Food (and wine) for thought. "Lees" is more.

Bubbles are great. Champagne. Cava. Fizzy water. Ocean spray. Baths. The giant bubbles kids chase in parks. Baby raspberries. Even the word bubble? Adorable. But sometimes, bubbles can be so very, very bad in wine.

But fizz in wine can sometimes be very, very bad.

Our article on fizz in wine is a permanent page. Click here to access it and learn what causes fizzy wine.

the history of wine in the U.S. (1)

In his book “The Cultivation of The Native Grape, and Manufacture of American Wines”, published in 1866, winemaker George Husmann states:

I firmly believe that this continent is destined to be the greatest wine-producing country in the world; and that the time is not far distant when wine, the most wholesome and purest of all stimulating drinks, will be within the reach of the common laborer…

150 years later, it is safe to say that Husmann was right. Today’s U.S. wine industry produces wine in all fifty states (California leads the way, followed by New York, Washington State and Oregon). The country is the fourth largest wine producing country in the world after France, Italy, and Spain, and according to Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the production in the State of California alone is more than double the production of the entire country of Australia.

The History of Wine in the U.S.

The first European settlers called North America “Vinland” due to the prolific grape vines they found throughout the New World. Ironically, these native species of grape (Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis vulpina, and Vitis amurensis), are not the ones responsible for today’s U.S. wine industry: that accolade belongs to the European Vitis vinifera, which was brought to the New World by European settlers. How and why it was introduced to a verdant land already filled with grapevines is a fascinating story.

NOTE: The history of the United States seems split into two chapters: the initial founding of the East Coast, and then the Manifest Destiny expansion into the West and eventual founding of the Western States. The history of wine in the U.S. follows a similar pattern, so we will first look at the history of grape production on the East Coast and then on the West. You will find that the histories are very different, and even today, the wines from these regions vary greatly as well.

First (failed) East Coast attempts at wine making

The earliest wine made in what is now the United States was from the grapevine Vitis rotundifolia, more commonly called Scuppernong grapes. French settlers near Jacksonville, Florida attempted to make wines with this grape between 1562 and 1564.

Scuppernong grape.
Scuppernong grape.

Although the grapes did not produce successful wines, the Scuppernong (a large, green grape) maintained its place in American culture: one particular 400-year-old vine from Roanoke Island holds the title as “oldest cultivated vine”, and the Scuppernong is also the state fruit of North Carolina. Harper Lee also made mention of the fruit in “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Finders were keepers unless title was proven. Plucking an occasional camellia, getting a squirt of hot milk from Miss Maudie Atkinson’s cow on a summer day, helping ourselves to someone’s scuppernongs was part of our ethical culture, but money was different.

The failed Scuppernong vines marked the beginning of a long road of trial and error for New World winemakers. Thankfully, the settlers possessed an impressive amount of fortitude to produce quality wines; in fact, in the early American colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas, wine making was an official goal laid out in their founding charters. However, as with the Scuppernong grape, settlers discovered that the wine made from native grapes had flavors which were unfamiliar and unappealing, which paved the way for a market of European varietals.

Introduction of Vitis vinifera (and subsequent failures)

The growth of Vitis vinifera varieties began when the Virginia Company exported French vinifera vines to Virginia in 1619. Unfortunately, these early plantings of foreign vines were met with failure due to native pests and vine diseases which ravaged the vineyards. To combat pests, winemakers looked to interbreed native and foreign vines, thus creating a disease-resist vine with the flavor characteristics of European varietals. It is believed that in 1683, William Penn planted the first of these hybirds: a vineyard of French Vitis vinifera in Pennsylvania that may have been interbred with a native Vitis labrusca vine to create the hybrid grape Alexander. (The grape went on to be fairly successful; in fact, one of the first commercial wineries in the United States was founded in Indiana in 1806 with production of wine made from the Alexander grape, and today, French-American hybrid grapes are commonly produced on the East Coast.)

Over one hundred years after Penn’s attempt at a hybrid grape, the first commercial vineyard and winery in the United States was established through Kentucky Legislature on November 21, 1799. The viticulturist for the vineyard was John James Dufour of Vevey, Switzerland. It is known as the “First Vineyard”.

A copy of the vineyard certificate bestowed upon James Dufour by the State of Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Wine and Vine.

