Introducing “Wine of the Week” AKA Thirsty Thursday

South African Winelands

Who doesn’t get thirsty on Thursdays? You’ve managed to crawl through the majority of the work week, nailed the meetings you were dreading, and survived the voluminous injection of caffeine into your bloodstream. The weekend is so close you can practically smell your sleep-soaked pyjamas and boozy breath!  Surely we’ve earned ourselves a glass of wine (or three)?

In the immortal words of Barack Obama: YES WE CAN!

Look no further for recommendations! Every week, I showcase a wine I’m absolutely loving, which may come with a little history/science lesson on the cultivar (grape varietal) used to make it, depending on my mood. I will be posting these on my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea and on my Instagram account (@wander_woman_thea) so go ahead and like or follow. Let’s be friends!

I’ll also chat a little about the nose (aromas) and flavour profile of the wines, which may sound enormously pretentious to those of you who are yet to discover the wonderful world of wine, but isn’t, I assure you.

I know, I know… The first time I heard someone describe a wine as smelling of “green peppers, grapefruit, and pencil shavings” I mirthfully snorted in their face. You’re joking, right?

“Apparently not,” said their withering stare.

Here’s the simple logic behind the nose of the wine and I’m using the example of green peppers here. The chemical that causes a green pepper to smell the way it does – a sort of savoury, herbaceous, and vegetal smell – is called methoxypyrazine. That very same chemical compound is found in wine, particularly in the cultivars originating from the Bordeaux region of France: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and so on.

So while there is obviously no green pepper in your wine, you can detect this aroma because the wine contains methoxypyrazine. The same applies for a spectrum of other fruits, vegetables, substances, and inanimate objects. The chemicals or, in the case of fruits, sweet-smelling esters that give them their trademark smell are present in wine to varying degrees. This is what you’re smelling.

It takes time and repeated wine swilling, sniffing, and quaffing to begin to identify these aromas. With practice, your brain will tie up its hair, slap on a pair of reading glasses, and start cataloging these smells, building a useful library, which you can draw upon to sound really smart the next time you go wine tasting with friends.

With that brief lesson out of the way, I have but one final side note for you before I proceed to tell you about the absolutely lip-smacking, eye-closing, panty-dropping wine I’ve discovered.

Opinions are like a**holes

The selection I make each week is entirely my own and is most often based upon (1) my personal tastes, (2) the wine region I’m currently exploring, and (3) the wine I think is best suited to the season. With that said, I will do my best to present a fair variety of both red and white wines of various cultivars and blends.

You should also know that I live in South Africa so most of my recommendations will come from here. South Africa is one of the oldest “New World” winemaking regions in the world and a progenitor of wines that can and do compete with the most internationally recognised and acclaimed vintners out there. In other words, if you love wine, you’ve got to add South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, to your bucket list. The wine here is phenomenal.

Here are my weekly selections thus far:

Idiom Zinfandel (Primitivo) 2014

Wine of the Week 1

From the foothills of Sir Lowry’s Pass in the Helderberg valley comes a Zinfandel of such sexy, sultry delight, my relationship with it feels personal. This red wine bursts with ripe fruits and berries, is velvety in delivery, and has an incredible nose of fynbos and eucalyptus. Actually, this characteristic is present in most of Idiom’s wines and is a testament to the intimate relationship between the vines and a terroir dominated by fynbos and stands of Eucalyptus trees.

What I absolutely love about this Zinfandel is its exceptionally perfumed nose. If a sun-beaten bush of fynbos bonked a cherry tree and they made a baby, this is what that offspring hybrid fruit/flower would smell like. On the palate, these fynbossy, almost minty aromas unfurl into a beautiful, silky red wine that’s perfect on a cool spring evening and, in my opinion, with or without food.

Zinfandel is a moderate tannin, high acid red cultivar that’s mistakenly believed by many to originate from the United States. In fact, DNA fingerprinting has confirmed that Zinfandel is an ancient Croatian cultivar that is genetically identical to Primitivo, an Italian cultivar.

