jamie goode's wine blog

Monday, January 04, 2010

Wine personality of the decade? The screwcap

As the recent online survey on the excellent Dr Vino blog has demonstrated rather well (IMHO), it’s very hard to pick one single person who deserves to win this award. So my vote goes to a thing, not a person. And that thing is the screwcap.

10 years ago cork was performing pretty badly. Cork taint was a big issue, and the Australians were also getting cross about a phenomenon called random oxidation, caused by the variable nature of oxygen transmission by poor quality corks.

The only alternative to cork was the new but rather poorly performing plastic cork, and that wasn’t winning too many friends. So cork producers had little motivation to up their game, because they enjoyed what was effectively a monopoly situation.

The major breakthrough came in 2000, when a bunch of Clare Valley producers formed a coalition to release their Rieslings under screwcap. This initiative, and the publicity that ensued, changed the closures market forever.

As the results from the Australian Wine Research Institute’s Closures Trial, initiated in 1999, began to appear, they showed that screwcaps kept the wine fresher and fruitier for longer than any of the other closures available, including natural cork.

The adoption of screwcaps by the Australian and New Zealand producers was almost immediate. With the tin/saranex liner, screwcaps now seal the vast majority of bottles in these two countries. Of the estimated 18 billion bottles of wines sealed each year, screwcaps now account for over 2 billion (synthetic corks have also done well, and account for around 4 billion).

But screwcaps aren’t the perfect closure. Currently there are just two liners used: tin/saranex and saranex only. The first, the one used almost exclusively in Australia and New Zealand, allows very little oxygen transmission at all (probably not enough), and the second a little more than an average natural cork: ideally, we’d like a liner with intermediate properties.

And they haven’t been widely accepted in all markets. But what they have done is change the closures market completely. Were it not for screwcaps, it’s unlikely the cork industry would have implemented the quality control measures that they have. And it is unlikely that we’d have seen the rise of alternative closures such as Diam, Vino-Lok and the improved new generation synthetic corks. It is only since they've been widely used that we've started to get to grips with post-bottling wine chemistry.

The noughties have definitely been the decade of the screwcap.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ampelography: Gouais Blanc is Chardonnay's mum

A paper published today has shown that the lowly variety Gouais Blanc is the mother of some very important grape varieties, including Chardonnay and Gamay Noir.

The paper (A banned variety was the mother of several major wine grapes; Harriet V. Hunt, Matthew C. Lawes, Mim A. Bower, John W. Haeger and Christopher J. Howe; Biology Letters) is freely available on the net if you are interested.

The fact that crosses between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir resulted in a number of varieties from eastern France has been known for a while. Back in 1999, a paper by John Bowers and colleagues in leading journal Science showed that this cross has resulted in the following varieties:

Aligote, Aubin vert, Auxerrois, Bachet noir, Beaunoir, Chardonnay, Dameron, Franc noir de la Haute Saöne, Gamay blanc, Gloriod, Gamay noir, Knipperle, Melon, Peurion, Romorantin, Roublot and Sacy.

The significance of the new paper is that it identifies which variety (Gouais or Pinot) provided the pollen (the father) and which was the mother vine in each of the crosses (or, at least, the 12 that were studied). The authors addressed this by examining the chloroplast DNA.

Chloroplasts are like mitochondria in that both of these organelles contain their own DNA. All your mitochondria were inherited from your mother; in the grape vine, in addition to maternal inheritance of mitochondria, there is maternal inheritance of chloroplasts, all of which come from the maternal side.

This means that the way the cross occurs matters. The characteristics of the mother are a little more important than those of the father. And, interestingly, the lesser grape in the crossing, the reviled Gouais, is the mother in most of these crossings.

Gouais is the mother for: Aligoté, Auxerrois, Bachet, Chardonnay, Franc noir, Gamay noir, Melon, Romorantin and Sacy.

Pinot is the mother for: Aubin vert, Knipperlé and Roublot.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Precision viticulture in the news

Interesting to see the BBC news site pick up on a story about English winegrowers using precision viticulture.

It's not really new technology - it has been around for a while, and I wrote a chapter on it in my wine science book (happy to send this chapter to anyone who is interested - email me). But it's a sign of the progress being made in the UK wine industry that people are thinking of applying it here.

How does it work? The principal behind PV is to understand the natural variability in your vineyard and then work with it. In a sense, growers have always done this: they've noticed blocks that reach ripeness earlier, for example, or have struggled with particular disease pressures. The new tools make this sort of zoning much quicker and more precise.

Satellite imagery at appropriate points in the growing season, using a range of wavelengths of light, can be used to generate what's called an NDVI (normalized differential vegetation index, so effectively what is being measured is vigour), and with some computer processing, you can make a map of your vineyard showing the homogeneous blocks (that is, the ones that are similar). If these are similar year-on-year, you can then treat these blocks differently, and pick them at different times. The result is improved quality. It's terroir in action.

Another way of doing this, when you have a large vineyard that is mechanically harvested, is to use a yield monitor on your harvester, together with a GPS system.

In the UK, most vineyards are small enough that you can walk round them a number of times during the season and see what is going on. I'd be surprised if there was a huge need for remote imagery, but it is a really powerful technique that can raise quality in more commercial vineyards.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Wrestling with tannins


Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a strong interest in the language of wine. I find it fascinating that in the wine trade we frequently share our own private, conscious experiences of specific wines with others.

This, of course, requires that we develop a vocabulary for describing the taste and smell of wine (although I do know of a colleague whose tasting notes are embellished with a small graphic showing the ‘shape’ of the wine). It’s actually remarkably difficult to translate flavour perception into words in a way that is meaningful to others. Frequently, we achieve this by means of a code language, learnt through tasting with others in a structured manner. Part of wine education is, I suspect, learning this code.

In this codified language, the term ‘tannin’ crops up on a regular basis. Indeed, it’s probably the most common descriptor in tasting notes of red wines. Tannins can be soft, silky, smooth, harsh, green, velvety, coarse, rustic, fine-grained and even ‘filigree’. By using the term ‘tannin’, which is actually a chemical term, albeit an imprecisely defined one, tasters are making an assumption about the chemical entity that is causing this particular aspect of flavour perception.

However, I strongly suspect that most of the tasters using this term only have a vague understanding of what tannins are in a chemical sense. Do the many varieties of tannin described by tasters correspond with chemical realities? Or is this an example of a code in which the chemical term is merely borrowed?

One question that we should probably address is whether the link between perception and chemistry is important. Does it matter that tasters use chemical terms without these corresponding to what is occurring in the wine?

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Parker and neuroscience

Thanks to fellow blogger Tyler Colman for bringing to my attention an interesting post by Jonah Lehrer on his blog The Frontal Cortex. He argues that the sensory limitations of the human brain make a nonsense of a serious belief in the 100 point scale.

