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Rioja Wine Travel Guide

Omersa Guide Cover

Rioja Wine Travel Guide

Ken’s blog has been silent for the last few months, but he has not been idle, and has written a book. Omersa’s Wine Travel Guide: Rioja provides as much information as you are ever likely to need about the wines, bodegas and the delightful region of Rioja. It also has comprehensive travel information for when you decide to visit.

This perfectly crafted eBook is now available for sale at £6.99, or $9.99 if you prefer. Do visit the website http://www.riojaguide.com where there are more details, and you can download your copy.

There will shortly be an additional post on eReaders and eReader software, to help the uninitiated.

Sugar in Wine

Sugar plays a vital role in the wine in your glass, even if you can’t taste it directly.

ripe grapes

Ripe grapes

What is sugar?
Sugar is the name given to a wide range of carbohydrates, but only the simpler ones are sweet.

  • Glucose – one of the main products of photosynthesis in a plant, making up about 50% of sugars in ripe grapes. It is one of the three simplest types of sugar, known as monosaccharides. This is absorbed straight into the bloodstream during digestion.
  • Fructose – another monosaccharide, making up the other 50% of sugars in ripe grapes. It too is absorbed straight into the bloodstream during digestion.
  • Sucrose – the type of sugar you put in your tea, is typically produced from sugar cane or sugar beet, and very little is found in ripe wine grapes. Sucrose is in fact a combination of glucose and fructose.

Production of sugar in wine grapes
There is very little sugar in a grape until véraison, when the grape starts to change colour and ripen. Acidity decreases, and sugar contents rise, see the graph in a previous post. The trick is to get the correct balance between the two. Sugar concentrations in ripe grapes can easily achieve 20%.

Adding sugar manually

  • Before fermentation – sugar in grapes is converted to alcohol during fermentation, but if the grapes aren’t ripe enough, sugar may be added to artificially increase the alcohol content. A process known as chaptalisation. If this is done carelessly, there isn’t enough fruit in the wine to balance the relatively high alcohol. This practice is banned in many wine regions.
  • Adding two lots of sugar – Champagne manufacture involves adding sugar and yeast to produce bubbles in the bottle, and then sugar at the end to take the edge off the acidity.

Fermentation
Yeasts turn the simpler sugars into alcohol plus carbon dioxide, but many other reactions also happen, and some of the complex sugars remain.

Effect of residual sugar in wine

  • Tasting thresholdfor most people this is around 1% sugar content, but those who are particularly sensitive can detect 0.2%. A dry wine which is fully fermented out will have a sugar content of < 1.5 gm/litre, which is not detectable.
  • Balancing other tastessweetness balances acid and bitter tastes, making them less harsh.
  • Provides food for microbesresidual sugar in wine encourages bacterial growth unless it is properly protected. Sulphur dioxide is important here, see previous post.

Conclusion
In most wines, sugar just has a fleeting presence for a short while before the grapes are picked. It is created by photosynthesis, and consumed by fermentation.

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.

Wine and food matching

Matching wine and food is not an exact science, and everyone’s taste is different. It is a value judgement. But there are some basic guidelines which help to avoid unpleasant clashes.

artichokes

artichokes – a challenge to match with wine

Acidity
The more acidic a wine, the easier it is to match with foods. Think of how a dash of lemon juice enhances some dishes.

  • Acidic wines deal very well with salty foods such as oysters, or oily fish like mackerel.
  • The wine should be more acidic than the food. In fact food can temper a wine which would otherwise be too acidic for most.

Alcohol
Alcohol in wine affects the texture in the mouth, and if it is too high causes a bitterness and burning at the back of the throat.

  • Match the weight of the wine with that of the dish. Most foods are fairly light-weight, so it is easier to match lower alcohol, more elegant wines.
  • Avoid drinking high alcohol wines with chilli or very salty dishes – it just reinforces the burning.

Tannin
Tannins come mainly from the skin and pips in grapes, so are most often found in red wines. They react with the saliva in your mouth to cause a puckering sensation. Tannin levels decrease as a wine ages, so young wines are more tannic than older ones.

  • Tannic wines clash badly with many fish dishes, leaving a metallic taste in the mouth.
  • Tannic wines go very well with fat and protein – grilled steak for example.

Oaked wines
Both red and white wines can be oaked, but it is much more common in reds. Oak treatment is expensive, so it is done with better wines. The resulting wine has more body and tannin than lighter-styled wines.

  • Avoid delicate dishes, as the wine will overwhelm it.
  • Pick dishes with rich sauces, or where the food has been grilled rather than poached.

Sweet wines
Are those with residual sugar. Note that they should also have a balancing acidity, or else they are just cloying and will hardly match any food at all.

  • The sweet wine should be sweeter than the pudding you are eating.
  • Semi-sweet wines go well with spicy hot food.

Conclusion
There is no point drinking a wine which you don’t like, just because someone on TV has declared it a perfect match with the food you are eating. In the end, you should drink what you enjoy, but perhaps use the above guidelines to avoid the worst clashes. If a wine really does clash, you can always finish it off after you’ve finished the food.

Decanting Wine

To decant or not to decant, that is the question. Most wines are drunk within days of being bought, and some of these may benefit from decanting, but it is some older ones which really need it.

bottle sediment

sediment – leave it in the bottle, not the glass

What is decanting?

Decanting involves pouring wine from the bottle into another container. Any sediment should remain in the bottle. You might choose to decant into an attractive decanter for serving.

‘Double’ decanting

Decant wine into a jug, rather than a decanter. Use water to swill out the original bottle and remove any remaining sediment, and then return the wine to that bottle. Your guests get a pristine wine from the original bottle.

The process of decanting

Books usually tell you to decant over a lighted candle, so that it illuminates the bottle neck and shoulder. This allows you to stop pouring when the sediment reaches the neck. In fact, doing it over a bright surface works perfectly well.

Decanting wines with sediment

In my opinion, the one time when decanting is essential, is when a bottle has plenty of sediment. That is mature red wines. Sediment in a glass of wine is unattractive, but more importantly the sediment mops up dissolved oxygen, which makes the wine taste dull, and makes the aroma less attractive. Vintage port is the classic example.

Other reasons for decanting wines

There is considerable debate over this subject, for example the British being more likely to decant a wine than the French. So, other reasons why you might decant a wine:-

  • To aerate a young red wine. Some grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon can be rather tannic and astringent when young. Decanting the wine introduces air, which softens the tannins.
  • Wines bottled under screwcap can sometimes have a sulphurous smell when first opened. Decanting the wine helps this to dissipate rapidly.
  • Disguising the wine. Pouring an average wine into an attractive decanter helps to fool your guests into thinking it is better than it is.

Wines not to decant

Old and delicate wines may die in the process of decanting, leaving little for you to taste or smell. Pour a little out, and if there is a hint of brown to the colour, then don’t decant it even if there is plenty of sediment.

Conclusion

There are no precise rules about whether or not to decant a wine. Often, opening a young wine early, and pouring some out to increase the surface area of the wine in contact with the air, does the job perfectly well. Some just like the theatre of it all.

Collecting wine and wine accessories

Collecting wine is an unusual form of collecting, as the stock is both perishable and delicious. Collecting accessories is more traditional.

Ch.Lafite 1982 - a speculator's wine

Ch.Lafite 1982 – a speculator’s wine

Collector vs investor

  • My definition of a wine collector is someone who enjoys drinking wine, and who has a particular interest in certain types of wine, or wine region. A collector may, or may not, make money out of their hobby.
  • An investor regards wine as a commodity, which they trade in the same way as stocks and shares. They may never set eyes on the stuff, or even like wine.

How to start a collection

  • Identify which types of wine you enjoy drinking.
  • Buy that wine, expanding to different producers within the region.
  • Buy the best wine you can afford. If a wine region becomes fashionable, it is always the top wines which appreciate the most.
  • If a wine increases in value, you have the option of selling it.
  • If the wine decreases in value, you can still drink it; an advantage over other types of asset.

Two examples:-

I particularly enjoy wine from two regions. Their contrasting investment performance shows the benefit of buying wine you enjoy:-

  • Burgundy, particularly Red Burgundy, and the Pinot Noir grape variety. This is a complex and fragmented region, producing fabulous wines and awful wines, and everything in between. There was a time when just about all the wines were affordable, but the top wine has now broken through the £10,000 ($16,000) a bottle barrier. This has dragged up the value of many other wines.
  • Rioja, is another region I have followed for many years. The best wines may not be as fine as a top Burgundy, but they represent very good value for money. There has only been a small appreciation in value with time, so I just drink and enjoy my Rioja.

Buying wine

The best sources of a wine are:-

  • The vineyard itself.
  • The main import agent in your country.

If you buy consistently from these sources, then you will continue to get an allocation, even if the wine becomes trendy and expensive. You can of course look out for deals from other sources, including the Internet and auctions.

Storing wine

Wine is a perishable commodity, and should be stored in suitable conditions – see a previous blog post. If you are going to keep a wine for several years, then you must do one of the following:-

  • Have it stored professionally, where they can maintain perfect conditions.
  • Store it at home in a specially designed wine storage device.
  • If you live in a temperate climate, then there are other options. A deep cellar is perfect, but you can also improvise to provide adequate conditions.

Provenance – who has owned the wine and where it has been stored – has a significant bearing on a wine’s value. It ensures the wine is in good condition, and is genuine. Sadly, fraud is an issue these days.

Wine accessories

Many types of accessory have been made over the years, and many of these are avidly collected.

  • Corkscrews. This are probably the most popular item, with amazing patented mechanisms. There are also exotic designs, many of the most popular being erotic.
  • Glass. Bottles, decanters, jugs, drinking glasses come in a vast array of designs, from beautiful Venetian glass to cruder items.
  • Wine coolers, wine labels, bin labels, coasters – the list goes on and on.….

Internet resources:-

  • The column to the right of this blog lists many useful wine-related sites.
  • Wine Collectionary – a useful source for collectable wine and wine accessories.

Visit the ‘Know Your Wine’ Facebook page, and ‘Like’ it to receive future posts.

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.