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Getting Serious Alcohol Levels in Wine

Date: Fri, Jul 23, 2010 Wine Tasting

I was amazed to learn recently that beer can be made with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of over 20%. The Samuel Adams Utopias weigh in at 27%. Impressive until you learn that BrewDogs Sink the Bismarck! checks in at 41%! That ABV is achieved because alcohol freezes at lower temperatures than water and so by freezing the beer you can selectively remove water (as ice) from the solution thereby increasing the alcohol concentration.

This would be an ideal way to get more alcohol into Barossa Shiraz - wouldn't that really upset the anti-high alcohol league! It also sounds like the perfect, completely unnatural, wine - that would tick-off even more people.

The easiest way to increase alcohol in any wine would be to freeze some until its slushy (in a container that won't break) and then just pour off the unfrozen liquid. That should be high in alcohol. I wouldn't try this at home, but there is no reason why you shouldn't!

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Mark Squires’ Bulletin Board now available only to eRobertParker.com subscribers

Date: Wed, May 5, 2010 Wine Tasting

At the end of last month Mark Squires' Bulletin Board officially closed its doors to all but those who subscribe to eRobertParker.com. This was met with various pronouncements and opinions on wine blogs like Vinography and Jamie Goode’s blog as well as other wine forums.

Like many I have been subject to the castigation by the all knowledgeable Mr. Squires; in the area of genetics which I am sure Mr Squires, a lawyer, is all knowing and all seeing while I, a PhD in Medicine, obviously know very little, even if I do have peer reviewed publications in the area. I have not posted on the MS Bulletin Board since although I did often visit the site, mostly to read posts on the Social Hall forum. As a paid-up subscriber of eRobertParker.com I will be able to continue to drop in to see how things are progressing and whether the pronouncements of others about the future of the bulletin board come to pass.

My own thoughts are that when the eBob forums were free they served as a highly visible format for those with a serious interest in wine and a vehicle to introduce eRobertParker.com. When Robert Parker expanded his staff to include folks like Antonio Galloni, Neal Martin and others you needed an eBob subscription to access their forums. At that point the writing was on the wall. Through The Wine Advocate Robert Parker has made it clear that the content he generates is not free. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this as its how Parker and his staff derive income. Whether the closing of the bulletin board to the public is the result of significant questions that have been raised about the ethics at The Wine Advocate we will almost certainly never know. My own feeing is that the subscriber base has grown to such a level that its now feasible to make the bulletin board a pay-to-play venue.

So where do you go if you have an interest in wine but don’t fancy being an eBob subscriber? There are numerous other wine forums, some of which have been mentioned at Vinography and by Jamie Goode. My contribution is to provide a couple of links to forums that specialize in Australian wines. Both are run by wine etailers in Australia but don’t let that stop you signing up as there are no hard sales pitches. The AusWine Forum is more focused on Aussie wines than the Star Forum which has a more international flavor. Although both have their own clique of posters there is cross fertilization and more to the point very few Mark Squires! Plus the posters on both sites have considerably more knowledge of the local product than among eBob members (who unfortunately were limited in their exposure by Parker’s view of what Australian wine should be).

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Wine By The Numbers

Date: Wed, May 5, 2010 Wine Tasting

Its no secret to anyone who reads this (infrequent) blog that I am no fan of the anti-high alcohol league. The league is those individuals, like Randy Dunn, Darrell Corti, Elin McCoy, and Dan Berger, who rant and rave against wines with alcohol levels above 14% and their supposed lack of balance, and over-ripe, prune-laden character. Well it seems that their opinions have caught on with some as this article by Lettie Teague in The Wall Street Journal notes. Now I will confess that I am not a big fan of richly flavored Pinot Noir wines that don’t express their varietal character all that well. Some of these have alcohols above 14% and while I struggle to appreciate them as wines that I can identify by grape variety that does not mean that they are not tasty examples of the winemaker’s art. But it would be pure folly on my part to advocate that Pinot Noir with more than 14% alcohol not be made. It would also be very petty of me to state that such wines won’t find a place in my cellar. I’d be even more suspect if I was to use federal labeling laws, which dictate that 14% alcohol and below is table wine, to justify my position. But the real evidence of my foolishness would be for me to apply my 14% rule only as I saw fit. Then I would be showing my true biases and I am sure I would be called a wine snob.

And so to conclude this post we can now add Rajat Parr, wine director of the San Francisco-based Michael Mina restaurant group, to the list of the anti-high alcohol league members. Wine snobs, one and all.

