Monday, February 18, 2013

A spoonful of sugar

The nineteenth German Riesling I tasted on Saturday – for the record, a 2011 Geltz-Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Spätlese – was, like too many of its antecedents, unremarkable: a vaguely tropical fruit nose with perhaps a little ginger ale aroma, then slightly sweet on the tongue, with little definition of taste. Whatever. But the twentieth glass I sampled, the 2003 vintage of the same wine, was one to quit on. The nose was vivid, orange peel, apricot and petrol (think not of a gas station, but perhaps of the peel of some novel citrus that’s just been squeezed into your cocktail), and the wine had peaks and valleys of acidity, spice and sweetness in the mouth. If the 2011 delivers that kind of experience in eight years, then those who pluck down their $50 for a bottle now will have received good value.
The two pours came at the end of the last of the tastings at the four Manhattan wine stores that participated in Rieslingfeier, an event devoted to the grape beloved by both the hipster wine crowd and the traditionalists. The latter love riesling aging potential, its distinctive aromas and its subtlety, the former the seemingly infinite expressions of the grape that a small plot of land can offer.
A wine like the 2003 Geltz-Zilliken offers ample reason for riesling love. There’s something magical about tasting a vintage that’s starting to come into its own against one too young to show much. It’s like witnessing alchemy, or watching a great golfer hit an iron shot to the back of the 16th green at Augusta National and then seeing the ball snake back thirty yards to within a putter’s length of the pin. You realize that the winemaker or golfer thinks in completely different terms than you do and is capable of effecting a thought whose possibility you hadn’t even contemplated.
For all that, the veterans on the Manhattan riesling trail whispered that many of the wines weren’t good values, a critique that extended beyond the rieslings being poured. Some of the entry-level wines meant to be drunk young were indeed head-scratchingly high in price at $25 or more. Perhaps the real value is at the higher end, where prices are quite reasonable compared to white burgundy or ambitious California chardonnays.
The lower-end product may also have been hurt by Germans’ preference in the last generation for wines with less residual sugar, which was apparent on Saturday. By the end of the tasting, I felt the acidity of the wines more than I would have liked. A comparison from another tasting showed how much a little sugar can add to a riesling. On Friday, an importer poured the 2011 wines of Hofgut Falkenstein at Chambers Street Wines. One, a trocken, had an intense acidity with little sugar to balance it; the other, a halbtrocken (long story short, more residual sugar than the trocken, or dry), had a much more interesting nose and was livelier on the tongue. I don’t think most Americans would characterize it as sweet. The trocken was not a particularly good value when compared to a a Muscadet from the Loire or an Albarino from Galicia. But the Feinherb – a synonym for halbtrocken meant to avoid that word’s now pernicious implication of sweetness – was distinct from a chenin blanc or a muscat. It demanded some thought and offered some pleasure. A little sugar can go a long way.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Emile Peynaud: Bringing science to the cellar

