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Posts Tagged ‘wine’

Seven ways to puncture a wine windbag

Wine windbag need deflating? Try science. (Photo by Brian Maki, Center for Distance and Professional Education)

Wine windbag need deflating? Try science. (Photo by Brian Maki, Center for Distance and Professional Education)

Uncle Patrick gargles his wine. “I taste blackberries and cherry and oak,” he says, “and a lot of tannins.”

The only thing you know about wine is that it comes in different colors. But, with holiday meals approaching, here’s how to puncture wine windbags, thanks to Washington State University Professor Kathleen Williams:

Precipitate saliva. When Patrick says he tastes tannins, you say: “Tannins don’t have a taste. They create a sensation as they precipitate the proteins out of your saliva.” Tip: Stroke your chin sagely as you pronounce “precipitate.”

Throw in a German word. Patrick swirls the glass. “Good legs,” he observes. You say, “The French call them tears. The Germans call them kirchenfenster or church windows, because they form an arch.” Want more? Try this: “Water has more surface tension than alcohol. The evaporating alcohol pulls the water up with it. When the alcohol breaks through, the water runs down.”

Hit him with brix. Patrick looks at the label. “Oh my,” he says, “14.9 percent alcohol.” You’re ready for him. “Did you know that wines from hot areas tend to have more alcohol? That’s because the grapes have more sugar. As a rule of thumb, every 2 percent of sugar will produce about 1 percent alcohol. So this wine was originally almost a third sugar. Of course, wine makers don’t call them sugars. They call them brix.” Tip: Refill his glass. Keep refilling his glass. This becomes important later.

Diamonds are your best friend. He holds the glass up to the light. Tiny crystals stick to the sides. “It’s going bad,” he says. “Not really,” you say. “Those are potassium tartrate crystals, same thing as cream of tartar. They’re a naturally occurring acid in grapes.” Smile tolerantly, and add, “In Canada, they call them wine diamonds.”

Herbal harmony. Patrick says, “A red wine would overwhelm the turkey.” You say, “It’s not really about the turkey. It’s about the herbs with the turkey, such as onion, celery and sage. What works well is to contrast the herbs with a fruity wine, such as a Beaujolais Nouveau or a Gewürztraminer.”

Make something up. By now, Uncle Patrick should be a bit toasted, so hit him with something ludicrous, but difficult to disprove: “Gewürztraminer has an umlaut,” you say. “The word umlaut is derived from the word omelet and Gewürztraminer pairs well with omelets. As a matter of fact, most umlaut wines go well with egg-based dishes, such as quiche. It’s called a bio-linguistic reaction.”

Fancy footwork. As he sputters to object, quickly change the subject: “Do you know what the best pairing is? Scientists in England proved that it is milk and chocolate chip cookies. Speaking of dessert, how about some pie?”

WSU’s viticulture and enology program offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and certificates. For more information go to

Wine in a cool climate

Thomas Henick-Kling, the new director of Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program, focused on wine from western Washington during a recent reception at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.

Wine bottles - Mount Vernon

Wine bottles - Mount Vernon

On the tables around him stood bottles holding wines made primarily from grapes grown in areas like Hoodsport, Bainbridge Island, Mount Vernon, and the San Juans. While eastern Washington regions such as Walla Walla and the Columbia Basin form the base of the state’s wine operations, there are now more than 50 commercial vineyards and 150 acres planted in wine grapes on the west side of the Cascades. The oldest vineyard represented was Bainbridge Island Vineyards, established in 1973. Most, though, have only started up in the past five years. They are very small operations, with just a few acres of grapes. The varieties include the Müller-Thurgau a Riesling-like grape, the Armenian Burmunk, and the Madeleine Angevine which comes from the Loire Valley.

Thomas Henick-Kling

Thomas Henick-Kling

“There are so many great varieties out there: Regente, Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir. And some we haven’t even tried yet,” says Henick-Kling. He is looking forward to helping with evaluating new varieties for the region and looking at interspecific hybrids – grapes that are the result of crosses between European varieties and one or more American species. That would involve using native grapes to breed new grapes with ripening qualities, disease tolerance, and winter hardiness suited to western Washington’s climate, he says. (more…)

Yeast with Fortitude

Anyone who has enjoyed wine for more than the past five or six years has likely noticed a steady increase in wine’s alcohol content. Alcohol content in today’s red wines can reach 15.5 percent and higher, up from 12-14 percent not that many years ago. Alcohol in white wines has also increased significantly. New world wines are generally highest in alcohol, though French wines have also been increasing.

Commentators on the subject point to various factors—including the influence of wine critic Robert Parker’s preference for “fruit bombs” and global warming—for the increase. Whoever, or whatever, is to blame (or to be credited, depending on your perspective), the fact of the matter is that alcohol content is higher because the grapes contain more sugar at picking.

Ethanol, the alcohol in wine, is produced by yeast, various strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, as a byproduct of digestion. The more sugar yeast has to eat, the more alcohol it produces.

Sugars are higher primarily because grape growers are delaying picking the grapes. “One of the biggest changes, I think, is that winemakers let grapes sit in the vineyard for far longer than they used to,” says Washington State University wine researcher Charles Edwards.

“On the positive side,” he says, “you get much better flavors.”

But getting there requires more of the yeast and subjects it to harsher conditions, among them a higher pH and nutrient imbalance. The alcohol level presents no problem to the yeast. Hardy strains can endure up to 18 percent alcohol. Rather, the working conditions on the way to the alcohol present the problem. Wine must provide yeast with a rich—and potentially hostile—ecosystem in which to work, and the yeast can use any advantage it can get.

Edwards started working with Lallemand, the world’s major yeast producer, several years ago to give S. cerevisiae the boost it needs in today’s winemaking conditions.

The result was not a new yeast (Edwards is emphatic that this is NOT a genetically modified yeast). Rather, it benefits from a modified production process. The result is what Lallemand calls YSEO, short for “Yeast Security Optimization.”

Commercial yeast is grown under obsessively clean conditions in order to make sure unwanted organisms don’t contaminate the culture. Fed molasses, the yeast multiply to a desired population, then are separated from the nutrients and dried for packaging and distribution. Various tweaks in the process—well-protected secrets—resulted in YSEO.

Edwards’s role has been primarily in the evaluation of the product, both in the laboratory and, on a grander scale, with a state winery. One of the batches they tested was worth three-quarters of a million dollars. It made him a “little nervous,” says Edwards.

But the results were great: Faster fermentation, leaving less time for things to go wrong. Significantly less production of sulfur compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide, which can result when yeast are stressed. H2S can result in very unattractive odors and flavors. It is much to be avoided.

A major emphasis of Edwards’s general research is “stuck” fermentation, a situation that the YSEO yeasts seem adept at avoiding.

About 10 percent of Lallemand’s wine yeast strains are now being produced with YSEO, says Gordon Specht, North American area manager who worked with Edwards on the project. Every package of YSEO yeast includes a line noting WSU’s part in the work.


For an animated explanation of YSEO:

To read a paper on the process by Edwards, Specht, and others: