Friday, October 13, 2017

Learn About Wine: Wines of Chile (and therefore the world) Part 1

Let's design a country for wine production shall we?

What if you could design a country from scratch whose primary purpose was wine production? What kind of qualities would that country have? Let's ignore everything else and focus purely on optimized quality wine production. We won't delve into too much detail behind each and every point here, but simply list them for now. We can go deeper later.

Brainstorming:  Ideas for an Ideal Wine Producing Country:

1. Appropriate climate: plentiful sunlight, nice daily temperature swings.

2. A large range of average temperatures (within the ideal range for grape growing of course) to cover "warm climate" grapes through "cool climate" grapes. Allow for large wine designations within the various given climates for resulting wine styles.

3. Pockets of isolated sub-climates that can trap heat from sunlight (aka a form of "meso-climate")

4. Plentiful sources of water

5. Good inclined vineyard sites for exposure to sunlight and quick drainage of water  (usually associated with river valleys and mountain foothills)

6. Relatively short distances between vineyards and wineries, reducing travel time, but also coincidentally providing the benefit of proximity of cooling coastal breezes in the vineyards.

7. Isolation from other major wine producing regions to reduce contamination by pests and disease

8. Space optimization, i.e. little "wasted space"  (i.e. not contributing to wine production)

9. Plenty of seaports to choose from for exporting the wine produced

10. Human resources that improve quality over quantity instead of the other way around. 

Additional comment: Point #10 dovetails with the manipulation of the wine trade by the dictatorial Pinochet government that stunted and strangled the potential of the country's wine industry. This kept talent and investment away from Chile for many years. Good for everyone that those days are long over. 

So, we already know that we're talking about Chile here. 
Take a close look at this map of Chile's wine regions:

For the Extremely Geography-challenged, that's South America (sorry)

Chile is a very narrow and elongated country, with disproportionate exposure to ocean breezes, a dominant cold antarctic ocean current, a huge mountain range along its eastern border, a smaller mountain range down its center, and many many river valleys. Almost every major wine region in Chile is named after a river valley.     ...What's not to like?

As we examine Chile as a perfectly designed wine producer, we can learn a lot about grape growing, wine production, and the wine trade in the process.

That is why you're reading this, right?

Stay tuned for Part 2

Until then......

Marc Soucy  FWS  CSW  WSET

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Wine in a Restaurant: How to Spot Oxidation in Wine


Spot a Bad Bottle of Wine

It sounds clinical and foreboding. Some people think of rust, others of fire. A very small number think of cellular breakdown. They are all correct. Oxidation is the interaction of oxygen with other substances, each of which reacts differently to the exposure. It takes time. Since our atmosphere is 20-21% oxygen--and we need it to live of course--everything is constantly exposed to it unless it is specifically protected from it.  So the reactions are ongoing. 

Wine is a delicate and unstable product made from nature. Wine makers and other experts have learned that very tiny amounts of oxygen can improve a wine. This is actually called "aging" and usually takes place in a closed vessel made of oak or stainless steel (there are others). Even in the sealed bottle, a porous cork allows tiny amounts of air into the bottle, exposing the wine to oxygen, and aging the wine, hopefully in a beneficial manner. What happens if too much oxygen makes contact though...either over a long time, or very quickly?

Oh No, Are These Chemistry Charts a THING Now?!

The wine breaks down at the compound and even the molecular level. (organic chemist insert comment here)  The fresh fruity and structured nature of the wine starts to fall apart. How can you tell though that it's happening? What do you say when you're checking out that bottle that was just opened for you at the restaurant?

The best way to understand it might be to imagine what is actually happening. If fruit starts to go bad, what happens to the smell and taste? Wine is still fruit in a way. If you leave slices of fruit out for a day, what happens to them? The bright acidity--that snap when you bite into it--isn't there as much. The slight sweetness of fresh fruit fades away also. Odd and unattractive aromas and tastes appear. What happens to leaves on the trees as winter approaches? They lose their color, turn brownish, and begin to deteriorate. 

