When Wine Goes Rogue

Nothing is perfect and even though most of us share a passion and appreciation for the wonderful grape nectar we know as wine, it can present challenges if we allow it to become unruly and take control. Below are a host of challenges and solutions for dealing with some of the issues wine may present from time to time.

Removing Wine from Carpet

Wine, especially red wine, can be very difficult to clean up and remove from carpets, clothing, or even a decanter.  Here are some suggestions from the “experts” who have experience in addressing such situations.

There are several possible solutions for removing red wine from a carpet.  If the stain is still wet begin by blotting up the wine right away. The longer the wine sits on the carpet the harder it is to get rid of the stain. Be sure to use an up-and-down blotting motion, not a side-to-side rubbing one. Rubbing will pick up some of the wine but force the rest deeper into the carpet fibers, making it much harder to remove the stain.  This can also make the stained area even larger by spreading the liquid to the sides.  Work from the outer edges inward toward the centre. This helps prevent the stain from getting any larger than it already is.

Eventually it will become difficult to blot any more of the wine out. At this point, try getting the stain wet again with a small amount of cold water. This helps dilute the wine remaining in the carpet. Continue blotting until the carpet is dry again.

Next pour a generous portion of salt over the stain while it’s still wet. A good dabbing job will take most of the wine out of the carpet, but usually not all of it.  The salt granules will gradually draw the moisture in the stain out of the carpet over the next few hours.  However, given that salt works by absorbing the stain’s moisture, this is much less effective for dried stains. If your stain is getting dry, pour a little water on it first before adding the salt.

As the salt sits it absorbs the wine and will gradually turn pinkish in colour. You’re ready to proceed when the stain seems almost completely dry. However, the longer you take for the treatment the better the chance for success, so if possible let the salt sit overnight.

Next scoop up the loose salt with a spoon and discard it. Use a vacuum to suck up the fine particles that remain. If a salty residue remains after the first vacuuming, dampen the area with a little cool water and vacuum again.  This should restore the carpet’s natural texture. The stain should be greatly diminished if not gone completely.

A second option is to use a vinegar solution on the carpet.  Prepare your cleaning solution of a tablespoon of dishwashing liquid, a tablespoon of white vinegar, and 2 cups of warm water in a large bowl. Be sure to use white vinegar. Other vinegars may cause additional staining.

Next soak a clean rag in the vinegar mixture and dab it on to the stained part of the carpet. The mixture will seep into the carpet fibers, loosening the stain.  Then use a second dry rag to blot up the liquid as you go.  Alternate between dabbing on the vinegar solution and sopping it up.

Now soak a third rag in cold water and press it into to stain to dilute the wine. Alternatively, pour a little water directly onto the stain. Soak up the water by dabbing with your “drying” towel once again.

For maximum effectiveness, you may need to run through the process several times.

A third option is to use dish soap and hydrogen peroxide.  In this case add a generous squirt of soap to the peroxide and stir to mix them together. The amount you need will depend on the size of the stain, but you shouldn’t need much more than about a half cup for any stain.

Hydrogen peroxide is a mild bleaching agent so this method is best used only on light-coloured carpets.  It may be best to first try putting a small amount of the solution on part of the carpet that can’t be seen. If the carpet lightens or you notice dye transfer when you sop up the peroxide with a paper towel, avoid this method.  According to the experts, low concentrations of peroxide (like 3%) shouldn’t affect most carpets.

Soak the corner of a clean rag in the peroxide solution and dab it gently on the stain, allowing the mixture to seep into the carpet fibers. Repeat as needed until you’ve applied the solution to the entire stain. As always, blot; don’t rub.

When you’re done, let the mixture sit for a few minutes. This allows it to penetrate the deeper fibers and reach deep stains.

Then fill a clean spray bottle with cold water and add a few drops of standard dish soap. Shake the mixture to mix it. Give the entire stain a light spritzing and blot with a dry towel when you are done.  If you don’t have a spray bottle, you can repeat the blotting technique above with a fresh towel.

The stain should be looking better. Next soak a clean rag in room-temperature water (no soap), and blot the carpet to loosen up the cleaning materials. Finish by blotting with a dry towel.

Removing Red Wine from Fabric

Depending on how much wine you have spilt, gently dab or blot the excess liquid with a clean cloth or paper towel. Do not rub the stain.

If possible, apply some salt on the stain while it is still damp. You could also try applying white wine to the stain, which will help neutralise it. Just gently dab the stain to remove the excess liquid.

Baking soda also can be a useful product for helping to remove red wine stains. Consider applying a baking soda paste to the affected area.  Take a cup of water and dilute ½ cup of bicarbonate in it.  Mix it well until you get a uniform white paste and then apply it to the stain and let it work.  Once the mixture on your garment has dried, you will have to remove the traces of baking soda.

