September 30, 2008

C6H12O6 → 2 CH3CH2OH + 2 CO2

A Lab correspondent recently wrote to us about his own experiments with vacuum pumps. And given our own work on the topic, I thought it would be useful to share his results. He pointed out that pumping per the manufacturers' recommendations (either until the pump returns strong resistance or starts to "click") might, in fact, be doing harm to your wine. Aggressive pumping will certainly provide a better vacuum and so reduce the effects of oxidation, but it may also serve to help pull ethanol out of solution and make the preserved wine smell "hot."

If you want to understand the hard parts of the science read these:

On the miscibility of Ethanol and Water (Science Beat); Wikipedia on Ethanol; and more on the effects of pressure on the solubility of gas.

If you read them (and I know you didn't), you know that yeast eats sugar and produces ethanol. It's the basis for making both wine and bio-fuels. Ethanol and water mix well but with weird results. Most relevant is probably that ethanol reduces surface tension in water. I say probably because I'm way over my head here science-wise and making most of this up. But it has something to do with the hydrogen's bonding properties and the reduction of system entropy that results. So it's not so much the pumping that's the problem, but the eventual release of pressure and the resulting disequilibrium that causes ethanol to evaporate out of solution and make the wine smell like grape-y diesel fumes. It's not dissimilar to what happens when you open a Coke and the gas, previously under pressure, escapes.

So we've been pumping less vigorously at the Lab (I know what you're thinking. Seriously, what's the matter with you? That is so infantile...) and the results have been positive (that's what she said!).

By the way, the guy who wrote us about this also makes a no smell, no taste, no residue soap just for wine glasses. We use it at the Lab. Check it out if you want.

September 29, 2008

More Cold Play

The reasons for doing this experiment were many. But first and foremost is the massive spike in traffic for the Lab website the last time we used "Cold Play" in the title of a post. I'm thinking the next 5 posts will be called "Britney".

But it's also true that after we tested the preservative qualities of inert gas and bottle pumps, we were left with a few unanswered questions. Most notably the one asked by my buddy Gary who wanted to know whether an open bottle of red holds up better in the fridge or on the kitchen counter.

In theory, cold is a useful preservative. Leave some chicken out on the counter for a couple days if you don't believe me. But there's also a persistent belief in some oenological corners that too much cold will deaden the fruit in red wine.

So we went back to the Bodegas Olivares, Altos de la Hoya, Jumilla Monastrell, 2006. It's terrific wine from ungrafted vines and costs as little as a gallon of organic milk, which makes it perfect for experimentation.

We replicated our prior protocols, pouring off 300 ml from each of two bottles. The first we gassed, recorked and left on the counter. The second, we gassed, recorked and put in the fridge. The temperature on the bottom shelf measured a crisp 38°. We let both sit for 5 days. We let both bottles come back to room temperature before tasting.

It was no contest.

The fridged bottle was the best showing of this wine so far (and we've had a fair few at the lab recently). Black cherry, ripe fig and cardamom spice. It was equally impressive in the mouth, energetic, gripping tannins and that ungrafted hallmark: inextricably intertwined fruit and rocks.

Meanwhile, the countered bottle was showing a lot of alcohol volatility and overripe, approaching rancid, fruit. The complexity in the palate had vanished. Whatever excitement this bottle once held had set sail for other ports.

Clearly, much more testing needs to be done.
This effort is merely anecdotal. Please feel free to further our cause with your own refrigeration anecdotes.

If we get a big pile of them I can have one of the research assistants compile all of them into a shiny binder. They love making binders.

September 25, 2008

Dark Days at the Bubbledome

I am shocked and horrified.

It seems that some of the exuberance of the Bubbledome has spilled into a back alley behind the Lab. In said alley, several members of the staff -- all of whom are now on official "administrative" leave -- have apparently been running unsanctioned, Dome-style competitions.

These grotesque battles pit 375 ml "demis" against each other in what is being called "Midget BFC."

