Toasting to the Green Fairy
It’s not wine, but it is the stuff of which hazy green dreams—and art—are made. Absinthe, the liquor of choice of bohemian artists and writers, is not merely legal again in the United States; it’s flourishing. The namesake of bars and restaurants from New York to San Francisco, Absinthe holds unmistakable allure, even mystical connotation. Rare is the beverage that gets its own fairy and its own disease.
Invented in Switzerland at some indistinct point in the late eighteenth century, the liquor known as Absinthe begins as a clear, flavorless, highly alcoholic base that is infused with herbs, flowers and botanicals—namely anise, fennel, and Artemesia absinthium, or grand wormwood. It’s this last ingredient purported to give Absinthe its legendary kick, and it’s the ingredient that caused Absinthe to be banned in Europe and in the US about 80 years ago. The wormwood present in Absinthe provides the spirit with small amounts of the psychoactive chemical thujone, which may account for Absinthe’s hallucinatory effects. However, recent studies suggest that it’s probably just the super-high alcoholic content of Absinthe (40-70%), and not the thujone, that inspired Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Modigliani. (Science sometimes makes me sad.)
Absinthe divides drinkers. You love it, or you loathe it, and if you loathe it, the more for me, frankly. One really positive thing about the recent floodgates of legal Absinthe is the surprising quality. When Absinthe was illegal, it was bad. In fact, the custom of pouring Absinthe over cubes of sugar stems from the liquor’s previously unpleasant, often medicinal, flavor. New York Times writer Eric Asimov recently wrote favorably about the taste of the modern crop of Absinthes and noted that “The absinthes in our tasting had enough natural (and possibly unnatural) sweetness that adding sugar was unnecessary. The quality of most of them was unexpectedly good.”
Asimov seems to be damning with faint praise, but as an Absinthe lover, I’ll take it. I was delighted to read that a New Orleans microbiologist was harnessing all of his powers to recreate belle époque Absinthe, and I was even more delighted to read that a New York woman was creating her own artisanal Absinthe just a short drive away from Manhattan. I recognize that my love of Absinthe is touched with more than its fair share of pretension, and yet I’m delighted to have it infused with regional pride as well.
Part of what makes Absinthe so awesome is its history—one part its sinister reputation, the other part its necessary mad scientist mixology (you just can’t pop it into a glass and sip it; you need to tame the green and savage beast!) Another part is Absinthe’s accessories. Wine glasses may be lovely, but you don’t want a wine fountain. You do, on the other hand, want an Absinthe fountain—or at least I do. (Look for one at my next birthday party.) Absinthe requires complex ritual, and ritual is fun. Plus, Absinthe accoutrements are just so pretty. And if you’re not into the quirky glassware, quick search will help you find a plethora of Absinthe cocktail recipes.
These days, you can buy Absinthe online, or you can read Absinthe blogs. If you’re taking Virgin Airways, you can enjoy Absinthe on a plane. You can even order Absinthe lollypops when it’s socially appropriate to enjoy the PG 13 version of the Green Fairy. It’s an Absinthe mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world. We just drink moderately in it.
On spending wisely and well
After reading Thursday’s blog post by my coworker Tom Powers, I began to meditate on the subject he brought to our attention: whether value is found solely in a price tag. I found his point that inexpensive wines might not be of value to be a fair argument, and I too tend to lean in that direction, believing that low cost is nothing without good quality. But then I began to wonder, could it be that the best values are in more expensive wines? I’m thinking definitely maybe—and also maybe not.
Being in the wine industry and talking, thinking and living wine all day, I have to say there is a lot to discuss about wine and value. Generally, I agree with Tom that a price point of $25-$50 presents a better quality of wine, but there are different levels of wine drinkers. What do we say to those who don’t wish to spend more than $20 a bottle? Are they really drinking lesser quality wines? This is where it gets tricky, but this tricky area embodies the reason why I love what I do.
Let me put it this way: it simply becomes easier to buy wine with a larger budget. The higher the price point, generally, the higher the quality of wine. However, if this truism were accurate, then any drinker without deep knowledge, and really deep pockets, could buy any wine and like it. Unquestionably, wines will be more complex as you dig deeper into your wallet, and you’ll find that there are a fair number to choose from. On the other hand, think of how many wines are out there that are less than $20, and ask yourself, how many do you have to drink to find the diamond in the rough? It’s this sheer empirical sea that makes us think that there are no good wines under $20. The amount of time—and money—spent on wading through the sea of budget wines could instead have been more efficiently used on a more expensive wine like a Biondi-Santi 2001 Brunello di Montalcino or a Montevertine 2004 Pergole Torte.