He states:
The underlying assumption behind such point scores is that the taste of a wine is merely the sum of our inputs. But that's wrong: we can't quantify a wine by trying to listen to our tongue. This is because what we experience is not what we sense. Rather, experience is what happens when our senses are interpreted by our subjective brain, which brings to the moment its entire library of personal memories and idiosyncratic desires....Before you can taste the wine you have to judge it.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

New Scientist launch wine club with a twist

Respected popular science magazine New Scientist have launched a new wine club, with a distinctive scientific twist to it. It is being run in conjunction with the Colchester Wine Company.

'Every organ has their wine club,' explained editor Roger Highfield. 'We talked to Hugo Rose and he came up with 18 wines we could tell a science story behind.' Roger and his colleagues had a tasting, and selected six for the initial launch, which is in the current issue of the magazine (cover dated 17 October).

The wines come with both regular tasting notes and also some scientific insight for each one. 'It's a bit of fun,' says Highfield.

The wines are as follows (with the science hook in brackets)
  • 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, McCorkindale, Marlborough, New Zealand (talking about methoxypyrazines, the natural chemical responsible for green herbal/grassy/green pepper flavours)
  • 2008 Colombard, Plaimont, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne (discussing the benefits of cold fermentations/temperature control)
  • 2007 Montagny 1er Cru, Olivier Leflaive, Burgundy (introducing umami, the fifth taste)
  • 2001 Rioja Reserva, Bodegas Murua, Rioja (talking about wine evolution and oak ageing)
  • 2007 Nero d'Avola, MandraRossa, Sicilia (discussing the concept of physiological ripeness)
  • 2005 Laudun, Château Courac, Southern Rhone (introducing tannins and polyphenols)
This initial case is being offered to readers at £95, with two bottles of each wine.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Reduced alcohol wines: time for a new category?

Today in London there's a forum on low alcohol wines. Technology such as the spinning cone and reverse osmosis mean that it's now possible to reduce the alcohol level of finished wines without damaging the wine flavours all that badly. And with the recent media push towards lower alcohol wines, could we be seeing the birth of a new category of wine here, with reduced levels of alcohol?

One of the leading companies operating in this area is called TFC Wines, who already have a low alcohol wine called Sovio on the market. It's a 5.5% Sparkling White Zinfandel, which can't legally be called wine (it's described as 'made with White Zinfandel'), and it's £4.99 in Tesco.

Perhaps more interesting to wine lovers are their other wines, which have alcohol contents of 8, 9 and 11%. I've met with their winemakers and tried their wines, and come away quite impressed.

There's also a French producer, Domaines Auriol, who have recently launched a range of three wines from the Languedoc at 9% alcohol. Here, a modified form of reverse osmosis has been used to bring the alcohol levels down.

While techniques that reduce alcohol in a finished wine seem quite manipulative, the results are much better than those obtained by picking grapes very early, which is used for some of the lower alcohol wines found on supermarket shelves.

I wrote quite a long piece on this for Wine Business International. An updated version of this, with some new material, is available here.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Champagne bubbles in the news

A scientific paper in journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA), published tomorrow morning (embargoed until 8pm today), looks at the nature of the bubbles in Champagne and sparkling wines.

As they rise to the surface, they aerosolize, carrying very fine droplets bearing flavour molecules, which we can then smell. The authors of this paper identified the compounds present in these fine aerosols, showing that they are important in the perception of fizz.

There's a nice BBC news story on this here, which I contributed to.

The actual research paper is:

Gerard Liger-Belair, Clara Cilindre, Regis D. Gougeon, Marianna Lucio, Istvan Gebefugi, Philippe Jeandet, and Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin 2009 Unraveling different chemical fingerprints between a champagne wine and its aerosols. PNAS 106: 16545–16549

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Victoria Moore's Guardian column goes technical

Respect to Guardian wine columnist Victoria Moore for putting some hardcore technical material on screwcaps into her most recent piece here. She's done her research, and as a good journalist hasn't just trotted out the party line, but formed her own opinion.

Unfortunately, she's been let down by her subs. As well as putting the price for Lawson's Dry Hills Riesling in at £1.99 (didn't they think to check this rather low figure?), they've also changed the last sentence in the third from last paragraph and reversed the meaning - see whether you can spot this!

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Rotundone: a chemical in wine responsible for pepper aromas

The Australian Wine Research Institute is responsible for some of the best wine research currently being done. One recent, newsworthy project has been the identification of a compound responsible for pepperiness in Australian Shiraz. Called rotundone, it is found in lots of herbs and vegetables, and it’s incredibly potent. For example, just 5 mls of rotundone would be enough to make all wine in Australia taste spicy. Finding it in wine is tricky, though, because of this potency: it’s like trying to identify one person out of six billion. Technically speaking, rotundone is a sesquiterpene.

The aim of this research? It’s to provide Australian winemakers or viticulturalists with the management techniques to be able to moderate spiciness in their wines. However, it’s also of interest that a proportion of people – as many as a fifth – simply can’t smell rotundone. This is one of the most fascinating of all the findings to me. The AWRI researchers state:
Whereas most of the sensory panelists were sensitive to rotundone, approximately
20% could not detect this compound, even in water, at the highest concentration tested (4000 ng/L). Thus, the sensory experience of two consumers enjoying the same glass of Shiraz wine or sharing the same meal seasoned with pepper might be very different. The variation in individual sensitivity to rotundone suggests that the way wines containing this compound are assessed by consumers or wine judges could vary substantially from one person to another. Similarly, the flavor perception of ground pepper might vary considerably among consumers. This is supported by the common practice of pepper being placed on the table or offered to individuals by restaurant waiters

You can access the original research papers here and here.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Wine closures: do we need a new screwcap liner?

In short, yes.

Screwcaps are great, but in all the discussion on the topic (which has generated a lot of heat), one thing people keep forgetting is that the screwcap is not the closure. It's merely a way of keeping a liner (the actual closure) in apposition to the bottle rim. A crown cap does the same.

Now this sounds geeky and pedantic, but it's actually incredibly important. The gas transmission properties of the liner are crucial, because this determines how much oxygen gets into the wine after bottling.

There are two liners used for wine. The most commonly encountered is one with a metal (tin) layer in its construction, as well as a layer of saranex, which allows very little oxygen transmission. This is the one used in Australia and New Zealand almost exclusively.

The other is saranex-only. This allows more oxygen transmission, by a factor of 10. It's commonly used in Europe, especially for more commercial wines.

How does cork compare? Corks vary in their oxygen transmission (OTR) properties, but typically they fall somewhere between the tin/saran liner and the saranex-only. For the technical minded, Jim Peck of G3 in California has published the following guideline figures based on his research with a technique known as MOCON.

Typical OTRs in air (cc Oxygen/closure per day)
Screwcap, tin/saran liner 0.0001
Screwcap, saranex liner 0.001
Natural cork 0.0005
Synthetic cork 0.005

What are the implications of these figures? Do we want any closure OTR? The answer seems to be yes, just a little, to avoid problems with sulfur compounds (reduction). Othwerwise, as little as possible seems to give the best results for most wines.

