Tim's Wine

The Argument for Decanting

by Timothy Varan on Tuesday, July 17, 2012

If you follow anything that I write about wine you will always see the caveat with each description, “decant this wine for _____ minutes before serving.”  I try with many write-ups to explain why this is important but I feel it is important enough to devote an entire article on the subject.

It starts with a very simple premise about wine:  oxygen builds flavor.  When alcohol comes in contact with oxygen a series of complex chemical reactions occur and the result, in the most simple terms, is two-fold.  The first is that compounds called esters are formed which are what create the aroma of wine.  This same reaction occurs in nature, as fruit ripens the sugars begin to break down and also ferment, at very low levels.  This is why strawberries that are past their prime often show a slightly alcoholic flavor.  If allowed to continue to react to alcohol then acetic acid is formed, which is what creates vinegar. (A little known fact is that fruit flies are not attracted to ripe fruit but to the vinegar that forms as it decays.)

The other thing that happens when wine comes in contact with air is the structural change in the wine.  This gets into some pretty heavy organic chemistry concepts but here is the gist of it.  The color compounds in wine are called anthocyanins.  These are the same antioxidants that are found in all dark fruit, from blueberries to blackberries.  In wine they appear as long chemical chains.   Think of them as a long line dance partners at an all girls school.  Sure they don’t like dancing with themselves but without any men around it is the best option.  Now comes oxygen, which in this case is a bus carrying dance partners from the all boys school down the street. Once the oxygen arrives then they basically don’t like dancing with each other and they start looking for better, more attractive partners.  In the wine this is another compound called tannin.  Tannin is the part of wine that makes the sides of your mouth dry.  Well as the color compounds and the tannins dance, they form longer and longer chains, like a conga line.  Eventually the conga line gets so long that it is bigger than the receptors on your tongue that perceives tannin, and the wine appears to be smoother.

This also happens to a bottle of wine that has been cellared for a length of time, usually a few years.  A small amount of oxygen wiggles it’s way through the cells in the cork, or around the cork if the seal is bad, and works it’s way to the wine.  This causes the same precipitation of color compounds in the bottle and they end up as sediment in the bottom, or on the sides, of the bottle.  By decanting you will also remove these, which won’t hurt you but do leave a grainy residue in your mouth.

Now when I use the term “decanting” it means to actually pour the wine out of the bottle.  Some people like to pull the cork and let the wine “breathe” but the surface area in the neck of the bottle is too small.  You need to get the wine out of the bottle and expose as much of it as possible to air.

As for equipment, this does not mean you have to run out and buy a fancy, cut crystal decanter.  Any glass or pottery piece will work, as long as it doesn’t absorb flavors.  If the wine is young you don’t have to be delicate, just dump it in.  Remember, the more oxygen you get into the wine, the faster the reaction.  If the wine is older, say seven years or more, then you may want to take your time.  A fine layer of sediment has probably formed on the sides or the bottom of the bottle and you want to try not to pour that out with the wine.  It doesn’t hurt you if you drink it but it can be a bit gritty.

So when you read about how a wine needs little time in the decanter, take those directions to heart because it will greatly improve your enjoyment of that bottle.

The ever expanding world of wine

by Timothy Varan on Friday, February 10, 2012

The first two selections this week are both good values from South Africa, a country that is collectively making better wine every year.  This probably surprises many of you because I have not been an advocate before for many wines from this country but as is becoming apparent in my tastings, the wine world is rapidly expanding.  This is a phenomenon that is not just limited to South Africa, but we have recently been very impressed with wines from Bulgaria, Lebanon and Portugal, all of which you will probably see as weekly features in the months to come.  What is behind this transilience is the free flow of information between winemakers and an understanding in many countries that wine is a much more profitable agricultural product than traditional farming.  Of course there are always requirements for growing good quality grapes that do not occur in all countries but don’t feel limited to drinking wine only from countries you know.  Within 20 years I predict you will be drinking a lot of wine from places that are just now entering the game.

2011 Excelsior Chardonnay ($10)
2009 Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon ($10)
I was looking for a new “party wine” and to my surprise these stood out in a relatively crowded field.  What’s cool about them is that they come from a family owned farm in South Africa and are produced only from grapes grown on their estate.  The De Wet family traces their ownership back to the colonial period of SA but the current family has divided the estate, in what I am told is an ugly split.  One half of the estate makes their wine under the Excelsior brand, the other side under a different label.   I met Freddie De Wet of Excelsior a couple of years ago and he still harbors a good deal of resentment towards his brother.  (Sad how money divides families.)
The Chardonnay is from their three best blocks and is Robertson appellation.  The growing conditions in this are are cool, often compared to Carneros, and is still heavily planted to fruit trees like apples and pears.  Seventy-five percent of this Chardonnay was fermented and aged in tank on it’s lees, the remaining quarter in French oak barrels (all neutral) on lees too.  The result is a wine that shows an exotic, orange marmalade, lemon curd, magnolia blossom and pastry cream aroma and nicely focused fruit on the palate.  Although not technically “un-wooded” this one is more minerally and Chablis-like, a killer value for anyone looking for a wine to compliment seafood or light, creamy cheeses.
Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon is surprisingly good, not only because it is inexpensive but also because it is South African!  The fruit for this wine is hand harvested and was fermented in stainless steel tanks.  Once dry, forty percent of the wine was aged in a combination of French and American oak barrels for nine months.
I was impressed with this wine’s color and the nose is a charming combination of raspberry and blackberry jams, some fresh blueberry, toasted wheat bread, French roast coffee beans and black peppercorns.  The feel in the mouth is surprisingly forward and bright, more fresh fruit than jammy, with good length, soft tannins and low acidity.  If you gave me this wine blind there is no way I would put it into South Africa.

2009 Isenhower Last Straw Red Blend
Reg. $24

For the past couple of years this has been one of our more successful blends so the distributor gave us a little deal to help clean up the last of the 2009 before the 2010 arrives later this month.  Unlike prior bottlings where Brett Isenhower used Last Straw for a vehicle to sell his press wine, the 2009 was made from young vines not deemed ready for the $35 level.  As a result this wine is a much more normal blend of 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Syrah, 10% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petite Verdot and 5% Merlot, all grown in their estate Walla Walla Vineyard.
When you pour a glass the first thing that will grab you is the sweet caramel and espresso notes, complimented by hints of cooked black cherries, dried red plums, black currant jam and black peppercorns.  Take a sip and you will get hit with a wave of dense, black fruits framed by soft and integrated wood tannins, that persist into the finish.  Good now, this wine will age nicely for three to five years.  Serve with a big, thick T-Bone or grilled pork tenderloin.

Discover Modern Portugal

Thursday, January 12, 2012

If what I am hearing and reading about the California wine supply is even remotely accurate, fans of big, rich reds under $15 better start looking for some new sources.  After four consecutive small crops and strong demand, prices are … Continued

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 Windermere Locaton | 07:00 PM-08:30 PM | 8 Week Class Wine U. California Tim’s Wine Windermere will be conducting an 8 week Wine U. Classes are every Tuesday from March 8th through to May 5th. For … Continued

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Random thoughts about corkscews, gardening and mussels

Friday, April 22, 2011

There has been a lot buzz about Eric Asimov’s NYTimes article about a new $410 corkscrew, Code-38 Stealth.  At first I was shocked that someone would charge so much for simply redesigning the tried-and-true technology.  Then I started thinking about … Continued

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Sonoma Trip – Day 4

Saturday, March 5, 2011

March 2, 2011 It is hard to schedule appointments on travel days, so for our final stop I took all the franchises to visit Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, the legendary retail store in Berkeley, California.  Kermit Lynch is not only … Continued

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