The first wine from the First Vineyard was consumed on March 21, 1803, and the vineyard continued until 1809 when a May freeze destroyed the crop and many vines. The Dufour family then abandoned the First Vineyard and relocated to Vevay, Indiana.

West Coast attempts at wine making

A far cry from the political and commercial interests of the East Coast wine industry, the roots of the West Coast wine making lie in ministry. In California, the first vineyard and winery was established by the Franciscan missionary Father Junípero Serra near San Diego in 1769 (this is also where the first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcala, was founded). As the missionaries moved northward to build more missions, they carried the vines with them, eventually reaching Sonoma around 1805.

Mission San Diego de Alcala, where missionaries who cultivated the first California grapes/wine worked and worshiped.
Mission San Diego de Alcala, where missionaries who cultivated the first California grapes/wine worked and worshiped.

Although California has two native grape varieties, the missionaries quickly realized that they make very poor quality wine. Therefore, the missionaries used the Mission grape, which was introduced to South America by Spanish settlers who called the grape “criolla”. Although a Vitis vinifera variety, it does not produce high quality wines and it was soon overtaken by other varietals. Just a few decades later, the “49ers” would come bearing the Zinfandel grape which would come to thrive in the California sun.

First successes at U.S. winemaking

We might all think of “California” when we think of successful wineries, but surprisingly, the first commercially successful winery in the United States is from Cincinnati, Ohio, when in the 1830s, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nicholas Longworth made a sparkling wine from Catawba grapes. Like the Alexander grape planted by Penn, Catawba is a hybrid of a Vitis vinifera and a native Vitis lambrusca North American grape.
Photo source

Longworth’s Catawba sparkling wine was well-received and shipped as far as Europe, although the wine was also revered in the United States: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a poem dedicated to Nicholas Longworth titled “Ode to Catawba Wine“, and the popularity of Longsworth’s wine encouraged vine plantings along the Ohio River Valley and up north to Lake Erie and the Finger Lakes region of New York. Longworth was so influential that newspapers began referring to him as “the founder of wine culture in America, author of sparkling Catawba.”

The United States’ first successful commercial winemaker, Nicholas Longworth. Photo from WikiCommons .

The success of Longworth and the popularity of his Catawba grape peaked in 1859: in 1860, vineyards in the Ohio River Valley were attacked by a powdery mildew which the long-ripening Catawba grape was incredibly susceptible to; the following year, the Civil War broke out and winemaking efforts ceased throughout many parts of the country. This major setback was followed by the phylloxera epidemic in the West in the late 19th century and Pierce’s disease in the East, which each took their tolls on the growing American wine industry. Just as wineries were recovering from each of these massive hurdles, they came face-to-face with the biggest obstacle the United States wine industry has ever had to overcome: Prohibition.

The setback of Prohibition

Prohibition in the United States first began in 1846 when Maine became the first state to prohibit liquor sales or consumption; it culminated in the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 which forbade the manufacturing, sale and transport of alcohol. Although some wineries managed to survive thanks to exceptions that were made for sacramental wine, the United States commercial wine industry was destroyed.

Not surprisingly, after the repeal of Prohibition, American wine making reemerged in a poor state. Talented winemakers had died, vineyards had been neglected or replanted with table grapes, and (perhaps worst of all) Prohibition had changed Americans’ taste in wines. Consumers now demanded cheap “jug wine” (so-called dago red) and sweet, fortified (high alcohol) wine. Before Prohibition, dry table wines outsold sweet wines by three to one, but after the ratio was more than reversed; in 1935, 81% of California’s production was sweet wines.

Progressing after Prohibition

Thankfully, just as the New World settlers possessed a great deal of fortitude when it came to pioneering wine making in the United States, post-Prohibition Americans were driven to produce the top-quality wines that the soil of the U.S. is capable of. And they had help, in the forms of universities and foreign lenders, to reach their goal.

Leading the way to new methods was research conducted at the University of California, Davis (my alma mater! Go Aggies!) and some of the state universities in New York. Faculty at the universities published reports on which varieties of grapes grew best in which regions, held seminars on winemaking techniques, consulted with grape growers and winemakers, offered academic degrees in viticulture, and promoted the production of quality wines. As the University of California, Davis Viticulture & Oenology website says, “In the years after Prohibition, UC Davis helped vintners to get back on their feet by making sound wines. The priority was avoiding spoilage and contamination in the winemaking process.”