Homemade Wine Can Easily Become Oxidized Without Extreme Precautions Being Taken at Every Stage

Remember what I said above about controlled oxidation being the same as aging?  Well conversely, an oxidized wine is a wine which has gotten too much of a good thing, and chemical interactions, and bio-chemical breakdowns are occurring. They become more bitter and unclear on the palate. Their color trends toward browns, they smell of well, decaying bio-matter....just a little. Dead leaves, roasted nuts that are spoiling, burned marshmallow or oatmeal. It might even smell like Sherry when it isn't Sherry. If allowed to go on for a much longer time, it could smell outright foul. 

To put this into practice, open a bottle of wine that you don't mind using for the education of it. Pour yourself a glass and check it out closely. Remember how it smelled and tasted. Now don't seal the bottle, and leave it open for 5-6 days. make sure you try it again (at a similar temperature to how you had it the first time, so it's fair). Compare it now to when you first opened the bottle, and re-read this blog post. I hope this will be instructive. 

"Should I Tell Him the Wine is Oxidized?"

There's no good reason to think an otherwise quality wine is a bad wine when in fact that particular bottle is flawed. Learning to know the difference can be valuable to enjoying wine and food. Practice this, so that when you turn away that bottle of oxidized wine at a restaurant, it'll be for good reason.

For my past blog about examining wine color and other issues regarding ordering wine in a restaurant, click here. 

'Till Next Time,

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW

Marc Wine Blog

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Marc Soucy : Rekindling the Passion -- While Keeping an Eye on the Numbers

Every once in awhile I think back to what it felt like when I took the plunge into the world of wine. It happened in several phases of course over a few years, but none was as life changing as when I decided to WORK in the wine field. As I've said before, what started as a fun hobby, became an enjoyable career. It was multi-faceted, deep, and interesting. Oh yeah and tasty. I soon enjoyed discussing individual wines with customers, fellow students of wine, and other enthusiasts, delving into the aspects of terroir, comparing the roles of various grapes in the cépage, and borderline dismissing those numerical scores that had been foisted upon us. 

Leading up to that, for years I went to endless tastings, attended wine dinners with guest speakers, actually vacationed with my wife in major wine regions, read books, took classes, studied for exam after exam, and soon, it started coming naturally. Then, I got tested in back rooms on my palate and descriptors. Challenged on my opinions, and torn apart by the less than gracious wine snob.

 I would certainly never be one of THEM.

    It was great.

Now comes the reality of the situation. While one can be enamored with wine (this applies to many other things as well), and know a lot about it, this turns out to be a single, albeit very valuable skill in a world where financial success is highly encouraged, and usually required. ...Especially when it's your job. To focus entirely on the wine aspect of the industry would be a mistake, one which is too often made. The industry is made up of dozens of business models, with varying regulations in every state in the union. Production, importing, supplying, distribution, and on premise and off premise retail each have their own variations on a theme. To the outsider, it can sound dizzying and surreal. Knowing it, embracing it, and pursuing the goals of the business model you serve is the main objective when you're on the inside. 

All the knowledge about the product you sell becomes an individual skill in the arsenal of skills you present. You are in business. Nothing you do would be possible without it after all. Matching the needs or potential needs of your customers comes much more easily when you have a keen awareness of your product at the ready. But keeping an eye on the numbers and pursuing goals and targets are critical to success. We can't continue to do what we do without that. 

And this is why I write this. Every once in awhile, it's important to rekindle the passion that got me here in the first place. Tasting critically, reading others' opinions, talking with other enthusiasts, and well, just enjoying... ... it's still important. 

Yeah it's like resharpening the blade, so to speak, but it also can relight the flame. 

Time to relight the flame.