Like you, I am appalled. This is highly insensitive and completely inappropriate, and all participants will be dealt with harshly.

It is worth noting, however, that the competitors were of a fairly high quality.

I found these notes on the ground after the local authorities completed their raid:

Fleury, Carte Rouge Brut, NV. First whiffs are wet leaves (oxidation), spiced apple, lemon and a trace of toffee. After 20 minutes reveals itself to be a moving target. Now nutty with a clear aroma of caramel apple. Cherry and green apple fruit with bright tangerine acid on the attack, a creamy texture mid-palate and a zippy, acid return on the finish.

versus Camile Saves, Premier Cru Brut, NV. Classic autolytics. Yeasty biscuits with an almond-y undertone. Elegant, with a vinous depth reaching down to a subtle mineral floor. Great red fruit fruit tang and sweet chalk on the finish.

A nice showing by both little guys.

Wonder who won?

September 22, 2008

The Planck Epoch and 8th Grade Algebra

The Planck Epoch is the earliest period of time in the history of the universe, from zero to 10-43 seconds. It's when everything started.

With wine, we all have a starting point, a personal Planck Epoch. That great Burgundy where we first sat up and took notice. That trip to a winery where we finally made the connection between the dirt of the vineyard and the juice in the glass. It's that moment of crystalline awareness where we realized something great had happened and we wanted it to happen again.

My moment? I pretty much missed it. Completely unawares. I wouldn't even know it had happened until years after. But in my defense, I was only 13. At the time, Doug Shafer was explaining why he was applying his U.C. Davis oenology degree to teaching my 8th grade Algebra class and not to working for his family's new winery. It was that moment where the seed was planted. Wine is interesting was the formative impression.

Doug's vineyard sabbatical lasted 3 years. No doubt, wine drinkers everywhere benefited from Doug's decision to return to the vineyards. But I'm sure the math scores at my junior high did not. Looking back on my 12 years of primary education, Doug stands out as a true highlight. He was enthusiastic and excitable. His lessons were memorable (especially the first one where he danced like a mad, tribal shaman trying to convey something about language, dance and mathematics). He was one of those teachers you write your college application essay about, describing the ones who influenced you at fundamental levels.

I was in 8th grade in 1980. So when I found a bottle of 1980 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon, I could hardly resist. I paid more than it was worth, then emailed Doug to find out who had made it (remember he was teaching Algebra in Tucson, Arizona at the time). Fellow named Nikko Schoch made the wine and Doug suggested I use it for salad dressing.

And we almost did. Started out with a sharp nose and a balsamic tang. But we held out hopes and decanted the bottle anyway. After an hour, our optimism was rewarded. The nose opened up brilliantly with beautiful aromas of dried cherry, woodsmoke and vanilla brandy butter. It reminded everyone of Christmas for no specific reason we could point to. The fruit was surprisingly bright, cherry and cassis, and infused with cigar smoke, a dash of pepper and a few still biting tannins.

This was a more delicate Cabernet than the muscular ones Doug would later make to great acclaim, but it more than kept up with the bottle's inestimable sentimental value.

September 18, 2008

What Would Jean Lafitte Drink? [Roots 6]

Tomorrow, September 19, is "National Talk Like A Pirate Day". Really, it is. I wouldn't joke about something like this.

So, to commemorate one of the truly stupid holidays of all time, we thought we'd dip into the cellar for a Madeira. What else would a pirate like Jean Lafitte be drinking? Okay, yo ho for Rum, but distilled spirits are beyond the scope of our current research grant. And Madeiras are more interesting anyway.

As the Roots thought-experiments are about drinking our way back through time, we considered buying an ancient Madeira from an antique vintage. But these are terribly expensive. (By the way, if you're new to the Lab and don't know what I'm talking about, you can find the start of the Roots series here or check the Lab Index for some context.)

