Author Archives: Ken

Wines to drink with blue cheese

 

unpasteurised blue cheese

unpasteurised blue cheese

Blue cheeses provide the biggest challenge when matching with wine. They can be sweet, salty and spicy. These attributes clash with the tannins in red wines, producing a metallic taste. The solution is sweet wine.

Methods for making sweet wines
Quality sweet wines are made by dehydrating grapes, which concentrates the sugar. If this is high enough, then some remains after fermentation. Examples of how these are made:-

  • A fungus called botrytis cinerea, also known as ‘noble rot’, can infect individual grapes under the right conditions. The infected grapes look revolting, but taste delicious.
  • ‘Ice wine’ where grapes are left on the vine until the weather gets cold enough to freeze them. If they are pressed in this state, the juice is very concentrated.
  • Grapes are allowed to dry on the vine, or after picking, to become raisin-like.

Examples of these types of wine are:-

  • Sauternes/Barsac from the Bordeaux region. Also look for Loupiac and Monbazillac, less expensive and from the same grape varieties and region.
  • Sweet Chenin Blanc wines from the LoireCoteaux de Layon, and Quarts de Chaume. Vouvray is made in many styles, and the sweet versions are labelled Moelleux or Liquoreux.
  • Sweet Alsace wines, particularly Selection de Grains Noble.
  • Tokaji from Hungary. The more Puttonyos declared on the label, the sweeter the wine.
  • Sweet Muscats, made in many countries.

Adding alcohol to stop the fermentation:-

Grape spirit can be added to partially fermented grape juice. This stops the fermentation and retains much of the grape sugar. This method is used to produce sweet red wines. Examples are:-

  • Port.
  • Banyuls or Maury from Southern France.

Cheese links

Conclusion

Cheese and wine – a match made in heaven.

Drinking wine on an aeroplane – a disappointing experience

Wines are usually disappointing if you drink them on a plane. The circumstances are unusual, with conditions affecting both the wine and the drinker.

wines to drink on an aircraft

wines to drink on an aircraft

What is unusual about aeroplanes:-

  • Aircraft are pressurised at the equivalent of around 8,000 ft altitude, which is about three-quarters of that at sea-level.
  • Air-conditioning reduces the humidity to around 10%, much lower than most people are used to.
  • There is a lot of vibration.

Affect on the wine:-

  • Low pressure reduces solubility of gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide, and this reduces the wine’s freshness.
  • Red and white wines are usually served too warm, which has a significant influence on the taste and smell.
  • Wine is rarely served in a decent glass, and this has a negative influence.
  • Wines can be severely shaken up, which doesn’t help.

Affect on you:-

  • The low humidity has a direct influence on your nasal passages, and hence your sense of smell and taste.
  • You also salivate less in conditions of low humidity. Saliva moderates astringent tannins in wine, so a wine appears more astringent than normal in an aircraft.
  • Flying is stressful and tiring, and all this affects your senses.

Conclusion

The conditions tend to suppress the fruit and sweetness of a wine, and enhance any harsh acidity and tannin. So, wines need to be carefully selected to compensate for this.

Hangovers – the bad and the ugly

The term ‘hangover’ covers a range of symptoms including headache, nausea and dizziness caused by the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Some people are affected much more severely than others. The process is not fully understood.

The effect of alcohol (ethanol):-

  • Ethanol is a diuretic – it makes you excrete more than you normally would. The body becomes dehydrated, which can lead to many problems.
  • Ethanol is toxic, and is one of the few chemicals which can cross cell membranes. It can even cross the blood-brain barrier into brain cells.
  • It causes the blood glucose level to decrease, which can lead to weakness.

How alcohol is metabolised

Alcohol is normally metabolised in a 2 stage process. Accumulation of acetaldehyde is a real problem, as it is much more toxic than ethanol.

How alcohol is metabolised

How alcohol is metabolised

Why some types of drink affect some people more than others?

  • All alcoholic beverages are a mixture of chemicals. Some such as wine are made up of hundreds, often present in very small quantities. These provide the drink’s character.
  • The particular chemicals depend on the raw materials, processing such as fermentation and distillation, and subsequent ageing.
  • Some people are adversely affected by particular chemicals. The reason may be that they are allergic, or cannot metabolise them.
  • I have known people have a problem with wines made from a particular grape variety, or a type of spirit. If you have very adverse reactions, it is worth investigating this possibility.

