Monday, July 28, 2008

Wine in a can? And I thought wine in a box was bad.

Jeff Sypeck was amused by my last post where I showed consternation to find wine in boxes for sale in France. So he shared with me an article from the Economist which suggests that wine in a box is eco-friendlier than traditional bottles with corks.

Then it went a step further and mentioned something I had heretofore been blissfully ignorant about.

Wine in a can.

Specifically champagne in a can.

:massages temples at the thought of such sacrilege:

Champagne is a wonderful thing. It is a wine used for celebrations and whose heritage dates back to the 17th century monk by the name of Dom Perignon who discovered the art of secondary fermentation and its wonderful byproduct of sparkling wine.

The second fermentation by tradition is done in the bottle, and is referred to as methode champenoise. The best sparkling wines are all done by this method and then there is another process to rid the bottle of the dead yeast that would otherwise be present as sediment in the bottle.

This old fashioned method involved turning the bottles in a rack a quarter turn or so each day as the angle of the bottles was slowly increased until the sediment settled in the neck of the bottle. The person who turned these bottles was given the title of "the Riddler."

No kidding. (Think about that this summer during the Batman media craze.)

Then they froze the neck of the bottles to make a solid plug of the dregs to remove it without spilling too much wine. After that extraction was completed, a cork was put in the bottle after refilling the bottle of spilled wine.

Today with the wonders of automation there isn't the need for hand riddlers, (and good thing too since I am sure they were prone to repetitive stress injuries).

With our modern technology there is also the ability for the secondary fermentation to be done not in the bottle, but in a stainless steel vat.

That is the method of choice for cheap sparkling wines such as Tott's or Ballatore.

Read your label. If it does not say "fermented in this bottle" or methode champenoise then it was probably created by methode champen-vat. Be especially suspicious if the price tag is less than $5 a bottle.

And now, thanks to film director-turned-winemaker Francis Ford Coppola who has purchased wineries in Sonoma County I now have in my vocabulary: methode champen-can.

Ugh.

I have not seen that in the stores, but then again, I have not been on the lookout for champagne in bright red cans.

It not only comes in a can, it comes with its own straw.

Pop open a flip top, then slurp sparking wine through a straw in a can. How utterly sophisticated.

That is not how you should imbibe champagne. This noble wine should be properly chilled and the sound of the cork popping helps set off your celebration. Then it is to be poured into fluted glasses to discern the size of the bubbles (they should be small and with a rapid stream and not like frogs eyes) and the shape of the glass also helps concentrate the wine properly on your tongue.

That is how it should be done.

I do not buy this excuse that wine in a box or wine in a can is more eco-friendly. I am sorry, but good wine needs to be treated with care.

If all you want is to have something to quaff with spaghetti on a Tuesday night and you do not want to spend a lot of money, go ahead and buy wine in a box. You certainly do not want to store it. Only buy wine in polystyrene if you are going to age the wine on the car seat on your way home.

Wine is a living, breathing entity that changes with time and with its surroundings. No two bottles of wine will ever taste exactly the same.

Wine reacts to fluctuations in temperatures, and it can age prematurely and/or "cook" the wine, sometimes ruining it.

The best example I know of this comes from my favorite wine columnist, Dan Berger. One of his columns was about how tanins in Cabernet Sauvignon can make the wine unapproachable when it is young and that it needs to age for several years before drinking. He then did an experiment and bought two bottles of Cab. One he treated properly by promptly placing it in his wine cellar, the other he left in the back of his station wagon and let it roll around for a week or so in the summertime.

Later he did a blind tasting with some of his friends who were not wine connoisseurs. They preferred the wine that had been abused over the one that was stored properly. Why? Because the abuse had tamed the tanins in the wine and made it drinkable younger than it ordinarily would have been.

I love that story and it reinforces why I am not that big of a Cabernet Sauvignon fan. I am not that patient to wait years to drink wine. Give me a glass of hearty Zinfandel any day over Cab. (And for those unfamiliar with Zin, I do not mean White Zinfandel which is a blush wine, I am talking about the hearty red wine that is a California heritage wine.)

Moving on to corks.

Corks can rot over time if bottles are stored upright. Therefore, watch out when you buy bottles of wine at your grocery store that are standing on a shelf for too long. If there's a layer of dust, you might want to pass on buying it.

To store wine properly in your home you do not have to have a special wine cellar or anything like that. All you need is an area where the temperature is constant and there isn't much commotion. Preferably without contact to an outside wall. We use the closet under our stairs to store our wine. Store the bottles on their side or in a case, but with the bottles upside down to keep the cork wet.

The Economist article also mentions a movement to get away from traditional cork and using of new synthetic corks as well as screw caps.

It depends on the wine whether or not you can really get away with that.

My favorite winemaker is Fred Scherrer and we have had several long conversations about the differences in these types of corks. He has experimented with them and found that for certain wines that do not age well, such as his Vin Gris or Dry Rosé that it is fine to use them. However, when a synthetic cork is used on bottles of wine that have a longer shelf life, it starts out fine but they do not age well. That is because the synthetic nature of the cork does not allow for the slow exchange of gases that is one of the functions of a traditional cork.

So he feels you can use synthetic corks for those types of wine which are thought of as the "chill it and kill it" wines, but not for wines that have any staying power.

By the way, I feel as if I should mention that I did not have any appreciation of wine when I grew up in the Midwest. Wine drinking around my family's table was usually Gallo jug wine with 7-Up.

Later after college, my girlfriends and I drank Bartles and Jaymes while the guys drank fizzy yellow beer.

My knowledge and appreciation of wine comes from touring and tasting at wineries, secondly from learning from friends who love wine, and thirdly from my own independent research that comes from supporting my local economy. We moved to Sonoma County in part so that we would be closer to the source of fine wine. That translates to better selection and lower prices since you do not have to pay for the long distance transport of wine.

Dan Berger once placed wine into three categories:

1) Wine he would buy.
2) Wine he would drink if someone else was buying.
3) Wine he would not drink even if someone else bought it.

Wine in a box is for me, category 3.

So is wine in a can.

Life is too short to drink bad wine.

Until next time,

Cheers!


Edited to add:

The Economist article appeared in the editorial page of my local paper this morning. Since we are in "the Wine Country" anything that has to do with the wine industry is fair game for news coverage in our paper that other papers might ignore. I shall be interested to see if there are any letters to the editor in response, especially from winemakers.
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