Posts Filed Under wine tips

Bitterness in White Wines (No… Really!)

Vinted on August 30, 2008 binned in wine tips
I run into this situation at a lot of wine tasting events:

We’re trying white wines, and one of the tasters gets a look on their face as if they just sucked down one of those Altoids lemon sours. The kind that are so bitter, they make you feel as though you will suck out your brains through the insides of your cheeks, and spit them out shorty after you jettison the candy from your mouth at upwards of 200 mph.

“This wine tastes bitter. Why is that?”

This is usually followed by a statement from me that starts with “Astringency…” and ends quickly with “…soooooo, let’s move onto our next wine…” in order to prevent me from looking like I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about.

Explaining bitterness in red wines is fairly simple: red wines contain tannins, and almost every wine drinker knows that tannins (especially in young wines) impart a sometimes bitter, often gum-drying quality. Tannins come primarily from the skin contact that makes red wines, well, red. White wines typically don’t undergo too much (if any) contact with grape skins when they’re made. Sure, sometimes oak aging can impart tannins in white wines, but usually not enough to make them bitter.

So, what gives?

At a recent wine geek tasting party, my geeky friends and I discussed the very topic. And one of those geeks knows a guy, who knows a guy, who knows some people.

Important people. Dangerous people.

Well, not really dangerous, but people who have dangerous levels of wine guru knowledge. Like, for example, Jancis Robinson, one of the premier wine authorities in the known universe.

Now, before I get into Jancis’ (and others’) answer on the question of what makes some white wines bitter, we need to take a little side trip to the “She Blinded Me With Science” Department. Because when it comes to wines, you can’t talk about the nitty-gritty of flavors and bitterness without talking phenols. And you can’t talk phenols without talking science….

She Blinded Me With SCIENCE!!!

Just like you and me, wine is made mostly of water. It also has a good portion of alcohol floating around in there (just like me.. but maybe not just like you). The 5% or so left over are the chemicals (well over 900 in some cases) that make wine, well, wine. Because wine is made from grapes, it picks up chemicals from the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes called phenols. Phenols interact with other molecules in the wine, and those interactions help to define the taste, color, and body of a wine. When you taste bitterness and astringency in red wine, it’s likely you’re tasting phenols. Since the chemical reactions in wine can change over time (for example, when phenols interact with the small amount of oxygen present in the wine bottle), so can a wine’s tastes. This, in part, explains why a wine is often said to “mellow out” and become less bitter and softer in mouthfeel over time – thanks, in part to phenols.

Still with me? OK, so how does this tie into bitterness in white wines? What makes some white wines bitter for Pete’s sake??…


I’ve got three answers to that question, from three separate Masters of Wine, all of which are different but technically correct! Let’s decode each one:

1) According to Julia Harding, MW: “Aromatic compounds called terpenes, particularly important in aromatic varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Riesling (but also in the aromas of flowers), are said to contribute to bitterness. Their concentration is greater in very ripe grapes and the effect is likely to be more marked when grapes have been pressed less gently or after ill-judged skin contact.”

Translation: If the wine gets a bit too much poorly-timed skin contact (from squishing the juice out too roughly, or from deliberately giving the juice contact with the grapes skins but at the wrong time), you might end up with some bitter white wine – especially if the grapes were very ripe at harvest. Terpenes can also be imparted from oak contact, so too much oak contact could also be the culprit.

2) Pancho Campo, MW‘s answer:

“IBMP (isobutylmethoxypyrazines) are frequently regarded by numerous authors as responsible for the herbaceous character and bitterness of certain wines. IBMP are compounds found in grapes that have not achieved a correct level of phenolic ripeness.”

Translation: The grapes weren’t ripe enough when the wine was made. This allowed the introduction of those IBMPs, without the right amount of flavor, etc. to counterbalance the ‘greeness’.

3) And from the irrepressible Jancis Robinson herself:

“Excessive phenolic extraction is the usual explanation for bitterness.”

Translation: Too much phenol action, baby. Either from mistake or from the winemaker gettin’ a little too greedy, someone was trying to extract the maximum amount of flavor from their grapes – but they went overboard. Whoops – hello Mr. Bitter!

There you go – now, off to impress the guests at your next wine party with your wine chemistry smarties…

For more wine chemistry geek knowledge, I recommend the Oxford Companion to Wine.

Cheers!
(images: time-inc.net, wikimedia.org)

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The Trouble With Wine Ratings (an Introduction to the 89 Project)

Vinted on July 31, 2008 binned in wine review, wine tips

Excellence.

You deserve it. You demand it.

It haunts you. It drives you.

It’s so Powerful. It makes you. Speak. In Broken. Sentences.

