Saturday, October 31, 2009

Phenolics in Wines

There are more than 4000 Phenolic compounds. All are naturally-occurring in plants. Phenolics are formed from the essential amino acid phenylalinine (FEE-null-AL-uh-neen). Some phenols protect plants from UV radiation; others form pigmentation (the anthocyanins, in the flavanoid sub-group of Phenolics, impart colors); and yet others protect plants from diseases. The potential life-lengthener, resveratrol, which is rich in red grapes, is a current hero amidst the Phenols. A generic phenol molecule is shown at left. Those hexagons are benzene rings (don't worry--these are naturally-occurring chemicals comprised mostly of carbon).

In the human perception of wines, Phenolics are associated with wine color and tannins. If the winemaker presses and re-presses white grapes enthusiastically, the last bit of juice extracted from the skins and pulp is richer in Phenolic compounds. If used, this can result in overly-tannic wine (bitter!). In a red wine worthy of aging, it's not such a problem, because over time, the tannin molecules will chain up, which the palate perceives as "softer" tannins--a good thing. In white wines, the final pressings are best never even created--by the decade or so needed to smooth the wine out, the fruit will be gone.
Fewer than half the Phenolic compounds have been analyzed and understood, in case you or your kids are in search of a fascinating and wild frontier of scientific knowledge to explore. 140-year lifespans might be the payoff! How would you feel about having your first child at, say, 88 years old?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Winetasting: Pulling out some gems

I held a tasting last Saturday. There were 23 people here, many with very good palates.

My no-question favorite was the 1983 Gruaud Larose. This is a Super-Second Growth Bordeaux, right up there with Leoville las Cases and Cos d'Estournel, knocking on the First Growth door. After a 2-hour decant and another couple of hours sitting in bottle, it offered the most delightful bouquet of mixed fruits and touches of spice, flowers and leather. More elegant than rich (surprising for Bordeaux); not overpowering; smooth tannins. Such a pleasure! This is why we should all lay down good Bordeaux-style wines. And, unlike old Haut Brions I've had, this one wasn't overpowered with smoky essences. Oh, my goodness, it was great.

The 1998 Leonetti Cab (decanted an hour) was, as I feared, still a baby. Way too young to drink it yet, even after eleven years! Even still, however, it was beloved by all. Mr. Figgins makes wonderful wines, if you can live long enough to enjoy them ;)
2004 Maryhill Proprietor's Reserve Serendipity (their highest-price wine) is a Bordeaux blend. It was marvelous. I can get their reserves at a wonderful discount from retail; the winery is very generous that way and almost all their reserves are great wines.

The PN lineup:
1. mag of 1999 L. Latour Gevry-Chambertin Clos St. Jacques: This impressive bottle was very kindly brought by one of the guests, a special friend. For me, it was too austere; not enough fruit. I'm not at all sure that I would consider PN successful in Burgundy. I know that's heresy, so burn me. I know that many experts would say that I just don't understand.
2. 2000 B.Freres: past its prime; barely good; it did open up and got a bit better, but still not up to their reputation. See my other posts: Good Pinots from good years should last longer than 9 years!
3. mag of 1999 Archery Summit Premier Cuvee PN: Total disappointment. This is the only bottle that didn't even get finished as the tasters got sauced and less discriminating. I bought it in '02 when I didn't yet know the better PN makers. This place is a great facility and some of their wines are good, but for the high prices it is just not a good fit for the discriminating consumer.
4. 2002 Van Duzer: I didn't know this one (it was brought by someone else). It had a light nice bouquet and was OK.
5. Anderson Family Vineyards 2002 PN: best nose of the bunch; great balance; a real treat. The crowd favorite. Disclaimer: I used to volunteer there, and "cut my Pinot teeth" on their style. Cliff Anderson's wines are well-made and they seem to age better than do most others, which is a huge plus for anybody with too many wines in the cellar. And when his wines are "on," they give up the most wonderful Pinot nose you can find anywhere in the world.



Sunday, October 4, 2009

Grape lover's heaven

Most folks who love wine will keep within the comfortable confines of their wineglass. They seldom think, however, of what lies behind the wine --grapes!
The history of grapes is so vast and complex, and has contributed so much to human history, that it should be required reading in the public schools.
In the grape/wine business, people are incredibly helpful and kind to each other; even though they are competitors, there is so much shared suffering (and shared passion) that the participants develop close bonds, and they tend to willingly share their own experiences and wisdom. I'm fortunate to have several friends with large vineyards, who do not laugh at the tiny size of my own plot.
One of these is Lon Rombough, who grows what must be the widest variety of grapes in any vineyard in the Pacific Northwest, if not the country. Most of those are generally considered to be table grapes, although some are winegrapes, and many of the former have chemistry which suggests wine possibilities. That's his book, above, which I highly recommend to anybody with a grapevine. Lon's formal education included PhD work at Cal Davis, but he also has a lifetime of botanical experience and attention to detail, including relationships with many of the great grape breeders of our time. His passion extends to many other fruits, as well, such as a long line of different quinces, or plums.
But, oh, the grapes! Dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties, more different from each other than even we humans are. Most of the grapes are hybrids, the product of our mimicking an entirely natural process in which the female flower parts of one variety are brought together with the male flower parts of a different variety. Sometimes it results in an improved product, so some fall in love, so to speak, with that Holy Grail. (Plant sexuality is an incredibly complex topic, beyond my present understanding.) This is how we get grapes that ripen earlier, or taste better, or resist diseases. It is work that, when spread across all our food sources, can be rightly seen as saving the very continuance of our civilization. (And this is not "genetic engineering" in the sense Luddites fear it--this is not slicing chromosomes and recombining DNA. It is merely touching two specially-prepared flowers together at the right time, and then spending years evaluating the outcome, which has been done for centuries, ever since the monks of the middle ages began to learn how it could be done.) Some of the grapes have an incredibly-long genetic parentage (including many earlier hybrids, as parents). The topic of hybrid grapes will receive a suitable blog post on its own, but suffice it to say, now, that I believe hybrid grapes will move into the limelight, as their environmental advantages (less spraying, and less tractor fuel used because of less spraying, and more-reliable ripening) become better-recognized. The true test will be whether the market will buy wines made from these newer grapes. I am certain it will. I am proud to be conducting experiments in that area, along with many more-accomplished winemakers nationwide. At this moment, I have Cayuga and Ravat wines fermenting, thanks to Lon, and should be making Regent wine, this time next year, thanks to Steve Snyder and a certain most-kind doctor in Sequim WA (again, the helpfulness of folks in this industry).
In this time of massive urbanization, it is good to keep some roots in the land, lest we not lose what has been gained through so much hard work by others. When you stand before the impressive remains of Hadrian's Wall in Scotland, or when you read about the Great Library of Alexandria, you can't resist a wave of angst, thinking about all the effort made so long ago, and learning, lost for so long. Learning, lost, may be the greatest disaster we can imagine.
Check out Lon's website, and his list of grapes (with cuttings offered for sale), at

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