Her point, and it was a good one, was that the Winestream Media was quick to hop on the anti-cork bandwagon, and that its efforts played a key role in detailing the problems that cork had with the industry and with consumers. But now that cork has improved, is the media reporting that?
It's not news that cork wine closures had quality problems. Failure rates were as high as 10 percent, according to some studies. If 1 out of 10 bottles of ketchup were off because the closure failed, there'd be a federal investigation. But it wasn't until the mainstream wine media picked up the failure story that the cork industry started to fix things. Now that the quality of corks has improved — and even its harshest critics think it has — has the media covered that?
The answer, which appeared in my story in the May/June issue of VWM? Not really. The story isn't available online, so I'll hit the highlights today and Friday. Today, after the jump, cork's problems and the improvement in quality. Friday, why so few people are writing about it.
Sulfites are the great urban myth of the wine business. Supposedly, evil American winemakers, chanting and swaying over bubbling cauldrons of crushed grapes, dump tons and tons sulfites into the wine. The result? Wine drinkers with really bad headaches.
“I’m convinced most of this is auto-suggestion, ? says Tom Mansell, a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., whose research has looked at the relationship between sulfites and wine headaches and writes well on the subject. “Wine labels have to list whether sulfites are added to wine, so when consumers see that, they assume it causes the problems.”
Sulfites are chemicals that include sulfur dioxide and that occur naturally in wine and many other foods, including shredded coconut and dried apricots (the latter of which has 10 times the sulfites of most wines). Winemakers also add sulfites to help wine age, enhance the color, and retard bacterial growth. There are wines that don’t contain added sulfites; in the U.S. these are labeled organic (and not to be confused with wine made from organic grapes). Often, these so-called natural wines have problems of their own. Writes my pal Dave McIntyre: “Without human intervention, wine naturally turns to vinegar.”
About of the 1 percent of Americans who have an allergic reaction to sulfites have a reason for concern. For the rest of us, the headaches probably have other causes:
? Red wine vs. white wine. Given the way wine is made, white wines made to age require more added sulfites than red wines do. Yet many consumers say that red wine is the one that causes their pain.
? European wine vs. U.S. wine. One part of the sulfite myth is that European winemakers don’t add sulfites, so European wines cause fewer headaches. That isn’t true, says Mansell. What is true is that U.S. wines may have as much as 15 percent more alcohol by volume than European wines, which may account for the headaches.
? Lifestyle differences. In Europe, meals take hours and wine is sipped and enjoyed. In the U.S., dinner takes half an hour and the wine is gulped. In addition, Americans drink more caffeine (in soft drinks and coffee) than Europeans. This dehydrates us, and makes us more susceptible to the side effects of alcohol.
Says Mansell: ?If the sulfites in dried apricots don’t give you a headache, then the sulfites in wine won’t. ?
The photo is from ddrccl of Toronto, via stock.xchng, using a Creative Commons license
Ask an American how wine is made, and most of us will answer that it involves buying a winery and growing grapes on winery land. It’s all very romantic, and it’s one of the reasons why so many people think they want to own a winery (until, of course, they discover the joys of harvest and Pierce’s Disease).
In fact, this vision of the wine business ? which produces what are called estate wines ? is not the only approach to winemaking. There is also the negociant method, a French term for a wine company that buys grapes or finished wine, or even both, and sells the resulting product under its own name. In this, a negociant may not own land or a winery, and the only ?winemaking ? that it may do is to blend the finished wine that it buys from other wineries into a final product.
There is nothing wrong with this approach; it’s a centuries-old tradition that started in the French region of Burgundy, where some of the best wines in the world are produced by negociants. It moved to Bordeaux, where it works in a slightly different fashion, and today exists all over the world. That includes California, where many well-known wines are made under the negociant system. Purple Wine Company, which makes Mark West pinot noir and Avalon cabernet sauvignon, is a negociant (and quite proud of it).
Nevertheless, many California producers still don’t like to be thought of as negociants. In this country, a stigma still attaches to the term, as if it’s un-winely in some way. I can’t tell you how many winemakers and marketing people make an effort to reassure me that their wines are estate wines when I interview them, as if estate wines carry some guarantee of quality. Which they don’t.
Levy has all the numbers in one place and he has the right experts discussing the changes and what they mean:
? The dollar value of U.S. retail wine sales dropped 3.3 percent in 2009 after rising every year and almost tripling from 1991 through 2008. Though consumption increased 1.9 percent, that didn’t make up for the fact that U.S. consumers are abandoning wine that costs more than $15 a bottle.
