engineered sensorium, the mouth. Every fresh sip produces a strikingly immediate initial effect. It’s a sudden, intense experience and one that generally requires little effort on our part to appreciate.  Perhaps because this hectic onrush of sensation (tasters often call this the attack) provides such a volume of data, its easy to be almost carried away by it.  In my experience, though this part tells you less than you imagine about how the wine will perform over the course of an hour’s drinking, with or without food.

When a wine is still interesting after being aggressively swished and sloshed for long seconds it’s because it has something to give on its way down that I don’t want to miss.

In just a second or so, we’ve moved on to a new stage, what some tasters refer to as the mid-palate. It’s at this point that wine is making itself known to every part of your mouth and its various components make their truest and most durable impression.  The experience is less intense than the attack, but is more extended in time and offers room for reflection:  What flavors are discernible?  Do they comprise a harmonious whole?  Is the balance of acid, fruit, and texture really pleasing?  Hmm …

While it’s relatively easy for a wine to make an initial impact, holding its ground through the mid-palate is more of a challenge. It’s a bit difficult to describe the experience when it fails at this, but I perceive it as a kind of falling off,  a sense that something taut has gone slack.  A wine that behaves this way is usually described as being short, while one that maintains its poise through this stage gives a satisfying sense of continuity and is deserving of admiration on that count alone.

The third stage is the finish, the point where length can be fully and finally assessed.  Is continuity of sensation maintained right to the end?  Do the flavors of wine ring on the palate after you’ve either spit or swallowed?  A wine with length has palate presence that doesn’t end when the wine has left the scene. Like a phantom limb, the sensations that it once aroused live on as if still present.

On the other hand, it seems a mistake to judge a wine’s length solely by the way it finishes, since it’s obvious that the length of a thing depends as much on the beginning as the end. Lop a mile out of a journey and you’ve shortened it no matter where you made the cut.  A long wine makes its presence felt from start to finish and beyond.

Precisely what it is in wine that gives it length is a question I’m not sure anyone has attempted to answer.  Surely it has something to do with concentration, but I would be wary of attributing it to sheer force since it can be experienced in delicate kabinett-style riesling as well as airy, high-latitude pinot noir and nebbiolo — neither of which depend on musculature to be delicious. Length, in other words, is not size.  You could call it character, I suppose, although that doesn’t go far in explaining the phenomenon.

For now, what makes some wine long and some short may have to remain a bit mysterious. Meanwhile, when a wine is just begging to stretch out to its full length you can be sure I’m not going to get in its way.

Stephen Meuse

Got a wine question? Email me at stephen@centralbottle.com