If you heard the on-air piece, you know that this is the last wine segment Chris and I will do for America’s Test Kitchen Radio. So it seemed like a good time to see how much Chris has learned over the five years we’ve been a team.
In fact, he did quite well, although there were a few answers we disagreed about. If you’ve been a regular listener, you might do even better. The questions follow, and below them my answers with a bit of explanation. In each case, choose which response is most correct: true, false, mostly true, or mostly false.
1. Rosé wines are normally made by blending white wine with red wine.
2. Given a similar environment and care, older vines make better wine.
3. The source of mineral flavors in wine is the mineral content of the soils in which
the grapes for that wine are grown.
4. Riper grapes will make more alcoholic wine.
5. The primary reason why wooden barrels are used to age wine is to add oaky flavors and aromas.
6. The color of the grape determines the color of the wine.
7. Science has established that red wine headaches are caused by excessive
levels of sulfites.
8. You can tell how sweet or dry a wine is likely to taste by checking its alcohol
9. In California, a wine labeled cabernet sauvignon (or other varietal) must be
100% cabernet sauvignon (or other varietal).
10.It’s hard to tell red Bordeaux and red Burgundy apart because both are blends
of a number of red grapes.
1. False. Rosés are normally made by either (a) draining some juice from a vat of
fermenting red wine before it has been infused with the full complement of
tannins and pigments (in this saignée, method, pink wine is just a byproduct of
red winemaking); or (b) by dramatically shortening the time grape solids
macerate in their own juice (direct press method). The exception to this rule is
Champagne where red wine may be added to white to make rosé.
2. Mostly true. Much fine wine has and is regularly made with fruit from younger
vines, but older vines (50+ years, arbitrarily), though less productive, have
several advantages. Their roots reach deeper into the soil making them less
susceptible to the effects of either heavy rains or drought, and they typically
produceless fruit per vine, which translates into more concentrated and
deeply flavored juice. It may be challenging to try to produce any actual
scientific evidence to support the claim, but the fact that growers who have old
vines typically reserve them for their top cuvées is persuasive.
3. False. Wine is not mineral water, which actually contains minerals. In fact,
inorganic mineral compounds appear in wine solely in the form of mineral salts
of which only sodium chloride (ordinary table salt) can be detected by tasting.
4. True. Alcohol in wine is a product of yeast based fermentation. The more
grape sugars present in the must (unfermented grape juice), the higher the
alcohol level will be in the finished wine—barring any interference from the
winemaker. Some sugar-rich musts can produce so much alcohol that yeasts
find the environment inhospitable and die, leaving some sugars unfermented.
5. False. Getting those spicy, toasty, vanilla notes and wood tannins into wine is
expensive business. It requires a small, new, or nearly new (2 or 3 years) oak
barrel, which can cost $1000 or more. Very little wine is of a quality to fetch
prices able to justify this added cost. The overwhelming majority of oak barrels
in use are both large and old, their sole purpose in life being to allow the wine
they contain to interact with the small, measured amounts of oxygen that are
essential to meld flavors, soften tannins, and round out the feel of the wine.
6. Mostly true. With rare exception, the juice of all grapes, whatever the color of
their skins, is colorless or nearly so. Red wine is red only because we make it
by crushing the whole berries and then allowing the solids to infuse the juice
with their pigments, tannins, and flavors. White wine is clear or nearly so
because whole berries are (typically) not crushed but gently pressed to capture
only the juice, which is then fermented apart from any solids.
White wine can be made as red wine is, and in that case, we may get wine with
a golden or amber color. But red wine can also be made as white wine is, with
no maceration at all—as in blanc de noirs Champagnes. Despite the
possibility for this kind of cross-dressing, it remains overwhelmingly the case
that dark-skinned grapes are processed into red wine and light-skinned grapes
into white wine.
7. False. The shorthand for all the stuff that makes red wine red is phenolics. The
richer the phenolic content, the more there is for a sensitive person to react
to—and headaches, flushing, sinus congestion, or other uncomfortable or
downright nasty symptoms can result. What chemical compound or
compounds are precisely to blame in a given case may be impossible to know.
Many of these phenolic compounds are antioxidants too, which means they
help wine remain naturally stable with bright flavors. White wines don’t have
the same levels of these protective compounds, and so winemakers typically
resort to heavier doses of sulfur to protect them. The upshot? If you can drink
conventional white wines without experiencing symptoms, it’s very unlikely that
sulfur is the source of your red wine headaches.
8. True. Think of this as a corollary of question number 4. As fermentation
proceeds, sugars are depleted, and alcohol levels rise. If we assume more or
less normal levels of sugar in the unfermented juice, a fully dry wine will
typically finish with alcohol levels in the 12%15% range. If you see levels
much lower than this indicated on the label—in the 8.5% 0r 9% percent range,
say—you can be quite certain that there is some significant residual sugar in
9. False. In California a wine identified as cabernet or chardonnay or any other
single varietal need contain no more than 75% of the indicated varietal.
10. False. While Bordeaux reds are almost exclusively produced with a cocktail of
grape varieties, red Burgundy is—with very rare exception—produced solely
and entirely of pinot noir.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at email@example.com