Given budgetary realities, we thought we'd instead delve into the Rare Wine Company's Historic Madeiras (which aren't exactly cheap themselves). Moving from sweet to dry, the series offers a New York Malmsey, a Boston Bual, a Charleston Sercial and a harder to find New Orleans Madeira based on the nearly extinct Terrantez grape. The effort is a bit of a thought experiment itself. According to the company's website, rather than blend for uniformity they set out to make, "Madeiras that reflect the style and complexity of the great vintage wines."

Not sure exactly how you do that. But this experiment in antique Madeira works for me. For Pirate Day at the Lab, we opened a bottle of the Boston Bual. It is dense in four directions, with beautiful, almost delicate, complexity.

Dark amber color, like burnt sugar. Complex nose of coffee, caramel, raisin, apple, sherry, anisette, vanilla, cedar, honey, clove, and etc. Rich and luxurious on the palate. Ripe apple, burnt sugar, espresso, mineral water, and a tart, unexpected acidity. The finish is like petrified toffee. Stoney, rich and sweet.

If this is what they served on pirate ships, I'd never get off the boat.

Memo to Lab Staff:

Talk Like a Pirate Day is NOT a Lab Holiday. Unless you say, "Arrgh," one more time. Then you can have a lot of days off. Starting immediately, me hearty.

September 17, 2008

Wait for it...!

I don't often write about the wine I drink outside the experimental confines of the Lab. But today I'm making an exception. If only to relate a bizarre experience. There's educational value in this. And we believe in education at the Lab. Unless you think you should get a pay raise because of your advanced degree. We're not zealots.

So after a hard day's Science, I arrived home in time for dinner and opened a bottle of wine from the fridge that I knew exactly nothing about. Well, not exactly nothing. But pretty close. The few things I did know were these:

1. biodynamic producer from Piedmont
2. a Louis/Dressner import
3. it was white

It also had a dog on the label (see image) which is almost never a good thing. It's made from Cortese, an Italian grape I really do know exactly nothing about. But items 1 & 2 are both positives in my experience, so I opened it.

It smelled... not good. I was immediately faced with that age old quandary: Is this off? It wasn't corked (we've been practicing detecting TCA at the Lab, more on that later). But it sure smelled funky. Funky bad, not funky good. It tasted funny too. Did strange things in my mouth. I really didn't know what to make of this. But dinner was ready, so I jammed the cork back in, put it back in the fridge and opened something else.

It wasn't until breakfast the next morning that I remembered the odd bottle. So I got it out and pulled the cork and sniffed. Not bad. Spiced apple and a woodsy smell that hinted at the previous night's funk, but had faded to an approachable level. So I poured a glass and tasted it. What? It's not like anyone at the Lab is going to look twice if I show up with wine on my breath...

In the mouth it was okay. Honeyed pear with a little hint of tart green apple. And them something quirky on the finish, something I couldn't quite identify. While I was thinking about it I put the glass down on the counter. Ten seconds must have passed (okay, five, but it felt like a long time) and then it happened.

First, there was this drying, tannic tingle. Then a faint nuttiness appeared on my tongue. Then a distinct flavor of hazelnut emerged. And this hazelnuttiness grew and grew -- like something outta Willy Wonka -- expanding in my mouth with a nearly physical presence.

I took another sip. And waited. There it was. The same imaginary, ever-expanding nut thing all over again.


Okay, it's not like I saw Bigfoot. But it was pretty weird.

September 15, 2008

BFC 6: A Crushing Victory for the Cremant

The Greek Brut survived the cage only to be trounced by a Bubbly Alsatian (that wine vocabulary can so easily substitute as pro-wrestling lingo is, I think, quite remarkable).

The "B" de Becker, Cremant d'Alsace, Extra Brut, NV, is from the Domaine Jean Becker in the hilltop village of Zellenberg. The three Becker siblings, who run the vineyards and winery together, trace their wine-making lineage back to the early 17th century. The "B" is a blend of Pinot, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. It's $18 at K&L Wines.