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Screwcap v Cork – the photographic evidence

Date: Fri, Apr 23, 2010 Wine Tasting

What would happen if you bottled a Clare Valley Semillon under 14 different closures, including natural and synthetic corks and screwcap, and left them for 10 years? Would a simple photograph of unopened bottles tell a story? Certainly looks as though it does. The wine was made by Leasingham Estate and the study conducted by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). As the images show the wine under screwcap was the best preserved. But how did it taste? According to Peter Godden of AWRI "The wine under screw cap was classic aged Semillon and was wonderful to drink." Jamie Goode has blogged about the screwcap wine and the trial.

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Screwcaps, corks and consumers

Date: Thu, Apr 22, 2010 Wine Tasting

An interesting little study has been reported in ScienceNews from the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society. 2006 Pinot noir and Chardonnay from the Argyle Winery in Oregon were closed with natural cork, synthetic cork and three screw caps; the three screwcaps had a different lining. The chemical profile and dissolved oxygen content of the wine under each type of seal was examined at 6 month intervals over two years. In addition, volunteer tasters rated the flavor and aroma of the wines under the different closures. The conclusion? The synthetic cork and the cap lined with low-density polyethylene let in the most oxygen, but the tasters apparently could not detect any differences.

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The Nagari Visits Mornington Peninsula

Date: Wed, Feb 17, 2010 Wine Tasting

In the 1970s I used to drool over the Bolwell Nagari and was truly disappointed when commercial production was axed; IIRC because the Bolwell brothers just didn’t have the money to pay for crash testing of their baby. Today things are a little different. The Bolwell Corporation has become so successful that the Nagari has been resurrected, albeit as a completely new design. Its first serious test has been a run through the vineyards of Mornington Peninsula. It’s a car that will turn heads as you roll up to any cellar door but I’m not sure how much wine you can fit into it. At $200K+AUD its even more out of my league now than the original Nagari was in the 1970s and anyway the new Nagari, as sophisticated as it is, just does not have the curves of the original, especially the coupe.

Just as a bit of wine trivia, the Wine Trails of Australia DVDs show footage of the winemaker at Katnook, Wayne Stehbens, tooling around in a powder blue Bolwell Nagari with a monster air intake over the engine, and the Bolly Blog is run by John Low from Kapunda, South Australia (at the northern end of the Barossa).

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Books, books, books

Date: Thu, Jan 28, 2010 Wine Tasting

The nightstand beside my bed has a dozen or so unread or partially read books on wine. It’s a nightly reminder that I need to find the time to read more and also blog about what I read. So……

The books include Alice Feiring’s “The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization” (Harcourt Inc., 2008) which I have been reading on and off (mostly off) for at least 18 months, although it seems like forever and I’m only at page 113 out of 262. Apart from being the most uninspiring book I have ever read, I cannot fathom the role of love in this attempt at autobiography. How can someone be so negative about wine and life? Maybe the ending is uplifting but I’m not sure I have the patience (or the life span!) to keep reading till then.

In contrast Benjamin Wallace’s “The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine”(Crown Publishers, New York. 2008) is an outstanding work. Focusing on the infamous Hardy Rodenstock (aka Meinhard Goerke ) and his supposed discovery of bottles of Bordeaux wine bearing the inscription “Th.J.”, the initials of Thomas Jefferson; third President of the United States and arguably America’s first wine connoisseur. Wallace’s writing style highlights the intrigue that this story has engendered in wine collectors and those who like a good detective story. Even so, the final chapters of this saga have yet to be written from the lawsuits that billionaire Bill Koch has brought against those who sold him fake bottles of wine (see Dec. 15, 2009 issue of “Wine Spectator”). Perhaps the most famous example of “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware), “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” might also be considered an example of “a fool and his money are soon parted”. And it seems there were (are still) lots of wine collectors who have spent extraordinary amounts of money to secure what must have appeared at the time to be true rarities in the world of wine and in the case of the “Th.J.” engraved bottles, American history. Unfortunately many such bottles have identified as fakes or have questionable provenance. But the real fools have to be Hardy Rodenstock (aka Meinhard Goerke ) and auctioneer Michael Broadbent of Christie’s. It pains me to paint Broadbent in this way as I have held him high regard for decades but his failures only exacerbated Rodenstock’s bravado; note: I do not believe that Broadbent colluded with Rodenstock only that he could have investigated the “Th.J.” bottles more thoroughly. Its possible that Rodenstock might have fooled everyone if those bottles had not been labeled so. But by highlighting the possibility that Jefferson owned them he picked on the wrong individual because it is well know that Jefferson recorded almost every moment of his life and especially his daily expenses. Thus it would have taken little effort for Broadbent (or Rodenstock!) to enquire as to the authenticity of these bottles from the researchers at Monticello (Jefferson’s estate located in Charlottesville, Virginia). As it was, a report (dated December 12, 1985) on that possibility was completed by Lucia Goodwin Stanton (then director of research at Monticello) only a week after the auction of the first of the “Th.J.” bottles on Dec. 5, 1985.

