Tag Archives: ageing

Coloured Wine

How red is it anyway?

How red is it anyway?

The colour of a wine can tell you much about it, but sometimes all is not what it seems.

Blending wines
Decades ago it was quite normal for a Burgundy producer to add a good slug of wine from a warmer part of the world to make up for any deficiency in their product. In theory this shouldn’t happen any more, and better vineyard practices and winemaking skills have improved the wines. There are rumours of this sort of practice still happening in some regions; and in some parts of the world the geographic boundaries are so large that blending is normal practice.

What gives a wine its colour?
The colour comes mainly from the grape skins. A classic example of this is the Pinot Noir grape variety. It normally makes red wine, but the pulp in the centre of the grape is white, so, if you gently press the grapes, and ferment the juice you get a white wine, as in Blanc de Noir Champagnes.

Wine colours
I’ll exclude fortified wines.

    • White – wine made by pressing grapes, and fermenting the juice without skin contact.
    • Orange – wine made from white grapes, but where the skin is in contact with the juice during fermentation. This was very unusual, but is becoming more popular.
    • Rosé – wine made from red grapes, where the grape skins are left in contact with the juice for a short period to impart some colour.
    • Red – where the grape skins are left in contact with the juice throughout fermentation. The colour can vary from a pale garnet to an inky impenetrable purple.

Which other factors influence the colour?

  • Acidity. Usually expressed as the pH. The acidity decreases as a wine ages.
  • Sulphites. These are added as an anti-oxidation and to kill off bacteria, but they also change the colour of a wine.
  • Ageing. The chemical reactions in a wine cause white wines to become darker in colour as they age, and red wines to become paler. They all tend towards brown in the end.
  • Oak barrels. Some air reaches the wine whilst it is an oak barrel, and this can affect the colour, as can some chemicals leached from the oak.

Wine additives which influence colour

  • In addition, or instead of, blending wine from outside the region, some winemakers will add food colouring. The most honest of these are at least grape-derived, an example being ‘Mega Purple’. They are concentrates where a little goes a long way, and some change the taste as well as the colour.
  • It is also possible to remove colour by using activated charcoal.

Conclusion
There are two ways of looking at the manipulation of wine:-

  1. The wine reflects the area that it comes from, often referred to as terroir, and also the winemaker’s skill. The addition of wine from outside the area, or wine concentrate, masks the individuality of the wine and so detracts from it.
  2. The winemaker aims to produce a consistent product every year, and that additives which achieve that are entirely justified. Cynics might suggest that they simply make up for poor winemaking. It should be said that the blending techniques used in Champagne to achieve a standard non-vintage wine are an honest way to achieve a consistent product.

Screwcaps and ageing

Screwcap closures have had some bad press, but in my opinion, any wine destined to be drunk within a year of production should be sold in a screwcap bottle.

Ch.Margaux is carrying out trials with screwcaps

Ch.Margaux is carrying out trials with screwcaps

What is good about screwcap bottles

  • The closure does not contaminate the wine. The wine may still be corked because of contamination during wine production, but at least the screwcap won’t have caused it.
  • Every bottle will be the same as the next. There are some caveats, and you should refer to a previous blog for further details. Every natural cork is different, whereas every screwcap closure is identical.

What is bad about screwcap bottles

  • Removing a screwcap just doesn’t have the same theatre as removing a cork. Sadly, I can’t think of any solution to this problem.
  • Production of ‘reductive’ chemicals in the wine because air is excluded. These are sulphur compounds which may be produced in the bottle because of the absence of air. These compounds disappear quickly after a bottle is opened, but can be excluded by modifying the winemaking process.
  • A little bit of oxygen appears to be necessary for a wine to age gracefully. Original screwcaps allowed almost no air to reach the wine.
  • Screwcaps were associated with cheap wine, so producers of quality wine tended to shy away.

New developments

  • The seal in a screwcap is provided by padding at the top. Different materials are being used for this padding, which allow different amounts of oxygen to pass through. This means that they can potentially be used for ageing fine wine.
  • The obvious thing is to try long term tests, and some tests were initiated in the 1980s in Australia. However, the prestigious Château Margaux in Bordeaux has started their own long term trials. Endorsement by one of the great old names in the wine business would make all the difference in the acceptance of screwcaps. Time will tell.

Conclusion
By choosing the correct seal, there will be screwcap closure for every wine, but it may take a while to prove the point.

