Wine 101 - Questions answerd by our winemaker, Doug Wiens.
- Within a few months: Sparkling wines and light delicate fruity whites in clear bottles such as Pinot Gris or Chenin Blanc
- 0 – 2 years: Highly aromatic whites such as Riesling, Muscat, Malvasia, and Sauvignon Blanc
- 1 – 3 years: Age-worthy whites such as Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, or Marsanne
- 1 – 4 years: Lighter reds including most Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Tempranillo
- 2 – 5 years: Medium reds such as Zinfandel, Barbera, Merlot, Primitivo
- 2 – 7 years: Medium/heavy reds including Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec
- 2 – 10 years: Heavier reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Red Ports
Both red and white Zinfandel are made from the same variety of grape. The differences come from how the grapes are grown, when they are picked, and how they are processed once at the winery.
White Zinfandel is generally a pinkish color, usually light, but never completely without some pink tint. Vineyards with grapes that are destined for white Zinfandel generally are grown in very fertile areas and warmer climates, with vines that are quite large and productive. Yields from these vineyards may be up to around 15 tons to the acre, with grape clusters nearly a foot long. Since a light color and crisp flavor is desired in white Zinfandel, the fruit is picked early when roughly 18 -20 brix (a technical term for % sugar by weight). The earlier harvest provides grapes that are firmer, lighter colored, and have a higher amount of fruit acids for crispness.
Fruit for red Zinfandel on the other hand, is allowed to become much riper, with brix levels over 24 and sometimes up to 28. Red zin fruit is harvested about 3 – 4 weeks later than fruit for white and farmed more intensively, with yields often as low as 1 – 3 tons per acre. Sometimes the fruit is so ripe and sweet that finished red Zinfandel has a small amount of residual sugar, which helps smooth out the big flavors and high alcohols.
In winemaking, Zinfandel grapes for white are pressed (the juice squeezed out) as the very first step, prior to fermentation. The pressed juice has a slight pink color because only a small amount of red pigments are released from the skins during pressing. In wine grapes only the skins have color, the juice is colorless. For red Zinfandel, the entire grape is fermented with the skins included, and pressing happens after the yeast fermentation is complete. Enzymes naturally provided by growing fermentation yeast and sometimes added by the winemaker, soften the grape skins and release the red pigments into the new wine.
So now you know why white Zinfandel, which has considerably lower input requirements in farming and winemaking, commands a much lower price than red zin. We hope you enjoy our 2007 Zinfandel, a robust red wine perfect for a fall or winter barbecue. Cheers! –Doug Wiens, Winemaker
There are probably several reasons for this oft-used description. First, the grape naturally produces wine with high viscosity and rich mouth-feel. Second, characteristics of this variety’s ripening process often result in high sugars. Third, in order to get the richest flavors from Syrah, winemakers generally prefer to let the fruit get fully ripe before harvest.
Syrah is a very highly colored grape with skins that easily break down during fermentation. This results in wine containing much more of the components that add to a “thick” feel. Glycerol, tannins, ethanol, and a bit of residual sugar are the four major contributors. Glycerol (also known as glycerin) is a very viscous substance that contributes both mouth-feel and a slight sweetness. Tannins are the natural backbone of wine astringency & texture, and though Syrah contains a fairly large amount of this component, it tends to be softer and rounder than in some other wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Alcohol is often high in Syrah and some residual sugar present due to its tendency to be quite ripe at harvest.
So, why do the grapes tend to be so ripe with high sugars? Partly it’s because the berries have skins that go from firm to flabby in a matter of days, particularly if there’s any water stress or high temperatures when the grapes are mature. The skins are not really thin as you might find in Pinot Noir or Zinfandel which can cause those varieties to shrivel. Instead, thick though they may be, ripe Syrah skins senesce, get soft, and very quickly lose their ability to retain water. Pick me today or I’m boarding the raisin train tomorrow!
Now… why do we take the raisin risk? Because Syrah made from unripe grapes can have very off-putting green flavors, harsh tannins, and a rather weedy character. Most of this grape’s wonderful assets only express themselves with fully ripe fruit. Rich jammy blackberry flavors, spicy black pepper aromas, and complex earthy notes come out when patience rules the harvest. We’re sure you’ll find that our ’07 Syrah October wine club release shows all these great things quite admirably. Cheers!
Petit Verdot (pronounced peh-TEE vehr-DOUGH and means “little green”) is a red wine grape classically used in Bordeaux-style blends and American Cabernets to add color, tannins, and complexity. Generally it’s used in small amounts, 5% or less of the blend, due to its tendency to be astringent and have strong vinous (green/grassy) flavors & aromas reminiscent of pencil shavings. However, when allowed to become very ripe in warm climates such as Temecula, the vinous characters are less pronounced so higher amounts can be used. Fully mature fruit offers spice, leather, and floral notes. Our newly released ’07 Meritage is 25% Petit Verdot so is quite evident among the wine’s flavors.
