A meditation on the spine of the wine
Tannins are responsible for red wine’s color and giving you that dry and puckering feeling in your mouth. We most notice tannins in red wine, though they do exist in whites, however imperceptible. Some like the astringent feeling of tannins, some don’t, and still others take tannins on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether the tannins add or take away from the wine. Most novice wine drinkers tend not to prefer the feeling of tannins, but a red wine with the correct balance of tannins will spark your interest and leave you yearning for more.
Tannins are the “backbone” of a wine. Like a spine in a body, tannins provide the wine with structure, balance, body, complexity and longevity. Found in the stems, skins and seeds of the grape plant, he most important tannic compounds come from the skins. Because the others are very harsh and bitter, winemakers minimize their presence during winemaking; the stems are removed before crushing and the grapes are pressed very slowly as to not break the seeds and release the bitter oils. Some winemakers, like those in the Rhone Valley for instance, use the stalk and stems in precise amounts to add tannin to their wines. Another, but less important, source of tannins come from the actual wood from where the wine was aged. Regardless of the source of the tannins, they are integral to good wine, and astute winemakers manipulate them to the wine’s best advantage.
The tannic backbone is the main reason why some wines will have a lifespan of two years and some for over twenty. Tannins are in a class of chemical compounds called polyphenols. At the heart of the molecule is a phenol molecule, which is a benzene ring with a hydroxyl group attached to it, and it is a highly reactive molecule. Bonds are constantly broken and created during a wine’s life, but no one really knows how tannins help a wine age. There is the notion that the smaller tannin molecules come together to make larger molecules, and they eventually fall out of solution to form the sediment sometimes seen in old wines. The exact opposite could also happen whereby the tannins get smaller. Regardless of how they do it, tannins make wine age better, and as a wine ages its tannins get softer, silkier and less perceptible. The wine’s tannic loss is our delicious gain.
Grape vines are wild plants with a myriad of biochemical, physical, and evolutionary processes that have helped them flourish. One of the main goals of the grape vine is to survive and reproduce. When the fruits of the vine are young they are green, acidic, bitter and very tannic. This insures that the berries make it to their full ripeness, changing to a beautiful color and becoming less tannic, sweeter, and less acidic. Now they are ready to be consumed by an array of different animals who eat, digest, and scatter the seeds all over the ground, ready for germination and growth into new vines. Tannins, therefore, play an evolutionary role in assuring that we have wine—as well as making the wine we have more enjoyable and age longer.
Tannins provide me with a level of enjoyment that I can’t get from white wines. Don’t get me wrong—I love white wines for their acid, but sometimes I just need that tannic red wine with a grilled steak. Tannic wines are great with grilled red meats, stews, braises, and older cheeses. The tannins provide a counter balance to strong flavors of these dishes and help to prepare your mouth for the next round. The quality and balance of tannins can make all of the difference, but be careful because a wine that seems exceedingly tannic is also not good. As I’ve said in other posts, it is not the strength of one particular characteristic that makes a wine, but how all of these components mesh together.
Exploring the fine line between aged and uh-oh…
No matter how little we know about wine, most of us know that there is a major difference between everyday drinking wines and wine that requires aging. But how does one know when a wine is just right? Being a wine professional, I was taught how to recognize a wine that has been aged versus corked, maderized, or oxidized; this knowledge has come in handy. However, it can be hard for clients who are beginners to learn all these concepts. Still, it’s a necessity.
The amount of age a wine needs in order to show its full complexity varies greatly from wine to wine. The actual process of aging wine is most noticeable in the process of tannins in the wine reacting with other components until they are unable to stay in solution, where upon they become visible sediment. As this happens, most of the aromas of the grape are replaced by the reductive aromas of the aged wine, which can include dried fruit notes, nuts, leather, oxidative flavors and more distinct minerality. At the same time, the color in the wine either lightens if it is a red wine (the red pigments, called anthocyanins, bond to the sediment), or turns browner in white wine as it oxidizes.
Certain wines have obvious aging requirements. Take Barolo, the king of Italian wine, for instance. To open a Barolo early is an utter shame. The amount of tannin and acidity present in this wine makes it almost undrinkable in its early years, and the Nebbiolo grape requires around 15-20+ years of age in bottle show its true potential. Another example of an ageable wine is a Prädikatswein designated Riesling. Some Rieslings can age up to 30 years, eventually reaching an golden amber color and showing notes of petrol, which are coveted by the experienced Riesling connoisseurs and completely off-putting to novices.
The Riesling divide suggests that age on a wine can be misunderstood. For example, this New York Magazine listing gives some common wine defects, but this helpful guide also explains that what is perceived as “bad” is not actually so, even for everyday drinking wines. Aged wines, on the other hand, can be even harder for a novice to understand.
I believe that being able to differentiate a young bottle from a mature, or being able to tell if a wine is capable of growing with age, comes with practice and time. Taste preferences also develop and adjust. I remember my first time trying Fino and Amontillado sherries. I thought they were some of the most bizarre liquids on the planet and would never have imagined myself to develop a love of them so impassioned that I can honestly say I am a sherry fanatic. I am also in love with our Castello di Cacchiano 2001 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico. These wines are vinified and developed in a much different process than dry reds and whites, yet they have some similar aromatics to well-aged wines. The nuttiness and deep dried fruit notes are enticing and seemingly classic.
In the end, I think it’s safe to say that everyone can use a little more wine practice and knowledge. We should all be well-informed of the wonderful taste experiences out there and be prepared to know what to expect when ordering more eclectic and vintage wines at favorite restaurants and your local wine shops. And we should understand that often our tastes—like wines themselves—can evolve with age.