The tin/saran liner is risky. It doesn't really allow enough OTR to reduce the risk of reduction to an acceptable level. Winemakers often have to resort to copper fining when they use this closure, which isn't ideal. Otherwise, it's great for shelf life and keeping wines fresh for a long time.

The saranex liner is great for wines that are going to be drunk in the first three to five years after bottling. But it's not really suitable for wines that will be cellared for longer.

So we have a need for a liner with properties somewhere between the two, and this is just what Jim Peck and his colleagues at G3 have been working on. Their solutions? Microperforations in the tin layer of the liner.

They have developed a mathematical formula that allows them to predict the level of OTR depending on how many perforations are made and where they are located. This could be great news for winemakers who are currently unprepared to switch to screwcaps because of the risk of reduction, or for winemakers already using screwcaps who are unhappy making the foot fit the slipper in terms of preparing their wines differently to suit the closure they are bottling with.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

VLOG on closures

Here's me talking for 10 minutes on the subject of wine bottle closures. And there is still so much that I didn't have time to say!


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Saturday, February 07, 2009

How consistent are wine reviewers?

Interesting article in the Telegraph titled Consumers warned over consistency of wine reviews. It's based on a survey undertaken at the California State Fair wine competition at Sacramento, in which the judges were assessed for the reliability of their palates. You can read the original article from the Journal of Wine Economics here.

Tasting wine blind in competition settings is difficult, and few do it really well. It's important we know how reliable tasters are in these sorts of settings, because then we know what sort of confidence we can have in the results.

This is the first time I've seen these sorts of data collected, and the results are quite sobering. If we, as the 'wine trade', are to be taken seriously, then these are the sorts of studies we should be encouraging.

How about doing this sort of exercise at the International Wine Challenge, or the Decanter World Wine Awards? Or entering exactly the same wine into the competition under several different names? We should be eager to see how well we are doing, because this would reassure us, or help us improve.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

In Sweden

I'm in Stockholm today and tomorrow. It's my first trip to the land of Sven Goran Eriksson and Abba, and it's been great so far.

My role is to assist with the launch of some wines in new packaging: multilayer PET (a sort of plastic) with a plastic (Novatwist) screwcap and a special label material, making it all fully recyclable. I'm here in a technical capacity as a neutral closures/wine packaging expert to discuss issues such as oxygen transmission, migration and carbon footprints.

The wines themselves are made by Mitchelton, and they're pretty good. Really good, even. But the real interest here is this innovative packaging solution.

This afternoon I met with Claes Lofgren (http://www.winepictures.com/) and Johan Bostrom in the offices of Wine World, and then this evening Claes, Johan and I were joined by Bengt-Goran Kronstam (publisher of Alt Om Vinj) and Catharina Forsell of Wine World for dinner.

We ate at the Food Bar of Mathias Dahlgren, one of Sweden's top chefs, and the food was fantastic. It was washed down well with some lovely wines, including a brilliant Clos St Denis Grand Cru 2005 from Lucien Le Moine, which should really not have been drunk for another decade, but which hinted strongly of greatness to come.
Tomorrow I'm doing a presentation for the Systembolaget, then a radio interview, then I'm heading for home.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

On tour in France (2) Macon and Saumur

The Lallemand tour continues. It's the next best thing to being in a band. We show up in town, check in to our hotel, have dinner together and then the next day we do our gig, finishing early afternoon. Then we pile into the tour bus and drive to the next destination.

Day 2 was Macon, where we did our seminar at the Lycee Agricole in Davaye. It really is beautifully sitauted, in the middle of the rather beautiful vineyards of Pouilly-Fuisse and Saint Veran (pictured above and below - two of the shots were taken in the early morning sun). I never realized just how attractive this region was. The room we were meeting in was the Salle de Jules Chauvet, named after the famous wine scientist who these days is celebrated as the father of natural wine.

After the seminar we had a five-and-a-half hour drive to Saumur, where we are today. We dined very well last night at 'La Reine de Sicile' on rue Waldeck-Rousseau. Really nice food washed down with Saumur wines, both white and red. I'm shortly about to give my presentation for the third time, so I'm hoping my delivery will be almost perfect!

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Monday, January 19, 2009

On tour in France

I'm spending this week on tour in France with Lallemand, a yeast company. They're holding a series of seminars in various locations, and the topic this time is oxidation and reduction.

I took the 0755 flight from Gatwick to Toulouse where I met up with everyone, and we then drove to Nimes for the first seminar, which will be tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

PROP tasting and the 'supertaster' hypothesis questioned

Some of you will be familiar with the PROP/supertaster story, which I've written about a fair bit in the past. It's the intriguing observation that people can be split into three groups by their ability to taste a bitter compound called propylthiouracil (PROP), and that this separation is genetic in its origin. The idea goes that we live in rather different taste worlds, and that while this result is specific to PROP and bitter tasting chemicals such as quinine, it also affects taste intensity more generally. Thus there are non-tasters, supertasters (or hypertasters) and then the group in the middle.

I've tried to apply all this psychophysical work to wine - in fact, this was a theme in the first ever feature I wrote for Harpers, when I was starting out as a paid wine writer in 2002.

But new research is calling into question the general significance of PROP taster status. It may be that this is more accurately seen as a specific aguesia (inability to taste). You can read the abstract of a recent study here.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

A short position statement on closures

So what's my current position on wine bottle closures? [This is a lenghy post I've just made to an online wine forum, in response to another post.]

There's no such thing as a perfect closure. It's about choosing the best closure available for your wine. If it were a simple matter of 'sealing' a bottle to stop liquid coming out, then of course there would be no excuse for continuing to use cork. There are a range of alternative wine bottle closures that are taint free. Take your pick.

But what we've learned - largely through the adoption of alternatives to cork - is that the oxygen transmission properties of the closure matter. And the precise level of oxygen transmission will affect the way the wine develops after bottling.

For an inexpensive wine that's likely to be drunk within a year or two after release, it's nuts to use natural cork, because cheap natural cork is nasty and carries a risk of taint. For these wines, synthetic corks, screwcaps with a saranex-only liner (there are two different liners for screwcaps, one of which allows very little oxygen transmission - the tin/saran - and one which allows more - saranex only) or Diam represent good alternatives.

Microagglomerates that have been steam-cleaned are also a good bet, although do carry a small risk of taint, as do steam-cleaned one-plus-ones (two discs of natural cork sandwiching an agglomerate core).

For more expensive wines that may be cellared, then it becomes more tricky. I'd say for high end, ageable wines then natural cork bought from the most quality-minded cork producers is the best option. This is because we like the way that wine develops under good natural corks.

I'm personally not keen on the tin/saran liner used widely for screwcaps. It just doesn't allow enough oxygen transmission. This means that there's a risk of reductive problems post-bottling (although the exact nature of this risk hasn't yet been quantified). It also means that the wine will develop differently to the way it develops under cork. Will it be better? How lucky do you feel?

