The soul of Witte

Brewery Ommegang Witte

ommegang witte

Style: Belgian-style Wheat Ale with Traditional Spices
Color (light, amber, or dark): Light
ABV: 5.1%
Price Point: $7.50/750 mL bottle
Closure: Cork with cage. The yeast sediment in the bottom is a clue that this bottle’s carbonation comes from a fermentation in the bottle, thus the need for the extra pressure protection of the champagne-style cork and cage.

Technical notes: From the website: “Witte is brewed with malted and unmalted wheat, barley malt, a light hops addition and spiced with sweet orange peel and coriander. Though adding a slice of citrus fruit is common while enjoying a wheat or Wiess [sic] beer, we feel that Witte’s gentle spicing and slight tartness renders the fruit superfluous.”

Hedonic notes: Pours with a lot of long-lasting foam. (Some people think that the foaminess of a beer is indicative of its quality. I’m not so sure, but that’s fodder for another post.) Smells of a little orange at first, giving way to some spicy, phenolic, medicinal tones and finally some plain old grain/malt. On the palate, tart, with lemon peel and tongue-numbing clove*. Very refreshing and light. After a long while, some curry appears on the finish. Likely a great summer beer (whoops, it’s definitely fall. Maybe this should have been on sale!) I agree with the brewery’s assessment that a slice of orange or lemon would be a bit much.

Rating: corkcorkhalfcorknocorknocork 2.5 out of 5 corks . It’s OK.

Ithacork breaks into the world of beer (finally!). I don’t know how it took this long! The Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown makes some quality Belgian-style beers. I’m not sure of their nationwide distribution, but around here, beers like Hennepin, Rare Vos, and Three Philosophers are ubiquitous. Cooperstown is a little over 2 hours east-northeast of Ithaca (and on the way to Boston). Maybe I will stop by the brewery on my next trip with Sarah out to Plymouth.

*Science!
One way that beer brewing is different from winemaking is that brewers have a seeming ability to throw all kinds of fruit, spices, or other stuff (coffee, pumpkin, jalapeño, etc.) into their product and still have it be called beer. However, spice aromas and flavors in beer don’t always come from the spice rack, the mysterious East, or the sandworms from Dune. In the case of most Belgian brews, the yeast can add a spicy character as well. The molecule I’m talking about here is 4-vinylguaiacol (4-VG). It’s one aroma component of cloves, (the major one is eugenol, found as a lignin degradation product in oaked wines, but not common in beer) and if you are old, you may have smelled it at the dentist’s office (clove oil has a slight analgesic effect, so it’s used as a numbing agent).

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4-vinylguaiacol. Descriptors: clove-like, smoky, curry

Brewers are generally very protective of their yeast strains, and many breweries propagate their yeasts from previous batches. In this case, only certain strains of yeast (called Pof+, or “phenolic off-flavor” positive) have the ability (activity of the enzyme Pad1) to synthesize 4-VG and its counterpart 4-vinylphenol (medicinal/Band-aid) from hydroxycinnamic acid precursors. 4-VP and 4-VG are also the aroma precursors of {Brettanomyces} aroma compounds 4-ethylphenol and 4-ethylguaiacol in wines. (Van Beneden et al., “Formation of 4-vinyl and 4-ethyl derivatives from hydroxycinnamic acids: Occurrence of volatile phenolic flavour compounds in beer and distribution of Pad1-activity among brewing yeasts”, Food Chemistry, 2007).

Basically, Belgian witbiers and German hefeweizens have this clove aroma because of the strains of yeast that are traditionally used to ferment them. PS: The difference between a witbier and a weizen? Witbiers are often made with unmalted wheat, while weizens are made with malted wheat.

Published in: on 4 November 2009 at 5:07 am  Comments (1)  
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Lemberger time

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Click to visit Damiani's website

Damiani Wine Cellars Lemberger 2006
Appelation: Finger Lakes
Varietal: Lemberger aka Blaufränkisch
ABV: 12%
Price Point: $16
Notes:
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.

Lemberger150px-motorheadfull_730712737

Lemberger, blaufränkisch, or morda frankinja?

*Science!
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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Monday matchup: Bold statements

I follow a lot of wine people on Twitter. This post is a response to a tweet from the winemaker at Silver Springs Winery on Seneca Lake. In addition to an eponymous label, Silver Springs also makes Don Giovanni wines, their premium label. The tweet in question was as such:

DonGiovanniWine: my 2005 Bold Merlot in a blind taste test will beat all other merlots …yes I just said that…

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Today's competitors on "Drink the Wine"

I happened to have a bottle of the 2005 Bold Merlot at home, and I was actually planning on writing tasting notes for it soon. When I saw this tweet, I couldn’t resist having the winemaker put his money where his mouth is. For the opponent, I chose another wine that I had around the house, Ty Caton 2006 Upper Bench Merlot, which I purchased from wine.woot about a year ago and have been “cellaring” in the closet.

