Fine wine and food merchants since 1989

More On Alcohol and IPOB

In an earlier blog I discussed the relationship between sugar and alcohol in making a wine. The higher the sugar levels in the grapes at harvest (Brix), the higher resulting alcohol in the wine. And the warmer the climate and the longer the hang time, the higher the sugar levels. I did not discuss whether there was a “right” level of alcohol for a given wine, except that a wine should try to achieve some balance between its alcohol and its other component parts. There is now a movement in California, made up of some vintners and sommeliers, called “In Pursuit of Balance” (IPOB), which believes that wines have become so ripe and alcoholic that they have lost their varietal identity. Their goal is to have American wines take a step in the direction of cooler climate European wines, meaning less alcohol and more acidity, where most of the local varietals originated.

James Laube wrote an editorial in the current edition of the Wine Spectator (Dim Somms 9/30/14) that was relatively critical of this movement and its fixation on one number – the alcohol level. He and many prestigious winemakers complain that the sommeliers are acting as gatekeepers and excluding any wines from restaurant wine lists that have an alcohol level above 14%. To quote Laube: “To be denied a place on a list based on alcohol level doesn’t sit well with many who make wine in warmer climates.”

Here is my take on the issue. For years I have been trying to decrease my alcohol consumption without decreasing my wine consumption. This is not an easy task with California wines. I also drink wine with a meal, not as a cocktail. As a result, I prefer the traditional wines of France and Italy, which are lower in alcohol, and where the higher acidity makes them pair better with food. Many of my friends in the wine industry are doing the same. Alcohol is just too hard on the body. I was recently with a winemaker in Napa who, although he makes a well know rich Chardonnay, said he personally only drinks White Burgundy from France. And he was not alone.

As a retail wine merchant, I try to find the best wines that mesh well with a given customer’s tastes. If this customer usually drinks wine before dinner or during a party or reception, a rich and fruit forward California wine may be just perfect. I do understand, however, how sommeliers in a restaurant setting feel a wine recommendation should make the meal taste better. And this is difficult with a port-like Zinfandel. Food craves acidity, not alcohol. So I can relate to their insistence on keeping the alcohol lower. I would respect my restaurant wine server more if she proposed a wine “in pursuit of balance.”

So what should we say to the people who make wines in warmer climates? I believe there are some winemaking practices that can give a slightly lower level of alcohol, like picking the grapes when they are less ripe. But the winemakers might say that these grapes are not yet ready from the point of view of extraction, phenolics, tannin, or color. I would then have to ask if they were possibly not growing the right grapes for that terroir or location. Much research in the wine world goes into finding the right grapes for the right place. And there has been a lot of success in pairing up these optimal combinations. But unfortunately, global warming, whatever the cause, is changing the attributes of traditional sites, making it something of a moving target. If I remember correctly Napa Cabernet was dryer and lower in alcohol in the 1980’s than it is today. Is that because of climate change, different winemaking priorities, or both? And if climate change is the culprit, what do you do about it? Can new winemaking techniques compensate for changing terroir?

I’ll finish this piece by saying I applaud the efforts to lower alcohol levels in wine, and the “in pursuit of balance” champions are at least bringing much needed attention to this issue.

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Acidity & pH

Acidity is one of the most important components in wine, as it affects a wine’s flavor, balance, texture, color, smell, and it is important in protecting it from undesirable bacteria. It is also one of the main characteristics that people respond to quite strongly, both positively and negatively. Those who say that they don’t like sour or tart wines usually want a wine with lower acidity. Those who like more acidity complain that low acid wines taste fat or flabby. One of the main measures of a wine’s acidity is its pH. This is a 14 point scale that measures a solution’s alkalinity or acidity. Water is neutral and has a pH of 7. Everything below 7 is acidic, and the lower the pH, the higher the acidity. Most white wines have a pH between 3.0 and 3.3, and red wines between 3.3 and 3.6. Remember that the lower the pH, the more acidic – and it is more acidic by a factor of 10. A pH of 3 is 10X more acidic than a pH of 4.

