Wine with Winston
Welcome to the Brix & Columns blog! Winston will be writing on a variety of topics regarding the wine industry.
You know what they say! It's a dog's life! I know I have it good, I've got a mom and dad who love me very much, I've got rolling hills of land to run around on, and I even have my own blog. You might think that it couldn't get better than that, but think again. Over the past month I have been lucky enough to have my very best friend (and little nephew) Ryland come stay with me. We were assigned a very important task, and we definitely earned our bones.
Gene, our Vineyard Manager, and Taylor, my big brother, had a lot of work to do on the vines over the past month, and mom and dad sent us out to make sure that they were doing everything they needed to do. We laid in the shaded, soft grass and watched as they inspected each vine to determine its health. They were looking for bud swell and the magical bud break, As they inspected the growing shoots, they tied them to the cordons to begin training their future growth.
Most people think of the spring season as a time of new beginnings, but the growth cycle of the grape vine actually renews each fall. That is when the new buds begin to form on the vines as hard brown bumps, and they rest with a protective cover over the winter. In the early spring, as soon as ground temps break the 50⁰ mark, vines begin to bleed. The roots wake up and pump water through the plant, distributing the needed “energy fuels” throughout the vine. These sugars, minerals, and hormones will all go to work immediately nourishing the sleeping buds and preparing them for bud swell. During the bleeding process, up to 1.5 litres of water can be pumped up through the plant and will “bleed” out of its pruning wounds.
Bud swell is the beautiful phenomena that begins to turn vineyards from the winter brown hues to the lush yellow-gold colors of all newly awakened plants. Robert Frost warned us, though, that “nothing gold can stay,” and to be sure, these golden colors will soon erupt into a lush and vivid green as the bud swells burst into the bud break. Tightly furled in these nuggets of green are everything the vine needs to make its next year of growth: leaves, shoots, and even the fruit clusters that will mature by the end of the growing season.
As Gene and Taylor moved through the rows examining and admiring each of the individual vines, they tied them to the cordon wires of the trellis to train their growth. Next on the schedule, is stripping the trunks of their leaves. This will temporarily “de-green” the vineyard, but it is just to ensure that the energy of the plant is being used to produce healthy and vibrant shoots. Each plant should have only two trunks, and by taking off the leaves, we are making certain that no additional shoots grow where we don’t want them.
I have a few more supervisor shifts coming up, and I will be meeting with Jeanette, our vineyard consultant, so look for a “growing” wealth of information to come!
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! I got so excited to tell you about our Rosé release that I completely forgot to do the final follow-up to my barrel series! The final type of barrel that I wanted to tell you about was the stainless steel barrel. Now I know that when you think of aging wine, oak barrels are automatically what you picture; however, they are not the only barrels that winemakers have at their disposal.
Stainless steel barrels have only been used in the wine world for a few decades, but don’t let their relative youth fool you. They do have a plethora of benefits that come with their use, and only two negatives Let's get the bad news out of the way first. One thing a stainless steel barrel cannot do is impact the texture of the wine by making it creamier. The other major drawback of using stainless steel barrels is that it cannot layer and increase the complexity of the wine that it is aging. A wine aged in an oak barrel has layers of complexity that a stainless steel barrel will never be able to duplicate.
The benefits of aging and stainless steel are so numerous I'm not quite sure where to start. The first is a no-brainer, they are more environmentally friendly because you don't have to cut down trees to use them. Hand in hand with that benefit is the fact that they are a more economical choice for the winemaker. A stainless steel barrel can be used for upwards of 10 years at a time with no leaks, and then used multiple more times.
When a winemaker is finished using a stainless steel barrel, the cleansing process is much quicker and easier than the one used on oak barrels. There is greater control over the temperature of the liquid and the barrel, and there is no oxidation, which improves the quality of the wine.
The fact that the flavor does not transfer from the barrel to the wine is viewed in a very favorable light by some people. It results in a wine that is light, fresh, and crisp. Wines aged in stainless steel barrels remain fruit-forward even as they age, and it really allows anyone enjoying the wine to easily taste the talent of the winemaker. If desired, oak chips can be added to the aging process to impart some of the flavor and texture that would be gained by aging in an oak barrel.
In a couple of weeks I'm going to be back to tell you about everything Mom, my brother Taylor, and I have been doing in the vineyards. We have been working very hard during this important season of the grape growing world and I can't wait to tell you more!
When Mom and Dad came home from church on Sunday and had a dozen roses, I just knew they were for me. I had been such a good boy all weekend through all of our events, and at that moment I knew they had recognized my good behavior. Now I know not every dog wants to get a dozen roses, but I'm not just any dog. I'm Winston the wine dog and I am refined and distinguished, and I appreciate a bouquet of roses just as much as I appreciate a peanut butter-flavored dog biscuit.