Stanton’s report examining whether a bottle of Chateau Lafite 1787 bearing the initials “Th.J” was the property of Thomas Jefferson has been produced without change as Appendix A (page 313) in James Gabler’s “An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson: Dinner, Wine, and Conversation" (Bacchus Press, Palm Beach, Florida. 2006). Gabler himself discusses the “Th.J.” bottles with Jefferson himself (pages 125-131) in this imaginary dinner with Jefferson and Franklin using much of the information that Stanton obtained from Jefferson’s own recording of his life. The wealth of information available makes in highly unlikely that Jefferson ever purchased 1787 Lafite, let alone had the bottles engraved.

Gabler’s book itself in an instructive look at how two of the United States earliest aficionados of wine viewed wine and the world during their time. Admittedly the conversations recorded in the book are mostly from Gabler’s imagination but they are based on historical fact. The book can be hard going because it is one continuous discourse that lacks the relief that chapters would bring. In contrast his earlier book “Passions : The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson” (Bacchus Press, Baltimore, Maryland. 1995) is an entertaining and enlightening account of Jefferson’s travels through Europe and especially France’s wine regions of Burgundy, Rhone Valley, Bordeaux and Champagne, among others. Also included in the book is a wonderful wine Glossary together with pronunciations (page 303). This is a book that I highly recommend if you want to glimpse one wine life during that period.

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A Loaf of Bread, a Bottle of Wine……and a Clean Glass, please!

Date: Wed, Jan 20, 2010 Wine Tasting

What are your expectations when it comes to the cleanliness of wine glasses? Me, I like mine clean. I like to be able to see the wine rather than water spots and streaks. Every time I set out glasses for guests I check to see if they are clean and if they aren’t I clean them, individually. I want my guests to be able to appreciate the wine they are served not complain about dirty glassware. This does not seem to be the case at The Venetian in Las Vegas. We were there last week to celebrate the 65th birthday of a friend. We did the usual things, played the one arm bandits, took in a show and had a birthday dinner at the Bouchon. It was all great fun with lots of love and celebrations for the birthday boy.

On each of the two nights there were pre-festivity drinks and as Miranda and I had a hospitality suite we hosted the drinks before dinner at the Bouchon. All The Venetian had to do for us was provide about 20 wine glasses. We called to let them know this before we had lunch. We called again after we came back from lunch. And then we called again later as it began to approach the time for our guests to arrive. The excuse was that because we were not in the room the glasses could not be delivered; but that did not seem to stop the maid cleaning the room earlier in the day. Because we had to find an ice-machine to get enough ice keep the white wines cold, Miranda’s mother stayed in the room so that someone would be there to take possession of the glasses. Even getting ice was not all that simple as the ice-machine on our floor was broken. But when we returned the glasses were there, all 20 and all filthy with water streaks. What to do? It was too late to get the hotel staff to clean them. It had taken them hours just to get this mess to our room, so I cleaned them. It was a rush job but I got it done. And even then The Venetian charged us $24 for the privilege of drinking from their glasses.

The moral of this story? Never ask for glasses from room service. Instead seek out whoever is doing the housekeeping of your room and ask them if they can give you glasses from their supply. This is what other members of our group did for the gathering the night before. They got 18 clean glasses and no problems.

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A Little Bottle of Beer

Date: Tue, Jan 19, 2010 Wine Tasting

As I noted in a previous post I much prefer wine to beer, but a chance encounter last year has reinvigorated my interest in suds. And it was another chance discovery that uncovered a particularly nice Belgian beer made in the Trappist brewery of Abbey of St-Remy, in the southern part of Belgium. Miranda and I were returning a rented trailer we’d used to dump tree trimmings from the garden when we noticed Mesa Liquor and Wine Co advertising that they had Belgium beers. We must have driven by this place dozens of times and never noticed it. They have over 1,000 beers and so I was hopeful that I would find some vintage beer but the best they could do was some hard to get beers matured in old whiskey oak barrels. They also had the Trappistes Rochefort beers and I got a bottle of the "8" or Green Cap. The “8” pours deep brown in color with a generous head that fades fairly quickly. It’s a full-bodied, deeply flavored ale that really fills the mouth with creamy-smooth richness and an extraordinarily long finish. If it wasn’t for that fact that its over 9% ABV I could drink this little drop all day. Online tasting notes don’t really do the beer justice but it would be interesting to put a case down to see how it changes with age – if I could just figure out where the production date is on the bottle!

