Iron Horse Blog
“Many wine terms that are thrown around in the industry do cause some significant consternation.” This was how my discussion began with wine industry expert Andrew McNamara, The Director of Fine Wine / Master Sommelier at Breakthru Beverage Florida. That seems to be an understatement after reviewing a flood of recent to not-so-recent articles about the failed mainstream command of industry verbiage.
If prose doesn’t crystalize the “winespeak” issue for you, there are a host of somm cartoonists who have created visual satires. We’ll share a few of Maryse Chevriere’s most popular works in this blog via her inspired instagram account: @freshcutgardenhose.
The growing conflict is driven by the fact that the wine experience has become more casual, but at the same time the related language has failed to evolve along with it. With the consumer at the intersection of this disconnect, we dove into the roots of the seemingly impossible with some Iron Horse friends and experts.
When you conduct a quick search, you’ll find wine publications and mainstream periodicals alike reporting on a language breakdown along with countless “insider guides” trying to bring clarity. For example, The Drinks Business conducted a survey at the end of last year which revealed the top ten wine terms that customers are least likely to misunderstand when deciding which wines to buy. One in three don’t understand what “tart” means as a descriptor. Just 23% of people polled understood the term “terrior” and only 20% of drinkers could define “legs.”
The result is that 25% of wine drinkers found shopping for wine to be intimidating; a nightmare for the wine business. Andrew told me, “Niche terms certainly make wine less approachable than it should be. So the role of the wine expert is to make things as simple as possible.” But he also noted that it helps for consumers to get themselves into the right learning environment. It’s key to be able to pair learning about the term while actually tasting a wine with those specific characteristics.
In The Drink’s Business article “Top Misunderstood Wine Terms Revealed” their expert explains, “People want to learn more about wine and discover new tastes without being confused or awkward when buying it or talking about it with their friends.” However in order to do this, we are saddled with a limited (and some argue antiquated) lexicon including words like “herbaceous, unctuous, and quaffable” (source). Master Sommelier, Lindsey Whipple, shared real word instances where customers grasped for their own termss to describe a sensory experience. She had one man try to describe “dry”by employing the word “wet” -- justifying his choice by describing a wine that made his mouth sweat.
In an effort to decode the “jargon”, Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague recently published “An Insider’s Guide to Weird Wine Words.” Her mission was to help bridge the gap between oenophiles and non-pros. Her guide includes words like creamy, dumb, foxy, lifted, reduced, and volatile. For now, it seems that quite a bit of effort is directed at translating rather than socializing new descriptors with greater mass appeal.
In addition to leveraging these existing language guides, expert Andrew McNamara pointed out that blossoming wine lovers should be patient. “We spend decades going through school, but how many classes did we take on how to taste or smell. We didn’t pay any attention to it! So to go into wine and expect to understand it intuitively is naive. Understanding your senses takes time and practice.” Of course, with wine, the practice part is fun!
It seems that times may be a-changing. In fact, Lindsey Whipple regularly experiences signs of consumers pushing back on tradition and coming up with their own verbiage. Working in Las Vegas, an international dining hub, she’s in a unique position to engage with new lingo auditioning for the mainstream. She hears people refer to wine as “slutty”, when a drink is very open and out there, showing itself as a heavy hitter. Or she is told to bring a “baller wine” which conveys a desire for an instagram worthy showstopper. “Guests are definitely not using brash terms like ‘Magnum Night’ in San Francisco or New York, so there is also a regional component to this,” said Lindsey. But who’s to say they are not as or more helpful than words like hollow or vegetal?
It should be noted that both Andrew and Lindsey voted the term “legs” off the wine island.. Both citing the fact that few know (or think they know) what this refers to, so the meaning has become universally diluted. And Lindsey herself offered up a word to the “common core” - to be quickly rejected. At a blind tasting with “old guard” master somms, she referred to gewurztraminer as “hooker perfume”, which based on the reactions of her colleagues might have to wait for the next generation….
It has become my tradition to write a "State of the Winery" letter ... timed to the President's State of the Union (January 12) and Governor Brown's State of the State (January 21). The tradition commences with an enumeration of accomplishments:
The great success of Summit Cuvee, commemorating the unprecedented free climb of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan almost a year ago to the day.
Jerry Brown speaking at our Earth Day event.
The honor of Iron Horse being served for the toast at the State Department luncheon sealing a milestone climate agreement between the US and China in September.
