image

The Georgians - and here I refer to those denizens of the Caucasus Mountains rather than the inhabitants of the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta — claim to be on vintage no. 8000, or thereabouts. If true, their boast sets the origin of wine culture deep into the era we call the neolithic and makes wine older than cities, writing, and metallurgy.

It’s amazing all right, but not quite as amazing as it would have appeared to a pious Anglican of the 17th century who, on the basis of a chronology worked out by Bishop James Ussher, was convinced that the creation of the world had taken place as recently as October of the year 4004 BCE.  Under Ussher’s scheme, wine would be even older than the earth.

Okay, so the bishop was way off. But even if we just stick to what the Bible has to say on the subject, wine appears as one of man’s early and  important achievements.  In the well-known story of the great flood that appears in Genesis chapters 6-9 we’re told that the first thing the patriarch Noah did after emerging from the ark with his family was to plant a vineyard.

We can skip over the question of where Noah got the plant material to establish his new property, since it’s clear that getting too literal isn’t likely to lead anywhere. The more interesting question goes something like this: why would a man who had just come through this epic, traumatic ordeal choose as his first post-diluvian project one that requires daunting amounts of labor and offers no immediate reward? After what he’d seen, what assurance did Noah have that God’s wrath wouldn’t be visited on the world again, perhaps this time wiping out all life, no exceptions granted?

We get the answer a little later in the narrative:  And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. The rainbow was Noah’s guarantee that his labor wouldn’t be in vain.

Some theologians see the Noah story as the original creation story (Adam and Eve and all that) recast in terms of de-creation and re-creation. Viewed this way, Noah’s vineyard is a kind of Garden of Eden do-over. And if the site of the world’s fresh start is a vineyard, is it any wonder that what naturally issues from it - namely, wine -  should thereafter play a leading role in Jewish and Christian scriptures, ritual, and symbolism?

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 4.55.03 PM

A lightning-round recap:  Moses encourages the people in their Exodus wanderings by reminding them that the promised land not only flows with milk and honey, but is rich in vineyards. The scouts Joshua and Caleb, sent on a mission to reconnoiter the unmapped area, return with a giant cluster of grapes as proof that the land overflows with wine. The unmistakeable message: the whole territory is Edenic.

Jesus describes himself as the true vine and his disciples as laborers in his vineyard.  At the Last Supper he tells them to drink wine in commemoration of his redemptive death.  The mass — Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox — cannot be celebrated without the fermented juice of the grape.  Four cups of wine drunk at the Passover seder represent release of the Jewish people from their four periods of exile.

How will we know when the millennial kingdom that both Jews and Christians anticipate has come? Because in that day “new wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills” and “every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree.”

In the northern hemisphere, Easter and Passover come around each year just as vines are emerging from their annual slumber, and showing the first promising signs of a harvest to come. It’s a time when the world seems to be starting fresh, and there’s a sense of futurity in the newness of it all. In New England, more dramatically than elsewhere, April brings a kind of Noah moment for each of us as we contemplate a vegetative world that had been de-created by winter newly restored to verdant life.

Not all of us can share Noah’s joy in planting and tending a vineyard of our own, but we can each enjoy the scent of paradise that still clings to wine - even after 8000 vintages. 

-Stephen Meuse

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 2.51.08 PMIt seems laughable now, but in European theaters it was once common practice for the impresario to hire applauders for opening night. Claques, as they were called in France, were brought in to give it up enthusiastically for the playwright and cast at the end of the debut performance with a view to ensuring a long run. I don’t think we do this anymore — hey, it could be the entertainment business’s best-kept secret for all I know — but I have to admit that there have been nights at Symphony Hall when thunderous applause has convinced me that the performance I had just witnessed must have been truly extraordinary.  While I enjoy classical music, I’m no Jeremy Eichler.  If the audience is on its feet shouting bravos, it must have been great, right?

Yes, it’s hard to remain calm when everyone around you is panicking, but it’s equally hard to refrain from being swept up in the enthusiasm of a cheering crowd. I was giving this some thought recently as I pondered how it is that wine has changed so much in the decades since I first became an enthusiast. When I came, in the standard for really fine wine could be found in just three places: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. There wasn’t much French wine from other regions, or much Italian wine, available in Boston well into the 1970’s and even the ‘80’s.

Together these three regions provided the models for how proper, status-conferring wine was supposed to be made. In 1976, California pushed France to the wall in the tasting event that’s become known as The Judgment of Paris, with the result that the standing of American wine was enhanced.  But making room for one more deity on wine’s version of Mt. Olympus didn’t really involve a revolution. Napa Valley was admitted to the Pantheon. But no one was questioning whether there should be a Pantheon.

Then came Robert M. Parker Jr. and his subscription newsletter, the Wine Advocatewhich became quite possibly the most powerful publication influencing buying behavior with respect to a single consumable in American history. Parker’s authority first established and then confirmed on a bi-monthly basis the style of wine that was to be preferred over all others, and persuaded most of the wine consuming world that he, as Claquer-in-Chief, should determinewhat is applaudable and what isn’t. For Parker and his partisans, what wine is — how it should look, smell, taste, and feel — is a settled matter and progress consists of finding ways to make it incrementally more of what it already is.

image

The situation probably has many analogues, but the one that keeps coming back to me is The Salon, France’s long-standing, state-sponsored annual art exhibition that received a jolt in 1863 when a group of artists whose work had been refused by the jury protested their exclusion and subsequently staged their own exhibition in another part of the same building. The exhibit, became known as the Salon des Refusés. Today we might have called it, the Rejection Collection).

The official Salon set and maintained standards for good taste in painting and sculpture not just for France, but for all of Europe and America, too. They took a narrow view of both style and subject matter: the decorous still life, picturesque landscapes, portraits of distinguished persons, and historical subjects were approved, so long as they were rendered in what we would later call a photorealistic style. For the jury and those who followed its dictates, what constituted fine was a settled matter and progress was conceived of as finding ways to make it incrementally more of what it already was.

