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6 Excellent Reasons to Decant a White Wine

Decanting a red wine is almost automatic for some people. If it’s a young wine — and not something light such as Pinot Noir or Gamay — SPLASH, into a decanter it goes. And most people readily decant older red wines to separate the good juice from the unpleasant sediment. How often do you hear about white wine being decanted though?

Christopher Watkins of Ridge and I had a brief discussion about it recently when I asked if he’d decanted the excellent 2008 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay he’d poured for us on blogger day. (He hadn’t, the wine was fantabulous out of the bottle.) But, in his blog post yesterday, A Chardonnay Vertical? Oh, no you didn’t! Oh, yes I did!!!, Christopher touched on the topic of decanting white wines. He agreed that decanting can help some young Chardonnay blossom. There are other situations that call for decanting white wine too.

Here are 6 excellent reasons to decant a white wine:

  • The wine is too cold.
    When you’re in a rush, it’s easy to forget to pull wine out of the refrigerator soon enough. Almost all white wines should be served at less than room temperature. But, if the wine is too cold, many of the aromatics are hidden. Cold wine comes up to prime drinking temperature more quickly if you pour it into a room temperature decanter.

  • The wine is too warm.
    This may seem counter-intuitive based on the previous tip. However, the principle is the same. Wine bottles do a good job of insulating the wine they contain from external temperature changes. To get your wine to the right temperature quickly, you need to get it out of the bottle. By spreading the wine out over the broad but thin glass of a decanter, you can more easily change the wine’s temperature.


    To cool wine using a decanter, immerse the decanter in a bath of water and ice. Be careful not to let any water get into the decanter. Give the decanter a minute or two to chill and then pour in the wine. Leave it in the ice bath until it reaches the temperature you like.

  • The wine is “closed.”
    Most white wines, served at the proper temperature, having enticing aromas right out of the bottle. Some are shy though. This can be due to winemaking style, because the wine is very young or in an awkward phase, or just the nature of that grape variety. If you pour a white wine into your glass and it smells like... nothing, decant it. Believe it or not, some experts regularly decant Champagne for this very reason. Bubbles are pretty, but aroma and flavor are more important.

  • The wine evolves beautifully over time, but you don’t have time.
    Some wine has attractive aromas right out of the bottle, but they really blossom with time in your glass. A perfect example of this is Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc Reserve. Pour the wine and you’re greeted by lovely white peach, vanilla and gentle oak. But, over time, numerous more subtle notes of white flowers, spice, sweet herb and other fruits emerge.
 At a recent dinner party, I served that wine with one specific dish in a 6-course meal. I needed the wine to be at peak right away to optimize the guests’ experience and keep the dinner running on time. I decanted the wine and it blew people away.

  • The wine has some “bottle stink.”
    Okay, no reason to be embarrassed. We’ve all had moments when we weren’t as fresh as we’d like to be. That happens with wine too, but it doesn't mean the wine is bad. With young white wines bottle stink is most often due to excess sulphur (used by winemakers to kill bacteria) or a very tight seal, such as screwcap, that doesn’t allow any gases to escape from the bottle. If you pour that wine directly into a glass, some of the gases will go with it.  And other gases that were in-solution with the wine will gradually emerge in glass too. Splashing the wine into a decanter gives those (ob)noxious gases a chance to dissipate well away from your sensitive nose. Some  German Rieslings I own show a lot of sulphur on the nose when first opened. Decanting them really helps.

  • Two bottles of exactly the same wine are showing bottle variation.
    This isn’t a situation that will arise often for most people, but it is common for those who regularly lead large wine tastings or classes. With a large group, you need more than one bottle of each wine. Yet each glass of wine should taste and smell the same so everyone has a common frame of reference for discussion.
 If there is significant variation between bottles of the same wine, whether they are at slightly different stages of development or one bottle is a touch flawed, you can blend the bottles using a decanter. A magnum decanter easily holds two bottles. If you only have a one bottle decanter, you’ll need to pour just half of each bottle (or less if you have three or more bottles) in at a time.

 

Decanting white wine isn’t something you need to do every day. But it is something that can add to your enjoyment on occasion. Don’t let a wine’s color make you shy about decanting it if necessary.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

“Strong Victory for Organic Winemakers” is a Loss for Consumers and Common Sense

Let me be clear. I have no general issues with organic foods or wines made from organically- grown grapes. In fact, I believe many of the best wines made today are derived from either organic or biodynamic grapes. But "organic wine" has been, and will unfortunately continue to be, a very different product.