These were some of our finest moments:
Never missing an opportunity to celebrate, I am very excited to announce the release of a special, one-time only bubbly called Cuvee 50, timed for the Super Bowl.
But, least you think this wine is just a label, I recommend you come to the Tasting Room and try it. The blend is 69% Chard, 31% Pinot Noir estate grown in Green Valley, vintage 2010, freshly disgorged after four plus years aging and finished with a unique dosage. This is an outstanding bubbly, brut level dry, which we feel is a must-bring to the Super Bowl parties you will be attending from now through February 7.
Insider tip: Like all of our limited production wines, Cuvee 50 first went out to our wine club members.
I am extremely proud Sonoma County is the wine destination partner for The Super Bowl. Our wines are being featured in the Sonoma Wine Lounge on Tuesday Feb 2 and Saturday Feb 6, promising a perfect opportunity to be at the heart of Super Bowl City sipping Iron Horse.
So, this is how we are kicking off the New Year ... along with rain, which is most welcome. After our rain dance we do our happy dance!
The storms have been fairly manageable. Only a few days of flooding here and there. Those days, can be a little challenging when the bridge is flooded ... like today. There's a plastic box nailed to the fence at the entrance with a map of how to come around the back. Please enjoy the adventure of a small detour. You will have earned a sip of wine when you arrive at the Tasting Bar.
Being flooded is nothing new to my parents who amazingly are celebrating the 40th anniversary of when they purchased Iron Horse. We plan to celebrate July Fourth Weekend because of the obvious tie between 1976 and 1776 ... with the added fun that the original Victorian, my parents' home at the heart of the property, was built in 1876. So, there's a theme and a certain kismet that we celebrated the official opening of the winery on my father's 50th birthday and the 40th anniversary of them finding this special place in the year of my mother's 85th.
2016 also happens to be Winemaker David Munksgard's 20th anniversary at Iron Horse. We are going to have a cellar gathering on the actual anniversary of his first day here, but most exciting and impressive and gratifying to me is listening to David enthuse about the new base wines he is putting together for the 2015 Sparklings, which he says are stunning and our finest to date.
How lucky are we that it never grows old.
Happy 2016! The New Year comes with shiny new resolutions for many of us to improve body, mind, and spirit. Here’s one that covers all the bases - drinking more Iron Horse! Whether it’s red, white or bubbles, the latest scientific research points to a myriad of positive health benefits. We’ve catalogued the findings that will empower you to live your best year yet.
Let’s not forget that mankind has been making and drinking wine since 6000 B.C. Ancient Egyptians employed wine as medicine. Roman cities boasted wine bars on every street. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was prescribing red wine to aid digestion in 400 B.C. Fast forward to the 1850s and find our great grand parents choosing wine over water, citing alcohol’s ability to kill bacteria.
In the last 30 years, the French have led the charge for daily wine intake (not surprising!). Their scientists were responsible for directing the current discourse related to wine’s healthy attributes. They found that red wine could prevent heart disease while increasing levels of good cholesterol and antioxidants. Danish scientists then backed this up with studies that suggested moderate red wine drinking correlated to a lower death rate, a claim strengthened by the 2003 discovery of resveratrol (source). From this point on, the body of research pointing to positive health effects of moderate wine drinking has only grown.
Today, red wine’s resveratrol still has everyone talking, especially as some say it can extend the human lifespan by 30% (source). No wonder wine industry experts point to a consistent growth line in the red wine sales category globally! Red wine’s all star component could also help prevent dying from Alzheimer’s disease, according to a Copenhagen study (source). Other reports show that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a decreased risk of colon and kidney cancer along with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (source). And red wine tannins have been associated with heart disease prevention (source). All that with one glass a day? This could be your best resolution ever!
Bubbles should not be forgotten…. especially because recent studies suggest that a glass of bubbly could help prevent memory loss. This includes possible prevention of degenerative brain disorders like dementia. The pinot noir grapes used to create sparkling wine support proteins in the brain which are linked to storing memories. While they diminish naturally as your age, drinking sparkling apparently slows or prevents this process, while improving spatial memory (source).
Of course, all of the doctors and scientists are clear about drinking in moderation. Like any medicine, alcohol can be a tonic if dosed properly. How lucky to produce a natural panacea which has the power to promote longevity and boost memory. And, so every day, we are happy to raise a glass .... to good health … and to good cheer, which may be the best medicine of all!