Another effective method is to mix baking soda with vinegar. You can create the same preparation but also add a tablespoon of vinegar to enhance it.

If the methods above aren’t available, or haven’t quite removed the wine stain entirely, apply a stain removal product to the stain by following the directions on the label.

The experts say that these hints are intended for treating stains on common fabrics, such as cotton and polyester. If you stain a more delicate fabric, such as silk, it is best to have the item professionally cleaned.  Always refer to care instructions on the clothing label to check the suitability of different cleaning methods, especially when using chemical cleaning solutions.

Cork in the Wine

If you find bits of cork floating in your wine, simply filter it out by pushing a coffee filter half way into your wine glass, and then slowly pour the wine through the filter. Make sure to use an unbleached filter, though, as bleached coffee filters may affect the flavor of your wine.  Other alternatives include using cheesecloth or a sieve, depending on the size of the pieces of cork.

Cleaning a Wine Decanter

It might be tempting to wash a decanter with dish soap or in the dishwasher as you would most other glasses. However, that is not a good idea as dish soap leaves behind residue and faint flavours, while dishwashers are too rough for most decanters.  There are other alternatives for cleaning your decanter, including the ones below.

If you decanter is relatively sturdy, drop in a few pinches of salt and some crushed ice inside and give it a gentle shake.  The ice and salt function as a sort of liquid steel wool pad, scouring the glass as you shake things up. Afterward, rinse your decanter with room-temperature water and let it air dry.

Another option is to use decanting beads, which are little metal balls that you put in the decanter with very hot water and swirl them around.  As the stainless-steel beads swish around the decanter they pick up residue and sediment like a sponge.  Because of their size the beads have the ability to reach the nooks and crannies at the base of the decanter. They are particularly effective on decanters with unusual shapes. 

The beads are reusable.  After use simply rinse them in hot water and let them dry before storing.

If the thought of steel or ice inside your beloved decanter makes you cringe, a similar alternative is to use clean, uncooked rice with equal parts water and white vinegar.  This combination works well as long as there are no significant stains in the decanter.

The most important thing to do in order to maintain your decanter is to rinse your decanter with warm-to-hot (but not boiling) water as soon as possible after each use.

Hopefully you are not presented with a regular occurrence of any of the above challenges but if you are, some of these hints may be of help. 

Sláinte mhaith

Wine and Eggs

If you listen to the ads on television, eggs are no longer just for breakfast and thus could be enjoyed with a glass of wine beyond the traditional mimosa, which is champagne and orange juice.

There’s a reason why mimosas are a brunch mainstay. Dry sparkling white wines like Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco are the number-one pick for any egg-based dish. Eggs, particularly the yolks, are rich and coat your palate with their savory flavor, which means their flavour lingers when you take a sip of wine. That makes the wine taste a little funny; maybe bitter or metallic or it’s difficult to taste at all. Sparkling wines, however, have that effervescence that actually cleans out your palate. They also tend to have high acidity, which does the same thing, as well as cuts through the natural richness of eggs. So that lingering egg yolk washes away and you can taste the wine again.

Below is an assortment of egg dishes that have been paired with a complimentary wine for enjoyment as a lunch or dinner entree.

Quiche Lorraine

Quiche Lorraine is the original form of quiche, from the French region of Lorraine. It is an open savory pie, filled with a cream and egg custard, and usually containing pork in one form or another, often bacon.  Quiche pairs well with Riesling.

Classic Rancher’s Meal

The Classic Rancher’s Meal consists of eggs, potatoes, pork (ham, sausage or bacon), and toast.  The combination, with the exception of the toast, is fried in a skillet.  Due to the nature of this fried meal, it is best paired with a Sauvignon Blanc.

French Toast

Chenin Blanc is a White wine grape variety from the Loire Valley of France. It is high in acidity to help cut the sweetness of French Toast with maple syrup.

Eggs Benedict

Eggs can be poached on the stovetop or in the microwave, and then set on English muffin halves topped with a slice of back bacon and a spoonful of creamy Hollandaise sauce. Chardonnay or Rosé will pair well with this rich delicacy.

Breakfast Sandwich

This ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on toasted bread or an English muffin pairs well with Lambrusco which is one of the oldest wines of Italy.  It dates all the way back to the Bronze Age. 

Huevos Ranchero

Huevos rancheros, or “ranchers’ eggs”, is a classic Mexican breakfast. Fried eggs are nested in a bed of refried beans, sour cream and salsa and served atop a warm tortilla. Try adding a bit of your favourite hot sauce for a touch of heat.  Pair with a Gamay.

Whatever egg dish you choose, there will be a wine that will pair well with it.

Sláinte mhaith

Common Wine Faults

When you take your first taste from a bottle of wine are you experiencing the vintner’s intentional style or some sort of accident?  The degree to which wine faults are considered problematic often lies in the nose (or palate) of the beholder and it’s often hard to tell the difference.