This test was done as blindly as possible, with identical ISO 9000 wine glasses. Both bottles were opened at the same time and not decanted. Wine was poured into the glasses from the bottle before the test began to avoid bias, as the bottles are shaped considerably differently.
 
 
Stats:

Wine Don Giovanni Bold Merlot 2005 Ty Caton 2006 Upper Bench Merlot
ABV 13.7% 15.7% (!!!)
Appelation New York State (fruit from Long Island and Finger Lakes) Sonoma Valley, CA
Price Point $27 $37

Here we go:
Wine 1
Looks: dark red, getting to be brick-red.
Nose: Vanilla and oak, not too much fruit. I do get some cherry, and a spicy potpourri aroma. There’s a bit of an herbal tint in there too, with a bit of tobacco/cigar box. It may be running a little {hot}
Palate: Firm but not overpowering {tannin}. Medium-short finish, and I really like the tannin structure. It’s slightly on the acidic side and oaky on the palate. There’s something really nice that comes through on the finish about 10 seconds after swallowing/spitting. It’s subtle and I can’t quite pinpoint it, but it is satisying.
Overall, not too bad. I like its {balance}, but the phenolic (“spicy potpourri”) element is the loudest singer in the bunch, and it’s a little out of tune.
Rating: 3 corks corkcorkcork

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The contestants, as judged. Post-it notes are so I wouldn't get them mixed up while tasting.

Wine 2
Looks: Darker red, with hints of purple.
nose A bit of hydrogen sulfide at first whiff (dissipated after a bit), jammy, grape soda, huckleberry pie, with a little chocolate in there.
palate Sweet, very fruity. Cheek-puckering tannin, almost a smokiness on the back end, a lingering bitterness that’s not really that pleasant. Pretty alcoholic, too, finishing with some black licorice.

This is a big wine, but maybe not in the right ways. At times it reminds me of a fruity-smelling magic marker. You know the ones I mean.
Rating: 2.5 corks corkcorkhalfcork

Results: Don Giovanni was wine 1, and Ty Caton was wine 2. In a way, this probably wasn’t a fair comparison. These wines are completely different styles, and since this wasn’t DOUBLE blind (i.e. I would have no idea which wines I was tasting at all), I had my suspicions about which wine was which right from the get-go. The DG had an aroma that I pick up in many, many FL reds, which I describe as “potpourri” only because I’m not really sure what to call it. My hypothesis is that it comes from extended maceration and/or long extraction periods, which can add a lot of color to a wine from a wet vintage, but also extract some undesirables from the skins. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, the TC can come off like a typical California WAY overripe, jammy, syrupy, alcoholic mess. 15.7% alcohol? It may as well be madeira! This may be a style that some critics really go for, but for me, I prefer the Don Giovanni. That being said, it’s not without its flaws, and I definitely wouldn’t say that it could beat ANY merlot out there.


A note about blind tastings: It’s important to point out that nobody buys wine blind. Nobody goes to the store and says to the clerk, “I’ve got $20, surprise me!” (though I might do that someday, sounds like fun). With so many wines out there (on the order of 10,000 labels authorized for sale in the US in 2007), there’s no way one can try them all and buy based on experience. The more adventurous consumers will reach for varietals and regions they haven’t had before, but it seems that in general, people buy wine based on lots of psychological factors that have little to do with the quality of the wine in question. This could explain why the results of truly blind tastings can often be rather surprising, especially to the tasters. However, human psychology is rather out of my jurisdiction and I’m content to just say that people do weird things sometimes.

I’ve been to Silver Springs a few times and whenever I go, the winemaker, John Zuccarino, is pouring behind the bar. The guy is nothing if not extremely enthusiastic about wine and the wines that he makes. Many times my friends have remarked that it was their favorite stop along the way on Seneca, even if the winemaker’s presence is a bit overwhelming for some. He makes some pretty good reds, and I highly recommend stopping by there if you’re traveling up the east side of Seneca.

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This is only a small portion of the detritus floating in my spit cup after tasting these two wines.

Science!
Hey gang! Here’s an experiment that you can do at home! Make sure you get your parents’ permission, though. In the winespeak dictionary, I explain how it’s thought that the mechanism of astringency is the precipitation of proteins in saliva by tannins. Additionally, perception of astringency correlates well with protein precipitation assays (Ref: Kennedy et al.,, “Analysis of Tannins in Red Wine Using Multiple Methods: Correlation with Perceived Astringency “, AJEV, 2006) Well, if you’ve got a spit bucket, you can observe this phenomenon for yourself!  All that chunky stuff floating around when you spit out a red wine is precipitated protein, mostly PRPs (proline-rich proteins).  It’s thought that PRPs evolved as a defense mechanism against polyphenolic compounds, like tannins (Ref: Baxter et al., “Multiple interactions between polyphenols and a salivary proline-rich protein repeat result in complexation and precipitation.”, Biochemistry, 1997).