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW
Marc Wine Blog

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Martini: What It Is, and Why How You Treat It Matters

"Are You Sure You Want to Write About Martinis in a Wine Blog?" -- a friend

"Yep. Nuance is a concept we can all learn from, and if it takes a Martini to do it, 
then so be it.   Besides, I like them."  -- Me

The Classic Martini. It's Made with Gin. (Hopefully Good Gin)

While I am a proud wine lover and student of all things wine, I do enjoy other beverages from time to time, and among them, my favorite to have as a before dinner drink or evening cocktail has to be the classic Martini (**see disclaimer below). There's something pure and simple about it. If you chill gin on ice for a short while (which adds some water as the ice melts), and add a couple of drops of dry vermouth, there isn't much to hide behind. The quality of the ingredients and how they are treated becomes very important. 

During the recent couple of decades the word "martini" has become associated with almost anything served in a martini glass, and sometimes not even that. They're usually made using vodka, combined with a plethora of flavoring agents (even the occasional "secret agent" ..yup see 007), many of them sweet. The pattern started when vodka--an essentially flavorless spirit--was discovered to be the perfect all-purpose alcohol to create cocktails with. It blends exceptionally well with almost anything. 

They Sure Are Pretty Though
Mixologists have had a field day, and the public is more than willing to go along with this exploration. 

We should not be tricked into thinking that these drinks are actually Martinis though. There are simply too many liberties taken for that word to be appropriate. OK call me a purist.  

I suppose room must be made for the evolution of our oh-so-flexible language, but let's at least recognize this fact:

Vodka, being nearly flavorless, does not contribute much 
other than alcohol to a cocktail. Even vodka lovers point to smoothness as the differentiating characteristic. 

Gin brings it's own very noticeable character to the table, one which becomes a major part of the drink's flavor.

I've met many people who do not like gin, however. It can be an acquired taste for many, but remember that each gin is a unique creation, with often many "botanicals" (flavor elements usually from seeds, herbs, flowers, citrus peel, cucumber, etc added both prior and/or after the distillation process). Juniper is the one defining botanical in gin... can not be called gin without it. Other than that, it's a canvas that's filled creatively by the distiller using flavorings from nature. So exploring gins to find some that best suit you can be a lot of fun. 

Higher end gins can be exceptionally nuanced and detailed in their flavors. So much so, that that tiny bit of dry vermouth that's in the recipe can ruin that nuance, or pull the flavors into a less than attractive direction. So can too much olive juice, or too much water from spending too much time on ice.  

And SO CAN SHAKING IT.  A generation that was introduced to the Martini as the drink of James Bond has been left with the idea that martinis are to be shaken. James Bond drank a rare version of the martini that used both gin and vodka, and shaking them in ice neutralizes much of the flavor. If you want to enjoy a classic gin martini, you should give it a gentle stir instead. This protects the original flavors of the gin's botanicals. Making the perfect martini can be an artform.

Sometimes You Just Need a Death Match in Your Mouth I Guess

**Disclaimer & Footnote: As a wine student and educator, I do have to point out that having something as potent as a martini before dinner can have two effects:  It can slightly anaesthetize your palate with the intensity of the alcohol content, and it can dull the senses overall, leading to you not tasting your meal as much, and requiring bolder flavors just for them to "get through". 

A famous winemaker and vineyard owner from Italy and I discussed this phenomenon last year, and its uniqueness to America (Russia notwithstanding). Francesco's theory was that Americans' palates have come to demand bolder flavors from both food and wine because they've often had a cocktail or two before dinner, whereas Europeans rarely do that. They'll have a milder dry or bitter wine instead, leaving them more receptive to flavors, and clearer headed. 

A cogent argument, though I am still digesting that one. 

'Till Next Time,

Your Favorite Student of Wine and Occasional Drinker of Gin,

Marc Soucy  FWS  CSW  WSET

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Reprise: Cinco de Mayo in the New World Order

Cinco de Mayo: What Does It Have to do with Wine? 

Cinco de Mayo--and Mexican fare in general--is rarely if ever associated with wine. Beer, Sangria, and Margaritas are the go to drinks. Are there any wines that can be paired with Mexican food though? I tackled this subject seriously a few years ago. I hope you'll enjoy my muse through history, food, and wine.

