Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Bedside Diagnostician Contemplates Curative Wrestling

I just returned from what I shall refer to as ‘a place that is not the USA’, and while there I found the time to stop in at a few tasting rooms in one of that country’s up-and-coming wine regions. This particular destination, home to a dozen and a half wineries, is closer to the equator than is the Finger Lakes, and I was hoping to taste some wines that were, if not rich and alcoholic, at least tasty and expressive.

Alas, no such luck. At one winery in particular, things got off to an especially bad start. The very first white ‘poured’ a deep bronze color. (I am stealing here from the lexicon of beer writers, who have made a bold semantic leap and given free will and animism to the liquids they scrutinize.)

While it’s fine for beers to ‘pour’ a bronze color, white wines normally prefer to ‘pour’ a pale gold color. Was I disappointed? Not really, because moments before, my niece Lydia had asked a very good question: “How exactly can you tell if a wine is bad?” I’d told her that she’d have to wait until we came across one, and then things would fall into place. I had no inkling that that moment would come so soon.

There’s nothing as satisfying as a good object lesson! Lydia now knows all she needs to know about oxidation in white wines, given that she is studying to be a mezzo-soprano. My son Justin was also along for the ride, and he too was able to see the good in this experience, since his friends often tell him that he has a filial obligation to pontificate on the wine they happen to be drinking.

The second, third and fourth wines all followed suit, and then we moved onto the reds.

These wines ‘poured’ a good enough red color, but when it came time for them to ‘taste’, they didn’t fare particularly well. Lydia’s object lesson number two came rapidly, in the form of a 2006 Pinot noir. Our server had given us a carefully worded preamble – or was it a disclaimer? – along the lines of, “This one’s not from the ripest of years, but it only costs ten units of the currency we use in this country.” I hope I’m translating that correctly.

Well, if the wine’s only problem had been a hint of under-ripeness, that would have been fine. But what we had in our glasses was a full-blown example of what’s called ‘mousiness’, a type of bacterial spoilage that gives the affected wine an indelible flavor of mouse urine. It’s an aroma, actually, but an aroma that only becomes apparent when the wine heats up in your mouth for a few seconds, so you can’t use your nose in the regular way to warn you to steer clear.

I got back home several days later, and immediately drove out to the winery to hang out with my own wines for a while, in the same way that youngsters rush up to their bedroom after a vacation to spend time with their stuffed animals. Not that I was the least bit worried, but I was nevertheless happy that all the whites ‘sample-valved’ a nice pale shimmery color, and their attendant aromas were clean and fresh.

Things can and do go wrong with wines at this time of year, though, and it is one of the most crucial tasks of winemakers to take steps to prevent mishaps. A partially filled tank of Chardonnay with the top manway left open for a few days will begin to show signs of distress, and a barrel of Pinot noir which didn’t get a little dose of sulfite can start down a microbial path that will probably not end well.  

Some wise aphorist -- or maybe it was my grandmother -- once said, “Prevention is the something something of something”, and I keep that in mind all the time. It couldn’t be more true than in the realm of winemaking. Kelby wrote in an earlier blog of the House Palate phenomenon, wherein practitioners lose the ability to spot problems in their wines because of a creeping acclimation. Avoiding a house palate is our first line of defense against the appearance of aroma and flavor defects.

We need not only to be alert to all kinds of potential problems, but also to know what to call them, how to prevent them, and in a worst-case scenario, how to cure them. And this is where we are wise to look across the sea for guidance, to that ‘formidable’ nation that is synonymous with great wine.

The charming, inscrutable language of wine spoilage in French counsels us to think of defective wines as having an ‘illness’. The names of these illnesses predate the actual understanding of their cause, and so we have a collection of maladies that sound as quaint as Ague, Consumption and Glandular Fever do to modern medical practitioners. In French wine handbooks we come across terms such as Tourne (literally, ‘a case of the sniffles’), Graisse (literally, ‘I need to go lie down in a dark room for awhile’) and Acescence (literally, ‘What the hell are we going to tell the boss, Marcel?’)

This approach to wine maladies is in keeping with the French conviction that wine is a living thing, with a heartbeat and everything, as vigorous and fecund as the head lice in a third-grade classroom. And just like insects, wines can’t talk, so we can’t count on being able to coax anything out of them verbally when something goes wrong. Neither do they have foreheads, for that matter, so even seeing if they are feverish takes a whole lot more effort than it ought to.

Flow charts and the Internet to the rescue! This French website not only helps winemakers diagnose and treat wine illnesses, but it does so with a level of aplomb worthy of France’s über-hero Jerry Lewis. Here is a prime example, which I reprint verbatim:

So there you have our lives at the moment. We’ve rolled out the practice mat and are busy getting our wrestling skills up to scratch, all the while hoping against hope that we won’t have to resort to any mecanic beating of the wines. Life is beautiful.

By: Peter Bell, Winemaker

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