Published in: on 30 March 2009 at 3:14 am  Comments (3)  
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Megapost: “Ices of March” vertical Finger Lakes ice wine tasting at Sheldrake Point

I actually found out about Sheldrake Point’s “Ices of March” event from facebook, which is interesting from a marketing perspective.  Anyway, I thought this was a unique opportunity to taste several ice wines, a specialty of cooler climates like the Finger Lakes, and one benefit to our cold temperatures.  The {vertical tasting} ($20, including a fancyman glass) featured four ice wines, with accompanying blue cheese, walnuts, paté, and orange-flavored cookies.

mmi

Left to right: 2007, 2002, 2004 December Harvest, 2004 January Harvest

From youngest to oldest:

Sleek, stylish bottle on the 2007

Sleek, stylish bottle on the 2007

Sheldrake Point 2007 Riesling Ice Wine
Varietal: Riesling
ABV: 12.6%
Residual Sugar: 16.5% (165 g/L)
Appelation: Finger Lakes
Price point: $65 for 375 mL (half-bottle)
The 2007 looks pretty much like any normal riesling would, pale yellow in color, though noticeably thicker in the glass on swirling. It also smells like a Finger Lakes riesling, with characteristic light floral and citrus notes. Also, it’s got a little stonefruit (I wrote “peach”) and pineapple thrown in there. On the palate, lively acidity stands up to the considerable sweetness very well, for a very fresh, zingy feeling. Lemon and lime join the party on the palate, kind of like Sprite. (Interestingly, all of these wines have quite a bit more sugar than Sprite [~110 g/L]). Really great, and not just for dessert. This {well-balanced} wine plays nicely with blue cheese and walnuts, and would likely compliment spicy foods (e.g., Thai or Indian) pretty well.
Rating: 3.5 corks corkcorkcorkhalfcork

Sheldrake Point 2004 December Harvest Riesling Ice Wine
Varietal: Riesling
ABV: 12.8%
Residual Sugar:15.5%
Appelation: Finger Lakes
Price point: $90 for 375 mL
This wine was bit more golden in color. Muted fruit aromas compared to the 2007 give way to more honeyed character in this one. I imagine the honey character also comes psychologically as a result of the increased viscosity of the wine. It’s also got a long finish.
Rating: 2.5 corks corkcorkhalfcork

Sheldrake Point 2004 January Harvest Riesling Ice Wine
Varietal: Riesling (grapes from 2003 season harvested in January 2004)
ABV: 12.2%
Residual Sugar: 19.5%
Appelation: Finger Lakes
Price point: $100 for 375 mL
The apparent crown jewel of the tasting, this wine was served at a Governor’s Ball at the White House in 2006.

kerosene-lamp

Kerosene? In my Riesling? It's more likely than you think.

The label says 2004 but the grapes were from the 2003 vintage and harvested in January 2004, so for all intents and purposes, this is a 2003.  It’s starting to show its age. It’s just beginning to develop the aroma of “petrol” (a nice way of saying “kerosene”).*  This aroma is common in older rieslings and found especially in German rieslings (probably because many German rieslings will not be released for years after bottling, while FL wines usually come out ASAP.)  I have to say that the petrol is not a bad thing in this wine, and in fact it adds an interesting layer of complexity. I also noted some citrus peel in addition to peach aromas.
Rating: 2.5 corks corkcorkhalfcork

Sheldrake Point 2002 Riesling Ice Wine
Varietal: Riesling
ABV: 11.5%
Residual Sugar: 20%
Appelation: Finger Lakes
Price point: $70 for 375 mL
The oldest and darkest of the bunch, with its deep gold color, is on the verge of browning. I noticed two things right away on the nose. First, a whole lot more of the petrol character than the 2003. Secondly, and unfortunately, this wine is a bit {oxidized}. In all fairness, it’s possible that I got a bad bottle. However, I actually got a re-pour (for an errant fuzz in the glass), and the wine remained the same. If the whole lot of wine tastes like this, they really shouldn’t be selling it for $70, or maybe even at all.
Rating: 1 cork cork


Overall, I enjoyed the tasting. The wines were served to small groups (in this case, me and 5 friends) so it was like a private tasting. The host was informative but a bit blabby. At a certain point I just wanted some quiet so I could taste the wine. Others, though, got a lot out of it. I still find ice wine in general a bit pricey for me. And though they went out of their way to pair with some non-dessert foods, I’m not sure I would crack a $65 half bottle to down with dinner. For me, I’ll leave it as an appetizer or dessert, both of which it’s perfectly suited for.

