May is riesling month

Blech. I’ve got a nasty head cold, so I can’t really fairly review any wines today. However, I will put in a little plug. Since “May is riesling month” according to, throughout the month of May, I will be tasting and blabbing about all manner of Finger Lakes rieslings (and maybe some others…). I have a few here in my stash, but I’m taking suggestions! So if you have a recommendation, or a riesling you’d like to see on here, let me know! Plus there will be all kinds of riesling-y SCIENCE!

Published in: on 27 April 2009 at 9:49 pm  Comments (1)  

The Arist-rkats!

Dr. Konstantin Frank Rkatsiteli 2006

In Soviet Russia, wine crushes you! (apologies to Yakov Smirnov)

In Soviet Russia, wine crushes you! (apologies to Yakov Smirnov)

Appelation:Finger Lakes
Varietal: Rkatsiteli
ABV: 11.4%
RS: 0.75% (the website says 0.75 g/L, (0.075%) but that is bone-dry. probably a typo.)
Price Point: $18
Looks: Lemon yellow with a tinge of green
Nose: The floral notes remind me of both riesling and gewürztraminer. The biggest fruit in this basket is pineapple*, with some regular apple. Also, it kind of reminded me of a pear crème brulée I made one Valentine’s day. Actually, now that I think about it, we had rkatsiteli that day too (a different one, Westport Vineyards from Massachusetts)! Isn’t life grand?
Palate: Tangy acidity is singing the melody here. Just a little bit of residual sweetness backs it up like a nice descant, and a great, full {mouthfeel} rounds out the chord. I’m in a musical mood today, probably because I’m in the middle of 7 shows of Bernstein’s MASS, which you should see this weekend if you are in Ithaca. It’s got a long finish, too.

Rating: corkcorkcorkcork

I admit it, I’m a Frankophile. Dr. Frank’s has been in the news as of late, though not for the usual plaudits. The other day, their 3-year-old overflow tasting room burned to the ground. However, nobody was hurt, and the winery was open for tasting the very next day! Talk about unfazed!

Anyway, I love to try grape varieties I’ve never had before, and unless you emigrated from Georgia, chances are you haven’t had a rkatsiteli wine. The grape is Eastern European and apparently grown a lot over there. Dr. Frank appreciated its cold-hardiness and brought it to the Finger Lakes, where I must say it is doing pretty well. I’m sure it’s tough to market, except to people like me who will buy any wine that they’ve never heard of. I mean, if you thought blaufränkisch was a mouthful, then forget this one. By the way, according to Wikipedia it’s “rkah-tsee-tely”. Whatever you call it, it went great with Sarah’s beer/cheese/ham soup, with which we finally demolished the last of the Easter ham. It’s all about the little victories.

Many components of pineapple aroma come from a group of compounds called ethyl esters. Wine grapes generally contain only low levels of esters. So why does the wine smell like pineapple? Ethyl esters are generated during fermentation by yeast. In short, fatty acid chains are combined by yeast enzymes (EHT1 and/or EEB1, ethanol O-acyltransferases) with ethanol and form these fruity-smelling compounds. To me, ethyl hexanoate smells particularly pineapple-y, as does ethyl decanoate, but the latter is slightly more metallic. Generally ethyl esters will take less time to hydrolyze and equilibrate than acetate esters (which we’ve talked about before), which explains why pineapple is still hanging about after a few years in the bottle. (Ref: Saerens et al., “The Saccharomyces cerevisiae EHT1 and EEB1 Genes Encode Novel Enzymes with Medium-chain Fatty Acid Ethyl Ester Synthesis and Hydrolysis Capacity”, J. Biol. Chem, 2006)

The reaction in question.  Stolen from G. Sacks, Cornell Univ., again.

The reaction in question. Stolen from G. Sacks, Cornell Univ., again.

The same reaction, in simpler terms.

The same reaction, in simpler terms.

