Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wine writers, tasting, context

Next week we return to true winery blog format, with racking news, vineyard pictures and cover crop reports - less wine critic talky talk. Malolactic fermentation is just finishing; nice, slow and elegant. The first truly important wine decisions, primarily racking or not racking begin. Does it sit on the lees for more body? Is it sediment-heavy like the Refosco and Nebbiolo always are, wanting an early racking to clear heavy lees that may impart off flavors - then put 'em away and forget about 'em? Do we want it a little reductive to add that meatiness or clean and bright? We will also report on Gambero Rosso's Tre Bicchieri tasting in San Francisco next week which is one of the destination tastings for Italian wine afficianados. Multiple Sagrantinos in one place - hell yeah!

But, wine critic talky talk has been pretty good lately. The Wine Writer's Symposium is taking place, and though we did not garner a fellowship (next year?), the brief reports emerging thus far indicate pretty interesting subject matter. Eric Asimov discussed the tyranny of the tasting note as the mystery destroyer of good wine. Jeff Morgan headed a panel discussing about the role and necessary level of technical knowledge a wine writer should have. Looks like the general consensus was some is enough, too much is not necessary, taste is what matters in the end. With all due respect to Mr. Heimoff who championed the middle road, this is b.s. An art critic, by analogy, should have PhD-level technical knowledge to publish criticism. You can not possibly have too much intimate technological knowledge. It behooves you, the professional wine critic, to invoke and articulate it responsibly as needed. If your technical winemaking knowledge impedes your wine writing, perhaps your writing or your creativity is deficient. We should separate as necessary, and write proficeintly. Which, of course, Mr. Heimoff certainly does all the time, but I'm just sayin'...

Mr. Morgan also raised the question of interventionist wine making - correctly identified as a frequently invoked red herring in many forms. Watering down high brix musts provided a ready example of a frequent practice that very few admit to. Sure, it is common practice in Napa, Lodi, and yes, Lake County. Especially Lake County, sometimes called 31 Brix County. If amelioration (adding water back) makes better wine, good. If it doesn't, bad. No one seems to want to believe that it is a last ditch alternative. Do you water down your beer when the alcohol gets high? Stretch your twenty-dollar lobster bisque by adding water maybe? Does anyone really know how many wines on the grocery store shelf have been dealcoholized? What about fining? Any winemaker will tell you that every manipulation is a huge risk and the wine that doesn't necessitate it is always the best, a tautological quality control theory. Great grapes, made cleanly = awesome. This is the rarity, but it is the goal for all of us every single year.

Mr. Morgan also raised VA removal, de-alcoholization, etc. The self-congratulatory plug is that if you want unmanipulated wine, buy moderately priced small winery-produced product. We can not afford VA removal or dealcoholizing. We could not get a bottling truck into Rosa d'Oro if we had to. The little grower/producers generally are on their own, and what you see is generally what you get, for better or worse. Traditionalists will always intervene less, if that is important to you. At the very least, it should make for more interesting wine even if it is not technically clean.

One of the larger debates bouncing around asks whether blind tasting is actually objective and truly relevant. Often the apples and oranges compete blindly, and the outcomes are inconclusive. Thegoodgrape.com makes a good case for the value of context, both for the consumer and the reviewer. Fact is, most consumers have never tasted wines blind, so what is the contingent connection to blind tasting as a truer evaluation? Say someone really likes Southern Rhone wines. Lets say that we pour them a 2005 Bourgueil and tell them it is a Gigondas. Would it be imaginable that it would gain extra interest and enjoyment from the context for the consumer? The endless blind tasting shows some qualities, but it also eclipses others, such as historical or cultural interest and technical curiosities. That orange colored Italian white may seem totally defective, but it may be a sulfurless white that had 40-days maceration on the skins in an underground amphora. Suddenly a little more interesting maybe? The story is part of the game for small wineries, otherwise we would not ever need anything beyond technically clean mass-produced bottles. All those high-falutin wine competitions may require blind tasting for the context in which they operate, but to argue that it is somehow epistemologically or ontologically superior seems dubious at best. We all have stories of the same wine with different labels winning double-gold for one and bronze for another. The future taste off may involve both, a blind tasting and a verification/falsification non-blind round. Parker's method may have been revolutionary at the time, and an improvement on the payola-type old school wine writer, but the new mantra may be novelty over blind points if cost is equal. This is not worrisome in the least.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Are Italian wines more likely to be corked? A TCA primer.

Are Italian wines more likely to be corked than others? In our experience, yes. Over at Spume the question of corked Italian wines appeared too, confirming an old observation. But, this is not some funky Portuguese conspiracy because the manner in which these batches of wine are corked points to a slightly different offender.

TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole) is well known as the primary perpetrator in corked wine. Or, should say, known to be. The "chloro" part gives away that it had to do with chlorine and it often originated in bleached corks. It was thought to be a good way to make those dark corks whiter and a good antimicrobial agent. Whoops. That problem is largely under control now as most corks are peroxided instead and usually subjected to some sort of steam cleaning, rinsing and heavy sulfuring. A bit of time in a wine shop though showed that indeed a truly abnormal number of Italian wines were corked - whole lots, not just individual bottles. Three bottles in a row come to mind of both very reputable Brunello  and Chianti Classico, and a high number of Alsatian whites also incidentally. Multiple bottles opened - all bad, though at slightly varying levels of corkiness.

The down and dirty truth is frightening. Basically, there are four related compounds all with similar effects if different sensory thresholds: TCA, TeCA, PCA and TBA. TCA is pretty clear in corks, but the frightening thing is that these compounds are alive and well in the wine cellar, TBA (2,4,6-tribromoanisole) in particular is more ubiquitous and just as potent. And, the sensory thresholds are in the parts per trillion (ppt) for the worst offenders - a few drops in an Olympic swimming pool sized. Observation shows that the sensory defects are similar but not exactly the same, and it seems that the threshold for recognition is more widely variable than for TCA. Long arguments have taken place over who can recognize it and who can't more than once.

For a long time everything was blamed on poor old TCA, which as a cork-based defect is isolatable and usually limited to a cork or a bale of corks. TBA is a taint that physically infects wine in the cellar, meaning large lots, like a tank or a barrel that inevitably is mixed in for bottling all at once. TBA is often used in wood treatment, ending up frequently in the lowly wooden pallet that necessarily appears everywhere. But wood pallets are not the only danger as TBA's precursor TBP is often present as a fire retardent ingredient in several carriers, in fungicides, paints, antiseptics, and bromine-containing detergents. No way, detergents unsafe? Yup, just like bleach. It can be in barrels, infect oak chips, it can show up in plastics, and it can be in the paint inside the cellar.

We have all experienced the flattened, fruitless bottle that does not seem corked or overtly musty and danky, but sure seems to suck. Chances are that the bad bottle was at 1-2 ppt TBA, just below threshold but clearly hurting quality. Sometimes it "blows off" a little, a curious thing that may indicates other problems as well - often a reduction issue. But when multiple bottles of the same wine show the same defect, TBA taint in the cellar is the suspect. These Italian wines are most likely not victims of bad corks, but either tainted wood or inappropriate cleaning compounds or paint in their cellars or coops.