? Sales of wine priced more than $15 declined 10 percent last year, and wine that cost more than $30 fell at least 15 percent.
? More than 30 wineries are for sale in California, Oregon and Washington, the most ever. But properties aren’t selling because owners are reluctant to accept the low offers they are getting. Land values in Napa Valley, home to about 400 producers, have fallen 15 percent from the 2007 peak.
Levy also has this gem of a quote: “We went in like blind fools,” said one woman who hasn’t made a mortgage payment on her Napa property in more than a year. “We didn ?t really expect to get the loan, but felt committed when we did.”
Wine terms are confusing enough on their own, but the terms for champagne and sparkling wine offer their own style of confusion. For one thing, thanks to a trade agreement between the United States and the European Union, only sparkling wine that is made in the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne.
But that’s only the beginning. This glossary of champagne and sparkling wine terms — in honor of my old pal Darryl Beeson, who always enjoyed a fine glass of the bubbles — will answer most questions.
The good news about these terms is that they extend across the entire sparkling wine spectrum, regardless of where the wine is made. And bubbly is made throughout the world, though many people still tend to think that the best is from Champagne. (The Wine Curmudgeon loves Champagne, though he doesn’t love the prices.)
As noted, only wine made in the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne, even if it’s made elsewhere in France — and bubbly is made almost everywhere in France. Some French sparklers, like those from Burgundy, Alsace or the Loire, are called cremant, so don’t be intimidated if you see that word on the label.
Sparkling wine made in Spain is called cava, and in Italy it’s usually called Prosecco or Asti. In the U.S. and most of the rest of the New World, you’ll see sparkling wine on the label, save for some older brands like Korbel. They were grandfathered in as part of the U.S.-E.U. trade agreement.
These are the terms common to sparkling wine throughout the world:
• Methode champenoise or Methode traditionelle: The wine was made in the Champagne style, where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. All wine, including bubbly, is fermented, which is when the sugar in the grape juice is converted to alcohol. The second fermentation, which still wine doesn’t have, produces the bubbles. Wines made this way will have one of these terms listed on the label. Most of the world’s great Champagnes and sparkling wines are made this way.
• Charmat: This is the other primary production technique, in which the second fermentation takes place in a steel tank. It’s typically used for Italian and lower-priced American sparkling wines. The term usually doesn’t appear on the label (though that is changing). Charmat produces sweeter wines with less bubbles, though it can produce its share of quality wines, especially from Italy.
• Vintage: One trend among high-priced sparklers is to produce vintage wines, made with grapes that were all harvested in the same year. But the majority of sparkling wine doesn’t have a vintage, and most of the time the vintage isn’t especially important. NV on the label stands for non-vintage — that is, the grapes used to make the wine come from several years instead of just one. It’s a common practice to ensure quality and consistency. This is a carryover from the Champagne region, where the weather is such that it’s not always easy to grow quality grapes.
• Brut: Brut means the wine is dry, in the same way that still wines are dry. It’s a French term that the industry has adopted. One caveat about brut: One producer’s definition is not necessarily the same as another, and the same holds true across regions. Some wines labeled as brut, like Italian, aren’t as dry as other brut wines, like those from France or Spain.
• Extra dry: The wine is sweeter than brut. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the term.
• Sec, demi-sec, and doux: These wines are sweeter than extra dry, with doux the sweetest. Generally, we don’t see many of these wines in the U.S.
“Dark purple red colour with black berry on the nose. On palate it’s black currant with hint of spice. Approachable light to medium bodied and little or no tannins but lack of depth and short finishing.”
Yes, but what does it taste like? Does anyone have any idea what this means?
And why not? Each is, in his profession, one of a kind — though Grahm, as good a winemaker as he is, probably hasn’t made the wine equivalent of Blonde on Blonde yet.
I mention this for two reasons. First (shameless self-promotion alert), the Wine Curmudgeon and Grahm are scheduled to appear on Olivia Wilder’s Blog Talk Radio show at 8 p.m. central on Sunday (Grahm first, and I’ll then join him). Second, Grahm made a music video, called “Sub-terroir Rhonesick Blues,” to promote his new book, Been Doon So Long. It’s a very clever takeoff of Dylan’s classic version of his “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which appeared in the documentary, Don’t Look Back, directed by D.A. Pennebaker.
The Dylan version is here; you can watch Grahm’s effort below. Lots of in jokes, and it helps if you know the Dylan song, but still funny. My favorite line? “You don’t need a Spectator to know which way your wine blows.”