Thursday, June 22, 2017

Finally - the printed book!


I've just received a proof copy of my book, The Booklovers' Guide to Wine from my publisher at Books&Books Press. For any writer, this is always the most exciting moment; holding the physical reality of all that work and research ... not to mention all that wine!

Publication is still planned for September. Can't wait.

Monday, June 19, 2017

DESCRIBING WINE:

One of the great challenges of wine appreciation is describing what we taste, not just to other people but even to ourselves. Translating what we smell or taste into words is far more difficult than translating what we see into words. While dogs for example experience the world mainly through their sense of smell, we humans are far more visual and we describe the world in terms of what we see with our eyes. From an early age we are encouraged to 'show and tell' but we are never taught to 'smell and tell'. All languages have a rich and sophisticated vocabulary for describing what we see, and we can be very precise in terms of color, shape, size and visual distance when communicating with others - but such a vocabulary does not exist for smells and tastes. There is no semantic tradition in any culture or in any language to describe the things we smell, in the way that we are able to identify things that we see.

In fact the whole process of smelling is limited to a single word: smell. There is a smell coming from the mushrooms; I smell the mushrooms; the mushrooms smell. The same single word is used to describe the odor, the detection of the odor and the action of the odor. Compare that to all the words we have for seeing, looking, watching, gazing, observing etc. We must therefore look around in our personal memories for similar smells and tastes to compare with the wine and then, when trying to share our experience, make subjective comparisons: "it tastes like dark chocolate with a hint of mushrooms and damp leaves."

Another problem is that the part of the brain which processes smells also handles emotions and memory; it's not only the most primitive part of the brain, it's also the most subjective and personal. Smells are chemicals, and as the wine is exposed to air and evaporates, chemical molecules rise from the glass, through our nose to the receptors in our olfactory cortex.

The olfactory cortex which evolved over the eons into the amygdala, is the very oldest part of our brain, and is where emotions and memories are processed. The very earliest job of the brain was to process smell: does it smell good or bad? Is it something I can eat, something I would like to have sex with or something I should run away from before it eats me? Memories of smells were therefore critical to survival and, even in the amygdala of the modern brain, the chemical processing of smells and emotions, memory and desire, are all intimately entwined at a primitive level.

What the olfactory receptors do is transform the chemical information of the wine’s aroma molecules into electrical signals. These electrical signals travel into the brain’s cerebral cortex; the deepest, most primitive and least ‘conscious’ part of the brain where the electronic impulses are translated back into the memory of our mother’s kiss, a feeling of hunger, the desire for a woman, the pleasure of luxury, the terror of darkness or the lingering scent of invisible lilacs. These involuntary but powerful stirrings of our deepest emotions can all be released by the scent of a loved one’s pillow, the fragrance of a rose upon the evening air or the delicate aromas released by a glass of wine. Nothing is more powerful or evocative and less subject to our verbal skills or logical analysis than our sense of smell.

 One of my favorite times of year is the fall when I go mushroom hunting in France, combing through the woods of Perigord looking for cèpe mushrooms and truffles; stepping through the fallen leaves and savoring the musky dampness of the decaying vegetation. Most Spanish red wines have an earthy aroma that reminds me of my days in the woods and so for me the association of earthiness and damp leaves is pleasing and enhances my enjoyment of a good Tempranillo. But to another person, with different memories and experiences, the concept of damp organic decay might be totally disgusting and my enthusiastic description of the wine might persuade them never to try it. Worse still, because of the unpleasant associations created by my description, a person tasting the wine might possibly dislike it and unfairly discover in it all the bad qualities they imagined that I had suggested.