And this brings me to my point: to really understand value, you need to get to know your wine and its producer. If you read up on some basics and get a feel for what’s out there, you can tell right away which producers are mass producing junk in order to make quick cash and those who have the passion and love to make an affordable beauty. Bottom line: real value can be found on all price spectrums—and conversely, real dreck can be found really expensively.
Knowledge is power and, it seems, value. Pay what you want, but spend with forethought. The Romans, in their infinite wisdom, had a saying for spending your money without research.
Caveat emptor: let the buyer—or the drinker—beware.
Questioning the point of price points
So many of the articles I read today discuss the concept of value-driven wines. There is a consensus that value lives in bottles of wine under $20. I find this perspective to be extremely limited. I’m drawn to wonder if there isn’t value in wines over $20, and I’m prompted to state that the opportunity to find real value exists in higher price points. For example, I think that all wine lovers can agree that finding a properly aged vintage wine from a single vineyard in pristine condition would be a greater value than another mass produced inexpensive bottle—even if that aged bottle were twice as expensive.
Let’s consider the idea of the “inexpensive-value wine.” Many of these wines are produced in large quantities. They’re made from grapes grown over a large area with wildly different terroirs. They’re machine harvested, and they’re assembled, rather than being crafted. While there are surprisingly fun wines at these price points, these wines lack any real complexity, balance or shape. They may be pleasing on a very simple level, but they often have a few components that clash with the rest of the wine. If what you’re paying $20 bucks for ends up being a fun—but deeply commercial—wine, I don’t see the value.
By spending a bit more money, you’ll find there is a whole world of wine that offers increased drinking satisfaction. Can we find wines that are $25-$50 that taste as good as or better than many bottles over $75? Absolutely! And this price point is where real value lives. Furthermore, is finding a beautifully aged bottle for $100 of greater value than a current release production at the same price? I would say it is.
Value, to my thinking, seems a lot like beauty. It’s in the glass of the holder. I’ll gladly pay a bit more to fill my glass with wine I respect, but that’s just the way I see it.
A delicious study in pressure
Most Champagne seems pretty expensive, and it can feel hard to shell out 80-100 bucks for a bottle of bubbly when you can buy a handful of bottles of still wines for the same price. I can’t necessarily rationalize the cost of a 500-1000 bottle of Champagne, but I can give you readers a sense of where your money is going—and that requires a fundamental knowledge of how Champagne is made.
The region of Champagne is the most northerly wine producing region in France. This region really pushes the envelope for the cultivation of grapes because it gets almost too cold for the grapes to ripen. It often rains, limiting the amount of sunshine and warmth that reach the vines. Late spring frosts are dangerous—often even a killer. The weather is unforgiving, and the decrease in yields sometimes adds the cost, but also the flavor, of a bottle of Champagne.
In addition to producers growing their grapes under difficult conditions, the method to make Champagne is not for slackers. It’s labor intense, no question. Let’s look at a breakdown of the steps you have to take to make a prime bottle of bubbly.
Step 1: The grapes are harvested like those for any other wine; then they’re pressed and fermented in large stainless steel or glass vats. Some producers, such as Krug, Bollinger and Vilmart, use 225 liter barriques for this fermentation.
Step 2: 5-6 months later the wine is ready for blending. Non-vintage champagne is a blend of about 40-50 wines from as many as ten different years. This step is crucial because this is what gives the champagne its consistent taste year after year. The blending technician is very skilled and knows exactly the percentages of which wines to blend depending on the current years organoleptic qualities. Imagine a chemist in a lab with the nose of a bloodhound and the prognostic skills of a psychic, and you’ll get a picture of what goes into the making of a blending technician.
Step 3: After the wines are blended in a vat, a liquer de tirage is added to the wine. This blend is a carefully mixed quantity of mostly liquid sugar and yeast. The sugar and the yeast are what allow the second fermentation to take place in the bottle. See technician above.
Step 4: After the addition of the liquer de tirage, the wine is bottled and capped. If too much sugar was added in the liquer, the bottle can explode, and if not enough, there will be no carbonation. Remember the equation for fermentation is this: sugar + yeast—->ethanol + CO2. After the bottling they are laid on their sides in chalk caves, so the second fermentation can take place. During this period the yeast die in a process called autolysis. The dead yeast cells sink to the bottom imparting yeasty, bread-like aromas to the wine as well as complexity. The bottles must be left in this position for at least fifteen months for non-vintage and three years for vintage champagne.
