Wednesday, August 24, 2011
I love wine. I drink it as my alcoholic beverage of choice, collect good bottles and have made a career of it. I have visited many of the world's famous wine regions and producers and tasted a good cross section of what the world offers in wine. I understand how it is made and the different teqhniques leading to the quality differences. I am not precious about it though and refuse to be reverential about it. I have drunk for example Le Montrachet, Chateau Petrus and Krug Le Mesnil and many other wines that cost over a thousand dollars a bottle in today's currency but know that most of the cost is bound up in hype, scarcity and fashion as well as a fair bit of usury. I often blend wines together at home, freeze and thaw it and do things with it like aerating a new bottle by pouring into a jug and back into the bottle, that 'aficionados' may well scoff at. No matter. I've been in enough wineries to know that at bottom, wine is a mass produced commodity that gets pumped and poured from barrel to tank and back again through big black hoses. The consumer who pays hundreds of dollars a bottle never sees this and most likely believes all the advertising and PR hype that shows chatting peasant women hand filling bottles and carefully applying labels.
A new initiative that I have taken to is to try and replicate oak fermentation and oak maturing of Chardonnay. I like good barrel fermented Chardonnay particularly from Hawkes Bay and Gisborne. A good one that has also been aged in new oak will cost in the high twenties and thirties which, for everyday drinking is beyond me. There is some great Chardonnay fruit being grown in Gisborne and Hawkes Bay but the cost of perfecting it through barrel fermentation and ageing is usually disastrous to cash flow with no guarantee of sale at the end.
The result is a lot of unwooded styles and 'lightly oaked' styles coming out. Unwooded Chardonnay has been promoted over the last 20 years as a fresh and stimulating expression of the fruit. What crap. Chardonnay needs some wood structure to temper out the acidity. The 'lightly oaked' style generally means that the wine was put in some old barrels that no longer have any vanillan character left or some oak chips, beans or planks were dropped into the tanks at some stage. The cheap Chardonnays that result generally have good fruit expression but are lacking in silkiness, spice, creaminess and vanillin character. Vanilla is the result of phenols from the wood reacting with the wine with a flavour perception similar to the vanilla bean (that is used in ice-cream and various cuisine).The lignins in the wood contribute also to tannin influence and the various 'toastings' of barrels impart other flavours like chocolate and coffee but for this exercise I am concentrating on Vanilla.
Last night I opened a nice simple Chardonnay that I had bought via Blackmarket (the excellent internet site that deals in surplus wines direct from wineries). The wine is Overstone from Sileni in Hawkes Bay. At about $9 a bottle it represents good value but is quite simple. The Hawkes Bay Chardonnay fruit is good but needs a little bit of lift. I poured two glasses and in one I dropped a tiny (about 6 mm) length of vanilla bean.
The vanilla bean had the immediate effect of softening the wine and imparting a little bit of flavour not unlike barrel influence and adding a bit of sweetness. The difference between the two glasses was striking with the vanilla doctored one tasting much superior to the plain one. I will continue to experiment along these lines. Meanwhile this gives me something else to look weird with at parties and restaurants. I sometimes drop a copper coin into a glass of wine that has excess sulphur. I blend together two glasses of wine if neither are satisfactory and I pour a newly opened screw-cap wine into a jug before pouring it back into the bottle - this freshens up the wine when needed. All of this gets some odd looks from wine waiters and neighbouring tables. Now I can add my vanilla bean to the mix.