You might Pair Whatever Wine You Like with Mexican, as long as the food's not too spicy,
or the wine not too high alcohol. Avoid throwing gasoline on a fire in other words.

That said, if you enjoy a true pairing, you can go a little deeper.

Things have changed. At least since the 1860s when the event known as Cinco de Mayo took place. It happened while the American Civil War was going on, and an overly ambitious French Emperor Napoleon III thought it would be a good idea to spread his empire into North America. The United States was way too self-absorbed to do anything about it, so he succeeded for a while at least. For a few years, an Austrian ruler of Mexico was installed by France to run things in the name of the Empire, but eventually, all of this collapsed under its own weight. Cinco de Mayo does not however celebrate the end of French rule. It is not an "independence day" of any kind.

The actual date the "Fifth of May" celebrates the Battle of Puebla, when Mexican forces scored an unlikely victory over the superior French troops. Granted it was just one battle, but it has stood to this day as a symbol of national and cultural pride, and provides us with a really great excuse to eat Mexican goodies and drink tequila and beer....(don't forget the wine!)   OK, not the smoothest of transitions, but this leads me to the events of the last few days.

Fierce Mexican Rebels in Period Costume

My mission was to find an appropriate combination of food and wine for this challenging occasion. 

My wife and I were planning a Mexican inspired meal of our own at home, to be enjoyed this weekend. I focused on a multi layered dip using "refried" black beans with chipotles in adobo, sauteed onions and corn with jalapenos, sauteed bell peppers, chopped Roma tomatoes, and melted cheese on top. Mashed avocado with lime, of course. This would seem pretty familiar to most Americans, so we had to look elsewhere as well to balance things out.

My wife has a great recipe: Vegetable Chiles Rellenos with Walnut Sauce; a "gourmet" New American spin on a Mexican classic. It took her a lot of work to make, and the results were well worth it. Every bite was interesting and complex. The two dishes worked hand in hand, with familiar Tex-Mex paired with a "New" Mexican dish. AND....there was no meat at all. We were eating vegetarian without even thinking about it.  But this brings us to that question:  hmmm... ...what to drink?   This was my wine challenge after all.

Real Food Pic: Vegetable Chiles Rellenos with Walnut Sauce

My choice was, of all things, a French wine. The irony was not lost on me, as I turned the corkscrew, and we toasted Napoleon III's well as those brave Mexican rebels, of course. This is actually the "new world order" I spoke of. French wine to celebrate a Mexican victory over French troops! So France's influence in all this is (other than misplaced military zeal): The food and wine pairings must come first! Leave empire building to others!

The wine we enjoyed was Domaine des Nouelles Rosé d'Anjou. Yes a Rosé!  It goes extremely well with the savory, spicy, earthy, and cheesy flavors that Mexican cooking boasts. Rosé d'Anjou also has quite a history of its own. For centuries, it has been considered among France's best. The fact that it by definition has to be semi-sweet has caused it to lose some of its allure in recent decades, as global wine preferences have drifted towards dryness. 

I suspected that this anticipated sweetness might be just the thing with spicy food (as it so often is), and my wife and I were both pleasantly surprised at how supple and refreshing the wine was. Anjou Rosés deserve a reacquaintance. It went incredibly well with the meal, and has been added to our short list for this summer's back yard wines.

So...   Wine with Mexican food?
Wine of the Imperialists

                   ....It really IS a new world order.

Thanks for your patience :)
'Till Next Time

--  Marc Soucy,  FWS

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Marc Soucy's Practical Wine Advice: Wine in a Restaurant Part 3 Color Addendum

Wine Color as an Indication of Condition   (Continued)

A flood of questions the size of the Douro/Duero River (see here) have come in regarding the value of aging wine, how the color relates to this, and when should you not worry about the color. 

Okay then.....