Among the refusés mounting the counter-exhibition were a few names you might recognize: James McNeill WhistlerGustav Courbet, Camille Pissarro, and Eduard Manet (that’s his revolutionary Déjeuner sur l’herbe, at the top of the page). By systematically rejecting the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as these movements came along in later years, the Salon pretty much guaranteed that the genetic material out of which modern art evolved would be drawn from the refusé poolrather than from the cadre of establishment artists. It’s hard to think of an example when the essential antagonism that exists between conventionals and dissidents has been more clearly or colorfully drawn.

I can’t say that the evolution of wine will follow this same trajectory, but as things stand today the similarities are striking. Standing in for the Salon artists are those making wine in a conventional, internationally approved manner — professional, polished, squeaky clean and (if red) deeply-colored, often rich in fruit and with a plush texture — and ready to avail itself of almost any technology that promises to enhance these features.

Standing in for the refusés, a somewhat motley collection of small-scale vintners who have little in common except a willingness to push the envelope of accepted practice, in many cases by turning back the clock to a kind of farming that predates the chemical era and to cellar practices that reflect a preference for letting nature take its course. With this group one can’t really speak of a single approach to winemaking or a single style of wine that’s being aimed at. Progress isn’t seen as incrementally more of what already is, but a continuous probing of boundaries to see what might be possible.

image

Visitors to the official Salon and its off-brand counterpart in 1863 weren’t just confronted with oppositional theories of how art should be done. The work itself looked startlingly different. In the same way, new approaches to winemaking are in some cases yielding dramatically different wines: reds that are generally lighter in body, with brighter, fresher acidity; whites characterized by savory rather than overtly fruity flavors and with the enhanced grip and deeper colors that come from maceration on the grapeskins.  The tendency to minimize the use of sulfur among these experimenters has so far had heterogeneous results, to  y palate, at least. In some cases making wine that is unusually vivid, in others seemingly dulling it.

Whether this brave new world of winemaking will produce the equivalent of a Courbet, Pissarro, or Manet - or already has — I can’t say.  What’s perhaps more interesting is whether it will ever produce a PicassoKandinsky, or Jackson Pollock.

What would an abstract expressionist wine taste like, I wonder, and would it represent progress?

- Stephen Meuse

A recent chat with a Central Bottle guest made me think the time might be right to take up the question of when wine needs air, and if so how to get it some.

We were discussing a bottle of not inexpensive red wine and one that I have enough experience with to think would benefit from decanting - so I suggested it. A puzzled look was my clue that this was a term that needed some explaining.

image

Old movies and scenes from Downton Abbey have taught us to associate decanting with cobwebbed bottles, cut-glass crystal, and white-gloved butlers. In fact, to decant is simply to pour wine from its bottle into another container. In the technique known as the soft decant, the goal is to collect the limpid red wine and leave the sediment that accrues with a long time in bottle behind. It takes a bit of practice to do it correctly and with panache.

Today the soft decant is less frequently seen for at least three good reasons. First, the trend today is to drink red wine at a younger age, well before the time in their evolution when the tannins (chemical compounds responsible for texture) have had time to glom together and fall out of solution — the most source of the deposits that collect at the bottom of older bottles. Second, fining and filtering are more widely practiced today, especially in commercial wines, leaving less material in the bottle to generate sediment. Third, these youthful, vibrant wines aren’t likely to be damaged by exposure to oxygen as long-aged wines might be, so there’s no reason to handle them as carefully. On the contrary, modern wines are likely to come out of the bottle oxygen-starved and fairly longing for a good airing out. Without it, wine can take a long time to show everything it has in your glass. Inventors have discovered this and brought all manner of strange and wonderful (and expensive) devices to market designed to inject some O2 into that stubbornly quiescent cabernet and make it a bit more chatty. You may have noticed that we don’t sell any of these tools at Central Bottle. That’s because you can perfectly well do without them, if you learn the simple art of the hard decant.

The idea here is to actively flush the wine with air — to shock it, in a way — with a view to bringing it quickly to a stage at which it would eventually have arrived if left long enough (several hours?) in a glass. A hard decant can turn a sullen wine into a talkative, engaging one in a flash.

Everything you need and everything you need to know to perform the trick is visible in the photo at the top of the page: An open bottle of wine and a roomy pitcher of no particular configuration (just make sure it will hold the full contents of your wine bottle before you start!). A clean tea towel, dish-towel, or paper napkin is generally useful. The visual cues to good technique are in the blur and the foam, the result of thrusting the neck of the bottle deep into the pitcher at a near-vertical angle and letting the wine wantonly gurgle, splash, and swirl into its new confines. The more action the better. The whole operation shouldn’t take more than ten seconds.

Decanting FAQs

Is this technique only for red wines? 
Not at all. Any young, sturdy wine can benefit from a hard decant.



Does a decanted wine actually taste better? 
You should notice a boost in the vividness of the aromas and flavors of a decanted wine. You may also find the texture a bit softer and more agreeable.

Are there any situations where decanting is a bad idea? 
Decant only if you expect the whole bottle to be consumed at one sitting. Chances are a decanted wine won’t be quite as durable if you need to recork and hold it for another time. Also, fizzy wines will lose much of their sparkle if decanted.

What about that old business about removing the cork and letting the wine stand a few minutes to “breathe?” 
Exposing one square inch of wine surface to the air doesn’t accomplish much in a short amount of time. A bit more aeration occurs when wine is poured into a glass, but there’s nothing like a rough splashy pour into a roomy pitcher to really give your wine a head start.

