Tag Archives: Tannins

Harvest 2011: How California became Italy

This year has had it all.  We started with heavy frost on the Central Coast, rain during bloom and spring hail.  The craziness continued with a long temperate summer which was punctuated by few heat spikes (if you can call mid 90s a heat spike out here).  Growers fought Powdery Mildew and numerous invasive insect species all summer including the European Grapevine Moth, Light Brown Apple Moth, and the Oriental Fruitfly.  For those growers who were able to get through the gauntlet of summer, everything was looking perfect until early October when the rain came back and brought with it watered down flavors, muted colors, and botrytis.  As I woke to the sound of frost fans in northern Napa Valley today I felt that we had come full circle. 


Today is the last day of harvest for Asti Winery.  We’ve survived although the last three weeks have been crazy and stressful.  It’s also a time of reflection over the wines that are fermenting away from this vintage.  The floral whites are beautiful.  Marked by crisp acid and intense white flower and spice notes, the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer have really stood out this harvest.  The Chardonnays that were harvested before the first October rain, while lower in alcohol, are displaying elegant fruit flavors and balanced acids.  The alcohol conversions on whites this year were insanely high.  Sugars that were picked at 23 Brix are topping out in the 13.5% range showing extremely efficient yeast conversion.  Chardonnays picked after the rains look to be less concentrated than the pre-rain picks plus they are showing Botrytized characters that lean towards a bit earthy in most cases.  Luckily most of our lots are pre-rain thanks to the hustle of our vineyard crews and growers. 


It was yesterday as we tasted through pressed off Cabernets though when I came to the realization that my tasting notes were not that of a typical California Cabernet.  Aromas of raspberry leaves, black currants, and sous-bois shined through in the best examples with high acid and moderate alcohol on the palate paired with moderately high powdery tannins.  Granted these wines are pre-ML and have not seen oak for the most part but it struck me as very similar to my notes on Cabernet  from Tuscany.  As we’ve been saying all along, this vintage will be vastly different from what has become the norm in California.  There will be some bad wine out there, I’m sure, but I believe that there will also be a new style of California wine to be found this year.  All the proponents that have been wishing for lower alcohol, this is your year!  The reds had the opposite issue from the whites as the conversion rates were very low. Even the higher Brix reds (which were anything over 24 this year) are only showing in the high 13% range.  It’s going to be interesting to see how these wines develop and how each winery dealt with this challenging year.  Most of all I feel sorry for anyone who gets one of this vintage on a blind exam down the road because it’s going to be so different from what is accepted as a typical California style.


As for me, I’m looking forward to capturing the spirit of this vintage in my wines this year.  I think it will be fun!

The “Pirate’s Code” of Wine and Food Pairings

One of the most common questions I am asked when speaking to consumers (other than “What’s your favorite wine?” which is #1) is what food would go with this wine.  The very basic “white wines with white meats and red wines with red meats” has served its purpose as a simple and easy way for the beginning wine consumer to learn about wine.  It is also generally (VERY generally) correct.  However at some point, people want to break outside the lines of the basic food pairing and experiment a bit.  So I’ve put together some thoughts on how I decide to pair wines and foods.  The following list is to be considered a “Pirate’s Code” of wine and food Pairing; more guidelines than actual rules.


The first thing I look at is the weight of the dish and try to pair that to the weight of the wine accordingly.  Salads and other “summer” foods tend to be very light so they pair well with light bodied wines. These are typically whites and light reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay.  Heavy foods like stews, cream sauces on pasta, and steaks need full bodied wines like Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Malbec.  Try to gauge the weight of your dish and find a selection of wines that are similar in weight.

Flavors, Aromas, and Intensity

Next I try and match the flavors and aromas in the dish to the predominant flavors and aromas of the wine.  If green herbs are being used then try a variety that leans toward the herbal side such as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot or Cabernet.  If it is a fruity dish try Gewurztraminer or Muscat.  Keep in mind however that the intensity of the food and wine must also match.  If you have an herb crusted salmon dish and pair it with a Semillon, the Semillon will probably be overpowered by the intensity of herb flavors.  Smoked foods and strongly flavored cheeses need very powerfully flavored wines to match with them.

Acid Levels

Acid is tricky.  Acid in food is hard to pair wine with because the wine can be over powered by the acid and taste flabby.  Again balance is the key.  Try to match acid levels by using acidic wines to pair with acidic foods.  In foods with high citrus flavors such as lemons, limes, or grapefruits try Riesling, especially from cooler climates so that the acid will balance.  For Tomatoes or tomato sauces think Italian reds.  Vinaigrette is very tricky and if you must have wine to pair with it, choose a high acid variety in the same color as your vinegar that is being used.

Protein and Tannins

The more protein a dish has, the more tannin can be in the wine without it being harsh.  The astringency (or drying sensation) that people experience when drinking wine by itself is due to tannins in the wine binding with the protein in your mouth.  When you drink the same wine with protein (i.e. cheese or meat) the tannins bind to the protein you’re eating and not the protein in your mouth.  This makes the wine appear softer on the palate and can be a good way to enjoy that big red in your wine cabinet without having to wait for it to soften on its own.

