Wine with Winston
Welcome to the Brix & Columns blog! Winston will be writing on a variety of topics regarding the wine industry.
I might be a silly dog sometimes, but even I am not so silly to think that wine barrels are just made for us vineyard dogs to sit on and look pretty. (Pictured above is Kelly from Windy Ridge Winery in Victoria, Australia) I’ve heard plenty of folks asking about the barrel terminology used in the tasting room. It is likely that these are questions that have been asked for years upon years since oak barrels have been the primary storage vessel for wine since the Roman empire was in the conquest phase.
Romans didn’t always use oak barrels for storing and transporting their wine. The first preferred container was the clay amphora and this was used for many years since it was easy to carry, could be decorated, and most importantly sealed out the air that can ruin wines. Easy transportation was especially important for the Roman troops as they helped the empire spread. Wine was an ideal beverage to take because it was often safer than water, it provided calories, and it gave them a buzz as they headed into battle. As the empire spread, the clay pots became too heavy to lug on their increasingly long journeys.
This was the perfect time for the Romans to encounter the Gaul. The Gaul were using technology learned from the Celtic region to create oak barrels for storing beer. Roman soldiers immediately saw the benefits for storing wine in oak barrels: the wood was soft and easy to bend, oak was plentiful in Europe, and the barrels were waterproof due to the tight grain of the wood. Folks in charge of carrying the wine also quickly discovered a huge bonus: oak barrels could be turned on their sides and rolled. This was a match made in heaven!
After actually storing wine in the barrels, the Romans realized that not only was the barrel useful and mobile, but it imparted a delicious influence on the wine both in texture and flavor. Since then, the art of using barrels for wine aging has morphed into a science of using a variety of oaks, toasted or not, new or neutral to create the desired effect.
There is so much to tell you about the difference between American, French, and Hungarian oaks that I can’t fit it into one blog. Stay tuned for more information about oak barrels coming in the next blog, but for now I will answer the question nearly EVERYONE asks: “What country does neutral oak come from?” Oaks of American, French, or Hungarian origin can all be considered neutral. A barrel is considered neutral after it has been used for two or more vintages. The rule of thumb I have heard is the first aging it is called new, the second has no specific title (i.e. simply French oak or American oak), and anything after that is considered neutral.
Yesterday was one for the books. Well, not for me really. I actually just got to mope around the house all day long missing my Mom and my Dad, expected to exist on food and water but no cuddles and nobody calling me a good boy. I was so excited when my parents came home, I could hardly sit still to hear all about it. There were toys to be thrown and ears to be scratched. However, I knew all of you were sitting at the edge of your seats waiting to learn about everything that went on at the Virginia Governor’s Cup Gala last night, so I made myself put my best listening ears on and got all the details for you. The Governor’s Cup Wine Gala gives all wine lovers a chance to taste the best of what Virginia wine has to offer. All wines served at the gala have been through a series of rigorous judging and have all been awarded a gold medal from the Governor.
The event was held in the the newly remodeled train station in downtown Richmond. All of the wineries were set up on tables that lined the main hall. Each table was shared by two vineyards, so it was especially easy to make your way through the offerings. The center of the room was filled with standing cocktail tables and long spreads of delicious foods. The fare was decidedly southern with a lean toward selections that were good for wine pairing: country ham sandwiches on sweet potato biscuits, southern antipasto, shrimp and grits, decadent cheeses, crab cakes, baked brie cups, pecorino meatballs, and so much more. Everyone was able to get plenty to eat AND go back for seconds.
The tasting tour was interrupted briefly to honor the recipients of the Virginia Wine Person of the Year and the Lifetime Achievement awards, to recognize the wines that made it into the Governor’s Case, and to announce the winner of the prestigious Governor’s Cup.
The honor of Wine Person of the Year was given posthumously to Frank Britt who began the “Official Virginia Wine Lover” publication and also started the James River Wine & Music Festival. Mr. Britt garnered such notice and publicity for the Virginia wine industry that his contribution could not be overlooked. The Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Lucie Morton, a native Virginian, who is an internationally known viticulturist. Ms. Morton is best known for discovering one of the fungus that causes the dreaded “black goo” that can decimate vineyards if not treated. She manages several vineyards in Virginia and also consults with vineyard owners around the world.