About this month’s wine:

Paul Direder “Paul D” Zweigelt 2011
Wagram, Austria

Bright, pinky-purple.  Aromas a little constrained at first (could use a hard decant!), then open into a plummy, spicy bouquet.  The ripe, dark red fruits and cushy texture make this a good bet for a meaty dish.  100% zweigelt - Austria’s capable riposte to malbec.  Full liter bottle.

Happy drinking!
-Stephen Meuse

image

          Is consistency something wine should strive for - and if so, how?

It was American essayist-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who first suggested that the mentality that rates order, uniformity, and predictability too highly is not to be trusted.  ”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” is how he memorably put it.  

It’s true that a world where everything happens in just the same way every time would soon become unbearably tedious, but no less true that a world where everything is fresh each day would be an uncomfortable place to live. Routines swaddle us sweetly in the familiar but also turn us into sleepwalkers. We talk incessantly about what’s new, but cling tenaciously to tradition and habit.  In the end is there any real difference between being in a groove and being in a rut?

We’re all a just little schizophrenic on this point, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise when we see the same sort of bi-polarity manifest itself in the world of wine: on the one hand a quiet, steady commitment to wine that is as consistent as possible from place to place and year to year; on the other joy in the spontaneous variability that springs endlessly from nature.

The poles in this case are Bordeaux and Burgundy, two wine regions that established themselves early in the Christian era but which gave birth to two radically divergent views of what wine should be.  

History presents us with a matched set of points of view that between them bookend the world of wine as we know it.

From the beginning Bordeaux, sited along the French Atlantic coast within easy seagoing reach of lucrative English markets took an aggressively commercial approach to the making and marketing of wine. Anglo merchants set up on the Bordeaux wharves where they could collect the wine they bought from small holders in the high country upriver, quickly blend it into the generic light-bodied red wine the British knew as claret (better not to inquire too closely into their technique), barrel it up and ship it in the nick of time for Christmas.  

Branded wine got its start here, with merchants blending wine from many sub-regions, vineyards, and even vintages, into a single wine identified with the broker’s name. Where the wine was sourced was not initially a matter of interest to anyone except the brokers themselves. We have no record of famous “cru” vineyards from the era. The aim was to make wine in a recognizable house style, as consistent from year to year as artful blending could achieve.

Meanwhile, in Burgundy a culture of wine was taking shape at odds with the Bordeaux model. Here, vineyards had been established under the auspices of religious houses whose monk-inmates were under an obligation to offer up to God not just their prayers but their labor. The Church’s approach was what we would call today vertical integration: it owned the vineyards, put up the wine, and made big capital investments in research, infrastructure, and quality control. It kept careful records, had a long institutional memory, and enjoyed a loyal, wealthy clientele.

It seems that by the high middle ages pinot noir had become the standard for red wine making and chardonnay for white there. The Cote d’Or, Burgundy’s acknowledged sweet spot, had been thoroughly mapped and the individual sites we still know as grands crus were identified and marked off.

image

The Burgundian gold standard for winemaking involved a single grape variety cultivated in discrete, named plots each known to impart a special character to the wine made from its grapes; a character so distinctive that it seemed a crime to dilute its personality with fruit from other sources. Today we would call these wines vins de terroir - wines with a sense of place.

The picture I’ve sketched is simpler and tidier than in reality, but it will have to serve. The point is that today history presents us with a matched set of points of view that between them bookend the world of wine as we know it. On the one hand, production that strives to produce an appealing, drinkable, stylistically consistent wine from year to year despite the vagaries of weather, yield, disease, vine age; on the other hand an approach that glories in particularity, diversity, variability, and the nuanced differences apparent only to experts.

It’s no accident that it’s the Bordeaux pole that larger-scale, more commercially-oriented producers are attracted to. After all, consistency is the very hallmark of the branded product whether we’re talking peanut butter or pinot grigio.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that many very fine wines deploy blending and reasonable technology in support of a consistent style. One has only to think of top Bordeaux chateaux, and the Champagne, Port, and sherry houses.

In the same way it makes sense that small-holders and artisanal producers want to put the focus on their strong suits: individuation, a non-technical approach, an instinctive distaste for anything corporate.

Boston-based boutique importer Oscar Hernandez expressed his devotion to the artisan aesthetic when I interviewed him earlier this year:  The producers I want to do business with make extremely personal wines, wines that change not just from vintage to vintage, but sometimes from bottle to bottle and glass to glass. These are natural wines, the kind that can only be made on a small scale.  In this view, consistency - or at least a certain kind of consistency — isn’t just unimportant, it’s something to be avoided.  The downside of this, of course, is the roller coaster ride that’s in store for the consumer when there’s no conscious effort made to ensure a degree of continuity in the product.

After all, consistency is the very hallmark of the branded product whether we’re talking peanut butter or pinot grigio.

But hold on a bit. If terroir consists of those durable features of a vineyard (site, soils, exposition, native yeasts, etc.) that give rise to particular aromas, flavors, and textures found in the wines that emanate from it, and if, as many insist, the purpose of wine is to express these features, then wouldn’t we expect and want such wines to display this identifiable character in every vintage?  

In other words, doesn’t the very idea of a vin de terroir imply a certain continuity of character without which the notion of terroir as a durable reality is meaningless? It seems unreasonable to criticize those inclined to encourage consistency when Mother Nature appears to be playing a similar game, all the more charmingly for Her less than perfect performance.   

I suppose the way out of this dilemma lies in what we mean by consistency in wine and by what means its desirable attributes are delivered to us. If it implies a level of precision uniformity that only mass-produced goods made on an industrial scale can provide, then consistency would doom us to a lifetime of wines with no more individual personality than a Stepford wife — a “foolish consistency” indeed.

But if consistency is interpreted as a reasoned effort to maintain a family-resemblance of the kind we see in nature everyday — a general similarity relieved here and there by minor deviations from the norm — then, it seems to me, we open the way to wines that both have a connection to place and the individual variability that keeps things interesting and our senses in gear.