Synthetic corks have developed quite a bit over the last decade to the point where they are claiming really good oxygen transmission characteristics. I'd like to see independent data on this. Likewise with Vino-Lok, the glass closure where the seal is by means of a plastic 'O' ring. It's certainly a functional and good looking closure.

Diam may prove suitable for long-ageing wines. I'm sure it's good for 10 years, because the Altec (the tainted predecessor using the same mechanical design) has shown the physical integrity of the closure is fine after this time.

Finally, a plea - let's try to be as informed as possible when we discuss this complex business of closures. I've found the whole debate to be unessecarily polaized in the past, with people splitting off into factions, and spouting propaganda at each other. For example, when we talk about 'screwcaps', let's remember that the screwcap isn't the closure, but merely a way of holding the liner in apposition to the rim of the bottle. It's the liner that determines the oxygen transmission properties of the closure.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shipping in flexitank

If you are going to ship wine, there are two ways of doing it. One is to bottle at source and then ship the bottles. The other is to ship the wine in bulk, and then bottle nearer to the destination market. For wines from the new world, quite a bit of UK or European bottling takes place these days, and it needn't be detrimental to quality if the wine is handled well during the critical points during the process - the transfers.

One of the things I saw today was the unloading of a 25 000 litre flexitank which had been shipped to France from Chile. This is now the standard way of shipping wine: a 25 000 litre flexitank is like a huge bag-in-box - it's a single-use skin that's placed inside a standard shipping container and is filled with wine. When it reaches the port, it's loaded onto a lorry and then at the bottling facility it is transferred to tank, ready for bottling. Pictured are (from top) the lorry unloading the flexitank; then the flexitank itself inside the container, almost empty; then the punp, with a meter for measuring the dissolved oxygen in the incoming wine; then the microbullage device that injects bubbles of nitrogen into the wine that prevents any oxygen pick-up during the transfer process.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wine Science in Japanese

Here's a review that Ken Ohashi kindly sent me of the Japanese edition of Wine Science. Apparently, it's a very good review and the book gets three glasses (out of three). How cool is that?

You can still buy the US version of Wine Science here. In the UK it's sold out, and the lastest news is that Mitchell Beazley are working out costings for print on demand.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Striking Kiwi Sauvignon

A distinctive New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc - not from Marlborough, the region normally associated with Kiwi Sauvignon, but from nearby Nelson. This shows perfectly the passion fruit character that is often part of the aroma of Sauvignon, which comes from a chemical that belongs to a group known as 'thiols'. Thiols are sulfur-containing compounds that are quite important in wine flavour chemistry - wine science geeks will know that as well as being positive, in some contexts they can contribute to the fault known commonly as 'reduction'.

Brightwater Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Nelson, New Zealand
Remarkably forward, aromatic passion fruit nose that's quite tropical, and slightly 'sweaty'. The palate is broad and quite rich with tropical fruit and a grassy minerally freshness. A really intense, striking sort of Sauvignon that teeters on the edge of being unbalanced, but which I quite like. 90/100 (£10.79 Laithwaites)

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Burnt Rubber: the great South African wine debate



Here's a film from an event held yesterday titled 'The Great Cape Wine Debate'. It involved a group of UK journalists and a select band of South African winemakers to discuss several current topics, focusing in particular on the 'Burnt Rubber' issue. The debate was organized by South African specialist Richard Kelley MW (of importer Richards Walford), and he gathered a stellar line-up of winemakers:

  • Marc Kent (Boekenhoutskloof)
  • Roelf & Michelle du Preez (Bon Cap)
  • Gottfried Mocke (Cape Chamonix)
  • Bruce Jack (Constellation)
  • Chris Williams (Meerlust/The Foundry)
  • Niels Verburg (Luddite)
  • Carl van der Merwe (Quoin Rock)
  • Eben Sadie (Sadie Family Wines)
  • Callie Louw (TMV)
  • Mike Ratcliffe (Warwick and Vilafonte)

So what is the 'Burnt Rubber' issue? In brief, it's the off flavour/aroma that many people have been noticing in South African red wines. Critics, largely in the UK, have been pointing out that too many South African reds show a rather off-putting burnt rubber character that immediately marks them as South African. In response, Jo Mason of Wines of South Africa got together a group of these critical journalists and presented them with a number of South African reds (as well as a few ringers) blind. They reached more-or-less a consensus on which reds showed the burnt rubber character, and these were sent to wine science researchers in South Africa for analysis to see if any offending characters could be identified.

The 20-minute video covers the discussion between the journalists and winemakers. It's evidently a sensitive topic- and a controversial one. It should be pointed out that this group represents some of South Africa's top winemaking talent, and their wines (which we tasted) don't show any hints of burnt rubber. As such, it's a little unfair to be putting them under the spotlight like this.

You can read more about this issue in the following pieces:

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tasting grapes - a remarkable aftertaste

Time for some wine science. There was an interesting aside in Denis Dubourdieu's paper at the recent Austria conference. Denis is the man responsible for identifying a group of sulfur-containing compounds called thiols as being important in the aroma of Sauvignon Blanc.

Now thiols are made by yeasts from precursors present in the grapes. In the must, these precursors are odourless. The late Emile Peynaud, another famous wine scientist, remarked that 'it is winemaking that reveals the aroma hidden in the fruit'. Denis recalled how Peynaud talked about the aftertaste of Sauvignon grapes: 30 seconds after swallowing, you suddenly get all these lovely aromatics which weren't there earlier.

This reflects the transformation of precursors to aromas by the enzymes in the mouth. I was reminded of this comment when I tasted some almost ripe Phoenix grapes in my back garden today. They didn't taste of all that much, but after a minute or so I was getting these remarkable passion fruit/gooseberry aromas in the back of my nose.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sauvignon in Styria, day 3

Right now, I'd kill for a red wine. Day three of the worldsauvignon congress has been brilliant, but there's only so much Sauvignon a boy can take.

Some really good stuff today. Highlights for me were three rather technical papers. The first was Denis Dubourdieu's excellent talk on thiols in Sauvignon Blanc. He's a bit of a wine science legend, and a really nice guy to boot. Had a couple of nice chats with him today.

Matt Goddard, a Brit who has relocated to the University of Auckland, has been doing some great work on identifying the yeasts involved in spontaneous ferments, and has discovered that if you inoculate with specific Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains plus Pichia kluyveri (a wild yeast) you get really interesting wines. Specifically for Sauvignon, there's a synergistic interaction in terms of thiol production.

Also from kiwiland, Chris Winefield presented another excellent paper looking at thiol precursors. Really good science unpacking the GLV (green leaf volatile) pathway in vines. Not for everyone, but I found it gripping.

Then there was a panel tasting looking at the ageing potential of Sauvignon Blanc. If the conclusion of our clones panel was that it's a bit of a non-issue, then the conclusion of this panel was don't bother ageing Sauvignon Blanc. [Maybe I'm being a bit naughty here.] I just loved the typo in Jean-Christoph Bourgeois' name (pictured).

Then this afternoon, there were several topical excursions to the Styrian wine regions. Mine was titled 'The culinary side of life: typically Stryrian'. We went to a castle, tasted some Sauvignon Blanc, and tried some ham. Then we had dinner. It was jolly, and I was with a nice group, but it was a little short on the culinary side. Pictured at the top is a view from the castle, and also the tasting we had.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Buying my book on wine science

I get quite a lot of queries on how to buy my book Wine Science. In the UK, this book was published by Mitchell Beazley in November 2005. It sold pretty well, and the initial print run all disappeared. Will they reprint it? Probably not, was the answer I got. They aren't very good at responding to emails, and so I don't know whether it's officially out of print, or whether I can get back the rights to publish it.

But whatever the situation, the result of this is that you can't get hold of it in the UK or most other markets (although I recently found out that http://www.aroundwine.com/ have some copies still). Amazon.co.uk list it as out of stock.

In the USA, it was published in March 2006 as The Science of Wine. Different cover, too (pictured), but exactly the same content. They sold through their initial order of 5000 and have since ordered two more runs of 4000, which is good, but I don't get very much for each copy sold (just 10% of gross receipts received by Mitchell Beazley, who sell them the books very cheaply).

The good news is that it's very cheap to buy the book from amazon.com in the USA and then get it shipped to the UK. Cheaper, even, than it was to buy the book in the UK when it was still available here. I just checked on amazon.com and the cost was £17.82 delivered. The link is here.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Danish reduction

Just back from Denmark, where I was attending Lallemand's technical conference. Last night, I arrived at Billund airport at 11.30 pm, and was driven 40 km to Horsens, for the Bygholm Park hotel (http://www.scandic-hotels.dk/) where we were meeting.

It's a beautiful setting, surrounded by attractive parkland (above). I was up early to put the finishing touches on my presentation, grab some breakfast, and then wander down to the conference room.

It felt like a rare luxury to be able to attend a scientific meeting. This was the first I had been to since I finished my day-job employment as a science editor. The open spirit of enquiry and generosity of spirit that you get at scientific meetings is to be marvelled at. [Science is one of the few truly cooperative human ventures I can think of that actually works.]

The program was as follows:

Technical meeting Sulphur compounds –production and sensory impact

Wine faults and their prevalence: data from the world's largest blind tasting
Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop

The genetics of sulfide taint production in Saccharomyces
Angela Lee Linderholm, Linda F. Bisson, Kevin L. Dietzel, Yeun Hong, Gagandeep R. Kumar, and Carrie L. Findleton

Formation of aroma-active S-compounds by Oenococcus oeni during malolactic fermentation in wine-like media and wine

Doris Rauhut, Volker Schäfer, Beata Beisert, Bernd-Christoph Lochbühler, Magdalena Gawron-Scibek and Sibylle Krieger-Weber

Optimizing wine quality through the application of flavour-active yeast strains and nutrients.
Chris Curtin

A reduction in smell?
Michael Moisseeff

I'm happy to expand on any of these if there's any interest. I thought all the papers were excellent. The most entertaining by far, though, was the final one, which featured some fun with scents. Moisseeff works the audience brilliantly - he's like a stand-up comedian. I should really blog on his talk separately.

I left after a quick beer to catch my return flight, and was back home by 10 pm. Utterly painless journey, in part because I was flying from a tiny airport in an organized sort of country. A really good day.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Drink wine and live longer

The subject of wine and health is an interesting and complex topic. A new scientific paper in the American Journal of Medicine is a welcome addition to the literature, because it seems to be pretty free of the issue of confounding, where other factors could potentially explain the results (an example of this would be that moderate wine drinkers tend to be moderate in other areas of their life, for example they may eat more healthily than other groups).

The paper in question is titled 'Adopting Moderate Alcohol Consumption in Middle Age: Subsequent Cardiovascular Events', and the results are summarized in the abstract thus:
"Of 7697 participants who had no history of cardiovascular disease and were nondrinkers at baseline, within a 6-year follow-up period, 6.0% began moderate alcohol consumption (2 drinks per day or fewer for men, 1 drink per day or fewer for women) and 0.4% began heavier drinking. After 4 years of follow-up, new
moderate drinkers had a 38% lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease than did their persistently nondrinking counterparts. This difference persisted after adjustment for demographic and cardiovascular risk factors (odds ratio 0.62, 95% confidence interval, 0.40-0.95)."

There's a BBC news piece on this paper here. The conclusion seems quite clear, to me. If you are middle-aged, then if you can take up moderate wine drinking without becoming an alcoholic, then you will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Spoofulated versus artisanal: a new article by Clark Smith


A brief post to direct readers to a really good article by Clark Smith on Spoofulated versus artisanal wines (here). I interviewed Clark last year - I think he has some important things to say. He also writes well, and is interesting.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

A good day

Forgive the unrelated photograph. It's me on the back of a mechanical harvester, taken on Thursday afternoon in Entre-Deux-Mers. The other rider is Beverly Blanning. We were watching the harvest at Chateau Lavison, where Merlot was being picked, and the offer was made: do we want a ride? So precariously balanced on the back, quite high up, we watched as a couple of rows were picked. It's amazing how these machines can pick so well: the reception bins contained almost exclusively intact berries, and a simple triage at the winery picked out remaining stems and any rotten or unripe grapes.

Anyway, the title of this post refers to today, where a couple of nice things happened. First of all, I found Fiona's keys. Doesn't sound too eventful, does it? But it was. Last Tuesday, Fiona was walking RTL in Hanworth Park, when a horse, which wasn't supposed to be there, suddenly appeared. RTL ran fast towards it, and began running round its legs. There was panic, and Fiona ran after the imperiled hound trying to catch it. After the crisis had passed, she realized she no longer had her keys, which must have fallen out of her pocket. The problem is, Hanworth Park is huge, has tall, dense grass off the pathways, through which Fiona had to run, and the keys could have been anywhere within a patch approximately 200 m x 100 m. That evening we searched en famille without success; subsequent search attempts also failed the following day, so we gave the keys up for lost.

Now house keys are easy to re-cut. But the car key is a different matter. A quick call to Mazda revealed that it was easily replaceable, but at a cost of £260. £260 for a car key? That's more than an Ipod costs, and an Ipod is a whole lot more complex. And they needed the car for two hours on next Friday morning for some reason to supply the new one. Why?

So this morning, as I was walking the dog through Hanworth Park, my mind briefly flitted to the issue of the lost keys. Maybe I'll look for them again, I said to myself. I'd taken just two paces off the path when I looked down, and there they were. It felt like a miracle.

The second nice surprise was waiting for me when I got home: a nice royalty cheque for Wine Science. I'd previously just received and advance: this was the first time the earnings had passed the amount of the advance and I got some cash in my hand. It's selling particularly well in the USA, and has just been translated into Japanese. It's always nice to get money that you weren't expecting.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Wine from plastic...how does it taste?