Wine drinkers therefore need to consciously train themselves to develop a commonly accepted vocabulary that will allow them to discuss wines with other people. With practice and concentration they can decide if a wine reminds them of fruit, or of vegetables, or wood, or fresh-cut-grass. If it reminds them of fruit - is it a berry fruit, a tropical fruit or a citrus? Over time, wine drinkers will discover a common language that enables them to share their impressions of a wine with other people using words and allusions that are mutually understood. But to develop such a vocabulary takes practice and conscious effort. The difference between a professional taster and the rest of us is training. Unfortunately the best wine class in the world, the best teacher, the best book can never impart that knowledge. It has to be accumulated, sip by sip, sniff by sniff, glass by glass by each individual wine drinker. The UC Davis Wine Aroma Wheel at www.winearoma.wheel.com is a wonderful tool that will help the true connoisseur differentiate between the aromas of passion fruit and boysenberries but for the rest of us just learning to isolate the difference between a fruity taste and an earthy aroma is a good place to begin. Eric Asimov the excellent wine critic for the New York Times argues that we can divide all wines into sweet or savory. By sweet he does not mean sugary; he is rather referring to the impression of sweet that we get from a wine that is intensely fruity, plush, viscous and mouth-filling. By savory he means wines which are more austere with smoky, herbal, earthy and mineral tastes.

We are not limited to food or taste metaphors, as a visual species we have other tools to describe wine. Karen MacNeil, the well-respected wine critic and author of the Wine Bible quoted a restaurant owner’s description of Viognier wine. “If a good German Riesling is like an ice-skater (fast, racy with a cutting edge), and Chardonnay is like a middle-heavyweight boxer (paunchy, solid, powerful), then Viognier would have to be described as a female gymnast – beautiful and perfectly shaped, with muscle but superb agility and elegance.”  Britt Karlson, the Swedish wine critic once described an unfortunate wine as "… ideal for serving at a funeral dinner, because it provokes a fitting mood of sorrow and grief."


Alternatively we can seek our metaphor in music. In one of his Italian detective novels, A Long Finish, Michael Dibdin wrote: “Barolo is the Bach of wine … strong, supremely structured, a little forbidding, but absolutely fundamental. Barbaresco is the Beethoven, taking those qualities and lifting them to heights of subjective passion and pain … and Brunello is its Brahms, the softer, fuller, romantic afterglow of so much strenuous excess.” Those people who know their German composers and are familiar with Italian wines will recognize the insightful truth behind Dibdin’s metaphors. For those unfamiliar however, it could sound merely pretentious. And of course, that is the great danger of talking about wine; the metaphors can become too flowery and ostentatious. “This is a cheeky little Pinot; unctuously naughty with a promise of heavenly bliss, like a nun slipping out of her habit.”

Roald Dahl, that wonderful British novelist should really be given the last word on the subject: “Richard Pratt was a famous gourmet…. He organized dinners where sumptuous dishes and rare wines were served. He refused to smoke for fear of harming his palate, and when discussing a wine, he had a curious, rather droll habit of referring to it as though it were a living being. “A prudent wine,” he would say, “rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.” Or, “a good-humored wine, benevolent and cheerful—slightly obscene, perhaps, but nonetheless good humored.” (From ‘Taste’ a short story first published in 1945).




Sunday, June 18, 2017

New Wine Class

My new wine class begins tomorrow evening, Monday June 19th.
It's about the 25th or so program that I've conducted at Books & Books and, as always, I am excited about starting a new class and meeting a whole new group of students.

What is always amusing, to me, is how this group of adult strangers will awkwardly interact during the first class - not knowing each other, not knowing what to expect - and yet by the final class they will all be best friends, exchanging e-mail addresses and knowing so much about each other's wine preferences - and so much else.

If you were not aware of this class, unfortunately it is sold out, but I am sure we will run another class in the Fall. Just contact Jillian@booksandbooks.com and she will make sure you're included in the next session.

Summer Wine Class: June 19 - July 24, 2017

  • An intense six week (12 Hour) program designed for anyone who enjoys wine. Each 2-hour class is held on Monday evenings after work between 6:00 and 8:00 PM at Books & Books, Coral Gables, Florida.
  • Four individual wines are tasted during each evening session for a total of twenty-four different wines by the end of the program
  • Limited to a maximum of sixteen sympathetic souls who enjoy sharing a rigorous, weekly learning experience in the Coral Gables bookstore
  • The final class is followed by a dinner specially prepared by Chef Allen to pair with the 4 wines which the students voted to be their favorites during the course of the program.
Contact Jillian at The Cafe at Books & Books to confirm the dates and to reserve your place.  The $299 fee covers 12 hours of lectures, 24 different wines, all class materials and a four course wine-pairing dinner specially prepared by Chef Allen.