How to prevent a hangover

It shouldn’t need saying, but I will say it anyway:-

  • Eat food when you drink – the alcohol is absorbed more slowly.
  • Drink plenty of water – this limits dehydration.
  • Avoid drinks which have a particularly bad affect – why be a masochist?
  • Know your limits.

How to get rid of that hangover

  • Drink water to rehydrate. You may also want to use sachets of electrolyte to replace those you have lost.
  • Your blood glucose level is usually low after drinking. Eat carbs such as bread or cereals, as these can be readily converted into glucose.
  • Potassium levels are also low. Try eating foods such as bananas and kiwi fruit to boost this mineral.
  • ‘Hair of the dog’ is often tempting, but sadly only delays the inevitable.

Conclusion

The only way to be guarantee a hangover-free life is to drink no alcohol, and where’s the fun in that.

Sulphur Dioxide – the Magic Molecule

Sulphur Dioxide molecule

Sulphur Dioxide molecule

Sulphite additions to food and wine have become a big issue. However, the sulphites, and the sulphur dioxide that they produce have real benefits.

Why is the term sulphite used?
Sulphur dioxide is sometimes injected as a gas, but solid sulphite granules are usually added instead. The acid in wine rapidly splits this up to produce sulphur dioxide which actually does the work.

Sulphur dioxide occurs naturally in wine
This may seem unlikely, but fermentation of grapes produces sulphur dioxide without any help from humans. The amount depends on the the yeasts that are used, but it is a ‘natural’ product.

Why are sulphites added to wine?
There are two main benefits:-

  • Antioxidantif wine is exposed to air, the alcohol is quickly oxidised to acetic acid (vinegar). So, nature’s natural tendency needs to be moderated, if we are to drink the wine before it goes off. Sulphur dioxide attacks the chemicals which would otherwise produce vinegar. This is less of an issue for red wines which have their own antioxidants.
  • Antimicrobial – wine contains yeasts and bacteria. The magic molecule prevents these from multiplying and spoiling the wine.

Which wines have the most sulphur dioxide?
SO2 binds with many compounds in wine, including sugar. Only the unbound sulphur dioxide is able to fend off oxygen and microbes. So, sweet wines need plenty to protect them.

The importance of quality grapes
Rotten grapes make rotten wine, and need more sulphur dioxide to keep the bugs under control. Grapes with plenty of acidity also need fewer additions.

What are the adverse effects?

  • Sensoryan excess of sulphur dioxide produces a smell of burnt matches, but an awful lot needs to be added to have this effect. This fault is rare.
  • Healthis a difficult issue because there is little proof of adverse effects. It may induce asthmatic attacks in some people. It is worth noting that normal food metabolism in the body generates much more sulphites than you would absorb from wine consumption.

Conclusion
In my opinion, the addition of sulphites at the right time and in the right quantity is beneficial, if not essential, for almost all wine.

Bottle variation

Bottles of the same wine may taste very different, and variations increase as a wine gets older. In fact one bottle of a mature wine may be wonderful, and the next over-the-hill. Why?

different bottle sizes

different bottle sizes

The blend
Virtually all wine is a blend from different barrels or vats. If the mixing vat is not big enough to take all the wine, then one batch may well differ from the next. So, there may be a difference before the wine is even bottled.

Bottling
A particular wine may be bottled in batches rather than all at the same time. The fill levels, added sulphur dioxide, entrained oxygen, and gas injected above the wine may all vary at each bottling session.

The closure
Historically this was always natural cork. It is a fine closure, but every cork is different and will allow differing amounts of air to diffuse through. This causes bottles to mature at different rates. One big advantage of screwcaps is that each closure is the same.

Transport and storage
This is a major issue, and can completely destroy a wine.

  • Temperature – is covered in more detail by another post. If the temperature gets too high, the wine will be damaged, perhaps fatally. Cases of wine stored at different temperatures will mature at different rates.
  • ‘Lightstrike’ – damage by over-exposure to UV light.

Bottle size
The larger the bottle, the more slowly and gracefully a wine matures. This may just be because the gap between the cork and the wine is the same for a half bottle, a bottle or a magnum. Any air in that gap will be spread more thinly in a magnum than a half bottle, meaning that it will be oxidised more slowly.

Age of the wine
The older a wine, the more time there is for all these influences to take effect, and the higher the chance of one bottle being very different to the next.

Climate change and wine

There are plenty of climate change sceptics, but it is a fact that alcohol levels in wine are increasing, and some grape varieties ripen, where they wouldn’t have 20 years ago.