It has a beautiful nose of white flowers and tropical fruits including that faintly banana smell you sometimes get from new oak. And I'd swear there's an elusive fusel aroma as well. The palate is breathtakingly austere. Beautifully balanced, with a chalky minerality and a crisp, pencil-lead finish. The label looks like the page of a brochure from one of those wretched village museums, musée d'histoire de la ville, but the wine is quite elegant.

Next up in the Bubbledome, champion versus challenger. Two Cremants go toe to toe.

One unrelated note: It would seem that democracy has caught on more quickly at the Lab than in some parts of the Middle East (without naming names). After getting to vote on the Dome contest, the staff now votes on almost everything. They all voted the photo above as the worst in Lab history. When I tried to point out that a constant and direct democracy wasn't very practical, they voted that I leave the cafeteria.

September 12, 2008

BFC 6: Out of the Cage, Into the Fire

A rare democratic moment at the Lab today.

Some of the kids pointed out that the Greek winner, Tselepos Amalia Brut, in the BFC 5 Cagematch was very likely to get stomped by the current BFC Champion from Burgundy, Goisot's Cremant de Bourgogne. They thought it unfair to send the Greek in for an obvious brutalization. I argued that some of the best fights I've seen were one-sided. Who can forget Mike Tyson pulverizing Michael Spinks in 91 seconds 20 years ago?

But the kids were insistent. Fair play, sportsmanship and blah, blah, blah...

So we put it to a vote.

Turns out, I was voted down pretty much unanimously.

So this weekend in the Dome, the Greek Brut avoids the current champion, but will have to take on a different Frenchie.

Don't miss it. Results Monday.

September 10, 2008

Gas Versus No Gas

For this experiment, we uncorked and tasted two bottles of Bodegas Olivares, Altos de la Hoya, Jumilla Monastrell, 2006, detecting no discernible difference between the two wines (see yesterday's tasting notes).

We poured off exactly 300 ml from each bottle. We sealed one with Private Preserve. The other we reclosed with a Vacuvin pump. Then we waited 72 hours before re-tasting the wines.

The idea behind both approaches is the same. Get rid of the oxygen. Either pump it out, or replace it with a heavier-than-air mix of oxygen-less gas. According to the Private Preserve website, their special blend is "pure air with no oxygen," a semantically challenged definition to be sure.

The wine preserved with inert gas had a beautiful nose, with no discernible fade. The pumped bottle, however, had slipped a little. There was also a warm-alcohol volatility present (even though both were poured after 10 minutes in the fridge). The pumped bottle was drinking well, no fade noted in the fruit. But the chalky, mineral finish had gone slightly bitter (no doubt from oxidation). On the palate, the gassed bottle was better again. There was a noticeable freshness to the fruit, especially when tasted side by side against the pump. The finish wasn't bitter, but -- and I'm not sure why -- the tannins seemed a little sharper, more pronouncedly green than both the prior tasting and the pumped bottle.

Neither device "failed" per se. The inert gas certainly seemed to outperform the pump in this trial, but the pumped bottle was still very drinkable, with only a slight fade in aroma and taste.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Lab has consistently argued the best approach to the dilemma of wine preservation is to avoid it altogether. If you drink the whole bottle, there's nothing to preserve.

September 8, 2008

The Day After

Summer is over and we are back to the grind of full-time science at the Lab.

At a recent planning meeting, several storage issues made it on our agenda. Most noteworthy were several proposed experiments with a focus on storing wine after it has been opened. We plan to test effectiveness of air pumps and inert gas. We also want to see what effect, if any, storage temperature has on already opened bottle of wine.

For our first round of tests, we found a few bottles of 2006 Bodegas Olivares, Altos de la Hoya, Jumilla Monastrell (Mourvedre).