Nothing foolish about that, Ralph Waldo.

-Stephen Meuse

reader

An 18th century French prime minister once described the proper way to engage with wine this way: First one looks at the wine, then one smells the wine, then one talks about the wine. Whether he may have advanced so far as to actually taste the wine is not known, but there’s nothing to beat this oft-quoted bon mot as a way of introducing the importance of being able to talk a good game - winewise, I mean.

Like the fashion world it mimics, the world of wine likes to move a little faster than most of us can comfortably keep up with, thus the need for the occasional touch-up and top-up of our wine vocabulary. What follows are six terms, some new and some old, you really ought to be familiar with even if you don’t plan on crossing swords with a Master Sommelier anytime soon.

Off-farm inputs.The wine world is struggling manfully to come to grips with what we mean when we talk about natural or authentic wine.  Those dedicated to the concept seem agreed on one point: that such wine should be made with minimum recourse to anything but fruit - whenever conditions allow.  Things like fertilizers, fungicides, sulfur (an anti-microbial agent; see below), tartaric acid (depresses pH) , cane or beet sugar (raises potential alcohol) have few obvious qualities in common - except that they are all things that a farmer has to buy, i.e. they’re not the outcome of agriculture, but of some industrial process.  To capture them all in a meaningful way, the phrase off-farm inputs has been coined - and it’s quite a useful one I think, except that it is easily confused with off-putting farmers, which is another thing entirely.

image

MiOx.  Short for micro-oxygenation, a technique created by French vintner Patrick Decournu in the early 1990’s to help tame the tannins in wines made from the sturdy (and scratchy) tannat grape. A relatively simple machine, it introduces small, measured amounts of oxygen into maturing red wine, accomplishing what would have taken years to effect in passive wooden barrels, softening and smoothing tannins and producing a more comfortably-textured sip. Science doesn’t entirely  understand the chemistry yet,  so don’t feel that you have to. Just dropping it into conversation here and there will give your words a more velvety - and therefore more persuasive - sound.

Yield:  The amount of finished wine produced from an acre or hectare of vineyard and limited by appellation law. Generally, the more important the wine the lower the permitted yield.  For example, the permitted yield for Cotes du Rhone (an inexpensive everyday drink) is 44 hectoliters of wine per hectare of vineyard — equivalent of about 465 gallons per acre — while the permitted yield for Chateauneuf du Pape (a pricey special-occasion sip) is 35 hectoliters/hectare.  A winemaker is free to make wine at yields lower than the one prescribed, he just can’t exceed it. The theory seems to be that a vineyard has only so much goodness to give, and the more grapes you ask it to ripen, the more its measure of goodness gets spread out - diluted. Think of it this way, the fewer students a teacher has to oversee, the more attention each one gets. Elite schools have low student to teacher ratios; in the ones I attended it was the other way ‘round.

Sulfur/sulfites/sulfides.   One day we’ll take this up in detail, but for now, let’s just sort this troublesome trio out so that you can use these quite similar terms to dazzle your interlocutors. Sulfur is an element (“S” on the periodic table; atomic number 16) that we have known for a long time has powerful anti-microbial powers. In the ancient world it was used to treat wounds; sulfur matches were burned to fumigate storage containers, including amphorae and barrels that held wine.

Modern, commercial-style wines require treatments with sulfur (in the from of potassium metabisulfide) to retain their fresh aromas, flavors, and colors.  Additions at bottling secure wines against strange things happening while they wait for you to pull the cork.  If you make wine in the naturalist style, strange things don’t trouble you as much so you use much less sulfur - and none at all if you think you can get away with it.

image

The term sulfites is used on wine labels to describe the combination of naturally-occurring and added sulfur that exists in a bottle of wine. In order for wine to be labeled organic in the U.S., it may not have any added sulfur, but may still contain sulfites because, well, they happen. Sulfides is the term that’s coming to be preferred for a whole range of chemical compounds that occur during fermentation and (here’s the thing to remember) give rise to a spectrum of wine aromas that are referred to as “sulfur-like odors.”  These include scents like gunflint, burned rubber,  struck match, boiled cabbage. In small doses these odors can add interesrt and complexity to wine, but as concentrations increase they rapidlly become objectionable.

Extraction.  Like vineyards (cf. Yield, above) grapes have a certain amount of goodness to give, and no more.  Winemaking is essentially a process by which that goodness is extracted and given over to yeasts to ferment.  White grapes are generally gently pressed to remove the juice from the rest of the grape. Red grapes, however, are crushed en masse and fermentation takes places in a mash-up of skins, pulp, pips, and sometimes stems. As these solids macerate, their pigments and tannins leech into the juice, contributing color, flavor, and texture to it. It’s the winemaker’s job to control the degree of extraction; to decide how much of what’s in there to draw out. Too little and the wine may lack density and punch; too much and the wine may present as dry, astringent, stewed. I like to make an analogy with tea-making.  

To make the perfect cup, you judge the tea to water ratio, the temperature of the water, and how long you let the leaves macerate - all with a view to getting the extraction right. If you’ve ever stepped away from a steeping pot longer than you should, you know the puckeringly disagreeable result.

image

Cement eggs. If you still think that making wine in clay pots buried in the ground is the coolest, trendiest thing it can only be because no one has caught you up on the way, way cooler technique involving egg-shaped concrete fermenters developed by the French company Nomblot.  While concrete has been in use since early in the 20th century as a material for both fermenting and maturing wine, it wasn’t until 2001 that French vat maker Marc Nomblot made the first known cement container in an ovoid shape at the request of the notable Rhone vintner Michel Chapoutier.  Above, Steve Rosenblatt of Sonoma Cast Stone, a U.S. cement egg hatchery, poses with some of his 476 gallon vats.

