Monday, July 26, 2010

4 Questions with Georgeta Perhald, Sommelier at Rocca delle Macíe

From the Current History of Chianti Department

"Merlot and Cabernet rounded out the crazy Mediterranean character, the Tuscan character, to make it easier to understand, but there’s nothing easier than taking off that 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon." ---Georgeta Perhald (Above)

Mattie Bamman: There are a lot of rules that govern how Chianti is made. How do you keep it unique for yourself?

Georgeta Perhald: The most strategic thing starts in the vineyard: The way that you cultivate the grapes. For example, the harvest is done by hand (at Rocca delle Macíe), but everything starts from the soil. Nice and healthy grapes, with healthy sugars and tannins, come from good soil, and this is something that we didn’t have in the past. Because in Chianti---nobody talks about this---what Chianti was in the past is not what it is today. Why? Over production. Then many of the producers realized that reducing the yield would raise the quality. That was a strategy that did not change the identity of the wine, but made it better.

Sangiovese was the most important grape as it still is today. However, producers began to add a little of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Why?

MB: International palates and markets?

Georgeta Perhald: Not only, in my opinion. I have my own private theory. The Tuscan guy, who was living in the Tuscan countryside 50 years ago. The guy who made the fiasco, the straw basket bottles of Chianti--- Do you know the story?

MB: I know that Chianti wine bottles were often bought in the 70s solely to be used as candleholders....

Georgeta Perhald: A fiasco is a catastrophic thing, right? The legend goes that one day, the guy who made the bottles for the producers of Chianti was too drunk on Chianti and he blew the glass too much and made bottles with a round base so they couldn't stand up. He said to his wife: Hey Maria, I made a fiasco! But she used her ingenuity to solve the problem---adding the straw base. I think this is very telling example of the people in Chianti.

MB: Sometimes accidents are the best way forward.

Georgeta Perhald: Anyway, Merlot and Cabernet were introduced, but the Italians did not want to change the story of the Chianti, they wanted to make it better. They corrected it---not to change it---but because everything changes. Our habits, our lives change. The man who made the fiasco didn’t wake up in the morning and brush his teeth using a paste that comes in 50 flavors---banana, strawberry or mint. He didn’t use aftershave or chew a piece of chewing gum. He didn’t have pasteurized milk. And he ate tomatoes with only a little salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Today, we don’t eat those tomatoes, we eat ketchup. This is a sauce of tomatoes, only it is enriched with sugar. So how can we now propose to the people a wine made of 100% Sangiovese that uses grapes grown in high yields? People’s palates are more sophisticated today. We didn’t change the story, we only made the wine better. Using a little Merlot brings a little sweetness from the glycerin and rounds out the tannins of the Sangiovese---its testadura. Today, the guy who made the fiasco has a car, has a cell phone, eats Parmesan cheese every day because it is available on the market; he can eat prosciutto everyday that is seasoned 12 months; he can eat much richer food than the soup he used to eat. And the soup was perfect with that light Chianti; the guy who was working hard in the fields all day could even drink two fiascos a day! Now, with five glasses of wine that are 14% alcohol you don’t do any work. You can't drive.

Things are still changing. Now I have customers asking for 100% Sangiovese. Merlot and Cabernet rounded out the crazy Mediterranean character, the Tuscan character, to make it easier to understand, but there’s nothing easier than taking off that 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon.

MB: Do you think the use of barrique (French-oak barrels) destroys the identity of Chianti?

Georgeta Perhald: Using oak to age Sangiovese doesn’t change Chianti completely, it makes it smoother. The tannin from the French oak, the phenolic tannin, which is part of the wood, along with the cellulose, the glucosium, etc. that compose the wood and are able to be imparted into the wine---these things are doing the same thing as me. I’m putting a coat on and I’m going outside. If it’s cold I can stay out all day without being cold. If the wine is aged in oak, it can face bottle aging for one or two years more than it used to. I’m protecting myself with something natural. If I want a simple or an elaborate jacket is completely my choice.

Here at Rocca delle Macíe, we try to speak a language that others can understand. Our wines never have more than a short aging so that they never take too much oak. Only enough oak for micro-oxygenation, which allows the polymerization of the tannin, which equals more time in the bottle and also which gives the wine more smoothness.

This is all possible because the producers making the wine have these tools. So that is the most important message that many producers of Chianti want to give to the people: Tools, if they are used with brain, heart, and history, can help you represent your country. Some put wood chips in their wine. That is another story. That is changing the story.

MB: Recently I heard a winemaker say that Wine Spectator has something against Chianti, because it never seems to rise above the 91-point mark. Do you think that the rules for making Chianti are restrictive?

