“Can I ask a stupid question?” Ah, everyone’s favorite opening. And as a teacher, I’m supposed to say there are no stupid questions. But I was prepared for one when our friend Will opened with that earlier this month. His question, however, was far from stupid: “What, exactly, is the deal with wines labeled ‘old vine’?”
Yes, what IS the deal with that? It appears on a fair number of bottles these days, often without descriptor. And it does seem like the thing that would be stupid to ask, so people don’t.
Bottles marked in some way as “old vine” contain vino made with, well, grapes from vines that are old. Sometimes really, really old. Interestingly enough, there’s not an industry standard for what designates calling something “old vine,” but generally you can count on the grapes coming from vines at least 30 years old, and often they’re more than twice that age. The vines are gnarly and thick by that time (we have an old vine carcass on our store patio if you want to take a peek)—a truly distinct look.
Once vines hit a certain point (around 20 years), the older they get, their yields decrease. Because of this, at a certain stage, many vineyards will tear them out and replace them with new vines. Why get 25 hectoliters of grapes per hectare when you can get 50? (Grape yields are measured in hectoliters per hectare in most of Europe, but often in tons per acres in the U.S.) But the reason some vineyards hold onto those old vines is their potential.
The neat thing about old vines, you see, is while they produce significantly fewer usable grapes, they tend to produce grapes that are much more intense and concentrated. So while a winemaker won’t get nearly as many bottles out of them, the bottles they do get are often more interesting, deep, and complex. They’re also, due to the loss the vineyard takes on not getting to sell as many bottles, often more expensive. You’ll see this particularly with French wines. But there are some great budget old vine wines out there, especially from California and Spain. I love, for instance, Cline’s “Ancient Vine” line (they have a Zin, Mourvedre, and a Carignane), which all retail for around $15 or less.
Buying an old vine wine doesn’t guarantee your wine will be great, but they’re fun to explore. So no stupid questions around here. If you think you have one, let me know and I’ll try to dispel your worries.
Con Class Rueda 2009
One of my favorite summer sippers, this is like pouring yourself a big ol’ glass of red grapefruit. Well, assuming you have a big ol’ glass … which, if you don’t, you will immediately go out and buy once you try this Verdejo, Viura, Sauvignon Blanc blend from Rueda Spain. It's crisp, fun, easy to enjoy even on the hottest of days. Seriously. Drink the grapefruit. Be the grapefruit. Around $12.
grapefruit, grapefruit, grapefruit (with some pear and cantaloupe notes)
Hanging at the cabin, sitting on your deck, enjoying your garden
My focus is good wine on a budget for everyday people. So every Tuesday I’ll post a budget-wine-of-the-moment with simple tasting notes and a recipe pairing. The notes won’t be overly detailed or profound, but they’re not meant to be. Instead, they’re meant to be fun with a bit of insight into some bottles worth exploring. Enjoy!
Perhaps nothing in the wine world has more misunderstanding than sulfites. Or rather, people’s reaction to them. Are there people with sulfite issues? Definitely. There are, however, very few people with true sulfite allergies or problems.
If you can drink white wine but not red, you don’t have a sulfite issue. Really. Sulfites are generally higher in whites.
If you can eat dried apricots or those lovely craisins, you don’t have a sulfite issue. There are about ten times more sulfites in two ounces of dried apricots than in a glass of wine.
Study after study has shown that there is no correlation between sulfites and headaches; a true reaction to sulfites is more like an asthmatic response. In fact, people with asthma are more prone to sulfite issues, which stems from a deficiency in the natural enzyme that breaks sulfites down.
So What Are Sulfites?
Sulfites, an inclusive term for sulfur dioxide, are part of the wine-making process and are produced naturally by the yeasts during fermentation. They’re also a great preservative and stabilizer with antibacterial properties, so many wineries add additional sulfites to stabilize their wines. Bacteria lowers, and that’s a good thing.
Lower sulfite wines are available; generally it means no additional sulfites were added, something required to receive an organic designation in the U.S. (Note: the label “made with organic grapes” does not require that no additional sulfites were added, just that the grapes themselves were organic.) But sulfite-free wines are rare; they have to undergo a process that removes the natural-occurring sulfites from the wine. And because sulfites stabilize, these wines can often be less consistent and of lower overall quality. Their shelf life is extremely limited (about six months), and they need to be kept in perfect storage conditions to ensure stability.
But, as I said, sulfites aren’t generally the issue. So what is? Are those headaches and stuffy noses all a placebo effect? Hardly. There are culprits.
RWH (Red Wine Headaches) and allergy-type reactions to wine are real things with no agreement on a real cause. But most likely to blame? Histamines and tannins.