Desserts and Sugar

Again balance is the key here with similar sugar levels in both the wine and the food. This is why sweeter wines are usually called “Dessert wines”.  They pair well with dessert.  If wines are served with an imbalance of sweetness, the wine can seem too sweet or sour if not sweet enough.  Although I follow this rule generally I do love a good full bodied red with chocolate cake regardless of sugar levels.

Artichokes and Asparagus

I had to put a quick note in about these two special veggies.  Artichokes make whatever you are eating with them taste sweeter so I typically choose a very dry, high acid white wine for these.  If they are grilled then make sure the wine has the intensity to hold up to the smoke.  Although a herbal Sauvignon Blanc is the obvious choice, Asparagus can be lovely with sweeter wines.  One of my favorite pairings is grilled Asparagus with a hollandaise sauce paired with Sauternes. Trust me, it’s awesome!

So I hope this helps ease the stress of the next dinner party.  Don’t forget to experiment on your own with wines and dishes that you like.

What is ripeness?

Everyone knows that when you have 5 winemakers in a room you’ll have around 7 different opinions on any given topic.  Ripeness is one of those topics that bring up more discussion than most because the decision when to pick is one of the most important, if not THE most important, decisions that a winemaker will make during the vintage.  I’m sure you’ve heard several terms thrown around to describe ripeness.  The top terms are…

Sugar Ripeness

This topic gets a ton of attention because the amount of sugar you have in the grapes is directly correlated to the amount of alcohol in a finished wine (assuming the wine is finished to dryness).  Alcohol is a hot topic of conversation right now given that there seems to be a bit of a backlash against the really hot alcohol bombs of over 15%.  All sugar ripeness means is that the grapes have reached the amount of sugar that will produce the minimum alcohol desired depending on what the winemaker wants to achieve.

Phenolic Ripeness (Pronounced Fee-nol-ic)

Phenolics in a grape are the tannins, the color compounds (called anthocyanins) as well as some flavor compounds. This is a bit more complicated than sugar ripeness as it involves both the phenolics in the skins as well as the seeds and pulp.  When the phenolics are ripe then the flavors in the finished wine are more developed, the color is more developed (golden for white grapes and deep red for red varieties), and the tannins are ripe and not green. If you would like to try green tannins go purchase seeded table grapes in the grocery store and munch down on some of the seeds being careful not to break teeth of course.  The sensation of bitterness and dryness that you feel are green tannins. Ripe seeds crack easily and have a nice crunchy character that is very similar to espresso beans.

Flavor Ripeness

This form of ripeness is purely up to the discretion of the winemaker and what their goal is for the flavors of the finished wine.  This is where “hang time” comes into play.  If your goal is a nice crisp white then you may wait until the grapes have a citrus and apple taste however if you want a riper style white then picking may be delayed until more tropical fruit notes have appeared.  Reds are similar that they transition through stages of flavors.  Cabernet Sauvignon will go through green bell pepper, black pepper, raspberry, black cherry and finally blackberry during its development.

Physiological Ripeness

This form of ripeness is, to me, the most important because it is what the grapevine itself considers ripe.  Keep in mind that the goal of a grapevine is not to make fantastic wine, table grapes, or raisins, but to reproduce.  The vine’s entire purpose is to ripen seeds to the point that they will be able to grow and spread the parent vines’ genetic code far and wide aided by birds. Once the vine senses that the seeds are ripe enough and it has produced enough sugar to attract birds to eat the fruit then chemical signals are sent out to physically separate the fruit from the rest of the vine. The vine then turns its energies towards storing carbohydrates to survive the winter and start up again the following spring.  Once the vine thinks it’s done that is the end of natural sugar accumulation (meaning the vine is finished making sugar).  It is the hope of the winemaker and the goal of the vineyard manager to coax the vines to reach this stage at the exact same time that they reach the other three levels of ripeness.

This, of course, rarely happens but the decision to pick can fall very close to the intersection of these different sets of parameters.  It is up to the winemaker to decide what parameters are flexible and which ones are absolutely needed for their wine styles.

Another piece of the puzzle that gets watched like a hawk is acid.  The level of acid starts very high at Verasion and falls steadily over the weeks leading up to harvest.  As the temperature heats up so does the speed of acid degradation (the official name for the acid drop).  Therefore the cooler the region the more acid the grapes can retain over a given period of time, say the time between verasion and harvest. This is the reason regions with warm to hot days but cool nights can typically make better wine than those regions with closer day and night temperatures.

So now given all the different factors and definitions of ripeness, I hope you have a better understanding of why there are so many different ways to think about ripeness in general.  That way the next time you hear a winemaker talk about picking at the peak of ripeness you will know that it means what the peak of ripeness is to them.