We’re obsessed with comparing things when we make purchases, especially in the U.S. Some of us are always out there looking for the best. Even in today’s excellence-obsessed status-quo-chasing society, no one can blame you for just honestly wanting to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to buying wine. Especially when the economy is in the financial out house.

This is where you’d think that wine ratings would help you. By rating a wine on a 100 point scale, you can make a quick shopping determination so that you can pick up the best bottle for the money, and feel confident that you got a good deal and will enjoy your purchase without having to learn any of that fancy wine mumbo-jumbo, right?

Not quite.

If I was grading the 100 point wine rating scale (hell, why not, we love to rate stuff, remember?), I’d give it a C-. That’s because the 100 point scale has 3 major flaws that prevent it from really telling you what you think it should tell you


Flaw #1: It’s actually a 50-point scale.
Yes, just like those exams you took in grade school, no one actually gets less than a 50. A wine gets a 50 just for showing up and writing its name (on the label). This would lead you to believe that, like those old grade school exams, the 100 point scale grades wines objectively. Which leads us to…

Flaw #2: It gives a false sense of Objectivity.
No one can really score a wine 100% objectively. This is because we all have differences in our palates, and therefore (at least) subtle differences in how we interpret a wine’s flavor and quality. If a particular critic gives a wine a very high score, it says nothing about whether or not you might like that wine. So, unless your palate and preferences are similar to that critic, if you blindly buy one wine over another just because it scored a few points higher, you may be passing up a great wine that you would enjoy even more than that flashy ‘high-scorer’.

Flaw #3: It implies a “Scale” of Excellence.
Like that old grade school grading method, you’d expect a wine scoring in the 90s to be better than a wine scoring in the 70s (an ‘A’ vs a ‘C’) – and for the most part, you’d be right. But is a wine that scores a 95 “better” than a wine that scores a 91? This is much trickier territory. A difference of a few points does not guarantee that one wine is better than another, any more than my scoring a 95 and you scoring a 91 on a wine exam guarantees that I’d be a better sommelier than you.

The trouble is that too many people fall into the trap of following the numbers for their buying decisions – so much so that a wine rated a 90+ will sell for a much higher price than a wine that scored an 89.

In order to help break out of some of the rut caused by this scoring system, a group of wine bloggers has started up a new blog called The 89 Project. The aim of the 89 Project is to highlight the wines that people are missing out on because of the 100 point system. I’ve signed on as a contributor, so watch that space for an update from me (once I get my dirty little hands on some tasty “89s”).

In the explanation of his 100 point rating scale, Robert Parker sounds his own word of caution about blindly following his (or anyone else’s) scores:

“No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same taster without prejudice, can quantify different levels of wine quality and provide the reader with one professional’s judgment. However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.

Well said. Don’t say we didn’t warn ya!

Cheers!
(images: wales.nhs.uk, modmyprofile.com)

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Wine Dis-Service

Vinted on July 24, 2008 binned in commentary, wine tips

I recently received an e-mail response from a 1WineDude.com subscriber, in reaction to the previous post Does Wine Taste Better When You’re Dining Out? This response got me thinking about restaurant wine service in general, and it struck a cord in me because it touches on one of my pet peeves about wine service in many restaurants:

“…one thing I can control at home is proper rinsing and drying of my stemware. Nothing gets my goat more than shelling out good money for a favorite wine only to find that the restaurant’s stemware still smells of soap or rinsing/sheeting agents. If you encounter this problem when out on the town, don’t feel embarrassed to ask the server to have the glasses rinsed and hand dried again when having a special wine.”

Sound advice indeed, and I couldn’t agree more with it. For most wines, having a tulip-shaped glass is about all you need to get the maximum enjoyment out of the wine. Picking the right kind of stemware when drinking a special wine can really enhance the aromas and flavors. But I’d rather have a clean glass of any shape vs. a perfectly-matched but smelly glass!

Generally speaking, a little bit of wine knowledge can go a long way in making customers happy. Another pet peeve of mine when it comes to wine service: “the over-pour.” Filling a wine glass to the brim makes it almost impossible to enjoy all the aromas of a wine. It’s like eating a steak with a napkin draped over it. And just try to swirl the wine without spilling it…

Since we’re into complaining mode here, I’ll offer another one: serving wine at the wrong temperature. I’m not too precious about this – I just want it close. I’d rather have it too cold, because I easily enough warm the glass up in my hands (unless it’s been overpoured!). But getting a really, really cold red or a hot white is a total dining experience buzzkill for me.

Those are my wine service pet peeves. How about yours?


Cheers!
(images: stuff.co.nz, ggpht.com/vincent.vanwylick)

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