TasteCamp East: Fined & Filtered

Note:  this is somewhat of a rant, and not really science-based, just an observation.  We will return to our regularly scheduled peer-reviewed science soon enough.

I had an awesome time at TasteCamp East a few weekends ago, for which, I point out,  I missed a Pussycat Dolls concert at Cornell. The things I do for wine…

Anyway, when I returned I read all the posts from other bloggers. Everybody had good and bad things to say, and Lenn interviewed may of us, yours truly included.  As I read through each post and interview (mine included), I couldn’t help but notice that many people liked to jump to hasty conclusions.  For example, “all the chardonnay is oaked and {flabby}” (something I implied in my interview) is a huge generalization.  Even though I tasted 156 wines, I barely scratched the surface of the Long Island wine scene and that certainly doesn’t make me qualified  to comment on it as a whole.  It shouldn’t make anyone qualified!

Why do so many wine writers feel the need to generalize so much when the only wines that they can accurately comment on are ones that they have actually tasted?  Saying “Overall, 2006 was a bad year for” grape X is a generalization.  It may be true that in that vintage, many wines didn’t come out as good as previous years, but the best wine producers, even in bad vintages, can still make good wines.

This is part of why I like wine so much!  Every bottle is a gamble.  There is so much bottle variation that even a bottle of the same wine is a gamble!  Plus, there are lots of other variables.  What kind of mood are you in when you try the wine?  Is it cold and rainy or hot and sunny outside?  Did your dog just die?  Were you told by someone else that the wine is really good (or really bad)?  Did the wine get a 96 in Wine Spectator?

I think what it comes down to is simplifying.  Oversimplifying.  It’s a very human thing to do.  We want to understand, so we have evolved to generalize and feel like we do understand.

In its very chemical makeup, wine is extremely complex.  It is so complex that we may never know all of the different molecules that give a wine its distinct characteristics.  Up from the molecular level, there are many factors that affect the grapes that come in, including:

  • weather
  • trellising
  • canopy management
  • green harvest
  • micro-climate
  • micro-flora
  • soil
  • temperature
  • slope
  • cover crop
  • clone
  • sugar at harvest
  • acid at harvest
  • phenolic maturity
  • and more…

Once the grapes are harvested (machine or hand? sorted or not?), a winemaker has many, many choices to make, all of which will affect the final product that is bottled:

  • destemming or whole cluster pressing?
  • crush?
  • cold soak?
  • long or short maceration?
  • saignée (bleed off some of the free run juice to increase skin to juice ratio in reds)?
  • clarify must?
  • wild yeast or inoculated yeast (of which you can buy over 40 strains from one of many companies)?
  • stomp, basket press, bladder press, screw press, or other kind of press?
  • how much pressure to use in the press
  • temperature-controlled fermentation?  warm or cool?
  • add yeast nutrients?
  • add sugar to raise potential alcohol? (chaptalization)
  • leave residual sugar or go to dryness?
  • let fermentation go to dryness and backsweeten?
  • stainless steel or barrel-fermented?  (or concrete or open-tank, etc.)
  • oak or no oak?
  • French (Allier? Vosges? etc.), American (Minnesota? Missouri? etc.), Chinese, Hungarian, or other oak?
  • how long to age in oak
  • malolactic fermentation?  partial or full?
  • when to remove the wine from yeast cells
  • cold stabilize to remove tartrate crystals (wine diamonds)?
  • add acid?
  • add tannin?
  • filtered or unfiltered?  sterile filter?
  • fined (casein, albumin, bentonite, etc.)?
  • copper fine to remove mercaptans?
  • 100% of one varietal or blend?
  • how much press fraction to blend in
  • closure?  (natural cork, screwcap, technical cork, plastic, bag-in-box, Zork, etc.)
  • and many more…

And there are variables at the consumer level, such as time in the bottle, storage conditions, and other psychological factors that I mentioned above.  So how can one, after tasting a small amount of the wine in a region, especially a New World region, make ANY broad claims?

My wine selection strategy for this blog is simple.  I usually review Finger Lakes wines, so I will go to a store (or winery) and buy a Finger Lakes wine.  Usually, the wines that I buy at the winery are ones that I liked (or thought would be interesting to review or tie in some kind of Science!…).  I have had many Finger Lakes wines, but nowhere near all of them.  So can I comment about riesling from the Finger Lakes in general?  No!  I can comment about my own experience and that’s all.

If you think you are a wine expert, you’re wrong.  There is more wine out there than you could ever taste, and there is more wine knowledge out there than you could ever know.

Wine is about your individual experience and your individual palate.  In fact, there is so much psychology involved that sometimes it really frustrates me.  I understand molecules because they react predictably and rationally.  People, well, I might never understand them.  For me, I will just take it one bottle, one molecule at a time.

Published in: on 22 May 2009 at 6:52 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Add to that the variables that affect a blogger’s writing and it’s chaos.

  2. Tom: As is usually the case, you’re spot on here. I know that I’m guilty of generalizing sometimes myself. I don’t think you’ll ever hear me call myself an expert though, not even on Long Island (where I live and drink the most).

    I do, at least I try to, always say “this is a generalization but…” when I do generalize.

    And just for the record, I’ve had great wines from very very bad years from every NY region. I had a 2006 cab franc from Billsboro that I adored. I wanted to buy more but it was sold out. I’ve had good reds from Long Island from 2003 (mostly from Roanoke Vineyards). There will always be someone doing something amazing in any given year. I for one know that I hope to generalize less going forward.

    Of course, it’s the easy way out. And human nature.

  3. You make so much sense to me 🙂

  4. As it’s the case often (but especially in science): The more you know, the less you know in the end. When you learn something, it always leas to 10 other things to discover.

    • “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” -Alexander Pope

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