Here’s a guide to seven common wine faults, plus two situations you can happily ignore.

Brett

If the smell of the wine reminds you of a barnyard, horse stable or a band-aid, the wine may contain Brettanomyces yeast.  Many wines, including really good ones, have small amounts of brett.

Brett is most prevalent in red wines.  At lower concentrations, it can add a spicy, leathery note to a wine. People’s thresholds of perception of brett vary.  Some people don’t notice it while others are more sensitive. Brett does not pose a health concern.

Brett can develop in wine at any point during production. The yeast can be on the grapes or can be in barrels. There are lots of opportunities for brett to occur.

Corked Wine

About 5% of the world’s wines are corked, which leads to a less than pleasant wine-drinking experience.  If you smell the wine before drinking it will help determine whether or not it is corked.  If it smells okay, taste it to make sure that it has the strong, fresh flavors you expected when you bought it.   If wine is corked, it will have an odor that you wouldn’t expect from a good wine. It may smell musty, or like a dank towel, wet dog, wet cardboard or newspaper.  Your first sniff is more reliable than later sniffs. Trust your first whiff.

Wine becomes corked when it is exposed to  “2,4,6-Trichloroanisole” (TCA), a naturally occurring compound that may be found in the cork of the wine bottle.  TCA forms when natural fungi present in corks comes into contact with certain chemicals found in sanitation and sterilization products used in wineries.

Taste the wine. If the wine has only been exposed to a small amount of TCA, it may be difficult to decide for sure whether or not it is corked by just smelling it. The taste of the wine will be dull and will not exhibit any fruit characteristics.  A wine that is only slightly corked may lack aroma and have very little taste. It may even taste like paint thinner.

It may not be the cork in the bottle that caused the contamination. You may come across a bottle of wine with a screw top that tastes as though it is corked. In this case, the wine may have become contaminated in the barrel before it was bottled.

Many people mistakenly believe that corked wine is just wine that has little bits of cork floating in the wine. This is not the case. Although pieces of cork in your wine may be annoying, the wine itself is perfectly fine, unlike corked wine, which is generally undrinkable

Cooked / Manderized

Cooked or manderized wine is not mulled wine but is wine that has been exposed to heat levels that cause the wine to spoil. If you have ever bought a case of wine while on a summertime trip to wine country and stored it in your car’s trunk you may have been surprised to find it tasted completely different than when you bought it. A temperature of a mere 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) can be sufficient to spoil the taste.

White wine affected by temperature will appear brownish in colour and will have the flavour of flat baked fruit or nutty flavours.  Red wine will taste roasted, stewed or jammy with a raisin flavour.

Other indications of a cooked wine include finding that the cork is very difficult to remove. Essentially when the wine is exposed to high temperatures the cork expands. The cork might be extremely hard to pull out or may even be visibly forcing itself out of the bottle.

If the wine bottle is not cool to touch then you’re probably not storing it properly. A common misnomer is that room temperature is adequate for wine storage. It’s actually advised that wine should be stored at cellar temperature, which can be 10 degrees Celsius cooler than standard room temperature. To keep it cool during the summer months, either get a small wine fridge or keep it in a cool dry place like your basement.  For additional information on cellaring wine see my August 24, 2019 blog, “Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep”.

Over-The-Hill

Over-the-hill wine is wine that has been stored too long.  The colour of the wine will appear faded and less vibrant and the taste will be rather flat, having lost its freshness and structure.  Only about 10% of all wine produced is suitable for long term retention.  Most wines are ready for consumption the day you bring them home from the store. 

Oxidization

As soon as wine encounters oxygen it begins to break down, or “open up,” as some people say. Oxygen allows the aromas in wine to become more present, making it easier to identify the aroma. Oxygen also softens the mouthfeel of wine which occurs due to the breaking down of tannins, the cause of that harsh, dry sensation you may feel along your cheeks and tongue. Decanting is extremely beneficial in young reds, whose bright acidity and gripping tannins can seem austere and unpleasant at first. See my November 9, 2019 post, “To Breathe or not to Breathe” for additional information.

However, too much oxygen can lead to oxidation and  the degradation of the wine. This can happen during wine production or even after the wine has been bottled. Basically all oxygen needs is a simple catalyst for the reaction to occur. Think of an apple that’s been sliced and left out too long; the abundance of oxygen causes the flesh to brown, the aromas to dissipate and the flavors to disappear. The same thing occurs in the oxidation of wine.

If there is too much oxygen in white wine it will be ruddy or brownish in colour and will have the smell of spoiled cider, nuts or dried leaves.  Red wine will take on an orange brick colour and will taste lifeless and flat.

Reduction

Reduction is the opposite of oxidization.  It occurs when there is too little exposure to oxygen.  In this case the wine will take on a sulfuric smell like that of a struck match or the smell of garlic, rubber or rotten eggs.