In fact, I have a histamine issue with red wines. I often get stuffed up when I enjoy them, which, of course, makes me mad. A Zyrtec in my system beforehand works for me, but make sure you talk with your doctor before mixing any kind of drug with alcohol, even if it’s already prescribed or over-the-counter. Red wines have anywhere from 20%-200% higher levels of histamines than white, and if you already know you have allergy issues, this could be your culprit.
The tannins in red wines can also be an issue. While tannins show up lots of places (tea, chocolate, and soy for instance), somehow the way they react in wine—or rather the way people react to them—is different.
Tannins occur naturally in grape skins, and red wines get their color and some flavor from their prolonged time on the skins. They also, however, pick up tannins. The benefits, beside taste and texture, are in many ways the same as sulfites: stability and preservation. Because of this, red wines often need less or no additional sulfites. But studies have shown that some people react to these tannins poorly. Tannins cause the release of serotonin in the brain, which has been tied to headaches. This may be the case for RWH, but honestly, nobody is sure.
What to Do
If you know already which wines work for you and which don’t, you’re in a good place. It’s good to know what you like and what works for you. Many studies have shown that a single aspirin taken beforehand does wonders, and others show that antihistamines are great as well. Again, check with your doctor.
And if you show up at a gathering and a new glass is offered to you? Drink half a glass. If you don’t have a reaction within fifteen minutes (especially those of you prone to headaches), you’re probably in the clear. Try to stay to less than two glasses overall, and, if you enjoy it, write the bottle down for future “in the clear” reference.
And that headache the next day after going through multiple bottles with your friends? Not an allergic reaction. That’s called a hangover.
Zuccardi Serie A Malbec
Familia Zuccardi Serie A Malbec is an intense wine of color, aromas, and flavors. 80mph intense. Two-minute-warning-have-the-ball-down-by-three-points intense. Double rainbow intense. You’ll be overcome with red ripe fruits like plums, blackberries, and raspberries, but somehow it will balance with hints of soft vanilla oak. Complex with a long (what else?) intense finish, it’s a great partner to big meats, especially if they’ve been on the grill. Around $11.
plums, blackberries, raspberries, vanilla, oak
My focus is good wine on a budget for everyday people. So every Tuesday I’ll post a wine-of-the-moment with simple tasting notes and a recipe pairing. The notes won’t be overly detailed or profound, but they’re not meant to be. Instead, they’re meant to be fun with a bit of insight into some bottles worth exploring. Enjoy!
The act of smelling a cork at a restaurant brings about images of men in suits—perhaps with ascots—full of themselves, showing off their knowledge of some old vintage bottle from France. Maybe it’s a 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a ’64 Bordeaux; whatever it is, they can tell so much from that single sniff that your immediate thought is they should replace bloodhounds.
Yes, somehow the idea of smelling a cork can bring about these connotations, and instead of sweet scents of strawberries and plums the thought reeks of pretentiousness and snobbery. So when presented with a cork when you’re ordering, say, a $30 bottle that would have cost you half as much in the store, it seems, well ... odd. You fumble about, smile at your friends, shrug, then give a nod to your server after putting the plug by your nose in a good gesture effort. Not to mention the uncomfortableness when you realize you ordered a screw top.
But here’s the thing ... smell the cork. Because the reason for doing so? It’s not to help you identify a particular grape, vintage, or region. It’s not so you can expound upon your knowledge of the nuances of berry scents in your odoriferous findings. The reason to smell that cork is to make sure you’re not about to imbibe something that’s off, spoiled, or ruined.
Take a whiff. Does it smell like wet cardboard? Your mother’s mildewy basement? Dare I say it ... dirty socks? Because if it does, you might have a corked bottle on your hands. There’s a lack of agreement from the industry, but there’s likely a corked bottle—a bottle that is tainted by TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole, a compound found in natural cork that can blemish a wine)—in every case of wine sealed with natural cork. It’s why so many wineries are moving to synthetic corks and screw tops; less spoilage and more consistency for the buyers. A lot of the time the average consumer might not realize he’s drinking a corked bottle; instead, he finds that the wine just doesn’t do it for him, it’s not his style, it’s “eh.” And that bottle—which he may have loved if he had it in its true form—is never purchased again.
Smelling the cork is the beginning of seeking out knowledge about a bad bottle. There are other clues as well: the smell of the wine in the glass, coloring, and taste. But smelling that cork? It’s your first line of defense. And if you smell those distinct musty, wet basement odors, you likely have a culprit on your hand.
So do it. At the restaurant. In your home. Don’t feel sheepish if you need to tell your server, after you’ve sniffed something dank, that you think the bottle might be corked. Don’t think twice about bringing a bottle back to a store if you got a bad one—they should replace it. And if it makes you feel better, buy an ascot.