Georgeta Perhald: You know... I’m not a politician. I’m not an owner of a company, so my opinion is that of a consumer. I think that Chianti is a great, civilized step from doing something very poor to doing something very important. And that was not black magic. It was not a mafia business move. It was only the hard work of people who understood that hard work and good rules force people to make wine in the correct way, without cheating or using underhanded practices. The organization that makes the rules is not very democratic. It is strict. But it preserves something very important. It helped the product come forth from the misery of that time in the past, and I think that if every part of Italy did this, that Italy would become a paradise. I wish that the people who say how Chianti should be made could do politics. The amount of change that took place in Chianti, without any revolt, any war, and deaths, is amazing. To make something out of nothing.

I like Wine Spectator. I read is sometimes, and it is a very prestigious. It is particularly useful for people who want to learn about wine, even if it is sometimes exaggerated. Compared with Robert Parker, I think it is a tool that you can use to understand different cultures and their wines. The way in which it is written is easier to understand. They take into consideration wines that have both a famous name and real identity. Their judgments, in my opinions, are often the right ones and--- What does the word spectator mean?

MB: A person who watches or observes.

Georgeta Perhald: Right. And, when we were looking at art a moment ago, how many things did I see in that painting? And probably, I am the only one. It is only my interpretation. But, the way that you appreciate a wine, if you taste 100 wines and your interpretation is right 85% of the time, well, then you are a good spectator.

In my next post you'll find the perspective of the Man who Made the Fiasco.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Top 5 Rosés from Puglia

After living in Puglia for a year and a half, I'm ready to compile a list of the top five rosés from Puglia. These wines are world-class, yet easy on the wallet. I recently picked up a Wine Spectator Magazine with a feature on rosé. I expected to see Puglia's offering represented, but the magazine only covered French and American rosés. I'm not well versed in French rosé (something I'm seeking to remedy today with bottles of Pineau d'Aunis by Les Vignerons du Vendomois and Cuvée des Vieilles Vignes by Domaine Le Grand Rouviére)---does anyone have any guesses why Italy's rosés weren't acknowledged?

Personally, I can't stand sweet rosé, so don't expect any strawberry-yogurt noses. Dry rosés are capable of having as much character! As much so as some Pinot Noirs and certainly as much as Beaujolias wines (I know, I know, everyone wine is unique unto itself, but, speaking generally, I think there are similarities). With that in mind, here are the top 5 best rosés from Puglia:

Top 5 Rosés from Puglia
(in order)

1. "Mjere" Rosato by Michele Caló & Figli Winery
2. "65 Anniversity Five Roses" Rosato by Leone de Castris Winery
3. "Scirocco" Rosato by Pirro Varone Winery
4. "Santimendici" Rosato by Castel di Salve Winery
5. "Salento Rosato" by Cantele Winery

All of these rosés feature the native Negroamaro grape, which, I think, offers the best example of Puglia's terroir. Apollonio Winery's Diciotto Fanali, one of the most unique wines I've ever drunk, is not included here. While it is one of my favorite wines in the world, it does not fit the "normal" concept of rosé. If you want to hear more about it, check out the television interview I did for Vino24.

Finding Puglia in American

My sister works at Sportello Bakery and Restaurant in Boston, and I visited her the other day. She's a brave woman, my sister. She's cut loose from a high-paying career in advertising to do what she loves: working with food and people. The manager of the Sportello Bakery, she cut a classic image standing beside the bakery counter. And man, that blueberry polenta cake was awesome!

After purusing the wine list, I found several good friends and one pleasant surprise. The restaurant offers a rosé flight of three rosés, the third of which is Mjere rosato from Puglia, made by Michele Caló & Figli. The waitstaff seemed pretty stoked about it, agreeing that it was a complex rosé, making it a great for pairing with food. It is one of my favorite rosés from Puglia (look for a top 5 rosés from Puglia list in the next couple days) because it has backbone. Like most rosés made in Puglia, it is made from the native Negroamaro grape, which has such intense flavor that most winemakers complete the maceration process in just 2-8 hours.

The discovery of the emblems of Puglia's culture in the United States did not stop there. Next, I found Cantele's rosé in two local wine stores in Ellsworth, Maine. Then I found Cantele's Primitivo being poured by the glass at Massimo's Cucina Italiana on Hammond St. in Bangor, ME. The Cantele rosé, which costs 5-6 euro a bottle in Puglia, is being sold for a reasonable $10. Not a bad deal for the budget-friendly wine shopper.

Left: Paolo Cantele pouring at Cantele Winery during Cantine Aperte 2009. I interviewed Gianni Cantele in The Definitive 2009 Puglia Harvest Report.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Finding the Heart of Saturday Night and True American Wine

To be home. Back in the United States. To have been away for 1 year and 4 months traveling through Italy. First, there is culture shock: nostalgic culture shock. I’m relearning my native language, the gestures, inflections, and silences; the incommunicable elements beyond grammar and meaning; syntax and semantics. It is like walking in a fog: Maine coastal fog.

It is good to be home. It is bad to be home. It is the best of times. It is the worst of wines. No single culture is all good or bad. There are aspects of Italy and the United States that need to be improved. A cross of the two would be ideal… at least in some ways. Less new oak, more mono-varietals. Less butteriness, more Slovakian oak. Lower yeilds, lower prices. I want it all.

To get re-acquainted with home, I visited some old friends, practically family. My cousin offered a 2007 Cline Zinfandel, the smooth texture and spice made think of California, then the absence of rich fruit made me long again for Puglia. So my sister brought out a Muscadet (Melon de Bourgogne grape), but its conservative, Old World character did not take me home. We decided to try something from New Zealand, Giesen's 2008 Malborough Sauvignon Blanc. One of my favorite white wines, its fresh peach reminded me of California summers, but its crisp acidity tripped me up, sending me headlong over the equator, into the southern hemisphere.

When I arrived in Maine, my parents welcomed me with the 2008 Red Truck Petite Sirah, but it was a flop: too sticky and dark. Would I ever find home? If not with a unique varietal, then with what? My uncle and aunt arrived from Florida with Robert Mondavi's 2008 "Private Selection" Pinot Noir, (a great Pinot Noir for under ten dollars), and my memory began to stir. A round nose of berries and a simple, clean finish. Was this the true American wine? Was Mondavi's mammoth voice still the voice of American wine?

We had home-made lobster newburg so I paired it with Acadia's 2008 Chardonnay (another steal for the money: a great Chardonnay for under ten dollars) and the toastiness shot through me like a buttery bullet: this was an American wine: both expressive and typical of its Californian growing region. Next, St. Supery's 2004 Merlot was poured, it's concentrated fruit leather whipping my tongue; its smooth and silky body; its hot fruit finish...

But it was not enough.

My mission is this: to find the true American wine; to achieve freedom of taste at any expense! What better time than now, when my palate is in an Italian strangehold?

I will be tasting my way across the country, and I hope you'll be tasting with me. What tops your truly American wine list?

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Connection Between Histamine, Wine, and Allergies

From the You Asked/Abstract Malady Department

A family member recently asked me, What's the connection between allergic reactions to wine and histamine levels in wine? She, like many people, abstains from drinking wine because it has resulted in adverse effects in the past. The answer to the question is both simple and complicated: If you are allergic to histamine, then you should avoid drinking some wines, because some wines contain higher amounts of histamine. Before I go into detail, let's get to the good news: Not all wines contain high levels of histamine. This means that some wines are ok to drink, even if you are allergic to histamine. More on that below.

The reason that the histamine in wine is such a tricky, abstract concept is that it is very hard to accurately measure, unless you have a R-Biopharm kit or Microplate Strip Washer. *Blink* *Blink* Yeah, we're talking about photons and neutrons here folks. To give you an unhelpful definition used by biologists: Histamine is an endogenous compound that reacts poorly with H1 and H2 receptors.

What this means is that histamine causes adverse effects in the areas of the body where H1 and H2 receptors are located, particularly the head and the stomach. So, if you have a food allergy to histamine, you will get headaches and stomachaches from some wine. More specifically, symptoms include headaches, nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, hypotension, facial flushing, rash, edema and localized inflammation. If you experience one of these effects, there's a small chance that you are allergic to histamine. However, the number of people who are actually allergic to histamine is much lower than the number of people who believe that they are allergic to histamine. More on that in a minute.

So, can a person with an allergy to histamine drink wine? The answer is yes. Here's the good news: If you want to drink wine and have a food allergy to histamine, you might want to try sticking to white wines that do not undergo malolactic fermentation. White wines have far less histamine that red. Grapes have some histamine in them already, and even more histamine is created during the fermentation process, and many enologists believe that malolactic fermentation in particular creates a lot of histamine. Individual winemakers make their own decisions about when to employ malolactic fermentation, but, in general, very few white wines undergo malolactic fermentation, the exception being chardonnay, particularly those made in California. So go out and grab a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Malborough region, or a Soave from Italy. White wine is a very safe bet for people who are allergic to histamine.

Further, it's worth noting that allergies can be treated. Taking allergy medicine, specifically an antihistamine, before drinking wine might cancel the negative effects. Make sure to take something that doesn't interfere with alcohol.

But are you really allergic to histamine? The facts suggest not. The infamous "red-wine headache" is a real phenomenon whose cause is still unknown. Originally, sulfites were blamed for headaches associated with red wine, and so every bottle of wine sold in America bears the Contains Sulfites notice. This myth was debunked. Next, histamine was blamed, but the result of a recent study, in which people were given drinks spiked with histamine, shows no connection.