The "strong victory" quote in the title of this article is the headline of a press release from Frey Vineyards of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. Sent on behalf of “a coalition of organic winemakers and distributors,” it announced that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) had elected to maintain the current regulations for wines labeled as “organic wine.” This NOSB vote reversed a decision made by the USDA.

Roussanne-at-Tablas-Creek-VineyardsThe core issue is sulfites, specifically sulfur dioxide or SO2. The original, and now continuing, rule is that “organic wines” may not include any added sulfites. None. This is similar to regulations for other organic products which also ban the addition of sulfite. I, the USDA and many others — including committed organic and biodynamic growers — have two problems with this. First, sulfur dioxide is important in the process of making quality wine and in having that wine remain sound in bottle. Second, unlike virtually all other produce — organic or otherwise — grapes have naturally-generated sulfites on their skin. Thus, it is almost impossible for any wine to be sulfite free, even if sulfites are not added.

The organic winemakers claim maintaining current labeling laws will prevent consumer confusion. I believe it simply confuses them in a different way. It is true that other organic products are not allowed to add sulfites. But, based on that, the few — very few — people who are sensitive to sulfites buy organic products knowing them to be free of sulfites. Consumers cannot do that with wine. Even with this NOSB ruling, “organic wines” may contain sulfites.

Winery quotes within the press release show how easily consumers can be confused by this rule. “Organic wine has always been defined as preservative-free with no added sulfites,” says Phil La Rocca, founder of La Rocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch, CA. That is true and a clear statement. However, Paul Frey, President of Frey Vineyards in Redwood Valley, CA states, “The preservative sulfite has never been allowed in any organic food that carries the USDA organic seal.” That is a confusing statement. It implies to consumers not well-versed in the law that “organic wine” does not include sulfites. The catch is the law states added sulfites are termed “a preservative.” Naturally occurring sulfites are not. Frey isn’t really saying there are no sulfites, just that there are no sulfites added.

United States’ law requires all wines with sulfites in excess of 10mg/liter (10 parts per million) to display the text “Contains Sulfites” on the label. Wines with less than that amount, as determined by analysis, may omit the warning. Wines which, by analysis, show less than 1ppm may be labeled as “No Sulfites.” These are the phrases that people with sulfite sensitivity need to look for, “Contains Sulfites” or “No Sulfites.” An “Organic Wine” may well have more than 10ppm and therefore be required to bear the “Contains Sulfites” warning.

All the NOSB ruling really did was continue a labeling policy that consumers don’t understand in order to preserve the market share of a small number of companies which elect to not add sulfites. A change in the rule would not have forced them to add sulfites, nor would it have prevented them from omitting “Contains Sulfites” warnings on eligible products, or even using “No Sulfites” labeling. What it does do is prevent hundreds of other wineries from labeling their products “organic wine,” even though they are made solely from organically-grown grapes in certified-organic vineyards.

If the USDA-recommended change had been adopted, a wine could have contained up to 100ppm of sulfites and be labeled “organic wine,” assuming all other criteria for that designation were met. In reality, the average sulfite level in wines is less than 80ppm. Many individual wines are far lower. U.S. law prohibits any wine from having more than 350ppm or 350mg of sulfites. Note that the human body produces about 1000mg of sulfites per day on its own.

Some people do have a sensitivity to sulfites. Studies suggest such sensitivity is very rare and is essentially limited to 5% to 10% of those individuals who have asthma. In those people, exposure to large doses of sulfites can bring on asthmatic reactions, nasal irritation, hives, etc. But some medical studies have shown no reaction whatsoever from sulfite-sensitive individuals when drinking a glass of wine with sulfite concentrations of 150ppm — 50% higher than the proposed rule change would have allowed. There is no confirmed medical evidence that sulfites cause headaches either, though many people have that misperception.

SO2 is SO2. The press release, and the appeals of organic winemakers and their supporters to the NOSB, repeatedly refer to added sulfites as “a synthetic preservative.” SO2 isn’t a very complicated compound. Use of the word “synthetic” makes added SO2 sound sinister. But manufactured SO2 isn’t any different from that which occurs naturally.

According to Pat Henderson, senior winemaker at Kenwood Vineyards, sulfur dioxide is “without a doubt the most important additive that is used in winemaking.” Vineyard managers use sulfur dioxide as an antioxidase, sprinkling it on the picked grapes before they are taken to the winery. This preserves the freshness and bright flavors while preventing browning of the fruit and juice by acting on the enzymes which encourage oxidation. Winemakers also use it to prevent oxidation to prevent browning, formation of acetaldehyde and limit the actions of tyrosinase.

Sulfur dioxide is also an antimicrobial agent. By using just the right amount, winemakers can kill bad microbes without affecting good ones. For some winemakers, this includes ambient yeasts that can take fermentations in the wrong direction or result in off flavors. Winemakers also use SO2 to control malolactic fermentation and sanitize barrels, corks and equipment.