Why is alcohol level an indication of higher temperatures?
Higher temperatures produce riper grapes, which have more sugar. During fermentation, the sugar turns to alcohol, so more sugar leads to more alcohol. There is an associated decrease in acidity.

Some grapes need more heat to ripen

Some grapes need more heat to ripen

Different grape varieties prefer different temperatures
The diagram shows that some grape varieties need longer heat exposure to ripen than others.

  • If the temperature is higher than ideal, the grapes will ripen, but the wine will lack freshness and acidity.
  • If the temperature is lower than ideal, then the grapes won’t ripen properly, and the wine will be tart and acidic.
  • If the temperature is much higher than ideal, then the vine simply shuts down, and nothing happens.

Which countries are most affected?
Those at the current extremes of temperature for growing vines:-

  • Much of Australia and Spain, for example, have vineyards in regions with high temperatures. They will have to adapt to survive.
  • Countries further from the Equator with more marginal climates, such as England, will now be able to grow a much wider range of grape varieties.

What can the adversely affected regions do about it?

  • Plant different grape varieties, which are more tolerant of the hot weather.
  • Train the vine branches so that leaves physically shade the grapes.
  • Allow plants to grow between the vines, as this lowers the soil temperature, and there is less reflected heat from any stones.
  • Plant new vineyards at higher altitude.

The serving temperature of a wine is important

A wine’s serving temperature is probably the most important factor in your enjoyment. It won’t make a great wine out of an average one, but it will make the most of what you’ve got.

Red wine serving temperature

Red wine serving temperature

Serving reds at room temperature
The adage used to be – serve a red wine at room temperature. That was fine in the days before central heating, but now ‘room temperature’ is usually over 20ºC (68ºF) , which is just too high. Any red wine is just bland if it is too warm.

White wine serving temperature

White wine serving temperature

Serving dry whites straight from the fridge
A domestic fridge can get a bottle down to 5ºC (41ºF), if you leave it in there for long enough. At that temperature the wine will just numb the taste buds, and you won’t smell much either.

Serving sweet white wines
These should be served well-chilled, 8°C to 10°C, 46°F to 50°F, is a good guide. Lighter sweet wines can be served at even lower temperatures. Lower temperatures make sweet wines less cloying.

Serving sparkling wine
Freshness is important in a sparkling wine, so its temperature should be lower than a dry white. Serving straight from the fridge at a little over 5ºC (41ºF) is ideal.

The affect of ambient temperature
Once a wine has been poured, its temperature will quickly move to that of its surroundings.

  • If it’s a warm day, then start the wine at a lower temperature.
  • If the weather is cold, then serve the wine at the correct temperature – you can always warm it up in your hands.

The 20 minute rule
This is as simple a rule as you are likely to get. 20 minutes before a meal:-

  • put the red wine into the fridge.
  • take the white wine out.

Is there a perfect temperature for storing wine?

temperature and humidity recorder

temperature and humidity recorder

Wine is an organic living thing. The temperature a wine experiences can have a big influence on its quality.

So, is there a perfect temperature?
Time has shown that deep cellars in temperature parts of Europe are perfect for wine storage. A constant temperature of around 12°C (54°F) is ideal. A high humidity prevents the cork from drying out.

Increased temperature leads to increased reaction rates
Wine is a complicated mixture of chemicals, which react with each other. As the temperature rises, all of the reaction rates will increase, but some will increase more rapidly than others.

Increased temperature leads to new reaction products
As the temperature rises, new reactions will occur, which simply wouldn’t happen at 12°C. An example is the breakdown of aromatic chemicals in dry white wines. Unpleasant compounds are also produced.

Wines with low sulphites/sulphur dioxide
Natural wines with low levels of sulphites (sulphur dioxide) are increasingly popular. Sulphur dioxide serves two very useful functions:-

  • to limit oxidation of the wine.
  • prevent bacterial growth.

Both of these become much more of an issue as a wine’s temperature rises, and natural wines are particularly vulnerable.

Unfiltered wines
If the temperature gets too high, it is perfectly possible to restart fermentation . This causes plenty of problems.

What if the temperature is lower than 12°C (54°F)?
As the temperature decreases, the reaction rates slow down. So, a wine may not mature in the normal way, but at least it won’t go off. If a wine gets cold enough it may deposit white tartrate crystals, but these do no harm. The alcohol in wine depresses its freezing point, so it needs to be well below 0°C (32°F) before it even starts to freeze.