Reduction occurs during the wine making process and can often be cured simply by introducing oxygen during the fermentation process. However, if reduction appears in a finished bottled wine, it is a clear flaw and while decanting will usually clear it up, some wines are permanently reduced and about all that can be done is to put a penny (if you still have one) in the wine.

Slight reduction is not something to worry about because the basic characteristics of the wine are still evident. Heavy reduction that extends to the flavours makes a wine almost impossible to accurately judge and if the condition is left untreated it can permanently mark a wine.

Volatile Acidity

If the wine contains extremely high levels of acetic acid it will have the smell of nail polish or vinegar. Small amounts are generally not noticeable by most people as the human threshold for detecting it is about 600 to 900 mg/L. It is likely to be present anytime you see “high-toned” fruit flavors in a tasting note. It can offer a tangy edge that works well with food that could use a little pizazz.

Volatile acidity occurs during the wine making process and is often associated with oxidation problems in a wine due to overexposure to oxygen and/or a lack of sulfur dioxide management. Acetic acid bacteria require oxygen to grow and proliferate.

Decanting will often help the sharp aromas disappear.

Perceived Faults

Though often mistaken for wine faults, wine diamonds and sediment are common phenomenon that are perfectly normal, and won’t harm the flavour of your wine.

Wine Diamonds

These are crystals that appear in the bottom of the bottle or glass.  They are a tartrate deposit that form when naturally occurring potassium and tartaric acid combine and sink. While winery techniques mostly prevent it from happening, they are harmless.

Sediment

Sediment is dark, grainy material that can accumulate in the bottom or side of a red wine bottle.  Sediment occurs for a couple of reasons.

Wine producers may elect not to filter their wines.  They do this to preserve flavour and texture. This leaves particles that with time settle to the bottom.

The second reason relates to aging. Research indicates a combination of acid, tannin and color compounds bond and separate from the wine. Fortunately, sediment is innocuous and is easily removed by decanting the wine before serving.

Final Thoughts

Although any of these situations may impede your enjoyment of wine, none of them are detrimental.  It several of the cases these flaws are part of the personality of the wine.  Many times I have read wine reviews that contain “hints of leather”, “earthy”, “nutty”, as part of their description.  As they say, “Beauty (or taste in this case) lies in the eyes of the beholder”.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Croatia

Croatian wine has a history dating back to the Ancient Greeks. Like other old world wine producers, many traditional grape varieties are still cultivated. Modern wine production methods are now prevalent in the larger wineries and European Union style wine regulations have been adopted, guaranteeing the quality of the wine.

Croatia is located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.  It has many indigenous grape varieties that are not very well-known internationally, partly due to their complicated names. The names may contain a long row of consonants as well as have some special characters like č, ž or dž. This can make it difficult to remember or pronounce any given name.

If you are keen to understand the correct pronunciation of the names of the wines this may help.

č – sounds like the “ch” in “chalk”

ž – pronounced like the “s” in “sure.”

dž – pronounced like “j” in “jump”

š – sounds like “sh” in “shoe”

There are two distinct wine-producing regions. The continental region in the north-east of the country produces rich fruity white wines, similar in style to the neighbouring areas of Slovenia, Austria and Hungary. On the north coast, wines are similar to those produced in Italy, while further south production is more towards big Mediterranean-style reds. On the islands and the Dalmatian coast, local grape varieties, microclimates and the rather harsh nature of the vineyards leads to some highly individual wines, and some of Croatia’s best known.

Almost 70% of wine produced is white and produced in the interior, with the remaining 30% being red, which is mainly produced along the coast. Rosé is relatively rare. Some special wines, such as sparkling wine (pjenušavo vino or pjenušac) and dessert wine, are also produced.

There are indeed many foreign “international” grape varieties grown in Croatia but its long history of wine production has left it with a rich tradition of indigenous varieties, especially in the more out-lying areas and the more extreme growing conditions. 

The Croatian Institute of Viticulture and Enology was created in 1996 to oversee the country’s wine industry, and be responsible for regulating winegrowing and wine production. Standards similar to the European Union wine regulations were set up to ensure the consistent quality in their wine. Croatian wines are classified by quality, which is included on the label.

Classifications

Vrhunsko Vino: Premium Quality Wine

Kvalitetno Vino: Quality Wine

Stolno Vino: Table Wine

Types

Suho: Dry

Polusuho: Semi-dry

Slatko: Sweet

Bijelo: White

Crno: Red (literally Black)

Rosa: Rosé

Prošek: Dalmatian dessert wine made from dried grapes, similar to Italian Vin Santo

Even though a classification system is used, Croatian wines don’t have a DO or AOC system like Spain, Italy, or France which can make it confusing to understand a wine’s grade or origin.