Excelsior Evanthuis Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Wine of the week

Named after a race horse reared on the estate, the Excelsior “Evanthuis” Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 is a wine of exceptional weight and character. A deep inky red in colour, this wine, which hails from the Robertson Wine Valley (an approximate 2 hours’ drive from Cape Town) is big and seductive with syrupy black currants and violets on the nose, and dense fruit flavours supported by a strong tannic backbone. In other words, it’s bloody delicious and since we’re still waiting for the weather to get the memo that spring has arrived here in the Cape, it’s perfect to enjoy right now!

The cultivar itself requires little introduction. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most widely recognized red wine grape varieties. And if you thought that Napa Valley was the only region that did a good job of producing “big Cabs” think again. Our warm climate combined with the tender, loving maritime sea breezes that flow off of the Atlantic Ocean create red wines of enormous flavour, elegance, and structure.

La Bri Barrel Select Chardonnay 2016

I began my career as a professional wine drinker with a heavy preference for dry red wines. It was only with my first sip of an obnoxiously wooded Chardonnay (rich, buttery, caramel flavours) that my eyes were opened to the possibility that, hey, I could actually like this stuff! And so I began trying every wooded Chardonnay I could get my paws on. My initial obsession with heavily wooded white wines has calmed down and now I seem to have achieved equilibrium, which explains why La Bri’s Barrel Select Chardonnay 2016 makes my heart quiver.

Chardonnay from Franschhoek South Africa

This rich and rounded Chardonnay from Franschhoek (South Africa) has been crafted from grapes growing on La Bri Wine Estate’s oldest vines, which were planted in 1991, making them older than Justin Bieber. Genteel, gracious, and multi-award-winning, this fabulous Chardonnay boasts flavours of oatmeal and shortbread with a vivacious undercurrent of tangerine. It’s absolutely delicious and well-suited to any weather.

Say hello to the other side

Here in South Africa, one of the most popular white wines is Sauvignon Blanc, which, unfortunately, the public seems to enjoy extremely young. Mere months after the year’s harvest has been pressed, fermented, and bottled,  the young Sauvignon Blancs are whisked to market and sold for a trifling R30 to R80 ($2 to $5).

Marketers describe them as “zesty, fresh, tart”.

I describe them as pissy.

In fairness, not all young Sauvignon Blancs will turn your face inside out, but when you consider what a bit of age does to these wines, it’s a travesty to consume them so young. Why not wait for them to age a little? You know:  open their eyes, develop a bit of character, and sprout a pair of boobs?

The saturation of bottle store shelves and restaurant menus with young wines is precisely why I felt an aversion to white wines for so long. It was thanks to an accidental tasting of a super rich, opulent, and golden Chardonnay that I actually stopped to take stock of “the other side”. In that moment, I realised that, hey, not all white wine has to taste like your flat mate forgot to tell you that he’s been storing clean pee in the refrigerator in case of a surprise drug test at work. In fact, the world of white wine is enormously diverse and bursting with fruit, fabulous flavours, and a damn good time!

So, if you align yourself with any side of the red wine / white wine divide, I urge you to try a beautiful Chardonnay like La Bri’s Barrel Select 2016 and let it open your eyes to the other side [*insert Adele soundtrack here*]. For red wine lover’s, it’ll open your eyes to the world of white wine and for white wine lovers, it’ll open your eyes to wines that aren’t super fresh, young, and pissy.

Get with it!

Funny thirsty Thursday picture

Today’s Thursday, which means that I shall be publishing another “Wine of the  Week” post. If you haven’t already done so, get your butts on Facebook and give my page a like (Wander Woman Thea) or follow me on Instagram (@wander_woman_thea) to see what indulgent tipple this week brings. I’m all about sharing the love so drop me a message if you want me to follow you back, especially if you’re as passionate about food, travel, and wine as I am.

Let me know what wine you’re drinking today!

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Ode to Wine – How Wine is Made

woman whit champagne wine glasses, lady celebration party

I used to think I knew a fair bit about wine. Lord knows I consume enough of the stuff to have a PhD in wine drinking, but unfortunately that’s not a real qualification and if it was, the job market would be so saturated I wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of employment.