Continuing the PET wine saga, I've posted an article on the main wineanorak site about technical issues to do with wine in PET here. I also tried the two Sainsbury wines in these plastic bottles. The first was the Sauvignon Blanc. For £4.99, this is as cheap as New Zealand Sauvignon gets. It's bulk shipped in tank and then bottled at Corby in Northants.

I poured a glass and alongside the crisp, fresh grassy flavours there was a distinct detergent edge - a bit like when you drink from soapy glasses that haven't been rinsed properly, or when you taste from a glass that's already been drunk from by someone wearing lipstick.

So I got a fresh glass and rinsed it well first. Still the same detergent edge. Another two glasses were tried; each time the wine had an unpleasant detergent edge to it. How mysterious. Is this just a problem unique to my bottle, or is this a problem affecting this wine across the board?

The Australian Shiraz Rose was perfectly OK, though, with nice slightly sweet strawberryish friut. At £3.99 in PET an ideal picnic wine.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

PET wine bottles

PET (a type of plastic) wine bottles are in the news. There's suddenly been a flurry of interest in the subject in the national media here in the UK. Just had a call from Sky News who wanted me to do a live interview at 6.30 this evening (I politely declined, can't make it) along with an environmental expert. Is PET good for the environment? (Much lighter, bottles are also smaller.) Is it good for wine quality? (The issue is oxygen transmission by the plastic, which isn't really known yet, although there are probably some doom merchants who'll suggest that the wine is leaching nasties out of the PET.)

[added later] When I got home I found two samples waiting for me from Sainsbury's (pictured) - both in PET bottles. These are 75cl like regular wine bottles, but the overall dimensions are much smaller. It's not a development I'm terribly keen on, because wines in PET will taste a little different even if iit is just because of package oxygen transmission differences. The only place I can see it being worthwhile is for new inexpensive brands where the novel packaging can be part of the brand image.
[added later] Article now on main site here explores this issue in more depth.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

honesty

I'm not really a cycling fan, but it has been interesting to see the coverage of this year's Tour de France being dominated by drug testing news. In all walks of life, cheats threaten the success of the honest. With professional sport attracting the sort of profile it does, it's important that its house is in order and that cheats are caught. The fact that they are being caught in droves in cycling is, in a strange way, reassuring.

This month sees the 40th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson, riding up Mont Ventoux on the tour, boosted by amphetamines (see here, for example). But perhaps we are unfair to judge him by the standards of today.

How does this relate to wine? Well, we need to think about what is illegal in enhancing the performance of wines, and why. Should all wines be treated the same? And do some legal technological manipulations or additions actually destroy the 'soul' of wine? It's a debate that needs to happen.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Torres and Tuscany

Had a tasting, lunch and lots of tecchie chat with Mireia Torres, daughter of Miguel and technical director for all Torres' wines. We began by tasting all the Torres Chilean wines, and then lunched at La Trompette in Chiswick, which performed very well, getting my two dishes just right. I'm quite a fan of the Torres wines: their strength is that they do commercial winemaking very, very well, and their higher end wines aren't bad either. As an example, with lunch we had Grans Muralles 1998, and it was singing: evolved but still very fresh, bright and focused. And their two top Chilean wines - the spicy Carignan-dominated Cordilleira 2005 and the lush Conde de Superunda 2000 with Tempranillo, Cabernet, Mourvedre and Carmenere - rank among the very best that Chile has to offer. I also like the Marimar Torres wines from California.

Switching from Torres to Tuscany, I'm drinking a wine I can't make my mind up about, but which I think I like.
Villa Cafaggio San Martino 2001 IGT Toscana
This is a wine I'm enjoying quite a bit, but which leaves me unsure about whether it's truly serious or not. It's a wine made from different clones of Sangiovese in Chianti (so why is it an IGT Toscana?), aged in new small oak barrels. Weighing in at 14% alcohol this is quite deep coloured. It has a fresh, bright nose that's more red fruit than black, with some lifted spice complementing the tight fruit. The palate is mouthfilling, tannic and quite extracted, dominating by bright red fruits with a vivid spicy, grippy character that leaves the mouth feeling quite dry. There's certainly a lot going on here: I really like the freshness of fruit, I appreciate the savouriness, but I struggle a bit with the rather agressive spiciness, some of which I suspect has its origin in the new oak. Is this wine overextracted and lacking in elegance? Will the dry tannins outlive the fruit? Or is it a serious wine caught early in its youth? I like the fact that it's not soupy and overripe, so I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt. Very good/excellent 93/100 (c. £23 Waitrose, D Byrne, Sandhams, Upton on Severn Wines, Satchells, Wine Times, Wright Wine)

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

More on terroir and minerality

Really good article on terroir by Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson in the New York Times.

'The idea that one can taste the earth in a wine is appealing, a welcome link to nature and place in a delocalized world; it has also become a rallying cry in an increasingly sharp debate over the direction of modern winemaking. The trouble is, it’s not true.'

They continue:

'Grape minerals and mineral flavors are also strongly influenced by the grower and winemaker. When a vineyard is planted, the vine type, spacing and orientation are just a few of many important decisions. Growers control the plant growth in myriad ways, such as pruning, canopy management or, most obviously, irrigating and replenishing the soil with manures or chemical fertilizers. The winemaker then makes hundreds of choices that affect wine flavor, beginning with the ripeness at which the grapes are harvested, and can change the mineral content by using metal equipment, concrete fermentation tanks or clarifying agents made from bentonite clay. Jamie Goode, a British plant biologist turned wine writer, describes in his superbly lucid book “Wine Science” how techniques that minimize the wine’s contact with oxygen can increase the levels of sulfur compounds that may be mistaken for “mineral” character from the soil.'

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Educational reading

Just thought I'd point out some articles I've dug up recently in my web travels.

Wines and Vines has a nice comparative tasting of wines made with oak chips and those without, looking at the influence of oak alternatives on the final wines. First time I've seen this. There's also an earlier article in the same mag on this subject.

Sticking with Wines and Vines, there's a nice article on minerality in wine, a topic I'm really interested in. The author makes a reference to a chapter in my Wine Science book. Glad someone has read it.

The World of Fine Wine has placed a couple of my articles online as pdfs, free of charge. Here's one on the premature oxidation of white Burgundy crisis and another on grafted versus ungrafted vines.

On the same site there's a lengthy but gripping (and surprisingly high level) discussion on biodynamics. Phew!

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Technology and wine

Did a piece for yesterday's Independent on how technology is changing the face of winemaking. It's not illustrated in the web version, but it included a nice picture of a tank with staves bolted into it. There was also a small picture (one of mine) of Mario Andrade of the Falua winery in the Ribatejo holding a used barrel stave that had been in a tank. They didn't use the picture I have them of Mario's reverse osmosis machine.

Last night was spent at my parents' place in Lidgate, Suffolk. This is where RTL will be spending her holidays. I went out a few times with her during the evening: out in the country the stars are amazingly bright. It's a night sky you don't see in light-polluted London. It was also amazingly quiet, with no residual traffic noise. Utterly beautiful.