We were dreaming of a green Christmas this year and we got it. Thank you Santa! A near average amount of rain, bringing the hills back to life.
Even more importantly, we have snowpack to the Sierras.
The Sierra Nevada Snowpack currently stands at 105% of normal - the first time above average since 2012.
This is a remarkable milestone in a state where snow was virtually absent even at the highest elevations well into February last winter, and has been consistently far below average for four consecutive years. The early season storms in NorCal have been cold ones, creating a very healthy accumulation of snow across even in the middle elevation.
Think back to April 1 when Jerry Brown at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, walking across dry grass, announced the first ever mandatory water cutbacks of 25%. The Governors of California have trekked to that spot for 65 years and this was the first time there was no snow.
Snowpack contributes about 30 percent of California's water supply. This season’s first measurement was last Wednesday, December 30. The next will be April 1.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we recorded about seven inches of rain in December. The hills have greened-up. There’s water running down the creek.
We actually had flooding for two days, closing off the main entrance to the winery. All visitors, tasters, workers, the office, tasting room team, FedEx trucks had to go around the back way – a solid 30 minute detour, two days before Christmas. It was hard not to complain. We need the water. And it is amazing how many intrepid tasters there are.
The week leading up to New Year’s was old and dry with blue skies, puffy grey clouds and sometimes rainbows in our view.
We started pruning mid-month. We are pruning as if the drought will continue, deciding to err of the side of caution, though it means lowering our sights again in terms of crop sisze. The vineyard teams were given golf pencils with instructions that only shoots bigger than the pencil could be pruned down to two buds (meaning two shoots per position), anything smaller, would be pruned to one bud.
We are hoping for nice, steady, but not overwhelming rain in January. More specifically, we’d like for the storms to unfold with ideally a two-day lull between each one to allow the water to seep into the ground and not just rush off down the creek to the Ocean, please.
Wish for a good El Nino!
Happy Winter Solstice! The official start of winter. Meteorologists consider December 1 as the first day of winter, but the season's celestial start is tonight.
Though the entire day is "observed", solstice occurs at a specific time - the same time everywhere on Earth when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun.
It is the shortest day of the year ... and the longest night.
This certainly deserves a toast!
Winter Solstice as a celebration goes back millennia. The most famous at Stonehenge, seemingly built for this specific astrological event as the stones are aligned on a sight-line that points directly to the winter solstice sunset.
Ancient Romans celebrated with the Feast of Saturnalia - a festival that lasted seven days with banquets honoring Saturn, father of the gods. These Saturnalian banquets were held as far back at 217 BCE.
Pre-Christian Scandinavia celebrated the winter solstice with the Feast of Juul and the burning of a log, which became the traditional Yule log.
A perfect way to celebrate tonight is by cozying up with a wood burning fire (or lots of candles) and a glass or two of bubbly.
It is also a perfect occasion to say thank you for your role in making this such a gratifying year for us. Please know that we are toasting you and send our warmest wishes.
‘Tis the season for gift guides, discount codes (insider tip: use code HOLLY for $10 shipping valid through 12/15 on three or more bottles) and predictions for the year ahead.
I know it’s hard to believe, but 2016 is coming on fast. As a winery deeply rooted in our home place, we generally operate outside the trendy category, striving for classic, true to our vineyards, always in style, elegance and balance. But it is exciting to get a glimpse into the data based forecasts for where our cohorts are headed and we are tickled to find ourselves “ahead of the curve."
Since we’re in the gift-giving mood, we’ve rounded up some of the stand out themes from our future gazing friends.
One such visionary is Kimberly Charles, founder of Charles Communications Associates, who provides perspective on volume (bookmark Kimblery's blog for access to her extremely valuable insights at All the Swirl). In our data focused chat, Kimberly explains that global wine consumption is up 5.3% and she estimates we’ll enjoy 35 billion bottles in 2016. Yes that’s billion with a b … with plenty of room to continue growing in the U.S (more on that growth here). This is where the Millennials come in. They grew up watching their parents drink wine, see it as a daily pleasure, and according to a report from Canadian Investment Bank RBC Capital Markets, Millennials want premium bottles.