The wines selected for the Governor’s Case were a varied mix of red and white varietals and a sprinkling of blends and dessert wines. Jefferson Vineyards had two Viogniers place: the 2015 was fermented in a combination of oak and stainless, while the 2016 was done entirely in oak. Keswick Vineyards and Potomac Point Winery both had their 2016 Cabernet Francs selected. Three Petit Verdots were chosen (all 2015): The Barns at Hamilton Station, North Gate Vineyard, and Veritas Vineyard & Winery. Blends are often seen as the perfect marriage that brings out the best characteristics of the varietals that they contain, and three made their way into the case this year. They were The Barns at Hamilton Station Meritage (2015), Early Mountain Vineyards Eluvium (2015), and King Family Vineyards Meritage (2014). Every good meal deserves a good dessert, and this case provides two very special dessert wines: Barboursville Vineyards 2014 Paxxito and Cross Keys Vineyards 2015 Ali d’Oro.
Governor Ralph Northam gave King Family Vineyards 2014 Meritage the distinct honor of winning the 2018 Governor’s Cup. This blend of 50% Merlot, 23% Petit Verdot, 21% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Malbec was fermented for 2 months before being gently pressed. The resulting juice was put through malolactic fermentation in barrels and aged for 18 months in 50% new French oak. Matthieu Finot, the winemaker for King Family Vineyards, made his way to Virginia after working in vineyards throughout France, Italy, and South Africa. He brings a depth of experience that is evident in the subtle complexity and undeniable deliciousness of his wine.
I know that not all of you were lucky enough to attend the gala, but Mom and Dad tell me that every single one of the wines selected for the Governor’s Case can be easily tasted by taking a few day trips around Virginia. This should be music to your ears and magic to your taste buds! What Mom and Dad didn’t realize was that they didn’t need to leave the Shenandoah Valley to receive the best news of all. Yesterday, legislation was passed in Virginia that repealed that pesky rule that kicked me out of the tasting room. That’s right, folks, starting on July 1st of this year, I will be allowed back in the tasting room. I can’t wait to visit with each one of you without the doggie gate between us!
Mom and Dad are super excited about attending some wine gala in a few weeks. I took a peek at the invitation and saw that it was for the 2018 Virginia Governor's Cup. Now you know me and my research - I just couldn’t stand knowing about something but not really knowing, so I put my nose to the ground and started sniffing out the facts.
Apparently, this Governor’s Cup is a wine competition that has happened every year for the past 36 years! It is organized by Jay Youmans of the Capital Wine School in D.C. He is one of only 45 Masters of Wine (MW) in the United States, so he really knows his stuff.
Not only was this a really good year for Virginia wine (99 took gold), but it was a prolific year as well. Over the course of December and January, 442 wines were sampled by carefully selected judges. In order to enter a wine, the fruit used to produce the wine has to be 100% Virginia grown. Documentation has to be provided to prove this and to give other technical aspects of the wine such as acidity and sugar levels. Judges taste wines over the course of two rounds, and wines are scored on appearance, aroma, flavor, overall quality, commercial suitability using the 100 point Wine Spectator scale.
The preliminary round consists of 8 judges and takes place over 10 days. Each of the wines is tasted by 7 judges in a single blind fashion - this means the judge knows the grape or category, but no other identifying information (such as vintage, winery, and name) is given. The scores are averaged after dropping the lowest score, and only the highest scorers proceed to the final round. This year, all preliminary round scores were about 2 points higher than last years. This is a good indicator of it being a great year for Virginia wine.
The final round consists of 12 judges and takes place over 3 days. Each judge samples each wine and scores are averaged in the same way as the previous round and medals are awarded based on the score: gold medals are awarded to those with 90-100 pts, silver to those with 85-89 points, and bronze to 80-84 scorers. The 12 wines that score highest are considered to be in the “Governor’s Cup Case” - wines you are encouraged to buy in order to taste the best of the best of Virginia wine offerings. The highest scoring wine takes home the grand title of Virginia Governor’s Cup winner.
After I became a Winston-sized expert in the Governor’s Cup, it only took laying next to the dinner table to find out why Mom and Dad are really, really excited about attending this year’s gala. Our Viognier was a gold medal winner this year! If you remember, this wine is both Mom and Emma’s favorite. All of us were so happy to hear that the very first wine made for us earned such a high ranking in this year’s Governor Cup. It can only be a sign of many award winning wines to come!
Since I already told you about the bottles and corks that we use here at Brix & Columns, I figured the natural progression was to talk about the capsules on the tops of the bottles. That’s right folks, those pesky wrappings that you have to cut into on each bottle have a technical name: capsules. Even though they are solely for decorative purposes now, wine capsules were originally used to protect the wine cork from varmint like rats and cork weevils.
