Thursday, May 7, 2009

Service Temperature

This blog article is in response to a great question about why different wines drink better at different temperatures. Oddly enough it all comes back to our olfactory. Our sense of smell ultimately effects our taste buds. With out our sense of smell we would simply taste four sensations: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. If you want to see for yourself try plugging your nose the next time you eat a chocolate chip cookie, all you taste is sweetness.

What does this have to do with service temperature? Well our sense of smell is only susceptible to vapors. Red wines are generally less volatile or more aromatic than white wines. Red wines are served at room temperature in order to warm it to the point where its elements begin to vaporize. Optimal vaporization happens at a warmer temperature for big bold wines and cool temperatures for lighter wines.

Another reason that some wines drink better at different temperatures is tannins. Tannis are almost exclusively found in red wines. I describe them as the sensation that you experience when your mouth feels like it has been wallpapered in suede and velvet. Tannins are more obvious at lower temperatures. This is the reason a young tannic wine is served at warmer temperatures, like a Cab from Napa for example. Serving a highly tannic wine at a warmer temperature can also create the sense of maturity. As far as sweetness goes, cold is a necessity to counterbalance the richness of very sweet wines like that of Tokaji.

Service temperature as a whole tends to hot button. In my opinion Americans drink their red wines to warm and their white wines to cold. When a white wine is too cold it tends to be muted, all of the aromatics and flavors are lost. On the flip side if a red wine is served too warm it tends to display over cooked aromas or the wine may simply taste flabby.

I like to serve my reds at "French room temperature". I am commonly asked, "Is a French room colder than an American room?" I always tell them "yes, that is why the French wear turtlenecks." That was a joke. But in all seriousness yes, the term chambre refers to room temp. Traditionally a French dinning room was around 60 degrees F. So when we look at the expression room temp we have to consider the history.

To get your wines to the correct temperature I will give you a loose formula. Before you are to serve a white put it in the refrigerator for about 45 minutes, this will bring the wine to about 40 to 45 degrees F. If your white wine is in the fridge take it out about an hour before you serve it. Last, I do not recommend this solution, if you are in a pinch with your white wine stick it in the freezer for about 15 minutes. As for reds you want to put them in the fridge about 15 minutes before you serve them, this will bring your wine to about 60 to 65 degrees F.

To sum it up you want to serve your sparklers the coldest around 40 degrees F. Sweeter wines like Riesling or Gewurztraminer at about 45 degrees F. Fuller bodied whites like Chardonnay you want to be around 50 degrees F. On the red side you want to have your lighter bodied reds like Beaujolais and lighter Pinot Noir around 55 degrees F. Then your medium bodied reds like Chianti or Chilean reds around 60 degrees F. And your fat, chewy, big bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz around 65 degrees F.

If you stick to these general rules you will find success in your wine endeavors. Like I always say, if you have a terrible wine, stick it in the freezer for about and hour, just kidding. Thanks again for the question I hope I answered it and please keep them coming.

Nicholas Barth
Wine Director
Cru Wine Specialists

Earth Friendly Wines

Last night I hosted a wine tasting at my local wine bar The Veranda. In cooperation with the Good Earth Co-op we tasted organic and biodynamic wines. What a topic, I could have devoted a whole day to talking about the subject, but fortunately, for the patrons sake, I only had a couple of hours.

When I tasted my first organic wine about 5 years ago I thought it was awful. Not only was it expensive but it was reminiscent of dirt with hollow fruit and a flabby body. In addition many writers and critics have proclaimed the lack of quality organic and biodynamic producers. However last night I was blown away by the wines we tasted. Organic and Biodynamic wines have come a long way over the last 5 years and I am anxious to see where this road is going to lead.

The first wines we tried were organic. They were made by producers that practiced organic rituals in both their vineyards and wineries. This is usually a costly procedure for wineries to undergo. First, they can't use chemicals in their vineyards. This can lead to a loss of crops as well as under or over developed fruit. Second, they can't use chemicals in their winery. This can cause fermentation too go to quickly or to slowly. It can also lead to a fermentation stall leaving the wine low in alcohol and flavor. Lastly, being an organic certified producer requires a winery to get an independent source to come and inspect their operation and that is not cheap.

