June 19, 2008

Finding Fault 1.2: The History of Heat

You may remember that yesterday, the Lab tasted two bottles of inexpensive red table wine. One had been cooked inside a hot car until the cork had almost pushed itself out of the bottle. The other was stored in a wine fridge set at 55°.

I tasted these two again today. There was little difference. The cooked one was still better, although the other had benefited marginally from some time in the air.

Should we take from this that some exposure to heat might be good for young wine? Just enough to hasten the aging process without oxidizing the bottle into vinegar? Good questions.

I am, by training, a historian. I even
almost finished my Ph.D. Some of my fascinatingly esoteric work on the semiotics of liberty is actually available online. You are no doubt wondering, why am I delving into my curriculum vitae? Because when in doubt, I go to my roots.

And my roots are research (mostly on wikipedia), and they yielded some interesting results.

The first is related to the myth of the ideal temperature of 55° (which is 13° Celsius). This guy, who apparently managed to finish his Ph.D., surmises that, "the 13°C temperature makes historical sense since wine storage in France is typically in caves and the natural underground temperature is around 13°C." In other words, not science of the sort we run here at the Lab, but tradition and history are the primary drivers behind 55°.

The second tid-bit (a technical term for historians) is related to Madeira, a fortified wine that was a favorite of both pirates and early Americans. This strange elixir was crafted on Madeira, a Portuguese island off the North African coast. The English King exempted the eponymous brew from the Navigation Acts of 1651 which limited American imports to mostly British goods. Since you probably can't name a decent English wine, Madeira was available without real competition in Colonial America, and so became a wildly popular way to get drunk. As a still wine, Madeira wasn't very good by most accounts. But when a cask was dosed with brandy as a preservative and sailed through the Tropics, Madeira evolved into something special. In fact, Madeira was not considered fully matured until it had made a voyage, preferably two, around the world. Eventually, the Madierianese (made that up, don't know what folks from Madeira are really called) figured out that heat and oxygenation were the key factors involved, and cleverly devised a way to heat and stir their product in a sort of wine-making greenhouse called an estufa. And thereby saved a lot on travel expense.

So clearly, heat can be beneficial in the right circumstances. Without further research, the Lab feels it would be irresponsible to make formal recommendations based on this single, idiosyncratic study. But if you find yourself with an extra bottle of inexpensive, not-great, too green wine, maybe take it for a drive in the sun, give it a little heat. Couldn't hurt.

(image: © James Steidl | Dreamstime.com)

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