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Wine in London

Date: Sun, Oct 25, 2009 Wine Tasting

I'm sure there is a more sophisticated way to do this but I don't really care. A link to my Facebook page with pictures of some of our wine escapades in London in 2008......and no, my facebook page is not about wine.

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2010 Landmark Australia Tutorial

Date: Wed, Sep 23, 2009 Wine Tasting

A recent email from Lucy Anderson, Manager - International Marketing and Communications, Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, gave details of the 2010 Landmark Australia Tutorial. This is the second Landmark Tutorial and follows the highly successful 2009 event.

The media release, issued 18 September 2009, states…..

A Landmark return for the Australian wine industry

Following the internationally acclaimed, inaugural 2009 Landmark Australia Tutorial, Wine Australia is today announcing the 2010 Landmark Australia Tutorial will take place in the Yarra Valley in September next year.

For the first time, Wine Australia is inviting applications from Australia’s leading wine professionals to join the best and brightest opinion leaders from around the world in the five-day tutorial.

The intensive course consists of a series of tastings and themed master classes charting the development of Australia’s fine wine credentials says Wine Australia general manager of market development, Paul Henry.

“We are searching for the next generation of leading wine professionals who will help shape an informed awareness and opportunity for Australia’s regionally distinct and fine wines in their respective markets,” Mr Henry says.

The first Landmark Australia Tutorial was held over five days in the Barossa Valley in June this year. More than 1,000 initial enquiries were received with 12 participants chosen from Australia’s key export markets including the UK, US, Canada, Germany, Japan and China.

Julia Harding MW, one of the UK participants from the first tutorial said, “The 2009 Landmark Australian Tutorial gave me more information to back up my belief that Australian wine is much more varied than most people think and also can be a lot more subtle than its stereotype.”

Some of the leading figures in the Australian wine industry have again confirmed their commitment and involvement in the tutorial such as Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds and Robert Hill Smith, proprietor and vigneron, the Yalumba Wine Company.

Next year’s tutorial will take place in the Yarra Valley which, like the Barossa Valley, is a renowned tourism destination and one of the key wine regions in Australia allowing Wine Australia to yet again showcase the regional diversity and ‘terroir’ of its wines to an international audience.

“Developing a shared understanding of Australian excellence in the fields of wine, food and tourism is critical to the evolution of our future success on the world stage,” Mr Henry said.

Information about the tutorial can be found here and details of the application process can be found here.

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Australian Wine is Boring

Date: Thu, Aug 20, 2009 Wine Tasting

Perhaps its just because I’m Australian that I find myself scratching my head in frank puzzlement when someone says that “Australian wine is boring”. Its just so hard to believe. Such a statement cannot come from someone who has tasted across the diversity of Australian wines, can it? It must be because there has not been enough exposure because the variety that comes from 50 plus wine regions and thousands of wineries is simply mind boggling. How can I be sure? Well I’ve tasted wines from regions in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, The Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia, and Tasmania. Reds, whites, desserts, sparkling, warm climate, cool climate, high elevation, and low elevation, mass produced and exclusive boutique. With such variety its just too hard to make everything boring!

Who would say that French wine, or Italian wine or even Californian (let alone the whole of the USA) wine is boring? Wine from any country covers a spectrum from undrinkable to nectar, so how can one country’s contribution be boring. I suppose if you were just drinking a narrow spectrum of very similar wines then you might begin to think that everything tastes the same and get bored with the similarity. And its quite possible that if you buy your Australian wine outside the island continent that you do suffer from a lack of choice. Its also possible that some Aussie wines from South Australia especially those from Barossa and McLaren Vale do have a sameness about them. But isn’t that to be expected? Those two regions are not that dissimilar, especially when compared with the Grampians, or the Pyrenees, or Mornington Peninsula.