Rioja

The wines of Rioja are a particular favourite of mine. The best wines show what the Tempranillo grape variety can achieve. Some wines are made to drink soon after they are made, and others just last for decades.

Rioja vineyards

Vineyards and mountains of Rioja

Geology
The Rioja region has a beautiful setting in central northern Spain. It is sheltered from the north, south and west by mountain ranges. The river Ebro, which is at the heart of Rioja, drains East into the Mediterranean, rather than the Atlantic which is much closer.

  • Soils near the river are alluvial deposits of sand, gravel and limestone.
  • Elsewhere, soils are a mixture of iron-rich clay, limestone and sandstone.
  • Geological activity over the years has turned this into a complex mix of soils, which can vary over short distances.

Climate
The mountains surrounding the Rioja region protect it from weather extremes. But it is influenced by three weather regimes.

  • Atlantic – mainly cool and wet.
  • Continental – searing hot in the Summer, and very cold in the Winter.
  • Mediterranean – a warmer influence from the East.

During the growing season, the weather is often hot and dry during the day, and much cooler at night. Ideal for growing grapes.

Rioja Wine Regions
There are three designated regions:-

  • Rioja Alta and Alavese to the West. The vineyards are at higher altitude and cooler than those to the East. The climate and soil are particularly suitable for high quality Tempranillo grapes.
  • Rioja Baja to the East. It is warmer and drier than it is to the West, and the conditions suit the Garnacha grape variety.

Wine classification
Rioja was the first wine region in Spain to be awarded DOCa status, the highest level in Spain. Within this there are four classifications based on the amount of barrel and bottle age that a wine has been given. However, this is only part of the story, as there can be a large variation in quality and price between wines within a given category.

  • Joven, or ‘young’ wines. These have no wood ageing, and are not for keeping.
  • Crianza – not released before their third year, with a minimum of 1 year in oak barrels.
  • Reserva – minimum of three years total ageing, of which at least 1 year is in barrel.
  • Gran Reserva – minimum of 2 years in barrel, and 3 years in bottle. Most producers will only make these wines in top years, when prime quality grapes are grown.

There are slightly different rules for white wine, but very few bodegas make wood-aged white Rioja any more.

New styles of wine
Red – some producers are trying to differentiate themselves from the rest by not using the above designations. They make a more powerful style of wine.
White – the old style of oaked white wines is a minority interest, even though the best are excellent. The new style is crisp and dry, and fairly aromatic. Made for the international market.

Conclusion
Rioja makes many really good wines, and apart from a few cult wines represents excellent value for money.

Screwcaps versus cork for wine bottles

branded natural cork

natural cork

Natural cork provides a very good seal for a wine bottle, but a screwcap is potentially better still. There are pros and cons for each of them.

Sealing liquids

  • Cork has a unique cellular structure which allows it to be compressed, and then spring back to its original shape. This provides a very good seal to prevent wine from seeping out. It can still seep out if the bottle is overfilled, the cork damaged, or because of poor storage.
  • Screwcaps prevent any wine from seeping out.

    screwcap

    screwcap

Sealing gases

  • Cork. Oxygen can slowly diffuse through the cork into the wine. Some corks are more porous than others, and some have defects; this allows more rapid diffusion of oxygen into the wine, and more rapid ageing.
  • Screwcaps. The original screwcaps allowed almost no oxygen into the wine, and this may cause unpleasant odours to develop. Different seals are now available which allow controlled amounts of oxygen into the bottle.

Contamination

  • Corks can be contaminated with TCA, a very small amount of which makes the wine undrinkable. Refer to this earlier post for details. This is cork’s biggest disadvantage.
  • Screwcaps do not contaminate the wine.

Storage

  • Cork. Bottles have to be stored with the wine in contact with the cork. If not, the cork dries out, and becomes a less effective seal. Rapid temperature fluctuations can cause a cork to move within the bottle neck, which can also cause sealing problems.
  • Bottles sealed with screwcaps do not suffer from these problems.

Long-term ageing

  • Cork has been used as a wine closure for centuries, and there is plenty of evidence that a good wine, with a good cork, stored in a good cellar, ages gracefully.
  • Screwcaps have been around for decades, and there is evidence that some wines age well. However, plenty more trials will be needed over many years, before everyone is convinced.

Conclusion

The scientist in me says that a screwcap with the right seal, is the perfect closure. No bottles will be contaminated, and every bottle in a batch will mature the same way. My heart however, would rather see a cork pulled from a fine bottle of wine, rather than someone crack open a screwcap.