There is a second way acidity in wine is measured, and it is grams/liter – which gives you the percent of acidity found in a wine. It is related to pH. A California Chardonnay which has 5.8 grams acidity per liter (which is the same as 0.58%), would have a pH around 3.4. A Late Harvest Riesling may have 11.0 g/l (or 1.10%) acidity and a pH of 2.9. Interestingly, a lot of acid is required to balance out all of the sugar.

Grapes contain acids naturally, and thus the wines made from them contain acids as well. Grapes grown in cool climates (Europe) have higher acidity than grapes grown in warmer climates (California). This is just the opposite of sugar production: the warmer the climate, the higher the sugar. Three primary acids are found in wine grapes: tartaric, malic, and citric acids.

Tartaric acid is rare in other plants but abundant in grapes. During flowering, high levels of tartaric acid are concentrated in the grape flowers and then the young berries. While some tartaric acid is free standing in wine, the majority of it concentrates in potassium acid salt (tartrates). These tartrates can bind with other substances in the wine during fermentation (or after) and crystallize into tiny pieces that look like shattered glass. This sediment is harmless, and it is not a flaw. It forms on the bottom of the cork and sometimes falls to the bottom of the bottle. Since it is sometimes off-putting to the wine buyer, especially if it is an expensive wine, winemakers will sometimes intervene to force the crystallization through cold stabilization of the wine and then filtering these “wine diamonds” out. But, again, it is not a flaw, and it does not affect the taste of the wine. Just letting the bottle sit upright for an hour or so before drinking will let all of the tartrates fall to the bottom. Finally, if a winemaker needs to decrease the pH of the wine, extra tartaric acid can be added for balance.

Malic acid is found in nearly every fruit and berry, and its taste is very similar to green apples. It is often so strong that it needs to be softened through a process called malolactic fermentation (MLF). Almost all red wines naturally undergo MLF, and some white wines are prodded into a secondary malolactic fermentation through inoculating them with a bacteria. In the process malic acid (apples) is turned into lactic acid (milk), which is much softer and creamier. I used to be confused when a winemaker would tell me that a given white wine had seen 50% MLF. What this means is that one barrel of it had no MLF and the other did, and they were blended together.

Citric acid is plentiful in lemons and limes, but not so much in grapes. Most of it is consumed by bacteria during fermentation, leaving 5% or less of it than the tartaric acid in the wine. But it can impart a nuance of citrus to some wines.

This blog has been pretty technical so far. Now I want to take a more general view of acidity in wine. For me, wine isn’t real wine unless it has good acidity. It is the acidity that perks up the taste buds and makes food taste better. And I guess that since I am of Italian decent, wine for me is an experience only half lived if it does not accompany a great meal. I also find that low acid wines can slip down too fast, which can result in headaches the next day. With higher acid wines, their tartness makes me sip them more slowly. So many customers ask me why in America wine gives them headaches, while in Europe it doesn’t. For most the reason is simply alcohol: the European wines are lower in alcohol and the acidity makes you drink them more slowly.

But you don’t have to have the same tastes as I. There are great wines with lower acidity, and I sell many. But to find the right wine for the right person, the merchant needs to know more about the customer’s taste for acidity than just about any other preference. To sum up, acidity and tartness/sourness go hand in hand. But many customers use the adjective “bitter”, when they often mean sour. Wine can be slightly bitter at times, but this usually comes from the tannins in the wine. And this will be the segue into the topic for my next blog.

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Brix & Alcohol

To my knowledge there is no numeric measurement for fruit forwardness in a wine – you just have to taste it. Sometimes people will use the term “extraction” to try to communicate fruit forwardness: when a wine is called extracted, it is usually referring to richness (think of a sauce reduction in cooking – more flavor per volume), but fruit forwardness often plays a role. I said in the last blog that sweetness/residual sugar is measured in grams/liter, but very few winemakers share this number with the public. I don’t know why they don’t, but they should. I checked many wine spec sheets in preparing this blog, and I only found one that included residual sugar. It was an Oregon Pinot Gris that had RS of 9.6g/l – towards the highest (sweetest) end of what would be called a “dry” wine. But because of the wine’s high acidity it did not taste as sweet as I expected.