Even though they aren’t necessary, these cork coverings can carry a few secrets of the wine’s origin. Some foils cover a strip of paper that is wrapped across the top of the bottle. This strip is the wine bottle’s seal of authenticity, and the bottle can’t be opened without compromising the paper. It is thought that these seals prevent thieves from stealing the good stuff and replacing it with subpar wine. Bottles of Rioja are generally covered with gold netting on top of, or even instead of, the standard foil. This also originated as a security device, as one Rioja winemaker made the favored wine of King Alfonso XII. The once dense gold netting was impossible to cut through and, thus, lesser wine could not be passed off in previously opened bottles by ne’er do wells. Today the gold netting is still present on most Rioja wines, but in a much more delicate state.
In olden days (and right up to nearly modern times), one of the oldest worked metals, and one of the most malleable, was used to make capsules: lead. Eventually, the connection between use of lead and lead poisoning was linked and the use of lead stopped in many capacities - including in the production of wine capsules. Since then, the materials used are primarily tin, aluminum, and PVC. All materials serve the same purpose and the material used is determined by the quality of the wine. Tin is typically used on the highest quality wines. It is one piece, seamless, and easily conforms to the shape of the bottle. Next down the line is aluminum. This capsule is falling out of favor since removing it can be difficult and often results in sharp edges. PVC capsules are the most cost-effective to use and have the benefit of being able to be produced in any number of colors and prints. All of the capsules are applied to the bottle by slipping the capsule sleeve on top of the bottle and rolling it into the proper shape through the use of spinner machines.
The only exception to this process are the wax dipped bottles like our Six-Penny Post Script. Unlike most capsules that can be opened by cutting around the top of the bottle, the wax covered bottle is opened by inserting the corkscrew directly through the wax and proceeding to open the bottle. Make sure you dust off any wax remnants before you pull the cork!
One thing is for sure, we are so used to seeing wine bottles with capsules, that it is hard to imagine them without.
If your house is anything like mine, a few weeks ago you heard plenty of corks popping when the clock struck midnight - something about celebrating a new year. All the popping made me wonder what makes them make such a loud sound AND why are they even used for wine anyway?
The pop was a really easy answer to find out - it is the sound made when the pressure releases from the bottle. As much as we associate that sound with wine bottles opening, it was surprising to learn that corks weren’t always the seal of choice for wine bottles. Up until the 1600’s, each bottle a glass blower made had a glass stopper blown to specially fit that bottle. Once wine bottles were being produced in consistent shapes, cork was able to be used as the primary stopper for wine bottles - and this had two huge benefits: no more breaking of the bottles in order to open them and wine could now be aged.
The marriage of wine and corks seems like a match made in heaven for all fine wine lovers - and it makes even more sense when you find that cork trees have to age before they are even able to be used by cork producers Cork trees have to be at least 25 years old before their first harvest, and after that they can only be harvested every 9 years after that.
There are several different types of corks used these days, and not all of them come straight from the tree:
Standard: the finest of wines deserve the finest of corks, and so for these bottles, a standard cork is made. These corks are cut straight from the bark of the cork tree and sorted into grades according to how dense each cork is. Some corks may be cut up to one inch longer to use for the finest of wines that need to be significantly aged.
Agglomerate: To make these, the leftover bark from the punching of the standard corks is ground and formed into standard cork shapes with a disc of sliced cork on one or both ends. These corks are more economical than standard corks but can leave wine susceptible to taint if not properly constructed.
Synthetic: Made from plastic compounds, these corks look very similar to standard corks and and have the same familiar pop when pulled from the bottle. While they eliminate the risk of taint contamination, wines made with synthetic corks are not able to be aged.
The process by which corks are made from trees is quite fascinating and if you click the link below, you can see the step by step process through both photos and written explanation.
If any questions “popped” into your mind while reading, post them below and I will do my best to answer them!
Man, oh, man! The youngest of my sisters (Emma) just got home and she has been wrapping up a storm. She hasn’t put labels on ALL of the gifts under the tree, yet, but I am almost certain that they are mostly for me. I have been a very good boy this year, and if I didn’t already know this, my mom tells me at least three times a day. I love making her so proud!
Anyways, thinking of all those presents (hopefully my presents) getting wrapped in such pretty paper got me to thinking about how Mom and Dad choose the wrapping for all the wonderful wines we sell in our tasting room. I’ve noticed that there are basically just three different types of bottles, so I figured it would be pretty easy to research the differences between them.