Published in: on 24 April 2009 at 2:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Contains sulfites

Boordy Vineyards Icons of Maryland Riesling

Old school cartoon Oriole looks happy about this wine, but he is dying inside.

Old school cartoon Oriole looks happy about this wine, but he is dying inside.

Appelation: “American”, grapes are sourced from WA state.
Varietal: Riesling
ABV: 11%
RS: 3%
Price Point $12
Looks: Pale yellow, a bit darker than a typical riesling from NY would be.
Nose: On the nose it is definitely not a NYS riesling. Very floral, perfumey. A bit of fruit cocktail comes in as well, but the major player in this nose is sulfur dioxide, aka sulfites, which kind of smell like when you first light a match. Wow. It burns my nose.*
Palate: Brazen acidity. Like “yeah, I’m acidic, what are you gonna do about it, punk?” So much sulfur that I can taste it on the palate and all the fruit is gone. Sweet, acidic, sulfurous. Yikes. As it goes down it feels like it will give me heartburn the next day. Blech.

Rating: 1 cork cork Maybe I am just sensitive to it, but i definitely wouldn’t want any more of this.

I went to Baltimore this weekend for an a cappella reunion concert. While picking up some plonk for the afterparty (André anyone?) I decided to review some MD wine. Boordy Vineyards is the largest winery in Maryland, a state that could be considered an up and coming wine region. Unfortunately, I didn’t look carefully at the bottle and ended up grabbing a wine made with grapes grown in Washington state. When I was there I thought I remembered them mentioning riesling vines, but upon further research it was that they had torn them out. Oh, well.

I have toured the winery and it is one of those “party” wineries. It is a fun atmosphere and they give a pretty informative and fun tour. So if you’re between Baltimore and the PA line, I recommend that you stop by.

As for this wine, a little sugar can be used to cover up some faults, but the SO2 is so profound in this wine that not even the 3% RS could save it. Sometimes you find this sulfite heavy-handedness in Mosel rieslings, as well as occasionally here in the Finger Lakes. I would avoid this one, though the label is nice. It’s got a Baltimore oriole on it.

Sulfur dioxide, commonly called “sulfites” on the label, is an antioxidant and antimicrobial agent that has been used for making wine pretty much since wine was first made. SO2 irritates your nose, causing a trigeminal response (see the Jameson post for further discussion of trigeminal response), a burning sensation in the nose. In certain individuals, it can irritate the lungs and cause an asthma-like response. This wine likely has lots of sulfites added because residual sugars can bind SO2, rendering it inactive. If a wine has high residual sugar, chances are it will have higher SO2 to curb microbial activity. Sulfites are the most important preservative and rest assured they will keep coming up again and again in this section.

I didn’t want to get into the whole equilibrium thing, but yes, sulfites exist as molecular SO2 (the actual antimicrobial agent), HSO3-, and SO3–. At wine pH (3.5 or so), most (~95%) of the SO2 will be found as HSO3-. This means that to have enough molecular SO2 for microbial stability, you need to add about 20x more (usually people use potassium metabisulfite). THEN molecular SO2 can associate with ketones and aldehydes, including sugars, so you’ve got to add even more! Problem is the legal limit (US) is 350 ppm (total, free and bound), and the detection threshold is 2 ppm as molecular. And if you have oxygen pickup on your bottling line, then you’ve probably already lost it all! My theory is that the reason this was so overwhelming was that it had a combination of high RS (better add more SO2!) and high acidity, so probably a lower pH (though not necessarily), so more of that extra SO2 was available as molecular, and more went up my nose. I see too much SO2 as a winemaking mistake and it really puts me off a wine. I even tried this a couple days later after it sat in the fridge for a while and it still had biting SO2.

Thanks to Vinogirl for her comment.