*Science!
Ice wine is usually made by leaving the grapes on the vine until winter.  When cold temperatures come around (~15-18 F, according to the tasting room manager), the frozen grapes (the ones that haven’t {rotted} or been eaten by deer or just fallen off the vine) are picked and immediately pressed. 128816664704197436Out in the cold, most of the water inside the grapes will freeze, but a more concentrated solution of sugars and acids will not, producing {must} with very high sugar and high acidity.  The resulting juice is fermented (though usually not without difficulty), leaving a wine with a normal amount of alcohol for a wine (~12% abv) and high residual sugar. The labor-intensive process justifies the high price, as it is a pain in the butt to pick in sub-freezing temperatures, crush solid grapes, and ferment juice that is so high in sugar that yeast have a hard time surviving due to osmotic stress (Ref: Erasmus et al., “Genome-wide expression analyses: Metabolic adaptation of Saccharomyces cerevisiae to high sugar stress”, FEMS Yeast Res., 2003.)

Published in: on 16 March 2009 at 3:47 am  Comments (3)  
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Venial zin

Long Point Zinfandel (Reserve) 2006
Varietal: Zinfandel (not to be confused with “white zinfandel”, a wine made in a rosé-style from Zinfandel grapes, and usually drunk by moms.)

This is the biggest picture I could find of the label

This is the biggest picture I could find of the label

Alcohol by volume: 14.8%
Residual Sugar: Dry (supposedly)
Appelation: Only to be sold in NY (more on that later)
Price point: $24

Notes:
Looks: Dark violet uncharacteristic of Finger Lakes reds.
Nose: Hot on the nose, kind of smells like those old blueberry-cream Life Savers lollipops in that it carries dark fruit and vanilla.
Palate: Sweet, I tend to disagree with the “dry” rating. Rather low in acidity, {flabby}. There is a bit of {tannin} that sticks around through the black licorice finish. Overall, for 24 bucks I’m not sure I would buy it again.
Rating: 2.5 corks corkcorkhalfcork


I drove to Long Point with some of my high school friends in the middle of a snowstorm around new years. Located just off of Route 34B on Cayuga lake, it’s one of two main wineries on the east side of the lake, the other being King Ferry (Treleaven wines). In the deserted tasting room, when I expressed that the reds showed a lot of color, tannin, and flavor, the winemaker informed me that the grapes for some of his reds are shipped from California. Finger lakes wine indeed! But hey, if you have had some of the reds made in a cooler climate like this, you would probably consider importing as well. It takes a lot of energy for grapes to make all those anthocyanins (color compounds) and other polyphenols (e.g., {tannins}).

Creamy blueberry in lollipops:  great!  Creamy blueberry in high-alcohol wine: not so great.

Creamy blueberry in lollipops: great! Creamy blueberry in high-alcohol wine: not so great.

Also, what does “reserve” mean? Legally, in the U.S., it means absolutely nothing. Some winemakers use it to mean that these were the best barrels of that fermentation, some use it to mean that the wine is oaked or aged in a nicer (French vs, American, a topic for another time) or newer oak barrel. Regardless, “reserve” on a wine usually guarantees one thing: it will be more expensive. This wine is no exception.

*Science!
A fairly recent trend in winemaking, especially in California, is letting grapes hang on the vine for the maximum amount of time before harvesting to maximize ripeness (Ref: Coombe, “Research on development and ripening of the grape berry”, American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, 1992). At first, this seems like a great idea: riper grapes mean more flavor, right?. (Incidentally, long hang times in the Finger Lakes are not advisable because of the propensity for rain in September-October, which leads to the growth of {botrytis} (rot) on the grapes.) As grapes ripen, sugar levels increase and acid levels (malic and tartatric) decrease. The result of a long hang is juice that comes in with very high sugar. Very high sugar leads to very high alcohol after fermentation, and this one weighs in around 15% alcohol by volume. Wow. An unfortunate downside to this approach (which frequently happens with Zinfandel, a notoriously high-alcohol wine) is the loss of a lot of the acids, leading to a wine lacking structure.
Alcohol levels in wine are increasing all over the world and it’s thought that climate change has a lot to do with this (Ref: Jones et al., “Climate change and global wine quality”, Climate Change, 2005). I don’t know if Al Gore mentioned this in “An Inconvenient Truth” but he probably should have!

Published in: on 9 March 2009 at 5:18 pm  Comments (1)  
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