The first bottle you probably notice in one of our tastings is the lighter colored Burgundy style bottle that our Chardonnays and Viognier are poured from. This bottle has sloped shoulders and just a slight punt (or indent) on the bottom. The punt helps to keep sediment from pouring out of the wine, but in these days of filtering built into the wine process, the indent is much less a necessary feature. Because of the slightly sloping sides, this style of bottle does not stack as well. A wine in this type of bottle is not likely to be one recommended to age as the lighter color lets in more light and speeds up the breakdown of tannins.
The second bottle you will notice is the clear, rounded shoulder bottle that houses our White Brix and, in past times, our very much missed Rosé. Clear glass is always chosen to showcase the color of a wine and is never used for a wine that is meant to be kept in bottle for any significant amount of time. The rounded shoulders are purely for aesthetic reasons.
The third bottle style, and the one that contains our Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and McGahey, is the Bourdeaux style that is deep in color, has a deep punt, and very defined shoulders. All of these factors, before modern day processing came into being, were very important to maintaining the taste and quality of bottled wine. The punt (sometimes called kick-up), as mentioned before, helps to keep sediment away from poured wine, and it is much deeper on these bottles as the full-bodied reds kept inside of them typically have more sediment than light or medium bodied wines. The straight sides on these bottles make them perfect for storing on their sides, and the rounded shoulders aid in keeping sediment away from the cork. The darker color found in Bourdeaux style bottles protects the wine from exposure to light.
The final piece of information that I am going to leave you with, before I get back to sniffing out which presents are really mine, is my mom’s favorite piece of trivia about why most wine bottles are 750mL. Back in the 18th century, once people realized that wine keeps better in glass vessels than clay vessels, glass blowers started blowing bottles for that purpose. Since glass blowers make bottles by blowing in one large breath, the size of the bottle is limited to the lung capacity of the blower - which just so happens to be about 750 mL.
Well, I just heard some more gifts placed under the tree, so I am going to go see if they have started putting my name on the boxes. I really hope I got some more Kongs to chase and blankets to carry! Merry Christmas to each one of you. If you haven't already stopped by the tasting room to do your final Christmas shopping, we hope to see you this week!
It is my favorite time of year. Mom and Dad have put up our Christmas trees, there is a chill in the air, and each evening ends with me curled by the fireplace. The other evening, as I performed my usual sleepytime ritual of bringing my blanket to my mom to spread out on the floor, I smelled the most delicious smell coming from her mug. When I tried to take a close-up sniff, she pushed my head away and said, “Silly puppy, mulled wine is NOT for dogs.”
Mulled wine?! Is it possible that there is a type of wine that I don’t know about? I wonder from which grapes this mulled wine is made. It was time for me to do some research. As it turns out, mulled wine has been around for quite some time (since 200 AD, in fact), as the Romans used to drink it during the colder months to ward off colds and other illnesses. The tradition of drinking mulled wine spread across Europe (as with other aspects of viticulture) as the Roman Empire traveled and traded extensively with other countries.
Today there are many versions of warmed and spiced wines to be found around the globe. Wassail, Glühwein, Glögg, greyano vino, candola, Smoking Bishop, and vin chaud are just a few examples. If you are interested in trying the many different varieties, might I suggest a tasting party to accompany all of the other holiday festivities. Recipes are so easy to find all over the web, even I can do it with these big ol’ paws of mine!
Scrooge himself even said at the finish of “A Christmas Carol”, that there is hardly a better drink to sit and drink with friends.
“A Merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” - Charles Dickens
Below you will find two recipes that I located on my search. They both sound yummy to me, but unfortunately, mulled wine is just not for dogs. If you try these, or any others, be sure to tell us below in the comments!
One easy recipe is to combine two bottle of red wine, two shots of port-style wine, a few oranges that have been cut into 5 segments and stuffed with cloves, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp nutmeg, 2-5 tbsp brown sugar (to taste). Let mixture warm over low heat (DO NOT LET IT BOIL) and once thoroughly warmed, strain through filter and serve. (Source: vivino.com)
A less potent recipe is to mix 1 bottle of full bodied red wine, 4 cups of apple cider, ¼ cup honey, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 orange zested and juiced, 4 whole cloves, 3 star anise. Simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes, and then pour into mugs for serving. Orange peels may be added for garnish. (Source: Ina Garten)
If you were ever looking for a glass of delicious, you will find it in a bottle of port-style wine. Take special notice of the “style” after the word port. Port is a style of wine that originated in Portugal. Traditionally made from blends of Portuguese varietals, such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Cão, Tempranillo, and Tinto Barroca, this wine is processed and then brandy (a spirit made from grapes) is added to halt fermentation. After processing and fortifying is complete, these wines can be aged for anywhere from 1 to 30+ years.