Most likely the differences you experience are from serving temperature, background smells, or variations in your palate. Your perception of how the wine tastes can be greatly influenced by personal and environmental conditions. When preparing a wine for bottling, we batch the wine up in a tank, then test and taste over a period of a couple months and slowly make careful winemaking adjustments before putting it in the bottle. This allows for averaging out our tasting experiences, giving us a truer overall impression of the wine. We'd never judge or adjust a finished wine based on a single day's tasting observations.
Serving temperature can have a big impact on how a wine tastes and feels. We try to keep our tasting room fairly cool, generally 65 – 70 degrees (though a little warmer in summer). So, the red wine you try in the tasting room will be at our room temperature. We serve whites chilled, and they are held in cooling chambers throughout the day to keep them cool. In general, wine is better cool rather than warm, although if too cold it will have scarce aroma. Wine served too warm can have an alcohol burning sensation and can give off volatiles that are less pleasant. As a general rule, serve whites at around 50 degrees (halfway between room and refrigerator temperatures) and reds at around 65 degrees (just below room temperature).
So what's this about background smells? We've all experienced going into a room and being punched in the nose by some aroma (cat box, room freshener, garlic) but after being there for awhile we don't smell the aroma anymore. Oddly enough, it seems that background scents become noticeable again when sniffing wine, although we might wrongly attribute the background to the wine itself. Recently at the winery, we were having our gas tank & cylinders refilled by a propane truck, a process that took about 20 minutes. I was in the cellar at the time sampling several tanks, and was very worried that all of our wines had a terrible pungent gassy smell! The propane aroma had seeped into the room slowly so that I didn't notice it until sniffing the wine. Imagine my relief after going outside and seeing the truck. So anyway, take your wine glass out on your patio and see how much its scent changes. You'll be surprised!
Lastly, let's talk about how we ourselves can affect how a wine tastes. Our palates are variable, fallible, changeable, and highly impacted by what we've recently eaten, time of day, medicines we're taking, how we're feeling, and how many drinks we've had. If a wine tastes odd to you, try it with food or with different food. Put the cork in and try it again later. Or, have a glass of a “warm-up” wine that you know and like, then go back to the other. Sometimes, just by being more relaxed after the first glass, everything afterward is better! Most importantly, don't make snap judgments. For me, the best wines ALWAYS taste better at the last sip vs. the first. So sit back, swirl, smell, sip, and savor!
Partly, it’s tradition. More important, however, are all the benefits that oak brings to wine. It helps protect the wine from spoilage, stabilizes color, and adds desirable flavors & texture.
Oak contains compounds called tannins, which suppress bacterial growth, scavenge oxygen, and give wine additional silky rich mouth-feel. These and other beneficial compounds from the oak are slowly leached out into the wine as it ages. In order to achieve the ideal characteristics, a very long “cooperage” (barrel-making) process must be accomplished.
Before the oak planks are made into barrels, they are stacked and aged 2-3 years outdoors in the elements to make the “woody” flavors more desirable and subtle. After the barrels are constructed, the inner surface is toasted using various methods. Traditionally, a small fire made by burning oak scraps is used. The “cooper” (barrel maker) slowly and carefully spins the open-ended new cask over the flames, toasting the oak staves to bring out flavors of caramel, vanilla, and spices such as cinnamon and cloves. Different toasting methods can vary the amounts and mix of flavors, allowing the winemaker to choose among various barrel brands in order to give a particular wine the perfect complimentary oak flavors.
Oak wine barrels are made using either European (including French) or American oak. European and American oak trees are different species, so the wood has slightly different characteristics. European oak barrels tend to add more subtle flavors, with higher amounts of vanilla and caramel. American oak is generally spicier, with bolder toasty flavors of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Winemakers use these differences when choosing barrels for a given wine.
Heavier wines such as Syrah and Zinfandel do quite nicely in American oak. Lighter wines including Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are more often put into French/European barrels so that the wood does not overpower the wine. Sometimes, however, with wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon that can be quite heavy, French oak is usually preferred since the vanilla and caramel aromas are a nice complement to Cab’s dark & herbal notes. The barrel provides balance, elegance, and enhances fruit aromas. The wine to barrel marriage is very important, and we at Wiens test numerous combinations before deciding which matches do best.
So, the next time you’re in the barrel room, take a moment to study the different types of barrels. They truly are the winemaker’s spice rack!
Vegetable-like or grassy flavors are fairly common in some Bordeaux varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. These types of grapes have naturally occurring levels of a family of chemical compounds called pyrazines, which are the source of the flavor. In very small amounts, pyrazines can add complexity and make a wine more interesting. If there’s too much, however, the wine can be unpleasant and unbalanced, with any fruit flavors suppressed and masked by the veggieness.