Watched the cricket: a fascinating tense battle between England and Sri Lanka that went down to the last ball. Gripping stuff. Very disappointed to see Fernando stop on the last ball - I don't think that's in the spirit of the game at all, even though it is lawful. There's a difference (mostly forgotten in today's society) between what is legal and what is moral.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Erasing memories, selectively

A news story in leading scientific journal Nature caught my eye today. Those clever people in white coats have managed to erase a specific memory in lab rats in a selective fashion. Of course, it's a long way from rat brains to the jelly-like substance sloshing around in our skulls, but it's an interesting finding nonetheless.

It reminds me of the wonderful recent film Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, where Lacuna Inc. offered to remove all the memories relating to a particular person you wanted out of your life - a rather more challenging task.

One of the frustrating things about our memories of specific wines, is that they don't seem to be coded in a particularly accessible address in the brain. It would be wonderful if we could relive 1970 Latour in much the same way that we can hum our favourite tune, or recreate in our mind's eye that view from the top of a mountain we enjoyed on our last skiing trip.

It seems, though, that our memories for smell are only reawakened when we revisit a similar smell in the present, and then they tend to be tied to emotions - one sniff, and the memories all come flooding back. It's quite a powerful experience, but at least for me a relatively rare one.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Big in Sweden

I don't speak Swedish, but I am reliably informed by a couple of readers that Wine Science has been favourably reviewed in one of the main Swedish daily newspapers, Svenska Dagbladet.

Kind of humbling to think that my little book has found its way around the world. Makes up for the fact that every copy sold brings me a pitifully small sum. Not a way to get rich.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Ageing wine...fast!

Long-time readers will probably remember the interesting interchange I had with Dr Patrick Farrell MW, after I posted on his magnetic wine ageing device (see here and for more comments here, although take less notice of some of the anonymous comments which could have come from anywhere).

It seems that the demand for wine ageing gadgets that operate outside the known laws of science has not yet been sated.

Take a look at Le Clef du Vin. One second = one year. Read for yourself! However, unlike Farrell's device, it doesn't claim to actually replicate the ageing of the wine. Instead, it reveals the ageing potential of the wine. How does it work? I don't think it can. Wine ageing is complex and poorly understood, and sticking a device in a glass for a limited period is unlikely to reveal too much information about its future trajectory.

Looking at the pictures of this gadget, and reading between the lines of the promotional blurb, I reckon this is a piece of copper mounted in a stainless steel support. The copper will address any reduction present, shifting the wine's redox potential towards the oxidation end of the spectrum. Ageing of wine is not simply oxidation.

The Advertising Standards Agency have this to say about claims made on behalf of this device.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

bits and pieces

Just received my copy of The Wine Diet, a new book by Professor Roger Corder. Unlike most books on diet it's actually written by a proper scientist, which augurs well for the accuracy of its content. However, Corder has a stake in this debate because he has discovered one of the potential links between wine and health, and he may overplay this hand because of it. We'll see - I'll report back when I've done some reading.

Also received a sample bottle of the Red Heart wine referred to here a few days back. It's a full-throttle, ripe Aussie red with a distinctive blackcurrant flavour, and some nice chunky tannins. For a £5 wine it tastes pretty good. It reminded me strongly of a Chilean Cabernet or Carmenere, with a little bit of greenness behind the powerful sweet fruit.

Still on the subject of health I went to see a doctor over the weekend about my right elbow. It makes a funny crunching noise when I use it. Has done ever since I mashed it up in a fall a few years back. When I swim, play golf or play tennis, it gets quite sore. So I tell the doctor this (a charming young South African guy). He looks at my notes. 'You're almost 40', he says. 'You aren't as young as you used to be'. Is there anything he can do for me, or advise me to do? 'Use it less,' is the response. 'If you play golf every week, play it once a month'. Hmmm. Don't like the sound of this.

Got my first Christmas card today. It's a big (25 x 18 cm) card from Casa Lapostolle with a picture of their immaculate barrel cellar. Not signed by anyone. Posted from Chile.

Aside: Blogger (which I use to publish this blog) is a real pain at the moment. Its image upload feature only works about one attempt in three. It has problems publishing posts perhaps one attempt in 12. Not good enough.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

More on wine antioxidants

Just thought I should expand a bit on my post on the new Red Heart wine. The wine in question is a Petit Verdot/Cabernet Sauvignon from South Australia, bottled in Northants (UK) by Corby for Buckingham Vintners.

The label states that:
'Antioxidants can help inhibit free radicals that occur naturally in your body. Free radicals can damage your health, so a wine that's naturally high in antioxidants has got to be great news!'
This statement cleverly avoids making the claim that the antioxidants in this wine will protect you against free radical oxidative damage to the tissues of your body, but this is implied. Let me make the following points:
  • All the big epidemiological studies (where medics look at the health of populations) show that moderate drinkers live longer. Some studies show that wine drinkers are healthier than beer or spirit drinkers. Some of this could be confounding (for example, there might be some other shared characteristic of moderate drinkers or wine drinkers that makes them a more healthy group). But the effect looks pretty robust.

  • Many mechanisms have been proposed for how wine (or other alcoholic drinks) might have health-enhancing effects. One of these is that wine, and in particular red wine, contains a group of compounds known as polyphenols, which have anti-oxidant properties. Although we need oxygen, it’s actually quite a toxic molecule, and a group of chemicals known as reactive oxygen species cause damage to our body tissues (although they also have a role in fighting microbes). We have various antioxidant defences in our tissues which minimizes the impact of these bad dude chemicals. Damage still occurs, though. So the idea that red wine polyphenols could be enhancing antioxidant protection is a seductive one.

  • There’s a problem, though. Dietary antioxidants don’t seem to work as antioxidants in the body in the same way that they do in the test-tube. The emerging story is that it is increasingly unlikely that any of wine’s health benefits come from the antioxidant effects of polyphenols.

  • It looks like polyphenols may still have a protective effect, but not as antioxidants. One possible mechanism is through their effect in suppressing a molecule called endothelin 1, which would then have a positive effect on arteries and blood vessels. Quite a bit more work needs to be done before we can be sure of this.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Resveratrol: a wonder drug in wine

There have been a couple of recent scientific reports on resveratrol that have attracted a lot of interest. It's a phytoalexin that is found in grape skins (and thus wine). If it is fed to mice at reasonably high doses, it protects them from the negative effects of eating too much. It's quite dramatic: these mice can eat a high fat diet that would normally kill them pretty sharpish, but when they are given a stiff resveratrol chaser with their rations, they don't get fat, don't develop diabetes, and consequently don't keel over prematurely. It seems that resveratrol hits a particular metabolic switch, giving you the benefits of dieting and excercise without actually doing either.

As you can understand, this has got people pretty excited. As long as you drink a few glasses of resveratrol-rich wine, then you can carry on gorging yourself on fine French cuisine, and forget about pounding the pavements in an attempt to stem a bulging waistline and incipient type 2 diabetes. But wait a minute: the story isn't that simple.