Common Red Wines

Plavac Mali

Plavac Mali is the primary red wine of Croatia.  It is a wine that is rich and full of flavour, high in both alcohol and tannin, with lower acidity, and has flavours of blackberry, dark cherry, pepper, carob, dry figs, and spice. Plavac Mali translates to “small blue”.

Teran

This is a red grape that has bold flavours of forest berries and violets with smoky meat and game-like notes. Teran generally has high tannins, and should evolve over a few years. In Italy it is known as Terrano.

Common White Wines

Graševina

The everyday wine of Central Europe, Graševina is also known as Welschriesling. It is one of the most popular white wine grapes in Croatia. Graševina is a dry, fresh, aromatic white wine with apple-like notes.

Grk

To pronounce Grk just pronounce the three letters in a row. Grk produces dry white wines with notes of white pepper, melon, herbs, and sliced pear. The variety is indigenous to Croatia and is only found close to Korčula, on an island within the Srednja-Juzna Dalmacija.

Malvazija Istarska

Malvazija Istarska is one of the main white wines of Istria and the northern Dalmatian coast. It is sometimes referred to as Malvasia Istriana, although it’s not actually the same grape as Italian Malvasia. These wines are refreshing and usually dry, with lower alcohol content and aromas of fennel, quince, honey, apricot, and spice.

Pošip

This white wine is often crisp with flavors of apples, vanilla spice, citrus fruit, and a subtle almond note.

Final Thoughts

Croatian wines are not always available or commonplace in our local wine and liquor stores but that doesn’t mean they are inferior or overpriced.  When you come across one I think you will find it worth your while to take one home and drink it.

Sláinte mhaith

Wine Recommendations

Over the past few weeks I have been asked several times for recommendations for wines that can be obtained from the local liquor store.  The truth is I can’t really suggest any particular wine as I don’t tend to favour any particular winery.  Instead I usually select my wines from the Vintages section at the LCBO.  I do this for a couple of reasons.  First the LCBO has a rule whereby in order for a wine to appear on the regular shelves it has to be available on an ongoing basis.  This restricts the suppliers to only the largest producers; those who often purchase grapes from a wide variety of growers thus increasing the risk of producing an inconsistent product.  Also because these wineries have become so well-known, some of them over-charge for the quality of the product produced.

The challenge with the Vintages section is that many of the wines brought in are in limited supply with new releases appearing every 2 weeks.  The wines are often from estate wineries that produce smaller and limited volumes. Thus if you are seeking wine from a specific winery you may go months or even years before it reappears on the shelves.  I have found that I have been very rarely disappointed in any of my Vintage purchases.  What I focus on is the grape varietal or the region the wine comes from rather than who the vintner is.

I find the LCBO’s Vintages magazine, a bi-weekly production that identifies and provides reviewer notes and comments about the various wines being released, to be very informative.  It provides the necessary details I need to assist me with my purchasing decisions.  Helpful information includes the name of the vintner, varietal(s), tasting notes, suitability for cellaring, and of course, the price.  If you have questions or need assistance in making a decision as to which wine to buy, the staff are very informative and helpful.

The price of wine in the Vintages section is no more expensive than those found on the regular shelves but dollar for dollar I find them a better value.  Personally, I am a big fan of Italian Barolo, Valpolicella and Chianti; French wines from the Rhône and Bordeaux regions; Rieslings from Germany’s Mosel region; Spanish wine from Rioja; and a wide variety of wines from Ontario and BC. 

Due to COVID-19 there have been challenges in the liquor stores receiving many of the wines they expected; or if they have received the wines they are sometimes of a lesser quantity than anticipated.  On more than one occasion during recent months have I been unable to acquire many of the wines I was hoping for.  One week the liquor store received only two of the seven wines I was looking for and on another occasion they received none of my desired selections.

These are challenging times.

Sláinte mhaith

Oh What a Year!

This is traditionally the time when people reflect back over the year that was and reminisce over the happy and sad times of the past twelve months.  Unfortunately this year there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for happy times.  The main and some would say, only event of 2020 was COVID-19. It has disrupted life as we knew it.

With the production of this last year’s wine supply still in progress, the situation heavily impacts the existing product stocks of the winemakers looking to sell the wine reserves of 2018. However, due to the measures applied in the spring by most countries, the biggest wine producing countries – Italy, France, Spain and the US – have seen sales decline steadily.

Mid-spring to early autumn is when wineries here in Canada do most of their business. However, with wine tours, tastings and exploration being limited or completely on hold for the foreseeable future, the number of visitors to wineries was drastically reduced along with associated wine sales. The sale of other merchandise, such as food and clothing, was also negatively impacted.  Some wineries closed entirely because of the virus.

The Demand for Champagne

Sales of champagne, one of France’s most iconic products, have tumbled over the past year with industry representatives estimating that some 100 million bottles will be left unsold.   Lower demand due to the pandemic has led to an exceptionally low harvest quota in France’s Champagne region, with pickers in the vineyards harvesting one-fifth less than last year.