So, how do winemakers limit pyrazines in their wines? It all happens in the vineyard by managing grapevine canopy size & density, and by allowing the grapes to fully ripen before harvest. It takes sunlight on the grape clusters to develop nice fruity flavors, and lack of sunlight will favor vegetative flavors. Vineyard canopies (a term for the collective vine & leaf portion of the vines) that are very large, overgrown, and dense will yield poorer flavored fruit. By cutting back on irrigation water, fertilizing less, and doing dormant pruning to control canopy size, grape quality (and hence wine quality) is improved because more sunlight reaches the clusters. In addition, the vineyard manager might decide in the springtime to thin out some vine shoots or even pull off some leaves in the fruiting zone to allow more sun penetration.
Now you may ask, why don’t all vineyard managers do these things if they will make their grapes better? Money, of course! Intense vineyard management practices not only cost more in labor, but also result in lower fruit yields. If the vineyard is not owned, controlled or at least strongly influenced by the winery & winemaker, the natural tendency on the vineyard side is to get the highest grape tonnage possible with the lowest possible cost of production. Cheap wines are made from cheap grapes, which is why a $5 - $10 bottle of Cabernet is more likely to taste like vegetables than a $30+ bottle.
Believe it or not, it's often a sign that the wine is very good! Wine is a wonderful combination of thousands of natural components and essences. The best wines generally have higher concentrations of the things that make wine good – flavors, pigments, fruit acids, polysaccharides, tannins, and alcohol all add to the sensory experience elicited by the finest wines.
You may have noticed that I didn't say anything about wine containing bits of stem, leaves, seeds, grape skin, or shards of glass! Only in the most extremely remote, unusual, mistake of circumstance would any of these contaminants ever find their way through the maze of screening, racking, fining, testing, and filtering and into a wine bottle. The vast majority of sediment in wine is formed from natural chemical reactions AFTER bottling.
So, back to the question. Most often, the sediment in wine bottles is largely potassium bitartrate (same as "cream of tartar" used in cooking, which is commercially derived from wine). Bitartrate forms when tartaric acid, the major fruit acid in wine, changes to an insoluble salt form in the presence of alcohol and low temperatures. When the wine is first bottled, the tartaric acid is completely soluble and unseen. After time, especially if the wine is held under cold conditions, the tartrates take on a crystalline, insoluble form and fall to the bottom (or to the top if the bottle is stored inverted). These are often the chunks you see. They are harmless. They are also insoluble, so shaking will just temporarily suspend them and not eliminate them. They will end up in EVERY poured glass instead of just the last!
In highly extracted wines, and wines made from intensively farmed grapes, the tartrate crystals are often joined by aggregated particles of other wine components. These too are harmless, and can be an indicator of a "big" wine. Europeans are very tolerant of sediment, perhaps thinking of it as a sign that the wine is minimally processed. Americans, on the other hand, generally view any particles in wine as a defect. This difference in opinion might stem from the fact that Americans tend to consume their wines with little aging, while European wines are more often aged for several years, giving the particles more time to form.
The best way to eliminate the sediment is to either decant the wine carefully from the bottle into a decanter prior to serving, or simply pour all glasses (especially the last) slowly and leave the final half ounce or so of wine along with the sediment in the bottom of the bottle.
Here are some rules as specified the TTB (Tax & Trade Bureau) for wine labeling:
Vintage – The vintage for a wine is the year that the grapes were harvested. Wines from a different year can be blended in up to 5% without changing the vintage if the wine has a specific appellation (such as Temecula Valley or Napa Valley ). You can blend in up to 15% from other years if the wine is not labeled appellation specific, instead using county or state designation.
Appellation – 85% of the grapes used in making the wine must be grown in the appellation stated on the label. Appellations are known geographic wine areas with distinctive physical features such as soil, climate, and elevation.
Varietal – 75% of the grapes used in making the wine must be of the varietal stated on the label. This blending leeway is very important to winemakers in order to provide wines with high levels of complexity and quality.
A winemaker can adjust fruit acids and fruit sugars in the cellar, and can even add high-colored grape juice concentrate and enological tannins, but the sunshine aromas are still the un-cracked “magic ingredient” of a fabulous wine. Did you know that within this tiny one part in a thousand, wine contains about 500 different aroma compounds? 500! This is why wine is so magic, and why we at Wiens grow about 80% of our own grapes. The rest are sourced from very carefully selected producers. Every decision we make in our vineyards is made with wine quality as the highest, almost our ONLY priority, keeping our grape clusters smiling happily in the sunshine. We hope you can taste the difference!