Trend spotter Andrew Freeman of AF & Co proclaims in his 2016 Trends Report that consumers are enjoying a case of “multiple personality disorder.” In other words, we want the best of all worlds. We participate in wellness movements favoring moderation, then swing to indulgent experiences, sometimes in just a matter of hours.
Here are some trends to watch for in 2016 in the Food World:
Vegetables are the hero, especially amongst Millennials. People want less animal protein and support veggies as a “center of the plate component.”
Hawaiian is the cuisine du-jour. It’s the latest regional “New American” food in the spotlight.
The spicier, the better! Even desserts are getting the fiery treatment as data shows that embracing the heat is not only delicious, but healthy.
Table service at upscale restaurants livens up in a response to a Millennial demand to be entertained and get a peek at what’s happening behind the scenes. Chefs themselves are getting in on the action upping the ante on engaging experiences.
Brunch becomes a main event. Even health nuts are relishing the opportunity to throw caution to the wind once a week during brunch, indulging in the carb heavy, over the top feast.
Now for the Beverage World:
Bubbles mania reigns. But we knew that! Sparkling Wine has captured the imagination of the public beyond celebrating special occasions. The growth of bubbles dwarfs that of still wines (see image). Restaurants are embracing this trend with expanded offerings. As Kimberly Charles declares, “There’s is a virality to hearing the pop of a cork, you want to be part of it.” We certainly agree! According to consumer products analyst Nik Modi at RBC Capital Markets, the rise in Sparkng Wine sales dwarfs still wine sales.
Note: In economists' terms, C0nsumer Value = the ratio of product price to product benefit
Stylistically, white wines are showing more restraint - lower alcohols, less oak, brighter acidity - a trend that’s part of our core values at Iron Horse.
Chardonnay is America’s #1 selling varietal, showing double digit growth. Even traditional red wine drinkers are exploring more white wines.
Coffee gets a modern makeover. New techniques and flavors create balanced and “treatful” beverages.
Instagram worthy embellished cocktails dominate. Think gold dusted flowers, sugar stirrers, designer straws, even perfectly smoked pork belly pieces. Andrew Freeman posed the very apropo question, “If we don’t Instagram it -- did it even happen?” (By the way, we’re on Instagram @IronHorseVyds)
The Bloody Mary is having a moment. Could there be a better way to recover after a late night sampling of our “Brilliant Bubbles Collection”? We don’t think so! And none are more delicious than Diane’s Bloody Marys featured at Michael Mina’s Tailgate at Levi Stadium (mentioned on recent our Star Chef Spotlight in Michael Mina).
As we take stock of a fantastic year at Iron Horse, and give thanks for your great support and friendship, we are already looking forward to a new year of success and innovation in our continued pursuit of toast-worthy excellence.
We’d love to hear your delicious predictions for 2016. Chime in on social media and in the comments below!
Last month, we started a recurring blog series of dispatches from our Iron Horse Winemaker David Munksgard who thoughtfully selects his favorite bottles for the special circle of friends and fans in his “Winemaker’s Choice Club”. We’re excited to share his December wine recommendations, perfectly timed as we dance into the holidays. Find out what our winemaker is drinking and thinking as we get a sparkling start to Christmas and New Year celebrations!
The final 2015 Winemakers Selection of the year includes the 2010 Cuvee M (sorry to say we’re now sold out … just another reason to join the club, so you don’t miss out in the future) and the 2012 Estate Pinot Noir.
2010 Cuvee M is made entirely from a single vineyard block called Block M, planted to Stony Hill Clone of Chardonnay. This wine has great meaning to me on a very personal level. In the winter of 1974, I was visiting my father-in-law in Napa. He arranged for a visit to Stony Hill Winery in the hills above Napa Valley. On that chilly, foggy, rainy day we were greeted by Stony Hill Winemaker Mike Chelini. This was my very first visit to a winery and Mike took his time and explained things in such a way as to not intimidate anyone. Heck, he even taught me how to swirl a glass of wine. We climbed on barrel stacks, tasting from them with a glass wine thief. That first winery experience could not have been better. And I fell in love with that specific clone of Chardonnay.
Twenty-two years later, I arrived at Iron Horse to be their new winemaker. I quickly learned that they had two blocks planted to the Stony Hill Clone; one was Block M. In 2010, I decided to pick block M early and use it for bubbly. The wine from this picking was so stunningly unique, it screamed to be bottled on its own.