Since many foods include histamine (many of which contain much higher levels than red wine) you might be able to determine if you are allergic to histamine by analyzing what you eat. Do you experience adverse effects when eating aged cheese, particularly blue cheese and Parmesan? What about fish, spinach, and eggplant? If not, there's a good chance that you are not allergic to histamine. This means that you suffer from the red-wine headache, more on which can be read here.

Below are a few more interesting facts regarding histamine:

"Much anecdotal evidence, which forms the basis of the many articles and comments in the media, points to histamine as the ‘culprit’ in wine causing headache and other adverse reactions. While it is accepted that the excessive consumption of alcohol will cause adverse reactions, research, however, clearly demonstrates that histamine is a minor constituent of wine and that there is no relationship between its concentration in wine and histamine mediated adverse reactions in either healthy tolerant or wine intolerant consumers." From a 2008 study done by Alcohol in Moderation (AIM)

"Some countries set limits to the amounts of histamine: Switzerland recommends 10 mg/L as a maximal level, Germany recommends 2 mg/L, while Belgium and France recommend 5 mg/L and 8 mg/ml respectively."

"High levels of histamine are considered to be an early sign of decomposition."

"Histamine is considered to be an allergen and a causative agent for headaches. While on average histamine in wine is 5.7 ppm and 3.4 ppm for red and white wine respectively, an extremely low histamine content is a desirable characteristic."

"There is a possible relationship between high amine content and the quality of the grape used, as well as the hygienic or sanitary conditions prevalent during the wine making process"

From a 2006 study by BioTek Instruments, Inc.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

What Makes Wine Turn Into Vinegar?

From the You Asked Department

UPDATE: This article has been updated. Click here to find out what makes wine turn into vinegar.

I'm no expert, but I do feel silly when someone asks me a question about wine that I can't answer; especially when the question seems plain and simple. I was standing in line at the airport in Naples a few days ago, on my way home for the first time in 1 year and 4 months, and I met a fellow traveler. He'd spent some time in Bordeaux recently and loved the wines. We talked a bit and then he asked, "hey, are you like a wine writer or something?" Yeah, I responded, I've been studying the wine-making process in Italy for the last 16 months of my life. At this point, I'm feeling pretty good and helpful, then he stuns me: "So, what turns wine into vinegar?"

I do not have a certification in wine. I have never taken a single class on wine. I have tasted a lot, taken notes, and spent hundreds of hours talking with winemakers around the world. Sometimes we're walking in vineyards; sometimes we're in their refreshing cellars; sometimes we're on the roof (x2). Usually, I don't worry too much about my lack of schooling. I believe in self education. My parents were very independent. But sometimes, when technical and scientific questions about wine do arise, I think again.

Is wine about flavors and people or sulfur levels and pH balances? Well, both of course. But, as a wine writer, I prefer to talk about excellent wines at low prices, and to talk to the people who make them. Atmosphere is half of an article on wine, the other half being fact. Scientific analysis is one way that we attempt to understand wine. It is also one way that we try to understand the world, and the world, like wine, is something very beautiful and strange that often cannot be neatly explained. The taste of a glass of wine is beyond words, though we struggle to say something... anything... blackberry, for example, or elegant.

I do enjoy talking about the technical side of wine with winemakers, but not because I find it particularly interesting. It's more like remembering dates in history, or the Big Names: It gives you a series of markers by which to navigate the world of wine. It's my belief that most readers of wine publications are more interested in finding great bottles and being momentarily transported to vineyards all over the globe than they are in learning the amount of sulfur that one winemaker used during one year to kill the bacteria in his wine. Am I right? You tell me. What do you care about?

The scientific approach to wine most interests me when I'm in a curious mood, and The Traveler's question was a damn interesting question: What turns wine to vinegar? Why is this question interesting? I don't know, but it is.

So, anyway...

The Answer

Wine cannot turn into vinegar.

As I mentioned above, winemakers try to kill as much of the natural bacteria that come with the grapes as possible, however, as with all living things, a little bacteria always remains. This bacteria however, is not the kind of bacteria that creates vinegar. One of the most common types of bacteria found in wine is Brettanomyces bruxellensis, commonly known as Bretts. A yeast, Brett's ability to create unwanted smells and flavors is directly linked to unclean winery equipment. It does not make wine vinegar, it merely makes a wine taste bardyardy, or bandaidy. This is one example (debatably) of spoiled wine. Wine can become gross, or spoiled, but it cannot become vinegar.

Unless.... you add the bacteria that turns sugar into acetic acid. This is known as a "mother" among vinegar makers. I recently helped a farmer in the Lazio region of Italy transport a demijohn of 30-year-old vinegar across his barnyard. It had a thick cloud at the bottle of the demijohn, and this is the mother: a unique bacteria that makes vinegar. If you have a mother (and I hope you do), you can turn all of your old wine to homemade vinegar.

Alright, that's enough of wine 101. Any questions?

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