The sandy soils of Jumilla proved inhospitable to our old foe, the Dry Leaf Devastator, and many of the vineyards survived the Phylloxera plague unscathed. So the region is home to some of the oldest, ungrafted vines in the world. The Altos de la Hoya comes from grapes grown in an 11 hectare vineyard with some vines planted as far back as 1872. The importers claim that the 2006 vintage in Jumilla was the best in a decade.

Ungrafted, old Mourvedre from a great vintage. It's astonishing that you can buy this wine for less than $10. It will make you rethink your first growth Bordeaux collection.

Aromas of sweet, smokey plums with background notes of dusty cobblestones and Wrigley's spearmint chewing gum emerge with some time in the glass. On the palate, more plum and rich, ripe figs with hints of campfire and bacon. Underlying this is an amazing core of sweet, chalky minerality. Given their youth, the tannins are surprisingly soft and chewy.

This deep purple-y garnet wine has the lively tension and balanced integration often found in wines made from own-rooted vines (this is also on the Lab's agenda).

We opened a couple over the weekend to test. Results later this week.

(image: © Carlos Sanchez Pereyra |

September 4, 2008

Required Reading

I don't really have a sense of the audience for the Lab's research. I know my mom doesn't read the Lab Reports. She doesn't have a computer. Beyond that, I'm in the dark. As such, I apologize in advance to the more cultured members of our community who won't find today's report particularly newsworthy.

But for the rest of you, my delightful, unlettered masses...

I've never bought into the bollocks that the best things in life are free, but Terry Theise's catalogs are the exception. Theise finds wines by profession, mostly German and Austrian Rieslings and grower Champagnes. His catalogs of these discoveries offer some of the best, most entertaining and accessible wine writing on the planet. With Theise, you'll learn to decode German labels, to tell the difference between Cramant and Mesnil, and most importantly, you'll gain deep insights into why you should stop drinking industrial champagne. Of course, Theise has an ulterior motive. He wants you to drink his wines.

But, in my experience, that's a good thing.

You can download the catalogs here.

September 1, 2008

Cold Play

We've all done it. You grab a bottle from the cellar and whack it into the freezer to put a quick chill on it. Then halfway through dessert, you realize with a start, "Oh, [deleted]! The bottle in the freezer!" You race back to the kitchen to discover you've made Gavi granita. So what to do?

I could tell you this experiment was prompted by scientific curiosity. But the truth is elsewhere. Couple weeks ago, I realized we had totally forgotten an employee birthday -- which is always hard on Lab morale. So I jammed a Pinot Gris into the freezer and whipped up some vanilla fondant for a Sarah Lee poundcake I found in the fridge. The cake was a big hit and saved the day, but it wasn't until someone pointed out that Pinot Gris was the classic pairing for Sarah Lee poundcake that I remembered the bottle in the freezer.

In the kitchen, a debate broke out -- not uncommon here -- about whether the thawed wine would suffer any ill effect from being frozen. I cut the debate short -- also not uncommon -- pointing out there is no need to argue about something if there was an empirical proof available.

So we put a bottle of Chateau Ste Michelle/Dr Loosen, Riesling Eroica, 2006, in the freezer and froze it. We let the bottle thaw completely and then tasted it side by side and blind against an identical bottle that we had not similarly abused.

There was a minor color variation between the two, the Left bottle just slightly more pale than the Right. The Right bottle was a little more expressive on the nose, but the fruit in the two bottles was nearly identical: pear, nectarine and pineapple. The residual sugar was somewhat more prominent in the Right. And the faint mineral element on the finish was a little bitter on the Left.

Given what happened with the wine we left in the hot car, when the blindfolds came off we were all a little relieved to discover that the Right bottle was the "right" bottle. The Left had been frozen and thawed. But in truth, the Left bottle was hardly ruined. If you hadn't been looking for the distinctions, you might not have noticed.

Lab Conclusion: Don't toss that frozen Chardonnay into the bin. Just serve it a little later in the evening. Or pour it for people who asked if you had any White Zinfandel. They'll never know.