A different measure of sweetness, however, is commonly shared on most wines’ spec sheets, degrees Brix – and it refers to the sweetness of the grapes at harvest, not of the finished wine. Each degree of Brix means there is 1 gram of sugar for every 100 grams of liquid (grape juice), so it is similar to a percent. At this point it is important to remember that fermentation is the chemical process where sugar is turned into alcohol by yeasts. So Brix, or sugar at harvest, is the beginning inventory that ends up as a wine’s alcohol plus its final residual sugar. One of the most important decisions a winemaker makes is when to pick the grapes. And the grapes’ Brix is one of the main qualities monitored in determining the right time. The longer the hang time, the riper the grape, and the higher the sugar (Brix) – and usually, the higher the sugar, the higher the resulting alcohol. So if a winemaker wants to make a dry wine (say with less than 5g/l RS), and have a target alcohol of 15%, he will pick the grapes at around 27 Brix (later); if the target alcohol is 12% he would pick the grapes at around 22 Brix (sooner). There are other qualities in grapes that are monitored to determine when to pick, and if the sun, moon, and stars come together, these qualities plus the Brix are optimal at the same time. Phenolics come into play here, but we will save this discussion for another blog.

Now what if the weather is cold one year and the grapes never get to a high enough Brix? In certain parts of the world where this occurs fairly regularly, like some regions of France, Germany, and the U.S., it is permitted to add some sugar to the unfermented grape must (juice), which is called Chaptalization. This is not to increase a wine’s sweetness, but to get a higher level of resulting alcohol. Chaptalization is prohibited, however, in Argentina, Australia, Austria, California, Italy, and South Africa.

As an aside, have you ever wondered why only grapes are used to make fine wine and not other fruit? The reason is that only grapes have a high enough level of natural sugar (and liquid) to complete the fermentation process without adding outside sugar. And if you have ever eaten them, wine grapes are much sweeter and richer than the Thompson seedless grapes you get to eat at home. And the seed content of wine grapes is too high to market them as an edible fruit.

One last story. A few years ago I wanted to decrease my consumption of alcohol, so I started to look for wines with lower levels of alcohol. I had heard that many German Rieslings had alcohol levels from 6%-9% (compared to the 13%-16% of most California wines), and, since I am not interested in drinking sweet wines on a daily basis, I was glad to discover that there were some very dry German Rieslings. But my quest was frustrated when I found out that the dry Rieslings had 12% or more alcohol. To become dry, the fermentation had to continue until almost all of the sugar was converted into alcohol; to keep the alcohol low, the fermentation had to be stopped well before all of the sugar was converted – leaving it quite sweet.

High alcohol has become a big problem for winemakers, especially in California. Longer hang times, warmer summers, more efficient yeasts can lead to levels above 16%. There are ways to intervene to remove alcohol from finished wine, such as reverse osmosis and the use of centrifuges. But with these practices we are getting into the area of wine manipulation, which is often frowned upon. This too will be the subject of a future discussion.

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Fruit-Forwardness & Sweetness

One of the most challenging concepts to get many of my customers to understand is the difference between sweetness and fruit-forwardness in a wine. While these two qualities can go hand in hand, it is not always the case. Sweetness comes from the residual sugar (RS) present in a wine, and it can be chemically quantified. The natural sugar in grapes is turned into alcohol in the process of fermentation, and the winemaker can control when to stop fermentation to achieve the right balance between RS and alcohol. RS is measured in grams /liter: up to 3g/l can be considered “very dry” (almost imperceptible); up to 10 g/l “dry”; 10-30 g/l “off dry”; over 30 g/l “sweet”. Most of the wines I sell in my store have RS of less than 10 g/l, so they would be called dry. But an individual’s perception of sweetness is influenced by a number of factors. One factor is the individual’s palate and how many taste buds one has to sense sugar. Another factor involves the other characteristics present in the particular wine. For example, a wine that is very high in acid can support a higher level of RS without tasting sweet. Conversely, a wine that does not have much acid may come off as slightly sweet, even though it has a relatively low level of RS.

