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Wine Flaws

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Bottle variation - Fact or Fiction?

I had the great pleasure of attending an exceptional wine dinner featuring older vintages (1986, 1997, 2000, 2003) of Bordeaux wines last weekend. The company was delightful, the venue memorable (Menton, Barbara Lynch's latest venture), and the wine superb. Yes, I am happy to make such a blanket statement about the vin even though the group found there was some bottle variation among the wines on offer and there was some discussion of the merits of each selection. (More on the specific wines tasted in a later post....) I realized in retrospect that "bottle variation" is a topic that isn't really discussed in the mainstream. Folks might grab a bottle off the shelf - or buy a case of something they had a tremendously good experience with once - and discover the next bottle is "still good, but doesn't taste quite the same". This can happen for a number of reasons.

When dealing with smaller production wines meant to age like those I tasted Saturday, how the wine is handled and storage condition are critical to preserving a wine. Factors like exposure to heat and light and how well the cork holds up over time can significantly impact it. Back in the day when wineries conducted assemblage (the process of blending a wine) more organically, or when winemakers would siphon off certain amounts from each barrel and bottle each bottle individually, in/consistency bottle to bottle literally happened in the moment. But today and since roughly the 70s, stainless steel tanks allow winemakers to blend at once and then send the wine through a bottling line.  Among the more elite wineries with the funds/equipment et. al. necessary to create a consistent wine bottle to bottle and with a careful attention to detail regarding shipment, you can imagine things should be pretty dang consistent. True, you never know what happens behind the scenes as the wine is handled from importer, to distributor, to you. But still....

My take is that when all parts are created equal and particularly when we're dealing with high-end stuff that has the best chance of any to be treated properly in transition from winery to table, bottle variation is the result of something I call "bottle personality". Maybe I'm coining the phrase, maybe I'm not. But we in the trade largely agree that wines can show differently on any given day simply due to tides, atmospheric pressure change and the like. What's not to say a wine can't have an off day? It is an organic creature after all and, like us, can feel inclined to pout - or strut its stuff  - accordingly.

I'm not one for change in general, but I do find it absolutely fascinating in the case of wine. It's one of the reasons I'm in this business: the experience is almost always unique, and therefore uniquely fulfilling.

What's your experience with bottle variation?

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wine exploration: Bierzo and Mencia

Bierzo, SpainWere you nerdy about wine in 2006? If so, you probably read a few articles about Bierzo, or the indigenous grape varietal they cultivate there (Mencia). Maybe you even tasted it. (It was considered "up and coming" at the time - and perhaps it still is, though I've only ever tasted a handful of Bierzo/Mencia wines since.) I became a fan of Mencia back then, having sampled a wine from Bierzo at  my shop's annual Fall Grand Wine Tasting event. I ended up with half a case of Dominio de Tares Baltos.  Since then I've fallen off the Bierzo wagon.  I was simply ready for new adventures once I finished my 6 bottles.

But as my co-worker and I continue to reevaluate and revisit the 1200 or so facings we have on our shelves, I found the Baltos again and decided to give it a whirl once more.

Bierzo is a fairly small wine-producing region located in the Northwest of Spain, quite close to Portugal. After the phylloxera epidemic killed most of the vines in the late 19th Century, economic crisis made it additionally difficult for Spanish winemaking to bounce back. But when they did in Bierzo, locals stayed true to their roots (no pun intended) and grafted Mencia vines, the dominant, native red grape varietal there. Bierzo became its own Denominacion de Origin in 1989. By then they were producing wines using more modern techniques to celebrate the best of their local varietals.

I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed when I retasted the Baltos. I was hoping for a wine with a bit of lift, as we like to say, something with red fruit flavors, a touch of earth and something... unique, I suppose. I remembered the Baltos as being distinctly versatile, pairing with a variety of foods and satisfying many people's taste buds. What I found was aromas of brett, or a barnyard essence with a touch more "funk" than simply walking into a real barn (a smell I actually cherish  in a wine). Brett isn't a fault, per se (though it is controversial), but I was hoping for violets, black raspberries and sweet plums. The palate delivered a touch of black plum fruit, but its leather earthiness dominated. A gentle bite of licorice filled the back palette. The wine wasn't bad, but it wasn't doing it for me either.

Perhaps it was palette fatigue at the end of a long day tasting and evaluating 75 or so wines for the shop, but the bottom line is, I was underwhelmed.