Tests appear to show that these non-reactive, womb-ish vats which share a morphology - and perhaps a neolithic-era origin - with the celebrated Willendorf Venus have some advantages over vatys with corners. The liquid inside seems to be in a constant state of subtle circulation, for one. Also, there’s virtually no evaporation. But this doesn’t mean that the wine is in an airtight environment. On the contrary, winemakers report that concrete admits oxygen at about the same rate as wood. Thus, wine matured in the egg develops the same pleasing textures barrel aging is intended to accomplish, but without contributing anything in the way of wood flavors or tannins.

This last point is especially important for winemakers who see their wine as a means of expressing the unique character of their property, and for consumers who like their cabernet over easy.

-Stephen Meuse
Certified Wine Vocabulist

Have a look at the map below showing the distribution of wine vine cultivation in the world and you’ll come away thinking that vitis vinifera is one picky plant. The areas where it can set and ripen the fruit that makes the kind of wine we want to drink are few, squeezed into a pair of narrow latitudinal belts, one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern, each extending no more than about 20 degrees.

That’s around 1400 miles, or about the distance from Boston to Miami.  But as you can see, even within these narrow confines the vine manages to find huge swaths of territory not to its taste.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 2.03.46 PM

Most casual wine drinkers can associate individual grape varieties with a place. They know that Zinfandel is at home in California, that red Burgundy is always pinot noir, that the riesling is Germany’s claim to great white wine, and that merlot reaches a kind of apotheosis in the right bank vineyards of Bordeaux.

It’s true that both history and culture have played roles in these good marriages; what is less well understood is the extent to which in each case their mutual compatibility is constrained by (1) the average temperatures prevailing in a given place, and (2) the speed with which a given vine is predisposed to ripen its fruit.

Climate change notwithstanding, average annual temperature during a growing season tends to be stable over time and constitutes a fundamental and durable attribute of place. To measure it, agronomists think in terms of something called “growing degree days (GDD),” a metric created by a pair of University of California plant scientists in the 1940’s that effectively profiles how cool or warm a given site is, on average, and points to its suitability for specific crops.

Their so-called Winkler Scale is based on the fact that plants are generally not active until the air temperature reaches 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Degree days are simple to calculate: for each day between April 1 and October 31 (the growing season in the northern hemisphere) note each degree that the average temperature exceeds 5oF.  For example, if the average temperature on June 25 is 72 degrees, you add 22 to the degree day total to that point.  At the end of the season, the sum of all these is the GDD for that location.  

It’s possible to ripen grapes sufficiently for wine production with as little as 2000 Winkler Scale degree days, but 2500 to 4000 GDD is considered ideal: it’s the equivalent of average daily temperatures of from 75 to 80 degrees.

The key reason the window (2500 to 4000 degree days) is so large?  All vine varieties don’t proceed at the same pace in maturing fruit.  Some ripen in fewer degree days, some require many more GDD to get the job done.

Generally, the higher the latitude of the vineyard the fewer degree days a winemaker can expect to enjoy.  So, if she’s going to have ripe grapes to work with, a grower is going to have to plant the varieties that can achieve maturity in the number of degree days the site has to offer.  The table below shows how a number of familiar vine varieties map against average growing season temperatures.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 10.33.26 AMFrom G.V. Jones “Climate, grapes, and wine: Structuree and suitability in a variable and changing climate.” VIII International Terroir Conference

Use your imagination to add a register along the left side of the chart to indicate how latitude is associated with each climate group (the highest latitudes will be near the top).  

Now imagine on the right of the chart a register of the growing regions where each cited grape is dominant and you’ll suddenly recognize — in your mind’s eye at least — a whole series of familiar grape-place associations set in a roughly north to south array:  Muller-Thurgau in Germany, pinot gris in Alsace, pinot noir in Burgundy, cab franc in the Loire, cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux, etc.  - all the way down to grenache on the Mediterranean coast of France.

Or, you could just look on the shelves at Central Bottle, arranged according to a kind of retail Winkler Scale: cool climate (low GDD) regions and their associated varietals on the top shelf (pinot gris; sauvignon blanc; schiava nera); high GDD wines on the bottom (nero d’avola; aglianico, mourvedre).

We refer to the sum total of the environmental factors that influence the character of finished wine by the French loan word, terroir. It’s a controversial concept, but there is at least one aspect of it that no one (at least no one I know) disagrees about:  that temperature is primarily responsible for regulating the physiological development of grapes from flowering to maturity and that climate, therefore, rather than soils, must be the dominant factor in determining what grapes can be grown where and what kind of wine can issue from any given site.

Hundreds of familiar and enduring connections between a place and a grape have at their source a pragmatic accommodation between the demands of climate and the character of a vine.

Even in an age when there exists a technological solution - or at least a remedy — for almost every problem a vintner may face, climate remains a stubborn reality winegrowers must learn to live with and strive, as far as possible, to turn to their advantage.

- Stephen Meuse

IMG_0011

An old friend recently showed up and our house with a bottle of 20 year-old grand cru white Burgundy that for some reason had rather fully oxidized despite having been kept under good conditions. A spongy cork made us think the wine might have long since gone off and become undrinkable, but the opposite proved to be the case.

The color (deep amber), aromas (sherry-like), and flavors (fruit distinctly in the background) immediately reminded us of some “orange” wines we tasted recently, and pushed an intriguing question into the foreground: what is the difference, if any, between white wine that’s been intentionally oranged and a bottle that’s just plain over the hill - what we might call an accidental orange?

[If the orange wine category is new to you, see our earlier post on the topic here]

The answer: not that much. The photo above shows a glass of the 2010 Monastero Suore Cistercensi “Coenobium” on the left, our overly evolved 1992 Domaine Ramonet Bâtard-Montrachet on the right.  The Coenobium is made in a lightly oxidized style with something like a week of maceration on the skins (it’s a blend of trebbiano, malvasia, verdicchio, and  grechetto).

It shows some of the added texture and nuttiness that comes from white wine made in the presence of oxygen. Our Bâtard has far more of both, along with more depth of color and features that one associates with bottle age (wines like this are often described as ‘sherried’ or ‘madeirized’). 

One point of difference:  As an accidental orange, Bâtard was never meant to oxydize in the way it eventually did and it wasn’t treated to the lengthy maceration on the skins orange wines typically receive.

Another  point of distinction is apparent in the quality of the fruit. Our grand cru, despite its advanced development, still rings with firm (if rather dry) chardonnay fruit and nicely brisk acidity - a vibrant and engaging wine despite being so long in the tooth. We wouldn’t expect the Coenobium to age as gracefully, but then it presumably has less far to travel along the road to senility.

As to whether a stage that’s more or less undistinguishable from intentional orange is a stop every white wine makes along the way to complete undrinkability (if it lasts that long), or whether it’s a condition some skip entirely, we really can’t say.

A third distinguishing mark may be the most obvious one: you can’t just order up a bottle of old, Madeirized white wine in a retail shop, bar, or resto as you can one of the trendy new “rusty whites,” as they are sometimes called —  and really, it’s a pity.  A comparative tasting between wine made orange on purpose and those made orange by accident is fun to experience and interesting to contemplate, but hard to arrange.

But hold on.  What if all those people holding old, heavily-oxidized whites in their cellars which they have no intention of drinking, can’t auction, and are too attached to to just throw out had an outlet for them similar to those trendy second-hand shops that specialize in high-priced, beat-up old jeans?  Certainly tattered jeans and over-the-hill wine have a lot in common: each is ravaged by time; each has lived long enough to see geriatric versions of themselves become fresh objects of fashion-maven envy.

I can’t say whether the idea would ever catch on, but if it does I’ll be ready.  Just look for the sign that reads: The Worn-out Wine Boutique - Everything Shabby but the Prices.

That’ll be be my place.

-Stephen Meuse

The chattering classes of the the food and wine world find plenty to argue about, but I think its safe to say that there is today near-universal agreement on one point: we all want to know where the things we eat and drink come from, how they were made, and by whom.

Indeed, it’s our appetite for such information that has launched a thousand blogs, magazines, cookbooks, memoirs, profiles, and travel guides.  Need to know fever has had a remarkable impact on restaurant service, too.  Woe to the waiter who knoweth not the breed of pig whence came the pork chop or who cannot trippingly recite its genealogy yea even unto the tenth generation.

image

We’ve all been the victim of the too-informed young server and its easy to poke fun at the randier manifestations of this phenomenon, but the truth is that our hunger for ever more detailed information about each thing we ingest defines contemporary culinary culture. Compared with the see-no-evil approach that characterized the 20th century, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

Exactly why this should be so is something one can only speculate about, so I’ll have a go at it. The migration to urban centers that has been so important a part of the postwar story in the U.S. and Europe coupled with the large-scale shift from agricultural to industrial and office-based work has drawn almost all of us farther from the sources of our nourishment than was the historic norm. Railroads and refrigeration were the twin engines of this new attenuation. It’s been convenient, in some respects, but it hasn’t been comfortable.  

Uncomfortable in part because knowingthat wheat is ripening in a field somewhere is not quite the same as watching the grain ripening in our own field.  Nor is buying our food from a grocer, no matter how familiar, the same as buying it directly from a farmer - although this distinction was apparently lost on a woman I overheard years ago complaining loud and long over the price of fresh-picked corn at a roadside farm stand. “We don’t need you farmers, you know,” she snapped.  ”We can always go to the supermarket.”

Our hunger for ever more detailed information about each thing we ingest defines contemporary culinary culture.

It’s likely that the warm glow of connectedness many of us feel when we’re among pastures and farmland doesn’t stem from a childhood spent in the country. It doesn’t need to. The source of such feelings is a spring that runs deeper even than personal experience, reaching far back into a common human history when food gathering, and later agriculture, was more or less everyone’s full time job.  

Whatever might be the benefits of large-scale, highly capitalized and technology-dependent food production, the remoteness it enforces seems to have left us bereft of something deeply important.  Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, just as modernism was getting up a head of steam, observers diagnosed this previously unnamed sense of anxiety and loss as deracination - literally, pulled out of the ground; torn from the roots.

On the floor here at Central Bottle I am frequently struck and occasionally moved by the disinclination of a guest to make a wine purchase and be on her way until she’s had a really satisfying dose of detail — in the form of biography, family-history, backstory, etc. — administered. Jokes about the medical properties of wine notwithstanding, it’s clear from where I stand that for lots of people time spent leisurely meandering the shelves, perusing labels, savoring a sip at the tasting table, or drawing out a chat with someone on the staff all appear to have what I can only describe as therapeutic effects.  Maybe we should call this experience reracination - a reconnection to the roots. 

We’re said to live in the Information Age, so perhaps it make sense that we reflexively turn to information as a cure for whatever ails us. That we yearn to know the minute biographical details of the pork on our plate or the gewurztraminer in our glass suggests that this kind of information is somehow balm for the old wound. The eagerness with which we seek it out may be the best measure of how badly we hurt.

 -Stephen Meuse

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 3.13.27 PMFirst-time visitors to Central Bottle are generally charmed by its appealing design and handsome, understated  furnishings. I can tell you it’s a pleasure to spend a workday in its light, cheerful space. The near-absence of signage leaves some shoppers a little disoriented, though. ”How are the wines organized here?” is a frequent question.

I point out the various areas and note, with some delight, that the wines on the Italian wall and the French wall are arranged to correspond to their real-world, geographic relations. That is, bottles from northernmost vineyards are arrayed on the top shelf of the wall; those from southern tiers along the bottom.  The middle is filled in by applying similar logic. It makes perfect sense — although I have to admit that I don’t know any other wine shop that does things this way.