I was shocked when I learned there were around 240 chemicals used to adulterate wine. Whether it be in the vineyard or in the winery, many producers use these out of necessity to save their wine, or to give it what it didn't have. For example, say you have bad fruit, your wine will only be as good as your grapes, but you can add things to it to mask the flavor. Much like some jug wine producers (Yellowtail) of Australia do with their Chardonnay. They over use oak and malolactic fermentation to adulterate their wine. I do not know the exact chemicals used, but rest assured they are add to those producers wine.

The next series of wines we tasted were biodynamic. This is a whole books worth of information so I will give you the highlights. What separates biodynamic from organic is that organic wine are doing something good by not harming the earth when planting and growing. Whereas biodynamic wines are giving back to the earth, regrowing bacteria, habitats, and making the earth better than how they found it.

Biodynamic producers do more than just converting their tractors in to biodiesel machines. They go beyond not polluting the earth with insecticides, they give something back. For example, they will create a biodynamic compost that will promote growth but also stabilize nitrogen, and combat plant disease. They also use horn manure, burring this in the ground like a "tea" for the soil to promote micro life and beneficial bacteria. Through homeopathic sprays and herbal preparations the soils fertility is increased. This ensures that the vines will be protected from both diseases and pests.

Giving back to the earth is just one element of the Biodynamic philosophy. They are very conscious of the life cycle and more specifically the celestial cycle. They use cosmic forces to help ensure appropriate growth and eliminate their foot print. The Biodynamic cycle runs on five periods: Root, Fruit, Seed, Leaf and Flower. Each period signifies a cosmic rhythm that they follow. For example, only on root period days can they cultivate, or plant. But it goes one step further, Biodynamic producers and followers believe that they will have better taste sense s in some periods over others. Take the root period, the philosophy is that you will have little to no taste sensation, whereas on a fruit or seed day you will taste the best. Some wine personnel live by this and will not open a great bottle or more dramatically not taste wine at all on root days.

Biodynamic sustainable agriculture does not just have a loose set of guidelines. There is a strict regiment to their theory. For example the best root periods in June are on the 21st at 8pm through the 25th at 1pm. And the best fruit period in June is on the 19th at Midnight through the 21st at 4pm, but then there is an astis that states: avoid two hours before and after the Moon's lower nodal point at 4pm on the 20th. This theory while crazy to some people is said to be very effective.

Biodynamic wine making was described to me by one of my classmates as wine making for geeks. I can see where she is coming from. The amount of effort it takes to follow this lifestyle is pretty daunting. I have heard that when wine makers rip up their crop and replant using Biodynamic agriculture the first six years are a lot of work. They are require to make their own fertilizer (stinky) and convert all of their practices in both the vineyard and the winery. But it is told that after that six year window they will produces some great wines. More importantly they will be sustainable, cost essentially will go down and the quality of the product will go up.

Biodynamic and organic wines do not stop at just the viticulture, it is a part of the whole wine making process. The use of certified cork through the rain forest alliance as well as screw tops reduce our footprint on this earth. A lot of people do not realize that wine makers are not obligated to post on the label if they are using animal products to fine and clarify the wine before bottling. The use of egg whites for example to brighten a wine or gelatin to remove bitterness. Many biodynamic and organic wine producers are using a vegan friendly alternative like bentonite. Whatever the steps are that a producer uses it is important to ask questions. Call the winery or check them out online if you want to be certain.

In December of 2008 the bistro I consult for entered in to the cult following know as coffee. One of the hot tickets in coffee was organically grown beans. However a number of coffee producers also use fair trade ethics. This a new concept in the domestic wine market. Fair trade wine and coffee promotes competitive wages, a better work environment, and after last night I would say a quality product. The wine we tasted last night was a Malbec from Argentina. 19 small family growers took part in this wine. Each one owning less than a hectare (2.5 acres) of vines. The idea of fair trade to me use to mean that the price of the product is higher (which it does), but after last night I now believe that it ensures the quality as well. I would buy this wine again and again.