There are a number of bacteria and yeasts that cause wine to spoil. They include Acetobacter (vinegar bacteria), Brettanomyces (smells of barnyard), Lactobacillus (can smell like dirty socks), and Pediococcus. Sulfur dioxide is an important part of controlling them. I suspect you and I agree that wine which smells of vinegar or dirty socks is not appealing.

Failure to add SO2 in the vineyard or winery can allow oxidation and bacteria to run amok. White wines may brown early in their lives. The off aromas and flavors noted above may occur. In extreme cases, wine can even begin to ferment again in the bottle. These are the risks taken by winemakers wishing to qualify for an “organic wine” label. But, really, the risk is taken by those consumers who buy the wine.

Excessive use of sulfur dioxide isn’t good. It can result in excessive sulfite levels in the wine. It may also cause off aromas, including smells of burnt match or even rotten eggs. Winemakers use sulfur dioxide very carefully and, usually, in as small an amount as possible to achieve the desired results. They stop using sulfur several weeks before bottling to ensure that “free SO2” dissipates and doesn’t wind up in the bottle.

I believe most people who seek “organic wines” are really looking for good wine made from organic fruit. Those people need to look for these phrases on the label: “Made from organically-grown grapes” or “biodynamic wine.” People legitimately sensitive to sulfites should seek wines that say “No Sulfites” or at least do not bear the “Contains Sulfites” warning. People who are curious or feeling lucky may want to try an “organic wine.”

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Creating a New Wine Label

A wine bottle’s front label may be the most important tool a winery has for driving retail sales. Whether the bottle is in a supermarket, wine boutique or wine bar, the label needs to do the same things. It needs to stand out in a crowd and catch the attention of as many people as possible. Once that attention is captured, the label has about two seconds to communicate what kind of wine it is, whether its quality is appropriate for the price point and what kind of wine consumer it’s targeted at. And it has to do all of this from a distance of at least four feet.

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Weathermen have delivered an unpleasant forecast for this Tuesday, rain and plenty of it. Northern California is due to get at least 2 - 3 inches of rain in one day. In some places, like the Sierras, as much as 8 inches may fall.

This is a bad time for a big rain in wine country. While many wineries have already harvested the majority of their grapes, some have not. The bulk of the white wine grapes and Pinot Noir are happily fermenting by now. Red varietals that take longer to ripen, especially those in cool climate areas, are still hanging on the vines though. Particularly at risk are Syrah, Zinfandel and, in some areas, Cabernet Sauvignon.

9 Wineries that Donote Proceeds to Charity

The California wine industry is extremely philanthropic. Some wineries support charities by donating bottles or tasting experiences to benefit auctions. Others, or their owners, “give back” through generous direct donations of cash or land. A growing number of wineries make donations that are directly tied to the sale of their wine.

Sales-based donations may not be as dramatic as an auction lot which sells for tens of thousands of dollars. And the scale of the donations are a lot lower than those made by legendary winery owner/philanthropists such as Bob Trinchero and August Sebastiani. However, sales-based giving can still be significant and allows consumers to participate, knowing that their purchase of a particular wine will help somebody.

If you’d like to complement your own direct charitable donations by purchasing wine or helping charitable wineries in some way, here are nine wineries to consider supporting (in alphabetical order):

Canine Wines
Canine Wines donates $5 to animal rescue agencies for every bottle sold. The winery offers a range of wines, mostly from respected single-vineyards. I’ve not tasted any of the current releases, but have enjoyed several of their wines in the past. Each wine features an irresistibly cute picture of a rescued dog on the front label and the dog’s tale on the back label. A bottle would make a charming holiday gift for your wine-drinking, dog-loving friends.

Charity Wines
Charity Wines teams up with professional sports stars to create “collectible” wines. Think baseball cards that come with wine instead of stale bubblegum. Past wines include ZinfandEllsbury (Boston Red Sox player, Jacoby Ellsbury), Cabernet Glavingnon (Atlanta Braves pitching great, Tom Glavine), Dan Marino Vintage “13” Chardonnay and, for old-school wrestling fans, Jimmy Snuka Superfly Cabernet. Proceeds go to support charities selected by the player. I’ve not tasted any of the wines but, at the every least, they would make an amusing gift for the sports fans in your life or look good next to your bobbleheads. There are several dozen labels to choose from. Charity Wines claims to have donated more than $1.6 million dollars to charity so far.