As the American wine industry began to grow and change, it received funding from foreign investors; simultaneously, the American palate began to change, thus shifting the focus of wines being produced. Table wine began to replace the sweet, fortified wines produced shortly after Prohibition, and American wine consumption increased significantly. In the now-famous Paris tasting of 1976, American wines received worldwide recognition when a California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon beat out French wines in a blind taste test, earning the United States the reputation of being one of the top quality wine regions in the world.

Today the American wine industry faces the growing challenges of expanding international exports and dealing with domestic regulations on interstate sales and shipment of wine. But the future of the industry is also bright: as new winemakers emerge from universities and more and more Americans express an interest in wine, the industry continues to prosper.

the truth about sulphites in wine

“Sulphites give me headaches.”

“I only drink sulphite-free wine.”

“Sulphites are so unhealthy.”

“Sulphites are not organic.”

Like whether or not coffee is good for you (and if a little wine each night will keep you healthy), the conversation about sulphites is wrought with misinformation from well-meaning individuals. Want the truth about sulphites in wine? Read on.

The Truth about Sulfites in Wine

The Truth about Sulfites in Wine

Is there such thing as sulfite-free wine?

According to UC Davis wine chemist and professor Dr. Andrew L. Waterhouse, “All wines contain sulfites. Yeast naturally produce sulfites during fermentation so there is only a rare wine which contains none . . . [t]here are a few (very few) winemakers who make wines without adding sulfites.”

Many winemakers add sulfites to wine in order to preserve it and prevent oxidation (another process that has been commonplace for centuries). However, even without adding any, ALL wine contains small amounts of sulfites, and always will.

Do some countries make sulphite-free wines?

No. According to Dr. Waterhouse, “[t]he US requires a ‘sulfite’ warning label and Australia requires a label indicating “preservative 220,” but nearly all winemakers add sulfites, including those in France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile, etc etc. So, the wine you drink in foreign countries contains sulfites, but you just are not being warned about it when purchased abroad.” In fact, the amount of sulphites in European wine is equal to that of U.S. wines (an average of 80 mg/L).

Why are sulphites such a worry?

Researchers and wine experts agree that the fuss over sulphites is due to labels. According to federal law, any wines sold in the U.S. (whether made in the U.S. or abroad) cannot contain more than 350 mg/liter sulfites. Wines with more than 10 mg/liter must include a “Contains Sulfites” warning label, and only wines with less than 1 mg/liter (nearly impossible) may have a label that says “No Sulfites.” The very existence of the label seems to have stirred up the commotion (and misinformation).

If sulphites have been a natural byproduct of wine production for thousands of years, why the sudden cause for alarm?

Blame it on the salad bar. The salad bar gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, and fruits and vegetables were sprayed with high amounts of sulfites to prevent the produce from wilting while they sat exposed and unrefrigerated. Several hundred people reported adverse reactions to the high levels of sulfites, and strict laws were put into place to protect those affected by sulfites (approximately 0.4 to 0.8 percent of the population).

What are the effects of sulfites?

In incredibly high amounts, sulfites can be dangerous . . . but to a very small percent of the population. This is due to an allergic reaction in those who are deficient in the natural enzyme to break sulfites down. However, sulphites must be at extreme levels to initiate this reaction. The salad bar, for example, exposed diners to sulphites in levels 100 times higher than intended. This understandably caused severe and life threatening reactions.

Can you get a headache from sulphites in wine?

Used in these small amounts, such as the amounts seen in a glass of wine, sulphites cannot be tasted, and they are most definitely not to blame for headaches (according to allergists). In fact, it is believed that an individual’s inability to metabolize alcohol is what truly causes the wine headache. Dehydration and consuming too much sugar are also components.

There is no medical research data showing that sulfites cause headaches!

Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, UC Davis

If you still can’t let go of the “sulfites cause headaches” theory, try a little experiment: buy some orange colored dried apricots and eat them. A two-ounce serving of dried apricots contains significantly more sulfites than a glass of red wine (112 mg versus 80 mg in an average glass of red wine). If you do not get a headache, chances are, sulfites are not the culprit.

