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Untangled Vine

An attempt to sort through all things wine. Specifically of, and about, but not limited to: Food and Wine in Toledo, Ohio. Plus the day to day musings of a Wine Distributor...

Try the good acid.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Have you ever tasted a white wine that made your mouth water and your lips pucker, maybe even making your eyes water? Surprise you? Did that seem wrong? What about a red wine that did the same? If so, it’s time to stop being freaked out by it and start embracing it! Every wine geek goes ga-ga for just these types of wine. Surprisingly, it’s not just to have wine street cred, like say, being a fan of David Lynch (I can’t seem to find any redeeming qualities in his freak-show films). These wines have a very important place in the world, particularly when it comes to food and wine pairings.

Acidity, for our purposes, exists in 3 forms in wine. Citric acid, you should know, oranges, grapefruits, lemons, all have citric acid. The second, we don’t think of as acidity, Tannins, which are the grip you get from big red wines like Cabernet. It can come from the fruit, where it gives a sensation of velvet, or oak where it is bitter like a Popsicle stick, or a combination of the 2. Tannins or Tannic acid exist mostly in red wines and are technically an acid, but when experts refer to acids, this is not usually included. The third acid is Tartaric, which is like irony in that it is difficult to describe, but I know it when I see it. It is prevalent in most white wines that have a mineral quality, and is best described as having a certain spiciness or liveliness. It may even seem spritzy without actually have any effervescence. You will find this in wines form the Loire Valley, France or most significantly from good German Rieslings. In fact, they are so abundant in German Rieslings that they often crystallize either in the bottom of the bottle or on the bottom of the cork. They will look like salt crystals and many people mistake these for a flaw in the wine, when in fact it’s just the opposite, it’s a sign of high quality and a well structured and developed wine.

Wines with high acidity are a function of 3 factors. First, is the variety of grape. Sauvignon Blanc & Riesling are inherently more acidic than Chardonnay. Second is climate. Generally speaking the cooler the climate is, the higher the acidity is. Third, is the mineral content of the soil. The 2nd and 3rd rules can trump the first. I have often had California (or Ohio) Rieslings with no acidity and I’ve also had Chablis (Chardonnay from Burgundy) that would clean dentures. Whenever a rare and difficult to duplicate set of factors contribute to a wine’s character, the result is usually something very special. Rarity aside, what place do these wines have? Americans are not accustomed to anything with acidity aside from Tomato Sauce and Lemonheads. As one of my favorite German producers likes to say, “Americans are weaned on Coca Cola and Ketchup, it takes practice to appreciate acidity in wines”. This is true, we don’t usually expect that rush of acidity, which surprises our palates, and our palates don’t like surprises. But these wines wake up our appetites, they make us salivate, which prepares us to eat. It will also pair beautifully with many foods. High Acid goes great with high fat. Want to make a butter or cream sauce less rich? High acid white is the way to go. They are also great for pairing with soft young cheeses, especially goat cheese. Great Whites with High Acid to look for include Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc form Loire, and one of my all time favs), Rueda (Spain), Pouilly Fume, Loire Chenin Blancs, Mosel and Rheingau Rieslings (The acids act as a counterpunch to the sweetness of these wines), Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc from Alsace, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (a little too stylized for me but a crowd pleaser), and of course Chablis.

Acid driven reds are a whole different ballgame. Most reds with acidity (think of the sour of cherries, or berries), can be manipulated to be less acidic and more fruity. The more acid, typically, the longer you can age these wines. Reds with acidity of note? How about Red Burgundy (which is Pinot Noir), Riojas, Barolos and Barabarescos, Beaujolais, and many of the best Syrahs, Grenaches, Tempranillos, Sangioveses and Pinot Noirs around the world. Whereas acidity in white wine often tastes like citrus. The acidity in reds can run the gamut with a huge diversity of fruit flavors. Most of the truly collectible reds are acid driven, but very few are viewed as everyday wines by Americans. We tend to like our reds fruity and straightforward. As we develop our palates, we begin to appreciate acidity even more, and in fact tend to gravitate towards wines with these characteristics.

Wine Critics: Friends or deceptive, evil greedy manipulators riding a currency of insecurity?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Since wine is such a complicated concept for most, and consumers have a difficult time deciding what they like (as strange as that may sound), wine publications have gotten fat and rich off the insecurities of many. Now, many elitists will tell you that all wine critics are bad for the industry. While many consumers only feel fulfilled once they find as many top 100 Wine Spectator wines as possible. I’m here to consider both sides, and tell you who you can believe and trust, and what you should do with most wine publications.

The first and last caveat for anyone that reads wine reviews is to understand your own palate, and understand that what you like will always be in a state of flux. This applies for you and for the critics. There are a multitude of foods that it took me a while to acquire a taste for. I never used to like pickles, blue cheese, mussels, beer (mmm… beer), coffee, good olives, diet soda, but I love them now. I also remember thinking that I could exist solely on Hershey’s bars, fun dip and grape soda. Now that make’s me cringe. See, my palate has changed, and so has yours. I also remember my first encounter with “rated” wines and thinking it should speak to me, but it didn’t. Did this mean my palate doesn’t get it? I felt like those “magic eye” posters you saw in the malls 10 or 15 years ago, never got those either. In hindsight, I now realize that I just wasn’t into wine when I first tried to equate ratings to my personal enjoyment. A novice drinking a $100 bottle of wine won’t instantly see the light. These wines don’t exist to impress people that don’t regularly drink wine. This amplifies a problem with assigning a numeric score to something that is so arbitrary that it depends on yours and the critic’s palate, style preference, etc. I may feel a wine is worth 90 points, but that doesn’t mean anyone I know that will agree. There is no absolute litmus test of quality. It is advisable to try to expand your palate as often as possible. You will acquire a taste for better and better wines, and will ultimately draw more satisfaction from wines. That said, if you like it, it is good. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

So what is the point of all of these wine magazines and the ratings? The 2 most popular publications Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast are largely lifestyle publications. They do include Wine Ratings each issue, and they each have dedicated teams devoted to rating wine. The other big publication is The Wine Advocate (also known as Robert M. Parker). Parker is probably the most powerful man in the wine industry. Parker’s publication is subscription only, expensive, and features no ads or pictures. Because of this, it is considered the most credible of the 3. In my (perhaps naïve & optimistic) heart, I believe all of these publications to be honest and open about their ratings. Some Conspiracy Theorists believe that Wine Spectator gives preferred ratings to wineries that buy ad space. This is a common sentiment, but one that I have no reason to believe nor evidence to support. All of these publications rate on a 100 point scale. Anything over 90 points is deemed an exceptional wine. In most cases, the same people review all wines from a given region for strong points of reference. I believe that every single person that reviews wine for a living for these 3 publications has a better palate and more experience than I do. That still doesn’t mean that I always agree with what they say. The ratings surely exist to sell magazines, but they also exist for a purer purpose, to guide consumers through an unrealistic amount of choices. No matter how sophisticated your palate becomes, there will never be a critic or publication you agree with 100%. If you are into wine, read these magazines, enjoy them and listen to what they say because they are the experts, but don’t be afraid to disagree. It’s important to stay true to what you like while developing your palate.

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