Sweetening the pot Conjectures on the origins of sugary wine

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In the passito process grapes are left to dry, concentrating their natural sugars. Credit: Marco Fon

I recently recorded a spot for America’s Test Kitchen Radio on sweet wines.  It didn’t feel that successful frankly, but as often happens the effort wasn’t without its compensations.  It came in the form of a new idea – and possibly some insight – about how sweet wines may have come about.

Nothing actually scientific or historical here, I’m afraid – most of what follows is strictly conjectural.

Evolutionary biologists tell us that our distant hominin ancestors came down from the trees already addicted to the sweet taste of ripe fruit. Grapes, having the highest load of sugars of any fruit were thus instantly attractive to us wherever we found them.

What a thrill when we first learned that those sugars would spontaneously ferment, giving birth – under the right conditions — to that marvelous, mood-altering substance: alcohol.  Hurrah!

Now imagine the disappointment which must have followed with shocking immediacy when we realized the cost. All that dreamy sweetness that attracted us to grapes in the first place was used up in generating  alcohol. Boo! Hiss!

My guess is that it was a yearning to have our fructose and our alcohol too that drove the R&D needed to create stable, palatable sweet wines. Accomplishing this would have involved managing yeasts in a process similar to that by which larger animals were domesticated to serve human convenience.

Keeping a herd of goats or sheep for the meat and milk they can provide required pastoral peoples to think in terms of sharing, rather than just extracting. It’s clear that sheep need milk to raise their young, and that since a proportion of these young need to be preserved to breeding age in order to perpetuate the herd all the animals cannot be slaughtered before they’ve had the chance to produced offspring themselves.  Once the future of the herd is assured, shepherds can safely take the surplus milk and meat for themselves. Today we call this sustainability.

My guess is that it was a yearning to have our fructose and our alcohol too that drove the R&D needed to create stable, palatable sweet wines.

Early winemakers likely applied essentially the same principle to create sweet, alcoholic beverages. They did this by inventing techniques for generating a surplus of sugars prior to fermentation, an amount over and above what was required to satisfy the voracious appetite of the yeasts.

This strategy could succeed because while fructose and glucose-loving yeasts live and reproduce on sugar, they have a very limited tolerance for alcohol.  As hordes of these tiny creatures gorge themselves on sugars in the fermenting tank, alcohol levels rise to concentrations that eventually prove lethal for them.  When yeasts die, fermentation stops.  Whatever sugar has not been converted to alcohol and CO2 remains in the wine – the surplus that provides the sweetness.

Ancient techniques to raise sugars to levels that would provide this surplus involved simple methods of concentration: allowing grapes to hang on the vine beyond normal ripeness, twisting the stems on ripe bunches while still on the vine so the berries dessicate, harvesting at normal ripeness and spreading the grapes out on mats to dry (the passito technique).   All are still in use.

After the invention of distillation it became possible to arrest fermentation at any point by the addition of yeast-lethal amounts of neutral grape spirits (very high in alcohol). Fortification, as this is known, is standard practice in Port and Sherry production.  Once refrigerated tanks came into use, fermentation could be stopped simply by dropping the temperature.

It all makes one wonder why we exert so much energy debating whether man’s first domestication success involved macro fauna like the dog, the goat, sheep, or even bees when our original conquest may have been over the lowly, unseen and as yet unsuspected yeast.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at stephenmeuse@icloud.com

Confessions of a shelf talker How is a wine defined?

A chat with Julia Hallman, general manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge this week about the shelf talkers that I had been busy rewriting.  The time between taking the old ones down and putting the new ones up gave me a chance to see what the response of our clientele would be to their temporary disappearance.  The result of our little experiment: shoppers really do rely on them.

So now the question becomes what these signlets should say. ThereIMG_2078‘s not a lot of space to work on business card size tags (example at left).  Julia noted that based on what she had been hearing constituent grape variety/varieties are the most sought-after data.  This started me down a road I’ve trudged before: just what is it consumers are thinking when they ask “What kind of wine is this?”

It’s a question that has its origin in what I have called elsewhere the fog of wine: that disturbing combine of mystery, doubt, and anxiety all of us feel at one time or another as we try to find our way through the thickets of place names, soil types, cultivars, and flavor profiles wine confronts us with.

Though it seems natural enough now, clearing the fog by focusing on grape varietals is a relatively recent phenomenon. The likely reason it took so long: the wine industry’s deep, historic aversion to transparency.  For centuries wine was distributed via brokers and negociants whose business it was to blend stocks of wine into saleable condition while completely obscuring the process by which they accomplished this.

Tavern keepers and householders would order Hermitage, or Medoc, or Nuits Saint-Georges and who knows what would actually be in the wine.  It was very unlikely that end-users knew the names of the constituent varietals or, if they did, that they would have considered such information important.This knowledge was professional domain expertise restricted to people in the trade, the growers themselves, and few others.  More likely they identified wine simply by its brand name — the Pommeroy’s Ordinary Claret of John Mortimer’s  Rumpole stories.

Such was the case until at least the mid 19th century when it began to be chic for civilians to acquire this kind of insider information in the process of cultivating connoisseurship.  So far as I know, the pervasive habit of identifying wine primarily by reference to its varietal composition is a mid-20th century phenomenon that took hold when the American wine, food, and travel writer Frank Schoonmaker had a hunch that that U.S. consumers eager for a firmer handhold on wine would latch onto this new approach as drowning sailors to driftwood.  They did.

What are consumers thinking when they ask “What kind of wine is this?”