The beauty and bliss of wine and cheese
Those of us who have experienced a sublime wine and cheese pairing know exactly what I’m talking about: some combinations are mind-blowing and leave you yearning for more, even after you’ve finished a half pound of cheese and a bottle of wine. Others, regrettably, make you feel like scraping your tongue. In this writing, however, I want to concentrate on the really good, and not the egregiously ugly.
Why is it that wine and cheese can be so good together? One reason may be that either component on its own is a delight in its own right. However, the sum of both is far greater than either than its parts, and so we need to look more deeply into the ineffable chemistry of the pair.
Cheese is composed of water, animal fat and protein, and wine is made up of water, alcohol, acid, sugar and tannins (for the purpose of this article, we’re just looking at the tannins found in reds). When a science/wine/food nerd-type like me looks at this ingredient set, I can’t help but notice how perfectly these two meld together. In part, they match one another because they both come from simple ingredients, shaped by terroir, blended by artists, changed by age and created by microbes. In many ways, cheese is the solid, protein version of wine. Chemically, they’re kind of the perfect foil for each other.
Imagine yourself drinking a bottle of red wine—or better yet go pop one right now. You will notice that most red wines will leave your mouth feeling dry with an astringent after feel. This “dryness” is due to the tannins in the wine. The tannins in the wine coagulate your salivary proteins that are secreted by the pores in your mouth. Without saliva lubricating your palate, this astringent feeling comes into play. Now let’s add cheese into the equation.
Remember that I said that cheese was mostly fat and protein. When you take a bite of cheese and then take a sip of wine, the tannins now have another protein to coagulate with, other than just your salivary protein. The tannins bind to the cheese protein instead of your saliva, giving the wine a much smoother and rounder sensation in your mouth. And just like magic, the wine and cheese anomaly has been exposed.
White wines also make excellent pairings because of their acidity. Most whites should be paired with lighter and tangier cheese so as not to mask the flavor of the wine. The acid in white wines works to cleanse the palate and prime your palate for the next bite. The acids will also make the cheese taste a bit sweeter because the wine’s acids occupy your acid receptors on your tongue and leaving your sweet receptors open to some of the cheese’s sweeter nuances.
Wine and cheese are like the jungle gym of wine/food pairings. Reds, whites, sweet, and sparkling wines all can pair nicely with cheese; the combinations are nearly endless. Just remember that you want to pair strong cheeses with fuller, more intense wines and lighter cheeses with fresh, light wines, for example, Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc with goat cheese. Generally speaking, hard cheeses are more intense, and softer cheeses are less intense because hard cheeses are aged longer allowing water to evaporate, thus intensifying the cheese’s flavor. Remember to pair cheeses with their native wines—Spanish cheese with Spanish wine, Italian cheese with Italian wines. While the basic rule is “what grows together goes together,” you can mix and match, but nothing can beat a traditional combination. Here are some guidelines:
- Aged pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano with most Italian reds( Brunello, Chianti, or Barolo, for example)
- Aged cheddar with American Cabernet
- Light cheddar with a full Chardonnay
- Mozzarella with light whites
- Gouda, Chevre, creamy cheddar and brie with Champagne
- Amarone with gorgonzola
An ah-ha moment of a young career
As both a new Junior Wine Portfolio Manager and a junior wine enthusiast, I have been extremely busy these past few weeks here at Italian Wine Merchants. My first two weeks as a Junior PM made me a student in the most intense crash course in “Wine 101” that I ever could have imagined. I learned about wines and their history and their production; I discovered how environmental factors influence wine; I was schooled in the art of fine dining service; and I grew to know IWM’s corporate culture. I’m a recent Finance and International Business graduate from Villanova University, and in taking this job, I’ve found that my mind has been inundated with a lot of information in a short period of time, all of which has been challenging to absorb, but also extremely exciting to learn.
Of course, it’s not like I never drank wine in my life. I have, and more than enjoyed it, I saw it was important. However, I can’t say I “got” wine. Prior to my wine exposure at IWM, I struggled with the complimentary relationship between wine and food. Cooking has always been one of my passions, so I can appreciate the use of wine as an essential ingredient. However, I couldn’t internalize the idea of wine as an integral component to a flawlessly prepared meal. This changed a few weeks ago at my first formal wine tasting.
Prior to the tasting, I told myself to abandon my uncertain and somewhat cynical opinion of how wine and food interact with each other. I had been schooled; I was primed; I was ready. But while I did my best to convince myself, my taste buds were still somewhat naïve and skeptical—until my wine epiphany.
All it took was a sip of the 2004 Ada Nada Barbaresco Cichin and a perfectly prepared taste of braised veal cheek with polenta to make me see the light.
In that white-light moment, I struggled to find the perfect words from the wine nomenclature I’d so recently been steeped in. But the only words that came to my mind were these: “Holy cow, that’s fantastic!” Just to make sure that this experience was something special, my skeptical taste buds and I went in for a second try. My mouth savored the tender and juicy veal cheek as it softened the tannins in the Ada Nada. I focused on the spices and fruit that the red wine had to offer; I had finally been struck by the beauty of a perfect pairing.
This “ah-ha” moment has transformed my opinion on pairings and has become another driving force for my wine curiosity. I not only find myself excited to taste wine, but also thriving on the experience I had. I look forward to opening my senses and my mind to a world of “ah-ha” moments as I cultivate the career—and the tasting journey—that I’ve embarked on.