Posts Filed Under wine tips
Dude has seen quite a bit of press regarding organic and biodynamic wines, which are understandably riding the marketing wave of increased consumer demand for healthier, more naturally-made food products.
At industry wine-tasting events, organic and biodynamic viticulture is touted at nearly every distributor’s and/or winery’s boot,h in order to get a edge over their adjacent competition for eyes, mouths, and wine orders.
Anyone who has had local, organically grown produce, or tasted a fresh hunk of free-range chicken right off the grill, knows firsthand that these products often taste better, are healthier for you, and are superior in quality to their mass-manufactured counterparts.
The story is a bit different when it comes to wines.
That’s because most organic wines suck.
It’s not just this dude’s opinion – in 2005, Tom Stevenson (noted wine writer and critic, and the driving force behind the brilliant Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and the indispensable annual industry Wine Report) wrote the following regarding the state of organic wines:
- “When great winemakers… “go green” they produce great organic or biodynamic wines. However, it is quite another matter when others less passionate about the quality of wine are organic. While they may well have a true passion for the environment, the majority of the world’s organic producers clearly have no idea how to make a superior quality wine.”
Part of this viewpoint undoubtedly has to do with our expectations as consumers of organic / biodynamic products, spurred on by marketing that goads us into automatically assuming that these products are better for the environment (usually true), are healthier for us (also usually true) and are of higher quality (uh… not quite…). That last part still requires skill, and a passion to make something of real quality, no matter what the methods.
As consumers, we’re also confused about exactly what organic and biodynamic really mean. In summary, they are both government-regulated terms, meaning if you follow the production standards laid out by the government, then you’re allowed to use those terms on the label. At a high level, this is what’s required for winemakers to “go green”:
- Organic: the wine is made with the minimum amount of sulfer dioxide, using grapes that have been grown without using chemically-based pesticides/herbicides and fertilizers.
- Biodynamic: the grapes are grown without using chemical or synthetic fertilizers & sprays; natural yeasts are used for fermentation of the wine, with minimal use of sulfer dioxide, filtration, and chapatalization (the addition of sugars to raise the potential alcohol in the finished wine – which happens much more often then you really want to know about…).
Notice what is NOT represented above – measurements of quality.
So, how have things fared in terms of quality standards for organic wines since the dire outlook penned by Mr. Steven in 2005? Not too good.
Most organic wines still suck.
A great example comes from the Organic Wine section of the 2007 Wine Report: according to the report, Chile (an ever-expanding hotbed of quality wine production) is becoming “a graveyard for failed organic projects” because in order to make quality wine some producers are running organic and non-organic wine growing systems in parallel – a total nightmare in terms of vineyard management.
The problem is that it’s much easier to market organic than it is to make great organic wines. And if producers had figured out how to make top quality wine organically, they wouldn’t need parallel systems – and certainly would have more certified organic acreage under vine.
Europe has, by far, the largest amount of certified-organic vineyard areas – just under 82,000 hectares, which sounds impressive but is only a “whopping” 2.2% of the total vineyard acreage. Half of that 2.2% is concentrated in just one country – Italy, whose farmers were subsidized heavily by the government to convert to organic! In the U.S., biodynamic conversions are on the rise, but the numbers are equally paltry – 1.7% in California (though Oregon is leading with just under 10%).
The moral of the story, at least for this dude, is not to jump too fast onto the organic bandwagon when it comes to wine. While there are some organic producers making top-notch stuff, if you don’t know the producer and it says organic on the label, then it could (in fact, is likely to be) “green” plonk.
If you’ve not been living like a monastic hermit, and have been listening to any form of news lately, you’ve likely come across any number of news stories related to Resveratrol, a substance found in wine (mostly red).
Resveratrol, depending on which story you’re reading at the time, is claimed to have antioxidant, anti-cancer, and / or anti-aging properties, and a number of supplements containing various amounts of the substance have hit the marketplace.