Published in: on 21 April 2009 at 5:27 pm  Comments (4)  
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Megapost: Wine Blogging Wednesday #56: “Fine” Kosher Wines

I am new to the internet wine community, but if you start searching out wine blogs, something that comes up consistently is “Wine Blogging Wednesday.” The phenomenon was dreamed up by the king of New York State wine bloggers, Lenn Thompson of LENNDEVOURS and the monthly endeavor is now managed by Lenn and many other prominent online wine personalities. The idea is a monthly wine tasting revolving around a loose theme. Drink the wine, then blog about it. Previous themes have included Piedmont, Maderized wines, and Wine for Breakfast. This month, in honor of Passover, the theme is “Fine Kosher Wines”.

Though I’ve never sought them out, I’m sure that there are probably lots of great kosher wines out there, mevushal or not (more on that later). Israel is becoming a name of note in the wine world, especially the Golan Heights. I reckon that this theme was brought about to eradicate a sort of stigma that has developed about kosher wines. To be specific, it’s commonly thought that they are disgusting, sickly sweet, and only to be drunk once a year, 4 cups at a time, during the Passover seder, and that gentiles (like yours truly) should avoid them altogether. So I expect that many bloggers will be picking up selections from newer high-quality producers such as Covenant, Noah, and to a lesser extent, Baron Herzog.

Me, pleading with Laube, Jancis, and Parker to have mercy on bad kosher wines

Me, pleading with Laube, Jancis, and Parker to have mercy on bad kosher wines

But hey, everybody deserves a second chance, right? I mean, when’s the last time you actually had Manischewitz? The rest of the wine blogosphere will enjoy some high-end kosher wines that might rate 90+ from wine critics. I, like Abraham, will beg the wine gods to recant their punishment on the Sodom and Gomorrah of kosher wines. We’ll see if any righteous wines are found amongst the wickedness. Four righteous people were found in Sodom, so here are four classic wines, pretty much the only kosher wines to be found at Collegetown Liquors. Hey, times are tough, okay?

Manischewitz Concord Grape
Appelation: American (these grapes could be from anywhere in the USA, but chances are the Concords are from New York)
Varietal: from the bottle: “Not less than 51% Concord”
ABV: 11%
RS: “Specially sweetened”
Price Point: $6

The kosher bunch

The kosher bunch

Looks: uniform red with hints of purple, pretty translucent
Nose: The most apparent aroma is the characteristic aroma of native American grapes, e.g., Concord. Some would call this “foxy”. Never having smelled a fox personally, I’d say it smells like Welch’s grape juice. Next it made me think of Push pops. Remember them? A solid purple cylinder of grapey flavor that you could put a cap on and save for later.
Palate: Straightforward, decent bodied mouthfeel. A slight amount of bitterness on the finish. Very, very sweet in the mouth, with little acidity or alcohol to back it up. It drinks like soda, and it probably has more sugar than soda. That being said, people like to drink soda. I can see people actually liking this.

The mother of all kosher wines is Manischewitz. With its Concord pedigree and extreme sweetness, not many in the mood for wine should pick this one. However, just because it’s not a great wine doesn’t mean it’s a bad beverage. It goes down smooth and tastes like grape syrup. Ugh, now the outside of my glass is all sticky.

Rating: 2 corks corkcork

Herzog Selection Chardonnay 2006 (Mevushal)
Appelation: Vin de Pays de Jardin de la France (Jardin de la France is the now discontinued name for grapes from the all over the Loire valley)
Varietal: Chardonnay
ABV: 13%
Price Point: $10
Looks: light gold, darker than I expected
Nose: As soon as I smelled this wine, I wanted to smell it again. If you know me and my love of smells, you may know that this is not necessarily a compliment. It’s not in this case. It smells like a mix of straw and rotten banana peel. There are some cereal notes mixed in there. It reminds me of a barnyard, but not in a {brettanomyces} kind of way. I don’t know what to say.
Palate: Wow. I have never tasted a wine like this. The more I taste it (and spit it) the more it reminds me of beer. Ever taken a brewery tour? Think of the smell of the brewery, then think of licking the floor next to a wort tank. Also, pretty acidic. After a bit in the mouth it does start tasting like chardonnay, but it’s too little, too late. Medium length of finish, but I kind of want it to go away. A nice way to describe this wine would be “rustic.” A better way would be “awful.”

