Judging the quality of a wine is essential to its enjoyment, and the understanding starts with a simple question you can ask yourself when smelling your glass. Does this wine smell clean?
Many years ago a poor quality, unclean wine was more common. The reasons varied: it could be from an unruly yeast strain; the winery having no control of temperatures during fermentation; unsanitized cellars teeming with bacteria (this list can go on and on). But with today’s technology and winemaking expertise it is rare to find a wine fault occurring specifically from the winery.
But faults do occur. Here’s how to identify some of the most common.
Corked wine: Of the many faults that occur, a tainted cork is one of the most likely. A corked wine, or cork taint as the flaw is also called, is one of the most obvious defects to detect. The wine will have a musty odor similar to a moldy, damp basement, wet cardboard and newspapers, or even a stinky sweaty locker room. Cork taint is one of the most common wine faults and is thought to affect up to 10 percent of all wines bottled in the world. It is caused by a cork infected with a fungus producing 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (the technical term) but generally referred to as TCA. When this chemical comes in contact with a wine it imparts a musty and moldy odor. Research suggests there may be a connection between the process of chlorine bleaching the corks and the development of the fungus.
The frequency of cork taint led many producers to seek alternate closures such as screw caps and synthetic corks. If you don’t have a cork you can’t have cork taint.
Brettanomyces: This long-winded word is also known as “brett.” It’s simply a yeast. It is controversial in some circles to call it a wine flaw, because in some cases it is winemaker’s intention. In small amounts it can add a complexity to wines, but if too much is present, it can make a wine smell horrible. It can be found in white wines but generally it is more of an issue for reds. Unpleasant smells caused by brett include a sweaty saddle, a stable, barnyard, Band-Aids, a horse and, at low levels, it can be spice, cloves, smoke or leather. The most common way of removing the yeast is to use sulfur dioxide.
Sulfur dioxide: There’s no mistaking this fault, as it is best described as the smell of a recently struck match. Sulfur dioxide is a winemakers’ antiseptic and is used in almost all winemaking. But when too much is used, the result is a fault. It is common in inexpensive, sweet and semi-sweet wines because the addition is higher in an attempt to stop the wine from re-fermenting. It was a very noticeable fault many years ago in inexpensive German wines. Today the industry is using much less sulfur and this fault is rare.
It happens a lot. I am asked to help someone find a wine style they enjoy. Most frequently it’s a chardonnay they had once. They usually start by saying it tasted different from other chardonnays, “It wasn’t sweet, tangy or oaky. It was almost creamy and buttery.”
Most are describing the aromas and tastes of a wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation. To understand malolactic fermentation, it’s best to start at the beginning. The winemaking process begins with converting sugar to alcohol with the help of yeast. Eventually there is no more sugar for the yeast to feed upon, at which point malolactic fermentation begins.
For centuries it was regarded as one of wine’s mysteries. Cellar masters noticed that their wines changed after the initial fermentation into smoother, more full-bodied, supple styles. For a long time, the reason for this transformation remained a mystery and most winemakers assumed there was simply no way to control it.
In the mid-20th century however, Frenchman Pascal Ribereau-Gayon discovered the transformation was the result of a culture of lactic acid bacteria. Basically during this mysterious time the wines were naturally converting their lactic acid (harsh green apple acids) to malic acid (soft milk acids).
However, malolactic fermentation isn’t desirable in every wine. While its true red wines will almost always undergo the process, adding smoothness and complexity, Sauvignon blanc, with its natural fresh, zippy taste, would lose its appeal if it were to become a soft, full-bodied wine. It’s simply not the flavor profile of the grape.
Chardonnay, on the other hand, is a different grape that loves the added complexity of “malo.” These are the wines often described as having aromas of butter, butterscotch, milk, caramel, nuts and vanilla.
- 2014 Bogle Vineyards Chardonnay, California (about $14 retail)
- 2014 Matchbook Chardonnay, California (about $15 retail)
It’s stressful enough for many of us to come up with the perfect toast at a dinner party.
But I think it’s even more important to avoid the dreaded silences that come with the ebbs in conversation. If you’ve had dinner with me you know I am not one for comfortable silence.
Here are a few wine stories to impress your friends and family and keep the conversation (and wine) flowing at the table.
There’s the ancient Latin phrase in vino veritas, “in wine there is truth.” But it’s always that small step beyond the truth that makes for the best wine legend.
Saying “Cheers!” as we clink glasses with our friends and family was a ritual started in the Middle Ages. Poisoning was considered the normal way of dismissing an enemy and to ensure glasses were poison-free, those at the table would first pour a small amount of wine from their glass into the other glasses at the table. If there were poison in one it would now be in all. Another version says the practice of clinking glasses is to dispel evil spirits in the room. Eventually, the custom transformed to what it is today, a wish of good health and fellowship.