The debate between organic and biodynamic is minimal. They are both better for our bodies and mother nature. I believe it is much more difficult to make a quality wine with little intervention. And after the tasting last night I have a whole new insight in to organic and biodynamic quality. If someone where to ask me 5 years ago if I would put organic wines on my list I would have said no. But after last night I am contemplating revising my list to offer only organic and biodynamic wines. That way I can reduce my footprint simply by drinking.

Nicholas Barth
Wine Director
Cru Wine Specialsts

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cellar, you mean my box of wine over there?

Cellaring wine can be a daunting task. It begins with space and ends with money. If you are anything like me you want to save wine, but when your friends come over and drink all six of the bottles you purchased for the barbecue in the first hour of your party you are forced to go to the basement and select one of your crown jewels. Which by the way they are already intoxicated, you could give them swill and they would drink it.

Here are a few helpful tips that will assist you in creating and managing a cellar. The first is space, cellar conditions matter, especially if you have bottles that require 10 to 15+ years for aging. As a general rule people tend to drink their wines way to young, some wines need age to develope. Then again most wines produced today are meant to be consumed tomorrow. 85% of all wines produced today are meant to be consumed within three years of bottling. And for good reason, almost 90% of all wine purchased in a liquor store is consumed that weekend.

So if you are looking to build a or create a cellar in your living quarters here are some tips. Pick an area that is cool and dark. Wines ages best between the temperatures of 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything colder and the wines will not age appropriately, anything warmer and they will age prematurely. A room that is too warm can also cause wines to "cook". This may cause leakage, maderization (like Madera) or oxidation (like Fino Sherry). For these same reasons it is also important to create an environment with a constant constant temp. Putting a thermostat in the room will help you regulate the temp.

Humidity is another important variable. You want the humidity in your cellar to be around 80%. This is an important factor because if the cellar is too humid it can cause mold to form on the top of the bottle (some mold can be a good thing with older wines, it is a sign of appropriate aging). If the humidity in the cellar is too low this can lead to a contraction of the cork. This can cause the wine to be exposed to oxygen and ultimately turn in to a vinegar like state. Also, if the humidity is too low the cork can shrink and cause evaporation, and there is nothing worse than less wine.

It is also important to refrain from moving the bottles or having any vibration in your cellar. Movement can cause the wine to age prematurely and cause sediment to be disrupted. Also, it is nice to have a bottle rest for six months after you purchase it. Some times the ride over on the boat or plane or even the ride on the truck to the liquor store can cause a wine to be cloudy and unsettled. Letting it settle will ensure optimum drinkability.

Light is the last important factor in a cellar. You want to try not to use florescent lights. They cause the wine to prematurely age, especially in clear bottles. The light will literally chemically effect the bottle. Also light and sunlight in particular can cause heat, again affecting the wine. If you have a light in your cellar make sure you turn it off every time you leave. To sum it up you want your cellar to be a movement free, dark, damp, cool place. Which is why a basement is such a natural home.

There are a few ways to going about getting a cellar. One is to just put up some shelving in your basement and have a makeshift cellar with a humidifier and a heating and cooling unit. Make sure no matter what you do all of your bottles are laying on their side. This will allow the liquid from the bottle to help keep the cork moist which will leave less room for the bottle to be affected. The second option is to hire someone to come in and do it. There are some amazing manufacturers out there who do pretty great stuff, for a price. Usually to do this option right you must hire a professional. They will come in and look at your house, ask you how many bottles you plan to store, assess and give you a price. You can find a number of them in the back pages of the magazine The Wine Spectator. If you can afford it this is the most fool proof way to go.