The fact is that most wine doesn't benefit that much from age. A year or so in the bottle generally makes the wine a little more complex and a little smoother. With white wines, the added complexity may or may not be attractive. It depends on many factors that I listed in part one of this article (read here). Generally speaking, white wines are mostly better younger, and red wines by comparison do benefit more from aging than whites. The red wines though should be ones that contain a lot of the solids from the grape skins. It is the role that these solids (including many polyphenols, crystallized acids, and tiny remnants of the winemaking process) play in the wine that makes aging improve the flavor. This process is not unlike what happens to a stew when allowed to sit overnight in the refrigerator. The flavors seem to integrate and smooth out compared to what they were like when first cooked, when each ingredient is more obvious.

So, a little wine knowledge has to come into play here. Get to know which red grapes leave the most of these solids in the wine, and you'll have a decent starting point understanding which ones can be allowed to age the most. Lighter bodied reds--Pinot Noir comes to mind--usually do not age particularly well (Gevrey-Chambertin fans will break into a donnybrook right about now...and believe me I'm on your side) compared to sturdier wines like a quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or the famous collaboration of these two, red Bordeaux, especially the "cru classé" bunch ($$$$). Even though I am mentioning these three wines, there are lesser known wines like Sagrantino di Montefalco and higher end Petite Sirahs ($$$) that are so dense with polyphenols, they can benefit from a decade or two of aging easily. 

So why go on this tangent when we're supposedly discussing wine color? Because not all red wines change color at the same speed. Depending on what wine it is, they will develop those brownish hues earlier or later in their lives. Luckily for most people, even red wines are rarely meant to be aged for many years, and those that do typically bring a high price tag, so that's your main warning that this wine is something a little different from the one you brought to that party last week. It brings its own set of controls--financial ones--so you don't really have to worry much. 

Also, fortified wines--both red and white--like Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Moscatel de Setubal, Pineau des Charentes, Banyuls, Muscat-de-Beaume-de-Venise and on and on... take on a wide variety of colors that are caused by the peculiar production processes unique to their own region of production. The "rules" we are discussing pertaining to dry table wines do not apply nearly as much. 

Non-fortified dessert wines like Sauternes, Tokai, Beerenauslese, some Reccioto and late harvest styles, all have deeper richer colors that should also distinguish them from the drier wines. 

So what does all this mean in everyday practical terms?

If you don't order a fortified or dessert wine and don't order super expensive wine, all you have to do is make sure there are no brown hints in the color, and move onto to sniff and taste the wine quickly. 

See?    Easy!

...not necessarily the other way around.

Did I forget to mention Rosé ?

'Till Next Time...

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW

Marc Wine Blog

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Marc Soucy's Practical Wine Advice: Ordering Wine in a Restaurant: color

Ordering Wine in a Restaurant (Part 3):  Color

Continuing my articles (read previous ones here) about ordering wine in a restaurant, let's talk about wine color. Above is a series of glasses with WHITE wine in all of them....yes that's right, white wine. The two on the right are not red wine. They are white wine that has evolved over time to show darker, browned, rusty... ...aged color. Over time, exposure to air--however tiny--temperature, vibration, light, and more importantly the wine's own organic chemical evolution, all contribute to these changes. Exposure to oxygen quickly accelerates these changes, hence the word "oxidation". What's most important about the color changes is that the flavors and aromas change along with the color. And that is why it's important to look at the wine carefully in a restaurant before accepting it. Simply put, if a white wine has brownish or reddish hues to it, it is suspect. Use this information to go on to the smell and taste part. We'll go over those in a later article. 

It's important to know that white wines that have not changed in this way often do not look the same anyway. Numbers 1 through 3 above are all in perfect condition from appearance. If I had to guess, I would say that #3 is an oak aged Chardonnay, but I could be wrong. Aging in oak does darken the color of white wine. Chardonnay is naturally a bit darker in color than say, Sauvignon Blanc, which most often looks like #1 or #2. This is why basing a judgement only on color would be a mistake. Brownish white wine has almost certainly gone bad, and the lighter the color, the more likely it is that the wine is in good shape. Think freshness. Most white wines do not benefit from aging, so signs of age--like a darker color--is a warning sign.  But not a disqualifier. 