Normally, to remain kosher, kosher wines must be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews (a full list of things that render wine kosher can be found here.) However, if wine is heated, the holy beverage is considered changed from sacramental wine and therefore is still kosher even if handled by a non-Jew. Today, mevushal is the process of flash-pasteurizing wine to render it kosher. My first guess is that this heating process has affected the aromas and flavors in this wine. Oh and PS, plastic cork?

Rating: half a cork halfcork for providing a unique experience, but not one I’m keen to repeat.

Baron Herzog White Zinfandel 2007 (Mevushal)
(Oy, vey! First Manischewitz and now a white zinfandel? I’ll probably get LOLed off the internets!)
Appelation: California
Varietal: Zinfandel ({rosé} style)
ABV: 11%
Price Point: $9
Looks: Interesting color: between rosy pink and copper.
Nose: Here, I don’t get much of anything on the nose at first, a welcome surprise given the last two wines. Some generic, wine-like aromas, light floral and and apricot, but nothing too earth-shattering.
Palate: Fresh acidity, not too much sweetness. Strawberry. Not too complex, but hey, for $9 it’s not bad. Dry for the most part. I’m not sure I could pick this out as mevushal compared with similarly priced white zinfandels.
Rating: 2.5 corks corkcorkcork for a light, refreshing offering.

And now, the wild card. Originally produced by the Mogen David (shield of David aka Star of David) winery in New York state, this sweet fortified wine quickly became the darling of college students and down-on-their-luck city dwellers. Technically, it’s not kosher, but let’s give it a shot.

A challenger appears...

A challenger appears...

MD 20/20 Red Grape Wine
Appelation: none, in fact there is practically nothing but the name, government warning, alcohol %age, and “Serve cold” on the label.
Varietal: none listed
ABV: 13%
Price Point: $5 (probably collegetown price gouging)
Looks: Translucent dark red, very similar to Manischewitz
Nose: Well, it’s not on the label, but concord has got to be in here too. Solventy, somewhat medicinal I don’t get alcohol on the nose, per se, but I’m reminded of port. Not {oxidative} character, but the brandy that’s added.
Palate: Sweet, but not quite as obnoxious about it as Manischewitz. The balancing factor for the sweetness here is not acidity but alcohol. I can only imagine what the original 18% is like. Bit of bitteress and alcohol burn on the finish. Again, they’re not going for complexity here. They’re looking for that abstract quality known to Bud Light consumers as “drinkability”. And hey, if you like concord grapes/wines, this stuff is not complete rotgut. This wine used to be fortified to 18%, and you can still find it at that high level in some places. Again, not a good wine, but not the world’s worst beverage. I can see lots of potential for getting creative with this and/or Manischewitz in the sangria area.

Rating: 1.5 corks corkcork for a cheap buzz.

Overall my kosher wine experience was surprising.  The cheapos fared pretty nicely, though admittedly I had low expectations.  From the more expensive bottles, a decent one and a terrible one.  Again, maybe that was a bad bottle, but I have tasted and observed many different wine faults in classes and real life, and I don’t think that aroma would vary bottle to bottle.  I guess the lesson here is not to give in to wine snobbery.   If people tell you a particular wine is no good, you don’t have to believe them!  And hey, if you buy some Manischewitz and you don’t like it, you’re only out $6, and you can make jelly out of it.  To kosher wines, L’chaim! As for the Sodom and Gomorrah analogy, I’d say that while one of these deserves smiting, it’s not worth pouring fire and brimstone over an entire category of wines.


Foxy wine, I'm cominna GITCHA!

Foxy wine, I'm cominna GITCHA!

The “foxy” aroma I referred to, characteristic of concord, Niagara, and other labrusca-type ad {hybrid} varietals, is the smell of methyl anthranilate. {Vinifera} grapes generally lack the enzyme alcohol acyltransferase, which synthesizes this molecule. It is thought to attract animals to eat berries and (some time later) spread the seeds around. Why is it called foxy? This is the subject of much debate, covered in detail in “A History of Wine in America”, which you can peruse here.

