The dirty little secret of “terroir”
“Terroir,” I suspect, is a really nice word for all the stuff in your glass of wine that you don’t want to think about. Take wasp spit, for one—or whatever the buggy equivalent wasps have to spit. Recent pieces reporting on scientific findings about the importance to wasps, or to be specific European Hornets and Paper Wasps, to the creation of your favorite Italian wines have been recently published on NPR, The New York Times and The Wine Spectator.
A group of researchers, including Duccio Cavalieri, a professor of microbiology at the University of Florence in Italy and a descendent of a long line of Tuscan winemakers, has detected Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as baker’s yeast, in the guts of wasps and hornets common to Tuscany. Winemakers have long privileged S. cerevisiae as the yeast most often necessary to making wine, and while some winemakers add yeasts to their wines to begin or influence fermentation, those who rely on natural yeasts are generally relying on S. cerevisiae. The question has been where it comes from.
The findings published on the website of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 30 argues that this vital yeast comes from insects. The team of scientists suggests that as the wasps bite the ripe grape, they transmit the yeast in their guts, and this natural yeast not only is responsible for fermentation but also serves to transmit “terroir,” the essence of place into the wine.
Not everyone agrees with this hypothesis. The day that NPR wrote about the findings, Alder Yarrow of the blog Vinography tweeted, “Uh, NPR, you probably should have talked to a winemaker first before suggesting wasps help w/fermentation.” Alder followed up this tweet in a conversation with me, explaining, “I’m fairly sure that most fruit wasps bite is sorted out and doesn’t make it to finished wine,” suggesting that bitten fruit didn’t make it off the winemaker’s sorting table and into the wine.
Last week, Alder’s opinion was seconded by Christy Canterbury, with whom I shared too many glasses of wine. “I’m not seeing it,” she said, or something to that effect (I mentioned the many glasses of wine).
But here’s my thinking, and it ranges a bit wider than considering the possibility of wasp spit in my wine, however infinitesimal an amount that might be. Having spent about six weeks in Montalcino right after harvest time, having breathed that air and watched the chestnuts roll on their spiny backs, having crunched through autumn woods and smelled the umami air rich with wood smoke, and having drunk many, many glasses of Brunello made there, right there, this place where pomegranates rotted and wild fennel blew to seed, I get it. Winemakers don’t wash their grapes. Terroir is everywhere, it’s everything, and it’s often the stuff we don’t want to contemplate.
“Everything is linked,” Cavalieri says in the NPR article, and he is not wrong. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once averred, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” Weather, atoms, the earth’s rocks, the evolution of the stars: “There are the ferments,” he said, “the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it!” Of course, it may also be bug yeast, and whether that yeast comes microscopically tromping in on the tiny feet of hornets or transferred by their wee jaws, there appears to be a valid claim that the wild yeast comes, at least in part, from bugs.
“Terroir” is a nice word. Comforting, really, in its elegance. In our hyper-sanitized world, it kindly obscures the bug bits, the various and sundry excrements, the dirt, the dust, the goo, the ick, the yuck and the squick that accumulates on a grape’s skin as it makes its way from bud to bottle. It’s a pretty word for a complex process that’s deeply imbued with gross stuff. I’ll still raise a glass to those unsung hornets and wasps, their biting jaws and their inquisitive feet. Without you, I’m drinking grape juice, and, really, who wants that.
What happens when you quantify subjectivity?
On his Fermentation blog, Tom Wark’s recent post “Examining Antonio Galloni’s Palate, Examining Antonio Galloni’s Palate” uses an approach similar to famed method of sabermetrics, the statistical analysis often seen in the evaluation of baseball players, to explore trends in wine ratings from Robert Parker’s new man in California, Antonio Galloni (Galloni has long been reviewing Italian wine, and recently added first French and then California wine to his roster). In this post, Galloni offers replies to some of Mr. Warks’ observations and we’re able to get inside his head (er, palate?) a bit further.
But let’s begin with sabermetrics, a concept near and dear to my sports-loving heart. Sabermetrics, of course, gained public fame following Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, a study of Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics who used alternative principles to evaluate the effectiveness and potential of baseball players. Having Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball certainly got people to pay attention to this phenomenon that has revolutionized the way that sports management makes decisions. Now it seems as if this method of analysis has moved beyond sports.
In his post, Wark uses statistical analysis to pick up on commonalities in Antonio Galloni’s most highly rated wines, which he does to understand Galloni’s take on California wines. Wark finds that if you’re an avid supporter of licorice, you’re going to be very excited; licorice appears as a descriptor appears in 57% of Galloni’s 95+ rated wines from California between the 2008 and 2009 vintages. This raises the question, “Is Galloni pushing a licorice agenda?” Probably not, but will winemakers in California now try to make their wines more licorice-like? I think that’s a likely outcome for some.