Before getting too down on old Schoonmaker, recall that at the time he championed the technique at California wineries Wente and Almaden (where he was taken on as a marketing consultant), these properties and others in the Golden State typically sold wine under generic brand names such as Rhine, Mountain Chablis, and Hearty Burgundy.  It mattered not all that wines so described bore no resemblance to the historic European regions their names evoked. Under the circumstances, Schoonmaker’s innovation has to be considered an advance.

In the 1980’s varietal labeling went mainstream with the appearance of a new kind of wine. Sourced mainly in California, Australia, and Chile these new products married low-price (well under $10) with a substantial rise in quality (the retail analogue might be IKEA or Target) and made chardonnay, merlot, and pinot noir as familiar to casual wine drinkers as red, white, and rosé. They’ve been known as “fighting varietals” ever since.

The curious thing about this identification business is how persistently wine buyers will find a single criterion a sufficient basis for deciding what to plunk down their money for.

It might be the varietal – but it might just as reasonably be a region, points awarded by critics,  auction prices,  cult status, or what is known to be  trending at the moment: natural, orange, no-sulfur, oxidized, high-acid (remember the marketing for the Summer of Riesling? ), mountain-bred, small-producer, folkloric, wines vinified subject to cosmic influences, unfiltered, vegan, those having a touching story, the personality-driven (Look, a wine by Arianna Occhipinti!), wines with small mammals on the label – one could go on.

In light of this it becomes a real challenge to surmise what may be the single bit of information on a business card-sized tag that will prompt a shopper to reach for the Capital One card.

Maybe what we really need isn’t a shelf talker — it’s a fog horn.

Reach me at stephenmeuse@icloud.com

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Reach me at stephenmeuse@icloud.com

Red wine, please. Hold the cream and sugar

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I was pouring one white and three red Bordeaux at Central Bottle on  a Friday night a few years ago with the idea of playing a little catch-up on a neglected category. I’d noticed that the only attention the little Bordeaux corner got was from French speakers and a few people of – shall we say – mature years.  My boss Liz Vilardi pretty much summed up the problem in her teze for the event in the morning email newsletter: Bordeaux. Bor-d. Eaux. Bor-ing. Irritatingly expensive.

She went on to say that she thought the tide was turning, although my sense was and is that this is optimistic. The reaction of visitors to the tasting table that night, particularly the younger ones, bore this out:  namely, a sip followed by either no reaction or a frankly puzzled look. After a couple of hours of this, I decided I needed some simple way of explaining red Bordeaux, since it didn’t seem to be explaining itself. I tried the old trick of suggesting these were wines that would come into their own taken alongside the right food (no less true for being a cliché, by the way).

Then, while chatting with a 20-something Chinese couple who were clearly interested in the subject but not appreciative of what they were tasting I tried this gambit: “Bordeaux,” I said, “is a cup of black coffee.”

By way of explanation I noted that black coffee isn’t something we like straightaway.  If we get interested in coffee as youngsters it’s typically because it’s been made into something more in tune with immature tastes by being lightened with milk or cream and sugar – familiar flavors children know and instinctively like.  It’s only later, if ever, that we learn to appreciate coffee taken straight-up, with no fat or sweetness added to mitigate its strength and bitterness.

Black coffee is a frankly adult taste; it bypasses all the usual pleasure receptors and rings a bell deep in our most grown-up part.  I can’t say what part this is exactly, except that it may be the same one that takes pleasure in hard work or in solving a knotty problem.

I decided I needed some simple way of explaining red Bordeaux, since it didn’t seem to be explaining itself.

This resonated with the young couple, so I started using it whenever anyone was wondering why they should consider Bordeaux when so many other wines offer more gratifying fruit and less chafing tannins.  I explain that even the Brits – who had long been the primary market for the wines of BDX — were already defecting in favor of Australian and Chilean lollipop wines in the 1980’s.

Part of the fault for this can be laid at the door of younger drinkers with untrained palates, but the Bordelais need to shoulder some blame for not caring as much about the quality of the coffee they were brewing.  It may be that the growing interest in ‘mineral expression’ and in the low and no-sulfur production methods that result in drier, more savory wines will gradually put a new generation of young wine drinkers in a position to more readily appreciate classical Bordeaux style.

Let’s hope so.  A region with so glorious a past, one that has contributed so much via its classed growths to the notion of wine as an elite, civilizing beverage, shouldn’t be allowed to sink into obscurity — on any grounds.

Reach me at stephenmeuse@icloud.com

How to speak wine bar now

I’ll admit to
I’ll admit to being a little in love with the analytic tool known as the the semantic square.   There’s seduction in the way it gives clarity to certain kinds of ideas one struggles to achieve by other means.  A neatly designed square is particularly good at illuminating how perceptions shift as you move from one position to another along notional axes.

The one below is a result of my interest in a phenomenon we’ve been watching for several years now: the fashion among younger wine enthusiasts and the retail shops and sommeliers who cater to them away from well-known wine producing regions and international varietals toward lesser known regions, hyper-local cultivars, and naturalist approaches to winemaking.

It’s been clear for some time that what once was a modest outpost of wine counter-culture has migrated toward the normative –  not at your local Capital Grille maybe, but in smaller, independent, mostly urban restos/wine bars with a claim to have their fingers on the pulse.  Today the epitome of cool is the wine bar where you don’t recognize a thing on the list and everything came into being with as little winemaker intervention as possible.

As in all fashion systems, the goal seems to be for insiders to distinguish themselves sharply from outsiders by creating barriers to comprehension. In other words, you can’t join the club without understanding the code.  What follows attempts to show how the code operates in this particular instance. It also suggests how reflecting on the means we use to conceptualize wine can offer insights into what we choose to drink and why.

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