Soon after, both blocks of Stony Hill were pulled out due to old age and replanted to Pinot Noir. Though I lost the vineyards of Stony Hill Clone, I still had the wine in time capsule fashion.
Stony Hill Clone to me has always been a benchmark, displaying lean citrus elements along with a signature of wet stone minerality. This is the only vintage we made of this wine. Total production was a mere 200 cases. Ready to impress now, this rarity will continue to gain in complexity well over the next eight to ten years with proper storage.
The 2012 Estate Pinot Noir is the still wine I chose for the December Club shipment. This wine’s evolution has been fun to follow as it continues to gain complexity and supple structure. Enjoy with your holiday meals or stash it away for three to five more years to enjoy those dried rose petal and herbal tones that bottle age brings.
All my very best wishes,
We’re starting a monthly blog series of dispatches from our Iron Horse Winemaker David Munksgard who thoughtfully selects his favorite bottles for the uniquely fanatical wine club members in his “Winemaker’s Choice Club”. We’re excited to share his November wine recommendations, perfectly timed as much of the country is already bundling up for winter. Find out what our winemaker is drinking and thinking as we get a propitious start to Thanksgiving celebrations with the full moon on the 25th!
For the November 2015 Winemaker’s Selection I’ve chosen a Sparkler and a Pinot Noir.
The bubbly is the 2011 Winter’s Cuvee. As I write, much of the country has received an early start to winter. The Northeast has just received its first snowfall, in some places, while the fall colors were still at their peak. The pictures I saw on the Weather Channel were amazing.
Winter’s Cuvee is my vision of the perfect bubbly for cold weather sipping. The dosage for the 2011 Winter’s Cuvee is unique. In order to give it a bit more of an aged tone, I made a sugar-wine syrup from 1980 Blanc de Blanc that was just disgorged off its fermentation lees (yeast). That along with a bit of estate 1987 Pinot Noir brandy gives this wine a toasty, yeasty creaminess that lingers deliciously in your mouth. Winter’s Cuvee sells out very quickly every year. If you plan on doing any holiday celebrating that involves bubbly, you might want to place your orders for extra ASAP. The drinking window on this wine is from now for the next two years, if properly stored.
The still Pinot Noir in this shipment is the 2013 North Block. Comprised solely of the Calera Clone, this wine displays a bright red fruit focus that is extraordinary for a wine this young. Supple and brimming with ripe flavors, every sip demands yet another. Drinking window on this wine is now to the next four to five years (possibly much longer), again, if properly stored. I’m going to be enjoying some this winter, and then age the remainder for three years and try it again.
All my very best,
Thirty years ago this month (November 19th), Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva, Switzerland for their first Summit Meeting. All of the historians agree that the two superpowers were poles apart until that moment when they clinked glasses with Iron Horse. It was amazing how quickly their relationship evolved. And for all these years, my family has taken complete credit for ending the Cold War.
The Reagans hosted the Gorbachevs for dinner at Maison Saussure, a grey stone 18th century chateau on a 20 acre park about three miles from Geneva and just a few yards away from the lake. It was the residence of the Aga Kahn, who vacated it for the President and Mrs. Reagan. The dinner was private. It started around 8 p.m. and was reportedly limited to just 16 people.
Recorded in the National Security Archive, the toasts which are now de-classified and available online, became the basis for the joint statement released the next day. Both sides emphasized that the Geneva meeting started something that would lead them to more significant steps in improving bilateral relations and the global situation, "with mutual understanding and a sense of responsibility,” putting into text that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. See Document 24: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 20, 1985, 8:00-10:30 p.m. Dinner Hosted by President and Mrs. Reagan.
Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz wrote in his memoire, “Nancy Reagan had orchestrated a wonderful dinner that night at Maison de Saussure. Both Reagan and Gorbachev were relaxed. They spoke with warmth in their toasts at the dinner table, and the toasts had real content. We then moved into the library for coffee.”
“Arrangements for the next day were not at all settled. There would be a final ceremonial meeting at the International Press Center. The agreed statement, I thought, would shape up satisfactorily. But what would the leaders do? I said to the president and Gorbachev , ‘You can't just sit there while a statement is being presented. You are the leaders. You each must say something.’ I sensed reluctance. Each was hesitant, I surmised, to risk being seen on worldwide television while the other might level criticism. Agree to speak for three minutes each, along the lines of the toasts you gave at dinner,’ I urged. They both knew they should speak, and each was looking for a little reassurance from the other.”