You can imagine my surprise and dismay when Mom and Dad started dismantling that bouquet of roses without even letting me smell them! Next thing I knew they had them in a basket, they were nestling a bottle of rosé in the midst of them, and they pulled out their cameras without a single thought of me. It turns out that if there's anything more adored in the wine world than me, it's got to be rosé. Rosé has been enjoyed from every imaginable group throughout the past centuries from royal courts to millenials and everyone in between, and even though rosé has just recently found popularity in the modern wine world, it actually has quite a long and reputable history.
When Greeks brought wine and vines to southern France in 600 B.C., they weren’t just bringing about the French vineyard, but they were introducing the type of wine that would eventually become adored around the world. The wine that the Greeks originally brought with them when they founded Marseilles in southern France had the same hint of color our modern rosés do but nowhere near the depth of complexity and flavor that we are blessed with today.
During the Middle Ages, when the local monasteries begin to use wine as a source of income for their abbeys, wine making in that region saw a huge jump. By the 14th century, rosé had found its way into the most prestigious circles and was known as the wine of royalty. In more recent years, the production of rosé has continued to be refined by combining traditional and modern techniques and wines have increased in the their depth and complexity.
Rosé can be made from a variety of different red grapes and it achieves its color through two different methods. The first, and the most common, is called maceration. In this method the juice is allowed to lay on the skins of the grapes for up to two days before draining it off and continuing with the fermentation process on the entire batch of juice. In the saignée style, just a portion of the juice that is being macerated for a red varietal is bled off after a couple of hours. The rest of the batch is used to produce the red varietal and the smaller amount of juice that is drained off the top is processed to become a rosé. This is not as common a method since it produces a smaller amount of juice from each batch, but it has the added benefit of making the flavors pop more in the red varietal from which it has been bled. Very rarely, a winemaker will attempt to make a rosé by blending a white wine with a very small percentage of red wine, this method is frowned on by nearly all of the wine world.
Here at Brix and Columns, our rosé is made by the latter method. It is commonly produced from a variety of reds, and then aged in a combination of both neutral French and stainless steel barrels. With the summer days quickly approaching, I can almost guarantee you that you will be spending a few hours on our patio sipping a delicious rosé and being greeted by the most wonderful winery dog there is: me!
Although many dogs think that trees are good for only one or two things (mainly for making branches that can be carried and tossed), a sophisticated winery dog like me knows that trees have a very special place in our industry. In my last blog, I gave you a bit of information about how barrels came to be used to store wine - they sure beat carrying around those huge amphora AND they make wine taste even better. Today, I am going to talk to you about the three types of oak used to barrel age wines.
Barrel makers are called coopers, and the companies they work for are called cooperages. This name is thought to come from the Gaul region (just like the use of oak barrels) where the wine was stored in cupals and the makers of these were called cuparius. These days, it is a pretty sure bet that if your last name is Cooper or Hooper, barrel making is somewhere in your family history.
All trees used by coopers in the barrel making process are grown in cooler climates. Growing in a cooler climate allows the oak trees to grow more slowly and to develop a tighter grain. Trees used for barrels are grown in tightly spaced forests that force the trees to grow straight and this helps to reduce any knots that may develop. They are grown until they are about 100 years old and 5 feet in circumference. The only part of the tree used by coopers is the section of the trunk from right above ground level to right below the first branches. This section is cut, by hand for French and by machine for American and European, into the narrow staves that form the barrels. These staves must be air dried for 3-4 years before being made into barrels. A skilled cooper can get at least two and up to four barrels from each tree.
The most famous, and sought after, type is the French oak. Trees used for these are grown in the Allier, Troncais, and Vosges forests and can costs upwards of $4,000 a barrel. More commonly, the prices for these barrels range from $850-3,600 a barrel. Because the staves for French oak barrels are hand cut to decrease the tannin and astringency levels, the cost for these barrels is significantly more than their American and European counterparts. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are especially suited for these barrels as they soak up the subtle flavors so well, but all wines can benefit from the satin and silk textures that aging in French oak imparts.
European oak, sometimes called Hungarian, is considered to be the middle ground in the barrel world. It comes from the same type of oak as French oak barrels (Quercus robur), but at $560-700 per barrel, it costs much less. European oak barrels are often used on full-bodied varietals, like Malbec and Petit Verdot, that can hold their own against the richer, nuttier flavors that these barrels give.
American oak, although used mostly by the bourbon industry, has also found a niche in the wine world. This oak is much stronger in flavor, and is often added in the aging process to impart notes of cream soda, vanilla, coconut, and even dill. Grown in 18 different states, the American White Oak, adds a rugged quality to wines that are clean and fruit-forward. These are the least expensive barrels at $360-500 a pop.
Winemakers make many choices in barrel aging that have huge impacts on the flavor and tastes of wine: the origin of the barrel they use, the variety of barrels used in the aging process, the choice of using toasted barrels, and aging for different lengths of time. By allowing a slow oxidation of the wine and by imparting a huge variety of flavors, aging in oak increases the complexity and softens the finish of any wine it touches. However, it isn’t the only barreling option available in these modern times. In the next blog, I will talk about some of the other options available in the wine industry today.
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!