Gables store: 305.442.4408

Sunday, June 11, 2017

FOOD AND WINE PAIRING

What sort of food?   The very first and most important step is to decide whether your food is going to be delicate and mild tasting or hearty and flavorful. Is it going to be fatty or lean? Will it be rich, buttery and creamy or will it be thin, sharp and acidic? The wine and the food must balance each other so that a hearty dish will match a hearty wine while a mild flavored food will require a delicate wine. What is important is that neither the wine nor the food should overwhelm the other.
So a delicate Dover Sole for example would go well with a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio but not with a Chardonnay; while a hearty steak-and-kidney pie would complement a Malbec but probably overwhelm a Beaujolais. However, the Beaujolais would go well with a light lunch such as cold ham, charcuterie and salad while the Chardonnay would be the perfect match for a rich chicken in cream sauce.

Traditional Red /meat: White /fish rule:   Some fish, such as cod, haddock and mackerel as well as all shellfish, are high in iodine, which is why red wines don’t do well with them. The iodine content reacts with the tannins in red wine and makes both the fish and the wine taste metallic and nasty. However, red wines like Pinot Noir, Beaujolais or even certain Chiantis that are not high in tannins go very well with fish such as salmon or sea bass. Meats like chicken or pork go very well with full bodied white wines like Chardonnay, Riesling or even Gewürztraminer and rich patés like foie-gras in Perigord are traditionally enjoyed with a late harvest white wine like Monbazillac.

Tannins and Acids:  Tannins not only enhance the complexity of the wine itself but are also very useful for cleansing the palette of fatty foods. Lamb chops for example or a grilled beef steak will both be improved with a Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux or Napa whose astringent tannins will strip away the fatty coating inside your mouth.

Acids perform the same function as tannins in cutting through fat and so a fried chicken or smoked salmon, which would be overwhelmed by the tannins of a Cabernet would respond well to the cleansing acids of a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Acids in wine should also match the acid in food. Pasta with a tomato sauce or indeed any food over which you squeeze lime or lemon juice should be paired with a light acidic wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or even Alvarinho. Cream sauces on the other hand will react badly to acid and so should be paired with richer more full bodied whites such as Chardonnay and Viognier.

National pairings and wine:  When in doubt, just match the wine with the nationality of the food. The two have evolved together over generations and – within the obvious rules listed above – will always complement each other. For example a pasta dish will almost always do well with Chianti and a Boeuf Bourguignon will always improve with Pinot Noir from Burgundy.

In my book, the section “Forty wines to try before you die” lists twenty-four different varietals in order of lightness with the more full bodied and heavier wines listed last. However, bear in mind that varietals often vary depending on their origin. For example, a Chardonnay from Chablis which is fairly flinty and austere would go well with snails or a fish simply grilled with butter and garlic but not with a chicken in cream sauce.  Chicken and cream sauce requires a more full bodied Chardonnay from California or Australia.

The following websites have excellent food and wine pairing tables and suggestions:



Friday, June 9, 2017

ACIDS IN WINE:

While the word “acid” evokes images of car batteries rather than a refreshing beverage, acids play an important role in both the making and tasting of wine. The two major acids, tartaric and malic, are both naturally present in the grapes as they first develop on the vine.

Tartaric acid, Unlike malic acid, is not so common in the plant world and, outside the tropics, is almost exclusive to the grape vine. One of the ways that archeologists have been able to identify ancient wine-producing sites is through traces of tartaric acid. Because tartaric acid is unique to the grape vine, residue of tartaric crystals in amphora and other containers provides an indication of a winemaking culture. Depending on the varietal of the grape and the temperature, tartaric acids can sometimes crystalize in the wine. When this happens, the crystals sink to the bottom of the bottles, where they resemble broken glass or “wine diamonds.” Although they are perfectly harmless and tasteless, consumers object to these crystals, and so most winemakers try to remove excess tartaric acid before bottling.