Ref: Wang and De Luca, “The biosynthesis and regulation of biosynthesis of Concord grape fruit esters, including ‘foxy’ methylanthranilate”, The Plant Journal, 2005.

Published in: on 15 April 2009 at 5:16 pm  Comments (9)  
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Lemberger time


Click to visit Damiani's website

Damiani Wine Cellars Lemberger 2006
Appelation: Finger Lakes
Varietal: Lemberger aka Blaufränkisch
ABV: 12%
Price Point: $16
Looks:  garnet in the glass
Nose: not too intense on the nose, light earthy, cranberry, slight bit of oak
Palate:  Decent {astringency} on the palate, but a little high in acidity. Sour cherry shows up, in a sour kind of way. See where I’m going with this one? If you can get over the acidity, there’s some black pepper that sneaks in after a while.

Rating: corkcorkcork not a bad effort from a tough vintage.

I’d recommend it with food, the acidity will cut through just about any rich foods. Give it a little aeration* and the nose will improve a bit. I also appreciate the subtle oak, which shows up to the party but, unlike in some wines, doesn’t make a ruckus and dance on the furniture.

I’ve never been to Damiani Wine Cellars, a small producer on Seneca Lake, but I have had some wines from there and they’re not too bad. That’s why I picked this guy up at the annual massive wine tasting at Triphammer last weekend. (70 or so wines and I had to drive myself, so I filled up a Nesquik bottle with expectorated wine…) It’s also not too bad. I’m looking forward to visiting the tasting room some time to get a full sampling. Damiani is also on twitter! You can follow them at, wait for it… @DamianiWine

There seems to be a bit of confusion in the wine world about how to market this grape of many names. Lemberger reminds people of stinky cheese. Blaufränkisch, the oldest name for the grape (some date it back to Charlemagne), has an umlaut, and if you know anything about heavy metal music, you know that umlauts are scary.  My favorite name is the Slovenian modra frankinja, because it looks like it rhymes with “ninja”. I don’t think it does, though. Anyway, lemberger is another one of those “reds that do well in the Finger Lakes”, so I expect I shall be reviewing more. Plus I like it, and that helps.


Lemberger, blaufränkisch, or morda frankinja?

Wait, are you saying that aerating wine “softens tannins”? NO! Decanting/aerating wine does NOT aid in the polymerization of tannins, at least not significantly on the time scale of 3-4 hours like you may have been told. (Ref: Salas et al., “Reactions of Anthocyanins and Tannins in Model Solutions”, J. Ag and Food Chem., 2003). I know, this is wine canon that I’m talking about here, but listen! The kinetics of tannin co-polymerization, even in the presence of oxygen (mediated by acetaldehyde), are on the order of months to years, and definitely not hours.

I can think of three purposes for decanting wine:

  1. Blowing off hydrogen sulfide (sulfur off-aromas) which can suppress perception of fruit. (Ref: Sweigers et al., “Yeast and bacterial modulation of wine aroma and flavour”, Aus. J. Grape Wine Res., 2008)
  2. Removing sediment from older wines
  3. Aesthetics. Some decanters allow for long reach or just look really nice. There is a lot psychological about drinking wine from a beautiful hand-blown crystal decanter as opposed to a dusty old bottle with the label peeling off.

Please, prove me wrong. Find me some scientific evidence (blinded sensory studies, a chemical mechanism maybe) that explains the “tannin softening” phenomenon associated with decanting. Until then, I have to say it’s BS. Are there benefits to decanting? Sometimes. Just don’t let me catch you saying it softens the tannins. Decanting helps the wine to get rid of off-aromas, so it’s less about allowing the wine to breathe. It’s more like allowing it to burp.

Published in: on 14 April 2009 at 1:15 am  Comments (3)  
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