Galloni responds via emails to Wark that in evaluating a high number of wines from the same region, a writer simply has to vary the descriptors in order to differentiate the wines he’s sharing. He has a fair point, and as wine is completely subjective, what Galloni perceives as an impression of licorice, you or I may find to be closer to dark chocolate, for example. Fortunately, I have never had a client return a bottle of wine because it did not taste exactly like the tasting notes I’d provided. Like Galloni, we write descriptions that offer guidelines to understanding the experience of the wine, both in substance and winemaker philosophy.
Wark compares the ratings of Galloni to those of Robert Parker, using the same wines in similar vintages in order to speak to subjective nature of tasting. He finds that Parker uses the word “licorice” far less frequently in his highly rated wines than Galloni does in his. Perhaps they perceive the same flavor to be different fruits and spices? Or perhaps they may simply have different personal taste preferences? This latter answer is certainly likely.
I did my own analysis by looking at Sassicaia. During 1993–2000 vintages, neither Robert Parker nor Daniel Thomases rated Sassicaia over 92pts, even as Parker referred to the 1995 as “exceptional” when awarding the wine just 92pts. Antonio Galloni begin reviewing Sassicaia with the hot 2003 vintage and he has never scored Sassicaia lower than 93pts through the 2009 vintage. Has Sassicaia improved so much that even in such a tough year, it was better than the “exceptional” 1995 vintage? Does Galloni just like Sassicaia more than either Parker or Thomases? Are there other factors at hand, perhaps the increasing popularity of wines that are Super Tuscan, Italian, or Bordeaux-style blends?
In Hong Kong, many of my local clients admit that they cannot relate to the aromas and tastes described in the reviews of their favorite wines. The taste references are simply foreign to Hong Kong palates. Given the immense popularity of ERobertParker, The Wine Advocate, Burghound and even the IWM eLetter, for that matter, I wonder how wine writing will adapt to using more regionally recognizable descriptors. Perhaps more time in Asia will allow critics to expand their sensory vocabularies and relate to target audiences more closely. Galloni happens to be in a position where his both a critic and widely critiqued, so no doubt that whatever he does it will be deeply analyzed and probably over-reacted to.
Speaking of sabermetrics–writing this entry reminds me that I have just three weeks to prepare for my big fantasy football draft. Hiring Wark as a consultant might be a wise move.
What every sommelier–and diner–should know about “emotional transactions”
How much money is too much? How much money is too little? These are some of the questions a sommelier may be asking before approaching your table at a restaurant. A recent blog post in the LA Weekly looks at this series of questions from the diner’s point of view, but I can assure you from my many years in food-and-beverage service, these questions are also at the forefront of your sommelier—and not merely because the restaurant wants to make money.
A sommelier is in a very important position. Your sommelier is more than someone who pours the wine for you to taste; he or she is a liaison between you and the restaurant and a beacon of the restaurant’s philosophy. The sommelier has the responsibility to bridge the gap between the unknown to the appreciated experience. I like to think that your sommelier is the director of the “emotional transaction.”
For some wine-lovers, wine is an object to seek, collect, experience and perhaps pontificate. But for most people (and even some wine-lovers), wine is a mystery. At the end of the day, wine is just fermented grape juice, intended to enjoy with or without a daily meal. And yet sommeliers know that it can be so much more, and it should be.
Recently, more and more restaurants in large markets are choosing to create wine lists that break away from the big usual suspects in order to support the lesser-known, smaller wineries and the types of wines they produce; Jon Bonné recently noted this point in his examination of wine lists in the Inside Scoop, a Bay Area site dedicated to restaurant news. Like choosing to create a restaurant menu that offers more adventurous offerings, there is nothing wrong with this scenario. In fact, a wine list with many small producers is an opportunity to show how to have fun. A wine list of lesser-known wines may challenge some, but it’ll also thrill those who are confident—and force these people to step out of their comfort zone. Of course, a wine list of more obscure wines is successful only when your sommelier works to deliver what you want: enjoyment.
What is wrong is for the sommelier to lack sensitivity and to feel a sense of entitlement. The blog post from the LA Weekly that got me thinking about these issues illustrates that sommeliers can have a lack of sensitivity or a sense of entitlement. When a sommelier doesn’t ask diners what price range they’re looking to spend, or when a sommelier doesn’t specify prices of wines when “launch[ing] into a reverie” about the wine, that sommelier is doing the diners a disservice. It may very lead to the sad result of this writer—having the sommelier recommended a bottle of wine and subsequent glasses of wine that were far out of the comfort price point providing the experience “to drink somewhere else” rather than “Hey, have I got a place for you.”