Step 5: Now that the yeast is dead, there arrives the long and sometimes laborious process calledremuage. This is when the dead yeast cells are coaxed into the neck of the bottle. Back before the use of machinery, a man called a remuer would turn and angle everybottle of champagne a little downward every day into a vertical position. A top remuer can riddle, or manually turn, around 40,000 bottles per day. Some houses still use a remuer, but they are very costly and time consuming. Most houses now use a girasol. This a piece of machinery holds about 500 bottles and replicates the remuage process.
Step 6: Twelve to twenty weeks later, the bottles are in a vertical position, and it is time to remove all that sediment that has accumulated in the neck. One method called a la volee, uses the pressure inside of bottle to force the sediment out after the enclosure has been removed. The other and more common method is called a la glace. In this method the neck of the bottle is dipped into a freezing brine solution, which freezes the sediment; when the enclosure is removed, the ice and sediment shoot out. This process is called degorgement for obvious reasons.
Step 7: To replace some of the wine that has been lost during the last step, a measured amount of sweetened wine is added to the bottle. This mixture is called the liqueur d’expedition, and it’s what gives the wine some residual sugar and house flavor. Finally, the champagne is topped with the mushroom cork a wire cage and is ready for shipment or storage.
It’s not easy to produce champagne—especially because the caves where the champagne is stored are carved from the chalk soils that run twenty feet into the ground. The chalk provides the perfect storage temperature for the wine. By capturing heat during the day and radiating it during the cold nights, the internal temperature remains constant. From growing the grapes, to mixing the wines, to dealing with yeast, to storing the wine, it’s a whole big thing, but Champagne done right is a wine unlike any other.
As we know from any cursory study of economics, the more labor and that goes into making something, the rarer it is. The smaller the amount and the greater the demand, the more something costs. Champagne is, in many ways, a textbook study of market pressures. But what a delicious, tantalizing and seductive study it is. Expensive, yes, but if you love it, it’s worth every penny.
A brief user’s guide
If you did a quick Twitter search for “wine” at exactly 1:25 p.m. EST, you’d see that the top Tweet is from Lady Gaga. “Taking a break today,” she says, “in bed with mommy having glass of wine waiting for sis to get home. Just us italian girls running the house tonight.” It’s reassuring to know that in her busy schedule, Lady Gaga can find time to enjoy the simple pleasures of wine and family.
If, however, you did a slightly different search and put a number sign—also known as a hash tag—just before the word “wine,” you’d get entirely different results. You’d find the same sponsored link (even Twitter needs to make money somehow) from Virgin America announcing their updated wine service designed by Gary Vaynerchuk, but you’d also find a plethora of wine news, reviews, thoughts, quotes, stories, contests and offerings. In short, you’d find the fastest, most updated, and most freely pouring information on wine available.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are high that you’ve at least heard of Twitter. It’s the free microblogging service that limits user’s updates to a mere 140 characters. What this means to Tweeters—the name of people who choose to Tweet in common parlance—is that they must use an economy of phrasing. The best Tweeters are able to pare their syntax down to a witty, evocative line. A tasty tidbit, and not a whole dish, is the order of the day on Twitter.
Twitter is growing, and it’s growing fast. By last June, 10.9% of the total web-users were Twittering. More germane to the wine topic at hand, most of those people aren’t kids. In fact, recent statistics suggest that the average Twitter user is in his or her thirties. It’s no kids’ site, and that means that it’s an excellent place to find information on adult stuff, like wine. Moreover, you don’t have to Tweet yourself; in fact, many people have Twitter accounts just to follow the people they’re interested in, for example, Jancis Robinson, Eric Asmov, or The Wine Harlots. You can even set up lists for easier, more categorized following of your Tweeps. You can make choose to follow people according to their geographical location, their profession, their predilection, or their connections to wine magazines—you can even follow other people’s lists if you find ones you like. Nothing could be easier, which probably accounts for Twitter’s astronomical popularity.
Whether you’re looking to buy a bottle, plan a vacation, choose a restaurant, or just waste a whole lot of time, you’ll find your wine fun on Twitter. Check out the We Follow directory for wine as a good starting place. Of course, be sure to follow IWM. It’s like an everlasting wine tasting, but without all that spitting and rinsing.« go back — keep looking »