Women have been at the center of the world’s wine legends from almost the beginning. One legend credits a woman with discovering wine. According to lore, the woman suffered from severe migraines. She lived in a harem in the palace of King Jamshid in Persia. One day as she was in severe pain she noticed a spoiled jar of grapes in the process of foaming and fermenting. Her thought was it was poison and she would drink the entire jar. Instead of ending her life she discovered the elixir had miraculously cured her headache. And, again as the story and legend go, the king ordered wine to be served at all royal functions in the future.
And then there’s this famous quotation from Benjamin Franklin. It should be noted that this quotation is often incorrectly attributed to being about beer, but in fact Franklin was writing about rain and wine.
“We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”
Short version: “Wine is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Cheers to that.
If you have been reading my column over the years, you know about my fascination with wine labels. Sometimes it’s the art that draws me in, sometimes it’s a name.
One I’ve been particularly intrigued with is the Sean Minor Winery. I’ve always wondered, is this is a real person, a very trendy brand name or a fictitious character made up for the sake of selling wine? This past week we were honored to have Sean Minor (he is a real person) visit Arkansas to share his wine and his story.
Minor was born in Kansas and grew up with a passion for agriculture and an appreciation for farm to table, specifically in regard to wine-making. His love of the art led him to Napa Valley, Calif., and Oregon where he worked for some of the most revered wineries in the world.
In 2005, he launched Sean Minor Wines and Four Bears Winery with an emphasis on quality and value.
The labels are simple in design, but rich in meaning. Sean Minor labels have family roots.
Family is at the forefront of Sean Minor’s labels, with the Four Bears Winery’s 4B emblem honoring his children, Nick, Elle, Jack and Charlie. Sean Minor “Nicole Marie” is named for his wife.
- 2014 Sean Minor Four Bears Winery Pinot Noir, California (about $14 retail)
- 2014 Sean Minor “Nicole Marie” Red Blend, California (about $24 retail)
For centuries Portugal has been known for its port wines and, of course, as the birthplace of the time-honored cork. Today those are background topics when it comes to Portugal’s unfortified wines stepping into the limelight for the world’s attention. Portugal is escaping its ‘fortified’ niche.
In the past, wines made in Portugal, other than ports, rarely had a chance to come into their own. Port producers considered the valuable grapes as worthy only to be made into luscious, sweet fortified wines. The grapes of lesser quality or those left were used for wines for local consumption.
It was in 1986, when the country joined the European Union, that Portugal’s wine industry developed a worldwide presence. This alliance was an almost assured success, as it was timed in sync with the world’s increased thirst for red wines and the local producers stressing vast improvements to the modern winemaking industry.
What makes Portuguese wines unique is that while the rest of the world planted the popular grape varieties that make cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, Portuguese producers were focusing on nurturing native varieties that have been produced for decades.
The wines of the Douro region and young vinho verde (“green wine”) are great introductions to Portuguese wine beyond port.
- 2014 Twin Vines Vinho Verde, Portugal (about $12 retail)
- 2014 Twisted Red Douro, Portugal (about $18 retail)
When you walk the long aisles of a wine store, you’ve probably had moments of discouragement. This discouragement is not because of an inadequate or perplexing selection of wines but from the mundane feeling you experience reading the same labels one after another — cabernet, cabernet, merlot, merlot, chardonnay, chardonnay. Of course every once in a while an unfamiliar grape is in front of you and for a split second you consider the exploration but are quickly drawn back to the familiar bottle descriptions of cabernet… cabernet … cabernet.
We all seem to get comfortable buying the recognizable wines, but there are many regions, grapes and styles worth a little homework and the benefit of tasting. It’s good to try out intimidating wines. Quality and reliability may have been the most important question in the past, but it is rare to produce an inadequate bottle of wine in modern winemaking. (Rare, not impossible.) This modern change means giving an unfamiliar bottle a try will often result in a pleasantly rewarding experience.
As I look for something out of the ordinary I think of it as an adventure. While I have a staples list of everyday drinking wines that I stick to, I always keep an open mind to explore wines that may seem intimidating because of a complex label or an unfamiliar grape.
On each trip to the wine store, I try to buy one bottle of wine I want to explore and learn about. Some of the best wines I have tasted ended up being from this adventure. Of course there were a few misses, wines that didn’t appeal to my particular tasting palate, but I enjoyed the experience of learning about the style of wine and its taste.
So when you have those humdrum days finding the same too-familiar labels on the shelves and yearning for something different, remember, it’s all about the quest.
- 2014 St. James Winery Cynthiana, Missouri (about $10 retail)
- 2013 Meli Carignan, France (about $12 retail)
- 2014 Marichal Tannat, Uruguay, (about $14 retail)
- 2014 Tenuta Rocca di Montemassi Vermentino, Italy (about $22 retail)
- 2014 Force of Nature Tempranillo, California (about $24 retail)
- 2014 Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer, France (about $24 retail)
- 2006 Martin Codax Albarino, Rias Baixes Spain, (around $17 retail)