I did serve time in an Italian restaurant while studying, so I learned about the different kinds of wine, the cultivars of grapes used to make wine and how to pair them up with food. I also built a wine rack with the help of my father, which now serves as a particularly ugly bookshelf. Around the same time, I bought myself a John Platter guide, which provides a comprehensive list of all the South African wineries along with a description and rating of their annual repertoires. A one star wine is good to poach your pears in, but a five-star wine is a sure-fire way to impress your date.

And so, you see, the wine rack (perpetually empty), the restaurant education, the dedication to wine drinking and the John Platter guide really imbued me with the sense of wine wisdom. That is, until I started reading up about wine making. You would never guess just how intricate the process involved is and the degree of fine chemistry that goes into making a good glass of vino. It’s all about balancing acids, exploiting the biology of fungus and harnessing the power of organic chemistry.

Naturally, I decided to write a blog about the magical science that brings us wine!

Why? Because, shut up! No one ever needed a reason to talk about wine.

How to Make Alcohol (You’re Welcome)

wine bottles stacked  with very limited depth of field

There are two extremely good reasons why prison guards are constantly busting inmates for bootlegging liquor. (1) After a day dodging molestation and staring at whitewashed brick walls, alcohol must seem like the elixir of the Gods, and (2) alcohol is ridiculously easy to make. It’s a simple one-liner chemistry equation that requires ingredients you could find in even the most basic of kitchens: Sugar, water and yeast.

Yeast is a tiny, tiny fungus that uses sugar, also known as glucose, to grow. It’s what we use to make breads rise and it’s what is needed to make alcohol. Mother nature is awesome. By throwing the right measure of yeast into a vat of sugar water, you provide this fungus with the ingredients it needs to survive. It eats the glucose, farts out carbon dioxide and produces alcohol as a by-product according the following chemical equation:

C6H12O–> 2 CO+ 2C2H5OH

In English:

Glucose –> Carbon Dioxide + Alcohol

French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur was the one who discovered that adding yeast to sugar and water yielded alcohol and this lead to the conception of the field of fermentation, which actually has a name: zymology. The same man who brought us pasteurized milk also discovered that the acidity of a sugar solution could affect the speed with which the yeast metabolises sugar. This is an important concern of wine-makers because grapes naturally contain acid and if the solution thrown into the vats at the end of the day is too acidic or too alkaline, the yeast won’t ferment optimally. The result is that it can end up affecting the taste of the wine considerably.

It could mean the difference between pinot and piss.

What’s in a Grape?

woman beauty grapes

Grapes may seem small, oval and innocent, but they’re packed with all sorts of stuff that winemakers take a very great interest in. And rightly so, because even though a good wine may have a bouquet of (smell like) citrus, guava, green peppers, passion fruit, a crisp spring morning and the possibility of a good rodgering, there’s only one fruit that goes into it’s making and that’s grapes, which, as it turns out, contain more than just sugar and water:

  • Water
  • Sugar (glucose and fructose)
  • Two main acids: tartaric and malic acid
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A
  • 20 Different amino acids
  • Potassium,
  • Esters (sweet-smelling hydrocarbons)

The exact time of year the grapes are harvested is extremely important, because the older they get, the sweeter they become, very much unlike your cantankerous grandfather. Grapes that are overripe contain a lot of sugar, which is why “late harvest” wines are sweet and taste like raisons. Grapes that aren’t ripe enough don’t contain enough sugar, which you will know if you’ve ever innocently plucked an unripe grape off the vine. They cause your face to implode.

Baby sour face

THEN of course there are the different kinds of grapes to consider. Sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, sémillon, gewürztraminer, chardonnay, moscato and pinot grigio are all cultivars (kinds) of grapes that are used to make white wines. syrah, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot, malbec, barbera, pinot noir and sangiovese are all cultivars of grapes that are used to make red wines.