The last option is the wine refrigerator. This option is a tricky one, because every one who makes a cooling unit has a product on the market that they have deemed a wine cooler. Here are the things to consider when looking in to buying one. Is there dual temperature control? You do not need this feature, if the purpose of you wine fridge is to cellar wine than it all needs to be at 55 degrees F. If you want your whites cooler throw them in the fridge for fifteen minutes before you open it. Also, most of these fridges do not have humidity controls and usually the ones that do are very costly. These fridges also limit the number of bottles you can purchase. This is not a problem for most of us right now. But ten years down the line when we have 100 bottles we need a new solution. The wine fridge can be a great thing to get you buy right now, but it is really not the optimal storage facility.

In my opinion your best bet is to monitor and area of your basement and set up shop there. Try to keep the conditions as close to the numbers as possible. If you are handy and ambitious they do make devices you can buy that allow you to cut a hole in your foundation and vent to the outside. These are fairly inexpensive considering what you would pay to get those conditions. There are a number of books on the market for do-it-yourselfers that you can pick up that walk you through the different steps of building your own cellar. Whatever you choose consider your time, money, and investment in wine.

Wine is an investment, especially in these rocky times with the market being so touchy. Wine bottles bought on futures from Bordeaux in 2005 for $100 are already selling for more than double that price. If you watch the market and do just a little reading you can find some great prices in great regions. Some regions however you will just have to pay the premium, but they will still continue to rise in value. I like to read Robert Parker's early Bordeaux predictions. The market tends to fluctuate upon his command. So if he says it is good, whether you agree or not, the market will usually drift that direction. Then in 15 years you can sell if for four times what you paid for it at Zachy's or Christies.

I always tell people who are getting in to wine cellaring to buy what you like. If you only buy wine for investment purposes you won't experience the fun and excitement of buying. Plus if you end up not being able to sell it you will have to drink a wine that you don't even like. Also when purchasing wine remember to inspect it before you buy it. There is absolutely nothing worse than paying $150 for a bottle, aging it for 10 years and then opening it to discover that there was a problem with leakage all along.

Inspect the label, does it look preserved or beaten up? Did it get tossed around on the loading dock? Look at the foil, do you see any wine, did it get cooked on the ship across the Atlantic? Take the time to look over the bottle, because on the flip side some bottles sell for less than others due to a label problem. Perhaps the label machine put them on upside down for 100 bottles before they caught it. These bottle still hold amazing juice, they just have an upside down label, and are half the price. Simple inspection can save you a lot of time and money. If you are weary about the bottle, don't buy it.

Also know who you buy it from. I am real weary of these internet sites you purchase wine from. Of course the ideal situation is to get it direct from the winery, but that is not often an option. So the next best thing is to find out where it came from. This can be a problem at liquor stores but sometimes the buyer can inform you why in 2008 they have a new shipment of 85' Dow Vintage Port. Perhaps an investor just sold their lot back to Dow and now Dow is putting it back in to the market. Some times a winery hold bottles that they plan to introduce at a later date for more money. No matter what the reason it is always good to ask, the worst they can say is "I don't know" and again you don't have to buy it.

One last thing you will want to do when cellaring wine is monitor your wine collection. You will buy bottles and not bring them out for ten to fifteen years, in this time you may forget you even have them. Create a simple Xcel spread sheet to put your wines on. Write the date you bought them, how much you paid, and when you expect to drink them. Some people just categorize them as Drink Now, Hold/Drink, Requires Aging. Whatever your system make sure you continually check out sources of people who are consuming those vintages and regions. This will help you consume it when it is just right, or sell it.

Cellaring wine can be a fun adventure and does not have to be expensive. Wait for the buy to come to you. Look through bin ends and different stores to see what gems you can find. Take the appropriate steps to create and environment for your treasures to age. It is important to remember that wine is as much of an investment as you IRA. Whatever you do make sure you always have a few bottles of "drink now" on hand, because it is a bad day when the seventh bottle of wine you share with your friends has to be a 2005 Puillac.

Nicholas Barth
Wine Director
Cru Wine Specialists