Besides the substance itself as yet being totally unregulated, most of the hype about Resveratrol stems from studies that have been conducted on mice. Mice, to the best of my knowledge, are not avid wine drinkers (or I suppose it’s possible a mouse drinks some in a Robert Burns poem somewhere… or maybe in a Jethro Tull song inspired by Burns…). So – if you pop Resveratrol pills, chances are you won’t know how much of the stuff you’re getting, but that doesn’t matter anyway since no one knows for sure at what amounts Resveratrol provides benefits to humans (I’m assuming no mice are reading this blog – if they are, then we’ve got deeper problems than imbibing unregulated amounts of red wine substances…).
I have actually heard of people who have tried to add red wine to their diets specifically to increase their intake of Resveratrol. There is a problem with this strategy – Resveratrol amounts are measured in μg (aka, micrograms). A microgram is 1/1,000,000th of a gram. I’m not sure exactly how much that is, but I am sure that it’s not exactly ultra-concentrated amounts of the stuff. So by any measure, you’d need to drink a sh*tload of red wine to match the similar amounts of Resveratrol that have been injected into these poor mice.
Now, considering the detriments of pounding back more than 3 drinks a day, you should probably forget about going with the increased red wine route just to try to get any health benefits out of the modicum of the resulting Resveratrol increase. My penchant for hefty red wines (as well as my inclination to suck back as much of the really good stuff as possibly when attending industry tastings) not withstanding, I’d humbly offer that moderation is the key – you’ll enjoy *some* health benefits, and will probably live longer than if you’d pounded back the heavy Resveratrol wine amounts anyway!
Whenever someone asks me what I’ve been up to in my “wine life,” and I tell them that I’ve recently sat an exam of some sort, I invariably get asked the same question:
“So… uhm.. what does that do
for you exactly? Are you, like, a sommelier now?”
Now, it wasn’t all that long ago that I knew nothing about wine, or the various credential-chasing that would effectively allow me to take something I would come to love (drinking and sharing wine) and piss all over it by making it difficult and shoring up my free time with studying weighty tomes of wine knowledge. So I understand why people ask me that. The answer is even more complicated and usually boils down to this:
“Well… sort of…”
So, I thought that I’d try to take a few minutes to explain the wacky world of wine education in layman’s terms – a quick reference that I’d wished that I’d had when I was starting to “take this wine thing more seriously.”
Fortunately for me, the fabulous folks at i-WineReview.com have already done this for me, and they have a great page on their site that lays it all out in some detail. So, can you go to this page and have it all figured out?
Well… sort of…
In the world of wine, there are (more-or-less) 3 main educational/certification paths that you can take which are internationally recognized:
- Masters of Wine – This is the granddaddy qualification for wine peeps, and exists to recognize the best of the best in the art, science, and business of wine. Which means that theoretically anyone can achieve it, but in reality it’s insanely tough and there are fewer than 25 members from the U.S. Achieving the MW credential is a bit like a PhD on steriods.
The MW recommends, as a prerequisite for entry, the Level 4 Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This is a bit like the Masters degree of the wine world, with 4 levels of certification covering a one-day foundation certification in wine / spirits concepts, all the way through a multi-year Diploma program. Each step gets significantly more difficult in the academic portion (multiple-guess and essay exams) and adds more difficult wine identification tastings. This is where I started (I’ve got Level 2 and Level 3 certifications, Level 3 being the first one to test you on tasting identification). WSET classes and exams can only be offered by affiliated organizations (e.g., PhillyWine.com in Philadelphia).
This path (WSET through MW) focuses on the entire world of wine & spirits, how they are made, with emphasis on tasting profiles typical for these beverages in the regions where they are made.
- The Court of Master Sommeliers – This is the granddaddy qualification of wine service. It focuses on the best-of-the-best in wine service and industry matters, and those that sit the final diploma exam also must pass a brutal (and fairly rapid) tasting. I know someone who is sitting this tasting by invitation, and she has been studying her a__ off for a month, mostly through ‘blind’ tastings (you identify the wine – type, age, and region – by tasting, without knowing anything about it until it’s poured into your glass).