What foods contain sulphites?

Still not convinced that sulfites aren’t bad for you? Keep in mind that they are also present in beer, cocktail mixes, cookies, corn syrup, crackers, pizza crust, flour tortillas, pickles, salad dressings, olives, vinegar, shrimp, scallops, sugar (brown and white), dried fruit and fruit juice, among many others. Check out the FDA’s list of foods and beverages which may contain sulphites.

Key facts about sulphites in wines

  • There is practically no such thing as a sulfite-free wine. These compounds are a byproduct of the fermentation process and have occurred in all wines since wine has been made.
  • Some wineries today add no sulfites at all (although remember: they are still naturally present in all fermented beverages).
  • Current government regulations state that wines must have less than 1mg/L of sulfites to be able to produce a wine that does not contain the warning label.
  • ALL wines from all regions of the world contain sulfites at around the same level. Yes, wines from Italy, France, Argentina, Spain, Chile, etc. contain sulfites.
  • These countries do not require a warning label on their wines. However, the U.S. does, so wines imported from other countries will have a special label with “Contains Sulfites” printed on it just to meet the United States regulation.
  • Wines purchased from the country itself and brought back by the consumer will not have the warning label . . . but they will still have just as much of that dreaded byproduct.

Further reading on sulphites in wine

  1. “Why do I get headaches from wine?” (Wall Street Journal)
  2. “What’s in wine?” (UC Davis)
  3. “What causes wine headaches” (Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School)
  4. “Headaches and Wine: Don’t Blame the Sulphites” (National Headache Foundation)

A brief history of Italian wine

We are continuing with our coverage of the history of the world of wine by highlighting Italy’s fascinating wine history. Be sure to check out our articles A Brief History of Wine and The History of Wine in Argentina as well. Cheers!

A Brief History of Italian Wine


No culture is defined by their wine like Italy. As Burton Anderson noted in his work The Wine Atlas of Italy, just a few decades ago, a daily supply of basic village wine cost Italians less than their daily supply of bread, illustrating just how accessible wine is to the average Italian and how deep the Italian relationship to wine is. The Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil notes that “In Italy, wine is food . . . wine and bread are as essential to an Italian dinner as a fork and knife (probably more so).”

Introducing grapevines to Italy

Who is the genius that we must thank for planting vines in Italy? According to Life in Italy, a fascinating website about Italian culture and a must-read for anyone traveling to Italy, it was the Greeks who first recognized Italy’s potential for wine. After settling in present-day Sicily and southern Italy, the Greeks were so impressed with the fertile land that they decided to import vines and give the land the name Oenotria, which means “land of wine.” It only seems fitting that a culture that celebrated Dionysus, the god of wine, would be the ones to see the winemaking potential in a new country.

We must also pay homage to the Etruscans, a group of people who settled in Central Italy around 700 BCE, for founding the wine industry of modern day Tuscany (and for being incredibly ahead of their time when it came to winemaking technology). The Etruscans took the grapevines introduced by the Greeks, cultivated it into highly desirable wines, and considerably improved on winemaking. In A Salute to the Etruscan Origins of Truscan Cuisine, Lucio Sorre notes:

Incidentally, our sophisticated 20th century enotechnicians boast about their advances in temperature-controlled fermentation. The Etruscans were ages ahead of them, though their techniques obviously differed. After crushing the grapes, the must was poured into clay containers which were buried deep in the ground. Here the temperature was considerably lower. When the fermentation cycle was completed, the wine was then stored in cellars located even deeper in the earth than the fermentation vessels.

Roman influence on Italian wine

As the Roman Empire expanded, demand for wine increased. (No surprise here: the Greeks were not the only ones with a god of wine!) Wine production kept up with this demand and wine became an intricate part of Roman society.

When we talk about wine from the Roman Empire, we should not mistake it for modern day wine. The Italian wine of Roman times was very different than our typical Chianti or Barolo: wine was often mixed with water to decrease the wine’s incredibly high alcohol content, and because the Roman palate preferred sweet wines, they often drank sweet whites from a prized region, Falernian, which is near Naples. Today, Italians are “purists” when it comes to wine, but the Romans mixed their wine with honey, added herbs and spices, salt, or even chalk to cut the wine’s acidity!