Emile Peynaud is one of the most important figures in the history of wine. Born in Bordeaux in 1912, he studied oenology at its university in the 1930s and after World War II spread a scientific approach to winemaking as a consultant to many of the great Bordeaux houses and, in later years, to vignerons around France and across the globe.
Critics of Peynaud argue that his advocacy of modern technique and wide-ranging consulting, which became a model for later “flying winemakers,” helped lead to a standardization of wines from different regions in the same way that Robert Parker’s wine scoring has. But while Parker succeeded by publishing a sort of Consumer’s Report of high-end wine and wrote with the all of the stiffness that one would expect from that publication, Peynaud communicated his ideas with style. His books Connaissance et travail du vin and Le Goût du vin are classic works on winemaking and wine tasting, activities that in his view were inextricably linked. They have been translated into English; his collection of essays Le vin et les jours has not, but it evidences the same intellectual rigor, arrogance, and gift for the aperçu.
Peynaud balanced a typically French respect for hierarchy and tradition with a scientist’s willingness to experiment. He worried about losing “the personality of terroir,” and believed that the great wine regions should be wary of changing their styles to appeal to the lowest common denominator – or, as he put it, “to the thirst of other throats or to certain boldnesses in presentation,” which reads like a veiled shot at Parker. But Peynaud also loved the freedom of New World winemaking, where “the future is open to all experiences, and oenology has an open field. I am attracted by these situations without constraints.”
A good chunk of Le vin et les jours is devoted to the history of winemaking, and here the key figure is Louis Pasteur, for whom faulty wine was a model for human disease: “When one sees beer and wine undergo profound alterations because the liquids have given asylum to microscopic organisms,” Pasteur once wrote, “how can one not be obsessed by the thought that events of the same order can and must be present in men and animals.”
That insight animates modern oenology. If a wine tastes off, there must be a flaw in the way the wine was made that can be identified and corrected. An early solution to microbial spoilage, of course, was pasteurization, which also has the effect of removing much of a wine’s subtlety. Later, Peynaud writes, “the rational addition of sulfites emerged as a more effective practice,” since sulfites kill bacteria and unwanted yeast. The use of sulfites has become one of the most controversial subjects in the wine world, but it was adopted to solve a serious problem, and can be minimized by an improved understanding of how wine is made.
Peynaud acknowledges that new styles of winemaking have not always led to a better product and sometimes have degraded a producer’s wine in the process of abandoning older ways of doing things. Mechanization, he emphasizes, is not synonymous with progress.
Despite the influence of science, winemakers are still confronted with many choices, starting with how to train their vines and when to pick their grapes – or which varietals to plant in the first place. Here, the consultant plays a valuable role by accumulating experience that no single producer could. Peynaud writes, “The hundreds of cuvees vinified every year, of all crus and all varietals, have been an unequaled field of observation. Lacking the ability to experiment rationally in this area, I engaged in comparative vinification. In thirty harvests, if one has the chemist’s observant eye and the taster’s trained palate, one will likely have encountered practically every kind of case and be ready from then on for the unforeseen.”
One of Peynaud’s first harvests was 1934, when in the course of an experiment on bottling in a Medoc laboratory he wrote in his own hand labels for bottle of Barsac from Chateau Dudon. One of his friends sends him a bottle of the sweet wine when he’s in a German POW camp in Wurtenberg in 1942. The commanding officer, a model of German humorlessness and efficiency, is nonetheless from Neustadt in Pfalz, a region where Riesling is produced, and understands that Peynaud has helped make the wine, so he gives him the bottle and orders him to consume its contents as quickly as possible.
“He even gave me a corkscrew,” writes Peynaud, who shared the gift with French and Belgian friends. “This wine from the past, I was sure, had come to revive me in my exile by speaking to me of liberty, of the future, and by rekindling hope within me. They all awaited me at home, my friend and others, to write works of oenology together. For a long time – believe it if you will – I could not taste a Barsac without a little emotion. It is the only wine which once made me weep with joy.”