Jack F. Matlock Jr. wrote in Reagan and Gorbachev, “Including private dinners [in the summit program] was built on the idea that the two leaders must not only respect each other but also like each other to accomplish [peace between the United States and Soviet Union]. It was also a signal to the bureaucracy that it was okay to be friends with the other side. We wanted to create an environment where representatives from the two sides could speak privately if we thought we had a problem rather than going to the press and having a big brouhaha. It helped reduce tensions, ultimately. Being friendly personally does not achieve everything, but it becomes a lot harder to achieve your common goals if you’re not being friendly.”
Matlock was the White House's senior coordinator of policy toward the Soviet Union and the one who rehearsed with Reagan prior to the Geneva Summit, playing the role of Gorbachev. He later became Ambassador to Moscow.
Iron Horse was chosen for this historic event by a Sacramento wine merchant named David Berkley, who knew the Reagans from their days in the Governor’s Mansion. David became the unpaid, unsung wine advisor to the White House, consulting with the Social Secretary, the Chief Usher and the chef to pick wines to match a particular occasion, diplomatic goal and the richness of a sauce.
He recommended Iron Horse because of the quality of our wine (of course!), but also because it was perfectly “themed.” The Reagan Administration paid as much attention to the “optics” as they did the issues and we fit in as an American winery, rooted in the town of Sebastopol, near the Russian River.
At the time, we were told that the wine selection had to be signed off by every member of Cabinet because it was considered such a high level diplomatic decision. And, for security reasons we were asked to ship the cases in unmarked boxes to Andrews Air Force Base.
I have always felt, though this is pure conjecture, that they chose our Blanc de Blancs because Ronald Reagan liked to wear the white hat.
The vintage served was 1983 when our first vintage of Sparkling was 1980. We were still so young. And this truly put us on the map.
It is noteworthy that the second Summit in Reykjavik, Iceland was declared a setback both by media of the day and historians … perhaps because Iron Horse was not deployed? But Iron Horse was brought back into play as the toasting wine at the State Dinner at the White House in 1987, which lead to the signing of the INF Treaty.
We now produce about 1,000 cases of Russian Cuvee a year commemorating what Time Magazine called one of the ten most significant events of the 20th century. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Geneva Summit, we are releasing for the first time, magnums of our Russian Cuvee and our Blanc de Blancs – only 40 cases are available of each.
Some people have suggested the way things are going today, we need to get back into the business of diplomacy with Russia. It does seem there are lessons to be learned from the Geneva Summit in terms of reestablishing contact after a period of tense relations between two world powers.
Here’s a toast to getting Russia to the table again … with a glass.
Bubbles in Sparkling Wine are not just pretty, little nothings. They work harder than you think.
For one thing, they are not empty. The bubbles deliver hundreds of molecules to the top of the glass. When they explode on the surface, they deliver the aromas & flavors which make top quality Sparkling a truly delicious wine.
Creating bubbles is the littlest trick of nature. This begins at Iron Horse Vineyards by hand harvesting the fruit, gently pressing the grapes. We then ferment the juice completely dry, making a gorgeous blend and ultimately bottle it as a low alcohol base wine … adding a precise amount of sugar and yeast.
The sugar triggers the secondary fermentation, bumping up the alcohol by about a point. One of the natural by-products of fermentation is the creation of carbon dioxide (Co2), which normally escapes from the barrel or the tank, but for bubbly we trap it in the bottle with a crown cap, forcing the gas to dissolve into the wine creating … ta da … bubbles.
More than 600 chemical compounds join the carbon dioxide - each lending its own unique aroma and flavor quality.
The magic is in how long we age the wine on the yeast in the bottle. The longer we age it en tirage, the smaller the bubbles and the greater the finesse on the wine.
A perfect example is our 2000 Brut LD, aged for 14 years and disgorged just last month.
The yeast cells feed on the nutrients in the wine. As they become saturated, they start to die off giving back to the wine a rich, creamy texture through a chemical progress (autolysis), much like stirring the lees of Chardonnay in the barrel.
You can see the difference just holding the glass to the light. Big bubbles are called “frog's eyes”. Not a compliment!
You can also feel the difference. The longer the wine is aged on the yeast, the more integrated the bubbles, the smoother the texture, the more elegant the “mouth feel.”