Conclusion
If you live in a climate where the temperature is above 25°C (77°F), and you don’t have dedicated wine storage, then please keep ALL your wine in a domestic fridge. You will have to remember to take the red out in good time before drinking it, but at least the wine will be in good condition.

Putting the fizz into sparkling wine

Sparkling wines are more popular than ever, as they are lively and refreshing. How are they made, and what produces the bubbles?

Champagne cork and muzzle

Champagne cork and muzzle

Where do the bubbles come from?
Sparkling wines have carbon dioxide dissolved under pressure . When the bottle is opened, the pressure is released and the gas starts to evaporate. Bubbles form on irregularities on the glass, or material suspended in the wine.

What if there are no bubbles?
The main reason for bubble-free sparkling wine is dirty glasses. There is nowhere for the bubbles to nucleate.

What is the gas pressure within a bottle?
Champagne usually has a pressure of around 6 bar – 6 x atmospheric pressure – at room temperature. Which is why you get a mess if you open a warm bottle. The pressure decreases rapidly as the wine is chilled, which is one very good reason for serving cold Champagne. Other sparkling wines have a similar, or lower pressure.

Where does the carbon dioxide come from?
When sugar ferments in the presence of yeast, it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. The more sugar you have, the more alcohol and carbon dioxide is produced.

  • In most sparkling wine production, grapes are fermented to a still wine. Sugar and yeast are added, and the second fermentation produces carbon dioxide for the sparkle.
  • In some rare cases there is just one fermentation, and the carbon dioxide retained, rather than allowed to evaporate.
  • The cheapest way of introducing the gas is to inject it into still wine, but this produces a coarse result.
Stopper to keep the fizz in a bottle

Stopper to keep the fizz in a bottle

Producing bubbles using a second fermentation
Starting with a still wine, there are three main methods for producing the bubbles:-

  • The method used in Champagne, now generally known as the ‘traditional method’. Wine is put into a bottle, along with sugar, yeast and nutrients. This second fermentation produces carbon dioxide. The debris is removed, and the wine sold in the same bottle.
  • The transfer method, in which secondary fermentation is in a bottle, but the wine is then transferred to a vat, where the debris is filtered out. The wine is sold in a different bottle.
  • The Charmat or Tank Method, where the second fermentation is carried out in tanks. The wine is then filtered and bottled under pressure.

The quality factor
Quality sparkling wines undergo a number of processes and maturation to give the same depth and complexity as a fine still wine, but they also have the prickle of bursting bubbles on the tongue.

Alcohol levels in wine – high or low?

Alcohol levels in wine have increased significantly over the past 20 years. That is not to everyone’s taste, but are low and zero alcohol wines worth considering?

Why have alcohol levels increased?
There are several proposed reasons, including:-

  • Climate change – more heat and sunshine produces riper grapes with more sugar, and hence more alcohol.
  • Better practice in the vineyard, producing better quality grapes, with higher sugar levels.
  • The influence of certain wine critics, which encourages big wines with high alcohol levels.

What influence does alcohol have on your palate?
Alcohol stimulates nerve endings in the mouth, to provide a sensation of body and texture. It spreads flavours around the mouth, which persist even after the wine has been swallowed – known as the ‘aftertaste’. If the alcohol is too high, and is not balanced by the fruit, then the aftertaste may be bitter. If the alcohol is too low, then the wine is thin and unappealing.

Bottle of lower alcohol wine

A quality wine with 9% alcohol

Lower alcohol wines
The most successful lower alcohol wines (less than 10%) are those made in Germany. The fermentation is stopped short, and the wine may be sweetened by adding unfermented grape juice. This combination of lower alcohol, sugar and good acidity works very well indeed.

How low and zero alcohol wines are made
A wine has to be made by fermentation of grapes; this produces mainly alcohol, but also a host of other chemicals which contribute to a wine’s taste and smell. So the alcohol needs to be stripped out, but this is likely to remove other compounds as well.

Why drink very low or zero alcohol ‘wine’?
For the reasons stated, these ‘wines’ are a mere shadow of their former selves. So why not drink unfermented fruit juice instead?

Suggestions if you are worried about alcohol consumption:-

  • Look for wines from cooler regions of the world, which will have lower alcohol levels.
  • Drink less.
  • Add water to high alcohol wines. I know this may be sacrilege, but it is better than commercially stripping out the alcohol. Please don’t add fizzy drinks unless you hate the wine, as this completely disguises what you are drinking.