Thank goodness their art and architecture remained, but we can do without what the Romans called “wine.”

The Romans may have had some strange ideas when it came to serving their wine, but they deserve credit for improving many winemaking processes: they introduced the use of trellises, improved Greek wine presses to extract more juice, and were masters of determining which grapes thrived in which climates. This led to higher quality wines and bigger yields.

The Romans may have also been the first to recognize potential in a wine, and preferred wines aged ten to twenty-five years. They also realized that to effectively age wines, they needed airtight containers, and thus invented the wooden barrel. It is believed that they might have also been the first to use glass jars and corks.

At the height of the Roman Empire, wines were exported to other parts of Europe. Soon, other regions adopted the winemaking practices which the Romans invented or improved upon. But with the fall of the Roman Empire, demand for wine decreased. Although some Roman Catholic monks continued to produce wine during the Dark Ages, wine did not gain popularity again until the Renaissance.

Recent history of Italian wine

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Italian wine was often criticized for its poor quality. The government responded to this criticism by establishing the DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata) and stricter wine regulations. Both the quality and the reputation of the wine improved.

Today, the elements which made the mysterious and advanced Etruscans so famous are still embraced in Italian culture: good food and good wine. This is perhaps best expressed by MacNeil, who offers her Italian friend’s explanation for the Italian attitude toward food and wine: “If someone drinks a little much wine, the Italians don’t say he has drunk too much. They say he hasn’t eaten enough food.”

A Brief History of Wine in Argentina

As with most of Argentina’s history, the story of their wine industry is a fascinating one, and a history that is so new, it’s almost as if we are still watching the dust settle on this storm which brought us the South American wine industry as we know it.

Several decades ago, Argentines were drinking an average of 22 gallons of wine per person each year. At the same time, Americans were drinking an average of 1-2 gallons per person per year. Imports to the US? Almost nonexistent.

How things have changed. Argentines now consume 10 gallons of wine per year (a significant decrease from the 22 gallons per person per year just a few decades ago!) while American consumption has risen to roughly 2.5 liters per person per year.

What sparked this change and brought Argentine wines to the tables of Americans? Several fascinating cultural, historical and economic factors which any winemaker from a bodega in Mendoza will enjoy sharing with you, if you just ask.

A Brief History of Wine in Argentina

The origins of Argentine wine

Argentine winemaking began in the later half of the 16th century when the Spanish missionaries and conquistadors brought vines with them from Spain. Some of these vines ended up in Peru, Chile and the United States. Some (thankfully for wine lovers) ended up in Argentina. Although these vines were high in production, the wines that these grapes produced were far from spectacular; the most popular varietal, Criolla, produced a very crude wine, yet this grape served as the foundation for the South American wine industry for over 300 years.

Major changes to Argentina’s wine industry

The wines of today’s Argentina are a far cry from the crude wines of the past. What happened? And why the sudden change? Surprisingly, we have Argentina’s neighbor, Chile, to thank for this explosion in the production of quality Argentine wines.

Before Argentina experienced a rapid change in their quality of vines, Chile had given their wine industry an overhaul. Using winemaking and grapegrowing technology from the United States (sometimes working with U.S. winemakers on this endeavor), Chilean winemakers re-crafted their wines to meet the palates of the American and English markets and began exporting them, with incredible success. Recognizing their own country’s potential for producing great wines, Argentine bodegas decided to do the same.

From there, the industry snowballed. European and American companies began investing, which resulted in better technology, consultants to aid them in wine production and, eventually, higher quality wines. Argentine wines began winning the accolades they deserved, and people began recognizing Argentine wines as quality productions. Consumption increased, sales soared, and we all drank happily ever after.

Why Argentine wines are so good

Any good winemaker will tell you that good wine comes from good grapes, and good grapes come from the right vineyard . . . “right”, in this case, means far from what you would expect the suitable conditions for grape growing to be. The best grapes actually come from vines which are “stressed,” or grown in unsuitable conditions. The dry climate of the Andes and the rocky soil are perfect for stressing grapes, making them focus all of their energy on producing fewer grape clusters. In return, these grapes are packed with flavors that are concentrated and not watery. Genius!