I asked Professor Roger Corder, who has researched wine and health, for his views.
‘The resveratrol story has become a bit of a publicity stunt for those lacking knowledge in the field’, maintains Corder. ‘At a dose of 22.4 mg/kg per day (used in the recent mouse study reported in Nature) and typical resveratrol levels of 1–2 mg/litre in wine, the dose in human terms for wine would have to be around 1568 mg/day or 780–1560 litres per day’.

Also problematic is the bioavailability story. Data in humans are currently rather limited, although they are beginning to emerge. And they threaten to rain on the resveratrol parade. Professor Thomas Walle at the Medical University of South Carolina published a rather damning paper on this in 2004, in which he concluded that in humans very little dietary resveratrol gets to where it is needed in the body. ‘Based on our studies as well as those of others the bioavailability of resveratrol, that is the amount intact resveratrol reaching the blood circulation, is virtually zero in humans’, reports Walle.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Clark Smith and his Roman wine

Last night I met Clark and Susie Smith, thus fulfilling one of my long-held ambitions. Clark is the guy behind www.vinovation.com, a hi-tech wine consulting company in California, and I've wanted to meet him ever since I wrote one of my early Harpers technical pieces where I interviewed him by phone. But he isn't advocating using technology to spoofulate wines. Seeing technology as a useful tool, he then sets about using his tool kit, which includes microoxygenation and reverse osmosis, to make more interesting and tasty wines. Not convinced? Well, I'll do a lengthy article soon on this subject, which I hope will explain what I'm getting at.

We tasted a range of wines before dinner, including a 'sweet spot' tasting of an Amador County Syrah - the same wine at 15.4%, 14.2% and 13.75% alcohol. The differences were striking. We also tried Clark's own wines - which effectively act like business cards. WineSmith is his high end range; Cheapskate the everyday stuff. In fact, the Cheapskate wines are the best $8 wines you'll ever taste. At least that's what I reckon. After the tasting we headed over to Tendido Cero, one of my favourite eating places, where we ate and drank well (my choice - a bottle of the 2004 Finca Sandoval from Manchuela - dark, spicy and mineralic, with a bit of the new world and a bit of the old).

Tonight's tipple is the dregs of one of the wines tried last night. It's the WineSmith Roman Syrah 2003. The remarkable thing about this wine is that it is made without any addition of sulphur dioxide, the almost universally used wine preservative. Clark explains how he made this wine on his own Grapecrafter blog:
"To be safe, I began with a wine that could serve as its own preservative, one that would consume oxygen and oppose a microbial takeover on its own, and also a varietal type for which microbial complexity might be regarded as a plus.

I decided to work with a high altitude syrah which had a lot of reductive strength from two sources: tannin and minerality. Raw unpolymerized tannin has the ability to gobble tremendous quantities of oxygen when wine is young. A beneficial side effect of micro-oxygenation is the creation of a rich, light structure which integrates aromas. Oxygen is the wire wisk in creating a tannin soufflé. This is going to keep the wine from smelling spoiled later on when the microbes have their party.

Paradoxically, working properly with oxygen doesn't oxidize the wine -- rather it increases its ability to take up more oxygen. The chemistry of phenolic polymerization is well understood, and in this case, Vern Singleton's 1986 paper on the vicinyl diphenol cascade explains why polymerizing tannins become more reactive than their precursors. "

It's a really thought-provoking wine. There's some aromatic purity and elegance, with sweet dark fruits that have a brooding depth to them. The palate is very unusual and interesting. It's expressive and angular, with firm tannins and a meaty, spicy sort of rasp. These jostle with some funkier, herby, tobbacoey sort of elements. It finishes savoury and spicy. It's a wine that seems to show you one thing and then another. It's not a wine for everyone: some will find these bold, savoury flavours just a little too dangerous. But I like it a good deal.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Recognizing reduction?

Opened an Aussie pair tonight from Willunga 100 – the Grenache 2005 and Shiraz/Viognier 2005. Both were screwcapped (tin liner) and both started out with a distinctive roasted aroma, that initially seemed like it could be high toast oak, but then got more like popcorn and added a smoky, minerally element. Hmm, is this reduction? It’s hard to be sure, so I tried the copper penny trick (a 1966 penny, when they were still made of copper). This involves taking a clean copper penny and swirling it briefly in the wine.

Again, we’re dealing with perception here, but the treated wine seemed to become cleaner and more fruity. Much better. And if I pour an untreated glass from the bottle, the distinction is quite clear. Side-by-side, the treated and untreated wines are different. What I suspect here to be reduction is really getting in the way of the pure fruit that’s the calling card of these appealing wines. [Update: a day later both these wines showed clear fruit when poured from the bottle, which suggests that a bix of overnight oxidation is doing the same job as the copper treatment, with the smelly mercaptans disappearing. Of course, without proper chemical analysis it's hard to say for sure - the story is, though, a consistent one.]

Willunga 100 Shiraz–Viognier 2005 McLaren Vale, Australia
Pure sweet dark fruits nose with a nice floral lift and a bit of spice. Ripe and alluring. The palate has lovely sweet raspberry and blackberry fruit with a nice balancing lemony acidity adding definition to the plump ripe fruit. It’s a really attractive, juicy, rounded red wine of real appeal. (N.b. this note was taken after the wine had a copper penny dipped in it to get rid of a burnt popcorn/acrid smoky reductive edge.) Very good+ 89/100

Willunga 100 Grenache 2005 McLaren Vale, Australia
A ripe, sweetly fruited red wine with a perfumed, slightly alcoholic red fruits nose, leading to a smooth but firmly structured palate with spicy, almost peppery red berry fruit. There’s nice balance here, if perhaps just a little too much alcoholic sweetness and heat, but it’s approaching the elegant end of the Grenache spectrum. (N.b. this note was taken after the wine had a copper penny dipped in it to get rid of a burnt popcorn/acrid smoky reductive edge.) Very good+ 88/100

[note added later: I would heartily recommend these wines - they are avialable from Liberty Wines in the UK at around £8. But then there's the reduction issue: to be honest, I didn't really care for what I'm assuming is the reduced character, and while it didn't spoil the wine irredeemably, so I wouldn't equate it to a fault such as cork taint, it's a problem.]

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Wine Science reviewed

Wine Science (or The Science of Wine, as it is known on the other side of the Atlantic) has been reviewed again, this time by US publication Wine Enthusiast (pictured). It reads thus:

"In The Science of Wine, British writer Jamie Goode has done a fantastic job presenting balanced, approachable yet technical essays on many of the major issues in winemaking and appreciation. Ranging from the scientific basis for terroir to a discussion of the effects of micro-oxygenation (still poorly understood) and an examination of the medical evidence of wine's effects on health (both pros and cons), Goode's readable prose makes even the most technical subjects accessible. For anyone interested in more than just drinking wine, this is a must read." --Joe Czerwinski

It's so nice to have such positive feedback. But what about bad reviews? Do they sting? I hope I don't find out.

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