Fruit-forwardness describes the various fruit flavors (blackberries, cherries, apple, pear, pineapple, lemon,…), which come from the different grapes (not additives) used to make a wine. And these flavors need not be sweet. If you make three different glasses of lemonade (squeezing one lemon in each), and you put no sugar in one, one teaspoon of sugar in another, and three teaspoons in the third, they would all be equally “lemony” (fruit forward). But their sweetness would vary. If you have ever tasted unsweetened cranberry juice, you know how sour and unsweet a drink can be, but you can still get the strong cranberry fruit taste blindfolded. Similarly, you could vary the amount of lemon juice in each glass in our example above, but add the same amount of sugar to each glass. Then the fruit-forwardness would vary, but the RS would be the same for each glass.

So when customers come in and say they want a dry Chardonnay, I need to ask some questions to calibrate what dry means to them. If they say they like Rombauer Chardonnay, I then know that they do like some noticeable RS in their wine. If they say a particular Napa Cabernet is too sweet, then they are probably saying it is too fruit forward – and maybe the RS is slightly higher and the acidity lower than in those cabs they like. With the right kind of feedback I can find pleasing wines for just about everyone.

In general, wines from France and Italy (Old World) have less residual sugar, are less fruit forward, and are higher in acid than California (New World) wines – which make them a better complement to food. That is why some California wine drinkers find European wines too dry. Conversely, European wine drinkers often find American wines too sweet, even though this is not just a question of residual sugar, but also the lower acidity and extracted fruit-forwardness which is making the sugar stand out more. We will dig a little deeper into this in the next Blog.

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Piazza’s Wine Experience – Old World v. New World

Happy New Year to you all! I hope your holiday season was full of lasting memories.

When we last left off, I discussed how you can train your palate to be more sensitive to nuance in wine and food. This is particularly important in appreciating the Old World wines of France and Italy. Old World wines are intentionally higher in acid and less fruit forward. Why is this? It is cultural, and it centers on the centuries old tradition of appreciating wine as a complement to a meal. Italians drink more wine per capita than any culture in the world – and they almost never drink wine outside of a meal. It is like a food group, and it plays a supporting role. For this reason there is no minimum age for drinking wine in Italy. New World wines, on the other hand, want center stage, and I find that they can compete with the food for primary attention. Americans often drink wine like a cocktail before dinner or at parties, and in this setting New World wines work very well. And they can sometimes pair well with certain foods. Zinfandel, for example, can complement barbecue because both the food and wine are screaming at you. But some of the peak wine experiences for me are Old World wines with Old World cuisine. As I have said before, it is the classical music of the wine world.

The one practice the Europeans follow to make their wines more food friendly is simply that they pick the grapes when they are less ripe. I’m sure you have bought Thompson seedless grapes at the grocery store. And I’m sure you have found that sometimes they are firmer and tarter, and other times they are softer and sweeter. This is all a question of ripeness. If the wine critic, Robert Parker, did one thing, it was to convince the wine world to let grapes hang on the vine longer so that they get sweeter and richer. To a point this was a good thing, but many believe that it went too far and needs a correction. Someone once told me that Americans tend towards these rich, low-acid, fruit bombs because our culture grew up on milk and Coca Cola – and it wasn’t skimmed milk either! Unfortunately, longer hang time leads to more sugar which leads to higher alcohol. This is why Old World wines are usually lower in alcohol. Interestingly, I have had many customers ask me why wine gives them headaches at home, but not when they are on vacation in Italy or France. There are numerous possible reasons for this, but lower alcohol content is the primary one. Also, most people don’t drink dry tart wines as fast as smooth rich ones – and in Europe the drinking is spread out over a long meal. I don’t want to sound like a European wine snob. I like all kinds of diverse wines just as I enjoy all kinds of diverse music. Bill Evans, Billy Joel, and Maurice Ravel are all wonderful composers of their respective genres of music. So I can admit that a rich Shiraz can go very well with Australian lamb. But try to keep the alcohol below 17%, thank you very much. I have to go to work tomorrow.

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Piazza’s Wine Experience – Refining Your Palate

The last time I tried to explain how wine appreciation is a function of both the wine and the palate of the taster. Now I will try to explain how anyone can refine his or her palate with some simple changes of habits. I’ll start with two non-wine examples. One of my bad habits has been an over use of salt. So I have often made the effort to cut back on it. It doesn’t take long for me to then start picking up more flavors in my food and realizing a little salt can go a long way. Conversely, increased use of salt seems to require more and more salt for the same taste experience. When the music is soft, the taste buds learn to “listen” harder. As the volume goes up, the taste buds start covering their ears.