Cleavage Creek Winery
Cleavage Creek Winery donates 10% of their gross profits to breast cancer research. To date, their contributions exceed $70,000. The wines, which range in price from $18 to $50, are made from Northern California grapes and feature attractive (but tasteful) pictures of breast cancer survivors on the front labels. Cleavage Creek Winery also has a tasting room that you can visit in Pope Valley (northeast from Calistoga in Napa Valley).

Curvature Wines
Curvature Wines is another label that donates proceeds to breast cancer research. A joint venture between LPGA golfer Christie Kerr, who focuses many of her charitable activities on breast cancer, and Suzanne Pride Bryan who is both a breast cancer survivor and one of the owners of Pride Mountain Vineyards. Their current offering is a limited-production 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. While there is just one wine, different packaging options are available including magnum and 3-liter bottles as well as a three-pack of 750ml bottles signed by Christie Kerr.

Ehlers Estate
Ehlers Estate is unique in that the winery actually belongs to a not-for-profit foundation. When founder Jean Leducq passed away in 2002, he left it in trust the the foundation that he and his wife, Sylviane, had started in 1996. As a result, 100% of the proceeds from from Ehlers Estate wine sales go to cardiovascular research. The winery, located north of downtown St. Helena, uses organic and biodynamic growing practices in growing Bordeaux grape varieties. Their tasting room is open by appointment daily and the wines are excellent.

Emtu Estate
Emtu Estate is a very small winery in Forestville (Russian River Valley) owned and operated by John and Chris Mason. The husband/wife team produce very nice Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Rosé of Merlot wine from the grapes grown in their 3 acre backyard. All the profits from sales of their wine go to charity through their Labyrinth Foundation. When the Masons aren’t busy with the winery or caring for the rescued birds of prey housed on their property, they travel around the world helping in communities of need. For more information on Emtu Estate read our detailed profile.

Humanitas
Humanitas is a Napa winery that also has a unique approach to philanthropy. Humanitas' profits all go to charity, but the charity that gets the money from your purchases is based in your own community. Humanitas works primarily with national charties that have local chapters all over the country. It gives directly to those chapters as dictated by sales. The winery also lists a large number of specific charities on its website and, if you wish, you can designate that some of the proceeds go to one of those. You do that by buying the wine from the Humanitas site and entering a specific promo code at checkout. The agencies supported include food banks, Habitat for Humanity and groups that support at-risk children.

Lookout Ridge
Lookout Ridge raises the bar on the sales-based giving. While the other wineries mentioned in this article donate some or all of their proceeds to charity, Lookout Ridge literally gives more money to charity than it takes in. For every single bottle of Lookout Ridge wine purchased, the winery gives a wheelchair to a needy individual. The buyer of the bottle (or the recipient if it's a gift) also receives a certificate and a photo of someone who has received one of the wheelchairs. Lookout Ridge relies heavily on donations of time and material from winemakers, vineyards, and other suppliers. If you can help in some way, they would love to hear from you.

Lookout Ridge offers a variety of wines produced from vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties. Each wine is made by a high-profile winemaker such as Greg LaFollette, Andy Erickson and Cathy Corison. The wines are not cheap at $100 each. However, they are excellent (90+ points) and the cost of acquiring and distributing the wheelchairs, not to mention the wine production costs, is higher than the $100 bottle price. See our profile of Lookout Ridge which includes reviews of two of their wines.

One Hope Wine
One Hope Wine donates half of all profits to charity. Causes supported by these charities include children’s hospitals, United States military veterans and their families, and the fights against AIDs, breast cancer, autism and global warming. Specific causes are clearly identified for each wine, so you can allocate your dollars according to your preferences. The wines themselves are all varietals with general California designations except for a Pinot Noir that is from the Arroyo Seco AVA (Monterey County) specifically. To date, One Hope has contributed more than $350,000 to charity.

Just one more thing...
There's one more project I'd like to mention here, but it doesn't involve the sale of wine. Cellar Magic is a unique philanthropic wine project of Mara LaFollette (winemaker Greg LaFollette's wife). Cellar Magic wines aren’t for sale. They are all given away. Mara says, “We believe that man does not live on charity dollars alone, we want our teachers, medicos and firefighters to enjoy the fruits of our labor by having a glass of wine with their meals.” To that end, the wines are donated to community organizations such as Palmdrive Community Hospital, the Cancer Foundation, Electric Car Foundation and schools for holiday dinners, other special occasions and, occasionally, benefit auctions.

Cellar Magic still has some wine available for donation this year. There's a 2006 Semillion — I love aged Semillon! — from Amador County and Dry Creek Valley fruit and a 2005 Bordeaux-style white made from Amador County Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and a bit of Mendocino County Alvarinho. If you know of a worthy organization, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.