The end result of this process is nowhere short of delectable. Port style wines are characterized by flavors of cherry, raspberry, vanilla, chocolate, caramel, butterscotch, and even coffee. There are a number of varieties of port-style wines available on the market- white, rose, and red are only the beginning of your options. You can get port-style wines aged in bottle or in barrel or aged barely at all. The one wine you can’t purchase in Virginia is a Port produced outside of the country of Portugal UNLESS you are at Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville, VA. This particular vineyard was the first in Virginia to produce a Port after the era of Prohibition. Because they released their 1995 Port prior to legislation designating the name Port only to wines produced within the bounds of the country, Hortons Vineyards is the lone vineyard that is grandfathered into legally using the name Port for their dessert style, brandy-fortified wines.
Since United States port-style wines don’t have to use varietals native to Portugal, there is a bit more flexibility in the process here. Port-style wines made here use a variety of grapes - with Chambourcin and Norton being two prominent choices in Virginia. Many times the grapes are tempered by drying before processing. Skewing from the typical port-style route, this year we are releasing a Tannat based dessert wine for our Six Penny port-style; this year’s version is aged for 12 months in oak barrels, and heavy in notes of cherry and chocolate. We hope to release it to the public in early December.
While not nearly as well known as its genetic offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc has earned its own fame and with due cause. Established in the Libournais region of France, Cabernet Franc grapes were nurtured under an abbot named Breton who has since had his name used interchangeably with the official varietal name. Later, the grape found its way into the Bordeaux region, and has since been regularly used in the blends connected to that region.
While it’s not known exactly when Cabernet Franc made its way to the Virginia vineyard scene, it is undeniable that it has a found a strong and loyal following here. It is a hardy grape that flourishes in sandy and chalky soils, and it doesn’t require a lengthy growing season to flourish. In fact, it reaches both bud phase and full ripeness at least a full-week earlier, if not more, than Cabernet Sauvignon. Sometimes called an “insurance” grape because of its resistance to fungus and disease, Cabernet Franc really flourishes when it has to want just a little for water Being slightly parched allows the vines to produce a fruit that is more concentrated in flavor with less water content.
The characteristics of this grape can produce flavors in wine that range from sweet to savory, reaching anywhere from dark fruits such as plum, blackberry, and raspberry to hints of tobacco, bell pepper, and even eucalyptus. This is a wine that pairs well with nearly every food dish: wild game, roasted pork, lamb gyros, a cheese platter, or any roasted vegetables are the perfect accompaniment to a glass of the always delicious Cabernet Franc.
As one of the most widely grown grapes in the world, Chardonnay has a history as rich and varied as the wines that it produces. Propagated throughout France by the Cistercian monks, Chardonnay officially became a Burgundy grape when it was planted under Emperor Charlemagne’s rule in the 800s. One of the legends swirling about this white Burgundy (as it is referred to in France) is that the Empress tired of the red wine stains that were always present on her husband’s white beard, and she ordered white grapes to be planted in the vineyards to combat this problem. Once planted, the easy growing grape found popularity everywhere.
When colonists moved to Virginia, legislation was quickly passed by the House of Burgesses to establish a wine industry in the new land. By the decree of Act 12, each head of household was ordered to plant and maintain ten grape vines. Knowing how popular Chardonnay has been for centuries upon centuries, it is easy to understand why colonists chose Chardonnay as the first vinifera planted in Virginian soil. While early grape growers were not successful in their wine-making pursuits, they continued to establish vines and techniques that would be used for years to come.
Chardonnay is the winemaker’s dream grape due to the fact that it is so diverse and malleable by both the terroir (earth it grows in) and the winemaker’s techniques. Although it comes to the height of flavors in chalky, mineral heavy soils, Chardonnay grows well in a vast array of conditions and the end flavor can be influenced by the height of ripeness at which it is harvested. Harvesting early in the ripening produces flavors of apple and lemon, and harvesting later in the ripening will produce a wine with tropical flavors of pineapple and mango.
One of the most interesting characteristics of the Chardonnay grape is how easily it is influenced by oak aging. While oak barrels can impart flavors of vanilla, coconut, and even dill, oaked Chardonnays are most well known for their buttery, creamy feel. This butter flavor is the result of malolactic fermentation. Once all of the sugar has been turned to alcohol, the lactic acid “eats” the malic acid which creates a byproduct with a chemical composition very similar to movie theater butter.
A wine as varied as this can be paired with nearly everything. From soft cheeses, to herbed fishes, poultry dishes, and hearty steaks - the right Chardonnay can be the perfect match for them all!