Red wine is of course darker by nature, so the color is a bit harder to spot. Again think of freshness. The more red and vivid the color, the fresher the red wine. Some grapes produce wine that is naturally a bit "browner" than others--Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo can for example--so you do have to use smell and taste to confirm the condition. The brownish tinge might be a sign of too much aging or oxidation. It might not. It's just a bit of useful information as you evaluate your wine. 

One piece of advice. In a restaurant, try to get used to doing this as quickly as you're comfortable with. Memorize the few facts I've laid out here and just take a quick look at the wine. Use the color as a guide post and nothing more. Move on to the smell and then the taste very quickly. Your job is only to make sure the wine has not gone bad. You're not doing a wine review. 

You'll probably get better service from your waiter if you don't make a show out of it. 

And your tablemates will appreciate it. :)

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW WSET

Marc Wine Blog

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Marc Soucy on Wine Culture: How to Approach Small Food Part 2


In my last article (read here), we discussed a little of the reasoning behind small food in Mediterranean cuisine. Remember those picture of small portions of finely prepared dishes from the Veneto region of Italy? There were between five and seven courses like that in some of the meals I experienced. Well, take a look here at this multi course French meal:

See the Similarities to the Italian preparations?
I'll rush through this rather sloppily, but to understand the point, a typical French dish undergoes the following:  careful slicing and dicing of many items, pan searing the meat, sauteeing the vegetables, finishing the cooking in a stock with wine ("braising"), boiling more wine and stock in the pan with the solids where the meat was seared to gradually create a sauce, and then assembling the entire thing so it looks appealing and decorative on the plate. And there are a number of additional techniques and "secret ingredients" involved (see Demi Glace for example). Not every French meal is so involved, but the results of this kind of effort is that every bite has more flavor: both in intensity but even more so in subtlety, even though that sounds like a contradiction. The nuance of each bite is intended to draw attention and focus our mind on the experience. I noticed the exact same thing in my recent trip to Italy. 

A serving for four of a small dish can easily contain several cups of reduced vegetables that you barely see, an entire bottle of wine, the main ingredient of course, and a series of well practiced cooking techniques. So what winds up being just a few bites of food, actually contains a pretty big amount of nutrients and flavor compounds that come from all the stuff that went into those few bites. This is rather different than the traditional American approach of grilling the best piece of meat you can find, and leaving it to shine on its own. French cooking is almost like organic engineering by comparison. 

To the left is a modern French dinner plate, somewhat typical of what a meat eater might have for dinner. The portions are modest, but every bite is an experience. 

Below is a similar dish that is in the "Nouvelle Cuisine" style. Notice its decorative aspect, and relatively smaller size. When done right, a ton goes into it.

By tasting through a number of plates such as these, with each having very different ingredients and flavors, you can wind up with quite a large and satisfying meal. So much so, that the Italians have developed a reputation for over-feeding people. The French on the other hand, are doing the same thing, but have the reputation of under-feeding people. Why is that?  My theory is that because French food looks more like American food (meat, potatoes, vegetables), Americans compare a single French plate to a single American plate, and come to the conclusion that they are roughly the same but the French give you less. 

The truth though, is that for a formal dinner, the French will have a few dishes like this, not just one. This type of cooking can be expensive because of all the expertise, prep time, and ingredients that go into them. If you simply find it too expensive, do give it a try a couple of times when you can. Pay close attention to the flavors, and take plenty of time to savor them. You will not regret it. I've frequently given the same advice about wine. There is a reason these things go together so well.

Each of the Three Meals Above are from a Different Country.
Can You Tell Which Country Each Comes from?

Remember, Italian, French, Spanish, and other Mediterranean cultures value meal time as a social event. It's healthier and makes life more special. We celebrate life together and reflect upon the bounty created by our success as a society, even when things aren't always going great. 

We make things better by what we eat and what we drink. 

Not a bad motto.

'Till Next Time,
 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW WSET

Marc Wine Blog
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