With many cafes, hotels and restaurants being closed at various times, and weddings and music festivals being called off, people consumed less champagne.  However, lower demand will not necessarily lead to lower prices.

Australian Wild Fires

Wild fires wreaked havoc from late 2019 until the early part of this year in Australia.  The Adelaide Hills wine region was the hardest hit, destroying 30% of its production.  The Cudlee Creek fire affected more than 60 growers and producers in the region.

The financial blow to the Adelaide Hills wine industry was significant. The region lost $20 million worth of wine, which translates to 794,000 cases.

The Wild Fires on the U.S.  West Coast

Wineries were already facing great financial strains due to the reduction in restaurant traffic and smaller crowds visiting vineyards for tastings.  Many tasting rooms were closed due to fire and smoke risks, while many grapes have been damaged or totally ruined.

Oregon, Washington and California together produce about 90% of all U.S. wine. The true impact on the $70 billion industry will not be known for months as crop damage can vary greatly from region to region.  Smoke blanketed much of the U.S. West as fires charred in excess of 2 million hectares.

Canadian Wine Awards

The judging of the 20th Anniversary Edition of the National Wine Awards of Canada has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The sessions were to be held the week of June 24 to 28 in Penticton, British Columbia. The hope is that the competition can resume in 2021.

The 2020 COVID-19 version of the Ontario Wine awards finally took place on August 28th.  A small group gathered at Kew Vineyard, in Beamsville, Ontario as the awards were presented in front of a small, socially-distanced gathering.  Unlike previous years there were no judges and no formal tastings for the four main awards.  Instead the Awards Committee reached out to judges who had participated in the last three years of the competition and asked them to nominate their top three white, red and sparkling wines they had tasted during the year. Based on those responses the top scoring wines were tabulated.

Onward and Upward

Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is starting to be administered hopefully everyone who wants it will be able to have it within next few months.  Then we can begin the journey toward a world that is better than what we are experiencing today.  In the meantime stay safe and though it may be much quieter than usual, have the happiest New Year that these times will permit.

Sláinte mhaith

Toasting

I have been asked on more than one occasion the meaning of the phrase Sláinte mhaith which appears at the end of each of my posts.  These are the words of an Irish toast which are pronounced ‘slawncha va’.  It means ‘good health’.  It is often shortened to just Sláinte.  If you have ever experienced a true Irish pub, in all likelihood you will have witnessed the raising of a glass and Sláinte given as a toast.

A toast is a ritual in which a drink is taken as an expression of honour or goodwill.  As legend has it the custom of touching glasses came from concerns about poisoning.  By one account, clinking glasses together would cause each drink to spill over into the other glasses.  Another theory is that the word toast became associated with the 17th century custom of flavouring drinks with spiced toast.

The International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture says toasting “is probably a secular vestige of ancient sacrificial libations in which a sacred liquid was offered to the gods: blood or wine in exchange for a wish, a prayer summarized in the words ‘long life!’ or ‘to your health!'”

Toasting has deep roots in Western culture, with some anthropologists suggesting that it goes back to ancient religious rites. While a toast is generally positive — good health and good luck are common — the act carries certain negative superstitions in at least three European countries. Making eye contact while toasting is considered polite in many countries and the penalties for failing to do so can be severe. French and German superstition suggests that you’ll suffer through seven years of ‘bad sex’ if you don’t maintain eye contact during a toast. Many Spanish believe that the same curse will befall those who toast with glasses of water.  Toasting with an empty glass may be viewed by some as acceptable behavior for the non-drinker though pretending to drink from an empty glass seems ridiculous.  I am not sure how the people who think toasting with water is not acceptable feel about toasting with an empty glass.  However, in many countries toasting with an empty glass is preferable to refusing a toast altogether.

Irrelevant of which theory is true, toasting traditionally involves alcoholic beverages. Sparkling wine, often Champagne, is considered festive and is widely associated with New Year’s Eve and other celebrations. Many people nowadays substitute sparkling fruit juice (often packaged in champagne-style bottles).

The words used during a toast vary from country to country, though the meaning is very similar.  The Scots of the western half of Scotland, in Scottish Gaelic, say ‘dheagh shlàinte, (pronounced like ‘do slawncha’).  This is often responded  with ‘slàinte agad-sa”, which literally means “health at yourself”.  Scots, like the English, and now Canadians and Americans, often now use the word ‘cheers’.

In Hebrew, it is’ L’chayim’; in French it is ‘À votre santé’; the Germans often say ‘Prost’ (rhymes with toast); in Spanish it is ‘Salud’; in Portuguese it is ‘Saude’; and the Italians say ‘Salute’.