There actually is no simple way to get a true idea of the diversity of Australian wine without visiting the country itself. But the next best thing might be to look at what wines Australians collect. The Wine Ark among other things stores wine for Australian wine collectors and it has cellars in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Sunshine Coast and Perth. That means they cover the largest population areas of the country and so would have a pretty good sampling of what is popular in Australia. They have just surveyed the more than 3,000,000 bottles of wine in their cellars that comprise over 8500 collections across the country to discover Australia’s Most Collected Wine. It comes as no surprise that the most collected wine is Penfolds Grange but the other 49 wines in the top 50 are likely to raise some eyebrows especially here in the USA.

From my point of view the most interesting list is that of the Top 10 Collected Shiraz wines, seven of which come from South Australia which has all those hot nasty regions producing all those syrupy, goopy wines. I’ve tasted all ten wines with the exception of the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. You could do a whole lot worse than build a collection of Aussie Shiraz around the wines listed. Mind you I have only one in my cellar, the Penfolds St Henri Shiraz, but then I do have a bunch of other Shiraz that cover the full range of diversity if not regionality.

Here are the Top 10 Shiras by ranking and region.
1 Penfolds Bin 95 Grange Shiraz -Various Regions - SA
2 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz -Various Regions - SA
3 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz - Barossa Valley
4 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz - Various Regions - SA
5 d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz - McLaren Vale
6 Penfolds RWT Shiraz - Barossa Valley
7 Jasper Hill Georgia's Paddock Shiraz - Heathcote
8 Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz - Eden Valley
9 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier - Canberra District
10 Dalwhinnie Moonambel Shiraz - Pyrenees

The survey resulted in Top 10 Collected lists for Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Semillon. Take the lists to your favorite wine shop and see what they have. I’m currently drinking the 2005 Petaluma Piccadilly Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills of South Australia that I picked up for the ridiculous discounted price of $12.99USD.

A word of warning. Don’t rush out and buy the recent vintages of these wines to consume tonight because the list is of cellared wines which often show their best, depending upon the wine, after a few to many years of maturity. And remember this is just 60 or so of thousands upon thousands of wines, so if at first you don’t find what you like keep looking!

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Should Wine be Bottled like Beer? Part 2

Date: Thu, Aug 6, 2009 Wine Tasting

.........and then there is the other side of the coin where in order to go up market you make and bottle beer as though its Champagne!

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Should Wine be Bottled like Beer?

Date: Wed, Aug 5, 2009 Wine Tasting

In the most recent issue of Wines and Vines English wine writer Jamie Goode has a very readable article on Oxygen and Wine. Jamie covers several aspects including a research initiative being funded by Nomacorc, bottle closures and the technology being used to measure oxygen in wine. One of his conclusions is that the variability of oxygen pickup during bottling can be a significant problem for wine. But the most interesting point he discusses is that the beer industry has spent considerable time and effort to avoid the presence of oxygen in its product. In relating this to wine Jamie notes

George Crochiere gives some examples of the sorts of levels of oxygen that might be introduced to wine bottles during different filling procedures. In the worst-case scenario, a gravity-filled bottle sealed with a cork without any vacuum will pick up 2.6ppm oxygen during filling and have a further 1.8ppm oxygen in the headspace, giving a total of 4.4ppm.

If a vacuum filler is used and the headspace is evacuated, this figure will fall to just under 1ppm. If a screwcap is used and the bottle is filled using a vacuum filler, then pick-up in bottle filling is 0.6ppm. If liquid nitrogen dosing is used, headspace pickup is 0.7ppm; without this it is as high as 4.75ppm, giving an initial TPO (Total Pack Oxygen) of 5.36ppm. Crochiere points out that in the beer industry, the best-run bottling lines give oxygen pick-ups of between 0.05 and 0.15ppm, while average lines are 0.2-0.4ppm.

Obviously bottling under a vacuum and using a screwcap cuts the level of oxygen dramatically but not to the level of the best bottling achieved with beer. Even an average beer bottling line reaches levels that are better than the best wine practices. So why is wine not bottled like beer?

Clearly one argument is that we still don’t know what level of oxygen wine requires especially for maturation (cellaring). And we also don’t know whether different wines may need different levels of oxygen when placed in bottle. There are companies producing liners for screwcap that allow different levels of oxygen to pass. Different levels of oxygen, that does make the imagination wander. Just picture, one day Penfolds Grange may come in screwcaps of different colors. One color will signify a liner that allows little or no oxygen ingress/egress so you can cellar the wine for decades, another color may signify a liner that allow a little oxygen to enter so that maturation is hastened over a decade or less, and another may let in even more so that you can quaff your Grange as soon as you get it home from the wine store. And, of course, seeing as the Fosters Group makes both beer and wine your Grange for the cellar is likely to come with a twist top crown seal!

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