In plenty of places Italian wines are jumbled together in one area, in a kind of mash-up. Then they hang a big sign over the area that says “Italy.”  France and Germany get the same treatment. Others shun the nation-state system in favor of a varietal approach. In these places, you wander from chardonnay to malbec to cabernet.

Still others set a regional tack. In these outlets, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany, and the Mosel inhabit their discrete domains.  Some retailers have sections devoted to wines made from organic grapes or wines that are low in sulfites. Wines with high Parker or Wine Spectator scores are occasionally given special accommodation.  Sparklers are normally segregated, as are stickies, half-bottles, and magnums.

It’s not just wine shops that have to wrangle with the organization enigma. Restaurant wine lists have to deal with it, too. Here, you’re likely to encounter the same range of alternatives (country, region, variety, color), but sometimes there are interesting twists. I first encountered an approach designed to facilitate food and wine pairing at Les Zygomates in the 1990’s when Lorenzo Savona organized his list under categories like “big, bold reds,” and “crisp, dry whites.”

In our heads there are almost too many categories of wine to track.

While this approach is relatively common today, it can still raise an eyebrow - especially when the categories aren’t what you’d call self-explanatory.

At Kenmore Square’s Island Creek Oyster Bar, the wine list names “Rusty Whites,” which seems clear enough, alongside “Deep Roots,” which is a little harder to get a handle on (old vines? old vineyards? elderly  winemakers?).  At our sister establishment, Belly Wine Bar, owner and somm queen Liz Vilardi’s prodigious imagination is frequently seen off the leash. Categories on her current list include the vampy "Vitamin Pink" and the not-for-the-risk-averse “We Dare You.”

In some sort of feedback loop, at least one wineshop known to me (The Urban Grape) has adapted the trick for retail and arranged its shelves to create a progression from light to heavier wines, with the more muscular types farther from the door — possibly to discourage them from making a break for it.  As an arrangement, it doesn’t depend on so much on discrete categories as on a gradual shading of temperament.

The way we organize wine in shops and restos is one thing, the way we organize them conceptually and rhetorically is another entirely.  In our heads there are almost too many categories of wine to track.

For example so-called natural wines constitute an important category today, even though it’s not really clear what these are or how we go about including or excluding candidates for the descriptor.  I think the category is a legitimate one, but I’ve had to create sub-species to distinguish among the variations - not to say factions — that have emerged within its ranks.  I think of some in the movement as idealists, others as folklorists, primitivists, or cosmics.  No doubt other shadings  exist and only await a nomenclature.

But hang on a bit. There’s lots more. The technological, terroir, traditional, and international wines, for a start.  Authentic wines are a category, too, to judge from the literature, not to mention Parkerized wines, celebrity wines, and the New Californians.  There are organically and biodynamically-farmed wines from properties which are certified by some authority. Or not. “Wild yeast-fermented” seems important enough to constitute a category.  

Say, have you got any vegan-friendly wines?  Orange wines?  Wines made in clay pots?  How about high-latitude chardonnays?  Reds that love a chill?  Fireside companions? Glou-glou?  In my days as wine columnist for the Boston Globe, I was once asked by an editor to write a story on “After-beach whites.”

Even in Les Zyg’s clever taxonomy the identity of each wine was front and center. How gobsmacked were we, then,  at a visit to the then week-old restaurant Ribelle in Brookline when we saw that Teresa Paopao had furnished her list with descriptions (“light and pretty, delicate acidity, back-n-forth flavors of citrus-n-mineral”), but never revealed the identities of the wines described?  That’s right, unless you press the server for the information or twist your neck around to get a peek at the label while she’s pouring it, you don’t actually know what you’re drinking.

In the Ribelle system, every wine seems to be a category in its own right, different in some however small way from every other wine on the list and, presumably, in the world.  Seen from one point of this does away with the classification problem entirely - by just ignoring it. Maybe this is how it should be.

A key element of wine talk these days is the enduring, unchanging character of the land. It thrills us to learn that a family, like that of Marc Kreydenweiss in Andlau, Alsace, has been farming some of the same parcels (and living in the same house!) since the 16th century.  The land stands still, and some families stay put, but both winemaking and wine consuming remain restlessly busy activities.

And as long as they do, you’ll have to forgive me if after pouring something for you at the tasting table, I pause long and thoughtfully over the innocent question: “What kind of wine is this?”

-Stephen Meuse 

During the years I wrote the wine column for the Boston Globe, my wife, Food pages editor Sheryl Julian, and I regularly invited a hundred or so Globe readers to spend an afternoon with us in the demonstration kitchen at Boston University’s department of culinary arts. In those sessions, Sheryl talked about what it was like to get a 12-page food section out week after week and the changes she had seen in 30 years of covering the Boston restaurant scene. My half of the program was most often devoted to the questions it seemed to me most people in the audience were eager to have addressed: how to get more pleasure out everyday wine and feel more confident buying and serving it. 


As a wine club subscriber you’ve already distinguished yourself as considerably higher than average in the initiative and curiosity departments. My guess is that the guidelines I offered to Globe Insiders (as they were known) might be of interest to you, too, so what follows is a précis of the script I developed for those events.

There are 8 items on the list, but implementing even one or two you’re not currently practicing will do you good. If once into it the material seems like old hat, I suggest you use the remainder of the time to work on your pronunciation of Einzelpfahlerziehung,* test your recall of the 10 crus of Beaujolais,** or maybe just go out and buy yourself a new chapeau.

The points, in no necessary order:
1. Buy more than one bottle at a time. Yes, this does sound a little self serving, but I’m not suggesting you buy more wine, just that you avoid the onesy-twosy approach. There are lots of good reasons for this, including that it’s both less efficient and less economical. But the chief reason to swear off this habit is that it impossible to implement guidelines 2, 3, and 4 - as you will see.