So if a toast is offered up this year at a holiday gathering (no matter how small that gathering may be) now you have some insight as to how the tradition may have began.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Rioja Spain

Rioja, situated in Northern Spain, is best known for berry-scented, barrel-aged red wines made from Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes. It is arguably Spain’s top wine region and the most famous. The vineyards follow the shores of the Ebro River for roughly 100 kilometers between the towns of Haro and Alfaro.

In addition to Tempranillo and Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) are also used in red Rioja wines. A few wineries also use small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon. White grapes on the other hand  are not widely planted.

By 2017 the vineyard area was recorded at 64,215 hectares, 91 percent of which was planted with red grape varieties. Certified production of wine exceeded 250 million liters.

Aging Categories

Rioja’s traditional classification system for aging has influenced other Spanish regions. For example the words Crianza and Reserva occasionally appear on South American wine.

All top-end red Rioja is matured in new oak barrels.  With French oak being difficult to obtain, winemakers in Rioja used American oak, which was both plentiful and inexpensive.  More wineries are now using a mix of American and French oak. American oak maturation is what gives more traditional Rioja red wines their distinctive notes of coconut, vanilla and sweet spice.

The amount of time that a Rioja wine spends in barrel dictates which of the official Rioja aging categories goes on the label: Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva.

Joven

Joven is Spanish for “young”, indicating that these wines should be consumed within a short period of being released; generally within two years.  Joven wine spends little or no time in oak barrels so they are low in tannin and are not suited for retention.  This category may also include wines which have undergone aging, but for one reason or another do not gain certifications for the higher categories.

Crianza

Crianza red wines are aged for at least one year in oak, and another year in the bottle. They are released in the third year. White Crianza wines must also be aged for two years but only six months needs to be in barrels.

Reserva

Reserva red wines spend a minimum of one year in oak. They cannot be sent to market until a full three years after the vintage. The white Reserva wines need only spend six months of the three years in oak.

Gran Reserva

Gran Reserva red wines must undergo a total of five years of aging with at least two of those years being spent in barrels. The white counterparts must age for at least four years, with a minimum of 12 months in casks.

In order to be more competitive internationally, many wineries now produce a premium wine that is aged entirely in French oak barrels.   Because these wines are often the most expensive in the winery’s portfolio, but may only qualify as Crianza or Reserva, they are not often marketed with any emphasis on the aging classification.

Site-Based Classifications

In 2018, the governing body Consejo Regulador introduced three geographic categories. These can be implemented from the 2017 vintage onwards. 

If producers adhere to strict guidelines they may now produce single-vineyard wines under the Viñedo Singular banner. Vines must be hand-picked and be at least 35 years old. Yields are set low and a tasting evaluation must be passed. If the fruit is not from an estate-owned site, then the winery has to have a ten-year history of buying grapes from the vineyard.

Wine labels may now also be labeled with the name of a village but the winery must be located within the village boundaries, as well as the vines.

White Wines

Rioja Blanco consists of 7 to 8 percent of Rioja’s annual wine production. The region’s top white-wine grape was once Malvasia, which was used to create flavourful, oak influenced high-alcohol wines. Today, the emphasis has shifted to Viura (Macabeo) and Chardonnay, to give a slightly lighter, fresher and more international white-wine style. Other varietals that are now included in white Rioja are Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca, Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc.

Other Styles

Rioja also produces some other styles of wine, the most notable of which are sparkling wines referred to as Cava. Certain parts of the region are authorized to produce Cava.  A few dessert wines are also produced on a commercial scale from both red and white grape varieties.

The wines of Rioja are well worth a look.  They are competitively priced and of equal quality to the better known Italian and French wines.

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Shopping for Wine Online

During these difficult times, and trying to minimize my contact with crowds, I have become a fan of online shopping through the LCBO.  My overall results have been favourable and my selections are not limited to the products available at any particular store.

My closest liquor store is located in a small town about 10 km. from where I live.  For obvious reasons the selection of items available there is rather limited.  However, online shopping provides me with a full range of products that I can order and then pick up at my local store. The online price is the same as the in store price and all orders of $50 or more are shipped free of charge.

Online shopping provides other opportunities as well.  Many Canadian wineries offer websites with online ordering capability. If you have a favourite wine that you can’t purchase locally, you may find that it is available direct from the winery via their website.  There is no price difference whether you pick the wine up at the winery or order it from their website.  Many wineries offer free shipping with a minimum size order.

There are several online companies that also make both Canadian and international wines available online.  These companies work on a different premise than wine clubs (see my post from October 3, 2020).  These companies simply provide a wide selection of wines for sale at varying prices.  In order to get free shipping you may have to buy up to 12 bottles, though they don’t need to be all of the same type of wine.

Although it isn’t common, bottles may arrive broken. However, if it does occur, the provider will replace or refund any portion of your order that was damaged. An extra advantage of dealing with the LCBO is that if goods were damaged on arrival at the store they are replaced before you pick up your order.  No fuss no muss.