The IWM event staff works to understand their role in the “emotional transaction” of wine service–and I count myself one of the staff. But as a diner, I understand that I must be given a reason to return and made to feel that this is my place to enjoy myself. A sommelier consistently has the opportunity to do these things. A sommelier can easily guide you to three selections within a price range based on flavor profiles that you seek. In fact, if the sommelier is smart, recommending wines under your price point that over deliver will earn your trust and make you a raving fan. And at the end of the meal, you’ll remember this as much as you remember the great time you had. I know I do.
Tremontis Limonsardo, and a recipe for Limoncello sorbet
The last days of summer growing imminent, it’s time to conjure the sultry sun, the vast Mediterranean azure and rugged hillsides scented with fragrant lemon groves, thus perpetuating the feeling of an eternal summer. Such is the power of Limoncello, Italy’s liqueur sunshine in a bottle. This week, I’m veering from our usual tack of writing about a wine and writing about Tremontis Limonsardo instead. Although Limoncello, a lemony-tart liqueur, is mainly produced in the coastal area of Naples, Sorrento and Amalfi (including the islands of Ischia and Capri), it is also produced under the name Limonsarda in Sicily and Sardinia. Today, I’m featuring a recipe for sorbet that uses Limonsardo, a Sardinian version.
While it is a de rigueur component in various summer cocktails, Limoncello held me in its citrus spell when I enjoyed a cocktail composed of lemon sorbet, vodka, limoncello and fresh mint during a brief sojourn in Ravello. Yearning develops into inspiration, so I thought, “Why not transform the drink into a frozen confection?” Below please find a recipe of IWM’s own devising.
Not only does it make a delightful thirst quencher or a postprandial treat, Limonsardo or Limoncello can be the basis of some of your favorite summer drinks. You can add a scoop to iced tea and delight in a mischievous version of an Arnold Palmer, intensify a glass of Prosecco with lemony frost, or perhaps add an extra dimension to a Screwdriver by adding a scoop to fresh squeezed orange juice and top off with a splash of Campari. However you enjoy it, Limonsardo will postpone the end of summer, indefinitely.
2 cups water
1 1/3 cup sugar
½ cup limoncello
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 lemon, zested
3 sheets gelatin (optional)
¼ cup chopped mint (optional)
Side note: Oftentimes when making a sorbet that contains alcohol, getting it to properly and thoroughly freeze can be tricky. To counteract this, IWM sous chef Mike suggests using gelatin sheets. If you decide to do this, first let them soak in ice water while you prepare the rest of the recipe.
Combine the water, sugar and limoncello in a saucepan and heat just enough to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, zest and gelatin. (Be sure to wring out the excess water before whisking in the gelatin.) If you’d like to add mint, do so once the mixture has cooled down to maintain its vibrant color.
If you have an ice cream machine, pour the base in and spin until the desired consistency. Otherwise, pour this into a baking dish and freeze for a day.
The digital, the analog and the wine glass
Friday night, my friend Christy and I decided to finish our evening out with a stop at the Upper West Side wine bar Wine & Roses. I consulted my iPhone’s Yelp app for a wine bar, double-checked the bar’s website for its wine list (the site has since expired, frustratingly), conferred with Christy, who is a Master of Wine and an all-around interesting woman, and we set off to the bar.
I was looking for something white, something dancing, something more achingly fleshy than bone-dry, and something I’d never tasted before. I asked for a taste of Pratello Lieti Conversari 2008, this Lombardian mono-varietal of Incrocio Manzoni about which I knew nothing. I liked the description that held a delirious cluelessness. Being someone who writes wine descriptions for a living, I get a thrill when I encounter a description that reads like the wine eluded the writer. I take that as a good sign, so I ordered it, and I was not disappointed.
Indeed, the wine was precisely what I was looking for. It drank like the slanting sunlight of a late summer afternoon. I got this image of lazy cicada sounds in a field of mellowing high grass, the light that’s fading from lemon-bright to lavender tinted gold, and the feel of summer heat tempered with the cool of the coming evening. I liked the weight of the wine in my mouth, the way it clung to my cheeks, and its coy interplay of spice and tartness. It was swell, in short, and I’d love to get it again.
So I did what we do in the twenty-first century and popped open my latest wine app, Vivino, snapped a scan, uploaded it, and waited. The app didn’t at first recognize the label, but less than 24 hours later, I received an email that told me what I had drunk the night before. It’s now saved in perpetuity both on my Vivino account and in my email box. I need never forget what I drank, as long as I’m tethered to my electronic iLeash.
This wine-soaked experience of low-fi enjoyment—a lazy circular conversation with a friend, chatting that made swallow-swooping arcs over terroir, astrophysics, Paul Ryan, bug feet, cowboys and yoga—bracketed by high-tech necessity speaks volumes about modern life. The things that brightly go blip across our screens and our consciousness can be deeply helpful, but they’re eclipsed by the analog warmth of human contact and the viscera-deep pleasure that a simple glass of wine can offer.« go back — keep looking »