Ever Wonder? - What's that Stuff at the Bottom of Your Wine Glass?


Have you ever taken that last sip of wine only to find a nasty surprise either at the bottom of your glass or in your mouth? Sediment! It can be a very unpleasant discovery. But, luckily, it’s nothing to be worried about.

Sediment is a natural bi-product of the wine making process.

Wines are made from the juice of grapes. And, the skins of the grapes. And the seeds. And sometimes the stems. So, there are actually a lot of solids that are involved in wine making. That’s why, in some cases, you get some ugly particles in your wine glass.

It doesn’t just happen with red wines. White wines are susceptible too.

There’s a lot of chemistry involved in for formation of various types of sediment in wine. But, keeping it simple, these solids in your glass are mostly filtered out at the winery and are just microscopic when they leave the winery in the bottle.

But, age and temperature then act upon these microscopic particles to form the stuff you see in your wine glass.

Next time, I’ll get into a bit more detail on this topic. But, for now, don’t worry. This sediment is not harmful to consume. Cheers!

The Never Ending Search for Great Wine

A few years back as I started to become interested in wines, I was searching for a really great wine that I could dependably go back to time after time. While the search for a great wine was a fun adventure, it never seemed to converge on a wine that I could always go back to and enjoy as much as the first time.  As it turns out, that was just the start of the never ending search for a great wine.

Part of the reason that it's difficult, if not impossible, to find a consistently good wine year after year is the very nature of wine making.  Each year's harvest is different, with weather playing a huge role. The spring weather determines how many of the grapevine buds will turn into bunches of grapes. And the fall sun or rain determines how well the grapes will ripen. And not only is there the variability of the grape harvest, but there are all the factors that go into fermentation and aging of the wines.  All these variables make for ever-changes nuances in wines.

Then you come to understand that there's yet another factor.  As you make your way along the journey in search of a great wine, you get exposed to more and more wines. And in this process, your pallet changes.  What was once a really nice wine becomes a so-so wine. So you keep searching, trying to find that one really great wine.

And to this day, I'm sure that there has to be that one great wine out there. Somewhere.  So I'll keep searching. But I also realize that it's a never ending search for great wine.  Enjoy your search. Cheers!

Behind the Cork™ Wine of the Week -  Opolo Vineyard Summit Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($20)

This wine from Paso Robles CA is a great find. Described as having defined tannins with flavors of cherry, blackberry, toasted almonds and vanilla this Cabernet is a winner.  A super wine to enjoy grilled meats, cheeses, or just by itself.  Check this one out!

The Grapes are Harvested! But How Do They Become Wine?

Vineyards have been busy the last couple of months with harvest.  Once the grapes have been determined to be at just the right ripeness, it's a big rush to get them off the vines and out of the vineyard. And then the magic begins. Turning bunches of grapes into fine wines.  But, how does that happen?

It starts as soon as the grapes reach the winery where the grapes may be de-stemmed or left in whole bunches, depending on the grapes being used and the winemaker's desired outcome. In either case, the grapes are sorted to eliminate any that don't meet the winemaker's standards and to remove any leaves or other foreign matter that might be mixed in with the grapes.  

Now, the biggest difference is that white wine grapes are immediately pressed and the juice is separated from the grape skins and seeds.  But with red wines, the whole grapes or clusters are kept intact. The contact of the juice with the dark skins is what gives a red wine its color. Otherwise red wines would come out nearly clear. And when producing rosé, the dark grape skins are only left in contact with the juice for a brief period of time (hours) in order to just give it a pink hue.

Then it's on to fermentation. Large tanks are used in this process and here is where yeast is added.  It's the natural sugar in the juice of the grape that gets consumed by the live yeast. The bi-product of the yeast's consumption of sugar is alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2).  Remember that red wines have the juice and skins together in the fermentation tank and the production of CO2 causes all the skins to float to the top of the tank.  So winemaker's have to periodically 'punch down' the skins to intermix them with the juice or 'pump over' the juice as another means of keeping the skins mixed in with the juice. But regardless of the grape type, the fermentation process is relative quick, lasting typically from ten days to two weeks.

Once fermentation is complete, white wines will be moved to stainless steel tanks or oak barrels for aging.  It's at this point that the red wine juice is now separated from the skins and moved to vessels for aging. Typically, red wines are aged in oak barrels, but steel tanks and concrete tanks may also be used.  White wines may be aged for months where reds may be aged for years. The aging times will vary considerably, again depending on the winemaker's preference.