What determines the taste and colour characteristics of the kinds of wines produced from these cultivars is the size of the grape, the thickness of the skin and the flesh-to-skin ratio of the grape. The skin is the source of all the chemicals that make a wine heavy, full-bodied and dry, so the thicker the skin and the smaller the flesh-to-skin ratio of the grape, the more complex, more full-bodied and drier the wine will be, such as the cabernet wines. Large grapes with thin skins therefore yield wines that are fruitier and light to medium bodied, such as merlot.

Red bunch of grapes in the vineyard

SO how do these delectable varieties of grapes get from the vine and into your face after a really crap day in the office?

Wine in the Making

1-How wine is made 1

Grapes are plucked off their gnarled vines and delivered to the cellars where all the leaves, stems, rotten grapes and unlucky caterpillars are removed. It is here that the sorting procedures begin that will determine what kind of wine these valiant grapes are destined to become.

White wines are made from the grape juice alone, so these grapes will have their skins removed after crushing. Red wines are made from the juice AND the skin, so they get to keep their clothes on. The grapes are crushed and the resultant sludgy, lumpy grape goo is pumped into shallow fermentation vats. Here, in the case of red wine, this purple porridge is stirred up and constantly agitated to prevent bacteria from establishing a foothold on the floating grape skins like tiny little Rose DeWitt Bukaters on tiny little grape skin doors in the middle of a vast purple Atlantic Ocean.

RoseAndTheOversizedTitanicDoorCouldJackHaveFit-59915

Just saying… they COULD have made it work

Yeast can be added to aid the fermentation process, during which time the mixture will become increasingly alcoholic and less and less sweet as all that glucose is metabolised by the yeast. The mixture is also stirred up to encourage oxygenation of the mixture, since yeast needs oxygen to live.

By the way, never EVER search the word “yeast” in Google Images. Some things cannot be unseen.

Once fermentation is completed to the desired extent by the winemaker, in other words the right level of alcohol content, sweetness and balance of flavour has been achieved, the sludge will be run through a series of machines that will press out the skins and other flotsam and jetsam so that the remaining mixture is juicy juice. This is then transferred to either wood, usually oak, or steel barrels, depending on the precise taste characteristics the winemaker is trying to achieve.

Wooded or Unwooded?

How wine is made

Whoops! How did I get in that picture?

Wine that is matured in wooden barrels tends to have a – SURPRISE – woody flavour. It gives it an aged, earthy characteristic that is most pleasant in a headier chardonnay or shiraz. And, of course, the age of the wood itself can influence the outcome of the wine. Flavours can also be added to maturing wine by introducing planks of wood that have been toasted over a fire. This tends to result in the rich, coffee, chocolatey flavours that have become so immensely popular here in South Africa.

Throughout maturation, the winemaker will regularly sample the wine to ensure that it is on the right track to securing him a beautiful, expensive white or a quaffable supermarket red, or vice versa. Finally, after a maturation period of six months to three years, the wine will be carefully filtered, bottled, sent to market, purchased by people like me and poured down our gullets, ending the grand process in our brains where it is allowed to affect our judgements.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Winemaking may sound like one of those professions you’d be LUCKY to have, like professional surfing or being a judge on Masterchef, but there is a huge amount of pressure involved. It takes an intimate knowledge of organic chemistry and a fine palate to achieve wines that people (notably obnoxiously wealthy people) consider worthy of their Coq au vin or Bœuf bourguignon. What’s more, you only have one harvest every year to get it right, so unless you are a trust fund baby with unlimited cash at your disposal, you simply cannot afford to bugger around.

Think about this the next time you sip on a smooth merlot, an aged syrah or oaked chardonnay. And think about all the billions of fungi that had to die to deliver to you a succulent sauvignon blanc or a tenacious tempranillo. Appreciate the chemistry and toil that goes into the libation you so enjoy after a day of work, or a day of anything really. Now go forth and drink wine!

If it was good for Jesus, it’s good for you!

v2-pope-francis-wine

Image Source: The Independent “Vatican City drinks more wine per person than anywhere else in the world.”