As the yeast cells break down, they emit amino or fatty acids that coat the bubbles, so that when they launch off the bottom of your glass, they don’t glom together. Instead they stay separate and travel up to the surface in streams of tiny, diffuse, gas-filled spheres.
As the bubbles ascend the length of a glass in tiny trails, they drag along the molecules of aroma and flavors which explode out of the surface.
When they burst, they release enough energy to create tiny auditory shock waves; the fizzing sound is a chorus of hundreds of individual bubbles bursting every second.
With each sip, the bubbles excite special receptors on the tongue contributing to that tingling feeling that makes bubbly so seductive.
The bubbles also serve to retain the acidity of the wine. A flat bottle will taste too sweet and out of balance.
The collapse of bubbles at the surface is even more exciting under a microscope.
According to Gerard Liger-Belair, a physicist at the University of Reims in Champagne (of course), bubbles collapsing close to each other produce unexpected lovely flower-shaped structures unfortunately completely invisible to the naked eye.
“This is a fantastic example of the beauty hidden right under our nose.” (Source: Uncorked: The Science of Champagne, published by Princeton University Press.)
British physicist, oceanographer and Champagne aficionado Helen Czerski, explains that bubble dynamics of Sparkling Wine are the same as in the ocean, but with greater consequence. Bubbly can change our mood, but the bubbles in the ocean affect climate.
"Bubbles are little packets of gases that rise or fall as if they're on little conveyor belts," she says. They carry carbon dioxide and oxygen from the atmosphere down into the ocean, and then when they go back up again they pop and sulfur compounds from marine plants are sent upward, forming particles in the air that lead to the formation of clouds."
Czerski is studying how to detect and count ocean bubbles of different sizes to help scientists in other disciplines create more accurate models. She said that scientists have found it difficult to judge the effect of bubbles on their data for years and usually have had to add a "fudge factor" to account for them.
"For instance, bubbles ring like bells when they are formed or when sound waves go past them, and if you're studying sounds traveling through the ocean -- like sounds from whales or sonar -- bubbles can get in the way of what you're trying to listen for,"
And she adds, “A good way of getting people to enjoy my lectures on bubbles is to give them a glass of Champagne.”
Her favorite “parlor trick” is to drop a few raisins into the fizz. The raisins sink to the bottom of the glass, before being lifted back to the surface by the bubbles, which then burst, sending the raisins back down again.
So, what’s the best way to pour a glass of bubbly and maximize the sensory experience? A study published in the American Chemical Society Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry answers that question. Pouring on an angle preserves twice the carbon dioxide bubbles compared to pouring down the middle of the glass.
More scintillating sparkling facts:
Never underestimate the force of a flying cork. The warmer the bubbly, the more the pressure builds and the faster the cork flies when you pop it open, clocked at up to 30 mph.
The magnum is the optimum size for bubbly because the larger bottle retains more CO2 in the wine as it is being poured.
The white wisp of mist rising from a just-popped bottle is not carbon dioxide. That's a fog of ethanol and water vapor, triggered by the sudden drop in gas temperature when the pressure is released. (adiabatic expansion)
No need to swirl a glass of Bubbly, in fact it is frowned upon. The bubbles are already releasing the aromas and flavors. Swirling just knocks down the bubbles we work so hard to achieve.
Now let's talk about glassware.
The old fashioned flat coupe ( like the ones my parents drank from at their wedding) has a very slow bubble engine because the bubbles don't get to rise very far. Flavour is delivered to the air gradually, but escapes from the space above the glass very quickly.
The tall thin flute has a very powerful bubble engine, delivering lots of flavour very quickly, and spitting lots of fizz upwards.
Some sommeliers like to serve champagne in white wine glasses because flutes "stifle the flavour".
The Riedel glassmakers have taken it a step further with their new “Champagne Wine Glass.” President, CEO, & 11th generation glassmaker Maximilian Riedel says “the larger rim diameter enables the aromas of the Champagne to be released” and complexity to develop.
I had the honor of conducting an impromptu experiment with George Riedel, Maximilian’s father, several years ago in Healdsburg. We tasted Iron Horse vintage Blanc de Blancs side by side in a flute and a Burgundy glass. In the flute, the Bubbly was bright and vibrant. In the other glass, it seemed older, softer.
Next time, I hope to try it in a glass slipper.