Many oaked white wines and red wines will then undergo another process called malolactic conversion.  This converts the sharp and tart tasting malic acid to softer, smoother lactic acid.

At this point the wines may go through a process called 'racking' where the wine is periodically siphoned or gravity-feed to another vessel to separate the wine from any remaining sediment that has settled in the vessel.  The reds may also undergo a 'fining' process to remove sediment and particles using a binding medium such as egg whites.  Once these processes are complete, the wine is bottled, getting a cork (or twist-off cap), a foil capsule and a label, and then the bottles are boxed into cases and are ready to ship.

And it's just that easy!  But as has been said many times, making wine is easy -- making good wine is hard.  And so, while this process sound relatively simple, it's the great winemaker's, and their attention to details, that makes great wines.

Next time well talk about how the winemaker gets all those amazing flavors into wine. Cheers!


Making Wine is Hard. Right?

While doing some wine tasting, I had the opportunity to chat with the Winemaker. As I was complimenting him on making some outstanding wine, I commented "Making wine must be really hard."  He laughed and shook his head. "No," he replied "Making wine is easy. Anyone can do it. But, making good wine is really hard."  

Wine making is, in practice, easy.  You grow a bunch of grapes, wait for them to ripen, and then harvest them.  You will usually de-stem the grapes and remove leaves and any bad grapes.  Next you crush the grapes to extract the juice.  If you are making white wine, the skin are removed from the juice; for reds the skins are left in with the juice.  Next, yeast turns the natural sugar in the grape juice into alcohol.  With white wines, some residual sugar usually remains in the wine, while reds are usually fermented until all the sugar is turned to alcohol.  Now you transfer the wine into storage containers; either stainless steel tanks or oak barrels.  White wines may or may not spend time in oak depending on the winemakers preference.  Red wines will age for as little as 4 months to several years. Wines are then filtered and bottled.  So, there you go. Easy, right?

Well, as we have all experienced, some wines are better than others. And some are just plain not drinkable. I know of people who have taken part in a local winery's winemaking experience.  They got to pick the grapes, do the crush, ferment the juice and bottle it, compete with a custom label!  It was a very exciting and educational experience. Unfortunately, the wine wasn't any good.

So, if you think wine making is hard, it's not.  But making good wine is hard.  Next time you get to thinking that maybe you'll try your hand at wine making, open a good bottle, pour yourself a glass and do some serious thinking.  Cheers!

Leather in Your Wine?

You may have read about a wine, or checked the back label, or heard people speak of wines with flavors of apple, grapefruit, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.  Or, leather, tobacco, chocolate, and coffee. Or my all-time favorite, from the back label of a bottle of red wine, "fresh road tar."  

So, you may be asking yourself "Do they really put those things in my wine?"  The answer is simple -- No.  Wine is made from grapes and grapes alone.  But how can a wine have a flavor like leather?  Well, it comes from many things including the type of grape used to make the wine, the soil the grapes were grown in, and the type of vessel the wine is aged in.

The growing environment for wine grapes is often referred to as the 'terrior' (pronounced Te-war) which is a term describing the interaction of soil, climate, topography and grape variety in a specific site. The word is derived from the French word for earth, "terre."  As the grape grows on the vine, it is drawing up minerals from the soil that it's growing in. And, these minerals can give wines distinctive flavors.

Also, the type of vessel that wine is aged in can significantly contribute to additional flavors. French oak is used in both white wines and red wines. Along with the natural flavors that come from the wood, the oak barrels are 'toasted' by literally heating the inside of the barrel with an open flame to a generate the desired level of char on the wood.

In white wines, an oak barrel can impart flavors of vanilla, butterscotch, caramel or burnt sugar. In reds, the oak gives flavors of smoke, tobacco, leather and chocolate.  On the other hand, stainless steel tanks allow the fruit flavors to shine through without adding additional flavors that come along with oak barrels. And, concrete tanks are also being used. The concrete actually “breathes” much like oak, but leaves no flavor behind.

So, rest assured that your bottle of wine does not have leather, tobacco or fresh road tar added to it.  But, these subtile flavors that come from the grapes, the soils and the aging vessels certainly add wonderful nuances to a bottle of wine.  Cheers!