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Wine Myths and Facts

There are quite a few myths about wine that although often widely believed, are not true.  Below are some of the more common myths.

Only expensive wine is good

Blind tastings consistently disprove this myth. There is virtually no connection between how much a wine costs and how much people like it. In fact, a study of over 6,000 blind wine tasting comparisons found the correlation between price and overall rating to be insignificant.

The price of wine is not an indication of quality.  It is mainly supply and demand rather than actual quality that determines the price. Demand for a specific wine is influenced by things such as advertising, press coverage, and even association with celebrities. The perception of quality includes tradition, fad, and many other factors. 

For more in depth information see my June 8, 2019 blog entitled “Does Wine Have to be Expensive to be Good?”.

‘Reserve’ wines are superior to other wines

Producers may consider some of their wine to be superior and label it ‘Reserve’ or another term in order to distinguish it from their other wines and to command a higher price.

Blind tastings of regular and ‘reserve’ wines from the same producer and year have failed at being able to distinguish between them.  Of those who correctly identified the ‘reserve’, only about half preferred it over the non-reserve wine.  The reserve labels were generally much more expensive than the non-reserve wines.

Corks are better than screw caps

Long-term research has proven that in fact the opposite is true; screw caps are far superior to corks in protecting wine.

Some experts believe that about one of every ten to twelve corked bottles of wine suffers ‘cork taint’. Cork taint causes the wine to smell like wet newspapers or a damp basement. It is caused by trichloroanisole (TCA) bacterium.

I must admit that my own experience has shown a much lower percentage of tainted wine.  However, I believe the statistic is as high as it is because cork taint is contained within the cork itself.  Thus it is most likely that all of the corks produced from a specific cork tree or section of a tree, will be defective thus potentially ruining many cases of wine all at once.

Some wineries, like Australia’s Peter Lehmann, use screwcaps exclusively, except for wines being exported to the United States. The majority of the world’s notarized wines are bottled with cork, but that has more to do with perception than science.

Only red wine has health benefits

The health benefits associated with moderate wine consumption comes from the alcohol. Some research finds red wine provides greater health benefits. Other research reports that any wine provides benefit. Other studies find that beer is best. Yet other studies indicate that distilled spirits are the most beneficial. However, most research has found that it makes little or no difference. The most beneficial ingredient in alcoholic beverages seems to be the alcohol itself and the health benefits are substantial.

Organic wines have no sulfites

The fact is all wines contain sulfites as they are a natural result of fermentation. Sulfites are also commonly added to prevent oxidation, help preserve and to stabilize the wine. Organic wines have no added sulfites as stated on their labels. 

For additional information see my August 8, 2020 blog “Organic Wine”.

Wine improves with age and aged wine is better than young wine

There’s no reason to age the vast majority of wines. About 90% of wine is produced to be consumed when purchased. Further aging may change the taste, bouquet, and finish of the wine, and not in a good way.

Also, aging with the hope of improving a wine’s defects is impossible. Defective wine will always be defective. Organic wines deteriorate much quicker than other wines as they have no added sulfites to help preserve them.

There is a perfect time to drink any wine worth cellaring.  Most wines, even cellar-worthy ones, are delicious upon release. The better wines will age well for up to a decade. Occasionally some wines will need a decade or more to reach their peak. However, it is always better to drink a wine a year too soon than a day too late.

See “Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep” from August 24, 2019 for additional details.

Wine legs are a sign of quality

It’s sometimes said that ‘the thicker the legs, the better the wine’. Wine legs are the “tears” that flow down the inside surface of a wine glass after it has been swirled. Contrary to myth, legs are not an indicator of quality. 

They are created by the alcohol content of the wine and the effects of surface tension, adhesion and evaporation. The alcohol, because it has a lower surface tension, tends to crawl up the glass. At the same time, it evaporates faster than the water in the wine because of its lower boiling point. As more alcohol evaporates, the water concentration increases. The greater surface tension of the water causes the wine to pull together into a teardrop that then runs down the inside of the glass.

Smelling the cork reveals if the wine is bad

Smelling a cork won’t give any information about the quality or condition of the wine. Smelling the wine itself tells whether or not it has spoiled.

Red wine should be served at room temperature and white wine should be served ice-cold

You’ve probably heard the idea that red wine should be served room temperature while white wine should be served ice cold. In reality, though, if the wines are good, you’ll achieve the best results if both red and white wines are served in between ice cold and room temperature. If white wine is served too cold, you won’t be able to taste the nuances in its flavor, and if red wine is served too close to room temperature, it could taste flat. When it doubt, chill your wine but be careful not to make it too cold. 

Red wine should be served at about 18 degrees Celsius whereas white wine should be served at a temperature between 10 and 13 degrees Celsius.

Closing thoughts

Wine myths continue to fool us. They are perceptions, not reality.  However, as is often said, perception is reality.

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