Argentine wine suggestions

New to Argentine wines? Lucky you: you are about to sample some delicious wines at bargain prices! To understand Argentine wines, one must try a Malbec from Mendoza and a Torrontes from Salta: these are the two main grapes of Argentina and thrive there better than they do in any other part of the world. Pair your Malbec with grilled meats and your Torrontes with a salad or anything acidic: the slight sweetness of the Torrontes cuts the acidity of vinaigrettes and are a perfect compliment to salads and spicy dishes.

Need more information about Argentine wines? Check out our Guide to Winetasting in Mendoza, Argentina.

French versus American oak barrels

Visit any winery or tasting room and eventually, you will hear what is probably the most common question asked to vintners: “Is this aged in American or French oak?”. The tasting room attendant or winemaker answers, the person asking the question nods as if in approval, and we all go on sniffing the wine, sipping it and pretending that we smell the violets, cherries, chocolate or whatever else people claim is in the wine… and wondering why it matters so much if a barrel came from France or America.

Sound familiar? At Sedimentality, we would like to guess that the majority of people asking if wine is aged in American or French oak do not truly understand the differences that these types of oak make on a wine, although there is quite a significant difference! We would like to outline the basic differences between the two to help further your understanding of wine, starting first with the importance of oak, the origins of the trees used to make the barrels and finally, the differences in the flavors that these oaks impart on wine.

French versus American Oak Barrels: Is there a difference?


How oak works in the winemaking process

First off, I suggest that you read our article “How A Wine Barrel is Made“. It outlines the relationship between oak and wine and why this particular wood is so essential to making quality wines, and it also explains the barrel making process, which is quite fascinating! Once you understand the importance of a barrel in the winemaking process, you can begin to differentiate between the types of wood used to make these barrels.

Choosing different oak trees for barrels

French oak mainly comes from the forests of Limousin, Alliers, Vosges, Troncais and Nevers. The tightness of the oak grain varies from forest to forest, and winemakers and coopers alike believe that trees from these different forests vary in how much oak flavor they impart on the wine. Which forest is “better” is obviously a matter of preference, but the general mentality is that the forest where the trees were from determines which barrel the winemaker would like to use.

In American oak, however, the cooper (barrel maker) is more highly regarded than the forest that the tree comes from. American oak is grown is the forests of Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Oregon. The idea of regional flavors is not held to the high regard that it is in France.

The differences in flavors imparted by oak

The simplest way to describe the differences in French and American oak is to think of them as personalities. The French oak has a tough side: a real backbone, and is complex. If you were to meet the French oak at a party, you might have a tougher time getting to know him, but you might come to really enjoy his company. The American oak, however, is far less subdued. You wouldn’t approach the American oak: he would approach you. You may or may not be keen to his somewhat boisterous personality, but there would be no denying that he was there, because he definitely makes his presence known.


All metaphors aside, the French oak has more tannins and imparts more complex flavors into the wine. American oak has more of the actual “oak” aroma and flavor, and often imparts a vanilla flavor as well (which is highly desired by many consumers).

Do wines age better in French or American oak?

Some winemakers argue that the American oak barrels “fade” quickly, and after a year or so of use they do not impart the same flavors into the wine that they did during their first year, while the French barrels remain consistent over a few years of use. Yet French barrels are significantly more expensive (anywhere from $500 to $1,000, depending on the forest and the cooper, compared to the American barrels, which can go for as low as $200).

Is French or American oak “better?”

It depends on who you ask, but at Sedimentality, we say “no”. To each his (or her) own! Perhaps Robert deLeuze from SD winery in Carneros, California put it best when he said “In cooking, you use different spices depending on what you are making and what spices you like. The same is true of oak in wine.” (DeLeuze uses 100% oak barrels in his Chardonnay, which is an absolutely beautiful wine.) We like this approach, and applaud his diplomatic outlook on barrel usage. 🙂 Other winemakers actually use a combination: aging their wines in American oak for a bit and then transferring them to French barrels. Another beautiful compromise!

Some winemakers are not so diplomatic when expressing their opinions of which barrel is superior. Bill Hunter, from Hunter cellars, stated “I wouldn’t let an American oak barrel near my Chardonnay. I am trying to make a more delicate, refined style of Chardonnay and I feel American oak would overpower the nuances that I want to achieve.” Ouch.

Final thoughts on French vs. American oak barrels

As someone learning about wine, you can read descriptor after descriptor… but just reading about wines will never truly give you everything you need to know. You must taste! To see the difference in American versus French oak, go to your local wine store and explain that you would like to try two wines from the same varietal which have been aged in American and French oak. Try to keep them in the same price range as well, if possible. The next time you have a dinner party, open both and try them side by side: don’t forget to try them when you first cork the bottles and then again a bit later, after the wine has opened up. Look for more subtle flavors in the French oak, and possibly more tannins. And in the American oak, look for those oak and vanilla flavors and aromas which scream “American oak aged”. Decide for yourself which one you prefer, but remember: don’t let that be the “be all and end all”: there might be wines out there which are aged in the barrels you do not prefer which you end up loving. In the wine world, the beauty is that it is always changing, and always subjective. The debate between American and French oak will continue for quite some time. As consumers, we do not have to worry about taking our place in this sometimes heated debate; instead, we get the fun part: drinking the beautiful wines!

Basics of the Winemaking Process

If you ask a winemaker, the winemaking process is certainly a lot more complicated than what we have mentioned here. However, these are the basic steps necessary to make wine. Remember: the more you understand about the winemaking process, the more you understand wine itself. Enjoy!

Basics of the Winemaking Process

Basics of Making Red Wine

#1: Harvest

The grapes are picked. (Usually, by hand.)

#2: Crush

The grapes are crushed. (Stems are sometimes removed; sometimes left in for more flavor.)

The crushed grape skins, the seeds, the stems, and the juice are all put into a large tank.

#3: Fermentation

Yeasts are added. (Or not, if the winemaker wants to use ambient yeasts.)

Fermentation occurs. (Yeasts convert the sugars of the juice into alcohol.)

The skins, seeds, etc (where all the flavor is) float to the top and make a “hat”. Because this is where all the flavor is, everything needs to be agitated in order to expose the juice to more of the flavorful parts floating on top. Usually the juice, which is at the bottom of the tank, is pumped over the “hat”; sometimes, another method called “punching down” occurs, where a tool is used to push the seeds/skins/etc down into the wine.

When fermentation finishes, wine is removed from the skins. This can be done through a process of pressing.

#5 Clarification

Clarification steps vary depending on the winemaker’s choices. Typically, wine is put into barrels. Sediment (little particles of skin, seeds, etc) settle at the bottom. The wine is then racked to separate the wine from the sediment.

Wine is (sometimes) clarified using filtration systems.

#6: Bottling and Aging

Wine is bottled. Sometimes, wine is also aged before release

Then, we drink!

Basics of Making White Wine

As you will see, the process for making white wine is basically the same, but with some minor differences:

– Skins are removed from the grapes after crushing. They are often pressed at the same time.

– The wine is typically placed in stainless steel tanks.

– After fermentation, the wine sometimes sits with the dead yeasts (called the lees).

– The wine is clarified/filtered.

– Wine might be cold stabilized.

– Wine might be put into barrels to age (not as common with white wines; typically with some Chardonnay).

Guide to Wine Corks

For only being a few inches long and weighing 0.12 ounces, the cork sure does require a lot of attention to be made. And lately, with the advent of synthetic corks and screw caps, it has also seemed to garner a significant amount of scrutiny.

Guide to Wine Corks

It is there every time we open a bottle… yet how much attention do we pay to the cork itself, and how much do we know about its composition and just how that little piece of wood came to be in our bottle? Quite little, actually. Which is a pity because the cork tree, the abilities of cork and its harvesting methods are all quite fascinating.

Facts about wine corks

Cork itself is truly a remarkable product. Most know that it is the bark of a cork tree, but few are aware that cork is four times lighter than water, unaffected by air, nearly immune to rot, basically impenetrable by water or air, and completely malleable… although it is also able to withstand 14,000 pounds of pressure per cubic inch, at which point it will revert to its natural shape. Pretty impressive for a piece of wood.

Cork trees

The cork tree is native to southern Portugal and Spain, and thrives in rocky soil of these regions and in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Sardinia. The majority of the cork used in United States wine comes from Portugal.

A cork tree cannot be harvested until it is 25 years old, and it can only be harvested during the stifling summer months when the tree’s sap is running more freely, which is what allows the bark to be stripped off relatively easy (at least in comparison to the colder months). Once it is stripped, harvesters must wait another nine years until it can be stripped of its bark again.