Friday, February 1, 2013

John McPhee, Edward Behr and Natural Winemaking

“Natural winemaking” is one of the wine world’s most prominent slogans. Its advocates favor grapes that are grown sustainably with minimal fertilizer and wines made in a “non-interventionist” way – that is, without new oak, which can overpower the flavor of the wine, and with minimal sulfur, which helps preserve wine but can also be an easy way to mask flaws in it. The natural winemaking crowd wants a product that expresses “terroir,” the unique qualities of the precise place in which the wine was made. Its bogeyman is mass-produced wine, particularly big reds with lots of oak, from Yellow Tail at the low end to Bordeaux at the high end.
Natural winemaking is a subset of the slow and organic food movements. Every ideology needs its popularizer, and Michael Pollan filled that role for slow foodies with to his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Behind Pollan lies Edward Behr, who moved to Vermont in the early 1970s to become a carpenter and in 1987 launched The Art of Eating, a quarterly magazine devoted to the search for the truest possible ingredients from vanilla to coffee to pork, which was the subject of a 1999 Behr essay that moved Chipotle founder Steve Ells to source his meat from the most agriculturally honest producers possible. In 1992, the Atlantic Monthly Press published a collection of Behr’s essays, and coincidentally or not, over the next generation various authors have produced a series of popular books focused on a single foodstuff.
Behind Behr’s work and its progeny is John McPhee’s 1967 essay Oranges, about the fruit of that name and the juice produced from it. McPhee became most famous for his books on geology and the environment, culminating in the 1998 book Annals of A Former World, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Oranges is the third of McPhee’s 25 or so books and the first to focus on the concerns that would dominate much of his writing. He recorded a key inflection point in American agriculture and, while he was at it, a consumer mentality against which today’s environmentally conscious eaters are reacting.
Behr’s essays are often charming, and it’s a shame there aren’t more of them in book form so that the reader can track the development of his writing. Some of his best work comes in his shortest essays, on bay leaves or sorrel or various kinds of mint (a biological class that includes hyssop and lavender, we learn). Behr had read the classics of food writing and cookery and placed himself squarely in that tradition with the title of his quarterly, a nod to M.F.K. Fisher’s collection of that name. “Don’t worry about thieving The Art of Eating,” she reassured him in a letter; “I think I thieved it too, because it’s taken from something said by Brillat-Savarin, something about how men and animals may eat, but very few of them know the art of it.”
Behr is among that select group. In an age before bloggers posted photos and absurdly detailed descriptions of long tasting menus at Michelin-starred restaurants, he knew that Paris chef Alain Senderens favored a preparation of lobster with vanilla. He hunted down ingredients all over the U.S., including the dried Greek oregano and sage sold at Kalustyan’s on Lexington between 28th and 29th in Manhattan. (He doesn’t mention the deli, though, purveyor of my favorite sandwiches in New York.)
Behr is fundamentally an aesthete rather than an environmentalist and a cook rather than a scientist, but his obsessive focus on quality aligns him with the opponents of mass-produced food. That orientation comes to the fore in his essay on pork, which has became leaner in the 1990s as food companies sought to brand the meat as a healthy alternative to chicken. Not only is such meat flavorless; the pigs from which it comes are raised in an unnatural, unhealthy way that requires they be pumped full of antibiotics and cooped up in buildings that generated a horrible smell and immense amounts of waste, all to generate standardized food that gives no joy to those who consume it.
Behr takes endless delight in the diversity that comes with small-scale farming. He expresses the sentiment best in the final paragraph of his essay “A Multiplicity of Apples,” where he writes, “If you sample different varieties from one orchard to another, you come to understand that an essential apple virtue is its unexpected variety of flavor, its surprises from apple to apple, tree to tree, and especially from year to year – produced largely by the imperfectly understood influences of soil, cultural practices, climate, and weather. They are filters through which the flavor of each variety is expressed. And, in fact, it is the surprises – the unending variety, not only the high points – that goad you on.”
Variety is the enemy of the process McPhee explores in Oranges. Florida producers want their concentrate to taste the same from can to can to can. Even in a motel in the heart of Florida orange country, a waitress tells McPhee, customers want consistency. “Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,” she tells him. “Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.”  They want the same predictability in their fruit – no blood oranges, and oranges must be that color, even though the ripe fruit may be completely green. Whole processing plants are devoted to achieving that color after the oranges are picked.
But most of the oranges grown in Florida go into concentrate, and “an individual orange means nothing” in making it. Instead of selling oranges, growers sell “pounds solid,” especially sugar, as in the years to come Perdue will sell white rather than dark chicken meat and Iowa farmers will be paid more to produce lean pork. “We are growing chemicals now, not oranges,” one grower tells McPhee, a sentence that could stand for the course of big agriculture generally after World War II, and for the standardization of American life more broadly. Even in the mid-1960s McPhee could write, “Gas stations, Burger Queens, and shopping centers so dominate the towns of central Florida that the overall effect on a springtime visitor can be that he is in Trenton during an August heat wave.”
Surprisingly to the modern reader, wealthier, more educated consumers led the move to concentrate. “Farmers, craftsmen, and laborers buy the least concentrate,” McPhee writes, while “doctors, dentists, lawyers, and corporate executives are the heaviest consumers.” That relationship has been inverted. People like Behr and Pollan have helped change attitudes among the wealthy, while the ever-declining cost of industrialized food has made obesity and diabetes serious public health problems in America. The oenological debates about natural winemaking techniques often sound tinny and intellectualized, but they mirror more serious issues elsewhere in the world of food.