A few years ago my wife and I started cutting down on butterfat in our milk. I now use 0% fat milk, and she uses 1% or 2%. Recently I ran out of my milk, and when I tried her 2% it tasted like half-and-half used to taste to me. I had recalibrated my palate to be much more sensitive to butterfat. By the way, butterfat in milk is often used as a comparable experience to extraction and richness in wine.

So what is my point in relation to wine appreciation? One of the great divisions in the wine industry is New World wines (U.S., Australia, Latin America) versus Old World wines (France and Italy). With my Cincinnati clientele the general preference has always leaned towards New World wines. This is fine, as there are many great wines in this group. But I feel my customers are depriving themselves of some of the world’s greatest wine treasures from Europe. Therefore, as their merchant I feel it is my duty to try to expand their horizons.

The major differences between these two groups of wines revolve around a few attributes: fruit forwardness; extraction/richness; alcohol; tannins; and acidity. New World wines tend to be higher in the first three qualities and lower in the last two; Old World wines are just the opposite. I often use musical analogies in highlighting these differences. This is a gross generalization, but for me American wines can be thought of as louder rock music, while French wines are like softer classical music. And the reactions of the fans of the first group to the second group are remarkably similar: Bordeaux wines all taste alike; all chamber music sounds the same. No they don’t! It is just that their palates have not been trained to appreciate the nuance of Bordeaux wines. And I, of course, feel it is well worth the energy and effort to pursue this training. Stick with me and we will start cutting down on salt and butterfat!

The next time we will examine more closely the different attributes of New and Old World wines. There is one main reason why they manifest such differences and it is cultural – and intentional.

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Piazza’s Wine Experience

For over 22 years I have been involved in the wine industry, always on the retailing side. This has afforded me the opportunity to observe a vast array of consumer approaches to wine and its enjoyment.  The questions, attitudes, tastes, and interests communicated over the years have been as diverse as the individuals behind them.  But I have noted threads of continuity among their various reactions, and these will form the starting points for my personal perspectives on the appreciation of wine.

My first topic deals with the difference between the absolute and the relative in understanding wine.  The only thing absolute about a particular wine is a scientific chemical analysis of its component parts.  Alcohol, pH, residual sugar, titrates, phenolics, sulfites are measured, and it doesn’t matter who is taking the readings.  The circle is just drawn around the bottle of wine, and everything inside of the circle is analyzed.

Wine appreciation, however, is relative.  The attributes of the person tasting are as important as the attributes of the wine.  The circle is drawn around the taster and the wine together.  And here is my main point: the successful wine merchant should not only know about the wine, but he should also profile the tastes and palate of the customer to make the best possible recommendations.  This requires of the merchant four parts listening to one part talking, which I think is rare in our industry.

All of us have at least slightly different palates, taste buds, olfactory sensitivity, chemicals in our mouths, and receptors in our brains.  So what I experience with a given wine will be at least a little different than what you may experience with the same wine.  Often, I hope, it is a similar experience, but sometimes the difference can be great.  It has been my observation that women have a more acute sense of taste and smell than men, and they often pick up more flavors, positive and negative, than I do.  Then I have to start asking questions: what have you eaten or drunk recently, were you chewing gum, are you hungry, tired, did you just put on some perfume…?  Mint is death to all wine appreciation, and Altoids can kill your palate for hours.  There is a saying in our industry: buy on bread, sell on cheese.  This is because strong flavors in what you are eating can mask imperfections in wine.  Not that I ever try to sell an imperfect wine by offering cheese first!  But if you have just had a cup of coffee, a little piece of cheese may help bring your palate back to reality.

These missteps leading up to tasting wine are things that are easily avoided if you are aware of them.  There is, however, a longer term re-training of the palate which is possible with the right guidance that helps you “listen harder” to the flavors in a wine.  This will be the subject of my next perspective.


Welcome to the blog of Piazza Discepoli, where the owners will annouce the latest news from our stores as well as share some observations from the world of wine - and more!