Malic acid is found in just about every fruit and berry plant and is most commonly associated with apples, which is where it derives its name, malum, the Latin word for apple. It is that sharp astringent taste of green apples which is most recognizable in an acidic wine. The malic acids play an important role in the growth of the vine, providing energy during photosynthesis and, at veraison, metabolizing into sugar. It is the malic acid which provides the sharpness to the flavors and which balances the sweetness of any residual sugars, as well as complementing the bitterness of the tannins in red wine. Too much malic acid in a wine will make it tart and unpleasantly astringent, and too little will make the wine taste flabby and dead.  The correct amount of malic acid is what provides the balance and harmony of a great wine.

Lactic acid. Unlike the other acids, is not found in the grapes, but is a product of a secondary fermentation. Most white wines and some red wines are not subject to the secondary fermentation, and therefore do not contain any lactic acid. Secondary, or Malolactic Fermentation, is the process by which certain bacteria convert the tart malic acids into the softer lactic acids. Lactic acid was first derived from sour milk in the eighteenth century, and the name comes from the Latin word for milk, lact. Most red wines and most Chardonnays undergo malolactic fermentation, partly to soften the tartness of the malic acids but also for the improved “mouth-feel” that results. Unlike, say, a Sauvignon Blanc, which retains the green-apple-sharpness of the malic acids, a Chardonnay following malolactic fermentation will have the softer, more “buttery” feel and flavor of the lactic acid.

Acetic acid is a product of the primary fermentation when the yeasts are converting the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. If the wine is further exposed to oxygen, the alcohol will be converted by bacteria into ascetic acid and eventually into vinegar. Not a good acid.

In addition to balancing the taste of the sugars and tannins in wine to create the complex harmony that wine drinkers so enjoy, acids also play an important role in protecting and stabilizing the wine on its journey from the initial fermentation barrels to its happy arrival in our glass.




Saturday, June 3, 2017

SULPHITES:

Like tannins, sulphites are often mentioned in connection with wine and their role and effects are often misunderstood. All wines contain sulphur dioxide, SO2, in various forms, collectively known as sulphites and even in completely natural wine it is present at concentrations of up to 10 milligrams per liter. The most important thing to understand is that sulphites are an entirely natural bi-product of yeast metabolism during fermentation and would be found in wines even if the winemaker added nothing to the juice. 

The Romans used to burn sulphur beneath their upturned amphora or wine containers to sterilize them before use and winemakers have been adding various amounts of sulphites ever since to prevent bacteria and bad yeasts from developing in the wine. In the late 1840s European vineyards were nearly all destroyed by a disease called oïdium and were saved only at the last moment by nation-wide applications of sulpher dust. 

Sulphites play a very important role in preventing oxidization and maintaining a wine’s freshness. Even so, compared to processed foods, dried fruit, sodas, packaged meats or even commercial fruit juice the amount of sulphites in wine is miniscule. On visits to Europe over the years, I have often been given bottles of wine made by friends for local consumption, not for export. These fresh wines which were delicious when drunk locally, had been made without the addition of sulphites and were sadly undrinkable by the time I had brought them home to the USA.

U.S. wine labels are required to indicate if the sulphite level exceeds 10 parts per million (ppm). Many red wines contain sulphite levels of 50 ppm but this should be compared with the 2,000 ppm sulphite level of French fries to put it in perspective. Some people blame the sulphites for the headaches they suffer when drinking red wine but in fact red wine has much lower sulphites than white wine and headaches are more likely to be caused by the tannins, the histamines or even the extra alcohol in red wines. Despite some of the hysteria about sulphites, the levels of sulpher dioxide in wines is too small to have any adverse health effects except for those people who are clinically allergic to sulphites, and the FDA estimates this to be less than 1% of the population. 

If you have eaten dried fruit or French fries with no ill-effects, then continue to drink your wine and not worry about sulphites.


Friday, June 2, 2017

Oldest Bordeaux?

There is an interesting article in last month's Vivino discussing what is possibly the oldest bottle of Bordeaux in the world. http://tinyurl.com/ydxg6yde

For those readers who are interested in really old, pre-Phylloxera wines, I must recommend a wonderful book by Benjamin Wallace entitled 'The Billionaire's Vinegar.' http://tinyurl.com/ybwdyqwc

Enjoy!