As I discussed at the outset, Bierzo was considered an up-and-coming region just a few years ago. I write about this 'designation' often enough. The thing is, Mencia/Bierzo doesn't seem to have taken off - at least not here in Greater Boston. Frankly, I've tasted very little Mencia offerings. I'm not in a position to judge them as a whole one way or the other. But I am curious:

How many of you are familiar with the Mencia grape and what is your experience with these wines?

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Latebreaking News: Stelvin wine enclosures can produce corked wine

I'm sure you have read numerous articles about how the world of wine is changing via the Stelvin screwcap bottle closure. The idea is to eradicate the 5-6% of all wines that end up "corked", a particular wine flaw imparted by natural cork and one you'll notice immediately if the wine you are about to sip smells like basement or wet cardboard. Australia took the Stelvin closure ball and ran with it within the last eight years or so. New Zealand nearly only uses screw caps now. And even old World producers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are embracing the concept more and more readily. France and Italy aren't that far behind, either. A side note: I find some of the resistance to screwcaps among old world producers entertaining given many of these countries had a hand in testing the new closures back in the '60's and '70s. I appreciate the winemaker's concern for wines like Bordeaux or Burgundy, which require aging and for which a cork closure is a benefit; but when it comes to wines made for drinking within a year or two, where's the hold up? Here we have yet another example of the conflict between "science" and "tradition" rearing its ugly head.

I was shocked to hear first-hand this week that a 2007 case of French wine with Stelvin screwcap closures landed in a Massachusetts warehouse - and the wine was corked.

"Corked", you ask? Indeed. Corked. "But didn't the guys at Hogue Cellars "prove" to us that was now impossible with use of the Stelvin?" I thought so, too, but apparently there are some exceptions to the rule. The source I heard this report from was there for the big moment of truth. He reported matter of factly, "the wine smelled like wet cardboard".

I poked around on-line to see if there were any such similar reports. I came up empty. Perhaps no one's talking about it yet because they don't want to believe it. Or perhaps this technology is so darn new there's still room for error and we're just finding out over the course of things. Don't get me wrong. I'm not all that alarmed by this revelation. I'm sure we're looking at cap flaws happening VERY rarely. The thing that's got me scratching my head is how the flawed wine still had the aroma and taste of a corked wine. To me that's something uniquely imparted by actual, natural cork, not something that's manufactured....

Is this news to you, too?

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Science is fun! If not sometimes problematic...

Wine making is a science project. Heck, the entire liquor industry is one big experiment! That's a big part of what makes wine so darn fun to taste and learn about.The So here's my latest evidence... Last Thursday night I wanted a nice glass of something "comforting" with my dinner. I had a bottle of a baby (e.g. $10) 2005 Bordeaux in my wine fridge I knew would scratch the itch perfectly. I unscrewed the cap (yep! a screw cap, so no fear of a corked bottle), poured myself a glass and began sipping. It was exactly as I remembered: bright red-berry fruit with hints of caramel, a supple mouthfeel, gentle tannins and a lingering, slightly spicy finish. I finished the first glass with dinner and poured myself a second while I watched the game. Yum. Since it was a 2005 Bordeaux, I decided to cap the bottle (rather than pump the air out) and tucked it back in my fridge for another night or two to see what it would do.

On Saturday night I was psyched to pull the bottle back out with dinner. I let it warm up to room temperature and poured my boyfriend and I each a glass. I was still munching when he went in for a sniff.... "Vanilla! No, BUTTERSCOTCH? Is it supposed to be like that?", was the reaction my previously yummy wine elicited. And, NO. It was not supposed to be like that. It not only smelled exactly like a butterscotch candy, it tasted like it. We dumped the bottle and moved on (yea back up wines). The experience got me thinking... can a wine start out great/normal and then turn out to be flawed?

So I did some additional research... What I learned was the wine could have been affected with too much diacetyl. Sometimes this can be a good thing, as the wine takes on buttery, nutty or even caramel-ish tendencies. I don't mind essence of caramel at all in my wine - either sniffing or sipping! What I find fascinating is that the mild caramel flavor I tasted on Thursday night could devolve SO dramatically so as to render the wine undrinkable by Saturday.

I'm going to continue my research on this phenomenon and recreate my experiment with another bottle. In the meantime, what's your experience with flawed wine? Do you know something more about Diacetyl?

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