- Society of Wine Educators – This group exists to promote standards of qualification in the education of wine. Their focus is on deep understanding of wine taste, identifying wine faults, and having detailed knowledge of the geography, science, and history of wine. Members (of which I am one) and non-members can sit two levels of exams to achieve qualifications that are meant to prove that you know what you’re talking about when you speak or teach on the subject of wine:
Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) – This exam is a bit like the Boards of wine: 100 questions (a bit more difficult than those of the WSET Advanced exam), 1 hour, 75% needed to pass.
Certified Wine Educator (CWE) – More difficult exam, plus two tastings to identify similar wines from different world regions and wine faults, respectively. I have met people that have failed these tastings multiple times – it’s brutal.
After that, come various certification and education programs around the globe that are local, and are NOT internationally recognized. These can be fun, local, and usually require no wine knowledge to get started. They’re a great way to learn more about wine. There are probably about a billion of these such programs, give or take several million. As an example, I’ve heard good things about the Wine Spectator School, which offers classes on-line. A quick search on the Internet will turn up all kinds of these, or varying difficulty and interest. Are these local things any good?
Well… sort of…
If you want to learn a bit more about wine, by all means seek out a local program near you and have fun. If that program asks for lots of your hard-earned dollars (I’m talking $1000s here) to give you what they tell you is a “professional” certification that rivals the three I have outlined above, then ***walk away as fast as you can***. And keep your hand firmly on your wallet and/or purse while you exit.
So… what does a 40 year old wine taste like?
This past New Year’s Eve, Ker & I stopped by Cosimo to grab a glass of bubbly with Jason (the Wine Director). After a bit, Jason paused during our conversation at the bar and gave me that look – the look that serious only wine geeks give each other when they have SSS (some serious s@*t.
It’s the “let me show you what we’ve got in the decanter, but don’t tell anyone else, man” look.
They had cracked open a bottle of 1967 Chateau Latour. I’d never had a 40 year old wine before, and Anthony (the venerable Cosimo proprietor) was keen, so Ker & I had a taste. The experience further convinced me of what I’ve been saying for a long time now: Most people shouldn’t age wine.
Now, I am NOT saying that I did not like this wine (I loved it actually); and I’m not saying the wine wasn’t aged / stored perfectly (it was). What I am saying is that most people in the U.S. would fine this wine “interesting” (i.e., “not worth the price tag”).
Why? Because our tastes in this country are like our wars: Big. Bold. In-yo-FACE!
My tasting notes on this wine read like a textbook definition of classic “claret” for the Brits, which is to say that it looks the list of most nuclear family’s kitchen garbage bag contents: cigar, black nuts, pencil shavings, game, “slim jim,” earth (aka ‘dirt’).
I don’t know too many people that would plunk down the serious cash it requires to purchase aged first growth Bordeaux after seeing that list. It wouldn’t be enough to add that this is all normal stuff for a well-aged Bordeaux, or to talk about everything that was sooooo right with this wine (like the delicate tannins and fruit notes on the finish, which was long and strong and lasted until about 4PM the next day I think), or how the integration of all the components showed that this wine aged so beautifully. Most folks in the States simply would not have the patience to wait 40 years for a wine to reach peak maturity anyway – and they might not be happy with the results if they did anyway. Because our tastes are different from that of the Brits.
So who’s right – us, or the Brits?
We’re both right.
The moral of the story: don’t sweat aging / storage of your wine too much. 98% of it will not benefit from aging anyway, and you’ll enjoy it better now while it’s fresh, fruity, and in your face. If you decide you like red wine and want to develop your palate, start experimenting and aging to find out the balance YOU like best between big fruit and lots of tannin vs. the earthy, meaty flavors that will develop with aging.
There’s no right wine answer on aging – apart from your preference. And you’ll only learn your preference after experimenting (not exactly a chore considering all of the great wine to be had out there!).