2. Have a house pour you love. Yes, it’s fun to try new things, but if you’ve never tried settling on a single red and a single white that are seasonally-appropriate and adapted to the dishes you prepare routinely from night to night (that’s a ‘house pour’) you’re missing something. You’ll be surprised at how satisfying it is when suppertime comes to put something genuinely pleasing on the table without going to any more trouble about it than deciding whether you’d rather have white or red. Choose a pair of affordable, balanced wines of moderate scale with normative flavor profiles and stick with them until the weather changes. Wine Club offerings are a great place to start.

3. Establish a “cellar.” In this context, cellar simply means a dedicated place where wine can be stored safely for the period of time you are likely to hold it. A basement is the obvious choice for this, assuming you have one. Otherwise, just choose a quiet, out-of-the way spot where the temp tends to be steady but isn’t near a direct source of heat. Improvise some shelving (milk crates; plastic bins from IKEA). If you’re only storing for a few weeks or months, less than ideal conditions matter less, since the effects of sub-optimal storage only emerge with time.

4. Taste frequently; comparatively; in context; with others. A sip here, a sip there — a haphazard approach doesn’t do much to train your palate, but some regular schedule of side-by-side, themed tasting will. Sip four Oregon pinots, or New World and Old World chardonnays side by side, and what you imagined were subtle differences suddenly emerge in high relief. It’s the quickest way to get varietal character, regional styles, or what oak does, into your head. More fun and effective when done in a group — the chattier and more opinionated the better. To get a feel for how this works drop by our tasting table on Thursday or Friday night, or anytime during the day on Saturday where the tasting and talk goes on and on. Then try replicating the process at home.

5. Use a Vacu-vin or its equivalent. If you’re going to taste comparatively, you’ll be opening more than one bottle at once, and leftover wine becomes an issue. To seal a bottle securely and leave it in good shape for the next opening, you can’t do better than invest $15 for the little pump and rubber plugs that make up the Vacu-Vin wine preservation system. It’s low-tech, super easy to use, and there’s nothing more to buy ever, unless you find you need a few extra plugs. During February, Wine Club members can buy the Vacu-Vin system with the enclosed coupon for a special price of $12. We’ll even include a demo when you come in.

6. Learn to write a tasting note. Taking a note forces you to pay attention to what’s in the glass — and, to be honest, the better part of wine tasting really is just paying attention. Keep it short, to the point, and useful. Name the wine completely, identify the vintage, then comment briefly on what you notice (color, aroma, flavors, texture, concentration, etc.) without giving way to wordiness. Conclude with a mark indicating overall appeal: a check, check plus, or check minus, for example. If, in a year hence, your note conjures a reasonably accurate memory of the experience, you’ve done it right.

7. Own a good reference book. Wine is something to drink, but it’s also something to think. And although there’s way too much information for any one person to absorb, there’s plenty to be gained from running your eyes over good wine books. The ”New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia” (about $50) edited by Tom Stevenson is a fine place to start. We like Jancis Robinson’s ”Oxford Concise Wine Companion” (Oxford University Press, about $20), as a more concise go-to. ”Essential Winetasting,” by Michael Schuster (Mitchell Beazley, about $30), is simply the best on the subject. Jaime Goode’s The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass (Mitchell Beazley, about $40) will get you up to speed on how wine is made start to finish.

8. Find a great local wine shop and give it your loyalty. I’ve been giving this particular piece of advice as long as people have been asking me about wine (a good long time now) and I still think there’s no more important bit of counsel I can offer beginners. Mom & pop, hip boutique, or something more ambitious — if a retail shop has a personality, a point of view, chooses wines by actually tasting them, and pulls corks often, then it’s the real deal. If you’re a regular, they know you by name and what you bought last week. Look for a shop where passion and experience are in evidence, and when you find it, stick with it. And if that place is Central Bottle, we’ll be thrilled. About this month’s wines:

Trere Pagadebit 2012 
Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Say it: Tray-RAY Pagga-da-BEET. Sip it: as a beguilingly spritzy little starter wine for a casual dinner party or weeknight supper when you’re feeling a little sporty. Pale silver hue, with some lighter-than-air lemony fruit and a zesty freshness. Bears the same resemblance to Champagne as costume jewelry pearls have to Mikimoto. Each has its place, wouldn’t you say?

Lamée Delisle Boucard  ”Cuvee Prestige” Bourgeuil 2010
Loire Valley, France

A lovely easy-drinking 100% cabernet franc from one of the Loire Valley’s historic properties, in a direct line of family ownership since 1869 (at right, the family during the 1947 harvest, the first to be estate-bottled).  Semi-opaque, ruby-purple hue.  Lovely dark red fruits and cedary aromatics.  Light to medium body, with appetizing dry fruit, some herbal aspects, and real freshness.  Not complex, maybe, but very hard to tire of.

Valle dell’Acate “Il Moro” 2012
IGT Sicilia, Italy

Were we charmed when Gaetana Jacono, (left) honcho (make that honcha) of Sicily’s Valle dell’Acate visited Central Bottle last summer?  You bet.  And does some of that charisma rub off on her wine?  We can’t say for sure, but it’s undeniable that her wines have charm and a kind of tastefully restrained quality that we really admire.  The 2012 edition of her 100% wonderfully drinkable 2012 “Il Moro” is from young (20 year old) vines, a bouquet of sweet, plummy, dark fruits and lots of loamy earth.  The tannins are cushy and enveloping - a fine match for wintery soups and braises. 

Happy mid-winter drinking!
- Stephen Meuse


* A vine trained to a single stake on the steep slopes of Mosel River vineyards.


** North to south:  Juliénas, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly, Brouilly.