Harvesters work quickly to strip the bark from the tree using special axes; these sheets of bark are allowed to dry for a year before they are boiled or steamed to increase elasticity, and then flattened and left to again dry. At last they are sanitized and cut into bottleneck size using a machine.

What causes corked wine?

The process is surprisingly labor-intensive and the cork’s abilities are impressive… but we are all aware of the problems that can arise from the cork. A “corked” wine, which smells like wet newspaper, is the result of the presence of a chemical called TCA (2,4,6 trichloranisole). It was originally thought that TCA came from the chlorine solution which they were washed in; the chlorine actually allowed the fungi inside the cork to grow into mold. The process of washing the corks in chlorine stopped around 1995; however, the “corked” problem has remained. It is now believed that numerous factors can encourage TCA growth including contact with the cardboard boxes which the corks were stored in or contact with the palates used to cart the corks. Even the raw corks themselves have been found to contain the chemical.

Will the issues with corks ever contribute to the end of cork usage in the wine industry? I highly doubt it. The monetary and phenological benefits of using screw caps or synthetic corks are high, but for centuries the traditional cork has been the only thing separating man from wine. I don’t see us straying from tradition any time soon.

There could not be a more appropriate name for the book which I consider to be the leader in wine literature. Wine buffs and beginners alike will learn a fascinating thing or two from Mrs. MacNeil, who spent ten years penning the book that changed the wine world.

If you are a bit of a wine geek like me, and you enjoy random tidbits of knowledge, then this wine book is for you. Filled with anecdotes, fun facts, history lessons, geography lessons, science lessons and–of course–sensory evaluations, “The Wine Bible’s” greatest joy is how it makes you look at the wine world: it is not a stagnant industry full of pompous men walking around with tastevines, but it is an industry full of passionate, hard-working people who have the pleasure of working in a job which ties them directly to the land and to nature.

Unfortunately, the book was published in 2003, and a few of their facts are out of date, as is the information in their sections about the top wineries in each region (for example, Tapiz winery in Mendoza was purchased from Kendall Jackson in 2005 by an Argentine family, but the book still lists it as owned by KJ). That aside, the general knowledge of the book is a wealth of information, and MacNeil’s easy writing style makes all of this information go down smoother than a silky Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia.

How does yeast contribute to the fermentation process of wine? Learn how yeasts help make wine.

Yeast is an unsung hero. It hangs around, invisible to the eye (40,000 of them can fit on the head of a pin!) and then after we crush grapes, it goes to work turning their sugars into alcohol. There would be no wine without yeasts. In fact, there would be no alcohol at all.

How Yeast Makes Wine

Winemakers use either the ambient (naturally present) or cultivated yeasts when making wine. The yeasts take all the natural sugars in the grapes, convert them to alcohol, and in the process give off CO2 and a lot of heat. The yeasts continue to work until they are either stopped by the winemaker (usually by shocking the wine with a dose of sulphur dioxide or by cooling the wine down to a temperature where the yeasts cannot survive, thus stopping the conversion process and stabilizing the wine) or they actually kill themselves off: yeasts cannot live in an environment of over 16% alcohol, so once the wine reaches this level, the alcohol actually kills the yeast which created it. I think any parent would tell you that this is simply a metaphor for having children…

Assuming that the yeasts were not killed off by high alcohol levels or stabilization, yeasts continue their job even after they have converted a wine’s sugars into alcohol. In the barrel, they interact with the oak itself, sometimes even absorbing some of the harsher, tannic flavors that a new oak barrel can impart on wine. Their interactions add even more complexity to the wine.

After the yeasts have done their job, they still remain in the wine as dead particles. They must be removed in order for the winemaker to create the final, particle-free product; however, some winemakers actually leave these dead yeasts (called the lees) in the barrels for four months to a year because it gives the wine a nice full mouth feel. On some bottles of wine you will see the phrase “sur lie”, which translate from French as “on the lees”, meaning that the winemaker chose to leave these yeasts in with the wine after they expired to impart that fleshy flavor into the wine.

Thank you, little yeasts, for your undying love of sugar and for the end result of your sweet tooth!